“Decisions, decisions…” I scrolled through movie selections, trying to find something we both loved but that we hadn’t seen too many times or in the past few months.
Jonnie responded with a satisfied moan as she slid another spoonful of ice cream into her mouth.
Footsteps in the living room upstairs gave way to a rhythmic thumping as Skyler bounded down the stairs to Jonnie’s basement rec room that also doubled as her bedroom.
Great. Here goes nothing.
“Hey babe, how ya feeling?” Skyler stopped short and that awkward moment happened when he realized I was in the room. I reached for my ice cream and shoved a spoonful in my mouth forcing myself not to answer him.
He wasn’t calling me ‘babe’ anymore. Jonnie was his new girlfriend. He cleared his throat and leaned down to kiss her forehead.
“Got an extra spoon?” He flopped onto the sofa in his usual spot, right in the center. Right between his two favorite girls. Again, I fought the response to hand him mine and offer to share.
As if realizing the position he was now in, Skyler hoisted himself back off the sofa and bounded up the stairs. Only one drawer in the kitchen opened and closed. He knew exactly where to find the silverware.
We’d been here together in this rec room watching movies, and football games, and sit coms and goofing off for longer than I could remember. Freshman year hadn’t been that many years ago and yet I couldn’t think of a happy memory that didn’t somehow involve one or both of these guys. I took a deep breath and grabbed the remote again, scrolling through movie choices.
Skyler bounded back down the stairs again and reached his spoon into Jonnie’s bowl of ice cream. I gulped, set my own bowl on the coffee table, suddenly no longer hungry, and kept scrolling.
“What da ya guys wanna watch?” I asked playfully. “Sweet Home Alabama? Sleepless in Seattle?”
“Ehh, what else is there?” Jonnie asked.
“Ooh, here’s one!” I couldn’t believe I was about to do this, but I said it with a straight face and everything. “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days.”
They both stared at me and Skyler’s jaw actually dropped. How cliché. This was going to be fun. I raised my eyebrows.
“No?” I turned back to the scrolling list. “How about My Best Friend’s Wedding?”
Still no answer from either of them.
“Clueless? Ooh, I love that movie. I can totally relate. How about Reality Bites. I love Winona Ryder.”
“What are you doing, Amberlyn?” Skyler mumbled.
“Here we go, the perfect movie for the three of us.” I softened my tone. “Keeping the Faith. It’s about a girl and her two best friends, who she loves enough to want them both to be happy.”
“You’re right,” Jonnie said. “That does sound like the perfect movie for the three of us to watch.” They both seemed to relax.
I selected the movie and settled back into the sofa, propping my feet up and setting aside the remote.
“You gonna eat the rest of this?” Skyler reached for my bowl of ice cream that was melting on the table near where my feet were resting. I used my toe to shove it toward him and gave him a half smile. “Thanks.”
He removed my spoon and set it aside then settled in next to Jonnie, leaning his shoulder against hers, and used his own spoon to shovel in a huge bite of ice cream.
“Oh, I remember this one,” Skyler said around a mouthful. “A priest and a rabbi both fall for the same girl and neither of them is supposed to like her, ya know, cause a priest can’t get married and stuff.”
“That’s the one.” The three of us fell into a comfortable silence as we watched a movie together, just like old times. Almost.
I wondered what Aiden was doing right then…
Great news! Strike Three, You’re Mine: All’s Fair in Love and Sports is now available on Amazon! Happy reading! -Julie
Great news! Strike Three, You’re Mine: All’s Fair in Love and Sports is now available on Amazon! Happy reading! -Julie
Great news! Strike Three, You’re Mine: All’s Fair in Love and Sports is now available on Amazon! Happy reading! -Julie
“Let’s go Buccaneers!” I yelled and raised my poms in the air, my breath creating a puff of condensation that reflected the Friday night stadium lights. I bounced on my toes, appreciating the springboard give to the high school track that circled the perimeter of the football field, but wishing we’d chosen our warmup pants rather than cheerleading skirts.
I was so ready for football season to be over. This would hopefully be the last game this season where we’d be subjected to the elements. October in Michigan pushed into cooler nights.
“Amberlyn” —Bella pulled my cheerleading sweater. “What’s wrong with Skyler tonight?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled back.
Things weren’t going well on the field. My boyfriend, Skyler, was star quarterback and usually kept his cool under pressure. Tonight, he was yelling at his teammates and arguing with the refs and coaches. Something was bothering him, and I wished I could help. There was nothing I could do from the sidelines except cheer for him, and the team, and hope for the best.
My best friend Jonnie was also on the football field and the arguments seemed to revolve around her. From the beginning of the season she’d been a source of contention. High school guys didn’t want a girl on their opposing team.
Jonnie and the guys at our school here in Grand Haven claimed the rest of the teams were afraid of her because she was the best wide receiver this side of the Mississippi River. But there was more to the controversy. No one wanted to tackle her. No one wanted to reach around her to steal the ball the way they would from a guy in fear they’d grab body parts that shouldn’t be shown on a beach.
Things were different when she was a tomboy and about the same size as the boys. Over the summer she’d grown up and so had they. The boys became men and she no longer looked like a tomboy. She was now probably the most beautiful girl in our senior class.
If Jonnie hadn’t been my best friend since we were little kids, I’d probably be jealous of her. I knew a lot of other girls were. The cheerleaders warned me to watch my back because they thought Jonnie was moving in on my boyfriend.
I wasn’t worried. Much. Skyler and I had been going out since our freshman year when we were on student council together and he asked me to homecoming.
Still, he’d been friends with Jonnie longer than he’d known me. The fact that they had some weird sports connection shouldn’t have bothered me. Lately they seemed to have that same connection on and off the field.
If anyone would notice the change, I would. The three of us had been inseparable for years. Jonnie and I lived next door to one another, and Skyler was frequently over. The two of them taught me everything I needed to know about football to help me become a good cheerleader. They would talk about strategies and plays while I would try to keep up and then patiently rewind the footage to explain things I didn’t understand.
This fall there was a tension in the air as if they didn’t want to look at one another, and loathed being in the same room. Yet I’d noticed when Jonnie wasn’t paying attention, Skyler couldn’t keep his eyes off her. It was like he was aware of her all the time.
He was my boyfriend. He should have his eyes on me, not her. He didn’t seem affected by my skimpy swimsuits or short cheerleading skirts, either. I chalked it up to him being a gentleman. Now I wondered.
He also hadn’t kissed me in weeks. He was never one to make moves on me or try to get me to do things we shouldn’t. The few times we’d made out over the years had been awkward. Was there any validity to what my cheerleading friends had warned about? Was Jonnie moving in on my boyfriend?
The whistle blew and a yellow flag flew into the air, pulling me from my inner contemplation. I tucked my poms behind my back and lifted on my heels trying to get a better look. Skyler was right up in the face of a guy on the opposing team and Jonnie was on the ground.
I couldn’t hear what Skyler was yelling but more flags were thrown, and Skyler’s best friend Logan pulled him away from the opponent, backing him up, helmet to helmet like two deer with antlers locked. The rest of the team reorganized themselves fifteen yards behind the line of scrimmage.
There wasn’t much to cheer for in this situation. Go, fight, win? Fighting wasn’t helping right now. Fire up? They were already hot headed. Let’s get ready to rumble? Not good either.
The other team scored a touchdown right before halftime and I watched helplessly as our team hung their heads while jogging over to the locker rooms. I momentarily considered running over to the women’s locker room to comfort Jonnie, who entered alone.
Instead, I hurried onto the field with the rest of the cheerleading squad to perform our halftime show.
Great news! Strike Three, You’re Mine: All’s Fair in Love and Sports is now available on Amazon! Happy reading! -Julie
Oh my gosh! I'm so excited to see this. One of my friends found a copy of our 8th grade yearbook where my very first published work was located.
This was published in 1988 in our Flushing (Michigan) Junior High yearbook. Yeah, good times.
Those last few verses about high school must have been added after the fact because my original poem ended with "If ever there should be an end."
The frustrating thing is that my name is not even listed as the author. Maybe that’s not a bad thing since this is the cheesiest poem ever written.
My best friend, Amy and I remember when I wrote this. I was on an airplane flying to Florida to spend the summer with my grandma. Amy and I were inseparable back then, and I knew I was going to miss her somethin' fierce, so I wrote this poem!
I wonder if anyone remembers the novel I wrote that year? I know Amy remembers because we’ve talked about it in recent years. I scrawled the story as fast as I could on notebook paper, ripped the sheet out of my notebook, barely looking up from my writing, and passed the page to the person next to me, and they would read it and pass it on and on and on. I wonder if any of the teachers remember that? Or why they didn’t put a stop to it? And how on earth did I pass eighth grade? And (gulp) why did I throw that manuscript away?
The Kindle app on my phone sure makes reading easier now! Oh, and thank the maker for word processors! When I first started using Microsoft Works (yes, Works, for those of you who are too young to know, that was the predecessor to Word), I thought it was a gift from the writing gods. I now probably spend more time with Microsoft Word than I do with my husband. He should probably be jealous…
Chrissy wanted more than a note. She missed having Phil in her life, even if only by cell phone. She read his most recent note over and over, sitting alone in the clearing.
“I wish you were here with me, Phil.” Chrissy spoke to an empty fire pit, the ashes and blackened wood reminding her of the scars that had been burned into the face of the man she loved. “I dream of you…”
Chrissy wrapped her arms across her waist, rubbing her hands up and down her arms, trying to warm the shivers away. She smiled, remembering the feel of his lips on hers.
“In my dreams, you kiss me… and I wake up, and you’re not there.” A tear fell down her cheek. She didn’t bother wiping it away. “I miss you.”
“I miss you too.” Did she imagine his voice? Or was he right behind her?
“Phil?” Chrissy bolted from her seat on the log and launched herself into his arms. “You’re really here?”
“I’m here, Christina.” Phil’s whisper was so close to her ear that Chrissy shivered.
“Where have you been?” Chrissy pulled away and smacked his arm. She pushed him hard, and he took a step back. “Why did you leave me?” Her little fists were feathers against his strong chest.
“I’m sorry.” Phil took her pushes and shoves without fighting back, not even a tense muscle. “I won’t do it again. I promise.”
“You’d better not.” Chrissy looked up at him for the first time in the daylight and saw his scarred face and head and hands and neck. She didn’t mean to gasp. It just happened.
Phil took a step back and shoved his hands in his pockets. He lowered his gaze and his eyebrows.
“Don’t you dare pull away from me again, Phil Chapel,” Chrissy demanded. “You’ve avoided me long enough. I need to see what you look like. If we’re going to love each other and be together every day, then I need to be able to accept all of you. It was just shocking, that’s all.”
He finally looked her in the eye, head held high and confident. “Well, what do you think?”
“I think you’re beautiful,” Chrissy said.
“Liar,” Phil mumbled.
“Don’t call me a liar, you jerk.” Chrissy’s harsh accusation caused Phil to raise his eyebrows. “What? No one talks to you that way? Everyone tiptoes around you, hoping not to offend you, showing you pity? Well, I’ve got news for you, Phil; I’m not doing it. I don’t care what you’ve gone through. I don’t care what you look like or how many scars you have on the inside or the outside. I’m in love with you. Deal with it.”
“I’m in love with you too.” His eyes pierced into hers as they stood, two torturous feet apart from one another, each daring the other to flinch first.
“Prove it,” Chrissy said. “Stop acting like a scaredy-cat and get over here and kiss me.”
Phil didn’t hesitate a second more. His hands snaked around her back, pulling her into his arms. She reached up and pulled his face down to hers.
Their kiss was different this time. It was insistent and passionate, and almost violent. They pressed themselves into each other’s arms as if they were already one.
Chrissy knew she needed to pull away from him soon or they’d risk doing something they’d both regret. She used all the force she had in her arms and in her will power and pushed him away.
She didn’t want to wait a minute more for him, but she knew she had to. She said the first thing that came to her mind.
“Please, tell me you have a current temple recommend.” As a recent missionary, Chrissy longed to marry in the temple rather than at a local church building. But it would be a long process if he wasn’t already prepared.
“Of course I do.” Phil chuckled and took Chrissy’s hand in his. “How could I marry a gorgeous, sweet, pure girl like you anywhere besides the temple?”
“I can’t think of any reason.” Chrissy stifled a giggle.
Even though they’d only known each other a few months and they’d been apart for weeks, they both knew it was time. After a deep, shaky breath, Phil lowered himself to one knee right there in the clearing, with the sun speckling through the leaves, and asked her to be his bride.
“It would be my honor,” she whispered in reply. His beautiful, scarred face lit up in relief, and he let out a deep breath he’d been holding. She shook her head and chuckled. “Did you honestly think I’d say no?”
“Uhh…” The guilt in his eyes and the way he bit his lower lip finished his sentence.
“Come on, Phil Chapel.” She helped him to his feet. “Let’s go talk to the bishop and make arrangements at the temple.”
“At least I was brave enough to write you a note, my angel of music.”
“That’s over now,” Chrissy said, bumping his shoulder as they started walking toward the trail.
“Can’t I still write you love notes after we’re married?” He bumped her shoulder right back.
“I’d rather just have you come to church with me.”
“I’ll take you to church right now.” Phil’s teasing was accompanied by him sweeping her up into his arms and stepping down the path that would lead them back to the chapel. He paused only long enough to kiss her a couple of times as he carried her. Maybe a few more than a couple of times…
Her texts went unanswered for weeks. Her calls went to voicemail, and he hadn’t returned them. Chrissy didn’t know where Phil lived, so she couldn’t just show up at his doorstep and demand that he see her. His roommate, Scott, hadn’t shown up at church activities either.
Phil, where are you?
The days dragged on. Going to class was a chore. Doing homework was nearly impossible. All Chrissy could think about was the empty place where her heart used to beat. A darkness settled over her, and Chrissy’s roommate, Maggie, worried. Nothing she said or did helped Chrissy snap out of it.
She went through the motions. To church and back. To school and back. She ate, a little. She slept, a lot. Whenever she had a chance, she would go down the path to the clearing and just sit, praying, thinking, writing in her journal, singing, hoping Phil would return.
Finally, one Sunday morning there was a note on the music stand with two words. “I’m sorry.” Chrissy wanted to wad it up in a ball and throw it in the trash. Instead she took a deep breath and slipped the note into her purse.
The following Sunday, Chrissy found a note with three pages of passionate details of the devastation Phil witnessed in Afghanistan. She choked back sobs after reading half a page, asked a friend to fill in conducting the music because she was feeling sick, and ran from the chapel to finish the letter in the privacy of her bedroom, where her tears would fall alone.
The next note was a few lines of Phil’s testimony of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness He offered. That letter provided Chrissy with a tiny sliver of hope.
A week after that, Phil’s note shared details of the advice he was receiving from his church counselor and his Army-issued therapist assigned to help him work through his PTSD. In that note, he insisted he couldn’t face her again until he’d come to terms with the horror and trauma that haunted his soul far more than his distorted face.
Chrissy approached the music stand Sunday morning with trepidation. How much longer would he make her wait until they could be together?
The note was propped in its usual spot, her name in a handsome script that was uniquely Phil. She lifted the crisp parchment from the stand and tucked herself into one of the seats behind the baby grand piano where she could obtain a tiny bit of privacy as she read his words.
Christina, you deserve better than me.
Her stomach plummeted. She had hoped he would finally declare his love for her and decide to be with her forever. Now here she was reading what was likely a breakup letter. She took a deep breath and continued reading.
You deserve a man who can face life head-on and doesn’t hide behind the mask of darkness. You deserve a man who doesn’t have night terrors and paralyzing anxiety. You deserve someone better than me.
“What do you know about what I deserve?” Chrissy grumbled. “You haven’t even bothered to see me in weeks.” She felt stupid for talking to herself. Instead, she kept reading.
I’m a selfish man. So even though you deserve better, I can’t let you go. We belong together.
Wait… what? He’s not breaking up?
I know I haven’t been there for weeks, but please know that I love you every waking moment. Yes, I wrote that. I love you. I wish I’d had the ability to say the words to you in person, but I promise to say them to you soon.
And I promise to spend the rest of eternity making up for my inadequacies. If you’ll have me. -With all my Love, Phil
“Is he saying what I think he’s saying?” Chrissy spoke a little louder as she turned the note over to inspect the back of the parchment.
“What’s going on?” Maggie asked, taking a seat at the piano bench and opening the hymnbook.
“I think Phil just asked me to marry him…”
Chrissy’s hand reached up to her heart, and her breath increased. Phil’s face looked even worse than she’d envisioned with her hands. Scars, everywhere.
“I knew this was how you’re react,” Phil mumbled then pulled his hood back over head.
“It just startled me, that’s all.” Chrissy reached for his hand, but he pushed away from her and stormed into the light of the campfire.
“Is this what you wanted to see?” he asked, turning to face her, the firelight shining across his face, casting frightening shadows.
“You know I don’t care what you look like,” Chrissy insisted.
“What about when we go out in public together?” Phil demanded. “Will you care then?”
“N-no,” her voice faltered.
“Don’t you call me a liar, Phil Chapel.”
“I don’t want your pity,” Phil snapped at her.
“What do you want?” Chrissy demanded, hurrying after him. The small campfire cast dancing shadows around the clearing, both illuminating and concealing them.
“All I want is freedom to be able to go out into the world without fear of how people will treat me.”
“I’ll be your freedom,” Chrissy said. “You don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Phil said.
“I’m here for you. Let me into your world. I’ll be beside you, and we’ll be together. You don’t have to be alone.”
“Is that why you came here?” Phil whirled on her, fierceness in his eyes. “To save me from my loneliness. To show me pity?”
“You wrote me those notes, remember? You wanted me to know you before I saw you. Well, I like you.” Chrissy stepped up to him and rested her hands on his arms. Those strong arms, powerful, protective. “I want us to be together.”
“But you’re so beautiful, and I’m so ugly.” Phil turned away.
Chrissy wasn’t going to let him have a pity party. She slid her hand into his and pulled him back. “Don’t push me away. If you need some time, I understand. I’ll wait forever if that’s what you need. Just don’t push me away.”
“I don’t want to wait forever.” Phil pulled Chrissy firmly into his arms, gazing into her eyes with an intensity that brought a passion into her heart she didn’t know existed. “I want you now, and always.”
Chrissy didn’t wait a second more. She lifted onto her toes and pressed her lips to his. Those beautiful, scarred lips moved with hers as their arms held one another firmly. The fire crackled beside them, and their passion burned just as hot.
“Stop!” Phil pulled away. “We have a guest.”
Chrissy didn’t see or hear anything but the campfire. Her heart raced as she searched the darkness at the entrance of the clearing. “How do you know?”
“I’m trained to know.” Phil pulled her gently behind him in a protective maneuver.
“Chrissy,” Greg called from somewhere down the path. “Where are you? Are you okay?” Now Chrissy could hear them. Greg had brought friends. Too afraid to fight off the monster on his own, he had to bring reinforcements. What a jerk.
“I’m fine, Greg,” Chrissy yelled back. Go away. I was trying to make out with my boyfriend, and you’re messing everything up.
“I can’t do this,” Phil whispered. He pushed Chrissy away. “I can’t let them find me. Goodbye, Christina.”
“Phil…” Chrissy searched the darkness, but he’d disappeared.
“Chrissy, are you there?” Greg and his friends rushed into the clearing just as Chrissy crumpled to her knees in tears.
The dark closed in around her as Chrissy stepped farther down the path. Why did I agree to this?
It sounded good at the time. After weeks of late-night telephone conversations, dozens of text messages and emails, she was finally going to see Phil face-to-face.
When she’d talked to her roommate, Maggie, about where she was going and what she was doing, she’d felt so certain. They’d debated about the pros and cons of meeting Phil.
Chrissy rationalized that she and Phil had been talking for weeks. She loved everything about him and couldn’t understand why he was so worried about his appearance.
This path didn’t seem quite as ominous in the evening when traipsing down to the fire pit with the whole young single adult group. Chrissy had carried marshmallows and hotdogs and poker sticks for cooking over the little bonfire they made. Dozens of times she’d walked down this very path, but never alone and never at midnight. I wish I had one of those poker sticks with me right now.
A twig snapped somewhere behind her, and she spun around, searching the dark. She expected to see Phil in the clearing ahead, not on the trail behind her. A dark figure loomed closer, and her heart raced.
“Phil?” Her voice cracked, and she wasn’t sure he would hear her anyway. The figure was closer now, and his dark hoodie was pulled over his head, concealing his identity.
“Chrissy? What are you doing out here alone?” Greg Martin stepped into full view. Greg was one of the guys from her congregation, a self-appointed neighborhood-watch guy. Nice enough, but overzealous.
“Greg, it’s just you.” Her shoulders relaxed. “You scared me.”
“It’s not safe to be out here alone,” Greg said. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m meeting someone…” Boy, that sounded lame and even more dangerous than walking in the woods alone.
“No, you’re not; you’re coming back to the safety of the living center.” Greg grabbed her wrist and began pulling her back the way they’d come.
“Wait, no!” Chrissy tried unsuccessfully to pull her wrist from his grip, but Greg held firm. “I’m meeting my friend, stop!”
Out of nowhere a voice boomed. “Christina is with me!”
Greg startled and let go of Chrissy’s wrist.
“Phil!” Chrissy raced over to Phil and wrapped her arms around his waist, tucking her face into the folds of his coat. He smelled better than anything she’d ever experienced. His cologne wrapped her in comfort. She felt warm and safe enveloped within his jacket.
“Whoa, dude, what’s wrong with your face?” Greg stumbled backward and tripped over a branch, nearly falling.
“Leave us alone.” Phil’s command was menacing. If she didn’t know what a gentle soul he was, she’d turn and run as Greg did. Phil’s voice was quieter when he relaxed into Chrissy’s arms and pulled her close. “Are you okay? You’re shaking.”
“He startled me, that’s all.” Chrissy snuggled closer and kept her face against his firm chest, sensing he wasn’t ready to show himself to her yet. “It was so dark, and he came up behind me. I thought he was going to drag me away from you.”
“I’m here now; you’re safe. He won’t harm you.”
Chrissy sighed and relaxed.
“I can’t believe I’m finally holding you in my arms.” Phil leaned over and kissed the top of Chrissy’s head.
Chrissy wished she could tilt her head back and let him kiss her lips, but she restrained herself. “You’re bigger than I envisioned you.”
“Bigger?” Phil chuckled.
“Well, you know, taller, and your chest is, uh… you must work out, like a lot.”
By that time Phil was laughing heartily. “I do work out a lot, you’re right. What else do you notice about me?”
“You smell good. Like, more than just cologne. It’s like you smell good.”
“You smell good too.” Phil’s voice was husky.
“What do you notice about me?” Chrissy asked.
“Your hair is longer than I realized,” he said. “And curlier.”
“It’s naturally curly. I have to really work at it to make it straight.”
“I like it curly.” Phil laced his fingers up underneath the curtain of hair at the nape of her neck. “Please don’t try to change your natural beauty.”
“You’re taller, which is good, since I’m quite tall, as you pointed out.”
“You fit… in my arms.”
“Can we just stay here?” Chrissy whispered. “In the dark? Holding each other?”
Phil’s hands pulled from within her hair and cradled her face, exploring. His thumbs brushed across her cheeks with a feather touch, then up her temples to her forehead and down over her closed eyelids, and finally hovered over her lips as if afraid to touch them. He played his fingers down her neck to her shoulders and down her arms to gently lift her hands in his.
With hesitation he lifted her hands, pulling them up across his chest and then to his neck.
Scars? His skin was bumpy and smooth and bumpy again, like scar tissue. She still hadn’t looked up, but she reached higher and caressed both cheeks. “Was your face burned?”
With her eyes closed, Chrissy leaned her head back as if to look at him, but she didn’t. At least not with her eyes. Her fingers explored. Most of Phil’s facial features seemed to be intact, although one ear was nearly destroyed. Even his lips were scarred. Her fingers lingered there a bit longer.
She lowered the hood of his sweatshirt over his shoulders and let her hands wander over his bald head or, more accurately described, scarred head. A soft moan escaped from somewhere inside Phil’s chest.
“You have no idea how good this feels,” he whispered. “No one, other than the doctors and nurses at the hospital, has touched me since I was burned.”
His breath was warm against her upturned face, and Chrissy felt his lips very close. She wondered what it would be like to lift up on her toes and touch her mouth to his, feeling the scars on his lips. But she didn’t. She focused on seeing him for the first time.
“Tell me… what happened?”
“I don’t even remember the explosion,” Phil whispered. “It happened so fast. I never saw it coming. I just remember waking up in the hospital days later in excruciating pain, bandages everywhere. We were just driving along on a routine patrol and intercepted a roadside bomb. And now I’m left with this… this face, this horror.”
“You’re beautiful,” Chrissy whispered.
“Look at me, Chrissy.” Phil’s voice pierced the darkness.
She blinked up at him and took a step back, gasping.
“These late-night talks are probably exhausting for you.” Phil’s voice was low and soft. Chrissy sensed hidden meaning behind his words.
“I like talking to you,” Chrissy said. She flopped onto her bed wrapped in a terrycloth robe and her wet hair tucked up in a bath towel. She held the phone to her ear and rolled onto her back. “All day long I look forward to talking to you.”
“What else do you do during the day?” he asked. Classic avoidance tactic.
“Well, I go to classes, I work, I hang out with my roommates, go to Institute class, you know, the usual.”
“Not really,” he said. “I’ve never lived a usual life.”
“Why not?” She sensed they were getting closer to the heart of what he wanted to tell her, and she let the silence hang in the air.
“I joined the Army right out of high school and figured I’d someday retire from there… or die.”
“Did you come close?” Chrissy whispered.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really.” His breathing pierced the silence on the other end of the line.
Chrissy shifted in her bed, staring at the ceiling illuminated only by the light coming in the window from the streetlights that flooded the parking lot outside her apartment complex. She wasn’t sure how long she should wait before pressing on or changing the subject.
“Scott says I need to tell you more about me.”
“I’m pretty messed up in the head,” Phil admitted.
“I called you my boyfriend today.”
“That’s… unexpected.” There was a smile in his voice.
“And I want to meet you,” she said.
“I tell you I’m messed up and your answer is to declare you’ve decided to make things official and meet IRL?”
“Yes, you want to meet? Or yes, you want to be my girlfriend?”
“Yes, and yes.” Chrissy giggled and decided to admit the reason. “I looked at Scott this evening when I was handing over your pancakes and realized I’d been associating his face with your voice. And then he spoke, and his voice wasn’t right. So, I know now that I need to meet you in order to associate your face with your voice.”
“If you’re expecting me to look like Scott, you will be sorely disappointed.”
“I’m not expecting you to look like Scott,” Chrissy said. She pulled the towel off her head and shook out her still-wet hair, letting it hang down her shoulders. The ever-lingering odor of pancake syrup temporarily replaced by the fragrance of coconut shampoo. “I’ve decided. I’m ready to take that next step. You promised me once I’d decided either I like you or I don’t, you’d show me what you looked like.”
“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” Phil grumbled.
“And I won’t until I see you for myself,” Chrissy said. She sat up and reached for her comb sitting on the dresser beside her bed. “There will always be this separation between us until we can get past this obstacle.”
“When do you want to meet?” His voice was so soft she almost couldn’t hear him.
“Tomorrow,” she said definitively.
“Yep. I don’t work tomorrow night, so we’ll have the evening to ourselves. I’ll come to your apartment and you can cook me dinner.”
“No way,” he snapped. “I’m not ready for that.”
“Okay…” Chrissy backtracked, realizing her determination was overwhelming him. She paused her hair combing. “What would you suggest?”
“Let’s meet in the clearing where we first spoke,” he said. “We’ll make a campfire and sit and talk. No pressure. Either of us can walk away if it gets to be too much.”
“That sounds fair.” Chrissy resumed pulling the comb through her long, brown hair.
“And it needs to be late at night, so we don’t see anyone but each other.”
“You’re taking this pretty seriously, aren’t you?” She asked gently.
“It’s the only way I can handle this situation.” His terse answer encouraged her to lighten the mood again.
“Consider it a date.” Chrissy tried to tuck some playfulness into her tone.
“Can’t believe I’m saying this out loud, but…” Phil took a shaky breath. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’m gonna gain a ton of weight if you keep dating this chick.” Scott sat back in his chair and rubbed his belly, his plate of pancakes now just a shallow pool of maple syrup.
Phil kept glancing at his phone, frustrated she hadn’t texted to acknowledge him reaching out to her. He had only eaten half his food in the time it took Scott to finish his.
“She probably thinks you’re stalking her.” Scott nodded toward Phil’s phone sitting beside his plate on the table. “You’re gonna scare her away before she even sees your face.”
“How long should I wait?” Phil asked, lifting his fork for another bite of pancake.
“To call her again? She’s working.”
“No, not tonight. How long should I wait to meet her in real life?” Phil savored another bite. Christina had been right, the strawberries on top gave the hearty pancakes that little extra touch.
“How much do you know about her? Where’s she from? What do her parents do for a living? How many brothers and sisters does she have?” Scott leaned forward and raised his eyebrows. “How much does she know about you?”
“Not enough,” Phil answered reluctantly. “I mean, I know more about her than she’s told me, probably a shocking amount more. I have my sources. But she knows very little about me.”
“Let her in, Phil,” Scott said, his voice low and compassionate. “Give her a chance to understand you. Let her know what she’s getting herself into and give her a chance to take a step back if she thinks she can’t handle it. Help her know what she’ll be enduring if she agrees to be with you forever. Tell her about the night terrors and paranoia, the fear of leaving this apartment, of being around people. She deserves the truth.”
Scott pushed back his chair and stood, patting Phil on the shoulder.
“I’ll do the best I can.” Phil sighed, then looked up at Scott. “Thanks.”
“That’s what best friends are for.” Scott chuckled. “I’m not just here to be your carrier pigeon.”
“Whatever,” Phil said.
“I’m in charge of dishes tonight.” Scott reached for Phil’s plastic containers, stepped over and dropped them in the trash can.
“Chrissy, you’ve got a takeout order,” the hostess, Stacy, called out. “He’ll be here in fifteen minutes.”
Chrissy tucked her little notebook in her apron and stepped over to the hostess stand, then gasped when he saw the details.
One order of Harvest Grain and Nut pancakes with a side of strawberries, one order of Double Blueberry pancakes, one Bacon Temptation omelet, and one Spinach and Mushroom omelet. The name of the person who would be picking up the order: Scott.
“Those guys.” Chrissy chuckled and shook her head in disbelief.
“You know who this is?” Stacy asked.
“My boyfriend and his roommate,” Chrissy said.
“I didn’t know you had a boyfriend.”
“Relatively new development.” Chrissy wasn’t interested in providing more details. “I’ll go get this called back to the kitchen. Thanks for the order.”
“No problem.” Stacy turned to greet the couple coming in the door and grabbed two menus.
Ten minutes later Chrissy tucked the last takeout box into a large bag as the door chimed and Scott smiled across the way at her. Wow, he was handsome. She wondered, as she had frequently since receiving that first note, if Phil was handsome.
She loved Phil’s husky voice and the excitement that gave her goosebumps every time they talked. Handsome on the outside wasn’t important. Phil was the sexiest man she’d ever met—or spoken with in this case. She grabbed the handles on the bag and stepped over to the counter.
“Hi, Scott.” She set the bag in front of him.
“Hey, Chrissy, how are you?” Scott had a teasing, crooked smile.
His voice was all wrong. He didn’t sound like Phil. She realized since she’d first met them, she had come to associate Phil’s voice with Scott’s looks. She wondered if she’d be this disoriented when seeing Phil for the first time. She didn’t answer his question, just told him the total dollar amount for their order.
Scott handed her three twenty-dollar bills. “Phil said to keep the change.”
Chrissy stepped back and held up her hands. “That’s over twenty dollars.”
“Yeah, he said something about sober college kids tipping better than drunk college kids.”
“What a dork.” Chrissy stepped closer and reluctantly accepted the money but laughed and snorted at the same time.
“Who’s the dork now?” Scott asked, poking fun at her for snorting. “Here, he wrote you another note to go along with the tip.”
Chrissy’s stance softened and she reached out for the note with amusement.
“Thanks for the food.” Scott held up the bag. “Have a great evening.”
“You too,” she said absentmindedly, clutching the money in one hand and the note in the other. She watched as Scott pushed open the door and walked from the restaurant.
“Oh my gosh,” Stacy said from beside her. “Your boyfriend is smokin’ hot.”
“That’s my boyfriend’s roommate,” Chrissy said.
“Well set me up on a double date.” Stacy waved her hand in front of her face to cool herself off.
“Maybe someday.” Chrissy processed the money in the cash register, pocketed the tip, and walked away from the hostess stand. She ducked into the ladies’ room to have some semblance of privacy to read Phil’s love note.
Christina, I hope you’re having a good evening. I can almost taste the pancakes from here. Thank you for serving me dinner. Maybe someday I’ll invite you over and cook you dinner at my apartment. -Phil
Cook me dinner? That would mean finally meeting each other face-to-face. She smiled, tucked the note into her pocket, and went back to work.
I’m out of class, Christina’s text read. What are you up to?
Phil wished he could take the time to talk but he couldn’t. I’m listening to an online lecture and the professor calls on us frequently to interact with him. We lose points if we don’t respond quickly enough and with a somewhat coherent answer. I’ll call you when I’m done.
I’ll look forward to it.
An hour later, Phil had his phone to his ear listening to Christina’s voice mail greeting. He pushed his frustration down and calmly responded. “Hello, Christina. Sorry I couldn’t talk earlier. I should be available for the rest of the evening. Please call when you get a free moment.”
A text came through a few minutes later. At work. Will call later.
Late that evening, Phil’s phone finally rang. He didn’t need to see the caller id to know whose voice he’d hear when pressing the screen to answer, but he smiled at the name he’d chosen to save her contact information: Angel of Music.
“Hello, Christina.” Just knowing he was about to hear her voice created a flutter of excitement within his stomach.
“Sorry to call so late.” Her voice sounded tired.
“It’s never too late for you,” Phil said. He sounded so desperate, even to his own ears. Ugh.
“You say that now, but you’re not aware how long my shifts sometimes run.” She yawned.
“Where do you work?”
“You make pancakes for a living?” Phil chuckled.
“I serve pancakes,” Christina corrected him. “And I’m definitely not making a living. Drunk college kids don’t always tip well. I’m able to cover the cost of rent and food, but not much else. Thank goodness for student loans.”
“I would tip you well, if I were able to come to your restaurant,” Phil said.
“Why can’t you come to my restaurant?” she asked.
“I would scare the customers away, and your tips would be even less.”
“Nonsense. You can’t be that frightening.”
“Anyway.” Phil cleared his throat and changed the subject. “What is your favorite kind of pancakes?”
“I’m a little bit of a health geek.” Christina laughed. “I love our Harvest Grain and Nut pancakes, but I always order them with strawberries on top.”
“I’m a bit of a health geek, myself. What a coincidence. I think you should be my girlfriend.”
“I think we should get to know each other a little more before I make that commitment.”
“You are right,” Phil said with a smile. He tried to lighten the mood. “I accept your chastisement.”
“Teasing aside,” Christina said with a yawn. “I’m standing here smelling like pancakes and need a shower and then I’m gonna crash for the night.”
“I’m sorry if I offended you earlier.” Chrissy kept her voice low. Her roommate was asleep in the next room, and she didn’t want to be rude by talking too loudly on the phone. “I seriously thought you were joking about being scary looking… and having killed people.”
“There are a lot of things that happened in Afghanistan that I don’t like to talk about.” Phil’s soft voice sounded incredibly sexy. “I did what I had to do to get out of there alive.”
“How long have you been home?”
“Less than a year. I was lucky. Not all of my platoon made it out.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t feel pity for me.” Phil’s voice grew harsh. He took an audible breath. “Sorry, I get a little defensive sometimes. Maybe we shouldn’t try to do this. I’m still pretty messed up, Christina.”
Chrissy gulped, not sure how to respond. Did she really want to get involved with a guy who was still affected by a war his mind couldn’t escape? She knew nothing about Phil. If there was any time to back off, now would be that time. A peace came over her heart, and her pity shifted to compassion. She sighed and smiled, even though he wouldn’t be able to see her through the phone.
“Are you still there?” Phil’s voice was quiet again.
“I’m still here,” Chrissy whispered. “I find it very honorable that you were willing to wear a uniform and put your life on the line to help innocent people and eliminate danger. Thank you for your service.”
“You’re welcome. I’m sorry I was rude. Many of us have come home with damaged bodies and haunted minds. I still have a hard time fitting in with society.”
“Do you have a job?” Chrissy asked. “Do you go to school?”
“Yeah, I’m a computer programmer part time. And thanks to the GI bill, I go to MSU at the discounted rate of free, compliments of Uncle Sam.” Phil chuckled.
“I think you paid your dues.” Chrissy stifled a yawn.
“More than you know.” Phil’s mumbled comment was barely audible.
“I look forward to getting to know you.” Chrissy yawned louder. “Ugh, sorry. I can’t keep my eyes open.”
“I’ll let you get some sleep,” Phil said. “Send me a text when you get out of class tomorrow, and maybe we can talk some more.”
“That sounds good. See ya tomorrow.”
“I’ll talk with you tomorrow.”
“Whatever.” Chrissy’s answer was veiled by another yawn. “Goodnight, Phil.”
“Goodnight, Christina.” Phil’s velvet voice drifted across the phone line and lulled her to sleep.