A Work in Progress, Ch. 17 & 18

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2005

Chapter 17

Rebecca had said those words to herself so many times by the next afternoon at 3:05, they were on-loop in her heart. She wanted to argue. She’d even tried, but the truth was there was no argument to be made. She hadn’t been honest with herself or with him. She’d let fear take over. The only question was if she would give in to that fear the next time she saw him.

Berating herself for being grateful he wasn’t at the testing center when she got there for her psychology test, Rebecca sat down at the monitor in the back corner. Her spirit said with God with her she could handle anything. Her heart, however, was much less sure. In any case, it was good to know she wouldn’t have to find out today.

***

The 3 o’clock drink run had taken far longer than it usually did, and by the time Eric made it back to work, he was five minutes later than normal. Quietly he popped the door open and started across the computer room. Five steps down the near walkway, however, his spirit grabbed onto the image sitting in the corner. Yellow T-shirt, porcupine hair, harsh glasses frames.

In one motion he closed his eyes, turned on his heel, and went around the other bank of computers to Templeton’s office. “Sorry. The line was murder.” He set the professor’s drink on the desk. “I’ll stay late if you need me to.”

“For getting me a drink?” Mr. Templeton asked with a laugh. “That’ll be thirty lashes with the good whip.”

Eric slid into the chair across from the desk. “Well, if you want me to stay late, I can. I don’t have anything else going.”

Mr. Templeton took a drink. “What? No hot date?”

The question dragged Eric’s gaze out of the wall of glass to the corner of the room beyond. “With my psych book maybe.”

“Oh, hey, saying psych, I was going to tell you, I was really impressed with your paper.”

His attention returned to Mr. Templeton with a crash. “My…? Really?”

“The whole mainstreaming thing is such a hot topic right now. How did you come up with that?”

Again Eric’s gaze flitted out to the porcupine hair, even as he tried to hold it back. “A friend of mine suggested it.” He tried to think of some brilliant insight to follow the statement up with, but nothing was coming. “So you got anything you need me to do?”

“No. It looks like everything is humming along pretty smoothly. If you just want to go sit out there in case something pops up, that’s great.”

Eric stood.

“It’ll be good studying time,” Mr. Templeton added.

Eric picked his chin up and smiled in recognition of the hint. With that he walked out. As he crossed the room, his attention caught on her and held. She obviously hadn’t seen him. For that, he was grateful. Now if he could just find a way to be conveniently gone when she finished, that would be even better. He took his seat at the desk at the front of the room and pulled his psychology book out of his backpack.

Good intentions being what they were these days, he hadn’t made it in to take the test yesterday. He’d considered taking it today, but because of lack of studying and the fact that he might have to make a quick get away, today wasn’t looking very good either. With a sigh, he bent his head over the book and willed his attention to stay there.

***

Rebecca had seen him the second he stepped in the door, and for the last ten minutes her spirit had done nothing other than follow him around the room—first to Templeton’s office and now to the front desk.  He hadn’t seen her, which was a good thing—all the way until she thought about how she was going to get out the door five feet from the desk where he now sat.

Realizing her test-taking time was sliding away, she tried to get her attention back to the screen.  However, what it really wanted to do was study him and see if he was still the sweet, awesome guy she had grown to know.

“Stop it, Rebecca,” she whispered, anchoring her gaze to the screen. Her heart and her attention were in a pitched battle for control, and with neither one winning, In fact, Rebecca was losing on all fronts. Her heart was asking: What should I say to him? Should I try to talk to him? What if he sees me? What if he doesn’t? While her attention was berating her for being worried about him at all when it was clear she was going to flunk this test if she didn’t get herself over him and onto something far more important.

Just as the battle reached soul-tearing proportions, her mind struck on a thought. “God, I can’t do this. I can’t. I’m going to flunk here. I need to do well on this test, but I don’t want to mess up this chance if I have one with Eric either. Please help.” Then she remembered the night before, and she sat up straighter. “No, don’t just help. Do it through me. Take the test. Talk to Eric. I can’t do it, but You can.” She took a long breath. “I put it all in Your hands.”

She closed her eyes and said the prayer one more time. “I put it all in Your hands.  Do this through me.”  When she opened her eyes, her spirit felt much calmer and far more focused. “One thing at a time,” she whispered. She read the next question and nodded as she marked the answer.

What happened with Eric was in God’s hands, and she chose to leave it there. When it was time, God would show her what needed to be done. Until then, this was her present assignment.

***

The longer the seconds ticked by, the more turmoil Eric was in. He glanced at the clock again. 3:55.  In five minutes he would be free to go. His mind traced through the possibilities—none of which he particularly liked. If she finished before four, she would have to walk out through the door a glance away. Maybe he could pretend to be reading. Then again maybe he should try to talk to her. But she might still be mad. That was a real possibility.  Maybe four o’clock would get here before she finished and he could escape without so much as a word to her. Then again, if he did that, this might be his only chance to talk to her. He’d been waiting for the chance for two days. Now it was here, and he was going to run? What sense did that make?

At that moment she stood in the back just as Lance, the next shift, arrived at the door. Eric jumped up, knocking the trashcan at his feet over with a clatter. Several students who were taking tests stopped to glare at him.

“Sorry,” he mouthed as he bent to retrieve the metal container.

“Hey, Eric,” Lance said. “How’s everything?”

“Pretty quiet,” Eric said, monitoring her movement even as he started loading his books into his backpack at break-neck speed. “The printer’s almost out of paper, but I just put new ink in it, so you don’t have to worry about that.”

Lance nodded.

“Umm, that’s about it. I guess.”

Without looking at him, Rebecca glided to the door. Her books were pressed against her chest, and that gesture knifed into Eric. She pushed the door open and walked out. All the air in the room seemed to follow her out.

“Templeton’s in his office,” Eric continued, wishing he could breathe or think—neither of which was working at the moment. Even though his mouth was working, he really wasn’t paying attention to it. His brain was too busy wondering if he should go after her or just let her go. “You need anything else?”

“Can’t think of anything.”

Eric retrieved his notebook from the desk and stowed it in his backpack. “I guess I’ll take off then.”

“Cool deal.” Lance sat down at the desk, and Eric heaved a sigh as he slid the backpack from the desk.

She was long gone. There was no way he could catch her. He’d missed his chance.  He glanced at the clock and smiled at the irony. He had indeed put in his extra five minutes. Kicking his feet forward more than walking, he stalked to the door and pushed out.  Two steps into the hallway and just as the door closed behind him with a snap, he pulled up short.  There, with one knee jutting out from the foot tucked behind her on the wall stood Rebecca, leaning against the beige wall. It was clear by her face that she was as uncertain about what came next as he was.

With a breath to calm himself, he started toward her, and his steps carried him right up to where he was standing only ten inches from her. He gazed at her, trying to figure out why she had stayed when the opportunity to run was so accessible. “Hey.”

“Hi.” Her gaze fell to the floor at their feet.

He glanced back at the computer room. “How’d the test go?”

“I got an 83.”

“83. Wow. That’s good.”

She nodded but didn’t say anything.

He glanced back again. “Are you waiting for someone?”

Her head bobbed from her shoulders although her gaze didn’t come up for a long moment. “A friend of mine.” When she looked up, her gaze grabbed his, and he could see how much courage the statement had taken to make.

Smiling from the center of his heart, he gazed at her. “Anybody I know?”

The courage in her eyes scattered, and as her arms tightened the books at her chest, she glanced away from him. “I’m really sorry… about everything. You didn’t deserve to be treated like that. I acted like an idiot.”

“Hey, you don’t have to apologize. I wasn’t exactly the model of chivalry either.”

“You were trying to help.”

“Fat lot of good that did me.”

“But you were trying. I was just… running.”

The word pulled him to her. He had never seen anyone look more scared of just talking in his life. “Running? Why?”

She didn’t move for seconds on end, and each one made him more concerned. “Be honest,” she whispered, and just before he had the chance to ask what that meant, she snagged him in her gaze again. “I don’t fit in. I never have.”

He considered protesting, but she didn’t give him the chance.

“When I was with you and Jeremy, it was nice to think that maybe, finally, I’d found some friends who didn’t mind me being around.” She took a breath, and her gaze fell to the side. “I’ve wanted that for so long, I never really questioned if you were hanging out with me, or if I was hanging on to you.”

“But…”

“No. Let me finish.”

He stopped although his worry and concern didn’t.

She exhaled which sounded somewhere between sigh and a hollow laugh. “I know I’m not as beautiful or as popular as Holly or your other girlfriends. I know your friends think I’m weird, and you probably do too. I know I’ve probably messed up every chance I had of even being your friend, but even so, I wanted to say thank you. Thank you for hanging out with me and for helping me with my paper. Thank you for being my friend even when you didn’t want to be. Thank you for putting up with me even when you could’ve been with your cool friends. It really meant a lot to me.”

He heard the tears in her voice, and before he thought better of it, his arms reached out and pulled her into him.  “Hey.” The top of her head hit his chest, but she never un-clutched her books from her chest even as her foot slid down the wall to the floor. She stood there letting him hug her without ever grabbing on. That was all right, she’d done enough.

“Hey,” he finally said, letting her go so he could try to look at her. “Come on.”

Her gaze traveled up to his, and his heart panged at the vulnerability there. “You don’t have to apologize. We didn’t hang out with you because you were some kind of charity case. We hung out with you because you’re you. No, you’re not Holly.”

Sadness clamped over her gaze just before it fell. However, this time he wasn’t letting her get away. Gently he lifted her chin with his finger. “And I’m glad you’re not. Don’t apologize for that. I like friends who actually remember I’m part of the friendship.”

A grateful but sad smile traced across Rebecca’s face.

“Do you hear what I’m saying? I like Rebecca.  I like her just the way she is. I like hanging out with her. I like being around her. In fact, she’s pretty cool in my books.”

“But Jeremy…”

Eric shook his head. “Jeremy is Jeremy. If it doesn’t have money and wear Prada, he thinks it’s somehow sub-human.”

Rebecca let go of one side of her books to rub her eyes. She sniffed. “I didn’t know you wear Prada.”

He laughed out loud. “Well, I’m the exception he couldn’t chase away.”

She wiped her other eye. “He wants me to go away.”

“That’s because he doesn’t know you like I do, and besides, my friends are my decision—not his.”

“But he is your friend, and all the rest of them.”

“There’s always room for one more.”

She seemed to recoil at that suggestion. “I won’t fit in with your friends. I can’t.”

He mashed his face in contempt. “Well, who says you have to? Maybe we’ll just form our own little group, you and me, and they can find somebody else to hassle.”

“But they’re your friends.”

“Not if they can’t be friends with you they’re not.” He paused for a long moment and then tilted his head. “What do you say? Friends again?”

She managed to hold his gaze for a moment, and then hers fell, and she nodded.

“Great. Now, I’m starving. Are you buying or am I?”

He loved the smile she gave him.

“Seems to me I bought last time,” she said.

“Then it’s on me.”

At his side she turned and matched his strides down the hallway.

“Besides,” he said just before they made it to the corner, “I think I owe you one.”

“For what?”

“Templeton said he liked my paper. That was a first.”

“Wow. Did he say anything about mine?”

He laughed at the question. “Yeah, he talks about other student’s papers with me all the time. He said you’re being thrown out of the class for scandalizing the psychology department with all that talk about God.”

“What?” Her near-shriek said she believed him. Then she scrunched her face when she realized he wasn’t serious. Reaching over, she whacked his arm.

Instantly he grabbed for the bruise she’d left. “Ow.”

“Yeah, ow. That was mean.”

“Hello! I was teasing.” He emphasized the last word. “Remember teasing? Jeez. Did you forget I have a sense of humor?”

“I’ll sense of humor you.” She whacked him again for good measure.

“Hey, now. Remind me again why I wanted to be around you.”

“Watch it, or I’ll remind you all right.” With one hand raised, she dared him with her gaze to give her a reason to hit him again.

He threw both hands in the air. “I give. I give. Don’t hit me.” Then he looked at her, and seriousness dropped away from them. He laughed first, and she joined him. It felt good to see her happy. He hadn’t seen that in days.

***

Laughing. Rebecca couldn’t remember the last time she had done that. Tears and frustration had consumed her life for the better part of two weeks, and it felt really good to laugh again. They walked together to the Student Union, ordered food, which he paid for over her objection, and sat down. It wasn’t their usual table, but this one was a bit more out of the way. That was fine with Rebecca. She didn’t need anyone else to see them. This was about them being together, not about showing off their friendship.

“Okay, I know you’ve been studying because you got an 83 on the test,” Eric started as he unwrapped his turkey on rye sandwich.

Without thinking, Rebecca spewed the water in her mouth back onto her plate. It took a couple seconds to pull herself together enough to look at him. When she did, all she saw was concern and confusion.

“What?” he asked.

“Nothing.” She laughed as she wiped her mouth. “I just I wish I could take credit for it that’s all.”

Seriousness dropped over his face. “You cheated?”

“No, I didn’t cheat. It’s just… Well…” She tried to find a way to explain it that wouldn’t brand her weird in his book forever even as she continued to wipe her mouth.

He smiled in interest and confusion. “It’s just what?”

Back together again, she took a bite, chewed it, put her hand to her mouth to indicate she would tell him when she finished chewing. Finally she swallowed and took a drink. “It’s just… I met some friends while I was researching my paper. And, well… they are showing me how not to rely on myself so much.” She ran her thumb over her sandwich but didn’t pick it up. After several moments, she glanced up at him. “You’re going to think it’s weird.”

“Hey, weird is relative with us. Try me.”

On one sigh, she dove into the story. “They think the Holy Spirit is like real, like really living inside us, and if we ask Him, He’ll do things through us that we couldn’t do on our own.”

“Like taking tests.”

“No, well, yeah. Well, kind of.  It’s like… I studied, right? But today when I was taking the test, I sort of freaked out. I just knew I was going to fail, and then I’d flunk out of school, and Mom and Dad would be mad. The whole test was like spiraling out of control. Then I remembered what they said about Him doing it through me, and so I said a little prayer about giving the test to Him, and He kind of calmed me down and helped me to think straight again.” She could tell Eric was having trouble following. “I know it sounds kind of hocus pocus or something, but it really works.”

“And these friends of yours. They just appeared out of nowhere?”

“No. They have a Bible Study group. I went to do research for my paper at first, but I really like it. We talked about trusting God and listening to Him last night.” Something in her said she should stop, she shouldn’t tell him everything. But even as that thought went through her head another one slid over it. Be honest. It had worked before, and she wasn’t about to turn back now. Her gaze was down. Just because she was being honest, that didn’t mean she could look at him. “That’s why I stayed today. After the test.”

His whole attention was plastered to her, meal forgotten. “Why?”

“Because God told me to.” Sheepishness surrounded the statement, and she didn’t dare look at him.

“Because God told you to?” Skeptical would’ve been a step up from his tone.

“Kind of.” She scratched the side of her neck at her hairline. He was definitely going to think she’d lost it this time. “I was walking away as fast as I could, but I just couldn’t leave. He kept whispering to me I was going to regret it if I left.” Gathering her courage, she glanced up at him. “I’m glad I listened.”

His smile had a way of starting at his mouth and traveling to his eyes that just stopped her heart. “I’m glad too.”  He took a drink of water. “So tell me more about these friends of yours. Are they from one of the churches we went to?”

“No, actually they’re just downstairs in my dorm. It’s four girls and two guys. They get together on Wednesdays and talk Holy Spirit. They tell about Holy Spirit moments they’ve had the week before.”

“Holy Spirit moments?”

She’d come this far. Going the rest of the way didn’t seem like much of a stretch. “Yeah, like the fact that you were at the testing center today, and I decided to take my test while you were there even though I didn’t know you would be. Holy Spirit moment. And the fact that I came when you were about to get off work so the timing worked out so we could talk. Another Holy Spirit moment.”

“You’re kind of racking them up there.”

“And when I completely freaked out taking my test and I asked Him for help. I got an 83. There’s another one.”

Unbelievably Eric looked almost… interested. “So this Holy Spirit guy, does He only work for your friends, or can anybody use Him?”

“It’s not about you using Him. It’s about Him using you.” Now she was excited, and stopping the story was no longer an option.

“Huh?”

Although she hadn’t taken even another bite, her food was forgotten as well. She put her arms on the table, elbows to wrist, and folded her hands. “See, it’s like He sets up these… these assignments for you, and then when you get there, you let Him do whatever needs done through you.”

Eric scratched his head. “He’s your boss?”

“No. Well, kind of, I guess. But if He just sent you to do stuff and expected you to do it, you’d think you have to do it on your own, but you don’t have to.”

“Then who does?”

“He does! Through you. But you have to trust Him enough to listen and show up when you’re supposed to.”

Skepticism rained down across his face. “He sends you to do something, and then He does it for you?”

“Through you,” she corrected. “I can’t explain it exactly. I’m really just learning myself, but it sure feels different than anything I’ve ever done in my life.”

After a long minute, he sat back and raked his fingers through his hair. “You’re going to have to introduce me to these friends of yours.” He reached over, grabbed the water, and took a drink as she tried to decide if he was serious or just leading her on.

“Why?”

He set the bottle down. “Because they sound pretty cool, that’s why, and because I’ve got to thank them.”

Confusion slid over her. “For what?”

“For telling you to stay today.” His smile lit his lips and his eyes. “I was afraid you were going to be mad at me forever.”

Her gaze traced to the table. “Forever is a long time.”

“Tell me about it.”

Chapter 18

Holly was out again, which had become the norm. Thankful for having the room to herself, Rebecca hunkered down with her books to study on Saturday evening. Facing two tests on Monday, she knew she didn’t have time to waste on procrastination. Funny how even the word made her smile. She hadn’t seen Eric since Thursday at the Student Union, but that was all right. They were back on good terms, which was more than she could’ve previously imagined.

“Thanks, God,” she whispered in the stillness even as she thought about it. “I never could’ve done it without you.”

The phone at the head of the bed where she sat rang, and she reached over and picked it up. “Hello?”

“Hey!”

A grin spread across her face as happiness poured through her. “Hey, yourself. What’s up?”

“Well, I was wondering if you’ve got plans tonight.”

Her gaze dropped to the mountain of homework at her knees. “Studying.”

“Great. Then I’ll be there to get you in thirty minutes.”

She laughed. “Didn’t you hear me? I said I’m studying.”

“Yeah, I heard you, but studying can wait.”

“No, it can’t. I’ve got two tests on Monday, and I’m just getting started.”

“Procrastinating? Rebecca, I’m shocked.”

“I’m not procrastinating. Procrastinating would be starting to study tomorrow night.”

“Oh. I see,” he said as if she had just given him the wisdom of the world.

She was glad he had called. It was much better than studying. “So, what big plans do you have so you don’t have to study?”

“An engagement party.”

“Engagement?” Concern traced through her at the tone in his voice. “Whose?”

“Jeremy and Gwen. Apparently she said, ‘Yes.’ Yea.” The ‘yea’ sounded like a sarcastic little kid.

“Now. Now.”

“I know. I was just hoping I could get a little moral support here.”

“Oh, now I’m moral support?”

“Would you rather be life support?” He suddenly sounded really depressed.

Rebecca thought about it, questioned why he would ask her, and finally decided she didn’t want to be the stand-in for his real girlfriend, whoever she was. “Eric, I really wish I could.” Her gaze fell back to her books. “But I really do have to study. I’m clinging to a C in Economics by my fingernails.”

He sighed. “Fine then.”

She felt bad for letting him down. “I’m really sorry. Really.”

“So you’re really not going to go with me then?”

“Not tonight. I just can’t.”

“Are you sure?”

She sighed and tapped her pen on her notebook. “Yeah, unfortunately. I really can’t tonight.”

“Well, okay. If you’re sure, you’re sure.”

Hating to, she forced herself to say, “I’m sure.”

He didn’t say anything for a few seconds. “Tell you what. I’ll give you my cell number, and if you change your mind, I’ll come get you.”

“Eric, I’m not going to change my mind.”

“I know, but it’s the principle of the thing. If you have the number, then there’s a chance you’re going to come rescue me.”

“Rescue you? Is it that bad?”

“You never know.” He paused. “You ready?”

“Shoot.”  She wrote the number down on the top of her notebook page even though she knew she would never actually call it. “Got it.”

“Good. Now I’ll be there pretty late so if you finish…”

“Which I won’t.”

“Yeah, but if you do, call me. Okay?”

The thought of him wanting her to call so badly wrapped around her. Maybe he was being serious. “Okay.”

***

Eric really wished Rebecca had said yes. It would’ve made walking into this celebration so much less intimidating. Marriage. It sounded so old. How did he get to the point that people he knew were getting married anyway? When did that happen?  It seemed like yesterday they were all worried about senior finals and where they were going to go to college. Now they were all getting married. Well, except for him of course.  He was still content to be young, to not rush anything like declaring a major, finding the one, deciding on forever. As long as the future stayed out there, it didn’t seem nearly as frightening. However, his friends seemed intent on dragging him into adulthood with them.

He knocked on Ryan’s door and exhaled in the waiting. When Desiree opened the door, he plastered the biggest happy face he’d ever managed to conjure up on his face. “Where are the newlyweds?”

Gwen stood from Jeremy’s lap and pulled Jeremy up with her. “We’re not newlyweds yet.” Still she stepped over and hugged Eric as he walked into the room.  “But it sure sounds good.”

He hugged her, closed his eyes and soaked the moment in. “Congrats, Gwen.” His hand rubbed across her back, and despite how little sense it made, he said a silent prayer of thanks that they hadn’t worked out between them.  When he stepped back, acceptance traced through him. “I’m really happy for you.” And strangely he found, he really was.

Jeremy stepped to her side, and Gwen looked over at him. The look on her face said there was no doubt she had made the right choice. Eric extended his hand to Jeremy. “Congrats, bud.”

The handshake became a quick hug.

“Thanks,” Jeremy said.

All Eric could do was nod. His heart was jammed into his throat so tightly anything more was impossible.

***

Studying wasn’t nearly as much fun as being with him would’ve been; however, when Rebecca’s gaze chanced on the clock, she was glad she’d stayed home. It was already after 11, and she was nowhere near being finished with Economics as she’d planned to be.  Redoubling her efforts, she readjusted her glasses and started through the notes for Chapter 9.

***

“So, Eric, I thought you said you were bringing somebody,” Desiree said, cornering him in the tiny kitchen when he brought the tray, which no longer had crackers and cheese on it, back in.

He made himself busy at the sink. “She had to study. I guess I didn’t call her in time.”

“Oh. That’s too bad.” Desiree stacked the paper plates from earlier and put them in the trash. “What’s her name anyway?”

“Re…” He cleared his throat, feeling something lodge there. “Rebecca.”

“Oh, your friend from psychology?”

That was one thing about Desiree. She missed nearly nothing. “Yeah. We’re just friends though.”

However, the smile on Desiree’s face spoke only of happiness for him. “Well, I’m glad you found somebody other than us old fuddy-duddies. You deserve it.”

“We’re just friends,” he said a bit more defensively.

“You can never have enough of them.”

In the six years he had known her, Eric’s impression of Desiree had always been couched in terms of intelligent, loyal, and courageous. Kindness and compassion although not specifically absent were not usually such conspicuous display. When he walked back to the living room, Eric considered calling Rebecca again. She was wrong about his friends. They would accept her. They accepted him, and he was as weird as they came. However, before he got the chance to make the call, Desiree walked up behind him.

“So have you thought anymore about Thursday?”

“Thursday?” he asked, not following the question.

“Shopping for your mom and dad. You’re coming right?”

“Oh, yeah. I guess. Just tell me when and where.” He didn’t want to go, but he didn’t see a way out of it. At that moment, he had a thought. “Hey, would you mind if I brought along some reinforcements?”

“The more the merrier.”

***

By one o’clock, burn out was hitting on all cylinders. Keeping her eyes opened was a challenge, and Rebecca could feel the rest of her body shutting down as well. She dropped her history book to the floor with a loud thunk and leaned over into the pillows. There was so much she didn’t know, so much she still needed to study.  But sleep-studying wasn’t getting her anywhere.  Her mind drifted away from the room as her body relaxed. A few minutes of sleep couldn’t hurt that much. Just as she floated into Neverland, the phone above her on the desk jangled to life.

With a moan she dragged herself back out of sleep and reached up to get it. It rang again. The sound echoed off the walls and into her skull. Receiver in hand, she groped for words. “Hello?”

“Rebecca?” Panic and fear intertwined in the center of the name, and Rebecca sat straight up. “This is Holly.”

Bad. Whatever it was, it was really bad. “Holly, what’s wrong? Where are you?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know who else to call.” She sniffed and took in three quick breaths, clearly trying to stay calm.

“It’s okay. It’s okay. What’s wrong? Are you all right?”

Noise—banging and shouting—in the background pulled Rebecca’s concern to the surface. “Holly, where are you?

“I didn’t… I didn’t know who else to call, Becca. I can’t get out. He’s out there, and he’s going to kill me if I open the door.”

“Holly. Slow down. Who’s out there?”

“Gus. He’s out in the hallway. He’s going to bust the door down.”

The noise in the background was enough to frighten Rebecca even on the other end of the receiver. “What in the world is going on?”

“He found me… with Jake.”

Oh no slammed into Rebecca. “Oh, great. Where are you?”

“At the Sigma Nu frat house. I’m in the bathroom on the first floor. Please, Becca. I don’t know what else to do.” More noise, and Rebecca knew it was as serious as Holly’s voice sounded.

“Okay. Sit tight. I’ll be right there.”

“Please hurry.”

Rebecca hung up, picturing Gus standing in their room. He was ten times bigger than she was, and it was a good bet that at the moment he was a whole lot angrier than she had ever been in her life.

“Oh, Dear Lord, this is bad. Please help.”

Grabbing her shoes and trying desperately to think how she was going to get Holly out of that bathroom without both of them getting pounded into hamburger meat, her glance chanced on her notebook lying on the floor. Eric’s cell number stood out in perfect relief to the white page.

“No, God. I can’t call him. He’ll think I’m completely nuts.” Nonetheless, no better idea was showing up. Finally, trying not to think too much, she grabbed the phone and dialed the number even as she slipped her other shoe on. He was probably home asleep, or out partying with his friends—neither of which she really wanted to interrupt. On the second ring the phone clicked.

“Hello.”

“Eric. This is Rebecca. Holly’s in trouble.”

Instantly he sounded just like she felt. “Holly? What kind of trouble? Where is she?”

“She’s in a first floor bathroom at Sigma Nu.  Her boyfriend, Gus is outside the door, and he’s really mad. He’s threatening to break down the door and kill her.”

“Okay. I’ll meet you there,” Eric said without hesitation. “Don’t go in until I get there. You got it?”

“O…okay.” The thought of going in at all threatened to pull sanity from her. “Please hurry.”

“I will.”

***

Hurry didn’t come close. In one motion Eric had his clothes back on, his shoes in one hand and he was out the door. Hopping, he put the shoes on as he waited for the elevator to make it up to his floor. When it dinged and he got on, he checked his watch. 1:24. He wondered how far of a drive it was for Rebecca, and once again in his spirit he admonished her not to go in until he got there. The elevator doors opened, letting him into the lobby.

Headlong, he raced through the front door for his car. It was only when it was started, and he was pulling out of the parking lot that he had the idea.  Looking and driving, he punched in the numbers.

“911,” the operator said.

“Yes. I’d like to report a disturbance.”

“Location, please?”

He relayed the information, and the operator confirmed they were sending a squad car to check it out.  He thanked her, shut off the phone, and flipped it onto the seat next to him. With both hands on the wheel and his mind racing through the possible scenarios of what he would find when he got there, he managed to steer the car across town to the frat house.

It was with no small amount of relief that he found a myriad of cars parked in varying directions all over the street in front of the huge white building. He parked next to the gas station on the corner. As he got out and started toward the house, he scanned the cars and people milling about on the lawns for Rebecca. He hadn’t counted on beating her. As he raced toward the front door, trying to decide if he should go in without her, Rebecca ran up to him from the opposite side of the street.

“She still in there?” he asked.

Rebecca looked as panicked as he felt. She turned and fell in quick, lock step with him. “I hope so. I haven’t seen her come out.”

“She’s on the first floor?”

“In the bathroom. She said Gus was right outside.”

Side-by-side they traversed the melee and strode up the steps and right into the middle of the party without so much as an invitation.

“What if he’s still there?” Rebecca asked, rubbing her arm with her opposite hand as Eric pushed through the crowd.

“Let’s find the bathroom first. Then we’ll worry about that.” Knowing he didn’t want to get separated from her, he reached across to her. His hand found hers, and he squeezed it once for courage—hers as much as his. “Excuse me,” he said to one party-goer who looked at him with glassy eyes. “Where’s the bathroom?”

“Around the corner and down on the left,” the young man said, swaying dangerously toward them.

“Thanks.” Without consultation, Eric pulled her with him in the direction they’d been sent. He knew they didn’t have more than a few minutes. If Holly was drunk, which was likely, the cops showing up could turn out to be a really bad idea. Down the hall there was a line at the white door. “Is this the bathroom?” Eric asked, one guy who was standing in line.

“Hey, buddy. The line’s back there,” somebody said.

Eric felt Rebecca’s hand tighten on his.

“We’re just looking for a friend,” he said quickly. Undeterred by the furious looks raining down on them, he stepped through the line. At the door, he knocked three times. “Holly. It’s Eric. You in there?” He waited a second and not more. He knocked again. “Holly.”

The door cracked open, and his heart turned over. Mascara streaked down her cheeks as she stood on wobbly legs just beneath the white-and-blue-and-green striped miniskirt. “Eric?”

“Come on, we’re getting you out of here.” He yanked off his top shirt, leaving only his white T-shirt to cover his body. Quickly he wrapped it around her shoulders as she ducked under his arm. He looked around at the others. “Is there a back way?”

One of the guys in the line pointed further down the hall. Eric had no choice but to believe him.  “Let’s go.”

Commotion at the front door snapped at their heels as they hurried down the hallway.

“It’s the cops!” somebody yelled.

Instantly the entire place plummeted into chaos. Fighting not to think about what was happening, Eric kept walking, his arm still around Holly, feeling Rebecca right behind them.  At the end of the hall, he turned left, and when they pushed through the door, they found themselves in the cool, dark night. “It’s this way.” Stumbling more than walking, he kept Holly on her feet all the way to his car.  He opened the door and helped her inside. When he slammed the door, his gaze found Rebecca’s. “Meet us at the dorm.”

“Okay,” Rebecca said, looking at Holly as if she might die at any second. “Drive carefully.”

“You too.” Of everything in the world, he didn’t want to leave Rebecca like this, but they didn’t have much of a choice. He got in his car, checked his passenger once, and reached for the ignition.

***

In a state of disbelief and overwhelming concern, Rebecca turned and raced back for her car.

“Hey, you! Stop right there! Miss!” The command came from across the street, and Rebecca pulled up short in one stride. A police officer strode toward her, and he didn’t look a bit happy. The squeals of tires, both of departing student vehicles and of more arriving police cruisers, screamed through the night.

Rebecca looked at the front door of the frat house wondering when she had slipped into the fourth dimension. “Yes, Sir.”

“Were you at the party?” he asked, indicating the house across the street.

“No, Sir. I just came to pick up a friend, but she’s not here.”

He surveyed her carefully, which did nothing for her nerves. She closed her eyes, said a short prayer, and the calm of the Holy Spirit taking over the situation poured through her. She opened her eyes, knowing she and God could handle whatever was coming.

“You haven’t been drinking?”

She reached up and readjusted her glasses on her nose. “No, Sir. I was home studying. My friend just called me for a ride.”

He didn’t look pleased with that answer, but it was quite obvious she hadn’t been drinking. “Okay,” he finally said. “You can go, but drive carefully.”

“Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.”

But he had already started back across the street. She lifted her gaze Heavenward. “Thank you, Holy Spirit.”

***

Every 15 feet or so that the car moved, Eric looked over at Holly who hadn’t so much as twitched since he put her in his car. He wanted to ask. He wanted to scream at her. Why would she choose to go out with such an obviously violent guy when Eric was waiting at her doorstep like a lost puppy?  It made no sense. The only thing it did was to confirm how little he understood about anything.

They pulled up to the dorms, and he glanced at the clock on the dash. 2:13. He felt every second of the late hour. When he shut off the car, he ran out of what to do next. He glanced around the parking lot and then out onto the street wondering why Rebecca hadn’t pulled up right behind them. A sick feeling hit his stomach, and his search became more frantic. What if something happened to her on the way home? He hadn’t been paying much attention to anything other than Holly.

The thought drained through him like poisonous ink. How could he so easily forget her? “I guess we should go in,” he said to quiet the accusations in his head.

Holly only nodded.

Eric got out, still searching the parking lot for Rebecca as he rounded the car. He opened Holly’s door and helped her out with one hand. A car’s headlights sliced through the night around them, and Eric’s attention snapped to it. Rebecca. His stomach unknotted just as Holly stumbled into him. “Oh, whoa. Careful there.” He steadied her but didn’t remove his arm from hers. “Come on. Let’s get you inside.”

Rebecca parked five spots down. With the slam of her door and at a fast walk, she hurried over to them. “Is she all right?”

Eric drilled her with his gaze as his concern flowed through him. “Are you? What happened?”

“Little misunderstanding with the cops. I’m fine.” She scratched the back of her neck as she half-followed, half-led them to the door, which she opened when they reached it.

He skewered her with a concerned look. Beyond logic, she looked even more disheveled than she normally did. “They stopped you? Why?”

“I think they thought I was causing trouble.” She smiled at him with a glint in her eye.

It brought something of a grin to his spirit. “You weren’t?”

“Not at that moment.”

“Huh. That was a first.”

They made it to the stairs, and without bothering with a thank you, Holly started up them. She simply left Eric standing at the bottom.

“Can you all get up there okay?” he asked, watching her and not wanting to leave Rebecca to pick up this many shattered pieces alone.

When she turned to him, holding Holly as best she could, Rebecca nodded. “Call me.”

“I will.”

***

Using one arm to balance Holly and the other to open the dorm room door, Rebecca concentrated on making it to the next minute rather than on what actually came next. Once in the room, she sat Holly on the bed and only then realized she still had Eric’s shirt on.

“Girl, you look like pageant material,” Rebecca said, reaching for humor. “Here. Let’s get you out of these.” She bent down and pulled one high heel off then the other. Gazing up at the hollow, mascara-stained face, her heart melted. “Here.” She went over and wet a washcloth. It’s warmth felt good on her hands. Taking it back to the unmoving figure on the bed, she sat down. “You look like a raccoon.”

“I feel like an idiot.”

Words. That was a good start.

“Well, it could be worse. You could still be hanging out in that bathroom.” Rebecca wiped Holly’s face gently, and in minutes her clear skin shown out again. “Did he hurt you?”

Holly shook her head.

“He didn’t hit you or anything?”

“I think he would’ve killed me if you guys hadn’t shown up.”

Anger bled through Rebecca. “Where was he anyway?”

“Out at his car.”

“His car? Why?” There was no answer for the longest minute of Rebecca’s life. “Why was he going to his car, Holly?”

“Because he had a gun in his glove box.” She sniffed. “I knew about it. He showed it to me once.” The sniffling increased. “When he said he was going to his car, I knew what he meant.”

With a breath, Rebecca thanked the Holy Spirit once more. Then she looked at the door. “You don’t think he’s stupid enough to come back here tonight, do you?”

Holly shrugged like a spent dishrag. Rebecca looked from her to the door, knowing they couldn’t take a chance like that. Her thoughts ran streaming through her head.  She could call Eric again, but he was already on his way home, and she had no idea where he lived. It was almost three in the morning, and transporting Holly again didn’t seem like the best plan. Finally, she stood. “Stay here.”

It was clear Holly wasn’t going anywhere on her own.

With quick determined strides, Rebecca crossed the room to the phone. She dialed the campus operator and got the number. Planting one hand on her hip and staring over at Holly’s back, she placed the call.

This “hello” was even sleepier than the last one she heard. She anchored her attention to the call. “Em, this is Becca. Listen, we’ve had some trouble tonight. I can’t explain everything, but could Holly and I come crash in your room?”

“Becca? What’s wrong?”

“I’ll explain it when we get there. You got room?”

“Uh, yeah. Sure. Dena went home for the weekend anyway.”

“Cool. We’ll be there in a few.” She hung up. Now to get Holly in good enough shape for the trek. “Okay, we’re going to stay at my friend’s room. Why don’t you get ready for bed, and I’ll grab some of these blankets?”

Holly stood and swayed with the movement. She reached for the wall and barely caught herself with it. Not knowing what else to do, Rebecca watched as her roommate disappeared into her closet. With a shake of her head, she went over to her own bed, pulled the top blanket and the pillow off. It was only then that she looked down at her own wardrobe. Ripped and paint-spattered T-shirt. Faded and worn jeans. She was the picture of fashion. Her books were still on the floor, but whatever she’d learned in them seemed unimportant at the moment.

Every few seconds her glance went to the door. If Gus was crazy enough to try it, it wouldn’t be terribly hard to get past the unarmed guys who acted as guards on duty downstairs. With that thought, she pulled Holly’s pillow off her bed. “You ready?”

Holly stepped out and nodded. Rebecca led the way out the door. She was careful to lock the door and make sure it was locked. Then they tramped downstairs. Emily was waiting in her doorway when they got there. A silent conversation passed between Emily and Rebecca. With pursed lips of understanding, Emily let them in and silently they got Holly in Dena’s bed.

“Where’re you going to sleep?” Emily asked Rebecca with concern when Holly had settled down.

Rebecca sighed and surveyed the floor. “I guess the floor’s going to have to work.” She sat down on the cold, hard piece of carpet and set her pillow behind her. “Hey, listen, are you going out in the morning?”

Emily looked down from her perch on her bed. “Not that I know of. Why?”

The glance Rebecca shot back at Holly pulled fear up in her again. “I don’t think she should be alone, but I wanted to go to church in the morning.”

Emily resettled her pillow. “I went tonight, and I don’t have to be anywhere ‘til tomorrow in the evening. I work with the youth.”

“So you don’t mind keeping an eye out for her in the morning?” Rebecca could read the concern in Emily’s gaze. “She needs to stay here. I don’t want her going back to our room until we find out where her psycho boyfriend is.”

Fear traced through Emily’s eyes, and then she bowed her head and reached for Rebecca’s hand. “Dear Lord, please be with us. We really need Your help with this one. Guide us, protect us, and keep us. Amen.”

“Amen,” Rebecca whispered, and she smiled at Emily.

“I’ll stay,” Emily said.

Rebecca nodded gratefully and then laid down on the carpet, put her head on the pillow, and wrapped the blanket over her. With a swipe she took off her glasses and put them next to her.  Even on the cold floor, safety and gratefulness wrapped flowed through her spirit. “Thank You, God. I never could’ve done this without You.”

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About Staci Stallings

Staci Stallings shares her heart for God with her novels, articles, and conversations. She loves making new friends, writing, and playing piano and guitar.
This entry was posted in A Work In Progress, Novels and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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