Eddie spotted her as he rounded the corner on Washington Avenue. She sat on the steps of the Lincoln Apartments, her head down, her face hidden in a curtain of hair.
The girl with purple eyes.
He'd said "hi" to her a half dozen times over the months as he'd passed on his way to apartment 309. She always smiled, and even though she seemed shy, she always made eye contact. People hardly ever acknowledged Eddie.
This time, she didn't notice him approach, too lost in secret misery.
"Are you okay?" Eddie asked.
Her head shot up, revealing a tear-streaked face. Their eyes met, hers widened in alarm, and she quickly wiped the tears from her cheeks. "Oh, uh... hi."
"Hi." He stopped at the bottom step, uncertain what to say to a crying girl.
They stared at each other, the awkwardness of the moment intensifying. Eddie opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
"Sorry," she said. "Just some... issues with my brother. It's no big deal." She took one last swipe at a tear with the back of her hand.
"Yeah, brothers can be a pain," Eddie replied.
"Do you have a brother?"
The soul-sucking awkwardness threatened to consume Eddie. He said, "I've seen you around here, but I don't know your name. I'm Eddie, by the way."
A rumor of a smile warmed her face. "Ruby," she said.
"It's good to finally meet you, Ruby. I'm Eddie."
Eddie realized what he'd said. He nearly slapped his forehead. "Oh, yeah. Sorry."
There it was again. The crippling awkwardness that flushed up his cheeks. "So, what happened... with your brother?"
Ruby's smile vanished. Wrong thing to say, he chided himself.
Since he'd first seen her a couple months back, he'd envisioned ways he could introduce himself. He always came off as the suave smooth talker in his daydreams. He'd tell jokes, make her laugh, make witty observations and leave her awed by his charms. He should have known that the moment he opened his mouth, it would be a train wreck.
"My brother moved back in," Ruby said, wiping her eye again. "He's taken over the living room. He smokes weed in the bathroom and then he eats pizza, watches TV and leaves his trash everywhere, and when I tell him the living room stinks, he shouts at me because I have a bedroom and he doesn't." She threw up her arms. "He's twenty-two years old. If he wants a room, he should get a job, get his own apartment and get out of my life."
Eddie searched his mind for words of comfort. "That sucks," he said.
"I came out here to get away from his funk. The weekends are the worst, especially when my mom has to work overtime. School is a blessing compared to being alone with him."
"Where do you go to school?"
"Rapid City High. You?"
There was another moment of silence, a less awkward one until Eddie realized he was staring into her purple eyes. They were hypnotic.
"Aren't we supposed to be rivals, going to different high schools and all?" Ruby asked.
His smile tightened. "I've never paid attention to things like that. Maybe our football teams are bitter enemies."
"Look, I've got work I've got to do, but later on..." he swallowed. "...we could go out and do something together."
Ruby blushed. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it and dropped her eyes. "Okay."
"I shouldn't be more than four hours with the work I'm doing."
She frowned. "What kind of work?"
"Oh, I'm helping a guy with a research project."
"What guy. Someone here?"
"Yeah, third floor. Apartment 309."
She grinned. "You're working for the hippie?"
"He's not a hippie. He's... well, he's a slob. He doesn't have a lot of time to think about... um..."
"Well, yeah, I guess."
"What are you doing for him?"
Eddie frowned. "It's... well, it's a little weird."
"No, nothing like that. I'm just not supposed to say. It's top secret and all that."
"He's... what? An eccentric inventor, attempting cold water fusion in his bathtub?"
"That would explain why he doesn't shower, wouldn't it?"
"Hah," Ruby cheered. "Nailed it. Does this mean my apartment building is going to blow up?"
"No, nothing like that."
"Well have fun splitting the atom."
"I think fusion is the opposite of atom splitting."
"Yeah." Eddie looked down at his feet, shuffling one against the concrete step. "Listen, can I get your... uh... phone number? I could call you when I'm done, and..."
"Sure," she said. She pulled a green phone out of a skirt pocket. They exchanged phone numbers.
"I'm late," Eddie said.
"Does the hippie like you to be punctual?"
"Yes, actually." He stood there. He was gazing into her eyes again.
Ruby smiled. "Well, good luck with your research project."
"Yeah. Good luck with your brother."
He hesitated a moment longer. When the awkwardness returned, he stepped past her. "Talk to you later, Ruby."
"Yeah." She leaned aside to give him room to pass.
He fought the urge to steal glances back as he ascended the stairs. Was she watching him? Was she smiling? He crossed the third floor walkway feeling as if he were walking across clouds. He had a date, his first date ever. And it was with her. The girl with those perfect eyes.
A date? What would they do? He hadn't thought this through. A movie? Go out to eat? He had a shiny new credit card, and he would blow his whole credit line on her if it meant he could make her smile again.
These thoughts consumed him as he knocked on the door to 309 and pushed it open. He had a date. He had a date. He had a...
This was not apartment 309. The dilapidated walls, the filthy bedspread, the tiny window. He recognized this room, and it didn't belong here.
Tim sat on the lone chair beside his table. He smiled up at Eddie. "You're back," he said.
"Tim?" Eddie turned back. It was night time outside. The gaslights of Holcomb flickered along the streets. The full moon glowed with the words Drink Sky Cola. He turned back to Tim in his shabby room. "But you're..."
"Ready to get out of here," Tim said, standing. "Let's go see this new world. There's so much out there I want to learn."
"But... but won't the blacksmith miss you?"
"What blacksmith?" Tim blinked.
"The blacksmith you work for. You're his apprentice."
Tim stared for a moment. He laughed. "Oh, don't be silly. There was never any blacksmith."
"We've got to get out here, Eddie. There's so much to learn. We've got a long way to go if we're going to save her."
"Her? Her who?"
Tim threw up his hands. "What do you think this is about? It's all about her. It's always been about her."
"I don't understand."
"Look, don't worry about the details. I helped you save your little girl. Now you've got to help me with mine. Is it a deal?" Tim put out his hand to shake.
Eddie stared down at the hand. Why was he afraid of it? He didn't understand a thing Tim had said.
"Come on, Eddie," Tim urged, his hand still held out. "Is it a deal?"
Reluctantly, Eddie raised his own hand. He clasped Tim's.
The instant they made contact, Tim's body burst into flame. He screamed. Eddie tried to pull away, but Tim's smouldering hand held him like a vice.
Eddie screamed along with Tim. The fire spread from Tim's hand, creeping up Eddie's arm. A spasm of pain shot up his shoulder...
He sprang up, gasping for breath.
The fire was gone. Tim was gone. He was back in Bryce's car. He'd been slumped in the passenger seat. Now he sat upright, his forehead beaded with sweat.
"Oh, good," Bryce said. "You're awake. We've to a problem."