Excerpt from TENDERFOOT

Tenderfoot cover

PROLOGUE

Time was up. Julianna was leaving soon for college. Again, I would follow. Only my mind was weary as I stepped out of the hot springs. My bones were as young as the first day I entered the cave over two hundred years ago seeking refuge. Time flowed over my body like the cool water, leaving no trace but the memories of the past. Now, time pushed me toward Julianna and several rocky months. The question was always the same: would she accept who she was, or would she be the first to break me?

The arrangements were in place: the college transfer documents, the apartment, the cars, a class schedule. It was the third time I’d been to college. Maneuvering within the framework was easy. Winning Julianna over would be a different matter.

I called their eighteenth birthdays the ‘Day of Awakening.’ Yesterday was Julianna’s birthday. Her feelings leaked into my mind despite a distance spanning the ocean. Without shields, her oversaturated emotions intruded upon me even as she slept. From years of watching her, I knew her intensity was a defense mechanism. She was a survivor. Julianna put up a fight in high school. I wagered her bloody knuckles would accompany her to college.

The first year of the Awakening was a roller coaster ride. The gradual tick tick tick of the train cars hauling us up the track was a constant warning on the rise to the summit. Julianna would ask, and I would tell. Together we would plummet into the abyss in a rush of adrenaline, working our way through the turns and twists. My job was to keep her in her seat through the maze of inverting, twisting track. The jolting bumps of her personal limitations would intercut the descending ride to the finish, throwing us this way and that. Every ride was different. Repeat.

What a thrill, that first year! I loved the challenge of reading each girl and determining how to motivate her, push her past her limitations, get into her head. An old man like myself needed a reason – any reason – to provide meaning and context. Without it, what point was there to life?

Time was up. It would be some time before I could return to the safety of the cavern.

After drying off, I dressed quickly. As usual, the pendant was tucked inside my shirt, out of sight. The silver marker lay comfortably against my cold skin. With regret, I took the first step to leave. I stepped around the mounds of wet stalagmites and climbed out of the cave. In a pool of water near the entrance, I caught sight of my reflection. The dark eyes in the expressionless face stared back. How was it no sign of my Troll heart graced my human face?

I stepped into the bright sunlight. The muscles in my eyes contracted as my pupils narrowed. The echoes of dripping water faded away as I walked home. In the light reflecting off the snow, my thoughts drifted to my wife, Lovisa. How I missed her. During the first year, her daughter’s daughters never failed to surprise me.

*****

CHAPTER ONE

The first day of Freshman Orientation was hot. The weak breeze pushed the humidity around, so thick it was almost visible to the eye. A lock of hair blew onto my sticky face. I tucked it behind one ear as I waited a moment longer.

In lines like ants, parents and students hauled the flotsam of life into the dorms: suitcases, bags, boxes. Back and forth, it took my father and I four trips to empty the car. We tracked our own line from the parking lot, over the grass, to the steps, and up into my room. Then the car was empty. The moment had arrived: we were done. We stood quietly as everyone moved around us. Dad must have sensed my reservation, for he wrapped his arms around me and held me tight. And that moment ended too, and then he was gone.

The blue Volvo turned onto Raleigh Street, driving away from where I stood on the brick walkway. The familiar “S” Swedish country sticker on the trunk identified it from the others leaving in the late afternoon sun. One sweaty hand pressed against my gut. I waited. At last, the car disappeared from sight.

On the other side of the University of North Carolina campus, the Bell Tower chimed. I turned away and followed the brick path up to the parking lot. To my right was my dorm, Ruffin. The dorm was old, yet timeless; the limestone diamonds above the windows and doors set it apart from the boring concrete housing for freshmen down the street. My eyes lingered on the sloping glass roof of the library next door. The arch of framed glass made the library look like a church with a sunny sanctuary for the worship of books.

Something moved in front of the library. Yet when I pulled my eyes down from the roofline, all I saw was a white marble statue of a horse. The massive representation stood on a tiered pedestal in the grass, and clearly, it was not moving. I studied it. The lines of the horse were beautiful, all tensed muscle and flowing mane. Its teeth were bared in a fierce war-like expression. I walked closer. It was beautiful but what a weird choice of composition for a classical sculpture. Curiously, several of the teeth looked like fangs, and the ornate saddle was empty. Up close, the expressive eyes were finely chiseled. I could almost feel the hate they focused on some invisible foe. Perhaps the horse lost its rider in some type of battle?

Curious, I felt compelled to touch it. I approached from the side, as I would a real horse. The size of the statue impressed me further as I stepped onto the granite pedestal. That boosted me high enough to stroke the polished surface along the neck. How strange. The smooth marble felt warm to the touch. There were deep grooves in the mane that begged to be grabbed. I touched the warm marble again. My hand floated down the ethereal rise of flank. Then an image of how I must look popped into my head. Why was I petting a statue? Hastily, I stepped down. What if someone saw? While I stood there trying to figure out the statue and feeling silly, a black truck drove into the parking lot and parked in the spot where my father’s Volvo had been. A petite brunette got out. She looked like the girl who was supposed to be my roommate. She yanked a black duffel bag almost as large as she was out of the back of the truck and walked away. Should I approach her?

A strange hiss came from behind me as a hot wind blew against the back of my neck. Had the statue breathed on me? I turned around ever so slowly, afraid of what I might find but it was just a statue. I rubbed my eyes. I should go inside. Obviously, I wasn’t used to the sweltering heat.

My flip-flops slapped across the sunken bricks. I stepped up to the door. I held up my lanyard and touched the new card against the security pad until it beeped. With a tug, the heavy door opened and I slipped through. At the top of the second flight of stairs, I turned left and counted two doors down to my room on the right.

“Hey.” The petite brunette from the parking lot sat on the other bed in the room. A cheerleader-type, she looked exactly like her picture. It was a relief to meet her in person.

“I’m Julianna. My friends call me Jules.”

She caught me looking at her bed which was covered in the contents from her black duffle bag. Had it exploded? “Don’t worry; it’ll be picked up right-shortly.” She extended her hand. “Jade. Nice to finally meet you.”

“It’s nice to meet you too.”

“Isn’t this room awesome?” She gestured to the high ceiling. I’d noticed the built-in closets on either side of the door when I first carried my bags up. Now it was the double windows looking onto the Quad that drew me.

“We were lucky to be assigned to an upperclassmen’s dorm.” My fingers played with the fray of my denim shorts.

Jade gathered her long, straight hair out of her face with both hands and quickly twisted a hair band, forming a loose ponytail. “Beats the heck out of living in a cement box from the 1960s, miles from anywhere on the edge of campus! Hey, where are you from? I couldn’t find your profile on Facebook.”

“Oh, yeah I don’t use it much. I’ve lived all over. My father moved to D.C. last month.”

“Really? That’s cool. I was dying to leave Kentucky.” She rolled her eyes in exaggeration. “I had to put some distance between me and my folks.”

“Oh. Did your parents leave campus already?”

She grinned. “Are you kidding? No way was I going to let them come. I jumped in my truck and drove here as fast as I could before they came to their senses.”

We both laughed but when it died away so did the small talk. Jade left to get more stuff from her truck. I decided to start with making my bed. I put on the fresh sheets and smoothed down the familiar slate European-style duvet before putting away my clothes. When that was done, I dug into another box. This one held photographs of my family. I set them aside until I could decide where to put them. It had been hard to know what to bring. I wasn’t that special, but I was different, and I didn’t want to stick out. What did a normal person like Jade make of someone like me?

“Hey now…” Jade drawled. There was a mischievous look on her face as she dropped a laundry basket of shoes on the floor with a thud. “What do you say we go out tonight?”

I surveyed my stuff. “Oh, I was going to unpack.”

“C’mon! It’ll be fun!”

Out in the hallway, a couple of girls walked by. They looked in as they passed. Wasn’t this why I wanted to start over some place new? I stepped forward, hesitantly. “Okay.”

“Great! We can meet up with some of the cheerleaders.”

Cheerleaders? “You know them?” I ran a hand through my limp hair.

“Only my cousin, Dani. She’s a sophomore, and the only reason my folks let me leave home, I swear.”

I glanced away. I couldn’t help but wish I still had a home.

When we were ready to go, I took one last look in the mirror. Sandy blonde hair in place, check. Cute clothes, check. Silvery eyes reflecting terror, check. I pasted a smile onto my face and reached for the silver pendant I always wore at the hollow of my neck. I rubbed my fingers over it. “Franklin Street?”

Jade rubbed body glitter onto her bare shoulders then wiped her fingers on a tissue. “You got it, girl.”

We left, locking the door behind us. Outside, the fierce Carolina temperature still sweltered, but there was a slight breeze. A faint sheen of sweat soon covered my skin. We followed the brick sidewalk through the campus toward Franklin Street.

“Did you leave a boyfriend behind?” Jade asked.

“No. I didn’t date much in high school. What about you?”

Jade tossed her glossy chestnut hair over one shoulder. “My boyfriend joined the Navy. He tried to talk me into marrying him, can you believe it?”

I shook my head, unable to find an appropriate thing to say.

“He knew I set my heart on coming to UNC when I was twelve. Sorry, buddy. No man’s gonna slow me down! I know we’ll text and call and stuff.” She waved a hand around. “I have to see what is waiting for me here.”

Ahead, the lights from Franklin Street bled into the sky above the shops that lined it. We passed frat houses lined up at the entrance of campus. Students spilled from the doorways. The individual details of their faces were crystal clear in the shadowy light. I squinted at them. It was like my sight was on high definition. I half-heartedly listened to Jade talk about her cousin. The street lights beamed down cones of spotlight through which moths of different markings flitted in and out. It must be the heat.

“Where are we meeting your cousin?”

Jade pulled her phone out of her purse and consulted it. “At a beer garden around the corner. Do you have a fake ID?”

“No. I didn’t need one the last place I lived.”

“Really?” She grimaced. “Shoot, I’ve been doing all the talking, haven’t I?”

I laughed. “We’ve got all year.”

“You said you lived in several different places, right? Where did you last live?”

“Stockholm, Sweden.”

Jade’s eyes widened in surprise. “Holy cow, that’s different! Did you like it?”

I drew a deep breath for the response. “It was cool. Everybody speaks English. And of course, if you like snow, there’s lots of it.” I liked to make the joke about snow first.

She laughed. “I bet! Why were you there?”

“My dad was an engineer at a big telecommunications company,” I deflected. “His company moved us several times and that was one of the places they moved us to. My sister still lives there with her boyfriend.”

“You’ll have to tell me more.” She pointed up the street. “Hey, it’s up there.”

We turned into an alleyway and then we could hear the music coming from behind a high fence. Next to a couple of garbage cans, a scowling bouncer checked identification with a flashlight. He flashed the light on my card and then my face, blinding me. To my dismay, the bouncer etched a black X on the tops of both hands in permanent marker. I was still staring at the Xs when Jade pulled me inside the beer garden. She pulled me along as she wound through clusters of people.

We stopped in front of a long picnic table full of girls chatting. One of them saw us and jumped up. It had to be Dani as she looked like Jade’s sister. She flew to Jade and they hugged ferociously. “Hey, Cuz! I missed you!”

“It’s only been two weeks since I saw you last!”

Dani laughed.

Jade remembered me standing there. “This is my roommate, Jules.”

“Hi. It’s nice to meet you.” I smiled shyly.

Dani said, “Let me introduce you around…” She began naming names around the table. In my nervousness, the names became hopelessly jumbled together. Her friends seemed nice. Dani waved them down the bench until there was room for us to sit.

Jade stood up abruptly. “Oh, we need drinks! Come with me!” She grabbed my hand and pushed through the crowd. The glitter on the skin of her upper arms rubbed off as she pressed against people. She squeezed between two guys in wrinkled khaki shorts and tees at the bar, making a place. “What do you want to drink?” Jade yelled, her face close to mine. The speakers next to the bar made it hard to hear anything but the blaring music.

I glanced at the X marks on my hands. “A soda, I guess.” I passed her a couple of bucks. A twenty slid away and fluttered to the ground. As I bent down, another hand reached forward to pick it up.

Abruptly, I sensed something strange happening. Time slowed and again, my sight was startlingly clear as I stared. The hand that picked up the crumpled green paper was tan and muscular. It was marked by a half moon scar the size of a quarter on the base of the thumb. Half a dozen tiny stitches formed ghostly white marks across the ridge where it healed back together. In the crowded space, I slowly stood up. My eyes skimmed the sinewy arm and up the tall athletic body it belonged to. They stopped on the kind smile, the wide cheeks, and the dark specks floating in curious blue eyes. Oh, those eyes.

“Here you go.” I fixated on his moving lips. He smiled wider as he offered me the money.

“Oh, thanks. Thanks!” Hastily, I took the twenty from him a moment too late. My fingers awkwardly grazed against his. They tingled weirdly as I shoved the money to the bottom of my purse. My eyes were drawn back to his. I felt a jolt as we connected again. What was it that unnerved me so? The expression of open friendliness or the way his eyes saw deep inside of me?

“Hey,” a guy along the bar called out, interrupting. He passed a bottle of beer over. The guy with the blue eyes took it and nodded back at him.

“Thanks again,” I said. He smiled one last time and turned. As I watched, he disappeared with his friend into the crowd. I reached past Jade to the bar to steady myself, my fingers still tingling. I felt light-headed.

Jade laughed. Judging by her amused expression, she witnessed the entire exchange. I blushed. “Cute,” she commented. Still grinning, she turned to the guy next to her. He looked down and smiled. Jade returned it, and began flirting like crazy. She never broke eye contact as she casually rested her elbow on the bar with her hand at eye height. The folded money was a beacon. A bartender slid over and Jade’s attention abruptly shifted as she gave her order. The guy flirting with Jade took a moment to realize what had happened. He rolled his eyes at another guy waiting. It was strange how everything was so clear. It was like opening my eyes after a long sleep.

A minute or two later, Jade passed me a plastic party cup. We wound our way through the crowd to the table. It was hard to pay attention to the other girls. My eyes were drawn again and again to the crowd. I couldn’t help but look for the guy with the blue eyes. He had to be around here somewhere, right?

Dani leaned toward me. “You having a good time?”

“Sure!” Making an effort, I pointed to her cup. “What are you drinking?”

“Beer, cheap stuff, too.” She looked at it, dismayed.

“They got me at the door.” I pointed to the grotesque black mark on my hand. “I’m a leper!”

“Well, that’s not too bad. It happens to everyone.” Dani grinned. “It’s fun to be a freshman but it’s even more fun to be of legal age!” I laughed. She stood up, smoothing her skirt down. “Hey, I see some friends over there.”

Reluctantly, I followed her, wondering where Jade went. Dani approached several guys. They were upperclassmen, I guessed. I wanted to hide behind her.

“Dani,” one of them called out. “How was your summer?” The arms of a giant wrapped around her and the petite girl disappeared. Finally, her tousle-haired friend let go. Geez, he was big.

“Derek, how are you?” She giggled as she fixed her hair. She gestured toward me. He held out an enormous hand. “This is Jules, she’s in Orientation. Be nice, please.”

He shook my hand casually as he gave me the once over. I felt exposed and off-balance when he smiled. “Jules? A pretty name for a pretty girl,” Derek said. I glanced at Dani. She smirked. “Aww, never mind her. Let me introduce you around.” Darren, Blake, Alex, and Scooter smiled back politely. Derek asked, “Do you need a drink?” His eyes seemed to twinkle.

I pointed to the X marks on my hands. “I won’t be drinking much tonight.”

“You just leave that to me!” He left for the bar. Jade pushed her way into the cluster. Again, there were greetings all around. I found myself standing between Dani and Alex. Or was it Scooter?

Derek returned with several cups of beer. Alex – or was his name Scooter? – took one and drained it immediately. Derek shook his head. “Bro! That wasn’t for you. Go get some more, man.” He shrugged and trudged off.

“Okay, let’s see…” He stepped behind me and put one hand on my shoulder. Next thing I knew, he reached around to hold a cup in front of me. He was so close. “Casually cross your arms in front so no one can see the tops of your hands,” Derek breathed into my ear.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” A phone call to my father from the cops would be a spectacular way to begin college.

“What? You don’t trust me?” He looked around the group. “Have I ever led any of you astray?” Blake and Darren hooted in response.

There was no good way to explain that I didn’t trust anyone. Instead, I managed a smile. “Then astray we shall go.”

“That’s my girl!” He held out the cup in front of me.

Hesitantly, I folded my arms across my body to hide my hands. I focused on the cup. Derek slowly tilted it toward me until the plastic rim of the cup met my lips. His body pressed against mine. I tried to ignore the heat from his body. I sipped, cautiously at first, tiny bubbles breaking against the tip of my nose. I drank deeper. The tickle of foam teased as I swallowed the cold beer.

With about a third of the beer left, he slowly pulled the cup away. Derek turned me around to face him. “This is my kind of girl!” Derek held the cup up in a salute. He drank the rest to wolf whistles and cheers. I blushed. “Such a good sport! We’ll have to do that again!” Alex/Scooter reappeared with more beer. I eased back into Derek’s embrace for another go. I drank the entire cup this time. It was fun. I started to relax.

A new song came on, one everyone but me seemed to know. Conversation stopped and everyone began to sing along. A breeze ruffled the white Christmas lights strung here and there through the spindly trees. Watching Jade dance, I caught sight of the guy with the blue eyes over her shoulder. I froze, transfixed. My vision narrowed until all I saw was him staring right at me. My heart hammered in my rib cage as the music faded into the background. I wanted to run away, but fear rooted me to the ground as firmly as the trees in the beer garden. Had he watched me play the drinking game? The faintest of smiles curled the corners of his lips. My body hummed in response. A wave of tingling washed right down to my toes. He lifted his cup and toasted me. Heat flamed across my cheeks. I dropped my eyes in embarrassment. Breathe, just breathe.

Jade danced into me. I caught her arm. “Thanks, Roomie,” she giggled.

“Anytime.” I looked back but he was gone. I couldn’t believe it. How did I lose him again? There was no sign of him anywhere. In defeat, I stared into my cup wondering if I would ever get a grip. The connection I felt was all in my head, of course. He was just some guy, and I, according to several therapists in Stockholm, had PTSD-related attachment issues. And seriously, who meets a guy on the first day of college?

Dani nudged me. “Having a good time?”

I tried hard to look happy. “Sure. It was nice of you to invite me and Jade.”

“Anytime. Jade could use more friends like you. I just hope she loses that idiotic boyfriend of hers.” We watched Derek twirl Jade in circles. When the music changed, they stopped. She doubled over laughing hysterically. Her purse slid off her shoulder to the ground. Dani walked over and picked it up.

“Here’s your purse.” She smoothed the long chestnut hair out of Jade’s flushed face. “Let’s see about getting you back to the dorm.”

I nodded. A round of goodbyes started. We made our way to the exit where Derek caught me in a surprise hug.

“Hey, call me when you make it to the dorm safely.” The offer was unexpected. He held out his phone. I called my phone from his and hung up. After I set his contact information, I took a picture of him.

“Damn, I thought you would remember me, your favorite new drinking buddy.” His eyes were wide with mock hurt.

“I took the picture because you’re so handsome.” I batted my eyelashes playfully. What was I doing? His wicked smile returned.

“Jules!” Dani yelled.

“Oops, call you in a bit.” I slid my phone into my purse and ran to catch up. There were more people out than before as we walked back. Jade and Dani gossiped about Derek. The ancient trees on McCorkle Place seemed spooky in the heavy heat. As we approached the intersection of Cameron with Raleigh, the quiet quad of matching dorms came into view. Something in one of the windows caught my eye. I stared. Two girls talked, one laughing in response to something the other one said in the dorm room above. How could I see this at such a distance? My eyes shifted to the other lit windows where scene after scene played out. Then something moved in one of the darkened rooms. My blood ran cold. How could I see the girl in the dark with tears rolling down her face? She wiped them away, oblivious to my intrusion as she continued to sob. Aghast, I stared at my feet until we got to the front door of the dorm. I didn’t want to see any more. Something was definitely wrong with my eyes.

At last, we made it to the dorm, welcomed by bright lights and noise. Dani helped Jade down the hallway to the bathroom while I unlocked our door. After I got ready for bed, I remembered to call Derek.

“Hey there!”

“Did you make it back to the dorm safely?”

“Yes, we did. Thanks for being so nice.” Somehow I managed to say the words.

“My pleasure. Dani has great friends and you two are no exception. We’ll have to get together soon. Y’all have a nice night.”

“Thanks, Derek, you too.”

The connection ended as Jade whirled through the door. She swept most of the stuff from her bed onto the floor, drunkenly kicking at it. Dani found a T-shirt from the pile on the floor and helped Jade put it on. Tonight, Jade was freshman drunk. Dani tucked her in bed.

She whispered, “Isn’t Jade a blast?”

“The life of the party. I hope she doesn’t pay for it in the morning.”

Dani groaned. “She might. You guys should come visit me tomorrow. I’m in Old West near the Well.”

“Thanks, I’d like that. There’s some Orientation stuff we have to go to in the morning.” I made a face.

At that, Dani laughed. “Those stupid memory games they play. When I was a freshman, I thought I was going to major in ‘ice breakers’!” She moved to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.” With a wave and a swish of her ponytail, Dani was gone. I got up and shut the door, locking it with a crisp click.

First day. Somehow I survived. Lights out.

 *****

@ Copyright 2011 Amy Tupper

Tenderfoot can be purchased at Amazon.com

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