Ava took a deep breath as she watched the chatters and shrieks of hundreds of students around her. They pushed past each other in their attempt to get ahead, like columns of ants racing for a crumb. Students dashed from booth to booth, arms loaded with swag bags overflowing with stickers and pins promoting every student organization on campus; their faces were flushed from excitement. Ava knew there wasn’t much time left in the Harvest Festival, and they would likely still have unclaimed flyers when night came to settle over Cascadia University. She glanced at the thick stack of flyers she still had to give out. Saving the North American Gray-Speckled Owl wasn’t the most glamorous of causes, but it was important to her.
She held out a flyer to a girl walking by. “Help save the North American Gray-Speckled Owl!” The girl sprinted away from Ava like she had the flu. Ava tucked the flyer back into her stack. “Thanks for doing your part to save the environment,” she grumbled.
“Hey, Gorgeous Girl.” Ava looked up, chuckling as she saw Luke, her friend and college roommate. He crushed her to his chest. Ava scrunched her nose, smelling the pungent smell of body odor mixed with the strong scent of baby powder.
“You stink!” She exclaimed.
Luke took a step back, feigning hurt. “Ouch. I will have you know that I’ve just spent two hours at the gym, little miss.” He looked down at the stack of flyers in her hand. “How’s the campaign going? Any takers for the fundraiser?”
Ava shook her head. “Nope. I mostly got blank stares and called a bunch of swears.”
“That sucks,” Luke replied. His voice was laced with concern. He knew the long hours Ava had spent trying to raise money to save the owls. Ava spent most of her free time petitioning for charitable causes, often coming home heartbroken because of her lack of success. “Hey, I saw something that might make you feel better.” Luke dipped into his backpack and pulled out a flyer. “There is a new photography exhibit at the Bakersfield. One night only.”
Ave bit her lip. “I don’t know. I wanted to get some homework done tonight.”
“Come on, Princess,” Luke begged. “You already have straight A’s in all your classes. Professor Grant said he’d give me extra credit if I went to the exhibit.”
“Okay. Okay. Okay,” Ava replied. “I will go on one condition.”
Luke raised an eyebrow. “Okay?”
“Wait, no, two conditions!”
He chuckled softly. “Alright, two conditions. What are they?”
“First, we’re going and getting pizza afterward,” said Ava.
“Done. What’s the second condition, oh bossy one?”
Ava pinched her nose. “You shower!”
Luke pulled her close to him. “Want to join me?” he asked seductively.
Ava squealed, playfully slapping him. Her cheeks were a deep crimson. “You’re a freak!”
“Can’t blame a guy for trying.” Luke tossed her a wave over his shoulder as he walked toward their shared apartment. “Be home by six, and Ava,” he paused, turning around to face her. “For the love of all things holy, please change your shirt. The Bakersfield is a nice place. It deserves better than your tie-died owl shirt.”
“Hey… I like this shirt…”
“See you at home, Princess.”
Ava stood in front of her small closet, taking stock of the hangers that creaked as each rustled. T-shirts and old party dresses were scattered across the floor as she searched for something to wear. The air hung heavy with her perfume and hope and desperation. Luke knocked on her door. “Are you ready yet?” he asked. “Our rideshare is here.”
Luke sighed. “You haven’t decided what you’re going to wear yet, haven’t you?” Ava didn’t respond, a sure sign that Luke was right. “Alright. I’m coming in. Make sure you're decent!”
He opened his door, and the sight of Ava took his breath away. She wore a deep burgundy dress that clung to her curves and gracefully draped just above her knees. The fabric at her chest shimmered in the light, highlighting the delicate lace that encircled the swell of her breasts, and Luke felt his mouth go dry. “Wow,” he whispered.
Ava blushed. “You really think so?”
“You look… you look amazing, princess.”
Ava gazed up at her friend. An unfamiliar flutter of excitement in her stomach made her stand a little straighter. Tonight was different. She had gone out with Luke countless times over the years, but tonight felt different. He was dressed differently, too; tight dark slacks hugged his muscular thighs, and his navy blue shirt was rolled up just enough to show off the veins in his forearms.
“Are you alright, Ava?” he implored, his voice laced with worry. “You look a bit distant—when did you last eat?”
“I'm perfect,” she replied sheepishly. She brushed her hands against her dress self-consciously and asked, “Do you like it? Is the dress too showy for an art gallery?”
His lips tugged into a soft smile as his eyes crinkled at the corners. “For what you paid for this dress, your beauty deserves more than that. You look stunning, Ava... truly.”
A rosy blush crept across her face as she struggled to contain her excitement. With a skip in her step, she declared, “We should go—our rideshare is waiting!”
The rideshare car pulled up outside the Bakersfield Gallery, its glowing sign guiding them in. Luke hopped out of the car and went around to Ava's side, opening her door like a gentleman. She stepped out, arm looping around his as they headed for the entrance. Her mouth dropped open at the sight of the festive lights strung across the ceiling and colorful banners hung up at every corner.
“Luke,” she hissed in surprise. “Why didn't you tell me that tonight was the gala?” He gave her a playful wink and handed her a flute of champagne from one of the waiter’s trays. “Oh, didn't I? Now quit overthinking it and have fun! I know your nonprofit doesn't pay you enough to buy a ticket to something like this, so I decided to splurge on you.”
Ava took a sip of champagne, feeling like it was the lifeline that would save her from this awkward situation. She followed Luke further into the gallery and was overwhelmed by its grandeur. She saw glamorous people chatting away everywhere she turned, and she immediately felt out of place. It felt like an invisible sign was hanging from her neck, declaring her lack of belonging in this exquisite space.
“Ava!” called Luke, waving her over to a painting. “Come look at this one.”
She drank the rest of her champagne in one swallow and hurried through the crowd to her friend. Luke pointed to the painting. It was a portrait of a young woman sprawled dramatically across stone steps. “She looks like you in the morning when you don’t get caffeine.”
“Not rude, accurate.” The corners of Luke’s eyes wrinkled as he laughed. “Hey, I thought I saw a buffet somewhere. Want to go check it out with me?”
“You go,” she replied. “I want to keep looking at the paintings for a minute.”
“Okay, I’ll go see if there’s anything worth eating. Be back in a few.”
Ava grabbed another tall, crystal flute of golden-yellow champagne from a passing waiter and quickly gulped it down. She sighed with pleasure and wandered deeper into the art gallery, her heels clacking on the marble floor. Everywhere she looked, vivid colors and intricate brushstrokes filled her vision. People murmured around her in hushed tones, but she barely noticed—until she took an unexpected collision course with a massive stone statue. Instinctively, she put her hands out to catch herself, but before she could crash to the ground, two strong arms wrapped around her waist and gently set her back upright. Her gaze traveled up the muscular arms until it landed on Luke’s face: his eyes were full of concern.
“I think someone needs to get his girlfriend home,” someone said with a laugh. Everyone in the gallery turned to look at them, and Ava felt her heart racing. Her cheeks burned red with embarrassment.
Luke released her waist, keeping his arm around her protectively as they looked around the room at the other guests. Ava felt her cheeks flush deeper as the moment stretched on for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, Luke looked down at her, his eyes meeting hers with a hint of something more than friendship. He opened his mouth to speak but closed it again, seeming to think better of it. He took her by the hand and led her out of the gallery without a word.
Luke pulled out his phone and quickly ordered another rideshare. His calloused thumb hovered over the screen for a moment before it gently swiped away, and he tucked the phone back in his pocket. He looked down at Ava, who had fallen asleep against him with her long hair cascading over his arms like a delicate curtain. He glanced down at Ava, who had fallen asleep against him. His breath caught in his throat—she was so beautiful. He smiled and said softly, “We should get you home before you turn into a pumpkin. Sleep well, princess.”