”I have to admire the ease with which things just fall in your lap, Mike.” Paris sighed.
“What?” She shrugged as if she didn’t know exactly what he was talking about.
Paris looked at her sideways while he drove her to Horton Plaza. “We go for comics, and you land a part time job just like that…”
“He offered… That doesn’t mean I accepted it. Besides, I don’t think that my Mom and Dad will let me. I don’t have a car and it closes awfully late.”
“Oh come on… You’re sixteen years old. Look at me, I’m seventeen and my job lets me work with powertools…”
“You’re exaggerating, Paris. You’re closely supervised.” In the sunlight, her skin took on a fine sheen of sweat that glistened in the waning summer sun.
“That was before you went under, lady!” He waggled his finger at her in an exaggerated gesture. “I’m a site supervisor, now…”
She rested her elbow on the door. “I’d have to see that. I seem to recall how much you hated working for habitat when you first started.”
“Yeah, but that was before I discovered I was really good at it. I’m a one man hammer crew now!”
Mike looked back at Paris. In the months since the accident, she’d noticed that his forearms had developed quite a bit.
Maybe he’s not kidding.
She exhaled slowly, saying nothing in response.
Just what else have I missed in the time since then?
“Hey, come on… Snap out of it… We’re about to hit the mall…” He chided her.
“Oh… I’m sorry…” She answered looking down at her lap. “I just got a little lost looking at everything around here.”
She reached over and touched his arm. “I’m really happy… about everything. Thank you for taking me out like this.”
Paris smiled a true and genuine smile as always.
They parked on the lower parking deck. She went to open the door to get out. As she did so, Paris bounded around the car to catch the door as it was opening. He pulled it free and offered his hand. She looked up at him for a moment, not understanding why he would do such a thing.
“I’m a girl. I’m not cripple…” She grumbled.
Paris dropped to his knees, so that he was eye level with her. “You’re such an idiot sometimes, Mike.”
“I don’t get it.” She replied. “What?”
She swung her leg to get out, brushing against his knee. Before she could do anything he reached across , placing his hand on her other leg –holding it firmly in place.
“I forget sometimes that you don’t have any girls in your family besides your mom. Look down…”
She felt awkward with his hand where it was, but she did as he said and looked down at her now open legs.
“That’s right, Mike…” He instructed. “Your panties are gonna show every time you get out of a car like this. That’s why I opened the car door for you. You stand in front, not behind the door, and you offer your hand because it obscures the view to anyone else.”
He let go of her knee. Mike flushed with momentary embarrassment at her lapse in behavior.
He’s being polite.
She exhaled in defeat, and took his hand. “Just don’t make too big a deal out of it, ok? I don’t like being fawned over…”
Paris cocked a witty grin as he rose to his feet. “I’m sorry, Mike. The Sergeant Major is very big on manners. I guess you didn’t get to see it as a guy. Now you just have to live with it…”
“Really?” She laughed as she stepped around him. “I guess that means you’ll be picking up the check at the café –and carrying my bags –and opening all the doors for me?”
Paris nodded mutely, realizing the genie was now out of the bottle.
“Shall I just start calling you Toby now? Or would you rather have one of those exotic names like Ting Ting or Mr. Chow?”
“Real funny, Mike… Real funny…”
They walked up fourth street towards the side escalator across from Johnny M’s restaurant. Most of the lower floor shops were not really of interest to kids in their age group. Mike guessed the planners might have intended that to ease the burden on the elderly. As she stepped onto the escalator, Paris let her go first and then Immediately stood behind her on the moving step just beneath hers. She turned for a moment, intent upon saying something but then realized that anyone standing behind her as they went up the escalator would be treated to a view of her panties. Paris looked off the escalator down at the scene below –trying not to call attention to the action.
She brushed an errant lock from her face, hooking it over her ear. They took their time browsing the shops, and taking in the sights. She dragged him into the electronics store and then out to the cutlery shop to look at swords and into the book store. Paris, without fail opened doors for her and carried her purchases without complaint. He even reached for things she saw on higher shelves without having to be asked. It was awkward at first, but then as the excursion went on, she found herself feeling as though it was something she could definitely get used to.
They reached the café on level five just down from the theater. They sat at one of the tables out on the walkway so they could see the other patrons walking the deck on the other side. Mike plopped down in the chair while Paris set down their bags and went to order their meals. After sitting down, she realized she was a little more tired than she’d noticed while walking around.
I used to be able to walk this place all day. Is there something wrong with me?
She turned and watched Paris waiting patiently in line to reach the counter. Her friend was still her friend, but she wasn’t sure what to make of his new chivalrous behavior. She decided after a while that she understood why he did it. She realized after a moment that she’d been sitting cross legged, dangling her sandal while she watched him wistfully. Her thoughts were interrupted by an insistent greeting from behind her.
Mike turned, puzzled that she didn’t recognize the voice. She focused her gaze on a young man with strawberry blonde hair, wearing an oversized t-shirt and baggy shorts that seemed to belong to a much larger man. Behind him stood two other boys of similar height and dress. She didn’t bother to say anything, preferring to wait for him to announce his intentions.
“I saw you sittin’ there… I figured you could use some company…”
Oh God… I’m being hit on… By three- fifths of a boy band…
She did her best to smile graciously. “Thank you, but no. I’m here with someone…”
Mike looked back over her shoulder. Paris was at the counter now, occupied with ordering. She hoped the boy at the rail would be gone when she turned back around. He was not.
He waved his hands in an exaggerated fashion while he continued to press her for information. “Oh, is that your boyfriend?”
“I don’t think that’s any of your business. Could you please leave me alone?”
Undeterred, he went on to say. “Oh, it’s like that?”
“Why is the word “No” so hard to understand?” she raised her voice so that the other patrons could hear her side of the conversation. “I’m not interested in you –or your boy-band buddies… So would you please just leave me alone?”
Mike refused to back down, not wanting to wait for Paris to return. She could just see it now –Paris turning into full chivalry mode –defending her honor and making a complete shambles of the situation.
I am not missing out on my gyros plate because of these assholes…
“Hip hop doesn’t do it for me.” She did her best to show her growing disdain for the young man’s harassment. “Listen, I’m really enjoying your antics, but I’d really just like to enjoy my meal and my friend’s company. So I’m asking you please… Just count this one as a loss and leave me alone.”
She turned away from them intent on having no further contact. Paris had their tray in hand and was returning to their table, looking over her shoulder towards her newly established fan club. He set the tray down and took a seat opposite her. He looked over her shoulder at the boys as he handed her her plate and drink.
“Friends of yours?” He asked.
She sank in her chair slightly as her face flushed with embarrassment. “Are they still looking?”
He looked over her shoulder while he took a bite of his chicken plate. “Yup. Though now they’ve moved a little down the way towards the walkway. What the hell did you say to them?”
“I told him that I really wasn’t interested in the hip-hop-wannabe-boy-band crowd.” She went to take a bite of her own gyro, and put it down in exasperation. “They’re still hanging around, aren’t they? My God… Why can’t they just take a no and move on?”
Paris chuckled while he chewed, pausing to take a sip of his own drink. “Aww, come on. They’re just wearing you down….”
“Wearing me down?”
“Oh, that’s right… you never actually got to actually talking to girls outside of school. It’s a common tactic. You keep at it until she gives you her number or her email or her name out of exasperation. Kinda like you are right now…” He reached over and took the piece of gyro she was going to eat, and popped it into his mouth.
“It isn’t funny…” She said quietly. “They embarrassed me. Everyone was staring… It’s bad enough I have to deal with all of this –the emotions, the primping and being the size of a fourth grader; but it’s even worse having them treat me like I’m some kind of object.”
Paris stopped chuckling immediately. Mike looked as if she were on the verge of tears. He forgot just how new all of this was for her, and he wished almost immediately that he’d not been so flippant about it. He reached across the table and put his hand on hers.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t think about how hard something like this must be. I just kinda assumed that since it was you –that you were all right.”
She half exhaled, half laughed trying to let go of her irritation. “Stop apologizing… It isn’t your fault that I’m mad.”
He’s trying so hard…
She took his hand in hers, squeezing it firmly. After a minute or two, she felt calm enough for her appetite to return and she turned her attention back towards her plate. She took a fork in hand, opting not to use her hands like she had in the past.
Little bites… Little bites
Mike had to really work hard at her eating habits, consciously trying not to dig in despite the fact that she was now starving. She chewed her bites carefully, making sure to cover her mouth at the appropriate times during their conversation. At first doing this felt like she was merely imitating her mother’s mannerisms, but she was rapidly adjusting to it. She did notice that eating slowly and deliberately like this, she didn’t overeat like she was used to doing before the accident.
Paris ate heartily as they spoke, oblivious to her thoughts. She had drifted off during their conversation, dreamily looking in at him. The sound of his voice was deeper now, having safely crossed to the other side of puberty. She lingered over the sound of it, realizing it was soothing in its way. She was impressed by how he’d adjusted to things so easily while she was still wrestling with everything from what to wear to how to act at the table. He’d grown taller and leaner, too –she noticed that much. His collarbone was more pronounced now, and accented by the lines of his neck. Much of the baby fat in his face had disappeared with his last growth spurt and left a lean, angular face.
Oh my God! I’m checking him out…
Paris leaned forward, chuckling about something he’d said. She smiled and did her best to chuckle while, trying to push down all traces of her embarrassment.
“So are you gonna go for it?”
“Hmmmnn?” She replied absentmindedly.
“Kirk to Spock, Mike…” He poked her arm for emphasis. “I didn’t realize it but you were really spacing out there…”
“I’m sorry...” She nodded. She couldn’t look directly, so she tried looking across the walkway. “I really want the job, but I don’t know if they’re gonna let me. I like the idea of having my own money. I just don’t know how to convince them to say yes.”
Just over his shoulder, she noticed that her fan club had not dissipated, which made her a little nervous. She couldn’t see completely clearly, but it looked as if the group grew a few more members. She could tell that their attention was definitely still turned in her direction. Immediately, she turned her attention towards her surroundings, looking for a convenient security guard. The security station was a level down towards the restrooms.
“Is something wrong?” Paris asked.
“They’re still down there –the guys who were bothering me earlier.”
“Relax, Mike. We’re in a mall. What’s the worst that could happen before like twenty security guys are all over them?”
Paris’s easy demeanor did very little to ease her own growing uneasiness. She kicked her leg back and forth nervously under the table.
Why is this happening to me? You’d think God would lay off me for a little while after everything that’s happened…
“Look. If it makes you feel any better, why don’t we just get out of here? I mean we can always come back some other time. Plus the guitar store you want to hit is on back over by the airport –we can hit there and take a look at your next axe…”
His suggestion made sense, though she disliked the idea of being forced out of enjoying her time shopping. They put their tray away, and scooped up their belongings, heading back towards the stairs the way they came. As they walked on, she noticed the group had positioned themselves in front of the walkway to the stairwell, so that the two of them would have to walk through their group to get there. A pang of fear shot through her as her hands became clammier with each step forward. Paris seemed confident beside her which eased her mind a little but she was still worried. Without thinking, she took his hand in hers, interlocking their fingers before coming to a stop. Paris turned to look at her.
“Let’s go back the other way. We can always walk around them on the other side of the pavilion,” she said.
“But the car is towards the front this way… We shouldn’t have to walk around just because these guys are acting like assholes—“
“Please…” She said. “Let’s not do this… It’s just asking for trouble to go that way. We should at least make every effort to avoid them. Maybe we’ll bump into security.”
She could see that Paris wrestled with letting it go. She could tell that he didn’t want to back down, but she didn’t want to get into it. He turned back towards them, and she could feel the desire in him to force the confrontation. Paris was always even handed and cool, but he didn’t like to back down when he thought he was in the right. She had to do something to make him see the flaw in his thinking.
“You promised Mom to look out for me…” she said, lowering her head, keeping a steady grip on his hand. “You don’t do that by walking into a confrontation for no reason. I’m asking you… please… not to do this. Let’s just go the other way…”
Paris’s face softened as he listened to her speak. Apparently he was more afraid of her disappointment then he was of the confrontation that lay ahead of them. “Okay… I was just angry that you were so bothered by it.”
He followed her as she turned to walk back the other way towards one of the crossways. Now if they followed, she knew that there would truly be nothing else the two of them could do but to duck into one of the stores and ask for some assistance. They walked back past the café and down past the music shop before either of them noticed that they were still being hounded from a distance. Mike looked back and was seized by a light panic.
They’re not going to let it go. You should have just ignored them.
She quickened her pace and Paris easily matched her stride. They reached the end of the walkway before. She felt Paris growing more agitated with each passing step and she knew that she had to do something. She scanned the walkways in front of them, noticing that they were approaching the line for the theatre. She looked among the crowd and noticed a gathering of young sailors and marines grouped together, joking with one another in the line ahead. She walked towards them without delay, dragging Paris behind her. One of them noticed her approach and nudged some of the other members of their group.
“Excuse me… can you help us?” She asked in her nicest voice.
A tall, stoutly built, Hispanic marine among them straightened up immediately. She looked at the patch on his arm and recognized him as a corporal and perhaps the oldest of the group.
“Maam?” he asked.
She turned pointing to their pursuers who had skidded to a halt perhaps twenty feet behind them. “Those guys back there –they won’t leave us alone. They started bothering me at the café and now I think they want to beat up my boyfriend. We just want to leave. Can you help us?”
The young corporal turned to the rest of their group. The mixed group of sailors and marines all listened to her with alert interest, jumping at the opportunity to help someone. Paris looked down at her with mute amazement, realizing that Mike was a devious tactician. The young Marine tipped his hat to her. “Sure… Guys?”
The group of servicemen stepped directly into the walkway between the two of them and the lingering group of hip hop rejects. They all smiled knowingly at the prospect of a good fight for a good cause, and she could swear that she heard an almost jovial cracking of knuckles.
“You got a problem?” The young corporal asked.
The wannabe threw up both his hands, waving them off. “Nawww… No problem, man... We were just--”
“About to head in the other direction.” One of the sailors challenged while cracking his knuckles.
The hip hop group mumbled as they turned and skulked in the other direction. Pleased with their heroic accomplishments, the group of serviceman turned back to the both of them.
“You said you two were headed out of here? Would you like an escort to your car? You can’t be too careful with guys like those.”
Mike smiled warmly at them. “I don’t want to be any trouble…” she offered.
“It’s no problem, Maam. I’ve got a sister your age… Guys, I’ll be right back. Get my ticket, willya?” He handed one of his friends a bill for his ticket along with another sailor who did the same, and the two of them walked them both safely to the car.