• "I love you."

    That's what Tara said. We were holding hands, sitting on a bench in the park, watching a rather beautiful sunset as the sun dipped into the horizon. She had placed her head on my shoulder, and snuggled close to me, and I had wrapped my arm around her shoulders. Just as the bulk of the sun had hidden itself behind the treeline, I had felt her shift her body as she brought her lips close to my ear and whispered those three words.

    "I love you."

    Our tails were wrapped around each other's, and as dusk quickly turned to dark, Tara snuggled closer to me. I felt her shiver lightly, and my body shivered back, as if in agreement that it was time for our walk to end, and for me to take her home. I gathered her in my arms and rose, holding her close to me as I headed towards the other end of the park, where her apartment stood, waiting silently.

    My name is Terrence Parker. I'm nobody special. Just a simple opossum from Belledsburg who happened to luck out on an art scholarship to a Belledsburg University. I live a normal, nocturnal colleges student's life. I wake up every day at about 5pm to allow myself time to wake and get ready for classes, as well as spend time with my friends and the occasional girlfriend. I've been in this habit for nearly 3 years now.

    My current girlfriend is Tara Rogues, a beautiful white bat who happens to go to Belledsburg Community College, a couple miles down the road from the University campus. She's studying computers, and tells me she should be graduating at the end of this year, a full year ahead of schedule for her. I couldn't be happier for her.

    We cross the park rather quickly, and I set her at her doorstep. She smiles at me, leaning in, and we kiss lightly, then I watch her open her door and get herself inside her apartment, smiling at her all the while. She's told me already that she considers herself the luckiest girl in Belledsburg.

    It doesn't take long for me to get from her apartment to the street, where I cross and start heading back to my dorm. It's a good couple of miles, and because of my current sleep schedule and school, I am unable to hold a job or make any kind of money that I would need for a car. I was incredibly lucky to win a full ride, all-expenses-included scholarship, but it doesn't pay for a car.

    Still, a couple miles isn't anything for me, and it allows me time to think. Think about those three words Tara had told me no more than fifteen minutes prior.

    "I love you."

    Three words, eight letters. A normal person wouldn't overthink something like this. And normally, I wouldn't either, except for one thing.

    Tara and I hadn't been dating for much more than a month.

    All my life I've heard this phrase. I'd heard it from my mother and father far too many times to count. Many of my female friends had a habit of saying it when they ended their phone conversations. I had a math teacher back in first grade that would write it on the papers of any student that got 100% on her tests. The words were used everywhere.

    I wanted so much to believe Tara. I wanted so much to be like any other guy and just shrug off this nagging feeling in my brain, but I couldn't. All my life I had felt that there was always a lot more to this phrase than just something to be used when one felt like it. I always felt it was more than just a smile maker.

    And it's funny, too, because circumstances around me seemed to agree with me. My last few girlfriends had all broken up with me soon after telling me they loved me simply because I hadn't answered them back. They had expected me to echo them like some pirate's parrot looking for a cracker. And I never could. I could never tell them I loved them.

    I had a feeling Tara wouldn't be any different. She'd hold out a couple of days, thinking about this last get together, and then it would hit her that I hadn't told her I loved her when she had told me. She'll be hurt, and a little suspicious, and perhaps even accuse me of cheating on her like my first girlfriend did.

    I was lost in thought over this subject when I heard a noise and looked up in time to dive out of the way of a speeding car. In my thoughts I had wandered off the sidewalk and into moving traffic. It was Friday night, so every college kid with their parents' car was out on the town, having a good time. My reaction had saved another college kid from increasing their parents' insurance premiums.

    As I gathered myself up from the ground, I couldn't help but wonder if I wasn't better off getting myself killed in traffic. Letting myself get run over might allow Tara and all future girlfriends to find someone better for them, someone who had no qualms about echoing their ‘I love you's back to them.

    I shook my head at the thought and continued with my walk. No, the boys who echoed their words were the ones just looking for an easy lay. I myself had little interest in the ways of sex; in fact, I was still a virgin. Twenty-two years old, a junior in colleges, and still a virgin. Even my mother would point her finger and laugh at me, and she's the one that's been so adamant about me keeping myself pure until marriage.

    The campus was close now. It was nearly summer, and nearly finals week. I could smell the mulch and manure set around the gardens from here. Obviously the herbologists were succeeding in keeping the University looking pretty, to attract new students.

    My hands went to my pockets, and I was reminded that I hadn't brought my phone with me. Funny how I needed a reminder every now and then, when it had been established from day one that Tara and I would leave our phones at home, so as not to be disturbed during the times when we could see each other and be together. The memory made me chuckle.

    Once I was in the campus gate, it didn't take but maybe five minutes to get to my room. I still had another hour before I had to start heading to class, and now would be a good time to shower, and then go get some food. Closing my room door behind me, I locked it and shed my clothes, heading for the shower.

    The rooms at Belledsburg University were nice. They were built for a maximum of two occupants, and every two rooms had a shower in the hallway between them. Luckily for me, I had no roommate, and the occupants of the other room sharing the shower were out having fun, their classes having ended during the day. I gathered a towel and a change of clothes from my dresser, and set these on the sink as I entered the shower.

    Soon the water was at a nice temperature, and I was beneath it, letting the steaming liquid soak readily into my fur and skin beneath. I always liked the shower. It gave me time to relax and think, and usually I could sort out my problems in the fifteen minutes I spent there. I poured some shampoo into my hands and began to rub it all over my body, into my fur, creating a heavy lather that would ensure every bit of dirt would be washed clean.

    As I rinsed, I thought back to the close call with the car. I thought back to my thoughts of things being better off with me gone, and Tara allowed to continue in her life, looking for someone that would be more than willing to echo her sentiments. I shook my head, staring solemnly at my feet. Here I was, already thinking about life after Tara, when I wasn't even sure that she would be like the other girlfriends. Maybe she wouldn't notice that I hadn't said it back to her.

    I shut off the water in time to hear the signal for my phone go off, alerting me of new voicemail. I reached for my towel and dried myself off as best I could, then redressed and walked out to my room, where I hung my towel on the towel rack hanging off the closet. I sat on my bed and reached for my clean shoes; the ones I used for school. After tying the laces, I picked up my phone and dialed my voicemail.

    "You have three new messages," it said once it connected. "Press two one to listen to the first message."

    In my paw I dialed the numbers, and pressed the phone back to my ear. I always had to pull the phone away from my ear before dialing. The cell phone was small enough that if I wasn't careful, I could hit the wrong numbers.

    The first message turned out to be from my advisor, congratulating me on passing a class I was having trouble with, and saying that he believed I would do fine in the final the next week. I didn't exactly believe him, and erased the message.

    The second message was from my mother, who wanted to know if I was coming home for vacation. I didn't know my plans exactly, so I saved the message to get back to her later.

    The third message was from Tara. I heard her clear her throat before she began speaking into my voicemail.

    "Terrance, it's me. Thank you for a most wonderful evening. I was hoping to get ahold of you instead of your voicemail, but I figure you must still be on your way home, or you're in the shower.

    "Listen... You're a great guy. You're affectionate, you're caring. You listen to me when I'm having a rough time, and have been there for me when I break down. But there's a spark in every relationship that either starts a flame that burns brightly between the couple, or the spark hits nothing and burns out. I... don't think our spark hit anything.

    "I'm sorry, Terrance. I just don't feel the relationship going anywhere. I hated having to do this through your voicemail, and if you want to talk about it sometime, then we could try. But... it's over."

    The phone clicked on her end, and my voicemail told me it was the end of the message. I closed my cell phone without touching anything, so the message would be saved.

    I wasn't feeling heartbroken. I wasn't really feeling anything. I could only lightly chuckle at myself, having seen this coming. There was really nothing else I could do. My world got just a little bit darker.

    I decided not to go get any food that evening. I turned my phone off, stuck it in my pocket, and headed out the door, going towards the classrooms, to my first class of the night. I had my bag slung over my shoulder, all the books for the night and all the pens and paper I needed in it. I couldn't feel the weight. I'd gone numb inside, and it was radiating outward. I felt invincible.

    "I love you."

    I guess not.