Alone Together

Part II of the Dawnwalker Cycle

"A Spearfish Lake Story"

a novel by
Wes Boyd
©2004, ©2009

Chapter 1

January 1997

Try as she could in later years, Tanisha couldnít quite remember the first time sheíd taken notice of Jon Chladek.

There had been a lot of new faces, both black and white, in the dorms and around the classrooms of Georgia Tech when she was a freshman. Jon had been one of them, and sheíd only gradually come to notice him. He wasnít real tall for a guy, only a couple inches taller than her own five-foot four, and like her, a bit on the overweight side. Since they were engineering students on pretty much the same track, they shared a lot of classes together, worked on some classroom exercises in groups, and a couple times as a pair, friendly but not really friends. For most of their freshman year and their first semester as sophomores, the sum total of her impression of Jon was that he was friendly and actually pretty nice for a white guy. Besides that, he was just about as smart as she was; they both were near the top of their class rankings. Jon was absolutely nothing special to her, although they did respect each other for their intelligence.

But Tanisha remembered well the afternoon when theyíd first become friends.

Unlike a lot of schools, Tech left the dorms open over Christmas break because students came from all over the world and many were not able to leave for break. Still, most students were gone and the place was pretty empty. Tanisha figured sheíd get some studying in, but even that got dull. It was duller than normal on New Yearís Day, and for once even studying didnít seem interesting. With the dismal memories of her last days at home in St. Louis still hanging over her, some human contact would be nice, even for a loner like her. She didnít feel like going anyplace, but maybe there might be someone to have a cup of coffee with or something down in the cafeteria.

The sounds of a televised football game were coming from a nearby lounge as she walked into the cafeteria in the middle of the afternoon. It was pretty empty, but she noticed Jon sitting over in the corner with a textbook open in front of him. He was staring off into space, probably thinking about something, or maybe he was just as morose and distracted as she was. She didnít consciously think about that, but took a pass through the food line, just looking. A piece of pie maybe, she thought, but decided against it Ė sheíd tightened her clothes with a few pounds from eating out of sheer boredom, and sheíd already been heavier than she ought to be Ė itíd be best just to stick with coffee. At least it was a break from the dreary four walls of her dorm room.

She tore her eyes away from the pies in the display case and headed over to the coffee machine, to find Jon there already, getting a refill. "Happy New Year," she said without much feeling. After the last two weeks, there didnít seem much chance that her New Year could be very happy. At least she wasnít home; that would have been a lot more unhappy. "Iím surprised to see you back so soon," she added after a moment.

"Things were pretty uncomfortable around home," he commented glumly as he stuck his coffee cup under the tap and filled it. "I figured it was better to be here. What brings you here early?"

"Same thing," she nodded sadly. "I figured a head start on stress analysis would be good, too."

"Yeah," he sighed as he stepped back so she could get to the coffee urn. "McDermott at eight AM three days a week. Lovely way to start the day. Iíve been trying to get a start on it, too. That one scares me a little."

"Thatís what I hear," she agreed, filling her coffee cup. "The calc in there looks pretty brutal, but I think I can handle it."

"Yeah, I think I can, too," he nodded. "I was just playing with one of the problems; it looks like it makes sense, but Iím just having trouble keeping my mind on it."

"Which one?" she asked, curious. "I was thinking about taking a run at a couple of them myself after I had some coffee."

"That one at the tail end of chapter fourteen," he said. "The one about harmonic stresses. It really is pretty interesting."

"Do you mind if I take a look at how you hacked your way through it?" she smiled. Jon may have been a white guy, but that didnít keep him from being pretty sharp at engineering. Her first year at Georgia Tech had been an eye opener, in lots of ways. Sure, there were people who saw in black and white Ė like her father did, she realized Ė but the vast majority of the people she had to deal with were more interested in what you knew and what you learned, regardless of color. Whatís more, he seemed like someone sheíd enjoy talking to. The last few days had been pretty lonely, after all.

"Come on over and see what Iíve worked out," he said. "Iím really not doing much, just hacking at some probs to kill time."

"Yeah," she sighed as she followed him over to the table in the corner. "I know how that goes."

Even though Georgia Tech had proved to be a lot different from what she had expected, it was still pretty strange to be sitting down at a table in the cafeteria with a white guy. She had expected thereíd be a pretty good proportion of black students on campus, and there was. She figured sheíd be mostly hanging out with them, but she hadnít. Engineering was taken seriously at Tech, and the kids who were seriously into the department tended to hang out together regardless of race, more so than in other departments.

"Iíll be glad to see classes getting under way again," he agreed. "This break has been awful boring, but I just didnít feel like hanging around home."

"Trouble with your folks?" she nodded understandingly.

"No, not really," Jon sighed. "Itís between my folks and my sisters, and I just didnít want to get caught in the middle. Dad was in a rage for days, always wanting me to take his side. Right after Christmas, this guy I knew from high school suggested we drive down to Florida for a few days. It was something to get out of the house, so I went. We stayed with his grandparents for a couple days, then headed back. We were coming through Atlanta, so I figured why go back to Chicago and go through more of that, then come back when Iím already here? So, I had him drop me off. Maybe things will cool off by summer."

"Howís your dad going to take you sneaking off like that?" Tanisha asked. It was a problem for her, too; her excuse that she wanted to get some extra studying in that couldnít be done at home had been awfully thin.

"Donít know," Jon shook his head sadly. "It makes it tough, since I usually work with Dad each summer. Itís been a good summer job since back when I was in high school. Mostly drafting, although I got into applications a little last summer."

"An engineering firm?" Tanisha asked, just a little jealously.

"Machine tools, a place called Hadley-Monroe" Jon explained. "Years ago, Dad was on a team that came up with a laser-controlled die cutter, and they keep coming up with new applications. Itís not really cutting edge technology anymore, but thereís some interesting stuff here and there. Mostly itís pretty boring."

She shook her head. "It would be nice to have a summer job somewhere in the engineering field, but I havenít been able to manage anything so far. Maybe next summer. I donít intend to spend the summer wiping grubby little noses and changing dirty diapers in the church day care center again."

"Yeah, a summer of drawing fittings on AutoCAD sounds like a lot more fun than that," Jon grinned. "You couldnít find some kind of an engineering internship?"

"I had one lined up," she sighed, "But no, my father and my brother insisted that I had to help in the day care center. Itís a church and a family deal, so I didnít even get minimum wage." She could feel herself start to bristle, and knew she shouldnít be saying this to anyone, especially not to a white guy, but it still rankled her. "No, I had to do something that was honorable for the people. According to them, engineering is a white manís job, and a black woman has absolutely no business even being in it. Jon, I had a tough time going to college at all. My father and my brother just want me to be their subservient little slave, running their day care center and keeping my mouth shut."

"Thatís a damn shame," Jon said. "Cripe, youíre one of the sharpest kids around here."

"Yeah, but tell them that," she snorted. "Look, I was the class valedictorian, I had all Aís, a 34 ACT score, and SATs in the high 700s, but it was something of a miracle that I was able to come here at all. I was accepted at Caltech, at Purdue, and at several other schools. I really wanted to go to Caltech, and I could have done it on a full academic scholarship."

"I wanted to go to Caltech," Jon said sadly. "I had scores like yours, but I didnít make the cut."

"I guess they have a quota," she nodded. "A black girl with those kinds of scores gets pursued by a lot of different colleges. I guess I was a little proud of that, but I got put in my place, even at school. It irritated me more than a little that no one around Martin Luther King High School made a big deal of it, while they did make a big deal about the barely ĎCí average kid who got a full-ride basketball scholarship to the University of Missouri."

"Thatís pretty sad, isnít it?" Jon nodded. "So your folks wouldnít let you go to Caltech, right?"

"My motherís dead," she frowned. "She might have been able to stick up for me. No, my father and my brother informed me that I could forget about Caltech Ė itís too white." She couldnít believe she was saying these things, to a white guy like Jon or anyone else, but somehow the anger that had been lying there for a long time came bubbling out. "I mean, if I had to go to college, couldnít I attend some decent black school? What was wrong with, say, Moorhead? It doesnít even have an engineering department, but so what? Did I really think Iíd be able to get a white manís job like that? They donít let blacks, especially black women, do something like engineering. Iím about as black as they come, one of the darkest people in my school. No, if I had to go to college, I ought to at least get a degree in something useful to the people, like, say, social work at Moorhead. It would help people get their fair share of the pittance of welfare money that the white government allows the victims of slavery to have. Purdue was too white for my father and brother, too, but we were finally able to come to a grudging compromise on Georgia Tech, mostly because itís Dr. Kingís home town." She rolled her eyes, and shook her head. "Of course, their thinking is it would give me a taste of the oppression blacks have to live under in the South. They figured Tech does have a pretty good composition of blacks, more so than racist places like Caltech or MIT, where they keep black students out because theyíd had to attend substandard schools and couldnít prove they were just as smart as whites . . . Iím sorry, Jon, Iím running off at the mouth. I shouldnít be saying things like that, but it just pisses me off."

"Sounds like a pretty circular argument," Jon smiled, trying to take the heat off a little. "It reminds me of my dad ranting about my sister."

"I know," she sighed, trying to bring herself under control. "My fatherís arguments are sometimes circular and donít have to make sense. I mean, Iíd proved that I could attend Caltech, even being black, and on a full scholarship at that, in spite of being from a substandard school. But, there was no selling him on Caltech, and that was that. But as far as I was concerned Georgia Tech was perfectly adequate."

"Thatís sort of what I figured," he said. "If MIT is considered the top engineering school in the country and Caltech the second Ė and you know as well as I do that there are arguments on both sides of the issue Ė well, Georgia Tech is arguably the third ranked. I thought about Purdue, could even have gotten in there, but it was a little too close to home, if you know what I mean."

"Itís a heck of a lot better than Moorhead, as far as Iím concerned," she agreed with a smile. "And I didnít even have a full scholarship there. When you get right down to it, thatís the only reason Iím here. I have a full scholarship, with a little left over for day-to-day expenses. Even my father isnít going to turn down free money."

"I sure wish I had a full scholarship," he nodded. "I mean, I had straight Aís in high school, too, and the only reason I wasnít valedictorian was I didnít take some liberal arts AP classes, but did some stuff off campus at a community college, instead. Guess I didnít think that one through. My ACTs and SATs were right in the same range as yours, but all I have is a partial scholarship from the school. I did get a grant from my motherís company, but I still have to work, my folks have to kick in some cash, and itís still a little tight."

She shook her head. "Iím sorry, Jon," she said, "I shouldnít be taking all this out on you, but I just canít go home and face that stuff anymore. My way may be paid here, but I have to work for my grades, just like you do. I know Iím here on a quota and that just makes me have to work harder to prove myself, not that it proves anything to my father and brother. They keep talking about equality, and they donít know what it means. As far as theyíre concerned, all whites are equally responsible for blacks being enslaved."

"You know," he frowned, "Iíve heard that before, and I think I can tell you, at least, that it pisses me off. I mean, personally. I mean, my momís folks are Swedish, they came to this country about 1910, broke their butts cutting timber up in the north woods to make a living. Dadís folks are Czechoslovakian and they came about the same time. My granddad and his dad worked in the Chicago stockyards. They all came to this country with hardly a dime to their names, and had to work their asses off. Thereís no way in hell any of my ancestors could have had anything to do with slavery, by an ocean and half a century."

She shook her head and smiled. "It wouldnít matter to my brother," she smiled. "They were white, and therefore responsible. Case closed. They were still part of the group that tried to keep blacks in their place; that denied them their proper place, that didnít believe in equal treatment, that oppressed them. Maybe I believed that a little when I first got here, but I just canít buy that stuff anymore. I mean, Iíve learned that not all whites are devils, no matter how much they preach that in the pulpit of my fatherís church. Once you start thinking about it from the perspective of this place, thereís a lot of bullshit that gets revealed."

"Thereís good people and bad, both black and white," Jon nodded, realizing Tanisha had been ranting a little, getting some things off her chest. But, they were things heíd rarely heard blacks say. It was good to know that other people had trouble with their families. It made him feel a little better, like he really wasnít all that alone either. "I mean, where I went to school, it was about a quarter black, and there were good kids there and bad ones."

"Whereíd you go to school?" she asked. "Around Chicago, someplace?"

"Glen Ellyn, itís a suburb," he said. "Not a bad school, but not the best in the city, either. I didnít pal around a lot with the black kids, but then I didnít pal around with the white kids a lot, either. I worked after school a lot, didnít do sports. But, thatís all right, I was kind of a loner, and was really more interested in engineering."

"I went to Martin Luther King High in St. Louis," she explained. "Itís mostly black; I didnít have much to do with the handful of whites who attended it. They werenít exactly the cream of the crop. But then, I didnít have a lot to do with the black students who attended MLK, either. Oh, I had some friends, but not any close ones Ė being a girl, and an ĎAll-Aí student in hard science and math courses set me a little apart from the crowd. No one at MLK quite took me seriously."

"Been there, done that," he grinned. "I mean, I enjoyed staying home, spending time on the computer, learning stuff. Now, my little sister was totally different, just boy crazy, party crazy, and not much of a student."

She smiled. This was a little more of a "getting to know you" conversation, and Jon seemed to be a pretty nice guy, when you get right down to it. "I guess I was pretty much the same way," she agreed. "I wasnít a social lion, but something of a wallflower. Iíd rather be home, working on my computer on extra-credit problems, trying to learn things, than hang out and try to be Miss Popularity, or to sniff after boys who might be big on the basketball courts but might be lucky to wind up as truck drivers ten years down the road. I had bigger plans than that, and if that meant doing it on my own and not being popular, that was well and good."

"Right with you," he said. "I was still in junior high when Dad brought home a slightly outdated version of AutoCAD from Hadley-Monroe. Slightly illegal, too. I got pretty good with computer drafting, and after a while he began bringing home drafting work for me to do, and I got paid for that. I donít know how far Iím going to get in engineering, but I can make a living as a draftsman today if I have to."

"I wish Iíd had something like that," she sighed. "I mean, I can run AutoCAD, but itís not my strong point. I just havenít had the real practice with it. No, I had to get dragged off to the church day care center. I donít particularly like little kids, I never have, never really liked being a little kid myself. But according to my father, itís a job that helps serve the people, an honorable job for a woman." She shook her head and let out a sigh. "He says itíll be useful to me when I come to my senses and go into social work."

Jon smiled. "Sounds like the way my dad used to go nose to nose with my older sister," Jon smiled. "Your father just doesnít get it, does he?"

"Jon, college is such a refreshing breath of fresh air after that itís not funny. It was good to get back here last fall, even though they were still trying to get me to transfer to Moorhead. It was hard to pick up at the Christmas break and head home, knowing Iíd be going back to that environment. There was more of the same stuff Iíd heard last summer, and the only part I enjoyed about the break was the tremendous Christmas program. I got to sing in the church choir again Ė Bethel African Baptist has a big choir, and they can really belt out some of those old spirituals like they were meant to be sung. I missed that."

"I wouldnít know," Jon shook his head. "My family isnít churchy at all. I heard my grandfather say once that the thing he was happiest to leave behind in Czechoslovakia was the Catholic Church. My motherís folks are Lutheran, but I donít think sheís been to church since sheís been married."

"Iím not too sure how churchy I am anymore," she sighed. "I think your grandfather and I would have that in common. The thing Iím going to be happiest to leave in St. Louis is the Bethel African Baptist Church. While Iím going to miss the music, itís not worth all the other hassles. Jon, I started getting all that Ďall whites are devilsí stuff again, all that Ďyou need to transfer to Moorheadí stuff, and I decided to get out. I grabbed a taxi when my father and brother were out of the house. I left a note saying I wanted to get a head start on studying for this semester, and got a standby flight back. If thereís any way I can possibly manage it, Iím not going home for the summer again, or even for a brief visit, at least for a while. I donít have any idea what Iím going to do next summer, but it wonít be in St. Louis. Iím thinking maybe taking summer courses down here, or maybe an internship some place. Do you think there might be an opening at this Hadley-Monroe?"

"Not impossible," Jon said. "I could run it by the personnel director up there. Itís not a real, real big company and I know him pretty well. I could ask my dad, but Iím trying to lay a little low around him right now."

"Thatís right," she said, coming to the realization sheíd told him things about her family and her thinking about it that sheíd barely admitted to herself. But, it was good to have someone to talk to, someone to share her troubles with, and somehow, today, he was easy to talk to. That was a little strange; she usually kept stuff like that to herself, but realized it was actually a little easier to do it with a stranger. It wasnít like her roommate Ė she knew her too well. She was off campus, anyway, and wouldnít be back for another week or so. "Youíre having family problems of your own?"

"Well, yeah," he admitted slowly. "Theyíre not really my problems Ė theyíre problems my sisters are having Ė but the atmosphere was so poisoned that it wasnít any fun being home. Maybe theyíll blow over, maybe not."

"Jon, Iím sorry Iíve been dumping my problems on you the last few minutes," she nodded. "Maybe it would help for you to dump a few of yours."

"Yeah," he nodded slowly, "I guess I am kind of in a hole about it. I mean, itís nothing new, Iíve been hearing about it all fall, but only from down here. I got home, and it blew up in my face like a chem lab experiment gone way bad. I mean, I donít blame Crystal for what happened, especially the way Dad acted."

"Some kind of a family squabble?" she frowned. She knew what those were like.

"Itís not real simple to explain," Jon replied. "Both my sisters were going to Northern Michigan University. Thatís way up in the frozen north, on the shores of Lake Superior. Crystal is my big sister. She was a phys. ed. major. She had to do an extra semester last fall to finish up her teaching certificate, and got it, I guess, from what little I heard. At least she said she graduated Cum Laude in the maybe fifteen seconds I got to talk to her before things went to hell."

"Whatís she mad at you about?" Tanisha asked, not quite getting the drift of things.

"Not mad at me, at my dad." Jon shook his head. "Theyíve been at each otherís throats for a long time, and itís been worse the last few months. It probably would have been worse yet if it werenít for the fact she hasnít been home much. See, my little sister Nanci, she was a first semester freshie up there last fall, and from what I can understand she was majoring in partying. She was wild and aimless all through high school, and mostly she decided to go to NMU because Crystal went there and she couldnít think of anything better to do. At one time she thought she could get on the cheerleading squad there, but it was pretty clear to me that her main idea in going to college was to get away from home so she could have a good time."

"Sort of like my roommate last year," Tanisha nodded, understanding perfectly. Sheíd seen a lot of kids like that; it was a common pitfall, even at a place as serious as Tech. Some of them were really smart kids, but kids who just didnít have the self-discipline to knuckle down and put studying first just couldnít keep up. "She got put on academic probation after the first semester, and didnít clean up her act enough the second semester. Someone else to work the drive-up window at a fast food place, I guess."

"Yeah, Crystal had Nanci figured out, right from the get-go," Jon nodded. "She didnít want Nanci going to NMU. She knew what Nanci wanted to do, which was party, and NMU was far enough away from home that my folks wouldnít be able to do anything about it. From what Mom told me, last winter Crystal told them Nanci was going to run wild, and she wasnít going to take the blame for it. But Dad said if Nanci wanted to go there, she could, since theyíd let Crystal go where she wanted. Whatís more, they expected Crystal to set a good example and look out for Nanci."

"Oh, boy," Tanisha shook her head. "I think I can see it coming now."

"Youíre probably seeing it right," Jon nodded. "I donít know the details, but from what I heard from Mom, all fall plus after the blowup, Nanci went even wilder than Crystal figured. Drinking, partying, skipping class, not studying. Mom didnít come out and say it directly, but from what she hinted at and what I know of her, I guess she was sleeping around quite a bit, too."

"Sort of goes with the territory, I guess," the black girl nodded.

"I guess," he agreed. "Iíve never been to the college, but from what Crystal has said, there really isnít much to do except study and party, unless youíre a big outdoor nut like she is. She does lots of skiing, snowboarding, surfing, climbing, whitewater kayaking and rafting, stuff like that."

"All that seems pretty crazy to me," Tanisha said. "I mean, I never was anything of an athlete, and as far as Iím concerned, the outdoors is that hot or cold or wet or buggy place you have to go through between buildings."

"Me too," Jon smiled. "I never understood why Crystal likes that kind of stuff, but she does. Some sort of cave woman, I guess. The summer she got out of high school, she spent three months at this outdoor leadership training place in Idaho. Itís some sort of an outdoor boot camp to hear her tell about it. Then, the next four summers, she worked as a whitewater raft guide up in Tennessee. We went rafting with her one time, she soaked me down half a dozen times and dumped me out of the raft, as if I wasnít wet enough already. I mean, I knew I was taking my life in my hands to go out on the river with her, and she proved it."

"There are those who like it, I suppose," Tanisha sighed. "Iím not one of them, thatís for sure. So, what happened between your sisters?"

"Like I said, Nanci ran wild," Jon explained. "Back over Thanksgiving, I heard Nanci had sort of borrowed Crystalís car one night a few weeks before, drove around drunk for a bit, then forgot where she parked it. Crystal needed the car at 6:15 every morning to be able to go do practice teaching in some godforsaken little school about forty miles from Fortymile. She borrowed her boyfriendís car to get to student teaching that morning, then later found her car and put an antitheft device on the steering wheel, to keep Nanci from Ďborrowingí it again. So, Nanci called home to complain that Crystal wouldnít let her use the car, and Dad called Crystal back, bitching at her about it, and saying sheíd have to cut Nanci some slack."

"I get it," Tanisha nodded. "He was blaming Crystal for letting her sister run wild."

"Thatís it in a nutshell," Jon said. "Crystal has a hard head and a temper, and she wasnít going to put up with it. I donít know all the details, but apparently that was the first of a series of incidents ending up with the NMU hockey coach calling my folks to ask them to keep Nanci under control because he didnít need Crystal maiming his starting lineup. According to Dad, sheíd threatened to castrate any hockey player she caught screwing Nanci."

"What was that?" Tanisha giggled. "He was afraid your sister was going to beat up his hockey team?"

"She could do it," Jon said, shaking his head. "She did a number on one of their players when she was a freshman. See, Crystal is a lot bigger than I am, big athlete, and has a black belt in karate, too. A year ago last summer when we came down for the student orientation, we visited her up north of here in Tennessee where she used to have her summer job. After the soaking down I mentioned, a couple guys attacked her with knives. Not a good move. Crystal beat íem both up pretty bad in about two seconds, and for a second there I thought sheíd killed both of them."

"This is your sister?" Tanisha replied, eyes wide

"Yeah," Jon said, ruefully. "I mean, sheís always been bigger than I am, and a couple years older, and we never tangled when we were kids. Especially after she got that black belt."

Jon went on to explain how things went from bad to worse after that. He told Tanisha he didnít know the details, but apparently Crystal didnít have much chance of controlling Nanci without beating her up so bad sheíd be in a neck-to-foot body cast. All her father could do was bitch at her about not showing any responsibility in keeping Nanci under control Ė not that heíd tried to do it himself, or gave any help to Crystal. "I canít say why, but he never really seemed to like Crystal, especially the last few years," Jon summarized. "Letís face it, she is a little different, very much her own person, wants to do what she wants to do, not what Dad wanted her to do."

"Something tells me she and I have a lot in common," Tanisha grinned. "So Crystal and your dad had a fight, right?"

"Yeah," Jon said sadly. "After it happened, and I found out some of the background, I can see it was pretty inevitable, and I guess Crystal did, too, but Dad was just being so damn dumb and obstinate about it he couldnít see it coming. Anyway, back before Christmas, Crystal graduated from NMU, didnít go to graduation, just picked up her diploma and drove home with Nanci. Afterward, Nanci said Crystal had been in a foul mood all semester and was really pissed that day. She didnít dare open her mouth for three hundred miles for fear that Crystal would beat her to a bloody pulp. Dad picked me up at the airport on my way back from here that afternoon, but when we walked in the door it blew up in seconds. Crystal announced sheíd managed to graduate Cum Laude, and I thought that was pretty good, since sheíd never been much of a student in high school," Jon explained. "It didnít cut any ice with Dad. They got into a yelling match right there, and Dad was so mad I thought he might try to hit Crystal, and she was so mad sheíd probably have killed him if he had. But she went out, hopped in her car, and drove off. We havenít heard from her since."

"You know, I canít say as I blame her," Tanisha nodded. "I mean, getting blamed because someone else is screwing up when I donít have any way to control them, well, it would make me pretty mad, too. That didnít settle anything, I take it?"

"No," Jon shook his head, "Just made it worse, if anything. Dad wanted someone to yell at, and since Crystal wasnít there, he took it out on the rest of us. As far as he was concerned, Crystal taking off just proved his point. That didnít mean he wasnít yelling at Nanci, yelling at Mom, bitching at me about Crystal, demanding I take his side. I mean itís pretty clear that Dadís bad temper and thoughtlessness was the problem in the first place. So, I got the message real quick, and like Nanci I kept finding things to do outside the house. I figured that going to Florida with a buddy was a pretty good excuse to get out of there. We mostly hung around his grandparentsí apartment, played some really old computer games. I mean Commodore 64 old."

"Youíre right," she smirked. "Thatís old."

"We played around on the beach a little, too," Jon explained. "I even tried surfing. Crystal is big on surfing, and I thought I ought to try it out, but I fell in a lot and got sunburned real bad." He shook his head and went on. "After a few days, Danny had to head back home, and on the way back I decided there was no point in riding up to Glen Ellyn, listening to another week of that and then coming back, when I was already in Atlanta in the first place."

"Howíd that go over with your father?" she asked.

"Not so good," Jon shook his head. Thatís why Iíve been studying down here, or leaving the phone plugged into the modem so I canít hear it ring. I sure hope it dies down by summer, or having to work with him all summer at Hadley-Monroe is going to be just lots and lots of fun."

"I can understand," she nodded. "About as much fun as wiping grubby noses in the church day care center and listening to bitching that I really ought to be studying social work at Moorhead."

One thing led to another, and they wound up spending the afternoon in the cafeteria, just glad to have someone to talk to, to share their troubles with. It was an interesting afternoon for both, once their troubles were out on the table before them. They learned they were very different people, from very different backgrounds, but they learned they were an awful lot alike in many ways, too. They were both what most people would call nerds, intensely wrapped up in the technical field they studied, heavy-duty computer freaks, excellent students who a lot of kids in high school put down because they were serious about their studies. They were sort of loners, more interested in what they were learning and what they were concentrating on than they were in being social for the sake of being social. Neither of them made friends easily, and neither of them had what they would call close friends, either at home or at Tech. But now, their family troubles along with their intense desire to work hard and prove themselves in a field they were already dedicated to gave them a lot in common, as well. It hadnít been a happy holiday for either of them, but at least they could be friendly about things and have someone to share their frustrations with.

An hour passed, then another hour. The coffee cups were drained, refilled, drained again. There was laughter; they each had some funny stories to tell, things from their families, from their school, things that might not have seemed funny to most people, but were funny to a couple of kids who had their kind of common viewpoint. Eventually, the afternoon became evening; the light outside the windows died, and they still sat together, just enjoying each othersí company. Eventually, they had hamburgers and pie, listening to the sounds of the football game from the lounge as they continued to talk and explore each other. Finally, workers began moving chairs and mopping the floor, and they got the message that the place was about to close.

"If I had to guess, Iíd say theyíd like us to get out of here," Jon observed.

"Probably a pretty good guess," Tanisha laughed. "We sure didnít talk much about stress analysis, did we?"

"At least as far as it involves engineering," he grinned. "Tell you what, letís have breakfast tomorrow, say around eight. Iíll bring my laptop down, and maybe we can hack away at a couple of these problems together."

"Iíd like that," she smiled. "See you then."

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