The knock on Emily’s door Saturday morning brought Emily off the bed from under her books. Padding to the door, she pushed her hair over her ear. She really needed a shower today, and mentally she penciled that in to her study plans. With a click, she opened the door and swung it open.
“Good morning!” Rebecca said brightly. In a light yellow T-shirt and raggedy jeans, she looked like she’d just stumbled out of bed herself.
Emily arched her eyebrows skeptically. “It’s too early on a Saturday morning to sound that happy.”
“Yes, well, rejoice. I bring tidings of great joy.”
The skeptical look fell into concern. “Have you been drinking?”
Rebecca laughed. “No, goofy. I’m here to invite you to a party.”
A group of people walking down the hall brushed by Rebecca, and Emily stepped back to let her in. She shut the door. As she followed Rebecca into the room, Emily wound her hair over her ear again and anchored her arms at her middle. “I’m kind of studying. Excuse the mess.”
“Hey, it’s your room. You can do what you want, you lucky duck.” Rebecca perched on the edge of the unmade bed. “So, tonight at seven. Eric invited us to his place.”
Emily’s arms wrenched tighter as fear crashed into her. “Us?”
“Yeah, you, me, Holly…” Rebecca pushed the edge of her glasses up. “It’s just a bunch of his friends getting together. No big deal.”
However, no big deal to the rest of the world always turned into a very big deal for her. “Oh, I don’t know… I don’t really go out that much.”
“That’s why you should come. It’ll be fun. I promise. Besides, Holly’s coming, and if you bug out on me, she probably will too.” Pleading came into Rebecca’s features. “Please, Em. Please, for me!”
Knowing she would live to regret it, Emily sighed. “Well, okay. If it’s that important…”
“You got the chips, right?” Eric called from the kitchen.
“Top cabinet,” Jeremy called back as he stood over the little bathroom sink readjusting the red and white plaid button down shirt that wasn’t buttoned, revealing the impeccably white T-shirt underneath. “Are Ransom and Zoë coming?”
“Supposed to. Ryan and Desi are helping her folks with something, so they’re not going to make it.”
Jeremy stepped from the bathroom onto the small balcony that overlooked the jam-packed living area. “And I guess Becca’s coming.”
“Yeah, and she’s bringing you a date.” Eric smirked over the jar of salsa he was opening.
“A date?” Annoyance took a whack at him. “Who?”
“I think you get your pick actually.” Eric twisted the top, which didn’t budge. “Man, that’s on there tight.”
With the smallest of concerned laughs, Jeremy bounded down the three stairs, stepped over, and took the jar. “I’m not following you. I get my pick?” He banged the top of the jar on the counter three times, then twisted the lid which popped open instantly.
“Holly or Em,” Eric clarified.
Fear pounced on Jeremy. “They’re coming too?”
At that moment there was a knock on the door. “Uh. No. They’re not coming. They’re here.” Eric took the hot sauce jar and grabbed a bowl from the cabinet. “Why don’t you get that?”
Jeremy’s hand found the right pocket of his jeans. He glanced down at himself, wishing with everything he had that Eric had thought to give him more than ten seconds notice that how he looked was important tonight. Before he made it to the door, the knock sounded again. Without bothering to check the peephole, he whipped the door open. “Hi!” It sounded like he was the most prepared host in the world. He wasn’t.
“Hey! Jeremy!” Rebecca gave him a quick hug then stepped back. “You remember Emily.”
“Yeah.” His ears flamed to oven scorching hot as he lifted his hand to greet her. “Hi, Emily.”
“Hi.” She put only the top edge of her fingers in his and took them back the second he let them go. It was impossible not to notice how she wrapped her arms around herself and huddled into them as if certain a bomb was about to explode.
“Please come in.” Gallantly he stepped back.
Winding a piece of the jet black hair that fell down around her face over her ear, Emily stepped past him. Once inside she took no more than three steps and stopped. He closed the door and followed her those three steps but almost tripped over her when she stopped. He put a hand out to her back to stop his forward progress and narrowly avoided knocking her down. Apprehension took a whack at him.
She tilted her head to the side, barely wrenching her gaze from the hardwood floor. “Nice place.”
“We’re glad you could come,” Jeremy said, and between the crushing awkwardness in him and the lump in his throat, it was a choking effort to get the words out.
“I thought you were bringing Holly,” Eric said as he scooped a chipful of hot sauce up and ate it.
“She couldn’t come.” Rebecca stood next to him, her hand sliding down his back. “Last minute change of plans.”
Eric lifted his chin. “Oh.”
Barely disguised, disgusted understanding whispered over Rebecca’s face as she grabbed for a chip. “Yeah.”
“So,” Jeremy said, slapping his hands together before melancholy could completely take over, “what kind of music do you like, Emily?”
“Music?” She half turned toward him, her arms still anchored at her middle. “I don’t know. Why?”
“Because if we let Eric choose, we’ll probably be stuck with hip-hop all night.” Wishing he felt a little more comfortable with the whole getting set up without knowing it thing, Jeremy guided her over to the desk where the music collection was stored. “We’ve got these.” Jeremy pulled the drawer out to reveal his older collection of CDs as he sat down on his heels. “And I’ve got my iPod if we can’t find something here.”
Emily’s eyes widened on the array. As if transfixed, she sat down on the floor next to the drawer. Even her arms unwound from around her. “What, did you do, buy out the record store?”
“These are just my older ones. I’ve got like a couple thousand on my iPod.” Happiness drifted over Jeremy at her obvious awe. He knelt down next to her. “So, what do you like? Rock, alternative, pop?”
For the longest moment of his life, she said nothing. Then she moved just a touch closer to the drawer. “Do you have any country?”
“Country?” he asked, backing up slightly as if that was the worst suggestion ever.
She reached all the way over the drawer to run her fingers over the little plastic boxes. “Yeah. Keith Urban or Brad Paisley?”
“You listen to that stuff?” Eric asked from the bar in horror.
In a breath, Emily melted back into turtle mode. “Sometimes.” Her gaze fell from the collection even as her hand fell back to her lap. Jeremy could’ve smacked Eric.
“Tell you what. Why don’t we go see if we can download something from the ‘net?” Jeremy suggested, pulling himself to his feet.
She wound the hair over her ear, which in all honesty hadn’t even fallen. “Oh, you don’t have to. I just thought… I mean, you have so many…”
“No, come on.” He reached for her hand. “They’ve got every song ever recorded on the site I’m subscribed to. Bob Paisley, whomever you want.”
She let him pull her up and then followed him up the three stairs to the little balcony. “Brad.”
“Huh?” He twisted to look at her and about fell over his own tennis shoes.
“Brad Paisley. That’s his name.” With one arm around her middle, she walked like she was being led to the electric chair.
“Brad,” he said, recovering as his heart tripped ahead of itself. “Well, at least that’s easy to spell.”
Wondering whose stupid idea this was, Emily followed Jeremy all the way to the door of what was obviously a bedroom. He didn’t seem to notice her hesitation at the doorway as he quickly dragged an old overstuffed chair from the other side of the room to the computer desk. “There you go. Trust me, you don’t want to sit on Eric’s bed. You never know what might be growing on it.”
He plopped down into the desk chair, and with two clicks the Internet slid onto the screen. Emily wound herself into the chair he had brought over and tried to disappear into it. Two more clicks and he reached over to connect the tiny black plastic box just to the side. “This is Eric’s computer. It’s slow as Christmas, but until we get into our new apartment next week, it’s all we’ve got.”
Emily nodded and smiled as if it wasn’t a hundred times better than hers at the dorm.
Jeremy scratched the edge of his ear. “At least we’re not on dial-up any more. That was a pain and a half.”
She tilted her head, and her fingers went to the hair at her ear. “That’s what we still have back home.”
“Ugh,” he said dramatically. “It’s the worst.” His attention focused on the screen. “Okay, here we go. Country, right?”
She wished she had never said anything. It was just that he had so many CD’s it never occurred to her that none of them would be country. “Yeah.” Granted, after she had thought about it longer than two seconds, she knew that of course he wouldn’t have country in his collection. Nobody in Boston listened to country. She had even resorted to using headphones so Dena wouldn’t complain so much.
“Now, who did you say again?” Jeremy turned to her, and the names of every other person in the world evaporated from her brain.
“Oh, uh. Keith Urban. He’s good. Kind of a rock-country mix.”
There was noise from the living room, but Jeremy didn’t seem to notice. “Urban.” He typed it in and waited for the results to load. “I don’t know many people who listen to country around here.”
“Yeah, I think I’m the only one.” The smile felt almost real.
“Okay. Here we go.” A mouse click and another. “Which ones do you want to get?”
Panic seized her. “Oh, I don’t want to waste your money. You’re not going to listen to these anyway.”
“Unlimited downloads.” He smiled over at her. “And I’ve got 20,00 more songs I can put on my iPod anyway. Besides if I hate them, I can always delete them, right?”
It was strange how this felt almost easy. “Right.”
Okay, so they weren’t songs he normally would’ve listened to, but Jeremy had to admit they weren’t nearly as bad as he’d always thought country was. The steel guitars were kept to a minimum and the twang was only mildly annoying. In any case, it was worth it to see Emily unwind her arms for a change. She sat at the little free-standing bar, munching on chips while he refilled the chip bowl and then joined her.
“So, what’s your major?” He leaned his elbows on the bar and looked at her for what seemed like the first time. Somehow he had missed the soft serenity of her face until that moment. It was mesmerizing in a way he couldn’t exactly explain. Captivated, he watched her.
She reached for a chip. “Wildlife management.”
Surprise bumped into him. “Wildlife management? No kidding? Really?”
She smiled but only one side of her lips got the message. “Yeah, it’s interesting. Some of the stuff this year is like mind-blowing. When I took a look at the Biochemistry syllabus, I almost freaked, but now that I’m in the class, it’s really not so bad.”
He picked up a chip and shook his head. “I thought I was crazy doing the M.B.A. thing.”
Her face fell in shock. “You’re an M.B.A.?”
“I will be in May.”
“Wow.” She took another chip. “That’s impressive.”
“Yeah, well…” The conversation was getting a bit too close for comfort. He stood and hiked the back of his faded jeans. “You like poppers? I got some, but Eric forgot to make them.”
She shrugged. “I’ve never had them.”
Jeremy went to the freezer and pulled a box out. “Then you’re in for a treat.”
“What are they?”
He took out a cookie sheet, ripped the bag opened, and dumped them out. “Jalapeno peppers stuffed with cheddar cheese.”
Her skepticism etched across her face. “Are they hot?”
With a flick, he spun the dial for the oven. “Nah. They’re good. Trust me.”
It was clear if she had any other choice, she would’ve taken it. “Okay… Oh! I love this song.” She swayed six beats with the music. “It’s so cool to me how he can put in those little ‘think about it’ messages without it being all in your face.”
Jeremy put the poppers into the oven and set the timer. “What do you mean?” He put his hand in his pocket, stepped back to the bar, and picked up a chip.
“You know, like wake up and see that today isn’t going to last forever, do what’s important because you might not get another chance. I just love that because people hear it without realizing they’re paying attention.”
Not quite following, Jeremy puzzled over the statement. “And that’s a good thing?”
“Yeah. Because it’s real, you know? He’s not pushing God at anybody. He’s just saying it’s what worked for him, and it makes you want to try it too.”
The word ‘God’ pushed Jeremy backward. He scratched his temple with his thumb. “I thought this was country. I didn’t know it was Christian.”
“It’s not. Well, not really.” Thoughts streamed across her face. She pursed her lips together as if searching for how to explain it. “But if you listen to it just right, there’s messages all over in it.”
“Messages?” Jeremy backed to the counter with a disbelieving look.
“Yeah, you know, how God talks to you and tells you things about the world so you understand.”
His hands went palms down backward onto the cabinet. After only a second, he yanked himself upward onto it. “Understand what?”
She seemed to leave the room for a moment, floating somewhere above it in thought. “That He loves us no matter what, how He’s there even in the bad times, how we can lean on Him, and it’s okay.”
Skepticism rained over him. “And you get all of that out of this song?”
Her reality fell back to him, and it was as if she remembered she was actually talking out loud. “Well, this one and some of the others.” She shook her head and reached for a chip. “I don’t know. I’m weird I guess.”
Weird. Yeah. That was a good word for it. The timer beeped just as Rebecca stood and walked into the kitchen. She grabbed a chip. “So, what’s up in here?”
Emily wound her arm over her stomach. “Oh. We were just…”
“Making poppers,” Jeremy said, saving them from certain disaster at the last possible second as he slid off the cabinet. In two motions, he had the cookie sheet in hand. He brought the light-battered, bite-sized morsels to the bar. “Poppers are ready!”
That brought the other three from the living room. In a rush they were gathered around the bar. Jeremy busied himself getting out the Ranch dressing and putting it into a bowl.
“I didn’t know you were into country, Jer,” Ransom said, grabbing a popper.
“I’m expanding my horizons.” Jeremy poured the dressing into the bowl, and when he glanced up, his gaze caught on Emily’s, and there was gratefulness there. Why, he couldn’t have said, but it made him smile just the same.
“I think I’m in way over my head,” Emily whined to Rebecca as they walked up the steps to the Student Union.
“No, this youth group thing at church! They gave me a whole table of kids. A whole table. What am I supposed to do with a whole table?” Her normally high-pitched voice was squeaking with the thought.
“I don’t know. Set it?”
Emily looked at her in defeated exasperation as together they made their way through the tables already filling with lunchtime students.
“Well, how many is on a table?” Rebecca asked.
“Seven. Seven middle schoolers and me! I am so fried.”
“Hello there,” Eric said when they walked up to the table where the guys sat.
Nerves jumped through her, but Emily was too worried about her current dilemma to think about them. Rebecca kissed Eric quickly as Emily put her books on the table. Jeremy smiled at her, but she barely noticed. Back around the table, she and Rebecca started for the counter. “You’re not fried. Aren’t there like other teachers there too?”
Helplessness crashed on her again. “The leader is like 22 or something. He only just started, and he’s really laid back about everything, so we’re kind of supposed to know what we’re doing.”
“He didn’t give you like hand-outs or something to talk about?”
Emily leaned on the wall and wrapped her arms around her. She sighed. “He said we’ll get them next week if he has time to run some off.”
In quick succession they stepped up and gave their orders.
“So, you get the hand-outs, and you talk about them. How hard is that?”
Frustrated anxiety wrapped over her. “Yeah, but these kids. They’re like… kids.”
Rebecca laughed. “That’s kind of the point, wasn’t it?”
“No! I mean, well, yeah, but… I don’t know what to do with kids. I’m not a teacher!”
Their orders arrived, and they took them back to the table.
“Well, why don’t you do like you do at Bible Study?” Rebecca asked as she took her customary seat next to Eric. Emily slid onto the chair next to Jeremy, wishing she had the people skills to talk to him without it feeling so awkward. Rather than completely overwhelm herself, she focused on the conversation she could actually carry.
“But you guys talk,” she moaned. “They either just sit there and look at me like they have no idea what I’m talking about, or they’re all over the place, and I can’t get them to talk about what we’re supposed to be talking about.”
“What’re you talking about?” Jeremy asked, breaking into the conversation as if he was genuinely interested.
“Youth group.” Emily’s complaints fell into helplessness. “Like last night we were supposed to be talking about the Holy Spirit, but all they wanted to talk about was the baseball playoffs.”
“The Holy Spirit?” Jeremy asked, raising his eyebrows. “I’d want to talk about the playoffs too.”
Rebecca shot him a shut-up look across the table. “Did you try telling them about Holy Spirit moments?”
“They just look at me like I’m nuts and then go back to discussing their locker assignments for the year.” She deflated on the memory. “I’m just so bad at this. Maybe I should quit.”
“But you just started,” Rebecca said.
“I know, but you know me, I can’t say ten words around you guys. How am I supposed to sound intelligent to a bunch of 7th graders?”
“Sounds like you could use a miracle,” Eric said wryly.
She sighed. “You can say that again.”
“Sounds like you could use a miracle,” he said again, and this time, it actually sank all the way through the day she was having.
Her gaze bounced up to his. “You know what? I think you’re right. I’m trying to do it on my own, huh?” How she could’ve missed that simple piece, she wasn’t quite sure. Slowly she shook her head and sighed. “Dena would smack me if she was here.”
“Where is Dena anyway?” Rebecca asked.
“Oh, she met some guy at the church singles night the other night, and it sounds like they really hit it off.”
“So, you’re on your own for Bible Study again then?” Rebecca asked.
“Yep. Looks like it’s me and God,” Emily said. She ate a French fry and tried to remember how the whole putting it in His hands thing worked again.
Not one part of Jeremy wanted to be sitting at that table, save for the part that wouldn’t let him leave. He wasn’t sure how every time he was around them, they figured out a way to talk about God, but it was getting old. “So, how about those Red Sox?”
“I think we’re doing something wrong,” Rebecca said the next night as she sat in the circle around Emily’s carpet.
“Why’s that?” Taylor, the long, lanky guy asked from beside Emily.
Rebecca shook her head. “Because I’ve asked, begged, and pleaded for Holly to come with me, but I can’t get her talked into it no matter how hard I try.”
“Yeah,” Eric said, “and Jeremy won’t even consider it.”
Emily’s heart jolted with the name.
“You’re trying too hard,” Bethany said. “Taylor wouldn’t shut up about this group. He kept telling me how wonderful it was, how I really should come, how I needed to come, how I would really like it.”
“And she wouldn’t budge,” Taylor said.
“So, what did you do?” Rebecca asked with sincere interest.
Taylor shrugged. “I finally backed off. I told her when it was right, it would be right, and until then, I’d be praying for her.”
The nod went through Emily without her really feeling it.
“And that worked?” Eric asked.
Bethany laughed. “Once he backed off, it was like, ‘Okay, I’m ready.’”
“No kidding,” Taylor said. “I was like, ‘Huh? What changed?’”
“I don’t really know,” Bethany said. “I don’t know if it was me not wanting to be forced or just that I wasn’t ready until I was ready. But when I got ready, it was great. Before that, I just would’ve resented him making me go.”
“It’s kind of like Jesus,” Emily said, snagging on the lesson in the midst of the story. “He doesn’t force us to love Him. He’s just there, and if we want to come, great, and if we don’t want to come, He’ll wait until we’re ready.”
“If we want His love to be real for people, it has to feel like love—not like we’re going to score some points if we bring someone,” Kira said. “I think too often that’s what it feels like to someone, that we think they’re just a way to get some brownie points with God.”
“Huh.” Rebecca sat for a long moment after the attention swung to her. “I guess I’m going to have to try that. I just wish Holly would see how much she’s missing by not coming.”
“Show her in your life,” Emily said, feeling the words drift through her own understanding. “Show her by how you live.”
“That’s witnessing,” Taylor said. “Not standing in their face, and saying, ‘You have to believe to be saved.’ That just makes them run the other direction.”
“Love them where they are,” Kira said. “Support them. Encourage them. Be there for them to lean on. It may not happen right away, but sooner or later, they will see that you have something they want, and they’ll start looking for it for themselves.”
Rebecca sighed. “Sometimes I think that’s going to take a miracle.”
Eric smiled. “Then I guess we start praying for miracles.”
Emily smiled too. It wasn’t so long ago that Eric making that suggestion would’ve seemed impossible. Sometimes God was just too amazing to put into words. She put her hands out to Taylor and Kira. “Then let’s ask for some miracles.”
“Please!” Rebecca whined the next Saturday as she stood at Emily’s door once again. “It won’t be hard, and I promise we’ll be back by two.”
“Moving?” Emily asked in horror. “Why would I help them move? I don’t even know them.”
“Yes, you do.” Rebecca followed her into the room and all the way over to the desk. “You know Eric, and we’ve eaten with Jeremy like more than once now.”
“More than once does not equal moving.” Emily entwined her arms over her chest as her high ponytail swayed behind her.
“But they need help. They’re guys. Besides Ryan and Ransom can’t help. They’re busy. Plus, it’s just down the hall. It’s not like it’s across town.”
She needed to learn to say no. She really, really did. However, Emily liked Rebecca and Eric too much to say it now. “Well, okay. But I’ve got to be back by two.”
“Good grief! What is in this thing anyway?” Emily asked as she struggled to drag the box full of stereo equipment from the old apartment to the new with Jeremy pushing it from behind.
“$10,000 worth of stereo equipment.” He grunted with the effort. “State of the art. Surround sound. The best money can buy.”
On the other side she dug into the task. “Ugh. The best or the heaviest?”
He laughed although it was all he could do to keep the box moving. “You should’ve been here to get it up the elevator.” His mind slipped back to the day he had bought it with Gwen. It was supposed to be for their apartment when they got married. It never made it that far. The memory made him push harder.
As the box slid awkwardly toward her, Emily guided and pulled as best she could. “No, thanks. Down the hall is enough for me.” Just then the box jammed on a snag in the carpet, and she lost her grip, sending her flying backward. She landed with a thud on the carpet just as he jammed his ribcage into the box with a thwack.
“Oh,” she moaned with a little cough to get her lungs working again.
“Ow!” He rubbed his ribcage, hoping there was no permanent damage. “You okay?”
“Sure.” She pushed the pain down as she stood, readjusted her shirt, and retook her position. “Sorry.” With both hands, she took hold of the little handle and yanked upward. It didn’t move so much as a centimeter. Again she yanked, however, the box was six times bigger than she was, and clearly she wasn’t going to get it unsnagged alone.
Jeremy had to fight the laugh because for all of her effort, yanking it upward, the box never so much as moved. “Here.” He lifted his foot and stepped around the box to take hold of it as she backed up to watch. One yank and it came free from the rug. Without letting it down, he nodded at the other side. “Go push it.”
“Right.” She lifted her foot over the edge and skirted the wall around the box to get to the other side.
On command Emily did as she was told, and they were moving again. Her feet tried to grip the carpet, but they kept slipping out from under her. Step by sliding step they shoved the box forward. Her arms and legs were screaming for mercy at the near-impossible task of staying upright. “Ugh. You should’ve told me to wear my hiking boots.”
He glanced over the box at her. “You got hiking boots?”
“Yeah, back in Colorado!” She shoved. “They sure would come in handy right about now.”
Finally, mercifully, they made it to the door of the new apartment.
“Okay, careful through the door,” Jeremy said, angling and edging the huge box through the frame.
“Oh, man! Tell me we’re almost there.” At the threshold she resorted to turning around and pushing it with her back.
“Over here by the wall,” he said, guiding it the final ten feet. “And. We’re. There.”
The moment he stopped, she gave up and slid all the way down the box to the floor. “Hallelujah! Oh, man. I should have asked for hazard pay.”
“What’re you doing sitting around?” Rebecca asked as she breezed in the door with a box the size two pairs of shoes would fit into. She walked over to the counter in the kitchen and set it down with a clank.
“You’re kidding, right?” Emily was exhausted. She put her hand to her head to get it to stop swimming from the over-exertion. The thought of the fifteen other boxes of stuff not to mention some of the furniture still sitting back in the other apartment threatened to dissolve the last of her will. “You told me this wasn’t going to be hard.”
Rebecca shrugged. “It’s moving. It’s always hard.” With that she breezed back out.
“Come on.” Jeremy reached down for her hand and pulled her to her feet. “I promise, I’ll give you the light one this time.”
“Oh that you would be so kind.” Emily reached down and pulled her purple jersey shirt over her jeans where it had come up. The high ponytail on her head swung in time with her feet as she followed him down the hall. “How in the world can two bachelors have so much stuff? I thought bachelors like ate off of paper plates and slept on the couch.”
Jeremy glanced at her with a look of horror at the very suggestion. “I’m a bachelor. I’m not poor.”
“Oh,” she said, taking the statement to mean poor was like being a leper. Instinctively her arms twisted around her. “Well, I for one wish you were a little poorer.”
The gaze he trained on her held complete derision, but she smiled at him teasingly. “Not so much stuff to move that way.”
“Ah.” He lifted his chin in understanding although he still didn’t look very happy.
Sensing she’d just sent the train flying off the track, Emily followed him into the old apartment and planted her hands on her hips. “Okay, gang. What’s next?” The sooner they got this done, the sooner she could get back to normal.
She was a trooper. Jeremy had to give Emily that much. She definitely wasn’t one of those girls who was afraid to break a nail. All day long she pushed, pulled, carried, lugged, and generally willed the stuff from one apartment to the other. It was strange, however, because on the outside she looked far more delicate than her iron will seemed to indicate.
“That’s the last of it,” Eric said, bringing in the final box full of kitchen supplies and dropping it onto the counter.
“Oh, hallelujah!” Emily collapsed onto the old, orange-brown couch. “I’m done for.”
“You and me both.” Jeremy followed her down until he was half-sitting, half-laying on the couch beside her. Somehow he hadn’t realized the effort a two door move would entail. It wasn’t until he was down, however, that it occurred to him that he should’ve chosen to collapse on his leather couch across the room. It looked inviting, but he was too tired to move. “So, Eric, when are your mom and dad coming to get this old couch and stuff?”
“Sometime this week. I think Dad’s decided to give it to the Salvation Army or something.”
“You’re giving it away?” Emily sat up straighter. “Why?”
Jeremy laughed at that outright. “You’ve got to be kidding. Look at it. It’s hideous!”
She ran her hand over the cushion as she leaned back into it. “It’s not so bad. It reminds me of my grandma’s.”
He arched a skeptical look at her. “Okay, and now to return to this century.”
However, she seemed lost in her own world. “Are you getting rid of the chair too?” She got up and went over to the chocolate brown chair, which rocked but didn’t recline.
Jeremy didn’t so much as need to consult Eric. “Umm, yeah. Definitely.”
She considered that for a moment. “Well, would you… I mean, I have room for it if you don’t want it.” All three gazes snapped to her, and in the next breath she seemed to cower behind the statement and the chair. “I mean if you’re going to get rid of it anyway.”
“You want that chair?” Rebecca asked, sounding positively dumbfounded.
Emily glanced up, but when she found the other three staring at her, her gaze slid down the chair. “Only if you don’t want it.”
“Well, we definitely don’t want it,” Jeremy affirmed. “I just don’t know why you would.”
She looked up with a serene smile. “Call it hazard pay.”
Two nights later Jeremy found himself in an elevator that had six missing tiles in the ceiling, looking up and wondering how in the world he’d gotten talked into this one. “What would she want with this thing anyway?”
Eric shrugged. “Maybe she couldn’t find one at a garage sale.”
“How’s she even going to have room for this thing in her room? That’s why we moved out of the dorms, remember? No room. No space. No privacy.”
“Yeah, how could I forget? I was your roommate.” Eric shot him a wicked look. “Okay, so we get this thing to her room, and we go home and order pizza.”
“And we sit on my leather couch in front of the new big screen TV,” Jeremy said with a satisfied smile.
“Sounds like a plan.” Eric held his fist in agreement up over the top of the chair, and Jeremy hit it with his fist.
“You got it.”
The doors slid open. Jeremy took up position at the base of the chair as Emily and Rebecca appeared in the hallway beyond.
“It’s right down here,” Emily said, pointing past the two staircases leading off in opposite directions. “I didn’t mean you guys had to bring it for me.”
“Hey, what else would we be doing?” Eric asked with a grunt.
“Yeah. It’s not like we have a big screen TV waiting back at our apartment or anything,” Jeremy added.
They got to Emily’s door, and she unlocked it quickly. Turning the light on and stepping into the room, she took four steps in and then spun around as they entered. “Just put it right over there against that wall.”
Jeremy was all the way into the room, with the chair set on the floor, before he realized how gigantic the room actually was. “Holy smokes! This isn’t a dorm. It’s a condo!”
Emily slipped past them to the door and closed it softly. “It’s one of the rooms over the kitchen, so it’s bigger than most.”
“And you get it all to yourself?” Jeremy asked, impressed despite the fact that he was talking about a dorm room.
“I’m a senior, so I was first on the list. They didn’t have enough people to fill all the rooms with roommates, and Dena bailed at the last minute, so…”
Inspecting as he went, Jeremy walked over to the desk with the bookcase on top. On it the possessions were sparse but neatly displayed. A picture of what looked to be her family, her college books, and a couple other books to the other side. “Man, this is like ten times bigger than the room, Eric and I shared.”
“It’s bigger than my room with Holly, too,” Rebecca said.
It was clear that Emily didn’t know what to do with those compliments. Her shoulders came over her as her head tilted down. A moment melted into the next. “Well, since you guys are here and everything, we could like play spoons or something if you want.”
Apprehension rained down over Jeremy. His attention spun from the bookcase as his gaze jumped across the room to her. “Oh, no, we weren’t planning to stay.”
She seemed to shrink even further. “Oh, yeah. Of course. I understand.” Her barely smile fell from her face completely. “I don’t want to keep you.”
Eric was the first to find the words Jeremy’s brain wouldn’t let him say. “No, hey. We can’t just show up and leave. We could play a game of…”
“Spoons,” Emily said, her smile drifting back over her. “Dena and me and some of the girls down our hallway used to play a lot… until they all moved out.” Seeming to come untethered from shy, she walked to where Jeremy stood and stepped past him to the bookcase.
He felt the closeness of her although he didn’t quite understand why.
“Dena and I smuggled some spoons out of the cafeteria last year. I kept them just in case.” She pulled a handful of spoons and a deck of cards from inside a little decorative box. With joy bouncing across her features, she held them up like a cheesy commercial actress. “Spoons anyone?”
She wound herself onto the carpet, and the other two walked over and joined her. Jeremy’s brain was screaming at him to come up with some logical excuse to get them out of this, but for the life of him, his mouth wasn’t working.
“You’re going to have to tell us the rules,” Rebecca said.
“Yeah, and no cheating,” Eric warned. “I know how you are.”
“Me?” Emily smiled mischievously. “I don’t cheat.” She took the cards in hand and shuffled them like a professional dealer. Jeremy watched her, trying to comprehend the change he saw in her and trying to get his mind wrapped all the way around the fact that somehow he was in her room, sitting on her floor, playing a game he couldn’t care less about. Well, one thing was for sure. They were playing two games tops, and he would find a way to get them out of this ridiculous situation.
“Okay. It’s really easy,” Emily said as she dealt out four cards to each of them. “You try to get four cards all the same in your hand—like four queens or four two’s. When you do, you grab a spoon. When somebody else grabs a spoon, you grab one too. The person without a spoon loses.”
At least it wouldn’t require thought, Jeremy reasoned sullenly. He leaned his elbows on his knees and picked up his cards like a good, little monkey.
Emily laid the three spoons in the middle, picked up her cards, and looked around the circle. “Everybody ready?”
Concentrating on their cards, the others nodded. With that Emily yanked a card up, looked at it, and put it down next to her. Rebecca picked it up as Emily picked the next one up. She replaced it with another card in her hand and laid that card on the carpet. There was a peculiar whooshing sound as the cards were picked up, examined, sorted, and put down. Finally the first card made it to Jeremy.
A four of hearts. He already had a four, so he discarded a six, kept the four, and picked up the card Eric had just laid at his side. Card. Card. Card. He discarded a jack in favor of the other seven in his hand. Card. Card. And there was another four. He was in mid-swap when suddenly Emily swiped a spoon from the floor. Taken off-guard for one second too long, Jeremy found himself holding three fours, a seven and no spoon.
“Ugh! Crud! I almost had it.” He pitched his cards into the center. Adrenaline surged through him. He shifted on the carpet and rubbed his hands together. “Okay, Stratton. Quit playing around. Time to get serious.”
Rebecca dealt. This time Jeremy had a plan, a strategy. He didn’t care about the cards, only the spoons. The game started, and instead of looking at the cards, he simply transferred them from one side of him to the other.
“You’re not even looking at them!” Emily said, swiping the fifth one he’d laid on the ground.
“Who cares as long as I get a…”
Eric snatched a spoon from the center, and before a breath Rebecca grabbed one too. Jeremy and Emily dove for the remaining spoon, ramming into each other. Their heads cracked together, and before he knew what was happening, she had the spoon, and he had a knot on his forehead.
“Ow! Cripes! That hurt.” He clutched his head. “Oh, man! You play rough.”
“Me? You’re the one who hit me!” She rubbed her head and laughed. “But I got the spoon. That’s what counts.”
Competitiveness flashed through him. “Deal already, Barnett. What’re you waiting for?”
At the culmination of the twelfth game, the scramble for the remaining spoon sent it flying between Eric and Rebecca who dove to either side away from the two who dove between them to grab it. Cards flew in all directions as Jeremy threw himself after the elusive spoon. He flung himself between Emily and the wily utensil, grabbing for it repeatedly as it spun from his grasp. However, just as it skittered under the bed frame, he caught up with it. From behind him, Emily reached around him still trying to get it even as he yanked it up in triumph. “I got it! Yes!” Disheveled and heaving, he sat up exalting in his victory as he waved the spoon at her. “I got it. I got it.”
“No fair,” she said, sitting back in her spot. “You’ve got to give me a chance.”
“Oh, yeah? Like you gave me a chance the last ten games, right?” He laughed at his increasingly desperate but futile attempts to beat her. This time he wasn’t about to lose gracefully. “No way. I won this one fair and square.”
At first her face registered anger, but after only a moment it melted into a smirk and then a begrudging smile. “Fine, but I’ll get you next time.”
Jeremy gathered the cards and started to reassemble them. “Next time. Next time… Next time, missy, I’m going to beat you again.” Several of the cards had been bent during their last wrestling match. “Look what you did to the cards.”
“Me? You were the one who threw the spoon.” Emily laughed.
“I didn’t throw it. You knocked it away from me.”
“I did not! You threw the last card at me, so I wasn’t paying attention.”
Across the room, Rebecca sighed. “You know, I think ‘next time’ is going to have to be tomorrow night or something.” She leaned back onto the bed frame as she looked at her watch. “I’ve really got to get some studying done tonight.”
It was the first Jeremy had thought of the time in what seemed like hours. He looked at his own watch and realized it was after ten o’clock. “Oh, my gosh! How did it get so late?”
“Uh-huh. You’re just afraid I’m going to beat you this time,” Emily said, taking the cards from him and rebending the deck which looked pathetically crumpled.
“Hey. I know how to play now.” With effort, Jeremy pulled himself to his feet from the floor. His foot tingled with having sat for far too long. “You’re toast next time, girl.”
“That’s pretty cocky for someone who only won one game,” she said, but there was a good-natured challenge in her voice.
When he looked at her, Jeremy’s whole being seemed to glint like sunlight on water. She was mesmerizing and challenging and fun-to-be-around, but she was also so shy, she couldn’t get six words out without help. How she could be both people at the same time was a mystery he would really like the chance to solve.
“So, Bible study tomorrow night?” Eric asked, standing and helping Rebecca to her feet.
“Same time. Same place,” Emily said with a laugh. She brushed the dark hair from her face and stepped past Jeremy to the bookcase. He had the feeling that he’d just been paralyzed. Watching her was all he ever wanted to do again. When she pulled the box down from the shelf, her jersey shirt pulled up to reveal a strip of cinnamon colored skin across her side. In seconds it was gone, and when she turned back to him, he smiled at her, and shy returned.
Pulling the jersey down although it already was, she stopped where Jeremy stood as Eric and Rebecca started for the door. Jeremy knew he should move, but that message simply was not getting to his feet.
“Thanks for the chair,” she said, looking at him. She brushed the hair from her forehead and then anchored her arm over the other.
“I hope you like it.” Why he said that, he couldn’t be sure, but they were the only words he could find in his brain.
“Uh, Jeremy? Dude. You coming?” Eric asked from the door.
Jeremy smiled at her. “Yeah.”
In seconds they said their good-byes and were gone. Emily turned from the door, feeling as warm as sunshine. Happily she walked over to her new chair and sat down in it. There were small rips in the cushions, and the material was a little scratchy, but it was absolutely perfect. Knowing what she needed to complete her new sitting area, she went to her closet and pulled out two black plastic crates. She stacked them together and set them next to the chair.
Then she went to her bed, pulled the little quilt off the end and the Bible off the nightstand. It had a new home now. It was true she needed to study, but right now she felt so close to life, she just wanted to prolong that feeling for a few more moments. She wrapped the quilt around her and curled up in the chair. Opening the Bible, she took a breath and let gratefulness for the chair, for her friends, and for every blessing she’d ever had flow through her. She was indeed blessed.
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2006