His parents loaned him the car and Kelly Armstrong had agreed to go out with him. He had been trying for months. Every time he wanted to ask her, his throat swelled. The words just wouldn’t come out. Yesterday, during study hall, it was like a shaken pop can opened and the words spewed out of his mouth.
Remembering his mother’s advice, he opened the door for her as they walked into Franks Place in Manchester, Michigan. It's where everyone in Manchester went. His stomach did flip-flops but his chest filled with pride. Everyone would see him with Kelly. They ordered Cokes. He blotted his sweaty hands on the napkin in his lap.
Kelly sat her cellphone next to her plate as if it were another piece of silverware. “I don’t mean to be rude,” she said, glancing at the phone. “My grandmother is in surgery. Mom is supposed to call when she knows anything. I love my grandma.” Her voice caught and her glossy lips quivered. “Mom wouldn’t let me go to the hospital. She said it would be a lot of waiting and there was nothing I could do.”
“I’m sorry,” Justin said. “I hope she’ll be okay.”
She swiped away a tear. “I don’t mean to be a downer.”
“It’s fine,” Justin insisted. “I hope you get some news soon.”
Kelly held up a weak wrist crossed fingers. She heaved a sigh and when her shoulders slumped, she folded up like an accordion. “I’m so worried, I don’t know if I can eat.”
Justin’s face fell.
Kelly waved her hand as if to chase away bad thoughts. “I’ll have lasagna. It reminds me of my grandma. She makes the best.”
Justin’s eyes brightened. “I think I’ll have the chicken alfredo.”
It was several minutes before the harried waitress took their order. The restaurant was busy and understaffed. Justin wished he could have afforded to take Kelly somewhere fancier. He wanted everything to be perfect.
Kelly noticed a couple with a baby at the next table. “Awww, I just love little ones,” she cooed.
“Me too,” Justin assured her.
The woman unbuttoned her top and made a tent of a pink blanket to conceal her chest and the baby’s head. The infant made loud, greedy suckling noises.
Justin’s face grew hot and he jerked his head in the opposite direction.
Kelly snickered. “How embarrassing,” she mumbled, rolling her eyes.
Justin struggled to look her in the eye. He shrugged and gave her a sheepish grin.
The waiter across the room dropped a full tray of dirty plates and glasses, creating a deafening crash. A low chorus of exclaimed curse words filled the room as employees stopped what they were doing and rushed over to help clean up the mess.
Justin winked and said, “Helluva first date, huh?”
Kelly giggled, then lunged for the ringing phone. She stared at the display screen. “It’s my mom.” Her face crumpled.
“Answer it,” Justin urged, his body rigid with anticipation.
Justin watched her take the phone toward the door.
Her voice shook when she said, “Hello?”
He bowed his head and said a silent prayer her grandma would be okay.
The woman at the next table put the baby over her shoulder and stood with her back to Justin, swaying her hips and patting the baby’s back. Justin gazed at the infant’s face. She was a pretty, little thing — all soft and rosy.
“Come on, sweetie pie, you can do it,” the mother whispered.
Their dinner arrived. Justin saw Kelly’s silhouette through the frosted window but couldn’t tell from her body language what kind of news she was receiving. He wished she would hurry up before her food got cold.
He glanced back up at the baby and she smiled at him.
He made a funny face.
The little girl laughed and let out a thunderous burp. She squirmed and stretched her neck. A steady stream of spit-up came out of her mouth and landed on Justin’s plate.
Stunned, he looked down and was unable to distinguish puke from white sauce. His stomach lurched and he feared he might be sick himself.
Kelly plopped down across from him, her face glowing. “Grandmas is going to be fine! Mom said I could visit her tomorrow after she gets some rest. Isn’t that great?”
“For sure, really great!” Justin said with one eye on his steaming alfredo.
“Now I’m starving. Let’s eat!” She cut off a piece of lasagna and glanced up at Justin’s pasty-white face. “Are you okay?” Her pretty mouth puckered.
“Of course … never better!” he stammered. “I’m just relieved, that’s all.” He stuck his fork in the pasta and took a big bite to prove it. He swallowed, then gave Kelly a smile that stretched past his ears.
It was the best night of his life.