How Jeremy thought this was a good idea, Emily would never be able to figure out. In the last two hours, she’d had every item of clothing she owned on including her two Easter dresses and one funeral dress. Nothing upon nothing looked even close to right. She had no clue what someone was supposed to wear to a piano concert. Worse, whatever that was did not happen to be in her closet.
Finally, out of complete desperation she chose her turquoise puff blouse and her cream skirt with the turquoise and pink flowers. Purposely not looking at herself lest she talk herself out of even this outfit, she pulled bits of her hair up onto her head and secured them with a small gold clip.
Earrings. They were here somewhere. She looked in her closet. No dice. On the bookshelf, in every drawer, and then she remembered. Glancing at the clock and knowing he was probably already downstairs, she found the little bag of jewelry under the sink, said a small prayer that there would be two that matched, found the two silver dangly ones, and put them on. Her mother would be so proud. After all, she’d had these earrings for three years and had never had cause to wear them until tonight.
For one second too long, her gaze caught on her reflection in the mirror. “Ugh,” she said in disgust, but she didn’t have time to do any better. Turning away from the mirror, she grabbed her purse, checked to make sure she had cab money just in case, and yanked her keys from the desk. Her gaze snagged on the cross. “Oh, Holy Spirit, help.” But that was all the time she had.
Jeremy went through his options. He’d been in the lobby for a good ten minutes. Okay, granted he was five minutes early, but still. He checked his watch again as he sat on the wing-backed sofa and watched the people stream in and out of the double doors. His black jacket was uncomfortable, so he reached around and pulled to readjust it.
He shouldn’t have worn the black turtleneck. Not in September. It was going to be murder hot all night. At that moment he saw her descend the bottom step, and for a single moment he thought she looked remarkably like an Indian princess. The off-blue blouse, the cream skirt that flowed all the way to her ankles, the bronze thong shoes, the belt with the beads and straps—all setting off the deep olive skin and that barely wavy but infinitely cascading fall of black hair. Gorgeous had never meant that much.
His legs pulled him to standing, but he wasn’t sure how. “Hi, Em.”
“Hi.” Her gaze slipped to the floor between them. “Sorry I’m late.”
“It’s okay. We’ve got plenty of time.” The center of him thudded forward as he offered her his arm. “Shall we?”
For the life of her, Emily could think of nothing upon nothing to say. Every question he asked scrambled the thoughts in her brain so that she couldn’t untangle any of them. The way he looked wasn’t helping anything. GQ models would’ve killed for his clothes. Black-on-black-on-black. Shirt, jacket, pants. If he was going to walk the red carpet, he couldn’t have looked more fashion plate ready.
The car he led her to couldn’t have belonged to a college student. Silver and sleek, it shone in the late afternoon sunlight where it was parked in front of the dorms. Emily couldn’t quite get the idea that this was really happening all the way into her. Somehow she was at a car with the four rings across the front that looked like something out of a magazine she couldn’t even afford. Somehow he was opening the door for her and smiling at her and helping her in. Even when she was settled onto the soft gray leather of the seats, she had to breathe a prayer to the Holy Spirit because on her own, she had no idea how to do this.
“You good?” Jeremy asked as he adjusted the air and then hit a button on the console between them, turning on music that seemed to come from everywhere at once.
Emily could barely get the nod past the overwhelming feeling that she was in way over her head with this one.
“Cool.” With that, he backed out carefully.
It wasn’t until the words of the song started that she realized she knew this song. Confusion traced through her. “I didn’t think you liked country.”
His smile was soft. “Neither did I.”
Jeremy really wished he could wave a magic wand and ensure that every moment of the coming evening would be scripted to perfection. Unfortunately all he had to go on was his meager abilities and resources. At Chateau de Lefébvre Jeremy pulled the Audi A6 to the curb. Perfection had never felt so perfect. He got out and walked around to her door, leaving the motor running for the valet.
Her eyes held wonder but also fear and trepidation, and he noticed how she clutched her purse tighter as they made their way to the sidewalk. As if by magic the little car slipped from the curb to some unseen area.
“I love this place,” Jeremy said, leaning closer to her and hoping the awe was enough to overtake the fear. With her arm in his, they strode to the maitre de. “Reservations for Stratton.”
“Right this way.”
He felt her hand tighten on his arm as he led her through the restaurant. He only wished they could’ve arrived a little later so there would’ve been more patrons there to see them. However, it couldn’t be helped. At the squared corner booth with the soft candlelight glowing on the table with four tablecloths, he waited for her to be seated and then he took his seat, smoothing down his jacket as he did so. Now if every minute from here through the end of the night could go so smoothly, he had a real shot at making this work.
The menu was heavy, and when Emily accepted it from the waiter, she had the distinct feeling of drowning. Not a single word on the entire thing was in English. They all had little slashy marks over the e’s and seventeen letters where it looked that five would’ve done nicely. She straightened, realizing full-force the mistake she had stepped into. Jeremy was going to think she had no culture. Worse, he would be right. Burying her gaze in the midst of the unfamiliar words, she fought to breathe and to pray—neither of which were working. She felt like an absolute idiot.
“So, what sounds good?” Jeremy glanced over at her.
It took great effort to pull herself upright. “I don’t know. What are you going to have?” Breathing was becoming a real problem.
“I haven’t had a good Confit de porc et de choux aux baies de genievre since the last time I was here.”
Those were actual words in some language, Emily was almost sure; however, if asked, she couldn’t even have defined the language much less have told what the words meant.
“Oh, they also have an excellent Le duo de Filet de Veau et de Veau Braisé Osso Bucco Sur le Grain Saisi et la Truffe coulis, avec une Orange Demi-mettent–sous-verre. It’s very nice.”
She had no idea what whatever he said was, but whatever it was at least she could look like she knew what she was doing. She closed her menu. “That sounds good.”
The waiter stepped up to the table, introduced himself in that same language with all the letters, and he and Jeremy carried on a conversation of which Emily understood nothing. There was a moment when Jeremy glanced over at her, and she thought for a split second that it was her time to talk. However, the moment passed and after the full space of time it took for her to know for sure she shouldn’t have come, the waiter nodded, took their menus, and departed.
“I got a Ruisseau Blanco,” Jeremy said. “I hope you don’t mind. It’ll go really well with the entrees.”
It took an immense amount of effort not to look up to see if there was indeed a rabbit hole somewhere above her. Instead Emily smiled and let her gaze fall to the table. “I’m sure it will be wonderful.”
Silence descended then, and although she tried to locate a safe topic in her brain, nothing adult enough for their surroundings was coming. Her knee bounced four times before she got it to stop. Fighting not to fidget, she concentrated on breathing. She didn’t know enough about him to even know what other topics he might be interested in. However, the silence was beginning to smother her.
“So,” Jeremy started before her thoughts made it all the way to words, “tell me about biology.”
Funny. She didn’t remember a thing about it. Sliding one strand of hair over her ear, she glanced up at him. “It’s a lot about animals.” Hello. That was obvious, but her brain simply wasn’t working.
“You enjoy animals then?”
Her gaze never made it off the table. “I always have. It was just something I could always do.” She glanced over at him, but that made her breathing stop completely. With a shake of her head, she looked away. “When I got the scholarship, I could choose either engineering or wildlife. Wildlife won.”
“You got a scholarship then?”
“Yeah.” There was a whole story behind that word, but somehow she couldn’t find any of it.
With that the waiter brought a carafe of pale beige liquid, two wine glasses, and two waters. When he was gone, Emily took a drink of the water, set the glass down, and let her gaze travel across the restaurant. Granted she couldn’t see too much of it as the whole area seemed to be cloaked in darkness. There was a low murmur of other voices and the soft music playing on unseen speakers, but only that. Pulling her attention back to the table, she searched for a new topic. This was getting harder by the minute. “So, you’re a business major?”
She hated how high and little girl-sounding her voice was—especially when she was nervous, which would pretty much define this moment with one word.
Jeremy filled her wine glass and then his. “Yeah. Business with a minor in marketing.”
With a nod, she searched for the next words just as their salads arrived. She shouldn’t have been so glad to see the salads, but she was. At least that gave them something other to do than to talk. Her salad turned out to be remarkably good. His was too presumably because neither said another word until the salads were gone.
He took a drink of the wine. “That really is good. You should try it.”
At first she started to shake her head, but it probably cost a small fortune, so she couldn’t just turn him down. Reaching over, she took the stemware and lifted it to her lips. Whatever she expected it to taste like, this was not it. There was no sweet to it at all. In fact, it was like the hard edge of a dirty shoe. “Umm. That is good.”
Jeremy smiled, and she could tell how much he really wanted her to appreciate his effort. Thankfully, their meals arrived then, and when the waiter was gone, she managed to take a drink of water to wash down the rubber taste in her mouth. Her dinner looked delicious, and she cut into it wishing she’d had lessons in fine dining before this moment. Unfortunately she was on her own in that department. She took a bite as Jeremy watched her.
Two chews and she had to say she really was impressed this time. She put her hand to her mouth as he watched her, and she nodded. Once that bite was down, she took a drink of the water. “Very good.”
He cut into his… whatever it was. She still couldn’t tell. Even looking at it, she wasn’t sure. A cut and she put another piece of her dinner in her mouth.
“They really do good veal here. Veal can be so tricky,” Jeremy said, indicating her plate. “We were at this place in Aspen last year over Spring Break, and I don’t know what they did to that cutlet of veal, but it was the driest thing I’ve ever tasted.” He took a bite.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had veal,” Emily said, relaxing a bit as now she at least had a name to go with what she was eating that she could pronounce. The food really was good, and as long as she stayed away from the wine, maybe this wouldn’t be a complete disaster.
“Yeah.” Jeremy cut into his entrée. “Some people have a hard time with the whole baby calf thing, but to me, what’s the difference, you know?”
Not following, Emily cut another piece off. “Baby calf thing?” She put the bite in her mouth.
“Yeah, you know. Veal… baby calf. I don’t know. It freaks some people out.”
Suddenly what he was telling her made it all the way through her brain to the food in her mouth. In the next breath she thought she was going to be sick. She chewed slower and slower, trying not to think about it. When that bite was down, she took a long drink of water. How could he order her baby calf? Then again, he didn’t know about the ranch and the animals, but still… Who would want to eat a baby anything? That was just cruel.
She picked around on her vegetables, no longer hungry at all. Figuring she could at least eat the glazed mushroom on the side, she cut into it; however, the second it was in her mouth, her mistake crawled through her throat. She had to swallow before she swallowed it, nearly gagging on the slimy concoction as it went down. Jeremy, on the other hand, seemed to be having no trouble with the meal whatsoever.
“What were Rebecca and Eric doing tonight?” Emily asked, wishing she could be wherever they were rather than here. She took a drink of water, having never wanted a simple hamburger so badly in her life.
He shrugged. “Movie marathon or something. They have the big screen all to themselves.”
Emily nodded, wondering how they had gotten so lucky. Not that the big screen was any draw, but just vegging on the couch sounded like heaven in comparison to this torture. Her gaze tripped around the restaurant again. It was filling up by now, and she figured it was probably after six. They would have to be going soon. Her only hope as she pushed the vegetables around and around on her plate was that the second act of this dreadful night would be better than the first.
Jeremy could feel the perfection of the night sliding away from him; however, he couldn’t get an accurate reading as to why that was. She had said she liked the veal, but then she only ate a few bites. She said she liked the wine, but there was nearly a full glass left when the waiter came to clear their dishes away. He wanted to ask, but it was clear she was uncomfortable talking every time he asked her a question. The more he tried, the worse he seemed to make things.
He wondered where the fun Emily was—the one who sat on the floor and played spoons like the world depended on it, the one who lugged furniture down the hall joking the whole way. He wanted that Emily. By the time he looked at his watch, there was no reason to prolong the meal any further. “Are you ready?”
“Oh, yeah.” She sounded like someone on their way into emergency surgery.
The words to give her a pass on the rest of the evening wound through him. Maybe he should. Would that really be so bad? Just tell her they didn’t have to do the concert if she didn’t want to. The fact was, he didn’t want to. Three hours with pretentious, obnoxious people whose sole mission in life was to impress everyone else? It sounded like sheer agony, and yet, he had asked her, and she had said yes. The only option now was to go through with it, like it or not.
It was too bad she hadn’t had more practice at skirting the truth to get out of uncomfortable situations, Emily thought as the little silver car maneuvered through traffic. She could fake a headache. Surely he would understand that and take her home. Anything to get her out of this nightmare. However, in thirty minutes she found herself once again being helped from a car as the valet climbed in on the other side.
She didn’t know what all of this was supposed to feel like, but somehow she’d never pictured it to be this anxiety generating. The nervousness twisted through the slight feeling of needing to be ill. Thoughts of what she had eaten made her stomach knot into a tight ball when she stepped into the great hall with him holding the door for her.
In one flash she knew she should’ve said something and gone home when she had the chance. Ladies in black sequined evening gowns and men in tuxedos and three-piece suits milled about, holding champagne glasses and ah-haing. She wrapped her arms over her ribcage to deflect the displeased stares that seemed to come at her from every direction. Her skirt and shirt stood out in the midst of the sea of black like a lone flower in a field of lava. Even her shoes were wrong.
Heels. Everywhere she looked there were heels. Not professional type heels either. The strappy kind with three-inch spikes, and here she was in flat thongs with gaudy gold medallions on the top. Dying at that moment sounded less horrible.
“I think we’re up in a box,” Jeremy said, examining the tickets. He led them over to an usher who confirmed the conjecture.
“All the way up the stairs and to the right,” the usher said, pointing up the staircase that seemed to lead right to heaven.
“We could take the elevators,” Jeremy said, looking at her with sympathy.
“No, that’s okay. The stairs are fine.” However, halfway up the second flight, Emily wished they had taken the elevators. At least that way she wouldn’t have had to endure the myriad of reminders that she didn’t belong. The stares came from every person she walked past. They would once-over her outfit, frown with disapproval, and then turn back to their conversations as if to dismiss her presence completely.
She wanted to cry, but of course, she couldn’t do that, so she kept climbing. When they finally reached the third level, Jeremy put his hand on her back and led her over to a second usher. This one, a young girl about Emily’s age, led them around the wings and to a small door. Jeremy opened it for her, and Emily stepped into a mid-darkened hall. The floor where she stood was actually soaring above the heads of the theatre patrons below her.
There were two people already in the box, and her steps faltered when they looked over at her. Half-turning to deflect their glances, she bumped into Jeremy who caught her without seeming to realize why she had turned.
“Oh, Mr. Hathaway,” Jeremy said to the older man with the snow white hair. He extended his hand as the gentleman stood. “Jeremy Stratton, Sir.”
The face and name registered. “Jeremy. How nice to see you again.” He glanced down. “You’ve met my wife, Erlene.”
“I don’t believe so,” Jeremy said, falling into perfect rhythm. “It’s very nice to meet you.” He shook her hand and then resumed his place beside Emily.
“And whom do we have here?” Mr. Hathaway asked, indicating Emily with a long once-over.
“This is Emily…”
“Vasquez.” She smiled, knowing to the bottom of her soul that she was failing every test in this whole miserable night.
“Well, Miss Vasquez. It’s nice of you to join us.” Then he turned his attention to Jeremy. “So, Jeremy, your dad couldn’t make it?”
“Umm, no. His girlfriend caught a bug of some kind.”
“Ah. Yes, well that happens.”
The lights dimmed and then came back up. Mr. Hathaway turned to his seat next to Mrs. Hathaway, and Jeremy turned Emily into the seats just behind the older couple. She sat in the seat near the edge, and he took the one next to her. It took a moment for him to get his jacket adjusted. Then he smiled over at her. She tried to smile back, but everything with him took so much effort, she couldn’t be sure which of her gestures were real and which were forced to make him happy.
Again the lights dimmed, and she noticed the stage for the first time. The theatre could well have been called intimate although by her estimate it would’ve seated about a thousand people. However, it wrapped around her in a way she hadn’t felt since she left Colorado. For a long while she tried to figure out why that was. It could’ve been the soaring wooden ceiling or maybe the color of the wood itself. Warm with a slight yellow hue, it reminded her of her grandmother’s cabin.
Yes, that was it. The cabin. She hadn’t thought of the safety of that space, the warm wood, the quiet fireplace in a long time. The hustle and bustle of the city precluded meditative moments spent by a roaring fire. In those days long since past into oblivion, running was preferable to sitting. In fact, she remembered with a smile her grandmother calling her. “Emilia, stop that racing around, come sit with me and live for a moment.” What she wouldn’t have given to have a cup of hot apple cider right out of the fireplace kettle.
She could almost feel the snow outside those walls although she knew well enough that it was all of 70 degrees outside. The cold snow outside the windows in her grandmother’s cabin always made it feel a little warmer inside, and a happy but twanging ache gripped her heart as memories she had thought were long forgotten came flooding into her. With a breath she sent a silent but heartfelt prayer into the spirit world to keep safe for her the spirit of a woman who would surely be with her forever.
The house lights went down, and the stage overtook her attention. It was as if she had just stepped into someone’s living room. Although technically wide, it was cozy and inviting with the huge grand piano center stage and a variety of plants filling in the space. Trees along each side of the stage sparkled with the twinkling of tiny white Christmas lights, and adding illumination were the two small lamps on the end tables positioned just so on the stage.
As she watched, three young ladies bearing instruments strode onto stage and took their places. From the other side three men strode in and took their places as well. A young man not older than the two of them walked to center stage and sat in the lone chair just in front of the piano, facing the audience.
All went silent then in anticipation of the key performer’s entrance. Applause broke out as a man in a white shirt stepped from the curtains, took a bow at mid-stage, sat down at the piano, and with merely a nod of his head life burst from his fingertips. To the side the ladies joined in. Emily realized then that there weren’t only violins, but a cello and something between the two also.
Gentle and smooth the pipe player in front sent a soul-stirring aria into the mix. Taken in by the power of the music and the safe feeling of the space around her, Emily forgot about the looks she’d gotten and the meal and every other bad thing life had ever dealt her. Sitting back, she let the music wash over her. For one perfect moment it was easy to hear the voice of God Himself talking.
He shouldn’t have brought her, Jeremy thought as the music twisted to the end of the first song. This was about as lame as a date got. There was applause, but of course there was always applause. He wondered if the music even mattered. Had it been hideous, off-key, ear-splittingly bad, wouldn’t they have applauded just the same—as if they understood why it was so wonderful when they really didn’t. All these pretentious people with their refined tastes and fat pocketbooks. This night for them was as much or more about being seen in the right social circles as about their undying devotion to music and the arts. They might be fooling everyone else, but they weren’t fooling him.
He sucked in a breath of ostentatiously affected air as his hands met in front of him. The idea was to impress her, but if this impressed her, then he didn’t hold out much hope for them to be together. After all, did he really want to spend his life going to places he hated, doing things that didn’t interest him just to make people he didn’t even like think more of him?
It was as bad as church. That thought slammed into him and pressed him back into the chair. His gaze traveled from the stage down onto the audience below them. What possessed people to be so gullible anyway? Why couldn’t they think for themselves for a change? What made them gyroscope their every decision to what everyone else thought was wonderful? Applause rang out again, and startled, he looked to the stage to find the pianist taking a self-serving bow.
What a jerk. What a show-off. He really thought he was something with his monkey suit and seven-piece back up band. Jeremy could see what Amber liked about him. He was just her style—all show, no substance. Someone with no real values like her would certainly be interested in going to the social-climbing, self-serving event of the season. It turned Jeremy’s stomach to think about the pretenses they had all believed about his father and about life itself. It all seemed to be bound up and on show for the world to see in this whole, stupid farce of an evening.
Wishing the complete disaster of a date was over already, Jeremy glanced back at the door. He wanted to look at his watch, but that was probably impolite, so he didn’t. Still he wanted to, and it was a fight not to sneak a little glance. Maybe they could leave at intermission. It wouldn’t be the first time he and a date had absconded at an opportune lull.
“The American Indians had many names for the moons they observed in the night sky,” the pianist said as the applause died down.
Oh, brother. This guy got better and better. Jeremy sighed in disgust. He glanced again at the door, wishing he could find a legitimate reason to leave.
“One of the most important moon phases was the Harvest Moon. This song is in tribute to the inspiration of those great peoples.”
Behind the stage a gigantic video screen flashed to life—first in the image of a deep white moon which then faded into an old Indian in a full feathered head dress. Jeremy let his eyes fall closed in disbelief. They had to be kidding.
The image of the old medicine man swept Emily’s breath from her lungs. It was as if in an instant she was back in the old, brown chair on her grandmother’s lap, five-years-old and full of the potential of everything. She could still smell the soft deerskin dress her grandmother wore as she snuggled in for her nap. The gentle, wrinkled hands were again holding her as the tired but strong voice sang about the trees and the wind and the rain. How she loved that voice, how she longed for that feeling again. Her hands wrapped around herself not to ward off danger but to huddle into the feeling. She remembered the stories her grandmother had spun during those lulls in time, stories about great buffalo hunts, about the land, about the spirits.
The connection from so long before snapped back into place, and Emily closed her eyes to the images on the screen so she could again see the indelible ones painted on her heart. It was as if for the first time through the eyes of an adult, she saw the mark of the fingerprints left on her soul by all those who had already gone to rejoin the spirits they so loved.
Love and regret for all the little moments she had taken so for granted slipped through her. Back then she had thought those moments would last forever. The running through the lush green of the back forest, the washing of clothes in the ice cold stream that edged the woods because Grandma didn’t have a washing machine and didn’t want one. A smile of wonder traced through Emily at her grandmother’s reasoning. The ancestors had hand washed clothes for thousands of years on the rocks of the creek bed, and she saw no reason to change.
Simplicity, hope, belief in things greater than herself and love. Most of all love. The power of love to heal all wounds. The gentleness of love to bring those back who had wandered. “Remember you are love and to love you shall return.” Yes, her grandmother’s guiding principle was love in all its glory. Emily could feel it even now. As sure as she heard the notes blending together, she felt the presence of her grandmother’s spirit. The thought that she was supposed to be here in this magical place, that somehow she had been led here for a purpose seeped into her consciousness.
Never would she have come to this concert on her own, and yet the Holy Spirit had seen fit to bring her here just the same. The song drifted to a close, and Emily was sad to see it pass into oblivion. It was like a friend who had come to remind her of a great secret that she had somehow forgotten she knew, a guide, a mentor that left before you truly felt ready to fly on your own. She opened her eyes and sniffed back the emotions. Her hands came together to clap, and yet they made nearly no sound at all.
“You know, I think the most peaceful place in the world is when you can sit and watch a snowfall,” the pianist said so quietly, she had to drag her eyelids back open so as not to be caught in their trance. “Snowfall on the Pines was born out of doing just that.”
Next to her but back slightly, Jeremy shifted in his seat. She glanced back at him wondering if he was as awed as she was by the experience. However, she didn’t get the chance to ask because the music began again.
The lulling trills of the piano ushered in the horn and then the strings as on the screen behind them a picture of pine trees adorn with heavy snow captured her heart in one breath. Colorado. She gasped at the thought. The ache of missing home yanked her heart into her throat. Winter anywhere else could never compare.
Just walking in the meadow and feeling the stillness of the most perfect place God ever created—it had always been too amazing to be put into words. So, instead he had put them to music and through it portrayed the experience better than any words she could ever have put together. As the images on the screen drifted through one into the other, she tilted her face to the sky, feeling the soft brush of the snow falling around her as if it really was.
Growing up in the mountains, being ten and running through the forests. No place had ever been what that place was for her. No place would ever be again. It was safety and peace and joy and happiness. A place she wanted to return to so badly, it pulled ache out of her in fistfuls.
The horn soared above the floating music. It was as if she could close her eyes and be right back there again—no space, no time between them. How anyone could so vividly capture those places in her soul, she couldn’t really grasp, but there was no doubt they had.
As the final cymbal rolled, she took a deep breath and opened her eyes. Once again space and time regained their control over her reality, and she reached up and wiped at the tears clinging to her lashes. “Thank You, Holy Spirit,” she whispered. “Thank You so much.”
Not particularly impressed, Jeremy glanced over at her as he clapped. It was then that he saw her wipe her eyes, and worry stabbed into him. He looked back to the stage for some clue as to why she was crying, but there was only the cheesy living room set and the pianist with his posse.
Before he knew she was going to, Emily glanced back at him, and for one breath it didn’t matter where they were or what they were doing. All that mattered was that he was with her. Not really thinking past the wanting to, he reached over to her and brushed the tips of her fingers with his. For a heart-stopping moment he was sure she was going to yank her hand away. But then the music started again, and she relaxed into it. Her hand turned and let his twine over it. Music. It made getting her to melt into life look so very simple.
At intermission neither of them got up. Jeremy had come this far and with her hand in his, he certainly wasn’t going to do something as stupid as getting up to walk around. “Are you enjoying it?” he asked, leaning closer to her so their box mates wouldn’t hear.
“It’s awesome.” And awesomeness shone back from her eyes when she looked at him.
His heart jolted with the sight. “I’m glad.”
Emily was sure this had to be some elaborate dream. It had to be. There was no other adequate explanation for it. After all, she couldn’t be sitting in a place more perfect than heaven, with Jeremy not only sitting next to her, but holding her hand. That was not a possibility anywhere this side of reality. Almost desperately she struggled to imprint her memory with the sights and the sounds lest after she woke up, she forgot how this felt.
The waterfalls no longer seemed to be only on the screen. The clouds. The weightlessness of flying. It was as if the music somehow knew the melodies playing on her soul. Once again, she thanked the Holy Spirit for this moment. It was the only thing she could think to do for the unbelievable gift He had given her.
How anyone could sit through this concert and not be physically ill was beyond Jeremy. Smaltzy was a good word as were boring and over-the-top. The only thing that kept him in his seat past the first curtain call was the fact that he couldn’t just leave her there. He tried to surmise if her fascination was real or simply a show put on for his benefit, but in all honesty he couldn’t tell.
Still every so often when she wiped her eyes or looked completely caught up in what was happening on the stage, his attention snagged on her and stayed. She looked so intrigued, so captivated as if the rest of the world no longer existed. Explaining that would have been impossible seeing how every time he looked at the stage it was all he could do not to throw up. So midway through the second curtain call, he gave up trying to be impressed with the performance and simply let himself be enthralled with her.
When the final applause mercifully died down, he stood as he let her hand go. She stood next to him, but her attention seemed anchored to the stage for one more long moment. Her gaze swung to his then, and there was astonishment pouring from her.
“Very nice,” Mrs. Hathaway said from in front of them. She turned to the two young people in the back of the box seat. “Didn’t you think so?”
“Oh, yes, very nice,” Jeremy said with a smile so fake he felt it rake over his stomach.
“Tell your dad we missed him,” Mr. Hathaway said as he helped Mrs. Hathaway with her fur wrap.
“Oh, of course. It was nice to see you again.” Jeremy shook their hands.
“Nice to meet you, miss,” Mr. Hathaway said, and Emily managed to get her gaze all the way up to his.
But Jeremy was sure he was the only one who heard her reply. He put his hand on her back and guided her to the door. Back in the blinding light of the great hall, he had to force back the relieved exhale. She never so much as glanced at him as they made their way through the stuffed-suit crowd to the stairs. On the way down the stairs, her shoes slapped against the hard, terrazle flooring. She kept her head down, gaze on the stairs, hand on the railing all the way to the bottom.
Jeremy took the hint that they were in fact leaving and walked at her side to and through the front doors. Outside he gave his number to the parking attendant, stuck his hand in his pocket, and let his gaze flit across the streetlight lit night. He didn’t know what to say or how to say it, so he said nothing. Nervousness invaded his being, and suddenly every second it took to get the car stretched into infinity.
He glanced over at her, but she was clearly looking anywhere but at him. On his other leg, his finger bounced up and down with the waiting. A sigh of relief slid through him when he saw the little A6 pull around the corner. Like the gentleman his father had taught him to be, he helped her into the car, paid the attendant, and got in. Without a word, they drove off into the night.
Although talking felt like it might be the worst idea in the whole history of ideas, ten blocks into the drive Jeremy could stand the silence no longer. “So, did you like the concert?”
She sighed. “Have you ever felt like the Holy Spirit was talking only to you?” Her voice sounded far away.
Uncertain concern drifted through him. No. The reply was instinctive in his head, but he was smart enough to stop it from coming from his mouth. “How do you mean?”
There was wonderment in her face and awe in her voice when she turned to him. “Think about how many pieces of the puzzle God had to put together for us to be here tonight at this concert. All the hours of practice each of those musicians went through, the time and talent it took to construct the building, the hours the photographers spent putting the videos together—just so we could sit there and hear God talk to us.” She leaned back in her seat and let her gaze travel out the window. “It’s just so cool that He loves us that much.”
Jeremy was struggling to make any sense out of what she was saying. She actually liked the concert? She actually got something out of it? She thought the Holy Spirit of all things had led her there and was talking to her? What was she, completely nuts? “I guess it was okay if you like that kind of music.”
“That’s just it.” She turned to him so quickly, he leaned closer to his door to get away from her intensity. “I don’t. I mean I didn’t. I mean I don’t know. I’ve never heard anything like that in my life.” She leaned back into her seat. The breath wasn’t a sigh; it was an exclamation mark. “To be able to play like that, to be able to listen to the music God is playing in your life and to record it like that. It was like opening life itself and looking in.”
Skepticism and honest concern for her mental well being drifted over Jeremy. “Well, I’m glad you liked it.”
He let the conversation fall to a close until they pulled up at her dorms where the question of what happened next went through his thoughts. The digital read-out of the little clock said it was almost 11:15, and he wondered what he would say if she invited him up. However, after sitting there for one more minute, she took a long breath and let her eyes go closed. “Thank you.” She let her head lay over to the side so she could look at him. “I’m glad we went.”
His smile was forced. “Me too.”
With that she reached for her door handle. “Well, I guess I’ll see you Tuesday.”
And then before he had the chance to so much as move again, she was gone, walking up the sidewalk by herself, her arms anchored across her body. He watched her, unable to get a full thought through his head. It wasn’t until she had disappeared into the dorms that he realized he should’ve at least walked her to the door. At least. And a kiss wouldn’t have been completely out of the question either. After all, he did have a decent time, and he didn’t want her to think he was a total idiot.
However, the moment had passed, slipping from this realm into another. With a shake of his head, he started the car and backed out. If there could’ve been a way for the night to have gone any worse, he didn’t want to know how.
“So?” Eric asked the next afternoon when Jeremy was sitting at the bar working on Finance.
He never looked up. “So, what?”
“How was the concert? How was Emily?”
The question of how to explain it without being mean pounced on him. “It was all right.”
“All right? Just all right?” Eric was clearly digging. “Come on. A few more details, please.”
“Well, she didn’t eat anything, she didn’t talk much, and when she did, all she talked about was God and the Holy Spirit or something like that.” Jeremy raised his pen from the page. “I don’t know, man. That stuff is a little far out there for me, you know?”
“Yeah.” Eric backed up. “I can see how it would be.”
It felt like an insult. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Eric considered the question for a moment. “Well, look. You don’t go to church. You don’t read anything other than your homework. And, well, I’m not even sure you believe in God.” Eric shook his head. “I knew setting you up with Emily was a stretch. I just thought…”
Jeremy waited for the end of the sentence that never came. “You thought what?”
The hesitation was clear. Finally Eric tilted his head to the side in exasperation. “I thought maybe she would have some of the answers for you, that maybe she could say things in a way I can’t so you would see how cool it is when you let God in your life.”
“Oh, great. Now you’re doing it too.” Jeremy slammed his book.
“No.” Eric held up both hands in surrender. “I’m sorry, man. I get it. You’re not interested. And that’s fine. I just… I just wanted you to have what I’ve found.”
Frustration rammed into him. “What is it with you people?”
“I’m sorry.” Eric backed up. “That’s it. No more. Last time I mention it.”
But Jeremy didn’t believe him. In disgust he stomped to his room wishing the whole world hadn’t gone crazy at the same exact time.
“So?” Rebecca asked when she made it to Emily’s door Sunday afternoon. “How was the date?”
“It was good.” Emily turned back for her room, still trying to figure out how the date was herself. There were parts that were horrible, and then there were parts that were so incredible she couldn’t find the words.
“Good?” Rebecca followed her in. She sat on the edge of the bed while Emily curled into the chair.
“Well, Jeremy’s really nice, you know. I mean he took me to this really nice restaurant.” Her hands came up around her knees. “I just… I don’t know. That’s not me, you know? I’m not a wine and brie kind of girl.”
“You don’t have to be.”
The thoughts streamed through her, and it took a great amount of effort to catch one. “Okay. We went to the concert, right? And it was awesome, but I just kept thinking the whole time that I can’t be that person, you know? The kind of person who goes to those things like that, who wears the little slinky black dress, and the fur coat. The diamond earrings and the pearl necklaces. That’s not me.” Her mind rewound through the memories. “And Jeremy…” She had to breathe through the thought of him. “He was so dignified, shaking hands, and talking to people like it was the easiest thing in the world.”
“So you liked him?”
Emily shrugged. “What’s not to like? He’s great-looking. He’s got the car and the clothes and the checking account…”
Her gaze fell to her feet. “I grew up on ranches in the middle of Colorado. I don’t know caviar from escargot. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t be the kind of girl who would impress those people. I didn’t even impress Jeremy.”
Concern traced across Rebecca’s face. “How do you know?”
The lump lodged in Emily’s throat from the night before, and she had to swallow it to get the words out. “On the way home, I was trying to explain how it felt like the Holy Spirit was talking right to me during the concert. I could just feel Him there, you know?” Her gaze dipped. “But I think Jeremy thinks I’m a freak now.”
Rebecca smiled gently. “Well, maybe freak is a little harsh.”
“We’re just so different. He’s got his way of life, and I’ve got mine, and that’s okay. I mean we can still be friends and go on with our lives. Worse things have happened.”
“Yeah, but you would’ve been so good for him.”
With a lump of regret sitting on her chest, Emily smiled. “Well, I guess somebody else is better because I think that’s the end of that.”
By 7:15 Tuesday morning Emily was worried. Rebecca was always at her door for breakfast by five after. She walked to Rebecca’s door praying everything was all right.
It wasn’t. “Oh man. You look awful.”
Without even a hello, Rebecca turned back for the bed.
“No, you really look awful,” Emily said, following her in.
“Holly said I’ve got a 102 fever. I don’t think I’m going to breakfast.”
“Oh.” Emily glanced at the other side of the room and wondered where Holly was, but she didn’t ask. She retrained her gaze on Rebecca, and it was clear Rebecca wouldn’t be going to class either. “Well, okay. Get some rest. I’ll talk to you later.”
Rebecca barely got her hand off the bed in a wave. Quietly Emily showed herself out. It was going to be one of those days.
“Becca’s sick,” Eric said as he and Jeremy sat at the table on Tuesday afternoon. “The flu caught her I think. She sounded horrible on the phone last night.”
“That’s too bad.” Jeremy took a bite of his burger. “Oh, I forgot. Ransom told me to tell you they’re all getting together on Friday night to shoot some pool.”
“Yeah. I think their entertainment budget is shot, so it’s a low-rent night out.”
“Sounds good by me.” Eric looked up just then and started to say something, but he stopped.
Perplexed by the motion, Jeremy glanced in the direction Eric’s gaze had stopped, and he, too, froze. There, unloading her tray onto a lonely booth to the far side of the building stood Emily. When the tray was empty, she set it on the return rack, sat down, and opened her book. She never so much as looked their direction. Guilt sliced through Jeremy as he put his head down and turned back to his friend. “I didn’t mean to make her hate us.”
“Yeah. I know.” But it didn’t sound like it.
Emily wished she hadn’t come. Somehow she had convinced herself she would be able to pull off lunch as usual with them even without Rebecca by her side. However, at the last possible second, she realized, walking up, acting normal, and trying to get through lunch with the guys was simply more than she could do. So instead, she focused on eating as fast as she could as she read Biochemistry. It wasn’t great, but she’d had plenty of experience eating alone during the past five years, so one more meal shouldn’t have been all that different.
When her meal was gone, she quickly threw her things together and took the short route out the door. She was glad to escape. They probably hadn’t seen her anyway. Even if they had, it would’ve been too awkward to sit with them what with Jeremy and the whole disaster date hanging over them. Yes, it was better this way, and fortunately the only one she really had left to convince of that by this time was her heart.
“I’m glad you could make it,” Emily said to Eric as he stood on her threshold Wednesday night only half a minute late for Bible Study, head down and looking like a lost puppy dog. “Did you go see Rebecca?”
“Yeah. She’s feeling a little better.” He, however, didn’t look so good. His gaze stayed on his shoe which he kicked onto the ground.
“Good. But you’re staying, right?” she asked, glancing back into the room where the others already sat. “I mean just because Rebecca’s not coming doesn’t mean you can’t.”
When he looked at her, words went over his face that he never said. “You sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.” Even as he decided to stay, Emily couldn’t quite figure out why he suddenly seemed so awkward. Although there were many words to describe Eric, awkward and shy were not among them. It wasn’t until Bible Study was over and everyone else left that she finally began to understand. Still, the knowing came from what he didn’t say rather than anything he did. In fact, he didn’t say anything even as she closed the door on the last of her guests. However, she felt the apprehension she saw on his face just the same. “So, Rebecca’s all right then?”
Eric shrugged. “She’ll be fine. It’s nothing a couple days of rest won’t fix.”
“I’m glad.” Trying not to feel him watching her, Emily picked up the debris from the floor. She heard his movement behind her, and it only intensified the uneasiness in her chest.
“You know, this is none of my business,” he finally said, “but I don’t want you to think I’m like Jeremy.”
Softly she laughed as she glanced at him. “I know you’re not Jeremy.”
“Well, yeah, but…” He struggled to find the words. “I mean we’re friends. Right? You and me. Whether the thing with Jeremy worked out or not.”
Heat crept up her cheeks. “Yeah. Of course.”
“Really?” He didn’t sound at all sure of that.
“Yeah, really.” She was having trouble breathing. “What makes you think we wouldn’t be?”
“Well, the other day…” He seemed to be picking each word with kid gloves. “At the Student Union when you didn’t sit with us…”
“Oh.” Her head fell as she heard the hurt in his voice. “I just figured, you know, with Rebecca being sick and all…”
The intensity of his gaze shot through her. “That’s what I mean, Em. We’re still friends—you and me—even if Rebecca’s sick and Jeremy jumps off a cliff. I want us to be friends anyway.”
Gratefulness and soft gentleness touched her. He seemed so unsure that he had a place in her life as just Eric that she wanted to reach out to him. “I want that too, Eric.”
A tentative smile came across his face. “Really? Oh, good. I thought… I was afraid… You know what happened with you and Jeremy…”
She sighed as her arms came around her. “Jeremy’s a nice guy. We’re just not at the same place in life.”
Eric looked at her, and his gaze turned liquid. “Well, for what it’s worth, I think he’s the one who’s making the mistake.”
Although she didn’t believe him at all, Emily ducked her head on the compliment. “It’s either right or it’s not. And that one wasn’t. Not anybody’s fault, just the way it goes.”
With a nod Eric thought for a moment and then nailed her with his gaze. “But that’s it. Right? I mean you guys can still be friends. You don’t have to sit all the way across the room just because it didn’t work out.”
Regret for acting like a baby slid through her. “I guess not.”
“No. That was supposed to be a ‘no.’” His smile lit a teasing glint in his eyes. “No, Eric, I won’t use that as an excuse not to come sit with you.”
His teasing brought hers to the surface, and she arched an eyebrow. “Rebecca might hang me if I’m sitting with you without her.”
He shrugged. “Oh, well. It’s worth the risk.”
She laughed. “Yeah, ‘cause you won’t be the one swinging from the end of that rope.”
Together they walked to the door where he turned. “But we’re okay, right?”
“Yeah, Eric. We’re okay.”
Emily wondered for two whole days what happened if Rebecca didn’t show up on Thursday, but thankfully when she walked out of Biochemistry, Rebecca was sitting there waiting for her. “Girl, you look like the walking dead,” Emily said as concern for her friend’s health drained through her. “Why aren’t you in bed?”
“We had a test this morning. I couldn’t miss it.” Rebecca leaned her head back and came forward with a huge sneeze. “Ha-choo!”
“Oh, girl. You do not need to be out like this. You’re going to get worse.”
Rebecca’s normally unkempt hair was sticking out in weird angles all over her head. “I know. I’m going back to the dorms to go to bed, but I was here, and I wanted you to tell Eric I’m not going to make it tomorrow night.”
Worry bounced through Emily, and she hugged her books closer to her chest. “You can’t call him?”
“I was going to. Ha-choo!” Rebecca was looking worse by the second. “But he doesn’t get out of class until four. Haa-ha…” The sneeze dissipated as they walked out into the sunshine. “I was afraid I would miss him. Ha-choo!”
Emily shook her head with concern. “Becca, girl, for Pete sakes. Go home already. I’ll tell him.”
“And tell him I’m sorry.” Rebecca was walking, but Emily wasn’t sure under what power. “Ha-choo!”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure Eric is perfectly capable of spending an evening or two alone.”
Rebecca dabbed her eyes with the soggy Kleenex in her hand. “Ha-choo! I’m sorry. He wanted us to go play pool with them on Friday, but… Ha-ha-ha-choo!”
They were almost at the Student Union. “He can play singles.”
“I feel really bad.”
“You look really bad.”
“No about canceling.”
“I’m sure Eric will understand.”
“Oh.” The word made Rebecca sway twice. “I hope so.”
Emily smiled. “I know so. Now would you get to bed before you get the whole campus sick?”
With that, Rebecca nodded and walked off. Emily heard the punctuation of three sneezes before she was out of hearing range. Shaking her head, Emily turned and dragged herself up the stairs. Trepidation slammed into her when she saw them sitting at the usual table; however, today, she couldn’t let that stop her. Today she was on a mission, and even fear wasn’t enough to stop her. “Hey.” As if it was the most normal thing in the world, she stepped right up to their table. “I’m going to order. Save my seat.”
She set her books on the table between the two guys and went over to the counter. Trying to push the apprehension so far down it couldn’t get her, she folded her arms over themselves, ordered, and then waited. “They’re just guys, Em. They’re not going to eat you. Calm down.” Nonetheless, it took three breaths and more force than it should have to get her feet going back over to their table when her sandwich arrived. Moving without letting many signals from her brain really into her system, she unloaded her tray on the table.
She didn’t even look in Jeremy’s direction although she felt him look at her. “Rebecca’s sick again. She sounds terrible. I saw her after class just now, and I told her to go home and get some rest.” Emily talked without pause, feeling her nerves coiling around her. She almost smacked Jeremy with the tray when she swiped it from the table, and he had to duck out of its path. Biting her bottom lip, she searched for a place for it. Finally she took it to the tray return all the way across the room then strode back over to the table, pulling on the bottom of her shirt, and praying she wouldn’t trip or otherwise humiliate herself.
Once on the chair, she ran her fingers through her hair and flipped it over her shoulder. “Becca said to tell you she won’t be able to come on Friday for the pool tournament either. I’m telling you, she really looks awful. I’ve never seen her so sick. Holly said her temperature was 102 on Tuesday, and I bet it’s every bit that today.” She took a bite and chewed quickly. “If she’s not better by Saturday, I’m taking her to the doctor for some antibiotics myself. There’s no reason to kill yourself over the flu bug.”
“Maybe I should call her.” Eric pulled out his cell phone.
“No.” Emily held up her hand and then had to chew faster so she could get more words out. “She was going straight to bed. I was supposed to tell you, she’ll try to call later tonight.” She felt Jeremy’s gaze slide over her, but that only made the tight nerves knot further and the words go faster. “I’ll check on her when I go back in a little bit. She just didn’t want you to worry.”
“Oh.” Eric didn’t look at all certain about that. “But she’s not coming for sure Friday?”
“Nope. Friday is definitely out.”
“That’s too bad, buddy,” Jeremy said, leaning back in his chair. “Looks like your secret weapon is out of commission.”
He sounded so cocky and arrogant Emily wished she had hit him with that tray after all. What friend gloats over another friend’s illness?
“Well, I’m free Friday night,” she said purposely keeping her gaze on Eric. However, once it was out of her mouth and she had both of them staring at her, she wasn’t at all sure where that statement was headed.
“You want to play pool?” Eric asked, his eyebrows rising skeptically.
She shrugged. “Sure. Why not? I’m sick of studying. Besides I’d hate for any of those desperate single girls out there to think you’re available. You know how pathetic they can be.”
Eric looked at Jeremy in open shock. “I think I have a date.”
“Yeah,” Jeremy said, not sounding at all thrilled as he tossed his napkin to the table. “Sounds like it.”
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2006