The next day was a lot more relaxed. We slept in, Stefan sleeping on the mattress on the floor next to the bed just like the night before. I felt a lot more refreshed, considering the lack of mid-sleep shivers. Breakfast was long over by the time the four of us got up, so once we were showered and dressed, we headed out to get some lunch at one of our favorite places.
It was a bittersweet meal, really. I had to head back up Silver Star Mountain not long afterwards, and even though we were making plans for them to come up and visit me pretty soon, I was going to miss my friends. The weekend had made me feel a lot closer to the three of them. It felt good, really, to reignite the friendship we’d developed over all those years of going to school together– and Larsa was a great addition to our group.
After lunch, we stopped back at Killian’s house so that I could pack up my stuff, and Stefan his. I gave Killian a hug, then Larsa, and we said our goodbyes. Stefan and I headed down the stairs to the parking lot, and at the last step, I felt him grip my hand. I paused and looked up at him.
“Forget something?” I asked him.
He sighed and shook his head. “No,” he replied. “You’re really good at helping me make sure I have all my stuff. It’s just… I almost wish I hadn’t brought my car, so I could ask you for a ride home and… Maybe get a few more minutes with you.”
I smirked and squeezed his hand reassuringly. “I know what you mean. It’s been too long since we’ve seen each other.”
But Stefan was staring up at the clouds. It seemed like he had a lot on his mind, a lot that he wanted to say, but in actuality he didn’t say much at all.
“You’re exactly right,” he said. “It’s been too too long since we’ve spent any time together.”
He held my hand as he walked me the rest of the way to my car and helped me get my bag inside. Then he pulled me into a bear hug that lasted for a long time.
“I need you to make me a promise,” he said as he held me tightly. His voice was low and firm.
“O– okay,” I said as I wondered why he was being so serious. He still hadn’t let me go.
“Don’t text me while you’re driving, but keep in touch with me. I want to know when you’ve made it home safely.”
“But what if I make it home and I’m not all that safe?” I asked teasingly. Then I realized that sounded kind of dark, so I added, “I mean like if I stub my toe on the way in or something.”
“I want to know about that too,” he replied, still as serious as ever. He was practically talking into my hair and seemed afraid to let me go.
“Hey, Stefan,” I said, trying to turn my head so I could look up. That didn’t get me very far, and I figured that if he was hugging me that tightly, he needed it too, so I held him tighter in return. “What’s going on?” I asked him. “I mean, what’s really on your mind?”
He shook his head and sighed heavily. “It’s been an exhausting weekend. I mean, it’s been a great one, but I need some sleep.”
“I think you’re mixing up sleep with bear hugs,” I pointed out.
He chuckled at that remark. “Well, bears hibernate, right? And I’m tired enough to hibernate, so yes I might as well give bear hugs, too.”
“Stefan,” I said again, a little firmer. “Come on, what’s up with the death grip?”
He laughed at that. It was sort of a nervous laugh, but I decided at that moment not to point that out. “It… It’s just that it finally hit me how much that freak could have hurt you last night.”
“But he didn’t,” I reminded him.
“Right,” he agreed. Then he released me from the hug, only to grip my shoulders and look down into my eyes as he added, “Because I was there to get him off of you. Leila, that guy was dedicated; he was focused on you. I don’t know if anybody else would have gone up against him– you saw how weird he was. And I saw how scared you were. I know, you have a good head on your shoulders, but that guy had evil intentions.”
“Well, I’m not going to see him again. He’s gone, Stefan,” I reminded him.
“Sure,” he said with a sigh. But he looked like he was shivering. “He’s gone… Look, I’m not trying to be a thorn in your side, but I can’t help but worry about you when you’re going hours away.”
“Stefan, even my mom hasn’t been this worried about me for years,” I said. “It’s a big world, I know; anything can happen, but I’m not going to do anything stupid. I won’t talk to strangers, if it makes you feel any better.”
He nodded, but I don’t think that satisfied him. I think he was trying to convince himself that I would be fine more than I was trying to convince him.
“I know, but that guy just reminded me of things that aren’t good. He was out looking to cause trouble last night. And I don’t know why it was you he was so focused on.” He sighed and ran his fingers through his long strands of golden hair. “You’re right though. You’ve never seen him before, and you’ll never see him again. I’m just really exhausted. The debut was amazing, and even that freak couldn’t ruin it. And I have to tell you that it means the world to me that you were there, Leila. I can’t even express how happy I am that you came.”
“I don’t think I’d be able to call myself your friend if I didn’t come,” I replied, trying to laugh it off and lower the tension. “Being able to work from home on my own schedule? A working, reliable car? I have no excuse. And thanks for inviting me! It was nice to be able to dress up and go out for once in a long time. Meeting Larsa, seeing Killian again…”
“And seeing me, too? He asked, wiggling his eyebrows and grinning. I was glad to see that his spirits were becoming a little bit better.
“Of course– seeing you is always the best!” I told him. I gave him one more quick hug before I slid into the driver’s seat. I closed the door and he leaned in through the window. He was so close that I thought– forget I said anything. I focused on starting the car and buckling my seatbelt.
“I’m going to hold you to your promise,” Stefan said. He reached an arm in and brushed a lock of hair out of my face. I immediately turned up the air conditioner; I was starting to feel flushed. “Keep in touch with me, even if you stop somewhere on your way home. It’s never too late to message me, regardless of which platform you’re using.”
“I promise, I promise!” I assured him. “You’re going to hear so much from me that you’re going to have to tell me to knock it off and give you some peace.”
That made him grin even wider. “Challenge accepted,” he told me. Then he stepped away from the car, though I could tell that he was reluctant to do so. “I’ll see you later, Leila. Drive safe.”
“You, too,” I told him, even though I knew he had a much shorter ride home. Still, accidents can happen no matter how short the journey.
I pulled out of the parking space and waved at him one more time before I headed out onto the main road. A couple miles down, I stopped at a convenience store for a soda and some snacks for later on. The drive back north wasn’t bad at all. The skies were overcast, so it was pretty cool even for the end of summer. Before long, I was on the highway, and then for a couple hours it was just my thoughts and my music playlist.
True to my word, I texted the group whenever I stopped at one of the rest areas on the way. Larsa seemed to think it was funny how much we kept in touch with each other even just driving down the freeway. Apparently out in the great white open areas of northern Scandinavia, there isn’t even enough signal to keep in touch during long journeys into the wilds. Still, I figure if you have the tools, you might as well use them.
Eventually, Stefan was the only one replying to my messages. It made sense, since dinner time wasn’t that far off. Killian and Larsa probably had a lot to do around the apartment– or maybe they were heading somewhere nice together.
My last stop before heading to the house was at WinCo, so I could stock up on drinks and ingredients for cooking. Of course, for that night, I grabbed one of their take-and-bake pizzas just to make it easy on myself. I texted back-and-forth with Stefan while I was shopping; he likes to joke around at the grocery store, and joking with him remotely was a decent enough consolation prize if he couldn’t be there in person.
Oh, they have a couple DVDs I don’t have, I texted him while I was in line.
The DVD bin was right next to me.
There are a lot of DVDs you don’t have, he sent back, making me laugh. Which ones are you considering?
Beetlejuice or The City of Lost Children.
Are you teasing me? he sent.
I laughed a little at that.
Well, City of Lost Children is on Prime. And how do you not already have Beetlejuice? That’s one of your favorites.
It’s on extended loan to my brother.
Lucky brother, Stefan replied. I know what you’re watching tonight.
I shook my head as I read his message, smiling all the same. Then I put the DVD on the belt and texted him until it was my turn.
The house was just as I had left it. I walked inside, sort of missing the excitement of coming home with a whole group of people. Nobody to play games with unless we were both online, nobody to share food with; it was a lot harder to order several different things to try when there weren’t enough people to eat all of it. Just me and the chiming clock.
Once I had everything inside and the car was locked up, I called Stefan and put him on speaker.
“You made it!” he cheered once I told him I was home.
“What–” I paused in setting the oven. “Did I wake you up?”
He laughed, and even that sounded drowsy. “I was tired from lack of hugs,” he joked.
“So basically you let me wake you up every twenty minutes while I was heading home?”
“It’s always worth it to know that you’re safe,” he justified.
I sighed, got the oven started on pre-heating, and went about putting everything else away. We chatted while the pizza was cooking and I carried my bag to the laundry room to drop some things off. Then I headed upstairs, put by bag in the bathroom for later, and headed back down.
I had chosen a room on the first floor to be a sort of lounge or entertainment room. It was large and open, and the couch there was plush and warm. I was going to hook up my consoles to the T.V. in there– most of them were still in boxes– but I’d misplaced one of my HDMI cables. Stefan had been a saint and gave me one of his extras, so now I could hook up the PS4 and use that to play my new DVD.
“I’m almost tempted to wait for you to come before watching this,” I told him.
He chuckled. “I know you well enough to know that you could watch that movie tonight and a dozen times more before I get there, and still watch it again with all of us there!”
He was right about that– right about both things, really. I love that movie, and he knows me just as well as I know myself.
“Fireflies” by Owl City does a good job of encapsulating the feel of Leila going back home and relaxing.