Three Simple Words

Like most romance stories, this one starts with three simple words.

"There's this guy…"

Raina and I are sitting over the remains of a post-bio lab lunch: the Friday fish special, steamed broccoli and carrots, cheesy mashed potatoes, and blueberry cobbler (me); salad (her). She says two and a half hours of breathing in formaldehyde, not to mention the sight of the fetal pig carcass splayed out across the dissection tin, makes her want to renounce food permanently. It's after two and the dining hall is starting to empty but I figure I should milk the moment for all it's worth and pretend I can't hear her. I've been complaining about my boyfriend Graham non-stop for the past couple weeks and boy talk is only fun if each party can share. "Pardon?"

Raina blushes. "I've been talking to the guy that sits next to me in English…"

I take a bite of cobbler. "And?"

"And…" She falls quiet.

"And he's cute?"

"He's attractive."

It's been two months since I started college. In addition to the four hundred person lectures and my roommate's pizza cravings at one in the morning, I'm still getting used to the slang. Cute is for puppies and peep toe shoes. Attractive is for college boys you wouldn't kick out of bed. Graham, with his nightly check-in phone calls and book carrying between classes, is cute. "So what's he like?"

"He's…he's nice. Funny. He makes all these jokes about the color of our professor's ties and whether or not it means we're going to have a pop quiz."

Weirdo alert. How can a piece of neckwear predict lecture plans?

"The last three times we had reading quizzes, our professor was wearing a green tie. And there were a couple times we got quizzes at the very end of class, when our professor was wearing these weird checkered ones. So he's got this theory about how solid green ties are like yes, we're going to have a pop quiz, but the patterned ones means our professor hasn't decided yet." Pause. "The asymmetrical pattern reflects the inner turmoil of his mind."

I blink. Raina delivers this last line with a completely straight face. "Right. What's his name again?" So if I ever run into him, I know to head in the opposite direction?

"His name's Bobby. Well…" she flushes. "That's not really his name. That's just what I call him. In my head." Her voice goes soft on the last bit, almost a mumble. An embarrassed, I-know-it's-pathetic-but-I-like-him-so-much-I-do-it-anyway mumble.

She's really fallen for this guy, hasn't she? Necktie conspiracy and all. "Well, Bobby sounds like quite the theorist."

"Yeah." She catches my tease. "I'm not entirely sure but I think he might be an English major."

We laugh. Raina's an English major too. I'm thinking about doing my degree in math. I'm a cold, calculating logician. Graham says I have a second brain where my heart should be. Whenever Raina and I work on the discussion section of our lab reports, she comes up with these outlandish explanations for why peaches ripen faster in a bag than out in the open. "It's because of the build-up of ethylene," I said. She shook her head. "Oh, no. It's because peaches are shy and don't want anyone to see them going through this life-changing event!"

I don't mind her crazy spin on things. Graham's like that too. He helped me move in at the beginning of the semester. After he left, my new roommate turned to me wide-eyed, and asked if it was true that he had once fought off a pack of wild hyenas. I laughed and said no, not quite. Sometimes I refer to my three brothers as hyenas for their eating speed, roughhousing, and cackling laughter. Graham wrestles around with them sometimes, but it's nothing serious. The closest thing to a vicious animal that Graham's fought off is some territorial Canadian geese that wanted my bread when he took me on a picnic for our two year anniversary. Graham's like the cracker he's named after, the snack his mother craved all through her pregnancy. His first name's Robert, after his dad, but the only people that call him that are substitute teachers and the doctor's office. He's a bit crunchy on the outside, but a real softie at the core. Cinnamon sweet, uniform squares, you always know exactly what you are going to get.

The most dangerous thing Graham's ever done is eat three double cheeseburgers in ten minutes on a dare. That's more stupid than dangerous, but with teenage boys, it can be hard to tell the difference. Well, I take that back. He did something pretty serious last night. We were cuddled up on the couch, doing math homework with an old James Bond flick on in the background. In the middle of a double integration problem, when I was trying to figure out which unknown to deal with first, he said, "Starr, I love you." In the heartbeat that followed, a bunch of useless things flashed into my mind. Like how he needed new socks because his big toe was poking out of the ones he was wearing. And how I had to remember to set my alarm a half hour early so I could get up and review my fetal pig anatomy before bio lab. I even figured out how to do that math problem. The equation could be simplified to just one unknown. But not a single, helpful thought as to how I should respond came into my head. Finally, as the submarine exploded on screen, Graham sighed and turned up the volume.

Raina pokes at her lettuce. "There's this dance tomorrow."


"Yeah. It's hosted by a bunch of English and Comp Lit students. They handed out flyers in our class."

"Hey!" I say, "I'm going to that." Graham's in comparative lit. He bought our tickets weeks ago. I'm dreading it, especially after last night. "Are you going?" I don't know what things are going to be like tomorrow with Graham but I do know another person, a buffer, will make them easier.

"I'm trying to decide."

"You should come!" Goodness, did I just squeak? I clear my throat.

"So Bobby and I were talking about the flyers and how they were plastered all over the building and he asked if I was going to go…"

And she's still "deciding"? "What did you say?"

"I said I didn't know."

I almost smack myself on the forehead. "Why didn't you say you were going to go and that you'll see him there?"

Raina stabs at a cherry tomato. "Doesn't that seem...I don't know, really forward?"

"Do you like him?" I demand. She rolls her eyes. Duh, of course. "Then what's the problem?"

She sighs. "I don't know. He's hard to read."

Now it's my turn to be skeptical. How can a guy who thinks the color of a professor's tie determines the day's lesson plan be hard to figure out?

"I can't tell if he's interested in me too or if he's just one of those really friendly people. He's always talking to the guy that sits on the other side of him too." She catches my expression. "It is hard to tell, I'm serious! Besides, I don't know if he's going to go or not."

"You should come," I say, "what do you have to lose?"

"Uh, my pride and dignity?"

I wave her off. "Those aren't important. Come on, it's fun to get dressed up and go out. And if he's there, you can make a move."

"And if he's not?"

"Then you can hang out with me." And help thaw the arctic temperature between me and Graham. "I mean, wouldn't you rather show up than regret a missed opportunity?"

Silence. "Yeah, okay."

"Sweet," I say, "You won't regret it, I promise."

THE CONVERSATION, yes, in all caps, happens sooner than I expect. A buddy of Graham's suddenly has to go home for the weekend so Graham has an extra ticket for tonight's game. Do I want to go?

The student section is next to the pep band. They're the marching band during football season but inside the cramped basketball stadium, they're corralled between the bleachers. Somehow, being squeezed into that tight space converts their marching energy into pep. Figuratively speaking, of course. We're across the aisle from the trumpets and after their third rendition of Bon Jovi's Livin' on a Prayer (at halftime, our team was down by seventeen), I wonder if they would be offended if I plugged my ears. On the other hand, all the noise makes it impossible for us to talk. Not that Graham's been uncommunicative. I'm one of those people that will talk and talk until my throat feels raw but Graham can be silent for entire conversations and still manage to say plenty.

After he kissed me hello this afternoon, he didn't let go of my hand. We walked across campus like some lovey-dovey couple on their second date. I hate PDA. Graham knows I hate PDA. I know that he knows that I hate PDA. But that didn't deter him from waving hi to a friend and pausing to chat with a professor with his fingers threaded through mine.

The second half starts badly. The opposing team makes three three-pointers within the first few minutes. Even the cheerleaders are having difficulties waving their pompoms. Around us, conversations shift from Renault's ankle injury and our nonexistent field goal percentage to midterms and parties this weekend.

"So about last night…"

My stomach flips. I wonder if the Friday fish special was more special than I thought. I know it seems weird that we've been together for ages and those three words are freaking me out, but the truth is, he's never had an inclination to say them before. Why now? "

Look," I say as the opposing team gets fouled and we pick up a free throw. "Maybe it'll be a twenty-five point game now."

Actually, I know why. When Graham asked me to junior prom, it was supposed to be a one night ordeal. Not a two and a half year relationship. A number one speed dial, part of the family Christmas card photo, remembers my brand of allergy medication better than I do, relationship. I might have said something along those lines last week. I was mad at him for telling friends we would go camping with them over fall break. He didn't bother to ask me. But the kicker, the part that got to me the most, I couldn't even hold him responsible. Graham wasn't the only one who assumed. Our friends did too.

He's looking at me but I can't meet his eyes. Number eleven misses the basket as he slides a hand over my knee. I push him off. "Not here."

He exhales but leans back. "I'm not going away, you know."

"I know." I still can't look at him.

Everyone talks about how college is a time for exploration, from discovering obscure Russian literature to finding your alcohol tolerance. First loves are special but they don't last. That's why they're called first loves. It implies that there are others that follow. People only end up with their high school sweethearts in the New York Times wedding announcements. And even then, those feature older couples who already have twelve grandchildren with someone else.

"I meant what I said."

So did I. Or rather, what I didn't say. After my parents drove off on move-in day, I told myself college would be different. But old habits die hard. In those first few weeks of school, when I was still wandering around campus with a map, worried about eating lunch alone, it was just easier to have Graham walk me to class, wait for him by the cafeteria's soda machine at noon. At the bookstore, he flipped through six copies of Elementary Differential Equations before finding me one with the right balance of highlighting and blank space. He even held my hair back the first time I had one too many rum and cokes at someone's house, kneeling on the sticky bathroom linoleum and rubbing my back as my dinner made a reappearance.

I don't know how to tell him. I'm usually the more vocal, the more confrontational of the two of us, but I can't bring myself to turn his three word statement into my own two: I don't. Or is it, I can't?

My hand hurts and I realize my fingers are clenched around my closed water bottle. I flex them, trying to relax, and the bottle slips out of my hand. Like a bad slapstick comedy, it bounces off the head of the curly haired guy in front of me and roll off his white t-shirted back. The guy turns, massaging his head. He's glaring. Uh oh.

Graham doesn't flinch. "Sorry about that." He leans in front of me and retrieves the bottle. "The game's so bad, I lost my grip. You okay, man?"

The guy harrumphs and looks from me to Graham and back to me.

I gulp. "It's…it's…uh…"

"It's still early in the season," Graham segues, "you think there's hope for us?"

The guy's eyebrow go up. Way up. His attention is solely on Graham now. "Of course! Renault and Zolander should be healthy in a few games. We'll be in a fighting condition by the time—"

A buzzer sounds. We're at the free throw line again. The guy turns back to watch, forgetting us. Graham quirks a smile at me and takes a swig out of the bottle.

I might not love Graham but I do like him. Enormously. Sometimes so much that it freaks me out. Instantly, I feel bad about pushing him away earlier and reach for his hand.

His fingers curl around mine. "Starr?"

People always do a double take at my name. Maybe it's the extra r, or the pretentiousness of the word, but my dad, an avid Beatles fan, didn't think about any of that when he named me. While my two oldest brothers, Len and Mac, are named after the songwriters of the group because my dad wanted his sons to be able to tell their own stories, I'm named after the drummer, the one that held all the music together. I'm holding on to Graham so hard that it hurts.

We miss the free throw. "You freaked me out last night."

"Yeah?" His tone is gently probing. It reminds me of the way he runs his fingers across my temple, smoothing back my hair, when I complain about a headache.

I plunge on. It's Graham. Robert Graham Elliot, Graham. If I can't tell him, who am I going to tell? "It was a serious thing to say."

"I know."

"I mean, it wasn't as serious as 'will you marry me and be the mother of my ten children—'"

A whistle blows. Time out. There's only a minute and change left in the game and we're still down by double digits, but our coach is still calling time. I guess everyone needs a break, especially when things are hopeless.

"—Five boys and five girls, of course. And they'll be named after characters in Shakespeare." Graham grins. "Oy, Goneril, where are my false teeth?!"

"Goneril!" Please tell me he's kidding. "Is that even a real name?"

"Oh, sure. She was the daughter in—"

Suddenly, I have a horrible flashback of my mom on hold with the pediatrician's office and my elementary school secretary when I was little. "My children are a bit feverish….that's McCartney and Starr…yes, like Paul and Ringo…"

"No child of mine is going to be named after an old play! Goneril! What if they call her gonorrhea?"

Graham laughs. "Okay, so we'll nix the Shakespearian name idea."

"And the ten children bit!"

"And the ten children bit."

The buzzer sounds. The two teams rearrange themselves back on the court. Graham squeezes my hand. "Actually, three sound good to me."

"Three?" My tone, bright and jokey two seconds ago, is now shrill. Is he serious? He really wants three kids? With me? And I'm trying to break up with him. Time out is over. We're back to ninety seconds of regulation.

"A girl for you, a boy for me, and—"

"—and what? A tyrannosaurus rex?" My tone is incredulous. I can't help it.

Graham pauses, catching my stiffness. "Not unless there's something you're not telling me."

He means it as a joke, a little humor in a tense moment, but he doesn't realize how right he is. Fifty seconds of regulation. I open my mouth. This is my chance. What should I say? Graham, you're the best boyfriend a girl could ask for but…I like you Graham, I really do, but… If he's such a good boyfriend, if I like him so much, why am I doing this?

Twenty seconds of regulation. Wow, the other team just made another bucket. This is such a sad game. Wait a minute, am I back-tracking? I've already established all the reasons why we need to break up. First loves don't last. This is college. I want to try new things, meet new people. Graham's so comfortable, so familiar, that he's uncomfortable, unfamiliar in all this newness. This has to end. Ten seconds.

Graham sighs. "Let's forget about all that for now, okay?"

"Okay." Surprise, surprise, my vocal chords are still in operation.

"I meant what I said last night. I wasn't trying to freak you out. A lot of stuff has been going on with us lately and I just wanted to know if you felt the same way."

Three seconds. Two seconds. One. "I…"

The buzzer sounds. Game over. Beside us, the pep band bursts into Bon Jovi one last time, and my answer is lost in the middle of Livin' on a Prayer.

Graham squeezes my hand. "This is why we showed up."

Along the back wall of the dim auditorium, spread out along two rows of white tablecloth, is food. And not just any food. Swedish meatball tins, cheese and cracker trays, strawberry and pineapple arrangements, food. A girl walks by with a circle of miniature quiches on a plate, two ham biscuits balanced on top. And we haven't even ventured toward the desserts yet.

It's Saturday. English and Comp Lit mixer night. When I woke up this morning, I promised myself I would tell Graham by the end of the day. Even though it's something I know I have to do, I'm dreading it. I thought about it through my afternoon in the library, while I was braiding my hair, on the wobbly walk over in my two inch heels, Graham's hand steady on my arm. He grins and hands me a plate. "This is going to be awesome."

We stake out a table by the drinks. It's still early but the auditorium is starting to fill. A couple of people have already hit the dance floor and I scan the crowd while Graham goes off in search of silverware, wondering if I'll see Raina glide by on some cute, sorry, attractive, guy's arm. Goodness, I hope she shows up. I hope she shows up and finds Bobby and they have a night she won't forget. I hope she shows up and distracts me, and distracts Graham, and we'll have a night I can forget.

Graham's not alone when he comes back to the table. The man is dressed in a double breasted suit, bowtie knotted squarely under his salt-and-pepper beard. He looks out of place, both in age and dress, in this crowd of college students in wrinkled button-downs.

"Have a spoon." Graham drops a fistful of plastic utensils on the table. "Starr, this is my English professor." He turns to the man and gestures to me. "Dr. Ayers, my girlfriend."

I extend my hand but I end up with a slip of paper instead.

"We're holding a quotations contest at eight," Dr. Ayers says. "I'm soliciting quotes from students now. If you have any in mind, please share them with us."

A quotations contest? What on earth is a quotations contest? Like, who can recognize the most lines from Look Homeward, Angel? Is this an English major's idea of fun?

Dr. Ayers looks at me expectantly. "We're looking for quotes that aren't too famous, but not esoteric either. Something that packs a punch."

Graham smiles encouragingly. I'm at a loss for words. If I can't string together a coherent sentence at the moment, how can I be expected to repeat someone else's, verbatim? I know my blank stare is making me look bad, and making Graham look bad too by default, but I can't help it. I'm bad with literary quotes. I'm a bad girlfriend.

I spot her out of the corner of my eye. She's standing at the doorway, in burgundy and silver. I'm not the only one watching her. A guy a few paces down at the drinks table pauses mid-pour, mouth appreciatively open. I jump up. "There's Raina. I'll be back in a sec."

Her face breaks into a smile when she sees me. "Hey, gorgeous. Look at you!"

My dress is tight, high-collared, and made of this unbreathable blue polyester material. I feel like a mummy wrapped in the unyielding fabric, unable to move, unable to speak. "Look at me? Look at you!" Raina's dress is a clingy, silky number. It looks like it grew on her. "You ready to break some hearts?"

She laughs and strikes a pose, hip cocked, curls tossed back. "Bring it."

We scan the room together. Actually, she scans because I still have no idea what her mystery guy looks like. We're tucked in a corner off the side of the entrance, away from the coat and purse check, but still close enough to watch people going in and out.

There's a large group of friends at the check-in desk, giggling and snapping pictures as they hand over IDs. One of the girls whips out a comb from her tiny purse. "Anyone have an extra barrette?" The request goes around like the grade school telephone game until she ends up with a hand full of mints, a tampon, and a small bottle of hand sanitizer.

I try to picture myself in that group. What would I offer if I opened my purse? Graham's keys? His wallet? Lint? Graham has pockets but he always shoves his stuff in my bag. "You're better at keeping track of them," he says. I close my eyes and imagine the upcoming math department open house. A junior in my differential equations class said it's a ritzy affair. They hold dinner at a nice restaurant near campus, wining and dining prospective students. I'll show up in that floaty green cocktail dress hanging in the back of my closet, the one that Graham said made me look like a walking Christmas tree. But I won't care what Graham says because he won't be with me. I won't go alone though. I'll be with friends or maybe even that cute guy that sits in front of me in biology. And over appetizers, when one of the girls at my tables asks if anyone has a barrette, I'll unzip my purse and pull out…well, I don't know what I'll pull out. I carry so many of Graham's things that they've crowded out my own stuff. I'm not much of a phone conversationalist so I always leave my cell at home. My room is never locked because my roommate is always there, barring class time or that Brendan Fraser marathon at the union a couple weeks ago. And my idea of a wallet is a twenty dollar bill in my sneakers. The last time I was at Chick-fil-A and said, "hold on, I have to untie my shoe" to the cashier was ages ago, before Graham showed up with his nickels and dimes and plastic.

But that doesn't matter. I can figure out what to carry in my purse on my own. All that empty space, that lightness in my bag, might seem strange at first, but I'll get used to it. I'll buy myself a wallet and keep track of loose change. I'll bring my keys with me too, in case there's ever a James Franco marathon at the union. And if I forget them, I'll have my phone with me to call a friend who will let me stay in her room for the night. Raina, maybe. Except between her shoe collection and diet Pepsi addiction, there isn't that much empty space on her floor. Or maybe Jessie from down the hall. She's always complaining about how her roommate's boyfriend is over all the time though. Another crasher might not be so welcome either.

Who am I kidding? Giving up Graham isn't just going to be strange. It's going to be downright scary. Who's going to fix my shelves when they collapse from the weight of thirty boxes of easy mac again? Or grab my arm, when a car zooms through the crosswalk out of the blue? If his reflexes had been two seconds slower, I would have been a goner. I can't do this. I can't break up with Graham. I need him.

"I don't think he's here." Raina tucks a stray curl behind her ear and adjusts the straps of her dress. She's disappointed.

My stomach squirms. I'm disappointed too. What am I saying? I need Graham? I don't need him. I don't even love him. I'm psyching myself out. It's the pressure of the day, the tension of the moment. I need to calm down, think about something else. I should eat something. I bet those ham biscuits are getting cold. "It's still early. Maybe he'll show up later."

Raina straightens and checks her watch, a sleek, sterling silver timepiece. "Maybe. It's only six now."

"This thing is supposed to go until midnight, I think. Come on, let's go get some food." I lead the way across the auditorium. "Graham staked out a table near the drinks. If you're over twenty-one, they're serving wine."

She shakes her head. They're stamping the hands of students who are of age at the door. Plus, with all the professors I've seen milling around, it's probably not a good idea. Although, with the way some of the couples are swaying on the dance floor, I wonder if some pre-gaming hasn't already happened.

Raina perks up. "Ooh, do I finally get to meet your boyfriend?"

"Oh," I say, "yeah, I guess." My brain whizzes through all the bad-mouthing I've done to her and suddenly, this seems like a bad idea. She wouldn't repeat any of it, would she? Earlier, I was counting on her to be a buffer. What if she turns out to be a ticking bomb? I should never have been so candid about Graham's dandruff problem or the way the cafeteria chili gives him gas like you would not believe. I definitely regret that comment about how making out with him is like being slobbered on by a dog. Telling her was fine when Graham was going to be a thirty second story while we waited for a solution to boil in lab, but if they're going to meet, I don't want her to think badly of him because of all my complaining.

"Oh, look! Are those quiches?"

Before I can say anything, Raina darts off to the food. I pick up a second plate. Maybe if there's enough brownies and strawberry shortcake on hand, all the desserts will sweeten the conversation.

Dr. Ayers is gone when Raina and I approach the table. Graham is sitting alone, fork down, watching the dance floor. He's waiting for me to come back to start dinner. His face lights up when he sees us. "Hey!"

"Graham." I put down the plate of brownies and shortcake. It's too late to back down now. "This is Raina. Raina, this is my-"


Robert? Does she know him?

Graham smiles. "Raina Stephens, it's nice to see you made it. It would be a shame if you missed out on all this great food."

I'm floored. A few minutes ago, I was worried about these two different parts of my life intersecting but here they are, already crossed-over without me realizing. "How do you guys know each other?"

Graham turns to me, still grinning. "I sit next to Raina in English."

My stomach drops.

"We're the triple R team with the guy on my other side: Roger, Robert, Raina. Our professor, you know, the one I told you about with the weird neckties? He uses the RRR acronym for read, review, and revise, but we know what it really means."

I open my mouth but nothing comes out. Raina's crush, the one she was waiting on. He's sitting in front of me. It's Graham. Robert Graham Elliot, Graham. My Graham.

Raina's expression is unreadable. "I thought your boyfriend's name was Graham?" Her tone is flat.

"Oh," Graham says, "yeah, that's just what Starr calls me. Graham's my middle name."

And I thought your crush's name was Bobby, I want to say, but then I get it. Robert, Bob, Bobby. She nicknamed him Bobby. I stare at her. She nicknamed him like he was hers to nickname. Like he was hers to talk about, to giggle over. To dress up in clingy, lacy, burgundy silk for. I feel sick. I drop into the chair next to Graham and put my hand on his knee. He's mine.

Graham twitches in surprise but then covers my hand with his own, pleased. "Pull up a chair," he says to Raina, "come eat with us."

For a split second, I think she's going to accept but then she straightens her skirt, smoothing the fabric flat. "Thanks, but I told some friends I would meet up with them."

"Oh, too bad." Graham's actually disappointed. "Maybe later."

She smiles, all lips, no teeth, and disappears into the crowd.

I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding.

"So how do you know Raina?" Graham picks up his fork.

"She's my lab partner for bio."

"Your lab partner, the shy peaches girl? That was Raina?" He laughs. I forgot I told him that story. "Of course. Who else could it be? She's great, isn't she?"

I slide my hand off his knee. Great is not how I would describe her. Okay, so maybe it was an honest mistake. I always refer to Graham as…Graham. There was no way she could've known that her crush and my boyfriend were one and the same. Except, how could she not? That ridiculous story about the neckties and pop quizzes should've tipped me off. And that dress! That hip cock, that hair flip. "Bring it," she said. Bring it! Those words were actually meant for me. If that's how she wants to play it, then I can handle it. Bring it.

"Starr?" Graham flashes a hand across my face. "Are you going to eat or are you going to stare off into space?"

I push him away. I hate how he does that. Does he think I'm a cat? I pick up my fork. "I'm eating."

Why am I so upset? I was planning on ending things tonight anyway. I don't need to bring it. Raina can have him if she wants. Let her deal with the holey socks, the nightly check-in phone calls.

There's a softness on my cheek. Graham runs his fingers gently across my eyelids, along the bridge of my nose, down my jaw. It gets my attention, but in a completely different way from earlier. "You okay?"

I feel myself relax, the tightness in my chest shrinking as he traces my features. It's Graham. My Graham. Nothing bad can happen under his watch. I close my eyes. "No."

"What's up?"

I want to explore college on my own. Raina has a crush on you. You love me. I don't know. "I think I want to go home."



I open my eyes. Graham's watching me, forehead wrinkled. He's usually the one that's ready to leave. I'm always insisting on another song, another drink. But not tonight. Tonight I want to go home. "Please." My voice is soft, even to me, but Graham hears. He hears everything I say.

"Sure. Let's get out of here." He springs into action, grabbing some napkins, bundling up our food. We're bringing it with us. We're bringing it home. Everything's still spinning as Graham holds the door for me, waving goodbye to Dr. Ayers as I slip through.

Outside, it's gone from sunset and dusk to undefined night. In the blank darkness, my head seems clearer. I start toward the front of the building, where we came in. The shortest way home is to retrace my steps.

"Starr! Where are you going?" Graham's two paces behind me but he catches up in a heartbeat. "The dorm's that way." He points behind him.

I feel nauseous again. "Didn't we come through the front of the building?"

He blinks. "Yeah, but we had to loop around the entire auditorium, remember? You said your feet were killing you."

I remember my toes aching but I don't remember the extra steps. Graham takes my arm. "Unless you want to go back?"

"No." This time, my head aches more than my toes. Do I really not know my own way home? Then, it starts. It's on the edge of my periphery as we descend the steps of the building. By the time we pass the union, it's front and center. And as we pick our way through the red and gold leaves blanketing the dorm lawn, it's obliterated all other thought. I'm freaked out, unsure, disoriented.

I'm scared. And that's the only thing I'm certain of.

Graham's the only person I know that will wait an hour and a half in the parking lot when my bus is late. He tells me I'm beautiful when I'm not. He admits I'm stubborn, jealous, and spiteful when I am. He takes me home when I can't.

I slip my hand into his. I can't function without him. I need him. I… "Graham?"

"Yeah?" His tone is patient, kind.

"I love you."

Afterword: Comments? Questions? Hit the review button and tell me about it.

This was written as part of Ficathon Revival, round two. Ficathon is a prompt exchange started by McQuinn, currently moderated by Epic Scarf. Visit the of_ficathon community at livejournal for more. Below was my prompt:

Challenge 15

Things Wanted: A basketball game, a black tie event, drama, creative names, one character's job is a teacher, a relationship

Things NOT Wanted: death, any supernatural references, pregnancy

Quotes: references to a marching band, use of the words "will you marry me" and a reference to Russia.

/* Revisions Log:

5/9/10 - updated to combine three chapters into one, per daydee