Chapter One: Lobotomized Sox Fans

September 14, 2004: Tuesday

He ate his cornflakes with apple juice.

Zara Challoner propped her chin with a hand, as she watched him from her vantage spot a couple booths away. Not for the first time, she wondered if he really knew what he'd just poured in his cereal bowl. It was pitiful, she reflected, how she knew he'd eaten the same breakfast four days in a row.

But after a week at Boston University as a brand-new freshman, Zara was desperate and homesick. So lonely that she'd resorted to spying on other people in the cafeteria because she didn't have anything better to do.

"I know a guy who can get us into this really cool club - what? We just need fake IDs, and if we go this Friday..."

"Lise, it's not even eight. Let me have my bacon first."

Self-disgust filled Zara's crystal blue eyes. She was eavesdropping on a pair of laughing girls sitting behind her, and if that wasn't beyond pathetic, she didn't know what was.

It was the college brochure's fault. The pictures had advertised the majestic stone-gray buildings, the steeples and roofs jutting up proudly in the sky. Even though she'd never lived anywhere outside southern California, she'd decided that Boston was for her. She'd never visited the city before, but hey, that was a minor detail.

What happened was that she'd stepped into a sullen city too busy and impatient to welcome her. She had a tiny room in the three-pronged gigantic Warren Towers dormitory, one that she shared with an indifferently polite roommate.

Even the professors seemed not to notice her: a petite girl with shoulder-length dark hair. And why should they? She was just one of the faceless thirty-odd students in her smaller classes, and in her Core Humanities lecture, one of the hundred-odd masses.

The guy finished eating his strange cereal. He got up from his booth and wandered over to talk to the cafeteria workers. Zara knew what he would ask for: a bowl of tofu and some chopped up dill pickles. It made her skin crawl that he could choke down such a revolting meal, but maybe it was a Bostonian delicacy.

Sadly, however, to her starved eyes, he was easily the best-looking thing she'd seen here. He moved with an easy athletic grace, one that was evident in his rangy frame, and when his friend lobbed an apple at him, he caught it one-handed.

"We're late, Moser! Let's go!" the other boy called.

"I need my tofu and pickles."

"You and your superstitious shit."

Elbowing each other, they stumbled out of the cafeteria together, the first guy carrying his prized food with a reverence that puzzled Zara, but when she glanced at her watch, she let out a startled yelp and forgot about the guys.

She grabbed her things and fled. Warren Towers had the cafeteria on the fourth floor, which was the main lobby, and from there, you took a couple of escalators down to the ground floor. It was one of the building's many quirks, just like the numerous "THE YANKEES SUCK!" banners she'd seen hanging outside the B Tower's multiple windows. She lived in the A Tower, so she'd stared at the adjunct tower and counted fifteen signs before she quit.

Commonwealth Avenue bristled with angry drivers and people when Zara finally escaped her afternoon class. Her mind reeling from the bombardment of information about Russian history, she hit the pavement.

It was only four o'clock, but the smell of cigarette smoke was thick in the air. That was yet another bad thing about Boston, she'd found. Apparently every college student, with his or her heart set on teenage rebellion, had taken up smoking with a vigor that made her wish she had an oxygen tank.

She chewed on her lower lip. Her dorm was right across the street since Boston University believed in setting up almost all of their school buildings and dormitories on Commonwealth, one of the busiest streets in the city, and just a five-minute walk from downtown.

Her feet took her to the street crossing before she changed her mind. She'd cleaned her room three times this week already, and if her roommate caught her again, she would never live it down. She still hadn't forgotten the look in the other girl's eyes that said: "You're a pathetic loser, aren't you?"

To hell with it.

Zara tugged on her backpack's straps. The school had Barnes and Noble as their campus bookstore in Kenmore Square, and even better, that was only, what, a few hundred feet away. The store probably had good coffee and magazines.

Suddenly happier, she headed east. Her legs ate up the distance as her flip-flops slapped against the pavement. Sunshine, blue skies - it was almost home, and she half-closed her eyes.

Someone abruptly shoved her from behind.

She shrieked in surprise. "You asshole!" she cried as she whirled around to confront the villain. Zara might have been a native Californian for eighteen years, but she was rapidly learning that you either had to be rude or else. Just two days ago, she'd watched in open-mouthed disbelief as a defiant crowd of students jaywalked across the street, holding up the traffic even though there was a green light. Only in Boston, she was sure.

The guy glared back at her. His navy blue Red Sox cap shadowed his face, so she couldn't see what color his eyes were, but there was no mistaking the sneering disdain that curled his upper lip. "How about not stopping in the middle of the sidewalk next time?" he suggested nastily.

He had a point there, and she flushed. She knew she was blushing up to the roots of her hair, and damned if that wasn't a smirk hovering around that surprisingly luscious mouth - obviously homesickness was taking its toll on her.

"How about stepping around me next time?" she snapped, clutching at her school ID hanging around her neck. She didn't think she would be mugged fifty feet from her dorm, but then again, her school was right there in a major city with an honest-to-God crime rate and panhandlers.

Her would-be mugger adjusted his baseball cap, taking it off briefly and running a hand through short blond hair. "You tourists are such idiots," he muttered as he wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.

She simply stared at him. It was the guy from the cafeteria - the one who always doused his cornflakes with apple juice. Up and close, he was even more striking.

His sneer deepened. "Stop gaping at me like a bloody idiot. Why don't you go on the Freedom Trail or whatever they peddle these days?"

Anger chipped away at her embarrassment. She hadn't meant to act like a silly girl with a grade-school crush, but this was just taking things too far.

She flashed up her billfold at him. It had her ID card inside, but it also had the school logo on the outside, so the guy could hardly fail to notice. "I look like a tourist to you?" she said. "Maybe you're the one who needs glasses."

He snorted. "God help us all then," he said with a surprising fervor that actually seemed heart-felt. Clearly impatient, he glanced over his shoulder. "Gotta run, baby. Try not to get yourself killed."

His group of friends enveloped him, and then they were jogging down the pavement before Zara could think of a come-back. Almost all of them wore Sox jerseys and caps, and she stifled a scream.

It really wasn't her day, she thought ten minutes later. She'd finally made it to Kenmore Square, but thanks to the crowd gathering around the famed Fenway Park, it was a navigational nightmare. Dismayed, Zara vacillated on the sidewalk, watching vendors and scalpers mill around in the throng, their voices pitching high, dueling each other for customers.

People waved their homemade signs. A few even shouted out the obligatory "Yankees suck!" chant and when Zara squinted, she could see some bystanders wearing New York Yankees jerseys hanging outside the stadium in twos or threes, but there were more fans wearing Devil Rays shirts. And that was when she realized there had to be a baseball game, maybe between the Sox and Devil Rays, but she had no idea why people were yelling about the Yankees instead.

She would never, ever understand them.

As she stood there, her backpack weighing down on her shoulders, Zara finally admitted the brutal truth: she didn't belong here in Boston, especially when she didn't know anyone. The most intimate conversation she'd had was with the jackass she'd just run into, and now dozens of lobotomized Sox fans were ruining the rest of her day. And for this, she'd given up the possibility of going to Berkeley? She thought of Hollywood glamour, laid-back San Diego, and quixotic San Francisco, and she wanted to cry.

Home was oh-so very far away, and since she had nothing left, she made the weary trek back to her room.

AUTHOR NOTE: My friend Kendal gave me the opening line and told me to write a story based on that. So blame her and blame Lord Iron-Balls for encouraging me. I should mention that for this story, I'm breaking away from my usual 10-page rule. Hopefully you guys will enjoy this one! The next chapter should be coming soon.