Chapter 12> November 1994: Orson

 Maybe he was kidding himself. Maybe he just imagined it. Maybe it was only a daydream.

For a split second though, he thought he saw something pass across her eyes. Something that conveyed she felt the same. He wished he could tweak some invisible antenna and tune into her thoughts.

The chances that she thought of him as he did of her were remote. They were complete opposites after all. She preferred a strict routine; he went with the flow. She was tidy; he was a mess. She built walls; he had a tendency to tear them down. She was beautiful; he was … not. How would anything more ever really work?

Still, he swore he saw something. He knew she could tell he hadn’t said what he was actually thinking. He felt like a coward, retreating like he had. Why didn’t he just say it. “The price I pay!? I risk my heart every time you speak to me, look at me, spend a spare minute with me.” How corny… yet sadly true.

“You, y-ou and your incessant humming…” was all he could manage to sputter on the fly. Awful. Increscent hummer, really?!

She had been kind, not calling him out on his obvious cover. She tried to make him feel better with a light laugh and kind comments about being quiet the strange pair when all their oddities were added up (Orson knew the bulk of them were his).

Usually he had done well at concealing his affection for her. When she wasn’t looking he’d allow himself to look not at her but into her, pondering her beauty. Yes, he was a gorgeous woman outwardly but what amazed him was how far past her skin it had managed to seep.

At that moment, when he saw that look flash across her eyes, he let his guard down. He allowed himself a moment of unabashed adoration as she looked into his eyes. A dream he begged himself not dare hope for, gnawed at him from the inside out.

He couldn’t seem to help himself. “What was life without aspiration, no matter how inconceivable?” He had told himself this all his life. Dreams of exploring space, the untouchable frontier, consumed him as a child. Despite how unreachable that dream seemed, still he went for it. Now he was a leader among his peers, a visionary of the future.

For most, his current dream seemed far more tangible, to love someone and have them love you back. However, when it came to Orson love was more of an unfathomable frontier than space.

About an hour ago Dani had come knocking at his door. As per usual, Tony was the first one to their door. Tony loved Dani. Not in a, ‘I want to marry her’ kind of way but rather a ‘comrade in arms’ kind of way. It turns out that they were moth Army-brats. Even though Orson knew that’s all it was, he was still jealous. It wasn’t that he feared Tony would whisk Dani away (he and Tony had talk about how he felt about her), he was jealous that they had such a strong bond. Sometimes Orson feared that because they really had nothing in common the only thing that really held them together was the mutual enjoyment of each others company. He was sure to ruin that any day now, sooner or later his weirdness would send her off, screaming as she went. Once that happened the brittle thread that held them would snap and he’d be left alone.

If on the other hand, he had something to share with her as definite as “fellow Army-brat’ he might be able to hold on to her longer. He knew there was little to no hope for them to be together as anything more than friends. He had reconciled himself to this near certain truth, made peace with reality of their situation. Still, he couldn’t help himself from wanting just a little more time with her. He knew it was selfish of him but, whatever amount of time he had been granted would never be enough to satisfy the bone deep need to be around her.

 

(This Chapter isn’t done…)

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Chapter 11>March 2011: The Stills

 

The sky was shifting from blue to shades of gold as the sun descended toward the horizon line. The Firr’s three had gathered everything together in the car and were finally setting out down their dirt drive. Rydell held a large pot of her mother’s pasta salad between her feet on the floorboard.

She was nervous, something she would never have told her parents. Rydell wanted her mother and father to believe that she was fearless in the face of change. Though they always told her the moves were for her benefit, she knew better. Really she was a convenient reason for them to start over, reevaluate, to take one more chance at finding their niche. Rydell never wanted them to feel bad about that. Everyone deserves to be allowed to find their place in the world.

And so, when she’d come home to find the cardboard boxes un packed, dishes out of the cupboards and tape and markers scattered on the floor, Rydell put on her best carefree face. She’d hide away any sadness or fear that arose as she happily packed up yet again.

Driving down the road now, dust curled up in billowing clouds behind them. She felt fear grip the base of her stomach. What if she liked them, this community? She silently made a wish that they would be awful people.

After meeting Elam she knew this would never be true. It was much more likely they’d be wonderful. What was she going to do if they were just as amazing as their son and Hawkeye? What if they were just as sweet and instantly lovable? What if she fell in love with them just like she had this place only to arrive home to the dependable landscape of cardboard, tape and markers yet again?

It was too terrible a thought to contemplate further. Through the Voltzwagon’s dusty window Rydell stared into the setting sun and willed her heart to live in the moment. She wanted to enjoy this land of infinite green fields and sweet honeysuckle air as much as was possible. She willed her mind to forget about her almost certain future and the ominous cloud it brought over her present dreamland.

“So! Are you excited to meet your new friend’s family?” Mr. Fir called from behind the wheel.

Rydell cringed as she made out a coy expression in her fathers face as he stared at her in the rearview mirror. Subtlety was not his strong suit. The emphasis he laid on the word “friend” anyone could have picked up on.

“Dad! Please. Please don’t do that tonight.” She groaned.

“What ever do you mean?” his coy expression morphed into sarcastic shock.

“You know! That thing you do. That thing where you imply that if my friends are boys then they must be or will be boyfriends. Don’t do that. It makes them go all awkward and then they start treating me weird!” Rydell evaded her father’s eyes and looked down at the pot clanking between her feet.

“Sweetie, they start treating you ‘weird’ because they like you. I’ve only given voice to their deep seeded feelings.” He laughed heartily at himself. “Plus, it is my chance to establish myself as the awkward father who is overly involved in his pre-teen daughters social life and thus am an obstacle to their pursuit of you. Really, it’s a win-win for me. I entertain myself, watching them squirm, and at the same time stomp out any hope they have.” He lifted his chin to the mirror and became an exaggerated toothy smile.

“That’s not true. It couldn’t be. They couldn’t all have liked me. That’s ridiculous!”

“Hun, here is a lesson every girl should have. There are and will only be two motivations for a boy to be close friends with a girl. One, to get close to said girl. Or two, to get close to said girls friend.”

At this Mrs. Firr, who had been sitting silently for some time, burst into peals of laughter.

“What may I ask is so funny?” asked Mr. Firr

Managing to suppress her giggling just long enough to respond, “Oh nothing much. I just didn’t realize I had married such an authority on affection and wooing. But you know, I shouldn’t be surprised. You have always been, in my mind, Mr. smooth operator!” Laugher burst free again. If the car door had been unlocked Rydell thought her mom might fall out and go rolling down the road.

Pretending to be wounded by his wife’s jest at his expense he replied, “That’s right you shouldn’t be surprised! I did manage to woo you after all! And lets face it, your way out of my league!”

“Oh darling don’t you worry, I faced that years ago!”

As if being cued by a director both of their faces went cold and completely void of expression. Then taking a single side-glance at each other from their seats they shot their heads back and laughed merrily without warning.

Rydell was completely lost, and had been lost since it began. Sometimes it seemed that they two of them spoke their own secret language and she just couldn’t ever understand. When someone is left out of a conversation, lost behind a language barrier they feel left out. Surprisingly it comforted Rydell. She didn’t always understand her parents but it was obvious there was some kind of impenetrable connection between the two of them. Watching it unfold made her feel safe and secure, a product of that confusing but undeniable bond.

“Honey, don’t let your father psych you out. Trust me when I say, if he’s worthy of pursuing you he’ll go to great lengths to be a real friend, not someone who’s only in it to eventually be more. Anyhow, if he is really trying to be your friend he won’t squirm away when your dad goes into his awkward routine. In a way your dads is doing you a sort of favor. If anything, at least then you’ll know.”

Rydell was still lost, “What do you mean? I’ll know what exactly?”

“Well, if he sticks around after that you’ll know he’s a keeper. Whether that be a ‘friend-keeper’ or a ‘more-than-friend-keeper’ will be totally up to you.”

“I disagree!” interrupted her father, “Until she is legally an adult, we still get a say in weather he’s a ‘more-than-friend-keeper’!”

Rydell rolled her eyes and held her tongue. She could have continued the current line of conversation but she thought it best to let it die out. This way she would still have a mile or so for them to sit in silence and hopefully forget their conversation about boys as friends and their potential as boyfriends before meeting Elam and his family. Perhaps it might lessen the chance of her being immensely embarrassed.

Usually a mile down the road took no time. However, Rydell had come to learn that a mile on a country dirt road takes double if not triple the time. Apparently the driver is obligated to admire the scenery no matter how many times they’ve seen it before.

The sun had fallen almost completely out of sight behind the black horizon line by the time they arrived. Elam’s house sat twinkling atop a small rise lights glowing from every corner. Rydell wasn’t sure where all of them were coming from. It was beautiful.

Elam’s family lived in a modest, light blue, two-story home. The grandest feature was a deep wrap-around porch. The boards were painted dark red and were littered with potted ferns and flowering vines, rocking chairs of all sizes and a huge curling wrought-iron porch swing.

“Welcome one and all!” called a deep slow voice.

Carefully exiting the Voltzwagon, pasta salad in hand, Rydell craned toward the sound. A man standing over six feet with broad shoulders and a barreled chest was walking toward them, a familiar grin beaming from ear to ear. Rydell instantly came to two conclusions about this man. One, based only on his grin this had to be Elam’s father. Two, she was going to love him just as quickly as she did everything else here. A sweet sadness swelled in her throat.

“Glad ya’ll found the place. When Elam told me he’d invited ya I was a bit concerned ya’d get lost. Not many folks can navigate these parts and our Elam has a poor track record with directions.”

He lifted his hand toward Mr. Firr for a handshake. The mans meaty hand enveloped Mr. Firr’s. “The names Lowell Stills. I’m the patriarch of this hear family.”

Rydell’s father swayed with the strength of Lowell’s handshake. “It’s nice to meet you! Hank you so much for letting us join you tonight.”

“Ah, the more the merrier!” Rydell heard the faint echo of footsteps approaching. Here comes the rest of the brood. You know my son Elam. This here is my wife Violet and that scrawny one bringing up the rear is our youngest, my daughter Willona.”

A small piercing voice sounded from the tiny girl clear as a bell and lacking any of the slow drawl her father and brother had. “Pop! Not funny!”

Lowell’s belly flexed with laughter. “Sorry folks. Her given name is Willona but she refuses to answer to it. She’s our little tom-boy and’s gone by Tommy since she was just a tike.”

In comparison to father and son, Violet and Wilona Stills were more than small. Mrs. Stills and her daughter held petite frames with dainty features. Outwardly, it seemed Elam was a carbon copy of Lowell and Wilona a copy of Violet. Rydell wondered what traits Violet might have passed on to a son who in no physical way resembled her and what Lowell could have given to Willona.

“And don’t you forget it! Call me Wilona and reap what you sow, that’s lesson number one around me!” Wilona had positioned herself an arms length away from Rydell and was looking her directly in eyes. About three inches shorter than Rydell and far less developed the tiny girl’s presence managed to seem titanic.

“Well enough of this dilly dally Rydell, lets skip the cordialities and go strait to being friends. Elam seems to think highly of you and that’s enough for me.” Without skipping a beat she continued, “Now let’s hurry up and drop that pot off in the kitchen and grab mason jars for the hunt. I can’t let those wretched twin cousins beat me again! Seeing as I dropped Elam from y team last year, (he gets to distracted by the pretty lights) you’re going to be on my team. Think you can handle that?”

To be honest Rydell didn’t think she could, this tiny girl seemed very intense and Rydell had no idea what the clues “mason jar”, “hunt” and firefly’s” could add up to. It didn’t really matter though. In raptures with the Stills easy manner and jubilant spirits Rydell happily shook her head and proclaimed “Sure! I’m in!”

“Excellent, just what I was hoping to hear! Now come on, we’ve got to get to that race line before they start without us!” Tommy grabbed hold of Rydell’s wrist and gently towed her toward the front porch. As they climbed the steps Rydell caught Elam’s eyes throwing back twinkling reflections of the house. One shoulder was leaning on the porch entryway, his hands folded across his flannel-planked chest. One booted foot was crossed on tiptoe over his other. Elam was the picture of country ease.

“If your teamin’ up with Tommy don’t ya wander off now, ya hear? That’en is blood hound! She’ll track ya down and give ya a tongue lashin’ to boot!” Elam’s pearly grin spread out in a mischievous smile, his eyes flickering toward his sister.

As the screen door creaked open and Rydell stepped into the Stills homestead the smell of fresh baked bread filtered into her nose. Above a large limestone hearth a rugged wooden plank read, “Be STILL and know that I am God. –Psalm 46:10” The word still was signed like a signature on a check. The warm flickering light coming from beneath it seemed to wrap itself around her. It was marvelous. She wanted more than anything to call back through the door, “You won’t have to worry about me running off. I don’t plan on going anywhere. Ever.” If only the desires of ones heart always became the manifestations of their reality.

Chapter 10> Dani: November 1994 (Continued)

(Chapter 10 continued)

Sitting in the coffee house, as per usual, Orson spoke up, “What’s on your mind?”

Dani rolled her eyes, “Gah! You know how much I hate that question. Be more specific. Believe it or not I am often capable of thinking many things at once, you know.”

“No need to go on the defensive. You know I enjoy silence just as much as you, it’s just that your face turned sort of stoic all of the sudden. Like, some big question is weighing you down while it goes unanswered. Is it anything you want to share with the class?”

Honestly, Dani was mulling over what exactly Orson was to her. Her mind kept running over their time together, trying to decipher ever conversation, gesture or even tone of voice trying to decode any hidden meaning. Was he really only a friend to her? Would she be willing to gamble the closest friend she’d ever had on a relationship that logically made NO sense?

“World peace” she responded with a sarcastic smile, not ready to share her true thoughts yet.

“Har, har,” he rolled his eyes, “All right then Miss Congeniality, I’ll take the hint. You don’t want to share. Just wait though, one of these days all those pent up questions you never ask are going to explode out of you. I’m not going to answer a single one, just to irritate you,” he said with a chuckle.

Dani gave a dry laugh. “Yes, that’ll teach me a lesson.” Though she said it casually a deep pain pricked inside of her chest. It really was a fear of hers. What if she brought it up, decided to ask the big questions rolling around her head and he couldn’t give an answer or gave the wrong one. She didn’t even know what the wrong answer was (being that she didn’t have one herself), but she sensed she’d know it was wrong the moment he said it. When did friendship become so complicated? “Puberty!” She unintentionally answered herself under her breath.

“What did you say?” One of Orson’s eyebrow’s raised high above the other.

She couldn’t believe she’d let that slip from her brain and fall out of her mouth! Trying to conceal her embarrassment she answered, “Oh, nothing.” She flipped out the newspaper on her lap, “Must have been reading out loud. Guess I spend too much time with you. Now I’m picking up your bad habits. You really do need to work on that muttering thing you do while you read. Drives me nuts.”

“Yeah, yeah. You know, for all my bad habits you’re the one who still chooses to hang around me, Kowalski.”

“Well, I figure it’s a small price to pay to have a human encyclopedia like you around during term paper season,” she giggled.

“And what about the price I have to pay being your encyclopedia?” he retorted.

“Pray, tell. What price is that dear Encyclopedia Hendrix?”

Orson’s face flickered with that look again. Just like before it was gone as quickly as it arrived. By his slight stammer she could tell he had changed his answer as he spoke, “dealing with y-you and your tuneless humming…”

She laughed and responded, “Well, I guess we make quite the pair then, a muttering reader and a tuneless hummer. Good thing we’ve usually got the library basement to ourselves. I’m sure others wouldn’t be so stoked about putting up with our oddities.” She laughed again.

Usually Orson joined with her laughing when he knew she was trying to be funny. This time he didn’t. Instead the look resurfaced, this time not immediately flickering away.

In that moment something unexpected happened. A pleasant sort of heat prickled its way from her chest up her spine only to scorch a visible blush across her cheeks. She was gratified at his look, relished it even, soaking in it like a flower took in sunshine. She’d seen similar looks from dozens of men but this reaction to it was something she’d never experienced.

Later that night as she laid in her bed tossing and turning she dissected every moment of their time together and a realization became increasingly clear. It felt different because it was different. This time the look came from someone she really knew, someone she respected and trusted her real self to.

She sat up, nearly catapulting herself from the bed. It was resolved. She had to tell him. The only question left to answer was, how.

Chapter 10> Dani: November 1994

They were an odd pair. She didn’t care. Their developing friendship was an entirely new experience for Dani.

Growing up she never had a lot of friends. As the tomboy she made friends with boys more often than girls. The problem was that they didn’t want just friendship. They wanted something more.

Friendships built with the expectation of one day being more was the story of her life. Her personality, looks and easy nature tended to give the wrong signal to any guy friend she tried to keep. It wasn’t that the prospects were undeserving, unsuitable or even undesirable…there was just something missing.

Orson stood out in that way. He wasn’t athletic, thick headed or though skinned (all common characteristics of a majority of men that a girl army brat encounters). She enjoyed his company in the library and campus coffee shop because he was easy to talk to. There was no pressure or pretence to worry about. He sincerely wanted to be her friend.

On campus Dani was forced to live in a girls dorm. After a long first semester she was growing very tired of being surrounded by girls. On the day she first met Orson she’d been driven from her room by yet another catfight screaming its way down the hall. She couldn’t take it any more. She needed silence.

She found herself at the library searching for the most solitary corner possible. She found the perfect space in the basement. One lone boy, who looked like he was mentally miles away and partially hidden from view by several stacks of books, was the only company with which she had to contend.

Settled in and finally able to study she heard the boy shout at the top of his lungs. Instinct and training kicked in and she ran to asses the situation. When he peered down at her, soaked in coffee, there was a look that passed across is face. She’d seen it before.

Despite her best efforts Dani couldn’t hide the way she looked. The daughter of a gorgeous Italian mother and dashing polish father, some genes show thought no matter the lack of makeup or styles you avoid.

Unlike her three sisters who adored the attention, she hated that look. It made her feel like a possession, something to be claimed rather than loved.

This time it was different though. The look only lasted for a split second. She saw it flicker into his expression and out again. Most men would have denied her help and shown off in some way. Usually trying to slip in a wink or flirtatious gesture. Not Orson. He gave a shy smile and even said thank you.

Over the last few months on numerous hangouts he asked her hundred of questions. Where did she grow up? What was her family like? Why did she enlist? On and on the questions went. It was like he was trying to read her like one of his star charts.

He really wanted to understand her. At first it took her off guard. She felt like an enigma he was studying under a microscope. However, after watching him interact with others on campus, she quickly realized he treated her the same as anyone else.

His lack of social grace and awkward manners were strangely endearing to her. He never put on a façade. He was who he was. He seemed to accept himself, faults and all. Unlike her, he didn’t hide who he was way from the world afraid of what others might think of him.

It was that very thing that made their conversations easy, never forced, genuine. The look of surprise that always overtook his face when she laughed at his jokes reassured her he was never intentionally flirtatious, but somehow managed to stumble into it. It was more than endearing.

Eventually he became her closest friend. She felt like she could share the world with him and he’d only ever take half, leaving he rest to give back to her. Despite the fact that she often couldn’t keep up with his intellectual rambling she always felt like she was on equal footing with him, never belittled.

Chapter 9>March 2011: The School

 

As they left the drive that morning Rydell’s stomach was a mass of knots. She was worried about fitting in. She was worried if she was dressed right. She was worried that she would be behind in her classes, or worse she would be ahead and then be horribly bored for the rest of the semester. Every minute of the drive to school a new worry crashed down around her like the battering of waves against one tinny little boat in the middle of a vast ocean.

She’d thought she’d be used to this by now (it was her second new school… of the year). But the first day in a new school never got any easier.

As her and her mother drove down the dusty roads Rydell realized she was not growing used to how long it took to get everywhere when you lived in the country. Speed limits were slower, roads were more perilous, and destinations were always further away. Everything ALWAYS took longer than she thought it would.

When they finally pulled up she thought her mom had surely driven to the wrong place. This couldn’t be the school. It looked more like a penitentiary. Solid grey brick walls stood less than perpendicular to the ground. Rydell couldn’t decide if they were bowed out or bowed in, either way it was a revelation to learn that brick had the ability to bow. Chips and chunks of the crumbling façade lay in small piles around the building. How was this thing still standing? One tiny push, perhaps the puff of the big bad wolf and it would have blown over into a giant heap of rubble.

The interior wasn’t much better. The linoleum floor was in a very sad state. Rydell and Mrs. Firr followed signs that directed them to the office (finally discovered in a very odd corner of a bustling atrium). As they traveled they took very deliberate steps. One false move and they would have tripped over mounds and into divots scattered across the ancient floor.

They now stood under a large banner hung from the popcorn ceiling tiles announcing, “ Wait! Stop! Don’t forget to sign up for the Sock-hop! March 30th ; 6-8 P.M. … We’ll see you then!” Rydell couldn’t help but wonder what in the world a sock-hop was and if it was just as corny as the banner.

They stepped up to the entrance and each pressed a hand on one of the two arched forest green doors. Nothing. They didn’t budge at all. They looked at each other and smiled. “Harder?” whispered her mother.

Rydell nodded in agreement. Each repositioned their hand to the center of a single door as they both put their whole weight into a synchronized shove. Still nothing.

“Well howdy!” A slow male drawl sounded from behind them. Elam.

As Rydell lifted her eyes up to his smile she couldn’t seem to keep her own from spreading wide across her face. One of many knots of worry in the base of her stomach came undone. How did he manage that? He was practically a stranger. Regardless, two small words from him and so much of the stress that kept the muscles in her frame taught evaporated. A portion of her felt so loose she feared her body would collapse into a puddle.

“Hey Elam!” She announced a tad too enthusiastically.

“Mind if I give ya ladies a hand?”

“Please do!” Mrs. Firr replied with relief coloring her tone.

Both of the Firr women stepped aside to allow the tall boy to pass.

“I’ve found sometimes the gentle approach just wont cut it.” He looked down and gave Rydell and impish smile. Then with no further warning he slung his shoulder into the door. The ancient oak moaned in protest to the force. Despite that, it finally pressed forward with a loud crack.

Chuckling as he went, Elam stumbled forward with the momentum of his thrust. “Some things just need a little tough love.” He explained as he rubbed his battering shoulder. Walking forwarded he held the door open for them, mocking his own cavalry with a grand sweeping gesture to usher them in.

Rydell followed behind her mother as they passed over the office threshold. Once inside she looked back to see Elam tipping an invisible hat in their direction.

“Well, it’s five till first bell so I suppose I otta be headin’ in that direction. Mrs. Firr, I do hope ya’ have’a wonderful afternoon. I look forward to meetin’ the mister later this evenin’. Rydell, I’ma sure I’ll be seein’ ya after ya’ll wrap up here.” He paused to throw a quick grin just to her.

He began to back out of the doorway but paused to add, “And Lettie,” he called in a voice a bit louder than he had been using. The secretary, stationed behind the tall linoleum planked counter, looked up in his direction. “In hopes this’ll be the last time I see ya today, not for personal reasons ya understand but educational ‘en’s, may I just say before I go that ya look more than lovely today. The new haircut is’a winner.” He playfully winked at waved at the secretary as he took a deeper step backward and let the heavy door fall into place with another uneasy groan.

A sharp exhalation sounded from behind the counter, “Charm personified, that boy is. I feel sorry for the girl who falls prey to it. Pour thing ‘ill be so wrapped up in it she won’t have a clue as ta which ways up.” She laughed to herself while staring at the space Elam had been, until finally turning her attention to Rydell and Mrs. Firr.

***

It had taken over an hour to make their way through what seemed to be endless paperwork. But, after much work they found light at the end of the tunnel. After dotting the last “i” Mrs. Firr had double-checked with the secretary, for the fourth time, that she was of no more use before she planted a quick peck on Rydell’s brow and shuffled off to fill out even more paperwork at the courthouse and DMV.

Mrs. Scope (Lettie) had assured Rydell that Principal Morose would be along in no time to give her a tour of the building and escort her to class. Rydell did her best to convince the sweet and slightly rotund woman behind the counter to simply give her a map so she could find her own way around. Mrs. Scope wouldn’t hear of it and ushered her into a chair in the “waiting room” area, usually reserved for those destined for penal-hued futures.

 

Whelp, it happened. Writers block hit and I didn’t finish a chapter… I got a little stuck today. I think I’m going to have to forge ahead to the next chapter and come back to this a later date. 

Chapter 8> October 1994:Orson

The lower levels of the library were his favorite place to study. Fewer people ventured down into the basement. It smelled of mildew and you were dependent on florescent lighting to read by. However, after hours of study a dull ache would develop in the back of your eyes. He could make himself endure this a long as it meant that he didn’t have to share his study space with hoards of loud co-eds.

Orson was an eccentric by anyone’s terms, even his own. Spending much of his life on the road with his hippy mother as she spoke at rallies helped Orson avoid people. Although he was incredibly intelligent he never really learned the purpose and effective use of social skills. He never saw much need for them; he rarely had anything in common with most people.

Eyes trained on the newest issue of Scientific American he reached across the table fumbling to find his coffee cup. His eyes lifted only for a moment as he brought it up to his mouth. That’s when he saw her. She was sitting at a desk even more solitary than his. It took a split second for his mind to register just how beautiful she was and to question why a girl like that was hiding out in the library basement.

To this day he was unsure if his lips had forgotten to slurp or his throat had forgotten to swallow but as he tilted the cup the hot liquid it poured between the lid and his chin. A blistering pain spread across his chest as it soaked through his shirt. Shock caused him to drop the cup and leap from his chair shouting. Now it was everywhere. The rest of his coffee was dripping from the desk and began soaking into the carpet beneath him.

Staring into the mess he’d made he was surprised to hear a soft voice ask, “Are you alright?!”

To his surprise there in front of his desk stood the girl. Her black hair was pulled into a tight bun at the base of her neck. She stood at the ready, poised to make a quick decision. Her posture said that she was prepared for anything but her steady blue eyes tried desperately to hide a sincere concern.

“Ye-yeah,” he managed to cough out, “I, uh, I just had a bit of a disagreement with my coffee. I thought it needed to meet my stomach. Apparently, it thought it needed to meet the floor.”

The space between her brows tensed in confusion. Her eyes darting around the scene she took in what had happened. Realizing his humor she let a single unguarded chuckle escape. If it was possible, in that moment he became even more enamored. People rarely noticed his humor not to mention acknowledge it.

“Well, let me go find a Janitor. You go clean yourself up.”

Confused by her generosity he sheepishly replied, “That’s very nice, thank you.” He walked in bewildered haze to the nearest bathroom.

Considering all that had happened Orson turned at the bathroom door to check she wasn’t a hallucination. The idea that a girl such as her had not only spoken to him but had offered to help him, and even laughed at his joke seemed unlikely. Despite his disbelief there she was on hands and knees at his desk sopping up coffee sodden carpet as the janitor wiped it from the desk.

While hot water pressed out the foamed soap to run over his hands it struck him that he hadn’t asked for her name. Afraid she would be gone as soon as she had arrived. He hurriedly finished and rushed back out the door. To his surprise her books and papers were no longer at her desk. She had relocated… to his desk.

He slowly passed her to cross over to his seat. Eyes still focused on her paper she announced, “ I hope you don’t mind the company. I thought you might need more immediate assistance the next time a disagreement arises between you and another inanimate object. This time is was just a liquid. Who knows, next time it might be something more nefarious. You know… like your pen.”

Beautiful, kind, gracious and now he knew she was funny. When this story would be told (probably only to Tony, his roommate and unlikely friend) he thought he would declare this to be the moment he’d found “her,” that elusive entity only a few found in a life time. And that the moment was as mesmerizing as it was glum. Because in addition to his near-certainty she was the one (even thinking it now he sighed with the soppy romanticism of it all) he was also entirely certain she’d never choose him. That pain didn’t diminish his desire to be near her, even by the smallest increment. No matter the outcome he could feel it in his gut, he was a magnet and she was due north.

With a deep breath and an certain step forward into the unknown, whatever it may hold.   “Well, I think I can manage the inconvenience if you’re here to keep me safe from the inevitable harm my clumsiness causes,” he paused. “I’m sorry, I didn’t tell you my name. I’m Hendrix but I go by Orson.” He lifted his hand toward her.

Her eyes rose from her work and she extended her hand to shake his. “Danielle but everyone in my unit calls me Dani.”

“Unit?”

“Yeah.. I’m here on the government’s dime. In another setting you might call me Private Danielle Kowalski..”

It all started to add up. How quickly and quietly she had come to his aid. How prepared for anything she had seemed, even the tight uniform bun of hair. It all seemed to be pieces that fit together to form her military intensity he now saw in her mannerisms.

“So if your Army what are they paying for you to study here?” he asked as he finally sat down.

“Mechanical Engineering.”

Add smart to the list. “Really!”

“Yeah. My mother made me promise I’d go to college after I enlisted. I didn’t want her to have the satisfaction of knowing she’d won by choosing something dainty. And…Since I was little my dad had me the garage working on cars and such. I’m good with machines… their easier than people at least. And what is it that you study Hendrix Orson, boy who looses fights with coffee cups?”

“Astronomy with a minor in Physics.”

She looked him over for a moment, “Yeah, I can see that.”

Orson understood. Long unkempt hair, a disregard for ironing, and loaded book bag gave him away immediately. He was the picture of an introverted dweeb. He should have known better than to think a girl like this would think any differently of him.

When his thoughts surfaced to his expression Dani changed the subject, “Well, Orson, I don’t know what you put in your coffee but I can still smell it. Now I’m craving coffee myself. If you promise to resolve this issue you have between yourself and hot liquids before you drink them, how about we go get another cup? I need a break from the fluorescents anyway.”

There it was. A miracle right wafting before his ears. Regrettable social skills, awkward tendencies, societally inadequate looks (the list could go on), he thought there was nothing else to explain the exchange that just occurred other than heavenly intervention.    There was nothing else he could have done, no other choice to be made. He quickly stiffened his posture and positioned his hands like he was swearing on a Bible, “I swear.”

 

Chapter 7> March 2011: The Boy

 

A day and a half had passed. Hawkeye still hadn’t left. By midday Rydell thought her mother might call a pound. But, somehow Hawkeye, the lovable pooch that he was, had managed to weasel his way into her good graces. Now all three of them sat on the porch, baking in the noonday sun. Each was propped up against a pillar, feet dangling from the porch edge into the tall grass.

Hawkeye draped his paw across Rydell’s knobby knees, panting heavily as the young girl threaded her fingers through his shaggy fir. Rydell lifted her glass of lemonade to her forehead and swiped its condensation across her brow. Hawkeye let out a mournful yip. Rydell smiled and pressed the bottom of her glass onto his nose. The dog closed his eyes and moaned a deep throaty sort of growl.

In the middle of a hearty giggle at the dog’s overly expressive nature, Hawkeye’s ears suddenly shot up. His body went ridged with attentive tension. He had obviously heard something. Rydell craned her neck. She saw nothing. She strained her ears. She heard nothing.

In a single bound Hawkeye had leapt from her lap and off the porch, tail wagging furiously. Then she finally heard it. In the distance there was a faint high-pitched whistle. It followed a pattern, three short blasts and then one long note that went up at the end.

At this point Hawkeye had run down the drive, rounded the corner by the mailbox and was already a yard up the road. Rydell chased after him. About half a mile down the road was a shadowy figure.

Crouched over, a boy was patting his legs just above the knee. He called out, “There ya are boy! Com’on, com’on!” Placing two fingers in his mouth the whistle pattern sounded once more.

Hawkeye was in a dead run, his hair flying out behind him. The boy held out his arms, waist high in a cradling position. Rydell stopped in the road and watched the scene unfold. Hawkeye was nearly three feet away when he pressed off the ground and went flying toward the boy.

The dog had so much momentum that he sent the boy tumbling to the ground. He didn’t seem to mind as he laughed hysterically while Hawkeye stood on his chest and happily bathed his face in wet dog kisses.

The boy was obviously out matched by the over exuberant k-9. Rydell chuckled as she watched the boy struggle to escape. When he heard her voice Hawkeye paused and barked in her direction. It was just enough time for the boy to wriggle out and look up in search of the laughs owner.

“Oh’a. Well, hello Miss. Recon I didn’t see ya there.” shouted the boy.

Rydell walked a bit closer. “Hi. I take it Hawkeye belongs to you?”

“Well, I brought him home when he was a pup. But since he dug his first hole under the fence and snuck out he’s really belonged to nearly every person in town at one time or ‘nother. I take it he’s persuaded you to take him in for a spell?”

Rydell recognized the boy’s phrase, ‘for a spell’ her father said it all the time. Strangely just hearing it from this boy’s mouth made him seem like an old friend. “Yeah, for about a day and a half. He’s kind of hard to resist.”

The boy chuckled and knelt down to scratch the underside of his dogs chin. “Yup. That’s our ol’ Hawkeye! He could charm a hen out’a the roost and into the fryin’ pan. By the way,” he stretched back up into his full height and looked her square in the eye. “the names Elam.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Rydell Firr. We just moved into 2040 German Road.”

“Where’d ya move?” Elam looked utterly lost.

“2040 German Road. That house just around the corner.” She pointed toward what she’d affectionately and internally named “the shed.”

Elam looked in the direction of her finger, “Oh! The ol’ parsonage! Well, I’m glad to hear someone’s finally getting some use outa’ it. Perfectly good house to be abandon like it has for so long.”

“What’s a parsonage?” Rydell assumed it was some word only used in the country.

“Why, it’s a house that is usually kept up by a church for their minister. Ain’t ya never heard of a parsonage before?”

“I don’t think so. If it’s meant for a preacher, why isn’t one living there now?”

“Ah, well ya see, the old country church here joined with the one in town. (Seein’ as it’s real hard to get out to it if’n there’s the least bit a bad weather.) But the town church still uses the buildin’ out here for shindigs and the like.”

They stood there and stared though each other for a moment. Elam nodded his head as though he were a country bumpkin bobble head then finally added, “Now, I don’t believe I’ve seen ya in school, but maybe were not in the same buildin’. What grade are ya in?”

“Eighth, but I haven’t enrolled yet. We came into town just as the school got out for Spring Break. What grade are you in?”

“Well, sorry to say but I guess your gonna have to get used to seein’ my sorry mug a lot more often.” He tried to force his face into a look as forlorn as possible. Finally a wide pearly grin broke free, “ ‘cus I’m in eighth grade too and there’s only one eighth grade teacher in all a ol’ Sanctuary Missouri.”

Rydell set back on her heals for a moment. First of all, how in the world was there only ONE teacher for all of the eighth graders in the town? Her last school had more than a few hundred eighth graders. Just how small was this town? Secondly, there was Elam. He looked like he could be on a professional football team, wide sholders rounded into a berraled chest which eventually tapered off a a stocky waist. All of which supported by tall (enough so that the knee of which nearly met her waist) thick (enough so they were probably as thick around as her waist itself), legs. On first impression Elam didn’t look like any eight grader she’d ever met.

“Really? You look older than 13.”

Elam grinned. “Yes’m, I’m 13 alright. Actually, one of the youngest in the class, didn’t flunk out’a any grades if’n that’s what your wonderin’. I’m pretty big for my age, so I’m told. Mr. Noonan, that’s my… well now, OUR teacher, says it must be somethin’ in the well water round here. Cus my whole family’s that’a way, always outgrown’ our desks faster than most others.”

There was something about him, some indiscernible quality that put Rydell at ease. Maybe it was the slow rhythm of his speech that seemed to mimic the sway of corn stalks in the late night winds. Or perhaps it was that grin that relaxed her just like a deep breath of the honeysuckle that hung in the humid air. Whatever it was something about Elam gave credence to the Bibles explanation that God created man from the dust of the earth. Maybe this boy wasn’t born of man at all, but rather sprung up from the Missouri foothills, pure and free like a solitary wildflower in the middle of a pasture.

“You alright, miss?”

Rydell realized she had been staring and her eyes shot down to the dirt road beneath her feet. Her cheeks flared with heat and her head suddenly felt light. “Ha! Um, yeah. I’m fine. I just zoned out for a while. Sorry about that.”

“No need to be sorry. Ya prolly got a whole heap of things weighin’ on your mind, havin’ just moved out to the middle of nowhere and all.” Elam paused for a moment. Shoving his hands in his pockets as he rocked from heal to toe in his boots. “Hey ya’ll should come on over for dinner. This weekend my family’s havin’ a fish fry. There’ll be croquet, hillbilly golf, a watermelon seed spit, even a firefly catchin’ contest at the end of the night. I recon there ain’t no better way to get introduced to the community, seein’ that most my family is married into just about every other family in the area.” He laughed, what seemed a little self consciously at that.

Honestly, Rydell understood very little of what Elam had just described. What was a fish fry? What was hillbilly golf or a watermelon seed spit? How exactly does anyone participate in a firefly catching contest? Should she be concerned at the claim that his family was married into nearly every other family in the area?

Despite all the things she didn’t understand there were three things she did. One, her family had been invited to a gathering. Two, there would be food (presumably some kind of fish). Three, Elam would be there.

“Yeah, sure. That would be cool. My parents and I could use a night out of the house not worrying about unpacking. I don’t think we had anything else planned. You should probably come with me to ask, though. If mom says yes she’ll have a ton of questions that I’ll have no answer to.” She cleared her throat, “That is, if you don’t mind.” Rydell looked over her shoulder at her house as she felt another blush start to rise up again.

Elam’s wide pearly grin broke free, now bigger than ever. “Well, yes’m. I’d be happy to oblige.”

Hawkeye, who had wandered off, apparently bored with their conversation, was now neck deep in the small cattle pond of a nearby field. Elam sounded his trademark whistle and called out for him to come. The dog paddled out of the water and sprinted toward his owner.”

Together the three of them made their way back down the road toward “the shed”. As they rounded the corner there stood Mrs. Firr, arms crossed and foot tapping on the porch.