Happy Anniversary, Baby, Got You on My Mind. Again.

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On a warm summer evening, forty-three years ago, good friend Andy Thomas and I met on foot, at the Mark Twain grade school, with nothing more on our minds than to stroll up and down the streets and share in conversation. We always could while away the hours talking. Both of us at the time were unattached when it came to the fairer sex, and since each of us had a driver’s license, why we were on foot must have been a result of a lack of available transportation. But no bother, we liked to walk.

After a brief conversation at the school, we made our way south on Maple street, past Mac Jensen’s place, and down the hill in the direction of Grigg’s Park. Prior to reaching the bottom of the hill, we noticed that the tennis courts were under lights and spotted two people swatting the ball back and forth. Two girls. From that distance, it was hard to identify the players, but Andy recognized one as Angie Rogers. I knew Angie from school. But the other player remained a mystery.

After we crossed Centennial, I asked Andy if he knew the other girl. For some reason, I had become fixated on her. He identified her as the sister of a classmate, Debbie McClendon. I knew Debbie, but not her younger sister, Julie. That reality was about to change.

We enthusiastically approached the tennis court, like moths to a flame, or in my case, like an ox being led to the slaughter, and the two ceased playing long enough to talk with us. Nervous around girls, I’m sure my conversation was limited to a few one word answers and grunts, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the new girl, especially her eyes. The butterflies hovering in my stomach furiously beat their wings, and my knees became weak. I believe I was smitten.

We finally left the two of them to continue their game of tennis, but as we walked away, I’m surprised I didn’t run into a telephone pole or parked car, it being hard to navigate down the sidewalk with your head looking behind you. Our conversation the rest of the night had only one theme, Julie.

A few weeks later, now cruising up and down the streets of Carthage in my royal blue, 1958 Chevrolet Biscayne, I inexplicably ended up driving south on Maple Street, in the vicinity of Julie’s house. How did that happen? Truth be told, I was hoping to catch a glimpse. Lo and behold, who did I see walking down the sidewalk, but Julie McClendon with her good friend Laura Coombs. I pulled alongside them and stopped to say hello. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but they both ended up in my car.

The bench seat was wide enough to accommodate an entire baseball team, but somehow Julie ended up sitting right next to me, with Laura manning shotgun. With her sitting beside me, the sweet smell of perfume, the occasional brushing together of our skin, I found it difficult to concentrate on the road (today I have different distractions causing me not to concentrate on the road while driving, but that’s a different story). She must have batted her eyes at me, because when she asked to drive my car, being under age and thus breaking the law, I immediately pulled over and exchanged places. She always has been able to get me to do whatever she asks.

Keenly aware of what girls prefer, nearing seventeen and never having dated a girl being beside the point, I figured that Julie might not enjoy my loudly playing version of American Woman, so I switched the 8-track to the other side and found These Eyes. How romantic. I would find out years later that impressing her with my music would never happen, but at this point I was grossly unaware.

The remainder of the summer I sought glimpses of her whenever and wherever I could. I did spend an awful lot of time at the Municipal Park swimming pool that summer, her being a lifeguard there not having anything to do with it mind you. You might say I was obsessed, not that I’ve ever been obsessed with anything. But her being only fifteen, we could not officially date. Once the school year commenced, Julie turned sixteen and her parents, probably to this day still shaking their heads in wonder, allowed her to date me.

We became an item around school:

Kissed a few times:

And enjoyed the recognition of our peers on Prom night:

 

Four years, and many adventures later, Julie McClendon became my wife on July 22, 1978. Being inept with the spoken word, I wonder if I’ve ever expressed to her how much she means to me. Still today, when I gaze into her beautiful blue eyes, the butterflies flutter, just as they did on that tennis court forty-three years ago. She is my special gift from God, wholly undeserved. And I am forever grateful. She’s given me two wonderful sons and two special grandchildren.

She’s Julie, Jul, Gigi, Julia Kay, and a host of other pet names. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

Happy Anniversary, sweetheart.

Outsmarting the Neighbor’s Dog or How to Successfully Terrorize Your Little Sister

The wall became a problem for us when we played any game involving a ball (the ball tended to leave our yard and land in the neighbor’s). What to do? It was obvious we had to get the ball, but how?

In addition to the wall, there was a bigger problem with retrieving our ball; each of our neighbors on all three sides had dogs! The neighbor to our right had three Chihuahua dogs. These were not your normal Chihuahua dogs; they were huge, vicious, long-toothed, some type of hybrid breed of Chihuahua dog. Timmy and I were scared to go over there and get our ball (it never occurred to us to walk around to the front of the house, ring the doorbell, and ask for our ball).

Simultaneously, we came up with the same plan; we agreed, prior to asking, to send Kathy over the wall. But how to convince her?

Initially I tried to bribe her and said, “Kathy, I have some candy I’ll give you (I don’t mess around), if you’ll go get our ball next door.”

Timmy chimed in and begged her, “Pwease, pwease, pwease Kathy, would you go get ow bawh?”

Kathy wouldn’t fall for either ploy and responded, “No. I don’t want to. Besides, ahn’t theh dogs next doah?”

I’ve been known to lie, and said, “Kathy, those are little Chihuahua dogs that couldn’t hurt a flea. I’ll give you all my candy. Please?”

“Okay,” was her response and I had to assume it was that final bribe that put her over the edge.

I know what you’re thinking; what a cruel thing to do to your little sister. I never felt guilty about it until the event was over. Besides, we didn’t have a choice.

Timmy and I got Kathy up on the wall, and we spotted our ball across the neighbor’s yard. No dogs in sight. As we slowly lifted Kathy down, we told her to hurry up before the dogs were the wiser.

As she grabbed the ball and headed back to the wall, out of nowhere, the three amigos, I mean Chihuahuas, bolted toward her. As Kathy tried to climb up on the wall, the dogs jumped all over her, biting her bottom and pulling down her pants.

Meanwhile, safely sitting on the wall, Timmy and I were very helpful.

“Kathy, thwow the bawh ovah the fence,” Timmy offered.

I followed up with this encouragement, “Kathy, don’t worry, those dogs aren’t hurting you. Timmy and I will pull you up, but you have to throw the ball over the fence first.”

The only words out of Kathy at this point were, “Waaahhh!”

We finally convinced Kathy to throw the ball back into our yard, lifted her over the fence, pulled her pants up, told her not to tell Mom, and then went to the tree in the front yard to pull a switch for the discipline that surely would come. In all future endeavors involving balls in neighbor’s yards, Kathy was not involved.

The neighbor behind us had a dog too. This dog was a bit larger than the Chihuahuas and much more aggressive and faster. He was black and white (a cocker spaniel), had very thick fur, and his bite was worse than his bark.

When the ball went over the wall into this dog’s yard, we had to work on our strategy. You couldn’t just climb down the wall into the backyard, because before your foot hit the ground, this dog was all over you, tearing you to pieces. He was a smart dog (adept at undercover work and counterespionage), always hiding behind bushes, beside the house, or wherever he could conduct his surveillance. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, you could not get a foot down and that dog was right there, no bark, just wooosh! He was there.

We weren’t about to let any dog outsmart us however. Our strategic battle plan was brilliant. If the ball was on the east end of the yard for example, one of us would go to the west end of the yard and begin the climb down. This time we had him fooled. While the decoy was on the west end, the other kid was on the east end, where the ball was located. The decoy never intended to set foot in the yard, but the strategy was effective.

The dog ran over to the kid on the west end, and in the meantime, the other kid quickly jumped down, grabbed the ball, and was safely up on the wall before the dog knew what hit him. Then we sat on the wall, stuck out our tongues, and made fun of the hapless dog. If nothing else could be said about us, we were smarter than a dog, at least on this occasion.

Get your copy of Little Heathens here.

Little Heathens: The Perfect Book to Bring Along on a Trip to the Local DMV

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A few months back, I solicited the leader of a local book club to gauge her interest in having the club read my newest book, The Boat. Suspicious, she decided to check me out, unknown to me at the time.

A couple of weeks ago, I did a book presentation at a local library, invited to speak by this same person. After my presentation, she told the story of how she had surreptitiously checked me out.

I came across your book because you had sent me a message on my Young Adult Book discussion meetup page asking if we would be interested in reading your book, The Boat. Before I replied, I wanted to check out your work, so I googled you and looked in the library system to see if there were any books available. Tinley Park had a copy of Little Heathens, and so I put it on hold.

When I got it I was in the middle of reading another book, so I put it in my bag for later. I went to the DMV with my boyfriend and continued reading my book as we knew we’d be there for a long time. He complained and asked what he was going to do because he was bored, so I took Little Heathens out of my bag and told him he could read that.

After about 10 minutes he begins to laugh out loud, so loudly, everyone in the DMV is staring at us. I asked what he was laughing at, and he said, “This book is hilarious.” He finished it that night and then I read it the next day, and after I was done I had my dad read it, as he grew up in the same era, and like my boyfriend and I, he also read it without putting it down. 

Now, we all know about the DMV; a perfect example of government inefficiency on full display. So, if for some reason you have to go to the DMV, take a copy of Little Heathens along and entertain not only yourself, but those waiting alongside you.

Here’s a link, in order to be prepared ahead of time.

The Boat: Jason’s Argument With His Father

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Jason drives down the driveway to park behind his house, and a light coming from the living room stirs butterflies in his stomach. Great. Somebody’s up. Probably Dad.

After parking, he takes a deep breath and considers how the conversation with his dad will go. He knows he’ll be mad at him coming home late, but angrier at not receiving a phone call. He hopes his dad is too tired for a long conversation. Or better yet, asleep.

He finds, to his relief, the back door unlocked, and Jason quietly enters the house. He approaches the entrance to the living room and glances into the dimly lit space. He sees his father slumped down in his easy chair. Good.

Jason tiptoes past, in the direction of his bedroom, but then, out of the silence his father says, “Jason, where are you going?”

“Oh, hi Dad. I didn’t think you were awake.”

“I would’ve been asleep a long time ago. Where have you been and why didn’t you call?”

“There was a party…”

“Come in here where I can see you. And sit down; I want to talk to you.” Jason’s father puts his index finger to his lips. “Your mom’s sleeping, so keep it down.”

Jason sits on the couch, next to his father’s easy chair.

“I’m listening. ‘There was a party…’”

Jason clears his throat. “Yeah, there was a big party out at Miller’s Crossing and I went out there to see what was going on.”

“In your mother’s car?”

Jason forgot that little detail. “Yes, in Mom’s car. I picked up Robbie and we rode around for a while, and then about ten or so we drove out there.”

“You know I don’t approve of you going to those parties.”

The two sit silent for a moment.

Mr. Christiansen says, “Why didn’t you call?”

“If I had called, what would you have said? What would I have said? If I told you what I was doing, you would have told me no. I could’ve called, but I didn’t.”

Jason’s Dad sits upright in his chair. “So, better to make your mom and me worry all night than to risk being told no? You disappoint me Jason. You know better.”

“I’m sorry Dad.” Jason hangs his head and reads the Converse label on the side of his shoe.

“And why did you stay out so late? Your curfew is midnight. Do you realize what time it is?”

“I know what time it is, but…”

His father raises his voice. “It’s four in the morning. We’ve got church in five hours. Why didn’t you call and tell us you’d be late?”

Jason now feels guilty and making excuses won’t change the situation. He figures telling the truth won’t get him into any more trouble. “I had to take care of Robbie.”

“What’s the matter with Robbie?”

“He was drunk.” Jason winces and braces for what’s coming next.

Mr. Christiansen, now at the edge of his chair, leans in close to Jason’s face. “What? Son, I’ve warned you about that. You promised me you wouldn’t get drunk. Have you been drinking?”

“Dad, I didn’t say I was drunk. I won’t lie to you, I’ve had a couple of beers from time to time, but I know my limit. Besides, tonight I had to keep an eye on Robbie. He was wasted and I had to keep him out of trouble.”

“I’ve told you before; I don’t like you hanging around with Robbie. Or Alec. I think they’re both trouble. Why don’t you find some good kids to hang around with?”

Jason now sits on the edge of the couch. “That’s just it Dad. They’re both my good friends. Since seventh grade.”

They both ease back in their seats and sit quietly, neither making eye contact.

Finally, Mr. Christiansen says, “Son, scripture says that ‘bad company corrupts good morals’. Do you understand what that means?”

I’m not an idiot. Of course, I know what it means. Jason knows his dad is right, but doesn’t answer him.

“It means that…”

“I know what it means, Dad. But there’s another scripture that says, ‘there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.’”

“Don’t start quoting scriptures to justify your behavior. You know I’m right.”

A noise comes from the kitchen area. They hear water run in the faucet and then the opening and closing of the dishwasher. And then a door eases shut.

Mr. Christiansen says, “Let’s tone it down. We’ll wake your mother.”

“I think we already did.”

“Tell me I’m not right, son.”

“But Dad, you’ve always taught me the most important quality in a friend is loyalty. What kind of friend would I be if I left Robbie alone at his worst time? He doesn’t normally get that way, but I think his parent’s divorce is bumming him out.”

“The Booker’s are getting a divorce?”

“That’s what Robbie told Alec and me. He acted really mad about it, but I think he’s torn up inside. I need to be there for him. I would want him to be there for me. Jesus said, ‘Greater love has no one than this that one lay down his life for his friends.’”

“Son, it’s good to see you’re learning the scriptures, and I can tell your debate class is really making an impact, but I still say you should find some good kids to be friends with. I’ve seen a number of kids your age at church. Have you tried to make friends with them?”

“Dad, I have my friends. If I waited around for only friends that were ‘good kids’”—Jason creates imaginary quote marks in the air with both hands—“I would be pretty lonely. Robbie and Alec aren’t perfect and have plenty of bad points, but so do the kids at church. And so do I. How am I going to make a difference in the world if the only people I hang around with are those from church?”

Mr. Christiansen sits back in his chair and sighs. “Son, I’m proud of you for sticking by your friends. You’re right, loyalty is important. But not calling and letting your mother and me worry all night was wrong. In that I’m disappointed.”

“Dad, I said I was sorry for not calling you. Whatever punishment you have for me, I guess I’ll have to take.”

“Let’s go to bed son. We can get in a few more hours sleep. We’ll talk some more after church.” His dad rises to leave. “I love you, Jason.”

“I love you too, Dad.”

Jason lies in his bed and the events from the past few hours keep running through his mind. He tosses and turns, unable to fall asleep. I’m glad I didn’t tell him about Alec and the drugs. Or about Robbie running around in his underwear. Or about the Winstons and Mom’s car. Mom’s car? Oh, great.

A Little Heathen’s 4th of July

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Once we outgrew the snakes, the next toys we indulged in were sparklers. Sparklers were much more exciting than snakes. The sparkler was basically a piece of wire, about nine inches long; that included a fuel, usually charcoal or sulfur (the same as black powder); an oxidizer, potassium nitrate for example; a binder such as sugar or starch, which when coated on the wire and dried, allow the substances to remain; and finally, the best part, the aluminum, iron, steel, zinc, or magnesium dust that creates the beautiful, bright, shimmering sparks. The metal flakes heat up until they are incandescent and shine brightly. Once lit, the sparkler shot out colorful sparks at a ferocious rate. They were best played with after dark, so you achieved the full effect of the fire and color.

Each of us ran to Dad with sparkler in hand (Dad had the matches; he probably didn’t think it was safe for us to have our own matches), and he lit each of our sparklers. Whereas we then ran around the yard flailing our arms around in circles, writing our names in the air, and getting as close to each other’s faces as we thought we could get away with, squealing and giggling the entire time.

Once we became good at it, we graduated to a sparkler in each hand, and then maybe two in each hand (if you tried to hold too many at a time, the sparks burned your hand). Besides the obvious, in the wrong hands these little toys had the potential to be quite lethal, in an inconspicuous way.

You see, when the sparkler had burned itself out, we tended to throw the remaining wire on the ground and run back to Dad to get our sparkler refill. Unfortunately, the discarded wire was still extremely hot, and as I mentioned in an earlier chapter of the book, we always ran around barefoot, especially during the summertime. A hot sparkler on the bottom of the foot ensured that in addition to squealing and giggling, there was loud screeching and one-legged hopping around to liven up the evening.

Dad, with a look of incredulity, turned to Mom and said, “Honey, what are those kids doing, jumping around the yard and screeching like that?”

Mom, oblivious to the reality at hand, “I don’t know, dear, I guess they’re just having a good time.”

Purchase your copy of Little Heathens here.

The Boat: When Alec Meets Mrs. Montgomery

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“I really like that top. What’s it called?” Awaiting Cassie’s reply, Alec reaches across the table and places his hand underneath the elastic forming the low, plunging neck line of her top. His fingers lightly rub the lacy bra underneath.

“It’s called a peasant top.” She gently removes his hand from her blouse. “Should we skip breakfast and go somewhere private?”

Before Alec answers, a voice interrupts.

“Would you two like to order something?”

The waitress has been standing there for minutes, but neither of them noticed her.

“Mom!” Cassie springs from her seat and embraces her mother. She points to Alec. “Mom, I’d like you to meet a good friend of mine. This is Alec Thornton.”

Alec’s face turns ashen and he feels his throat tighten. Cassie’s mother, the lady behind the counter and one of his clients, stands before him. He controls his breathing to remain calm, and the two of them lock eyes. He decides Cassie need not know of their arrangement and he hopes her mother feels the same.

He politely says, “Hello, Mrs.…Montgomery, I assume?”

“Yes, it’s Montgomery. Pleased to meet you, Alec.” The two shake hands. Alec relaxes for the moment.

Mrs. Montgomery sits down next to Cassie and they engage in small talk.

“I can’t talk but for a moment. I’m working until six. What are you two doing out so late, or up so early?”

Alec avoids her gaze and doesn’t react to her attempt at humor. He instead pretends to be interested in a conversation occurring in the next booth over.

“Alec picked me up at a party and he remembered me saying you worked here and he wanted to meet you. And we were hungry and this is the only place open this time of night.”

Alec catches Mrs. Montgomery’s eyes, but he’s having trouble reading her. He remains quiet as mother and daughter chit chat for a few more minutes.

Mrs. Montgomery, reacting to the man behind the cash register, stands, and with notepad in hand says, “What can I get for you two?”

Cassie says, “We’ll both have waffles with blueberry syrup.”

Mrs. Montgomery writes the order on her pad. “Anything else?”

Cassie turns to Alec, who faces in the opposite direction. “Alec, anything else?”

“I’ll have a cup of coffee. Black.”

Mrs. Montgomery closes her notepad. “It’ll be here before you know it,” and then disappears behind the counter.

Cassie frowns. “You weren’t very friendly. That’s my mom and you acted like she wasn’t even there. What’s wrong with you? You’re so moody.”

He may have messed up an opportunity for sex later on, so Alec attempts to repair the damage. “I’m sorry. I guess your mom intimidates me. Besides, I thought you two wanted to catch up.”

Cassie reaches across the table and runs her fingers across Alec’s forearm. “When we’re done eating, why don’t we go to the barn and see your boat. It should be private enough for us, don’t you think?”

The tension exited with Cassie’s mother, and Alec’s earlier good mood has returned. He’ll deal with the ramifications of this recent revelation at a later time.

The Boat: When Alec and Cassie Meet the Winston Brothers

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When they step onto the parking lot, Alec stops. His grip tightens on Cassie’s wrist and he points to a place on the other side of the lot. “See the pickup parked over there?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“You know whose pickup it is?” A scowl forms on Alec’s face.

“I have no idea.”

Alec spits out, “That’s the Winston brother’s truck. They’re the bastards who cut my tire and keyed my car. They weren’t in the restaurant, so where are they?”

“Maybe they parked their truck here and went off with someone else.”

Alec pulls Cassie along. “I have an idea. Follow me.”

Cassie resists. “Wait Alec. You told me earlier they’re dangerous. Why do you want to start something with them now?”

“I also told you they already started something, whether I wanted to participate or not. It’s time for some payback, and it starts tonight. If you don’t want to come, here are the car keys. You can wait for me there.”

Alec remains low and moves across the parking lot, maneuvering between parked cars and out of the light as much as possible. For a moment Cassie hesitates, but then follows behind.

Still a distance from the pickup, Alec glances toward the restaurant entrance. And then to the pickup. And back to the restaurant. He dashes between vehicles, in a serpentine movement, to the other side of the lot.

Reaching the side of the truck opposite the restaurant, in a dark secluded corner of the lot, Alec squats down and retrieves two small pieces of gravel. Duck walking to the front of the truck, he reaches down and gropes for the tire valve stem and removes the cap. He wedges the piece of gravel into the stem valve, which creates a hissing sound as the air in the tire slowly escapes. When the piece of gravel is firmly in place, he moves to the rear tire and repeats the operation.

Alec whispers to Cassie, “Do you hear the air? Put your head down here and listen.”

Cassie bends down. “Yeah. I hear it.”

“It’s going to take a while, but eventually both of these tires will be flat as a pancake and they only have one spare in the back of their truck. Bastards.”

Alec stands and pokes his head around the tailgate to steal a glimpse at the restaurant. “I don’t see anybody.”

Squatting down again, he visually inspects the surface of the lot.

“What are you looking for?” Cassie asks.

“A rock. One with sharp edges.”

Cassie scours another area of the lot with better lighting and finds a good size rock. She holds up her discovery. “Like this one?”

“Just like that.”

Kneeling alongside the truck, still hidden from view, Alec gouges a deep fissure in the paint, from the headlights to the rear bumper. When finished, he throws the rock into the woods and wipes his hands on his jeans. But he remains in place, motionless.

Cassie says, “What are we waiting for? Let’s get out of here. We’re going to get caught.”

“Do you have a piece of paper and a pen?”

Cassie removes her purse from her shoulder. “I might have something in here.”

As she digs through her purse, she comes across her “kit” wrapped in a scarf and glances up at Alec, but he’s watching the front of the restaurant and doesn’t notice. She pushes it to the side and continues searching.

“Will these do?” Cassie presents a Bic pen and a receipt from the QuikTrip.

“Yeah, that’s perfect.”

Alec takes the pen and receipt and scribbles out this note:

Nice truck, assholes. You two punks need to be on the lookout. You never know when you might be caught alone some night.

He places the note under the windshield wiper on the driver’s side.

“Let’s get out of here.”

Staying low, while weaving between parked cars, they arrive back at the Trans Am and climb inside. Alec instructs Cassie to lock her door and once they’ve determined it’s safe, they both burst out laughing at what they’ve pulled off.

Cassie inhales deeply and says, “Man that was fun. My heart is pounding. I haven’t—“

Alec catches his breath. “The fear of getting caught is half the fun. You think they’ll be surprised when they see what we’ve done?”

Cassie’s eyes widen. “What we’ve done? I didn’t do anything. You did all of it.”

“You found the rock. It’s your receipt and your pen. You’re as much in this as I am.”

Cassie freezes and her face whitens. “Is that them?”

“Where?” Alec’s eyes dart around the lot.

“Over by the truck.”

Alec peers out the window and sees two men standing next to the pickup, smoking cigarettes and chatting.

“Shit yeah, it’s them. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

The Boat: When Alec Meets Charlie Nichols

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Reaching a point in their journey when they need to separate, Alec says, “Hey, let’s meet at school tomorrow before class.”

Jason says, “Sure. What about out in front of the school by the flag pole?” The three agree to the plan and go their separate ways.

Alec feels pretty good about his newfound friends. Never having any close friends—at least not since his family moved from Massachusetts—he’s excited about the prospects. Life seems good and as the leaves crunch beneath his feet, he runs down the sidewalk in the cool autumn air.

When he reaches the final corner leading to his house, three figures jump out from behind a row of hedges. At first startled, Alec catches his breath, but before he reacts he’s surrounded. It’s the three tormentors from football practice, Charlie Nichols and his two minions.

Alec’s first instinct leads him to run, but he only gets a half block before the three overtake him.

“Thornton, your ass is grass,” Charlie bellows as the other two manhandle him. “Let’s take him over to the alley. Behind that old house.”

The three brutes drag Alec to a corner between two garages. Through clenched teeth, Charlie continues his angry rant. “Did you think squealing to Coach was going to get me in trouble? You think Coach is going to protect you and your little punk friends?”

Charlie reaches out and grips Alec’s right hand. “I hear you’re an artist?” He then bends back his index finger and Alec winces in pain.

“Yeah,” comes out of Alec’s mouth between short breaths.

Charlie turns up the pain. “If you want to continue to be an artist, you’ll never try that shit on me again.”

Amidst tears and crying, Alec says, “I won’t. I promise. I’ll never tell on you.”

Satisfied, Charlie releases the pressure on Alec’s finger. He says to his two flunkeys, “Let’s make sure Mr. Thornton here understands what we mean.”

The three bullies throw Alec to the ground and pummel him with punches, kicks, and gouges, and Alec does his best to curl up in a ball to limit the damage.

A few minutes later, the bigger boys have gotten their message across and stop the beating. The thugs leave Alec on the ground, bruised, battered, dirty, and wet. Alec lies there for a few minutes, his head throbbing, before regaining his feet and wiping himself off. The pain pulsating throughout his body screams with every heartbeat, and he recognizes the familiar taste of metal on his lips.

Resuming his journey home, Alec wonders if he should tell his parents what just happened. He assumes his father won’t be home and his mother won’t care, even if she is home, so he keeps today’s events to himself. He thinks of Charlie and he’s scared. He knows he’ll have to see him again.

The Boat: When Robbie Meets the Gutter

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Robbie rolls over onto his side and rubs his throbbing back with one hand and his pus swollen eyes with the other. He reaches behind him and pulls from his jeans pocket a brown paper bag wrapped tightly around a glass bottle. Lying on the bottle, for who knows how long, has awakened him from his drunken stupor. How long have I been here?

He brushes his long, stringy hair from around his face and with shaking hands opens the sack. A weak grin forms on his face as he removes the bottle. Old Crow. It’s still half full. Not yet ready to take another swig, he lays the bottle aside. He massages his throbbing head. Where in the hell am I?

It dawns on him that his shirt and shoes are gone. He glances at his surroundings. A large metal dumpster rests immediately to his left, with trash strewn on the ground around him. Robbie struggles to recall his whereabouts or the events that have led him here.

He turns to his right. A chain link fence stretches from one building to another, designed to shut off escape from or entry into this end of the alley. But the rats and other vermin pay it no mind. How did I get here? He grimaces and tries to remember. But his foggy mind reveals nothing.

Slowly rising to his feet, he groans with every movement. Once upright, he walks forward, but the first step causes excruciating pain and he has to stop. He raises his foot for a closer inspection and identifies a two inch cut on his instep, with the dirt and grime so thick the cut is almost unrecognizable. His feeble attempt to walk has reopened the wound. The freshly oozing blood appears an almost fluorescent red against the black stain on his foot.

Robbie gingerly places his foot on the ground and limps toward the daylight end of the alley. The sound of his frayed, flair bottomed jeans scraping along the ground, create the only sound heard on this early morning. He makes it to the end of the alley and leans against the corner of the building. The street appears vacant in all directions. The occasional piece of windblown trash skittering aimlessly along the asphalt, the only evidence of life.

The far off ringing of a church bell echoes down the street and resonates in his ears. It’s Sunday morning. Robbie’s mind drifts back to those Sunday mornings when Jason invited him to join him at Sunday school. How little he knew about the topics being discussed, but how warm and welcome he felt. And it felt good. Jason. And Alec. And now he remembers. The bar in Macon. The two girls. What happened from there? How did I get here? He grimaces and tries to remember. But his fog addled mind reveals nothing.

Sultry air pervades the early summer morning, and pallid rays of sunshine peek over the tops of slumbering buildings. Robbie notices beads of perspiration bathing his arms, and watches a sweat droplet run down his chest and come to a stop at the top of his jeans. More sweat falls from the tips of his unkempt hair. He jerks his head back and whips the unruly mass out of his face, where it rests temporarily on his neck and shoulders.

Peering down the street, Robbie spots a pay phone. He instinctively reaches into his front jeans pocket, searching for change, and counts out thirty six cents in the palm of his hand. He rummages through his other pockets and comes up empty. Where’s my billfold? With his thirty six cents in hand, he limps gingerly down the sidewalk to the pay phone. He must call home.

Robbie braces himself against the top of the pay phone with one hand and with the other he deposits a quarter and dials home. His family doesn’t attend church so he expects someone to answer. After two rings he hears his mother, “Hello, this is Molly Booker.”

“Mom.” His dry throat and mouth make his greeting sound more like a croaking frog than a human voice. “Mom, it’s me, Robbie.”

“Robbie,” his mother cries. “Where are you? Are you all right?”

Robbie closes his eyes tight, but comes up empty. “I don’t know where I am.”

The Boat: When Jason Meets Jenny

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Only two weeks into his freshman year of school, Jason already feels bored. His class load turned out to be lighter than he anticipated, and his teachers seldom challenge him. And now he has to attend an all school assembly in the gymnasium. Another boring speaker, with a boring message, to bore him further. Oh, well. Jason begrudgingly shuffles off to the gym with his fellow classmates.

Not usually a loner, but certainly an observer in crowds of people, Jason scouts out the upper sections of the bleachers for an open seat. Robbie and Alec haven’t appeared, but how would he spot them in this crowd anyway? He makes his way to the top of the bleachers, in the far left corner near the windows, out of authority figure eyeshot and earshot. Watching the other students from his perch, will be a small consolation. At the least, it should prove interesting.

Once the bleachers fill, Jason notices a girl sitting on the next row down, directly in front of him. She wears a cap sleeve blouse, decorated in red and white checks, a pair of blue jeans, and on her feet, she has on white athletic socks with red stripes, tucked inside red tennis sneakers. She must like red. Her strawberry blonde hair falls nearly to her shoulders.

He catches himself watching her out of the corner of his eye. At first, he struggles to hide it, but finds himself unable. In fact, each time he glances away, his gaze returns, like a magnet to steel.

And then, not caring who sees him, Jason stares at her. When she turns her head to the left or right, he notices her cute, slightly upturned, button nose. And her hair, neither straight nor curly, but instead wavy, flips up at both cheeks and creates a frame around her face.

He leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees, placing his face within a foot of the back of her head. He breathes in and smells her perfume. At this distance, he notices tiny little blonde hairs at the nape of her neck, and wonders how soft they would feel to his touch. And from this vantage point, when she turns to the side, he can count each individual freckle that forms a raccoon mask between her eyes and nose.

Growing bolder, Jason leans in closer, just to see if she notices. Up to this point, she hasn’t given any indication of his presence behind her, and so Jason makes a move. He sits back against the wall and places both feet on the bench on either side of her. He then lightly brushes her hip with the toe of his shoe. At first nothing. He does it a second time and she startles him when she spins around and places both arms on his knees, rests her chin on her hands, and says, “Hi, you’re cute.” She wears a big smile on her face, while she chomps on and pops a mouthful of chewing gum.

As she stares up at him, Jason feels butterflies flittering around in his stomach, and his face turns a bright red. He stammers, “Uh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to touch you.” He conceals and justifies his lie at the same time.

At that moment, her eyes grow wide. “Jason?”

Simultaneously, Jason says, “Jenny? Jenny Geneseo?”

They both laugh, oblivious to the boring speaker standing behind the microphone and blasting out his dull message. Before Jason utters another word, Jenny has climbed up a row and moved the student sitting next to Jason out of the way. She now sits next to him. Right next to him. He feels her warm skin touching his.

Still nervous, he finds his composure slowly returning. “I didn’t recognize you, Jenny. You’ve, uh, filled out.” Jason notices that Jenny now has curves, in places where young ladies naturally form curves, and he finds these curves pleasing to the eye.

Jenny laughs again. “Jason, you’re a goof. A cute one, but still a goof. Yeah, I’m filling out all right,” she pokes his stomach, “and apparently so are you.” After giggling for a moment, she places a hand on Jason’s knee, which jump starts the butterflies again. “When was the last time we saw one another? Sixth grade? Seventh grade?”

“I don’t know, but it’s been a while.” Jason remembers Jenny from their grade school days. They were good friends back then. And he remembers her being a twig.

Since coming to junior high school, they haven’t shared any classes, and so he hasn’t seen her in quite some time. The difference in her appearance has thrown him for a loop. And he likes what he sees.

“We’ve known each other since kindergarten,” Jenny says, “and I remember the first day of school…that one kid, Ty, Cy, Guy, whatever his name was, he wet his pants, poor thing, and his mother had to come pick him up and take him home. And you were a funny little kid then. I remember playing hopscotch with you and when you jumped, it reminded me of a frog. We had to bring our blankets and take a nap in the afternoon and you and I would never close our eyes, well, only when the teacher would walk by. And in first grade we learned how to read, ‘see Dick run and see Spot chase Puff,’ and I think the reading book was called ‘Friends and Neighbors,’ and…”

While Jenny rambles on, Jason gazes into her eyes and listens. Peering into her soft, light blue eyes creates an anxious sensation within him. Those butterflies again. He wonders if love at first sight really exists. If it does, he now knows what it feels like. While he stares, he imagines diving into and forever floating within her limpid blue pools.

Jenny’s monologue has moved from kindergarten, through the first grade, and now she reminisces about the second grade. While she pontificates, Jason focuses on her mouth while she speaks. Her top lip, pleasingly plump, has a cute little pouty configuration that seems to invite him in for a kiss. Or a nibble. But not here in the gym.

Watching her lips move, stirs that same anxiousness within him. Her husky voice cracks at certain points in her speech, especially when she giggles, and it too brings on those same, electric feelings. In fact, all of Jenny electrifies Jason. Every bit of her.

Jason sees Jenny as a live wire, and he can hardly wait to be lit up. Oh, what a jolt.