The cafeteria smelled like greasy french fries. It always did, no matter what was being served. Today, the menu featured sliced turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy.
He approached the serving window, plastic tray in hand, and faced a tired-looking old lady wearing thick glasses and a tight hairnet.
“Hi there,” Jimmy said, setting his tray on the counter. “I’ll have the prime rib — an end cut, if you’ve got one — and a side order of salad.”
“Here’s your mashed potatoes.” The lady plopped a gooey mess on his tray.
“Thank you.” Jimmy moved down the line, collecting his gravy, a cupful of cranberry sauce and three thin pieces of deli-sliced turkey.
“Looks delicious,” he told the server.
“Don’t be a smart ass,” she said, glowering.
Jimmy snatched a container of warm milk and made his way across the cafeteria, balancing his tray with one hand. He wormed through the rows of tables, ducking to avoid airborne food and stepping over discarded wrappers. Boisterous chatter filled the room, as well as the occasional whooping laugh.
He was passing a table when a foot jutted out, blocking his path. Jimmy stepped over it and glared at its owner.
“Damn,” the guy said, grinning. He was a jock, and a senior. “You were supposed to trip.”
The jock had a girlfriend snuggling beside him. She started laughing, hanging onto her boyfriend’s arm. Jimmy looked at the floor and slunk away.
“Loser.” An empty soda can struck Jimmy’s back. Laughter erupted behind him. He kept his eyes on the floor and didn’t turn.
His friend, Ronald, was sitting at their usual table in the farthest corner, next to the performance stage. It was the rejects’ table, reserved for nerds from all classes. Freshmen and sophomore nerds occupied one end, and junior and senior nerds occupied the other.
Ronald and Jimmy were the only nerds who represented the sophomore class.
“I guess it’s something to be proud of, huh?” Jimmy had asked once. “I mean, us being the only nerds in our class?”
“No, it isn’t,” Ronald had said.
Jimmy dropped his tray on the table and sat across from his friend.
“What’s up?” Ronald asked.
“I told you I hate school, right?”
“At least three times today,” Ronald said, shoveling potatoes into his mouth.
“Well, I’ll say it again: I hate school.” Jimmy started chewing on a roll.
“Roughly two and a half years to go,” Ronald said. “But then again, who’s counting?”
“Me. I’ve been carving tally marks in my locker.”
Ronald smiled. “I think of high school in terms of The Shawshank Redemption. Morgan Freeman’s character spent 40 years behind bars. So in high-school terms, one year for us equals 10 years for Morgan Freeman. And it was at his halfway point — his 20-year anniversary — when he met Tim Robbins’s character. His life got better after that. So, because we’re at our halfway point, maybe our lives will get better, too.”
Jimmy stared at his friend, frowning. “You watch way too many movies.”
“You know who directed The Shawshank Redemption?” Ronald asked.
“No. Not even close. Frank Darabont.”
“Huh — OK. I know Stephen King wrote the book.”
“It wasn’t a book; it was a short story. It was part of a collection titled Different Seasons, which also featured ‘Apt Pupil.’ It also included ‘The Body,’ which was made into the movie Stand By Me.”
Jimmy closed his eyes and sighed.
“Stephen King also wrote The Green Mile,” Ronald said. “You know who directed that?”
“C’mon, man. This should be easy.”
Ronald snorted. “Dude, now you’re being an idiot. Frank Darabont. He did both The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.”
“All right. If you say so.”
“If you don’t believe me, check iMDB.”
“That’s all right — I’ll take your word for it.”
Ronald smiled, tapping the side of his forehead. “I know these things, my friend.”
“I know you do. You need to go on Jeopardy! and make us some money.”
“Nah.” Ronald turned to his plate and spooned some mashed potatoes. “They’re not big on pop culture. Most of their questions focus on foreign affairs.”
“Foreign affairs is an important topic.”
“I guess it is, if you’re a foreigner. I couldn’t care less.”
“Yeah.” Jimmy cut a piece of turkey and chewed it. His eyes bulged.
“The turkey tastes funny, doesn’t it?” Ronald asked.
“It tastes like ass.”
“You’d be the expert around here, Jimmy.”
“It tastes the way the locker room smells,” Jimmy said. “Like ass.”
“The locker rooms doesn’t smell like ass. It smells like feet.”
A freshman sitting nearby looked over and frowned.
“It’s both,” Jimmy said. “It’s a mixture of ass and feet.”
“Dude!” the freshman said, pointing to his tray. “I’m trying to eat here!”
“Good luck with that,” Jimmy said, pushing his food aside. “This stuff’s nasty.”
Ronald glared at the freshman. “Mind your own business, dude.”
The freshman turned to his tray, shaking his head.
Ronald looked at Jimmy. “Can you believe that guy? These freshmen have no respect.”
“Sure they do,” Jimmy said. “They just don’t respect us. He wouldn’t talk that way to Bruce Jenkins.”
“I can hear you,” the freshman said, glaring.
Ronald turned. “Hey, Freshman. I’ll give you five bucks if you go up to Bruce Jenkins and tell him he’s a dickwad to his face.”
The freshman’s eyes widened. “Bruce Jenkins? The football player? No way, man! He’d kick my ass!”
“He’s a sophomore, just like us,” Ronald said. “How come you’re not afraid of us kicking your ass?”
“Ah, c’mon.” The freshman snorted. “There’s no class distinction among nerds. We got to stick together.”
Jimmy shrugged. “He’s got a point.”
“Besides,” the freshman continued, “we’re the intellectual elite. We fight with our minds, not with our fists.”
Ronald grinned. “We’ll see about that. Name the guy who directed Back to the Future.”
“Steven Speilberg,” Jimmy said.
Ronald frowned. “I wasn’t asking you.”
The freshman grinned. “Robert Zemeckis. Steven Speilberg produced it.”
“Hey, he’s good!” Ronald said, turning to Jimmy.
“Do you know who co-wrote Back to the Future?” the freshman asked.
“Easy,” Ronald said. “Bob Gale.”
“And the battle of wits rages on,” Jimmy said.
After eating, Jimmy and Ronald headed to the library. Few people ventured there during lunch. Most remained in the cafeteria or headed to the courtyard. Some roamed the halls.
They took their usual table next to a wooden stand with an oversized dictionary. Ronald opened his backpack and pulled out a worn spiral-bound notebook.
“Still working on the screenplay?” Jimmy asked.
“Yeah,” Ronald said. “I wish I had a laptop. Then I wouldn’t have to write longhand. It’s a major pain.”
“When you’re in college, I bet you’re going to be one of those New Age types who brings his laptop to coffee shops.”
“I can’t wait to be in college,” Ronald said. “My brother says it’s awesome. People don’t make fun of you like they do here.”
“My dad says college is high school with ashtrays,” Jimmy said.
Ronald snorted. “He got that line from She’s Having a Baby, which was written and directed by John Hughes. He’s the guy who did all those high-school movies in the ’80s.”
Ronald frowned. “Dude, what are you talking about? Clueless wasn’t made in the ’80s.”
“Oh,” Jimmy said. “I stand corrected, then.”
“Yeah, you do. Anyway, college is awesome. At least, that’s what my brother says. He was a nerd, too, remember? He says people in college are more mature, and more tolerant.”
“I hope so,” Jimmy said. “I don’t mind the educational aspect of school. It’s the daily fear of getting my ass kicked that bothers me.”
Ronald opened his notebook and started flipping through the pages.
“Did I read you my latest scene?” he asked.
“Jimmy?” Ronald looked up. Jimmy was staring at something on the other side of the room, his eyes glazed and distant.
“What are you looking at?” Ronald asked, turning in his seat. “Oh. Stacy Beckham.”
“What’s that?” Jimmy asked.
“You were staring at Stacy Beckham. She’s over there checking out a book.”
“I wasn’t staring.”
“Whatever. You’ve got drool on your chin.”
Jimmy’s eyes widened as he touched his face.
Ronald grinned. “You should talk to her.”
“Yeah, right.” Jimmy slunk in his seat. “I wouldn’t have a chance.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“Oh, thanks buddy. How supportive.”
“I’m being honest. She’s popular and you’re not.”
“I know she’s popular. She’s one of the preppies, which makes her untouchable.”
Ronald looked at the table. “Yeah, I know. It sucks.”
“It does.” Jimmy watched as Stacy took her books and left the library. She hadn’t looked their way once. He sighed.
“I still think of her as the new kid,” Ronald said. “But she’s been here like, what, three, four months?”
“Something like that,” Jimmy said.
“She climbed the social ladder pretty fast.”
Jimmy snorted. “It was almost instant. One moment she was the new girl, the next she was a preppy. Those guys sort of adopted her. She was hanging out with them within a week.”
“Yeah,” Ronald said. “It’s all about first impressions. When you’re the new kid, you’ve got 10 seconds before someone tries to label you. You’ve got to identify which crowd you want to join, and then you got to join it before someone else determines your fate.”
Jimmy nodded. “I think that’s exactly what she did. I’m sure she was a preppy at her old school. As soon she she came here, she found a similar crowd and assimilated.”
“That’s what you got to do,” Ronald said. “People here are quick to place labels. You’ve got to be the first to make your move.”
He looked at Jimmy and grinned. “That reminds me: Do you remember that dumbass Stinky?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jimmy said, laughing. “Yeah, of course.”
Ronald shook his head. “Now there’s a guy who definitely determined his own destiny.”
Shaun Greyson, otherwise known as Stinky, had a been a fellow nerd Jimmy and Ronald had known in eighth grade. His tale of stupidity was legendary.
Shaun had been in school for only a couple of days when he involuntarily received his “nerd” label. It was during P.E. Students who already had changed into their uniforms were milling in the gym, waiting for roll call.
Bruce Jenkins, the class hot shot, approached Shaun and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hey, you,” he said. “New kid. What’s your name?”
“My name?” Shaun asked. He smiled, seemingly pleased that someone was talking to him. “It’s Shaun.”
If he had stopped there, he might have been fine. But he continued:
“People at my old school used to call me Stinky,” he said. “I guess maybe because I had B.O. — I don’t know. I don’t think I stink anymore.”
A wicked grin materialized on Bruce’s face.
“Well, buddy,” he said, giving Shaun a punch in the arm. “That’s what people at this school are going to call you, too: Stinky.”
Shaun closed his eyes and looked at the floor. “Crap.”
Jimmy laughed, recalling the memory.
“Remember he moved away the next year?” Ronald asked. “I’ll bet you anything he didn’t make the same mistake.”
“Yeah, right,” Jimmy said. “I’ll bet you anything he did. The guy was a moron.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Ronald said, laughing. “He was a major dumbass. Good grief.”
They both smiled.
Ronald leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. “I’ll tell you something: If you do it right, moving can be the perfect opportunity to start over. A person could totally reinvent himself. All you’d need is the right clothes and the right attitude, and you could convince the popular people to accept you.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said.
“I’m serious. If I ever moved, that’s what I’d do. I’m tired of being a reject. We miss out on everything. We can’t get girlfriends, we don’t go dances or sporting events, and I doubt either one of us will make prom. We’re missing out on everything that supposedly makes high school memorable.”
“Who wants to go to a sporting event?” Jimmy asked. “I hate sports.”
Ronald frowned. “That’s not the point. I’m just saying I get tired of being unpopular. I’d like to look back on my teenage years with nostalgia, not remorse.”
“And you think life would be great if you were popular?”
“I don’t know,” Ronald said. “It’s got to be better than this, right?”
Jimmy shrugged. “I can’t say.”
Ronald sighed. “Sometimes I think I’d like to start over — maybe go to a new school where nobody knows me. If I played my cards right, I could try to fit in; convince them I’m one of them. And who would know? If they bought the act, I’d fit right in. It’d be the perfect do-over.”
“Yeah, but then you’d be pretending,” Jimmy said. “The whole thing would be an act. I’d rather just be myself. If people don’t like me, that’s their problem.”
Ronald snorted. “Whatever, man. That’s horseshit, and you know it. You’d like to be popular if you could. Everyone does.”
“Uh-huh. Sure. Let me ask you this: You’ve got a thing for Stacy Beckham, right?”
Jimmy smiled. “What gave it away?”
“Do you honestly think she’s ever going to give you the time of day, you being who you are?”
Jimmy frowned and crossed his arms. “She might. She’s a good person. I don’t think she’d want to hurt someone’s feelings.”
“It doesn’t matter if she’s a good person. That’s got nothing to do with it. Let’s say she did want to go out with you. Do you think she’d put her reputation on the line, all for the sake of dating you?”
Jimmy didn’t answer.
“Of course she wouldn’t,” Ronald said. “Because if she dated you, all her friends would ostracize her, she’d lose her popularity status, and then she’d be sitting right here with you and me — a reject. You seriously think she’s going to do that?”
“Huh.” Jimmy looked at the table.
“You see what I’m saying?” Ronald asked. “You can’t be part of that crowd unless you actually join it. And the only way to join them is to become one of them — at least in appearance. Otherwise, you’ll always be on the outside looking in.”
“I’ve never tried talking to Stacy,” Jimmy said. “I wonder if she even knows who I am?”
“I doubt if any of those people know who we are,” Ronald said. He flipped open his notebook and turned to his most recent page.
Jimmy swallowed, staring at the table.
“I think I’m a good judge of character,” he said. “I know people. Stacy seems like a sweet person. If she really got to know me — if she saw who I am on the inside — I think we’d get along great.”
Ronald sighed. “Dude, I just told you, whether she likes you or not has nothing to do with it. It’s all about her friends. If her friends don’t like you, then she can’t like you. End of story.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said, shaking his head in disgust. “Yeah, that sucks.”
“No,” Ronald said, a slight smile forming on his lips. “That’s high school.”
The bell rang, signaling the end of lunch. Students moved in a mass exodus from the cafeteria and pooled into the narrow corridors. Lockers slammed. Laughs erupted. A senior couple snuggled in a recess, blocking the drinking fountain as they kissed.
Jimmy spun the dial on his locker and wrenched the metal door open. Someone bumped into him, bruising his shoulder. He squeezed himself as close as he could to his locker to avoid the current of people.
He retrieved his geometry textbook and his homework folder. The inside of the door boasted line after line of etched tally marks — a countdown to graduation.
Or, as Ronald might say, parole.
Someone pushed him from behind. “Loser.”
Jimmy didn’t bother to turn. Whoever had pushed him kept walking.
He caught a movement in his peripheral vision, and he turned to see Stacy Beckham. She was standing at her locker, reaching for a book. Jimmy noticed how tidy the inside of her locker was. Each of her books stood end to end. His own locker was a mess of papers, books and trash.
Every day he watched her in the hall. She always looked so poised, so certain, as if she always knew what she was looking for. She never looked like a flustered mess, as most of the students did, digging desperately in their lockers for missing homework or a forgotten textbook.
Their lockers were so close (their last names both began with “B” — his was Borman) and yet she never noticed him. No quick glances, no sneak peaks. In fact, she never noticed him noticing her, which surprised Jimmy. He stared at her often enough. Yet as far as she was concerned, he didn’t exist.
He slammed his locker closed and took a deep breath. Did he dare? He asked himself this question every day. He always felt on the verge, but then he always chickened out. Each day he promised he’d do it, but he never, ever did. Nothing changed. And each day he refrained was another tally mark in his locker: a testament to his failure.
He closed his eyes. He couldn’t do it. The bell was about to ring. But the moment was perfect. No friends surrounded her. It was just Stacy, all alone, unencumbered by societal constraints. He knew if he could get her alone that she’d see him for who he was.
But he never would. What was so different about today? Nothing, that’s what. Today was just another day in the endless cycle of his high-school existence. There was no impetus to finally take the risk, no motivating factor to propel him forward.
Just do it, he thought. Today, here and now. Just do it. Just. Do. It.
Without another thought, he turned and approached her. His throat constricted. His chest tightened. His palms turned clammy.
He coughed, swallowing a wad of thick mucus. “Hello? Um, excuse me.”
Stacy looked up, closing her locker. “Huh?”
He tried to smile. “Hello.”
He stood holding his book, his backpack hanging from his shoulders. His heart was pounding, blood echoing in his ears.
She nodded, smiling slightly. “Hello.”
“I’m not sure if you know me. I’m, ah, I’m in your English class. With Mr. Henderson?”
Stacy tilted her head. “English?”
“Yeah. Um, sixth period. I sit in the back. My name’s Jim. Jimmy.”
“Oh, yeah,” Stacy said, nodding. Jimmy couldn’t read her face; as far as he was concerned, women were indecipherable.
He swallowed. “We also have Computer Apps, but your workstation’s on the other side of the room. I don’t think you can see me from your seat.”
“Yeah, I know you,” she said, turning her head to glance at some people passing by. She quickly turned back to him. “I’ve seen you around.”
“I wanted to introduce myself,” he said. “I know you’re still kind of new, and, well, I know it’s hard to meet people — to make friends.”
Holy crap, what the hell was he saying? He sounded like a total dumbass. Jimmy gritted his teeth.
Stacy smiled. “Well, thank you. That’s nice.”
He bit his lip, his heart thudding harder. “I also wanted to ask you … well … I was wondering, maybe we could get together sometime, and hang out? Maybe, um …” He let his voice trail off. He almost had said “do something,” and he instinctively realized how awful that would sound — and also how stupid it would sound.
Her smile faded, and her eyes widened slightly.
“I mean —” Jimmy started to say.
At that moment the bell rang, startling them both. Lockers started slamming; students scurried to their classes.
“ — I mean, if you want,” Jimmy said, stammering.
“Stace!” someone called. Jimmy and Stacy turned to see Megan Summers and Heather Fowler standing across the hall. Megan was frowning, and Heather’s eyebrows were raised.
“Just a second!” Stacy called.
“C’mon!” Megan said. She was wearing her boyfriend’s jacket, which boasted the school’s colors. Jimmy could tell it belonged to her boyfriend because it was much too big for her. The sleeves came over her hands.
Stacy turned back to Jimmy. She took a deep breath.
“I didn’t mean to just, you know, bring it on you like that,” Jimmy said. “I mean, I’ve seen you around, and I was thinking —”
“No, that’s very sweet,” Stacy said. “And I really, really appreciate it.” She bit her lip. “I just … I just don’t think it would be a very good idea, you know?”
“Oh,” Jimmy said.
“I’ve just got so much going on in my life,” Stacy said. She tried to laugh. “I mean, it’s a whirlwind. I’ve got homework, music lessons, cheerleading —”
“No, I understand,” Jimmy said. He ran a hand through his hair.
“I’m really sorry,” Stacy said. She turned; Megan and Heather were gone. The hallway was clearing out. The late bell was about to ring.
“Listen, I got to go,” she said. “Mrs. Oliver will kill me if I’m late. But, I’ll see you around, OK?”
Jimmy nodded, his mouth hanging open. “OK.”
She smiled, her eyes sad. And, without another word, she turned and darted down the hall, holding her books tightly against her chest.
The late bell rang. The students dissipated until the hallway was empty and silent. Papers lay on the floor, and down the hall an unlatched locker swung open.
Jimmy stood holding his geometry book in his moist hands. He looked at the floor, hardly noticing the debris.
“Shit,” he said.
“You actually asked out Stacy Beckham! I can’t believe it, man. What the hell were you thinking?”
Jimmy was sitting on his bed, his geometry book open before him, his homework scattered at his side. Late-afternoon sunlight poured through the slatted window blinds, and a bright lamp on his headboard cast light upon his book. His iPod, which was docked in a portable clock/radio, was playing Eric Clapton’s greatest hits. Currently, Clapton was bellowing that his girlfriend had him on his knees.
Jimmy’s iPhone, which he’d placed on “speaker,” sat beside him on the bed.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I seriously don’t. I’ve wanted to every day since she moved here, but I never have. I just … I don’t know. It wasn’t a conscious decision.”
“What do you mean, ‘it wasn’t a conscious decision’? Were you sleepwalking?”
“No. I just wasn’t thinking. It was like some unconscious part of me forced me to approach her and start talking. I don’t know how to describe it. It was like I was outside of myself looking in, or like I was watching somebody else do the talking. It was like I was there and I wasn’t there. I didn’t deliberate on anything; I just did it.”
“Holy crap,” Ronald said. “This is unbelievable. It’s insane.”
“What’s so insane about it?” Jimmy asked. “I’m not allowed to ask out a girl?”
“You asked out Stacy Beckham. Stacy Beckham!”
“Yeah, I did. And she said no.”
“Of course she said no! She had to say no! I told you that.”
Jimmy sighed. “I think you could be a little more understanding. I’ve just had the worst letdown of my life. It’s like someone stabbed my soul with an icepick.”
“Oh, c’mon, man. What did you seriously expect? You knew she had to say no.”
“I told you: I wasn’t thinking,” Jimmy said. “I acted on impulse. I really had no idea what she’d say.”
“But you were hoping she’d say yes. That’s why you asked her out, right?”
“Yeah, Ronald. That’s why I asked her out.”
A sigh. “Well, man, I don’t know what to tell you. I really, seriously don’t. I think you got a lot of balls, though. I couldn’t have asked out Stacy Beckham.”
“How many girls have you asked out?” Jimmy asked.
“You mean in high school, or in my lifetime?”
“Is there a difference?”
“Well, yeah. High school’s serious. I don’t think relationships in sixth grade count.”
“You had a relationship in sixth grade?”
“No, dumbass. I’ve never had a relationship, period.”
“But you asked out a girl?”
“Yeah, in sixth grade. That’s what I just said.”
Jimmy rolled his eyes. Ronald was an idiot sometimes. “I don’t think you ever told me.”
“Sure I did. There was this girl who lived in my neighborhood, and I used to see her all the time when I rode my bike. I wanted to take her to that country-western-themed dance the school was having, so I worked up the nerve and asked her out during recess.”
“What did she say?”
“What else? She said no. She said she was already going with someone.”
“You never told me any of that,” Jimmy said.
“I did tell you that. You just don’t remember. The point, though, is that I know how you’re feeling. I’ve been there before.”
“No,” Jimmy said, “that’s bull. You said so yourself that anything before high school doesn’t count. The rejection you felt isn’t the same as what I’m feeling.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Like crap. Like … I don’t know. Like I got punched in my stomach and had the wind knocked out of me.”
“Sounds about right. I think that’s how I felt.”
“Well, it’s not the same. Trust me.”
“Whatever,” Ronald said. “I’ll tell you something, though: You did a brave thing. Seriously. You deserve kudos for taking the risk.”
“I mean, I couldn’t have done it. No way. That girl in sixth grade was the last girl I ever asked out.”
“I still think Stacy and I would get along,” Jimmy said.
“You’ve got to forget about Stacy. It’s not going to happen.”
“No, I know,” Jimmy said. “I totally get that. I’m just saying that, under different circumstances, I think she and I could be a couple. There’s just something about her.”
“Hey there,” said a familiar female voice. “Who’s Stacy?”
Jimmy jerked, surprised. He looked up to see his 14-year-old sister, Jill, standing at the foot of his bed. She gave him a knowing grin that told him she’d been standing there for a while.
“Is that your sister I heard?” Ronald asked.
“Yeah, goddammit,” Jimmy said. He crumpled up a wad of paper and chucked it at Jill. She smiled and ducked.
“Hi Ronald!” she called, looking at the iPhone.
“That voice!” Ronald said. “It’s like nails on a chalkboard.”
“Screw you, Ronald,” Jill said, sitting on Jimmy’s bed. “Go hump your pillow. Give it some loving.”
“Bitch,” Ronald said.
“Hey!” Jill said. She turned her fierce eyes to Jimmy. “Are you going to let him talk to me like that?”
Jimmy shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”
“I’m your little sister, you micro-dick.”
Jimmy sighed. “Ronald, don’t call my sister names.”
“Why not?” Ronald asked. “She’s a bitch.”
Jill lunged forward. “Gimme that phone.”
“Don’t touch it!” Jimmy said, grabbing the phone before she could snatch it. He held it away from her in his outstretched hand.
“Come on over here, Ronald, you little pansy,” Jill said. “I’ll kick your scrawny, pimply ass!”
“Tell your sister I hope she dreams of me when she sleeps,” Ronald said.
“Blow it out your ass, Ronald,” Jill said.
“I’m hanging up, Ron,” Jimmy said, trying to fend off his sister as she reached for the phone. “See you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, see you tomorrow. And Jill? You’re a bitch!”
Jimmy clicked off the phone and shoved it in his pocket.
“Your friend’s a shit,” Jill said, standing up. “I don’t know why you hang out with him.”
“Be nice to him,” Jimmy said. “He’s the only friend I’ve got.”
“He can kiss my ass.”
Jimmy sighed. His sister Jill was getting harder and harder to live with. Ever since entering junior high school, she’d become a major pain. She now wore grungy jeans and faded plaid shirts, and her hair hung in greasy strands. She also wore gobs of black eyeliner and lipstick. Jimmy thought it made her look ghoulish.
Her attitude also sucked. Jill had a chip on her shoulder about everything, whether it involved school, boyfriends or her parents. She also hung out with a ragtag group that smoked cigarettes and drank vodka. Whenever her friends came over, they’d all lock themselves in Jill’s room for hours at a time, with heavy bass notes thudding behind the door.
Jill glared as Jimmy started arranging his loose homework papers.
“It’s time for dinner,” she said. “Mom wanted me to tell you.”
“All right,” Jimmy said. “Thanks. Tell her I’m coming.”
“Tell her yourself. I’m not a frickin’ messenger.”
“OK,” he said, taking a deep breath. “Sorry.”
For some reason, that seemed to irritate her.
“What’s this crap you’re listening to?” she asked. “That’s, like, Mom and Dad’s music.”
Jimmy turned off the iPod and didn’t answer.
Jill shook her head. “You’re a loser. And who’s that girl you were talking about? Stacy something?”
“None of your business,” Jimmy said.
“Whatever. I don’t even want to know, anyway. Probably some big-breasted senior you fawn over who’d never give you a second glance.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said.
Jill frowned, her arms crossed. “What flew up your ass?”
“Nothing!” Jimmy said, throwing up his arms. “Man! What are you on me for?”
She grinned, wickedly. “Are you finally going to get a girlfriend? It’s about time. Mom and Dad think you’re gay. I’ve heard them talk about it.”
Jimmy sighed and closed his geometry book.
“Whatever. Don’t tell me. Why am I wasting my time on you, anyway? I don’t give a crap.” Jill tromped toward the door.
“Hey Jill,” Jimmy said.
She paused, without turning.
He sighed. “Never mind. It’s complicated.”
She snorted, then left.
His mother was setting the table as he came down the stairs. Golden, late-afternoon sun poured through the windows, casting a glow in the dining room.
“Mmm,” Jimmy said, walking into the adjoining kitchen. “Smells good.”
“It’s pasta with garlic bread and asparagus,” his mom said.
Jimmy wrenched open the refrigerator and poured himself some orange juice.
“Is your sister still upstairs?” Mrs. Borman asked.
“I don’t know. I thought she was down here,” Jimmy said, taking his seat at the table. “She’s the one who told me to come to dinner.”
Mrs. Borman cupped her hands around her mouth. “Jill! Dinner, now!”
Mrs. Borman rolled her eyes. “She drives me to drink, she really does. Where’s the wine?”
Jill descended the stairs and plopped in her chair without looking at anyone.
“Where’s Dad?” Jimmy asked.
“He’s on the phone,” Mrs. Borman said, pouring a glass of merlot and taking a seat.
Jill glowered. “I thought work ended at five.”
“Be easy on your father. He’s working hard. Besides, he’s got some exciting news.”
“He does?” Jimmy asked.
Jill snorted. “Yippy. Another promotion? He already works 12 hours a day. I guess he enjoys being away from us.”
“Don’t be like that, Jill,” Mrs. Borman said, dishing up some salad. “Your father works very hard.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Jill said. “He cares more about his work than he does about us.”
“Cut it out, Jill,” Jimmy said.
She stuck out her tongue. A silver stud glistened on the end of it. “Bite me.”
“That’s enough,” Mrs. Borman said.
Mr. Borman walked into the dining room and took his seat at the head of the table. The sleeves of his white dress shirt were rolled up, and his collar was unbuttoned.
“Hey there,” he said, smiling at Jimmy.
Jimmy nodded, his mouth full.
“Everything OK at work?” Mrs. Borman asked.
“Oh, yeah. Just straightening out some details.” Mr. Borman dished a heaping pile of pasta on his plate.
Jill sat eating without looking at anyone.
“I told them you’ve got some news,” Mrs. Borman said.
“Oh, you did?” Mr. Borman frowned. “I was going to wait. I just found out today.”
“Found out what?” Jimmy asked.
Mr. Borman smiled. “Well, you know how I’ve been working out of town a lot lately, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jill said, not looking up. “You’ve been sorely missed.”
Mr. Borman ignored her. “I’ve been flying to Reno, where the company’s setting up a new office. We’ve been trying to get operations under way, and things are finally starting to come together.”
“You’ve been working on that project for about a year now, right?” Jimmy asked.
“Just about,” Mr. Borman said, helping himself to some asparagus.
“Well, c’mon,” Mrs. Borman said, grinning. “Tell them.”
“All right.” Mr. Borman took a bite of bread and chewed thoughtfully. “The company’s staffing the new office as we speak. Our big challenge will be training. We want everyone up to speed as soon as possible.”
“Bor-ing,” Jill said.
Mr. Borman closed his eyes. “We’re mostly hiring people from Reno. However, many of the managers will be people who already work for the company. They’ll all be relocating.”
Jimmy frowned. “Relocating?”
Mr. Borman smiled. “The new office needs an operation manager. I put in for the position months ago, and I knew I was the likely candidate, but nothing was official until today.”
“You knew you were going to get it,” Mrs. Borman said, beaming.
Mr. Borman shrugged. “Well, I did, but I wanted to be 100-percent sure. The money will be great, and the job’s basically what I’m doing now, only I won’t have to fly so much.”
“You’re talking about moving?” Jimmy asked.
Jill looked up, her eyes widening. “We’re moving?”
“It won’t be until summer,” Mrs. Borman said, pouring another glass of wine. “Your father still has a lot of work to do in the new office, plus we’ll have to sell this house and find a new one in Reno.”
“What we figured is you guys could finish out the school year here and then start school in Reno in the fall,” Mr. Borman said.
Jill put down her fork. “You can’t be serious.”
Mrs. Borman frowned. “Honey, don’t you see what this means? Your father’s been working for this job for more than a year. This is a big achievement for him.”
Jill clenched her fist. “A big achievement? Are you kidding?”
“Calm down, honey,” Mr. Borman said.
“We never see you!” Jill said. “You’re always doing something for work. Always. And now our whole lives are going to be messed up because you scored a some big stupid achievement?”
“Jill!” Mrs. Borman snapped. “Don’t talk to your father like that!”
“This sucks!” Jill said, pushing her chair back and standing up. “I have friends here, Dad. People who care about me. I have a life here!”
“Sit down,” Mr. Borman said, his voice stern. “You’ll have a life in Reno, too. It’s not the end of the world.”
Jill’s eyes welled with tears. “You don’t understand. You never understand. You don’t care — that’s what it is. You don’t care!”
“Jill — enough!” Mrs. Borman said.
“Screw you!” Jill screamed. “Screw both of you! All care about is money! And work! You don’t give a shit about us!”
“Jill!” Mrs. Borman said.
“I hate you!” Jill said, screaming. “I hate you!”
She ran out of the room and tore up the stairs. Her bedroom door slammed, and within moments loud, thumping bass thundered from above.
Mr. Borman sighed, looking at his plate. “I should talk to her.”
“No,” Mrs. Borman said. “Leave her for a moment. She needs to cool down. She can’t think rationally when she’s this upset.”
Mr. Borman kept his eyes on his plate. He had dished up sizable portions, but now he only picked at his food.
Jimmy swallowed, biting the insides of his cheeks. He knew what his dad needed to hear, but he wasn’t sure if he could say it. He was afraid it would sound hollow, empty — insincere.
He cleared his throat. “Well, congratulations, Dad. I know it means a lot to you … that job.”
Mr. Borman looked up and tried to smile. “Thanks.”
“It’s not going to be easy, moving to a new town,” Mrs. Borman said. “We know how hard it’ll be. I had to move when was I was a teenager, and I was terrified. I remember it took awhile to adjust.”
“That’s the main reason we want to move during the summer,” Mr. Borman said. “We figured it’d be easier for you kids to adjust if you started the school year in Reno.”
Jimmy raked his teeth over his lower lip. “What’s Reno like?”
“Oh, I think you’ll like it,” his father said. “They have distinct seasons, and the city itself is nice. The surrounding landscape is mostly desert, but I heard it’s great for off-roading. I want to try doing that when we move there; maybe get a four-wheeler. We’ll be able to afford it, that’s for sure.”
“You worked very hard for this job, honey,” Mrs. Borman said. “You earned it. You deserve it.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Jimmy said. “Congratulations again. Seriously. I’m glad all that work finally paid off.”
“Well, I always wanted to do it for the family,” Mr. Borman said. “I figured if I could get us all a little security, then this family would be all right. When I was a kid, we never had money. We were miserable most of the time.”
He looked up at the ceiling, which thudded from Jill’s music.
“Apparently, though,” he said, “money doesn’t buy happiness.”
“But maybe it can buy soundproof walls,” Mrs. Borman said.
After dinner, Jimmy walked upstairs to his room. He stopped at his sister’s door and knocked. The thumping bass grew softer.
“Jill?” he said.
“Jill? I’m coming in.”
He turned the handle. Surprisingly, the door was unlocked.
Jill was sprawled face-down on her bed, her hair splayed all around her. Posters of brooding, menacing musicians covered every square inch of the wall. A strand of orange-and-black Halloween lights hung above the closet.
Jimmy walked inside and closed the door. Jill looked up as he sat at the foot of the bed. Her dark mascara was running down her cheeks, and her eyes were red and puffy.
“You OK?” he asked.
“What do you think?” she asked. She sat up and sniffed. “I can’t believe it. Just like that, we’re moving. He gets a new job and we have to rearrange our entire lives. It isn’t fair.”
Jimmy didn’t answer.
Jill sighed, shaking her head. “You know what makes me sick? He thinks if he makes enough money, it’s somehow going to buy our love. As if money can make up for him not being here. How many birthday parties has he missed? How many holidays? Huh? He’s never around. The guy has nothing to do with us.”
“He’s doing what he thinks is right,” Jimmy said.
Jill shook her head. “Don’t defend him. You know he’s a jerk. He works all the time so he doesn’t have to be around us. You know that’s the truth. He can’t stand us. That guy would rather do anything than be with his family.”
“I don’t know,” Jimmy said.
“My life’s over,” Jill said. “How am I supposed to go to a new school? Huh? Do you know what they do to new kids? You have to prove yourself if you want to earn their respect. Here, I have a reputation — I have friends. But there, I’ll just be the new girl. If I make one wrong move, they’ll eat me alive.”
She looked up at Jimmy, and tears started streaming. “Do you get what I’m saying? My whole life is over. My whole life.”
Jimmy almost took her in his arms — the instinct of a protective older brother — but then he thought better of it. Jill wasn’t a kid anymore, and she certainly wouldn’t appreciate the gesture.
“I think you’re overreacting,” he said. “It’ll be bad, but it won’t be the end of the world.”
She grabbed his arm and buried her face in his shirt.
“You don’t understand!” she said, sobbing. “It’s easy for you to say. You don’t have a life!”
After school, Jimmy and Ronald drove to the mall and ordered pork-rib sandwiches from the food court. They found a table among the other bustling patrons.
As they ate, Jimmy told his friend the news. He didn’t mince words; he laid it on him all at once, in one fell swoop.
Ronald almost choked on his sandwich.
“Dude,” he said, shaking his head. “You’re kidding, right? C’mon.”
Ronald put down his sandwich. “You’re actually moving?”
“I guess so.”
Ronald’s mouth hung open in dumb shock. He looked like he was catching flies. It took him a moment to regain his composure.
“Why didn’t you tell me at school today?” he asked.
“I didn’t want to bring it up there. It seemed too depressing.”
Ronald rubbed the side of his face, as if a headache was blossoming. “I can’t believe this is happening. It’s … it’s inconceivable.”
Jimmy sighed. “No movie references, OK? I’m not in the mood.”
“What are you talking about?”
“C’mon. ‘Inconceivable’? That came from The Princess Bride.”
“Oh, yeah,” Ronald said. “I forgot.”
Jimmy took a bite of his sandwich, then set it down. He’d suddenly lost his appetite.
“So, when do you move?” Ronald asked.
“Thankfully, not till summer. I’ll be starting my junior year in Reno.”
“Have you ever been there?”
“No. My dad travels there all the time, but I’ve never seen it.”
“I wonder what it’s like?”
“Well, crap,” Ronald said. “This sucks. You’re my only friend, man. What am I going to do?”
“What are you going to do?” Jimmy said, his eyes wide. “What am I going to do? I can’t go a new school. They’re going to crucify me. At least here, people know me and generally leave me alone. I can’t imagine starting all over. I didn’t even sleep last night, I was worrying so much.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Ronald said. “Just try to be as invisible as possible, I guess. Blend in. Don’t talk to anyone, and try your best not to make enemies.”
“My sister was freaking out last night, but she’s got nothing to worry about. I know she’ll make friends right away. Me, on the other hand, I’m going to be the new guy everyone makes fun of. I’ll be the next Stinky.”
“Dude, you won’t be the next Stinky. That guy was more of a reject than either of us.”
Jimmy downed his fountain soda as if it were a shot of whiskey. “I’ll be honest with you, man: I’m petrified. I really am. I’ve never been the new kid before. I’ve been living in this town since kindergarten.”
“I was the new kid in fourth grade,” Ronald said. “Remember?”
“How did you handle it?”
“Hell, I don’t remember. It was fourth grade.”
“Thanks. That helps a lot.”
“Listen, just try to forget about it for a while. It’s March, so you’ve got about three and a half months before you have to worry about it. Let’s talk about something else.”
Ronald smiled. “Like Stacy. I can’t believe you actually asked her out.”
Jimmy frowned and picked up his sandwich, which had turned cold. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Seriously, I don’t. I saw her in Mr. Henderson’s class today, and she didn’t even look at me. Not once. She walked past my desk to sharpen her pencil, and she had her entire head turned.”
“Ah, well. I’m sorry, man. But hey, try to look on the bright side: At least you have a notch in your belt. I don’t even have that.”
Jimmy frowned. “You don’t get a notch in your belt from asking out a woman. You get a notch in your belt from having sex.”
“Really?” Ronald asked. “I thought that was a notch in your bedpost?”
“I don’t know,” Jimmy said, shrugging. “I’m definitely not an expert in that department.”
“Well, in any case, you asked out a girl. That’s a big step. Huge, really.”
“I wish I could remember what I said. Like I told you before, everything was unconscious. My memory of everything is blurry.”
“I think asking out women is something you get better at with time. That’s what my brother told me, at least.”
“Does your brother date a lot?”
“No. He asks out a lot of girls.”
“He doesn’t date but he asks out a lot of girls?”
“Yeah. None of the girls he asks ever go out with him.”
Jimmy snickered. “Doesn’t sound like he’s very good at it, then.”
“No,” Ronald said, frowning. “No, I guess not.”
They continued eating in silence. Jimmy finished his sandwich and started on his french fries.
“Actually, I just thought of something,” Ronald said. “When you start your new school, you’ll be like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, in the scene when he spent his first night in prison. I mean, the experience won’t be the same, but the anxiety will.”
“You’re not helping, Ronald.”
“Do you know who the director of cinematography was for The Shawshank Redemption?”
“I’d be surprised if I did.”
“Roger Deakins. In fact, there’s a character in the movie named after him. A prison guard.”
Jimmy smiled. “You know one thing I won’t miss about living here?”
“These conversations with you.”
Ronald frowned and turned to his plate.
Spring went fast — much faster than Jimmy wanted. Before long it was the first week of June and school was ending.
Normally, he’d be happy.
Instead, on the last day he found himself clearing out his locker, throwing most of the stuff into the trash. He’d already turned in his textbooks. His locker, which always seemed cramped, suddenly looked huge and wide open, like a gaping cavern.
He checked to make sure no one was looking, then used a paperclip to etch the final tally mark on the inside of the door. He carved the mark slowly, deliberately, with a note finality.
He took a step back and looked at the rows and rows of marks, each one symbolizing a day. They represented his entire life at this school.
Without thinking, he picked up the paperclip and engraved his initials below the marks: JB. He considered the signature for a moment, then added: “was here.”
Ronald would be proud.
There was a two-hour assembly, during which seniors said their goodbyes and retiring student-class officers made speeches. The principal then wished them all a safe and happy summer, and with that, at noon on a Thursday, school officially was over.
A mass exodus of students flooded out the front doors and into the parking lot, savoring the bright summer sunshine.
Ronald and Jimmy walked together.
“Meet you at the mall?” Ronald asked.
“You got it,” Jimmy said.
Ronald took off for his car, which was parked on the other side of the lot. Jimmy fumbled for his keys as he approached his Ford Escape. Behind him, cars started to speed out the school’s exit, with whoops and hollers and blasting music saturating the air.
He was climbing into his car when he thought he heard his name. “Jimmy? Jimmy?”
He turned and saw Stacy approaching. She was dressed in tight blue jeans and a white T-shirt.
“Hi,” she said, walking up to his car. She smiled.
He swallowed, trying to find his voice. “Hi.”
“Listen,” she said, “I know it’s been a long time, but I just wanted to see what your plans were for the summer.”
He looked at her, his mind blank. “My plans?”
“Yeah. You going to be around?”
Sure, he thought: for a month. They were moving in July. His parents had already flown to Reno to look for a house. They’d also hired a real-estate agent to put their current house on the market.
He wasn’t sure what to say. “I guess.”
She smiled. “Well, maybe we could hang out sometime — just the two of us. You know the Dairy Queen — the one by Ray’s Food Place?”
Jimmy nodded. “Yeah.”
“Well, that’s where I’ll be working this summer. If you get a chance, drop in and say hi.”
This was all too fast to compute. “OK.”
Stacy’s tight, white T-shirt emphasized her breasts. Jimmy tried not to stare, but he couldn’t help it. Stacy noticed him noticing and smiled.
“Well, have a great summer, Jimmy,” she said. “And hopefully, I’ll be seeing you.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said. “For sure.”
She gave him one last grin, then turned and walked away.
Jimmy closed his door and turned to place his backpack in the back seat. He felt numb and dizzy. He grabbed the wheel and sat for a while, not bothering to start the engine.
“Damn,” he said, his voice soft.
June was a frantic month for Jimmy’s family. Mr. Borman spent most of his time in Reno, helping to open the new office. Mrs. Borman flew out on weekends to go house hunting with her husband. They’d toured a few nice homes, but hadn’t picked one yet.
Their current house had been on the market for weeks, but no one had made an offer. Mrs. Borman was starting to worry.
“I don’t understand why it’s not selling,” she said one night, as the family sat down for dinner. Mr. Borman had flown home for a couple of days. “It was painted last year, and everything’s in good shape.”
“Maybe we need to sweeten the deal,” Mr. Borman said. “Tell them if they want a kid, we’ll throw in Jill for free.”
His wife smiled. “Honey, be serious. Who would want her?”
“Ha, ha,” Jill said, staring at her plate. “You guys are hysterical.”
“We weren’t joking,” Mr. Borman said, and from his tone, Jimmy thought he was telling the truth.
Jill was more ornery than ever. She spent most of her time with friends. When she was home, she holed herself in her room and blasted music. She avoided speaking to the family if she could help it, which actually made life smoother for everyone.
Jimmy pretty much kept to himself. His parents were too distracted to pay attention to him, and under no circumstances would he hang out with Jill. Ronald was generally unavailable because he’d gotten a full-time job on a yard-maintenance crew.
“How are you liking the job?” Jimmy had asked once.
“How do you think?” Ronald said. “It sucks. I’m working my ass off all day. I feel like I’m on the con crew in The Shawshank Redemption. High school doesn’t seem so bad anymore.”
“Why do you see everything in terms of The Shawshank Redemption?” Jimmy asked.
“I don’t know,” Ronald said. “I guess it’s because my life seems like a prison.”
Jimmy had considered getting a summer job, but he realized that because they’d moving soon, there’d really be no point.
“Get out and enjoy yourself,” his mother said. “You deserve a break. Besides, you’ve got your license, don’t you? Go out and explore the town.”
So Jimmy did. It beat hanging around the house. He drove around neighborhoods and shopping centers, finding places he’d never been before. He hadn’t realized how big of a city he lived in.
He also visited the Dairy Queen, the one next to Ray’s Food Place. He hadn’t actually gone inside, though; he’d simply pulled into the parking lot and watched the building. He’d come close to going in, even getting as far as unfastening his seat belt, but then he’d chickened out and sped away. He hoped Stacy hadn’t seen him out the window.
Ronald had weekends off, so one Saturday Jimmy picked him up for a trip to the mall. On the way they passed Goldman Pond Park, which was a sprawling wonderland filled with acres of grass and tall pine trees.
“I wonder what’s going on there?” Jimmy asked, noticing a line of big rigs parked on the grass.
“It looks like they’re setting up for a carnival,” Ronald said. “There’s a ton of equipment lying around.”
“Huh,” Jimmy said. “Maybe we should go.”
“Sure, that’s where I want to hang out: a park with acres of lawn. If I see another blade of grass, I’m going to go postal.”
They walked around the mall, stopping to check out some video games and the bookstore. They saw people they knew from school, but no one said hi. Jimmy and Ronald didn’t care. Being ignored was preferable to being picked on, especially outside of school. Nothing sucked more than someone taunting them in a public place, such as the mall or a convenience store. It seemed somehow unfair, like a violation of a principle.
“Anyplace outside of school should be out of bounds,” Ronald had said once.
They got a couple of sodas from the food court and walked to the video store. On the way Jimmy decided to tell Ronald about what had happened on the last day of school, when Stacy had approached his car. He’d been holding off on saying anything, because doing so would give away the fact that he hadn’t acted on the invitation for two weeks.
Ronald choked on his soda and stopped in his tracks.
“You all right?” Jimmy asked, hitting him on the back.
Ronald stared at him. “Are you serious? She actually said for you to drop by?”
Jimmy shrugged. “Yeah.”
“Then what the hell are you doing here, with me?”
Another shrug. “I don’t know.”
Ronald pointed to the exit. “Get your ass to the car, now.”
“C’mon, dude. There’s no point. I’m supposed to move in a few weeks.”
Ronald kept pointing. “Move.”
They pulled out of the mall parking lot. Jimmy’s pulse grew faster and faster.
“I can’t do this,” he said. “I’m starting to get nervous.”
“Don’t be nervous. I’m your moral support. I’ll be waiting for you in the car.”
“How can you be my moral support if you’re waiting in the car?
“Well, I can’t come in with you, can I? My presence would drain the romance from the entire situation.”
“I think my presence will drain the romance from the entire situation, especially if I piss my pants.”
“Then be a man and don’t piss your pants.”
“I can’t be something I’m not.” Jimmy continued driving, his sweating palms greasing the wheel.
“You’re going 40 in a 55 zone,” Ronald said.
“Oh,” Jimmy said, taking his foot off the gas. “I didn’t realize I was going that fast.”
“Cut it out, dude. You’re starting to piss me off.”
Jimmy shook his head. “I don’t understand any of this. Why would she reject me months ago and suddenly want to see me now?”
“Well, duh,” Ronald said. “It’s summer and school’s out. She doesn’t have to worry about her friends.”
“Do you think she genuinely likes me?” Jimmy asked.
“Uh, yeah — I think it’s obvious. Your instincts about her were right. You both have compatible personalities. The problem is that you occupy different ends of the social spectrum.”
“Plus, I’m going to be moving.”
Ronald sighed. “Yeah. You’re going to be moving.”
The shopping center appeared in the distance. Jimmy swallowed.
“Take a left,” Ronald said.
“I know — I see it. I’ll turn.”
“If you drive past it, I’ll kick your ass.”
Jimmy signaled and slid into the turn lane. He waited for traffic to pass before turning into the shopping center.
“The Dairy Queen’s over there,” Ronald said, pointing.
“Thanks. It’s not like I can see the huge sign, or anything.”
They cruised sluggishly through the crowded parking lot, avoiding cars and loose shopping carts. Ever so slowly, Jimmy pulled into a space in front of the Dairy Queen.
“Well,” he said, shutting off the ignition, “here we are.”
“Go get her,” Ronald said.
Jimmy turned. “Do I look all right?”
“Not really. You look like you.”
“C’mon. I know there’s a zit trying to form on my left cheek. How does it look?”
“Your zit looks great.”
“Dude!” Jimmy said, pointing to his face. “Can you see it?”
“When you point it out, yeah.”
“Could you see it before?”
“I wasn’t scrutinizing your face before.”
Jimmy shook his head. “You’re no help. Why did I bring you?”
“Because I forced you to. Now go on. You’re worse than a woman.”
“You don’t know any women.”
“I know my mom. My mom’s a woman. And I know your sister.” Ronald put a finger on his chin. “Though she’s not really a woman; she’s more of a demonic beast.”
Jimmy opened the car and stepped outside.
“Wish me luck,” he said.
“No way,” Ronald said. “I’m unlucky.”
Jimmy closed the door, sweating.
It was a sweltering summer afternoon. Not a single cloud covered the sky. The Dairy Queen seemed busy. Rows of cars lined the front parking lot. Jimmy took a quick peak through a window and saw a line of people waiting.
He moved slowly to the front doors. He had his hand on the handle before he quickly turned and raced back to the car.
He tried to open his door, but it was locked.
“Hey,” Jimmy said, pulling on the handle.
Ronald grinned at him from the inside.
“C’mon!” Jimmy said.
Can’t hear you, Ronald mouthed, grinning.
“Dammit,” Jimmy said.
Ronald pointed to the Dairy Queen and glowered.
“All right, all right.” Jimmy trudged to the front doors. Taking a deep breath, he let himself inside.
The air conditioning felt great, like walking into a deep freeze. Jimmy quickly glanced behind the counter to see who was working. He didn’t see Stacy, at first.
Maybe she doesn’t work on Saturdays, he thought, his pulse slowing slightly.
But then she appeared, and his heart jumped. Her hair was pulled back (she usually wore it down, Jimmy knew), and she was wearing an outfit with the red DQ logo.
He shuffled into line, with his head bowed. When he looked up, Stacy was looking at him and smiling.
Hi, she mouthed.
He smiled, and his pulse eased a bit.
Hi, he mouthed back.
She turned to the next customer, taking his order. Jimmy edged forward until it was his turn.
“Good afternoon,” Stacy said, smiling at him. “Welcome to Dairy Queen.”
“Hi,” Jimmy said, swallowing.
“It’s good to see you,” Stacy said.
“It’s good to see you, too.”
“I can take a break in five minutes,” she said. “Would you be able to wait for me?”
“Of course,” he said.
“Awesome. In the meantime, would you like anything to order?”
Someone coughed behind him. Jimmy glanced to see an older man glowering at him.
“Yeah,” Jimmy said. “I’ll take an Oreo Blizzard.”
He collected his treat and found a table in a corner of the restaurant, facing a window.
I always migrate to the corner, he thought.
Soon enough, Stacy slid into the seat opposite him.
“Hi, Jimmy,” she said, smiling.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Same old, same old. Just working.”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“How’s your summer going?” she asked.
“Not bad,” he said. “I haven’t been up to much. I’m not even working.”
“Yeah. Maybe next year I’ll get a job. I don’t know.”
“I have to work. I need the money. My parents make me buy my own clothes.”
“My mom buys all my clothes.” His forehead wrinkled. “I guess that’s why people say I dress like a mama’s boy. It never occurred to me until now.”
Stacy smiled. “You don’t dress like a mama’s boy.”
“Really?” he asked. “Good — I’m glad you think so.”
She grinned. “You know, you and I should trade seats.”
“I read men feel more comfortable when they can see the exit. It’s some sort of evolutionary thing. They unconsciously like to know who’s coming in and who’s going out. I guess it’s so they can plan an exit strategy in case something happens.”
“I don’t think I need an exit strategy. This is going well so far. I haven’t fainted yet.”
“Let’s trade,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to test it. Besides, I want to have my back to the counter — my boss is staring at me.”
Jimmy grinned. “Ah. OK.”
They got up and traded seats. Jimmy looked up to see a middle-aged woman behind the counter. She was staring at them with her arms crossed.
“I thought you said you were on break,” Jimmy said.
“I am. I think she’s worried you and I are going to make out and create a spectacle.”
“If she knew what a lousy kisser I am, she wouldn’t worry.”
Stacy laughed. “So, do you feel more comfortable now that you can see the front doors?”
“Not really, because I can also see your boss.”
“She doesn’t know what to expect. I’ve never had friends in here before.”
Jimmy’s eyes widened. I’m a friend, he wondered.
Stacy shifted in her seat. “I was hoping you’d come in. It’s been awhile since school ended.”
“I know — I’m sorry about that,” he said. “I’ve been really busy.”
“You said you don’t work.”
“I —” he stopped, feeling caught.
She grinned. “I’m messing with you. Man, you’re easy.”
He smiled, feeling more relaxed. The anxiety was starting to drain from him. Stacy had a surprisingly soothing effect.
“You know, I think I owe you an apology,” she said.
“For earlier in the year.” She didn’t elaborate.
“You don’t need to apologize,” he said. “I totally understand.”
She shook her head. “I’ve always thought you seemed like a really nice guy. I just didn’t —”
He held up his hand. “I know. You don’t have to say anything. It’s high school, right?”
She smiled. “Yeah. It’s high school.”
“For the record, I’ve always thought you seemed really nice, too. It was sort of a breath of fresh air when you moved here.”
“C’mon,” Stacy said.
“Seriously. I knew the moment I first saw you that you were someone I had to know.”
“And then I turned you down.”
“Your friends were watching. I would have done the same thing.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. I don’t get that impression.”
“Well, who knows? I probably would, if the tables were turned. I don’t know because I’ve never been in that position. Plus, I’m not a girl … though some of the seniors might argue with that.”
Jimmy took a deep breath. “Listen, I guess I shouldn’t keep you. I know you probably got to get back. But what I wanted to say was, well, can we get together sometime? For coffee, maybe?”
“I don’t really drink coffee,” Stacy said, smiling.
Jimmy frowned. “Yeah, I don’t, either. I don’t know why I said that.”
Stacy leaned forward. “I get off at six. What are you doing tonight?”
“Tonight?” Jimmy looked at the ceiling. “Well, I think there’s a MonsterQuest marathon tonight on the History Channel. I’ve been waiting for weeks.”
“No,” he said. “It’s my turn to mess with you — of course I’m free tonight. And besides, I can DVR the marathon and watch it later.”
She laughed. “Can you meet me here at seven?”
“Meet you here?”
“Sure. I could give you directions to my house, but this is a lot easier.”
He shrugged. “Sure. I mean, yeah. Cool.”
“All right,” she said. “Well, I better go. My break’s almost over.”
“Yeah, and your boss looks pissed.”
“She’s still staring?”
“Yeah. She’s staring at me.”
“You’re a paying customer.”
“I know, right? I guess she thinks I’m trying to subvert one of her employees.”
“I don’t know,” he said, grinning. “Maybe I am.”
Stacy smiled and stood up. “See you at seven?”
“On the dot.”
“All right.” She grinned and waved. “See you then.”
He smiled back. “See you then.”
Jimmy left the restaurant and walked to his car. Ronald was asleep with both windows down. Jimmy reached inside and unlocked the door.
“Huh?” Ronald bolted awake. “Oh. Hey.”
“Hey.” Jimmy slid behind the wheel. “Damn. It’s hot in here.”
“You’re telling me. You could have left the keys so I could run the air conditioner.”
“I did leave the keys. That’s why I couldn’t get in when you locked the door.”
Jimmy picked up his keys from the cupholder by the gearshift.
Ronald rubbed his eyes. “I’m an idiot.”
“You’re almost a junior in high school and you’re just now figuring that out?”
Ronald smiled. “So how did it go?”
Jimmy started the car and backed out of the space. “Not bad.”
Ronald’s face fell. “Not bad? That’s it? C’mon, man. Tell me what happened.”
“Nothing much happened.”
“I’m going to deck you.”
“I’m serious. We talked for a while, and she wants me to pick her up tonight at seven.”
“No, I’m serious. We actually talked for a while.”
“Not about that. You’re going on a date? Tonight?”
“It would seem so.”
Ronald frowned. “But isn’t there a MonsterQuest marathon on tonight?”
“I’ll have to DVR it.”
Ronald smiled, shaking his head. “Yeah, I guess so. Well, good for you, man. You finally did it: You asked out a woman. Congratulations.”
“I haven’t done anything yet. I still have to go on the date. There’s ample time for me to screw everything up.”
“You won’t screw everything up. At least not on purpose.”
“That’s what I’m scared of. I’m an expert at screwing myself over.”
Ronald shook his head. “I wish I had some advice I could give you, seeing as how you’re my best friend.”
“It’s probably better that you don’t. I want to make a good impression.”
“Cmon, dude,” Jimmy said, grinning. “I can’t help it. I’m in a good mood.”
“Well, then, you want some advice? Try to be as cool, laid back and suave as possible. In other words, don’t be yourself.”
Jimmy frowned. “What are you talking about? She likes me for who I am.”
“Something’s wrong with her, then. You’ve got a face only a mother can love.”
“You’re a real gem, you know that?”
“C’mon,” Ronald said. “Who forced you to go to Dairy Queen today? Who?”
“All right,” Jimmy said. “I concede.”
“Damn right you concede. If it weren’t for me, you’d still be a hapless, pathetic loser.”
“I’m still a hapless, pathetic loser. Nothing’s changed there. I’m just a hapless, pathetic loser who’s going out with Stacy Beckham tonight.”
Ronald smiled. “I’ll let you know what happens on MonsterQuest.”
Jimmy’s mother had flown to Reno that morning to join her husband for another round of house hunting. Their own house still hadn’t sold, but July was growing nearer and they needed to find a place soon.
Jimmy shuffled around in his closet. He was looking for a nice shirt to go with his new blue jeans. He had some button-up shirts, but they seemed too stiff, too geeky. On the other hand, a T-shirt seemed too casual.
He hated to say it, but he wished his mother was there to give him some advice.
“Nice abs,” Jill said. “Of course, they’re covered by a layer of fat.”
Jimmy jumped, startled. “How long have you been there?”
“Relax. I wasn’t watching you get dressed.”
“Leave me alone, all right?” He dug through his closet, his eyes landing on a dark-brown tie-dyed shirt. Hey, that looked cool. Not too formal and not too casual. He slipped it on.
“What are you dressing up for?” Jill asked, leaning against the doorframe.
“I’m not dressing up. Leave me alone.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Taking Ronald on a date?”
“I said leave me alone.” Jimmy tucked his wallet and keys inside his pants pocket.
“I don’t care, anyway. It’s not like you’re going out with a woman.”
Jimmy smiled. “Yeah. I guess not.”
Jill took a deep breath. “I want to have some friends over tonight. OK?”
“What are you asking me for?”
“Mom said you’re in charge while she’s away.”
“Yeah, right,” Jimmy said. “And you’re actually going to respect that?”
“I’m asking you, aren’t I?”
“No, you didn’t ask me anything. You told me you were having friends over, as if it were a fact.”
“Don’t be an asshole,” Jill said. “I did too ask you. What do you want me to do, grovel?”
“Why even ask me? You’re going to do whatever you want, anyway.”
“Screw you,” Jill said. She turned to leave.
“Yeah?” She turned back.
“I don’t want you bringing your friends here.”
She stuck out her lip. “Why?”
“Why? Because if any of them smoke in the house or break something, it’s my ass.”
“Relax. Nothing’s going to happen.”
“You asked for my permission, remember? And I said no.”
Jill raked her teeth over her lower lip. “You’re being a prick. You think you’re cool because Mom put you in charge.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I’m so cool. Wow. Maybe I should campaign for prom king.”
“Yeah, screw me.”
Jill crossed her arms. “If my friends can’t come here, then I want to go out.”
“Go wherever you want. I don’t care.”
She frowned. “You serious?”
“Sure, why not? Like I said, you’re going to do whatever you want anyway. I don’t care what you do, as long as you don’t do it here.”
“What if something happened and I died?”
“I should be so lucky.” Jimmy walked down the hall to the bathroom. Jill followed.
“Something could happen,” she said.
“Unlikely. You’ll be with friends, remember? There’s safety in numbers.”
“Whatever,” Jill said. “You obviously don’t care.”
“I know — that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Do what you want. Have fun. Paint the town red.”
“Fine. I’m out of here. See you.”
“See you. Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.”
“Screw you, Jimmy,” Jill said. “Tell your boyfriend Ron I said hi.”
“I’ll tell him.” Jimmy found a bottle of his dad’s cologne and sprayed some on his neck.
Jill turned and left. A moment later, the front door of the house opened and slammed. The walls shook.
Jimmy looked into the mirror and studied his reflection. He watched himself as he let out a long, winded breath.
The sun was dipping behind the distant mountains, coloring the sky with brilliant pinks, purples and oranges. Jimmy drove in the murky twilight — that strange, grayish time between day and night.
He stopped at a floral shop and bought a bouquet of roses. He hoped it wasn’t too corny a gesture. He knew a little about a lot of different subjects, but dating wasn’t among them.
The twilight was turning to darkness as Jimmy pulled in front of the Dairy Queen. Far fewer cars lined the lot now, though the restaurant glowed inside.
He killed the ignition but left the headlights on. He looked for Stacy, but he didn’t see her anywhere. He had no idea which car might be hers. Maybe she was inside.
And then, from nowhere, she appeared in front of his car, bathed in the dim glow of his headlights.
“Whoa,” Jimmy said, softly.
Stacy smiled. She was wearing tight, faded blue jeans with a big brown belt. She also had on a pink short-sleeved shirt and hoop earrings.
Hi, she mouthed, waving.
Jimmy shook some sense into himself and stepped out of the car.
“Hi, Jimmy,” Stacy said.
“Hi,” he said, smiling. “Wow. You look gorgeous.”
She grinned. “Thank you.”
“Here,” he said, rushing over to the other side of the car and opening the door. “Allow me. I cleaned out my car this afternoon, so I hope it’s not too dirty.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Stacy said, stepping into the car. “Wow. Such a gentleman.”
Jimmy blushed. Once she was safely inside, he closed the door and rushed over to his own side.
As he slid behind the wheel, he noticed Stacy was holding the bouquet of roses. He’d tossed them on the dashboard and totally forgotten about them.
“Are these for me?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’m sorry. Yes — they’re for you.”
She held the flowers to her nose and inhaled deeply. “Mmm. They smell awesome. I love roses.”
“I hope it’s not too cheesy,” Jimmy said. “People do it in the movies, so I figured, you know, what the hell?”
“It’s not cheesy it all. It’s very thoughtful. Thank you so much.”
“You’re welcome.” Jimmy started the car, grinning. The engine came to life with small, sickening sputters.
“Do you know what I was thinking?” Stacy asked. “I saw they were setting up a carnival at Goldman Pond Park. Do you want to check it out?”
“Hey, yeah,” Jimmy said. “That sounds awesome.”
And it did. He felt relieved, because he had been planning to take her to dinner. The problem was, he couldn’t afford anything more expensive than Jack in the Box.
They pulled onto the highway and headed for the park. Darkness finally had descended upon the town. Headlights lined the highway. Storefronts and streetlights lit the urban landscape.
“Thanks for stopping by the restaurant,” Stacy said. “It was good seeing you.”
“It was good seeing you, too,” Jimmy said. “Time’s been flying. I can’t believe school’s been over for two weeks.”
“Summers go fast.”
“Yeah, they do.”
Stacy turned and studied him. “Actually, I was kind of worried you might not come. After everything that happened earlier, I wouldn’t have blamed you if you hadn’t.”
“Huh?” Jimmy frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know. You asked me out, and I turned you down.”
“Oh.” He shook his head.
“I wanted to go out with you. I really did.”
“I … you know, it’s OK. It’s all in the past, right? We’re here now, and that’s what’s important.”
“Yeah.” Stacy grinned. “Yeah.”
Goldman Pond Park was ablaze in neon. Gorgeous, gleaming rides sparkled with electric luster. An imposing Ferris Wheel dominated the scene, engulfed with sparkling lightbulbs. A miniature roller coaster with zigzagged tracks encircled one section of the carnival. Booths stood in rows, many featuring games, others offering food. The smell of grease — both the cooking and the mechanical variety — saturated the air.
It took Jimmy awhile to find a place to park. They finally found a spot in the dirt along the highway, nestled between a pickup and a Pinto.
Jimmy opened the door for Stacy. She accepted his hand as he helped her out of the car.
“Mmm,” Stacy said, sniffing the air. “French fries. I live with that smell every day. I always have to wash it out of my hair after work.”
The night was cool and calm. Although the sky was clear, the carnival lights masked the stars.
Whoops and shouts erupted. Somewhere in the distance, they heard the clang of a Ring the Bell game. Electronic buzzes and bleeps resounded, along with the metallic whooshing of the miniature roller coaster.
Jimmy and Stacy walked side by side, their shoes sinking into the tall grass.
“Hey,” Jimmy said. “I was just thinking, there’s a lot of people here. What if someone from school sees us?”
“So what if they do?” Stacy asked.
“Well … I don’t know.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Stacy said. “I’m not going to.”
Jimmy nodded. “OK.”
“I mean, it’s summer, right? I should be able to hang out with whoever I want.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said.
They wandered through the rows of booths. Peanut shells and wrappers littered the lawn, as well as empty paper cups.
“Want a Coke?” Jimmy asked, eyeing one of the cups.
Stacy nodded. “Sure.”
They found a concession stand and ordered two sodas. Jimmy bought a corndog and fries for Stacy and a couple of chicken shish-kabobs for himself. They claimed a wooden bench beside a metal trashcan. Jimmy cleared away the plastic plates left behind by the previous occupants.
“Want a fry?” Stacy asked.
“Oh, god no,” Jimmy said. “I can’t eat anything greasy. If I so much as glance at a french fry, my face will break out.”
“Your face looks clear to me.”
“It’s not bad right now. I think I’ve got a zit coming in on my left cheek, but —” He smiled and shook his head. “Actually, never mind. We’re eating.”
“Go ahead. I love talking about pimples. They’re such great conversation.” Stacy dipped her corndog in mustard and took a huge bite. She grinned at him as she chewed.
Jimmy smiled. “Yeah, right.”
“Seriously. You know, I used to get them all the time, especially in junior high.”
“Oh, yeah. It was miserable.”
“What did you do? I mean, you look great now.”
She smiled. “Thank you. Well, I use a facial cleanser every night. And I stay away from certain foods, such as dairy. I haven’t drank milk for ages.”
“Huh,” Jimmy said. “Maybe I should try that.”
“I also can’t take vitamins.”
“Nope. I don’t know what it is about them, but they mess up my skin. So I try to make up for it by eating healthy foods.”
She smiled, holding up her corndog. “I sometimes fall off the wagon, though.”
Jimmy laughed. “This is a messed-up conversation, talking about zits. Do most of your dates start out like this?”
“I haven’t dated that much,” Stacy said.
She looked at him. “I’m not kidding. I seriously don’t date.”
“Yeah, but you’re very beautiful, and very sweet. I’m sure every guy in school would want to go out with you.”
Stacy blushed. “Yeah, right.”
Jimmy smiled. “I don’t mean to embarrass you, but it’s true. I bet guys ask you out all the time.”
“Not as much as you think. I haven’t dated anyone since moving here.”
Jimmy knew that was true. Every sophomore male knew that Stacy was available. Probably all the males in school, actually.
“I dated a little back home, but I never had a boyfriend,” Stacy said. “Not really.”
Jimmy smiled. “Back home?”
She laughed. “Well, back where I’m from. I guess I still think of it as home.”
“And where’s that?”
“St. Louis? Wow. You are a long way from home.”
“Tell me about it.”
Jimmy’s stomach muscles suddenly tightened. He took a deep breath. “How are you liking it here so far?”
Stacy finished her corndog and dabbed her mouth with a paper napkin. “I don’t know. It’s OK. It’s different, I guess.”
“‘Different’ good, or ‘different’ bad?”
“Well … I guess both. It rains here a lot more, which I like. And the school’s smaller, so you don’t feel as alienated.”
I’ll respectfully disagree, Jimmy thought.
“So, I don’t know,” Stacy said, shrugging. “I miss St. Louis, but I like it here. People have been really nice, and I think I’m finally settled in.”
Jimmy’s throat constricted. “What’s it like moving to a new place? I’ve lived here all my life, so I’ve never known. Is it scary?”
“Oh, yeah,” Stacy said. “Yeah, of course. It sucks. You’re leaving all your friends and everything you know. It’s … it’s hard to describe. It’s weird. When I first got here, I sort of felt like a different person, you know? Like I’d lost a part of myself. I felt … there’s a word I’m looking for, but I can’t think of it.”
“Ungrounded?” Jimmy suggested.
Stacy nodded. “Yeah, you could say that. Ungrounded. I didn’t feel like my normal self for a while. It took some time before that feeling went away.”
“What was the feeling like?”
“Well … it’s a little hard to describe, exactly. I guess maybe it’s like the first day of school, except times 100. You know what I mean? You’re excited, but you’re also a little anxious? On the first day of school, you know you’re going to have new teachers and new classes, but you also know you’re going to see your old friends. When you move, you don’t have your friends to fall back on. Everything you confront is brand-new, and the only person who’s familiar is yourself.
“What makes it worse,” she continued, “is that when you’re new, you stick out, so everyone looks at you. It’s weird how you can feel so lonely while an entire classroom is staring at you.”
She shook her head and munched on a french fry. “Luckily, I made friends pretty fast. The people here are nice. I tried to be as friendly as possible, to talk to everyone I could. I think people warm up to you if you treat them nice and act like yourself.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said. He shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable. His stomach had that nervous, brimming-with-butterflies feeling. He glanced down and noticed he was wringing his hands under the table.
Stacy looked up at him, her head tilted.
“I never talked to you, though,” she said. “I wish I had.”
“Well, in your defense, you probably didn’t notice me,” Jimmy said. “I’m not very conspicuous.”
“You’re not — you’re hardly around. I mean, I hardly see you. Are you inconspicuous on purpose?”
He shrugged. “Kind of. I generally try to avoid people.”
“I don’t know. I’m not much of a social animal, I guess. It’s hard for me to talk to people.”
“Really?” Stacy asked, smiling. “You seem to be doing a pretty good job.”
“Well, thank you,” he said. “But you know, you’re really easy to talk to.”
“Oh, c’mon now.”
“No, I’m serious. I’m usually awkward around people, but this seems kind of … natural.”
“Yeah … doesn’t it? I mean, we’re getting off to a good start; finding common ground. With most girls, I can’t even get past ‘hello.’”
Stacy laughed. “Yeah,” she said, nodding. “Yeah, I guess it does feel sort of natural, doesn’t it?”
Their eyes locked for a moment, and Stacy smiled. Jimmy gazed at her, but then he suddenly felt uncomfortable. He glanced down at his empty plate.
They sat in silence for a while. Jimmy sipped his soda while Stacy finished her fries.
“So,” she said, chewing, “tell me more about your zits.”
Jimmy raised his eyebrows. “You serious?”
A grin. “What do you think?”
“I think you’re making fun of me.”
“All right, I am — but just a little.”
Jimmy smiled. “Can I buy you another Coke? I’ll promise not to talk about my zits.”
Stacy grinned. “Sure.”
They strolled amongst the booths, sipping on sodas and admiring the sights. Streams of people flowed past in both directions; it was hard not to get swept away in the current. When space was especially tight, Stacy would squeeze close to Jimmy, her face close to his. Her hair, he couldn’t help but notice, smelled like strawberries.
They approached the entrance to the miniature roller coaster. A fat man stood at a booth collecting tickets.
Jimmy nudged Stacy. “What do you think?”
She smiled and shook her head. “You have a nice shirt. I don’t want it to get ruined.”
“I just had two corndogs, remember? My stomach wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
“Ah, right.” He smiled. “OK. We’ll save the rollercoaster for later.”
They continued walking and approached a Ring the Bell game, which consisted of a horizontal platform and a 10-foot-tall wooden board with a bell on top. The object was to strike the platform with a mallet, which would propel a metal bearing embedded in the board. If the player struck hard enough, the bearing would shoot skyward and clang the bell.
The game’s proprietor, a burly-looking guy with a braided ponytail and a silver earring, turned and pointed at Jimmy. “You! Step right up, young man. Win the young lady a prize.”
“Me?” Jimmy said. He looked at Stacy and tried to smile. “I — nah.”
“C’mon!” the man said, his voice booming. He moved forward, holding the mallet in offering. “Ring the bell and win a stuffed bear for the lady. Isn’t she worth it?”
Stacy squeezed his arm, smiling. “How about it, Jimmy? Am I worth it?”
“Well, yeah,” Jimmy said. “But I’ve the muscles of a 7-year-old girl. And I got a D in P.E.”
“Don’t you want to impress your girlfriend?” the man asked, grinning.
“Of course,” Jimmy said. “That’s why I’m saying no.”
Stacy laughed. “C’mon! I want one of those bears.”
“I think we’d stand a better chance if you rang the bell and I took the bear.”
“All right.” Jimmy sighed and accepted the mallet. “This is going to be embarrassing.”
“That’ll be one dollar, son,” the man said.
“Can I just buy a bear without ringing the bell?” Jimmy asked.
“What?” The man raised his eyebrows. Stacy laughed.
“Never mind.” Jimmy struggled to pick up the mallet. It was surprisingly heavy.
“Give it all you got,” the man said, and grinned.
“I don’t have much.” Jimmy mustered all his strength and raised the hammer over his head. A small crowd looked on. He was sure he was blushing.
“Go, Jimmy, go!” Stacy called, laughing.
He brought the mallet down as hard as he could. The metal bearing slid two feet up and came back down. It didn’t even near the halfway point.
“Was I close?” Jimmy asked, turning.
The man shook his head. “Here. Let me show you something.” He leaned close to Jimmy’s ear. His breath smelled like cigarettes and onions. “Because your girlfriend’s a sweetie, I’ll let you in on a little secret. There’s a trick to it. As you’re bringing your arms down, you need to flick your wrists just before the hammer hits, giving it an extra surge of strength. Works every time. Here, watch.”
The man, using only one arm, raised the hammer above his head and walloped the platform. Jimmy noticed that the man flicked his wrist right before the hammer made contact.
The bearing shot up and clanged the bell.
“See?” the man said, grinning. He handed the hammer back to Jimmy. “Here, try again. No charge this time.”
“All right,” Jimmy said. Once again, he raised the hammer and brought it down. He tried to flick his wrist as the man had instructed. Something in his arm popped.
The bearing slid three feet up and dropped back down.
“Huh,” the man said, as Jimmy returned the mallet. “You must not have done it right.”
“Any chance of me still getting a bear?” Jimmy asked.
The man grinned. “Sorry, kid. Better luck next time.”
“Yeah.” Jimmy returned to Stacy, shaking his head.
“Sorry,” he said. “No bear.”
“Oh, well,” she said, smiling. “You tried.”
“Were you astounded by my strength?”
She laughed. “I guess it’s not everyone’s game.”
“I tried to tell you: I’m a major weakling.”
“Give me a break.” She held his hand, and they started to walk. Her hand felt soft and warm. An excited, tingly sensation ran from Jimmy’s fingertips through his body.
He looked at her and smiled. “I can tell you’re heartbroken that you didn’t get a bear.”
“Yeah. My entire evening’s ruined. Thanks a lot.” Stacy looked at him and grinned.
“You know,” Jimmy said, “I wasn’t lying when I told you I got a D in P.E. I got A’s in all my other classes, but I came on the verge of flunking P.E. Isn’t that ridiculous?”
“C’mon,” Stacy said, narrowing her eyes. “How does someone almost flunk P.E.? It’s a cake class. All you have to do is dress out and go through the motions.”
“That’s just it. I refused to dress out or go through the motions.”
“Yeah. I think it’s B.S. that all freshmen and sophomores have to take P.E. I’m not physically inclined. I’m just not. And I resent having to wear a stupid outfit and play sports that I have no interest in. Besides, P.E.’s just another opportunity for the jocks to make my life hell.”
Jimmy swallowed, realizing he’d said too much. He always got carried away whenever he started bashing P.E.
Stacy stopped walking and looked at him. “What do the jocks to do you?”
“Huh? Ah, nothing.” He shook his head.
“You said the jocks make your life hell. What do they do?”
“It’s not all the jocks,” he said. “Most of them just ignore me, which is fine. I don’t care.”
He gave her hand a gentle tug. “C’mon. Let’s keep walking.”
She hesitated, but then followed his lead. They strolled side by side on the outskirts of the carnival, behind all the tents and booths. Bundled electrical cords snaked across the grass. Jimmy and Stacy had to be careful to step over them.
“I like P.E. myself,” Stacy said. “It’s a chance to exercise and to get away from all your real classes for a while. It’s a nice break.”
Jimmy took a deep breath. “Yeah.”
Stacy squeezed his hand. “So what did you do to get a D? Did you ditch?”
“No,” Jimmy said. “I always went to class. I just usually sat on the bleachers and read, or something.”
“And the teacher let you do that? Who did you have?”
“Miss Bridges. She sent me to the office the first week for insubordination because I refused to participate. I had to talk to the vice principal.”
“Oh, yeah. The only time in my life, too. The vice principal looked at my record and was like, ‘What are you even doing here?’ She’d never heard of me before.”
“What happened then?”
“I told her I thought P.E. was stupid and a waste of time and that I wasn’t going to participate. I told her I didn’t care if I flunked or not; I wasn’t going to do it. I’d already gone through enough crap in my freshman year.”
“What happened in your freshman year?”
Jimmy shook his head. “It’s … it’s not worth going over. It was stupid.”
He took a deep breath. “Nothing, really. The class was playing kickball. I was supposed to be in the outfield, kind of behind first base. Someone from the opposite team stepped up to the plate and kicked the ball, and it came right toward me. I reached up to catch it, but it grazed my fingertips. I fumbled and ended up dropping it.”
Stacy nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“So here I am dicking around — the ball’s rolling along the ground and I’m trying to chase it — and meanwhile the other team’s scoring runs.”
Stacy smiled. “So you missed a play. So what?”
“So a couple of sophomores on my team thought I’d dropped the ball on purpose, to be a douche. They beat me up in the locker room after class.”
Stacy’s mouth dropped open. “No way. They didn’t.”
“Well, they didn’t beat me up, per se. One held me as the other punched me in the face and in the stomach a few times. I had a purple bruise on my cheekbone for about a month.”
“Did you tell the teacher?”
“Yeah, right. They would have killed me if I’d done that. No, nothing happened. I told people I fell, and everyone bought it.”
“Who were these guys?” Stacy asked. “Would I know them?”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago.”
She looked at him, hard. “You didn’t tell anyone?”
“No one knows except for my friend Ronald … and now you.”
Stacy took in a breath. “I’m so sorry that happened.”
“Ah, don’t be,” Jimmy said. He smiled. “C’mon. It doesn’t matter. The best part is that sophomore year is over, and I never have to take P.E. again. Ever.”
They continued walking. Stacy was holding Jimmy’s hand tightly.
“So you actually would have gotten straight A’s if it hadn’t been for P.E.?” she asked.
He grinned. “Yep. Screwed up my whole grade-point average. My parents were pissed.”
“Hell yeah. They said I should have swallowed my pride and participated.”
“And what do you think?”
“I don’t know. I think I’m glad I took a stand. It pisses me off that I got a D, but it was my choice not to participate. I knew the consequences.”
“So you chose principle?”
“Yeah, I chose principle. I mean, it was a harsh reality to face. I’m simply not good at P.E. I’m a weakling.”
Stacy shook her head. “No, you’re not.”
“Yeah, I am. I’m pathetic. I can’t catch a kickball. And I obviously couldn’t ring the bell just now. You witnessed that sorry display for yourself.”
“Just because you couldn’t beat a stupid carnival game doesn’t make you pathetic. Those things are all rigged, anyway.”
Jimmy shrugged. “I don’t know. All I know is that I hated P.E. because it took all my weaknesses and vulnerabilities and put them on full display in front of everyone. I know I’m a scrawny weakling, but I shouldn’t have to be humiliated because of it.”
“Why do you do that?” Stacy asked.
Jimmy turned. “Do what?”
“You always put yourself down. You’ve done it like half a dozen times tonight. You know what my dad would call you?”
Stacy smiled. “He’d say you were self-defecating.”
“Yeah. You shit all over yourself for no good reason.”
Jimmy laughed. “Hey, that’s good. I never heard that before.”
“Well, that’s what he’d call you.” She looked at him. “So why do you do it?”
“Shit all over yourself.”
“I —” Jimmy shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess it’s a habit.”
“Yeah.” He stopped walking.
Stacy peered at him. “What do you mean by that?”
He shrugged. “I just … I don’t know. I guess I figure that if I’m the first one to put myself down, I’ll beat everyone else to the punch.”
They stood together in the darkness, a tangled mess of electrical cords spiraled beneath their feet. Suddenly, a booth operator came around the corner, a cigarette in his mouth.
“Hey,” he said. “You kids shouldn’t be back here. Let’s go — c’mon.”
“All right,” Stacy said. She took Jimmy’s hand.
“Where are we going?” he asked. Instead of guiding him around the booth and back to the carnival, she was leading him into the darkness.
“I want to show you something.”
They left the cluster of booths and tents and walked downhill toward Goldman Pond. The pond, from which the park took its name, was encircled by a concrete walking path and bark-filled planters. It was home to ducks and geese, which was obvious from all the droppings embedded in the nearby lawn. There was even a small dock and a rowboat you could rent for a few bucks an hour. At this time of night, though, the rowboat was gone.
Stacy led Jimmy to a bench close to the pond. It was cooler down here, and they could smell the scent of the water, which was uncirculated and stagnate. The neon and the noise from the carnival seemed distant and remote.
They sat down on the bench. Stacy reached into her hip pocket and removed a flask.
“Hey,” Jimmy said. “What’s that?”
She smiled. “Vodka.”
“My sister and her friends drink vodka. I never have.”
She unscrewed the cap and offered the flask. “Do you want a sip? I don’t drink much, but a couple of swallows helps me to relax.”
“I don’t know,” Jimmy said. “I got to drive.”
She grinned. “You don’t drink?”
“I didn’t say that. I just….”
“You never have before?”
“You can have a sip if you want. Unless you think your parents will find out.”
“My parents are out of town.”
Stacy’s eyes widened. “Really? Then what are you waiting for? Live it up!”
“Well, all right.” He took the flask from her outstretched hand. “How does it taste?”
She grinned. “Like crap.”
“Huh. You make it sound so appetizing.” Jimmy put the flask to his mouth and took a long gulp. The alcohol scalded his throat.
He coughed and handed back the flask. Stacy smiled. “What do you think?”
“Do you drink that stuff a lot?”
“No. I don’t like to get drunk — I get sick. Besides, my mom would kill me if she knew.” Stacy stole a quick look around, then took a couple of mouthfuls herself.
“Oh, man,” Jimmy said, licking his lips. “My eyes are watering.”
“How do you feel?”
He frowned. “Pretty much the same.”
“Give it a moment. You’ll feel it in a second. You just drank a couple shots’ worth.”
“I’m think I’m getting lightheaded.”
“You shouldn’t feel dizzy. You should just feel good.”
Jimmy nodded. “Actually, yeah. I’m starting to feel good.”
“Uh-huh.” He nodded. “Wow. Yeah. Hey, can I have some more?”
She smiled. “Remember, you got to drive.”
“All right.” He took the flask and swallowed another mouthful. Because he was expecting it, the vodka didn’t sting as much this time going down.
“Man,” he said, shaking his head from side to side, his mouth open. Stacy laughed.
“How are you feeling now?” she asked, as she reclaimed the flask.
Jimmy nodded. “Pretty goddamn good. It’s like everything’s exaggerated. My senses are heightened.”
Stacy giggled. “This is your first time. I can tell.”
Jimmy smiled. “Is it obvious?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s pretty obvious.”
“What’ll happen next? I won’t do anything stupid, will I?”
“You shouldn’t. You’ll probably be a lot more talkative, is all. A lot of quiet people talk more when they’re drunk. I know I do.”
“What do you do when you’re drunk?”
“I giggle a lot. I think everything’s funny. I’ll even laugh at knock-knock jokes.”
“Really?” Jimmy said. “All right, then. Knock, knock.”
“Oh, no,” Stacy said, giggling. “Who’s there?”
“I think I know where this is going. Who, who?”
Jimmy grinned. “What are you, an owl?”
Stacy threw her head back and laughed. Jimmy watched as her hair fell down her shoulders and over the back of the bench.
“I never got that reaction before,” he said.
“You see?” Stacy asked, still giggling. “I can’t help it.”
Jimmy motioned to the flask. “Is there any more left?”
“We better hold off for a while,” Stacy said, screwing the cap back on. “You can get sick if you drink too fast.”
“All right,” Jimmy said. “And besides, we should try to maintain the illusion that we’re respectable, well-behaved young members of society.”
Stacy giggled. “Right.”
“You hear that, everyone?” Jimmy hollered, standing on the bench and spreading his arms. “Nothing to see here! Move along! We’re just two respectable, well-behaved young members of society!”
“Shh!” Stacy said, holding a finger to her lips and giggling. “Someone will hear you.”
“Oh, sorry.” Jimmy settled down onto the bench. “I didn’t realize I was going to do that.”
Stacy grinned. “I was right. I knew a drink would help break you from your shell.”
“Break me from my shell?”
“Yeah. Quiet people are usually the ones who have the most to say. You just have to get them talking.”
“You think I’m quiet?” Jimmy asked. He leaned back on the bench, stretching his arms.
“I think you’re shy,” Stacy said. “I mean, I hardly see you at school. You said yourself that you avoid people.”
“Yeah.” Jimmy nodded.
She scooted closer to him on the bench, until their hips were touching.
“Personally, I like guys who are shy,” she said. “The ones at school are all the same. They’re all surface and no substance. I like a guy who’s got depth.”
Without thinking, Jimmy slung his arm around her. He immediately wondered if he’d made a mistake, and if Stacy would recoil.
She didn’t. Instead, she snuggled against him. He breathed a small sigh of relief.
They sat for a moment and gazed at the pond. The night was still, and the water looked like a mirror as it reflected the neon-lit carnival up the hill behind them.
“So,” Jimmy said, breaking the silence, “tell me something about yourself. I want to learn more abut you.”
Stacy giggled. “What do you want to know?”
“I don’t know. What’s your family like?”
“My family?” She shook her head. “We don’t want to go there.”
“Sure we do.”
“Why ruin a perfectly nice evening?”
Stacy let out a breath. “Well, I live with my mom. She got a job here as an electrical engineer. Don’t ask me what she does, because I have no idea. All I know is she’s really smart.”
“Uh-huh.” Jimmy nodded.
“I’ve also got a younger brother, Henry.”
“Oh, yeah? I’ve got a younger sister. What grade’s Henry in?”
“He’s going into his freshman year this fall.”
“No kidding? So’s my sister.”
“Really?” Stacy said. “They probably know each other, then.”
“If your brother’s smart, he wouldn’t have anything to do with her.”
“Oh, come on, now. You don’t mean that.”
Jimmy smiled. “I do. Trust me, she’s bad news.”
“Does she take after you?”
“She should. I think she does everything she can not to.”
Jimmy looked at her and smiled. “So, tell me more.”
“Well, that’s about it, really,” Stacy said. “My mom’s got a new boyfriend, Tom.”
“What’s Tom like?”
“He’s cool, I guess. I don’t know. I don’t talk to him much. Him and my mother are always going out. I don’t see much of either of them, really.”
“I guess that can be good and bad,” Jimmy said.
“Yeah, it can. Like tonight, they’re both out on the town. I’m sure they don’t care when or if I come home. They’re so oblivious, they have no idea I swipe their vodka. Speaking of which —” She took another swallow from the flask, then offered it to Jimmy. “Here, finish it. It’s almost gone.”
He downed the rest, which ended up being a huge mouthful. Some dribbled onto his chin, which he wiped with his sleeve.
Stacy put the flask back in her pocket. “I don’t mind that my mom’s not around. I kind of like it, really. I think it’s hard on my brother, though. He kind of sees me as his surrogate mom. He asks me to take him places and to help him with his math homework. As if I know anything about math.”
Jimmy frowned, his eyes glazed from the vodka. “Yeah.”
“My mom’s been weird ever since she and my dad divorced. She always used to be a sort of stick-in-the-mud type, but now she parties and drinks, and she’s always going out. I don’t know: maybe it’s a mid-life crisis, or something.”
“I thought that only happened to men?”
Stacy shrugged. “Maybe it can happen to women, too. She’s the right age.”
“Or maybe she’s just sowing some wild oats.”
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know.” She looked at him. “What about your parents? Are they cool?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said, nodding. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“You guess so?”
“Well, they don’t bother me too much. My dad works most of the time, so he’s not around that often. And my mom leaves me alone, for the most part. They don’t get overly involved in my life, so I appreciate that.”
He chuckled. “Of course, I don’t have much of a life for them to get involved in.”
Stacy sighed. “There you go again.”
“You’re shitting all over yourself. You do that all the time.”
Jimmy shrugged. “I didn’t realize.”
“It’s not good to put yourself down so much. You’ll start to believe it.”
Jimmy didn’t say anything.
She looked at him. “Why do you do that? Do you hate yourself?”
“What?” Jimmy said. “No. Of course not.”
She kept looking at him, her eyes focused and penetrating. “Then why do you put yourself down all the time?”
“I —” he paused, as if searching for an answer. He finally shrugged. “It’s not deliberate. It’s just something I do. It’s nothing serious. It’s the way I joke.”
“It’s not funny.”
“OK.” Jimmy stared at his shoes.
Stacy opened her mouth to say something else, but then she closed it and looked away. Jimmy kept his eyes on the ground. A moment later, she turned back to him.
“You said earlier that you make fun of yourself to beat others to the punch,” she said. “Is that true? Were you being serious?”
Jimmy snickered, shaking his head. “I think I liked it better when we were talking about zits.”
“No, seriously. I really want to know.”
“C’mon,” he said, looking at her. “It’s nothing. I just have a weird sense of humor, that’s all.”
Stacy looked at the ground and let out a small breath. She waited a moment before speaking.
“You know what I think?” she asked. “Honestly, I think you shut people out. You avoid everyone at school; you said so yourself. You don’t give people a chance to know you. If you let them in, they’d see you for who you really are, and not who you think you are.”
Jimmy’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”
“C’mon. You know what I’m talking about.”
“No, I don’t. Spell it out for me.”
“You don’t have to get defensive.”
“I’m not getting defensive. I just don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“What I’m saying is that you seem to have this perception of yourself as an outsider, and it doesn’t have to be like that. Instead of actively avoiding people, you should try engaging them. You might be surprised how accepting they can be.”
“Oh, right,” Jimmy said. “So now it’s my fault I’m a reject?”
“No one said you’re a reject.”
“That’s what it sounded like to me.”
“I’m saying you need to give people a chance, is all.”
Jimmy snorted. “A chance for what? To push me in the hallway? To trip me during lunch? To beat me up in the locker room? If I avoid people, it’s for my own self-preservation. I’m not on the outside because I choose to be. I’m on the outside because they drove me there.”
“Who do you think? Everyone.”
“Yeah. And I get what you’re saying: you think I’m on the outside because I don’t try hard enough to get along with people. But I’ll tell you something: I’ve been trying my whole goddamn life. I don’t know why I’m a reject. I seriously don’t. I think I’m a nice guy. I don’t smell bad. I might not be handsome, but I’m not that ugly. I don’t know why people don’t like me. I wish I did, because then I could change myself and actually have a life.”
Stacy turned away and looked at the ground.
“I — shit.” Jimmy sighed. “Look, none of that matters. It’s summer, and school’s out. I don’t want to think about any of that. I like being here with you. I really do. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I don’t want to ruin it.”
He rested his palm on her shoulder, gently. “Come on. I’m sorry.”
Stacy let out a breath and looked at him.
“I don’t understand why,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I’m the new kid and I don’t know the history, but I don’t ….” She shook her head.
“You don’t understand why I’m on the outside?”
Jimmy closed his eyes and ran a hand through his hair. “Well, why don’t you tell me? Huh? You’re friends with all those guys, so you should know. You tell me why they hate me.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? They’re your friends. Their opinion obviously matters to you. Remember when I asked you out, and you shot me down? Your friends were standing nearby. Were you afraid of them seeing us together? Was that it?”
Stacy looked up at him, and her eyes widened. “That’s not fair.”
“I know it’s not fair, but it’s the truth, isn’t it? You keep saying I should engage people, but what happens when I try? I get hurt. And I’m tired of getting hurt. I really am. It’s the story of my life.”
He turned away and stared at the pond, its surface still and murky. His buzz had vanished, and now he was feeling groggy and tired, as well as upset.
Stacy blinked rapidly, blotting the moisture in her eyes.
“I told you I was sorry about that,” she said, her voice soft.
Jimmy took a deep breath.
“I know,” he said. “I know. You didn’t … I shouldn’t have said that.”
“I’m just trying to understand. Everything about you seems cool, but my friends … I don’t know. They don’t like you. They say … you’re weird. And I don’t get it – I don’t.”
“Yeah, well, it’s nothing new,” Jimmy said. “People have been saying that for a long time.”
Stacy slid closer to him on the bench and rested her head on his shoulder. Jimmy put his arm back around her.
“I’m sorry I upset you,” she said. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Don’t be sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
She sighed. “I wish we had more vodka. I could use some.”
Jimmy laughed. “I couldn’t. I’m feeling sick.”
“Yeah. My head’s hurting.”
“A Coke might help. Something with caffeine.”
Stacy looked at him. “You sure you’re not mad?”
Jimmy smiled. “Of course I’m not mad. Jeez.” He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze.
She snuggled closer to him. Together, they stared at the still, murky pond, and at the carnival lights reflected in it.
“If you wanted to, we could make this work,” Stacy said. “We really could. I’ve got clout. I could talk to my friends and get them onboard. They could get to know you, and you could get to know them. We could all start hanging out together, and the rest of the class would see that there’s nothing weird or nerdy about you.”
She looked him in the eye. “We could make them see what I see. We could make them see the truth.”
Jimmy turned to her, his head tilted. His throat felt tight. “Stacy … you barely know me.”
She looked away. “You don’t want to?”
“It’s not that,” he said. “It’s just … I mean, why would you risk everything on someone like me — someone you’ve dated for only one night?”
“Because I like you,” she said.
He smiled. “I like you too, but like I said, we barely know each other. You’d put your whole reputation on the line — for me? Seriously? I mean, what if I embarrassed you? Or what if your friends outright rejected me? You’d lose everything, and you’d be left with nothing … except for me, of course. You’d have no clout and a nerd boyfriend. It doesn’t seem like a good deal.”
Stacy stared at the pond, her eyes distant.
“You know,” she said, “I get looked at a lot, by guys in every class. And it’s always the same glassy-eyed, open-mouthed look — like the way a caveman would stare.”
She turned to Jimmy. “But when I noticed you looking at me, it was different. You seemed curious, like you wanted to know more about me. You seemed like you really cared. That’s always what I’ve noticed about you: The fact that you look at me, and that you look for the right reason.”
“Wait a minute,” Jimmy said, smiling. “You caught me looking at you? When?”
“When? Every day.”
“Every day! C’mon!” Jimmy laughed. “I thought you never saw me.”
“Just because I don’t make a spectacle doesn’t mean I’m not looking,” Stacy said, smiling. “I must be more subtle than you are. I don’t stare; I steal glimpses.”
“So you saw me staring at you? Where, exactly?”
“Everywhere. In the hallway, in the library, in the cafeteria, in Mr. Henderson’s class, in Computer Apps … should I go on?”
Jimmy chuckled. “Nah — that’s OK.”
Stacy smiled. “Listen, I’m not saying that we’re destined for each other, or that our fates are intertwined or anything like that. Maybe we’ll end up hating each other in five months — I don’t know. But I’m willing to give this a shot if you are. I’m tired of dating the same guy over and over. I’m looking for someone who’s more mature, and who genuinely likes me.”
“Well,” Jimmy said, a grin on his face, “I don’t know about the maturity part, but I genuinely like you.”
“It could work,” Stacy said. “It really could. You know how I know? Because the same thing happened at my old school, in my freshman year.”
“You dated a reject?”
“No — a friend of mine did. Only he wasn’t a reject: he was a sweet, smart, sophisticated guy who didn’t fit in because he was so far above everyone else — both emotionally and intellectually. And you know what? My friend brought him into our group, we got to know him and, like, within a month, he was hanging out with us. It was weird. Here was this guy that no one would talk to before, and all of a sudden he’s part of our crowd. I couldn’t believe it.
“The thing was, he wasn’t a nerd,” Stacy continued. “He was actually really cool. He just didn’t feel comfortable around people, at first. He was shy. And once he settled in and saw that we weren’t going to put him down, he sort of emerged from his cocoon. It was like you peeled this layer away, and there was this whole other interesting guy there, waiting to be discovered.”
She smiled, looking at the ground. “I always thought it was cool that my friend could look past all the rumors and bullshit and see that guy for who he was — especially when no one else had. It made me realize that most relationships, and most people … they’re artificial. They’re not real. They’re all just conforming to some glossy standard of what they think relationships should be. That’s not real love. That’s not real life. That’s just made-up Hollywood crap. Who the hell wants to live in that empty bubble? I know I don’t. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
Jimmy didn’t say anything. Stacy glanced up and saw that he was staring at her.
“What?” she asked, smiling.
He grinned. “Nothing.”
She gave him a playful nudge. “What is it?”
“Well,” he said, “I was just thinking how amazingly right-on I was about you.”
“Yeah. I told my friend Ronald that I knew you were a good person — that I could tell just from looking at you. I knew you were sweet and smart and amazing, and I knew the first time I saw you that I wanted to be with you. There was never a question in my mind.”
Stacy smiled and leaned her head forward, slightly.
“Come here,” she said, her voice soft.
“I’m right here.”
“No,” she said, leaning forward even closer. “Come here.”
Slowly, deliberately, Jimmy leaned closer to Stacy. He could feel his heart thumping. Stacy closed her eyes and tilted back her head.
When their lips touched, the bench, the pond, the carnival, the night sky — all of it vanished, and Jimmy found himself frozen in time — locked in a moment that seemed to last and last — and all he could taste was the gloss of her lipstick; all he could smell was the scent of her hair; all he could feel was the heat of her lips. They pressed against each other, holding each other. Jimmy draped an arm around Stacy’s neck, and Stacy pressed a palm against his side.
As they kissed, the night dissipated, like a seaside mist drifting in the wind, and all they had was each other; all they felt was each other; all they knew and breathed and cared for was each other, for no one else, not another soul, existed in that moment. That slice of life, that sliver of time — it was theirs, and theirs alone, and for that moment nothing else could interfere. Nothing could assert itself or become involved. Nothing could interrupt or frown upon or cast dispersions. For that moment only they were mired in time — two figures framed by darkness; two silhouettes masked by shadows.
Slowly, hesitantly, Jimmy pulled back.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I … I can’t.”
“Shh,” Stacy said. “Don’t say anything. Just go with it.”
“I can’t do this.”
“OK. All right.” She sat straighter. “I understand. It’s too fast. You’re not ready.”
“It’s not that. It’s not that at all.”
She tilted her head. “What then? Don’t you like me?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then what’s to worry about? It feels right, doesn’t it? We don’t have to worry if we’re not perfectly in sync. This is just the beginning.”
Jimmy swallowed. “No, it isn’t.”
She looked at him, the corners of her lips falling. “What are you talking about?”
“Stacy, I’m moving away in three weeks.”
They walked together, hand in hand, up the hill toward the carnival.
“I’m sorry I didn’t say anything earlier,” Jimmy said.
Stacy squeezed his palm. “It’s OK.”
“I meant to. I really did. I just ….”
She looked at him. “What?”
He sighed. “I just didn’t want to miss the chance to get to know you.”
Stacy smiled. “Me either.”
“Yeah. I’m glad we did this tonight.”
Jimmy nodded, and smiled. “I am, too.”
Stacy stood on tiptoe and pecked him on the cheek. They clasped hands and continued walking.
“So, you’re moving to Reno?” she asked.
“Are you nervous?”
“Hell yeah. I’m terrified.”
She laughed. “It gets better. It really does. It just takes time to adjust.”
“That’s what everyone says, but I don’t know. I think it will be different for me.”
“Why would it be different?”
“Well,” Jimmy said, “I’m … you know. I’m a lower specimen.”
Stacy opened her mouth to say something, but then she closed it and looked ahead.
They wormed through the rows of booths, squeezing past people and avoiding small children armed with balloons.
“You want to ride the Ferris Wheel?” Jimmy asked.
“Um … nah,” Stacy said. “It’s getting late.”
“Kind of, yeah. I worked all day.”
“I hope I didn’t ruin the evening.”
“No, you didn’t. It’s just late.”
“Yeah.” Jimmy looked at the grass and all the peanut shells embedded in the blades.
Stacy glanced up at him.
“You know,” she said, “I am kind of thirsty. If you want to share a Coke, I’m game.”
Jimmy grinned. “Yeah?”
“Sure. The vodka dried me out.”
“All right. I’ll get us a Coke.”
“While you’re doing that, I’ll run and freshen up.”
“OK,” Jimmy said. “Cool. Meet you in five.”
He stood in a short line and waited to order two small Cokes. He also had lemon slices added for an additional fifty cents.
After paying for the drinks, Jimmy wandered toward the wooden tables, a sloshing paper cup in each hand. He searched the crowds for Stacy, but he didn’t see her. Huh. Maybe she was still at the porta-potties, stuck in line.
A raging river of people swept by the concession stand in both directions. Jimmy entered the current and tried to keep his footing as people jostled and squirmed for position. Some soda splashed onto his wrist.
As he walked, scanning the crowds, he suddenly saw Stacy. She was standing beside a booth, blocked by two figures. Jimmy stood on tiptoe, trying to see, but he couldn’t tell who they were.
As he drew closer, he could start to pick out Stacy’s voice from the drone of the crowd. He also recognized the voices of the two figures, though all he could see was their backs. It was Megan Summers and Heather Fowler — two of Stacy’s friends.
Jimmy slid between two booths and came around from behind, so that Stacy couldn’t see him. He ducked behind a tall cottonwood tree, holding the sodas to his chest.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Heather was saying. “You told us you were working.”
“I know,” Stacy said. “I got off early.”
“Is your cell off? I called you like three times. It went straight to voice mail.”
“Oh. Maybe.” Stacy fumbled around in her purse, looking for her phone.
“Why didn’t you call us if you were coming here?” Megan asked. Her voice sounded accusatory.
“I don’t know. I didn’t think about it. I just got off work, and I saw the carnival and thought I’d drop in.”
“You’re not here with anyone, are you?” Heather asked.
Stacy said something, but Jimmy couldn’t hear her.
“What?” Megan asked.
“I said I’m not here with anybody!” Stacy said.
“You don’t have to get touchy.”
“I’m not getting touchy. I just don’t get why you guys are grilling me.”
“We’re grilling you because you came here without even calling us,” Heather said. “We’ve been trying to get in touch with you all night to get you to come along, and then we find you’re here alone.”
“I’m sorry,” Stacy said. “I didn’t think. I’m tired. I had a long day.”
“Whatever,” Megan said. “It doesn’t matter. Come on, let’s check out the house of mirrors. There’s a really cute guy running it.”
Stacy said something, but again, Jimmy couldn’t hear her.
“What? C’mon!” Heather said. “You can’t go home!”
“I told you, I’m tired,” Stacy said.
“Bullshit you’re tired. It’s barely ten.”
“I’ve already been here for a few hours. I’ve seen all the rides.”
“Oh my god!” Megan said. “You’ve been here for that long and you didn’t try to call us? You knew we were free tonight. You knew that, Stacy.”
“What’s going on with you?” Heather asked.
“Nothing’s going on. I’m … I’m just tired. OK?”
The rest of the conversation was inaudible. Jimmy stood with his back to the tree, afraid to peer out. He didn’t want to be recognized. Finally, after not hearing their voices for a while, he turned and glimpsed over his shoulder.
Stacy was standing on tiptoe, staring in the direction of the concession stand. She was alone.
Jimmy silently crept up from behind and nudged her with his elbow. Stacy jumped.
“Oh!” she said, turning. “It’s you.”
“I got you your Coke,” he said.
“Thanks.” She took the cup, which was still fizzing.
“I saw you talking to some people.”
“Yeah,” she said. “They were some friends from school.”
“What did they say?”
She shrugged. “Nothing. They just said hi.”
“Huh.” Jimmy took a sip of his drink.
Stacy looked at him. “Thanks again for the soda.”
He nodded. “Were they surprised to see you alone?”
“Your friends. Were they surprised to see you alone?”
“I —” Stacy frowned. “I don’t know.”
“Did you tell them you were on a date?”
She pursed her lips and looked at him. “It’s none of their business what I’m doing.”
“Oh.” He nodded and started walking. Stacy walked alongside him, struggling a little to match his pace.
“Everything OK?” she asked.
He nodded “Yeah.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m fine.”
“OK. Just wondering.” She looked down at her shoes.
“You know, it’s getting kind of late,” Jimmy said. “I should probably take you home.”
“You don’t have to take me home.”
“A moment ago you said you were tired.”
“Yeah, but … the Coke’s waking me up.”
“It’s still late.”
Stacy bit her lower lip. “All right. If you want to go, let’s go.”
They walked across the park toward the highway, where Jimmy’s car was parked. Jimmy unlocked the doors and held Stacy’s open for her.
“You think you’re all right to drive?” she asked, as she stepped in.
“I’m fine.” He closed the door.
They drove through the city. Traffic had lightened, and most of the storefronts were dark.
“I’m not sure where you live,” Jimmy said.
“Just take me to the Dairy Queen. My car’s parked there.”
“You sure? I can take you straight home, if you don’t want to drive.”
“I’d rather just get my car.” She turned to look out the window at the passing scenery.
They parked in front of the Dairy Queen. Its windows glowed brightly in the darkness. Jimmy killed the engine.
Stacy looked at him, her Coke nestled between her knees.
“I had a really good time tonight, Jimmy,” she said.
“Yeah.” He stared at the steering wheel. “Me too.”
He got out of the car and walked to the other side to open Stacy’s door. She stepped out, raking her teeth over her lower lip.
“Which one’s your car?” Jimmy asked.
“That one over there,” she said, pointing.
“OK. Cool.” He nodded.
She looked at him. “I’m sorry you’re moving. I really am.”
“I know,” he said. “It sucks.”
“It’ll be OK. Trust me — I’ve been there.”
“It’s … yeah. I know.”
“Here,” Stacy said, taking out her iPhone. “What’s your number? I want to be able to call you. I’ll get your e-mail, too.”
Jimmy told her. Stacy typed the information using only her thumb.
“There,” she said, tucked the phone away. “I’ll be able to check in on you and see how you’re doing. And if you ever need advice, you’ll know who to call.”
Jimmy nodded. “Cool.”
“Well … goodnight, Jimmy.” Stacy stepped forward, her arms spread open. Jimmy hesitated.
She smiled. “C’mon.”
He stepped forward into her embrace. They stood for a moment, hugging.
“You’ll be all right,” Stacy said. She stood up on her toes and kissed him on the cheek.
They let each other go. Stacy backed away, slowly, her eyes moist.
“Goodnight,” she said. She smiled and waved.
Jimmy nodded, waving back.
Stacy climbed into her car. Jimmy turned and climbed into his.
He sat and stared at the steering wheel, which started to blur in his vision. He blinked and shook his head.
He started the car, then looked over his shoulder to back out. As he did, he noticed Stacy’s bouquet of roses, forgotten in the back seat.
The bouquet had come loose, and the flowers lay astray.
Jimmy paused, his hand draped over the seat. He turned and saw Stacy sitting in her car, only a few spaces away. She hadn’t started the engine or turned on the headlights.
She was only a shadow inside the dark car, but from the lights of the Dairy Queen, Jimmy could see that she was sitting with her head in her hands, crying.
He turned off the engine and swallowed. Stillness and silence engulfed him.
Taking a deep breath, he pulled the key from the ignition and got out of the car. Stacy didn’t look up as he approached her window.
He stuck out his hand to knock, then recoiled, as if afraid of getting electrocuted. The movement must have caught Stacy’s attention, because she looked up, startled.
Jimmy gave a small wave. Hi, he mouthed.
Stacy’s mascara had smeared, and it was running down her cheeks in muddy rivulets. She blinked several times, then rolled down the window.
“I’m so sorry, Stacy,” Jimmy said, taking a cautious step forward. “I don’t … I don’t want to leave like this.”
Stacy swallowed. She looked at the steering wheel for a moment, then turned her gaze to him.
“I don’t want to leave like this, either,” she said.
“I wish I didn’t have to move,” Jimmy said. “I would give anything to stay. Meeting you, getting to spend this night together. It’s meant more to me than anything.”
Stacy sniffed. “You have to go, Jimmy. I know it’s hard. I went through the same thing. You have to say goodbye to the old and embrace all the new that comes your way.”
“But I don’t want the new,” Jimmy said. “I want you.”
Stacy smiled, her eyes pooled with tears. “Sometimes things aren’t meant to be, Jimmy. That’s how love works. That’s how life works. You make memories, you move on. Almost nothing lasts forever.”
“Then let me help us make this a good memory,” Jimmy said. “Please. A burger and a Coke — that’s all I’m asking.”
“Jimmy.” Stacy shook her head.
“Just a quick bite,” Jimmy said. “We can talk and end things on a positive note. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m still hungry. Aren’t you hungry?”
Stacy looked at the ground. A faint smile started to form on her lips.
“You know,” she said, looking up, “I’m still a little hungry.”
Jimmy smiled, then grabbed the doorknob. “Shall I?”
Stacy grinned, unbuckling her seatbelt. “Sure.”
Jimmy opened the door and held out his hand, steadying Stacy as she stepped out of the car.
“Such a gentleman,” she said. Her hot breath tickled his neck, sending an electric current surging through his body.
Jimmy held her hand, then embraced her with his other arm. Stacy rested her head on his shoulder.
Together, they stood in the parking lot, bathed by the light of the Dairy Queen, leaning on each other, supporting each other.
“I think everyone in the diner is staring at us,” Stacy said. “Including my boss.”
“Let them stare,” Jimmy said. “I could stand here forever just holding you.”
“Oh, could you?” Stacy asked.
“Forever and ever.”
“But we’d starve to death, eventually.”
“And then they’d have to tow away our cars and pry our mummified remains apart.”
Jimmy looked at her. “Pry our mummified remains apart?”
“Well, you’re talking about holding me forever.”
“In the romantic sense, yeah. Not in the sense that Howard Carter’s going to rip open our tombs and put on on exhibit.”
Stacy laughed. “It’s too late. We’re already on exhibit.”
“Oh yeah?” Jimmy grinned. “Then let’s give them a show.”
He nuzzled his head toward hers, and as they kissed, time once again became a water-colored abstraction. They held each other tightly, clinging to the moment, making it last, so that even as the seconds clicked by, the feeling, the moment and the memory seemed to play out forever.