Copyright Staci Stallings, 2005
When Rebecca made it back to the room on Monday evening, her first understanding was that Holly was on the phone. Her second was the knowledge of who she was on the phone with. It was him, and who had called whom really didn’t matter.
“Yeah, Rebecca said it was a great game,” Holly said. “I wish I could’ve gone.” There was a pause, and though Rebecca couldn’t hear his words, she heard his voice in her heart all the same. “Thursday? Well, yeah. I could probably swing Thursday.”
Disgust and ache hacked its way through Rebecca’s brain.
“Dancing sounds fun.”
A little too loudly, Rebecca pulled her psychology book from the shelf and dropped it onto the desk.
Holly’s gaze jumped to her. “Okay. That sounds great.”
Again there was a pause that raked over Rebecca’s fried nerves. She sat down with a plop and yanked the book open.
“Okay. I’ll see you then. ‘Bye.” Holly hung up although Rebecca never so much as looked over.
Silence descended on the room like a bull making ready for the charge. After a moment, Holly stood and went over to the mirror. “That was Eric.”
Rebecca sniffed softly. “Yeah, so…?”
“So, he said to tell you, ‘Hi.’”
“Huh.” Her gaze slid over the words although they didn’t register.
Finally Holly turned to her in frustration. “How long are you going to stay mad at me?”
“Mad? Who’s mad? I’m not mad.”
“Yeah? Well, you could’ve fooled me.”
It took a few more seconds for the loathing to reach the surface. “It’s just I don’t get it.”
“Why you would do that to him. I mean Eric’s a great guy. He didn’t deserve to be stood up.”
Holly’s face fell. “I know. It’s just… He scares me. Okay?”
“Scares you? Why would he scare you? He’s like a big teddy bear.”
“Yeah, but it makes me wonder what he’s hiding. Nice guys like him don’t ask me out, so it makes me wonder what his agenda is.”
“His agenda? His agenda is he likes you. Why is that so hard to figure?”
Slowly Holly shrugged. “I just keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know?”
“There is no other shoe,” Rebecca said, feeling the words crush her heart. “He’s a nice guy, and he likes you. And he doesn’t deserve to be treated like dirt.”
With a stride Holly stepped over to her bed and fell on it. “You know, you’re right. I should give him a chance.” The last words were spoken more for Holly’s benefit than Rebecca’s, and with one glance at Holly, Rebecca knew her chances of ever competing with her roommate were non-existent.
“So, did you talk to Rebecca?” Jeremy asked as they walked to Psychology on Tuesday evening.
“Rebecca?” Eric asked as if that would give him the plague. “Why would I do that?”
“Well, you guys looked like you were having a good time at the game, I just thought…”
Eric pulled the outside door open and held it for Jeremy. “Rebecca’s not my type. Besides, I asked Holly out for Thursday.” A horrible thought occurred to him. “We are still going out Thursday, right?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m just surprised. I mean you and Holly seemed like oil and water that night at my party.”
As they walked into the Psychology room, Eric shrugged. “Stage fright. First date anxiety. I mean, come on, she’s like gorgeous.”
“Yeah, I noticed,” Jeremy said as they walked down the row to their seats. “So you really like her then?”
“What’s not to like? She blows every other girl at this university out of the water in the looks department.” He leaned down to pull his books out of his backpack. “Besides, I think she’s really smart too. She told me she’s trying to get into the business master’s program.”
“An M.B.A.,” Jeremy said, clearly impressed. “Nothing shabby about that.” His gaze traveled across his desk to the seat right in front of them, and uncertainty slid over his face. “Rebecca?” For a second he sat there, trying to get a better look. Then he leaned down and tapped the girl sitting in front of them on the shoulder. When she turned, only Jeremy could see her face. “Hey, it is you. Wow. What’re you doing here?”
“Hey, Jeremy,” she said, and the soft inflection of her voice danced over Eric’s heart. She turned so her shoulders rotated to a 90-degree angle with the seats. “Oh, hi, Eric.”
“Hi.” He barely got the syllable out.
“I didn’t know you were in this class,” Jeremy said as if he had just met a long-lost friend. “Hey, why don’t you come up here and join us?”
“Oh,” she said obviously taken back by the offer. “There’s probably not room.”
“There’s plenty of room.” Jeremy picked his books up and moved a desk to the right. “Come on. It’ll give me someone other than Eric to bug.”
Eric could see her reluctance, and he was sending Jeremy would-you-please-stop-it looks. But they were having absolutely no effect.
She stood uncertainly. “If you’re sure you don’t mind.”
“Don’t be silly,” Jeremy said. “We’d love to have you.”
When she looked at Eric with those soft brown eyes, his heart slid through his chest. “Yeah, we’d love to have you,” he said, but he had to clear his throat to get the words out.
“Well, okay. If you’re sure.” She gathered her stuff and dropped it over the seat into their row. Holding her Psychology book in her arm, she walked around the seats and down their aisle. Carefully she slid past Jeremy and took the seat next to Eric. He tried to smile in her direction, but it felt fake even to him. What was Jeremy thinking asking her to sit with them?
Mr. Templeton strode in down front. With a sigh no one heard, Eric turned his attention to the teacher.
“I wanted to remind you all that your tests are due by Friday. I’ve noticed a lot of you haven’t bothered to get by the computer lab to get that done. Make no mistake, if your scores are not recorded by Friday, you will get an F for this test.”
Eric’s gaze slipped down to Rebecca’s notebook where in perfectly modulated letters she wrote: Test by Friday. He had already taken his. Not that he had done very well on it, but at least it was over. Realizing she would have to come to the computer lab at some point in the coming three days, he sat up straighter. His mind wandered through the possibilities of when she might come.
He only worked in the afternoons, and there was no telling what her schedule was. Down front, Mr. Templeton started the lesson, and Eric tried to follow it. It wasn’t easy. His brain was going in too many diverse directions at once. There was Rebecca and the test and Holly and dancing and the game and the persistent question of why, when Holly was an option, he kept thinking about Rebecca. He shook his head to clear it of all of those thoughts. They weren’t taking him anywhere he wanted to go.
For the whole class Rebecca made sure to keep her arms within the boundaries of the desk between the two guys. Her head hurt from trying to look like everything was wonderful in her world. In truth, Eric wouldn’t so much as look at her, and that was killing the daydream she’d been having since Friday that he would suddenly realize what a mistake he had made calling Holly. It was a stupid daydream. He wasn’t interested in her, never had been, never would be.
When Mr. Templeton finally called it a night, Rebecca slid forward and started putting her things together. It took a few minutes for her to get all the books stored for the trip home. When she finally did, she stood and swung the backpack over her shoulder just as Eric stood from his desk.
“Ugh!” he said, catching the edge of her backpack right in his chest.
“Oh!” She swung around. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t watching.”
He put his hand on his chest as he coughed. “’s okay. Breathing is really overrated.”
Jeremy stood from his desk and glanced back at her. “So, Rebecca, a bunch of us are going out dancing Thursday. Do you dance?”
She heard the intake of air behind her, and she knew it had nothing to do with the backpack. “Oh, not really. The bars aren’t really my scene.”
They got to the end of the row, and Jeremy waited for her to get to his side. She did notice, however, that Eric hung back a good two steps.
“You really should come. We’re going over to Avalon. It’ll be fun.”
Her head was screaming at her to find a way out of this mess. “I wouldn’t have a date or anything.”
“You don’t have to,” he said as they walked out the door. “You could come with Holly and Eric.”
It took everything she had not to knock Jeremy flat. How could he not see that not only did Rebecca not want to be the third wheel of their tricycle, but that Eric wanted no part of her being around either? She glanced back at Eric, and he looked like he’d just inhaled a rotten lemon. “I’ll think about it,” she said.
At the doors she said a hasty good-bye and extracted herself from the threesome. Of course, she wasn’t going anywhere near Avalon on Thursday. In fact, if she could’ve opted out of Psychology for the rest of the semester, at that moment she would have.
His patience was about to explode inside of him, but Eric waited until Rebecca was out of earshot to pounce on Jeremy. “Now what did you go and do that for?”
“What?” Jeremy asked as if he really had no idea.
Exasperation flooded through him. “You asked her out to Avalon.”
“I said she could come. What’s the big deal?”
“What’s the big deal? You heard her. She doesn’t go to bars. She doesn’t date. Why would she want to go and hang out with people she doesn’t even know?”
Jeremy shrugged. “She knows us. We went to the game together.”
“Not because she wanted to! She went because she felt sorry for me.” Anger ripped to the surface. “I am so tired of everyone running my life for me.”
“I’m not running anything. She’s a friend, and I asked her to hang out with us. It’s not that big of a deal.”
But to Eric, it was a very big deal. Of that and only that, he was certain.
Rebecca’s hand held the cup of not-hot-anymore chocolate as she sat in the Student Union Building on Wednesday pouring over her Psychology textbook. As soon as she got out of Geology lab, she planned to go over to the computer lab and get that test out of the way. She honestly wished they would just give the tests in class, but the new Humanities dean was trying to show the world he was on the cutting edge of higher education. Besides, she had heard that were it not for the tests, no one used that computer lab. So the college had to find some way to get their money out of those cutting-edge computers.
She drilled her attention into the words, blocking out all other sounds around her.
“Hey, look who it is,” Jeremy said, suddenly appearing next to her table. “Studying again, I see.”
When Rebecca looked up, her first thought was that she must’ve stumbled into a horror movie that was stuck on repeat. Eric stood behind Jeremy looking like he wished the earth would swallow him whole.
“Hi, guys,” Rebecca said, reaching for happy but not quite getting there. “Passing through on your way to somewhere else?”
“We thought we’d stop and grab a bite to eat,” Jeremy said. “Mind if we join you?”
“I…” She started to protest but couldn’t think of a logical reason to. “Sure, have a seat.”
They each took a seat and had sat for only a few seconds when Jeremy said, “Oh, our order’s ready.” He slid off the stool and walked away.
Rebecca’s gaze could find no other safe place to land other than her book.
“So, what’re you studying?” Eric asked, clearly doing as bad of a job of grabbing happy as she did.
She held up her psychology book.
“Oh, so you haven’t taken your test yet,” he said.
“No. I had a project for history due Monday. I worked on that all weekend.”
“Well, it really wasn’t too bad.”
Her gaze jumped up to his in confusion.
“The test, I mean. It wasn’t too bad.”
“So you took it already?”
“Yeah, last week. I figured, you know, what’s the point of putting it off?”
Wickedness slid through her. “Procrastination is good for the soul you know.”
“Oh, really?” he asked as if he was intrigued. “How’s that?”
The words in the book dropped from her attention. “It gives you more time to study for one.”
“True,” he said, following her as if she was diagramming the Space Shuttle.
“And there’s nothing like a deadline to get your adrenaline going.” Her smile fell into place easily. “Besides if you wait long enough something might happen so you don’t have to do it at all.”
“Oh, yeah? Like what?”
She shrugged. “The end of the world. All the computers crash. Something along those lines.”
“Gee, you really think small.”
“It’s my gift.”
Jeremy stepped up. “Two Cokes that we hope are Cokes this time. One burger for Eric, hold the onions, and one BLT for me.” He sat back down on the stool as Eric unwrapped his burger and started eating. Suddenly Jeremy stopped and looked at her. “Oh, did you want anything?”
She looked at their food. “No, that’s okay. I’m fine.”
Eric had just taken a bite, but at the word ‘fine,’ air came up past the food and through his nose.
In concern, she looked at him. “Are you okay?”
He covered his nose and mouth with his hand, fighting to not laugh. “It’s okay. I’m fine.” He emphasized the word so that she caught onto why he was laughing.
Her teeth bit back the smile. The last thing she wanted to do was encourage him. However, the longer he chewed, the rounder his cheeks got trying not to laugh. Finally she could hold it back no longer, and the laugh escaped from her nose. She covered her mouth and nose fighting to stop laughing, but when she looked at him, even that didn’t work.
In the next heartbeat the laughs attacked them both, and the harder they tried not to laugh, the harder they laughed.
Jeremy looked at them like they were insane. “Did I miss something?”
“No,” Rebecca said, yanking seriousness back to her. “We’re fine.” And then, the fight to stop laughing dissolved, and they rocked side-to-side, holding their sides and laughing.
From the other side of the table, Jeremy bit into his BLT with a questioning look etched on his face. “Okay, as long as I didn’t miss anything.”
Eric hadn’t laughed that hard in years. But she had a way of making his guard crash to the ground. He thought about her as he sat in the center of the computer room by the wall working on the computer a student had managed to disconnect from the printers sometime during the morning shift. There were only ten of the twenty computers in use, and he knew from experience that by four o’clock, when the next shift arrived, they would need all of them. At first he tried to find the cable that would connect the two from the top of the computer. Finally he gave up and dove underneath the desk into the mass of cables.
It seemed it should’ve been a snap to find the one not hooked to anything, but between the dust and the half-dozen black, cream, and gray cords snaking back and forth along the floor, it was anything but easy. Carefully he wound himself through the bottom panel of the desk and worked his hand up the wall to the back of the computer. He counted cords, assigning them a purpose in his head. Monitor, modem, speakers. His arm was starting to go numb.
In frustration he unwound himself from that position and scooted out a few inches to examine the cords on the floor again. That was when he noticed the pair of women’s black, lace-up boots that had taken up residence in the computer terminal next to him. Great. Now he was going to have to be quiet trying to fix this. Pulling himself backward, he started to stand but whacked his shoulder on the desk on the way up. The pain shot through him with a crack.
“Ow!” As he stood the rest of the way, he reached up and rubbed his shoulder.
“Are you okay?” boot girl asked, and it wasn’t until she looked down that the horrible reality slid through him. “Eric?” She looked like she’d been caught stealing his wallet.
“Rebecca?” He reached up and smoothed his hair that had flopped down into his face. “What’re you doing here?”
Her eyebrows were clearly visible over the top rims of her glasses. “What’re you doing here?”
“I… umm…” He looked at the disabled computer. “I work here.”
Her gaze followed his. “Oh. You didn’t tell me that.”
He tried to smile. “You didn’t ask.”
She absorbed that barb. “True. So do you always hide under desks when you’re working?”
His gaze went back to the desk. “I was trying to fix it.”
Slowly she nodded although she still looked skeptical. “You keep fixing things like that, they’re going to need Worker’s comp.”
He laughed although he felt like somehow he had just fallen into a new dimension.
“Is there a problem?” Mr. Templeton asked, stepping over to them.
“Oh, no,” Eric said, and he could feel the tips of his ears flooding with heat.
Mr. Templeton looked at Rebecca whose face had gone ashen.
“I just hit my shoulder on the desk,” Eric said quickly. “She was asking me if I was okay.”
“Oh.” Mr. Templeton nodded. “Well, no talking during tests.”
Eric smiled. “Sure thing.”
When Mr. Templeton walked away, Eric took the opportunity to take one more furtive look at her.
“Sorry,” he mouthed.
“It’s okay,” she mouthed back. “Be careful.”
He nodded, and when he ducked back under the desk, he couldn’t stop the jumping of his heart.
Remembering Psychology terms was hard enough. With Eric right there next to her leg the majority of the test, it was nearly impossible. Rebecca kept feeling him move, and looking down at the pieces of him she could see wasn’t helping either. Twice, he gave up underneath the computer and resorted to working on top of it.
Even though she tried not to let herself, she categorized his outfit. The brown sweater, knit with blue and gold diamonds across the front that wrapped around both sleeves setting off the broad shoulders and solid arms. She wondered if he worked out. Then she chased that thought from her mind and narrowed her gaze on her computer.
The second time he pulled himself into the chair next to her, she noticed how his efforts under the computer had messed up his hair. It was cute in a strange way. He didn’t look perfect, but that didn’t really matter. By now the outside was the least of his attracting qualities.
After she had been there a full twenty minutes, he finally got whatever he was trying to fix to work. Clicking off the computer, he barely glanced her way as he quietly pushed the chair in and walked to Mr. Templeton’s office in the far corner. She should’ve been concentrating on the test. Instead she watched as he put a hand on the doorframe and leaned into Mr. Templeton’s office.
“Stop it, Becca,” she berated herself. “This is important.” She anchored her gaze to the question on the screen, but it couldn’t hold her attention. After only a moment, she noticed him push away from the door and walk along the other aisle to the opposite side of the room. His stride was easy and carefree. He sat down at the help desk and leaned over something. She shook her head in disgust at her weak will and went back to her test.
It was a given she thought he was an idiot. One simple port unhooked, and he’d made an idiot of himself trying to fix it. Granted it was almost worth it to be able to spend a few minutes next to her. Every time he had pulled himself off the floor, she smiled at him. Nothing about how his heart felt when she did that made any sense. In fact, by the time Rebecca picked up her backpack and started for the door at 3:30, Eric’s gaze had gone over to her so many times, he had the exact curve of her shoulders under the purple-blue sweater memorized.
When she stood, his heart crammed into his throat. She was leaving, and he wasn’t even going to get to say a proper good-bye. With that thought raining through him, he pushed to his feet and reached the door just as she got there. There was a slight uncomprehending smile on her face as he held the door for her and then followed her into the hallway.
“So, how’d you do?” he asked, holding the pen in his hand in a clench to keep him standing.
“74,” she said with a shrug. “Not stellar, but I passed.”
“Yeah.” He smiled and nodded. “I hope I didn’t mess you up too much… with my great computer fix-it job and everything.”
“I didn’t even notice.” Her gaze went to the floor between them.
“Oh. Well, that’s good.” His spirit was caving, and he glanced down the hallway. “So, I guess I’ll see you around then.”
“I guess.” She turned her feet although her body seemed not to turn with them at first. “See ya.”
“Yeah.” He stood there at the door and watched her walk away. When she turned the corner, he jammed the pen into his forehead twice. “What am I doing?”
It was time to get the Holly train back on the tracks, Eric decided as he walked into the dorm and over to the phones. He hadn’t seen her since the night of Jeremy’s party, but his memory said she had to still be as beautiful as he remembered. Hoping she would answer the phone instead of Rebecca, he dialed the number. It rang once and then again. A knot of people walked by the phones, and he turned toward the wall waiting. The phone rang again, and he frowned. This was just great.
He pushed the disconnect button and dialed again. A ring. A second. A third. It was becoming painfully clear that she was not there. Rebecca had mentioned Holly had a cell phone. Why hadn’t he bothered to get that number? In frustration he jammed the receiver on the cradle and put his hands in the back pockets of his black jeans. Then he retrieved the one with the watch and looked at it. The hands were winding around to nine. It wasn’t like she would be in class.
Fighting not to see the obvious answer to the questions in his mind, he picked up the phone and dialed again. The thought of going up and knocking on all the doors to find her crossed his mind. His friends would be arriving at Avalon in less than half an hour. They would be expecting them. He looked at his watch again, hoping he had mis-read it. He hadn’t. On the seventh ring, the cradle caught the receiver, and with hurt and frustration pouring through him, he strode away from the phones.
He made it all the way to the front doors where he shoved out of the first one, causing it to crack back against the doorstop. How could he have been so stupid? Not once but twice. It wasn’t like she had bothered to call or to encourage him. With a loud snap he pushed out of the second door and stalked down the walk with his hands in his pockets and his head down. The darkness created by the trees that blocked out the overhead lights had already surrounded him when he first heard the voice.
“Hey, there, Mr. Fix It.”
It wasn’t until he looked up, and she caught the scowl on his face that concern screeched across her features. Rebecca stopped instantly on the opposite side of the sidewalk, her books clutched tightly to her chest. For a second it was like she was going to ask, and then understanding drained over her. She glanced up at the dark windows above them. “She forgot again.”
“Yeah,” he breathed. He jammed his hands into his pockets. “Looks that way.”
Genuine compassion slid through her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
Nothing other than hurt and anger were anywhere in him. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. I should’ve taken the hint the first time.”
A moment and then Rebecca’s gaze found his face. “This isn’t your fault, you know. She’s the one with the problem.”
“Oh, yeah?” he asked, and the pain screamed through the words. “Then why am I the one standing out in the cold going out again with no date.”
“It could be worse,” Rebecca said.
She lifted the books in her arm. “You could be headed to research a paper for psychology that you don’t have a topic for.”
At first he was annoyed by the statement, but in the next instant another thought overtook it. “I thought Jeremy asked you to go with us.”
With a laugh that almost wasn’t one, she breathed. “Like I was really going to do that.”
His hands came out of his pockets and tucked themselves under his arms as he turned to her. “You didn’t want to go?”
She laughed with that same hollow sound. “They didn’t really want me to come. I’d just stand around in the dark anyway. What would be the point of that?”
“You don’t dance?”
As if it didn’t really matter, she shook her head. “Not my idea of fun to dance with myself.”
It was the first moment he really looked at her, really stopped to see the acquiescence in her eyes, to hear the capitulation to reality in her voice. “You know,” he said, glancing around, “what do you say we ditch the whole thing and go grab a burger?”
The look of disbelief on her face told him more than he wanted to know. “Now?”
“Sure. We could look through those books of yours and come up with some topics for the psych paper. I’d probably be ahead to do that anyway.”
Concern laced with consideration went through her eyes. “Are you sure?”
He smiled, and it almost felt like a real one. “Yeah. It sounds like fun.”
There weren’t ten people in the Student Union Building. That was okay with Rebecca. She didn’t care who saw them or who didn’t. All she cared about was how depressed he had looked on the sidewalk. She hated seeing him like that. They found a booth rather than her normal table.
“Okay,” he said, getting down to business, “so what are the options for topics?”
“I considered family dynamics. You know birth order and personality compliments, but I couldn’t find much on that.” She sorted through the books, trying to remember what she had found in each. “Then I thought about doing optimism, and I found this Time issue about happiness. I thought it was kind of interesting.” She handed the issue across the table, and he took it.
As he looked through it, she picked up a book and perused it. “I was really interested in the guy they talk about in there Seligman, and he’s written a couple of books. I found one of them in the library, but narrowing the paper down to one thing he talks about is going to be tough.”
He glanced up at the book and laughed. “Learned Optimism?”
“What?” she asked, turning the spine around to face her.
“Positive thinking. Woohoo. Just think positive, and everything will be wonderful.”
The sarcasm in the statement pulled her up short. “You don’t think it’s something that can be learned?”
“I’m positive. I’m positive. I’m positive,” he said and then looked around. “Nope. I’m still me.”
She laughed although the mantra confused her a bit. “You’re positive.”
“Yeah, positively a loser.”
Anger dropped on her like a 900-pound tiger. “You are not a loser.”
His face was a mix of hurt, confusion, and frustration. “Oh, yeah? Then why won’t anyone go out with me?”
“I’m out with you.”
Determine challenge snapped to her voice. “How’s it different?”
“Because you’re not interested in me.” Sadness took over completely then. “You’re just keeping me company because nobody else is interested.”
Understanding slid through her, and her gaze dropped to the book. “Oh.” She wanted it to be different, and yet it was what it was. When he looked at her, all he saw was a friend, but then again, even a friend was a step up from invisible. In one instant she decided she would be happy with what she could get. “Well, then we can just have some fun while you wait for Ms. Perfect to get her act together.”
Intrigued, he glanced up. “What do you have in mind?”
Her gaze snagged on the unoccupied pool table across the way. “How about a little nine-ball? Loser buys the winner’s dinner.”
He looked at his watch. “It’s almost ten o’clock. You haven’t eaten yet?”
She shrugged. “I was at the library. Come on, what do you say? I’ll let you break.”
A slice of happiness cut across his face. “You’re on.”
The first game went by so fast Eric barely noticed. He won, but it was only because she sank the eight ball on a lousy shot at the six.
“Best of three,” he said, spinning the stick and putting more money in the machine to give them the balls back.
Rebecca ran her hand over her hair to pull it from her eyes. It was obvious she hadn’t worn that hairstyle to play pool. “But I owe you supper.”
He shrugged. “I’ll rack ‘em. You go get a couple of burgers.”
“No onions?” she asked, and there was a hint of teasing in her voice.
He shook his head. “You know me too well.”
She tapped her temple. “Psychology.”
“It had to come in handy at some point.” As Eric took the balls from the return and set them in the rack on the table, he watched her walk to the counter. There was literally nothing remarkable about her. Straight, stringy hair that wasn’t really blonde or brunette but kind of a confusing mix of the two. Old-time black teacher glasses that were far too harsh and too big overwhelmed her pixie-like face. Her T-shirt looked like it had been dried in the washing machine for all the wrinkles, not to mention the jeans that were faded but not because she had bought them that way.
Impressive she was not. Yet, she could make him laugh even on a night like tonight. He got the balls ready and tried not to watch her walk back with the burgers, fries, and drinks.
“Coke?” She set it down on the little round table in the corner.
“I really need to stop drinking those.”
“I’ll remember that,” she said, and something told him she really would.
“Burger, no onions, but I got cheese. Hope that was okay.”
“And I got one order of fries. I only want a couple.”
Still holding the stick, he walked over and took a fry. “Your break.”
She wiped her hands on the back of her jeans. “Such a gentleman.”
“I try.” He slid onto the stool, pushed his hair back out of his eyes, and watched her lean over the table. The stick shot forward, and in the next second there was a loud crack. A striped ball rolled to the right and dropped into the corner pocket.
“Hey, now. No running the table on me,” he said, corkscrewing his face in concern.
“Such optimism from the cheering section.” She lined up her next shot. A blue striped ball spun to the other corner and dropped in.
He picked up a fry and twirled it in his finger. “I think I’ve been hustled.”
“What do you mean? I had to buy supper.” Surveying the table, she walked around it. Another ball was in the pocket before he ate another bite.
“So, do I get to play or not?”
“Just eat your burger.” This shot, a tap in to the side pocket, didn’t quite have the velocity to drop. She dropped the bottom of her stick to the ground. “Drat.”
“Oh, darn.” He stood. “Here, let me show you how it’s done.” He retrieved his stick from the wall next to him, lined up a shot, and sent the white ball skittering across the table. However, it ricocheted off the far bumper and rolled down to the side pocket. “No!” he all-but screamed.
“Yes!” She put her hands in the air in triumph as his shot put in her ball. Her hand reached out to him, and he hit it. “Nice shot.”
“Thanks.” Lumbering back to his seat, he sat down. He seemed mad, but it was an act. In reality, he was having a really good time. “Your shot.”
She surveyed her options. “You know, this would be a lot easier if you would get some of your trash off the table.”
“I’m setting a trap,” he said as he ate another bite of burger. “It’s a plan.”
Her shot landed the yellow-stripe in the pocket. “Huh, good plan.”
She lined up another shot. The green-striped ball dropped into the side pocket.
“I think you’ve done this before.”
“We had a pool table downstairs. It was something to do.” This shot missed but only by a fraction.
He stood and walked over to the table. “So, I take it you spent a lot of time with this pool table of yours.”
“Most Friday and Saturday nights.”
“Huh, your friends must’ve gotten tired of giving you all their money.” His shot sent the two-ball into the corner, and he nodded in satisfaction. Now if he could just do that eight more times in a row, he might have a chance.
At the little round table, she slid onto the stool and ate a couple of French fries, drowning them with water. He surveyed the table and lined up another shot. “Or were your friends as good as you were?” The white ball hit the one but failed to send it into a pocket.
Without reply she stood and walked past him. It wasn’t lost on him that he was suddenly the only one in the conversation. On his hip, his cell phone rang. In annoyance he picked it out of the carrying case and looked at it. One glance at the display told him all he needed to know. He didn’t bother to answer it, just turned it off.
Leaning over the table for her shot, Rebecca looked up at him. “Aren’t you going to answer that?”
Eric shrugged. “It’s just Jeremy.”
She straightened slightly. “They’re probably wondering where you are.”
Once again he shrugged as he pulled some fries from the basket. “They’ll get over it.”
Concern that she didn’t voice dropped over her face. She leaned over and sent the fifteen-ball into the side pocket. Wordlessly she walked around the table, lined up her next shot, and with a solid stroke, it too landed in a pocket.
“Yep, I’ve definitely been hustled.” He took a drink of Coke and set it down. “I’ve really got to stop drinking that. I’m going to be wired the rest of the night.”
“What? You tired already?” She lined up the eight, tapped her stick on the table. “Eight ball, side pocket.”
There wasn’t a question in his mind that she would make it. In fact, she made it look far too easy.
“Game, set, match,” she said when the eight dropped in perfectly.
“That was a nice shot,” he said genuinely impressed. “How do you do that?”
She reached over and grabbed a ball, positioning it next to the side. Then she took the white ball and laid it in the exact place her shot had originated. “The key is to see the angle. If you hit it here, it will go that way.” With her stick she showed him the angles. “So you’ve got to aim at the side edge and be really gentle with it.” She leaned over the table and pulled the stick back. “If you try to kill it, you miss.” Gently she tapped the white ball. It rolled slowly down the table and touched the ball exactly where she had predicted it would. The ball rolled twice and dropped in. “See, easy.”
“Easy, huh?” He slid off the chair, walked over to her, and set up the same shot. Sensing that she hadn’t really moved, he leaned over and lined up the shot.
“Real gentle,” she said softly.
His stick hit the white ball with a small tap. It followed the same trek hers had, and sure enough the ball dropped into the pocket. “Amazing. I’ve been trying to figure out how they do that for years.” He looked at her standing right next to him, and it was like a magnet had taken hold of him.
She shrugged, clearly not feeling what he was. “You just needed someone to show you how.” With that, she looked up at him. “You paying for the next game or am I?”
For a full second, he couldn’t find words anywhere in his brain. “Umm, I paid for the last two.”
“I paid for supper.”
“I won supper.”
“Okay,” she said with a smile. “Since you’re going to be stingy about it.” She backed up and dug into her pocket.
Quickly he shook his head to get it back into the realm of reality. “So, what other secrets are running around in that head of yours?”
“Secrets?” she asked as she paid for the balls to return. “What do you mean?”
“I never would’ve pegged you for a table junkie,” he said, reaching over the table and sending the balls that hadn’t gone in back in her direction.
Her gaze snagged his. “It seems to me you owe me a secret.”
“Well, you know about my pool playing, so what’s something nobody would ever know about you?”
Had she been serious, he never would’ve entertained the question; however, with her, it was easy to play along. “I’m undecided.”
“About what?” she asked in confusion.
“No. That’s my major. Undecided.”
He felt her watching him as he leaned in for the break.
“Is this a permanent condition, or do you have a general idea of what you want to do?”
The sound of the break cracked through the room, but nothing went in. “No idea.” He sat down and watched her. As strange as it seemed, she acted more focused on him than on her game.
“Well, do you have any classes that you’ve really liked?”
He shrugged. “Working on the computers is fun, but I’m not smart enough to do something like that.”
Her stick followed her gaze up. “What does that mean?”
“Me and math.” He snorted. “We don’t get along.”
She lined her shot up again. “You ever think about technical school?”
“My parents would shoot me. It took every last ounce of patience they had to get me into college in the first place.”
Her shot missed. He stood and stepped to the table.
“Well, what other things do you like to do?”
“Play pool. Watch TV.”
“Not like that. Like school things.”
“Oh, that.” He shot and sank a ball, but he wasn’t really paying attention. “Well, the last three semesters I’ve been taking sign language. That’s pretty cool.”
“Sign language.” Surprise flooded her voice. “Really?”
“Yeah.” He glanced at her and then lined up a shot. “Why? Is that so hard to believe?” His shot missed, and he dropped the cue stick to the ground with a ca-thunk.
Her gaze skewered through him. “Say something in sign language.”
Without hesitation, his hands went into motion. When they stopped, she looked at him skeptically. “What did you say?”
“We’re the only ones here.”
At that, her gaze snapped behind her, and when she looked back at him, there was fear in her eyes. “What time is it?”
He checked his watch. “Almost midnight.”
“Jeez, I didn’t realize it was so late.” It was clear she was trying to decide what to do.
“You need to go?” he asked, and although he knew her answer would be yes, he prayed it would be no.
Finally she looked back at the table. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to finish this, but then I’ve really got to get home.”
“Your shot.” As he backed up and watched her, some inexplicable part of his heart said it never wanted this to end.
Rebecca had never been one to require an escort back to the dorms. In fact, she figured she was about as invisible to the thugs as she was to anyone she wanted to see her. However, tonight she was glad she had one. Part of that was because she didn’t want to be out walking in the freezing cold alone at midnight, and part of it was because except for the nagging memory that he was only with her because he had been stood up again, it had been a really fun night.
“So, that sign language thing,” she said as they walked far too slowly for the well-below freezing temperatures. “Why don’t you do that?”
He shrugged and sighed. “It takes a masters to really do anything with it, and I’m not really masters material.”
“But if you enjoy it…”
He shook his head. “I’ll probably just get a general studies, get out and sell TVs or something.” His hands jumped from his pockets as he showed her an imaginary screen. “And this plasma set is real nice. It comes with all the options.”
“Have you even looked into the sign language thing?”
His hands went back to his pockets. “I’d never make it with my grades.”
Her heart hurt for the ache in his voice. “Yeah, but have you looked?”
Without speaking, he kept walking.
“Don’t you think it’s worth at least looking into it?”
Still he kept walking. Finally she sighed.
“Okay. So, what are you going to do your Psych paper on?”
His gaze swinging to hers told her he noticed the change of subject. “That Time thing looked kind of interesting.”
“I really didn’t get a chance to look.”
She thought for a moment, considered, and decided it wouldn’t hurt. “Well, I could bring it on Tuesday. I should be finished with it by then.”
From his face, she knew it wasn’t a wholly bad idea. “Really? Cool. That’d give me a few more days to procrastinate.”
The smile jumped from her heart. “Then why don’t you take it now? That way I could procrastinate for a few more days.”
His smile matched hers as they made it into the light next to her dorm. “No. I’d hate to ruin your first experiment with getting something done before it’s due.”
“Don’t mention it.” He opened the door for her, and she slipped inside the warmth of the dorm.
She opened the second door and held it for him. “Well, this is where I get off.”
His gaze went to the stairs. “Looks like it.”
It took nothing at all to read the return of the melancholy in his voice. “I had a good time tonight.”
“Yeah.” The smile on his face barely touched the sadness in his eyes. “So did I.”
Yanking cheerful to her, she smiled at him. “Well, practice up. I’d hate to have to run the table on you the next time.”
“I’ll be sure and do that.”
With a nod and a breath, she turned from him and climbed the stairs. Being friends wasn’t so bad. It had its advantages, and she decided as she climbed that she would concentrate on those advantages and not even look at the disadvantages.
Eric made it all the way to the door. His mind was in a tangle of thoughts. Rebecca wasn’t any girl he would ever have taken a second glance at, and yet… Just as he reached for the silver bar to push out, he came face-to-face with Holly coming in the other direction. “Holly,” he said, jumping backward in surprise.
“Eric,” she said, matching his tone. She looked down at his clothes. “Have you been waiting?”
“Something like that. Where’ve you been?”
Guilt slid through her eyes. “I’m sorry. One of my friends… She just broke up with her boyfriend, and she was having a really rough time. I couldn’t just leave her like that.”
Fighting to decide if that was the truth, he nodded slowly. “And you didn’t tell this friend we had plans?”
“I was going to, and then it got late. And I knew I had missed you anyway. I’m really sorry, Eric. Really.” She laid her hand with its set of manicured, red fingernails on his arm.
With everything he had, he wanted to stay mad at her, but the repentance in that face wouldn’t let him.
“What’re you doing tomorrow night?” she asked suddenly. “We could go out. Eat, the movies. Do it right. It’ll be fun.”
For a split second he considered accepting and then standing her up, but he knew he couldn’t do that. “Okay.”