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Standard Deviation

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May spotted Olivia shouting into a payphone on her way to the physics building. At some point, she had obtained fingerless gloves and a beanie, but her outfit was otherwise unchanged from the warm months. Her beanie didn’t even fit past all of her hair to cover her ears—she looked shaking mad, but maybe she was just cold. May did a wide loop through the February slush to avoid her.

When she reached the lecture hall, May began the process of unwrapping herself from her own hat-scarf-gloves-overcoat-sweater situation, squinting across to the chalkboard while she did so. TEST RESULTS was written across the the top of the lowest board, followed by handwriting far too neat to belong to Professor Stasinopoulos. May skimmed past the maximum and minimum, idly wondering what she should be hoping for, given a median of 72, but a mean of 68.487 with a standard deviation of 13.567. It all felt like slightly more information than she wanted or needed. Professor Stasinopoulos cleared his throat, and May settled in, pulling out her planner, notebook, and second-best pen.

“Good morning,” he began, his tweed and bow tie looking particularly grandfatherly. “As you can see, the TAs have finished grading Exam 1, which they’ll be handing back at the end of class. In the meantime, feel free to congratulate Miss May Reilly on receiving the high score.” Stasinopoulos smiled warmly at her, but the feeling of satisfaction settling tentatively in her gut was interrupted by a door slamming open in the back of the room. Everyone—everyone—turned to look, and May slid down low in her seat, horrified.

Olivia was in the doorway, looking windblown and frostbitten and pale-furious. The only accessible seats remaining were in the front row, so she stomped down the aisle, glaring at everyone but May. How was she so loud, May thought desperately. She must have been the loudest woman in the world—it was a wonder anyone could pay attention to anything else. Olivia punctuated this thought by slamming her notebook down on a desk.

“Settle down, please,” Stasinopoulos continued serenely, “and let’s all remember the late-arrival policy. Now, Ampère's law…”

May was unable to afford Ampère's law the attention it deserved, given that her roommate wouldn’t sit still and listen like a normal person. She started by pulling out her pocket calculator—from her actual pocket, the woman didn’t even carry a backpack—and furiously tapping at it while glowering at the chalkboard. May could hear the clicking of the keys from her seat in the center of the lecture hall. Then she started taking notes, and it was horrible—she ripped out pages from her spiral notebook, scrawling across them according to a system that would take a team of anthropologists to interpret. When she was finished with one, she shoved it back into the notebook at random and ripped out another, half-shredding it and causing May to jump. She looked down at her own notebook, where she was faithfully transcribing each equation that appeared on the board without actually processing it. Olivia wrote too hard, she decided. That was why her hand was always coated in pencil dust.

By the end of class, May was feeling what her father would describe as “rankled.” She was fairly certain she knew less about physics than she had when she walked through the door, and she wanted more than anything to go lie in her bed, turn on the radio, put a pillow over her face, and scream, except she couldn’t, because Olivia would be there. She resolved to drag Lindsey out to get hot chocolate instead.

“As the TAs hand back exams,” Stasinopoulos was saying, “I’m going to go over instructions for the final project. You’ll be working in teams of two for the rest of the semester, according to the— Silvio, did you hand out the— yes, thank you, the timeline on the rubric. Your project proposal is due Thursday after next. I’m available during regular office hours, and you can always schedule additional time with Silvio or Dirk. Now, your team assignments!” Stasinopoulos rolled up one of the chalkboards with a flourish to reveal a list of names.

A clamor of voices arose, and May was skimming over the list absently, thinking about hot chocolate, when she heard someone cry out over the noise. Her eyes cut automatically to her roommate. Olivia had her test paper crumpled in her hands, but she was staring at the board looking like she’d been stabbed. May’s stomach dropped, and she followed Olivia’s gaze to where her doom was spelled out in stern, implacable handwriting:

TEAM 23: OLIVIA OCTAVIUS, MAY REILLY

Before May could move an inch, Olivia was out of her chair and storming up to the lectern. She tripped over her own boots, nearly faceplanted, and righted herself in time to brandish a finger in Silvio’s face.

“You have to change the groups!” she shrieked, and every student still in the room immediately turned to the board to see who Olivia was paired with. May scrambled out of her seat and dashed towards her, hoping to stop the conversation or at least ensure it continued at a normal human volume.

“Uh,” said Silvio.

“This is not acceptable,” Olivia spat. “It’s— cruel and unusual, I have rights—”

“Uhhhhh,” said Silvio.

“What seems to be the problem, ladies?” Professor Stasinopoulos asked, having noticed the disruptive and undignified commotion happening directly in front of him. Olivia wheeled towards him.

“You can’t make me work with her,” Olivia said wildly. “It’s in the Fifth Amendment.” Stasinopoulos blinked, nonplussed, and turned to May.

“Miss Reilly? Are you attempting to coerce Miss Octavian into testifying against herself?”

“She means the Eighth— actually, no, the Constitution isn’t important. Well, it is. Well— Professor, Olivia and I are roommates, and what she’s trying to say is that we already spend a lot of time together, and in the spirit of, of, personal growth? We were hoping to branch out and… see other people.”

Stasinopoulos nodded along severely, but at the mention of roommates, his face lit up. “Oh, how lovely!” he exclaimed. “The two highest exam grades from the same room. Do you study together?”

“N… no,” May said, glancing at Olivia. She looked poleaxed by the idea that their roommate relationship could be termed “lovely.”

“Don’t worry about the rest of the class,” Stasinopoulos continued. “I would have probably had Silvio pair the two of you together even if your test scores weren’t adjacent—this is a long project, lots of late nights, much more fitting for the young ladies to work together. And there aren’t many of you!” He chuckled, and May tamped down on the urge to pull an Olivia and throw a stapler at him. “And now, knowing you’re roommates, you’ll have a friend to walk with from the library at night. Lovely. I look forward to seeing your final project!” Stasinopoulos patted May on the shoulder, ignored Olivia entirely, and wandered off.

“You’re my literal sworn enemy,” said Olivia. “I’m swearing it.”

“Me?” asked Silvio.

“Not you,” Olivia said, stomping away. May sighed.

“She means me,” she told him, and went to pack her things, feeling sick with nerves. She didn’t want hot chocolate anymore.

***

May scrambled into the room and lunged for her desk, backpack swinging like a counterweight. She got to the phone before its shrill ring cut off, fumbling it to her ear with a breathless “hello?”

“May,” Noah said. “I didn’t think you were going to answer.”

“No, I’m here,” May assured him, trying to sound more in control of her lungs than she actually was. “I heard the phone coming down the hall.”

“So you did forget.”

“No, I—”

“Because we talk at the same time every week, May.”

“No, I know, I was just out with friends, and we had to take the long way back from the—”

“Oh, you were out with friends. I see. Is that why you didn’t pick up last week, too?”

“No, my roommate unplugged my phone. My mom keeps calling me all the time, and she hates the ringing.”

“Well, I can’t fault Linda for that, since I’ve spent more time talking to her this month than I have you.” There was a horrible moment of dead air. “Anyway, I called you for a reason, you know.”

May shifted uncomfortably. She was still in her coat and backpack, the combination of bulk and weight cutting off her circulation. “Oh?” she asked.

“Our spring formal is in two weeks. You’re coming to that, right?”

“What day is it?”

“I mean, it’s like, a Saturday. Um—” May listened to him shuffle papers around, pictured him with those accordion folders he liked so much. “March 15th. I’m picking up tickets from the student union on Monday.”

“Wait,” said May, “I have a project draft due the 17th. For PH256?”

“Okay?” Noah said. “So you’re good for the 15th?”

“No, I mean, it’s in place of a midterm, it’s worth like 30% of our grade. I need the weekend to work on it.”

“You need the weekend,” Noah said. “For a draft.”

“I mean, we need to be in the lab to take final measurements— really, it’s more of a midterm—”

“Yeah, and last time, your problem set was more of a project. I have work to do too, you know, and I make the time—”

“You do,” May said, “and I appreciate that, I do. It’s just, this semester, it’s really important I do well in these foundational classes—”

“Why?” Noah said. He never raised his voice, and briefly, May hated him for it. “Why is it so important you do well in this class, but not so important you do well in this relationship?”

“Do well in this relationship?” May asked, aghast.

“You heard what I said,” Noah said. “It’s, what, one transfer on the subway? You can’t do that because of a class? Sometimes, I wonder whether you understand what’s going to matter in the long run, May, I really do.”

May felt like her stomach had fallen out onto the floor. She pictured going to the formal—pictured going out with Jennifer or Paige to get a new dress and shoes, pictured wearing them in the subway while she waited for her transfer. She pictured leaning on Noah’s arm, wobbly like a newborn colt, while he talked to friends that she couldn’t tell apart. She pictured him asking her back to his dorm room and having to decide whether to say yes, or to walk in her dress and her shoes back to the train and take another transfer. She realized that her hand clutching the phone was shaking. “I said I can’t go,” she said, just as calm as he was. “I can’t go.”

“Are you sure it’s because of school?” he asked.

“What?”

“Which friends were you with today?”

“What are you asking?”

“Are you sure the reason you won’t come see me isn’t Benjamin?”

It was like he bodyslammed her back into the present, and the pressure difference caused all the blood in her brain to spontaneously boil. They were back on territory she understood, and it made her exquisitely angry. “I was with Lindsey and Tracy today,” she said, which was a lie, it was a goddamn lie, but how dare he take the way that Ben smiled at her, a commiserating smile for when Charlie and Lindsey were canoodling and Tracy was being a real bitch and she needed someone to be normal near her, and turn it into something ugly. “Not that it’s any of your business, because you of all people should know I would never.”

“Whoa, no need to get defensive,” said Noah, and she hated him. “I’m just letting you know how it looks from a guy’s perspective.”

“I would never.”

“I know, Mayflower,” he crooned, and she wondered whether he actually thought he was placating her. “Listen, though, I have to go, Ken just got here. Let’s talk about this again later, okay? I’ll call you Tuesday.”

“I have lab Tuesday,” she said.

“Lab,” he repeated. “Okay. I’ll call you Wednesday.” There was a click, and the line went dead.

May replaced the receiver carefully, full of terrible energy and unsure what she was supposed to do with it. She turned around and lept a mile.

“Hey,” said Olivia from the doorway. She was eating something. From the bag, it seemed like popcorn; from the smell, it seemed like burnt popcorn.

“How long have you been standing there?” May asked, removing her hand from where she had placed it over her heart like a fainting grandmother. Olivia shrugged.

***

“She’s fucking crazy,” Tracy said, leaning enthusiastically over her tray of Mexican-Style Beef Casserole. Tracy was never allowed to swear at home, but ever since she went to San Padre Island for spring break and met a wannabe cowboy with a foul mouth and not one single cow, she had taken to it with relish.

“She’s not crazy,” May said, pushing her Irish-Inspired Rice Pilaf around her plate with her fork.

“Um, she fucking yelled at you? She threw your lab notebook in the trash? That’s some crazy bullshit.”

“It was both of our lab notebook,” May said, “and it’s not as bad as it sounds.” This was true—May didn’t need her friends’ help to deal with her roommate-slash-project-partner-slash-possible-nemesis situation. It was also, paradoxically, untrue—she had wanted to tell her friends about the crazy bullshit that was her two-hour morning lab block, but then she’d gotten to the part of the story where Silvio and Dirk decided they were in over their heads and called in Professor Stasinopoulos to deal with them, and May had almost cried right there in the materials lab, and her throat closed up in embarrassment. The upshot was that the real story was worse than what her friends heard, which was in turn worse than the version that lived inside May’s head.

Lindsey was making some kind of horrible sympathetic face in her direction. Charlie was looking at Lindsey and clearly not paying attention at all. Ben was sitting directly opposite her and gazing at her steadily over his pizza, probably because he was the only one of her friends smart and metabolically gifted enough to stick with the dining hall options that were literally just bread and cheese. “It just sucks that you have to spend so much time with someone you don’t like,” he said.

“I like Olivia,” said May.

“You what?” asked Ben.

“You complain about her all the time,” said Lindsey.

“I know I don’t like fucking Olivia,” said Tracy.

May looked at each of them, surprised. Then she looked down at her tray. May didn’t think of herself as a person who disliked people. She was startled to hear that she seemed like she disliked Olivia, even though once she thought about it, she did devote a lot of mental consideration to how annoying and disruptive and distracting and loud she was. Olivia was all of those things, but she was also driven, and dedicated, and almost as smart as May and catching up fast. She thought outside the box, and never said sorry, and would probably punch whatever friends she had in the teeth if they said May was crazy for caring that much about their project. All her weird things aside, Olivia was a serious person, and May didn’t not like her. For a moment, she tried to parse whether that meant she did like her. “I complain all the time?” she asked, finally.

“Constantly,” Lindsey said reassuringly.

“Just about this,” Ben told her.

“I don’t— Olivia is— she’s trying to become something, you know? Something it’s not easy to be. I don’t know, she’s got drive. I like her. I don’t think she likes where she came from, and she’s so tall, and—” May paused on a half-formed thought about how tall Olivia was, and how much hair she had, and the way she moved her hands.

“You’re right,” said Tracy. “It’s probably hard to be that tall and gangly.”

Ben stood up abruptly. He was pretty tall and gangly himself. “I need a book,” he said. “I’m going to the library.”

“You and the fucking library, bro,” said Charlie. “Can I eat your crust?”

“Sure. May, you have recitation, right? Walk with me?”

Recitation didn’t start for another twenty-five minutes, but at the suggestion May was overcome by the urge to leave the dining hall, possibly forever. “Yeah,” she said, and made sure to push her chair in neatly on the way out.

***

“May.” A pause. Then, louder: “May.”

May blinked against the fabric of her sleep mask, confused, then sat upright as she pushed it off her face. In the process, she almost bumped heads with her roommate, who had leaned over her bed like some kind of goblin. The streetlight caught her hair through the window, and her teeth gleamed.

“What the hell,” asked May.

“I figured it out,” Olivia said. “Part seven section two B, I figured it out. Get up, I need you to look at this.” There was a piece of paper being shoved under May’s nose. She looked around the room, baffled, and found a good seventy percent of the horizontal surfaces covered in drifts of scratch paper. The whole scene seemed faintly aglow, almost moonlit. Olivia had been working in the dark.

“What the hell,” May asked again.

“We’ve been thinking in terms of time this whole project, but here we should have been thinking in terms of space. If you do a Fourier transform, and look at the functions in the frequency domain—”

“Stop talking about the project,” May said. “What time is it?”

“No, you’re not listening, we can’t think about it in terms of time—” May ignored her, peering around at the alarm clock on her desk. She catches sight of it and suppressed a scream.

“What the hell, Olivia, it’s four o’clock in the morning.”

Olivia stopped where she’d been pacing around the room and looked up, confused. “Okay? So you agree about the Fourier transform? Because I’m going to have to go the the library to find a table to compute the inverse, and they don’t open until seven today, which means we have time to—”

Shut up.”

“Excuse me?”

“Shut up! Shut up about the project! Shut up at four in the morning! You are driving me insane. Do you know how much time we’ve already spent on this compared to other people? Compared to people who are stupider than us? It’s completely absurd, and if you don’t leave me alone during normal sleeping hours, I am going to freak out completely, I swear to God.”

For a person who was being yelled at, Olivia seemed undeterred. In fact, she scoffed. “Like you don’t want an A-plus on this as badly as I do. Come on, be serious.”

“No one gets an A-plus! No one even gets an A! What are you even talking about!”

“Untrue,” Olivia said. “Three years ago, there was this guy named Adrian who—”

“This guy named Adrian who what? Who cares? What does it matter?” Talking to Olivia was like being trapped in a house of mirrors, or some sort of parallel dimension where all of the angles were slightly off-kilter, and where things that guys named Adrian supposedly did three years ago had any bearing on what May should do at four in the morning. “Can you please, just once, just be normal about this.”

“What are you, my dad?”

“What does your dad have to do with this! Olivia, I am so tired. I have given up so much for this, and it’s just a term project. I have sacrificed my sleep. I have sacrificed my time. My relationship has suffered—”

“This thing with you and time! And boys! Oh my god, straight girls—”

“I never said I was straight!”

There was a long pause. Olivia froze mid-turn, one foot hovering comically in the air. She blinked owlishly at May from behind her glasses, and May stared back, nonplussed. It was something she had never—it wasn’t something she’d ever thought too hard about. There wasn’t a coordinated decision-making process, some kind of select committee on Whether Or Not May Reilly Was Straight. It felt right, though, when the words came out of her. It felt true. May opened her mouth to say something further, and just then, there was a banging on the wall.

“Um, guys?” called Paige. It might have been Jennifer. “You’re being really loud? And I have to be up for practice in forty-two minutes.” Wordlessly, May pulled down her sleep mask and turned over to face the wall. She listened to the sound of Olivia rummaging around for a long time.

***

They did not get an A+ on the project.

They did, however, get an A.