The numbers flipped on the clock, and the alarm began to ring. The volume had been set low enough that it couldn’t be heard from the next room, and it certainly wasn't loud enough to rouse anyone from a deep sleep. But the soft beeping was Charlie Thomas' least favorite sound. He rolled over to confirm the time, hoping the insistence of the beeping was just his imagination. “It can’t be 5:55 already,” he groaned.
Janine Kishi smoothed the wrinkles in her white Oxford shirt as she peered over his shoulder at the clock. “I’m afraid it is,” she replied. “You’d better get downstairs.”
Charlie turned to kiss her on the cheek. “I guess if I have to.” He reached down and brushed her knee lightly. “I was going to go to the big game against Howard on Saturday and then to Pizza Express with some friends afterwards.”
“Um," Charlie cleared his throat. "I was wondering if you wanted to come with me.”
“Are you suggesting a date?”
“Well, yes, I guess. We’ve been sneaking around during their babysitter meetings for weeks. I thought it might be nice to actually go out and do something together.”
Janine averted her eyes from his gaze. “I don’t usually follow athletics.”
“Come on,” he prodded. “Baseball is all physics and geometry. I know you’ll love it.”
“I’m not certain that it’s a good idea, Charlie.”
“What’s the problem? I’m good enough for you from 5:25 to 5:55 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but you won’t go out in public with me?”
“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that the predominant hierarchy of high school doesn’t work that way. Members of my social stratum are not exactly widely accepted by the rest of the student body.”
Charlie sighed as he stood up. “This isn’t some sociology book. I like you. I just wanted to spend a little more time with you, and maybe stop keeping this a secret from everyone. Can't a guy take his girlfriend out in public, just once?”
“Oh. You... That is, I..." Despite her impressive vocabulary, Janine was at a loss for words.
“I have to go,” he replied quietly.
Janine watched him cross the room. He gave her one last glance before silently closing the door behind him. She wondered how everything had gone so very wrong all of a sudden.
Charlie and Janine had grown up just across the street from one another, but they lived in two different worlds. Janine was a genuine genius with an IQ of 196. She’d never had many friends, and her nose was buried in a book more often than not. Charlie, on the other hand, seemed to be the typical popular guy at school, always surrounded by friends or off playing one sport or another.
Now Janine pondered the mistake that had brought them together. Several weeks earlier, Charlie stumbled into her life when he accidentally knocked on her door while trying to find Claudia’s room. The two fall into friendly conversation with ease, and it had quickly turned into something more than that.
They had an unspoken agreement not to tell anyone what was going on between them, mostly because they couldn't really explain it themselves. Janine had met few people her own age who didn’t tease her or ignore her altogether for being so smart. Charlie didn’t blink when she used big words, and he was interested in hearing about her research, even if he didn’t always understand all of it.
It wasn’t difficult for them to find time to spend together. Charlie’s task of driving Kristy to and from Babysitters Club meetings gave them half an hour three days a week to hide in Janine’s room talking, laughing, kissing... Janine knew her conservative parents wouldn’t approve of her being alone with a boy in her room. But neither was there to object since one of the other librarians had recently gone on maternity leave, keeping her mother busy at the library unusually late, and her father’s job in Stamford meant he didn’t get home until after 6:00.
Everything had been going so well between the two of them. Seeing Charlie was the highlight of her week, rivaling even the biopsychiatry class she was taking at the community college. Janine knew they hadn't actually talked about keeping things quiet, but she couldn’t understand why Charlie suddenly wanted to announce this thing between them, whatever it was, to the entire world. Going out on a date together was a risky proposition. Guys like him just weren’t seen hanging around girls like her.
And girlfriend? Janine wondered what had possessed him to call her that. She liked Charlie a lot, more than she wanted to admit to herself, but she hadn't thought much about what this sneaking around really meant. The time they spent together was uncomplicated, and she loved that they could enjoy just being together without worrying about labels or the looks from other people.
"Girlfriend" was something entirely different.
She was distracted from her thoughts by what sounded like a herd of elephants thundering down the stairs. The BSC meeting must have ended, which meant that it was time to start dinner. Janine sighed and headed down to the kitchen before Claudia had a chance to whine about having to do everything herself.
Friday afternoon dragged on slowly. Janine tried reading, studying for an upcoming exam, coding out the bugs on the computer game she was programming. None of them could hold her concentration for very long. She kept looking at the clock, wondering if Charlie would show up after their argument the other day. By the time five thirty rolled around, she was a complete wreck, jumping at every little sound in the hopes that it would be Charlie at her door. When he hadn’t shown up by 5:35, she flopped on her bed with a sigh. Charlie was a very punctual person, and given the military precision with which his sister ran the BSC meetings, if he wasn’t there by then, he wasn’t coming.
Janine pulled a Nancy Drew book out from under her mattress and tried to distract herself from the nagging feeling of dread in the back of her mind. He hadn’t come; it was probably over between them. She wished things had gone differently the other day, but what could she have possibly said? Given the way the other kids at school treated her, she could only imagine the stir it would cause if varsity football star Charlie Thomas showed up with geeky, bookish her.
She flipped through her book, skimming the pages but not really paying much attention. Even The Hidden Staircase couldn't hold her attention at the moment. After a few chapters, she gave up and headed down to the kitchen to start making dinner, figuring at least she could do something useful instead of wallowing in her room by herself.
Janine was lost in thought and halfway through meticulously chopping the vegetables into even sized pieces when she heard a thundering of feet coming down the stairs, the telltale sign that her sister's Babysitters Club meeting had ended. A few moments later, Claudia walked into the kitchen. "You're getting an early start tonight," she said.
"Hmm," Janine said distractedly. "Oh, yes. I wasn't doing anything important, so I thought that I would begin preparing dinner. Will you please start the rice?"
Claudia rummaged around in the pantry and pulled out the canister of rice. "What else is for dinner?" she asked, filling a pot with water. "Hello? Earth to Janine? Janine!"
Janine looked up from the cutting board. "I'm sorry, what were you saying?"
"I asked what else we're having. You're acting weirder than usual tonight."
"Oh," Janine said. "I'm sorry. My mind is elsewhere. There is chicken thawing in the refrigerator."
"What do you mean?"
Claudia rolled her eyes. "I mean what's wrong? Why is your mind elsewhere," she asked, imitating Janine's reserved tone.
"Oh." She hesitated for a moment, setting the knife down on the counter next to her. Though Claudia was her younger sister, she did have a way of relating to people that Janine found baffling. And despite their frequent frustration with each other, she and Claudia had been getting along better lately. She decided to take a chance. "I had a disagreement with a person I have been seeing on occasion. Now I do not know what I should do."
"Oh my Lord," Claudia squealed. "I didn't know you had a boyfriend! Is it serious? Do I know him? It's not Jerry, is it?"
She blushed at Claudia's reaction. "No, it's not Jerry, and I am not sure whether he is my boyfriend. That is, we never discussed what we were to each other, and now I am afraid that our relationship is over before it began fully."
Claudia put her arm around Janine's shoulder. "Oh, Janine, I'm so sorry. What happened?"
"Everything had been going so well," said, surprised at the relief she felt being able to talk with someone about it. "Then he asked me to attend a sporting event with him, and I panicked."
"What's so wrong about that?"
"We had not told anyone about our relationship. I was worried what our fellow students might think."
Claudia gave her a little squeeze. "That's a stupid reason for someone to break up. I should know."
Janine laughed. "I suppose you are right, but it is too late now."
"Talk to him," Claudia encouraged her. "If he's a good enough guy, I'm sure you can work it out."
Just then, their mother walked into the kitchen. "Look at this," she said, smiling at the sight of Claudia's arm slung around Janine's shoulder. "My girls, getting along, making dinner together! What a nice thing to come home to. What's for dinner tonight?"
"Chicken and vegetables with rice," Janine said, a little too brightly. "How was your day?"
"Very hectic," she responded. "I'm going to put these things in my office, but I'll be back in moment to help the two of you."
When their mother left the room, Janine turned to Claudia with a serious look on her face. "Please don't tell mom and dad about our discussion," she whispered.
"I won't, I promise. But who is he?"
"I can't tell you right now," Janine said. "Perhaps soon."
"It's a deal." Claudia gave her a hug then turned to get the chicken out of the refrigerator.
The next morning, Janine was sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of cereal and reading the newspaper when Claudia stumbled in sleepily. "Good morning. You're up early."
"I'm sitting for the Rodowsky boys this morning," Claudia explained. She handed her an envelope. "Here, this is for you. I found it on the floor in the front hallway when I slipped and almost fell on it."
"For me?" Janine asked. "The mail carrier does not deliver our post until mid-afternoon."
"Well it has your name on it," Claudia said grumpily.
Curious, Janine took the envelope and opened it. Inside, she found an old Polaroid with a yellow Post It note stuck to it. The brief message was written in Charlie's careful handwriting. It read:
I never cared what other people thought.
Janine felt a sudden surge of affection for Charlie. It was true that he never did care what other people thought. The day the photograph was taken, she remembered fondly, he had even defended Janine against some neighborhood bullies and invited her to play with them.
"So who's it from?" Claudia asked as she poured herself a glass of orange juice.
"Hmm?" Janine replied absentmindedly, still staring at the photo with a growing grin on her face.
"It's from him, isn't it? Let me see! What did he say?" Claudia reached across the table to try to grab it from her.
Janine held the photo close to her chest and shook her head. "I'll be back," she said, getting up from the table quickly. "Thank you for your advice yesterday."
"Oh, come on," Claudia pleaded. "You can't leave me hanging like that!"
"We will talk about it later," she promised, and she meant it.
Janine walked into the hallway and stopped at the table. She paused for a moment before picking up the phone and dialing. A small, bossy voice answered the phone with a shout. "Brewer-Thomas residence!"
She took a deep breath. "Hello. Is Charlie available?"