I slowed as I drove past the Coulters’ house, but the landscaping hid their garage from view. I couldn’t tell if Leah was home, and I definitely didn’t want to see her parents. I was too ashamed of how I looked—and smelled, and felt—but I didn’t have many other options, so I’d have to take my chances.
I pulled into the driveway and stopped the car. The engine pinged and popped, and I sat there for a moment before I worked up the courage to get out. The cold air was a welcome relief from the stuffy car, but it also reminded me how bad I smelled. I rang the doorbell and hoped the wind didn’t shift.
Leah opened the door and promptly blinked in confusion. I could only imagine what I looked like, and I knew what I smelled like.
“Yeah,” I half-croaked, my throat raw from abuse. “Sorry I didn’t call.”
Her brow furrowed. “Why are you here? What happened? Are you okay?”
“It’s a long story. Are your parents here?” Even though it was Saturday, I still might get lucky. My hopes died when she nodded. Then she realized that we were standing with the door wide open.
“Do you want to come in?” She was clearly reluctant, and I couldn’t blame her—I wouldn’t want to be near me either, but I didn’t have a choice.
“Are… are you okay?”
“I need help, and I don’t know where else to go.” My eyes stung, and I blinked to clear them. “I can’t see your parents, ’cause they’ll tell mine. I hate to ask, but…” I thought she was going to turn me away, but then she grabbed her coat, called into the house that she’d be back in a minute, and joined me on the porch.
“You can stay in the guest house,” she said. “I’ll have to tell my parents something, but they’ll understand. If not…” She shrugged. “I guess we’ll deal with it.”
The guest house was dark and cold, but Leah turned on the lights and set the thermostat.
“It’ll take a while for the water to heat up,” she said as she rummaged in the linen closet, “but you can take a shower when it does.”
I shifted from foot to foot and felt like a hobo.
“Do you have anything clean to put on after?”
I shook my head.
“Okay. I’ll bring you something. Leave your dirty clothes in the hall.”
I shuffled into the bathroom. For some reason I didn’t want her to see me undress, so I closed the door behind me.
I turned on the shower, but the water was still cold. I didn’t really care. I scrubbed myself from head to toe, three times, and was shivering by the time I finished. Leah had placed a folded blue robe on the counter. I donned it and stared at myself in the mirror.
My eyes were sunken and dark, and my jaw sported several days of stubble. I felt like hell, wrung out and hung over, but at least I was clean for the first time in too long. I’d left my toiletry kit in the duffel bag with my dirty clothes, but Leah had set it next to the robe.
I brushed my teeth, but didn’t have the energy to shave. Instead, I wanted to sleep. A part of me hoped I’d never wake up. It would serve me right. Then I wouldn’t—
Leah interrupted with a gentle knock.
“I put fresh sheets on the bed in the blue room,” she said, her voice muffled by the wood of the door.
I opened it and tried not to look as pathetic as I felt. “Thanks. Is it okay if I take a nap? I… um… I didn’t get much sleep last night.” Or the night before, or the night before that, or… I couldn’t remember the last time I’d really slept.
“Um… sure. Okay.”
I shuffled to the bedroom and climbed into the cold bed. I pulled the covers up and curled around myself. Leah lingered for a moment, but must have decided that she didn’t want to be near me. I couldn’t really blame her.
I blinked awake and stared at the ceiling for a moment. I’d grown accustomed to waking up in strange places, but I still felt a moment of panic as I tried to figure out where I was. Then I remembered and relaxed.
I didn’t know what time it was, but it was dark outside. Leah had left a tray with sandwiches and milk next to the bed. I wasn’t in the mood to eat, but my stomach had other notions, so I mechanically emptied the tray. My eyes grew heavy as soon as I finished, so I lay back and pulled the covers over me. I closed my eyes and fell asleep almost immediately.
I woke in a sweaty panic. I’d been dreaming, and could still hear the jeers ringing in my ears. The scene faded quickly but the feeling didn’t. I got up and shivered in the cold air on the way to the bathroom.
Leah was asleep in the other bedroom, but she didn’t stir as I returned to my own. I stripped off the sweaty robe, climbed into bed, and pulled the covers over me. I felt lost and alone, stranded in a wilderness of my own making.
The half-remembered dream didn’t help, but the emptiness was almost worse. I’d lost something in the dream, and people were laughing at me for it. The symbolism was obvious, and I let out a dark sigh at the way my mind worked.
I closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t escape the chaos of my emotions. The heat of anger had long since faded, replaced by a solid lump of guilt and shame, and plenty of self-recriminations. Sleep took a long time coming and was a welcome relief when it did.
Dust motes floated through a ray of sunlight, and I followed them back to the crack in the curtains. I didn’t know what time it was, but the sun was already well up. I rubbed my face and yawned. I still felt like some Viking berserker had used me for a practice dummy, but at least I was alive.
Leah had replaced the tray on the nightstand with a glass of orange juice and a plate of toast. I wasn’t in the mood for food, but I drained the juice in several long gulps. Then I headed for the bathroom.
When I finished, I stared at the mirror and saw myself for the loser I was. I looked like hell and felt worse, which was probably more than I deserved, especially after the self-destruction of the past week. Thinking back, I didn’t know how I’d ever explain it.
Not for the first time, I wanted to crawl away and die quietly. Unfortunately, I knew I couldn’t kill myself. And I wasn’t likely to die in my sleep, no matter how much I wanted to. But I still wasn’t ready to face Leah’s disappointment, so I shuffled back to bed.
A few minutes later she knocked softly and opened the door. “Are you okay?”
I heaved a shrug.
She came around and sat beside me. After a moment she brushed my hair back. Her own hair shadowed her face, but I could feel her looking at me.
“Do you want to get up?”
I shook my head, but she didn’t go away.
“It’s been almost twenty-four hours.” She waited for nearly a minute. “Come on,” she said at last, “get up.”
She pulled back the covers and tugged me out of bed. I followed listlessly to the bathroom, where she turned on the shower and tested the temperature. With unhurried movements, she undressed and twisted her hair into a loose knot.
“Come on,” she said, “you’ll feel better.”
The hot water stung my skin, but she gently pushed again, and I let the water stream over me. She turned me to face her and began lathering the soap. She washed me in silence, her hands moving gently over my body.
When we finished she wrapped a towel around herself and handed the other one to me. Then she gave me a critical look.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, and returned with a small stool from the rustic kitchen set. “Have a seat.”
She began filling the sink with hot water, and I glanced at the foggy mirror, thankful that I couldn’t see any details. Instead, I watched her rummage for my razor and shaving cream.
“Sit down,” she said. “Lift your chin.”
She coated my jaw with shaving cream and then smiled at the uncertainty in my eyes.
“My dad used to let me do this sometimes,” she explained, “when I was a girl.”
She shaved me with a steady hand, and even took the time to trim my sideburns. “There, that’s better. But you need a haircut too.”
She didn’t even ask if I minded. She simply pulled open the bottom drawer and came up with a pair of scissors and a bulky old electric trimmer. She unwrapped her towel and draped it around my shoulders. My eyes were drawn to her body, and I wondered if her nipples were hard because of the cool air, or something else.
Leah ignored my gaze and worked quietly, snipping and combing and studying the results. I tried not to stare at her breasts, but I couldn’t help looking at the rest of her either. Her pubic area should have been covered in short, dark hair, but it was just as bare as the last time I’d seen it.
“Much better,” she said when she finished. “You look almost human again.”
“I don’t feel like it,” I said, the first words I’d spoken all morning. I felt like sulking, if only to show how miserable I felt, but then I realized the truth: I didn’t feel miserable. I felt almost human again.
With a bewildered snort, I realized that Leah’s silent attention had done more than any words could have. It had been intimate, in a way that sex never could be. I looked at her with a new appreciation and wondered if she’d done it on purpose. Probably not, but that was even more troubling. It meant she actually cared about me, and I fought down a surge of emotion.
“Let’s rinse off,” she said. “C’mon.”
She carefully gathered the hair-covered towels, so I fetched clean ones. She had the shower going when I returned. She stepped into the tub and held the curtain for me. Then she moved under the spray and rinsed from the neck down.
“Here,” I said, “my turn to wash you.”
“That’s okay,” she said before thinking, “I—” She met my eyes and studied me for a moment. “Yeah, okay.”
I reached behind her and tugged her hair. It swung loose and immediately grew damp from the spray. Her caramel skin was already slick with water, and I felt a sudden hunger for her body.
I broke the spell with an almost physical effort. A smile flickered over her lips, but disappeared just as quickly. She smoothed her hair under the spray, and I stole a glance at the swell of her breasts as they rose and fell. Her nipples were dark and soft, almost perfectly round.
She caught me looking and smiled for real. Then she handed me the shampoo and turned her back. I took my time as I lathered her hair, and worked the suds into the raven mass. Then I had her rinse, and repeated the massage with conditioner.
In contrast with our first shower, I was being deliberately intimate. I didn’t need to coax her out of her shell, but I wanted to take my time. I’d seen her barely two weeks before, but it felt like years.
In the meantime I’d said a lot of things I wasn’t proud of, and done even more. Worse, I hadn’t been able to talk to my friends—if they even were my friends anymore—and a part of me missed them more than I was willing to admit. Did they think about me? Worry? Had Trip told them anything? Were they miserable too? A gloomy part of me doubted it, but I wasn’t so sure.
I was still lost in thought when I felt Leah pull away to rinse. She tugged me under and brushed stray hairs from my neck and shoulders. When she thought I was clean enough, she turned off the water and opened the shower curtain.
We dried in silence, each lost in thought. I felt guilty that my brooding had changed the mood between us, but I didn’t know how to fix things. Then she began toweling her hair, and I had an idea. “Here,” I said, “let me do that.”
She gave me a curious look, but then shrugged and let me take her towel.
I rubbed her hair until it stopped dripping. Then I grabbed the comb and led her to the bedroom, where I sat on the bed and pulled her down in front of me. Our skin was warm and damp where it touched, and she smiled back at me. I gave her hair a final tousle and then began combing it out.
Leah relaxed and tilted her head back. I combed until her hair shone with a jet black luster. Then I swept it aside and kissed her neck. She moaned softly as I pulled her against me.
Her nipples arched skyward, hard from arousal and the cool air. I cupped her breasts and planted kisses up her neck. After a moment I pulled away. She moaned a question. Instead of answering, I slid from behind her and gently pushed her to the pillow. Then I climbed in beside her and pulled the covers over us.
I kissed her gently and rested my hand on her belly before sliding it lower. Her pussy was hot and damp from the shower, and her own juices began to flow as I rubbed slowly. With an urgent little sigh, she reached between us and groped for my erection.
I let her stroke me as our kisses grew more urgent. Then I climbed over her and nudged between her legs. She spread them for me, her eyes hooded with anticipation. Her expression changed when I didn’t enter her immediately. Instead, I grinned and slowly disappeared under the covers.
She put her hands on my head and spread her legs as I shouldered them apart. I licked her gently and inhaled the clean scent of her arousal. She moaned and thrust her hips at me, so I cupped her ass and began licking in earnest.
I hadn’t gone down on many of the girls during my week of insanity. For one thing, I wasn’t entirely sure of their hygiene. For another, several of them were hippie-hairy, which was a major turn-off. Sandra had been well-trimmed and clean, along with one other girl, but I hadn’t been inclined to go down on any of the others.
Leah was different. She was fresh and clean, and she’d shaved for me. I smiled at the thought and swirled my tongue around her clit. Then I took my time and made sure her arousal built slowly. The air under the covers grew thick and hot, musty with the scent of her.
When I finally decided that she’d had enough warm-up, I crawled up her body. I stopped to give her nipples a playful suck, but then burst into the cool, fresh air. We kissed, and she surged with pleasure at the taste on my lips.
We were still kissing when she reached between us and set my manhood at her opening. I slid into her and felt a wave of pleasure at her smooth warmth. Then I began thrusting, our bodies pressed together as I ground against her clit.
After less than a minute, she arched her back and cried out. I kept thrusting, and her pussy convulsed around me with a flood of heat and moisture. She dug her fingers into my back and cried out softly as waves of pleasure crashed through her.
I thrust until she went limp, but then slowed to a stop, my cock buried deep inside her. She held me close and panted, her breath soft in my ear. I shifted my weight and grinned as the movement sent an aftershock through her.
We held each other until she caught her breath. Then I began rocking my hips, and she pressed back against me. I was close to my own orgasm, but I didn’t want to come inside her. I thrust until I was ready and then pulled out and straddled her chest.
She looked cross-eyed as she focused on my shiny cock, and I had to stifle a laugh. But then she captured the tip and swirled her tongue around the swollen purple head. I let out a deep groan and braced myself on the wall above the headboard.
She gripped my balls with one hand and began stroking with the other. I didn’t last long, and jerked my hips as the first spurt coursed up my shaft. Leah moaned when she tasted it, and locked her lips around me while she pumped.
When the jets of semen finally slowed to gushes and then stopped altogether, I sat back on my heels. My cock and balls rested on her soft stomach, and she grinned up at me, her lips moist with our combined juices.
“You’re welcome,” I said. More than you know.
We made love for the next hour. She obviously wanted to know why I was there, but was too preoccupied to ask. That didn’t stop her from wondering, though.
When we finally took a break, I could almost feel her thinking about it. I didn’t know where to begin, so I stalled.
“What did you tell your parents? About why I’m here, I mean.”
She shrugged and rolled against me. Her head rested in the hollow of my shoulder as she toyed with my nipple. “The truth,” she said laconically. “Sort of.”
“I told ’em you looked like crap and needed a place to hide out for a few days.”
I chuckled, low and dark. “That’s the truth all right.”
“I figured you’d tell me more when you were ready.”
“And the wait nearly killed you,” I teased, “didn’t—? Ow! That hurt!”
She released my nipple.
“What was that for?”
“For making me worry,” she said tartly. “And for sleeping a whole day. And for being a butthead.”
“Butthead? When was I a butthead?”
“Just now,” she said, as if I should’ve known.
I rubbed my sore nipple and pushed her hand away.
“So…,” she said mildly, “are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“Not if you keep pinching me.”
She laughed. “I’m not like Gina, you know. That cute little pout doesn’t work with me.”
“I’m not pouting,” I lied.
She raised her head and gazed at me. Then she arched a perfect eyebrow.
“Okay, maybe just a little.”
She rested her head on my shoulder again, satisfied. Then her finger circled my nipple. The threat was unmistakable. “So, tell me what happened. It can’t be that bad.”
“It’s pretty bad.”
“Talking about it’ll help.”
“I’ll get there,” I said, a bit peevishly. “Just hold your horses.”
She reached under the sheet and gripped my flaccid manhood. “Better?” she teased. “It’s a pony, at least.”
“Ha ha,” I said dryly. She was trying to lighten the mood, but I knew better—nothing could lighten the past two weeks.
She must have felt me gathering my thoughts, because she released my penis and rested her hand on my stomach. Then she kissed my chest, soft and friendly and reassuring.
I drew breath and gathered my nerve. I didn’t know how I’d get through it all, or if I even could, but I owed it to Leah to try. No, I owed it to myself.
The story seemed so monumental that I couldn’t tell it lying down, so I sat up and crossed my legs. After the warmth of Leah’s body, the cold air raised goose bumps, and I suppressed a shudder. Leah sat up and looked at me with calm curiosity.
I began slowly, determined to tell all of it: the good (what little there was), the bad, and the really ugly. Leah never interrupted, but she filled my awkward pauses with questions that got me speaking again. Each time she did, I listened for a reaction in her voice, but she never betrayed any.
A childish part of me wanted her to be furious at Trip and Wren, if only to justify my reaction. The guilty part of me wanted her to be appalled, to tell me I was a loser and a lowlife. But mostly I wanted her to know the truth, to judge me on all the facts instead of just the obvious ones.
So I laid myself bare and told her everything, from the fight and its aftermath to Sandra and the others. I even told her about wanting to kill myself, which was harder to admit than all of the rest.
“So that’s why I’m here,” I said at last. “I didn’t know where else to go. And I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing.” I wiped my eyes. “Sorry I messed up your weekend.”
“You didn’t mess it up.”
I stared at my hands, afraid to meet her eyes.
“And I’m glad you’re here.” She couldn’t bring herself to say it, but she touched my leg and the message was obvious: “I’m glad you didn’t kill yourself.”
Me too, I thought. At least… I think I’m glad. Sometimes I wasn’t so sure.
The silence hung between us, but then Leah let out her breath. “Wow. No wonder you looked like crap.”
I laughed cynically. “Do you hate me?”
“Of course not, but I had no idea you’d go that far off the deep end.” She shrugged philosophically. “I guess you had pretty good reasons, though.”
“Not really. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, it was all pretty stupid. Well, the little stuff was. I mean, I got orange juice on my sweater. Big deal. And the thing with Christy was my own fault. I should’ve been paying attention instead of looking for Wren.”
“Yeah, but that happens.”
“The other stuff was just as piddling,” I went on. “Luke left his coat on the floor. He always does that. He’s a slob, and I should know better. I mean, it’s not his fault I twisted my knee.”
“It sorta is,” Leah said, “but I know what you mean.”
“The scholarship was a big deal,” I continued, “but I shouldn’t’ve lost my temper.”
“Yeah, but after everything else…?”
“I know. Still…” I stared into space for a moment. “The worst part was Trip and Wren.” I drew a breath and controlled my emotions. “The sound of her voice when she called his name…” My eyes stung with the memory. “And his face when he saw me, like he knew what he’d done.”
“He deserves whatever he gets,” Leah spat.
I blinked at her venom. “Well, he did try to tell me about Wren and him.”
“The one where he said we needed to talk, that it was important. I only thought it was about the houses. It wasn’t, obviously.”
“How do you know?”
“I know Trip,” I said. “Trust me.” I snorted at a memory. “He had me fly him to Louisiana once, just to break up with a girl. He wouldn’t do it over the phone.” Leah’s eyebrows shot up, and I nodded. “He wouldn’t tell me something like that in a note, either. He’d do it in person. So that’s what it was about, not the houses.” I paused to remember, and wanted to kick myself for jumping to conclusions. “And when I stopped at Wren’s apartment instead of mine…” I shrugged. “I pretty much set myself up for that one.”
“But he shouldn’t’ve slept with her in the first place!”
“I dunno,” I said with another shrug. “I mean, I did everything but throw her at him. I guess I was already thinking that Gina and I would get back together. I didn’t want Wren to feel jilted. Subconsciously, at least. I… I don’t know. All I know is, I told him to call her, and went out of my way to say we were just friends.”
“Still,” Leah objected, “he shouldn’t’ve slept with her. And what about her? She was supposed to be your friend.”
“She still is, I think.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I saw her expression after the fight. She looked like she’d been punched.”
“It’d serve her right!”
I understood Leah’s anger, but I didn’t share it. Not anymore, at least. I’d had time to cool off, to think about things and get some perspective. By contrast, the betrayal was fresh in Leah’s mind, and her defenses were up. I smiled, but it was melancholy.
“No,” I said, “it was pretty much my fault.”
“Think about it,” I said reasonably. “I treated Wren like a back-up for Gina.” I gave Leah a shrewd look. “How did you like it? When you thought I did it to you, I mean?”
“I wanted to kill you, but…”
“Exactly. Wren was a bit less dramatic, but just as angry.” I paused to let it sink in. “Besides, she and Trip are friends. They have a lot in common. So when he called her before Christmas, one thing probably led to another.” I shrugged and left the rest for Leah’s imagination.
“Still… how can you be so calm about it?”
“I’m calm now,” I said, “but I wasn’t then.” I snorted a harsh laugh. “I basically tried to kill my best friend. Then I wanted to kill myself. Then I slept with a married woman, just because I thought her husband deserved it. Last but not least, I spent a week getting drunk and screwing anything that moved.”
She blinked at the reminder.
“If you think that’s calm,” I said, deliberately composed, “then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.”
“They still shouldn’t’ve done it,” she said hotly.
“No, probably not. Not in a perfect world. But it’s not a perfect world, and they’re only human. At least they tried to tell me before I found out on my own.”
“Yeah, right,” she scoffed. “The note.”
“I’m sure that’s what it was about,” I said. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I know Trip. I saw the look on his face when he answered the door at Wren’s apartment.”
Leah crossed her arms beneath her breasts, unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Trust me,” I said softly.
“I guess.” She was unconvinced, so I changed the subject.
“Believe it or not,” I said, “I really miss talking to him.”
“How would you feel if you and Erin had a fight and stopped talking?”
“She never stole my boyfriend.”
“Wren wasn’t my girlfriend.”
“So? Close enough.”
“No, not close enough. We were friends—good friends—but nothing more. I thought we might be, but I missed my chance.”
“I still don’t understand how you can be so calm about this.”
I shrugged. “I’m over it, I guess. Besides, what good will it do to stay angry? I did that already, and look where it got me.”
“Still, you could tell them or something…”
“Why? They know what they did. They know how I feel about it. I think I made that clear.”
“Not clear enough,” Leah muttered.
I tried not to laugh. She was trying to stand up for me, but I didn’t need her protection. I didn’t need her approval, either, or her absolution. Maybe I just needed her to listen, so I could talk through my feelings and prove that I was still human after all.
Leah couldn’t read me like Kendall, but she could sense when I was done with a subject. “What’re you going to do?”
I took a deep breath and let it out. The words formed without thought: “Apologize, I guess.”
Her eyes bugged. “You’re what? I can’t believe you’re going to apologize. After what they did!”
“I’m not going to apologize for what they did,” I said. “They’ll have to deal with that themselves.”
“Then what for?”
“For what I did.”
Her jaw dropped, but I shrugged it off.
“I shouldn’t’ve called Wren a slut,” I said softly. “That’s why Trip jumped me. I’d’ve done the same thing.” I laughed harshly. “Heck, I did. I almost broke a guy’s arm back in high school.”
“That was different.”
My eyebrows shot up. “You remember that?”
“Of course I do,” she snapped, and I had to suppress a grin. “The Iranian Hostage Crisis. Everyone thought we were Iranians.” She shook her head in annoyance. “As if Gina looks anything like a Persian. She’s darker than me, and even more Indian. I’m the one who looks Persian. Idiots!”
I laughed in spite of myself.
“What’s so funny?”
“You.” I met her eyes, which glittered with suspicion. Something made me keep my mouth shut, and the silence drew out. “Have I told you how beautiful you are when you’re angry?”
“That’s beside the point,” she said irritably.
“Still, I thought you should know.” And I thought I should change the subject.
“Well, I know. Now, what’s this have to do with you apologizing for what they did?”
She wasn’t going to let me off the hook, and I sighed. “I’m not going to apologize for what they did. I’m going to apologize for what I did. That’s what grown-ups do. They admit when they’re wrong, and—”
“Wrong? You didn’t do anything wrong! They—”
“Yes, I did,” I said deliberately, which stopped her mid-rant. “I said some really nasty things, things I didn’t mean.”
“They deserved it.”
“No, they didn’t.” My words hung in the air like soap bubbles, and neither of us spoke until they popped.
“But they…” She knew she was wrong, but she couldn’t bring herself to admit it. I didn’t blame her, though. I had taken almost two weeks to come to the same conclusion, and I’d gone through a lot more soul-searching than she had.
“Look,” I said at last, “there’s enough blame to go around. I can’t do anything about their part, but I can stand up and be a man and admit my part of it. If that means I need to apologize, then so be it. I won’t like it, but the right choice isn’t always the easy one.”
Leah simply stared at me. After a moment she shook her head. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand you.”
“Well, I guess that makes two of us.”
We ate dinner with her parents in the main house. They kind of insisted. I think they wanted to see the vagabond who’d shown up on their doorstep and needed a place to hide.
For my part, I was well-groomed and dressed in clean clothes for the first time in more than a week. I was subdued and afraid of pointed questions, but the Coulters seemed to trust Leah’s judgment. Well, Chris trusted her. Elizabeth obviously wanted to grill us, but he gave her a curt headshake. She frowned and kept her comments to herself.
Leah missed the whole exchange. I probably would have too, if I’d been her age. I snorted at the thought, and wondered why my flashes of maturity always seemed to be at the wrong time.
“So,” Elizabeth finally asked, her tone carefully neutral, “what are your plans?”
“I’d like to stay in the guest house,” I said. “At least for tonight. If you don’t mind.”
“No, of course not,” Chris said. “That’s what it’s there for.”
“But I need to get back to school tomorrow,” I added. “So I’ll have to leave early.”
Elizabeth simply nodded, although the curiosity never left her eyes. She’d probably tell my mother after all, but I wasn’t worried. Mom knew me well enough to let me keep my secrets—the illusion of them, at least. I laughed silently and shook my head at the thought.
Leah gave me a suspicious look. “What’s so funny?”
“I… um….” I laughed in defeat. “I don’t think I could explain it if I tried.”
I rose early the next morning. Frosty grass crunched beneath my feet as I took my duffel bag out to the car. The Cruiser protested when I turned the ignition, but the engine eventually caught and settled to a chugging idle. I turned the heater to full blast and shut the door as quietly as I could.
I walked back to the guest house through a red-tinged cloud of exhaust and early morning fog. Leah stood in the door, shivering despite her thick robe. I ushered her inside and pulled her into my arms. She hugged me tight, her face pressed to my chest.
“Thanks,” I said softly. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.”
She nodded and we held each other until she felt me shift with the need to go. She pushed away and brushed her hair out of her face. I suppressed a grin at the imprint of my zipper in her cheek.
“Drive safely,” she said.
“I will. Go back to bed and sleep for a couple of hours.”
She shook her head. “I need to study. Chemistry.”
“Have you talked to your mom yet?”
“No, not yet. Don’t you need to go?”
I grinned and bent to kiss her cheek. “If you ever need someplace to hide out for a couple of days, you know where I am.”
She tried to look prim. “I’m sure I won’t, but thanks anyway.”
I chuckled and kissed her again, this time on the lips. It was soft and friendly, but I lingered when she didn’t pull away.
“Okay,” I said at last. “I really need to go if I want to make my first class.”
She nodded and straightened my jacket collar. “Call me tonight and let me know how everything went.”
I spent most of the drive lost in thought. Traffic was sparse until I hit Chattanooga, but I was well ahead of the morning rush hour. The sky began to lighten in the east as I approached Knoxville. I wasn’t ready to return to campus, so I parked near the World’s Fair site.
The Sun Sphere glowed with morning light, a blaze of copper and cinnamon, salmon and persimmon, amber and gold and saffron. For the first time in my life, I wanted more than a pencil to sketch with. But even if I’d had a set of pastels, I knew I’d never capture the scene as the sun burned through one palette after another.
I made it to class with seconds to spare. I was still breathing heavily from the run across campus, and had to force myself to focus on my notes from the week before. My writing was sloppy, probably because I’d been hung over for most of it. Fortunately, the professor simply covered the material in the book, so I wasn’t all that worried.
Gracie was happy to see me in History of Architecture, especially when she realized that I wasn’t surly and half-coherent. I didn’t assault her senses, either, which definitely helped. We didn’t mention the past week, but she was fit to burst from curiosity. I wasn’t in the mood to offer an explanation, if I ever would be, so we talked about class instead.
By the time noon rolled around, I was feeling almost normal. I still missed talking to my friends, especially Trip, but at least I was back to my routine. Mostly. I grabbed a quick sandwich for lunch and went to fetch my things from the Cruiser.
The apartment was empty when I arrived, but it looked unchanged. It had only been two weeks since I’d been there—less, actually—but a lot had happened in the meantime. Still, I guess I expected it to reflect the changes. Part of me was disappointed, in a weird way, but mostly I was happy to be back.
I left Trip a note in case I didn’t see him before design class: We need to talk. It’s important. - Paul
I thought about apologizing in the note, but decided against it. I wanted it to be personal. I wanted him to see my face, and to understand that I really was sorry.
I pulled up my collar as I walked to the A&A building. After the pink-gold sunrise, pregnant clouds had rolled in. They hung full-bellied in shades of slate and dove gray. The wind had also picked up, and the scent of moisture filled the air. It would snow soon, especially if the temperature stayed below freezing.
The weather matched my mood, since I didn’t know how I should feel about my apology. Part of me accepted it, but part of me felt like Trip needed to make the first move. After all, I hadn’t slept with my best friend’s girlfriend, even if she was only a potential girlfriend.
With a dark snort, I told myself to grow up. I wasn’t a ten-year-old, no matter how much I acted like it sometimes. Besides, I was the one who started it when I called her a slut.
The atrium of the A&A building was stifling and crowded with people changing classes. I threaded among them and tugged off my gloves, still lost in thought. Gracie was already at her drafting table when I arrived, and I slid onto the stool at the table next to her.
“Hi,” she said, and smiled.
I gave her a quick wave and tried not to look nervous as I watched for Trip.
“Hey, yo,” Freddie said as he dumped his things between his table and mine. He gave me a furtive look and then a longer one when he realized I wasn’t in a foul mood.
I met his eyes. “Good to see you, paisan.”
His face split in a grin and he gave me a big Italian hug.
I did my best not to look embarrassed when he pulled back, but he didn’t even notice.
“Yo, Grace,” he said, “our boy’s back.”
“Yeah, Freddie, I noticed.”
“So,” I asked casually, “did you have a good weekend?”
“Are you kiddin’? Fuggedaboutit!”
He was irrepressible, and I couldn’t help but smile.
Gracie’s design partner slid into his seat with his usual “Hey, y’all,” and I took the opportunity to glance toward the door again.
A shot of adrenaline made my breath catch when Trip came in, but he didn’t even look my way. Instead, he took his seat next to his partner, two rows back. I knew we couldn’t speak before class, but I still wanted to make eye contact. He deliberately ignored me, and Professor Joska arrived a few moments later.
Joska lectured until the break. He fired a few questions at us, but never called on me. Part of me was disappointed, but another part was relieved. I hadn’t done any of my reading and was woefully behind.
I hadn’t done much on my current project, either, and had a lot to catch up on. So the lab portion of class passed quickly, although I felt Joska behind me a couple of times. My sketches and notes held my attention, so I never looked up. By the time the bell rang at 4:50, I was stiff and a bit bleary-eyed, but I’d managed to add two critical drawings to my project.
Trip ignored me and left without a backward glance. Gracie and Freddie saw my expression and offered looks of sympathy. I hadn’t told them what was going on, but they knew.
“Fuggedaboutit,” Freddie said, his all-purpose answer. This time he meant just what he said.
Gracie agreed, “Yeah, forget about it.” Then she laughed nervously.
I wasn’t ready to shrug it off, so I said goodbye and went to find Trip. Back at the apartment, I met him coming out of the bedroom. He couldn’t avoid me in the hallway, but he wouldn’t look at me.
“Hey,” I said, and wanted to kick myself for sounding nervous.
Hard eyes settled on mine.
“Um… I guess we need to talk.”
“I don’t have anything to say to you.”
I blinked, stung. “Okay,” I said slowly, “then I guess I’ll do the talking.”
“I don’t care what you have to say. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t exist.”
My breath whooshed in shock.
He shouldered past me and the front door slammed before I could say anything else.
Jeff stuck his head out of his room. “Oh, hey.” He frowned when he saw my expression. “What the matter?”
“I don’t exist.” I shook my head, still gripped by disbelief and a growing sense of humiliation.
“Whatever,” Jeff muttered, and returned to what he’d been doing. “Welcome back, by the way.”
I eventually recovered and stalked into my room. I slung my backpack on the bed, where it scattered a pile of confetti. I grabbed one of the scraps and gritted my teeth—it was a torn-up piece of my note. Anger replaced humiliation, and I felt the need to hit something, preferably Trip’s face.
After a moment I snapped out of it and cast about the room. I passed over my weights and yanked open a dresser drawer instead. My heart thudded in my ears as I changed into a sweat suit, grabbed my hat and gloves, and stormed out.
In the lobby, a blast of cold air hit me as I thrust open both doors. I tugged my hat over my ears and jabbed my hands into my gloves. Then I set off at a jog.
Fat snowflakes drifted to the ground, and the world seemed muted and distant. I barely gave it a second thought. Instead, I lowered my head and picked up my pace. I tried to relax, but my thoughts were as turbulent as the sky above.
I ran until I couldn’t feel my legs. I felt like a fool and cursed my own stupidity. I’d been ready to swallow my pride and apologize! Trip didn’t deserve it. I felt like running away, but that wouldn’t solve anything. Besides, I wasn’t going to let him win—if he wanted me out of his life, he’d have to work for it.
So I eventually returned. I paused at the door, keys in hand. I wasn’t spoiling for a fight, but I wasn’t going to back down either. Part of me hoped he’d be gone, but another part wanted a confrontation. Maybe then I’d get to vent my frustration. I knew it was wrong, but the childish part of me didn’t really care.
I took a deep breath and slid the key into the lock. The door opened quietly, but no one could have heard over the music. It wasn’t loud, but it easily covered my footsteps and the light rasp of the hinges.
I stepped into the living room. My face felt flushed, and from more than just the cold. Melted snow began to drip from my stocking cap, but I ignored it as it hit the back of my neck.
Wren and Trip were sitting on the floor by his stereo, records stacked around them. He saw me first and his face went hard. She turned, and hers lit with a mixture of surprise and relief. She stood immediately, and Trip rose as well. He towered over her and scowled. I gazed back blandly.
“You’re back,” Wren said at last. “Are you okay?”
Trip stiffened when I shifted my gaze to her. I thought of a few spiteful answers, but settled on something simple. “More or less.”
“When you didn’t come home…,” she said, but trailed off. “We were worried something had happened.”
Trip hadn’t been worried at all, and his expression said so.
I didn’t know how to react, but he was a prime example of what not to do, so I took the high road. “I had to sort a few things out,” I said vaguely. “So I went home for the weekend. I got back this morning.”
She looked at Trip. “Did you know he was back?”
He didn’t answer, so I did. “He knew,” I said maliciously. “At least, he did when he saw me in class.” I met his hostile glare, but kept my expression neutral. “If he somehow managed to miss me as I sat in front of him, he definitely knew when he came back to the apartment and tore up my note. And if that didn’t tip him off, he saw me face to face about two hours ago.” Take that!
Wren turned to him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I don’t exist,” I cut in. “At least, not as far as he’s concerned.”
Trip reacted at last, and his eyes blazed with hatred as he looked at me.
“Is that true?” Wren said.
He had to look away.
“’Fraid so,” I said, and took a perverse pleasure in his discomfort. I knew I was being petty and vindictive, but he’d earned it. “Anyway,” I added, “I’m here now, and I’m not going anywhere.”
Wren looked at me. From her expression, she was trying to decide who to be angrier at, him for being a jerk, or me for rubbing it in.
I still had feelings for her, so I relented and let my expression soften. “Sorry,” I said, and she accepted with a nod. “I need to talk to you, though.” I included Trip with my eyes. “Both of you, actually.”
“Like hell,” Trip said.
I suppressed a surge of anger and managed to look resigned instead. “Whatever.” I glanced at Wren. “I guess it’s just you and me.”
Trip started toward me, but checked the movement almost immediately. “If you come near her, I’ll…”
“You’ll what?” I said in a flare of sarcasm. “Talk to me? Listen to what I have to say? Acknowledge that I exist?”
He set his jaw and looked away.
When I got my temper under control, I looked at Wren. “If this isn’t a good time…”
“No, it’s fine.”
Trip let out a strangled cry. “Wren, you’re not—”
She rounded on him. “Don’t take that tone with me, Trip Whitman! And don’t try to tell me what to do. You knew this was going to happen.”
I wanted to smirk, but resisted the urge.
Trip clenched his jaw.
“You know how I feel,” she said evenly. “You’ve known since the beginning. If you can’t handle it…” She left the rest hanging, but it was obvious.
For all of my fury at Trip, I didn’t want to make things worse. “It’s okay,” I said. “We can talk later.”
“No,” Wren said. “Now’s fine. I was just leaving anyway. You can walk me down to my apartment.”
Trip let out a strangled cry. “But I thought…”
“I think I want to be alone tonight,” she said. “Besides, you and Paul need to talk.”
He stiffened. “I don’t have anything to say to him.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” she said. “I do. Now, goodnight.” She looked at me expectantly.
I didn’t meet Trip’s eyes, but I could feel him glaring pure hatred at me.
“Will you walk me down?” Wren said to me, the picture of Southern gentility.
“Sure.” I mustered an apology as the apartment door closed behind us, but Wren stiffened. Then she balled her fists and threw a silent tantrum.
“Ugh!” she said at last. “He’s worse than you ever were. He drives me crazy sometimes, and last week was the worst.”
I saw a chance to drive a wedge between them, but I couldn’t do it, even to Trip. No, especially to Trip. I wasn’t like him, I told myself. “Treacherous maturity,” I mumbled.
I shook my head irritably. “It’d take too long to explain.” Before she could hijack the conversation again, I plunged ahead. “Look,” I said, “I’m sorry about what happened before… when I found out. I was shocked and upset, and I’d had a lousy day, but that’s no excuse. I shouldn’t have said… what I did. I was wrong, and I apologize.”
“That’s okay,” she said, but I could see that she appreciated it. “I’m sorry you found out the way you did. We wanted to tell you, but…”
I shrugged. “I messed things up.”
“You didn’t mess them up,” she said softly. “We all did.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
We started walking toward the stairs, but neither of us was in a hurry.
“Trip feels guilty,” she said at last.
“A little, but not really.” She looked up at me. “You and I…” She sighed. “It never would’ve worked. You know that.”
I didn’t know anything of the sort, but I didn’t argue.
“I love you,” she said, “but not like that. You’re like… my brother.”
I blinked in surprise. “Wow, that’s a real brush off, isn’t it?”
“It’s not like that,” she said. “I still have feelings for you, and I’ll always love you, but Trip…” Her eyes grew soft. “He’s… special.”
What could I say?
“You know how you felt when you had two girlfriends?”
“Yeah, frustrated and foolish. One didn’t have time for me and the other manipulated me.” The truth was a bit more complex—okay, a lot more complex—but I wasn’t feeling particularly expansive.
“No, not then,” Wren said impatiently. “In the beginning, when you loved them both.”
My face flushed as I remembered the early days of the P-G-K triangle.
Wren nodded. “That’s how I feel, but I guess I’m not like you. I had to decide.”
“Yeah, right,” I said, and immediately regretted the sarcasm.
“You think it was easy? That I just flipped a coin? Heads for Trip, tails for Paul?”
“No, of course not.”
“He knows I still love you,” she said, almost defiantly.
My eyebrows shot up. “Then why are you…?”
“Why am I with him and not you?” She shrugged. “I love him too. More than I ever thought. It hit me like a bolt of lightning when we— Um… you know. I’d never felt anything like it.”
I nodded soberly.
“He makes me laugh,” she said, distracted by a memory. “And when I’m with him, I think maybe he could be the one.” She smiled in embarrassment when she realized who she was talking to.
“That’s okay,” I lied. “I understand.”
“It was always different with you, although I never realized until…” She broke off and looked self-conscious again.
“Until you slept with him.”
She let out her breath and gave a tentative nod.
“Was it because we never did it?” I asked, but she immediately shook her head. The bottom of my stomach dropped out.
“It’s not like that,” she insisted. “I still want to.”
My brows shot up.
“That’s the thing I can’t figure out. I thought it would change when I found the right guy, that I wouldn’t want anyone else.”
“But it’s not that simple, is it?”
She shook her head ruefully. “I still want you, which is why Trip doesn’t want me to see you.”
“Ah. That makes sense.”
“I’m glad you think so,” Wren said tartly. “Now, can you explain it to me?”
I glanced at her sidelong.
“Yes, I’m serious. How come guys can do it with anything that moves, but girls can’t?”
I held my hands up defensively. “Hey, I don’t make the rules.”
“I didn’t say I subscribed to ’em either.” She gave me a look, and I shrugged. “I’ve known a lot of women.” I paused to make sure she understood the euphemism. “They’ve all been pretty normal,” I added, “and they’re all like you.”
“All of them?”
“How many women are we talking about here?” she asked suspiciously. “Five? Six?”
“That’s not the point.”
“More than ten?”
I did some quick counting, but then shook my head irritably.
“More than twenty?”
“Enough that I know what I’m talking about,” I snapped. “Besides,” I added in a calmer tone, “a gentleman never tells.”
“The point is,” I went on doggedly, “you’re normal, and it’s okay. You don’t have to act on your feelings, but—”
“What if I want to?”
I blinked and tried to decide if she’d meant what I thought she had.
“Yes, you heard me,” she said. “I want both of you.” We’d been standing outside her apartment for several minutes, and she shot a nervous glance at the door across the hall. “Do you want to come inside?”
“I… um… I probably shouldn’t.”
“’Cause I still need to apologize to Christy.”
“Isn’t now the perfect time?”
I shook my head. “You and I still have a lot to talk about, and I don’t want it to sound like an afterthought. I really hurt her feelings, though I don’t know how. Still, I did, and I need to tell her I’m sorry.”
“She broke up with Simon,” Wren said quietly. “That’s what she told you, and you said something totally stupid, like, ‘Well, I guess you had fun anyway.’”
“I was looking for you,” I tried to explain. “I wasn’t paying attention, but it was only for a split second.” I trailed off and shook my head at my own stupidity. “God, she must hate me.”
“She wasn’t very happy, that’s for sure.”
I let out a dark sigh. “Boy, when I screw things up, I don’t do it halfway.”
“You can say that again.”
“Is she okay?”
“I guess,” Wren said with a shrug. “We’ve all been a bit upset lately.”
“Yeah, sorry ’bout that.”
“It wasn’t your fault. Not all of it, at least.”
I nodded, and we fell silent.
After a moment she said, “Do you wanna go somewhere else?”
My stomach growled and I nodded. “But you should probably let someone know where you’re going.”
Her brow furrowed.
“Trip’s gonna call you, if he hasn’t already. And if your roommates tell him they haven’t seen you and don’t know where you are, he’ll think something’s up. Since he knows how you feel about me…”
“No sense getting blamed for something you didn’t do,” I said. “So let’s go someplace public, like… um… Presidential Grill.”
She entered the apartment and returned a minute later with her coat and scarf. We walked through the snowy evening in silence, and welcomed the warmth of the small campus restaurant. She’d already had dinner, so I bought two Cokes and a hamburger for myself, and we picked a booth well away from the small crowd near the TV.
“Thanks,” I said, and gestured with the burger. “I didn’t get a chance to eat dinner.”
She nodded distractedly and fell silent for several long moments. Then she said, “I’m not some kind of sicko, am I?”
I gave her a look as I finished chewing.
“Because I want you both?”
“Uh-uh. You’re actually pretty normal.”
“These other women…,” she said tentatively. “They… um… I mean, some of them wanted to do it with two guys?”
I took another bite and nodded.
She seemed dubious. “At the same time?”
Another nod. “Sometimes more.”
“Uh-huh.” I thought of Elaine Raeford. “I have… um… a friend… who likes three guys at once.”
“Three? How’s that work? Never mind, I figured it out.”
I grinned at her pink cheeks and took another bite.
“Does anyone think she’s… you know… a slut?”
I swallowed. “Do you think I am?”
She blinked at the non sequitur.
“I’ve done it with three women at once.”
“Yeah, but you’re a guy.”
“Remember those rules?” I said, half taunting, half serious. “Why should they be different for men and women?”
“But…” Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Hold on, you only have one dick. How’d you do it with three women at once?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.”
I took another bite and shook my head.
I crossed my heart.
I swallowed and said, “No one called me a slut. Well, not to my face, at least.”
“But it’s different for women.”
“Not always. Not with the right people.”
“Oh yeah? Like who?”
“Swingers? What do you know about—?” Her eyes flashed. “You’re kidding!”
“Is that why you’ve done it with so many women?”
“Yes and no.”
She arched an eyebrow.
“I’ve been lucky,” I said evasively. “Very lucky.”
“But I also grew up around people who are pretty open-minded.”
She snapped her fingers. “The older woman!”
“Her,” I admitted, “but also my parents. And their best friends.”
“Gina’s. Kendall’s probably knew about the swinging, but they pretended not to.”
“It’s complicated. You know what kind of hang-ups people have about sex.”
“Tell me about it,” she said, and then sighed as I finished my burger and cleaned my hands on a napkin. “Why can’t everyone be like you?”
I shook my head. “You wouldn’t like that.”
“’Cause I’m pretty immature. Insecure, too.” I thought for a moment. “Self-centered… stubborn… clueless… impulsive… the list goes on.”
“You’re also one of the most honest people I’ve ever met. Honest with yourself, I mean.”
“No sense lying, especially to yourself.”
“You’d be surprised how many people do.”
I thought about Sandra and nodded.
“I think that’s what I love about you,” Wren continued. “If I asked Trip about his faults, he probably couldn’t think of any.”
“Oh, come on,” I said, “give him more credit than that.”
“No, seriously. I don’t think he’s mature enough.”
“Ha! And you think I am?”
“You were ready to apologize tonight, and he wasn’t.”
“For all the good it did me.”
“He’s embarrassed,” she said. “And jealous.”
“He shouldn’t be. Jealous, I mean.”
She started to say something, but then stopped when she realized what I’d said. “Why not? Don’t you…?” Don’t you want me anymore?
“Oh, I do, but I’m not going to steal you away. I’m not like that.”
Her eyes tightened at the implication that Trip was.
I hadn’t meant it that way, but I didn’t apologize. “Besides,” I said, “I wouldn’t do that to you. Or him, for that matter.”
She tilted her head and studied me. “You really miss him, don’t you.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Not to him,” she said softly. We fell silent, but then she touched my hand. “Don’t worry, he’ll come around. If he doesn’t, I’ll convince him.”
“Good luck,” I scoffed. “He’s pretty stubborn.”
“Because you still love me?”
“But you’re not in love with me.”
“No.” Her expression softened. “Are you okay with that?”
“Not really,” I said, and grimaced at how bitter I sounded. “But I’ll survive. I guess I just need to move on.”
“I wish you didn’t have to.”
“Me too. But you don’t want two boyfriends. Trust me.”
She smiled, but it was sad. “I still wish I could have you both.”
“Well, that’s not gonna happen. Not as long as you’re with Trip.”
“He could change…”
“Or not,” I said. “I mean, he’s not like me.” He didn’t grow up in a family of swingers. “And I still don’t think he understands the difference between love and sex.”
“But I do,” she said. Her brow creased. “Huh. I wonder why that is.”
“Maybe you’re just open-minded.”
“I’d have to be,” she said with a genuine laugh. “My mother’s sort of a lesbian and my father’s had a string of mistresses. I still love them, though.” Her hand flew to her mouth.
It was my turn to laugh, more at her expression than anything else.
“Wow. I didn’t mean to say that. You won’t tell anyone, will you?”
“About your parents? Why would I?”
“Well, it’s not normal.”
“Ha! And you think swingers are?”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll keep your secrets and you keep mine. Deal?”
Her hazel eyes smiled as she nodded, but then her expression fell. “I wish Trip could be here with us.”
“Yeah, me too.” I shrugged. “He’ll come around. Eventually.”
“But he’s so pig-headed. And immature.”
“I am too.”
“Not like him.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” I said. “But on that note, you need to be getting back.”
She looked at her watch. “Oh my God. He probably thinks…!”
“Relax. He’ll get over it. But I have some advice. If you want it, that is.”
She looked baffled at my calmness. “Of course.”
“Spend the night with him.”
“Seriously. And I’m not saying that just because it’ll put him in a better mood.”
She frowned at the jibe.
“He’s gonna think we were up to something, no matter what you tell him.” I paused to let her think it through, and she reluctantly nodded. “So,” I went on, “what’s the best way to prove nothing happened? Let him figure it out himself.”
“What if I’m not in the mood?”
“Then you’d better get in the mood. Either that, or…”—I cleared my throat significantly—“take one for the team.”
“Ha ha. Very funny.”
“I’m serious. If you spend the night by yourself, you’ll never convince Trip we weren’t up to something tonight.”
“He’ll just have to trust me,” she said airily.
“Uh-uh. No way.” I gave her a stern look. “Relationships are all about trust. And if he’s jealous already, don’t give him a reason to doubt you.” I remembered how my doubts about Gina grew after the Vermont trip. “It’ll just fester and get worse. Trust me.”
She huffed. “Why are relationships so difficult?”
“Because they’re worth it,” I said simply. “Especially if it’s the right person. Besides, you’ll enjoy tonight, and you know it.”
Her eyes grew unfocused. “I was kind of looking forward to it. I mean, we’ve spent the night together ever since… um… since you left.” Her expression returned to the present and she frowned. “Speaking of which, where’d you go?”
“Off the deep end.” Way off, I added to myself.
“I’m serious. We were worried. Where were you?”
“It’s a long, sordid tale,” I said, “and I’m not going to tell you.” She tried to object, but I shook my head. “Sorry. Not gonna happen. Maybe someday, but don’t hold your breath. Anyway, we should be getting back.”
I called Leah when I got back to the apartment. She had homework, so we didn’t talk long, but I told her I’d made it okay. When I hung up, I stared at the shiny black plastic of the receiver.
I knew I should call my parents—Leah’s mom had probably told mine about my visit—but I wasn’t in the mood for a long conversation. Besides, they couldn’t live my life for me. Still, I needed to call them, if only to check in.
In the end, I called and talked to Mom for a while. I didn’t mention my weekend in Atlanta, and neither did she. But the call told her I was okay without the need for details. She understood, and even managed to hide her relief. Mostly.
I actually smiled to myself when I hung up. I get older and she gets wiser, I thought.
But only one of us had changed, of course.
I woke up early the next morning and did some quick crunches and push-ups. Trip had spent the night with Wren, and I was just as happy not to have to talk to him. Or to be ignored, more likely. He hadn’t said a word to me the night before, and had barely looked civil when Wren wanted to talk to him. Still, he hadn’t come home, so I figured they’d worked things out.
I put on my sweat suit and jogged to the HPER building. A thick blanket of snow covered everything and muted the sound of campus as it came to life. A few other hardy souls were out early, but the snow had kept most people inside.
I was a little rusty after a week without workouts, so I pushed myself hard. It felt good to sweat, and I could vent my frustrations on the weights without anyone getting their feelings hurt.
By the time I finished, snowplows had managed to clear Andy Holt Avenue, but the side streets were still covered. The temperature wasn’t supposed to venture above freezing for a couple of days, so the snow was here to stay.
I ran into Trip and Wren and the others in the apartment lobby. They were headed to breakfast and pulled up short when they saw me. Trip gave me a flat, angry stare. I didn’t think it was possible, but he looked even more hostile when Wren greeted me.
Christy’s expression was harder to read, although Ash and Zoë said hi with their usual warmth. I wondered what Wren had told them, but Ash answered the question for me.
“How’s your project going?” she asked.
I flashed a glance at Wren, who shrugged in apology at the white lie.
“Okay, I guess,” I said. “I had a lot of stuff to figure out.”
“Too early to tell. I fixed one problem”—I glanced at Wren—“but still have another.” I didn’t glance at Trip, but he understood. “It’s even bigger, and it’s not making things easy.”
Trip’s eyes tightened, and Wren shot him a look. Ash and Zoë didn’t have a clue, but Christy got it, although she met my gaze with mild interest and a fixed smile. I’d seen the same look on my mother, which wasn’t a good sign.
“Wow,” Ash said, oblivious. “No wonder you’ve been so busy.”
“Busy making a mess, more like it,” I said, and flicked a glance at Christy. “I hope I can still fix things.”
“Sounds like you have your work cut out for you,” Zoë said.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Ash perked up. “Hey, you wanna come have breakfast with us?”
“I’d love to, but…” I plucked at my sweaty clothes. “I need to shower before class. Maybe some other time.”
We were about to go our separate ways when I caught Christy’s eye. “Do you have a minute?”
“Sure,” Wren said to her. “You can catch up with us.”
“Yeah,” Ash said, “we’ll save you a seat.”
The others left, and Christy waited expectantly.
“Wren told me about you and Simon,” I said. “I’m sorry you broke up, and I’m really sorry about what I said. I wasn’t paying attention, but I should’ve been.” I paused to let my apology sink in. “I’m sorry I was a jerk after the fight. You were just trying to help.”
She looked down and shrugged. “It’s okay.”
Silence hung between us, thick and emotional. But then she looked up, and I felt like someone had kicked me in the gut.
“Where were you?” she said. “We were worried sick.”
“I… um… I was pretty upset.”
“So you disappeared for a week?”
“I still went to class,” I said, which sounded weak. “But… I wasn’t ready to come home yet.”
“Well, you could’ve told someone!”
“I guess I wasn’t thinking.”
“So now you think a cute apology will make it all better? That’s just like you!” She started to say something else, but then huffed and stalked away.
My cheeks burned with anger and humiliation as people turned to stare.
And I thought I understood women? Ha!
I stayed late after design class, partly because I needed to catch up, but also because I didn’t want to go back to the apartment. I wasn’t going to give up without a fight, but I wasn’t eager to face Trip and his stony silence. Or Christy, whatever her problem was.
So I grabbed a burger at the Presidential Grill and returned to the apartment after dark. Much to my relief, Trip wasn’t there. Luke and Jeff were, along with Meredith and a bleach blonde who giggled at everything Luke said. I stuck my head into the living room and said hello, but then retreated to the foyer.
See, Luke? I thought as I hung up my coat. It’s not so hard.
On a whim, I picked up the phone, dialed, and tugged the cord into my room. It was long enough to reach my bed, so I threw myself onto it and waited for Leah to answer. Elizabeth picked up on the fourth ring.
Before I could say anything, Leah said, “I got it, Mom.”
Elizabeth hung up without asking who it was. Things had been the same in our house: any phone call after a certain time was almost always for Erin or me.
“Hello?” Leah said.
“Hi. It’s Paul.”
We talked for more than an hour, although she mostly listened while I vented about Trip and Christy. When I finally wound down, we talked about other things. Much to my surprise, I realized that I didn’t miss Gina—I just missed talking to her. Leah had the same intelligence, but we didn’t have the baggage that Gina and I did. So I enjoyed talking to her, and felt a lot more relaxed by the time we hung up.
Trip came home about eleven o’clock. I was reading in my study cubicle, playing catch-up for Western Civ., but he ignored me and went straight to bed without a word. Jeff stuck his head out of his cubicle and caught my attention.
“What the fuck was that about?”
I shrugged. “He’s being a dick.”
“Oh,” Jeff said, as if that answered everything.
By Thursday I was ready to kill Trip. I’d tried to fix things by acting like everything was normal, but he continued to ignore me. I’d even tried talking to him, although “at him” would describe it better. I wasn’t looking forward to another afternoon of the silent treatment, so I changed into my sweat suit, grabbed my walkman, and headed out.
The ground was still covered with snow, but the streets and sidewalks were clear. I glanced at the sky and began jogging. I didn’t know where I was going or what I wanted, but anything was better than Trip’s childish bullshit.
I weaved through the flow of pedestrians and settled into a comfortable jog. At the Sports Bubble I had to slow for a group of people, and the last turned at my approach. His face lit with recognition, so I slowed to a stop.
“Hey, Paul,” Glen said. “How’s it going?”
“Good. How’re you? How’s T.J.?”
T.J. and Glen had been my suitemates the year before. Glen was just as tall as I remembered, although he seemed even bigger in his winter coat.
“He’s good,” Glen said. “Still has an attitude two sizes bigger’n he is, though.”
“Sounds like him,” I said with a laugh.
“Yeah. You and… um… whatshisname still rooming together?”
Whatshisname? Yeah, whatshisname. “Trip? Yeah, we’re still together, but I had to get out of the apartment for a while.” I grimaced. “You know how it is.”
“Yeah,” Glen said with a soft laugh, “T.J. worries on me like a pup sometimes.”
I thought of a T.J.-terrier nipping at a much larger dog, and couldn’t help but laugh. “You going to work out?” I asked, hoping for a partner strong enough to spot for me.
He shook his head. “Martial Arts Club.”
I looked a question at him.
“They don’t do aikido, but judo’s close enough. ’Sides, it’s somethin’ new, which is cool.”
Glen was one of the few people I’d met who was stronger than me, but also one of the most even-tempered. He was the reason T.J. and I hadn’t beaten the crap out of each other on more than one occasion.
I’d only seen Glen in an actual fight once, although he barely touched the other guy. He hadn’t hit him at all. Instead, he put him in a wrist lock that completely subdued him. He could’ve beaten the other guy to a pulp, but he’d chosen not to.
I’d been a wrestler long enough to recognize another trained fighter in Glen, and I admired his self-control. Part of it was his temperament, but part of it was training, so I was curious about what made him so dangerous and calm at the same time.
“What’s it like?” I asked.
“Judo? ’Bout like any other martial art, I s’pose.”
“You mind if I watch?”
He shrugged. “No reason why not. Join in if you want.”
I returned to the apartment later that night and threw myself onto the bed.
Finally! I thought with something close to rapture. A way to vent my pent-up frustrations.
Running gave me time to think, and I enjoyed the solitude, but it wasn’t very explosive. Weightlifting helped, but it was lonely without a partner. Neither was very competitive, and both were entirely too pacifist.
I was honest enough to admit that I’d never be as levelheaded as Glen, so I needed an outlet for my violent urges. And it needed to be socially acceptable, because pounding the snot out of my best friend might feel good, but the police would probably object (not to mention the friend in question).
Judo was the answer. Like wrestling, it relied on speed and flexibility as much as strength. Stamina didn’t hurt, but the bouts were usually quick and decisive. I was already familiar with several moves, but the techniques were subtly different, and most were entirely new. Still, I’d learned a lot in only a couple of hours, and was already looking forward to more.
Even better, I felt drained, which was exactly what I needed, physically and mentally. So I’d signed up at the end of practice, and promised to bring a check for my dues to the next one. I’d have to buy a proper gi before then, but the instructor had told me where to find one.
I lay awake for a long time that night, thinking about what to do with my life. Trip wasn’t making it easy, but I refused to let him ruin things for me. I didn’t know what to do about Christy either, which bothered me almost as much. Still, I knew I couldn’t change them. All I could do was live my life.
To that end, I called Earl Walker the next morning. I set up a regular time for flight lessons and transferred money into my checking account to pay for it. If I couldn’t spend time with my friends, then at least I could finish my instrument rating.
So between schoolwork, flying, and judo, I managed to fill the weekend with distractions. I even spent some time with Wren, although not as much as my first night back. Trip was a jerk, and I missed drawing with Christy, but I wasn’t going to humiliate myself by making the first move again.
An olive branch makes a lasting impression, especially when you get smacked in the face with it.