Abby was waiting for the vomit to begin and end so that she could get on with her life.
It was Preview Weekend, and she was getting a preview of idiocy on a grander scale than any she could have anticipated years earlier, back when she’d first heard about the small college. She’d already committed to attending the university, already knew everything she honestly needed to know about going there the next fall, and already had an idea about what dorm life would be like. But Rachel, her best friend, had pleaded with her to come that weekend for one more look into the near future that would be theirs.
Abby sincerely doubted that her future would include any time spent with Grant, Rachel’s brother, and his roommate, Seth, both of whom were attempting the gallon challenge in a room full of giggling girls and the handful of guys who kept cheering them on.
It was likely impossible for anyone to consume an entire gallon of milk in one hour without vomiting, but that didn’t stop the two guys from enthusiastically attempting it.
Again and again.
“Grant’s already tried this a few times before,” Rachel whispered, her eyes never leaving Seth, even as he wiped his forehead and put his hand to his stomach, swearing to his laughing friends that he was fine. “Last time, he got it all down in fifty-eight minutes… but threw up on the last drink.”
“Doesn’t count then, does it?” Abby asked, refraining from rolling her eyes at the juvenile (and stupid) game.
“Nope,” Rachel grinned. “But I think Seth can do it.”
Only because Rachel thought Seth could rope the moon and raise the dead, likely. This particular Preview Weekend had nothing to do with school for Rachel but everything to do with Seth, who she had sworn she would marry from the first day she met him years earlier when he became Grant’s roommate. She and Abby had been best friends even then, and Abby could well remember the gushing that followed Rachel’s deliriously exuberant text about Grant’s new friend. They must have spent over three hours that weekend alone and countless hours since discussing how Rachel could get Seth to notice her. Her attraction bordered on obsession, her admiration neared delusion, and as Abby surveyed Rachel’s intended target with a critical eye… well, she couldn’t figure out why Rachel cared so much, even if he was cute enough, loved Jesus, and seemed to be a nice guy. He certainly wasn’t worth the gushing Rachel was doing, as he let out a wet-sounding belch, then held his hand to his mouth, and said, “That does not disqualify me!”
“He’s awesome,” Rachel murmured.
Abby sighed. “He’s about to spew milk all over this room, and –”
She stopped short as her gaze fell on another person who seemed as bored by the scene before them as she was. He was sitting on the fringes of the crowd, frowning over at Grant and Seth both. Dark hair, lighter eyes, and… he caught her staring at him. She met his gaze for a long, calm moment, then glanced at Rachel… then looked right back over at him.
He was still watching her.
“Who’s that?” she asked Rachel.
Rachel followed her gaze. “Oh, that’s Seth’s brother. Stuart.” She lowered her voice as she raised her eyebrows. “He’s a real drag.”
“How so?” Abby asked, even as Stuart sighed and looked back to his brother, glancing at his watch for a moment.
“Just super serious,” Rachel shrugged, “and a real killjoy. Going all big brother on Grant and Seth a lot of the time, making them study and all, you know. Surprised he hasn’t broken up the gallon challenge yet.”
“Hmm,” Abby murmured, even as Stuart looked back over at her appraisingly. “He sounds boring.”
“But he’s hotter than Seth,” she said appreciatively.
Rachel gasped at this. Actually gasped at it. “No one’s hotter than Seth.”
“Yeah, well,” Abby said, noting that only a tiny amount of milk was left in both gallons. This was the time to leave the room so as to avoid seeing the gore and carnage. “Hey, I’m going to slip out for a second.”
“Where are you going?” Rachel asked. “You’re about to miss –”
“Yeah, that’s why I’m slipping out,” she answered. “I’m heading to the restroom back in our wonderful hostesses’ room –”
“Why in the world?” Rachel rolled her eyes. “Those two girls make Stuart look like fun –”
And with that, Grant threw up, and Abby rushed out, eyes covered.
Seth? Was an idiot.
Stu watched as his brother scrambled to get away from his roommate’s puke, covering his own mouth with his hand, even as he clung to the nearly-finished gallon of milk. One more sip and he was likely a goner himself. Stu was certain it would come to pass and sighed at the waste of energy, time, and intelligence. Seth’s and his own.
But this was life. Stu had been watching out for Seth for… well, forever. Stu was the fourth son born to his mother, not special or out of the ordinary in any way, apart from the fact that his arrival preceded Seth’s, who was born too early and had the entire family worried as he struggled in the NICU. Stu had been a baby himself and had no recollection of that stressful time in their lives, but he, more than the others, had been affected by it in the long run. Every day since Seth had been brought home from the hospital, Stu had been admonished by his mother to watch out for the baby, to take care of him, to be his “big, strong, older brother.”
Stu had taken the job very seriously as a child. And old habits? Never die, no matter how much Stu wished he could just flippin’ not care about the dumb things his younger brother, now a grown man, felt inclined to do.
The milk wasn’t really the problem tonight, though. No, the problem tonight was the pretty underage girl staring at Seth with unabashed adoration, even as he finally spewed.
Stu knew better than Seth when it came to things like this.
“Stu!” the girl shrieked as Seth coughed and wiped his mouth before lying back on the floor with a grimace. “Seth needs something to keep hydrated! Do you know where we can find something for him to drink?”
“Rachel,” he sighed, knowing her name and very nearly everything about her after these past three years of her throwing herself at his brother, “do you really think it’s wise to put something back on his stomach after that?”
She bit her lip as she smoothed Seth’s hair back with her hand. “Well…”
“I don’t think he needs anything to drink,” Stu said. “The man has had enough as it is.”
“I’m just worried about him,” she said, cradling Seth’s head in her lap, while her own brother laid on the floor, totally ignored, moaning and clutching his stomach. “He threw up a lot!”
Stu stood and walked over to Grant, kicking him lightly. “You okay, man?”
“I think I’m going to die,” Grant groaned.
“Likely so,” Stu murmured. “Why don’t you go sit out in the hall and get some fresh air? Looks like Seth’s about to –”
And he did. Again. Very nearly missing the trash can that Rachel threw under his mouth at the last possible minute.
“I’ll stay here with Seth,” Rachel cooed. “I’m going to be a nursing student next year, you know. Good practice and all. I’ll take such good care of him.”
Stu didn’t doubt that she’d try.
He frowned as he pulled Grant up by the arms, cursing the responsibility he felt for both idiots now, after introducing them to college life three years ago when they arrived as wide-eyed freshmen.
Back then, Stu had been a confident, smooth-talking upperclassman who had ushered the two boys into the big middle of his messy, wild life. Drinking, lots of drinking, rowdy parties, and too many girls. Stu had been on a straight and narrow path before college began, but those first few years at the university had done a work on him.
He hadn’t always been that way. He’d come to the university with a good head on his shoulders and a big life plan laid out before him. Law school, politics, becoming someone besides the fourth son born to a family so big that even his own mother called him by the wrong name half the time – this was Stu’s plan. He’d jumped in with both feet, joining campus organizations that would get him closer to his goal, finding the best opportunities to network, and finding, along the way, that his gift for speaking frankly and seeing people for who they really were made him something of a rarity in a fake world. In no time at all, he could see how easy people were to manipulate, to sway, to win over, and before he knew it, he was Mr. Charisma, well on his way to winning every popular vote out there.
Stu had felt little conviction about how this had changed him until the weekend that Seth and Grant arrived for freshman orientation. He took them out, proud to let his little brother see just what kind of big man he’d become here in this place where no one knew that there were a whole horde of other Huntington brothers. It was a place where guys liked to drink with him, people listened when he spoke, and every girl wanted to go home with him. He brought the two, wide-eyed, innocent freshmen into this world he had created for himself without a nagging doubt or concern that it was in any way wrong or harmful to them.
Grant was quickly and effectively smashed after just a few beers. Stu hardly even noticed, intent as he was on working the room and reconnecting with people who had just come back from the summer away. He was halfway to a pleasant buzz himself and was considering which of the three clearly interested women who had been trailing him all evening would be invited up to his room with him later.
And Seth? Seth had watched it all with horror, an untouched beer in his hand and shock on his face.
“Stu,” he whispered. “Is this what… you do?”
Stu gave his brother a smile. “This is college, Seth. This is what everyone does.” Then quietly, with a laugh, “Mom’s not here to find out, man.”
Seth looked down, then up at his brother again, actual tears in his eyes. “Wasn’t Mom I was worried about. I didn’t think you were like this.”
There was disappointment there. And judgment. They were from a religious family, and most of the brothers drank the Kool-Aid with conviction and celebration. But not Stu. Because he knew what real life was now that he was in college, and Jesus and PG living and acting like it all mattered two thousand years after the fact was stupid.
“Just having fun,” Stu said. “Time to grow up, little man.”
“It’s time for me to go back to my dorm,” Seth had said, hurt in his eyes. “And to get Grant –” he indicated his passed out roommate – “back as well.”
Grant was lying in a heap on the couch. “Oh, he’s fine,” Stu said, slipping his arms around the girls who were leading him away even as Seth blushed at them.
“Stuart,” Seth had said severely. “Grant’s dad is one of the academic deans.”
And this? Had snapped Stu out of the mellowed out buzz he found himself in. He had plans to go on from here and make a name for himself, and killing the dean’s son during his undergraduate career? Would certainly lose him some votes somewhere along the way.
So, he and Seth had gotten Grant back to the safety of the dorm where they’d thrown him in bed and propped him up so he wouldn’t choke on his own vomit. And Seth had turned to Stu, with an icy expression and a chill in his voice, sniffing back tears, and said, “I don’t want to hang out with you here if this is the kind of thing you’re into.”
Stu had rolled his eyes, annoyed by the holier than thou act he was getting. “Breakin’ my heart, Seth,” he said. “Not like I want to hang out with you anyway. Pathetic crybaby.”
“Maybe I am a crybaby,” Seth had said softly, “but at least I’m not a loser like you. Trying to act like you’re all confident and secure in who you are, but you’re not. And you look stupid, Stu.”
“You’re stupid,” Stu offered lamely, making a face at him.
“Proving my point,” Seth said. “And I know who I am in Christ. And I’m not ever going to be like you.”
And maybe there had been some truth in it. But Stu had wandered off that night, trying his best to ignore all that Seth said.
It wasn’t until a month later, when he saw Seth at another party, that he reconsidered what had been said. Seth, with all of his security in who he was in Christ, was apparently having a harder time standing by his convictions this far into the semester than he had figured he would. Stu could see that he was drunk. And Stu himself was stone cold sober enough to see that his innocent, virginal, little brother, who loved Jesus and had spent the majority of high school swearing to stay pure despite the struggles he had with his thought life and all the temptations around him, was just about to fall into a pit so large he couldn’t claw his way out of it when one particular girl made her way over to him, sat in his lap, and lowered her lips to his.
Stu had recognized her instantly because he himself had been with her the week before.
And for the first time, Stu saw what he had probably looked like back when he started college and realized that in no time at all, Seth would be him… a man who had grown to despise women apart from what he could get from them, who drank alone because he drank all the time, and who found no greater purpose in life than himself.
A man who had no god or convictions at all.
Stuart Huntington didn’t even want to be Stuart Huntingon… and he sure wasn’t going to let Seth turn into him either.
So, despite the loud, drunken protests of his younger brother, Stu dragged him back to the dorm, telling him all the way there to shut up, and then forced him to stay put. And he was there in the morning when Seth woke up with his first and only hangover, assuring him that things had gone no farther than kissing with that girl, and promising him that they were going to turn things around.
They were both going to turn things around.
And they did.
But more than his actions had changed. He had gone back to what he had believed before coming to the university, found a church that taught as richly and deeply as the church of his childhood had, and believed it all, as a rational, redeemed adult. Finally.
He could thank his brother for the prompting and the nudging back to the straight and narrow… but Christ alone could be thanked for the heart change and the total transformation of Stuart Huntington.
The life plan changed. Stu wasn’t going to make a name for himself. He was going to make a name for Christ and change the world for Him. Law theory, politics – pursuing this for Christ and His purposes.
It had been a big change.
What hadn’t changed, however, was that Stu still felt the need, even now that he was in graduate school, to come back here and look out for his brother, who was, in the truest sense, his brother in Christ now, as they spurred one another on, kept one another accountable, and lived for Someone more than themselves.
He dropped Grant off in the hallway, made sure he was upright, then went back in to Seth so as to keep an eye on Rachel, who would probably stoop so low as to try and seduce a vomiting man.
And he wondered, in the back of his mind, where the beautiful girl he’d seen earlier had gone.
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