The Starbucks was crowded, but we found a small table with two chairs by a window and took our seat. Daniela took a sip from her steaming drink and eyed me carefully.
“So what was that badass hammer you were drawing when Muller called on you?” she asked.
My face grew hot. I hadn’t told her—or anyone else—about the incident with the lake. It was too embarrassing, and I was afraid that people would think I had fallen in on purpose no matter what I told them. A lot of people, Daniela included, knew about my family tragedies. My mom’s murder had been major news. After such a sensational story, my dad’s suicide made a juicy follow-up. The coverage of the whole thing made me sick, as did thinking about people’s opinions on it.
I could just imagine their thought process: maybe I had inherited the temperament to go through with killing myself. If my dad could do it, why couldn’t I? I clenched my jaw. If anything, the way my dad had passed made me certain I would never do the same. I knew how it affected the people left behind.
“Whoa, hey, I was just asking. There’s no need to get mad,” Daniela said.
I blinked and snapped back into reality. “Sorry, what? I’m not mad.”
“You have a nasty scowl on your face for a girl who’s not mad.”
I smiled. “Sorry, it wasn’t you. The hammer’s something I saw on a tattoo recently, that’s all.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Are you thinking about getting a tattoo?”
“No, I just thought it looked cool.”
“Where did you see it?”
“On this guy a few days ago.”
She squinted. “Where? What did he look like?”
My chest tightened. Did she somehow know the guy who had rescued me from the lake. “Why? Have you seen it before too?”
“It sounds familiar. Where did you see him?”
“He was out jogging,” I said. That was true, at least.
“It’s January. He was out jogging and you saw his tattoo? Was it on his leg? His face?”
Shit. I was a terrible liar. “No, I was sitting inside and he came in. Here, actually. He rolled his sleeves up and that’s when I saw it.”
She stared at me for a second and said nothing. Did she realize I was lying? My guess was she probably did. Daniela was very perceptive; it was part of the reason she liked psychology so much. She’d taken several other more advanced psychology classes that only required Psych 101 and was just now circling back to take Psych 102.
She shrugged. “Fair enough. Was he hot?”
“I guess. I don’t know, I feel like me and guys is still kind of weird. Like I’m just trying to get myself right, you know? I don’t need to complicate that by trying to keep someone else happy too.”
“That makes sense.” She hummed in contemplation. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure this hammer guy is ringing a bell but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
Hoping to change the subject, I asked, “Speaking of getting myself right, can I copy your notes for class? I have like nothing from the first half.”
She laughed. “I saw. Yeah, that’s no problem.”
“Who is this Pavlov guy, anyway? You said he was important.”
“He is. Basically, he did studies on how everyone has reflexes to certain things. The first was a study on how people reacted to overwhelming stress or pain. Everyone shuts down eventually. They go in shock, become numb and stop doing things. The difference between people is when they shut down and how long it takes them to get out of it.”
“Sounds depressing.” And disturbingly familiar.
“Yeah, kind of. Basically, more sensitive people shut down sooner and have a harder time getting out of it. Anyway, he did that, but he also did this thing with dogs where he would give them food at the same time as he rang a bell. He measured how much they slobbered every time. Eventually, he would ring the bell without any food present, and the dogs would slobber the same amount.”
“And that’s called conditioning?”
She nodded. “Exactly. See, this class will be no big deal for you!”
I scrunched my nose. “I still want to copy your notes.”
“Of course. By the way, what time is it?”
I looked at my phone. “Ten-forty.”
“Ah, I need to get to class. Listen, I know you don’t want to get too involved with any guys, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, right? If I can find us dates, do you want to come out Friday?”
“I don’t know, Daniela, I might just stay in.”
“Come on, it’s first week of classes. There will be free drinks and a little flirting. Worst case, we ditch them and go back to the dorm to watch bad TV with a little buzz on. At least we won’t feel lame for not going out.”
It had been a long time since I’d been out for a fun night. Living with my aunt and uncle hadn’t really allowed that. Going out with Daniela would probably be a good time, and she was right: worst case, we could come back home. If I stayed in on the first Friday night of the semester, I would probably feel lame because everyone else was out drinking.
“Okay, if you can find us dates that aren’t total creeps, I’ll go.”
She smiled. “Good! I’ll let you know. Anyway, I’ve got to run. I’ll see you later.”
After she left, I stared into space for a few minutes. Maybe going out would be fun, maybe not, but it would definitely help get me back into the swing of normal college life. I still didn’t feel like going back to the dorm. It was too quiet. Instead, I took out my notebook and continued working on my hammer sketch, filling in more details than even the tattoo had.
It was beginning to look pretty good.
Classes on Thursday and Friday were a breeze. Since it was the first week of school, there wasn’t much homework or studying to do. Still, I found myself glad that Friday arrived. It had been a difficult experience returning to school. I found myself questioning people’s stares—and there were plenty of them. Did they know who I was? Did they see the trial on TV? It made me uncomfortable to think that they were silently judging me, pitying me, or thinking I must have a lot of issues after what I’d gone through. I just wanted to feel normal again, and having people stare at me didn’t help.
“That’s such a cute outfit,” Daniela said as I stepped out of my room into the suite. She was seated on the couch waiting for me to finish getting ready for the double-date she had set up for us. She had met a pair of guys—Cody and Justin—in her Sociology 101 class earlier in the week. So Daniela set up a double-date at a bar off campus called the Bearded Squirrel.
We were both underage by a few months but Daniela got us fake IDs. “And here I thought you were reluctant about going. You look ready to break some hearts!”
I smoothed out the front of my blue dress, adjusting the fabric at my hips to ensure the bottom wasn’t riding high in a way that could be misinterpreted by my date. “Hey, if I’m going to go on a date, I’m going to do it right. Otherwise there’d be no point, right?”
“I like that attitude! We’re gonna have so much fun tonight!”
I still wasn’t sure about doing this whole date thing. I wasn’t really looking for any kind of romantic relationship at the moment given the craziness going on in my life but it was a step toward normal. Regular people dated. They went out to parties, laughed, got drunk, and took embarrassing pictures that they would post on Facebook the next day. They didn’t sit in their rooms on Friday nights sketching and moping.