Rebecca stared off into space as Jenny hovered intently over her computer. “How much time have I got?”
Rebecca glanced at her phone. “It’s 10:15. They’re late.”
Jenny let out a deep breath. “Okay, I finished the essay.”
“Oh, good!” Rebecca looked over her shoulder.
“However, I’m still 500 words short.”
“You could extend contractions. Here you wrote ‘it’s’; change it to ‘it is’.”
Rebecca’s phone buzzed. “They’re here.” She slung her backpack over her shoulders.
“Then the essay’s coming with me.” Jenny shoved her laptop into her bag as the pair hurried down the stairs of the common.
Mickey’s black coupe was parked out front, and Rebecca slid into the passenger seat.
Jenny opened the back door. “Where’s Ben?”
“No idea.” Mickey responded. “He left before I did. I think he’s with Nora.”
“There!” Jenny pointed at the tall, curly-headed figure exiting the dining hall up ahead.
Rebecca squinted. “He looks upset.”
Mickey laid on the horn, and Ben’s head jerked up. He jogged to the car and slid in the backseat.
“You good?” Rebecca asked as Mickey merged into college traffic.
Ben gave her a double-thumbs-up. “Always. So, what’s the plan?”
Mickey drove off-campus. “Roscoe’s meeting started at ten, so we need to be back ASAP.”
“We’ll meet him for lunch and surprise him then,” Rebecca continued, swiping her long, brown hair into a ponytail. “Let’s split up the list. Jenny, you’ve got cake. Roscoe likes vanilla. Are you listening?”
Jenny didn’t look up from her laptop. “Cake. Vanilla.”
“Good. Mickey’s got balloons. I’ll do icing and decorations, and Ben can find a gift. Don’t make me regret giving you this job.”
“You won’t,” Ben said mischievously.
Without warning, Mickey slammed the brakes and everyone rocketed forward in their seats.
“What’s going on?” Jenny peeked over her laptop.
“There’s tons of traffic.” Mickey rested his forehead against the steering wheel. “We’re gonna be late.”
“Not necessarily,” Rebecca craned her neck to see behind them. “You can’t turn around. We’ll have to wait.”
“Hang on.” Mickey took a hard right and pulled into a neighborhood. “I can still make it to town this way.”
“Where did all these people come from?” Ben peered at the traffic behind them.
“The whole town must be out,” Rebecca answered.
“Yeah, all two hundred of them.”
Mickey drove around the corner and coasted to a stop behind a car decorated in obnoxious shades of green and gold. “What’s going on?” People in brightly colored costumes milled around the garish vehicles ahead.
“Oh!” Jenny exclaimed. “Isn’t today March 17? It’s St. Patrick’s Day! Isn’t there usually a parade?”
Ben groaned. “I forgot Roscoe’s birthday was on St. Patrick’s Day.”
Mickey turned around in his seat to back up when a large rig pulled in behind him, blocking the road. “Are you kidding me?” He rolled down his window. “We’re not in the parade!”
“Why does such a small town even have a parade?” Jenny mused. The vehicles in front began moving forward, leaving the small coupe behind.
“I wanna know why there are no signs,” Mickey grumbled. He poked his head out the window again and waved his arm. “Go around!”
“He won’t fit. Can you pull into someone’s driveway?” Ben asked.
Mickey craned his neck over the steering wheel. “No; they’re all sealed off.”
At that moment, a man dressed as a leprechaun approached the car. “Ask him for help,” Jenny inserted.
“Sir, I…” Mickey started.
“Where are your decorations? Never mind, we’re already late. Go!” The man jogged away before Mickey could finish.
“Wait! We don’t belong here!”
“Just go, I guess,” Rebecca submitted. “Maybe we can pull away later.”
Mickey grudgingly pulled forward as Ben bounced in his seat. “I’ve always wanted to be in a parade!”
“Well, I wanted the choice to be in a parade,” Mickey griped.
The group followed the parade onto the main road. All of the side streets were sectioned off and lined with people. Families cheered as each float passed by and workers threw candy into the crowds. However, the cheering subsided when the black coupe inched into view.
“The people seem rather underwhelmed by our presence,” Rebecca deadpanned.
Ben took off his seatbelt. “I have an idea. Stop the car.”
“I can’t stop the car,” Mickey protested. “Leprechaun Boy will yell at me.”
“Fine.” Ben reached up and pulled his body through the window as Jenny moved her laptop away from his flailing legs.
“What are you doing!?”
Ben climbed on top of the car. “Pleasing the crowd. Do you have that llama mask from the society meeting?” he yelled.
Mickey sighed. “It’s in the trunk. If anyone asks, I don’t know you.”
Jenny opened the secret compartment in the back seat and pulled it out. She rolled down her window and handed the white, fuzzy llama mask up to Ben.
“Your society meetings are very different from ours,” Rebecca observed to Mickey as she climbed into the backseat.
“Don’t even ask.”
The girls reached through the backseat windows and grabbed Ben’s ankles for safety. Sprawled out on the roof of the black coupe, Ben waved at the crowd as they laughed.
“Ow! They’re throwing candy at me!”
“Keep it!” Jenny called up.
Ben began chucking candy into the car.
“Skittles are mine,” Rebecca claimed.
Suddenly, Mickey perked up. “There’s an exit!”
“Hang on, Ben!” Mickey threw on his blinker and whipped the car to the right, watching for pedestrians, and pulled into an empty lot.
Llama-Ben slid to the ground and collapsed into the passenger seat. “I thought I was a goner,” he sighed, digging his hands into his pockets and throwing candy into the glove compartment.
Mickey pulled back onto the road. “I better not find melted chocolate in there in a month.”
“Wal-Mart, here we come,” Rebecca declared.
Jenny opened her laptop. “It’s 11:30. Do you think Roscoe’s wondering where we are?”
“Probably. It’ll be fine.”
Jenny slouched in her seat. “I’m still 324 words away…”
Ben poked his llama nose around the seat. “Change the ‘ands’ to ‘in addition to’.”
“Ooh, good idea.”
Mickey steered into the Wal-Mart parking lot and found a spot. “Does everyone remember their job?”
“Gift, cake, decorations, balloons.” Rebecca pointed to each person in turn. “And go!”
The group vaulted out of the vehicle and jogged toward the store, parting ways inside.
Rebecca quickly tracked down the icing. She was debating on streamers when a llama popped around the corner, making her jump. “Boo!”
“Oh, my soul, Ben,’ Rebecca placed a hand over her heart. “Take that thing off before we get kicked out.”
“How rude. What if I was actually a llama?”
Rebecca turned back to the display. “Do I want streamers? All of the other green decorations they have are for St. Patrick’s Day.”
“Just get it. He’s basically a leprechaun.”
“Not everybody with red hair is a leprechaun.”
“That’s what they want you to think.”
“Whatever.” The pair made their way to the checkout.
Ben pulled his plastic bag out. “See what I got?”
Rebecca peered inside. “Is that a leprechaun onesie?”
“Yup,” Ben stated proudly.
“Actually, he’ll probably dig that.”
Mickey and Jenny were already waiting as Ben and Rebecca approached the car. “It’s noon,” Mickey noticed as they climbed in. “I’m surprised he hasn’t texted yet.”
“Yeah, that’s weird.” Rebecca turned around as he started the car. “How’s the paper coming?”
Jenny blew her blonde bangs out of her face. “200 more words.”
“You don’t have any more information you can add?”
“No. I’ve exhausted all my sources.”
“Can you combine any sentences and put ‘ands’ between them?”
“I can try.”
Mickey flicked his blinker on. “We’re not gonna have any time when we get back because Roscoe will be in the dining hall, so see what you can get ready now.”
“Rebecca could ice the cake now,” Llama-Ben said. Jenny absentmindedly passed her bag up.
“You have the best handwriting.”
“Yeah, and I’m dyslexic. And in a moving car.”
“Just try,” Mickey interposed. “We don’t have time.”
Rebecca sighed and pulled the cake out of the bag. As she reached for her icing, she read the label. “Jenny, did you buy a cake?”
“Then why does it say ‘cornbread’?”
Jenny looked up. “It does not.”
“I’m not that dyslexic.” Rebecca passed the container back to Jenny, who buried her head in her hands and whimpered. Ben burst out laughing.
“Did you buy cornbread instead of cake?” Mickey snickered. Rebecca popped the container open.
“I was distracted, okay? I’m trying to write a paper!” Jenny whined. Ben reached underneath his mask to wipe his eyes.
“Oh, man,” he wheezed. “Just ice it anyways.”
Rebecca pulled the icing out. “Well, here goes nothing.”
The car jolted along the dirt road as Rebecca tried to concentrate. She scowled at Mickey. “I think you missed a pothole.”
“Oh, let me turn around, then.”
“There, I’m done. It’s not my fault if it looks terrible.” Rebecca held the cornbread up.
Mickey nodded his head toward the cornbread, trying to hide a smile. “But it is your fault that it says ‘Happy Brithday’.”
“It does not,” Rebecca retorted, taking a second look at the writing and groaning loudly. “I’m dyslexic, okay!?”
Ben poked his llama head between the seats. “But it’s written beautifully.”
“Well, thanks,” Rebecca pouted, sealing the container and handing it back to Ben.
The group finally pulled on campus. Mickey rocketed through the gates and whipped around to the dining hall. “Run in and see where Roscoe is. We might be able to sneak in.”
“I hope nobody caught you speeding,” Rebecca observed as she took off her seatbelt.
The flash of red and blue lights reflected in the mirror.
Mickey groaned as he turned the car off. Rebecca twisted around in her seat.
“It’s Ned the Fed. Of course.”
“I’m gonna text Roscoe while you’re getting arrested.” Ben peered at his phone through the mask.
Ned dismounted his motorcycle, and Mickey grudgingly rolled down the window. “Ned.”
“Mickey.” Ned crouched by the window. “You know you were going ninety, right?”
“I know, I know. We’re in a hurry; it’s Roscoe’s birthday and we’re super late to surprise him.”
“Well, sadly, you’re gonna be even later.” Ned pulled out his notebook.
“Rebecca,” Ben hissed, “Bribe him!”
“You bribe him!”
“Fine.” Ben rolled the window down and poked his llama nose out. “Hello, Ned. I must say, you look dashing today.”
Ned sighed without looking up. “Ben, every time I think you couldn’t get weirder, you manage to surprise me.”
“Would you like some cornbread?”
Ned peered over his sunglasses at the container Ben extended. “Did you write ‘Happy Brithday’ on cornbread?”
“I’m dyslexic!” Rebecca called out.
Ned tore the ticket out of his notebook. “I’ve suddenly become gluten intolerant. You know where to go, Mickey.”
“The dean’s office?” Mickey grimaced.
“Yup. Your passengers, too.”
“Wait! I have Skittles!” Ben waved the packet out the window.
Ned took the candy and popped a Skittle into his mouth. With a smirk, he handed the ticket to Mickey.
“Rude,” Ben muttered as Mickey began to pull away.
Rebecca glared at Ben as he peeled the mask off. “You gave away my Skittles.”
“What happened?” Jenny asked distractedly as Mickey parked.
“Ned.” Mickey got out and slammed the door.
“Oh. I’m bringing my laptop with.”
Ben and Jenny found themselves in the foyer as Mickey met with the dean. “Why do we have to be here?” Ben griped. “We’re wasting time.”
Jenny rubbed her eyes. “I’m twenty words away.”
Ben leaned over her shoulder. “You can make that sentence longer.”
Rebecca returned from the front desk. “She doesn’t know where Roscoe is. It’s nearly one; where could he be?”
Jenny pulled her phone out. “Well, Miranda is working lunch; I’ll ask her if he’s there.”
“I’ll text Hailey in the common,” Rebecca agreed. “Ben, text Joe and see if he’s in the dorm.”
As they awaited their replies, Ben wandered around the foyer. He paused in front of the awards display, and Rebecca joined him. “You sure you’re good?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Ben wiped dust off a trophy.
“Never mind. Hailey responded; Roscoe’s not in the common.”
Ben fiddled with the award absentmindedly and checked his phone. “He’s not in the dorm either.”
The tiny, gold soccer ball from the trophy broke off in Ben’s hand.
“Ben!” Rebecca looked apprehensively toward the dean’s door. “Quick, put it down.”
Ben gingerly set it down and they nonchalantly strolled away. “Did Miranda reply?”
Jenny shook her head. “He’s not there.” She sighed. “Fourteen words.”
The door to the dean’s office opened and Mickey trudged out. “Guess who’s working kitchen on Monday?”
Rebecca ignored his question. “Mickey, he’s not in the dorm, common, or dining hall. I’m a little concerned.”
“Well, let’s get back to the car before our cornbread melts.”
Settled in the coupe, they pondered the situation. “We could drive around and see if we spot him,” Jenny suggested. Mickey pulled onto the road, circling around the common.
“Wait!” Rebecca pointed to a muddy road leading into the woods. “Maybe he went down the Strand!”
“Why?” Mickey objected. “It’s a long walk, and there’s no service. Nobody’s actually made it halfway without turning back.”
“It’d explain why he hasn’t responded.”
“I guess you’re right,” Mickey agreed as he turned down the Strand. “Keep your eyes peeled, because I can’t. This road’s awful.”
Rebecca and Ben turned to their windows as Jenny focused on her paper. After a few moments, Rebecca turned around and caught Ben lost in thought.
“Hmm?” Ben started out of his reverie.
“Not to embarrass you in front of everyone, but something’s definitely wrong.”
“What do you mean?” He fiddled with the mask in his lap.
“I know you, Ben, and it seems like you’re unsuccessfully trying to forget something.” Rebecca cocked her head.
Ben sighed. “Nora and I had a fight this morning.”
“You guys are still okay though, right?” Mickey inserted.
“Well,” Ben’s voice rose in pitch, “I went to hang out with her this morning before we left, and she got upset because apparently I never spend time with her.”
Jenny squinted. “That’s all you do.”
“We argued, and when I had to leave, she said, ‘If you go with your friends, we’re done.’”
“What’d you say?”
“I said, ‘Okay,’ and walked out.”
Mickey hit the brake and whipped around in his seat. The three stared at Ben in disbelief. “You broke up with her for us?”
Taken aback, Ben stammered, “Well, yeah. You guys waited for me this morning. She wouldn’t have.” He shrugged. “I’ll be fine. Chemistry’s gonna be awkward, though.”
Jenny finally spoke up. “Well, now I can admit that I never liked her in the first place.”
“Yeah,” Rebecca chimed in. “She’s kind of condescending.”
Mickey turned around and pushed the gas pedal. “Uh-oh.”
“What-oh?” Ben asked.
Mickey groaned. “I’m stuck in the mud. I don’t want to spin the tires; we’ll have to push, Ben. Somebody steer.” Mickey threw his door open and marched around to the trunk. Ben followed.
“You drive, Jenny. I’ll help push.” Rebecca’s sneakers squelched in the mud as she joined the guys. Jenny climbed into the driver’s seat.
“One, two, three!” Mickey counted off as they pushed as hard as they could. The car barely budged.
“This day could not get any better.”
“Uh, hey, guys,” a familiar voice rang out.
Rebecca jerked her head up as its owner rounded the vehicle. “Roscoe?”
“Roscoe?” Jenny’s head poked out the window.
“Roscoe!” Ben bounded forward and wrapped him in a hug.
“Well, I’m glad you all remember my name,” Roscoe joked, patting Ben’s back.
Mickey sprawled out over the trunk. “Where have you been? We were worried sick!”
“After my meeting with the dean, I took a walk to clear my head. I was just on my way back.”
Rebecca leaned against the car and sighed. “You have no idea what we’ve been through today.”
Ben released his grip. “Oh, yeah! Happy birthday! Or,” Ben reached into the backseat and pulled the cornbread out, “Happy Brithday.” Rebecca rolled her eyes.
“Is that cornbread?”
“It was an accident!” Jenny’s voice pealed from inside the car.
“Hey, I love cornbread,” Roscoe defended. “And you’ll have to tell me all about today,” he rolled his sleeves up, “after we get this car unstuck.”
The five friends moved the car in no time. They climbed in and, at Roscoe’s direction, continued down the path until it broke into a beautiful clearing overlooking a hidden lake.
“Whoa!” Mickey exclaimed as he parked. “There’s a lake?”
“Yep,” Roscoe admitted. “No one has the patience to come this far.”
The friends caught Roscoe up to speed as they blew up Mickey’s balloons, tying them to his side mirrors and antenna. Ben presented his gift, and Roscoe immediately put it on over his clothes. Jenny divided the cornbread up with Mickey’s pocket knife as the others situated themselves on the hood and top of the car, giving them a perfect view of the afternoon sun shimmering over the lake.
“You know,” Leprechaun-Roscoe recognized, “I’m developing a taste for iced cornbread.”
Mickey took a bite and directed his attention to Ben, who gazed into the distance. “You’re rather quiet, Llama Boy.”
“I’m thinking,” Ben shrugged. “Let’s not tell anybody about this lake. I’m kind of enjoying having it to ourselves.”
“Me, too,” Roscoe agreed, serving himself a second slice of cornbread.
Jenny shut her computer. “Five thousand words!” Rebecca high-fived her as the others cheered. “It wasn’t easy, but it’s worth it.”
“Like college,” Roscoe observed.
Mickey smiled. “Like today. How’s twenty feel, Roscoe?”
“I think I speak for everyone: it’s not a day I’ll soon forget.”
“You got that right,” Ben piped up.
The others laughed and followed his gaze over the sun-kissed lake. Rebecca grinned.
It wasn’t easy, but it’s worth it.