One year passed after Kyler’s eventful trip to Las Vegas. With the start of winter break upon campus, it meant Kyler only had one more semester until he graduated. While part of him was eager to be done with college, another part of him was just starting to get truly comfortable as a college student. He still roomed with Troy, albeit in a slightly larger apartment than they’d shared the year prior. For the first time since Kyler had met him, Troy seemed more focused on his studies than anything else. Not to say Troy was ever a bad student — he showed up to roughly one-third of his classes each semester and still carried a 3.7 GPA — but he seemed extra focused this year. Perhaps it was the prospect of getting into grad school, or at the very least the idea of avoiding finishing college quickly as the economy was beginning to collapse around them. Either way, semi-serious Troy was an adjustment, if only because his drunken escapades that Kyler had gotten so used to enjoying became less frequent.
Following her father’s suicide, Riza decided her best course of action was to throw herself into her studies. The downside to Riza’s accelerated studies was that by the time the previous summer hit, she’d finished both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Instead of trying to start a job search when there were no jobs, Riza stuck to what she knew best, enrolling at Fulton-Henry College in an effort to get a second master’s degree. Moving into the apartment across the hall from Kyler and Troy was a welcome bonus, even if Riza did harbor some lingering frustration with Kyler’s lack of responsiveness on one of the saddest nights of her life.
There had been another significant change in Kyler’s life over the course of the past year. Just before spring break, he and Lauren began to date. Despite being convinced that it would take him years to get over Sloane, there was something that drew him to Lauren. Maybe it was her sense of humor. Maybe it was how well she got along with his friends. If nothing else, Kyler was certain it was their first date that put it over the top.
The plan wasn’t even for it to be a date. Kyler and Lauren met at the student union one night after midterms. They found a small, round table on the second floor, well away from the crowded main area, but still with a view out the two-story windows that adorned the front of the building.
“Your luck with group projects isn’t getting any better,” Kyler said.
“Hey, at least this project is easy,” replied Lauren. “If it was something actually hard, I might care. But it’s just annoying at this point.”
“I take it you’re not going to offer them pizza?”
“I might. Depends if I get busy doing other things.”
“Like what?” Kyler asked.
“Dealing with a lot of math right now,” said Lauren.
“I didn’t even know you were in a math class.”
“It’s theoretical math more than traditional math.”
Lauren sat her books aside, scooting her chair a few inches closer.
“It’s about how math works in space versus how it works in our brains,” said Lauren. “Mind if I show you an example?”
“There’s this mathematical concept called the closure of space theorem. Are you familiar with it?”
“I’m not,” replied Kyler, shaking his head.
“Give me your arm.”
Kyler held out the arm closest to Lauren. She grabbed his wrist with right hand, while placing her left just above his elbow. Lauren pulled at Kyler’s arm, dragging her chair closer to him until their legs touched.
“Basically it’s the idea that how you perceive spaces changes as statements that seem plausible are presented without giving the opportunity to actually test their validity,” stated Lauren. “For example, I have one hand on your wrist and another higher on your arm, yes?”
“Right,” Kyler said.
“In most humans,” Lauren continued, “this distance is nearly identical to the distance from here…”
Lauren trailed off as her hand left Kyler’s upper arm and landed on his shoulder. After a short pause, she wrapped her arm around his back, tapping his other shoulder.
“To here,” she finished.
“That doesn’t seem accurate at a–”
Kyler’s argument was cut off mid-sentence by Lauren pulling his upper body close and kissing him. She dropped his wrist, allowing him to wrap his own arms around her.
“And then the closure of space theorem comes into play,” said Lauren, breaking off her kiss. “Now the distance feels shorter because you’ve lost focus on it.”
“I don’t believe you,” said Kyler.
“I’m willing to show you again.”
“I’d be okay with that.”
Now nearly nine months into their relationship, Kyler was pleasantly surprised with how much everyone in his life seemed to not only be supportive of his new relationship, but also with how much everyone in his life seemed to like Lauren more than Sloane. Selling Troy on the change wasn’t difficult, as anyone who offered him a beer upon walking into their apartment was alright in Troy’s book.
It took his family a little longer to come around. Though neither Albert nor Courtney Stone were huge fans of Sloane, they saw that she made Kyler happy and provided him stability. If those two things would help him get through college, then it didn’t matter who he was dating. But after Lauren’s summer visit led to her hitting it off with Ingrid, Kyler’s parents’ fears subsided. If anyone in the Stone family was required to be a good judge of character in a life or death situation, Ingrid would be everyone’s first pick. With Ingrid’s seal of approval — driven in no small part by a game of pickup basketball played between Lauren and Ingrid in the family driveway — Lauren had effectively become part of the family.
The lone person in Kyler’s orbit to not fully buy into the relationship was Riza. It wasn’t from a lack of liking Lauren, as the two young women got along fine when they interacted. Kyler had been so used to Riza’s outspoken opinions on Sloane’s shortcomings as a relationship partner that hearing next to nothing from Riza on Lauren was unsettling. Then again, Riza didn’t say much of anything anymore, especially if it wasn’t related to her studies.
Kyler pulled his car into the driveway of his childhood home, slamming on the breaks to avoid a basketball that came bounding out of the garage as he pulled in. The ball bounced across the street, coming to rest against the front steps of the Andreesi house.
“Do you pass like that in games?” Kyler shouted out the window.
“If that was a pass, I wouldn’t have missed,” Ingrid retorted, sneering at her older brother. The siblings exchanged rapid-fire middle fingers before Ingrid noticed Lauren in the front seat.
“Oh my god, hi!” Ingrid shouted, pounding on the passenger window. “Come in and make hot cocoa with me before it starts to snow!”
Ingrid bounded off across the street to retrieve the ball while Kyler parked the car. As his sister darted back past him and into the house, Kyler turned to see Riza pulling into the driveway of her own childhood home. Following her dad’s death, the house sat largely empty, aside from when Riza came home for breaks or the occasional trip home for laundry. Even with Kyler’s parents checking on things regularly and other neighbors chipping in to do basic house upkeep, the house was already beginning to show signs of neglect.
“We should invite her over,” whispered Lauren, wrapping her arms around Kyler’s waist.
“She’ll come over if she wants,” Kyler replied.
“Even if it’s not tonight, we should go see where while we’re here. It can’t be easy coming up on the anniversary of her dad’s death being all alone around all his stuff.”
Kyler watched as Riza kicked her car door shut, bags of groceries draped over one arm as she cradled a bucket of fried chicken in the other. She shot a half-hearted wave toward Lauren and Kyler before entering the house. Kyler’s spirit fell as he waited for lights in the house to turn on, only for every room to stay dark.
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