Copyright Staci Stallings, 2005
All Friday Rebecca had been in a great mood, which was strange because she had stayed up so late the night before. But she wasn’t going to analyze it. She just wanted to enjoy it. On her way back to the dorms from the Sciences Building after turning in her Geology Lab project just before they locked the building for good at 7, her gaze snagged on the Humanities Building. She had some time. It wasn’t like she had any pressing plans.
Not at all sure how she would ever even get the nerve up to give it to him, she marched up to the board displaying office numbers and selected the one labeled “ASL.” It occurred to her on the trek up the stairs that the office might already be closed, but she kept climbing anyway. Once there, her heart did a small leap for joy at the fact it was still open. She asked the receptionist for any information they had on the Sign Language program. In less than fifteen minutes, she had three pamphlets and a new student handbook. As she walked back to the dorm, she perused the pamphlets. Interpreting, which was at the top of the list, did in fact require a master’s, but not all of the options said that.
She was still reading when she opened her door and walked into her room.
“What do you think?” Holly asked, turning from the mirror.
Rebecca took a look at her, and her attention fell back to the pamphlet. “What’s the occasion?”
“I’m going out with Eric. He’ll be here any minute.”
It was the effects of momentum only that kept Rebecca’s feet moving to her desk where the full impact of that news crashed into her. “You’re going out? For real?”
“Yep. I’m finally going to take your advice. He seems like a nice enough guy, so what am I freaking out for, right?”
The chair caught Rebecca, depression and all, as her knees surrendered. The phone at her elbow rang, and she picked it up in a daze. “Hello?”
“Holly?” His voice tore through her.
“No.” She cleared her throat as ache sliced through her. “This is Rebecca.”
“Oh.” The disappointment in his voice was hard to miss. “Well, is Holly there?”
“Yeah. Just a second.” Holding the phone up even as she put her head down, Rebecca said, “It’s for you.”
Walking like a model across a runway, Holly strode over and took the phone. “Hello?” Perfect make-up. Perfect face. Perfect hair. It was enough to make Rebecca sick. “Okay. I’m headed down. See you in a minute.” She replaced the phone and turned to finish her preparations. As she headed for the door, Holly called over her shoulder. “See you later.”
“Yeah,” Rebecca said as a serrated knife carved through her heart. “Later.”
She laid the pamphlets on the desk. Knowing she shouldn’t, the window pulled her to it. Her spirit pressed against its coolness as she watched the sidewalk swathed in the approaching darkness below. The hands of the clock slid around their orb as she waited, praying that they wouldn’t really emerge together. Just as that hope began to take hold, however, the door swung open, and they stepped out.
In the flash of the amber light, she watched as he looked over at Holly, and a smile that could’ve sold a mint of toothpaste graced his face. As they disappeared under the trees, Rebecca spun from the scene and leaned against the cold plaster wall. Why did she even try?
“You want popcorn?” Eric asked after he had purchased their tickets.
Awkwardness cracked between them as Holly sort of looked at him without really looking. “Okay.”
He took a real breath as he stepped away from her over to the concession area. There was no doubt she was gorgeous, but being with her was like dragging a dead donkey through the sand. “A popcorn, a Coke and water,” he said when it was his turn. He paid for it and took it over to her.
She took the drink, sipped it, and made a face, which he noticed.
“I’m sorry. Did you want something other than Coke?”
“No. Coke’s okay.”
However, he could tell it really wasn’t. “We could share my water.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She took another drink which seemed to sear her throat on the way down.
“I really could get you something else.”
“No, no. It’s fine. Really.”
Fine. That word jabbed into his nerves. “Okay, well, let’s go.” He let her step in front of him, and he followed her to the ticket taker. He handed their tickets over, and the guy pointed down the large hallway.
“Fourth theatre on the right.”
As they started down the hall, Eric had the distinct impression she would’ve been more comfortable if the Grand Canyon had been between them. At the door, he let her walk in first and followed her up the ramp and then up the steps. The previews weren’t even started yet. It suddenly occurred to him that they would have another ten minutes or so of dead-silence like they had endured at the restaurant.
Breathing in that understanding, he followed her to one of the seats and sat next to her. “You want some?” he asked, offering her the bucket he still carried.
“Oh, no thanks.” She wrinkled her nose. “Not right now.” She set her Coke in the holder and settled back into the chair. “So, who’s in this one anyway?”
“Van Diesel I think.”
She didn’t reply, only crossed her arms in front of her to fend off any notion that she was excited about being with him. He took the hint and retreated to his popcorn. The inane music accompanying the pre-show filler film did nothing to keep him entertained. Even the popcorn tasted stale.
“Hey,” Holly said, suddenly sitting up. “It’s Treva.”
Eric looked down to where she was indicating even as she waved to her friend. The wave back said they would soon have company. Sure enough, Treva and her date climbed the steps and turned into their row.
“I didn’t expect to see you tonight,” Treva said. “What? Last night dancing with Gus didn’t do you in?”
The question slid through Eric’s brain even as Holly laughed softly.
“Oh, this is Ben,” Treva said, indicating her date to Holly.
“Hi,” Holly said, and there was a pause as the other two sat down.
“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” Treva finally asked, glancing over to Eric.
“Treva, Ben, this is Eric…”
“Barnett,” he finished for her as he held out his hand to Ben.
“I thought Lena told me you had to study tonight.” Treva settled back.
“I got finished,” Holly said. “Besides, who wants to sit home all Friday night and do nothing?” She reached over and took Eric’s hand, which he had to force himself not to yank out of her grasp. The gesture seemed wholly for the benefit of her friend and nothing more.
The previews started, and he thought about Rebecca. He wondered where she was tonight. Was she out with friends? Her comment about playing pool every Friday and Saturday night drifted through his mind. He traced through the question of why she never elaborated. Then it struck on an answer that he didn’t like at all. She wasn’t out with friends tonight.
He sat up straighter as unwanted understanding flowed through him. She had dropped everything to go to the game on a dime, and last night she was planning to sit in her room the whole night had he not shown up. His gaze traced over to Holly’s silhouette, and he wondered if she knew where Rebecca was. He even thought about asking but nixed that idea. Still, throughout the whole movie, he couldn’t quite get the concern to leave him alone. He hoped she was with someone having a good time. That would at least make one of them.
When Eric pulled up to the dorms, he didn’t turn the car off immediately. In fact, he didn’t know what to do. Every move he made seemed to either make Holly uncomfortable or him uncomfortable, and this was no different.
“I’m really glad this worked out,” Holly said although she was staring out the front window. “I know you were mad about the other night, and I don’t blame you.”
“I’m not mad. A little confused maybe.”
“It’s just I wasn’t sure that you’d want to try again after…”
“The first time you baled?”
“Yeah.” Her gaze never so much as inched toward his. “Not many guys would do that.”
“Well, not many girls are worth that.”
She looked down at the floorboard, causing wisps of hair to fall around her face. “And I am?”
He laughed softly. “I’m here. Aren’t I?”
The blue of her eyes caught him full on. “Rebecca was right. You didn’t deserve what I did to you.”
He fought to get the words to come, but they kept running into Rebecca’s name.
“I’m just so glad you didn’t give up on me,” she said, and there was vulnerability in her eyes that he hadn’t noticed before.
“Never.” Closing the space between them, he grazed her lips with his. He pulled backward and looked out the windshield. “I’d better get you back.”
They got out of the car and strode together to the front doors. Just inside Holly stopped and turned to him. “So, we’re all right then?”
His smile made the center of his heart ache. “Yeah. We’re all right.”
Since turning his cell phone off on Thursday night, Eric had done a passing job of avoiding his friends. However, when Tuesday rolled around, he knew his parole was up.
“I guess this means you didn’t die,” Jeremy said when Eric stalked up to the bench where they always met to walk to Psychology together.
“No, I didn’t die. Why would you think that?”
Jeremy closed the book he was reading and stood. “You don’t answer your cell. I’ve called your place like forty times, and you’re never there. You’re not returning my messages. What gives?”
“I’ve been at the library.”
“The library. Yeah, right.”
“I have really. I was starting the research for the paper.”
They made it to the psychology room door. “And Holly showing up without you? What was that all about?”
Eric’s brain snagged on the name. “Holly?”
“Yeah, at Avalon on Thursday.”
“She was there?” Eric strode into his row, and his gaze snagged on Rebecca sitting one row down again. His heart slid through his chest at the sight.
“Of course she was there. You asked her out, and then you never showed up. What’s up with that?”
He had no answer for that question. In fact, he barely heard it because his attention had fixed itself to the figure sitting in the second row. Her yellow T-shirt would’ve been hard to miss.
“Hey, Ms. Optimism,” Eric said, leaning down next to her. “Made any breakthroughs yet?”
She looked back, but her gaze didn’t make it all the way to his face. “Do I have a choice? You’re stealing my research material.”
“I’m not stealing anything. You offered. Hey, why don’t you come up here so I can copy off your notes?”
“Figures,” she said even as she stood. “Hi, Jeremy.”
“Hi,” he said.
Dumping her stuff at Eric’s feet, she didn’t bother to walk around. Instead she climbed right over the desk. She dropped into the seat next to him.
“So, do you have your topic yet?” he asked.
“A work in progress, huh?”
Her smile lit his heart although he noticed the tinge of sadness on the edges of it. “Well, I have narrowed it down. I’m either going to do humor or religion.”
“There’s a combination,” Jeremy said.
Rebecca’s attention swung over to him, and Eric saw the embarrassment.
“I didn’t know you were into God,” Eric said, truly being intrigued and wanting to smack Jeremy all at the same time.
“Well, I was. I mean, I used to be, back home. But when I got here…” She shrugged as Mr. Templeton walked in down front.
There was so much more Eric wanted to ask her, but the moment slipped by them, and it was gone.
If Eric could have, he would’ve made Jeremy disappear. Unfortunately that wasn’t an option, so the three of them walked together to the front doors. Rebecca was too quiet for his liking. There was something wrong, and he wanted to know what it was. However, asking with Jeremy eavesdropping wasn’t a great plan.
“Oh, here’s the magazine,” she said, handing it over. “It’s due back Thursday.”
“Thanks. I’ll be sure to look it over.”
Her eyes said there was more she wanted to say, but then she smiled softly. “Well, I guess I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah,” he said barely getting the word out. “Later.”
She stepped away from them and strode off into the darkness. His heart hurt, and he didn’t really know why.
“So what’s the story with Rebecca?” Jeremy asked, indicating her with a lift of his chin.
“There’s no story. We’re friends.” Eric shrugged. “Besides, I’m with Holly. Why would I want chopped beef when I could have filet migon?”
“I thought Holly stood you up.”
Eric turned in the direction of the parking lot. “Yeah, well, that was a misunderstanding. We went out last night and had a great time.” Okay, so he was stretching the truth a bit. Jeremy would never know the difference.
“And there’s nothing going on with Rebecca?”
The laugh made his insides ache. “No, there’s nothing going on with Rebecca.”
“Betcha can’t take me best of five.”
Rebecca hadn’t even seen him come in, and she jumped by the nearness of his voice to her ear and the heat of his presence next to her shoulder. “Jeez! Give me a heart attack why don’t you?”
“Sneak attack,” he said with mischief in his hazel eyes. “Gets ‘em every time.” He slid onto the stool next to hers without asking for permission. “How’s the paper coming?”
She wrote something on her note card. “Slow but sure. Yours?”
“It’s evolving.” His smile came of its own free will. “You going to be here awhile?”
Glancing at her watch, she went back to her note cards. “Forty-five minutes until I have to leave for ballroom dancing.”
For a second he arched an eyebrow at her, but he didn’t ask. “Hold that thought.” He slid from the stool and went to the counter.
Reluctantly her gaze followed him. She had to be insane. Spending time with him was getting harder and harder. The fact that she had heard Jeremy’s comments about Holly weren’t helping either. In minutes Eric was back, and once again, he sat down without bothering with formalities.
“Where’s your sidekick?” Rebecca asked as she jotted down another note.
“Side… Oh. Jeremy? Bad bug. Mono or something.” He bit into his burger and then took a long drink of what was obviously not water.
“I bet Gwen is thrilled.”
“Stay home and play nurse? It’s tragic.”
He took another bite and nodded at her book. “That for the paper?”
Her gaze tripped up to him and then fell back to the table. “It’s trying to be, but it’s so dry.”
With two fingers he reached over and lifted the cover. “God and Society. Sounds fascinating.”
“Statistics. Ugh. They make my eyes glaze.”
He took another drink, and her gaze followed him. “I thought you weren’t drinking Cokes any more.”
His gaze snapped down to the cup. “Oh, I wasn’t. I mean I’m not. I mean… So, what kind of statistics are we talking?”
She heard the change of subject but went along with it anyway. Who was she to question what he chose to drink? “Well, according to this, if you go to church, you’re less likely to be insane.”
“Huh,” he said through the mouthful of burger, “then that explains it.”
“Me. I always knew there was something wrong.”
“You don’t go to church?”
He shrugged and pushed his hair back with his fingers. “We used to when I was little. Then everybody got kind of busy. We still go at Christmas and sometimes at Easter when I’m home.” He took a drink. “How about you? You go to church?”
Her head fell over her notes. “Not much since I’ve been here. At home I went a lot. Sunday, youth meetings, Wednesdays… I was a regular.”
“So what changed?”
She thought about that question. It wasn’t one she had given much time to. “I guess Mom and Dad weren’t around. Plus, I went to a church here when I first got here, but it was mostly old people, and I don’t know… it got boring.”
“It wasn’t boring at home?”
“It had its moments.” She wasn’t really looking at him, but that didn’t mean her heart wasn’t screaming at her to find a way to change the subject.
“I think that’s cool,” he finally said. “The going to church thing. You know, I read that one article in that issue of Time you gave me, that one with Jesus written in the sky behind her. I wish I could be like that—be able to stand back up when all that stuff knocks you down.”
“Yeah,” she said softly. “That’s the way I used to feel.”
“Before you came here,” he said, completing the thought.
“I felt like a part of things at church. I mean I wasn’t like the driving leader, but I had a few friends. I could show up and we would do stuff together—pray, sing, play games. It felt real. Now, it just feels alone.”
She felt his gaze slide over her, and embarrassment that she had actually said that aloud assaulted her. Her gaze fell to her watch. She still had ten minutes, but it was a good excuse. “I’d better get going.”
“Yeah,” he said, wiping his hands and standing. “Me, too.” He followed her all the way out the door and to the sidewalk. “Well, have fun ballroom dancing.”
“Oh, you know, dancing with girls… just my idea of a fun way to spend an hour.”
His eyebrows shot up skeptically. “Girls?”
“Twenty-five girls. Three guys. It’s great odds.”
“Hmm,” he said, his eyes sparkling. “I’m going to have to look into the ballroom dancing thing.”
“Trust me. It’s not as great as it sounds. I really don’t see when I’m ever going to have the chance to use the Rumba.”
“Rumba. Rumba,” he said, doing a quick dance that fell somewhere between a Cha-Cha and a Charleston.
Skeptical amusement drifted through her.
“What?” he asked, stopping the impromptu dance.
She smiled in sarcastic delight. “You look like you were born on the dance floor.”
“You don’t like my Rumba?” He did the dance again. “Rumba! Rumba!”
“You’re crazy. You know that?”
His dance stopped. “Maybe I need to go to church then.” He shrugged. “I hear it cures insanity.”
Rebecca shook her head and then laughed out right. There was never a dull moment with him around. “Well, good luck on your paper, and remember, that magazine’s due tomorrow.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He saluted her. Then his body relaxed, and his smile was soft. “I’ll see you around?”
“Around and around.” Even as she walked off, she knew he still stood there and watched her. It made her nervous and self-conscious and excited all at the same time. Frustration with herself for hoping took a swipe at her confidence. “He’s just being nice, and you know it, Becca. He’s not interested in you.”
In seconds the depression over the state of her life was back. It never stayed gone for long.
Although Eric meant to call Holly all weekend, he never got it done. Every time he thought about it, his mind asked what happened if she wasn’t there because she was out with someone else. Then the other side of his brain chimed in with, what happened if she was out, and he got her roommate instead?
There were advantages to that to be sure. One definite advantage was he wouldn’t have to spend the weekend alone. However, there were also perils—like he might get goofy again, and the universe would certify his insanity. He couldn’t quite put that into an identifiable box, but when he was with Rebecca, he did things with no regard for how stupid he would look. He was just having fun, just enjoying life, and his actions were a natural out-cropping of that. It made absolutely no sense.
Sitting in sign language on Monday, he reviewed the verbs they had learned the previous session. Concentration had never been his strong suit, but sign language held a fascination that few other things did. Diana was sitting beside him before he realized she was in the room.
“Do you just study all the time?” she asked. Her dark, wavy hair fell down across her shoulders.
“I try,” he signed back.
“Well, I, for one, can’t wait until this semester is over.”
“Why’s that?” he asked without an out loud word.
She sighed dramatically. “My boyfriend’s going all schizoid on me. He graduated last fall, and now he’s convinced I’m cheating on him.”
His hands asked the question for him. “Are you?”
“No, but I’m getting tired of being treated like I am.”
“He doesn’t trust you?” The words flowed from his hands as if from his mouth.
“Apparently not, and it’s starting to get old.”
“So what happens at semester?” It took a minute for him to get the sign for semester pulled out of his brain.
Diana sighed heavily and shook her head. “I guess I do what he wants and move to Ohio with him.”
The sign language slipped from Eric’s mind, and he looked at her. “He doesn’t trust you, and you’re going to move halfway across the country to be with him? What sense does that make?”
Diana shrugged. “It’s what he wants.”
“And you’re going to twist what you want to be with someone who doesn’t even believe you when you tell him something that important?”
She shrugged, and her hair went up with her shoulders. “That’s what you do when you’re together. Otherwise they’ll leave you, and then where would you be?”
The professor walked in down front, and the conversation stopped. However, it really didn’t in Eric’s head. That didn’t sound like love to him. It sounded like a death sentence. Needy and desperate. He never wanted to be in a relationship in which he couldn’t be himself. What was the point of that?
Rebecca had carried around the pamphlets for a full week trying to find the right time to give them to him. However, what seemed so simple in her head was painfully difficult in person. When she walked into Psychology and she was the second person in the room as usual, she debated where to sit. Until that moment there had never been a question. However, to keep acting like they didn’t exist until they noticed her presence seemed a bit egotistical. So with a deep breath, she headed down the third aisle to the middle seats.
Like it or not, they were just going to have to live with her. That much confidence she had. However, when they actually walked in, her confidence wavered, and she buried her attention into the book she was reading.
“I’m telling you, I could take you best of five,” Eric said, leaning down to her as he crossed in front of her.
She looked up and smiled.
“Best of five what?” Jeremy asked as he swung his backpack to the floor, sat down, and started digging in it.
“Shh,” Eric said to her. “Don’t tell him. You can hustle him, too.”
“I didn’t hustle you,” she said in annoyance. “I was the one who had to buy supper, remember?”
He arched an eyebrow at her. “A clever trick to get me to let my guard down me thinks.”
“Is this like some secret language code I don’t know?” Jeremy asked over the top of Rebecca’s head.
“It’s Becca here.” Eric hooked a thumb her direction as he stretched his legs. “She acts all nice and innocent and then BAM, and you never know what hit you.”
“Bam?” she asked, nodding skeptically. She leaned over to Jeremy and put her hand in front of her mouth to stage whisper. “Has he been having these fits long? Maybe he should see a psychiatrist or something.”
“Church.” Eric nodded. “I need church.”
“Church?” Jeremy asked in horror. “What does church have to do with anything?”
“Well, you’re in luck,” Rebecca said without acknowledging Jeremy’s question. “I’ve decided I need to do some research, and I need an assistant.”
“Research?” It was the first time she had ever heard Eric sound so panicked. “What kind of research?”
“Sunday morning.” She pulled her notebook out. “I’ve mapped it all out. I’m going to hit a Baptist church at 8; a Lutheran church at 9:15; a Methodist at 11:00; and a Catholic church at 12:15.”
“And for what purpose would these plans be?” He sounded like a professor.
“Interviews. I’m going to draw up a questionnaire. Why do you go to church? What’re the benefits? That kind of thing. Then I’m going to give it out to several people at each one.”
“And you think they’re going to answer this questionnaire?” Jeremy asked, clearly not convinced.
“Oh, I’m not just going to do the paper ones. I’m going to shag some one-on-one interviews too just in case,” Rebecca said. “So it’ll work out perfect.”
“What will work out perfect?” Eric asked as if the answer might bite him.
“You coming along of course.” She knew she was driving on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic, but for no reason she could explain, she also knew he was attracted to the idea. Besides, she didn’t want to go alone.
“Me? Why am I going?”
“Because I don’t want to go by myself and because you offered.”
“I offered? When did I offer?”
“You said you needed church, didn’t you?”
The look on his face said he knew he was trapped. His gaze crossed her to Jeremy.
“Don’t look at me,” Jeremy said, holding up his hands. “I didn’t say anything.”
Rebecca looked over at Eric. “So, what time do you want me to pick you up?”
“So are you really going to go to church?” Jeremy asked Eric on Wednesday afternoon as they walked to the Student Union Building.
Eric shrugged. “It doesn’t sound so awful.”
“Church?” Jeremy shivered. “There’s nothing there but old people and sermons.” His gaze fell on Eric and held. “Are you sure there’s nothing going on with you and Rebecca?”
“Me and Rebecca?” Eric said, fighting to get yuck into his tone. “We’re friends. She needs help on her Psychology paper. I’m helping her. That’s what friends do.”
“Oh, yeah? What about Holly?”
Holly. He hadn’t thought of her for at least 24 hours. He tried to remember the last time he had thought about her. “She’s been busy. Besides, we’re going out on Friday.”
“Oh, yeah? Where?” There was a challenge in the question.
Eric’s brain wasn’t working all that swiftly, and seeing Rebecca sitting at her usual table when they walked in sent it scattering in directions he had never been before. All he could see was her back, stretching the light blue T-shirt across it, and hunched over her books. But he knew it was her, and his heart took a leap for joy anyway. “Avalon, I guess. We haven’t really decided.” He wasn’t even listening to his own voice anymore. He laid a finger to his lips to hush Jeremy. In four more steps he was behind Rebecca. He laid his books quietly on the table behind her, and when he turned back to her, he reached out and put his hands over her eyes. “Guess who.”
She let out a quiet but audible gasp. Then he felt her relax in his arms. He wished for that split-second that they weren’t in the middle of the Student Union Building with half-a-hundred people swarming around.
“Carson,” she said.
“No, not Carson.” His smile rained into his voice.
“Devon?” he asked, his confidence swerving. “Who’s Devon?”
“Alex. Thomas. Leo.”
“You’re going to give me a complex, you know that?” He let her eyes go, and she leaned back against him so she could look up at him. In her eyes was only joy.
“Eric!” She acted surprised although he could see in her face that she wasn’t. In the next heartbeat, she arched her arms over her head and around his neck.
His hands suddenly didn’t know what to do with themselves, but as quickly as the hug happened, it was gone.
“Pull up a seat.” She reached over and pushed the stool closest to her out. They did as instructed. “Just the people I wanted to see. Here’s a questionnaire for you, and here’s one for you.” She laid the papers in front of them with two thumps.
“Oh, I don’t…” Jeremy started, but she didn’t give him a chance to finish that thought.
“And here’s some for you to hand out.” She set a stack in front of Jeremy. “And some for you.” Another stack landed in front of Eric.
He picked them up. “You’re serious about this.”
“I have to be. A C in Psychology will not fly with my parents. Gotta bring it up to at least a B.”
“We’ve got two more tests,” Jeremy said uncertainly.
“He’s so cute,” she said. “Isn’t he cute, Eric?”
“I plead the Fifth.” Eric laid the papers on the table. “You’re really putting a lot of work into this.”
“No choice.” She wrote something in her notebook. “Now, how do these questions sound for Sunday?” In rapid fire she read off her five face-to-face interview questions.
“I’m asking people these questions?” Eric asked, the fear streaming through his voice.
“No, you can hand out the questionnaires.” She checked something else in her notebook, then looked at her watch. “Oops. Gotta go. Handing out questionnaires in ballroom dancing.”
“You ought to find lots of church-people there,” Jeremy said with disdain dripping from the statement.
She stood and grabbed her things. “That’s what I’m hoping. Catch your acts down the road.”
With that, she breezed out. Eric watched her, sensing a confidence that hadn’t been there before. He looked back across the table where Jeremy was reading through the questions.
“I’m thinking, ‘No.’” Crumpling the first paper she had given him into a ball, Jeremy reached over and pitched it in the trash. “You know, it’s good thing you don’t have a thing for her because if you ask me, she’s a little weird.”
“Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”
“Ballroom dancing? Church? And what’s up with that hair?”
As much as he wanted to fit in with Jeremy, Eric simply couldn’t bring himself to trample her. “Oh, I don’t know. She can be kind of cool sometimes.”
“Cool? Rebecca? Um, no. She’s about as un-cool as they come.” Jeremy’s attention swung away from the subject. “So, are we eating or what?”
If he didn’t make the call soon, Eric knew Holly would think he had forgotten about her. So, late Thursday evening as he sat in his empty apartment, he forced himself to pick up the phone. It was a given she was already booked for Friday, but since he had told Jeremy they were going out, he at least had to try. Their phone rang once, twice, and then it clicked.
He knew that voice, and he smiled. “Hey, Becca. What’s up?”
“Canceling? No. I’ll be spruced up and ready to go Sunday morning 7:15 just like I promised.” He knew he should ask, but he couldn’t. “So, you been hustling any guys out of money lately?”
“For the last time, I did not hustle you out of anything!”
“So you say, but I was there,” he said, dropping his voice mysteriously. He laughed. Then, his spirit fell because nothing in him wanted to make the next request. “Umm, hey, is Holly around?”
He heard the pause, and when she started talking again, the lilt in her voice was gone. “No, but I think she’ll be back sometime.”
“Yeah. I figured she’d be out.”
“She is. Out.”
There was strain in her voice that he didn’t remember hearing there before. Despite the fact that it made no sense, he didn’t want there to be tension between them. Awkward didn’t feel normal. “So, how’s the paper going?” It was the only topic he could think of that didn’t involve something she didn’t want to talk about.
“Well, other than the fact that I’ve handed out 30 questionnaires and have only gotten one back…”
“Well, at least you got one.”
“It was the one I filled out.”
She sounded both depressed and frustrated, which he could understand.
“You know, if you meet me at the Student U tomorrow, you could have two.” He smiled at his own joke, hoping she would smile too.
“You only got one back, too?” She exhaled. “I’m doomed.”
“No. I handed them out. They just couldn’t get to them right away. I should get them back tomorrow.” It wasn’t the truth. Besides the one Jeremy had crumpled and pitched, he hadn’t given any out. However, if grace smiled on him, there were at least five he could finagle before he saw her for lunch the next day.
“But they’re going to fill them out?”
“Yeah. They will.”
“Well, I guess that’s something.”
“I could meet you in the Student U for lunch if you want.”
He heard the sigh.
“Sure. That’ll work.” In the background there was noise, then a pause. “Oh, Holly just walked in, hang on.”
Dread jumped into his chest, and he sat forward in the chair. In seconds the transfer was made.
“This is Holly.”
“Oh, hi. Umm, this is Eric. How are you?” He tried to stay calm, but nerves attacked him. In the blink of an eye he had gone from friendly to concern-confused-awkward.
He heard the guardedness in her voice. He fought to swallow or to breathe, neither of which was working. “Oh, good. Umm, listen, some of us were going out tomorrow night to Avalon. I was wondering if maybe… you might want to come.”
“Tomorrow night?” A pause that lasted longer than it seemed necessary ensued. “Yeah… I guess I could make it.” It wasn’t the ringing acceptance he had hoped to get.
“If you don’t want to or if you have other plans, I understand.”
“No. Umm, what time were you thinking?”
They got the details hammered out, but once the asking and the accepting were finished, he couldn’t think of anything else to talk about. In fact, what he really wanted to do was to ask her to put Becca back on. But then, that was ridiculous. He hadn’t called to talk to Becca. That was just a nice side benefit. Besides he would talk to her tomorrow. At that thought a smile slid through his heart.
“Is there anything else?” Holly asked.
“Oh, no. That’s it. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow night.” When he hung up, Eric sat back in the chair, and although he should’ve been thinking about the date, all his mind wanted to concentrate on was the fact that he would get to see Rebecca for lunch. With the thought of why, he picked up the phone and dialed the first number. “Ryan, hey. Can you and Desi meet me when you get to campus in the morning? I have something I need some help with.”
Sitting in the Student Union, Rebecca couldn’t help feeling the excitement in her stomach. She hoped he had gotten more questionnaires, but that was only a small part of the reason she could hardly sit still. Taking a small sip of water, she looked back to the door just as he and Jeremy stepped in. The smile was on her face before she knew it was in her heart.
“Slumming again, I see,” she said as they walked up.
Eric sat down next to her. “We couldn’t stay away.”
She tamped the papers she was working on together. “So, did you bring me anything?”
“You asked for it, you got it.” He laid a small stack of papers in front of her. In one swipe she grabbed them and scanned through them. Six. He’d come through just like he’d promised.
“Oh, Eric! You’re the best.” She leaned over and put her arms over his neck. “I thought I was sunk.” Although she didn’t want to leave the peaceful security of his arms, she had to pull herself back. “What did you have to do to get these?”
“Hog tie people and threaten them with electrocution,” Jeremy said, adding a smile she couldn’t quite read.
Eric shrugged. “No biggie.”
Jeremy sighed. “I guess I’ll go order. Same ol’, same ol’?”
“Actually, you know what? Get me water,” Eric said.
There was an annoyance on Jeremy’s face. “Whatever.” He stood and went to the counter.
“Don’t worry.” Eric leaned closer to her. “He’s still fighting the effects of the mono.”
“Did he really have mono?”
Eric shrugged. “Mono, flu, cold, Asian pneumonia. Something like that.”
Rebecca regarded him and then shook her head.
“You. You’re insane.”
“Yes, but we have a plan to fix that, remember?”
Concern traced through her although he wasn’t trying to make her feel guilty. “Yeah. About that… if you don’t want to…”
“Hey, I said I’d help, and I’ll help. Besides, I figure if I help you, you’ll owe me one.”
“Uh-oh,” she said as Jeremy walked up and put the food on the table.
“Uh-oh, what?” Jeremy asked.
“I think I’m going to get to be the human experiment for Eric’s psychology paper.”
Jeremy raised his eyebrows. “Now that would be frightening.”
Rebecca couldn’t decide if he meant Eric’s part or hers. She turned her attention back to Eric. “What’s your paper on anyway?”
“I was thinking about doing it on the psychological challenges of teaching the deaf.”
She felt Jeremy’s skepticism, so she angled her body so that he wasn’t part of the conversation. “Oh? What areas were you going to concentrate on?”
“The barriers to their learning, like language and fear of being different. I’d also thought about doing the advantages of mainstreaming as opposed to specialized schools and special ed classes.” Eric glanced past her to Jeremy, and his side of the conversation stopped.
“So have you found stuff for either one of those?”
“Yeah, some. I went to the library yesterday, and I’ve been surfing the ‘net. Mr. Templeton even said he’s got some info in some books of his that I can use.”
Her gaze softened. “You’re so lucky.”
“You work with the professor. Hello, can you say ‘easy A’?”
“Templeton isn’t like that.” Eric took a long drink of water.
“Well, it has to factor in. It’s better than being a borderline B-student he couldn’t point out in a line-up.”
“She’s got a point,” Jeremy said.
That comment annoyed her. It was as if he was emphasizing how insignificant she was. She looked at her watch. “Well, I’ve gotta jet.” She stood and swung her backpack to her shoulder. “See you Sunday?”
“Count on it.”
She smiled. “I am.”
For a full minute after she left, neither of them said a word.
“So you’re really going to do the church thing?” Jeremy finally asked.
“Yeah, I really am. Why?”
Jeremy’s gaze drilled into Eric. “I’ve known you for five years now. And in all that time you’ve never once gone to church.”
“Well, I never had a reason to before.”
“And you do now?” The answer to that question never came. “What about Saturday night?”
“What about it?”
“Partying all night Saturday and up to go to church Sunday? You’ll never make it. Besides, what does Holly think about you spending so much time with her roommate?”
Eric hadn’t really thought about that. “We’re just going out. She doesn’t own me.”
“I’m beginning to think you don’t own you.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing. Just forget it.”
But the conversation played and replayed in Eric’s brain the rest of the night.
The questions were still on-loop in Eric’s brain when he made it to Holly’s dorm the next evening. He dialed the phone and waited.
Even Rebecca’s voice had a way of making him smile. “What? You’re not out hustling poor unsuspecting guys out of their lunch money?”
“No, I’m studying for my Psychology test.”
“Not procrastinating again? You better be careful. This could get to be a habit.”
She laughed softly. “Don’t tell anybody. You’ll ruin my reputation.”
“Ah-ha. I finally have some dirt on Rebecca Avery.”
“I will deny it to the grave.”
“Your word against mine,” he said and laughed.
“So, is there a point to this phone call, or are you just randomly calling people and harassing them?”
“Oh.” His smile fell. “Umm, I’m supposed to pick Holly up. Is she ready?”
“Holly?” The name sounded longer than it really was. “You were going out tonight?”
“This is Saturday.”
“Yeah, well. I haven’t seen her, and I’ve been here since six. Hang on. I’ll call her and see what’s up.”
He felt like a hamster on a wheel. “Do you mind?”
“What else do I have to do, right?”
“Okay. You know where to find me.” Eric hung up the phone and kicked away from the beige wall. How many times could you get stood up before it became clear that it wasn’t a one-time misunderstanding? Not really knowing what to do, he walked over to the main staircase and slid one foot up onto the bottom step. His hand slipped up and down the cold, sleek handrail. If it was true she wasn’t coming, he wondered what his reaction would be. Hurt? Anger? Or would he feel anything other than just stupid?
After a million seconds of berating himself, his attention snagged on Rebecca coming down the stairs, and he straightened. “She forgot again.”
“No. Apparently she’s at Avalon waiting for you.” Rebecca trudged down the last four steps to him. She crossed her arms in front of her where her faded yellow T-shirt curved under her chest.
“She went without me?”
“She said she thought you were meeting her there.”
Eric sighed, wondering if he was really so scatter-brained that he could’ve forgotten such an important detail. Playing how-do-we-get-together tag was getting old. When he looked at the petite figure and face in front of him, his heart snagged. “So, what’re you doing tonight?”
Rebecca reached up and scratched the back of her head just under the upside-down ponytail that stuck out in all directions. “Studying.”
He smiled softly. “Do you study all the time?”
“Yeah, but you’d never know it by my grades.” There was sadness in her voice that pulled on his heartstrings.
“What you need is a break. Why don’t you come with me?”
Her eyebrows arched for the ceiling. “Tonight?”
“Sure. You can keep me company on the drive.”
From all he could tell, she never even considered the offer. Her gaze slid down to the ground, and she suddenly looked very uncomfortable. “I’d better not.”
She looked at him with her head half-tilted. “Oh, you know. I don’t want to be in the way.”
“In the way?” he asked, but then he realized what he was asking, and he understood why she had said no. His heart softened. “You wouldn’t be in the way.”
Her smile looked more like a grimace. “I’ve got stuff to do. I’d better let you go, or Holly will be wondering where you are.”
“Holly.” The name escaped from his chest. He had never been so totally unexcited about anything in his life.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” Rebecca said already climbing the steps. “Don’t forget.”
“I won’t.” As he watched her climb to the top and then disappear around the corner, forgetting about tomorrow was nowhere to be seen. Long after she was gone, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Becca. I really am.” He sighed and turned for the door. With every piece of his heart he wanted to forget about Avalon and Holly and even his friends. He wanted to climb those stairs and stay her with her. Anything so that he wouldn’t have to be alone. As he pushed out the door, it occurred to him how alone he really felt at that moment.
That was strange because he was headed to be with his friends and a date. However, when he looked into his heart, only emptiness stared back at him. Fighting to make himself believe he was just over-stating the case, he climbed into his car and backed out. Some loud music, a few drinks, and Holly by his side would surely disperse lonely. It had to. He saw no other way of making it go away.
Rebecca watched him exit the building and glide under the black trees. She pushed away from the window and walked over to the mirror. Of course he would never love her. How could he? She was hideous. The dark, square glasses, the hair sticking out in all directions, the clothes that looked like she bought them at a flea market. What did she expect? He was going to be with Holly, the girl of every guy’s dreams. The tears slid down her cheeks unbidden, and she swiped them back.
Stuffing all those thoughts down and slamming the lid on them, she turned back for her desk. Another night alone with a stack of books. Like it or not, this was as great as life got for losers like her.
Walking into Avalon, Eric couldn’t help but think one of his wishes had come true. The music was loud—ear splitting in fact. He paid at the door and walked through the archway into the main dancehall. People were everywhere. The fact that it was dark save for the multi-colored lights bouncing on and off the walls did nothing to ease his fear that he wouldn’t find his friends much less Holly.
Slowly ambling through the crowd, his gaze searched for any face he knew. His hand felt empty, and he wished again that Rebecca would’ve come. His fingers wrapped around the pinkie ring on his other hand, and he twisted it. On the dance floor, what seemed like half a thousand couples crammed together so every inch of space was precious. If they were dancing, he would never find them.
The first trip around the bar yielded no hint of anyone he knew. Halfway around the second time, he gave up and stepped over to a barstool.
“What do you want, sugar?” a well-endowed lady bartender asked.
“Umm, a Coors Light,” he said, not really hearing his own answer. When the drink was delivered, he paid for it and stood. This scene had never held the fascination for him it seemed to for everyone else. All the girls turned him down when he asked them to dance, and the ones that approached him were scary. Twice he had been offered more than just a ride home, and so except for these friends’ night out ventures, he stayed away if possible.
“Well, look who made it,” Zoë said as she and Ransom exited the dance floor.
“Hey, hey, you made it.” Ransom held out his hand, which Eric shook. “Where’s your date? I thought Jeremy said you were bringing somebody.”
“Oh, there was a mix-up,” Eric said as he followed them across the dark carpet. “She’s supposed to be here somewhere. I just haven’t caught up with her yet.”
“Good luck with that. The place is packed,” Ransom said.
With Eric in-tow, they squeezed their way over to a tall table where Jeremy and Gwen were perched.
“Eric!” Jeremy said, holding up his hand. “What’s up, man?”
Eric hit his hand and tried to look cool halfway leaning up against the table. “You haven’t seen Holly, have you?”
Jeremy’s smile fell. “Holly? Isn’t she with you?”
“We’re meeting here. I just can’t seem to find her.”
“Leggy, blonde, with nice curves,” Jeremy said, admiring the three girls who fit just that description as they walked by in tight, short skirts. “No problem there.”
Gwen reached over and hit him.
Eric surveyed the scene in front of them. “So, you haven’t seen her then?”
“Nope. ‘fraid not, buddy.” Jeremy took a drink. “Come on, babe. Let’s dance.”
They left. Ransom and Zoë took their chairs.
“You guys staying here for awhile?” Eric asked. Ransom nodded. “Then I’m going to walk around a little. See if I can find her.”
It took two more trips around the place before Eric finally spotted her on the dance floor. Her wrists were around the neck of a guy who looked to be about 30, and she looked like she had never so much as heard the name Eric in her life. Annoyance and resentment poured through him. He pulled up a stool at the bar, drained the last of his drink, and ordered another one. If she was waiting for him, she certainly was making the most of the time. When that song ended, he watched them walk off the floor around to a table where they sat down. Holly laughed at something 30-guy said and laid her chin in her hand as if was he only guy in the whole place.
Eric’s second drink arrived, and he picked it up and took a long swallow. His options slid through his brain, and he didn’t like any of them. Finally in annoyance he stood and made his way back to his friends’ table. He certainly didn’t want to be the cause of breaking up what was so obviously a match for the ages.
“Hey, Eric. Back so soon?” Ransom asked.
“Yeah, something like that.” He sat down on a stool and didn’t even try to hide his frustration.
Zoë looked at him with sympathy. “Didn’t you find… what was her name?”
“Holly,” Eric supplied. “Yeah I found her.” He took another drink.
Ransom’s gaze went to Zoë. “Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good.”
“Tell me something,” Eric said as if he was doing research, “what does it mean when a girl does this to a guy?” He put his chin in his hand and laughed at something nobody said.
One look at Ransom’s pained expression told him he was right.
“Maybe you misread it,” Zoë said, reaching for helpful. “Maybe she was just killing time waiting for you.”
“Yeah, and Elvis is coming to sing tonight.” He stood and held up his beer. “You want something?”
“You know, Eric,” Ransom said slowly. “Maybe you ought to go slow with that stuff. The night is young.”
“Yeah, so I’ve heard. I’ll be back.” He walked over to the bar and ordered another one. From across the way, he watched them, and he remembered again what stupid felt like. When he could watch no longer, he went back to the friends’ table. The others were out dancing again, so he sat down by himself. For the second time that night, he knew without question what alone felt like.
At midnight, Rebecca gave up trying to distract herself. They were probably having a fantastic time—dancing and talking and laughing. She hated that thought, the one featuring the two of them together. She got into bed, clicked out the light, set her alarm clock, and wondered what time Holly would make it back. It didn’t matter really. Every minute she wasn’t here, she had the pleasure of being with him. That thought was enough to make Rebecca’s head pound. How she would ever get through tomorrow with him all happy about tonight, she had no idea.
Nonetheless, she resolved that after tomorrow, she would distance herself from him however she had to. The simple fact was, she couldn’t take having her heart ripped out and stomped on over and over again.
“Hey, look who we found,” Jeremy said, marching up to the table with Holly’s arm in his fist.
She looked like she’s rather be eaten by tigers than approach that table. “Oh, Eric, hi.” On slightly unsteady legs, she walked over to him. “I looked for you for an hour. When did you get here?”
He barely glanced at her. “Couple hours ago. You having fun?”
“Oh, you know. Hanging out.” A cumbersome pause filled the air between them. Holly’s gaze darted around the table to the faces of his friends. “So, you want to dance?”
“Sure. Why not?” His senses were dulled to the point of being non-existent. Part of him was glad for that, otherwise he might have actually told her off.
They got to the dance floor, and she put her wrists around his neck. His brain replayed the memory of her dancing just like this a few hours ago, but he fought that off. He jerked his head back to look at her. “I thought we were supposed to go out.”
“We are out,” she said, glancing around.
“Well, plans kind of changed. I’m sorry. Are you mad?”
“Mad?” he scoffed. “No. Why would I be mad? I ask you out, you stand me up. It’s getting to be a pattern here.”
“I didn’t stand you up. I came just like we said.”
He still didn’t remember that part. “Oh, yeah? And who was ugly over there?” The alcohol was starting to thin out his nerves.
Her gaze slid to where he indicated. “Gus? He’s just a friend.”
“A friend, huh? Looked like more than that to me.”
Horror scratched over her face. “You saw us?”
“You’d be pretty hard to miss. Out here, shaking your groove-thing together.”
“Oh, Eric. I’m sorry. We weren’t together… together. He just asked me to dance, and we were hanging out.”
“Waiting for me,” he said.
“Yeah, waiting for you.” Her eyes pleaded with him to believe her.
“And next week? Will you still be waiting for me with Gus?” Fury started edging out his other emotions. “And what about the week after that? Or am I just some doll you put on the shelf and take down when you want to play?”
“No. It’s not like that. I really like you.”
“Wow. What a coincidence. I really liked you, too.”
“Come on, Eric. Don’t give up on me because I danced with someone else.”
“Oh, believe me. That’s only part of the reason.” He pulled her hands from his neck and put them down by her sides. “It was nice knowing you, Holly.” Without another glance, he turned around and left her standing in the middle of the dance floor.