Chapter 1: Another Brick in the Wall
I will not ignore the teacher in class. I will not ignore the teacher in class. I will not ignore...
Eleven year old Lisa scowled while she stepped down from the stool and observed the fifty or so lines already written on the board as punishment. There was still that same amount to go and her tiny heart sank at the thought of how unjustly she'd been treated.
"Stupid teachers..." She muttered to nobody while climbing back up to continue scrawling words with her sore fingers. Contrary to what most adults assumed, her slowness and inability to answer questions she deemed too personal were not signs of rudeness or mental retardation.
Footsteps from the corridor prompted Lisa to grow stiff with dread before a severe, gray-haired woman entered to inspect her progress.
"I see that you're just over halfway there. Hopefully, you'll have learned a lesson by the time you finish."
The woman paid no heed to Lisa's subsequent glare and quickly departed again, leaving the little girl to spend a minute imagining her teacher's head swelling up like a balloon before exploding with a satisfying bang.
"What took you so long? Every other kid went home ages ago..." George Bukowski questioned impatiently as an hour of waiting was finally paid off by his young daughter climbing into the backseat.
"I...I got into trouble. I'm sorry..."
"Darling, what did we say?"
"I don't know."
"Apologies are useless if you don't change yourself and continue to make the same mistakes."
"It wasn't a mistake." Lisa stubbornly countered in a futile attempt to make her father understand the truth, though he remained indifferent as always.
A song by The Clash started to play on the radio as she resigned herself to staring vacantly ahead and envisioning possible events that could lead to school being closed down indefinitely.
Between a raging fire, the boiler exploding and nuclear war itself, Lisa couldn't decide which was most effective, though she had a feeling that the aftermath of the last one would be far worse than what any educational film implied.
Chapter 2: Call Me
Barbara awoke at six on Sunday morning and stretched out both arms with a yawn, before leaving her eye candy boyfriend to continue slumbering for an extra hour.
She'd taken up the habit of washing her face with cool water ever since reading that it was better for the complexion, then began thoroughly applying moisturiser followed by some foundation.
Once her shoulder-length blonde hair had been lightly curled, Barbara paused to inspect the professional look she was aiming for while also missing the years when she'd dressed like a carefree flower child.
Carlos came to wait outside the bathroom at seven on the dot and she turned to give him a affectionate smile.
"Tell me, how do I look?"
"Pretty. Why do you ask?"
Barbara sighed while wondering if he was aware that she wasn't getting ready for any old occasion.
"Okay, what would you think if I walked into an interview like this?"
"Let's see..." Carlos began as he placed a finger against his chin. "I would think of hiring you, just so I could get your number and a date."
"Carlos, this isn't the time to be flirty. I'm asking you a serious question."
"But that's my honest opinion. You are very attractive..."
"...which would be useful if I was auditioning for a movie. The deadline for the rent is coming up though and getting a professional job means we could actually go out together once in a while."
"Of course. We don't know enough about each other..."
Barbara glanced down at her watch and quickly looked Carlos again in the eyes to let him know she needed to leave.
"Well, wish me luck." She said in a semi-confident manner while slipping into a pair of heels. "And save a bit for yourself, too..."
"Gladly. Hope it all goes smoothly..."
She left the apartment with her resume inside a sealed envelope and made the two level descent down to the street where her car waited.
An article she'd read recently in the paper suggested that crime rates were rising nationwide, so it came as a relief when she found the vehicle intact with no signs of being broken into.
She was stuck in traffic twenty minutes later and barely fighting off the urge to slam the horn in annoyance.
"What is going on? Sundays should be quiet..."
Her mind drifted towards a less counter-productive way of releasing negative emotions and she wound up the window before tuning into the station that she listened to when nobody was around.
A radio DJ finished off his statement in favor of playing an iconic song from the Sex Pistols and Barbara began to nod along.
"Just what I need to feel on top of things..."
Carlos spent his day off suavely lounging around the apartment and talking to relatives on the phone, which included his devoutly religious mother and thuggish cousin Luis.
He knew that both of them would be shocked if they learned about his relationship with Barbara, though her arrival home in the evening reminded him again why she was worth his time.
Fair hair combined with blue eyes were clear indicators of her European ancestry and the fact that she came from a stable middle-class background made her rather solid wife material in his opinion.
All he needed to do now was convince his family that she would be a decent match, in order for them to focus on building an ideal life together.
He smiled while envisioning a future in which she bore two perfect children whom possessed their very best traits and would go on to become upstanding members of society.
Chapter 3: It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
Tony was rather breathless by the time he arrived to teach English class and slammed a pile of marked essays upon his desk.
It had been his turn that morning to use the car and drop David off at his sister Sophia's place, which would have gone smoothly if not for the cop whom had issued him with a speeding ticket.
Two rows of teenagers stared straight at him in dread while the others continued to behave as if he wasn't present.
"Sorry for the delay, I ran into some trouble on the way here. Now if I may have everyone's-"
A half eaten apple flew through the air and splattered upon the floor right by Tony's desk. The sight made him frown in disgust before he turned to face the class once again.
"Alright, who threw that? Own up now, so I won't keep everyone in after class."
Silence fell as several students in the back row started to glance at each other expectantly.
"Nobody? An extra five minutes it is then."
Sharon cursed quietly as she reached her locker and thought of the fool whom had made everybody late because of their own cowardice.
"Honestly, I just can't wait to be out of here and not be stuck around such idiots..."
"Hey, Russo!" A rambunctious voice called out while she prepared to head to the lunchroom. "You have some time to spare?"
"Yeah, I do. But that's none of your business, Dennis."
She briskly began to walk away, but he sprinted forward and blocked her path before she could get far.
"Come on, Russo. You deserve to sit with us now." He persisted, slamming his hand against the nearest locker to seem imposing.
"Oh, really? None of you paid attention to me last year."
"Well, that was then. Things are different now...hell, you're different."
"What do you mean?" Sharon asked with clenched teeth, her patience fading.
"You can't doll yourself up and dress like this, then want nothing to do with our group. That's not how it works."
"And why should I care about what you posers think? You're not telling me who I should hang out with..."
She averted her eyes and managed to sidestep away, though he still wouldn't give up.
"Fine. Keep being a stuck-up bitch who thinks she's too cool for everyone!"
Most work days were frustratingly exhausting for twenty-seven-year old Lenny Falcone, whose joy nowadays came mainly from bothering his boss, looking at pictures of foxy women and teasing Steve, the younger employee he was supposed to supervise.
He didn't understand to this day why the boss decided to replace a friendly and sufficiently competent teenage girl with another quiet and dull twenty-something male, so it was exciting when rumor of a special visitor made the rounds.
"As you all know, we have a rather tight budget at the moment..." Mr Russo began upon calling everyone together and demanding their attention. "...which means we're going to have to start going without certain amenities."
"Like what, boss?" Lenny questioned with defiance in his voice.
"Well, Lenny. We have music playing in here everyday, so I've decided to take away the radio for this weekend as a test."
"But that's where our special visitor comes in. He would call himself a guitarist, if it weren't for the fact he's never played for an audience."
Lenny and the others began to stare in confusion as Mr Russo quickly turned to beckon someone into the main garage.
A nervous young boy entered while carrying a guitar bigger than his upper body, a sight that prompted one of Lenny's coworkers to make an affectionate remark.
"Aw, look at that little lad. Holding his instrument like it's a toy."
"Remember, my son Michael is just a beginner, so keep negative comments to a minimum."
The rest of the day was torture for Lenny as he was forced to listen to a twelve year old play the main riff of Smoke on the Water over and over again.
"Never thought this song would make me want to shoot someone..."
"For once I agree with you." Twenty-two year old Steve replied just before he knelt down to adjust a tire's pressure.
Chapter 4: Into the Night
The sound of Gilbert O'Sullivan singing forlornly was what greeted Kevin as he entered the local laundromat at eight to get an entire basket washed.
He guessed that fate was being cruel indeed by having such a song play in his time of loneliness, especially when even antisocial Steve had recently managed to find love.
"Anyone who says personality is what matters is kidding themselves. Just look at me... "
He gave up a coin and began loading clothes into his washing machine of choice. The DJ on the radio signed off in favor of an ad break, which relieved him of at least a little turmoil.
The front doors slid open again while he waited aimlessly and a quaint but classily dressed young woman soon entered holding a large black bag. She recognized him instantly and came to a stop.
"Kevin? Are you...crying?"
"No, can't you see these are tears of happiness?!" He lied rather unconvincingly before realizing how foolish the attempt was. "Oh, who am I kidding? I'm just sad. Sad and lonely."
The young woman was briefly stunned by such a confession, though she began to gaze in sympathy once the nature of Kevin's situation became clear.
"Remember how I was in high school? I still feel like that girl a lot, even with one of my works on display in a gallery."
Kevin dried his eyes with one sleeve and gave a chuckle.
"I keep forgetting how much worse it was for you. Being an ugly girl is harder, right?"
"Yes, pretty much. But on the bright side, life's pretty alright now."
"Sounds like you're doing great. Wish I could say that about myself."
"What do you mean? Are people bringing you down?"
"You could say that, but I've really just never felt so alone. Spare a few more minutes?"
"Goodnight, Mom. Goodnight, Bootsy..." Lisa made sure to say aloud to the photo of her late mother and teddy bear respectively, before switching off her bedside lamp and wriggling underneath the sheets.
She shut her eyes as a way to block out memories of the day's har7dships and tightly held on to Bootsy until sleep finally arrived.
Her dream that night was vivid indeed, with the tall trees and grass feeling as real as they possibly could. She enjoyed the peace while tiptoeing barefoot until the sound of a rushing stream made her realize how thirsty she was.
She quickened her pace, only to come to a frightened stop upon seeing a mysterious male seated by the water. There seemed to be a guitar in his hands as he turned to face her.
"Hey Lisa, I'm-"
A loud noise outside her bedroom window awoke Lisa before she could learn the boy's face and identity. She rubbed both eyes with a tired sigh and tried hard to fall back asleep by thinking of how safe it had felt to be in his presence.
Come to the bleachers, four thirty today. It's time we met face to face.
Your secret admirer
Sharon followed the instruction on the note while feeling much paranoia over who the sender could be.
"Please, let it be Brian. I don't want some stalker or psycho..."
She chose a conspicuous position on the bleachers at the designated time and decided to wait no more than five minutes for this unknown person, in an effort to keep herself safe.
Heavy footsteps sounded just as she prepared to leave that prompted her to stop to scan the area.
An all-too-familiar voice became apparent and she frowned in disgust.
"Dennis?!" She screamed, causing him to flinch slightly while he descended towards her.
"Hey, Russo...I mean, Sharon..." He began after shifting back to his usual swagger. "I take it you got my note?"
Chapter 5: Cars
Judith entered Michael's room for a quick inspection and vacuum, before a piece of paper on the floor caught her attention.
She picked it up and guessed while reading through a column of outlandish names, that they were characters from the Star Wars film he loved so much.
Her curiosity grew as she moved on to the second column.
Judith placed the page aside in guilt at the realization she was likely violating Michael's privacy. Even so, she felt a little suspicious about this 'C-3PO' that had come last on the list.
"Sounds like a robot, but why would he put me next to it? I'm his mother..."
Sharon experienced just the slightest feeling that she was being watched while entering her room to change. She glanced behind to find that neither Michael or Judith were nearby, so she turned her attention instead to the window and quickly pulled the curtains together.
"That feels better..." She whispered in relief, though the reason for her recent paranoia was unknown.
She opened her closet to pick out a shirt and sweater that would keep her warm while accompanying Michael back to the car after his movie.
Once that was done, she studied her reflection in the mirror. The thought of Dennis and how he'd reacted to her rejection still made her feel tense, so she decided it would be safer to forgo makeup for a while.
Michael was in high spirits when he joined her in the car forty minutes later. He turned to her and began raving about what he was looking forward to.
"I can't wait to see them defeat Darth Vader for real! Oh, and they'd better make up for the Holiday Special! I still get nightmares..."
"Alright, calm down, Mikey. How about we listen to some Queen?"
"Okay!" Michael cheered in excitement before even listening to Sharon's words. "Wait, how?"
Sharon gave a relaxed smile while already feeling at ease with his innocent energy. She reached down to take a eight track out of her bag and placed it inside the player.
"I bought it from a guy at school for a discount. He wanted to move on to something more electronic."
"Well, I think it's cool." Michael said brightly as the first of Queen's anthemic songs started to play.
One shocking twist after the other put Michael on the edge of his seat until the horrifying reveal that shattered his whole outlook on everything preceding it.
Sharon had to actively drag him back out into the foyer once the lights came on, for he was too dumbstruck to move on his own.
"Mike, it's going to be okay. He got out and Han Solo's still sort of alive..."
"But what about Darth Vader?!" He cried while grasping Sharon's arm tighter in anguish. "I can't believe he really is Luke's father!"
A group of bystanders glared daggers at both him and Sharon, prompting them to start pushing their way out of the theater until they were in the busy carpark.
"Okay, we can talk about it now."
"Well..." Michael began in a gravely stern tone. "...remember when I told Dad he was like Darth Vader?"
"I think George Lucas read my mind."
"What do you mean? You're not Luke."
"But I can relate to him..."
"So you're an orphan raised by your aunt and uncle, who ends up going on an adventure to help save the galaxy. You rescue a princess and she seems to like you, but then a handsome and roguish mercenary pilot wins her over instead. Does that sound right?"
"Okay, maybe not literally."
"You'll never stop being adorable, will you?"
"Hey, I'm not-"
"But you are! Lemme squeeze those cheeks!"
Michael managed to dart away from Sharon just as she made an attempt to touch his babyface. He hid himself near the car's trunk and she allowed herself a laugh at the night's events.
Chapter 6: How Do I Make You
One of the requirements of Karen's health and physical education major was to undertake basic first aid training, in case someone's life ever depended on her quick action.
Demonstration of such knowledge had landed her a lifeguard position at the public pool that friend Agatha frequented, though most days passed without much drama to the point that she instead spent the time talking with busy parents and their children.
It was during one otherwise quiet afternoon that the sight of a young boy splashing around frantically caught her attention. He seemed to have arrived alone, so she jumped to action by entering the pool with a flotation device and instructing him to hold on it while he was taken to the shallow end.
However, it seemed like the moment she tried to help him, the child shrugged off her touch and began to paddle away rather expertly.
"Thanks for the view, lifeguard babe!" He called out with a sharp turn of the head, before diving underwater to attempt a handstand.
"Sneaky little rascal. I hope I never have a kid like that..."
Steve passed the building where he'd spent New Years Eve with Barbara, Kevin and other former classmates while driving home.
He caught a glimpse of his still youthful reflection and remembered being an eleven year old during the summer of 1969. While he'd missed seeing the moon landing on television, there were plenty more events he knew couldn't ever be truly forgotten.
This year hadn't been very memorable thus far, though that seemed like a good thing when he no longer felt threatened by his mother's very presence.
There were times when he considered asking Karen about her childhood for the sake of comparison, though that notion was forgotten once again when he saw her wearing a rather flattering crop top and tight denim shorts.
"Daisy Duke..." He thought before feeling a slight tightness down below. He realized what was happening and managed to stave off arousal by thinking back to the night he caught his mother in the middle of serving a 'client'.
Karen noticed him enter and hopped up from the couch to meet him. Her hand rested against his arm as she suddenly looked concerned.
"Steve, don't you feel hot?"
"Nah, I'm fine..."
"No, you're not. It's scorching outside, take off that jacket before you faint..."
Steve did what she wanted by stripping down to his t-shirt, even if it made him feel exposed. He didn't know why though, since they had already made love a few times over the past year.
Another one of those occasions came in the late evening when he couldn't resist watching Karen undress despite the guilt it gave him. He remained fixated even as she removed her top completely and allowed a tease of the perfect breasts that he would have willingly died to touch.
"Well, aren't you going to get changed too?" Karen asked after slipping on her nightgown, making it clear that she'd been aware of his gaze the whole time.
Steve turned away in embarrassment and hesitantly unzipped his jeans. Karen's eyes fell on him and her desire grew as she ogled his strong and well-proportioned body.
"Yeah?" He replied while glancing tentatively towards her.
"You can share the bed with me tonight."
Karen woke up on Saturday morning to find Steve gone, though she could still sense his kisses and his hands roaming her body as she lay naked in bed.
"I've got to get to work early. The pool will be crowded today."
She arose and hurriedly got dressed again while remembering what had happened after the foreplay. Steve's inability to last longer than five minutes left her with a heavy feeling of dissatisfaction, regardless of his attentiveness leading up to the act.
"Maybe I'm expecting too much. He's got a nice body and cares a lot about me, even if he won't actually say it..."
Chapter 7: Tusk
Steve motivated himself to do some cleaning around the apartment in Karen's absence, despite his stronger desire to lie down and get some rest.
"Karen's been a bit cold this week. Maybe she's upset that I'm not pulling my weight. "
He grabbed the brush and dustpan to begin sweeping the floor, though a magazine lying face down caught his attention.
The way it was positioned made it look like someone had dropped it on purpose, so he picked it up in curiosity. He turned it over and saw a double page article titled 'How to please a woman in bed'.
"Why would Karen be reading this? Is she..."
An illustration of a man and woman sleeping together made him realize the truth. Karen was dissatisfied with his performance in the bedroom and this was her way of letting him know.
He tossed the magazine aside and forgot all about cleaning while heading for the bathroom.
The unremarkable face reflected in the mirror brought back some old self-loathing that resulted in him scrutinising his own body in disgust.
"What does she see in me? I don't deserve her at all..."
Karen ate dinner in silence as she sat adjacent to Steve and wondered if he'd seen her planted magazine yet. The issue had been 'borrowed' from the lunchroom at her place of work and she planned on returning it before any male colleagues noticed.
She made eye contact with Steve with the intention of easing into the subject, but he seemed to shy away from her gaze as if he was incredibly ashamed of himself.
"Oh dear. He definitely saw it."
The subsequent look in his expressive brown eyes increased her feelings of guilt and she just wanted to give him a hug while apologizing for everything.
He beat her to the latter action.
"I'm sorry. For not being good enough."
"No, don't. You're a saint compared to the boy I used to date."
"And that's the problem with me, isn't it?"
"Of course not. You're...you're one of the loveliest guys I've ever met and I wouldn't change a thing..."
"Until we get into bed."
"Well, that might be true. But you're more than great when it comes to everything else. Maybe we should give the sexual stuff a rest for a while?"
"I knew you were going to say that."
Sharon made an effort not to take heed to Dennis' presence as she and Rita arrived at Laurie's house party.
She fetched herself a cup of punch and downed it all before vigorously joining the other high school students whom were already dancing, much to Rita's shock.
"Sharon, slow down! What's happened to you?"
She looked past Rita and noticed that Dennis was busy conversing with some male friends. He turned his head and seemed to stare directly at her.
"Got no time to explain, but could you just move with me? Pretend you're my partner."
"Uh, sure. You'd better not make me look bad..."
They danced ungracefully alongside each other through an entire Kool & The Gang album before Sharon felt a quiver down her back.
Dennis had lost interest in other boys and was beginning to make his way over.
She grabbed Rita by the hand and insisted that they escape to another room.
"What's going on? You have to tell me..."
Sharon waited until the door was completely shut to explain.
"It's Dennis. I feel like he's been watching me the whole time and I'm scared..."
Rita looked surprised for a moment then eyed her in sympathy.
"To be honest, I felt a slight creepy vibe too. But I thought it was just the proximity."
"So you understand?"
"A girl friend like me won't work for long. Your best chance of making him back off is to be in an actual relationship. Oh, and crushing on a coworker doesn't count."
"I know that, but who am I going to approach? I mean-"
"You danced with Brian at winter formal. I'm pretty sure he still remembers."
"Well, I guess he's worth a try..." Sharon replied as her desperation mounted. "Where do you think he'd be?"
"At the pool table, I suppose?"
Dennis stormed out of the stately house that belonged to Laurie's family in a rage over the fact that self-centered Sharon Russo apparently had the gall to parade a new boyfriend around so soon after rejecting him.
"Two-faced bitch..." He muttered quietly to himself in hatred while reaching his car and forcing the door open. "I'm gonna teach you a lesson..."
'My Sharona' by The Knack came on as soon as he started the engine and the very song was enough to make him lose all control.
He ejected the tape and pressing hard against the gas, flung it straight through his open window. The sight of it shattering into pieces on the road greatly satisfied him and he smiled at the knowledge that his actions would give other drivers an unpleasant experience.
Chapter 8: Magic
"That's a pretty rundown building. I wonder if it even meets national codes..."
Carlos killed the engine and turned to Barbara with a determined gleam in his eyes.
"This is it. Are you ready?"
"Always. I believe we have all the gifts we need." Barbara replied confidently even though she couldn't take her mind off how bad the architecture was in this part of the city.
"Remember what we went over. You're a good Catholic who never misses church and loves classical music."
"Yeah, I could pull that off. I think..."
"You'll be fine. Just let me do the talking."
She gave a submissive nod before they got out of the car and stepped on to the narrow footpath. Her attempt to gauge the expected durability of a nearby apartment building was cut short by Carlos taking her hand and smiling affectionately.
"Me too." She said brightly, allowing him to kiss her on the cheek.
"We're talking millions lost if there's a collapse..."
Barbara followed Carlos into the tobacco polluted apartment where his mother and cousin lived. She clutched the basket of presents tightly whilst grimacing in discomfort.
"A leading cause in deaths today, but the economy can't function without it. A double edged sword indeed."
An elderly woman emerged from the kitchen and her sour expression immediately faded upon seeing Carlos.
"Carlos, my son! Come give me a kiss!" She bellowed, rushing forward to embrace him.
"I've missed you too, mother. Is Luis asleep?"
"No, he's...who is that girl?!"
The woman stared feverishly at Barbara and raised a quivering finger. Carlos realized it was time for a distraction, so he gave the rehearsed cue.
Barbara walked across the room and laid down the basket before ceremoniously unveiling the tropical fruit inside.
"We spent hours searching for fresh but affordable pineapples and guava. I could make a nice salad if you want, Mrs Alvarez."
"Oh, you must be his girlfriend. Do you give him meat everyday? A man needs-"
"Mother, you're getting ahead of yourself. Why don't you call Luis?"
"Of course, my darling."
She disappeared from the room and Carlos was able to relax. He approached Barbara to brief her again on his cousin.
"He's just come out of jail. Keep a safe distance away from him."
"I can't believe we did it..." Barbara said weakly in relief once they were back in the car. "...but I guess I owe it all to you..."
"Nobody knows them better than I do." Carlos agreed in pride as he started up the engine again, only to be overcome with fear at the thought of meeting Barbara's parents within a week.
"There's no need to be nervous. They're both nice people, even if my Mom is a bit high strung at times."
"What does that mean?"
"She can't stand more than two people talking at once and has some unnecessary little rituals. Dad says it's menopause, since she hasn't always been that way."
Carlos felt a pang of jealousy upon hearing of Barbara's loving and functional parents, for he was still somewhat bitter over having to essentially manage two incompetent people from a young age
"How do I make them like me?" He asked her in uncertainty.
"Just be yourself. You watch I Love Lucy reruns. It's one of my Mom's favorite programs, so just talk about it and you'll win her over in no time."
"And your father?"
"Wear a nice suit and pretend you're interested in his stories."
"That's all? It sounds too easy."
"Trust me, you won't be the weirdest guest they've had in the house. My Mom once invited a group of swingers over."
"Yeah, what happened that day is something I'd rather not think about."
Carlos decided to follow Barbara's advice which resulted in dinner with her parents proving to be a relaxed affair just as she'd promised.
Mrs Sullivan insisted on doing all the cleaning when the meal was over despite Barbara's offer to help. She ushered the young woman toward the living room while claiming it was her responsibility as host.
The arrangement of framed photographs upon the mantelpiece caught Carlos' interest in the meantime and he studied them one by one until Barbara's voice startled him.
"Some nice pictures, aren't they? That one's of my Grandma Helen. She died during the Great Depression and Grandpa never married again."
"You have another Grandpa?" Carlos questioned innocently as he turned to maje eye contact. "Where is he?"
Barbara pointed out the face of a smiling elderly man and continued to speak with a slight falter in her voice.
"Grandpa Irving. Was a telegram boy in World War One and involved with bootleggers in the twenties, but now he's gone. I...can't believe it's been six years already."
She stopped to wipe one eye and take a deep breath before glancing elsewhere in the room.
"Enough about my grandparents, don't you think? How about we watch TV instead?"
Chapter 9: Hungry Heart
The fortune of having some personal possessions returned and being able to don normal clothes again gave Ross a surreal feeling, that only grew as he remembered his full grown son.
"Steve, you poor boy. Maybe now that your mother is out of the picture, I can be the Dad you've always needed..."
Ross reached the end of the hall and was blinded by the sunlight streaming in when a guard opened up the doors. He stepped tentatively outside with one hand forward before his eyes completely adjusted to the surroundings and he breathed in relief.
Unfortunately, any plans of tracking down his son were temporarily forgotten when a young woman with heavy makeup and a low-cut top came running over.
"Oh my God, honey..." She lamented with all the pain of someone seeing a close friend suffer. "What have they done to you?!"
Ross turned to the woman whom he now recognized as old lover Brandy and smiled in reassurance.
"Believe me, being with my old lady is scarier than anything that goes on in there."
"Well, I could say the same thing about my asshole of a Dad." Brandy said scathingly in agreement as her eyes glazed over with anger for a brief moment. "I'm just thankful you're nothing like him.. "
Her words roused Ross' guilty conscience and he soon remembered that this loyal young woman whom had once been a prostitute was no older than Steve.
"I'm sorry, darling. I'd love to be with you, but there's someone else I need to reconnect with."
"I have a son, his name's Steve. He's twenty-two, about five foot ten, and takes after his mother..."
"You liar, I thought you had nobody!" Brandy screamed, losing her cool completely at the realization she'd been just a side affair instead of the one he wanted a future with.
"Darling, I know it's hard to accept, but you still have a chance..." Ross hastily tried to reason, moving toward her while passersby stopped to gawk. "My son's alright looking, he might like-"
"Shut up, you sack of shit. Sleep on the street for all I care!"
She spat in his face and was pushing her way further down the street within seconds, leaving him to hope that Steve's patience would last at least a few months.
"I'm sorry, but we've already-" The voluptuous brunette began firmly upon opening the door, only to grow uncomfortable the moment she recognized Ross. "...what on earth are you doing here?"
"Say, weren't you that beauty from across the hall?"
"Maybe. What do you want?"
"My son Steve was so smitten with you, it was upsetting. How is he now?"
"It's none of your business. Get lost."
The door slammed in his face, before the sound of a key being turned let Ross know that he'd made a situation worse yet again.
He resigned himself to strolling the building for the next hour in the hope that Steve would appear sooner or later.
Steve was unprepared for the tight hug Karen gave him as soon as she unlocked the door. The way she pressed her body against his felt both constrictive and liberating at the same time, which left him rather confused.
"I'm so glad you're not like your Dad..." She whispered whilst enjoying the intimacy with him.
"Oh, it's not hard..." Steve softly replied before the implication of her words set in. "...wait, what about my Dad?"
He let go and stepped back to get a clear look at Karen's face while she explained the day's events.
"You told me he was in jail, but I saw him hanging around here today. He...even came up to try and talk to me..."
Steve suddenly remembered the note he'd made on the calendar and cursed himself for being so irresponsible that he'd forgotten about it completely.
"So he was up here? What did he say?" He questioned Karen as his anxiety grew.
"Nothing. He just wanted to know where you were..."
He took a deep breath before reaching for her hand.
"Do you want to come with me? I don't think I can do this alone..."
It was at around ten thirty in the evening that Karen sensed a presence lifting the covers slightly and climbing into bed beside her. She grew tense and curled up while trying to gauge whom it was.
"Steve...is that you?"
"Yeah, it's me. My Dad's sleeping on the couch..."
There was no mistaking his gentle voice, so she allowed herself to relax as he lay down and turned to face in the opposite direction.
Chapter 10: Watching the Wheels Go Round
The nine o'clock bell rang approximately seven times to mark the start of class, while twenty primly dressed young girls turned to expectantly face the teacher.
She picked up her roll to begin taking attendance before a single empty seat caught her attention.
"Girls, do any of you know where Lisa is today?"
The majority of them feigned innocence by shaking their heads slowly. Such an act fooled the teacher and despite feeling some innate concern, marked Lisa absent with an expression of disappointment.
Little did this teacher know, the twelve year old girl was currently sitting alone in a stairwell, clutching her bag while overcome with fear at the thought of facing her classmates.
"Carlos...Carlos, stop it already! You can put me down now..." Barbara begged with a bashful laugh, right before he finally relented and set her gently down upon the bed.
"I can't help it. I'm so happy for you."
"Really? Because I swear it was just luck..." She replied in reference to her new job.
Their eyes met and in a rush of passion, she wrapped both arms around his shoulders before pulling him a little closer. He escalated the intimacy between them by leaning in for a kiss that left her looking rather stunned, much to his satisfaction.
"I really am that charming..."
It took only a moment however, for Barbara's wide eyes to crease a little with determination, as if his display of affection was some sort of challenge to be met.
The next thing he knew, she was kneeling over him trying to sound bold in an effort to hide any traces of ambivalence.
"So, how do you like it...big boy?"
Carlos lifted himself up slightly, a look of pity on his face at how flat Barbara's attempt to be frisky had fallen.
"Darling, you have a lot to learn..."
The end of year Christmas rush made traffic an even bigger nightmare as Barbara tried to overtake other drivers in the hope that Carlos could arrive on time at his workplace, a Mexican themed restaurant that had drained the souls of all employees excluding him.
"I guess that's something I admire about him..." She thought, impressed by his ability to stay in good spirits despite a shockingly cruel work environment. "I wouldn't last a week in that kitchen and I doubt Steve could either..."
The memory of her old friend alerted Barbara to the fact that she had yet to decide on a present for Steve like in previous years. She considered using her day off as an opportunity to find something he'd appreciate, though it soon started to seem like a terrible idea.
They weren't children or adolescents anymore. He was a man, she was a woman and he now belonged to someone else. She didn't know much about how Karen was as a person, so it felt foolish to possibly endanger a relationship with some token of friendship.
She eventually decided to buy Carlos a bottle of cologne and passed a newsagent on her way to the department store.
A group of middle aged people crowded the sidewalk while staring at a newspaper stand in shock. The sight brought to mind a story her grandpa used to tell about his childhood and she too stopped to find out what was garnering such reactions.
"Shot by a fan. I can't believe it..." An overweight man said with a solemn shake of the head, right before Barbara caught sight of the headline and was taken aback.
Tony entered the living room after tucking his son in bed, to find that Patricia had already put on John Lennon's second album.
The two of them sat down upon the sofa without exchanging words and simply allowed the music to take their minds back to late 1971, when they'd sworn not to part again after three years of separation.
Chapter 11: Too Much Time On My Hands
Kevin stumbled in through the door of the flat he shared with a couple of friends, his face flushed bright red and sight blurry from partaking in heavy drinking after work. He struggled to keep balance while grabbing on to the frame for support, as one roommate turned to stare at him warily.
He remained oblivious and took a moment to regain balance before walking unsteadily past until a large object caught his eye.
The steel golf club was almost indistinguishable from an axe to his distorted vision and he picked it up with a wide grin. He vaguely remembered watching The Shining months earlier, a movie that seemed rather humorous in retrospect.
"Hey, Jeff!" He screamed while raising the golf club high above his head.
Jeff spun around just in time for Kevin to bring the club down hard upon a nearby cushion, causing it to rupture slightly. The sound filled Kevin with glee and he slammed his 'weapon' downwards a second time.
Kevin's apparent madness prompted Jeff to flee into the next room in terror, where professional painter Janice was busy starting her latest work. She soon sensed that something was wrong and placed her paintbrush aside warily.
She tiptoed into the main room to see Kevin battering a couch cushion as white stuffing scattered over the floor. He stopped the moment she approached and slowly lowered the golf club in guilt.
"Kevin, don't you understand?" She began, running a hand through her curly hair to alleviate stress. "When you come home and destroy furniture, you're breaking my concentration. I need peace of mind to produce quality artwork and it'll take me time to find it again!"
She turned back around and slammed the door shut, leaving Kevin alone to gradually sober up and realize what he'd done.
"Mike, I love you! But we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!" Sharon exclaimed ecstatically as she poked her head into Michael's room and annoyed him yet again by paraphrasing a quote from Flash Gordon.
Michael dropped his pencil in shock and glared up at her.
"Shut up, Sharon. It's not funny anymore..."
"I know, but you look so cute when you're annoyed! Like right now, for instance."
Michael's exasperation grew and he clenched his fists in frustration.
"Sharon, it's not a good movie. It's like they were influenced by Star Wars, but couldn't write any good lines."
"That's the joke."
"Well, if it's a joke, then I don't get it."
"Suit yourself. I guess I'll be running along now..."
"Please, just call me Clarence. We're all equals here..." The sharply dressed man in his forties insisted as he guided Barbara around the area she'd be working in.
"Yes, Mr...I mean, Clarence."
"That's right, sweetheart..." Clarence replied in a tone that was almost patronizing, though Barbara tried to attribute it to the fact that she was young and inexperienced.
"You need to be here. You'll pass the admission test and this job will give you firsthand experience..."
"Now, you'll be using this phone to take some of my calls and over here is where documents will be filed. I'll get into more detail about that later. Any questions?"
"Not so far, Clarence."
"Well, don't be afraid to ask if you do. Now, where were we?"
"Don't you display that know-it-all attitude around me!" Clarence suddenly snarled, prompting Barbara to freeze in fear and regret saying what was supposed to have been a helpful cue.
"I'm terribly sorry, sir."
"Sir?! I said to call me Clarence!"
Barbara clenched one fist and subsequently relaxed upon taking a long, deep breath.
"Just a few more minutes and he'll be out of your hair..."
"Dad, feel free to have a drink and sit down with me." Steve uttered with a solemn expression, pushing a glass of cheap beer towards Ross while taking the other in his own hand. "We need to talk."
"I'm all ears, son..." Ross replied obediently as they seated themselves opposite each other at the table. An odd sense of pride came over him as he thought about how Steve had been a scrawny twelve year old the last time they'd parted.
"Young man like you could be a bigger success with ladies than I was, if only you tried..."
"Karen told me some...worrying things about you before she left. She's coming back next week so for her sake and mine, try to act a little more decent."
"If decency means pretending that she isn't a looker, than I'm not having it."
"Dad, you don't understand. I've never seen her look so uncomfortable around anyone and to be honest...it hurts me too."
Ross gaped at him for a moment, dumbfounded.
"I can't believe it. You love her."
"Well, I don't know, actually. I'm still figuring it out..."
"Don't deny it. You're falling into a trap and if you're not careful, she'll enslave you the way your mother did with me. Hell, it's already starting..."
Chapter 12: Just the Two of Us
"Steve, where's your Dad? Is he out?" Karen asked while she unpacked her bag and realized that there was no third person currently in the apartment.
Steve's expression was cryptic as he gave a simple answer.
"He's gone back to live with my Mom. Said he wanted to right another wrong."
She looked back down at her luggage and Steve shuffled away without much of a sound. He sat down upon one of the small dining chairs before letting the guilt of having forced out his own father wash over him.
"Karen?" Steve spoke up some time after he'd allowed her to huddle right up beside him in front of the television. The feeling of her head brushing against his shoulder was quite comforting and without much thought, he had begun stroking her long hair as a means of seeking gratification.
"Yeah?" She replied lazily, shifting her eyes toward him.
"I love you." He confessed for the arguably selfish reason of trying to justify what he'd done. "I really do..."
Karen went back to focusing on the latest episode of Dallas, while Steve tried to figure out how much she really meant to him. It was definitely more than his parents or any other family members whom still acknowledged his existence, but he had a hard time weighing her against a childhood friend like Barbara Sullivan whom had been one of the first to make him feel valued.
He approached the issue a different way by envisioning a future in which they were married with a child or two, only to find that the implications of being a husband and father terrified him.
There were certain days that Tony just had to feel grateful for the course his life had taken. Here he was at the age of thirty-three, married to the woman he'd dated in college and with a five year old son due to begin elementary school in six months.
It frightened him at the same time however, to imagine that he could very easily have ended up in a loveless marriage with someone who seemed to be always on the verge of biting into him as if he were some slab of meat.
"Thank God I didn't listen to my parents..." He thought in relief despite knowing that his reasons had been fuelled by far more than the need to rebel.
He took a quick trip to the living room to make sure that David hadn't done anything out of the ordinary, before stepping back into the kitchen to spoon chicken soup into a large bowl.
Patricia had once mentioned that a nanny used to prepare it whenever she was sick and now Tony took it upon himself to continue the tradition as a means of reminding his wife of her childhood.
He took the bowl and a soup spoon upstairs to where she lay in bed with a bad cold. She declined his offer of assistance and did her best to swallow each spoonful.
"I'll go buy some more medicine today. You'll be your old self again by Monday."
"I can only hope..." Patricia murmured, before grabbing a tissue and blowing her nose. "...take David to the park this afternoon. He spent all of yesterday in front of the TV."
"Will do, honey..."
Tony watched David closely while they stood together on the bridge and watched ducks gliding through the water.
"Daddy, can we feed them?"
"Not today, but I'll bring some bread next week."
David batted the hazel eyes that had been inherited from Patricia which prompted Tony to remembered the first time he'd felt them gazing at him.
The days of believing he was one half of a star-crossed couple were long over and current issues led to him getting into occasional disputes with Patricia, sometimes over things that seemed quite petty in hindsight.
Still, he was able to remind himself that being involved in heated arguments paled in comparison to how life would be, if he had continued pretending to love former classmate Dolores.
Chapter 13: I Love a Rainy Night
A thirteen year old boy was found stranded in a local Gold Rush mine on Saturday. His family contacted the department when he failed to return from a day out and they are very grateful to have him back.
The boy whose identity will remain undisclosed, contracted hypothermia from the harsh weather conditions that night, but is expected to make a full recovery.
Michael consulted the list of things he would do to pass the time now that Sharon was preparing for her final school exams and deciding what to study in college.
One of the most prominent items was to visit the abandoned goldmine a couple of miles from the outskirts of town. An entire history lesson about the gold rush that occurred between 1848 and 1855 profoundly interested him, despite Judith stating that her family had left Ireland long afterwards.
"Maybe I'll talk to that guy Steve who works for my Dad. He's Irish too..." He thought before realizing he'd have to be tactful and convince someone like Lenny to ask on his behalf.
A chance came on the weekend when he once again played for his father's employees at the garage. He approached Lenny before work and was able to reach an understanding with the twenty-eight year old quite easily.
"Sure, kiddo. I'll quiz him about his background. Don't you worry..."
Michael smiled when Lenny went back to work. Being his Dad's son certainly did have it's advantages.
"So, Steve, where are your parents from?" Lenny asked with a snicker while lighting a cigarette during their lunch break.
"Why do you want to know?"
"Nowhere. They were both born in this town."
"How about your grandparents?"
"Same with them."
"Okay, Steve. What do you know about the Gold Rush?"
"Not much. Where is this going?"
"Tell me about your grandma and grandpa. Are they still alive and kicking?"
"Well, if you really want to know..." Steve began as he decided to give Lenny a false lead. "My Grandma was a real gold digger. Everyone knew about her."
"Really? What did she find?"
"My Grandpa, who she married for the money. They had my Mom, who then had me. End of story."
It took just over two hours to get there with a town map and compass guiding him. Michael dropped his bike off near an ancient and faded signpost before scanning the area to find that no other signs of life were in sight.
"I wonder why nobody else comes here. Did the miners really take every single bit of gold?"
A cold gust of wind sent a chill down Michael's back as he became aware of something ominous that he couldn't quite grasp. The simplest explanation he could think of was that countless people had suffered or died in this place and their souls were crying out in pain, similar to how the destruction of Alderaan had caused a great disturbance in the Force.
He didn't want to turn back after such a long trip however, so he ate a chocolate bar from his backpack before proceeding.
The sight of a mostly collapsed wooden fence prompted him to try to imagine the people who built it and how life was for them. According to his teacher, only a lucky few found what they wanted while everybody else continued to search fruitlessly.
He bent down to observe a picket on the ground and noticed that the sharp end meant that it could have easily been used as a weapon against assailants.
The idea of an actual person being impaled by such a thing made him sick to the stomach, so he opted to move on to something else.
He stopped to peek over the edge of one mine entrance, only to learn too late that the structure was nowhere as sturdy as it looked.
The ground suddenly gave way beneath his feet and sent him plunging straight down in a mass of dirt and dust.
He landed at the bottom of the pit with a scream before his surroundings went dark.
Michael broke down in tears after failing several times to climb back out with his twisted ankle and shouting for help until his throat was sore. He started considering the notion that he would die without anyone knowing and imagining his own tombstone epitaph wasn't comforting at all.
"Michael Russo, 1968 - 1981. An average brother and son who we will miss forever."
He resigned himself to such a fate and curled up to stay warm as the hours slithered by. Evening brought droplets of rain that grew heavier and more rapid until Michael's hair and clothes were completely soaked.
An ensuing flash of lightning made it clear that his situation was about to get much worse.
Chapter 14: Urgent
Forty-two-year-old Grace Donovan did not shy away from expressing pleasure the moment that she climaxed while lying beneath Ross. Her loud and primal moans put the orgasms of all his younger lovers to shame and reminded him that she still held a special place in his heart despite how much they clashed in all other aspects of life.
"I'm gonna be honest..." Grace said huskily as she lit herself a cigarette after their second round. "Twenty-four years and you're still the best I've ever had..."
"I second that. You brought me the only child I've ever given a damn about."
"Oh, really? If you cared so much about Steve, why didn't you take him with you? I'll admit I was a lousy mother..."
"Grace, shall I tell you the truth?" Ross replied while holding his hand out to signal that he also wished to smoke. "It was that little girl Barbara he always played with. They were like two puppies, always clinging together and licking each other's wounds. It was plain adorable and I just couldn't break them up, but I guess it wound up being all for nothing..."
"What do you mean? Aren't they still together?"
"No. It seems like he's left her for another girl named Karen."
Such news made Grace feel sorry for the one whom used to represent in her view, everything that she'd been denied as a teenager. She gave a sigh of grief at the thought of Steve following in his father's footsteps and found herself once again harboring animosity toward Ross.
"So much for loyalty. She was pretty and gave him nothing but love and respect, yet that wasn't good enough?"
"Grace, you don't understand. This girl Karen has some real nice assets. I'll bet she's satisfying our Steve in ways that Barbara wouldn't ever dream of. There's only so much a man can get from the girl next door, if you know what I mean..."
Sharon made sure her lips were moist before getting into the car with Brian for another one of the many dates that were supposed to deceive people into thinking they were a couple.
"You've remembered both tickets, right?"
"Yeah, I have. You ready for this?"
"I sure am. Now give me a kiss..."
Brian obliged by leaning forward at the same time she did. Their lips met and Sharon instinctively shut her eyes while realizing that his technique had improved a lot since their awkward first attempt.
"Wow that actually felt good. Really good..." She couldn't help but think after pulling away.
"How much longer do you think we need to keep this up?" Brian asked later as he grasped the steering wheel and pulled away from the kerb. "Not that it isn't nice being with you..."
"I don't know. How much do you really like me?"
"Well, I guess there's something that really turns me on about the whole ladette thing you've got going on. Sounds crazy, doesn't it?"
"Not as much as me finding your red hair and freckles insanely attractive..." Sharon replied with a teasing smile. "I've never been into those features before."
"You're an incredible girl, Russo."
She allowed him to walk her to the door upon returning home after Arthur, while realizing that the feeling growing inside of her could no longer be denied.
"Brian, wait!" She called out earnestly just as he was about to return to his car. He stopped and turned to face her expectantly.
"Something up, Russo?"
"No, it's just..."
Sharon let her actions do the rest of the talking as she pulled Brian close and kissed him again with genuine passion. His eyes briefly widened in surprise at her boldness, though he soon responded by closing them and holding her tightly like he'd wanted to do for the past year.
Chapter 15: Girls on Film
"...you'll never look at music the same way again!"
Lisa sat down upon the living room floor to watch the new cable channel that had launched just days before. A music video by a rock band called 'The Who' started to play and the visuals eclipsed whatever the musicians happened to be singing, to the point that she heard their words as incoherent nonsense.
Another video featuring an attractive woman with dark hair and heavy eye shadow particularly caught her interest. She crawled forward until she was right in front of the television screen and traced a finger over the woman's face.
"Mom..." She whispered while observing how much the singer resembled the late Jeanette Bukowski.
Carlos was two weeks into his new job yet he still hadn't found the bravery to tell Barbara about the change. Each morning, he would put on the clothes that he'd worn as a kitchen assistant, then change into something appropriate after arriving at his place of employment.
The indoor film set was still being prepared as he followed directions and took his position as cameraman. The two stars of the film soon emerged from the change rooms, one a busty blonde in a skimpy cowgirl outfit and the other a man with a hairy chest whom wore only cowboy hat and underpants.
Filming two people performing simulated sex repeatedly from different angles had ceased to be shocking on the first day, but Carlos still dreaded Barbara's possible reaction if she found out.
"She'll think of me as a dirty pig, which I am... not?"
Sharon opened her eyes slowly and rubbed her aching head before sitting to glance around a room that clearly didn't belong to her. Memories of the previous night came rushing back and their legitimacy was confirmed by Brian's sleeping body hanging limply off the edge of the bed.
She reached out a hand to shake him awake and he immediately lifted his head with a confused murmur.
"Sharon...what did we do last night?"
"I... I'm pretty sure we-"
Her explanation was cut short by the bedroom door suddenly opening and a woman with Brian's red hair bursting in.
"Oh, my God! I thought she was just-" She cried out while eyeing them both in shock.
"Keep it down, Mom! You're so embarrassing!"
The woman nervously apologized before darting out of the room and leaving them alone once more. Brian turned to smile hopefully at Sharon.
"Well, I guess this is it. I'll be heading off next week and you'll-"
"Get accepted into cosmetology school." Sharon said drily, finishing the sentence for Brian. "If not, I guess I'll just fall back on what I know about cars and welding."
"Good luck. You'll be one of the best, I just know it... "
Sharon didn't bother to find out which of the three fields he was referring to.
Patricia used the time between ordering and the waiter's return to scribble additional points into her notebook, which caught Tony's curiosity as he stood up to take five-year-old David to the bathroom.
"Notes for your next article? What are you reporting on this time?" He asked upon returning later with David's hand in his.
"We're preparing a feature on professional wear for fall. Our readers want to be taken seriously at work without having to sacrifice their style."
"I see." Tony replied, nodding in understanding while sitting back down. "If only there was such dedication behind advising us men how to dress..."
"Oh, you needn't worry. I'd say you're a dish all year round..." Patricia replied before giving her husband the look that indicated she was hoping for some romance later in the evening.
Chapter 16: Physical
"That'll do for today, Oliver. You've made so much progress this month..." Karen congratulated her last client for the day before seeing him off and breathing a sigh of relief that her shift was over.
She stripped down in the staff restroom after signing off and took a shower there so that the apartment's water bill could be reduced, then put on her warm outdoor clothes and officially closed the gym for the day.
The only phone in the apartment rung while she helped herself to leftovers that night and she answered to find in pleasant surprise that Steve was on the other end.
"...I just want to let you know that I'll be home late tonight. I'm meeting an old friend."
"Well, thanks for telling me. Should I wait up for you?"
"Okay. Have fun then..."
"Steve, I love-"
He hung up and left her suspecting from his terse manner that she had somehow upset him over the past week. She frowned and sat down at the table while trying to remember every potentially insensitive thing she'd said or done.
Steve entered the bar not long after spending some change to call Karen at a payphone and immediately glanced around for a sign of Barbara. She noticed him first and caught his attention with a wave. He responded by taking the stool beside her while she greeted him warmly.
"Steve, long time no see!"
"Hey, Barb." He replied with ease since she was like the twin sister he'd never had, something which made the brief period they'd dated as teenagers seem almost incestuous in hindsight. "I take it there's something you need to get off your chest?"
"Yeah, but you can start first if-"
"Nah, it's a touchy topic. I'll feel braver after hearing from you..."
"Well, if you insist. My story's pretty embarrassing though..."
"Hey, you know I won't judge." Steve said reassuringly while waving over an idle bartender. "One beer for me and..."
"...Two beers, sir. Take your time, we're in no hurry." Barbara spoke up before turning back to her childhood friend. "Okay...you remember how I told you about Carlos' job?"
"Well, he thinks I have no idea, but I know that he's working at...an adult film studio."
Steve had to take a deep breath to prevent himself from laughing.
"I've been working on easing him into opening up about it..." Barbara explained, ever the manipulator with good intentions. "...but there's one thing that still bothers me."
"It's those porn stars he sees every day. I know I'll never compare, I'm too much of a prude."
"Hey, you shouldn't have to worry..." Steve said in sympathy as he reached out to lightly brush the back of Barbara's hand.
"What do you mean?"
"If Carlos really loves you..." He continued while thinking of just how patient Karen always was with him. "...then he'll understand and accept that you're not a freak. If not, well, you know what to do..."
"Thanks, Steve. I can't believe I just told you all that."
The bartender arrived with their drinks and they both stopped to thank the man. Barbara looked up at Steve expectantly after taking a sip and he realized it was his turn to come clean. He made sure nobody was listening nearby before lowering the volume of his voice.
"It's a lot like what you've told me about, except, I think I might actually be sub par..."
"Oh, I can understand that. You're not exactly weightless when it comes to emotional baggage and hang-ups..."
"Yeah, I guess."
"But I know something you could try. Let's say that you're a guy who's never known his Mom or Dad, yet there's this girl. She's beautiful and sexy and she's everything you've ever dreamed of. You know how empty life would be without her, so you'd do anything to keep her safe by your side..."
Steve took Barbara's advice to heart and while lying in bed with Karen the following night, made the first step to try and improve things between them.
"Karen?" He spoke up, prompting the brunette to roll over and face him.
"I love you..."
"Are you alright, Steve? This is the second time you've said that this month..."
"No, I'm not..." He muttered quietly while finding that repeating Barbara's words in his head really did have the effect of amplifying how lovely Karen looked lying next to him. "Things have been really rough for me lately. Could I hold you, for just a little while?"
Chapter 17: Pac-Man Fever
Skip the first part if you don't want to read about Julie.
Julie Fontana returned home to spend time with family after leaving the pet store where she'd been working for just over a year. A former dating show contestant whom had starred in a few rather cheesy laundry commercials, she did not regret leaving the spotlight to take care of animals and live in relative obscurity.
Hardly anyone recognized her when she stopped at the grocery store on the way back and bought some expensive cheeses that her mother wanted for a special Christmas platter before going back to the car in relief.
A reminder of the time she'd flaunted her status as a single woman on television came in the form of a photograph that still rested in the car's glove box to this day. It was of Burt Alfalfa, the contestant she'd chosen to date that evening and broken things off with a month later due to complications such as their twelve-year age gap and his allergy to dogs.
He'd moved back to his home state shortly afterwards and she wondered sometimes how he was living now and whether he'd found someone else to spend life with.
She took a deep breath while acknowledging that such memories were ancient history and it was about time to move on by seeking a man her age, then turned off the ignition and prepared to reunite with her family.
Fourteen-year-old Pete and thirteen-year-old Andrew both gave her hugs of joy before she entered the kitchen to meet her mother Angela.
"I guess those two are as crazy as ever..." She said in good humor after offering to help with dinner, despite finding her younger brothers' antics to be no more outrageous than her own behavior as a young adolescent.
"Tell me about it. You and Paolo were never as loud or demanding."
"Mom, I think that's just your nostalgia talking..."
"Well, maybe. Could you call Rita downstairs, please? She's part of this family too..."
Pete and Andrew had spent the day collecting money from the rest of their family and the arrival of Julie in the evening meant they'd have enough for the arcade.
They were driven there by their father Giancarlo, whom reminded them to be back out in an hour before letting them off near the building's entrance.
Michael, a family friend of theirs, met them inside and soon introduced a fair-haired boy named Christopher.
"Hey, Christopher. Nice to meet you, I'm Pete."
Pete extended his hand to shake Christopher's rather firmly, then let go and asked how much money the boy had brought along.
It turned out that they had just enough to last an hour, so they crept up on a pair of older teenagers playing Pac-Man and waited like vultures until it was their turn.
Pete went first and zoomed through the maze as fast as he could, while the other three boys yelled advice in excitement and threatened to ruin his concentration.
"He's gaining on you! Turn the corner!"
"Hey, why didn't you eat those dots?!"
"Get that cherry! Get it!"
"I know! Just shut up and let me play!"
Pete frantically yanked the joystick and wound up running into Blinky, thus causing him to lose his last life before the game-over screen appeared.
"Goddamnit!" He cried out while kicking the machine in frustration. "I almost made it!"
"Um, Pete..." Andrew spoke up tentatively, tapping his brother on the shoulder. "Look on the bright side. I think you've just beaten your previous high score."
Pete saw the figures next to his name and beamed in pride. He spent a few seconds enjoying the achievement before turning around.
"So, which one of you little shits want to go next?"
Andrew and Michael raised their hands in unison while Christopher was temporarily distracted by a young girl with red hair and a cheeky smile.
Pete chose Michael for the sake of not being biased towards his family and the thirteen-year-old stepped up to the machine to begin a new game.
He put all his focus into getting through the maze while dodging the ghosts and entered a trance-like state that rendered him oblivious to everything else happening.
He came close to overtaking Pete's score once his turn was over and smiled contently before stepping aside to give Andrew a long-awaited chance.
All four boys could see bright circles dancing in the air when they left the arcade together an hour later and Giancarlo pulled up towards them right on time.
"Get in, you three. It's late." The weathered fifty-year-old ordered loudly while nodding at his two sons. Michael paused hesitantly to stare back.
"You too, Mike. I'm saving your parents an extra trip."
Michael sprang into action and wished Christopher well before joining Pete and Andrew in the backseat. Christopher waved glumly as the car took off and hoped that either his mother or cousin Barbara would come to collect him soon.
"We should definitely do this again." Andrew proclaimed halfway through the trip back. "Let them not forget who we are..."
"Great idea. We'll meet up some time next year..." Pete agreed before turning to Michael. "Don't forget to tell your friend Chris. He wasn't into it tonight..."
Chapter 18: Working for the Weekend
"Well, I guess the weekend's finally here." Lenny stated as if it weren't an obvious fact while he passed Steve on the footpath after work and slapped the younger man on the shoulder. "Any special plans?"
"No, not really. I-"
"Gonna spend it with your girlfriend, then? What's her name again?"
Lenny stopped to give Steve a wink as his lips curved upwards into a lascivious smile.
"Gonna treat her just right, I bet. Lord knows I'll be doing the same with my girl Gina..."
He hit Steve on the shoulder a second time before heading to his car and firing one last glance back.
"Have fun! Both of you!"
Steve simply cringed while watching his co-worker drive away and remembering how the last time he'd slept with Karen had resulted in his head hitting the bed post. On the bright side, learning to cast all troubles aside during the act seemed to have worked wonders for his performance and in line with Lenny's words, he found that he couldn't wait to do it again.
"Sex can feel great after all. Who would have thought?"
A shop assistant turned her head in surprise when a young woman with boyish short hair and a Hispanic looking man about the same age marched into the store side-by-side as if they were on a mission.
"Good morning. How may I help you?"
"We're looking for formal wear. For parties." Barbara answered with purpose before the shop assistant hastily directed her and Carlos toward the appropriate parts of the store.
A good couple of hours were spent trying on everything that caught their eye whether it be a glossy evening dress or designer suit, and giving feedback about how the other looked.
They split the payment at the checkout before heading back on to the street in high spirits and looking forward to going dancing that evening.
"I feel kind of guilty..." Barbara admitted after putting her purchases in the trunk. "I've never spent so much on a dress, let alone a pair of sunglasses."
"Hey, don't be. I once spent a whole week of my wages on a nice leisure suit."
"Really? How often did you wear it?"
"Every time I went to the disco. Nobody noticed and if you're wondering, I was wearing it the first time I met you."
"Oh. I barely remember that night..."
"Of course you don't. You got drunk and I helped get you home."
Barbara briefly avoided eye contact in embarrassment while they sat down in the car. She stared up at the rear view mirror and remembered checking her reflection on prom night in 1976. Her hair had still been long and straight back then, and Steve had told her she'd looked pretty before they set out of the house together.
"Are you okay? You look worried." Carlos spoke up in concern as he turned the steering wheel.
"I'm fine. Just remembering an old friend..."
After spending the previous weekend celebrating his birthday and sleeping in with Karen, Steve learned of her decision that it was about time he met the rest of her family.
"I thought you didn't care about what they thought..." He groaned while rolling over lazily in bed and resisting her attempt to make him get up.
"Steve, I'm going to be twenty-five next week. I may not act like it sometimes, but I'm still a traditional girl. Having my parents approve of you would mean the world to me."
"Alright. I'll be with you in five minutes..." Steve muttered as he was reminded again that Karen was in fact a whole year older than him. He waited for her to leave the room before sitting up and starting to get dressed. The practice of officially meeting a significant other's family was rather alien to him, for as a child, he'd come to know Barbara's parents quite well years before they'd shared their first kiss.
They set out together shortly after breakfast so that Karen could drive all the way into the suburbs to reach the medium-sized house in which she'd grown up with her brother. Steve grew tense when he looked out of the window and repeated a planned greeting a few more times in his head.
"Everything will be fine, Steve. My parents always wanted me to be with an honest, hard-working Irish guy and I think you fit the bill..."
"Come on, you're putting it too nicely. You know that I can be a real lazy bum sometimes..."
Karen let out a laugh of amusement at such self-deprecation.
"See, that just proves my point. You don't think you work hard enough."
Steve shrugged in resignation and opened the door to follow his girlfriend out of the car before they walked hand-in-hand up towards the front door. Karen rang the bell and a slightly overweight and matronly woman came to greet them no less than a minute later.
"Karen, my baby girl..." The woman spoke up joyfully while breaking into an infectious smile. "You're right on time. Give your old Ma a hug..."
Steve stepped back to allow the two females room as they rushed into each other's arms to embrace in such a way that left him lamenting the poor relationship he had with his own parents. He had to smile regardless, for it was clear that Karen was adored by her parents very much and the thought was enough to give him a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
Mr Murphy turned out to look and act exactly the way Steve had imagined. The man was a pastor with a stocky build and a slight brogue that made it seem likely that he'd grown up in Ireland and immigrated as an adolescent or young adult.
Hearing Karen speak nothing but good about him at the dining table that evening felt anything but deserved and the way Mrs Murphy piled food on his plate like he was a long lost son was enough to make him feel like there was some catch to such hospitality.
The answer to his doubts came in an unexpected form when after dinner, Mr Murphy casually handed him a can of beer from the refrigerator and suggested they all watch the Super Bowl together. Steve politely agreed despite being uninterested in football, out of the fear of being seen as a killjoy.
Karen and her parents guzzled down their drinks in no time while players rushed at each other on television. Mr Murphy began to howl and bellow at the screen like the drunk Irishman he really was at heart, before Karen and her mother soon joined in.
Steve was taken aback and was at a loss for words for quite a while at how to react to such a scene. Karen was displaying a side that he didn't know had existed and it was then that he realized what sort of child she must have been.
"When in Rome..." He thought in resignation while swallowing nervously and clutching his half-finished drink tightly, before forcing himself to play along. He opened his mouth and began doing his best impression of an obsessed sports fan in the hope that it would help him fit in.
Chapter 19: Heat of the Moment
Five-year-old Barbara at at the back of the family car with grandfather Irving whilst parents Roger and Lesley briefly discussed which radio station they'd listen to. It was soon decided that harmless pop songs would be most appropriate for the occasion and the sound of a complex guitar melody immediately caught the interest of all present.
"I recognize this song..." Irving proclaimed upon hearing the lyrics. "It's Walk Right In..."
"...by The Rooftop Singers." Lesley added, finishing her father-in-law's sentence. "Excellent harmony, don't you think?"
"Better than the original, I have to admit..."
"I'm in the mood for some singing. Do you want to join Mommy, Barbara? I think we'll sound wonderful together..."
Barbara shook her head with a timid smile. before Lesley burst into song anyway. The woman's pleasant voice was soon accompanied by that of Roger and Irving's, the latter of whom soon shed a few tears for good times that would never return again.
Barbara got behind the steering wheel and rather apathetically started the engine before switching on the radio. A recently released song by The Clash was pure pleasure to her ears and it was enough to make her feel a lot more enthusiastic about spending the day alone.
She pulled out of her parking spot and was soon cruising through suburban streets with the windows down, all the while wearing the same sunglasses she'd purchased back in January.
Passing by the cemetery reminded her of Irving's funeral in 1974 and how it had affected her parents in ways beyond just the grieving process.
"...I just really want my old parents back. You know, the respectable suburban couple that act their age; not two fake bohemians who organize sex parties..." Barbara vented, tucking long hair behind her ear whilst kneeling on the floor and waiting for Steve to finish rolling up their joints.
"There's that word again..." Steve said in response as he passed one of them to her moments later. "What does it actually mean?"
"Well..." Barbara began, remembering that he didn't have access to a dictionary. "...I guess it means someone who goes against social conventions...like a hippie."
"I had a feeling it was something like that, though it still doesn't help me understand that song. You know which one I'm talking about..."
Steve shifted his focus to the lighter in his hand and flicked it on before putting the flame to the end of his joint. He then released his index finger and instinctively closed his eyes as he inhaled, due to the stinging smoke.
"Oh man, this one's pretty strong..."
He extended his arm to place the lighter in Barbara's open palm and she took it whilst once again making a solemn vow not to tell an outside soul about what they did when his mother was out.
Her words fell on indifferent ears however, for the drug was already beginning to take it's effect on Steve. A long trail of smoke expelled itself from his lips and seemed to take on a life of it's own; resembling a slithering snake moving over rough ground.
Barbara pulled up at a gas station to refuel her car. The sound of petroleum being pumped into the engine was slow and rhythmic, which prompted her to begin counting the seconds between each chug to pass the time.
She entered the adjoining store afterwards to pay and the sight of low-priced cigars caught her eye. She took one at random despite it's cheapness and the fact that tobacco was clearly more harmful than marijuana, so that she could somewhat compensate for an unfulfilled promise Irving once made to let her try one when she came of age.
Steve was the first to step out of the car and he walked around to open the door for Barbara like a gentleman, a gesture that threw her for a loop due to him having never been so courteous in the past.
She had to smile in gratitude however, since it was obvious that he cared a lot about her, though whether it was in a platonic or romantic way still seemed unclear.
The formal suit and pants borrowed from her father were both a size too large for Steve and they hung loosely off his body in a way that made him look somewhat sloppy.
He waited for her to take the lead before following close behind.
"This is it. We should brace ourselves..."
"For what?" Barbara asked in surprise, striding along in heels that matched her glittery blue dress.
"The stares. I mean, you look really pretty tonight..."
She couldn't help but blush at the compliment despite her efforts to play it cool.
Barbara found out from Carlos soon after returning home that their old friend Gloria had invited them to a get-together some time the following week. She asked him for further details and learned that a few others like Kevin, Cheryl, Bruce and Randy would also be there.
She thought back to the other friendships she'd had in high school and wondered what the chances were of encountering Steve at the little reunion. They hadn't seen or spoken to each other for months now and it was clear that he was already building a new life that spared very little room for her.
"Who am I kidding? I'm guilty of that too..." She reminded herself while remembering that she was equally to blame for their drifting apart after graduation. They'd been so focused on establishing themselves and chasing personal dreams that it was no surprise they had both ended up running into the arms of other people.
She remembered the cigar that was purchased earlier and fished it out of her handbag before sitting down by a nearby window to begin smoking.
"Steve, if you keep shaking, it's gonna blow up in your face!" Barbara yelled, prompting Steve to abruptly stop before he popped off the bottle's cap and proceeded with their little summer experiment.
He lit a match and dropped it carefully through the mouth of bottle than dashed away from it like he was running from a ticking bomb. Barbara and Kevin stood back in nervous anticipation as he joined their side.
The flame instantly fizzled out and all three twelve-year-olds were rather dismayed at the lack of an explosive outcome. They let out a collective groan of disappointment that was soon followed by Steve's mother Grace storming out to know what they were doing with her prized liquor.
Chapter 20: Eye of the Tiger
It was the beginning of another academic year and Michael was nervous to say the least about his first day of high school. He was still quite short compared to other boys his age whom seemed to have already started their growth spurts, something that told him navigating around people would be like traipsing through a jungle.
He took one last glance in the mirror when Judith called him downstairs and felt glad that she no longer felt the need to give him embarrassing haircuts.
The phone rang soon after he sat down to eat breakfast and Judith answered to find in delight that the caller was none other than Sharon.
"Oh, darling! You haven't called for a week! How have things been?"
"Mom, now's not the time. Is Michael around?"
"Yes..." Judith replied, turning around briefly to look at Michael. "What's going on?"
"Just get him on the line. It's urgent..."
Judith guessed thar her daughter wanted to discuss sibling matters and ushered Michael over so that he could speak to Sharon, then walked away to allow him some privacy.
"Hey, Sharon. I'm going to school soon, so make it-"
"Michael, listen to me. I didn't know what I was in for as a freshman, so I'm telling you now. Stick with a large group and blend in as much as you can from now on. The seniors always pick the loners first..."
"I don't understand..."
"It's the annual hazing rituals. Nobody's safe, but you can ride out the worst of it..."
Michael swallowed in fear as he remembered the day Sharon came home covered in bits of raw egg and sporting a black eye. She'd refused to talk about it at the time but he now understood what must have happened. He didn't want to go through anything similar, so he became determined to know more.
"So, if I do that, they'll leave me alone?"
"No, they'll just be too worn out to do anything really bad..."
"Sharon, I'm scared..."
"Don't be. It's the first day and they'll still be warming up. But in case something happens, I'll call when you get home..."
Michael thanked his sister before turning to Judith with a thumping heart and shakily asking if she wanted to resume her earlier conversation.
Lisa faked a smile as she got out of the car and waved goodbye to George so as not to give him another thing to worry about, then let the happy expression fade once he drove off.
It was her third day at Sacred Hearts High School and she checked around for a sign of the senior girls seen harassing one of her classmates the day before.
They didn't seem to be anywhere close so she trudged alone through the school gates in relief.
She spent the time before class reading in the safety of the library and warily left when the bell rang, doing her best to stay inconspicuous while walking through the hallways.
Five days of keeping a low profile and trying to fit in with the crowd proved to be all in vain on Friday, when she learned that her classmates were still just as much of a threat.
Garbage was dumped on her from above as she got changed in a toilet cubicle and the time taken to get it all off afterwards resulted in her being late for Physical Education.
She did not have the courage to explain to the teacher the reason for her tardiness, so she was made to stay back for an extra fifteen minutes after everyone else had left.
A senior with frizzy blonde hair approached to block her path on the way home and Lisa immediately turned to run in the opposite direction, only to be ambushed by several more girls.
They dragged her into an empty parking lot where at the order of their leader, she was made to lie down right against the asphalt.
One can of what must have been beer was opened and the contents were emptied all over her hair and clothes. She choked as some of the liquid trickled down her face, then into her nose and mouth.
A second can was produced before the other girls stepped back to allow Lisa to stand. Their leader came forward and held the can out in front of her face.
"Drink up, bitch."
Lisa became aware of the smell of vomit as her senses cleared enough for her to realize where she was. She shifted numbly in the grass and the sight of the night sky above made her twitch in alarm.
"Where...where did the time go?"
She rose unsteadily to her feet and raised one hand to nurse her aching head, before taking a step forward.
The next step caused her to lose balance and she fell right back on the ground despite growing desperation. She could neither remember what had led up to the present nor the faces of the girls whom had trapped her near the school.
She forced herself up into a sitting position with a whimper and while wrapping both arms around her knees, noticed a pair of headlights slowly approaching.
"Hi...Sharon..." Michael rasped weakly in his chair not long after arriving home and calling her again. "They...got me..."
There was a long pause at the other end before Sharon made a noise that indicated she was horrified.
"Oh my God! Are you hurt?! What did they do?!"
Michael smiled a little in pride despite the sharp pain all over his body, the feeling that his lungs were about to burst, and the fact that he was drenched with sweat.
"Was...was it hard?"
"Oh God, when did it happen?"
"Is Mom around? How did you get home?"
"Rode my bike..."
He heard Sharon begin to sob a little and his first instinct was to reassure her that he would be fine.
"I'm...okay now. I...don't think they'll come for me again..."
"I know, Mikey. Go to bed and have a rest. If anyone hurts you again, tell me and I'll make sure they learn..."
"Take care of yourself. You did something big today and I'm proud of you..."
Chapter 21: Relax
This chapter is the beginning of another story arc that will focus primarily on Michael and Lisa. As such, its length is considerably shorter than the previous one.
Luke Skywalker: Me
Princess Leia: Sharon
Han Solo: Steve
Obi-Wan Kenobi: ?
Darth Vader: Dad
Summer of 1983
Michael glanced over his updated list with mixed emotions over how his favorite movie trilogy had concluded. While Darth Vader's redemption and sacrifice had brought tears to his eyes as he'd left the movie theater, it still horrified him to know that Luke never had a real chance with Leia from the very beginning.
"Having him be the less cool guy is bad enough, why did they have to make them brother and sister?! Why?!"
The apparent travesty made him want to start crying again and he assumed a fetal position on his bedroom floor.
"It's not fair! If Luke doesn't get anyone, what does that say for me?!" He screamed at the top of his lungs while inadvertently disrupting Rob, whom happened to be in the neighboring room.
"Michael!" Rob yelled in response from the other side of the wall. "If I hear one more thing about Star Wars, I'm coming over to shut you up!"
Michael grew tense and bit his lip due to the suspicion that his father's threat wasn't an empty one. Rob was a Vietnam War veteran whom had seen numerous horrors after all, and to this day it remained a mystery just where the man kept his old M1911 pistol.
"If only he could pull a Darth Vader and do something big to show that he actually loves me..." He thought sadly before trudging over to switch off the light and climb into bed to endure another hot, stuffy night.
"Oh my God..."
Michael's eyes widened in complete horror when he awoke the following morning to find himself feeling rather sticky and stiff down below. His mouth dropped open as he hesitantly shifted out of bed and tiptoed toward the mirror.
He'd heard something about this sort of thing at school a couple of months earlier but at the time, didn't think at all that it could happen to him. Filthy dreams were for other boys like Christopher or the Fontana brothers, not for someone like himself whose destiny was to remain celibate.
The imaginary woman whom had visited the night before possessed an hourglass figure, lustrous auburn hair and sultry blue eyes unlike any female sex symbol he was currently familiar with.
A mere whisper from her lips had been enough to turn him on and the memory resulted in his situation becoming even more worrying.
He crept to the door and opened it slightly so that he could peek into the hallway for signs of his parents. When it was clear that they were nowhere nearby, he grabbed a clean set of pants and made a frantic bolt for the bathroom.
Judith was leaning against the kitchen bench and slowly sipping a cup of coffee as a means of enjoying her morning off, when thunderous steps began to sound from upstairs. She raised her head in alarm and things only became more astounding when Michael charged past no less than a minute later, carrying a mass of linen and bed sheets while on the way to the laundry.
"Michael, what's going on?"
"Nothing, Mom!" He yelled soon after from the other room. "Just show me how to use the washing machine, please?"
Judith gave a sigh and lowered her mug. Just like Sharon, he was trying to hide the effects of his volatile adolescent hormones while being unaware she had already seen her fair share of such things from observing young people in hospitals.
Chapter 22: Too Shy
"So, is there anything else you want to talk to me about?"
Lisa clutched her bag tightly and made brief eye contact with the psychiatrist before staring down at the floor again.
"No, sir. Not really..."
"No pressure. There's always our next session if something else starts bothering you. The important thing is to be kind to yourself, and you'll continue those dance lessons, won't you?"
"Yes, sir." Lisa replied, still reluctant to look him straight in the eye.
"Well, that finishes it for today." The psychiatrist concluded while tucking his pen inside his clipboard. "Should I show you out, or are you fine on your own?"
"I can manage."
"Best of luck then. See you in a month."
Lisa didn't look back as she grabbed her bag and headed for the door. She pulled it open with some difficulty as her anxiety about starting at a new school began to resurface.
"What are boys really like? Are they nicer than girls, or worse?"
"Hey, have you you heard?!" Clive Williams announced, slamming both hands down upon arriving at the table where Michael sat with Christopher Jorgensen and Andrew Fontana.
All three seated boys grew tense from the impact before simultaneously turning their heads to find out what Clive was so excited about.
"You made me spill my juice. This has to be worth it." Andrew said impatiently in response with one fist clenched.
"There was a new girl in our class this morning."
"Really? What's she like? Is she hot?"
Clive's smile faded a little and he withdrew his arms.
"Unfortunately, no. She's pretty shy and a bit of a weirdo, but I wouldn't be judging just yet. Mike, there, used to be like that too..."
"Hey!" Michael said in protest, but Clive was gone as quickly as he had arrived. "What is he thinking, calling me weird?"
Introducing herself for the third time proved to be considerably more easy than the first and Lisa was able to stand rather bravely as all eyes in the classroom focused on her.
"There's a spare seat in that back corner. Make yourself comfortable..." She soon heard the teacher say, and obeyed without hesitation.
She crossed the room to sit down and unpack while cautiously studying the appearances of her new classmates. The various boys caught her interest and she couldn't help but regard them with awe as if they were an alien species.
"Are penises the only thing that make them different? How do their brains work?"
She focused on the boy seated closest to her and found his features to be rather intriguing, though he was far from classically handsome like some of George's favorite Hollywood actors.
'Cute' seemed to be the kindest word to describe his appearance and it was for perhaps that reason, she started to feel like he was someone who could be trusted to behave decently.
It became apparent that she must have been looking for too long, from the way his posture became less relaxed before he turned to eye her in suspicion.
She feigned ignorance by looking straight down at her book, which thankfully worked. He returned his attention to the teacher and she was able to enjoy the next hour in peace.
"Okay, maybe Clive was right. It was weird of her to stare at me like that..." Michael thought while riding his bike and recollecting the day's events.
It seemed foolish to believe that he of all people would be the one she'd find interesting, so he assumed that she must have been just as curious around others in their year level.
"I guess she might have some mental condition, 'cos she's like a little Ewok that I just want to...hug?"
Michael nearly swerved off in the wrong direction upon hearing that last word in his mind. He squeezed his brake in panic and came to a rough stop before wondering what was getting into him.
Chapter 23: She Blinded Me with Science
"Oh, and Michael, if anything strange happens with your body, don't be afraid to talk to me. I'm a nurse, I won't judge..."
Judith's attempt at reassurance only made Michael more uncomfortable and he grabbed his lunchbox without a word, before rushing into the garage to get on his bicycle.
He'd already grown two inches this year and it showed in how lanky he had become. He could trace the outline of his own ribs every time he undressed and it was always enough to make his perpetual hunger stronger.
Wet dreams, or 'nocturnal emissions' as they were called in his health textbook, were now common enough for him to have grown accustomed to getting up early and shoving his sheets into the washing machine in the hope that nobody would notice.
"Why does turning into an adult have to be so humiliating?" He lamented while riding his bike and noticing that the leather seat now felt quite uncomfortable against his crotch. "I'm a mutant. A hideous, clumsy and smelly mutant."
A glimpse of popular girls Cynthia and Stacey when he passed through the school gates only increased his sense of inadequacy. It seemed like they were handling puberty much better than he could ever hope to, because they looked clean and pretty indeed.
"I have bad genes. That must be it."
Lisa carried her books into class with difficulty and upon arriving, scanned the room for empty seats. She chose one in the middle row, though a voice called out to her before she could get to it.
"Hey, Buttkowski. Come sit here."
She turned her head toward the two blondes seated at the back and wondered what they wanted with someone plain and socially inept like herself.
"What do you want with me?" She blurted out in a panic while stepping forward cautiously.
"Nothing. We just want to get to know you." Cynthia replied innocently as if there were no ulterior motives whatsoever to her gesture of friendliness.
"Your Dad's rich, isn't he? You should be like us, but you're not."
Lisa stopped and clutched her books tighter.
"What...what do you mean?"
"Oh, Buttkowski. You're high class and he can get you anything you want, so why do you always act like some sort of freak?"
It was then that Lisa understood what was going on in Cynthia's mind. She'd become so accustomed to being a misfit that she hadn't even considered the possibility that transferring to a less prestigious school might suddenly raise her social standing.
"You're not going to answer?"
"Uh..." Lisa could only utter as Cynthia's voice forced her to face reality again.
"Whatever. That seat over there is still free."
Lisa followed the direction in which Cynthia was pointing and felt conflicted about the situation. There were times when she didn't think that she deserved the life that George had given her and it seemed doubtful that she could ever truly fit in with the popular crowd, yet the idea of being respected for once in her life was too tempting.
She glanced over towards the door to get some relief and spied a group of boys entering, with the one named Michael now being the second tallest.
It was initially rather nerve-wracking to be paired up with him for an experiment, due in part to his lumbering gait and the fact that he towered head and shoulders above her. She had waited for him to walk ahead on the way to gather equipment, something that had instead made him look at her in concern.
"Are you okay?"
He reached one of the cupboards and carefully took out a Bunsen burner, before turning around.
"You're going to get the tripod, aren't you?"
Lisa retreated in shame and almost bumped into one of their classmates in her desperation to be anything but useless. She strode quickly to the other side of the classroom, only to find herself at the end of a queue that would delay things for at least a few minutes.
Fortunately, Michael didn't look the least bit annoyed when she returned with all the equipment that she could acquire. He simply began setting everything up with ease, leaving her to watch aimlessly and wonder what she was supposed to do.
"You...you enjoy science, don't you?" She spoke up in the hope of getting his attention and make it appear as if she was participating.
"Yeah. It's just the best..." He replied half-heartedly while putting on his goggles. They had the effect of making him somewhat resemble a mad scientist's assistant and she couldn't help but smile.
Such a moment of amusement was short-lived, for Lisa realized that she had forgotten the importance of keeping herself safe. She tried to leave Michael's side as covertly as she could, but he was too vigilant.
"Where are you going?"
She froze and knew that she likely looked quite stupid.
"To get some safety glasses..."
"You don't have to. I got a pair for you as well."
"Oh..." She could only mutter, now feeling like a complete idiot for being so out of touch with her surroundings. "...thanks."
Michael watched her slip on the goggles and tuck tawny hair behind her ears. She appeared to be rather uncomfortable to say the least and he wondered if it had something to do with him.
"She must find me intimidating. I guess I should give her some space..."
He took a step back and held out their box of matches at arm's length for her to see.
"So, do you want to light the fire?"
"Um, sure..." She answered shyly, staring at him with wide green eyes that he thought looked vaguely feline.
She took the box of matches and hesitantly turned it over while he placed his hand upon the gas tap.
"Whenever you're ready..."
It took Lisa three attempts to ignite her chosen match before she thrust it towards the Bunsen burner, as if afraid that the fire would spread fast enough to burn her skin.
Whatever the reasons for her apparent fear, she looked relieved after successfully blowing the flame out and dropping the match aside, so that they could both observe the strip of magnesium in the crucible.
Chapter 24: Uptown Girl
The Wild West, 1870s
Life had been relatively dull for sixteen year old Michael ever since his sister Sharon had married a man by the name of Brian and left him as the sole child at home.
From dawn to dusk, six days a week, he now had to do twice as much work when helping his parents on the farm. Attending church on Sunday was one of the only times he felt relief and the peaceful environment always calmed his mind so that he could be ready again on Monday.
It was soon after they headed into town that Michael caught sight of her. Her name was Lisa and her father George was a rather well-off man who ran the local general store.
She looked almost like a life-sized doll, standing on the other side of the street with her bonnet and parasol, though the sadness in her eyes made him feel sorry for her. Everybody knew that she was a lonely girl and the fact that George was among the most feared men in town didn't exactly help her plight.
Still, Michael wanted to believe that one day, he would be brave enough to approach her and perhaps bring a smile to her face.
What Michael thought was the ringing of church bells turned out to be nothing more than the sound of his alarm clock. He put an end to the irritating noise by stretching out his arm and pressing the snooze button, before sitting up in bed.
"I need to stop watching Little House on the Prairie on weekends..." He thought as he reflected on his dream and how it had ended with a showdown between him and George Bukowski.
He found it hard to believe that a year had already passed since Lisa first transferred to his school, since it now seemed like she'd been around since the beginning.
The fact that seeing her face during homeroom always made him feel more ready to face the day ahead, was clear evidence that he had become quite infatuated, despite her strangeness. Though to be fair, being accepted by the popular girls had resulted in her becoming a little more conventionally attractive as of late.
It was clear that he would need to spruce himself up too, if he wanted to be on a par with her lookswise, so he opened up his closet to find the most stylish items of clothing inside.
He studied his face in the mirror after spending more than ten minutes deciding what to wear. He wasn't the worst looking boy around, but there was still lot that could be improved when it came to his hygiene and grooming.
He ran a hand over the side of his face while reminding himself to start cleaning his pores twice a day, as well as comb his hair more regularly.
"Hurry up, Buttkowski. Stop gawking at yourself and get a move on."
"Head up, shoulders back. Give way to no one..." Lisa reminded herself as she followed the other girls out of the bathroom and tried to look confident. It had been about two months since her makeover, yet she still found it hard to believe at times that the cute person in the mirror was actually her.
Four was the number of students who turned to look at her in surprise, which was one less than last time. Such an observation let her know that regardless of how glad she was about her current appearance, everyone would soon lose interest and she would have to change yet again to get their attention back.
Although, there was one person who had admired her without fail during each homeroom over the past fortnight.
It was none other than Michael Russo, the boy that she usually ended up working with in Science class whenever Mr. Goldstein felt like pairing up members of the opposite sex.
He had a gangly build and a nose that sometimes looked a little large for his face, but he had so far come across as a genuinely kind person.
She felt reluctant to accept it, but it wouldn't be a lie to say that she already felt safer in his company than she did around her own father.
If only she could just overcome her shyness and open up to him, without having to fear the possible consequences.
Chapter 25: I Want to Break Free
"So, we're working with each other again. This is turning into some kind of partnership, eh?"
Lisa looked up from her textbook whilst feeling unsure about whether he'd spoken in jest and what she needed to say in reply. She spent many moments thinking hard of an answer, before it finally dawned upon her that he was more interested in the task at hand than her tongue-tied state.
The equipment that they needed had already been set up and as he read the experiment's instructions, she noticed the band-aid around his thumb and the blister on his middle finger. Her imagination went wild with things that might have caused such wounds until she realized that simply asking him would make the truth clear.
"Um, Michael?" She spoke up in uncertainty, hoping that he wouldn't take things the wrong way.
"Yeah?" He responded without taking his focus away from the page.
"What happened to your fingers?"
He abruptly raised his head to meet her gaze. She swallowed nervously as she tended to do.
"These?" He gestured with his hand. "Well, the other day, I was trying to play a song by Van Halen, and you know how it's a lot harder than it looks..."
Lisa didn't know much about Van Halen or what it was like to play the guitar, but she feigned understanding and nodded anyway.
"So, what bands and singers do you like?" He asked while giving her his full attention at the expense of their class work.
The last thing she wanted was for him to judge her to be some idiot, so she hurriedly thought of the music that her female friends enjoyed even if it tended to be nothing but noise to her.
"I...I like Duran Duran..."
"Duran Duran? They're pretty cool too, I guess..."
She smiled in spite of herself and he did the same, right before Mr Goldstein stopped by to scold them for talking too much.
"Bukowski! Russo! Save your flirting and discussions about modern music for when class is over! You're at school, not some fancy café."
The gray-haired man marched back to his desk, leaving the two of them to blush and avert their eyes out of sheer embarrassment. They dared not look directly at each other for the next forty-five minutes and Lisa found additional reason to feel ashamed when she thought of the classmates who might now have the wrong idea about their relationship.
Her fears were confirmed when Cynthia asked to speak with her in the locker hall at the start of lunch. She agreed while knowing that one couldn't just say no to the most popular and pretty girl in their grade.
"Yes, what is it?" She replied, letting the blonde know that she was ready to accept any opinion.
Cynthia crossed her arms and frowned as if she were dealing with a national security issue.
"It's you and Michael. Was anything that Mr Goldstein said true?"
Lisa stared sheepishly down at her own feet.
"No. He asked me what my favorite band was and I told him. That's all it was..."
Cynthia didn't look entirely convinced, but she accepted the explanation for the time being. Lisa breathed a sigh of relief and prepared to leave, only for the other girl to suddenly demand that she stop.
"What...what is it now?"
"I believe you, Buttkowski. But I'd watch out for Michael. If he ever gets interested in you, just say no. He's a scrappy nerd and you really don't want to stoop to that level."
"I...I'll keep that in mind. Thanks for warning me..."
"Don't mention it. I do stuff like this for all of my friends..."
Cynthia slapped her playfully in the back, then slunk off down the hallway so that Lisa could finally have a moment alone to contemplate what she'd been told. A part of her was growing tired of always living the way others believed that she should live, whether it be George, her teachers and friends.
Michael had been nothing but nice to her since they'd first met and perhaps it was true that she was developing feelings for him in spite of his physical shortcomings. Then again, handsome and athletically inclined guys like Cynthia's boyfriend Blake had begun to seem rather boring to her as of late.
The idea of dating a geek who was passionate about video games and the guitar appealed to her more, since she imagined that being able to also partake in such activities would be more fun than simply cheering for someone from the sidelines.
Maybe it really was time for her to make a stand and do something her own way, regardless of the possible consequences. The psychiatrist whom she used to see had occasionally stressed that taking risks could help someone mature, yet she had never been brave enough to actually put such advice into practice.
That would change now. Regardless of what everyone else thought, she was going to continue being friendly with Michael and see where circumstances would take them. Nothing was ever meant to last forever and she knew that enjoying his company for a short while was better than never enjoying it at all.
She had heard a couple of days earlier that Stacey would be having a big birthday in November and although she hated being among large groups of people, having someone like Michael around would make it a little more bearable.
All she needed to do was to invite him in person without getting turned down or dying of embarrassment.
Chapter 26: Out of Touch
"So, will you come? I think you'll have fun..."
Michael swallowed as he made eye contact with Lisa. There was no way for him to ignore the butterflies in his stomach and he knew that giving a prompt answer would be the best way to make her leave before the embarrassment became too much to handle.
He didn't want to say 'no' to that face or pastel pink sweater, but the fact remained that his mother would be working a night shift on the day and he was supposed to stay at home in case something happened to Rob.
Recent events had somehow caused his father's post-traumatic stress disorder to relapse, which according to Judith, meant that it was risky to leave the man alone for even an hour.
This change in circumstances hadn't seemed normal to him at all, but he soon learned during a phone call with Sharon that she'd dealt with similar situations at the mere age of six. As a fairly intelligent and capable sixteen-year-old, such a revelation made him confident that he'd be able to handle things just fine, so he happily agreed with Judith's wishes afterwards.
Unfortunately, he was having second thoughts again, now that Lisa was so eagerly awaiting his answer. He wished there were a way to satisfy both parties, but he knew that his Dad's well-being was more important than attending some popular girl's birthday party.
He made up his mind and started by apologizing to Lisa.
"Sorry, but I really can't make it. My parents don't let me go out at night."
Lisa's smile faded and he knew right away from her dejected expression, that she'd been hoping he would accept the invitation. It didn't make sense to him though, since they already saw each other a lot in the daytime and it wasn't like he went out of his way to avoid her.
"Well, that's a shame. Sorry to bother you..." She said in a low voice before turning and leaving him alone. He watched her disappear into the crowd, then went back to placing books into his schoolbag while wondering why his presence at the party seemed to be so important to her.
Barbara managed to remove herself from the party and head outside for some fresh air under the pretext of having a smoke. With the exception of Carlos, none of the people inside were what society would traditionally deem respectable and although such individuals made for rather lucrative clients, there were times when she just wanted to run far away from them all.
She'd once thought dealing with Steve's emotionally volatile mother was trouble enough, but she knew now that it was nothing compared to having to talk someone out of a drug-induced rage without losing her own patience.
The idea of taking a long vacation was tempting indeed as she left the building and stood on the pavement to watch cars driving past; their bright headlights prompting her to squint a little and wonder if she was inebriated as well.
She took deep breaths and counted quietly until her unease faded. Afterwards, she glanced down at the ring on her hand and reminded herself that all this trouble was just a means to a financially secure end.
She knew that Carlos would be worried if she stayed away too long, so she headed back inside within the minute. The sound of pounding bass once again proved to be deafening, but she put on a smile upon meeting up again with Samantha, a twenty-seven-year-old porn star stuck in an unhappy marriage.
The fact that they were both young women was an advantage and if their conversation went smoothly, she could expect to be contacted by the end of the week.
Karen knew that it was important to count her blessings and although Steve was close to being her ideal man, there was something about him that now concerned her greatly.
Their rough start together had only made his efforts to change all the more impressive and if her parents' approval of him was anything to go by, it was surely time for them to start thinking seriously about marriage and whether they should start a family.
She was currently twenty-seven and many of her former classmates had children old enough to attend preschool. This observation gave her a growing sense of urgency, for she'd never been one who could tolerate falling behind in anything.
It felt tempting to point the blame at him, because for all of his virtues, she couldn't deny that his indecisiveness was becoming a burden. She didn't want to force him into something he didn't want, so she'd been dropping hints in the hopes of getting a definite answer.
However, all he ever did was misinterpret her words or change the subject to something mundane. It was infuriating to say the least and she couldn't help but fear that the past seven years had been all for naught.
She knew that any more of this would diminish the love and attraction she felt towards him. There was only so much a person could attribute to their difficult childhood and in the case of Steve, she suspected that it had become just a way to excuse his own shortcomings.
Something needed to change soon, before her patience ran out and she became disillusioned with their relationship. The only question was how.
Chapter 27: Epilogue
A couple of stragglers were the only other people left in the locker hall when Michael returned from studying in the library. He already had half of the books that he needed in his backpack, which meant less of a hassle retrieving the rest.
Still, he felt daunted by the amount of homework that had been set for Christmas vacation. It was going to be hard to find the motivation to complete it with Sharon and his maternal grandparents around, since all three were bound to let the festive mood take them over completely.
At such times, his father's typical grumpy demeanor was almost refreshing. It brought a change of pace to the unbridled optimism that often wore him out mentally by New Years Day.
He had made sure his locker door was secured properly and was just about to leave, when he saw the red card that must have been swept to the floor in his earlier rush. He dropped his bag and bent down to pick it up, then turned it over to see a picture of a teddy bear on the front flap.
He unfolded the card to read the message inside and smiled.
I picked this one because the bear reminded me of you. Wishing you a happy Christmas and New Year.
PS: We could still do science experiments together, if that's okay with you.
He held the card to his chest while knowing without a doubt what his answer would be. He'd been afraid that Lisa might hold a grudge against him for refusing her party invitation, but now it seemed like she wasn't that sort of person at all.
He slipped the card into his bag in relief, then made his way for the doors to focus once again on the immediate future.