Tony and Stephenie’s Love Story
Tony Liston dashed across the living room, his short, small frame weaving between large cardboard boxes and furniture scattered across the dusty hardwood floor. Turning around, he took a couple of steps back, searching for his brother among all the other kids.
Tim’s dark hair appeared above a pile of boxes labeled kitchen.
“Go long.” Tony threw the football, and as it spiraled through the air, Tim ran backward, keeping his eye on the ball. As it neared, Tim jumped and lunged to the side. The ball shot right past his outstretched arms and smacked into his tiny chest with a light thud. He wrapped his arms around the ball, and ran smack into a box.
Tony gasped as the box toppled over, causing pots and pans to slide onto the floor, their metal handles clattering against the hardwood.
Tim jumped up, clutching the ball in his hand and extending his arm in the air, mimicking Mean Joe Green after making a touchdown.
Tony smirked. “Nice catch.”
“What was that noise?” Mom’s voice came from the entryway, her tone drenched with irritation.
He pushed his coke-bottle glasses to the top of his nose, heat creeping up the back of his neck. They didn’t normally play ball in the house, but he’d been trying to keep his younger brothers and all the other kids occupied. As soon as their move-in truck had pulled up in front of the parsonage, families had been in and out of their house, welcoming them to town. The best way to keep the little ones out of his parent’s way was to play catch. At least, that was what he’d thought, but it didn’t seem like Mom agreed.
She appeared in the doorway, her arms crossed above her plaid button-down shirt. Stepping into the living room, her gaze traveled to the pots and pans on the floor. A low tsk noise escaped through her pursed lips as a look of disappointment flashed across her face. “Please don’t make a mess.”
His shoulders lowered. “Sorry. I’ll pick it up.”
“Thank you.” She uncrossed her arms and pointed at the football. “No more ball in the house. The rules haven’t changed. They’re the same ones we’ve always had.”
Her short black curls bounced as she shook her head and walked out of the room, back toward the foyer. Several of the kids followed her, no doubt looking for their parents.
He dropped the ball and kneeled down on the floor. Picking up a large pot, he set it back in the box. He hated disappointing his mom. As the oldest, he felt obligated to be the responsible one, if only to make her life easier.
Too bad Mom or Dad didn’t care about making his life easier. In fact, when Dad accepted the head pastorate position for First Christian Church, it felt like he had single-handedly ruined Tony’s life. Not that he would complain about it. Mom and Dad were convinced the Lord wanted them to serve in this new place. Tony was trying really hard to see it that way too, but it wasn’t easy.
All his friends lived in Paoli, Indiana, two hours away. He would never see them again. Plus, they’d moved a month into the school year. And not just any school year—fifth grade. It would’ve been the best year ever. It was one of the highest grades at Throop Elementary, so he had been the top dog at school. All those younger kids had looked up to him, just like he’d looked up to the fifth and sixth graders last year.
But here in Brazil, Indiana, no one would know him. Meridian Elementary was much bigger than his old school. Would anyone even notice him? Would he be able to make friends?
Setting another pan in the box, he expelled a heavy breath. Somehow, he’d have to find the positive reasons for living in Brazil. It was the right thing to do.
Three quick knocks rapped on the front door. Tony jumped up and dashed to the living room window, pulling back the drapes. It was probably another family from the church.
The doorbell rang, sending a long, shrill melody above the noisy chaos inside the house. He pulled the drapes back farther, seeing a blonde-haired girl standing on the stoop. From what he could see, the girl looked cute.
As Mom opened the door, Tony let go of the drapes and dashed to the entryway to get a better look at the girl.
“Hi,” she said, holding a pie in front her green and pink flowered dress. Her golden blonde hair cascaded past her shoulders, stopping just below her tiny waist. With her long hair and light brown freckles sprinkled across her nose and cheeks, she almost looked like a younger version of Marcia Brady. Her big hazel eyes stared at him expectantly and he realized she was waiting for him to respond.
“Um, hi.” Tony swallowed hard and stuck his hands in his pockets. Too bad he hadn’t brought the football with him. He would’ve looked a lot groovier.
A woman beside the girl stepped forward, her heels clicking against the cement porch. He forced his gaze away from the girl to look at the woman as she glanced down at him, her bright red lips forming a kind smile. “Welcome to Brazil.”
Beside him, Mom stepped back and ushered the ladies into the foyer. “Come on in.”
As they stepped inside, Dad walked up next to Mom, holding out his hand. “Nice to meet both of you.” They made introductions, and Tony learned the girl’s name was Stephenie. After that, the adults made small talk, and he stopped paying attention. He couldn’t focus. Not with this pretty girl standing right in front of him.
Still mesmerized by her resemblance to Marcia Brady, he tried not to stare and lowered his gaze to the pie in her hands.
“Is that for us?”
She nodded. “I made it with my mom. It’s apple.”
“Are you going to take it?” she asked sweetly.
“Oh. Yeah.” Taking his hands out of his pockets, he reached for the pie. For a brief moment, his hand brushed against hers, and his heart picked up speed. Hopefully, she couldn’t hear how loud his heart was thudding. Trying to appear more at ease than he felt, he held the pie against his belt buckle and leaned against the wall. “So, what grade are you in?”
Her eyes widened and he lifted his chin a bit higher, satisfied that he’d impressed her. On second thought, maybe she was surprised, assuming he was younger. His shoulder’s lowered. If only he were taller.
She tucked a straight golden lock behind her ear, and he noticed a dark smudge on her hand.
He pointed to the smudge. “What’s that?”
She lifted her hand, following his gaze. “Oh, it’s ink from my chemistry set.”
“Wow. You must be really smart.” Remembering to act cool, he ran a hand through his short brown bob. “For a third grader, I mean.”
Stephenie gave him a coy smile, her cheeks turning crimson. “I want to be a doctor someday.”
“Oh yeah? That’s far out.”
“What do you wanna be?”
“I dunno yet.” Tony shrugged. “Maybe a pastor, like my dad.”
Stephenie played with the hem of her dress. “Cool beans.”
As silence settled between them, he felt the need to say something impressive. Running through a list of possibilities in his head, he pushed his glasses higher up his nose. “Guess what?”
“This house has a secret stairway.”
“Uh-huh. Wanna see it?”
Stephenie tugged on her mom’s dress, her eyes lighting with excitement. “Can I go see a secret stairway?”
Her mom glanced down at her watch. “Not today, sweetie. We’ve intruded long enough. They need to finish unpacking.”
Stephenie stuck out her bottom lip. “Please?”
“Maybe another time.” Her mom exchanged a look with his parents. “If the Liston’s invite us back, of course.”
His Dad put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it. “We’d love to have Stephenie over to play sometime. Wouldn’t we, Tony?”
Resisting the urge to scream yes, Tony pushed off the wall. “Sure.”
“Okay.” Stephenie grinned, giving Tony a long look that made his stomach do flip-flops. “Friends?”
“Cool. I’ll catch ya on the flip side.” Still smiling, she turned around and walked down the steps with her mom.
He stood in the open doorway, watching her long golden locks swaying across her back. She was one groovy chic. Maybe moving to Brazil wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Running a hand through his hair, Tony stepped inside the stark white hospital room. The curtains were open, exposing a tall white pine tree just outside the window. In the bed, Steph lay motionless against the stiff sheets. Across the room, several pink and yellow bouquets were placed on a shelf beneath the mounted TV. On the screen, Fonzie stood beside a booth at Al’s Diner, talking to Richie Cunningham. Fozie snapped his fingers, and a blonde bombshell walked up to his side, looping her arm around his waist, just below his brown leather jacket. “Aaaaayy,” Fonzie said, smirking at the girl. “Let’s get outta of here.”
That was exactly what Tony wanted to say to Steph. It didn’t seem right to see her lying in a hospital bed with tubes snaking out of her arms. She was supposed to be hanging out with him, not recovering from scoliosis surgery.
He stepped closer to the bed, sucking in a breath. Her long, blonde hair splayed out across the white sheets, tucked neatly beneath her thin arms. Her eyes were closed, her long lashes gracing her pale, white cheeks. With the fluorescent ceiling lights beaming down on her face, she looked like Sleeping Beauty.
Picking up a chair by the window, he moved it closer to the hospital bed and sat down.
Her head turned in his direction. Her eyes fluttered open, then shut, and open again. She stared at him for a moment as if she couldn’t decide if he was a figment of her imagination. Finally, a shaky smile spread across her face. “You came.”
“My mom didn’t tell me you were going to be here. I thought it was just your dad.” Her voice sounded low and groggy, probably from all the medication given to her during surgery.
“I figured I’d come and check out the big city. I’ve never been to Indianapolis before.” Tony shifted in the chair, hoping Steph wasn’t conscious enough to see his cheeks turning red. What he said was only partially true. The main reason he’d come was to see her.
“Where’s your dad?”
“In the hallway, talking to your parents.”
Tony leaned back against his chair, propping a bent leg over his knee. “How’s your back?”
She gave him a somber look. “The doctor isn’t sure if the surgery worked. I might be hunch-backed in a few years.”
Tony’s mouth fell open. “Seriously?”
Grinning, Steph shook her head. “You really believed me?”
“Of course not. I was just humoring you.”
“Oh yeah? Then why did your eyes bug out of your head?”
Still smiling, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Actually, surgery went really well.” She went on to tell him all about her surgery and the two steel rods holding her spine in place, using medical jargon throughout her explanation.
He listened intently, nodding and pretending he understood everything she was saying. No matter how many times he talked to her, he was always impressed with how smart she was. It made her appear older than she really was.
“How long are you stuck in here?” he asked when she was finished.
She scrunched her nose. “Six weeks.”
“At least you get to miss school.”
“I know. I was supposed to have a geography test tomorrow.”
“You have Mr. Pearson, right?”
She nodded. “He’s so boring.”
“I had him in junior high, too. I fell asleep in his class once.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” She gave him a knowing look. “It was probably during hunting season, wasn’t it?”
“Maybe.” He drew out the word.
She lifted her chin. “I know you so well.”
He couldn’t deny that she was right. Over the last six years, they’d spent more and more time together. Playing tag at recess in elementary school, talking after church services, going to hometown football games, and hanging out at the mall. Despite their age difference, she’d definitely become one of his good friends.
“How’s school going for you?” she asked.
“Same old, same old. Homecoming is next weekend.”
Steph picked at her thumbnail, chipping away at blue polish. “Are you going to homecoming with anyone?”
“Yeah. I asked Marilyn.”
“Oh.” Flecks of blue fingernail polish landed on the white sheet. “Are you going steady?”
“No. We’ve only gone on a few dates.” Tony smirked, asking his next question just to pester her. “Why? Are you jealous?”
Rolling her eyes, Steph made a humph noise. “Please.”
“Sheesh, I’m not that bad.” Leaning over, he rested his elbows on the bed. “At least, Marilyn doesn’t think so. She says I’m foxy.”
Steph gave him a coy smile, keeping her voice smooth and steady. “Looks aren’t everything, you know.”
Tony’s chest pinched with disappointment. Did that mean Steph didn’t find him attractive? And why did he suddenly feel disappointed? He leaned back in his chair, putting more space between them so he could think clearly. It had to be a fluke reaction. Steph was just a friend. While there was no denying he was attracted to her, she’d never be anything more. She was too young to date, especially a high school boy, like himself. And if they broke up, dating would ruin their friendship. They had a good thing going.
Why mess it up?
Tapping his pencil against the desk, Tony glanced up at the classroom clock. Three more minutes until he could see Steph.
At the front of the classroom, Mrs. Claussen droned on about the democratic system. For most of the period, he’d sat straight up in his desk, soaking in every word. At one point, he’d raised his hand, asking Mrs. Claussen if she really believed America had a democratic system. Didn’t she realize it was more of a constitutional republic? After he asked, Mrs. Claussen had just stared at him, blinking until it was clear she didn’t plan on responding. He’d started to tune out after that, but with only minutes left in class, he couldn’t concentrate at all.
He glanced up at the clock again. The tick, tick, tick created a low, rhythmic sound, like the quiet beating of a drum punctuating Mrs. Claussen’s final points. Slipping his notebook beneath his armpit, he moved to the edge of his seat.
Tick, tick, tick.
He set his pencil behind his ear, careful not to mess up his hair. He’d been growing it out over the last few months, trying to look more like John Travolta. With just the right amount of hair gel, he was getting close.
Tony sprang out of his seat, headed toward the southwest corner of the high school where Steph had Chemistry fifth period. Maneuvering through the crowded hallway, he swung his free arm back and forth to gain more momentum.
A couple of girls stood in the middle of the hallway, engrossed in a conversation until he sped past them, and their eyebrows rose. He didn’t care what they thought of him. He had to time it just right or he wouldn’t see Steph today.
Coming to the end of the hallway, he swerved around the corner, then slowed to a casual walk. Steph’s class was only a few feet away, and she had no idea how fast he had to go if he wanted to talk to her between classes. Running a hand through his hair, he took deep breaths in an attempt to slow his racing heart.
The breaths didn’t help. A few feet away, Steph leaned against a locker, wearing white pants, a lime green blouse, and big hoop earrings. Her long hair drifted across her slender shoulders as she turned her head, meeting his gaze. Waving, she pushed off the locker and met him halfway. “Hey you.”
He slid his free hand inside the pocket of his bell-bottoms. “How’s your day going?”
“Swell.” Grinning, she tucked a strand of hair behind her earring. “Ron asked me if I’d see a movie with him this weekend.”
“That’s far out.” He tried to keep his voice platonic, as if he didn’t care. But over the last couple of years, it was getting harder to ignore the squeeze of jealousy gripping his heart. “What are you gonna see?”
“Somewhere In Time.”
“That’s a good flick.”
Steph moved her textbooks from one hip to the other. “Did you see it with Donna?”
“Yeah.” Just thinking about Donna brought a smile to his face. He’d been going steady with her for the last year and he could definitely see a future with her. Even though she was a year younger and he planned on going to Ozark Bible College next school year, they wanted to continue dating. He didn’t see any reason why they wouldn’t. Donna had a strong faith, she was kind, driven, and pretty.
She didn’t make him feel as happy as he felt with Steph, but he figured their friendship went so far back, no other girl could make him feel like Steph did. He could always be himself around her and every time they talked, he felt this light airy sensation, like he was walking on clouds. She had the ability to make everyone feel special, and she knew just the right way to make every situation fun.
The warning bell sent out a shrill ring. Tony took a reluctant step back. Seeing Steph was one of the best parts of his day. “Have you seen The Empire Strikes Back yet?”
“Maybe we should get a group together and go see it. You could always see Somewhere In Time another weekend.”
Steph bit her bottom lip. “That’s true.”
“So you’ll think about it?”
“Yeah. I’ll give you a call later.” She glanced at the nearest hallway clock. “You’d better go or you’ll be late.” Flipping her hair behind her back, she slowly walked toward Chemistry.
She turned her head in his direction, waiting for him to say whatever he had to tell her.
“Are you going to youth group tonight?”
“Good.” Smiling, he waited for her petite form to disappear into the classroom before he turned around and sprinted down the hallway. With every step he took, relief flooded through him. Steph didn’t always come to youth group and when she did, she always made it much more fun. She was the type of person who could light up a room. He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. It was obvious when she walked into church and everyone crowded around her.
And yet, his time with Steph was coming to an end. In just a few weeks, he would graduate from high school. They would only have a couple of months of summer before he left for college and moved away.
Tony swallowed the lump in his throat. The distance would surely change their relationship. It wouldn’t be easy to see each other, unless he came home to visit. It would cost money to call her long distance, but maybe he could write her letters.
His hopes lifted a little. It sounded like a good idea. But what would he write? And what would Donna think? Even though she knew he and Steph were just friends, letters were more intimate than hanging out with Steph in a group. He wouldn’t want to hurt Donna’s feelings in any way. She deserved a good, respectable guy, and he wanted to be that for her.
Picking up speed, he dashed inside the classroom just as the final bell rang. Sliding into a desk, his chest constricted. There really wasn’t a reason to stay in contact with Steph while he was at college. Not if they were just friends.
Warm summer air swirled around Tony’s dress shoes as he opened the door to Johnny’s Steak House.
A large crowd stood talking in the lobby, waiting to be seated. Walking toward his old youth group friends, his heart pounded in his chest. Was Steph here with a date? If so, would she be happy to see him? It had been a year since he’d last seen or heard from her. He’d thought about her a lot. Was she dating anyone? Had she decided where she wanted to go to college? With her good grades, she surely had a lot of choices.
Standing on his tiptoes, he scanned the group. No sign of Steph. He sighed and lowered his feet as several of his friends walked over to him.
“Good to see you, man.”
“It’s been too long.”
“Back for an internship, huh?”
“You’ll be a great pastor.”
“Excuse me.” Florence squeezed through the group, waving her cane in the air to make sure none of the youth group members bumped into her. She pulled her mink vest tighter around her frail body as her steel-gray eyes zeroed in on him. “Where’s your date?”
Tony adjusted his tie. “I, uh, I didn’t bring one.”
Setting her cane on the floor, Florence pursed her lips. “That was the only condition. I’d take everyone out for dinner if you each brought a date.”
The group went silent.
Heat crept up the back of his neck. Florence didn’t understand. Donna had just broken up with him. He didn’t want a date. He just wanted to catch up with old friends. “I’m sorry. It’s just me.”
Zipping up her mink vest, Florence shook her head. “That is not acceptable. I’ll have to cancel dinner until you can find a date.”
If his friends weren’t glaring at him, he would’ve laughed at Florence’s tenacity. The old woman definitely had spunk. He reached for her thin, wrinkled hand. “Okay, I’ll find one.”
A few minutes later, he stood behind the restaurant’s front desk, staring at the phone. He picked it up, his hand trembling. Should he call Steph? If he did and she did yes, it would change their relationship forever. Even though they hadn’t talked in a year, he hoped by coming back home they could pick up where they left off. But if she knew he liked her, then they couldn’t go back to being just friends.
His stomach felt queasy, thinking of a new possibility. What if he asked her and she said no? Maybe she was still going steady with Ron.
He almost put the phone back on the receiver. Just call her. You’ll never know if you don’t ask. Taking a deep breath, he dialed her number, his pulse hammering in his ears.
“Hello?” Steph’s voice answered sounding like a long forgotten song.
“Yeah, it’s me.” He clutched the desk counter, his knuckles turning white. “You know Florence from church?”
“She’s taking a bunch of us out to dinner tonight, and I was wondering if you …” His mouth went dry. Swallowing repeatedly, he tried to form the right words. “If you’d be my date.”
“Like, right now?”
She gave a nervous laugh and he could just imagine her sitting on the edge of her couch, shaking her head. “So you’re asking me last minute.”
“Yeah, kinda.” The sound of her laughter brought warmth pooling low into his stomach. “Will you go?”
He twirled the cord around his finger, waiting for her response. This was a bad idea. She obviously didn’t want to go.
“Great.” He stood up straight, a weight lifting off his shoulders that he hadn’t even known was there. Peering over the counter, he met Florence’s gaze and gave her a thumbs up.
With Steph on her way, Florence allowed the youth group to be seated and Tony stayed in the lobby. As he waited for Steph, he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He put his hands in his pockets, only to take them out a minute later. Beads of sweat trickled down his back. He adjusted his tie to give him more room to breath and aired out his button down shirt. Then he readjusted his tie, making it tighter. With his clothes just right, he leaned against the wall with one hand in his pocket. He needed to look calm and composed when she walked in the door.
Steph arrived a half-hour later dressed in a denim knee-length dress and tall brown boots. Light blue make-up accented her eyes and a gold necklace wrapped around the collar of her dress and dangled just below her collarbone.
His gaze moved up and down before his eyes met hers, and his heart skipped a beat. He’d never seen Steph so dressed up before. Had she dressed up for him or did she have plans later? Either way, she looked stunning.
Snapping out of his trance, he crossed the distance between them in a few quick strides and hugged her, inhaling the familiar scent of her lavender perfume. “Hey you.”
Stepping back, she gave him a warm smile. “Hey, that’s my line.”
His stomach twisted. Whatever she’d done to make her eyes stand out, it looked good. Really, really good. “You look beautiful.”
She tucked a straight blonde strand behind her ear. “Thanks.”
“Do you have plans later or something?”
She shook her head. “Nope.”
“No date with Ron?”
“No. We broke up last year.”
“Oh.” He scuffed his shoe across the floor.
“Where is everybody else?”
Tony pointed to a table at the far side of the restaurant. “Sitting over there. They ordered a few appetizers.” Seizing every bit of confidence he could muster, he held out his hand to her.
She glanced down at his open palm and bit her lip.
Heat crept up the back of his neck. He was only offering to hold her hand, and yet, they both knew the gesture meant so much more. He’d asked her on a date, and she’d said yes, but this was different. Friends might go out to dinner with a group, but friends didn’t hold hands.
Her cheeks turned crimson as she lifted her hand, entwining their fingers. Giving a gentle squeeze, she looked up at him, her eyes confirming what he’d hoped to see—she had feelings for him too.
Two months later, Tony drove down Steph’s street to drop her off after youth group. He stopped his 1976 Chevette in front of her parent’s house just as the sun disappeared below the horizon, and the streetlamp turned on above them. In the semi-darkness, the light cast a hazy luminescence behind Steph’s open passenger window, casting an ethereal glow on her skin.
She rested her arm on the window frame and turned toward him. “That was a really good lesson.”
“I added too much personal information.”
“No, you didn’t. You made it really relevant.” She gave him a playful shove. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
He smiled. “I’ll try not to.”
“I can’t believe your internship is almost over.”
“I know, it’s gone by fast.”
Nodding, she played with a loose thread on her plaid capris, her face turning somber. “I have to tell you something.”
He twisted a dial on the dashboard, lowering the volume just as Thriller came on the radio. Whatever Steph had to say was much more important. “What is it?”
“I almost told you no when you asked me to go to Florence’s dinner.”
“You did? Why?”
She stopped playing with the loose thread and met his gaze. “I was scared.”
He reached over the console, grabbing her hand. “I’ll be honest, I was scared, too.”
Her eyes grew wide. “But you sounded so sure of yourself.”
Tony chuckled. “I wasn’t.”
“Well, you had me fooled.”
“And you thought you knew me so well.” He squeezed her hand. “I’m glad you said yes. I’ve had a lot of fun with you this summer.”
Staring into her eyes, fun couldn’t even begin to describe how much the time with Steph had meant to him. After Florence’s dinner, they’d spent almost every day together. Walking around Honey Creek Square Mall, going to movies, and taking the neighborhood kids putt-putting. As an intern for the youth group, he’d even given Steph a leadership role so he’d be able to see her more often.
With her thumb, she drew circles on the palm of his hand. “What are you thinking about?”
“How much you mean to me.” Saying the words out loud made his heart squeeze. They’d only been dating two months, but going steady with Steph wasn’t the typical situation. He didn’t need time to fall in love with her. He was already in love with her. And now he was so deep in love, he couldn’t imagine why it had taken him so long to ask her out.
“You mean a lot to me, too.” Looking down at their hands, Steph twisted her lips like she always did when she felt uncertain. “But where is this going?”
His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. He felt so sure about his future with Steph, but that didn’t mean she felt the same way. She was only a senior in high school, and next year, she would attend Oral Roberts University to become a surgeon. They weren’t exactly taking the same paths in life.
Steph’s sigh filled the silence. “I mean, are we dating other people now or what?”
He let go of her hand and tucked a golden lock behind her ear. If he didn’t tell her how he felt, he would always wonder what could have been. “I don’t want to. Anyone I might marry someday would have to be a lot like you. In fact, exactly like you.” Staring into her eyes, he brought his face inches away from hers. “So if you’re okay with it, I’d rather just date you and someday marry you.”
A big grin spread across her face. “Okay.”
With his heart beating wildly in his chest, Tony rested his elbow on the console, his gaze lingering on her lips. She inched closer, her chest rising and falling as she closed her eyes. Crossing the distance, he pressed his lips against hers. He kept the kiss soft and gentle, but on the inside, heat radiated from his lips to his toes. Fireworks shot off inside his stomach, like when Melissa Sue kissed Bobby Brady for the first time. It was definitely a kiss worth waiting for.
Smiling, he broke off the kiss, keeping his face inches away from hers. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said breathlessly.