The next morning, I awoke with a smile for the first time since moving to Escanaba. I was fairly certain that my friendship with Lauren, Bradley, and Brady had been cemented during the baseball game yesterday. In a way, it had felt like the four of us had always played ball together; almost like I'd grown up with them. It was the first time I began to understand the sense of belonging that my nomadic upbringing had denied me. I'd always enjoyed moving to the next place, but I was pretty happy to know I'd be here almost a whole year before I went off to college. My Aunt Iris's house didn't feel like home, but maybe Escanaba itself could.
I hummed a bit to myself while I got ready. I considered toning my clothing down to jeans and a shirt to blend in a bit more, but, when I looked at the clothes lying on the bed, I just couldn't make myself put them on. They would be fine for after school, like yesterday, but, I decided I liked looking really nice for school.
This new-found vanity was sort of a shock to me; the only reason I'd started dressing up was to fit in back in San Diego, where even the slacker kids looked like they stepped out of a fashion magazine. Before then, I'd never really paid special attention to my appearance; I usually pulled my hair into a ponytail, and wore a lot of jeans and t-shirt combinations.
Today, I dug out of pair of once-black jeans that had faded into a dark grey, a white tank top, and a black tie-back vest. I slid a pair of heeled black loafers onto my feet, and went to the bathroom vanity to contemplate my hair. I opted to pull it up into a messy bun, with little tendrils of color escaping from it to frame my face. As always, that lock of hair over my right eye fell loose and staked its territory. A bit of eyeliner and lip gloss went in the proper spots, and I went back into my room to find some accessories that would keep the clothes I wore fun and maybe a little flirty. What I needed, I decided was some color.
Because of my tendency to over organize, a gift from the Major, I had several jewelry boxes lined up across my dresser; one for each type of jewelry I owned. I selected a long strand of brilliantly colored glass beads that I could wear wrapped twice around my neck, an armload of bangle bracelets, my watch, which I wore religiously, and some long dangly earrings. On my right ring finger I wore a silver ring set with a geometric piece of highly polished red jasper, on my left middle finger I wore a large piece of lapis lazuli, its color the same as the blue that sits atop the reds and golds of a clear sunset.
On each thumb, I wore a thick silver ring, they were both highly polished, and the band was rounded. Each bore the legend, in elegant black engraving, "This too shall pass." My parents had given them to each other during a rocky period early in their marriage as sort of encouragement to one another. I kept the rings when I buried my parents, and was never without them. I'd had to fit the major's ring with a spacer, so that it fit, but even when I didn't wear them on my hands, I wore them on a chain around my neck.
So sunny was my mood after I dressed, that I skipped down the stairs and decided to make use of the Tuscan dream kitchen that had been going to waste since its installation. An omelet sounded heavenly after three weeks of dry cereal, and I hoped I'd be able to find the ingredients I needed in the fridge.
In only a few minutes, the smell of cooking eggs, vegetables, ham, and cheese filled the room, and remembering that Ian usually arrived while I was eating in the mornings, I decided to go out on a limb and make one for him, as well.
I heard Ian before he careened into the driveway on two wheels. The distinctive sound of his MG's motor combined with the always loud music was hard to miss, and I'd come to wonder what kind of dirt my aunt had on the neighbors that they didn't call in a noise complaint every day when he came to work.
"Wow. Smells good in here!" Ian greeted me, "I'm glad you aren't still fasting."
"I was never fasting, and I made one for you, too." I said pushing the plate toward him.
"Dry cereal out of the box for breakfast and celery and carrot sticks for dinner for three weeks is practically the same thing," he laughed as he grabbed a fork and climbed onto a stool, "I'm not complaining, because this tastes great, but why the change of heart?"
I was standing on the other side of the bar from him, eating my own omelet and I leaned onto my elbows while I thought it over before I replied, "I had a good day yesterday."
"You mean at school? I never had high school days good enough to make me want to cook breakfast." I could tell he was teasing, but he was also looking for more information.
"Not school," I said rolling my eyes, "I found some friends and their families after school and we played baseball and had a cookout."
"And you're trying to even out your karma by cooking for somebody else?"
"No, dork, I just feel like even if I'm not really welcome here, at least maybe I can make the town feel like home."
"Stella, you shouldn't assume that your aunt doesn't want you here. She's old and sick, and she just wants to sit in her room and wait to die."
"Ian, she wasn't even here until last week! She's never met me, let alone spoken to me," I protested, "I am definitely not welcome here."
"Stella, you're always welcome here," he touched my hand and gave me that intense look of his for just a moment before he took his empty plate to the dishwasher, "Tell you what, if you don't find another pick up game tonight, we'll go get a pizza. My treat. I know a great little hole in the wall."
"You don't have to feel sorry for me Ian," I protested. He laughed, "I feel less sorry for you than I probably should. You cooked for me this morning, so it's my turn tonight, but I'm a lot better at finding veins than cooking."
"OK, then," I smiled, "If I don't find a pick-up game, I'll go."
He paused thoughtfully for a moment, "If you do find one, you could always bring your friends and eat after."
"I'll think about it," I promised, "But I have to go right now, or I'm going to be late."
"Stella, class doesn't start for thirty minutes. You're going to be on time."
"If you're early you're on time. If you're on time, you're late." The saying, one of the major's favorites, was an automatic response, drilled in over years of conditioning.
Ian picked up his bag and headed further into the house at the same time I picked up mine and headed out.
"You know, Stella, you are seriously messed up." He called over his shoulder.
For some reason, that made my day even better.
At school, I parked and headed into the building. Today, I could feel the first stirrings of autumn in the air, and it reminded me that I would have to go shopping soon for a coat and winter wear, of which I had absolutely nothing. I had my old army coat, which was great for after school, but it was definitely not something I'd want to wear all the time.
As luck would have it, I spotted Otis almost as soon as I walked through the doors. He had his back turned my way, so I called him, just as the doors swung shut behind me. He stiffened and seemed about to run, almost like he did yesterday in the cafeteria. I guessed he was a little jumpy, but I was glad at least we were past him wanting to dodge me.
"Stella, hey," he spoke so quickly it all came out as one word, "I have to go, but I'll see you later in class, ok?"
Then, he turned and hurried down the hall. I worried that he would trip over his own feet and fall, he went so fast, but he disappointed me by moving with that rangy, wolf-like grace that he always seemed to exude.
Dejectedly, I made my way to my first class, and sat down in the same seat I'd sat in the day before, next to Lauren.
"Heya, slugger," she greeted me, "Elaine, did I tell you that Stella scored the most entertaining home run anybody's seen in ages?" "A couple times," she replied, without looking up, "but if you want to tell me again about Joe Hamilton staring at her so hard he didn't notice the ball hitting him in the arm, Nick Schroeder running headlong into him when he went for it, and the two of them rolling around on the ground trying to strangle each other I'd love to hear it."
"Ok, so maybe I have told it a few times," Lauren grudgingly admitted, "But it was the funniest thing!"
"I'm sure it was," Elaine looked up from her book, "But, I'm even more sure that the reason you've told me half a dozen times is because of Nick"
Lauren scowled so fiercely that I knew Elaine was right.
"Ooh, who's Nick?" I asked, trying to conjure a face. I hadn't really noticed Lauren acting as though she was interested in any one particular person on the field.
"Nick Schroeder," Elaine actually closed her book, is Lauren's next-door neighbor, who she's had a crush on since she was four.
"Really? What year is he?" I asked, interested.
"He graduated two years ago." Lauren sounded a little miserable about that.
"So, he's a grown up, you practically are," I smirked as I dodged the pen cap Lauren threw at me, "What's the problem?"
"The problem is that Lauren can't unglue her lips to let him know she's interested. She can flirt with any guy except the one she wants, apparently." Elaine opened her book again, but she didn't start reading.
Lauren moaned and put her head down on her arms. I couldn't be sure, but it sounded like she said, 'I suck' into her folded arms.
"No way, we're going to fix this," I said, "Besides, it'll give me something to do besides obsess over what's wrong with Otis."
"I heard you two looked awfully cozy down by the baseball field," Lauren brightened, while Elaine went back to reading, "What happened?"
"I don't know," I chewed my lower lip thoughtfully, "yesterday before lunch he seemed to hate me, then… Well, I though we were going to be friends, but this morning, he couldn't get away from me fast enough. He just said he'd see me in History and ran."
"If it was any other guy, I'd say it was weird," Lauren mused, "But Otis is kind of weird to start with, so maybe that's just normal for him. At least he said he see you later, right?" "Lauren, he can't help but see me later, we have class together." I reminded her.
"Yeah," Elaine chimed in thoughtfully, "But a lot of people have a class with Otis, and he doesn't say anything to them."
"I don't even think he knows the names of more than ten or fifteen kids, Stella, but on your second day, he's talking to you." Lauren agreed.
Disappointingly, class started then, before I could try to pump them for more dirt on Otis and his odd, antisocial behavior. Was it really so unusual for him to talk to somebody during lunch?
And why did I feel a little thrill when she said that?
I thought about it during the Biology instead of paying attention to the lecture, which I was pretty sure I would regret later, and I didn't like the obvious conclusion.
I liked Otis. I'd dated a few guys before, in my other schools, but I'd never really gotten the feeling in the bottom of my stomach when I was with them that just thinking about Otis gave me. Maybe it was unusual for Otis to be as social toward me as he was in just two days, but it was also unusual for me to daydream about a wolf-like boy with golden eyes.
This, I was afraid, would not end well.
The rest of the morning flew by in a blur of obsession. I couldn't wait for English; a part of me hoped that when I saw Otis I would snap out of it and go back to normal, but a part of me enjoyed the feeling.
On the other hand, all of me was terrified that he was going to ignore me completely.
It was strange to me how quickly this had happened; with the guys I'd dated before, I'd never experienced anything that was even a tenth of this. In fact, neither of them had ever meant enough to find their way into my thoughts when I wasn't with them, or even when I was, sometimes.
I'd had fun with them, when we'd gone out, usually with a group of friends, but I'd never thought of it as anything other than something to do on a Friday night. I wouldn't necessarily, I decided, call this fun. I grimaced at myself in the mirror of the ladies room. I couldn't come up with any excuse to still be in the bathroom nearest my history class except the obvious: I was too chicken to go and face the music. As much as I really wanted to see Otis, I wasn't sure enough of his reaction to seeing me to go there straight away.
Wait a minute, I thought to myself. Since when am I afraid of anything? I simultaneously blushed and ground my teeth in frustration. I. Will. Not. Be that girl, I swore to myself.
I strode from the room so quickly it was almost marching and kept going until I made to the door to the history classroom.
The first thing I saw as I looked into the room was Otis. Our eyes met, and the whole world seemed to skip a beat. He broke into a big grin when reality took over again, that almost looked as relieved as I felt. Neither of us had broken eye contact, and he filled so much of my vision that I didn't see the backpack sitting in the aisle between the desks. I lurched forward, and fell into my seat, which effectively ended our eye contact and the confidence that had flooded my chest when Otis smiled.
"Hey," he said, as I took a seat beside him, "Did you have a nice trip?"
"Yeah, I'd take it again." I mumbled, turning firehouse red.
Otis snickered a little, but busied himself with getting his notes ready for class. I suspected he was just giving me a moment to compose myself, which I appreciatively used to take deep breaths while pretending to study the text.
I wanted to talk to him, but my tongue seemed to have swollen to at least twice its usual size, so I settled for shooting him furtive glances out of the corner of my eye, to which, I was glad to note, he seemed oblivious. This, I felt sure, was karma kicking me in the pants for finding amusement in Lauren's situation.
Class passed much the same way; Otis paying attention to the teacher, me paying attention to Otis. I didn't waste time by just gazing at him; even infatuated there was purpose behind my actions. I spent the time really studying him, learning about him. I was familiar with his appearance; I already appreciated the beauty of his amber eyes and his red-gold hair. Today, I learned about the strength in his jaw, and the character in his face, which seemed as if it had weathered tough times. I memorized the thick ropes of veins that crossed the back of his hands, and disappeared beneath the sleeves of his shirt, and I studied the set of his shoulders; most of the guys I knew slouched, at least a little, but Otis held himself straight and tall, which the major would have appreciated.
Otis, I decided, was unlike anybody I'd ever met before. We both carried the mark of our fathers' actions, but we carried them differently. He chose stillness and solitude, while I craved companionship and action. Still, I thought it was that sameness, not his looks, that made me feel so deeply drawn to him.
Finally, it was time for lunch, and we walked in a companionable silence down the hallways to the cafeteria, where I filled a tray with some edible-looking chicken strips, French fries, and cake. When I reached what I now considered "our" table, Otis was already waiting for me with a can of Pepsi sitting open in front of him.
"That stuff'll rot your teeth." I told him, motioning to the blue can, "I never touch it."
"I'm sure I'll survive," he said, with his typical lazy sarcasm, "Drink enough of that milk, and you might be able to survive one or two of them, too."
"That milk is what makes me big and strong enough to beat you today in gym class," I countered.
"Oh?" he asked, with theatrical surprise, "In that case, you should definitely drink up. In fact," he produced a dollar bill and dropped it onto my tray, "The next round's on me."
"I tell you what," I said, tucking the money into my pocket, "After I beat you class today, you can take it and buy your own milk."
"Sure," he countered with a gleam in his eyes, "And when I win again today, you can take it and buy a Pepsi."
"Deal." I said, holding out my hand to seal our silly bet.
After a brief moment of hesitation, he took it and shook it once. The smugness I felt in that moment of hesitation evaporated at the touch of his hand. It was cold, colder than I would have guessed holding onto the Pepsi would have made it, but it wasn't the temperature of his hand that filled my attention. It was the jolt of adrenaline that I felt when he touched me. It was the most powerful rush I'd ever felt, and it took every ounce of control I'd cultivated during my lifetime to stay in my chair. If we'd been on the court right then, I have no doubt I would have been able to slam dunk the ball, if we'd been on the track, I could have set a new record. For the first time, I understood the reason thrill junkies jump out of planes, or off buildings.
After that, conversation was limited at best. I couldn't make my heart slow down, nor could I lower its thunderous volume. I knew it was silly to think that he could hear my heart from across the table, but the anxious glances he kept shooting at me made me wonder if he suspected that it was thumping along at nearly twice its normal speed.
Several minutes later, when my heart rate finally began to decelerate, I noticed Otis becoming correspondingly less tense.
"You ok?" I asked him, desperate for something to break the silence. He looked puzzled, and then his face broke into his easy grin.
"Sure. Why do you ask?"
"You just looked a little… tense." I trailed off sheepishly.
Otis barked a short laugh, "I look tense? You should see the look on your face. I thought your head was going to explode, or something. Any chance you're going to tell me why?"
It took me about half a second to decide I needed to get out of there before I made an even bigger fool out of myself. I stood abruptly, picking up my nearly untouched tray.
"I have to go." I said, between clenched teeth, "I'll see you in history."
"Sure, Stella," he said as innocently as he could, "I'll see you in history."
Once I was on my feet, my heart began to hammer against my ribs again, as I forced myself to walk at a regular pace to the garbage disposal, then out the double doors that led to the hallway.
I felt overcome, but I had no idea why. I wanted to sit and stand at the same time. I wanted to run, but I also wanted to hide under a heap of blankets. My insides felt like they were shaking apart, but my mind was calm. It was exactly the sensation the Major had described when he spoke of being in battle. He'd said that the life threatening nature of war made your body revolt against reason, but discipline made your mind able to rule over it. Those moments of intense clarity, he'd said, were your reward for the dedication necessary to cultivate that kind of discipline. In the major's case it had saved his life.
In my case, it sealed my fate.
I had never felt anything as powerful and addictive as this feeling, and I knew I was lost to it. I wondered, with one little corner of my adrenaline-induced super-brain, if this is what love actually felt like. Instantly, a different little corner insisted that I could not possibly be in love with Otis. Yet.
Neither English nor History was as eventful as lunch had been. I was already reading when Otis walked into our English classroom, but I felt compelled to look up just as he walked into the door. Our eyes met, and Otis smiled that long smile of his, but instead of the adrenaline rush I was both dreading and anticipating, my only reaction was a faint blush.
Though I enjoyed the downtime from my near-constant sparring with Otis, by the time the end of fifth period rolled around, I was starting to feel a little restless. When the bell finally rang, Otis and I looked at each other, and then simultaneously burst from our seats, not quite racing to the gym, but still going as fast as we could without being called down for running.
I changed clothes as fast as I could, thankful that my hair was already up today, and that I wouldn't have to take the time to get it out of my way. I spent just a few moments stretching, knowing that if I didn't do it in the locker room, it wasn't going to happen.
Otis was, predictably, already waiting for me with a basketball in one hand.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" he challenged, almost taunting me. "You could just drink the Pepsi and save yourself the trouble."
"Otis," I said in a sweet voice, "There is not a chance in hell I'm going to let you out of drinking that nice, cold, carton of milk at lunch tomorrow."
He barked a laugh at me, and headed onto the court. "Ladies first," he said with a smirk, as he checked the ball to me.
"With pleasure," I replied, in the same sweetly sarcastic tone I'd used earlier, and the game began.
We played hard, and none of our effort was wasted on conversation. The only sounds were the pounding of the ball, our shoes squeaking on the hardwood floor, the occasional grunt of exertion, and, after a few minutes, the cheering of a group of our classmates when one of us scored.
The pace of our game was grueling, and I was glad that we were able to commandeer half of the court to play one-on-one. From what I'd seen of the other guys' abilities on the court yesterday, I knew that playing three-on-three would have ground the pace of the game down considerably.
The game was fairly evenly matched; neither of us ever scored two points in a row, and it was luck that when the whistle blew, a few minutes early, that I happened to be in the lead. I only gloated a little at my victory, but Otis's expression was rocky at best. Geez, I thought to myself, you'd think the bet was a bottle of vinegar, not a single carton of milk. He must really hate the stuff, I thought, surprised. I'd always thought people who didn't drink milk grew up stunted, but there was nothing stunted about the boy. Maybe the Major hadn't been entirely truthful on that one.
His expression had faded into acceptance by the time we made our way to the bleachers. I lounged with my back against the row of bleachers behind me, like most of the kids in class, but Otis sat rigidly a foot or so to my right while Ms. Brenner explained the rules of tennis, which we would be starting the next day, to the class.
I wasn't terribly surprised when Otis and I were assigned to play singles opposite one another for the tennis section. Ms. Brenner had explained that she would be assigning teams based on our athletic acumen, and Otis and I seemed to be better gifted in that department than most of the class. I was glad that the number of kids in our class had allowed for one pair of singles, while the rest of the class played doubles. Both of us were good athletes and highly competitive, so at least our matches wouldn't be boring.
After class ended, I took a longer than usual in the shower, enjoying the hot water against my tired muscles. Since it was the end of the day, and I didn't have any place to be immediately, I took a the extra time to blow my hair dry and reapply my makeup, though I usually didn't bother at the end of the day.
By the time I left the locker room, the gym was silent, and only one light shone down upon the hardwood floor. I refused to hurry across the floor to the door, but in the semi-darkness I began to feel the stirrings of fear tracing through my system. My footsteps echoed loudly across the room and I imagined my heartbeat did too.
I took a deep breath and forced my stride to remain even, but my senses were on red alert, and my mind began screaming at me to run. Silly though I knew it was, I couldn't help but wonder if this was what the girls in the horror movies felt like just before the psycho killer jumped out from behind a door.
I was only a dozen steps from the door, and starting to feel sheepish about my bizarre reaction to a dark gym when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I whirled to face my attacker, panic held at bay by discipline, but my hands met with empty air.
"Paranoid, much?" a lazy voice taunted me from near the now-closed wooden bleachers. Otis pushed away from the wall of polished wood and strode toward me.
I sagged a little with as he walked toward me with that wolf-like grace that I enjoyed watching a little too much for my own good.
"What are you still doing here?" I asked, changing the subject without much skill.
"I looked for you after class, but you never made it out of the locker room. Seemed like the chivalrous thing to stand watch."
"Yeah, right. You're social cyanide, remember? Social cyanide doesn't care about things like chivalry."
"Fine, then," he said, without a hint of apology in his voice, "I was in detention, which ended about eight minutes ago, and I was just leaving through the same door."
He now held that same door open for me to pass, and I walked into the remnants of a day that milky and colorless. The breeze that passed over my arms wasn't exactly cold, but it was a reminder that I'd be needing that winter coat soon.
"Are you worried about the History exam tomorrow?" I asked as the gravel of the parking lot crunched beneath my feet.
"Not too much. It's a strong subject for me." we walked a few steps further before Otis asked me whether I was ready for the test. Polite conversation with Otis had a tendency to be an afterthought.
"Yeah, kind of. I mean, I'd feel better if I'd been in the class longer than two days." I admitted.
"History is history. It doesn't change with geography." Otis pointed out, just a little shy of condescending.
"Yeah, I figured that out," I shot back, "But I know from experience that different teachers test differently. They stress different moments in history, gloss over different stuff. There's a lot more history than any one teacher puts in the curriculum, you know."
"Yes, I do, actually. Which is why I was going to offer to help you study."
I stopped short, suspicious. Well, suspicious, with a little, tiny flower of hope.
"What's the catch." Suspicion won, or at least had a head start.
"Why would you think there's be a catch?" Otis leveled his gaze at me, and it took me a second to remember that I was supposed to be coming up with a reply, not staring at his unusually colored eyes. He mistook my silence for incredulity starting to give way to anger, "I have yet to do anything to take advantage of you, or be purposefully hurtful, nor have I tried to extort you in any way." "Otis, thanks, I'd love your help," I interrupted his tirade before he could get really wound up, "It would be… helpful." I finished lamely.
"Oh, well, sure." He seemed as shocked by my acceptance of his offer as I felt to receive it.
"If you wanted, you could come over for dinner, say seven o'clock , and we could study after."
"I, uh, already have dinner plans," he said, looking slightly off to his left, "Family." His assurance was hasty, and probably truthful, but there was something he didn't want me to know.
We agreed on 8 o'clock then, at my place, and I scrawled my address and cell number on a corner of his notebook.
After we parted in the parking lot, I decided to take a drive through town to see what kind of shops lined the old commercial center of town. I've nothing against big-box retailers, but I rarely find anything I'd like to wear in them. Boutiques, consignment shops, and old-fashioned department stores usually were more my style.
Luckily, Escanaba had already had the reawakening that so many American Main Streets have been experiencing over the past decade or so, and there were several promising-looking shops in the old and character-filled red brick buildings. I parked on the town square, and walked up the side walk, looking into the plate glass windows of a jewelry and flower shop and a bakery before I found a promising looking consignment shop.
Madam's Consignment was, by my estimation, a treasure trove. Clothing racks lined the walls and several carousels held coats and dresses. There were long racks of shoes and hats and handbags, along with other odds and ends.
Madam's tended to favor much older clothes, but all of it was clean and in good repair. I wandered over to a rack of coats and began to browse. A red knee-length pea coat drew my attention, and after trying it on, I decided I was in love. A quick look at the price tag made me reassess the depth of my feelings. It was not necessarily out of my price range, but it was more expensive than I'd anticipated.
"If you buy that coat, I'm going to insist that you buy the hat and gloves I wore with it, dear."
The voice belonged to an old woman, tiny, even by my standards. She walked with a surprisingly spry step to the hat rack and came back with a red pill box hat with a face net and a pair of white wrist-length kid gloves. I was in love all over again, even before I tried them on.
"Wow." I said, as I got a look at myself in the mirror, "They're fabulous, but I don't know where I'd wear them."
"It takes courage to wear something so bold," the woman agreed, standing next to me, "That's the problem with today's fashions; they're safe and, frankly, boring. Vivian Leigh would never have worn jeans and a t-shirt on a date."
She leveled a steely gaze on me, in case I'd missed the point, "You don't wait for an event to wear something like that. Life is an event, and everybody else is underdressed."
I couldn't help but smile at the feisty woman. I imagined her young, and hiding under her wrinkles and age I found signs of great beauty. Surely, I decided, in her youth she and I had been of similar height, and probably build, too. I was certain that when she'd worn this coat to dinner, people stopped to watch her make her way across the room.
"I'm Stella Bard," I said, holding out my hand, "I just moved here."
"It's a pleasure to meet you Miss Bard." She took my hand, not in a handshake, like I was used to, but in a gentle grasp, "I am Miss Caroline Roberts."
"Well, Miss Caroline," said with a smile, "I'm afraid I was raised in the culture of jeans and t-shirts. What kind of shoes does a girl wear with this coat?"