Luke’s text said, “Not this weekend, Glen. Taking Jamie to the movie tonight.”
“We haven’t been there all summer. This might be our last chance.”
“Sorry. Taking Jamie shopping in Stanton tomorrow. And there’s a party tomorrow night. What can I say?”
No more explanation needed. I was getting the picture. “Okay. See you at school Tuesday.”
“Not coming to the party?”
“Doubt it. And you’ll be too busy with Jamie to talk to me anyway.”
“I don’t spend every second with her.”
“Sometimes it seems you do.”
“You’re crazy. Hey, I didn’t see the time. Got to pick up Jamie up at the hairdresser’s. Later.”
I put down my cell phone and made a face at it. I’d known when I texted him that it was a long shot, so I wasn’t surprised.
So there were only four days before school started, and I didn’t have a single thing to do.
Last year, Luke and I drove to Willard’s Peak and stayed for the weekend in his tent. But I’d barely seen Luke in over a month, ever since Jamie Ramsdale broke up with Tyler Stevens and Luke broke all speed limits stepping into Tyler’s shoes.
Personally, I think Luke is crazy. Jamie’s the kind of girl who demands all your money, all your attention, and all your time. So what if she’s the head cheerleader and the most popular girl in the school? Anyway, with taking her shopping, helping her baby-sit, buying her fancy coffees, and generally hanging around her all the time, Luke had lost contact with all his old friends, including me.
I decided to walk over to Ed’s Pool Hall and see if there was any action. Small towns are pretty dull, especially in the summer.
Mom was busy in the kitchen, so, since I vaguely remembered her having asked me to do something, I quietly headed for the front door.
How does she do it? Mothers and teachers seem to develop the ability to see through walls! Or maybe they just read minds.
“Yeah?” I replied, my hand on the doorknob.
Mom came into the living room. She was holding a big, round, white plastic container. “Glen, where were you going? I asked you to take this across the street for me.”
Despite the fact that she was wearing denim shorts and a sleeveless pink blouse, she looked flushed from baking on such a warm day. I felt a twinge of guilt, so I reached for the container.
She jerked back, out of my reach. “Glen! You can’t carry it that way! It’s an angel food cake. Don’t you remember my telling you?”
I grinned. My memory has never won me any awards. “Nope. Where’m I s’posed to take it?”
She walked to the window and I followed her. “All right. Do you see that brown and white house over there?”
“Sure,” I replied confidently, “Hastings.”
She sighed. “They moved out last week. Remember?”
“Nope. Guess I wasn’t too interested. They were old enough to be my grandparents.” I thought of my fashionable grandmother. “Great-grandparents, maybe.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Hastings moved to the city to be closer to their son and his family. And yesterday, while you were out fishing, a new family moved in. The Thorntons. He’s a doctor and he’s going into partnership with Dr. McGrady. I think there’s a boy about your age.”
“Now, carry the cake from underneath, like this.” She started to give it to me and then stopped.
“You need to comb your hair first.” She frowned. “You’d better change your shirt, too. You seem to have managed to spill some of your lunch on it.”
If I’d had more energy, I’d have argued. Instead, I went to my room and rummaged through the drawers until I found a clean T-shirt. Then I had to look for a comb. I finally found one on the floor near the bed.
Mom and I both have this sort of wavy but not quite curly brown hair that does pretty much whatever it wants no matter how often you comb it. I needed to get a haircut, because the longer it is the more of a pain it is. Mom keeps her hair fairly short for the same reason. I ran the comb through my hair and it stayed pretty well the same, but at least I could say I’d tried. Let’s face it, I’m not much in the looks department. I’m about five-foot-ten with a few muscles and ordinary features—nothing that stands out.
But I don’t scare little kids when I look at them, either.
I put the comb on my dresser and went out to get the cake. Mom made me use both hands to take the plastic case from underneath. Then she held the front door for me. As I started down the sidewalk, she called out a final, “Do be careful.”
I grinned back at her. Then I felt annoyed. She had no reason to talk to me as if I was eight years old; I was seventeen, and going into my final year of high school.
I made it across the street without dropping the cake, and soon I was at the door of the Thorntons’ house. I was trying to balance the cake in one hand so that I could ring the doorbell with the other when the door opened and a guy about my age started out, then stopped and stared at me.
Embarrassed about holding a cake, I stammered something about my mother having baked it and he flashed a big smile, then held the door open for me to go in. He called to his mother, and a tall, slender, blond woman in a bright red skirt and jacket came to take charge of the cake. She said she’d go right over and thank Mom for it, so I pointed out which was our house, and then she took the cake to the kitchen.
I stood looking up at the boy who, at about six-foot-two, had the biggest shoulders, the blondest hair, and the widest smile I’d ever seen.
He spoke first. “Name’s Charlie. Charles, really, but Charlie sounds friendlier.” He stuck out a large well-tanned hand and I grasped it. His grip was painfully strong.
“Glen Sauten,” I mumbled back. Then I didn’t know what to say.
“You go to high school?” he asked eagerly.
I nodded. Then, feeling more was expected, I added, “Grade twelve. How about you?”
“Same.” If possible, his smile got wider. “So, is there anything to do around here? Maybe if you’re not too busy you could show me around?”
“Sure,” I replied enthusiastically. “Er—that is, we could walk downtown. It’s only eight blocks.” I felt my face get flushed—the way it always does when I say something dumb.
“Walk?” His laugh started in his stomach and worked its way up. “Charlie Thornton never walks! Come on. I’ll show you how we get downtown.”
I envied the way he just left without his mother coming to see where he was going or asking him to do something first. We went into the garage and Charlie, with a flourish, opened the passenger door on a gleaming red Mustang. I got in.
With a bow, he shut the door, then walked around to the driver’s side. In no time, we had backed out of the drive and were on our way.
I leaned back, relaxing against the soft cushions. This was the life. “Hey, this isn’t yours, is it?”
“Sure it is. I may trade it in on a newer model, though. Dad got me this one when I turned sixteen, so it’ll soon be two years old.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. This guy’d had a new Mustang for two years, and my Dad wouldn’t let me buy a two-thousand-dollar Ford after I’d saved the money? Unreal!
We stopped at the pool hall, and I took Charlie in. A couple of friends of mine, Matt Robertson and Brandon Lovansky, were there. They’re both in my grade, and I’ve known them forever.
Matt is fairly short—about five-foot-seven, and skinny, with reddish-blond hair and a face full of freckles. Brandon is about my height, but he’s a lot bigger than me. According to his doctor, he’s about thirty pounds overweight. But Brandon doesn’t worry about it.
Anyway, they’re both good guys. Nobody you’d notice, just ordinary good guys. They’ve lived next door to each other all their lives, and they’ve been best friends all that time. And they’ve been friends with Luke and me nearly as long.
After I made the introductions, we had a few games of eight ball. Charlie was the winner and I ended up on the bottom. Pool never was my game.
Loser was supposed to buy Cokes, so the four of us went over to Harry’s Restaurant and I blew most of my ready cash.
While we were there, I learned something more about Charlie. The four of us were in a booth and Charlie was telling stories about the city where he used to live, and asking us what it was like to have lived in a small town all our lives, when I realized we had become the focus of attention for nearly every girl in the place.
Not that they were really obvious about it, but still, they were having a good look. Now, I knew it wasn’t me they were interested in, and I didn’t think it was Brandon or Matt, so that left Charlie.
He seemed to be ignoring them.
Finally, Brandon and Matt said they had to be going or they’d be late for dinner. We watched them go. Then Charlie got up, slowly, and I followed.
“Don’t forget the bill.” He nodded toward the table.
“Huh? Oh, yeah.” I grabbed it and paid at the counter.
Meanwhile, Charlie went over and started to talk to the prettiest girl in the place. Not wanting to butt in, I stood at the counter, pretending to read a notice that was pasted on the glass. They looked over at me once and Sophie, a redhead who was also in grade twelve, shrugged. Finally, Charlie came over and we headed out the door. As we got in the car, I kept myself from being nosy. After all, I’d only known the guy for a few hours.
We drove home and stopped in Charlie’s driveway.
“I hope you aren’t busy tonight,” he said as I reached for the door handle.
I stopped, then looked at him. “Huh?”
“I said I hope you aren’t busy tonight.”
Sure I was busy. First I was going to watch television. Then I was going to read the paper. Or maybe I’d read the paper first and then watch television. Or I could do both at the same time. “Not anything important,” I replied.
“Good. I’ll pick you up at seven-thirty and we’ll take in a movie.”
I had to laugh. “In this town it’s the movie.”
He laughed, too, and I got out and headed across the street, hoping Mom wasn’t holding dinner for me.
She was, of course. She often did. Sometimes for Dad, but usually for me. I have this habit of forgetting to look at the time. I think she tries extra hard to be nice to me so I’ll feel bad. Like waiting dinner. Sounds nice, but she always manages to say something like, “The potatoes were even better until I had to warm them up,” or “The meat got a little greasy while I was keeping it hot.” So it sounds like, because of me, everyone’s dinner is spoiled.
Not that you’d ever know it, though. If for no other reason, my mom could go down in history as a great cook. Of course, I was the sixth kid she’d had to practice on, so by now she could do it with her eyes shut.
While we were eating roast potatoes, fried chicken with biscuits, broccoli, and lettuce salad with home-made dressing, Mom said Mrs. Thornton had dropped over to thank her for the cake and that she seemed nice. Apparently, she’s an interior decorator and since there isn’t much scope for her talents in Wallace, she planned to open a store in Stanton and drive back and forth. Stanton’s a small city half an hour west of Wallace.
Then Mom asked if I’d met Charlie.
“Yep,” I replied as I stuffed in another forkful of potatoes.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Dad said as he reached for seconds. I hope I have the same tendency to stay skinny as he does—because he eats as much as I do.
“She asked me,” I mumbled.
“What was he like?” Mom asked.
“Okay.” I continued eating.
“Can’t you expand on that a little?” Dad asked in his slightly impatient tone. I think he sometimes wonders why, after five intelligent, capable kids, he had to finish up with me.
I reached for more milk. “I guess so.”
“Well, what about him?” Mom asked.
When I didn’t reply right away, she added, “Is he your age?”
“Did you like him?”
“Will he be in your grade?”
“Was he friendly?”
“Were you?” Dad said with a smile. “Or did you even speak to him?”
I looked up, set my fork down, and grinned, “They could use you two down at the police station. Yes, I was friendly. And I spoke to him. In fact, I spent the afternoon with him, and I’m going to the show with him tonight. I will also confess that he has a two-year-old Mustang, red, with a white interior, a radio and CD player, and a lot of horsepower. He is over six feet tall, with blond hair. He seems to be very popular with girls. And he beat me at pool. Anything more?”
Mom smiled. “Thank you for—what is it—’squealing’ to us. And doesn’t everybody beat you at pool?”
Dad nodded. “You may as well take your money and throw it in the nearest creek as play pool. I’ve never seen anybody so bad.”
I gulped down my third glass of milk before answering. “Nice to have parents who defend you. What’s for dessert?”
Mom took a pie—apple—out of the oven, and I put cheese on it.
After we’d finished eating, she told Dad and me to go play some Ping-Pong while she cleaned up. Never ones to argue, we scrammed to the basement before she changed her mind.
Dad wanted to bet a dollar a game, but I refused—said it would be too much like taking candy from a baby, me being the baby. And, anyway, I’d spent all my cash that afternoon. He won three games in a row, so we called it quits and sat down to watch TV.
Almost immediately, Mom was yelling that someone was there for me. I remembered that Charlie was coming at seven-thirty and looked at my watch. Seven-twenty-nine. I took the stairs two at a time.
I could hear voices in the living room. Charlie was saying things like, “Very much, Mrs. Sauten,” and “I’m certainly going to enjoy living here.” I paused in the doorway. I’d changed my T-shirt after lunch, but I’d worn this one all afternoon and during dinner. Mom wasn’t beyond sending me to change right in front of Charlie. I ran to pull a clean shirt out of my drawer and slip it on.
Charlie was sitting, perfectly at ease, talking to Mom about where he’d lived before. I was immediately glad I’d at least changed T-shirts. Charlie was wearing a pair of brown cargo pants and a brown and orange sports shirt.
When I came into the room, he jumped up, said he was pleased to have met Mom, and led the way to the door.
I gave directions on how to get to Sophie’s. Although she lives on the other side of town, there are only about two thousand people altogether, so it’s just a few minutes’ drive.
We soon found her parents’ red brick house. This was the “old but good” section of town. We also have “old but okay” and “old and grungy” sections, besides the newer ones like where Charlie and I live.
We parked in front, and Charlie got out. He started toward the house, then stopped and looked back at me. “Well, come on.”
Surprised, I said, “That’s okay. I’ll wait here.”
Charlie stared, then grinned. “Don’t be an idiot. Both girls are here. Sophie said her friend lives down the street and would come over. Hurry up.”
He went on, and I had to follow.
I was an idiot, all right. It had never occurred to me that Charlie would fix me up with a date. I’d gone places with Luke all the time, and if he took a girl I did the driving.
The only time I’d ever dated a girl was some Sadie Hawkins dance when she’d asked me. And then it had been Lottie Perkins, the dumbest girl in class. I didn’t want to go, but Mom blackmailed me.
It isn’t that I’m afraid of girls or anything. I’ve just never felt any real desire to get to know them. I mean, I’m doing okay without them. I’m only seventeen—plenty of time left. Why, my dad didn’t get married until he was twenty-six! That gives me nine more years.
The door opened.
“Oh, Charlie, I wasn’t sure you’d actually come,” said Sophie, giggling between every word. “I wondered if maybe I’d just dreamt I met you at Harry’s.” She took a few steps forward and then squealed. “Oh, Charlie, is that your car? It’s gorgeous!”
Ava Porter had come out behind Sophie, and when Sophie introduced her to Charlie, she stared, giggling. Then, rather pointedly, Sophie said, “And here’s your date, Ava. You can come closer, Glen. She doesn’t bite.”
Ava is a tiny blond who follows Sophie around. She’s okay, I guess, but I’ve never said more than two words to her in my life. Nor did I ever intend to say more.
I coughed, mumbled something—don’t ask what—and was relieved to hear Charlie say, “Let’s go,” to the girls.
In a few seconds, I was in the back seat of the Mustang with Ava. Fortunately, she joined in the conversation between Charlie and Sophie, and I was free to sit back and relax.
When we got inside the theatre, I pulled out my wallet. Uh-oh. I had about eighty cents.
Charlie was paying for his and Sophie’s tickets.
“Sort of. I forgot to get more money.”
“No worries,” he said, handing me two twenties.
I told him I’d pay him back the next day, but he said not to bother. I just shook my head.
We found seats in the back row of the theatre. Charlie sat on Ava’s other side, so I didn’t have to talk to her. In a way, it was just as if Charlie had brought two girls, and although I had a hunch it bothered Sophie, it sure didn’t bother me.
I saw Luke and Jamie. They were at the back on the far side. They were totally preoccupied with each other.
The movie wasn’t bad—some kind of detective story and war story combined. I forget what happened, but there were two really good chase scenes. When it ended, Ava asked Charlie if he’d been to the Peabody Diner yet, and of course he hadn’t, and he’d love to see it.
So we piled back into the car, and both girls gave directions. We got there eventually. In a town the size of ours, you’d get anywhere eventually.
A lot of cars were already parked around the tiny building. The Peabody Diner is just a local joint, owned by an older couple named Smith who take off for a few months in the winter and shut it down. I guess if we were on any kind of major road, we’d have had a chain burger place like McDonalds or Burger King by now, but because we don’t have any major highways nearby, we’re still stuck with local joints. Of course, if we have a hankering for chain food, we just have to drive to Stanton. They have one of everything.
The Peabody Diner is a small restaurant with only three tables inside. But it has a large parking area and some outdoor picnic tables. Most people eat in their cars or at the outdoor tables.
The girls wanted milkshakes and French fries, so Charlie and I got out to get them. He offered to do it, but I needed the fresh air.
We had to walk by a carload of girls, and you could hear them giggling. One of them leaned out and said,
“Hi, Glen,” in a very friendly tone. It was Marta Billings, someone else I’ve known my entire life.
When we were little, I think we played together a bit. But she got kind of weird as she grew up. She has coal black hair, which she wears long and straight, and she dresses mostly in black pants and baggy black sweaters and she wears a lot of make-up. On the whole she looks—well, kind of scary.
I think this was the first time in years she’d spoken to me other than to tell me to get out of her way, or to whisper some sarcastic comment when I gave a wrong answer in class.
I ignored her. If she wanted to meet Charlie, she’d have to do better than that.
“Friend of yours?” Charlie asked.
“No,” I replied truthfully. “We mutually can’t stand each other.”
Charlie laughed as we got into one of the two lines at the counter. “How can you not stand a pretty girl?”
“Is that her name? Marta? I like that. You’ll have to introduce me. But later. Not in front of Sophie and Ava.”
I didn’t say anything, because a couple of the girls who had been with Marta in her dad’s car had come up behind us. Kayla and Emily are okay—not totally weird like Marta, but nothing great either. Standing behind us in line, they acted as though they didn’t even know we were there, but you could tell they did. They were just making themselves available in case we—or rather, Charlie—wanted to talk to them.
Apparently he didn’t. He talked to me about cars—mostly his—and then asked about our school’s football team. Fortunately, we have one, and not a bad one, either. Maybe having a lot of strong farm kids helps. We finished second in our league last year and lost a heartbreaker in the playoffs. Charlie sounded really interested. But just then we got our turn at the counter.
Charlie did the ordering. Since it was a busy night, there were French fries already cooking, so we got our order in a few minutes.
Sophie and Ava were giggling about something when we got back to the car. They wouldn’t say what.
Charlie started teasing them and they lapped it up.
Girls are—well, I’ve only known one or two who don’t act silly. I guess they’re okay, but they sure get strange around guys they want to impress.
But Charlie didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seemed to be acting just as silly, only in a different way. I couldn’t be bothered—even if I knew how—and even if Ava was the least bit interesting.
So I drank my milkshake and ate my French fries and enjoyed watching the three of them.
At a little after eleven-thirty, Sophie reluctantly said she had to go home soon. There was a dance the next night, and her dad wouldn’t let her go unless she was home by midnight tonight. So of course Charlie asked about the dance.
I thought he was going to ask Sophie to go with him, and I think she did, too. But he didn’t.
We took the girls home. Charlie parked halfway between Sophie’s and Ava’s houses, so we each walked our date to her door.
Charlie and Sophie went hand in hand. Ava started off in the direction of her house. I followed.
“Nice night,” I offered.
A pause. “Movie wasn’t too bad, huh?”
“I guess so.”
I went on for a few steps before realizing I was alone. I turned.
She slowly caught up. “Are you a good friend of Charlie’s?” she asked. “Did you know him before?”
“Nope. Just met him today.”
We were walking together now.
“Where did you meet him?”
“At home. He lives across the street.”
“Oh.” She thought it over. “So he doesn’t know anyone else yet?”
I caught on to what was going through her mind. Should she be friendly to me or wait until Charlie got settled and maybe chose new friends?
She must have decided not to take any chances, because she smiled. “Well, it certainly was a nice evening, Glen. Maybe I’ll see you at the dance tomorrow?”
“This is where I live.” She stopped. “Well, good-night Glen. See you tomorrow.”
I waited until she’d gone in. That’s what Luke always does. Then I wandered back to the car to wait for Charlie.
I sat in the car for about fifteen minutes before he showed up. He was whistling as he got into the driver’s seat.
“So, Glen old buddy, what do you think?”
He laughed. “Ava, of course. Any good?”
“Good for what?”
He laughed again. “What a joker! Good for what! Hey, Sophie’s not bad. Not bad at all. Nice house, too. And her dad’s a lawyer. Good family, and good-looking. I just might give her another call soon.”
I didn’t say anything. If he wanted to date Sophie that was okay with me. Just as long as I didn’t have to.
We were on our way by now, but instead of heading home we went back to The Peabody Diner. Marta’s car was still there, and Charlie drove up behind it and got out. He looked at me through his open window.
“You coming?” he asked.
“I thought we’d get some girls for tomorrow. What’s her name again? Martha?”
“Yeah. How about it?”
“Uh, well, you go ahead. I’ll wait.”
“What do you prefer? Blond, brunette…?”
I cleared my throat but my voice still sounded hoarse when I said, “None.”
Charlie laughed. “No preference, eh? That’s how I feel, too. Give them all a chance.”
“That’s not what—”
An annoyed female voice interrupted me. “I don’t know why you’ve stopped here. There are some empty spaces. And I’d like to back out.” It was Marta.