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Keep Your Wits

Updated: May 23, 2023

A short story by Shaunda M. Eck

Even though she had been there for nearly two weeks, she had been avoiding the Rec Room as

if her life depended on it. It wasn’t that she was not curious about who or what was in there, it was the

fact that she already knew enough about the who to avoid the what. Yesterday the tall, mischievous

Puerto Rican from NYC, Vazquez, tried to talk her into going for a walk. He leered when she told him

where she was from. “Fresh off the farm, eh?” She shook her head in disgust thinking of his face. Fresh off the farm and can smell a pig a mile away, she thought to herself. Then there had been the stocky boy from Idaho who tried wooing her with, “I really love a gal who paints her toenails because then I know she takes real good care of herself.” He had swooped in the day after graduation when the guys were allowed to infiltrate the courtyard during their first co-ed recreational hour. Of course this became an evasive maneuver exercise. She had no desire to encounter more of the same within the stuffy game room of rowdy airmen recently freed from the confines of Basic Training.

It was her friend, Jean, who convinced her to go in and have a look. “Come on. I’m bored

already”, she drawled on in her thick Louisiana accent. “Can’t ya just be normal and let ya hair down

for a minute?” The fake pout hadn’t helped at all, but the last comment stuck deep enough for her to

step forward and prove her friend wrong. She glared at Jean’s giggle, shrugged her shoulders and

nonchalantly stepped through the doorway ahead of her boy-crazed friend.

The L-shaped room was unusually empty for a Friday evening after dinner. It was unimpressive

in all the ways she had expected. There was the typical long row of dingy windows along the opposite

wall placed far enough up for no one to see in and no one to see out. Under the windows was an old

pinball machine next to the arcade game, “Defender”. No one was playing but she thought those

flashing neon lights were the only point of interest in the so-called recreational space. Placed

strategically at small, orange circular tables were the uncomfortable blue, hard plastic chairs with dull

metal frames that she was becoming all too familiar with, especially during daylong classes. On a

vinyl-covered couch against the wall sat a tall blonde-haired girl in gray PT gear who was giggling

obnoxiously at whatever some lanky, dark haired boy was whispering in her ear. He slowly looked up,

gawked at the pair of newcomers and winked. Good grief, she thought looking away as quickly as

possible. The blonde haired girl laughed louder.

Jean elbowed her in the ribcage and directed her attention toward the other end of the room.

“That’s the guy I told you about. He wants to go for a pizza. A double date ya know.” Letting out a

deep, low sigh she glanced at Jean’s sparkling blue eyes and shook her head resolutely. She already told her, “No.” at least a dozen times. “I’m not dating here. Forget about it already. Find someone else to go.” Jean, who was pouting and tugging on her sleeve, was annoyingly persistent. She knew from

bunking next to her at Basic that Jean wasn’t going to give up anytime in the near future. What am I

doing here?

Her trail of thoughts scattered as two hands on her back pushed her forward. Jean laughed

girlishly from behind. “You can’t have any fun standing here like a petrified tree. Let’s mingle.” Jean

yanked her arm and pulled her further into the suddenly loud room lit up with the fake aura of

florescent lights. Around the corner was a pool table surrounded by a rambunctious pack of guys

thoroughly engrossed in their game. She noticed two vending machines and a couple of occupied chairs at the end. A sharp inhale of overpowering cologne stirred trepidation and a wave of nausea welled up into her throat. I’ve got to get out of here. She thought of the schematic her instructor handed out earlier that day. One look at it told her she’d need to spend the weekend studying. I need to figure that damn thing out.

Jean’s twinkly giggle interrupted the thought. Out of the corner of her eye she could see her

friend already leaning in too close to pizza boy. Jean was lit up like Christmas Day. At least one of us is having some fun. Not wanting to call any attention to herself, she slipped over toward the vending

machine, stuffed a clammy hand into her sweatpants pocket and dug around for nonexistent change.

Jean called her name. She ignored her and checked the other pocket pretending to be thoroughly

engrossed in whatever junk was available in the machine.

Jean strolled over and grabbed her by the back of the arm. “Someone wants to meet you.”

“No thanks.”

“He just wants to say Hi.”


“Stop being rude.”

She looked at Jean hoping for some sign of retreat but was prepared to meet an arctic challenge

and the infamous pout. There she only saw friendly warmth spreading over the tan, freckled face. “Ya

can’t isolate yourself for 6 months. Live! Isn’t that what ya here for?” Jean gently tugged her arm and

she followed muttering incomprehensibly. The nausea took on a life of its own as her stomach dropped to the floor and her racing heart sporadically darted around inside her chest like a crazed butterfly. Pizza boy was lazily leaning against the wall talking to whoever was sitting in front of him. He stepped aside as the pair of girls walked over.

Whoever was sitting in the chair was a handsome, friendly looking boy. He openly stared at her

face. She met his gaze with the brand of fierce determination she’d adopted for survival. His eyes

smiled even more and she noticed how warm and dark they were. He said nothing. She shifted her feet

and stared attempting to break the disarming warmth. The nausea settled. The room became

uncomfortably quiet. He reached his hand up and motioned for her to sit in the chair next to his. She

glanced back looking for Jean and saw her oblivious friend at the pool table with pizza boy. She sat

mechanically. His smile and those eyes broke through her wall. Everything swirled and stopped

simultaneously in the room. She sat back and curiously dared herself to look at his face and into those

warm eyes.

“Whoa, you have tiger eyes.” All of her defenses kicked in and she started to get up out of the

chair. “Wait, don’t leave yet. I’m Lance. What’s your name?” He kept staring at her eyes and his

friendly, sincere warmth glued her to the chair. Why is he still grinning at me? What in the hell was I

thinking? Why am I here instead of back home finishing school? Waiting. The pit in her stomach

threatened a return but was suddenly overcome with a flash of fury. Waiting for WHO? He certainly

wasn’t waiting around for you. Get over it. Live your own life! She felt as if an unseen magnet held her in place near this mysterious boy. Her mind wandered back home. What home? Was that home? The voice of her best friend, Chris broke through “It’s going to be a mind game. Keep your wits about you. Don’t let them break you. Stay focused, You’re stronger than you realize.” Tucking both hands under her thighs she raised defiant eyes. Focus on what? He’s not waiting. What was her name? The one she heard all about. Elise? A stab of pain sliced through her heart and the butterflies died her chest. She exhaled low and steady. You are here. Live your own life!

“Do you have a name, Tiger Eyes?’ the new boy chuckled and crossed one leg over the other

casually leaning back into the chair. The warmth of his sincerity hadn’t wavered for a second. He was

studying her confidently without a care in the world. He hasn’t said anything stupid. Yet.

“Samantha.” All of her defenses fell to the floor. Live a new life. “Sammy. My friends call me

Sammy.” He grinned even wider and shifted forward. She pulled her hands out and unconsciously

rubbed her palms over her thighs. It’s too warm in here. I need to study. His kind, dark eyes were

pulling her in. They reminded her of how the sunshine warmed the mountain behind the farm. The

farm. She bit the inside of her lip. He was talking to her again and she tried to focus.

“I’m really sorry about those two.” He motioned toward Jean and pizza boy. “Scoob’s been

hounding me to talk to you since he met her.” She chuckled nervously at the admission and he grinned

triumphantly. “I should’ve said Hi sooner and warned you about their scheme.”

“Tell me about it. Jean hasn’t shut up all week.” His boyish laugh caught her off guard. It was

infectious and she liked the sound. Those dark eyes caught fire and she inhaled sharply before exhaling an attempt to slow her now racing heart. It’s only Friday night. He is different. I can study tomorrow.

“What are you here for?” The direct tone jolted her back to reality.

What am I here for? Shit. She internally fumbled for something smart, “I don’t know. I guess to

run away and see the world.” Well that was just genius.

Those eyes lit up. He knew he cornered her into a confession. She realized what he was asking

and smirked at the friendly jest. The fire in his eyes sparked and jolted something in her. “Keep your

wits about you.” Her best friend’s voice cut through the now flowing current between herself and

Lance. Keep YOUR wits, Chris. I’m living my life. You live yours.

“Let me try this again. What’s your job? Do you know where you are going next, Samantha?”

She noticed how he used her full name, confidently. His eyes dared her to come out from behind her

wall of thoughts.

“Aerospace ground equipment. I’m an AGE mechanic. Well, sort of.”

“No way.” He crossed his arms and sat back in the chair. “That’s cool.” He pulled in his legs

and leaned closer. “We are the same. We have the same job.” The flowing current began buzzing in her head. Where was Jean? His eyes dropped momentarily. It was the first hint of shadow she saw passing over his welcoming face. There was a pause and she took advantage of the moment to study him. The tan corduroys and aqua t-shirt with “Surfboards Everywhere” told her he was from a different world than the one she was used to. Who is he? What is this?

“Did you ever have a Hawaiian?”

“A what?” she stumbled over the words as if suddenly aware of being out of her comfort zone.

“A Hawaiian pizza. You know. Ham and pineapple.”

She wrinkled her nose and shook her head back and forth. “No, I’ve never heard of that combo

before! We always go for the standard mushroom and pepperoni”

“We?” He instantly picked up on her wording as he motioned her toward the door. His hand

brushed hers and she jumped. He grinned. She came to life and boldly smiled at him. Don’t. Don’t fall

for anyone. Not here. Focus on…Lance.

“Let’s get out of here and leave those two to figure it out for themselves.” She was following

him as if the magnet that kept her fastened to the chair was now beckoning her out of the stuffy room.

“I bet you have a schematic to study. Why don’t you go grab it? I’ll give you a hand figuring it out. You can tell me all about “we” over a new pizza, Tiger Eyes.”

She breathed a deep sigh of relief as she exited the room and went through the locked doorway

into the women’s hallway, nearly skipping to her room. Live! No more farm. No more hiding. No more waiting in line. It’s time for a new plan, a new life.

Art Academy of Milton will be featuring short stories written by the students of Michael Rash's Prose Writers' Workshop. To learn more about the next workshop and other events, visit our classes page!


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