"Where are you going, Jakey?"
"Into town, Mom. I'm thought I'd buy a model plane."
Jake's mother smiled. "You and your models, Jake. You're so clever, the way you make all those details."
"Yeah. Well, I need something to keep my mind on things." - "or off things," Jake muttered under his breath. "Of course if I'd been allowed to have that train set..."
"Now Jakey, let's not start that again."
"Yeah. Good idea Mom - let's not." Jake scowled as he opened the door. "I'll be back after lunch some time."
"Have fun Jakey."
A fifteen minute bus ride took Jake into town and a five minute walk took him to Potter's Model and Toy Store, resisting admitting to himself that he was feeling the old sense of anticipation that he'd always felt when he'd looked in Potter's window, wondering what new models had come in. Last year it had been a Junkers Ju87-D1 which had all the Luftwaffe markings perfectly detailed. But it was kid's stuff, he thought dismally. He'd fought with himself over the idea of buying a new model to build, resisting the urge to slip back into a past life that he desperately wanted to reject, to move on from. But he finally surrendered, justifying it by remembering how easy it was to slide into the intense concentration of detail painting and modelling, letting time just slip away and the world leave him alone for a while.
But the first thing to grab his attention wasn't the new models. It was a sign.
Junior Wanted Over Summer Vacation.
Jake opened the door and familiar bell jingled. A thin, balding man wearing a blue jacket over a white shirt and grey slacks looked up over his black-rimmed glasses to see who was coming in, and a smile lit up his face. "Jake! Jake Morgendorffer! Welcome home, son. I've been wondering when I'd see you. How's Buxton Ridge been treating you?"
Jake grinned. Jake had always wished that Mister Potter could have been his father. Over the years that he'd been a regular, Mister Potter had always taken the time to talk to him, to take an interest. Every time he finished a new model he'd bring it in to show the store owner, who'd "ooh" and "aah" over it, praising Jake for the way his skills had improved since the last one, and chatting about the new season's kits. Maybe it was just his way of keeping a customer, but it always felt to Jake as if Mister Potter simply liked kids; simply liked him.
"Hi Mister Potter. Buxton Ridge? It's tolerable I guess. How's business?"
"Better than usual, Jake! I'll tell you, these new slot cars are just taking off like you wouldn't believe. I thought I'd put a junior on over school vacation to help."
"Yeah - I saw the sign in the window."
Mr Potter dropped his head and looked at Jake over the top of his glasses. "You interested Jake? I could use a bright lad like you. You'd be a real help, what with your eye for detail. I need someone Monday to Friday nine to five and nine to twelve on Saturdays, for the vacation."
A little jolt of adrenaline coursed through Jake's bloodstream. A summer job? Here?
Mr Potter filled the pause. "Pay's fifty dollars a week. What do you say?"
Fifty dollars a week! In ten weeks that was five hundred dollars. Five-hundred-dollars! Jake's mind raced. For five hundred he could get Amanda...anything!
"What - oh - sorry."
"Well, son? What do you say?"
"Mister Potter - you've got yourself an employee!" Jake's eyes sparkled.
"Well that's great Jake. When can you start?"
"I'd better tell Mom - I said I'd be home after lunch. Would tomorrow be okay?"
"Tomorrow'd be just fine, but I'll tell you what - you can perform your first official duty right now if you like."
"Sure! What would you like me to do?"
Mr Potter grinned. "Take the sign out of the window."
* * *
As Jake walked back to the bus stop he paused in front of a jeweller's store. He'd never had even the slightest interest in the shiny things in jewellers' windows before but, suddenly, everything was interesting, everything was...important. His eyes lit on a silver locket, heart-shaped with a fine gold filigree. He saw it hanging around her neck, silver and gold against pale skin, reflecting her honey hair, hanging it around her neck and Amanda...Amanda...holding her hair up as he fastened the clasp at the back, looking into his eyes the way she had that night, and they'd kiss...
The vision filled him and he turned to walk home, all thoughts of busses subsumed in a waking dream.
His legs carried him on automatic pilot, but something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention . Wildflowers. He stopped and stared for a second, then stepped over onto the long-vacant lot. Looking around he realised that they probably weren't wildflowers at all, but the remnants of what had once been a garden. The lot had been vacant and overgrown as long as he could remember but there must have been a house on it years ago. The remains of the foundations were still there, though he'd never noticed them or the discolouration on the bricks that told of the fire that had left the lot to slowly return to nature.
Grasping a small bouquet gently in his hand, Jake picked up his pace so that the flowers would be as fresh as possible when he got them home. The warm summer air raised a sweat on his brow, but Jake could have been in Death Valley in summer or in Gnome at midwinter. His climate was internal and, inside, all was fragrant spring.
* * *
The house was empty when he got home and he laid the flowers down gently on the kitchen table. He walked to his room, whistling, to collect the book, then carefully cut six sheets of absorbent paper to lay between the pages so that the flowers wouldn't stain the book as they dried. He took a sheet, opened the book and lay the paper down over the page then carefully placed three of the flowers so that, when the book was closed, they'd be pressed between the pages without folding or damaging the petals. As he prepared the third and last page the front door opened and Jake's parents walked in, his mother carrying two heavy paper bags stuffed with groceries in her arms. Jake left the book where it lay and went to meet her, taking the bags from her.
"Why, thank you Jakey! What a good boy." Ruth smiled.
Jake glared at his father who walked past empty-handed as if he hadn't seen the exchange. "No problem, Mom. These are heavy." He took the bags and set them down on the kitchen table, then turned to see his father staring at the open poetry book with the flowers resting on it.
"What's this?" Mad Dog grunted.
"It's a book, Dad. A poetry book. And those things in it are flowers. I guess you're not familiar with them," Jake said, his voice neutral as he started unpacking the groceries.
Mad Dog's face coloured and he turned to Jake but just as he opened his mouth Ruth spoke, hoping to avoid the blowup that was threatening.
"Why, Jakey, you're pressing flowers! What a lovely idea!"
Jake turned to his mother. "Yeah," he smiled.
"Oh - they're beautiful, Jakey. I'm sure that..."
"Poetry? Pressing flowers?" Mad Dog growled. "What kind of goddamn sissy are you turning into, boy? I didn't send you to Buxton Ridge so that you could become a poetry-reading, flower-pressing...pansy." He flicked his arm contemptuously at the kitchen bench.
"Don't 'now dear' me woman," Mad Dog barked. Ruth took and involuntary step back. "How in the hell did a son of mine ever become a goddamned girl?"
Jake stared at his father as realisation dawned. "A pansy? You think...you honestly think..." Jake burst out laughing, stunned by the ridiculousness of the accusation.
"Even giggling like a goddamned girl," grunted Mad Dog.
Jake pulled himself together. "A girl eh? Well it might interest you to know that I happen to have a girlfriend. And do you know what? She's beautiful and she loves me! I've just got a job and I'm going to buy her a present. And I'll tell you something else for free, Mad Dog - when I see her again I'm going to ask her to marry me! So how do you like that?"
Neither Jake not Mad Dog noticed Ruth's expression or the subtle change in the colour of her face.
"You?" Mad dog snorted. "A girlfriend? What kind of girl would ever want to marry you?"
"What kind of girl would want to marry me?" Jake felt his anger rising. "A beautiful, smart, talented girl. A girl who appreciates things like poetry and flowers and knows that there's more to life than knowing how to shoot a rifle and wearing a uniform and seeing commies on every street corner. That's what kind of girl."
"In your dreams, boy. If this girl's so taken with you, how come she hasn't written to you? How come we haven't heard anything from her?"
A cannonball hit Jake in the stomach and he felt his face flush. "Because...because..."
An unfamiliar expression crossed Mad Dog's face, and he repeated more quietly. "In your dreams, boy."
Jake stared up at his father with raw hatred on his face, the old sense of impotence and shame returning. He turned and stamped off down the hall, ashamed to be the same, after all the changes, ashamed to feel that it had all been an illusion, that his father still had the power to reduce him to helplessness with a word. Throwing open the door of his room he slammed it behind him with all the force of his hatred and dived onto his bed, pulling his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around his legs, and whimpering like a beaten puppy.
* * *
"Jake? Are you awake?"
Jake turned over slowly and looked up at his mother. "Yeah."
"Jake, you know that your father..."
"I know that my father hates me. I know I hate him."
Ruth sighed, and reached out to stroked her son's hair. "I know it must seem like that at times, Jakey, but..."
"But nothing." Jake sat up and looked his mother in the eyes. "You should hear how Willy talks about is Dad, Mom. He died a year ago and all Willy talks about it what a great guy he was, how much fun they used to have! That's the way it's supposed to be - not like this! What did I do to deserve this?"
Ruth stroked his hair gently. "Dear, you know, he does have a point."
He turned and looked into her eyes. "A point?"
"You have to admit Jakey, it's been two weeks since you left school. You've written three letters to her and she hasn't written anything to you. Are you absolutely sure that she...feels the same way about you that you do about her?"
Of course she does! I have her letters at school. She loves me. She's just...she can't...
"I'm tired Mom. I have to work in the morning. I want to sleep."
* * *
After showering Jake felt a little more awake and he dressed carefully, making sure his tie reached down to his belt buckle. He trudged into the kitchen, consciously willing his legs to make the right movements, and sat down at the table.
"Jakey! My - don't you look smart!"
Mad Dog looked over the top of his paper and cast a surreptitious but approving glance over his son. "Hm," he grunted. "About damn time you did something useful," then went back to reading the sports page.
Jake looked up at him through bloodshot eyes, then down to the plate of pancakes in front of him. "Can I have some coffee please, Mom?"
"Of course Dear. You look as if you didn't sleep very well last..."
"I slept like a log. Never better." Jake took the cup, stirred in two spoonfuls of sugar and drained it as quickly as he could without burning his mouth. He spread a pat of butter over the top pancake, drizzled the stack with maple syrup and sliced off a three-pancake deep triangle. It tasted perfect, just like his mother's pancakes always did, but he might as well have been eating damp newspaper. He looked up at the clock above the refrigerator and stood, pushing in his chair. "I'm going. I don't want to be late on my first day."
Ruth turned from the sink and kissed him on the cheek. "Goodbye Jakey. Work hard! I'm so proud of you!"
"Thanks Mom. I will," he mumbled unemotionally, glancing across the table to where his father sat seemingly oblivious to the fact that his son was about to leave for his first job. Jake marvelled that, after seventeen years of experience he was still able to feel a faint twinge of disappointment, and hated himself all the more for it.
As he heard the door close, Mad Dog lowered the newspaper. His face was pale and covered in sweat and his mouth was pulled back in a grimace of pain.
"What the HELL are you doing with MY WIFE?"
The group turned from Amanda to stare at the source of the question, a tell, thin man, maybe three or four years older than Amanda. The expression of anger and resolve on his face confused the drunks, their minds too fogged with alcohol to respond before he'd firmly taken her arm and spun her around to face the road and started walking toward a car..
Though he'd moved quickly, the world moved in slow motion as Amanda felt herself guided firmly into the seat, the door closing silently behind her. She stared at the group of drunks on the sidewalk as they moved uncertainly towards the car, one trying the door and his mouth grimacing in anger to find it locked. She felt rather than heard the other door close and the car move quickly away from the curb, her eyes fixed in fascination on the group gesticulating impotently after them. Slowly things returned to normal speed as the sounds around her became audible.
"...could have happened!" she heard the driver say, turning to look at him as he started the car, shaking her head as if to clear it. He had a shock of shaggy brown hair and a thin moustache, and was looking straight ahead as he changed gear and guided the car through the traffic. As soon as the car was underway he glanced at Amanda, a hint of concern in his eyes.
"Are you alright?"
Amanda opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. She realised how odd that was and wondered why her tongue refused to do what she wanted it to, then realised that the scene was swimming and getting darker...
"Shit!" He looked in the rear-view mirror and swung the car off into a side street before pulling over and turning the motor off. Amanda felt a sensation in her hand and looked down to see him holding it in one of his and gently patting the back of it with the other.
"Miss, are you alright?"
Things stabilised around her and she forced herself to speak.
"It's okay. Take it easy. hold on." He got out and walked round to the back of the car. She turned to look over the back of the seat. It was a type of station wagon, the area behind the front seats filled with a neat assortment of boxes and bags. She watched as he reached over into a metal box with a lid, take something out and close the rear doors then walk back to sit down beside her. He unscrewed the top of a shiny silver flask and poured some of the contents into a cup.
"Here. Drink it all." he said seriously, handing her the cup.
She looked at the pale brown liquid and upended the cup into her mouth. Seconds later she swallowed involuntarily and coughed, feeling the astringent liquid burn its way down her throat into her stomach and her eyes flood with tears.
He chuckled quietly. "Brandy. Strictly medicinal of course."
Amanda handed the cup back to him, catching her breath.
"Better?" he asked, a thin smile on his lips.
She nodded, forcing herself to breath normally. "Yeah, I think so, thanks."
"That's okay - I take it you're not used to it."
"No, I've never had it before. I mean I don't drink at all! Do people really drink that because they enjoy it?" she gasped, still trying to catch her breath.
"So I'm told. It's not really my scene, but it seems to live up to its reputation for bringing people 'round. I think you passed out there for a second."
Amanda felt her cheeks flush. "I'm sorry - it all just happened so fast - I don't know..."
Anger flashed across his face. "Those bastards were off their gourds. I saw what was happening and I had to do something. Man, I could see things getting completely out of control. I hope you don't mind the 'what are you doing to my wife' routine, but I had to confuse them long enough for us to get out of the way. Not that they needed much confusing."
"Mind?" She felt a warm sense of relaxation flowing from her stomach up her spine. "No! No - you were great!" She smiled. "The look on that blond guy's face when he tried the door and it was locked..."
He grinned. "Yeah. It was pretty funny."
They both started to laugh. "What are you doing to my wife?" he said with mock seriousness, setting them off on a laughing jag.
"Sorry. I'm Amanda Phillips," she said when they'd caught their breath.
He looked back at her with a smile. "Wouldn't it have been funny if your name really was Susan? Vincent Lane. Most of my friends call me Vinny."
"You okay, son? Your eyes look like a couple of fried eggs."
"Yeah - yeah, thanks Mister Potter. I didn't sleep well, that's all."
"Ah - worried about the job I expect. Well don't you worry Jake - you'll do just fine. Now come and let's take a look round so that you know where everything is, them I'll show you the stock books and the orders. Later I'll show you how to work the till. Tuesday mornings are usually quiet."
Jake felt a thrill of excitement drive away the weariness of a sleepless night. A job! Money! Ama...he felt a knot in his stomach but ignored it as he followed Mister Potter into the storeroom out the back.
An hour later Jake had a basic idea of how things worked. The till was simple to operate and Mister Potter was pleased with how quickly he picked up the basics.
Jake's first customer was a woman who wanted advice on a birthday present for her son. Mr Potter hovered in the background pretending to tidy the shelves, listening closely as Jake's nervousness slowly gave way to confidence and he asked about the boy's age and interests. He smiled as the woman listened to Jake's advice about the level of skill needed for each type of model and then as she thanked Jake, asking whether her son could come in for advice about the model Jake had helped her to choose. As he Jake rang up the sale Mr Potter came up beside him.
"That was good work, son. That boy'll be in here in a week wanting to know more and if you handle him as professionally as you handled his mother, I'll have a new customer for years to come - maybe as good a customer as you've been since you were a kid."
Jake blushed. "Gee - thanks Mr Potter."
"Now why don't you read some of the instruction manuals for those slot cars so you can give people advice about them too. Sometimes they call up for help."
Jake had a spring in his step as he walked home that afternoon. Instead of criticism he was getting praise. Instead of being told how useless he was, he was being told what a good job he was doing. For the first - no, second - time in his life, he felt the thrill of being valued for what he was instead of despised for what he wasn't. Life was good, and he stopped at the vacant lot to pick another small bouquet for Amanda.
The week passed quickly. Every day Jake got up early, looking forward to work and usually arriving early, waiting outside the shop for Mr Potter to arrive.
On Friday afternoon Jake had gone into the storeroom to arrange the stock a little more efficiently. As he opened the door to come out he was struck to see his father talking to Mr Potter.
"...fine boy, Mr Morgendorffer. I wish I could keep him on after school goes back. You must be very proud..." Mad Dog's smile turned to a frown as he noticed Jake come out into the shop, and Mr Potter's head turned to follow his gaze. "Ah - Jake - I was just telling your father what a wonderful job you're doing," he said uncomfortably before hurrying off to help a customer.
Jake walked reluctantly to the counter where Mad Dog was standing, saying nothing.
"Hmph," grunted his father. "Leave it to you to fine a job where you can play with all yer baby toys. Still - you're working now, guess you can take yer old man to a movie, huh? The Duke's got a new movie playin' at the Valetta, matinee tomorrow, Jake, The Green Berets. Whaddaya say?"
Emotions warred in Jake's mind. An afternoon with the old man? Still, its was THE DUKE - maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Wonder what a beret is? Must be something the Indians wear, a feather maybe, they sure have weird names for stuff. Slowly warming to the idea he stuttered out a hesitant "Sure".
With that, Mad Dog nodded gruffly, spun on his heels and walked out, seemingly satisfied with the conversation. Jake stood watching him go.
"Your father seems like an odd sort of character, Jake," Mr Potter said hesitantly after his customer had left. "He looked pleased when I told him what a good job you were doing but then as soon as you came out of the storeroom it was as if he changed."
"Odd?" offered Jake quietly, still staring at the door that his father had walked out of. "Yeah. That's a word I'd use. Odd." He looked down at Mr Potter. "He wanted me to take him to a movie tomorrow after work, a John Wayne movie at the Valetta."
"The Duke eh? You a John Wayne fan, Jake?"
Jake chuckled. "Yeah! I mean who wouldn't be? He's so..."
"Manly?, Heroic?" offered Mr Potter.
"Yeah. I mean he always wins - everything he does is perfect. He always gets the girl at the end. You know, Mr Potter, The Duke's the only thing that my Dad and I have ever agreed on."
"Hm. Well, I guess it's better than nothing, Jake, and it's a good way for you to celebrate your first pay. Maybe you should take your parents out to dinner after the show?"
Jake's face lit up. "Dinner! Mom would love that! I've never been able to do anything like that for her - that's a great idea. Uh, where would I take them?"
"Well, there's a diner two blocks down from the Valetta. The food's plain but it's good, and it's always clean. I sometimes take Mrs Potter there after we've seen a show."
"That's perfect! Thanks Mr Potter!"
Mr Potter looked at his watch then slid around Jake to the cash register and pressed the No Sale key. The drawer sprang open and he took out a twenty, which he handed to Jake. "Advance on your first week's pay. It's just after four. I don't suppose we'll get many people in now - why don't you go on down to the Valetta and get your tickets, then you won't have to wait in line tomorrow afternoon. And have a look at that diner I was telling you about."
Jake stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed at his employer, stuck for words.
Mr Potter laughed. "Close your mouth Jake - you'll catch flies. Go on. See you tomorrow morning."
"I...Wow! Thanks Mr Potter! You won't regret this! You'll see!" At that moment, Jake would have taken a bullet for his boss.
"I know I won't son," Mr Potter smiled as he watched Jake hurry out the door.
"Well, I was just about to find somewhere to eat. I don't suppose...?" Vincent's rising inflection leftt he option open.
"Uh, well, I need to find somewhere to stay for the night, but I'm hungry..."
"Hey - me too. You're not from around here then?"
"No. I'm..." She sighed. "It's a long story."
"Then let's get something to eat and you can tell me about it."
Amanda smiled. It would be nice to have someone to chat to over dinner instead of just tossing down a hamburger in another nondescript motel room. "Thanks. I'd like that."
Vincent drove around the block and they cruised slowly down the main street, looking on both sides of the road for places to eat. "So," he said, "what's your preference. Hamburger, ribs, steak, Mexican, Chinese?" he slammed on the brakes and swung the car into a parking spot outside a diner. "How about this?"
"Uh, sure. This looks good." The sky was turning pale blue as the sank, and the lights from the diner with its bright red and white vinyl decor seemed inviting. Vincent jumped out, locking hte car door, and ran around to open Amanda's door for her, bowing low. Amanda laughed and climbed out, waiting as he carefully locked her door. As the reached the door of the diner he held it open for her, grinning as she bobbed in a small curtsy, and they walked in and sat down at a booth. Vincent picked up a menu, eagerly scanning it as his stomach growled in a Pavlovian response in anticipation of being fed. He looked up at Amanda to see a far away look in her eyes as she stared down the length of the diner. "Penny for your thoughts?" he asked.
"Oh," she said quietly, turning to him, "This place just reminds me of a malt shop I used to hang out in with my friends. I...miss them."
"Oh. Uh - would you rather go somewhere else? Look, I'm sorry, I guess I've been kind of forward about this - I didn't really give you much choice..."
"No," she said quickly. "Really - it's fine! If you hadn't turned up I...I'd rather not think about what might have happened. I..."
"You two ready to order?" The waitress chewed her gum laconically, flicking a bored gaze back and forth between Vincent and Amanda.
"Yeah - I'll have..." he looked over at Amanda and realised that she hadn't looked at the menu yet. "Uh, could you give us a few minutes?"
"No - it's okay - I'll...have..." Amanda scanned the menu and saw something that made her heart skip a beat. "Meatloaf! With mashed potatoes and gravy!"
"One mystery pie with mash." She wrote Amanda's order down and looked at Vincent.
"Hm - yeah - I'll have the steak and eggs, over easy, with a side of fries and a coffee. Oh, and a piece of the coconut cream pie."
"Oh - could I have a glass of milk too please?" Amanda chimed in.
"Sure." The waitress hurried off.
"Meatloaf!" sighed Amanda. "I always loved meatloaf at..." She looked up at Vincent and suddenly felt very small and lonely. If all that hadn't gone wrong...she'd be at school again soon, looking forward to meatloaf, sleeping in the steel-framed bed with the sagging springs...but here she was in a town she didn't even know the name of, saved from who knows what by a stranger, feeling an impossible depth of loss for something she'd never know again. Her lip quivered. "At...school."
Vincent began to wonder what he'd let himself in for. There was something eating this girl from the inside; something about her face that, even when she smiled, had a look about it...something about the way her eyebrows turned down at the corners. She had a pretty face, not classically beautiful, but open and...sad. He felt sorry for her, but he didn't know whether he wanted to know what it was, or get tangled up with it. Damn. Why couldn't he just have dropped her off a few blocks from that bar, wished her luck, and driven on? Why did...
"I'm sorry." Amanda pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket and brushed it across her eyes. "What are you doing here, Vincent? Is this where you live?" She smiled at him and her eyes gleamed. She felt completely at ease with him. Maybe it was gratitude for the way he'd pulled her (literally) out of a sticky situation, but probably just his easy manner, the way he'd joked with her at the car and the diner door. For the first time since she'd left home - since she'd arrived home, in truth - she felt herself relax.
"No. I'm like you, I'm just passing through. I'm on my way up north. I'm a photographer - freelance."
Amanda's eyes widened with real interest. "A photographer! What do you photograph?"
"No," he grinned, "not just people. I've got a theme. You know Bob Dylan's song - 'The Time's They Are a'Changin'? There's a revolution going on out there. You can call it generational warfare, or the Age of Aquarius," There's that expression again she thought, "or whatever you like, but the fact is that the times are changing faster than they ever have. There's probably never been a generation that's turned around its parents' values like this, and I want to document it." He looked across the table at Amanda. "You. Look at you! You're exactly what I mean!"
Amanda felt a knot tighten in her stomach. He doesn't know - he doesn't mean...
"You hippies are exactly what I'm talking about!"
A squeek of laughter burst from Amanda's mouth and she clapped her hand across it in embarrassment. Me...? she looked down at the dress that Willow had given her and her fingers found the lapis lazuli beads on their leather thong that Coyote had tied around her neck. She'd taken he hair out to dry this morning and never tied it back up. He didn't say who they'd bring good luck to! She thought of Willow's self-assurance. She thought about Coyote's sense of justice and conviction; she thought about their generosity and kindness. And she thought why not?
"This is a social upheaval, man, a generation in revolt. Momentous things are gonna happen and I intend to be there when they do. Me and my cameras."
"Put your cameras down long enough to eat, Hon." The waitress appeared silently and put a plate down in front of Vincent. It was covered by the biggest steak Amanda had ever seen, with two fried eggs and a plate of fries big enough for two. Amanda's meatloaf was swimming in gravy, just the way they used to serve it at Saint Agnes's and for several minutes the conversation stopped while they ate.
An hour and several cups of coffee later Amanda had learnt that Vincent's family had finally given in to his passion and stood him a grubsteak of photographic equipment and a Willys wagon - tough and rugged. He was starting to get a reputation, not that he was famous, but his shots had sold to a few newspapers magazines. Amanda stuck with the story about visiting her aunt and sidestepped the few questions he asked, though it was clear to Vincent that nothing in her story explained the sadness he'd seen in her. From that night on he avoided thinking too deeply about whether it was reluctance to get involved or just good manners that had stopped him from pressing the point at their first meeting.
Vincent paid for their meal against Amanda's protests and they left to find a motel, having agreed to travel northwest together for a while in the morning, and booked separate rooms. At five-thirty next morning Amanda was woken by Vincent quietly tapping on her window and fifteen minutes later they were ready to leave.
"Hey - no dress today?" Vincent asked, surprised at Amanda's jeans, blue shirt and tied-back hair, as he put her backpack into the back of the van and quietly closed the door.
She told him about the puddle, how she'd been splashed, and about the two hippies who'd picked her up, leaving out certain pieces that either weren't immediately relevant or that she didn't want to mention. Vincent started to piece things together, matching details.
At the end of the main street Vincent pulled the car over to the side of the road and stopped. "I want to get a shot of the town before we go. You never know when something newsworthy's going to happen in one of these places and it's good have a shot handy, just in case." He walked round to the back of the van and took out a pair of cameras as Amanda stepped out into the cool morning air. The road rose steadily to the west, in the direction they were heading. To the east the sky was turning pale as the sun rose behind a hill and she watched Vincent as he lined up a photograph looking back along the empty street. "Can you hold this for me?" he asked, passing her one of the cameras. She nodded and took it from him, amazed at how heavy it was, fascinated by the knobs and dials and delighted by the sculptural feel of the camera body in her hand. What a difference between that her Dad's box Brownie.
When he'd taken his shots she said "What do all these do? How does it work?"
He looked down at the camera and pointed to a dial. "That's the exposure - it sets the time that the shutter stays open. This one's the aperture - it controls the size of the hole that the light comes through onto the film. They both have a whole range of effects on the way the photograph turns out."
"How do you know..."
"Theory and experience. See..." he showed her the light meter he used, protected in a brown leather pouch. "I use the light meter to work out the exposure than I adjust the settings to get the sort of effect I want. The aperture and the exposure both control the amount of light that gets to the film but they do it in different ways. The smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field - the more things stay in focus over a long distance. These numbers are called F stops and the bigger the number the smaller the aperture. If you..." He looked up at Amanda and grinned. "Sorry. More than you wanted to know?"
Amanda looked up from the camera, surprised. "No - really - I've always wanted to take photographs but I never had a camera. It's complicated, but I'd like to know more. Do you think I could...um..."
"What - take a shot? Sure - why not. Let me set it up for you." He opened the light meter and took a reading, explaining the settings to Amanda, then adjusted some of the settings on the camera and handed it to her. "This is the focus. When you're ready just push the shutter release here...like pulling the trigger of a gun, slowly and evenly."
She smiled. Photographs were art, and she'd pored over books in the library of Ansel Adams' work. Like any artist, he understood that it was all about light. Amanda had never been particularly good with a brush, her talent was more in the tactile arts, but here was a piece of professional artist's equipment in her hands She looked over her shoulder, thinking about the sky in the east, trying to work out where the sun was going to rise over the hill. She turned round to look down the main street, half closing her eyes so that the detail blurred, letting the shapes and the planes of the buildings form patterns. Vincent watched, intrigued, wondering what she was seeing. She crossed to the other side of the road and he followed, watching as she peered down at the image on the ground glass screen, looking back over her shoulder and back to the camera, moving a few steps to the left, then back to the right. Finally she lowered the camera.
Vincent looked puzzled. "What's up, nothing interesting to shoot?"
"Oh - no - it's just that, can we wait about..." she looked back over her shoulder. "Two or three minutes?"
"Sure, no hassle at all." He had no idea what she was talking about but he was happy to wait for a few minutes. She'd never held a camera? What was all this about? He looked down at his boots, not really thinking about anything when he heard her, or rather sensed that she'd tensed, and he looked up to see the first rays of light strike the hordings of the buildings in the street, the shadows harsh and stark in the slanted light. He watched Amanda as she started looking back down at the camera, making minute adjustments to the focus and holding her thumb gently over the shutter release, looking up, then down, then...
"Now," she breathed, pushing the release gently but firmly and smiling at the satisfying sensation of finely-made machinery responding to her touch. She looked up and grinned, then looked back at the scene in the main street. Vincent turned to look at what she'd photographed and gasped in astonishment. The starkness of the shadows was fading as the sun rose higher. He gently took the camera back and looked down at the screen, understanding what she'd captured - a moment of light and shadow that disappeared before his eyes.
He turned, his mouth open. "How did...how the hell...?"
She laughed. "Well, it's light, isn't it, like you said. The smaller the hole that the light comes through, the sharper the - what did you call it...the depth of field? I figured it had to work for the light source too - the sun. When it's just a tiny spot, when it's rising or setting, the shadows can be incredibly sharp if the sky's clear, but it only lasts for a few seconds. I loved learning about the way that painters used light but I was never much good at painting myself. But when you talked about that it made perfect sense and I could see how the great painters - Tintoretto was one of my favourites - understood exactly what you told me, but I guess they wouldn't have used the same words. I thought I'd see if my theory worked, and it did! Did you see the way those shadows..." Amanda was grinning with pleasure. "I'm sorry - I'm raving. But that was fun! Thanks! I hope I get to see the picture."
"Fun," he breathed. "You've got the eye! Man, it's something I still haven't got. I mean I've got the technique down, but I wouldn't have been able to do that. Are you serious - you've never done this before?"
They strolled back across the street the car and he carefully put the equipment back.
"No. I never have. My Dad's got one of those old Kodaks, but I never used it. I thought about it though. I loved looking at Ansel Adams' photographs in my school library."
He looked at her and shook his head, a wry smile on his lips. They climbed back in and he pulled out onto the road. They rode for several minutes in silence while Amanda's comfort level sank. She'd insulted him. Finally gathered enough courage to speak.
"Uh, Vincen...Vinny...I'm really sorry, I think that was very thoughtless of me. Maybe you'd better let me off here."
He brought the car to a stop an pulled off on the side of the road, then turned the motor off and turned to her.
"You want to get out?"
"No - but I..."
Vincent turned to look at her. "Look Amanda - I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but to be honest, I don't quite buy your story about your Aunt. It just doesn't add up, you know?"
Amanda felt her face turning red. "I...why..."
"No! Please," he interrupted." Let me finish. It's none of my business. But whatever the truth is, if you really do need to get to San Francisco that's fine, but if you're more - flexible - I could really use an assistant. I mean there are times when things are happening fast when it'd make the difference between the shot that wins a Pulitzer and nothing is just having someone to load the next roll of film. I couldn't pay much, but things are picking up. At first it'd just be, board a lodging, you know? I mean most of the time I camp out or sleep in the van but I mean we wouldn't be..."
Amanda's mind raced while Vincent kept on speaking, and she tried to listen to what he was saying while she thought about how to respond. A photographer's assistant? Maybe the chance to learn how to use those cameras? Travelling around the country, seeing all those places?
"...but enough to put some aside." He stopped. "And...well...maybe you could teach me how to do what you just did - back there."
The first week of my job was great - I mean really great. I was nervous at first but once I got the hang of things it was - great. I hope my English teacher doesn't find out that I used "great" three times in one paragraph. I'll start again.
The first week of my job was very interesting and challenging. I was nervous at first but once I got the hang of things it was enjoyably stimulating. Is that better?
Mr Potter is such a good boss - he gave me an advance on my salary so that I could - wait - I'm getting ahead of myself.
On Friday Mad Dog came into the store. He said that there was a new John Wayne movie on and that now I had a job I should take him. You know how much I like John Wayne, and that it's the only thing that MD and I agree about - anyway, I agreed. Mr Potter said that I should take MD and Mom out to dinner after the show and he gave me an advance so that I could get the tickets early.
We went to the movie on Saturday afternoon but it wasn't what I expected. It wasn't a cowboy movie - it was about the Viet Nam war. It was the goriest movie I've ever seen. Mad Dog was yelling and whooping and I was sitting there getting sicker and sicker. I won't bother telling you the story except to say that it's about these guys who kidnap a Viet Cong general and, well, it doesn't matter. The thing is that it made me realise that this military school stuff is for real. It's not just the discipline, it's the real thing. I could end up going there - I'll be old enough to be drafted soon. The more the movie made these guys out to be heroes the worse I felt. Maybe I'm a coward. I don't know. But I know this - I don't have anything against Viet Nam and I'm damned if I want to go over there and fight in that war. I don't think I'm a coward. If someone wanted to hurt you I'd kill them with my bare hands no matter how big they were or what kind of weapon they had, but this - it's hard to explain. Maybe we can talk about it some time.
Anyway, when the movie was over I felt sick to my stomach. MD was grinning and saying stuff like "See that, boy! That's what a real man is!" I won't tell you the other stuff he said. I was too tired to argue.
I took them to a diner that Mister Potter said was good. I had Salisbury Steak, MD ordered meatloaf and Mom had fish. The food was good and it was cheaper than I thought it would be, but I could hardly eat. MD was still bouncing around and couldn't stop talking about the "gooks" and laughing about how those little "commie bastards" could ever hope to win against American fighting men. I bet it's really nothing like that.
Anyway, I saved most of my first week's pay. Mom didn't like the movie, in fact I think she might have been thinking some of the same things that I was, though she wouldn't say it of course. You should have seen her, Amanda. She said that she hadn't been take out to dinner for years, and she started to cry when she said how proud she was to be taken out by me. I'm glad I did it.
I hope you're OK. You know I've decided that I'm going to keep writing even though I don't know if you're getting my letters. Maybe you're getting them and you just can't write back. I don't know, but I think it's what you'd want me to do. Anyway, I promised.
I love you Amanda. I miss you and I think about you all the time.
"Vincent, I..." Amanda choked on the words.
"Oh." Damn. Stupid, stupid, stupid. "Look, I'm sorry. That was really dumb. I was just acting on the spur of the moment. I know how it must have sounded. I'll, um, drop you back at the Interstate. Unless you want to get out here of course, Or I could take you back to town." Vincent was blushing furiously and feeling like a complete idiot. The situation was ludicrous. He'd never picked up a girl in his life and now, completely innocently and without any ulterior motives at all, he'd just blurted out what sounded like the lamest pickup line in history. Oh man - this was one that deserved to be written in The Big Book of Stupidity. Well, there was nothing for it but to take his licks. He waited, for the slap in the face, the laugh, or the slam of the door.
"I'd love to."
"Oh. Okay. Well, I'm sorry. Good luck in California then."
Amanda suddenly realised that he'd been so convinced that she'd say no, that "no" was what he'd heard, and she clenched her teeth to keep from laughing. "I said I'd love to."
"Oh man! What..." he laughed, unsuccessfully trying to hid his embarrassment. "I thought you said..."
"I know. But, uh, before you agree there's something that we have to talk about."
"Oh - yeah - of course! Look - I'm sorry Amanda - I know it must have sounded like I was trying to pick you up. But I'm not, really! I really do need an assistant. I've been thinking about it for weeks. Listen - like I said, I've got a tent and the back of the car's plenty big enough to sleep in. I mean separate arrangements - no funny stuff - strictly business. We could..."
"No, that's not what I mean. I know you weren't trying to pick me up. What I was talking about was..."
"Oh. Damn!" He slapped his forehead. "Of course! Money. Well, like I said, I couldn't pay you much until I sell a bit more regularly but I could manage, say $20 a week and you wouldn't need to pay for food or rooms or anything - you could save all of it if you wanted to. Does that..."
"Vincent - Vinny, Please - listen to me! I wasn't talking about money! There's a problem and I can't take the job unless you know about it and unless...unless...I can think about what I'm going to do when...when..."
She looked down, blushing herself this time, then looked back up at him. He waited, patiently, his eyes flicking unconsciously back and forth between hers. She took a breath and said, for the second time, "I'm pregnant."
Amanda turned to look out the window, unable to look even Vincent in the eye. "Yeah," she croaked, wondering if she'd ever be able to say it with the same conviction that let her make the decision to leave home.
"Uh, yeah. I, uh, I don't..."
Amanda sighed. "I'm sorry. I know you couldn't..." It hit her. No-one was going to hire a pregnant seventeen year old with no experience. Not unless she lied. And Willow had spotted it already. In another month it'd be obvious to anyone.
Oh God...so that was what it was about. That was what was tearing at her. No wonder. The poor kid! She's so smart too - how the hell did she let that happen? What sort of bastard would get a girl like this pregnant and leave her to - he must have left her. If she was heading to 'Frisco to meet him she wouldn't have said yes. Oh man... She looked up and he saw her jaw clench as she fought back tears. Damn you - you insensitive bastard.
"Amanda, I'm sorry. I...I didn't, I mean it must be... Why were you heading for San Francisco? Do you really have an Aunt there?"
Amanda wiped her eyes with her hand, and said quietly "No. I'd heard about the art community there - I want to be an artist, a potter or a sculptor, and I thought...I thought that maybe I could get a job, you know, as a waitress or something while I worked out what I could...do. But it..." her lip trembled and he saw her eyes fill with tears. "It wouldn't have worked. In another month it'll be obvious and no-one would give me a job then. I guess I wasn't very smart."
"Your parents? The father?" Shit - did I say that? If those were options she would have taken them! She's not some street whore - she's not used to living rough.
Amanda looked away again. "No. It's a long story. I had to leave. I had to...I can't go back."
I'm gonna regret this. "Look - it doesn't make any difference to me. The job's still open if you want it. It's going to be a while yet before the baby arrives, right? There's time for you to think about what you want to do - what the best thing's going to be. If you want the job, it's yours."
Slowly she turned to face him.
"Are you...are you sure?"
"Sure? Yeah, of course I'm sure. Where else could I find someone who'd work cheap and who could teach me about light?"
Her expression didn't change. She looked at him with a directness that was so disarming he was afraid that he'd hurt or insulted her by his clumsy attempt to break the tension.
She nodded almost imperceptibly, just enough to dislodge a tear that ran down her cheek and touched the corner of her mouth as she smiled.
Vincent didn't know it at the time, and it wasn't until years later that the realisation struck him, but that was the precise moment that he fell in love with Amanda Phillips.
Stay tuned for the next instalment of All My Children.
Disclaimer: All characters are copyright MTV.
Special thanks: to all our beta readers: Roger E Moore and Bootstrapper
Quirks: Deref, who typed the words, is an Australian, so he's used Aussie English spellings and grammar conventions. He may also have inadvertently used some Aussie idioms though he's tried to keep in culture.
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