Dan had pulled the Jeep into the parking lot of a late night Bexley coffee shop. Running inside, he’d purchased two coffees- one with soy milk, one with cream, and two bottled waters. Returning to the car, he’d handed her the cup with the regular cream and then some packets out of his glove compartment- Stevia, Nectresse and Splenda.
“Splenda isn’t the best,” he’d said. “But it’s better than most fake sweeteners.”
Bekah had tried Stevia but not the other two. She’d decided on a mixture and swirled it inside her cup while Dan busied himself with the cut on his knuckle.
She’d offered to help, but he waved her off as he mumbled something about too much physical contact. His breathing sounded like that of a tired, frustrated man, and his face shone with about as much sweat as fifty push-ups might produce. Judging from his plump muscles, she bet worked out a lot.
He cursed once or twice and then tossed the bandages back into the glove compartment. Was he pissed because she’d grabbed his keys and found that paper?
Nah, she’d be a selfish dipstick to think his manly moodiness could be blamed solely on her. Still, she’d been a jerk, as usual.
She apologized for snatching the keys and added, “You know how dumb and impulsive I can be.”
He grunted as he struggled to pull a butterfly bandage tightly across his knuckle to hold the cut closed. “I know about impulsive, but not dumb.”
She reached over, grabbed one end of the bandage and tightened it until he pulled his paw away. “Thanks.”
“So, how did you hurt your knuckle?”
“Just tell me you didn’t belt the priest.”
“Of course I didn’t.” He rubbed his eyes and then took the lid off of his coffee. Blowing into the cup, he tossed her a sideways glance. “It’s not really him that annoyed me. It’s just Dad.”
Bekah stared into her creamy-brown drink just as she’d gazed into her cappuccino in the waiting room. Telling Dan that Oliver had zeroed in on her while she’d sat there seemed a bad idea. Besides, Ryan had already explained, “Dad has his weird ways, but don’t worry about that. He just needed somewhere to meet Davies. Of course,” he’d added contemplatively, “he may have been trying to impress you, too.”
“Why?” she’d asked.
“Could be many reasons.”
So, it seemed Davies had lied about why he’d chosen to sit with her. Or maybe he’d studied her a few moments before complying with Oliver’s request. Maybe he’d decided that as a man of God he might be able to help the poor, little waif of a woman whose best friend seemed to be that watery cappuccino that she’d gotten from a machine.
Her blisters throbbed. She hadn’t put on any socks. Stupid as heck.
Dan shifted in his seat, his hand in his hair as he stared through the window. She glanced down at the paper laying open between them and wondered if she’d get an explanation for why he’d been carrying it in his glove compartment.
Of course, there were other things to discuss but he’d been playing stupid earlier.
Sirens screeched down the road, red and blue lights flashing in all directions before vanishing into the night.
Dan set his cup in the holder before untwisting the cap to his water bottle.
“Are we going to talk?” Bekah asked finally. “Or just sit here, sipping coffee and listening to everything around us?”
“That was the plan.” He sounded like something had gotten stuck in his throat, his reply was so strained.
“What was the plan? Talking or listening-“
“Talking,” he snapped.
Geez. She’d pushed the wrong buttons. “Listen, I am sorry, OK? I really don’t know what comes over me sometimes and-“
“Shh.” He jerked his head up and tapped her mouth once before pulling at his shirt collar. One long gulp of water later, he screwed the cap back on the bottle. “First let me explain about the paper.”
Good deal. She crossed her legs, careful to keep her skirt pulled down. After all, she didn’t want to look like Kelly McBride, showing off her legs to Teacher.
Dan gestured at the assignment. “I was reading that when I noticed the shower water running too long.”
Bekah frowned. “Huh?”
He snatched the paper and explained that he’d folded it and stuffed it in his pocket- and that’s when he’d found Allie collapsed in the bathroom. When he’d noticed it still in his pocket at the hospital, he’d hidden it in his glove compartment.
“Not such a mysterious thing after all, now is it?”
She thought for a moment. “Well at least part of it isn’t.”
He turned to her, his pointer finger pressed against his temple.
“I thought you would have graded the stupid thing and given it back by now.”
He looked at her like she’d revealed her dumbest fear- that Freddy Kruger would one day materialize before her.
“I can’t grade that paper the way it is and you know it. Too much of your anger slipped through on this one.”
“Can you blame me?”
“Like I told you, I can relate to your feelings, so, no I can’t blame you. But it’s way below what you’re capable of.”
“OK, if you say so. But now I’m left wondering this, Teach…” She turned in her seat so that she’d fully face him and tugged her black skirt down toward her knees as much as possible. “You were reading my paper on a Saturday night. Where?”
“What do you mean, ‘where’?”
“Just answer me. In your den? In your room? Dining room?” She recalled the rainbows that reflected off the window crystal. They’d reminded her of something, but the full memory had yet to be retrieved.
“Does it matter where I was?” he asked.
“Yes. If you were in your den, I could see you trying to decide on a grade, what you were going to write and all that…”
He exhaled as his abs curled in, a sign of deflation. He must have grasped the line of thought she’d been pulling.
“OK,” he said lowly. “I was on the couch.” His brow raised. “I’ll admit that I find your papers interesting.”
“You’re an enigma in some ways.”
She knew what “enigma” meant but it had sounded cheesy. Nonetheless, “Is that why you like me?”
“In what way do you mean ‘like’?”
“You tell me. You heard Ryan earlier, so I think you can put two and two together.” She pursed her lips, reminding herself to tread carefully. Her bold side always wanted the wheel, damn it.
“Listen to me…I’m getting serious with Grace.”
“Ok…and you’re here with me.”
“Rebekah, I feel like I’m being interrogated.”
“Good, because I plan to be a cop, so this is good practice.”
He wiggled his leg a couple times, but his jaws bulged and his fingers turned a bit white as he gripped the steering wheel. “A cop?”
“Hopefully you’ll outgrow that dream. I picture you writing.”
“And I picture myself kicking butts.”
“You’re a class act.” He snickered and shook his head, but she noticed he’d leaned closer. Unforunately, he must not have been wearing his usual cologne, as only the coffee aroma hung in the stale air.
“Back to my question," she said. “If you’re afraid to answer honestly, don’t be. I don’t want to hurt you or Ryan.”
His reply sounded defensive, like she’d accused him of smoking pot: “I’m not afraid.” He puffed his breath out. “Look, Rose…if your feelings for me are coming between you and Ryan, let’s just cut this thing loose right now.”
She blinked at him. So, he was going to remain in a state of denial? Ryan had said he’d seen how “They look at each other.” Meaning he’d seen Dan studying her the way she’d been studying Dan. Add that to Teacher’s fixation on her papers and his worried expression at the thought of her being a cop- and the anger over how Ryan had supposedly dragged her?
No, no, Teacher, you’re going to fess up.
“You’d do yourself a huge favor to push me out of your mind,” Dan was saying while carefully spinning his coffee inside the cup.
Bekah tsked. “You don’t have to worry. I’m not going to punch you in the nose or anything. Just admit what you feel.”
“That would be highly unprofessional.”
“So are a lot of other things you’ve said and done.”
“Yeah and it’s got to stop.”
“I know that.” She swallowed. “I just want to hear the truth…that way I…might be able to find closure.”
Finally he set his drink down again, his broad shoulders invading her space and his frown reminding her of Ryan’s. Only he appeared more concerned than angry.
“Closure?” he asked. “You think me telling you that….”
He glanced down at her open jacket and made eye contact again. “Listen, I’m not sure what’s going on with me. I find you attractive, there’s no mistaking that.”
“But there’s more.”
He remained stiff and silent, like a spy who’d no intention of divulging anything unnecessary.
“It might help to get it out,” she said softly.
He scratched the back of his neck. “It’s tempting… but some things should be left alone.”
Bekah smirked, recalling something she’d read in the first Narnia book. Perhaps that part had stood out because of the many "bells" she’d rang connected her to the boy who’d taken the witch’s dare. She spoke it out loud:
“Strike the bell and bide the danger, Or wonder til it drives you mad, what would have followed if you had."
Dan's expression couldn't have filled with more amazement or enthusiasm if she'd presented him with a thousand boxes of dark chocolate.
"You're reading Magician's Nephew?"
Her smile felt fake, a gesture to hide the shakiness rising inside of her. "About two weeks ago I started. Interesting, but I don't really understand why you wanted me to read it."
"Keep going and you’ll see. You just quoted one of the most interesting lines."
"I'll grant you that."
"The story...the series, I should say is an allegory. It mirrors creation, man's fall into sin, the rule over a cursed world by a devil...or in this case, a witch. Aslan represents Christ."
"I don't think I've gotten to Aslan but I've seen the movies."
"Don't you remember the sacrifice he gave on Edmond's behalf?"
"Think about it. No matter what's you've done... Christ already knew you'd do it. He laid down His life on your behalf and He's waiting for you to accept His sacrifice. No matter what you've done or how guilty you feel, do you understand that?"
Apparently their former conversation had drowned as he buzzed with the possibility of a conversation. Unlike many others, she knew he sincerely longed for her to convert. This was no game to him.
"He loves you. He'll never leave you, never let you down. Men will let you down, but not the Lord.”
"Are you sure about that?"
He nodded. "It may seem at times that He's let you down but He's always there. Rebekah, please listen."
He'd snatched her hand and barely seemed to notice as he begged for her attention; but after a few more lines of pleading for her soul, he paused to scrutinize the hand sandwich he'd created.
For a moment, he didn’t move. And then he pressed the back of his hand to his forehead while keeping hers locked inside his two. She, her stomach churning from the spike in her excitement, checked the parking lot in all directions for any sign of trouble.
"Dear God, help me," Dan prayed. "Help Rebekah understand."
The sadness she heard in his voice dashed her excitement into a million pieces.
He was praying for her and hurting at the same time. Hurting because his feelings for her were wrong in the eyes of man; hurting because she hadn’t fully grasped his gospel.
If only she could promise him it would be OK. But coming from a female student, it would have sounded dumb to him, anyway.
Maybe she'd do him a huge favor just to get out of this car and walk away for good. Maybe take Ryan up on his offer to move to a different neighborhood, a different school.
Dan didn't need this temptation.
She slowly withdrew her hand. Dan’s prayer still lingered in her ears as his brows curled. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to be too overbearing.”
“It’s not that.”
“It’s the hand-holding?”
“Partly but…only because I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I don’t want to hurt you, either, but it seems I’ve already done too much damage.”
“No, you haven’t.” She reached to smooth her fingers through his thick waves and smiled a little. His hair was so soft, smooth. Now she knew. “It’s mostly my fault, Dan.”
“It’s mine. I’m the adult here.”
She was about to argue that she, too, was technically an adult; but then he closed his large paw around her hand, pulling her fingers from his hair as his Adam’s Apple bobbed.
“I don’t know how to act around you,” he whispered. “You’re beautiful, you’re fascinating. I read your papers and I get this glimpse of a young woman who’s far smarter than she presents herself in person.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she whispered huskily. “I sound stupid?”
“Not at all. But the tough act blocks who you really are.”
“It comes in pretty handy, too.”
“I’m sure, but it is necessary all the time?”
She licked and then bit her lip, drawing his attention to her mouth. With his thick lashes lowered so that she could no longer gaze into his chocolate eyes, she wondered where his mind had drifted to.
“I’d have to think that one over, Teach.”
“I’m a terrible Christian,” he went on. “You’d really do yourself a favor to-“
“No, you’re not and I don’t want to hear you say that again, Dan Shields. You’re the best Christian I’ve met.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. But a good Christian man- a good teacher- wouldn’t be sitting here holding your hand and wondering what it would be like to…”
His gaze still lingered on her mouth, so she needn’t ask him to finish.
“I’m afraid things are worse now. Ryan’s idea backfired,” he said.
“You think they’re worse?”
“Don’t you?” He looked into her eyes again. “I’m either incredibly immature or you’re very mature. Or maybe we somehow rise and fall on both sides and collide at different times in our lives. Whatever the case, there are many other things I should be doing and thinking of now. My relationship with Grace would be over if she saw us now. And Allie needs me at her side.”
“I can’t take you to your mom, though. It would look suspicious.”
“What do you want to do?”
His breath caressed her collarbone and she tried to imagine herself as a stoic cop. That way, she wouldn’t tempt him by tilting her head back, inviting the touch of his lips against her neck.
The thought made her feel like swooning- just like the cheerleaders who daily batted their lashes at him.
Finally, he asked, “You want the truth?”
She shook her head, trying to remember what they’d been discussing.
Remaining focused where he his breath had touched her, his pulse pounding against her palm, he replied, “I want you safe from Dad…I want you safe from me.”
“Obviously I have issues.”
“Nothing you can’t work out with God.”
He cocked half a smile and pushed one of her hairs from her cheek. She trembled.
“I think you’re coming around, Kid.”
“Who knows?” She thought how his faith had touched her so many times in the past few months. “Maybe I am.”
He slid his palm under her jaw, scanning over her face and lips. “We’re only five and a half years apart…and I can’t kiss you because of my position.”
“And because of Grace.”
He closed his eyes. “I care for Grace…she needs help, though, Rose. I can’t even kiss her without her panicking.”
“I noticed she seems a little…off. Do you know why she’s like that?” Not that discussing Grace lifted her spirits in the slightest little bit.
“It’s a long story…I’m not sure she’d want me to say.”
“Maybe…she should talk to someone…” This coming from the girl who refuses to visit her counselor.
“Maybe I should too.” He released her.
She caught her breath as he leaned back in his seat and began playing with his keys. “You’re coming around to Christ….and I can’t pursue you.”
“I won’t always be your student.”
“Jumping into a relationship any time soon would raise flags. Besides, what about Ryan?”
Oh, God, why am I always doing this? Her cheek pressed against the cold window as she distanced herself from her boyfriend’s brother.
“I’m a mess,” she whispered with her arms folded.
Just as it should have, the howling wind gently rocked the Jeep. She’d seen enough movies and read enough books to know that highly emotional ‘scenes’ required such an atmosphere; but this wasn’t a story. Her painful situation had risen and remained in Reality, and God seemed to be shaking them for their misconduct.
It was 9:45 when Teacher handed her the paper. “Take it back and rewrite it.”
He turned the key in the ignition. Without another word, he drove her back to the hospital and when they arrived, he told her to go straight to Allie’s room, with Ryan. He’d be in a few minutes.
But her legs wouldn’t move.
He held up her coffee and when she reached to take it, he kept the cup firmly in his grasp. Because their fingertips touched, she knew his pulse had been racing as much as hers.
“Rose…I know it’s hard right now, but thank God we didn’t let this go any further than it has.”
She wanted to concur but she sat awash in the heat of humiliation. The lovely, horrible feeling that rejection from a male used to grant her. Only this time she wasn’t sure she could ever just…move on. Dan was so different. So determined to keep things right, so stable in his faith, even though he thought temptation cast him into the lot of hypocritical Christians.
“Please go on in,” he whispered. “Things will get easier.”
She thought she heard him swallow and his voice wavered with doubt. “Things will get easier.”