Walking Disaster

By: Jamie McGuire

She didn’t seem to mind the nickname, or else she just accepted the backstory. I never knew when she was going to get offended and freak out, or when she would be rational and stay cool. Holy hell, I couldn’t get enough of it.

“What do you wanna know?”

Abby shrugged. “The normal stuff. Where you’re from, what you want to be when you grow up . . . things like that.”

I was having to work at keeping the tension out of my shoulders. Talking about myself—especially my past—was out of my comfort zone. I gave some vague answers and left it at that, but then I heard one of the soccer players make a crack. It wouldn’t have bothered me nearly as much if I wasn’t dreading the moment Abby realized what they were laughing about. Okay, that was a lie. That would have pissed me off whether she was there or not.

She kept wanting to know about my family and my major, and I was trying not to jump out of my seat and take them all out in a one-man stampede. As my anger came to a boil, focusing on our conversation became more difficult.

“What are they laughing about?” she finally asked, gesturing to the rowdy table.

I shook my head.

“Tell me,” she insisted.

My lips pressed together into a thin line. If she walked out, I’d probably never get another chance, and those cheese dicks would have something more to laugh about.

She watched me expectantly.

Fuck it. “They’re laughing about me having to take you to dinner, first. It’s not usually . . . my thing.”

“First?”

When the meaning sunk in, her face froze. She was mortified to be there with me.

I winced, waiting for her to storm out.

Her shoulders fell. “I was afraid they were laughing about you being seen with me dressed like this, and they think I’m going to sleep with you,” she grumbled.

Wait. What? “Why wouldn’t I be seen with you?”

Abby’s cheeks flushed pink, and she looked down to the table. “What were we talking about?”

I sighed. She was worried about me. She thought they were laughing about the way she looked. The Pigeon wasn’t a hard-ass, after all. I decided to ask another question before she could reconsider.

“You. What’s your major?”

“Oh, er, general ed, for now. I’m still undecided, but I’m leaning toward accounting.”

“You’re not a local, though. You must be a transplant.”

“Wichita. Same as America.”

“How did you end up here from Kansas?”

“We just had to get away.”

“From what?”

“My parents.”

She was running. I had a feeling the cardigan and pearls she wore the night we met were a front. But, to hide what? She got irritated pretty quick with the personal questions, but before I could change the subject, Kyle from the soccer team shot off his mouth.

I nodded. “So, why here?”

Abby snapped something back. I missed whatever it was. The chuckles and asshole comments from the soccer team drowned out her words.

“Dude, you’re supposed to get a doggie bag, not bag the doggie.”

I couldn’t hold back anymore. They weren’t just being disrespectful to me, they were disrespecting Abby. I stood up and took a few steps, and they started to shove each other out the door, tripping and stumbling over a dozen pairs of feet.

Abby’s eyes penetrated the back of my head, bringing me back to my senses, and I planted myself back in the booth. She raised an eyebrow, and immediately my frustration and anger melted away.

“You were going to say why you chose this school,” I said. Pretending that little sideshow didn’t happen was probably the best way to continue.

“It’s hard to explain,” she said, shrugging. “I guess it just felt right.”

If there was a phrase to explain the way I felt at that moment, that was it. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing or why, but something about sitting across from her in that booth brought me a weird sense of calm. Even in the middle of a rage.

I smiled and opened my menu. “I know what you mean.”

CHAPTER THREE

White Knight

SHEPLEY STOOD AT THE DOOR LIKE A LOVESICK IDIOT, waving to America as she pulled out of the parking lot. He shut the door, and then collapsed in the recliner with the most ridiculous smile on his face.

“You’re dumb,” I said.

“Me? You should have seen you. Abby couldn’t get out of here quick enough.”

I frowned. Abby didn’t seem in a hurry to me, but now that Shepley had said something, I remembered that she was pretty quiet when we got back. “You think so?”

Shepley laughed, stretching back in the chair and pulling the footrest up. “She hates you. Give it up.”

“She doesn’t hate me. I nailed that date—dinner.”

Shepley’s eyebrows shot up. “Date? Trav. What are you doing? Because if this is just a game to you and you fuck this up for me, I’m going to kill you in your sleep.”

I fell against the couch and grabbed the remote. “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m not doing that.”

Shepley looked confused. I wouldn’t let him see that I was just as baffled as he was.

“I wasn’t kidding,” he said, keeping his eyes on the TV screen. “I’ll smother you.”

“I heard you,” I snapped. The whole feeling-out-of-my-element thing was pissing me off, and then I had Pepé Le Pew over there threatening my death. Shepley with a crush was annoying. Shepley in love was almost intolerable.

“Remember Anya?”

“It’s not like that,” Shepley said, exasperated. “It’s different with Mare. She’s the one.”

“You know that after a couple of months?” I asked, dubious.

“I knew it when I saw her.”

I shook my head. I hated it when he was like this. Unicorns and butterflies flying out of his ass and hearts floating in the air. He always ended up getting his heart broken, and then I had to make sure he didn’t drink himself to death for six months solid. America seemed to like it, though.

Whatever. No woman could make me blubber and get slobbering drunk over losing her. If they didn’t stick around, they weren’t worth it anyway.

Shepley stood and stretched, and then ambled toward his room.

“You’re full of shit, Shep.”

“How would you know?” he asked.

He was right. I’d never been in love, but I couldn’t imagine it changing me that much.

I decided to turn in, too. I stripped down and lay back on the mattress in a huff. The second my head hit the pillow, I thought of Abby. Our conversation replayed verbatim in my mind. A few times she had showed a glint of interest. She didn’t totally hate me, and that helped me relax. I wasn’t exactly apologetic about my reputation, but she didn’t expect me to pretend. Women didn’t make me nervous. Abby made me feel distracted and focused at the same time. Agitated and relaxed. Pissed off and damn near giddy. I’d never felt so at odds with myself. Something about that feeling made me want to be around her more.

After two hours of staring at the ceiling, wondering if I would see her the next day, I decided to get up and find the bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the kitchen.

The shot glasses were clean in the dishwasher, so I pulled out one and filled it to the brim. After hammering it back, I poured another. I tossed it back, set the glass in the sink, and turned around. Shepley stood in his doorway with a smirk on his face.

“And so it begins.”

“The day you appeared on our family tree, I wanted to cut it down.”

Shepley laughed once and shut his door.

I trudged to my bedroom, pissed that I couldn’t argue.

MORNING CLASSES TOOK FOREVER, AND I WAS A LITTLE disgusted with myself that I had all but run to the cafeteria. I didn’t even know if Abby would be there.

But, she was.

Brazil was sitting directly across from her, chatting it up with Shepley. A smirk touched my face, and then I sighed, both relieved and resigned to the fact that I was lame.

The lunch lady filled my tray with god-knows-what, and then I walked over to the table, standing directly across from Abby.

“You’re sittin’ in my chair, Brazil.”

“Oh, is she one of your girls, Trav?”

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