Mercedes was sketching over the kitchen table as he came out of his room, one small foot out of its fuzzy-collared slipper and tucked under her sweatpants-clad knee, her head bowed. The set of her was strikingly intent like it unfailingly got whenever she drew past the first lines of a design.
She looked up for a sec as Sam came closer, giving him a smile that was wide and warm and affectionate but faded around its edges, not quite sparky enough to reach her stare. Sam felt a pang of apprehension and sadness, felt the spike of anger that always followed.
Sitting down opposite Mercedes, he let a small smile unfurl, his posture kept relaxed as he leaned forward and propped his elbows on the table. "So I have two questions."
"Ask ahead," Mercedes said, acknowledging him with a look before proceeding with her activities over the long pad.
"Question number one: are you free this Saturday? And if so: Mercedes, are you feeling adventurous?"
She stopped drawing lines and curves immediately, went totally still for a beat before she turned her head slightly without having looked up. After several moments had gone by, she tilted her chin so that she was facing Sam, her expression gone carefully smooth as she put down her pencil. "I was thinking of hanging out with my girlfriends. You know, a good ol' 'men are stupid but shots are the opposite of this' girls night out. However, now that you ask, I am feeling kind of adventurous, so I'd be up to hanging out with one of the few, inspiring, hope-instilling exceptions to the 'men are stupid' law of existence."
Sam nodded, his grin transparently ecstatic as he drummed his fingers over the table's surface. "Awesome. Because I was thinking: last year we went to Silver Dollar City and had a pretty fucking terrific time on that wooden coaster, so how about Saturday we drive east to Cedar Point, self-proclaimed Roller Coaster Capital of the World, in Sandusky Ohio, which has, like, an insane wooden monster as one of its top coaster thrills?"
Mercedes returned Sam's grin slow but certain, something inside Sam easing because now he could see echoes of her smile in her expressive, beautiful brown eyes. "Sam, I love the sound of everything you just said. I very much accept your proposal and will be wearing my best amusement park friendly ensemble on the 26th for our second annual So Your Fiancé Dumped You High and Dry Nine Days Before Your Wedding Day of doing my level best to forget through letting you plus coasters and thrill rides keep me as entertained as humanly possible."
"Yessss, Mercedes, we'll make awesome memories again, I promise," he said enthusiastically. Cocking his head a little, he added, — "However, I must point out…— Our day? It's not what you just called it. It's our second annual Luck Day of, yeah, trying to forget that a jackass hurt you deeply but also unintentionally did the only halfway decent thing he could do by that point and didn't follow all the way through roping you into what would have been a nightmare of a marriage."
Mercedes gave him a half grin but went on to start back on her sketching. Frowning as she drew, she reached for the eraser to her right. "Will we be staying overnight again?"
"I was thinking we should. I mean, it's a four-hour plus drive, and we should be getting there at around —"
"Five in the afternoon at the soonest. You need at least six hours of sleep, Sam," Mercedes said firmly.
Sam nodded, warmth spearing fast through him at her typical show of protectiveness. "Right. Five. Which gives us seven hours to get on as many rides as many times as we want as well as to hang out before the park closes at twelve."
"And if we don't stay overnight you'd have to be in a car for a four-hour plus drive after an exhilarating but tiring day going on six something hours of sleep after a week of classes and two days of work."
"Which I could do. Which I would do, but… the park has a three stars hotel that looks nice and clean and cutely cheesy and has decent reviews. Would you mind us getting a double? Things have not been looking up in the money department lately." Fewer people were coming to the club and tips were tending towards the stingy.
Her stare unmoving from her sketch pad, Mercedes said, — "Watch tv and hang out until we fall asleep? Sounds good to me, Sam. I'll pay my half—"
"Of the room. Only of the room."
"If you insist."
Mercedes looked up from her sketch now. Letting go of the pencil, she stood up before using her hand to gesture for Sam to come closer, beckoning playfully and animatedly. "Sam, come here, I wanna give you a hug."
Blood going too hot, Sam ran his tongue over his bottom lip before coming to his feet, chuckling as he went to her. Mercedes pulled him closer as soon as he was within reach, then she was squeezing him in tight, her head turned and nestled against his chest, her arms warm and perfect around his waist. "Hey, Sam,… it'd be really cool if we didn't have to do this again next year, wouldn't it?" When she talked, Sam could feel the vibrations of her words against his skin.
Looking down at the top of her head, he swallowed before running his hands up and down her back. "Though there're few things I value more than sitting beside you as you enjoy the hell out of a roller coaster…— I'd definitely prefer it if it weren't a necessary thing in order to keep you from going over painful memories, so,… yes. Definitely yes."
As she hugged him, as he touched her, he tried not to drink in the scent of the soft, citrusy, dreamy body splash she used when she was at home. Tried not to memorize the feel of her body flush against him, the pressure of her breasts and the promise of her hips.
Like always, he failed completely.
Blissfully full, Sam took a swig of his beer. Beside him, Dionne delicately folded her napkin before tucking it under the side of her generously sized, empty dish. Mercedes, Hannah, and Emmanuel were done as well. Dan, with his impeccable South Korean upper crust table manners, was still working at the last of his grilled chicken sandwich and fries. It was Wednesday and they were at Galway as was their routine. He and Dan worked at Sound-Bar from Thursday to Saturday, so it was the last day of the week when they could get together and hang out until late.
"That was delicious," Mercedes said from all the way over down their booth, sitting right next to the wall. "I think the fact that we're at that magical juncture —"
"The wondrous Lazy Slump Before Thanksgiving," Emmanuel put in.
"That's exactly right. Well, —I think that such a time of the semester really enhances food flavor, because the food here is usually the bomb, but that hamburger just managed to pull me into a perfect deep mystical trance for real," Mercedes explained.
"Same here," said Dionne.
"With you," Dan agreed as he finally cleared his plate. Beside him, Emmanuel smiled and nodded.
Hannah did some sort of sitting happy Irish dance before saying, — "Ditto! My full belly, it is purring with love for everything I just consumed."
Sam chuckled. "I agree. Even though we do quarters at Kendall, it's the start of a quarter now so it sort of aligns with your slump. I think the food tasting better has something to do with the fact that you're not so stressed and hungry that you just gobble up the food instead of savoring it, no?"
Mercedes leaned forward and turned her head, fixing Sam with a look. "So make certain you make the atmosphere at your future restaurant really chillaxed."
"Hey," Hannah said as their waiter, Patrick, returned. "Where's Trent, Mercedes? He hasn't shown up all week."
Mercedes passed Patrick her plate. "What do you mean 'where's Trent'? Trent and I were spending time around each other because we were assigned a project together. We handed the project in last Thursday, so I don't think he'll be showing up again."
They stopped talking as Patrick picked up Emmanuel's plate, the last one. All of them said how amazing the food was, and Patrick beamed, his smile seeming genuine instead of only courteous. Dionne ordered another round of beers and said to put it on her tab.
As Patrick left, Hannah nodded, picking up where she'd left off. "Did you terminate Trent, Mercedes? Because whatever else was going on Trent's eyes kept projecting his desire to both hold your hand and get you naked and sweaty."
Dionne chuckled before giving Mercedes a look. "He asked her out."
"But I just wasn't feeling it," Mercedes said after a sigh, and Sam hid his relieved, elated grin by pressing his mouth against the rim of the bottle, downing some more of his beer.
Hannah turned towards Dan, her voice becoming a melodramatic stage whisper as she said, —"Dimples. Trent had dimples, and that voice, and he was all mellow and cute. Dan, if I didn't love you with all of the amazing intensity I'm able to generate, I would've been draped all over that sweet piece of manliness in a second."
"Thankfully you do love me with all of that intensity," Dan countered, laughter in his voice. He mostly only enjoyed his fiancée's theatrics.
"Hannah, I'm with you. If Trent hadn't been basically radioactively straight I would've without a doubt tried my best to hit it with a sweetness," Emmanuel said easily. Hannah put her fist up and Emmanuel bumped it.
Patrick came back with their beers just as Sam finished his last one. As everyone started drinking, Emmanuel held his bottle up and said, — "To The Lazy Slump Before Thanksgiving!"
They all joined in. "To The Lazy Slump!"
Sam was washing his hands when he heard the soft, uplifting electronic sound that accompanied new text messages on his cell. He moved to the paper towel dispenser, quickly dried up before sliding his phone from the back pocket of his jeans.
The text was from Dionne: Couldn't help noticing that you look much more relaxed and happy now that Trent isn't here. But it could be the Lazy Slump Before Thanksgiving effect.
You do know what the correct reason for the sudden change is: Sam answered one-handed, opening the door and exiting the bathroom.
Turning, he leaned against one of the walls in the short hall leading back to the main room of the bar, wanting to continue his conversation with Dionne before he returned to where he'd been with their group of friends waiting for the band to arrive.
Her reply had him rolling his eyes and momentarily clenching his jaw: I cannot believe my girl didn't even go on one date with him. Brother was built burly and f-i-n-e as hell. And to quote Hannah: dimples.
His fingers glided over the screen. Luckily for me, Mercedes just wasn't feeling it.
Dionne: She would've felt it plenty three months ago.
Long beats passed before another reply from D came in: You must guess what I'm getting at, Sam. She's getting out less now instead of more. Sometimes I think your long game is paying off and you're wearing her down.
His heart did a ridiculous, distracting thing inside his chest, hot tension a tattoo over his body. He took a steadying breath and pressed the correct spots on the screen. Any particular reason you're saying this?
Dionne was super fast with her next response, her reply arriving in four chunks. She hasn't said anything, Sam, so don't go getting excited. It's just me… trying to connect dots as well as look out for Mercedes' best interest. Speaking of which, since I may not see you before you go: have fun at Cedar Point this Saturday! PS: Don't wear the orange flannel, please. The orange flannel is a hell-to-the-no of epic proportions.
He chuckled as he read Dionne's last two sentences again, as they clicked into proper order and sense. Hot tension had gone thicker, heavier over his body. You're an evil mastermind trying to work strings and I love you a lot.
Dionne just answered with: ;-) :-)
Unable to keep from chuckling again, Sam returned his cell phone to his back pocket. He licked his top lip as the implications of Dionne's words settled, his throat feeling dry as he straightened. He tried to ignore it but there it was: his blood feeling spiked with crystalline expectation, crystalline want past the blurry notes of alcohol in his system.