Playing Favorites – Chapter 6


Christopher

Could my life get weirder? I don’t reasonably think so, but, apparently, my reason can be wrong. Dead wrong. For instance, I thought that saying “I’m going to spank you” to Jacinda Abercromby would reasonably result in me being laughed at, or beaten up. Or laughed at, then beaten up. Or laughed at while I’m being beaten up. I mean, that would seem to be the most reasonable conclusion, right? The moments the words had left my mouth -God only knows how I worked up the balls to say them-, I thought my life was forfeit. But no.

Instead, what happened next will probably go down as one of the most erotic memories of my life. I can’t close my eyes without seeing it again. Jacinda, with her pants down, bending over the table, her furry tail high up in the air. The most perfectly round and perky ass I’ve ever seen, sadly covered by a pair of panties -pretty bland panties, too. And me, spanking the aforementioned perfection like a hippie on a pair of bongos. I didn’t know Werewolves had dark skin on their butts, too, or that it took such a nice, darker color after being spanked. Now, I know that, and I will never forget that.

A very nice visual, but the audio was even better. Usually, the only thing that comes out of Jacinda’s mouth -at least when I’m in earshot- are snarks, snarls, screams, and swears. This time, however… At first, she just grunted. Not in actual pain; it was more like a mosquito had bitten her. Kinda goaded me on, to be honest. But as the spankings went on… Sweet Jesus. A part of me wishes I had recorded her moans. The rest of me, however, rightfully believes that such an action would have been a death sentence.

Oh yeah, moan she did. Her voice turned husky, her breathing ragged, and she moaned. That got me so hard I’ve no idea how I didn’t pass out from all the blood leaving my brain. In fact, I had to take no less than two cold showers -one yesterday, one this morning- to get it down. Not that it helped: every time I think about how I made her moan like that, my dick wakes up with a start.

And that’s not all I made her do… There was also the moment when I accidentally grabbed her tail. Lord Almighty, the sound she made when I did that. At first, I thought she was in pain. But when I saw her eyes rolling back, there was no denying it -even though she did, in fact, deny it. She liked it. She really liked it. That was… Damn, that was beyond words.

Yeah, so the whole thing was pretty damn weird. But at least it’s the good kind of weird. Not the kind of weird where aliens invade planet Earth, or where a Lovecraftian horror lurks in my closet.

“Strike one! Are you sleepin’, Baldini?”

Crap! A shot of adrenaline kicks me in the pants. I immediately get back to reality, where I am not in fact still spanking Jacinda inside a locked room, but on the university’s baseball field, supposed to practice in preparation for the upcoming game. Manny has just pitched, and I didn’t even swing. The coach, Mr Priddy, has jumped up from his foldable seat. He’s chewing his piece of gum so hard I swear he’s trying to destroy it.

“Sorry, coach!” I call out.

I glance down at my feet, and correct my position. Exactly sixty feet and six inches from me, Manny shrugs his shoulders at me, his eyebrows joining in the middle. “What’s going on?” he’s saying in dude-language. I shake my head brusquely to mean: “nothing, nevermind”. Manny shrugs again, this time to say: “okay, whatever”, then gets ready for his next pitch. I batter up.

It’s always been funny to me how pitchers are the most superstitious creatures on Earth. You can tell by how they go out of their way to repeat the exact same gestures at every single pitch, no matter how ludicrous they look, believing they’re going to have the exact same result. I’ve been batting against Manny for long enough now that I know his routine by heart: adjust the collar of his shirt, tap the ball against his palm twice, breathe in deeply, tip the cap, raise his left knee with the foot pointing up and slightly out, arch his right arm above and behind the head, then breathe out as he throws.

The ball barrels at me at a charging bull’s speed, and time slows down. My bat cleaves the air, my upper body twisting to accompany its move, and seize the ball… one inch too low. Damn it.

“Foul,” the coach screams. “That’s two strikes, Baldini! Wake the hell up!”

Not sure what to blame on that one. Manny’s signature cannonball or me being… a little distracted. Thankfully, I manage to avoid a third strike, sending the ball far enough that I manage to steal third base before the left fielder recovers it and passes it to the third baseman. That’s enough to satisfy Priddy, at least.

 

“You’re off your game, today,” Manny says as we leave the showers.

“Got a lot on my mind,” I say.

“Everything cool?”

“I guess… Sort of.”

The real answer will depend on how things play out next time I meet with Jacinda.  It’s been over a week since the impromptu spanking session, and nothing has happened. I barely saw Jacinda, and when I did see her everything seemed normal. The calm before the storm, my reptilian brain says. I put on my underpants, and take off my towel.

“Is it about your dad?” Manny asks. “Did you hear about him?”

“I…” 

The memory of the texts comes back to me. I pull on the rubber band around my wrist to snap me back to the present. That rubber band thing is an old trick I’ve read about online, a long time ago. I tried it, and despite how silly it sounded at first, it actually worked. Some time after I started college, however, I decided I no longer needed it. Those texts changed my mind.

“Actually, I think he texted me.”

“What? When?”

“Yesterday, in the afternoon. I received four texts from an unknown number. I’m pretty sure it was him.”

“Oh, shit, man,” Manny says, brushing back his over-gelled hair. “You okay?”

“I’m… I’m good. I changed my number, by the way; I’ll send you a text so you can change my contact on your phone.”

“Right on. About the rest… You sure you’re good? Are you…”

He glances above his shoulder, then leans a little closer.

“Are you safe? I mean…”

“Yeah,” I say.

“Okay.” Manny nods. “Hey, you know if you need anything, Mom and I, we can-”

“I know. Thanks.”

“Anytime, bro.”

I notice he didn’t ask about the content of the texts. Maybe I didn’t look as calm and collected as I thought, or maybe he just knows me well.

“I’m starving,” he says. “Let’s hit Kabylia Kebabs.”

“Err…” I do feel like kebabs, but I’m not sure I can afford to eat out. Seeing my hesitation, Manny adds:

“It’s on me, today, don’t worry.”

But it does make me worry. I know that unlike me, Manny is doing pretty well for himself -or rather, his mom is doing pretty well for herself-, but I don’t much like living at the expense of others.

“Hey, it’s just ten bucks,” he insists. “And we need the protein. Priddy’s gonna ride us extra hard at the next training.”

“That’s true. All right, let’s go. Been a while since I had a kofte.”

“Hell yeah!” Manny says, dousing himself in deodorant to celebrate.

There’s something about Kabylia Kebabs’ aged, slightly rundown decor I like. It really goes with the fact that it’s a family-run establishment, complete with the underage waiters/busboys/cleaners. This is a place that doesn’t try to be more than what it is. Here, the food is simple, good, and not too expensive. The only real issue is that it’s not a very big place, and given how close it is to campus, it’s often packed. This day is no exception. Manny and I decide to take our food to go. We find a bench on campus, under an old tree. The weather is nice enough, but you can tell winter will be here soon.

“You look like you’re a million miles away again,” Manny says with a mouthful of fries.

“Huh? Oh, yeah, sorry.”

“Still thinking about those texts?”

“No, and actually, that wasn’t what was on my mind earlier,” I admit.

“What’s up?”

I munch on my kofte meat, wondering how I’m going to retell yesterday’s events without sounding like a lunatic -or like I’m just making stuff up.

“Um… Something happened during our last study session.”

“What study session?”

“Yeah, for my group project in History class.”

“Oh. So something happened?”

“Right. Err, it’s a long story, but basically, I think Jacinda is going to be mad at me.”

“Jacinda?” he says, burping his Yuki-Cola. “What does she have to do with it?”

“She’s in my group.”

“Woah, wait. You’re involved in a group project with Jacinda?”

“Yeah, I told you about that.”

“Uh, no, dude, you didn’t,” Manny says. “I think I’d remember that.”

I didn’t?

“Must have slipped my mind,” I say.

“Must have,” he says, poorly hiding his smirk with a handful of fries. “So, you’re doing a History project with her. What’s the subject? “Sexual tension through the ages”?”

“It’s not what you’re thinking. Plus, there’s three of us.”

“Is the third a guy or a girl?”

“A girl, but don’t start-”

“Two girls, one guy. Nice. She hot?”

“-imagining things,” I finish. “Thanks for listening.”

“Come on! Is she hot?”

“She’s fine, but look-”

“What’s her name?” Manny asks.

“Hayley Burnham.”

“Yeah, I think I know her. Tiny girl with blond hair? Always smiling and energetic?”

“That’s her. So like I was saying, something happened during our last session.”

“Something good?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know. Something weird, that’s for sure.”

Manny puts down his kebab, suddenly a lot more engaged in the conversation.

“Weird how?”

“Look, I can’t really tell you. Pretty sure Jacinda would disembowel me if I did. But the short of it is, she pissed me off, so I got back at her.”

“Ah-ah. So you’re worried she’s gonna get back at you for getting back at her?”

“I…” Well, I wasn’t worried about that, but I am now. What are the odds she’s just going to take it lying down? I mean, take it lying down is exactly what she did yesterday, but… Ah, you know what I mean. I clear my throat, and answer: “A little, I guess.”

“You know what you two should do?”

I sigh wearily. “Get a room?”

“I was gonna say put a sock on the doorknob. D’you even have enough money for a hotel room?”

His retort actually makes me laugh. Despite this, though, I’m getting a little uncomfortable. Before the library thing -make that: the library things, plural-, I would have dismissed Manny’s suggestion, and told him he’s full of it. But now, things have changed. Manny’s joke about there being a sexual tension between us hits closer to reality than I care to admit. While I still can’t stand her, I can’t deny that I’m attracted to Jacinda Abercromby. I mean, I always thought that she was a beautiful girl, but I guess I didn’t actually notice it before. Although I don’t know if “attracted” is the right word. This doesn’t feel the same as it did with Amy, for instance. It’s more… How to put it? More powerful? Primal? Animalistic? Urgent?

And perhaps strangest of all, this attraction is mutual. I mean, it’s got to be, right? No way Jacinda would have done such things to a guy she wasn’t attracted to.

As my mind goes back -for the hundredth time today- to that moment in the reading room, I unwittingly rub the palm of my hand. It hasn’t bruised, thankfully, but it’s still sore. Never thought I’d be gleeful about my hand being in pain -and, yeah, there’s a masturbation joke here, but I’m not going to make it.

Manny and I both finish our food. The lone paper towel I’ve been given is not nearly enough to clean up the sauce that’s staining my fingers. That’s another thing I love about Kabylia Kebabs: they never cheapen out on the sauce. It’s homemade, too!

“All right,” I say after the last drop of my ice tea is gone. “I have to go to math class, and prepare for the exam I know is waiting around the corner.”

“And I have to go to Spanish class,” Manny says, “and act like I understand a goddamn word coming out of Mrs Labianca’s mouth.”

I shake my head. “It amazes me that you really don’t speak any Spanish.”

“What, just because my mom’s Costa Rican I should automatically speak Spanish?”

“I meant because you’ve lived in California your entire life. Also, your mom is Puerto Rican.”

“Yeah, s’what I said.”

I laugh. Manny does not at all fit the dumb jock cliché, but he sure likes playing the part.

Math class goes pretty much as expected: not exactly boring, not exactly interesting. I notice Jacinda sitting on the other side of the classroom. All through the lesson, I throw glimpses at her, trying to gauge how mad she is, but her body language gives me nothing. She listens attentively to Mr Ivanov, and answers two questions that have me stumped. I’m going to have to cram harder to make sure she doesn’t get a better grade, or I’ll never hear the end of it.

Once the class is over, I head to the lockers. A slight tremor goes through my chest when I notice that Jacinda is already here. Her head turns towards me, and she… smiles? Oh God. She’s smiling? That can’t be good. It looks innocent, yet my guts tell me it’s anything but.

“Hi,” she says as I open my locker.

“Um, hi.”

“Physics, next?”

“Uh, yeah,” I say, my eloquence failing me.

“How’s your day going?”

Why is she asking me that? And why is she so detached? I expected her to be angry. Or embarrassed. Weirded out, maybe. I expected her to avoid me, not to engage in conversation; certainly not to make small talk.

“Fine, I guess.”

“Did you do anything last night? I went out with my sister.”

“Nothing much,” I say. “Shouldn’t you be getting your textbooks or something?”

“Silly me,” she says, her smile getting larger -and faker.

Fake. That’s exactly what it is. She’s playing a role, acting like nothing has happened. She’s probably hoping I’ll take a hint and play along. Ha! Joke’s on her. That only makes me want to tease her about it. In fact-

“Oops!” Jacinda says.

Her keyring-bracelet falls off her wrist and down on the floor –after she said “oops”. She’s not even trying to fake it well. What is she doing?

My unspoken question is immediately answered when Jacinda bends over to pick up her keys. Oh, you are kidding me. She’s turned at a 45° angle, pointing her ass towards me. Like she did that accidentally! And since when does she wear tight jeans? I don’t believe it. I can’t believe it. She is teasing me. I try to report my attention to my own locker, but my libido once again takes charge. That ass cannot be denied. My eyes are fixated on that bubbly goodness, as if Jacinda’s butt is so massive it has its own gravitational pull. Her long, fluffy tail rises above, curling into a loop.

As she bends even further -she’s no longer pretending to care about her bracelet-, her shirt and sweatshirt slowly slide off, revealing the upper part of a pair of red panties -since when does she like red?!-, and the lower part of her chest. Holy Mother of God, she’s not wearing a bra. I become hard in a matter of milliseconds as both her butt and her underboob are offered to me. Imposed on me, more like. How dare she.

I have the strong urge to slap myself, if only so that my hand will be too busy to reach for my crotch and get me some much needed release -or worse: grab that fine ass that is in front of me. My jaw is tensing up so much that my teeth are grinding. Jacinda finally picks up her bracelet, then comes back up with a little sigh. This time, her smile is neither fake, nor innocent. She opens up her locker and retrieves some books in it, humming a little tune all the while. Then, she faces me one last time, her gorgeous eyes sparkling with the mischief of a child who successfully pulled off a prank. She cast a downward glance, just long enough that there is no doubt in my mind she noticed… the effect she had on me.

“Well, we better hurry to class,” she says.

Crap. There’s only two minutes left until our Physics class. I have to admit, that bitch calculated her attack perfectly. Now, I have to walk all the way there with a boner that could be seen through my pants from a mile away. And, of course, I don’t have the time to take care of it. I grab my laptop bag and hold it in front of me as I go to the classroom. No doubt I look stupid, but that’s better than the alternative.

This is shaping up to be the most frustrating class I’ve ever had to endure. Thank God I can sit down, with a desk hiding the lower half of my body. Mr Carmichael continued his lecture on radioactivity, this time focusing on ionizing radiation. This would typically be the kind of stuff that would captivate me. But as I labor to engage with the material on my laptop, I receive a text on my smartphone. I’ve completely forgotten to turn it off. It’s from Jacinda. Shocker.

Common sense dictates me to erase that text without even reading it. After all, reading Jacinda’s texts is exactly what got me in this situation to begin with.

This situation where I got to see her bare chest, and later give her a spanking.

Yeah, I open the text. So sue me for being a red-blooded teenager.

Aaaand it’s a picture of her bust, taken from below. She’s lifting the hem of her shirt just high enough that I can discern her areolas. Holy crap, did she take that while in class? She must be some kind of ninja.

 

Christopher: What the hell are you doing?

 

As if I didn’t know…

 

Jacinda: Sorry, wrong number.

Christopher: Bullshit.

Jacinda: I was trying to text Charles. My claw must have slipped.

Jacinda: Sorry 😉

 

The fact that she doesn’t even bother coming up with a believable lie incense me more than anything else. You wanna play, bitch? I’ll play. After double-checking that the flash is off on my phone’s camera, I lift my own shirt and decide to fight fire with fire. I even adjust the angle so that my pants -and my bulge- are in the shot.

I would give all the money I don’t have to be able to see how Jacinda will react when she receives it. But given that she’s once again on the other side of the room, the best I can do is stare at the left side of the back of her head, and try to guess her reaction by the way her wolf ears move.

And… Nothing. Jacinda remains still and studious for several minutes. Okay, she probably hasn’t had the opportunity to check her phone inconspicuously yet. Any minute now. Aaaany minute. Any…

I refuse to admit how long it takes me to figure it out, but eventually it becomes obvious that Jacinda has turned off her phone. Probably right after she sent her texts. This pisses me off so much my stomach turns into a pressure cooker. Wonderful. I’ve been played like a fucking piano: she pushed my buttons, knowing exactly how I would sing.

Fuck! Nevermind. Let’s get back to ionizing radiation. Mr Carmichael has segued on its effects on living tissues, especially Humans and Humanoids. He goes off-script a little as he mentions Marie Curie, discoverer of polonium and radium, and one of the very first documented cases of radiation poisoning. I wonder if I can retain that lesson more easily if I picture Jacinda in Mrs Curie’s shoes.

Jacinda makes no attempt at communicating during the rest of the lesson. She doesn’t even look my way as she leaves, amidst a flock of students. I quickly lose sight of her, and try to tell myself that I don’t care.

“Christopher, hey!” a familiar feminine voice calls behind me.

I turn back to see Hayley catching up to me.

“Oh, hi, Hayley.”

“That was a pretty fun class,” she says, pushing back a strand of hair behind her ear. “I mean, it was a bit creepy, but…”

“Yeah, it was fine.” What’s with me and finding everything “fine”, today? It’s like something got into my head and stole my vocab. Or someone.

Hayley visibly hesitates for a few seconds, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She’s wearing pink high heeled shoes, the kind that I’m guessing is more good-looking than comfortable.

“Um, so I finished my classes for today,” she says.

“Me too, actually.”

“Oh!” Another hesitation. “So, any plans for the weekend?”

Oh, right. It’s Friday.

“Not really. I’m probably gonna stay in and go online, or something. Entertainment options are pretty limited for broke students.”

Hayley chuckles.

“I don’t have anything planned either,” she says.

“Oh?”

“Yeah.”

Hayley chuckles, somewhat nervously, and a dimple appears on the left side of her cute face.

Look, I’m not some shonen manga protagonist. While I’m far from a ladykiller, I’m not completely clueless when it comes to girls. I know how to take a hint -or a series of hints, in this case. There’s little doubt in my mind where she is going with this -or trying to, at least.

And you know what? I’m up for it.

“Hey, you want to go out, sometimes?”

Her face lightens up like I just flipped a switch.

“Sure! How about later today?”

“That works for me.”

“Great. What are you thinking? Movies, or…”

“How about coffee?” I say. “There’s this place on Fourth Street I’ve been wanting to try.”

“Okay. I can be free at four. Meet you there?”

“Sure. I’ll text you the address.”

“All right!” she says excitedly. “I can’t wait.”

She waltzes away; maybe it’s my imagination, but there seems to be a skip in her step. Not in mine, though. It’s my turn to be a little nervous. A date… I haven’t had one of those in… Christ, it’s been a while. Ever since Amy, in fact. You could say I had other things in mind, other problems that pretty much took over my life. But I guess I feel ready to get out there and start dating again. I wonder when that changed, although I sure am happy it did.

No matter. I have a bit under an hour to clean up and change clothes. Let’s not waste any time. Speaking of clothes, I am, for the first time, a little disappointed by my wardrobe. Casual wear is pretty much all I have, aside from my baseball outfit. I never really cared about what I wear, so long as I don’t look like a hobo. Ah, well. It’s just a first date at a coffee shop, not an invitation to a gala. I opt to put on my least worn-out T-shirt, an opened button-up shirt, and my navy blue jeans. No razor today; I look like a child when I’m clean shaven.

Another text. Hey, wouldn’t you know it? It’s from Jacinda. I know I don’t have many contacts, but still…

Jacinda: Hey. Can we do a study session tonight? I might not be available for a while.

Jacinda: Also, could you send me Hayley’s number? My phone did some kind of crappy update, and I lost a few contacts and my texts.

Christopher: I’m not available tonight.

I send her the requested number, along with Hayley’s email address.

Jacinda: OK thanks. Is it okay if Hayley and I have a session without you? I’d like to get some work done.

I hesitate a little before texting back:

Christopher: She won’t available tonight either.

Christopher: be*

Moments pass. I see the three animated dots appear at the bottom of the screen, then disappear, then reappear. A full minute goes by.

Jacinda: OK good night.

For some reason, I don’t feel as pumped up about my date as I leave my apartment and get on my way to the coffee shop. Nerves, no doubt. I do get a bit jittery as I get on the 518 heading downtown. Thankfully, I doused myself in body spray in case I get the sweats.

Janarabica is not Toulouse’s, that’s for sure. Where Toulouse’s tries for a 1920’s Gay Paris ambiance, Janarabica’s deco seeks to evoke Italy. It’s a little in your face about it, honestly: in addition to the multiple paintings of Italian landscapes, it seems like everything is painted green, white, and red. At least the prices are reasonable, as opposed to those of Toulouse’s. Come to think of it, it’s kinda messed up that I can’t afford to drink regularly at the place where I work.

I get here ten minutes early. Given the buses, it was either that or twenty minutes late. I pull out my smartphone, browse some random website, and wait in front of the shop. Hayley gets here about ten minutes late, looking a little winded.

“Sorry!” she says. “Couldn’t find a parking spot.”

She’s now wearing a pair of beige pants, and a white top with flowery embroidering that leaves her navel exposed. On her side is a small baby blue bag with a shoulder strap. Oh, she put on some make up, too. Her lipstick is a different shade of pink, she added some eyeliner of the same color, put on some blush on her cheeks, and did her eyelashes.

“It’s cool. Shall we?”

We find a table against the wall, right beneath a large painting depicting a winery in Tuscany -according to the label. Hayley browses the menu above the counter, her lips twisting.

“Hmmm… I’m not sure what I want,” she says. “Heck, I’m not sure I can pronounce most of that stuff right.”

Most of the terms, predictably, are in Italian. I only speak a few words, despite both sides of my family being of Italian descent.

“I think I’ll have a…” I peel my eyes. “Colombia Decaf… Medio… with cream. Those pastries look good too, don’t you think?”

“Oh, I don’t eat sugar.”

“Oh?” I say, raising an eyebrow in surprise.

“It’s very fattening,” she explains. “And addictive. It’s basically cocaine.”

“Except cocaine would make you thinner,” I joke.

“I guess,” Hayley says, chuckling a little. Her laughter sounds forced.

“Well, kudos for your restraint. I couldn’t imagine living without sugar. It’s like half my diet. The other half being fat.”

“Ah, heheh, that’s okay. Each his own, I guess.”

It gets quiet between us after that. I don’t really know what to talk about. Geez, I really am out of practice. Thank God the waiter comes by quickly to take our order. Hayley orders a small cup of coffee, black. In addition to my drink, I try a bombolini, which according to the waiter is a kind of sugar-coated, deep-fried, jelly-filled doughnut. The description makes Hayley tick a bit, but she doesn’t say anything.

Right after the waiter leaves, it gets a little awkward again. Come on, Christopher, think of something to talk about. Her. Talk about her. It’s a date, you should get to know her. Ask her about… Hell, I don’t know, something simple.

“Are you from the Bay Area?”

All right, that’s a good start.

“Not originally, I was born in Seattle, but I moved to San Francisco when I was eleven. I graduated from Lincoln last year, actually. And you?”

“I’m from Los Angeles.”

“Oh, wow, that’s pretty cool! Did you move to San Francisco for college?”

“Uh, yeah,” I say. I feel slightly bad, because it’s only a half-truth. But then, she asked why I moved to San Francisco, not why I left LA. “All the best colleges are here.”

“Must have been hard to outroot yourself like that.”

“It was,” I admit. But not for the reasons she probably thinks. “But then again, it’s Berkeley! I couldn’t pass on an opportunity like that.” Or on an opportunity to get the hell away from home.

“I totally get it,” Hayley says, bouncing on her chair. “I still can’t believe I made it! I was not a very good student in high school. Or ever, actually.” Another forced chuckle. “I bet you were an A-student in every grade, though.”

“Ah, err… Well, kind of. High school was a hard time for me.”

“I’m sorry. Were you bullied?”

I mull that question over for a second. Technically, the answer is no, but…

“I’m sorry!” she says again before I can answer. “That’s inappropriate to ask. Forget it.”

“No, no, it’s okay. No, I wasn’t bullied per se. I mean, I wasn’t exactly the most popular kid in school, but I fit in just fine. It’s just, huh, I had other stuff going on back then.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she says one more time. “Erm, so, are you close to your folks?”

“Well…. Not really. I mean, my mother and I were kinda close, I guess.”

“What about your father?”

I suck on my teeth.

“Um, no, we’re not close.”

Hayley’s eyebrows raise in worry. I feel a bit bad for her. She was trying to change the subject for something less heavy, and now she realizes she’s gone the wrong way.

“Ah… I’m…” she stutters.

“What about your family?” I say, putting on a smile. “Are you close to them?”

“Yes!” she says, the embarrassment in her expression dissipating somewhat. “My mom’s a school teacher, and my dad’s an executive at Schuyler.”

“Schuyler?”

“It’s a publishing company; they started at textbooks, but they branched out to pretty much every kind of book. And ebooks, too.”

“Oh, that’s neat.” Smirking, I add: “Bet your textbooks didn’t cost you too much, then.”

“No, not really.” 

She gives a short giggle, but it’s obvious my attempt at a joke has fallen flat once again. I munch on my bombolini, hoping the sweetness will undercut the awkwardness. Come on, let’s find another topic to talk about… Err…

“Do you like sports? I remember you saying you ran the half-marathon.”

“I did, but honestly, I did it for charity. I run treadmills sometimes, but it’s mostly for cardio. I don’t really, uh… enjoy it much.”

“Okay. Um… Do you… watch sports?”

“Figure skating, sometimes. It’s really impressive!”

Great. I know zilch about that. I ask her to tell me what exactly she enjoys about it, and she goes on to explain for a while. To be honest, I’m not very interested, and, despite her enthusiasm, she does not really sell me on it, but it’s better than awkward silence. 

Something churns in my stomach as I think that. If I’m trying so hard to get the conversation going and avoid silences, does it mean the date is going poorly? I don’t know; I don’t have much reference when it comes to dating. That’s fine, I tell myself. This isn’t some romcom, this is reality. In reality, conversations often trail off like that, even among close friends. I mean, I’ve had that with Manny, right? And we’ve been pretty much joined at the hip ever since we met. Also, who cares if Hayley and I don’t have exactly the same interests? Wouldn’t it be boring otherwise?

But it’s not just that, a part of me realizes. Our interactions feel… flat, somehow. Or off, I guess. I don’t know how to put it. Something is missing. But what? What could possibly be missing? Hayley is cute, she’s nice, she’s… Well, she’s cute. And nice. That’s… I mean, that’s what you look for in someone you’re dating, right?

“What kind of movies do you like?” I ask.

Ugh, really? What kind of basic question is that?

“Oh, many kinds!” Hayley answers with energy. “I mostly watch comedies, but I also like dramas. Foreign films, too. Recently, I’ve discovered Algerian cinema…”

Yeah, okay. I guess we can talk about that.

After our drinks are gone, we decide to end our date. Gray clouds have gathered in the sky when we leave Janaribaca, a good reminder that October is almost over, as well as a promise that November won’t be dry. At least it’s not cold yet. Hayley smiles and brushes her hair with the tip of her fingers.

“So, I had fun,” she says.

“Yeah? I mean, me too.”

I mean, I did not not have fun. Overall, I think it was a positive experience. Hayley joins her hands in front of her and the point of her foot taps lightly on the floor, as she clearly waits for me to say something else.

“Err… Should we do that again some time?”

Her smile widens, and she nods enthusiastically.

“Sure, I would love that.”

She quickly leans forward and pecks me on the cheek, startling me a bit. Then, with a handwave and a blush, she turns on her heels and goes back to her car. This time, she’s definitely skipping.

I asked her on a second date, and she said yes. That must mean the date did go well, right? That unease I’m feeling really is just my nerves. I was just overthinking this whole thing. Not exactly uncharacteristic of me, I have to admit. At least I didn’t let it derail our date. Ah, well. Time to hop on the bus back to the dorm.

It’s not even five in the afternoon when I get back to my building. I better make the most of that early weekend, especially since something tells me I won’t get one every week. As I walk up the concrete path to the dorm, I hear a strange sound, resonating in the otherwise silent air. It gets louder as I get closer to my destination.

BAM, BAM, BAM.

Someone is knocking on a door; trying to break it down sounds more like it. My throat tightens when I realize it’s the door to my dorm. I hide behind the corner of a wall, and take a peek, my heart beating painfully against my ribs

No. That’s not possible. It can’t be him. He can’t be here. He can’t-

Breathe. Breathe. I need to breathe. I can’t- He can’t be here. How is he here? It’s over. I need- I have to- What do I do?

Something sharp clutches my chest. The lights dim around me, and there’s a ringing in my ear. Everything is spinning and swaying around me. My head bumps painfully against something. I think it’s the wall against which I was standing. My feet stumble, guided by some part of my brain that’s not completely paralyzed by adrenaline. My shoulder erupts in pain all of a sudden. I banged into something. Or someone, maybe.

More pain. This time, it hits my forearms and my legs. I’m pretty sure I’ve fallen down. Can’t stand up. Can’t breathe. Can’t think. No, no, no. I can’t stay here. He’ll see me. Can’t stay here. Can’t move.

I hear footsteps. Stand up. Come on, stand up. They’re getting closer. Get up. Get up…

They’re near me. I hear a voice, so distorted it’s unintelligible. Then, everything turns to black.

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