Their official first date happens after Val and Earl finally move to Bixby. They get settled in a little house not too far from the university, and Rhonda stops by on moving day with pizza and beers. Not that they’ve got all that much stuff to move in, but they appreciate the thought, anyway.
It’s the first time they’ve seen each other since Val kissed her, and he can tell Rhonda’s nervous by the way she keeps blushing and casting sidelong glances at him whenever she thinks he’s not looking. He’s nervous too, but mostly because now that they’re in Bixby, he keeps expecting Rhonda to remember that she’s too good for him.
So he’s surprised when their front door opens and he hears her voice calling from the doorway, one shoulder propping the door open until Val hurries over to take the beer out of her hands. He thinks about leaning in for a kiss, but before he makes up his mind Earl walks up behind him and the moment’s over.
So they sit on the floor of their new living room eating pizza and drinking beers – they both insist Rhonda take the only chair in the place, which happens to be Earl’s old recliner – and listen while Rhonda tells them all about her research.
“Of course I’ll have to go back out in the field for awhile,” she says, that sparkle in her eyes that she always gets when she’s talking about science stuff. “Most of the data I’ve gathered so far was of the graboids’ movements, so I’ll need to gather control samples for comparison, now that they’re all gone.”
“We sure about that?” Earl says, raising an eyebrow when they both look at him. “It’s not like we knew they were there in the first place, right? Who says there aren’t more lurking around somewhere?”
“Well, that’s what my readings will tell us,” Rhonda answers, shaking off the momentary flash of panic and smiling again. “Only this time I’ll know what we’re dealing with, so I’ll be better prepared if I do get any unusually high readings.”
“You’re not going back out there by yourself, are you?” Val asks, pushing up off his elbows to look at her.
“Yeah, maybe you should take Val here along with you,” Earl says, grinning when Rhonda blushes again. “He’s an expert graboid hunter now, right?”
“I won’t be alone,” Rhonda answers, still blushing. “My doctoral supervisor’s really excited about these findings, so I’ve got a whole team and better equipment. It’ll be fine.”
When Earl opens his mouth again Val kicks him in the shin before he can say anything else that’s going to embarrass either of them. Earl frowns, but he shuts his trap, and they spend the rest of the afternoon talking about Rhonda’s school and the offers Val and Earl have gotten so far from the press.
Val walks Rhonda to the door as the sun’s setting over the hills, and when they reach the front porch where Earl can’t overhear, he shoves his hands in the pockets of his jeans and doesn’t quite look at her.
“Seriously, though, you sure it’s safe, going back there?”
“I hope so,” Rhonda answers. “People are still living in the valley, after all. There’s Burt and Heather and Mindy and Nancy, and everyone else. If there was any danger, they wouldn’t be allowed to stay, I don’t think.”
“I’d love to see some government suit telling Burt he has to clear out.”
Rhonda grins at him again, and Val has the urge to kiss her for the second time. By the way she’s looking at him he’s not even sure she’d mind, but for some reason he can’t seem to move from the spot where he’s standing.
“Listen, do you…I mean, before you head back out to Perfection, do you want to go out sometime?”
“Like on a date?” Rhonda asks, and even in the dying light Val can tell she’s blushing again.
“Yeah. If you’re busy with your research and all I understand...”
“No,” Rhonda interrupts, “I mean I’m not too busy. I’d love to go out with you.”
“Great,” Val says, and he’s so relieved that he forgets to be nervous when she leans in and kisses him. Instead he slides an arm around her to kiss her back, and when they break apart they’re both a little breathless.
“Great,” Rhonda repeats in a murmur.
“So I’ll call you,” Val says as she pulls away.
She takes a few steps backwards, still smiling at him, then she stumbles a little and Val has to work hard not to laugh. After that she turns around, stopping when she gets to her truck just long enough to wave goodnight.
Val waits until her headlights disappear around the corner at the end of the block, then he heads back into the house. Not even Earl’s commentary wipes the grin off his face for the rest of the night.
They go out a week later for burgers and then to wander around some museum Rhonda suggests. Val assumes he’s going to be bored out of his mind, but it turns out to be pretty interesting. Rhonda shows him exhibits about the desert, about how the topography is pretty much perfect for graboids and how her department is thinking they survived when everything else from its time period is long gone.
“And this is where they’re starting to build the Perfection display,” Rhonda says, stopping in front of a section of drywall with the words ‘Coming Soon’ printed on it. “It’s really exciting; they’re going to display my findings on the area and we’re hoping to get some actual graboid artifacts to display...and I’m totally boring you, aren’t I?”
“No,” Val says, and even he’s surprised that he means it. “I mean, I don’t understand a lot of this stuff, but it’s kind of cool to be a part of history, you know?”
“Exactly,” she answers, smiling at him like he’s some kind of genius. And he’s definitely not that, but Val smiles back at her anyway, then he leans in and presses a quick kiss to her lips.
She’s blushing a little when he pulls away, but she’s still smiling, so he figures she doesn’t mind him kissing her in public where one of her coworkers might walk by.
“So when are you headed back to Perfection?”
“Next week,” Rhonda answers. “I shouldn’t be gone too long, not with a team to help with measurements. There’s a lot to do here, after all, and technically I’m the resident expert.”
She sounds kind of embarrassed to say it out loud, but Val can’t see why. If anybody’s an expert on graboids, it’s them, and Rhonda understands them better than anybody else who was there when they showed up.
“Yeah, well, just don’t take too long,” Val says, and when she smiles and reaches out to grab his hand, he knows she understands what he’s saying.
The next time they see each other is sort of an accident. Rhonda’s been in Perfection for a couple weeks when Val and Earl get the call from People requesting an interview. Turns out they want to meet in Perfection so they can take pictures ‘on location’, which means Val and Earl find themselves back in the valley nearly three weeks to the day from when Rhonda left Bixby.
She’s called a couple times, mostly to rattle off a bunch of science talk he doesn’t really get, but it’s still nice to hear her voice – not that there’s any way in hell he’d ever say that out loud, especially within earshot of Earl – and to know that she hasn’t forgotten him.
He doesn’t get a chance to call and tell her they’re headed back to Perfection too, though, mainly because the only phone in Perfection is still the one in Walter’s store. It was closed for a while after Walter died, and they all figured it would stay that way, but a couple weeks after Val and Earl left Walter’s niece moved to town and opened back up again.
So there’s still a store in Perfection to cater to the tourists who keep showing up looking for graboids, and that’s where the folks from the magazine arrange to meet him and Earl on the morning of their interview.
The interviewer is a smiling, perky blonde with a decent rack. She’s exactly Val’s type, or at least she was until he met Rhonda. That’s how he knows he’s in trouble, because when she flirts with him, he’s not even tempted to flirt back. It’s the first time he can remember that happening, and he’s not sure what to do about it.
“What?” Val asks when he hears Earl chuckle.
“Nothing,” Earl answers, but he’s grinning in that way of his, and Val can tell what he’s thinking. It makes him want to smack the smug look off Earl’s face, but he has a feeling starting a fist fight right now would jeopardize their chances of being on the cover of People.
So instead Val tucks in his shirt and lets the makeup people fuss over him, then he runs his hands through his hair to undo whatever damage the hair people did. He and Earl have been posing for what feels like hours when a truck pulls up in front of the store, and Val’s heart speeds up a little as Rhonda climbs out. She’s wearing that dumb hat of hers, but somehow even with that thing on she’s still the prettiest woman he’s ever seen.
“Rhonda!” he calls, waving her over to the photo shoot.
When she catches sight of him she breaks into a wide grin, happiness and surprise on her face as she hurries over. “I didn’t know you were coming into the valley.”
“Yeah, we’re here to do that interview with People,” Val says, nodding toward the interviewer. “This here’s Rhonda Lebeck. She’s the one who figured out about the graboids and all. She’s out here doing more field research.”
He doesn’t try to check the pride in his voice, and when Rhonda grabs his arm and squeezes, he knows she doesn’t miss it either. Neither does the interviewer; she looks between the two of them for a second, then she smiles at Rhonda.
“Miss Lebeck...or is it Doctor?”
“Not yet,” Rhonda says, grinning and holding out her hand. “Just call me Rhonda.”
“Rhonda, we’d love to get a few words for our article, if you have a minute.”
Rhonda glances at Val, but he just shrugs, so she turns back to the interviewer. “Sure, why not?”
He watches the interviewer lead Rhonda away toward the store, and he’s still so caught up in the surprise of running into her that he forgets for a minute that Earl’s standing next to him.
“You are so whipped,” Earl says near his ear, and Val starts and turns to scowl at him.
“Says you,” Val answers, but the truth is that for once he doesn’t really mind. He likes Rhonda a lot, and if Earl wants to think he’s whipped just because he can appreciate a smart woman, that’s his problem.
“Don’t get me wrong, she’s a good woman. I’m just not sure what she’s doing messing around with the likes of you.”
Val rolls his eyes, but he doesn’t dignify the jibe with an answer. Instead he leans against the porch railing outside the store and waits for Rhonda to reappear, and when she does he straightens up to meet her halfway.
“How’d it go?”
“Fine, I guess,” Rhonda answers. “Mostly she wanted to know about you.”
“Well, you and Earl, really,” Rhonda says. “She asked how long I’ve known you, if we’ve kept in touch, what happened when the graboids were chasing us, that sort of thing. She’s in there talking to Nancy now. They probably just want some quotes about the local heroes from people who know them.”
“Heroes,” Val scoffs, but he feels the tips of his ears heat up. “So what brings you into town, anyway?”
“Oh, uh...I’m on a supply run. We’ve got generators out at the site so we can keep a few days’ worth of food and cook our own meals, but somebody has to come into town to replenish every so often, and it’s my turn.”
“All that makes it sound like you’re planning to be here a while,” Val says, and he’s glad they finally got out of Perfection, but if he’d known Rhonda was planning to move here, he might have stuck around.
“Not necessarily. There’s still data to gather and I’ll have to come back to do more readings, I’m sure, but we’ve already got a good baseline and...” She pauses, her expression faltering when she sees his face. “I have to go back to the university week after next to present some findings. I’ll be in town a couple days.”
“Oh,” Val says, shifting his weight and glancing over his shoulder to make sure Earl’s not listening. “Any chance you’ll have some free time?”
“Definitely.” She smiles at him, bright and happy like the first time they met, back when he was still too dumb to appreciate just how amazing her smile was. But he knows better now, and he hopes he gets to see that smile a whole lot more.
“Good,” Val says, and he’s pretty sure he’s nodding like a moron, but he can’t make himself stop. “Good. So I’ll call you. Or...I guess you should call me, since you’re out in the desert and you probably don’t have a phone and all.”
“Right. I’ll call when I get back to Bixby.”
He’s not sure how long they stand there grinning at each other, but when he hears Mindy calling his name, he’s almost grateful for the chance to catch his breath.
Val’s still waiting for Rhonda to come back to town when they get a call from some video game company. At first he thinks it’s a joke, because come on, who’s going to make a video game about them? But it turns out they’re serious, and what’s more, they’re willing to pay.
They’ve been paying the bills doing odd jobs for a long time now, and there are a lot more jobs in Bixby than there ever were in Perfection. So they don’t need the money, strictly speaking, but it sure as hell won’t hurt. And all they have to do is let some computer nerd make little cartoon versions of them for the little cartoon graboids to chase.
“Hell of a thing to pay a body ten grand for,” Earl says, staring down at the check in his hand.
“Hey, don’t go looking gift horses in the mouth,” Val answers. “If they want to throw away their money, that’s their business.”
“True. Hey, maybe they’ll give us one of the games. We could put it in the living room.”
“Why in the hell would we want an arcade game in the living room?”
“It’d make a good conversation piece,” Earl says, scowling when Val laughs. “Hey, people are interested in what we did. If they weren’t, do you think People magazine would have put us on the cover?”
“Fine, if they give us a game, you can keep it in your room.”
“What’s the matter, worried that your girlfriend won’t approve of the decor?” Earl asks, chuckling when Val frowns at him. “Good grief, you are. You’ve got it worse than I thought.”
“I do not,” Val grumbles, but he doesn’t sound convincing even to himself, so he’s not surprised when Earl laughs. “So what are you thinking of doing with your share, anyway? Gonna buy all the beef jerky you can eat?”
This time it’s Val who laughs, but instead of scowling Earl just raises an eyebrow at him. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.”
“Oh, yeah?” says Val, and now he’s kind of nervous, because it’s not often Earl sounds so serious.
“Yeah, I mean, with Nestor’s place going up for sale, I’ve been thinking that it might be nice to get back into ranching.”
“So...what? You’re gonna raise cattle? Give Miguel a run for his money?”
“Actually I was thinking of something more exotic,” Earl says, not quite looking at Val. “Ostriches, if you really want to know.”
“Yeah,” Earl says, defensive, and it’s all Val can do not to laugh. “There’s a big market for exotic meats that days. People use the eggs, too. I’ve gotta do something, right? It’s not like I can count on you to stick around.”
“Where am I going?” Val asks, though he has a feeling he already knows what Earl’s going to say.
“Come on, Val, don’t try to tell me you’re not already thinking about what to spend that money on. Made of metal, about this big?” Earl holds up his fingers to form a little circle, and Val rolls his eyes.
“Are you kidding me? We’ve only been on one real date.”
“What’s that got to do with anything? When you know, you know,” Earl says, like he knows anything about it. Val opens his mouth to say so, but before he gets the chance, Earl’s talking again. “Listen, I’m not holding it against you. Rhonda’s a good woman, and you’d be dumber than you look to let her get away.”
“Still,” Val says, though now that the idea’s out there, he can’t deny he’s thought about it. “What makes you think she’d have me?”
Earl lets out a breath that lets Val know how disgusted he is. “You really are dumber than you look.”
Val doesn’t answer, mostly because he doesn’t want to believe Earl could be right. But it’s a mighty nice thought, and now that someone’s said it out loud, he knows he’s going to have a hell of a time forgetting it.
Rhonda calls a couple days later, just like she said she would, only she’s not calling from Bixby. “I’m so sorry, Val, it’s just that there’s been so much going on here, and I haven’t been able to get away.”
"Oh," Val says, disappointed, but he catches himself before Rhonda hears. "Well, that's all right. Hell, we might just come see you again. Nestor's old place is on the market now that Melvin's gone to live with his aunt in Vegas, and Earl wants to take a look."
"What does Earl want with Nestor's old place?"
"It's a long story," Val answers. “Tell you what, I’ll fill you in next time I see you.”
“When...um...when do you think that might be?” she says, nervous, and Val’s surprised at how relieved he is that she’s as anxious to see him as he is to see her.
For the first time he’s glad she can’t see him, because he’s grinning like an idiot and he can’t seem to make himself stop. “There’s not a whole heck of a lot going on around here this week. You gonna be around if we stop in tomorrow?”
“I’ll be here,” Rhonda says, and he can’t prove it, but he swears he hears her grinning too.
When he mentions to Earl later that it might be a good idea to drive out to the valley and take a look at Nestor’s place, Earl doesn’t call him out on the real reason he wants to go back to Perfection. They both know he knows, but Val’s grateful he’s decided not to rub it in for once.
He drums his fingers against the steering wheel all the way to Nestor’s place, fidgeting in the driver’s seat like he’s thinking about crawling out of his own skin. Earl doesn’t say anything this time either, but he’s thinking it so loud that Val can hear him anyway.
“What?” Val finally says as he pulls off the dirt road onto the lot where Nestor and his boy lived for so long.
“I didn’t say a word,” Earl answers, then he swings the door open and climbs out of the truck before Val can argue.
When Val catches up to him he’s pacing off the land behind the trailer, stopping long enough to dig a marker into the dirt with his boot heel before he turns and starts walking again. Val watches until Earl reaches the spot where he started, then he raises an eyebrow in Earl’s direction.
“Just how long you been thinking about this?”
Earl shrugs, but there’s something in the way he doesn’t quite meet Val’s gaze that says he’s feeling a little guilty. “Didn’t think it could happen until they handed me that check.”
“So why’d you move out to Bixby with me, then?” Val asks. “I mean, if you’ve been thinking about ranching this whole time, why pick up stakes and move into town?”
“Because I knew you’d never go without me, that’s why,” Earl answers, rolling his eyes. “If I didn’t go you’d stay right here, tell yourself you were doing it for the business, and you’d let Rhonda get away.”
“What are you talking about? Rhonda’s in Perfection,” Val says, but he knows what Earl’s saying. Maybe he’s even right, not that Val’s going to admit it. “I could’ve seen a lot more of her if we’d just stayed put.”
“For now, sure, but I’m thinking about your future here. That’s your problem, you know. You never think about the big picture.”
It’s Val who rolls his eyes this time, but before he answers they hear the drag of car tires on gravel, and they turn to watch a dusty sedan pull in next to the truck. They watch the real estate agent climb out of the car, waving and grinning in their direction before he looks down at his jacket and starts brushing off the dust.
“You know,” Earl says as the guy walks toward them, kicking something off his shoe as he goes, “I can probably hitch a ride back to town with this yahoo, if you wanna go ahead.”
“You trying to get rid of me?”
“Just looking out for the big picture,” Earl answers, grinning when Val scowls at him. Still, there’s no point in Val standing around listening to Earl haggle with the real estate agent about how much Nestor’s land is really worth; it’s not like he’s got a whole lot to add to the conversation, and the sooner he gets into town, the sooner he sees Rhonda.
His heart kind of stutters at the thought, but Val ignores it. “Fine, smartass, just for that I will leave you out here.”
“If I don’t turn up in an hour or so, you can come back for me,” Earl says.
“Don’t hold your breath,” Val shoots back over his shoulder, but whatever Earl shouts after him is swallowed by the sound of Val’s boots scuffing the dirt as he hurries toward the truck and Rhonda.
They finally get Earl moved into Nestor’s old trailer about the same time Rhonda’s wrapping up her field research. He hasn’t got a whole lot to move -- though Val’s not crazy about having to lift that damn armchair into the back of the truck again -- so it’s not like it takes a long time.
They’ve spent the last month putting up a fence around what’s going to be Earl’s ostrich pen; they could have gotten it done sooner, but there were still jobs to do around Bixby, and Val’s trying to build up his reputation as a handyman in a whole new town. The difference this time is that he has the cash to set up a storefront, thanks to the video game deal.
The other difference is that he’s on his own for the first time since he met Earl. It’s a little scary, going it alone, mainly because if he falls on his face he’s got nobody to blame but himself. And the fact is that he’s got a lot to lose this time, because if he messes this up Rhonda might finally catch on to the fact that she could do a lot better than him.
“I thought I told you to cut that out.”
Val glances over at Earl, frowning at the knowing look on his face. “What are you talking about?”
“All that worrying about messing things up,” Earl answers. “She’s crazy about you, dumbass.”
“So you’re a mind reader now, huh?”
“No, I’ve just spent enough time around your sorry behind to know when you’re working yourself up for no good reason.”
“Yeah, well, you said I was going to buy a ring with the video game money, too, but you were wrong about that,” Val says, chin up like he’s daring Earl to argue with him.
“That was before Reebok called,” Earl answers. “The money from that commercial would buy a hell of a ring.”
Val opens his mouth to argue, then closes it again. Because yeah, he’s been thinking about it since Earl brought it up the first time, but it’s not like he’s gone out jewelry shopping or anything. Rhonda’s been in Perfection all this time, for one thing, so they haven’t really had a chance to date, let alone get to the point where anybody’s ready to buy rings.
Still, his heart does that weird stuttering thing every time Earl brings it up, and Val’s pretty sure that means something. Spending so much time in Perfection has given him an excuse to see Rhonda, anyway, and he’s not sorry about that. He’s pretty sure she isn’t, either, but that doesn’t mean they’re in love or anything.
Val blinks and looks up at the sound of his name, focusing on Rhonda’s bemused grin. “Everything okay?”
“Sure, why wouldn’t it be?” Val lies, doing his best to shake off the image of Rhonda wearing his ring.
“I called your name half a dozen times,” she answers, still smiling as she reaches out to rest a hand against his cheek. “I think you’ve been out in the sun too long.”
“Yeah, maybe,” he says, reaching up to wrap his own hand around hers. “Or maybe I’m just tired of dragging this moron’s stuff around.”
Rhonda grins again, but she looks kind of guilty, too.
“Nothing,” she answers. “It’s just that I was sort of hoping you’d be up for another move. I’m going to have to find a new place now that we’re done out here.”
“There’s plenty of room at my place.” The words are out of Val’s mouth before he’s even aware that he’s thinking them, and as soon as he says them out loud he wishes he could take them back.
Rhonda’s staring at him, eyes wide and her lips parted like it’s the last thing she expected him to say. Not that he can blame her; they’ve only been dating a few months now, and a lot of that time they’ve spent in separate towns.
“Really?” Rhonda finally says, and Val’s so surprised that it takes him a beat or two to respond.
“Only if you want to,” he hears himself say. “I mean...”
“No, that’d be great,” Rhonda says, then her cheeks go pink, and she smiles like she’s kind of embarrassed to admit it out loud. “You’d really be helping me out. If you’re sure.”
“Yeah, of course, unless...”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Earl says from behind Val. “I swear I’ve never seen two idiots more perfect for each other. Just marry her already.”
He’s shaking his head as he walks away without waiting for an answer, so he doesn’t see Val kicking dust at his retreating boots.
“Sorry,” Val finally says, turning to look at Rhonda. He expects her to look embarrassed, or maybe even mad that Earl just called her an idiot. But instead she’s grinning, and the pink is back in her cheeks again.
“You know, I’m kind of going to miss having him around.”
“That makes one of us,” Val answers, and when she laughs and reaches for his hand, Val smiles and curls his fingers around hers to pull her back toward Earl’s new place.