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.”