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“Here’s a five.”
Under dropped brows, my focus followed the grey and green bill as it fluttered across the front seat. “What?” I queried, picking up the money. “How do you expect me to get everything on this list with five bucks?”
“Figure it out,” Matt snorted. “That’s all I got.”
I crossed my arms and sighed. I knew what that meant; I was going to dig into my purse and make up the difference. I got out of the car and started to make my way toward the little grocery store.
“And hurry up!” Matt yelled after me. “We’ll be late for the game.”
I rolled my eye. Why are you even going to this party? I asked myself. Anytime you go anywhere with him, it’s just a disaster. Why do you even put up with Matt?
I shivered. I knew the answer to that question. Even so, I kept trying to think of some other answer as I filled my cart with the items from the list.
My mind was still preoccupied with the issue as I reached the checkout. Absently unloading the basket, my vision strayed across the lower pant legs of the person in line behind me. As if hypnotized, I followed the garment upward, onto a trim torso covered by a simple pullover. Upward my eye drifted, onto the man’s face. My breathing missed a heartbeat as my gaze met his.
Through habit, I started to look away, but something about him held my focus. What eyes, I mused through a gasp. And those curls! Why do guys always get hair like that? I wondered how limp my own locks must look from the other side of his baby-blues. The image my mind conjured was hardly flattering. You idiot, I scolded myself. He’s not looking at your hair anyway.
But at least he’s not looking the other way, like most do. I swallowed, seeking some words, any words. My focus fell again, onto the package of plastic forks in his hand. With a smile, my view bounced upward. His eyes were still on me, his countenance ever pleasant.
“Is that all you have?” I inquired
The man nodded. “Yes.”
That accent! I marveled. It was like his very voice could melt my heart, as if his eyes had not already accomplished the feat. A shiver ran the length of my form. “Why don’t you go ahead of me?” I suggested. What the hell are you doing? Now he’ll be gone even sooner!
He issued an unaffected smile and a slight tilt of his head. “Why that would be kind of you, ma’am.”
Ma’am? The word seemed to hang in the air, or at least in my mind. I’m not even thirty! I can’t be a ma’am yet! In spite of my internal tumult, I responded with a brisk nod as I stepped aside. “Please do.”
“Thank you.” He shifted his body sideways to squeeze past. “I am in a bit of a pinch for time.”
I inhaled as our forms slid against one another. For an instant, I closed my eye and tried to capture the moment, but it was gone in the span of a breath. Not even daring to look up, I resumed unloading my cart as soon as he had passed. I caught myself frowning as the man made pleasant small talk with the cashier. Then I caught myself wondering why I was frowning.
“Thank you again.”
My neck trembled as I turned. I tongued my lips once before replying, “It was entirely my pleasure.”
“Oh, I beg to differ,” he contended. “I had the pleasure of meeting you. I do hope you have a pleasant day.”
I heard a mild snort leave my nostrils as I considered the likelihood of that. Still, I forced a grin in return. “I will.”
“I am glad to hear it,” he replied before turning and strolling toward the door. My gaze followed him until he was well into the parking lot.
“Twenty-two eighty-five, Miss.”
I snapped from my stupor and turned to the cashier. The smirk on her face left little doubt in my mind she had watched me stare longingly at a man she knew to be well out of my league. I could almost feel my cheeks heat as the blood rushed to them. My hands found my purse as I fumbled to find the money.
“What took you so long?” Matt snapped as I returned to the car.
Calm. I counseled myself. Pissing him off before the party can’t help. I put the two bags on the seat between us. “There was a line.”
Matt’s eyes wandered from the groceries to my waist. “You could lose some weight.”
My brows and jaws fell. “I am not fat.”
Matt nodded to the window beyond me. “You don’t look like those girls.”
I turned to look at pair of young girls walking to their car. A scowl had seized my face by the time I spun it back to Matt. “They’re still in high school. Or just out.”
“Is that any reason to let yourself go? I figured with your ten year reunion coming up, you might want to shape up a bit.”
Not like I’ll be going to any reunion! My nose twitched as I tried to keep my ire in check. “I did not let myself go! A million dollars of plastic surgery and I still wouldn’t look like those girls; and you know it.”
Matt shrugged. “Have it your way. Just trying to help.” He reached for the ignition.
My eyelid closed as a pathetic buzzing emerged from beneath the vehicle’s hood. What else can go wrong? I heard a jingle and felt a pressure in my lap. Looking down casino oyna I saw the car keys lying on my pants.
“Get the cables out of the trunk,” Matt said. He reached for the hood cable and gave a tug. “I’m gonna go over to that video store.”
“What?” I stammered.
“Take them cables outta the trunk and go stand by the hood,” he instructed. “You ain’t so bad some guy won’t stop and help you so long as I ain’t around.”
At least Matt was right about that. Within five minutes of standing by the open hood and trying to look pathetic, an older gentleman stopped and helped me get the car started. I listened politely as he tried his best to explain all the maintenance he thought the vehicle needed. He insisted on staying another several minutes to make sure the car didn’t die. Then I had to insist he didn’t need to follow me home.
Thus it was fifteen minutes before I pulled up in front of the video store and honked. Matt did not emerge. Not wanting to make a scene by sounding the horn again and being unwilling to leave the car idling with the keys in it, I chose to simply wait.
When Matt finally did exit the store some minutes later, he bore a wide grin and two bags.
I pointed to the merchandise as he deposited it onto the floorboard. “What are those?”
“Movies. What else would they have in a video store?”
“And how can we afford them?”
“There was a sale. They had a two-for-one.”
“No,” I said. “How’d you pay for them? I thought that five was all you had.”
“Oh,” Matt stammered. “I found a twenty I done forgot about.”
“Yeah,” I snorted. “Handy, that. And how many’d you get?”
“Anything I might like?”
Matt shrugged. “Skin flicks.”
“Don’t we have enough of those?” I groaned. “I mean, they’re all the same anyway.”
“You know I like to see some new girls now and then.”
My eyelid fell in a futile attempt to forestall the tears. I understood the implication; my appearance wasn’t sufficient to generate excitement. He had to pretend I was someone else. My fingers found the door handle and pulled. I threw the door wide, intending to swing my legs out after it.
“No,” Matt grunted. “You can drive.” He reached into the bag and retrieved one of his movies. “I think I’ll check a few of these out.”
Lips pursed, I closed the door and reached for the shifter. At least there was one blessing to Matt ogling the girls on the video cases; I didn’t have to talk to him.
We got to the party late; the big game was already underway. That was fine with me. I didn’t mind missing the socializing phase of the gathering. Not that the guests bothered me. I’d seen most of them before. Or more important, most of them had seen me before.
I took the goods I had purchased to the kitchen counter and fit them in where I could. As I put some disposable bowls near the paper plates, my vision strayed across a box of plastic forks. My thoughts wandered back to the man in the supermarket. I smiled, but only as long as it took me to realize the last time I had smiled was when he had looked at me.
By the time I returned to the main room and the big screen television, Matt was engrossed in the contest. I made my way to the empty chair to his right and kept my eye on the screen.
The entire state was abuzz about the big game; had been for the past several days. I still wasn’t sure of the significance of the affair and didn’t want to expose my ignorance by asking, so I more or less just sat, watched, and tried to figure out what made baseball less boring than golf.
The contest progressed the regulation number of innings amid cheers, groans, and comments from two dozen or so persons gathered around the large television. I could feel the intensity of the onlookers build as the game went into extra time, or whatever it’s called for baseball. By then I had at least determined whom I was meant to cheer for.
At one point thereafter, the opposing team, the bad guys as I had come to think of them, got their first runner to second base. This caused some concern amongst the crowd, and no shortage of opinions as to how to handle the crisis. Amidst a collectively contained breath, the ball left the bat of the next hitter and sailed skyward. I didn’t know what was happening, but gathered from the simultaneous sigh issued by the audience that it was something good.
Several seconds elapsed before the ball returned to earth, falling into the glove of one of the players near the pitcher. The camera panned to the runner, still on second.
I leaned to Matt. “Why didn’t that guy go to the next base? The ball was in the air a long time. Couldn’t he have made it?”
Matt chuckled and looked away from me, over his left shoulder. “Hey, Jack. Guess what Becky just asked? ‘Why didn’t the guy on second go to third while the ball was in the air?'”
Wearing a shy grin, I looked over my shoulder and shrugged just in time to see Jack blow some beer through his nose as he laughed at my ignorance. Matt turned back to me with a self-satisfied smirk and just shook his canlı casino head before returning his attention to the game. My shoulders shrank. Lips quivering, my absent stare drifted from the screen to the floor.
I stiffened as I felt a light touch on my right shoulder. My gaze panned that direction, but I couldn’t see past the bridge of my nose.
“I asked that same question a few years ago myself when I first came to this country,” noted the owner of the palm that still rested upon my shoulder. The accent caused my heart to miss a beat as he continued, “It’s a fairly logical question if you don’t know all the subtleties of the game.”
“Subtlety?” Matt half-grunted. “That’s a basic rule.”
Ignoring Matt, I allowed my head to fall onto my right shoulder, my ear resting upon the back of the speaker’s hand. Issuing a silent prayer, I directed my view upward at the man. I gasped and a shudder traversed my body as I found myself looking straight up into those beautiful baby blues!
The man from the supermarket flashed a warm smile before he squatted near my side. I started to smile in return, but realized I was already beaming!
“Now,” he began in a soft tone as the game proceeded. “I know it’s not logical, but the rule to which your husband refers is that in the case of a ball that is caught in the air for an out, the runner may not leave the bag before the ball is in the fielder’s glove. Of course, that fielder being close to the second base, the runner had no real chance to advance after the catch.”
“Oh,” I smiled. “Thank you. I didn’t know. And, uh, Matt’s not my husband.”
“Really?” The man leaned forward to look across to my boyfriend. “I thought I’d heard you speak of your wife before?”
My head snapped to my left. “You two know each other?”
“Yeah,” Matt grunted. “This is Gus. I think I might have mentioned him a time or two. He works somewhere in the office. Advertising, I think.”
My head pivoted back to my right as I tried to recall anything I had heard of the other man. “Hi,” I said, extending my right hand as best I could. “I’m Rebecca, but my friends call me Becky.”
The man smiled as he took my palm loosely into his own. There he held my hand, rather than shaking it. “I’m Gustav. Gustav Petersen, but my acquaintances call me Gus.”
“Pleased to meet you, Gus.” With some reluctance, I withdrew my hand from his. “So you work with Matt?”
“Not closely. We only see each other once in a while. I don’t get back to the loading dock that much.”
“Why did they bring in a new pitcher just to walk this guy?” someone behind us asked.
“Beats me,” Matt grunted. “But at least he’s smart enough to set up the double play so we can get out of the inning.”
“I disagree,” Gus contended as he began a slow stroke of his chin. “Being the home team, I should imagine they’d want to avoid the big inning. Also, by not making the sole runner such a priority a manager says he has confidence that his club can score at least one run if need be.”
“Yeah, right,” snorted Matt. “You foreigners must…”
A resounding crack from the television screen terminated the sentence. In silence, we all watched the little white ball sail over the fence and into the seats that surrounded the field.
I was pretty sure this was an undesirable occurrence, but the continued quiet left no doubt in my mind. Leaning to my right, I inquired. “Is it over?”
“Yep,” grunted Matt, although I had not directed the question toward him. “That’s pretty much it.”
“Technically, no,” Gus replied. “The home team still gets its chance to bat, but things do look rather bleak being down by three.” He stood and again I felt the soft warmth of his palm upon my shoulder. “It was a pleasure to meet you, ma’am. Formally that is.”
“It was entirely my pleasure,” I assured him.
Gus smiled. “Once again, I must beg to differ.” With that, he turned and departed toward the kitchen.
I turned to find Matt’s brow both creased and low. “What did he mean by formally?”
“Nothing. I just bumped into him earlier in the grocery.”
“That little store? Well, that was some coincidence.”
“Hardly,” I said. “It is the nearest store. Anyone coming to this party that needed to pick something up would likely stop there, and at about the same time.”
“So what, did you keep me waiting in the car talking to him?”
“No. He just happened to be in line ahead of me. That’s all.”
“Really? Why didn’t I notice him come out ahead of you then?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you were busy checking out skinny high school girls.” With that, I rose and walked away, in no particular direction. Not wanting to look like I had no destination in mind, I kept walking out of the house and onto the deck.
There I found an old acquaintance, though hardly a friend, self-pity. Leaning on the rail, I looked into the ubiquitous backyard for a few minutes before my eye fell to my thumbs. I chuckled as I watched my digits twirling with one another.
I knew the voice at once and caught myself kaçak casino smiling before I turned toward the speaker. “Yes, it is,” I agreed. “Autumn can be lovely.”
“Lots of things can be lovely if you bother to look.”
“Yes,” I said. “I suppose so. Like your voice, although I guess I’m not looking at it. Where are you from?”
My eyebrow bounced skyward. “Really? I bet it’s beautiful there; the water, the fjords, the ruggedness.”
Gus pursed his lips, then shook his head. “Not as pretty as it is here right now.”
“How so?” I turned back to the trees. “Surely the leaves change in Norway too?”
“Yes,” Gus whispered. “But I was thinking of the loveliness upon the deck.”
My chest froze in mid-breath. “Like what,” I ventured with a gulp, daring to have even the slightest hope for the reply I longed to hear.
Closing my eye, I but breathed as I tried to confirm he had really said it. After I realized that he had, I began to sense a warm mushy place in my chest was where my heart used to be. “Me?” I queried as I opened my eye. “You are too kind. Is it appropriate in Norway to say such things about some else’s girlfriend?”
“How long have you been with Matt?”
My eye flew wide as I gulped in response to the unexpected inquiry. “A year or so.” Staring into Gustav’s eyes, I took two breaths before adding. “Maybe a little more.”
Gus glanced down, to my left hand, then brought his gaze right back to my face. “If Matt knew a good thing, he’d have proposed before now. But if I am to understand you are betrothed, then I shall wish you the best as a couple.”
I passed a breath as I considered the implicit question. “We are not engaged.”
Gustav issued the shallowest of nods. “Very well. I am not being inappropriate then?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think you do. He’s not for you. You can do better.”
My eye darted to the right before I pulled it back to Gus. “What?”
Gustav’s hand rose, his first two fingers pressed together and extended. Slowly, like a balloon gliding through the air, the two digits found their way to the right side of my face. My eye wandered in a vain attempt to find them as I felt his touch linger near where my other eye had once been.
“You think this is all that defines your value as a person?” Gus asked. With that he ran his fingers along the scar down onto my check. “You should know better. You are still beautiful, just in a different way.”
“I know,” I whispered. “Inner beauty, right?”
“Well, I did not mean to suggest you did not have that also.”
I looked away. “Thank you. You really are too kind.”
“So I’ve heard. What happened?”
My eye narrowed, I directed it back to Gus. “What do you mean?”
“Your eye. How did you lose it? An automobile accident?”
I swallowed, taken aback by the bold inquiry. Everyone looked, but no one ever asked. “Is such an inquiry acceptable where you’re from?”
“I don’t see why such a question should be inappropriate regardless of one’s origin. People don’t ask because they worry about hurting your feelings, but this code of silence only breeds unease. And embarrassment. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. If I was missing an arm, you’d be curious, no? And it would be an important part of my history. Why should I not tell you?”
“No reason,” I admitted with a sigh and a nod.
“So?” Gus prompted at once.
“Fine. I grew up on a farm. Would probably still live there if my dad were alive. Mom had to sell the place after he died. Anyway, once I was helping my dad with a tractor and a blade came off the fan. Guess you can kinda see where it ended up. Doctors all said I was lucky to have survived. Sometimes I’ve wondered about that, though.”
I just stared, knowing he knew the answer. “Why do you think?”
“Happened when you were an adult, right?”
I tilted my head to one side. “Five years ago. How’d you know?”
“Strikes me you were one of those girls used to having boys falling all over themselves trying to do you favors just because of your appearance. Must have been a rough transition to learn how the rest of us live.”
My jaw fell as my head returned to the vertical. “Like you know!” I gasped. “You’re so damn gorgeous it’s sickening!”
Gus moved closer and began to comb his hands through my hair. A shiver ran through my form as I considered his audacity. “You could be too. You’re a lot more than a pair of optic devices,” he noted, his focus on my tresses. “Why didn’t you ever have cosmetic surgery?”
“I did,” I muttered through a pout. “You should have seen it before.”
“That’s still no reason to give up on your appearance?”
“You don’t get your hair styled, or even trimmed. You let your figure go too. Shows a lack of confidence. And confidence is always more attractive than anything else.”
For the second time in a minute, my jaw succumbed to gravity. This time, my mouth gaped for some seconds as I absorbed the shock, and the hurt, of hearing again that I had let myself go. This second such affront cut far more deeply than the first. “How dare you,” I finally managed to hiss. “I’ve never….” I dropped my brow. My head vibrated more than shook as I struggled to finish my sentence.
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