Someone was sitting in the swing that hung from the tree by Alumni Lake, the one everyone on campus called the swing tree. It was strung with holiday lights that illuminated the figure dimly. Not swinging hard, just rocking.
During summer session kids swung hard, high into the air, then leaped into the lake and swam back for another try. It would be crazy to try that in December: The water was so cold that thin, brittle sheets of ice lined the shore — cold enough to numb muscles before one could even try to swim back.
He edged closer. It was a girl, her torso only faintly discernible but her hoodie flopped back to show blonde hair tumbling down her back. He cleared his throat noisily. “Hello. I’m Tim. I’m a good listener.”
“What?” She put her feet down to stop the swing.
“I’m Tim. A good listener.”
She half-turned to peer at him. “You startled me.”
“Listening for what?”
“I thought you might want to talk.”
“No, thanks.” Keeping an eye on him over her shoulder, she let the swing spin halfway back.
“That’s too bad. I’m really good at listening.”
“Look, I don’t know what you’re up to, but get lost.” She fished a phone out of a hoodie pocket and showed it to him. “Before I call the campus police.” She twisted and pushed back, feet barely touching the ground, as though ready to fend him off by the momentum of a hard swing. “Are you a student here?”
“Yes. I was on my way back to the senior dorms. I don’t mean you any harm.”
“Then why don’t you just leave me alone?”
“Sometimes it’s good to talk.”
“Exams. How about exams? I have two to go. How about you?”
“A biggie? Is that why you’re worried?”
“Who said I was worried? No, I can ace it. Lit 101.”
“Then home for the holidays?”
“Fat chance. My folks busted up right after Thanksgiving.”
“After a big fight about spending money to keep me here.” She paused. “I don’t know why I’m even talking to you. Why don’t you just go to your damned dorm?”
“So that’s what’s bugging you.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Forget it. Kids shouldn’t blame themselves for parents’ splitting. Seldom true.”
“Who told you that?”
“Read it. A book for my family organization class this semester. I’ve been cramming for the exam.”
“Books don’t know everything.” She let the swing drift back to face the lake.
“You can’t just hang out in your dorm for four weeks, you know.”
“Don’t intend to.” She put her feet down and turned again to face him. “What are you, some kind of guidance counselor?”
“No, pre-med. Maybe psychiatry down the road.”
“God! I come out to think and end up talking to a damned shrink.”
“Don’t I wish. So where will you go over the break?”
“That may not be a problem. And I’m not looking to be picked up by a weirdo senior. How’s about you go now.”
“I have three sisters.”
“That’s nice. Why should I care?”
“The one in school out in California isn’t coming back for Christmas.”
“My parents have a big house. Everybody has a room. I’ll bet they’d invite you to stay in hers.”
“I can’t believe you’re trying to pick me up.”
“Sorry, I have a girlfriend my own age. I’ll bet you’re a freshman.”
“None of your business.”
“My youngest sister’s a freshman. You’d like her.”
“Why don’t you just go now?”
“I told you. I’m a good listener.”
“I don’t want to talk any more. Didn’t want to, to begin with.”
“Listen, the co-op is still open. Why don’t you come have a cup of coffee?
“Where’s she in school?”
“My sister? Central State. Or hot cocoa. You must be frozen.”
“What’s her name?”
“Margie. You can always come back here later.”
“She’d probably hate me.”
“I’ll call my folks from the co-op. You can talk with them.”
“Okay. Ten minutes.”
“Deal. Let’s go.”
Retired after four decades’ prizewinning print and broadcast journalism in Hartford CT, Don Noel received his MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in 2013. He has since published more than two dozen short stories and non-fiction pieces but has two novellas and a novel still looking for publishers.