Best Summer Ever

Life continues to get in the way of getting things posted to the blog. Well, at least it keeps me off the streets.

You may notice that I have decluttered the top of the site where all the story titles were. I gathered them under 2018 Stories. Now I can re-clutter the top with my 2019 stories.

Before I do that, I want to introduce one last story that I wrote in 2018. It was a nice little coming of age story that had rattled around in my head for awhile, Best Summer Ever. For about 2 months after it I didn’t have much inspiration. I pulled together Denny Blue. Then I wrote Sharing Christmas sitting in the airport in Birmingham, Alabama. It was November and they had Christmas decorations up so I got in the mood. I told a friend that I was running out of ideas. She suggested writing more about the female lead character in Best Summer Ever. I commented that I didn’t think I was up to channeling a sixteen-year-old girl. When my friend said, “Probably not” I took it as a challenge. So I wrote a story that provided background on some of the characters in Best Summer Ever. While BSE is a stand-alone story, it does end suggesting more is going to happen. I reread it in December and thought to myself, I’d really like to know what happens next. So I started writing. I didn’t know where it was going, but was eager to follow. Between December 21 and January 24 I wrote seven stories, six of them were sequels to BSE. My “editor” was shouting YA Novel. I kept coming back to those characters and after thirteen stories, I realized I maybe did have a book. It’s not exactly a linear novel, but thirteen inter-related stories about the same people from age 15 to adulthood. I’m exploring doing a self-publication on Kindle or something similar. If I do, I’ll post details on the blog, in case anyone is interested. I think it’s pretty good, but then I’m biased.

In the meantime, I decided to post the first chapter. Don’t worry, as I said earlier, it’s a stand-alone story. But if you do want to know what happened next, keep checking back. I’ll let you know when it’s ready to go.

Best Summer Ever

I’m drowning. The wave had smacked me down and rolled me. I have no idea which way is up. Forcing my eyes open in the stinging salt water I can detect a watery brightness in what I thought was beneath me. I’m totally upside down. Eyes burning, lungs on fire I struggle toward the light and air. I’ve swallowed so much salt water that I’m nauseous. I’m afraid I’ll puke underwater. The pull of the water is too strong. Where is Jeremy? Jeremy should save me. I can always rely on Jeremy to act. But Jeremy hadn’t come to the beach this year. Pre-college courses and summer work gave him little free time. I’m on my own. And dying.

A soft click and hum jolted me. Cool air blew across my damp chest. I was lying in bed. It had been a dream. But my eyes still burned and the nausea overwhelmed me. I cracked my eyes and the light felt like knives going through my head. This isn’t my room, I thought. Where am I? I noticed a nearby ensuite bath. Good. I crawled out of the bed and monkey scrambled to it, reaching the toilet bowl just in time. I spewed the contents of my stomach, hot, acidic and pink into the bowl. My entire body convulsed with the effort. The brief respite from the nausea only amplified the hot burning behind my eyes. And there seemed to be a spike bisecting my brain from side to side, a hammer pounding it in time with each heartbeat, like some sadistic Anvil Chorus. My body convulsed again, but there was little left to come up. I spat a bit of green bile into the bowl and flushed the evil smelling mess. I rested my head on the cool ceramic of the toilet. A chilling ache ran over me as I broke out in a cold sweat.

Where am I? My thoughts were fuzzy and slow. Each thought was produced in agony. Why don’t I remember anything? Am I sick? Maybe malaria or ebola? Maybe I have amnesia. No, I remember my name, Robbie, and I’m 16 and live in Foxborough, Mass 02035. Unless that’s just part of my delirium. I stood up slowly like an old man. I looked down at my body. I’m in my Calvins, the way I always sleep, I think. My body looks young, though I feel ancient. I glanced in the mirror. Yes, I recognized the kid there, face bloated and creased from sleep, watery blue eyes red rimmed and bloodshot, unremarkable straight blond hair, currently sticking up. Your basic dork.

            I patted my hair down as best I could. I found a wash cloth, dampened it and rubbed it over my face. I also rinsed my mouth of the awful taste of the late contents of my stomach. As nausea claimed me again I moved over to the toilet. The convulsion made me double over but all that came out was a loud belch. I had to grab the door jamb for support as the burning behind my eyes joined forces with the spike bisecting my brain.

That’s when I noticed the bed. Well, not just the bed, but the fact there was someone in the bed. A form half covered by a sheet, wearing a faded purple Led Zeppelin t-shirt stirred faintly. Mandy. Mandy is in my bed, my fevered brain fairly screamed. Or technically a bed I had also been in. What the fuck? I mean, yay, Mandy’s in my bed, but how the heck did that happen? She opened her vivid blue eyes and murmured, “You’re staring at me. Come back over here.”

Like an old man just relearning to walk after a stroke, I stumbled to the low bed and plopped down. That made the pain in my head skyrocket and my stomach take a tumble. 

“I think I’m dying,” I moaned through a mouth I’m certain is filled with fur. What is going on? None of this makes any sense. I like my world ordered, certain and uneventful. This was none of those. But I also like Mandy. Man, do I ever like Mandy.

We’d met on the beach a couple weeks ago. It was just after the Fourth of July. My parents and Jeremy and me always came to our shared cottage at the beach in North Carolina after the fourth. Mom was adamant we come after the “riff raff” Independence Day celebrants had left and depart before all the “dreadful tourist trash” showed up for Labor Day.

The second day here, I had been walking on the beach with my towel looking for a place to sit and watch people. I was kind of lost without my brother. Jeremy was the ring leader, always thinking of fun things to do, places to go. He was the Pied Piper to my willing follower. Everyone loves Jeremy. He is golden. I just skulk in his shadow, hoping to reflect a little of the glory.

            I noticed a couple of girls on a blanket I was passing. The brunette was very pretty. I couldn’t tell about the blonde. She was lying face down with her bikini top unclasped, browning in the sun. But she definitely had all the right curves in all the right places.

            “Heads up!” came from a nearby muscular young man playing Frisbee with some small kids. He had miscalculated his throw and the plastic disk flew right into the lap of the brunette who was busy rubbing lotion into her leg with her right hand. In her left hand was a cup filled with ice and soda. The Frisbee startled her and the cup of soda flew from her hand and landed on the back of the blonde.

            With a shriek she jumped up, topless, and whirled toward me. Our eyes met briefly, then my eyes dropped to a more enticing sight. She yelled at me, “Pervert! Are you just going to stare at my tits or help?” This startled me into action and I threw my towel around her shoulders to give her cover. She pulled it tighter and ran up the nearby boardwalk into a cottage, huffing and cursing all the way. The brunette followed her pleading how sorry she was. The guy who threw the Frisbee was doubled over laughing his ass off. I just stood there a moment. That was my favorite towel. I hoped I’d get it back.

            “Hung over, huh?” Mandy asked. She sympathetically rubbed my shoulder.

“Is that what this is? Do people die from it?” I was only half joking.

“Not usually. It just feels that way. Poor baby. Your first?”

“Yeah, I don’t drink.”

“Well, you can’t say that anymore. You were a wild man last night.”

“Oh, jeez. I don’t remember. Did I do anything stupid?”

“Yes, but you were adorable.” And she pecked me on the cheek.

My third day at the beach I noticed the two girls and young man in the same place.

I also saw my beach towel, cleaned and neatly folded lying beside the blonde. As I walked up the brunette nudged the blonde and said, “It’s Towel Boy.” The blonde shaded her eyes with her hand and gazed up at me. She was just as beautiful as the brunette. Girls like her usually ignored me.

            She handed me the towel and said, “Thanks for letting me use your towel. It’s nice to see there are at least some gentlemen left.” With that she gave a dismissing “hmpf” to the young man on the blanket. He just laughed.

            “I’m Mandy, by the way. Have a seat. This is Savannah and the Neanderthal is my brother Nathan.”

            “Hi. Robbie.” And I sat down.

The little group was friendly and adopted me as one of their own. I quickly learned that Mandy was 16 like me. Savannah, her best friend and Nathan’s girlfriend was 17. Nathan was, in his words, “older”. I guessed somewhere between 18 and 20. They were all from south Georgia.  Much to my credit I refrained from making a joke about Savannah’s name. It was nice to have someone to talk with and spend time with at the beach.

            Jeremy had always been my mainstay. What Jeremy wanted to do, we did. Where Jeremy wanted to go, we went. I never much minded or voiced an opinion. I just stood in the warm glow of Jeremy’s charm. ‘Reluctant Robbie’ is what Jeremy sometimes called me. I guess I’m a bit shy, but why try? Jeremy is whip smart and already doing pre-college work and accepted at Princeton this fall on full academic scholarship. Jeremy is popular and handsome. I just look like a dork. Jeremy could toss a perfect football pass. I could probably create a perfect fumble. Totally unremarkable.  Even our parents were known to say, “Why can’t you be more like Jeremy?” Yeah, everyone thought Jeremy was perfect.

            As Mandy continued to pet and coo over me about my physical distress, my mind, still in agony, put together a few thoughts. I’m in Mandy’s bedroom. We slept in the same bed. Did we ‘do’ anything? Am I no longer a virgin and don’t even know it? Crap! Or did we try and I failed? Even worse! Or did I attack her in some way? No, I doubt she’d be here all friendly if I did something inappropriate. Or maybe she’s just being nice to the nerdy kid. Well, this is just plain awkward.

            Mandy and Savannah had decided I was too skinny so they began including snacks for me on the beach. Then they began inviting me to the cottage for lunches. Mandy’s parents only breezed through infrequently. Nathan was the chaperone. Their folks were clueless.

            About a week after we met, Mandy told me that they were going to the carnival in town that evening and asked if I’d like to come along. She gave me a winning smile and said she hoped I’d say yes. Who am I to argue with a beautiful girl? I came by the cottage at sunset and we all began strolling along the beach towards the small town. The little carnival ran all summer. It featured small rides for the little kids, a Tilt-a-Whirl for the older ones, games, cotton candy, Madame X telling fortunes and other small ways of separating tourists from their money.

            I’d been to the carnival nearly every summer growing up, but it never held this much appeal before. It was like I was seeing it in a new light. The neon lights were brighter, the games more fun, even Madame X with her three teeth seemed mysterious rather than just creepy. We laughed so much that night that I felt my sides hurt. I beat them all in putt-putt, much to Nathan’s dismay. Then Nathan insisted we go through the House of Horrors. Over Savannah’s complaints of “I hate this ride”, we climbed in the little carts.

            Mandy sat close to me in our cart. There was nothing particularly frightening in the House of Horrors but as we got to the section with plastic zombies moving about menacingly I put a protective arm around Mandy and pulled her closer. She just snuggled in. She laid her head against my neck and seemed content to leave it there. As the carts burst into the light at the end we noticed that Savannah and Nathan in the cart ahead of us were locked in a passionate kiss.

            “Get a room, you two,” Mandy razzed them. Without breaking the kiss Nathan showed her his middle finger. We laughed as if it were the funniest thing we had ever seen. After the ride, Mandy and I leaned toward each other as we walked along and met glances more often. I picked up her hand as we walked past the cheap games.

            “Oh, oh. We need pictures,” Mandy exclaimed as we approached the photo booth. We all piled in and took photos of the four of us, then as couples, then just the girls cutting up, and finally me and Nathan solemnly mock glaring at each other. The girls loved the prints. Mandy said she was going to keep hers “forever”. Savannah crooned, “I love the one of me and my sweetie.” Nathan preened.

When we decided to call it quits and head home, Mandy grabbed my hand and pulled me a few hundred feet down the beach ahead of Savannah and Nathan. “Let’s give the lovebirds a little privacy,” she murmured. I liked that she didn’t drop my hand.

            It was a perfect night. Once away from town the only light was the full Carolina moon, like a beacon on the ocean. The rolling waters were black as ink, washing up as silvery foam. A warm breeze pushed us along. I leaned my shoulder against Mandy. Then I dropped her hand and put my arm around her waist. She did the same and laid her head in the crook of my neck.

            The moment was so beautiful I nearly ached. I wished I could just stop time and be here, in this moment, forever. Without thinking what I was doing, I slowed to a stop, moved around in front of her, lifted her chin with my fingers and kissed her. She slid both arms around my waist and pressed into me. The breeze died at that moment so I wasn’t sure if the heat in my face was just from the warm night or the bright flame of passion.

“Get a room, you two,” Nathan said as he and Savannah strolled by. We began giggling so hard we had to break the kiss.

Over the next few days our feelings for each other had only grown. We found reasons to touch each other. If we had moments alone we would steal kisses. I felt like I was in heaven. The next Friday night we went into town again to see a band play at the Pump House. Nathan got a band around his wrist since he was old enough to drink beer. He had one beer that he shared with Savannah. When Mandy tried to get him to include her he just looked around like he couldn’t see her.

            When we got back to the cottage Mandy groused that she hadn’t had anything to drink. Nathan looked around the kitchen.

 “We got strawberries, we got vodka and we got ice. Know what that sounds like?”

            “Daiquiris!” they all, except me, yelled in unison. Which led to my current predicament.

I thought that if I laid perfectly still, the nausea would not drive me to the toilet again. Nothing could be done for my head. If God is merciful, I will die soon and it will all be over.

“If I live, I swear I’ll never drink again,” I moaned softly. It hurt too much to moan loudly.

            “Said every hungover person in the history of the world. I think I can help.” Mandy reached over to a table and picked up a carved wooden box. She took out a lighter and what I decided must be a joint. Jeremy had gotten me to smoke pot twice but it didn’t seem to do much for me. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Mandy lit it, took a puff and held it out to me.

            “I’m too sick to do any of that. Just let me lie here. Maybe I’ll just die soon.”

            “Take it, you dick. It’ll make you feel better.” I was pretty sure it wouldn’t. I took it anyway. I inhaled a bit, held it, and exploded in a coughing fit. And my brain seemed to burst in my head, lighting up like the recent Fourth of July. Each cough clanged in my head so hard I saw red around the edges of my vision. Had a hangover ever made anyone’s eyes explode?

“Amateur,” Mandy smirked. Although my throat was now as hot as the area behind my eyes, I managed to ask, “What exactly happened last night?”

            “We discovered you love strawberry daiquiris. Really love strawberry daiquiris. After about the seventh or eighth you were singing Kid Rock and falling over the furniture. You were so cute.” She gave me another toke of the joint. No coughing this time. Just very watery eyes.

            “Oh, jeez. Just shoot me now,” I moaned blowing out the smoke.

“How did I end up here, like this?” I looked down at my mostly nude body. I had just noticed that I wasn’t embarrassed to be in my underwear. Well, she sees just as much skin in my swim trunks. And that t-shirt reveals considerably less skin than her bikini, unfortunately.

            “When it became apparent that you were several drinks past your limit, Nathan and I toted you in here. I figured you didn’t want to sleep in your clothes so I undressed you. Savannah usually sleeps in here with me when the ‘rents are around. Last night she stayed with Nathan. I could have put you in the extra bed, but I like to snuggle. And you were a perfect gentleman. A perfect unconscious gentleman.”

Ohmygod! Then I sat up straight, eyes wide, but grabbed my head moaning and slowly

fell back, “Ohhh, that was not smart,” I whimpered. Mandy gave me another toke of the joint.

            “Was I here all night? My parents must be frantic. I’m in so much trouble.”

“Don’t worry. Nathan took care of it. You’re his new bestie, so he asked your Mommy if you could have a sleep over. See? Simple.”

“Thanks.”

“Yeah, he is useful sometimes, in his own alpha ape way.”

“You two poke at each other all the time, but it’s so obvious you love each other so much. I envy that. I could never talk to Jeremy like that. It just wouldn’t feel right. He also might pound me.”

“Maybe it’s time you did. Just saying.”

Yes, everyone thought Jeremy was perfect. But they didn’t know about his lies, about the

drinking, about the dangerous thugs he hung with. They didn’t know about all the girls he slept with and cheated on. They didn’t know about the bruises I had when I crossed Jeremy in some way or even when I didn’t. But I always covered for Jeremy, because that’s what brothers do for each other. At least according to Jeremy. Yet, I was always doing for Jeremy, not the other way around. I don’t lie, except to cover for Jeremy. I don’t drink or run with a bad crowd. I don’t have girlfriends to cheat on and wouldn’t even if I did. But even knowing these truths, I worshipped Jeremy along with the rest of the world.

            “So, how’s the head?” Mandy asked. I drew in a breath to moan how much I hurt, but paused.

“Hey, my head doesn’t hurt. I hadn’t noticed it was gone. That’s so crazy.”

“How about the tummy?”

“Wonderful,” I answered after a moment to check in with my internal organs. “Did the pot do that?”

“Yep. Marijuana, good for what ails ya.” I laid back, considerably more comfortable now. In a moment I realized I was just grooving on feeling good.

“You’re buzzed,” Mandy grinned.

“Yeah,” I admitted.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be like Jeremy. Who wouldn’t? He had everything just handed to him. I thought maybe our parents would have loved me just as much as they did Jeremy if I just made the effort to be more like him. But it wasn’t in my nature. I didn’t know how to be charming. I didn’t have the gift of gab, as Dad called it. I didn’t have the looks or athletic grace. Or the confidence.

            On the plus side, I do have a few friends. I don’t face the ultimate high school disgrace of eating lunch alone. Girls don’t sneer at me. They just don’t notice me. And my grades are good. I wouldn’t have any trouble getting into a state university in a couple of years. I just don’t want to upset my calm world where everything and everybody is predictable. No surprises. No danger. Change usually causes crap to go wrong, or Jeremy to get angry. And it could get messy. I don’t like messy. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” is a stupid saying. It is best to keep things simple and safe.

            “You know what else I like about pot?” Mandy asked in my ear. I giggled slightly as her breath tickled.
            “What?” I murmured.

“It makes me like to do this.” She ran a finger up trailing it over my rib lines. I thought about squirming away but was too laid back to bother. Then she leaned over and flicked her tongue over my nipple. Wow! My entire body arched as every muscle in my body flexed at once. It was as if a live wire had been shoved up my ass.

            “Christ!” I shouted.

“Keep it down, babe. You want to wake everyone?”

“Sorry, but wow.”

“Nice, huh?” she smiled.

“Nice, yeah.” She dipped her head and nuzzled again, licking and nipping at my nipple. I writhed in exquisite ecstasy, trying to keep my gasps and moans low. Then she moved to the other nipple. I was lost in a world of beautiful torment. She swung one leg over me so she could sit astride. She lowered her face to mine and we began kissing. In the midst of this I became totally aware that I had possibly the largest erection I’ve ever had. And Mandy was rubbing herself against it.

            “Mmm. Feels so good,” she purred.

“Mmm,” I echoed. Mandy sat up. Tucking her fingers under the edges of her t-shirt she stripped it off, flinging it aside, sitting astride me naked. I just enjoyed the view.

“You’re staring at my tits again,” she teased.

“Well, yeah. Kinda hard not to. They’re sorta magnificent.” I reached out and began rubbing them. Then I pulled her down to nuzzle her nipples as she had done mine. It felt as if she just melted into me.

            After a few minutes of this, she whispered in my ear, “Robbie, I want you.”

It nearly killed me to say, “I’m sorry. I don’t have any protection.”

“It’s okay. I’m on the pill.”

            There are other issues however, ya know. AIDS and syphilis and stuff. Mandy reached between us and cupped my erection. Gonorrhea be damned, I’m going for! I pulled down my underpants and we rubbed against each other’s nakedness for a while. Then Mandy helped me find her entrance and slowly sank down on me. I was in heaven. For about five seconds. Then my orgasm came rushing over me as I spent myself inside her. I was mortified.

            “I’m sorry,” I said looking anywhere but in her face.

“Don’t be. It was your first, huh?” I mutely nodded. “Happens all the time. We’re 16. You’ll be ready to try again in about five minutes.” She smiled cheerily. And she was right.

“Was I okay?” I asked later.

“Yes, Robbie. You were wonderful.”

“I mean all the guys talk about how big they are, but I’ve never seen another guy’s dick erect so I don’t know if I’m normal.” I hated how all my insecurity just poured out.

“Honestly, men and their dicks. Size is not everything. And I’m not exactly the Whore of Babylon. How many dicks do you think I’ve seen for Christ sake?”

“I didn’t mean it like that. I just wanted to be sure I was good enough for you. I thought you had done it before.”

“Exactly twice, with my boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend. Commonly known as the Bottom-Dwelling Scum-Faced Two-Timing Jerk.

“Sounds like a nice guy,” I had to smile.

“Let’s not talk about him. I just want to be.” She wrapped herself more tightly around me, her face pressed into my neck.

            After a while she murmured, “Why can’t I find boys like you? You’re sweet, kind, don’t have to be the center of everything. You’re just you. Why can’t I find boys like that?”

“Uh, you found me,” I said quietly.

“Yes, I did. I just wish it could be forever.”

At some point I realized that if I had been keeping a journal, the entry for every day would have to be Best. Summer. Ever. For it truly was. Even though Mandy had been joking about Nathan being my “bestie”, it turned out we did bond. I spent almost as much time with Nathan as with Mandy. Being a complete gym rat, Nathan soon had me involved in work outs, eating muscle building supplements and weight training. It didn’t hurt that Nathan had a complete setup of weights in the lower level of their beach house.

            “If you become all muscle bound like my Neanderthal brother I’ll never speak to you again,” Mandy threatened. Since I really was Nathan’s friend, I didn’t feel bad asking my parents for multiple sleep overs during the following month. Well, not too bad. It wasn’t as if they’d notice, anyway.

I came in very late one night, pausing in the entry as I heard my folks talking.

            “I’m worried about Jeremy,” Mom was saying. “We haven’t spoken in days, do you think he’s alright?”

“Now, Barbara. He’s busy getting ready for college. It’s an important time for him.”

“But he has always been with us at the beach. It doesn’t feel right to just leave him behind. I’m going to call him tomorrow, just to let him know we’re thinking of him.”

“No, Barb,” Dad said gently. “Let the boy be. He’s fine, I’m sure. No teenager wants his mom calling him all the time.”

            I walked past the sitting area on the way to my room. “Robbie,” Dad called to me. “I was getting worried about you. It’s very late for you to be out.” I stuck my head in the room, trying to look ashamed.

            “Oh, were you out?” Mom said absently. “Playing with your friend, Ned is it, again?”

“Nathan, Mom.”

“Yes, well, goodnight.” She dismissed me with a little wiggle of her fingers.

I sometimes feel if I just disappeared no one would care. Dad would probably notice, but Mom would just be satisfied that there was one less aggravation in her life. Then she could devote all her time to Jeremy.

            But now I’ve found someone who cares. Someone who looks for me, who smiles when she sees me and is sad when I leave. I am intoxicated with Mandy. I want her every waking moment. We made love during afternoon siestas at the cottage and during my many sleep overs. Our passion for each other seemed boundless. It was perfect.

Then one day in late August my mother said excitedly, “Guess what? Jeremy can get some time off. He’s coming down to visit this weekend. Isn’t that wonderful? Maybe you can introduce him to your little friends.”

            Yeah, wonderful. I’ve missed Jeremy, right? Jeremy who? The more I thought about it, the shallower I seem. I latched onto my brother for sixteen years. I lived for him. He was my center. Then I just exchanged if for Mandy and Nathan? Am I that needy and shallow? No, that couldn’t be it. Nathan never bosses me around or makes me feel bad about myself. And though I would gladly walk through fire for Mandy, she never makes demands or causes drama. She seems totally devoted to me. And Savannah is just the best. And now I’m beginning to realize that my relationship with my brother isn’t exactly the healthiest. I’ve allowed myself to be a doormat. So if I’m addicted to my new friends, it’s for all the right reasons.

Jeremy arrived on Friday evening. He seemed a bit strung out from the long drive. After hugging Mom and Dad, he fist bumped me.

“How ya doing, twerp?” I hate that term but know that Jeremy uses it fondly, and often. “You been moping all summer without me?”

“I’ve made do,” I replied.

“You been working out, too. Look at you, all muscled up. I’m impressed.” Any other time I would have been over the moon. But now it was more like, I couldn’t care less what you think. Still, I smiled as if pleased that Jeremy had actually noticed me.

Saturday Jeremy said he wanted to hang out with me, for old time’s sake. We drove to town and relived memories of all the places of our childhood. It was nice. Later Jeremy pulled into a secluded parking area and took a small package from under the seat.

            “I’ve got some primo blow here. Want to do some, bro?”

“Cocaine? Are you nuts? If you get caught there goes your scholarship and that stuff is addictive as hell.”

“Ah, Reluctant Robbie, got his panties in a wad already. Lighten up, bro. You gotta live a little.”

“You and the cocaine can live all you want. I’m outta here.” I opened up the door and got set to walk back towards our cottage.

            “Robbie, you idiot. Get back here! Jeez, man. I’m just messing with you. We don’t have to do anything you don’t feel comfortable with.” I gave him a dubious look but got back in the car.

            “You’ve changed, man,” Jeremy said. “Something’s different. I’m not sure I like it. Has somebody been messing with your head?”

“No one’s messing with my head. I’ve just met some kids my age and we’ve had a good time together this summer. Seeing you all of a sudden has just been, well sudden.”

“Yeah, Mom said you have a girlfriend. Baby brother, gettin’ some action. Has she got big hooters? You got to first base with her yet or are you still just holding her hand like a little pansy schoolboy?”

“I don’t want you talking about her like that. I know you’re a slut who’ll fuck any girl who’ll look at you, but I’m not like that. My relationship with Mandy is different.”

“Relationship? Here’s a newsflash, bud. Summer is over. In a week your ‘relationship’ will be history. You need to chew on the reality of that.”

“I don’t know how I ever looked up to you. You are just the biggest son of a bitch I know. Just a low class, loud mouth bully. A total loser!” With that, I did leave the car. I kept on walking along the beach despite Jeremy’s yelling and cursing.

I ended up at Mandy’s cottage.

            “Where’s big, bad bro?” she asked.

“You won’t be meeting. I just had it out with him. Told him what I really think of him. No telling what happens now. He probably won’t beat me up in front of Mom and Dad, but I’m sure they will have some punishment for my bad behavior.”

            She put her arms around my neck.

“Beat you up? Have you looked in a mirror lately? Unless he’s as big as Nathan, you could take him with one muscular arm tied behind your back.”

“No, I don’t think I could ever hit Jeremy. But I don’t know if I can be his brother anymore. I just realized what an ass he is and how he’s used me all my life. And I let him.”

“Oh, my poor baby,” she crooned. “I know it hurt, but I’m so proud of you.”

            Nathan came into the room. “Did I hear someone say your brother’s a dick? Let’s go beat him up.”

“Easy there, killer. He’s not worth the effort. But I’ll keep you in mind if anything changes.”

“Just remember, I got your back, bro,” Nathan said. I realized then that when Nathan

said ‘bro’ it meant so much more than when Jeremy said it. Coming from Nathan it was what actual brotherhood should be. And when he said “I got your back”, he really meant it. I just basked in the warmth of it. Why couldn’t I have a brother like Nathan, who I could actually look up to?

            Mandy pressed her body against me and whispered, “And I’ve got your front.”

“Jeez, get a room, you two,” Nathan said.

Mom and Dad were definitely not happy. Mom wouldn’t even look at me. Dad took me out on the deck for a “discussion”.

“Jeremy said you were pretty angry with him today. Said you went off for no reason. That you walked off in town. He was worried that you might not be able to get back on your own. He looked all over for you. Is that how you want to treat your brother? He came all this way partly because of you and you disrespect him like that?”

            Goddammit, I’m done with covering.

“He’s got you so snowed. You don’t even know who he is. Yeah, I was mad today. I was mad at the way he and you and this whole goddamn family has treated me like yesterday’s garbage for the last sixteen years. You think the sun and moon revolve around him. He’s lowlife scum. He wasn’t jittery yesterday just from the drive. Ask him about his habit. You don’t know about the lies or the girls. Or ask him how I ‘fell’ out of the tree house when I was a kid. Or how I had so many bruises because I was always ‘clumsy’. He’s just a bully and you let him get away with it.” I was on a roll, but knew it was falling on deaf ears.

            “I’ll not have you making all these awful accusations about your brother. You get in there and apologize to him right now.”

“Not even if my life depended on it. You can put me on the street or send me to reform school or whatever you want, but I’m done with this family’s bullshit Jeremy worship.”

“Those kids you’ve been hanging around this summer have created all this defiance in you. I don’t think you need to be seeing them anymore. Luckily there’s only a few days left. You can take it as a cooling off period. Consider yourself grounded until you see fit to apologize to your brother. He was so concerned about you, and you’re as ungrateful and jealous as you’ve always been.”

“Fine.”

And I stormed off to my bedroom. I threw himself on the bed trying to keep in control, not be consumed by my rage. I felt as if Dad had sucker punched me by calling me ungrateful and jealous. Where had that come from? I’ve always been content to stand in the shadows and let Jeremy get everything. I let him shine. I’m just “the other one”, the afterthought, the shadow, the one who’s just not quite good enough, the punchline, or punching bag. I buried my head in my pillow so no one could hear me scream. Or sob.

Once the house got quiet I locked the bedroom door and slipped out the window.

            “I thought you might be back,” Mandy said when I appeared on her deck.

“I’m grounded, probably for the rest of my life.”

“And I can see it’s working.”

“Mandy, what are we going to do? I don’t want to lose us, but what do we do?”

            Suddenly tears began flooding down her face and she began sobbing loudly. I took her in my arms.

“I’ve been pretending it wouldn’t have to end,” she choked out. “But we know it will.”

“We’ve only got a few more days. I’m not going to let them ruin it. I’ll sneak out whenever I can. They can’t actually tie me down.”

She sniffed loudly, straining to get herself under control. “Okay. Can you stay with me a few more hours?”

“You know I’m all yours, always.”

She batted my shoulder. “Now you’re making me cry again.”

I slipped into my room a little before dawn. No one’s the wiser. I fell into an exhausted sleep. I was awakened about eight by shouting. Dad bellowing something and Mom being shrill. It sounded like they were both yelling at Jeremy. Now that’s unusual. I distinctly heard Dad say something along the lines of “bringing drugs into my house”. I decided to just wait it out. No need to get in the middle of this. I’m in deep enough shit already. About nine I heard the door slam and tires squealing as Jeremy’s car peeled out. The house was deathly still for a bit. Then I heard Mom’s muffled crying. Something really bad has happened. I finally decided I needed to find out what was going on.

I entered the kitchen where Mom with a cup of coffee sat on a stool by the counter looking awful. Her face was all puffy and her eyes were red. Dad sat at the table with a cup of coffee in front of him. I eased in with eyes wide as saucers.

“Robbie,” Dad said by way of greeting.

“Dad,” I answered in kind.

Dad pulled his hand over his face as if wiping away misery. Here it comes, I thought.

“Robbie, how much of what you said last night was true?”

I was totally floored. “Um, all of it.” Dad sighed wearily. Mom hiccupped a stifled sob.

            “I, uh, well I kind of looked into Jeremy’s car this morning and saw some things that disturbed me. Drug paraphernalia. Do you know anything about that?”

“Just that yesterday he told me he had some cocaine.”

“I asked him about some of the other things you said. At first he denied everything.”

“I’m sure. He’s a very accomplished liar.” Mom sobbed again.

“Yeah, once we got into it and he got mad, he threw a few things in our faces. I’m sorry, son. We’ve always wanted what’s best for you two. He just seemed to excel and we followed along. A parent is always proud of his child’s successes,” he reasoned.

“But never my successes,” I said in a small voice. The silence and blank look told me he was unable to think of one. This, more than anything else, broke my heart. I couldn’t keep a stray tear from rolling hotly down my cheek.

            “Don’t be dramatic,” my mother said viciously. I guess she’s already trying to figure out how this was all my fault.

“Barbara,” Dad said sternly. She looked down into her coffee cup. He continued, “It was never our intent to do anything hurtful. We gave you the best of everything.”

“Except your love. Or even approval.” Another tear, much to my chagrin.

“You must have known we loved you. Was it really all that bad?”

I looked at Dad’s haggard face. This had aged him. He had seen behind the façade of his bright, shining son to the sordid man he had become. I don’t want to hurt him any further. But neither do I want to lie. It was all I could do not to burst into sobs.

“Yeah, it was that bad.” Then I turned and went back to the bedroom, just in time.

The twelve hour drive back to Foxborough was the most uncomfortable ever. My parents drove, taking turns at the wheel. They did not ask me to help and I didn’t offer. I just put on my headphones and huddled in the back seat ignoring everything. I figured my parents assumed any red eyes or errant sniffs were my grief over the problems with Jeremy. Whatever. I was pissed that it was always about Jeremy. For years I’ve lived with all the wonderful qualities of Jeremy. Now the focus was how unfortunate it was that Jeremy has strayed. Even in his disgrace it was still all about Jeremy. Just once, I thought, why can’t it be just a little about me, about Robbie?

            After a couple of days at home Dad began asking me what I knew about Jeremy’s “problems”. After the second time I just told him “If you want to know what Jeremy has done, I suggest you ask Jeremy.” God, I’m sick to death of this. The Jeremy issue was unresolved because he was at Princeton under full academic scholarship. Our parents couldn’t threaten him with loss of financial support.

I suspected that Jeremy was padding his income by working with drug dealers and feared it would not end well. However, my parents were in discussions with Jeremy and there was talk of him coming home for Thanksgiving. That was way sooner than I was willing to face him. The hurt was still too fresh. The realization of the psychological as well as physical abuse piled on me throughout my childhood by Jeremy and enabled by our parents could not be easily erased. I was unsure how long it would be before I could abide even being in the same house with Jeremy.

            Of course, no one asked my thoughts on this. Once again my family is disregarding me. I suddenly remembered Nathan’s parting words. Nathan had stumbled upon Mandy and me clinging to each other on my last day, she crying, me only teary eyed.

            “Jeez Louise, guys,” Nathan complained. Then, “Aw, Hell” and he walked over and put his arms around me in a big bear hug.

“I’m gonna miss you, bro,” Nathan said against my neck. “Take care of yourself. I mean it. You take care of Robbie. It looks like no one else will.”

‘Take care of yourself, no one else will,’ was an accurate description of my situation. Well, I thought, it’s time to start taking care of myself, so I called my Nana.

“Hi, Nana, it’s Robbie.”

“Oh, Robbie, how wonderful. How’s my favorite grandson?”

I knew for a fact that Nana said that to all her grandchildren when they called. Even knowing that, the feeling of love and acceptance that came over the phone was palpable and almost overwhelming. Like food for a starving man. How come I never feel that at home?

            “I’m fine, Nana. We just got back from the beach and I was wondering how you are doing?”

“Robbie, I know you didn’t call so I could ramble on about my gout. What’s going on?”

“Nothing. You’re my only Nana and I miss you. And I wanted to ask a favor.”

Nana chuckled. “What is it, love?”

“Can I come visit you for Thanksgiving?”

“Robbie, honey. You know I’d love to have you all but these old bones can’t entertain on the scale I used to. Even though it would only be five, that’s a lot of work.”

“No, not everybody. Just me.”

Nana was silent for a moment. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing much. I just need to get away for a bit. Get some breathing room.”

“Would this have anything to do with that good for nothing brother of yours?”

I was totally floored, once again. What did Nana know?

            “Honey, I love all my grandchildren, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to their faults. Jeremy can charm birds out of the trees if he sets his mind to it, but I haven’t lived this long without knowing when I’m having smoke blown up my ass. I’ve known since he was little that he was trouble. What’s he done?”

“They don’t want me talking about it.”

“Figures. I just hope he hasn’t gotten you mixed up in anything.”

“No. I’ve been steering clear of him.”

“Good, keep it that way. Come on up for the holiday. You and me will do it up. We’ll do something, even if it’s wrong,” Nana chuckled at one of her favorite sayings. “And don’t worry. I’ll keep this on the down low, as you kids say, until you’re ready to tell your folks. I assume they don’t know.”

“No, I haven’t told them yet.”

“You know they’ll blow a gasket.”

“Like I care.”

“Honey, don’t be too hard on them. I’m sure they’re hurting. I’ll give your dad a call tonight. You know, just Mom checking in. He’ll probably be all squirrelly. I’ll use that as my excuse to give him the third degree. He could never keep information from me when I grilled him. He’ll fold like an old tent. I’ll see what’s what.”

“Nana, you’re the best.”

“I know. Spread the word. Gotta go now. Tai chi’s in fifteen minutes.”

The morning glare made it difficult to see the screen of my phone. I was squinting and holding it at different angles but still couldn’t see anything. It was more than a week since that day at the beach. Mom had gone through the classic stages of grief. She was currently on guilt. She extended this beyond her “failings as a mother to Jeremy” to also some guilt for the way she had treated me. I intended to enjoy it as long as it lasted. She pulled the car to a stop in the school parking lot.

            “Ready for junior year?” she said with the hopeful optimism of a guilty person. She even reached over and brushed a lock of hair off my forehead. It was sad that such an intimate, motherly gesture felt so alien to me.

“Yeah,” I answered softly, getting out of the car.

Mandy and I had spent the last couple of days at the beach coming to terms with our impending separation. After much crying we faced two unalterable facts. One, we lived a thousand miles apart and two, no one meets their soulmate at 16. No matter what they think. The final agreement was to become best friends and hope the romance part would fade into a happy memory. No sappy phone calls, no mushy letters. But plenty of texting, as all BFFs do. We felt this was the best solution, actually the only solution. Mandy said her family would be back at this cottage next summer. I guess if my family survives intact we might be there also. So, there was hope we would see each other again.

            “In the meantime, you go meet some beautiful women,” Mandy ordered.

“That’ll be hard. When I think of beauty, I only think of you.”

“Yeah, use lines like that. Women fall hard for that crap,” she laughed.

“And you go out and find someone who’s not a Bottom-Dwelling Scum-Faced Two-Timing Jerk.”

“I will. I think you may have broken my jinx. Now I know what a great boyfriend is supposed to be, I’ll be more discriminating. I may be setting my sights too high, but I’ll be looking for someone just like you.”

“Better looking, I hope.”

“Oh, Robbie. I wish you could see what I see when I look at you. You are beautiful inside and out. And with that new body Nathan gave you, you are totally hot. The girls won’t be able to resist you. Go for it.”

“So, I guess we’re friends, huh?” I asked. “With benefits?”

Mandy blew in exasperation. “Boys! Is sex all you think about?”

“Pretty much. I am 16 you know.”

“Well… I guess.”

I had sneaked out of my room again and spent the entire last night with Mandy. I left her on the deck of the cottage as the dawn started a slow glow in the east.

I finally, reluctantly released her hand.

“I’ll text you from the road.”

She was tearing up again. “Bye.”

“Bye.” I turned to walk away, my head down, my heart heavy.

“Are you going to be okay,” she asked.

“Yeah,” I answered slowly.

“Liar.”

I relived those last moments again as I had a thousand times in the past few days. I had in a pocket of my backpack the picture of Mandy and me from that night at the carnival. It was the only picture I have of her. But even if I had dozens more, I know this would always be my favorite. It was taken the night we fell in love. You could see all the innocence and beauty of first love in our eyes. I might one day get over her, but Mandy will always have a special place in my heart as my first and sweetest love. Nothing could change that.  As I neared the school building I sat on the low brick wall and checked my phone. I saw I had a message from Mandy.

Secret Agent 007. Your mission, should you accept it, is to make contact with 5 beautiful women today. Pix required. I will determine if they meet my criteria. This message will self-destruct in 5 seconds…4…3…2…1…sizzle…pfft.

I answered back:  Game on.

The question isn’t if I’m ready for junior year, but is junior year ready for me? Reluctant Robbie is dead. The new Robbie is ready to rock and I’m going to take this school by storm. Buckle your seatbelts, kiddos. It’s gonna be a wild ride. I never would have expected it a few days ago, but I entered the school building smiling.

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