Thanks for stopping by! This is a story that has been weighing on my mind and, what with the state of world, found myself with a bunch of free time to get it on paper. I've finished it and am now combing through each chapter to clean everything up. Be advised - this is a slow burn romance book. I know they are not for everyone, but they're my favorite because the payoff is usually worth it. So give this is a read if you're like me and adore slow developing relationships. Also, I would greatly appreciate any reviews with advice/corrections. Thanks for reading :)

-woodlander

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Starting Position

Dedication: To those who live each day without a mother - she's still with you.

xxx

A pair of misty, empty eyes overtook my vision. They were dark, all consuming, like stepping into the orbs would mean an eternity of imprisonment. The eyes were forceful, they wanted me – I was an insect to a flame, too overcome to realize the fate awaiting me if I gave in.

I blinked. And then I blinked again, remembering to concentrate and count. It would be over with soon, and I could leave it all behind. The eyes were then swallowed in their own darkness.

My life's sole purpose was to count down the weeks, days, and minutes until it was over. Twenty-one weeks, one hundred and forty-seven days, three thousand five hundred and twenty-eight minutes was all I had left to endure.

How strange it was to be nothing but a shell housing a ticking clock.

Even stranger was though my life continued after this time had passed, I couldn't see beyond the end date. It was blurry and faded, as though another person would take over while I fell to the sidelines. But I didn't focus on this; my sights were set on the singular date. Nothing afterward mattered.

Twenty-one weeks and I'd be free.

Campus was actively buzzing when I arrived. The outside air was cold and brittle like it had the potential to shatter anyone standing outdoors long enough. As I glided down the main building hallway, I took note of the many faces I recognized but didn't know a fragment about. I wondered if they saw me, the girl I used to be. Or maybe I appeared as completely hollow as I felt, a ghost haunting Columbia Gorge Community College.

Tucking the stick straight strands chestnut hair behind both ears and sliding my hands down the rumples in my sweater, I trudged further along until I saw the group of people I knew only recognized me as the older, but better, model of myself.

"Elliot! Come over here!"

Sucking in a breath as though I hadn't in months, I ventured over to the group and slid inside my place within the circle.

"Hi, Tyson," I said, meeting the gaze of the person who had called my name. It was evident the others had been in the middle of discussing something I would rather avoid but was now forced into by association: the party last weekend.

I hadn't attended, nor had I had any desire to attend. The party was held in the same house at the same time nearly every weekend. Having gone once was enough, as every time following was the exact same experience.

"You missed out, Elliot. It was crazy!" Hudson, who was standing to Tyson's left, exclaimed, accentuating his already excitable features.

The raven-haired girl next to me, Cambrie, nudged my shoulder softly. "'Crazy' is a bit of an exaggeration, don't you think?" She smiled slyly.

"An exaggeration?" Hudson repeated, mouth hinged open. "Serious shit when down!"

Cambrie rolled her deep, coffee eyes. "Right. I forgot. A fight breaking out at a party is 'serious shit.'"

"It is if it's over the girl who told you she'd go out with you the following weekend, but was hanging onto somebody else all night," Hudson said.

The sly smile returned to Cambrie's face. "You know, the real tragedy is you thinking Lilah Evans wasn't dating four other guys simultaneously when she told you that. She has a bit of proven track record."

Hudson winced, but continued. "But that guy? Drake, or whatever his name is. I mean, she could be with me!"

Cambrie's next words solidified why she was my best friend, until death do us part. "Anybody could be with you, Hudson."

At this, Tyson laughed causing his bulky frame to shutter. Reflexively, I took a small step away from him.

"You know," Cambrie started, "the more I think about it, you two might be perfect for each other."

"Shut up," Hudson muttered, while Tyson still shook with amusement. The conversation was abruptly put on a hold, however, as something in the hallway garnered Tyson's attention. More specifically, someone.

As soon as my eyes settled on who had snagged Tyson's attention, I needed no further indication about what was to shortly commence. The person Tyson, and now the other two around me, were staring at was walking, or rather awkwardly ambling, up the hallway with stiff legs and jerking arms. It was a sight I had witnessed on multiple occasions, as was the one due to arrive any moment now.

"Hey, Ben!" Tyson blurted, causing Ben's feet to cease moving. His body still exuded short, rigid movements as he stood just beyond our group. His face was impartial, and even though his honey colored eyes had registered what was about to happen, he wore no suggestion of fear. "You might want to start wearing a beeper, you know, so that people know you're coming up behind them. Your spastic body is kind of a hazard. Might knock someone over."

Ben let his gaze linger on Tyson for a second longer than was comfortable, and then, as if nothing happened, removed his eyes and continued walking forward in the same manner as Tyson had commented. It wasn't as though he could help it: Ben had cerebral palsy, and based off everything I had been told, the movements he made were a result of the condition. His voice, too, was impaired, and I was happy he hadn't used it, because Tyson would be sure to wreak havoc given the opportunity.

A few mumblings brought my attention back to the group. Tyson looked rather proud of himself while Hudson sported a ludicrous grin. Cambrie, on the other hand, was squinting at them both through slanted, narrowed eyes, her mouth a straight line.

"Can you imagine if we had gone to high school with him?" Tyson said. "Just think of him in PE."

A booming laugh erupted from Hudson. "It would have been shit show. Oh, dude – think about dodgeball!"

Tyson roared heartily before settling his gaze on me. "Pretty funny, huh, Ell?"

I hated when he called me Ell.

"Mmmm," I mumbled, not making eye contact and searching for an opportunity to remove myself.

"You know," Cambrie said, drawing in a breath, "I would have liked to have seen him in high school." My eyes snapped to hers, curious of her course of action. "I hear he's pretty intelligent. It would have been a great sight to see him outsmart your ass in class."

Tyson winced and pretended to mend the mental wounds.

Ten minutes later, I was free from the group and in my first class. And as I sat in silence, I couldn't help but count down the hours until the day was over, the imaginary hands of a clock moving slowly inside me.

xxx

"Is that you, Ell?" my father asked as I quietly shut the front door.

"No, I'm a robber here to steal your horrible vinyl collection and outdated TV," I said and slung my book bag on the ground next to the loveseat. The lack of laughter gave me some surprise, so I cautiously trekked into the kitchen to find my father pouring two glasses of iced tea. After giving up alcohol completely, the man thrived on his iced tea, the middle of January or not.

"How was your day?"

"Fine," I said, and took the glass, bringing the cool liquid to my lips. "Thanks."

"Anything exciting happen today?"

My senses had already registered he had wished to have a discussion of some sort, but now they were firing alarms. After asking how my day was, the two of us usually carried on our merry way and coexisted. Any other question typically meant I needed to prepare myself for a conversation.

"Nothing particularly," I said between sips.

My dad flicked his chocolate eyes, a reflection of my own, at me before heaving a sigh and leaned against the kitchen counter, as if to settle himself. My body seemed to realize I needed to brace myself as well and sank into a seat at our small kitchen table.

"Listen, Ell. I need to talk to you about something."

Ding, ding, ding. Elliot for the win.

Cautiously, I tilted my head up and waited for him to continue.

"Ever since your mom… I know it's been rough, alright?"

My heart pounded in my chest further. It had already been running rampant due to the impending talk, but the mention of my mother… my father never spoke of her. It was as if I had shell shock; my mouth fell open and I couldn't concentrate. Dipping my head and avoiding eye contact was the only defense I could muster.

"It's just, it's been almost three years and I think – I think, maybe, it's time I move on."

The air rushed from my lungs, and with it, a rush of desire to flee the kitchen. My dad, keenly aware of my body language, continued, "Listen, I get it. This is a hard conversation. But, it's only that – I think – I know you'll like Sarah."

My head snapped upright. "You met someone?"

A quiet huff escaped my dad's mouth. "I did." When I didn't respond, he added, "She's great. You'll like her. She's a second-grade teacher. I'm not saying you have to meet her right now, but I – I wanted to let you know." The last part of his speech escaped hastily.

Somehow, I still hadn't managed to take a breath of air. My lungs ached and they felt on the verge of collapsing. I couldn't inhale. I couldn't exhale. I needed to breathe. So, the only way I could think to relieve myself from the airless room was to tell my dad what he wanted to hear.

"That's… great."

"Ell..."

"Really, it's good." I stood up from the table. "I've got homework I need to do."

"We can talk more about it later, if you want."

I nodded and left the kitchen. On my way to my bedroom, I peeked at the clock on the wall, noting I had about five hours left in the day. Only five hours before I could crawl into bed and pretend none of this was real. I could handle that.

xxx

The following day, I entered my first and only class: Contemporary American Literature, which was on reserve for Tuesday's and Thursday's. This notion soothed me. Despite it being an upper level course, I never considered reading novels work. In fact, I was often found reading in much of my spare time. Compared to the other courses I was taking this semester, which were all upper level requirements for a transfer degree in Communications, I was looking forward to the next sixty minutes.

I released a silent puff of air as I ventured deeper inside, relieved I would be spending two days a week in this classroom. It was small and cozy; vintage book posters claimed the walls, and stacks of books occupied many shelves. Further, no more than twenty desks were scattered around. Personally, I was much more suited to classrooms smaller in size.

I walked towards the back corner of the classroom and claimed a seat, happy to be tucked away. It was always the small victories, wasn't it?

As I was sorting through the contents of my bag, deciding which ones to extract, a body came to an abrupt halt next to me.

"Oh, thank god. I thought I was going to be stuck in this class all by myself."

I glanced up to meet the eyes of Hudson. We had known each other for quite some time, and strangely, in that moment, I caught a glimpse of the boy I had befriended at recess many years ago: friendly smile, kind eyes, and a gentle demeanor. How things had a tendency to change, I supposed. I knew I wasn't the same as I had been all those years ago.

"Hey, Hudson," I said as his features morphed back to their present-day appearance. My spirits sank a bit. I would have enjoyed the class much more if I hadn't known anyone on a personal level. And, as per history with Hudson, I knew he would want to collaborate – more accurately, get help – on all manners of the class. He wasn't particularly gifted in the language arts arena, which meant I would end up as his crutch.

"Last semester sucks, huh? You're stuck taking all the classes you don't want to."

I grimaced and said, "I'm surprised you're in this one. I thought you were majoring in engineering." I also knew he was nearly failing out of his engineering classes.

Hudson nodded, taking the seat on my right. "I need an elective filled. This was the only one that worked with my schedule. I hate book reading classes."

Book reading classes.

I let that hang in the space around me before shaking it away and ignoring the shiver it sent up my spine. One man's trash is another's treasure. But really, who could dislike reading?

Before I could say anything in response, Hudson interjected, "But, I guess if he can take this class, it can't be that difficult."

Immediately, I turned to find the person in the direction where Hudson was looking. Sitting across from me was Ben Harrison. He was in the process of setting up his desk with a notebook and pencil, his body moving slowly, and I was able to snap my head back in place before I was caught staring. It appeared Ben hadn't heard Hudson speak.

Nervously tucking hair behind my ears, I thought quickly of something to say to Hudson. "It's not going to be too hard a class. Just read the books and you'll make it out alive."

"How many books are we talking?" he asked, still preoccupied with Ben.

"Um, I don't know. A few, at least."

Hudson smiled to himself just as the professor, a woman with long gray hair and spectacles, arrived in front of the class.

"Like I said, if he can be in here, I'll be fine."

I offered Hudson a tight-lipped smile in hopes it would be enough to shut him up. Thankfully, the professor began speaking and the quiet chatter in the room waned.

"Welcome, class. You've found your way to Contemporary American Literature, so if you find you're in the wrong class or you aren't up to reading six classic novels this semester, I suggest you make towards the door."

A soft chuckle floated around the room. Hudson glanced towards me with wide, hazel eyes. There was no way he was going to manage six novels on his own, and I silently accepted my fate.

"Anyway, as you can see, this is a small class. I prefer it this way, and I think the lot of you will as well. We'll be doing quite a bit of both individual and group assignments as we work through the novels, and so it becomes helpful to get to know your peers. You'll become more and more comfortable sharing your thoughts and ideas, and you'll gain some insight into the thoughts and ideas of others.

"I really do enjoy teaching this class, and I hope you enjoy it also." The professor smiled kindly and then clasped her hands together in front of her chest as if remembering something. "Oh, I am horrible at introductions, aren't I? My name is Larissa Williams, Professor Williams to you all. Why don't we go around the room and each introduce ourselves?"

And there it was, the worst sentence in the English language. Whenever instructed to introduce myself to a room full of strangers, anxiety tended to swirl against my chest. Although the class was small, I still felt it prick under my skin, and, such was always the case, I was so preoccupied with the thought of speaking aloud, I missed everyone's introductions. Until the person beside me spoke, that was.

"Hi, I'm Ben Harrison," he said in a voice that was foreign and unusual, as if a strain for him to speak.

"Hi, Ben. Welcome," Professor Williams said with a soft smile.

I could sense many occupants in the room shift uncomfortably in their chairs and side glance in an attempt to discover the owner of the strange voice. Ben seemed not to notice nor care.

Before too long, it was my turn. "Hi. My name is Elliot Mitchell."

"Welcome, Elliot. It's nice to have you."

After all introductions had been made, Professor Williams went over the syllabus and explained her expectations. We would be reading six novels, five of which I had already read, and we would be engaged in many assignments throughout the course. On top of that, we would eventually be paired off with a partner to read a novel and create a visual project due at the end of the semester. It all seemed easy enough.

During the last ten minutes of class, Professor Williams asked if any of us had read the novel she had listed as a reading suggestion with the class information prior to the start of semester. The novel, All the Light We Cannot See, was one I had read about a year and half ago, however, I did not extend my hand to signify this fact, as there was only one other arm stretched in the air.

"Well, congrats to you, Ben. It was, after all, just a suggestion, but I'm glad you ended up reading it. What did you think?"

The room had become deafening silent.

"Well, for those of you who don't know, the book relates and interconnects the stories of two children, one from France and the other from Germany, during World War II. It relays vivid imagery and a storyline that really tells the story of how wartime can have both horrible and beautiful effects. It was a great book, and I kicked myself for not having had read it sooner."

"That'd be a sight to see. Him kicking himself," Hudson whispered causing me to want to withdraw inside myself and evaporate into thin air.

While the rest of the class seemed uncomfortable from Ben's long speech, curious eyes dancing around in various locations, I found myself settling on his words. He was right: the novel itself was an achievement in its storytelling; it was intricate and delicate, and very emotional. It was quite moving.

Carefully, I stole a glance at Ben. He was focused forward, not paying attention to any of the ill-concealed looks he was receiving, myself included. From the brief few seconds I studied his face, I could tell he had sincerely meant what he had said about the novel.

"Well said," Professor Williams stated, giving him a curt nod. "Maybe you'll inspire some of your classmates to read it by the end of the semester."

As I took in Ben's side profile one last time, his mouth appearing to be holding a crooked smile, I had to admit I felt compelled to read the novel again.

Moments later, class let out. Hudson waved a quick a goodbye as he headed for the door, mentioning something about basketball tryouts, which left me piling supplies back into my book bag. On my way towards the exit, I was fumbling around for my car keys when I noticed Ben was directly in front of me, propping open the door.

"Um, thanks," I mumbled. He smiled, but I did not return it. I was almost certain my mouth had forgotten how to form one in the last few years.

xxx

Thanks for reading! Please review :)