Justin met her during his first trip to the city of Prospect-Hicksville’s real name, Lloyd had informed him on the way there a few days later. One of the businesses, Smiths Variety and Hardware, doubled as the unofficial socializing spot, especially on weekends. If you went to town for any reason, according to Lloyd, you didn’t leave before stopping by Smiths and saying howdy. The rear of the store was equipped with a few tables and chairs. A dart board hung on one wall, and there was a foosball game in one corner. The main attraction was the jukebox, offering a mix of county and western, oldies, and some modern music. As Justin discovered over time, there were actually three social spots in the store. The men gravitated towards the saddle and feed department while the ladies congregated in the small but well stocked women’s wear department. The tables and games were mostly frequented by young folks more his age.
Lloyd walked to the back of the store with Justin. All activity stopped momentarily at the sight of Justin’s presence.
“Hello, Mister Barber,” said a few of the young folks.
“This is Justin Billings,” announced Lloyd without preamble. “He’s working for me for awhile.” Then to Justin, “I’ve got some things to pickup around town. I’ll be back in about an hour.”
Justin nodded in acknowledgement.
After a few hello-Justin’s from some of the kids there, the group resumed what they had been doing. A few approached him. He politely answered their questions about where he was from and how he came to be at Lloyd Barbers’ place. After that, he was left pretty much alone. No one asked him to join in the games or conversation, so he found a chair and table against one of the walls and sat down. School talk seemed to be the major topic, so Justin tuned the chatter out. Small town cliques, he thought. He had never lived in a small town before, but he had heard stories of how clannish one could be. After only a few minutes in the store, he knew he was experiencing it for himself. Well, he thought, studying the table top, if that’s the way they want to play it-
Justin’s head came up quickly at the sound of the voice. He gave the girl standing on the other side of the table only a brief glance before looking over his right shoulder at the wall behind, then over his left shoulder at the same wall, then leaning to the side and looking under the table before straightening back up and looking at the girl once more. Poking himself in the chest, he widened his eyes in a “you-talkin’ to me?” look.
“Okay, you’re funny,” said the girl without smiling.
“No,” Justin replied, “I’m Justin Billings. My friends call me Justin.”
“And I’m Samantha McCallen, Justin Billings,” said the girl back. “My friends call me Sam. I’ll let you know when you qualify…if you qualify.”
“I long for the day,” Justin said, a twinkle of humor in his voice. “Would you like to join me Samantha McCallen? As you can see, I don’t have much of a fan club right now.”
The girl hesitated, and for a moment, Justin though she would refuse. He looked into her emerald green eyes, sending them a message that he had no ulterior motives beyond simple and friendly conversation. To his delight, the girl sat down across from him. “Thank you,” he said, genuinely. “You’ve dispelled somewhat the legend of small town clannishness.”
For the next few segments of time, neither spoke. Oddly, thought Justin, the silence was not uncomfortable. Though Justin continued looking the girl in her eyes, his peripheral vision allowed him to examine the rest of her, or what he could see from the table top up. She was, he decided, the most good looking girl he had ever met, and so easy on the eyes that he wanted to wrap her in a hug and never let go. No sooner had the thought taken up residence in his eyes, than the girl began fidgeting.
“I need to go,” she said, standing up suddenly.
He offered no reply, letting his eyes speak for him. Their message conveyed genuine sadness that she was leaving so soon.
She turned to walk away, then turned back. Leaning over the table, she spoke soft enough that only he could hear. “I think, Justin Billings,” she said, her face showing the first tinges of an angry blush, “that you are a very dangerous person. So from now on, do us both a favor and keep those warm, chocolate brown eyes of yours to yourself. Okay?”
Justin kept silent, his only response being a slight lowering of the head while his eyes remained on hers. I’m saddened, the innocent, puppy dog looking eyes said.
“Stop that,” she ordered, her cheeks flaming now.
“Good-bye, Samantha McCallen,” said Justin softly as she turned and walked sharply away. He watched as she disappeared among the isles of the main part of the store, then continued gazing at the place she had vanished into.
Finally, he pulled his attention back to the room he was sitting in and stared at nothing in particular as he contemplated what had just occurred.
It wasn’t the first time in his life that a girl had walked up to him and said hi, and probably wouldn’t be the last. But no “hi” had ever effected him like this. He knew this girl. They had never met before today-he would have definitely remembered-but he knew her nonetheless. As soon as he had looked at her, a feeling of…comfort-that was the closest he could come to describing it, anyway-had come over him. He had felt instantly at ease in her presence. That, he decided, probably explained his who-me act when she had first said hi. As she was walking away, flashes of possibilities had paraded through his mind: walking hand in hand with her; sharing thoughts; enjoying the comfort of being together. If he could only figure out why she had-
“What was that all about?”
The question broke through Justin’s concentration and forced him back to the real-time world.
Three guys, none of whom had shown any sign of noticing Justin when he had first arrived, were surrounding his table. The questioner was wearing a pair of mechanic’s coveralls, with the name “Chris” embroidered above the left pocket. Chris and the Cronies, thought Justin. Just ducky. Sounds like a one-hit-wonder rock band. Irritated that they had interrupted his pleasant musings of Samantha, Justin had no intention of being candid with them about what had just happened. “I don’t know,” he said in reply to the question.
“Well, you obviously did something to upset her.”
“If I did,” he said calmly. “That was not my intent. I asked her to join me, and she did. Then she said she had to go, and she did that too.”
“We saw her getting in your face,” Chris accused, glancing at the other two-who were already nodding in agreement-for support. “Sam doesn’t get in anyone’s face without a good reason.”
Justin looked back down at the table, a wry smile on his face. He had been in enough fights in his life to know when someone was pushing for a confrontation, and this guy was being pretty obvious about it. Not long ago, he reflected, he would have obliged the kid without a seconds hesitation-or a seconds notice, for that matter. The guy was hefty looking and a head taller than him, but that didn’t mean much.
“Hey!” demanded the kid. “We don’t have all day here. We’re waiting for an explanation.”
“If you want to know why Samantha was upset,” suggested Justin, reasonably, “then why not ask her?”
Bristling, the boy said, “Samantha’s not here right now. You are.”
Justin noticed that the rest of the people in the room had gathered around. It reminded him of the proverbial behind-the-gym fight with the rest of the school gathered in a circle and cheering the event on.
“Look,” Justin said loud enough for everyone to hear, “I didn’t come here to fight. And I certainly didn’t intend to upset your friend Samantha. I’m just a dumb guy from the big city who’s trying his hand at farm work for the first time in his life, and doing pretty good at it.” He paused, then said, “I only tried to milk the bull once.” After the eruption of laughter had died down somewhat, he added, “I won’t make that mistake again.”
As he had hoped, acknowledging his inexperience and stupidity seemed to break the ice with them-or most of them, anyway. Chris and the Cronies had remained irritated and glaring throughout it all.
“Just stay away from Sam,” warned Chris.
Justin looked at him briefly, then turned his attention to the darts game that was in progress. After deciding that Justin wasn’t going to answer, the cronies joined the rest of the group, leaving Justin to return to his thoughts of Samantha.
“Hi. Mind if I join you? You’ll have to excuse most of these folks. Small town and all that.” The voice was owned by a young man about Justin’s age. “They can be pretty clickish.”
“So I’ve noticed,” said Justin. “Have a seat.”
“I’m Bart, by the way,” said the young man, offering his hand across the table before sitting down opposite Justin.
“Brave move you’re pulling,” commented Justin. “Won’t Clicks Incorporated take away your membership card?”
“Eh…I’m sort of an outsider too,” Bart told him. “My family moved here about a year ago. Some of the uppity-ups still don’t totally accept us. It’s nothing obvious, but every now and then they let you know you’re an outsider. I’m not sure they’re even aware that they do it, but it happens.”
Justin chuckled at the comment. “I think I was reminded earlier.”
“Chris? Ignore him. Thinks he’s king around here or something just because he looks tough and has a couple of morons that follow him around like pets. Doesn’t come in here much anyway and acts like royalty when he does. Most just try to pay him no mind.”
“I thought he was Samantha’s boyfriend or something,” said Justin.
“Samantha McCallen?” queried Bart. “Nah. He’d like to be her boyfriend. Never happen, though. She’s looking for…well, whatever she’s looking for, he’s not it.”
“Interesting,” said Justin. “So she’s not wearing anyone’s brand right now?”
Bart chuckled at the analogy. “Not her. She rarely even dates one-on-one, or so I hear-just in groups. I get the feeling that she’s biding her time, waiting for Mr. Right to show up.”
“Even more interesting,” commented Justin.
“I saw the little set-to you had with her a few minutes ago,” said Bart.
Justin looked at him somewhat sharply.
“Hey, I’m on your side,” said Bart, holding up his hands in a sign of surrender. Grinning, he continued, “If you had really said something that offended her, trust me-she would have laid those ice-green eyes of hers on you and the whole room would have heard what a dirty low-down you were.”
Justin relaxed. “Maybe some time I’ll tell you about it.”
“Fair enough,” said Bart. “So you’re working for Mr. Barber, huh. How do you like it?”
“Well,” said Sister Isabelle to Sister Charity, “that went glowingly. Not.” They were sitting at one of the unoccupied tables at Smiths, though no one could see them or detect their back and forth impaths to each other.
“What are we going to do now?” asked Sister Charity.
“Patience, Sister,” advised Isabelle. “Keep in mind that everyone has their free agency. We can’t-and wouldn’t want to anyway-take that away by forcing them into something. We can try to influence them in a certain direction, but in the end, the choice is still theirs. Especially with Samantha. She’s been her own person for as long as I’ve been her Guardian, which has been her entire life. She doesn’t bow to peer pressure.”
Charity, who was a relatively new angel and on her first real assignment, considered that for a few moments. “So we don’t always win, do we.”
“No,” replied Sister Isabelle, “we don’t always win-but we never give up trying.”
“Then back to my original question,” Charity said. “What are we going to do now?”
“Nothing,” responded Sister Isabelle. “We’re going to let those warm, chocolate brown eyes of Justin’s do the work for us. Then, when the time is right, we’ll add a little influence of our own.”
“Dad?” Samantha paused at the door of her father’s study. The room had began as a bedroom years ago, but her father had converted it to a mini library after her older brother Sean had graduated high school and moved out.
Ian McCallen looked up from the book he was reading. “Yes?” he replied.
“I need to talk to you.”
Her somber look told Ian that all his attention would be required. Marking his place, he closed the book and laid it aside. “Take a seat,” he said. Then, “What can I help you with?”
Samantha sat for a few moments, gathering her thoughts. “I met a boy today,” she said, solemnly. “It’s him.” Then, to his amazement, she began sobbing.
Several years ago, Samantha had confided to Ian that someday, Mr. Right would come along, and when he did, she would know him immediately. At first, Ian had found her declaration somewhat amusing-his daughter’s knight-in-shining-armor riding up and taking her to who knows where, or perhaps rescuing her from this or that situation in the nick of time. As she grew older, however, he noticed that her attitude towards boys was not like other girls of her age. She never got giggly over boys. She had boys who were friends, but never any actual boyfriends. Once when he had kidded her about not having a boyfriend, she had replied seriously, “He’s coming, dad. I just don’t know when.” Finally, he had come to accept that there was something in her-more than just a normal girl’s fantasy-that was guiding her.
Reaching into a desk drawer, he pulled out several tissues and offered her one.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized, daubing at her eyes. “It’s just that I’m not sure I’m ready for this yet. I guess I wasn’t expecting it this early in my life. In a few years, perhaps, but not now.”
“And you’re pretty sure he’s the one,” said Ian.
“Dad,” she said, pinning his eyes with hers, “it’s him.” Her conviction was absolute. Ian had to believe her.
“Does he know?” asked her father.
“I think he suspects,” she replied,” and it’s not going to take him long to figure out that I know it too.” She told him in detail about her short encounter with Justin earlier. “I don’t know what came over me. I tried to push him away. I told him to keep his warm chocolate brown eyes to himself from now on.” She thought for a second. “I don’t think I was very convincing, though,” she said, her face coloring a little, “because I was blushing when I said it.”
Ian’s eyes sparkled with merriment. “Would you like a piece of advice?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Samantha, eagerly.
“Well,” he began, “I’m probably not telling you anything you couldn’t figure out on your own, but this isn’t something you have to rush into. You’ll want time to get to know each other.”
“That’s one of my problems,” said Samantha. “In a way, I feel like I already know him better than I know my own friends, even.”
“Everyone has baggage,” replied her father. “Some more than others. The true test of friendship, and even marriage,” Ian noticed his daughter’s slight blush at the word, “is forgiving the baggage, or at the least, working around it-and appreciating that he is doing the same with you.”
Ian leaned back in his chair. “And that’s my advice,” he said. “The rest you’ll just have to figure out between you. Are you going to tell your mother?”
“Not right now,” sighed Samantha. “Mom means well, but you know how she is. She wouldn’t be able to resist telling this person and that person all about it-just between her and them, of course-and pretty soon it would be all over town.”
“Tell you what,” said Ian, “I’ll leave it up to you when to tell her. I won’t say anything to her about it.”
Samantha stood up, then leaned over and gave her father a hug. “Thanks, dad,” she said. “I feel much better now. Taking my time. I like that idea.”
“So what do you think?”
“Huh?” Justin put is musings on pause. He and Lloyd were in Lloyd’s truck, headed back to the farm.
“You were pretty deep in thought, there,” commented Lloyd. “I was just wondering what you think of our fair city.”
“Don’t you mean ‘our fair hick town’?,” Justin asked with no animosity.
“Okay,” said Lloyd, “what do you think of our fair hick town, then?”
“I’ll admit that it’s got possibilities. Most of the folks left me alone; some guy and his goon squad tried to hassle me; I made a good friend; and I met a girl.”
“All that in one hour,” said Lloyd. “Impressive. Who’s the girl, if you don’t mind me asking.”
Lloyd’s eyes widened slightly. “No one’s going to accuse you of aiming too low,” he said. “And the goon squad?”
“Some moron named Chris,” said Justin. “Ordered me to stay away from Samantha. I don’t know who the other two were.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t threaten to sue him,” said Lloyd wryly.
Frustratingly for Justin, he didn’t see Samantha again for over two weeks-long weeks, in his opinion. Lloyd-and sometimes Connie with him-usually made a trip to town several times a week. Justin suspected that it was as much for the socializing as anything else. The regular crowd at Smiths Variety and Hardware had warmed to him to the point that he was invited to join in their talk and games.
That’s when they found out that at the game of foosball, Justin was a master.
“Ever play before?” his friend Bart asked before their first game.
“A little,” said Justin modestly. His “little” was good enough that he won the next three games in a row, convincingly so.
“You’ve played more than a little,” said Bart after the third win. “I usually win most of my games, but you made me look like novice.”
“Don’t feel too bad,” remarked Justin, “I seem to have been blessed with quick reflexes, or so I’ve been told.”
“Quick reflexes?” said Bart seriously. “Insanely fast would be a better description. Remind me to never play you for money.”
“You said that you usually win most of your games,” stated Justin.
“Yeah,” replied Bart, recognizing the statement for what it was. “Only one other person besides you is able to beat me on a regular basis.”
Justin raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“You’re going to love this,” said his friend with a grin. “Chris Munson, the one who told you to stay away from Samantha. Now there’s something I’d like to see-you and him going at it. Three 5 point games, 2 point lead to win.”
Sister Isabelle and Sister Charity sat at the same table in Smiths Variety and Hardware as before, discussing how to handle Samantha’s apparent abandonment of Justin.
“What if we do the opposite of what we think we need to do?” impathed Sister Charity.
Puzzled, Isabelle asked, “What do you mean?”
Sister Charity explained: “Remember how upset Samantha was with Justin’s showing up at this point in her life? I know her father told her she could take it slow, but she hasn’t made any attempt to see him for more than two weeks, now. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not taking it slow, that’s taking it nowhere. So, we encourage her notion that he’s somehow gummed up everything by his early arrival in her life. We get her irritated enough that she’ll want to vent her feelings to him personally about it. Whatever it takes to get the two of them together again. Then, we stand back and let his warm, chocolate brown eyes go to work.”
As Sister Isabelle thought the suggestion over, a small smile appeared on her face, broadening rapidly as the possibilities became obvious to her. “That is an excellent idea, Sister Charity,” she said. Closing her eyes for a moment, she concentrated, determining Samantha’s location. “She’s at home now. What say we go over and begin working on her right away?”
“Irritation as a tool for good,” said Sister Charity. “This angel stuff gets more interesting all the time. Let’s go!”
Justin was sitting at his favorite table in a slightly brooding mood. He had declined playing any foosball, preferring instead to spend time wondering what had happened to Samantha. After a few minutes, his friend Bart came in and sat down across from him.
“A little glum looking there, buddy,” he said.
Justin glanced at him but said nothing.
“She’s avoiding you,” Bart informed him. “Don’t ask me why. It’s not like her to avoid anything.”
“You’re too perceptive for your own good, you know that?” Justin growled.
Sensing that his friend didn’t want to talk right then, Bart shut up, but remained seated.
After fifteen minutes of silence, Justin looked at his watch and frowned.
“Got to go now?” asked Bart.
“No,” said Justin, “I’ve got several hours yet. Sorry to be so grouchy earlier.”
“No problem, buddy,” said Bart. “I understand. Girls will do that to you.”
“Not to me they don’t,” Justin informed him. “I guess that’s why I’m upset. First girl I’ve ever met that’s managed to jerk my emotions around like this. I-”
Before he could finish, a voice he had been waiting for several weeks to hear interrupted him.
“Okay, Billings,” it said. “We need to talk. Hi, Bart.”
“Hey, Sam,” Bart said as he stood up. “You can have my seat.”
“Stay put,” she told him. “Justin and I are going for a walk.”
Without a word, Justin arose from his chair and followed her out the rear entrance of the store to a park a block away. They sat across from each other at a picnic table. Justin tried reading her expression, but was unable to. Finally, she spoke.
“You have no idea what you’ve done to me,” she said. Her eyes were on the table top, unwilling to engage his eyes directly.
Justin thought back over their first-and only-encounter, but could think of nothing he had said or done that could be construed as hurtful.
“I guess I don’t understand,” he said, “I-” He stopped talking then, his facial expression taking on a look of deep introspection. The same feeling of comfort as before had come over him, only much stronger than before. I could very easily spend the rest of my life with this girl, he reflected. The unexpected and unbidden thought brought with it a wave of understanding. He remembered her apparent nervousness at the end of their first meeting. You have no idea what you’ve done to me, she had just said to him. Suddenly, he knew. She had felt the same thing he had that first time-and she was fighting it for some reason. Taking a long, slow, breath, he released it just as slowly. Cautiously, he reached out and covered her hands with both of his. She didn’t pull away. “Samantha,” he said, speaking her name with gentleness, “we don’t have to take this any faster than you want to.”
“Would you stop that?” she demanded, though not very convincingly.
Justin could tell that her defenses were crumbling, causing him to smile slightly. At least she has defenses, he thought. Mine have been at zero ever since I met her.
“Stop what?” he asked.
“Everything,” she said, irritated, then corrected herself. “Well, not everything. Just-I don’t know.” She seemed more frustrated at herself than at him. Finally, she allowed herself to look into his eyes. Her irritated expression slowly dissolved and her face softened as a feeling of warmth for him came over her. She looked down at the hands that were gently covering hers, then back up into his eyes. “Are you in love with me, Justin?” she asked quietly. There was no blushing on her part.
The question caught him by surprise, and he took a moment to think about it. Where did intense like cross over into love? Was the line hard, or was it a gradual thing that became stronger and stronger until a person was almost forced to admit it? Not sure how she would react, he gave the only answer he was positive of.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Right now, I honestly don’t know.”
The last of her barriers crumbled, and she smiled serenely. “Thank you,” she said. “That was the perfect answer.” Then, “How long are you in town for today?”
Justin wasn’t sure why his ‘I don’t know’ qualified as a perfect answer, but he sensed that the state of their relationship had just taken a huge step forward. “A few more hours,” he answered. “Mr. Barber’s at some kind of meeting. Told me he’d be back just before Smiths closed.”
She arose. “Well, buster, you’re in luck then,” she said, walking around to his side of the picnic bench and offering him her hand. “I’m going to take you on a walking tour of some of the unique features of our fabulous city. We can talk while we’re walking.”
He took her hand, enjoying the feel of it in his own. He decided that he could get very used to this.
An hour or so after leaving Smiths, Justin and Samantha returned, still hand in hand. Outside the rear entrance of the store, they stopped.
Samantha faced him, taking his other hand also. “So,” she asked looking up into his face, “Saturday?”
“Yeah,” said Justin, wistfully. “I wish it were sooner.”
“Me too,” said Samantha, then suddenly raised up on her toes and kissed him warmly on the cheek.
“There,” she said, disengaging her hands from his, “maybe that will make up for not being able to see each other sooner.”
“Beats a handshake,” said Justin.
“Be glad I’m not wearing smeary lipstick, Billings,” Samantha retorted playfully. Then turning suddenly serious, she brought up her right hand and placed it against the cheek she had just kissed. Her eyes had a yearning look in them. Whisperings of love to come, perhaps-or maybe the realization that her feelings for him were growing more quickly than she had expected. Whatever it was, Justin resisted the temptation to take her in his arms. Instead, he looked deep into her eyes, letting her know how much he looked forward to being with her again. “See you Saturday,” she said softly, removing her hand from his cheek.
Justin watched as she walked away. Everything’s working out just right, he thought as he turned and went back into the store.