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By Allen Steadham

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Sweating from her brisk walk across the Digby College campus in record-breaking near-ninety-degree July heat, Leia Hamilton dragged herself into an empty seat towards the back of the large Jason V. Frederick lecture hall, which wasn’t well-lit or properly ventilated. The building itself must have been at least twenty-five to thirty years old. The acoustics carried well enough but also made it seem like all sound escaped from a human-sized tin can. Students were always tempted to sleep but their success often depended on the teacher.

Professor Angela Merrick, whom Leia had nicknamed "Professor Doom," scowled and deliberately made direct eye contact with Leia but said nothing, continuing her lecture. The professor radiated confidence and something else, Leia wasn’t sure what. The professor’s long black hair was often worn in a bun like today but sometimes she wore it down. Leia believed the professor would be very beautiful if she didn’t always project a certain amount of tension. It had given her worry lines that made her look a few years older than she probably was.

Thirty minutes later, Josh Manning saw Leia escaping her first class of the day. Mentally noting her distressed expression, he whirled her around and kissed her passionately in front of the other class escapees in the hallway. He was red-haired, even taller than Leia and lanky. He also had more than a bit of Southern charm to accompany his slight Alabama drawl. Suddenly, he pulled back, confused and concerned.

"Your skin is, like, really hot!" Josh put his hand on her forehead. "You have a fever or something?"
"I'm fine," Leia pulled back and glared at Josh. "Now what are you doing? You said you'd keep things mellow on-campus!"
"You looked like you needed cheering up," Josh said.

Leia facepalmed. And a moment later, she grabbed his arms in a rage.

"What is wrong with you?" Leia screamed. "Save that stuff for when we're alone!"
"Oh yeah, that's subtle," Josh replied. "Do you think anyone didn't hear you just now? All I did was kiss you!"
"SHUT UP!" Leia shouted.

As Leia said that, her eyes became a bright, transfixing glare. And the outer halo of that glow burned like the hottest flames. Combined with her angry expression, it terrified him.

Josh stumbled backwards into a wall, shocked and afraid. He closed his eyes and shook his head a couple of times, as though not accepting what his eyes had seen.

"What's— what is it? What's wrong?" Leia asked.
"N-nothing! I must be seeing things," Josh said. "Um...for a second there, it looked like your eyes were glowing and... on fire."
"What?" Leia said, her eyes widening.
"I gotta, uh, go. I'll, um, I'll call you later. Maybe. I think!"

Josh, at first, briskly walked then ran down the hallway past the other students who apparently hadn’t seen what he had. Then he almost collided with a couple of students on his way to the exit.

He acted like he'd seen a monster! Leia couldn't understand it at all.
In all the years she’d known him, Josh had never reacted like this and certainly never looked at her with such fear. Still stunned and hurt, Leia walked out of the building, feeling like a child who had lost their favorite toy. Slowly, she made her way out to one of the grass-covered hills nearby and sat down under the shade of a tree. Her thoughts took her back to the first time that she and Josh met.

"You're pretty tall for a girl!" Josh had said.

With her arms at her sides and fists clenched, Leia turned around and faced him. She was angry to the point of near-tears. Her left cheek was red from a recent punch, her lip was split, and some blood was drying on her right cheek.

Josh was tall but not as tall as Leia. He had a mop of red hair, freckles and was thin and scrawny. He wore thick glasses, a loud yellow t-shirt and green shorts.

"Are you gonna mess with me, too?" Leia had snarled.

They were nine years old at the time. She was standing next to the playground swings after school. He was next to the slide. The sun and clouds were overhead and there was no breeze on this late spring afternoon. A pair of female joggers were running through the neighborhood on the other side of the playground.

Leia’s muddied white t-shirt sleeve was stretched and torn and there was dirt all over her blue shorts. There were fresh scrapes on her legs and arms.

"You're hurt!" Josh had said. "Are you okay?"

His concern was disarming. Still, Leia wasn't ready to completely drop her guard.

"You don't wanna fight?" she had asked.
"Why would I wanna fight you? I don't even know you," Josh had said. "What happened?"
"All the boys want to fight me `cause I'm tall and I look strong," Leia said. "I like to play sports and I'm not all girly, so they treat me like a boy. And the girls won't help me `cause if they do, the boys'll mess with them, too."

Leia spat out a little blood.

"What's your name?" Leia had asked. "And... why are you being nice to me?"
"I'm Josh. And like I said, I don't know you. Why should I be mean to you?"
"Okay, thanks. I'm Leia."
"Where do you live, Leia? I'll walk you home, hold your books, and stuff. And if more boys mess with you, I'll fight them for you."

Leia arched her left eyebrow at Josh.

"You can fight?" Leia had wondered aloud.
"Are you kidding? Everyone picks on me because I look scrawny," Josh replied. "But it's easy to beat someone when they underestimate you."

Leia's respect for Josh increased. He wasn't just nice, he was smart, too.

As Josh walked over, picked up her books and put them back in her scuffed and dirty backpack, Leia finally relaxed and allowed herself a genuine smile.

"Lean on me, Leia, I'll carry your backpack."
"You sure?" Leia asked.
"I'm stronger than I look," Josh said. "Just tell me where to take you."

Leia put her left arm around Josh's neck and let him support her as they walked home through the neighborhood.

Seven years had passed and the two continued to remain friends, entering middle then high school. Josh had grown to surpass Leia's height, tamed his hair into an actual style, and began wearing contacts. Leia had developed a womanly figure and left behind her tomboy days. She had also gained some popularity from her participation in track and volleyball. Josh had joined the basketball team and developed into quite the student. He and Leia had a regular routine of studying together. In fact, they were near-inseparable.

So, Leia didn't know whether to be happy or furious as Josh kissed her in the semi-crowded Digby High library. Her first kiss.

Probably his, too.

It was awkward at first but not unpleasant, so Leia didn't pull away. A moment later, it was over and she regained her senses. Leia looked around. If anyone was amused or offended, they didn’t bother to show it. The other students continued about whatever they were doing, although Leia thought she saw one of the female librarians suppressing a smile as she checked in books at the counter.

"Wh-what— why did you do that??" Leia whispered loudly.
"`Cause I like you," Josh answered, not quite whispering. "You're my best friend, you're really pretty and I want you to be my girlfriend."
"Me... your girlfriend?" Leia whispered, shocked and impressed by his forthright manner.
"The way I see it, we're supposed to be together, Leia."
"Not following your math here, cowboy."
"Oh, come on! We've been there for each other, every day, for how long?" Josh said. "Don't tell me the kiss didn't feel right to you."

Leia said nothing. She was embarrassed to admit he was right.

"You kissed me back," Josh whispered.
"When did I do that?!" Leia said, no longer whispering.
"Those first few seconds were all me. But you pulled me close and kept going."
He was right. She blushed. Then she looked down to try and hide it. And inwardly, she smiled.
"Fine," Leia declared.
"I'll be your girlfriend."

Three more years had passed. Josh was now living in an efficiency apartment near Digby College and working part-time at the local Burger Empire. Josh had decided to pursue an advertising degree. By his junior year in high school, Josh had been designing ads for the school newspaper while taking a journalism class. His sometimes-blunt social style translated well into his advertising style. He had a knack for making ads that people would talk about and remember, even if they were odd.

Leia looked at Josh sleeping on the fold-out bed in his apartment. She sat next to him and stroked his hair. The moonlight shone through the blinds revealing a surprisingly organized apartment. Josh had a few framed paintings and pictures on the walls, gifts from his mother. There was a medium-sized television on top of a wide wooden half-dresser. He kept all of his school materials to the left of the television on the dresser. The back half of the apartment contained the kitchen, dining area and bathroom. His “kitchen” was comprised of a small refrigerator and a microwave. It wasn’t much but it was his home away from home.

Leia had come by after finishing her shift at Skippy’s Pizza. It wasn’t unusual for Leia to go for a late-night dinner or snack. But tonight, as on many occasions, Leia wanted to spend her time with Josh instead.

Leia smiled as she thought of how far their relationship had progressed in a decade's time. This was the man she'd given her heart to. He was the one who had protected and supported her. She knew he loved her with all his heart.
Sure, he had his faults. He could be loud and obnoxious, say the worst things at the worst times. He often didn't know when to quit. They could argue about almost anything. But he was sincere and honest, a good man, devoted to her happiness. Leia thought about her parents then.

When am I gonna tell them? What am I gonna tell them? Call me crazy but I don’t think “Mom, Dad, Josh and I aren’t just boyfriend and girlfriend anymore” will go over so well. Would it help if I told them that he’s the man I want to spend my life with? She had thought back then.

Now, in the present, Leia sat on the hill, her eyes looking blankly at the sky as her reverie ended. Leia had continued to avoid telling her parents how close her relationship with Josh had become, even though on some level, she knew Mom was probably keenly aware of it. What was there to discuss? Leia and Josh had chosen this together.

Leia blinked back tears. She was assaulted once again by the mental image of Josh staring at her in abject horror and fear today.

How could this happen? How could Josh, of all people, look at me like that? Like a stranger!

It reminded her of the look one of her childhood bullies had given her after she'd broken his arm, a look of shock and disbelief.

Doesn't he know everything about me by now? Hasn't he accepted me unconditionally? Is he rejecting me now, after all we've been through?

Leia wiped the tears from her eyes and forced herself to stand up. She looked around at the numerous students sitting nearby or walking to class.

The worst thing any of you have to face is whatever class you have. I wish I could say the same. I wish Josh were here holding me...or even kissing me. Yeah, that would be nice.

Leia sighed and forced herself to start walking to her next class.

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