The Cornfield

Here’s a new story never before seen on my blog that has been published. It is in Ariel Chart Review, October 20, 2019. You can look it up if you want to. It’s free on the web. It’s easier if you google “Ariel Chart Magazine Cornfield”.

I don’t know where this story came from. Many of my stories have a background, some thing that sparks the story. If this one did, I can’t remember it. I’ve been thinking the past couple of days trying to remember what gave me the idea, and I just can’t remember anything.

Update: a reader has reminded me that I told her I got the story from a Melissa Etheridge song. It was “We Got Nowhere to Go”. I remember seeing a homoerotic music video of it on Youtube. I was touched by the hopelessness of the song and the feeling of empathy for the characters. I hoped to capture some of that in my story. Thanks, Cate.

The publication of this story was interesting also. I submitted it to Ariel Chart in September. I quickly received a message from the editor who read it that she liked it. A lot. She really wanted to publish it, but there were several changes they wanted. Without the changes they couldn’t use it. The changes were minor, so I agreed.

First, there was an overt implication that sex occurred. She asked that I take that out. I didn’t think the magazine was prudish, but what do I know. They’re Australian. So, I took it out.

Second, it didn’t have an ending that worked. It kind of just petered out. Or died. She wanted me to give it some kind of resolution. I did and it really made it a much better story.

Finally, was the length. It was somewhere under 3200 words or so. She said her managing editor would absolutely not accept anything from her over 3000 words; could I cut it back? That took a bit of work. Taking out the references to sex reduced it some, but the resolution at the end added some words back. I did a line by line edit to get it down. It’s now a very lean story. But I managed to turn it in to her at exactly 3000 words. What I’m putting here is not exactly the story that appears in Ariel Chart. I’ve added 6 more words to the last paragraph that I think gives it a nicer finish. So now, in all it’s 3006 word glory, here is The Cornfield. More to follow.

The Cornfield

            Dylan Westfield was a great guy. Everybody liked Dylan. What’s not to like? He was affable, charming, a friend to all. The girls fawned over his long, lanky frame and easy good looks. His hair shone yellow blond like newly mined gold, his blue irises had little radiating spokes of silver, making them sparkle like starlight. And his daddy being the richest man in town didn’t hurt. The girls idolized him, and the boys flocked to him.

            There were certain things everyone knew about Dylan. If you were in a jam, he’d bail you out. At the tavern he always picked up the tab. He didn’t date much, but never talked trash about the girls he went out with. And one thing everyone knew about Dylan was he hated Logan Thomas. No one knew exactly what Logan had done to draw the ire of the most popular, easiest going guy in school, but it must have been awful. If Logan even walked into the same room, Dylan’s expression would cloud. It was like shutting off the sunlight.

            Logan seemed to return the dislike tenfold. Maybe it was Dylan who had offended him. No one knew. The beginning of senior year had seen the boys thrown together in the same class and suddenly the sparks flew. The one thing everyone knew about Logan Thomas was he despised Dylan Westfield. 

***

            “Thomas!” Dylan yelled angrily. “I’m gonna kick your sorry ass back to hicktown where you came from.” School had just let out, and they were in the parking lot. Dylan and Logan were chest to chest like two bantam roosters ready to fight.

            “You and what army, you prissy little rich kid? Gonna get Daddy to fight for you?” Logan sneered. He was a couple inches shorter than Dylan’s six feet, but you had to give him credit for never backing down. Working in his father’s garage gave him the muscle to back it up. It was obvious words had been spoken before the crowd started gathering. Dylan stared at Logan with a coldness that accentuated the silver in his eyes. That iciness would make anyone shiver. Logan was red-faced with his anger. His jet-black hair was near shoulder length, almost touching the frayed edges of his denim vest with the POW and MIA patches. In his t-shirt, jeans, and ragged sneakers, he stood in stark difference to Dylan’s classic elegance. 

            “Keep your grubby hands off my car. I just had it waxed and I don’t need trailer trash like you smudging the shine. Now back off!” Several of Dylan’s larger friends loomed up beside him. Logan, realizing retreat was sometimes the better part of valor, glared at Dylan but backed away. Eventually he turned and continued through the parking lot to begin his long walk home.

            “You okay, D?” asked Big Tommy Shaw from the football team. “Me and the boys would be glad to go rough him up for you. Just say the word.”

            “No, let the little shit go. I’ve got better things to do than worry about him.”

            A girl wearing entirely too much makeup and an over the top pink cashmere sweater and wool skirt, despite the day’s heat, came gliding up to him. She laid her hand on the fender of his new sports car.

            “Ooh, I love red cars,” she purred. “Give a girl a lift home?”

            “Marlee, you live two blocks from here.” There was only a little exasperation in his voice. “But hop in.”

            The school took up two entire city blocks of town. Dylan jack rabbited his roadster along each of the four boundary streets, circling the school, working through the gears, trying to get up to fourth before slamming on the brakes for the next stop sign. Marlee squealed her pleasure, eyes agleam at being in Dylan’s car and at being with Dylan.  With the top down, they gloried in the cool wind and afternoon sun.  He took a circuitous route through town, finally ending up in Marlee’s driveway. He turned off the car, and they sat for a minute listening to the ticking of the cooling engine. Marlee pushed her lower lip out in a pout.

            “How come you haven’t asked me to Harvest Fest yet?” He figured that was coming. Truth be told, he didn’t want to go to Harvest Fest, or anywhere, with Marlee. He wasn’t even sure what he saw in her to begin with. She acted cheap, common. All the things he despised. He’d only dated her a few times, among other girls. But she had decided that they were a ‘thing’. He’d hesitated to set her straight, knowing it would be a scene. He hated scenes.

            “Look, Marlee. I’m not even sure I will be around to go to Harvest Fest. My family has plans. If I can, I’ll get in touch with you.”

            “Promise?” she asked like a four-year-old trying to extract a guarantee for a treat from Mommy.

            “Of course,” he said. Disaster temporarily avoided, he thought.

***

            Logan walked along the state road, beside a cornfield on his way home. The stalks and leaves were turning brown. The pickers would be by any day, reducing the fields to stubble. Then the vista of sweeping plains and distant rolling hills would again be revealed. Once again everyone could see what a shit hole they lived in. Welcome to Butt Hole, Iowa.

This being a Wednesday he didn’t have to show up at Dad’s garage. He had a late study group on Wednesdays. At least, that’s what he told Dad. He was so lost in thought the loud rumble was almost upon him before he processed it. As soon as it registered, his heart was in his throat. He fought the urge to plunge into the cornfield, avoiding the bullies about to beset him, but that was the coward’s way out. The pickup with ridiculously high tires throttled down as it pulled up even to him. He continued walking, refusing to acknowledge the truck or its crew. Big Tommy Shaw was driving. Without looking, Logan knew that his right-hand man, Doug Mason would ride shotgun. Some mixture of football punks would ride in the back.

            “Hey, trailer trash. The trailer park’s the other way. You lost?” Tommy shouted, to hoots and snickers from his cronies. Logan walked on.

            “Hey, dick face. I’m talking to you.” Tommy didn’t like being ignored. Logan eyed the cornfield. If the guys jumped from the truck, he felt he could probably lose them in the field. Probably. The drying leaves rustled louder than when they were fresh and green.  He suddenly felt a thud, as someone hit him in the side with a soft drink cup, half full. Fortunately, it struck him broadside so when the plastic cap popped off, the soda splashed away from him.  He stopped and stared at the cup. There were ominous “oohs” from the truck bed as if daring him to retaliate. He bent down and found a fist-sized rock with nice jagged edges. He turned to face the truck.

            “You know, Tommy, I could probably get Dad to give you a discount on the body work your truck’s gonna need,” he said hefting the rock, and then looking at it pointedly. Tommy’s tricked out pickup was his baby. It was bright blue without a speck of dust. Logan knew just how to hurt Tommy the most.

            “You wouldn’t dare, faggot. I’ll kill you if you touch my truck.”

            “Well, I got a head start, and it’s a big cornfield. You’ll have to catch me first,” he hefted the rock again as if deciding where to start.

            “I’m warning you, Thomas. Don’t mess with my truck.” A succession of loud beeps suddenly interrupted him as Dylan’s roadster shot up into the gap between Tommy’s truck and Logan.

            “This pissant causing you trouble, Tommy?” Dylan called across to the truck.

            “Yeah, the fucker’s threatening to scratch my truck.”

            “Really!” There was the ratcheting sound of Dylan setting the emergency brake. “I think it’s time Mr. Thomas was taught to mind his manners in the presence of his betters.” He climbed out of the car and Logan took a step back.

            “Want any help, D?” Tommy asked. All the boys were getting excited now.

            “No thanks. I been wanting to kick this peckerwood’s ass for a long time. I plan to enjoy it.” As all the boys hollered, Dylan charged Logan. Logan seemingly caught Dylan’s arm unawares and swung him around. Releasing, he let Dylan stumble into a pile of kudzu in the ditch bank. And with that, Logan was off like a shot through the cornfield. The noise of the boys shouting their disappointment at losing the afternoon’s entertainment quickly faded in the background. He could still faintly hear their shouts of “Coward!”

            Logan slowed down to ease his breathing. No one was giving chase. He sighed. Just another day. He rolled with the emotional punches just as he did the physical ones, whether from his classmates or his dad. It was just how things were.

            The afternoon sun could not penetrate the thick canopy of cornstalk leaves, creating an oasis of coolness in the shadow. The rows were parallel to the state road, so he continued walking in the direction he had originally been travelling. Maybe I should walk a few rows inside the field every day. Avoid unnecessary conflicts, he thought. But then, the cornfield wouldn’t be here much longer.

            It wasn’t as if everyone hated him. He had friends. But the ‘in’ crowd had made him their whipping boy. The jocks, the rich kids, the social elite. What kind of threat was he? He never bothered them; he definitely didn’t want to be one of them. He was just marking time until he could escape this hellhole. Leave Iowa far behind.

The corn field abruptly ended at a dirt path, a path tractors and other farm equipment used to maneuver between fields. He turned left to follow the path. After a few miles of twisting through the fields, he would find his house.

            And no, he was not trailer trash. The Thomas house wasn’t nice like the rich kids, but it was respectable and paid for. Dad said it was his castle and couldn’t no one throw him out. Dad frequently made such pronouncements, usually after putting away a six-pack of beer. Logan had long since figured out that Dad was what was called a ‘functional alcoholic’. He owned his own business, made it successful, never showed up to work drunk or laid out. But evenings and weekends, he was drunk more often than he wasn’t. And he was a mean drunk. Along about the fourth beer you could see a change come over his face, an ugly sneer would form. That was the time they all made themselves scarce. His rages were unpredictable, triggered by anything or nothing. He knew Dad slapped Mom around, but weirdly, he never did it in front of the kids. However, he had no qualms about knocking Logan and his siblings around while Mom watched with worry. As the oldest, Logan took the brunt of it, often putting himself at risk to protect the younger ones. He was seventeen and just beginning to realize he could take on his father and best him in a fight. But he was unsure if he could ever really raise a hand to the man. He was so conditioned to back down.

***

            Logan rounded a curve in the path, about a mile in from the state road and straight ahead he saw a gleaming red sports car. Dylan Westfield was standing beside the car, leaning against it with arms crossed, as nonchalant as if it was not odd to see a pricey sports car parked on a dusty farm path. And Dylan was staring at him. Logan felt his pulse quicken.

            He continued trudging along the path, never looking away. He slowed slightly as he neared the car but kept moving ahead. When it looked as if he might pass by, Dylan abruptly stepped forward, blocking the path. He forced Logan to stop. Dylan regarded him with his arms still crossed, a wry grin on his face.

            “They almost got you today. You need to be more careful.”

            “Yeah, thanks for the bail.”

            “Always. What would I do without you?” He opened his arms and Logan stepped into his embrace. They stood for a few minutes, as if drawing strength from each other.

            “It’s just so hard. I hate this stupid game we’re playing,” Logan mumbled into Dylan’s shoulder. “Having to act like I hate you all the time.”

            “I know, babe. It sucks. But we have our plan. It’ll work out.”

            Releasing Logan, he walked to the trunk of the little car.

            “By the way, nice ride,” Logan said. “Birthday present?”

            “Yeah, thanks, maybe I can give you a ride sometime.”

            “Not likely. What would people think?”

Opening the trunk, Dylan removed a blanket and a cooler. They walked over to a grassy spot near the edge of the field. The stalks blocked the lowering sun, casting a shadow over their little picnic area. After spreading the blanket, they both sat down.

            Dylan opened the cooler and took out a couple of beers. He also had a bag of chips.  He sat the bag between them and passed Logan a bottle.

            Logan looked at Dylan.

            “Trailer trash? Really? You called me trailer trash? I gotta admit. That stings.”

            “Well, you called me prissy.”

            They both burst out laughing at the same time. Logan held his beer out. Dylan tapped it with his and they drank.

            After the beers, and most of the chips, they laid on the blanket, Logan on his back, Dylan on his side, looking at him.

            “Hey, babe. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. You know I didn’t mean any of it,” Dylan said.

            “I know. I was just razzing you.”

            “Promise?”

            “Yeah.” Logan heaved himself up on one elbow. “C’mere.” Dylan scooted closer so they could get their arms around each other and laid back in a kiss.

            When they finally came up for air, Dylan whispered huskily, “Oh man, I needed that.”

            “Me too.” They resumed kissing and exploring each other’s bodies. After a while they simply rested in each other’s arms, relishing the quiet of nature and the simple joy of touching.

            All too soon the creeping shadows said the day was done. They both had worlds requiring their return.

            “When will this end?” Logan asked plaintively.       

            Dylan smiled at his undeclared lover. “Soon, babe. Just a few more months and we can leave this punk ass town.”

            “It’s so easy for you to dream. Any dream I’ve ever had was quickly stamped out by my bastard of a father. I don’t think I know how to dream anymore.”

            “We’ll make it. I’ll dream for both of us if I have to. I meant to tell you, I got early acceptance at Dartmouth. The letter came this weekend. You’re coming with me. We’ll use your money to enroll you in classes to become a certified mechanic. You already know all that stuff.”

            “Suppose it’s not enough?”

            “You worry too much. I’ll pay our way until you’re on your feet. If you’re too proud to let me support you, then keep track and you can pay me back. We love each other and this lets us get out of this shit hole state and be together.”

            “I’m afraid to hope for it. What’ll we tell our folks?”

            “I’d say we tell your dad nothing. That asshole doesn’t even deserve a ‘goodbye’. I think my dad’s figuring it out. He’s not going to want a fag running the company, so he’ll probably offer me a shitload of money to stay away after college. I plan to take the money and then come back and milk him for more. Surely, he can spare a few million for his least favorite son. And Mom still loves me, and she’s loaded, too. More money than Dad. Money will never be a problem for us.”

            “But I mean how much longer at school? I’m tired of pretending to hate you.”

            “Yeah, it’s getting old. But we agreed that this was the better way. The so-called popular crowd already hated you, so there was no real way we would ever be friends. But if we didn’t do something, people would figure it out just from the way I stare at you. This way, I can look at you, drink in your beauty, interact with you, even touch you, and no one’s the wiser.”

            “Yeah, but it’s killing me.”

            “I know, me too. But it’s the only way I can figure. Don’t you think we’re worth it?”

            “We are so definitely worth it. You are worth it. I’ll do whatever it takes to be with you.”

            Dylan leaned in for a long, lingering kiss.

            “That’s what I need to hear. We’re strong. We will prevail.”

            After a few moments of silence, both boys stood and without words stowed the blanket and empty bottles in Dylan’s car. When everything was cleared, Dylan sat in the driver’s seat of his shiny red roadster. Logan leaned against the door, holding Dylan’s hand as if it were a lifeline. He hated the stinging of unshed tears as he kissed his lover goodbye.

            “See you tomorrow, babe. And I promise. No more trailer trash. I’m so sorry I hurt you.”

            “It’s okay. I may still call you prissy, though. This car is so prissy.”

            “Yeah, and you love it,” Dylan laughed and sped away down the dusty lane. The sky was a glory of reds and purples desperately trying to hold on to the day. Logan couldn’t take time to notice the beauty. His family expected him home soon. No, not home. Just a temporary stopping point. His real home was elsewhere, with the boy with golden hair, icy blue eyes, infectious grin and a shiny red car.

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.

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.