“Awkward,” Kit Kat thought to herself. She hadn’t felt this awkward since high school. The two of them were riding in his pickup, heading north. She glanced to her left and watched Samson’s muscular forearms shifting. The veins stuck out and she marveled at the thrill of watching his arms move.
She breathed deeply and focused on the pickup. She knew this vehicle. Samson had thrown her into it a month ago when he rescued her from that horrible anniversary. Was this date just another attempt to get her out of the Bowen house? Had Elvis ordered it as part of the Keep Kit Kat Alive Committee? The thought made her silent and embarrassed at her eyes that couldn’t stop roving to his forearms. She blinked and tried to focus on the dashboard again.
“You’re probably wondering…” Samson had started to talk, but his voice trailed off. She kept her eyes away from his dark arms and looked at the vent to the right. There was a pine needle stuck in it, trying to hold on despite the air blowing past it. It made the air in the truck smell like the mountain.
“You said we were going to a pho noodle house Up North. It has been ages since I’ve eaten pho.” The sound of her voice made her feel pretentious. The way she pronounced the word, “pho,” made her feel like she was flaunting her worldliness. Her grammar was perfect, but it felt wrong to her somehow. She felt as if she had said it incorrectly. She was talking like a heroine in one of her books instead of how she would have spoken before she moved away from the mountain.
“No, not that.” She noticed that Samson was truly distressed. Her worry that this date was just a sham resurfaced and she looked at that pine needle, trapped in the ventilation system with a renewed intensity. He asked, “Did you hear ‘bout that fight at Wildwood?” Her eyebrows crinkled and she drew in a big breath. Fight? She was confused and allowed herself to look at him, keeping her eyes away from the gear shift and steering wheel.
“Fight? No.” Samson was looking forward, watching the road carefully. It was clear of snow and the night was crisp, but in the winter, all the BOM know to watch out for black ice, invisible as it may be. “I might…” his words faltered, but she let silence urge him to finish, “…have punched John Sebastian.” Samson quickly glanced away from the road to meet her eye and then continued, “The Bangeters told him that you were sleepin’ with me.”
Kit Kat didn’t know how to respond. It all seemed so unreal to her. When she didn’t reply, Samson asked, “Didn’t Roscoe tell you?” She shook her head, but realized he was watching the road ahead so intently that he wouldn’t see her response. “No,” she said.
Then it all came out in a blur of words. “I was workin’ at Wildwood and John Sebastian came out there lookin’ for a fight ‘cause he thought we were sleepin’ together and I was pretty angry with ‘im for just leavin’ you alone like he did when he called dibs.” He turned to her for a second, “Not that I believe it was right for him to call dibs, ‘cause you get to decide who to date, but he’s one of my best friends and if he wanted to date you, it was only right for me not to move in, no matter how much I liked you, but then he called me a ‘chink’ and I just lost it and punched him right in the nose. And now everybody knows ‘bout it ‘cause Joey posted it on his blog and I just wanted you to know that I’m not the kinda guy who just goes beatin’ up people all the time and I didn’t want you to find out how much I liked you from the Internet.”
She breathed in the scent of pine coming from that single pine needle stuck in the vent, not knowing what to say. “So, this isn’t a Keep Kit Kat Alive Committee ordered event?” She watched his head twitch to the side and his confused face queried. “What?” She sighed. “Elvis didn’t order you to ask me out on this date?” A glimpse of panic flashed across his face. “No, but now that you say that, I probably should have run it past him.”
Anger flared up within her, heating the pickup far more than that useless vent. “Why? Why would you ask Elvis whether you should ask me out?! Why does everyone think Elvis knows better?” She bristled at the thought that even NOW, Elvis runs her life. Samson answered, “Well, he’s been around longer than I have and everything is different in Merriton than back in San Francisco.” Kit Kat remembered every night that her father had worked late in the Lancaster Mills. All those weekends and evenings stolen from her by Elvis and his company and now her father was gone and that old coot was still around, still controlling her happiness.
It was quiet as they neared the outskirts of Up North. The snow and slush had frozen hard on the edges of the plowed streets and sounded like crackling leaves under the tires of Samson’s pickup. He rushed around the truck to open her door, but she had already opened it and hopped out of the truck before he could get there. She was about to warn him to lock it up because they were in the big city now, but she heard the resounding beep before he slipped his keys into his pocket. She tried not to look at his naked forearms.
“Aren’t you cold?” He wasn’t wearing a coat and the sleeves of his oxford shirt were rolled up. He shrugged, “I was a couple of weeks ago, but I’m used to it again. Plus, we’re just walking from the truck to the restaurant.” He pointed at the ice by the door. “Watch out.” She felt the gentle strength of his hand on her forearm and a shiver went through her that had nothing to do with the winter.
After they ordered their soup, Kit Kat tried to settle her fears again. “So, is this a date?” The second she asked, the answer swept over Samson’s face. He stuttered, “I was hoping it was, but…” There was something wrong. He was holding back. “I have been accused of being needy in the past, so I’m tryin’ to be… I don’t know. I’m tryin’ not to scare you away.”
She pursed her lips and nodded, “Because girls are so skittish and fearful?” Samson’s hand went to his forehead and stayed there. Even in that state, the veins stuck out of his arms. She was distracted by the tendons and muscles just beneath the surface of his skin and wondered at how something so simple might cause such a wave of attraction in her. When he finally answered her, she had forgotten her question, “In my experience, yes.”
“Yes, what?” She tried to walk backwards through her mind to remember what she had asked him. He struggled with the reply, “Yes, girls are skittish and fearful. I tend to…” Samson kept his hand over his forehead, but the soup arrived. He squeezed the lime into his bowl and added his half of the sprouts, leaving all the chilis, basil and cilantro for her. When she looked up from her own bowl at him, she noticed the bright red mark on his forehead. Had he been trying to hide it?
“Can I take this?” She pointed at his portion of the basil and cilantro and he nodded, his mouth full of noodles. She giggled at the sight of the noodles hanging out of his mouth into the soup. The red mark on his forehead spread and became brighter. By the time he was able to extradite himself from the food, she felt sorry for laughing and said, “It has been proven that pho is the least romantic food.” She smiled and laughed and he was able to laugh back.
“Sorry ‘bout that. I was just tryin’ to think what you would be missing right now after movin’ here from New York. I know I missed pho when I came to stay in Merriton.” He stirred his soup with his chopsticks and she could tell he was reluctant to take a second bite. “You came from San Francisco?” She was trying to put him at ease. It was obvious that the red mark on his forehead was a direct indication of how upset he was feeling. He nodded, but didn’t elaborate.
“My sister works in San Francisco.” He nodded and red mark grew to cover half his forehead. She continued, “It’s a big city. Heck, she doesn’t even live in San Francisco. She lives across the bay in Walnut Grove. Have you heard of it? It looked way nicer than my dump in New York did.” He wasn’t answering, just stirring his soup. Just seconds ago, they were both laughing at their awkwardness. Now, it was stifling again.
She asked, “Where did you live?” Samson shrugged. “I worked at this huge computer firm, so I found a little apartment close to its campus.” She smiled, but noticed that the red mark was still large and glaring on his forehead. “Have I heard of this huge computer firm?” He nodded, but wouldn’t say the name of the company. “They bought Random’s company, Zerbitz, but they killed it.” He slurped some noodles, noisily. “And then I came here. Well, not here.” He looked around himself at the tiny restaurant in a strip mall. “Merriton. Mount Zen.”
“Mount Zen.” She repeated. “Everyone calls it Mount Zen now. I wonder when that happened?” Samson looked up from his soup. “That was me. I used to call it Mount Zen when Sierra used to take us skiing here. Then Angie and Curly had to rename their restaurant, so they called it Mount Zen Cafe. I had a ski bunny call it Mount Zen the other day and it felt so weird to have my name for the mountain bounce back to me like that.” She smiled. “Not everyone gets to name a mountain. I guess you’re BOM now.” The red mark on Samson’s forehead faded and a smile came across his face that made Kit Kat blush.