Caught off guard by Harnett-Loew Transportation Center’s slippery floors, Debra tripped over a lobby chair as she started toward the nearest door. A second later she found herself sprawled across a pair of long, blanket-covered legs.
A hand under her elbow helped to right her, and she looked into the eyes of a pale, skinny fellow with a high forehead and sunken cheeks.
“Oh, excuse me,” Debra said, rather apologetically. “I didn’t mean to…I’m terribly sorry.”
“Don’t be hard on yourself. It’s easy to trip on these chairs.” The young man’s voice was deep and robust, in such contrast to his appearance that Debra realized he must be ill.
“I hope I didn’t hurt you,” she murmured, quite embarrassed.
“Not at all. It’s quite all right.” Rather hurriedly he added, “I was watching you this morning. You’re traveling alone?”
Debra nodded, her flaxen blond hair swinging against her cheeks. The she frowned, suddenly self-conscious because she had been observed.
“Aren’t you rather young?” he asked, tilting a jaw upward.
With lifted chin, Debra replied, “I’m fifteen.” Then she backed a couple of paces away.
“Don’t leave,” he protested. “Sit down awhile, why don’t you?” With a wave of hand, he indicated the adjoining chair. “Talk to me.”
“But whose chair is it?” she asked, hesitantly. “Suppose someone comes along to claim it?”
He grinned. “You can always get up.”
Reluctantly, Debra dropped to the footrest and began to rub her barked shin. Now that she had sat down, there seemed to be nothing to say.
“My name is Kent Horner,” the beguiling young man said after an awkward moment. “What’s yours?”
“And I bet you’re going to school in England,” he said, his eyes smiling.
Surprised, Debra looked up and caught his gaze. “How did you guess?”
Kent’s broad shoulders shrugged it off. “Most girls usually make their travel arrangements here. And I suppose it’s your first year.”
“My only year!” exclaimed Debra, a trite offended by his guessing game.
Again, Kent smiled, and his eyes, deep-set and blue, peered at her sympathetically. “Homesick already?” he asked.
“Not really,” she said, hoping the fib stopped his further probing.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he said, attempting to smooth ruffled feathers. “It isn’t easy to be alone. I know. I’ve had an extra dose.” Then his mouth twisted in a rueful grin, making his face look even more gaunt and haggard.
“You–you’ve been sick?” she asked, not because she meant to pry, but because she could sense that this pale youth might welcome an opportunity to talk.
“Well, not exactly sick, you could say,” he explained, seemingly to downplay his demise somewhat. “I went to the hospital for an appendectomy, and there turned out to be complications.”
“What went wrong?” interrupted Debra, her face frowning with concern.
“Believe it or not, I caught a staph infection…”
Horrified, Debra’s mouth flew open. “Isn’t that contagious?” she asked, pulling away from Kent. “Won’t you be all right?”
“No need to panic there! I’ll be okay. The treatment takes a long time…”
“Thank God!” she gasped, but still inched away in fear.
“As I was saying…which of course Mother and Dad couldn’t foresee, or they wouldn’t have left. Instead of being in the hospital ten days, I ended up a star boarder. Just like I said, I’ll be okay.”
“I’m sure you will,” said Debra, trying to assure him. She wondered as she spoke, where Kent’s parents were now.
He answered her unspoken question. “I’m meeting my family at Cornwall. I suppose they’ll have a fit when they see me, looking like a walking skeleton.”
Just barely after Kent finished, a short fat woman bundled in a fuzzy gray coat teetered toward the back of chairs. Debra was on her feet in an instant. “Is this yours?” she inquired apologetically.
“Of course, darling,” the woman snapped. “My! For someone with such a wee brain!”
“I–I’m terribly sorry,” Debra stammered, turning several shades of red. “I was just sitting down for a second.”
“Oh, darling, never you mind,” said the woman, attempting to arrange herself into the chair, puffing a little, while squinting against the track lights.
“I guess I’d better be going.” Debra told Kent a few moments later. “Do take care of yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Kent, slightly raising a hand to salute her.