Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sing louder!

We were missionaries back when churches expected the whole family, or at least the kids, to sing. Some of my first memories are of standing with my whole family in front of an unfamiliar church, singing "My House is Full" as loud as I could.
That was Mom's main rule about singing--we were expected to sing loud. If you've ever heard any of us Burke kids sing, you know that we took that rule to heart.
I remember at one church, a man told me I'd done a really good job singing so nice and loud. He then gave me a handful of quarters. I was rich!
James was clearly the most talented singer in the family, but with him going off to college during our first furlough, Jody and I became the designated singers. Steph, the piano player, was put in charge of us--a position she both loved and hated, I think. 
We would spend what seemed like hours around the piano while she taught us new songs and worked on parts with us. Steph is truly a genius at teaching music to kids because somehow we learned songs and even different parts while we were doing our absolute best to drive her crazy--singing off key on purpose was one of Jody's favorite things to do.
Once Steph's job was done, we were sent to perform for Mom who almost always said, "Very good. Keep practicing. Sing louder."
Every time we were on furlough, we would sing in countless churches, big and small. Some of them had as few as ten people, others told us exactly where to stand to be in the right place for the camera to get us so we could be on TV. Sometimes we sang once, sometimes we sang every night of a missions conference, and sometimes, not very often, but sometimes we didn't sing at all.
As we got older, we were still required to practice with Steph and learn new songs, but our practice sessions started driving Mom crazy. We spent more time laughing than singing. Sometimes a random note would strike us as funny, and we wouldn't be able to get past it without cracking up. And it was really bad when we would be singing in church, get to that note, and see Mom in the congregation laughing while we had to hold it together and keep singing.
When Steph left for college, Jody took over as piano player. He also started writing all the songs we sang. I totally didn't appreciate the genius in our house when he was pounding the same thing on the piano over and over again while I was trying to watch TV.
We loved music by then, though, and when Steph came back home for a few years after college, we actually started practicing without being told to. We "formed a band" named Third Culture, and Jody wrote some awesome songs for us. Unfortunately a cool name and cool songs was about as far as we got.
I know when I was a kid, I hated it when Mom would make us practice singing. But now I appreciate it. She really helped instill a love of making music in all of us. Even now, every time we siblings get together, we have to sing.
And when we sing, we sing as loud as we can.

Check this out on Chirbit

Saturday, February 9, 2013


I wanted a jeep. And when I get my heart set on something, it's hard to change my mind. I had saved up about $1,000 though, and jeeps are generally quite a bit more expensive than $1,000. We had just gotten back to America from Singapore, and my parents were planning to buy a van from another missionary family that was going back to their field in a couple months. So the plan was to go ahead and buy my car for the whole family to use until Mom and Dad were able to get their van.
I was so excited! We went to the car lot owned by a friend, and there was a jeep. I knew that's what I wanted. Dad wouldn't even bother looking at it. The salesman showed us junky old people cars, and I felt on the verge of tears. Mom and Dad tried to talk me into this big, old, ugly white boat--"It's so comfortable!" "Think how many of your friends you can fit in it when you go off campus!" "Such a roomy trunk!"--but I just said, "I don't want it." 
"What do you want?" The salesman asked. I told him I wanted to look at the jeep. He looked skeptical, but led us over to it. It was exactly what I wanted....until I saw the price tag. $4,000. Slightly over my budget. I was crestfallen. Now I knew why Dad hadn't even wanted me to look at it.
"Well, if you're wanting a jeep style car, I might have something else you'd be interested in," the salesman said. He pointed towards the front of the lot, and there he was, the cutest, coolest car I'd ever seen. 
We walked over to examine the little blue Geo Tracker. Dad pointed out that it was a stick shift, but I didn't care. I loved it--its cute little steering wheel, its tiny but comfortable backseat, its cloth convertible top. We took it on a test drive (with Dad driving since I didn't have my license yet), and I knew. This was my car. But while considerably cheaper, it was still $2,000. Dad and the salesman discussed the price a bit, and they agreed on $1,600. My awesome dad was going to help me pay for it (although to this day he'll tell you I paid for it).
For the next couple of months, Blue32 (he still wasn't named at this point) was our family car. Dad would drive with Mom up front and my sister, brother, and me in the back. Poor little guy had a hard time carrying five people on steep mountain roads--we'd be going about 15 miles per hour up the hills. 
Once Mom and Dad got their van, my brother Jody took over driving my car. We did a lot of hopping and stalling as he got used to driving a stick shift. We both started working the early shift at Mcdonalds and would have to leave for work at 3:45 in the morning. We would drive to work half-asleep and listening to Yellow and I'm Like a Bird. 
The road we lived on at the time was a divided highway. There was a break in the median about twenty feet to the left of our driveway so when we need to go left, we'd just make sure no one was coming and drive the wrong way down the road for twenty feet to get to that break. On one of those early mornings, Jody forgot to turn into the break to get to the other side of the road and continued going the wrong way down the highway.
"Um," I said nervously. "You're on the wrong side of the road." (not that uncommon in our family since we go back and forth between countries that drive on different sides of the road)
"Oh," he said, and changed lanes.
"No, you need to be over there." I pointed across the median.
"Oh!" He suddenly realized and immediately pulled into the median, which at this point in the road sloped down to the middle at quite an angle. We sat there tilted to our right and started laughing.
We had some good times in Blue32 that summer. We'd grown up in a country where the vast majority of people didn't have cars and everyone used the public transportation. We'd always been free to come and go as we pleased, but this was a new kind of freedom. I felt like I was a true American teenager for the first time.
I got my drivers license at some point that summer and learned to drive a stick shift shortly before Jody and I went to college. We had a deal at college--I'd paid for the car, and he was supposed to pay for the gas. That didn't work out all the time. It was kind of hard coordinating who would get it when--we both wanted to take our friends out on Saturdays or on Friday nights. My very favorite outings, though, were when he and I went out together, just the two of us.
Blue32 got his name that first semester. I was kind of popular since I had a car--and a cool car at that. Everyone wanted to ride with me when I took the top off and drove to the beach. I took numerous trips to the beach, Sonic, Walmart, the mall, and Blue32 never once left us stranded. If he had any trouble, he always had it while I was still on campus.
My first year of grad school, when Mike and I were dating, we went out in Blue32 almost every day. 
I don't remember what was going on with Blue32, but for some reason, I had to stop driving him. He needed something fixed, but I can't remember what. He ended up sitting in the parking lot for months. And finally when Mike did drive him, we discovered his gas tank had rusted through.
Blue32 had always had trouble with rust--the mechanic said it was from driving on salted roads in the winter. He had a hole in the floor on the passenger side, and the unlucky person sitting there when it was raining would get soaked every time I drove through a puddle. But the gas tank was the worst place for him to be rusted through. There was nothing they could do to fix it.
Mike was working so I had to be there alone when the junkyard tow truck came to pick up Blue32. I managed to keep it together until the tow truck drove away. I cried for the rest of the day. And every time I walked past the empty parking space where Blue32 used to sit, the little alien head on his antenna, his cover never completely on properly in the back, I would want to start crying all over again.
All I have left now is a couple of 30-day license plates, a faded alien head, and an oldies mix tape. And memories of the best car ever.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ross and Ellie

Here's a little story I wrote in college. I'm trying to get back into writing, and I've been thinking about writing something about Zoe so I thought I should introduce her. :)

“Eleanor!” Susan Wilshire caught up with me as I headed out of biology. I resisted the urge to walk faster. Susan was one of those annoying girls who hung around me only on the off chance they might catch a glimpse of my buddy Ross.
“Hey Susan,” I greeted, none too enthusiastically. I was actually meeting Ross for lunch in about two minutes and I knew he’d kill if Susan tagged along. “What’s up?”
“Uh—I was just wondering if you caught what he said the homework was. I wasn’t paying attention.” Her eyes searched the halls while she spoke.
“Yeah, read chapter sixteen.” I hoped Ross hadn’t decided to pick me up like he sometimes did.
“Oh. Okay. Thanks.” She finally looked at me, her eyes clouded with disappointment.
“No problem. See ya’ ‘round.” I took off through the pre-lunch crowd as fast as I could.
A lot of girls envied me for being such good friends with Ross, but it wasn’t that great of a position. I mean, I adored Ross and all, but I still spent Saturday night dateless. I envied girls like Loria Elwood and Penny Wilson who both almost had boyfriends, but still got asked out by other guys all the time. They were never home on weekend nights.
“There you are, El,” Ross greeted.
“I had to lose someone. Sorry,” I said.
He grinned and draped his arm around my shoulder.
“You’re too good to me,” he said.
“You know it.”
I followed him through the lunch line admiring his broad shoulders and muscular arms. Ross was a senior like me, but he seemed older. He didn’t dress like the other guys for one thing—he was classy. It wasn’t unusual for him to wear a tie, while you would never catch any other guy in anything other than jeans. He had messy brown hair and striking blue eyes framed with wire-rimmed glasses. And he wasn’t only hot, he also had the personality to match his looks. He could make any girl swoon. Even Loria and Penny would dump all of their guys in a second for Ross. He rarely dated though, much to the girls’ disappointment and the guys’ relief.
“Ross! Ellie!” Camden Morris walked past, clapping both of us on the shoulders.
Due to his lack of dating and his witty personality, Ross was also very popular with the guys. And being his buddy automatically made me the buddy of every other guy in school. Major downside.
“Why the frown?” Ross asked as we sat down at our usual table.
“Oh, I dunno,” I didn’t really like to discuss girl stuff with Ross. He listened well, but…I dunno.
“C’mon, kiddo, confide in ol’ Ross. Maybe he can help.”
“Well, it’s just that—it seems like every guy considers me their buddy. Ya’ know? I’m ‘good old Ellie, the girl who’s a guy.’”
He paused a second before saying, “That’s not true.”
“C’mon Ross, you know it is or else you would have objected right away. And I’m fine with it—it just—I dunno—gets to me sometimes. I mean, I wouldn’t mind having a date every once in awhile.”
“We go to movies all the time.”
“Yeah.” I decided it was futile to try to explain my feelings—either I wasn’t conveying them properly or he just wasn’t understanding. “So, how was your morning?”
“Don’t change the subject, Ellie, I’m trying to understand.” His striking eyes studied my face seriously. He leaned towards me, his food forgotten for the moment.
“It’s really okay. I’ll get over it.”
“Well, fine.” He leaned back and took a big bite of his hot dog. “But I’m gonna think about it and figure something out.”
Uh-oh. What had I gotten myself into?

“Ellie!” My dad yelled. “Telephone! It’s Ross!”
His voice held only a slight hint of impatience. He sure had more patience than me. I threw my math homework on my bed and grabbed the phone off my desk.
“Whoa, this is not the chipper Eleanor we all know and love.”
“Yeah, she stopped answering the phone four phonecalls ago.”
“Well, I have something to tell you.”
“Like the other six times you had something to tell me?”
His deep chuckle made me smile.
“No, for real this time,” he said. Apparently Ross thought the fact that his mom cooked meatloaf for dinner for the third time that week was breaking news. And the fact that he was reading about gladiators for history and why couldn’t they just watch the movie? And various similar facts.
“Okay, let’s hear it.”
“I looked in the fridge and guess what it looks like we’re having for dinner tomorrow?”
“Ross Denarius!”
Laughter exploded over the phone.
“You’re lucky you’re so cute,” I told him.
“I know. But no, hey, I really do have something to tell you. I was thinking about what you said at lunch today.”
“I told you not to worry about it.”
“But I do, El, you know why?”
“’Cause I care about you and I want you to be happy.”
“Oh. Okay.”
“Yeah, anyway. So I was thinkin’ all the guys think of you as a buddy ‘cause you’re my buddy, right?”
“Uh-huh. I guess.”
“So what if you weren’t my buddy?”
“Ross! I don’t wanna stop hanging out with you!”
“No, no! That’s not what I mean at all. I mean, what if we started—well—dating, per say. Just as a show, of course, to let those morons see what they’re missing.”
“So you’re saying that if I start dating you, all the other guys are gonna fall in love with me?” I hated to admit it, but he had something there. Ross was definitely a trend-setter.
“Basically, yes.”
“Goodness, you’re conceited.”
“Well, ya’ know, when you’re me…”
“I know, I know, how can you help it?”
“Exactly. So, I’m here for you, babe. You wanna give it a whirl?”
“We’re not gonna let it make things weird between us, are we?”
“Of course not.”
“Okay, then, I’m game if you are.”
“All right. I will see you tomorrow, my love. Unless there’s something else I just have to share with you.”
“Ross, one more phonecall could ruin our friendship.”
“Ah, but now we’re dating. Who needs a friendship?”

I lay in bed awake until the wee hours of the morning fighting the urge to call Ross. What had I been thinking? Why had I agreed? The beauty of our relationship was that we never had to worry about falling in love with each other. I mean, I wouldn’t have minded really dating Ross if I had any chance at all, but I didn’t. And this whole thing was just going to mess with my head and my heart.
I’d call it off first thing in the morning, I decided. I cared too much about Ross. I couldn’t lose him for anything. Not even my dating life.

I dialed Ross’s number as I munched on a piece of French toast. I filled my cup with a third refill of coffee—lack of sleep had to be made up with an overload of caffeine.
“That’s it, Ellie,” Dad eyed me over the newspaper. “No more coffee today, got it?”
I grunted my reply around my mouthful of French toast.
“Hello?” Mrs. Denarius answered the phone.
I quickly gulped down my food and it became painfully lodged in my throat.
“Is Ross there?” I managed.
“Is it my true love?” I heard Ross’s voice in the background.
“Here he is, Ellie, but I warn you. He’s grouchy.”
“When is he ever not?”
Mrs. Denarius’s laugh faded as she handed the phone to Ross.
“Hey,” Ross greeted.
“I’ve been thinkin’—“
“Yeah? So have I.”
He had? Hm.
“About tonight,” He continued. “Since it’s Friday night I was thinkin’ we could do a movie. Is your dad gonna be home?”
“Uh. Yeah.”
“Aw bummer.”
“Shut up.”
I heard him laugh before continuing. “So there’s a new chick flick you wanted to see, right?”
“Oh yeah, the one you refused to go see with me?”
“I’ve repented, darling.”
“Hey, about this whole thing—“
“Don’t go there, Ellie, I’m not listening. I’ll see you in ten and you better be ready to be swept off your feet.”
I heard a click.
“Dumbhead,” I muttered.
“If you’re done flirting, you wanna go make sure your brother’s almost ready?” Dad asked.
“I wasn’t flirting,” I said, standing.
Dad rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Whatever.”

Ross waited at my locker when I arrived at school.
“You didn’t pick me up,” he said.
“You live two blocks from here. I assumed you would walk like you have for the past four years.” I leaned around him to twirl my combination lock. He’d apparently expected this because he leaned in too, until his face was inches from mine. His cinnamony breath felt warm on my face.
“Hey beautiful,” he said softly.
I just stared at him for a second before turning away. I couldn’t handle this. My reaction was not good. My heart raced and I clutched my lock to keep my hand from shaking.
He leaned in even closer and whispered in my ear.
“Stop worrying; it’ll work.”
Before I could protest, he was gone.
“Hey El’.”
I turned to see Carter Wallis standing at his locker. I attempted to calm myself. Although Carter was not near as cute as Ross, he wasn’t too bad looking. He kept his curly blond hair slightly long and it framed his face, giving him an angelic, yet rough, unkempt look. It may sound weird, but it was a good effect. Carter had possibly the best hair in school.
“Hullo Carter.”
“How’s it goin’?”
“Pretty good, and you?”
“Okay,” he grinned. “I’ll catch you later?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. I watched Carter walk down the hall, his hands stuffed into his pockets. I opened my locker door and stuck my head in. Was this really working? Was it worth it?

I had already planned to eat lunch with Zoe MacIntosh, thank goodness, so I didn’t have to worry about sharing an intimate meal with Ross. I wouldn’t call Zoe my best friend simply because of the connotations behind that phrase—connotations such as inseperability, keeping nothing from each other, always hanging out and the like. Zoe and I were good friends, but we didn’t hang out every day and I certainly didn’t tell her everything.
Despite the fact that Zoe’s name sounded like she belonged in a romance novel, she was rather plain. Plainer than me, really, which is pretty plain if you think about it for any amount of time. She always wore her shoulder-length brown hair straight and parted down the middle. You’d hardly ever find her wearing anything other than jeans and t-shirts—not interesting t-shirts either, just plain ones. Even so, she still had her share of dates. Unlike me.
“So,” She leaned conspiratorially over her plateful of spaghetti. “I heard some interesting gossip.”
“You did? Do share.” I was always one to be entertained by other people’s fictional escapades, and Zoe was always one to let me in on them.
“I heard that a certain Ross Denarius and a certain Eleanor Summers are taking that fateful step through the doorway from friends to lovers.”
Lovers? My mouth dropped open—I wouldn’t have noticed except I felt spaghetti sauce dribbling down my chin.
“It’s true?” Zoe squealed. “I knew it!”
“Well—it’s—uh” I tried to recover my senses as I wiped my chin off. How in the world had that gotten around so fast? Granted, Zoe was pretty high on the gossip chain, but still—all he’d done was say, “Hey beautiful.”
I felt my cheeks become warm at the thought of that moment. Stop! No more thinking about it!
“It’s not true?” Zoe asked, somewhat disappointed.
“Well, ya’ see—uh—I don’t know.” There, safe answer.
“You should know something, El’, at least you should suspect. C’mon, tell me!”
I sighed. Here went nuthin’. “It kinda looks like we’re headed to that end.”
“Oh!” She squealed again. “I knew it was going to happen. I knew you were the only girl in this whole school who would be able to snag the elusive Ross.”
This was news to me.
“Why would you think that?” I asked.
She shook her head, implying the stupidity of my question. “’Cause you belong together.”

West Winslow stood beside my locker as I approached it after my last class. He straightened up and smiled when he saw me coming. West was no Ross either, but he certainly made his share of hearts hammer. West had the best arms in Jackson High, and he always—like now—wore tight shirts to show them off.
“Hey Ellie,” he greeted. He stepped aside so I could open my locker.
“Hullo West.”
He cleared his throat. “I was just wondering if you’re doing anything tonight.”
I stared at him for a second before I realized he was waiting for me to answer.
“Uh—yeah. I’m going to a movie with Ross.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, how about tomorrow night?”
“What about tomorrow night?” I decided to test him.
“Maybe we could go get dinner?”
He passed.
“Sounds cool.”
Relief washed over his face. “Okay, cool. I’ll pick you up at six.”
He ran a hand through his spiky hair, grinned, and disappeared into the after-school crowd.
“What’s goin’ on?” Ross stepped between me and my locker. He was too close again. I had to take a step back to make my heart beat normally.
“I have a date,” I smiled up at him.
“Yeah, tonight. With me.” He eyed me suspiciously.
“I didn’t forget. I have another one tomorrow with West.”
He frowned.
“Stop that, ya’ big baby.” I slapped his arm.
His frown was replaced with a smile.
“Told ya’,” he said.
“Yeah, yeah.” I pushed him out of the way so I could get my books out of my locker.
“Hey,” he started to walk away. “Be ready at seven.”
“I will.”
He turned back to wink and blow me a kiss.

I heard Ross’s car at five til’ seven, but I decided to let him wait. I stayed on the couch and continued to read.
“Ross!” My eight-year-old brother Theodore shouted. I knew he’d thrown open the door before Ross had a chance to ring the bell.
“Hey kiddo.” I heard Ross say. “Your sister around?”
“No,” Theodore said. “She ran off so you’re stuck hanging out with me.”
“Theodore!” Dad’s voice came from the study. “Are you lying again?”
Theodore had a little trouble with lying—he wasn’t even allowed to do it humorously anymore.
I heard Ross’s chuckle and then the low rumble of his voice as he murmured something softly to Theodore.
“Ellie,” Theodore came into the living room. “Some hot guy is here and he wants to know if you’re ready to fall madly in love with him.”
I looked up from my book to give Theodore something to tell the “hot guy,” but Ross came in behind Theodore and my mouth stopped midway.
Ross wore black dress pants, shiny black shoes, and a white button-up shirt. The top few buttons of his shirt were unbuttoned and the sleeves were rolled up past his elbows.
He looked very good, but I felt sadly underdressed in jeans and a t-shirt.
“You didn’t tell me we were going to the five-star movie theatre,” I said.
He laughed. “We’re not. You’re fine. Let’s go.”
I set my book down and stood, running my fingers through my hair.
“Two-word sentences. Let’s see how long you can keep that up.”
“Stay here! Take me with you!” Theodore pleaded, clinging to Ross’s leg.
“Sorry bud,” Ross said, prying him off. “We can’t.”
“Don’t expect an explanation, kid, he won’t manage one.”
“I can,” Ross protested. “I’ll think.”
I grabbed his arm and dragged him outside.

Ross was smart picking a chick flick. I learned that the only time guys will go to a chick flick is when they’re interested in a girl. Since movies are about the only happening thing on Friday nights, the majority of Jackson High was in the theatre. And all of them stared as Ross and I headed into the “dating” movie.
We sat near the back, and Ross nonchalantly laid his arm across the back of my chair. I felt uncomfortable, not sure of how to sit. Ross put a hand on my shoulder and pulled me towards him.
“Relax, El,” he whispered in my ear. “I’m not gonna try anything.”
“Shut up,” I said.
He chuckled.
“Hey, I’m doing my best here and it doesn’t even seem like you’re trying to be interested,” he said.
I tilted my face up towards his and smiled.
“I’m playing hard to get.” And then I scooted away and settled down to enjoy the movie.
Ross left his arm around my shoulders, but didn’t try anything else. As a matter of fact, he actually seemed to be getting into the movie.
“You like this,” I leaned towards him.
He gave me his evil smile. “Nah, I’m just thinking about whether you’re gonna let me kiss you good night or not.”

Dad raised his eyebrows when I told him I was going out to dinner with West the next night.
“Who’s West?” He asked.
“A guy from school.”
“A good guy?”
“Ross approves.”
“Okay then. Don’t stay out too late.”
I was glad that Dad valued Ross’s opinion so highly—especially since I could make Ross say anything I wanted. All I had to do was pout.
West took me to dinner at the Propeller, the local aerodynamically themed diner which was the hangout. He was good company and we had fun, but how could I settle for a semi-amusing guy when I’d been spoiled by Ross for the past two years?
I started to ask myself why I was comparing West to Ross, but I stopped. I did not need to go there.
Dad gave me a skeptical look Sunday afternoon when I asked him if I could go skating with Holt Winston. At the mention of Ross’s approval, he consented.
Sunday night, however, when I asked if it would be okay if I went to the mall with Merrill Von Alston on Monday night, he said, “It’s a school night.”
“What am I gonna do if I stay here?” I asked.
He considered this. “Watch TV, read, mess on the computer and stay up past midnight. But still, it’s the principle of the thing.”
“Okay, but on one condition. You tell me what’s going on.”
“What do you mean?” I tried to look innocent.
“Ellie. Why are you going out with a different guy every day?”
“Not every day.”
“Okay, for the past three days.”
“Ross hardly counts.”
“I’m going out with them ‘cause they’re asking me.”
“Oh. Is that really a good reason?”
He had me there. Was that a good reason? Did I even want to go to the mall with Merrill? He had nice ears, but that’s about the only thing he had going for him.
I excused myself from the conversation with my dad to call Merrill. I told him I didn’t really feel like going to the mall.
“Think you can pencil me into your busy schedule for lunch?” Ross fell in step beside me on my way to class Monday morning.
“Busy schedule?”
“Yeah, every time I try to call you you’re not there.”
“What, did you have meatloaf again?”
He grinned. “Hey, you’re gonna lose this offer of lunch if you’re not careful.”
“Sorry, but I’ve already got plans.” We’d reached my class so we stopped walking and stood beside the open door.
“With whom?”
“Oh.” He looked at the floor and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I guess you’re not gonna have time for me now, huh?”
“Ross, stop that. You know I’ll dump Carter and eat with you if you want.”
He looked up. “Really?” To my surprise his blue eyes looked unsure.
“Yeah, do you want me to?” I did mean it. Ross meant more to me than anyone.
“Nah. How about tomorrow?”
“Uh—well—“ Actually I was supposed to be eating with Merrill—not that I wouldn’t mind getting out of that.
“Ellie!” He laughed.
“I mean, yeah. Tomorrow. Of course.”
“Good. See ya’ later.” He reached up and slid his fingers through my hair, then pulled me toward him and softly kissed my cheek. I closed my eyes and breathed in his cologne. He stayed close for a second longer, then pulled back and strode away.
I stared after him with an unidentified ache in my heart. Zoe’s words flitted through my muddled mind—we belonged together.
No! I chased the thought away. I couldn’t think about it—it was never going to happen. I went into class, sat down at my desk, and dropped my head into my hands.
Not thinking about it was going to be very hard.

Lunch with Carter, a movie with West, a basketball game with Aden, skating with Holt, letting Merrill down gently only to have him ask me out again, fitting Ross in wherever I could—my dateless life of a week before seemed like it had never existed. It wasn’t until Theodore tearfully inquired why I never hung out with him anymore that I decided I should probably slow down just a little.
I cancelled my plans for Saturday and spent the whole day with my brother. I realized that I’d missed him in the past week. The poor kid’d had to watch Dexter’s Laboratory alone.
After dinner, we chased Dad out of the den so we could watch The Emperor’s New Groove in peace. We were curled up on the couch, both of us half-asleep, when the doorbell rang.
Dad peeked into the den. “Don’t trouble yourselves, I’ll get it.”
“We figured,” I said.
A few seconds later Ross appeared in the doorway. He looked great—as usual—in jeans and a Superman t-shirt. I, on the other hand, was already in my pajamas—thank goodness they were cute, at least—soft, silky blue pants with stars all over them and a white tank-top with a single star on the front.
“Hey,” he said. “I never get to see you anymore.”
“I’ve been hearing that a lot lately,” I said.
“I’m guessing not from West or Carter.”
“Sh!” Theodore hissed. “This is the funny part.”
Ross stepped into the room so he could see the television.
“Mind if I join you?” He whispered.
Theodore shrugged so I said, “Go ahead.”
Ross plopped down beside me and put his feet on the coffee table. Theodore snuggled closer to me, and I wrapped my arm around him. He seemed so little in his Spiderman pajamas. I felt guilty for the past week. Had it been worth it?
“You look hot. I like these,” Ross whispered, tugging on my pants. “You should wear them to school.”
“Shut up,” I whispered back. He gave me his evil grin. And to my annoyance I felt my cheeks get warm.
By the time the movie ended, Theodore was completely out. I slid him onto the couch and got up to walk Ross to the door.
“Whatcha doin’ tomorrow afternoon?” He asked.
“Going skating with Holt again.”
“Oh,” he turned to go out the door but stopped. Before I knew what was happening, he was hugging me.
“I miss you, Ellie,” he said. Then he released me and went out the door.
I stood watching until his car disappeared down the street.
Oh, if only Ross could be mine! I couldn’t keep myself from thinking about it any longer. I knew then that I could never care for another guy like I cared for him, but I also knew it would never happen. I didn’t have a chance—he thought of me as his buddy. Why else would he be helping me get dates?
But I didn’t want any more dates.
I only wanted Ross.

On Monday morning Ross was waiting by my locker when I got there. He stepped towards me, slid his arm around my shoulders and leaned in to kiss my cheek. My heart pounded painfully and I found it hard to breathe.
“You look gorgeous today,” he said. “But I miss the pajamas.”
I raised my eyes to his face and opened my mouth to protest, but my words stopped before they reached my lips. His blue eyes were focused intently on me and I saw something in them, something I’d never seen before.
He smiled. “Eat lunch with me.”
I slipped out from under his arm and took a step back. “I—I can’t.” And I disappeared into the crowd as fast as I could. I couldn’t take this anymore. I couldn’t stand to hear Ross sound like he wanted me when I knew he really didn’t.
I was actually headed back out to my car so I could have a good cry in peace, but Holt fell into step beside me and insisted on walking me to my class. The one class I shared with Ross.
We usually spent the whole period sharing silent jokes and laughter, but today I completely avoided his eyes. I stared at my notebook or Mr. Johannesen the whole time. I actually got all of the notes.
As soon as the bell rang, I jumped out of my seat and took off out the door. I heard Ross calling, but I didn’t turn back. If I did, I would cry.
I made it all the way to the front door when Ms. Waters, the evil vice-principal, caught me and inquired where did I think I was going.
“Wasn’t that the last bell?” I asked weakly.
“No such luck, Eleanor. It was the second period bell. Get to class.”
At least Ross wasn’t in my next class. He was, however, waiting by the door.
“Now you’ve got to talk to me,” he said.
I breezed past him into class and asked Mrs. Killinger about her grandson—her favorite topic. She told me in detail about his first tooth until the bell rang. Ross stood by helplessly until Mrs. Killinger shooed him out.
After that class I was determined. I was getting out no matter what. Just let them try to suspend me. But fortunately, they didn’t have a chance to try. I got out to my car without being noticed. I couldn’t go home ‘cause Dad would be there. Without thinking, I drove to the park. I got out of my car and walked over to the Winston River.
I sat down under my favorite oak and cried, my sobs blending in with the rushing river.

Ross sat on my front steps with Theodore when I got home. I wanted to keep driving because I knew my eyes were red and I wasn’t ready to face him yet, but I gathered my courage and pulled into the driveway. I had to face him sometime—and I’d rather it was at home instead of in school.
“Ellie! There you are!” Theodore bounded over to greet me. I fell back onto my car when he slammed into me. He wrapped his arms around my waist and hugged me. I ruffled his hair and leaned down to pick him up. He was almost too big to be carried, but the thought of that made me sad. I’d carry him as long as I was able.
“El, are you okay?” Ross asked. He slowly came closer and tentatively reached to touch my arm.
I moved away, walking around him towards the house.
“I’m fine, thanks,” I said.
I would have continued on inside but his voice stopped me.
“Eleanor, talk to me. Please.”
I realized that as a decent person I had no choice but to talk to him. I stopped walking and let Theodore slide to the ground.
“Go on inside, kid,” I said. “Get your homework done and I’ll play Mario with you.”
Theodore paused, looking from me to Ross. He wore a look that said he knew he was missing something and he didn’t like it. But he was an amiable kid. He gave me one more hug and ran inside.
“Ellie, are you mad at me?”
I forced myself to turn around.
“You’ve been crying,” he came over and slid his finger down my cheek as if tracing the path of a former tear.
I looked down, pulling back from his touch.
“I want to help. I can’t stand to see you hurting.”
“I’ll be fine. I just need some time.” I stared at our feet; his were only inches away from mine. Today he wore his shiny black dress shoes. They made my sneakers look ratty. That’s how Ross made me feel all the time—he was so gorgeous and awesome and sophisticated, he made me feel plain and unkempt. I didn’t deserve him. Even his shoes proved it! I was lucky he cared about me as a friend.
I felt tears coming again, but I squeezed my eyes shut against them.
“Let’s just stop this whole pseudo-dating thing, okay?” I managed.
I felt him stiffen.
“Did one of those jerks hurt you?” His voice was tight.
I looked up at him. His mouth was a thin line and his eyes held fire.
“No, no one hurt me.”
He relaxed. The fire left his eyes, replaced by the fondness I was used to seeing in them. The fondness mingled with that something else I couldn’t identify.
“Well, okay. But I’m here whenever you need to talk about it. Call me, promise?”
I nodded. Before I could stop myself, I slipped my arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. He hugged me back just as tight, squeezing more tears out of me.
I pulled out of his arms and ran inside.

I was lying on my bed, trying to concentrate on a book I was reading when Dad stuck his head into my room. It was nearly eleven and Theodore had been tucked in ages ago. I was surprised Dad was still up.
“Telephone, El,” he said, holding out the cordless.
I sighed, and sat up to take it from him. It was awfully late for a phone call.
“How are you, Ellie?” Ross’s concerned voice came over the line.
I couldn’t help but smile.
“I thought you told me to call you,” I said.
“Yeah, but you didn’t. So I’m calling you. Are you okay? You sound better.”
“Yeah,” I lied. “I guess I was just a little overwhelmed.”
“Well, I wonder why. You only had a date every night.”
“And every other afternoon.”
“Yeah, that too.”
“Do I detect a bit of jealousy?” What was I thinking? I regretted the words as soon as I heard myself say them.
“Yeah,” he said. “And if anyone asks you to do anything tomorrow, tell them you can’t ‘cause you’re spending the whole day with me. Got it?”
I couldn’t answer. That was exactly what I didn’t need.
“Good night, Ellie. I’m here if you need me.”

I walked down the front steps of my house the next morning half asleep, my travel mug full of strong coffee in one hand. I turned towards the driveway and stopped, shocked awake.
Ross’s dad’s car was parked behind mine and Ross sat in the driver’s seat waiting. When he saw me, he jumped out.
“Good morning!” He came over, slipped my backpack off my shoulder, and put his arm around my waist to guide me to the passenger side where he opened the door for me. “I commandeered my dad’s car for the day,” he explained.
I slid into the seat, speechless. He closed the door, then ran around to his side and got in.
“Did you or your dad make that?” He nodded at my coffee.
“In that case—“ he reached for it and took a long swig. “You make the best coffee I’ve ever tasted.”
“Thanks,” I said. He handed my mug back. I accepted it and stared at him.
“What?” He laughed.
“What’s going on?”
He winked at me as he put the car in reverse. “Wait and see.”
It wasn’t too long before I realized he wasn’t driving towards school.
“Are you kidnapping me?” I asked. I had regained my senses, somewhat, and was now merely curious.
“Do you want to be kidnapped?”
Realizing I wasn’t going to get any straight answers out of him, I turned to stare out the window. Oh. I knew where we were going.
The park was empty—it was too late for joggers and too early for anyone else. Ross stuck my mug in the cup holder and ushered me out of the car. He took my hand and led me across the dewy grass to the river. He stopped under my favorite oak.
My heart pounded. What was he doing?
He dropped my hand and turned to face me.
“Know why I brought you here?” He asked.
“I have no clue.”
He smiled and his blue eyes held mine—again I saw that confusing something.
“Because I wanted to do something and I didn’t want anyone to see.”
He slid his hand under my hair and around the back of my neck.
This had to be a dream. It couldn’t really be happening.
He pulled me close, tilted his head down, and his lips met mine. The one thing I’d never let myself even imagine was actually happening. And it was better than I could ever have imagined. I put my arms around his neck and held him tightly. I knew no other guy would ever compare to him.
He ended the kiss and whispered huskily in my ear, “If you ever go out with another guy again I’m gonna go completely insane. I don’t like sharing you.”
He had absolutely nothing to worry about, but I couldn’t find my voice to assure him. I just smiled up at him and he understood.
He leaned down and rested his forehead against mine. His cinnamony breath was warm on my cheek.
“Hey beautiful,” he said. “Whatsay we go show those losers what it looks like when Ross and Ellie are really dating?”
My heart pounded in my chest and I found it hard to breathe. But that reaction was perfectly fine because I knew Ross Denarius meant every word.