Coming attractions, p.19
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       Coming Attractions, p.19

           Robin Jones Gunn
 
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  Eli took a bite. “Oh, yeah, this is dangerous.”

  Katie joined him in the Donut 201 class, letting the still-warm chocolate melt on her tongue. “Every now and then, you gotta’ live dangerously. That’s what I say.”

  “Especially on our official last day as college students. Tomorrow you and I will be college graduates.”

  “Yes, we will. Here’s to us!” Katie held up her half-eaten donut, inviting Eli to toast with her.

  “Yes,” Eli echoed. “To us.”

  They tapped donuts and took a bite in unison.

  Their eyes fixed on each other in shared merriment. Eli didn’t blink. His eyes were speaking to her, but Katie refused to listen.

  She looked away and felt a strong rumbling inside.

  Is my stomach telling me it’s too early for so much sugar? Never. Not my stomach. Why do I feel as if a herd of buffalo is stampeding through my gut?

  She put down her donut and took a long drink of water. Pressing the back of her hand to her forehead, she checked to make sure she wasn’t running a fever.

  “You okay?”

  “Yeah, I’m fine. Just throwing it down too fast, I guess. Smaller bites, right? Good stuff, isn’t it?”

  “Good stuff,” Eli agreed.

  Katie put her attention back on driving up the mountain. As she sipped her water, the buffalo stampede calmed down. The music came on as soon as she started up the car, so that provided safe conversational topics for them. As long as she didn’t make eye contact with Eli, she felt fine.

  Worrying about eye contact wasn’t a problem because Katie needed both eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel, as the mountain road wound higher and higher. They both said their ears were popping. Eli directed Katie on which turnoff to take once they were in Crestline. The valley floor below was a vast field of twinkling lights in the remains of the dark night. The only light ahead came from Clover’s headlights and an occasional streetlight.

  “Are you sure this is right?”

  “I think so. The directions say we stay on this road for another three miles and then look for a sign for Strawberry Peak Lookout on the left.”

  “What’s with the ‘strawberry’? This elevation has to be too high to grow strawberries.”

  “I have no idea where the name comes from.”

  Katie kept her focus on the road. They found the sign as predicted, turned up a steep road, and drove to what looked like a huge microwave tower. Turning off the engine and clambering out, they were caught off guard by the chill in the air.

  “I have a blanket in my trunk.” Katie went for the small fleece blanket she had put in there soon after she bought the car. “You going to be warm enough?”

  Eli zipped up the front of his sweatshirt and put the hood over his head. “Yeah, I’m good. How about you?”

  “I’m good too.” With the blanket wrapped around her shoulders, Katie put the car keys in her pocket and reached inside the car for her camera. She had remembered it was in her purse and was glad. From this lookout she could take some great shots of the valley below and all the dots of lights.

  In the predawn silence, as they walked around the open area near the tower, Katie snapped photos of the twinkling lights in the dark valley. She took some of the myriad of stars that presented themselves in shimmering glory. She took one shot of Eli’s profile as he looked to the heavens with his hands in his sweatshirt’s pocket and the hood falling back.

  Then it happened. The song of a bird twittered in a tree overhead. A singular call to worship.

  Katie looked to Eli to see if he had heard it. He was looking at her, and the features of his face suddenly seemed more defined. Katie looked to the east, where Eli had turned his gaze. The wide panorama of spacious sky had turned a pale shade of lavender.

  Another bird joined the morning song and then several more.

  Do you do this every day, little birds? Do you sing the morning into the sky?

  The bird song and the dawn seemed sweetly connected, as Eli and Katie stood several feet away from each other, both transfixed on the changing sky welcomed by the symphony. Neither spoke. It would have ruined the moment to try to comment on what they were witnessing.

  How do you say, “Oh, how pretty!” to something as magnificent as this?

  Katie couldn’t remember ever witnessing the birth of a new day like this before.

  You do this every day, don’t you, Father? Who notices? You’re performing sunrise to a nearly empty house. I’m so glad we’re here to see this. I applaud your work, God. Bravo!

  A half dozen shades of blue appeared like streams of satin ribbons in the endless sky before them. Faint tinges of rose and pale daffodil yellow touched the celestial canvas. A wayward fleet of rusted silver clouds sailed into the south. Their meager number seemed to dissipate as the outline of the hills came into view.

  All around them the landscape began to show off its complex layers of hills and valleys. The ridges revealed their wealth of tall fir trees. Above them, in the tallest tree, an expanded chorus of birds sang their little hearts out.

  Katie’s heart pounded with expectancy and awe.

  Silently, unnoticed by the majority of God’s vast creation, the new day came. The sun floated heavenward over the edge of the horizon and in streaming golden glory sent instant beams of light to cover them.

  She had forgotten to take pictures because she was so caught up in the moment. With a steady hand, Katie tried to capture the beauty. Turning to the west, where the mountain still shaded the new day’s sun from the sleeping valley, all was dark and gray except for the determined electric lights. Human efforts toward lighting the world never could compare to God’s singular, spectacular orb of brilliance.

  All the stars wearily tucked themselves in for the day as the sun rose.

  Katie whispered her worshipful thoughts to God. She felt comfortably alone with her heavenly Father at that moment, even though Eli was standing only a few feet away. He seemed caught up in his own thoughts. They stayed that way for some time, waiting until the sun had taken center stage in the morning sky and was well into its eternal climb into the heavens.

  Katie took more pictures of the amazing views of the valley below. She didn’t feel the need to say anything. She loved this solace, this sacred space, and the beauty they just had witnessed.

  Eli came closer and whispered something, but she didn’t quite catch it.

  Was he completing a thought? A prayer? Or was he talking to me?

  Katie asked, “So what do you think? Are you ready to go?”

  “Sure.”

  They drove down the mountain in silence. Both of them seemed to have a lot on their minds. Katie didn’t know how to process everything she had just witnessed, so she redirected her thoughts. At the top of the list was thinking through how she was going to move the last of her things out of her dorm room. She had another week that she could stay in her room since she had agreed to remain on duty after graduation to finish her RA job and check out all the students who were moving out of the dorm.

  The only problem was that she didn’t know yet where she was going to move her belongings. She had several offers. She could move into an apartment three miles away along with two other women RAs who had gotten jobs on campus for the summer. Christy said she could stay with them in their little apartment if she didn’t mind an air mattress in the living room and as long as it was only for a few weeks.

  Nicole hadn’t decided yet what she was going to do either. She said she could always move back to Santa Barbara and stay with her parents until she found a job somewhere, but that possibility depressed her.

  Katie had considered the same sort of less-desirable option of moving in with her parents in Escondido. At least she assumed she could do that. She hadn’t asked.

  Financially she had enough money to rent her own place, and that was her preferred option. She knew she should have had all this figured out a month ago, but she had been busy passing her classes. Some of the
m with flying colors. Katie had a lot to celebrate tomorrow when she walked onstage and received her diploma. She would celebrate first and figure out where she was going to live later.

  “This is where to turn to get back on the freeway.” Eli’s voice broke into her thoughts.

  “Oh, thanks.”

  “Are your parents coming to the commencement ceremony tomorrow?” Eli asked.

  Katie wondered where he had come up with that question.

  “I don’t know. Probably not.” She wondered if he was regretting that his parents wouldn’t be able to come and added, “I’m sure your mom and dad would be there if they could.”

  “They would. My parents met here, at Rancho Corona.”

  “Did they really?”

  “My dad was roommates with my uncle. My mom’s brother. He introduced them, and they got married six months later.”

  “Wow! That was fast.”

  “They said they just knew so why delay the inevitable?”

  “Had they graduated from college yet?”

  “No, they were still in school. They worked on campus, went to summer school, lived on rice and beans. It’s one of those stories that expands and gets embellished with each telling. I think one of the versions includes them walking uphill in the snow barefoot to get to class.”

  Katie laughed. She was grateful that the conversation between the two of them was on a lighter subject than it had been for the drive up the mountain.

  “What about your parents?” Eli asked. “How did they meet?”

  Her laughter dissipated. Katie didn’t particularly want to respond to that question. She knew the answer, but it wasn’t one that fit with the typical Rancho student’s answer to that question. She also knew that whatever she told Eli she could feel safe entrusting it to him. This was part of her story. Her messy life story. She decided she might as well own it.

  “My parents met at a bar.”

  Without a hint of judgment, Eli asked, “Was it love at first sight?”

  His question caught her off guard. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t know. My parents are older. They’re in their sixties now. I think my dad is sixty-eight. He might be sixty-nine. Anyway, I was a surprise baby, obviously. I can’t say I exactly had a normal childhood, whatever normal means.”

  “Does it make you feel uncomfortable talking about this?”

  Katie glanced at him. “Yeah, a little.”

  “That’s good,” Eli said.

  “Good?”

  “Yes, good. It’s good to talk about things that make you feel uncomfortable. Getting them out gives you a lot of freedom. It allows you to move around inside your life and get comfortable.”

  “Okay, you can stop now. You’re beginning to sound like one of those group therapists on TV.”

  “So what if I do? It’s true, Katie. You wouldn’t believe how much it helped me to talk to you, Todd, and Christy about what happened in Zaire. Even saying aloud that I had gone to counseling was a big step for me. I’ve held so much in for so long. Are you hungry, by the way?”

  Katie followed his line of sight and saw that he was looking at a sign for a fast food restaurant they were passing. “Yeah. Actually, no. I mean, I was thinking I would eat in the caf once we get back on campus. Old times and all that.”

  Katie wasn’t sure why she had said the part about “old times.” She felt no compulsion to eat in the cafeteria ever again. It was more of a protective response. If she and Eli stopped somewhere to eat at a restaurant or even at a drive-through place, she wasn’t sure she would be able to keep a lockdown on her vulnerable emotions that had been bouncing all over the place that morning.

  “We should get back to campus.” She hoped her words came out solid and convincing. As long as she could keep the sunrise moment of worship separate from any sunrises of deep-hearted feelings inside, she would be fine.

  “Okay. Well, if you change your mind about stopping for breakfast, you will let me know, won’t you?” Eli asked.

  “Sure. If I see a pancake house I can’t resist, I’ll pull over. And I’ll make you pay. How’s that?”

  “Fine.”

  They rolled along for another mile or so before Eli said, “And if you change your mind about the other thing, you’ll let me know too, won’t you?”

  “What other thing?” She could feel him looking at her.

  “You know,” he said. “The other thing.”

  They were stopped at a red light. Katie looked over at him, hoping her expression looked as clueless as she was trying to make it appear.

  Eli’s gaze was on her. He placed his hand on his chest and said one simple word. “Us.”

  Katie felt the herd of buffalos in her stomach.

  22

  Katie avoided Eli’s comment and heartfelt gesture.

  She pulled onto the freeway and put the music back on. The really hard part of avoiding where Eli was trying to take the conversation was that she no longer felt the freedom to talk to him. Their free exchange had been so great before.

  Consider this loss of conversation a casualty of your present campaign, Katie. The campaign to keep all the wiggly lines of your life nice and straight and untangled. It’s better this way. You’ll see.

  Eli took her silence as he had taken all the other curves she had tossed at him. He wasn’t miffed. Or if he was, he didn’t show it. He didn’t bully his way back into the conversation or badger her until she responded.

  Eli seemed to be at rest. At ease, so to speak.

  His lack of aggression gave Katie the space to move around without having to step on the unaddressed topic. She thought that was gracious of Eli, to let sleeping topics lie.

  They drove a long time with only the music making words between them.

  After Katie had pulled into a parking spot in the lot by Crown Hall, she turned off the engine and reached for her purse. “Thanks for inviting me to go with you, Eli. It was amazing. Really, really amazing.”

  “It was. Are you going to the caf now for some breakfast?”

  “No, I think I’ll crawl back into bed.”

  A tense pause followed. Neither of them moved. Eli’s expression made it clear that he was no longer completely at ease.

  Did he think I would open up to him once we were back on campus?

  Katie felt the tension but didn’t know what to do. She didn’t see any point in opening up her heart to any possibilities with Eli. She wasn’t going to poke around to see what sort of feelings for Eli might be dormant, waiting for a springtime whim to give them freedom to burst into bloom.

  No, Eli’s unrequited feelings for Katie would have to remain frozen and covered in their seed stage. He would soon return to Kenya, and Katie was certain she would fall to the bottom of his list of things to think about. If Eli were the man she thought he was, he could handle that.

  Apparently he could because he said good-bye and left Katie without pressing her any further.

  Good. That was good. All of it. Settled.

  Katie returned to her room and crawled back into bed and slept less than an hour before two women on her floor came to her room in a fluster. Both of them had lost their room keys. Katie got up, solved their dilemma, and ate some cereal in her room while staring out the window.

  Get it in gear, Weldon. Come on, you have things to do today.

  The rest of the day Katie spent walking in circles. She had paperwork to file with student services and banking to do down the hill.

  Next to her bank was a chain drugstore with a sign in the window announcing free flu shots. Katie paused. The sign looked as if it had been posted since last December. She wondered for a moment what other immunizations could be obtained at the pharmacy inside the drugstore. She knew from the brief time she had spent in the meeting with the outreach team that, if she ever did want to go to Africa, she would need some shots. And malaria pills. If she could take those shots now, she would be ready to go to Africa whenever she wanted. She would have the malaria pills too.

/>   It seemed logical. Be prepared for future adventures. Get stuff checked off the list.

  Katie finished her banking business and went into the drugstore. Before she had time to change her mind, she went to the pharmacy in the back to ask a bunch of questions.

  Twenty-five minutes later, Katie left the drugstore with a small Band-Aid on her left arm and a filled prescription for malaria pills in her hand.

  She hurried back to school for commencement rehearsal at four. Eli waved at her during the rehearsal, and she waved back.

  Good. No hard feelings.

  She noticed when she lifted her arm that it was sore.

  Afterward Katie dashed into town with three of the women on her floor, who had arranged for a special dinner for the four of them, saying they wanted to do something extra with Katie to celebrate her graduation. They laughed over some of the experiences they had shared. Vicki teased Katie about the time Katie hid Vicki’s shoes in the oven for a prank and they melted.

  What humbled Katie was the way all three of the underclass-women said that she had encouraged them, motivated them, and inspired them this past year. Katie never would have given herself as high of an evaluation as an RA. She told them she felt as if she were running all year and never quite finished anything she started.

  “Speaking of finishing things,” Vicki said. “We heard you finished your relationship with Rick.”

  Katie nodded. She didn’t add any details because she didn’t feel like going down that conversational trail.

  “That had to be hard,” Emily said.

  “It was. But the decision was right. It was true. It came from my heart. So!” Katie drew in a breath. “On to the next topic. Tell me what all of you are doing this summer.”

  Their dinner ended without Katie giving any further details about her adjusted love life. In a small way she felt as if she better understood why Julia had kept the details of her engagement quiet for so long. Nothing like a community of college students living in close quarters to spread around a juicy bit of love-life information.

  Once Katie returned to campus, she headed to Julia’s for the pre-graduation party for all the Crown Hall RAs and RDs. Katie was late, but it didn’t seem to matter. Everyone seemed weary, mellow, and not quite ready to celebrate the graduation milestone.

 
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