Coming attractions, p.2
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       Coming Attractions, p.2

           Robin Jones Gunn
 

  Eli grew up in Africa, where his parents were missionaries. In some ways Katie guessed he had never quite moved all of his heart to California when he came to Rancho Corona to finish up college. Part of him seemed always to be somewhere else. Off on safari, perhaps.

  Katie pressed her open hand to her throat and tried to feel if it was swollen. She rolled onto her side in an effort to find a more comfortable position. Changing into pajamas would help with the comfort part, but she didn’t want to get up.

  I hate being sick.

  Her phone rang again. This time it was Rick. In a soothing voice, he tried to coax her out to the parking lot to meet him so they could get something to eat. “I’ll be on campus in five minutes, Katie. We’ll go someplace that serves soup. Chicken soup. How would that be?”

  “Rick, seriously, I… am… sick. Really.”

  “Then I’ll come in to see you. It’s open dorm tonight, right?”

  “Rick, you’ll be exposing yourself to someone who is a walking flu hive, buzzing with live, viral flu bees.”

  He laughed. “You can’t be too sick if you’re still funny.”

  “I’m not funny, Rick. I’m coughing, and I’m sneezing and… well, I’m not sneezing yet, but I feel like sneezing.”

  “Katie, honey…”

  “Honey?”

  Rick had never called her “honey” before. At least not that she could remember. Was that his attempt to play off her comment on the flu hive?

  He ignored her challenge on the term of endearment and pressed forward. “Listen, I don’t care if you’re sick. I want to see you anyway. I have something I want to give you, and I’m determined to give it to you tonight.”

  “Well, I have something I could give you, and I’m determined not to give it to you tonight. It’s called two weeks out of commission, Rick. This is the worst possible time for you to — ”

  She almost said “to propose,” but he interrupted. His voice was loud and firm. “Katie, I’m coming to see you. I’ll be there in four minutes. Five at the most. Why don’t you gargle or take some cough syrup or something? I’m coming to your room, so open a window and let all the bee germs out. Or whatever you called them. Viral bees. Whatever. I’m almost there now.”

  He hung up. Katie stared at her cell phone.

  Open a window? Gargle? Did he really just say those things to me?

  She couldn’t move. Her fifty-pound head felt as if it had sunk permanently into her Little Mermaid pillowcase.

  Rick, what are you doing? If you walk in here and ask me to marry you, you’ll ruin everything.

  2

  Katie had maneuvered through a variety of life challenges, but this dilemma had her baffled. If Rick stepped into her dorm room, got down on one knee, and held out a jeweler’s box, what would she say? What would her truest, from-her-heart answer to him be?

  She didn’t know.

  Since junior high Katie had dreamed of being with Rick. When he actually asked her out nearly a year and a half ago, Katie dared to believe her dream had come true. All she had ever wanted was to be Rick Doyle’s girlfriend. Now that that dream had been fulfilled, marrying Rick was the next dream.

  Only at this moment, with her head pounding, Katie didn’t feel ready for that dream. They were supposed to wait until she finished college. That’s what they had agreed. All she had left were twelve weeks of classes. Twelve jam-packed weeks, then her mind would be free to think about what was next and when and how and where she and Rick could get married.

  She wasn’t ready to think about any of that now. Last year she watched her roommate and best friend, Christy, navigate her final semester after she became engaged, and Katie knew she didn’t want to put that sort of pressure on herself. Not with her demanding position as a resident assistant. Not with her class load this final semester. And especially not with this horrible, reality-bending flu pressing her down with unrelenting force.

  A knock sounded at her door.

  “Go away! This is the yellow fever ward. You enter, you die.”

  Rick, or whoever it was, disregarded her warning, opened the door slowly, and made quiet rustling noises.

  Katie opened her eyes and turned her head toward the door.

  “Eli?”

  He held up a paper bag. “I bought you some stuff for your cold. I’ll leave it here on your dresser.”

  “No, bring it here.” She held out her hand weakly, like a fallen elfin princess.

  Eli didn’t hesitate. He walked across the room and pulled the bottle of medicine from the bag. “Have you taken this before? You just open your mouth, point it at your throat, and spray three or four times.”

  Katie took the bottle from him and dutifully followed his instructions. “Mmm. Wild cherry.” She gave herself another squirt. “Thanks, Eli.”

  He pulled a box of cold tablets from the bag. “With these, I think you’re supposed to take just one.” He scanned the back of the box while opening the end. “Yeah, one every four hours. And don’t operate heavy machinery.”

  “I’ll keep that in mind.” Katie took the pill from Eli and swallowed it, using two more squirts of the spray syrup instead of water.

  “Here.” Eli pulled the final item from the bag. A uniquely shaped bottle of drinking water.

  “Hey, my favorite! How did you know I like New Zealand glacier water?”

  “That’s all I’ve ever seen you buy at the gas station where Joseph works. I bought two bottles. Where do you want me to put the other one?”

  “On my desk next to the flowers. You might have to move them. They’re a bit much, don’t you think? I keep telling Rick he overdoes it with the flowers. A single poppy. That’s what I tell him. Just a single poppy is all I need. Maybe you can talk some sense into him.”

  Eli didn’t comment. He turned toward Katie, and she smiled at him.

  His wild, naturally curly brown hair had been growing out for the past few months and made him look more like the adventuresome guy Katie had discovered he was. Earlier in the year he had kept his hair short, his conversations with her shorter, and in general, seemed short. Short and strange in an out-of-place sort of way.

  As Katie got to know Eli, she realized the only thing short about him was his name. Even that was longer than he let the general public in on. Elisha James Lorenzo grew up on the mission field in Africa and kept a library of untold stories hidden inconspicuously under his unassuming demeanor. Stories about prowling lions, hand-carved Masai spears, and dances around tribal fires. He wore a drab gray uniform most of the time, as he was now. His campus security job meant he spent his working hours driving a beat-up golf cart around the mesa on which Rancho Corona was built. Eli took the off hours no one else wanted.

  If Katie had one regret about the past few months, it was that her consistent efforts to get Eli and Nicole interested in each other had failed. Katie couldn’t understand why. She thought Nicole was wonderful and amazing. She thought Eli was fantastic. Why didn’t the two of them see in each other what she saw in them?

  “I’m going to go.” Eli stepped over to Katie’s bed, closed his eyes, and lifted both his arms to the ceiling.

  “What are you doing? Reenacting a scene from The Lion King?”

  “Hush. I’m praying for you.”

  “Praying for me? Okay, sure, as long as this isn’t like in the movies where they give the dying patient last rites.”

  He didn’t respond. Instead, with his palms open to the heavens, reaching up like a child, he spoke in a calm, steady voice, asking God to heal Katie, to comfort her, and to give her body the strength she needed.

  Katie was so caught off guard by Eli’s actions that she didn’t close her eyes. Instead, she watched his face, feeling her rattled spirit calming as he prayed. It seemed as if he felt every word before he spoke it. He wasn’t just repeating a bunch of phrases. He was really talking to his heavenly Father, and what he was saying sounded just the way it would if one friend were asking a highly honored friend for a special fa
vor.

  Katie’s throat tightened. Not because of the swelling from the virus. This tightening came from swallowing tears before they made it all the way to her eyes. She couldn’t remember the last time she had prayed with that kind of closeness to God. She knew what it was like to feel an intimate sort of connection with Christ, but not until this moment had she realized how far from that closeness she had drifted over the past weeks and months. Here she was, a senior at a Christian college; yet if she had to rate her relationship with the Lord right now on a scale of one to ten, she would have to give it a two. Maybe a two and a half.

  On the heels of Eli’s “amen,” Katie added her “thank you” in a calm voice.

  Eli gave a humble sort of nod and started to leave, but Katie reached out her hand. Not princess-style but as a friend reaching to clasp the hand of another friend. Eli paused and then awkwardly took her hand and gave it a conciliatory squeeze. She had never realized what rough, carpenter sort of hands he had.

  “Hey,” Katie said, still holding onto his hand, “you have no idea how much I needed that. And I don’t mean just the wild cherry juice. When you prayed, I — ”

  Before Katie could finish her sentence, her half-closed door burst all the way open, and in strode Rick with another bountiful bouquet of red roses, announcing, “Your valentine is here at last.”

  Eli quickly let go of Katie’s hand.

  “Eli? What are you doing here?”

  “I brought Katie some stuff for her cold. I have to get back on duty. I’ll see you guys later.” Eli exited swiftly.

  Rick leaned back and looked down the hall, watching Eli walk away. Turning back to Katie, Rick said, “What was all that about?”

  “Like he said, he brought me some stuff, and I was thanking him.”

  “Thanking him for the cold pills?”

  “Yeah, and also thanking him for praying for me. As he was praying, I realized how I’ve been — ”

  “That’s why he was holding your hand? He was praying for you?”

  Katie swallowed, and her throat felt raw again. She reached for the spray bottle and gave her mouth another squirt while taking the easy way out and answering Rick with only a nod.

  Rick was already onto other things, striding over to her desk. “You have another vase, don’t you? These need some water.”

  “There’s one on the top shelf of my closet, but can’t you just add the roses to the other bouquet?”

  Rick reached up to the top shelf with ease and stuck the roses in the vase. Carrying them to the desk, he picked up the bottle of water Eli had left there and unscrewed the cap.

  “No!” Katie squawked, and her voice cracked.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Not that water. That’s my New Zealand water.”

  Rick looked at her as if she were speaking another language.

  Katie’s hand went to her throat. It hurt to talk. “Rick, do not use that water. I mean it.”

  “Fine. I’ll be right back.”

  He removed the roses and strode out of the room with the empty vase in hand.

  Katie closed her eyes, and put her hand over her forehead. Her eardrums pounded. She thought about how she liked Eli’s “valentine” to her a whole lot more than she liked Rick’s bold gesture of another bouquet, not that anyone was asking her to compare.

  She was grateful her boyfriend cared enough to come bearing more flowers. She knew, thanks to a conversation she had with Christy, that was how Rick expressed his affection. Katie had learned to “take it and be thankful” instead of trying to change Rick and his ways of expressing himself. This was how Rick did things. If she loved Rick, and she did, then she needed to love the things he did for her as well as the way he did them.

  Katie felt a single, uninvited tear tiptoe over the edge of her right eye and slide down her cheek. She couldn’t bear feeling the way she did right now. She wanted Eli to come back and pray for her. Only this time she wanted him to pray longer and more intently so she could close her eyes and somehow get her heart back into that same sort of close-to-God rhythm she had heard in Eli’s voice.

  Rick returned just then with the vase filled with water. He pushed the roses into the vase. “Nicole said to let her know if you needed anything.”

  “Okay. Thanks. And thanks for the flowers.”

  “You’re welcome.” Rick pulled out the chair from the desk and sat down across from her.

  Katie offered him a weak smile. She could only imagine how rumpled she looked. Rick looked good. He always looked good. His chocolate brown eyes were set on her.

  “How are you feeling?”

  “Like I have the flu. I really don’t want to give it to you, Rick.”

  “I know. But, Katie, I really want to give something to you.”

  Without further warning, Rick pulled a small jewelry box from the pocket of his leather jacket.

  Katie propped herself up on her elbow, feeling woozy but ready to protest.

  “Actually,” Rick said, withdrawing the box, “I should explain something first.”

  “Yeah, like explain why we aren’t waiting until I graduate before we do this? And why couldn’t you just let me be sick and get it over with? I mean, who cares if it’s stupid Valentine’s Day? This is a really, really bad way to propose.”

  Rick leaned back in the chair, looking stunned. “Propose? You thought I was about to propose?”

  Katie didn’t move. She didn’t blink. Had she read all the clues wrong?

  In a small voice she said, “Yes.”

  Rising from the chair, Rick marched to the door. For a moment, Katie thought he was going to walk out, just like that, without any explanation of what was going on. He turned and came back to her bedside, his face red.

  “Why do you do that, Katie? Why? I’ve never understood that about you. You blurt things out at the worst possible moments. You know you do that, right? Everything is going along great, and then you just blurt out something uncalled for and the whole thing is…” Rick kicked at the leg of the chair — not hard enough to topple it, but enough to make the chair wobble and to make Katie wobble emotionally.

  “I’m sorry. I just… I don’t know. I thought…”

  “You thought I was going to propose. Why did you think that?”

  Katie coughed again. She looked away and covered her mouth.

  “You know what? Let’s drop it. You’re not feeling well. It’s late.” Rick rubbed the back of his neck and said in a lower voice, “You were right. We should have rescheduled.”

  Katie swallowed again and felt as if she were downing nails. She didn’t say anything.

  “I’m going to go. We can get together another time.”

  “No, stay.” Katie pulled together all the strength she had left and tried to smile. “You rushed to get here. Stay and talk to me for a little while. Let’s start over. Tell me about the café. How’s everything coming?”

  Rick shuffled his feet and tossed out a few lines about how the electrician had to rewire the kitchen area at the café in Redlands. As he warmed to the topic, he returned to the chair, and Katie tried to get comfortable. She felt chilled and pulled her covers up to her chin as Rick talked.

  Rick reached over and smoothed out the corner of the crumpled comforter. In an awkward way he seemed to be tucking her in.

  “I’m really sorry you’re so sick, Katie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this sick. I thought you might spring back after you got to your room. It is cold out tonight. I apologize again for making you wait on upper campus.”

  “It’s okay.”

  “Do you want me to get you anything? I can make you some tea.”

  Even though tea sounded good to her at the moment, she said, “No, that’s okay.”

  “You sure? I feel like I should do something.”

  “Okay. I’ll have some tea, then. My hot pot is on the floor over there by those books. I have some tea in the box next to it. I have no idea where any of my mugs are.”

 
As Katie watched, Rick navigated his way around her piles of messes and projects and mounds of dirty clothes to plug in the hot pot and prepare a cup of tea for her. Somehow, the visual was poignant to her. This was her life. This was how fragmented and disorganized and embarrassingly scattered her life was at the moment.

  And there was Rick. Determined Rick, navigating his way around, finding how to accomplish his goals without being thrown off track, in spite of all the obstacles.

  She had to give the man an A for effort. Nothing had been easy or convenient in their relationship over the past few months. Yet somehow, mostly thanks to Rick, they had managed to carve out time for each other and move forward as a couple. Katie had convinced herself this was good preparation for the two of them, if they did end up marrying. This was how they would live. Rick ever the man on a straightforward mission; Katie ever a woman on a less straightforward mission but on a mission nonetheless. Rick was a straight line. She was a wavy line. If they could keep being themselves and keep finding ways to weave their lives and schedules together, Katie had great hope for them as a couple.

  By the time Rick located a cleanish mug and managed to steep the tea, Katie was finding it nearly impossible to keep her eyes open. The cold tablet was taking effect.

  “Here you go. Sit up, Katie, so you can drink this.”

  She took a sip and burned her tongue. “It needs to cool.”

  Rick took the mug from her and set it on the edge of her desk. “You’re almost asleep, aren’t you?”

  “Yes.”

  “Okay. Well, I should go then. I’ll call you tomorrow.” He leaned over and barely touched the side of her temple with a peck of a kiss. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

  “Happy Valentine’s Day to you too.” Katie watched as he crossed the room and opened the door. Her eyelids felt ridiculously heavy.

  “Rick?”

  He paused.

  “Thanks for coming, and I’m sorry I blurted out what I did earlier.”

  “Don’t worry about it.”

  Katie could hear him drawing in a deep breath.

 
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