I was a “walker.” I lived too close to school to take the bus. We lived in a nice enough neighborhood, near the edge of the city limits, less than a half mile from school. Most of the time, I liked being a walker. The pressure to rush for a bus and compete for the best seats wasn’t appealing. And since I was involved in a lot of school activities, I often didn’t get out in time to catch a bus, anyway, so living close enough to walk was convenient.
Except in midwinter. Like now. No snow, but a strong wind found its way down the neck of my partially zipped jacket. I was just a few blocks from home, but I set my bag on the ground and stopped long enough to zip and pull up my hood. I never wore a hat. Hats did terrible things to hair.
I saw the shadow as I reached to pick up my bag. My body tensed, and flashes of my self-defense course PowerPointed through my brain. My bag was loaded with books and pens, ready to be weaponized. I picked up my pace. My possible assailant mirrored the move. The shadow was gaining on me. I was surrounded by a city in transition. Most streets were crammed with houses. Some older blocks had been razed for new development. The side of the street I was on was dotted with vacant lots, awaiting an eager investor. Across the street was a convenience store I rarely went in, both because I had no need most days and because it was dark and crowded, with aisles close together. Still, it was a possible escape where I wouldn’t be alone. I remembered it was better to face the attacker than to be attacked from behind. If you couldn’t avoid a physical confrontation, aim for the parts of the body where you could do the most damage easily—eyes, nose, ears, neck, groin, knee, top of the feet. Avoid first. I stepped off the curb to cross the street. He followed. As I stepped up on the opposite curb, I gripped the handle of my bag and spun, swinging the bag as hard as I could.
“Hey!” Ethan shouted, his soccer reflexes kicking in as he deflected the bag with his elbow. “What are you doing?”
“I thought you were an assailant!” I scowled at him. “What were you thinking, following me and not telling me you were there?”
He looked a little sheepish. “I wanted to see how long it would take you to realize I was behind you.
“I knew someone was behind me. How was I supposed to know it was you? I don’t have eyes in the back of my head! What are you doing here, anyway? Do you live around here?”
Ethan shrugged. “I live that way.” He pointed east. “Just over the bus line, but I usually walk. I just took a little detour today when I came out of school and saw you walking.”
His turn to blush. But it only made his smile brighter. He had luscious lips.
“I wanted to spend more time with you.”
Valentine’s Day was over a week away. But in that moment, I felt like I understood why Cupid’s signature was his arrow, and it seemed he was on the prowl early. That was the only possible explanation for the sudden contraction and ache in the area of my heart. A wave of heat rushed through me. My hand had a mind of its own and reached out to touch his elbow.
“Did I hurt you?”
“Nah, I’m okay. Good thing I got my arm up.” He grinned. “That was a killer swing.”
I couldn’t pull my eyes from his face. How had I not noticed him before? Clearly, I’d been living in the bubble of my own comfortable group of friends and usual classmates. I sucked in a deep breath, feeling like I couldn’t get enough air. An unrecognized feeling swelled within me, an odd combination of awe and anxiety, excitement and exhilaration, heat and happiness. Was that …?
Ridiculous! I hardly knew him.
He raised his hand slowly. “May I?” he asked as his hand approached my cheek.
I nodded, my breath hitching at the warmth of his touch. And this time, I didn’t flinch. I leaned into his hand, closing my eyes, savoring the feeling that flowed through me.
“You feel it, too,” he half whispered.
I nodded, still not understanding what “it” was, but relieved that I wasn’t alone in the feeling.
“We don’t know anything about each other,” I said, still leaning into the warmth of his hand.
“We know our feelings. The rest can follow if we spend more time together.”
“But what if the feeling doesn’t last?” A parade of casual boyfriends marched through my mind, mocking me. Even as they marched, I knew this was different.
“There’s only one way to find out.” He kissed his fingertips and touched my forehead, sending a power surge straight through to my toes and back. “I have to go,” he continued. “I work for my dad a few evenings a week. I’m saving up for a car.” He sighed. “It’s so hard to leave you. What time do you get to school in the morning?”
“In time for the homeroom bell, but the building opens at 7:30.” Was he asking me to meet him?
“Would you come in that early?” His question so eager, so open.
I gulped a deep breath through my mouth, not quite a gasp, but close.
“Uh, sure.” Of course. Anything you want, you got it. I’m yours.
I was so screwed. I hated that. I also loved it. How could that be?
He smiled that deadly, beautiful, leg-melting smile that started this just a few hours ago.
“My locker, whenever you get there. I’ll be waiting.”
I would have been a prime victim for a predator as I walked the last few blocks home. I was on another planet. On cloud nine. In la-la land. How many other clichés applied?
I felt it in my gut—life as I’d known it was about to change. Dramatically.