HALLOWEEN!

The Hell you say. What’s the big deal with Halloween? Halloween was a big deal to us kids when I was growing up. I mean, wow, an excuse to get candy from the neighbors and eat it until you threw up. Who could pass up on that? And back then you could eat the apples and oranges you got in your bag without examining them for needles and razors. And the dressing up was kinda neat. I loved trick or treating until I was about 12. After that, a Halloween dance at school was always nice. I liked school dances. I wasn’t afraid to get out on the floor and was considered a good partner by the girls. I always had dance partners. And sometimes we’d meet in the upper bleachers or behind the bleachers. But that’s a story for another day.

All the dorms and frats had big Halloween parties in college and that’s when I began seeing outlandish and frequently group costumes. It was off the hook crazy. And I loved it. I was less adventurous. Just give me a sheet and I could rig up a toga. Twine some ivy around my head and, hey, I’m an ancient Roman. Not to mention the toga parties. But again, a different issue for a different day.

            My parents never put up Halloween decorations. Come to think of it, I don’t know anybody that did. I mean some people, like us, put a Jack o’Lantern on their front porch, but that was about it. This was the 1960s and 70s South. Everyone I knew was Baptist and they had decreed that Halloween was of the devil. Maybe they were right.

            What are we celebrating, anyway? All Hallows Eve. The night before All Hallows Day, the day all the saints are worshipped and any saint that doesn’t have a special day, well, this is for him or her. If it’s a Catholic thing, then Baptists are sure it’s a thing of the devil. In Mexico it is El Dia de le Morte, the Day of the Dead. It’s a particularly ghoulishly named celebration of our ancestors. While the whole shebang seems wrapped up in Christianity, somehow Halloween has taken on the trappings of the other side. Who wants to be an angel for Halloween when he can be a first class Satan?

            These days Halloween has morphed into a major holiday. Maybe Hallmark and Hersheys  are to blame. It seems nearly every house in my neighborhood has their trees, bushes and porches wrapped in orange lights. There are larger than life blow up black cats, headless horseman on his steed, with a pumpkin as his head, ghoulish demons or is it demonic ghouls. What is a ghoul, anyway? Ghastly and ghostly heads and streamers hanging from trees. And one house has about twenty skeletons trying to get in. Or are they trying to get out?

            Hope your neighborhood is properly decorated and hope you don’t get TPed. Remember doing that? Of course you do. Happy Halloween to all. This week my story is actually a memoir. It’s about a fun time I had on a Halloween about 46 years ago. Enjoy!

The Ghost of Halloween Past

The summer after I turned sixteen I was allowed to buy a car. We lived way out in the country so becoming self-mobile was an important step. The sudden freedom to come and go as you please was wonderful. No more asking Mom or Dad to take you “to town” to buy things. No more borrowing the family sedan for dates. It was just incredible.

            It turned out one of Mom’s friends at work had a son who was entering college and couldn’t carry his car so he wanted to sell. It was a metallic blue 1966 3-speed Mustang. Probably one of the sexiest cars ever. It’s now a classic. But back in 1973 it was just a seven-year old car. I got it for $500. I was soon recognizable far and wide by my “blue ‘stang”. And it didn’t hurt that girls didn’t mind being seen riding around in such a cool car. I can’t say that I was ever cool, but my cool factor sure moved up a few notches with that purchase.

            But this story isn’t about the car, only what the car made possible.

My friend and I were casting about for something to do on a Thursday night. It happened to be Halloween night. Two sixteen-year-olds and Halloween are usually a recipe for trouble but we were (fairly) good kids. I came up with an idea.

            First you have to understand the situation out in the country where I lived. Our community was about a dozen houses stretched along a couple miles of country road on both sides of a country church. Then there were the outliers farther out or on even further back roads. Our church boasted a constant population of about 100. The local kids wanted to be part of “trick or treat” (free candy, duh) but they had to get their parents to take them to nearby villages where they really didn’t know the people. Also, the people in our community were always disappointed that we couldn’t participate in giving out goodies because no one trick-or-treats in the country. Our church came up with a nice idea. All the members of our church who wanted to give out Halloween goodies would leave their porch lights on. All interested children would meet at the church at sundown. An elder with a pickup truck would pile the kids in the back and drive to all the church member houses so the kids could do their thing. And along the way, they would pick up information about other neighbors, not members of our church, who might also have some treats. Of course, that wouldn’t work in 2019 because it’s illegal for kids to ride in the back of a pickup, but this was a simpler time.

            So, about sundown I picked up my friend and had an old white bedspread. While the kids were inside the church for a required prayer and mini-sermon before the main event, he and I pulled up behind the church. I took the spread and went out into the graveyard beside the church. I crouched down behind a tombstone and waited.

            The kids all came filing out of the church in their various costumes. There were about ten of them ranging from about 4 or five up to about 12. They climbed in the back of the truck all excited. As the driver turned on the engine, I rose up from behind a tombstone with the bedspread over my head. I raised my arms and started loudly moaning. At the squeal from the first kid who spotted me, I began moving toward the truck. Soon all the kids were screaming in fear and glee at the Halloween ghost. The driver, seeing what was happening sped off and the chorus of squeals died into the distance.

            Totally pleased with myself, I got back in the car and drove about a half mile in the opposite direction the truck had gone and pulled off into a wooded road so my car was hidden. I stood beside the road in my white disguise. Soon I heard the roar of the old pickup coming my way. I raised my arms and waved them back and forth. The truck driver began blowing his horn to get the attention of the kids in the back. As they sped by me they were all shrieking once again in glee.

            After they had passed, I drove to an old farm house and parked behind the barn. I went out into the field beside the house and hid behind a bale of peanut vines. This was one of the last stops. As the last kid was climbing into the back of the truck, I stood up and began running toward the truck waving my arms and howling. The kids all began screaming, “Go! Go!” to the driver. He timed it and pulled away just as I was getting close. I ran after the truck a little ways still carrying on. The kids were loving it.

            That was it for the night. My friend had only gone along for the company. He stayed in the car and told me alternately I was “weird” or I was “crazy”. But he had a smile when he said it.

            On Sunday there was still a little chatter among the young kids about the ghost they saw Halloween night. My friend and I never told anyone. So, if you were a kid who saw a ghost while trick-or-treating on Halloween night in 1973 in eastern North Carolina, I’m the Ghost of Halloween Past.

A Pretty Girl

My computer is dead. They could not revive it. They said I could sell its remains on ebay. I’m reduced to depending on this old clunker where the keys cannot be relied on to print and the space bar has all the predictability of a roulette wheel. I’m constantly backspacing to fix things. It makes typing anything exhausting. They seemed to think that my computer was becoming obsolete and I needed a new one anyway. It was only 22 months old. Not even two years. Obsolete? I mean I know it’s not cutting edge after 22 months, but obsolete?

I’ve got my eye on a replacement. I’ll have to wait for the black Friday sale for it to even become close to affordable. But I have to write. And I cannot continue to do it on this clunker. I have another name for what it is but since this is a family site, I’ll stick with clunker.

I should have posted this last week, but well, ya know.

A Pretty Girl grew out of a dare kind of. You may have read Best Summer Ever. It’s posted under 2019 Stories. If not, you should. Anyway, at the end of Best Summer Ever a fan asked me about the female lead. She said the girl sounded interesting, what’s her story. I said I didn’t think there was a story there because I didn’t think I could channel a 15 year old girl. She said “Probably not.” Well, I took that as a challenge. I’m not sure if I really channeled a 15 year old girl, I can’t find one to read it for me. But I had a lot of fun writing it. It’s one of my longer stories, clocking in at just over 10,000 words. So get comfy before you start. I hope you enjoy it.

A Pretty Girl

“I’m coming over.”

“No, you don’t have to do that,” Mandy protested.

“I said I’m coming over. You need a friend.”

“I don’t want to ruin your date. Don’t bother. I’ll be fine.”

“Yeah. See you in about 30 minutes.” Savannah broke the connection.

Mandy sighed. She hated being a pain. So she got stood up. It’s not that big a deal. Not even stood up. Lated? Is that a word?

            Jason was supposed to pick her up at 7 to go to a teen club dance. Savannah called her at 8 to find out why she wasn’t there yet. Mandy babbled something about Jase having no sense of time, but she was worried. He finally showed up at 9. Her mom answered the door and to use her phrase, “sent him packing.”

“No respectable young man shows up two hours late for his date and no self-respecting young lady would tolerate it,” she said. “Besides, I caught a whiff of beer. I don’t think you should keep seeing him if he drinks and drives. We agreed to allow you to go on car dates now you’re 15 because we respect your maturity and responsibility. Don’t make us regret it.”

            Yeah, Mom has a way with words. Lots of ‘em. But she was glad Mom took charge of the door answering tonight. It would have been hard to tell Jase to go.  

Well, alone again on a Friday night. What a loser. When Mandy had related what happened when Savannah called again a little after 9, her response made even Mandy blush. Savannah was her best friend and super-protective. Even more so than Mandy’s body-builder older brother Nathan, whom they both referred to as “the Neanderthal”. Savannah was older and considerably wiser about boys, dating and other important stuff. What a difference a year makes.

            Savannah arrived as promised. Mandy overheard her mother say she thought she’d see Savannah tonight. God, I am such a loser, Mandy agonized. Even my mother knows it.

            “So he bailed on you?” Savannah was livid. Her green eyes shone with fire and her curly brown hair seemed to crackle with energy.

“Not really. I mean he did show up.”

“Two hours late! In some ways that’s worse than not showing up at all. It’s like saying ‘You’ll dance to my tune, bitch’. He is such a douche. You can’t let that go.”

“Well, maybe it was my fault. He seemed distracted at school today. Maybe I did something wrong.”

“Don’t blame yourself. Maybe you’re not the problem. Maybe he is.”

“What? You think we should break up?”

“No. I’m calming down now.” Savannah visibly settled herself. “You should do what YOU want to do. You’re beautiful and smart. You should call the shots, not some nerdy boy. If you stay with him or with anyone, be sure he respects you.”

“Like your Del? You are so lucky. He absolutely adores you. I wish I had a Del.” Savannah’s face softened at the mention of her boyfriend. Senior, biggest guy at school, all-state tackle, bitchin’ car and yes, he doted on Savannah.

“Yes, like my Del.”

“Well, I AM very pissed about tonight. He’s blown me off a couple of times at school, too. But he’s cute as can be and I just can’t resist him when he makes his wounded puppy dog eyes at me. I can’t just break up with him. He’s my first boyfriend since I can go on real dates. And Fall Fest and Homecoming are coming up. I gotta have a date for those.  Everybody will think I’m such a loser if I can’t even get a date.”

“But someone like him? He showed up at the club before we left. He told people you were being a bitch. You want to date a boy who says that about you? There are other fish in the sea. And pretty as you are, they’ll line up to date you. Just take your pick.”

“I don’t seem to pick so well. My last boyfriend cheated on me and now this,” Mandy moaned, covering her head with the comforter on her bed. “What’s wrong with me, Vannah? I feel like I have ‘loser’ stamped on my forehead. Why can’t I keep a boy interested in me?” Her voice was muffled by the comforter.

“I don’t know, babe. You’re a pretty girl and you like pretty boys. There’s nothing wrong with good-looking guys. I mean, look at my Del. But you just seem to always pick the worst ones. A lot of good-looking guys think they’re all that, like the rules don’t apply. Maybe go a little slower. Get to know a guy before you give him your heart.” Mandy sat up and looked at Savannah like she had all the answers. Savannah stroked Mandy’s honey blond hair and looked into her cool blue eyes.

“You make it sound so simple. I thought I knew Jase. I thought he liked me,” Mandy said looking earnestly into Savannah’s eyes.

“Jason Collins only likes one person, and that’s Jason Collins. I haven’t said anything but I’ve been afraid this was going to blow up.”

“What? Tell me.”

“You said I make it sound so simple. Well, it should be, but dicks like Jason are everywhere. They put on this act. They make you think they’re so romantic and nice and into you. Then once they’ve drawn you in, you see the real person, and he’s a shit, but by then it’s too late. I’ve seen him do this before.”

“Oh my god. Jase was so sweet and romantic at the start. You mean now I’m seeing the real guy? That he thinks he can ignore me at school and come and go as he pleases and I won’t say anything? What a dick!”

“That’s my girl,” Savannah pulled her into a hug. “We’ll find you a real boyfriend. The kind of boy you deserve. But for this weekend, you’re with me. Del and I are going bowling tomorrow night. You’re going with us. I’ll bring my cousin Gary to make it four. You remember him?”

“Yeah. He’s cute, sweet, everything I want in a boy except he’s also looking for the perfect boy. Send him over early and we can try on dresses together,” Mandy said through a pout.

“Don’t be homophobic. You could use the help. Your sense of style is terrible.”

“Is not!”

“Is too. Hey, I smell popcorn. Your mom said she was making some. Let’s go gorge ourselves and zone out on Netflix.”

“Now, that I agree with.”

            Per Savannah’s advice Mandy didn’t take Jason’s calls on Saturday or Sunday. She also ignored his texts and emails. As she expected, he caught up with her at her locker Monday morning.

            “Mandy. What’s the deal, babydoll? You won’t talk to me or return my texts. I’m sorry about Friday, okay? I just got caught up with the guys. You know I only think about you.”

“Oh, Jason. We both know that’s not true. We’ve drifted apart recently so I think we ought to take a break from each other.”

“A break? What? Are you breaking up with me?”

“Yeah, I am. I like you a lot, Jase. I just don’t think we belong together. We have other things we want to be doing.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek.  She turned quickly to walk away before being ensnared by his hurt puppy dog eyes. She knew she wouldn’t be able to resist them. She heard him gasp, “What the fuck?” After turning a corner she whipped out her cell and texted Savannah, “done”. Savannah would get the rumors started and make sure Mandy’s side was the official story.

Fall Fest was going to be a bust as far as Mandy was concerned. She tried to be open to talking to different guys, trying to get a feel for their character, but mostly it made her seem awkward and stand-offish. Also, Jason was popular so dumping him did her no favors, even though Savannah made sure everyone knew he had mistreated her. So, she ended up dateless for the first school dance. She had planned to sulk at home but Savannah made her come along with her and Del. A few boys asked her to dance, although one got a painful jab in his foot from her spike heel in response to a wandering hand.

An hour or so into the dance, she and Savannah went to the bathroom to freshen their makeup. Afterward, coming down the hallway near the gym Mandy heard off to her left, “Hey, Mandy. Got a minute?” She looked over and saw Jimmy DeVane, a classmate, a cute classmate.

“Hey, Jimmy.” Then to Savannah, “Go on, I’ll catch up in a minute. So, what’s up, Jimmy?”

“I’ve been thinking I should tell you I’m sorry about you and Jase, but I’m really not. He was never good enough for you. Just saying.” He leaned against the wall beside a classroom door like he wanted her to stay a few minutes and talk. She stepped closer.
            “I thought you and Jase were buds. Is that how you talk about your friends?”

“Yeah, we’re amigos. I know him real well. That’s how I know he’s not what you need. I guess you know he was seeing Charlene while you two were dating?” She didn’t know, but wouldn’t admit it.

“Yeah, he’s a douche,” she replied. Jimmy chuckled.

“Let’s not talk about him. How about us?” He stepped closer, into her personal space. She could feel the heat radiating from his chest. He was summer tanned, black haired, moody, sexy. Your basic bad boy. Yep, she thought. He’s got a reputation but he’s the kind of guy she liked. “Maybe we could get together some time,” he breathed huskily. “You know, get to know each other,” another step and he was very close but not actually touching.

She suddenly noticed how dark the hallway was. She edged a little away, saying, “That sounds like…”

He casually put his arm around her waist saying, “What’s the hurry?” She overcame her jitters. After all, they were in school. She was safe here.

“No hurry,” she whispered. He leaned back against the wall, gently pulling her with him. She didn’t resist, but allowed him to pull her into full contact.

“We could have a lot of fun together,” he breathed into her ear. She lifted her head to reply, but his mouth found hers. She went with it and decided Jimmy DeVane was a great kisser. Breaking the kiss, she pushed him slightly back. With a smile she said, “Maybe Jimmy. But not here in the hall.”

“There’s any number of open classrooms. Let’s go.”

“No, Jimmy. Not at school.” His arms had tightened and she realized she couldn’t break free.

“Let me go, Jimmy.”

“Aw, don’t be a tease, Mandy. Jase said you always came through for him.” He pulled her tight against himself. She could feel his arousal. He attempted to kiss her again.

“He said what?” she squeaked as she avoided his mouth. She was so surprised she hardly noticed he had maneuvered her into the classroom.

“Yeah,” he breathed in her ear as she struggled. “He said you were hot for it. Slow to start, but a real tiger.” He covered her mouth with his again. Only then did she notice his hand was under her skirt and felt it slide down inside the front of her panties. Without thinking about it, she bit his lip. As he pulled his face back she slammed her knee up between his legs as hard as she could. His face creased in agony but he refused to let go. As he crumpled to the ground he tried to pull her with him. Getting one arm free she punched him in the face the way Nathan had shown her. This allowed her to break his grip. She fled the room and ran without stopping until she fell sobbing into Savannah’s arms.

“Oh god, baby. What’s wrong?”

“Jimmy DeVane, he just tried, he tried to force me, he tried to rape me,” she barely managed to get out.

“Oh my god. My poor baby,” she crooned wrapping Mandy even more tightly. “Are you okay?”

“No. I mean yes, I got away. But I wanna go home.”

“Del,” Savannah said. “Get the principal.” He nodded and left.

“No, Savannah. I don’t want to cause trouble. He’ll say it’s my fault. It sounds like Jason’s been saying I’m easy.”

“What? You told me y’all never did it.”

“And we never did. You know I wouldn’t keep that from you. But he’s telling people we did. Jimmy wanted in on it.”

“They are both fucking low life scum!” Savannah swore.

Principal James came up with Del. “Miss Barrett, Miss Smalls. Del here tells me there has been some problem?”

“Yes,” Savannah said. “Jimmy DeVane just tried to rape Mandy.”

“Oh my. Miss Barrett, is this true?”

“Yes,” she barely managed to whisper. Now that the immediate shock was wearing off she was beginning to shiver and couldn’t stop the tears.

“That’s a very serious allegation, Miss Barrett. Are you sure it wasn’t just teenage fooling around?”

“He forced me in a classroom and tried to rip off my panties,” she gasped.

“Oh, well, yes. That’s terrible. Now, I’m sorry to have to ask this but I must. Did you at any time say ‘no’ or indicate that you were unwilling? Or did you lead him on?”

She had been afraid they’d paint it as her fault. She raised her tearstained face, surprising even herself with the force in her voice, “I screamed no, bit him and kicked him in the fucking balls. Is that enough of a no for you?” The principal seemed a little shocked at her vehemence.

“Well, yes. But it’s over now. You’re safe.” Turning to another teacher he told him to scout around and find Jimmy DeVane.

“Mandy! Mandy! Are you okay?” Nathan came running up. “What’s going on?”

“DeVane attacked her,” Savannah told him, passing Mandy into his arms.

“That punk. I’ll kill him!” Nathan roared.

“You’ll do nothing of the sort, Mr. Barrett. I suggest you settle down and call your parents to come collect your sister.”

“I wanna go home,” Mandy moaned.

“I can take her home,” Nathan told the principal.

“I’ll release her to your parents. We’ll let you leave when your parents arrive, Miss Barrett. I’ve called the school nurse. She will want to have a look at you. Perhaps we can resolve this without involving the authorities.”

Savannah, who had been whispering with Del, whipped her head toward Principal James and said, “A fucking whitewash? Are you kidding?” As she gaped at the principal, Del slipped away.

“Language, Miss Smalls,” the principal glared at her. One of the chaperones came up. “Ah, Mr. Johnson. Have you found him?”

“Yes, sir. We got the DeVane boy. Looks like the girl got in some licks. Bob’s holding him in your office. Want me to call his parents?”

“Yes, please.” There was sudden shouting and shoving on the other side of the gym. It looked as if a fight might break out.
            “Oh, Lord. What now?” the principal worried as he and several other teachers headed toward the disturbance.

After Principal James left, Del came up. In the crook of his massive arm was the neck of a very frightened looking Jason Collins. Although there were no visible injuries, the state of Jason’s hair and clothes showed that Del had not used gentle persuasion to get him to come along.

“The boys are causing a ruckus to keep the teachers occupied. You only got a few minutes, Savannah,” Del said. A small crowd of students had gathered around them to see what was happening.

“Well, Jason,” she began. “I’m happy to let you know that you and your best friend’s plan to rape Mandy didn’t work.”

“Mfft?” was all Jason could get out from under the huge arm holding him captive. Savannah gave Del a short nod and he released the boy with a look that advised him to stay where he was. “I didn’t do nothing,” Jason whined.

“The police already have DeVane in custody and are probably looking for you,” she coolly lied. “He told Mandy how you said you two had been having sex and she was hot for it. Maybe you helped him plan it or maybe you just set them both up. Either way, you’re an accessory to a felony, Jason. Y’all are sixteen. You can be tried as adults. DeVane will be expelled and do prison time. You will at least be expelled. Maybe prison also. A pretty boy like you won’t do well in prison,” she sneered.

Jason’s crimson face blanched. He began sobbing, “Oh god, no. I didn’t think he’d do anything. It was just talk. Just guy talk. Oh god, oh shit. I can’t go to prison. Mandy, don’t let them send me away. Please.”

“You mean you and Mandy weren’t intimate?” Savannah asked innocently.

“No! No, no, no. We never did nothing. She wouldn’t. I mean I wanted to, but no. Not ever. I just said we did ‘cause Jimmy was bragging about the girls he’s done. It was stupid. I’m so sorry, Mandy. I’d never do anything to hurt you.” It seemed as if he were pleading for his life, which in a sense, he thought he was.

“All right, everyone, break it up,” Principal James said pushing through the milling students. “Mr. Collins. I might have known I’d find you mixed up in this. Where Mr. DeVane causes trouble, Mr. Collins is sure to follow. Mr. Johnson, take him to the vice principal’s office and call his parents, too.”

Within a few minutes the principal had cleared the area and Savannah, Del and Nathan took Mandy to sit on the bleachers to wait for her and Nathan’s parents. Nathan kept his arm around her and she leaned in as if drawing strength from him. The doors nearby flew open and her parents came running in, her dad outstripping her mom. He rushed towards them shouting, “Where’s my baby, where’s my little girl?”

Mandy, feeling like she was seven again, cried, “Daddy” and ran to his arms. He was built big like Nathan and totally engulfed her. Being enfolded in his arms was the safest place she knew. Her mother came up and began fretting over her as her dad turned to Principal James.

“I want that boy locked up or I swear I’ll kill him myself.”

“Now, Mr. Barrett. Calm yourself. Everything’s under control.”

“Control? Where were you when that bastard tried to rape my daughter?”

Principal James sputtered, “We’re dealing with it.”

“See that you do! Come on, honey,” her dad said to Mandy. “We’re taking you home.”

Principal James grabbed him by the arm. “She needs to see the nurse first.”

Mr. Barrett looked pointedly at the hand on his arm, then the principal. “I’ll ask nicely only once. Take your goddamn hand off me. I’ll take care of my daughter. You obviously can’t.” James quickly raised both hands in surrender and the little group – father, mother and two children left. Savannah leaned into Del and whispered, “Go, Mr. B!”

“So what was the deal with terrifying Collins?” Del asked.

“A little bit payback and a little bit cleaning up Mandy’s reputation. Jason’s been saying she’s a slut. Now he’s publicly admitted he’s a liar. We have plenty of witnesses.”

“Remind me never to cross you,” Del smiled.

The attorney Mandy’s family consulted advised against any action. She said that the school would probably not be held responsible and it would be an awful experience for Mandy, especially considering what she had already gone through. Jimmy DeVane was not expelled but allowed to transfer to another school in a nearby school district. His father, the largest contractor in Middleton, coincidentally made a huge contribution to the athletic fund. And Jason basically got yelled at and told to keep his nose clean. Mandy felt like the only one who received any real consequences. Her parents decided she was not ready for car dates. They would reconsider when she was sixteen. WTF? she thought. I’m the victim here. Even my own parents are acting like I did something wrong. She felt like the point was moot anyway. None of the guys were exactly lining up to ask her out. While they all got a laugh out of the public shaming of Jason, it was as if she had broken some taboo in reporting Jimmy. Even though everyone considered him a basic boyslut, none of the boys wanted to see him called on it. Her parents also wanted her to talk to a counselor, but she adamantly refused. She was not going to talk to some shrink about something as embarrassing as this. She didn’t want some pointy headed guy with a goatee poking around in her head. She just wanted to forget the whole thing.

“Maybe I should have just let it go, not told anyone. It was all my fault anyway. I shouldn’t have been alone with him,” she moaned to Savannah.

“What? Hell, no! You were in school for Christ sake. You should expect to feel safe there. It was not your fault. Don’t ever say that. It was just a matter of time before he did that to somebody. You probably have saved someone else from getting raped by standing up to him.”

“Then why do I feel like the bad guy? Everybody’s acting like I did something wrong. Maybe I did. I did let him kiss me. If I hadn’t he wouldn’t have thought I’d let him do anything else. Maybe I did lead him on. I didn’t mean to, though. I feel like such a zero. The guys only want me if they can get in my pants,” Mandy agonized.

“Girlfriend, look at me. You did nothing wrong. NOTHING! He is low life scum and those bastards let him off scott-free. You were totally right in everything you did. And if others can’t accept that, then fuck ‘em.”

“Easy for you to say. It’s not about you. I feel like that Hester girl in that stupid book we had to read in English last year. The difference is I didn’t do anything! It’s like everybody hates me, including me.” Mandy just wanted to scream.

Homecoming came and went dateless. Mandy went to the game to see Del terrorize the other team, but skipped the dance. Savannah tried to get her out of her funk but couldn’t seem to get Mandy interested in anything. She vaguely hoped her life might start back up when she could date again at sixteen. Maybe. If she could find someone.

The mild Georgia winter came in softly and it was in a warm January when disaster struck again. Del was contacted by a PAC-10 college which offered him an experimental scholarship plan that would allow him to finish his senior year at college while taking in college level courses. This would allow a lighter load during his first football season, when a number of athletes find out they can’t keep up. He explained to Savannah that this was his big chance. She bravely kissed him good-bye and let him go. Then completely broke down in Mandy’s room.

“I always knew he might go off somewhere after high school. I just kept this small dream that he might get a scholarship in-state. Somewhere close enough that we could stay together. Even if that didn’t happen, I was hoping to enjoy at least six more months of the best relationship I ever hoped to have. It’s just not fair. This world sucks. Football sucks. Everything sucks.”

Mandy didn’t know what to say, so she just held Savannah’s hand and passed her Kleenexes.

“I’ve got big news,” Savannah said as she joined Mandy at their regular lunch table on a rainy February Monday. “Guess who is back on the market?”

“I don’t have to guess. I’m sure you’re going to tell me whether I care or not,” Mandy replied nonchalantly.

“Well, my intel is that Brad Jessup is a free man.”

“No way! He and Carol have been basically married for the last year.”

“Well, apparently there’s trouble in paradise. There was a scene at a party at Jordan’s on Saturday. You know. The one we weren’t invited to. Mostly couples or couple wannabes. A parents out of town party,” she said with raised eyebrows. “It seems Carol got into the liquor. You know how she gets when she’s had a few.” Savannah loved to repeat gossip. Fortunately, Mandy loved to hear it.

“I’ve heard she gets a little crazy,” Mandy confirmed.

“Yeah. Seems she was getting flirty with some of the guys. Brad and her got into it a few times. He was mad she was drinking, and she was mad he was a ‘party poop’ as she called it. They weren’t speaking to each other and avoiding each other most of the night. Then Carol went off the deep end. She went shrieking through the house that she caught Brad in a back room making out with Nicolette Sheridon. She said he had his tongue halfway down her throat.”

“Eww,” Mandy didn’t care for that mental picture.

“It went downhill from there. It seems the most family friendly thing she called him was a goddamn fucking son of a bitch. She went on that he was a pervert with a tiny dick, lousy in bed and slapped women around because he’s not man enough to hit men. She really laid it on. And, get this. Nicolette wasn’t even there that night. She must have imagined the whole thing. They said Brad was just ice cold. Stared at her and didn’t say a thing. He just left. She had to find her own way home.”

Mandy looked around the cafeteria. Brad was sitting over at a table with the tennis team. Carol was sitting with the cheer leaders. Even her extra heavy makeup couldn’t hide that she was recently hungover or crying, or both.

“You know how they are. They’ll be back together in a day or so. They can’t live without each other. They say it all the time,” Mandy reasoned.

“Not necessarily so. I have intel from a source, a guy, who said Brad told him he was getting tired of Carol’s shit. He said this was the last straw and there was no going back. He even put on Facebook that ‘Brad is NOT in a relationship’.”

“Wow, maybe it is over. And they were such a beautiful couple, not.” Mandy thought Brad was gorgeous and Carol was just too easy to hate.

“This might be my big chance,” Savannah said.

“Chance for what?”

“To get Brad.”

“As if. He doesn’t even know you exist. He’s out of our league.”

“Of course he knows me. We went together, once.”

“In fifth grade!” Mandy exclaimed. “Y’all were going steady in homeroom and broke up by recess. It lasted what, three hours?”
            “But a quality three hours,” Savannah sighed. “I’ve got a class with him next period. Wish me luck.”

“Go for it, girl,” Mandy said through a smile.

Savannah related over the phone to Mandy that night how well she had played Brad in class and that he would be joining them for lunch the next day. And sure enough, Brad came strolling up with his lunch tray shortly after she and Savannah had sat down. Savannah was bright and flirty, trying to keep Brad engaged, but Mandy got the feeling his attention was elsewhere. Poor Savannah, she thought. She’s trying so hard and it’s so not happening.

As they went back to their lockers before the next class Savannah admitted it wasn’t working.

“Well, that sucked,” were her exact words. “But I’ve got another 50 minutes to work on him. It’s double or nothing.”

“That’s the spirit,” Mandy cheered her.

That’s why it was almost surreal when she found Brad falling into step beside her as she headed out of school later that day.

“Remember me?” he asked playfully.

“Oh, hey Brad.”

“You a walker or a bus rider?”

“Oh, I live just a few blocks. I walk when the weather is nice. It’s overcast but not too cold today.” Mandy sensed she was babbling.

“It may start raining any moment. How about I give you a lift home? It’ll let me make up for monopolizing your friend at lunch.” She noticed he didn’t mention Savannah’s name. Crap. What should I do, she wondered. Savannah has staked her claim, but he’s definitely not interested. She’ll hate me if she thinks I screwed things up for her, though. But he’s driving a BMW. And he’s gorgeous. And he’s nice. Savannah said I should look for nice. Maybe if I let him drive me home, it’ll give me time to tell him what a great girl Savannah is, she rationalized.

“If you’re sure it’s not too far out of your way.”

Mandy knew that word would get around fast and she needed to get ahead of it. So she called Savannah that night.

“You did what!” was Savannah’s response.

“I tried to tell him how great you are. To build you up.”

“I’ll just bet you did.” Savannah was having none of it.

“Vannah, don’t be that way. I didn’t go after him and I’m not going to go out with him or anything. It was just a ride.”

“Mandy, get real. It was not ‘just a ride’. He’s cozying up to you. I know you’ve been desperate for a boyfriend but I never thought you’d stab me in the back like this.”

Mandy was sobbing now. “Vannah, don’t say that. You’re my best friend. I promise I’ll never even look at him again. I’ll do anything, just don’t shut me out. Vannah. Vannah!” but Savannah had hung up.

Mandy couldn’t face Savannah the next day. She packed a lunch and ate it in the library. Maybe Brad and Savannah can work things out without me in the way, she decided. And just to be sure, she left the school by a different exit that afternoon so Brad couldn’t find her. If he was looking.

Mandy was sitting in the library the next day eating a dry sandwich when someone flopped down in the seat beside her. It was so sudden she jumped. She turned to find Savannah looking at her.

“This sucks,” Savannah said by way of greeting. “I can’t be mad at you. It’s like telling a fish not to swim. And it’s so cliché, letting a guy get between us. We should be better than that.”

“I’m sorry, Vannah,” Mandy said timidly.

“Nothing to be sorry about, babe. This one’s all on me. It wasn’t going anywhere. I was just being jealous. Will you forgive me?”

“Of course. You’re my bestie.”

“Are we good?”

“Better than good.”

Brad wasted no time in pursuing Mandy. Giving her the full court press according to Savannah. He met her at her locker, drove her home from school nearly every day. He asked to pick her up in the mornings but her parents didn’t know he was driving her home (he let her off down the street), and since she wasn’t supposed to have car dates she didn’t want to push it. Valentine’s Day was chocolates and a dozen red roses. She felt like she was getting the royal treatment. Mom noticed and raised her eyebrows. “Not that Collins boy, I hope,” she commented.

Mandy had told Brad about the sixteen-years-old rule for dating and he had already had made plans with her for February 20. He wanted to be her first official date. She had glossed over her few actual car dates with Jason.

Mandy tried not to gush about him to Savannah, but it was hard. She felt all glowy when he was with her and felt his presence with her all day after he kissed her at her locker. It was like she could smell his cologne on her all day long. It wasn’t long before Savannah said, “Yep, you got it bad. Just be careful. You give your heart too easily. Make sure he deserves it.”

Their first date was to a very nice restaurant. Mandy knew his family had money but didn’t know much more. He told her that both his parents were successful attorneys so he was raised by a succession of nannies. His parents assuaged their guilt by buying him pretty much whatever he wanted. He said he earned extra spending money doing filing in his dad’s office on weekends.

“Weekends?” Mandy moaned. “When will we see each other?”

“Well I couldn’t very well do it during the week. I do have school work you know. But it’s only some weekends. Some Saturdays, hardly ever a Sunday. We’ll work around it. You won’t even miss me.”

“I miss you whenever you’re not with me,” she said.

“You’re such a romantic. Just one of the things I love about you,” he said, reaching over to stroke her cheek.

What!? flared in her brain. Did he just say the L word? Wow!

It frustrated Mandy that for most of March it seemed Brad was more unavailable than not on weekends. He said spring was a busy time in his dad’s office. He also didn’t pick up her calls and rarely responded to texts when he was working. He said it was frowned upon to carry around a cell at work. He was there to work. Dad wanted him to make a good impression.

The dates they did have were wonderful to Mandy. She loved how all the girls looked at her enviously. And Brad was so romantic most of the time. Whenever he was snappish or petulant he blamed it on problems at the office. But, sometimes it was something she had done wrong. She always promised to do better. He always forgave her. And she could always pull him out of his funk.  

When they would find a secluded place for parking things got even better. Although he pressed as far as she was willing to go, he always backed off the moment she asked him to. They had progressed rather quickly and there wasn’t much they hadn’t tried as Prom approached.

Mandy talked with Savannah about going all the way with Brad at Prom. Well, not at Prom, but at the after party. Savannah told her what she felt she needed to know, what to expect and so forth. By this time she and Brad were fairly familiar with each other’s bodies and she joked with Savannah that Carol wasn’t lying about only Nicolette.

“She got the tiny dick part way wrong, too,” she giggled to Savannah.

“More information than I wanted, thank you very much.”

“And next weekend I’ll see if she lied about the lousy lover part. She must have. He’s so romantic and the way he can make me feel with just his hands is so, so…”

“TMI, girl. Let’s talk about protection.”

“Well, I’m on birth control pills for my irregular periods.”

“And were you taking a nap the day they talked about STDs in health class? You’re not just sleeping with Brad, but every person he’s ever slept with and that they’ve slept with. You’re sleeping with Carol. And I know for a fact that she was balling Jackson on the football team before she hooked up with Brad. And football players are worse than alley cats. Who knows how many girls Jackson’s been with. And those girls probably did other football players. It’s a geometric progression. You’ll probably be screwing half the school. You tell Brad, no condom, no nookie.”

“Well, now that you have totally killed the romance…”

“Just trying to keep you safe, babe.”

“Hey, Mand. Dreamboat is here!” Nathan yelled up the stairs. Well, what’s Prom without a little brotherly embarrassment, she thought? She had waited upstairs so she could make a big entrance. Both boys watched as she slowly walked down the curved staircase. Mom had gone dress shopping with her and had wanted her to pick a blue monstrosity that Mandy thought looked like a wedding cake. She ended up picking a shimmery emerald sheath that may as well have been painted on. A slit up the side to her thigh allowed walking and dancing. A plunging neckline accentuated Mandy’s well-developed chest. Her swept up hairdo accentuated her long neck. Brad’s mouth actually fell open. Mandy beamed, noticing he looked especially sexy in his tux.

“Yep, little sis cleans up pretty well,” Nathan bragged.

“You look pretty nice yourself, for a Neanderthal and all,” Mandy razzed him. Nathan did look dapper in a black tuxedo. It fit well over his massive chest and muscular shoulders. He was doing a super dooper brotherly favor for Mandy by taking Savannah to Prom. Mandy wouldn’t want to go without her best friend.

“Wow,” said Brad, finally finding his voice. “I knew you were beautiful, but wow, just wow.”

“I think you need to work on your patter, bud,” Nathan said. Brad gave him a brief glare.

“He’s doing just fine,” Mandy crooned. “Feel free to continue.”

Dad did his dad thing with Brad, but ended up just saying “you kids try to get home before the sun comes up.”

Mom took about a thousand pictures and cried.

 Prom was everything she dreamed it would be. She was the envy of every girl. She felt like she glowed. She was at the event of the year with THE Brad Jessup. It didn’t get much better than this.

The after party was at Jordan’s. His parents were home, but confined themselves to their room. Mandy barely registered she was there before Brad was hustling her upstairs. He found the bedroom he was looking for and locked the door.
            “Alone at last,” he said. “I’ve been wanting you all night. You’re all I think about. The way you look in that dress is driving me wild. Every boy at Prom wanted you tonight. But you are here with me. You are mine, and nobody else’s.”

He embraced her and started kissing her face and neck. Mandy just reveled in the sensual feeling of it. Within minutes they were on the bed. The assertive way she pulled open Brad’s pants sent the message that she was all in. Ready to go for it.

Because of her discussions with Savannah, her familiarity with Brad’s body and a little internet porn (just for research purposes of course) Mandy felt she was well prepared. They left the light on because Brad said he wanted to see her when he took her. She saw him pull a condom from his pocket. Good, one embarrassing thing not to have to ask about. When he finally entered her it didn’t exactly hurt, but was damn uncomfortable. Then it got better. A lot better. Then Brad stiffened, groaned and rolled off her. What? Is that it? she almost asked out loud. Was this the big mystery everyone is wild about? Yes, once she got past the discomfort it felt nice, but really? That’s it?

Brad went into the bathroom to discard the condom. He came back and stood by the bed dressing, looking at her cockily, like she was a prized possession. She laid there with her dress shoved up around her waist, tits hanging out, panties around one ankle, legs splayed and suddenly felt like a Saturday night whore. She couldn’t help the tears of disappointment that started rolling down her cheek.

“Hey, what’s this? No need to cry.” He sat beside her and caressed her cheek.

“I’m just so happy,” she lied.

Savannah promised her that it gets better.
            “That’s what they tell the gay kids.”

“Well, it’s true.”

“Yeah, I think Carol was right about the lousy lover part.”

“It was your first, and his first with you. The next time will be better. Less pressure. Trust me.  I know these things. Me and Del had a terrible time at first. He was so afraid he was gonna hurt me. It’ll be okay.”

The next week didn’t go so well for Mandy. She missed meeting Brad after school one afternoon. She was sure she had told him she had a meeting and couldn’t see him. The next day he was mad, and remained moody despite her efforts to cheer him up. He flared up once and called her ‘stupid’. She felt as if he had struck her. He was immediately conciliatory.
            “I’m so sorry baby. It’s just when you do things like that it makes me think you don’t care about us. I hate it when you make me yell at you.”

“I’m sorry, too. I’ll try to do better,” she said, but wasn’t really sure what she was sorry about.

Possibly the biggest surprise ever was when Savannah announced she had a date with Nathan.

“Like a date date?” Mandy was dumb struck.

“Yeah. We had a good time at Prom. And the good night kiss was excellent.”

“Eww, I don’t wanna hear that. Yuck.”

“Maybe we can double some time.”

Mandy tried to decide if that would be awkward. No, what could be better than having the three people she most loved in the world all together?

Brad didn’t agree.

“Being around Savannah would be weird for me. She’s still got a thing for me. I can tell.”

“She does not have a thing for you. She’s dating my brother.”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right. Don’t you think it’s kinda creepy the way she’s sticking herself in your life? She’s all you talk about and now she’s got her claws in your brother. Kinda like she’s stalking y’all or something.”

“Brad! You take that back. Savannah is my best friend in the whole world and I won’t hear you talking bad about her.”

Brad grabbed her by her arms and pulled her against him.

“You’re my girl. You’re supposed to stick up for me, not put me down. We’re good for each other, babe. Don’t screw it up. And don’t take that tone with me.”

“Oww, Brad! You’re hurting me!” He released her.

“Sorry. Guess I don’t know my own strength.  It’s just sometimes you make me crazy jealous.” And he walked away. Mandy rubbed her arms, knowing there would be bruises.  Well, at least it was cold weather so she could cover them with long sleeves.

Mandy was worried about Brad’s mood swings and tendency to suddenly lash out. She didn’t think she could talk about it with Savannah because it felt too personal, and it was probably all her fault anyway. But, she decided to have it out with him on Friday. As soon as she opened her locker Friday morning, Brad popped up beside her.

“Good morning, beautiful.” He was holding out a gorgeous, full red rose. “I was an arrogant jerk yesterday. I’m sorry.”

Her plans to ‘have it out’ flew out the window.

“Mom and Dad are on a business trip. I gave Rosa Saturday night off. We can have the whole house to ourselves. Wanna play house?” He wiggled his eyebrows, making Mandy laugh.

“You know I’ll do anything you want.”

“That’s my girl.”

Mandy had smoked pot with Savannah a few times. She liked how it made her feel. She was amazed when Savannah told her it was a cure for hangovers also. Mandy had been slipping booze from her parents for about a year. It helped her forget when Brad was a jerk. She never had hangovers, but it was good to know. Savannah also told her sex while high was the best. So she stuck a joint in her purse when Brad picked her up on Saturday. When she pulled it out later Brad was all in. They were reclining in his king size bed watching some forgettable flick on his 50 inch HD TV, drinking champagne (honest to god champagne!) from long stem glasses. He lit the joint for her. He was being very romantic. The champagne buzz, the pot buzz, their natural chemistry all flowed together and she fell into a very warm and happy place. Brad began to leisurely caress her. Before long, they were both nude. He took his time with her and when he finally entered her she already felt on fire.

When the fireworks finally died down she realized now that’s what it’s supposed to be like. Wow! Old Carol was wrong about the lousy lover part, too.

When he took her home he apologized that he had to work on Sunday but would see her at school next week. She floated in and up to her room. She had no memory of anything else until she woke with a smile on Sunday morning.

The next week at school was more of Brad’s Jekyll/Hyde transformations. He was even more jealous than ever of Savannah. Mandy just made sure she didn’t mention her around him. It seemed like every day he was in a bad mood and relied on her to pull him out. It was frankly exhausting. And she felt like she was walking on eggshells, trying not to set him off. When he hadn’t said anything about weekend plans by Thursday she timidly asked if he wanted to do anything. He morosely said he had to work Saturday afternoon and night. Something about an important client and a lot of paperwork. She’d see if Savannah was available. She made sure not to mention that to Brad.

It turned out Savannah was going out of town. An extended family member had died and she was attending the funeral on Saturday. Well, that means Nathan will be around, she thought. We can binge on Netflix.

Late Saturday afternoon Mandy’s mom asked if she and Nathan would go pick up the enlargements of the pictures she had taken of them dressed up for Prom.

“I never see you two all dressed up so I wanted to make some frameable portraits. They’re at the Kinko’s in the mall in Middleton.”

“Mo-om,” she whined. “That’s like an hour away. Why’d you take it there?”

“Because a friend recommended it. I wanted a professional job done.”

“C’mon, sis. I’m driving,” Nathan called from the foyer.

“Because I don’t have my stupid license, yet,” she muttered.

There was a line at Kinko’s. A long line. Why did everyone have to show up at the same time on Saturday she wondered. Then the man said the pictures weren’t ready quite yet. She played around on her phone until he told her they were almost ready and he would go get them. She realized she had been waiting nearly a half hour. Nathan was waiting in the car. He probably thought she got lost. She realized she should have texted him. She saw there was a Starbucks beside the Kinko’s so decided to get him a latte to make up for the wait. When the clerk gave her the bag she took it to a nearby table to make sure the prints were right. She had to smile at how great they came out. Mom could be a professional photographer. There were nice portraits of her and Nathan. Mom had also sent the photo of her and Brad they had received from Prom labelled “Midnight Fantasy, April 14” for extra copies. Probably so she could brag to relatives, Mandy decided.

Mandy slipped the pictures back in the bag and headed out. The Starbucks was in a semi open area by the food court. She suddenly stopped in her tracks. Was that Brad at a table? Yes, and who was the young lady with him? Maybe a client? No, too young. Maybe a co-worker? That’s it. They must have stepped out to have a coffee break together. The girl laughed at something Brad said. He reached out and wiped a dab of whipped cream off her nose and stuck it in his mouth. She leaned into him and they kissed.

What!? This couldn’t be happening. Not again. Just when everything was going so well. Okay, not so well. In fact, pretty crummy the past week. But, hell, not again. Her world came crashing down. It was all a lie. Why her? Why again? She realized that she must truly be worthless. No guy could stay true to her. Her first impulse was to run home and cry all night. She leaned back on a large planter and felt the beginnings of a sob form in her throat.

No! she thought to herself. He just isn’t worth it. This relationship is more trouble than it is worth anyway. She suddenly realized she had been getting to the point where she didn’t look forward to seeing Brad, but treated each occasion with trepidation. What kind of relationship was that?

 And she was sick of playing the victim. She felt a fire burning inside.  She needed to have it out with that goddamn fucking son of a bitch. And a public place was just fine.

She slipped into the Starbucks, keeping out of Brad’s sight and ordered a latte. Once she had it, she walked up to Brad’s table and sat down.

“Hey, babe,” she said cheerfully. Then she turned to the girl.

“Hi, I’m Brad’s girlfriend, Mandy. I’m sure he’s mentioned me. You must be his cousin Sally. You’re much prettier than he described you.”

Mandy wished she had a camera to capture the absolute look of horror that ran across Brad’s face.

“Brad, who is this?” the girl asked with a voice Mandy would classify as shrill.

“Um, it’s just a girl I used to date. I’ve tried breaking up with her, but she keeps pestering me.”

“Oh? When did we break up, Brad darling? Last week after I left your bed? Or yesterday when you kissed me good morning? I must have missed something,” Mandy said in a falsely bright voice. Brad was turning very red.

“Brad, what’s she talking about?” Definitely shrill, Mandy decided.

“Nothing, hon. She’s just delusional. If we ignore her she’ll leave,” the last two words were directed at Mandy with a threatening look. Mandy just winked at him.

“So,” Mandy said conversationally. “How long have you two been together?”

“A few months, uh who are you?” the shrill girl was getting annoyed.

“Mandy, stop it!” Brad demanded, slamming his hand on the table. People stopped talking and were looking at them.

“Maybe I should leave,” the shrill girl said.

“No,” Brad grabbed the girl’s wrist. “Mandy was just leaving.”

“Brad, you’re hurting me,” the girl said.

“You’ll get used to it,” Mandy said. “And by the way, Brad. Mom said to be sure to give you one of the pictures.” She pulled the Prom photo of the two of them with their heads together, looking in love and dated a little over a week ago. She put it down in front of the girl.

“Brad?” Shrill girl said tremulously, then yanked her arm away and ran out.

“You fucking bitch,” Brad snarled at Mandy. He swiped at her, knocking the coffee from her hand onto a patron at the next table. The old lady gasped and made to get up. Brad turned on her, “Sit the fuck down.” She squeaked and sat back down.

“Leave her out of this!” Mandy demanded. She had never seen him this wild but she was pretty livid herself. Where was Mall Security when you needed them? The place had a fair number of customers but mostly women with small kids and senior citizens. People Brad would have no problem bullying.

Brad turned back to her.

“You just had to push it. You just couldn’t let it go. No, you just had to go and FUCK IT UP! Are you really this stupid? You think because it’s a public place I won’t kick your skinny ass?  My parents are lawyers. No one can touch me. I can do whatever I want. They could buy this whole goddamn mall without batting an eye. And you think you’re good enough for me?” His backhand slap was so fast she never saw it coming. Her head snapped back leaving her dazed. There was a muffled, shocked “oh” from the people watching. He picked up and threw his luke warm coffee in her face. “You’re pathetic. Not even worth the time it took to fuck you. I was about done with you anyway.”

“You bastard,” she gasped as coffee dripped down her face. She snatched the old lady’s coffee and dashed it in his face. If possible his face got even redder. He grabbed the tiny table and threw it aside ignoring the noise as it clanged against other tables and chairs. Mandy had stood up to face him. She turned to her left, pivoting on her left foot as if to flee. As she expected, he lunged forward to grab her arm. She continued her pivot bringing her right foot around and directly into Brad’s unprotected crotch. Just like Nathan had taught her. He doubled over, clasping his hands over his genitals with a groan. Mandy used the brief moment to reach into her purse. She pulled out a small canister and sprayed pepper spray into Brad’s face. He screamed like a girl and began clutching and wiping at his face. He ripped off his shirt and began wiping his face with it. Some in the rapt crowd laughed.

“I’m going to fucking kill you,” he threatened through a voice rasping from the effects of the pepper spray. “When I’m through with you no guy will ever look at you again without disgust.” His eyes, red, distorted and undoubtedly blurred had a murderous gleam in them.

Mandy realized she was in trouble. She had used up all her tricks. Brad was still between her and the mall opening. She knew she probably couldn’t outrun him anyway. Well, she’d go down swinging. She grabbed the little cocktail chair she had been sitting on and brought it up like a lion tamer. She jabbed it at Brad, making him take a step back. She aimed it at his face making him put his arms up protectively. On about the third or fourth jab he grabbed it and tore it from her grasped. He threw it behind him. It went clanging out into the main mall walkway.

“You bitch,” Brad said in a low voice, apparently his pronouncement before carrying out her sentence. That was all he got out before a blur to her left tackled Brad. They tumbled to the floor and Mandy saw an enraged Nathan pummeling her former boyfriend. He gave him two quick right jabs to the face.

“You piece of scum!” Nathan shouted. “How dare you touch my sister! I’m gonna kill you! You son of a bitch! He punctuated each sentence by slamming Brad’s head into the floor.

“Nathan,” Mandy cried. “Stop. He’s not worth it.”

Nathan pulled himself together. “You sure? I’d love to fuck him up, but good.” He looked down at Brad with murder still in his eye. He continued banging Brad’s head against the tiled floor.

“If you ever (bang) touch my sister (bang) again (bang), I will (bang) rearrange that pretty face so much even your mama (bang) won’t recognize you (bang). Got it? (bang)”

When Brad didn’t say anything Nathan banged his head against the floor again.

“I said got it?”

“Understood,” Brad muttered.

Nathan let Brad up.

“Now go get in your fancy ass car and leave. If I ever see you again you will regret it. That I promise.”

Trying to regain some semblance of dignity, Brad looked down his nose at the attentive Starbucks audience. Then he quickly turned and limped away. The entire crowd began applauding Nathan. A barista ran up to her with a towel.

“That was so impressive,” she gushed. “We called Security. I don’t know why they aren’t here yet. Let me get you a replacement for your latte. And another coffee for you too, ma’am,” she added looking at the elderly lady Brad had threatened.

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” Mandy apologized to the elderly lady. “And I’m sorry I took your coffee.”

“That’s fine, dear. You put it to good use. You’re a real spitfire. The boys better watch out for you. And your brother’s a real cutie.” The old lady winked at Nathan making him blush.

“You okay, sis? I can’t believe that bastard hit you. Why didn’t you tell somebody he was like that?”

“I didn’t realize how bad it was, it just kinda snuck up on me,” she was trying to make some sense of it all. “I guess I got what I deserved, though. How much did you see?”

“Pretty much all of it. I just waited to let you take care of it. You were way outgunned but stood your ground. Pretty gutsy. I’m so proud of you. Now, let’s get you home.”

As it turned out, the mall security cameras captured the entire scene at Starbucks. The mall authorities banned Brad from the mall. When his parents were shown the video they were so furious with him that they took the keys to his car, grounded him for the rest of the school year and ordered Rosa to enforce it.

And, it was hardly surprising that someone at Starbucks had whipped out their phone and recorded the whole sorry scene and posted it to the web. Of course, it went around school like wildfire.  Brad’s former friends began avoiding him, some of the jocks jostled him roughly in the halls and the girls jeered him. Suddenly everyone seemed to care about Mandy and how she was doing after such a terrible ordeal. Several people, guys and girls, approached her with raised palms for a high five.

“Good afternoon, Mandy.”

“Good afternoon, Dr. Foster.”

“Oh, please, call me Edna. I want us to be able to talk freely in these little sessions. You calling me doctor sounds so formal.”

Mandy couldn’t believe she was in a counselor’s office. But Mom and Dad had insisted. Even Savannah said that after the year she’d had, talking to someone might help her process it.

Um, no. But I’ll be polite and listen.

“I’ve talked to many teens like yourself who have been through traumatizing, confusing situations. It really helps to talk about it. No drugs, no needles, no head shrinking. Just let’s talk.”

Mandy didn’t want to talk but Dr. Foster, no Edna, had a way of drawing things out of her.

In their second session Edna came to the point.

“Mandy, according to what you’ve told me, you have had some horrific experiences in the past year, all centering around your relationships with boys.”

“You could say that,” she said with the condescension only a teen can muster.

“You’ve been cheated on, lied to, nearly raped, physically and mentally abused. Is that the kind of relationship you want?”

“What? Of course not.”

“Okay. Is that the kind of relationship you deserve?”

Mandy opened her mouth to deny it but nothing came out. She wanted to deny it. But, maybe, down deep, she knew it was all her fault. Brad had once said she could even ruin a wet dream. She was worthless. She was a loser. Maybe she didn’t deserve better.

“I see,” said Edna. “I think this is something we need to talk about. A lot.”

By the end of the school year Edna cut her loose, as Mandy described it. The first Monday she didn’t go to see Edna seemed odd. She realized she would miss the good doctor. Edna was no miracle worker; Mandy was not healed of whatever it was that was wrong with her, at least in her estimation. But she did learn a few things. She leaned on Savannah too much. She needed to be her own person; make her own decisions. And she should stop second guessing herself, afraid of what others, Savannah, Nathan, her family would think of her. She needed to own her actions and decisions. And she needed to respect herself. Edna said if she couldn’t respect herself, why expect others to? Good point. Edna told her that when it came to boys, she didn’t need to remake herself into what they wanted. The face she presented them was what they would come to expect. And how long could she keep up the façade? She would never be happy that way. She needed to be herself and not measure her worth by what a boy thought. Either a boy would like her or not, but at least she was being honest. And if he had problems with her being herself, then she needed to respect herself enough to walk away.

“Basically, if they don’t like it, fuck ‘em,” Mandy paraphrased.

“Er, that’s one way of putting it,” Edna stammered.

There was one strange coda to the whole year that Mandy and Edna discussed. Jimmy DeVane had attacked her just the same as Brad, yet the school’s reaction was radically different. Was it because Brad’s was visual and Jimmy’s was out of sight? Brad had left physical damage, Jimmy only psychological. Edna helped Mandy to understand the difference was the type of attack. There remained the subtle impression that what happened with Jimmy was her fault. The simple fact is that whenever there is a sexual assault, people rush to say what the woman should have done to prevent it. It’s her fault that she let it happen. At first that realization infuriated Mandy. But in the end, it just made her very sad.

“I am so glad this school year is over. I hope to never have another one like this,” Mandy whooped.

“Cheaters, rape, abusive boyfriends. Just another day at the office,” Savannah was the only one who dared joke about this with Mandy. But it helped her put it in perspective.

“Really, what’s next year? Serial murder and cannibalism?”

“Yeah, typical high school.” They both laughed. Mandy’s mom came in the room.

“You girls all packed? We leave early tomorrow.”

“All set, Mom. Sun, sand and sea, here we come.”

Mandy’s parents had rented a cottage in a small NC beach town for the summer. Her mom had heard they had a good fireworks display and was looking forward to it. After that she and her husband largely left the teens to themselves as they toured the area, visited historic sites and played lots of golf. They frequently were gone overnight, but told Nathan he was the chaperone. Mandy almost choked the first time they said it.

A summer at the beach was just what she needed. Total relaxation and a perfect tan for the next school year. A few days after the Fourth holiday she and Savannah and Nathan had staked out their spot for the day. They were right in front of the cottage, a Low Country style with a huge wrap porch, side sun deck and wooden walkway right down to the beach. Nathan had found a group of kids with a Frisbee. He was just a big kid himself and they were soon whooping it up.

 Mandy laid on her stomach and unclipped her top.

“Vannah, put some lotion on my back, please.”

“Such good manners,” Savannah teased as she squeezed lotion on Mandy’s back and rubbed it in.

“Mmmm,” Mandy purred and closed her eyes. She heard Savannah rattle the cooler, putting ice in a cup and the sizzle of pouring soda.

“Heads up!” she heard Nathan yell. She felt Savannah jump and suddenly her back was covered in ice and soda. She was so startled that she shrieked and jumped up, belatedly realizing that her bikini top was still on the blanket. She looked up into the face of a cute boy, who was staring at her tits.

“Pervert!” she yelled at him. “Are you just going to stare at my tits or help?” He immediately threw his towel around her. She clutched it tightly and ran for the cottage, Savannah in her wake. In the background she could hear Nathan laughing his ass off.

The Intervention

I was reading a book recently and religious nuts played a part. Not just your garden variety whackos, but the virulently crazy people at Westboro Baptist Church and their ilk. Like roaches, no matter what people think about them and try to shun them, they just keep coming back. Their appearance in the book made me think more about them and the hate they breed. I live near a Mormon temple. Now, in my mind Mormons are a whole other bag of crazy, but I’m not so big on any religion. Whatever flavor suits you. The Mormons in our neighborhood are very nice people, have respectful kids and even notify us if there is going to be anything going on at the temple that might cause traffic congestion. They are basically great neighbors. A few years ago when they first dedicated their temple, the local churches had an opportunity to show their asses. And of course, they did. They actually held a protest rally in front of the temple on the day of the dedication. And our own local Baptist Church was leading the cause with a sign showing their own take on Christian love – “Burn In Hell!” Damn, it must be nice to know you’re sitting on the right hand of God and everyone else is damned.

Offenses to public morality is the subject of this story, and how we meet them. I in no way advocate violence, but at least in fiction, I can let my inner beast feed. Pull up a plate, there’s plenty for everyone.

The Intervention

The sunlight pouring through our large living room window momentarily dazzled me as I entered. I stopped, blinded. As my vision slowly resolved I noticed the zillions of little dots of dust floating around the room. Does it always look like that? Are they always floating around and we just can’t see them? Am I breathing them in all the time? Gross! Who knew sunlight could seem so dirty?

            I was wearing my Sunday clothes. Dark pants, white shirt and clip on tie. Mama called it my Sunday clothes because it’s what she made me wear to church. I would be a teenager before I claimed it made me look like a freaking Mormon. At ten I just complained that the other boys didn’t wear ties and wore normal shirts. Some of the teenagers even wore tee shirts to church. Then Mama would go off about something involving jumping off cliffs but I never figured out the connection. I just didn’t want to be the nerd. But Mama said if I went to church with her I would respect the institution. And that Daddy expected me to wear it. But he was in Afghanistan. He wouldn’t know. So I latched onto that ‘if’. Did it mean I had a choice? My choice would be not to go at all. I could think of a lot of better ways to spend Sunday morning. Sleeping late would be the top of my list. I had to get up early for school during the week, and early for the better cartoons on Saturday. Sunday was my only day to sleep in but Mama always had me up by 9. She called that sleeping in. Sleeping until noon is sleeping in.  

It took me many years to notice that Mama talked about respecting the institution, not respecting God or the Church. When I asked her about it when I was sixteen she confessed that she had never believed but respected the institution and ideas of religion and wanted me to make up my own mind.

            But anyway, just a couple days after my tenth birthday, on that morning I was wearing my Sunday clothes but it wasn’t Sunday. We went to church anyway. Even though it wasn’t Sunday. It was a school day. Ordinarily I’d be in Mrs. Rogers 4th grade right now. Everybody was going to recess right about now. But I was going to church.

            There seemed to be a carnival going on at church. As we approached I could hear all the noise. There was music, colors, people all dressed up in funny looking costumes. And lots of posters. Mama said not to look, but I couldn’t not look. I peered at the faces and so many of them seemed angry. I read the posters and banners. They didn’t make sense. “Repent or Perish”, “Too Late to Pray”, “Fag Troops”. I didn’t even know what that meant. But there were two that made me mad. One said “God Hates America”. At age ten I was certain that He did not hate America. Daddy told me that God loves the just, and America is just. The other sign, even at my age, I recognized as just plain sick – “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”. What is wrong with those people? I wanted to ask Mama but she yanked hard on my arm and wouldn’t let me linger. The noisemakers across the street reached a crescendo as we entered the church.

            You could still hear the party going on outside, but just barely. The pastor began talking. I ignored him like I always do. He’s a boring old man who likes to talk a lot. I was thinking about the toy wooden camel Daddy sent me from Afghanistan. I liked to sit my Captain America action figure on it and pretend he was riding a camel. It was funny.

            We usually sing songs in church, but not today. Today everyone was sad and grim. I hated the way the people were acting. And I hated that they had been in and out of our house so much the past two days. Mama said they were just being nice.

            The church smelled nice today. All the flowers, especially the carnations really made it smell good. And the color was cool, almost like we were outside in a garden. And the flag at the front was so bright. I’ve never seen a brighter flag. The one Daddy flies at home is old and dull. This one was new and pretty, all red and blue and blazing white. The pastor had said that Daddy was in the box under the flag, but that didn’t make sense. I just received the camel from him yesterday. It was for my birthday. But Mama said he wasn’t coming home. She said he had gone on to Heaven to start building us a house there.

            The cemetery was beside the church but farther removed from the road so all the people with signs had to shout louder to be heard. A whole bunch of people in white gowns stood along the edge of the cemetery. They held up poles with white sheets on them. Standing together they made a wall so we couldn’t see the people making all the noise. Mama called them the Angels of Mercy. The way they stood did look a bit like angels with their wings spread. I thought, ha ha, I bet it makes those mean people mad that we can’t see them.

             Then a man with a horn played a song. I’d never seen that at church before. It was a short song and nobody sang. It sounded real sad. Then three soldiers stood up and fired their guns in the air. I jumped at the blast. I don’t know what they were shooting at. I didn’t see any ducks or geese.

            It was really neat when two soldiers wearing white gloves folded up the flag. They brought it over to Mama but she just shook her head and pointed to me. The soldier kneeled in front of me and laid the folded flag in my lap. “On behalf of the United States of America, the president thanks your father for his service to his country. Please accept the flag as a token of our gratitude,” he said.

            I think that’s when it first hit me. That’s when I realized Daddy was in that box. My Daddy wasn’t coming home. My Daddy who pushed my bike holding me steady when we took off the training wheels was gone. I was riding down the street yelling “Don’t let go, Daddy. Don’t let go” and he was right there beside me. He never let me fall.

            Every time I missed catching a softball he called me ‘Champ’ and every time I struck out he called me ‘Slugger’. And I remembered how proud he was the first time I got to first base. No matter how the game turned out he wrapped me in his arms and said he was proud of me. My Daddy wasn’t coming home.

            Even when he was fighting bad guys for America, we would Skype every Saturday afternoon. He’d kiss his two fingers and touch the screen and say it was for me. I didn’t want that to stop. I loved my Daddy. Aside from Paul, he was my best friend. I didn’t want him to go.

            That’s when I really started crying. That’s when I realized how badly Mama and I had been hurt. And that’s when I realized how evil and mean spirited the people protesting our funeral were. If there is a just God, he must have a special Hell just for them.

            I’ve had a hard time letting go of that scene. I’ve had counseling, I’ve been on Ativan. But I feel like it’s seeping in and rotting my soul. That’s really the genesis of why I’m in jail now. I’m only seventeen and an honor student so they’ll probably give me some kind of probation; charge me with simple battery or something like that. School may do more since their name came up. I don’t care what the consequences are it was worth it. It was so worth it.

            Paul Judd is my best friend. Has been since fourth grade. His older brother Pat was a cop. And he was openly gay. Everybody in our crowd knew and liked Pat. He got killed in a traffic stop last week. We were all devastated. I know a cop chooses a dangerous path, but no one gets up in the morning thinking it is their last day. Especially a twenty-three year old rookie. So many cops never even draw their weapon, yet Pat was the unlucky one who did a routine stop of a drug dealer who panicked.

            Jeanine on our school newspaper was the one who found out the rest, the terrible news that the religious nuts were coming back. I don’t know how she found out, but I guess that’s why she’s on the newspaper. Pat Judd was a double threat. He was having a military funeral and he was gay. They would have a field day. I remembered my Daddy’s funeral. The memory of those idiotic bigots was seared into my memory, still raw and tender. It was a wound that might never heal. I couldn’t let that happen to Paul and his family. They deserved better. They had been a second family to me when my Daddy died. Phil Judd was my second dad. They were wonderful in the way they rallied around Pat when he came out. They were the best of America; the true America. As Daddy would say, they were just. They were what he was fighting for when he was killed. But he was also fighting for free speech, which right those religious bastards were exercising. However, when exercising that right harms others, causes misery and pain, then it must be confronted. Confronted will all force necessary. That’s when I called together my teammates, the Hollyvale High Buccaneers baseball team, 8-0 in the conference. I’m the captain.

            Pat had been on the team, all conference, five years ago. Paul was our team manager. The team was outraged when I told them that the religious wingnuts were planning to protest at Pat’s funeral. We were determined to put a stop to it. I warned them that there might be trouble and repercussions. There was general growling, sneering and even some “argh”s  to that.

            Pat’s funeral was at 2 pm on Saturday. The religious whackos were out in force by noon. They had a significant crowd, probably fifty to a hundred people, all with signs with sick, offensive messages. We agreed to meet in the church parking lot at one. As each of our cars arrived the protesters screamed and waved and shook their signs at us. We huddled on the far side of the parking lot. A quick head count revealed 25. Twenty-five mad as hell athletes. There were only seventeen from the team but several brothers wanted in. I told the guys no bats. We didn’t want to put anyone in the hospital. However, I noted five bats in our group.

            Since we had the bats, I split us up in a line with every fifth player carrying his bat. We marched out of the parking lot and made a line between the protesters and the church. Since they were on the sidewalk, we only came up to the gutter. There was much hissing and name calling and threats from the protesters. Two police had been dispatched to watch and make sure the crowd didn’t get out of hand. There would be a large police presence soon for the funeral.

            Police sergeant Jaeger came up to speak to me. I’ve known him for years.

            “It sure is a sad day, Bill. Now you boys wouldn’t be thinking about causing any problems, would you? You know Pat’s family have been through enough already,” he said to me.

            “We are only here to make sure these pieces of shit stay on their side of the road.”

            “They got a permit. I don’t know why the judge gave it to ‘em, but they got it. I don’t need you boys grandstanding here. We have enough police to keep things under control.”

            Just then the hearse rolled into view. The crowd went into hysterics even thought it was just a driver and a body.

            “You think you got enough to control that? Is that what you want Mr. and Mrs Judd to see? I’ve been there, Carl, when my Daddy died. It destroys your soul. Or at least your faith in humanity.”

            “Well, you boys got a lot of hormones going on and I smell trouble. Why don’t you go on in the church and honor Pat that way?”

            “I’ll think about it. For now, I want to be on guard. I need to be on guard.” Officer Jaeger shook his head and walked away. I could tell he expected trouble. He went to stand with the other officer in the churchyard. Well, it’s now or never.

            I looked down the line to where my co-captain Kevin waited. I gave a slight nod, and at my waist where he could see I counted down from five. At the end I yelled “Break!” We waded into the protesters. Using fists on faces and bats on signs (mostly) we converted our grief to fury and expended it upon the hapless protesters. For all their bravado they were totally unprepared for our attack. The two police officers were in among us, blowing their whistles, trying to separate us. That wasn’t going to happen. I knew backup was nearby and would be here in brief minutes so we did what damage we could. The protesters were in general flight. My boys cut some of them off from their cars and they ran blindly down city streets. We made sure all the signs were totally destroyed. Police cars came screeching up. I yelled to the boys and most of them quickly melted away into side streets we knew well. Within seconds six more officers swarmed us. Jaeger yelled to them to detain everybody. That would be me, Kevin and about ten protesters who were either on the ground or cowering in the bushes. In quick order the police chief arrived, in his dress uniform for the funeral.

            “Carl, what in the Sam Hill is going on out here? And on a sacred day like this.”

Officer Jaeger told the chief that me and Kevin and some other boys came out to make sure the protesters kept a respectful distance from the funeral. He said we were unaware the police would do it.

            “Did you recognize any of the other boys?” the chief asked.

            “No sir.” I hid my surprise well. Officer Jaeger knew most of us on the team. “They formed up a line and then a fight broke out. Then everybody joined in.”

            “Which side provoked the fight?” the chief wanted to know.

            “I can’t be sure, Chief, but I think it started when a protester hit Banner here on the head,” he pointed at me.

            “That true, kid?”

            “Yes sir, Chief.”

            “Alright, Sergeant. Arrest them all. We can process them after the funeral. I’m revoking the parade permit because of violation of the peace. If anymore of those assholes show up, arrest them, too. And get some men to clean up this trash. You want Pat’s family to see it?” They quickly had handcuffs on me and Kevin. The other officers spread out to cuff whatever protesters they could find. Officer Jaeger took the chief a short distance away and had a quiet discussion with him. The chief nodded and walked away. Jaeger came to us and said he didn’t know why he stuck his neck out for us. He unlocked our handcuffs.

            “You boys are still under arrest, but the chief didn’t feel if was right to keep you from your former teammate’s funeral. And I explained how close you are to the Judds, Bill. You boys hang around after the funeral and I’ll take you in for booking. I ain’t worried. I know where you live.” He managed a smile at that.

             We went in and found seats. Just as the funeral was starting the back door opened and most of the baseball team quietly slipped in. There were no more seats so they stood along the back wall. I caught Hunter’s eye and he nodded slightly. They had been to the cemetery a few miles away. Hunter slowly indicated his cellphone. I pulled mine out and read his text. They had found a group of protesters at the cemetery but they apparently had heard from their counterparts as they fled as soon as they saw the boys coming with their bats. Some of the boys had stayed behind to guard in case the protesters tried to return. I texted Dalton who had stayed at the cemetery that the permit for the protesters was revoked so they were free to come to the funeral. About fifteen minutes later the rest of the boys slipped in.

            The ceremony at the cemetery was hard for me. It brought back memories of my Daddy’s funeral. The one thing that gave me peace is that Paul, and Phil and May and little Maggie and Jean and her husband Steve never were even aware of the religious nuts that wanted to make Pat’s funeral a mockery, a vehicle for them to spout their vile lies and perversions. Kev and I willingly turned ourselves in to Officer Jaeger after the service.

            So here we sit in our little cell. I could say I’ve been worse places but it would be a lie. Jail is kind of creepy. As an honor student it’s not a place I am familiar with.

            I look over at Kevin and say “There’s a joke that goes you know the difference between a good friend and a great friend?”

            “What?”

            “A good friend will come bail you out of jail at 3 am. A great friend is right there beside you saying, ‘Man, that was epic!’”

            “That was pretty epic, man,” Kevin grins.

The Attack

Maybe you’ve seen all the stories I’ve posted. If so you know that I had an experience involving a corvette one night that left an indelible imprint upon my psyche. I used this event to write two stories, one a straight up memoir of what happened (Little Red Corvette) and one a gruesome extension on what could have happened (The Undertaker). Well, I’ve revisited that landscape again and come away with another ‘what if?’ While The Undertaker was quite sensationalist, The Attack is much sadder and much more horrifying because it is commonplace. Harming another should never become commonplace. We cannot call civilized any society that accepts this type of incident as just another day, nothing to see here, move along. We need to be better than that. Okay, enough soapbox. On with the show.

The Attack

When I was a kid, my best friend was Will. Our dads had been best friends growing up, and since we lived about 200 yards apart it was logical we would be thrown together. I was a year older and we were quite different, but it somehow worked and we were very close throughout our childhood and adolescence. Will dated Tina during most of high school. She dumped him when he was sixteen. I then broke the Number One Bro Rule. I dated her – twice. It was wrong but she was kinda hot and I was kinda 17. If it’s any consolation, she ditched me on our second date and went home with another guy.

Will and I eventually worked around it and stayed friends. After high school he met a nice girl and they got engaged. Early in the engagement she was killed in a car accident. Will was particularly wrecked because his sister had died in an auto accident when we were young. By this time I was off at college. I found out later he had moved in with a woman in a nearby town. I was just hoping he would find himself, or at least a little happiness after all the crap life had handed him.

***

Will apparently found himself. On his 21st birthday he came to visit me in the small city not far away where I had settled. He said his birthday present to himself was to come out of the closet. Then he said, “I’m gay.” I just looked at him as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. My expression probably said, “And…?” This wasn’t exactly a newsflash. I knew he had broken off with his live-in lady friend and he had spoken a number of times about going to ‘the club’ in my city. ‘The club’ was a gay bar. I guess what he was getting at was that although he was living as if he was not in the closet, he was now announcing it to the world. It apparently didn’t go over well. You have to remember this was about 1980.

When I didn’t say anything right away he sarcastically said, “So, aren’t you going to turn against me like everyone else has?”

I wasn’t surprised by the response he was getting. We grew up, and he still lived, in a very rural, very conservative, very Baptist, very southern community. They are kind of like, hate the sin, crucify the sinner types. I had long ago shed many of the bigoted views I was brought up with. I told him, “Will, you’re my friend. I love you. Nothing would make me turn against you. You’re still you.” He looked like he needed it so I hugged him. I detected a couple of sniffles. He said, “It’s a sucky way to find out who your real friends are.”

But Will was one for living out loud, so he proudly carried on in his community, visiting the club in the city on a regular basis. He sometimes stopped by to see me on the way in or out of town.

***

One particular Saturday afternoon about a year after coming out he showed up at my door

and said, “How about coming to the club with me.” My immediate response was, “Not gonna happen.”

“It’ll be fine. I want you to see this part of my life. I won’t let anybody touch you.”

“Really not gonna happen.”

We went around for awhile until he said, “For years I went with you to straight bars. You can do this for me.” I prepared to argue that this was different, but somehow…it wasn’t.

I grudgingly agreed to go.

He said, “I’ll be with you. Nobody’s going to rape you.”

“Really not helping.”

***

Why was I so unwilling to go? Maybe somewhere down in our lizard brainstem is a primeval fear of ‘other’? At this point in my life I knew a few gay people. I guess I was hypocritically okay they were gay as long as I didn’t have to see it or think about it. Not so much removed from the bigotry I was trying to overcome.

So, I put on my big boy pants and went. We arrived about 10:30 as it was just starting to fill. As we walked past some tables a nice-looking gentleman said, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” He was dressed in a blazer and button-down shirt. A bit old, 35-40, which was ancient to me at 23. I politely declined and quickly caught up with Will.

“You should have accepted the drink,” he said.

“Hell no,” I responded. “He would have thought I was available for negotiations.”

“It’s just a drink.”

“No way. It’s never ‘just a drink’. I’m not selling what he’s looking for.”

“You’re such a prude,” Will laughed.

***

We found a bar with some stools available. I had only sat for a minute when a lumberjack came up beside me. I call him a lumberjack because he looked like the guy on Brawny paper towels, decked out in tight jeans and a flannel shirt. He was nice looking and all muscle, with that little mustache that all gay men seemed to have. He leaned on the bar and smiled at me. I looked to Will in a panic.

“Just ignore him. He’s harmless.” At 6 foot plus and 200 pounds of muscle at the peak of his power he decidedly didn’t look harmless. He decidedly looked like a predator and I decidedly was feeling like prey. He gave me a leer that said I had passed muster and was now on the menu. I studiously refused to make eye contact until he drifted away in search of greener pastures.

“Man, you have been cruised,” Will laughed. Is that what it was?

“Yeah? And I thought you were going to protect me from all this. All you’re doing is enjoying the show.” I was a bit annoyed.

“Hey, you’re doing fine. Can I help it if the guys think you’re hot? Would you rather they

think you’re ugly?”
            “Yes, I mean no, I mean… I don’t know.” I hate hard questions like that. No one wants to

be considered ugly, but I did not come here to find me a man.

            And then I made a connection. Is that the way women feel at bars when we leer at them? We don’t call it leering, just ‘checking them out’, but it’s basically the same thing. I felt so violated while it was happening. Is that what women experience? I whispered a quiet apology to women everywhere.

I had decided I definitely did not want to go the bathroom while at the bar. I would just feel too vulnerable and exposed. What did I expect, an orgy? But a couple of beers settled that. I had to go, no question. So I told Will I’d be right back, and to come rescue me if I wasn’t. I pressed through the crowd toward the men’s room on the other side of the bar. The crowd was fairly thick but there was no excuse for the number of hands I felt on my butt as I made my way through. When did men get so free with their hands? There was also a ladies’ room that did not seem to be used. I hadn’t seen any women. Lesbians are gay. Don’t they go to gay bars, or does it have to be a dyke bar? Or maybe it was for drag queens. I just don’t know any of the politics of being gay.

I steeled myself and went in expecting the worst. What, I don’t know. It was just a fairly ordinary bathroom like in any restaurant or bar. A difference was there were no urinals, only stalls. And no doors on the stalls. I decided not to overanalyze the thought process behind this. I waited in a short line. Most of the patrons seemed to know each other. There was a group of very young guys, probably with fake id’s, clustered around the mirror fixing their hair and makeup and being bitchy. If you’ve ever seen a teen movie with a scene of the mean girls in the school bathroom, this was it. I took care of my business and quickly exited. I endured another grope session making my way back to where I started. No stool and no Will. Oh, crap.

Almost immediately a very handsome young man sidled up to me.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.” Was that his best line? I looked over at him. He was dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, black leather jacket and had his hair combed back like Fonzie in the old Happy Days tv show.

“That’s because I’ve never been here before,” I answered.

“Oh, just come out of the closet?”

What?! I assume the dim light covered the bright red of my face at this point. Without sputtering too much I explained I was NOT gay and was here with a friend. Even as I said it I realized how lame it sounded. The guy accepted it, but instead of walking away, he stayed and we talked. I guess I blushed even more when he told me it was too bad I wasn’t gay because he thought I was very hot. We were far enough from the dance floor to talk without shouting. His name was John and he was a waiter at a local fancy restaurant. He told me excitedly that he had also just picked up a job as a bartender here at the club. He hoped to make enough money so he could have his own place. He was currently living with an elderly aunt and it was really cramping his social life. I talked some about my work with handicapped children. He gave me the standard line that I must be “so special”. I get that a lot.

After a while he moved on in search of prey. I mean, 99.9% of the men were here for one thing only. Then I ashamedly admitted to myself that when I went out to bars, I was one of that 99.9%. Just looking for a different landscape. I had actually enjoyed talking to John. I like meeting people and this is what I enjoy about social situations. Just talking and getting to know people. It was nice. He was nice.

Will came hustling up.

“Sorry, I had to catch up with someone. I didn’t mean to desert you. I see you were talking to John. What do you think? He’s like the hottest guy here. By the way, my friends think you’re cute. They were disappointed to hear you’re straight.”

“Yay, crown me Miss America,” I said sourly. Then I realized my mood wasn’t Will’s fault, it was mine. I’m unfairly putting my straight values on what he enjoys. These are his stomping grounds, where he’s most at home. We all need a place like that. I’m glad he has it. 

  “Thanks for showing me around. It was nice. But it’s time I headed home.” He didn’t object. I think he was ready to go on the prowl also. So I left.

***

It wasn’t far home. A few blocks from the club I noticed a car following me closely. I mean it was city driving, but he stayed right on my bumper. It’s usually annoying, but late at night with the streets deserted and you’re all alone, it’s kinda creepy.

A couple blocks from my last turn, he pulled out of the lane and came up on my right. As I stopped at the red light, he oozed up to a stop beside me on the right in a low, sleek and oh so sexy Corvette. And did I mention it was black? Without the shine, it would be hard to see as it faded into the black of night like it had some science fiction cloaking device on board. I couldn’t help but admire it. The windows were tinted so I couldn’t see the driver. Probably a guy, though. Maybe making up for deficits in other areas I thought enviously. When the light turned green he jackrabbited away. Hey, if my car could do that I probably would, too. I just signaled and moved my old blue Civic into the right lane to make my turn at the next block. As I made my turn I was peripherally aware of the Corvette making a quick right turn a block down the street. My house was the next to last on the block on the right. I blessed my luck that I found curb parking just a few feet from the walkway.

As I was walking toward the steps that led up from the sidewalk, I saw a black Corvette slowly nose up to the next intersection coming from the left. Since I’m the next to last house on the block it was pretty close. How many black Corvettes are running around my neighborhood at nearly 1 am? It had to be the same one. Why had it followed me? My mind raced through about a dozen scenarios, none ending well. There was about a 1% chance it was a gorgeous blonde girl who wanted my body. About a 39% chance it was a perverted serial murderer who also wanted my body, for entirely different reasons. And a 60% chance it was a couple of redneck college students out to roll a queer. Yeah, my money was on that explanation. Had they followed me from the club? It’s not something I generally worry about. I guess you could call it straight boy privilege.

He revved the engine as I reached the steps. The deep throaty sound vibrated in my stomach. He knew I was aware of him. My blood ran cold and I felt panic coming on. I felt exposed. The car was sitting there like a black spider emitting an aura of evil. I don’t know why I got so spooked. It’s just a car. As I stood there on the sidewalk at the base of our walkway the car turned onto my street and quietly, with just a hint of a Barton thrum, glided to a stop in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I nervously glanced over my shoulder at the house. Up three steps to the walk, another fifteen feet to the stairs, up ten steps to the porch, then through the front door and then unlock and get in my apartment. Could I do all that if this went sideways? I expected the window to roll down. Nothing. Just waiting. I was about to shrug and turn away when the doors flew open and two guys surged out. The driver was stocky. Not fat, just meaty, like a wrestler. He had short brown hair and a white polo shirt over jeans. His companion had to come around the front of the car, but he was fast. He was taller and more slender, still athletic looking. Longer blond hair. He had on khakis and a blue polo. One of them, I’m not sure which, said, not loudly but at least audible to me, “Get him!”

I turned and flew up the three steps, fear rising in my throat like my gorge. Halfway to the porch someone’s arms flung around me stopping my progress. It was Mr. Stocky.

“Whassa matter, gayboy? We just want to play,” he cooed in my ear. He swung me around to face Blondie. He open handed slapped me twice, very hard with his right hand. I noticed a chain wrapped his left. Oh shit!

“Filthy faggot! Out cruising around like you own the place. We’re going to teach you your place.” Then I got a right fist to my jaw followed by a punch with his chain wrapped fist in my stomach. Through the pain I realized this was going bad fast. And I wanted to keep that chain away from my face. As Blondie wound up for another blow I threw all my weight on Stocky, lifted my feet and kicked Blondie. I was aiming for his balls but he deflected it.

“You fucking queer. You’re gonna pay for that,” he sneered. Two quick punches to the belly winded me, but I straightened up and threw my head back as hard as I could. I heard a crunch as I made contact with Stocky’s face. His arms released me immediately.

“Oh, shit!” he exclaimed, grabbing his face. “You broke my freaking nose.”

I meant to make a run for it in the momentary diversion but my body had other ideas. I dropped to the ground. As I was on all fours, trying to stand, Blondie got a strong kick to my ribs. I think I heard the cracking. I yelled in pain. Blondie grabbed me by the hair and yanked me up on my knees. He had a crazed look in his eyes. He pressed my face in his groin and rubbed it around.

“You want some of this, fagboy? You wanna suck my dick? You wanna eat my meat? I bet you do, you fucking sicko. Well, you don’t deserve it, asswipe.” He pulled my head away and still holding me by my hair punched me twice in the face, breaking my nose. He unwrapped the chain from his fist and looped it around my neck. He pulled it tight. As I desperately tried to loosen it to catch my breath he walked me on my knees a few steps to his partner. Stocky grabbed my head with his bloody hands and rubbed my face in his groin also. It was gross that both of them had erections. They were really getting off on the violence. I guess I took a little satisfaction that I left blood stains all over Stocky’s jeans. Blondie loosened the chain, twirled it around his head and lashed it across my chest like a whip. The pain was intense and I screamed. As I fell, Blondie got another kick in my kidney. I was on my side and saw Stocky aiming a kick at my face. I twisted my head and he caught me in the chin rather than mouth, but my head snapped back so hard I heard cartilage crunch. They both started kicking me. Luckily for me, they were wearing sneakers rather than boots. All I could do was curl up in a ball and hope it would soon be over.

“Yeah, lay there like a pussyboy. Gonna fuck your ass after this. Bet you’ll love that.” Blondie again. He seemed to be the spokesman for Haters R Us.

“Stop it! Get away!” I heard shouting coming from my house. Jack, one of my housemates, was running down the front steps in nothing but boxers with a baseball bat in his hands.

“Shit,” Stocky exclaimed and the two took off for the car. They were in before Jack could get them, but as they tried to get away his bat took off the driver’s side mirror and bashed a taillight.

Then Jack was kneeling beside me.

“Oh man, Curt. Are you all right? Oh, stupid question. Crap, I don’t have my phone.” He looked up where Ken, his roommate, had come out on the porch.

“Ken, call 911. We need an ambulance for Chris. Some assholes just jumped him.”

I blessedly don’t remember much about how bad everything hurt. I was just one mass of pain. Julie threw a blanket over me, even though it was July. I guess shock is an all-season thing. She also had a wet cloth and was softly dabbing my face. I was still lying on my side in a tight ball. My muscles were frozen. I couldn’t let go. Then the tears started. I felt a sharp tearing in my side with every heave, but I couldn’t stop.

“It’s okay, babe. We gotcha,” Julie soothed. She dug in my pants pocket and found my phone. The screen was shattered but it still worked. She was getting ready to tell Ken to make some calls when sirens split the night in our quiet neighborhood. Two police cars and an ambulance came screeching to a halt in front of our yard. The two EMTs swarmed me and began doing their thing. I tried to relax into their care but couldn’t release my muscles. They gently pried my fingers from around my knees and straightened me out. I howled in pain. They put a cervical collar on me and transferred me to the stretcher and strapped me down. I’m sure every family in the neighborhood was on their front porches watching the show. I wanted to flip them all off. At that moment, I hated everybody.

***

            Everything was warm and fuzzy. My bed was warm and fuzzy. My brain was warm and fuzzy. My mouth was warm a fuzzy. Yeah, I could really go for a sip of water. The warm fuzziness was shattered as I opened my eyes. Harsh light pierced my eyes making me clamp them back shut. Did I leave the curtains open again? But that wasn’t sunlight. There was no heat to it. I slowly made slits of my lids and gradually let in more and more light. Where the heck am I? Looks like a hospital room. Maybe I dropped off while waiting to see a friend. Who do I know in the hospital? As I shifted I realized two things. One was searing pain down the right side of my body, leading to the second realization. I’m the one I know who’s in the hospital. What the hell?

            I appeared to have bandages over what seemed like 90% of my body. Or at least everything above the waist. My arm was wrapped and in a sling. I could feel bandages wrapped around my face. Some thick collar was around my neck. What? Did I fall down the front stairs? I noticed that each breath in was an agony and only slightly less as I exhaled. I moaned, mostly in sympathy for myself.

            “Chris, you’re awake! Oh, thank goodness.” Marcie loomed up beside me. I smiled as she always makes me do, and it turned into a cry of pain as my lips split.

            “Take it easy, baby. Don’t try to do anything. You’re going to be okay. The doctors said so, and they know better than to mess with me when it come to your care.” She narrowed her eyes showing me the evil eye she had given the doctors. I did my best not to smile.

            “Here,” she said, placing a small pad of paper under my left hand, apparently the only part of my body that was currently working properly. She gently placed a pencil in my hand. I’m right handed so it was awkward feeling.

            “Don’t try to talk just yet. Your mouth is banged up pretty good. At least all your beautiful teeth are intact and your jaw wasn’t broken. Mostly superficial damage. Can I get you anything?”

            I painfully scrawled a barely recognizable W.

            “Oh, of course.” She gently slipped a straw through my lips, which felt like hamburger, by the way. The water was heavenly. She pulled it away before I was finished. I whimpered.

            “Not too much at once.” She gave me another long sip. “Do you remember what happened?” I scrawled a large N.

            “You were attacked outside your house late last night. Do you remember any of it?”

            I tapped the N. Then scrawled another W.

            “Well, that could be who, what or why. We’ve established where. Who, just a couple of random assholes. The police have them. What, they apparently tried to kill you. The Why is the big question.”

            I thought for a few moments.

            ‘DAY’ I scratched on the pad.

            “It’s Sunday, babe. You went to The Barn with Will last night, before all this happened.” I considered this. Okay, I went to The Barn. I remembered music and the press of bodies. Especially on my ass. I told Will I was leaving. Did I make it home? The CAR! That black Corvette was following me. My eyes flew wide and my whole body tensed. I started hyperventilating. Which hurts like a sunovabitch with broken ribs. Marcie grabbed my hand.

            “It’s okay. You’re safe. It’s me, Marcie. We’re safe. Breathe deep. Oh, well, you can’t really do that with broken ribs. Hold on to my hand, baby.” I was whining and whimpering, from the pain and from the memories that came flooding in.

            The door opened and Dad and Mom came in.

            “Is he awake yet, oh good, he is. What’s wrong, Marcie? Why’s he crying? Chris? What’s wrong, buddy?” He rushed up, nudging Marcie aside and grasped my hand. He looked so worried. Actually, Mom did, too. Imagine that. Dad started pushing the call button. He did it repeatedly like an elevator button, as if expecting repeated pushing will make it come sooner.

            “Nurse, something’s wrong,” Dad said when she entered.

            “I think he’s remembering what happened. Maybe a flashback,” Marcie added. The nurse, all snow-white efficiency, jabbed a hyperdermic needle into my IV line.  In a moment I felt coolness flowing into my arm. The pain faded. Dad faded. Marcie faded. And I faded.

***

            I guess you’re wondering about my injuries. Here’s the roll call. Three cracked ribs, broken ulna, hairline fracture in one of my neck vertebrae, fractured orbital socket, shredded lips, bruised kidney, concussion, broken nose, black eyes, both of ‘em, ligature marks by the chain around my neck, a chain shaped bruise on my chest and a host of welts, contusions and bruises about my chest, shoulders, back, arms and upper thighs. Seems nothing was injured below my waist other than my thighs. Thank goodness for small miracles.

            The next time I awoke a gentle looking old man was peering at me.

            “Oh, hello. I’m Dr. Goodson. How are you feeling this afternoon?” I was so glad he didn’t say “we”. I tried to speak but nothing came out but a croak. The doctor gave me a sip of water. That felt wonderful.

            “Awful.”

            “Well, that’s to be expected. You took quite a beating. As a doctor, I shouldn’t say this, but I hope you gave as good as you got.”

            “Not hardly. It was two of them.”

            “Well, that’s not sporting. Not sporting at all. There are some gentlemen from the police department who want to talk to you about all this if you’re up to it. I’m perfectly willing to tell them to go away if you’d rather not. You’re in fairly serious condition. I consider it a minor miracle there was no internal bleeding, especially to that kidney. I don’t want to alarm you, but if they had kept up a little longer, they could have killed you. Whatever did you do to make them so angry, if you don’t mind my asking?”

            “I think they thought I was gay.”

            “And?”

            “And I think they thought I was gay.”

            “Oh.” He was quiet for a long moment, looking down at the blanket, seemingly lost in thought. “I see a lot of man’s inhumanity to man here in the hospital. I have to try to put back together what men so callously destroy. Our mean-spirited hatred of our homosexual brothers saddens me the most.”

            “And I’m not even gay.”

            “Such sadness today. Now, about the police?”

            “Let them in. I’ll have to talk to them sometime. Is my Dad here? I’d like him to be here, too.”

            “I’ll send them all in.”

            After he closed the door, it was opened by Dad.

            “Hey, sport. You’re looking better already.”

            “You’re an awful liar, Dad,” I had to grin, which caused me then to cry out in pain.

            A short, matronly woman in a burgundy dress suit and a tall, younger man, snazzy dresser came in.

            “Hello, Mr. Barton. Can I call you Chris? I’m Detective Karen Garza and this is my partner, Detective Blaine Williams.”

            “I’d shake, but, well, you know,” I said.

            “We’d like to talk to you about what went on outside your house yesterday, if you don’t mind. Get the sequence straight, that sort of thing. Do you mind if the gentleman steps out to give us some privacy?” She was all business.

            “He’s my dad. He stays.”

            “You’re over 18, you don’t need a parent present anymore. It’s usual to talk alone.”

            “Dad stays. I’m not steady yet.” Something about Garza rubbed me the wrong way. I’m sure she’s a great detective. I’d just like my dad standing by.

            “OK. If that’s what you want. I understand from Ms. Marcia Grant that you were at a local gay bar on Saturday night. Is that correct?”

            “Yes.”

            “Are you gay?”

            “I hardly think that’s relevant,” my dad interrupted.

            “Please let us handle this, Mr. Barton.”

            “No, I’m not gay. Marcie’s my fiancée. I went because a friend wanted me to go with him.”

            “Did you talk to anyone or make any contacts while there?
            “Of course I talked to people. I’m not a jerk. But no I didn’t make any contacts. I didn’t make any agreements to go home and fuck anybody, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

            “No need to get defensive, Chris. I’m just trying to get all the facts.”

            “Then why am I suddenly feeling on trial? Dad, I don’t feel well. Get the doc.” There was then general confusion as the doctor and his nurse had to literally push the detectives out of my room.

            “Are you going to be okay now, son?” Dad asked.

            “Yeah. She was just making my head hurt.”

            “I could tell you didn’t care for her. I don’t think she’s had a lot of experience with teenage boys.” Dad, being catty?

            “Meow,” I said. He grinned.

            “Maybe Williams can try later.”

            Later that evening they came back and Williams led the questioning. I hit it off with him and we were talking like friends in no time. Garza was silent, shooting daggers at me with her eyes. He got all the particulars of the fight. Once the police had shown up Saturday night, Jack had told them about the Corvette, now minus a side mirror and rear taillight. They put out an apb and had the guys in no time.

            “Now, Chris. I’m going to show you some pictures. The men who attacked you may or may not be in these photos. I have several sets. Take all the time you want. If you need to go back just say so.”

            “Okay.” He laid a 12 inch by 18 inch sheet of cardboard on the tray on my bed. There were two rows of four pictures each. All were well groomed young men in their late teens and twenties. As soon as I glanced down I zeroed on Stocky in the second row.

            “That’s the guy who was driving the car.” Williams put an orange dot on the picture. He had me initial it. Still difficult with my left hand.

            The second set of pictures took longer. They were all blond. At first I was thinking my Blondie wasn’t there. Then I noticed number two on the top row. He was very handsome. Then when I remembered the sneer on my attacker’s face and transferred it to this guy, I realized it was him.

            “That’s him.”

            “You’re sure.”

            “Yeah, he’s the one with the chain. Seemed like the ringleader.” We did the orange dot thing again.

            “Thanks, Chris. That’s all for now. A rep from the DA’s office will want to see you in a few days about charges.” Oh, joy.

***

            The next day they let Will in. He had been frantic to see me but it was family only. The nurse had told him “like a brother” didn’t count.

            “Oh, shit, man. It’s all my fault. I’ll never forgive myself. I know you can’t. But I’m so, so sorry. You know I’d never in the world do something to hurt you. I’d rather they’d beat me up. Supposed they killed you? I’d never get over that. Not losing Scott and then you in one year.”

I had trouble breaking through Will’s apologies to tell him it was okay.

            “It’s not your fault. It’s the guys that jumped me. They were gonna do somebody that night. If not me, then somebody else.”

            “I still feel totally responsible. If I hadn’t asked, you would’ve never been on their radar. I put you in harm’s way.”

            “Will, if you don’t stop it then I WILL get mad. The only ones to blame are those two assholes who wanted to beat up a gay person.”

            “And that’s the injustice of it. You aren’t even gay.”

            “So if I was gay, then it would be okay?”

            “That’s not what I’m saying.”

            “Yeah, it is. You’ve bought in on what the world has been saying, that gay people are lesser people. That they deserve to be mistreated. If it had been a gay guy beat up it would just be business as usual. That’s so fucked up, dude. Check deep in your heart, bro. How do you value gay people? Show me some of that gay pride.”

            “With you laying there all wrapped up in bandages, I can’t even hate you. Damn it.”

***

            I was only in the hospital for a week when insurance wrongly determined I could take care of myself and I was discharged. Dad had decided I would come home so he and Mom could take care of me. I shuddered at the thought of being left in Mom’s care all day long. I told Dad I was staying in my own place.

            “But you need assistance with just about everything. Who’s going to do that? Your housemates have their own lives to tend to.

            “I’ll be there, Mr, Barton,” Marcie spoke up. “Chris’s going to be my husband, and I consider him that already. I’ll stay with him as long as necessary. I’ve already put in notice at the card shop.”

            “You’re sure, babe?” I asked. “You know how your parents feel.”

            “I’ve told them they don’t get a say in this. You’re my life. In sickness and health. What kind of fiancée would I be to just leave you hanging? Do you even think I could do that?”

            “No, I don’t think you could. I know if it were the other way around I’d move heaven and earth to be at your side. You are my all.”

            “Oh brother. Has anybody told you guys that you’re way too mushy?” Dad said, standing up. “I’ll be out in the hall when the lovefest is over. The least I can do is get you settled back in your apartment.”

***

            Once I was in my apartment, Marcie moved in as she said. I had a single bed which was too small for two people. I told Marcie I didn’t mind cuddling, but she said I needed room to move until my ribs and arm were healed. She took the sofa. She daily checked and changed the bandages on my ribs and arm, helped me bathe and cook. What helped most was when the night terrors came. I started having nightmares about being stalked. Even she had difficulty settling me down after an episode.

The bandages were eventually removed from my face and all the bruises progressed through their color palette of black, purple, green and yellow. Within a month I was doing most of my care and the nightmares had receded. School was back in session but seeing as I was only a teacher’s aide I could come in a little later an get off a little earlier for the short term.

            “I think it’s time for me to move back to my dorm,” she told me about a month after school began.

            “In a few more days. First I want a little more practice cuddling all night in a single bed.” I looked at her hopefully.

            “You drive a hard bargain mister. All right. One more week,” she smiled.

***

            I asked the assistant DA what would happen to my assailants, Brendan Langdon and Kevin Adams. It was coming up on elections so the DA wanted to go full blast on them. The assistant DA said they had a slew of lesser battery charges but there were a few biggies.

“Since they followed you it’s stalking and bringing a weapon, the chain, implies intent which leads to premeditation. The doctor says that if it hadn’t been broken up, you might have died. That makes it attempted murder, first degree. That’s a life sentence. And on top of that, it was a hate crime resulting in serious injury. Another twenty years. These two boys will probably never see daylight again. When they and their families were told this the boys turned as white as sheets and then became red faced as they bawled. Their lawyers immediately began asking for a deal. The DA’s not interested. He’s got this one in the bag,” he told me. I actually felt bad for them. They were just boys, younger than me. Nineteen is so young to be ruined. Too young.

***

            In the end both boys agreed to plead guilty if the DA didn’t push for the maximum sentences. Even then, they could each expect fifteen to twenty years in prison. I couldn’t shake the absolute waste of it all.

            “They deserve that and everything they get,” exclaimed Will, in my room. He was excitedly bouncing while sitting on the edge of my bed. “Those fucking assholes tried to kill you. They should be strung up by their nuts. Or horsewhipped. The funniest irony is that they beat you up thinking you were gay, and in a few weeks they’ll be taking dick down the throat and up the ass all day and night. Those two pretty boys will be real popular on their cell block.”

            “Will, shut up! Just stop it, okay? I don’t want to hear any more of that crap. This is my trial, not yours, dammit.” I think I’ve hardly ever been mad at Will before. “This is not the time for you to try to settle old scores, to get revenge for every gay bashing crime you’ve ever experienced. This is about me and two poor sons of bitches who got carried away and now are paying an awful price. It’s tearing me up, so just stop it.” By then there were tears in my voice and my eyes.

            “Hey, bro,” he said, putting an arm around me and making me sit on the bed. He gently pulled my head into his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to upset you. It’ll be okay. We’ll get past this. Just lean on me. You’ll be okay.”

            “But will they?”

***

Since there was no trial the court went directly to sentencing. Before the boys were sentenced they were allowed to have character witnesses speak before the judge. It was the usual group of mother, sister, girlfriend. A lot of talk about what a good boy he was. Trying to personalize them before the judge. I have to admit I didn’t hear a lot of it. I was stuck in my head.

Once they had all said their pieces, mixed with lots of tears, the attorney said they were done. The DA stood and said, “Your Honor, my client, the victim of this crime would also like to address the Court.”

“Proceed,” the judge said.

I stood up and tried to read the paper I had written. It was difficult because I was shaking so hard. I wasn’t exactly nervous, but upset. This whole ordeal had been awful for me. I couldn’t imagine how it had been for Brendan and Kevin and their families. I hated it.

“Your Honor, I am the victim of the crime of assault. Brendan and Kevin attacked me outside my home in July. Through this process called the justice system, I have seen the devastating effect it has had on them and their families. I am appalled. I am appalled that in the twenty-first century we still treat people like animals. Like some disposable thing that can just be tossed aside if it can’t be easily fixed. Brendan and Kevin aren’t men, they’re just boys. Like me. As part of these hearings they have stood and apologized to me. I know they were required to by the court but I sensed true remorse. Not like the thief who isn’t sorry he stole but very sorry he got caught, I’ve seen it in their faces and voices. They have realized how awful they screwed up and would do anything for a do over. Well, I want to give them one.

“If you send these two to prison for any amount of time, their lives are ruined, their lives are over. As young as they are they will be sexually assaulted and come out jaded, hardened, hate-filled criminals. They’ll have nothing to live for and blame the world for it. Can’t we think about fixing them rather than throwing them away? In a sociology course I took the professor said that a society that did not apply mercy to justice was headed toward tyranny.

“Brendan and Kevin. I accept your apology. I forgive you fully for what you did. I wish you no ill. I’ve had too many years of carrying around a load of hate. I’m done with that. Judge, please temper your justice with a little mercy. Thank you.” There was stunned silence for a moment and then many people broke out in applause. The judge angrily banged her gavel demanding silence. As order was restored, I could still hear Brendan’s mom sobbing loudly.

“I must say I’m astonished,” the judge finally said. “In all my years on the bench I’ve never had the victim of such a violent crime ask for mercy for his assailants. That is a true sign of grace. You are a remarkable young man and these two miscreants awaiting sentencing should take a page from your book. All right. The convicted will stand to receive their sentences.” Both Brendan, Kevin and their attorneys stood at the table to my right. Dressed in nice suits they looked as innocent as choirboys. The kind of boy any man would want his daughter to bring home. I didn’t have any illusions about them, however. What they did was disgusting and evil. But I feel they were too young to fully understand the repercussions of their actions. Brendan is just a follower and happened to follow the wrong person. Kevin is mean, but he can change if he wants to; if he accepts that he either has to change or spend his life in prison. If it will save these two boys’ lives then I’m willing to chance it.

“Mr. Langdon and Mr. Adams. The nature of this crime disgusts and disturbs me,” began the judge. “Beating someone nearly to death because they might be gay is beyond the pale for any civilized society or person. However, two of our children, you two, have learned somewhere, whether at home, school or elsewhere, that it is acceptable. That it is a reasonable Saturday night pastime. My first impulse it to apply the maximum sentence just for the sheer meanness of what you did. The plea for mercy from the victim may be misplaced. He apparently sees something in you that I don’t. But he is correct that justice must be tempered with mercy.

“Mr. Langdon and Mr. Adams. To save time I am giving you both the same sentence because you jointly entered this evil deed. On the conviction of attempted murder, first degree I sentence you each to fifteen years in a maximum security penitentiary of this states choosing. On the conviction of committing a hate crime resulting in grievous injury I sentence you each to ten years in said penitentiary. On the conviction of stalking with intent to cause harm, I sentence you to one year. I have combined all the other convictions into one and sentence you to one year for those.” Both Brendan and Kevin had their heads bowed during sentencing and Brendan was quietly sobbing. “Consecutively that is thirty-two years, but I also rule that they be served concurrently. As the hate crime was sexually based you will be labelled as sex offenders. That is the sentence I had walking into the Court today. Now, hearing Mr. Barton, I would like to amend that sentence slightly.

“Brendan and Kevin, I am suspending that sentence and converting it to ten year’s probation. Instead you will serve one year,” there were audible gasps around the courtroom, “a full 365 days, no time off for good behavior or time already served. Instead of going to a maximum sentence prison where you would no doubt be gang raped before the day is out, I am remanding you to the county jail system, to reside there for the length of your incarceration. The most dangerous criminal your will meet there is a drunk or pickpocket. You will be housed separately and are to have no interaction with each other for the length of your probations. And Brendan, in your own interest, you should make it a permanent separation. You will be required to successfully complete a number of diversity and anger management trainings. Once completed your records will be sealed. Hopefully this will serve as a wake-up call and allow you two young men to redeem yourselves and rejoin society. Don’t thank me, thank Mr. Barton. He sees something worth saving in you that I must say I fail to recognize.

“Mr. Barton. Is that enough mercy for you?” she asked looking down at me.

“Yes, your Honor.”

“All right then. Bailiff, remove them.” The bailiff walked over to the defense table and put handcuffs on both Brendan and Kevin. As they were being led out, Brendan looked back and called, “Chris. Thank you.”

            “Court adjourned,” she said and banged her gavel. There was an immediate uproar in the room. Dad leaned over the railing and hugged me.

            “Well done son. I’m so proud of you.” As he was disentangling himself the assistant DA put his hand on my shoulder.

            “The attorneys for the accused said the families wanted to speak with you. Your choice.”

            “Me? Why?”

            “Well, my guess is to thank you. You just saved those boys’ asses. Literally.”

            “Well, sure, I guess.” I didn’t know what I’d say to them. I had kinda hoped I was done. I’d seen the families all through the few days of proceedings and felt terribly sad for them. I hoped this outcome would give them some relief. Mr. and Mrs. Langdon came up first. They both still had tears running down their faces.

            “Chris Barton. I cannot find the words to thank you enough for what you have done. You have saved our son’s life,” he said. Mrs. Langdon just threw her arms around my neck and wept on my shoulder. I patted her a few times until Mr. Langdon pulled her away.

            Mr. Adams was a bit more stoic.

            “Son, that was a brave thing you did. I know Kevin’s got problems. Since his mom died I’ve spoiled him. I knew he was getting into meanness but I never knew that it was this bad. I’m a wealthy man, but all my money couldn’t buy him what you freely gave him. We have a chance to get him back on track. You can’t put a price tag on that. But if there is anything I can do for you, anything you need, just name it. Maybe your tuition?”

            “No sir.” I wasn’t sure if I should be offended that he wanted to pay me for what I did. But I decided some good could come from this. “However, I would ask that you make a contribution to the Boston LGBTQI Alliance. Give whatever your heart tells you to. It may help another kid avoid Kevin’s mistake.”

            “Consider it done. Mr. Barton,” he said turning to my dad. He reached out and shook his hand. “You have a mighty fine son here. You must be so proud.”

            “Yes, he’s tops in my book,” Dad said.

            “Hopefully one day I can say that about Kevin,” he answered. Then he shook my hand and walked away.

            As Dad turned to gather up his notes, Mom laid her hand on my shoulder. “That was a very good think you did, son. I hope you know I’m proud of you, too.”

***

Over time, the terror, and it was terror, I had experienced faded. I still think Corvettes are the sexiest car around, but no matter how long I live, the sight of a black Corvette will send a little frisson of fear up my spine.

On the whole I think I learned some pretty valuable lessons from this. First, I felt totally violated by Joe when he checked me out at the bar. I felt like a piece of meat being evaluated. Never mind that I apparently passed inspection, no one should be made to feel that way. I’m sure I’ve put any number of women in that position in my time (well, not since I reconnected with Marcie) and am resolved to do better. Second I think I may have experienced in a small way the fear all gay people live with every day. That any moment violence may overtake you for no reason. That society has determined that it is open season on you, go out at your own risk. That is no way for people to have to live. I need to do better there, also.

            And my third lesson? All good boys should be home by eleven on Saturday night.

Incident at Sweet Creek

This story is somewhat of a memoir. It happened when I was young. All the various parts of the story are absolutely true. I have chosen to write it as first person narrative, putting myself in Gary’s position. The characters other than Gary and Cindy are composites of people I have known. Gary and Cindy are very true. Gary is a friend and I dated Cindy a few times one summer.

Incident at Sweet Creek

1972

            The wind blew through my hair as I cruised through the countryside. My hair now covered the tips of my ears and tickled at the collar. At the end of the school year I was letting my “seminary cut” grow out. Getting shaggy for the summer.

            I turned my green ‘69 Impala off I-95 at one of the last exits before the Virginia state line. The exit said Milledgeville, 6 miles. Milledgeville is a failed town. The South is full of them. Two US highways meet there and once there were two thriving truckstops. However, the interstate bypassed it and the truckstops died. The once bustling garage/gas station at the intersection now stands vacant, the roof caving in. There is no business district of any sort. The closest thing is a strip mall of four office fronts which someone has been building slowly over the past decade. It is almost complete. The only other industries in town are a Seven Eleven, a Chicken Palace and Tina’s Hair.

            From Milledgeville it’s a fifteen-mile straight shot to Concord. There are no curves, just gentle rise and fall. Milledgeville is where the hilly Piedmont gives way to the Coastal Plain. Instead of the tobacco and pasturage so common in the Piedmont, the Coastal Plain has acres and acres of farmland: cotton, peanuts, soy beans, corn. In all directions, vast fields all the way to the tree line.

            Ten miles out of Milledgeville is Sweet Creek. The name comes from the nearby swamp. It is home to a stand of impressive old growth sweet gum trees. People originally called it Sweet Gum Tree Swamp. Somewhere along the way the Gum and Tree got lost and the Swamp turned into Creek. Sweet Creek is not so much a town as a “wide place in the road” as Daddy always called it. We have two streets crossing the state road running between Milledgeville and Concord. Main Street is only paved on the south side of the state road. Church Street is paved on both sides. We have a general store/gas station and a church. That’s it. There used to be a diner at the intersection of the state road and Main Street. The building is still there, but weeds and trees are growing inside it and the roof is mostly gone. Further down Main Street is the pile of rotted wood that used to be the train station. More than fifty years ago the train would stop here. But like I said, that was more than fifty years ago. Across the street from the old diner is the Penney house. It is a large rectangular house with little character except as a refugee from a Haunting of Hill House movie. The kids say it’s haunted, but it’s just an old vacant building. It used to be a boarding house dependent on the diner and train station. A few families live on the unpaved side of Main, near the Penney house.

            There are houses only on the west side of Church Street. There are two nice houses – a modern brick ranch and a turn of the century American foursquare house, then Moab Baptist Church and the parsonage. After that are two more turn of the century American foursquare style houses. One is Aunt Viola and Uncle Cleveland’s place, the second and last on the block is ours.

            I smiled as I drove the last miles to my old home. It was already the middle of June and the fields were thriving. The cotton was almost knee high and the peanuts were spreading nicely. In most places the corn was at least waist high. It has been a good summer for the farmers so far. As I neared Sweet Creek I passed the old Taylor place. It was a fine example of a Craftsman-style home off to the left with six large oak trees in the front yard. These trees arched over the road and their branches mingled with the sweet gum trees on the far side of the road where the swamp made its closest approach to the town. The effect was a shadowy tunnel at the edge of town. In my mind I called it the Time Tunnel, prompted by a television show a few years ago of that name. I felt that as I passed through the tunnel I was transported back in time and reverted to the boy I was when I left here nearly six years ago. It seems that nothing changes here. Everything is the same as it always was.

Once through the tunnel I turned left onto Church Street. There were all the houses on my left. On my right was the large horse pasture belonging to the Vassor family, local bigwigs. There haven’t been any horses in that pasture in my memory but it was still called the horse pasture.

            I pulled into the last driveway before the end of the street. The end was a T intersection with Old Church Street, a hard-packed dirt path farmers used to get to their fields. There was an old cemetery in a nearby stand of trees where the old-timers say the original Moab Church once stood.

            My family’s house still stood sturdy, white and foursquare, with its high front porch. There was a separate car shed behind the house and out buildings where Daddy kept his odds and ends. And his bottle of Jack Daniels that Mama pretended not to know about. Mama’s clothesline was strung between the sheds. Behind that was the chicken coop. Further still was Mama’s garden, the envy of all Sweet Creek. The woman could make anything grow.

            I pulled in behind Daddy’s Oldsmobile. I saw his rust bucket pick-up was in the car shed. I tooted the horn to let them know I was here, put the car in park and hopped out. I wasn’t halfway to the porch when Mama came bustling out the front door. Hair in a bun, she was dressed in a flower print dress I recognized that brought back a flood of memories. It was covered by an old apron and she was wiping her hands on a dish towel.

            “Oh, my Lordy, Gary. I haven’t seen you in ages. Come give your old mama a hug,” she called. She waited while I mounted the porch steps and wrapped her arms around me. I was a full head taller than her. I had been since high school.

            “Oh, my boy, my boy, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” she murmured into my shoulder. Then she put her hands on my upper arms and held me at arm’s length. She did this every time I came home and said the same thing.

            “Let me look at you. You’re so thin. I’ll bet you haven’t been eating right. Well, we’ll fix that right up.” Turning slightly she called out, “Maitland! Get out here and greet our son!”

            My old daddy shuffled out the door. “I’m coming, old woman. I just ain’t as spry as I used to be. Hello, son. Good to see you again.” Then Daddy hugged me, too. He was a little unusual for his generation. Most of the local men didn’t hug their sons, just shook hands. Daddy was a hugger, though. I liked that.

            In no time Mama had me in the kitchen with a glass of sweet tea and a large slice of fresh apple pie in front of me.

            Mama beamed at me. “Even though we hated that you had to come home late, we were so excited to hear you’re working with the Missions Board. I was the envy of all the old biddies at the Missionary Union meeting when I told them. I’m so proud of you.”

            Yes, seminary had ended its semester the last week of May, but I had to stick around for a couple more weeks for meetings with the Board. I had thought being a Missionary was my calling. That was before everything went to hell. I’ll have to break it to them gently. Hell, I haven’t even broken it to myself yet. Not fully. I just need to take it slowly. I’ll eventually work it all out. No need to give Mama ‘the vapors’ as she calls it when she feels faint.

            I heard the screen door slam and looked to see Daddy struggling with one of my big suitcases.

            “Daddy, I’ll get that. Don’t strain yourself.”

            “I ain’t so old I cain’t help my son move back in,” he complained.

            “You old fool. You’re gonna bust your hernia,” Mama fussed. Some things never change. It’s good to be back home.

***

            While I finished eating Mama filled me in on all the local gossip. She seemed to know everything and had no trouble telling it and retelling it.

            “And I told Brother Crowder you’d be pleased to help with Vacation Bible School,” Mama said. Yes, of course I’ll help. I just wish Mama would let me make the decision. She always jumps the gun, putting me on the spot.

            After Mama cleared the plates I moved all my belongings back to my old room. I planned to be here for a couple of months while I figure out what to do. I laid on the bed to rest after carrying everything upstairs. The room was the same it has been since high school. The desk with my boy’s versions of Tarzan, Huckleberry Finn, Jules Verne and a few science fiction books, the tiny trophy from when our debate team won the regional. My Southwest High School pennant was still on the wall. I looked up and noticed for the millionth time the cowboys on horseback riding around the glass cover of my ceiling light. That round up had been going on for at least fifteen years. I was struck by the thought that this was my last summer in this room. Now that I was finished, literally, with seminary it was time to move on. There was nothing for me here in Sweet Creek. Like nearly all the college graduates, I had to move to a city to find a job.

            I must have fallen asleep. It seemed like it had only been a moment when I heard Mama tapping lightly on my doorframe.

            “Honey, wash up. I got dinner on the table.”

***

            Once Mama washed all the dinner dishes she joined me and Daddy on the back porch. It was broad and screened with a southern view. Mama always said the cooling evening breezes came from the south. We could see Uncle Cleveland’s house next door and the church steeple beyond it. Someone had mowed a lawn and the sweet smell of cut grass hung heavy in the air. I sat with Mama on the glider and Daddy had his old rocker. We watched the lightning bugs flicker their yellow green lights across the yard, looking for love.

            “We’re having a welcome home dinner for you tomorrow after church. Just some relatives and the preacher’s family. You don’t mind, do you?” It wasn’t really a question. When Mama wanted to do something she was a force of nature. You just stand back and let it happen.

            “Of course, Mama. That’ll be fine.”

            “No need to make such a fuss, old woman. You’d think the prodigal son had returned,” Daddy groused.

            “He’s no prodigal, but my son has returned. And he knows Mama will always make a fuss over him,” she beamed at me and gently squeezed my cheek. Then Mama continued.

            “Margie’s coming down from Portsmouth tomorrow, too. She’s bringing Cindy. She’s staying a couple of weeks and attending Vacation Bible School. She’s the same age as Brother Crowder’s daughter so they ought to get along fine.” Margie is my oldest sister. Cindy would be about thirteen now. What in the world does Mama think she will do with a thirteen-year-old girl for two weeks in this backwoods place?  

***

I sat with Mama and Daddy at church on Sunday. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me. Just checking to see if I had turned into a radical hippie now that I had gone to college. I listened attentively to Brother Crowder’s sermon. He came two years ago. Baptist ministers move around a lot. That’s one thing I was not looking forward to. I spent my entire life in the same little town. I like having roots. He was an anomaly for Sweet Creek. He had a college education as well as seminary training. He was probably the most educated man within twenty miles or more.

After all my classes on developing sermons, researching the Bible, apologetics and so forth it was hard not to be a little cynical in assessing the good brother’s sermon. All in all, I think he did a credible job. He’s definitely well spoken. I may need someone like him to keep me sane all summer. I did find a few faults with his message. I don’t think he used the best passages from the Bible to make his point and I don’t think he emphasized the right parts. His message was also a bit too esoteric for this crowd. I saw the eyes glaze over early on. He’ll be fine, though. Just as long as he makes sure to talk about all the bad things happening “out there” and all the decent people among us. Don’t rock the boat and get us all a pass to Heaven. That’s his job.

***

            Once all the hand shaking was done the three of us walked home. Mama immediately put on her “dinner clothes” as she called her wardrobe for cooking while guests were around. Aunt Viola showed up a few minutes later. After giving me a big hug she jumped in helping Mama.

            “You boys, relax,” Mama ordered. “Maitland, don’t take off your good shirt. And don’t go out to the barn. I know what you do out there. I won’t stand for none of that foolishness with the preacher in my house.” Daddy managed to look totally innocent of all charges.

            It wasn’t long before Margie and Fred drove up. Cindy got out and stood like a princess while her daddy pulled out a large suitcase. Mama went out to greet and kiss everybody and tell Fred where Cindy’s room would be. By that time Brother Crowder and his wife and daughter Renée had also arrived. Daddy did his part by introducing Brother Crowder to Margie, Fred and Cindy. The two girls eyed each other coolly. Renée was a little younger, but the girls were close enough in age that they probably had lots of things in common. The Vinsons showed up also, but Mama had to invite them since they live on the other side of the church. It would have been rude not to. Then I saw Nettie White drive up. Oh, Mama. Can’t you just let it go? Of course, Nettie had her daughter Alice with her. Alice had been a year behind me in school and had a crush on me through most of high school. She was a nice girl, but kind of bland. Not much personality. But Mama thought she was a great match for me. She never missed a chance to push Alice at me.

            “Oh Nettie. I’m so glad you could make it. And Alice, don’t you look lovely. Gary come see Alice,” Mama commanded. So I went to see Alice.

            “And, Nettie, I don’t think I told you but my Gary is going to be a foreign Missionary. The Missions Board has approved him and he’s going to go to China or Africa or some foreign country and bring the message of Our Lord to all the heathens. Isn’t that just wonderful?”

            “Mama. Don’t go on so.” Sometimes she made me so uncomfortable.

            “You’re my boy and I’ll brag all I want to. We mothers can do that, can’t we, Nettie? Now Gary, doesn’t Alice look lovely in that dress?”

            “Yes, Mama. Hey, Alice.”

            “Y’all go talk,” and Mama shoved me so I stumbled forward almost into Alice. We wandered away from the other adults.

            “Sorry, Gary. I didn’t want to come, but Mama said I had to.”

            “It’s alright. It’s nice to see you again.”

            “Yeah, you too. So you really gonna be a Missionary?”

            “Maybe. Maybe not. There’s a lot up in the air right now. What are you doing?”

            “Oh, I got a degree in business. Just an associate degree. From the community college. It got me a job at Weldon Savings and Loan, though. I’m a loan officer.”

            “Well, hello Officer Alice,” I smiled at her.

            “I moved out of the house, but Mama still drags me places trying to pawn me off on somebody. She’s mortified that I’m 23 and ‘still not married’, as if that’s the worst thing in the world. I guess she’s afraid I’m getting past my ‘use by’ date. It’s maddening.”

            “So still nobody special, then?” I liked Alice. I always hoped she’d find someone.

            “Wellll, somebody,” she blushed and looked down.

            “Come on,” I bumped her. “You can tell me.”

            She looked around. “You gotta swear not to tell a soul. I can’t believe I’m telling you but I’m dying to tell somebody. You’re probably the only one who’ll understand.”

            “Swear,” I said as I used to when we were kids.

            “You remember Phyllis Taylor? She was on the basketball team.”

            I had a vague recollection of a mannish looking girl, good athlete, always first string.

            “Well, she’s my roommate over at Brooks Manor Apartments. But she’s more than just my roommate.”

            “You mean she…. You’re… Oh my gosh, Alice. I’m so happy for you.” I hugged her.

            “Now you know why you can’t tell a soul. They’d crucify us. I figured since you’ve been off to college you’re more open-minded now.”

            I sidled up closer and said near her ear. “If you need cover, I’m here all summer.”

            “Thanks. I just might take you up on that. Get Mama out of my hair.”

***

            The rest of the day went fine. Mama was in her glory having all these people at her table, especially the preacher. It was late afternoon before the last guests left. I had hoped to get a chance to talk to Brother Crowder but he was always in demand. I did say I would see him tomorrow to help sort out the activity equipment for Bible School. We’ll have plenty of time, private time, to talk then.

***

            Monday, I walked over to the church mid-morning. Brother Crowder already had the shed open and was pulling out nets, balls, paddles and various athletic equipment.

            “Thanks for coming over. I really need the help,” he said. I immediately got beside him and helped him get it all out.

            “First I just need to inventory what we have. I can go buy more if we need it.” We worked for a few hours with little conversation. We didn’t really know each other well. I was already away at seminary when he came here. After a while his wife Patty came out.

            “You boys want to take a break? I got some sandwiches and tea.”

            “Good idea,” he said. We settled on his patio with the refreshments Patty had laid out. She went back inside.

            After we had been eating for a few minutes I broached my subject.

            “Brother Crowder,” I began. “You’re an educated man. I respect that. How has that affected your faith? After classes in apologetics, and exegesis and conflicting verses in the Bible and on and on it feels like it doesn’t hold water. It looks like on every front in science, religion is losing. And you’ve got those televangelists like Jim Bakker and such. They are bilking poor people for all their hard-earned money in the name of God. It’s just wrong. Sometimes at the end of the day I begin thinking all this is just a bit farfetched. Maybe we have it wrong. Maybe it’s all a mistake. I just get my head filled with doubt. Am I just wrong? Is that normal?”

            “Doubt is what makes our faith strong,” he said with a smile. “We all have moments of doubt. Even the savior did in the garden. God tests us before putting us on the road to what we will be. When you start sweating about your faith it means God is ready to tell you something important. You need to open up your heart and listen.”

            “I’ve had my heart open for years now. And all I’ve heard is a lot of nothing. God’s not talking to me. Maybe I’ve picked the wrong field. How can I convert others when I’m still trying to convince myself?”

            “Men who wrestle with doubt become some of God’s greatest champions. Look at Paul. He was actually persecuting Christians before God called him. And all the disciples were common men of no great faith. The probably only went to synagogue on high holy days. But once Jesus spoke with them, they knew the glory of God. God speaks to all of us, son. We just have to learn his language. Just give it time. Pray on it. Read your Bible. It will eventually come clear. Just like it’s coming clear to me that we are going to have to buy a new volleyball net.” He smiled and clapped me on the back. “Let’s get back to work.”

***

            I hadn’t had a chance yet to talk with Cindy since she had arrived. I found her Monday afternoon sitting in the TV room looking at a teen magazine.

            “How goes it?” I asked.

            “I’m stuck here in Hicksville for two whole weeks. This place is so lame. There’s nothing to do.”

            “Do you like Renée?”

            “She’s okay. She just doesn’t get how deadly dull it is here. It’s like she’s become one of the pod people. How do you manage it?”

            “I just smile and think about what I’ll do when I get back to civilization. You can think about all the things you do in Portsmouth. What do you do there?”

            “Well, right now my friends are down at the beach checking out the cute guys in their tight bathing trunks.”

            “I think I know why Margie sent you here.”

            “And there’s the foosball arcade where the cool guys hang out and smoke and the malls. There’s not even a mall around here. How do people live like this?”

            “Oh, come on, Cindy. It’s not that bad. Maybe if you play your cards right Granddad will let you milk the cow.”

            Cindy screamed and threw her magazine at me as I beat a hasty retreat.

***

            I followed Brother Crowder’s advice and prayed more and read my Bible. It did little to allay my doubts. What I couldn’t bring up with him was my anger at the hypocrisy of the Missions Board. I had recently run afoul of them. I had a big decision to make. I knew which way I was leaning, where my heart wanted to go, but it’s a life-changing decision. How do I know I’m making the right choice?

***     

            Brother Crowder asked me to teach a course for Bible School. I told him I was reluctant because I had my own work to do. I was supposed to present four guest sermons at local churches over the summer. I hadn’t even begun to make plans for where to do that.

            “Well, it’s a given that you’ll do one here at Moab. I can also speak for Bethel. We’ll have you there one Sunday. I’m sure Concord and Galatia would love to have you come speak. I’ll talk to them.”

            “You make it sound so easy. I guess it is easy if I have an insider like you to open the door for me. Thanks.”

            “That has nothing to do with it. You’re a home boy. Everybody is waiting to see what you’ll do with your gift. What God has laid on your heart. If you don’t ask them, they’ll be calling you by the end of the summer. And don’t worry about it. I’ll help you with the sermons if you want. I always seem to have a million ideas floating around in my head.”

            “Oh, thanks. Thanks a lot. I guess I can teach a course for you in Bible School then.”

***

Cindy somehow made it through the first week. The second would be easier because she would be busy with Vacation Bible School all week. She and Renée seem to have bonded. They were together every time I saw one of them. They even did a sleep over. I thought the giggling would go on all night.

            Early the second week the girls began pestering me about going to see a movie. It seems the new blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure was coming to the local theater this week. I checked the times in the paper and decided we could go on Thursday night. The girls were so excited, until Thursday afternoon when Renée broke out in hives and her temperature shot up.

            “I bet she got into some poison ivy. She’s so allergic to it,” Patty said. Although she felt bad for her friend, Cindy said she wanted to see the movie with me anyway. So we had an early dinner and set out for the seven o’clock show.

            I thought the movie was great and the special effects were outstanding. It all seemed so real. I said as much to Cindy on the way home. She agreed. She said she was a big fan of the movie. By this time we had just passed through Milledgeville on our way home.

            “Why’s it look so orange out here?” she asked suddenly. I realized that the area around the car seemed to be illuminated with orange light.

            “I don’t know.” I checked my rearview mirror to see if there was an emergency vehicle approaching. No. We were alone on the highway. “Do you see anything in the sky?” Cindy looked out her window up at the sky.

            “Wait a minute.” She leaned forward so she could look directly above us through the windshield. “There’s a big orange light directly over the car.”

            “What kind of light?”

            “I don’t know. Just a light. It’s so bright I can’t tell if it’s on a plane or something.”

            “A plane wouldn’t fly this low or be able to stay over the car. Maybe it’s a helicopter. But why would it be out here at night?” We fell silent. That was when I noticed that whatever the light was, it made no sound. I also noticed the constant night noise of crickets, cicadas and frogs had ceased. All I could hear was the hum of the tires on the pavement. I leaned forward but didn’t see anything. The orange glow was gone.

            “What happened?”
            “It suddenly just shot up in the air,” Cindy said. “Just straight up.”

            “Here it comes again,” Cindy said, alarm appearing in her voice. “It’s coming down so fast it’s going to hit us! Go faster! Get us out of here.” I sped up. I noticed the orange illumination was back.

            “It’s just following us. What does it want? This isn’t funny. Go faster!”

            “I don’t want to go any faster. There are deer out after dark. They get in the road sometimes. If we hit one it could kill us.”

            “I don’t care about the goddamn deer. Get us out of here!” She was seriously spooked. Tears were starting to stream down her face.

            “I see headlights coming. Maybe they see it, too.” I saw the orange glow disappear.

            “It shot up in the sky again,” Cindy said.

            The car approached and passed on by.

            “Here it comes again,” Cindy screamed. “What do they want with us?”

I was still trying to get a look at it. I held the car as steady as possible and leaned over the steering wheel. I could see part of an orange light. Cindy was right in that it was so bright I couldn’t tell if it was attached to a fuselage or just a free-floating orange ball.

            “I’m going to stop and get a better look,’’ I said.

            “NO!” Cindy screamed. “We can’t stop. They might get us. Go, go, go!”

            The light, whatever it was, bobbed up and down and few more times. I was driving as fast as I dared. I turned on Church Street on two wheels. The orange light disappeared. We roared into the drive and slammed on the brakes. Cindy was in hysterics by now. I ran around to her side of the car, looking up to see if we were followed. I got her door open but she would not be pulled out.

            “Cindy. Let go. We’re home. We have to get inside.” She just continued screaming. Daddy and Uncle Cleveland came out on the porch.

            “What in tarnation is going on out here?” Daddy demanded.

            “Help me with Cindy,” I called. Daddy came down. Uncle Cleveland went inside calling to Mama. Once we got Cindy out of the car she broke from us and dashed toward the house. Mama caught her on the porch and led her inside.

            Daddy looked at me and said, “I ask again. What in tarnation is going on?”

            I quickly related what we had seen.

            “If it was going up and down then it won’t nothing natural. Ball lightning and shooting stars don’t do that. It had to be manmade,” Daddy said, trying to come up with an explanation.

            “Let’s go out and see if it comes back,” Uncle Cleveland said. Cindy was in the next room but came running in.

            “No. Don’t go out. They’ll get you. Please don’t go.” She pleaded with us.

            “Who’s going to get us, honey?” Daddy asked.

            “I don’t know. Them.”

            Against her advice the three of us went back out anyway. At the end of Church Street we turned toward Concord since that was the last direction I was heading when I last saw the light. We drove half way to Concord but didn’t see a thing.

            When we got back Mama said she had Cindy in bed. She was calming down some.

            “Maitland. Maybe we ought to call the sheriff,” Mama said.

            “Woody? Shoot. He couldn’t find his ass with both hands tied behind him. He ain’t gonna do nothing. Nothing to be done. Whatever it was, is gone.”

            “But what was it?” Uncle Cleveland asked.

            “Damn if I know. You sure you kids didn’t just imagine it? Maybe you were still excited from the movie?”

            “The movie was about a giant wave, not some orange light that chased us home from Milledgeville,” I said testily.

            “Now, don’t get riled up. We’re just trying to figure this out.”

            “Well, whatever it was, we both saw it and it was enough to scare the daylights out of Cindy.”

            “Can’t nothing be done about it now. I’ll call Woody in the morning and ask if anybody else saw strange lights. He’s liable to think we been into the moonshine.”

            We agreed that we would not talk about it with anyone else. They’d just think we’re crazy. However, I knew Uncle Cleveland would tell Aunt Viola. That’s all it would take. She is physiologically incapable of keeping her mouth closed.

            Cindy refused to sleep alone that night so Mama slept in the bed with her. She refused to leave the house on Friday so she missed the Bible School graduation ceremony. I kept thinking about what we saw. I couldn’t come up with any explanation. I considered UFOs but I never believed in the flying saucer stories and I read in Time magazine that the Air Force’s Project Blue Book proved there was no such thing as flying saucers. Still, what we saw defied all logic. I prayed about it and waited for God to answer. Yeah, you know how that went.

            Friday night was hot and I left my windows and door open to hopefully get some air circulation. Just after I lay down a dark form appeared in my doorway. It dashed across the room and dove under my covers. Cindy rolled herself into a fetal ball and pressed herself against my chest. She was not yet ready to sleep alone.

            “Did you stop the car?” she asked softly.     

            “No, Cindy.”

            “Are you sure?”

            “I think so. Why.

            “Something touched me.”

            I stared at her, stunned.

            “What do you mean?”

            “I don’t know. But something touched me.”

            Had I stopped the car? I honestly couldn’t remember. I was so frantic I don’t remember much about it. The next day I asked Mama what time Cindy and I came in on Thursday night.

            “Let me think. McMillan and Wife was just going off, so it was probably about five till ten. I had just mentioned to your daddy that I was getting worried about you two.”

            The movie had let out at 9. We were in the car by 9:10 at the latest. It takes exactly 25 minutes to get from town to Sweet Creek. We should have been home by 9:35. How do I account for the extra 20 minutes? Did I stop the car? I don’t remember. I really don’t remember much of that drive. Cindy was frantic and begging me to hurry up. And screaming. I distinctly remember her screaming. But she wasn’t in the car. And now that I thought about it, I never remembered going through the ‘time tunnel’. I always notice that on the way home from town. The harder I thought the farther it got from me. Then something hit my mind so hard it knocked the breath out of me. I cannot figure out what it was, but I’m sure I was outside the car. What the hell happened?

***

            Cindy was still not prepared to leave the house on Sunday. However, she became frantic when she realized she would be alone while we were at church. In the end Mama said she would stay behind with Cindy. I offered to stay instead but Mama said I should go. Nettie White and Alice were supposed to be coming to church today and she had told Nettie that I would sit with Alice so she wouldn’t feel awkward. I just pressed my lips together. I’m twenty-four damn years old and my mama is telling me where to sit in church?

            As it turned out, Nettie and Alice didn’t show so I sat with Daddy. The sermon was about faith in things unseen. I could tell Brother Crowder was directing his words at me. In a way, I appreciated his efforts. But his message got me to thinking in other directions. What Cindy and I had seen, we believed in. We had the tangible proof of our eyes, but no one else had seen it and I felt a measure of disbelief from them. I had come to the conclusion that the only explanation was it was a UFO, something from another world. As Paul on the road to Damascus, I have seen the light. Yet the world seemed aligned against me. Flying saucers are a silly figment of my imagination and I shouldn’t believe in them. But I am encouraged, even expected, to believe in things I have not seen. That no one has seen. Walking on water, changing water to wine, bringing back the dead. Why am I to believe stories written down eighteen hundred years ago, and a hundred years after the fact yet not believe what I have seen with my own eyes? It’s about as reliable as the stories of Brer Rabbit I heard as a child. Sitting there, in that pew, I had an epiphany. Religion. It’s all a lie. Every bit of it. I hung my head to hide my tears. I could never build a life on a foundation of such lies.

            I wanted to leave the church as soon as the last hymn was sung but the crowd moved slowly. A friend of the family, Loreen, asked after my mama. She was concerned she might be sick. I explained that Cindy wasn’t feeling well and Mama had stayed with her.

            “Oh, yes. I heard about the light. I can imagine she is feeling poorly after such a fright.” Yep, it was already gossip. Loreen moved closer and said in a low voice, “Can I tell you a secret?” I lifted my eyebrows but nodded yes.

            “I saw it, too.” What? I’m sure my eyes flew open wide.

            “I was taking the boys back to their mama’s house on Thursday night.” She was referring to her grandsons. “It was late, already past their bedtimes. Billy was in front with me and said ‘Meemaw, what’s that light over there?’ I looked to where he was pointing and saw this orange light in the distance going up and down. We were riding by Hancock’s farm so there weren’t no trees in the way. We had a good view. It would go way up in the sky, then real quick go down like a falling star till it disappeared behind the treeline. It looked like it was only a few miles away. That would have been near Sweet Creek. I just wanted you to know. You ain’t crazy. Lessen me, Billy and Jay are, too.”

            She moved on to talk to other friends, but I was stunned. No matter what anyone said, this was proof that Cindy and I hadn’t hallucinated the whole thing. It really did happen.

***

            As soon as I got home I threw some clothes in my overnight bag. Down in the living room I told Mama that I had some business in Raleigh to attend to.

            “You going to see that woman?” she asked.

            “She’s got a name, Mama. You could give her the courtesy of using it.”

            “Don’t sass your mama, boy,” Daddy said.

            “Her name is Janey. Janey Grant. And yes, I will probably see her while I’m in Raleigh. What’s so wrong about that?”

            “I thought you were done with that,” Mama said. “I thought you were moving on. You know she’s no good for you. She can’t ever be the helpmeet you need. She won’t ever be an asset to you.”

            “You don’t even know her.”

            “I know about her. I know she’s no good Christian. She left her husband over in Concord. Just walked out on him. She’s a married woman. That’s adultery. You can’t be a Missionary and be an adulterer, too.”

            “Mama. Get your head out of the sand. This is 1972. People get divorced. At least in Janey’s case there were no children involved.”

            “Because she had an abortion! She’s damaged goods. You need to leave her be.”

            “That’s a lie! She lost her baby because that son of a bitch beat the crap out of her!” I was close to losing my temper.

            “I’m warning you, son. Don’t be using that kind of language to your mama. I ain’t too old to take you down a peg,” Daddy said in a voice that brooked no argument.

            “Mama, I have to follow my heart. My heart is with Janey.”

            “You’re just a baby. You don’t even know your heart yet.”

            “I’m 24. When you were my age you already had Margie and Vernie was on the way. Were you a baby then?”

            “Times were different. Let it go, son. This ain’t about your heart. Your soul is at stake. Reverend Stigmon over at Mount Carmel says the adulterers will burn in Hell with the fornicators and homosexuals.”

            “Yeah, he says a lot of things that aren’t true. The man is a lunatic.”

            “He’s a man of God!” Mama said indignantly.

            “Maybe your God, but not mine.” Without giving her a chance to say anything else, I quickly strode out the door and headed to Raleigh.

            I was well past Milledgeville before my heart rate settled down and I felt fully in control again. Mama and Daddy have never liked Janey. They believe every bad thing the gossips say about her. They ignore the fact that she ended up married to the meanest drunk in Concord. That she showed up at Reverend Stigmon’s house covered with bruises asking for help and advice. His advice was that her duty was to her husband. His help was to call Jimmy Grant to come get his wife. This precipitated the beating that caused the miscarriage. She was done with Grant. The divorce was final and she had a new life in Raleigh. A life that I wanted to be a part of.

            And that was the big stumbling block for the Missions Board. They told me I could not become a Missionary if I continued carrying on my adulterous affair. Jesus disapproved of divorce. That was good enough for the Southern Baptist Convention. Janey’s marriage vow was to keep herself faithful to her husband. If he strayed from the path of righteousness she should be an example to him. How could she help me as a Missionary to bring others to Christ if she couldn’t even bring her own husband, they asked? Their minds were closed on this. So be it.

            As the miles clicked past I felt a huge weight lifting off my shoulders. I had not even known it was there. An inner voice told me I was doing the right thing. I was following the path my heart was set on. It may not make everyone happy. It certainly wouldn’t make my family happy. But it was right to the only ones who mattered.

            So, I told the Missions Board to kiss my ass. Janey said “yes” and whether that night was adultery or just plain fornication doesn’t matter. It was the joining of two hearts seeking solace in each other. And it was perfect.

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.

It Happened Like This

Okay, three things.

One, sorry this is so late going up. Our furnace went out a day or so before I planned to post it. I didn’t get any computer work done for two days while we waited to get the new furnace installed. I know I’m supposed to suffer for my art, but it was like 60 degrees in my office. I can’t think when I’m that cold. And my fingers get numb. So of course, everything else got backed up. I’m just now digging out.

Two, thanks for all the likes I’m getting on my stories. It’s nice to know that people actually enjoy them and I’m not just spitting into the abyss. You are also encouraged to click the follow button. That will give you a quick email notification every time I upload a story. That keeps you from forgetting about me. And don’t forget there is a comment button. I’d love to get feedback on what you liked and didn’t like. Questions of how a story came about or why I had a character act a certain way. Suggestions on how the story could be improved. I have to mediate all comments so none of them are public until I clear them. So, if you want to say something private just note it and I’ll keep the comment private. Can’t be much easier than that. I guess that was actually three things instead of one, but hey, it’s my blog; I can do what I want.

Finally, today’s offering. This requires a bit of background. It Happened Like This is actually the first story I wrote. It has a history. A number of years ago I took a creative writing class. My project for the class was to write a short story. The teacher went against conventional wisdom. Instead of telling us to write what we know, she wanted us to stretch. She asked us to go as far from what we knew as possible and imagine a totally alien setting. There were definitely some interesting stories in that class. I came up with one about a two-bit street hustler in New York, getting by on his wits. Eventually his dangerous life style and hubris caught up with him and he ended up dead. The teacher loved the story. For some reason I was never happy with the story. Something seemed wrong. Fast forward some years. I had a dream about the story. In the dream Joey, the main character, told me that I had it all wrong. He said “It happened like this” and proceeded to show me a very different version of what I had written. When I woke up I realized that the dream wasn’t full of non sequiturs like dreams often are, but was a coherent story. I immediately wrote it all down before I could forget. It just flowed out, almost as if I were taking dictation. For that reason, the story is told in the first person, just as Joey narrated it to me.

So, get ready for an unusual story. It involves gangsters, prostitutes, stolen cash, Elton John and even a fairy godmother. Joey seems happy with how it turned out and hasn’t bothered my dreams anymore. Maybe I should ask him for some more ideas. Anyway, as they say in Monty Python, and now for something completely different.

It Happened Like This

New York City, 2010

Ok, so it happened like this. It was last Wednesday and I was at the apartment alone. Yeah, let me tell you about the apartment. It’s in an old rambling monstrosity that should have been condemned years ago. Most of the buildings around it are newer businesses or boarded up hulks. But Mrs. Berger keeps hanging on. She lives on the first floor, the second is given over to a couple of shady businesses and Tip’s office. We live in one of the apartments on the third floor. A small living room, eat-in kitchen, two small bedrooms and a bath. Some hookers live in the other third floor apartments. I think they are Tip’s also. They’re loud and brassy. They call us ‘Cupcake’. Brandy says he’s afraid of them. Truth be told, so am I. Tip says the building has charm and personality. I say it’s a rat infested firetrap. But Tip pays the rent.

 As I said, I was alone. Brandy had gone out for an audition. He is an “aspiring actor” as he puts it. He’s my best friend in the world and I love him dearly but he can’t act. Let me clarify that. He. Can. Not. Act. Not even a little bit. But he gets hired every now and then. Partly it’s because he is gorgeous. Not just good looking but genetics gone crazy gorgeous. Producers will put him on the stage as part of the scenery or walk on/walk off just because of his beauty. And also because he’s not too particular about who he’ll sleep with to get on stage.

He said he’d be back by noon and would stop by Tip’s office to pick up our salary. Tip is our manager. He sets up appointments for us. In other words, he’s our pimp. We are male escorts. And, yes, that kind of escort. Don’t get all holier than thou on me. We provide a quality service to men and some women who require discretion for various reasons. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting a five dollar blow job from Moleface Mary down on 6th if that’s what you want. But we are a cut above. Tip calls us a little “boutique service”. It’s not a bad way to make a living. I have nice clothes and impeccable manners. Sometimes I get taken to nice places. And not to sound vain, but I’m every bit as beautiful as Brandy. While he’s blond and sky blue, I’m chestnut and green. We rarely go out together because people stare. We turn heads, both female and male. The first few times it was cool, but after a while it got to be a drag. Who wants to be stared at all the time? We usually entertain “regulars”. Bran’s are mostly men, a few women. Mine are all male except one. And yes, they are all dried up and wrinkly. Sometimes it’s not even about the sex. They just want someone to go to dinner with or just to talk to. But it’s mainly about the sex. That’s not too bad. None of them are kinky. But sometimes I’m just not in the mood to suck an 80 year-old cock. Ya know what I mean? But what can you do?

I’d been lazy that morning and not cleaned up from our breakfast so, a little past noon I cleaned all the dishes and was thinking about a salad for lunch. I heard a key in the lock and as the door opened I yelled from the kitchen “Hey Bran, how’d it go?”

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, fuckfuckfuck” was what I heard. I guess it didn’t go that well. But there was real distress in his voice. I came in from the kitchen with a dish towel, drying my hands. Brandy had curled up on the love seat in a fetal position, face red, tears and snot everywhere, rocking and clutching a garbage bag in his lap. He was hyperventilating like crazy.

“Oh fuck fuck fuck. Oh shit, I’m gonna be sick. He killed him. Oh shit.”

Brandy is not usually given to drama, remember he can’t act. But something was definitely wrong. I knelt in front of him and wiped his face with the dishtowel.

“Bran, Bran look at me. What’s wrong? Tell me.”

“Oh shit, he killed him and I saw it and he didn’t see me I don’t think and he’s dead and I took it and shit, oh shit. We’re so fucked.”

“Who killed who? Tell me slowly.”

“Tip. He killed Tip.”

“Tip? Who did?”

“Hammer.”

Oh shit is right. We are so fucked.

“Calm down, Bran. Tell me what happened.” Brandy had calmed somewhat and his breathing was slower. I took that as a good sign.

“I stopped in Tip’s office to get our pay. He said he had a headache and told me to get him some water from the halfbath. He had some aspirin in his desk. Just as I got in the bath I heard the door open and Tip said ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ ‘Just delivering a message’ and I heard a silenced gunshot. It sounded just like it does on tv. I was looking right at Tip and he sank back in his chair with a bullet in his chest. I moved behind the door. I was so scared. Oh shit, I was so freaking scared.” He started hyperventilating again. I grabbed his hands and soothed him as best I could.  

“That’s when I saw him. Hammer. He came right up to the desk and shot Tip point blank between the eyes. Then he looked over at the bath so see if anybody was there. Oh fuck I was so scared, Jo. I stood so very still praying he wouldn’t see me. I guess he couldn’t see me behind the door. But I could see him through the crack. Then he just left.”

“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry you had to see that.” I got up on the love seat and held him. He cried into my shoulder while I pondered what happened. Hammer was muscle and a hit man for Swann. TJ Swann was a nasty piece of work, a mob boss everybody knew wanted Tip’s territory. Suddenly I remembered my last run in with Swann. It was some kind of convention and Tip had brought Brandy, me and some of the girls along as decoration and advertising. I was at a bar when I felt someone come up behind me and press against me. I looked up in the mirror and saw it was Swann. He pressed hard against me so I could feel his erection against my ass. He grabbed my thighs and leaned in so his mouth was by my ear. “I don’t usually go for the boys, but I may have to make an exception for your pretty ass. Soon, baby. Sooner than you think.” He licked my ear and was gone. I was shaken and so totally disgusted I wanted a shower right then. Tip said he was just playing mind games with me. Whatever, but I didn’t like being on Swann’s radar. And if Tip is dead, then Swann is the new boss. My ass literally belongs to Swann. Shit.

“So, what’s with the bag?” I asked Brandy.

“Well, we don’t have any money and I could see the safe combination right there in Tip’s drawer.”

“Brandy, tell me you didn’t.”

“But he owed us the money. I figured he had a few thousand in the safe and we need it.”

I looked at the bag in his lap. It looked like more than a few thousand.

“I didn’t know what to do. I just pushed it all in a trash bag and got out of there.”

“Tell me you closed the safe.”

“No, but I used a Kleenex. I didn’t leave any prints.”

“Brandy, a dead body and empty safe. It looks like a robbery and you’re holding the evidence. They’ll say you killed Tip.”

“Why would I kill Tip?” I pointed to the bag in his lap. “Oh shit. Fuckfuckfuck!” he yelled.

“I’ll go put it back,” he said. Just at that moment we heard multiple sirens approaching the building.

“Shit, too late. What do I do?”

“Let me think a minute.”

Much as I hated it, my mind kept processing the information I was getting. The 13th precinct would respond. Swann owned them. They’d tell Swann there was money missing. He’d know that someone came in after Hammer and that person possibly saw Hammer. And he would know who the likely suspects were. This is very bad. I’m going to get fucked by Swann and then we’ll both be rubbed out.

“Baby, I think we need to get out of here,” I said. “Grab your coat, phone and wallet.” It took us only a minute to grab our stuff and shove the bag of money into a gym bag. As I got to our door I heard heavy footsteps coming down the hall. Shit. I looked out the peephole and suddenly a blue uniform loomed and began knocking on the door. That was fast. This wasn’t canvassing for info about a crime. We were being targeted. There were two officers and I heard one say, “Luis said at least one of them was here. Swann said to get them both. I’ll stay here and you go get the super.” Luis? Ah hell. Luis is, or was, Tip’s bodyguard. Hammer wouldn’t have gotten by him and his security team. Unless he had been turned or killed. Damn Swann. Damn him to hell and back.  We had to act fast.

“Brandy,” I whispered. “We need to get to the hidey hole.” We silently rushed to my bedroom. Inside my closet at the bottom left was a removable panel. It was hard to notice unless you knew what to look for. It opened to a space about two feet deep and several wide, between the walls of the apartments. Mrs. Berger said it was space where people could store luggage. I actually had a suitcase in there. I took out the piece of luggage and Brandy slipped in. I pulled the closet door closed, fluffed the shirts that hung in front of the panel. I crawled in and pulled the panel almost into place, but reached out to put the suitcase directly in front of the panel. Once I had the panel in place we were virtually undetectable. It was dark and dusty, full of spider webs, rat droppings, exposed nails and God knows what else. I just hoped I didn’t sneeze. Or freak out. Brandy was still a mess. I gave him the dishtowel and told him to bite it.

I quietly slipped as far to the right as possible. A faint amount of light came in from a crack in the wall. There was a tiny crack in the corner wall of our living room. Pressing my eye against it I could see a small sliver of the room. I saw the door open and two uniformed officers come in followed by Mrs. Berger and Detective Trask. I recognized him immediately. He was no friend of Tip and solidly in Swann’s pocket.

“Search the place,” he said.  We could hear the muffled sounds of the officers rooting around our apartment. I held my breath when I heard the closet door open, but then it closed.

“Place is clean,” said one officer. “Nothing seems to be missing except maybe wallets or cells. They may be in the wind or just down at Starbucks.”

“One of you keep an eye on the door and another on the building in case they come back,” said Trask. “Swann wants them and he wants them alive, if possible.” They left and the apartment was silent once more.

“Now what?” Brandy murmured.

“Shit, I don’t know. Let me think.” We couldn’t go out our front door. And three stories up is too high to jump. Then I thought ‘God bless this old rat trap’. I felt along the wall opposite our apartment. I knew there was an attic there. I finally found what I was looking for – rotted wood. I pushed it with my foot and eventually with more of a crunch than a crack it gave way. A few more and I had created a hole we could squeeze through.

The attic was dimly lit by a small paned window that had probably not been cleaned in over 50 years. We crept across to a door on the other side, leaving tracks in the inch deep dust, cobwebs fluttering in our wake. The door was locked. Of course. I thought maybe we could break it open with a crowbar. I looked around. Although there was a hundred years worth of junk in the attic, nothing resembled a crowbar.

“Hey, this looks like a trap door,” Brandy said from over in a corner. We slid it open and looked down into a large janitor’s closet. Once in the closet, I gently opened the door a crack. Seeing the coast was clear, we exited into a dim hallway I had never seen before. At the end I saw a door with a frosted window that said Lavatory. Lacking a better idea I headed that way. It was a large ancient bathroom that did not seem to be in use. It smelled mainly of mildew and shit. There was a window on the far wall. I crossed and looked down. Yes! There was a dumpster directly below the window.

“Help me get this window open,” I said. Brandy looked at me dubiously but came over and began pushing. It wouldn’t budge.

“Maybe we could break it,” Brandy offered.

“Yeah, and the sound would bring every cop running.”

“How about if you moved that latch,” he said pointing to the side of the window. Of course. The window was locked.

After unlocking it the two of us managed to get the window open a few feet with a mighty screech. Well if anyone was in the alley, they’d definitely be looking up now. I leaned out. No one in sight and not more than fifteen feet below was an open dumpster filled with lovely soft garbage bags.

“All we have to do is jump down.”

“I’m not jumping into a garbage heap,” Brandy said.

“It’s no more than fifteen feet.”

“I’m not jumping into a garbage heap.”

“It’s…”

“I’m not jumping into a garbage heap.”

“Swann is going to kill us.”
“I don’t want to jump into a garbage heap. Don’t make me jump into a garbage heap.”

“It’s the only way.”

“Of course you realize I’ll have to burn these clothes. God knows what’s in there.”

“Mostly garbage, I’d guess.”

“Don’t be cute. This isn’t going to work. We need to find another way.”

I managed to bully him up on the window ledge. I figured it would take another ten minutes of pleading and threats to convince him to jump so I just grabbed his hand and jumped. To his credit he didn’t scream. He scrambled out in record time, making all kinds of sounds of disgust, wiping at himself and shuddering.

“I don’t do garbage” was all he could muster. “Shit. Is anything in my hair?”

Apparently, the police were watching the front and rear entrance but weren’t bothering with the side since there were no official exits. We scurried across the narrow alley into a connecting alley. In ten minutes we had put enough space between us and the apartment that I took a breather.

“Give me a twenty from your stash,” I said.  Brandy rummaged in the gym bag and pulled out a twenty. I waived down a taxi and said “Fairfield Hotel.”

When the cabby let us out, I grabbed Brandy’s hand and quickly rushed into yet another alley. After a few minutes we ended up at the Essex.

“That flea trap? With the money we have why are we going to some no tell hotel?”

“Because if we pay with cash at a respectable place it will raise questions. The Essex is cash only. And definitely no questions asked. Now give me a hundred and you run around back. I’ll register and let you in the back door. The two of us together draw too much attention.”

Within another ten minutes we were ensconced in room 308. It may have been cleaned at least once in the last decade, but I wouldn’t put money on it. I was hesitant to even sit on the threadbare bedspread and definitely didn’t want to sleep there but we were in a fix. But at least we were safe for the moment and could catch our breath. And figure out our next move.

“Joey?” Brandy said. I looked over at him. “I’m scared,” was all he said, as a fat tear drop slid from his eye.

“Oh, baby, come here,” I gathered him in my arms and held him tightly. “It’ll be okay. We’ll think of something.”

Okay, let me address the question I know you’re wondering. No, Brandy and I aren’t lovers. He’s like my brother.  And not like those cheap porno flicks about brothers doing it. Face it, when your job is sex, it’s the last thing you want to think about in your off time. Tip put us together a couple of years ago and it just works. All right, we did go at it once in the early days. But, hell, we were two gorgeous boys, always horny, we had to try it. And it was great. And I’m not saying we’ve never done it again since then, but if we do, it’s as friends with benefits. I love Brandy more than any person in the world, but not in that way. I recognize that he’s not as strong emotionally as I am, so I’ll always take care of him. No matter what, I’ll be there. I’ve been on the streets before. He never has. I lost one friend like that and I don’t want to lose another. Poor Denny never stood a chance. Brandy does; he has me. And I know he loves me just the same. We are family.

“Why don’t we see how much money we have to work with?” I said to distract him. I dumped the sack of money on the bed. It was an impressive pile. I pushed about half of it toward him. “We’ll both count and add it up.”

Fifteen minutes later I looked up at Brandy and said, “Shit, Bran. We have $85,300. We hit the fucking jackpot. What the hell was Tip thinking keeping this much cash in his office?” In addition, was a little black book with numbers in it. I couldn’t tell what it was for so I just stuck it back in the bag.  

“We can take this and start over anywhere we want.”

“Somewhere warm, please. I hate New York winters,” Brandy said.

“Yeah, how about South Beach, or Malibu!”

“Malibuuuu, sounds so exotic. Hey, and Hollywood is there, right? Maybe I’ll be discovered and get my big break,” Brandy enthused, his eyes agleam.

“All we have to do is figure out how to get out of New York. You know Swann is watching the exits. He has eyes everywhere.”

I had stood and been pacing around the room, but stopped to gaze out the window, wondering how to escape the city. I heard a high-pitched squeal that usually comes from a brake needing adjustment. I looked down and noticed it was a Crown Vic, unmarked. I happened to glance up the street and ice gripped my heart. There was another unmarked police car.

“Brandy, we’ve got company. We need to leave. Now!”  Within fifteen seconds we were bounding down the back stairs and out the back door. Either I had overreacted or the police had not moved into position to cover the back yet. We didn’t stick around to find out. Zigzagging through alleys I was furiously wondering how they found us. When I checked in the fat guy at the desk gave me a lecherous ogle, but then turned back to his computer porn after giving me the key. I doubt he called the police. And why would he? It was too soon for Swann to have out an apb on us. Did I have a gps device up my ass or something? Then it hit me. Our cell phones. Swann was tracking our cell phones. Would just turning them off deactivate the tracking? Shit, I’m not a techie. I don’t know that kind of stuff. We just needed to ditch the phones.

“Bran, I think they’re tracking our phones. We need to get rid of them.”

“But I paid a shitload of money for this phone,” he whined.

“We HAVE a shitload of money. We can buy another. Right now our lives depend on Swann NOT finding us.”

As he handed over his phone I came up with one possible chance. I dialed a number and after it was picked up I said, “You said if I was ever in trouble you would help. Well, the shit has hit the fan.”

After hanging up I told Brandy I had a plan. He looked at me as if to say “of course you do”. I was momentarily touched by how implicitly he trusted me to take care of this situation. A city bus had stopped nearby. Just before the back door closed I stuck my hand in and tossed our phones under the seats. Then it was back alleys again until we came to a bank that looked like a Greek temple. Brandy and I skulked in the shadow of one of the gigantic cement urns filled with dead plants as I watched the street. In a few minutes a limo cruised to a stop. The back window slid down and I could see the face of an elegant woman with a floral turban look curiously up at the bank.

“That’s our ride,” I told Brandy. I grabbed his hand and rushed down the flight of stone steps to the curb. As we approached the door was pushed open. We tumbled in, pulling the door shut, the lady said “drive” and we were off.

“Joey, my darling,” the lady purred. “Whatever have you gotten yourself into?”

“Contessa, you’re not going to believe it.”

Now unless you’ve been living in a cave somewhere I’m sure you know who the Contessa is. She began her life as old Romanian royalty with a penniless title who parlayed it into a multimillion dollar cosmetic empire. Her Contessa line cosmetics apparently worked because no one knew if she was 55 or 75. She just seemed ageless. She had homes in Italy and New York and probably other places. She was seen everywhere. If there was a party or an event or anyplace the luminaries gathered, the Contessa was in the midst. She was also one of my regulars. Not for sex, though. She always said a woman was not properly accessorized unless she had a handsome man on her arm. I had been her accessory for many a New York soiree. She loved the hint of scandal of showing up with “a much younger man”. How she knew a two bit hoodlum like Tip I have no idea. She simply said, “the Contessa knows everyone.” And as far as I could tell it was true. She did seem to know everyone. And she took me to some fabulous parties. I actually met Madonna. Cher called me a “real hottie”. And Sir Elton John surreptitiously got a good feel of my ass. And I’m not sure if I should admit this, but I blew George Michael in a bathroom at a house party in the Hamptons. I mean, it was George fucking Michael. The Contessa was miffed that I was missing for so long but immediately said she’d forgive me if I gave her all the details. A blow by blow account, if you will.

So there she sat across from us, regal as ever. She turned slightly to regard Brandy. “My, my. I must have died and two angels have appeared to escort me to my final reward.”

“Contessa, this is my friend Brandon Carter. Brandy, I’m sure you recognize the Contessa.” For his part, Brandy was speechless. When she extended her hand he looked at it like it was a snake. Then he grasped it, shook it and said, “your majesty.” The Contessa laughed and said, “Just call me Contessa. Everyone does. Now what is this shitstorm you spoke of.” Such pungent language has always seemed odd to me when spoken in such a cultured voice. But the Contessa could curse like a sailor when the mood struck her.

“Well, first Tip has been murdered.”

“Oh, dear boy. You ARE in trouble.”

“And they’re going to frame us for the murder.” I related how Brandy had seen the hit on Tip and that Swann was now chasing us. I also told her about the money.

“So your employer is dead, his safe is sitting open and you have the money. It looks like what you Americans call an open and shut case. Are you sure you didn’t kill him?”

“No!” shouted Brandy.

She reached over and patted his knee.

“There, there my pet. The Contessa was only making a joke, in poor taste I admit,” she cooed.

While Brandy settled down she picked up her phone and called ahead. “Henri, we will have two guests. I’m sure they will be hungry so please have a late lunch set for us.”

Moments later we pulled into private underground parking and then an elevator that went straight to the penthouse. I had been here a number of times but was still impressed. I elbowed Brandy to stop him from gawking like a hayseed. The penthouse was expanses of space with elegant appointments and huge windows with panoramic views of Manhattan. We arrived just as her assistant, Henri, was setting the table.  

“Ah welcome, madame. And Monsieur Zhoey, so nice to see you again,” he smiled. Although Henri wore a tailored suit worth a good bit of what we had in our bag, it only accentuated the fact that he was powerfully built. About thirtysomething, black hair cut very short, and a two-day stubble that I had always found extremely sexy. In fact, I’d always thought Henri was a whole package of hotness, but as a professional, my focus was always on the Contessa. Excepting, of course, the George Michael incident. She introduced Brandy to him. I could tell from the appraising gleam in Henri’s eye that he found Brandy just as attractive as he found me. And vice versa.

He served Brandy and me steaks while the Contessa dined on salad.

“At least I can smell what you’re enjoying,” she lamented. “Although that aroma alone will probably add ten pounds.”

“Oh Contessa, you’ve never had an ounce of fat on you. Your figure is perfect,” I told her.

“Yes, so true,” she agreed. “But I have to work to maintain such perfection.”

Once Henri had cleared our places she said, “so show me the money you ‘found’.” I took the bag from beside Brandy’s chair and dumped it onto the table.

“Oh my,” she exclaimed.

“Over 85,000 dollars and this little book,” I showed her. She seemed very interested in the book.

“So what is your plan? What kind of help do you need?”

“Swann has the police looking for us. We just need to get out of town. Maybe to the West Coast where he wouldn’t find us. Get a new start.”

“This Swann character sounds like a piece of work. I believe I have heard of him before but never had the pleasure of meeting him. If the police are involved it could get sticky. I and my entourage have diplomatic immunity. But you two are American citizens. I may be able to smuggle you out. But if I do this, I want you to think hard about your future. With this kind of money you could get training and go into legitimate professions. You are both beautiful escorts, but much as it pains me to say, beauty is fleeting. I told you more than once that hanging around with dangerous people like Tip could get you killed. I don’t want you to fall back into the same old ways on the West Coast.”

“But, escorting is all I know.”

“Well you can learn new skills. You’re bright. I have contacts there and can make some introductions.”

“I think she’s right, Joey,” Brandy said. “I don’t really like our life anymore. I want more.”

“Good, then that’s settled. Now you boys must be exhausted. Henri will show you to your suite. You can shower and take a nap. Henri will find you some suitable clothes.  You two look like you’ve been rummaging through a garbage heap. The Contessa must get to work. There are a thousand details to work out. We’ll reconvene in a few hours. Off you go.”

The suite was sumptuous with two huge soft beds. We went into the bathroom and Brandy stripped and stepped into the shower. I sat on the toilet. We often talked in the bath while showering.

“Those clothes are toxic waste. I can never touch them again.” Then, “Do you think she can help us, Jo?” he asked.

“Well, she’s the Contessa. I haven’t found anything she can’t do if she sets her mind to it.”

“I’m going to so enjoy living out west,” he said. “Like a real cowboy.” I smiled at his whimsy.

After my shower I found Brandy had crawled into bed and was sound asleep. I wrapped myself in a thick, oh so soft robe and sat on the other bed. I was so keyed up I wouldn’t be able to sleep. This was such a huge mess. Is it possible even the Contessa couldn’t find a way out? I laid back with a worried frown on my face. Shit. This is the definition of a clusterfuck. That was my last coherent thought as I immediately drifted off to a dreamless sleep.

I awoke with a start. Okay, I’m in a strange bed. And I’m naked. So far nothing out of the ordinary. Then our desperate situation came crashing down on me again. I groaned and sat up. An outfit, undies, pants, shirt, socks, sneakers lay on each bed. Ah, Henri’s “suitable clothes”. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed but it was dark outside. Or at least as dark as Manhattan ever gets. I roused Brandy.

“Hey, babe. Let’s get dressed.”  He moaned and sat up. Then he looked at the clothes dubiously.

“Really? They want me to wear this?”

“There’s nothing wrong with the clothes.”

“It’s just not me. I have panache. This outfit says blah. It also says last decade.”

“We need to disappear, remember? ‘Panache’ stands out. Just wear it. Have you seen my wallet?”

“No, mine’s missing, too. I wonder why they wanted them?” Suddenly I got an uneasy feeling. Nothing I could put a finger on. Just a sense of unease. On top of the terror of probably being killed in the next few days.

We headed for the main suite. All the rooms were dark. The furniture had all been draped with sheets as if the owner was leaving. And we had given all our money to the Contessa and had no IDs. I trust her, I tried telling myself.

“Joey, this is spooky,” Brandy whispered, sidling up close to me.

Rounding a corner we came upon a small alcove with facing love seats and a small table. The Contessa sat on one side. She motioned for us to join her. I breathed the biggest sigh of relief of my life.

“This is my favorite spot in the apartment,” she began. To her left was a floor to ceiling window looking out on Manhattan from about 40 stories up. “The premium price of this place is based on the fact that the other side looks out over Central Park. People want the serenity of nature just outside their window. Hmph. If I want serenity, I’ll go to a spa. I prefer this. The hustle, bustle, garishness, vulgarity, vitality and LIFE that is New York.” Outside her window the city was living up to her description with neon advertisements, flashing lights and the general busy-ness of the city that never sleeps. But of course it was quiet due to noise dampening windows.  

“Here, join me for a toast.” She had three small glasses on the table each with about a half inch of dark red liquid. She pulled a champagne bottle from a cooler and filled the glasses.

“Kir Royale, one of my favorite aperitifs. Here’s to new beginnings.” She saluted us with her glass and we all drank.

“Now, down to business. The next time you need to throw away your cell phone, please remove the SIM card or smash the phone to bits. Swann recovered it and of course the last call you made was to me.”

“Um, sorry,” I said, totally ashamed at my blunder.

“Actually, there was a bit of a to-do with it. A SWAT team surrounded a bus of terrified tourists, swarming on looking for you two.  All they found was the phones. The mayor had a fit. Called it a PR nightmare and dressed down a captain. And then I got a call from Mr. Swann. I acknowledged knowing you, that your call was social and I knew nothing of your whereabouts. Of course, he didn’t believe a word. You were right to call me, dear. I had Henri check his sources. He knows almost as many people as the Contessa. You two are classified as ‘persons of interest’ in the murder of Tip. Mr. Swann’s plan is to have you held overnight at Riker’s Island before booking. There is a welcoming committee waiting for you. They are specifically ordered to rape you with as many men as want to participate. With Brandon they can do as they please, as long as you both don’t survive the night. It will be an unforeseeable tragedy. The murder weapon they will recover from your apartment will settle the case.”

I audibly gulped and from the corner of my eye I saw a tear slide down Brandy’s face.

“But never fear. The Contessa is your guardian angel. The Swann character showed up at my building with a search warrant. My attorney assured me there was no probable cause and we denied him entry on diplomatic grounds. His gendarmes were ready to force the issue but a call to my friend the mayor who had to call the same police captain to have his men stand down settled that. I fear the captain may be looking for another job. Later Mr. Swann sent a group of his personal thugs. My security detail took care of them with little trouble and delivered the unconscious bodies to the 13th precinct. Mr. Swann then called me and used language that made even me blush. I did take exception to being called ‘a dried up old bitch’. I have decided that he needs a lesson in manners.” She looked over at Henri who had been standing by. “What is it we say, Henri?”  He smiled and putting on his best Bronx accent said, “Ya don’t fuck wid da Contessa.”

“Anyway, as to you young men. Here’s what the Contessa has come up with.” She reached into a satchel on the seat beside her and handed each of us a leather folder. “Here are your new passports. I had Henri take your IDs from your wallets to use the pictures, here.” And she handed us back our wallets. I opened my passport and found I was now Luke Jackson. Brandy was Roger Smith.

“Roger? You named me Roger? What kind of name is that?” I hushed him.

“Sorry darling. It is what was available. These passports are top quality. They are more official than what you’d get from the government. And extensive computer hacking has given you backgrounds so that if you are picked up for any reason, your credentials will check out. “

“Thank you,” I said, glaring at Brandy.

“And here is walking around cash.” She handed us each an envelope containing $5,000 in small bills. “I have laundered the rest of your ill-gotten gain and deposited it under your new names in a friendly bank in Geneva. There it can grow tax free and without prying eyes. I’m afraid it isn’t as much as you’d expected. The new identities were expensive, especially since it was a rush job. That took $20,000.”     

“So that leaves us $55,000?”

“Not exactly. That is my next point. This little black book. Your Tip was planning a nice retirement for himself. He had been sending cash to a bank in Belize. This is his passbook to that account. I’ve always heard that crime doesn’t pay, but Tip apparently didn’t buy into that maxim. Anyway, my associates have removed the money from his account, passed it through several no tell banks and shell companies so it is totally untraceable. It is also safely in the bank in Geneva equally divided between the two of you. I think of you as the closest things Tip had to a family, so it is fitting that you be his heirs.”

So apparently there was more than $25,000 in my account. Not much to start a new life on.

“How much did Tip leave?” I asked.

“Forty-six million dollars.”

“Forty-six million,” I squeaked.

“Dollars!” Brandy screeched.

“Yes, my darlings. You each have a little over twenty-three million dollars on deposit in Geneva. You are technically wealthy.”

Sweat broke out on my forehead and I began to feel faint.

“Oh dear, you are pale. Henri, a damp cloth please.” She scooted beside me on the love seat and tenderly wiped my face until I could focus again. I looked over at Brandy and tears were flowing down his face.  “Hey, babe,” I said, grasping his hand. “Looks like we’re going to make it after all.” He grinned through his tears and said, “Just like Mary Tyler Moore.”

“Now for the final piece of our plan. I am closing the apartment and leaving tonight. You are travelling with me as my secretary and my masseuse. You’re listed on the manifest and have cleared customs. The jet awaits.”

“You have a jet?” I asked.

“Heavens, no. The upkeep on them costs a fortune. It belongs to the Sultan of Brunei. He makes it available whenever I need it.”

“Sultan of Brunei? As in the richest man in the world?” I couldn’t seem to say anything original.

“Yes, he wants me to marry him. A perfectly lovely man. I keep telling him that he already has a hundred wives, why add an old broad like me. But he says he’s in love. I keep putting him off. At least it gets me the use of a beautiful jet.”

“And where are we going?”

“Well now that you’re wealthy I’ve thrown the West Coast plan out the window. We’re headed to my villa in Florence first. Then Milan for your wardrobes.  Oh, this will be such fun. I want to show you Europe, the museums, the palaces, the libraries, the ruins, the parties. Introduce you to all the right people. It will be such an adventure. Our own Grand Tour. Oh, listen to me, channeling Auntie Mame.”

I looked at her and said, “the world’s a smorgasbord and most poor bastards are starving to death,” remembering the line from the stage play. “But I’m not sure we’d fit in. Suppose a former client recognizes us. It could be embarrassing for you.”

“Oh posh, child. You think what you’ve done could shock the people I mix with? Hah. Princess Claire of Hohenzollern is the most notorious woman in Europe. Her peccadilloes alone make the two of you look like altarboys. And Grand Duke Friedrich and all his little girls AND little boys? And don’t get me started on the Windsors. My doves, you are my protégés and as such every door in the civilized world is open to you. No one dares incur my wrath.”

“Because ‘ya don’t fuck with the Contessa’,” I grinned.

“Precisely, so is it a deal?” She raised an eyebrow at me.

I looked at Brandy. He nodded eagerly.

“Deal.”

“Splendid.” The Contessa looked up at Henri who had appeared at her shoulder.

“Erik says they have taken the bait, madame,” he said. “Friedrik’s team says they have a visual on the tail car.”

“Ach, so predictable. Proceed with the plan. Let him know we are leaving now. He should give us another 30 minutes. Tell Friedrik to drop back. We don’t want to give ourselves away,” she said with a smile.

I arched my eyebrow in question. She explained that seeing as Swann wanted us so badly, she didn’t expect him to give up easily. She feared an ambush on the way to the airport so she sent a decoy limo to LaGuardia. Our jet was at JFK. Erik, her security team leader and the driver of the decoy reported that they were being followed. I was alarmed that Swann’s men might harm them, but the Contessa said her guards had already shown they could take care of themselves against two-bit thugs such as Swann hired. Also she had Friedrik’s team coming in behind Swann’s hired muscle.

As soon as we boarded our jet, I noticed that Henri had hooked up a headset, apparently to keep tabs on goings-on in New York. I turned to listen as he came forward to brief the Contessa.

“Erik says a dark sedan has pulled out in front of them and is moving slowly. He believes the ambush is imminent. Friedrik is moving up. Dieter’s team had already staked out Swann’s likely ambush point and are ready.”

“Tell Erik that we are boarded and in the clear. He is not to initiate hostility but may return fire as necessary. We have three crack teams to their poorly trained two. I hope they aren’t foolish enough to turn this into a war. Tell him to keep me posted.”

An hour later we were cruising over the Atlantic in the most luxuriant seating I’d ever experienced. It was better than my bed at home. I wanted to live here. Henri had just told the Contessa that Erik and his teams had taken Swann’s men without a shot being fired. They had seen they were outnumbered and thrown down their weapons. A fair number of them they had identified as officers from the 13th precinct. Her men had handcuffed them and delivered them to a police department not owned by Swann. Her lawyer had delivered a complaint of harassment to the mayor and police commissioner. If he wasn’t before, the captain of the 13th precinct was now definitely out of a job.

 Brandy was dozing beside me with his head on my shoulder. He suddenly stirred.

“Joey, I forgot,” he said.

“What?”

“I forgot to turn off the automatic lights in the apartment. They’ll just continue to go off and on if no one turns it off.”

I laughed at him and kissed him on the forehead. “I’m sure Mrs. Berger can handle it. Go back to sleep.”

A thousand miles behind in New York City the lights in the apartment went out on schedule. Down the block a pair of evil eyes was watching. “I’ve got you now, you little fuckers,” he muttered and made his way toward the building.

It’s been a few days since all that. I’m basking in the sun this morning on the piazza of the Contessa’s villa overlooking Florence. The Arno is gleaming in the distance. ‘Roger’ is still in bed. Today is for relaxing. Tomorrow we’re off to Milan for new wardrobes. The Contessa says she has reserved some of the better design houses for us for the entire afternoon. Then there is a financial adviser she wants us to consult with. He says he can double our fortune in a year’s time. The Contessa says his word is good and his methods are mostly legal.

It’s cool on the piazza but the morning sun is warm on my face. With a small blanket across my legs, life is good.  I want to hold this moment forever. I guess I’m still afraid I’ll wake up in a rat infested apartment with Swann leering down at me.

Now that I’ve had time to consider it I think I have some idea of what was happening back home. Tip was not an idiot. You don’t become a crime boss by being dumb. He knew that Swann’s star was on the rise and his was setting. His escape plan was the large “retirement fund” in the off-shore bank. He was probably shutting down businesses, collecting debts and such. That would explain the large amount of cash in his office. Swann would not have been ignorant of Tip’s sudden influx of cash and would assume that Tip was building up his war chest to fight back against Swann’s expansion. So Swann launched his attack a little before Tip expected it. Luis would have known Tip was leaving and may have decided to throw his loyalty behind the new boss. So Tip was planning to leave the rest of us high and dry. The bastard.

 The Contessa flutters out like a flock of blue butterflies and settles in a chair beside my chaise. A faint aroma of jasmine follows her. She looks at me, saying nothing. After a few moments the staring is making me uncomfortable.

“What?” I say, unable to stand the scrutiny any longer.

“I knew it,” she crows. “I just knew it. Henri has been inordinantly pleased with himself all morning and then I find you out here sated and purring like the cat who got the cream. I knew it. You two were together last night.”

It is pointless to deny it as I feel my ears turning pink. Henri and I were together last night and it was magnificent! He is such a vigorous lover. I’m still sore in a few places. But just the thought of last night is making my pajama bottoms uncomfortably tight.

“I must say I expected as much but I thought Henri would take a few more days before he made his move,” she continues. “Ordinarily I would say, ‘darling, we don’t do the help’, but Henri’s practically part of the family. He’s quite smitten with you and I must say I approve.”

“Thanks?” is all I can manage.

“But I have one proviso,” and she gives me the coldest look I can imagine. “Don’t you dare hurt him.”

“I have no intention of hurting him. I think he’s great. He may break me, though.”

“Oh yes, our Henri is a man of gusto. Speak of the devil.”  Henri has appeared on the piazza with a sheet of paper.

“Good morning again, madame. Good morning Monsieur Luke. I trust you slept well?” I nod and he stops beside the chaise, his attention on the Contessa. His slight French accent takes me back to last night and his moans of “Zhoey”. I have to readjust myself under the blanket.

“I pulled this off our American newsfeed this morning, madame. I thought it would interest you.”

I also take the opportunity to surreptitiously stroke the back of his calf. He cuts his eyes at me barely suppressing a grin. I wink at him. The grin strives to break through. I mouth “tonight” and he can hardly control his face. He quickly looks back at the Contessa. She is reading the news report. Suddenly her hand flies to her mouth, covering a smile. “Oh my,” she gasps. Then she begins to giggle like a school girl. “Oh this is too rich. I love it.” She passes the news item to me.

“Gunning Granny Gets Goon (NYC)

An elderly landlady shot and killed an intruder in her home early Thursday morning. Mrs Eulalia Berger who says her age is “none of yer damn business” (public records say 74) surprised an armed intruder in her building and shot him dead. “I keep a gun to shoot rats in the alley. These New York rats are big as tom cats. But it looks like I got the biggest rat of all,” she said.   

 The deceased has been identified as John “Hammer” Benson, 35, who is unemployed. He is allegedly involved with organized crime as an enforcer in the lower East Side. Mrs. Berger said she heard a noise about midnight and went to investigate. She and Mr. Benson apparently came upon each other at the same time and Mrs. Berger shot first. She hit Mr. Benson three times in the chest. “Shoot first, ask questions later. That’s what I say,” she said. No charges will be filed as it was a case of self-defense.

            In a related story, ballistics of the intruder’s weapon match it to the gun used to kill Tomas Czarnik aka Tip O’Shay in the same building on Wednesday. A detective working the case said “it appears Mr. Benson killed Mr. Czarnik. He must have felt there was some loose end and was planning to fix it. Mrs. Berger probably saved an innocent life tonight.” The detectives feel this solves the murder/robbery but the persons of interest, Joey Larsen and Brandon Carter, remain missing. “I fear they probably knew too much and are at the bottom of the East River,” a detective said. As to a motive, the detective said it was a gangland clash. Mr. Benson has been associated with Mr. T.J. Swann, an entrepreneur with what some consider a questionable past. Mr. Swann was unavailable for comment at press time as he was being taken into custody by FBI agents on a plethora of organized crime charges – murder, extortion, prostitution, drugs, bribery, racketeering. “We’re just getting started,” said a federal agent who asked not to be identified. “A concerned citizen turned in boxes of evidence tying Swann to most of the crimes committed in the East side in the past ten years. It’s a treasure trove for us. Swann’s going away for about 500 years plus.” In addition to the federal arrest of Mr. Swann, Police Internal Affairs have placed a number of police officers from the 13th precinct on unpaid leave pending charges. Those involved include Lieutenant A. J. Fielding, Captain T.R. Montgomery and Detective Alan Trask.”

“A concerned citizen?” I ask looking at the Contessa with renewed respect.

“I had to call in a lot of favors to get all that and so quickly, but that rascal needed to be taught a lesson.”

“And that lesson would be?” I begin.

Henri finishes it with his best Bronx accent, “Ya don’t fuck wid da Contessa.”

And you can believe I never will.