I wished I had just followed through with the call to Charles to pick me up and not allowed Robbie to drive me.  I hate awkward silence, and he was quiet and preoccupied the whole way back to the park.  There were a couple times that I imagined myself grabbing the steering wheel and jerking it to the side of the road and questioning him, but instead I told myself to pour my thoughts into the party and let him pout.  Boys could be so petty.

         I immediately got busy with the final food preparation and getting the DJ started, so the fact that Robbie had settled himself in a corner playing with one of the kids from the church didn’t impress me at first.  But it did strike me, the moment that I took it in.  He didn’t seem to care that he was a towering man; he teased and knocked fists like he and that little girl were the best of friends.  Her parents stood beside him watching and talking and all the while he was getting the attention of the girl.  I smiled at his gentleness.

         I felt a tap on my shoulder.  “This is quite a party you’re throwing.”

         I turned around startled.  It was Liam, again. I had managed to avoid him until that moment, “You can talk before you tap, that way I will have some idea as to who is trying to get my attention.”

         He laughed, “I’m sorry.  Your shoulder is just so inviting.”

         I looked at my shoulder, where he had tapped it, not the least bit impressed,  “It’s a shoulder.”

         “You’re not one to be charmed are you, Miss Stuckey?”

         “Not when I don’t know you,”  I looked at him skeptically.

         “We still have that date, remember?”  His eyes sparkled and smiled.

         “I..I haven’t forgotten.  Just busy, you know?”  His eyes were penetrating and captivating, and I didn’t have time to be mesmerized. Besides, our last awkward encounter and subsequent conversation with Celeste was still disturbing me.

         “I understand. Just wanted you to know that I haven’t forgotten, either.”

         He walked off, smiling.  I made the mistake of watching him and had to admit, he looked just as good from behind…well, almost.  I unashamedly watched until the man of the hour entered the tent and took my attention away completely. “Toby!”

         “Wow! Ha!” he laughed and grabbed Zella’s hand, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I watched her look down at their hands unsure before he continued, “She told me that you were throwing me a party, but girl, this is awesome!”

         I blushed.  He liked it.  He was impressed.  My work had paid off.  I felt good.

         “Really, Oona,” Zella looked around casually letting go of his hand to sweep her hands over the space, “This is amazing!” I wasn’t fooled. I knew exactly why she did that.

         I chose to ignore it and responded instead to her question, “Aw, it was nothing.”  I lied.  It was totally something. I had busted my butt to make it happen just right, and Toby’s reaction was completely worth it.

         Robbie walked up, “So you like it, Toby?”

         “Like it?  I think it’s the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.  I have never been thrown a party like this before.”

         Celeste laughed, “And to think, all you had to do was come home.”

         Toby smiled, “Yes.  Home.”  And no one missed that look that he gave Zella which left no doubt as to what home meant to him.

         Obviously feeling the same awkwardness as the rest of us, Robbie held out his hand, “Dance with me, Oona?”

         I cut my eyes at Celeste.  Was he serious?  She smiled and nodded toward his hand. I looked at it for what seemed like five minutes but couldn’t have been more than two seconds. “Uh, I don’t think so.  I have to make sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to.  Don’t want anyone slacking on their jobs.”

         He retrieved his hand, “I see… Okay.  Celle?” redirecting his hand to her.

         She looked at me confused and shrugged before she took his hand and said, “Absolutely!”

         I watched as they walked away onto the part of the floor I’d sectioned off for dancing.  Toby and Zella eyed the food, while I kicked myself for turning the dance down.  What was the harm?  Across the room Robbie caught my eye and smiled before he twirled Celeste away and back into his one strong arm.  Oh yeah, that was why.  Nice guys don’t choose Oona.  He was just being polite.

         Toby broke through my thoughts, “Wanna sit down and eat something with us? The food looks amazing! I’m starved, and plane food is nasty.”

         Zella grabbed my arm and removed her hand from Toby’s grasp again, “Let’s.  I’m sure you haven’t eaten all day.”

         “I’m a little hungry,” I admitted. 

         “Great!  Let me fix you a plate,” Toby offered.

         Was he kidding?  He was the guest of honor, he wasn’t supposed to be fixing a plate for me.  “No thanks, I can get my own.”

         “I insist.”

         “Well, okay,” I agreed.  “Just don’t overload it.  A roll and some cheese and meat with a chip or two.”

         “You got it, and you?” he asked Zella who was watching the dancing siblings, who were laughing and almost falling over.

         “Let me go with you,” she answered smiling, “I’m kind of picky today.”

         “You, picky? Okay.” He smiled at me as they walked away, “We will be right back, Oona.”

         I watched them pair off and continue a conversation that must have started long ago.  Who was I kidding?  I felt out of place as I looked around and all these people I knew but didn’t feel connected with. It dawned on me, I was just here for the show.  All the parts were taken, and I hadn’t even had the chance to audition.  Everyone had a role but me.  Story of my life.  I should be used to it.

         “Why aren’t you dancing?”

         I turned toward the sound of Liam’s voice, “What no tap?”

         He smiled, “You asked me not to, remember?”

         I blushed, “Do you always do as you’re told?”

         “I certainly try.”

          I teased, “Oh yeah, it’s that whole Christian code of ethics.”

         He laughed, “Christian code of ethics?  What’s that?”

         “You know, be nice to losers, do as you’re told, don’t lie, or have sex; it’s like some kind of mantra with you guys.”

         He laughed again, “Um, I think it’s a little more involved than all that, but to answer your question.  Yes, mostly, I do as I am told.”

         “And when you don’t?” I asked questioning his intentions. There was something about the way that he said “mostly.”

         “Don’t what?”  His words seemed confused but his eyes twinkled.

         “Do as your told,” I explained.

         “Oh…” he hesitated.  “Then I get in trouble.”

         I cocked my head.  The way he said that sounded like he spoke from experience, like he knew what it was not to get it right all the time, and what it was to mess up, and that felt inviting to me.  That was normal.  That was more like me, and I knew that he was right there with me, a character backstage, waiting.

         “I’ll take that date.”

         It was his turn to cock his head, “Excuse me?”

         “Friday. Six o’clock,” I continued.

         He laughed, “Okay. Where shall I pick you up?”

         “The church.”

         “The church?  That’s gotta be a first for me,” he teased. A first? So he didn’t make it a habit to pick up girls in the church, that was oddly reassuring despite the way he was interacting with me. Maybe he did feel some chemistry? Maybe what I knew about dating and Christians from my friends wasn’t the norm or the standard. I thought briefly about the others in the youth group, the ones that I knew in spaces outside of the church and couldn’t stand. I considered the differences. There was a lot of unfamiliar definitions and protocol I saw in Zella and Celeste that didn’t seem to match up with a majority of the other youth in their group. That was interesting to consider. I realized in my pondering I hadn’t answered.

         I stumbled through an excuse, still feeling the need to meet and not have him pick me up, “Yes, I’ll meet you there. It’s a place we both know, and it’s…”  What Oona?  What was the word I was looking for here?  I looked in his hauntingly gorgeous eyes and knew exactly what it was, but I couldn’t say it.

         “Central?”  He filled in the blank.

         I smiled, “Yes, exactly, right in the middle of town.”

         “Okay!”  He brushed my shoulder and touched my cheek, “Friday then.”

         I grinned, not allowing myself to feel awkward again, “Friday.”

         “Don’t make me wait.”

         I wasn’t sure what to do with that statement, I watched him, cautiously, the grin fading, there was something behind it, a warning? I dismissed it as Toby and Zella walked up and thankfully interrupted, “I sure hope you’re hungry, Oona.”

         I reached for the plate Toby handed me and gasped, “What part of don’t overload the plate didn’t you get?”

         He laughed and answered, “I figured I’ll eat what you can’t.”

         I looked at him and frowned, “So pretty much you fixed two plates for you?”

         “I can fix you something, love,” Liam offered.

         I cringed. That term of endearment caught me off guard and set me back on the defensive.  A term too reminiscent of my dad. I wasn’t his love. I surely wasn’t Liam’s love. In fact, I wasn’t anyone’s love and didn’t like the claim it implied. I promptly turned down his offer and sat at the table in the chair that Toby had waiting.

         “Well, if there’s nothing more,” Liam seemed to have caught the hint, “I’ve got some unpacking to do and tomorrow is my first night to teach.”

         “Oh okay,” I answered not the least bit disappointed that he couldn’t sit and visit.

         “Toby?” he turned and extended his hand.

         “Yeah, great to meet you, man.  I’ll see you around,” he returned the handshake.

         “Zella?” Offering the same hand, he waited for her response.

         “I’ll be there tomorrow night.  Looking forward to it,” she didn’t even look his way and took a bite of her food.

         Then he looked at me, two hands extended for a hug, “Oona?”

         I stepped back, not willing to step inside, “I can’t promise.”

         He frowned a bit then recovered, “But I’ll see you Friday?”

         “That’s what I said.”  I was admittedly a little snarky.

         “Okay,” he looked me in the eyes seeming to get more from them than my mouth was sharing, he looked disappointed, “‘Til then,” he offered and turned way.

         He walked off and that feeling I’d had before broke through my tingling flesh and filled my mind, as I looked back at my friends.  There was something about Liam that unnerved me.  There was something that told me that perhaps he wasn’t as much as he pretended.  That same something told me that the church was the best place to meet, not because it was central, but because it was safe.

         When Liam left, the party continued, and I was entertained watching everyone. Ryan, Celeste’s friend, had joined the party and had taken Robbie’s place twirling her on the dance floor. I watched them in amazement. Her beautiful face smiling and laughing like she didn’t have a care in the world, only, I knew she did. She had skeletons that haunted her just like I did. I wondered if she and Ryan would get together, but the one time I asked her, she said something about needing to focus on her relationship with Jesus right now and time would tell. I asked her if it would be awkward, her and Ryan after her and Brad, since before his death they had been best friends, but she said she didn’t know and didn’t want to entertain the thought. I asked her if she was gonna be a nun like Zella and say no to dating, but she laughed and said Zella had more courage than any of us because of her choice. Courage? I disagreed.

         It was awesome to see Toby with us all again. Those blue eyes that seemed to see past all my masquerades. I had longed to see them look at me with the intensity that they had taking in Zella. Pure intensity. Liam looked at me like he wanted to eat me, and lick his chops after he had his fill, but Toby’s intensity wasn’t that, it was passion, or adoration? I wasn’t sure. It was beautiful, and I wanted so badly for someone to look at me like that. Zella was stupid to give that up.  What kind of love could Jesus give her that Toby wouldn’t? It didn’t make sense.

         “You need any help with that?”

         I was so busy observing and pulling down some insignificant decorations that I didn’t see Robbie come to my side; I jumped.

         “Easy, I was just trying to help.”

         I was embarrassed, “Sure,” I acknowledged. “I mean, I can get it. I’m just gonna take them and put them in the trash.”

         “Well, let me help,” he offered.

         I looked down at his leg, worried. “No. You need to sit down and rest. I’m fine.” I picked up a chair that was beside me, and unfolded it for him, “Here.”

         He sighed, “Please, don’t.”

         I was confused. The look in his eyes was saddening. I felt horrible for my insensitivity. “Fine. You don’t have to sit,” I pushed the chair back. “You can stand there and let your leg throb.” It didn’t come out exactly as I intended. I didn’t do sensitive very well.

         His tone was loud but his eyes twinkled, “Fine! Give me the chair, then!”

         I shoved it back over toward him. “Fine.”

         He laughed and grabbed the chair to steady himself.

         “What’s so funny? You are the one being hardheaded,” I argued.

         “Ha!” He laughed again. “I’m not the only hardheaded one around here.”

         “Agreed,” I retorted, “Your sister is a bit of a hardhead, too!”

         He was obviously entertained at our banter and decided to sit down, “Oh Oona…you are killing me!”

         “Well?” I asked. I wasn’t wrong, but I was relieved that he was sitting down. It had been a long night and he didn’t need to overdo it.

         “Well?” He asked back, adjusting his leg.

         “Oh forget it.” Robbie was probably the most confusing of all of the newlings in my life. One minute I would feel like he was looking at me like he liked me and the next it felt like he was challenging me and questioning my logic. It drove me crazy, but at the same time, it was kind of nice. He was nice. I kept cleaning up while he sat, watching the floor.

         “Oona?” His voice had changed. He was serious. Intense. It surprised me because it seemed to come out of nowhere.

         “Yes?” I hesitated.

         “Be careful.”

         I didn’t have to ask what he was talking about. I knew instinctively that he was referring to Liam. I wanted to get very upset with him and say things that would make a sailor blush – as if he had any right to protect me from myself or anyone else for that matter! But, it was the way he spoke and the look in his eyes that made me think that possibly someone else, besides Celeste and Zella and Toby, might have my best interest at heart.

         “I can handle it,” I answered.

         “And if you can’t?” he asked.

         “I can handle it.”

         “Okay, but if you can’t -”

         I interrupted, “Listen, Robbie, I’m eighteen. I’ve been around, okay? I know what I’m doing. I’ve taken care of myself my whole entire life, and I can take care of myself now. Besides, he’s gonna be a pastor. I would think that would make you and all the Jesus gang happy.”

         “I don’t trust him,” he admitted.

         “You’ve made that clear.”

         “Just…” he hesitated.

         I finished for him, “Be careful. Got it.”

         He didn’t say anything else, and I watched him stand up slowly and hobble off. I wished with everything in me that I could have explained to him that I wasn’t really angry, that I was guarded, that after a life of having to protect myself and my emotions I really understood what he was saying, but I also knew that I was strong. I wasn’t gonna let anyone else take advantage of me. I wished he would see that. But who was I kidding, he didn’t know me, and he surely didn’t understand. He was one of them on the stage, speaking their lines and developing the plot, and I, well, I was an understudy.

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