Chapter 5- The Secret In the Stars
“…to have faith that there’s a purpose to the journey we’re on. And try to believe that maybe more light shines out of those who have the most cracks.”
-Mia Sheridan, “Archer’s Voice”
Gritting my teeth, I suppressed the growing irritation for the shitheads who’d ordered one too many shots. It was Saturday night, which meant plenty of Franklin upperclassmen found their way to Grimm to get smashed. A group of girls that had been creeping me out most of the night with their incessant staring and giggling waved me over.
“Can I have a martini with a lemon wedge, please?” the first girl asked with a flip of her hair. Resisting the urge to tell her the Four Seasons was in the other direction, I listened to the other orders.
“I’ll just have a regular beer.”
“Can I have a gin and tonic, please?”
It took me all of five minutes to mix the martini, but I had to go and hunt down a fucking lemon wedge. I popped the tab on the beer can and served the drinks. They seemed a bit too young to be drinking, but I trusted our bouncers to tell the difference between a fake ID and a real one. Doug would string up the loser who cost him his liquor license.
“Thanks,” Lemon Wedge simpered, winking. Maybe she was already drunk. I tried not to snort as I moved on.
It was a busy night at Grimm. The dance floor was teeming, and the music was deafening, a mix of techno and Top 40′s crap. It almost distracted me from the swirling thoughts in my head as I poured drinks and slid them across the bar.
Goddamn Sophia Michaels.
I hadn’t been able to get her out of my head since Friday. Talking to her had been amusing, as always, and she was even funnier outside the classroom. Although judging from her ticked expression every time I laughed, I got the feeling she wasn’t actually trying to be funny. Which of course only made me laugh harder.
And it’s like I wasn’t aware of her. I was a guy, and Sophia was a knock-out. The attraction always existed on the back-burner. But my awareness had sky-rocketed when she’d been straddling me on the floor of Pedro’s. Her face, flushed with victory as she held her phone in the air, firm legs pressed on either side of me, the soft curves of her chest and sides… It was a really good thing she hadn’t slid any lower, or she would have known exactly how much my body appreciated hers.
I shook the dangerous thoughts from my head and set my jaw. If there was one thing I’d never do again, it was give another person the power to screw me over. Relationships of any kind led to trouble. And I highly doubted Sophia was the kind of girl to engage in a one-night stand deal, especially since it would put an awkward pall on the rest of the semester.
“Hey, a paying customer is demanding service over here!”
I grinned and walked to the edge of the bar, where Jesse was perched on a stool. “The strip club is down the street, dude.”
He flipped me off and gestured behind him at the DJ and the trashed college students. “It’s like a massive orgy.”
I chuckled and checked to make sure all the patrons were covered before I answered. “Humanity at its finest. What’re you doing here?”
Jesse shrugged. “Can’t a guy come support his friend by buying a couple of beers?” His cheek twitched, a dead give-away that he was lying. There was also the little fact that Jesse rarely drank.
Pulling at the collar of my black uniform shirt, I attempted to keep the annoyance in my voice at a minimum.
“Who’re you kidding, man? You’re a total lush. If you’re worried I’ll be tempted or whatever, you can rest easy. I’m a big boy.”
Jesse’s eyes flickered to my leather wristbands quickly, and I tried not to groan. “No nefarious reason for being here, Lan. I’m no lush, and besides, I can’t even drink. I have a wristband and everything. I think that guy is trying to signal you.”
When I’d tended to the waiting customer and refilled a few drinks, I returned to where Jesse was sitting. His head was bent over his phone, a huge grin stretching his cheeks. Either he had developed an unnatural adoration for his technology, or the elation on his face was due to Raven.
“Still seeing the punk chick?” I asked, watching him snap from his reverie to glare.
“Her name is Raven, you ass.”
“Did you say Raving Lunatic? The music is really loud in here.”
Jesse gave me a flat look. Damn, rest in peace Jesse’s sense of humor. “She’s on her way here, so cut the bull.”
My stomach twisted, and I tried to feign indifference when I asked, “Is her roommate coming?”
Since my boss was bound to wander from his office and give me the stink-eye if I wasn’t interacting with customers, I mixed drinks and handed them off to Kylie and Brent as I waited for his answer.
Jesse’s expression said he wasn’t impressed with my nonchalance. “No, she’s got a late shift at the library. Something about a Riker letting her close.”
I squashed the disappointment that swelled in my chest. It didn’t matter, I reminded myself sternly. She was my ticket to getting out of Psych and nothing more. “I didn’t know she worked at the library.”
Jesse opened his mouth to answer, but it was a little hard when Raven popped up from behind him and stuck her tongue down his throat. I dry-heaved. Yuck.
“If you guys would stop giving my customers the amateur porn show, that’d be great.”
They broke apart, Jesse dazed and Raven scowling.
“I’d like a gin. Hold the bartender bitchiness.”
“Um, how old are you, little freshman?”
I could practically hear the steam whistling from her ears. She hooked her thumb into Jesse’s collar threateningly. “Give me the drink or I’ll really give you a show.”
Grudgingly impressed, I checked to make sure the coast was clear and slid her the drink.
I’d give Raven her due-she was quite a character. She had spunk, from the dyed blue streaks in her hair to the ‘My Eyes Aren’t Here’ script stretching the chest of her T-shirt. But judging from the puppy-dog look on Jesse’s face, I was starting to worry my naive friend was whipped. This girl would crush his heart under her studded combat boot.
I stared at her for a minute, conveying my warning with a slight curl of my lip. If she fucked with him-well, I wasn’t known for my forgiving qualities.
Raven returned my glare steadily, raising her eyebrows and slinging an arm around Jesse’s waist. Message received. Giving them their privacy, I moved feverishly to make sure everyone had a drink and that the DD had confiscated the keys from the drunken morons. Franklin was only a few blocks away, but some of these idiots thought it would be a good idea to show off their new Mercedes by driving here.
The tip jar was relatively full. When I bothered to be charming with the ladies and crack jokes with the guys, it filled much faster. At eleven, the other bartender, Dakota, came to finish the shift and close. Jesse and Raven had long since vanished, so I nodded to Kylie and Brent and left.
When the sounds of the bar faded into the background, my shoulders slumped with relief. Guess I still wasn’t too comfortable around drunks. At least this time around, I actually had control over the situation.
I was taking the long route so I wouldn’t have to deal with the weird Saturday night performances at the Sound. The close buildings cast a long shadow over the road, hiding any figures skulking in dark.
Too busy remembering similar horror movies to notice where I was going, I slammed right into someone. My arms shot out and grabbed slim elbows before the human attached to them pitched over.
“Sorry,” I said, starting to remove my hands when I recognized the large hazel eyes blinking at me. “Sophia?”
Seriously? Was this campus the size of a post-it note? “You have an uncanny ability to catch me off guard, Sinclair,” Sophia said, and I wasn’t sure if she was actually annoyed. But to my relief, her lips curved into a breathtaking smile.
“You’re the one who keeps throwing herself at me.” It hadn’t escaped my notice that I was still holding her and that she was standing very close. Too close, judging from my intensifying urge to crush her soft curves against me and see if her smile tasted as sweet as it looked.
“I do not throw myself at you! I work like five minutes away!” she huffed, indignant. At least she was too busy being annoyed to note my tightening grip on her arms.
I suppressed a laugh and placed my hand at the small of her back, leading her forward before our proximity pushed me into less than gentlemanly behavior.
“What the hell are you doing in a dark alley, anyway?” I demanded, finally remembering where we were. “Are you out of your mind? Don’t you know what kind of twisted sickos are out there?”
“I’m not a child. I can take care of myself. Riker showed me how to close the library, and it took a little longer than I thought it would. Normally I take the main road, but I don’t want to deal with the Sound,” Sophia snapped.
I held up my hands, placating. “My bad. But still, don’t come through here at night. It’s dark and fucking creepy.”
It seemed like she’d argue more, but she glanced around us and wrinkled her nose. “It is, isn’t it?” she giggled.
The sound did something unfamiliar, shooting warmth through my chest and tightening the muscles in my stomach. The urge to pull her close pushed harder, insistent.
Sophia ambled along the road, innocent of the havoc she was wreaking on my frail sanity. We weren’t walking in the direction of the girl’s dorm, which she thankfully hadn’t noticed yet. Although her complete lack of orientation was worrying.
“So, you’re a third year?” she inquired, blowing air into her hands. The cold was hitting hard.
If I wasn’t trying so hard not to be a complete tool, I’d warm you right up, cat girl. “Yep.”
“Why are you taking Psych, then? Most people in there are freshman.”
Seeing the Engineering building a few dozen feet ahead, I steered us to the right. “I’m a Biochemistry major. I hardly thought I’d need the class, but apparently I’m missing a few writing requirements.”
“Huh. Science. I would’ve pegged you for demonic studies. Hey, wait, where are we going?” Sophia started, seeming to finally realize we weren’t in the hub of campus.
“I want to show you the spot we’ll be meeting up at. You know, for Psych.”
Sophia bit the corner of her lip and shot me a puzzled glance. I tore my gaze from her mouth quickly. “We haven’t worked the days out, though.”
I shrugged. “Text me your schedule. We can see what time the both of us don’t have to work and figure something out.”
Sophia nodded, appearing lost in thought. We were getting further away from campus and people, but Sophia wasn’t paying any attention. I frowned. She’d better not be this blindly trusting with other students.
Why the hell does it matter what she does?
I pulled a black knit beanie from my back pocket and yanked it on top of my head. Sophia shivered, and I noticed she was only wearing a short-sleeved shirt with ‘Franklin Library’ on the right of her chest.
Shrugging out of the black coat I’d thrown on earlier, I held it out to her, not trusting myself enough to touch her. She blinked, seemingly taken aback. “Oh no, that’s okay.
I’m-I’m not cold, it’s just a little chilly, which is weird, right? I mean it’s still September, but I guess Maryland is always cold but um, yeah. All good in this hood.”
“Put it on, Sophia.”
Rolling her eyes at my commanding tone, she slipped her arms into the offered coat. It hung off her small body and she had to roll up the sleeves three times before she could even see her hands. “Thank you,” she mumbled.
I tilted my head in silent acknowledgment. We had to start walking on the grass in order to get to the spot, and a muddy patch on the ground caused Sophia to shriek and lurch towards the ground. I grabbed her hand and yanked her up. “You have some serious balancing issues.”
I winced slightly, hoping I hadn’t offended her, then promptly scowled. Dammit, there was that weird consideration again. Most days I made enough effort not to be a complete bastard, but to actually attempt to be friendly?
“Sorry, my ballerina balance is latent,” she snickered, and I glanced over to see her big hazel eyes twinkling with humor. My thoughts scrambled, and I looked away to recollect myself. I hadn’t dropped her hand. She would undoubtedly trip again. Might as well save both of us the effort of the ordeal.
Sophia chuckled nervously. “Um, Landon, quick psych question.”
I eyed her, ignoring the thrill racing through my body at the sound of my name falling from her bee stung lips. Get a hold of yourself. “Shoot.”
“You’re not an axe murderer, right?”
It took me a minute, and then I was laughing. The sound was alien, and my throat went into shock. Laughter didn’t come easily, but lately whenever it did, I was usually with this chick.
“No, I promise not to chop you up into itty bitty pieces and bury you in a shallow grave.”
We were almost to the site of our future meetings, the place I’d stumbled across by accident when I was jogging off Sophia’s effect on my body last night.
Sophia giggled again, and I cursed under my breath. The giggle should have chafed on my nerves as much as Lemon Wedge Girl’s did. But it didn’t.
It really, really didn’t.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, hoping she didn’t notice the strain in my voice.
“Nothing, it just reminded me of the Itsy Bitsy...oh my gosh.”
We’d arrived at our destination. We stood at the downward slope of a small grassy hill, with large pine trees lining the grass behind us, and a huge lagoon stretching about ten feet in front and five feet below us. The moonlight shone over the still surface of the lagoon, bathing the small hill and the surrounding grass in mesmerizing blue. It was as if a chip of the sky had fallen to the humble earth.
Sophia’s looked positively awestruck, and I felt another strange stirring in my chest. I’d been worried she wouldn’t like it, that she’d want to meet somewhere with WiFi and campus bustle.
“Landon,” she breathed. “It’s beautiful. How did you find this place?”
I tugged on my right wristband when I answered. “I found it while I was jogging.”
“Maybe there is something to be said for exercise after all.”
“You haven’t even seen the best part yet.” I sank on the cold grass and held a hand to Sophia. After a slight pause, she slid her hand in mine and lowered herself to the ground.
I laid down. The prickly stalks poked my exposed arms, and I hoped a bug didn’t crawl into my ear. When Sophia just stared at me in bewilderment, I tugged at her hand and pulled her down beside me.
“Look,” I said softly.
She turned her head in my direction. “At what?”
Reaching over, I grabbed her chin in my hand and lifted her face to the sky. I saw the moment it registered what she was seeing. Her expression went slack and her mouth fell open. Seeing the delight spread across her face was worth the trek after work and the pneumonia I was likely contracting.
I trained my gaze upwards, and let the beauty of the night sky wash away my agitation. The sky was filled with stars. They twinkled merrily, shining brightly against the inky sky. Sophia stretched her hand up, as if she could cup one of the sparkling diamonds in her palm.
“All those stars...” she whispered reverently. “I’ve never seen so many stars in my life.”
“You’ve never seen this many stars? Ever?”
“There are a lot of city light where I’m from. If you squinted, you could pretend the buildings were actually stars.”
I couldn’t imagine not having the stars to turn to. They were witnesses to the cluster-fuck of my life. Every pain, every loss, every mistake was written up there. The life
I’d etched in the stars was like a spool of thread I’d untangled from, and sometimes I wondered if it wasn’t just gravity keeping them from reeling me in.
Gritting my teeth, I banished the memories from my head and returned my attention to Sophia. “Where are you from?” I asked abruptly, needing a distraction.
She smiled wistfully. “I’ve lived in California my entire life.”
“That’s one hell of a move. Why’d you come all the way out here? Couldn’t resist Franklin’s spirited Howling Hornet?”
Sophia shut down. It was easy to spot, seeing as I’d done it plenty of times myself. The process was actually rather fascinating to watch. The openness in her face shuttered, like curtains being drawn over a sunny morning, and her muscles tensed. “There were just some things I needed to get away from.”
From the finality of her tone, I figured there’d be no more questions on that subject. I laid down beside her again and regarded the constellations. Questions swirled in my mind, but I knew better than to push. It was safer, letting the stars be the only witnesses to our secrets.
Maybe Sophia wasn’t so different after all. It could be I wasn’t the only one who felt like a mosaic of shattered pieces, held together by weak glue and a wish. What if the reason I couldn’t seem to resist this girl was because I saw past the beautiful masterpiece she’d built to the fragile shards of glass she’d used to put it together?
Either way, two broken pieces didn’t make a whole.