"Hey, Paul." A warm body plopped down on the couch next to him.
Paul looked up from his calculus textbook to see Georgia grinning evilly at him in a way that boded no good. He knew that look. It was the same look she'd worn when she'd convinced him to break into the convent when they were twelve and booby-trap the showerheads with tempera powder they'd stolen from the art supply closet. Sister Mary Alice had paddled him so badly he hadn't been able to sit down for a week, but the sight of her bright blue face glaring at him had been worth it. "What?"
Instead of answering him directly, she said, "You look like a man who could use some R and R."
"It's finals week. Everyone's busy this time of year." He regarded her warily. He did want to talk to her - she'd been avoiding him and generally acting strange around him for the past week, and now here she was, seeking him out; clearly, something funny was going on - but not if it meant a month's worth of detention, like Poppi gave them after the Poodle Incident. "What do you want, Georgia?"
"Meet me at the tree after lights out."
He didn't have to ask which tree; he knew which one she meant. It was famous among the residents of St. Jerome's for having plenty of low-hanging branches, perfect for climbing. And for being located flush against the fence that surrounded the orphanage's grounds. Climb up one side and down the other, and you were free and clear. Until you got caught. And Paul and Georgia always got caught. "Oh no, no, no..."
"Oh yes, yes, yes." Georgia's grin became even sharper and more evil. "We're busting out of this joint."
Despite Paul's misgivings, the Great Escape went off without a hitch, and they soon sat in the back of a darkened movie theatre, watching the coming attractions and waiting for the ten o'clock show. This being a Tuesday night, they had the place pretty much to themselves.
"Now," said Georgia. On screen, dancing cupcakes reminded them about the concession stand. "Isn't this better?"
"Than what, sleep?"
His friend gave him a thorough once-over. "Yeah, you're right."
"I am?" Paul asked, surprised.
"I should have let you get your beauty rest. You certainly need it."
"Oh, shut up and pass the popcorn."
She shook her head in mock sadness and handed the tub over. "You're such a cheap date, Paulie."
He rolled his eyes at her and popped a handful of salty kernels into his mouth. As he chewed, he mumbled, "Okay, I admit it. I'm having a good time."
"See? When have I ever steered you wrong?"
"Do I really have to bring up the Poodle Incident?"
She glared at him. "I thought we promised never to speak of that again!"
"Sorry, sorry!" He raised his hands in surrender. She took the opportunity to steal the popcorn back. "Seriously though, what's up with you? You've been acting funny all week."
"It's nothing." All of a sudden, she was totally absorbed in watching the screen, and no way were dancing cupcakes that interesting.
"Georgia. Please talk to me."
She still wouldn't look at him. "Yeah, okay, but it's really not a big deal."
"Fine, it's not a big deal. But what is it?"
"It's just...I mean...well - here." She pulled a thick envelope out of her purse and thrust it at him.
He pulled the papers free and looked them over. There was just enough light from the flickering screen for him to make out a few words. Congratulations...pleased to inform you...semester beings on September 2nd....
It was a college acceptance letter. Quickly he looked at the return address on the envelope. The University of Pennsylvia. "You got in!" he cried. "That's fantastic!"
She slouched down in her seat. "Whatever."
"Why aren't you more excited about this?"
"I'm not going."
"Not going where?" he asked blankly before his brain caught up with the conversation. "Not going? How can you not go?"
"It's pretty easy, actually. All I have to do is not pack my bags and get on the train...."
"Can you be serious for a second? UPenn's your dream school. You have to go."
"What if I can't afford it, did you ever think about that? It's not like I've got loving parents to pay my way for me."
He blinked at her. "What, they didn't offer you any financial aid? 'Cause you could call the school and try the orphan line. It would probably work better on them."
She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "They gave me some. A grant and, uh, work study, I think. Not enough."
"So take out a student loan like the rest of the free world. What's the real reason?"
She was looking at the screen again. "Jesus, how long are these coming attractions, anyway? Come on, already!"
"Lisa's not going," she said abruptly.
He stared at her incredulously. "So?" He knew they were friends, but come on.
"Neither is Robert. Or Carol. Or...or Sister Mary Alice."
"Sister Mary Alice? What are you-"
"Or you. You're staying here in Boston, aren't you." It wasn't a question.
He sat back in his chair. "Yes. I am."
"So is Poppi. So is everyone. If I go, I'll be alone. I don't know if I can..." Her voice had gotten softer and softer with each word. He could barely hear her at all now. "I don't want to leave you behind."
"Aw, Georgia...." He swallowed hard, trying to dislodge the huge lump in his throat, but it didn't go away. Stupid popcorn. "You know, there are these newfangled inventions nowadays, maybe you've heard of them. They're called cars."
She laughed. "Shut up," she said. He pretended not to notice the tears in her voice.
He added gently, "Boston and Philly aren't that far away."
"So what you're saying is, I'm an idiot."
"If the shoe fits...."
"I just...I already lost one family. I don't want to lose another."
"Hey, you can't get rid of me that easily." He bumped her shoulder softly with his own. "You're stuck with me."
She smiled shakily at him. "Good."
Somehow the movie had started without them noticing. They watched the show for a while in a companionable silence. On the screen, a girl was having a very improbable fit. "So what are we watching, anyway?" Georgia had picked the movie. He hadn't paid attention.
She told him.
He stared at her in disbelief. "Poppi's going to kill us." (He didn't, though. When they told him about it, years later, all he said was, "The priest dies in that one, you know. But on the plus side: no poodles.")
And there was the evil grin again. "I know." Her tone added, isn't it great?
He rolled his eyes at her, and settled in next to the sister of his heart to watch The Exorcist.