“Wow, they really have a good setup here, don’t they?” Winnie took a step to the side as a gaggle of children ran, giggling, out of the auditorium.
“Yeah,” Jacob agreed with a laugh, “the council’s done a good job making use of this space. I appreciate that they don’t just shutter the theater in the off-season, or when there’s no play being put on.” He leaned around the doorway, peering inside. “We, uh, may be a bit early. First show is still clearing out. We’ve probably got about ten or fifteen minutes before we can get a decent seat.”
“I don’t mind,” Winnie assured him. The community theater screened two movies on Friday and Saturday nights. The first show was always a family-friendly flick, while anything PG-13 and above usually got slotted into the second showing. “I mean, I’m pretty sure I was way too young the first time I watched My Cousin Vinnie, but I totally get wanting to make sure all of the kiddos are cleared out before they start it.”
“Yeah,” he laughed again. “Bit different watching it at home with your folks than out in public with half the town, I guess.” He nodded toward the concession stand. “Popcorn?”
“Absolutely!” Winnie agreed, letting him lead her through the crowd across the theater’s entry. While they waited in line, she perused the goodies on offer. Bagged candy, fresh popcorn, single serving chip bags, and bottled water and sodas were all on display, along with a letter board stating the prices for everything. Considering the usual cost of movie food, Winnie thought the prices very reasonable. She was glad she’d remembered to get cash before Jacob picked her up. A prominent sign next to the cashier politely reminded them that credit cards weren’t accepted.
Once they’d each paid for their food, they found a corner to wait in while the younger audience cleared out. “Skittles and cherry Coke, huh?” Jacob said, eying Winnie’s selections. “Huh. Had you pegged for an M&M’s kind of girl.”
“M&M’s don’t have nearly enough chocolate to be worth it,” Winnie said with a shrug. “Besides, growing up, my mom only ever bought them for Christmas or Easter. I guess they kind of stuck in my head as a seasonal thing.” She glanced at Jacob’s candy assortment and nudged him with her elbow. “But Twix and Kit Kats, and Reese’s Pieces? Someone’s got a sweet tooth.”
He grinned at her. “I cannot deny it. Also, I didn’t have time to grab more than a sandwich before I picked you up,” he admitted. “I got called in on a last-minute repair this afternoon.”
“Everything okay? I thought you had the weekend off?”
“I do, but I still get called in on repairs sometimes if it’s something that won’t wait. Hazard of being on retainer with the town. It was just a busted pipe. Easy to fix, but not something you want to leave for too long.”
She nodded. “Hopefully you get to enjoy the rest of your weekend without any more work interruptions.”
“Hear hear,” he said, knocking his drink bottle against hers in a mock toast. “Oh, hey, looks like we can go get seats now.” He set down his drink and slipped his candy into the pockets of his hoodie, then secured his popcorn and offered Winnie his arm. “Shall we?”
“Don’t forget your coke,” she said, slipping her arm through his and trying not to jostle her popcorn.
He picked up the bottle and slipped it into another pocket, raising an eyebrow at her. “My Dr. Pepper, you mean?”
“They’re all coke,” Winnie shrugged.
“Oh,” he laughed, “you’re one of those.”
“I am indeed,” she agreed. “Why, what do y’all call it here?”
“Soda, usually,” he said. “Or, you know, just what it is.”
She shook her head, laughing. “Okay, then. Come on, let’s go watch the movie.”
She hadn’t seen the film in years, but Winnie was glad to find it still as fun as she remembered. She tried not to take the depiction of rural Alabama too much to heart—it might be exaggerated for the story, but it wasn’t that far off. She’d forgotten how fun going to the movies was. Even an improvised setup like the Community Theater still brought that sense of joy in sharing the experience of the story with so many other people. One person, in particular, she couldn’t help but think, noting the warmth of her shoulder where it was pressed against Jacob’s. It was a heady feeling, going on a date with someone new, after all this time. Even if it was just an outing as friends, the potential was there. It made her feel a little like she was back in high school—something she wouldn’t have thought she’d want to experience again. But it was nice.
“I’m glad you asked me to come out,” she told Jacob as they walked toward the parking lot after the movie. “This was a lot of fun.”
“Good,” he said, and she could see the relief in his smile. “I’m glad you agreed to come. I had fun, too. More fun than usual. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll do a solo movie outing any time, but there’s something about going with someone else that makes it better, you know?”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “I think I know what you mean.”
They reached his truck and he opened the door for her. Winnie settled in, buckling her seatbelt as he walked around to his door. What happens next, she couldn’t help but wonder. She supposed on an actual date there would be the prospect of getting coffee or dessert somewhere—although she had to wonder where. It was nearing eleven—everything in the Bluffs was long-since closed for the evening.
“You ready to head home?” Jacob asked, turning on the truck and putting it in gear.
“I guess so,” she answered, noting that she was pretty tired. She caught the flicker of a smile on Jacob’s face as he started driving and bit back a laugh. Oh, that had sounded like she was hesitant to call it a night, hadn’t it? She supposed she was. Not that she wanted anything more to happen, but because the evening had just been nice. Still, home was for the best. Besides, poor Silas was probably wearing a spectral groove in the floor, waiting to hear how it had gone. She’d offered to bring him along but he insisted it wouldn’t be proper. He had, however, made her promise to tell him all about it when she got home.
Lost in her thoughts, she was surprised when the truck pulled up beside the cottage. “Want me to walk you to the door?” Jacob asked, peering through the windshield. “It’s pretty dark out.”
She almost said yes, but decided against it. Not tonight. “I think I’ll be all right. Thanks though.” She beamed at him. “Thank you for all of tonight, really. I had a wonderful time.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said, voice soft. “Hey,” he turned in the seat as Winnie reached to open the door. “What are you doing tomorrow?”
She blinked and turned back to him. “Um. Work until noon. I might go to the library. That’s about it. Why?”
“Gary and I are going bowling in the afternoon. It’s a regular thing, there’s usually a group of us that go at the same time. Wanna join?”
Winnie laughed. “I don’t think I’ve been bowling since I was ten.”
“It’s a good time,” he said. “Food and friends and friendly competition. Pretty low-key.”
“You know what? I think I will. That does sound fun. What time?”
“I’ll pick you up at three?”
“Three it is. Good night, Jacob.”
She slipped out of the truck and walked up to the cottage. Before stepping inside, she looked back over her shoulder and waved. Jacob waved back and as she closed the door behind her she felt the last of her apprehension about him melt away. I can do this, she realized. I can start over and date again. With Jacob it all just felt so easy. Tomorrow, she realized, couldn’t come fast enough.
“Wow, Jacob. I know I creamed you last week, but you didn’t have to bring a shark this time to get back at me.” Gary laughed and offered up his hand to Winnie for a high five. She’d just bowled her third strike of the game.
“Wasn’t my intention,” Jacob laughed, holding up a hand to high five Winnie as well, “but I’ll take it.” He fixed her with a jokingly stern glance. “There’s no way you haven’t bowled since you were ten.”
“I swear, it’s God’s honest truth,” she laughed. “Just a string of beginner’s luck, I guess. Or maybe it’s like falling off a bike?”
“Well, whatever it is, girl, you’re on fire!” Gary declared, standing from his seat. He nodded to Jacob. “You’re up. I’m gonna grab another beer. You two want any?”
“Nah, thanks. I drove, so one’s my limit. Winnie?”
“No, thank you. I’m set.” She pointed to her half-full cup of cherry Coke.
“Okay. Want more soda or snacks, since I’m going?”
“Nachos?” Jacob asked hopefully.
“You got it. Winnie?”
“Sure. I could do nachos, thanks.”
Jacob grinned at her. “Always wait to buy snacks when you’re out with Gary,” he advised as he stood. “He gets one or two drinks in him and turns super generous.”
“You’re awful,” Winnie teased. “Go on. You’re up.”
He took his turn, picking up a split on the second throw. Winnie offered the obligatory high-five as he settled onto the seat beside her while they waited for Gary to return. “So, beer not your thing?” He asked as she took a sip of her drink. There was no judgment in the question, just curiosity.
“Nope,” she answered, taking another sip of her soda. She shrugged. “I don’t drink. Family history.” That wasn’t the full answer, but it was absolutely part of it, and Jacob didn’t press for more.
“Gotcha. I know how that goes,” he nodded in understanding. He tilted his head. “Is it okay to drink around you, then? I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“Oh! Thank you, no. You’re fine.” She laughed a little. “Honestly, I don’t mind. I appreciate you asking, though.” She looked up and saw Gary making his way back toward them, laden with nachos and a drink tray. It seemed he’d gotten her a refill and a water for Jacob. “Will he be okay to get home?”
“What, Gary? Oh, sure. He lives a block south. Just walks here. Sheriff takes a real hard line against drunk drivers. There’s a pretty amazing designated driver policy in town. Most places will do discounts or freebies for them.”
“Huh,” Winnie chuckled. “Almost makes me want to reconsider my plan not to get a car.”
“Depends on how much you like chicken wings, I guess,” he laughed, then got up to help Gary distribute the food. “All right, enough dawdling. Go take your turn,” he teased, poking his friend in the shoulder. “Also,” he lifted up his nacho tray, “thanks, man.”
After a few more sets, and lots of impromptu competitions with the other bowlers around them, they decided to call it a day. “I can see why you enjoy that so much,” she told Jacob as he drove her home. You guys do that every Saturday?”
“More or less,” he confirmed. “Not in the summer. Place gets too crowded, since it’s one of the few indoor attractions in town and it’s all ages.”
“Oh, that makes sense. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how things work here, with tourist season and off-season and whatnot.”
Jacob shrugged. “We’ve got a pretty decent system figured out. The shops that cater to the tourists keep afloat in the summer by selling stuff online or picking up other jobs around town, and we all try to support local whenever we can.”
Winnie smiled. “I love the sense of community here.”
“Yeah,” Jacob agreed. “Me too. It just wasn’t the same in Chicago. I knew after a month there that I was coming right back home when I graduated. I mean, I loved it there. It just didn’t feel like home.”
“Was that in doubt?” Winnie turned in her seat so she could watch him. “You coming back, I mean?” Jacob seemed so perfectly in place in the Bluffs. Winnie couldn’t really imagine him anywhere else.
Jacob thought it over. “Less than for most people who go away for school, I think. But my dad was a little worried. You can be a carpenter anywhere, after all.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” Winnie said, turning her face to hide the blush she felt heating her cheeks.
“Yeah?” She could hear the smile in his voice. They reached the cottage and he pulled to a stop, then turned in his seat. “Okay. At the risk of being too much, do you want to do something again tomorrow?”
Winnie turned back to him, surprised. He looked so hopeful, she couldn’t help but smile. “I kind of got the impression a whole weekend off was a rare treat for you. Don’t you have anything you’d rather be doing with it?”
“That’s the thing,” he said, grinning. “I don’t. I’m really enjoying spending time with you. I’d like to keep doing that, if you’re up for it.”
Winnie felt a rush of warmth and bit her lip before she could blurt out, Me too. “Would this be a proper date, then, tomorrow?”
“Would you want it to be?”
She met his eyes. “Yeah. I think I would.”
“All right.” He beamed at her. “A proper date, then. Roller skating and dinner?”
“Roller skating? You’re really dipping into nostalgia-ville here, you know?” She smiled to make sure he knew she was teasing.
He shrugged. “It’s what we’ve got. Though if it’s not your thing—”
“I guess we’ll find out,” she laughed. “Roller skating and dinner sounds wonderful. Pick me up at four?”
“Will do. See you tomorrow, Winnie.”
“See you tomorrow.”
“Whoa! Careful, there!” Jacob reached out and grabbed Winnie’s hand to steady her while she recovered her balance.
“Those kids are fast,” she breathed, staring after the trio that had just blazed past them for the third time. “I think they’ve got a future in the roller derby, if they want it.” She shot Jacob a grateful look. “Thanks. I almost wiped out there.”
“Been a while?”
She laughed. “What gave me away?”
“Here,” he said, keeping hold of her hand and steering her closer to the wall of the rink. “Us slowpokes should stick to the edge.”
“Very kind of you, using ‘us’ there,” she snorted. She stumbled and gripped his hand tighter. “I promise, I used to be a lot better at this. Like, twenty years ago.”
“It’ll come back to you, with enough practice.”
“God, I hope so. My ass can only take so many falls.” She glanced around the dimly lit rink, taking in the skaters of all ages and types. While she’d opted for renting traditional skates, the rink offered roller blades as well, and at least half the patrons—Jacob included—brought their own skates with them. She wondered what Silas would think of this place. Had rollerskating been a thing in the 1920s? She honestly couldn’t remember.
“Snack break?” Jacob nodded toward the rapidly approaching open side of the rink.
“Yeah, let’s do that,” she agreed, adding, “but let’s wait to get off the rink until we’re closer to the snack bar.” Trying to walk-skate on the carpeted area that ran along this half of the rink was a challenge, especially with all of the people wandering back and forth between the rink, snack bar, arcade, restrooms, and seating area.
“Right,” Jacob said, eyes scanning the crowd. “Good idea.” He shot her a considering look. “Want to find a seat while I go get the snacks? Or do you need to see what they’ve got?”
Winnie spied an open picnic-style table for two not far from their location. “I’ll get us that table,” she said, nodding toward it, “if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.” He skated with her to the table, only then letting go of her hand. Winnie tried not to think about how keenly she felt its absence. “Cherry Coke, right?”
She smiled. “That would be great. Or water if they don’t have it.”
“Anything else? They’ve got pretzels, hot dogs, pizza, nachos, giant pickles, popcorn, bagged chips, and candy. Want me to see if they’ve got Skittles?”
“I think the coke might be enough sugar,” she answered with a laugh. “What kind of pretzels? Chewy?”
“Yup, the big ones. Fresh from the oven—well, fresh-ish.” He shrugged with a smile.
“A pretzel, please. With cheese sauce?”
He threw her a mock salute. “Got it. One Cherry Coke and cheesy pretzel, coming right up. Be back soon.”
Winnie watched him skate off, appreciating the view. When he got in line, she let her gaze wander across the rink. The place was hopping, especially for a Sunday afternoon. But the day had dawned cloudy, with a chilly breeze blowing through town. She suspected that might have driven people to find inside fun. Still, she was impressed by the crowd. It was a good gage of the town, she thought, and a promising one. She blinked in surprise as one of the skaters waved to her while passing. She waved back on instinct, only belatedly recognizing Sunny, who had died their hair in a cascade of mermaid colors since she’d seen them last.
“Hey, Win!” Sunny greeted her, hopping out of the rink and skating over when they came back around. “Good to see you out and about. Didn’t know you were a skater. How do you like our rink?”
“I like it very much,” Winnie responded, grinning. “Although I’m not much of a skater, really. It was Jacob’s idea.” She nodded her head in the direction of the snack bar. Jacob was leaning against the counter, presumably waiting for his order.
“Jacob Lariat?” Sunny’s eyes went wide and they let out a low whistle. “You two are here together? Like, on a date?” They grinned. “Isn’t that interesting?”
Winnie’s eyes narrowed. “Is it?”
Sunny didn’t pick up on Winnie’s sudden alarm, nodding enthusiastically. “It is,” they answered. “I mean, I try not to pay too much attention to the grownups’ business, but you can’t live here and not pick up some of the gossip, you know?” Before Winnie could ask what gossip they meant, they pressed on, “I thought he never dated anyone local, not since he got back from Chi-town.” Their eyes lit up. “Does Ronnie know? Can I tell her, please?”
Winnie blinked, trying to parse out this information. “Um. I mean. She was there when he asked me out.” She omitted the fact that it had been for Friday night, and now it was Sunday and they were going on three dates, even if this was the first real one. Technically. Something told her Ronnie probably already knew anyway. Winnie was pretty sure the kid getting the rental skates for people was Ronnie’s niece, and Ronnie’d been awfully interested in Winnie’s plans for the rest of the day when she’d been leaving work this afternoon.
“Oh, she must be giddy! I can’t believe I don’t work again until Wednesday! I cannot wait to ask her about it.”
“Sunny,” Winnie sighed. “It’s not a big deal. It’s just a date.”
“Nah.” Sunny shook their head, giving Winnie an assessing look. “I don’t think so.” They beamed at Winnie. “You’ll see. Oh! He’s coming back. I’ll make myself scarce. Have fun!” With another wave, they were back in the rink and skating away, leaving a very confused Winnie blinking after them.
“Everything okay?” Jacob asked, joining her at the table and setting her snacks in front of her. “Was that Sunny?”
“Yes. They were very excited when I mentioned I’m here with you.” She thought about forgetting what Sunny said, but decided against it. The last thing she wanted to do was walk into something new with her eyes closed. “They, uh, seemed to think it was a big deal, you dating someone in town.”
“Ah,” Jacob said, settling into his seat.
“Anything I need to know?”
He wrinkled his brow, picking at his hot dog bun. He let out an exasperated sigh. “Not really?” He looked up, meeting her eyes with a sheepish smile. “I mean. I grew up here. I know everyone my age, and only about half of them stuck around after high school or came back after college. Town’s not really big enough for everyone to stick around. Dating here’s kind of a non-starter, you know?”
“Uh huh.” She took a sip of her soda, watching him over the brim of the cup. She thought she knew what he meant, but it still raised other questions. “So, when someone new, say, moves to town, that changes things?”
“Ah,” he said again, letting out a little laugh. “Winnie,” he reached across the table, offering his hand. She hesitated for a second before taking it. He smiled and continued. “I didn’t ask you out because you’re new, okay? I asked you out because I like you. You’re smart, and you’re fun to talk to. You look at everything with new eyes, which yeah, okay, that’s part of being new I guess. But it reminds me how much I love it here, and I enjoy watching you find things you like here, too, and getting to show you my favorite things about the Bluffs. I asked you out the first time because I wanted a chance to get to know you better. I kept asking you out because I am having the best time with you. More fun than I’ve had in a good long while.” He gave her hand a little squeeze. “I hope you’ve been having fun, too.”
“I have,” she said, squeezing his hand in return. “Okay. I guess maybe I took what Sunny said too much to heart. I’m still getting used to everyone knowing or wanting to know everyone else’s business around here.”
“I totally get that. I hope you can shrug it off. People will gossip about us, whether we keep dating or not. That’s just part of living here. Most of it is harmless. People just entertaining themselves opining on what everyone else is doing.”
Winnie nodded. She’d certainly seen enough of that in the cafe since she’d worked there. “I’ll try not to let it get to me,” she said, smiling at him. She let out a laugh, remembering what else Sunny had said. “Apparently, Ronnie is going to be thrilled.”
Jacob laughed as well. “Oh, yeah. She’s the Bluffs’ number one self-proclaimed matchmaker.”
“Wonderful,” Winnie said, rolling her eyes.
They ate their snacks in amused silence, and Winnie got up to clear their trash, grateful a trashcan was nearby. As she returned to the table, the lights dimmed even further and the deejay announced it was time for the couple skate. Jacob stood and offered her his hand. “What do you say? Wanna give it a whirl?”
Winnie didn’t even hesitate, placing her hand in his with a smile and following him into the rink. It looked like this was happening, and she realized she was pretty excited to see where it might go. At some point, soon, she was going to have to have a talk with him about expectations and boundaries. She still wasn’t sure she was ready for much in the way of physical intimacy just yet. But that could wait. For now, all she had to do was take his hand and skate. And so she did.