Chapter 1: Conversation by Starlight

Sam Simpson sat at LaSalle's, an open-air ice cream parlour on the east side of Beverly Hills. She sat, playing absent-mindedly with the straw in her Coke. Every now and again, she glanced impatiently at her watch. Joey Rayburne, the Beverly High baseball quarterback she had a crush on, had agreed to meet with her for a date at seven o'clock, and it was now half past. She sighed, and chose to content herself by thinking of Joey's sapphire blue eyes and brilliant smile. She finished up another Coke and ordered another. No doubt Joey had a very good reason for his tardiness.

Another ten minutes passed by. "Not being punctual, I can understand. But this? Come on…" Sam thought to herself. This wasn't a good sign.

The next moment her mobile phone began to chirp. She flicked open the device and answered. "Hello?"

"Hi Sam," greeted a husky male voice.

"Hi Joey. Where the heck are you? You were due forty minutes ago!"

"Uh, yeah. I'm sorry, Sam. I can't make it."

Sam frowned. "Why not? Come on, Joey, you can't let me down." she said plantatively.

"No deal, I'm afraid. My car, like, totally conked out on me. That really sucks, you know?"

"Yeah, that's bad luck – wait, Joey, you don't own a car!" Sam's mind raced. "That voice in the background. Y-You're with another girl!" Sam had heard the tones of a female on the other end close by. And it hadn't sounded like the girl was asking him for the time.

"Hey, it's not what it seems, uh, OK?"

"How dare you," hissed Sam, rage twisting her voice. "I wasn't born yesterday, Joey Rayburne!" She hit the red button and thrust the phone with venom back into her handbag. She was immobilized for a moment, as images of her beating the tar out of Joey whirled before her eyes. They made her feel no better. The anger then passed, to be replaced by sadness and dejection. She had really liked Joey, she really had. She let a long breath out and let her head sink into her arms.

Suddenly her table bucked and her Coke spilled. The sticky beverage sloshed over her jeans. The culprit, an inebriated-looking teenager, scrambled away. This was the trigger. The next second Sam had burst into tears. It wasn't fair…it just wasn't…

"Sam?"

The young woman responded to the sound of the friendly voice. Standing by the table there, concern writ large on his face, was Arnold.

"What's wrong, Sam? I've, er, never seen you cry before," he proffered, struggling to pick his words carefully. Sam didn't answer straight away, instead him a puppy dog look through streaming eyes. "If you'd rather be alone, I'll – "

"No, I'm sorry, Arnold, don't go away." She was pleased to see him. If it couldn't be Alex or Clover, or her mom, then it may as well be Arnold. "I could use a friendly face right now. Why don't you sit down?"

"Oh, thanks. Here. Take this." He said, producing a handkerchief from his trouser pocket and offering it to Sam. A passing waiter provided some paper towels to clear up the spilled drink.

"Thanks, Arnold." She wiped the tears away and blew her nose, already starting to feel better.

"Something must've really upset you," said Arnold. "I mean, it's probably none of my business…"

Sam shook her head. "It's okay." It wouldn't hurt at all to tell Arnold. "This lowlife stood me up. Worse than that. He called me and I found out he was with some other girl."

"That's…very bad." Arnold replied. "How could he do that? To you, of all people?" He bit his tongue at that last bit.

"I guess it happens. Doesn't make it all that easier to swallow."

"I know." Arnold took a sip of his 7-Up. "I was stood up once. A couple of weeks ago."

Sam blinked at the young scientist. "You were on a date? I mean, uh…"

"It's okay. I guess it's sort of hard for you to imagine me on a date, heh." He took another gulp of his drink . "This girl –this really pretty girl from the twelfth grade – asked me out. You can imagine how flattered I was."

"And she stood you up?"

Arnold paused for a second before replying. "It was all a prank. All she wanted to do was have a bit of fun at the expense of the geekbait. Her and her boyfriend had a good laugh at me, all dressed up to the nines for a date that never was."

"That was just cruel," Sam said.

"Nah. It's nothing compared to what happened to you."

"Hmm."

"Pranksters are a dime a dozen, I mean, but it takes a mean, mean person to do what that…guy did."

There was a brief silence. Then Sam asked, "So, are you meeting anyone here?"

"Huh? Oh, no. I often come here. You know the owner, Ray LaSalle? He's a family friend. He studied with my Dad at Stanford. He lets me have free sundaes sometimes, so I come to work here. He gives me help when I need it too." Arnold smiled. "It's great."

"Interesting."

"Yeah, it's funny. Ray could have had a great career as a scientist, but he found the pressure too much. So he gave it up to work with his first love, ice cream." Off Sam's look of miscomprehension, he added, "Ray always was a bit of an eccentric. Maybe that's why he and my Dad got on so well." Arnold gave a chuckle.

Sam chuckled with him. "Yeah. I sometimes wish I had weird friends like that." She looked at Arnold. "So your Dad's a scientist as well?"

"That's right. All the men in my family have been. My Dad always pushes me to do my best in sciences. Sometimes I get the idea he thinks it's wrong for a Jackson to be anything other than a scientist." He played with his straw as he said this.

Sam flicked back her hair. "There are loads of scientists in my family tree too. Actually, my great-great-great grandfather was the King of Norway's court science scholar."

"Really?"

"Really," Sam replied. "My Dad always said that his family originally came to America to escape the King after he nearly blew him up in an explosion. I'm not sure whether that's true, though. I'd thought I'd tell you my little claim to fame."

"It's neat." Arnold relaxed in his chair, not sure of what to say next. The two took in the night around them. It was a clear evening, the twinkling stars out in force, an astronomer's feast. The Californian heat had slacked off and Sam felt the resultant coolness nice and fresh on her exposed arms. And the silvery moon cast its welcome glow over the scene. As Sam regarded Arnold, she was taken in by the sight of the moonbeam as it reflected in Arnold's hazel eyes.

Sam had never really thought of Arnold as good-looking before; his nerdy persona was always been too much at the fore so as to block that view. But seeing him here, Arnold was practically…handsome.

No…he was handsome. Not in the same way as Sam and the girls' boyfriends usually were, the arresting, hunky, movie star sort of way, but in more of a soft, picture-frame kind. The kind of face a mother would want her ideal son to have. It was only accented by his casual clothes, a red open-neck T-shirt and black jeans. It suited him much better than those awful tank-tops he was commonly associated with. His reflective smile highlighted the angular, slight features of his youthful features. Sam was so preoccupied; she didn't notice a largish man approach the table.

"Hiya, Arnold!" Sam turned to see a jolly-looking sort of man in an apron standing there. Ray LaSalle. "What'll it be today, son?" His eyes rested on Sam.

"Oh, good evening, Ray. I'll have the Yukon Crunch Sundae tonight, I think." He paused before adding, "Oh, and this is Sam. Sam, this is Ray LaSalle."

"Hi. Pleased to meet you." Sam smiled at him.

"Likewise, young lady. Sam, that's short for Samantha, right?"

"Yep"

"Say," Ray's eyes twinkled. "Maybe it'd be more fitting if I got you two something to share, eh?"

"Sorry?" inquired Sam.

"Y'know, I have an eye for young romance. I thought…"

Arnold blushed. "Oh, no, no, we – uh, uh…."

Sam stepped in. "No, we're not on a date or anything."

"Ha! Could've fooled me." Ray didn't look much put out by his error. "Well, bye. Nice meeting you, Sam." He beat a hasty retreat. Arnold and Sam looked a little embarrassed.

"You'll have to excuse Ray, Sam. He's a master of the classic faux pas." explained Arnold. "It's more funny than anything, though."

Sam flicked back her hair again and stirred the ice in her drink. "Hilarious. He actually thought we were on a date." She chuckled.

"Well, we were once. Remember?" prodded Arnold, remembering the date Sam and he had been on the previous year, after Arnold had revealed himself to be 'A.J.', Sam's secret admirer.

Sam gave a look of recognition. "Yeah, I remember." There was silence for a few seconds.

"You didn't enjoy it, did you? Sorry I brought it up." spoke Arnold wistfully.

"It's alright. Actually, you were very charming, I thought."

"Oh, thanks. I…thanks." Arnold fiddled anxiously with one of his shirt buttons, a little taken aback by the endorsement.

"Don't mention it. It was sweet, the message you wrote and everything. I appreciated it, though it wasn't what I'd hoped for." Off Arnold's 'c'est la vie' gesture, she said, "But enough about that. Is there anyone special you have your eye on?"

"Well, um…" He looked a little uncomfortable. "No. Not at the moment. I-I'm concentrating on my studies at the moment."

"Whatever floats your boat."

Arnold then fixed his attention on the stars. Half a minute passed. Sam continued to look at him while sucking lazily on her straw. A year ago, she never would have imagined that she'd be having such a normal conversation with Arnold. But here she was, talking shop with him, and enjoying it. She had almost completely forgotten about Joey's betrayal – almost, of course – and was feeling much better. Thanks to Arnold.

"It's funny," Arnold then said, softly and gently so that Sam barely heard him.

"What's funny," she asked.

"It's funny that when we look at the stars, we're seeing them as they were five years ago. Speed of light, and all that." His voice was distant and thoughtful.

"It is."

"It's almost like…it's almost like we could reach out towards the stars, and reach out into the past." He spoke with a sort of geeky naïvety that touched Sam.

"You might say that." Sam smiled and leant forward. "Look, Arnold, I just want to say, you've made me feel much better tonight. You know, talking to you and everything." She blinked. "Thanks."

Arnold blushed a deeper shade of beetroot than he had earlier. "Thanks, Sam. I'm glad I can help."

"I've got to go now. I've got loads of work to do." It was true. This was their last year of grade school, and it was showing in the amount of work that was piling up. It definitely wasn't an excuse for her to leave. "I was kind of pushing it, coming on a date tonight."

"That's OK. I've enjoyed talking with you as well." Arnold's facial expression accentuated the sentiment.

Sam reached out and gave his hand a quick squeeze. "Bye, Arnold. See you in school tomorrow."

"See ya." Sam picked up her handbag and walked off.

It had turned out to be an interesting evening. She felt a little angry with herself for having burst into tears the way she had, but given the amount of work – both for school and for WOOHP – and the expectations she'd had for her date with Joey, it was understandable.

When she got home she busied herself with her history essay, and then finished off some science homework she had left over from the evening before. She then stretched out in front of the television before deciding she'd be better off going to bed.

She soon dozed off…a certain geek having dominated her thoughts right to the last spark of awareness.

Next chapter: Sam witnesses a confrontation...