As predicted Rebecca was still in bed on Friday evening, sleeping off the effects of a 48-hour bug that had lasted 96. She was by Emily’s last assessment on the road to recovery. However, despite Emily’s best efforts to get out of the “date” with Eric, Rebecca insisted that they go and have fun for her.
And so, Emily found herself trudging up the Student Union Building steps wondering where this stupid idea had originated. She pushed into the warm, softly lit building and angled her steps to the left, promising herself a couple games and she would find a way to call it a night.
“Emily!” Eric practically yelled. “You made it!”
Heys and hellos came from several of his friends who stood and sat at the tables around the pool tables. Ransom was shooting and pulled up so her entrance didn’t completely destroy his shot.
“Hey, everybody.” Emily slipped out of her well-worn denim and sheep wool jacket. It had been her work jacket back home, and it had taken ten washings to get the cow-ranch stench out of it when she first came. By now, however, it was all but citified. “Who’s winning?”
“Ransom.” Eric walked over to her. “We’re toast.” He sat down next to her on one of the stools and leaned closer to her. “How’s Rebecca?”
“On the mend.”
He nodded, looking preoccupied and concerned but obviously trying not to let on to his friends.
Emily did a quick once-over of the assembled friends but didn’t find the one she was looking for. She didn’t dare ask, so she buried her hands in the front pockets of her jeans, which made her low pigtails slide further down her shoulders.
Eric glanced at her. “You playing?”
“I think I’ll just watch.”
Jeremy was late, and Jeremy was never late. In fact, he was born three days early. However, life had conspired to ruin everything in his preparations to get ready. He’d cut himself twice shaving, and one spot still hadn’t stopped bleeding. The shirt he’d thought would be perfect turned out to have a huge stain on the front which hadn’t come out in the last load of laundry he’d done. Even his normally perfectly-pressed jeans had an annoying white stripe down them because he hadn’t thought to snap them out before he put them in the dryer, and he hadn’t been to the dry cleaners in a month.
In a huff of frustration with himself he climbed the steps to the Student Union seriously considering turning around and going back home. What did he need to be out here for anyway? Home studying, working on his marketing presentation—that’s what he should be doing. Instead he was here, walking in to be with friends and wanting to be anywhere else.
“Hey, Jeremy made it!” Ransom called from across the room.
Heys and hellos avalanched on him.
“’Bout time you show up,” Eric said, catching his neck in a loose headlock.
“Yeah, well…” Whatever words followed that were whisked away when his gaze caught on Emily sitting with Desi and looking way too incredible for the sanity of his heart. With effort he turned to Eric. “So, who’s winning?”
Emily felt the air leave the building the second Jeremy stepped into the group. Her gaze betrayed her vain attempts to keep her attention from him. It was over. There was no them. There never was, and there never would be. Still he looked so good, in that smoke black jersey knit shirt over the white T-shirt underneath. It made him seem even more tan, and his easy smile and happy laugh traced through her heart.
“So, Emily, Eric tells us you’re studying biology,” Desiree said.
“Wildlife management,” Emily said, desperately trying to find a topic so interesting that she would forget about the guy standing across the room.
“Wildlife management?” Zoë asked skeptically. “What exactly does one do with a wildlife management degree?”
Emily shrugged, wishing she could breathe long enough to think straight. “They can be game wardens or manage hunts on private ranches.”
Zoë backed up a full two inches. ”Hunting? You hunt?”
“Not here.” Emily laughed. “But I used to… back home.”
“And where is home?” Desiree asked, sounding not nearly as judgmental as Zoë did.
“Remlin, Colorado.” Emily nodded as she ripped her gaze from him and anchored it on the table. “It’s about an hour west of Denver.”
“Oh, then you must ski,” Zoë said.
“Some. Mostly cross country though. Remlin doesn’t really have a ski mountain.”
“Cross country what?” Eric asked, and Emily’s head jerked up so fast her body spun with the motion.
“Skiing,” Desiree said. “So what kind of hunting do you do?”
Emily shrugged, wishing she’d never mentioned it. “Deer, elk…”
“You hunting? I can’t picture that,” Eric said incredulously.
This had sounded so very simple. Just why it had was now a mystery. Emily wished she’d stayed home. She tried to shrink into the protective embrace of her shoulders. “It goes with the territory. My dad used to take me out to help thin out the coyotes. They’d kill all the cattle otherwise.”
“But isn’t that… dangerous?” Zoë asked.
“If you don’t know what you’re doing, it is, but my dad was really strict about what we could do and what we couldn’t do while we were out there.”
“Eric, your shot, man,” Ransom called from the pool table.
“Yeah, did we come here to talk or to play?” Jeremy asked, and Emily heard the hard edge of annoyance in his voice.
She wound her arms over her middle and searched for a way out of the limelight. “Umm, I’m really thirsty. I think I’ll just go…” She slid off the stool.
“Oh, wait up,” Desi said. “I’ll go with.”
His pool game was going to be as great as everything else in his life was, Jeremy decided after his third shot missed the target completely.
“Man, Jer, you need lessons,” Ransom said, shaking his head.
“That or a stiff drink,” Eric said. “Step aside. I’ll show you how a real man does it.”
“A real man or a boy?” Jeremy shot back. He went over to the table and sat down, exasperated with himself for his lack of focus. From all the way across the room she snagged his attention as they came back to join the group. That voice and that smile drifted through him, and he shook his head. If he didn’t find a way to get past this, he was going to go seriously nuts.
Unfortunately for Jeremy, Desi and Zoë reached the tables first and sat in the far chairs. By the time Emily got there, the only one left was back-to-back with his. He noticed how she hesitated when she saw the set up and how her gaze fell to the floor. When she sat down, she wrapped one arm across her middle and turned away from him slightly. Not saying hello would be obvious and rude. However, saying hello might kill him.
Her gaze traveled up and straight past him to the pool tables.
“Hey,” he said softly.
She smiled the barest of smiles. “Hey.”
“You not playing?”
When she shrugged, her dark hair that fell across her shoulders went up too. “I don’t play unless they have to have somebody.”
“Jeremy, your turn,” Ryan said. Jeremy stood, swaggered to the table, took a shot that he didn’t even see, and went back to sit by her.
“Nice shot,” she said.
“Oh, yeah, well…” He tried to think of more, but the gears in his brain were jamming. Frantically he searched for a new topic. “So how’s youth group?”
She sighed in exasperated disgust. “Ugh. Don’t ask.”
“Still bad, huh?”
“I let them play basketball after fifteen minutes last week if that tells you anything.”
He was once again summoned to the pool table. Quickly he took the shot and went back to her. “That stun gun is still available, you know. All you have to do is ask.” He let the joke wind all the way into his face.
She smiled at him, and it made it into the sparkle in her eyes. “You know as bad as this is going, I might have to take you up on that offer.”
“Did I hear right?” Desi asked, laying her hand across the table. “Did you guys go to the Williamson concert last week?”
Like she’d been caught kissing her boyfriend on the porch, Emily spun and cleared her throat. “Hmm. Oh, yeah.”
“So was it good?” Desi asked, obviously enthralled.
“I heard it was awesome,” Zoë said gushingly.
“It was fun,” Emily said, and it sounded like she really meant it.
Jeremy’s heart caught.
“Jeremy. Your shot,” Ryan said.
“Man, would you get your priorities straight and quit hanging out with the ladies?” Ransom asked.
On his way around the pool table, Jeremy whacked Ransom on the chest. “What? You jealous or something?”
Just as he was getting ready to shoot, Jeremy’s gaze snagged on her watching him from under the low pool light, and his being filled with the feeling. Taking his gaze from her, he carefully zeroed in on the four ball. With a stroke that was pure genius, the white ball rolled in slow arcs past two other balls, clicking and sinking the four.
“Gee, if you’d shoot like that all the time, we might have a real chance here,” Ransom said.
Jeremy strode around the pool table and lined up his next shot. Focus and peace flowed into him. A stroke and the two fell as well.
“Man, where’d he come from?” Eric asked Ryan.
“Hey, you invited him,” Ryan retorted.
The mock-annoyed look on Eric’s face was a bonus for Jeremy. “Eight ball, side pocket.” Time slid into a slower rhythm. A practice stroke and another, and Jeremy sent the white ball into the eight ball, which rolled twice and dropped into the side pocket.
“Nice,” Ransom said, holding up a hand for Jeremy to hit.
“That’s the way it’s done,” Jeremy said. He walked over and sat back at the tables.
“Okay,” Desi announced, standing from the table. “Enough of this guy stuff. It’s the ladies’ turn.”
Emily waved them off. “You all go ahead.”
“You sure?” Zoë asked.
Emily wasn’t sure which was worse, pool or talking. She was bad at both, but talking to Jeremy was more fun than pool—so long as they stayed to safe topics like baseball and school. “So, how about those Red Sox?”
At 11:45 the party broke up mostly because the building would be closing in fifteen minutes. Emily followed them all out the doors liking the fact that for one night they had felt almost like her friends instead of the adopted variety.
“So, are you going home?” Eric asked when they got to the sidewalk.
She glanced in the direction of the dorms down the sidewalk. “Yeah. It’s not that far.”
A silent but not unintelligible conversation passed between Eric and Jeremy, and trying not to notice, Emily ducked her head. “Well, see ya Tuesday.” She started down the sidewalk. Five paces from them, she heard him.
“Hey, Em, wait up.” In a heartbeat Jeremy was walking beside her step-for-step, and her heart slid through her chest at the realization.
She wanted to protest, but words failed her. Actually oxygen failed her as well. Emily shielded herself with her arms against him and the slight chill, not at all sure which was making her shiver.
“Listen,” Jeremy started when they had walked far enough that every fifth step was surrounded by darkness that the lights didn’t quite reach, “I wanted to say I was sorry about the other night.”
Instinctively she huddled away from him. “No. I had a good time. Really.”
“I know, but I feel like a jerk. I didn’t even walk you to your door.”
She tried to smile to reassure him, but it didn’t even reassure her. “Hey, you spent Fort Knox on dinner, I think you did your part.” However, it was hard to get anything out because every miniscule glance he sent her way stole the breath from her lungs.
“Yeah, but it kind of felt… I don’t know. Incomplete?”
Her feet carried her ten more steps as her brain battled about whether or not to say what was struggling to get out. Finally, she dipped her head and just said it. “I know. I’m sorry too.”
“Sorry?” He sounded surprised. “Why?”
She shrugged. “The whole Holy Spirit thing. I know you’re not into that. It just… I was so… wow, you know? And then you asked me, and it just kind of came out.”
His gaze drifted away from her. “I guess I’m not really used to people going around talking about God and stuff like all the time.” He put his hand in his pocket. His gaze bounced to her but didn’t hold. “I don’t really know what to say back.”
“Just say what you feel,” she said as her gaze traced to his face. “What you think. What it meant to you.”
He laughed softly. “There’s a tall order.”
Her smile hurt. “Yeah, I guess so.”
They had gotten to the dorms, but instead of going in, Emily sat down on the brick flower planter that flanked the sidewalk. She leaned on it more than sat, and after only the briefest of hesitations, he spun on his toe and joined her.
“It was nice,” she said, “tonight. Being out.”
“Yeah.” Then he glanced at her. “You don’t go out much, huh?”
Slowly her shoulders folded over her. “I’m not real good with crowds.”
He nodded. “But they seemed to like you… Desi and Zoë and the guys.”
She tried to think of something to say to that compliment, but she knew they were only being nice, only including her because of Rebecca. And Jeremy was only here now because Eric forced him to be. Those thoughts wound through the feelings of acceptance from earlier, twining all the way down to the place she had thought she’d left in Colorado all those years ago. The understanding pushed her up off of the planter. “Well, thanks for walking me home. I’ve really got to go.”
“Oh… okay.” He stood awkwardly as she started for the doors. “Tell Rebecca I hope she gets to feeling better.”
“I will.” Her gaze chanced up to his, and the pleading apprehension in his soft brown eyes tore through her consciousness. With barely a breath she yanked the door open and fled for her life.
Jeremy didn’t leave right away. Instead, he stood, fighting to understand the dichotomy that hung around her every move. She was beautiful but didn’t flaunt it. She was fun to be with and yet always seemed on the verge of escaping. She had more deep thoughts in her little finger than he’d had his whole life, but the only time she shared them was when she was caught off guard. He shook his head. There was far more to Emily Vasquez than he had believed.
One part of him said he wanted to understand the puzzle that was her more than he wanted the next heartbeat, but another part said she was weird and he should stay away at all costs. Finally, he struck a deal. He would be around her when she happened to be around, and when she wasn’t, he would go on with life as if she had never brushed through his life. It sounded so easy.
“Why do you think Peter was afraid to get out of the boat?” Emily asked, struggling to make a connection with any of the kids at the table. No one answered. They weren’t even looking at her. “Would you have gotten out?” Still no reaction. She looked around the group in desperation. “Leslie?”
Leslie purposely glanced over at the refreshment table as the noise in the room threatened to overwhelm the conversation completely.
“Would you have been scared?” Emily tried the other side of the table, letting her gaze slide from Matt whose head was down on his arms to Jalile. She tried a different tactic. “I would’ve been scared. No way would I have stepped out of that boat. I can’t even swim very good.”
Across the room one table of kids broke up and the lot of them raced for the basketballs. In the next instant getting anything else done was hopeless. Emily sighed. “Fine. Go play.”
Amazingly Matt was the first one out of his seat.
“I don’t know what to do anymore. I’ve tried everything but standing on my head, and I don’t think that would even work,” Emily said on Thursday as the four of them sat around the table. She had spent most of Wednesday night Bible Study searching for some answer, some guidance that didn’t seem to be headed her direction. “I even planned the lesson out this week, I mean to the word, and it still tanked. How am I supposed to teach them if they won’t even listen to me?”
Rebecca’s gaze was full of compassion. “Do you hear yourself? I, I, I… Em, you don’t talk like that. What happened to the Holy Spirit will show me what to say? What happened to let them be where they are? Let them come to you?”
Humiliation seeped into her, and she glanced at the arm next to her. Jeremy’s arm, and presumably he was listening as well as sitting. “I just feel like such a failure, like I’m letting them all down.” Then she sighed. “I know. I, I, I… but that’s how I feel.” She shook her head in complete defeat, ran her hand through her hair, and let her head flop down on her palm.
Clearly sensing Emily’s discomfort with at least one of their tablemate’s listening, Rebecca ratcheted her tone and her intensity down a notch. “Hey, you’re there, and if you let Him, He’s right there with you. Do you really think He would’ve put you there if He wanted someone else to be there?”
“I don’t know anymore. There’s that one kid, that one I told you about, the one who falls asleep all the time. I heard this weekend that his parents are going through a really messy divorce. That’s got to be so tough. I can’t even imagine what that’s like, but I know if he could see how much God loves him, that would help. I know it would. But how do I tell him that if every time I start talking, he goes to sleep?” A silence draped over the table that Emily was too caught up in her own struggle to notice. “I just want to help him so bad, but I don’t know what to say, and he won’t even talk to me… or to anyone. How do you help somebody like that?”
Neither Rebecca nor Eric seemed capable of answering much less of looking at her. Suddenly from beside her, Jeremy slid his arm off the table.
“I think you just stand there, and you let him know you’re not leaving too,” Jeremy said.
Surprised, Emily looked over at him.
“People don’t care what you know until they know you care.” His glance barely made it to her face. “Have you ever talked to him—not teaching him, just talking to him? Find out who he is?”
Her memory twined through her time with Matt. The honest answer hurt. “No. I guess not.”
“Do you know what his favorite sport is? How’s he doing in school? What does he love to do?”
She realized how very little she knew about any of them. They were names around a table, barely even faces. A phrase ran through her and slid from her heart without her permission. “Remember you are love…”
His gaze narrowed in confusion. “Huh?”
Understanding wafted through her spirit. She smiled in gratefulness. “Something my grandmother used to say.” When she looked at Jeremy, there was no hiding what she was feeling. “Thanks. I needed to hear that.”
It felt like purposely taking on a rattlesnake, but Emily was determined to use what Jeremy had said with Matt. It might not work. It might not help, but now she didn’t really care. She wasn’t here to teach. She was here to love, and if she did that, the rest would work out.
“Hi, Matt,” she said, getting her first opportunity five steps into the door.
He turned to her in surprise, his flame red hair in a wild mess of curls on his head. “Oh, hi, Miss.”
She smiled at him and walked to her table. Milling there were Jalile and Leslie. “You guys are early.”
They looked at her with wide-eyed apprehension. She put her books on the table and walked around to their side. “So, now I’ve never asked. Do you two go to the same school?”
They looked at each other as if they had no idea how to answer that question. Jalile was the first to get anything out. “No. She goes to Eastland. I go to Granger.”
“But you both go to church here?” Emily realized at that moment she’d never thought to look for any of the kids at her table during church. Somehow the fact that they all went to the same church had escaped her.
“Yeah. We go Sunday mornings,” Leslie said, “when Ben’s home.”
“Oh.” Emily glanced at Jalile to give her an opening.
“I go with my brother to the teen Mass on Saturday nights.”
“You know, I’ve heard that is really good,” Emily said, “but I’ve never been.”
“Oh, yeah, it is. I’m going to try out for the choir next year,” Jalile said.
“The choir? Really? Wow. I wouldn’t make it two minutes singing.” Emily laughed. “I don’t think God even wants to hear me sing.”
“But they do really cool songs.” Jalile turned so she was actually talking to Emily not just reluctantly acknowledging her presence. “Not those boring, old organ songs like the Sunday morning choir.”
“Like what?” Emily asked truly interested.
Jalile thought for only a moment. “Like…” And with that she launched into a hip-hop rendition of Amazing Grace that Emily had never heard.
Midway through the second verse, Charlie called time for class. Jalile finished, and mesmerized, Emily barely had the presence of mind to take her seat. “Wow. That’s completely awesome, Jalile. Are you in the choir at school?”
Jalile’s gaze dipped to the table. “Well, I would be if…”
Concern went through Emily. “If…?”
“If you’re not passing everything, you can’t be in any of the outside school stuff.”
“Oh.” That could’ve been the end of the conversation, but Emily couldn’t leave it there. “Well, what are you having trouble with in school?”
It took a moment for the answer to come. “Science.”
Emily almost laughed out loud. The others took their seats around her. “You know, Jalile, I’m a science major. Maybe I could help you sometime.”
Complete shock went across Jalile’s face. “Really?”
“Sure. Why not?” It occurred to Emily that it was time to start the lesson. She reached out her hands to the two students on either side of her. Remarkably they took hold of her hands. “Dear Lord, We put tonight into Your hands. Give us the words to be You for each other. Amen.” She pulled forward and then looked at Jalile. “Would you like to lead us in a song?”
Shock fell into speechlessness and then into a megwatt smile. “Sure.”
“And then she sang,” Emily said, capturing Jeremy’s heart as surely as it appeared hers had been captured at that moment. “She has this incredible voice. I was just like, ‘Wow!’ And to think I would’ve totally missed that if I’d kept trying to do my lessons and get them to listen to me.”
She was so excited, it lifted him. Jeremy watched her in fascination as the story continued. The thought of asking her out again drifted through his mind, but he batted that away. She would never say yes again—not after the disaster he’d made of their last date. Still to sit and watch life through her eyes made his heart do funny things. It was all he wanted to do for forever.
Forever was turning into longer than Jeremy ever could have imagined. The time together eating on Tuesdays and Thursdays felt a blink, and yet those blinks were what he gauged every other minute of the week by. How much longer until the next time he got to sit and listen to her? How many more minutes until life felt right again? Even the Holy Spirit talk was getting less grating although in truth, he still didn’t understand any of it.
Late September had slid into October and then late October, but as hard as he tried, Jeremy couldn’t get the incredibly insane idea of asking her out again to leave him alone. Finally he’d had all he could take. Thursday afternoon as they left the table, he angled himself between her and the others, hoping she wouldn’t laugh at him, to the point that he thought he might be sick. “Hey, Em. Umm, I was wondering…”
With her books once again held tight against her, those brown eyes that seemed so deep that he couldn’t find air again turned to him. All the words to finish his sentence went right out of his head. For a moment she looked expectant, and then expectant fell into concern. “Wondering…?”
His mouth was sun-caked dry, and every word he’d been practicing for a month was suddenly nowhere to be found in his brain. “Well, umm…” He dropped his gaze in a desperate attempt to figure out what he was supposed to be saying. “I was wondering if you’re not doing anything on Friday… I mean if you are, that’s okay. I was just thinking maybe dinner and a movie might be fun. You know, if you’re interested.”
He couldn’t help but notice how much tighter she gripped her books at the mere suggestion. The air outside was decisively fall and sliding toward winter. She seemed to huddle into her sheepskin jacket either away from the cold or away from him. He couldn’t tell.
“Okay,” she finally said as if the word might strangle her.
“Yeah?” His smile felt like it was going to burst his chest.
She nodded. “Yeah.”
They parted at the bottom of the stairs. He didn’t bother to tell Eric. He’d find out soon enough anyway, and Jeremy wanted this feeling all to himself for as long as possible.
Why had she said yes? Why? As soon as she turned back for the dorms followed closely by Rebecca, Emily closed her eyes and shook her head. Her heart was hammering away in her chest so violently that no breaths could get in. She had to be completely insane. What had changed in a month? He was the same guy he was in September, and yet hope just wouldn’t let her say no.
“You got plans this weekend?” Rebecca asked.
“Oh, you know.” Emily shrugged. She said no more, wanting to save this moment just for a little while longer because it might be a dream, and if it was, she never wanted to wake up.
In dress jeans, a smoke blue and gray checked shirt, and his light black leather jacket, Jeremy waited at the bottom of the stairs for Emily. Tonight was going to be perfect. It had to be. He had decided to dress it down a bit—no upscale, chic façade this time. Nice but not fancy. When he caught sight of her gliding down the stairs, no books to hinder his view, he knew without question he had to get this right, sweep her off her feet, show her he was wonderful enough to merely be in her presence. “Hey.”
She smiled, but it was a shy, gaze-lowering kind of smile. “Hi.”
There was really no reason other than politeness to ask the next question. In a white close fitting v-necked knit shirt topping gold-embroidered jeans, she was obviously ready to go. However, he asked anyway. “Ready?”
How one smile could do that to his heart he wasn’t at all sure. “Yeah.”
Emily had never been to Border’s Bar & Grill, but it sounded decidedly better than Chateau de Lefébvre. Quiet, however, was not on the menu at Border’s. The clink of silverware on plates, the six guys surrounding the bar in the center, voices on top of voices, and the hard stone floor, which echoed every sound back up into the room conspired to make the atmosphere overwhelming when she entered with Jeremy right behind her.
He walked up to put their names on the list as Emily wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the noise and the people. She hated crowds. Maybe it had something to do with growing up in the middle of nowhere, but for whatever reason, loud, crowded spaces were not her first choice to occupy.
Jeremy’s face was awash in anger and concern when he got back to her. “It’s going to be a 30 minute wait.”
“Oh.” She backed into the little alcove to let another group pass by. “Do you want to go somewhere else?”
The anger dropped further into a scowl. “No. We leave it’ll be an hour at the next place.”
She nodded. “So we wait.” She leaned on the wall behind her, seeing there were no chairs.
“We could get seated quicker if you don’t mind the smoking section.”
Her eyebrows shot for the ceiling. “No. I think we’ll just wait.”
He didn’t look at all happy about that decision, but clearly he didn’t have a better plan. So together they leaned against the wall, arm to arm, watching the people stream in. Intermittently someone would be called over the loudspeaker. “Jones Party of 6, your table’s ready.”
Every so often Jeremy looked at his watch and exhaled. Thirty minutes had never felt so long. Finally after Emily began to wonder how eternity compared.
“Stratton table for two.”
Thanking God above that He’d been listening. She stood and followed Jeremy right at his back through the tables filled with people to a booth along the side as members of the wait staff bustled past them.
“Is this okay?” the youngish waiter asked them.
Jeremy eyed it with disdain. “I guess.”
Emily got in one side; he got in the other.
It was hard not to notice the noise as it permeated everything. She took her menu and was thrilled this one was in English. After a few minutes of letting her peruse the choices, Jeremy looked over at her. “What sounds good?”
“I was thinking maybe the Swiss burger.”
“A burger?” he asked in horror.
“Oh,” she said, hearing but not understanding her mistake. “Or a club sandwich.”
From the furrowing of his eyebrows, she surmised that was worse.
“Their Chicken Teriyaki is really good,” he said. “Why don’t you try that?”
“Oh.” She looked down at that choice, trying to remember if she’d ever had Chicken Teriyaki. “Well, that sounds good, too.”
Jeremy shifted in his seat and glanced at his watch. “What’s taking them so long? At this rate we’re going to miss the movie.”
Taking his cue, Emily surveyed the restaurant, willing the waiter back to their table. At that moment, if she could’ve snapped her fingers so the night would be over, she would have.
“They always bring rolls right out,” Jeremy said, becoming increasingly agitated. The moment before Emily thought he would actually get up and cause a scene, the waiter reappeared.
“Sorry about that wait.”
Jeremy mumbled something as he scrutinized his menu.
“That’s okay,” Emily said. “It looks like it’s crazy tonight.”
The waiter smiled at her gratefully. “Oh, you can say that again. There’s a high school basketball tournament around the corner this weekend…”
“We’re ready to order,” Jeremy said, breaking into the conversation.
“Oh, of course.” The waiter whipped out his order pad. “Go ahead.”
Jeremy looked up at her, and Emily jumped to attention. “The Chicken Teriyaki please, and a Coke.”
The waiter turned to Jeremy.
“I’ll have the Porterhouse steak, well done. Baked potato, no chives, and we’d like an order of mozzarella sticks for an appetizer.” A drink order and the waiter left.
Without a word, Jeremy broke into the bread, buttered a piece, and handed it to her.
“Thanks,” she said, wondering where she was going to put all this food.
It was as if the fates were conspiring to bring this evening down. The harder Jeremy tried to get things going in a positive direction, the sharper they moved away from him. If he didn’t get control soon, she was going to think he was a complete idiot.
“So how has youth group been?” he asked just as the numbskull waiter brought their appetizers but no drinks. He set them on the table.
“Do you need anything else?”
Incredulous, Jeremy gazed at him, hoping his displeasure was evident. “Drinks?”
“Oh, yes. I’ll be right back with those.”
Yanking patience to him, Jeremy glanced back at her. “How’s Matt?”
She picked up one cheese stick and without getting either marinara or ranch dressing, she took a bite. “Depressed. I don’t blame him though. Now he only comes every other time. When he’s with his dad, he doesn’t come.”
Jeremy took a stick, dunked it generously in the marinara, and glanced back at the kitchen wondering what was taking them so long. “Yeah. The divorce thing is tough enough. At least I was old enough to be out on my own, so I didn’t have to deal with the part about who to live with.” He took a bite and looked back at the kitchen. “Where are our drinks? This is ridiculous.”
At that moment the waiter arrived from the other corner of the restaurant, drinks and salads in hand.
“It’s about time,” Jeremy muttered. He cleared table space to set the food as the waiter set the drinks and plates on the table. Then he noticed there was no silverware. If this could get any worse, he didn’t want to know how. “Umm. Silverware?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Sir. Of course.”
Jeremy was hanging onto patience with both hands even as it slipped away from him. It was three whole minutes before the silverware arrived. Emily continued to eat the same cheese stick—presumably saving the others for the next famine. Finally the silverware showed up, and Jeremy tried to remember the previous topic.
“So your parents are divorced?” she asked, reminding him with a snap.
The ache that never really went away sliced through him, but he covered it expertly with nonchalance and a bit of salad. He took a drink to further bury the heartache. “Yeah. Last semester.”
Emily stopped, fork in midair. “Last seme…? Oh, my gosh. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Yeah, well it happens.” He shrugged as if this topic wasn’t killing him.
The waiter picked that moment to arrive with the remainder of their food. The timing of course was atrocious. Emily gave her salad and appetizer plates to the waiter and accepted her entree. At least she’d order something that cost more than two dollars to prepare. Who got a sandwich when they went out to eat anyway?
He slid the salad to the side and accepted the steak. However, the instant the potato dish joined it, his blood hit boiling. “I said, ‘No chives.’ Did I not?”
Quickly the waiter checked the ticket. “I’m really sorry, Sir. I can get you another if you’d like.”
“Well, yeah. I’m paying good money here. I think if nothing else, it should be right.”
The waiter picked up the offending dish. “I’ll be right back.” Then, he stopped and looked at Emily. “Is everything all right for you?”
There was that smile again, the one that played through Jeremy’s dreams. “It’s great. Thank you.”
The waiter seemed to take a breath, which annoyed Jeremy. “Good. I’ll be back.”
When the waiter was gone, Jeremy exhaled. “I swear. I cannot believe how bad the service is tonight. I am not leaving a tip. That’s for sure.”
She had taken two bites of her chicken, but she wasn’t talking.
With both hands, he jerked the conversation back on track. “So, how is it?”
“Umm, very good.” She cut another piece. “So the divorce happened last semester then. I bet that was rough. Did you know it was coming?”
Salad finished, Jeremy turned his attention to his steak. Cutting it with a vengeance felt very good. “Mom called me one morning and said Dad had left. He went to be with Amber somebody. Apparently it had been going on for awhile although neither Mom nor I really knew.” When the inside of the steak was revealed, rage burst through him. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me! Look at this.” Fury snaked around his sanity. “I ordered well done, and this is still bleeding. Where is that waiter?”
Fortunately the waiter walked back up at that moment, or Jeremy would’ve had to go to the kitchen. Looking like he’d rather be in Siberia, the waiter set the potato on the table. “Here you go, Sir.”
“Look at this meat!” Jeremy thundered. “Look at it! I ordered well done. Does this look like well done to you? I want to see the manager.”
Across the table Emily wanted to disappear into the woodwork. Okay, there were a few problems, but it wasn’t enough to call in the Navy Seals. However, Jeremy was clearly livid. She knew he was keeping his voice down as he talked to the manager, but it was obvious he wanted to scream.
“The service here has been horrible from minute one. The courses were brought out randomly. My potato was wrong. We didn’t get our drinks. There was no silverware for half of the meal.”
The list continued as Emily fought to escape the disgusted stares of others in the restaurant. Finally the manager agreed to pay for their meals as well as to correct the offending steak.
Still in a snit, Jeremy agreed and sat back to wait, clearly seething. “I do not believe this. You go out. You spend good money, and you get served by a bunch of nitwits who wouldn’t know good food if it bit them. You can bet I’m never coming back to this place again.” He seemed then to remember he was sharing his table. “So, tell me again, how’s youth group?”
Never in her life had Emily been so glad to finish a meal. She felt bad for everyone involved—especially the waiter who was obviously overloaded and equally apologetic. When Jeremy stood to leave, she had a thought. “I need to use the restroom.”
He looked at his watch in annoyance. “Okay. I’ll be by the door.”
She nodded and escaped the other direction. Once in the restroom, she opened her purse and pulled out her emergency cab money. It wouldn’t cover all of it, but it would at least pay for hers. Walking back out, she angled her departure by their booth and dropped the money on it. At least she wouldn’t have to feel guilty forever.
At the movies Jeremy collected the tickets he’d already reserved over the Internet. Opening weekend for the hottest movie in town. All the shows were abuzz about this one. It was a sure bet that this, finally, would impress her.
“Do you want some popcorn?” he asked.
“Popcorn.” Wide-eyed, she stared at him as her hand crossed to the other shoulder where her purse hung. “I don’t think so.”
She was making this impressing thing far harder than it had ever been before.
“I’ll get some, and you can have some of mine.”
He’d spent another twenty dollars by the time he made it back to her side. “Ugh. That line is ridiculous.” Without really consulting her, he led her to the ticket taker and then to the theatre. Just as they arrived, the lights plunged off and the screen came to life. Great. Now they had to find seats in the dark. He was glad he’d talked that manager into paying for their meal—now they were late on top of everything else. He pointed with the box of popcorn. “How about over there?”
Emily stuck her thumbs in her back pockets and shrugged. Diligently she followed him up the eight rows and then past seven people to the closest things to decent seats still available.
However, when he sat down, Jeremy twisted in fury. “Oh, great. These seats don’t recline. I forgot about that.” He exhaled as the shrieking of the sound system overtook everything else. He leaned over to her. “You want some popcorn?”
Arms securely across her middle, Emily shook her head, and he couldn’t help but think with her hands tucked between her ribs and her elbows like that, she wouldn’t be eating anything for a very long time.
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2006