If you haven't read part 5, do so here. Or you can start from the beginning.One of cold weather’s benefits is that I am no longer required to sit in the park while I read. Mr. Hale tried to make the argument that the Ultimate team plays in frigid temperatures, I reminded him, giggling, that we are running and keeping our bodies warm, and that I am physically incapable of simultaneously jogging and reading.
The first time that I am supposed to be reading in the coffee shop, I spend most of my time staring at Brandon as he cheerfully hands out steaming cups of caffeine-laced sugar to the disgruntled masses. I catch his eye occasionally and he grins at me as though we are sharing a private joke. I don’t absorb very much of my reading; I’m far too consumed by trying to control my blush reflex.
I decide that the next day I am simply going to read and not face the counter. Brandon, however, innocently ruins my plans when he asks, “Hey, I haven’t taken my break yet, and I don’t want to interrupt your reading time, but is it okay if I sit with you for, like, ten minutes later?”
Up to this point he and I have interacted with either a flying disc or a counter between us; I don’t even know his last name. “Yeah, sure, no problem, you won’t be bothering me,” I respond quickly. “Sit for the whole fifteen!” I want to smack my forehead for sounding like such a moron, but nonetheless, I am thrilling inside.
I fidget like an anxious schoolboy while I read, glancing over at the clock in hopes that forty-five minutes have passed more quickly than usual. Brandon likes you, he likes you my brain chatters at me, destroying any hopes of retaining what I’ve read.
Finally a blue-aproned form slides into the seat across the table. “What are you reading?” Brandon asks.
I have to turn to the front cover to remember. “Heart of Darkness.”
Brandon makes a face, and I laugh. “Why the hell would you ever read that thing?”
“Mr. Hale likes to discuss books at dinner, and prefers that they be more edifying than Grisham or Ludlum,” I explain, shrugging. “Since I’m not in school, I figure it’s the least I can do to educate myself.”
Brandon leans back and runs his fingers through his hair. I watch them, wondering if I would like the length of my own hair better if his fingers were tangled in it instead of Mr. Hale’s. Dangerous thoughts. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that, if that’s not awkward or anything,” he says as he crosses his legs on the seat of another chair. “Why are you not in school, or working at some brilliant person job? No offense or anything, but you seem really intelligent.” He grins lopsidedly, adding, “You just don’t seem the type to live at home.”
I face heats a little at the compliment, and in a flash I realize that I can, to a small extent, release a little of what might be pent-up frustration over the shambles of my life. “Well, I wanted to go to school, but Mr. Hale wanted me to earn the funds for it.” Which I had done a thousand times over, considering the “work” I had done.
“I hear you,” Brandon says, nodding. “My rents, though I love them, gave me tons of shit about being in debt once I graduate.”
“Well, I should have been eligible for scholarships, but being homeschooled and having a wealthy guardian narrowed my options a lot, and I never took any standardized tests, so…” I spread my hands. “I kind of gave up after two years.”
“And Mr. Hale never encouraged you?” Brandon’s tone tells me that he wants to say something more derogatory, but is afraid of offending me.
I scratch my head. “When my parents signed him as my guardian he was just my dad’s best friend from college. When they died, I don’t think he knew what to do with me. I had a lot of nannies and tutors, but he was pretty distant until more recent years.” Until I was old enough for him to have sex with, and stupid enough to think that he finally adored me the same way I had him.
“Until you could read Heart of Darkness for the dinnertime book club,” Brandon smiles. “Not everyone is cut out for parenthood.”
You have no idea, I think. “I think, for him, that it was like having a demanding pet.” Now I’m too close to the truth and my tone has turned sour, so I wave my hand dismissively. “He didn’t really know what he was getting into, and my parents thought they were doing the right thing by keeping me in the area.”
“How long have you lived with him?” Brandon asks, clearly avoiding the more sensitive question.
Unlike so many whose parents die when they are young, memories of my mother and father are sharp and clear; they were to what I clung for years. “My parents died in a car accident when I was almost eleven, and I moved in with Mr. Hale that week. So I’ve lived with him for,” I calculate quickly, “twelve years. Where’s your family?”
“My dad just recently retired from the Marines,” Brandon explains, smiling fondly. My expression was nowhere near as pleasant when I talked about Mr. Hale. “We moved around a whole bunch before settling in Virginia.”
Ah, safer waters. I steered the conversation toward Brandon’s family, his favorite place to live (which was a brief stay on Iwakuni, the base in Japan), his relationship with his older sister (wonderful), how much he misses the family dog with whom he plays Frisbee, and why it is that Mom’s homemade cookies are better than the ones at the coffee shop. I’m enchanted with how he talks, how open he is, good-naturedly self-deprecating, how animated he is when telling stories. His brown eyes glow when he talks about his French major, the scholarship he’s applying for to study abroad, and makes me laugh aloud when he describes the airs put on by his fellow students.
I let Brandon talk, pulled deep into his world, until I see the limousine pull up outside. What if Mr. Hale sees us? I think, and leap to my feet in the middle of Brandon’s sentence.
“You okay, man?” he asked, bemused. “Something bite you on the ass?”
I shake my head and smile, shoving my book back into the bag. I’ll just tell Mr. Hale that I’m getting bogged down in the descriptions; I’ve been reading this book for over a week now, and it continues to slow down further. “Sorry,” I say, “I’ve let you go over your break, and my ride’s here anyway.”
Brandon waves a hand. “It’s no big deal. This time of day is pretty slow, and Carrie owes me.”
“Alright, well, I suppose I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Hey,” Brandon stops me before I walk away. I glance nervously over my shoulder, hoping that Mr. Hale is reading the newspaper instead of watching me. “Did I seriously ruin your reading time? I mean, I don’t want to distract you if you’d rather hang out with Kurtz and Marlow and the gang.”
“No, no, it was wonderful to have a break from them,” I answer, smiling a little. “I enjoyed the company.”
Brandon grins widely. “Then we’ll do it again tomorrow. Pencil me in.”
“I will,” I reply, and leave the coffee shop in a cheerful haze. I have a date!