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THE STORY OF US © 2014 by StephanieHenry
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This novel is fiction. That means allof its content including: characters, names, places, and brands,are products of the authors imagination or used in a fictionalmatter. Any similarities to actual people, living or dead, placesor events are purely accidental.
The Story of Us
This isn’t a bad story,but it’s not an entirely good story either. This is the story ofus. Of me, really. And of the guy who changed my life. But, not inthe he-swept-me-off-my-feet-and-then-everything-was-alright kind ofway. No. He walked into my life like a thunderstorm would the sky,stirring things up and shaking me to my core. He was unsettled anduncontrolled, definitely not the safe bet. But just like a goodthunderstorm, he was also wholly beautiful. His presence couldn’tbe ignored. He awoke something within me that I didn’t even knowwas there. And after you’ve seen the sky in a thunderstorm’saftermath, the everyday ordinary blue just looks a little too dullin comparison.
“Hurry up, Hailey!” I yell from thedoorway to my best friend. “I want to get out of here before my dadcomes home!” I re-organize the bins and boxes in the back ofHailey’s car while I wait. Although it’s nearly afternoon now, thesun is nowhere to be found. It’s a dark and dreary day, one thatpromises rain in the near future. The slight breeze in the airbrings the smell of a late summer storm. I inhale deeply, greedilycherishing it.
Hailey walks out of my childhood housewith the last box of my belongings in her hands. “You’re still notgetting along, huh? I thought he’d accept your decision by now.” Ican’t see her face over the box but I can hear the sympathy in hervoice.
“Ugh. No. If anything, it’s gottenworse.”
She places the box in the back of hercar where I’ve made just enough room.
My father keeps trying to convince methat an Ivy League college is where I belong. It doesn’t matter tohim that it’s too late to enroll somewhere else even if I wantedto. He’s certain that he could pull some strings, throw a lot ofmoney at someone to fix the problem that is his daughter. He thinksI must be certifiably insane to want to attend a stateschool.
“I’ve explained it to him a milliontimes over the summer. I don’t want to be at some stuck-up schoolwhere I’ll end up with some stuck-up roommate and have to makefriends with some… some…” I search for the words.
“Stuck-up students?” Hailey offerswith a smirk.
“Well, yeah,” I admit. “I mean I knownot everyone there would be stuck-up, but still. I don’t know thosepeople. I know you. We planned on rooming together since we startedour freshman year of high school, maybe even before then. I don’tremember. It’s always been a given. I can’t imagine us not going tothe same college.”
“I know,” Hailey says seriously. “Ican’t either. But you know, when we promised to room together wayback then, neither one of us thought we’d be going to a statecollege. We talked about Harvard and Yale. We had these enormousdreams. You know I’d understand if you wanted to go somewhereelse.”
“No. Stop. I have todefend my decision every single day to my dad. Don’t make me startdefending myself to you too. Iwantto room with you. And you want to go to the samecollege as Drew. Drew received a full scholarship to WSC so that’swhere we’re going. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with statecolleges. We dreamed that big because it’s what was expected of us.Our parents drilled Ivy League into our heads from the moment weentered junior high. And as much as I love to spend my parent’smoney,” I joke, “it’s just really not worth it. We’ll get the sameexperiences at WSC, I’ll be closer to my family, and you’ll becloser to your mom. It just makes sense all around.”
“I know. I just feel guilty thatyou’re sacrificing your college experience just so that I can bewith my boyfriend. I can’t help but feel like I’m beingselfish.”
“You’re not being selfishbecause it’s not your choice. Where I go to college ismychoice. You’re notmaking me go. It’s my decision. I’m a big girl. If I felt like Iwas sacrificing anything, I would tell you to kiss my ass as Iwalked away.”
Hailey laughs because she knows I’mkidding. “Okay. Sorry to bring it up again. I know you have a hardenough time trying to justify it to your dad. I don’t need to addto it.”
“Speaking of, let’s get out of herebefore he comes home… because if I have to sit here and rehash thiswhole conversation all over again with him, I just might requestanother roommate after all.”
Hailey chuckles while closing the backdoor, then jumps into the driver’s seat, ready to take off. I pausefor a moment, looking at my house. Or rather, my parent’s housenow, since technically I’ll have a new address. I know I’ll be backhere, but somehow this feels like the end. Next time, it’ll just beto visit. I’ll be a visitor in my own house. Er, my parent’s house.I shouldn’t be feeling so sentimental about leaving, especiallysince I spent most of my childhood at Hailey’s house anyway. But Ican’t help it. Even though my parents worked a lot and I’d opt forstaying over a friend’s house instead of being lonely here, therewere still moments when we were all here together. Happy moments.Moments that define my time in this house. Not daily occurrences,but moments nonetheless. I take a deep breath as I repress thegloomy feeling that starts to overwhelm me, and then I jump intoHailey’s car. This is supposed to be a happy time – best friends,on the road to our future, completely independent for the firsttime ever. I find a good song on the radio and blast it to lift mysullen mood. Hailey laughs and we both start singing loudly andvery off-key as we pull out of the long driveway and head down thestreet on our way to the place we’ll call home for the next fouryears.
An hour and a half later, we arrive oncampus and Hailey immediately finds Drew. Drew’s mom is here too,helping him unpack and get settled. There’s a lot of parents here,helping their kids. Hailey’s mom will be here later tonight, whenshe gets out of work. My parents, however, have promised awelcome-to-college dinner soon. It’ll be at a very expensiverestaurant, I’m sure. And I doubt they’ll even step foot on campus,never mind see my dorm room. I know I sound bitter, but I’mactually not. I’ve accepted my parents’ shortcomings a long timeago. I know that they’re better at their day jobs than as actualparents. They spend long hours at their respective offices. They’venever baked me cupcakes and brought them into school on mybirthday. They’ve never actually brought me back-to-schoolshopping, although they’ve always given me money to go with Haileyand her mom. They’ve never been to one of my cheerleadingcompetitions. They’re just not like other parents. But, it’s not asbad as it sounds. They show they care in other ways. My mom sticksup for me whenever my dad gets too strict. When he thinks I shouldbe studying and getting better grades instead of joining thecheerleading squad or hanging out with friends, it’s my mom whoreminds him that I’m a teenager and should be allowed to act likeit. If they miss something important, like a school play or acheerleading competition or junior high graduation, my dad sneaks afew $20s into my backpack, which is his way of saying ‘I’m sorry,’without actually having to say it. Both of my parents have alwaysbeen extremely career driven. When I was younger, I spent a lot oftime at my grandmother’s house. I was eleven when she passed.Coincidently, my friendship with Hailey grew deeper and I startedspending a lot of time at her house. She’s more like a sister to methan a best friend, which is why we planned on rooming together incollege. It was a no-brainer.
“Valerie! How are you?” Ms. Delmont,Hailey’s boyfriend’s mom, greets me as we walk up to thecampus.
“I’m good, excited actually,” I tellher. “How are you?”
“Proud. Sad. You know, the typicaldilemma of a mom sending her boy off to college. I’m glad to seeDrew enrolled. I’ll just miss him is all.”
My smile fades a bit. “Yeah. That’sunderstandable.”
I hadn’t thought of how hard this mustbe for her. Drew and his mom had been separated for most of hischildhood. They only re-connected last year when he found her, bypure chance, with the help of Hailey. I often get jealous of Drewand Hailey’s relationship, how deeply in love they are with oneanother. Sometimes I think I’d give anything for that kind of love.But then, I remind myself of all they’ve been through. Both of themhave had to deal with more family drama than anyone should everhave to. When I think of everything they’ve had to endure, suddenlyI’m not so jealous anymore. I’ll take my life over either of theirsany day, true love found or not. Still, I can’t help but dreamabout a day when someone will love me like Drew loves my bestfriend. Don’t get me wrong, I’m truly happy for them. But, everyonewants to feel that kind of love for themselves.
“Well, I’ll live,” Ms. Delmont states,bringing me back to reality. “I’ll miss my boy, but I wouldn’t haveit any other way. College is where he’s supposed to be.”
I just smile in understanding as shewalks over to talk to Hailey. I give them privacy to talk and headout to help Drew unpack our things. It’s times like this when I’mthankful that at least one of us has a boyfriend. At least we havehelp with the heavy lifting.
“Okay, I’m guessing this isn’tHailey’s,” he teases, holding up a pink furry lamp.
“Hey! It could be!” I arguedefensively.
He doesn’t say a thing, but gives me aknowing look.
“Okay, whatever it’s mine. What’s sobad about this? It’s a cute lamp!”
He raises his eyebrows incontradiction as he responds, “Sure, if you’re twelve.”
I grab the pink zebra-striped lamp outof his hands and add it to the box I’m picking up. Drew and I giveeach other a hard time, but really he’s not so bad. He’s perfectfor Hailey and she’s truly happy with him. He treats her right anddoesn’t try to intervene or take away from our girl time, so hegets the best friend stamp of approval. The only thing that’schanged with Hailey is how serious she’s become. She used to bemore giggly and fun. Not that she’s not fun now, but she’s justmore… mature. I’m not sure if it’s a side effect of falling in loveor from her family situation though. A little over a year ago,Hailey found out that her dad was having an affair. It was acomplicated one that lasted over a decade and left a lasting impacton the whole family. Like I said, not jealous of their familysituations at all. So, maybe it was the divorce that caused her tobecome more somber. Then again, maybe it’s just all part of growingup. For the most part, Hailey’s still Hailey. But sometimes I missthe more carefree, laid-back, engaging Hailey. Maybe then Iwouldn’t have to be on the WSC cheerleading squad all by myself. Istill can’t believe she chose not to try out. She’s a bettercheerleader than I am, so I know she would have made the team. Butshe says she’s just not into it anymore. I tried my hardest to talkher into it, because honestly, cheerleading won’t be the samewithout her, but she wouldn’t budge.
“Val,” Drew calls, “Can you give me ahand with this one?”
He’s trying to pick up a longrectangular box and can’t grab it at both ends, so I grab the endfurthest from him and help him carry it up to my dorm. When wereach our door, Ms. Delmont is just coming out.
“I’m going to take off, Drew, leaveyou to help the girls and settle in. Don’t hesitate to call if youneed me, for anything. Seriously, even if it’s in the middle of thenight. You know I’m always here for you.”
I can see the tears welling up in hereyes so I lower the box down and Drew follows my lead. The momentfeels private, so I make up an excuse to give them the time theyneed to say goodbye.
“Well, I’m parched. If you’ll excuseme Ms. Delmont, I left my water bottle inside. It was really niceseeing you again.”
“Of course. Likewise, Valerie. I hopeyou’re time here is amazing. I hope this is a great experience forall of you.” She forces a smile through blurred eyes as she turnsback to Drew.
I smile and slip back inside, where Ifind Hailey staring out the window in our common room.
“What’s so fascinating?”
She physically jumps before turningaround to face me. “Holy Jes- You scared me half todeath!”
“I noticed.” I laugh at her shockedexpression. “What were you doing?”
“About? Did Ms. Delmont say somethingto you?”
“No, nothing like that. I’m justwondering if I made the right choice.”
“Oh no. We’re not doing this again,” Iwhine. We’re here and we’re staying. Get Ivy League right out ofyour head. State college is not-”
“It’s college in general,” sheinterrupts. “Maybe I shouldn’t be here at all. It’s kind of selfishto leave my mom right now, don’t you think? She’s never been alonelike this. And Ms. Delmont says this guy she met keeps asking herout on dates. She keeps saying no, but Ms. Delmont seems to thinkthat she’ll cave soon.”
“So Ms. Delmontdidsaysomething.”
“Well, yeah, I guess. She was tryingto make me feel less guilty though. She was trying to convince methat my mom’s moving on with her life, that she won’t be lonelywith me gone. That she’ll probably even be dating soon. But now I’mmore worried than ever. I mean, who is this guy? What if he turnsout to be some scumbag and I’m not there to help her seethat?”
“Your mom’s a big girl, Hailey. Shecan take care of herself. She’s doing great without your dad. She’sway more independent than she used to be. And plus, she has Ms.Delmont, who is going through the whole empty nest thing too, soshe won’t be alone. It’s nice that they’ve becomefriends.”
“That’s what Ms. Delmont said, too.That they’ll help each other. But still, I feel like this is aselfish move.”
“Sacrificing your collegeexperience to stay home with your mom wouldn’t do anyone any good,including your mom. Because shewantsyou here. And if you stayedhome for her, she would have to live with that for the rest of herlife. She would feel guilty for depriving you of your collegeexperience. It would eat at her and you know it.”
Drew enters the common room with asmile that drops as soon as he looks in Hailey’s direction. “What’swrong?” He asks with a look of pure concern.
It’s moments like this that hit mehard. I try not to be jealous of Drew and Hailey’s relationship.But the fact that he enters the room and instantly knowssomething’s bothering Hailey, without any obvious signs – nocrying, no yelling, only a subtle look on her face – I can’t helpbut want that. I’ve never been the overly romantic type, but whenit’s flaunted right in front of my face nearly every single day,it’s hard not to miss it, despite the fact that I’ve never hadit.
“Take care of your girl, Drew. She’shaving a moment,” I tell him. And then I walk out to find theclosest coffee shop.
My coffee addiction is becoming aproblem lately. I’m not sure when it got this bad, but somehow it’smanaged to control my life. I need a cup of coffee at least threetimes a day. Sometimes more than one cup in a sitting. And if I tryto go without, I get extremely tired and I’ll have a headache allday. I know it’s a problem, but I can’t seem to get it undercontrol. The stormy air outside fuels my craving even more. Ifollow the path to the middle of the quad and look around. Whydidn’t they show us where the coffee shop was on the college tour?Coffee is essential to college students! I try to remembereverything the guide had said on the tour, so I can eliminate whatdirection it won’t be in. I refuse to be one of those freshman whocarry around a campus map, so I struggle to draw directions solelyfrom memory. To the right, down the hill, is the math and sciencebuildings. Straight ahead is the library and behind that is theEducation and auditorium buildings. Behind me a ways is thepsychology center and in front, but a little to the right side ofthat, is the English hall. To the left of me is the administrationbuilding and the cafeteria. I think I remember there being a pizza& sub shop somewhere around there, so I head in that direction,figuring it’s my best bet.
As I walk, I watch all of the freshmanmoving their things into their dorms. There are a lot of parentshelping. A lot of sad goodbyes. And a lot of eager jumping up anddown when they leave. This is the start of a new life. I know itsounds cliché, but it really is. It’s closing a chapter that I knowby heart and opening one that’s blurry and unclear. It’s scary ashell, but in a good way. The possibilities are endless.
When I get to the cafeteria, I noticethe pizza shop just behind it. The delicious aroma makes its wayinto my path. What a cruel trick. No doubt I’ll be gaining thefreshman fifteen. Who would eat crappy cafeteria food when there’sdelicious greasy pizza to be had? As I approach the pizza shop, thecoffee shop finally comes into sight. Aha! I knew I’d find it overhere with the treasured pizza. I know I’ll be visiting this sectionof the campus often.
The coffee shop, or The Grind, as thesign refers, is a small building with floor-to-ceiling windowsaligning the whole front, with the exception of the bright reddouble doors. A bell chirps when I open one of the red doors; thekind that lets someone know they have a customer. I instantly lookaround, but no one’s here, not even an employee behind the counter.I take a deep breath, inhaling the intoxicating smell of coffee.It’s easily my favorite smell in the whole world. There’s tablesplaced up against the windows and a couple smaller ones filling inthe gaps between those tables and the coffee counter. The counteris extremely long, nearly the length of the whole building. On thecounter, they have a register, various pastry items for sale, creamand milk canisters, multiple types of sugars, stirrers, napkins, arefrigerator filled with juices, and the list goes on. Above thecounter are hanging star-shaped lights. Behind the counter, hung upon a long brick wall, are five chalkboards aligned side-by-side,each with the names and descriptions of the different coffees theyoffer. It reminds me of a Starbucks, but not quite as fancy. Arustic, more run-down Starbucks.
I wait for a couple minutes, lookingaround and taking everything in. Then I start to get frustrated. Isanyone even working here? I wait another minute and then I go overto the door, open it and close it again so that the bell chimesonce more. Then I continue to wait.
Finally, the door behind the counteropens and I hear laughing. Giggling, actually. And then I see acouple entangled in each other’s arms, fully dressed, but intimatenonetheless.
“Ahem,” I blatantly declare, making mypresence known.
“Oh!” the girl exclaims, suddenlynoticing me. She actually looks a little embarrassed, although sheknew full well that she was coming out into the public area of thecoffee shop engaged in the arms of some guy. And just when I startto think about what kind of a guy this must be, who’s unashamedlygroping this girl in public, he turns around.
“What the hell?”I shriek, half in disbelief, half in confusion,and maybe a little in anger.
“Princess?” He asks, with a sidewayssmirk on his face.
Suddenly, the little bit of anger Ihad turns into full blown rage. I want to slap the smirk off of hisface. I want to slap him for calling me princess. I want to slaphim for whatever he was doing with this girl. I want to slap himfor being here, at WSC, altogether. “What the hell are you doinghere?” I manage to ask through gritted teeth.
He laughs before answering, and Iswear it pisses me off even more. “I work here.”
“Why do you workhere?”I shout.
“Because I need the money,” henonchalantly answers.
I glance over at the girl, who is nowstanding a few feet away from him and looking extremely confused,and then I turn my gaze back to him. I try to control my anger, butit still comes through. “I mean, why are you here atWSC?”
“Because I go here.” Heshrugs.
My eyes go wide. “You’re enrolledhere? You live here?” I ask in disbelief.
“Yepp. Luckily for you, this could bean everyday occurrence,” he replies, with that same smirk on hisface.
I want to say a million things inreturn, but instead I just walk out.
“What. The. Hell.”I demand, when Iwalk back into my dorm room. Drew and Hailey just stare blankly atme in confusion. I march right over to Drew, “Youmusthave known Craigwas here. Why wouldn’t you tell me?”
His expression goes from surprised tounderstanding in a matter of seconds before he responds, “He askedme not to.”
Hailey looks over at him in surprise.I can tell she didn’t know either.
“Why? Why would he ask you not to? Andwhy would you listen?”
“He’s my friend, Val. He didn’t wantyou to know. I respected that.”
“You helped him blindsideme!”
“Okay, okay.” Hailey intervenes,calmly. She turns to me, “So he’s going to school here. So what?It’s not a big deal. You shouldn’t care, Val.”
She knows she has me, because if itwas anyone else, it wouldn’t matter. Why would I need to know thatone of Drew’s friends is going to be at the same college as us? Iwouldn’t. Except it’s Craig. And he gets under my skin.
Ever since Hailey and Drew starteddating, Craig has been a major pain in my ass. Actually, it startedbefore that. But since Drew and Hailey are dating, I have to put upwith him because he’s Drew’s friend. He’s from the same small townas Hailey, Drew, and I. But Hailey and I went to private school,while Drew and Craig went to public. But even still, I knew ofCraig’s reputation. I’d never have anything to do with him if itwren’t for our best friends dating. I still don’t understand howsweet, innocent Drew could ever be friends with a guy like CraigMorgan. But because he is, and he’s dating my best friend, I’ve hadto deal with Craig on more than one occasion. He taunts mereligiously, calling me ‘princess’ because he thinks I’m a snob,but more so because he knows I hate it. He flirts with meendlessly, again because he knows I hate it. He’s never seriousabout it. He hooks up with every girl he comes across. And now Ican add stalking to the list of reasons Craig annoys the crap outof me, since he followed me all the way to WSC. He’s like anirritating fly. He infuriatingly buzzes around as I dodge him.Then, just when I start to think we can coexist, he comes back justas aggravating as ever. I can never seem to get rid ofhim.
“I’m sorry, Val. In hindsight, Iprobably should have just told you,” Drew admitssincerely.
I take a deep breath. Iknow it’s not really Drew’s fault. I’m not really mad athim. “No. He’s yourfriend. I guess I can understand. If Hailey asked me not to tell myboyfriend’s friend something… if I had a boyfriend… I wouldn’tbetray that either.”
We all stand for a moment in awkwardsilence.
I decide to break the ice. “Well, heworks at the coffee shop. So, Drew, I think you owe it to me to godown and get me a coffee now, since there’s no way in hell I’mgoing back there today.”
Drew chuckles, “Okay, fair enough. Youwant anything Hail?”
“No, thanks. I’m not as obsessed withcoffee as Val. I don’t need, like, six cups a day,” she teases,making fun of me. She gives Drew a small kiss and then he heads outthe door.
I turn to Hailey, “I just don’tunderstand why he’s even here. All summer me, you, and Drew havebeen talking about WSC and Craig’s never mentioned even applyinghere, never mind attending.”
“I know. I didn’t know he was cominghere either. Do you think…” she trails off.
“Do I think, what?”
“Well, it’s just that… you guys have ahistory. Do you think he came here for you?”
This makes me literally laugh outloud. “No. For one, we don’t even have a history. We have mutualfriends. That’s it. And two, he was tangled up with some sluttygirl before he noticed I was even in the coffee shop. No way hecame here for me. Not even a possibility.”
“See, the way you said‘slutty’ girl, makes me think there may have been some jealouslybehind that statement,” Hailey accuses, smiling like she knows asecret. “And besides, youdohave a history. I’ve seen you curled up with himon a couch all night, dance with him to a slow song, and even hangout with him alone on occasion.”
“You’ve also seen me slap him acrossthe face,” I point out. Sure, I’ve found myself having a soft spotfor Craig once or twice, thinking there’s more to him than the badboy everyone else sees, but in the end his true colors always comeout. “I’m not doing this again, Hailey. I’m not going to sit hereand try to convince you that I don’t have feelings for Craig. We’vehad this conversation so many times before. Why can’t you justaccept that I don’t?”
“Because I think that you do, but youdon’t think that he’s serious about you. You think he jokes aroundabout being into you. But I see the way he looks at you, Val. He’sserious. He just plays it off as a joke because he’s constantlyrejected by you.”
“You’re right. He’s so serious aboutme, he has to mend his broken heart with a variety of willingwomen,” I bite back sarcastically.
“Okay, he’s a bit of a player. Butstill-”
“As my best friend, you’re supposed tokeep me away from guys like Craig, not push me towardsthem.”
Hailey’s taken back, herface stricken with seriousness as if I just slapped her. I didn’tmean to make it sound like she’s not a good friend. Sheisa good friend. Butsometimes I think she pushes me towards Craig simply because itwould be cool for two best friends to date two best friends,regardless of the fact that he’s a player and I will surely end upbrokenhearted.
“You’re right,” she whispers.“Truce?”
“Truce,” I agree, not wanting to makeher feel any worse. “Now, let’s spruce up this place. This issupposed to be fun and exciting. I need a serious pick-me-up afterseeing the overly irritating Craig Morgan.”
The first thing I unpack is my IPodspeaker. I search through my purse for my IPod, having a hard timefeeling for it with the millions of things cluttering it up. Ifinally feel it and pull it out, at the same time making a mentalnote to clean out my purse when we’re all settled. I set it to my‘party songs’ playlist and Hailey and I get to work. That’s thething about music – you can always count on it to change your mood.If you want a good cry, listen to a sad song. When you want tocheer up, blast the fun ones. We dance around each other, unpackingour clothes and putting them away first. Then, we start to set upour room. Before we know it, Drew’s back with my coffee. I want toask him about Craig, if he said anything about me or not. But Irefrain. I don’t want to get the ‘why would I be asking if I didn’tcare?’ speech. Drew only stays for about twenty minutes and thentakes off back to his own dorm to finish unpackinghimself.
“Val, what should we do about thecommon room?” Hailey asks.
“I guess we just wait.” The commonroom divides two dorm rooms, forming a small living room for us tohang out in. Neither of the girls from the other dorm room haveshown up yet. “They’ll probably be here tomorrow,” Iadd.
“Knock, knock,” Hailey’s mom, Jane,says through the open door. Hailey runs over to give her mom a hugand I follow suit. Jane has been like a second mother to me formost of my adolescent years. It’s nice that she’s here, since myown parents aren’t.
“I brought pizza for my collegegirls,” she announces with a bright smile.
The three of us sit around eatingpizza and talking for a while until it’s time for Jane to take off.Since Hailey’s parents divorced, Jane has been more like one of thegirls than a parent. I’m sure it’s weird for Hailey, but I thinkit’s great that we can talk to her about anything. I speak moreopenly in front of Jane than I ever would my own mother. We don’thave a long, drawn-out goodbye because we know that she’ll be backto visit, and Hailey’s promised to spend every other weekend athome. And if I’m being honest with myself, this means I’ll be thereevery other weekend as well.
“So, this is it,” I say to Hailey,after her mom leaves.
“Yepp. Our first night at WSC,” sheresponds.
I can’t stop the smile that begins tospread across my face. “Let’s go explore!” I exclaim, not givingHailey a choice in the matter, but rather pulling her along with meas I exit our dorm room. She protests at first, but I keep pullinguntil I hear her laughing behind me.
We find our way to Drew’s dorm and hisface lights up when he sees Hailey. He gives her a hug like hehasn’t seen her in years and then introduces us to his roommate,Tyler. From the looks of him, Drew lucked out. I always thoughtwhen you didn’t request your roommate like Hailey and I did, thatyou’d end up with some gothic, heavy metal punk. But Tyler looksnormal. He looks a lot like Drew actually, but with darker featuresand slightly more refined. He looks like he comes from money, likehe could be a snob, except I don’t get that snobby vibe fromhim.
“It’s nice to meet you both,” hepolitely says. “I don’t know anyone here, so it’s definitely niceto meet a few people before classes start.”
“Where are you from?” I askhim.
Well, I was right about his familybeing wealthy. I’ve never met anyone from Connecticut who wasn’tpretty well off. I guess it’s a ritzy state. “So why WSC? If you’reall the way from Connecticut?”
“I guess I just didn’t want to followin my brothers footprints. He graduated from Yale last year. Iwanted something different.” He shrugs.
I nod in understanding. Although Idon’t have any siblings, I can definitely sympathize with wantingsomething different from what your family expects. “What’s that?” Iask, pointing to the blue and gold helmet on his side of theroom.
“Oh, my football helmet.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed,” I tell him,without thinking of how offensive that sounds until I see the lookon Hailey’s face. “I mean… most football players are big, scaryguys. And you don’t look scary at all,” I add, trying to salvagemyself from completely offending the guy. It’s not that he’s smalland scrawny, but he’s not entirely jacked either.
He laughs, not minding the comment atall. “Well,” he counters, “I can tell right off the bat that youtwo are cheerleaders.”
“Iam. But my bestie here has decidedto abandon me this year and take a break from cheerleading justwhen it starts to matter.”
Hailey gives me a pointed look. “Ijust don’t want to cheer this year. Drop it, Val.”
“Fine,” I sigh. I know it’ll turn intoan argument if I don’t.
“Tyler’s a great running back, fromwhat I hear,” Drew says, probably just to break the ice betweenHailey and me.
“Well, time will tell,” Itease.
He smirks back at me, “At least I knowyou’ll be there to watch all of my games, whether you want to ornot.”
“Yeah, but I’ll be cheering more thanwatching.”
“Still, knowing you’re right therewill give me a reason to try harder.”
I pause for a moment, not expectingthe obvious flirtation.
“So when’s the first game?” Haileyasks, saving me.
“Two weeks from Friday. You guys gonnacome watch it?” He asks Drew and Hailey.
“I’ll be there. I wouldn’t miss Valcheering. I might not be on the squad, but I’ll still support mygirl.”
“And ifmygirl is there, then I’ll be theretoo,” Drew says with a smirk, holding Hailey tighter.
“Awesome,” Tyler exclaims, genuinelyhappy.
After a few more minutes of smalltalk, I see Hailey whisper something to Drew and then she turns tome. “It’s getting late Val, wanna head back?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I thought there’dbe so much more nightlife than this in college.”
“A lot of the students aren’t hereyet. More will be moving in tomorrow,” Tyler informs us.
“Want me to walk you back?” Drewasks.
“No. We’ll be fine,” Hailey insists.She reaches up on her tiptoes to give him a small kiss as Tyler andI stand awkwardly pretending not to witness it.
“So, Tyler seems nice,” Hailey says,as we’re walking back to our dorm.
“Yeah, he does.”
“So, what do you think?” shepresses.
“Seriously, Hail? Why does every guyyou meet need to be a ‘let’s-fix-Val-up-with-him’ kind of guy?Can’t I just be happy to be single?”
“Are you happy single? Because I thinkyou’d be happier not single.”
“Right now, I’m happy to be in collegeand to be free to explore my options. Let’s just leave it atthat.”
The next morning, I wake up to thesound of people talking. Two girls, I decipher. And then banging.And then laughing. And then more banging and somerummaging.
“Hailey!” I half whisper, half yell. Ican see her stir, slowing waking up. “Pssst, Hail!”
“What?” she asks, groggily.
“Someone’s moving in!”
She pauses to listen. Just outside ourdoor, we can hear girls talking. I can only make out part of whatthey’re saying. Something about a T.V. and couch. Andmermaids?
“Let’s go meet our neighbors,” Iwhisper to her.
When we walk out into the common room,the girls look surprised to see us. “Hey.” I yawn, still sleepymyself.
They scrunch their eyebrows as theylook at one another. “Hi. You guys stayed here lastnight?”
“Yeah. I’m Valerie and this isHailey.”
“Oh! I didn’t think you guys would behere so soon. I’m Julie and this is Ashley.”
My first impressionis:Shit.Twoblondes. We’re practically living with two blondes. Not justblondes, but bleach blondes. I don’t think they could get anyblonder. My worst nightmare. They look like they could be twins,except Julie has a long, pointed nose and Ashely’s is morebutton-like. Also, Julie’s hair looks natural; almost white. AndAshley’s has the faint hint of brunette at the tips. They’re bothsize double, maybe even triple, zeroes. And the contrast of Julie’seyeliner with her white-ish hair and fair skin is unnerving.They’re like mini, modern-day Barbie dolls.
“You guys already know each other?”Hailey asks them.
“Yepp. Best friends from the womb. Ourmoms were best friends,” Ashley tells us.
“Were?” I ask, catching the past tenseshe used.
“Were,” Julie simply states. “Now,what are we doing about the common room?” She slyly changes thesubject.
“We brought an extra T.V., a smallstand for it, and a couple of chairs,” I tell them.
“Perfect,” Julie says, “We brought acouple side tables, and a rug. That should be all we need. We don’twant to clutter it up or anything.”
“Do you guys need help taking stuffin? Hailey asks. This is why she’s a better person than I am.Because my first thought is – why should we help them? They weren’there to help us.
“No. We actually have to get ready forcheering practice and then Julie’s boyfriend and his friend arecoming to unpack us,” Ashley explains.
“Oh, Valerie’s on the cheerleadingsquad too!” Hailey boasts.
“No way! Get out of here!” Ashleyscreams.
“Awesome!” Julie smiles, but isdefinitely less enthusiastic. “We didn’t see you at try-outs,though.”
“I got there early, so they let me gofirst. They told me I made it and told me when the first practicewas. That was it. I didn’t see anyone, other than the three judges.Were there a lot of girls there?”
“Ashley and I went together. When wegot there, there were three other girls waiting, so we waited withthem until it was our turn. By the time we went, there were twomore girls who showed up. So only five others that we know of. Andwe’re not even sure if all of them made the squad.”
“Well I guess we’ll find out how bigof a squad it is in about an hour. I’m actually gonna go get readynow,” I tell them, heading into my dorm room to get my stufftogether.
“We can all walk over to the athleticbuilding together!” Ashley yells in my direction.
Hailey doesn’t end up walking overwith us because she wants to go see Drew instead of watch thepractice. So it’s just me and the bleach blonde twins. To behonest, they’re not as bad as I thought they’d be. They’re actuallykind of nice.
“So how long have you been cheering?”Ashley asks.
“A few years. Hailey’s actually acheerleader too. She’s got years over me, but she chose to take abreak from it this year.”
“That’s too bad. It would have beenfun for all of us to be on the squad together,” Julie softens,seeming genuinely disappointed.
“How about you guys? Have you cheeredlong?”
Julie answers, “All of high school.It’s gonna be so weird trying to remember a different school namein the cheers, and to wear different school colors.”
“Where are you guys from?”
They tell me all about their hometown,only about two hours away, opposite direction of mine and Hailey’sthough.
When we reach the athletic building,there’s a bunch of girls on the lawn right out front stretching andwarming up, so we jump in and quickly follow suit. It’s a nicemorning, weather-wise, not too hot, but not chilly at all. A womanwith short dark hair walks over, blowing a whistle, and we allfreeze in place.
“I’m Diane, your cheerleading coach.Before we get started, I want you all to know that this squadrequires dedication and hard work. It’s not an option. You misspractice, you better have a good excuse. You miss three practices,regardless of a good excuse, you’re done. You need to come topractice in flexible clothes. Do not show up in jeans, or I willsend you away and count it as an absence. Do not wear jewelry atall. Not to practices. Not to games. And certainly not tocompetitions. Minimal make-up. Hair is to always be worn up.Comfortable sneakers. White sneakers for games and practices, andbows are mandatory as well. No piercings. Everyone ready to getstarted?”
I look around at all of the othergirls here. There’s about twenty, give or take. And it seems likeeveryone has someone they already know on the squad. I wish Haileywould have cheered with me this year. It’s really gonna suck nothaving her here for all of this.
“I said, is everyone readyto get started?”Diane shouts, clearlydisappointed with everyone’s first reaction.
Practice goes by quickly, but notwithout effort. We mainly go over all of the basics and then sitthrough a lecture of expectations. At the end, we do ourconditioning and then we’re instructed to run around the buildingfive times, after which we’re free to leave. I’m sweaty and gross,but I’m in desperate need of a coffee before heading back to thedorm to shower. My addiction is real. I don’t even care thatCraig’s probably working. I drag my legs over to The Grind and waitin line impatiently. There are a lot more students here today thanthere were yesterday. When I make it up to the counter, I open mybag to pull out my student ID card, which also works as a pre-paidVisa, and I hear Craig’s voice before I look up to seehim.
“It’s taken care of,” he simplyinforms me, placing an already-made coffee in front of me before Ieven have the chance to order.
“No thanks,” I respond bitterly,handing him my card.
“Well, princess, as much as I’d liketo take your card and tell this dude that you declined his offer tobuy you coffee, I’m afraid you have no choice. It’s already paidfor.”
I stare blankly at him in confusionuntil he nods his head to the left, towards a guy standing on theother end of the long counter, smiling brightly at me.
“Tyler?” I whisper tomyself.
Craig answers, “Already makingfriends, I see.”
“I guess that makes two of us,” I biteback, grabbing my coffee from him.
“Who, Tiffany? That wasn’t a friend,Princess. That was a hook-up. There’s a difference.”
I scoff at him, as I walk away. Ugh!Why do I let him get to me? Why does he make me so mad? I push allthoughts of Craig out of my mind as I near Tyler. He looks so puttogether and neat. Handsome, really. Suddenly, I realize how messyI must look, and I hurry to smooth down the stray hairs escapingfrom my ponytail.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Tyler says,pointing to the coffee in my hands.
“Not at all. That was really nice ofyou. Thanks. How did you know how I take my coffee?”
“I didn’t. The guy working said heremembered from yesterday.”
Of course Craig would know. “Oh. Well,thank you.” I smile politely at him.
“You must be just coming back frompractice, huh?”
“Nooo. Don’t you know leggings andunruly hair is the new trend?” I joke.
He laughs, “Well I think all the girlsshould start following this new trend, if it means they’ll look asgood as you.”
“Oh, please. I’m a mess! But my coffeeaddiction ultimately won out over self-consciousness, so here Iam.”
“Well I’m grateful for your coffeeaddiction then. Where are you headed now?”
“Just back to the dorm. I need toshower.”
“Can I walk you back?” heoffers.
We walk out of the coffee shop, butnot before I see Craig staring me down. We’re not together and hewas just hooking up with some girl last night, so why on Earth do Ifeel guilty right now? This is ridiculous. I need to push Craig outof my mind completely. Permanently. We’re nothing. We’ve never beenanything. He’s Drew’s friend who flirts with me just to get areaction. There will never be anything more to it than that. And Idefinitely don’t want a sleazy guy like Craig Morgananyway.
“So, first practice?” Tylerasks.
“Yeah. Our coach seems tough too. Haveyou had football practice yet?”
“Yeah. We’ve had a couple practicesalready. We have one this afternoon, if you wanna comewatch.”
“Do they allow that? I thought mostfootball practices were private so no one could steal techniques orplays or anything.”
“Nah. Coach doesn’t mind. He letspeople sit in the stands and hang out while we’re on the field. Hehasn’t made anyone leave yet.”
“Oh, cool. What timetoday?”
“Three. Maybe afterwards we could gograb a bite to eat or something?”
“Oh. Um. I actually have to finishunpacking. And I think Hailey and I are just gonna lay low tonightsince classes start tomorrow. But maybe another time?” It’s notentirely a lie, but I’m not being completely truthful with himeither. He seems like a sweet guy and he’s really good-looking, butI just don’t think I’m ready to start dating in college yet. Idon’t want to settle down with a guy before classes even start. AndI barely know him. It’s just too soon.
His smile falters and I can see thedisappointment etched in his face. “Sure, another time,” he agrees,nodding.
“Do you mind if I still come watch youpractice for a bit?” I offer as a compromise, not wanting him to beupset with me.
“Not at all. I hope youdo.”
When we enter the double doors andwalk into the entryway to the dorm building, I turn to him. “Well,thanks again for the coffee.” I hold the cup up a bithigher.
“Not a problem. I just might have tohang out in that coffee shop more often now that I know about yourself-proclaimed coffee addiction.”
“I’ll welcome it, just as long as youkeep the coffee hand-outs coming,” I joke.
He laughs. “I’ll see you in the standsthis afternoon?”
“See you this afternoon,” I assurehim.
After showering and getting ready,Hailey, Drew and I head over to the cafeteria to grab some lunchand then I con them into going to watch Tyler’s practice with me.There’s not a lot of people at the field, so it’s easy to spotCraig Morgan right away. I’m not sure why he’s here, but he’sstanding with a group of guys near the entrance. I’m secretlywishing we could walk right past him, but of course Drew stops tosay hi. When he turns to greet Drew with one of those half-hugthings that guys do, I can see that Craig is smoking a cigarette.We’re not close or anything, not even friends, but I’ve hung outwith him over the summer a few times thanks to him and Drew beingfriends, and I’ve never seen him smoke. Surprisingly, he doesn’tsay anything to me at all. And I certainly don’t engage him. Wekeep walking until we reach the bleachers and we sit to watch thefootball players practice. There’s only a few other people here,probably girlfriends and friends of the players, just like us.Although it’s September and still in the high 70s during the day,nights are becoming more and more chilly. About forty-five minutesinto the practice, I’m practically shivering.
“You guys wanna take off?” I askHailey and Drew.
“Yeah. Will Tyler be upset you didn’tstay though?” Hailey asks.
“I don’t care. I’m fr-freezing.Besides, I came. I saw. I’ll see him play again. Kind ofinevitable, really.”
She laughs. “Okay, let’s takeoff.”
When we walk out the gate, Craig andthe group of guys he was with are nowhere to be seen, which is justfine with me.
Drew walks with us back to our dormroom and I say bye to him before entering our common room, knowingHailey will want some private time to say bye herself.
The twins, as I’ve come to refer tothem, are in the common room watching a movie.
“Valerie!” Ashley yells withenthusiasm.
“Hey guys. What are you watching?” Iask with considerably less pep.
Julie answers, “TheNotebook.”
“You’ve seen it, right?” Ashasks.
“Of course. Like a million times,” Irespond, walking to my room. I quickly change into pajamas and jointhe girls on the couch. When Hailey comes in, she does the same.It’s nice to have the girl time, to just relax and unwind at theend of the day. It feels like a big sleepover, with a couple ofgirls Hailey and I barely know, but a sleepover nonetheless. Andsleepovers are always fun.
I awake in the morning to a soundblaring in my ear. I try to ignore it, but it’s so annoyinglypersistent. Then I hear Hailey yell, “Val! Shut that thing off!You’re gonna wake the whole building!”
I reach over, trying to find my alarmclock. My hand feels for anything on the nightstand that could feellike a little piece of plastic with a big push button on the front.Nothing. I force myself to sit up and open my eyes to search forit. Once my eyes adjust, I realize it’s on the floor. I must haveknocked it over, trying to shut it off in my sleep. I reach downand finally turn it off. Groggy with sleep, I gather my stuff andhead for the showers. Before my first class, I head to The Grind tograb a coffee and I’m relieved to find that Craig isn’t working.Even with my coffee stop, I’m still a little early. I didn’t wantto risk getting lost and looking like the typical freshman, duckinginto class late and embarrassed. I walk into the building, whichlooks like the oldest of all the buildings on campus, and I walk upto the second floor. As soon as I walk into the classroom, I cansmell it- School. No matter where you are, classrooms always havethat distinct smell to them. I can’t pinpoint what it is exactly,probably because it’s not one particular thing. It’s a mix ofsmells, really, specific to schoolrooms, nonetheless. Paper,pencils, erasers, markers, carpet, desks – they all mix together tocreate that unique classroom smell.
WSC isn’t a huge school, so it’s notset up auditorium-style like some college classrooms are. It’s notan entirely small school either, so it’s not packed with thosechair/desk combinations used in some of the tinier classrooms.Rather, it has more of a conference room feel to the rooms. Thedesks are long tables which seat 3-4 rolling chairs to them and thetables are aligned in rows. I pick my seat in the third row, lasttable near the window. No one’s here yet, so I pull out my schedulewhile sitting in the empty classroom. Mondays & Wednesdays:World Civ 1, Psych 101, Public Speaking. Tuesdays & Thursdays:English Lit and Basic Algebra. Common courses, since I don’t knowwhat I want to major in yet. It’s Monday, so I’m sitting in myWorld Civ 1 class, which I’m pretty sure will be pure torture.History is boring enough, never mind having it be my first class ofthe morning. People start to pour in and before long the professorarrives. He’s an older man, probably in his mid-60s. He’s tall andlean and has a head full of white hair. He passes out a semesterlong syllabi and reads every word on it, explaining in detail whatthe whole class will consist of, assignments we’ll be responsiblefor, how he’ll grade us, and when our exams will be. An hour andfifteen minutes later, he releases us and I’m off to the psychbuilding. My psych classroom looks exactly the same as my historyclassroom, with the only difference being that it’s on the firstfloor. People start to file into the room immediately. I pick thesame seat as I did in my history class – third row, last table nearthe window – and I’m surprised to see Ashley sit down next tome.
“I didn’t know we had psych together!”she exclaims.
“Yeah, I didn’t realize it either,” Isay pleasantly surprised.
The professor comes in before we cantalk more. She’s a younger woman, probably only in her thirties.She’s heavy set, has dark blonde hair and eccentric clothing. Irealize within the first ten minutes of class that she pretty muchposes every sentence in the form of a question, asking ‘yeah?”afterwards. She’s also pretty funny though. If my history professorputs me to sleep, at least I know I’ll wake up in this class. Shesays she’s obsessed with reality T.V. and talks about her favoriteshows for literally half the class before moving on to the syllabi.She lets us out ten minutes early, but I stay where I am because mypublic speaking class is in this same room.
“This is gonna be my favorite class,”Ashley says, turning to me as she packs up her stuff. “I canalready tell. I might even switch my major to psych. Okay, notreally, but it’s a fun thought.”
“What’s your major right now?” Irealize I hadn’t yet asked.
“I’m pre-law,” she statesmatter-of-factly, like it’s no big deal.
My jaw hangs open. “What? Seriously?”I never would have guessed that from one of the twins.
“Yeah, seriously. I come from a longline of lawyers,” she explains. “What’s your major?”
“Undeclared right now,” I answerblandly, still stunned.
“Well I gotta jet across campus. Seeya later.”
I smile as she walks out. It’s weirdhow some people aren’t exactly who they seem to be. She’s a bleachblonde petite cheerleader, who’s a one-hundred on the scale ofpeppiness… and she’s pre-law. I guess it’s true that you reallycan’t judge a book by its cover.
I have, like, twenty minutes to killbefore my next class starts and it’s in this same room. What to do?I take out my phone and shoot Hailey a text to make sure she’s up.Her first class is starting when my last one does. I know mostcollege students want the later classes, but I like to get themdone and over with so I can enjoy the rest of the day. TomorrowHailey and I are in the same classes together though. We planned itthat way when we made our schedules. A day apart, a day together.We didn’t want to take all the same classes and end up seeing eachother 24/7. But at the same time, who doesn’t want to be in thesame classes as their best friend? My phone buzzes back at the sametime as someone covers my eyes.
“What the hell?” I ask, halfirritated, half surprised.
“Guess,” I hear a deep, husky voicewhisper in my ear, so close that his breath tickles my neck andsends shivers across my skin. I inhale the woodsy, earthy smell ofhis cologne and I have to admit that, for a brief moment, myirritation fades and I relax. This feels good – his closeness, myhead cradled in his chest, his touch. Then I snap out ofit.
“Are you stalking me?” Iaccuse.
Craig laughs as he releases myeyes.
“No, seriously. You’re stalkingme!”
“This happens to be my nextclass.”
I pause for a moment, letting thatsink in.
“Yepp.” He watches the realization hitme, “You have the pleasure of seeing me twice a week for the nextfew months, princess.” He gives me a sideways smirk that I’mall-too-familiar with.
I roll my eyes and get back to myphone, opening Hailey’s response text.
“I’m up. Julie gets readywith music blasting. I couldn’t sleep in if I tried. Thanx for thetext though. See u later.”
“Your new boyfriend?”
I roll my eyes. “None of yourbusiness.”
When I look up, I notice he’s sittingright beside me. Too close.
“Are you staying there?” I ask,“Because if so, I’m moving my seat.”
“Why do you hate me so much?” Hisvoice is tight, but his features soft.
“You annoy me. And don’t even try toact all innocent. You know you do it on purpose.”
“Because I call youprincess?”
“Among other things.”
“Okay,Valerie. I’ll try not to call youprincess anymore. Is that a start? Truce?”
I hesitate, trying to decipher whathe’s really trying to do here.
He takes my hesitation as a no. “See,”he says seriously, “It’s not that. I think you’re just determinedto hate me no matter what.” And before I can respond, he grabs hisbooks and walks up to the next row. He sits down without evenlooking back.
I can’t help it; it stings a little.So I gather my stuff and move up a row too. I sit right next tohim. “Stop calling me princess. Stop irritating me on purpose. Stopflirting. And maybe we can be friends, for Drew and Hailey’s sake,if nothing else,” I offer.
“Well irritating you seems to comenatural to me. I don’t even have to try, so I’m not really sure howI can stop.”
“C’mon, Craig. You know what Imean.”
“Fine,” he agrees. But Ican still feel the tension rolling off of him. He’s still mad atme. What the hell did I ever do to him forhimto be mad atme?
The professor walks in before I canaddress the issue with Craig. I hadn’t even noticed the classroomfilling up. The professor is a small, middle-aged lady, with darkhair and glasses. The first thing she does is instruct us to movethe tables and chairs into a u-shape, rather than lined up in rowslike they are now. We all get to work adjusting the classroom. Shetells us we’ll have to do this every day at the start of class,because she wants a more intimate feel, where all of her studentscan see their classmates. Then she hands me a stack of papers andtells me to take one and pass the rest along. I take the first onein the stack and hand the rest to Craig, who is still sittingbeside me. She explains that the class is mostly lectures, brokenup by speaking days. On the speaking days, we’ll be responsible forstanding in front of the class and reciting an assignment. Thefirst speaking day, we’ll be allowed to read our assignment off ofa piece of paper. The second speaking day, we’ll be able to usenote cards, only looking down when we get stuck. And the thirdspeaking day will be completely from memory. Our final exam won’tbe an assignment at all, but rather just speaking in front of theclass about anything of our choosing: talking about our favoritebook or movie, debating an argument, soliciting people to join ateam or activity, reciting a poem, anything. The class wouldn’tseem that hard at all, if it weren’t for my fear of publicspeaking. I don’t understand why a public speaking class is even arequirement. You can’t graduate college if you can’t successfullystand in front of a crowd and speak? I know plenty of successfulpeople who would cringe at the thought of public speaking. Butnonetheless, it’s a core requirement at WSC.
When the professorreleases us, I look over at Craig to see him bolting out of theclassroom, off to his next class, without even turning in mydirection.Friends. Yeah,right.
I stop at The Grind before headingback to my dorm. It’s not as crowded as yesterday, probably becausemost people are in class right now. The girl Craig hooked up withthe other day is working behind the counter. Instantly, I can tellshe doesn’t like me. Between her and Craig working here, I shouldseriously look up another coffee shop in the area. When I get backto the dorm, I realize no one’s here and it’s kind of nice to havethe alone time. I sprawl out on the couch in the common room andturn on the T.V., channel surfing until I get to an old episode ofSaved By The Bell, one of my favorite shows when I was in JuniorHigh. I didn’t mean to fall asleep, but I wake up to Hailey and thetwins all coming back at the same time.
“You’re the only person Iknow who can fall asleepwhiledrinking coffee,” Hailey teases, noticing thecoffee cup still in my hand.
“What time is it?” I ask,sleepily.
“Two-thirty. We’re all gonna go grabsome lunch. We just came back to see if you wanted to come too,since you weren’t answering my texts.”
“Yeah, just give me a minute to wakeup.” I stand and stretch, trying to get rid of the heaviness thatsleep brings.
In the cafeteria, I meet Julie’sboyfriend David, who just stopped by to visit. He goes to a collegeabout twenty minutes away. Evidently they were high schoolsweethearts, so it amazes me that they didn’t decide to go to thesame school like Hailey and Drew did. I guess they thought twentyminutes apart wasn’t that bad. After lunch, Hailey takes off tomeet Drew and I go back to the dorm to get ready for cheerleadingpractice. I don’t see Hailey again until the next morning whenwe’re both waking up at the same time because it’s a day that wehave the same classes.
“What time did you get in last night?”I ask her.
“Late. I fell asleep at Drew’s anddidn’t realize it until Tyler woke us up.”
“I was worried. I mean, I know you’rea big girl and I’m not trying to be all motherly or anything. But,wouldn’t you be worried if I didn’t come back to the dorm untilearly morning? We don’t even know 10% of the people here. Anythingcould happen.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll try tocheck in next time?”
“Okay. Did Drew at least walk youback?”
“Yeah, he did.”
English Lit and Algebra go just assmoothly as yesterday’s classes, since there’s no actual work yet.The professors just hand out the syllabi and read it off, goingover specific assignments we’ll be responsible for throughout thesemester. It’s nice having Hailey with me and I almost wish wescheduled all of our classes together after all. After lunch,though, she takes off to be with Drew and I get ready forcheerleading practice again. After practice, she’s nowhere to befound and not answering my texts again. I know I seem like aparanoid mother, but I literally sigh in relief when I hear hercome in around eleven o’clock at night. This goes on for the nextfew weeks and I contemplate confronting her. On one hand, who I amto tell her what to do? She’s in college now and she has thefreedom to be with her boyfriend as much as she wants. If I saysomething, she’ll probably just think I’m jealous of her spendingmore time with Drew than with me. But on the other hand, maybe I doworry that Drew is all she cares about lately; that he’ll distracther from having a real college experience. Plus, colleges aren’tnecessarily known for being super safe at night.
I finally work up the nerve to saysomething when we’re sitting around the common room with the twinsone night. They’re having an argument over Ashley’s need to keeptheir dorm room neat and organized, while Julie leaves thingslaying around, claiming she doesn’t have time to pick up every day.Hailey looks over at me and smirks, because honestly it is kind offunny how they’re bickering like an old married couple.
“Hail?” I ask.
“Yeah?” She’s still suppressing asmile.
“Don’t get mad, okay? But I think thatmaybe you’re spending too much time with Drew. You leave to be withhim every afternoon and I’m usually sleeping when you come back tothe dorm late at night, sometimes early into the morning. Doesn’tTyler get weirded out that you’re there all the time? And it’s notreally safe late at night either…”
“Val, he’s my boyfriend. Of course Iwant to spend a lot of time with him. But I think I’m still makingtime for you too. We have lunch together almost every day. We havethe same classes every other day. I usually don’t even see Drewuntil you go to cheerleading practice. And Tyler doesn’t mind.Besides, a lot of the time we’re not even in the dorm.”
This surprises me. “Where are youthen?”
She sighs like she doesn’t want totell me. “The library,” she reluctantly tells me.
“The library?” I ask in disbelief. Whywould that be a secret, I wonder.
“Yeah, the library. I’m helping Drewwith some research.”
“For a class?”
“No. Just some personalresearch.”
I give her a look that shows I’mskeptical. I don’t know what she’s getting at, but it all sounds alittle fishy to me.
“Okay, look, I doubt Drew wants anyoneto know about it, so I didn’t want to say anything, but we’ve beenresearching his family.”
“I don’t understand. He reunited withhis mom. I thought he didn’t really have much family around otherthan her?”
“He does on his dad’s side.” Shepauses, noticing my confusion. “His biological dad’s side,” sheclarifies.
“Oh,” I say, a little stunned. I knowDrew never knew his biological father, but I also know that hepassed away. I never thought about the rest of his family on thatside. “Why now?” I ask.
“I don’t know. His mom mentionedsomething I guess, and he got to thinking that maybe he hadgrandparents or aunt and uncles, maybe cousins, in the area. It’simportant to him and it’s a big decision to reach out to anyone hefinds. I’m just trying to be supportive. I love him, Val. And heneeds me right now.”
“Oh.” I’m not sure what I can say tothat. I get it. It makes sense why she wants to be there for himright now. “Okay, I understand then. I just get nervous with youbeing out so late and I guess I just kind of miss you not beinghere at night too. I still don’t know many people here and thetwins are so close that sometimes I feel like a third wheel. MaybeI just need to find some single girlfriends to keep mecompany.”
“You make it sound like we’ll neverhang out again. I’m still here. I’ll always be here for you. I’vejust been a little preoccupied. Let’s plan to do something fun thisweekend,” she offers, “Just us girls.”
“Okay, yeah. That sounds great.” Ismile brightly.
“How about mani-pedis, dinner, and aparty?” I ask, knowing it’s a long shot. I doubt Hailey will wantto go to a party without Drew.
She presses her lips into a thin line.“What party?” she asks, skeptically.
“I heard there’s a big party Saturdaynight at the Hansore House and I kind of wanted to check it out,but I didn’t want to go alone.” The Hansore House is a fraternityhouse on campus. I’m not even sure if they’ll let us in or if youneed to be specifically invited, but I overheard some peopletalking about the party in my history class and I thought itsounded like fun.
“I wouldn’t want you to go aloneeither, Val. That’s not safe at all. You never know what couldhappen. I’ll go with you.”
“Yes, really. What are friends for?”she smiles, but doesn’t sound overly thrilled.
It’s a perfect day. Hailey and I sleepin until late morning, get ready, and then grab some lunch at thepizza place before we head out for our mani-pedis. She fills me inon the new friends she’s met in her Monday/Wednesday classes. Ifill her in on the cheerleading girls and all their drama. I havn’tgotten particulary close to any of them, other than Ashley andJulie, yet. But I still hear all of their gossip and bickering. Bythe time we get to the restaurant for dinner, it’s already aftereight o’clock and we can’t figure out how the time has slipped pastus. We splurge on an expensive dinner. After dinner, we go back tothe dorm to drop Hailey’s car off and walk over to the HansoreHouse.
The whole street is packed with peoplebefore we even get up to the house. How is this party not broken upyet? It turns out, we don’t need to be invited at all. It seemslike the whole college has an open invitation and I wonder ifthere’s anyone who’s not here.
“Did you tell Drew you were cominghere?” I ask Hailey as we walk past people on the porch whileheading into the house.
The music is so loud inside, she hasto yell for me to hear her. “Of course. He said he might show up. Itold him I was here with you though, so if he comes it’ll be tohang with his friends.”
“You don’t have tonothang out with him ifhe’s here, Hail,” I yell back.
“I know. But I don’t want to leave youalone here either.”
“You make it sound like Ineed a babysitter.” I huff with frustration. I’m beginning to feellike a charity case, like shehasto hang out with me.
“No. I know. But I want to. This isgirl time. Our time.”
I ignore her because she doesn’t soundvery convincing. It sounds forced and I wonder if she’d be havingmore fun with Drew. I start to feel guilty for dragging her here atall. “Do you want to leave?” I ask.
“No. Of course not. We’re here to havefun, Val. I need this girl time just as much as you do. Now, c’mon,let’s get some drinks.”
She pulls my arm and I walk behind herthrough crowds of people, following her until she comes to a stop.I look at the keg in front of us and before we can even ask, we’reeach handed a red solo cup full of beer. I’m not much of a beerdrinker, but I take a sip. Before I know it, I’m asking for arefill. Hailey and I walk out into the crowd and bump intoTyler.
“Hey,” he greets us, smiling. He looksgenuinely glad to see us and I can feel my moodlightening.
Before I can even respond, I feel abump from behind and I’m jolted forward. Tyler grabs my arms tosteady me and we both laugh at the awkward encounter. I look up athim and he looks back, staring straight into my eyes. I inhale thesmell of his cologne and savor the moment. When I look over atHailey, she raises her eyebrows in suggestion so I turn awayquickly, hoping Tyler didn’t catch her expression too.
“So how are classes going?” he asksme, releasing my arms.
“Good. Not too hard yet, just reallytime-consuming. I have so much homework and I’m exhausted by thetime cheerleading practice is over.”
“I know the feeling. I’m dead afterfootball and it’s only gonna get worse. Same with the workload.Maybe we could help each other study?”
“What classes are you in?”
Drew and Craig walk up to us before hecan answer my question. Tyler and Drew greet each other with a fistbump while Craig only nods his head and then turns tome.
I can see Tyler scrunch his brows inconfusion over Craig calling me ‘princess.’ I want to do somethingto assure him that Craig is nothing to me, but something stops me.I can’t explain it, but I can just tell that Craig is more sullenthan usual. It was only one statement, one hello. But he doesn’thave his usual smirk and his voice is flat. I can see the weight ofthe world in his eyes. Something’s wrong. So instead of giving hima hard time, I reach my arms up around his neck and hug himtightly. I normally wouldn’t do this. Not only because it’s Craig,but also because I’m not normally so brave. But I think the beer istaking effect and seriously messing with my better judgment, so Idon’t think it through. Somehow, I just know something’s not rightand that he’s upset. Suddenly nothing else matters. I just want himto be okay. So I embrace him without trepidation. And he grabs ahold of me with a need that tells me I’m right, something’sdefinitely wrong.
“You okay?” he whispers in my ear,giving me chills.
I loosen my arms so I canlook at him, but he doesn’t relax his grip right away, so I wait. Afew moments later, I feel his grip loosen and I lift my head up tolook at him. “I’m fine. Areyouokay?” I counter.
“Right now,” he says, rubbing my armsand gesturing to our closeness, “I’m more than okay.” But it stilldoesn’t sound right. There’s no pep in his voice. No usual smirk.He’s so serious. With any other guy, the sincerity would beromantic. But, with Craig, it feels almost sad. It’s just not likehim at all.
I lose myself in the feel of him for amoment. He looks down at me with sleepy bedroom eyes and I have afleeting urge to kiss him. But before I allow myself to reallythink about it, I’m suddenly very aware of our closeness and Ibegin to realize how bad this must look to anyone else watching. Ipull back, away from Craig’s grasp, and look around hastily.Tyler’s talking to Drew, but he keeps looking up from theirconversation. I can tell he’s trying to figure out what that wasand I can’t blame him. I’m still trying to figure it outtoo.
“Princess, c’mon…” Craig urges,lightly latching his hand in mine and gesturing for me to followhim.
I quickly pull my hand away. “I’mactually gonna get another refill,” I tell him as I walk away. Imake my way past a small group of people and head over to the kegabout fifteen feet away. When I get to the keg, I finally allowmyself to look back. Craig is still standing there, just looking atme, while everyone talks and dances around him. I can feel his eyesburning into me, so I turn back to the keg and hold out my cup. Ineed to focus on something other than how sad he looks. Thisserious side of Craig Morgan is just temporary. If I allow myselfto be with him tonight, whatever’s bothering him right now would begone tomorrow and he’d be back to his normal self, trying to pickup every other girl he can.
“What was that?” Hailey says, scaringme half-to-death. I didn’t even realize she followed me over to thekeg.
“What was what?” I ask,playing stupid. I know exactly what she’s talking about, but Idon’t want to admit it because I’m not entirely sure whatthatwas myself. I takemy newly-filled cup and walk through the crowd, not waiting forHailey to re-fill hers.
Why didn’t I just keep talking toTyler? I was in a great mood ten minutes ago, before I saw Craig.Now, I’m in a sour mood and I’m not even sure why. I can’t evenblame Craig because that was all me. I reached out to him. In frontof everyone. And now Tyler probably thinks there’s something goingon there when there isn’t. Craig isn’t serious about anyone, nevermind me. I just thought I saw a vulnerability in him and it caughtme by surprise. But that’s not who he is. I might have evenimagined it. I probably wanted to see something in him that justsimply isn’t there. And just as I’m thinking that, I catch sight ofhim again. But he’s not looking at me anymore. He’s with that girlwho works at the Grind, Tiffany. The same girl he admittedly hookedup with before. They’re tangled in each other’s’ arms and it’s likea car wreck; I want to look away but I can’t. So I watch as hislips graze hers and then they’re making out. I know I don’t want tobe with a guy like Craig Morgan, so I can’t explain why it feelslike someone just punched me in the stomach. I feel physical paincoursing through my body. Why am I letting him affect me likethis?
I walk with purpose, keeping mydistance from everyone I know. I walk from one room to another,until I’m standing outside on the porch of the Hansore House. Ifeel the sting of the cold air, unusual for early September, so Iwrap my arms around myself as I look around. I’m only wearing atank-top with a sheer black shirt over it. At least I opted forjeans and heels instead of the skirt I was originally going to weartonight. I can feel the goosebumps on my arms as I rub them, tryingto create warmth.
I’m not sure what I’mgoing to do now. I know I don’t want to go back in there. But can Ijust leave? I came with Hailey, so I’d feel bad taking off withouther. Although, she does have Drew. But still, all that lecturingher about me being worried while she’s out late will be completelyhypocritical if I take off right now without even telling her. Thepeople standing out on the porch start to eye me curiously, sinceI’m not just passing through like everyone else outside of theirgroup. I see a tall guy approaching and I can tell by hisblurriness that I have quite the buzz on. Undoubtedly why I reachedout to Craig without thinking through theconsequences. God, why did I dothat?
“Hey. I’m Mark,” the tall, blurry guysays.
“Val,” I state blandly.
“You look a little lost. We’re allgetting ready to play a game on this side of the house,” hegestures toward the far left end, “if you wanna come joinus?”
I think about it for a minute. It kindof sounds like a trap. I should be suspicious of his intentions,but right now I just can’t seem to care. All I care about is notgoing back in that front door and since I can’t exactly leave, Ifollow Mark over to the other side of the house.
He opens a door and we’re in some typeof a sunroom. It’s chilly in here, but not nearly as cold as it wasoutside. And to my pleasant surprise, it’s not a trap. There’s abunch of people sitting around, circle style.
“Guys, this is Val. She wants to playtoo.”
Oh yeah. He said they were playing agame. I was so intent on getting away that I forgot about what elseI might be getting myself into. I figure it’s kind of late now, soI sit down with everyone else.
“For the rookies who’venever played, the rules are simple. Some of you may have played‘Never Have I Ever’ before. This is a little different. One personwill tell a ‘Don’t Judge Me, But…’ where you list somethingpeculiar or embarrassing that you’ve done before. If someone’s doneit, they drink. If no one drinks, that means you’re weird as hellsoyoudrink. Onto the next person. Got it? Everyone have a drink in hand? I’llstart. Don’t judge me but… I’ve slept with two girls in the samenight.”
Almost every guy around the circledrinks. I can’t help it. I laugh out loud. I just can’t refrainfrom speaking my mind right now. “Bullshit,” I retort, albeitsomewhat under my breath.
I can tell Mark hears me, so itdoesn’t surprise me when he speaks up, “Okay, Val’s turn,” heannounces with a smirk.
Shit. What the hell am I going to say?I stare blankly for a moment, thinking. Finally, I say, “Don’tjudge me but… I’ve only gone to private school my whole life untilnow.”
Everyone eyes me suspiciously, likethis is an absurd concept to them. No one drinks.
“Drink up, Val,” Mark instructsme.
I tip my drink back while everyonewatches.
“Katie, you’re up,” Mark says to thegirl beside me. Even sitting down I can tell she’s tall and Irealize I must look ridiculous sitting beside her, like a smallchild in comparison.
“Don’t judge me, but… I can tie acherry stem with my tongue.” She sits up straighter, pushing herbreasts out further, flirting dramatically.
All the guys hoot and holler and thenwatch intently to see who else, if anyone, will drink. I debatelying and not taking a drink, and ordinarily that’s exactly whatI’d do because admitting that I can do that, and that I know I cando that because I’ve tried, is a little embarrassing. But I’mfeeling the buzz of the alcohol, so I own up to it and drink. WhenI do, the commotion gets louder. The guys around the circle gocrazy and I hear a mix of reactions- some teasing, “oooo naughtyprivate school girl,” comments, and some much harsher “what aslut!” comments. I’m pretty sure that one came from the girlsitting next to Mark, who I can only assume is his girlfriend bythe way his hand keeps traveling up her leg, stopping on her upperthigh. I just brush it off so they’ll move onto the next person.And they do. Before I know it, they’ve gone around the wholecircle, right back to me. I don’t even remember what I’ve takendrinks for. Although, I know I’ve been consistently drinking. HaveI even been playing the game or am I just drinking to drink now?Everyone looks at me expectantly, so I think about what I can admitto. Something out of the ordinary.
“Don’t judge me but… I’ve had the samebest friend for, like, eight years,” I say, estimating the timeI’ve been best friends with Hailey.
Some drink and some don’t. It wasn’t agood one, but I can’t think of anything else. They move onto thenext person, but I can’t focus. I can’t figure out why my hands areso cold. Why won’t they warm up? They’re so cold, I feel likethey’re going to fall off. Why are my hands the only thing cold onmy whole body? Why are they cold if I’m not even outside? I keeprubbing them on whatever I’m holding, but they don’t warm up atall. That’s when I realize I’m holding a cold vodka bottle. Ivaguely remember someone handing it to me, but I thought I put itdown and picked my red cup back up when I needed to drink.Evidently not. I probably should have stopped drinking when Irealized I had a good buzz on, before even joining thiscircle.
Suddenly the music that’s been playinggets louder and I realize my favorite song, “Friday Night” by LadyAntebellum, is playing. I’m thankful to whoever turned it upbecause it instantly puts me in a better mood. I throw my hands upin the air and start shouting the words. I hear people joining in,shouting the words around me, both in the circle and out. And Ifeel good, the best I’ve felt all night, letting the music heal mysoul and revive life into me. I go to stand up so I can dance but Ialmost fall right back down. I feel someone catch me from behindbut instead of being grateful, it irritates me beyond belief. Ijust want to dance to one of my favorite songs and I feel like I’mbeing held back. I try to brush whoever it is off, but the armsholding me don’t give way. I don’t want to lose this feeling ofhappiness, so I try to stand freely again, but my legs feel likeJell-O. Every time I think I can stand, it feels like something ispushing me right back down.
“There’s too much gravity in here,” Igrumble to myself in irritation.
I hear someone laugh from behind meand I start to get angrier until I see that it’s Craig. I don’teven question how he found me out here. I just relax into him, allirritation suddenly gone. I let him hold me, partly because itfeels good and partly because I don’t think I could standotherwise.
“Easy princess,” he whispers softlyinto my ear. When I turn around to look at him, his eyes are fullof concern.
“I love this song,” I whine,” I justwant to dance. Let’s dance,” I plead.
“Okay.” he agrees with a softsmile.
I try to sway my hips but I just can’tkeep my balance. I feel Craig’s hands tightly holding my waist,keeping me from falling. I’m probably the world’s worst dancerright now, but I don’t care. I can feel the vibrations of myfavorite song, along with the alcohol in my system. And just likethat, all my inhibitions vanish.
“I just want to have fun,” I yell tohim over the music. “Like really have fun. I want to be crazy foronce. Do something crazy, ya know?”
He smiles back at me, still holding mywaist. His eyes are sparkling, watching me so intently. Why don’t Ilike him? He’s a sweetheart. My knight in shining armor. I reach myarms up and lean in to kiss him. Before I can get too close though,he grabs my face and holds it firmly in place.
“Don’t,” he orders sternly, his eyesnow darker. Suddenly he looks mad, or maybe just repulsed by thepossibility of me kissing him.
Rejection washes through me. I feel itslowly ripple its way through my chest and I feel like I might crybut I try my hardest to hide it as I turn away.
He grabs my arm. “C’mon,” he says, hisvoice pleading, almost begging me not to be upset.
Suddenly, I remember himslowly pressing his lips down on Tiffany’s and I remember why heisnotmy knightin shining armor. I remember exactly what kind of guy he is and whyI would never want to be with him. What was I thinking? A guy likeCraig Morgan is exactly the type of guy I avoid at all costs. Thelast thing I want to do is fall for someone who will stomp on myheart with a million different dances and not think twice aboutleaving it behind as he moves onto someone else’s, ready to do thecha-cha all over again.
I yank my arm free and turn to walkaway. He doesn’t stop me. Even though I wanted to walk away fromhim, it still hurts that he doesn’t care to follow. I can, however,hear Mark yelling to me as I leave, but I don’t care. I’m done withthe game. I stumble my way through the crowds, looking for Hailey.I know I can’t keep walking for much longer. I’m bumping intopeople and walls, grabbing onto anything I can in order to keep mybalance. I’m pissed, so you’d think I’d be sober right now. But I’malready too far gone to sober up that easily.
As I pass through the living room intothe kitchen, I see my feet leave the floor. At first I think I’vefallen, but then I realize someone is carrying me. I can’t make outwho it is but I know I’m not being carried in a nice way. I’m notbeing cradled like a baby; embraced and taken care of. Instead, I’mthrown over someone’s shoulder and I can only see the back of them.That’s the last thing I remember.
I wake up comfortable, althoughslightly nauseous, slowly opening my eyes and trying to make senseof my surroundings. I see a poster that doesn’t look familiar atall. It has a skull and weird patterns and the words, “Don’t SaySo” on it. A band? A logo? I don’t know. I stretch in the bed I’min and I realize I’m way too comfortable to be in my tight jeans.I’m praying for a pink comforter; something that tells me that agirl put these sweats on me, but when I look down I see blue andgrey plaid. That’s when I start to panic. I jump out of bed, try toignore the spinning sensation from moving too fast, and look myselfover. I still have my bra and tank top on that I wore last night,but the sweat pants aren’t mine. They’re huge, so most likely aguy’s. What did I do? What happened last night? I have a poundingheadache so I know I drank too much. But how did I manage to drinkso much that I can’t even remember whose room I’m in?
Just as I’m thinking that, a guy walksin. I have no idea who he is. My heart starts beating out of mychest. He’s extremely thin, with piercings all over his face andtattoos all over his skin. I don’t remember the last time I wasthis scared. He nods in my direction and keeps walking. I’m frozenin place. I can’t even open my mouth to ask questions. He grabs awallet off of the other bed in the room and walks right back out. Ilet the breath out that I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding.Then the door opens again and a guy walks in with only a towel on.Not just any guy – Craig. He runs another towel through his wethair as I stare in disbelief.
When he looks up, his eyes widen insurprise. “Oh, Princess. You’re awake.”
“What the hell?” I whisper.
He approaches me like he would acornered dog, hands held up and everything. “I know this looksbad,” he starts, “but Hailey changed you into sweats. I just camefrom the showers because I thought you’d still be sleeping. You hada lot to drink last night.” When I don’t respond, he asks, “DidErik wake you up?” He looks at me, waiting for an answer, but Istill don’t respond. My head is spinning trying to take it all in.I can tell my hesitation worries him by the way his eyebrowscrease. “Are you alright?” He finally asks.
I let a deep breath go.“I’m actually relieved,” I whisper, my voice shaking. I don’t knowwhy I’m about to cry. I mean, I guess I know why. I was thinkingthe worst case scenario. Stranger’s room, different pants. I knowwhy I’m shaken up, but I don’twantto cry. I’m not that weak girl who cries. I’m madat myself for even feeling like I might cry, which actually makesme cry because as ironic as it is, I cry when I’m mad.
“Come here,” he says softly, beckoningme over.
Of course I don’t, but he walks overto me and I can’t keep it together anymore. I fall into his armsand burst into tears, feeling every bit like the baby that I am.He’s naked from the waist up and he’s dripping wet, but I don’tcare. It’s not uncomfortable at all. It’s not sexual, justcomforting. And I feel anything but sexy right now, as I’m bawlingmy eyes out and reeking of alcohol from last night. I was terrifiedand now I’m relieved, but I’m also ashamed and feeling two feettall. He brushes my hair with his fingers and shushes me quietly.It makes me feel even more like a baby, so I gently butdeliberately push him away. He reluctantly releases me and Iimmediately turn around to hide my day-old mascara-smeared face. Iwipe my cheeks and under my eyes before I turn back.
“What happened?” I ask him in acracked voice.
“Nothing, I swear,” he insistsadamantly.
“I mean, last night. The whole night.I can’t remember,” I admit. I turn back around to face him and I’msure the shame is written all over my face.
He nods his head in understanding.“Nothing happened. You just drank too much. I found Hailey and Drewand we all walked here because my dorm was the closest.” He laughswithout humor, “You were in bad shape, Princess. You couldn’t evenwalk. So when we got here, I put you in my bed, and Hailey changedyou out of your jeans and into a pair of my sweats. Drew and I leftthe room for that, of course.” He smirks at that last part, lookingalmost embarrassed. “Hailey argued that she wanted to stay herewith you but I figured there was no need. You were out for thenight. Completely passed out. Might as well give her and Drew theroom to themselves.” He pauses for a moment, then adds, “I slept onthe floor, by the way. You’re not that attractive when you’reunconscious.” I know he’s trying to lighten the mood, so Ismile.
“I guess I should thank youthen.’
“I guess you should,” he says withraised eyebrows, waiting for me to actually say it.
“Okay,” I oblige, rolling my eyes,“thank you.” Then I add more sincerely, “Really, I mean it. When Iwoke up in this room and your… roommate?... walked in, I panicked.Last night could have been really bad. I don’t even remember halfof it. Anything could have happened.” I pause, and then add with asmirk, “For once, I’m glad you were there.”
He smiles back. “So, you said youremember half of the night?”
“Yeah, bits and pieces of thebeginning. How did I get so drunk? I don’t even drink. I mean,barely ever.”
“Do you remember when you first saw melast night?” he questions seriously, his usual smirkgone.
I know what he’s getting at. And I doremember. I remember thinking he was upset. And I reached out tohim. I remember hugging him and having a moment with him. But I’mnot sure I want to admit that to him. “Umm…”
“C’mon, princess. You remember,” hesays softly.
“I thought you were going to stopcalling me princess.” I attempt to change the subject.
He blows it off like I didn’t sayanything at all. “You remember,” he insists.
“Okay, yes. I remember,” I reluctantlyadmit.
“Stop,” he demands. “Lookat me. You know what I’m asking.Why?”
Suddenly, I’m having a hard timelooking at him when he’s only wrapped in a towel from the waistdown and dripping water. I just can’t. And yet, I can’t helpmyself. For the first time, I notice a tattoo on his bicep. It’snot a huge one that covers his whole upper arm, like a lot of guyshave. It only takes up one spot on his upper shoulder. I try tomake out what it is, but all I can see is that the whole of it is apuzzle piece. There’s a lot of intricacies inside it that I can’tmake out without staring. I look away, for fear of being caught andtry to ignore the rest of him by looking only into his eyes, butthat doesn’t help much either. His eyes are soft, begging for me toanswer. I sigh loudly, “I thought you were upset. I thought youneeded comfort, I guess. It was stupid and I had a buzz and Ishouldn’t have. I’m sorry, okay?”
“Don’t be sorry,” he insists. “How didyou know I was upset?”
He shrugs his shoulder like it’s nobig deal, and I can tell that’s as close to a ‘yes’ as I’m going toget. So I wasn’t imagining it.
“Why?” I ask.
“Do you really care?”
I think about that question for amoment. As much as I’d like to say no, I can’t. “Yes.”
His eyes turn molten at my admission.I can tell he wants to open up to me. But then his expressionchanges and his eyes cloud over. “Just some family stuff. Nothingtoo important. Just a bad day,” he answers, being as vague aspossible.
I can’t hide my disappointment. But Iknow I shouldn’t be surprised. Did I really think Craig Morgan wasgoing to open up to me? Has he ever opened up to anyone before?He’s the typical bad boy type. He lets you see inside him justenough for you to think there’s something worthy under his roughexterior. Then he shuts you down and goes back to being as cold asice.
“Okay…Well, I’m sorry for making yournight worse,” I say. “I’m sure babysitting wasn’t in yourplans.”
“Princess, watching you sleep in mybed was the best part of my night.”
This would be incredibly sweet if hedidn’t have that half-grin on his face that tells me that he meantit in a smutty way.
I inwardly scream at how frustratinghe can be, but I don’t let him see how he gets to me. “I should begoing,” I simply say. “Thanks again.”
“Wait. Let me get dressed and I’llwalk you.”
“No, that’s alright. I canmanage.”
The weeks pass miserably. Ever sincethat night, Tyler avoids me. And Tiffany, who happens to work atthe Grind where I go daily, shoots me death looks every time I seeher. She has a friend on the cheering squad, so I get some backlashthere too. I don’t understand. Nothing happened between me andCraig. I don’t know why she hates me. A few months ago, I thoughtseeing Craig working at the Grind everyday was going to befrustrating. Now, I sigh in relief when it’s him taking my orderinstead of Tiffany.
Today, I get a double-whammy.Tiffany’s working and Tyler’s sitting at a table with an icedcoffee in hand. Tiffany will never like me, that I can be sure of.So I walk over to Tyler, thinking maybe I can figure out why he’sbeen avoiding me and try to fix it so we can be friendsagain.
When he looks up and notices mewalking towards him, he doesn’t smile like he would have before theHansore House party. I wonder if I said anything to him while I wasdrunk. I almost want to come right out and ask him, but I refrain.Instead, I act like everything’s fine between us.
“Hey.” I give him a bright, cheerysmile.
He doesn’t smile in return, but hestill replies politely. “Hey.”
“I haven’t seen you around in a while.How’s football going?”
“You were at our last game.” Heshrugs. “It wasn’t great.”
“We didn’t win, but you guys werestill pretty good,” I reassure him.
He just shrugs again.
“Are you mad at me?” I finallyask.
“Why would I be mad atyou?”
“I don’t know. Did I do something thenight of that party? I had too much to drink and I can’t remembermost of the night. But I swear you’ve been avoiding me and it’skind of breaking my heart. I miss talking to you.”
I can see his tense posture loosen up.“I’m not mad at you, Val. I just thought maybe we were startingsomething here. I mean, I know we haven’t even gone on a date oranything, so I guess maybe it’s ridiculous to be upset about youand Craig -”
I interrupt him before he can finish.“Craig and I are not together.” I can tell Tiffany is listening soI continue loud enough for her to hear too. “I don’t know whyeveryone thinks that we are, but we aren’t. Craig and I will neverbe together. We have mutual friends. That’s it.” Even as I say it,I know it’s not true. As much as I want it to be true, it’s not.I’m sure of the fact that we’ll never be together. But there’s alsomore to us than just mutual friends. I can’t deny that I care abouthim, despite how mad he makes me. But I know that I’d never allowmyself to be with him because I know he’d never take anyrelationship seriously. So I repeat it for both of them to hear, “Iam not, nor will I ever be, with Craig Morgan.”
“Okay,” Tyler responds, nodding. “Ifyou’re sure that you and Craig aren’t…”
“Will you just ask me out already?” Itry not to smile, but I can’t hide it.
He laughs in return. “Will you go outwith me, Val? Saturday night?”
“I would love to.”
I’m not sure why I did it. Maybebecause I don’t want to lose Tyler. Maybe because I need to provethat I’m not interested in Craig. Maybe neither. Maybeboth.
Saturday night goes like any othertypical date night would. Tyler picks me up at my dorm atseven-thirty on the dot. He brings flowers and tells me I lookbeautiful. He’s a sweetheart and a gentleman all night. He holdsthe doors open for me, pulls my chair out at the restaurant, let’sme pick the movie we see. He really is a catch and I’m lucky thathe’s interested in me out of all the girls that I’ve seen openlyflirt with him in school. Unlike Craig, he’s utterly oblivious asto how hot he is and ignores the flirtatious girls in a way that’sboth polite and yet non-participative. When he walks me to my dorm,he says goodnight and then briefly brushes his lips over mine. Notrushing, not pressing. Chaste and gentle. When I get inside, Haileyasks me a million questions about the night and we stay up latediscussing every little detail. Everything was perfect. So why do Inot feel as giddy and excited as I should? I push the thought outof my mind as I finally drift off to sleep.
As chance would have it, my favoriteholiday falls on a Saturday this year. Despite being the biggestbaby in the world, I’ve always loved Halloween. So, when Haileydecided to put together a camping trip, I couldn’t refuse. I’m notthrilled about Craig going, especially since he’s bringing Tiffany.But I’m determined to have a good time. Things are going reallywell with Tyler and I’m excited about getting away from school andcheerleading practices, even just for one night. Cheerleading hasbeen especially demanding lately, leaving little time for anythingelse other than homework and term papers. I make time for Tylerhere and there but I’m glad he’s on the football team andcompletely understands a busy schedule. Hailey and I’s dorm-matesAshley and Julie, or the twins as I still jokingly call them, arecoming too. Julie is bringing her boyfriend and Ashley is bringinga girlfriend of hers. When we get there, I notice that Tiffany hasalso brought a girlfriend of hers too. That makes eleven of us infour tents. The twins are sharing a two-bedroom tent though. It’spractically state-of-the-art, since Julie’s boyfriend used to be aboy scout. It makes the rest of our smaller tents pale incomparison. Tyler and Drew start setting up the tents right away,as the rest of us unpack the coolers and bags. Before anyone’ssettled in, Craig takes out cups and alcohol.
“What’s the rush?” I ask, “We have allnight.”
“What’s camping without alcohol?” hecounters, as if it’s an obvious match.
Despite the fact that I’m clearly herewith Tyler, I get a death glare from Tiffany for daring to talk toCraig, so I make a mental note to avoid both of them for the restof the night. I don’t need the drama.
As it gets darker, the guys start acampfire and we all gather around it. I snuggle up to Tyler and hewraps a blanket around us both. I glance over at Craig to find himfull on making out with Tiffany. I don’t know why my stomach drops.I’m with Tyler and it feels good to have his arms wrapped aroundme. So why do I feel what I can only define as jealousy towards thescene to my right? It’s absurd. I need a distraction.
“Let’s tell ghost stories,” Isuggest.
This gets everyone’sattention.
“Ooh, I’ll go first!” It’s Tiffany’sgirlfriend who speaks up. I figure she probably needs a distractiontoo. Watching her best friend make out with a guy right beside herall night is probably not her idea of fun. She tells a story abouther friend’s house being haunted. Lights would turn on randomly,things would move. She swears someone took the blanket off of herin the middle of the night one time when she slept over. Stuff likethat. Everyone listens intently, but I can tell no one’s buyinginto it.
“Val, come to the bathroom with me?”Hailey holds out her hand for me to grab.
“I’ll go,” Ashley offers.
“I’ll still go too.” I grab Hailey’shand and let her pull me up off of Tyler’s lap. I figure I might aswell walk with them now rather than by myself later. The bathroomis about a five minute walk from our campsite up to the mainbuilding. Ashley’s friend and Julie trail along behind ustoo.
When we return to the campsite, abouttwenty minutes later, no one’s there. All of our cups are thrown onthe ground, food left out, and blankets tossed about. None of uslook surprised, only annoyed. It figures they’d do something likethis to try to scare us. So instead of looking for them, we figurewe’ll let them sweat it out. We make new drinks and the four of ussit around together drinking and talking. About an hour goes bybefore we do actually start to get worried.
“You know what gets me?” I ask thegirls. “I’d expect this from Craig, but not Drew andTyler.”
“I was thinking that too,” Haileyadmits. “I don’t think Drew would be gone for this long. I mean ifhe were trying to scare me, I think he would have just jumped outand said ‘boo’ by now. What are they doing in the woods for a wholehour? I’m starting to get nervous.”
Julie, on the other hand, replies,“Nope. This is Dave all the way. He’d wait it out until we went tosearch for them. I know my boyfriend. He doesn’tsurrender.”
“Let’s just go check,” Ashley suggest,wringing her hands together. I can tell she’s getting nervoustoo.
“Yeah, let’s go find them, let themscare us and have it be done and over with already.” I roll myeyes, annoyed by the fact that they’re ruining the camping trip bybeing gone for so long.
I grab my flashlight that I had inTyler and I’s tent and then the five of us stick together as wewalk through the woods, calling out to them.
“C’mon David! Just get it over with sowe can go back to drinking! This is stupid!” Julie callsout.
“Drew! This isn’t funny! I’m reallygetting worried!” Hailey yells.
Ashley and I remain quiet, as wesearch the woods. I hear a twig snap further behind me, so I swingaround quickly, flashing the light in search of someone.
“Where’s Ashley?” Julie asks with wideeyes.
I move my flashlight all around, butshe’s no longer with us.
“Seriously guys! Ashleywas scared! You guys are jerks!”Juliefumes, clearly pissed.
We all look around but don’t see orhear anything other than the cool October wind blowing through thetrees and fallen leaves. I wrap my sweater tighter around me andstart walking again. Julie, Hailey, and Ashley’s friend followbehind. Julie doesn’t stop yelling out to the rest of our crew, whoare obviously messing with us.
I notice I’ve gotten toofar ahead, so I stop to let them catch up. Suddenly, I feel a handover my mouth as I’m lifted into the air and carried away. Althoughit surprises me, I’m not that scared because I know it’s one of theguys. I still kick my legs relentlessly because I’m pissed. I onlystop when I feel my feet hit the ground. Although I’m now standing,I’m still being kept in place. Whoever’s behind me is holding me sotight, I can barely breathe. And I still have someone’s hand overmy mouth. If I didn’t know it was one of the guys, I’d bite down onit. But I figure that would be too harsh since I know it’s just aprank, so I refrain. I wait it out, letting whoever it is call theshots. But when I’m pushed down to my knees, I start to getfurious.That hurt. I try to turn around, but as I turn my head, someone grabsa hold of my hair and uses it to firmly turn my head back facingforward.That hurt too.
“Okay, I’m seriously getting pissed,”I bark to whoever’s behind me.
I try to lift myself up when I feel afoot on my back, pushing me down into the leaves and keeping methere.
“This is ridiculous! You made yourpoint! Now stop being an asshole!” My heart pounds in my chest andI’m not even sure if it’s from the anger or if I’m actuallystarting to get scared.
“Dude, what the hell?” I recognizeCraig’s voice coming towards us from farther away. He doesn’t soundhappy at all.
“Dude, what the hell to you! Now sheknows it’s us,” I recognize Julie’s boyfriend, Dave, mumble inirritation.
“Get your foot off her, man.Seriously, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Craig scoldshim while reaching down to help me up.
I’m finally able to turnaround. I look at both of them with absolute fury.“Have you two lost your minds?”
Dave responds first,“Relaxprincess,it’s just a joke.”
Before I can respond, I see Craig’sfist fly into Dave’s face. I gasp in surprise. Dave hesitates for amoment, looking at the blood on his hand falling from his nose. Hisface goes from shock to rage in an instant and then he lunges atCraig. Before I can do anything to stop it, not that I could domuch anyway, they end up in a full-blown fist fight. I wasn’t thatscared before, but now I’m petrified.
I call out to theothers,“Drew! Tyler! Get your asses overhere! Hurry!”
They must be able to tellby my voice that I’m serious, because they both come running. Drewreaches us first and immediately pulls Craig off of Dave. Tylershows up right behind Drew and holds Dave back. It takes a fewminutes, but they finally calm down and stop trying to get out ofDrew and Tyler’s arms. Dave spits blood out of his mouth as Julieruns over. She looks at us accusingly.“What the hell happened?”
No one talks at first. When I realizeneither one of the guys are going to say anything, I begin, “Davetook the joke a little too far,” I explain, never taking my eyesoff of him. He doesn’t say anything, so I continue. “He pushed medown, grabbed my hair, kept me on the ground with his foot on myback.”
When Julie gasps in surprise, Davefinally talks. “It wasn’t that bad. She’s exaggerating. Every oneof us was playing a part. I was just trying to scare her alittle.”
“You’re a sick bastard,” Craig spitsout calmly but with clear disgust.
“Alright,” Julie reasons, “It’s doneand over with. Let’s just try to salvage the rest of the night. Forthe record, I think you guys are all assholes. That was a horribleprank and you know it.”
When I look around, I realize everyonein our group had gathered around when I started yelling. Tiffany istrying to tend to Craig, but he’s brushing her aside. Drew is withHailey. Tiffany’s friend, as well as Ashley’s friend, are juststanding around, unsure of how to proceed. Julie and Dave bothlooked pissed. And Ashley still looks petrified, with her armswrapped tightly around herself and her eyes searching the woods.Tyler walks over to me.
“Are you alright?” I can see theconcern on his face.
“Yeah. Let’s just go back,” I tellhim, as I start walking.
Everyone seems to follow suit, headingback to the campsite. We all sit around the fire and try to returnto the way it was before the stupid prank.
Tyler puts his arm around me andwhispers in my ear, “I’m so sorry. I had no idea it was going toend up like that. It was supposed to be fun.”
I don’t say anything, but I snugglecloser to him, letting him know he’s off the hook. It wasn’t hisfault Julie’s boyfriend was acting like a dick. I glance over atCraig and get a chill down my spine when I see him staring straightat me with an intense look in his eyes. I look away, but findmyself looking back again a few minutes later, only to find himstill staring.
“Let’s go to bed,” I whisper to Tyler.I figure my mood can’t be salvaged and I’m pretty sure everyoneelse feels the same. They all sit around the fire drinking, butthere’s no more excitement in their voices. That stupid prankbrought everyone down.
Tyler obliges, gathering up theblanket and helping to clean up first. We settle into our tent andinto the over-sized sleeping bag he brought. He wraps his armsaround me and gently kisses my lips. He never pushes me to gofurther and I’m grateful for that. I kiss him back and then lay myhead on his shoulder.
I wake up early in the morning, beforeanyone else does. I’m careful not to wake Tyler as I make my wayout of the sleeping bag. I gather my things and make the trek up tothe bathrooms and showers. When I get back to camp, the only one upis Craig. He’s sitting by the empty fire pit, looking deep inthought. When he lifts his head and notices me, hesmiles.
“Hey,” I whisper to him so I don’twake anyone else.
“Hey. You alright?”
“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Last night,” is all heresponds.
I nod in understanding. “Thanks forthat, by the way.”
“Defending me. Helping me with Dave. Istill can’t believe how far he was willing to take it.”
“Yeah, me either. I had no idea he wasgoing to be that much of an asshole. It was supposed to befun.”
“What were you guys doing out therefor an hour before we started looking?” I take a seat in the emptychair beside him.
“Coming up with a plan.” He shrugs.“Just passing time. We thought you guys would look for us sooner.You want breakfast?” he asks, changing the subject.
“Shouldn’t we wait for everyone elseto wake up?”
“Nah. Let’s go for a drive,” hesuggests.
“Dunkin Donuts. There’s one a couplemiles away.”
I debate it for a moment. I’llprobably get hell from Tiffany if I go. Ultimately, my desire forcaffeine wins. “Let’s go.”
He helps me up into his truck. It’ssomething my old friends at my private high school would have madefun of me for riding in. To say it’s a beater is an understatement.But it’s clean; I’ll give him that. I inhale the musky scent andrelish in it. Tyler’s car always smells so perfectly new. Mostpeople would prefer the new car smell, but I actually prefer themasculine woodsy scent that Craig’s truck holds. I watch him shiftgears as we drive out of the camp.
“Is Tyler gonna be mad if he wakes upand you’re not there?” He takes his eyes off the road to look overat me.
“Not if I bring back coffee,” I lie.Secretly, I’m hoping he doesn’t wake up, because I’m not sure whathis reaction will be. It’s not like I’m doing anything wrong, but Istill have a feeling he wouldn’t be too happy with me taking offwith Craig, even just for a coffee run.
He raises his eyebrows and nods hishead, making it clear that he doesn’t believe me.
“Will Tiffany be mad?” Icounter.
“She knows we’re not serious. Sheshouldn’t care who I hang out with.”
“Do you takeanythingseriously?” Iask with irritation that surprises myself.
He scrunches his eyebrows in confusionbut still answers. “I do.” Then he turns it around on me. “Doyou?”
“I take everythingseriously.”
“From what I can tell, that’s justschool and maybe cheerleading,” he debates.
“That’s what matters right now. I’mworking towards a goal.”
“Really?” he turns to look at me,while he shifts to stop at the red light. “Let me ask you somethingthen. What’s your major?”
“I don’t know yet.” I know he’s goingto make a smart-ass comment, so I hurry to explain. “But we’re onlyfreshman. I have plenty of time to decide on one.”
“You don’t even know what goal you’reworking towards? Being so serious is gonna get tiring, princess.You have to be passionate about something.”
“What’s your major then?” I counter,fully expecting him to have the same answer as me.
“Special education,” he blurts outwithout even giving it a thought.
“Yeah, right.” I don’t believe him fora second. Craig Morgan is not the type of guy to work withchildren, never mind children with special needs.
He sighs. “You don’t believe me.” It’snot a question, but a statement.
“I think it’s hard tobelieve.Youwantto be a SPED teacher? You’re either going to start laughing anysecond now or this is some plan to win brownie points with girls toget them in bed.” As soon as I say it, I regret it because his eyescloud over and his face gets too serious. I can tell I offendedhim.
“Okay, this conversationis over,” he declares taking a deep breath. “But for the record, Idon’t want to be a SPED teacher. Mygoal,” he stresses in order to spitmy very own word back at me, “is to become a therapeutic recreationspecialist.”
The fact that he even knows what thatis leaves me speechless. Now I feel horrible. I know he’s upset,but I literally have no idea what to say right now so I just stareout the windshield at the road in front of us. I want to ask himwhat exactly a therapeutic recreation specialist does, but I don’tfeel like I have a right to know now so I just sit here feelingguilty. After what feels like forever, I finally look over athim.
He nods his head, but doesn’t sayanything in return.
“Why do you put up with me?” I ask,suddenly. Now he’s the one surprised. He looks over at me, hisbrows creased in question, so I go on. “Let’s face it, I’m mean toyou.”
“You’re not mean to me.”
“I kind of am.”
He laughs, no longer upset about mycalling his bluff on his major. “Okay, princess. You want thetruth?”
Honestly, I’m not sure I do. He parkshis truck in the Dunkin Donuts parking lot and I’m tempted to justjump out and go into the store. But when I look over at him, hiseyes are so intense. I can’t help but want to know what he’s goingto say. So I nod my head for him to continue.
“You’re a refreshing change from theordinary,” he starts, “You’re different from the girls I usuallyhang out with.”
“How so?” I press, my curiositypeaked.
He runs his fingers through his hairbefore fixing his gaze on mine. “You’re reserved and confined. Andthat’s great, but I can also see what’s lying just under thesurface. You’re brave and confident. You don’t take my shit. Youhave self-respect when a lot of girls now-a-days don’t. And themore I break your shell, the more I see that I like. You’re right.You are mean to me most of the time. But I think you do it to pushme away. And I think you work so hard at pushing me away becauseyou know that if you stop fighting it…” he inches closer to me, “Ifyou stop trying to convince yourself that I’m some bad guy, thenyou might actually realize that I’m a refreshing change from theordinary for you too. You might actually like me. Hell, you mightactually love me.”
I stare at him indisbelief. Never in a million years would I expect something likethat to come out of Craig’s mouth. He’s so close to me, I couldjust bridge the gap between us, allowing myself to fall into him.If I’m being completely honest with myself, I want to. But instead,I just continue to stare in disbelief. This is Craig Morgan. He’snot the kind of guy to say these things andmeanthem. He’s not the kind of guyI want. I have to keep reminding myself of that. He wouldn’t begood at an actual relationship. He’s nothing like Tyler. Tyler’ssweet and loyal. Craig would be bored with me in no time. He’s aplayer. I have to remind myself of that fact or else it’d be tooeasy to believe him right now, to lose myself in him. I get out ofthe truck without responding to him at all. After a few seconds, hefollows.
When we get up to the register, hewalks in front of me right up to the counter. He starts with mycoffee, knowing exactly how I take it. Then he continues on,ordering enough for everyone at the campsite. I help him carry itall back to the truck. We don’t talk at all on the whole ride back.There’s an awkwardness in the air now, a tension that wasn’t therebefore. I bite my bottom lip, feeling nervous and uncomfortable. Iwant him to talk to me, but I know the ball is in my court. I justdon’t know what to say. So we both remain silent.
When we get back to thecampsite, I see everyone awake.Will Tylerbe upset?Craig shuts the engine off andsits there, waiting for me to say something. Instead, I jump outand immediately walk over to Tyler. As I get near him, his facelights up. I can see Hailey give me a questioning look as I pass byher, while everyone else just goes about whatever they were doingbefore Craig and I returned. I don’t see Tiffany at all.
“I was worried,” Tyler says softly,embracing me in a hug.
“Sorry. Craig wanted to get DunkinDonuts for everyone and needed help carrying it all. I was the onlyone awake,” I explain, not completely lying. While I’m hugging himback, I catch Craig’s glare so I turn my head the otherway.
“What’s this?” Dave asks Craig,laughing, “Some sort of peace offering for keeping us up allnight?”
I look at Julie’s boyfriend inconfusion. Julie sees my expression and explains, “Craig and thetwo girls he’s with were at it all night,” she spits out indisgust. “You’re repulsing,” she directs towards him.
“Watch it!” Tiffany yells at Julie,coming out of her tent. She’s wearing a silk cami and shorts… onHalloween in New England. She must be freezing but if she is, shedoesn’t show it.
“You’re just jealous,” Craig accusesJulie with a smirk. “Could’ve made our threesome a foursome.” Hewinks at her.
“Ew.” She makes a disgusted facebefore walking away.
My heart sinks at the realization. Atfirst I’m hurt, but that instantly fades into anger. I can’tbelieve I was tempted to kiss him just minutes ago. I can’t evenfathom how he could sit there and say those things to me afterindulging in a night of… I don’t even want to think about it. He’san ass. There’s no doubt in my mind now. Anything I might have feltfor him is now replaced with a feeling of utter repugnance. I can’tbelieve he had me questioning my feelings for Tyler, wondering ifCraig would change his ‘bad boy’ ways for me. And I can’t believe Isecretly wanted him to. I should have known better.
This whole trip was a bad idea andit’s only getting worse and worse. I debate asking Tyler if we canleave early and not stay for the rest of the day, but I know Haileywould never let me live it down if I bailed on her. So I justdecide to tune everything out that doesn’t make mehappy.
I convince Hailey, Drew and Tyler totake a hike with me, just the four of us. We pack our backpacks upwith lunch and drinks and we head out, leaving everyone elsebehind. After we hike up the trails, we eat lunch, picnic-style, onthe top of one of the larger hills, overlooking the entire town.The fall foliage is so beautiful from the top. Afterwards, we headdown to the lake. It’s too cold to go swimming, but we walk aroundit, throwing bread pieces to the ducks and talking. It’s a perfectday. I don’t even want to go back to the campsite and deal witheveryone else there, but we have no choice. We have to pack up ourstuff and take the tents down.
When we get back there, everyone elseis sitting around playing drinking games. I wonder if they’ve beendoing this all day, but I don’t ask. I just make my way into Tylerand I’s tent to start packing. When I come out, I notice Drew,Hailey and Tyler sitting with the rest of the crew, joining in onthe game. Craig calls over to me first.
“C’mon, princess. Grab a drink andcome play.”
He gets a glare from Tyler, who I cantell hates when Craig calls me princess almost as much as I do.Unfortunately, he never says anything to Craig about it.
“No, thanks,” I call back. But thething is, I’m not sure what to do now. Everyone here is huddledaround playing the game and I just look like a loner sitting in thetent by myself. So I walk over to Tyler and sit on his lap,watching him play.
“Seriously?” Craig asks, “You’re justgonna sit there and watch?”
“Yepp,” I simply respond, popping theP for emphasis.
“For someone who doesn’t like to becalled a princess, you’re sure as hell acting like one.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask,getting irritated.
“It means Miss Priss can’t be botheredto associate with us low-lives.”
“Maybe I just don’t want toassociate withyou,” I spit back.
He smirks in return.
“What the hell is so funny?” Idemand.
“Nothing, princess.” But he’s stillsmirking.
“No. C’mon, Craig. Tell me. What couldpossibly be funny right now?”
Never letting his smirk fade, hereplies, “Sometimes it just seems like you really hate me, that’sall.”
“And why is that funny?”
“Because, princess,” he finally letshis smirk fall and gets serious before he glances up at Tyler andthen returns his gaze back to me, “there’s a fine line between loveand hate.”
“Oh trust me,” I tell him, “I don’tfeel strongly enough about you to feel either.”
“You keep telling yourselfthat.”
I’m fuming as I watch therest of the game in silence. I’m mad at Craig because hedoesget to me. Andbecause he knows it and he plays on it. He infuriates me and I haveno control over it, as much as I try to ignore him, as much as Iknow he’s not worth it. I can’t help it. He gets to me. And I’m madat myself for letting him get to me. I’m even mad at Tyler. How canhe sit there and listen to all of that and not say one thing in mydefense? I’m mad at Hailey, too, for planning this whole thing andinviting him. I’m just mad. Furious, actually. And I stay that wayuntil I’m back at the campus, in my dorm.
Alone in my bed, I finally start torelease the anger I had felt for hours before. I decide I’m not madat Hailey or Tyler. I even let myself off the hook. I’m really justmad at Craig. If he would just leave me alone, everything herewould be seamless. I’m in college, rooming with my best friend,dating a perfect guy, getting good grades. Craig is the onlyproblem.
It sucks that I have to have a classwith him. If it wasn’t for my public speaking class and him workingat The Grind, I could almost avoid Craig completely. Even with himworking at The Grind, it wouldn’t be too hard to avoid him, sincemost of the time it’s so busy in there that I’m able to just get mycoffee and leave without incident. But unfortunately, I have topass my public speaking class because it’s a basic requirement atthe university and it doesn’t look like he’ll be dropping the classanytime soon either. I could never completely be rid of him as longas he’s friends with Drew anyway.
I’m the first one in my publicspeaking class every time, since my previous class is in this sameroom. So before anyone else files in, I start to move the desksaround. The professor told us on the first day of class that shewants them arranged in a U-shape at the start of each class. So Iusually start it and as other kids come in, they help. I’m stucksitting next to Craig because where you sit on the first day ofclass is where you sit all semester. The professor’s not strict, soI’m sure if I moved, she wouldn’t even mention it. But it’s a fullclass so if I move, someone else would have to too. And they mightmention it. It’d just sound silly and immature to tell anyone thatI don’t want to sit next to Craig. So I suck it up today, like I doevery day I have this class.
We haven’t talked much since thecamping trip, so it surprises me when I hear him say my name. Notprincess, mind you, but my actual name.
I could just ignore him but heprobably won’t stop and curiosity wins out anyway, so I bite.“Yeah?”
“Would you mind letting me borrow apen?”
The formality drives me crazy becauseI can’t tell if he’s being serious or if he’s taunting me. I raisemy eyebrows in question. Who comes to class without something towrite with?
As if sensing my unspoken question, heanswers, “I did have one. It must have fallen out of my book. Sorryto bother you. If you don’t have a spare, I’ll ask someoneelse.”
He doesn’t carry a bag like everyoneelse on campus. He only carries the absolute necessities – theclass book, a notebook, and usually a pen.
“Stop talking to me like that,” Idemand, as I hand him a pen.
“Like what?” His face gives nothingaway.
It’s driving me crazy because he knowsexactly what he’s doing and he’s doing it on purpose.
“Like you’re a stranger.Like you’re apolitestranger.”
“Isn’t that what you want?”
“You’re taunting me,” Iaccuse.
“I’m not taunting you,Valerie. You want distance between us. I don’t know why, but I knowyou’re mad at me for something. As far as I can see, I haven’t doneanything to ruin our friendship. We werefriends, weren’t we?” He stressesthe word ‘friends’ and I can see what he’s trying to do.
I sigh loudly. “Yes, we werefriends.”
“And you just don’t want to be friendsanymore?”
“I didn’t say that.” I know I can’tsay that with no good reason behind it.
“Then why have you been avoidingme?”
“Look. We’re just toodifferent. We have to be friends, at least somewhat, for Hailey andDrew’s sake. But other than that, we’re just better off leavingeach other alone.” I see his face drop as I say it and Iimmediately feel bad. But I know that I mean it. Wearebetter off leavingeach other alone. No awkward encounters. No temptation. No brokenhearts.
I think that’s the end of it, but afew minutes later, he continues.
“So, we’re friends around Hailey andDrew but I’m supposed to ignore you if they’re not around,right?”
“Ugh! Don’t make this complicated,Craig.”
“Sorry, princess. Just want to makesure I’m following the rules here.”
So we’re back to princess again.“There are no rules. I just think it’s best if we keep ourdistance.”
He starts to say something else, butthen stops.
“I’m out of here,” another kid fromthe class announces.
At that, everyone starts to clearout.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
Craig answers, “Professor’s a no-show.Five-minute rule says we can leave.”
“I’ve only heard of a five-minute rulewhen it comes to dropping food on the floor,” I replyskeptically.
“Everyone’s leavingprincess. Stick around if you want, but you’ve made it clear thatyou don’t wantmycompany so I’m out of here too.” He gets up and walks out thedoor.
As the days pass, I try to convincemyself that this is for the best. Craig and I should not befriends. We’re too different. He flirts endlessly with me, then hehooks up with two girls that same night. I can’t do it. I can’tbear to be around him.
But all week, I’ve been thinking abouthim. It makes me sick to my stomach, but I can’t deny it. When mymind wanders, it travels straight to him. If only he wasn’t such anass. Tyler is a nice guy. A perfect guy, really. And he likes me.So, why can’t I stop thinking about Craig Morgan?
When I see him taking off his apron inThe Grind, I figure his shift is over and he’s about ready toleave. I debate whether or not I should talk to him, but ultimatelyI decide I have to. I grab his arm before he can take off. It stopshim in his tracks and he looks down at my hand around his arm andback up to me with a smirk. A cocky smirk.
“You’re right. You didn’t do anythingto ruin our friendship. I was being mean and I’m sorry. Can we justgo back to being friends?”
He mulls it over for a moment, whichirritates me beyond belief. “Why the change of heart?”
“I told you, I realized you wereright.”
Instead of the cocky smile I thoughtI’d see return at the mention of him being right, he gets seriousinstead. “I don’t do fair-weathered friends, princess. How do Iknow you won’t change your mind again?”
“I said I’m sorry.”
The truth is, I can’t get him out ofmy head. I keep thinking about what it would be like to be withhim. And then I wonder why I don’t just break up with Tyler. I haveto remind myself why I can’t be with Craig. I have to remind myselfabout what kind of a guy he is, that he’s a player and could neverbe in a serious relationship. I figure avoiding him isn’tforgetting him… it’s just forgetting the bad parts. The longer Iavoid him, the more I get this picture in my head of what a niceguy he is. At least if I go back to being friends with him, I won’thave such a hard time remembering why he’s not the kind of guy Iwant.
“Okay,” he finally agrees.“Friends.”
Things are alright for a few weeksafterwards. Being friendly around Craig gives me the opportunity tosee him flirting with other girls too, which helps me to realizethat he’ll never be the nice guy that Tyler is. It reconfirms mydecision and I start to feel better about everything. I know Ishould be with Tyler. No doubts left. Craig still taunts me and Iget irritated, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. Until the daybefore my birthday.
The night before was our last game ofthe year, so I was out late with the girls, and then with Tylerafter. The boys lost the game, so he was pretty bummed. I stayed athis dorm until late, trying to cheer him up. Not in a sexual way oranything. We still haven’t reached that level in our relationshipyet. And Drew and Hailey were there too. We were all trying tosalvage the rest of the night, but between Tyler’s sour mood andHailey and Drew having a little tiff of their own, it was a prettymiserable night.
I’m not sure what’s going on withHailey and Drew because Hailey hasn’t talked to me about it yet,but I could tell that Hailey was upset with him all night. Theyweren’t actually arguing or anything, but I know when Hailey’s mad.We’ve been friends for too long for me not to notice. She gives oneword answers and mostly just stays quiet. Someone who hasn’t knownher for as long as I have might not even catch on to hercold-shoulder act because it’s not very obvious to everyone else,but I always see it. Drew should notice it too. At least I wouldthink he would notice it by now. But then again, it’s not like theyfight very often. Barely ever, actually. When we got back to ourdorm room, I asked her if everything was okay between them, but shejust shrugged and brushed it off as nothing, so I didn’t press theissue. Selfishly, I was glad she didn’t want to talk because I wasexhausted.
The last time I remember seeing on myclock was 3:03 A.M. So when I start to wake up to voices in my dormand see 8:12 A.M on my clock, on a Saturday morning, I’m instantlyirritated.
I try to ignore them, but the hushedwhispering almost makes it worse than if they were talking at anormal volume. I try to roll over and go back to bed, but when Imove to roll over, I hear someone yell, “She’s awake!” I look upand see Craig just inches from my face, sitting on mybed.
“What the hell?” I huff out, justbefore I pull the blanket up over my face.
“C’mon, princess. Time to get up!” heexclaims, pulling the blanket down.
“It’s Saturday! And what the hell areyou doing in my room?”
“Hailey let me in,” he dismisses, likeit’s no big deal.
I search the room and when my eyesfind hers I give her the dirtiest look I can manage withsleep-ridden eyes.
“What do you want?” I ask, turningback to Craig.
His smile fades. “Nothing. I broughtyou breakfast.”
“Why not?” He looks so sweet andinnocent, but I know that’s the furthest thing from what heactually is.
“I could list a million reasons whynot. Why would you just all of a sudden, randomly, bring mebreakfast?”
“It’s not random,” he scoffs, “It’s abirthday breakfast.”
“My birthday is tomorrow,” I respond.“But how would you know anything about my birthdayanyway?”
“I remembered.” He looksoffended for a brief moment, but then his eyes brighten again. “Andyes, I know its tomorrow.But,what I have planned will bring us well into themorning hours, so technically today will run into your birthday. Sothe celebration starts today.”
“Why would you plan anything for mybirthday? What if I had plans of my own?”
“But what if I did? WhatifTylerdid?”
“Because I talked to him.”
“And he just said he had nothingplanned for his girlfriend on her birthday so go ahead and plansomething?” I ask, skeptically.
“Pretty much.” He shrugs.
“I don’t believe you,” Iinsist.
“Okay… he said he was going to takeyou out to dinner on Saturday night because your parents are comingto take you to dinner on Sunday night on your actual birthday. So,I said why the hell would she want to go out to dinner two nightsin a row? And he looked at me with that blank, dumb face that hegets. I’m sure you know the one. And so I made anothersuggestion.”
I’m speechless. Not over thesentiment, but because there’s just so much wrong with that wholestatement. Why would he even ask Tyler what he had planned? Whywould he care? And why on Earth would Tyler let Craig take over andplan something else? Instead of addressing all of the obviousquestions, I just ask one. “What was your suggestion?”
“Nope. It’s a surprise,” he declares,handing me a bag and a Styrofoam cup of coffee.
I take both, but give him a skepticallook.
“It’s not poisoned. Ipromise.”
I take a sip of the coffeeand relish in it. Then, I open the bag. Two Danish pastries, onelemon and one cheese. They’re my favorite, but I have no idea howhe knew that. I barely ever eat breakfast. I close the bag back up,take another sip of coffee and then look right into his eyes. Iknow I should say thank you, but I don’t. I’m waiting for anexplanation, something he could say that would explain thisbehavior. He’s not my boyfriend. This is something a boyfriendwould do. Tyler should be here with my favorite breakfast, notCraig. Then again, my actual birthday is tomorrow so Tyler wouldn’tthink to surprise me the morning before. Still, Craig shouldnotbe doing this. Whatthe hell is he up to?
“You hijacked my birthday.”
“Yepp,” is all he says inreturn.
I just look at him for a moment. Welook at each other. Then he jumps up off the bed, scaring mehalf-to-death.
“Be ready by ten, princess!” he yellsas he leaves the room.
My mind instantly wanders to Tyler.What does he think of all this? Why didn’t he put a stop to it? Ishe waiting for me to? Is he mad? I send him a text.
“Did you know Craighijacked my birthday?!”
He doesn’t respond right away, so Ifigure he’s still sleeping, since it’s still early. I look over atHailey who seemingly went back to bed, but I knowbetter.
“Did you know about this?” I accuseher.
She rolls over, facing my direction.“I just found out last night. You know there’s no reasoning withCraig. He has it all planned out. Might as well just go along withit.”
“Is Tyler pissed?”.
“Honestly, he didn’t seem to care. Imean, it’s not like Craig left him out of it completely. He’s stillinvited.”
“Hailey, this is weird. I mean, it’sweird, right? Tyler is my boyfriend. Why the hell is Craig throwingme a birthday… thing? What is he planning anyway?”
“He wouldn’t tell me all of it. I onlyknow about the get-together later tonight. And yes, I agree. It’sweird. But you’re going to love it.”
She rolls over again, to go back tosleep, so I grab my things and head for the showers. When I getback to my dorm, I see that Tyler texted back.
“I did. I’m sorry. Notmuch I could do about it. We’ll have fun tonight though. Honestlyhis plan is better than mine was anyway.”
I don’t know why it bothers me somuch, but it does. Tyler should be planning this. Or at least notallowing some other guy to. It’s like he doesn’t even care. But atthe same time as I’m thinking that, I know it’s not the truth. Thetruth is that Tyler is just such a good guy that he doesn’t evenrealize there’s anything wrong with it.
As I’m getting ready, I wonder whyHailey isn’t. I debate waking her up, but ultimately I decide notto. Why do I need to be ready for ten o’clock on a Saturday morninganyway?
Its nine forty-five when Craig knockson my door and I answer, still getting ready.
“You’re early,” I conclude, as I rushover to my closet to grab a sweater.
“It’s fashionably late.”
“I’m not late,” he says,confused.
“Forget it,” I tell him, rolling myeyes. I grab my favorite bracelets off of my bureau and startputting them on. “Where are we going and who else iscoming?”
“I told you it’s asurprise.”
“Well, am I dressed okay?”
I wasn’t sure how to dress so I keptit casual, pairing jeans with heels and a long-sleeved black shirt.I have a sweater to go over it because New England can be frigid inNovember. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing? Should I be dressieror more casual?”
“Neither. I just think you should bewearing less.”
“Less?” I question.
“Yeah, less. Nothingpreferably.”
I sigh in defeat. “Let’sgo.”
He leads me out to his truck parked onthe street and helps me up into it. Why does this feel like adate?
“Can you at least tell me if anyoneelse is coming?” I ask him while he shifts gears.
“Right this second, no. It’s just us.They’re coming later.”
“Craig, seriously, where are we going?I’m kind of getting the impression that I’ve beenkidnapped.”
He laughs out loud at that. “Okay,princess. I’ll give you a hint.”
I wait for him to answer, but his cellphone rings and he answers the call instead. I try not to listen,but our close proximity in the truck doesn’t give me much of achoice.
“Hey Bean,” he talks into thephone.
“Yeah, I can do that.”
“Alright, I’ll be there.”
“I promise,” he sayssofter.
“Lexie, don’t cry. I’ll see yousoon.
I love you,” he says, hanging up thephone.
I wait for some kind of anexplanation, but he just continues to drive. His mood seems to haveshifted though. He seems upset, or maybe sad. I wonder what Ishould say, but I figure if he hasn’t tried to explain, it probablymeans it’s none of my business. But I can’t help but wonder – whois Lexie?
“You were gonna give me a hint,” Iremind him after we’ve been driving in silence for a fewminutes.
“Oh. Okay…” he trails off, thinking.“You told me before that you wanted to do something crazy and havefun.” He looks over at me with his usual smirk.
“I never told you that,” Iinsist.
“No. I didn’t.”
“You did. You were pretty intoxicated.But you still did.”
“Are you kidding me? You can’t takethat seriously. I was drunk!”
He doesn’t answer, onlylaughs.
“Craig,” I plead, getting nervous.“What on Earth are we going to do?”
He just laughs louder, getting a kickout of my nervousness.
He parks the truck in frontof what looks like an old factory. There’s a sign on the front ofit that reads, ‘SCARRED’ in big bold letters.What is he getting me into?
“C’mon,” he urges, practicallydragging me along with him.
When he opens the door, I immediatelyknow what this place is. The smell of rubbing alcohol and stalecigarettes overwhelm me and I turn around to bolt right back outthe door, but Craig catches me by my waist and holds ontight.
“I’m not getting a tattoo! What areyou, crazy?”
“They also do piercings,” he suggestswith a smirk.
“No!” I hold firm.
“Okay, you don’t have to get anything.I would never make you do anything you don’t want to do, princess.In fact, I’m sure no one on this Earth could ever make you doanything against your will.”
“Then why are we here?” I askskeptically, the panic slowly leaving my voice.
“I figured if you felt like being alittle crazy and wanted to get something, it would be my treat.Your birthday gift. And if not, that’s fine too. I need to add tomine, so you can watch if you want. It won’t take long.”
“I’ll watch. Then we’re out of here.”I tap my foot and cross my arms.
He smirks at me and then walks away,heading over to some guy who looks to be in his early thirties.They bump fists and talk for a minute, but I don’t pay attention towhat they’re saying because I’m too busy studying the guy’s skin.He has tattoos covering every inch, aside from his neck and face.When I make eye contact with him, I notice how strikingly blue hiseyes are. Then I quickly turn my head in the opposite direction,embarrassed that he caught me staring. I start to walk around theshop, looking at the different drawings. Some are hung up on paper,others are drawn right onto the walls. And they have books andbooks of different tattoo ideas. I start to look through one andactually see a couple I would consider… if I ever actually wantedto get a tattoo, that is.
“You coming, princess?” Craig calls tome.
I look up to see him and thetattooed-covered guy making their way into a smaller room, so Ifollow behind.
“I’m Jay,” the guy introduces himselfto me, holding out his hand.
“Hi. I’m Valerie.” I smile back,taking his hand and shaking it.
In the smaller room, there’s a table,a computer, and tons of designs all around us. I also notice atrophy on the shelf, for tattoo artist of the year, first place.The artist, Jay, notices me staring at it, so I make small talk.“First place, huh?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, you wouldn’t wantsomeone who only got second place permanently marking up your body,right?” He chuckles.
“No. I guess not,” I respond, laughingwith him.
“It’s Val’s birthday,” Craig tellsJay.
“No, it’s not,” I correct him. “It’stomorrow.”
Craig ignores my correction andcontinues, “Don’t you think she should get a tattoo?”
“I’m not getting a tattoo,” I tellthem both.
“We also offer piercings,” Jay says,mimicking what Craig said just minutes ago.
“Are you scared of the pain?” Jayasks.
“No. It’s not that. It’s just so…permanent.”
“That’s the best part,” he argues. “Alot of people don’t get tattoos because they think they’ll regretthem in the future. But how could you regret something you oncewanted? Something that reminds you of a specific moment intime?”
I look up into his deep blue eyes andsee nothing but kindness and sincerity. Maybe I’m judgmental, but Ihave to admit that I never would have thought a tattoo artist wouldbe so soft and easygoing. I would have expected someone more rougharound the edges and full of curse words. I guess sometimes peoplesurprise you.
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” Iadmit. “I don’t know what I’d get anyway though.”
“Whatever you like.” He shrugs, as ifit’s that simple. “Whatever you want, really. It’s all aboutauthenticity. Being yourself in a world trying to make yousomething else. Not conforming. Not caring what people think. Beingunapologetically you and showing it off for the world to see. It’slike saying to everyone ‘See, at one point in time I was braveenough to express myself. Really truly express myself.’ Andnothing’s cooler than that.”
“Wow. I never thought of it that way.You put quite the spin on it.” I smile at him.
“No spin, Valerie. I’m being honest.That’s what tattoos are all about, at least for me. Other peoplehave deeper meanings, like your boy Craig over here.”
Craig narrows his eyes at him andshakes his head so slightly I wonder if I imagined it.
“He’s notmyboy,” Imumble.
“Well, what I mean is some people gettatted up for loved ones, people who’ve passed, people they want tocommemorate. Or people who are still with us, but just mean thatmuch to us that we want them permanently with us forever. Everyonehas different reasons.”
I look over at Craig withquestioning eyes, wondering what the puzzle piece is for, or moreimportantly,whoit’s for. I look down when I hear the soft buzz of the needlestarting on his arm and when I look back up into his eyes, he’slooking right back at me.
“Does it hurt?” I ask him,seriously.
“I mean… do you think it would hurtme?”
He raises his eyebrows in shock. “Isthe princess actually thinking about getting a tattoo?”
“No. Well… maybe,” Iconfess.
“What do you mean ‘why’? Didn’t youwant me to get one? Isn’t that why you took me here?”
“I don’t care if you get atattoo or not, princess. It’s about you doing something a littleout of your comfort zone, but only ifyouwant to.”
I take a deep breathe. “I wantto.”
“What made you change yourmind?”
“I guess because Idowant to do somethingcrazy,” I admit, sheepishly. “I want to live in the moment foronce. And I like the idea of it being a form of self-expressiontoo.”
“What would you get?”
“It’s gonna sound stupid.” I cover myface with my hands, but Craig quickly lowers them backdown.
“Princess, what do you want?” he asksin a softer tone.
“As in the WSC mascot?” He scruncheshis face, not impressed.
“Yeah. I mean I know it’s stupid. Icould fail out or transfer to another school, you never know. But…if I’m commemorating a moment in time, it makes sense. I’m changinghere. I feel it. I’m not the same girl I used to be. And the whole‘spreading your wings and learning to fly’ motto kind of fitstoo.”
He smiles and nods his head. “Yeah,that’s perfect.”
“Really? It’s not stupid?”
“No. At least, not after you explainedit.”
“All set, Craig,” Jay announces,shutting the needle off and wiping away at the newwound.
“My turn,” I declare with a brightsmile.
“Alright princess!” Jayexclaims.
“Dude, no. Not cool.” Craig narrowshis eyes at him. “I’m the only one who gets to call herthat.”
Jay laughs and then moves about,cleaning up after Craig’s tattoo.
“So, what does your tattoo mean?” Iask Craig.
He hesitates and I can tell he doesn’twant me to know.
“I just told you what I’m getting andwhy. It’s only fair,” I whine.
“Okay,” he laughs lightly. Then hissmile fades as he becomes serious. “Alright…”
I give him a look, encouraging him togo on.
“It’s for Lexie.”
I want to ask him more about it, abouther, but I can tell he doesn’t want to explain any further. I’msurprised he told me that much, And I don’t have the chance anyway,because Jay’s ready for me.
“I need you to sign these papersfirst,” he explains, handing me a clipboard.
I read through statement afterstatement, all of which pretty much just asserts that I won’t sueJay for any type of bad reaction resulting from the tattoo. I signit, hand it back, and take a deep breath, feeling the nervesfinally hit me.
“Hop on in the chair,” Jay instructs.He holds up a couple different falcons he has already made up. Ipick one diligently and then tell him I want it on my ankle. Heputs it on like a temporary tattoo at first. Like the ones Haileyand I used to get when we were kids. We would love to put quartersin the machines that were filled with those little plastic ballsthat opened up and held a treasure inside. Our favorite treasureswere the fake tattoos, although we only liked the flower ones. Theyhad pirate ships, princesses, and sports ones too, and there was notelling which one would come out. We’d be bummed for the whole dayif we didn’t get a flower.
Jay gives me a mirror and tells me tomake sure the placement is right. I nod in approval and he movesabout getting everything ready. I feel Craig slide his hand intomine and I don’t think about it being intimate. I just squeezetightly in response. I’m so nervous, I can feel myself shaking. Iclose my eyes shut and prepare myself for the pain.
“It’s alright, princess,” I hear Craigwhisper close to my ear. “It’ll be over in a minute.”
I feel the needle press down and itsurprises me that it doesn’t hurt that bad. Then, I feel it scrapethrough my skin and I take my first thought back. It hurts likehell. It hurts so much that I’m afraid I’m going to move my leg andreally mess him up. If I do that I’ll have to live with theconsequences for the rest of my life, so I try my hardest to pullit together. I concentrate on Craig’s hand in mine and keeping myleg firmly in place, while I try to block out the fact that aneedle is scraping its way through my skin.
“Talk to me,” I order Craig, squeezinghis hand even tighter.
He hesitates for a moment and thenstarts, “My sister, Lexie, is sixteen years old.”
I open my eyes to look at him and hecontinues, “But you’d never be able to tell. She acts twelve, atbest. She’s on the spectrum. Autism. She’s fully functioning, justvery… I don’t know, immature I guess you could say, for her age.She’s great though. She’s a really sweet kid.”
“I forgot you had asister.”
When we were in high school and Haileyand Drew first started dating, we ended up spending the night atCraig’s house after one of his infamous parties. I remember Craigtelling Hailey and Drew that they could sleep in his sister’s room.But that was it. There was never any other mention of his sister inall the time I’ve known him. Then again, it’s not like I’ve evertried to get to know him as more than Drew’s irritatingfriend.
“You don’t talk about her… like ever,”I marvel at him.
“I know. It’s not that I’m embarrassedor anything. It’s just that the type of people I’ve always hung outwith would make fun of her in a heartbeat. And she’s special to me.I wouldn’t take it very well, and then I’d up a loner.” He smirks,trying to make a joke of it.
“So none of your friends everknew?”
I think about how sad that is. That hedidn’t have one friend who ever knew him well enough to know thathe has a sister with special needs.
“That explains your major,” I state,realizing the connection.
“All done,” Jay declares.
I look down at my ankle, amazed.“Seriously? That was fast!” I twist and turn it so I can see thefalcon better. “I love it!” I smile from ear to ear, thrilled thatI actually went through with it.
“It looks awesome, princess.” Hereturns my smile, looking genuinely happy just to see mehappy.
“Hailey is gonna freak! I can’tbelieve I actually have a tattoo!”
“I can’t believe you actually got one,either. I’m proud of you,” he beams.
And for some reason, his statementfills me with pride.
Craig stops at a hotdog truck parkedon the outskirts of a lake on the way back. I insist on buying ourhotdogs, chips and sodas since he paid for my tattoo. He gets madabout it, but ultimately lets me. We sit on the grass, right by thelake. I wrap my sweater tightly around me before taking a bite outof my hotdog. It’s a chilly November day, but it’s not freezinglike it usually is this time of year. In New England, you neverknow what kind of weather you’ll get. I’ve seen snow storms as lateas April and as early as October. We’ve had frost coating theground in the same week as air conditioners become a necessity.They say New England is bipolar and I wouldn’t disagree. Todayfeels more like mid-September than mid-November, but I’m notcomplaining one bit. I love the crisp autumn air with the sun stillshining brightly down on us.
“What are you thinking?” I ask when Irealize how quiet he’s become.
“That’s a loaded question, princess.You sure you wanna know the answer?” he smirks.
I roll my eyes back at him. “Yes, Iwanna know.”
“Okay. Just remember, you asked forit,” he warns.
I give him a pointed look inreturn.
“I was thinking about you.”
“No you weren’t. C’mon, I’mserious.”
“I’m serious too.”
“Fine then. What about me?”
“You’re different than I thought you’dbe,” he remarks.
“Because you thought I was a prissybrat when you first met me?”
“Well, yeah. But you’re still that,”he teases, laughing as I feign shock. “But seriously, you’re justso… intriguing.”
“Intriguing? What could possibly beintriguing about me? I’m completely ordinary,” I reply, not becauseI’m fishing for a compliment, but because it’s true.
“Let me ask you something, princess.But before we have this conversation, can you just convinceyourself, for only these next few moments, that I’mgay?”
“What?” My mouth hangsopen.
“I don’t want you to get the wrongidea and think that I’m trying to hit on you right now. So forthese next few moments, and these next few moments only, considerme gay.”
I don’t respond because I’m laughingout loud. I can’t help it. Never in a million years did I thinkthat statement would come out of Craig Morgan’s mouth.
“Okay, stop,” he orders. “I seriouslywant to ask you something.”
It takes effort to stop laughing athis absurdity, but after a few seconds, I manage.
“Do you think Tyler loves you?” heasks, all joking gone.
My face drops. “That’s ridiculous. Wehaven’t even been together for that long. And why on Earth wouldyou ask that?”
“Okay, then do you thinkthat hecouldlove you, you know, someday?”
“Craig, you’re being absolutelyridiculous right now.”
“Just hear me out, okay? You should bewith someone who makes you feel anything other than ordinary,” hestarts. I roll my eyes in response, but he ignores it and continuesanyway. “You should be with someone who makes you feel like you arethe most important person in his world. Someone who will studyevery bit of you. He’ll know exactly how you take your coffee, whatyour favorite color is. He’ll know your biggest pet peeves and tryhis hardest not to do any of them. But he’ll push you past yourcomfort zone, too. He’ll fall in love with your laugh and he’llknow your sense of humor. He’ll see your flaws and know yourquirks, and he’ll accept them all. He may even adore them. My pointis, he’ll know you. Really know you. And therefore, he’ll know howextraordinary you are. And he’ll never pass up an opportunity toremind you of it.”
“Like you are right now?” Iwhisper.
“Nope.” He smirks. All seriousnessonce again replaced with humor. “I’m gay, remember?”
I can’t help but smile inreturn.
“Going back to youroriginal question, what wereyouthinking of?”
“The weather,” I responddully.
He raises his eyebrows. “The weather?”he questions, not believing me.
“I told you. Ordinary.”
When we get back to my dorm, it’safter four in the afternoon. He doesn’t just drop me off, he walksright in with me and then sprawls out on the couch in the commonroom like he owns the place.
“What are you doing?”
“Waiting. You have an hour. One hour,that’s it.”
“To do what?”
“Get ready,” he answers, like it’sobvious.
“I am ready,” I respond, looking downat my outfit and smoothing out my hair.
“Not according to these girls,” hesays, right on cue, as Ashley, Julie, and Hailey come out of mineand Hailey’s room.
“You’ll never guess where we’re goingtonight!” Ashley gushes.
“Hey,”Craig says sternly, narrowing his eyes at her. “Anyone tellsher and they’re out.”
“Okay,” Ashley says rolling her eyes.“I won’t.” Then she turns back to me. “But you’re gonna be sopsyched!” She jumps up and down, unable to contain her ownexcitement.
They drag me into my dorm and rummagethrough my closet for an outfit. I think what I’m wearing would begood for most occasions, but evidently they disagree.
“Oh, this is a cute skirt!” Ashleysays, holding up my light brown miniskirt with the chunky brownbelt attached.
“It’s November,” I respond.
“It’s super cute,” shecounters.
“Okay,” I agree, laughing. “Besides,it’ll give me a chance to show off my new tattoo.
By the time my allotted hour is up, Ilook completely re-done. Julie gives me a ‘smokey-eye’ look, Haileydoes my hair, pushing a lot of it to the right side and adding asmall cascading braid in the front of the left side. And of course,Ashley picks out my brown skirt and I pair it with a plain whitelong-sleeved shirt. Despite wanting to show off my tattoo, thegirls convince me to wear my dark brown cowboy boots. I only ownone pair, from a night Hailey and I went to a country dancingclass. We were on a big kick of wanting to learn the dances, butended up only going to one lesson. I grab a long necklace off of mydresser to complete the look. The girls look equally dolled up,Hailey in a knee-length dress, also wearing her cowboy boots, andAshley and Julie in jeans with dressier than usual tops. We’re justabout ready to go, so I text Tyler while the girls get their thingstogether.
“I’ve tried to convinceHailey to tell me, but Craig is threatening her. Where are wegoing?! Pleeeeaaseee?”
“I’m outside your door. Icould tell you… but I’m pretty sure Craig won’t let me go if Ido.”
Instead of texting back, Ijust head out to the common room to see him. When I open the doorI’m surprised to see so many people waiting. My eyes find Tyler’sand I head right over to him and wrap my arms around him in anembracing hug, although I feel guilty after spending the day withCraig. I know Ishouldbe with Tyler, but sometimes I see this other side of Craigand it makes me question everything. It makes me question if Ireallywantto bewith Tyler… if Craig is as bad as he seems… if maybe I could be theone girl he’d take seriously and stay faithfully committed to… if Icould somehow turn him into a relationship guy. But then there’stimes when I’m sure of my decision. Like the morning after ourcamping trip when he admittedly had a three-some after sayingthings to make me believe he was serious about liking me. And likenow… after spending the day with him and having him tell me thatI’m anything other than ordinary and that I deserve to be with aguy who will tell me so every day, yet here he is with a playboybunny clone on his arm. Why would he say those things to me andthen bring this girl tonight?
“Princess, come here,” Craig beckons,nodding his head for me to move in his direction.
I walk over to him since he didorchestrate whatever it is we’re all doing. When I reach him, hebends down and lifts my foot right off the ground. I bend my legand he takes off my cowboy boot.
“What are you doing?” I ask him insurprise.
“You don’t have your tattoo coveredup,” he explains. “You either need to put something on it or losethe cowboy boots.”
“Because the boots will irritate itall night and it could get infected. Put some A&D on it andthen wrap it in a bandage. Then you can wear your boots. But afterthat, no shoes that go past your ankle. You’ll want to keep it opento let it heal.”
“Where’s Tiffany?” I ask him, lookingover at the girl he’s obviously here with.
“I told you, we weren’t serious. Outwith the old, in with the new.” He shrugs like it’s no bigdeal.
I make a disgusted face at him butbefore I can respond, Tyler approaches us.
“You got a tattoo?” heasks.
“Um, yeah,” I admit.
“The school mascot?” he asks, lookingconfused.
“Yepp. I just liked it,” I lie, notwanting to give him the same explanation I gave Craig. It’s notthat I don’t care to, it’s just that I’d feel silly admitting thewhole spreading my wings metaphor to Tyler.
“Cool,” he decides, checking it out.“Did it hurt?”
“Yeah, kind of.”
“Alright,” Craig shouts, “Julie, Dave,Ashley, and this kid, whose name I don’t know…”
“Mike,” the guy tells him. I thinkhe’s Ashley’s date.
“…are in Dave’s car. Therest of us are in the van,” Craig finishes.
“What van?” I ask.
“Drew’s mom’s. She’s letting us use ittonight,” Craig explains.
When we make our way out into theparking lot and over to the van, Drew takes the driver’s seat, soHailey inevitably takes the passenger’s seat. Tyler motions for meto jump in next, so I do. He follows in the seat next to me andthen Craig and his date file in, sitting in the seat behindus.
“Anyone wanna tell me where we’regoing now?”
Hailey answers. “We’ve all beenthreatened not to or else we won’t be allowed to goourselves.”
I roll my eyes, and then ask her toturn up the music.
We arrive at the Mavis Center, a bigarena where sports events and concerts take place, forty-fiveminutes later. Drew doesn’t pull into the main parking area though.Instead, he goes all the way to the back, talks to a guard in abooth who presses a button that lifts a gate, and then proceeds todrive past the sign that says employee entrance. Julie’s boyfriendfollows straight behind us.
“What’s going on?” I ask. But no oneanswers.
Drew parks the van and we all fileout.
“This feels sketchy. Seriously,someone tell me what’s going on.”
No one answers but everyone starts tofollow Craig as he opens an unmarked side door, so I follow aswell. He walks down a hallway, turns and walks down anotherhallway. Finally, he comes to a red door and knocks. A securityguard opens the door and smiles at him.
“These must be your friends,” heassumes. “Hello everyone, I’m Craig’s dad, Rick.”
I’m shocked. All I know about Craig’sparents is that they’re not around much. In high school, he was thebad boy, having parties at his house and always getting intotrouble. I assumed he didn’t have a lot of good influences growingup. I think I always assumed his parents were drug addicts orsomething to that effect. But his dad looks completely normal. Iwould guess he’s in his fifties because although his face looksyoung, he has salt and pepper hair. He offers a friendly smile ashe takes us all in.
“Are you guys excited to see thisconcert?” he asks us.
“It’s Valerie’s favorite band,” Craigsays, looking at me instead of his dad.
“It’s not…” I respond, trailing off,thinking it couldn’t possibly be Lady Antebellum, one of myall-time favorites.
“Yepp,” he replies, with a smuggrin.
“Seriously?” I run over to him andthrow my arms around his neck, not caring what anyone else thinks.He picks me up off the floor and spins me around. When I let go,I’m too embarrassed to look at Tyler or Craig’s date, so I justfocus on Hailey.
“Can you believe we’re gonna see LadyA?” I shriek.
She laughs. “You don’t know how hardit was for me not to tell you!”
Rick leads us out into the arena andshows us the spot where we’ll be staying for the show. It’s not aspot where anyone could buy tickets for. It’s roped off and lookslike it’s supposed to be used for equipment, but we don’t carebecause we’re close enough to the stage that we can actually touchit.
None of us know the opening band, butwe can tell right away that they’re pretty good. We’re all having agreat time together, except for Craig and his date who seem to onlywanna grope each other and make out the whole time. I don’t let itget to me though. I’m too excited and giddy, I doubt anything couldbring me down right now. When Hillary and the guys take the stage,forming Lady Antebellum, the whole arena goes wild. They start offwith “Need You Now” and I lose myself in the music. Hailey, Julie,Ashley and I dance and yell the lyrics to every song they perform,while the guys take a more laid-back attitude. But I can tellthey’re having a blast too. By the time the last song plays, I canfeel my voice fading. I don’t remember the last time I had thismuch fun. The crowd cheers for them to play one more song, and theycome back out and start “Friday Night” – my favorite. When they’redone, Craig takes my hand and leads me away from thegroup.
“Where are we going?” I look back atour friends, wondering why he’s only taking me.
“Back to my dad.”
“Oh, good. I don’t even think Ithanked him. This was so awesome, Craig. I can’t believe you setthis up. I’m glad you hijacked my birthday.” I smile up athim.
We stop in a hallway where we seeCraig’s dad walking toward us with… Lady Antebellum.
Hillary Scott looks at me, “So thismust be the birthday girl,” she says, smiling.
And of course, I can’t talk. I mean, Iphysically am unable to make a noise, so I just shake my head upand down like an idiot.
Craig chuckles, “This is Val. She’s ahuge fan.”
“Can we sign something for you?” Daveasks.
“I… I don’t have anything with me…” Imanage to croak out.
To my surprise, Craig hands them a CDI hadn’t even noticed he was carrying.
The band passes it around to oneanother and hands it back to me.
“Thank yousomuch!” I tellthem.
“Not a problem. I’m glad you had agood birthday. We have to run, but it was nice meeting you Val,”Hillary says.
Craig’s dad ushers them down the restof the hallway and out a back door.
I turn to look at Craig.“IcannotbelieveI just met Lady A!”
He laughs, “Yeah, if only you couldtalk to them.”
“Hey, I talked!”
“Barely! I… I…” he makes fun of me, soI hit his shoulder.
“Seriously, Craig. I can’t believe youdid all of this for me. Why did you?”
“Why not? I knew you’d be psyched tosee them.” He shrugs.
“You’re kind of amazing when you wantto be. You’re kind of annoying when you want to be, too,” I tease,“but today amazing wins,” I give him.
“Amazing enough to deserve a kiss?” heasks, coming closer to me.
“Ew,” I push him away, “not afteryou’ve had what’s-her-name’s tongue in your mouth allnight.”
“Do I sense a hint ofjealousy?”
“I have a boyfriend,” I respondseriously.
“Oh yeah. The one who makes you feel…ordinary.”
I roll my eyes at him, but theninstead of getting upset, I pull him in for a hug. “Thank you,” Iwhisper into his ear.
“For you, anything,” he whispers back,holding me tighter.
“Why are you only good to me? Why doyou let everyone else think you’re this badass, carefree guy, whenyou’re really a thoughtful sweetheart?”
He chuckles a little and then respondsseriously, “When people see good, they expect good. Noexpectations, no disappointments.”
That night, Hailey and I stay up latetalking. I tell her all about getting a tattoo and how it felt andI even tell her about me and Craig’s conversation in the tattooshop. Not about his sister, but about the rest of it.
“Val, I know you don’t want me to sayit, but I have to. You like him. Just admit it. And he likes you. Idon’t see the problem here.”
“I can’t be with him, Hail. He’s aplayer. You saw him with that girl tonight. He’s already bored withTiffany and onto the next one. Why would I be anydifferent?”
She shrugs her shoulders and gives mea sympathetic look, but it doesn’t help at all.
“The thing is… I don’t think I can bewith Tyler anymore either,” I add sadly.
She doesn’t look surprised and shedoesn’t even ask why. She just understands.
“What is wrong with me?” I growl infrustration. “Tyler is perfect. He’s absolutely perfect. He’s sweetand loyal and he’s such a good guy, but…”
“But no sparks?” Haileyasks.
“No sparks. None. My heart doesn’trace when he touches me, my skin doesn’t get goosebumps. I thoughtI could convince myself to… to…”
“Fall in love with him?” Haileyfinishes for me. “Val, when it’s not there, it’s not there. Nothingyou can do.”
“But I want it to be there,” Iwhine.
She laughs lightly. Then after amoment, she says, “Val, you know what you have to do. Whether youlet yourself fall for Craig or not, you can’t go on being withTyler. You’re just leading him on and it’s not fair to either ofyou.”
“I know,” I sigh.
It’s quiet for a few minutes, so Iroll over, ready to go to sleep. Just when I start to drift off, myphone buzzes from a text, so I roll back over and grab it off thenightstand. It’s Craig.
“Did you take the bandageoff and put more A&D on your tat?”