I know who the girl in front of me is, because it's Lila.
I know who the girl in frontof her is, because it's Ashby, and she looks so lovely with her eyebrows in a confused pucker, her hair in a ponytail, and her glasses on.
And I know who the guy in front of her is, because it's Ben. My roommate, Ben.
"Lila?" Ben says again. He screws up his face at her, as if she'll come into clearer focus through squinted eyelids.
What I can't figure out, what doesn't add up in this immediate mental calculus of who-knows-whom, is why he recognizes her.
And why his hair is sticking up. And why Ashby's face looks so red. And…
"Jesus Christ, Ben," Lila says, and folds her arms over her chest. "Can't you keep it in your pants for even a week?"
Ashby looks incredibly embarrassed, her skin going a faint shade of pink. Ben shrugs, and then looks to me, as if he's just noticed I'm there, and frowns.
"Sam? Dude, what are you doing here? I thought you were going out or something. What's up?"
"I, uh…" I look down the hall, then back to him, and scratch behind my head. "I was just…"
I look back at Ashby, look at the face I had seen from afar and from the side so many times and realize it's almost unrecognizable up close. All those fragmented viewings and I never saw the whole thing dead-on.
And her shirt's on inside out.
"I'm sorry," she says. "But, um…do I know either of you?"
"Sam's my roommate," Ben says, and I give her a stupid little wave. There's a pause, and Ben seems to realize it's incumbent on him to fill it. "And, uh, Lila is…"
"Hi," Lila says, giving a little smirk. "Lila Frobisher, also know as Laundry Room Lila. You may have heard about how I was found by campus chaperones shirtless and alone in the Merritt Hall basement a week ago?" She cocks an eyebrow. Ashby looks horrified.
"Oh, that particular gossipy gem didn't make it this far?" Lila frowns. "Funny. You'd think Ben would have mentioned it, seeing as he was the one who set me up."
Oh, Jesus. The memory of Ben rushing back into the room, trying to play it cool but obviously sweating beneath his rugby shirt, begging me to cover for him and then taking off again, the very reason I owed him the favor I thought he was doing me tonight when I struck out for Ashby. That was Lila?
"What?" Ashby takes a step back from Ben and folds her arms delicately. "Ben, what's going on?"
"Oh, uh…" Ben looks sheepish, a look that I have to admit he's got down pat. His blue eyes and surferesque blonde waves really do conjure a kind of winning innocence, or at least the appearance of such. "It was all a misunderstanding, I think."
"What part did I misunderstand, hm?" Lila tosses her hair back. "The part where you said you'd be right back? Or the part where you thought it'd be funny to get me in trouble and almost get me kicked out of here?"
She's furious, I can tell. She's keeping it together okay, but under the surface, something is positively smoldering. And even though I haven't known Lila that long, I think I know what she's capable of in terms of physical force.
Ben gapes, and I can see the gears turning. He turns back to Ashby, holds her gently by the shoulders and murmurs something low and flattering. I've seen him do this to other girls before, even played accomplice when he needed me, because what the hell else was I doing with my time? But I can't let him do this to her.
"Let's leave," I say, through clenched teeth. Lila is tense beside me, and when I look down at her I can see that she's almost shaking. She looks at me, and for the first time, her eyes aren't gleeful or mocking or even alive. They're burnt out, and it sucks.
"Come on." I reach out and grab her shoulder like it's the most natural thing in the world, and the touch of her skin on mind reminds me of a fact I'd almost wiped out of memory.
She kissed me. Lila and I have kissed.
The plea comes from within room 205. I swivel back and see Ashby, the furrow in her brow deepened now and Ben a good four feet from her.
"He's leaving, too," Ashby says. She looks smaller up close, and a little paler. I didn't know she wore glasses, either. They make her eyes look…not dull, exactly, but not sparkling. They're just eyes. And apparently they aren't so good at seeing.
Ben tries one more sheepish look, but Ashby isn't having it. She shakes her head, a few blonde strands falling out of her ponytail, and he shuffles out into the hallway.
"Dude," Ben does a slow aw-shucks kind of thing in my direction, like all of a sudden we're bros again. "Women."
"Get the fuck out," Lila says from under my arm. Ben looks startled, and then glances back at me.
I look at Lila, then at Ben, and then I nod.
"Do it. Or she'll give you one of these." I point at my beat-up eye. Ben narrows his eyes, looking between the two of us, and even though he wants to play it cool, I can tell he's a little freaked out.
"Whatever," he says, and then stalks off down the hallway. Beneath my arm, I feel Lila relax a little. She rubs her nose with her still-clenched fist and then pulls herself away from me, a breeze of cool air taking her place at my side as she departs towards the opposite stairwell. I'm about to go after her when I hear a voice from inside the room.
"Hey," she says. "You're Sam? Did you want something?"
Her face is so pure, so gold-and-bright Ashby that it almost blinds me to everything else.
Any other time, I think. Any other time, you saying those words and looking so kind and pretty and normal in your glasses and t-shirt and me standing on the threshold of your room, just steps away from your dresser and your bed and all the little things that make you who you are when you're alone would be enough to make me forget my own name.
But not now. For the first time tonight, I'm sure of what I'm doing.
"No," I say. "I think I have the wrong room."
Lila's door is closed when I get back upstairs, but I don't even bother knocking. I turn the knob, improbably unlocked, and I step in to find the room dark except for the glow of her laptop and Lila balled up on her bed, knees to forehead and her arms around her legs.
My initial forthrightness drains away at the sight of her. This is not the kind of posture that Lila should be in. She's not striking a pose or jumping down the stairs or even helping me cart a ladder around, and it's weird. I don't like it.
A cool guy, a guy who's put together and good with Grand Romantic Gestures, would probably rush to her side and sweep her up, blotting away her tears and kissing her eyelids.
Instead, I do what I do best. I cough.
Lila's head lifts an inch, just enough for her to see me and me to see her back. She's not crying, of course. Her face is stony and dry.
"What?" She says it like I just rear-ended her in rush-hour traffic. The flash of danger is back to her eyes, and instead of terrifying me, it reassures me.
"Um," I say, smooth as ever. "I just wanted to see if…"
"If I was properly humiliated just now? If I was actually the same girl they found in the laundry room last week? Or, no, I know. If you can borrow some condoms for your lady love?"
She glowers at me, challenging me to say something back, but now I know better than to let her scare me.
"No," I say. "Actually, I wanted to see if you wanted to go for a walk."
"A walk?" Lila doesn't look like she believes me, but she lets go of her legs, and they shoot out straight in front of her on the mattress. She tucks her arms around her waist and lets her hair is falling over her shoulders. She's pretty.
She's pretty. My whole nervous system feels like it's been ignited just from looking at her, and I can't believe I didn't pay better attention when she was kissing me before. Stupid.
I swallow hard and nod.
"Yup. A walk." Then an idea strikes me—dumb, but when are they not?—and I spit it out before I can change my mind.
"I'm going to do you a Mandy Moore."
Lila stares at me and turns her head so far I worry it's going to unscrew from her neck. I swallow again, my heart going like a marching band in my chest, and it doesn't slow down when she starts to crack a grin.
"What did you say?"
"I'm…I'm…" Lost for words, I think. "I'm going to give you A Walk to Remember."
Lila doubles over again, and when she looks back up I think I can see tears in her eyes. But she's laughing.
"Oh my God," she gasps. "Who are you?"
I assume that that's a rhetorical question and don't answer.
"I can't believe you know that movie."
"Yeah, well…" I don't have a good excuse for why this is the case. "I don't have a good excuse for why this is the case."
"That's because no such excuse exists." Lila dabs at her eyes, and then fixes me with a look that, in turn, fixes me in place. I suddenly start worrying about all the things I thought I'd freak out about with Ashby: how my hair looks and whether my t-shirt is stupid and if my breath still smells like the macaroni and cheese I ate four hours ago. I don't move, but Lila does. She pops off the bed, stands up, and squares her shoulders, and I'm struck by how…resilient she seems.
"What?" She frowns at me, and I realize too late that I'm smiling.
"Oh, um. Nothing."
We don't say anything all the way down the stairs. Lila leads the way like it was her idea the whole time, and when she shoves open the door into the courtyard she strides out without even looking back at me. I jog a little to catch up, following her down the little path that leads out to the main quad. A knot of people are stumbling around somewhere ahead of us, illicit and after-hours and probably drunk from wherever it is that people go to get drunk here.
Lila keeps going with definite, forward steps, like she's going somewhere instead of going for a walk. I clear my throat, as is my wont, and it works, kind of. She throws me a look over her shoulder, but doesn't actually turn around.
"Do you want to talk about it?" I ask her. Or ask her back, really, seeing as I haven't exactly caught up yet. She really walks fast.
I take a few more giant steps and reach her just as we cross over into the little driveway that curves in to the campus from the main street of Whereversville, PA.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Lila stops, smack in the middle of a streetlight beam, and wheels on me.
"Huh?" I say.
"You just got rejected by the love of your life. The like of your life. The like of your summer. Whatever." Lila waves a hand. "It's gotta hurt."
"Oh," I say. "Um…"
"In retrospect, though, I probably could have told you. I mean, a girl with a name like Ashby? She's not going to—"
"There's nothing wrong with her name," I say.
"—taste in guys. Obviously." Lila hadn't even paused for my interjection. "But that's beside the point. You're rejected, and you're upset."
"Don't lie. That'll just make you repressed."
"I'm not rejected. She didn't reject me."
Lila looks utterly blank, like I wasn't speaking English.
"Ashby didn't reject me," I repeat. "I decided I didn't want her after all."
"What, so you just walked away? After all that? After all my help?"
Lila huffs out a breath, then crosses her arms, then uncrosses them.
"Yeah. I mean, thanks, but yeah. I was worried about you," I say.
Lila rolls her eyes. "Some advice? Don't be."
"You were upset."
"So it seemed like it was more important to get you un-upset than do anything with Ashby."
Lila snorts. "I'm pretty capable of un-upsetting myself, thanks very much."
"Yeah, well…" I want to look at her, but she's a little…intense. It's like staring at the sun. I go for the toes of my shoes instead, and then the edges of her flip flops, and then up her legs and body all the way up to her face.
Her blank stare is back.
"Jesus," I say. "Are you always this…thorny with people who want to be nice to you?"
"Obviously not," Lila says. "Haven't you heard? I'm a huge slut."
"Actually, I hadn't, until you said something," I say.
"Oh, so I'm a slut and a loudmouth."
"No!" I shake my head and stare at her. "I swear to God, Lila, you are the weirdest person I've ever met. You bash my eye in with a window and put a pudding cup on it, you stop watching X-Files to move stolen property across campus, and you kiss me one minute and thrust me into the arms of another girl the next. So you know what? I don't really care that you did something stupid once, a week ago, because you've been doing nothing but stupid things since I met you and I still think you're…"
Lila's eyes are wide, searching, frightened, almost, like the way I feel, and my voice dies in my throat.
"Think I'm what?"
"Think I'm what?"
Now Lila is positively beaming, which infuriates me and terrifies me and makes me hope, even though I'm not sure I should, that—
"You really didn't plan that out before you started that, did you?"
I shake my head. Lila takes a step out of the rays of the streetlight, and then another, and then I can almost feel the molecules of her body touching the ones in mine. Her face is close. She's pretty.
I say the first thing that comes to mind.
"Your eyes kind of sparkle."
And then she kisses me. And kissing Lila is awesome.
She's fierce and soft and bold all at once, which doesn't make sense, except that it's her, so it kind of does. It's wild, uncharted territory, not some stupid, stale fantasy I'd manufactured in my mind. She's whole, and she's here. I let my hands find her hair and back and pull her closer.
When we finally pull apart, minutes or maybe hours later, I'm grinning and Lila looks as dazed and woozy as my heart feels.
I grin wider, and Lila remembers herself and regains her composure.
"So what now, Sam the Ladder Guy? You gonna invite me back to your place?"
"Well…" I think about it, and then shake my head. "No."
Lila looks crestfallen for a split second, and then crosses her arms.
"Oh, no, I mean," I clear my throat. "Circumstances being what they are, with my roommate, and, um, stuff…"
"Ah." Lila nods sagely and taps a finger to her chin.
"Did you know I sleepwalk?" She asks.
"Yeah. I sleepwalk. So I get a single room. So I don't, I don't know, attack my unsuspecting roommate in the middle of the night, or something."
"So, you know, you could come to my place. Because it's just mine."
The reality hits me with a whammy. Lila, who is a girl, who is pretty, is inviting me to her room. For now, for the night, and presumably for more than just a pudding cup. I swallow hard, and try not to look too eager, because damn if I can't believe my good fortune.
"Or not," Lila rushes in. "I mean, whatever. I can go back. Do whatever you want."
"No," I say quickly. "I want you. I mean..."
Jesus. My face is on fire.
"Uh, that is…" I cast around for something dignified to say. "Assuming you won't attack me in the middle of the night, or anything."
"I make no promises." Lila wiggles her brows. She grabs my hand, spins on her heel, and pulls me forward, back towards Merritt.
"Come on. You can even use the door this time."
# # #
SAM, YOU ARE A DORK. But I really like how his character turned out.
Thanks for all the reviews and follows, you guys! If you haven't posted yet, I'd love to hear what you think of the new chap, and the story in general. I think there'll be at least one more, because it doesn't feel quite done yet...no?