“Dexter! Dexter, wait up!”
Dexter Corbett heard the voice of his best friend Gideon Harrington as he walked out of his Intelligent Control Through Learning and Optimization class, but he kept walking. Gideon knew that Dexter always went back to the apartment they shared after this class, and Gideon always met him there after the class Gideon was supposed to be in now.
Eventually, Dexter felt a hand grab him around his elbow and pull him around, finding Gideon half bent over and gasping for air.
“I think you need to hit the gym, Gideon.”
“And I think it’s rude of you to pretend you didn’t hear me,” Gideon replied, rising to his full height but still sucking in deep breaths. “I’ve got something to tell you.”
“Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that you’re not in class right now.”
Gideon just rolled his eyes. “Introduction to Theory of Computation? I can pass that in my sleep. No, this is way more important than that.”
Dexter pulled his hand from Gideon’s grasp and began to walk away. If something was more important than class to Gideon, that meant it was one thing and one thing only: Mabel Aspinall.
Gideon had been infatuated with Mabel Aspinall for pretty much the entire time that they’d known each other, and that was the entirety of their university lives. Mabel was a med student with long, chestnut brown hair and bright hazel eyes, and pretty much since the second Gideon first saw her on campus, she was all he thought about.
But he’d never had the courage to say hello to her, let alone ask her out on a date.
“Dexter, come on!” Gideon exclaimed, hurrying to fall into step next to him. “This is important.”
“Have you said a word to her yet?”
“Well, no, but...”
“There is no buts,” Dexter said, looking over at Gideon. “However, I suspect you’re going to tell me anyway.”
Gideon sucked in a deep breath. “So I was in the student union.”
“When you should have been in class.”
“Can you please stop sounding like my mother right now?” Gideon asked, slinging an arm around Dexter’s shoulders. “So I was in the student union earlier, and Mabel was in there with some of the other med girls, right? They were talking about all kinds of stuff, and then one of them invited Mabel to go to some study group with them. She said no, she prefers to study alone, so she was going to Penny’s to do so.”
“I’m assuming there’s a point to all of this?” Dexter said, glancing over at Gideon.
Gideon just rolled his eyes. “Look, the point is, Mabel is going to Penny’s tonight to study and therefore we need to go to Penny’s tonight too.”
Dexter stopped walking and shrugged Gideon’s arm off his shoulders. “I thought tonight was supposed to be a night where we went and looked for a date for me, not went somewhere for you to stare at Mabel all night and never make a move.”
Gideon reached out and grasped Dexter’s left arm. “I know, I know. But I promise you, we can do that next Friday night. Dexter, this is a prime piece of intelligence about Mabel and I’m not going to give up on it for anything.”
Dexter shook himself free from Gideon’s grasp and folded his arms across his chest. “Are you going to talk to her this evening?”
Gideon’s gaze turned towards the sidewalk they were standing on, and Dexter just threw up his hands and started walking away. Gideon caught up with him quickly, forcing Dexter to stop walking once more. “Look, I may not have enough courage in me at the moment, but who knows what’s going to happen once I’ve got a short stack of pancakes in me and half a carafe of coffee. Please, Dexter. I promise you the next time we go out, it will be with the goal of finding you someone. I swear it.”
Dexter knew as Gideon said the words that those promises would become empty ones should he hear more about Mabel on that night. But Gideon looked so pathetic in front of him, eyes wide and desperate, and he knew how badly that Gideon wanted Mabel, so he did what he usually did and set aside his personal need for Gideon’s. “Fine, we’ll go to this Penny’s place. Where is Penny’s anyway? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Penny’s is clear on the other side of Pickering,” Gideon said as they started to walk again. “It’s a diner, but it’s not crawling with student traffic like the ones around campus are. I bet that’s why Mabel likes it.”
“Then why are we going to disrupt that for her?”
Gideon gave Dexter a look deploring him to please keep up. “We’re not going to disrupt her. We’re going to have dinner and cautiously watch her.”
“No,” Dexter said, shaking his head. “If we’re going to this place with a goal of studying with Mabel Aspinall, then we’re studying while we’re there.”
“Gideon,” Dexter replied. “Come on, we have that Intro to Computational Linguistics exam on Monday. We’ll use tonight to study for it.”
“Gideon, we have to do something or else she’s going to notice fairly quickly that all you’re doing is staring at her, and that could end badly,” Dexter pointed out. “Especially if she’s noticed us around wherever she is lately because we’ve been practically stalking her.”
“We have not been stalking her,” Gideon said seriously.
“Gideon, we got manicures and pedicures at Salon Maison two weeks ago because you knew she was going to get her haircut there. Manicures and pedicures, Gideon.”
“We went to Salon Maison because that’s where Hugo’s sister Florence works. And come on, your feet are softer than they’ve ever been and you know it,” Gideon said, sighing. “But I suppose you are right. We need a reason to be around Mabel.”
“Exactly. So we’re going to study.”
Gideon groaned. “I hate exams.”
“I know you do,” Dexter said, smiling. “Just think about it, Gideon. A little bit more than a semester, and then we’ll never have to take an exam ever again.”
Gideon grinned at that. “Too true, Dexter. We’re going to have to figure out what to do after graduation though. Don’t think I’m going to let you slip off back to Iowa. Oh no, you’re a Kansan now.”
“I’m not sure I’m going to stay in Pickering either.”
“The university has practically already offered you a job, Dexter.”
“I’m not sure I want to be working at Pickering-Foster for the rest of my life either.”
Gideon sighed. “Well, you’re not going to just abandon me.”
Dexter slung an arm across Gideon’s shoulders as they walked towards the bus stop. “I can assure you that I will never abandon you, Gideon, no matter where life takes us after graduation.”
“Good,” Gideon said, laughing. “Because I need someone to laugh at me about Mabel for the rest of my life.”
“One of these days, Gideon, you’ll either talk to her or get over her.”
“Not sure I agree with you on that, Dexter, but I’ll let you hope.”
Ruby Finch had barely gotten two steps into Penny’s Diner when she heard the manager Otto call out.
“’Bout time you got here Finch!”
Ruby rolled her eyes. “My shift doesn’t start for fifteen minutes, Otto!”
Ruby went into the back, bypassing the kitchen and storage rooms for the small room at the back that served as a makeshift dressing room for the waitresses. Ruby already had her work dress on, so all she needed to do was clock in and grab an apron and order book. When she made it back to the dressing room, she found her good friend and fellow waitress Harper Blackwell already there. “Evening Harper.”
“Ruby! About time. Otto was screaming at me about the fact that you weren’t here.”
“Otto can’t read because my shift clearly doesn’t start until six-fifteen according to the schedule.”
Harper laughed. “I know you’re right, but he’s probably going to lay into you tonight.”
“I can handle Otto when he’s a grouchy son of a bitch,” Ruby said, reaching for a clean apron and starting to tie it around her waist. “How was your day at school?”
Harper went to Style Eyes School of Cosmetology during the day with the goal of becoming a nail technician at a beauty shop somewhere in Pickering. Harper went on excitedly about how she got to do another student’s nails that day, and that her instructor thought they had come out very well.
“I’m getting closer and closer to graduation,” Harper said. “Which means that once I have a job somewhere else, I can be done with this hellhole and move on.”
“Well, I’m not looking forward to that day because it means you won’t be here with me every night.”
Harper picked up on the annoyed tone of Ruby’s voice and sighed. “They’re at it again?”
“Of course,” Ruby said. “If I just applied myself, I could do anything. They would be so happy to have me come into the practice with them. Money is of course no object when it comes to their one and only child. The usual bullshit.”
Harper watched as Ruby picked up her card and clocked herself in. “How did they react when you told them no?”
“More of the usual bullshit,” Ruby said, grabbing an order book off the stack on the shelf and a pen from the holder. “They don’t understand why I would prefer to work such a lowly job instead of bettering myself by becoming exactly what they want me to be. Honestly, Harper, I think I’m going to be a waitress here until I die just to spite them.”
“You don’t mean that,” Harper said, reaching for an order book of her own.
“Of course I don’t,” Ruby said. “The last thing I want is Otto yelling at me every night for the rest of my life. But I’m sure as hell not about to tell them that.”
“You could always come to school with me,” Harper suggested. “Then you could find a job at a beauty shop here in town.”
“No offense, Harper, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing someone’s hair or nails,” Ruby said as she started to leave the room, Harper right behind her. “Let’s just change the subject. Plans for the weekend?”
“Digby is going to take me to see the new Sebastian Elphinstone movie.”
Digby Clark was Harper’s boyfriend of the past two and a half years, and Ruby loved him. He was funny and sweet, just protective enough, and far more of a gentleman than any of Ruby’s last few boyfriends had been.
“You are so lucky to have found somebody like Digby,” Ruby said as they walked past the kitchen. “All I get is asshole after asshole, and you’ve got the sweetest guy in town.”
Harper just shook her head. “Digby is hardly the sweetest guy in town. I fully admit that I’m very lucky to have him, but there are plenty of other nice guys in town.”
“Well, tell me where they are all hiding then, because I certainly cannot find them.”
“You’ll meet one some day.”
“Yeah, maybe when pigs fly.”
“Ladies!” came Otto’s voice. “Are you going to get to work any time soon or just stand there and chit chat?”
Ruby and Harper both rolled their eyes before walking out into the front and heading towards the first occupied table they saw in their respective sections.
“I think my favorite thing about Mabel is her intelligence. I mean, you don’t get to be a med student without being super smart.”
Dexter got the lock to their apartment undone and they headed inside, Gideon still going on about Mabel. “You’re pretty super smart yourself.”
“But not the way that she is,” Gideon said, flopping down on the sofa, “She’s so beautiful and super smart and she’s just perfect, Dexter. I wish she would acknowledge that I exist.”
Dexter walked over to his makeshift desk and slung his messenger bag down on the chair, opening it and pulling certain books out. “Have you ever even thought about talking to her? Or is that something that never crosses your mind?”
“Of course I’ve thought about talking to her,” Gideon said. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m being ridiculous?” Dexter laughed. “This is our fourth year at Pickering-Foster University and you still haven’t said a single word to her. And I’m the one being ridiculous.”
“I have a very good reason for why I don’t talk to her.”
“Oh, this I have got to hear.”
“It’s simple,” Gideon said. “I know what will happen when I do talk to her.”
“And what is that?”
“Rejection,” Gideon said gloomily. “I’m not good enough for a girl like her. She’s way out of my league.”
“You have no idea if she would reject you or not, and that’s because you won’t talk to her,” Dexter pointed out. “And never say you’re not good enough for someone. My mother used to grab me around the back of my neck if I tried to say someone was better than me or I wasn’t good enough for someone.”
“Well, doesn’t that have something to do with the fact that you think everyone on the planet is better than you are?” Gideon asked. “Isn’t that part of the illness?”
Dexter sucked in a deep breath. “Thanks for reminding me of that, Gid.”
“I’m sorry, but isn’t it the truth?”
“Yes, I generally find myself to be beneath everyone on this planet. It’s something that I’m working through in therapy, and it’s definitely not something I need brought up in a conversation that is about how you can’t go up to a girl you like and ask her out.”
Gideon held up his hands from the sofa. “Sorry! I’m an asshole!”
“You’re not an asshole. You’re a coward, but you’re not an asshole.”
“Thanks Dexter,” Gideon said, sighing heavily. “Anyway, I know she’ll reject me. That’s why I won’t talk to her.”
“So if you aren’t even going to try to talk to her, why are we going to this diner then?”
“Because I’m not yet ready to give up on my dream of one day actually having the courage to ask her out,” Gideon said matter-of-factually. “Let me live in my fantasyland a little bit longer.”
“You’re selling yourself short.”
“I’m really not.”
“How many boyfriends has Mabel had since you began this infatuation with her?”
“Then you can’t possibly know if you are her type or not,” Dexter said, grabbing a couple of different books and putting them into his bag. “Go get your stuff ready. It’s nearly seven so we should head out.”
Gideon jumped up from the sofa and started walking towards his bedroom. “Give me a few minutes.”
Dexter closed his bag and took a deep breath, trying to calm his mind down. Yes, he was going to a place he’d never been before. Yes, there may be a lot of people in there that he’d never met before. But he didn’t have to have a conversation with any of them except maybe the waiter or waitress, and if he was really struggling, he could have Gideon do all the ordering for him.
It was going to be alright.
It was going to be alright.
It was going to b—who was he kidding? This was a panic attack waiting to happen.
Dexter reached into the only drawer in his makeshift desk and pulled out a bottle of medication, quickly taking a pill from it and tossing it in his mouth, following it with a long sip from a bottle of water that was on the desk. He forced himself to take deep breaths once he’d finished swallowing, and he put the water back down on the desk and the medication into the messenger bag just in time to hear Gideon emerge from his room.
Dexter picked up his messenger bag, slung it over his shoulder, and turned to face him, immediately groaning. “I said get your stuff ready, not dress like you’re going to church.”
Gideon looked down at his nice trousers, button-down shirt that was covered by a soft, dove egg colored sweater, and tie and shrugged. “So I want to look nice. So what?”
Dexter just started walking towards the door. “Gideon, I swear to God, sometimes I just do not understand you. This is one of those times.”
“You love me and you know it!” Gideon called out as Dexter walked out of the apartment. “One of these days you’ll appreciate my genius!”
“Just get your ass out of the apartment and into the elevator,” Dexter called back. “We’ve got to get across town to this diner!”
Florence Whitemore made her way into Penny’s Diner, heading straight to the counter where Harper was. “I hear you had a good day today.”
“Florence!” Harper beamed. “It was the first of one of our final tests. I had to do acrylic on another student’s nails, and they came out so well! My instructor was super happy with me, and so was the girl whose nails I did. It was like the best day of school ever.”
Florence smiled at her. “Well, I’m happy for you, dearie, but I think I can make your day a little better.”
Harper laughed. “I’m not sure that’s possible, but go on.”
“We had a bit of a shakeup at work today,” Florence said. “They aren’t advertising it right now, but Salon Maison is looking for a new trainee nail technician. I mentioned to the boss that I had a good friend just about to graduate from Style Eyes as a nail tech, and she has agreed to leave the position open until you graduate so that you can get a fair shot at it.”
Harper was staring at Florence in disbelief. “Are you saying you can get me a job at Salon Maison?”
“I’m saying I can possibly get you a job at Salon Maison.”
“Oh my God!” Harper was practically bouncing up and down with excitement.
“What’s all this fuss about?” Ruby asked as she approached. “Hey Florence.”
“Florence just said she might be able to get me a job at Salon Maison!” Harper was still bouncing. “Can you like even imagine, Ruby? Salon Maison is the best beauty shop in town.”
Ruby just smiled at her. “That’s great, Harper. Really great.”
“What is not so great is your Facebook status,” Florence said, looking at Ruby. “I see it’s back to single now. What happened?”
“Leonard is a cheating asshole, that’s what happened,” Ruby said. “Simple as that.”
“He cheated on you? With who?” Harper asked.
“With Eléonore de Foix,” Ruby said, shaking her head. “She’s that French girl who for some reason has come to the States to study at Pickering-Foster. They have a bunch of classes together since they’re in the degree path, and, as Leonard put it, one thing led to another. Whatever. I’m done with him.”
“I’m sorry, Ruby. I knew you really liked this one,” Florence said.
“It doesn’t matter if I liked him or not. It’s over.”
“You’ll find a good guy soon, Ruby. You’ll see.”
“I somehow doubt that, Florence.” Ruby looked up and saw a signal to her from one of her tables. “Excuse me.”
Florence turned back to Harper but the door to the diner opened and in walked Gideon and Dexter. They immediately were seated at the big round table in the back corner, and Florence excused herself from Harper and walked over.
“Never see you in here, Harrington. What’s up?”
Gideon looked over at Florence and sighed. “Of course you’re in here right now. Florence, Dexter. Dexter, this is Hugo’s sister Florence.”
“Ah, yes, I’ve heard of you,” Dexter said, nodding at her. “Nice to finally meet you.”
“Can’t say I’ve heard much about you,” Florence said, pulling out a chair and sitting down. “That doesn’t surprise me though. Hugo barely speaks to me most days.”
“Hugo’s met Dexter a lot.”
“Figures. Speaking of Hugo, have you see him today?”
Dexter started to get his school things out of his bag as Gideon and Florence talked about Hugo, but a waitress across the room caught his eye. Her deep black hair was up in a messy bun, a pair of black rimmed glasses were perched on her nose, and if Dexter was honest with himself, she was the prettiest woman he’d ever seen. He shook himself out of the thought before he let himself dwell in it for too long. Pretty girls like her did not like computer nerds like him.
Florence’s voice drifted back into Dexter’s train of thought. “So whatcha doing in Penny’s, boys? This is so not your regular hangout.”
Before either of them could answer her question, Dexter noticed the pretty waitress approaching the table with menus.
“Hiya fellas,” she said, and Dexter learned her name was Ruby as she was putting menus down in front of them. “Florence, you going to be joining them?”
“Please, Florence, join us,” Gideon said. “Dexter won’t mind, will you?”
“Not at all,” Dexter said.
Florence looked at them for a moment before nodding. “Sure. I was supposed to meet up with Hugo for dinner, but I suppose I can always just text him to come here.”
“Sounds like a plan to me then.”
“Alright then, I’ll be back once Hugo gets here,” Ruby said. “And tell him he still owes me that tip, Florence!”
“Will do!” Florence tucked her phone back in her purse and looked over at Gideon. “So seriously, what are you doing here? You stick close to campus.”
Gideon opened his mouth to answer but the words refused to come out because Mabel had just walked into the diner and all of Gideon’s attention had gone straight to her. Dexter fought off a laugh and reached a hand out to push Gideon’s mouth closed, while Florence was following Gideon’s eyes to where they were firmly planted on Mabel.
“Who’s the girl?”
“Mabel Aspinall,” Dexter said once it became apparent that Gideon wouldn’t answer Florence’s question himself. “Med student at Pickering-Foster. Gideon has had a massive crush on her for pretty much the last four years.”
“I’ve never heard about this,” Florence said, laughing. “Please, do fill in the details.”
Dexter smiled at her. “I’m not entirely certain when the first sighting of Mabel was, but early on in freshman year, he came back to the dorm completely covered in soda stains because he’d poured his drink down the front of him instead of down his throat. Ever since it’s been Mabel this, Mabel that. We’ve gone to so many places around town just so he can see Mabel. He’s never had the courage to talk to her, and when he sees her, he usually goes into a state like he’s in now.”
“So why won’t he talk to her?”
“He’s afraid she’ll reject him. Which she might do, but because he’ll never talk to her, he’ll never find out.”
Florence looked over at where Mabel was close to the table and waved at her. “Hello!”
Mabel looked over at her, slightly confused. “Hi.”
“My friends here are from Pickering-Foster, and they’ve guessed that you’re from there too, and were wondering if you’d like to join them for a study party. With food, of course.”
Gideon turned to Dexter with wide eyes. “What the hell is Florence doing?” he whispered.
“What you’re too chicken to do,” Dexter answered, turning towards Mabel. “You’re more than welcome to join us.”
Gideon grabbed onto Dexter’s elbow hard, but Dexter just shook him loose. Mabel thought about it for a moment before nodding. “Yeah, that sounds nice. Better than studying by myself.”
“That’s what we were thinking,” Dexter said as Mabel made her way to the table and sat down. “I’m Dexter.”
“Mabel,” she said as she sat down across from Gideon.
Gideon had practically melted into his chair by that point, just staring at her and not saying anything, so Dexter elbowed him sharply in the ribs. “Gideon,” he burst out. “I’m Gideon Harrington.”
Mabel just smiled at him. “And you are?”
“Oh, Florence Whitemore. Not a Pickering-Foster student, just a friend. It’s nice to meet you Mabel.”
Ruby walked back over to them and smiled. “Another one joining you?”
“Yes,” Mabel said, and Ruby set a menu in front of her.
“Anyone want anything before Hugo gets here?”
“A glass of water, if it’s not too much trouble,” Dexter said quickly, too quickly, afraid that someone would notice.
“One glass of water coming right up,” Ruby said as she walked away.
Dexter was relieved when no one commented on the speed of his voice, though a quick look at Gideon told him that Gideon knew. Of course Gideon knew. Over the course of the last four years, Gideon had learned practically everything about Dexter, but more importantly, he’d accepted everything about him too. For a person struggling with mental illness the way Dexter did, having a friendship like that was of more worth than all the money in the world.
Dexter let his gaze settle on Ruby once more, and he smiled, but the smile quickly faded.
Even if she was interested, which she probably wasn’t, he would find some way to screw it up because that’s just how his mind worked. It was going to take one hell of a person to be able to put up with his changing moods and mental states and he couldn’t expect that from anyone.
He’d resigned himself to being alone for the rest of his life, and he knew that wasn’t going to change just because he met a pretty waitress.