Robert was oblivious to the gusts of wind whipping his open jacket as his feet absently measured the steps home. Lost in thought, he navigated the familiar route without noticing his surroundings. “Walking on autopilot,” Roberta called it.
She was the subject of his distracted thoughts, as he played over in his mind the events of a half-hour before and wondered what he could have done differently.
Robert sprinted the last few steps to the front door, hoping no teacher popped out a door or around a corner to catch him running in the hall.
“First!” He laughed, and turned in a circle expecting to see Roberta approaching. She wasn’t in sight. A frown kicked the grin aside. Roberta was rarely more than a few steps behind him, and often got there first. It was their little game each day, racing to the front door of Sherwood High before walking home together, hand in hand. He hoped she hadn’t got caught running.
Minutes passed, and still no Roberta. This couldn’t be anything good, Robert worried.
Almost ten minutes later, Robert saw Roberta appear around a corner up the main hall. She wasn’t in any hurry, and appeared to be saying goodbye to someone who did not step into the hall. She walked at a measured pace toward Robert, not looking up.
“What’s wrong?” Robert wanted to know as soon as she was close enough he could speak without attracting attention from the few others still around.
“Why is something wrong, just because I’m running late?” Roberta was defensive.
“Something’s always wrong when you run late,” Robert pointed out, “especially when you’re this late.”
“Not every time.”
“Name one exception.” He knew she couldn’t, and the way she avoided his eyes, Robert was certain Roberta knew it too.
“There’s been one, I’m sure.” Roberta lied.
“Whatever. I don’t want to argue. The question is, what’s wrong now?” Her long pause chilled him.
“Bob,” she finally began, “I need to tell you something.”
Bob. The chill sank down his spine and pooled in the pit of his stomach. He tried to keep his expression from changing, but she knew, and frowned at her own lapse.
Robert and Roberta never called each other by anything less than their proper first names. It was their special thing. Everyone else called them Bob and Bertie, and that was fine. But Roberta had not called him Bob all the time they’d been dating, even when she was angry.
“I’ve…made a decision.” Roberta looked straight at him for the first time. “I want to stop going steady.”
Robert felt his mouth drop open. He couldn’t help it. “What did you say?” was all he managed after a stunned silence that seemed an hour long.
“I-I think we started going steady too soon. We really don’t know what our feelings are, or whether there’s anyone else for either of us. We should date other people, and find out whether we’re real or not.”
“I’ve never had any doubts.” She wasn’t getting off that easily. “We’re very real to me. I know my feelings.”
“Well I DON’T! I don’t even know how well I know YOU!” The words stung like a slap in the face; but looking into Roberta’s eyes, Robert wondered who hurt worst. He’d never seen that much pain reflected in those hazel depths.
Just at the moment, he didn’t care. “Fine, whatever you say. See you around, Bertie.” Robert spun on his heel and stalked off, ignoring her shocked expression and the small sob he heard behind him.
Well, for one thing, that last shot wasn’t necessary. He should have been better than that. It certainly wouldn’t improve his chances of getting Roberta back, which was all he wanted and all he was going to want.
His thoughts were interrupted as Robert abruptly realized he was in front of his own front door. He had no idea how long he’d been standing with his hand on the doorknob. Sighing, he opened the door.
Robert smelled wood smoke as soon as he stepped inside. Grandpa must have a fire going. He walked into the family room. Sure enough, he found Grandpa Catlett in his favorite chair, feet up on that big hassock, watching the fire. Robert dropped onto the sofa on the end closest to his grandfather.
“Hi Grandpa, little chilly today?” Robert managed a smile, mostly to avoid questions.
“Was at first,” Grandpa nodded, “but your ma’s got the heat on, so I’m letting it burn down now.”
“Hey, the fire’s blue!”
“Yep. That’s the hottest flame, y’know.” Robert shook his head at Grandpa’s questioning glance. “Sure is. Red or yellow flame’s not nearly as hot. Blue flame’s the most intense. You get it when the fire is starting to burn low and all the embers are concentrated. The fire’s not leaping up and wasting its heat in the big flames.”
“I didn’t know that.” Robert answered politely.
“Now, when your ma was little,” Grandpa chuckled, “she always used to say that the flame was blue because it was sad about burning out.”
Robert, absorbed in sudden thought, didn’t answer. His grandfather watched him and observed his grandson’s expressions for a time with a slow, understanding smile. Rising from his chair, Grandpa quietly left the room, leaving Robert in the company of the flickering blue flame.
By: Michael Williams / August 8, 2004
Although the date above is the date I entered this into my computer, it was written in either 1975 or 1976 for a Creative Writing class. I changed almost nothing from that original class submission. When I received it back, the professor had made a notation: “Dialogue commendably smooth.”