Kelsey and Austin were at work, bustling around the Print Shop’s saddlestitcher, helping their boss Ian Pago set up for the next job. Kelsey was at the table, putting together four test booklets as Ian adjusted the blades on the trimmer. Austin was back behind the machine, doing something that Kelsey couldn’t see. Then he laughed, and both she and Ian looked over at him. He was holding one of the red cups from the Four Winds, and it had a long, deep crack running down the side.
Austin came over to where they were and leaned on the top of the machine. “We should put this at Stephen’s station,” he said, mischievously glancing over at the folder where Stephen worked.
Ian laughed and shook his head. “Nah. It has to be taken back to the Trade Winds dish return.” He took the cup and handed it to Kelsey. “You wanna do that for me? You don’t have to clock out. Just take it there and come back.”
Kelsey checked her watch. “Are you sure? It’s a ten minute walk to campus and we only have twenty-five minutes before we have to clock out. Don’t you think that’s cutting it a little close?”
Ian shrugged. “Nah. Go ahead and take it. If you’re a little late clocking out, I’ll take care of it.”
She took the cup hesitantly. “If you say so.”
Austin watched her as she left.
Kelsey made it to campus and put the cup on the dish return before quickly walking back to work. As she passed Griffith, her friend PJ jogged up beside her.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?” PJ asked.
“Ok. I’ll walk you there.”
She gave him an odd look, but shrugged and let him accompany her. She only had nine minutes left. They hurried down the road and PJ stopped when he saw the Print Shop. Austin and Ian were out on the porch, talking and laughing animatedly. Kelsey instantly knew they were waiting for her and that she was cutting it close.
“I’ll catch up with you back on campus,” PJ said, turning around and jogging back to the dorms.
Ian and Austin watched as Kelsey ran inside and clocked out. They came in after her, and Austin nodded back down the ramp. “Come with me,” he said.
Confused but obedient, Kelsey followed him down the ramp. Ian and Mrs. Thornberry followed them, keeping approximately ten feet between them and the students. Austin led Kelsey to a machine in a different section of the Print Shop. She picked a sturdy-looking part of the machine and sat on it, watching as Austin began turning on the machine. He handed her a farm-fresh apple to munch on and then took a basket of the apples and began feeding them one by one into the machine. Kelsey took a bite out of here apple in confusion. Why was he making apple fritters? They chatted idly for the next few minutes, Ian and Mrs. Thornberry keeping an eye on them from the other side of the machine. Then Austin said something that Kelsey never would have expected him to say.
“You know, after six months we’re supposed to go to Student Life and fill out paperwork letting them know we’re dating.”
She almost dropped the apple in surprise. “We’re dating?”
He stopped working at the machine and gave her a weird look. “You didn’t know?”
“You never asked me.”
He made a noise of irritation, grabbed one of the freshly made fritters and climbed up onto the machine to eat it.
Kelsey went over to him, throwing her apple core in the trash as she did. “I don’t mind,” she told him. “I don’t mind at all. I just didn’t know. I thought we were just friends, as much as I wanted us to be more.”
He looked at her thoughtfully for a minute. “I thought you had figured it out.”
Kelsey shook her head. “I thought you were still trying to get Amanda back.”
“Nah. I gave up on her.” He hopped down and began putting the finished apple fritters in a basket. “Come on. Let’s get back to campus.”
Kelsey started following him out, eyeing the basket dubiously. “Do want me to carry that? Baskets are kind of girly.”
He glanced back at her and smiled. “Nah. I’ve got it.”
They walked back to campus, talking about dating, Kelsey’s family’s rules for dating, and about Austin possibly visiting over Christmas break. When they got back to campus, Austin called Kelsey’s father and—
The theme song from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly broke through Kelsey’s dream. Grumpily, she grabbed her phone and turned the alarm off before rolling out of bed. She staggered into the bathroom and braced herself sleepily on the counter. She looked up at her bleary-eyed reflection. Her long blonde hair was popping up in random places, and her black night shirt hung loosely over her medium frame. Her large silver grey eyes blinked back tiredly at her, and she smiled. “Best dream ever.” She turned the faucet on cold and splashed the sleep out of her eyes. She dried off her face and faced her reflection again. “But why did it have to be just a dream?” She sighed wearily and went back into the room to finish getting ready for the day.
Wednesday, two months later, Kelsey grabbed her pizza from the line in the Carousel cafeteria and went to sit with her friends. She quickly prayed for her meal and began eating, listening to her friends’ conversations and occasionally adding her input. Then Austin came in. She looked up as he joked with the lobby attendant and slipped his ID back into his wallet.
Kelsey had met Austin sophomore year at her college job. They had become good friends that fall semester, swapping numbers and teasing each other whenever their paths crossed. By Christmas break, Kelsey had fallen in love with him. That next semester their schedules had changed, and they were working opposite shifts. They still messed with each other, but it was a lot less frequent. Then junior year he got a girlfriend. When Kelsey found out, she felt like her heart had been wrenched from her chest, but she forced herself to suppress her feelings and be happy for her friend. They stayed close, meeting each other in the Commons their free morning hour to hang out before chapel. Spring semester junior year, Austin began talking about manipulating their class schedules so they could get the same work shift again. Kelsey had jumped on the idea, and they quickly adjusted their classes. The next semester, senior year, they started walking to and from work together. Two weeks later, Austin’s girlfriend broke up with him. Kelsey tried not to get too excited about the turn of events, especially since Austin was trying so hard to get his girlfriend back. It was hard not to hope, but as far as she knew, Austin had no idea how she felt for him.
“Check this out,” Eric said, pulling her attention back to the table.
She looked at the picture he’d pulled up on his smartphone and squealed in delight. “Awesome! I want one!” It was a ring that was modeled to resemble a silver crown.
Eric grinned. “I thought you’d like that.” He turned his phone back toward him and began scrolling through pictures to find another one to show her.
Austin came out of the burger line and stopped to fill his cup at the soda fountain. Someone stopped beside him and they started talking. Kelsey smiled as she watched him laugh, his eyes narrowing to resemble happy anime slits. She remembered her first impression of him. She had thought he was a scrawny geek with a funny voice, but her impression now was completely different. He was thin, not scrawny, and if you looked, you could tell that there was not an ounce of fat on him. He was tall, and he had a straight and noble way of walking. Kelsey could pick him out in a crowd by his walk alone. His wire-frame glasses and fuzzy brown hair made him look like a geek, and their conversations did tend to lean towards science fiction and video games, but she now knew there was so much more to him than that.
“Check this one out.”
Kelsey looked at the next picture on Eric’s phone. It was a pug dressed in a blue Star Trek shirt with a black wig, his ears pulled high and pointed.
“It’s Spock!” Eric said, laughing.
Kelsey laughed along. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Austin moving again. He was walking over to the carousel salad bar, stopping to talk to his ex-girlfriend, Amanda. Amanda didn’t smile. She never smiled. Austin’s expression changed from pleasant to disturbed as they talk, and he eventually turned and walked away. Kelsey’s heart went out to him, and she sent an irritated glare to his ex.
“Check this out. It’s totally awesome.”
Another picture on Eric’s phone. This time, Kelsey only looked long enough to say, “Oo! Cool!”
Austin sat down at a table with four of his friends and began laughing and smiling again. Kelsey smiled and turned her attention back to the group she was sitting with as Eric started regaling her with the different glitches he’d come across in the video games he’d played. He did a good job explaining the glitches and re-enacting them, and Kelsey found herself laughing at each one, though her eyes kept wandering back to Austin’s table. Once, she thought she saw Austin watching her table, and she thought a strange look crossed his face. She shook her head and forced it out of her mind. She was only seeing things because she wanted to see them. The reality was nothing.
Thursday was one of Kelsey’s two favorite days of the week. Chapel ended early, and she, her brother Alan, and his girlfriend walked from the Crowne Centre to Varsity for lunch before work. Three of their other friends had already grabbed a six seater and had their meals in front of them. Alan and his girlfriend made for the soup bar and chicken line while Kelsey grabbed her daily allotment of pizza and a salad and sat down. Her group started discussing the different points of the chapel message, and then they turned to reminisce about the Student Body program the day before. She suddenly saw Austin leave the burger line, however, and she waved at him. He smiled and waved back before going to join his friends at their table on the other side of the salad bar. The hour passed, and three of her friends headed to their classes as Kelsey’s co-worker—Alan’s roommate, Rick—came in and sat down with them.
As Alan and Rick chatted about their criminology classes, Kelsey fiddled with her cup. She ran her finger around the rim aimlessly, lost in thoughts about classes and projects, but then she frowned when her finger snagged on a crack. She held the cup up to the light. There was a deep crack running down the side; she didn’t know how she hadn’t seen it before. “I always manage to find the cracked ones,” she complained.
“Just take it to the dish return,” Alan said with a shrug.
Kelsey sighed in aggravation and took the cup to the dish return. She put it in the bucket and turned.
“PJ, watch out!”
Kelsey ducked, narrowly missing a marinara coated plate as the guy jumped back. His friends laughed at the near miss, and PJ smiled apologetically. “Sorry about that,” he said.
“No harm no foul,” she said, going back to her table.
“Dude, you gotta watch where you’re going!” One of PJ’s friends laughed behind her.
Rick and Alan were still talking criminology when she got a new drink and sat down. She glanced over to where PJ and his friends were leaving Varsity. She felt like she had seen him somewhere before, but she knew that she had never met anyone named PJ. She shook her head and tuned in to Alan and Rick’s conversation.
The time on her cell turned to 12:15 p.m., and she, Alan, and Rick got up to take their dishes to the dish return. Rick and Alan wrestled a bit as they headed out the doors, making Kelsey laugh. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Austin get up and take his dishes to the dish return, too. They stepped out into the lobby, grabbed their bags, and walked outside.
“Where’s Austin?” Alan asked, looking back into the lobby.
Kelsey shrugged and smiled. “He’ll catch up. He always does.”
Two minutes later, Austin was right beside her, walking with her and Rick down the steps of the terrace. Alan waved as he split off toward his dorm, and the remaining trio began chatting amiably as they walked down the road to work.
“How’s life, Austin?” Kelsey asked.
“Better now that they have apple fritters at Break Time,” he joked.
“Oo, apple fritters!” Rick laughed. “I’ll have to get some of those.”
“Yeah.” Austin air-nudged Kelsey. “We should get some after work.”
She laughed and nodded agreeably. “Sure, why not? I like apple fritters.”
They reached work with four minutes to spare. Rick went to his position at the binder while Kelsey and Austin took their places on opposite ends of the saddlestitcher. The other three saddlestitch workers and Ian showed up soon after. Ian turned on the machine, hit the “go-go” button, and the saddlestitch rumbled to life. The other three workers fed chunks of pages into the machine pockets, Austin boxed the finished books, and Kelsey stacked the boxes on the pallet for shipping. A half hour into the shift, the machine stopped. As Ian went to clear the jam, Kelsey took advantage of the pause to move up to Austin’s position.
“So how are things going with Amanda?” She asked.
He smiled wryly. “They’re not.”
She flinched sympathetically. “Sorry.”
He shook his head and shrugged. “No offense, but girls can be stupid sometimes, Kelsey.”
“Guys can be stupid, too!”
“Yeah, but guys are stupid all the time.”
“They’re jerks, too.”
“You’re not a jerk.”
“I am a jerk, Kelsey.” He paused and leaned on the chute in front of him. “Who was that guy you were sitting with yesterday?”
Kelsey blinked in surprise and shrugged. “Which one? I sat with Alan, Cory, and Mark at breakfast, Eric, Chris, Gary, and Percy at lunch, and Mark and Alan at dinner.”
“At lunch. The blonde that sat beside you.”
“That was Eric. He’s one of Amy’s friends. She had his group sit with me for Monday, Wednesday, Friday lunches because all of my friends have lunch at different hours. He’s pretty cool.”
Austin nodded silently and leaned back.
He shrugged. “Just curious.”
“Amy thinks he should date Alice, the short brunette that was sitting with us.”
“It looked like he’d rather date you.”
Kelsey snorted derisively. “No. He was just being nice. I’m still new to that group and he and Alice are just trying to make me feel more comfortable.” They were silent for a moment and Kelsey asked, “So have you asked Amanda to the Thanksgiving Fine Arts yet?”
“No. I don’t think I’m going to.” He paused and asked, “Anyone asked you yet?”
She snorted again. “Didn’t we go over this after the first Fine Arts? No one ever asks me. That’s why I go with Alan and his girlfriend.”
“That’s not cool, Kelsey.”
“Tell me about it, Austin.”
“We should go together.”
Kelsey’s heart did two hop-skips and a leap, getting wedged in her throat before falling back down into her stomach to play with the butterflies. She had to quickly remind herself that he was probably only asking her because neither of them had someone to go with and he was trying to be nice. “Sure. Sounds fun.”
“I wouldn’t have to ask your dad for permission, would I?”
Her heart started dancing erratically in her ribcage, and she told it to shut up. She shook her head. “Nah. Dad said the first one’s free and group settings don’t count.”
“So I’d have to ask him for the next one?”
She stared at him, trying to figure out if he was joking or serious. “That depends on whether or not you’re really asking me out right now.”
“And if I am?”
She gripped the chute with both hands, took a deep breath to calm her hyperventilating heart, and pinched herself.
Austin laughed. “What are you doing?”
“I told you. I’ve never been asked out before. Not ever. I’m just making sure I’m not dreaming.” She looked around to make sure that he was talking to her and not some gorgeous super model behind her. “You are talking to me, right?”
He laughed again, his dark blue eyes becoming the happy anime slits that she loved seeing. “Is there anyone else around here, Kelsey?”
She smiled and shook her head. “I guess not.”
“So now that you know it’s a date, are you still game?”
She nodded emphatically. “Oh yeah. Definitely.”
The saddlestitch roared back to life and Ian cheered.
“We should do dinner tonight,” Austin said.
A stack of books came out the chute. He calmly checked them and boxed them. He sent the box down the assembly line and looked at her. She looked back, grinned, and hurried down to her station to put the box on the pallet. She leaned on the pallet, already four layers high, and took several deep breaths. She looked back up to the line and watched as Austin did his job.
Ian came over to her, one eyebrow raised questioningly. “You look happy.”
She laughed. “If what I think just happened actually happened, then happy is an understatement!”
“What do you think just happened?”
“I think Austin just asked me out.”
“Oh really? It’s about time.” He laughed and wandered back up the line to talk with Austin.
Kelsey had no idea what they were saying, but they were smiling and laughing at every word. She smiled and finished the fourth layer on the pallet.
Work finished in a blur. The machine didn’t jam again, which was rare and slightly aggravating since Kelsey wanted to go back up to Austin’s station to talk again. She still couldn’t believe he had actually asked her out. She glanced over at the folders and noticed Mrs. Thornberry standing there talking with her husband. Then she glanced over at the cover feeder where Ian was standing, singing “White Christmas” as off-key as he possibly could. Then she thought of Austin’s random mention of the Break Time selling apple fritters. She paused in shock.
Apple fritters. Ian. Mrs. Thornberry. Austin. There was even a cracked cup and a guy named PJ at lunch. Did her dream really just come true? Sure, there wasn’t an apple fritter machine in the Print Shop, but everything else—! She shook her head, not really believing what had just happened. Then the bell rang, signaling the shift’s end.
Austin shouted a final comment to Ian as he walked around to grab his backpack. Kelsey headed up the ramp, grabbed her jacket and book bag, and clocked out. Austin came up the ramp behind her and clocked out. They walked out of the Print Shop together.
She had just enough time to wonder if she was dreaming again before Austin said, “We should get those apple fritters after dinner.”
Kelsey looked at him, pinched herself again, and then laughed when she felt a slight sting. “Yes, we should definitely get those apple fritters after dinner.” She looked up at the sky and smiled at the heavens. Thank you, God, she prayed silently.