My room had always been my safe place. It was where I hid from the horrors of the world when it all seemed too much, and where I could be me. It was my cave of happiness.
That was why the first thing I did after having cringed the jacket off with an intensity I hadn’t expected was to run upstairs to my room. My parents were still at work and Arthur was at football practice. I barely got to the top of the stairs before the tears welled up in my eyes and huge sobs forced themselves through my throat. I slammed the door to my room behind me, dropped my schoolbag in the middle of the room and threw myself on top of the bed. My head was still hurting, and I felt nauseous and I did not want to go back to freshman year. I did not want to be the little girl who got picked on again.
I rolled into fetal position, cuddling my pillow. I was scared. Melissa hadn’t tried to hurt me physically last year, except for the occasional hair-pulling when we passed each other. But she was going to hurt me this time around. I was not going to stop being around Thomas for this reason. She was not going to win. And I knew that I had an ally in him, who I couldn’t find anywhere else. My brother would go straight to Melissa and kick her shins, and my parents would go to the police or sue her, but Thomas was going to let me take the battle on my own, which was what I needed.
My face was wet with tears, and there was no mistaking that my mascara was no longer on my eyelashes. I wish I were strong enough to not cry. But I had been holding back the tears since that girl hit me, and it had been tough enough as it was. I wanted to be stronger, but at least no one had to know that I had cried. I slowly got up, determined not to let my parents or Arthur know, so I changed my dress to a pair of loose adidas pants (I really loved wearing them when relaxing - the exact opposite of what they were made for) and a sweatshirt. I went to the bathroom to remove the mascara from my face. It wasn’t unusual that I took the makeup off after I got home, so maybe it could go unnoticed. If just my eyes would stop being so damned red.
I decided to take a shower. Wash out the pain in the most literary way possible. I had heard that headaches could be treated with heat, though it could be a rumour. But I didn’t think it would hurt, and I actually really wanted a shower. So I undressed and stepped into the little class cage where the showerhead was, and turned the tab so water came running out.
I washed my hair. I used balsam to make my curls easier to deal with. I soaped my entire body in using a soap that smelled like raspberries and pomegranate, which I absolutely adored.
When I got out of the shower, I put my comfy clothes back on. I opened the window so that the heat and humidity in the bathroom could slip out. Making a mental note to close the window in 10 minutes, otherwise the whole house would go icy, I slipped back into my room. My phone was ringing, and I hurried over and slid my finger across the screen to pick up.
“Hey, it’s Eliza,” I said. I didn’t know the number, so I introduced me by my real name,
“It’s Thomas. Are you okay? I’ve been calling you for the last 20 minutes,” he said. He sounded relieved that I had picked up. Gosh, that guy was overprotective.
“I’m fine. I was taking a shower,” I explained, walking around my room. People do that while talking on the phone. Walk around restlessly, Not really knowing what to do with their body. Right? I wasn’t the one being a weirdo.
“Oh, okay. I just wanted to make sure that you were okay. When you have a concussion you shouldn’t be left alone, and it looked like there were no cars in your driveway, so I decided to check up on you,”
I did one of those funny laughs that has no name, where you smile and blow a lot of air out through your nose really fast. Everybody did that at times, why did the thing not have a name? It wasn’t like a normal laugh, made almost no sound.
“My mom and dad are still at work, my brother is at practice, so yes, I am alone, but I don’t think I have a concussion. It doesn’t hurt that much anymore,” I told him.
“That’s good. But I still think you should be careful,”
“I know, I’ll be careful. But there’s not much to be careful about at home,”
I heard his laugh through the phone. My stomach twirled for the third time that day. What was going one?
“Just be sure to go to sleep early. When will your parents me home? Or your brother, for that matter. I would be a bit more at ease if I knew you weren’t alone,”
“My brother will be home my dinnertime. I don’t know about my parents, things often drags out for them,”
“What do they do?”
“They are lawyers.” I told him matter-of-factly.
“What?” he asked, though it was obvious that he had heard me.
“Lawyers. You know-“
“I know what a lawyer is, I just didn’t expect it. Well, maybe I did. Your house did look quite expensive.” He said.
“I guess it was. I was barely a year old when my parents bought the house, so I wouldn’t know,”
“So you’ve lived in this city all your life?”
“Yeah. In an apartment before the house,” I told him. I didn’t remember the apartment, but I had lived there the first year of my life.
“I can’t wait for the tour tomorrow,” I could hear the smile in his voice, and I smiled myself.
“Me too. So we’ll go in my car on the tour, I’ll drop you off at school and you can drive home when the tour is over?” I asked, wanting the details figured out.
“M-hh. Sounds like a plan,” he said.
“Great. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow?” I said. I wanted to have a little peace and quiet. A conversation kind of ruined that.
“Yeah. See you,” he said. I hung up and put the phone down on my desk. Then I went downstairs to make a cup of tea and butter a slice of bread. I sat at the kitchen island, eating and drinking. Thomas was a good guy. We had a lot in common, and he seemed extremely smart. I was happy that he sat down at my table the day before, otherwise I would be sitting alone until I finally graduated from that hell-hole. I was going to have a tough time, though, because he sat down at my table at lunch just yesterday. But I didn’t mind. I didn’t often make friends, but when I did, they were as real as they can get.
My dad was, surprisingly, the first one to get home that day. He joined me in the kitchen where I sat and drank my third cup of tea. We had the usual talk of ‘did-you-have-a-good-day-at-school’. He was in a grey suit with a black tie, which he had loosened now that he was no longer at work.
“What do you say that we do something together tomorrow, all four of us? Go to the movies, dinner, something?” he asked me, his hands folded around his cup. It seemed like it got colder and colder with each day outside.
“Actually, I made plans tomorrow,” I told him slowly, wondering how to put it without having him conclude that Thomas was more than a friend, like my mom had.
“Oh!” he said, clearly surprised. No wonder. I never made plans. “With whom?”
“Thomas. A new guy in school. He wants me to show him around town. He only just moved here with his parents.” I explained. My dad’s eyes pressed together to form splits.
“And who is this new guy, exactly?” he asked. This meant “who are his parents”.
“His father is a doctor at the hospital; his mother is a nurse, also at the hospital. Thomas prefers my company to the juniors, and shares my love of literature,” I told him, a smile on my face. It stung a little at my temple, but nothing compared to the agony I had been in an hour ago, when Thomas dropped me off.
My dad nodded in approval. So now he had the stamp ‘good to go’ from both Arthur and my dad.
“We could still go to dinner, though. I’m expecting to be back before dinner, we’re going right after school,” I told him. He smiled. We didn’t do this stuff very often. Him and mom were always busy, and could never really tell when they could be home. Him asking me like that meant that he and mom had been talking about it and made sure that they were not going to have any extra meetings that day.
Then we heard the door slam, and boots stamping at the doormat inside, probably to get snow off them.
“Arthur?” my dad called.
“Yeah, it’s me,” he said. At this time, I decided that I would rather retreat to the comfort of my bedroom, so I got up, book under my arm and teacup in hand, and left the kitchen. In the hall, I stopped Arthur before he went into the kitchen.
“Are you free tomorrow?” I asked him in a whisper.
Arthur looked puzzled. “Yeah, why?”
“Dad will tell you,” I said lowly, winking at him. Then I mounted the stairs, half-running.
Wednesday were upon me. Thomas was waiting outside my house when I got home. He was standing outside the car, leaning on it. Today I had decided not to challenge fate with another dress, so today I was in a pair of light blue, much worn jeans, a black sweatshirt and a scarf, which was dark blue and knitted. He was, of course, dressed in black jeans and a dark green button-down sweater, which fitted his body a little too well. Not that I would ever say that aloud. His black winter jacket was open over the button down.
“Hey. Are you feeling better?” he asked me, and guess what, he went in for a hug. His arms were quite strong, and the hug felt nice and friendly, if not a little awkward. I rarely hugged anyone but my family.
“Yeah. My head doesn’t hurt anymore, so I guess that’s a good sign,” I said. I sent him a smile. “Thanks for picking me up today. And for driving me home yesterday. It was really nice of you,”
“It was the least I could do,” he said, smiling back at me.
“Should we go? I don’t want to be late,” I told him. “My mom already dropped my brother of at school.”
“Yeah. Hop in,” he said, walking around to the driver’s door. I opened the passenger door and sat down inside, where it was nice and warm. I put my bag on my lap.
Thomas woke the engine, which sounded much more smooth than my old Rusty.
“Are we still up for the trip today?” I asked him. He broke into a smile.
“Yeah, sure. I’ve been looking forward to it,” he told me.
“Great. But we’re going in my car. Much more authentic.” I grinned.
“What, that old car? You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said, looking at me, smiling big.
“What? That car is amazing. Much more personal than this… shiny black thing,” I said, making a disgusted wrinkled of my nose. He broke into laughter, and I laughed along.
“Fine, we’ll go in yours. Convince me that it’s better,” he said.
“Oh, I will.” I said, laughing. I couldn’t believe how much I laughed around Thomas. It was so easy being with him. Laughs came easily to my face, like they only did around Maria or Arthur.
It started snowing again as we rode to school. The sky was still dark, and I felt more like crawling under a blanket than going to school. But with Thomas by my side at lunch, I could get through the day.
“So. Other books you enjoy?” he asked me after I’d been looking out the window for a little long. Geez, he had to be thinking that I was some melodramatic girl with deep thoughts.
“Yeah,” I said, looking at him again. “Lots. But not really anything special. I really like fantasy, drama and such. I’m reading Game of Thrones right now, and I want to read Jane Austin as soon as possible.” I told him. He nodded along.
“I’m waiting for the new book. Have you watched the series?”
“Yes, it’s great. The amount of dead people is too damn high,” I said, and he laughed again. Seemed like he either laughed a lot, or just found laughing easy around me, like I did around him.
“I agree. It’s a little sad. But just you wait and see…” he said, a smirk plastered on his face, and my mouth fell open.
“No. No, don’t you dare spoil it or say anything about who’s dying! I’m still hurting from Robb Stark’s death in the series!”
“You haven’t to that in the books yet?”
“No, I only just finished the first book,” I admitted. “But I’m going strong! I just held a brake during the holidays, I got a bunch of new books at Christmas,”
Then we pulled into the parking lot. He swung into the empty room beside my car, and we stepped out. The cold bit at my cheeks, and all the other students were covered from head to toe in scarfs, hats and jackets. Thomas and I hurried inside without talking. Inside, we said goodbye, and I headed for math.
By lunch, I was anxious for the day to end. I wanted to have fun with Thomas, not sit in a classroom and be bored out of my jeans. So when the bell finally rang, I hurried to lunch. The food was just as disgusting as usual, but when I got to my table, Thomas was already sitting there, waiting for me. I couldn’t help but smile. What a change. Just Monday, I had expected another half a year in solitude, but now I had gotten myself a friend. Wow.
“Hey there,” I said, sitting down beside him, looking out over the rest of the cafeteria from out corner.
“Hey. Did you have fun?” he asked, smirking.
“Oh gosh no,” I whined. “Math is math, biology is boring, physics is brain damaging. They certainly want to kill me with this before-lunch schedule.”
Thomas laughed aloud. Some other sophomores from the table next to us turned around and looked at us wonderingly, but I ignored them.
“I understand you. I have chemistry instead of physics, which is a really nice switch. You should change for next year,” he told me.
“I’m going to,” I said, taking in the first bite of the food. “Wow, this is not disgusting. It’s actually eatable!” I exclaimed, earning another of those laughs from him. When he laughed, he closed his eyes and kind of ducked his head, facing the table. It was adorable. He had a dimple in his left cheek, but the right was smooth. It gave the feeling of him having a crooked smile all the time, and I loved it, I really did. I felt my stomach flutter the tiniest bit.
“So. Where do you wanna take me today?” he asked me, when he stopped laughing.
I sat thinking for a bit, while I chewed. “I’ll show you the good places to go. The best bookstores, and the few shopping places we have. The park, maybe. We have a tiny park, but it’s really beautiful in winter. Also, at the end of it, there’s this really nice little café called Moonbay where I like to go read when I need a change of setting,” I told him. He nodded along.
“That sounds like a good idea. Makes for a good road trip,” he said, grinning so his dimple showed.
“It certainly does. We don’t have much more that’s worth a look, anyway. We have a playground, but it is so much more fun in summer.”
“You like going to playgrounds?” his eyebrow lifted questioningly.
“I do. My brother and I go there in summer. It’s nice, going back to being a child once in a while. You should try it.” I said, smiling, suddenly a little shy.
“I might just do. Maybe you could take me when all this stupid snow is gone?”
“Sure. Another road trip.”
We sat in quite for a minute or two, eating. Since late last night I had been wondering how Thomas really felt about the moving-thing. I was trying to gather the courage to say something when suddenly Melissa stood in front of our table. Her arms were crosser under her impressive chest (most of what was fake) and pouting her lips slightly, clearly trying to seem on top of things. Thomas looked at her before I did, and I could feel the anger seethe from him.
“What do you want?” he asked, his voice colder than the falling snow outside. I felt goose bumps all the way down my spine at the sound of it. Even Melissa’s ever-perfect bitch face faltered a little at his voice.
“I would like to talk to Curly here,” she said, pouting her mouth a little more as if it would make her seem in authority. It more made her look like a duck. Her gang of girls stood behind her, as reliable as ever.
Thomas looked at me. I looked shortly at him before looking away, the mentioned curls covering my face, since I hadn’t put it up today. The nickname was starting to get to me again. Especially because Thomas had heard it now. I heard the girls behind Melissa snicker. The side of my head began to throb slightly. The silence was deafening around us. Almost everybody in the cafeteria was staring at this confrontation. I lifted my head slightly, and saw Melissa’s face. She was smiling now, loving the attention.
Slowly, slowly, I heard Thomas rise from the bench beside me.
“Lift your head, Ellie,” he told me, his voice so soft and caring that tears almost came to my eyes. Slowly I did as he told me, and looked at him towering beside me. Melissa looked at him, shaking her head and smirking. I could hear someone cough in the other end of the cafeteria. As I locked eyes with him, I understood that he would take care of this, take care of me. His eyes told me so. Then he shifted his glance towards Melissa and it changed so dramatically that she took a step backward, she even grew a little pale through that indoor tan she was covered in.
“You might think that you are the queen of this school, Melissa,” he said, his voice sneering at her name. “But I know your type. I know how to handle you. You act all high and mighty, so that everybody thinks that they can’t hurt you. But,” he said, pausing again, and looking over to the table where her usual boy-committee sat, fixing his glance at the one she had been sitting with before she came over here, “if I decide to pour my food over her fine little shirt from some expensive brand, would any of you lift a finger to change that?” The silence was louder than ever. “I thought so.” He said, turning back to Melissa, who had a hand on her chest and her mouth open in disbelief at what was happening. Thomas stepped out from the bench and stood in front of Melissa. “If you ever do anything to Ellie, or to any other girl, or boy for that matter, who don’t know how to stand up to you, you will not get away with just a stained shirt.” He said. I felt like I could take a bite out of the air. The respect for the new guy who had stood up to Melissa, the queen bitch of Public High School of Orlay City just went sky high. And for Melissa? Well, I was pretty sure that the only ones who would still follow her was the boys that she kept locked up in her web of kissing and the darkest time of night.
Melissa looked at him with horror. Then they went to me, and the horror changed to distaste, then to anger, then to rage. She turned on her heal and went through the girls behind her, who was stunned by what they had seen.
Thomas turned to look at me, a look of half confusion and half pride. Of course he was proud. He had every right to be. He stood up to her, probably protecting a lot of the students from harassment. I was so proud of him. And I felt so, so honoured that he had chosen me for a friend.
He sat down next to me, heavily. I looked at him, wondering what to say. I wanted to thank him. If he hadn’t stood up for me, I would have been hit again, or she would have told me words that I will not mention. My chest still felt heavy, though. The look she gave me just before she went off had left me feeling cold from the top of my scalp to the tip of my toes. She was going to do a comeback.
By then my eyes had fallen to my hands in my lap. I felt Thomas’s eyes on me, and I was searching for words. My tongue felt thick in my mouth.
“Thank you,” I finally managed to whisper. It sounded stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. But I didn’t know what else to say. I could feel his hand on my upper arm, gentle on my straining muscles. Only now I realised how tense my entire body had gone, and I struggled to force it to relax. My shoulders were aching.
“Are you okay?” he whispered. His hand still hadn’t left my arm, and my skin started burning through the sweatshirt. When I raised my head a bit, I saw a huge amount of faces turned our way, though the talk had been resumed. I felt awkward and exposed, nude in my state of … I don’t even know what. Fright, most likely. I was frightened.
I shook my head. “I really want to get out of here,” I said, voice shaking. Melissa was a fighter. I knew that much. She had kicked down every single person standing in her way, and Thomas was just a bigger obstacle. She was used to getting her way, even if she had to get her hands dirty. Or, most often, someone else’s hands.
Thomas looked around, saw the faces (all of which quickly turned away) and nodded in understanding. He stood up and swung his backpack over his shoulder, jacket under his arm, and grabbed his tray. I did the same.
I felt eyes on me all the way out of the cafeteria. I felt like I was about to stumble, but Thomas’s presence beside me kept me steady. Putting the tray down by the door, we went out of the crowded room and into the quiet hallways. I was hugging my jacket to my chest, looking around for signs of Melissa or any of her gang.
We walked without a word, and without an idea of where we were going. When we ended up by the library, I turned. Books made me feel calm, even if they were school books. Thomas followed me, and we sat back down by a table in the far end of the library. We still had 30 minutes left to kill before classes started. I really didn’t want to go to class. It was certain that there would be looks, whispers and stares. But I was not the kind of person to skip.
Thomas was looking at me with a deep frown between his eyebrows. “Are you going to tell me what is going on?” he asked, softly.
“Not right now…” I said, my voice raw. I was still hugging my jacket, even though we were sitting down. “I just really want to get my mind off of this,” my voice was too pleading. But Thomas nodded, and somehow, in those 30 minutes, he managed to get me to lighten up and smile again.
I was right about the stares, though. But Thomas walked me to Latin, and then it was almost okay. I didn’t show them that it got to me in any way. I held my head high, walked with confidence, and I enjoyed the lesson. I was still relieved when Thomas was waiting outside the classroom when the lesson was over, though. How he managed to get there before me blew my mind, but when I asked, he just smirked and said that he had found a secret tunnel under the school, which made me shake my head and laugh.
In English, Thomas and I got stares from the junior students. They had, of course, all seen Melissa being told off, and a few of the guys gave Thomas high fives. I actually got a smile from a red haired girl in the front of the room.
Mrs. Mason was as oblivious to the drama of high school as every other teacher and didn’t notice anything. The lesson was great. Mrs. Mason was impressed by the way I talked about the novel we were working with, and extremely impressed when Thomas and I started a class discussion about a section of the book that seemed to be overflowing with symbols and hidden meanings.
When the bell rang, my spirits were high, and a smile was plastered on my face.
“Are you ready for a road trip?” Thomas asked me, while he was zipping his jacket shut over that very nice button down shirt.
“I am so ready.” I answered. Together we left the school and went to the parking lot. Rusty was covered in a light carpet of snow, and we had to scrape it off the front windshield. He sighed when he saw it.
“I really can’t believe that you drive around in this old, rusty car,” he said, ruffling up his dark hair in pretended frustration.
“Hey, Rusty is a great car,” I said defensively.
“Rusty? You actually named it?”
“An old car needs a good name. It makes it even more unique and adds to the awesomeness,” I said, opening the driver’s door and sat down inside. Thomas mirrored the action with the passenger’s seat, and I forced the engine to start. The hold car shook slightly with the engine as it heated up. Thomas laughed.
“I don’t believe it. This car is so old that it has a player for cassette tapes!”
“I have a bunch of different ones in a box in the glove compartment. You can choose one if you want to,” I told him. I had found them around old second-hand stores. I backed the car out of the spot and soon entered the main road. “It’s too cold to be walking around a lot, so we’re just going to drive around, is that okay?”
“Sure,” he said, though he was fairly busy with looking at the tapes, so I’m not even sure that he heard what I said.
At last he did find one that he wanted to listen to, though. Soon The Beatles was blasting through the loudspeakers, and we were both singing along to Yellow Submarine.
“That’s the bookstore that I love the most. It has a lot of the classics, but also updates with the newest before the other stores around town does.” I told him. The store was rather big, but with big, dark brown shelves and bookcases made from wood, sofa’s around the room where you could sit, and low music flowing through the air. Thomas looked out the window as we drove past.
“Do you want to go in there sometime? I could use some classics.” He said. I could hear the smile in his voice.
“I would love to. I need to get Jane Austin’s novels as well,” I told him, keeping my eyes on the road. The snow had been packed so hard on the ground that it had turned icy, and I had to grab hard on the stirring wheel.
When we had passed the other stores, I parked that car by the park, on Thomas’ request. It was cold out, but if we kept walking, it wouldn’t be a problem, he told me. So I did as he said, and we got out of the car.
The park was covered in snow. The trees looked like something from a fairy tale. Thomas was quiet for a while, walking with his hands dug deep into the pockets of his jacket, just as I did. At last, he spoke up.
“Can you please tell me what happened at the cafeteria? Should I have been quiet, or said something else, or what?” he asked, his voice sounding almost desperate. I looked up at him in wonder. He looked pained, his brows slightly frowning.
“No, no, I meant it when I thanked you. I really did. You didn’t do anything wrong,” I reassured him.
“Then why did you react like that? You froze up completely, grew pale and silent and everything. What was wrong?” he asked, his voice still that pained and desperate one.
I looked back down at the ground. My feet were moving robotically underneath me. I didn’t know what to say. There were loads of reasons.
“Melissa made me her entertainment last year,” I told him. Better break the news fast. Before he would answer, I went on. “She never really went to the physical part, but she spent most of her sophomore year spreading rumors about me. Talking down to me. Once, a girl from her own class told her to get off my back, but then she turned her attention to the girl for a minute, and the girl never spoke a word to me again. ‘Curly’ became my very own nickname, and soon most of the school were laughing at me with her. I was the outsider, I was alone, and I was one of the youngest. An easy target, and I still was, until today. But you didn’t notice the look she gave me.” My voice had grown low, but Thomas was still listening, so I tried speaking up a bit. “She always gets what she wants. She enjoys challenges. I know that she’ll try to get back. And the next time, it won’t just be me she’s putting down.” I lifted my head, and looked at him. I couldn’t read his facial expression. He was quiet for a long time while we continued walking, in a slower pace than when we started. Finally he broke the silence.
“I can handle whatever she tries to do. I’m more worried about you,” he said, and I met his eyes. Oh, those eyes. They were so caring and sweet. I had a hard time understanding that a boy like him actually wanted to befriend me. I opened my mouth to say that he shouldn’t worry, but he interrupted me before I could start speaking. “No, don’t. She got someone to hit you once, and if what you’re saying is true, she’ll try again. Has she been doing this to you since you started high school?” he asked me, anger in his voice.
“No. At the end of freshman year, I started shutting her out. I ignored her, and she seemed to get bored, so she has left me alone the first semester of sophomore year,”
“So it’s purely because I sat down at your table that she is doing this?” he asked, now more frustrated than angry.
“It seems like it. But honestly, it isn’t that unusual for her. She sees a good-looking guy and she ensnares him in her games.” I said, looking straight ahead. Then, suddenly, I heard him giggle beside me, and I looked at him, extremely confused. He was smiling broadly.
“Did you just say that I was good-looking?” he said, smirking at me, and I felt my head grow red as a tomato. I opened my mouth to protest, but he interrupted me with a laughter and the fact that he just then put his arm around my shoulder, drawing me all up close to him. I could feel the arms of his muscles on my shoulders and the hardness of his chest through our jackets. My heart started galloping around my own chest. When he felt me stiffen, he pulled away quickly.
“I’m sorry. I just got a little too familiar, didn’t I?” he said, and I felt like a huge idiot. How could I make a guy feel like he did everything wrong?
“No, it’s okay, I’m not just really used to it. My best friend moved to England before I started high school, and I’ve only seen her once since then, so it’s a rare thing to have any contact with anyone but my family,” I said. Awkward, I was so awkward. “Please don’t apologize to me all the time,” I pleaded, looking up at him. “Really I’m the one who should apologize for being awkward and teenage-ish when it comes to everything social,”
That, at least, made him laugh. And then I laughed too, and we were back to something nice. By then we were also had walked the length of the park and was about to cross the road.
“Do you wanna go get a cup of hot chocolate or something? The café is right across the street,” I told him.
“Yeah. And this is my treat, because I created a scene so you had to leave you lunch,” he said.
“No, I can pay. My parents are lawyers, I have money,” I said, smirking at him.
“Well, my dad is a doctor, and I want to treat you to a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream and everything, so just let me do it,” he said, actually sounding serious. I smiled and lifted my hands defensively.
“Okay, you win this round. But next time, I’ll pay,”