Chapter One (Preview)
By Allen Steadham
Copyright (c) 2013 - 2016 Allen Steadham
The strands of morning light streaming through the window blinds warmed Leia Hamilton's face and brought slow realization that she had overslept her alarm clock. With that awareness, Leia's eyes instantly opened and darted from left to right as her mind raced with thoughts of how quickly she could get ready. She needed to get out the door, now! No, fifteen minutes ago! Was today the test? No, that's next week! "Professor Doom" is gonna kill me! She hates it when her students show up late! Should I ditch? Oh yeah, that'd go MUCH better for you, Leia! C'mon! Stop thinking and get moving!
Boy band and sci-fi movie posters decorated the off-white walls of her room and a ceiling fan was the centerpiece. Last night’s work clothes were at the foot of her bed next to the pile of clothes that had accumulated over the last week.
Leia forced herself to stand up and stretch. At nearly six feet tall, Leia always wondered if she'd actually touch the ceiling the next time she reached upwards like this. Looking at her arms, they retained some of their muscular appearance from running track and playing volleyball in high school but the "Freshman 15" (which in Leia's case had been the "Freshman 22") had softened them some. She had walked off about half of those but it seemed like the remaining 11 pounds were quite fond of her and had no desire to leave. It probably didn't help that she worked as a manager at Skippy's Pizza. When Leia thought about her bad sleep habits (from late night studying), short intervals between classes (thus long intervals between opportunities to eat) and the perk of free food from her job, Leia knew "the eleven" weren't going anywhere any time soon.
Focus, Leia! You can do this! Five minutes and you can be out of here!
Leia heard footsteps approaching her door.
"Leia, are you awake yet? Don't you have an early class today?" a female voice said through the door.
Leia sighed heavily and fought back the urge to say something sarcastic. Instead, she said "Yeah, I do, Mom."
Walking into the room smiling, Sue Hamilton radiated almost as much as the sunlight. Her wavy dark brown hair parted in the middle as it gently framed her face and flowed over her shoulders and down to the middle of her back.
When she was Leia's age -- twenty -- Sue had been a Latina model. Looking at her now, Leia didn't doubt that one bit, regardless of the weight Sue had gained since those days. She maintained a gorgeous complexion, had crystal blue eyes, high cheeks that curved gently down to her chin and an impressive hourglass figure. She didn’t wear makeup. Her natural beauty was more than sufficient.
Had she not abandoned the beginnings of fame and likely a lucrative career, Sue would probably be a household name as a supermodel. But Sue had instead chosen to love Leia's father, Steve, and to raise Leia, who wasn't even her biological daughter. That made her "Mom" as far as Leia was concerned.
She handed Leia a piping hot cup of strong coffee, which Leia immediately consumed.
"You're a lifesaver, Mom!"
"I know my daughter," Sue replied, still smiling. "Now get your butt showered, dressed and out the door!"
After something that barely qualified as a cleansing shower and towel drying, Leia tied her long raven-colored hair back in a single ponytail. Then she began a coffee-fueled disaster drill hunt through her walk-in closet for a happy medium between fashionable and comfortable clothing. Thirty seconds later, Leia had grabbed blue jeans, sandals and an indigo "Cool Blue Ice Choppers" concert t-shirt. Hopping on one foot as she pulled her other pants-leg on, she stepped into her sandals and grabbed a dark, thin vest to round out her appearance. Seconds later, she ran out of the house and towards her car.
Ten minutes later, she parked off campus and walked two blocks to the Frederick V. Jason Building, grateful that there was still something of a morning breeze. Handfuls of students were always walking to some corner of the campus or gathered in small groups to converse.
At one time, Digby College had been the main source of employment and activity for this California city. But in the last twenty years, it had grown into a thriving metropolitan center, its industries multiplying almost as fast as its population. A major award-winning motion picture had been filmed in Digby, bringing national and international attention. Everything else followed in short order.
The grass and bushes of the campus grounds were a healthy green and neatly cut as always. Birds made their nests in the trees as the squirrels rushed down their trunks and made mad-dashes across campus in search of food.
Leia took in the familiar scene as she quickly made her way to class.
Why am I doing this again? Oh yeah, I'm actually trying to get a Finance degree -- that is, if I can pass “Professor Doom's” Statistics 202!
Now sweating from her brisk walk in record-breaking near-ninety degree July heat, Leia dragged herself into an empty seat towards the back of the large lecture hall, which wasn’t well-lit or properly ventilated. The building itself must have been at least twenty-five to thirty years old. The acoustics carried well enough but also made it seem like all sound escaped from a human-sized tin can. Students were always tempted to sleep but their success often depended on the teacher.
Professor Angela Merrick (aka "Professor Doom") scowled and deliberately made direct eye contact with Leia but said nothing, continuing her lecture. The professor radiated confidence and something else, Leia wasn’t sure what. The professor’s long black hair was often worn in a bun like today but sometimes she wore it down. Leia believed the professor would be very beautiful if she didn’t always project a certain amount of tension. It had given her worry lines that made her look a few years older than she probably was.
At the same time, in such a large class, somehow Leia felt like Merrick’s expectations of her were very high. The professor's body language was one sign (she noticed every time Leia arrived or left), but "Doom" also graded Leia's assignments rather savagely. And yet, Merrick’s grading notations came across as even-handed, usually with meaningful recommendations for improvement. She wondered if the professor paid this much attention to all of her students?
Thirty minutes later, Leia had barely escaped "Doom's Statistics" when Josh Manning whirled her around and kissed her passionately in front of the other class escapees in the hallway. Josh was red-haired, even taller than Leia and lanky. He also had more than a bit of Southern charm to accompany his slight Alabama drawl. Suddenly, Josh pulled back, looking confused and concerned.
"Your skin is, like, really hot!" Josh said, putting his hand on her forehead. "You have a fever or something!"
"I'm...fine," Leia said, pulling back and looking peeved. "Now what the heck are you doing? You said you'd keep things mellow on-campus!"
"You looked like you needed cheering up-?" Josh said.
Leia facepalmed. She knew her boyfriend was smarter than this. That, coupled with the morning's frustration and the stress of Professor Doom's class, Leia's grabbed Josh's arms and her rage erupted.
"What is wrong with you?!" Leia screamed. "Save that stuff for when we're alone!"
"Oh yeah, that's subtle," Josh said. "Do you think anyone didn't hear you just now? All I did was kiss you!"
"SHUT UP!!!" Leia said.
As Leia said that, her eyes became a bright, transfixing glare. And the outer halo of the glow burned like the hottest flames. Combined with her angry expression, it was terrifying.
Josh stumbled backwards into a wall, shocked and afraid. He closed his eyes and shook his head a couple of times, as though not accepting what his eyes had seen.
"What's -- what is it? What's wrong?" Leia said.
"N-nothing! I must be seeing things," Josh said. "Um...for a second there, it looked like your eyes were glowing and...on fire."
"What?!" Leia said.
"I gotta, uh, go. I'll, um, I'll call you later. Maybe. I think!"
Leia watched in wonder as her boyfriend at first briskly walked then ran down the hallway past the other students who apparently hadn’t seen what he had. Josh almost collided with a couple of students on his way to the exit. He acted like he'd seen a monster! Leia couldn't understand it at all.
In all the years she’d known him, Josh had never reacted like this and certainly never looked at her with such fear. Still stunned and hurt, Leia walked out of the building, looking like a child who had lost their favorite toy. Slowly, she made her way out to one of the grass-covered hills nearby and sat down under the shade of a tree. Her thoughts took her back to the first time that she and Josh met.
"You're pretty tall for a girl!" Josh said.
With her arms at her sides and fists clenched, Leia turned around and faced him. She was angry to the point of near-tears. Her left cheek was red from a recent punch, her lip was split and some blood was sprinkled on her right cheek.
Josh was tall but not as tall as Leia. He had a mop of red hair, freckles and was thin and scrawny. He wore thick glasses, a loud yellow t-shirt and green shorts.
"Are you gonna mess with me, too??" Leia said.
They were nine years old at the time. She was standing next to the playground swings after school. He was next to the slide. The sun and clouds were overhead and there was no breeze on this late spring afternoon. A pair of female joggers were running through the neighborhood on the other side of the playground.
Leia’s muddied white t-shirt sleeve was stretched and torn and there was dirt all over her blue shorts. There were fresh scrapes on her legs and arms.
"You're hurt!" Josh said. "Are you okay?"
His concern was disarming. Still, Leia wasn't ready to completely drop her guard.
"You don't wanna fight?" she said.
"Why would I wanna fight you? I don't even know you," Josh said. "What happened?"
"All the boys want to fight me `cause I'm tall and I look strong," Leia said. "I like to play sports and I'm not all girly, so they treat me like a boy. And the girls won't help me `cause if they do, the boys'll mess with them, too."
Leia spat out a little blood. When she looked at him again, Josh could see spots of blood on her teeth.
"What's your name?" Leia said. "And...why are you being nice to me?"
"I'm Josh. And like I said, I don't know you. Why should I be mean to you?"
"Okay, thanks. I'm Leia."
"Where do you live, Leia? I'll walk you home, hold your books and stuff. And if more boys mess with you, I'll fight them for you."
Leia arched her left eyebrow and looked at Josh with incredulity.
"You can fight?" Leia said.
"Are you kidding? Everyone picks on me because I look scrawny," Josh said. "But it's easy to beat someone when they underestimate you."
Leia's respect for Josh increased. He wasn't just nice, he was smart, too.
As Josh walked over, picked up her books and put them back in her scuffed and dirty backpack, Leia finally relaxed and allowed herself a genuine smile.
"Lean on me, Leia, I'll carry your backpack."
"You sure?" Leia said.
"I'm stronger than I look," Josh said. "Just tell me where to take you."
With that, Leia put her left arm around Josh's neck and let him support her as they walked home through the neighborhood.
Seven years passed and the two continued to remain friends, entering middle then high school. Josh had grown to surpass Leia's height, tamed his hair into an actual style and began wearing contacts. Leia had developed a womanly figure and left behind her tomboy days. She had also gained some popularity from her participation in track and volleyball. Josh had joined the basketball team and developed into quite the student. He and Leia had a regular routine of studying together. In fact, they were near-inseparable.
So, Leia didn't know whether to be happy or furious as Josh kissed her in the semi-crowded Digby High library. Her first kiss.
Probably his, too.
It was awkward at first but not unpleasant, so Leia didn't pull away. A moment later, it was over and she regained her senses. Leia looked around. If anyone was amused or offended, they didn’t bother to show it. The other students continued about whatever they were doing, although Leia thought she saw one of the female librarians suppressing a smile as she checked in books at the counter.
"Wh-what -- why did you do that??" Leia said in a loud whisper.
"`Cause I like you," Josh said, not quite whispering. "You're my best friend, you're really pretty and I want you to be my girlfriend."
"Me...your girlfriend?" Leia whispered, shocked and impressed by his forthright manner.
"The way I see it, we're supposed to be together, Leia."
"Not following your math here, cowboy."
"Oh come on! We've been there for each other, every day, for how long?" Josh said. "Don't tell me the kiss didn't feel right to you."
Leia said nothing. She was embarrassed to admit he was right.
"You kissed me back," Josh whispered.
"When did I do that?!" Leia said, no longer whispering.
"Those first few seconds were all me. But you pulled me close and kept going."
Leia was stunned by his logic. He was right. She blushed. Then she looked down to try and hide it. And inwardly, she smiled.
"Fine," Leia said.
"What?" Josh said.
"I'll be your girlfriend."
Three more years passed. Josh was now living in an efficiency apartment near Digby College and working part-time at the local Burger Empire. Josh had decided to pursue an Advertising degree. By his junior year in high school, Josh had been designing ads for the school newspaper while taking a journalism class. His sometimes blunt social style translated well into his advertising style. He had a knack for making ads that people would talk about and remember, even if they were odd.
Leia looked at Josh sleeping next to her on the fold-out bed in his apartment and stroked his hair. The moonlight shone through the blinds revealing a surprisingly organized apartment. Josh had a few framed paintings and pictures on the walls, gifts from his mother. There was a medium-sized television on top of a wide wooden half-dresser. He kept all of his school materials to the left of the television on the dresser. The back half of the apartment contained the kitchen, dining area and bathroom. His “kitchen” was comprised of a small refrigerator and a microwave. It wasn’t much but it was his home away from home.
Leia had come by after finishing her shift at Skippy’s. It wasn’t unusual for Leia to go for a late night dinner or snack. But tonight, as on many occasions, Leia wanted to spend her time with Josh instead.
Leia smiled as she thought of how far their relationship had progressed in a decade's time. They were lovers now. No turning back. This was the man she'd given her heart to. He was the one who had protected and supported her. She knew he loved her with all his heart.
Sure, he had his faults. He could be loud and obnoxious, say the worst things at the worst times. He often didn't know when to quit. They could argue about almost anything. But he was sincere and honest, a good man, devoted to her happiness. Leia thought about her parents then.
When am I gonna tell them? What am I gonna tell them?! Call me crazy but I don’t think “Mom, Dad...Josh and I aren’t just boyfriend and girlfriend anymore” will go over so well. Would it help if I told them that he’s the man I want to spend my life with?
Now, in the present, Leia sat on the hill, her eyes looking blankly at the sky as her reverie ended. Leia had continued to avoid telling her parents how intimate her relationship with Josh had become, even though on some level, she knew her Mom was probably keenly aware of it. The late nights and other obvious signs? What was there to discuss? Leia and Josh had chosen this together.
Leia blinked back tears. She was assaulted once again by the mental image of Josh staring at her in abject horror and fear today.
How could this happen? How could the man I've given all of myself to look at me like that? Like a stranger!
It reminded her of the look one of her childhood bullies had given her after she'd broken his arm, a look of shock and disbelief.
Doesn't he know everything about me by now? Hasn't he accepted me unconditionally? Is he rejecting me now, after all we've been through?
Leia wiped the tears from her eyes and forced herself to stand up. She looked around at the numerous students sitting nearby or walking to class.
The worst thing any of you have to face is whatever class you have. I wish I could say the same. I wish Josh were here holding me...or even kissing me. Yeah, that would be nice.
Leia sighed and forced herself to start walking to her next class.
(End of Chapter One Preview)