Zara stood at the entrance of her apartment watching Nathaniel and Matt walk down the corridor to go back to the dorm. Amy lay with her head on Matt’s shoulder, fast asleep, her thumb in her mouth. She had to tamp down the crazy urge to go running after them and grab Amy back.
What was wrong with her?
Today was the first and the only day she had ever felt so protective of someone, much less a child.
She shut the door and groaned when she saw Susan on the couch.
She was seated in her interrogative-mode. Spine straight, chin up and arms crossed.
“You can groan all you want, bitch. But you’re not going to escape this today. Take a seat and start talking.”
Zara rolled her eyes and considered making a run for the bedroom.
“I have the key, Zara.”
She shot a glare to Susan.
“Fine.“, she growled in a very unladylike manner and stomped toward the couch and sat down.
Susan turned to her and raised a questioning eyebrow.
“I think I’m in love with the kid.”
“Yeah, I could see that. I’m pretty sure she feels the same way.“, she patted Zara on the hand.
Zara gave a short laugh and untied her hair running her fingers through the strands.
“What about Nathaniel?”
Zara froze and turned to her.
“What about him?”
Susan rolled her eyes and punched her arm.
“Come on, Zara. It’s me. Spill it out.”
Zara tried to maintain an even look and failed miserably.
“He likes you.”
Her pulse quickened.
“Shut the fuck up!”
Zara frowned at the outburst.
“He fucking cares about you!“, she snapped again.
“What’s the matter with you? How the hell do you even know that?“, she yelled back.
“Because I can see, you dumbass! And you’re just acting blind.”
Zara was shocked at the vehemence in Susan’s voice.
She jerked off the couch and began pacing the floor leaving Zara stunned.
“It’s been two months, Zara. Two freaking months. I know what he did was bad and wrong on so many fucking levels.“, she looked at Zara, gesturing with her hands, the way she did when she was agitated.
“But he’s sorry, Zara. He really is.“, she softened her voice.
Zara couldn’t speak.
“Do you still have feelings for Finn? Is that why you aren’t moving on?”
Zara’s jaw dropped.
“N-no! What are you talking about?”
Susan sat back down near her, taking her hand in hers.
“You’ve changed since Finn left, Z. It’s like you’re withdrawing within yourself. I miss you. Matt misses you.” Zara was stunned when she heard the tremble in Susan’s voice.
“But I haven’t done anything-“, she said.
“That’s exactly the problem. You hardly laugh. You seldom speak when the four of us are together. And the worse part is you don’t even seem to know it.”
Zara gulped wondering where she had gone wrong.
“I know it hurts, Zara. But you can’t keep shutting everyone out.”
She squeezed her hand.
Zara turned to her and bit her lip trying to gauge her daily emotional reactions.
“I’ve seen the way Nathaniel looks at you. That isn’t the way you look at a girl if the only thing you want from her is to get into her pants.”
Zara visibly swallowed and turned her gaze to the floor.
“I swear I had no idea, Suz. I swear I didn’t know I was hurting you-”
“Shhh, it’s okay. Just tell me what’s going on in your head.“, she rubbed her back.
Zara took a deep breath and tried to gather her thoughts.
“I don’t know what to say.“, she began softly.
“After what happened with Danielle I just can’t be myself with Nathaniel anymore.“, she looked at Susan hoping her best friend understood.
Susan nodded, “I get that.”
Somewhat relieved Zara continued, “I miss Finn, I’m not going to lie. He was really something, Susan. I mean, he was the only guy who ever made me feel special, even though it was hardly for a week or so. But it was really memorable.“, she looked at her nails, “I mean I can’t just forget it that easily. I guess I’m just afraid that it won’t be the same way with anyone else.”
They were silent for a few seconds.
“I think you’re wrong in making that assumption.“, Susan murmured in a while.
Zara looked at her.
She shrugged, “Before Matt, I was as skeptical as you, to be honest. But the day I met him, it was like my life turned around. I was actually living. Not just existing. It was beautiful, Zara. It still is and I pray that it always will be.”
She sighed and took Zara’s hand.
“But it doesn’t come without risks. And you know that.”
Zara knew it was the truth.
“I want you to be happy, Z. And that won’t happen if you hide away from everything. You need to be bold. Put yourself out there. Where is the girl who held my held through school and backed me up when I was crying my heart out after being bullied by the seniors?”
Zara smiled a full-blown grin.
“I think Amy was a God-send.“, she murmured softly flashing Zara a smile.
“I haven’t seen you laugh this much for too long. I have to admit I missed your manly and boisterous laugh.”
Zara laughed and slapped Susan’s thigh lightly.
“Just kidding, sexy.“, Susan kissed her cheek.
“Come on, I’m in the mood for Hugh Jackman and his sexy ass.“, she winked, referring to the half-finished Wolverine movie they had been watching last night.
Zara nodded enthusiastically, her mind replaying Susan’s words about Nathaniel.
Did he really like her?
If he did, what was she going to do about it?
That night she slept fitfully, her last thought Amy’s dimpled face smiling down at her.
The next day Zara caught up on pending class work and helped Susan clean the apartment. She restrained herself from thinking about both Nathaniel and Amy and welcomed the silence in her head. The absence of constant worrying thoughts was a relief.
She had just emerged from the bathroom after a long shower in the late evening when she heard the doorbell ring and after a few moments the familiar sound of Matt and Nathaniel speaking to Susan. But her ears were focused on the almost silent sounds of footsteps hurrying in the direction of the bedroom where she was seated on the edge of the bed.
She was stunned to realize that she was holding her breath.
Not a second later, she saw Amy in the doorway, heaving as if she had run a mile on her tiny feet.
She stood staring at her, neither of them saying anything.
Zara’s fingers dropped her towel on the bed.
Amy was dressed in a Hello Kitty tshirt and a pair of cotton shorts that came to her knees, her feet covered in bright red slippers. Her dark curls hung all over her face.
“Hi.“, she said shyly, like the way she had the day before.
Zara swallowed the bubble of joy that seemed to struggle to choke her.
Then she sprang to her feet, held out her hands and waited.
Amy’s chubby face broke into a huge grin and she ran into Zara’s outstretched arms, giggling like she had been tickled mercilessly.
Zara picked her up and hugged her close.
Amy’s fingers were tight around her neck as she whispered, “I missed you.”
Zara looked toward the ceiling wondering for the umpteenth time why this child even bothered with someone like her.
But she wasn’t going to complain. It felt too good to be held like this.
She kissed Amy’s soft hair.
“I missed you too, baby.”
Amy snuggled into her neck, giggling softly.
Zara lifted her head and froze when she saw Nathaniel two feet away from her.
Her grip on Amy tightened.
Nathaniel’s gaze lingered on her face, his expression unreadable.
Then suddenly it was like the mask had slipped off and Zara saw the need and the heat in his eyes. She wanted him to hug her. To hold her close to him and kiss her hair.
Was it visible in her eyes? Could he see past her defense?
He took one step forward toward her.
Susan’s voice calling out to them stopped him mid-stride.
The mask slipped back on and he turned away, disappearing from her sight.