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2 Shorts, a Novella and a Haiku Walk Into a Bar by Mia Soto

Forty and a hundred forty degrees, moron. Yeah, Brad, explain how you came up with that answer. Uhh, well, you know it was math and uhhh, I'm a dipshit. Man, Arthur really stinks today. I bet he hasn't bathed in a week. Oh man, arms down, Arthur, arms down. Breath through your mouth. Breath through your mouth.
2 Shorts, a Novella and a Haiku Walk Into a Bar
2 Shorts, a Novella and a Haiku Walk Into a Bar by Mia Soto
Yes, Ms Smith, he's a total farthead. No he's only good for catching balls and getting hit hard in the head. That's why he's still in this class. What is this, his fourth time taking it? Just pass him already and let someone else deal with his supreme stupidness. Huh? What's that, a little louder Bradly. You're a total moron? You don't say. Ohh, ugh. Yeah, that's it. Get her all hot. She's giggling now. He's off the hook. Honestly Ms Smith was high school that bad for you? Really, Brad Diphead? A little discretion at least, woman. You're going to end up on national TV. Oh god, no, look somewhere else, lady. Shit, I didn't sit behind Arthur for the view. Why is she looking over here? Shit. Give her the wrong answer. Don't say it; don't say it. "Forty and a hundred forty degrees." At least I mumbled it. That looks kinda cool, right? Oh, Meredith is looking. Wow, she looks great today. Quit letting Diphead cheat off you. Did she smile at me? Yeah, she did. I think. Wait, why is she laughing with Bradhead? Look at Ms Smith. She's not smiling. What did I say? "See me after class Mr Nelson." Shit, what did I say? I said the answer, right? All I said was the answer, right? Think Nelson, think. "Hey, what did I say?" Barlow is shaking his head. Why is he red? Is he laughing? Was I funny? That would be good even if I get in trouble. "Mr Nelson, would you like to share that with the class?" Shit, not my day. She never liked me. Sucks being dumber than your students, huh, Ms S? Get used to it. You're a relic. Maybe if you keep giggling Butthead will take you behind the janitor's shed in the yard. "No Ms Smith." Shut up Bradhead. Stick that tongue in the nearest socket. "Then Mr Nels - " Hold the farm, who is this? "Yes?" Smith looks just as surprised as me. "Oh, lovely, so nice to have you Ms Watson." No don't sit here there. Not there. Anywhere but there. Don't listen to him. No, don't smile at the Neanderthals. It only encourages them. What color is that hair? Perfection, is that a color? "As I was saying Mr Nelson, if you don't wish to share with the class please keep your ideas to yourself." Flipping elephant. She never forgets. I swear she's still pissed about me locking her in the girls’ bathroom and turning out the lights. Thank your lover boy for that. I really don't like you Ms S. I mean it was a prank. By a zit faced nube. Who didn’t want to get in with that group? It was social acceptance or adult acceptance. Is there even a competition between the two? Jeez lady, it was last semester. I'm a freshman. He's a senior. You could cut me some slack. I mean I did a week of detention. Dues paid, right? Brad Diphead, what a Diphead. I'd never do it now. One semester. Only one to get me thinking again. Takes some effort to flip the brain back on once you leave the herd. One semester. That and the fact that I hate you Brad Dilfer. You can bring on any of your stupid locker room threats. I don't care. But this is now and that was then. "Yes, Ms Smith." God I wish I had some balls to tell her what I really think of her and her half-baked math skills and desperate felony level flirting. Yeah, smug smile. She's such a witch. Screw you, Brad. I'll see you in the women's shoe department after your Al Bundy skills take you nowhere. Oh yes, Juliet you are the sun, indeed. What was her name again? Really gotta work on my focus skills. Wow, I don't ever think I've seen eyes so blue before. Wait are they black? Maybe they're black. She's not from around here. Or anywhere like here. She's different. What year is she? Did they say? Gotta listen better. Damn, the bell. Try to get close to her. I bet she smells great. No, Arthur not now. "Later?" Need to firm up lunch with Barlow first. He's shaking his head. "Mandatory math workshop with -." He's flipping his head in Smith's direction. He's about to fail. He's going to lose his scholarship. That's going to suck. He's one of few friends at this place. "K." Guess I'll eat by the library. There's a private area away from the masses. I can get in a few minutes of LoL. I was almost at the nexus when I fell asleep last night. It was brilliant hacking the school WiFi the first week of school. The general confusion of a new year had their guard down. Yeah, Mr MIT better hit refresh on your super skills. You're being played by a fourteen-year-old. I really like Mr K, though. He's really smart and nice. He never makes you feel bad about yourself. Whether you're smart or dumb as rocks. I almost feel bad about hacking his firewall. Almost. I knew it. I knew she'd smell great. I should smile at her. Ok, do it now. Right now before you pass her. Turn you head, loser. Now. Turn your head and smile. Ok, well, maybe tomorrow. Don't want to come off desperate. Better hurry, I need to get to my locker before the bell. Need my Lit books. Stupid. Gotta work on my organization skills. Lit is right next door. My locker is all the way at the far side of the freshman wing. I spend a lot of time on the upperclassman side. The curse of being full blown geek. "Oh, Mr Nelson." Ms Smith's doing that ear grating, mind scraping sing song voice of hers. Shit right. "Yeah?" I always speak into the floor. It's as much social defense as crippling shyness. "I don't appreciate your attitude of late." She's smiling though. I swear she needs meds. I can't keep up with her moods. "Yes, ok." What am I supposed to say to this? She looks like she wants to speak again when Aphrodite walks up. Her kicks are the most awesomely orange glow ever. I see these first because my eyes are glued to the floor. Our shoes are the only thing they let us choose about our appearance here in hell. "Oh, hello, this is Frederick Nelson." Damn my parents and their German pride. "Nelson is fine." I mumble but I finally get the nerve to give her a sideways look. She must be upper class. She's so calm and cool. I've never seen anyone fill out the St Paul's uniform like this before. I don't think they're supposed to wear their skirts that short. And I know they supposed to button every button on their shirts. You wouldn't think it would look right, a shirt and tie with buttons open, but it looks so right. "Yes, well, Frederick," Smith is talking again. I forgot she was here. "To avoid detention you can share your notes with Ms Watson. Catch her up." Oh my god, that's my punishment? Fuck yeah! I could hit something right now. "Yeah sure." I'm still mumbling and when I kick the leg of the desk in front of me. It topples. Guess it's broken. Smith sighs. "Alright, Mr Nelson, I'll see you tomorrow." I'm nodding trying to look cool. I turn to bounce and kick the garbage can by Smith's desk. It’s basically empty so it flies into the wall but thankfully doesn't dump over. It makes an impressively loud clanging echo in the empty room. I can feel how hot my face is as I shuffle out quickly. I don't look back. I don't want to see it if she's laughing at me. *** Kale again. Someone needs to tell the goddamn yuppies in charge of this place that there are other healthy foods beside kale. Guess I'll do the green smoothie. I always bring contraband. Doritos and Swiss Rolls. They go great with Kale. "Yo." I nod at Parker. He's at nerd central. He's waving me over frantically. One thing about not getting lunch, it's easier to look cool when you're not carrying a tray of food. I might as well do a pass by. I'm not the official king of the nerds, but I'm one of its leaders. "Heard Smith was all over you again today." News travels, particularly in a small school like this. "Yeah, pain in my ass." I mumble. The table snickers. I'm a rebel because I'll mumble softly under my breath in a loud cafeteria what they won't even dare to think. Some of them are failing Algebra I with her. Not all nerds are smart. "I could get all over her. Hot for teacher." Parker is picking his nose openly, leaning back in his chair and talking too loudly even for the cafeteria. "Shut up, Parker." I glance my eyes around to make sure no one heard that. Parker falls his chair forward. "Yeah, right. Sorry." He looks worried I shrug to let him know he's cool but chill. You can say a lot with a shrug. "Where's Barlow?" He asks. "Extra help with Smith." Ugh, they can't even make a smoothie right. I just swallowed a chunk of globbed together kale. Ugh. Parker is leering. "Alright, headed to the greens. See ya there?" "Yeah, maybe, think I might scope out the new meat." Is he talking about Juliet is the Sun? "Like you have a chance." He shrugs that leer growing. "Well, catch you when I catch you." He's such a slime, like he even has a chance. It's bothering me. He better steer clear of her. She's too cool. Too much awesomeness. He's going to ruin it for all of us because I'm going to have to hang with him and she's going to see that. Death by association. What am I worried about? He's afraid to look anyone with that anatomy in the eyes. I don't think he's talked to a girl since fifth grade. *** "Hey," I nod at Chin. The greens are crowded today. Great. The sun is warm enough. Guess everyone's ready for summer. "Hey, where's Barlow?" He's already at the nexus. Shit, he's going to beat me again. "Who are you fighting?" Damn, his fingers are nimble. He's got that guy dancing. "Ali." I can't focus right now. She's all up in my head. What was her flipping name again? I gotta listen better. "See the new babe?" That finally gets him to stop. He gives me that little grin of his. Yeah, he's seen her. "What's her name again?" "Mrs Chin?" He's playing again. I'm focusing better than I thought because I can see him. I'm going to attack. I don't know how else to beat him. "You wish." I can see my life with her is going to be hard. I need to start taking martial arts again. They all want her. I mean who wouldn't. "Hey, that's not fair." "And attacking me was?" Chin has the funniest giggle. "Anyway, she is hotness." "Good luck introducing her to your parents." He's Chinese. Highly, traditionally, parent's directly off the boat Chinese. He'd have a better shot of them accepting a kangaroo than her. "Yeah." I hit a nerve because I'm landing some good blows. "Sorry." I feel bad. We've all got family demons. He tosses his gamer down. "Yeah, whatever. I gotta go. Comin'?" I shake my head. "Study hall." "Right, later." I forget to nod because that damn South American gang is whomping on me right now. Shit. Fuck. Damn. I'm dead. I hate this game. Time to go back to Halo. I should go get my civics books. I forgot to read. Mr Anderson is due for a pop quiz. It's a long way away. Why don't I bring my stuff with me? "Frederick?" Where did she come from? Crap. How do I look? Is there green shit in my teeth? Get it together, Nelson. Get. It. Together. "Nelson is fine." Did I say that outloud? She hasn't responded. Could she hear me? I should look up. Oh, those legs, they're perfect. Oh, slow the breath, slow it. Ok, ok, don't look up. Get control, Nelson. She's going to report you to the perv line. "Ok, Nelson." She drops hard next to me and a billow of her perfect perfume floats over. What is that - liquid awesomeness? I should ask her what perfume that is. Girls like that. No, wait, she might think I like girls’ perfume. Stay cool, she'll speak again and I can just answer whatever her question is. "So you wanna go over Trig?" "Uh, umm, now?" That was good. Not too bad. My face is hot. Must be the sun. "Yeah, if you're free. You feel ok? You're all red.” That hair. Those eyes. Her smell. Her legs. Sounds like a song. I should write her a song. I need to dig out my guitar from the closet. It's only been a few years. I could learn again. I'm a fast learner. Girls like it when you write them songs. I think. "Uhh, I am? Must be the heat." She laughs and it sounds like beautiful bells in a European Cathedral at Christmas time. Wow, Nelson, way to femme up. But I need to make her laugh again. It sends a chill through me. "It's fifty-five degrees out. Not exactly hot." "Uhh, yeah, guess not. So, ummm, my notes. I-I gotta get them from my locker." She smiles at me expectantly. Wow, her smile. Her skin is so smooth. I should smile back. Wait! I stop my lips in mid smile. Do I have green shit in my teeth? Don't smile, Nelson. She gives me a funny look. "What was that?" "What?" I'm looking at the dead grass again. "I don't know. You looked weird. Like a smile turned into a sneer." That's what that looked like. Huh. "Yeah, umm, I was going to get my civics book. I could get my notebook." A wind catches a tuft of her hair and floats it across her face. I should sweep it away. Move arm, move. My arm won't move. I think all my muscles are locked. "Ok, I'll go with." She bounces up. She bounces in all the right places. "Ok." I'm not as fast getting up. She's going to walk with me? Why couldn't this happen at lunchtime when everyone was out? Thankfulness Nelson. Right? At least she's walking with you. I'll take her the long way. We'll walk past the classes that look out into the courtyard. "So you been at St Paul's awhile?" She's so calm and beautiful. She takes the longest strides. Her kilt separates a little showing that soft thigh. Calm down Nelson. Focus. What's her name? How do I figure that out without asking her? "Since kindergarten." Wow, lame. I bet she's been all over the world, a new school every year. It would be awesome to reinvent myself into something other than a loser. "That's cool." She smiles over at the benches and I look over to see Brad waving at her. She notices me noticing that. "He's nice." "Yeah." For a Neanderthal, I guess. "He and I went to nursery school together." Dinglehead went to school with her? She's from here? "You did?" "Yeah, at Lahoe-Hance." "Oh, you're from here?" Ok finally got a question out. Adding to the conversation. "Yeah, why?" "Nothing, no reason." Other than you are perfection that can't possibly be from here. What sort of crime did you commit to end up here? "Ok, yeah, well all my life. I was at Sacred Heart before. My parents finally gave me a break. They said if I finished sophomore year with A's they'd let me transfer to a coed. It took until now to get them to make good on the deal." "Oh." It's almost disappointing but then she touches me and I lose control of my legs for a minute. "Come with me. I need to grab some things from my locker. My next class is about to start." She tugs a little. I should take her hand and entwine my fingers with hers. Maybe kiss the back of it. Would that be too much? I gotta stop reading mom's romance novels. The sex isn't even that great. Except for that Christian dude. That one was pretty good. *** "So why are you in Trig anyway? You're a Freshman right?" She's putting lip gloss on those soft, pillowy lips. I wonder what it tastes like. Like bubble gum. Like soft, delicious, bubble gum. Stop. Stop now. Not now. Not now. Down boy. Get your thoughts under control. Alright swing your pack around the front. It won't look weird. We're standing here anyway. I'll get it under control by the time she's done. Wait she's asking me a question. "It looks really good on you." She asked about her gloss right? Girls ask about those things. She laughs that laugh again. "Huh? I asked where your locker is?" "Oh." Shit now I'm blushing. At least that other matter is under control. "C'mon." She's tugging on my wrist again. I could grab her hand right now. It wouldn't be weird. Grab it, Nelson. Grab it. Alright, next time. It's too early to hold hands anyway. We've only known each other for a few hours. She drops my wrist and I guess I missed my chance. She gives me a smile. Is it shy? Really? She's shy. Alright smartness. Tell me how to handle this. I don't know. All I know is how to make A's. Individual thought and self-determination isn't really part of modern childhood learning anymore. I should have made her wait at the end of the hall. I don't think I can open my locker without half of it falling out. Shit. She's so pretty. Maybe I can get her to move to the other side so she can't see. "So, uhh, do me a favor and stand over there." She has the cutest looks. Cool she's moving. "Why?" "Well, some things might fall." She laughs again. I'm going to need some private bathroom time if this doesn't stop. "Ok." I love how she flips her hair and cocks her head. Does she practice that in the mirror like I practice my head nods? Latch is stuck again. Damn. Gentle tug. Ok, not so gentle tug. It swings with force right into her face. Then the avalanche commences. "Oww." Look at that scrunched up face. Even the way she rubs her nose is adorable. "Sorry, it sticks sometimes." Pile it up fast. Don't let her see some of those drawings. "N-no that's ok. I can get this." "I don't mind." She smells so good. So good. She giggles. I hate when girls giggle. Except her. She has permission to giggle whenever she wants. What's she holding? Shit. "Meredith, huh?" "Not really." I couldn't mumble any lower. At least she lets go when I snatch. "Sorry, I-I don't want to lose that. It's important. The notes and all." Why is she trying to read it sideways? Oh 'cause I'm holding it that way. "It doesn't look important." "Ummm, yeah, so." Let me find those notes. This moment probably needs to end. She's touching my hand again. Her skin is so soft and smooth. Not clammy like Lucy Morehead's. I don't know why I asked her to homecoming. Because they made me go and I needed a date. "It's ok. She's really pretty." Not really. Not since I met you. I don't even know what I saw in her now. "Yeah, umm, yeah, I-I guess. So, s-so are y-" "Hey Nelson." Barlow! Not now. "Hey." Did that nod come out as cool as I think it did? Practice is paying off. "How'd it go?" "Hey." Barlow nods at her. Ask her name, dude. "Terrible." Come on, Barlow, ask her name. Give him the stare. "What's wrong with your eyes?" Shit he's such a cluewad. "Nothing. Something in it." I pretend to rub my eye. He's doesn't even care she's over here in purgatory. He's so weird. I hold up my notebook. "Here it is." Her fingers are so soft. I don't know how we just brushed hands but I can die a happy man now. "Anyway, looks like I'm done." Hang on Barlow. I need to wrap up with Venus. "So, uhh, take your time." “I'll make copies and drop it off later." That's a great smile. Not too much teeth. "Yeah, well, no hurry." "K." How does she know the perfect time to cock that head? I don't know. She even walks perfectly. "Can we talk about me now, loverboy?" "It doesn't look like you mind the view either." These papers are going to fly out next time I open. Do I have everything? Don't want to have to come back again. Slam it hard so it closes. Shit. Use your shoulder. Nice. Wonder what those papers are sticking out? Hope it's nothing I need. "Yeah, it's not bad." Barlow looks like he finally found his libido. "Well, find someone else." "Why?' "Cause." "'Cause you think you have dibs? Like you have a chance." "Shut up. Why didn't you ask her name?" "Why?" "Because I don't know it." "I think I heard someone say Elizabeth." "Elizabeth." Great name. But I don't think that's her name. "Anyway, what happened with Smith?" "She gave us a pop quiz to see if we'd done the extra work she’d assigned." "Yikes." This bag weighs a ton. I need to clean it out tonight. "Yeah well. If we fail we're out." "Yikes." Man it will suck if Barlow is gone. Really suck. "Yeah. My parents are going to freak." He doesn't seem optimistic. "Maybe you can argue your way out of this. It seems like bull anyway. Smith doesn't have that kind of authority." "Burke was the one who made the announcement." "Ohhh, shit." That's bad. I probably should have said something else. But that's bad. "I have to go to his office after this class. He's going to bring us in one by one to talk to us." "Ugh." I wonder what class she has right now. I'm stuck in loserville for the rest of the day. I wonder if she's taking physics. If so, I'll get to see her first period tomorrow. Shit, Chin sits next to me. I wonder if he'll move. "See you by the lockers." "Yeah." *** I bet she's a dancer. She moves like a dancer, really awesome. I'd like to see her in a leotard. Maybe I can swing by her locker on the way out. She might be there. Maybe. I better hurry. "Hey." "Hey." Uh oh. It looks bad. Can they really kick you out over a pop quiz? I guess if it's along with all the other quizzes he's failed they can. He so flipping smart. I don't know what happened this year. "So?" "Yeah, I'm out." "Really?" He looks like shit, like he's going to cry, like he's been crying. "Yeah. It wasn't my first warning." "Fuck. As of now?" He is going to cry. Don't look at him. Let him bury his head in his locker. Should I hug him? "Yeah." Wow it really is pitiful when a guy cries. "I have to clean my locker out right now." I guess I'll see her tomorrow. I can't bail on him now. "My parents are going to kill me." "Yeah." I doubt it, Barlow. His parents are so proud of him it’s embarrassing. My parents would kill me. Right after they came back from the charity function, whichever one it was that night. Right after that, they'd make sure Jessie killed me because they’d have to pack for their weekend away. Why pay for a nanny if you have to do any kind of parenting yourself, right? "I guess they really won't. That's the worst part. They really won't." I should hug him. Maybe a pat on the back. "It's going to be ok, Barlow." "Yeah." I wish I had tissue. Hate to see him wiping his tears with the back of his hand. "Hey guys." Holy shit it's her. Hahaha. Barlow you can't fit in your locker. "Hey." She's so smart she knows something's wrong. "So, um, brought your notebook." I'm in love. Is she really rubbing his back? "You ok?" "Yeah." At least he's finally turning around. Guess he realized he can't fit in there after all. "Yeah, fine." "Ok, well here." Why do our fingers always brush when we're passing things back and forth? How do I freeze that feeling? "See you around?" "Definitely." Flip your hair one more time. Yeah, like that. You're beautiful. "Feel better." Don't get any ideas Barlow. She's touchy feely because she's awesome and she sees you're upset. That's right. Just nod at her. No words. One more smile. Thank you. "See you." Yes. Bye. I love you. "See you." "You really dig her?" Barlow is all open eyes right now. "She's cool." He agrees I can tell by the way he's watching her leave. God she walks like a dancer. "I'll walk you to the bus." He looks confused. "I have lacrosse." Shit, wish I had thought of a lie. His face is stricken. It sucked when he got kicked off the team for grades. "We can hang this weekend." "Yeah." There's no conviction in that answer. Yeah, he's right. We won't. School was the connection. Jessie won't ever drive me over there. They won't let her. "Alright man. Stay strong right?" He looks like he's going to cry again. I should hug him. Like a guy hug. Lemme try. No, Barlow, shit, I'm not trying to kiss you. "Dude!" I hate it when people laugh at me. Of course the bus was full. "Sorry, meant for a hug. Got confused." "Yeah, alright. I gotta go." Man it's going to suck. No Barlow tomorrow. How could he have screwed it up so quickly? One year he goes from valedictorian to class reject. Fuck. The rest of this year is going to suck. I should give him one more wave. Wow, he looks pitiful. She was awesome with him. Bright, sunshiny awesomeness. I wonder if my notebook smells like her. Kinda, a little. Maybe the sheets inside. Hold the farm - what's this? Thanks for your help today. Let's catch a movie sometime. Ana 867-5309 Something Unpredictable "Ma’am, don't move another step." The voice came out of the silence of nature surrounding her on the rocky hillside. She jumped involuntarily with a loud outcry for extra emphasis. "Who's there?" She looked like a cat ready to spring. She could feel the sweat intensify on her body. The blood rushed to her extremities and then back again. She had been thinking how nice the solitary was, how much she enjoyed the brutal feel of the sun on her head. "Who's that?" "Ma’am, I'm going to say this again. Stop moving." The voice was slow and drawly but not southern. Somehow she knew it wasn't southern. Suddenly she heard a sound she had only ever heard in movies or on the Nature Channel. The rattle was unmistakably sinister and being a city girl like she was, well suburb girl like she was, it almost didn't sound real. But it was real, she could tell. And it was close, too close for comfort. "Ok. I will." She held her hands up like she was under arrest. "You got it?" She heard the voice again. Her eyes scanned the brown grass and dried bushes surrounding her. She saw nothing. What did that mean? Did she have it? Have what? "Yeah, I got it." Another voice, closer. She almost turned her head in the direction of the sound waves but caught herself. The rattle sounded again and she couldn't prove it but it seemed closer. "When you're ready." Came that first voice again, calm like they were talking about what movie to see that night. The gun fired and echoed through the hills bouncing from side to side just like in a Western movie. She jumped in spite of her order. The dry dirt splayed up in a puff with little shards shooting through the air to cut at her ankles. When the noise abated sitting before her was the open carcass of the snake. She almost collapsed in relief. Her limbs were weak and wobbly. "Good one." She heard the chuckle of the first guy. Finally, a bush about twenty feet away rattled with movement as he popped up. He was dressed in brown military fatigues. He was holding a gun and brushing himself off casually as he walked over to her. "You alright ma’am?" She could tell her nod was as wobbly as her legs. "Why don't you sit for a minute?" He gestured at a red sandy ledge that looked like a small bench. She nodded her agreement swallowing back the bile that was now bubbling up. Her body was in full adrenaline release. "That was close. You shouldn't be walking up here alone like that." He handed her a canteen and she noticed how his skin was darkly tanned from the sun with light hairs contrasting on his arms. He squatted down on his thick legs even though he wasn't much taller than her even though she was sitting. "Just out for a walk?" "Yeah." She was finally finding her voice. "A hike. Try, tryin, trying to exercise a little. I guess." He had friendly eyes that nodded their approval. "It's beautiful. But you gotta be careful. Lots of rattlers around here. You're not from here." "N-no, I'm not." She looked around wondering where the other guy went. "I can tell." A soft smile crossed his full lips until his white teeth broke through. It was a nice smile. Something about his face was comforting. Then as if he read her mind he called out loudly. "You comin' Richards?" He came out from behind some trees about 30 feet away. How had he gotten there without her noticing? She was positive he had been closer earlier. "Yeah, had to whiz." He was still zipping up and she looked away embarrassed. She wasn't used to being around boys, not with two sisters and an all-girl Catholic school as her daily life. He gave her a once over before asking, "you alright ma’am?" She nodded again looking up at him. "I am. Fine. Thank you.” She shaded her eyes thinking about how different they were, short and square, long and lean. The one thing they shared in common was that they were brick walls of muscles. That much was obvious. “I didn't realize it could be that dangerous out here." The one was still sitting on his haunches listening intently. The other, Richards, had apparently dismissed her. He was cracking open his gun nodding absently at her words. "Were you all hunting?" Richards smiled a slow smile that came on like a drawl. His laughing eyes met hers and she thought how beautiful his eyes were. Obviously she had amused him with her comment. "Well, you can't hunt much with a pellet gun. But it's fun to shake out some rattlers. They bounce like Mexican jumping beans when you hit them right." "Oh, they were pellet guns?" She took a better look and thought maybe that was obvious. The barrel was really narrow but otherwise it looked like a real gun. She didn't like guns. The idea she was up a mountain by herself with two big men and their weapons wasn't exactly comforting. Pellets guns seemed a little less dangerous. Truth was they didn't need any weapons. They were both clearly in top shape. Their biceps were bulging out of their tight kaki t-shirts and their legs were thick through the camouflage. If they decided to do something to her, she couldn't defend. That thought alone brought the adrenaline back. She cleared her throat and stood. "I-I probably should head down." She gave a smile that was more timid than she would have hoped for. She wished she was more like Sara, her older sister. Sara wasn't afraid of anything or anyone, especially men. The smaller one stood and stretched out his legs. "We'll walk with you." He smothered a laugh and she knew it was because panic must have set in across her face. "I'm John Howard. That's Darren, Darren Richards." "H-hi," she said quietly but it sounded like she shouted it out in the desert silence of mid-day. "I-I'm Laura." "Well nice to meet you, Laura. We're here in training down by the base." He had such a nice way about him. As if he knew she was scared and wanted to calm her. "Oh, oh, ok." Why were they on the property then? "You here on vacation?" He started to walk and looked back at her. Richards was behind her but she could feel him close like he had expected her to start as well and she hadn't. "It's alright. We'll keep you safe. Right Richards?" With a turn she could see that Richards was giving them his full attention finally and something about the intensity of his stare made her uncomfortable. He walked by with the barest crunch of gravel sounding. Instinctively she inched back. "Yeah, this what we do ma’am. Keep you safe." She sighed inwardly when he walked right by leaving her with John. John was much more her speed, polite and safe. "Well, ok." They walked for a few minutes down the steep incline. She slipped more than once and John half turned to offer up his hand. It was easy to slip her hand into his. His grasp was firm and sure and she felt like even if she fell he'd catch her. She could tell he was used to using his hands to work. They were rough and a little dry. When they got to a level area, he smiled up at her, gave her hand a squeeze and dropped it. "So you visiting?" "Yes, yes, we're renting the Fischer cottage." John nodded appreciatively. Cottage was a glaring misnomer for the 10 bedroom, sprawling lake home. "Old man Fischer's place huh. Nice. How long you been here?" "Almost a month. We're here for five more days through the end of July." In her head she knew she shouldn't be sharing this much information with two strangers. "Well, it's a great time of year to be here. Perfect weather." She was a slick mess of sweat. The desert feel of the air was almost oppressive, but she knew, come nightfall, it would drop just as quickly as it rose. "Are you from here?" John smiled that open smile of his again. "Yeah, grew up down at Hidden Views." He laughed at her confused look. "It's a development down the way." Richards hooted loudly. "Now, Chow, that's what I call pure fiction." John blushed a little then smiled sheepishly. "It's a trailer park." "Oh." She tried to nod pleasantly, to reassure him, but she had nothing to add to the conversation. She didn't know the first thing about trailer parks other than from the evening news. "Are you from here, Darren?' He laughed. "Not quite so swanky a place as Hidden Views. No. But pretty damn similar, only way worse. Right, Chow?" John laughed out. "All depends on your perspective, Richards." Richards cackled and they all walked on through the thick air for a while in silence, in their own thoughts. John suddenly looked back at her and asked, "you been to the cove yet?" "The cove?' She noticed his eyes flit down to her lips. Could he see the hairs there? Why didn't she take more time to groom herself like Sara? Even Jenna liked to preen. She wiped her mouth and felt the layer of moisture as she did. He turned with a nod of his head. "C'mon, it's on the way." "Not really," Richards complained but turned his direction to head a new way. They walked on, the terrain getting softer, wetter as they went. She could tell they were nearing water. The guys were bantering back and forth and if she had any confidence she might have thought it was because of her, to impress her. But she wasn't so sure of that so she laughed along enjoying the unexpected moment and the exciting feel of being in the company of two boys that she didn't think were that much older than her. They reached a deep puddle that John tracked knee deep across without thought. He turned once he climbed up in the mouth of the cave and waved them over. "Not too deep. Come on in." Darren jumped in and turned to Laura. She was standing in indecision at the ledge. She was wearing her new hiking boots and she didn't really want everything wet. Darren held up his hands and said, "c'mon Princess. We won't get you all messed up." She felt his long fingers close around her waist and she wished immediately that she hadn't eaten breakfast or anything else for the past week or so. They squished into her soft middle with a firm grasp and lifted her with a strength from his hard frame like she weighed no more than a doll. She wasn't exactly a small girl. He grinned up at her as he arched her over to John. She knew her face had to match the red color of her mother's roses back at their ocean home garden. It wasn't the heat or exercise causing her flush. John took her two hands as she planted her feet on the other side and without much effort he pulled her upright. For a terrifying second, she thought Darren might plant his hand on her bottom to push her up. Trying to avoid such a mortifying and revealing moment she turned quickly to assure him. Her movements were too rapid for the slick area and her stability was too shaky to keep her feet from slipping out from under her. It was a long and short trip down from her feet to her bottom which cushioned her nicely on the rocky ledge. It was a slightly more breathless trip over that ledge into the shocked arms of Darren. And it was straight up embarrassing to finish the entire spectacle straddling a stranger, soaked in muddy wetness. There was a lopsided grin on his face which sat only moments away from hers. "So you wanted to swim?" "Oh my god, I'm so sorry." She pushed up haphazardly not paying attention to her hands which fell inconveniently on a very private part of him. In her horror, she slipped again and ended up sitting directly next to him. She dropped her head slightly, mortified, wishing the ground might open up and take her away from there as fast as possible. "Oh my god," she whispered like a prayer that might grant her the wish to crawl under a rock only to reappear long after they left. "C'mon Princess. There's real swimming on the other side of this mud hole." He helped her up and for the coup de grâce his hand did have to plant rather firmly on her bottom in order to get her up from where they had fallen. She could feel it sinking in, getting lost a little in the wide area. John grabbed her at the top and brought her over. The entire moment took about ten seconds, ten pride swallowing, body shaming moments, in her head, to herself, of course. She was still sitting in shame when Darren crawled over and announced, "Well, I say let's do this for real." Without hesitation he began stripping off his wet t-shirt revealing a rippled stomach and unbuckling his pants. Something must have been on her face - shock, confusion, elation, shock - because he stopped before he actually slipped them off. "I'm wearin' underwear. It's ok, right?" "Uhh, uh, yeah." She looked away to John and then immediately looked to the ground in front of her realizing her mistake. John was already in underwear and preparing to jump into the water that pooled into the cave from the lake. Did they expect her to do the same? Uhhh, that wasn't happening. Not yet. Maybe in another month when she shed those 15, well 20, ok 25 pounds. Maybe then. Not now. They could visit her at home and then she’d be game. "Come on in with your clothes." John offered helpfully as he sent a violent splash at Darren who groaned his disapproval at this advice. She nodded absently. Was this really happening? She was about to jump when John cut into her summer of love thoughts. "Probably want to take your boots off first. You're safe, feet don't turn us on. Well at least me. He's a total perv." Darren jumped hard on John and they wrestled in that guy way as she followed John's apt advice. She was about to jump again when Darren spoke up. "Don't dive. It's not that deep." She nodded and changed course doing a loose cannon ball. She emerged with a wet contented smile. "Feels good huh?" John swam by close and tugged at her arm. "Really good." Darren agreed as he did the back stroke away from them. "Right back." He dove deep and disappeared. She exchanged shy glances with John as he swam by again and brushed her for no real reason. She realized Darren hadn't reappeared and asked, "is he ok?" John looked over to the calm water where Darren had dived down. "Oh yeah, if you go deep enough you can find the hole where the water gets into here." She gave him a smile and he continued, "Gotta be able to hold your breath for a decent clip. So don't go trying it. I don't want you to get hurt." He ran his hand over his short brown crop that was black as night when wet. He looked embarrassed, like he felt like he'd said too much. "Anyway." "That's kinda cool. How did you all find this place?" John looked around reliving what must have been childhood memories because his next words were, "used to come as kids. Old man Fischer was a sucker for kids. He has a rule that any of us kids or our families are free to come and hang on the property whenever - provided we don't make a nuisance of ourselves. I bet if you read your parents lease it says something in there about it." "Oh, I'll check it out." Something about the fact that they might be back to hang out on the property excited her and made her hopeful for what might make for a memorable last week to what had been a dry family vacation. She wished her best friend Michelle had been able to come after all. She didn't have much experience with boys not being as sheltered as she was with no brothers for inside information. A mental laugh bounced around her head. Sara had no problem with boys and she was just as handicapped. But Sara was beautiful, the kind of girl everyone chased - boys, girls, men, women. Laura thought maybe this summer she might get a little of that confidence. She wasn't so terrible, pretty, maybe a little heavy but she was going to lose that this summer, so that wouldn't be an issue soon. She wasn't so terrible. "Whatcha thinking about?" John was floating nearby with a curious look. She shook her head shyly. She'd work on confidence tomorrow. "You know you shouldn't be out here with us." Her stomach fell a little. He didn't like being around her. She was kind boring. She never had interesting things to say or cool things she'd recently done. "Out here with two boys you don't know. You could get hurt." Suddenly the safe and calm she had been feeling went away and a fear prickled her because he was right. He chuckled, "don't get your hackles up. You're a little like a scared cat. I gotta remember that," he said almost to himself. "We're not going to hurt you. But don't be so trusting next time." As she nodded her agreement Darren broke through the surface with aloud gasp. "Crap, almost died there!" He was gasping and smiling at the same time. "It's a total rush. You want to try?" He said it to her with the enthusiasm of a child. He seemed to float between cynicism and elation pretty easily but she had a feeling he fell more on the cynical side. Something about him told her life hadn't been easy for him. "She's not doing that. It's too deep. And the bottom is really long before you break on the other side. Then she's got to get back up to the top. No way. Not today." He looked at her seriously and she decided she'd wait until tomorrow to start doing interesting things that she might be able impress people with over conversation. Safety first. "Whatever." Darren shrugged and then swam up to her quickly. He grabbed her hips again and drag her so close she thought he was going to kiss her. Oh my god, was he going to kiss her? What did she have for lunch? But he only leered in for a moment before pushing her away while he said, "when you're ready, Princess, I'll take you down." "When she's ready, I'll take her." John shot back with a bit of anger. Darren held up his hands in surrender but winked at her before diving again. Were they fighting over her? Whatever kind of crazy reality had taken over on this extended hike, well, she hoped it never ended. They were sitting outside again drying off in the late afternoon sun. She was water logged and perfectly happy. A general sense of comfort and nervousness was washing over them. They weren't friends, yet, but they might be soon. Something about that idea seemed to sit well with all of them she could tell. She knew that they had join the Marines a year ago when they were eighteen and they’d been placed together as roommates. She knew John joined because it was all he ever wanted to do and Darren joined because he didn’t think there was anything else for him to do. They were both in an elite program that they wouldn't reveal to her and they were fast friends. Finally, Darren stretched and sat up. "Well, Chow? Motivate?" She laughed and asked the question that had been lingering on her mind for the afternoon. "Why does he call you Chow?" John scrunched his face in a funny way and replied, "'cause I look like one, the dog." They all laughed but she thought it was a little mean almost, even if kind of true. John didn't seem to mind and for not the first time, as she had been told often, she thought she needed to lighten up a little, not take things so close to heart. Sometimes a joke, even if a little mean, was only a joke. She could tell they were more than only friends. They had said so themselves, brothers from another mother. That meant more than properly staged manners and words from people who only cared about what you thought of them and nothing else. The same people who would likely cut you down behind your back with joy. Those kind certainly wouldn't ever stick their neck out for you or anyone else, not like she guessed these two would for each other. Darren held out his hand to her and she took it to let him pull her up. "Let's go, Princess. I bet someone's getting worried about you." She nodded her agreement and wished she didn't care that her parents were probably quite worried at that point. "Yeah, I need to get back." They hiked downward for a few minutes of peaceful silence before she said, "I can't believe how much the weather has changed in the last hour." "Yup, it'll be a cold one," John agreed. "Always is, hotter the day, colder the night." Darren leaned closed to her face and said with inflection, "and it was hot today." She laughed at his silliness. "Back off dude. You're freaking her out. She won't want to hang with us again." They wanted to hang again? With her? Maybe they'd want to make this a standing date. She could make sandwiches and some cupcakes. No, no food. What was she thinking? No food. She could bring lemonade. "I bet she will. We're fun." Darren slipped an arm about her waist and brought her snug against him. She had never had this much male attention showered on her, well, ever. She flushed immediately. "Wanna get some pizza with us tonight? Some of the guys go down to the pizza place on Fridays. Not much else to do in this nowhere town." "Hey!" "Well now, Chow, you know I love you man. But there's nothing here. If we died right now, nobody would find us. Not even Sarge." "You're knocking paradise. Right Laura?" John looked back at her with a smile. He had the kind of smile that brought you in and made you loyal. "It been pretty wonderful so far." She somehow checked her disappointed sigh as Darren's arm slipped away from her and he walked up a few steps closer to John. "You and that puppy dog face. They always fall for that face." Darren shook his head as he paced well ahead. Still he called back over his shoulder, "you coming for pizza or what?" She laughed, finding her confidence with them, "what kind of invitation was that?" "I asked nice and then you went and took Chow's side." She wished she could say yes, but she knew it had to pass her parents litmus test first. "Where's it at?" "Down the mountain, in town." John was offering her his hand again as they all slipped down the steep grade. "I have to check with my parents. In-in case they have plans for us." She added quickly hoping they didn't think she was a baby that needed to check in with her parents for everything, even though she did. She was only sixteen. Suddenly a thought crossed her mind and her hand slapped her right bottom. "Oh no." Both guys turned to look at her. "I lost my phone. Must have been when we were swimming." John squeezed her hand sympathetically. He still had a firm grasp as she had almost taken him and Darren out with her last slip. "Shoot sorry." She was quiet for a bit before she said very softly, "I'm not." Somehow John didn't hear her but Darren did because he half turned to give her a thumbs up and a lopsided smile. The house loomed up and as soon as it did her face and mood fell exponentially. Out front were Jenna and Sara. Jenna was no problem. But Sara. She felt a puss coming over her face even though she was trying to be cool, stay friendly and happy because she was sure guys liked that more than cat fights. But Sara. Everything was about to change. She couldn't get mad at them. They wouldn't be able to help themselves. It was just the way it was. They walked up as a group still joking about something. Jenna noticed them first. "Holy cow, there you are. Mom and Dad are flippin'." And then she did a back flip for effect. She was always practicing her tumbles. Sara was swinging on the lazy rope swing under the live oak. She stopped in mid swing and turned once then did a double take. She clearly had not expected Laura to show up with two strange men. She sized them up quickly and Laura could tell she had set her sights on Darren. Something about that bothered Laura but it was the obvious choice to someone who led their life by the surface and only the surface. She did that thing where she straightened up her spine in that pretty way and tossed her mane of hair over one shoulder. The smile came next. No teeth. Teeth made you looked desperate. No, slow spreading almost Mona Lisa-ish. These were all tips Sara had given Laura that Laura thus far had been incapable of affecting. "Hi Laura." If Laura didn't know that everything in Sara's brain was firing with the word 'boys! boys! boys!', she would have been confused by the friendly greeting. They were unfortunate enemies. Cordial but calculating - like Kim and Beyonce, Katie and Tom, the US and Russia. "Hi, where's Mom?" Laura looked at the ground and swallowed her disappointment as Sara bounced up to greet them. She made a point of putting her hands on her slim waist and cocking once of those ‘thigh gap’ legs of hers to drive home the point that she looked better in a bikini than just about anyone they might ever see again. They were goners. Laura knew they were probably mesmerized already and she refused to look over to see how much. "She's inside. You going to introduce your friends?" She was the sort of girl that looked as if she sparkled even if it was only the sunshine reflecting off her golden hair. "Oh, this is John and Darren." Laura finally forced herself to look over. In the brief seconds it took to scan from John to Darren she went from crushed to elated. John was floored, star struck, which was the natural reaction to Sara, the reaction everyone expected. But Darren was smiling at Laura before he turned his attentions to Sara to nod his greeting. Her heart raced a little at that unexpected reality. John was quick to rebound and hold out a hand. "Good to meet you, ma’am." He said but instead of smiling at Sara he smiled at Laura, as if he realized his mistake. Her eyes shifted down shyly. Were these the first two guys not lost to Sara's powers? "We found your sister hiking and thought we'd bring her back before the night fell." "Wow, very gallant of you," Sara half smiled at John but her eyes kept flitting over to Darren who seemed disinterested in the whole the scene. Laura gave the guys a shy glance before mumbling, "right back." She reluctantly walked away as Sara's voice chimed out in a melodic aphrodisiac that men simply couldn't resist. Even if they hadn't' fallen prey to her yet, they would soon. She hurried her shuffles taking the porch steps two at a time to meet her mom as that lady was walking out of the front door. "My god! Laura. Do you know how worried we have been? We just called the police.” "You did?" Laura tried to hide her shock. She didn't think she'd been gone that long. "Yes, young lady. It's after four. You left after lunch. You need to go inside and get cleaned up for dinner." Her mom's eyes floated over her shoulder obviously taking in the scene in her front yard. "Laura, who are those boys?" Her mom's horrified eyes suddenly started sizing up Laura's half wet state of dishevel. "What have you been doing?" "Calm down. I met them on my walk, Mom. They actually saved me from a rattlesnake. They are stationed at the base but one of them grew up here. He comes to the house occasionally. He said Mr. Fischer has a standing rule about it." She could see by her mother's reaction none of this was news to her. "Oh, oh ok, well, I should thank these young men." Before Laura could stop the embarrassing steam roll of acknowledging that she had parents, her mother was heading down the stairs calling out loudly. "Hello!" The guys looked over immediately and she noticed how Darren's eyes locked on her and stayed there, however appropriate or not. John the obvious diplomat of the group smiled broadly and held out a hand to her mother. "Hello, ma’am." Well, that was all it would take. Laura knew it. Her parents were painfully old fashioned and manners like that we're all they needed even if it was Hannibal Lector shaking their hand. "Hello, and you are?" "I'm John, ma’am. And that's Darren." Darren shifted his eyes from Laura seconds before her mother turned to him. He put on a megawatt smile that as of yet that day Laura had never seen. It lit up his face and made those eyes of his shimmer. He had a dimple in his chin that had to be irresistible to anyone. He said in that harmlessly flirtatious way, "pleasure to meet you, ma’am. Now I see why beauty runs in the family." Laura started to cringe at that corny line until she heard her mother giggle and offer, "why thank you? Aren't you charming?” He followed up with what was an even wider, more beaming smile. Laura gave him a lopsided smile. She didn't think he had it in him. "I hear we owe you some thanks." Darren shrugged keeping that smile. Laura could see it pulling her mom in and making her comfortable with the idea of these two guys suddenly in her daughter's life. He was the movie star of the duo, the one who made the women sigh. “It was nothing. Just glad we were there to help." "Well we're very grateful." "What happened?" Jenna flipped over to them and stopped upright, flushed, with her hair wildly about. The look on her face was curiosity tinged with concern. Sara was staring down Darren shamelessly and to Laura's total delight he wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention to her. "Your sister came up on a snake out there." John said. "You gotta be careful when you're outside around here. Lots of rattlers. Don't go wandering." Her warned her seriously and chuckled when she nodded back just as seriously. "We were talking to Laura about getting some Pizza tonight at Pizzarella's. Down the mountain." Darren broke in again. He pointed in a direction as if her mother had any idea of direction. If they had to rely on her mom to get them out of there, they would have to become mountain people. She had no sense of direction. Her mother gave a flicker of a frown. "Well.." "We'll have her home by 11. Promise." He flashed that smile again and Laura could almost swear he flexed those biceps that were bulging under his t-shirt. "I-I," her mom stuttered. Was she nervous? This was hysterical. None of Sara's boyfriends ever made her mom nervous. In fact, her mom was a stone cold one to all the guys Sara brought home probably because they were likely future felons. These guys couldn't look more all American. And she guessed there was something about a guy in uniform. "I guess. If Sara can go as well." Laura died a little inwardly, but she knew this was about as good a deal as she would get. It was a miracle she was even being allowed to go. They kept a tight lock on them, not that it helped with Sara. She was boy crazy. She chanced a look at Sara who was beaming triumphantly and staring down Darren. Laura's reluctant eyes flashed over to confirm her fears that Darren had finally succumbed to her sister's charms. A small breath of joy filled her when she found his eyes locked on her and not Sara. As she processed this unfathomable reality, she shifted back to Sara who looked angry, confused, jealous and a little murderous. Sara regrouped quickly, tossed that mane of hers and smiled her second most powerful smile, the Victoria Secret model smile, soft, pretty, pouty. "Sounds like fun." Darren looked ecstatic. "Ladies," he said as they started backing away. "We'll be back around seven?" Both sisters nodded their agreement and Laura couldn't help but wonder what sort of image they presented side by side: Sara petite and lean, she average and not so lean. She knew she should move away so that the guys didn't try to form the obvious conclusions about the more desirable sister, but she was rooted by Darren's relentless attention to her and the fact that John couldn't seem to make up his mind which one he wanted. She never stood in contention with any guy in any way when Sara was around. This was all so new. And that the one with the face and eyes and height and hair and body and everything all of her teeny romances told her she should like, and that she agreed she liked, seemed to like her back - well, it was blissfully confounding to say the least. She gave a small hand wave down by her side and Darren gave her the slightest inclination of a wink before putting that smile of his on Sara. She could feel Sara beam back and it crushed her a little inwardly to see his small insignificant gesture of kindness to her sister and it sapped away most of the confidence she had built up that afternoon, like water evaporating in the dessert sun, replaced again by the dry sands of her unworthiness. *** They blared the music while she got ready that evening. Her dad was already sitting vigil in the front study awaiting their guests. He didn't like the idea at all and he wouldn't be swayed by the guys looks or charms. He didn't trust Sara emphatically and he certainly didn't want Laura to be corrupted if he could avoid it. All of this they had heard with ears pressed against the library door where her father had created his work command center for their month away. She really hoped that the guys came dressed nicely like in their formal uniforms or a three-piece suit, something, anything that hid their tattoos and impressed her father. Sara had gone on and on about the one peeking out from Darren's left arm sleeve. Both guys had two tattoos that were barely visible other than a glimpse, covered by their t-shirts. Sara loved guys with tattoos. To Laura, the whole idea of a guy with a tattoo felt like Adam Levine or Ryan Sheckler but better, interested in her, kind of, well it seemed so earlier. "You can't wear that Laura!" "Shhh, she'll hear," Laura hissed at Jenna. They had the music blaring to help disguise their conversation. Sara was in her war room pulling out all the stops to end whatever madness had occurred earlier where the guys hadn't fallen hand over feet to lick her toes in adoration. All that 'maybe Laura wouldn't be so bad' nonsense needed to end. Looking at herself in the mirror, Laura didn't think she looked so bad. She had on some loose jeans and a tank with a red and black check flannel thrown over. She was planning on wearing her Sanuks. "What's wrong with this? It looks casual." "But it's a date right?" Jenna nodded her encouragement in the mirror. "You know what she's putting on right now. Rich ho gear. You want to compete, right? So he keeps interested?” Laura almost felt bad for John. It was obvious she and Sara were in a, so far, subtle fight for the final attentions of Darren. John, in all his niceness, was being slowly forgotten. "Dad's not going to let her out of here like that you know that." "Yeah, but she'll get out of here in something that will take over the conversation." "Yeah," Laura felt defeated already. Jenna bounded up and pulled out a dress. It was short, much shorter than most things Laura ever wore. She needed to cover up her bubbling knees and lack of thigh gap and thick calves and, and, well surely something else was wrong down there but she couldn't put her finger on it at the moment. She shook her head, "no not that." Jenna looked disappointed, "why not? You look great in it and you never wear it. You have to wear it." "Not tonight ok," Laura begged and she knew Jenna would never force her. "If we go out again." "Ahhh, ok. Let's see. Ok, these." She pulled out a pair of boyfriend jeans cut girlie style, tight in the right place, loose others, cropped and rolled. She found the silky white tank they had bought to go with the jeans that Laura never wore and the strappy white and black sandals with their inches that finished the look to a T. It had all been bought together and then never worn. "This. And I won't take no." Jenna flopped back on the bed with a defiant look. Laura smiled, "ok this." She could wear this, maybe stand against the wall all night so nobody could see her flabby upper arms. She got dressed and they did her hair in a full blow out. Jenna was a magician with a round brush and hairdryer. Then Jenna did her makeup. When they finished they stood in her three sided floor length mirror "Wow Laura. You really are beautiful." Laura rolled her eyes and Jenna swatted her hard. "You are. If you'd give yourself a break." For a second Laura maybe agreed, until she noticed how wide she looked in the hips and how even the billowy forgiving nature of her tank couldn't hide the obvious roll underneath and, and, well and. Her arms instinctively came up to fold over her body. Jenna yanked them down hard. "No. You look great. No matter what she comes out in. You look great." They stared each other down in the mirror for a few long moments. Jenna was ever Laura's protector. She had the confidence of the baby of the family but the kindness as well. She was destined to give Sara a run for her money when the time came and it would be no contest because she was beautiful on the inside and outside. The dogs started barking downstairs and they both smiled. "They're here." They said together. Laura took one last nervous glance at her image in the mirror and sighed. "You look great." Jenna took her hand firmly and started to walk her out of the room. She must have known Laura was secretly contemplating feigning illness to avoid going in spite of how much she wanted to go. Hand in hand they left her room and were almost at the stairs when Sara came bounding out. She was in a micro dress cut to there and strappy stilettos. Her hair and makeup was perfect. She was perfect. And Laura felt her hands start to sweat and her face start to flush and she wished she had stuck with the 'I didn't try outfit'. Then the 'I tried but failed' outfit wouldn't look so glaring. She started to pull back but Jenna had a fighter's grip on her hand. She gave Laura a searing look and yanked her along. "Hey girls," Sara sang as she swept past them. "You look… cute, Laura." "Thanks," Laura mumbled. Cute. Yep. Sara looked like a hot goddess and Laura looked cute. Like bunny rabbits. Only bunny rabbits could be mean and bite and scratch and Laura couldn't even do that. She wished she could think of one of those ‘nice nasties’ too. Sara was great at them. A lot of girls were. But Laura wasn't. Laura was face value. She wasn't good at playing that game. She never would be. And she knew she'd always be behind because of it. So her compliment was genuine when it came out. “You look great." "Thanks," Sara called over her shoulder confidently. There was never any doubt about that. The closer to the bottom they got the louder the voices drifting over to them sounded. She could hear her father and it sounded like he was laughing. These guys must have had some magic pixie dust they were sprinkling on her parents. Sara bounded in ahead and put on her megawatt smile. Teeth were permissible when you were showing someone how great you looked and how excited you were for them to see how great you looked. Jenna gave Laura a tight side hug before letting her go and following Sara into the room. Laura came in slowly and stood to the side as close to the corner as she could. She didn't want to see their reaction to Sara. "Hi, Laura," John was peeking around Sara who was moving over to Darren with what Laura knew Sara liked to refer to as her supermodel walk. Laura looked at John and smiled. "Hi." They were both dressed in kaki’s and golf shirts. This was a plus, plus in her father's eyes. "You clean up nicely." She laughed at his silly grimace. "You too," he was obviously appreciative of the way she looked and it helped. "You ready Darren? The guys are probably waiting on us." She finally took a moment to look over at Darren. Sara had attached to his side and he looked great, tan and just everything. He was obviously enjoying Sara's company which hurt even though it shouldn't, but his eyes were on Laura and that didn't hurt, not at all. They said a quick good bye, with her dad even offering them to come in as late as twelve as long as they called by ten to let them know. They walked down the gravel path to the huge shiny truck in the driveway. Darren pulled out some keys and headed to the driver's side. Sara immediately called shotgun claiming she got sick when she sat in the back. She was already reaching for the handle before anyone could call her bluff. She smiled back triumphantly at Laura. Laura plodded along thinking how nice John was and that there wasn't any real reason to feel like she lost if he was the one who became her summer love. John smiled at her and tugged her arm, "well, kid, you and me back there." To her surprise, Darren slipped a snug arm around her waist and began leading her over to the driver's side. She wished immediately she had worn her spanx, but it could be seen through the gauzy nature of the shirt. "Don't forget you two have a chaperone tonight." He threw it over his shoulder as he led her to the driver's side backseat door. He opened it for her and helped her up gently before closing it again. When she turned from the daydreaming haze she had let herself float into, Sara was glaring at her. Advantage, Laura. Laura laughed inwardly to herself. The pizza parlor was nothing special and when they arrived they were met by a group of young guys and girls some of whom were regular civilians like themselves and others who were Marines like John and Darren. Sara was in desperate for attention hog heaven because in this group Darren wasn't necessarily the best looking. She was having a hard time splitting her efforts between keeping his attention on her while also gaining the attention of the other desirables. "Having fun?" Sara sang out to Laura as she swung by. She had a beer in hand and Laura wondered who she'd persuaded to get that for her. Laura smiled over her iced tea but didn't bother answering. Sara wasn't interested in her reply anyway. She was cozying up to Josh the new hottest guy in the group. He'd just arrived. Luckily for Sara he seemed to be tight with Darren so it put her two objects of interest in close proximity. She wouldn't have to split her efforts too much. Laura hid a disgusted sneer as she sipped her drink again. Sara was so transparent. "She likes attention, huh?" John was lounged back with his legs stretched out watching the same show Laura was. Though his question was for Laura, his eyes were trained on Sara and there was a hint of wistfulness. "Yeah. How could you tell?" Laura gave him a helpless shrug. Poor guy, he was trying not to be, but he was interested and he must have known that only if he was the only guy there would he have even a halfway shot with Sara. He chuckled, "oh, I just could." Sara was bouncing back and forth between Josh and Darren. Josh was taking her signals positively, occasionally dishing out some PDA. Darren kept looking over at Laura and John, almost like he'd rather be with them. It gave her a little bit more hope. She started to realize how pitiful it was to need every single eye on her. Darren was awesome, hot was an understatement, and if he had eyes for Laura those would be the only eyes she ever needed on her. By then the music had started playing and some of them were dancing. Laura watched it all from her seat. She had no intention of dancing. It was no surprise when Sara headed out to the floor with Josh. His hand was sitting unapologetically on her butt. Sara couldn't dance the two step, but she didn't need to because she was fluent in the international language of men. She pressed her body to his and soon they weren't even really dancing anymore, just obscenely swaying. After a few more sways, he led her out a side door. Laura shouldn't care. It was Sara and she could handle herself. Still it was nagging to know Sara would walk out into the night with someone she had met only minutes before. While Laura was contemplating all of this, tugging on her lip nervously, John spoke. "Hey," his voice was soft and reassuring. "She's ok. He's a decent guy. Let's dance." Laura smiled at him, shaking her worry off a little. "I don't know how." He stood up and took her hands and pulled her up easily. "It's easy. Follow my lead." It was easy, really easy. Laura made the mental note to stop questioning herself and try things even if she didn't know how. She knew that conviction would last through the dance and not much longer than that. After a few songs, a slow one came on and the inevitable awkwardness struck shortly after. They cleared their throats and shifted uncomfortably as the couples began pouring out onto the floor. "Want something to drink?" He asked gamely. She nodded with relief, " yes please." They were walking off the floor when Darren's arm came around her again. It was becoming so familiar she knew even before she looked up into his smile that it was him. "I think it's my turn now." He winked at her and didn't wait for John to protest. Before she could protest, she was being molded to him, not unlike Sara. But there was something sweet about the way Darren was holding her. His hands weren't roaming her body as if she was a piece of meat on display for everyone to see how lucky he was. No, they were firm on the small of her back just above the curve of her bottom and his cheek was leaning softly on her temple. She could smell the slightest bit of clean smelling cologne and man. It was the perfect combination. It was the perfect assault of her desires and the comfort and obvious affection he seemed to have for her made it easy for her to reach up a little and bring him that much closer. She must have tapped an unknown signal because his arms tightened. One slowly ran up her back to wrap her neck softly. As his thumb was gently stroking her chin he said quietly in her ear, "I want to show you something." Incapable of words, she nodded her agreement. She floated out behind him marveling at their intertwined fingers. It's was so exciting holding his hand she didn't even notice he was leading her out the same door Sara had left through. When the cold dessert air hit her square in the face, the romantic stupor floated away bringing back reality. Hadn’t she just mentally reprimanded Sara for this same behavior? She didn't know him and it looked like he wanted to lead her away from the crowd. Years of training sounded warning bells in her ear. When he started to walk off towards the back of the restaurant, she resisted a little. She wanted to, but then again maybe not. He stopped with a curious smile and cupped her face. He leaned down and placed a soft, not exactly short, kiss on her cheek and she commanded her legs not to buckle. "I'll take care of you, Princess. Promise." She wondered what he intended to protect her from, himself or other dangers? She sighed shakily, "ok. For a minute." He smiled that smile of his. "Long as you want," he assured her. They walked hand in hand until they reached the edge. Below was a straight and dangerous drop. Out was the most magnificent view of the lake that she had seen yet. The dim lights of faraway homes glowed in tandem with the soft light of the star filled night. He wrapped an arm around her waist and she thought about how she wasn't so worried anymore that he could feel the softness there. He ducked close, bringing his chin almost her level and pointed out. "Follow my finger." He kept pointing until her head was situated in about the right direction. “See that cluster of lights with the red and green?" She nodded. "That's your house. Well, old man Fischer's house." She smiled, “how do you know?” He straightened and she felt his distance immediately. “John told me. We've been going there all summer. Shootin’ rattlers.” He bent and picked up a sandy rock and hurled it into the inky hole. He added almost wistfully, “wish I'd known.” The wind was lightly ruffling them. Her hair was floating and falling as she tried to sweep it out of her eyes. “Wish you'd known what?” He stepped too close for comfort and gathered her hair in his hands loosely at the base of her neck. His arms rested on her shoulders with the perfect amount of weight. “Wish I'd known you were there.” Her smile spread with a whoosh of air leaving her lungs. She struggled with what to say next. Her limited experience with Davis Beachum, a year or so ago, fumbling with words, neither really ready for that adult reality, seemed so juvenile now. So did all of the other bumblings they had together. Darren wasn't fumbling and she guessed he had enough experience to terrify her. Her search for words ended in the dumbest thing ever. “Not Sara?” How could he want her with Sara right there willing? Was he playing with her? A mean game? Could people really be that cruel? His nose crinkled in distaste and there was humor in his answer, “Sara? Give me little credit.” It was her turn to be surprised. “R-really? But everyone loves her.” He smoothed her hair back and shifted her a little closer. A wave of heat swept over her in spite of the cold wind. “Yeah, for a time. I guess. ‘Till they realize there’s nothing there. You can only be with that for so long. She's not my type. And honestly she's not most guy’s type.” In spite of the tingles and insecurity she asked, “w-what is your type?” He smiled tilting his head so close she knew this was it. That night she would get kissed by someone who made her knees weak. When his lips were almost on top of hers he said so softly she almost didn't hear, “you.” Then his mouth touched hers softly pressing. He was the perfect tall for her. Their heads tilted without effort. Her hands clung to his forearms. His hands were still wrapped about her neck. She could taste the slight wet of his mouth as she inched closer. Wanting more she raised up on her toes pushing her mouth deeper into his. Apparently she had discovered another signal because he wrapped her in tight, twisting his mouth to dominate hers. When his tongue pressed her to open she did and they both groaned a little. Her head was spinning so much she started smiling like a mad woman. He pulled back with a curious look but she wrapped her arms around his head reaching for his lips. She was still smiling when the kiss grew so deep that he couldn’t press her any closer to him. His hands were firm on her bottom as he folded her in half. All the confusion and excitement hit truth quickly when he quietly slipped a hand under her shirt. The burning heat from his hand splaying across her belly then traveling around to rest on her naked back jarred her and made her push hard on his shoulders. He didn't let go but he did end the kiss with a questioning look. She was breathing deeply, “I, I, uhh.” “Ewww,” the unmistakable squeal of Sara sounded out. Laura jumped and tried to move away but Darren held her firmly by his side. After a moment she wondered why she had felt like she needed to move at all. It was just a kiss. And judging from Sara’s thrashed hair and ripped zipper and the dirt on her legs, she and Josh hadn't just been kissing. There was a glittering mean to her eyes. “I can't wait to tell Dad.” “I-it was just a kiss.” “What are going to tell him about you, Sara? I can smell the sex on you from here. Where's Josh?” Darren threatened loudly enough to bring Sara’s surprised look. Sara sneered and looked at the bar. “I'm going in.” “Yeah you do that.” He countered and she lost a lot of her bravado. “Well aren't you guys going in?” She seemed hesitant. He wrapped Laura up in his arms rubbing the goosebumps crawling up her arms. “Not this minute.” Sara huffed and stalked away. Laura waited until Sara rounded the corner to ask, “what was that?” He hunched over to kiss her neck as he laughed against her skin. “That, Beautiful, was a pissing match. And I just won. Your secret’s safe.” He swept her hair back from her shoulders admiring it. “Your hair is like autumn.” His eyes shifted to hers. “And your eyes are like summer rain.” His voice had a way of sending shivers up and down her spine. She sighed involuntarily. “That’s very poetic, beautiful really,” she whispered. “So are you,” he whispered back. Then his mouth closed over hers again before she could say anymore. It was eleven thirty. Sara was drunk enough that John didn't look so bad anymore. John was drunk enough that he didn't mind being sloppy seconds. Josh was firmly ensconced with his girlfriend who had caught him mid copulation with Sara. A lot of the dirt on Sara had more to do with the cat fight that had ensued than sex. Either way it was time to go. Laura was sitting on Darren's lap while he laughed at some story his friend was telling. He'd pretty much set his claim. Despite thinking she was a modern woman who wasn't like Sara and could make it without a man, or so she'd told herself, it felt pretty great sitting on the leg of a handsome Marine while his hand rested possessively around her waist. Every now and then it would stroke her thigh then find its resting place on the top curve of her waist. Reluctantly she shifted to move and his arm immediately tightened and his eyes found hers inquisitively. She cringed because the whole table hushed. “It's, uhh, umm it’s…” How did she say she had to go home without sounding like a 16-year-old baby? As if doing a mental shake Darren jerked up looking at his watch. “Shit. We gotta go. John and I have morning duty. And that is going to be one hurt puppy in the morning.” The table laughed their agreement as they took in John and Sara making out passionately, if sloppily, in the corner. Laura sighed relief that he'd given her an out. And when he winked at her as he slipped his hand over hers she knew that it had only been an excuse for her sake. He somehow herded the drunk ones out to his truck. As he tried to hand Sara into the back seat she plastered herself to him. Gone went Laura's confidence. He struggled briefly before getting her off and wiping his mouth a little dramatically on the back of his hand. He tossed her up roughly with a “get in. And if either of you two throw up in my truck so help me I'll make you clean it with your tongues.” He slammed the door cutting off Sara’s “eww.” He turned his attention back to Laura and she smiled as he pulled her to him with a wicked smile. The soft touch of his lips refilled her confidence meter enough for her to mold to his body and slip her arms around his neck. It was getting more and more comfortable, kissing and touching him and to have him kissing and touching her. He groaned his agreement to her thoughts, “I like kissing you, Laura.” She sighed. “I like it too.” Then her thoughts caught up to her words. “I-I mean I like kissing you.” He laughed and took her face in his hands to plant a hungry kiss. When he stopped he whispered more to himself, “why now?” She looked confused, “what?” He shook his head and opened the door. “Never mind. Let's get you home.” Inside the cabin she curled up into the soft leather as he walked around. She had noticed earlier the crucifix hanging next to a yen and yang pedant on his rear view. He jumped up and the heavy door sealed them in. It looked like he was going to put the key in the ignition then he stopped. He slumped back with a boyish smile then reached over quickly to kiss her again. He seemed to like having her face in his hands. She certainly didn't mind. When they pulled apart she said a little breathlessly, “I like your truck.” He looked proud. “Yeah?” She nodded smiling. “First thing I ever bought for myself. It's used. But it looks good. An old farmer had it for his Sunday ride before he passed. Bought it from his widow. Gonna take about 20 years before its mine…” He trailed off looking a little embarrassed that he’d said so much. She slid her hand over his and wove her fingers between. “Guess you have a really fancy car,” he stated with confidence. “Nothing like this.” She held her hands up when he huffed. “Really! Dad doesn't believe in spoiling us like that. It's a Toyota- safe and reliable.” It was her turn to trail off because it occurred to her it sounded like she was describing herself. He smiled exuberantly and slipped his hand around her bottom and slid her over to the middle seat. “Put your belt on, Princess. I gotta get you home before your dad runs me outta town.” They eased out and headed back up the mountain on the dark winding roads. She didn't like going up those roads during the day but something about sitting next to Darren, warmed by his body heat, left her calm and a little drowsy. Soon she rested her head on his shoulder and he rested his hand between her legs by her knees. From behind them they could hear the moaning and slurping of a heavy make out session. Laura snickered a little. When it sounded like they had moved on to more than sucking each other's face off, Darren turned awkwardly for a second to see what they were up to. He turned back quickly. “Uh uh, I don't think so. No! Not in my car. Put that away.” Laura bit her lip to contain her humor. The backseat lovers took his warning because it was only a few more minutes before light snoring started. They both laughed out at the sound. She snuggled closer to his side and he kissed her softly on the crown of her head. Before she was ready they were pulling into the cottage driveway. She hid her frown of disappointment when he killed the engine and turned to her. He kissed her again more passionately than he should have so close to her front porch before saying, “let's get sleeping beauty in.” Sara took that moment to let out a most undignified snort in her sleep as they look down into the back seat. They dissolved in laughter. He helped Laura out and then opened the door Sara was leaning heavily on. She flipped out into his arms. Laura stood back and watch him sweep her legs up. It was so effortless. Had Sara looked a little less like a used up starlet more jealousy might have bubbled up seeing her in his arms like that. But he turned to Laura with her favorite smile, the soft one, and questioning eyes. She led him in and her dad shuffled out of his library obviously caught off guard in sleep. He rubbed his eyes under his reading glasses and his greying hair was disheveled. “What happened?” He asked with concern. Laura shrugged, “Sara.” They were all familiar with Sara. He'd had to go out more than once in the middle of the night to drag her home. There was no obvious reason for the rebellion or behavior. She was just that person destined to be unhappy for life. There was a look of disappointment and shame in her father’s eyes as they passed. Laura led Darren up the stairs to Sara's room. He placed her on the bed and she immediately flopped to a totally unladylike position before snorting again. They laughed quietly and Darren took her hand to lead her back down the stairs. Her dad met them at the bottom and he clearly noted the hand holding but only smiled and kissed her brow. “Lock up sweetheart.” He shook Darren's free hand and added, “thank you, son.” He was shuffling upstairs as he chuckled, “I'm too old for you girls…” She led Darren to the porch where he placed a few long and lingering kisses on her lips. She liked kissing, especially him, much better than Davis Beachum. “Want to cliff jump tomorrow?” There was excitement in his eyes that was not reflected back from hers. “Ok,” she said hesitantly. She didn't know what a cliff jump was but nothing about it sounded fun. He cupped her neck and laughed, “I told you, Princess, I'm never going to let anything happen to you. You’ll love it.” He kissed her then so softly that it ended with a sigh from both of them. “I really have to go. We really do have morning duty. I don't know how he's going to do it.” He nodded toward his still truck. They laughed again. He pecked her and shuffled away backwards with a satisfied grin calling, “2?” She nodded happily and his smile grew. She watched until his truck was out of sight. Her thoughts spun happily in her head making her giddy. Mark that down as the best night of her life. She trudged upstairs and shed her clothes. She didn't bother washing her face, praying no zits would appear. Then she crawled into bed and turned into a warm body. She cried out in fright before realizing it was Jenna. Jenna’s eyes opened slowly in a sleepy daze. When she realized who was there they flew open. “So?” She whispered excitedly shaking off the last of sleep. Laura thought to be mature, above kiss and tell. She thought that before she looked at Jenna waiting with bated breath. Then she dove right into the fun of being a girl and squealed quietly. Jenna squealed too not even knowing why. And they talked and giggled and giggled and talked until the early sun broke the night drapes and then they slept the sleep of the dead. *** “You have to wear the two piece. Please Laura.” Jenna was on her knees begging as Laura pulled up her old reliable Speedo. “I refuse to let you out of here wearing that.” Jenna was in her yellow polka dot bikini and even at 14 looked better than Laura in a one piece. “Please.” She said one last time a little pitifully. Laura sighed, “I can’t Jenna. Please.” Her please was even more pitiful because it was wrapped around heaps and heaps of insecurity. Jenna’s shoulder’s dropped. “I don’t know what to say to you. You know who my guy friends are all goo eyed over? You, not Sara.” Laura rolled her eyes. “Don’t roll your eyes. It’s true. And the more I look at you two I get it. It’s the same reason Darren isn’t interested. It’s the same reason she doesn’t keep a guy interested for more than a week. Darren is right she’s empty. But her beauty is kinda empty too. It’s not easy beauty like yours. You look like those girls in Sport Illustrated magazine.” “Oh God, stop.” Laura put her hands on her hips in exasperation. That was ridiculous. “It’s true. See those,” She pointed at Laura’s full chest. “They like those.” Laura cracked up. “That's why she's always talking about getting a boob job when she leaves. She's got more padding in her bra than anything. She's so skinny she can't get boobs. Guys like you, Laura. A lot. I’m the one who walks behind you guys at the mall and it's you they're staring down. But you're always looking at the ground.” Laura digested that little speech with a pursed lip and healthy dollop of disbelief. Then why was she so single? Why didn’t she have plans every Saturday like Sara? She could tell Jenna believed her words so Laura sighed deeply and went to her drawer. Together they sifted through until once again they found an item with tags still on, a monokini from an early in the summer, hopefully she’d loose those 25 pounds, shopping spree. Once she got it on and looked in the mirror she turned away quickly. “No.” “Yes.” Jenna’s eyes were glittering. “I can’t.” Laura’s voice cracked a little. She couldn’t take off her cover and reveal this to Darren. She just couldn’t. “Please, I can’t see his reaction if he doesn’t like it.” “He’s going to love it. Laura you look amazing. All that hair and holy crap your body. It's kinda obscene. Just this time, please, please, please listen to me.” They heard their mom call up to them, “girls, the boys are here.” Jenna hugged Laura and handed her the cover and left. Laura knew Jenna would be disappointed if she changed out of the suit. With sweaty hands she threw on the cover and some loose shorts. She rushed from the room before fear propelled her back into the safe choice. She bounded downstairs excited to see Darren, and of course Sara was already there preening. If she had behaved like Sara had the night before, she’d be hiding in her room in shame, too embarrassed to face the same people again. Not Sara. She was strutting in a micro bikini and high wedge flip flops and a beach bag. No cover. Who needed something like that, Laura thought mockingly. The guys looked over at her as she entered the room and Darren immediately left The Sara Show to walk up to her. “Hi,” he smiled and everything seemed right again. “You ready?” “Yeah.” She nodded and was shocked when he took her hand right there in front of her parents. Her first instinct was to pull away but he held her tightly. In panic she looked to her mom, who, to her surprise, was beaming. She relaxed and allowed herself to enjoy the warm pressure of his fingers enclosed around hers. They rumbled out and down the path laughing and having fun. About twenty minutes into the walk Sara was regretting her impractical outfit. Wedges weren’t made for hiking and to cliff jump you had to hike, repeatedly. “Darren,” Sara whined breaking up the sweet flirting Laura and he had been doing bringing up the rear of the group. “Yeah, Sara?” His voice had a hint of exasperation to it. “Can you carry me? My feet are dying.” “I bet. John, wanna carry Sara?” John was in front with Jenna laughing and talking. He turned a little to answer Darren, “what?” “Sara says her feet hurt. She wants you to carry her.” Darren cackled at the pained look that crossed John’s face. “I said you, Darren.” Sara stamped her foot with a pout. “Well there you go,” John laughed out loud and went back to his conversation with Jenna. Sara looked at Darren expectantly. “I’m not carrying you, Sara.” She huffed and started walking again, “I thought you marines were so gallant.” Laura could tell Sara was striking a nerve in Darren. He was gallant, but it was clear he didn’t really like Sara. “You can have my shoes, Sara. I’ll go barefoot.” Sara nodded vigorously and kicked her shoes off waiting for Laura’s more sensible flip flops. Darren looked annoyed as the girls made the exchange. “Ok Princess,” he said pointing at a rock. “Climb up here. I’ll get you there.” She smiled as she followed his orders and he held her piggy back style. Sara looked furious as they walked by her. “Alright Sara, start walking,” Darren ordered. They reached the cliff and all five of them stood in a row looking over the high jump. They could see the bags they had dropped on the flat rock by the pool below. Laura broke into a sweat. She didn’t think she could do it. “Who’s first?” John asked with excitement. “One of you guys should go first,” Jenna said. “Show us how to do it.” John smiled, “stand back ladies and admire the technique.” He went back about ten feet and then took off in a hard run until he reached the ledge and broke into a graceful swan dive. The remaining group looked over the edge to watch him dive in like knife. He broke the surface with a smile. They all grinned at the same time. Jenna went next doing a front flip out and then going down in a jack knife. Not to be out done, Sara tried to cartwheel but her form was bad and she was out of practice. She lost her balance went out like duck getting hit by a plane and landed in a semi belly flop. The sound was painful and her cry after confirmed that it wasn’t pleasant. “Ok, Princess, don’t do that.” Laura laughed. She needed humor as she stood by the cliff’s edge. “You can do it. Jump. I’ll be right behind you.” “I don't know. I-I can’t Darren. I’ll walk back down and meet you there.” He held her firm, her cover still on because she hadn’t had the courage to shed it with the rest of them. “Jump out and then go foot first. Just once, for you.” She got a quizzical look as she peered down, “not for you?” He tugged her head back to him and smothered her in their first kiss of the day. She sighed mentally, right, he knew how to kiss. He held her head back so he could keep eye contact from his height. “For you Princess. Jump, for you. I’ll see you down there.” He kissed her again and let go. “Jump.” And armed with the strength of her wet lips, she did. And she thought she really did it for him but about two seconds into it, she knew she’d done it for her. The air whizzed by, the momentum built and before she knew it her feet struck the water and she split it sealing herself inside of it for a few short seconds. She came up elated and sputtering from water that had gone up her nose. She heard Darren’s elated cry and then a shout as he launched himself out into the air. He struck the water near her seconds later. Instead of springing back up he swam under until he was near her. She was laughing as he attacked her with all limbs and mouth. They lost themselves in the wet, sloppy kiss until John cleared his throat. Laura flushed. Sara, still bright red from her fall, huffed, “you two need a room.” Laura blushed harder until her eyes landed on Jenna who was beaming ear to ear. Jenna bounced up onto the rock and cried, “let’s do it again.” Laura begged for a little more time to rebuild her courage. So John, Sara and Jenna left chattering and laughing. Laura was looking up at the cliff marveling that she had jumped off of it when it occurred to her that Darren was being very quiet and still. In fact, a silence had formed around them. She brought her eyes back down slowly to meet his gaze, intense and unwavering. “Uhh, I guess I should take this off.” She tugged at the cover that was dragging her down. “It’s so hot it will probably be dry by the time we leave.” “I’ve been waiting for that,” he said with a smile. She nodded a little embarrassed and swam for the rock. She struggled to get up until his hand planted firmly on her bottom and he boosted her out. Again, she died a little inwardly. With her back to him she reached for her shirt but he stopped her. “No, let me see you take it off.” She gulped. She wasn’t ready for him. “Ok,” she whispered and turned around. Unable to meet his eyes she grabbed the hem and peeled it off in one quick gesture. Her eyes were closed but she knew she’d have to open them. She gave him enough time to gather his thoughts and maybe wipe away the look of disgust before she opened them. When she did, she stepped back slightly. He was still staring and if he was a fox and she was hare she’d be in really big trouble. She fidgeted under the stare pulling at the suit, starting to cross her arms, then uncrossing them. “Stop fidgeting.” He commanded. “Why are you staring?” She asked almost upset. “Because you’re beautiful.” Her eyes met his expecting humor, sarcasm, but there was only honesty and sincerity. Tears filled her eyes. She was about to respond when John trotted up. She turned and he stopped in his tracks, his mouth falling open a little. He whistled quietly and kept staring. “Stop staring at my girl, Chow.” Darren warned with humor. John shook himself and started again for his shorts. “Didn’t want to forget the GoPro again.” He found what he was looking for and started to leave but gave Laura one more once over. “I always pick the wrong one.” He left with a wink for her. She relaxed a little and went to sit by the rock. She couldn’t get comfortable. She wanted to be hidden in the water. “Why are you fidgeting?” Darren lifted up to sit next to her. His arm rested behind her back near her bottom. His leg was pressed along hers. “Because I want to get in the water.” “To hide?” He looked into her eyes without judgement. She started to shake her head but stopped and nodded. “You don’t have anything to hide.” She rolled her eyes, “yeah, sure. I look just right. No one better than me.” “That’s right.” He leaned back to sun bathe on his arms. She turned a little to keep his eye contact. He stared at her intensely for a few long, uncomfortable moments. “You look spot on right. In all the right places as far as I can see. And I don’t know why you think otherwise. I mean I guess I know who you’re comparing yourself to. But you heard my opinion about all that already.” She smiled biting her lip looking out over the large pool that spilled over down another cliff. She thought to fill the silence with noise so asked, “Where are you from, Darren?” He had rested back with his arms behind his head and his eyes closed. The contented smile he was wearing slipped a bit as he scrunched his face. “Missouri. Little nowhere town just outside Springfield.” “Wow, that’s far. It must have been scary to travel all the way over here by yourself.” She knew that from yesterday at the cave. He let his answer out in a whispered huff, “yeah.” The silence returned and it seemed like he was finished speaking. He wasn’t one for conversation she’d noticed. She looked out again trying to think of other banter to fill the silence that she didn’t seem as comfortable with as he did. She was about to ask if he had any siblings when he spoke again. “Took every penny I had to get out here.” She turned back to look at him, his eyes still closed. “I’d saved for half a year hiding my money from that rat bastard. When I bought my tickets I bought the wrong one and I ended up 200 miles away. I didn’t have any more money. I thought about hitching but there wasn't enough time. I had to report in a day. So I sold my ipod. I’d gotten it for Christmas year before from one of them toy drives they do for us that time of year. The old woman sobered up long enough to sneak us out so we could stand in line for 3 hours. Didn’t think there would be anything worthwhile left by the time we got up there and I was right but I was still excited. Then someone came out with a forgotten box. The apple store had dropped off a box of shit. I thought it was the luckiest day of my life.” She turned back around to look out over the water again because she could see this wasn’t easy for him to say. His eyes were still closed as if afraid of her reaction and his face was hard. Her eyes watered. These were the children who waited for those donations from her private schools and country clubs toy drives. It was heartbreaking. “Guy at the pawn shop only wanted to give me seventy-five dollars. I needed one hundred and fifty. So I made a deal. He was an ex-marine from Vietnam and he had a soft spot for fellow marines. Anyway, I got here and Chow was already in the room. He and the guys were going for dinner at a local joint. I was so hungry. I hadn’t eaten in two days but I didn’t have any more money. I was praying there might be army rations by the next day. I said I had to unpack and told him to have fun. Chow laughed and said, ‘you gotta come. It’s tradition for the first roommate to show up to buy dinner for the other roommate, show him around and stuff’. I was so dumb and I guess hungry I chose to believe that bullshit line. I paid him and the pawn shop back with my first check. I didn’t want him to make a big deal, say I didn’t need to pay. And he didn’t. He just walked into the room and looked at the cash on his pillow. He picked it up and put it in his wallet and kept talking about whatever it was he was talking about.” His words stopped. It was the most he’d ever said all at once, at least to her. Tears were streaming down her face but she knew she needed to turn and look at him. She knew his eyes were open and he was waiting her reaction. She took a second to figure out a way to hide her tears. That was futile. So she wiped them openly and turned to him with a watery smile. The worry in his eyes was replaced with a softer light when he saw her tear streaked face. He lifted up onto his elbows and wiped her cheek. “You’re one of those silent criers.” She's snaked down to him with a wavering smile and hugged him tightly, resting her head over the deep thump of his heart. His arms wrapped her tightly. They were so warm and thick, protective and safe. And they seemed to only be interested in holding her. She lost track of the beats of time. The silence felt natural finally. Her mind raced with happiness at having met him, with excitement for the romantic feelings of nausea that kept sweeping over her since meeting him and frustration that fate had only given them five days. She sat up and looked down at his smiling face. “I wish I’d known you were here too.” He swooped up quickly attacking her with his mouth. “None of that right now.” He gently tackled her waist and they awkwardly fell into the pool. She came up with a mouthful of her hair. He pushed it back and pulled her into him. Her legs wrapped naturally around his lean waist. His arm locked around her back while his free hand ran the length of her thigh to her bottom. Their gaze was unbreakable and she was hardly breathing when he finally sank his lips onto hers. They were tangled in their embrace and falling faster and faster into each other’s spell when they heard the group reach the top. Jenna launched first then John with his camera attached and then Sara in a very safe foot forward leap. They had a massive water fight and then ate the sandwiches the girls had packed. Laura was leaning back with Darren’s head in her lap enjoying the broiling sun and wishing the moment might never end. She looked over at Jenna who pretty much hadn’t stopped beaming at her all afternoon. Jenna popped a grape in her mouth and asked, “what are you guys up to tonight?” John was by her laying on his stomach eating off the same grape bunch. “Gotta work, Squirt.” She pouted and Laura felt a wave of disappointment sweep her. “We have night duty.” Darren sat up quickly and jumped to his haunches. He grabbed Laura’s hands and yanked her up as he said, “but before that, Beautiful, here, and I are jumping one more time.” Her feet stood grounded as he gently tugged. She’d hoped she had avoided another jump given they all seemed content to lounge after the last one. “I-I don’t know Darren. One jump a day may be my limit.” She squealed when he bent over and threw her over one should without what seemed like any effort at all. He was walking off down the path saying, “I swear to God you’re the queen of ‘I don’t know’.” She squealed for a little before she convinced him she wouldn’t run back if he put her down. Despite the movies and romance novels, that was a pretty uncomfortable position to be in and not as romantic as she would have once thought. Then they walked for a little more before she asked, “so you have to work?” He had her hand as he led her. It felt so right, warm, pressing the perfect amount of pressure. “Yeah, baby, I do.” They walked on in the quiet her thoughts racing. She loved all the pet names he had for her. If she were confident enough, she would give him one. But she still worried that every time they parted he’d see the light and not come back. Then he surprised her again when he asked, “want to have dinner with me tomorrow night? I can’t do anything before then.” Her stomach flopped and she bit her lip trying to hide her smile. Of course he turned right then to see her giddiness and she flushed red at getting caught, but he smiled and stopped and walked her into him to lace her lips with his and suffocate her with the taste and push of his open mouth on hers. When he broke he raised his eyebrows expectantly, “so?” “Uhh, yeah, I’d love to have dinner with you. Y-you know, I, uh, I just have to…” He cut her off with a kiss then started walking again. “I’ll talk to your parents.” He said confidently. She smiled and decided to be coy. “So, is this like a date?” He turned his head to throw a smile over his shoulder. “What do you think?” “Well, I mean, I think it sounds like a date.” He chuckled and then sighed. “Just be beautiful when I pick you up. I might never get another chance to show off something as perfect as you on my arm.” And she melted into a little puddle and reformed an inch taller and more sure of herself. They reached the ledge and she hedged again. “Just go fast,” he urged. She was having none of it so he led her back ten yards and took her hand. “We’ll go together.” “Really?” It was almost a relief if she didn’t still have to actually jump. “You and me, Princess. We’re going to run towards it. Not worry about nothing. Whether we can or can't. Whether it's a good idea or not. Then we’re gonna jump high and hard and gravity will do the rest.” She looked at him with open eyes wondering if there wasn’t a world of meaning more behind those words and nodded. “Run and when I say jump, jump.” They started out, the gravel loose and sandy under their feet. He matched his gait to hers and her smile grew as the momentum blew her hair back. And when they reached the edge without hesitation he called out to her. “Jump.” *** He knocked at exactly seven o’clock. He was perfectly on time. Laura was still in her mirror with Jenna. They gave each other confident nods before breaking out in bright grins. She looked spectacular. The short kimono dress dipped down dangerously low in spite of the roll of garment tape they had used to make it more demure. Her stilettos made her legs look a mile long. Jenna had given her full vamp hair and makeup and they had worked out a plan if their Dad tried to stop her from going out like this. She navigated the stairs carefully. The click of her heals brought her parents and Darren to a stop as she entered the room. Whatever her target, she hit it. Darren was actively trying to pick his jaw up off the ground. Her father was shades of red she’d never seen before. Her mother looked like she was going to swoon. And Sara looked like she was about to spontaneously combust. Darren recovered first walking right up to her, standing too close and taking her hand saying quietly, “you look beautiful.” “Ahem, yes, well, Laura,” her father’s stern voice was on fast recovery but it was immediately cut off by her mother “Oh my, Laura, look at you, so lovely.” She held out her arms and embraced her daughter tightly. Laura felt a little like Cinderella under all of the attention. Her mom stepped back muffling her tears behind a hand and sending her father a warning glare to accept it or suffer the marital consequences. That man’s shoulders slumped in resignation. He pecked her brow and watched helplessly as Darren slipped her summer coat over her shoulders. “Yes, well, not after midnight.” He warned watching his daughter leave mesmerized under the eyes of her current beau. “And you take care of her.” Darren broke their gaze to assure the man with a firm handshake. “Yes, sir,” he said putting his hand on the small of her back and leading her down the stairs. They pulled out leaving their audience standing on the front porch. Laura couldn’t help but giggle. “I didn’t think he’d let me out in this.” She tugged a little on the dress because it really wasn’t made for sitting. He reached over and intertwined his fingers with hers. “I wouldn’t let you out in that if you were my daughter. But since you’re not, I’m really happy he let you out in that.” She beamed and snuggled as close to his side as her seat belt would allow for. “You look really nice too,” she said enthusiastically. He did in his grey button down and grey slack, his sleeves rolled up to show the tan and muscles of his forearms. He looked delicious. She could tell by his smile he liked that compliment. They drove all the way down the mountain and about twenty-five minutes away into the nearest full fledge town. He pulled up to a restaurant that had the same city pulse she was used to back home. She almost would have preferred something quainter, quieter. It must have shown on her face because his smile fell as he helped her down. “You don’t like Asian?” “I do. I do!” She assured him leaning into him but not kissing him because she had a pound of fig colored lipstick on. His arm wrapped around her tightly as he cocked his head. “You sure?” “Yes, I’m sure.” She said confidently marveling at how nervous he seemed. The restaurant had that dark mood lighting and soft pulse of house music. It reeked of her life back home, none of the quaint of the mountain town. They were seated at a corner bench table. It was more nightclub than restaurant. But the table offered them the opportunity to cuddle and flirt that a traditional one might not have. Darren ordered a couple of sodas then sat back with an anxious look. “Are you sure this is ok?” “Yes,” she nodded and slipped closer to him. “It was just surprising. I didn’t expect to find a place like this around here.” He looked around and nodded. “Chow brought me here the first time. I guess when you move out this way you are forced to eat sushi until you can stand it. Then you kinda like it. And I don’t know what happens but at some point it’s an addiction. First time I ate a roll my eyes watered and I thought I was going to throw up. Now I can’t go a week without it.” She laughed, “I’ve always liked it. But I’ve had it for years. It’s probably not a natural craving without some training.” He tightened the arm slipped around her waist and used his other hand to sweep her mane of hair back from her shoulders. “I don’t know how to say how unbelievable you look right now.” He tilted in to kiss her then stopped and bent and placed a disappointing kiss on her neck. “I will say I’m not sure I love the make-up.” Her face fell a little. “You don’t?” “Ok, stop, that's not what I meant.” He kissed her neck again and let his hand linger along the curve of her collar bone. “You look gorgeous but I don’t know how to kiss you with all that lipstick on.” She smiled and crossed her legs. The dress parted and left the better part of her thigh open to the air. He groaned and his hand immediately slipped from her neck tracing her body down to massage her thigh and then sit heavily there. “I guess I did this to myself. I told you to look beautiful.” Their drinks came and they ordered food before silence fell between them. The restaurant had been nearly empty when they arrive but it was bustling by then. A DJ was setting up to replace the house music. She bit her lip wondering if dancing was in their future. She wouldn't mind pressing her body to his in a slow dance, but everything else she wasn't very good at. When she looked over, Darren was studying her with a smile. “Yeah there’s dancing here too. Don’t worry I’ll show you how.” He had a confident smirk on his face as he put his arms out to demonstrate his sprinkler technique. She laughed guessing this wasn’t the sort of place he was totally comfortable in. “I’ll show you how,” she assured him leaning close. His hand came up to trace the gap in the kimono wrap that opened almost to her waist. It was taped heavily in place but could not hide the full curve of her breast that was obviously not held in place by the usual undergarments. The back of his fingers lingered on her cleavage softly pushing the full curve, back and forth. “Deal,” he said with a thick voice looking deeply into her eyes. “Have I mentioned how beautiful you look tonight?” “Maybe,” was whispered with a bit of desperation. She breathed deeply. All she wanted was his talented lips on hers, lipstick be damned. “In case I didn’t, you do. You look amazing.” Then he didn’t care either because his mouth opened over hers. When they broke, they were both wearing fig colored lipstick. She laughed and wiped his mouth with her napkin as she asked, “How do I look? Am I smudged?” “You’re perfect,” he kissed her quickly again. Then he settled her back into his arms so they could people watch. She melted into him, her soft frame welding to his hard muscles. “You fit perfectly with me.” He whispered in her ear giving her shivers and she had to agree. They were like puzzle pieces separated and now reunited, interlocked together. “So you and John keep saying you’re training, for what?” She asked sitting up for a second to take a sip of water. She looked over her shoulder not prepared for the intense look on his face as he stared at her. She bit her lip insecurely. He shook himself and answered her. “Yeah, sharp shooting. We both got some talent for it I guess.” He caressed her neck, sweeping her hair back. “Are you a SEAL? Like that guy in the movie?” She’d seen the movie with her dad because she was the only one who would go. She’d actually loved it. “Nah,” he laughed more to himself. “Are you trying to be?” “Nah, well, I mean I’m in the Marines. That’s the Navy.” “Oh.” She felt foolish like she should have known that. “It’s ok. A lot of people don’t know the difference. Anyway, we’re training to be snipers. They do it out here because it simulates the sort of environment we’ll probably be in.” She looked confused but he clarified. “We’re headed to Afghanistan next.” Her stomach fell into the pit of her belly and her face dropped. “When?” “About two weeks. See? We’re both leaving this joint pretty soon.” He kept caressing her neck softly running his finger up and down the curve to her ear and back. “You’re going to Afghanistan?” She didn’t know a lot but she knew that could not be a good or safe place to end up. “Yep, going to get some bad guys.” He sounded proud and excited. “You’re not scared?” He shrugged but then some of the bravado fell away and was replace with the truth. “Sometimes, I guess. But if I gotta die, then that’s how I want to go.” Her mouth was dry as she looked away. His finger came under her chin and gently forced her to look at him again. “I haven’t come this far to let one of them get me,” he assured her. “I have things I need to come back for.” They stared intently at each other for many long moments before he broke the spell laughing. “I swear you get me to talk about things and tell you things I wouldn’t whisper in my dreams. What are you doing to me? Making me soft.” He leaned forward and kissed her neck. She smiled raggedly happy to end that conversation terrified about what it meant for them. They ate and then danced. Apparently he was highly versed in every middle school dance step out there. By the time he got to the running man there was a crowd around him clapping on encouragingly. She could only smile on the sidelines and laugh at his antics. The music finally slowed and he straightened up and took a bow. She saw him scanning for her when a girl threw herself in his arms. The girl was beautiful and she didn’t seem to notice the astonished look on Darren’s face as her hands roamed freely over his back and bottom. He finally caught her hands and yanked them down. The girl looked shocked. “I’m not interested in dancing with you.” He assured her with a hard look and turned to Laura who was sidelined with a look of defeat. He smiled and her heartbeat started to calm as she smiled back. He gathered her into his arms and she melted in like she always did when he held her. “There, that’s more like it.” His whisper was hot in her ear and it brought the nicest shiver along her skin. “You're the only one who feels right in my arms.” She melted closer. “You always say the perfect things.” He laughed, “not usually. I usually screw these things up pretty quickly. But it's easy to get it right with you.” The basket of butterflies in her belly tipped over and reached to areas of her body that made her ache. She buried her face in his neck and tightened her arms around his shoulders feeling the short stubble of his close haircut. He accommodated her by folding her so close she could barely breathe. It felt like eternity that they swayed. “You smell great,” she said because he did. His cologne was making her senses weak. “You to.” He somehow brought her closer. “You didn't want to dance with her?” She mentally kicked herself for bringing it back up. He kissed her temple before answering, “no.” She smiled. That was enough talking for the moment. She was standing at the bar awhile later waiting on Darren to come back from the bathroom when an unfamiliar hand passed along her hips to her bottom in a much too familiar way. She jumped immediately but she was trapped by the corner and the bar. “Hi gorgeous,” he said in her ear and it didn't have the same effect as Darren’s voice in her ear. “Umm,” she squirmed turning her back so that he no longer had access to her bottom. He didn't seem to mind. He put two long arms on either side of the bar completely trapping her. “M-my boyfriend is c-coming right b-back.” He smiled at her with a hungry look in his eyes. “Well I'll just keep you company until he gets here.” She shifted uncomfortably as he leaned closer. She hated that scared tears were threatening to spill. Sara would have kneed him in the groin. So would Jenna for that matter. But she was paralyzed with fear. Then suddenly he spun like a figure skater and fell to his knees with an angry cry of pain “If you crawl away right now loverboy I'll do you the favor to forget this ever happened.” She only caught a glimpse of the steel look in Darren's eyes before he shielded her completely from view with his wide back. One of his hands reached back to sit on her waist and it made everything right again. She peeked around to see the guy half crawl, half limp away. Darren turned with a sigh. “You ok?” She nodded relieved. He leaned in like the guy had and smirked near her lips. “Now do you believe me?” She bit her smiling lip putting her hands on his flexed biceps. “That I'm beautiful?” “That you're fucking hot as hell.” He corrected and she laughed out loud before he kissed her. They stayed a little longer then they drove home but not before stopping to star gaze for a while at a look out. In between his kisses and caresses, Laura was pretty sure this was the best night of her life. He kissed her again, rather chastely compared to the rest of the evening, when he left her on her front porch. “See you tomorrow afternoon Princess” He had already told her he had something to do in the morning. “Really, not till then?” He kissed her with a smile. “I'll miss you too.” He turned her with a gentle push to her bottom to go inside and waited until she did. She said good night to her parents who were pretending to read on the couch. Her mother looked like she was dying to get every last detail but she didn't stop her. Laura took off her makeup and peeled out of her dress giving herself an impromptu wax across her torso not that she had any hair there. When she crawled into bed she wasn't shocked to find Jenna. It only took a quick shake to wake her completely. “Well?” She asked leaning on her elbow. Laura sighed deeply before reliving every single detail right down to the color of the napkins. When she was finished Jenna was staring at the ceiling starry eyed. She had a hunch that her little sister had a sizable crush on Darren. “He's so handsome,” she sighed. Laura put her head next to Jenna's agreeing, “yeah.” She thought for a little before saying, “why now?” She shifted up to her elbow to look down at Jenna. “You know, like, why not some guy at home? Someone more like me? Someone who’d be there and not leaving? Someone... not so complicated?” Jenna shrugged. “I don't know.” She hugged Laura tightly. “Maybe you don't need someone just like you. And this was your way of knowing that. For the future, you know.” “You don't think we'll stay together?” Laura asked with a catch in her throat. “I don't know. I didn't mean that.” She ran her hands through her hair. “I’m just saying that Darren is exactly the sort of guy you were supposed to be with. I guess I hope the rest of it works out.” Laura smiled sadly at the ceiling and tilted her head to Jenna's “me too.” *** The guys had somehow convinced her parents to let them all go overnight camping with them to watch the meteor shower that night. It was supposed to be the biggest shower in over a decade and luck had it that there in that dessert was the best geographical spot to view it. It was fate they had argued. It was science in action they had wisely added. They had promised to put the girls in the big five-man tent and they would take the three man. They'd also put the entrances face to face so that they were close but not that close. Needless to say this wasn't the plan at all. In fact, the tents were going to be placed rather far apart in the hopes that one young couple got some quality time alone. But there were some lies that needed telling for a parent’s own good. With the tents set up, the group took a little time to unpack and set up for cooking later. Then there really was only time to kill before the meteor shower at ten. John and Jenna convinced Sara to go on a short hike. Boundaries weren't something Sara understood and Laura and John exchanged a look when Sara wedged herself between Darren and a tree he was tying a rope to, manhandling him openly. He jumped at the unexpected advance and hit his head hard on a limb. A string of curses fell out and his pleading look for help brought a giggle from Laura who was floating between insecurity that he might enjoy Sara's attention to comedy as she watched him do everything possible to avoid her. When the three walked off down the path he sighed loudly. “That girl is unbelievable. Not like you unbelievable. Like I need to spray down with disinfectant after being around her, unbelievable.” He dropped a large pile of wood in the fire pit they had constructed. The look of disgust on his face was pure. Her eyes danced with laughter feeling the confidence tick up slightly. “I wasn't sure. Most guys like it.” He grabbed her gently by the waist and walked her into his mouth, soft and commanding, the slightest pressure of his tongue pressing hers. Her body ignited immediately as her hands slipped along the chorded arm muscles holding her, up to his neck where they rested comfortably. He ended the kiss too soon for her liking. “Yeah I knew that's what was running around this beautiful head. You don't believe a word I say, do you?” She looked at him confused. “There's no comparison between you two. None.” Her look softened and she tilted her face up to him so he could remind her how much he liked her which he did quite completely. They were sitting together talking and watching the start of sunset when she smiled, kissed him quickly and jumped up. She dipped into their tent and popped out with a bag stuffed with colorful paper and tied with ribbons. She sat close to him and plopped it in his lap. “For you.” “Me?” She nodded happily as he stared in wonder at the bag in his lap. He seemed flabbergasted. He looked to her then the bag then back to her lifting his hand to caress her cheek. “Open it.” She said quietly and he did with a smile to reveal a black stainless steel Apple Watch. He looked floored. She started to speak quickly before he could say he didn't like it. “This is better than the iPod. You can use it for everything. And it'll tract all those workouts you love doing. And you can sync it with your apple account. It's the newest one.” Her voice trailed off losing confidence as he just stared at it. “You don't like it?” He finally snapped out of it. “I love it.” He assured her with a kiss. “I just - it's so much. No one’s ever given me anything like this. I can't give you…” She cut him off with her kiss. “You don't have to. That's not why you give a gift.” She smiled when he smiled at her looking like he thought she controlled the earth’s rotation. No one had ever looked at her like that before. His hand caressed her face and his eyes had opened so deeply she could swim in them. The moment lingered until she laughed shyly. “Let’s set it up as much as possible. You can do the syncing when you get back.” He attacked her rather passionately before they dug in and played with the new toy. That night they all ate hotdogs and grilled cinnamon buns. She had to keep Darren from strangling Sara when she made the inevitable comment about Laura’s eating and her weight. It made the usual sting of Sara's comments seem like an annoyance and not a mortal blow. He didn't want her any differently than she was and he was ready to defend her for it. Then they played charades and Sara finally gave up on Darren when Darren acted out the word ‘love’ by pulling Laura into an uncomfortably long and deep kiss. When she couldn't guess it and the word was revealed the whole group took on a hush. Jenna looked like she was going to bust open in joy. John smiled quietly to himself. Sara fumed then obviously deciding John was better than nothing set her sights on him for the night. After such a proclamation Laura spent the night gazing adoringly at Darren. Sara and John came back from wherever it was they disappeared to. They all huddled under the large blankets the boys had brought, Laura and Darren under one and the others under the other. The sky was bright with streaking asteroids but Laura had only eyes for Darren as he kissed her neck and nape and turned her head occasionally to suffocate her from over her shoulder. His arms were tight around her, his hands roaming warmly over her body. She was spinning by the time Sara broke their spell. “Seriously go to your tent already. And be quiet about it I don't want to hear that all night.” There were any number of witty comebacks to put her in her place but Darren beat her to it by saying, “With pleasure, Sara.” He tugged Laura up and then easily swept her into his arms. They disappeared behind the flap and fell eagerly into each other's arms. His mouth was a hot brand on her skin as he peeled away the top layers. Gently they floated down to the mat. Strong hands found their way under her shirt and roamed warmly touching and feeling. Hers did the same caressing the contours of his back muscles, but she wanted more so she reached for the hem of her shirt and pulled it over her head. It was the most exposed she'd ever been to anyone other than a family member. He looked pained as his hands found confidence and wandered up to cup her full breasts. She sighed a deep breath reaching for him to cover her again. His body was like a steel blanket drawing hers to it like a magnet. Where his hard frame met her softer one they molded together like putty. His lips were no different overtaking hers so softly as his tongued played heavily with hers. Something in her, in both of them grew. She was spinning when he broke long enough to take his shirt off. Even in the dark she could feel the ripples of his stomach muscles. He started to rest back on her when she spoke. “Wait.” And he did. Not without a decent amount of inner turmoil and a heaping dose insecurity, she reached behind and unclasped her bra. Confidence wasn't exactly building as he stared silently. But it was his turn to breathe raggedly. His hands slowly smoothed a path along the curve of her waist to the curves of her breasts. Once there they opened warmly over the peaks stroking quietly. Each stroke sent electric pulses all over her body and to one area in particular. She pushed up to be closer to him feel his body heat radiate over her naked torso. He bent his head to meet hers, his lips only a breath away from hers. “Laura,” he whispered like a prayer against her lips. Not exactly gently he pushed her down to the ground with his body and everything about it was everything she had never known to dream about that experience. She was not even mildly prepared for the unbelievable feel of his skin against hers, his weight pinning her down in the most dominating way, the pressure between her legs. At some point, she lost track of when under the onslaught of his mouth and hands roaming her body, their pants came off leaving both of them in only underwear. He ran a hand over her thigh and down to tickle behind her knee. She giggled under his smiling mouth. The laughter stopped when he hitched her leg up around his waist and pressed hard into her. Her little cry was unstoppable because it was obvious he wanted her badly and her body was arching into him just as desperately. His hand slid down the flat of her belly to slip in between the lace and cotton of her panties and the heat they protected. Her gasp was immediate and suddenly it all became too real. She tore her lips away from his. “Wait,” she said raggedly pushing on his shoulders. And he did. Kissing her neck and the high curves of her breasts arching under his weight. She was searching for what to say or do next because her mind was crazy with confusion when he spoke. “Too soon?” She could feel his smile against her lips as he resumed the kiss easing his massage below but not totally stopping. She nodded feeling embarrassed and desperate all at once. “I know,” he whispered without any frustration or so it seemed since they were cloaked in the shadows of night. His weight shifted to fully press between her legs. With her legs wrapped around him like they belonged there, her resolve gave away a bit at the feelings the position provoked inside her. “That's not what I want from you. I just want to give you something. Not sex, baby. Something else.” His fingers went deep and brought a half cry, half gasp. “Ok?” He whispered. “Not sex?” She asked breathlessly. “No. Well kind of sex. But not all the way.” He pushed a little harder down there and she arched suddenly understanding his meaning. “Then I can too,” she promised. That much she could try to meet him half way. “No,” he said adamantly. “Tonight's for you.” “That's not fair to you.” She was losing her mind under his gentle attack. “It is. All I want is to hear you cry my name. And know I was the first to give you something no one else has.” “But that's not fair…” She was cut off by his kiss. Then he started to ramble. “So I didn't know it,” he started and then stopped as if gathering his thoughts. He rested his head on hers and stopped the motion of his hand like he needed to focus on his words, but it helped her focus, as well, because all she could think on was the pressure of his fingers making her insane. “I, uhh, I didn't know. I don't know. Guess I'm surprised.” He was having so much trouble finding his words and his insecurity sent her heart soaring so she pressed her lips to his and distracted him fully for a minute. His hand that had been massaging her so intimately slipped around to cup her bottom and raise her up again into his full press. She gasped and the hand returned to the aching area when he started speaking again. “So what I'm saying is –it doesn't matter. You know? It, uhh, turns out when you're truly crazy about someone. Like deep down. Like I can't get to sleep at night for thinking about you. Like I love your laugh and the way your eyes sparkle when you laugh. And honestly everything about you. Like all of that matters. But not really sex.” He thought about that for a second and amended. “Well, you know, it would be nice. But it doesn't matter. You know?” Was this boy real? She thought of all the guys that used Sara then dumped her like it was nothing. Sara always said boys only wanted you for one thing. Right now Laura only wanted Darren for one thing but was too afraid to cross that bridge yet and he was ok with it. She smiled trying to hide her happy tears. “So ok,” he asked softly as his hand resumed its motion and his lips sealed to hers again. Her “yes” was ragged. He smiled before kissing a warm path down her body stopping to latch onto each breast fully before continuing on to playfully pull her panties down with his teeth. She smiled into the night air and bit her lip when he returned after discarding them to bend her knee and kiss softly up the inside of her thigh, each thigh, excruciatingly slowly, his warm breath caressing her skin. Then his mouth covered her and her inexperience and naïveté was no match for the unbelievable pressure and pulling she had never felt before. It was only moments before waves and waves of joy splashed over her leaving her giggling a little deliriously. He chuckled as he kissed his way back to her. “Good?” He smiled down into her blissful face. “Yeah.” She made a wide eyed goofy face. “Really good.” He dropped his face into her neck and crushed her in a steel embrace. She could feel how much more he wanted to show her. And if only she could let go, she would wrap her legs around his lean waist and encourage him to do so. But that wasn't who she was and luck would have it, he loved her in spite of that. “I'm going to go clean up.” He finally loosened his hold. She groaned as he rolled away and headed for the exit. “And I don't know. Take a cold shower.” They chuckled at that and after he was gone she missed him. How would she handle two days from then when she left for home? She shook herself stopping her tears. Not now, not tonight she commanded her brain. She had dressed again in a tight long sleeve nightshirt and flannel sweats by the time he returned. It was freezing and he was shivering when he snuggled into her back and pulled her so far into him it felt like they were one. His cold hand snaked around, under her shirt, and cupped her breast from beneath fully, resting there like it had found its home and his leg was slung over her hip holding her down in the best way. She could feel his goosebumps and a freshness to him that made her think he did shower. “Where did you find a shower?” She laughed. “The pond.” His voice was laced with humor. “Oh my god, that must have been freezing.” “Not cold enough,” he assured her as he pushed from behind. She could feel exactly what he was talking about. She felt badly immediately. “I'm sorry.” He raised up and turned her head to him before overwhelming her in the deepest kiss she'd ever known. “I'm not. Tonight was perfect.” He kissed her again in the same manner. “Perfect.” Then he settled down again, his hand finding its resting place on her breast. His body relaxed and it wasn't long before his breath became rhythmic. She wasn't so lucky because she had hours and hours to spend running through every single detail of that night over and over and over again because that was definitely the best night of her life. *** He backed the truck up to the ledge and killed the engine. He slipped out and opened his arms to lift her down. Their bodies clash with electricity. The kiss he gave her was smothering and desperate. When they broke they were breathless and the first of many tears were sliding down her face. He kissed them away gently. “Not yet, Princess. I can't see those yet today.” Though the look on his face was just as heartbroken and sad. He led her to the back and let the hatch down then lifted her up. They sat looking out over the same chasm he had shown her the first night they'd known each other. “I can't see it.” She squinted. “Yeah, only at night.” He laughed brushing back her hair gently. She looked away shyly for a second before he spoke again. “Let's get ice cream!” He looked excited. There was a time, about four days ago, she'd never in a million years have eaten food, forget about ice cream, in front of a guy, especially one as good looking as Darren. But he seemed excited for it and she was starting to believe her worth was more than just whether she denied herself everything good she'd ever liked in order to look a certain way. So she nodded and laughed enthusiastically at his smile. He hopped down and kissed her quickly. “Vanilla. No chocolate right?” She nodded again. He never forgot any details about her, not that she ever forgot any details about him, either. “Don't move.” She sat still like a statue and he laughed out running back to her for one more kiss. “Right back.” He breathed against her lips before really leaving. They ate the cones in the heat. The cream melted down their fingers and occasionally their faces and they took turns laughing and kissing away the sweet mess from each other’s chins. When they were finished, the silence engulfed them again. She held his sticky hand massaging it, memorizing the distance her fingers spread to interlace with his, the exact weight of it resting on top of hers. He caressed her cheek gazing at her adoringly. “What are you thinking?” She finally asked. He turned half way to her tucking one leg around her, the other still dangling with hers. He put his free hand on top of their intertwined hands. His gaze was intense shining out from clear eyes. “I need you to do something for me.” There was a lump in her throat even though she had no idea what he was going to say. “I need you to stop being so mean.” Her brow furrowed. Had she been mean? Sometimes people could be mean and not even realize it. Had she done that? He kissed her. “That's what I’m talking about. Stop. You think it’s you I’m talking about. That you’ve been mean to someone. Well, you have, but only to you. Stop thinking all that mean stuff you think about yourself. You even say it out loud sometimes to get people to agree with it. Feeding right into Sara’s kind. Stop. Laura, you're like this light and it shines from inside out. Promise me.” She looked down wanting to make the promise, knowing he hadn't been around long enough to instill her with that much confidence, yet. She felt his finger cup her chin and bring her gaze back up to him. “For me.” She gave a hesitant smile before he wrapped both hands around her neck and lowered his mouth to hers. It was long and deep and filled with angst. The kiss broke but she kept her eyes closed with a blissful smile. When she opened them his expression was pained. He placed his forehead to hers softly. “I have something for you.” He said after a while. “You do?” She blushed at his nod. “I don't have anything for you.” “You already gave me everything I want.” Her expression turned tearful again. He shook her playfully. “No, stop. We're not going to cry all day.” He leaned back to dig into his pocket and pulled out a square box with a pink ribbon. She smiled at the telltale sign of jewelry. She held the box in her hands reverently, not wanting to open it and wanting to tear it open all at once. She decided on opening it slowly in-between kisses. Two interlocking gold circles hung from a delicate chain. They were cube like, modern looking, tastefully elegant. “I love it.” She wiped her eyes before looking up with a laugh. “I'm not crying.” He kissed her fully before asking, “really?” She nodded. “See?” He held up the circles to reveal in one was engraved ‘you’ and the other ‘and me’. “I wanted to add more but then I thought this was it. This was what I wanted to say. You really like it?” He asked again and she loved his vulnerability. It wasn’t something he would ever show easily to most people. She knew that. So she nodded vigorously. He kept rambling, “’Cause you know I wanted to get you one with diamonds but…” His voice trailed off and he looked away embarrassed. She turned his face back to her to assure him, “I love it.” She kissed him then and held it out. “Put it on.” He did in-between her kisses. When it was locked, he situated it on her neck fingering the pendant resting on her collar bone staring at it seriously. “You have to go on living your life, Laura. Don't stop because of me.” He put a finger over her lips to silence her protests. His finger trailed down to the circles again. “And if you fall in love again.” His voice cracked and he grabbed her face to stop it from shaking away his words. He pressed the side of his face to hers and whispered in her ear, “if you fall in love again, keep it. Everyone should have something to remember their first love by.” She sobbed throwing her arms around his neck. He gathered her into him. Both pressed the length of their bodies to each other for so long. When she pushed back, she wiped the wet spot on his shoulder asking, “how will you remember me? An Apple Watch? It'll be gone in a few years.” He tapped his temple with a finger. “I'm never going to forget you, Laura.” She wrapped her arms around his neck again and buried her face in his neck. There in the safety of his strong arms she whispered, “I'll never forget you.” “C’mon, let’s go swimming. At least when you’re crying then I won’t be able to tell as much.” They parked down the cottage lane to avoid being noticed. They didn’t really want company this time. They were at the cave and she was in her two piece about to jump in when he stopped her. “We're going to go under today.” She looked unsure. He laughed, “yeah I already know. You don't know. Well I do. You're going.” Her heart was racing with adrenaline already. Hadn't John said that it was deep, not easy? The indecision and fear must have radiated from her because his next words were cajoling. “C’mon baby, you can do it,” he said softly gathering her in by the side. Her shoulders slumped because she couldn't say no to that. “Ok.” Bounced timidly around the cave walls. They swam to the wall. “Now, practice taking deep breath. No, like, from your belly. Better. Do it ten times.” He did it with her and by the ninth time she felt silly. “Next one we go. Kick hard. Follow me. Use your arms to pull you through on the flat part. Then float up letting your air out because you'll be burning by then. He counted to three and they went. She swam hard to keep up and they reached the mouth faster than she thought. She started to relax thinking this wouldn't be so hard after. Then they went through the tunnel. Her hair caught in a ragged edge and she struggled frantically to get free. Darren came back to help her but in her desperate thrashing she kicked him in the face. Horrified she wanted to make sure he was ok but could feel her lungs starting to burn. She got confused and started swimming the wrong way until his hand circled her ankle and yanked her back with a point. By then she was sure she would die. The air was already leaving her lungs and her head felt like it wanted to explode. Darren must have felt the same because he was pushing frantically at her back and bottom. The tunnel broke and in her relief so did the nervous gas from her belly, just as he was pushing on her bottom again. There was no way he could have mistaken what those bubbled were. At that point, she wanted to die. But she didn't. She made it to the top sputtering and coughing. He was sputtering and coughing, in-between roaring with laughter. He pushed her up to the ledge by the bottom again. She no longer thought his hand there was such a wonderful thing. She crawled up and flopped on her back still coughing. He crawled up behind her and hovered next to her. “That was awesome, Princess!” She swung at him ruthlessly with both hands as he defended himself still laughing. “I almost died,” she cried mortified by her body’s betrayal. He flopped next to her. “Yeah but you didn't, baby.” “Don't call me, baby.” She hit him again a couple times for good measure before throwing her arms over her eyes. “I could just die.” He rolled over and pinned her holding her hands above her head probably to defend against another attack. “Oh you're always worried about the wrong shit. You did it!” He looked elated for her. She breathed heavy looking into his eyes. They were filled with every good emotion and just for her. She nodded returning his smile finally. “I told you. You can do anything you want. Stop saying ‘I don't know’.” Then he kissed her deeply his wet mouth seared to hers and their bodies melting into each other. She was looking at him with glowing eyes when he let her breath again. “You've gotten awful bossy today.” He caressed her jaw gently with his knuckles. “I don't have much time to get some things through your pretty head.” Her face dropped immediately with the reminder. “Stop, no, stop. We’re going back now. Focus on that,” he said with a laugh. She knew he was laughing at the fresh terror on her face. “C’mon.” He pulled her up. “There's no other way back?” “No way, baby. You got this. We can dive from this side. Then hard and fast.” He counted to three and she followed him realizing she'd pretty much follow him anywhere. The afternoon went on and on, swimming and talking and kissing and gazing for forever moments trying to say everything all at once with a look. Finally, as they were hanging from a rocky ledge half in the water half out he dropped his head to his forearms in resignation. “I have to go, Princess,” came his muffled words. He had night duty again that night. It hit her all at once and suddenly all the tears she’d cried that afternoon seemed nothing like the tsunami that was about to hit her. She pushed away from the wall and sunk below the surface using her arms to push her down, down, down. Her hair floated around her like a witch as the damn broke. The tears were hot against the cool pond water and they streamed without regard for the fact that they could not be noticed down there. Finally, she choked on water when her body involuntarily gasped for air after a sob. She broke the surface sputtering and crying. So much for hiding her tears. He was there to fold her in and share her sadness. When she quieted again her voice was froggy and tired, “I never thought I could have so many tears inside of me.” He didn’t joke this time. He nodded grimly and kissed her hard. “Let’s get dressed.” It felt like the walk of a convicted person on the way back. Her mind raced with how tomorrow might look not seeing him, not having plans. They’d exchanged numbers and addresses. They weren’t so poetic as to assume to see each other by chance sometime later in life. No, she wasn’t going to take that kind of whimsical gamble on him. She needed to know that if he wanted to, he could find her. And they were going to try but distance, well distance was distance. Just as they reached the lane to the cottage he brought her into his arms hard and kissed her in a way he hadn’t yet. It was overpowering, suffocating. A tree conveniently appeared and she was grateful because her legs had given out. He finally let her breath and rested his forehead to hers. “I don’t know how I’m going to walk away from you right now.” He whispered with conflicted sadness. “Don’t,” she begged quietly, knowing that was an impossible request. Her hands splayed around his neck holding it, caressing the short stubble as she softly kissed every inch of his face. “Stay,” she whispered raggedly pressing her thigh deep between his legs to feel the real measure of his desire firm against her soft skin. His moan came from deep as his hand ran down her body molding every curve until it slipped into her shorts and then her bikini bottom to rest with what felt like scalding heat on the center of the aching pulse that was radiating through her entire body. Then he started that perfect magic of his and her legs buckled. It didn't matter. He held her firmly not stopping. Her body built higher and higher and her lips only tore away from his long enough for her desperate gasps before resealing to meet the thrust of his tongue. She knew no one would ever kiss her like that again. Then like before, only even better somehow, her body exploded in pure joy. Her giggle was heavy with sadness especially when his hand moved around to cup one side of her bottom fully. She could feel him try to let go but she clung to him. “Stay with me Darren. Just quit. Now that you're free you don't have to go. There are other choices.” Her eyes were pleading with his. “No, baby. I may have joined thinking I didn't have any other options. But because of the Marines I figured out who I was. I met you. I owe them.” She hated his loyalty right then. “But what about me?” He looked like he had been punched in the gut. “You're everything. Everything. I wasn't looking for this. Didn't really want it. Care I guess. I never thought I could have this. I mean look at me. Look at you.” He stopped so he could in a long, searching gaze, his body still holding her up. “I never even dreamt about it. It’s probably why I've screwed up everything like this before. But...but,” he struggled with his words. Then he cleared his throat as his fingers traced her face and his eyes seemed to be trying to memorize every crevice and curve of her face. “I have to, Princess. If I want to walk back to you someday, then I have to walk away right now. There are things I have to do.” Then she sobbed because she knew he was right. Eventually they continued their walk, hand in hand. He gathered her close once more at her steps and place a long, sweet kiss to her cheek. Then he let go and walked away backwards. She was rooted trying to keep the tears at bay so that the last thing he saw of her wasn’t her crying face but it was hard. He was half way down before he trotted back. Her tears broke immediately. He gathered her in and whispered in her ear. She could feel the warmth of his breath, the flex of his arm muscles holding her. His arm wrapped around her waist and his other hand snaked into her hair with a firm almost painful grip. His powerful body enveloped her. The words were echoing in her head as he spoke so softly pressing the whole of his body to hers both of them ignoring the fact that they probably had an audience from inside. Some of his word felt like a sword piecing her skin with agony and then somehow some brought her smile. She clung to him for life. When there was no more to say, his arms reluctantly slid away from her body. He caressed her face once more before trotting away with his back to her never looking back. She heard his car start down the lane and pull away. Her legs buckled and she backed up enough to find the first step before she cried. It was only a few minutes before she felt her mother’s arms around her and she turned into them willingly like a child needing to be comforted. She felt her stroking her hair and cooing quietly. And the lady was prudent enough not to say such things as “we’ve all been there” or “there will be others”. No, she was quiet, there as a vessel to help capture some of her daughter’s sadness. And when Laura calmed all her mother said, after wiping her tear streaked face lovingly, was, “Let’s go open that box of See’s we got at the mall the other day.” Because only chocolate could make even the saddest heartbreak a little less painful. *** That night she dreamt. She dreamt about the future. She was in a yard, large and green and there were children laughing nearby. As her eyes searched them out, they ran in front of her jumping up and down with what looked like clear eyes and dimpled chins. She said something to them but the words were muffled and unclear to her ears. Then they cried out loudly and ran off to the porch steps to greet the shadow that was walking out of the doorway. She came along slower with a smile excited to see that face again, the smile. As she took the last step, the shadow walked out of the darkness and her eyes were about to find his, and she would know that it had all worked out ok, that there was nothing to worry about because love always found a way. He stepped closer and as the sun rays were about to illuminate him, her eyes filled with tears because she was so sure it couldn’t be anyone else and, and…well, and did it really matter so long as it happened where it should, when it should and with whom it should? Auld Lang Syne "Ahh, well, I guess ya’er right. It was only a hope I had anyway." He looked out into the chasm spanning between the cliffs. Six cliffs parted by just enough distance to make walking around at their peaks impossible. The feel of Spring was in the air. Peeking out from the dirty snowdrifts and ice slides were shades of green, the occasional wildflower in bloom. He could tell by their persistence in spite of the cold they had come to roost only to leave again with the frosts of fall. "It's where I come ya see. To think. It's the quiet I'm after. Ma says she doesna hear it. The roar. She doesna like the roar of the wind." His 'r's' trilled in the comfortable habit of his language. "I don't hear it. Not like her. To me, it's the quiet. It's the place I can find the peace to make sense." He flung a pebble out into the grey. "It's been ages since I sat here." The bleak sky was wrapped around the scenic cliffs where he had settled on a perch to dangle his legs. The day for him was empty and filled with the regret of unresolvable sadness. So he had sought out the places of home that were usually the comfort they promised to be. That day they failed him. "There's a legend. That high pitch squeal ya hear. There, that one. It's the scream of a woman. One of the Laherty women. A few hundred years ago, they say. She threw herself over that cliff." He pointed his meaty arm toward the ledge that he spoke of. His ruddy hairs were curly and dense on the freckled arm. "That's the one. They say it was heart break. Her da wouldna allow it. They say he was a miner. Some say he was a Moor. Then others they say he was only an Englishman. Gentry, at that." His arm dropped as slowly as the words faded. "It wouldna worked. Too much the difference. Though I canna say I don't fancy the idea of it." He thought a moment with broody eyes. They were the ramblings of an inevitable outcome. "I was after drinking a bottle of my da's whiskey when I heard." He rubbed the hard stubble carpet on his thick neck. "I half expected him to beat me to a bloody pulp. He didna. He sat down with a look of pity and filled his cup to the rim. He said, 'Ya'er a man now. Ya'll have ta know this is yer lot'. " The wind took on a furious tone. The mopey curls on top of his head puffed out even wider, unrulier, than before. "Sit ya there. And enjoy it. The summer is come soon enough. Not so hot as what you know from that far off land of yers. But hot enough. Hot enough for our kind. It's the time of year I learned my craft. Da kicking the ball with me endlessly. I keep thinking if I'd stayed behind to work with the coaches like they wanted. There was nothing here but wasted time." He stopped suddenly to stare off into the glare of the bright silver afternoon. His sigh was resigned. "I keep thinking how I'd like to teach a wee one how to bend it like a baller. All this thinking. And I'm no a thinker. I never was. I was never going to university. This is all I am. I guess." He winced as the wind whipped a few sand grains into his heavy eyes. "Well, it was a whale of a time." He gestured softly at a small box wrapped in brown paper. "Is not much. Enough to remember by I hope." He looked down at it in deep contemplation letting silence guide his thoughts. "It was Ma. Ma, she's the one who set me straight." His words fell away again. To the memories, first glad and then not. He wondered, not for the first time, as his life passed would they really fade to nothing. "All this we're fighting - Ma says will be nothing someday. And now is no the time to be throwing our lives away. Ah well, if Ma believes it then it must be. She says we’re both too young for such nonsense. And God is man enough to accept us making the wise decisions." He tossed the rock he held between his fingers. It lofted high into the air tumbling in zero gravity before dropping from sight to the far below. "Ah, sure, look it, I know. Bobby Jensen damn near beat me senseless once before ya come. Bloody fists about nonsense. And I never shed a tear, not even when they set me nose. But I've cried myself tearless since I heard. Was it any use?" The lump in his throat had returned hurting his larynx as he tried to swallow. "Ah well, I believe it if Ma says so. And ya say so. Da says ye girls usually know the right of it. But I canna lie to ya. And I'll wonder all my life what might have been. I canna lie." He stood in the cold air. "I'll walk you then. A nice night to enjoy the summer air."


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