“No, I’ll stay.”
She smiles, dimples lifting her round, apple cheeks.
“Be right back.” You turn and make your way toward Eric’s car in the parking lot. As you draw closer, the muted humming you are hearing begins to take on a familiar, chugging rhythm and you recognize Mötley Crüe’s “Live Wire” vibrating from within the little yellow hatchback. The passenger-side window lowers before you get there and Gus leans his head out. “Dude,” he nearly shouts over the rattle and buzz of the car’s humble speakers. “No goodnight kiss?”
“Yeah,” Rudy says from the back seat. “You didn’t even try.”
“Shut up,” you hiss, putting your head into the open window. “She can hear you.”
“Shit, sorry,” says Gus.
“What’s up, dude?” Eric lowers the volume. “We too early?”
“No, but, I’m going to let Claudia take me home.”
“What?” He looks past you in her direction. “When?”
“I don’t know, when this is over I guess.”
“Dude,” says Rudy. “Bring her with us.”
“Yeah,” Eric says. “There’s room.”
“I don’t think so, man. She’s here with her older sister.”
“Better,” says Eric.
“And her boyfriend,” you add.
“Oh,” says Gus. “Then, sorry. All full.”
You smile and shake your head. “So, where you guys going?”
“Beer run.” Rudy reaches from the backseat to squeeze Gus’s shoulders. “Homeboy here has a fake I.D.”
“Not fake,” corrects Gus. “Expired.”
“I found it in his room.” Gus shrugs. “It’s worth a shot.”
“Want us to come by your house later?” Eric asks.
Maybe, you think. There are hours left in the evening and most likely your friends will still be up partying while you’re home alone looking for something to watch on television with the volume so low you can’t hear it anyway. You turn to look over your shoulder at Claudia waiting patiently for you beneath the soft glow of the security light and say, “No, better not.”
“All right, then,” Eric says, shifting the car into drive. “Later dude.”
“Later.” You step back from the window as the car pulls forward.
“So, how’d they take it?” asks Claudia when you return.
“They were pretty heartbroken,” you say, turning to watch the Datsun’s taillights leave the parking lot. “But they’ll get over it.”
“All right then,” she says. “You hungry?”
“I’ll take those nachos now, if you’re still offering.”
“But of course,” you say, gesturing gracefully toward the entrance of the gym with the upturned palm of your hand. She suppresses a smile, or maybe she’s trying not to laugh, you’re not sure. You feel your face grow hot and you shove your hands into the front pockets of your jeans and follow after her.
Inside, you find the table next to the entrance is empty. Music pulses from inside the gym, a song you don’t recognize. You guess the table has been abandoned this late in the evening, so you walk around it and pull out one of the chairs for Claudia. “Thank you,” she says, sliding into it.
At the snack bar you pay four dollars for two orders of nachos and two cans of Coke.
“Oh, nice,” says Claudia as you set the trays of cheese and jalapeño covered chips down in front of her.
You head to the snack bar again for the sodas and some napkins and hurry back.
“Sorry,” she says around a mouthful when you return. “I couldn’t wait.”
“That’s okay.” You pull out the second chair and turn it sideways from the table to face her. “Napkin?”
For the next few minutes, you watch each other eat. You can’t help it. She’s sitting so close her knees brush against yours every time she leans toward her tray of nachos or reaches for her soda. You can’t lower your gaze without seeming to stare up her skirt and if you look away she might think you’re bored or embarrassed. All considered, her face is the safest place to keep your eyes. And besides, you like the way she eats, pushing the whole chip in her mouth at once and then delicately licking the cheese from the tips of her fingers. She makes it all look so good you even eat the jalapeños, which you usually avoid.
“Ever make these at home?” she asks.
Your scalp begins to prickle with sweat. “No, you?” Soon your nose will be running.
“Oh yeah,” she says, reaching for her Coke. “But with real cheese.”
You look down at the pale orange substance dripping from the chip you are holding. “This isn’t real cheese?”
“Uh, not really,” she says, “You see the can this comes in? It’s more like cheese soup.” She reaches for another chip. “Not that I’m complaining.”
“Well, how do you do it?”
“Oh,” she covers her mouth with her hand, swallows. “I just sprinkle grated cheese over the chips and microwave them. The cheese is all hot and melty at first, but then it soaks into the chips and starts to get hard again, and that’s good too.”
“I’ll have to try it,” you say, wiping the moisture threatening to drip from your nose with a napkin. As you do, three girls spill into the lobby from the gym, sweaty and breathless like they just finished running the mile. The tallest pulls back her long hair and moves straight toward the water fountain against the far wall.
“I need to pee,” one of the other girls says, heading for the restroom. “Sam, get me a soda, will you?”
“Me too, Sam,” says the third.
“What’s wrong with water?” the tall one at the fountain says between gulps, but her friends are already gone.
You finish blowing your nose and turn to find Claudia watching you. Oh, shit, you think. You weren’t staring at the girl with the long hair, were you?
“Be honest,” Claudia says. “Did you really feel like dancing? I will, if you want.”
“No,” you say, maybe too quickly, but you mean it. “No, this is better.”
“Well yeah, but this, you know, just hanging out.”
She smiles. “I agree.”
You watch her rescue a final, drowned chip from the bottom of her tray. “Oh,” you say. “Fritos.”
“Fritos, with scrambled eggs.”
It takes her only a second to catch up. “Oh, God, yes, with a little fried weenie or boloney.”
You ignore the weenie part, for now. “Fried boloney?”
“You’ve never had fried boloney? Oh, man.” She wipes her mouth and drops the napkin into her empty nacho tray. “There’s boloney and fried bologna, completely separate things.”
“I’ll have to try it.”
“My dad doesn’t even use a pan. He’ll just hold it over the burner with a fork till the edges get black. Then he’ll dip it in the mayonnaise jar and eat it in one bite. Pisses my mom off.”
You can’t resist. “Fried weenie?”
Her mouth drops open and then she leans forward and punches you in the shoulder. “I knew you caught that.”
“Ouch,” you say, rubbing your arm.
“Yes, fried weenie,” she says, pretending, you hope, to be angry. “Would you prefer I said hotdog?” Now she’s fighting a smile. “Does weenie bother you?” Her dimples are starting to show.
“No, I was just—”
“Do you not eat weenies at your house?” She’s laughing now. “Weenie, weenie, wee—"
“Hey, there you are.”
Claudia’s eyes go wide and her hand flies to her mouth. You look up to find her sister and boyfriend standing behind her.
“Oh, uh, hi,” you say. “I’m Matthew.”
“Hi Matthew,” her sister says with the same dimpled smile. She reaches over Claudia to offer you her hand. “I’m Claudia’s sister, Diane.” Claudia rolls her eyes as you shake hands. “And this is Leo, my boyfriend.”
“What’s up?” he says with a lift of his chin.
“You ready, Cachetona?” Diane asks, tugging at a lock of Claudia’s hair. “It’s almost ten.”
Claudia winces, from the hair pulling or the nick name you can’t be sure.
“I guess,” she says, standing.
You do the same.
“Oh,” Claudia says. “I told Matt we could take him home.”
“Sure,” Leo says. “As long as he doesn’t live in Shoreline.”
Claudia looks at you.
“Uh, no,” you say. “In town, by the park.”
On the way home, no one speaks. The car radio plays so quietly you almost can’t hear it, and you think that maybe Leo and Diane have had their fill of music for the night. The first time Claudia catches you looking over at her in the dark of the back seat, she smiles. The second time, she reaches over, finds your hand, and doesn’t let go until Leo startles the both of you when he abruptly asks, “Am I getting close?”
You look outside and recognize the large shade trees in the park near your neighborhood. “Uh, yeah. Just keep going straight, two more streets. The house with the Volkswagen Bug out front.”
He turns left into your driveway, his headlights momentarily illuminating the front windows of your house and announcing your return, though you doubt anyone but Angie is still awake. “Thanks for the ride,” you say.
“No problem,” says Leo as Diane opens her door and leans forward to let you climb out. When you do, Claudia follows.
“Hurry up,” you hear Diane say, “It’s already late.”
You walk with her to your front door. “I had a nice time,” she says.
“Me too.” You reach into your front pocket, finger the house key. “Can I call you?”
“No, you better not,” she says, looking away. “My dad gets weird about that.”
“Oh.” You thought you’d try to kiss her, but now you’re not sure.
She looks up at you again. “I’ll see you at school?”
You lean in, too quickly, and miss her mouth making contact with the soft space just below her nose. You pull back, embarrassed, and look at her. Her eyes are closed, lips slightly parted. You try again. Her mouth is even softer.
Your senses go bionic as you take it all in, her lips, the vanilla of her perfume, the unmistakable scent of baby shampoo in her hair, the clean, clothesline odor of her father’s white t-shirt, the purr of the car’s engine idling in the driveway, the smell of dry leaves in the cool night air, the song on the radio playing just out of reach—
“Claudia,” her sister calls. “Enough. Time to go.”
She pulls away and hurries back to the car, a mini-skirted silhouette in the headlights. You take out the housekey and pretend to put it in the lock, but the last thing you want to do right now is go inside, so as soon as the car leaves the driveway and disappears up the street, you walk around the house and enter your backyard through the side gate.
Your dog, a German Shepard mix is waiting for you, panting patiently in the dark. His cold nose brushes the back of your hand and you rub your way around his ears and below his neck with the tips of your fingers. “Good boy, Max.”
Maybe you’ll sit in a lawn chair for a while and look up at the stars, you think, making your way along the side of the house. You turn the corner and scrape the side of your head against something hard and pointy.
“What the fuck!” you hiss, doubling over and reaching for your temple. You feel wetness and pull your hand away. Even in the near dark, it’s obvious there is blood on your fingers. “Shit,” you whimper, “That fuckin’ hurt.”
You look up to find the window to your sisters’ room cranked wide open. A year ago, you would have passed beneath its metal frame unharmed. Below it, leaning against the stucco wall is the screen. Shit.
Standing on your tiptoes, you slowly push back the curtains and peer inside. The porcelain Strawberry Shortcake nightlight on the dresser fills the room with a soft pinkish light, revealing all three of your sisters asleep in their beds. Susie in her top bunk, the sheets tucked up beneath her chin, Missy in her bottom bunk, covers completely kicked off, and in the bed directly below you, Angie, the comforter pulled up over her head with only a clump of red hair peeking out.
Red hair? Or is that just a trick of the night light?
You grab onto the window sill with both hands and slowly pull yourself up and in, just far enough to reach down and tug back the covers. Beneath is Angie’s old, life-size Baby Crissy doll, its enormous eyes staring up at you.
You back out of the window until your feet find the ground again, then walk out into the yard.
Max follows you, nudges your hand, licks at your fingers. “You didn’t even try to stop her, did you boy?”
He lowers his head at that, sniffs at the side of your shoe.
Your temple is throbbing. You should probably go inside, wash the blood off your head, and inspect the damage.
“I don’t suppose she told you where she was going, did she?” you ask Max, scratching behind his ear. He pushes up against the side of your leg. “Yeah, that would be my guess too.”
When you reach the front yard, you hear music playing from somewhere up the street. You should have noticed it before, but you were too distracted. As you make your way along the sidewalk to Carmen’s house, you see the cars parked in her driveway. Her parents’ green paneled Bronco is not one of them. The front door of the house isn’t locked. You push it open and walk in.
There are three guys sitting in the small living room, two on the couch to your left and one directly across the room from you in a chair near the entrance to the hallway. In the middle of the room, wearing tight jeans and a skimpy white tube top, is your sister’s friend Carmen. She’s holding a bottle of beer to her mouth and swaying her hips to the song, “Reunited,” playing from the stereo. Her back is to you and she doesn’t see you come in. The guy facing you does. “Who the fuck is this?” he asks.
Carmen giggles. “Peaches and Herb,” she says. “You never heard it?”
“No,” he says, pointing at you. “This fucker.”
She turns too quickly and stumbles backwards. The guy sitting on the couch behind her reaches up to catch and pull her giggling onto his lap.
You expected to find a houseful of punk middle-schoolers, but these guys are your age at least, or older. You don’t recognize any of them from school.
“Where’s Angie?” you ask.
Carmen takes a drink of her beer and frowns at you. “Who?”
There are voices from the kitchen, a girl’s laugh, high pitched and silly. Not Angie’s.
You take a step into the room. “Where is she?”
“Go home, Maffew,” slurs Carmen. “I di’nt ‘vite you.”
“You heard the little lady,” says the guy holding her. “You need to leave.”
You look down the darkened hallway and see a wedge of light leaking from beneath the furthest door. When you move that way, the one in the chair stands to block your path. He’s twice as big as you, but not as tall. “Where the fuck are you going?” he asks, his oniony breath in your face.
You slam your forehead down into his nose as hard as you can. There is a dull, splintering sound as your vision explodes in a white flash of blinding pain. He cries out with his hands to his face and stumbles backwards into his chair again, the front of his grey polo covered in blood.
You stagger ahead into the narrow hallway, blinking the pain from your eyes until you reach the last door. Locked. Something is happening behind you, someone is yelling. A girl screams. You rear your leg back and kick the door with the bottom of your foot. Nothing. You try again with your back against the opposite wall, this time aiming closer to the knob. The jam splinters inward and the door flies open.
Angie is lying on the bed, naked, except for her shorts and panties bunched midway down her thighs. The guy scrambling off the bed is fully dressed.
“Get out! Get out!” she screams reaching for her shirt and pulling at her shorts. “Get out of here!”
“Wait, wait, wait,” the guy says, moving backwards from you. “I didn’t touch her.”
“Get dressed, Angie,” you say without taking your eyes off of him. “We’re leaving.”
“Fuck you, Matthew!”
“Relax, man,” he says, with one hand held open before him and the other shoved into the front pocket of his jeans. “Really, I swear.”
Your fists clench and unclench at your sides. An animal growls, and it’s as if the sound comes coiling from within your own chest. A snarl escapes your throat. You lunge for him just as a knife appears in his concealed hand. He slashes upward. Your momentum carries you forward into the blade’s path even as you attempt to twist out of its way. There is a searing pain in your left shoulder. You spin, raising your right arm to deflect the next strike.
In a brown blur of movement, Max is on him, jaws clamped onto his wrist, head thrashing side to side. The blade falls to the floor. High-pitched, frantic cries of pain fill the room.
Angie rushes over from the bed. “Stop it, Max! Stop it!” she screams, her black Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt on backwards and her beige bra clenched in one fist. “Let him go!”
Max releases his arm but continues to snarl at him as he backs against the dresser cradling his torn and bloody wrist.
You grab Angie, just above her elbow. “Where are your shoes?”
“Get off!” she shouts trying to twist free of your grip.
“Goddammit, Angie,” you hiss, dropping to one knee before her and then yanking her forward onto your shoulder as you stand. She pounds at your back with her one free hand and kicks wildly in the air with her feet as you carry her out of the room. Max barks once and then slips past you into the hall to bark again. No one tries to stop you.
“Why are you doing this!” she screams, continuing to thrash and kick in your arms all the way home. “I hate you! I hate you!”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” you hiss, dumping her onto the grass of your front lawn.
You expect her to jump up, come at you with fists and feet, tell you how much she hates you, but she lies there unmoving in the dim light of the outside bulb, one knee bent in the air, one arm twisted behind her back. From up the street you hear voices, car doors slamming, engines starting, and then silence.
“Ow,” she whimpers, not in anger it seems, but pain. Then, almost too quietly to hear, she whines, “You hurt me, Matthew.”
“Angie, I…” You’re not sure how to react, what to believe. “I didn’t mean to.” You lower yourself onto the grass to kneel next to her. “Where?” you ask, and then more gently. “Where did I hurt you?”
“My back,” she squeaks, bringing one arm up over her face to cover her eyes in the crook of her elbow. Her body shakes, once, like a silent hiccup, then again, and again until you realize she is crying.
“Angie, don’t, please,” you whisper, but she only gets louder, sobbing and shaking on the grass in front of you. You wait, remembering how she used to cry like this when she was much younger and nothing anyone did could stop her until she had exhausted herself with tears. You look up at the front windows of the house, expecting the lights to come on or the door to open any second now.
After a while she stops crying and her breathing calms. Max approaches from the edge of the yard, licks your face, then hers, and sits down on the grass next to Angie with his head on his paws.
When she raises up on her elbows, you crawl forward to sit cross-legged beside her. You look over at her long legs stretched out bare on the grass, the bruises on her shins, the pink polish on her toes. Not the girl on Carmen’s bed, and the same. Your stomach twists into a sickening knot of a hundred questions. They bubble up in your chest, leak acidly into your throat, but you swallow them down, knowing you won’t ask any of them.
“Did they leave?” she asks, not looking in that direction.
“I think so.”
She looks over at you, eyes searching your face.
“How’s your back?” you ask.
She sits up, wrapping her arms around her knees. “Okay.”
For a long time neither of you speaks.
You find yourself staring at the tan Volkswagen Beetle parked on the curb in front of you. Undriven these past six months, it’s become a permanent fixture outside your house. You can’t believe you actually considered taking it to the dance tonight without permission. The key is still in your pocket.
“Remember when he first brought it home?” Angie asks. “And mom said he could take us to Foster Freeze in it?”
“Yeah, just us, and we had cheeseburgers and fries, and I even let you sit in the front on the way home.”
“And I spilled chocolate ice cream on the seat and started freaking out.”
“That’s right,” you say. “I remember. And you were more upset about it than he was. He didn’t even get mad at all.”
“He never got mad,” says Angie, “at anything.”
You look over at her. Mascara is smeared and splotched around her eyes and dried in bruised rivulets down her cheeks. She smells like beer and cigarettes and cherry lip-gloss. “I’m not mad at you.”
“Yes, you are.”
You realize your arm hurts, a dull throbbing ache, and reach around to feel your shoulder. Your shirt is cut and when you tenderly prod the area, you can’t help but flinch as the tips of your fingers brush the wound.
“Oh, fuck,” Angie says, twisting toward you to get a better look. “He got you.”
“Not too bad. Two, maybe three Band-Aid’s,” she says, tugging at the rip in your sleeve. “But Max got him worse. Didn’t you, Max?”
He lifts his head at the sound of his name and she turns to scratch his neck. “You miss him too, don’t you boy,” says Angie, letting him lick her face.
“Hey,” you say. “You want to go somewhere?”
“Yeah, Foster Freeze. Get something to eat.”
She regards you with narrowed eyes.
“We can take the bug,” you say, standing up. “I have the keys.”
She’s still sitting on the grass looking up at you. “Liar.”
You pull them out to show her and she scrambles to her feet. “Oh, shit! Check you out, you little thief.”
“Yes or no?”
“Are they even open?”
“The drive through, at least.”
She looks from you to the car and back again. “I pick the music.”
“Fine with me.”
To be continued…
This story is a work in progress — I’m writing it as fast as I can! More episodes in this thread coming soon. While you are waiting, feel free to return to the beginning: if you make different choices you will get a different story.
I would love to hear from you!
THE MISADVENTURES OF MATTHEW VAN DER BOOT is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.