Nearly every morning, he managed to be in the parking lot at the precise moment she arrived for work. And even though she worked on the third floor of the ten-story building, and he was assigned to the fifth, he not only walked into the building with her; the last few mornings, he had gotten off the elevator on the third floor, walked with her down the hall and opened the door to the office for her before ducking into the nearby stairwell and bounding up the final two floors to his cubicle. The last few nights, she had also encountered him in the lobby and they walked to their cars together.

“How ’bout lunch tomorrow?” he asked as they arrived at her vehicle. He reached over, took the keys from her hand, placed them into the lock just under the handle, and popped the door open for her before handing the keys back to her. “I can meet you in the cafeteria at noon, if that’s all right.”

She had been wondering when he was going to make good on his luncheon invitation. Involuntarily, she shivered slightly as his fingers touched hers lightly when he placed her keys back in her hand. “Sure,” she responded without thinking. “That would be fun.”

“Great!” he smiled broadly, causing her to reach out for the top of the car door in order to steady herself. “Have a great time at school and I’ll see you in the morning!” he said as he turned and strode toward his own car.

She got into her vehicle and drove quickly out of the parking lot without glancing over in the direction of his vehicle, eschewing her usual custom of waving at him as she exited the premises.

“You did not,” Cheryl said in a hushed tone barely above a whisper, her eyes wide. The two women stared at each other in silence for a few moments, neither knowing what to say next.

Finally, Cheryl took a drag on her cigarette before throwing it down on the sidewalk, grinding the half-unsmoked cylinder with the toe of her platform shoe. Finding an announcement posted on the classroom door saying that their professor was ill and there would be no class that night, they had decided to take advantage of their night of freedom.

The pub was the university crowd’s favorite by virtue of its location: It was adjacent to a large shopping center accessible from the campus via a footbridge over the local highway. It was originally approved for construction by the city council in order to allow students who did not own vehicles to shop for groceries, clothing, and other necessities. But the club’s owners recognized that the footpath also allowed students to walk back to their dormitories and fraternity houses after an evening of beer-drinking and dancing. Before long, their marketing efforts paid off. The club became known to the student body as simply “the pub” — and evening and late-night traffic on the footbridge increased.

Leaning on the railing with her left arm, Cheryl leaned into her friend as she said sternly, “You need to be careful.” Surprised by Cheryl’s reaction, she refused to meet her friend’s penetrating stare, instead continuing to gaze absent-mindedly at the cars whizzing beneath them.

“You agreed to have lunch with him in the cafeteria? Where everyone will see you? Why don’t you just post a flier on the company bulletin board?”

Finally, she turned to face Cheryl. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about gossip, girlfriend,” Cheryl responded, placing her right hand on her hip to emphasize how exasperated she was by her friend’s naivete. “You’re the one who constantly complains that all those old biddies you work with ever do is gossip about everyone and everything. So you’re going to make yourself into a gigantic target. Why don’t you just hang a bullseye on your back? If you have lunch with him in the cafeteria at noon, you’ll be the talk of the company by one o’clock,” she practically hissed.

She knew Cheryl was right. Without thinking, she had set herself up to be the object of the corporate gossipmongers’ chatter.

Stubbornly idealistic, she refused to concede. “You know what? If somebody wants to spread rumors about me, that’s their problem. We’re just friends. There’s nothing wrong with friends who work for the same company having lunch together in the cafeteria,” she argued.

Cheryl shook her head in disbelief. “Are you crazy?” she pushed. “Look, I know you come from a small town, but things aren’t as different here as you seem to think. Not in this county, anyway. Most of the people here are still very narrow-minded. They haven’t progressed very far in their thinking.” Pausing to consider her friend’s expression, Cheryl understood for the first time just how inexperienced and innocent she really was.

“Look,” she continued gently, “I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I know,” she replied. “I appreciate your advice. I do.” As they both leaned on the railing and considered the traffic below, she chose her words carefully. “But I’m not going to let a few busybodies dictate to me who I can and can’t be friends with. I picked this school to get away from that kind of thinking.”

She felt Cheryl’s palpable disapproval, but forged on. “It’s not a date and I am going to make that clear by paying for my own food. It’s just lunch. Just two friends sharing a table and some conversation. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Cheryl protested softly, turning to face her.

“i know what I’m doing. I’m not going to let this get out of control,” she assured Cheryl. “Jeez, you’d think we were announcing our engagement or something!”

“Oh, my gawd,” Cheryl exclaimed as she reached into her bag for her cigarettes and lighter.

“Can you imagine?” she laughed cryptically.

“Don’t go there,” Cheryl said as she took the first long drag. “My nerves can’t take it.”

“I can just see the look on my father’s face!” she said, shivering emphatically for dramatic emphasis.

“O.K. That did it. Now I really need a drink!” Cheryl said, linking her arm in her friend’s as they continued across the footbridge toward the pub.
To be continued . . .

Inspired by A Thousand Words: Prompt Number Sixteen.

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