Her behavior must be odd if Mitch noticed. She meant to use a cramps excuse, which weirded out boys and stopped future questions. A slight turn of her head caused her to look directly into his sympathetic eyes. “Truth is I was thinking about my mother and how she hooked up with this fire and brimstone church. About the only communication we ever have now is my monthly reminder that I’m damned to hell.”
She wanted to call back her revealing words. Maybe Mitch was a member of a similar church. Instead of looking horrified, he reached for his chair and drew it to face hers before he sat.
His index finger pushed up his slipping glasses as he sat. “I understand. My older sister went through a stage like that when her husband left her. I think she thought if she prayed hard enough he’d come back. He didn’t. I always wondered why she wanted someone who truly didn’t want her.”
His insightful words allowed her to release the breath she’d been holding. “Maybe that’s what happened to my mother. She hadn’t been too religious until Dad left. We used to only show up at Our Lady of Sorrows for the major holidays, Christmas and Easter.”
Mitch nodded, making her feel as if he heard her. When was the last time anyone had truly listened to her? She tried to remember. Talking with most people was a bit like a computer search. They responded to keywords that had something to do with them. Going away to school kept her distant from her mother’s machinations, but it also limited any interaction she had with her best friend, Leah. Lately, she’d been the one cutting conversations short with Leah to be with Cam.
Mitch touched her hand. “Go on. What about your father? Is he still alive?”
Still alive that was a peculiar comment. “Yes, he is, very much to my mother’s regret.” Did she want him dead too? It would be easier to forgive a dead father than one who chose to write her off.
Her top teeth worried her bottom lip. Was she sounding too much like one of the callers on the radio therapy show? Would Mitch feel awkward working with her in the future?
His hand went up to his glasses, probably to push the slipping glasses up, but he pulled them off instead and placed them near her keyboard. Stella blinked at the transformation the simple action made. Talk about a Superman move. Her eyes dropped to his chest wondering if he’d rip open his checked shirt to reveal a colorful spandex suit underneath it.
Using a bent finger, he rubbed the area between his eyebrows. “Be glad you have a father. Right now, things might not seem too great, but at least there’s a future where the two of you can develop a better relationship.”
His hand half hid his face, which may have been his intention, but it didn’t hide the pain in his words.
“What happened to your father?”
“Heart attack. He died when I was thirteen. We’d argued about me cutting the grass. I was going to do it. I just wanted to finish the level on my video game first.”
“How horrible!” Stella placed her hand on Mitch’s just as Lauren passed behind the two of them, throwing an uncertain glance at them. Let her think what she wants. “I hope you don’t blame yourself.”
Mitch shrugged his shoulders and looked up briefly at Stella. His glassy eyes revealed his guilt-laden state. “My mother told me it wasn’t my fault. His family had a history of heart disease. That along with too much fast food and no exercise caused it.”
Stella almost felt like she was witnessing a drowning and didn’t know what to do. “It would have happened no matter what. You’re not to blame.” Her hand squeezed his, realizing her problems seemed mundane in retrospect.
“Yeah, you’re right. I guess. I just hate that our last words were in anger. Like most teenagers, I disappointed my father. I always wanted to do what I wanted to do and never what interested him. As a kid, we camped and fished together. As I got older, I was more into video games, especially the role-playing games. If I’d continued to canoe and hike with my father, he’d have been in better shape.”
Whoa, he might be right, but she couldn’t tell him that. “Mitch, listen to me.” Her free hand touched his face to gain his attention. “You were a child, while your father was an adult. As the adult, he made the decision to be physically fit or not. He could have exercised with your mother, a friend, or even by himself. There is no reason to blame yourself. In the end, Fate has her way.”
Mitch lips tipped up in a weak smile. “You suck at giving pep talks.”
His words surprised a half-laugh that ended in a cough. Clearing her throat, she managed to reply, “Yeah, that’s what I’ve been told.” The warmth of his hand reminded her that they were still holding hands. His larger hand engulfed hers making her feel safe if only for a moment. It was a false security.
Security, safety, believing your world would keep spinning in its usual fashion were all things she took granted not too long ago. Tons of parents divorced. Probably, over half the students at the university or maybe even more, which meant she had no excuse feeling sorry for herself. Suck it up, Stella. Why couldn’t her inner drill sergeant comprehend her feeling of rootlessness? In some ways, she was rather like a jellyfish.
The current carried the jellyfish. A wave would sometimes hurl the gelatinous creature into an unwary swimmer. Without an actual brain, the jellyfish only reacted by wrapping it long arms around a leg. It might be holding on for dear life or assuming whatever it touched was dinner. In the end, it left a stinging sensation behind, a reminder of its brief contact. Goddess, she hoped she wasn’t like that. Hurting everyone, she touched. Might do her good to watch her interactions if she could be so toxic.
Perhaps, feeling the same awkwardness after their shared emotional episode, Mitch released her hand while pushing back with his feet to propel the rolling chair back to his desk. “Time to get back to work.”
She watched him pivot the chair and immediately return to typing as if nothing had happened. A thought nudged at her consciousness leaving behind the image of her scarring everyone she bumped against. “Mitch, did you ever played any video games after your father’s heart attack?”