Sunday – Task Six

He stood outside the store watching for her, and he saw her when she drove up in a little grey Saturn. She came toward him with a smile, wearing denim Capri pants and a cute little red t-shirt, and sandals. Man, she looked pretty. "Hey," he said.

"Ready to shop?"

"Sure." Some of his old shyness was creeping back in, he knew, because he ducked his head rather than look her in the eyes. Was it possible to shop over the phone? Maybe not. He followed her into the store and helped her wrestle a cart loose from the others.

"So, is there anything you need for real?"

"I could use some eggs, and cereal."

"Okay. I've got a few things to get too. Let's roll." She headed for the produce section. "Lettuce and tomatoes."

"I'll get the tomatoes."

"Deal." She left him by the tomatoes and went toward the lettuce.

He watched her go, then looked down at the choices. Hothouse, Roma, locally-grown. "What kind?" he called after her.

"You're in charge. Just tomatoes, for burgers."

"Okay." Burgers he could handle. He picked up a few medium-sized Beefsteaks and slid them into a bag, then joined her and put them in the cart as she set down a small bunch of leafy lettuce. "What next?"

"Fruit. I'm all about bananas." They walked to the banana display and he held out a few small bunches for her inspection. She chose one and set it in the cart, then looked around. "Anything else in produce?"

"I think I'll grab a couple of apples."

"Good for you," she grinned up at him.

The next few aisles went quickly as she picked up hamburger buns and peanut butter.

"You buy store-brand peanut butter?" he asked.

"Sure, it's good. Well, at least the Kroger brand is."

"Mmm."

She looked at him sideways. "I suppose you're a Jif man."

"Skippy, actually." There was a beat of silence, then she snickered and he joined in. "Okay, let's keep moving."

"You in a hurry?" she teased.

"No," he said, feeling shy again as his head answered, I could spend the whole day here with you. He grabbed some ham from the deli section, then some eggs.

"You like your cholesterol," she noted.

"Don't start."

"I was kidding. Here's your cereal aisle."

They strolled down the aisle slowly as he perused his choices. How do you make a good impression with cereal, he wondered to himself as he eyed the granola with distaste. To his relief, she reached down and grabbed a box of Cap'n Crunch and studied it. "I love this stuff," she said, setting it over into the cart. "Haven't had it in ages, but I love it." He relaxed and grabbed his usual Lucky Charms and tossed it in, and they walked on.

"You like pancakes?" she asked as they passed the syrup bottles all neatly lined up.

"I like restaurant pancakes. When I make them, they're hard and dry."

"Beat the eggs first with a whisk, then don't stir so much." She looked at him curiously. "Do you do much cooking?"

"Enough to feed myself. I make a mean meatloaf. You should try it some time."

She laughed and pushed on. "Maybe I should."

He took another look at her from behind, then followed along. "Carly?"

"Hmm?"

He reached out and stopped the cart. "When this is done, this week, that's it, isn't it?"

She frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I mean... I guess... I don't know. I guess we won't see each other any more."

"Oh." She shifted on her feet. "Okay."

He hadn't meant it to come out that way. He'd meant to ask her if he could see her again. But now she'd answered. She didn't want to. "Okay." He let go of the cart and they continued on in an awkward silence, and he grabbed a few things he didn't need. He was pulled out of his funk when she started laughing, and he looked down at the cart where he'd just put in a box of Ding-Dongs. "What?"

"You're a ding-dong. Those are terrible for you."

"But they're sooooo good," he smiled, starting to relax again. "Creamy filling. Yum."

She started walking again and he strolled alongside. "Jason, why do you think she's got us shopping together?" she asked thoughtfully.

"I don't know. To see if we get in a fight about what to buy, maybe. Or about how Ding-Dongs are bad for you."

She grinned again. "We must be good at this. We haven't fought yet."

"There's still time." He soaked in her cheerful laughter and they headed for the register. He tried to pay for her groceries and she refused, but she let him help her load the bags into her car. He straightened and stretched as she shut the car door. "So what's going on for tomorrow?"

"Oh crap, I forgot to open the envelope." She opened the driver's door and reached in for it, then tore it open. "Let's see if we did today right first." She read it to herself and nodded. "Close enough. Now tomorrow... wow, task seven. Last one."

His heart sank, but then he remembered that she hadn't turned him down. Not exactly.

"Meet at the university at six-thirty. Park in Lot C and walk together to the meeting, which begins at seven. Don't talk specifically about any of the previous tasks, just talk about anything you might have learned about yourself of your partner during the past week." She looked up at him. "No preview. No more tasks." She stuck her bottom lip out in an exaggerated pout, and he laughed.

"We've still got number seven." Without thinking he reached out for her hand, then stopped himself and rubbed her arm in what he hoped was a casual, friendly way. He stuck his hands in his pockets and stepped back. "So, I guess I'll see you tomorrow."

"Don't forget your groceries," she reminded him, motioning toward the two bags on the hood of the car.

"Oh yeah." He gathered them up, then stepped back another step or two as she got into her car and closed the door. "See you."

"Tomorrow."

She gave him a little wave, then drove off, and he headed for his car and sank into his seat, setting the bags into the passenger seat. "What a weird week," he muttered to himself. Were they friends now, after six days of tasks? Or was it like Sam said, not enough to really get to know a person? He slid the key into the ignition and started the engine.

Monday – Task Seven

He pulled into the parking spot beside her little silver car and waved hello, and they got out of their cars and met in front of his hood. "Six thirty on the dot," she said proudly. "I'm impressed."

"I told you I wasn't the late type. It was just that once."

"I know. You've been very punctual. And you haven't tried to skip out on a single task. You've been a good partner."

"You too." He kicked at the ground. "I guess we should head over there, huh."

"Yeah, let's go. It's a good walk from here."

They started walking, and she looked around. "I don't see anybody else. Do you think everybody had to park in a different lot?"
"Probably."

They walked on. "So... anything to say about our week? Did you learn tons of stuff about yourself?"

"Probably not. But it wasn't as bad as I expected." She looked disappointed. "What?"

"Nothing." They walked on in silence. "Well, this is going well," she said quietly.

"You talk, then, if you didn't like my answer."

"I didn't say I didn't."

"You didn't have to."

She strode ahead and he let her, but kept pace so that she wouldn't get very far ahead. As they got closer to the psychology building, he started to see other couples walking, or sitting and talking. And here they were. He stretched out his steps and caught her arm. "Come on, Carly. Let's do this last one. What did you learn?"

She stopped walking and scowled up at him. "I learned that you didn't listen to yourself for the past six days. Every time we did a task I learned a lot about you, but you didn't even pay attention, did you? You like being the quiet guy, the one who doesn't have to interact. But it's not the truth. You were ready to talk to somebody, about real stuff, stuff that means something. And now you say you didn't learn anything. Well, fine. Stay stupid then."

"Okay," he snapped back at her. "You're so smart, tell me what you learned about yourself."

"It doesn't matter." She turned to walk away but he grabbed her arm again.

"Yes it does. Tell me."

A voice called her name from behind her and he let her go as she turned. Jess and Sam were coming toward them. The girls were obviously friends and they greeted each other happily and started for the building, while Sam gave Jason a strange look. Jason knew he'd seen them arguing, and he just shook his head and started after the girls. Sam walked beside him, and after a few steps he nudged Jason hard, trying to trip him up. Jason cracked a smile and bumped him back, and Sam threw his arm lazily over Jason's shoulder as they started up the steps. "Don't let it get you down, my friend," he said in a low voice, his crooked grin firmly in place. "You don't have to see her again after tonight, you know."

The classroom was filling up by the time they got there, and a few of the participants were talking excitedly with Sara about their experience. Psychology types, most likely, Sam remarked with a roll of his eyes, and they found seats in the back. Jason watched Carly while trying not to look like he was watching her, but she never turned around anyway. She was sitting with two other girls, and she responded to their questions, but she sure wasn't smiling. Sara broke off her conversation and asked everyone to sit down.

"Thanks so much, everybody. I really appreciate all of you sticking with this. We didn't have a single couple drop out, which gives us the best record in the whole psych department. Now, I do have one piece of bad news..." She paused dramatically. "The dean says I can't take everyone to dinner." She waited for the groans to quiet, then smiled. "But he said I could pay a small stipend, up to five dollars a day. So here are your stipends, and it's more than enough for a decent dinner out. So please, enjoy." She walked among them handing out envelopes, and Jason stuffed his into his jacket pocket not caring about the money, just feeling miserable. Sara returned to the desk and picked up a stack of papers. "Now for the last piece of business. I need your responses to your week. There's a space for a brief summary of what happened with each task, how it went, and your impressions. Please be honest. And when you're through with it, you're free to go. And thanks again." She stepped forward and handed out the exit questionnaires, and Jason sighed as he looked it over. What was your favorite task, your least favorite, rate your partner on the following factors. Rate yourself. Oh great. Well, he knew what kind of rating he'd be getting from Carly. A big fat zero. He toyed with the idea of giving her the same, but in the end he couldn't do it. He tried to be honest in his answers and he gave her the good rating he knew she deserved, and when he'd written all he could bear to he turned in his paper and left the room.

Sam came out a few minutes later and found him on the steps. "Still here?"

"Yeah, I figured I should at least walk her to her car. It's pretty dark."

"Good point. Guess I'll wait for Jess." He chuckled. "Although I have no doubt she could take out any mugger that crossed her path."

"Maybe she'll protect you," Jason retorted.

"Maybe."

Carly and Jess came out together soon after, and Jess agreed to let Sam escort her to her car, and took his arm jokingly as they walked off. A few steps away, Sam was already laughing at something she'd said, and Carly and Jason watched them go. "They had fun," Carly said wistfully. "At least, that's what Jess said. Sam's evidently a pretty cool guy."

"Yeah." Jason fidgeted with his keys. "So, you ready to go?"

"I guess. But you know, I can walk myself if you'd rather not."

"No, it's okay. I mean, I want to." She started off and he fell into step beside her. Jason wanted to talk to her, to apologize for making her mad earlier with his lame answer, but the more he walked the less he knew how to begin.

"It's getting cold," she said noncommittally after the silence had stretched on uncomfortably long.

"You want my jacket?" he asked, already beginning to shrug out of it.

"No, that's okay. I didn't mean - "

"Go ahead. I'm hot anyway." He slipped it onto her shoulders as they kept walking. Too soon he could see their cars under the street lamp, and way too soon they were there. She was about to leave and he still hadn't figured out what to say and now his stomach was in a knot.

She slid his jacket off and held it out to him. "Thanks."

"Sure." He took it and put it back on, although he'd give her the darn jacket for good if she'd just give him another shot. "Listen, Carly - "

She stopped him by holding up a hand. "I'm sorry I jumped on you earlier. I didn't mean it, not really."

"No, my answer was stupid. I just didn't know how to say... what I should have said."

She shook her head. "No, your answer was your answer. It's not up to me to tell you if it was right or wrong, or good or bad." She looked down at the ground, then stuck out her hand for a handshake. "Anyway... I've enjoyed it."

He groaned, and ignored her outstretched hand. "Don't do that."

"What do you mean?" she asked, letting her hand drop.

Before he knew it he had stepped forward and grasped her head in his hands, and his mouth was on hers, kissing her desperately. He kissed her until he couldn't breathe, then he looked her hard in the eyes and whispered, "Don't go." And then he kissed her again.

She started to pull away but he wrapped his arms around her and held her close. "Seven days," he said. "I've only known you for seven days, only talked to you seven times, and I'm going crazy. I can't let you just walk off like this."

She smiled up at him, her eyes closing with relief. "Well, you sure cut that one close."

Now Jason was confused, and his expression showed it. "What?"

"I thought you were going to let me drive away, and that was going to be it." She leaned her head onto his shoulder and rested against him. "I was gonna be really sad."

"Me too." He bent his head and kissed her again, gently this time, then shyly returned her smile, hardly able to believe that she felt the same way he did. "So what do we do now?"

"I don't know."

He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the envelope he'd stuffed inside and showed it to her. "I've got some money. Let's go out to dinner."

She pulled out her envelope. "And a movie?"

He grinned and couldn't help kissing her again, and again. Then he rested his forehead on hers, just holding her and feeling better than wonderful. A honk and the sound of a car startled them, and they pulled apart to see Sam cruising up to them with Jess sitting at his side. Sam rolled down his window and said, "Jess and I are going out to dinner. You guys want to come?"

Jason looked at Carly questioningly and she smiled and nodded, and Jason accepted Sam's invitation with a sheepish grin.

"Hop in," Sam directed them, and as Carly went around to the passenger side, Sam caught Jason's eye and shrugged. "You didn't really think I could resist a pole-dancing Miss Peach Fuzz, did you?"

"Not for a second."