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.