The white tent was filled with glowing lanterns setting on top of white-table cloths. The harsh street ground was completely covered in several rugs that had beautiful paisley designs of red and off-white.
There was a warm glow about the room that not only surrounded the people, but seemed to fill them as well. I was not used to such beauty and warmth. And that’s when I really discovered something important about myself.
I was cold on the inside. And I had allowed myself to become used to it. I could tell because of the discomfort that this atmosphere was causing me. I needed my heart to thaw. I still clung to Ashton’s arm as we walked towards an empty table.
“Wow,” I said.
I found myself resting my head on his shoulder for a moment. I wasn’t sure why. I could feel him turn his head towards me, so I lifted my head and looked him in the eyes. He smiled. Then he pulled a chair out for me.
He took the seat off to my left.
“So, tell me about your family,” Ashton said after we were situated. “What do your parents do?”
This was when it was usually nice to have a partner in my ear to feed me some fake information. But I could hopefully get by on my own.
“My dad is in business,” I replied. “He works in a corporate office in New York. My mom was a stay at home mom until I started high school and then she started working as an insurance agent.”
“Do you have any siblings?”
“Unfortunately, no,” I replied. “I sometimes wish I did.” That part was true. “What about you?”
“I was an only kid too.”
“Did you ever want any siblings?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” he answered. “I always thought it would have been really cool to have an older brother.”
That’s when a loud, booming voice interrupted our quiet discussion. “Why? So you could have someone to defend you against big, bad Kalvin?”
There was laughter coming from Kalvin and his friends as they all sat down at the table with us. Ashton stayed calm, but I could tell by the way he started to clench his hand under the table that he was getting either angry, uncomfortable, or both.
“What, did we interrupt something?” Kalvin asked, feigning innocence.
Lucas and Derrick started smirking. A moment later, Jamie came over to the table and sat down in between the two.
“Hello, Felix,” Jamie said. Her slight smile disappeared. “Ashton.”
“I think these guys are on a date,” Lucas said.
“Well then,” Kalvin said. “I don’t think they’ll mind if we join.”
“Actually, I do,” Ashton answered. “There are plenty of other tables around here. Why don’t you guys just go sit somewhere else?”
Kalvin just laughed. “I swear. You must be paying this girl to go out with you.”
I was getting angrier by the second, but before I could say anything, I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see Janice.
“Hi, honey,” Janice said. “Could I borrow you for a second?”
I glanced at Ashton, who nodded and mouthed, “Go ahead.”
I hated leaving him there, so I made sure to keep an eye on the table while Janice led me away. When we were out of earshot, Janice took my arm and pulled me closer.
“Don’t let those nasty kids ruin your night,” she said. “Do you want me to say something to them? I can get them thrown out for causing trouble. They have no right talking to you guys like that. You have to be careful with Kalvin. He and his friends can be pretty violent if they’re provoked.”
“It’s ok, it’s ok,” I replied quickly. I was quiet for a moment and then I snapped my fingers. “I have a plan. I’ll take care of it.”
She looked at me uncertainly.
I grinned. “Trust me.”
She started to smile back and then gave me a pat on the shoulder. “Alright. But if you need anything, just come get me. I’m sort of like Ashton’s other mom, so I’m pretty protective of him and his friends.”
She walked away and I slowly began making my way back to the table. As I got closer, I heard everyone at the table burst out laughing except for Ashton, who set his jaw tight. I hadn’t heard what they had said, but it was obviously enough for Ashton, because he stood up to walk away. Lucas reached over, grabbed his arm, and jerked him back down into his seat.
Ashton yanked his arm away. “Cut it out and grow up!”
“Grow up?” Kalvin said. “Why don’t you try giving yourself some advice? Felix is going to be gone before the clock strikes eight. Watch me work my magic.”
Ashton gritted his teeth. “Stay away from her.”
“Make me,” Kalvin sneered.
I stopped and slowly turned away without them seeing me. Then I made my way over to the refreshments table. I picked up two glasses of punch and headed back over to the table. Then I set one down in front of Ashton and the other in front of myself before taking a seat.
“I brought us some drinks, handsome,” I said. “I hope I got what you like.”
Ashton suddenly looked over at me, obviously hiding his surprise at my sudden change of dialogue. “Oh, thank you.”
I dropped a straw into my drink. “I’m so glad that you are finally taking me out. It was hard to catch him, but I saw what I wanted and didn’t stop chasing until I got it.”
Jamie glanced at me funny and then frowned. Kalvin furrowed his eyebrows.
“You chased him?” Kalvin said, making a sound of disbelief. “You must be as big a dork as he is.”
‘Dork’ was such an immature term.
“Oh, I was a bit of a nerd in high school,” I replied. “Studying anthropology and the human condition. People just didn’t understand. But that’s how I ended up getting into photography. Well, it was actually my modeling career that got me interested in photography in the first place. One day, I just looked at the camera and realized the powerful influence I could have if I was on the other side of the lens.”
“Modeling career?” Jamie said.
“Oh, yes, I was a model for awhile after I graduated from high school,” I replied. “Then I used my photography skills to take photos that related to anthropology, traveling to different countries to study people and the way they lived. It was quite fascinating.”
“How did you afford the travel?” Jamie asked suspiciously.