Over the next several weeks, Lee continued to beat herself up. While she tried to squelch it, sometimes, much to her dismay, it would pop up, even fiercer then before. This made her despondent. Kelly and Claire would notice her moping during the oddest times, but try as they might, they couldn't get her to tell them what was wrong. Lee had yet to completely admit to herself that anything was wrong, and she'd decided that she wasn't going to tell anyone, lest it complicate her friendships. Whenever Kelly or Claire asked her what was wrong, she'd respond that she was merely tired and nothing more.
Then one day when Lee was making her way to class, in passing, she saw Tony, walking arm in arm with a girl who was laughing at a joke he'd just told. Tony didn't see her, but that one little glimpse of him, with a girl hanging off his arm was enough to make Lee grumpy for the rest of the day.
"You shouldn't be acting like this!" She told her reflection the next day. "It's not like he has only eyes for you! He probably doesn't even realize that you're there. Yes, he thinks of you as a friend, but you can't assume that he likes you more then that!" The irrational forty percent of her grudgingly admitted that she was right. "Then there's no problem with pining for him from a distance, is there? You can still be friends with him and yet like him right? Just don't expect anything from him, and you won't be disappointed." The forty percent persisted in rationalizing. Lee sighed. There was just no getting away from the stupid part of her that wanted to be around Tony, to like him, and wanted him to like her.
Finally, out of desperation, she agreed to go along with her forty percent. For the first time in her life, she agreed with a small part of her. Being friends with Tony was better then the other alternative.
Over the next several weeks, the group hung out together, and Lee's tension seemed to diminish to a manageable level.
"You seem to be happier." Kelly mentioned to her while Lee and Kelly were hanging out together after class one day.
Lee sucked on the straw to her smoothie before answering. "I've got less things on my plate now. Decisions have been made, and I'm happier. I had a large decision to make, and finally did. That relieved a lot of the pressure."
Kelly nodded in understanding.
"I've had that happen before. I'm always happier following my heart, even if my brain is screaming at me."
Lee laughed. "If you know me at all, I'm always trying to follow my brain. It's the only sensible thing about me."
"I'd warn you to be careful about that." Kelly said quietly. "But it seems that you've already made your decision."
"Thanks." Lee said, smiling tightly. She had the funny feeling that Kelly knew too much.
They sat in silence for a little while, with Lee looking out the window at the soft drizzle that was falling that day. To Lee it seemed as if every other day it rained.
Kelly sighed, watching the couples move about the café. "I swear," she said ruefully. "Couples will be the death of me."
Lee sighed. "Kelly, you're so dramatic sometimes! When will you understand that couples aren't all there is to life? Guys aren't all there is!" Something inside of her snorted silently at her words.
Kelly looked at her and grinned. "Yeah, I think sometimes, I ought to be a nun. It would help me focus more on life in general."
"You and me both, girl. A nunnery might be a bit less exciting then this life right now. I could use less excitement."
"On the guy part, or on the whole?"
"On the whole." Lee lied.
Kelly didn't buy it, but didn't say anything but, "What are we going to do with ourselves?"
Lee shrugged. "Something exciting, I hope. Maybe we could go rock climbing or something."
Kelly laughed. "Girl, my hands can't stand rock climbing. Why would I want to do that?"
"Because that would be infinitely more interesting then anything a guy could offer right now?" Lee asked kind of half-heartedly.
Kelly sobered up. "Maybe we should do something exciting. Not because it's better then anything a guy could offer, but because we need the distraction."
Lee, as fond as she was of Kelly, had the sudden innate fear that if she were alone with Kelly, Kelly might discover who she liked.
"We'll see. I have an awfully busy schedule." She said, almost too quickly, running the tips of her fingers in circles on the tabletop.
Not much was said, until Lee took a look at the clock and realized she had to get to her next class.
Life seemed easier after that. For Lee, it was almost easier to hang around Tony, knowing and realizing that she couldn't have him, because he wouldn't want her. Her out look on life seemed to cheer up considerably, and if one of her friends had asked her, she probably would have said that she was completely over Tony. She would have said that, that is, until the day her world came crashing down around her.
Tony had always been popular with the girls. That was a given. He was good looking and he had a charm about him that could be turned on with the flip of a switch. Because of this, girls flocked to him like seagulls to a piece of bread thrown in the air at the beach. Tony normally took this in good stride and willingly flirted with the girls who flirted with him. There was one day when Lee walked into the cafeteria for lunch and Tony wasn't there. He had been there for so long that Lee felt that the little group was a little lost without him. No one seemed to know why he hadn't shown up. Lee found herself making justifications for Tony. Maybe he had homework that he needed to be doing. Maybe someone needed his help and he had decided that they needed his help more then he needed lunch. Maybe a teacher needed him last minute.
All these maybes ended up swirling around in her head until she started wondering why she was making up excuses for his not being there.
"This is so stupid!" She laughed sourly to herself on the way to class. "I shouldn't need to be making excuses for him like a jealous girlfriend." The word "jealous" echoed resoundingly in her head. "Oh. My. Gosh." Lee gasped, sounding, much to her disgust, like an air-headed bimbo. "I can't be jealous that he's spending time away from the group! This is so stupid!" She cried again, slapping herself lightly on the forehead before catching an unwanted stare from a girl who hurried past.
Lee really lost it, however, when Wednesday night, after turning up for a couple lunches between that first lunch and Wednesday night, Tony didn't show up. Since he had first been invited to their Wednesday night get-togethers, he hadn't missed one without explanation.
"Where is he?" She managed to ask Claire casually.
Claire didn't know. Kelly didn't either. Phillip did however.
"He's on a date." He told Lee over Claire's head.
"A date? Why a date? Who had he got to date?" Lee asked, incredulous.
"Perhaps the same girl he ate lunch with the other day."
"He's seeing someone?" Lee cried.
"Yeah," Phillip gave Lee a funny look. "He is allowed to date, you know. It's not like he's attached at the hip to anyone."
Lee clamped her mouth shut. The rest of her night was ruined. She hated, with a passion, the depression that she was slowly spiraling into. Tony was actually dating someone. Lee's agitation shot through the roof.
Concentration on classes the next day was hard enough, but when she got back to her room and had to actually sit down and concentrate on homework her attention span went out the window. Natalie wasn't in the room, so Lee found herself staring out the window, or getting up to get something and then forgetting what that thing was. If Natalie had been in the room, Lee knew she would have been pretending to read one of her schoolbooks, but in reality only reading the same sentence over and over in a vain attempt to distract herself.
The next day was worse. Tony brought the girl to lunch. Her name was Amber. She had dark brown hair and sparkling hazel eyes that laughed at everything. To Lee who was distraught but showing it as agitation, Amber was perfect. Tony seemed to think so too. Lee's heart tore itself to pieces, jumped out of her chest and ran down the hall screaming when she saw Tony and Amber walk in, holding hands.
"How long has he known her?" She asked in a whisper to Claire, sitting next to her.
"I think about two weeks, maybe? Why don't you ask him?"
"What? No! I couldn't ask him! It might look like I like him!" Lee's whisper rose several octaves.
"Well, don't you?" Claire asked out of the corner of her mouth and then glanced sideways at Lee and winked.
Lee stuttered to a halt. Was she that obvious?
"Just kidding!" Claire cried, seeing the stunned look on Lee's face.
Lee couldn't relax. Even if Claire had just been kidding, it was too close.
"I'll be right back. Gotta go to the bathroom." She told Claire as Tony and Amber walked up to the table, food in hand.
She didn't come right back. It took her about five minutes to pull herself under control. When that was done, she realized that she needed something to drink. It took her a full ten minutes to get back to the table. By the time she got back, nearly everyone had almost completely finished. Only Claire and Phillip, who had been rather entranced in each other, weren't completely done.
After greeting Tony and being introduced to Amber, Lee finished her meal in silence, pretending to listen to the conversations swirling around her. As soon as she was done, she rose and went to put her tray away. She waved one more goodbye to her friends and trudged out the door.
About three steps out of the cafeteria, the door banged open behind her.
It was Tony.
"Hi Tony," she replied tiredly. Did she really have the time or strength to deal with this right now?
"Oh good." He grinned at her. "You've stopped calling me Anthony!"
Lee rolled her eyes and grinned in spite of herself.
"Possibly. What do you want?"
Tony looked confused. "Don't we always walk to class together after lunch?"
Lee gave him "the look" as he'd classified it, early in their friendship.
Tony looked slightly abashed. "So, Amber's interesting. I'm sorry, I haven't walked with you to class lately."
"Oh, no, I'm sure Amber is more important." Lee tried to bite back the sarcasm that wanted to rip him to shreds.
Tony looked exasperated. "So, Amber is interesting and we're getting to know each other. Yes, I might like her. Yes, I might spend less time with the group because of her. Maybe we can hang out with the group more. It doesn't mean that I haven't stopped thinking about you guys as my friends. That's just ridiculous. I mean—"
Lee interrupted him. "You're right. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way. I'm sorry." She repeated.
Tony looked a little relieved. "It's ok, kid. You just sounded for a moment like you thought I was abandoning the group."
If only it were that simple! Lee cried inwardly. Outwardly she laughed, a slightly hysterical edge to her voice. "No, sorry if I gave you that impression. What have you been doing lately?" She quickly changed the subject.
"Same ol', same ol'." Tony said ruefully. "Not much is very exciting."
"School is still the same old drudge? No parties?"
"Well, there have been parties, but—oh!" Tony remembered something, and Lee was able to breathe a sigh of relief as he launched into a rambling story about a crazy happening at the party. He finished in time for Lee to scramble into her classroom, avoiding the hug that Tony seemed intent on giving her.
Wednesday night, Tony brought Amber to movie night. She didn't spend the night with Claire, Lee and Kelly because she said she needed to get back to her room and do some homework afterwards, but just the fact that she was there made Lee anxious. Amber seemed nice enough, but she was almost too nice. Lee didn't know if she was imagining it or not, but she thought that every time Amber thought Tony wasn't watching, her smile would turn into something of a sneer.
Wednesday night, after the girls had all snuggled down, Lee's brain wouldn't stop doing laps. She knew that she should probably be trying to like Amber. It wasn't like Amber knew that Lee did not want her. It seemed like Amber genuinely liked Tony. Lee had to grudgingly acknowledge that it was hard for people to not like Tony. He was simply a likeable guy.
She didn't sleep well. The next morning she was grumpy and snapped at everyone. She'd almost quit cursing when she was around Claire and Kelly because she knew that neither of them appreciated it, but that morning she settled for a few choice words muttered under her breath. Classes didn't go very well either. Her teachers seemed especially ruthless, piling the homework on in the event of the coming weekend. Lee was merely thankful that besides her math class on Friday, she didn't have another class. She wasn't sure she could take another full day of classes.
Natalie was in the room when Lee got back. Lee dimly registered that Natalie looked about as tired as she felt, but didn't care. Natalie had her own friends. Natalie could go running to them if she really needed to be comforted. As Lee flung her backpack down on the floor beside her desk, Natalie looked up, her face as composed as possible.
"Hey, Lee?" Natalie started.
Head in her hands, Lee acknowledged Natalie's request for a conversation. "What?"
"You know those sharpies you loaned me a while back?"
Lee nodded slowly.
"Well, I gave them to a friend of mine to use on his poster, because we're working together in the same group, and he told me yesterday before his presentation that he'd stuck them in one of the cargo pockets in his pants and that he'd accidentally washed them. They're kinda ruined."
Through out this speech, Natalie's voice had gotten more and more rushed and her voice had gotten higher and Lee had begun to sit up straighter in her seat.
"He said he'd buy you some new ones." Natalie quickly offered, seeing the storm cloud on Lee's face.
Lee stood up, fury raging through her. "Why did you even lend them to him in the first place? I offered to let you use them, Natalie, in good faith that you and you only would be handling them, or watching to make sure that they were fine. Did you even stop to think that he could possibly ruin them while they were in his possession?" Lee finished with a shriek.
Natalie jumped to her feet. "Hey! You never said anything about not letting other people in my group borrow them. You offered to let me bring your sharpies to the group project because I couldn't find mine."
"But I told you not to ruin them! And you said you wouldn't ruin them!"
"I didn't!" Natalie cried, almost red in the face. Her hair was askew and her arms raised in protest. "He did, and he promised he'd pay for them! Were you not listening to what I said? Are those sharpies really so important that you have to shriek and yell when they get ruined, even when you're told that you'll be getting new ones to replace them?"
Somewhere in the middle of Natalie's tirade, Lee had had enough.
"Look, enough." She said, forcing the words out between gritted teeth. "I'm going to go for a drive. I dunno when I'll be back."
With that, she shrugged back into her coat, rummaged angrily through her desk until she found her car keys and wallet, felt for the phone in her pocket and then stormed out of the room. It didn't make her feel any better that she heard Natalie burst into sobs the moment she was gone. Like I said before, she thought to herself, Natalie has her own friends, so she can have them comfort her. This is really all her fault anyway. If she hadn't leant them to that idiot, he wouldn't have ruined them, and I wouldn't have gotten angry.
Lee didn't know quite how she got to her car. She knew she'd found a bus to take her to her car, but after that, she didn't know how she'd done it. Almost before she'd realized what was happening, or where she was going, she had pulled the car onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and had plugged her mp3 player in to her car and turned up the loud angry music. Lee didn't really pay attention to where she was going, merely put the car on autopilot and stewed.
She knew that yelling at Natalie had been wrong. She also knew that she hadn't been merely yelling at Natalie. There was a point during the screaming match where Lee had realized that what she really wished was that Amber was in Natalie's place, eyes wide with fury, blinded by tears. Lee had never had a really violent thought until that moment, but she wished she could strangle Amber and have done with it, even though Amber had really done nothing wrong.
If Tony hadn't come. If he hadn't picked up that sock off my foot. If he hadn't run into me again at breakfast. Lee stewed to herself. So many "if onlys".
Lee didn't know how long she'd been driving, but her stomach was grumbling at her. There was a snack in the back of the car; she always kept snacks in the back just in case. She pulled into a scenic overlook and gazed at the splendor of the mountains in front of her. Lee took a deep breath and reached behind her seat. Sure enough there was a small cooler, not necessarily there to keep things cool, but more to store things in. A bag of chips sat next to it, and some beef jerky and a plastic container of roasted, salted nuts were inside it along side two water bottles.
Lee pulled the bag of chips into her lap and opened it, still looking at the scenery. She was trying, as much as possible, to push everything back into the small box created for holding unwanted objects in the back of her head. She'd just about succeeded too, when she was rummaging around in the back of the car again and found something soft and a little bit fuzzy. It was one of Tony's hats. Lee couldn't think straight any longer.
As fast as she could, she pulled her jacket on, wrapping it tightly around her and scrambled out of the car. Thank goodness there was a trail here. She followed it willingly, watching the ground in front of her. As long as there was something to distract her, she was fine. The cold made her ears tingle and slowly become numb, but she was glad for the distraction of trying to warm them up.
The sun was starting to go down as she finally slowed, coming to the top of the mountain. To her surprise there was another person there. Lee had never seen her before, but she was wearing a school coat, so Lee assumed she went to the college as well.
"Hello," the girl had seen her. "Beautiful scenery, eh?"
Lee smiled tightly and nodded, sitting down a couple feet away. "I always love seeing the sunset."
"Oh, I wasn't talking about the sunset." The girl quickly modified. "I was actually talking about the majesty of the mountains."
"Oh. It is pretty." Lee said, the wind whipping around her face. Quietly, she dug in her pocket, thinking there might be something that she could tie her hair back with. Instead she came up with Tony's hat. She couldn't hide a grimace that brought Tony back to the forefront of her mind. She must have stuffed it in her pocket without thinking about it. Reluctantly, because she had nothing else, Lee pulled it on. It smelled like Tony.
"An old boyfriend's hat?" The girl asked. She was extremely perceptive, and annoyingly curious.
"Why do you say that?" Lee hedged.
"Well, you don't seem the type to have a skull cap with skateboard symbols on it." The girl grinned at her.
How can you even know what type I am? Lee wanted to ask her, but instead said, "Not exactly an old boyfriend."
"Oh . . ." The girl gave a knowing little grin. "If he's bothering you because of another girl, just remember, people are always put in our lives for a reason. Even if they're difficult to be around, they're here to teach us a lesson."
Lee choked a little, stared at the girl, and then made sure that her mouth wasn't hanging open. "It's not that he's bothering me." She said, almost without meaning to. "It's the girl he's hanging out with. I kinda hate to see them together." Then she stopped. She'd gone to far.
"I know what you mean." The girl said sympathetically. Her short dark-blonde hair blustered in the wind as she stared at the horizon. "As aggravating as some people can be, they're still there for a reason. Maybe she's here to teach you to be patient, or to show you that you can't control what's going to happen, so you might as well sit back and enjoy the ride."
Lee sighed. "You're right. I do kinda like to be in control of things, or at least have things in order. This is so out of my control that I have no idea what to do with it."
"Well, try doing the only thing I know how to do. Relax and, like I said, enjoy the ride."
"I'll think about it." Lee promised.
"That's more then I can ask for." The girl said simply and stood up, wiping her hands off on the back of her jeans. "I've gotta go now, before my fiancée ends up wondering where I've got to, but it was nice to talk. I'm Lana, by the way." She pronounced her name with an "ah".
"I'm Lee. It was nice to meet you." Lee reached up to shake Lana's hand. "Maybe we'll see each other around campus."
"Possibly." Lana said and quietly turned and headed back down the trail.
Lee grinned silently to herself and sat, quietly, watching as the sky turned first gold, then orange, then the clouds turned pink. Lee sighed a to herself as the sky began to get darker. It was almost time to return to the car.
She heaved herself up, and started to scramble down the pathway, but not before finding what looked like a keychain that had broken off someone's keys. The bunny on the front was definitely one of the psychopath bunnies, and its paws were covering its mouth. The words underneath the bunny said, "Crazy doesn't even begin to cover it." Lee began to laugh. That was exactly how she felt right now. Crazy didn't even begin to cover it.
It was a long way back down the mountain, and to Lee's consternation, all she could see ahead of her, at about the halfway point, was black.
"Way to go, Lee." She muttered to herself, stumbling blindly forward down the path. "You see to have conveniently forgotten that once the sun sets, it quickly gets dark. I hope a bear doesn't come charging out of the woods and maul you, or that a snake doesn't drop on your head." Lee snorted to herself. "I doubt there are bears out here, and it's to cold for snakes. Though," she quickly amended, "facing danger out here would be a lot better then actually having to face Natalie, or even Tony or Amber."
Ever after that, Lee would swear that something was out to get her, or teach her a lesson, because no sooner had the words left her mouth, then she put her foot down wrong on the path, and suddenly found that she couldn't stand up because of the pain shooting up from her left ankle.
"OW!" She cried, throwing a few expletives and sitting suddenly on the bare path beneath her. "Ow, ow, ow, ow." She muttered to herself, as her hands found her ankle and tried to decide what was wrong with it. It felt as if she'd merely rolled it, but that didn't stop her from feeling like she was going to throw up because it hurt so badly. As soon as she could she stood up and tried putting weight on it. That didn't go as terribly as she'd thought it might, but it still made her want to retch.
Slowly, very slowly, she made her way down the path, holding her hand above her, hanging onto any over hanging branches or leaves that she could find. She could barely place weight on her ankle, and when she did, her leg wanted to crumple beneath her again.
It seemed to Lee like it would take forever to limp the half-mile to her car, when in reality, it took maybe thirty minutes. Fingers numb with cold dug into her jacket pocket trying to find her car keys. When her car door finally opened, she hauled herself inside and shut the door and simply sat for a moment, catching her breath, glad to be off her foot finally.
Then she reached for the car keys again and pushed them into the ignition and turned them. Her car gave a funny little clicking noise and refused to turn over. Lee's heart did a little leap of fright and she tried again. Once again, the engine clicked several times and refused to turn over. Lee growled and banged her head on the steering wheel. She did not need this right now. She tried again, and failed, to start her car before pulling her phone from her pocket. At least she might be able to call a tow truck to come and jump her.
But no, once again, something seemed set on frustrating her life. Her cell phone had no service, compliments of being stuck in the middle of nowhere on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Lee was ready to cry, as she crawled into the back of her car and pulled on of the seats down. She had liked this part of the car when she bought it. The back seat could fold down so whoever was in the car didn't have to get out to reach whatever was in the trunk. Lee pulled her picnic blanket out of the trunk of her car and pushed the seat back up into place.
For once, Lee was glad the blanket was thick and large. She'd gotten it thick so she could spread it on damp ground and not get wet, and large so she could fit several friends on it. It took Lee a moment to decide whether or not she wanted to sleep in her jacket or if she wanted to use it as a sort of pillow, but, in the end, Lee ended up crawling into the front passenger seat, locking the car doors, pushing the seat all the way back and down, and swaddling herself in the blanket, her coat under her head.
And then she couldn't get to sleep. She had Tony's hat on her head, and his smell kept washing over her at the most inconvenient moments, like just as she was about to drift off to sleep.
Lee, even though the hat threatened to give her little sleep, refused to take it off, simply because it would keep her head warm. Tony would laugh at her, stuck here, in the middle of nowhere, bundled up in a picnic blanket and his hat. Lee liked to think that possibly he would also offer to help her jump her car, but Tony wasn't here to help her, and neither was anyone else.
Lee turned over.
She remembered that fateful day Tony had picked up her sock. She'd thought she was never going to see him again. Then they had seen each other at the cafeteria the next morning and Kelly had invited him to eat breakfast with them. To Lee, looking back, Tony had fit right in and had been part of the group since that breakfast, but during the moment, Lee had felt invaded, and extremely annoyed. Everything about Tony had annoyed her, from the fact that he was in a fraternity, to the fact that he had a nickname, to the fact that he had swept into her life without so much as a by-your-leave and settle in quite nicely. And then she'd had to go and get used to him and fall for him. What was she thinking?
It might have all been ok if Tony had liked her back, but no, he had to go and, without asking, mind you, date Amber. It wasn't Amber's fault that Lee was miserable about the whole thing. It was like she'd admitted to Lana earlier. She liked being in control so much that when she wasn't in control she didn't know how to handle herself. She couldn't control whether or not Tony liked her, so she was miserable. She couldn't control her crush on Tony either, so for that she was miserable as well. She just had to let go, like Lana had said. Relax and enjoy the ride. That was going to be terribly hard to do.
Lee sighed and turned over again.
Relax. She told herself. She didn't have any control, so why did she need to worry about it. If Tony didn't want her, then that was ok. She couldn't change his opinion by doing anything differently. She'd wait for things to work themselves out and merely watch it happen. She wasn't going to be miserable about it, and she wasn't going to make other people miserable about it either. That was unfair to everyone around her. If Amber was right for Tony, things would work out. If Lee was right for Tony, things would work out there as well. Very slowly, a weight lifted off Lee's chest. She'd have to apologize to Natalie when she got back, and then after that, she thought she'd let Kelly and Claire know what had been going on. They could probably help her out some how. Moral support was a good thing, she remembered her grandma saying once a long time ago. They had been baking cookies together, and Lee had been telling Grandma her latest woes about being the oldest of several children. Her Grandma had turned and looked at her before saying quietly, but with an authority that Lee hadn't forgotten, that Lee would appreciate her siblings eventually, because siblings gave a type of support that couldn't be found elsewhere.
Somewhere along that line of thought, Lee realized she was dreaming. Her grandma had just put the plate of cookies on the table and was turning back to the oven to pull the second rack out, when the door swung open and Tony tramped in the door.
"Tony!" Grandma said, affectionately, as if she already knew him and thought he was the dearest, sweetest thing in the world.
"Hey Grandma!" Tony said, placing a peck on Grandma's silky, dry-petal cheek. She giggled and ruffled his hair as he turned his gaze on Lee, who was still dumbstruck by the fact that Grandma seemed to know Tony.
"Hi Lee," he greeted her in a much quieter voice.
"Tony." She mouthed back, and stood up to step into the circle of his arms as he offered her a hug.
She buried her face in his chest and inhaled his scent. Despite the way she normally shied away from his hugs, she really did like them.
Then Tony's arms tightened, and Lee squirmed to get free. Suddenly she couldn't breathe and she felt like Tony was strangling her. It was definitely time to wake up, she decided.
As her eyes flew open, she realized that there was something blocking her view; something that smelled incredibly like Tony. She also realized that she couldn't move because she'd turned over so many times during the night that the blanket was wound around her body. Lee let out a little gurgle of annoyance and then carefully set about unwinding herself from her blanket. As soon as her arms were free, she pushed the hat up above her eyes and immediately wished she hadn't. It was bright, and it was sunny, and it looked cold. She could almost see her breath, but her car had the full rays of the sun on it, and so she was a bit warmer then she had been last night.
Blinking in the light of the sun, Lee pulled her phone out and checked the time. It was almost twelve noon. She'd had a long sleep, and that was probably thanks to the fact that Tony's black hat was covering her eyes. Looking around, Lee could see that there was nobody in the parking lot, and she had the feeling that no one had been in the parking lot. A car engine sounded behind her, but when she turned to look, it had already driven out of sight. This wasn't a very popular place to stop, obviously. Lee's stomach growled in a threatening kind of way that seemed to say, "If you don't feed me soon, I swear I'll hurt you."
Lee pulled the beef jerky from the cooler and bit off a chunk while she tried to figure out what to do. Blanket wrapped around her, jerky in one hand, she climbed stiffly out of the car, wincing as she was reminded of her ankle, and looked around. She remembered pulling into the parking spot, but other then that, she didn't even know which way to go on the parkway. Much to her great consternation, she was lost.
"Great!" She said aloud, flinging her hands in the air. "Yet another thing I can't control! What did I do to deserve this?"
Disgruntled, Lee tucked her keys in her pocket, grabbed another piece of jerky and a handful of nuts and slammed the door to her car, before hobbling several steps to the curb and sitting down on it. She wasn't cold, the sun warmed her up, but she was just a bit worried that she might not be able to get home. Surely other people pulled into this overlook. One of them would probably have some jumper cables and would help jump her, but as she sat there longer and longer, it looked like she might actually be wrong for once in her life. Every solitary car that she saw drove past without even waiting.
Maybe if she stood in the middle of the road they'd notice her and help her.
Well, ok, maybe not the middle. She compromised. If she stood on the side of the road, she could flag a car down and they might be able to help. If that didn't work, she could always hobble.
If only I hadn't gotten mad at Natalie, maybe I wouldn't be stuck out here. She caught herself thinking, and immediately jammed it into the floor. There was no good thinking "if onlys" today.
Instead, she stood up, chewing and swallowing the last of her nuts and biting off a piece of jerky, looked at her phone and found that it was actually closer to 2:30 now, and decided that she might as well try to flag down a car. No sooner had she stuffed the rest of the jerky in her mouth, pushed her blanket in the front seat of her car and started towards the road then another car came into sight, and before she could flag it down, saw her and pulled into the overlook, parking beside her car.
Lee's knees almost gave out when she realized just whose car it was. Phillip stepped out of the driver's door, took one look at her and hurried towards her, pulling her into his arms and burying his face in her hair. Lee breathed deeply and realized as Phillip's familiar smell hit her that everything was going to be ok.
Phillip pushed her out and held her at arms length before shaking her gently. "Why are you out here in the middle of no where, scaring the coconuts out of us?" He asked almost roughly.
"I'm so sorry." She started, "I got pretty mad last night, and decided that rather then hitting Natalie, it might be a better idea to take a drive. I found this overlook, took a hike up there, watched the sunset and was coming back down in the dark, when I think I rolled my ankle, though it might be more then that, because it still hurts, but when I got back to the car, it wouldn't start. I spent the night on the front seat wrapped in my picnic blanket. Other then my ankle, I'm fine. I would have called you," Lee added, seeing the look on Phillip's face, "but I have no signal out here!"
Phillip sighed. "Your ankle's rolled? You mean twisted or sprained?"
"Sprained, I think." Lee made a face. "It's hard for me to put weight on it."
Phillip gently guided her back to her car and opened her door, pushing her onto the driver's seat. "Well, thank goodness I have an ace bandage with me that my basketball coach gave me. I'm going to go get it. You stay here."
Lee nodded, and Phillip left to get the bandage, returning with his cell phone as well.
"Hold on a second while I wrap your ankle and call Tony and Kelly and Claire. Tony's looking for you on his own, and Kelly and Claire are together. I'll tell them to meet us at your dorm."
Then, after hitting a couple buttons on his cell phone, as gently as possible, he pulled off her shoe and started wrapping the ace bandage around her sock. He was talking to Tony. Through the phone, Tony sounded really relieved. After he was done, he slid the shoe back on, made sure the laces weren't too tight and patted her knee.
"Lee and Claire next." He told her and then looked at her car. "You said the battery is dead?" He asked, hitting one and then the talk button. Obviously, Claire was number one on his speed dial.
"I think it is." Lee confirmed. "This has happened before, the battery dying, so I think it's the battery. Do you have jumper cables?"
Phillip nodded and grinned, before telling a very talkative Claire on the other end that Lee was ok, and went to his car to pull the jumper cables from his trunk.
"If you wouldn't mind popping your hood and getting your car ready, I'd be grateful." He told her, reassuring Kelly now, who, it seemed, had stolen the phone from Claire. "She's fine! Sprained her ankle is all. Yes, I'll tell her you want to kill her, no, I won't let you kill her."
Lee grinned a bit and bit her lip. Kelly had every right to want to kill her. She had scared herself. She leaned down and popped her hood as Phillip hung up, tossed her the cell phone and went to open the hood.
About five minutes later, after some devilish grins from Phillip, who seemed to think that short circuiting Lee's car and blowing it sky high might be a grand adventure, Lee's car was purring in it's parking spot, finally.
"All right, Lee, let's get you home." Phillip told her, ruffling her already messed up hair. "Time for that happy ending. I only wish I'd thought to just leave your car and bring you home in mine, but I guess now that it's started, you ought to drive it home. Don't worry, it'll all be ok."
Lee's heart had jumped into her mouth. She could only wish for a happy ending, but then she squashed that thought too, and put a smile on her face. "I know. Let's go."
There was a hard lump in Lee's throat as she followed Phillip back the way she'd obviously come, but didn't remember. She knew she was going to have to apologize to Natalie for the way she'd blown up at her. She also knew that she should probably apologize to the gang because she'd given them such a royal scare.
All around her the colors in the trees was changing, but once again, Lee didn't recognize their beauty. She was to busy thinking through different apologies.
Sorry Natalie, for blowing up at you. I was angry that a guy friend of mine was dating a girl, because I like him and I took my anger out on you. Please forgive me? Lee snorted. That one wasn't going to work for the simple reason that Natalie wouldn't care at all about Lee's romantic troubles.
Sorry for shouting at you. I was having a bad day. The sharpies kinda tipped me over the edge. That wasn't an apology that actually told the real problem. Would Natalie even want to hear the real problem?
In the end, Lee decided that a simple, "I'm sorry for blowing up at you, it was wrong of me," would be best.
She could probably tell Claire and Kelly the real reason for every thing.
I'm sorry for disappearing on you. I blew up at Natalie, realized that I need to calm down and went for a drive. I didn't know that my car battery would fail on me. Yeah, I blew up at Natalie because I've been on pins and needles because Tony's dating Amber. Yeah, that might fly. It wouldn't be easy, but that would probably be the best way to go.
For Tony, it would be a simple, "hey, I'm sorry I disappeared. I blew up at Natalie, needed to go for a drive to cool down and didn't know my car battery would quit working in a place where I didn't get cell phone signal."
Phillip turned onto the main street of town and Lee heaved a sigh. They were almost there.
As they pulled into the parking lot of Lee's dorm, she could see Kelly and Claire and Tony waiting for her. She was immediately stormed and dragged from her car by willing hands.
Claire was crying, Kelly was shouting, "Don't you ever, ever, ever do that again!" She found herself embraced by Claire, Kelly, Phillip, and amazingly enough, Tony all at once. She was suddenly crying and saying over and over again, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
To everyone's surprise, it was Claire who pulled their attention back with a shout of, "hey! Ok! Enough! I'm sure Lee needs food. Tony, take her keys, go return her car to it's parking spot. Ah!" she interrupted Tony's protests. "Just do it. She's not going anywhere. Actually, I take that back, we're going to tell Natalie that Lee's ok, let Lee change and then we're all going to Phillip's apartment. We'll meet you there." Tony looked a bit crestfallen, but all Lee could do was stare at Claire's authoritative tone.
"Where did that come from?" Lee asked, incredulous, as Claire led the rest of them into the building, using Lee's key card.
Claire looked a little chagrined, and Phillip looked extremely proud. "Well, Kelly really isn't in the best . . . mood, to take charge. Someone's gotta do it." She explained sheepishly.
"Well, good job, Claire!" Lee said, meaning it.
"Yeah, well, enough about me. Honestly, way to try and change the subject. What were you thinking girl?"
Lee glanced from one expectant face to another. "Can I tell you on the way to Phillip's apartment?"
Lee pushed her door open, took one look at Natalie's worried face and felt awful.
"I'm sorry Natalie. I shouldn't have blown up at you. Forgive me? I would have texted you to let you know that I was ok, but I didn't have any service."
Natalie nodded. "It's ok. I probably shouldn't have hollered either. I'm just glad you're ok. I would hate to have a dead roommate."
Lee snorted. "Far from dead. I'm going to grab some things and change. I feel gross." She turned to the gang at the door, "You can come in. Hold on while I grab some stuff. I suppose I'm sleeping over at one of y'all's places tonight."
After throwing overnight stuff in her backpack, she squeezed Natalie's shoulder and hurried out the door, followed by Kelly, Claire and Phillip who had picked up Claire's hand.
As soon as the door had shut behind them, Kelly rounded on Lee. "Ok, now spill. What's so wrong that you have to go disappear on us for 24 hours?"
Lee sighed. "I'm sorry. I got really upset. I'd had a really rough day yesterday, and I blew up at Natalie yesterday afternoon because of a stupid accident. She was all ready to fix it, and I had to go and blow up at her, so I decided that I needed to go for a drive. I managed to find myself on the parkway, and decided to take a hike off one of the lookout spots. I fell on my way back to the car."
"Which explains the limp." Phillip chuckled.
"And the ace bandage." Lee added, pulling up the cuff of her pants to show them. "When I got back to the car, it wouldn't start. I was pretty sure it was the battery there, but there was no one there to help me jump it. So, I spent the night in my car. If I'd known my car battery would die on me, I wouldn't have turned it off. I'm sorry. If my cell had had full service, I would have called to let you know that I was ok. But, being on the Blue Ridge Parkway . . . well, you know how that is."
Claire looked like she wanted to say more, but didn't push it because Phillip was right there.
"What ever you do, don't do anything like that again, ok? At least let us know where you're going to go." Phillip told her in his best big brother voice.
Lee nodded. "I'll remember." She promised.
When they got to Phillip's apartment, Tony was sitting on the stairs waiting for them. Wordlessly, he got up off the stair and pulled Lee into a tight hug.
"Hey . . . " Lee's voice was muffled in Tony's shirt. "It's ok. I'm alright. Well, I won't be if you don't let me go! Can't. Breath!"
He stepped back, sheepishly squeezing her shoulder as Phillip unlocked his door and led them all inside.
Claire led the girls to the kitchen as Phillip and Tony turned on the television and sat down to wait. It had been decided that food would be the best thing to pull out first.
"Phillip, would you tell Tony what happened?" Lee called from the kitchen as Claire pulled a package of noodles from the cupboard along with some tea bags.
"Sure thing!" He called back and next moment there was the murmur of voices from the other room.
As Kelly filled the teapot with water and set it on the stove to boil, she glanced casually at Lee.
"I got the feeling on the way here that what you told us might not have been everything. Was there more that you possibly didn't want Phillip to hear?"
"Well, yeah." Lee sighed, thankful beyond words that Kelly and Claire could tell when she wanted to say something more and would ask about it instead of leaving her to come up with a good way to introduce the subject.
"You know I've appeared stressed lately right?" She started, opening a can of spaghetti sauce and dumping into a saucepan so it could warm while the noodles cooked.
Both girls nodded.
"I don't remember how long ago it was, maybe a month or so, but I realized, much to my horror at the time, that I liked Tony."
Kelly barely hid the squeal that showed itself all over her face. Claire calmly poured the noodles into the now-boiling water and stirred them a couple times.
The three of them tensed, listening for a break in the conversation coming from the other room, but there was none.
"Well," Lee continued, once they'd all relaxed. "It's been extremely hard for me to see Tony dating Amber. He's the first boy I've had a crush on since I was 11! I've never felt jealous before, so I didn't know how to deal with it. I realized while I was out on the parkway that I don't like dealing with things that I don't know how to handle. I really shouldn't be this aggravated, but I honestly didn't know how to deal. And then, on my hike, I met a young woman who was able to guess my predicament, and told me to just go along for the ride and see what would happen. I guess that's what I'm going to do now. I just need you two to understand why I might become easily frustrated. You two can pull me back if I need to be."
Kelly giggled, and Claire glanced at Lee with a look that plainly said, "I knew it all along."
As if to prove Lee's suspicions, Claire grinned slyly at her. "I'm glad you finally decided to tell us."
"Yes! It's been a while since we thought something was up, but now that you've told us!" Kelly added in a squeal.
Lee quickly stirred the spaghetti sauce.
"Told you what?" came a male voice, rather to close at hand for comfort.
All three girls jumped rather guiltily.
"Tony!" Kelly whined. "Don't scare us like that!"
"Sorry," Tony grinned down at her. "But honestly, tell you what?"
"My grandma's secret spaghetti sauce." Lee improvised. "I've been avoiding telling them the secret ingredient all this time, and they finally got me to tell them. Just don't expect me to tell you now that I've told them! Otherwise it wouldn't be a secret!"
Tony grinned at her and quickly snagged her around the waist, making her slam into him. Some of the sauce from the wooden spoon she'd been using hit the wall behind him.
"I'm sure you could tell me!" He said, using his best puppy dog eyes and voice.
Lee's heart shuddered to a halt and then jumpstarted again, thrumming wildly, but she covered it, hitting him lightly on the arm. "Tony! No! I couldn't tell you! Let me go! It's nice to see you too, you big lummox, but when you go hugging me at all times, who knows, you might just end up with spaghetti sauce in your hair!" She brandished the drippy spoon at him, knowing how protective he was of his hair.
Sure enough, he jumped back as if he'd been stung and mockingly cowered against the wall.
"Oh please, kind miss, don't put the nasty spaghetti sauce in my hair! I didn't do anything wrong!"
All three girls laughed at the look on his face.
"Silly Tony. I won't hurt you, but I might let Kelly at you with her makeup." Lee threatened, giving the still cowering Tony and playful pat on the head.
He straightened up and grinned at her, ruffling her hair, and then turned to Claire. "Well, when you've got dinner ready, we're starving." With that he walked out of the kitchen and the girls could hear him telling Phillip, "Man, girls these days! Vicious little monsters."
That night was one of the best nights Lee had had all year. With her new "just sit back and watch the show" philosophy, things like laughing at Tony, or with him, came naturally. Their group was together, nothing was bothering them, and they could all sit back and have fun.
Later that week however, with homework piling up again, Lee began to wish for that night back. She had the feeling that something was up that she didn't know about. She saw Amber once that week when the previous couple weeks she'd seen her almost every day. Also, more then once during meals, Lee would catch Tony watching her. Once after catching his eye about three times, she exasperatedly asked him if she had something on her face.
With a "Yeah, it's right about here." Tony tried to flick her nose when she looked down to see where he was pointing. Lee had laughed and swatted his hand away, but realized that he'd been avoiding her real, if implied question.
It was a week later, on an unusually sunny, warm Saturday afternoon that Lee found out what had been going on.
She had decided that today of all days was a "sit-out-on-the-mall-and-enjoy-the-weather" day, and she was doing exactly that. Sitting cross-legged on the mall, eyes closed, palms upward receiving the warmth of the sun, she was startled when she was suddenly hugged from behind.
As she squeaked and looked around, she found Tony. He sat down on the grass next to her and threw his arm around her shoulders, pulling her against him briefly, throwing off her balance.
"Tony!" She cried, legs flailing, and pushed herself upright again.
He grinned at her, slightly distracted. "Sorry," was all he said.
As the silence lengthened, Lee went from watching the people to staring at Tony. She'd never seen him this silent before.
"What's up?" She asked him, in an attempt to get him to say something.
"Well," he started, and then failed.
"Well?" She asked, belatedly realizing that this might not be helping.
"Well," he said again. "Oh gosh, I didn't realize this might be this difficult. Um. Bear with me here, please?" he asked, dashing a pleading look at her.
"Okay." She told him, watching him silently.
"Um." He said eloquently. "You know when you disappeared? No, wait, don't answer. When you disappeared, it was really hard on me. You know how I've been dating Amber? It's what I've always done. Seen a girl who was pretty and asked her out. It also helped that my brothers didn't mind her because she was in one of the sororities that we hang out with."
Lee snorted. So, Amber was a sorority chick too. Of course.
"Please, let me explain." Tony put up his hand as if expecting her to try to interrupt. "When you disappeared, all I could think about was you. Those four or five hours where we didn't know where you were, were the hardest hours of my life. Amber called me, but I didn't answer because all I could think about was if you'd gone for a drive and managed to pitch yourself off the side of the mountain in your blind fury. Yeah, I know, I sound like a mother hen, but honestly when I saw you get out of the car, it was like everything was ok. The sun had come out from behind the clouds. Geez, can I get any more cheesy then this?" he added as an aside. "Anyway, I realized in those five hours that you are my closest and best girl friend."
Lee's heart stopped at this. He only wanted to let her know that she was his best friend. She didn't want to be just his best friend.
Reading the look on her face, he pulled her hands into his.
"Please." He asked again. "Let me continue. I'm not done. I didn't think there was anything wrong with realizing that you are my best girl friend, but then I really couldn't stop thinking about you, even when I was hanging out with Amber. She realized this, asked me what was wrong, and even though I didn't know, she was able to tell me. 'Go find her Tony.' She said to me. 'Go tell her that you like her and that you want her as your girlfriend. Go make her day.' So, here I am. I really don't know what else to say, other then," and here his voice got very serious, "Lee Jenks, I really, really like you and might even think it's love. Would you be my girlfriend?"
To say that Lee was shocked wouldn't have entirely covered it. Her heart, which always pounded at a million miles an hour around Tony, had given a little shock of surprise and died on the spot. Somewhere in her subconscious, she knew she should probably shut her mouth, but her brain was still reeling from the shock of Tony's heartfelt words.
She probably would have sat there with her mouth hanging open till the sun set, if Tony hadn't carefully leaned in and placed a small kiss on her cheek.
And then she was shaking, he hands trembling violently in his, and she couldn't see straight because her eyes were suddenly clouded. Tony seemed to smile down at her and pulled her as close to him as possible, stroking her hair.
Once she'd calmed down, he whispered lightly in her ear, "You still haven't answered my question."
"Can you repeat the question?" She asked, still a little lightheaded.
"Will," he kissed her forehead. "You," he kissed her eyelid. "Be," he kissed her other eyelid. "My," he kissed the tip of her nose. "Girlfriend?" He gently kissed her lips.
Lee's heart was pounding wildly in her ears, but she was so happy that she didn't care.
"Yes." She told him softly once he'd pulled away. "Yes I will."
"Oh, good." He grinned down at her. "I wasn't sure what I was going to tell Phillip."
Lee laughed, to happy to be anything else.
Later that night, wrapped in Tony's arms while watching Princess Bride, she thought about the reception she'd gotten, walking hand in hand with Tony to dinner. Claire had looked smug, Phillip's hand in hers. Kelly had laughed until she cried, just a little bit, and Lee could tell that she really wished she had a relationship as well. Tony had jubilantly told the entire dinner table the sequence of events, making Lee sound like a beautiful girl who had saved him from despair, meanwhile making Lee blush with embarrassment and happiness.
Sit back and enjoy the ride, Lana had said. Lee sent up a silent word of thanks for sending Lana to convince her that things were probably going to be all right. Things couldn't have turned out any better, she thought as she buried her face in Tony's chest and felt him kiss her hair lightly.