“Absolutely. I have a surprise for you,” Jared said, taking my hand and pul ing it to his mouth.
My mood quickly changed as the warmth from his lips shot up my arm. “I love surprises.”
“I know,” he said against my skin.
“Carved your name. In a tree? That’s so sweet!” Beth squealed.
“Yes, in a tired, done-three-bil ion-times kind of way,” Kim droned, unimpressed.
I ignored her, smiling at Beth. “He brought me to a field that had a lone Oak tree in the center. We rol ed out a blanket for the picnic lunch he packed. It was perfect.”
“You’re up,” Kim said, elbowing me.
“Oh,” I said, briefly glancing to the menu hanging from the ceiling. “Large coffee. Black.” The girl behind the counter nodded, and punched the buttons on the register, waiting for my check card. I nudged Beth. “Did you want anything?”
“Nah, not today.”
I rol ed my eyes. “SHe’ll have a Large Skinny Mochachino, please.”
“I said I didn’t want anything,” Beth said, feigning annoyance. “And since when do you drink your coffee black?”
“We’re not going to have our morning coffee talk on the first day of school without coffee,” I said, “I know things are tight for you and Chad right now. Moving is expensive. It’s not a problem.”
“I’m not a mooch.”
“Southern hospitality. Isn’t that what you call it?” I winked.
“You’re a Yankee,” Beth muttered.
The girl turned to make our drinks, and Beth leaned in. “So the tree….”
I smiled. “The carving was amazing. Bril iantly detailed. I’ve never seen anything like it. He walks me to the other side, and his parents initials were carved there, too, from like…years ago.”
“No way!” Beth shrieked. She looked around, settling down before her next question. “So have you guys set a date? For the wedding?”
I looked down. “Er…no. But it was a nice lunch.”
“A nice lunch?” Kim asked.
“He didn’t mention it,” I said.
“Wel , that’s a first,” Beth teased.
It wasn’t hard to guess why Jared’s questions about a wedding date had tapered off—he was worried about the nightmares, and he didn’t want to make them worse. I knew Jared wanted to set a date. As the weeks passed and I was stil reluctant to discuss it, he had begun to get anxious.
Once the sleepless nights began, the wedding was the farthest thing from his mind.
We took a spot by the window, and updated each other on our summers. Beth and Chad had cut back on their hours at their jobs because of the fal semester. Money was scarce, but they were enjoying playing house. Kim had traveled to see family, but returned early.
“My dorm room missed me,” she smiled.
“How did you get them to let you in?” Beth asked.
“I have the gift of persuasion,” Kim said, rubbing her fingers together.
“So you traveled most of the summer, didn’t work, and you had enough money to bribe the powers that be at Brown University?” I asked. “Right.”
Kim shrugged. “I robbed two banks and a liquor store on the way to Chicago.”
“Nice,” I said, taking another sip.
“So Ryan’s in the Army?” Kim asked.
“Kim, Jesus,” Beth said, shaking her head.
I nodded. “Wrote me a letter, and just popped in the mail on his way to war. Like it was nothing. Like a freakin’ birthday card.”
“Or a post card,” Kim added.
“With soldiers on it,” Beth said. She looked down, trying not to smile.
“With green and black faces, and big guns,” Kim smiled.
Beth waited a moment, and then spoke again. “In camo speedos.”
“Lying on a hammock on the beach, with ‘Greetings from War’ in big, yel ow, bubble letters,” I frowned.
Beth giggled before making a poor attempt at a straight face. “It’s not your fault.”
“It’s completely my fault. I should have stopped him.”
Beth’s smile disappeared. She touched my arm. “Nigh, you didn’t know to stop him.”
“No, I sure didn’t,” I said under my breath, knowing Jared could hear.
We tossed our empty cups into the trash before making our way to campus. The walk seemed longer than the years before. I remembered walking down the same street, wondering if I would run into Jared, hoping I could steal another moment with him. A smile touched my mouth as I looked behind us. The Escalade was parked across the street, half a block away.
So much had changed since I sat on the park bench. Life had gone from bad to worse, to wonderful to unbelievable, and now my days were as mundane as any other col ege sophomore. If only I could close my eyes without seeing my father, but that was asking for too much.
Beth would steal a peek at me now and then. Final y my curiosity outweighed my aversion to her lengthy explanations.
“Okay, Beth. Do I have something on my face?” I asked.
“A booger,” Kim said without expression, pointing to my nose.
“I have a booger on my nose?” I gasped, my hand flying up to cover it.
“No,” Kim said.
Beth smiled. “It doesn’t look like you’ve had much sleep, is al .”
My hand didn’t leave my face without wiping my nose a few times, and then I made a face at Kim. “I haven’t, I guess.”
“You guess?” Beth persisted.
“Bad dreams,” Kim said.
“How did you know?” I asked.
Kim shrugged. “Just a guess. What are they about?”
Beth’s mouth slipped to the side, and then she frowned at Kim with disapproval. Kim didn’t flinch.
“What about your dad?” Kim said.
I scratched my head and watched for traffic—stal ing, of course, uncomfortable with the direction the conversation had turned.
“Just the way he died. But it’s different.”
“Different how?” Kim prodded.
Beth stopped mid-step. “Geez, Kim! Knock it off already!”
“Sometimes talking about it can help, Nina,” Kim said, ignoring Beth.