Richard studied the woman laughing at six-year-old Josh’s terrible joke. Emily almost choked on her soda, but continued to chortle between coughs. Was this really the same woman who looked away or seemed not to hear him when he talked to her at work? Whatever was in her drink, he wanted some of it.
She had confused him all day.
When organizers paired them up for the firm’s annual charity event, he’d almost asked to be reassigned. Since she’d started working in the cubicle next to him three months ago, she’d declined all his invitations to join their fellow workers for lunch; at the end of the day, she was the first one out the door. He’d decided she had little interest in her job, and even less in him.
Given her apathy, he’d been surprised to see her name on the list of employees volunteering at the annual fun-day for children without fathers. He hadn’t thought she would want to spend a whole day playing games with two rowdy boys at the local amusement park. But so far, she’d been a good sport, goofing around with the two brothers assigned to them through mini-golf, the bumper cars, and even a spin on the whirly-gig.
“Earth to Richard,” she said, waving her hand in front of his face.
Heat climbed from his neck to his hairline. He had no idea what she’d just asked. The two boys giggled, and she repeated the question. “What did the acorn say to the oak?”
His face grew hotter. “I don’t know.”
The boys rolled their eyes. “Everyone knows that one,” said Josh.
“Even I know it,” said Bryan, his younger brother. “Geometry. Get it? Gee, I’m a tree.”
He forced a chuckle. “You’re right. I forgot.”
Gathering up the wrappers and paper cups scattered about their picnic table, she asked, “Who wants to try the batting booth?”
The boys jumped from their seats and took off toward the batting cages. Josh called out over his shoulder, “Last one there wears girls’ underwear.”
Richard stood, but hesitated, torn between helping her and following the boys. She waved her hand at him. “I can clean up. I know I wear girls’ underwear.”
She joined them just after they’d picked up their helmets. With complete confidence, she helped the boys strap them on, adjusted their stance and swing, and when it was her turn, bounced a baseball off the furthest distance marker.
After high-fiving the boys, she turned to Richard, her hand high for his slap. He gave it a spirited smack and returned her wide smile. “You have an amazing swing.”
“Thanks. You didn’t do so badly yourself.”
“I’m the pinch hitter for the company softball team.”
She opened her mouth to tell him she’d read about it in the company newsletter, but a bus horn broke into her thoughts. She’d had so much fun with Richard and the boys, she hated for it to end, but she forced a smile and said, “Let’s turn in the helmets, you don’t want to miss your ride back.”
After waving good-bye to the boys through a cloud of diesel, she turned to Richard, all too aware of being so close to him, just like at work. “I need to go, too.”
With a slight sigh, she turned toward her car. Before she could take a step, he called after her. “Wait, why don’t we get some coffee?”
She froze, the lot’s asphalt suddenly turned to superglue. Part of her wanted to say “yes,” but she knew he was just trying to be nice, taking pity on her just like at work. Forcing herself to turn around, she turned and said without a smile, “Thanks, but I need to leave.”
In two strides, he was next to her, “At least let me escort you to your car.”
She stared at him a moment before continuing to her car in silence. Could he truly be interested in her? She had been so busy for so long, she hadn’t really had time to master reading grown men’s cues. Boys she understood. That’s why she’d gotten along so well with Josh and Bryan.
Richard kept up with her pace. After a few steps, he cleared his throat and asked, “Where’d you learn to bat like that?”
She peeked at him, then focused her gaze on her car. “I have three younger brothers, all in Little League at one time or the other. I helped my dad coach their teams since I was sixteen.”
“You must be a big help to him.”
She stopped and dropped her gaze. “He died three years ago.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t—″
When she lifted her gaze, she looked straight into his. “It’s all right. Anyway, I help my mom out with them--checking their homework, taking them to practices and games. It doesn’t leave me a lot of free time.”
She paused. “That’s why I signed up for today. I know how important it is for single parents to have time for themselves.”
He stared at her. He had to be thinking what a bore she was.
Instead, he said, “Your batting blew me away. Have you thought about joining the company softball team?”
Before she could think of an excuse, he added, “The invitation’s purely mercenary. Last year we came in second to last because only a few of us can bat. We don’t really practice except about an hour before the game on Sundays.”
“My brothers don’t play games on Sundays...” she said thoughtfully.
“Perfect. How about discussing it over lunch next week?”
Her smile matched the one she’d given the boys in the batting cages. Maybe she did know how to relate to grown men. “If you can beat me to my car.” Sprinting away, she shouted over her shoulder, “Last one there wears girls’ underwear.”
About the Author: Liese Sherwood-Fabre was born in Dallas, Texas. After spending ten years abroad, she returned to Dallas with her husband of twenty-five years, three children, and one English mastiff. She has spent most of her professional career with the Federal government, having worked in Washington, D.C., Honduras, Mexico, and finally Moscow, Russia. Her experiences have blessed her with a variety of people and places that inspire and populate her stories. She has been writing for about ten years, and her stories have appeared Girls' Life's Big Book of Friendship Fiction, CrossTIME, Fresh Ink, and Briar Cliff Review. Find out more at her website: http://www.liesesherwoodfabre.com/.