After Annie leaves the study group early, Troy looks around the room and taps his notebook with a pencil.
"What's up with Annie lately?" he asks. It's been on his mind for a few days now, this something-different-about-Annie, and it seems worth the risk of asking the group as a whole.
Britta shrugs. "She seems the same to me."
Shirley leans toward Troy with an eager smile. "Have you noticed something different? Started to see her in a new light, maybe?"
Troy squints at Shirley. "Like how?"
Pierce adjusts his glasses and gives Troy a knowing look. "A sexual light?"
Jeff looks up from his phone. "Pierce, she's eighteen years old."
Pierce clears his throat. "Those in glass houses - "
"Oh, please." Jeff rolls his eyes, but in the uncomfortable way he does anytime anyone brings up the Debate Incident. "First of all, I was not the instigator of that - moment - and second of all, you are way, way, WAY older than me. You're well into grandpa territory where Annie is concerned."
"And you're more like a creepy uncle," Britta says.
"Try hip, young uncle," Jeff corrects, holding up his phone. "Or older brother."
"I don't know what kind of families you people were brought up in, but we didn't ever kiss our uncles or brothers that way," Shirley says. "But that's a topic for another day. The important thing to consider right now is Troy's question."
"What was Troy's question again?" Pierce asks.
"Troy asked whether we'd noticed anything different about Annie lately," Abed says, turning to Troy. "My guess is that the thing that's different about Annie is probably the fact that she's no longer in love with you, Troy."
"What? Annie -" Troy cuts himself off when a balled-up piece of notebook paper crosses his field of vision, thrown by - he has to look twice to be sure - Shirley.
Shirley looks at Abed as if he'd just given out her secret snickerdoodle recipe. "Abed, what is the matter with you?"
Troy shakes his head and laughs. "You guys are crazy. Annie is not in love with me. We're friends."
"Ah, you're friends." Jeff steeples his fingers in consideration. "Quick question: when was the last time you gave a friend a half-birthday present, Britta?"
"I'm kind of a special case because I try not to endorse the way corporate greed has hijacked holidays. But even in our hyper-commercial society, friends don't give friends half-birthday presents." Britta scrunches up her nose. "Sorry, Troy."
Pierce adjusts his glasses. "I'm going to have to side with Britta on this one. I'm an expert in the cultural trappings surrounding gift-giving - perhaps you read my essay on potlatch? Nevermind, I'll send each of you a copy -"
"Can't wait," Jeff says.
Pierce continues. "The half-birthday present is given only by parents of spoiled children and people who are, to use a technical phrase, really into you."
Troy opens his mouth to dispute this, but can't. Too much of his brain is occupied with how this new interpretation of Annie makes sense. "So you're saying, she doesn't accidentally order two servings of French fries at lunch? She orders one of them for me?"
Abed nods. "She knows they're your favorite, because every time you eat them you say, 'Wow, these French fries are amazing, they're totally my favorite food. Is any food better than a French fry?' And then you debate it for a bit, ultimately coming down on the no side.'"
"Because they are the perfect food." Troy thinks some more. "So, it's not normal for friends to practice their rhyming skills by composing cheers for football games?"
Jeff shakes his head. "Not if the friend in question is not, in fact, a cheerleader."
"Especially if the friend hates cheerleaders," Shirley says. "They ruined Annie's life in high school. Those girls can be mean."
"Don't I know it," Pierce says.
A healthy pause follows, which ends when Jeff shuts his Spanish book. "Well, I think that wraps up this week's episode of Degrassi-"
"Wait a second," Troy says, having finally processed the entirety of Abed's announcement. "What do you mean, Annie's not in love with me anymore?"
- - - -
Andrew pays for Annie's coffee this time, a for-sure sign that this is a for-real Date with a Capital D, her first since rehab. "Go on a Date" is item three in the goal journal she created on her therapist's orders before beginning this year at Greendale, and so Annie knows that this is an exciting moment.
She does her best to savor the moment of personal growth and forget that "with Troy" had been in the back of her mind whenever she revisited the "Go on a Date" item on her list. After all, the most recent addition to her goal journal is "Get Over Troy" and being here with Andrew works toward that, too.
Andrew has a lot of things going for him: he's almost as serious about school as she is, she's pretty sure he's an ENFJ (her most compatible Myers-Briggs personality type), and he's empirically attractive.
Annie knows this because when she pointed him out to Shirley and Britta earlier, Shirley took one look and said, "Ooh! He's a cutie patootie!" and Britta nodded, saying, "Nice going, Annie."
"-don't you think?"
"I'm sorry, what?" Annie says, curling her hand around her decaf mocha. She'd felt too jittery for caffeine when they ordered, but she regrets it now. A shot of espresso might have helped her focus.
"I was saying how great it will be once we're out of here and get to a real school," Andrew says, emphasis on the word real. He runs a hand through his blondish-brown hair, which is cut and styled in the same way the popular boys in high school used to wear it. "There's no way I'd be here if it hadn't been for the market tanking last year."
"This isn't exactly where I was planning to be right now, either."
Annie's supposed to be on the east coast, just starting up her second semester at the college she'd picked out in eighth grade.
Andrew tells Annie where he'd expected to be right now, and she listens - she really does - because they have a lot in common, more in common than anyone else she's met at Greendale. They went toe-to-toe in AP credits when they were partnered up on an Accounting project a week before, and Annie only came up three shy. She would have bested him if she hadn't been in rehab for most of the last semester of senior year.
Andrew is smart and driven, he's got green eyes and broad shoulders, and he bought Annie's coffee tonight. She thinks he deliberately let their hands touch when he handed her the mocha, and Annie tells herself she's happy to be sitting across from him in the café, laughs a little harder than she has to when he makes a joke, because it's not his fault that all she sees when she looks at him is Not Troy Barnes.
- - - -
Troy likes Spanish class more now that Señor Chang has gotten back together with his wife. There are fewer heinous pop-quizzes and crazy-long assignments, but then there's also the occasional too-intimate glimpse into Señor Chang's life.
"All right, class, we're going to be doing some partner work today because Professor Chang is a little worn out after a night of particularly passionate, and quite inventive, love-making." Señor Chang ends this announcement with his hand on Troy's shoulder, squeezing it before letting go. "Everyone partner up and make flash cards for the latest vocab words."
When Señor Chang steps away, Annie is right in Troy's line of sight, her shiny brown hair half-back in a barrette. Before Troy can figure out why Annie looks different even though everything about her is the same, she turns around to face in Troy's direction. She does the universal 'you and me?' hand gesture to partner up, her face lit up by a smile.
Troy sits up a little straighter in his seat. He's never worked with Annie before in Spanish class, but she's helped him study plenty of other times and it always goes okay. Better than okay, really; she always knows the answers but never makes him feel stupid when he doesn't, she's always cheerful, and the time goes by quickly. The fact that she's in love with him - or until just recently used to be - might be a complicating factor, but -
Troy's chain of thought ends when Shirley slides out of her desk and moves toward the front of the room, because of course Shirley had been the one Annie was gesturing to. Troy nods to himself in a hey-it's-cool way and does a quick survey around the room to make sure everyone sees how absolutely not disappointed he is.
"I thought we'd start with the nouns."
Troy almost falls out of his seat; Abed has somehow managed to slide his desk over so that he's barely three inches away without making a sound. "Abed! You're like a ninja."
Abed cocks his head. "In what way?"
"In the crazy-stealth-powers way," Troy says, shaking his head. "Don't do that."
"I won't." Abed opens up his textbook to the most recent chapter, and places his notebook on top. There's a scribbled list on the top sheet of notebook paper, but Troy knows they're not vocab words. Abed seems like the kind of guy who'd be a good student, but he's really not much better than Troy.
Troy gestures toward the list. "What's the list for this time? Greatest cartoon characters? You know Stewie's got that wrapped up."
"No, but that's a good one," Abed says, turning to another sheet in his notebook to scribble that at the top. "Right now I'm working on a taxonomy of TV romances and applying them to our study group."
Troy doesn't want to ask what a taxonomy is, so he says, "Cool."
Abed takes this as interest. "The most obvious is Jeff and Britta, who have a modified David-and-Maddie thing happening."
Troy looks over to where Jeff and Britta are sitting. Jeff leans over Britta's desk, saying something makes her shake her head, but she doesn't seem as annoyed as she used to be.
Troy looks back at Abed. "Who are David and Maddie?"
"Moonlighting. Classic romantic comedy-drama of the eighties, launched the career of Bruce Willis."
"The Die Hard guy?" Troy squints. "Jeff doesn't look much like an action hero."
"It's really more about the dynamic between the two people. The back-and-forth banter and pattern of Jeff pursuing and Britta rebuffing is classic David-and-Maddie." Abed looks back at Troy. "Another example would be you and Annie, who are textbook Ross and Rachel."
Troy leans back in his chair. "You're comparing me to the dorky white dude on Friends?"
"No, that wouldn't make any sense at all." Abed says. "You're Rachel."
Troy leans back further. "So you're calling me a girl."
Abed shakes his head. "These tropes are gender neutral. You're the long-term crush object of a member of your circle of friends, which puts you in the Rachel role. The other half of the dynamic is an academic high-achiever who spent most of high school on the outskirts of the social scene."
Troy looks over at Annie, who is running a finger down the glossary at the back of her Spanish book while she writes something on an index card. A green card, which means the word is a verb, which Troy knows because Annie let him borrow her review cards before the most recent quiz.
"You don't need them?" he'd asked, thumbing through them. It took a while because she'd made a lot.
Annie had waved her hand in a dismissive way. "Nah, I've got plenty. In fact, these are just my school copies. I've got another set at home. Like how we used to have a history textbook at home and one to use in the classroom back in high school?"
"I get it," Troy had said in the moment, but now, weeks later, he really does. He looks at Abed. "She was really into me, huh?"
"And now she's with some guy named Andrew?"
"Andrew Cartwright," Abed says. "Finance major, planning to attend an east-coast liberal arts college in the fall. Shirley says he's a cutie patootie."
Troy taps his pencil against his notebook. "I don't like him."
Abed tilts his head. "You know him?"
"No, but I don't like him. What kind of a name is Andrew Cartwright? It sounds like someone's dad or something."
Troy watches Annie laugh at something Shirley says, and almost misses it when Abed says, "Classic Ross and Rachel."
"Nothing," Abed says, and pulls out a stack of index cards.
- - - -
"And then what happened?"
Shirley's excitement over the almost-definitely-a-date-with-Andrew is so contagious that Annie experiences more thrills telling the story than she had during the actual event. She even wants to make the story last longer, but she's gotten to the end, so she says, "And then we walked to our cars."
Shirley pauses. "He didn't walk you to yours?"
"It was on the other side of campus. It didn't make any sense for him to walk me to mine."
Shirley shakes her head. "I still think he should have walked you to your car."
Britta slides into the booth next to Shirley. "What'd I miss?"
"Annie is telling us about her date with Andrew." Shirley says his name in the sing-songy tone of voice that appears when something pleases her.
Britta pulls an orange out of her bag and starts to peel it. "We have confirmation that it was a date?"
"He paid for her coffee." Shirley says, with the gravity of a lawyer making her final argument.
"Nice," Britta says. "How did it go?"
"Really, really great," Annie says. "He's smart, and he's driven, and he's really cute - right?"
"Definitely a cutie," Shirley says. "So, you like him?"
"Oh, definitely," Annie says. "Yes. I like him. He's really, really super."
"Super," Britta repeats, giving Shirley a significant look as she passes her an orange slice. "And two reallys."
"What?" Annie looks from Britta to Shirley, whose exuberance has dimmed. "He's great! We have a lot in common, and like you said, he's cute! I'm really, really excited."
Shirley looks the furthest thing from excited. "Oh, honey."
Britta shakes her head. "Girl, you've got it bad."
Annie feels a rush of panic similar to the moment her parents found out she'd been going to three different pharmacies to fill her prescriptions. "For Andrew? I sure do."
"You do," Britta says, chewing. "You're going to see him again?"
"If he asks me, absolutely." Annie feels like saying this is an act of defiance, even though she's not sure why Shirley and Britta are challenging her. "He's perfect for me right now."
Britta nods. "Because you don't really like him all that much?"
"Exactly!" Annie says, and then realizes what she's admitted. "I mean-"
Britta finishes for her. "You mean you're still totally into Troy."
"Into Troy? Yeah, right." Annie shakes her head, but she can feel herself blushing. "As if that would be a remotely reasonable thing to be, since we have nothing in common, and he barely knows I'm alive, and he's -"
She means to finish it off with a list of Troy's flaws, but can't. Not because Troy is perfect - she knows he's not - but because saying any of them out loud feels disloyal. Because, like Britta said, she's still totally into him.
"Pumpkin, don't feel bad," Shirley says, sliding out of her side of the booth to move over and sit next to Annie. "You've just been bit by the love bug."
"Stupid love bug," Annie mutters, leaning into Shirley. Britta places an orange slice on the table in front of her, which Annie pops into her mouth before saying, "What's the point of the love bug if it doesn't bite both people at the same time?"
Annie feels Shirley's shrug. "One of the great mysteries of the universe."
Britta nods. "Listen, we've all been there. My Exhibit A: Chet Tompkins, also known as the reason I'm here, since my decision to follow his band across the country kept me from finishing my first year of college ten years ago."
Annie can't hold back her gasp of shock at the idea of someone giving up school for a boy. "What happened?"
"I woke up in Topeka and the band had left without me. It totally sucked, but it did cure me of my obsession with Chet Tompkins." Britta finishes her orange. "Also, Topeka? Not nearly as fun to be stranded in as it is to say."
"Mine was Keith Barnett," Shirley says. "I spent two years obsessing over that boy in high school. Finally he asks me to prom, only to decide at the last minute to go with his ex. Didn't even call to tell me he wasn't coming."
Annie feels sick. "Oh, Shirley-"
"But you know what," Shirley continues. "I looked him up on that Facenet thing-"
"Facebook," Annie and Britta correct in unison.
"And he's bald." Shirley nods in a satisfied way. "Twenty years since it happened, and God forgive me, but that made my day."
Britta slaps her hand down flat against the table. "Chet Tompkins totally had a receding hairline. Was Keith really into his car?"
Britta and Shirley keep talking, trying to find other traits Chet and Keith shared. Annie keeps quiet, but what she wants to say is, Troy doesn't have a car. Troy doesn't have a car or a receding hairline and he would never leave a girl in Topeka or blow off a prom date. Annie knows this because Annie knows Troy, knows he's not perfect: knows that he's vain, and not very book-smart, and occasionally oblivious.
She also knows that when she dropped all of her books on the front steps of her high school at the end of the first week, as the tide of students rushed past her, the only one to stop was Troy.
"Thank you," she'd said. "I don't know how it happened, usually I'm very organized, it's just there's so much to do and remember and -"
"Don't worry about it," Troy had said, flashing her a quick smile as he put her assignment book on top of the pile in her arms, settling it with care so it stayed balanced. It had started then, in that moment; Annie felt a piece of herself go with him when Troy stepped back into the crowd of rushing students.
He's been carrying around pieces of her without knowing it for years now, and she's always felt that it has to count for something, but lately it seems more and more obvious that it doesn't, and that she should just get used to walking around without them. She should be able to do that. She's been able to let go of lots of things - the pills, her parents' approval, the college she'd planned on and the future that came with it - and so she knows what to do to make it easier. Keep busy.
Annie pulls out her day planner and tries to find the empty places so she can figure out how to fill them.
"You doing okay there, Annie?" Britta asks.
Annie looks up. Shirley and Britta are looking at her with worried faces, and Annie wants to tell them that she's fine, she's absolutely okay. She's just about to do that when a megaphone squeals.
"Attention Greendale students!" Dean Pelton wanders to the center of the cafeteria, talking into a battered megaphone. "Just a couple of quick announcements. First of all, if you ordered the meatloaf in the cafeteria today, please return it to the register immediately. If you have already consumed the meatloaf, report to health services - and brace yourself."
Britta scoops together her orange peels. "This is why I bring fruit."
"Second of all, we are looking for volunteers! Thank you all for turning out for the ribbon-cutting of the new stairs outside the Financial Aid office. Unfortunately, the recent rainstorm has revealed that the contractors were less than honest about the quality of materials they were using-"
Shirley leans toward Annie. "I heard it was particle board instead of wood, and it totally dissolved when the dean took the ceremonial first step."
"-so again, please see me if you're interesting in helping to rebuild Greendale!" He finishes his speech with an enthusiastic shake of his fist, which is greeted by a wave of silence and the sound of crinkling wrappers and conversations picking up steam. He hobbles away - one foot wrapped in ace bandages - and Annie moves to slide out of the booth to follow him.
"You're volunteering?" Britta asks. "How many organizations are you a part of, anyway?"
Annie knows how many, but doesn't want to say the number out loud. "One more won't hurt."
- - - -
Troy stops at Annie's desk on his way into Spanish class because it's been a while since they've spoken, which is weird because up until a week or two ago, they'd been hanging out pretty often. Now Troy feels like every time he enters a room or a conversation, she makes her way out of it.
He should probably come up with something super clever and awesome to say, but all he's got is, "Annie, what's up?"
"Hi Troy," she says, but doesn't look up at him or smile like she usually does.
Troy usually would keep moving to his desk, but something keeps him there. "What did you think of the homework?"
Annie looks up now, her eyes wide. "What homework? There was homework?"
Troy shakes his head. "Nah, just kidding."
Annie looks startled for a moment and then laughs, which Troy likes so much that he decides to stretch out the stop at her desk. "I mean, come on. As if I'd know and you wouldn't."
For some reason that takes the smile off her face. "Yeah, I guess I am kind of a nerd."
"I didn't mean-"
"Señor Barnes! Is there a reason why you are pontificating at the front of the room? Perhaps you've decided to teach class today? Have you recently acquired a graduate degree without my knowledge?"
Señor Chang goes on, but Troy tunes it out, just wanders over to his desk and dumps his stuff down. He can feel other people looking at him, but all he notices when he looks up is how most emphatically Shirley is not looking in his direction.
Annie usually takes her time to pack her things at the end of class, putting everything in a careful pile before stashing it in her backpack. Today she dumps everything into the bag and leaves with it half-zipped before Troy even gets his feet under him.
Troy thinks of that later, while he's sitting in the cafeteria eating a grilled cheese sandwich. The way Annie's book bag had flopped open a bit, but nothing falling out. How she booked it out of there like she was late for something, when Troy knows she's free for the rest of the day, because today is Thursday, and usually on Thursdays they hang out over lunch.
Today it's just him and Abed, and Abed doesn't order any fries at all for Troy to steal.
Troy turns to Abed. "You know, this is all your fault."
Abed doesn't look away from the salad he's fixing. "What's my fault?"
"You did some weird, freaky thing to me. With Annie," Troy finally adds, and saying it out loud is like the moment he throws a pass to the sidelines, knowing that no good play is going to present itself. "You brought up all this stuff about her liking me, and how she's now seeing this other guy, and now-"
"And now what?" Abed asks.
And now I just spent all of Spanish class watching her take notes instead of listening to Señor Chang, Troy wants to say. And now I know that the bottom of her right shoe is scuffed, because Annie always sits with her legs crossed at the ankle and swept to the side, and something has made even the bottom of her shoes worth looking at.
Really, it's what the shoes are attached to: Annie's legs, which conceivably have been in existence as long as Troy has known her, but have only now become objects of fascination. Troy can remember the color tights Annie wore the past three days (gray, brown, today a patterned black), and also exactly how many times she spoke to him (once).
"And now what?" Abed asks again. "It feels like you need more prompting."
"I don't know," Troy says, deciding to move on to other things. "Forget it, let's talk about something else."
"Fair enough." Abed shrugs. "I've been working on that list of best cartoon characters, and I've been stuck on picking a definitive character from the Simpsons, because so many have entered our cultural -"
Other things apparently can't hold Troy's interest. "Do you think she's mad at me or something?"
"Why would she be mad at you?"
"I don't know." Troy starts tearing the crust off of his sandwich. "I never know why girls get mad at me. It just happens."
Abed seems to wait for Troy to say something else, and when he doesn't, says, "You're talking about Annie a lot. Far more than usual."
"That's because she's never around. It's weird, right?"
Abed shrugs. "The only time I really see her is when I'm with you."
"Well, I used to see her a lot. And now I don't."
Troy knows that's what it really comes down to: he misses her.
"I think you dropped this."
Abed holds out a folded-up piece of teal paper, which Troy doesn't recognize. "Nah, that's not mine."
"Are you sure? I think it might be."
Troy looks again. "Do I seem like a teal paper kind of guy?"
"I didn't know you had a signature paper color."
Troy sighs and snatches the paper out of Abed's hand, mostly so that he can prove himself right. Sure enough, it's nothing he's seen before. "This isn't mine, man. It's some dumb flyer for a renovation project, why would I - hold on."
Troy looks down at the paper again, at the way the letters are clearly hand-written, but so perfectly that the flyer can be read with the clarity of Times New Roman font.
Troy knows that handwriting.
"Abed, I gotta go check out this-" Troy cuts himself off when he looks up and sees that Abed is gone. "Abed! We agreed you'd quit it with the sneaky ninja thing!"
"And if you'd just sign here - and initial here - and sign again here," the dean says, flipping through a series of papers. "Then we should be good to go!"
Annie looks around the woodshop, which seems extra dusty through the film on the ancient protective glasses she's been wearing since she came in. "I'm not sure I'm comfortable-"
"Come on, you'll do great," the dean says. "I believe in you! And so does Mrs. Rivera, trusty notary public, here to witness your signature on these releases!"
"The charge is twenty-five cents. Unless you want me to affirm that you're someone else, in which case it'll be twenty-five hundred," Mrs. Rivera says, and then leans toward her. "Old notary joke."
"Who doesn't love an old notary joke?" the dean says, and pushes the paperwork closer to Annie. "Better get this show on the road! It's taken me a week to get this space reserved, we'd better make good use of it."
Annie looks around. "Shouldn't there be someone here showing me how to use these things? Like, the saw thing over there, and the -"
The dean waves a hand. "Please, like you need someone showing you how to do things? There are several only slightly outdated instruction manuals located around the room. You're a smart cookie, you can figure it out!"
"I guess," Annie says, stepping forward to look at the papers. "What's all this here about 'grave bodily harm' and 'loss of limb'? I could lose a limb?"
"Listen, it's only happened twice, and those guys were real boneheads, so it really shouldn't -"
"Twice?" Annie backs away from the papers. "I'm sorry sir, but I think you'll have to find someone else."
The dean sighs. "There is no one else. The wood shop faculty won't help me ever since Administration beat them in the faculty trivia contest last year, and we don't have any money left in the budget after the Groundhog Day fiasco."
"I liked the groundhogs," Annie says, even though she'd found them less cute than she'd expected. "And who could have expected they'd dig their way out of that pen so quickly?"
"There's still eight on the loose that we're trying to track down, and so we've got no extra money for things like this. Repairing the stairs has to be a do-it-yourself-er, and I thought you'd be able to come through for me, Annie. So that things like this," the dean says, pointing at his ankle. "Don't happen to other people."
Annie twists the pen in her hands. "It's just, I was never really all that good at shop class-"
Annie spins around, thinking she must have imagined it, but no, it's Troy standing there in the doorway to the woodshop. He walks in, nodding at Annie. "Sup, Annie?"
"Hi Troy," Annie says. "What are you-"
"You need me to sign something?" Troy asks the dean, who eagerly takes the papers from Annie and hands them to Troy.
"Troy, I don't think you should-"
The dean shoves himself between Annie and Troy. "Just sign all the places where there are the little tabs-"
Annie tries to get around the dean. "Troy, this stuff seems really dangerous."
"It's no big deal," Troy says, initialing the last page. "I helped my dad put the deck on our house last summer. I got this."
"Troy Barnes to the rescue, again!" the dean says after Mrs. Rivera notarizes the papers. He makes his way toward the door as he speaks, as if afraid to spook the two of them into running off. "Annie has the plans, and I showed her where the supplies are, so I think you two should be all set."
"Sounds good," Troy says, walking over to the wall to pull down a set of goggles and other protective gear. He puts it on, all of it old and some of it too big for him, and it should make him look ridiculous and stupid, but of course he just looks like Troy to her. The only boy for her.
"You got the plans?"
"The what? The plans! Yes, I have the plans," Annie says, and lays them flat against the table. "I can't really make heads or tails of them, but this is supposedly what the dean is going for."
Troy comes over to stand next to her, so close that she can feel him all along the side of her body, and all she wants, more than anything, is to lean into him. To see what it would feel like, what he would do; she wants it so much that she knows she should step away, but can't make herself. She focuses on staying still, on not responding at all when he reaches around her to spin the paper around.
"It was upside down," Troy says.
Annie shrugs. "Told you, never all that good at shop class."
"Shop class was all I was good at in high school," Troy says, looking closely at the plans.
"That's not true."
"Okay, shop class and gym. Two things," Troy says. "Maybe a few more if you count every sport I played individually."
"Don't say it like that."
Troy looks up. "Like what?"
"Like that's all you were," Annie says. "You're good at other things."
Troy looks at her for a moment longer than he usually does, which makes her even more self-conscious than she usually is around Troy (which is a lot). She reaches up to tuck her hair back and remembers that she's got the stupid goggles on; the horror that she feels is all-consuming. That's why he's staring, at the stupid glasses, at how they're probably making her hair all weird and poofy, and all she wants is to vaporize on the spot. Or maybe just take off the goggles; she starts to do that, but Troy shakes his head.
"Leave them on, I'll start cutting soon. It won't take long," Troy says, adjusting the band on his goggles. "This is pretty simple stuff."
She'd spent an hour the night before studying the same piece of paper Troy understood at a glance, and at the end of the hour her best plan had been to hire a contractor out of her own pocket. She looks around the dusty room, at the equipment she doesn't recognize and supplies she can't name. Still she asks, "Can I help?"
"You could keep me company. If you want," Troy says.
"Sure," Annie says. "I can do that."
She can do that. She sits on the counter a few feet away from where Troy ends up working, which ends up being various places around the woodshop, and when he's doing quiet work they talk, and when he's doing louder work she watches him. At first she's so nervous that she's surprised the counter underneath her isn't vibrating from it, but it gets comfortable quickly, because being around Troy is one of Annie's favorite things. He's always pretty easy to talk to.
They're putting all the planks Troy cut into a pile and getting ready to leave when Troy says, "So, you're not mad at me?"
Annie almost drops the plank in her arms. "Why would I be mad at you?"
Troy shrugs. "You haven't talked to me in a few days, I figured I'd done something to piss you off."
Annie feels something lurch inside her, some mix of horror at making Troy worry about something and joy at the idea of Troy actually noticing she wasn't around. "No, I wasn't mad at you at all. Not at all," she repeats, and has to keep herself from saying it a third time.
"I guess you've just been busy with your new boyfriend and everything."
"My new - oh, you mean Andrew," Annie says, and now she feels like all of her moorings have come undone. "He's not my boyfriend."
Annie shakes her head. "We went out a couple times, but it didn't work out."
Troy nods, and Annie tells herself that she doesn't see relief in his expression, because why would it be there? She braces for him to ask why it didn't work out, because if he does, she doesn't know what she'll say, since the truth is impossible to admit (because he wasn't you) and her wits are too scattered for her to come up with a lie.
Troy doesn't ask. He puts the last plank on the pile and takes off his goggles, which leave a mark across the bridge of his nose. "Same time tomorrow to finish up?"
Annie takes her own off and tries to be cool about it, but can't keep the grin off her face. Maybe he'll just assume she's super glad to get the stupid goggles off. "Sounds good to me."
"Where did you park?" Troy asks while they lock up.
"Over by the Humanities building, you?"
"I rode my bike," Troy says. "I'll walk with you."
"You don't have -"
"No big deal," Troy says. "You ready?"
Annie puts on her backpack and adjusts the straps before falling into step beside him. It's easy to walk with Troy; they're about the same height and so they walk at the same pace and it's not uncomfortable that they don't talk, because they just spent two hours together and hadn't had any trouble finding things to say. It's nice to just walk beside him, in the cold night air, close enough that she bumps arms with him a couple of times.
"Sorry," she says the first time, and he apologizes the second, and the third time neither of them says anything, because they don't just bump arms; he takes her hand and threads their fingers together. His hand is warm and calloused and it feels like something broken inside her has been put back together, whole.
She looks up at him and he's looking straight ahead, not at her, but his grip on her hand is steady, sure. After a few seconds, he looks over at her, and she sees something on his face she's only seen once or twice before - embarrassment.
"It's corny, right," he says, loosening his grip.
"Who cares," Annie says, tightening hers.