A short story, to brighten your day:
Sometimes, a kiss is just a kiss. This wasn’t one of those times. I’d been watching Marcus for years, ever since he saved me from bullies in the schoolyard when we were in fourth grade. I was one of the poor kids. My mom dressed me in hand me downs and clothes she found at garage sales. She cut my hair and would have made my underwear if she knew how to sew. My shoes had holes in the soles. Marcus wasn’t like me. His daddy owned the biggest factory in our blue-collar town. Marcus never had to wonder where he’d get his next meal, and he never wore used clothing. Even then, he was taller than the other boys. I didn’t think he knew I existed. As the kids surrounded me, shouting slurs and pulling at my over-sized dress, I held my fists at my side and fought to hold back tears. Just as I thought I’d break into sobs; Marcus ran through the circle of my tormentors and took my hand in his. He pulled me away as mouths fell to the ground. Silence overtook the playground. He took me to the swings and sat in the seat beside me, challenged me to go high, higher, higher than I’d ever gone.
How could a girl expect to keep her heart when something like that happens? I sure couldn’t. I was his from that moment on. It didn’t matter that he went back to ignoring me as soon as recess ended. I was a changed being, but his world kept turning in the same orbit as before. He kept being popular, funny, and handsome. I kept to myself, tried to stay under the radar.
I didn’t see much of Marcus when we went to middle and high school. Well, that’s a lie. I saw him a lot. He didn’t see me. He grew muscles and wavy hair that always fell perfectly on his wide forehead and curled at his collar. He became the football quarterback, of course. In the meantime, I got braces. My mom had to take a second job cleaning offices at night to afford them. I was alone most of the time. I learned to be self-sufficient. I studied hard and made good grades, earned a scholarship to the community college one town over. Marcus dated cheerleaders. I spent my spare time working at McDonald’s. Would you like a hot apple turnover with that? At least they paid for my uniform.
One day, Marcus came in with the head cheerleader, Becca, during my shift. I hid in the back until he’d placed their order, but he saw me when he picked up the order. He smiled and nodded. I returned the nod and hoped he didn’t notice the red color creeping up my neck and onto my face. I wondered if he noticed my straight teeth and that the awful braces were gone since the last time he’d smiled at me back in tenth grade. We’d both graduated recently. It was to be his ‘last year in this crummy town.’ I overheard him tell his date as I cleaned a nearby table of half-eaten burgers, greasy fries, and smeared ketchup. He had a scholarship but would take a year to travel to Europe before starting at Cornell.
I didn’t know where Cornell was, so I googled it when I got a break. Ithaca, New York. I then had to google Ithaca – where it was and how to pronounce it. Ithaca was a far cry from Podunk, Texas, I’ll say that much. I finished cleaning the table, so I never heard what Becca would be doing while he was gone. I admit, I felt petty and hoped they would break up, but with my luck, absence would make his heart grow fonder. I told myself to stop. He’d never in a million years look my way, so what if he managed a long-distance romance? It was nothing to me. I finished my shift and walked home, muttering to myself and not paying the least attention to where I put my feet. I managed to trip on a crack in the sidewalk and fall forward. It was like the world slowed down. I shot my hands out, tried to get my balance, but kept falling, falling, falling, until my hands hit the concrete. My arms were barely strong enough to keep my head from smashing into the ground, and I bit my tongue in the process. I swallowed blood, thinking, ‘it does taste like iron, just like in the books.’
Of course, Marcus drove by with Becca in the passenger seat of his sporty SUV just as I hit the dirt. To my horror, he stomped on the brakes, pulled to the curb, and ran to my side. I was dusting my uniform with my bloodied hands when he reached for me.
“Are you all right? That was a bad fall. Can I take you somewhere to get those cuts bandaged?” He was all concerned, but I could see Becca thrumming her baby blue fingernails to match her baby blue eyes on his dashboard.
“I’m fine. Just a little stumble.”
“Really. We’re in no hurry. Where can I take you?” He had his hand on my left elbow and was trying to move me toward his vehicle. I wanted to crawl under a rock but could see none large enough in the vicinity. I pulled my arm from his grip angrily. Mortified more like it.
“I said I’m fine.” I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and it came away with blood. If I didn’t get away from Marcus, I was sure I would die of embarrassment. I dare not look Becca’s way. She was probably huffing with impatience by now.
“If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure. Go take care of your girlfriend.” I walked away as quickly as my feet would carry me. When I turned the corner, I could see him still standing where I’d left him, hands on hips, watching me. I ran the rest of the way home. I didn’t cry until I’d closed the door and sunk down with my back to it and my feet straight out.
That was the last time I saw him until he came back to town for his little sister’s graduation from high school. My cousin was in the same grade, so I was already seated in the bleachers when he came walking up the steps. He was fifteen minutes late, and they’d started handing out diplomas. He was searching for an empty seat in the crowded stadium stands. There was an empty beside me, as usual, since I had no BFF and my mom was working. My aunt and uncle had arrived first and picked out the third and fourth seats from the end of the row. I sat beside my aunt with the empty seat to my left. My heart rate kicked up a notch when I saw Marcus eyeing the chair.
“Don’t sit beside me,” I chanted inside my head as he bounded up the stairs toward me. Of course, he sat there. I’d come from work, hadn’t freshened my makeup, probably smelled of sweat and bad breath. At least Becca wasn’t with him.
“Hey,” he said as he sat beside me. I nodded and turned the shade of crimson that he always brought out on my fair skin.
“Christa, right?” he asked.
He knew my name? Wow. The crimson turned to alizarin red and covered my entire body. Nowhere to hide for me.
“Yeah. Marcus?” As if I didn’t know. As if I hadn’t written my first name and his last name inside every school notebook I’d ever carried.
“Right. I was afraid I’d have to stand. So glad you saved me a seat.” His smile was one hundred watt and I swear that his eyes sparkled.
The speaker droned on until he came to my cousin’s name. My aunt shouted through a bull horn I hadn’t known she carried, and my uncle blew a foghorn. They both stood and clapped. I didn’t want to, but they’d have their feelings hurt if I didn’t cheer along, so I stood and clapped with them. When I sat down, Marcus was smiling at me. Could life get any worse? If I prayed hard enough, would the second coming happen sooner than later? Please, dear Lord, take me away from here.
We sat in silence as more students strode across to accept their diplomas. Marcus bent forward and motioned for my uncle’s attention.
“Can I borrow the fog horn?”
What? This rich, sophisticated guy wanted my uncle’s foghorn? Was he making fun of me and my family? I shot a scorching look his way that would have withered a cactus in a flash flood. He merely smiled and held his hand out for the horn my uncle passed to him. Great. I continued to give him ‘the look.’
“What? My sister is coming up.”
“She’ll love it....