The painting class crawled along in silence as I sat under that matted deer hide. My mind was whirring and overanalyzing John’s reaction when I had called out for him to stay. Strange, but he didn’t seem as surprised as everyone else in the room. But what did it mean? And what did the little smile mean? How was I supposed to know whether or not he liked me? How was anyone supposed to know a thing like that? Were we all making educated guesses?
I mean, was I so utterly romantically clueless that I couldn’t tell whether he was interested in me? How do you sense the chemistry between yourself and another person? Could you smell it? I was always told that you could smell it or something. Like an unspoken pheromone. But then how would you even recognize it and know it was the real deal?
I was absolutely drowning in angst and doubt for the next hour. The log dug into the back of my thighs and I was anxious to get out and chase a man down.
When Barrell dismissed the class, I tore off the deer and rushed to the exit, but he got in my way.
“Miss Emmeline,” Barrell said. “Thank you for helping me with my class today.”
“Uh, yup. Sure. No problem,” I said, trying to push past him.
“You know, I couldn’t help but notice,” he said, stopping me before leaving. “You are a very attractive young lady.”
“I— um, what?” Ew. Yikes. Talk about reading the smells all wrong.
“You know, if you are still considering a position of nude modeling,” he said, taking a step closer. “I could make your dreams become a reality.”
My stomach churned and pitched but I still managed to squeak out a laugh. “Wow, okay, um no. Definitely, definitely no. Like the noest no possible. Icky. But thank you though.”
His face grew stern and his shoulders squared. “Is this because of Lennon?”
I practically swallowed my tongue. What kind of a teacher is this? Getting after me for liking another student, after I rejected his creepiness? Was this a common thing in this time period? I didn’t even know what to tell him.
“You think he can take care of you? He will do you no favors in life,” he said sharply. “He will never amount to a single thing. His destiny is to become a beggar on the streets with not a thing to his name.”
“Well, Barrel. I really hope you’re right. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” I slipped past him and out the door, desperate to find John.
I scoured the halls, looking in every crevice and nook. Students chattered with each other. but I didn’t hear John. And I definitely would’ve heard his booming voice somewhere. He was as loud as his singing voice suggested.
I turned the corner to find another Lennonless hall. Oh my Galactica, he was gone forever. It had been at least half an hour; he could be anywhere. He had no reason to stay on campus. That was kind of not his thing.
I was power walking at this point, bumping shoulders into random art students that were pouring down the hall. C’mon Emmeline, think! Think! Use that history-filled noggin’ of yours! What about all those notes you read? You should know where he is.
Suddenly, from the window I spotted him, walking away from the college with two other boys; his hands deep into his pockets. I ran to the door so fast that my shoes skidded loudly on the aluminum floor and my legs almost slid out from under me. The door flew open with a crack and I had to stop myself from calling out to him. I bit my knuckle as he crossed the street, the guitar on his back swinging along with his confident walk.
I slipped out the door and hobbled down the stairs as inconspicuous as possible. I wasn’t much of a tracking dog, but I couldn’t lose sight of him again. He could be doing anything without my supervision. He could be getting better at composing music. He could be falling in love with his first wife, Cynthia Powell, for all I knew.
I followed John at what I thought was an unnoticeable distance, but it wasn’t too long before one of the other boys nudged him in the arm and nodded in my direction. The three of them looked over their shoulders at me. I froze mid-step, standing on one leg like a freaking flamingo. Then finally, John shrugged with his palms out and they veered into a small white pub.
I winced to myself. I didn’t want to have to follow him all around town like a little lost puppy, but what else could I do? I only had one measly summer to get our love train rolling out of the station. And if I didn’t… he would be shot and killed. So, into the pub, I went.
Inside was dark and packed elbow to elbow with students talking and gulping their beverages. The air was thick and hazy, a conspicuous grey cloud hung over the whole room. That weird, weird smell overpowered me, and I gagged. Smoke trailed from small white stubs resting in between the fingers of the pub-goers.
Cigarettes. That was the smell all along. I had never smelled them before in my life.
I gasped and pulled my sweater over my mouth and nose. I am going to die! This era is literally going to kill me! I squeezed through the crowd to get to an open window as soon as possible. But just as I had birthed my way through the wall of students, Lennon made direct eye contact with me from a table in the corner.
I yanked my sweater back down to my chin. Galactica! I probably seemed like the biggest freak. He shifted his eyes, visibly uncomfortable, and twisted away from me. Probably pretending I wasn’t there or something.
My back slumped against the wall, my stomach in knots. Why was this impossible? How the hell do you get someone to like you? It’s a real wonder how anyone even exists.
My legs were doing everything in their power to keep me from walking all the way over there and actually flirting with him. But I knew, his life was on the line if I didn’t do it. I figured the alcohol couldn’t hurt, so I waited until he had half a round of boisterous drinking before I approached him.
“Why, if it isn’t my next-door neighbor, Ms. American phenomenon!” he said and turned toward me. “You’re a terrible spy to give away your position like this.”
“You’re welcome to join us,” a courteous voice piped up from John’s side.
I had to do a quick double-take because wow. This guy with John was a gorgeous man. Dark hair and perfect cheekbones. Really. I would kill for that kind of bone structure.
“I’m sorry—” John’s friend was at a polite loss of words at my gaping expression.
“Right, that’s me,” John said, taking the cigarette out of his mouth. “Hollywood, these are my schoolmates, Stuart Sutcliffe. Bill Harry. Bill, Stu this is Ms. Hollywood, the little ol’ auntie that lives in my cupboard.”
“Nice to meet you.” Stu, the classically handsome one, extended his hand.
“Likewise.” I took his hand eagerly. In fact, I held his hand so awkwardly for so long that he had to kind of tug it away.
John and his other friend, Bill, gave each other the side-eye.
“Your mouth’s come unhinged there,” Lennon said to me. “You’re dribblin’ drool all down your sweater.”
My jaw clenched shut and I shoved my hands at my side. Smooth. Subtle. Great. Thorne was going to love this. Compromising the mission just because Stuart Sutcliffe had to be so gosh darn attractive in real life.
“Go on,” John said, dragging on his cigarette. “He hasn’t had a girl in ages. You can take him back to your cupboard if you like. But be careful, he’s married to his artwork.”
Stu’s shoulders rounded up by his bright red ears. I had to save face.
“He’s not the one I’m interested in,” I said with a less than subtle nudge in my voice.
John raised his heavy brow at me. Bill hummed knowingly and gave him a rough pat on the shoulder. Every muscle in my stomach clenched. Was that too much? Was I about to scare him away? I hated this. Flirting was no fun at all.
“Pity,” John said, tapping off the ashes of his cigarette into a small tray. “He’s the smarter choice, isn’t he? The better choice.”
He took another drag, waiting for my response. I swallowed. Was he testing me? The way John’s voice hardened made me wonder, could he be jealous of Stu? Could he be jealous that I was attracted to Stu? Or just jealous of him in general. I couldn’t read him at all. My adrenaline was pounding in my head screaming at me to run away from this socially awkward grave.
“Well, he’s not my choice,” I said, flipping my blonde hair like I had practiced at Mendips the day before.
Bill hummed double. Nudging John again. John’s mouth slowly formed into a smirk at the corners as he glanced away from me.
“You know,” he said. “I’ve never seen another girl like you before.”
My cheeks burned but my chest tightened into a celebratory squeeze. I knew he was bursting full of alcohol, but the words still filled me to the brim with explosive excitement.
“Oh! Thank you!” I practically yelled.
“I mean that in a porcelain dummy sort of way.” He tilted his chin to give me a once-over. “There’s not a single chip or dent anywhere on you. Why is that? You look like you’re straight off the factory belt. Brand new. Never before been used.”
His friends chuckled at each other. My smile dropped. I had no idea how to take that. Was that a compliment or…? I thought this guy was supposed to be famously blunt. Was he attracted to me or no? Did he like me or not? And if so, then why couldn’t he just say it?
“Uh…” I wrinkled my nose trying to come up with a reply. “Well, maybe it just seems that way because you haven’t gotten to know me yet.”
“Alright, show us your defects,” he said lowering his eye, suggestively.
The boys at the table laughed loudly over the already intolerable roar of the pub. I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. Lennon gently drew his fingers through a lock of my hair, he tugged it loose from my updo and tossed it messily right into the middle of my face.
“There. I like that much better,” he said with a chuckle. “Have a drink, Hollywood and stop being so perfect, eh? This is a pub. They don’t serve nuns here.”
On cue, John’s other friend Bill Harry, handed me a glass off the table. His grin was so wide it almost stretched to his ears.
“Cheers to John’s groupie!” he said, holding up his own glass. “The very first.”
“Ah! That’s right, that’s right!” John leaned over the table with his hand to his mouth. “Well, she must be on to us, lads.”
“On to what?” I asked taking a deep sip from my glass.
“Come now Virginia Hall, you should know,” John said. “You’re standing in front of three of the most famous men in history of the world!”
I spit my drink up my nose. The sharp burn of the alcohol in my nasal cavity made my eyes water and I couldn’t stop my hacking cough.
John put his arms on Bill and Stu’s shoulders. “We are ‘The Dissenters’,” he said proudly.
“I see,” I nodded slowly. “And what does that mean?”
“We’ve taken a vow, Hollywood. A most sacred one.” He put his hand on his heart and closed his eyes as the other two chuckled. “A vow that each of us is going to be famous and we’re going to make something of this bummy town! Stu with his painting of course, Bill with his writing, and I with my music.”
I cleared my throat. “So why don’t you do it with your painting?” I asked.
He nudged Stu in the side. “You heard the girl, son. You’re out. I’m the painter now.”
“Congratulations,” Stu laughed politely. “Here’s your prize. Best in show.”
“Thanks very much for this!” he said while pantomiming himself accepting a prestigious ribbon and pinning it on his chest.
John pushed off his chair and jumped up onto the surface of the table, drinks clinked as he stepped around them. He held his own glass to his mouth like a microphone. “Thank you. Thank you. Aha, aha. Thank you, very much, you’re too kind,” he said in a low mocking voice.
A couple of girls behind me giggled and swooned at his antics. And I understood that. Maybe not so much like Stu, but there was something there. Something unspoken and uncapturable in all his old black and white photos.
“There’s only one person I would like to thank for this award… and that’s Ms. Hollywood.” John extended his drink out to me. “Lovely, lovely, Ms. Hollywood… I want to thank you for what you’ve done. You have fully convinced me that I’ll never be up here with this ribbon, making this speech and that I should never hang up my guitar. Cheers!” He winked at me and downed his glass.
My gut wrenched.
My IND buzzed angrily in my chest. I slapped my hand over it. Thorne must have been watching my live feed and was now telling me that he had had enough and was on his way to yell at me in person.
A sharp stab of anxiety knocked the wind out of me. John sat on the edge of the table, watching me in complete amusement. I gave him a grimaced smile.
“Well, see you around sometime,” I tried to say in a sultry, sexy voice. But really it came out somewhere between disinterested and barely audible.
As I walked away, I knew they would be watching me, so I swung my hips as wide as I could. Popping with every step and clenching my cheeks together to make my backside look as good as possible.
“What are you doing?” John called after me.
“I’m…” I turned around to see Bill stifling a laugh. “I’m walking.”
“Are ya?” John had the biggest grin. “Oh, alright then. Thought I was going to have to call a repairman for that.”
Bill couldn’t hold in his laughter. He let out one guffaw. And I retreated from the pub in humiliation.