Saturday, August 8, 2009

Love Ya Like a Sister, Chapters 1-4: my young adult novel

Chapter 1: Blowing Chunks

Unbuckling his seatbelt, Randy slid across to Gwen. His thigh touching hers, he placed one hand on her hip and reached across her, stroking her hair away from her face. Her skin was clammy, her breath quick, shallow gasps.

Randy leaned with Gwen as she blindly fought for air, his body arching with hers as she convulsed. He pulled back her hair so it wasn’t hanging into vomit. He was surrounded by the soured scent of her sprawled across the seat, her head to the open door, heaving her drunken guts onto the last remnants of dirty snow along the roadside.

Spew, hurl, blow chunks—words to make the unbearable bearable. Like death, like Randy’s mom who had passed on, gone to a better place, was no longer with us. Would Gwen say her food had gone to a better place as it lay there steaming on the side of the road? Would his mother have said a better place was somewhere where her family wasn’t? Emotion swirled through Randy’s mind like water flowing into the interior of a car through a shattered windshield, blond hair floating in currents like river weeds, instrument lights glowing in murky water. Stop it, Randy cautioned himself. Don’t go there. 

Randy sat beside Gwen, stroking her hair. Because he could feel her spasm as she emptied her stomach, see her vomit steaming in the snow beside the roadway, Randy felt a happiness, raw and unformed, like bruised, twisted metal in fading twilight. This person—Gwen—was alive, her heart beating; and this time Randy was there to help.

Gwen groaned and sat up, slumping against Randy. He wiped her mouth, turning his head aside as Gwen sighed into his face, her breath rank with vomit. He closed the door then snapped her seatbelt decisively.

“You’re too drunk to take care of yourself, much less Hope,” he told Gwen. “I’m getting your sister and taking you both home with me.”

If Randy were looking for argument, he didn’t get any. Starting the engine, he checked the rearview mirror and eased back onto the highway.

It wasn’t until after five miles down the road, after Gwen had passed out, that Randy began to worry. That was after he had picked up Hope, waving to Mrs. Hudson as Hope ran out of the house to the car. Maybe the elderly lady didn’t see too well. Maybe Gwen never came to the door. Maybe Mrs. Hudson was used to Gwen slumping in the seat, passed out. The bizarre reality of Randy’s actions twisted around him like fog on a moonless night, casting shadows of doubt on his choice. I don’t really even know Gwen, he thought to himself, yet he continued on.

Once they were heading down the road to Randy’s, Hope, who was sitting between Randy and Gwen, reached up and grabbed her sister’s slack face with both of her hands.

“Look at her,” she said, jerking Gwen’s head from side to side, one little hand using Gwen’s chin for a handle. “Dead drunk again. Drink, drink, drink,” she scolded. “And what’s it goin’ t’ get you? Nothing!”

“Why’d you say again?” Randy asked. “She do this often?"

“Nope.” Hope’s curls shook as she answered.

“Then why’d you say again?”

“That’s how Gwen says it."

Randy mulled over Hope’s reply as he pulled into his driveway. He half-carried, half-dragged Gwen into the house as Hope politely held the door open. Maybe the kid’s had a lot of practice, Randy thought.

He left her on the guest bed before he called Susie and Beth’s mom, worrying for a moment that Gwen would throw up on the bedspread, then deciding that Gwen’s stomach was empty, then experiencing a pang of guilt for thinking about a bedspread when Gwen could be in danger. Peggy Bachman said she would be right over.

He was just settling Hope in front of the TV with a blanket and pillow when Mrs. Bachman briskly entered, carrying her nurse’s emergency bag, the famous “black bag” that had been accessed to patch scraped knees or to remove splinters for all the kids on the block.

Now she placed it on the bed next to Gwen. Reaching for Gwen’s wrist, she checked the pulse, glancing at her wrist watch. “Drunk, you say?”

“Yeah. Earl says she had already been drinking when she got there.”

“Well, her pulse is strong and regular.” Mrs. Bachman observed Gwen’s flannel shirt. “She been vomiting?”

Randy smiled. “You ought to see Earl’s shirt. Then she really emptied on the way home. I barely got the car stopped and the door open.”

“I’ll call Dr. Chan and see if he can check on her, but I think she’s going to be okay. We don’t know how much she drank or if all she ingested was alcohol, but emptying her stomach helped the situation.” She added as she smiled, “Even if Earl isn’t too happy about it.”

The woman paused, then added, “Look, I could check her into Emergency to be one hundred percent safe, but that would open up a whole can of worms. I don’t think Gwen would want that.”

“If she were awake now, I don’t think she’d want anything to do with cans of worms,” Randy replied with a wry grin. “But you’re right. Her mom’s gone again.”

“Okay, then,” Mrs. Bachman said. Closing her bag with a snap, she gestured toward the door. “Now get out of here, close that, and I’ll call the doctor.” She raised an eyebrow. “You did say you thought they should spend the night, right?”

“Yeah, it looks that way. Like I said, her mom’s gone.”

“Well, nothing new for them, but still not easy. Tell Hope she can come in and sleep with her sister in a bit. And have a towel ready for Gwen come morning. She’ll want it. Maybe some of your clothes, too. She’s close enough to your size if you’ve got some old things you’ve outgrown.”


“And, Randy—” Mrs. Bachman paused.

“I wasn’t drinking.”

She held up her hand. “I know. You don’t have to say that. I was going to say that … that maybe you deserve all those Scout merit badges.”

“That was Cub Scouts.”

 She smiled and waved Randy out.

A half an hour later, Wheel of Fortune was over, Hope was dressed for bed in one of Randy’s Iowa Hawkeye tee-shirts, Doc Chan had talked to the woman on the phone and decided she had the situation in hand, and Mrs. Bachman was out the door.

“You want the girls to come over?” she had asked—and had accepted Randy’s refusal with equanimity. Since Randy’s mother’s death six years earlier, she had learned to walk the fine line of neighbor, mother-substitute, nurse, and friend without assuming too much control or responsibility for Randy’s life. Randy’s mother had died, his father was a traveling salesman, and Randy was on his own quite a bit. That was just the way things were, just like she was divorced and raising two girls on her own. Sometimes life sucked.

Randy put Hope to sleep with her sister, fiddled around with some geometry homework, then went to bed early. He lay staring into the darkness, not thinking about Gwen and Hope in the next room, maybe feeling about them, about them and himself, about old hurts and that empty space inside. He lay in the darkness, his arms aching because he had no one to hold, no one to hold him.

Copyright 2009 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Chapter 2: Insert Here

“Who the hell you think you are?”

Randy looked up from the kitchen table to see Gwen standing in the hallway entrance, her angry face topped with hair still curly and damp from a shower. Wearing an old flannel shirt and jeans of Randy’s, she stood with her hands on her hips, her chin jutting at Randy like an accusing finger.

“What?” Randy managed to reply, which sounded clueless even to him.

“You know what I mean.”

“You were passed out. I couldn’t very well take you home, dump you on the porch, and leave.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. You guys think you’re so funny.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Okay, butthead, you mean to tell me you don’t know about this?” Gwen responded, jerking out her shirttails, unbuttoning and unzipping her pants.

Lifting the shirt and letting the pants sag, she exposed a good section of her belly and panties. Randy sat frozen, his mouth open. On Gwen’s belly, the words INSERT HERE were scrawled with black marking pen, followed by an arrow pointing down.

“You think I did that?” he asked with sudden understanding, sitting up abruptly.

Gwen took an angry step toward Randy, flannel shirt still raised. She continued to advance, then stopped as the jeans began to slide off her hips. She grabbed them angrily, then replied, “You and the guys, yeah, I do.”

Randy held up both hands, palms out. “No way.”

Gwen looked ready to explode again, then abruptly, in her turn, also straightened, her hands dropping from her hips. “You did it,” she muttered, half to herself. “You were the only ones who could have.”

“I didn’t do it. Listen, talk to Joe.”

“Yeah, right,” Gwen replied sarcastically. “Like he’s not going to deny it.”

“Deny it! I already got a phone call this morning. He’s got a black line—from a black permanent marker,” Randy emphasized, pointing at Gwen’s belly, “from his hairline, down the ridge of his nose, on down to his chin. Splits his face in half.” Randy didn’t tell her that the phone call had been from Earl, not Joe. “Right down the middle, get it?” Earl had snickered. “Like in the joke. ‘What’s the difference between my butt and your face?’”

Randy’s old jeans sagged dangerously low on Gwen’s hips. She hitched up her pants and slowly lowered the shirt.

Randy paused, thinking. “How much do you remember? Do you remember throwing up on Earl?”
“I threw up on Earl?”

“You threw up several times, Gwen. Earl was the first time.” Randy paused. “Earl was not amused.”

Gwen walked heavily over to the kitchen table, pulled out a chair, and sat down. She rested elbows on the table, her head in her hands, and stared at the Formica surface. “I’m not hung over, but I still feel like crap. Okay, so I guess I don’t know everything that happened. And maybe you didn’t do it,” Gwen grudgingly conceded. “Care to fill me in?”

“First, are you sure you didn’t show up to Earl’s with that already there?” Randy asked. To Gwen’s disgusted expression, he gave a placating wave. “Okay, okay, dumb question. Since you don’t remember throwing up on Earl, you probably don’t remember that you did it in Earl’s parents’ bedroom.”

“I was upstairs in their bedroom?”

“You were. And when I came in, you were both on the bed.”

Gwen raised her eyes and looked into Randy’s. Brown hair, green eyes, Randy thought.

“What were we doing?”

“You were both stretched out. Earl was on his side, raised up on one elbow, looking at the door when I came in. He probably heard me on the stairs. You were on your back, staring at the ceiling.”

“Staring at the ceiling?”

“Yeah, you hadn’t passed out yet, but you were real drunk. Like a car idling in neutral with no one in the driver’s seat.”

Randy paused at Gwen’s disgusted look and then continued. “We stood you up, walked you to the door. You threw up on Earl. He said, ‘Get her the hell out of here,’ and we left.”

“Asshole,” Gwen retorted, but Randy, noticing the anger had faded, assumed she wasn’t talking about him.

“Anyway, there was a time when you were up there alone with Earl.”

Gwen shook her head in self-disgust and confusion. “What was I doing upstairs with Earl, anyway?”

“You were our fourth for poker. Remember? You, me, Earl, and Joe?”

“Yeah, I remember. Joe asked me.”

“Well, you said you had to go to the bathroom and then went upstairs. Later, after we waited around for a while, Earl went up to see what was going on. I came up a while later.”

“Upstairs? I’ve never been upstairs at Earl’s … until last night, anyway.”

 “We thought it was odd, too. But then you came in drunk.”

Gwen lowered her head back into her hands. She suddenly looked up fiercely. “I acted just like my mom! And why? Because she’s taken off again. This time with ‘Bill, the tattooed trucker’ on his California run.” She slammed both hands palms down onto the table. “She’s a goddamned drunken slut, and I acted just like her.” Doubling her hands into fists, Gwen stared at them, intensely within herself, oblivious to Randy’s presence. “Never again, I swear. Never again.”

Randy stared at his hands, his palms feeling the cool surface of the kitchen table. She’s forgotten I’m here, he thought, and I wish I hadn’t brought her. In silence Randy and Gwen’s eyes met, then Randy said, “I just brought you and Hope home. It seemed the thing to do. I couldn’t very well ask you what you wanted to do,” he added, noting the trace of irritation in his own voice.

“Well, whatcha want me to do—thank you?” Gwen retorted sarcastically.

“You don’t have to do anything. I’ll take you home where nobody’ll bug you.”

“Yeah, well, not much different than here. I mean, two empty houses,” Gwen said, gesturing to the room. She turned her head and shouted over her shoulder into the living room, “Empty!” The ensuing silence seemed to vibrate.

“What do you mean?” Randy felt himself rising from the chair, a harsh edge to his voice, his emotions jangling.

“I mean, here it is, Saturday morning, and we’re alone,” Gwen shot back, no give in her reply, ready for confrontation. She wants a fight, Randy realized. Randy opened his mouth to say something, anything, but closed it when Gwen leaned toward him, bringing her eyes closer. “I know how your mom died,” she said softly, “but the thing is, where’s your dad?”

“Dad’s a salesman; he works—”

“He sure as hell does work; he’s always gone. And everybody knows it. I don’t need you judging me, feeling sorry for me. I don’t need that crap. My mom’s a drunk; your dad works. Same difference.” Staring at Randy from across the table, Gwen stood up from her kitchen chair. Then she began tucking Randy’s old flannel shirt into the pants, both big on her. “B-F-D, Randy,” she spelled, then paused, ratcheting her belligerence back a notch. “Dead or dead drunk, company car or company truck, everybody’s gone except us.”

Gwen paused and then took a deep breath, her anger suddenly deflating. Then she added, it seeming an afterthought, “So … thanks.” As she said the last words, her eyes caught Randy’s briefly, then slid away.

Randy grunted, shrugging. “This has been some weekend, and it’s only Saturday morning.” He gestured to the refrigerator. “You want something to eat or drink? I was just getting ready to fix something when you, ah, entered.”

“When I, ah, blasted you, you mean.”

“Well …”

Gwen laughed. “I told you I’m like my mom. No hangovers. I’m hungry … and thirsty.”



“You lose a lot of liquids when you spew. Dehydration.”

Gwen made a face. “Let’s get on with breakfast. You can tell me about last night in bits and pieces—yuck! Bad choice of words.”

“Whatcha want? Eggs, cold cereal, tea, coffee, orange juice?”

“Orange juice, please,” came a voice from the hallway.

Two heads swiveled to the sound of the voice. “Good morning, Randy,” Hope said, walking up to the kitchen table and sitting in Randy’s chair. How much did she hear? he wondered.

Hope looked appraisingly at Gwen. “And how are we feeling this morning?” She raised an eyebrow.

Gwen snorted and said to Randy, “The little brat’s quoting me!”

“My, aren’t we bitchy this morning. Had a snootful last night?”

“Hope, don’t use those words.”

“Why not? You use ‘em.”

Gwen groaned, “Oh, sh—” She bit off the word. “Oh … shucks …” she started again.

Randy placed glasses of orange juice before them. “Drink up and I’ll start some eggs. Actually, I think maybe she was quoting you last night also, something like ‘Drink, drink, drink. It’ll get you nowhere.’”

Hope nodded her head emphatically. “That’s what you say to Mom. ‘Here comes Mom, shit-faced again!’” Hope stopped, then reached out to touch Gwen’s damp hair. “I’m glad you took a bath. You stunk last night.” Her chin quivered. “I’m glad you’re okay, Gwen.”

“Oh, Hope,” Gwen said as Hope rounded the table and climbed onto her lap. “I promise I won’t ever drink again.” She bent down, her eyes even with Hope’s. “Really, I promise.” Then she laughed, glancing at Randy. “And I promise to clean up my language, too. Usually, I’m a better sister, hmm, Hope?” She tickled the little girl until Hope squirmed. “We’ll clean you up, too. We’ll make you a proper little four-year-old lady.”

Hope’s squeals and the teenagers’ laughter were interrupted by the sound of a pickup pulling into Randy’s driveway.

“Morgan,” Randy said, looking out the window. “It’s my uncle.”

“Morgan!” chirped Hope, standing up in Gwen’s lap and looking out the window. “Oh! Gwen likes Morgan.”

Randy turned to Gwen, who was staring at Hope.

With a quick glance at Randy, Gwen said to Hope, “Morgan’s just our neighbor, sweetie. You know that.”

“We see him in the field with his tractor,” Hope contributed, smiling.

Morgan entered at the kitchen door without knocking, then stopped two feet past the threshold, his hand still on the door knob.

“Hi, Morgan,” Randy said.

“Hi, Morgan!” Hope squealed, jumping off Gwen’s lap and running to Morgan, her hands outstretched.

In an automatic gesture, Morgan reached down and scooped up Hope, depositing her on his hip, an action long unused but not forgotten.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “Maybe I should have called … or at least knocked.” He stared down at Hope, who smiled up at him.

“Morgan comes every Saturday morning,” Randy told Gwen. “Been doing it for a long time.” Randy added to Morgan, nodding, “Glad you came, as always.”

A moment of awkward silence, of uncertainty, came over them, all except for Hope. She stroked Morgan’s dark, copper-colored beard and played with his auburn hair, which was tied back.

“It was just easier for Gwen and Hope to stay here last night,” Randy supplied Morgan. “Do you know each other?”

“We’ve never been introduced,” Morgan told Randy. Morgan turned to Gwen and held out his hand. “I’m Morgan Wallace. You and your mom rent one of Richardson’s trailers?”

“Yes, and me, too,” Hope responded. “Haven’t you seen me?” she asked the man, gently pulling his beard.

“I think I’ve especially seen you,” Morgan gently answered, holding her eyes with his own. His expression was serious, his manner formal. “Don’t you play on Mrs. Hudson’s swing set?”


“And don’t you sometimes watch tractors in the field and wave at the farmers?”

“Just one,” Hope giggled.

Morgan sat down at the kitchen table, Hope on his lap. He smiled down at the girl, warming to the moment. “And who would that farmer be?” he playfully questioned Hope.

“Morgan, the hunk!” Hope laughed, clapping her hands.

Gwen choked on her orange juice and brought her glass rapidly back to the table. Randy patted her on the back vigorously as she choked.

“Morgan, the hunk,” Morgan laughed, incredulous. “Never heard of him.” He grinned at Randy. “I don’t think he exists.”

“Sure he does,” Hope exclaimed. “It’s you. Just ask Gwen!” she finished, one arm extended, her finger pointing at her sister. Then she reached up and kissed Morgan on the cheek.

“Damn it, Randy, quit pounding me on the back,” Gwen growled. “And, Hope, you want a sock stuffed in your mouth? Try eating instead of talking,” she sputtered in embarrassment.

“What’s for breakfast?” Hope asked.

“Anybody want pancakes?” Randy responded, his attempt at normality as obvious as a dollop of butter on a short stack.

“Pancakes!” Hope shouted, oblivious of the awkwardness of the others. “What’re we waiting for?”

Copyright 2009 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Chapter 3: Skinny-dipping

Later that evening, Randy sat outside on the porch. He rocked slowly on the wooden porch swing suspended from above by chains. It was chilly, and he slid his hands into the pockets of his jacket. The chains of the couch swing creaked in the silence. Across the street, a streetlight poured a pool of brilliance into the darkness.

Randy remembered another evening a few weeks ago. There had still been some fireflies blinking above the grass. He would have guessed that it was too late, but since it had been dry and warm, there they were, just a couple, a few. Light and dark, yes and no, on and off. It had seemed that nightfall was buzzing with unasked questions, unanswered questions.

Randy remembered how on that night he had sat next to Susie on the porch swing at her house, his feet propped on the railing. He could see the porch now from where he sat, just two houses down and across the street. Just a trace of daylight had lingered in the sky. The moon had already risen above the maples across the street, adding its milky light to that of the streetlight.

One arm around Susie’s shoulders, Randy smoothed her blond hair. She made a small, contented sound and snuggled close to him. He turned his head, watching the fireflies.

“Why not, Randy?” Susie asked, not content to be content, stirring up the argument again.

“I already explained.”

“Midnight isn’t that late. You could sleep in on Sunday.”

“Yeah, but Saturday? Look, there’ll be lots of dances. Morgan needs me. What good would I be getting to bed by one and up by five? We’ve got to get the corn in. I could be working fifteen hours while the weather’s good.”

Randy stirred uncomfortably, shifting his arm around her.

Her expression hidden by the darkness, Susie sat up and muttered, “We might as well not be going together.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t.”


“Look at us. We’ve been going with each other for about a month now, right? Since about when school started. And we’ve fought more the last month than our whole lives. And now I’m supposed to give up helping my uncle make a living?”

“No, you should help Morgan. I was wrong.” Then Susie added playfully, “We haven’t fought the whole time, though, now have we?”

“No, that’s true,” Randy replied, smiling in the dusky light. “We’ve also kissed each other more than our whole lives.”

“Then why did you say that, Randy?”

Brushing his lips against Susie’s long blond hair, Randy replied, “It’s just that nothing’s really changed, and yet now that we’re going together, everything’s changed.”

“What do you mean, ‘Nothing’s really changed’? I think things have changed.”

“Like what?”

“Like we’re going together. That’s different than just being friends next door.”

“That’s just going in a circle, Susie. It’s different because it’s different. We are friends who grew up on the same street—you, Beth, and me,” Randy responded.

“Then you mean just because we grew up together we can’t be boyfriend and girlfriend? You have to be strangers or something before you can go together?”

Randy pushed against the porch railing with his foot, and the swing lurched. Dragging his foot along the decking, the swinging couch slowed and was still. Susie drew her long legs up and wrapped her arms around them, her chin resting on her knees.

“I just don’t understand what it means to go together. What’s it prove?”

“Why does it have to prove something? It means we feel special about each other.”

“How special can those feelings be?” continued Randy. “Most couples are lucky if they go together for two months.”


“Now, don’t get me wrong,” Randy interrupted. “It’s just the words, Susie. I know what marriage means and engaged, but what does going together mean? It isn’t permanent, so why do we do it?”

“Some people go together, then get engaged, then get married.”

“In high school?”

“We are in high school. Why should we pretend to be anything else?”

“I want more.”

“You want me—what?—warts and all?”

Randy smiled. “Do I look like a guy that likes warts?”

Susie tightened her arms around her legs, making herself a taut, compact statue next to Randy. His words seemed to float in the air, and as Susie spoke, her words seemed to slip between Randy’s like chisel and hammer descending on stone.

“Does this mean you don’t want to go with me?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“It sounds like that to me. It sounds like you just want to like me for a friend, like we used to.”

“I just said I’m not into warts.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I don’t want to lose what we had when we were friends. I don’t want to lose what we have now when we break up.”

“So now we’re going to break up?”

Randy sat in the silence, feeling as if he were trying to speak through mud, through concrete.

“Look,” he struggled on, “we don’t have to go together to love one another. Going together, it’s like being in a play: call one another, walk together, stop and hold hands, look at the audience—”

“You make it sound like punishment.”

“No, it’s just that we spend so much time doing what we’re supposed to do that there’s no time left to be ourselves.”

“Like what? You tell me you love me, and then you say, ‘You know, like when we were ten years old.’ You tell me we have something special, then complain. You ask me to go with you, then say, ‘Whatever that means.’ Well, I don’t know what you mean.”

With Susie’s last words, she stood up and pushed past him toward the front door.

“Susie,” he said, reaching for her, “I didn’t mean to make you cry or mad … or whatever.”

“You didn’t? Well, just what did you mean to do?”

“I just—I’m just telling you how I feel.”

“Okay, then. Tell me how you feel. Are we going together or aren’t we?”

“Sure we are, Susie. I guess so.”

“You guess so! Well, I guess not.” She bent over him, her eyes intense even in the dimness of the night. “You don’t have to be out of high school to know what commitment means. If you don’t know what we’ve got, then we don’t have anything.”

Jerking her arm from his grip, Susie ran into the house.

Randy heard her crying as the screen door slammed and she ran upstairs. He sighed, standing there a moment in the sudden silence, then turned and walked down the steps toward his motorcycle to ride to Morgan’s farm, familiar territory.

Copyright 2009 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Chapter 4: Fireflies

Six weeks later, sitting in a folding lawn chair, Randy was slouching on his own porch. In the darkness, the porch light on Susie and Beth’s house across the street, two houses down, shone with a feeble light. He remembered driving off that evening on his motorcycle, Susie gone upstairs in anger and tears. He hugged himself to keep off the evening chill, sighed and closed his eyes.

The evening of their argument, neither Randy nor Susie had known that they were not alone. Even as Randy sat alone on his own porch now, he did not know that when Susie had run upstairs to her bedroom, in Beth’s bedroom upstairs above the porch, Beth had heard the murmuring voices of her sister and boyfriend—her sister and the boy she too had grown up with, her own age, two years older than her sister. She had heard the sudden, loud spilling of emotion, her sister’s running steps up the stairs chased by the echo of the slamming screen door.

Beth had bathed earlier, standing afterwards in the darkness of her room before the mirror on the wall, gazing at the dark shadow of her reflected body, the random gleam of light from her eyes.
She wasn’t ugly, she thought. She was bigger than Susie, but she wasn’t fat, just stronger, really. Stronger arms, wider shoulders, stronger thighs—just stronger than Susie. Two years older, more womanly. Maybe Susie would fill out in two years and not be so petite.

Who was she kidding? It was like her grandmother had said. Beth had inherited the big bones of the family and Susie the small bones.

Why did the guys always look first at Susie? Pretty little Susie, spoiled little I-want-my-own-way Susie.

But Beth wasn’t ugly; she knew that. And she wasn’t ashamed of her body. She appraised the shadowed curves of herself in the mirror and smiled. No, she wasn’t ashamed of her body. It was just that she couldn’t afford to gain weight, couldn’t stand that kind of appraisal in the eyes of her friends.

Beth had heard Susie’s footsteps running past the door, then the slam of her sister’s bedroom door. She thought she could hear her crying, muffled by two doors and, most likely, a pillow. It was probably just wishful thinking, though.

Beth had winced as she realized what she had just thought. Don’t be small-minded, she told herself. Remember, she thought, you’re the big sister. And if Susie seems shallow, well, she’s younger. And if Randy goes for Susie, well, guys mature more slowly. Susie was a flirt, but a predictable flirt. Flirt wasn’t a fair word but using a word like vivacious to describe Susie made Beth want to puke.
The motorcycle’s muted rumble had faded into the night as Randy had powered down the road to his uncle’s. The lonely sound had seemed to hang in the darkness as Beth had slipped into an over-sized tee shirt and then quietly eased into bed.

Randy sat on his porch, remembering sitting in Morgan’s kitchen that night, drinking hot chocolate and shooting the breeze, how he had slowly unwound, how wonderful it had been to just be himself. Morgan’s a good uncle, Randy thought to himself.

Across the street, the twins’ porch light flicked off, and in the greater darkness, he saw a deeper shadow moving, saw the shadow define itself, a person walking down the street, a woman, Gwen walking down the street toward his house. He sat up, raised his hand, and waved. Gwen paused, then with a purposeful stride walked across the street, onto the lawn, and up the steps to the porch.
Gwen leaned against the porch post, silhouetted against the streetlight.

“I parked around the corner,” she said. “Wasn’t sure if I was going to stop. I thought if I walked by, I could change my mind right up to the last minute. I didn’t think you might be sitting out here on the porch in the dark.”

“Sorry,” Randy said.

Gwen eased down into a lawn chair next to his. “No need for you to be sorry.”

“I know.” Randy smiled. “I’m just being polite.” Gwen managed a half-hearted laugh. “Actually,” he added, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I wanted to talk about last night and today, but I was … am … embarrassed, I guess—ashamed.”

Randy watched Gwen sitting, gazing at her hands in her lap. “You know that saying, Gwen? ‘She was dying of embarrassment.’ It’s not true. She didn’t die.”

Gwen paused, then spoke. “You’re right; she didn’t die. I’ll tell you what, though. I feel like I just stepped in dog crap. I’ve got this powerful urge to scrape it off.”

“And you decided to do it on my porch?”

Gwen smiled. “With your permission.”

“Well, I know the feeling. Have at it.”

Gwen resettled herself in the lawn chair. “I want to know … first … what happened last night.”
“How much you remember?”

“The last thing I remember was sitting at the table playing cards. I felt real dizzy, all of a sudden, like I’d spin right out of the chair.”

“I saw you grab the table and say, ‘I need to go to the bathroom,’” Randy said. “You weren’t steady when you stood up, but you made it to the bannister post. The hallway goes on by to the downstairs bathroom. You know where I’m talking about?”

“Yeah. So I’m hanging onto the bannister post …”

“Yeah, and you’re dizzy, right?” At Gwen’s nod, he continued. “So you probably go upstairs because you don’t want to let go of the bannister.”

“I guess that makes a drunken sort of sense.”

“And that’s it. We sit around and wait for you. Joe tries to take some money out of your ante jar. Earl farts, gets bored with that about the time we get tired of the smell. He goes upstairs to see what’s going on.”

“And then what?”

“He’s gone for a while. Joe and I sit there staring at ourselves, and then he heads for the TV. I go upstairs to see what’s going on.”

“What did you see?”

“Like I told you this morning, you were on the bed, passed out—staring without blinking, anyway. Earl was on the bed, lying on his side, propped up with his elbow, looking at you.”

“That’s all you saw?”

“That’s all I saw. You all glassy-eyed and Earl with his smirk. But Earl smirks all the time, so that doesn’t mean anything. Besides, what would you do if you knew Earl wrote that on you?”

“Kick his ass.”

“I don’t think you could … or would. What do you want to do, go yell at him some? Cuss him out? He’ll just laugh at you. That ink’s permanent. With lots of scrubbing … and time … it’ll go away. Fighting with Earl won’t get rid of those words. It’ll just give him something else to talk about, just something more for him to joke about with the guys. Believe me, I know this. I’m one of the guys.”

“He’s been talking?”

“He will. Everybody’s going to know what’s written on you. You want to make the story juicier? Go get in a fight, get in a big argument with Earl. Do it in public. You might even make the newspaper.”

“You know Earl well.”

Randy sighed. “Too well, sometimes. Like you said, small town. So, what’s your plan?”

Gwen sighed, venting her anger. “I’m angry at myself—and worried. I can’t afford to get in a fight, to make a scene.”

“So, you aren’t going to kick Earl’s ass after all?”

“No, maybe dirty looks.”

“Dirty looks are okay. In that case, Gwen, I’ve told you everything I saw, but not everything I heard.”

“What do you mean?”

“Earl called me today.”

Randy’s statement created a pause in the conversation. It was as if a knife had sliced the thread of their speech and their thoughts had unraveled into silence. On and off, like a single firefly flickering on the lawn.

“Well, did he talk about me, about last night?” Gwen finally responded.

“You’ve got to understand, Gwen. Earl always talks about last night. That’s probably his main motivation for having last nights. I think he enjoys bragging about it more than doing it.”

“Okay, Earl’s an asshole. Now tell me what the asshole said, okay?”

“He said that when he entered the bedroom, you were passed out on your stomach.”

“That puking bitch was on her stomach, passed out on my parents’ bed,” Earl had said over the phone. “Her hair all messed up, couldn’t see her face. I could see her nice ass, though,” he had snickered.

“I called out, ‘Gwen, what’s going on? You all right?’ Didn’t say anything. Didn’t twitch. I rolled her over, brushed the hair out of her face. Passed out. Eyes like a chicken, know what I mean?

“Then I decided, hey, what the hell, ya know? Pulled up her shirt. She had on one of those bras that open in the front, so I opened it. Nice tits. She didn’t move.

“Then I unbuttoned her pants, saw Dad’s marking pen on the dresser, and thought I’d have some fun. I wrote ‘INSERT HERE’ all in capital letters, then a big arrow, pointing to her you-know-what. I was going to add what to insert, but I figured nobody’s that stupid, not even you.”

Earl’s snicker over the phone had sounded like static in Randy’s ear. He felt like washing it, just remembering.

“So that’s what happened,” Randy finished.

In the darkness, Randy heard Gwen’s sigh as she drew up her legs to her chest, covering herself. “I guess that’s what I get for being out of it around someone like Earl Beale.” When Randy was silent, she added, “Tell me, why is he your friend, anyway?”

“Earl’s at his worst around women.”

“He isn’t so nice to you, either.”

“Only when it comes to his sex life. It’s Earl’s advantage, or that’s the way Earl sees it, I guess.”

“You guys seem so different, too different to be friends.”

“We grew up together, Gwen. Like all of us here.” Randy shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not like math. The ways we’re different don’t cancel out the ways we’re alike. People change.”


“How has Earl changed? Mostly since he’s got his car, I’d say.” Randy sat up, and Gwen saw the flash of his smile in the darkness. “In the seventh grade, we spent more time talking about bass fishing and yo-yo tricks. Girls, sure, and dirty stories, you bet, but now …” Randy’s voice filled with revelation, “Earl goes at dating like … a hunter. What counts is bagging your limit.”

Gwen’s voice was small, shadowed with distaste. She wrapped her arms around her knees. “He didn’t say anything about … doing me, did he?”

Randy shook his head. “No, he didn’t say anything like that.” Randy leaned toward Gwen. “I don’t think he had the opportunity. He didn’t believe he had the time.”

When Randy finished relating the telephone conversation, Gwen made a low noise deep in her throat, something like a groan but also something like a growl, a feral noise. Randy decided it was good that Earl was not on the porch with them.

Trying to defuse Gwen’s anger and disgust, Randy joked, “Remember, Gwen, no ass kicking.”

“Yeah, I know. I can’t kick Earl’s ass. Can’t kick mine either, so—”

“On to better things?”

“Hopefully. Plan B, anyway.”

“Which is?”

“Something I learned when Mom started drinking heavy was that it’s hard to change people. Dangerous to try, sometimes. Gets your face slapped.”

Gwen reached over the side of the porch and picked a late rose, pale and withered beneath the streetlight.

“Petals and thorns. Can’t change that.”

“Are you saying people can’t change? They can.”

“Yeah, but you can’t make them. My mom can choose to stop drinking and do it, maybe, with help. I can’t make her stop.”

“You can, what? Inspire her?”

Gwen’s laugh was bitter. “Mom finds her inspiration in a bottle.”

Gwen leaned toward Randy now so that they were closer. He sensed a reluctance in Gwen to speak and wondered if she had something more to say about her and Earl, if maybe she had some … evidence … about what had happened that night. What Gwen said, though, surprised him.

“Remember when Hope said I thought Morgan was a hunk?” Gwen asked. Randy sensed an unwillingness in her, as if her words were unwilling children pushed across the porch to confront him. “It’s true.”

“You’ve got the hots for Morgan?”

“No,” returned Gwen, for once not confrontational, “or, yes, I mean that I did have a conversation with Hope where I said that.”

“You don’t even know Morgan.”

“He’s a good-looking guy … even off a tractor. I know he’s a good man, too.”

“And that’s enough to know? To know about him?” Randy shifted in his chair in exasperation. “He’s ten years older than you. Whatcha want to do, go steady?”

“How old do you think I am, Randy?”

“You’re eighteen years old, Gwen. How in the hell old did you think I’d say?”

“I learned to cook when I was ten. It was either that or starve. Once I used an empty beer bottle with a nipple taped on for a formula bottle for Hope. I’ve been on my own almost as long as Morgan.”

“It’s not the same. He doesn’t want to get married, Gwen. He just wants to be left alone.”

“It’s been four years since the accident. He’s not still grieving; he’s neurotic. Your whole family is neurotic.”

Day and night, light and dark, on and off, past and present, right and wrong, man and woman. Randy stood, speechless with shock.

Then: “You have no right to say that.”

“Why? Because my mother’s a drunk? Because I got drunk and passed out last night? Because I’m not good enough to judge you and your family?”

Gwen was out of her chair and two steps off the porch in one fluid motion, as if leaving were a motion natural to her, effortless.

“I choose what I want to do, Randy. I don’t need your permission.”

Gwen continued down the walkway to the sidewalk and then on down the road, her footsteps seeming louder under lamplight. Randy did what came natural. He remained silent, letting her go until she disappeared around the corner and he was once again alone, like a last firefly, dark and light, off and on, lost in the terrible simplicity of solitude.

Copyright 2009 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved


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