Chapter 1

When Jessica awoke in her dorm room on a grey, rainy Saturday in September, she felt a little bit wonderful. Her mood dipped a little when she saw the rain-speckled window and realized it was far too dark for 8 o'clock in the morning.

It looked like her plans for a morning job were quashed, which would certainly give the freshman fifteen a running start (though half a pizza digesting in her gut didn't help).

As for why she felt so wonderful… she'd dreamt she'd been on a date with Audrey Hepburn at some cafe in France. The memory of that dream brought a smile to her face.

This was the third weekend of Jessica's freshman year, and so far she was disappointed. College was supposed to be about partying, but she's spent the last two weekends doing laundry and homework. She might as well visit her parents.

She blamed Joan. Joan was her best friend, and one of the few people she knew at this school. But Joan wasn't the drunken party girl she'd been in high school. Since Jessica didn't want to go out drinking alone, her social life was certainly suffering.

Jessica wondered how real Joan's new outlook on life was. She'd learned the hard way that people never really change. It was probably only a matter of time before Joan was back to her hard-partying ways. As far as Jessica's social life was concerned, the sooner the better.

"It's Saturday, of course we're going to the bars tonight!" Polly said.

Kaori dripped a little more blue paint into the smudge on her palette and held it next to the polaroid she'd taken of the storm clouds; it still didn't quite match.

"I don't know, I've got a history test this week; I should probably study for it," Kaori said.

"You can't spend every night in your dorm room, like some kind of freak," Polly said. "You've got to get out and socialize, meet people, meet guys!"

Kaori sighed and added another dab of black, then took one of the larger brushes and began to paint on the canvas.

"Don't you have to make a sketch first?" Polly said.

"Not for a landscape, I like to do these free-form," Kaori said, making swirly grey clouds with the brush.

Polly watched as Kaori worked; nearly an hour later she set her brush down. It wasn't complete, of course, but she'd defined all the boundaries.

"That doesn't look like the photo," Polly said.

Kaori sighed again. "It's painting, not a photocopy; I only took the picture to get a reference for the colors."

"Oh," Polly said. She looked lost in thought; something Kaori had never seen before. "So anyway, we're leaving at six for Stoney's; why don't you put your hair up?"

"I like my hair the way it is," Kaori said.

"Really?" Polly said; then she shrugged. "Well, all right, you haven't had any trouble getting guys to talk to you so far; though that might just be yellow fever."

Kaori clenched her teeth.

"So six, then," Polly said as she went out the door of Kaori's dorm room. "Make sure you're ready."

Kaori locked the door after her; she didn't know why she'd left it open. Everyone in this dorm left their door open when they were in, but that encouraged people to stop by.

She started to clean her brushes off in the sink; the urge to paint had subsided. She remembered that she used to enjoy painting, and would set aside a couple of hours a day to do it. Now she only did it when she was frustrated or needed to calm down.

These days the greatest source of frustration was the ex-cheerleader named Polly that had latched onto her during orientation.

"Hey blondie," Joan said, and stood aside so Jessica could enter her dorm room.

Joan and Morrie were the only people Jessica knew who kept their doors closed when they were in; Jessica only closed hers when she was sleeping or changing.

"Just give me a couple of minutes," Joan said as she sat down in the swivel chair by her desk. "I'm just finishing up some homework."

The screen of Joan's laptop was filled with a complicated looking spreadsheet. Jessica suspected it was for the Mathematics of Finance class that Joan was always gushing on about.

Jessica flopped down on Joan's immaculately made bed. The entire room was in a similar state; all of her books were neatly stacked in the sideways crates which served as bookshelves. All of her clothes were hung up, the dirty ones in a hamper and not strewn about the floor. One wall was covered with a cozy-looking rug, the other with a long panoramic poster of the London skyline. Jessica always found that large Ferris wheel to be annoying for some reason.

Joan did the last few keystrokes with a flourish, and swiveled to face her friend. "What's up?"

"I was just thinking: we've been in college for a month now, and it's time we did something really irresponsible," Jessica said with a smirk.

"I think I'll pass," Joan said. "I'm getting too old for that sort of thing."

"You're 19! Besides, you think those stiffs you're going to work with at Sotheby's aren't going to drink? Don't they throw champagne galas all the time?" Jessica said.

"I have too much to do on the weekends, I can't be fighting a hangover," Joan said.

Jessica grumbled. "You're missing the point of college."

"The point of college is that we can finally study what interests us, and not the gen-ed crap we had to study in high school," Joan said.

"College means you can finally do what you want!" Jessica said.

"Didn't I just say that?" Joan said with a half-smile.

"Fine, fine, tea-total all you want, but is there something we else we can do, just so we get off this damn campus?" Jessica said.

"I'm sorry, Jess, I'm busy tonight. It's the first meeting of the Optimist's Club," Joan said.

Jessica covered her eyes. "Oh god, that's so embarrassing..."

"I know it sounds sort of lame, but you need to get involved, that's how you network," Joan said.

"You'll be the only one under 50," Jessica said.

"I'm trying to bring it back. They'll appreciate new blood, and it makes the contacts that much more valuable," Joan said. "We're meeting at a bar, though, maybe you should come along."

Jessica perked up a little. "Which bar?"

"Stoney's, near route 53," Joan said.

"That more of a retirement home than a bar," Jessica said. "Though I suppose they'd fit right in…" She chuckled. "We should invite Morrie along."

An evil smile crossed Joan's face. She leaned back in her chair and banged on the wall. "Hey Morrie!"

"What?" a bland, muffled voice said through the wall.

"We're going drinking with the Optimist's Club later, you want to come along?" Jessica said in a raised voice.

"Why the hell would I want to do that?" Morrie said, followed by some indecipherable grumbling.

Jessica and Joan exchanged grins.

"Do you consider yourself an optimist?" the man sitting across from Jessica said.

"Um… No, I don't think so," Jessica said.

"Why not?" the man replied.

The man was probably in his sixties. Like all of the other Optimists he couldn't shut up. Joan wasn't likely to save her from this conversation because she was flitting around the table like a bee, greeting and sharing pleasantries with everyone.

"Well, I don't believe everything that happens is for the best; I mean some really horrible things have happened, and continue to happen," Jessica said.

"But good things have happened as well," the man said. "You don't hear about them because bad news caters to people's expectations. That's called confirmation bias."

Jessica only half-listened; a group of people around her age had come into the bar. Some of the older patrons were giving them the stink-eye. Leading them was a girl with brown hair that Jessica remembered from orientation. She had been a loudmouth, and an annoying kiss-ass.

Jessica furrowed her brow as she saw that The Loudmouth's entourage included someone she knew: a short Asian girl with a purple streak in her silky black hair who wore glasses. Jessica knew her from English 101, but she couldn't remember her name. She had always been timid and polite, so Jessica couldn't imagine what she was doing with The Loudmouth.

"Something got your attention?" the man said, following her gaze.

"No, I'm sorry. I just thought I saw someone I knew," Jessica said. This was the perfect excuse to break away; but the Optimists were better company than The Loudmouth's preppies. "You were saying?"

"Now what I think you need to realize is that if you take a stretch of time and view it by itself, it might appear that things are bad and getting worse. However if you view it in perspective, you will see that things are getting better," the man said. "It's possible to have a bad day within a good year, for instance. But things are only going to get better; as Ol' Blue Eyes said, the best is yet to come, and won't it be fine?"

Jessica suddenly found herself paying attention to what the man was saying. "I… I think I'm afraid of the future."

"Why do you say that?" the man said.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Jessica said.

The man laughed. "None of us do."

"That isn't what I mean; I don't even have a vague idea of what's going to happen. I'm in college, but I haven't declared a major, I'm only here because they wanted me on their track team," Jessica said.

"You'd like to be like Joan, then? Having your future completely mapped out?" the man said.

"That's probably better than being afraid," Jessica said.

The Loudmouth and her friends had taken a table on the far end of the room. The girl from her English class was in earnest conversation with a guy who looked to be in his early twenties.

"You shouldn't be afraid. So what if you don't know where you'll be in five years? There's no reason to think you won't be happy and fulfilled. Even if you're not, there's no reason to dread the future, so much is uncertain," the man said.

"It's just… All my friends, not just Joan, were in such a rush to grow up. I wasn't; I didn't want the extra responsibility," Jessica said.

"With that responsibility comes a great deal of freedom, a chance to carve out a piece of the world for yourself; a chance to live life according to your own rules," the man said.

"But there's nothing I want to do!" Jessica said.

"There are worse things than too much freedom, you know," the man said. "Getting back to your friend Joan; I've heard her talk about what she wants to do. I can't help but wonder what will happen if she gets everything she wants; what will she do then?"

"She'll live happily ever after," Jessica says.

"Well, you've known her a lot longer than I have, but that doesn't sound like the Joan I know," the man said. "That's sort of like me; when I was her age, I wanted to be a famous actor."

"How long did you hold on to that dream?" Jessica asked.

The man gave her a strange look. "I was Burt Reynolds' sidekick in a couple of movies; I'd say I succeeded. I just wasn't happy, so I started over."

"That's insane!" Jessica said; and who the hell was Burt Reynolds?

Suddenly there was a large crash; Jessica looked up and saw that a waiter had dropped a tray of glasses.

"Mazel-tov!" the man across from her shouted. Everyone at the table laughed.

"Excuse me," Jessica said, and made her way to the bathroom.

Stoney's was five miles from campus, and most of its clientele were middle-aged. The owner fawned on students whenever they patronized the place, and never bothered to card them.

The place would have more students, but Polly knew how to keep a secret. It wasn't very often that there would be other students there, much less two, even rarer was two of them with a group of perky old-timers.

Kaori recognized the brunette as Joan, the star pupil of her accounting class; she was telling a story to the group more with her hands than with her mouth; sitting next to her was a blonde girl from her English class. Kaori remembered during the first day meet-and-greet session that her name was Jessica, and she was some sort of athlete.

Polly marched them over to a table that seemed as far away from Jessica and Joan as they could get. She then told everyone which seat to take before slapping her ass down in the last empty chair.

"So,who hasn't met yet?" Polly said innocently.

Of course none of the five guys had met Kaori; that had been the plan after all. Polly seemed to have made Kaori her pet project.

"Adam," Polly said, indicating the red-haired fellow sitting across from Kaori. "Have you met Kaori?"

"Hey," Adam said in an irritating approximation of suaveness. "I love you long time!"

He then broke into a fit of laughter. Kaori just stared at him; that had to be a joke, right? No one could really be that blatantly offensive on purpose.

"Nah, just kidding. Seriously, what part of Asia are you from?" Adam said.

"I'm from Eau Claire," Kaori said.

Adam started laughing again, but soon stopped when Kaori didn't say anything else.

"Adam's a business major, then same as you," Polly said.

"I don't go to class that much, though, so you don't need to worry about me topping you… at least on the dean's list," Adam said, breaking into another fit of laughter.

Kaori wondered if he was high or just stupid; possibly both.

Several moments of awkward silence passed. It was finally broken by Polly.

"Adam, why don't you be a dear and get us some pitchers of beer?" Polly said.

"Sure thing," Adam said, and started laughing again.

As soon as he was out of earshot, the tall guy who had been sitting next to him said: "Polly tells me you're an artist?"

Kaori fought the urge to roll her eyes; here we go again, she thought.

"It's just a hobby," Kaori said.

"What's your medium?" the tall guy asked.

"Um, I paint," Kaori said.

"Watercolors, or…?" the tall guy asked.

"No, acrylics, oil, that sort of thing," Kaori said.

"Nice," the tall guy said with a smile. "What kind of things do you paint?"

"Landscapes, a few portraits," Kaori said, feeling enthusiastic in spite of herself. "I actually like to pain indoor scenes lately, sometimes with multiple light sources."

"That must be challenging though, you'd need to work out different sets of shadows and reflections," the tall guy said.

Kaori smiled in spite of herself. "As JFK said, we do it not because it's easy, but because it is hard."

One of the other guys began guffawing, but they both ignored him.

"Are you an art student?" Kaori asked.

"Yes, commercial art, though. I think of myself mostly as a cartoonist, though," the tall guy said. "I'm Ben, by the way," he said, offering his hand.

Kaori shook his hand; at least he hadn't bowed.

"What sort of cartoons do you do? Strips, or animated, books, what?" Kaori said.

"Strips for the most part now. I've had a strip in the Weekly Eagle since last semester," Ben said.

Kaori's mouth dropped open. "Shut up! You're Ben Kraft, the guy who draws Latitude Forty-Six?!"

"You've read it, then?" Ben said.

"I think it's awesome! You're like the love-child of Daniel Clowes and Bill Watterson!" Kaori said. There was a magnificent crash from the bar area, as if to accent her outburst.

"Mazel-tov!" someone shouted; Ben smirked.

"What the hell does that mean?" Polly asked.

"It's funny you should mention Dan Clowes, he's going to be doing a signing/Q-and-A thing at Books-A-Lot next weekend; if you're not doing anything, perhaps you'd like to go with me?" Ben said with a smile.

Kaori felt her stomach drop into her feet. She'd forgotten that the only reason they were even talking was because of Polly's transparent attempt at a setup.

"I'm sorry, I'm going to be out of town next weekend," Kaori lied. She then excused herself and made her way to the bathroom.

The bathrooms were at the back of the bar, at the end of a long hallway that shared a wall with the kitchen. Kaori pushed the heavy wooden door open and walked into the foul-smelling lavatory. Standing in front of one of the sinks, washing her hands, was the girl Kaori remembered from her English class, Jessica.

Kaori couldn't help but stare for a moment; Jessica was at least a head taller than her. She was wearing a leather jacket and yoga pants, which emphasized her shoulders and hips, both of which were more considerable than Kaori's own.

Jessica caught her glance in the mirror. "Hey there," she said with a smile.

"Hello," Kaori said. "You're Jessica, right, from Weir's class?"

"Yeah, I'm sorry, but I don't remember you name…." Jessica said, looking sheepish.

"It's Kaori," Kaori said.

"I'm kind of surprised to see another student here; most of the people who drink here have pacemakers," Jessica said.

"Polly found this place her first week here; she likes it because we get special treatment," Kaori said.

Jessica had gotten a sour look on her face when Polly was mentioned; for some reason that made Kaori feel relieved. "Yeah, I'm not particularly fond of her either."

Kaori walked past her to one of the stalls; the nearest bus stop was two miles away, and it was a good twenty minute ride back to campus; best to do that on an empty bladder.

Just as she was opening the stall door a thought occurred to her. She looked back and saw that Jessica was just leaving the bathroom.

"Hey, uh, wait a second," Kaori said. Her heart was pounding; she didn't like imposing on people, but she didn't want to walk the dark streets at this hour. "Do you have a car?"

"Yeah, I do. Do you need a ride?" Jessica said.

"Yeah, just a couple of miles to the bus stop, though," Kaori said; she looked down in shame. "I don't want to go back out there."

Jessica chuckled. "Believe me, I understand." She pushed the door open and poked her head out; after a moment she motioned for Kaori to follow her.

It was only a few feet to the back door, and no one was in the back hall. They walked through the door out into the parking lot. Jessica took her keys out of her coat pocket, and used her keyless entry fob to unlock her car, a silver Saturn.

They both piled in; the car had a leather interior with a pleasing aroma. She suppressed a chuckle when she saw the dashboard hula-dancer; she didn't even know they made those anymore; or Saturns, for that matter.

Jessica started up the car, and took her phone out of her coat pocket to call someone.

"What, did you fall in?" a female voice said after it rang a couple of times. "Should I contact the coast guard?"

"Listen, I'm going have to bail on you; I'll explain later, I'm helping out… a friend," Jessica said.

"Sure, sure," the voice on the other end said. "I'll talk to you tomorrow."

"Oh no no, you don't need to drive me all the way back," Kaori said. "I didn't want to take you away from your friends."

Jessica laughed. "Oh, those weren't my friends. Well, Miss Perfect was, but I can't say I much cared for the rest of them." She shifted the car into gear and backed out of the parking lot.

"Those guys were the Optimist's Club; I decided to tag along because Joan was meeting with them tonight," Jessica said.

"Sounds like you were having an unpleasant night too," Kaori said. "I let Polly think she talks me into things; but the truth is I'd rather do something with people I don't really like than sit home alone."

Jessica let out a long sigh. "That's so true."

"It wouldn't even be that bad if Polly wasn't so bossy. She keeps trying to set me up with guys she's met," Kaori said.

"She's got really bad taste in men, eh?" Jessica said.

"No, not really. In fact that's why I was in such a rush to get out of there. The guy I was talking to was really nice; I was beginning to like him," Kaori said.

Jessica risked a glance away from the road to Kaori. "That's a problem?"

"For me it is… You see, I don't exactly like boys," Kaori said.

"Wait a second… Are you telling me you're a lesbian?" Jessica said.

Kaori felt a sinking feel; she breathed a deep sigh to relieve it. "I'm going to have to walk home, aren't I?"

"No, it's just… I'm a lesbian too!" Jessica said.

Kaori shook her head. "Just because you've made out with one of your friends, because your boyfriend asked you when you were drunk, doesn't make you a lesbian."

Jessica laughed. "No, it's nothing like that. I've known I was a lesbian since I was in elementary school."

"Wow, I can't believe I didn't pick up on that," Kaori said. "Aren't we supposed to be equipped with GAYDAR?"

"Well, I'm hopeless with electronic gadgets," Jessica said, smirking. "That's why I still have a flip-phone."

"Yeah, I noticed that, very retro," Kaori said.

Kaori felt her heart race; so it was true then. This girl-this very attractive girl-was just like her. She'd learned to not let herself moon over her attractive classmates; it was just so heartbreaking when they invariably ended up being straight.

"Listen," Kaori said, and then licked her lips nervously. "Would you maybe be interested in going out sometime?"

"Like, as friends, you mean?" Jessica said, taking her eyes off the road again briefly.

"No, as…. well, a date," Kaori said.

Her palms had gotten all sweaty; the locks of hair had soaked up some sweat as well, making her head feel strangely cool; her heart was pounding so hard that she could almost hear it.

"Sure," Jessica said with a smile.