"Oh - he's beautiful! Can I hold him?"
The receptionist at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic walked round from behind her desk for a better look. Amanda grinned and passed her the tightly wrapped bundle. Wind looked up at her with his bright blue eyes and gurgled, and she looked over at Amanda and Willow with eyes that said she'd just fallen in love.
"Aren't you gorgeous! What's his name?"
"Wind," chimed Willow and Amanda together as the baby smiled again.
"Well, hi there little Wind!" Doctor Smith had come up behind the admiring throng and looked over Willow's shoulder. "No need to check on you today by the looks of you!" He glanced at Amanda. "How's he been?"
"Great," smiled Amanda. "He's sleeping well, eating well. He's no trouble at all."
Doctor Smith raised his eyebrows. "Really? I mean he looks great, but I think you're the first young mother who hasn't added a 'but' - you know - 'great but I wish he'd sleep more' or 'great but I'm having trouble feeding him'. So - no problems at all eh?"
"She's a natural, Doc," grinned Willow.
"You must be Willow."
"One and the same," Willow said, returning his smile and shaking the proffered hand.
"From what Amanda told me I may have to look out or I might come in one morning and find that you've taken over my job."
Willow blushed. "I just did what I had to."
"You did magnificently. Well done." He tickled Wind under the chin, provoking another gurgle, then turned to Amanda. "Come on in then."
The two of them left Willow and the receptionist playing with Wind and walked through the door into the Doctor's room. He motioned for Amanda to sit down. "Well, the results of the tests have come back," he said, opening her file and looking at the papers. "Let's see...you were worried because your periods haven't gone back to normal since the birth." He peered down at the test results while Amanda sat nervously, hanging off every "hmm".
"Is there...is anything wrong?"
Doctor Smith looked up from the results and took off his glasses.
"You know, I don't know whether you're a very lucky or very unlucky young lady, Amanda. Having a baby under the circumstances you described - it could have been very dangerous. So many things can go wrong. As I said, your friend Willow did remarkably well considering, but she was lucky too. If there's been a problem with the birth - if Wind had been breech, or the cord was tangled, or even if you'd torn - and the fact that you didn't under the circumstances is something of a miracle in itself. In that sense, anyway, you were very lucky."
A chill ran up Amanda's spine. He was working up to a "but".
Houses gave way to fields as Jake walked out of town along familiar roads, past farms and buildings, each a reminder of conversations past, words that tore and ripped like a blade. The January air was chill but Jake didn't notice. He was cold all the time now.
At a fence outside a red barn he stopped. The barn door was slightly ajar and inside he could just make out the rails of stalls.
He looked around. The road and the fields were deserted. He parted the wires of the fence and climbed through. Squeezing between the doors he paused, waiting for his eyes to adjust. The air was dusty, shafts of pale winter sunlight streaming down from the holes in the roof reflecting off motes floating in the still air. But he hadn't prepared himself for the smell and it hit him like a blow, releasing a wave of until now unremembered scenes and sensations. His stomach contracted.
A familiar face startled him and he walked over to the stall, breathing shallowly to control the overpowering urge to vomit.
"What are you doing here, boy? You should be outside on a day like this," he whispered as the palomino pony snorted and sniffed his hand.
"No apples today, feller."
He straightened up, absentmindedly stroking the pony's nose, and looked around. The blanket still hung over the rail at the side of the stall and, behind it, a stack of hay bales was where he remembered it. He looked back at the pony. "You remember, don't you boy? You remember her," he whispered, his voice hoarse.
And silently, in the privacy of the barn, Jake allowed himself to weep.
Finally, drained, and feeling the pony's warm breath on his brow, he looked up and wiped his eyes on the back of his hand, his deep breaths interspersed with ragged sobs.
Putting his hand deep in his pocket he took out the tiny box, still wrapped in its handkerchief, and uncovered it. He snapped the lid open and took out the ring. In the dark of the barn the gold barely glinted but the diamond still sparkled, collecting and amplifying the light streaming in through the roof and the grimy window. He walked slowly across to the bale where they'd sat that night, wrapped in the blanket. He knelt down and rested his forehead on the bale, then tenderly lay the ring on the hay.
He waited a minute, kneeling, looking at the ring resting against last season's dry yellow stems. Then he stood and, without looking back, walked out of the barn back towards town, tossing the empty box carelessly into the bushes that lined the side of the road.
The Kombi drove off as Amanda puzzled over Willow's insistence that she look after Wind for few hours. It was the first break she'd had from the pressures of motherhood since Wind had been born and she was grateful. But now, since she'd come back from the Clinic, it was for all the wrong reasons.
Reluctantly, she climbed the stairs to the apartment that she and Vincent had found two days after they came back from Mount Shasta; after the rangers had cut up the tree and come to tell the people in the cabin that they could get out, staring open-mouthed at the new life that had been born the day before. Taking a leaf out of Willow's and Coyote's book they'd decorated the apartment with milk crate and cinder block furniture, second-hand chairs and tables they'd bought and scrounged. It was the home of people who knew they'd be leaving soon, but it was simple and clean. And it was home.
But now Amanda's steps slowed as she climbed the stairs. Halfway up she stopped, sensing an unfamiliar smell, then, full of foreboding, she walked the final few steps to the door. As her hand went out to open it, the door swung inwards to reveal Vincent, a dozen long-stemmed red roses in his hand, smiling. Behind him the room was full of flowers. The table was set with candles and wine glasses and a bottle of champagne straight from the refrigerator that glistened with droplets of condensed moisture. On the wall beside the door to the kitchen a hand-lettered poster read "Happy Birthday Amanda".
Vincent had rehearsed this moment in his mind a dozen times but none of the reactions he'd imagined from Amanda had been this one. He stared at her as her eyes flicked around the room like an animal caught car headlights.
What the hell?
But she smiled and though for a moment he felt it was forced, he smiled back and handed her the flowers.
"Thanks," she said, quietly and perhaps a little hesitantly, as she took them. He'd been hoping for more. The flowers had cost a fortune, but he wanted it to be special. He hadn't been able to do any of the things he would have liked to when Wind was born, and he'd put all his planning into this, arranging for Willow and Coyote to take Wind for a few hours, cooking food he knew she liked, good Champagne. And the locket. He'd wait until a very special moment to give that to her.
He saw here glance towards the table where a very home-made chocolate cake with vanilla icing took pride of place. He expected that she'd laugh at the effort he'd put into the cake, the swirls of bright pink icing mixing with the white where he'd obviously had to try and re-try to get the lettering right. Shaky letters spelled out Happy Birtday momy. Eighteen candles burnt at odd intervals on the top.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"Uh, yeah. I have a headache," she said softly, and looked down at the flowers. "These are beautiful. Thank you. And you made a cake!" He looked into her eyes and he noticed that the sadness was back. "...All this...its..."
She dropped the flowers and ran into the bathroom. As soon as he got over his shock he followed her, to see her kneeling in front of the toilet, throwing up. He stood, uncertain, and put a hand on her shoulder. "Uh, honey...are you...?"
"I...I'm...eeerrrrgggghhh" She breathed, and threw up again.
Vincent had wanted so much for this to be perfect! He knelt with his arm around her, stroking her hair as her stomach emptied itself into the toilet. When she was able to stand her face was white and her eyes were running. He got a washcloth and helped her clean up. She looked up at the disappointment in his face and smiled wanly. "I'm fine now, come on."
Fine? "No, it's okay. We can do this when you're feeling better."
"No, please, I mean it." She led him back out into the living room. Two of the candles were still alight on the cake, the rest of them had burnt down to the icing leaving coloured wax puddles. "It's beautiful..."
"Happy birthday Mrs. Lane."
She looked down at the pink lettering, barely able to make it out under the puddles of coloured wax. As she puzzled over it he popped the Champagne cork and poured some out into a long, thin glass and handed it to her. She looked up at it, the colour of old straw with bubbles rising in tiny streams, then back to the cake, then to the glass...
"I...I can't..." Her face drained of colour again.
Oh, man, something's seriously...
She ran for the door, flung it open and took the steps two at a time.
Vincent watched, stunned. He put the bottle down and turned to run after her, quickly turning back to blow the two remaining candles out. By the time he got to the bottom of the steps she'd disappeared.
* * *
Force of habit took Amanda to the park where she liked to walk with Wind in the papoose on her back. It was just a couple of suburban lots in size, some swings, a bench, shade trees. She sat on a swing, her stomach in knots, her head pounding, and her thoughts jumbled and confused.
She looked up at the stars and took a deep breath, holding it then releasing it.
As she'd walked in the door, the smell of flowers, spicy food and burning candles had been overpowering and she'd had to fight the urge to gag. And Vincent, standing, looking so happy, holding out red roses, the room decorated, a cake that he'd obviously made himself...planned the whole thing with Wind and Willow...oh God how she loved him...then knot in her stomach...fear mixed with the smell...
After she'd thrown up she thought it would be alright. Oh God. The cake. Happy Birtday momy. Champagne, NONONONONONONO
And she'd run.
She felt the weight of unbearable guilt. He'd gone to all that trouble for her birthday, those flowers must have cost a fortune, and she'd ruined it... ruined everything.
She stared up at the stars, distorted through tears, worry and faith warring in her mind.
Her tears were still falling when Vincent found her ten minutes later.
He didn't say a word. He just slipped his hand into hers and settled into the swing next to her, and waited.
She looked up at him through the tears in her eyes.
He's a good guy. He's not going to leave. He'll stay with me.
She kept telling herself that. But there was an insipid little voice that kept telling her that Jake was a 'good' guy too; Jake would never leave you either...look at where that got you.
"I'm pregnant," she said to the sky, her eyes closed.
A sound. Was it a laugh?
Slience. She turned to the swing beside her and opened her eyes, seeing what she most feared and most expected. It was empty.
Then, as she slowly turned, her heart breaking, she realised that he was standing in front of her.
He pulled her up from the swing with one hand. Up close she could see the look on his face... He leaned in and kissed her on the forehead, then wrapped his arms around her. With a loud whoooop of excitement he spun her around a couple times then, taking her hand in his again, led her back towards the apartment.
* * *
Willow was just about to knock a second time when the door opened. Vincent stood there in a sheet and obviously nothing else.
He smiled at her. "Come in. How's he been?"
Willow smirked. "Fine. Just fine." She looked down. "So - the birthday party went well I see."
He laughed and closed the door behind her then went to take Wind from her but, realising that the sheet would fall if he did, said "Er, do you mind?"
Willow laughed and followed him into the bedroom, past the still-full bottle of Champagne and the clean plates. Nothing had been touched except the cake.
Amanda was sitting up in the bed, taking a bite out of a slice of cake that was more wax than icing. She looked up at Willow with a gleam in her eye and reached up for wind, the sheet falling away from her. "Oh, Wind! How's my baby?"
"He's fine. I see you assumed he was going to be hungry," she said dryly.
Amanda glanced down at her bare breasts and burst out laughing, pieces of chocolate cake spraying across the sheet.
Willow grinned and knelt down to hand Wind to Amanda, but then she noticed the locket hanging low around her neck and stared. "Oh wow!" Amanda's pale straw hair hung over her shoulder, and her skin, where it had been protected from the sun that she loved, was almost white. The tiny gold locket, resting against that skin next to that hair was simply spectacular.
Amanda took Wind and offered him a dinner which he eagerly accepted. She looked down and cradled the locket slowly in her hand, then held it up for Willow to see. "My birthday present," she said quietly.
Willow, seeing the joy in her eyes, leant forward and kissed her on the forehead.
"Happy birthday, babe," she whispered.
"Hey!" said Vincent, "The Champagne's probably warm by now, but will you join us for a birthday drink?"
"Sure! Coyote's in the Kombi. I'll get him?"
It was the best birthday Amanda had ever had.
"Come on, Morgendorffer. You're the only one who hasn't got somthing happening tonight. I just need a warm body, man. This chick is hot, and if I don't come up with a date for her sister it's no dice!"
"I told you, Kowalski, I'm not interested."
"But damn, Mor...Jake...pal...you've gotta do this for me! Her old lady won't let her go out unless her older sister chaperones her. It's not as if you have to do anything, just come along, sit with us while we eat and let me take it from there. Tell you what - I'll pay for the taxi, dinner, and the movie for all four of us. It won't cost you a cent. ."
"Jeez, Kowalski. You must be desperate."
"You'd be desperate too if you saw her. And she's got the reputation, man - she'll take on anything that's warm. Come on Morgendorffer!" Kowalski grimaced in pain at what the next word cost him. "Please?"
"I'm gonna regret this, but okay."
* * *
"I'm going on a double date with Kowalski."
"Kowalski? You mean Junior's buddy?"
"Yes. That Kowalski."
"Man, that kirp's been on your case from the day you got here! Ever since Junior graduated Kowalski's reckoned it's been his God-given duty to ride you! Why in tarnashun would you wanna go on a double date with him?"
"Well, part of was that he has to pay for four people instead of two. That was pretty sweet. But what clinched it was the look on his face when he said 'please'."
Willy sighed and nodded. It was the first time he'd seen Jake smile since he'd come back from his father's funeral. After what Jake had told him about the letter from Ellenbogen and the way that Mad Dog had intercepted Amanda's letters, Willy finally understood the way Jake felt about his father. So if Jake was getting a kick out of seeing Kawalski grovel, well, that was good, wasn't it? "Yeah. I get it. And you never know, Jakey. She might be nice."
"I don't care if she's got two heads, one arm, zits, false teeth, a wooden leg, and a glass eye. I'm gonna enjoy every minute of it."
Willy watched Jake brush his hair and make sure his tie was straight. "So is Kawalski comin' by to get you?"
"You goin' t' his barracks?"
A wry smile twisted Jake's mouth. "I told him to come by in the cab and pick me..." A car horn sounding outside the barracks interrupted. Jake winked at Willy.
"You're gonna milk this, aint' ya, Jakey?"
"Until the udder's dry, Willy, until the udder's dry."
Willy laughed as Jake walked out to the cab. He looked at his watch. Quarter to six. Time to get the bus into town to meet Hilda. Man, he thought, was my Pa ever right about women. His heart thumped as he thought about her. But Jake. Was there ever a sadder story? When he'd listened to Jake telling him he'd had to turn away. Wasn't right to cry, or at least let people see you cry. And the way Jake had taken the ring back to the barn. That was...what was the word? Symbolic. Yeah. Symbolic. It was the thing he had to do to let her go...to say goodbye. Willy sniffed, ashamed to feel his eyes filling again. Much as he loved Hilda, he felt that the story of Jake and Amanda was like one of those fairy stories that his Pa used to tell him when he was a kid. They always ended in tragedy too. Not like the movies, where the prince always got the princess; they were bunkum. It didn't happen like that. More like that story about the little mermaid, the way she died. He seemed to remember that he'd cried when his Pa had finished that story too. They made a statue of her, his Pa had said, and if his Pa had said it it was true. A statue, at the harbour in - where was it? Oh yeah. Copenhagen. Of the little mermaid who'd died for love. Man, that was a sad story. Jake had kind of died for love too. Well, not completely died, but a part of him. Every night when Willy went to bed he asked Jesus to look after Amanda and her baby, to keep them safe. And to look after his buddy Jake so maybe he could stop hating so much - stop hating himself so much.
So here he was, going to meet the beautiful Hilda. Not beautiful like most folks'd call beautiful, like Amanda was beautiful, but beautiful in every way that mattered. And Jake had lost everything that mattered to him. Life wasn't fair, that was for sure.
But he admired Jake. It would have been so easy for him to fall apart. But something kept him going. Jake said it was hate. Hate for Ellenbogen, hate for Mad Dog and every single thing he stood for. Not wanting them to win. Making sure that he never had to go into the army. Revenge, in a way. Man, that guy had cojones. But then no-one knew you like your bunkmate. No-one else heard you whimpering at night.
Willy's thoughts returned to the ring. He'd never seen so much money tied up in one little bauble. He'd never be able to afford anything like that for Hilda. And Jake had just left it there...
He sighed, checked his hair in the mirror one last time, and walked out of the barracks towards the bus stop.
The cab pulled up outside a large two-storey house with a neatly-trimmed lawn and a pathway bordered with a miniature white picket fence that wound sinuously up to the door. All the way from Buxton Ridge Kowalski had babbled on about how he was gonna make this chick.
She's a real slut, Morgendorffer. I bet she'll put out tonight!
Too bad about her sister. They say she's a bookworm, probably as ugly as hell. But hey - you might get lucky and you don't look at the mantelpiece while you're stokin' the fire, eh, buddy?
I wonder if she's a 'real blonde'? Tell you what, Morgendorffer, I'll bring you back a sample!
Jake felt revolted. Kowalski talked about her as if she was a piece of meat, a juicy steak to be devoured. What the hell did this sad little man know? Within the first few minutes of the trip Jake realised that he'd made a big mistake.
Kowalski got out and walked up the path towards the house.
"Your buddy's big man with the girls, huh pal?" said the cab driver, chomping on his cigar and eyeing Jake in the rear view mirror.
"It's an act," said Jake. "Poor guy. He tries so hard."
The cab driver's eyes widened, posing the question.
"Me and they guys, you know, we keep hooking him up with dates. He always gets really excited, like this - he has these fantasies, but he just can't...uh..."
"Can't deliver on the contract?"
"Yeah. Sad, isn't it?"
"He ain't packin' much perhaps?"
"Yeah, well, you know, you can't help noticing in the showers. But they say it doesn't matter and we keep hoping that one day..."
"Hey, pal - you're a good guy! You and your buddies - that's real nice of you what you're doin' for your pal there!"
"Thanks," smiled Jake. "That's what friends are for we always say. Oh - hey - here they come. I'll get in the front so he can sit with the girls. It might help, you know...?"
Jake jumped out and held the back door open while Kowalski and the two girls got in the back. The blonde was obviously Kowalski's date, so the brunette was the ugly sister.
If Jake knew anything about cab drivers and small towns, by the end of next week there'd be a whole lot of people talking about Kowalski's 'deficiencies'.
"It's not forever, babe."
Amanda dried her eyes. "I know. I guess I'm just nervous. I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you too. And there's nothing to be nervous about. They'll love you."
"I hope so."
"If they don't then they're not worth worrying about."
Amanda smiled and sniffed. "Maybe. I really want to make a good impression. It's important to Vincent."
"What's Vinny told you about his family, babe?"
"Not much. He's convinced they'll love me. His Dad has always wanted him to take over the family business. He's got a sister, 'Neesy he calls her. He's really excited about 'presenting me' his Grandma's wedding band. I guess its a big thing with the family, passed down and just waiting for him to get married." Her expression changed. "I'm scared. They'll know Wind isn't his."
Willow thought for a minute. "You know, Amanda..." Amanda sat up. Willow never called her Amanda. "...you've got more guts than just about anyone I know."
"I mean it. All that stuff I said before about giving up an easy life to keep your baby - to keep Wind. And you knew...in the cabin, didn't you? You knew what could have gone wrong?"
Amanda looked at the floor and nodded gently.
"I thought so. And you're worried about meeting your husband's family?" She grinned. "You could eat them for breakfast."
Amanda smiled back at her, but she knew that Willow didn't understand. Feeling a hand on her shoulder she turned to see Vincent standing behind her.
She nodded and stood up.
"Well..." he said, looking at Willow and Coyote.
"Yeah." said Coyote.
There was no more to say.
The four of them hugged. Vincent picked up their sleeping baby and he and Amanda walked out of Willow and Coyote's apartment, down the stairs, climbed into the Willys, and drove away.
"Morgendorffer, this lovely lady is Rita, and her beautiful sister's name is Helen. Helen, you lucky girl, this handsome specimen of manhood is Cadet Jake Morgendorffer."
Jake turned, nodded to the ladies, and said curtly, "Rita, Helen. A pleasure." and turned back to the front.
During the rest of the trip Jake heard giggles from the back seat and snatches of conversation.
"...could be like if the three of us...."
"...sense in being shy, now..."
"...sure you two have seen..."
Once the cab driver winked surreptitiously at Jake, as if to say "He's certainly gettin' himself worked up back there."
As the cab pulled up at the restaurant Jake jumped out and opened the door for Rita, then walked quickly round the back of the cab to hold the door open for Helen, walking her back to the sidewalk in time to hear Kowalski say "I always do, pal," as he paid the driver.
"That was weird," he said to Jake as he got out. "That guy winked at me and said 'think big, buddy'. What do you suppose he meant by that?"
"No idea, Kawalski," Jake muttered, taking Helen's arm and following Kowalski and Rita into the restaurant. "No idea."
For high school seniors in 1969 it was a fancy place. It had menus for one thing. And tablecloths. Jake could feel Kowalski's pain, and he relished every morsel of it as he scanned the menu for the most expensive items.
"So...Helen, wasn't it? See anything you like?" he asked, willing her to choose something exotic.
Jake unconsciously found himself staring at her. Ugly sister? She's gorgeous. That was the only word that Jake could think of. Through all the emptiness and despair inside, he was an eighteen year old boy. The difference -between Jake and Kowalski was that fizzing testosterone had lost its attraction for him. What enjoyment Jake was getting out of tonight centred around making sure that Kowalski paid as dearly as possible for his services. But Helen was beautiful. She seemed jittery though. She kept watching her younger sister with a nervous expression, and every now and then she'd...twitch.
Kowalski clearly wasn't wasting any time. He'd moved his chair around closer to Rita and spent more time whispering in her ear than he spent looking at the menu.
"Uh, like?" said Helen, turning to him, looking increasingly flushed. "Oh - the menu, uh, let me...eep!" She twitched again, and picked up the menu. Maybe that's what Kowalski meant, Jake thought. She's got some kind of...condition. Shame. She's so pretty.
"Just a salad," she muttered after giving the menu a perfunctory scan.
"Hmm," Jake said. "Salad. Hey - there's one that sounds good! Maine lobster salad with Roquefort dressing! That sounds great." Jake had no clue what Roquefort dressing was, but anything that cost nearly ten dollars sounded good.
"Yeah, fine," Helen said distractedly.
Rita was making a valiant attempt to read the menu, but she had to keep putting it down to push Kowalski's hands away.
"Kowalski?" Jake asked, distracting him for a moment.
"What?" Kowalski grunted, clearly annoyed at being interrupted.
"What are you going to order?"
"Ah - I dunno. Steak. I'll have a steak. Order it for me, Morgendorffer. I'm goin' to where the big nobs hang out." He rose, laughing, and prodded Rita in the ribs. "Big nobs. Get it, Rita? I bet you do! All the time. Hah!" He walked off towards the bathroom.
Helen stood up too, saying "I'm going to fix my makeup."
Jake stood automatically and pulled her chair back for her as she stood, not noticing the surprised look on Rita's face or, for that matter, that Helen wasn't wearing any makup. He sat down as she left.
"Well, Cadet Morgendorffer, it seems that not all the Buxton Ridge crowd are pigs." she said.
"Pig...oh. Oh yeah. Kowalski's the head swine alright. But tell me, how long has Helen had, you know...?"
"Had what? What are you talking about?"
"You know, that, um, twitch thing she does?"
"Twitch thing...you mean...oh shit!" Rita laughed.
"Uh, did I say something funny?"
"She's not twitching you idiot. Your friend's playing 'footsie' with her under the table while he's trying to get his hand up my dress."
Jake turned bright red. "He's no friend of mine."
"He said you had to take her along on your date and he needed someone to keep her occupied while he...uh..."
"I can guess. And he chose you. So you're - what - his best friend or something?"
"Me? Like I said, I hate the guy. I came because he offered to pay for all of us and I couldn't resist the chance to spend as much of his money as I could."
Rita looked at him with what might have been admiration. "I see. So, uh, what...?"
"New York cut steak, shoestring fries, and a side of French beans in garlic butter."
"You have style, Cadet. And Helen...no...let me guess..." She scanned the menu. "Lobster salad?"
"With Roquefort dressing. Whatever that is."
Rita laughed, just as the waitress arrived to take their order - two steaks with the works and two lobster salads. She left just as Helen came back from the bathroom. Jake stood and pulled her chair back for Helen to sit down, watched with interest by Rita.
Helen grunted at Jake and scowled at Rita. "Well this is certainly a memorable date. I must remember to thank Mom for making me come along."
Rita smiled unpleasantly. "Now Helen - you know she only did it so you'd be exposed to more...normal...things for a young lady to do."
"Oh yes," Helen said with mock enthusiasm. "I'm sure she'd much rather I turned out normal - like you! That must be why she offered me the giant family-size box of prophylactics before we left tonight!"
"Now that's what I like to hear," said Kowalski, kneeling between Rita and Helen, both of whom had been too involved to notice his return, while Jake had studiously studied the back of the menu. "It's good to know you've come prepared, sugar." Jake watched as he put his arm around Rita and, without any warning, ran his other hand up Helen's leg. "I've never had sisters before!"
"Oh!" Helen grunted, standing up suddenly and knocking her chair over. She picked up the jug of ice water on the table and emptied it over Kowalski's head, spilling half of it over herself in the process.
Kowalski leaped up, his face a mask of fury. "You SLUT!" he spat. His hand started swinging towards Helen's face, but it never connected.
Jake watched impassively as the red rage took over. His arm drew his fist back in slow motion, level with his shoulder, then slowly telescoped forwards to connect with Kowalski's jaw sending him reeling back into the low wall behind their table, where he folded up and slumped to the floor.
The rage withdrew almost immediately and he noticed Rita and Helen looking at him open-mouthed, just as the manager arrived.
"You punks from Buxton Ridge are all the same!" he hissed. "I knew I shouldn't have let you in! You'd better have enough money to pay for those fancy meals you ordered or your school's gonna hear about...."
"Excuse me," came firm female voice from behind him. The manager spun round to see an imposing and well-dressed woman standing behind him.
"What do you want?" he snapped, turning back to Jake, then back to the woman. "Uh, Mrs Ruttheimer. I'm so sorry madam. Please, sit down," he put his arm around her back to try to guide her back to her chair. "I'll deal with these ruffians, and I insist that your meal and Mayor Ruttheimer's are on the house tonight."
"I saw what happened," she said, resisting his attempts to turn her away. "This young gentleman..." she used the word very deliberately "...was protecting his date from the attentions of this...pig." She flicked a glance towards the unconscious form of Kawalski as an ice cube fell off his head onto the floor, then turned back to Jake. "Well done, young man," she smiled. "Your school should be proud to have a student who knows how to do the right thing. If this...man..." she indicated the manager with a dismissive glance, "...gives you any trouble, just tell your Principal to contact the Mayor's office." She turned to indicate a weedy little man sitting at the table she'd vacated. "My husband would be only too happy to vouch for you." She turned and sat down.
The manager turned and glared at Jake. "Get out," he hissed through clenched teeth.
Jake blushed and fumbled in his pocket for his wallet.
"Just...get..out!" repeated the manager, glancing nervously around at the faces of the diners who were, if their stares were anything to go by, enjoying the free entertainment.
Jake looked around uncertainly at Rita and Helen to see them looking up at him expectantly from their seats. There was nothing else he could but accept the role that he was expected to play. Gathering what small shreds of dignity he could scrape together he shrugged, and turned towards Helen and Rita. "Ladies?" he said, indicating that they should precede him and pulling the chair out for Rita. The girls walked out, followed by Jake, who murmered "Thank you," to the Mayor's wife as he passed, getting a broad smile in return.
"So. What now?" asked Rita as the stood on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.
"What now?" snorted Helen. "Now we go home. Your great taste in dates has already embarrassed me enough for one night, not to mention the fact that I'm wet and cold and hungry."
Hearing Helen's words, Jake flashed back to a night over a year ago and another wet girl.
Rita looked at Jake who was staring into space with a blank expression, unconsciously rubbing his right hand with his left, then back to Helen. "Aren't you being a trifle...ungracious, big sister?"
Helen blushed and looked down at Jake's hand to see that it was bleeding, and a guilty groan escaped from her. "Uh, are you alright...Jake, wasn't it? Thanks for...you know..."
It took Jake a second to return to the present. He looked back and forth between Rita and Helen. "What? Oh - " he looked down at his hand to see that the skin was broken over the knuckles where they'd connected with Kowalski's jaw, and blushed, self-consciously slipping the bleeding hand quickly into his pocket. "Sorry. Hungry...dammit...I mean...cold...that is..."
Despite herself, Helen smiled at his embarrassment. Rita was more direct and slipped an arm through his. "Why don't we get something to eat? I'm starving!"
Jake turned to her. "Yeah, sure. Why not?" he said, taking off his jacket and turning back to Helen. "Put this round your shoulders. We'll find somewhere warm," and they walked off in search of food.
"There's a hamburger place round the corner," Rita said.
"How about Mexican?" mumbled Helen.
"Yeah - I could murder a chicken burrito!" Jake sighed, turning to Helen, who smiled at him and, as he turned back, poked her tongue out at Rita.
As she walked behind her sister and Jake, Helen clutched the jacket around her shoulders and struggled to fight a growing sense of disgust.
"Okay - Mexican. Down here!" Rita turned a sharp left into a short laneway between two streets. Halfway along a sign proclaimed Viva Zapata in red neon above an unassuming red doorway. They walked in, welcomed by warmth contrasting with the cooling night, the delicious smell of Mexican cooking, and a smile wearing a short, fat man with black handlebar moustache.
"Senor, Senoritas. Table for three?"
"Yes, please," Jake said, looking round at a simple room with wooden floors, cheap prints of Mexican scenes on the walls and a dozen round tables covered red and white checked tablecloths, most occupied by couples or groups. Each table had a bottle coated in candlewax, with a candle flickering in each one. The moustache showed them to a table right outside the kitchen door where sounds of activity fought for attention with the spicy aromas. For the first time since his visit to the barn Jake felt happy and relaxed, though his knuckles were still stinging and he absentmindedly rubbed them while he looked at the menu.
"You are ready? Perhaps something to drink?" The waiter stood smiling, order pad in hand, behind Rita.
"Chicken burrito for me," Jake smiled. "And a Coke."
"Si, and the senoritas?"
"Er, I'll have tostados suiza and...yeah, Coke too," said Rita, handing him back the menu.
Helen stood up suddenly and handed Jake back his jacket. "Just a taco salad. And water. I'm going to the bathroom."
Jake turned to get up but by the time he'd started she'd gone. He stared after her for a minute, puzzled, then turned back to Rita. "Uh, was it something I said?"
"Don't worry about her," Rita shrugged as she watched Helen disappear through a door. "She's like that. Moody. Maybe it just that time of the month!" She whispered conspiratorially.
Helen stomped into the bathroom and stood scowling at herself in the small mirror above the washbasin, trying to control her anger. Some boy soldier Nazi jerk punches out an even bigger boy soldier Nazi jerk as he tries to cop a feel, and you... she thought. Then he puts his damn warmonger jacket around your shoulders because you're cold and...and you...
"Oh. Yeah." Jake laughed nervously.
"Let me see that hand, Jake. Is it sore?"
In the bathroom, Helen slapped her forehead with her open palm. And you damn well melt like some goddamn KID for God's sake!
Back at the table, Jake gave Rita his hand without thinking. She looked at it and gently prodded it as Jake winced. "I don't think you've broken anything." She looked into his eyes, still holding his hand. "That was really very impressive, Jake." She I guess they teach you all kinds of manly things like that - hand to hand combat - is that it?"
Helen, meanwhile, batted her eyelashes at her reflection, and forced her face into a scowl of contempt. "Oh - my hero!" Next thing you know he's gonna be telling us how much he's looking forward to going to 'Nam! Yeah! That's the way he'll say it. 'I jes' cain't wait t' get me over t' 'Nam to shoot me somma them commie gooks!' She ran some water and splashed her face angrily, then noticed there were no towels, and stormed out back to the table, her face dripping.
"What? Hand to...no! I just..." Jake said, noticing Helen return.
Helen sat down and, as she hit the chair, noticed Jake's hand resting in Rita's. Woah! You're as fast as they say you are, little sister.
"...did...what anyone would have done." Jake turned to Helen and noticed her face.
"Why Helen," purred Rita. "Did you fall in?"
"There were no towels. I wanted to wash my face," Helen blushed.
Jake stood up, pulling his hand from Rita's and wincing. He pulled an immaculately ironed handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. She took it, quickly opening it and covering her face to hide the fact that she was blushing, and clenched her teeth in disgust, then handed it back to Jake with a muttered "Thanks."
"Jake was just telling us..."
"Senorita!" the moustache said, putting a large plate of tostadas suiza in front of Rita, who looked a little peeved.
"Mmm - that looks great!" Jake enthused as he watched a large taco salad appeared in front of Helen.
"It certainly does," Rita purred, looking straight at him. Jake realised that she was rubbing her leg against his.
Jake was mercifully interrupted as he turned to a plate of burritos smothered in melted cheese.
"Thighs - I MEAN THANKS," he gulped, hearing Rita chuckle and completely missing a look from Helen that could have sliced through six inch armour plate. As unobtrusively as he possibly could he slid his chair an inch or two around the table away from Rita and gratefully started attacking the food.
"Wow," he said between mouthfuls, "this tastes as good as it looks! How's yours?"
"Delicious," moaned Rita, glancing sideways at him as she slowly stuck out her tongue and licked a piece of avocado off her fork and into her mouth.
"Fine." Helen grunted, pushing a taco around with her fork.
"Great!" said Jake as enthusiastically as he could, noticing that somehow Rita's chair had moved closer to his.
"Shame your friend's missing out," Helen said before she realised that neither Jake nor Rita was going to pick up on the double meaning.
"He's not my friend, dammit!" Jake said, a touch of anger hin his voice. "He's typical of the kind of factory-made morons that parents send their kids to Buxton Ridge to be. He'll probably graduate with honours." He unconsciously rubbed his hand and his voice dropped. "I'll probably get expelled for tonight. Not that I'd care much."
"His kind thinks violence and war are the answers to everything. He's had that punch coming...not that I ever planned on giving it to him..." He turned to Helen. "But I wasn't going to let him hit you!" Then back to Rita. "And that stuff he was saying about the two of you, well you know that wasn't right." He turned back to Helen who was staring at him open-mouthed. "Boy, Helen, you showed him too! I just wish I had a picture!" He grinned. "My friend Willie sure would love to have seen that."
"So, I guess you'll be signing up for the army just as soon as you get out of school," Rita said, trying the reclaim the high ground. "I just love those uniforms. "
"Are you going to enlist?" Helen eyed him intently, her curiosity piqued.
"Not if I can help it," Jake said quietly. "I've had more than enough of the military. And I'm damn sure not gonna pour myself into the mould my father left for me. I plan on being in college next year."
Helen turned, hiding a smile behind a mouthful of salad.
"Gee, Helen," Rita said, leaning over Jake. "that salad really does look good! Can I..." She stabbed a piece of tomato on the side of the salad bowl nearest to Helen and the bowl upended itself in Helen's lap.
"Shit!" Helen hissed, standing up and letting the salad fall to the floor.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Rita exclaimed.
Jake leaped up, grabbed a napkin from the table and started wiping the dressing from the front of Helen's dress, suddenly turning bright scarlet as he realised what he was doing. He stood and handed the napkin to her.
Helen snatched the napkin and glared at Rita. "Ooooh!" she growled, heading off again in the direction of the bathroom.
"Tch, I'm so clumsy tonight!" Rita sighed, putting her hand on Jake's back and guiding him back into his chair and turning his stare back from Helen towards her.
"Uh, accidents happen," he muttered.
"And every cloud has a silver lining," she murmured, moving her chair in next to his and putting a hand firmly on his thigh. "You know, Jake, I was so scared of that awful man. I really do want to show my...appreciation..." She slid her arm up from the small of his back to his neck and pulled his head in towards her as she closed her eyes and puckered. Neither of them noticed that Helen had come back and was standing, watching them, a few steps back from her chair.
Jake broke away from Rita's grasp, looking flustered. "Uh, gee, Rita. I...I'm sorry that your date with Kowalski turned out like this, but...I'm Helen's date tonight and...and it just wouldn't be...you know...right." He blushed again.
"Oh, I understand." Rita said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Helen crept silently back to the bathroom, turned, and strode back to her chair.
Jake stood again when he saw her and pulled her chair back. "Did it come out?" He asked.
"Oh yes. I think it came out perfectly," Helen said, smiling at him.
"Let's see if I got this right, man. So this sexy blonde's got a death grip on your thigh. She's been layin' it on you all night, tryin' to kiss you and suggestin' heavily that she wants to give you a 'reward'...and you kick her in the crotch and tell her no deal because you're on a date with the ugly sister?"
Jake opened his mouth to speak.
"You want my advice, Jakey boy? They're always lookin' for targets down at the range. The guys'd get some movin' target practice - Lord knows they need it - and you'd get t' die useful. Sounds like a good deal all round t' me." Jake was staring at his boots but Willy saw that he was grinning.
"You should have seen the look on Kowalski's ugly puss when Helen dumped that bucket of ice water on his head. Man, I'll remember that look until the day I die."
"Stop changin' the subject, Morgendorffer. But yeah - I reckon I'd pay a heap to a' seen that. Not to mention to a' seen you flatten him. My - that must a' been a sight. So anyway, what happened after you gave little sister the brush-off?"
"Nothing much. I mean things sort of went downhill pretty quickly. I think Rita was pretty pissed. I paid for the meals - hey - that place is great by the way, you should take Hilda there - and got a cab back to their place. I walked them to the door and took the cab back here."
"Well, you blew it real good Jakey. That's one chance you're never gonna git again."
Jake just smiled.
"Don't look as if you're too cut up about it."
"After Rita opened the door and stormed into the house Helen turned round asked me if I wanted to go to a rally with her next Saturday."
Willy's eyes popped out. "The ugly sister? What'd you say?"
"I said yes of course. She's gorgeous. She kissed me on the cheek."
"I asked him if he wanted to come to the rally on Saturday." Helen kept working on her math assignment, ignoring the pained expression on Rita's face.
"I was hoping I wouldn't have to tell you this, buuuut..."
"Tell me what?" Helen continued nonchalantly.
"Well, I don't know..." Rita sighed. "I guess it's for your own good."
"Oh good. I was thinking that it was going to be for your own good." Helen muttered, puzzling over a quadratic equation.
"I only have your interests at heart, Helen. When you're...more experienced...you'll understand these things."
Helen's eyebrow flickered imperceptably and she forced herself to look up with a pleading expression. "Will I? Really? Oh - I do so hope I will. Are you finally going to tell me how I can stay fresh all day?" She turned back to the book, studiously hiding from Rita the fact that in her mind she was hearing the roar of high-powered engines.
"That was real fine, Ellen. Maybe I'll catch you at another show sometime. You make sure you come up and say hi! Let yourself out when you're ready."
She'd watched him get up and leave, holding her breath until he'd shut the trailer door behind him. Then she'd relaxed and let out the tear that had been trying to escape; simple homage to the realisation that in a moment of stupidity she'd lost something that she should have valued more, and that now it was too late.
She stood up and pulled her clothes on, sniffing once. She glanced in a mirror on her way out. They said you could tell. She knew it was stupid, and the fact that she'd stopped to look just made it worse.
Rita knew she was no match for Helen's acerbity. It was time to bring out the big guns. "I really hate to do this Helen, but I feel it's my duty as your sister to let you know what kind of person Jake is."
Helen put her pencil down and turned round in her chair to face Rita. "What do you mean?"
"Now don't blame me, Helen. I saw the way you were looking at him, but you have to know this. When you went to wash yourself off after that little accident with the salad, lover boy tried to make his move on me."
"No!" Helen tried to make it sound as concerned as possible.
"I'm much too embarrassed to tell you what he did, but if there'd been an ice bucket on the table I would have done exactly what you did. Didn't you see how angry I was when you came back from the bathroom?"
"Now that you mention it, yes, I did notice that you seemed a little peeved."
"A little peeved? My honour had been insulted!"
Helen looked up at Rita, her eyes wide. Her lip started trembling as the muscles of her face fought against themselves, but ultimately the flexors won out over the extensors and she burst out laughing. "Your...ho-ho-honor...in...in...SULTED! Aghhahhah!" Tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Well!" Rita huffed. "If you don't care that man you've invited to go out with on Saturday is a pig, I'm sure that Mom will!" She stormed out of the room.
Helen's laughter evaporated. "Rita...?" Her face fell. "Oh shit," she muttered.
* * *
"But Mom - it wasn't like that! He..."
"I said NO Helen, and that's final! You and some boy go about causing scenes in restaurants then you expect me to just let you go out with him? Now go and do your homework. I'm going to be late for bridge club."
Maureen Barkdsale closed the front door firmly and hurried off down the path, leaving Helen fuming and plotting how she was going to get back at Rita.
* * *
"I don't know what I'm going to do with Helen. She's even becoming a bad influence on little Amy. That girl made protest signs and was picketing the dinner table last week! I swear if it weren't for Rita I'd have no hope whatsoever for those three. You should see the way boys flock around her. They know a lady when they see one."
"It must be a trial for you, dear. I'm so glad that my boys are at college now."
"Why," Maureen continued, "Helen's last date caused a public scene and got them thrown out! He had Helen throwing a pitcher of water overon poor Rita's date, and he seemed like such a nice young man when he picked her up. Then the ruffian started a public brawl! I was mortified when Rita told me about it. Can you imagine what people must think of us?"
"Tell me, Maureen, you're not referring to the incident at Bailey's last Saturday night, by any chance?"
Maureen blushed. "I knew it! I knew that the whole town would know about it! And it's been less than a week!"
"It's all right, Dear. But tell me - your Rita is a brunette, and Helen's a blonde?"
"No...it's the other way around - Helen's the brunette. What do you mean?"
"I was there, Dear. AIf that's the way it was described to you you've been badly misinformed."
"Misinformed? What do you mean?"
* * *
The twenty-five degree tilt of Earth's polar axis brought Spring to the world as it danced its way around the Sun. On this Spring Saturday two people strolled along a street on the outskirts of an ordinary American town and the air, as it so often did in Spring, smelled fresh and clean and the cool of the shadows only held out the promise of warmth in the next sunny spot on the sidewalk ahead. They were talking.
"...so Mom said she'd love to meet you."
"The mayor's wife's a real fan of yours. Mom said she said that you were "a lovely young man".
"Wow." Jake grinned.
"Mom's all about image. Mayor Ruttheimer's wife's talks about that scene in the restaurant every chance she gets - it's her 'story of the moment'." Helen made the 'quote' signs with her fingers. "As far as Mom's concerned that's free advertising."
"But I didn't really..."
Helen stopped. "You did, you know. That was...special, Jake. I hate violence. I don't think it solves anything. But sometimes...well..."
"I do too. I know it sounds corny but I don't know what came over me. I guess I just couldn't stand it any more."
"You know the best part?" Helen smiled.
"Rita's grounded for three months."
Helen stopped and turned to Jake, eying him closely. "Hm. We're going to have to make a few adjustments." She pulled Jake's tie from under his collar, unbuttoned the first two buttons of his well-ironed shirt, and ruffled his neatly-parted hair. She stood back, looking at him, then untied the leather thong from around her neck and fastened it around Jake's. He stood still, half-smiling, feeling the soft warmth of her hands on his skin, remembering...
"Almost...ah!" Helen wrapped the tie around his forehead and twined it under and over itself at the back to fasten it. "Not perfect, but you'll do," she said, taking a step back to admire her handiwork.
Jake turned to look at his reflection in the window of a laundromat behind them and he was startled. Even with his close-cropped hair the headband and the thong around his neck made him...different. The neatly-ironed check shirt and perfectly-creased pants suddenly looked out of place, and he realised what he must look like to Helen, and he stared. His eyes flicked back and forth between his reflection and Helen's. She was lithe, her straight brown hair, face free of the artificiality of makeup, faded jeans and translucent maroon Indian cotton top open to the third button...there was something...free about her while, below the neck anyway, he could have stepped out of the last decade. Starched, pleated, constrained, restrained...but if he concentrated on things from the neck up...he suddenly felt the possibilities...
Helen was puzzled at the way he stood staring at the window, but slowly she understood a little of what was going on, and she let him look and imagine, and gently she put her hand in his.
He turned to her and smiled.
"I don't think he's hungry." Amanda buttoned up her top while Vincent held the struggling and screaming Wind.
"Maybe he's got wind."
Amanda glared at him, then laughed, realising that he hadn't been making a joke. "Maybe. Maybe it's just the long drive. He's not used to it." She took him back from Vincent and held him over her shoulder, gently patting his back. "Maybe we should think about stopping for the night."
Vincent looked at his watch. "Yeah. It's nearly seven. I thought we'd get a bit further today but it might be best if we stopped at the next town." He unfolded the map and did some quick calculations. "If we stop there we should get home about midday tomorrow. That'll be fine." He put the map back behind the seat and looked at Wind. "Poor little guy. I hate to see him unhappy."
Twenty minutes later they slowed down as the hit the town limits and cruised slowly along the main street. He slowed ouside a long white motel with a stucco fountain out the front and a sign proclaiming that it was the
"This'll do," he said, turning off the road onto a red gravel driveway lined with pink flowering oleanders. Amanda stared at the landscaped lawns and gardens, still bright in the twilight. "Honey, we don't need anything this fancy. It looks expensive."
Vincent's mouth turned up almost imperceptibly at the corners. "It's okay. We've done plenty of camping out. Let's live a little. Besides, we're nearly home."
He stopped outside the office and went in. A couple of minutes later he came back out with a key on a wooden tag. "Room 105 - just over..." he looked round. "...there."
They parked outside a room directly in front of the pool. Vincent opened the door and let Amanda and Wind, who was still fussing intermittently, into a bright, clean room that was palatial compared to a tent or the cheap motels or trailer parks that they'd been used to when they were on the road. Amanda felt a twinge of guilt, but it was done now, and she made up her mind to enjoy it. There was a large double bed with a TV on a built-in wooden cabinet in front of it. She walked into the bright, pale blue-tiled bathroom with fluffy white towels draped over gleaming chrome rails, still holding Wind, who had calmed down now that he was out of the car. She smiled, thinking back to those few days on the road when the baby in her arms had still been an imperceptible bulge below her belly button. Worlds away.
Vincent brought in a folding cot and assembled it, then went back outside to get the rest of their luggage while Amanda changed Wind's diapers and lay him in the cot, where he gurgled contentedly.
Amanda thought for a minute. "Yeah," she smiled. "Want to run into town for a burger?"
"I thought we might try out the restaurant," Vincent said, scanning the motel's guide folder.
She gave him a quizzical glance. "What's going on, Vincent? We can't afford...."
He put his finger to her lips. "Trust me. We can. Stop worrying and let's eat."
Amanda shrugged, leaving it to him. And dinner in a restaurant really did sound good, still something rare and special. She smiled, put her arms around him and kissed him.
"That's all I get? A kiss?" he grinned.
"That's all you get for now. Let's see what the food's like. If it's good, you never can tell."
* * *
An hour later they walked contentedly back to the room just as Wind was waking up again. Vincent turned on the TV and flopped down onto the bed while Amanda fed Wind and put on a clean diaper. By the time she put him back in the cot he was sleeping soundly and she joined Vincent on the bed.
"So...?" He said.
"So what?" she answered innocently.
"So how was dinner?"
"Mmmm." She patted her stomach. "Great! What was that cheese?"
"Umm, Gruyere I think."
"It was good."
He turned, head propped on his hand. "So?"
She jumped up off the bed and ran to the window, bumping his arm out from beneath his head, and peering out at the night. "It's dark!"
"Yeah," Vincent responded from the bed. "It'll do that at night. That's why they invented light bulbs. Well - actually light bulbs were invented so that cartoonists'd have something to draw above characters heads when they had an idea. But that's what inspired Edison and Swan. Or so I believe."
She laughed. "There's a pool just outside our room."
"A pool? You want to go for a swim?"
"But we didn't bring any bathing suits."
Amanda was grinning.
"Oh." Vincent grinned back.
Helen had kept half an eye on Jake during the rally.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time but she'd wondered later in the week if the rally might be taking it too far, whether she should change the plan and suggest a movie instead. He was cute - more than cute. It'd be a damn shame, she'd though, if the rally was too much and she blew it.
But finally she'd decided to toss caution to the wind. Hell - if he was gonna be offended by it then it wasn't going to work anyway.
She watched Jake from across the booth in the ice cream parlour, playing with the long-handled spoon, digging little graves for peanut chips in his mound of vanilla ice cream.
Perhaps it had been a mistake. No matter what he'd said, he was at military school. It sounded as if his father had been a fascist of the first ilk. If Jake was starting to think for himself that was great, but the rally had probably been too much too soon. You couldn't just confront someone with so much in one hit. When that guy had burnt the flag...she'd watched the expression on his face, but she couldn't read it. He'd stared, transfixed. Was he angry? She couldn't tell, couldn't read him.
"Jake, are you okay?"
He looked up from his plate of ice cream as if he'd woken from a reverie. "Yeah, sorry. I was just...thinking." He looked at her brown eyes. "What are you going to do next year, Helen?"
"Oh, Political Science, English. Then law school. You?"
He looked back down at his ice cream. "I'm not sure. Economics perhaps. Accounting. Something like that."
"Uh, about the rally, Jake, I'm...sorry if it was...if you were upset..."
Jake looked up again, but this time he was focussed. "Upset? No. It didn't...upset me exactly, but..." he drifted off again. "...it made me think."
There was something odd about him. Something - some things - underneath him. She was curious.
They finished their sundaes - at least Helen finished hers - and she stood beside him, watching, as he put the bowls back on the counter and paid for them. As they left, he stopped and turned to a glass fishbowl on the counter full of matchbooks, looked at it for a second or two, then took one and put it in his shirt pocket.
"You don't smoke do you?" and she noticed the way he smiled, almost sadly, as he shook his head.
"I just wanted a souvenir."
"So...was that our first date?"
He was back again, smiling. "I guess it was. Hey - 'first' date...does that mean..?."
"Next weekend? Sure!" Helen gritted her teeth internally, hoping she was making the right decision.
"Depending on what's on. Or we could just walk, whatever."
"That'd be nice."
He smiled, but a little wanly she thought. What was he thinking?
"Do you know what my friend Willy calls you?"
That was better. "No. What?"
"The Ugly Sister."
"What?" Mock indignation. "What have you been telling him? Is that what you..."
"No! No, it's a joke. He was ribbing me about the double-date with Kowalski, and it sort of stuck."
"So what have you been telling him about me?"
"I told him you're gor...great. Very nice." She saw that he was blushing again. "He wants to meet you. He said anyone who dumped an ice bucket over Kawalski's head was someone he wanted to meet."
They walked back to Helen's house, chatting and sometimes laughing, though Helen felt that there was still something holding him back. Maybe not. Maybe it was just the way he was. They stood on her front step, both feeling a little awkward, when the door opened.
"So. This is soldier boy eh? Not bad I suppose. Let me give you some advice, General Patton. Lose the headband."
Helen sighed and rolled her eyes. "Jake, this is my late little sister, Amy."
"Er - late?" Jake asked.
"Soon to be late," Helen growled.
"Hey! No fair! I thought you were a pacifist," Amy protested.
Jake turned and looked down at the short kid with freckles, glasses, and long, brown curly hair standing at the door. "How old are you, Amy?"
"Nine going on forty," sighed Helen.
"Depends," Amy grinned. "What did you have in mind?"
"Well," Jake said, "it's been a long time since I was nine..."
"Nearly ten, Grandpa."
"Like I said. What do you want to be when you grow up, Amy?"
Jake laughed. "A spy! Now that's different!"
"Well, not a spy exactly, more like M than 007, but with all of Q's toys. Kill a few bad guys, break a few hearts. Not like Bond's bimbos of course." She looked up at Helen's chest. "Not that I haven't got the genetic makeup for it. Just needs a few years, is all. But I'd sorta like to give meaning to the term 'military intelligence'. I figure I'll have a few affairs and maybe look to settling down to write my memoirs about thirty-five, forty, just before the biological clock runs out. You don't want to burn all your bridges after all." She looked thoughtful. "Not that I'd be able to publish them of course - state secrets and all that. But you gotta leave something for future generations to make movies about, doncha?"
Jake looked at her, wide-eyed.
"What? You expected 'nurse' or 'teacher'? Maybe 'zookeeper'?" A pained expression crept over Amy's face. "Oh no! Not 'mommy'? Please - not 'mommy'!"
"Get real, General Patton. I'm not gonna burn my bra - I'm not gonna buy a bra!"
Jake blushed furiously.
Amy looked up at Helen. "He's cute. You could do worse."
"Sorry about that," Helen sighed. "She went to the Bond marathon last weekend. Last time she had the sniffles she was going to cure the common cold."
Amy turned round to see he mother hurrying towards the door. "Are you being rude to your sister's friend?"
"I should hope not! Now you run along and let us talk."
"Yes, Mama. I'll go play with my dollies," Amy said, throwing a surreptitious wink at Jake.
"Good girl." Maureen smiled as Amy walked off and turned to beam at Jake just in time to miss Amy turning back and poking her tongue out at him. "They're such innocent little lambs at that age. And you must be Jake. Helen's told me so much about you. And Mrs Ruttheimer, that's the Mayor's wife - we play bridge together every Friday afternoon - told me all about that terrible incident and how bravely you protected my girls It seems we're all in your debt."
Jake's blush gland was just about empty but he managed to squeeze out a few more drops. "Well, I...um...that is I..."
"Oh yes. It was frightening. I don't know what we'd have done without Jake," Helen gushed, rescuing him from a potentially difficult situation. "But I'm afraid Jake has to get back to barracks before curfew, haven't you, Jake."
"Curfew? But it's aaggh."
"Yes, they're terribly strict," Helen leaped in, removing her foot from on top of Jake's.
"Oh my - of course! We mustn't make you late now, must we? Well, Jake, I'm delighted to meet you. Will you join us for dinner next Saturday night?"
"Oh, I'd be very aarrgghhhh..."
"Jake's just asked me to go to the movies with him on Saturday night, Mom, but perhaps he could come a little early to pick me up and we could have a short - a very short chat before we have to leave."
"Of course, dear, of course. Well, I'll leave you two to say goodbye. See you next week, Jake." She smiled knowingly and closed the door.
"I'm sorry, Jake. I just didn't want Mom do her usual trick and take over. I'm so sick of the way she does that!"
"I guess I should say thanks, but I'm not sure if my instep could stand it."
It was Helen's turn to blush.
"It's okay. But you know I would have enjoyed a home-cooked meal."
"No. I just wanted to make you feel guilty."
"Mission accomplished," she said. "And, um, about the foot..." She looked around, leaned in, and planted a quick kiss on his lips. "Forgiven?"
His grin gave her his answer.
"Five o'clock next Saturday?"
"Sure. What's on at the movies?"
* * *
Jake walked slowly back to school, shaking his head. What a family. But Helen made up for it. She was so...up front. He put his hand up to feel his neck where she'd tied the thong around it and realised that he hadn't given it back to her. He buttoned his shirt and unwound the tie from his forehead, then started to put it back on around his collar, but stopped, shrugged, and stuffed it into his pocket.
Scenes of the rally played out before his inner eye as he walked. So much to take in, so unfamiliar that much of it passed him by. But there were snatches he remembered. He'd had no idea that the Viet Nam war was a continuation of something colonial that France had been involved in for years. The "domino theory" - he'd understood that. Ellenbogen talked about it. "Let the commies win in Viet Nam and the dominos in the rest of Asia fall." But today they'd talked about it as a civil war, one that had been going on for years before America had become involved. And napalm. Dow Chemicals. Jeez - he'd cringed as the woman had talked about the effects of burning jellified gasoline on human flesh.
But one image overwhelmed all the others.
A burning flag.
When he was a kid his teachers had taught him about George Washington and the cherry tree. "I cannot tell a lie," he'd said. Abraham Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address. Four score and seven years ago... The Civil War. Freeing the slaves. It had made him proud to be an American.
But standing there listening to them talk about the My Lai massacre (and wasn't 'Me Lie' such a fitting name for it he thought) he'd felt ashamed. And as he he'd watched them burning the flag he remembered being angry; disgusted - but then he listened to what they were saying, and had looked at the hostile people shouting at them, looked at their signs, listened to what they were shouting. America. Love it or leave it. He could see Mad Dog's face on every one of them, and he realised that they didn't understand.
Burning the flag wasn't a symbol if hatred. It wasn't a rejection of America. It was rejection of the people who claimed to speak for America - the Mad Dog Morgendorffers; the Corporal Ellenbogens. Not hatred of America. Hatred of the lies that led American soldiers to walk into a Vietnamese village on March 16 last year and murder over 500 unarmed men, women and children.
America they'd screamed - Love it or leave it!
But when you see something you love bleeding to death you don't leave it.
You try to heal it.
They weren't destroying the flag - they were claiming it back. He'd looked at the people shouting at them...angry, red faced, Mad Dog's generation. But the people at the rally were his generation, and his hand unconsciously went to the thong around his neck.
When Jake got back to school the barracks was empty and he walked quickly to the footlocker at the end of his bunk. Shifting things around he reached to the very bottom and pulled out what he was looking for. He didn't know what had possessed him to bring it, it could have easily stayed at home, Hell, even in the office. But it had been passed to him and he'd kept it. But it wasn't a symbol of his country any more. This was a symbol of his father, of the future Mad Dog had mapped out for him, of the lies that had driven Amanda away.
And now he had to say goodbye to that, just as he'd said goodbye to Amanda - to claim the future back for himself.
He walked out of the barracks across the empty parade ground, silent in the late afternoon light, to the one place at Buxton Ridge that had any meaning for him - the obstacle course, too full of his purpose to notice that he was being followed.
The course was deserted. He stood near the ropes and watched as the sun sank lower the sky. He took the bulky triangle out from under his arm and looked at it, really looked for the first time. It was beautiful. Slowly Jake came to realise that he was making a choice now, a big one. He unfolded the flag and watched as it fluttered in the breeze. He held it high, making sure it didn't touch the ground, then laid it over one of the metal bars. He pulled out the matches, held his breath and struck it along the back. The match flared, and he lifted it to the corner of the flag, holding till it caught, then stepped back.
The breeze died down and the flames started to grow, licking up the material slowly at first then higher and faster. Jake could only stand and watch, transfixed. Tears streamed down his face, but he didn't even realise it. He didn't know how long it took, only that when it had finally burned itself out the sun had nearly sunk below the horizon. Standing amid the blowing ash and ambers, Jake spoke aloud, "I won't be what he tried to make me, ever," and as the last rays of sunlight disappeared he turned and walked back to the barracks, completely unaware of the fact that he'd been watched.
Stay tuned for the next instalment of All My Children.
Disclaimer: All characters are copyright MTV.
Special thanks: as always, to our beta readers, whose wonderful eye for detail and nuance has improved both the story and the telling: Malevolent Turtle, Kara Wilde, Brother Grimace, Jurassic. Hugs, guys.
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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