“You wanna walk?” Brad asked.
“Huh?” I replied, lifting my eyes from where I stood in the common room.
The young man watched me with his stormy gray eyes and waited for a response. Silence ruled supreme, making the lapse in conversation awkward. As a result, I found it hard to swallow what he’d just asked.
“Walking?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Brad replied. “Walking.”
“Isn’t it, like, ninety degrees outside?”
“What? You’d rather drive?”
“Do you have a car?”
“My dad does. I don’t think he’d mind if we walked over and picked it up. He only lives a few blocks away.”
“Your dad lets you borrow his car?” I said, unsure how to respond or if I should even consider accepting.
“It’s just… I… well…” I paused.
“Don’t want to impose.”
“Trust me. My dad’s cool. He’d let us take the car.”
“Where would you want to go?” I asked as I sunk my teeth into the Mexican cookie I’d forgotten I’d been holding.
“I dunno. Just… wherever, I guess.” He paused. “I’m trying to come up with ways to get you out of here.”
“You think I’m going stir-crazy or something?”
“I think?” Brad laughed. “I know, Mister McAllen, sir.”
A smile parted my lips and caused a laugh to rise from my chest. “All right, all right. You win, Mister Michelson. I’ll go get my wallet.”
“I’ll follow you.”
We left the common room and made our way back to our dorms, wherein we both prepared for the night. While Brad went to get whatever he needed, I grabbed my wallet, my cell phone, and my dorm key—convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was nothing unusual. But the more I continued to think about it, and the more I considered what we were about to do, I couldn’t help but wonder if this meant something more.
Of course it doesn’t, I’d explicitly thought. He just wants company after a long day. What’s wrong with that?
Nothing. Nothing was wrong with that. It was just so intrinsically ingrained within me to be skeptical that I was bound to speculate on everything, even things that were inconsequential.
But, still, my devilish thoughts offered, this’ll be the first time you’ll be truly alone with him.
Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. Maybe he just wanted to talk, without the company of ears or the danger of being heard through thin walls. Maybe… maybe…
I was just about to think further on it when a knock came at the threshold, startling me from thought. “Ready?” Brad asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m ready.”
“Cool. Let’s get out of here.”
Within moments we were stepping out of the dorm hall and into the early evening.
At this hour of the night, people were still coming home from classes—walking, biking, driving. As such, Brad and I kept close and made our way down the street without so much as looking back. His gaze was set ahead—looking, it seemed, toward the quiet night we would be spending together. I was still recovering from my paranoid episode, and as a result, remained quiet as we came to the crosswalk.
“You feeling okay?” Brad asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Why do you ask?”
He waited a moment for a person to cross in front of us, then started forward before saying, “The meds.”
“Oh. Those.” I laughed. “Yeah. I’m doing fine. Don’t worry about me.”
“We gotta look out for each other. Right?”
“I—” I started, then stopped before paused before saying, “Yeah. We do.”
Brad nodded and gestured toward the street we were making our way toward. “Dad lives in one of these townhouses right around here.”
“It’s nice that you have your parents nearby,” I replied.
“Oh, it’s just Dad. Mom, she… she died when I was little.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay. I was really young when it happened. Breast cancer.”
He chewed on his bottom lip for a moment—part, I imagined, in contemplation, part not—before lifting his eyes and saying, “There it is.”
The townhouses were plain, like most of the other homes in the area, surrounded by bricks and guarded by wrought-iron fencing. The row we approached lay behind a series of privacy hedges meant to block the view of the streets from the east. A gnome looked on at us from one home.
“Dad hates those things,” Brad said as we approached the door to the house on our left.
“Why?” I asked.
“He thinks they’re tacky. And bad luck.”
I could only laugh as Brad knocked on the door and waited for the man within to respond.
Several moments passed, during which time I took a step back so as to not disarm the man when he opened the door. Brad, meanwhile, crossed his arms over his chest, and lifted his head to keep it level with the peephole so the man inside could see.
The door opened.
A man who resembled the spitting image of Brad peered out. “Hey,” Brad’s father said. “Long time no see, son.”
“Sorry about that,” Brad replied, stepping into his father’s embrace. “Been busy with school and stuff.”
“I know. Don’t sweat it.” He patted his son’s back before turning his head to face me. “Is this a friend of yours?”
“Yeah. Dad, this is Dean. Dean, Dad.”
“Nice to meet you, Mister Michelson,” I said, extending a hand.
“Pleasure, son. The name’s Robert.” He gripped my hand firmly and shook it before relinquishing his hold. He turned his attention back to his son shortly thereafter. “What brings you kids here today?”
“Dean’s new in town and wanted to see the sights,” Brad replied. “I was wondering if we could borrow the car.”
“New in town, eh?” Robert Michelson asked, turning his attention upon me. He offered a small smile. “Where you from, Dean?”
“Wow. You came quite a ways for… school, I take it?”
“Yes sir. I did.”
“You’ll have to tell me more about it sometime.” Robert turned his gaze on his son. “You’re welcome to take the car, son. Just don’t wreck it while you’re out.”
“You know I won’t,” Brad replied.
“I know.” Robert chuckled and lifted a set of keys from the ring nearby. “All I ask if that you kids bring it back before the morning. Wouldn’t want to be late for work.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
Robert merely nodded and moved to close the door. “Nice meeting you, Dean,” he said, then offered a single wink.
“You too,” I said, and couldn’t help but frown as he closed the door.
What was that supposed to mean? I thought.
But Brad stepping out to the row of cars alongside the townhouses caught me off-guard. “You ready to go?” he asked.
“Uh… yeah,” I said. “Sorry. Just thinking.”
“My book,” I lied.
Brad smiled and said, “Ah.” Then he unlocked the car with the clicker before sliding into the driver’s seat and starting it up.
As I climbed in after him, and as we began to pull away from the townhouses, I tried not to wonder just what that wink had meant.
Was it a sign of things to come?
I didn’t know.
All I knew was that, for the first time since meeting Brad, I would be really, truly alone with him.
I continued to pray that I would not screw our friendship up.