Monday, December 4, 2017

The Study Group - Part 6

“He’s going to ask you out again today,” Mallory said.
“No, he’s not.”  Annie pulled off her hat and smoothed down her hair.  It wasn’t quite as cold as she expected.  “Saturday wasn’t a date so there’s no again, and I brought my little brothers.  I think that was a good hint of where I stand.”
“But you had fun.”
“We did.  As friends.”
“So you’d agree to do something with him again?”
Annie sighed and opened the door to the library.  “Not the way you say it.  You make ‘do something’ sound like a betrothal.  Besides, he’s not going to ask me out in the middle of the study group.”
“It’s just going to be four of us today.  Aaron is taking Hannah out for her birthday.”
“Oh, yeah.  Still… we’re here to study.”
Mallory snorted.  “You don’t have any homework this week.  You’re here to hang out with Jake and make him fall for you even more.”
Annie issued a playful shove in response.  She wasn’t going to argue against a relationship with Jake yet again.
He and Carlos were already at their usual table.  They sat at opposite corners.  Carlos had his back to the girls as they walked up and was laughing at something Jake said before Annie was close enough to hear.  She took the seat next to Carlos and was about to ask what was so funny.
Mallory leaned close and made a sniffing noise in Annie’s ear.  It was a jab about her obviously smelling Carlos, which she hadn’t even been thinking about.  She gave Mallory a look that she hoped conveyed significant displeasure with her mock sniffing.
Jake smiled at either the sound effect or the reprimand.  There was a lack of amusement in his eyes though that made Annie uneasy.  She felt a sudden need to explain that she’d only sat next to Carlos out of habit.  The thought caused several others to trip into a pile in her head.  First was the knowledge that she had in fact taken the seat next to Carlos out of habit.  Next was the idea that she wanted Jake to share that knowledge.  Last was the dawning understanding that something had changed.
Somewhere between giving her mom flowers and treating her little brothers like friends, Jake had formed a connection to Annie.  It wasn’t anything like a lifelong bond, but it was enough to make Annie curious about a stronger connection.  Curious and… interested.  She unzipped the backpack at her feet and started pulling things out to cover her unexpectedly flustered state.
“What are you doing?” Mallory asked.
“I’m… getting ready.”
“For what?”  Mallory was sending her a concerned look.  “You said you didn’t have any homework tonight.”
Annie was going to say she was getting ready to study.  Surely she had something she could review.  But Carlos spoke first.
“You don’t have homework?” he said.  “Great.  You can help me with this awful poem.”
Jake groaned.  “Well, she’s got to be better than me.”
“Yeah,” Carlos said.  “He wanted me to rhyme sunset with not yet.”
“What?” Annie laughed and looked at Jake.  So did Mallory.
He shrugged.  “You didn’t give me much to work with.  Tell them what you have so far.”
“I’m supposed to write couplets about something in nature,” Carlos explained.  “I have ‘I’m sitting by the window to watch the sunset.’”
There was a pause before Mallory said, “That’s it?”
“I’m not a poet,” Carlos said.  “Do you think if I wrote a few more random lines I could get half credit for half couplets?”
“Yet could work.”  Annie gathered some thoughts.  “I’m sitting by the window to watch the sunset.  I realize it hasn’t started yet.  The sky is still blue.  Uh… lots of things rhyme with blue.  Someone help me.”
Mallory tried.  “The sky is still blue.  The grass is covered with dew.  I guess it’s still morning.”  She looked around the table for a suggestion.
Jake said, “How about… This very long wait will be boring.  But if I sit all day I bet… I might get to see the sunset yet.”
“We already used yet,” Mallory said, trying to keep a straight face.
Annie was also working to swallow a laugh.  It wasn’t only awful because they’d used yet, and Jake’s face said he knew it, too.
“We did.”  Jake winced again.  “That was so terrible.”
Carlos was writing it all down.  “But it’s pretty close guys.  I’m just going to change the last two lines to ‘But I have nothing else to do, maybe I’ll watch the sun rise, too.’”
Annie didn’t think that was much better.  At least it was something Carlos wrote himself.
He closed that binder and opened a different one.  “On to statistics,” he said.  “That class always has the most homework.”
 When he shifted to a new subject, Annie caught a whiff of that nice cologne.  She still enjoyed the scent, but it was like smelling cookies.  Nothing personal.  She asked Mallory if she wanted to study Geology, the one class they had together.  Jake finished the assignment he’d brought and took Annie’s textbook to let the girls compete to guess vocabulary words.
Carlos finished his statistics, and they all began to pack up.  The four of them walked away from the table together.  “Wait one minute,” Mallory said.  “I want to check out a book while we’re here.”  She disappeared between two shelves of fiction.
“See you next week.”  Carlos kept walking towards the exit.
Jake stopped next to Annie.
She felt her stomach turn sideways, then inside out.  The idea that this was a chance for Jake to ask her out was now less unsettling than the idea that he might not take it.
“Are you going home again this weekend?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Any plans here?”
She continued the side to side movement.  “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“They’re doing the first outdoor movie of the year on Saturday,” he said.
“Already?  It’ll be cold.”
“Probably.  People will bring blankets.”
“Do you know what they’re showing?”
Now Jake shook his head.  “Would you be interested in finding out?  I mean, you and Mallory could both come with me to find out.”
Annie smiled at the way he saved her the trouble of inviting another person.  “Will you carry our blankets for us?”
“No matter what year it is.”
She smiled again, more self-consciously because of his reference.  “Okay.  I’ll tell Mallory.”

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Study Group - Part 5

“Do you want a cheeseburger, Michael?” Annie asked.  “Or something else.  They have chicken.”
A blank stare was her only response.
“Michael?”  She spoke louder.
His eyes seemed to focus on her. 
“Do you want a cheeseburger?”
“I like McDonalds,” he said.
“You’re in luck.  That’s where we are.”  As soon as they got into his car, Jake had assured Annie that he still intended to pay for the expanded party.  When William asked to go to the inexpensive fast food place, Annie readily agreed.  Few people would call it romantic.  She ordered for herself and Michael and the four of them soon sat down with a tray of food.
Jake turned to William, who was sitting next to him.  “So,” he said, “you were going to tell me about Annie dropping the lasagna.”
William began to chew faster so he could talk. 
“It’s not a story,” Annie said first.  “I dropped it.  There was a huge mess.  The end.”
“But it was funny,” William said, still chewing.
“Because you didn’t have to clean it up.”
“Neither did you.  Mom did.”
“She made me help.”  Jake was watching the two of them with amusement and Annie realized that her kid brother was bringing out her juvenile side.  “Okay,” she said.  “Tell the story.”
“Annie wanted to make this fancy lasagna.  It had, I don’t know, this green stuff and a weird runny cheese and…”  William was waving a chicken nugget around and he set it back in the box as he planned to talk awhile before getting another bite.  “And she spent forever chopping things up and making layers and then… there was this commotion.  I came into the kitchen when Annie screamed.  Mom and Dad were arguing over something and Michael was just standing in the corner yelling, ‘Hot, hot!’  Then I figured out that Mom and Dad were trying to decide if any of the lasagna was still edible.  The pan was upside down on the oven door and white and red stuff was oozing out all around it.  Annie was at the sink crying.”
“Did you burn yourself?” Jake interrupted with a concerned expression.
“A little,” Annie said.  “That’s what made me drop it.  But the tears were just… It was nearly two hours of work wasted.”
Jake nodded slowly.  “When did this happen?”
“A long time ago,” William said.
Annie tried to remember.  “I think I was fifteen.”
Jake must have decided that was enough time for her to be over it.  He turned back to William.  “Is your sister still a terrible cook?”
A somewhat nasty grin popped up on William’s face, mostly for Annie’s benefit.  Then he dropped it.  “Not really.  I actually like it when Annie cooks more than Mom most of the time.  She’s gotten better.”
Annie smiled at her brother to acknowledge the compliment.  Then she noticed that Jake also seemed to approve.  She needed William to start listing her faults.  She didn’t know how to do that without asking straight out.
“Can I have your fries?”  Michael was already reaching in front of Annie as he spoke.
“I, uh, I guess.”  Annie saw that Michael had already finished every scrap of food she’d put in front of him.  It shouldn’t have surprised her.  He normally inhaled his food.
He tipped the box too far as he took it and all the fries slid out onto the tray.  “Ohhh.”  He stretched the word, clearly unsure how to handle the mistake.
“I got it.”  Annie scooped the fries back into the box and handed it to her brother.  She left a few on the tray for herself.  Then she looked across the table at Jake to see if he noticed her greediness.
He smiled and bumped his eyebrows playfully before he took one of those fries for himself.  He still had half of his fries left.  The glance he sent Annie dared her to say something before he looked at Michael.  “What can you tell me about Annie?” he asked.
Michael turned to his sister.
Jake said, “Yes, that Annie.”
William snickered.
“She’s my sister,” Michael said.
“I know.”  Jake looked between them.  “You two look a bit alike.”
“I’m Michael.”
“I know.  Your hair is the same shade of brown and your noses are similar.”
“I’m Michael.”
Jake nodded and moved on.  “What can you tell me about Annie?”
“Annie likes pink.”
“I do,” Annie said.  “I have two brothers.  I have to assert my girliness now and then.”
The interview continued.  “What else does she like?”
William jumped in.  “Not roller coasters!  When we go to Cedar Point, she won’t ride anything good.  She likes…”  He paused to insert a shudder.  “…the carousel.”
Jake laughed.
Annie defended her choice.  “Not the regular carousel.  Cedar Downs.  The one with race horses.”
“I ride the horses.”  Michael tipped his head dreamily.  “I ride horses fast.”
“We ride that carousel a lot,” Annie said.  “There’s usually a short line.” 
William rolled his eyes.  “I bet you don’t show your face next year.”
“Oh, they won’t recognize us or anything.”
“Wait, wait.”  Jake waved his hand between them.  “What happened?”
“Michael had a seizure.  I kept him from falling off.  But I had to carry him when we left the ride.  Someone said he fell and the employees called someone.  We spent two hours at the first aid station convincing them that he wasn’t injured on the ride.  We had to wait for them to find Mom and Dad to verify our story.”
William elbowed Jake.  “The carousel is at least better than the first aid station ride.”
“Yeah, do you…”  Jake looked at Michael with equal parts surprise and confusion.  “Is he asleep?”
Annie gave Michael a nudge with her arm.  He was sleeping hard and gave no sign that he’d felt the nudge.  “The meds make him drowsy,” she said.  “Guess you’re not going to get dirt on me from him.”
“No need,” Jake said.  “William is helping.”
“Oh, yeah.”  William’s eyes lit up.  “I can tell you about the time Annie went to school in costume… on the wrong day!”
Annie put her head in her hands and groaned.  She knew that story would come up.  Showing up for Oregon Trail day a week early wasn’t just her most embarrassing moment of ninth grade but of her entire life.  Her mom had brought her a change of clothes so she’d endured only two periods of snickering.
William relished telling the story.  He barely remembered it, and that was evident in his questionable facts.  Annie let him talk because Jake seemed to know when he was exaggerating.  William regaled them with a few other stories before Jake shared some from his life.  The three of them were laughing after every last fry had been eaten.
Annie shook Michael awake when it was time to leave.  She was a bit reluctant since she was enjoying herself.  She’d forgotten she was trying to make a poor impression on Jake.  But she’d also forgotten it was supposed to be a date.  Hopefully, Jake had as well.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Study Group - Part 4

Annie looked out the window for Jake.  He wasn’t late.  He said he’d be there around 11 am and that was still a half hour away.  She’d decided to wait until the last minute to tell her parents that someone was coming over.  But she didn’t want to wait until he was pulling in the driveway either.
It wasn’t that she was worried her parents would embarrass her, or Jake.  They were fairly reasonable people.  Coming to meet the parents gave a date vibe to the situation that she didn’t want because it wasn’t a date.  She wished she’d been clearer with Jake about that.  Now she was hoping that if she waited long enough to say something, the rest of her family would conveniently need to run an errand right before he showed up.
Annie came away from the window and soon found her mom flipping through the pages of a magazine.  Her ten-year-old brother was slumped against her arm, sound asleep.  Annie took a seat across the room from them and picked up a puzzle book from the coffee table.  Restlessness kept it closed in her lap.  She fiddled with the cover as she watched the minutes slink past.  If she waited much longer, Jake could be early and show up before she warned anyone.
Diana looked up at her daughter.
“I just wanted to let you know that I’m going out for lunch.  A friend from school is coming to pick me up soon.”
“Oh!”  Diana smiled with interest.  “What’s his name?”
 Annie wanted to scowl at her mom for assuming the friend was a guy.  But she was trying to act as though that didn’t matter.  “Jake,” she said.
“How long have you know him?”
“He’s part of the study group we started from church this year.”
“And what is he studying?”
“Mom, you don’t have to grill me.  He’s just a friend.  We’re just having lunch.  Please don’t treat him like a date when he gets here.”
“When who gets here?”  Annie’s dad, Cliff, had walked into the room while she was talking.
Diana smiled up at her husband.  “A boy from school is coming to take Annie out to lunch.”
“Really?”  Cliff pulled himself up straight as he folded his arms across his chest.  “Do I know this boy?”
“You can meet him when he gets here,” Annie said, “as long as you don’t act like that.”
He breathed in to puff up his chest.  “Like what?  I need to be sure this boy knows how to treat my baby.”
“I’m not a baby.  He’s a nice guy.  And it’s not a date.”
Diana reached up and patted her husband’s arm.  “It does sound as though she’s known him for a while.”
Annie’s dad continued his intimidating posture.  She thought he might only be doing it to tease her, but she wasn’t positive.  Before she could decide which approach to use to get him to cooperate, another person entered the room, her 13-year-old brother William.
“Hey,” he said.  “A car just pulled into the driveway.”
“Annie is expecting a friend to take her to lunch,” Diana explained.
“Can I come!?”
His mom chuckled.  “I don’t think Annie wants you tagging along on her date.”
“It’s not a date,” Annie hissed.  And it certainly wouldn’t be if she brought her little brother.  “Sure, William, you can come.”
“Cool,” he said.  “I got to find my shoes.”
The doorbell rang as he ran up the stairs.
“I’ll get it,” Annie said, before anyone else could make a move.  Her eyes pleaded with her dad to relax as she walked away.  He frowned a bit deeper.
The first thing she noticed when she opened the door was that Jake was holding a bunch of small colorful flowers.
“Hi,” he said.  He seemed to follow her eyes and lowered the bouquet to make his other had more prominent.  It was holding a package of M&Ms.  “These are for you.”  He handed her the M&Ms, which she knew he got because he’d seen her snacking on them at the study group.
“Thanks,” she said.
“You didn’t sound excited about flowers, but I brought some because you said it was your mom’s birthday.”  He lowered his voice to a whisper.  “Does she like flowers?”
Annie nodded.  It wasn’t going to do him any good to ingratiate himself with her parents.  But her mom did like flowers.  “Come on in.”  She motioned Jake to follow her to the living room.  She made very quick introductions before she said, “And he brought birthday flowers for mom.”
“Oh, how nice.”  Diana got up to take the flowers.  Michael woke up as she pulled herself out from under him.
Cliff had refolded his arms after he shook Jake’s hand.  He was silently staring at him.
“Dad,” Annie said, “can you please tone it down?  I’m sure Jake would answer a few questions if you like and that would be more productive than you trying to look scary.”
Cliff slowly cracked a smile as he lowered his arms.  “I suppose I don’t need to be intimidating since you’re bringing a chaperone.”
Jake looked at Annie for clarification.
“My brother wanted to come with us,” she said, “and I told him that was okay.  I hope you don’t mind.”
“No.  No, that’s fine.”  Jake looked at Michael.  “You’re coming to lunch with us?”
Michael grinned as he said, “I’m hungry.”
He was still rising from the couch as William bounded into the room and flung open a hall closet to grab his coat.
Jake glanced between them and seemed to realize his mistake.
Annie smiled as his expression seemed to waver between overwhelmed and entertained.  “I guess we’re all going,” she said.  “Don’t worry, I’ll pay for the boys.”
“No, I can—”
Jake was cut off by Annie’s mom.  “Michael and William can stay home.”
“But Annie said I could go,” William protested.
“I think taking both boys is a great idea,” Cliff said.
Diana shot him a disapproving look.
“So do I.”  Jake nodded as he caught up with the situation.  “I’d like to know Annie better, and I’m sure her brothers have lots of good stories.”
“Oh, I can tell you about the time Annie dropped the lasagna on the door of the oven,” William said.  “Face down.”
Annie had already grabbed her coat and Michael’s.  She was helping Michael into his.  An afternoon of listening to William list her mistakes didn’t exactly sound fun.  But it probably wasn’t what Jake had in mind either.  Surely this would give him the hint to back off.
Diana handed Annie a small envelope.  “You’ll need his noon pills if you’re sure you want to take him.”
Jake and William were halfway out the front door, chatting like old friends.  Annie put on her own coat and pushed Michael’s meds securely to the bottom of her pocket.  Her mom was looking at her with great sympathy.  Her dad was nodding approvingly at the turn of events.  Annie couldn’t decide which of them was being more annoying.  She put on a big smile and waved at both of them.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Study Group - Part 3

Annie and Mallory were the last to show up for the next study group meeting.  It was Thursday.  Annie had a paper due on Friday.  She needed ten pages and had written four.  Her mind was solely on homework as they approached.
Then Mallory rushed the last few steps to grab a seat and leave the only empty seat right between Jake and Carlos.  Annie pulled out the chair and tried to sit herself in the exact center of the table.  Mallory said she’d been too conspicuous in her attention to Carlos so she was careful not to lean that direction.  And she didn’t want to give Jake any false encouragement so she avoided his side, too.
Annie’s grandmother was a stickler for proper posture and would have loved the straight spine she maintained while she pulled her laptop from her bag.
“Getting right to work today?” Jake asked.
Annie nodded while she tried to figure out where she’d saved her outline.  She’d only made an outline because she had to turn it in separately, but now that she was facing a short deadline she was willing to see if it would help.
“Someone’s been slacking this week.”  Mallory’s tone was gentle teasing.  “She’s been watching too much TV with me.”
“You shouldn’t have been tempting me,” Annie said.
Jake addressed Mallory.  “Doesn’t that mean you’ve been watching too much TV, too?”
“Yes,” Mallory admitted, “but I’m not the one who’s paying for it with six pages in one night.”
“Six pages?” Hannah looked sympathetic.
“Two words,” Carlos said.  “Big font.”
“Let us know if you want any help.”  Jake pushed his books a little to the side to show willingness to delay his own work.  “But I’m sure you can do it.”
Annie smiled at the support around her.  “Thanks, everyone.  I think I just need to concentrate.”
Whether the others were trying not to disturb her or just busy themselves, Annie didn’t know.  The mood stayed sober and quieter than usual either way.  She was able to listen to some occasional chitchat without letting it interrupt.
Carlos was the first to leave.  Annie acknowledged his departure with a wave and little disappointment.  She’d become too engrossed in her homework to care who was sitting on either side of her.
She’d written a few more paragraphs when Hannah said, “It’s getting late.  How’s the paper coming, Annie?”
“I’m halfway through page nine.  I think I can make it.”  Annie looked up as she answered and saw that Mallory had her coat on as well.
“How about you pack up and finish at the dorm?” Mallory asked.
“Um…”  Annie was trying to hang on to the thought she wanted to work into the paper next.  “I’m making good progress.  I think I’ll be faster if I stay put.”
“Do you mind if I tag along with these guys, or do you want me to stay until you’re done?”  Mallory’s eyes went from Hannah and Aaron – who were standing with bags over their shoulders already – to Jake – who gave her a quick nod – before they landed on Annie for an answer.
Annie paused to register the situation.  She was aware that the others were arranging to have Jake walk her to her dorm.  They might have been taking advantage of the fact that he was a nice guy.  They might also have been conspiring to leave the two of them alone.  The only thing that mattered to Annie at the moment was getting her work done.  “Go ahead,” she said to Mallory.  “I don’t think I’ll be too much longer.”
There were a few encouraging looks mixed in with the waves and Annie said goodnight while trying to think about how she could stretch a simple idea into at least two sentences.  Then she went back to typing.  Her keys seemed to click louder with only two people at the table.
Eventually, Annie’s concluding paragraph spilled a line and a half onto page eleven.  It seemed very awkward.  She stared at it for a few moments.  The document was forcing a line onto that page to keep four words from being stranded.  Maybe she could find a few words to delete to end at exactly ten pages.
Then she noticed that her battery was almost dead and the library was fifteen minutes from closing.  The paper stopped feeling awkward and just felt done.  She closed the laptop.
“All done?” Jake asked.
“Yes, I’m done.”  Annie answered quickly, hoping he hadn’t noticed he’d startled her.
“Good.  You were looking relieved about something.  I was afraid I’d missed some other problem.”
“Looking relieved made you think there was a problem?”
“No.  That there was a problem.  And I missed my chance to help.”  He smiled and widened his eyes expectantly, trying to get a laugh at what was supposed to be a joke.
Somehow, the fact that it wasn’t funny made her laugh.  It might have had something to do with the way Jake was looking at her as though she could go ahead and laugh at him for making a terrible joke.
“Ready to go?” he asked.  “Or do you have other work?”
Annie didn’t have any more work.  She probably couldn’t have gotten anything done before the library closed anyway.  His manner stopped her from answering immediately though.  There was no impatience.  The only thing sitting in front of him was a closed book.  His dorm was in the opposite direction as hers.  Yet he asked if she had anything else to get done as though he wasn’t bored and going out of his way to help her.  He was exactly the kind of guy she should be looking for.
But when she looked at him… nothing.  He had light brown hair that wasn’t curly so much as just fluffy.  His ears stuck out, and he was attempting a goatee that wasn’t improving anything.  He reminded her more of Mr. Tumnus the Fawn than any dashing hero. 
“Annie?” Jake’s forehead crinkled to reinforce the question in the air.
“Oh.”  She began to put her things into her bag.  “Yeah, um, let me just get everything together.”  She buttoned up her coat and wrapped a scarf around her neck.  There were gloves in her pockets, which she took out and wiggled her fingers into as they walked out of the library.  Despite her preparations, the cold night air stung her face and made her eyes squint against it.
“I think I’m about ready for spring,” Jake said.
“Me, too.”  She adjusted the strap on her bag as she hugged herself for warmth.
“Is that bag heavy?” Jake held out a hand.  “Can I carry it for you?”
“You want to carry my bag?  What year is this?”
Jake pulled his hand back as though she’d slapped it.  “I guess it’s the year I stop offering to carry your bag.”
Annie chuckled only partly because it was a funny response.  Mostly she was relieved that he kept the mood light when he could have gotten annoyed.  She regretted snapping at the offer.  Helping someone was never outdated.  It was only because that specific idea hinted at an old fashioned courtship that she got defensive.  She didn’t want to give Jake the impression that anything had changed.  He’d asked her out just before Christmas break, suggested they get together while school was closed.  She told him they could see each other as friends.  Though he’d said that was okay with him, he hadn’t sounded at all convincing.  Annie had avoided making any specific plans.  But that didn’t mean they couldn’t be nice to each other.  “Sorry,” she said.  “I meant to say no, thank you.”
Jake smiled with some sadness.  It seemed he understood her reaction.  He apparently figured he had nothing to lose because he said, “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to spend some time with me this weekend.  Just something casual.  Maybe Saturday?”
“I’m actually going home this weekend.”  Annie was grateful to have a true excuse, even if it was an excuse.  “It’s my mom’s birthday.”
“Fremont’s not that far,” Jake said.  “I can drive over there to get you if you have a break in the family time.”
“If you showed up at my parents’ house, you’d have to come in and meet everyone and let them interrogate you and stuff.”
Annie stopped laughing.  The simple and very quick response caught her off guard.  She’d been ready to joke about how awful that would be for him.  But he was willing to face her parents as if he was a date when he wasn’t a date?
“I could treat you to lunch or dinner on Saturday.”  Jake pressed ahead while she was mentally stumbling.  “Would one of those work?”
She thought lunch sounded less romantic and that’s what she’d say if Mallory was there telling her to give him a chance.  Then she heard herself say, “Lunch,” when Mallory wasn’t there.
Jake was there.  He looked surprised but extremely happy.  “Great,” he said.  “Great.”  Then he started telling her a story about something that happened in one of his classes. 
Annie enjoyed the story.  She let it distract her from the cold walk.  But in the back of her mind, lunch on Saturday was distracting her as well.  She wasn’t entirely sure how or why she’d agreed to something that was not a good idea.

The Study Group - Part 4 will be posted soon. Thanks for reading. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Study Group - Part 2

This is, as the title suggests, the second installment of this short story. Go to my last post to read from the beginning.

The campus was mostly quiet as Annie and Mallory walked back to their dorm.  Indistinguishable voices came from somewhere in the distance, traveling far on the night air.  The sidewalk was well lit, but the cold hurried them along with little appreciation for light with no heat.
“Man, that study group is getting awkward,” Mallory said.
“You mean Hannah and Aaron making moony eyes at each other?”
“Sometimes they’re a little too cute.  But I’m talking about your little triangle.”
“My what!?”
Mallory laughed.  “Oh, my goodness, this is you.”  She put on a high squeaky voice.  “What are you working on, Carlos?  Can I sit on your lap for a better look?”
“I do not sound like that.”  Annie tried to act innocent, but she was cringing on the inside.  She had to admit she’d been getting pretty obvious with her attention to Carlos.  She wanted him to notice but not anyone else.
“Meanwhile, Jake’s all… Look at me, Annie! Look at me!  Why don’t you just go out with Jake?” Mallory asked.
“Why?  So you can date Carlos?”  A bit of jealousy flared up.  Not about Carlos specifically but simply because Mallory was very pretty, with long legs and a charming southern accent.  Annie wouldn’t want to compete with her for any guy.  Sometimes she had to remind herself that standing next to Mallory wasn’t a competition. 
“Relax,” Mallory said.  “I’m not interested in Carlos.  Why do you like him so much?”
“Are you kidding?  He’s like tall, dark and handsome personified.  If, um, that didn’t already…”  Mallory was beginning to chuckle at the fumbling description.  “Come on,” Annie said, “you know what I mean.  It’s too cold to be eloquent.”
Both girls quickened their steps to acknowledge that the weather was pretty typical for February in Ohio. 
“Fine,” Mallory said.  “You like the way Carlos looks.  But what do you like about him.”
“Don’t make me sound shallow.  There’s nothing wrong with noticing that a guy is good-looking.  You make it sound like that’s the only reason I like him.”
“You haven’t said any other reasons,” Mallory pointed out, a little too smugly for such a good friend.
Annie tried to think of how to erase the smugness.  “I like his sense of humor.”
“Cliché.”  Mallory dismissed the reason.  “And Jake is funnier.”
“Carlos takes school seriously.  I admire that.”
“No, he doesn’t.”  Mallory didn’t sound smug anymore.  Now she was looking at Annie as though she was delusional, which was not better.
“What do you mean?” Annie asked.  “He keeps a record of all his scores for all his classes to monitor his grades.”
“That’s because he needs to keep a C average to keep his scholarship, and he doesn’t want to accidentally do more work than necessary.”
“Yeah.  He’s said it more than once.  I think you must have been too busy smelling him to use your ears.”
 Annie’s face burned despite the cold wind.  The others could tell when she was enjoying the scent?
“Don’t worry,” Mallory said.  “I think it’s only obvious to me because you told me.  But… I have to say that Jake seems to put forth good effort out of respect for his teachers and the money his parents are spending.”
“Why do you keep bringing up Jake?  Do you have a thing for him?”  She knew it was a stupid question before Mallory laughed.  She wouldn’t be trying so hard to convince Annie of his merits if she wanted him for herself.
“I just… I can see you two together.  And clearly Jake can, too.”
“Well, that’s not going to happen.”  Annie didn’t want to talk about Jake.  She’d rather talk about Carlos.
“Are you sure?  Because he’s not giving up.”
“What makes you say that?”
Mallory laughed with disbelief as she pulled open the outer door to their dorm and held it for Annie.
Annie walked through.  “Thanks.  Now why are you laughing at me?”
“Either you’re blind or you’re even more distracted by Carlos than I thought.  You didn’t notice Jake offering to help you with non-existent homework?  And did you really think he wanted all three of us to join him for a snack?”
“Hmm…”  Annie frowned as she began to climb the stairs.  Their room was on the third floor.
“Why won’t you go out with Jake anyway?”
 “I don’t know.  I guess… there’s just no spark there.  Wouldn’t I be leading him on if I went on a date with someone I’m not interested in like that?  He’s more of a friend.”
“One date isn’t leading him on,” Mallory said earnestly.  “It’s giving him a chance.”
“I wish Carlos would give me a chance.”
“Then you know what you have to do.”
“I do?”  Annie sent her friend a questioning look as she began to unbutton her coat.  Climbing stairs was an efficient way to warm up.
“I really don’t know if you have a shot with Carlos, but I don’t think you can find out until you go out with Jake.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.  Why would going out with one guy give me a chance with another guy?”
“Well…”  Mallory’s steps slowed as her mind picked up the pace.  “It’s not like I’ve sat down and had a conference with the guys so maybe I’m way off… but I think Carlos feels like, sort of like Jake saw you first.  Or a less childish way of saying it.  I think he’s not going to make a move if he wants to, until Jake backs off.  So you need to prove to Jake that there’s no spark to get him to do that.”
“I’m not going out with him,” Annie said.  “I’ll just have to tell him to back off.”

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Study Group - Part 1

When I tried to decide what to write this month, I had a thought.  Two thoughts actually.  It was the second one that I found interesting.  The first thought was… I bet this would be easier if I could post fiction.  The second thought was… Who says I can’t?

I decided to pluck a couple of characters from my next book and give them their own short story to post here.  This story takes place about 11 years before They See a Family.  If all goes according to plan, the book will be released in January, and I’ll post the end of The Study Group shortly before that.


            “What are you working on today?” Annie asked.  She leaned closer, not so much to see but to smell.  Carlos smelled awesome.  She wanted to ask him what it was so she could get a bottle to use as air freshener for her dorm.  She had to wait though.  Why do you always smell so awesome seemed more like a second date question and they hadn’t even been out once yet, much to Annie’s disappointment.
            “Statistics,” he said.
            “Oh.”  Her nose wrinkled, despite the pleasant scent.
            “Not a fan of statistics?”
            “Let’s just say I’m glad I only needed one semester.”
            “I could help you with statistics.”  Jake leaned across the table with an earnest expression.
Annie sat back.  “I took that last semester,” she reminded him.
He nodded.  “I remember.”  His eyes stayed wide as though he was still offering.
“So I don’t need help anymore.”
“I think this semester seems to be going better for everyone,” Hannah observed as she looked around the group.  There were six of them at the table, all sophomores.  They went to the same church and formed a study group at the beginning of the school year.  Since they were mostly taking different classes, they usually just sat together while they worked on different homework.  Sometimes they did help each other study, and sometimes they talked so much that nobody got any work done.  Hannah’s eyes lingered on Aaron longer than anyone else.  They’d recently started dating.
“Yeah,” Annie said, “I know Mallory’s as glad to be through that tough English class as I am to be done with statistics.  That class was a huge disappointment.”
Mallory was on Annie’s other side.  “You actually thought it might be interesting?” she asked.
“Sort of.  I mean, when I think statistics, I think of a bunch of cool facts.  Like this percentage of people use their right hand even though they’re left-handed and one out of every so many cows has twins.  But the class was like memorize this formula.  Now memorize this formula.  You need to know all six of these formulas for the test.”
Everyone at the table laughed at her impression of the class until Carlos shushed them.  “Quiet, guys,” he said.  “I’m trying to memorize a formula here.”
Then they laughed harder.
Annie leaned over his paper again.  “That does look vaguely familiar.”
“You’re interested in left-handed people?”  Jake twirled his pencil while he talked, in his left hand.  Annie hadn’t noticed he was left-handed before.  She knew Carlos and Hannah both were.  The fact that half the people at the table were left-handed was probably statistically significant in some way and far more interesting than the whole semester of formulas had been.
Mallory poked her in the back.  “Your idea of what constitutes a cool fact is a bit of a stretch.”
Annie rolled her eyes at herself.  “Well, I didn’t have time to look anything up.”
“Is there such a thing as a cool fact?”  Hannah hitched her eyebrows together skeptically.
“Sure,” Jake said.  “There are whole books of weird but true things.”
“Weird, not cool,” Hannah said.
“Weird can be cool.”  Carlos tipped his head as though giving the matter serious thought, probably more serious than it deserved.
Annie found this serious nature attractive.  It wasn’t as though he went around brooding or anything.  He just seemed more mature than a lot of the young men at school who thought bodily functions were necessary for comedy.  “I agree,” she said.  “At least sometimes.  But I was talking about statistical facts, not which animals can turn their tongues upside-down.”
“But what about the percentage of animals who can turn their tongues upside-down?”
Carlos smiled and said, “Good one, Jake.  I bet that’s a small number.”
Carlos had a nice smile and a nice serious face and Annie could not inhale often enough whatever that great scent was.  Why were they talking about tongues?
“Ow!”  Annie turned around as she felt another jab in her ribs.
Mallory handed her a notebook.  “Here.  Quiz me on those names again.”
“Okay.”  She took the notes and began to go down the list.  It was difficult not to laugh whenever Mallory struggled for an answer.  She’d open and close her mouth while she twirled red curls around her fingers.  It almost looked as though she was treating herself like her own ventriloquist’s dummy.  They were working through the notes a second time when Hannah snapped a textbook closed.
“Wow,” she said, “I can’t believe how late it’s gotten.”  She stuffed her book into a bag.
“You’re always the first one to turn into a pumpkin,” Mallory teased.
“Sorry, guys.  I’ve never been a night owl.”  Hannah had stood and was putting on her coat.
Aaron was gathering his things as well.  “I’ll walk you back.”
Hannah paused long enough to turn gooey as she thanked him.  The others waved as the two of them walked away from the table holding hands.
“How about those of us who are night owls head over to the Sundial for a late night snack?” Jake suggested.  “I’m thinking French fries.”
“Sorry, man.”  Carlos was the first to answer.  “I gotta stay put.  This is due tomorrow.”
“Anyone else?”  Jake’s eyes landed hopefully on Annie with little flickers over to Mallory.
“Count me out,” Mallory said.  She was collecting her books and papers.  “Even though I gave Hannah a hard time, I should get to bed, too.”
Annie hurriedly stuffed everything she brought into her bag to keep up with Mallory.  “It is probably time to call it a night.”  She grabbed her coat and put it on as she and Mallory left the library together.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A Real Setting, an Imaginary Problem

I think the biggest challenge with the book I’m working on now has been location. Location, location, location.

My last two series, Stories From Hartford and Coffee and Donuts, were set in fictional towns. I wanted to be able to imagine the places any way I liked. I even went so far as to have a character in one of the books refuse to name her previous hometown because I didn’t want to suggest proximity to any real place.

For this next book, I decided to plant my characters in northern Ohio near where I grew up. Then I began to question that decision. How specific should I be? Did I want them to live in a real town? On a real street? Should they visit stores or parks that really exist? Did I want to let nostalgia paint the area as it was when it was my home? Or did I want the changes I’ve seen in more recent visits to make the setting up-to-date? If I used a real location, would that invite the assumption that some elements were inspired by real people or events as well? Was I opening myself up to criticism if I took any creative license or had a memory lapse?

These were some of the questions I had before I even started writing the book. Once I dove into the first draft, the questions began to fade away. Working in real places could have sounded like random name-dropping because the location didn’t come up all that much. When one character mentioned that the weather was nice enough to take the kids outside to play, no one said, “That’s right. The weather here in Ohio can be a bit unpredictable so we’re lucky to have this warm day in April.” No one expounded on the fact that the yard was good and flat because of the glaciers either. And when that same character came home from work, he never said, “Guess what? I drove past Lake Erie again today.”

My characters aren’t visiting landmarks on a regular basis. Or at all. They aren’t tourists. They don’t spend any time listing the positive and negative qualities of where they live. No one sits at a window gazing out while describing all the beautiful cornfields or Sears Catalog homes. They simply live there.

I got what I wanted in the end, which was to remember a familiar setting while I wrote. Location turned out to be a challenge only because I’m kind of neurotic. Fortunately, that was familiar, too.