"One more year to go," Grandma said. She noticed as she came to smuggle a mint from the bowl beside the register that I was steadily filling out college and scholarship applications.
"Thank God," I said. Grandma merely tisk-tisked at me before wandering back toward the kitchen.
College. I'd never heard a more liberating word in all of my existence. Every one of the envelopes in front of me bore the name of some university, each one hopefully hundreds of miles away from the little town I was stuck in. Grandma continually attempted to assure me that I had unrealistic expectations for college, but I was convinced that anything had to be better than Decatur. Burdened with the place upon birth and every year since, I had absolutely nothing to keep me there. Now that I was a senior, my only setback was waiting two semesters in order to snatch up my diploma and then I would leave and never look back.
Pulling myself from my fantasies about escaping Decatur and running off to college, I glanced around the restaurant at the customers. Evenings at Ginny's, unless it was a church night, were generally slow with the occasional elderly couple stopping in for Grandma's cooking. It being a Thursday night and nearly nine o'clock we weren't expecting any more customers than the few already finishing up their meals. Once I verified from my position behind the counter that glasses were full and meals weren't finished, I looked back down to my application.
On Wednesdays through Sundays I worked as a waitress in the restaurant. It wasn't too bad. I could stomach the smell of smoke and politely serve the masses of senior citizens without flinching. To them I was their beloved Cambria Holloway. At first it was only by association since everybody who knew my Grandma Ginny loved her, but the regulars quickly warmed up to my easy-going conversation and old-fashioned manners. The restaurant had become a second home to me.
With all that being said, I must admit I was more than a little thrown when the annoying bell on the front door signaled the entrance of customers. Customers arriving at that hour were rare… extremely rare. So rare, in fact, that I almost forgot to look up from my stack of applications and greet them. Not only were they unexpected, they were teenage. The teenage population hardly ever ventured inside, especially without grandparents in tow, and their manner of walking up to the counter opposed to selecting a table as the regulars knew to do gave them away as first-timers. Nearly falling over in the chair I'd been leaning back in, I straightened up and attempted to look as if I hadn't come within a few feet of an embarrassing injury.
The pair standing before me appeared mildly out of place. The taller, dark-haired boy whom I recognized from my Biology II class stood with his hands disappearing in and out of his pockets. His name was Trace something or another. From what I could tell he was pretty smart with a respectable understanding of most things. Even if he was dumb as a rock the glasses he wore during class definitely placed him high on the IQ scale. We'd had only one brief encounter and it was so incredibly stupid that I'd rather not recount it. Plus he was shy, and since I wasn't a social butterfly myself, he and I hadn't ever hit off a friendship. His accomplice, whose brown eyes that matched the color of mine instantly began staring, was Steven Kent, better known as "Superman." You couldn't be a student at Decatur High without knowing him. Steven had carried our high school football team to victory since his freshman year, and in Decatur that made a person worthy of sainthood. Being that girl who'd never been drawn to sports, I found him arrogant and over publicized. Yet he was easy on the eyes, and it was nearly impossible not to acquire the urge to grin when he glanced my way. And all the while I kept wondering why they'd come into the restaurant.
A few explanations of their presence came to mind. Over the past week I'd been running into Steven a lot more. He'd shown up in the library twice, where I usually spent lunch, and had taken the computer next to mine both times. Another afternoon I'd been on my way to work on the school paper and had caught him staring my way. Those I could brush off as coincidence, but when he'd come up to my locker to ask me if I was going to Shane's party I'd realized it wasn't a chance meeting. I wasn't against parties, but Shane's parties were known for their intense amounts of alcohol and stupidity, not a winning combination if you ask me. A brief recap of the last twenty girls Steven had dated definitely put me out of his "type" range. So why did it seem he was trying to start something with me?
Once the initial paralyzed state of my vocal chords wore off I felt slightly better. I shrugged off the possibility of Steven wanting to date me and did the next natural thing. "Hello, how are y'all doing tonight?" I asked. My cheeks burned hot, which was a sign that my whole face was going flushed.
I was looking at Steven, expecting a reply, but it was Trace who spoke first. "We're fine, thanks. And you?" His manners far surpassed those of his staring friend. I smiled his way, making sure to lose the expression when I glanced at Steven. When provoked I could be ruthless.
"I'm good, thanks for asking. Can I help you?" Trace smiled, then nodded, trying to hide the fact that it should've been obvious why they were there.
"Sure. Do you think we have time for some burgers before closing time?" Grabbing some menus and offering my ultra-fake waitress smile, I led them to a table close to my other customers and left them there while I checked up on my other customers. All of them had paid at the register and bid me goodnight before Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum had decided what they wanted to eat.
Finally they did, as if ordering burgers hadn't been their intent from the instant they walked in, and I headed to the back to put in the order. Grandma was wiping things down, almost ready to close up. "Not so fast," I said. Placing the ticket on the board, I gave her a shrug. "One more to go."
Her brows crinkled in confusion. "But it's Thursday," she said. I nodded, knowing exactly what she was talking about. Merely nodding it off, she grabbed a clean set of plates from the shelf and went to work.
I was in no hurry to return to the front. My applications were begging me up to the counter, but instead I stayed glued against the drink machine in the back. Assessing the situation was impossible. I was awful at making decisions, so figuring out Steven's intentions cluttered my head. He hadn't said a word to me since they'd walked in, with the exception of placing his order, but even then there weren't any wasted courtesies. Hard-to-get didn't work with me, and if that was his game he was fighting a losing battle. I had never and would never go chasing after a guy. Call it ignorance or self-respect, but it was a personal rule of mine. A girl has to retain some dignity, right? I convinced myself that's why I was intently watching Grandma fry hamburgers, but even she began to take notice.
"Who's up front?" she asked. Grandma had a sixth sense about things. She may have been old, but she was as sharp as a tack. Sixty-four had never looked as alive as it did with her. Most grandparents were boring, the kind that you wouldn't dare wear a low-cut top around because heaven forbid they know you had breasts, or the kind that made you feel stiff and guilty, but not Grandma Ginny. I'd grown closer to her than any other member of my family including my mother. By the time I hit thirteen I'd arrived at the conclusion that my mom was the most difficult woman in the world, complete with her own fantasy world in which teenagers had no problems and no minds of their own. But Grandma made up for her daughter's parental inadequacies, and I'd grown to confide in her about most everything.
For some reason when she asked about the customers, I had the urge to avoid her. Instead, I sucked up my pitiful confusion and told her what I knew. "The football player, right?" she asked. I rolled my eyes instantly.
"Why is he here? He's not even being polite. He's being… stupid," I said. Grandma laughed. Her judge of character was usually right on the mark, but mine swayed with my changing moods and she always found it laughable. Crossing my arms over my chest, I somewhat resented her laughter.
"Maybe he just wanted a hamburger. And if he wants a date, what could it hurt? He's a handsome boy…" I childishly put my hands over my ears with an annoyed grin.
"You're almost beginning to sound like a parent," I threatened. We both broke down into smiles, and I won. Even though we weren't arguing, it felt like I'd come out on top. Grandma was the only person who ever let me win an argument or believe I was right about something. If I was wrong and she knew it, she realized that I'd come around sooner or later. If anything her little "learn by discovery" point-of-view had helped me become a stronger person.
My conscience eventually caught up with me and forced me back out into the dining room. Just when I thought I'd been right to avoid the boys, I was guiltily marching up to their table to be sociable and refill their drinks. "Your burgers will be ready in just a minute. Is there anything else I can get for you?"
Steven opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. After a very weird eyebrow signal from Trace, Steven closed his mouth in a way that wrinkled his scruffy chin. I sensed that I should promptly walk away, but I couldn't resist. Tormenting Superman would just be so easy. "So about Shane's party…" I purposely inserted a pause as I tipped my pitcher to pour more Mello Yello into Trace's glass. Intrigue straightened Steven's body and hid the generally clueless look in his eyes. He almost looked… adorably desperate. And I almost felt bad about rubbing it in his face. "…sorry I can't go with you." Argh. Kicking myself, I remembered what a sucker I was for a cute boy. Pathetic. His shoulders slumped, and he stared as I retreated back into the kitchen.
Right at closing time Trace and Steven paid Grandma at the register, and I conveniently opted to clear the table and sneak away. Catching a sideways glance at them before they left, I grinned. Even if I was set against a relationship the attempt had been nice. Dishes in hand, I hovered over the sink and smiled to myself. Grandma waltzed in promptly, sticking a yellow post-it note to the side of my face. "There's Steven's number," she said.
The yellow post-it kept a line on my cheek taut as I scowled. "Did you commandeer it or did they offer?"
"They offered, of course. So what about this party tomorrow night?" Grandma knew as well as anyone that I always worked Friday nights, mostly for the money and partly because I had nothing better to do. We lived in Decatur for God's sake, where the best thing to do was venture out into the middle of a field with a keg and wake up unable to recount the happenings of the night before if you're lucky. She knew all this and yet she couldn't let the Steven thing die. So by the time we were locking up I finally agreed to give the guy a chance. The party was out of the question, but the guy could have a shot.
"Have you decided on a college yet?" she asked. Our cars were parked around back, and shadows fell across us as we followed the sidewalk to them. Grandma continually asked about college, trying to dissuade me from seeing it as a ticket out.
"Not yet. I'm thinking… California?" We both smiled. It wasn't a grand possibility I would end up on the opposite side of the country, but it was always fun to tease her with it.
"You won't find anything there that you can't find here," she said. It was her favorite phrase when having the college discussion. Pulling her keys from her beige, old lady-style purse, she unlocked her car. "G'night, Cammie."
With college brochures spread out in front of me I occupied the back corner table of the library. A yellow notepad sat to my right, harboring the ink penned doodles and the notes I thought might be useful later. At the rate I was going I would need to draw colleges out of a hat. Contemplating how long it would take to copy every university name onto a slip of paper and locate and hat out of which to draw, I was startled by someone sliding into the chair across from me.
"Hi," he said. Trace, with shy charm surrounding him, folded his hands on the table between us and began to make conversation. "There's no chance is there?"
I pretended not to know what he was talking about, finishing out the wild hair of a small creature I'd just sketched into the corner of my notepad. "He likes you, which I know you know because I've never mistaken you for an ignorant person." His face grew slightly flushed as I raised my eyes to his, but he looked away as he continued to talk. Obviously Steven had coached him, otherwise he would be on the other side of the library working on his Biology II report. It also wasn't like Trace to approach people; I didn't know much of him but I knew that much. Like he said, I wasn't ignorant.
"C'mon, Pinocchio, give it a rest. You're a smart guy, too, and that means you should know as well as I do why I'm not interested in your friend," I said. Everything said to Trace came out softer than expected, mostly because held a semi aura of innocence mingled with maturity. An implied understanding sat between us so that even the pauses were comfortable. From what I could tell he was in the same boat, awaiting college and hoping to leave none of his heart in Decatur. Trace had the looks and the brains. I made the mental note that if I ever decided to hunt a boyfriend down for myself I would seek someone like him.
He smiled, his hazel eyes crinkling in the corners. Animation flooded his face, and he leaned forward across the table. "Let's make a deal…"
Mom stood at the bottom of the stairs, and though I couldn't see her from inside of my room I knew her stance exactly. A hand on her hip and the other on the banister, expectantly looking upward as she called for me. An exasperation surrounded her, intensified by the slight disarray of her hair from extensive tousling the minute she walked through the door. It wouldn't kill her to walk up the stairs, would it? I was willing to give it a try.
Mascara wand in hand, I brushed my lashes with black. Make-up wasn't my thing, but mascara, concealer, and lip gloss were my life savers. Other than that cosmetics were completely useless to me. Mom let out another yell from downstairs. Smirking, I dropped the mascara and quickly ran a brush through my strawberry colored hair. It's a good thing I inherited Grandma Ginny's good looks, otherwise Mom would have to strain her vocal chords a hell of a lot longer to bring me downstairs. Taking a few Jolly Ranchers from the decorative bowl on my dresser, I popped one into my mouth and pocketed the others. I would need lots of sugar to get through that night.
Finally appearing, I feigned interest. "Yes?"
Mom, just as distressed as I'd imagined her, wasted no time in toying with my plans. "I need you to baby-sit Kurt tonight. Wynn is expecting you around--"
"I can't," I said. Leave it to my mother and sister to assume that I had no life. "Why don't you do it?"
"It's Saturday. I have Bunco on Saturday." By her tone of voice you'd have expected me to have memorized her schedule. I'd yet to figure out what Bunco was, but Mom was a devout Bunco-goer. She and her girlfriends had probably set it up just to inconvenience the accessory people in their lives.
"Take Kurt with you," I suggested. I may as well have told her to dye her hair pink or jump into a vat of poisonous snakes. "Kurt isn't my kid, Mom. Wynn shouldn't have had him if she didn't plan on taking care of him."
Her finger jutted up instantly. "That is a very bad attitude, young lady. Your sister has a very important business dinner tonight!"
"Surely she's known about it before just now. I already have plans," I reasoned.
"What could you possibly have to do that's so important? You can't get into college if you're in prison from going to one of those silly parties," she said. It took everything in me not to roll my eyes. Mom hated the eye-rolling thing, so I knew if I did it I had no chance.
"Grandma needs me at the restaurant," I lied. Grandma had actually given me the night off in order to further my relationship with Steven. Gah… Grandma Ginny was some matchmaker… and Trace too! Was the whole world conspiring against me?
"Are you listening?" Mom snapped. Obviously I'd dazed off. "Wynn is expecting you in a half hour. Don't forget you have a responsibility to this family!"
"What about Dad? Or Brett?" I knew better. Brett, my younger fifteen-year-old brother, could barely take care of himself let alone another human being. How had he been allowed to go so awry when my every move was monitored? He was probably locked in his room smoking or out with a friend ready to hit up a big, drunken party. His life was going nowhere and somehow that exempted him from babysitting or having family responsibilities. I envied the little loser for a moment. Dad was another story entirely. He was a manager at the largest factory in town. His factory employed half of Decatur, and his job was high stress and all that. So basically he came home in the evenings and was expected to do nothing more than collapse into the recliner in the den and fall asleep, snoring loudly over the voices of the sports newscasters. Men…
I hated arguments, really, but only arguments I knew I'd lose. Mommie Adolf always won, but only by parental default. So I'd wasted ten minutes of my energy trying to argue myself out of babysitting. Well, what was I if not a master at getting what I wanted? Eventually, I played the good daughter and descended the staircase, grabbing my keys and agreeing with my ulta-fake smile to babysit Kurt until Wynn's return. Mommie Adolf may have been strict, but she was the most gullible women I knew.
Kurt, named after the legendary Nirvana singer, was only three, the product of Wynn's love affair with another junkie stuck in the grunge movement. The day she got pregnant she'd turned into miss Holly Homemaker and now had the job, the husband, and the house to prove it. I can't say I resented Wynn, it just sickened me how the rough-edged teen with dreams of ditching Decatur for the big city had turned into a Stepford wife. As I entered her house I swore to myself I wouldn't end up like that.
I knew Kurt well. Play ball for thirty minutes, give him a Jolly Rancher, feed him mac-n-cheese, and send him to bed by seven. The kid had a thing for going to bed early, the catch was he woke up at five a.m. Luckily I would be long gone by then. Just as expected the little tyke passed out at seven on the dot, and by the time I could reenter the living room I saw Trace and Steven peering in through the glass on the front door.
Now, I've heard the babysitting horror stories, but I wasn't planning on leaving the house. Steven and Trace could crash in the den with me where I had the baby monitor turned on high. It was a fool-proof plan, except that I didn't want Steven there in the first place. Trace and I had made a deal. He would do everything he could to get Steven off my back if I could pretend to at least be giving the guy a chance. Trace pitied me or any girl that dated Steven, mostly because he hated the way Steven treated girls. We hadn't discussed any of this, but like most things between me and my partner in crime, it was understood.
I popped a Jolly Rancher into my mouth, wincing at the intense flavor. I would need a lot of those, I assumed, because it was going to be a long night.
The light to Ginny's was still on when I pulled up. A melting Jolly Rancher rested on my tongue, but I was craving mashed potatoes and whatever else was still sitting on the buffet line. The bell dinged as I entered, dragging my feet and looking tired, and Grandma gave me a small wave from the back. "I gave him a chance," I told her. "He's not my type."
"People can't be typed, Cambria," she said. Everything seemed to amuse Grandma. Sleepily, I lay my head flat onto the table I'd taken a seat at. "Maybe he's just warming up. You expect a lot, ya know?"
If I hadn't been so lethargic I may've explained to Grandma that high expectations were key, but she'd heard the speech before and who was I to become preachy. Within minutes a plate of mashed potatoes and ham sat before me, looking more delectable than it should've. Taking a break, Grandma sat down opposite of me. "We could've used you tonight. Everyone was asking about their favorite waitress," she said. I smiled, forking another bite of potatoes into my mouth. Grandma loved to spoil me. "So… what have you learned about Steven?"
"He's a Patriots fan," I said. Grandma's faced twitched in disgust as mine did. Grandpa was a Patriots fan, and neither of us could understand it. "And he tends to get very caught up in talking about himself or sports. I don't know… he's cute and all but, eh…"
Steven was probably the most determined guy I'd ever met, but he'd driven me nearly insane before ten o'clock rolled around. Trace had attempted to save me millions of times, pushing the conversation back to me or to music or anything besides sports. It was no use. Steven wouldn't drown alone, he was intent on pulling me under with him. Good intentions, yes, but they were wasted on me.
"What makes you think you don't want a relationship?" I shrugged.
"No guy will treat me the way I want. I want to be spoiled and I want a guy that has enough of his own personality to interest me and I want him to make me smile a lot. Plus… I don't want to complicate things, what with me leaving for college soon and all." It was all true, but when saying it aloud it sounded silly. Grandma patted her hand on the table and sighed.
"You're just scared that you might find someone," she said, "who will take your heart and make you think twice about running away." Left with a mouthful of food and a general confusion, I watched Grandma get up and walk toward the register where Trace stood, pulling out his wallet and talking with his hands. He did that a lot, I'd noticed. Still wearing the same T-shirt and jeans he'd had on earlier, he looked more relaxed without Steven around. It amazed me how those two maintained a friendship at all. From what I could tell the companionship had started on a third grade playground and had progressed from there. Trace didn't seem the type to drop his friends, anyway, no matter how preppy and stuck up they became.
Trace noticed me, sending a nod my way and eventually meandering across the restaurant to take the seat across from me. "So…?" he asked. I knew he was talking about tonight, but I played dumb and changed the topic promptly. Too many mixed feeling surrounded the crash and burn attempt with Steven.
"Ordering food to go?" I asked.
He nodded, explaining how hungry all of his efforts had made him. I agreed whole-heartedly. We made small talk, babysitting this and music that, and then Grandma returned from the back with his food. Two Styrofoam containers sat in front of him, their tops appearing sweaty from the heat on the inside. "Well, I guess this is good night." After scooping up his containers and pushing up his chair, he paused for a moment. "I can see why Steven wants to date you; you're a great girl."
I'd seen it in movies, the part where the guy says something amazingly sweet and then with a shy, charming look disappears out the door. But this time I wasn't in the cinema with a bag full of popcorn watching the girl sitting at the table dumbfounded, I was the girl. And I must admit… it was sort of nice.
Grandma traipsed back through, following my gaze to the door that had long since shut behind Trace. With a hand on my shoulder she said, "Maybe this Steven situation isn't lose-lose after all."
And the scary thing was, I thought that maybe she was right.