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.

Sturm und Drang

“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” This quote from MacBeth is an apt opening for today’s offering. I can’t call it a story because it has no plot, just a slice of life. But not only full of fury, also full of venom and bitterness.

Facebook has become today’s version of Jerry Springer. People seem to have no qualms about saying or doing anything in public, as long as they feel they are getting attention. An innate need to matter, to be heard. But some of our thoughts don’t need to be heard. They should lie unspoken in the junkyard of our minds.

I have taken this little psychodrama directly from Facebook. I’ve made no changes except for names. Punctuation seems to be a fading convention, its lack sometimes making a thought difficult to follow or parse. I’ve added no help. The spelling was sometimes erratic, but I’ve made no changes to that either.

My only regret it that, alas, I am actually related to some of these people. But then, as I say every year at Thanksgiving, oh god, I hope I’m adopted.

Sturm und Drang

Characters:

            Bobby Branson – subject of much of the discussion

            Chrissie Carter Oaks – Bobby’s former fiancée

            Ethel Branson – Bobby’s mother

            Mary Lane – Chrissie’s best friend

            Randall Oaks – Chrissie’s husband

            Chad Branson – Bobby’s brother

            Sally Branson – Chad’s wife

            Ashley Branson – Bobby’s sister-in-law

            Johnny Branson – Bobby’s brother

            Jessie Branson – Bobby’s cousin

            Steph Branson – Bobby’s cousin

            Brandy Laws – Bobby’s cousin

            Katie Allen, Donna Walls, Josey Gardner, Mike Rawls – Bobby’s friends

Facebook

May 4

Ethel Branson:            To all my FB friends Ethel Branson and the late Milton Branson proudly announce the engagement of their son Robert Branson to Chrissie Carter. Please pray their marriage will be blessed by GOD.

A person wearing a hat

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June1

Bobby Branson:          The weekend is here going to spend these two days off spending some much needed time with my soon to be wife Chrissie Carter. I love you baby from the moon and back counting the days down.

June 6

Bobby Branson:          What you find out in the end the love hurts the most. The wedding got called off I’m single again and this crap sucks. But I know I will always have my mama and my brothers to try and pick me up I love all of y’all.

June 6 and following

Chrissie Carter:          Take the pic off. It has my child in it.

Mary Lane:                 Ok retard. For 1 this is not ur child take it down 2 ur being a fucking child this is not ur kid so take it down im not playing ur nothing but a perv taking someone elses kids pic and putting on ur facebook really grow the fuck up she don’t want ur perv ass so leave her and her kid alone and take the pic down or ill make sure u regret it and im not one to play with so u better take it down right now u fucking perv.

Chrissie Carter:           Mary Lane get into this with us girl.

Mary Lane:                 Hes fucking stupid girl.

Randall Oaks:             You’ve got till Saturday to get the fuck picture off your Facebook page.

Katie Allen:                What the fuck are you gonna do?

Donna Walls:              Exactly.

Randall Oaks:             You fucking perv you will never have the chance to be with her she going to be my wife in a few weeks.

Chad Branson:            All I can say to this is good luck with that shit. She’s about the most useless thing called a female I have ever met and thank you for taking one for the team and getting her out of circulation. You’re alright in my book.

A few weeks pass

Chrissie Oaks:            Bobby take the pic off your page stop being a spiteful asshole. Take my daughters pic off your Facebook so I can move on with my life and be happy with my husband.

Chrissie Oaks:            This dude is sick in the head I think and has a thing for kids. I think that’s why he won’t take it down. what ya think Randall Oaks.

Katie Allen:                If you really think that, why on earth would you agree to marry him? Take family pictures? To make his mama happy? No, bitch. You did it just to fuck with good people because you are scum of the earth and ain’t got a lick of common sense.

Randall Oaks:             He’s a piece of shit.

Chrissie Oaks:            Oh I agree but think about it he won’t remove a pic with a child that is not his. It kinda screams that he has a thing for children. And woman that are way outta his field.

Mary Lane:                 Ya its gross damn thats y I called him a perv lol. Right u dont want him he needs to move on damn plain and simple.

Chrissie Oaks:            I think deep down he really is. He has no life and all he is doing is trying to fuck with my child.

Mary Lane:                 Ya i know its rediclious.

Chrissie Oaks:             It sure as hell is. I think this is what he does in his free time.

Randall Oaks:             You one thing you don’t do a fucking post pictures of my wife and child.

Brandy Laws:             When this fucking picture was taken your “wife” was with Bobby. Shes got shit to answer to. Faking a pregnancy and using this families good nature then saying this shit.

Sally Branson:            At least until the next sucker comes along. Then she’ll move on from you like she did Bobby.

Mary Lane:                 He just needs to remove the pic is all and this all will stop.

Donna Walls:              She sure as hell didnt mind when she was using his house as a resting place when she was out leaving hoeing around y’all all better back off.

Randall Oaks:             No bitch she was with me so you need to get the fuck out of it. My wife ain’t a hoe.

Sally Branson:            I beg to differ.

Donna Walls:              Wow he pulled ur wife from u? Some kinda scam y’all got goin.

Donna Walls:              Randall tell that to the guy she brought out here and was in camper for 3 hrs.

Ashley Branson:         She is a hoe. And nothing more. Bitch only knows how to hoe round and use people.

Mary Lane:                 Horing around really with no vehicle get a life.

Sally Branson:            She didn’t need a vehicle. I saw the men coming by to pick her up.

Randall Oaks:             Yep it was me and it’s not your business.

Mary Lane:                 Ya cause she choose to leave and thats her choice u cant make someone love someone they dont.

Mary Lane:                 And thats not men thats a big deff.

Sally Branson:            Then why does she keep coming back to his place. What about the “gay” best friend. What about the “brother”. And she slept with Bobby. All in the course of 2 months. Wow!!! My family, my business.

Mary Lane:                 K well i know nothing about them i only know about Randall and Bobby no one else and i talk to chrissie just about everyday.

Donna Walls:              None of y’all know what the hell is going on but the shit that flowing out her mouth which isnt nothing but fucking lies.

Chrissie Oaks:            All you fucking do is use Bobby for your personal shit and make him feel bad when he won’t kiss your ass over your child. The dude needs to take the pic of my child down before I have her father involved in it.

Katie Allen:                Oh so kinda like you did?

Donna Walls:              No the mf would come get her thats why she had everyone stay in the house. So y’all get a life. Grow up.

Chrissie Oaks:             All you do is stay fucking drunk so don’t tell us to grow up.

Donna Walls:              Wow u don’t know me I don’t drink. I believe u got drunk at my house.

Mary Lane:                 he needs to take this pic down its not his daughter and none of this would be going on right now get the big pic much.

Brandy Laws:             None of this would be happening right now if your so called friend wasn’t a con. All she did was use him and you’re here like a blind puppy.

Chrissie Oaks:             Mary Lane is one of my closest peoples and knows everything about me.

Sally Branson:            It’s funny how Chrissie injected herself into Bobby’s life & his family bent over backwards to try to help her out. They were rewarded with nothing but lies from her for their good deeds. She is a manipulator & a con artist & a compulsive liar. This is the behavior she shows after all she had done.

Chrissie Oaks:             Look here you crazy ass crack hoe bitch stay outta it.

Sally Branson:            I’m a crack hoe? That’s funny. You’re just a straight up con artist whore. I’ve seen you first hand bringing men in the camper, leaving the house for weeks with different men just to beg to come back. Faking pregnancy. Stealing jewelry. Should I keep going…

Chrissie Oaks:             At least I didn’t put drugs before my kids.

Sally Branson:            Funny I still have my kids. No you put everything before your kids or you would still have them.

Chad Branson:             Exactly.

Donna Walls:              Ashley Branson, Katie Allen look at this shyt.

Chrissie Oaks:             Donna Walls, get everyone in it why don’t you let’s have a big fuck fest

Donna Walls:              Heck u did.

Donna Walls:              All lies tell I’m pulling the truth.

Brandy Laws:             You fucking tagged your damn friend into this shit.

Donna Walls:              What about the pic u had Bobby pay for.

Chrissie Oaks:            Mom wanted that taken I didn’t want that fucking pic taken for shit. So therefore I made her happy.

Donna Walls:              More lies.

Randall Oaks:             Look at the picture he looking at the child inappropriately.

Chrissie Oaks:             omg it’s true.

Brandy Laws:             Doesn’t matter if its not his daughter he treated this crazy bitch and her daughter like they were damn on a pedestal. They were automatically added into the family and showed love and this woman was treated like family.

Randall Oaks:             Yep i was the men she left with and had a lot of fun with I’m the daddy of the baby’s and the one she’s married to hahaha.

Chrissie Oaks:            You don’t know a damn this all I want is my child’s pic removed off Facebook it’s not his kid he has no rights to her nor will he ever. So therefore it needs to come down and everyone needs to stay outta it.

Brandy Laws:             I know everything of whats going on and i know you’re a conniving bitch that only lies. Saying you’re pregnant and then faking a miscarriage saying you feel kicking and that its twins, then 3, then 4. You’re a dumb bitch that thought no one would be smart enough to see through your half assed lies.

Mary Lane:                 He just needs to take this pic down plain and simple that’s y i got involved its not his kid it shouldn’t be up on his facebook at all and i know how it feels when someone does this shit cause im going through the same shit so if he just takes it down it will all be done and over with on my end.

Sally Branson:            Maybe if she would just give the ring back it will all be done & over with.

Randall Oaks:             The ring is gone lol lol

Ashley Branson:         Warrant for her arrest cause it wasnt paid for. I have a good lawyer who will help you Bobby Branson.

Mary Lane:                 Ya and they had a plan to give it back and for the pic to be taken down and he refuses to do so and if i remember correctly he told her she could have the ring and that he didnt want it back so u dont know everything either. What men exactly huh? Were u there? Can u say what they were wearing or what they looked like? How tall? Cause if not then u dont really know then now do u?

Sally Branson:            I saw enough from my house.

Ashley Branson:         She a fuck whore and dont deserve a good man. Bitch need to give the ring back her lying cheating ass.

Randall Oaks:             She don’t have the ring it on the side of the road since it’s a fucking lie from his mommy that said it was a mommy’s day present.

Sally Branson:            More lies.

Chrissie Oaks:            What no one understands is the ring is lost I lost it last night and can’t find it at all it’s insured they will give another one it have a life time warranty.

Brandy Laws:             You mean you pawned it. Give the money that was spent on the damn thing back. All this could easily go to the law in 2 seconds. Y’all wanna threaten to press charges when there was nothing wrong done on Bobby’s part at all.

Mary Lane:                 Just have him take this pic down and im out thats all i want.

Randall Oaks:             I fucking trashed it since it was a lie about it being a present.

Ashley Branson:         It wasnt a present or gift. The bitch promised to marry him and due to her cheating and hoeing around. It is owed back to Bobby Branson cause she is a trashy slut.

Brandy Laws:             I think your bitch is lying to you hunny.

Ashley Branson:         Yeah whatever all lies just like everything you ever told him. Lies about being pregnant and everything. Lying ass bitch.

Randall Oaks:             She is pregnant I’ve got pictures of my baby’s.

Sally Branson:            I need to see that to believe it.

Ethel Branson:            If she is pregnant then post picture. When baby is born we will DEMAND a DNA test and if it is Bobby’s. We WILL see you in court.

Josey Gardner:            Take him to court anyway mom he said he trashed the ring that’s right there shows he destroyed someone else’s property she’s all up here saying she married someone else. She needs to give the ring or take her ass to court. Got proof up here screen shot it all.

Randall Oaks:             let’s go.

Sally Branson:            I wouldn’t try to act so cocky if I was you. Josey is right. The proof is all right here for everyone to read. I am ecstatic that you have taken her off of our hands. You two are perfect for each other. She looks like trailer trash & you look like a straight up drug addict. You two belong together. I hope you both get everything that you have coming to you.

Randall Oaks:             You don’t know me and so good luck trailer trash.

Sally Branson:            hahaha…Can’t you be any more original than to just repeat what I say? Oh hunny, you need to get a clue. This girl is using you just like she uses everyone else. You’re just too blind to see it. When she has used you up she’ll leave you just like everyone else. You think you are special? No. You’re just her next victim. But who knows? Maybe you’re just as sick in the head as she is. Maybe you are just as worthless as she is. All you two do is run your mouths & spread your lies. But don’t have the ass to back up what comes out of your mouths. You want to get up here & try to bully someone but can’t take it when the table is turned. He took the photo down. Now she needs to return the ring. She needs to suck it up & realize that her scam didn’t work this time. Bobby has all the proof he needs to take her to court. I’ve seen her records. I don’t think she wants another charge.

Ashley Branson:         You sure you the daddy?

Donna Walls:              it’s the one in the camper. Hell or one of the 3 guys.

Randall Oaks:             Hell yeah she been with me since she moved up there.

Sally Branson:            What about “Ricky”.

Mary Lane:                 This crazy r u sure ur the daddy really come on now lmfao right now.

Donna Walls:              U keep thinking that buddy.

Ashley Branson:         She is just a slut lying ass bitch. She dont know who the daddy is. She a slut.

Mary Lane:                 Now thats enough cause shes not and she can sit here and say the same shit about u all.

Donna Walls:              Doubt it. We all stay with our same man.

Brandy Laws:             Shit I dont go and find people online and lie to them just to have a place to live while i sleep with other people and get married to the other person knowing damn well that im gonna run off with the ring.

Mary Lane:                 Ya well i know what happened and they worked shit out thats how it rolls would us stay with someone u thought u loved but dont? She thought she loved him and she didnt and he said she can keep it so how is that running off with it?

Sally Branson:            Lies. More lies.

Mary Lane:                 Well i know what she told me so im just saying from what she told me and ive been down that road to thinking i loved someone but then really didnt so i broke it off but the only diff is he never bought me anything so.

Brandy Laws:             Would you go through marrying them and then the next day you’re apparently engaged to someone else? Then while you’re with this new person you’re asking for them back in the SAME DAY.

Mary Lane:                 Hell no i would not but i would try to be friends is what i would do cause thats who i am i have a big heart and care a lot and when i do sometimes i get screwed over and shit.

Chrissie Oaks:            I am a slut but honey you know that’s a lie. Hey look everyone get their panties outta a wad or dicks outta their asses.

Sally Branson:            Chrissie I do think that you brought all of this on yourself. Everyone is tired of being quiet while you take advantage.

Ashley Branson:         If she does have any babies they all gonna have different daddys cause she cant be faithful to one man. Lmao. YOU ARE JUST A HOE.

Chrissie Oaks:            I know who my baby daddy’s are bitch. So don’t even go there with my kids that’s crossing the line you stupid bitch.

Mary Lane:                 So damn true it is crossing the line.

Brandy Laws:             Plural, bitch? Lmao.

Sally Branson:            “daddy’s”… Exactly.

Katie Allen:                I’m dying with her multiple baby daddy’s!!

Randall Oaks:             I’m the daddy been in there every night since she moved up there when people sleep daddy plays.

Sally Branson:            You are only making her look worse. Keep talking.

Chrissie Oaks:             I like it when daddy plays it’s fun.

Sally Branson:            Wow… How weird is that.

Ashley Branson:         Exactly.

Bobby Branson:
(Screen shot)  

            Chrissie:         I don’t wanna take it off   (the engagement ring)

            Bobby:            Why not?

            Chrissie:         Because I still have hope of us.

Bobby:            I have hopes of us to but I won’t to hold on to it so I can get down on my knee again and place it on your finger.

            Chrissie:         Please just let me hold on to if for now.

            Bobby:            I won’t to hold on to it.

Mary Lane:                 Whats the date on this. Cause there isn’t any.

Bobby Branson:          Yesterday.

Donna Walls:              Yesterday.

Ashley Branson:         Exactly what I was thinking, she begging to keep the ring and keep the wedding date. But fucking every dick she crosses.

Donna Walls:              Oh its gets better she just messaged him and asked us to stop she will give ring back next Friday! Sooo who lies on this.

Ashley Branson:         She should have gave it back. She shouldn’t have even got it in the first place. How many dick already been in her before she moved there. Lol. Well its funny how she begging Bobby to still let her back just yesterday right. Bitch don’t know what she wants.

Donna Walls:             Damn how many daddys do u have.

Ashley Branson:         To many for her to keep up with obviously.

Chrissie Oaks:             Y’all can all go fuck yalls selfs my two kids are none of your business

Mary Lane:                 Damn right girl.

Katie Allen:                But its every other man out theres business right?

Ashley Branson:         Right. I bet father’s day is very busy for her. Must have to make appointments. Lmao.

Johnny Branson:         Enough is enough. She’s gone and its nobody’s business but theirs. The situation is bad enough without continuing to drag it out.

Donna Walls:              They shouldn’t have attacked him nor threatened him. We didn’t say anything until then. Sorry but we don’t stand back and let family get done like that.

Jessie Branson:           Johnny is right. Bobby just let her go, cuz. Let the ring go too.. if she can live with it then you can live without it. God has someone better for you I promise.. someone whos got her shit together.. this girls just looking to validate her fuckedupness. Idk her at all but watching ur posts is painful.. stop giving her all this power and give them all one of these (middle finger emoticon).

Chad Branson:             I agree with Johnny on this one. Glad the bitch is gone though.

Ashley Branson:         Good riddance. To unwanted bullshit.

Steph Branson:           Some people come into your life and teach you a LESSON. And I hope you learned from this one Bobby. Y’all need to block each other and move on! And stop giving your heart to shit women. Period.

Donna Walls:              Amen!

Randall Oaks:             Amen. She been with me from the day she moved up there. Sorry Bobby.

Steph Branson:           Randall Oaks you can move on too. Take her.

Ashley Branson:         Randall Oaks please keep her. Cause her ass ain’t wanted here. I mean how many other men has she promised to marry. Lmao.

Donna Walls:              Who ever they run scam on.

Randall Oaks:             I’ll be happy to so fuck off and end the childish name calling.

Brandy Laws:             Yall are perfect for each other. Both dumbasses. You’re just proving that she’s a slut.

Randall Oaks:             No she a good house wife so don’t you worry about that Plus she loves my house and land and animals I have she loves my tractor no Reasons to leave my farm.

Sally Branson:            Then why did you have her living in another man’s house.

Brandy Laws:             You just said she was sleeping with you while she was engaged/dating another man. Like I said BOTH DUMBASSES.

Randall Oaks:             No y’all are dumbass i was fucking her when she was living there then she find the love for me and moved to my house.

Brandy Laws:             Exactly you stupid adultering fuck. Jesus.

Ashley Branson:         Can’t fix stupid yall. Their comments show how ignorant they are. Perfect match for each other. I’m just glad she is out of Bobby’s life.

Katie Allen:                Randall Oaks. ARE YOU LITERALLY STUPID?! Omfg WHY WOULD YOU LET YOUR WIFE SLEEP AND GET ENGAGED TO ANOTHER MAN?!?! Like.. both yall stupid asf.

Donna Walls:              I was thinking the same thing but obviously they don’t understand intelligent things.

Mike Rawls:               Him and Bobby was hitting it. What does that.

Donna Walls:              Hoe.

Ashley Branson:         Nasty hoe. And he bragging about it. I just wish Bobby knew how trashy she was before all this.

Steph Branson:           Yalllll. Let it goooo.

Ashley Branson:         Im done. I have a graduation to take care of. Plus fun family trip tomorrow.

Chrissie Oaks:            Everyone just stop the shit. Johnny said leave it be so everyone keep my damn name outta your mouth.

Jenny Branson:           Just my opinion nobody would have had anybody’s name in there mouth if they would have just kept there legs closed but that’s my opinion can’t expect to go around and be a whore and continue to think everyone is peaches and cream love you Bobby keep your head up.

Jenny Branson:           But it’s not my business just stating facts.

Johnny Branson:         Why??? Just let it die down please!

Girls Can’t Climb Trees

            On long southern evenings my family would, like many others, sit out on the porch hoping to catch a cooling breeze. To pass the time, the family talked. Stories were told, family lore passed down and memorable moments relived. I put this story together from the stories my grandfather, grandmother and father told (with a little help from the Bureau of Vital Statistics). I remember how Grandma’s eyes twinkled and she smiled as she told the story about climbing the tree. With all this information, I was able to piece together the story of my grandparent’s courtship. I haven’t whitewashed anyone or tried to create a hero. I have just told it as it came together. This story is true. All I did was add the dialogue. I feel humbled and blessed that these people were my forebears. I want to honor them by not letting them be forgotten by history. They lived and breathed, loved and lost. They should be remembered. Here is their story.

Girls Can’t Climb Trees

July 1912

            “Girls can’t climb trees,” Lloyd crowed from one of the lower branches of the chestnut tree.

            “Oh, yes I can,” Mollie declared. Mindless of her dress, the eight-year-old girl clambered up the fat trunk and soon sat beside Lloyd on the limb.

            “You ain’t supposed to do that.”

            “I can do anything you can, Lloyd Bass, and don’t you forget it.”

Vernon

           July 1912  

Ida, my wife, looked out the back window across the yard to the distant woods.

            “Vernon. They’ve run off playing again. I wish we could get rid of that pesky girl. I just know she’ll lead him into trouble.”

            “The children are fine, honey. Leave them be,” I said. My wife tends to fret. “There aren’t many boys around here his age. He needs someone to play with. Mollie’s brothers and John are too old for him.”

            “I suppose. But she’s just so common. He wouldn’t be so set on her if he hadn’t seen her everyday at that school you opened.” Ida looked at me accusingly.

            “We discussed this. Seaboard was too far to go for school every day. Having one on our farm, within sight of the house was the best plan. And the dividend from the state helps our finances.”

            “But did you have to open it up to everyone? Some of those low-class children are filthy and probably have lice and who knows what else,” she shuddered.

            “Lessen we make it a private school we can’t control who comes, you know that. What’s wrong, honeybunch?” I snagged Ida after she set a pot of soaking beans on the table and pulled her onto my lap. Ida had been a plump girl when we married and having four children had not made her any slimmer. I held in a groan as she settled onto my rail thin legs. Ida leaned her head into my neck like when we were just married.

            “I don’t know, Vernon. I just get a bad feeling about that girl. She looks at me so brazenly.”

            “Aw, you’re just imagining things, honey. Mollie’s a sweet girl.”

I knew what the problem was. Mollie was from a family that Ida had identified as beneath her. Sharecroppers. She was still clinging to the old-fashioned notions of class and social standing. All that had been swept away by the Great War and the hardships of Reconstruction. We were both born ten years after the War ended, I thought, but our outlooks are so different. Her grandfather Kee and her father owned large acreages with over 50 slaves to work them. They even had house servants. Part of Ida would always be the lady of the manor, out there on the veranda, serving tea.

            I also knew that Ida looked down on my family. My grandfather may not have been as important as hers, but he had a substantial plantation. He just didn’t believe in slavery, and didn’t need to with nine sons to work the farm. Granddaddy taught his sons to respect all people, regardless of what class they might be. And Daddy always said it was best to help the less fortunate.  And he disliked the Kees for their strong support of slavery.

August 1879

            Little Vernon looked timidly at his mother as she lay in bed. Mama who was always so happy and loving was frightening him. She alternately shivered and sweated as she struggled for each breath. If was stifling hot to him in the closed off bedroom. He wondered why they didn’t open the window and let in some air.

            “Vernie, come to me,” she gasped, managing to slightly raise one arm. He hesitated until Mammy gave him a push. Mama took his hand and he was shocked by how hot her hand was. She coughed into a dishcloth and Vernon could spy red when she pulled it away.

            “My poor baby. I have to leave you. I don’t want to go. Remember always that Mama loves you. You were my life,” she croaked. Such a long speech exhausted her so that she could hardly cover her mouth when the next spasm of coughs wracked her body. Daddy stood by the head of the bed. Vernon had never seen him so sad. Where is Mama going, he wondered. Is Daddy going, too? Who will keep me? Unsure of what was happening, and only four years old, Vernon started crying. His mother stroked his hair once and then let her arm fall limply. She softly whispered, “My poor baby.” Mammy came and pulled him away. Back at her chair she gathered him in her lap. He loved Mammy’s lap. It was soft and he was safe there.  

            “Press, y’all are frightening the child. He shouldn’t be here,” Mammy complained, using his Daddy’s nickname.

            Daddy’s voice trembled. “I want him to remember his mama’s death. And that bastard Jim Kee wouldn’t even come see his own daughter as she lay dying. I hope he burns in hell.”

            “Shhh, son. Remember the boy,” Mammy soothed him.

He had almost drifted off to sleep when he heard his daddy shout Mama’s name several times and then begin sobbing. Daddy’s never done that before, he thought. Something bad has happened. I’m afraid, and he began crying again, joining his father in mourning the death of his mother. She was only 25.

October 1897

            “Surely you two understand how important this is to us all.” Uncle Robert Kee used his most persuasive voice. They had called a “family meeting” to discuss my future. Or actually, our future. Beside me on the settee was Ida Kee, my cousin and close friend. Uncle Robert was an uncle to both of us.

It had only dawned on me a year ago why Ida and I were always paired by the families whenever possible. Daddy had then talked to me about my duties and responsibilities to the families involved. It was only six of them in the room, but the little parlor felt crowded. Ida’s parents, Aunt Sarah and Uncle Dick sat across from us. Aunt Sarah is Daddy’s sister, and Uncle Dick is Mama’s uncle. My real Mama, not Aunt Mollie, I thought. Daddy and Uncle Robert sat in the other two overstuffed chairs. Aunt Mollie wasn’t included, at my insistence. She may be Daddy’s wife, but she’s not my mother. I was only four when she died, but I wouldn’t call another woman ‘Mama’. Daddy married her not two years after Mama died, and she won’t but 16. He was only 28 but still the neighbors laughed behind their hands and counted the months until my sister Betty’s birth. Not quite nine.

            “The Bass and Kee families have feuded for generations,” Uncle Robert continued. “We are the two most prominent families in this part of the county, have the biggest businesses in Seaboard and Gumberry. The infighting is doing no one any good and I think most of us hate just for the sake of hating and don’t even remember why. Press tells me he’s told you all this.”  Uncle Robert’s right about that, I thought. I’m kinda hazy on why our families don’t get along. Daddy’s a Bass and Mama was a Kee. But Grandpa Kee disowned her when she married Daddy. Just like Grandpa Bass disowned Aunt Frank when she married Uncle Jim Kee. He probably would have disowned Daddy too had he still been living. But Mammy put her foot down. No more of this disowning business. Daddy was her youngest child and favorite. He could do no wrong in her eyes.

            “Uncle Jim has agreed to this,” Uncle Robert added. This was a surprise to everyone. James Add Kee, patriarch of the large Kee clan was notorious in his hatred of the Basses. His wife, Aunt Frank was Daddy’s older sister. Older by about twenty years. She had been disowned by Granddaddy Bass when they married. That was way back before the Great War, in the 1840s. But last Sunday after church he had chatted with Mammy Bass in a cordial manner and escorted her to her buggy like a dutiful son-in-law. Everyone took notice.

            “You two marrying will be the signal to this generation that the feud is over. It’s almost the twentieth century now. It’s time to stop acting like hillbillies. With Uncle and your Mammy at the wedding everyone will know we are now in accord with one another. Two families working for one future.” Uncle Robert could charm the birds out of the trees, I thought.

            Ida and I had remained silent through all this. I looked over at her. She was no beauty and a little on the plump side, but I knew her so well. I did love her in a way.

            “Well, Idie. What do you think?” I asked.

            “Not exactly the proposal I was hoping for.” I realized she was all in favor also. I had known, or at least suspected, that she fancied me, and hope was now written all over her face. I knew what was required. I slipped off the settee and settled on one knee before her.

            “Virginia Ida Kee, will you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?”

            “Yes, Vernon. Oh, yes.” She leaned forward and gave me a chaste kiss on my cheek and dabbed at her eyes with her lace hanky.

July 1912

            “My goodness, look at the time,” Ida exclaimed, hopping out of my lap. “If I don’t get these beans on now we’ll be eating in the dark.” I sighed as the blood rushed back into my legs. Using my cane, I pushed myself erect. Not yet forty and I’m on a cane, I chided myself. But that was Jim’s fault.

            Jim Bass was my half-brother, nearly ten years younger. And an evil snake in the grass if there ever was one, I might add. He’s always been jealous of me. As our father had turned more and more of the business over to me, Jim’s jealousy had grown, fed by his mother Aunt Mollie. He missed no opportunity to discredit or discomfort me. But I’m the child of Daddy’s first love, Suky Kee. I was always his favorite.

September 1909

            By early afternoon the rain had given up its assault on the land and turned to a fine mist. It managed to seep in everywhere and kept everything damp. The humidity was oppressive. The rain had done nothing to relieve us of this summer’s brutal heat. The ground was saturated. The sextons had to use staves to shore up the sides of the grave. I was still concerned it might collapse at any moment.

            We all stood on the back porch waiting for the hearse. The porch offered little protection from the wet as the mist wrapped us all in a white shroud, saturating our black dress. I felt it was as if Heaven itself were weeping. Solona, my baby sister, my little Lonie was only twenty, my heart cried out. She was taken much too soon.

            Soon we heard the soft plod. At first we could barely see it as it appeared out of the mist. Four black horses in black rigging slowly pulled the black carriage past the porch toward the little cemetery. There were black sacks tied to their feet to soften the sound, a consideration to the family. As it passed, Daddy and the rest of us stepped down off the porch to follow. He faltered after a few steps, so I took his arm to support him. This had aged him. Little Lona was his angel. After losing Aunt Mollie last year, this blow came too soon. We continued toward the graveyard, the little cortege of me and my half-siblings. A few family friends were with us, including Miz Grizzard and two of her children, Paul and Mollie. Me and my three half-brothers, Jim, Charlie and Boss plus two of my cousins were pall bearers. We slid the coffin out of the hearse and slowly walked it to the gaping pit. Once it was sitting beside the grave, Reverend Studenbrook lifted it open to offer his last prayer. Lona lay there as beautiful as ever, shining with the waxy pallor of the dead. Cradled in her arms was the small baby she died giving birth to. Unfortunately, the child did not survive the ordeal either. Their two souls will go on to Heaven intertwined. Little Mollie Grizzard was startled by the macabre tableau and shrieked. My half-sisters Josie and Lucy began wailing. My son Lloyd, only five, placed his arms around Lucy and Mollie while Ida consoled Josie. Phil Barkley, the widower, stood a little apart, crying silently.

            Daddy stood there, rain and tears running down his face, hat in his hand. The life had gone out of him. It was being interred here with the people he loved. Daddy was an old man, nearly sixty. I feared the wet weather on his uncovered head would get into his lungs and carry him away also. It turned out I was right. Within a week Daddy was bedridden. He rallied and relapsed over and again all through the fall into winter. By the first week of March he seemed to have survived the worst of it. His strength grew with the warming weather. He was out of his bed, even walking about the yard enjoying the first flowers of the season. The whole family breathed a sigh of relief.

            March 20 was like any other day. Daddy was in good spirits. He dressed and he and Josie went to the henhouse to collect eggs. Suddenly Josie came running shouting that Daddy was in trouble. We raced to his aid and found him sitting on a stump in the chicken yard. He said he couldn’t stand. Charlie on one side and me on the other, we walked him back to his bed. Once there his hands began scrabbling and he was moving his mouth as if speaking but made no sound. His eyes were closed as if asleep or unconscious yet we couldn’t rouse him. Lucy said Boss had already left on a horse to fetch Doctor Blowe.     

            It was the doctor’s opinion that Daddy had suffered a stroke. Only time would tell if it was fatal. This was its own kind of death, however as time seemed to stand still as the family began its vigil.

            A few mornings later Daddy was found unresponsive and cold to the touch. It was apparent he had died in the night. I worried for my half-siblings. Most of them were minors and now orphans. What would become of them? Would they be split up? Only Betty, Jim and I were married. But what of Charlie and Boss or Buddy and Richard. Josie was just sixteen and Lucy the youngest was eight. Maybe the court would let them go live with Betty. I couldn’t take them in. I already was overcrowded in the home Daddy was letting me use with four children. And no sane judge would place a child with Jim Bass. It was its own blessing that he and Allie remained childless.

Once I determined Daddy was indeed dead, I asked my sisters to sit with him until the undertaker could come.           

“Where’s Jim,” I asked Charlie. “We need to go to Jackson and report that Daddy has died. I’ve got the will already.”

            “He went out early to oversee them planting the corn.”

            “Well, I don’t have time to wait for him. If he comes in let him know I’m on the way to court.”

            Jackson Courthouse was seven miles away so it would take a little over an hour by buggy, but I wasn’t in any hurry. I grieved Daddy’s passing but realized he had no joy in life. He had been living a half life for months. I believe he had lost his will to live. I thought I had grieved as much as I would, but every now and then, a traitorous tear would slide down my face.

            I suddenly heard the clatter of hooves on the hardpack gravel road behind me. Someone was coming, and they were coming fast. I looked over my shoulder as my half-brother Jim came around the turn. He had a face of grim determination. I brought the buggy to a halt to allow Jim to catch up. Perhaps we could ride together. I don’t care much for Jim but grief brings families together. Jim jumped off his horse not five yards away and charged the buggy. I only then became alarmed. Jim grabbed my arm and violently pulled me out of the buggy and to the ground. He jumped on me and we rolled about, each getting an occasional punch in, but mostly wrestling.

            “Where is it, damn you? Where is it?”

            “What?” I was astonished at my half-brother’s violence. Jim was in his prime at twenty-five and weighed a good fifty pounds more than me. As my stamina failed, Jim twisted my arm back and hauled me into a standing position. He slapped me several times, hard.

            “Where’s the goddamn will?”

            “In the buggy.” Jim roughly shoved me so that I tripped over some roots and fell to the ground. He found my valise on the seat and quickly pulled out the will inside. I watched with horror as Jim struck a match and set the will afire.

            “Jim, what are you doing? That’s Daddy’s last will. What’s the matter with you?”

            “YOU are what’s the matter with me. It’s always ‘Yes, Daddy’ and ‘No, Daddy’ and ‘Let me help, Daddy’. You poisoned him against me. You were always his favorite, damn you. He’s left you everything. But I have another will. You and my bitch of a sister Betty are cut out. As next in line I get guardianship of my brothers and sisters and will control their shares of the estate. I’ll be in total control of everything. And my first act will be to kick you out of Father’s house. Then I’m going to take the farm and the company. You’ll have nothing then. I’ll see you in the Poor House.”

            Before I could even think of a reply Jim was on his horse and on the way to Jackson. I knew there was bad blood but I never sensed that level of hatred from Jim before. I wondered if he had gone mad?

            Jim’s clumsy attempt at forgery was quickly discovered by the clerk of court. A judge declared it null and ordered the entire estate sold. With a loan from Mont Daniel, I purchased the entire estate — house, farm and company. This enraged Jim who swore eternal hatred for me. I eventually had to threaten him that if he approached my house I would shoot him.

Jim was given guardianship of our brothers and sisters who all got cash settlements from the sale of the estate. The court monitored the disbursement of the money of the minors and required periodic accounting until they became adults. Jim could only employ minor schemes to line his pockets with his siblings’ inheritance. My half-sister Josie refused to be his ward. She ended up becoming the ward of our cousin, Boss Dred Bass. By the next year they were married. Jim tried to turn Lucy and my other half-brothers against me but they all could see that he was consumed with his own rage.

March 1918

            The building of the new church was coming along apace. My cousin Thomas Edwards had given us a little piece of land when we split with Elam back December before last. Bethel Church was going to be a beautiful country church with a tall steeple. And I was to be one of the first deacons.

            “Good morning, Mr. V.I.” one of the workers called as I walked my horse onto the grounds.

            “Morning, Phil. And to the rest of y’all. Not much longer now.”

            “No sir, not long at all. She should be ready for the first service by June.”

            “Well, carry on,” I said, suddenly feeling useless sitting there on my big horse. I turned him and cantered back home, which was within sight of the new church. In fact, the church was just across the road from our little schoolhouse. My finest accomplishments were all in my little neighborhood, visible from my front porch. The preacher says Jesus wants us to do good works at home. I’m doing my part. The church, the school and, of course, the Negro school. Not everyone was in favor of that. Some of the men spat at me and called me “nigger lover” and worse. Ida was livid when I told her I was going to do it. She feared for our reputation among the county families.

            “I don’t give a damn about reputation,” I roared. I had never cursed at her before and it caused her to shrink back. “I’m sorry, my love, but you are just wrong. The coloreds are God’s children just like anyone else. We held them in bondage so long, we owe them so much. Teaching them to read and write will help them to get jobs beyond field hand. They can participate in public life, vote responsibly. Even become businessmen maybe.”

            “A colored business? That’ll be the day. And if there is, I’ll not darken their door.”

            “Educated colored people are what we need. Look at Melvin Freeman. He came by the store today.”

            “How is Melvin? He’s such a nice colored boy.”

            “Hardly a boy anymore. He’s got children of his own now. He came by to pay his bill. Paid it in full, on time with cash. A lot of the other businessmen told me I was a fool to give a colored man a charge account, but I’ve known Melvin since he was a child. I knew he had character and wouldn’t do me wrong. He’s just starting out in life and it was the right thing to do. I bet it won’t be long now before old man Daniel does the same.”

            “But you do so much for them. Maybe you should slow down. Let everybody else catch up.”

            “Well, honeybunch. It’s a done deal. I applied to Raleigh for the license and they approved it. The old Massey house has a large central room. It’s been standing vacant. It’s ideal for the purpose.” Especially since it was across the road from Jim Bass’ house. How he would hate that.

            “On the main road? Right in the middle of our community? What next, Vernon? Are you going to invite them to dinner and to sleep in our bed?”

            “Calm down. It will be alright. Reverend Studenbrook said it was the Christian thing to do.”

            “Studenbrook! I don’t care a thing for him. He caused all the trouble at Elam and made us leave. Our families have been members there since it started, more than a hundred years. Both our great great grandparents gave the land it’s built on. And we just walk away? Studenbrook is no friend of Elam or your new-fangled Bethel.”

            I pulled her into my arms.

            “Shhh, my love. Everything will be alright.”

Lloyd

April 1918

            “Y’all are all goin’ to Hell! Gambling in church.” Fen snatched up the dice and threw them into my face. “I’m gonna tell the preacher, Lloyd. Tell on all of ya.”

            “Well, it ain’t exactly a church yet. It ain’t even got a roof,” I said.

            “Just the same. It’s gonna be a church. And y’all dicing here like a den of thieves. It’s a sin!”

            Fen was always a bit dramatic and churchy. Him and his little brother Alvin were the closest boys to my house, sharecroppers like the Grizzards. They were younger than me so I didn’t play much with them when we were small. Even at 13 Fen was so immature. Me and Russell were 14 and Rufus was 15. We was just dicing and cutting the fool in back of the new church building. Russ even had a flask of his granddaddy’s moonshine he’d snuck out. Luckily he hid it when we saw Fen and Alvin coming.

            “Hell, Fen. Go do your Bible thumping somewhere else,” I said.

            “I know about you,” he fumed, pointing a finger at me. “You think you’re better than us. But your daddy ain’t nothing but a yellow-bellied nigger lover. My daddy said so!”

            I was up in a flash and got one good right to his jaw before Russ and Rufe held me back.

            “Go on! Get outta here! You done done enough trouble,” Rufe yelled at him. Fen grabbed Alvin by the arm and ran off.

            “You think he’s gonna tell?” asked Russ.

            “Probably, but who cares? Playing with dice ain’t no sin.” Rufe seemed sure of himself. He always seemed older than he was. He walked with swagger. Yeah, his family had money but it was more than just that. He had confidence. His folks were also good family friends. His granddaddy helped Papa buy the farm, and rumor was that Rufe was sweet on my cousin Mamie.

            “What would Mamie say?” I asked, not willing to let the opportunity to tease him go by. His ears turned red. Yes, he liked her.

            “You got no room to talk. I seen the way you look at Mollie. Like you want to eat her up.” The fight went out of me. Mollie was a whole other fight. I might be able to convince Papa to let me court Mollie, but Mama will never agree. We are in a fix.

August 1919

            I sat slumped in my seat with my knees up against the back of the seat in front of me. I had my jacket off but was still sweating bullets. Lordy, but it’s hot in here. I cut my eyes around at the crowd. Men sitting erect, mothers shushing unruly children, old ladies fanning themselves with fans advertising a funeral home. The preacher was thundering out fire and brimstone, hell and damnation. It was what was expected for Summer Revival. At the end they’d sing a weepy hymn and all the old ladies would go up to cry on the preacher’s shoulder. Every night for a week. Only the Baptists could come up with something this evil. It did have one bright spot. A very bright spot. Mollie’s family, although members of Spring Church, came to Revival every night. I spotted her immediately but didn’t dare go sit with her. Mama would have a cow. So I just sat and wondered at her beauty. I had one of the new hymnals in my lap. It was mainly so the other boys beside me wouldn’t see my erection. I pulled a pencil stub out of my pocket and doodled on the back page of the hymnal. Mama said I’d go to hell for messing up “God’s Holy Word”. If what the preacher says is true, I’m going anyway on account of my lecherous thoughts. Lecherous is a word we learned last month. The preacher called me and all the rest of the boys together to have a lesson about the sin of Onan. Damn, everything fun is against God’s Word. But I cain’t help how I feel when I see Mollie. She just does it for me. Loving her seems so natural. Why does God hate me for something so natural? Something I can’t control?

After a while I looked and realized without thinking about it I had drawn a heart. I pondered on it for a minute then thought “what the hell”. I wrote in block letters under it “LLOYD LOVES MOLLIE”. There. Preserved for all time in the church.

            Mollie had told me she would be there. The Saturday night before services began on Sunday she had slipped up on me while I was doing my evening chores of slopping the hogs and settling them for the night. She occasionally sneaked over and helped with this chore. Her house was less than a half mile away across the fields. She would secure the gate while I poured out the corn and water. I could linger about fifteen to twenty minutes but no longer or Mama would ask questions. Mollie had asked that night if we would be attending Revival.

            “Papa’s a deacon. What do you think?” When she said she would be coming I got so excited and made her promise to slip away to see me each night after service.

Mama was also aware Mollie was there and kept an eagle eye on me. But Mama had to socialize after the service and I easily slipped away. I caught Mollie’s attention and we walked off a bit and stood under the huge elm tree by the church drive. Even with a full moon it was very dark under the tree. As soon as we had cover I pulled Mollie in for a kiss. She responded, enthusiastic as ever for a moment but then pushed me away.

            “Lloyd, don’t. You’ll wrinkle my dress.”

            “Hell with the dress.”

            “But the wrinkles will make Mama notice, and then she’ll look at my face, and then she’ll know.”

            “Your Mama don’t care. She likes me, thinks we’re a good match.” Miz Grizzard was tops in my book.

            “She’s afraid. If anything happens between us she’s afraid Mister V.I. won’t let her work for him no more. And she told me not to be a hussy.”

            “What’s a hussy?”

            “I ain’t sure. But it ain’t good.”

            “It don’t matter. Papa ain’t like that. He wouldn’t do nothing against your mama.”

            “He might not want to, but everybody knows Miss Ida usually gets what she wants. If she sets in on him, he’ll cave in and put my mama out.”

            “I won’t let him.”

            “I don’t think that’s something you can promise.”

            “I’ll tell him it ain’t Christian. That always works.”

            “Oh, Lloyd. What are we gonna do?”

            “How about this?” And I leaned in for another kiss.

            She came every night that week and it was wonderful. Seeing her everyday I knew we were meant to be together. The third night I led her under the elm tree and pressed her fingers against the trunk.

            “What?” she asked.

            “Feel that?”

            “Yeah. It’s a tree, silly.”

            “Feel closer. It’s letters carved into the tree. I carved LB+MG this afternoon. This tree will be here forever, and our love will be here forever on this tree. Can’t no one keep us apart. We’ll find a way.”

March 1921

            “Now, I want you to sit with your cousin Annie Kee in church today,”

            “I don’t want to sit with her. All the other boys will laugh at me. I want to sit with them.”

            “You will sit with your cousin. You can meet your hooligan friends anytime. It’s Easter Sunday and my brother Jim says she’s going to be wearing a new dress and a flower corsage. She’ll be beautiful and needs a swain to escort her in,” Mama said in her fake sweet voice.

            “Whatever a swain is, I ain’t it.” I wasn’t having any part of it. I knew what she was after.

            “Honey, listen to me. You need to get that trashy Grizzard girl out of your mind. Annie’s just a few years older than you and a perfect match. They’re coming over from Elam today special because I told him you would be interested in sitting with Annie.”

            “What’d you do that for? I don’t want to sit with her. She’s got buck teeth. And she smells funny. And you got no right to call Mollie trashy.”

            “Lloyd Alton Bass, you will sit with her in church today. End of discussion.” And she marched out of my bedroom.

“No!” I shouted.

Papa appeared at my door.

“I don’t reckon I heard that clearly. You said you’d be doing what your mama asked, didn’t you?”

“Yes, Papa.” I bowed my head. Papa talked softly, but I knew he’d brook no argument.

January 1923

            “You sure about this?” I asked her.

            “No.”

            “We got to decide now. Ain’t no going back.”

            “But it’s such a big step. It affects so many people. I’m scared.”

            “I’m scared too, honey. I can’t do this without you. And I won’t make you do it. You got to be in all the way or we can stop where we are. We can still back out.”

            We were standing outside in the road in front of Mr. Massey’s house at 3 a.m. It was about halfway between Mollie’s house and mine. Mollie was bundled in a thick coat but still shivered. I don’t know if it was from the chill or what we were about to do. Probably both.

            “What do you want most in the world?” I asked her.

            “You, of course.”

            “And I live for you. Ain’t no way we ever going to be together lessen we do this.”

            “You’re right. Let’s go.” She climbed up in the carriage. I tucked the quilt tight around her and pulled it over my lap. Mollie had a carpet satchel with her. I had Papa’s valise with a change of clothes and the family Bible.  I flicked the whip and Betsy set off at a trot. My horse was none too happy about being up at this hour of the morning but I had made sure she had rest all day and extra food at supper. It was ten miles to Emporia. At an easy walk we could make it in three hours.

            “Your Mama’s gonna kill us,” Mollie fretted.

            “Mama will learn to live with it.”

            We rolled into Emporia just after sun up. Old Betsy was dragging so I found a livery and paid them a quarter to let her rest. Mollie and I went to the Emporia Hotel and I bought us the dollar breakfast.

            “Our wedding breakfast, honey,” I whispered to her. She managed a smile.

            “Your folks will be up by now. They know we’re gone.”

            “Ain’t nothing they can do about it. They’ll expect we went to Jackson Courthouse. Mama will call up Aunt Ro to send somebody to the courthouse to stop us. They won’t think about Emporia.” I suddenly realized I liked rebelling against Mama’s control more than I was afraid of her. Take that, ha!

            The Justice of the Peace was a mean looking fellow. I imagine crooks didn’t much like facing him. He looked as if he didn’t care much for us, either. We presented our documents showing I was all of eighteen years and four months old and Mollie was nineteen years and five months. He gave us a look that said he considered we were making the biggest mistake of our young lives. After the brief ceremony we went back to the Emporia Hotel and booked a room.

            “We gotta finalize it or they can still pull us apart.” I said.  She wrapped her arms around my neck. “Oh, Lloyd. This is the best part.” And then she giggled.

            I dropped off Mollie at her mama’s house before I went home. I figured Mama would have a lot to say and none of it good. Mollie didn’t need to hear what Mama might say when she was mad. Yeah, I knew there’d be hell to pay.

            It was as bad as I expected. Mama was red faced in no time. She threw a few words at me that I didn’t even think she knew. Then she started in on Mollie. I got right in her face then and told her she was not allowed to talk like that about my wife. Then she ordered me out of her house. At this point Papa stepped in.

            “Give us a few minutes, son. Go water the horses.” I could hear her shouting all the way down at the stables.

            About twenty minutes later Papa came and found me by the stable, brushing Betsy. He sat on a block of wood.

            “You done did it now,” he said. I looked at him and saw he was grinning. “I can’t say I’m surprised. Everybody knew you were all about Mollie. You need to give your mama some time. I think I put the fire out for now. She’s like a storm. She has to blow for a while, but then she’ll settle. She’ll go for guilt next. Say you broke her heart and all.”

            “I’m sorry, Papa. I didn’t want to hurt y’all but it was the only way.”

            “I know, son. I know.” He seemed to consider. Then he continued.

            “You got plans now? You risked burning this bridge. I hope you know how you’ll support your new family.”

            “Miz Grizzard said we can use her attic for a time. There’s plenty of sharecropper cabins. Mr. Daniel needs farm hands. We’ll get by.”

            “You’ll do nothing of the kind. I’ll not have any son of mine turned into a sharecropping field hand. You will continue here as you always have. I’ll pay you a fair wage. Your brother John’s got no interest in farming. Since the last War in Europe ended he took Ruth and moved to Norfolk. We don’t hardly see him no more. Howard can’t on account of he’s deaf. Virginia’s just a little girl. I depend on you. I’ll give you half of this year’s profits on the hogs as a wedding present and over time give over most of the farm to you. I got the store in Seaboard to keep me busy.”

            “Papa? You sure? I mean, yeah, I want to. But will Mama allow it?”

            “Leave your mama to me. I’ve spent my life making her see which side of history she needs to be on. I guess one more battle won’t hurt. And I don’t want you staying in that rattletrap shack of the Grizzards any longer than you have to. The Shaw cabin down behind the colored school has been vacant a couple of years. You and Mollie could fix it up in no time. Make a real nice little love nest for the two of you. It is just the two of you? No six month surprises on the way?”

            “No, Papa. We did everything proper. No matter what Mama thinks, Mollie is a real lady.”

            “You know that’s the next thing your Mama will be on about. Thinking you got the girl in a family way. Well, a few more months and she’ll see.”

            “Papa, thank you for this. And thank you for everything. I’ll try to make you proud.”

            “Son, I already am proud. You didn’t exactly pick the easiest road, but I think you picked the best one we left open. You followed your heart. I never had that kind of courage. Yes, son. You do me proud.” He put his arm across my shoulders. That’s about as physical as Papa ever got, but it meant so much to me.

2014

            Lloyd and Mollie’s love story continued in spite of all obstacles. Through the Great Depression and another World War they stuck it out. They brought five children into the world and raised them to adults. Ida Bass never truly accepted Mollie. The closest she came was when she told Mollie that she would be the second Mollie Bass to be mistress of the house which Vernon had passed to him, in reference to Vernon’s step-mother. And several times a month Lloyd and his growing brood would sit around Vernon’s table at Sunday dinner.

            Karma is an ironic thing.  Vernon and Ida had four children. Only Lloyd and Mollie provided grandchildren. Grandpa loved his grandchildren but Grandma was a bit tepid. It was heartbreaking to me when my Dad said, “My grandmother never loved me.” I had such bountiful love from my grandmother that this was inconceivable. And when great grandchildren came along, Grandpa loved to dandle them on his knee. They tell me he was especially proud to hold me in his lap. I wish I could remember but he passed away right after I turned two. Ida passed away in 1950. Vernon continued along. When he fell too ill to care for himself in 1958 the question arose as to who would care for him. None of his children spoke up at the family meeting. Mollie Bass stood and said she was ashamed of them all and that Grandpa would come to her house.

            “You sure, honeybunch?” Lloyd asked.

            “Of course I’m sure. He’s your daddy. It’s what any daughter and good Christian would do.” Lloyd’s siblings refused to make eye contact and quickly left fearing she might change her mind. Grandpa moved in with his son and Mollie tended him as if he were her own father until he quietly passed away in January 1959.

            Lloyd and Mollie’s remarkable marriage survived nearly 65 years and their love story spanned almost 80 years until he succumbed in 1987. Mollie followed him in 2001. They rest side by side near the little church where he diced with his friends. A few feet away is the huge elm with the faintly discernable LB+MG on the side. In the annex the church has preserved the hymnal proclaiming his love for Mollie.

            I visit the community once in awhile to reconnect with my father. We like to take walks. Sometimes we walk past the old house his great grandfather built. The house Dad grew up in and where I passed many hours of my youth. It is deserted now and sits forlornly on its hilltop. We sometimes sit on the porch and he will reminisce about the love and joy that inhabited this house. Sometimes we walk under the old pecan trees near the cemetery where Solona and so many other family members are buried and fill our pockets with pecans, just because. And sometimes we walk down to the old stand of trees where I played as a child, as did my father and grandfather and every child in our family back to when we bought the land in 1811. We will step into the cool shade of the woods and become quiet in reverence of nature. I will smell the sweet tang of pines, and rich rotting of leaves. I will feel the soft breeze as it cools my face. I will hear the scolding of a squirrel for invading his home and the gentle buzzing from the bees who have hived in the hollow chestnut tree. And if I listen closely, I can barely hear it, as if from far away, a tiny voice “Girls can’t climb trees.” Always followed by “Oh yes I can.”

Good Shot

I’ve been away for awhile so I got behind on the blog. So, the last story I posted was Escape to Paradise where Jenna was trying to get away from the evil boyfriend. Sometimes when I create a character I get a little attached to them. I liked my Jenna. While beaten down by her culture and her boyfriend, she had a little spark of spunk. While I want all my characters (at least the good ones) to have a happy outcome, that doesn’t always happen. I was hoping it would for Jenna. I left her sitting in a courtroom with a fire storm about to erupt all around her. I wanted to revisit her and find out what happened next. So I do what I always do. I sat down and thought about her and then let my mind wander. The story Good Shot just fell into place.

If you haven’t read Escape to Paradise, please go read it before Good Shot. This story will make more sense if you know the background. So refresh that mai tai and enjoy.

Good Shot

At 7 pm on a Thursday in April, there was a knock at Jenna’s door. She looked through her peephole and began smiling. It was Ryan. Ryan Bronski, her boyfriend. The man who had literally saved her life. The thought gave her a flashback to over a year ago when a similar knock was from a man intent on killing her. What a difference a year makes. That man, Dustin Randall, was in prison now, where he belonged. He would be there another thirty years paying for the pain and anguish he had put her through, including hiring his cousin to kill her. Without his malevolent presence in her life she had found she was able to flourish. She took yoga classes to find inner serenity. She returned to the ballroom and fell in love with dancing again. On a more practical note, she enrolled in a personal weapons safety class to learn to use her revolver reliably in case she had another emergency situation. Joyce said she had already disaster proofed her life.

            “You’ve already had Dustin Randall in your life. What are the odds you could do any worse?” She kinda has a point, Jenna thought.

            Still, Jenna didn’t want to take any chances. Her freedom was hard won. It had taken many weeks of meetings with a counselor to find and root out the reasons for her near non-existent self-esteem. Now she worked every day to prove to herself and to the world that she was indeed a worthwhile person. She was pretty and fun and smart and engaging and a generally nice human being. All the things that Dusty had convinced her she wasn’t.

            The trial had been horrific. The Randalls hired a high-priced New York attorney to destroy her. He tried to make the trial about her through character assassination. Fortunately, the Randalls were guilty of so many crimes that even if she were the cheap harlot the attorney painted, there was still plenty of guilt to go around. Her attorney helped her through it all, even holding her hand and passing Kleenexes after each round of testimony. The Randall’s tacky ploy had backfired however. People knew the kind of person Jenna was and the kind of person Dusty was. The Randalls had pulled every string they could to get a new venue for the trial but the judge wouldn’t allow it. And everybody in a five county radius knew and hated the Randalls. It was payback time. Old Man Randall got life without parole. Dusty and Drew each got thirty years. The verdicts came down in December, solid guilty on every count, and Dusty spent the first of thirty Christmases at Odom Maximum Security Correctional Institute in rural eastern North Carolina.

            Ryan Bronski had shown what a masterful attorney he was, besting the Randall’s hired gun at every turn. It was a coup for his small firm to work with the DA’s office to successfully bring down a local kingpin like Randall. She was so proud for him. And she was emotionally exhausted.

            After the excitement of the holidays had passed, Ryan had asked her to meet him at Starbucks. He said he wanted to discuss something with her. She hoped it wasn’t some wrinkle in the law that would let Dusty get out of paying for his crimes. When she arrived at the coffee shop she thought she was early because Ryan didn’t appear to be there. Then she did a double take when he waved from a nearby table. Without his lawyer costume, as she thought of it, he looked so different. He was dressed comfortably in a polo shirt and faded jeans. The casual dress only accentuated his youthful appearance, reminding her that he was only thirty years old. She always told him that his brown suits make him look like an old man. When he smiled as she approached it lit up his entire face. She realized how attractive he was. She was surprised some high-powered lady attorney or legal secretary hadn’t already snapped him up.

            He stood as she reached his table. Yes, his mama did teach him some manners, she mused.

            “I took the liberty of ordering you a mocha latte, extra hazelnut. I hope you don’t mind,” he said.

            Jenna was touched that he remembered what she liked, but then, they had shared much coffee over the course of the trial.

            “Thanks.” Considering his casual dress, she began thinking maybe this wasn’t about the Randall case. But what else could it be, she wondered. We don’t exactly run in the same crowds.

            After brief small talk about their health and the weather, Ryan got to the point.

            “Jenna, I have to say that despite the unpleasantness of the trial, you have been a bright spot in my day for the past few months. I’ll miss that. It’s as if you’ve blossomed as you got out from under Dustin’s thumb. You’ve evolved into this wonderful, caring woman. You’ve become more independent, more sure of yourself and assertive. I like to think you’ve become the woman you were always meant to be. And watching that unfold has had a profound effect on me. I couldn’t say anything before because I was your attorney and it would have been unethical, but I can’t hide it any longer. I’ve grown fond of you and wondered if you would have dinner with me on Sunday?”

            Jenna did not see this coming and hoped the shock didn’t show on her face. His face was open and vulnerable. She had never seen him look like this before. He was being totally guileless, putting his happiness in her hands.

            “You mean, like a date?” she asked.

            “Yes, like a date.”

            She wasn’t sure how she wanted to respond. On the one hand he was someone she respected and looked up to. A man good and true. And he was a friend. He was also handsome and successful. What woman wouldn’t want to date a man like that? But would she have trouble seeing him as anything but her lawyer? And they came from such different worlds. She wasn’t as smart as his attorney friends and was afraid she might embarrass him. There would be complications.

            She suddenly realized she had taken too long to answer. She could see his face falling and his confidence erode as he assumed she was trying to find a way out.

            “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve put you on the spot. I shouldn’t have done that. Please forgive me.”

            “No, it’s okay. I’d love to go out with you. I’m just concerned that we are from such different backgrounds.”

            “Yes, we are. Maybe that’s part of the allure. But I want to explore this.”

            “Well, that’s not only the nicest, but the only offer I’ve had all year, so I’ll take it.”

            Ryan picked her up Sunday night and drove to a nice restaurant in Greensboro. Not just a Red Lobster or Chili’s or, god forbid, IHOP, which was the best she could hope for from Dusty. He was totally charming, steering clear of any lawyer talk, just exploring common interests and a little bit of gossip. He made her feel so very special. She couldn’t remember the last time she had such a fuss made over her. It was nice. He ordered wine with dinner. She didn’t know anything about wine, but the one glass she had was delicious. She realized she was a lightweight drinker when the one glass made her feel tingly. A cheap date, as Joyce would say.

            She feared the good night kiss might be awkward, considering their relationship, but when he bent his head to hers at her door-step she was all in. Perhaps the wine had put her in a happy place, but his kiss set off the fireworks. She was definitely under his spell. She just drifted inside in a daze.

            Ryan called her at work midmorning on Monday just to check in. He asked if it was okay to call her at work like this.

            “Yeah, but if you do it more than once people might start talking. They know the trial is over. You know how people are.”

            “Let them talk. I’m not ashamed. I hope you aren’t.”

            “Of you? Of course not. You’re totally presentable.”

            “I’m glad you feel that way, because I’m aiming to make people talk. I’d like to see you again. Friday night?”

            “I have a dance lesson and then a studio function. You could come with me. Do you know any ballroom?”

            “Let’s see, I can identify my left foot and my right foot. That’s about as far as I get.”

            “Well, if we’re going to be a thing, you’re going to need to dance.” She immediately regretted saying it, fearing she had jumped the gun. Two dates did not constitute a ‘thing’.

            “Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?” he deadpanned. “Do you have time for a quick dinner between your lesson and function?”

            They made plans and Friday night Jenna discovered that while Ryan’s dancing skills were dreadful, he was a quick study. By the end of the night had had the hang of a couple of dances.

            “Looks like I’m getting my dance legs,” he said. “I can see why you love this so. The people who have been doing this awhile are amazing. Then there are the people like me.”

            “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You did great.”

            “You think so? Maybe I’ll have to call up and ask for the ‘Miss Mitzi Special’,” referring to the studio’s beginner program.

            Of course, this led to more dates. Over the next few weeks she and Ryan saw more of each other than they did during the trial. He was smitten and it didn’t take Jenna long to find that she was well on her way, also. They did dinners, picnics with the symphony, street fairs, and dance functions, of course. She even took him to the firing range to practice shooting with her. He was impressed with her marksmanship.

            And people did talk. She realized they were officially a couple when people at the office would begin a sentence with “You and Ryan…” as if they were a single person.

            Perhaps the sweetest thing he did for her was when he invited her to the local American Bar Association dinner. He was receiving an award for his part in the Randall case. There was a band and general dancing after dinner. The band was good and played contemporary music but few people actually danced. Some people jumped around in what they called ‘free style’ dancing. After a few songs Ryan went up and spoke with the band. The band leader announced the next dance as a special request. Jenna was amazed when the band began a lovely waltz. She was even more amazed when Ryan held his hand to her and said, “May I?” The few people who had taken the floor quickly moved away as Ryan and Jenna showed off their waltz abilities. Ryan’s lessons had paid off and he was nearly as good as Jenna. Together they were perfect. At the end of the dance they got a standing ovation. Jenna blushed but was so pleased. All she could think was that she had found the perfect man.

            All this went through her mind in a flash as she saw Ryan through the peephole. She opened the door saying, “Hey, babe.”

            “Hey, sweetheart,” he answered, giving her a quick kiss. He usually didn’t come over without calling first and especially on a weeknight, so Jenna figured something was up.

            “You need to sit down.” Now she knew it was bad. No good news ever began with those words.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you need to know. Dustin has escaped from prison.”

            “He what?” Jenna felt as if a rug had been pulled from under her and she was plummeting down. She was glad she was sitting.

            “He was being transferred for something, I’m not clear on that yet, but a guard got too close without paying attention. He managed to grab the guard’s gun. He held the gun right against the guard’s head while he made the other guard unlock the cuffs on him and two other prisoners in the van. They split up. One of the prisoners was picked up pretty quickly. He told the police that Randall shot both guards point blank and was laughing while he did. One died. The other is in serious condition.”

            “He’s just gone and lost his mind. I know he’s reckless and mean as a snake, but to kill someone like that, it’s just crazy.”

            “He was planning to kill you Jenna. He’s been crazy for a long time.”

            “Yeah, but at least he thought he had a reason to kill me. These poor guards were just doing their job.”

            “Well, he’ll be caught, no question. And killing the guard will get him the needle. I hate it had to come at this price, but I’m not sorry he’s going down. He’s just a mad dog.”

            “So they haven’t caught him yet?”

            “No. And they think he’s heading this way. There’s only one reason he would come here. You.”

            Once again, Jenna’s stomach dropped. Oh, no. Not again. She thought she was done with Dusty and the whole Randall clan. Ryan had urged her to file a civil suit against them. She stood to win a lot of money that way. But she would have none of it. She wanted nothing from the Randalls, especially their blood money. It came from their criminal schemes and she wouldn’t touch it. She wanted to be done with them permanently. And now Dusty was coming for her.

            “They should have told both of us immediately after it happened but someone goofed. He escaped two days ago. He could have easily broken in your house and killed you by now. I want you to pack a bag and come with me. You can stay at my house until they catch him. I won’t be able to sleep a wink if I don’t know you’re safe.”

            Jenna finally found her balance and decided to lighten the atmosphere.

            “Why Mr. Bronski, are you asking me for a sleep over? Whatever will the neighbors think?”

            “I don’t give a damn what anybody thinks. I just have to know that you’re safe. I’ve got a security system and the police have agreed to post a uniform outside my house. Please say you’ll come.”

            “Alright. Let me get some things.” Her thoughts were interrupted when her cell phone began playing a tinny version of “Mama Mia”. It was the ringtone she had assigned to her mother.

            “Looks like Mama’s heard,” she said. “Let me get that. She’s going to worry.”

            “Hey, Mama,” she said after clicking the accept button.

            “Hey baby,” said a deep rasping voice. “I’ve missed you.” She had been standing but suddenly collapsed onto the sofa. It was Dusty. And he had Mama’s phone.

            “Dusty!” was all she could say. Ryan was immediately by her side.  “What are you doing calling me on Mama’s phone? Where’s Mama? If you’ve hurt her I swear I’ll get you.”

            “Now don’t go making promises you can’t keep, sweetheart. Don’t worry about your mama. She’s a tough old broad. I had to knock her around a bit to get her to cooperate. You Davenports are a stubborn set of bitches.”

            “I’m calling the police right now,” she yelled into the phone.

            “Now you don’t want to do that, baby. Right now your mama’s doing fine. A few bruises, some blood. Maybe some broken bones, I don’t know. I got excited and got into it. It’s been so long since I had the chance to really work over a woman. But if the police show up I’ll be long gone and all they’ll find is your mama with a butcher knife in her heart. Or maybe I’ll cut it out and take it with me.”

            “Dusty, don’t you hurt my mama,” she couldn’t help crying as she said it. “Please.”

            “Yeah, baby, I love it when you beg. Makes me hard. Oooh yeah.”

            “What do you want?” she asked. “Mama ain’t done nothing to you. You want something from me. What?”

            “Are you forgetting that you’re my girl? I heard you been whoring around with that lawyer that put me in prison. That ain’t something I can let my girl get by with. People might think I’m soft. No real man lets his woman whore around without teaching her a lesson. I think it’s time you and me had a talk.”

            She couldn’t respond, only hyperventilate into the phone.

            “You come on out to your mama’s house. When you get here, I’ll let her go and you and me can talk about your transgressions.” By ‘talk’ she knew he meant beat. He came close to putting her in the hospital after several of their discussions of her failings.

            “Just you. Nobody else. I see anybody else but you and that butcher knife goes right into Mama’s heart.”

            “How do I know you ain’t already killed her? Let me talk to Mama,” she demanded.

            “So bossy. I see I’ll need to remind you how to address your lord and master. But I’m feeling kind. Hey, Mama. Say hi to your girl.” She could hear him move the phone away from himself. Then she heard Mama’s voice.”

            “Don’t, baby. It’s a trap!”

            “Shut up, bitch!” She heard a noise that sounded as if he had slapped Mama and a brief cry of pain. Jenna was a total wreck.

            “It seems your mama’s feeling poorly. You better get on over here and take care of her. I’d say about ten minutes.” Then the phone went dead.

            Ryan had his ear next to Jenna’s and heard the entire exchange.

            “You need to call the police now,” he said.

            “You heard what he said. He’ll kill Mama!”

            “And if you go there, he’ll kill both of you.”

            “You think I don’t know that! But I can’t turn my back on Mama. How will I live with myself if something happens to her and I didn’t even try to help her.?”

            “The only way you can help her is to get the police involved. They can get her out alive. If you go in there, neither of you are coming out except in a body bag. He’s just as liable to kill himself, too.”

            “I’ve got to go.”

            “No. I won’t let you. It’s suicide.”

            “Ryan Bronski, get the hell out of my way. You got no say over my life.”

            “The hell I don’t. I’m in love with you. Don’t you realize that? What happens to you happens to me. I’ve got to have a say.”

            “Well, I love you, too, but your timing sucks.”

            Jenna pulled into the rutted path that led up to Mama’s house. It sat back across a bean field, about a hundred yards from the state road. As the car bounced along she noticed a blue Toyota sitting in front of the house. Probably the car Dusty stole when he escaped, she figured. She pulled up and mentally prepared herself for a moment before exiting the car. When she decided to come over, she knew Dusty planned to kill her and that he won’t let Mama go, either. He would probably kill her also. The only thing she was uncertain about was whether he would then light out for Mexico or just kill himself. He’d always been a bit of a drama queen. The murder-suicide is so his style, she thought.

Mama’s house was a turn of the century basic farm house. It had a wide front porch with a couple of rocking chairs, a rusted glider and swing. She had so many fond memories of family on this porch. Just one more thing Dusty is trying to spoil. He ruins everything he touches, she thought. She knocked on the door.

            “It’s open,” came from inside.

            She pushed the door open and walked into a sizeable living area. At the far side Mama was sitting in a dining room chair, tied and gagged. There were black bruises forming on her face and a trickle of blood from her nose and mouth. But all in all, she seemed to be in good condition. She had a murderous look in her eyes. Yep, Mama’s alright, she thought. For now.

            Dusty was standing beside her mama. He had the prison guard’s handgun pointed at Mama’s head. She knew he wouldn’t use it yet. He wanted to make her suffer longer than a quick shooting would. He was sweating profusely even though it wasn’t hot inside. It just made him look all the crazier.

            “Come on in, sweetheart. Join the party. We’ve been waiting for you.”

            “Let Mama go, Dusty. You said if I came, you’d let her go. Here I am.”

            “Yeah, funny thing about that. I can’t believe you actually fell for it. I don’t remember you being that stupid.” He laughed as if it were quite funny.

            “You bastard.”

            “Hey, you don’t talk about your fiancé like that,” he said in a warning tone.

            “You’re not my fiancé Dustin Randall. You’re just a low life punk, a bully, a redneck son of a bitch.” It felt so good to get it out. The words she’d been longing to say to him. His face reddened. Yeah, the truth hurts, don’t it, she thought.

            “Raise your hands. I want to make sure you ain’t got anything.” She did as she was told.

            “Now pull out your pockets. You might have a knife or something in there.” Again, she complied.

            “Good. Now get over here,” he indicated a chair near Mama’s. There was rope and duct tape on the floor beside it. “I’m gonna get you good and secured and then we can work on your manners.” His evil grin had returned. She realized the set up was the best she could hope for to use her plan. Mama was on her left and Dusty was clear of her. Acting scared she gave him a wide berth approaching the chair. This required her to keep her left side to him. He could not see her right hand. He didn’t see it creep to the back of her waist. He didn’t notice her pulling the revolver out of her waistband.

            She stopped a good distance from the chair. Time to get the gun off Mama and work on Dusty.

            “Go on. Get in the chair,” Dusty said.

            “No.”

            “What? You heard me, bitch. Do as I say.”

            “And I said no. I’m not playing your sick game. You’re just a yellow-bellied coward who gets off on hurting people who are smaller than you. You don’t have the balls to take on a real man. You’re just a pansy loser. I bet you’re somebody’s bitch in prison.” She laid it on thick. She wanted to get him really mad.

            “You don’t want to test me, girl. Now move!” Dusty was getting red in the face.

            “Nope. Ain’t doing it.”

            “I said git!” Dusty swiveled the gun from Mama’s head to point at Jenna. Ok, good, Jenna thought. He’s not pointing it at Mama. Now to get him to lower the gun.

            “Fuck you. Make me,” she taunted. Dusty’s eyes flew wide as he became enraged. He charged Jenna. He lowered the gun as he moved. Jenna had time to pull her revolver from behind her, take a quick aim at his groin and fire. The deafening blast made Mama squeak. Dusty went down fast. He quickly rolled into a fetal position grabbing his crotch and screaming. Ryan burst through the door, handgun in one hand and cell phone in the other. He had been waiting in the backseat of her car. He had already contacted the 911 operator. Help was on the way. He ran up and embraced Jenna and then they untied Mama. Thankfully, her wounds were only superficial.

            When the first EMTs came in she directed them away from Dusty and toward Mama. Luckily for him there were two technicians so they split up. Poor Dusty was still screaming and bleeding profusely. The EMT had a devil of a time getting him out of the fetal position to strap him on a gurney. By the time they had him packed up the place was swarming with police. They didn’t bother to threaten Jenna. She was within her rights to use all force necessary when facing an armed convicted felon. And the Randalls no longer owned the county. Suddenly, all her steel shattered and she became a basket case. But Ryan was there to take care of her. Her precious Ryan.

            A few days later Ryan gave her the official word on Dusty.

            “He’s going to be tried for the murder of a prison police officer, among other things. The state is asking for the death penalty.

            “Good.  I hope they get it. Then he can sit alone in his cell for the next fifteen years, no one to visit him but his mama, and I hear she may be under indictment. They say that many death row inmates eventually go crazy from the boredom with no human contact and nothing to do but jerk off.”

            “Well, ah, he won’t be doing that anymore either. Your shot actually severed his penis and shattered his balls. Ouch. He’s going to need a catheter to piss and there’s no chance of him diluting the quality of the gene pool ever again.”

            Jenna thought again of her choice of where to shoot Dusty. Maybe what she did was over the top, but she wanted to hurt him. And she wanted to hurt him bad. He lived on his machismo so taking that away seemed her best option. But it was time to forget Dustin Randall and look to her own life again.

            “So, Ryan. About that sleepover you mentioned. Is that offer still on the table?”           
             

Escape to Paradise

Two of my passions aside from writing are ballroom dancing and cruising. A ballroom dance cruise is a double pleasure. Writing about a ballroom cruise brings together all three. If I could just figure out how to work in skiing it would be perfect.

I was able to relive some of my favorite memories of cruises when writing “Escape to Paradise”. Although nothing bad has ever happened on my cruises. They have all been wonderful. I have my fifteenth planned this December.

Most of the action of this story takes place on a cruise ship. If you have cruised before, think more Queen Mary 2 and less Carnival. So stretch out on the chaise, mai tai in hand, and enjoy a little story about romance and danger on the high seas.

Escape to Paradise

            At 8 pm on a Thursday in January, there was a knock at Jenna’s door. She looked through her peephole and began shivering. It was Dusty. Dustin Randall, her ex-boyfriend. Dustin, the ex-boyfriend who wouldn’t let go. Dustin, the ex-boyfriend who nearly put her in the hospital the last time he beat her. Which would be the LAST time he beat her, she had decided. She had packed up and left him for good. First, she fled to the Women’s Center. They helped her get an apartment quickly. She never gave him her new apartment location. Someone must have ratted her out.

            “Go away, Dusty!” she shouted at the door. She knew he could hear her through the cheap thin material.

            “Come on, baby. Let me in,” he wheedled.

            “You’re not supposed to be here. I have a restraining order.”

            “Yeah, my daddy’s getting it dismissed. Come on, babe. I just want to talk.”

Jenna closed her eyes and prayed for strength. The results of their last ‘talk’ had not yet healed, leaving lingering yellow and green marks on her face and arms.

            “I’m calling the cops!” she yelled.

            “And what are they gonna do? They’re all on my daddy’s payroll.”

            “My lawyer said I could call the State Troopers. They don’t kowtow to your family.”

            “You don’t want to make me mad, Jenna. You know how I get. You just bring the misery upon yourself. Don’t make me hurt you.”

            “Go away! I’m done with you. I don’t ever want to see you again. Can’t you get that through your thick head?

            “You know I can’t do that, honey. We belong together. You and me. You belong to me. And I aim to keep what’s mine. Now open this fucking door!” Jenna had just finished dialing 911.

            “911 Emergency. What is the nature of your emergency?”

            “There’s a man trying to break into my apartment,” she whispered.

            “Are you able to get out of the apartment?”

            “No. He’s at the only door.”

            “Do you know the identity of the intruder?”

            “Yes, my ex-boyfriend. I have a restraining order against him.”

            “I’ve already dispatched the police, in the meantime..,”

            “No. The police are on his daddy’s payroll. They won’t do anything. Can you send the State Patrol?”

            “Sorry, ma’am. We’re only connected to the police. Your police department is not owned by any family. They will protect you. I suggest you get into the most secure room you can and barricade the door. The police should be there in five minutes.”

            Wham! Jenna dropped the phone at the sound of Dusty trying to break the door down. She could hear the faint squawk of the 911 operator still trying to talk to her. She scurried into the kitchen, clawed open a drawer and pulled out the revolver she had just bought. She checked that it was loaded and that the safety was off. She put her back against the wall directly in front of the door. She extended her arms, holding the gun with both hands, pointing it at the door. The end of the revolver trembled violently.

            “Dusty, go away! I have a gun.”

            “And what do you think you’re gonna do with a gun? I ain’t scared of you, girl. You ain’t got the balls to shoot me. We gonna have us some fun. You ever heard of being pistol whipped?” Wham! A huge crack appeared in the door.

Wham! The thin veneer of the door shattered.  Dusty pushed his arms through, knocking the plywood out of his way. He leered evilly when he saw Jenna ten feet away, obviously scared out of her wits. She usually thought he was so handsome, and he usually was. But when he got that evil look on his face she knew she was in trouble. He forced his way into the room. Before he said anything, Jenna fired the pistol at him three times. All three missed, mostly because she turned her head to the side and closed her eyes as she fired.

            “What the fuck, girl? You gonna pay for that.”

            Jenna fired the remaining three shots. At least one hit him because Dusty went down howling in pain. Bright red appeared on his thigh. Sirens could be heard in the distance.

            Dusty looked at Jenna through the grimace of pain on his sweaty face.

            “You have just signed your death warrant, bitch.”

            The police swarmed in a few minutes later. They immediately recognized Dusty and knew what was what. Jenna was disarmed and taken into custody. An ambulance was called for Dusty. She called her lawyer from the police department. Since she was in her own apartment, had a restraining order and a broken-down door her lawyer was able to bully the night cops into not booking her but releasing her to him. They would probably be fired by Mr. Randall.

            As he drove her to a friend’s house he said, “Too bad you didn’t kill the bastard. Save us all a lot of trouble.”

            “He said he is going to kill me. He means it, too.”

            “Well, he’s going to have to wait. Violating the restraining order, breaking down your door, communicating threats. We might be able to put him away for a while this time.”

            “No, we won’t,” Jenna said defeatedly. “His daddy will just paper over it. He’ll be bandaged up and out on bail by morning. He’s never going to stop. Not till one of us is dead.”

            “That’s just defeatist talk. Come on. There’s a new judge who isn’t owned by the Randalls and I think I can get this before him. We might be able to get that ass some serious time.”

            “You really think so?” For the first time there was hope in her voice.

            “Yeah, I do. Here we are.” He pulled up in front of Arlene’s house. Arlene was Joyce’s half-sister. Joyce was Jenna’s best friend. Joyce’s apartment would be the first place Dusty would look. Dusty didn’t know Joyce had a half-sister which made it a perfect hideout. Arlene opened the door as they got to the porch.

            “Come on in, honey. That bastard acting up again?”

            “Ms. Connors, thanks for taking Jenna in like this. Remember for both of your safety, the Randalls mustn’t find out she’s here.”

            “I ain’t scared of Dusty Randall. Let that punk set foot on my property. I got a shotgun and I don’t miss. I’d love a chance to blow his ass clear across North Carolina.”

            “I love your fighting spirit but please, lay low. Good night, Jenna. Get some rest. I’ll call you tomorrow.” He left.

            When her lawyer called the next day, the news was as expected – not good. Dusty had indeed been released on bail that morning. He never actually went to the jail. His family arranged for him to be held overnight at the hospital. The Randalls were making noises about suing her, but her lawyer explained NC law was on her side. The broken door, the recording of the 911 call and the all-important restraining order proved that she was within her rights to defend herself, with deadly force if necessary. The good news was that he had the case placed before the new unbiased judge. The bad news was that the case wouldn’t be heard for another month. Until that time Dusty was free to do as he pleased.

            “He knows where I work. I can’t take a month off. He’s going to find me and kill me.”

            “We’ll work something out,” he said.

            On Monday morning Jenna drove her five-year-old Honda Civic to the State Employees’ Credit Union where she worked. She didn’t see Dusty’s Camaro anywhere in the parking lot, but still waited for the security guard to come out to escort her into the building. She worked in an office, not as a teller, so Dusty would have to get past the security guard and locked doors to get to her. She knew he was crazy enough to try it, though.

            After work, the security guard walked her out to her car. As she pulled away she thought she saw Dusty’s blue car a few blocks behind. Since he didn’t get any closer she figured he was trying to tail her to her apartment. As planned, she drove straight to her attorney’s office in a highrise. It had the benefit of a gated parking lot. The gate guard watched as she entered the building. Once inside she went through the building, out another little used service entrance, across an alley to where Arlene was waiting. Tomorrow Arlene would bring her back to enter through the side entrance and she would take her car to work. Jenna knew this would not work for long. Dusty was a lot of disagreeable things, but stupid was not one of them. Crazy, but not stupid. That’s what made him so dangerous. He would figure out there was a ruse and discover it. But she had a few days.

            “Aruba? You think I can afford to go to Aruba?” Jenna exclaimed over the phone to Joyce. It was Wednesday evening.

            “Yes, you can. My brother and his fiancée are having to cancel. They can turn the tickets over to us. They’re willing to let them go for half-price. It’s a steal. And it leaves this Saturday. You can get away from dickhead and relax. By the time you get back it’ll be 14 days closer to the hearing. Less than a week to go at that point.”

            Jenna was hesitant. She did have vacation time and her boss at the credit union was very supportive and concerned about her situation. It was a near certainty that she would approve the time off. But a cruise? Such a luxury seemed almost obscene considering the trouble she was facing. But then again. Fourteen days without having to hide, look over her shoulder, be constantly on edge would be heaven.

            “How much?” she finally said. Then, “I’m in.”

            Jenna packed in her apartment on Thursday night with a State Trooper guarding her. She realized she hadn’t obsessed about Dusty for several hours and was actually starting to feel a little happy again. Just one more day to go.

            As she ate her lunch on Friday at her desk, as she usually did, Jenna heard a commotion out in the lobby area of the credit union. Someone was shouting. She walked over to the security station near her office and looked at the console which had a view from all the security cameras in the building. Sure enough, in the lobby was Dustin Randall, red faced, probably a little drunk facing off against two security guards. He ranted while they just impassively stood in front of the door that gave access to the rest of the offices. Her boss showed up beside her.

            “That asshole needs to get shot, and not in the leg,” she said. “You’re doing the right thing to get out of town for a few weeks. Send me a post card. I can stick it on my refrigerator as inspiration to get back into my bikini.”

            As they watched the camera footage, Dusty seemed to wind down his rant and give up. He turned as if to leave, but it was just a feint. He swung back around with a roundhouse punch aimed at the first security officer’s jaw. The officer reacted in time and only got a glancing blow. Immediately the guards jumped on Dusty, taking him to the floor. In no time he was cuffed, screaming obscenities and Jenna’s name, waiting for the police to come pick him up. Jenna revised her estimation of Dusty. Looks like he is stupid, after all. Well, she thought, this will keep him tied up until tomorrow. It looks like I’ll get away, after all.

            “Wow, I didn’t realize how big it is,” Jenna gaped at the Ocean Flyer, pride of the Cormorant line, as they were boarding.

            “Yep, just us and 2,000 of our closest friends,” joked Joyce.

            Once on board, they hustled up to the Lido deck for the buffet lunch. Sitting at a table, looking out over the palmed resorts of Fort Lauderdale, Jenna momentarily wondered if she was just having a wonderful dream. She was so afraid she’d wake up to find Dusty breaking down her door. This is paradise.

            “Forget him,” Joyce said, placing her hand on Jenna’s. “At least for the next 14 days. Relax, unwind, get drunk, flirt with some cute guys. That’s what vacation is for.”

            “You’re right. Tell the waiter I’ll have a margarita. And find me some cute guys.” They both laughed gaily.

            There were so many activities on board the ship they hardly knew what to do first. They would be at sea for two days before any island stops so they’d have plenty of time to explore. Jenna found one activity that she considered a must.

            “There’s an orchestra playing ballroom music in the Queen’s Lounge after dinner. Let’s go.”

            “Ballroom? Seriously?”

            “Yes. I took lessons for a couple of years, BD, Before Dusty. I let that get away. I want to reclaim something that he has no part of.”

            “Okay,” Joyce said dubiously. “But you’re buying the drinks. And if it’s all old folks, I’m outta there.”

            It turned out there were mixed ages in the lounge and a number of single men. That immediately caught Joyce’s eye. She and Jenna were attractive young ladies so they quickly caught the attention of the men present. A very attractive fortyish man came to their table.

            “I’m Jack, a ship dance host. May I have this dance?” He held his hand out to Joyce. She giggled girlishly and accompanied him to the floor. Two minutes later, after she had walked all over his feet, he resignedly returned her to the table.

            “Sorry, guess I should have told you I don’t know how to dance,” she said to him sheepishly. Jenna could tell he was biting his tongue. “You should ask Jenna here. She’s a bona fide ballroom dancer.”

            “Joyce! I am not. I haven’t danced in two years.”

            “It’s like riding a bicycle. It comes back easily. May I?” the host asked. Jenna allowed him to lead her to the floor. She could tell it was a foxtrot.

            “I only know American style foxtrot,” she said. The host was impressed that she recognized it was a foxtrot and that she knew there was a difference in styles. He smiled broadly, took her in dance hold and moved off. Slow, quick, quick. Jenna found that it did come back. They floated around the room effortlessly. This is what dancing is all about, she said to herself. It’s like flying. Just skimming along, free and easy. We’re like Fred and Ginger.  Oh, how I have missed this. When the host returned her to her table he commented it was one of the best dances he’d had recently and hoped she would allow him to dance with her again in the future. She smiled and assured him he was welcome anytime. She felt like she was glowing.

            “Ooh. He likes you,” Joyce giggled. “And so debonair. Looks like Cary Grant.”

            After another song, a young man, upper twenties, their age, came to their table. He was quite cute and Jenna found his nervous look endearing.

            “I’m nowhere near as good as you, but do you want to dance? I’m Drew by the way,” he said to Jenna. It was a rumba. Jenna figured even a novice could probably handle it.

            Drew proved that he had a basic understanding of the dance. He only stepped on her a few times, but mostly he did basic moves. This gave her an opportunity to talk to him.

            “So, are you enjoying the cruise?” was all she could think to say. She grimaced at how trite it sounded.

            “Slow, quick, quick,” he said. “Can’t talk. Counting. Slow, quick, quick.”  She giggled and allowed him to finish the dance without further interruption.

            He returned her to her table and asked Joyce to dance, but she said no. She decided she wasn’t a ballroom dancer and was content to just watch. Plus she was on her third hurricane.

            Drew came back a couple more times that evening to ask Jenna to dance as did Jack. The third time Drew returned her to the table Joyce asked him to stay awhile.

            “Shtay awhile,” she drawled. “It’ll shave ush all time.” He looked at Jenna and she just grinned. Joyce was a lovable drunk. Drew pulled up a chair and sat by Jenna.

            “Look at that old couple,” Jenna pointed out a couple in the crowd. It was a waltz so nearly everyone was dancing. “They aren’t doing anything fancy, but they look so happy. They’ve probably been dancing with each other 50 years. It’s so romantic to be so comfortable and in sync with someone. Her eyes are closed. She’s probably remembering the handsome boy she fell in love with.”

            “Her husband or some other guy?” Drew asked. Then he winked and laughed.

            “Oh, you,” Jenna chided and swatted his arm lightly.

            “You are such a romantic,” he said. “It’s nice to find that. I’m afraid I don’t see it all that much.”

            “Drew. You have a southern accent. Where are you from, anyway?”

            “Well, I grew up in Winston-Salem. That’s in North Carolina. Now I work for a bank in Charlotte. Me and my buddy Bill decided to take a cruise together. He’s probably up in the disco putting moves on underage girls. He’s a mess.”

            “Hey, we’re from North Carolina, too. Just outside Greensboro. And I work in a bank. Well, at least, a credit union.”

            “Wow, howdy homegirl,” he laughed. They heard a snore and noticed Joyce was out.

            “Well, I guess I need to get Sleeping Beauty to bed. Come on, girl. Up.” She grabbed Joyce’s arm and dragged her up. Joyce stumbled a little and Jenna put her arm around her.

            “Let’s go, babe. Goodnight, Drew. I hope to see you around the ship.”

            “Night.”

            Midmorning next day found Jenna ensconced at a small table on the Lido deck enjoying the sunshine and a breakfast of fruit.

            “I swear I’m not stalking you. Really. Cross my heart.” Jenna looked up and Drew stood by her table with a tray of food.

            “Well, good morning, have a seat,” she invited.

            “Thanks. Where’s your other half?”

            “In bed with an ice pack on her head.”

            “Ouch.”

            “That’s what she said,” she quipped. “How about Bill?”

            “Oh, he’s out at the pool chasing a bikini.”

            “Already? It’s barely past 10,” she asked with surprise.

            “I guess the early bird gets the bimbo,” he said.

            “You don’t seem to think much of Bill, sometimes.”

            “Don’t get me wrong. I love him like a brother. It’s just he has no judgment. He just thinks with his, well, his smaller head.” Jenna couldn’t help but giggle.

            After breakfast Drew went to check on Bill. Jenna thought a walk along the deck would be nice. As she neared the front of the ship she saw people gathering at the rail and pointing. She went to see what was going on. Just fifty or so yards away she saw a family of dolphins leaping about, obviously playing and having a marvelous time. Everyone was exclaiming and taking pictures. She was as charmed as anyone. She looked up and saw people on other decks had also noticed the dolphins. About two decks up she noticed a handsome man, a very handsome man with an evil leer. He was staring at her. It was a face she knew all too well. It was Dustin Randall. She froze for a second and then bolted. She raced as fast as she could back to her room. Once inside she bolted the door and slumped to the floor leaning against it. Her heart felt as if it would burst.

            “What’s going on?” Joyce said blearily from her bed.

            “Oh my god, Joyce. Dusty is on the ship.”

            “What? He can’t be? How would he even know?”

            “Hell, his family knows everything that goes on. They probably had your phone bugged or something. I just saw him on deck, staring at me.”

            “Are you sure it was him?”

            “Joyce. I lived with him for six months. I know what he looks like. He’s here. He’s come after me. What am I gonna do?”

            “We need to see the captain.”

            They soon found out that no one can just ‘see the captain’. The purser’s office directed them to the security office.

            “So you think your boyfriend followed you on this ship?” said Chief Security Officer Nigel Scott.

            “Yes.”

            “Has he made contact or threatened you in any way?”

            “No. But I have a restraining order that he can’t come within a thousand feet. Anywhere on this ship is inside that. And he knew I was coming on this ship.”

            “What’s the name?”

            “Dustin Lee Randall.” The security officer pulled up a computer file.

            “No one by that name on the manifest. Does he have an alias?”

            “Not that I know of.”

            “Well, there’s no one with that name listed. And our security is too tight for any stowaways. Maybe you just made a mistake.”

            “It wasn’t a mistake. You took pictures for our key cards when we got on. Let me look through the pictures and I’ll find him.”

            “I can’t let you go through our files, miss. That’s about a dozen breaches in security protocols. And even then, there are about a thousand men on this ship.”

            Jenna pulled out her phone. She didn’t have service on the ship but the camera app worked.

            “Here’s his picture. Can you look for him for me?”

            “Miss. I have more important things to do than look through a thousand pictures trying to find a person who isn’t even on the ship.”

            “Oh, please. I’ll never be able to relax if I think he’s here. He’s said he will kill me.” She hated playing the damsel in distress, but this was an emergency.

            “Okay, look. Go to the purser’s desk and buy some phone minutes. Send his picture to this number.” He handed her a scribbled number. “When I have some free time, I’ll try to run through the guest photos. Alright?”

            “Yes, thank you.”

            Jenna followed his instructions then locked herself in her room.

            “So you gonna stay here in the room the rest of the cruise?” Joyce asked, hands on her hips.

            “What else can I do?”

            “Oh, babe. Get over it. Go and live it up. There’s like a hundred people around you all the time on the ship. He’s not going to try anything here. Plus, there are hunky deck crew, totally kissable, too, standing every few feet on the deck. They can surely take care of him. You’re safe here. Safer than anywhere else. Don’t let him take this away from you.”

            “You think so?” Jenna was unsure.

            “I’ll be right beside you. If I see him I’ll scream bloody murder. Everyone will be watching. Probably taking video.”

            Joyce was recovered by the evening, but sipping only ginger ale. She raised an eyebrow as Drew approached their table in the Queen’s Lounge.

            “Mind if I join you ladies?”

            “Please, sit,” offered Jenna. After a moment Joyce gave Jenna a pointed look. A look that said ‘go for it’.

            “I’ve got a roll of quarters I need to throw away. I’ll be in the casino if anybody needs me,” she said airily and walked away.

            “Is it something I said?” Drew looked puzzled.

            “No, just Joyce being Joyce.”

            They danced to several songs. While he was nowhere near the skill level of the dance host, Jack, he was competent. Jack did claim a few dances but he had to work the entire room. After about her fourth dance with Drew, Jenna said, “You should probably dance with some other ladies or people might talk.”

            “Let them talk. I like dancing with you.”

            Jenna knew she was blushing, but it was nice to be getting positive attention for a change.

            “You seem preoccupied. I hope I’m not boring you,” Drew said softly.

            “Oh, it’s not you. I just had a bad moment today. I thought I saw my boyfriend.”

            “Boyfriend? Um, am I in the way?”

            “My ex-boyfriend. He’s been harassing me. I think he’s on the cruise, the bastard.’

            “I don’t want to get mixed up in any weird domestic stuff. Why don’t I go sit at another table.”

            “Don’t go, Drew. He’s not going to cause any trouble. I alerted the ship. They’re looking for him. As Joyce said, we’re always surrounded by like a hundred people. What’s he going to do?”

            “You sure. I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”

            “You won’t. You’re the nicest thing that’s happened to me in a while. I’m enjoying it.” Drew smiled self-consciously. She thought she saw a hint of a blush. It was adorable.

            “We’re stopping at the private island tomorrow. Care to explore it with me?” he asked.

            “I’ve already talked with Joyce about hitting the beach.”

            “Bring her. If I can pry Bill away from his bikini bimbo we can make a foursome.”

            “Sure.”

            Drew showed up at the gangway the next morning alone.

            “No Bill?” Jenna asked.

            “The bikini apparently held more promise. I swear she’s not even 17.”

            The three of them left the ship and were soon walking along the sand under palm trees. It was the middle of January and here she was in paradise. Bright sunshine, sparkling water in a shade of blue only seen in the Caribbean, gentle breeze softly scented with tropical flowers and coconut. If only I could stay here forever, Jenna thought. Stay here with someone like Drew.

            “Listen, you kids. I don’t need a sunburn as my souvenir so I’m going to park it in a chaise under a palm tree. I’ve got a novel full of heaving bosoms to keep me occupied. You go have fun.” Joyce shooed them away. So they explored. Jenna had a delightful time. Drew turned out to be quite charming.

            That evening the purser found her at her dining table and ask to see her for a moment.

            “Security Officer Scott has checked the photo you provided against the passengers. It doesn’t match anyone on board. I’ve talked with the captain. Our security team will remain on alert, but we feel sure it was just mistaken identity. It’s happened before. Please try to relax. Here is a complimentary pass from the captain for a day in the spa. Please enjoy.”

            Back at the table she told Joyce that there was no sign of Dusty.

            “I was sure I saw him.”

            “Your nerves have been a mess, girl. You probably just saw what you fear. Kinda like your worst nightmare.”

            “I guess.”

            After dinner, they went back to the room to freshen up. Joyce said she had actually won money at the casino and was going to try her luck again.

            “Anything beats watching you and Casanova make cow eyes at each other.”

            “Joyce!” Jenna was shocked.

            “Hey, I just call it like I see it. He’s way hunky. I say go for it. I’m okay with the old bra on the doorknob, but I’m not spending all night in the library. Make it a quickie.”

            “Joyce! You’re scandalous. I’m not bringing Drew back to my room.”

            “Okay. Go to his. But mark my words. Sex is in the air.” She leered playfully and left before Jenna could throw anything at her.

            Jenna changed to a dress a little less formal than her dinner wear and headed for the lounge. She left her room and began walking up the long narrow hallway. You could see nearly the entire length of the ship here. It was dimly lit and kind of spooky. There was no one about except a gentleman coming from the direction she was heading. She started out. She suddenly noticed the man’s limping walk looked familiar. Her heart flew into her throat as he got close enough for her to make out his face. Dusty!

            She turned and fled back to her room. She could hear his running steps behind her.

            “Jenna! Stop, damn you!”

            She zipped her card in the lock and quickly slipped in the room and bolted the door. As she leaned back on the door, sobbing, she slid slowly to the floor. Would this nightmare never end?

            Once she was relatively together she called the security desk. She explained that regardless of what they had told her, someone matching the description of her ex-boyfriend had just chased her back to her room. She realized she was starting to sound hysterical but couldn’t help it. Before long Security Officer Scott, her room steward and the ship’s doctor were in her room.

            She accepted a sedative from the doctor. “He called my name. I know his voice. Why doesn’t anyone believe me?”

            “I’m sorry, miss, but I just don’t see any way he could have gotten on the ship. I have passed the photo you gave us to all ship’s personnel. If he is on this ship, we’ll find him. There is a suite available on the King’s deck. Entrance to the deck is key carded. We can upgrade you and your roommate there for extra security if you wish. No charge of course,” the security chief offered.

            The purser had paged Joyce and she burst into the room.

            “What’s happened? Jenna, are you okay?”

            “No. Dusty IS on board. He chased me down the hall.”

            “Oh, shit. Sorry, guys,” she apologized for her colorful language.

            “I was just telling Miss Davenport that we can upgrade the two of you to a more secure deck.”

            “It’ll be a bitch to move all this stuff again,” she groused.

            “Don’t worry,” he said. “Your steward can arrange for some porters to transfer your belongings.”

            By nearly midnight they were moved into the new suite.

            “Nice digs,” noted Joyce. “We actually can turn around without bumping butts.”

            “Yeah,” Jenna said wanly. She was a little spaced by the sedative. Joyce sat on the bed beside her.

            “Jenna, level with me,” Joyce said seriously. “What’s going on? Did you really see Dusty? Or do you just think you did. I mean, be honest. How could he have gotten on the ship without anyone knowing? It doesn’t make sense.”

            “Not you, too,” moaned Jenna. “No one believes me. Do I have to turn up with a fucking knife in my chest to make you believe me?”

            “Oh, no, baby,” Joyce tried to soothe her, taking her in her arms. “I believe you. If you say you saw him, then you did.” Jenna just folded herself into a ball in Joyce’s arms and cried.

            Drew found them at a table during lunchtime the next day. He came up to their table smiling.

            “Ok. This time I am stalking you. What happened last night? I missed you in the Queen’s Lounge.” He suddenly noticed her pallor. “Oh god, what’s happened? The boyfriend again?”

            “Yeah, he attacked her last night,” Joyce told him.

            “Oh my god. I thought the ship said he wasn’t on board.”

            “Apparently the ship fucked up,” Joyce said tersely.

            “I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

            “Well,” Joyce said. “I gotta piss. Stay here while I go.”

            “Your friend has a way with words,” Drew murmured trying to lighten the mood. Jenna just looked at him.

            “She’s just angry. Dusty has ruined her vacation, too. He poisons everything.”

            “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this. You are such a nice lady.”

            “Thanks. I think I’ll go back to my room.” She got up to walk away.

            “Shouldn’t you wait for your friend?”

            “Oh yeah. Walk me to the elevator? My deck is restricted entry. I’ll be safe from there.”

            He walked her down to the nearest elevator.

            “I know you’re feeling low right now. But I hope you decide to come to the Queen’s Lounge tonight. It’s just not the same without you. I’ll miss you.”

            Jenna made a half smile. “I’ll see.”

            The elevator opened and some people got off. She got in, with a group of people, pressing ‘King’s Deck’ on the panel. Drew seemed quite taken with her, she thought. She was somewhat taken with him, also. Too bad the cruise was such a bomb. She could really do with two weeks of mindless flirting.

            The elevator stopped. A few people got off, a few got on. When the elevator stopped on the Queen’s deck most people got off. A key card was required to go further. As the last person exited the elevator Jenna glanced in the mirrored wall and almost died on the spot. The reflection showed Dusty was right behind her in the elevator.

            “I said I’d kill you,” he hissed. He grabbed for her arm, but she evaded him, and dove out the rapidly closing door, screaming. By the time security personnel had arrived, the elevator was long gone. One of the deck crew lifted her in his arms like a child and carried her to sick bay.

            Hours later Joyce helped Jenna climb into the bed in their suite.

            “It’s going to be alright, babe. Don’t you worry. Joyce is here and everything’s going to be fine.”

            “No, it’s not. They think I’m crazy. You do, too. Everyone does. Maybe I am.”

            “Now, that’s crazy talk. You know I’m with you on this. You just get some rest.”

            The next day the ship’s doctor, purser and captain came to see her.

            “Miss Davenport,” the captain began. “We are terribly upset that your vacation has been marred by problems on this ship. My crew and I have done everything we can to ensure your safety, but I don’t know what else we can do. Tomorrow we will be docking in Curaçao. There is an American embassy there. If you wish, my staff will assist you in contacting them to arrange air transport back to your home destination. Unfortunately, we cannot offer a refund since the voyage is nearly half over, but if you have purchased trip insurance our ship’s doctor will assist you with filing.”

            Jenna thought for a few moments. “Yes, I’d like to go home. Joyce, I want you to stay. There’s no need to ruin both our vacations.”

            “Nothing doing, hon. We’re in this together. I go where you go. Besides I’d have a crappy time without you here to enjoy it with me.  Looks like it’s time to pack.”

            “You up for dinner in the dining room tonight?” Joyce asked later that day.

            “Yeah, I think so. Might as well use it while we can. I have enjoyed the food on this cruise.”

            “You and me, too. A couple more days and I’d have to break out my fat britches.”  Jenna had to laugh.

            After dinner Joyce said, “Come on. I’ll go with you to the Queen’s Lounge. You know Romeo will be there looking for you. And don’t worry. Neither of us will leave you for a second. Total protection. But you need to unwind a little.”

            “You don’t like the music. I hate to make you go through that.”

            “Oh, hell, girl. I’ve gone through much worse for a lot less. Just buy me a couple of hurricanes and I’ll be fine.”

            As soon as they found a table in the Queen’s Lounge, Drew showed up.

            “I was so worried about you,” he said to Jenna. “Are you going to be okay?” She had taken a half a sedative tab after dinner, so she felt she had a grip on her nerves. For now.

            “Thanks, Drew. You’re a dear. I’ve enjoyed meeting you.”

            “That sounds a lot like goodbye,” he said, puzzled.

            “It is. I’m leaving the cruise tomorrow. The captain said I can get a flight back to the US from Curaçao. I just don’t feel safe on the ship anymore.”

            Drew’s breath caught quickly. “Are you sure that’s the right thing to do? To just toss the whole vacation?”

            “I don’t know what else I can do. Constantly look over my shoulder waiting for him to attack me? That’s not a vacation.

            “Joyce, talk some sense into her. She’s just giving up.”

            “Why do you care?” Joyce asked. Drew got quiet.

            “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion.”

            “Joyce, you don’t need to be rude,” Jenna said. “Drew, I’d love to stay, I’ve had such a nice time with you, but it isn’t working. I’m a nervous wreck.”

            “Well, it’s just that you’ve become kind of special to me these past few days. You seem to understand me and are so nice. Aw crap, I don’t know how to say it. I like you. And I’d like a chance to know you better.”

            “Drew, don’t start. We’re from different worlds.”

            “What different worlds? Charlotte and Greensboro are what, a couple hours apart? Maybe we were meant to meet.”

            “Oh brother,” Joyce said dryly. “I’m on the Love Boat.”

            “Well, at least, can we dance?” he asked. They danced several dances. Drew seemed determined to keep her dancing. He really is taken with me, she thought.

            A rumba came on. Drew pulled her close, very close. She realized she liked dancing this closely with him. His face was in close to hers. He kept looking into her eyes. Oh god, she thought. This feels like one of those trashy novels Joyce loves. He leaned in, as if hoping for a kiss. What the hell, she decided. Give him a nice memory. She opened her mouth to him. Maybe the sedative was just kicking in, but she was feeling a bit lightheaded. Or maybe it was the kiss. Damn! He’s good at this. A moment later, he had his mouth by her ear.

            “Oh, Jenna. I think about you so much. I’ll be lost without you. Won’t you reconsider leaving me?” he whispered in her ear.

            “I’m not leaving you, Drew. It’s this ship. I can’t be on a ship with my ex. And I’m sure he’s somewhere on board.”

            “Jenna, you’re tearing me apart.”

            “Drew, please don’t make this any harder for me.”

            They remained in the lounge until the band quit at 11, but Jenna could tell the life had gone out of Drew. She’d been unaware of how deeply he felt. She liked him, too, but he was way ahead of her. The ladies gathered their belongings to leave.

            “Will I get a chance to see you tomorrow?” he asked. She would swear there were unshed tears in his eyes.

            “We’re doing an early breakfast. I’ll be at Lido at 7.”

            “Okay. Bye.” He looked down at the floor. She felt awful.

            “Drew, you’ll be okay. Just do like Bill. Go chase some bikinis.”

            “I’m not interested in bikinis,” he said like a truculent little boy.

            “Joyce, go on. I need to talk to Drew.”

            Joyce looked at Drew. “She has a curfew of midnight, young man. Not a minute after. Got it?”

            He gave her a half-hearted grin, “Yes, ma’am.”

            Jenna laced her arm through Drew’s. They strolled up the incline out of the lounge into the central part of the ship. He turned right and they went through the double doors out onto the deck. There was a half moon out. It cast enough light on the water that you could see the outline of an island in the distance. It was quiet and romantic. Drew dropped her arm and propped both of his on the deck railing, looking down into the dark sea.

            “Drew, I’m sorry.”

            “Are you? Was I just a game?”

            “No, Drew. You know I care for you.”

            He petulantly snatched his arms off the railing. He jammed his hands in his pants pockets and started walking away, down the deck. Jenna followed.

            “Drew, I’m not trying to hurt you.” He passed a windbreak and stopped again at the railing. She came up to him. It was darker here. He pulled her gently into himself. She had to admit she liked his arms around her. It had been a while since she felt safe in a man’s arms. He was leaning in again, so she helped and reached her mouth toward his. She also had to admit she liked kissing him. She was becoming lightheaded again. Maybe she shouldn’t have taken that half tab. But it was hours ago. It should have worn off by now. She realized she had trouble keeping her balance. Drew supported her.

            “What’s wrong, hon?” he asked. “Like my kisses that much?”

            She found that she couldn’t get her tongue to work to answer him.

            “That’s okay, baby. You don’t need to say anything. Dusty said you always talk too much.”

            What?! her brain flared. She tried to struggle, but was unable to control her body.

            “Shh, honey. Everything’s okay. It’s just time for you to take a swim. You’ve been depressed and talking crazy the past few days. I’ll say I tried to get to you but you jumped before I could stop you. I had a bit of trouble dosing your drink tonight. That bitch of a roommate of yours wouldn’t take her eyes off me. I can tell she’s hot for me. She’ll need consoling after you go overboard. She’s not bad looking. I can probably get her in bed in no time. Whadya think?”

            Jenna was paralyzed and could only look at him with eyes wide with terror.

            “You were so easy. You just ate up my sad little boy routine. Dusty said you’d probably spread your legs for me before the week was out. I was hoping for some of that before you went over, but you had to mess it up. He ain’t even on this ship. He’s back in Greensboro. You were crazy to think he’s here, but it works in our favor. Now the whole ship thinks you’re nuts. Anyway, this is where we part ways.” He put an arm under her to lift her over the railing.

            She heard a click, and realized it was a gun being cocked.

            “Stop right there, Mr. Wilson.” It was the Chief Security Officer Scott. “Release Miss Davenport and turn around slowly.” When Drew released her, she fell to the deck. The momentary deflection of the guard’s attention gave Drew the moment he needed. He jumped past the guard and raced down the deck. His exit was cut off by two burly deck hands. He was cornered. With a crazed look back at Jenna, he dashed to his right and sailed over the railing. A deck hand ran to the side and threw over a life preserver, the other ran to the wall and rang the man overboard bell. The security guard came and propped Jenna up. “Good thing I decided to keep an eye on you.” Once again, a deck hand picked her up like a child and carried her to sick bay.

            Jenna was sitting by her attorney in a courtroom twenty days later. It was the beginning of February so she was the only one in the courtroom sporting a suntan. It was obtained during fourteen glorious days in the Caribbean. Once she had realized Dusty wasn’t on the ship she was able to relax. She realized she had experienced hallucinations, but they had seemed so real. The ship’s doctor said that was common in survivors of abuse. The final eight days had done her a world of good.

            “Guilty,” the judge intoned. “Sentencing to be on …” he looked at the court calendar. “The 24th of February. Bailiff, take him away.” The bailiff led Dustin Randall in an orange jumpsuit from the courtroom.

            “Your honor. I’m Mr. Mills from the District Attorney’s office,” said a man approaching the gate separating the attorneys from the courtroom. “We’d like to request a delay in sentencing of Mr. Randall until the disposition of our case. I have three warrants for the arrest of Dustin Lee Randall, his cousin Andrew Scott Wilson and his father D. Jarratt Randall. We plan to charge them with multiple felonies including bribery, racketeering, wiretap, suborning felonies, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to hire a murder, attempted first degree murder, kidnapping, assault with intent to kill, witness tampering. And there may be more.”

            “Your honor,” the Randall lawyer objected. “These charges are all hearsay. Young Dusty was violently attacked by a spurned woman and now they want to drag the Randall family name through the mud. The family has suffered enough. I move that the charges be dropped as baseless.”             “Objection overruled. The charges will stand. Sentencing is delayed.  Since the counts are related to the current tort, the clerk will calendar them on my court dates. Court adjourned.”

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.

A Love Story

            Growing up I frequently heard my parents speak of meeting when they were young but I never knew much else. I usually ignored what I considered “mushy stuff” when I was a kid. During the last few months of his life I had the good fortune of spending a lot of time with my Dad. He told me about their meeting and courtship. It was always his favorite subject. Putting it together with what Mom told me and other sources I feel I have a good feeling for how it went. It was such a neat story I wanted to record it.

            As a sad sort of coda, after Dad died I found a bundle of letters that Mom wrote to him during the first few months of basic training. I don’t know why these letters survived and none others. At first, I didn’t know what to do with them. Should I read them? They were private correspondence. I finally decided that since they were both deceased, it was okay to read them. I’m glad I did. I got a picture of my parents that I never saw. They were starry-eyed kids, so much in love. They never lost their love, but it settled down with time. But the letters spoke of the bright kind of love between a man and woman just a few months married, both still thrilled with each other and cruelly torn apart. And there were some passages that made me blush. I even found a discussion of possible names for “junior” if there ever was one. I also found bits of family gossip that I never knew. It was definitely interesting reading.

            But now, the main event. The Courtship of Mary and Alton.

A Love Story

In late 1952, eighteen-year-old high school senior Mary Reid wanted to have a Christmas party. Problem was all the Saturday nights in December before Christmas were already scheduled. So, she decided to have the party after Christmas, on December 27. Her friends told her she was crazy to schedule a party then. So close to Christmas everyone would be doing family things. But Mary was stubborn. She stuck with her plan. Saturday evening came and a few friends stopped in. Then a few more showed up. Then more and more. Soon the house was filled with people. A friend told Mary he was so glad she decided to have a party because he was sick of family gatherings.

Later in the evening, Mary’s frenemy, Edith, showed up with her new boyfriend, 22-year-old Alton Bass. The six-foot tall, handsome blond-haired blue-eyed farm boy caught every girl’s eye. He was quite a catch. He said later that he felt an instant connection with the party hostess. Within a few days Alton had broken up with Edith and paid a call on Mary. She was thrilled to be asked out by such a handsome boy, with a car, and making Edith mad was a bonus. Soon Alton had a date with Mary every weekend. He also came by frequently in the evenings after his farm chores were done. He would play cards and board games with Mary’s brothers while she finished her schoolwork. Father Reid said no courting until that was done. Alton had no brothers but three of Mary’s five brothers lived at home. They readily adopted Alton and made him part of the family.

Winter turned to spring and in June, Mary graduated from high school. She wasn’t ready to settle down and wanted to try life in a big city. She moved to the state capital, Raleigh, an hour away, found a job and boarding house and settled in. Alton was not happy about this. He was in love with petite blonde Mary. He continued seeing her. He would drive the hour to the city twice every weekend. He said he became very familiar with all the back roads. He ran off the road more than once while falling asleep at the wheel in the wee hours of the morning. He said his car only had two speeds – high and fly. He never got caught by the police, although he outran a patrol car one night.

This wasn’t working out. He was crazy about the girl so Alton asked Mary to marry him. She readily accepted. Since they had met in December they decided on a December wedding. They were married December 18, 1953 and settled down to farm life. They were in love and everything was idyllic. Then Uncle Sam called. Alton was notified in March, just three months wed, that he was needed for the peacekeeping in Korea. The country had been partitioned in the ceasefire just a month before Mary and Alton were married. No one knew if the peace would last.

Mary was frantic. Mother Mollie and father Lloyd Bass were also concerned for their son’s safety and the fact that he was their only son, and was their sole support as the one who worked the farm. The officials they spoke with assured them that Alton would be dismissed from service for “hardship” on his family. The paperwork was applied and the hearing came. A county official had to make the decision. This was a woman who for some reason did not like Mollie Bass. I have never heard my grandmother speak ill of another person except this woman. Mollie said “she dressed and acted like a man and was so ugly no man would have her.” The woman said Alton should not shirk his duty and refused to dismiss him. He entered the Army on May 18, 1954. Mary went to live with Alton’s family. She said in her letters that she cried herself to sleep every night.

Alton eventually was relieved of serving in the former combat area because he was the sole support of a farm family. By the fall, he was stationed in Japan. I have copies of some of the pictures he and Mary exchanged during the long separation. I have a picture of him lying beside a pool referring to himself as a “bathing beauty”. Another shows Mary in her Easter outfit with a note “The wind nearly took me away.”

Mary decided she did not like living on the Bass farm. She wanted to go to work. She moved back to Raleigh, got her old job back and moved into an apartment with a friend. I have a picture cut from the newspaper that shows her as the “girl flashing the big smile” as she is mailing drivers license renewal forms from the Department of Motor Vehicles in 1955.

In February 1956 Alton was told his enlistment was coming to an end. The Sergeant encouraged him to apply to Officer’s Training School and become career military. He said “I just want to go home and see my wife.”

The night before his ship left Japan Alton’s friends took him to a local tavern to celebrate. Some Navy men came in and as nearly always happened when Army and Navy mixed, a brawl broke out. Alton’s friends told him that if the MPs got him he’d be in the brig and miss his ship. They drug him to a back room and literally threw him out the window. He made his ship and spent 2 weeks sailing across the Pacific. I have pictures he took as they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge with all the soldiers waving their hats in the air and cheering. They had three days in San Francisco until air transport was available. Alton and two friends went to a café. Their waitress was blonde, pretty and flirty. She eventually became a bit suspicious of the three young men staring at her. When she cautiously approached their table one of Alton’s friends said, “Excuse us, ma’am, but you’re the first white woman we’ve seen in two years.” She smiled and turned on the charm. She got a big tip.

The soldiers’ air transport first landed in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was 20 degrees below zero and the men only had their tropical uniforms on as they had to hustle across the runway. Alton said the hangar seemed miles away.

Plane and bus and eventually in early March Alton stepped off the bus in Raleigh, NC. Mary was waiting and a mess with tears and makeup streaming down her face. She wrapped herself around him and said “Don’t you ever leave me again.” He promised and kept the promise for over 50 years. They went home and nine months later I was born.  

50th Anniversary

Mary Bass died in 2007. Alton mourned her every day until he passed away in 2016. His love for her was legendary in the community.