"Okay, maybe it's the whole saving my life thing, but I gotta say you're a lot cuter than I thought…"eww, no offense."
"None taken," Ernie said with a smile. Marisa looked so beautiful, angelic even. He found himself shaking his head. How was it possible that she looked so perfect when she had just survived such a dramatic rescue? It sounded impossible, yet she really stood before him with hair so silky smooth that he was sure it would be magical to touch it…
The sound of gunshots and the sight of her taking off running quickly awakened him to reality. He started after her at a fast pace hoping that he would be able to keep up with her long strides. Within seconds, they were side by side, and he grabbed her hand. Running at full speed, he was conscious only of the forrest and the feeling of doom. Soon, her breathing grew heavy reminding him that perhaps they would do well to take a rest. He slowed their pace to a fast walk and quickly spotted a fallen log. Leading her to it, he sat down and pulled her down next to him.
"Are we safe?" she asked breathlessly. He felt her push his shoulder into his own. Taking that as a cue, he put his arm around her hoping that his presence would be somehow comforting.
He paused for a moment unsure exactly how to answer. Scaring her or giving her a false sentence of security could be equally dangerous. "We should be for now. If we hear something, we'll need to get up and run."
She shivered, and he could only guess that the sound of gunshots was ringing in her ears like it was in his. "Okay, I'll keep my ears open."
"Don't worry about it," he said proudly. "I've got this." She leaned in closer, and silence reigned. Finally in a settled state of mind, he found himself thinking about what had occurred outside the cabin just moments before. Marisa had actually called him cute! Sure, she had been shaky and scared out of her mind, but still her words had struck him as sincere. Besides, she wasn't really one to say something she wasn't thinking.
As he pondered the situation, he couldn't help smiling. The compliment just felt so good. He wasn't the cute type that girls fawned over, so he would have gone crazy over any compliment he got from a girl. But this wasn't just any girl. It was Marisa—his best friend in the whole world. He had long admired her, and the thought that she found him cute made him dizzy.
"What?" she asked, breaking him out of the trance he was in.
Still lost in thought, it was the best he could do to manage a simple "nothing".
"You had that mischievous smirk on your face. I know you, Ernie Cooper," she said emphatically. "You're up to something."
Her sharp tone immediately clued him in to what she was talking about. Emboldened by newfound confidence, he found the courage to ask the question that was burning on his mind. "So you think I'm cute?"
"All boys….all boys are cute. And you're a boy, so yeah you're cute too," she tried to explain.
As usual, her attempts at being smooth were falling flat, and a grin stretched across his face in response. "Yeah, I think you're cute too, Marisa."
"Uhhh..thanks," she said in a tone that struck him as shaky. "Is this going in the direction that I think it's going?"
He pulled away from her and turned so he could look her in the face. "I like you, and I have for quite sometime now."
"What?" she said with a surprised look on her face.
He figured he might as well tell it to her straight. "Yeah, I like you. I know we've been friends forever, and I'm your best friend's little brother, but I happen to think that this could work. We always get along so well, and I've always wanted to get to know you better."
Wrinkles appeared on her brow, and her blue eyes clouded over. "Yeah, it's great being your friend. I'm always happy to hang out with you…but…you know…."
"K.C. should have nothing to do with this," Ernie said dogmatically. "We've let her come between us, and we can't do that anymore. It's our time. This is about us. What do we want? That's what we've got to do whether or not she'll be happy about it."
Marisa was quiet. "Yeah, you're right," she said. "I've been too intimidated by her. It's just that she's my best friend, and she can be so imposing if you know what I mean? "
"Boy, do I," he laughed. "I'm her little brother, and I've grown up in her shadow. I'm the one who's never been able to measure up to her."
Marisa put her hand on his shoulder. "But you're improving, though. Today, you found the courage to brave the gunshots and save my life."
Not daring to look at her, he fixed his gaze on the ground in front of him. "Yeah, but that was an easy one. I'd do whatever it took to not have to live without you."
Silence filled the air with uncertainty as he wondered what her answer would be. "Yes," she said. "I want to try us."
He looked over at her again. "You sure?" he asked with genuine surprise.
"I like you too, you know."
She tucked her hair behind her ear and picked at her nails. "I know I've acted like I don't, but I do. You may not be the most popular guy at school. But you've got something that they don't. You're kind, and you have a good heart….Yeah, I know it looks like I only care about how popular a guy is, but really I just want to find a nice guy. I guess I keep thinking that I'm going to find a popular guy who is, but I haven't. They're all fake, and all they care about is using me. But you, well, you are who you are." She looked down as she finished.
He hardly knew what to do or say. His heart was beating out of his chest. Normally, hearing that a girl liked him scared him out of his mind because he was sure that she wouldn't really like him once she got to know him. But Marisa had known him forever. She knew that he was quirky and clumsy and unsure of himself, and she liked him anyway.
Without thinking, his hands put his hands on her cheeks pulling her face close to his. Before he knew what he was doing, he felt her lips on his. Instantly, he pulled back terrified that he had scared her away.
"What are you doing?" she asked in an irritated tone. Doubtless, it was way too soon. Why couldn't he be wise enough to wait until she was ready?
"I'm sorry. I lost control for a second. That…" He was cutoff by her lips on his again. She was kissing him.
If this whole afternoon had ever felt like a dream, it sure did now. He couldn't believe that he was really kissing Marisa, and that she had kissed him because she liked him back. It sounded too far fetched to believe. Enraptured by the kiss, he lost his grip on reality. Too soon, he heard K.C.'s voice calling through the forest. "Ernie, Marisa."
He and Marisa jumped apart and stood up. Within seconds, they were greeted by K.C.'s approach. "Hey, guys, I just got Brett on the road to safety and thought I'd come back and make sure you guys were okay."
He could see that Marisa was shaking, but she still bravely ventured a reply. "Yes, we are very much okay." She brushed off her jeans and attempted to look innocent.
K.C. raised her eyebrows. "Good. Because seeing your lip gloss on Ernie's face made me think that things just might not be okay. You're sure that you were not making out in the woods?"
Ernie stood up straight and summoned his confidence. "Most definitely not. Cross my heart and hope to die," he said. He knew instantly that K.C. could see right through his act. He shot Marisa a quick glance, but she was staring at the ground. Thinking about how embarrassed she must feel made his heart sink.
K.C. continued to glare, and he knew that he had to do something to rescue poor Marisa. "Yeah, we were kissing the woods, but that's none of your business." He grabbed Marisa's hand and felt thankful for the reassurance of the quick squeeze she gave him. Looking K.C. in the face, he continued. "You may be my older sister and Marisa's best friend, but you're not our boss. If we happen to think that life is better together, we're going to date like it or not. It's our time, not yours."
"Okay," K.C. said shrugging her shoulders. "If you're both sure you want to do this, it's fine with me. But who would have thought my brother and my best friend would decide they wanted to date?"
Ernie put his arm around Marisa and pressed a soft kiss to her hair. "You better not be making out in front of me or you're going to be sorry. Yeah, there's no way I'm seeing that. Uggg, gotta get that image out of my head before it's permanently indented…"
Marisa laughed nervously. "Yeah, I'm not sure I'd want you seeing that either."
"Right," Ernie said taking both of her hands in his. Brown eyes met blue filling his heart with amazement. "It's our time, Marisa."
She giggled. "I know," she said her face two inches from his. Just when Ernie felt sure they were going to break their promise, K.C. cleared her throat reminding them that she was still there.
"Hey, lovebirds," she said. "What do you say that we head home? I think I know a way."
Walking back with Marisa at his side, Ernie could hardly believe his good fortune. After all of these years of wondering and waiting, his time had come, and he and Marisa were finally together.