Henry had long ago decided it was futile to pretend that the woman who set the food on the table, pinched his cheek with her hot hand, and said, "Eat! Eat!" with a Korean accent was not his mother. Charmonique was the only friend he'd ever had that he trusted enough to bring back to the restaurant anyway, and she always seemed to get a kick out of seeing his mother, all five feet of her, scolding and praising him in turn.
Right now, Charmonique was being uncharacteristically quiet. He took another look at her through the steam rising from the platter of food. "What's up?" he asked. "Is your grandmother okay?"
Char narrowed her eyes. "Is she emailing you again? I knew getting her a tablet was a bad idea."
He didn't mention that Ms. Mae's personalized poker tips had turned the tide on the running game he had going with the staff all summer, and he'd won big in the end, saving up a nice chunk of change, enough for his books for the whole year. He needed to send her some flowers. "No, you just look . . . different."
Before he'd opened his big mouth, she'd been looking dreamy, like she was still feeling the last rays of summertime sun instead of getting ready to buckle down for their last year of college. Looking at her, he saw the same girl he'd met the first day of freshman year, excited for a new adventure and more than ready to drag him along.
"I met someone," she said, smiling shyly up at him. "For real."
"That's great!" he said, because too many of her other boyfriends had definitely not been "for real," and she deserved better than that. He'd maybe drop Ms. Mae a line just to make sure she approved of this one, and that he wasn't a clown like the rest. "Is that why you were basically AWOL this whole summer? I only got two emails from you."
"Between putting together the application for the internship, spending time with my granmama, skyping my folks, and seeing Mitchell, I had no time. You were probably out making deliveries anyway."
"That's true," he acknowledged, gingerly dishing out the baked rigatoni. His arms were still sore from hauling platters of meat and pasta up endless flights of stairs; there didn't seem to be a single elevator in the city that was in good working order.
"You got my favorite!" Charmonique said, practically singing, and toasted him with her soda. A trilling melody sounded, and she grabbed her phone. She frowned down at the screen and held the smartphone out to him. "Do you recognize this number?"
Even if he could have seen through the glare on her screen, the answer would almost definitely have been no. He only knew a handful of phone numbers by heart and his flip-phone held the rest, whereas Char had basically a photographic memory. He shook his head and then said - when had he turned into his mother? - "Ignore it. You should eat before it gets cold."
Charmonique laughed indulgently at him, like he was a particularly cute pet, and pinched his cheek. He hated it when she did that; he should have dodged more quickly. "I'll be real quick. Hello?"
He thought maybe it was the mighty Mitchell, given how her face lit up, but after she said "yes" about a dozen times, she said, "He's here with me now." That put paid to the notion that it was her new man, because as much as she might have missed him, Henry knew there was no way she'd interrupted prime doing-the-dirty time to tell Mitchell all about the rock-solid academic partnership she'd forged with him. "I'll tell him right away," Charmonique said, beaming at him. She disconnected and put the phone down only to pick up her fork and dig into her food. "Don't think you're getting away with this particular nonsense," she said, gesturing with a surprisingly threatening tube of pasta at his hair. "It's like the minute I leave town, you forget how to style yourself to look your own age."
He already had a baby face, and he knew it, so it was only logical to try to age himself up a little with a more conservative hairstyle - "Wait a minute," he said, catching himself before he started justifying what he did with his own damn hair out loud, "are you really not going to tell me what that call was all about?"
"Oh, that?" Her smile grew very cat-that-got-the-canary. "We got the KinderKare internship!"
"Char -" he said, and she held out a fist, so they bumped and blew it up, and then got through the platter of rigatoni in record time.
There were times when he thought he was crazy for trying to finish two majors, write an honors thesis in English, serve as the RA for his floor, and take on an internship all in his senior year of college, but he'd set his hand to the wheel and he was not a quitter. Not even when it meant that he was alone in the library on a Friday night. Charmonique had gone off with a flower in her hair to meet Mitchell, who was driving into the city from the shore, and he had a thick biography of Keats to get through.
He only had the weekend to get it done; the internship started Monday and by next weekend he wanted to be on the trail of footnotes, chasing them from paper to paper. It made him feel like a detective, following clues others might overlook. He got out his notebook and a pen and settled in for the long haul.
"Duuuuude," Billy said, hooking an arm around his neck and slurring beer breath into his face, "did you see the senior chick on my floor? Oh, yeah, Daddy likes."
Henry neatly unhooked the arm and propped Billy against the brick wall. "Even if she is a senior, she must be new to the school to be in Pickering. You're her RA, you can't make a move."
"I'd give it all up for her," Billy proclaimed drunkenly. "All the glory, all the fame, for one sweet taste."
"That's inspiring, truly, but maybe you could take the volume down several notches."
"Fiiiirecroooootch," Billy sang up at the moon.
"Okay, that's enough," Henry said, deciding he didn't need to stick around for any of this; he and Billy weren't friends, and he should have been asleep an hour ago anyway.
"'Okay, that's enough,'" Billy mimicked, moving his arms robotically. "Dude, if a real redhead isn't enough to get you going, what the fuck is? Are you gay?"
"No, I'm not," he said, wishing he were brave enough not to respond to Billy's puerile taunting.
"So you are hittin' that!"
"That big girl, Chamo- Chirmi- whatever. Henry has jun -"
Henry walked away then, swiping his keycard with unnecessary force and slamming open the door, before he had to hear that asshole actually utter the racist-as-fuck words "jungle fever."
The Corporate Structure textbook from his class sophomore year had praised Sam Saperstein's innovative ideas, but the flesh-and-blood Saperstein was not exactly Henry's idea of a CEO. He was young, probably the same age as his assistant Joan, and the first thing he did when they showed up Monday afternoon was dance Charmonique all around the floor with all of the Financial Analysts, singing her name to the tune of - Henry kind of wanted to die - "Superfreak." But then, after he'd twirled Charmonique into her seat in the FAs' bright and spacious shared office, he'd come back and held Henry's face in his hands and studied him closely.
Henry could remember the last time his face had been cupped between two warm palms. It had been his grandfather, nearly ten years ago, just before he left his grandparents' flat in Seoul. The air had been thick with the scents of bananas and tea and jackfruit, and his grandmother had been puttering in the kitchen, making him a snack he could eat at the airport; his grandfather had held his face and said, in his broken English, "You are a very good boy." At the time, it hadn't meant much, but he'd never seen his grandparents again, and now here was his boss, looking deep into his eyes like he had nothing better to do. Henry squirmed.
"You've got the soul of a poet, by gum!" Saperstein finally proclaimed, sounding thrilled by his own discovery. "We can't waste talent like that! Joan, get this young man to Marketing, post-haste!"
His cheeks still squished by Saperstein's surprisingly soft hands, Henry couldn't speak to thank him for the opportunity. At the first touch of Joan's hand on his elbow, his face was released. He opened his mouth, but Saperstein waved him off. "Tut-tut, my boy! You're going to spin straw into gold for me! Ha, that's three for three with the new interns! Joan, I think a congratulatory quinoa is called for."
"Yes, sir," she said, smiling like she thought her face might crack if she moved her mouth more than a millimeter, which Henry found refreshingly professional of her. The office wasn't a place for fun and games, after all.
"Wait," he said, before Joan could efficiently stride away after showing him to a small office dominated by floor-to-ceiling windows. "Who's my manager?"
"Faisal is the head of marketing, but he's on sabbatical this year. You can report to Mr. Saperstein or to myself, if he is unavailable."
That seemed more than a little odd, but Joan appeared disinclined to expand on the topic. Henry tried a different question. "I thought there were only two internship positions available, and Charmonique and I filled them. Who's the third intern?"
Joan pursed her lips, looking a lot less professional all of a sudden. "She's from your school too; Mr. Saperstein's an alumnus and only recruits from there. He said he was playing a hunch, bringing this girl on. You probably won't meet her; she's been placed with Sales."
"I see," he said, rolling up his sleeves and dismissing the third intern from his mind. "What's my first task?" he asked, and Joan plunked a plastic bottle of children's cough syrup in front of him.
"What are the odds of us getting your mom to give us dessert too?" Charmonique asked in an undertone.
Henry was surprised - that had not been a small platter of Macaroni Rosa they'd polished off - but turned his head to look over the back of their booth. "I'll go find out," he said.
He returned, triumphantly bearing a plate loaded with cannoli. "I'm Henry, and I'll be your waiter tonight," he said.
"It's a good thing you're so damn cute, because otherwise you'd get no play," Charmonique said. She'd been saying things like that since they'd met freshman year at the special orientation for scholarship kids at which it was impressed upon them that the school had a particular rule for them: one strike and you're out.
"You sound like my mother," he grumbled.
"That's because, like me, she's a very wise lady," she countered, snagging one of the cannoli and delicately sucking a chocolate chip out of the sweet ricotta filling. She moaned in appreciation, and Henry decided to wait her out; he'd been here before, watching Charmonique bop along to a song only she could hear, totally engaged in what she was doing, which at that moment was savoring every last bite of her meal.
More quickly than he'd expected, she was back, patting her mouth with her napkin. "So, you still haven't met the giraffe?"
"The other intern," Charmonique said sternly, as if they were continuing a conversation they'd already begun, and he should have been able to keep up.
"I'm not psychic," he muttered under his breath. Char booped his nose, which might actually have been worse than the cheek-pinching. "Why are you calling her the giraffe?"
"Because she's got legs from here to here" - Charmonique's full wingspan, including inch-long lacquered nails, was impressive, and indicated an intern roughly the size of the Abominable Snowman - "and you really can't miss her. I don't know how you have."
A giant intern didn't sound like much to get worked up about. "Uh-huh. Fascinating." There - see how she liked her sarcasm turned against her.
Charmonique just laughed indulgently at him. "You won't know what hit you when Eliza gets a load of you."
His brain was pretty useless until about noon, which was why he scheduled all of his big lecture classes for the mornings and the seminars for the afternoons. It was also why he and Charmonique were an unbeatable team, because she was the very definition of a morning person, so they had one brain operating at optimum capacity at all times.
Still a little sleepy, he unthinkingly threaded his limbs into the workout clothes he'd laid out the night before - planning was essential for the designated times his brain went kablooey - and blearily stumbled over to the little sink to brush his teeth and wash his face. The cold water jolted him enough to grab his keycard, room key, and Walkman before he left.
Charmonique had scrawled, at the beginning of the year, a note on the whiteboard on her door, and it was still up now: Today is not the day, Henry. Don't even think about it. He laughed at the sight of the familiar curlicues making up his name, and the heart she'd drawn underneath, and resigned himself to going to the gym alone again.
He'd somehow timed it right, so he got the good treadmill that morning, furthest away from the TV that was constantly blaring E! Henry had absolutely no desire to keep up with the Kardashians, and their voices had a way of cutting through all of the tuneage on his carefully curated mixtapes. His dad's old Sony Walkman was a bright splash of yellow on top of the treadmill's display panel, and he started to jog to the sounds of "Eye of the Tiger."
He didn't know what he usually looked at when he was running - some kind of tunnel vision happened and he mostly stopped seeing in order to concentrate on his breathing - but a flash of something bright caught his eye and he looked through glass walls into a small classroom, where a girl with the reddest hair he'd ever seen was dancing by herself. She wasn't especially coordinated or polished, but she was definitely getting in an aerobic workout. Maybe she didn't realize people could see her?
Or maybe, he thought, picking up the pace as "Sultans of Swing" started up, she just didn't care.
With only two weeks left until midterms, he was kicking himself for trying to take Financial Engineering, which he absolutely didn't need, just because Charmonique did for her Finance concentration. He hooked his chin over her right shoulder, and she hmmed quietly and questioningly. "None of this makes any sense to me," he hissed at her, which didn't stop the serene flow of her pen as she took copious notes on pink-lined graph paper.
"And yet," she murmured.
"And yet," he agreed, knowing she'd beat it all into him somehow. Numbers made sense to her in a way they just didn't for him, but he'd made his peace with it. There was no point getting upset about it, not when he had like eighteen other things on his to-do list. Senior year was no joke, and it felt like it was just flying by.
"Hey," she said as they were filing out of the lecture hall, "I told Eliza she could take the bus over to KinderKare with us."
"Oh," he said, still blinking - an hour of staring at projections on a screen was not helping his dry eyes - "that's fine."
"And maybe you could spend some more time with her once we're there," Charmonique sing-songed.
He stopped in his tracks, finally piecing together why she kept mentioning the World's Tallest Intern. "Why are you so determined to pair me up? I've got plenty on my plate, thank you very much."
She shrugged but continued to beam fondly at him, and he didn't have the heart to keep questioning her, because she clearly just wanted him to be as happy as she was. "When's your next phone date with Mitchell? And when am I meeting this guy in person?"
"Tonight, and this weekend."
"Sounds like a plan." He actually had to work over the weekend, but he could rearrange the schedule a bit for his best friend.
Eliza wasn't that tall, Henry thought; it was just that she was wearing five-inch stilettos like that was completely normal attire for a college student heading off to an unpaid internship. Plus a sinfully tight aqua-colored dress that had a hemline short enough to show off nearly all of her stockings, which had a dizzying pattern of stars on them. He felt a sudden burst of kinship with Joan, who'd pursed her lips at the thought of Eliza, and wondered what on earth Charmonique had seen that would make her think this girl would even be interested in him. Or vice-versa.
She was very beautiful, though.
A much more troubling thought occurred to him then. If Charmonique's matchmaking skills were on the fritz to this extent, what did that mean with respect to Mitchell? Unable to control himself the way he had every other time her man's name had been mentioned, Henry started singing the waka-chika theme the MST3K bots had made up for the movie Mitchell under his breath, stopping when Charmonique elbowed him sharply. He’d forgotten that he'd made her watch last year's Turkey Day MST3K marathon with him, and that Mitchell had been the big finale.
Eliza had hair like fire, big and bright and so red. "Hi, Henry?" she said in a voice lower than he'd expected, as they walked toward her at the bus stop. "I've, um, heard so much about you." She had a purse that looked like it probably weighed half of what she did slung over her shoulder and both her arms behind her back in some awkward contortion, maybe to balance out the drag of that purse.
"Me too. It's nice to finally meet you," Henry said, reaching out a hand. It took a long moment for her to disengage whatever it was she was doing behind her own back and bring her hand around to shake his. He got a little buzz when their hands met and he looked up into her improbably brown eyes. Charmonique would kill him on the spot if he didn't at least try to get to know this girl; he could make a little bit of an effort. "I hear they've got you in Sales?"
"Yeah," she said, "it's kind of fun in theory, but from shadowing Serena, it looks like it's basically pandering to all these dudes who think you should faint at their feet just cause they got through medical school." She made a big, extravagant whoop-de-doo gesture, and he couldn't help smiling a little. He didn't need to be Sherlock Holmes - or even his actual favorite, Dr. Watson - to deduce that all of her gestures were likely to be extravagant.
"Do they actually think all women want to marry doctors?" Charmonique asked.
"Totes," Eliza said, butchering the English language, and Henry felt his smile slip.
"Hello," a curly-haired guy said, doing an actual double-take at the sight of the three of them walking into KinderKare together. Actually, scratch that, the guy's eyes seemed trained on where Eliza's hand was looped around his arm; she hadn't even asked, just latched on, but Henry hadn't minded that much, because those shoes had to be killing her to walk in.
"Can I help you?" the guy asked. "Please say you're in need of my assistance."
"Nope," Eliza said, smiling sunnily at the guy, "I know where I'm going, and it's on Henry's way, so."
He might as well do it right. Henry offered his other arm to Charmonique, who took it with alacrity. The surge of smugness he felt died down when he saw that the guy wasn't being a total ass about being denied; he just pulled off a courtly bow and waved them off with a hand on his heart and a deeply intoned, "Ladies." Henry nodded, pleased that the guy was behaving respectfully. Wait a minute. He wasn't a lady. Henry looked back and saw the guy raise an eyebrow at him.
Fifteen more minutes, Charmonique's email read at the end of the day. That was fine; Henry had the bus schedule memorized, even if none of the bus drivers did, and they'd still be able to make the last off-peak bus and save a dollar apiece. He was willing to bet that Eliza would make something of a production of packing up for the day, so he headed over to the Sales cubicles, which were mostly deserted. Did the salespeople actually do anything productive with their days?
He was taken aback to find himself looking past Eliza's back, luxurious hair tumbling down over a straight spine, to see the curly-haired guy from that morning sprawled across her desk and flirting extravagantly. Restraint was obviously not in this fellow's dictionary.
"Transferring for your last year of college has gotta be rough," the guy was saying.
"Well, I'd run through all the farmboys and wanted to see what a big-city man was like," Eliza said teasingly. At least he hoped she was teasing. Yes, she was laughing at herself, which was sort of charming.
"Farm - were you a farmgirl? Oh, you're getting a little Mary Ann in my Ginger fantasy. That's totally doing it for me." When Henry couldn't control his instinct to scoff, the guy looked up and winked at him. What was his deal? "Looks like your chaperone's here. Catch you tomorrow, babe."
Eliza turned to see him, smiling at him before Henry could wipe the befuddlement off his face, and said, "Bye, Freddy. Hey, Henry - I'm ready to go."
"Uh, sit tight," he said, looking at his watch. "Charmonique needs ten more minutes."
"Coolio," she chirped, and whipped out her smartphone. From the way it was angled in her hands, he thought she took a picture of him, but he didn't hear that shutter sound, so he guessed not. He pushed the thought out of his mind and made up an agenda for the weekend that would let him meet all his obligations and still leave time for a little relaxation. He was going to be working for the weekend.
This early on a Saturday morning, the computer lab was no more than half full, so he had time to check his gmail after downloading and printing the papers he'd found in the footnotes of the critical analysis of Keats's odes.
Henry, the email on top said, Charmonique tells me you will be meeting Mitchell this evening. I expect a detailed report from you, young man, sent with all possible speed and thought. -Mae Whitaker
Damn, Ms. Mae still had that high-school principal authority; he felt himself sit up straighter as his eyes took in her words. There wouldn't be any way of deceiving her, since she was the one who'd pointed out most of his tells. He spared a moment to be thankful his mother hadn't yet discovered email, or worse, Skype - she never had asked how Charmonique stayed in touch with her parents, serving in Afghanistan - but mostly just hoped Mitchell was a total rock star who valued Charmonique the way she deserved.
If he was going to sit in his room until six for his RA hours, spend most of the night making deliveries, and take the time to get to know Mitchell in a way that would satisfy both Charmonique and Ms. Mae, he needed to buckle down and get some work done.
The knock on his door pulled him out of brainstorming topics for his thesis. He'd picked Keats because of the freshness of language - even when the rhymes clanged or the structure was awkward, it was clear that the poet had been sincere, that the words had poured out of him - but picking a direction in which to go was proving more difficult. There was a phrase in Keats's letters that sounded promising - and there was that knock again. His whiteboard said he was available to act as an RA now, so he heaved himself up from his bed with a sigh and opened the door.
There was a tiny freshman girl on the other side, actually wringing her hands, which he'd never seen anyone do in real life before. "Hi, um, Henry?" she said, her eyes darting to the whiteboard to confirm his name.
"Yes," he said, standing aside. "Come in." He pointed her to the extra chair and pulled out the one tucked under his desk for himself. "What seems to be the problem?"
"It's my roommate? Laurel? She sleeps all day, and I don't think she's going to class, and when I get home, there are always empties in the trash?" She looked at him expectantly, and seemed to deflate when he didn't say anything for a minute. "I mean, I know I'm not her mother - you know, forget it -"
"No," he said, finally remembering himself and trying to smile kindly at her. The poor girl had dark circles under her eyes, and she didn't need any additional stressors like an RA who let underage drinking slide. "You're doing the right thing - a good thing - and being a real friend. What's your name?"
"Dae," she said, finally untangling her hands from each other.
"Okay, Dae," he started, recalling his training, "do you know if she's got family or friends who are local?"
The next knock woke him - he definitely should not have been sleeping, but the desk wasn't nearly as convenient as the bed - and he yawned and scratched the back of his head on his way to the door. Being an RA meant he got, free of charge, a single with a sink, so he had to earn it and not just leave the poor freshmen to fend for themselves. Fixing that thought firmly in his mind, he swung the door open.
It was Eliza, in another pair of spectacularly eye-catching tights and something slinky over it, a large clump of dirt in her hands.
"Eliza!" he said, more surprised than he should have been.
"Henry!" she said, mocking him with a big smile on her face. "Nice hair."
His hand shot back up, frantically trying to smooth down whatever weirdness was currently living on the top of his head.
"No, seriously," she said, walking into his room, "nice hair."
"Um, thanks. What's going on?" he asked, eyeing the dirt suspiciously.
"My pot broke, and I didn't want my poor little plant to die, so I thought you might have something I could stick him into." She extracted one hand from the dirt and gave him a three-fingered salute. "Resident Advisors: always prepared."
"That's the Boy Scouts," he said over his shoulder, looking in his closet for something suitable. The raw almonds he'd bought in bulk had come in a plastic tub; it was flimsy but even something temporary was better than nothing. He dug the tub out of the pile of things he needed to recycle and held it out to her.
Gratefully, she dumped the clump in, and at last he could see a small green shoot at the top of the heap. "What's his name?" he asked.
"Sebastian," she said, still not taking the tub from him.
Guessing she wanted to wash her hands, he stepped back, and she made a beeline for the sink. She backed up when he tried to put Sebastian's tub into her clean hands. "No, I think he'd be happier with you and your two windows."
"Eli - no. I have killed every plant I've ever come into contact with. I killed a cactus last year. Don't make me kill something when I know its name."
"I have faith in you, Henry," she said, sitting on his bed, long legs delineated by those ridiculous skyline tights kicked out in front of her. The blanket was mussed, his papers were everywhere, and the whole bed had to be warm from his lost body heat, but she leaned back on her hands and smiled up at him like she was at a photo-shoot in a room as gorgeous as she was. He shivered and turned back to his closet to find a sweatshirt. "I've heard all about you, so I know your sad botanical history and I'm still trusting my boy Sebastian to your TLC."
God, she was beautiful. "Is that reckless endangerment or just negligence?" he asked, trying to play along as he fumbled with the strings of his hooded sweatshirt.
"Ha! It beginssss," she said nonsensically. "Get over here."
"What? Why?" he asked, even as he took a couple of faltering steps in her direction. He might have a corner single large enough to accommodate an extra chair and boasting two windows, but it was still a dorm room, and those few steps were enough to get him within touching distance.
"Oh, you wanna do it standing up?" she asked, which made his brain short out momentarily - what the hell had Charmonique said to her to talk him up? - and when he came back to his senses, she was standing next to him, one arm looped around his shoulders and the other extended straight out in front of them. "Smile!" she chirped, taking a picture of the two of them.
The flash was blinding, making him blink rapidly. "What exactly are you documenting?" His maroon sweatshirt looked ridiculous next to her black-and-pink dress, he was sure.
"Easy on the fluttering lashes, Scarlett O'Hara," she said, then seemed to realize he wasn't doing it for effect. "Wait, are you really that bothered by the flash?" she asked, her hand hovering near his cheek. "Next time, I won't use one, I swear."
"Next time what? Where are you off to tonight?"
His vision had returned, so he was able to wave a hand in the air between them without accidentally smacking her or copping a feel. "You're all dressed up."
She looked down at herself, surprised. "Not really."
That was it. She wasn't human - no one could be comfortable in clothes that tight or shoes that high all the time. He hoped she at least had actual pajamas to sleep in. Or maybe she slept naked, which was probably pretty comfortable. No, wait, she must have a roommate.
"What are you doing?" she asked, tearing him away from lascivious speculations. He'd never been this, this typical before; he'd never thought a gorgeous girl willingly being so close to him would affect him like this.
"I'm" - he checked his watch and swallowed a curse - "supposed to be meeting Charmonique and her new boyfriend in fifteen minutes."
"For the official interrogation?" she asked, making a gesture he didn't recognize until she added the whipcrack sound.
"Yes," he admitted.
She didn't take the hint and leave, and he couldn't exactly start changing in front of her. "That's nice," she said, wistfully, "the way you guys look out for each other."
Stupid Freddy's stupid words echoed through his mind at that inconvenient moment - it really did have to be hard to transfer schools in your senior year. Without thinking about how his credit card had already been hit plenty by buying the semester's books, or what he was going to tell Charmonique, he spoke. "Do you want to come?" he asked, and her face lit up.
It felt like a date, walking Eliza home after dinner with Charmonique - who'd given him several significant glances and eyebrow swoops, looking enormously pleased with her matchmaking self - and Mitchell. Eliza's arm was tucked through his like it had every right to be there, and they were weaving a little on the sidewalk even though there hadn't been any alcohol on the table.
"So Mitchell was great, right?" he asked. He'd been impressed - relieved to be impressed - by the guy, who'd sat with his arm around Charmonique, not even sweating the inquisition thrown his way. Henry'd never been taken as a threat by any of Charmonique's boyfriends, and this was the first time he was actually okay with that.
"Yeah," Eliza said after a pause that meant she wasn't being sincere. Or maybe she was thinking about something else and he shouldn't read into her silences. He didn't actually know her much better than he knew Mitchell. "It's just - I don't know. Like, obvs, super-hot, but saying grace in a restaurant was kinda weird. Did he seem a little serious to you?"
Okay, that was a first, that he wasn't the one accused of being a killjoy. "I liked that he behaved with decorum. She deserves someone who takes her seriously." He was absolutely going to be able to set Ms. Mae's mind at ease.
"No, yeah, totes," she hemmed and hawed.
"Nothing," she said decisively. "I'd rather talk about you anyway."
How did she do that, make his mouth dry up with just a sidelong glance? What was she even doing with him?
"Really," he croaked, wondering if this was the way blisteringly hot girls made friends. Or maybe it was just her, and she had a way of making whoever she was with feel like he was the only guy in the world. He could smell her perfume, could feel how soft and yielding her body was given the way she was pressed against him, but stopping her, looking into her eyes, and kissing her seemed like possibilities as distant as a star above.
He cleared his throat and accidentally squeezed her arm. "When you said before that you've heard all the stories about me, does that mean you know about the -"
"The Brownie Acquisition, the Toothpaste Incident, the Conquering of Karaoke?" she reeled off archly, counting them off on long, slender fingers. "Yup, I've heard about them all." Her hair brushed against his cheek when she turned to smile smugly at him.
"Even the Streaking Spectacular?"
Her jaw dropped, and he was clearly an idiot, because he even thought her molars were cute. "No! Tell me everything!"
"Oh, I just made that one up," he lied, thankful that Charmonique had at least a vestigial sense of discretion. He had ammunition too; he could have spilled to Mitchell all about the Slip 'n' Slide Extravaganza.
"Why are you asking me when you really want to be asking Eliza?" Charmonique asked, singing the other girl's name.
"Shut. Up." He couldn't take it anymore, the way Eliza kept showing up at his door, looking like a million bucks, looking at him like he was her new best friend. He got that she and her roommate were a personality mismatch of epic proportions, but was that any reason for her to be there every time he turned around? He wasn't even her RA; she lived on the floor below his. She lived in his building and worked at his internship and had nightly visits with her plant that somehow lived in his room, and there was pretty much no escape from the effect she had on him, which was to knock his IQ in half and waste time fantasizing about her like a doofus. He'd actually had to set his alarm fifteen minutes earlier to jerk off before leaving the safe confines of his room every morning, because there was no way in hell he was going to have his body betray him in the middle of some seminar or, worse, at KinderKare. His one and only saving grace was that Eliza wasn't in any of his classes, so at least he wasn't failing the first semester of senior year. "Just tell me what you think."
"Is this for real?" Charmonique asked, picking up his sketchpad, where he'd drawn his idea for a new cough-syrup bottle and label. He nodded and she shook her head. "Offense fully intended: boys are so stupid. That said, this is a good idea."
"Now go tell Eliza, and she'll coo all over you, and then maybe you could finally make a move." Henry desperately wanted to know just where she got the idea that Eliza was secretly pining for him as pathetically as he was for her, because as his best friend it was Char's job to talk him down when he indulged in destructive fantasies that had the potential to sink his GPA.
"I don't think she's at her desk," he mumbled, not wanting to admit that the away symbol next to her name in the interoffice instant-messaging system had been driving him crazy for the past hour. He could so clearly imagine revealing his big idea to her, how her eyes would go wide with admiration, how she'd look up at him - in his fantasy, he was absolutely taller than her - and say something in that sultry voice about his big brain, and then kiss the breath right out of him. Eliza was ruining his life, and Charmonique, her dirty enabler, had abandoned all loyalty to him even though they'd been best friends for three years.
"Mm-hmm," Charmonique said. "Well, as fun as it's been to use my break listening to you, I'm gonna get back to work now."
Henry watched her go with regret - he could have at least brought her a coffee from the little kitchenette on his way over - and took a deep breath before heading over to Sales. Eliza was leaning back in her chair, eyes on her phone, and the inevitable Freddy was sitting on her desk, basically putting his crotch in her line of sight like a total tool. No dignity needed for jobs in Business Affairs, apparently. No work ethic, either.
He didn't want to wait around for Freddy to peel himself off her desk, so he turned and very nearly bumped into Joan. "I've got an idea for the cough syrup advertising," he said, wishing he hadn't let his words trail off apologetically; Charmonique had backed him up, so what else did he need?
"Excellent. Mr. Saperstein's free for the next fifteen minutes. Walk with me." Sounding confident certainly wasn't a problem for Joan.
Now was not the time to ask for a pee break. "Uh, yes, okay," he said, clutching his sketchpad a little closer to his chest.
Saperstein frowned, and Henry found himself faltering. "Run that by me again, son," Saperstein commanded with an orchestra conductor's extravagant gesture.
"Well, I was looking at the ingredients of the cough syrup, and saw eucalyptus oil was listed. And, as you know, sir, koalas famously eat eucalyptus leaves, and I spent a lot of time as a kid pretending to be a wild animal, so I thought -"
"You thought you'd encourage the next generation to dream big, to dream zoologically, by giving the bottle a koala shape?"
"It would, um, stand out on the shelves," he offered when the frown lines on Saperstein's forehead deepened.
"Wallykazam, so it would!" Saperstein mused. "I must admit, I got up to all sorts of monkeyshines as a lad. I would dream that I was a . . . stork."
"A stork, sir?" It was hard to picture, and he hadn't quite gotten the hang of Saperstein's sense of humor.
"There's nothing quite so majestic as a great bird. But a koala is acceptable too." Saperstein held the sketchpad up, examining it with a critical eye. "Not just a poet and a marsupial, but an artist as well. You're a veritable renaissance man, Henry."
There was no point in telling him he'd mostly played at being an elephant, and that for the one day the Henry-koala had existed, he'd pretty much just sat quietly with a book rather than climbing trees. "Thank you, sir."
"Wait," Eliza said, "you did what?"
"Pitched an idea to Saperstein," Henry said, because the adrenaline still hadn't worn off. He felt the movement of the bus and had to turn around and face the front so that he wouldn't hurl into Eliza's or Charmonique's lap.
"How did you even work up the nerve?" Eliza wanted to know.
"Baby boy just needed a pep talk," Charmonique said.
"'Boys are so stupid' does not count as a pep talk," he protested, turning just enough to see them out of the corner of his eye.
"Even though it's totes trulio," Eliza said, high-fiving Charmonique, and Henry recognized that he was outnumbered again.
"Do you say stuff like that to Don Draper?" he asked, clamping his mouth shut just too late to come off as smooth, as the guy who'd pitched to the CEO and not as the guy who was having a jealous conniption.
"He means abs-of-steel Freddy," Charmonique explained. "Because he's always draping himself over your desk." She fixed Henry with a commanding eye, not that he knew what she was willing him to do right there on the bus.
Eliza looked puzzled more than anything, like she hadn't noticed Freddy pretty much making a butt-groove on her desk. "Points for wordplay," she said, pulling the cord to request the next stop.
It was more than a little ironic that the topic he'd finally chosen for his honors thesis was what Keats called his "gordian complication of feelings" toward women, specifically how that complication informed his female characters, because all of the women in his life were confusing the hell out of him. Charmonique had been weirdly distant, leaving the room to take Mitchell's calls so often that they hadn't put in any real studying time this whole week. His inbox had unanswered emails from Ms. Mae and his mother kept asking him why he looked so tired these days. It all boiled down to Eliza, whom he hadn't seen since the Don Draper Incident.
He needed to stay up and get some work done, but his delivery shift had been long and exhausting, so he was in danger of falling asleep unless he gave himself something to do while he studied. He couldn't play music without writing the lyrics into his notes, and he didn't have the energy for a workout. His eye fell on the laundry bag stuffed taut, and he said hello to Sebastian, remembering from Biology 101 that plants responded well to conversation, as he started gathering everything he needed to do an extra-large load.
Somehow he managed to get the bag, his detergent, a dryer sheet, his roll of quarters, his keys, a notebook, a pen, and a book of Keats's letters down the stairs into the laundry room located directly below his dorm room. The wooden table was alarmingly rickety - it shuddered when he dropped his flimsy spiral notebook on it - and the one plastic chair had a long crack along the seat. Sighing, he loaded his clothes into one of the washers and dropped his quarters into the slots, then climbed atop the washer, hoping the rhythm would keep him awake as he read through the poet's letters one more time and hoping even more no one would see him perched there and think he was behaving like a desperate housewife seeking mechanical aid to get off.
He must have been concentrating fiercely, because he was halfway through the year 1818 when he felt the first touch, just a hand on his knee, and he started and whipped his head up, losing his grip on the book, which landed splayed on the floor.
"Eliza," he started, but unlike every other time he'd seen her, she didn't interrupt with a burst of speech that he only half followed. She was silent, a little frown wrinkling her forehead, and before he could ask her what was wrong, she hooked her index fingers in the belt loops of his jeans and slid him forward - his jeans just skated along the washing machine - for her kiss. Her mouth was sweet and firm over his, and the tiny fraction of his mind that wasn't shocked into blankness vaguely registered that her gold dress must not have much of a back, judging by the warm skin and thin crisscrossing straps his pioneering fingers kept encountering. If he only ever got to do one thing for the rest of his life, he wanted it to be kissing her, and he groaned into her mouth. If this was all a dream - well, kudos to his imagination, which had to be working overtime.
The rhythm of the washing machine rocking beneath him sped up, like it was as excited as he was, and he brought his hands up to cup her face and draw it even closer. The noise she made, halfway between a hum and a moan, was enough to get him to wind his legs around her waist.
The washer shuddered to a halt and a buzzer sounded, startling him into pulling his mouth from hers. He'd made a mess of her pinned-up hair, and one of the thin straps of her dress was slipping down to kiss her bicep. The shocked color of her swollen mouth should be what Crayola used for red, and he'd bet her lips were tingling like his. "What -" he started to ask, panting helplessly, looking up into her wide eyes. This absolutely had to be a dream; she still hadn't said anything, probably because even his libidinous subconscious couldn't imagine any plausible conversation.
It was the shock of his life when she did speak. "I couldn't keep waiting," she said carefully, like she was so buzzed on their kisses that stringing words together took a tremendous effort.
"I'm glad," he said stupidly, uncurling his legs from around her and standing on his own two feet - yes, okay, on his tiptoes - to kiss her again.
He had no idea what time it was when they stumbled into his room, whether it was still Friday night or maybe early Saturday morning. All he knew was that Eliza had kissed him out of the laundry room and up the stairs and had breathed out a tiny disappointed moan every time he pulled back to gulp some air - what was her lung capacity, anyway? - so he'd surged forward again, eager to pick up where he'd left off. It was crazy to think he was the one doing this to her - he'd always thought of himself as a great boyfriend on paper, but not someone who could drive a girl absolutely wild - but there was no other reason for her to be biting his lip and sucking his tongue and grinding against him except that she wanted to, and she wasn't slowing down.
They'd gotten so turned around he didn't know which one of them had been backed into the bed; all he knew was that they were suddenly horizontal. That strap of her dress that had been inching down before gave up the ghost and snapped to lie loose against her arm, exposing most of her left breast, and until he felt her slender fingers opening his jeans and sliding into his underwear, he kept his eyes on that prize. When he felt her touch, he dove forward, mouth against her bared skin, panting again, too inept to do much else. But she must have been wound up already because in a matter of moments she was crying out and the smell of sex in the air - and the thought that he'd worked her up to that point - had him coming right after her.
He'd come in his pants like a teenager with his first real live girl, and of course it had happened with this girl. Humiliated, Henry started to disentangle himself from her but she wasn't letting him go. She shifted so that her mouth was against his and kissed him again, softer this time. Eliza was peeling his sticky jeans and messy boxers off him and he gave up trying to figure her out and just went with it; he rolled them so she was on top to give her a way to escape.
Instead she dipped her head down to drop kisses on him. Gravity won out and her breast popped fully free of her flimsy dress, and he carefully smoothed down the intact strap to bare her other breast to him too. "God, Henry," he heard as he strained upward to kiss between them.
Eliza rocked up on her knees and did some complicated shimmy that got her dress completely off, leaving her in a pair of lacy underwear and some kind of complicated looking mostly backless contraption that was probably supposed to prop her breasts up but had stopped doing anything of the kind. She guided his hands to the lacing at her side and helped him pull it off. It was like armor in his hands, heavy and constrictive, and when he pulled it free he could see that it had bitten deeply into her tender skin. He put his mouth to all of the marks, his tongue tracing all the red indentations sunk into her soft skin. Closing his eyes, he breathed in the scents of her body, marveling at the way she felt so warm against his mouth. She had him sitting halfway up to be near her, and he felt her hands cradling his heavy head.
Henry skimmed his hands up the unbelievable length of her legs, over the delectable curves of her bottom, and past the scrap of lace she was still wearing. His fingers sank into the wet heat of her, and he knew he'd made the right move - going on instinct alone, completely unable to think his way through any of this unexpected encounter - when she grabbed his big ears like they were handles and kissed him, moaning into his mouth as her body clenched around his fingers. She was like a tidal wave, crashing over him and he gasped and tried not to drown.
As her shudders died down, she pulled her mouth free of his and licked, in small, delicate swipes, along his jaw and over his Adam's apple. "I knew it," she said, sounding hoarse and exhausted.
He tensed, waiting for a final pronouncement. Though why she was still nuzzling him if she had a complaint he couldn't tell.
"I knew you couldn't be so hot for no reason," she said, murmuring the words into his cheek, and he laughed aloud in relief. "Srsly," she said, swatting at his backside.
That got him confident enough to pull on clean shorts, run back downstairs, stuff his wet clothes in the dryer, and gather up his things. When he came back, Eliza had kicked off her heels, pulled on his Dial-a-Song t-shirt, and thrown herself over his bed, her face pressed inelegantly into his pillow.
She cracked one eye open and scrunched up her nose at him. "C'mere," she said. It was a tight fit, both of them in his extra-long twin, but he had no complaints.
None of his fantasies about Eliza had ever included a luxurious, languorous, protracted awakening in which she was curled attractively against him, they both had magically minty-fresh mouths, and she whispered shyly (but with great detail) just how he'd rocked her world the night before. Good thing, because the reality was nothing like that.
"Henry," Eliza groaned, drooling on his chest, "if you don't turn off that alarm right now, I will do something bad to you." At least that's what he thought she said, because she hadn't lifted her head to speak, so he mostly got his sternum tickled by her lips.
He twisted and slapped at his alarm clock, finally connecting on the third try. "Sorry," he said, trying not to breathe morning breath all over her. "I usually work out first thing." Plus the gym was emptier on Saturday mornings, so he could actually get some time in with the free weights as well.
"Mmm," she said, lifting her head and smiling wickedly at him. "Good idea."
Before he could suggest that they roll out of bed, take turns brushing at his sink only three feet away - he had extra orientation packets with toothbrushes stacked in his closet - and hop back into bed, she'd clapped her hands on his face and kissed him. The sour taste of her stopped mattering as soon as he'd registered it, because her mouth was hot and wet and she was on top of him, next to naked, and he was in pretty much the same condition. The skin of her back was so soft under his shirt, and she smiled against his mouth when he peeled her panties down.
"Condom?" she asked, and he thunked his head against the pillow as everything came crashing down. He hadn't carried a condom in his wallet for ages, not since Olivia, two summers ago, who'd slipped her number into his hand along with a tip when he'd delivered food to her fourth-floor walk-up.
"No," he admitted before remembering those welcome boxes had not just toothbrushes and toothpaste but also condoms and dental dams and all sorts of other stuff that could be handy in situations like this. "Wait!" he said, bounding up and dumping the contents of the box at the top of the stack on the floor. The condom he held triumphantly up was an unfortunate shade of blue, but he'd take it.
Eliza was eagerly waving him in like an air-traffic controller - he still had no idea what he'd done that got her thinking he was worthy of her seduction - but they both froze when they heard a knock at his door. "Ignore it?" she whispered.
"That's Charmonique's knock," he whispered back, not sure why he was whispering since he already knew he'd be opening the door.
The eyebrow Charmonique gave him when she saw that he was naked except for a pair of silky soccer shorts was mortifying, but she mercifully said nothing except, "Here," as she thrust a bottle of coconut water at him.
He accepted it wordlessly and tried to hustle her inside so he could close the door behind her, not needing any of his impressionable freshmen seeing him in makeshift underwear. His plan was foiled by the way she stopped dead upon seeing Eliza, sitting up and pulling her underwear back on. Henry suddenly remembered he still had the royal-blue condom in his hand and dropped it like it had grown hot.
It landed near his stained-stiff jeans and underwear, Eliza's shoes and dress and armor-thing - corset his scattered brain suddenly supplied - and all three of them looked at the mess on the floor and started to laugh.
Eliza stood and stepped off the bed, kissing his shoulder and stealing the coconut water as she went. So she was a thief as well as an orgasm donor.
The door finally closed behind her with a click, and he found himself able to think. "Two seconds," he said to Charmonique, who was giving the bed as wide a berth as she could, sitting instead in his extra chair. He brushed his teeth, washed his face, and pulled on his pajamas. "Okay, I'm all yours. Are you going to tell me what's wrong?"
But Charmonique was wearing her stubborn face, the one she got whenever exam week was on, like nothing and nobody was going to stop her from doing as she damn well pleased. "What makes you think something's wrong?"
"You always try to hydrate me when we need to talk through a problem," he pointed out. "And we haven't really worked on anything for class in about a week." Charmonique wasn't cracking. "Come on, please tell me. I've been worried."
She looked right at him for a long moment. "If you got . . . sick, would you stay in school or take a break and come back when you were healthy again, even if you had to do it without your scholarship?"
His heart felt like it had dropped into the bottom of his stomach, as dense as a cannonball. "You're sick?" She looked fine, glowing even, nothing like his dad, who'd seemed to grow more brittle every day for that last long year. She shook her head, but he wasn't about to be reassured by a gesture. "What is it?"
"Henry. I'm not sick."
It was someone else, then, because she was the type to look out for everybody. It couldn't be her parents - one or both of them would have been shipped back if they couldn't serve. "Is it your grandmother?" Who else did she have? Her terrible brothers, Mitchell – it was Mitchell, it had to be. How bad was it?
He didn't realize he'd started to pace until she caught him by the hand, stopping him in his tracks. "I'm pregnant."
"What?" That was the last thing he'd expected her to say, and the whiplash of hearing what was potentially very good news when he'd braced himself for the worst made him dizzy. He sat on the rough, thin carpet, not entirely sure if his brain or his legs had made the decision.
His mouth kept opening and closing as he tried to formulate the question delicately. "Have you decided -"
His hand was still in hers, so he squeezed. "When do you have to decide by?" She couldn't still have a decision to make if she was more than three or four months along, right?
She swallowed, hard, that stubborn mask slipping to show him scared eyes. "Next week."
His imagination had deplorable limits, apparently. He'd never dreamt, after spending so much of his time in neuron-dulling fantasies about her, that actually having Eliza in his room demanding to be touched would spur him to greater heights of academic achievement. But it was true - he felt sharper than ever, more able to connect disparate pieces of research into a coherent thesis, even more likely to take a stand in the lively debates in his Victorian Poets seminar. It was like his brain wanted as much stimulation as his body was getting.
And his body was getting plenty - enough that he had to put his foot down and say no to the drug Eliza was peddling, no matter how much he wanted to say yes.
"Come onnnnn," Eliza wheedled. "I can wash your hair," she said, smiling, so it was clear she'd picked up on just how much he liked it when she tugged at his hair, "among other things." She walked her fingers up his chest and slid her hand around his neck, drawing his face close. "There might even be a 'look, Ma, no hands' situation, if you know what I mean," she said, her breath warm on his lips.
Of course he knew what she meant; clarity was always her strong suit. "We can't," he said again, retreating to the authority of undeniable fact. "Pickering Hall has single-sex bathrooms, so I cannot enter the women's bathroom and you cannot be smuggled into the men's bathroom." If, in the back of his mind, he was worried about getting carried away and foregoing a condom for sex with her as water rained down on them, he wasn't going to mention it to her; Charmonique's secret was still her own.
"Ugh, why is the fact that you're such a good boy such a fucking turn-on?" Eliza groaned, throwing herself back on his bed dramatically. It was only fair that he should get on top of her, if she was going to take up the entire bed. As usual, she started pinching the soft skin at his elbow, and at some point he was going to have to sit her down, ask if she was even aware of the habit, and wait for an explanation. "Wait, isn't there an RA bathroom? We could totally play Harry Potter and the Mermaid in the Prefects' bathroom."
Henry pulled back from kissing her chin, surprised. "You read those too?" They weren't exactly obscure titles, but he'd assumed she'd been out having a wild-child life while he'd been poring over all the books in the nerd library. Or maybe she'd seen the movies.
"Hello, Weasley pride! You write a series about magical redheads, of course I'm gonna read it," she said. "You and me, baby, we'd rule Ravenclaw."
"The Weasleys were Gryff-" he managed before she interrupted him in the best way possible.
Charmonique's room was usually neat – more likely to have papers and books scattered around than clothes or trinkets – but it looked like a hurricane had swept through recently. Henry started gathering up all the loose sheets of graph paper covered in her neat, swift handwriting and stacking them so that he had a place to sit. She was in her old purple robe, fluffy and comforting, the hood drawn up over her twists and her comforter pulled over her knees.
"What do you need?" he asked, holding out the sizable stack of pages to her. His eyes widened when she uncharacteristically shoved them into a folder without tapping the stack to get all the edges straight.
"What've you got?" she said quietly.
He had Macaroni Rosa in the insulated delivery bag he'd dropped by the door, but that wasn't what she needed right now. "Funny you should ask," he said, perching next to her and opening his arms up wide. He rocked her a little when she fell into his arms, her face pressed into the side of his neck. "Did you want to talk?"
"Feels like that's all I've been doing since I peed on a stick," she said.
"What's Mitchell saying?" he asked, trying to reason it out for himself. Mitchell was very religious – though not enough to abstain, obviously – so he probably wasn't super pro-choice, but it didn't look like Charmonique was sporting an engagement ring either.
"Not much," Char said, sitting up and wiping her eyes. "I do this, it's gonna be me and Granmama until my Moms and Pops get back."
"They don't know?" Henry guessed, stricken for her. He'd never dream of telling his mother he'd gotten a girl pregnant, but Char was as close to her parents as he'd been with his dad.
"I haven't been able to get through to them," she said listlessly. "Granmama said a baby's happy news but I could have been smarter about the timing." She opened the folder and looked with unseeing eyes at the top sheet, where he could see two columns. "There's a lot of variables . . ." she said, trailing off like she just didn't have the energy to continue.
"I'm not a variable," he said, enunciating as clearly as he could. "I'm a constant." She was the sister he'd never had, and he hoped that he was the brother she deserved.
Her smile was small and sad, but she reached out and held his hand. He shivered when her cold skin touched his – he was used to her running warm. He was used to her being bright and joyous.
"I mean it. If you're not living with Ms. Mae, you and the baby are living with me once we graduate. And we're graduating together." If he could just impress Saperstein enough to get a permanent offer from KinderKare, they could even live on his salary and find a place near enough to Ms. Mae's that her help wouldn't have to be purely theoretical.
Her lip trembled a little, but he thought he saw a dimple's quick flash in her cheek. "Look who's large and in charge."
"Damn straight," he said, and she laughed outright.
"I'll talk to my professors," she conceded. "I don't want to be so close and not finish."
"You know my notes are yours," he offered, just in case she wasn't thinking clearly enough to realize.
"And Eliza's in the rest of my classes," she said, mulling it over. "Hey," she said, poking him – which might have been worse than cheek- or elbow-pinching but still wasn't as bad as nose-booping – "what's Eliza gonna say about us shacking up together?"
His throat immediately went dry, but Charmonique was all about knocking his excuses down before he could even utter them, so of course she handed him her bottle of iced tea. He swallowed and felt not even a little bit better for it. "Why should it matter to her what we're doing after graduation?"
"Henry," Charmonique said, and she was totally channeling Ms. Mae, which meant he was in big trouble. "That girl is crazy about you, straight-up dizzy, I'm talking doodling little spiky-haired boys in her notebooks kind of head over heels, and you think you're just gonna say 'Congratulations!' at graduation and go your separate ways?" Char was shaking her head wisely – she loved being right just a little too much, but then again, so did he; it was part of why they'd clicked. "Ginger Thang is thirsty for some Henry."
"Ha, maybe I should be a refreshing beverage for Halloween." It might have been weak – okay, it was totally weak – but Charmonique's eyeroll did not have to be quite so profound.
"You really think you're getting out of a couple's costume?" she asked pityingly.
"Watch me." She looked better when she was teasing him rather than worrying about her own future. "Are you feeling any better now?"
After guilting him into fetching the macaroni, Char just smiled at him, cuddling into her robe and resting her hand over her belly. "I really did want to have this baby. I always wanted to be a mom," she said quietly.
"Good," he said, handing over her fork and digging in.
"You're my favorite," she said, joining in.
Thanks to Char's warning, he stood firm against Eliza's big eyes and naughty hands when she did everything in her power to convince him he should be Prince Eric to her Ariel. His Shaun of the Dead costume was cheap, comfortable, and hilarious, so that was that. Plus he would look terrible in flowy pants and a shirt open to the waist.
Thanks to Eliza's sweet mouth and shamelessness, he was actually looking forward to going to the alcohol-free party he and the other RAs were throwing for the freshmen of Pickering Hall and then to whatever after-party she found.
He had his door propped open so his freshmen could find him if they needed him while he was centuries back with Keats. The enjambment of the heroic couplets in "Lamia" was much more irregular than in Keats's stanzaic works, and maybe he could spin that into a commentary on Lamia's hybrid nature, the serpent who lived and loved as a woman.
"Henry," he heard, and looked up to see Eliza standing in his doorway, a garment bag draped over one arm and the other bent behind her. There was no anxiety on her face, but he knew by now that she tugged at the ends of hair behind her back whenever she was nervous.
"Hi!" he said, smiling and closing up his notebook. She grinned back, her hidden hand reappearing, and he tipped his chair back just enough that she had to lean in to kiss him. "Um, the door's open," he pointed out when she swung her leg over to straddle him, her weight getting all four feet of the chair back on solid ground.
"These infants grew up on HBO," she said breathily into his ear, making him squirm. "Is some PG kissing really going to horrify them?"
"That's not the word I'd use," he said, swallowing her reply with another kiss and trying to banish the thought of his freshmen lined up, agog, at his door, watching the slinky curve of her spine as she rocked her hips.
"Oh, the English major speaks," she mocked, pulling gently at his hair to guarantee that his vocabulary deserted him entirely. "C'mon, why aren't you ready yet?"
He clasped his hands around her waist. "It's gonna take me five minutes to get into my costume and the party doesn't start for another two hours." He looked over her shoulder, saw no one, and decided to bury his face against her skin. "Don't tell me you need all that time to get ready," he said into her cleavage.
"Nope," was all she said, but he caught her meaning and slammed the door shut.
Lying on his bed gave him an excellent vantage point for watching Eliza get ready. The fragrant breeze that she made when she flipped her head upside-down to brush out her hair cooled him down a little, but there was a funny sinking feeling in his stomach as her mouth opened in a perfect oval so that she could carefully apply her makeup. Char's assertion that Eliza was crazy about him echoed in his head; he was crazy about her too, and he wanted to say something about their future but couldn't figure out what.
Eliza approximated a mermaid tail with a shimmery blueish skirt cut diagonally at the hem and then strapped on a purple clamshell bra that made him sit straight up in his bed in wonder. "That is –" he started, only to be interrupted.
"An A+ costume, I know, right? You totes need to step up your game."
"I'm bringing it," he assured her loftily, digging in his closet for the white button-down shirt that'd been covered in soot and smoke from an altercation with the coal-fire pizza oven. He pulled it out triumphantly and tossed it on the desk along with a red Sharpie and his black pants. Eliza lifted an eyebrow and draped herself over his unmade bed, the red of her hair bright against the navy-blue pillowcase. It really did take him only a few minutes to slip on the pants and shirt, knot the tie around his forehead, and stain the pocket of his shirt with the marker tip. "Done."
There was no recognition in her eyes when he turned to present himself, but she looked him appreciatively up and down and he still had no idea what she found so appealing about him. "I think I'm a little offended," she said. "You're so worried about your RA-ees catching a glimpse of us making out a little, but you haven't thought at all about Sebastian's tender feelings. How do you think he feels about our non-stop bonefest? About the free subscription to Skinemax?"
Henry mutely pointed to the little plant's shining leaves. "Sebastian appears to be thriving in an atmosphere of sunlight, limited water, and plenty of intimacy." And it took him seeing her in her Ariel costume to realize why exactly she'd named her plant Sebastian.
"Sebastian's a little perv," Eliza said, smiling and tugging him closer by the hand. "That's my boy."
He let himself be pulled down into her arms, into her undemanding kisses. "Come on," he finally said, rolling so he could rest his weight on his side and one elbow and tracing her hairline with a careful, marveling finger. "I need to get things set up."
"You go ahead," she said, pushing the ends of his tie-headband away from her cheek. "I need to get my shoes anyway, so I'll meet you down there."
He'd realized what felt like ages ago that he couldn't choose between the sustained happiness he felt when she stayed glued to his side all day and the uprush of joy he felt when he saw her again after having been separated – it was a tie – and in any case he really did need to make sure Billy and the rest of the brain trust hadn't messed anything up. He tied his shoes, grabbed the banners and decorations he'd made, jammed his keys into his pants pocket, stole one last kiss from Eliza perched on the edge of his bed, and jogged out to the elevator.
The rec room was empty, but at least it was clean. He was trying to figure out if he'd hung the biggest banner properly when Charmonique walked in. "Hey," he called, "is this thing straight?"
"Sort of," she responded. "Real answer: you're the only one who cares."
That was no doubt absolutely true, so he nodded and stepped back; it was close enough. "What's wrong?" he asked, uneasily aware that it seemed to be all he was asking her lately.
"Nothing's wrong. Just some things finally got settled." Her voice was flat but not in a bad way, exactly. Henry just waited for a clearer explanation. "This baby is gonna be a Whitaker, not a McMoney."
"Oh, Mitchell called?"
"Yeah, he finally remembered how to dial my number, and then it was only to say that Halloween was a pagan holiday that went against the church, and that he hoped I would not be participating in any celebrations of it."
"Really? That's it?" What the fuck was wrong with Mitchell?
"Yuuuup. So that's it, we're done, and he doesn't have to call me ever again."
"What if he comes to his senses, though?" he asked, just in case, because Mitchell had at least been cool enough to fall for Char in the first place.
"He better do it on his hands and knees," Char said, adjusting her little panda ears and walking toward the table at the front. "When did you even have time to draw all of these?" she asked, flipping through the stack of decorations he'd made between deliveries. "And why can you draw cats but not pumpkins?" she asked, not quite successfully choking back a laugh.
"Shut up," he requested politely, which just made her laugh openly in his face, but at least she helped him blu-tack all of his spooky kitties and deformed vegetation to the walls and even sang "The Monster Mash" as she worked.
Thanksgiving was approaching at a rapid clip, but Henry was managing not to get sucked into an anxiety spiral. He had to work crazy hours because his mother wasn't going to pay any delivery boy the holiday hourly rate, but he had his thesis research done and a solid grip on what he needed to know for finals, so at least he wasn't about to fail out of school. The internship was for the whole academic year, which meant he had some time before he needed to ask Saperstein if he could transition to a permanent role; he had no idea how to do that, but there was time.
He was being run off his feet making deliveries, but at least he didn't have classes and exams to worry about for the week, just work and the internship. He wondered whether it would be Eliza or Charmonique who would mock him more for considering a sixty-hour work week a bit of a break. Honestly, though, it could just as easily be Saperstein, who swung by at least once a week and always looked vaguely disappointed to see him working quietly every time; Saperstein seemed to want a much more exciting employee in that spot. Henry had no idea how to spice himself up, and anyway he might have been reading his boss wrong, given that the resolutely unspicy Joan was the most senior employee at the company.
He could figure it out later, when he wasn't hauling giant pans of lasagna from one end of the city to the other.
"Why are you taking a Women's Studies seminar?" Eliza asked, jostling his shoulder with hers as they all sat on the floor of Charmonique's room, the better to gain access to the tray of Spicy Chicken Rigatoni his mom had sent home with him. "I mean, what are you gonna learn that the two fiercest ladies you know can't teach you?" she went on, high-fiving Char, who was nestled deep into the zebra-striped pillow with arms Ms. Mae had sent back with her after Thanksgiving.
"It's a requirement for the major," he said, stealing his tentative schedule for next semester back from her and tucking it under his butt for safekeeping. He tried to spear a second pasta tube with his fork, only to be blocked by the two of them, eating like a swarm of locusts. Stealthily, he reached into the insulated bag to draw out two smaller trays, one of meatballs and the other of garlic mashed potatoes, and opened them up, but their aromas drew unwanted attention.
"You're so handy to have around," Char said, smiling at him as she deployed her fork to stab a particularly juicy-looking meatball. "Tell your mom we said thanks."
"OMG, it's got to be wrong to get O-face from two people in the same family," Eliza chimed in as she finished off the rigatoni with a dramatic moan.
Yeah, that rated a full-body shudder. "Please never again mention my mother in connection with orgasms," he requested, at which they both laughed.
"Hey, are we good with our schedules?" Char asked Eliza, tapping her knee to draw her attention away from the meatballs, so he used the diversion to stuff one in his mouth and get a second one primed on his fork.
"We're totes ab-fab," Eliza said. "And at least we don't have to take seminars on ourselves." She paused and cocked her head. "Wait, how long has it been raining?"
"It started right after I got in," he told her. Her heels were absolutely not the all-weather type, but he was too tired to get excited about the idea of her clinging to him like a vine as he made his way across campus.
"I love this sound," she said, and he stopped chewing long enough to hear what made her so happy. "Gentle rain against windows."
"Then you're just like John Updike," he informed her. "He said if he could be any animal, he’d be a turtle so he could enjoy the sound of rain tapping on his shell."
Char and Eliza exchanged a look. "This boy has no game," Charmonique finally said, sounding apologetic.
"Yeah, but he's got an ass that won't quit, so, you know, I'm good," Eliza said.
"Don't objectify me," he protested, holding a straight face for as long as he could.
"I have to go back home over Christmas break," Eliza grumbled. "So here." She thrust a small, brightly wrapped package into his midsection and walked into his room to sulk on the bed.
"Wait, I didn't know you wanted to exchange gifts," he said. He'd had no free time and very little disposable income, considering the internship was unpaid and his mom compensated him with food. "I don't have anything for you," he said, holding the package out toward her.
She raised her hands, refusing to take it back. "This is for both of us, really, so just take it, please." She flopped back, her hair spreading out like a jellyfish's tentacles. "Plus, you feed me all the time, so whatevs."
The box held a gleaming smartphone that he was almost afraid to touch in case he dropped it or accidentally programmed it to set off a bomb somewhere. "How is this in any way for you?"
"I told you, I have to go see my stupid mom and stupid sister and maybe my stupid dad over Christmas, so I'm gonna need a steady stream of sexts from you to get me through it. Also, nudes."
"Nude what?" he asked, confused.
"Nude pics of you. Look, I got you started," she said, sitting up. She took the box, turned the phone on, and showed him a picture of herself, bare to the waist, one arm coyly shielding her nipples from the camera.
"I am never doing anything remotely like that."
"Come on, just enough to make Bethany jealous!" she wheedled.
"First of all, absolutely not. Second, please tell me Bethany is your sister, not your mother."
"Boo, you non-whore. And yes, Saint Bethany is my older sister who is apparently perfect in every way."
"She can't be. She's not you," he said, because every once in a while he didn't stumble over the words he wanted to say, and she turned a wondering face to him before launching off the bed and kissing him so enthusiastically that he slammed into the opposite wall and saw stars.
Pickering was so quiet without his freshmen keeping up a constant buzz of activity and drama that he was not only able to catch up on his sleep - his mom's griping about how tired he looked seemed to die down pretty quickly - but also write a very rough draft of his honors thesis. He'd volunteered to stay over Christmas break because one RA had to and he hadn't wanted to cope with another Christmas at home without his dad, but he had not anticipated how surreally post-apocalyptic a nearly empty dorm could seem. The janitors, busy deep-cleaning the carpets and generally sprucing up the building to cope with the students for the spring semester, kept him from feeling like the last man on earth.
Eliza's texts also helped with that, since they all came with sexy selfies attached and made his phone beep at all hours. Each time one popped up he took a break from writing or sleeping just to marvel that he had a supermodel for a girlfriend and send back x's and o's. The one selfie he sent back was of himself in his uniform and a Santa hat, waiting for the food for his next delivery, and the string of emojis he got in response was long enough that he had to scroll multiple times to get to the end.
His mom nearly caught him with his new phone that time, and before she could pounce he started gathering the napkins, plates, and crushed red pepper most customers forgot to request but needed anyway. When he turned around, she was still there, looking up at him.
She touched the fuzzy white puff at the end of the hat and said, "I found your stocking this morning. Do you want to hang it up at school or shall I keep it in your room?"
"You can keep it," he said, determined not to think of the tiny apartment where he'd spent the summer, a far cry from the house they'd had before his dad got sick, where there'd actually been enough room for a tree. "I'm not really celebrating this year. But I got you something. It's in my locker." At his request, Ms. Mae had knitted a scarf, hat, and gloves in his mother's favorite forest green. "I'll get it before my shift ends."
She nodded and pointed at the pocket where he'd stashed the phone. "Tell your friend I said hello."
"You know you're gonna have to introduce Eliza to your mom sooner or later, right?" Charmonique asked.
He knew better than to talk with his mouth full, so he just shook his head while continuing to plow through Ms. Mae's home fries. "Henry," Char said warningly when he tried to make a start on his second Belgian waffle, piled high with fruit and whipped cream.
"That would be so awkward," he said, aware he was grumbling like a small child. "My mom expects me to find a nice Korean girl just like her, and Eliza's so weird about her family that I bet she's dreading meeting mine. Did you even know she has a sister?"
"Yes, and that her family founded Eynsford College, where she had an automatic free ride, and she left it behind to pay her own way here for senior year. Which shows she really wanted this."
"Exactly! She's not a family kind of girl."
"The two of you," Charmonique said, sounding tremendously put-upon. Her hands moved agitatedly in the air above her sizeable baby bump. "Did you think that maybe she'd like to be part of your family, since she's not happy with her own?"
"You're my family," he said, but he knew what she meant. "My mom -" he started without any idea how to finish that sentence. How could he complain when Char would have given anything for her parents to be close by and permanently out of danger?
"I know you miss him," she said, keeping her eyes kindly fixed on the hot cider she was pouring. "But your mom's still here."
Sam Saperstein ran very odd meetings. Henry was still trying to get used to the improvisational-comedy feel of KinderKare meetings – there had been one in which each pair of employees had had to come up with a dance routine based on a KinderKare product, which had given him severe anxiety shivers – when Saperstein opened the first meeting of the new year. "Knock knock," he said, beaming at all of the employees and interns.
"Who's there?" a few people chorused, the loudest being Eliza and Freddy.
"Adore," Saperstein said, caressing the word in a way that was a little unsettling.
"A door is between us. Open up!" Saperstein was grinning from ear to ear. "Shapow! Just like that, I've made you think in a whole new way about words you use every day, and, incidentally, given you a terrific opening for the upcoming Valentine's season." He held his hands up modestly, like he didn't think he deserved the rapturous applause led by Larry. "Let's remember how useful a tool humor can be, how powerful a sense of play is." Joan kept her stern face on even as she threw a handful of sparkly confetti in the air. "There it is!" Saperstein said, fist-pumping. "I want new ideas! New, fun ways of handling the same old business! I want enthusiasm! Shipoopi!"
Henry had always had a soft spot for puns – his dad had learned a million of them back when he was first studying English and had passed them on – and he wasn't entirely sure but he thought Saperstein's latest wild hair might just have given him a great idea. The minute the meeting drew to a close, he jumped up. "Gotta go," he said, kissing Eliza goodbye without even thinking about it – Saperstein, mortifyingly, gave him the finger-guns for that and Freddy, weirdly, looked impressed - and getting on the nearest downtown bus.
The pharmacy next door to the post office and two down from the bank was a giant three-floor structure that had an entire aisle for vitamins. Every bottle of children's vitamins looked basically the same – a dark plastic cylinder that had bright stickers advertising either "delicious new flavors" or some branding tie-in with various cartoon characters. He pushed the feeling of giddiness down and forced himself to look again, more slowly this time. No, there was nothing that looked like what he had in mind. He exhaled slowly and made his way to the next aisle, which had cough and cold remedies. There, on one shelf, was a decimated army of koala bears – the bottles he'd designed for cough syrup. Those bottles were eye-catching and to have so few of them left must mean that they'd been selling. So maybe he was on the right track with his new idea, and it would be enough to turn this internship into not just a real job but a long-term career.
"Sooooo," Eliza said, dragging out the word as she and Charmonique muscled past him to claim their seats on his bed. "What was up with the vamoosing this morning? You power-walked out of there like a soccer mom at the Galleria."
Char snorted. "Good call. Baby boy has what he likes to call a brisk gait and the rest of us would call a flat-out run."
He was too excited to give them a real stink-eye, so he contented himself with a quick glare and pulled his sketchpad off his desk. "I was thinking about what Saperstein said this morning, about a sense of play, and realized that we could be the first children's vitamin to use animal shapes." Both of them looked politely interested at best. "Come on, I want to pitch this to Saperstein before I lose my nerve, so help me out."
"Like the koala bottles?" Char asked, hands clasped over her belly, and he nodded.
Eliza said, "Wait, aren't there already vitamin animals?"
"Not like this. If there are animals – and I didn't see any – they're all branded cartoon characters. The licensing fees must be exorbitant. But what we'd be doing is more realistic animals, and we could make them fun and educational, like doing a beasts of the Sahara series with free downloads of Saharan maps and stuff."
"Look how excited you are!" Eliza said, wide-eyed.
"It's endearing, right?" Charmonique said. "This is how he gets you, every time. Show us what you got, Henry."
"I was thinking each bottle would have four animal variations. So I need four animals to pitch to Saperstein. He, uh, said once that he liked storks. So that's one." He held up the sketch of the stork, then flipped the page to the next drawing. "I pretended I was an elephant a lot when I was a kid – so that's two."
The girls were smirking at each other. "Uh, what exactly did that involve?" Eliza asked.
"I read a lot and memorized jokes to tell my dad, because elephants never forget," he said quickly. Charmonique's raised eyebrows dragged the rest of the truth from him. "And because the kids at school called me Dumbo because of my ears, and I wanted to show them that elephants were majestic, not dumb."
"So presh," Eliza said, running her foot up his shin.
"Nuh-uh," Char said, swatting Eliza's foot away. "Not in front of company."
"So now I just need an animal for each of you." He was absolutely not going to suggest a giraffe for Eliza, no matter how many times he and Char had referred to her as one back in the day.
"I could be a turtle, like you said, because of the sound of rain," Eliza said. "Plus, your childhood bullies suck, bae."
"I'm feeling like a tiger," Charmonique said thoughtfully. "Or maybe an otter. How are you at drawing otters? I already know you can do felines."
"Oh! Or you could do a whole set of aquatic animals," Char said. "Whales, jellyfish, dolphins, octopuses. And then amphibious animals too."
"Yes, good!" he said, jotting all of her ideas down. "And I was also thinking, maybe we could do a series of mythological creatures. A unicorn, a medusa, a gryphon, and a siren?" He resolutely did not blush when he mentioned the last one, but Eliza pounced anyway.
"If by siren you mean mermaid, and if by mermaid you mean me, then yes. Clamshell bra gets them every time."
"Y'all are obsessed with each other's elbows," Charmonique observed from her seat, fanning herself; she was running even hotter than usual in this last trimester, which he'd read was pretty normal. "Do I even want to know what is up with you?"
Eliza, still madly pinching his elbows, just shook her head and stayed uncharacteristically mute, but he said, "I'm not touching her elbows. I'm . . . pulling on her hair." Halfway through, he'd realized he wasn't making a great case for his normalcy, but he'd already committed to responding; anyway, he'd infected Eliza with his nervousness by telling her what was at stake and since she couldn't tug on her own hair and pinch his elbows, he was just helping her out like a good boyfriend should.
"Cut it out before Joan sees you twitching every which way."
"Yes, good, will do," he said and tried to focus on his breathing instead. Joan popped up before he could establish a good rhythm, and then he was in Saperstein's office and Joan was directing him toward one of the chairs in front of the glossy desk.
Saperstein swiveled around in his big chair to bestow a smile on him. It was not at all reassuring, and Henry could hear his own voice, half an octave higher than it usually was, explaining the idea. At least he was speaking at an acceptable pace, crediting Char and Eliza properly, and laying out his illustrations at the appropriate moments. Through it all, Saperstein's smile never wavered, which was unsettling, to say the least. It vanished completely once Henry finished, and Saperstein steepled his fingers and announced, "I'm mulling."
Henry sat quietly, watching and waiting. He hadn't told Char just why he wanted this job so badly – why this pitch was so crucial – in case he bombed it, but she was definitely smart enough to be planning on how to provide for herself; he was trying not to take the fact that she hadn't kept him in the loop on her plans as a sign that she'd be heading out on her own once they graduated.
"Strike the griffin," Saperstein said, "and make it a sphinx instead. A rascally dame is always a strong seller."
"Oh!" he said. He hadn't expected such granular feedback. "The idea's okay, then?"
"Okay? Son, I told you the day I met you that you were going to be a gold mine for this company, and here you are, proving me right. There's an offer letter coming your way."
"It wasn't just me, sir. Charmonique and Eliza both contributed significantly –"
"Henry," Saperstein said, studying him as thoroughly as he had the sketches, "what kind of a boss would I be if I broke up such a dream team?"
"Not the kind of boss you in fact are, sir," he said, relief coursing so strongly through him that he felt like he might be levitating, just a little.
He slammed back down to earth when Joan – had she been there the whole time? - piped up behind him, "Amen to that. Ms. Whitaker's letter went out a few months ago, and you and Ms. Dooley will receive yours within the week."
Char finally spilled everything she'd been sitting on; her job had officially started in March even though she'd only get her degree in May, same as him, and her packet had included KinderKare's maternity-leave policy. She hadn't said anything because she knew he hadn't yet heard whether he'd be getting the job. Now that he had his offer letter in hand, they could look for places to live and get all of their baby-prep done right after finals. Char laughed at him when he said "nesting," and of course pinched his cheek. "Eliza and I are gonna get a lot of the shopping done over spring break while you're mothering all of your freshmen."
He had to stay at school throughout spring break in case any of his freshmen, blitzed out of their minds, got up to anything unusually dangerous or illegal. He'd prepared for all sorts of scenarios that could be triggered by freshman stupidity, but was pretty sure the ones who were staying on campus instead of heading for more exotic locales would be fairly tame and he'd have plenty of time to study for finals.
Of course he was proved wrong.
He hadn't prepared for Charmonique's water breaking when he was tied up elsewhere, counseling a couple of freshmen high off their asses against climbing up and then skateboarding down the dome of the observatory. Or, not so much counseling as literally sitting on top of them so that they wouldn't get up. He didn't register that his phone was beeping until one of them said very seriously, "Your ass is beeping, dude. You should probably get that checked out."
"I bet he's a cyborg," the other one said, equally thoughtful.
"Shut up," he said, squirming around to wrest his phone free while keeping his perch. Text after text was coming in, all from Eliza, all with at least five exclamation points. Shit. He couldn't leave Thing One and Thing Two to their own devices, but neither was he about to miss being there for his best friend. First things first – he called Ms. Mae and managed to communicate where Char was and in what condition while the two doofuses debated whether he might have a bomb in his ass. He hung up with her and got Billy on the line; by the time he convinced Billy that he needed to get there pronto, both the boys had fallen asleep underneath him. He got up as gracefully as he could and stretched; idiots were the opposite of ergonomic.
He started running for his car the minute Billy came into view.
After convincing the hospital staff that he wasn't the father of Char's baby and therefore needed neither scrubs nor - holy shit - scissors, he was free to sit in the world's ugliest waiting room. At least until Eliza walked in, dropped all the vending-machine goodies she'd bought, and flew over to sit on his lap. "Henry," she whispered, her arms tight around him.
"Yeah," he said. He didn't even have a specific fear – Char was healthy, and all of her checkups had indicated that the baby would be too – but his guts still felt twisted up with anxiety.
"I love you, you know that, right?" Eliza was saying when he finally tuned back in to the world outside his head.
He still didn't know why, but that was the moment he decided it didn't matter. Whatever the reason, she loved him, and that was that. "I love you, too," he said, murmuring the words into her shoulder.
"Duh," she said, but she had tears in her eyes, so he let her get away with it.
The baby – a boy, judging by the blue knit cap sitting askew on his little head – was squirming in Ms. Mae's arms and Charmonique was half-asleep but smiling, watching him kick. She was an entirely different person now, Henry realized; she was the central fact of someone's life. "Hey," he said, bending down to kiss her sweaty cheek, "this guy give you any trouble?"
"Nah," she said, smiling drowsily up at him. "Kevin wouldn't do that to his Moms."
"Henry," Ms. Mae said, "come hold this child so I can see to my granddaughter."
"Oh, I've never – I –" he sputtered, giving up when she raised her eyebrows just the same way Char did. A soft, squirmy bundle was placed in his arms, this tiny fragile creature with skin that glowed just like Charmonique's. "Hi, Kevin," he said softly. "I'm glad to meet you." Kevin yawned, his pink mouth tiny even at its widest, and Henry caught Char's eye. "He seems unimpressed with me."
She grinned back at him, but it was Ms. Mae who said, "Too bad he'll be carrying your name around all his life, then."
He looked, startled, at her and then back to Charmonique, who said, "It's Kevin Henry." He was trying to formulate a response when one of Kevin's fists smacked his nose and Char held her hands out for her son.
He gave the valedictory speech at graduation but the butterflies in his stomach were for after the ceremony was over. "Mom," he said, "this is Eliza." He held his breath, waiting for her response. She'd warmed up to Charmonique only after she understood that Char had no romantic designs on him, and that wasn't the case with Eliza.
"Henry," Eliza said, "let me handle this." She turned to his mother. "Graduation selfie, come on!" she said, throwing one long arm around his mother's shoulders and extending the other in front of her to take the picture. Henry watched disbelievingly as his mother wrapped her arm around Eliza's waist and smiled brightly for the camera. They both pulled him in for the next shot, and he laughed as the flash went off.