I'm not sure exactly what happened, but the next morning Walter joined me for our morning run like everything was normal. After stretching in front of his dorm, he headed up the steps and I started towards Claybourne. He shouted to me from the doorway.
"Hey. MAC Attack. After classes. Weddas."
I thought I saw the ghost of a smile as he went into the building.
I wasn't about to turn down a game of Weddas. When I arrived that afternoon, I was surprised to see Melinda sitting across from him. I smiled as I sat beside her.
"What's up, third formers? Why the summons?"
"Melinda said you wanted to hang out." Walter was smiling, but his tone still held some anger. "So, this is us hanging out. In public. You want a snack before we start?"
I looked at Walter a moment before turning to Melinda. "Can I have some?" I pointed to her fries.
"That depends," she said coyly. She pointed a fry at Walter. "Do you have his appetite?"
She was adorable. I laughed and Walter smiled. "I'll get my own."
"Hey, can you get me some, too?" Walter asked as I slid out of the booth.
"Maybe." He was my brother and he was finally making an effort to spend some time with me. Of course I would get him fries.
As I returned to the table, I saw a girl talking to Walter and Melinda. She went to stand in line as I slid in beside Melinda.
"Friend?" I passed Walter his basket.
Melinda smiled. "Walter's gonna help her in Latin."
"She's cute." When my brother started to turn red, I winked Melinda. "You're cuter."
"Stop that. Now," Walter insisted. "No flirting during Weddas."
"Sorry," I said, not meaning it. "Couldn't help it."
Playing Weddas with Walter felt almost like we were back at home, except when we got overly excited about a word, like Walter complaining when I used qat, our voices carried across the MAC. I noticed people looking in our direction, but I think Walter may have been blissfully oblivious. And, of course, there was Melinda.
The first time I brushed my arm against hers, I was reaching for a fry as she was rearranging the tiles on her tray. I had the sudden desire to kiss her, but I didn't. She smiled at me and I wondered if she was thinking the same as I was. Luckily, Walter was too concerned about beating me that he failed to notice. As the game went on, I brushed my arm against hers a few more times. I loved the way it made me feel, but I also loved the smile I got in return.
After Walter used the last tiles in the bag, we played until Walter and I cleared our boards. I could see Melinda's frustration as she continued to pass, unable to form words.
When Walter announced he had won, I placed my arm around Melinda. The game was over, so I could flirt now, right?
I leaned closer and pulled her tray towards me. "Lemme see your tiles." I examined them a moment while looking at the board. "You could have gotten a bunch more words." I picked up a tile and placed it in the corner formed by two words. "See, if you put this here, you get these three words and..." I counted the tiles involved. "Eighteen points."
Melinda shook her head. "I know all those words, too. I just didn't see it."
I picked up another tile and placed it at the end of a word. "You could have played this, too."
"Maybe I'll do better next time," Melinda shrugged under my arm, but she wasn't shrugging me away. Actually, I thought she might have leaned into me.
Walter checked the time. "Wanna play again?"
Melinda shook her head. "No! I like this game, but only once a day. More than that, I'll go nuts!"
I laughed, releasing Melinda so I could use both hands to help my brother clean up. "So, whaddaya say? Should we do this again tomorrow?"
Melinda looked to Walter, who shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so."
The next afternoon, I snuck up behind Walter at lunch. Melinda saw me and I saw her smile as she took a sip of her water. There were several seats between her and my brother, so I opted for one slightly closer to her. I looked at my brother as I put down my tray.
"So. How was your date last night?"
Sarah and Larry had been talking quietly when I sat down. At the word date, her head snapped up.
"Date? Who had a date?" She looked all around then pointed at her roommate. "You had orchestra. I know. I was there."
Melinda giggled and I smiled. Walter turned red as he explained who the little cutie was. Then he glared at me. "We did not have a date, which you very well know."
Melinda helped Walter explain about his study date. I didn't pay too much attention until he turned to Melinda and said, "I did mention how you and I do the assignments in advance –"
I looked at Melinda. "What? You do extra homework?"
Melinda closed her eyes and sighed as she explained her process of doing her homework an extra night early. It actually sounded like a very smart idea, but I would never admit that.
She tried to turn the subject back to Walter's study date, but Larry seemed to be having issues with the extra homework, too. He turned to Sarah.
"Did you know about this extra homework thing?"
"Why is this a big deal?" Melinda started to blush.
"Yeah. She told me about it a long time ago. She got the idea from..."
I looked around the table, but Walter and the girls were all looking at their plates. Larry and I exchanged puzzled looks He was the one to voice our question.
"Who? She got the idea from who?"
"Whom," I corrected automatically.
"An arrogant narcissist who shall remain nameless," Walter answered. At Larry's clueless look, Sarah explained Walter was referring to Melinda's first boyfriend. When Larry insulted the guy, I got the impression there was a very interesting story here. I hoped someday Melinda would be comfortable enough to tell it to me herself.
The conversation turned to ideas for that afternoon, and I suggested going to Checkmate
. When no one knew what I was talking about, I insisted we all go.
"Are you sure you want to take your girlfriend to Checkmate?" Frank asked as we walked towards Walter's dorm after school.
"She's not my girlfriend."
"Whatever. Aren't you afraid she's gonna think you're a geek?"
I shook my head. "I think she's gonna love it."
As we headed to the back of the dorm, I heard Larry's voice. "Is this some sort of upper former prank against third formers?" Man, I loved that guy!
"Wow, way to be paranoid." I pointed to Frank. "Has everyone met Frank? Frank, that's Walter's friend Larry and Melinda's roommate Sarah. This is Pete. Call him Frank. Okay. Let's go."
We walked along quietly for a while, everyone following me, until Walter finally tried to get more details about where we were going. I refused to tell him. I really wanted to see his face when we got there.
I led them to the board game café and held the door so I could see each one's reactions they walked inside. I followed them in, removing my hat and scarf as the door shut behind me. I headed to the counter, noticing the old guys playing chess by the window. Sometimes I thought those two might live at that table.
Spencer stood from his stool to greet us. "Do my eyes deceive me? Or has Pat Evans finally returned to Checkmate?"
We did our secret handshake and he asked when I had returned. I explained it had been a busy two weeks and introduced him to Walter and his friends.
Walter looked like he was in heaven. "What is this place?"
I explained that he could spend all afternoon here playing whatever games he liked. Then, after everyone paid, I sent them to the white boards in the back of the room while I went to get a game. But, I couldn't find it on the shelf
"Spence! You reorganized!"
"No, I didn't! What're you looking for?"
"It's over there!"
"No, it's not!"
"I can't concentrate!" Spencer's uncle shouted at me.
Spencer's father sighed. "Spence, you reorganized back in May. It's in the family game section, two bookcases to your left."
"Thanks, Rick." I found the game and sat beside Melinda.
I removed the markers from the box and explained the rules. I declared Frank and I team captains and everyone else drew lots to divide the teams. I ended up with both girls, which was fine by me.
Frank and I went first. He flipped the first card and swore. When he showed it to me, I made a sour face. How was I supposed to draw that?
I flipped the timer, shouted "go!" and started drawing.
Sarah started yelling behind me. "Circle. Man. Dead. Sleeping. Kick."
I gave her a puzzled look, but caught Frank's drawing of a boot on the opposite board. I continued my drawing.
"Marco Polo!" Melinda shouted.
"Yes!" I gave her a high five, although I wanted to hug her. "We get a point. Okay. Who's next?"
We played until the other team won, twenty-one to fifteen. Then, everyone started wandering around looking at the different games. When Melinda headed towards the puzzle section, I followed her. I stood close enough to smell her shampoo.
"Have you ever played Mancala?"
When she said no, I removed the blue tin from the shelf and took her hand, leading her to a table for two. I told myself I chose this table because it was easier to play the game. But it also gave us the added bonus of some privacy. I set up the board and explained the directions. She seemed to understand the basics but wanted a practice round. We played for real and Melinda beat me, twenty-nine to nineteen.
I smiled at her as she bounced excitedly in her seat. Suddenly, she stopped and narrowed her eyes. "Wait, you let me win, didn't you?"
"I promise. I didn't. We can play again if you don't believe me."
"Nah. Let's play something else."
"Oh. I have a great idea. Stay here. I'll be right back."
I went to the counter, where the paper games were stored and grabbed a sheet of dots and two colored pencils. Melinda recognized the game and sent me an infectious smile.
She wasn't very good at this game, unless she was purposefully setting up boxes for me to get the point. It took a while, but I beat her sixty-four to thirty-five. We played a few more times and she got better, but I still beat her each time.
"What next?" I asked after the fourth round.
Melinda glanced at her phone. "I think we should be heading back for dinner. Why is Sarah texting me? We all decided to grab some hot cocoa at the coffee shop. See you at dinner."
I looked around. "I never noticed them leave."
"We should be getting back."
We put on out coats and hats and said goodbye to Spence. As we walked out the door, I put on my gloves and began wrapping my scarf around my face.
Melinda smiled at me. "You know, it's not that windy. You probably don't need the scarf."
"You realize it's not for the wind, right?"
"Why else would you wear it? I can never wear scarves. I always feel like they're strangling me, no matter how loose they are."
I had to laugh, putting my arm around her and pulling her close to me. She didn't resist. "You're adorable. I'm sorry. That was just the randomest comment. I have to wear the scarf in town. I don't like being recognized."
We walked a half a block before she spoke again. I think it took her that long to connect the dots. "Is that why you always wear the hat and sunglasses to church?"
I nodded and told her how hard it was going into town when I first started at Hartfield. I explained how Mom had suggested the sunglasses and scarf and how it had just become my habit whenever I go into town.
We talked for a while about me being a celebrity. It wasn't the normal conversation where people asked me what it was like. She was so easy to talk to. With Melinda, I felt I could share with her some of the downfalls I had experienced. We talked about how I missed Meghan being at school with me and how disappointed I was with the way Walter was avoiding me.
After another block, I pulled her closer, and asked if she would tell me about the ex-boyfriend everyone was discussing at lunch. To my surprise, she explained how her ex had suggested doing his work a day early and she had adopted the idea and done it in every class since September. Then, she told me about how this guy made a bet with his friends about kissing her.
"He was a horrible kisser, anyway," she told me as we reached the dining hall. "And, why am I telling you all this?"
"It's the scarf. It makes people want to share their innermost secrets."
"Then, maybe you shouldn't wear it." Melinda giggled as she pulled it away from my mouth. I didn't mind. We were back on campus.
I wanted to kiss her. Instead, I smiled. "I had fun with you today." I turned towards the dining hall.
"Oh, I'm not going in yet."
"I have to get my books. I always get my books first. Then, I can go straight to the library after dinner."
"That is so..." I fought for the right word. "studious."
Melinda shrugged. "I've got my routines. It feels weird if I don't go to the dining hall without my bag."
I wasn't about to let her go back on her own. Not when I could spend a few more minutes with her. As we crossed the street towards the dorms, Melinda laced her fingers with mine.
"I had fun with you today, too."
I took her hand and brought her to the bench behind the humanities building. We sat down. I hadn't even kissed her and my heart was racing.
"Do you think, maybe you and I could hang out again? Just the two of us?"
Melinda sighed in exasperation. "Pat, it's still weird."
I touched her cheek with the back of my hand. "I know. I mean, you do extra homework. How weird is that?"
She put her hands on my chest to playfully push me away. I wondered if she could feel that my heart was ready to leap out of it.
She spoke softly. "Don't get me wrong. I like spending time with you."
I smiled and pulled her closer to me. She didn't object. In fact, she rested her forehead against mine. I wanted to kiss her so badly. I thought I was going to burst at the seams. Instead, I sat up.
"Do you know the story of Daphne and Apollo?"
Melinda thought for a moment. "I remember reading the name, but I don't remember the story."
I pulled her close again. She rested her head on my chest and I rested mine on her head. I savored the smell of her shampoo as I wrapped my arms around her and summarized the myth she had read in her English class.
"Am I your Daphne?" She asked when I was done. She suddenly tried to sit up. "Wait, you're not in love with me, are you?"
I laughed lightly, pulling her back towards me. "No, I'm not saying that. I don't know what I am. Smitten, I guess."
"Does the story have a happy ending?"
"Um...Let's just say I hope things turn out better for us." I caressed her cheek one more time. "I should let you go." I didn't move. I didn't want to let her go.
"Pat, I just need more time to figure this out. Whatever this is."
"I'm not trying to rush you. I'm just reminding you that it's still here." I kissed her gently on the forehead. I wanted to kiss her mouth, but I wasn't sure if she would want me to. I left her there as I walked to the dining hall, wondering how such a simple little kiss could make my heart flutter.