"So, I really appreciate you doing this," Stephanie says. You're trotting along behind her toward the student parking lot. She's shorter than you, so why does it seems like you have to hustle to keep up? A couple of sophomores loom in your path, but Stephanie elbows them aside, and you catch their expletives on the back of your neck. "I'll buy you a coffee or something when we're done," she continues.
"You don't have to do that," you say before you can stop yourself. "What I mean is, you basically already paid me back when, uh, at Besandwiched—" You grimace to yourself. Why did you have to bring that episode up? "You gave me a ten to pay for yours and for, uh—"
"Oh yeah," she says. "I heard you left right after I did. You left the party early the other night, too." She turns her head just enough so that you catch the eyebrow she's cocking at you.
"I got a text, I had to go."
"Uh huh." You burst into the sun-drenched parking lot. "Where you parked?" she asks.
You point, and are finally able to take the lead. "I got a call from a friend," you insist, picking up the story with the improvised lie you gave that girl. What was her name? "He was at another party, and we—"
"Yeah, whose house?"
Your throat closes up. "What?"
"Where was this other party?"
Shit. "Oh, um, I don't know, because—"
"I thought that's where you had to go, to meet your friend." Somehow, it sounds like she's put quotation marks around the word "friend."
"No, I didn't say that, I said I got the phone call—"
"Bailey said you had to pick up a friend. That's how come you left."
You feel yourself reddening. "She told you about that?"
"Oh yeah. I came to check up on you guys, and you'd gone. Is this it?"
"Is this what? Oh." You'd almost passed your truck. "Yeah. Um."
Stephanie pats the rear gate. "Nice. You get a lot of use out of it?"
"I drive it around."
"I mean for hauling stuff."
"Um, no, not much. Mostly I just like to—"
"You just like to drive it around." Her grin is sharp, with a smirk behind it.
It's always bothered you that she never smiled at you. But this grin, like the one the other day—
She's laughing at me, you think, the way Rennerhoff and those guys do. It makes you wish she would just go back to ignoring you.
"So can you let me in?" she asks as she pulls at the door handle. You unlock everything with the remote, and she's swung herself inside, dropped her pack, closed the door, and belted herself in place while you're still getting in.
You give her a sidelong look. The smile she returns you would be pleasant if it looked more sincere.
"Where are we going?" you ask after you've got the motor on.
"Just turn left onto Borman," she replies. "I'll give you directions from there."
And that's all she says until you're accelerating onto the thoroughfare back into town. After a block she settles back and plants the sole of one foot against the glove compartment. "Oh, you don't mind if I put my feet up, do you?"
"No, go ahead." You wish you had the guts to tell her not to. "My friends always do."
"I kind of thought so." She swipes a fingertip across the console. "On account of all the dirty shoe prints up here."
She's right. Now that you look more closely, you realize that the caked-up dust that disfigures the passenger side of the cab is arranged in grooves and whorls, like the bottoms of tennis shoes. "You're pretty good at noticing things, aren't you?"
"I keep my eyes open." She tugs on her seat belt. "Why didn't you like Bailey?"
You were dreading the return of that topic. "I didn't. I mean, I didn't have anything against her, I just had to go, and—"
"Bullshit. Come on, Will, I'm being honest with you, why can't you be honest with me?"
"Honest? I am being—" Except you're not. "We just didn't hit it off, okay? What does it matter to—?"
"You were awful quick to decide that. What was it that made you decide so fast? Oh, you gotta turn at the next light. Right."
You shift lanes. "I didn't— It just didn't feel, like—"
"Did she bore you?"
"No! I dunno! What's it to you?"
"I just thought the two of you would hit it off, and I wanna know how come it didn't work."
"It just didn't, I'm sorry! Jeez!"
"You don't have to get excited, Prescott."
"I'm not excited, why are you so—?"
"Calm down, it's no big deal."
Silence falls. It's a sullen silence on your part. You've no idea what Stephanie is thinking or feeling.
When you can't take the quiet anymore, you say, "Well, part of it was that she's a junior." You sense, rather than see, Stephanie turn a disapproving stare onto you. "So, that was—"
"It's only a year's difference, Will, and she's real mature."
"As mature as me?" you blurt out, and instantly kick yourself.
Stephanie's face, glimpsed from the corner of your eye, is barely a blur, but you can see the color of her teeth. And the implied grin is like an exploding shell in your guts.
"You think I'm immature, is that it? You think I'm, like, so immature that— that—" You choke on your own indignation.
"I didn't say that, Will."
"No, but you think that! Don't you?"
The returning silence lasts so long that you twist around twice to look at your passenger. She hangs one arm casually from the hand rest and still has one foot propped against the console. Her lips curls in just the faintest smile, and her eyebrows arch with amusement. But she says nothing until you jam to a stop at the intersection with Orlando Road.
Then she snickers softly and looks away. "I'm sorry, Will. I shouldn't tease you. You're doing me a big favor, and I'm trying to do something nice back."
"Nice? This is nice?" Your face burns.
"Okay, I thought I was being nice the other night. I thought you'd like Bailey, so I put you with her at the party. I didn't mean to insult you. Did I?"
"No," you say through gritted teeth.
"So you just didn't like her? It's okay if you didn't. Oh, go straight down Farm Road."
"Sure, I liked— Sort of. But—"
"But she's a junior."
"Alright, how about this, you know I just broke up with someone." It's a poor excuse, but you're flailing now.
"No I didn't know that."
"I thought you said you keep your eyes open."
"I don't see everything," she retorts. "But you're still tender about it? She broke up with you?"
"It was complicated," you mutter.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know, I wouldn'a pushed you into anything at the party if I did. Only you looked kind of lost. I thought I'd do you a solid."
Now you're feeling crushed and embarrassed on account of your earlier outburst. "'m sorry," you mumble. "I didn't mean to— I shouldn'ta yelled at you. It's just— I guess I'm still kind of turned all upside-down about it all."
"No, I get it," Stephanie says. "I thought you were lonely and looking for company. But you're not?"
She says nothing, but continues to study you. Then she shrugs in turn, and turns it into a stretch, arching her back and throwing her arms out.
"Well, I'll leave you alone," she sighs. "How about that? Bailey was my one bright idea for you, but I fucked that up, so—"
She bolts upright, and looks around. "Shit, we totally missed our turn back there. Coupla blocks back. You need to—"
So you turn around. It's her house she's guiding you toward, and she lives in Acheson, just like you, but close to the river. It turns out there's an old bureau that needs to be moved to her grandmother's house.
As you and Stephanie and her uncle lug it into the back of the truck, you're thinking about that girl at the party again.