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Not the Sun

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Author’s Note: This pairing came to me one day out of the blue. Feel free to think I’m nuts, but no flames, please!

His beefy, broad hand dwarfed the tiny mobile phone as he scrolled through his missed calls. Three from Dilly. One text reminding him of his biology quiz and to bring his vocabulary list for senior review tomorrow. His extracurriculars were great, Dilton explained; he still needed a decent score on his SAT. One from his mom. Hey, sweetie. Could you pick up a gallon of milk on your way home? Moose automatically put on his blinker as he approached the four-way stop. He split his attention between the road and his messages. One from Andrews. Kinda need a ride to practice, if you get this soon enough. Ol’ Bets needs a new battery. Peace, dude. “Geez.” One more thing to remember for tomorrow. Like he didn’t have enough on his plate. Or on his mind. One wrong number. Twice. He pressed delete over each highlighted bar. Get a clue, whoever you are. No more messages.

Not one from Midge. A scowl darkened his face as he pulled into the Riverdale Plaza Shop-Rite lot and parked up front. She needed space. That was the excuse she gave him two weeks ago, after a movie and dinner, for why she was such a grouch lately. He’d joked with her that it was probably PMS. Big mistake. She railed at him, ruining the good time they’d had up until they climbed back into his Chevy. She gave him her patented “Why do I punish myself like this?” eye roll and folded her arms beneath her breasts.

“Don’t be cute. It’s not cute,” she snapped.

“Fine. Shit,” he muttered.

“What’s the big deal? Why’re you so pissed?”

“You always joke around when I’m upset. This is why we need a break, Moose.”

Whoa. What the fuck? He fought back the lurching sensation in his gut and cold flush that swept over him. She wasn’t saying what he thought he heard, right? Right?

“Huh?” It was all the reply he could manage. Moose ran on a three-second delay. It was just how he was wired. A monosyllabic reply like that one was just his way of gathering his thoughts. No glazed look, no drool or vacant eyes. But it still occasionally made him sound one can shy of a six-pack.

Midge was off on a tangent already. One word from him was all she needed to work him over. “You heard what I said. We need a break.”

“A break.” He leaned back from the steering wheel, letting the keys dangle from the ignition. Moose twisted himself halfway around in his seat to stare at her. Midge’s lips twisted into a glossy, petulant little knot. She looked pretty tonight. Snug forest green sweater with a white horizontal strip that emphasized her ripe breasts; she adored Old Navy. As usual, she lived in her short skirts. This one was faded denim with white butterflies appliquéd around the hem. White Ecko sneakers shod her small feet.

“I care about you, Moose, but I feel crowded.”

“Crowded.”

“You always call me everyday, two or three times a day.”

“I like talking to you.” That was a bad thing? Doubt and disbelief rang out in his voice.

She sighed. “You don’t have to know where I am or what I’m doing every minute,” she snapped.

“Who said I did?” he fired back.

“Like today. I was out with Ronnie, and you called twice.”

“One to ask about the movie. The next to ask what time.” It sounded logical enough to him.

“I already told you I’d go with you to the six o’clock show. I texted you,” she pointed out.

“I texted you back.” She glared at him. “No, you didn’t.”

“Uh, YEAH. I did.” He dug in his jacket pocket for his phone.

“Good grief. Here we go.” She rolled her coffee brown eyes as he flipped it open and started scrolling.

“Here.” He handed it to her triumphantly. She sighed and read the tiny screen. The timestamp said 4:30PM; her original message was sent at 4:15PM. The matinee’s chpr. Don wt 2 l8 2 call me bk. If 6 is fine, then fine. XOXO Moose.

“I was already out with Ronnie. We were busy.”

“Too busy to call me.”

“That’s kinda what I mean, Moose. Duh,” she mocked. Her tone left him sour, and worse, insecure. Why?

“Don’t talk to me like that,” he murmured.

“Like what?”

“Like I’m dumb. I hate it.” He didn’t add that he didn’t deserve it.

“I didn’t mean it that way. I just want you to understand me when I say I need some ‘me time.’ I want to hang out with Veronica and Nancy and Cheryl once in a while. I hardly ever do anymore, ever since we started going out.

“Midge…baby, I hardly ever see you anymore.” He swallowed roughly and irritation raised his voice. “I have practice. Then Dil helps me with math. You said you didn’t have time. That’s fine, ‘cuz Dilly’s better at math. I get it.”

“I know that. But my friends talk to me at lunch, and ask ‘Why are you around anymore?’ and blah, blah, blah, this’n that; why don’t you come to Betty’s candle party-‘”

“Midge, y’hate those things, anyway!”

“But Betty was holding it. It’s not about the candles. It’s about hanging out at Betty’s.”

“To smell candles.” Geez…

“It shouldn’t be that big of a deal if I wanna do girl stuff, with the girls.” As if he needed a definition…

“I work on the weekends.” He was giving his dad a chunk of his check for his truck’s insurance. “I get the time I see you at school and Friday nights to be with you. So on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, you get to hang out with Betty and Ron. I never said you couldn’t hang out with Betty and RON!”

“You couldn’t say that, anyway. You can’t just control me,” she hissed indignantly. Now, his head was starting to hurt. Moose looked flummoxed.

“Control you?” He was back to repeating her.

“We need a break.” She unfolded her arms and leaned her temple against her fist.

“I need a break.”

“You don’t wanna see me anymore.” It wasn’t a question. The words choked him. The muscle in Moose’s square jaw worked as they stared at each other across the long bench seat.

“I still care about you, Moose.”

“Then what? What’s this about?” “I told you what it was about.” He felt his face heat up and flush. He clenched his knuckles and stared down at them. She was killing him. “It sounds like you’re breaking up with me.”

“No. I’m not, sweetie. But I said I needed some ‘me time.’ It’s not your fault.” But she made him feel like it was. The drive home was miserable. She turned on his radio at full blast. He left it on for her, but turned down the volume to a low buzz. She recited a laundry list of what was wrong with him. “You don’t need such constant attention from me, Moose. You weren’t so needy when we started going out. I love being with you-“ Did she? “-but I don’t like all the PDA.”

“PDA?” Ooookay…

“Kissing and mauling me out in public.” Now she had to be kidding.

“We do that all the time. You’ve even licked my cheek to be funny.”

“You act like you own me.” He wanted to kick something. He wanted to yell at her. Moose longed to fling open the door and let her walk home, but every cell of his body was imprinted with her touch and remembered affection. He was addicted to Midge. Midge was his first. He’d always believed he was hers. He thought that meant something.

Moose was good at sports, but lousy at school. General consensus? That Moose was a “big, dumb jock.” He was big. He’d give ‘em that. Moose was born weighing a whopping ten pounds, five ounces and measured twenty-three inches long. He could live with being called a jock. Right on the money. He’d lived, eaten and breathed youth ice hockey until he reached seventh grade, and his pop signed him up for football. He’d never looked back. Throwing a pig skin was his passion. Two letters in football and in basketball were all he had to show for weeks of grueling suicide laps and scrimmages, plus a nice looking profile on his college apps. Scratch that. He had muscle, too. Rippling, sculpted muscle that broadened his shoulders and trunk. He took up space in every doorway he entered, top to bottom, side to side. But he was still a big huggy bear. He was supposed to be Midge’s huggy bear.

Did she think he was stupid? The concept hit the surface of his mind and left broad ripples in its wake. “Is it me?” They’d been silent for a while, each leaning away from each other. Midge was practically hugging the passenger window.

“Moose…” she tsked. “No. It’s me. I just need-“

“Space,” he finished for her.

“We can talk about this tomorrow.”

“Why not now?”

“You’re upset. We’re both too upset.” It was a patent lie. She was slipping through his fingers as he tried to hold onto her. They reached her driveway, and he cut off the engine. “What’re you doing?”

“Walking you up.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I want to.” He was already out of his seat belt and climbing out before she could argue. He needed to touch her. Touch told so much. Kisses didn’t lie. Did they? He opened her door for her and gently shoved it shut. His hand was gentle at the small of her back as she led them up the porch steps. She faced him, worry etching her features.

“Are we cool, Moose?”

No. “Yeah.”

“I’ll call you?”

Would she? “Yeah.”

She stood on tiptoe and kissed him; it was a peace offering and a stamp of approval. She had her way. It signified that the night was over. Moose felt, with a sinking heart, that wasn’t the only thing that was. His night was sleepless. He left his phone on atop the bureau, just in case the battery was dead by morning. No new calls. No texts.

No Midge.

*

He’d stood her up again. Again. How hard was it to meet her, at the theater for the three o’clock matinee? Betty sidled up to her as she stared through the ceiling-high windows of the Central City Movies 12 cinema, willing his car to appear in the lot. Zip. Damn it. “Maybe he got caught up. You know Juggie. He’s always late. Maybe he overslept.”

It wasn’t an over-the-top suggestion. Jughead loved a good nap as much as a good cheeseburger. His lanky frame never gained a pound despite such slothful habits. He’d agreed to meet them there. Just a few friends going to watch Spiderman. Cool action flick, not too bloody, and not based on a soppy chick lit novel. Betty showed up with Archie. Nancy, with Chuck. Frankie, with Maria. Ronnie, with Jason Blossom; Reggie was working on a photo project.

Jughead didn’t need the explanation of “It’s not a date.” He’d never show up if she thought it was. She’d even offered to buy the popcorn. Ethel was tired of feeling like the odd man out. Ironically, so many guys at Riverdale High treated her like “one of the guys,” so the description fit.

She was smart. Smart as a whip, excelling at languages and history and holding her own in science. She was the best home ec student in Miss Haggly’s class and baked a mean pie.

Ethel had no illusions of herself as a great beauty. She was tall, and easily as lanky as Juggie. Braces corrected most of her overbite, but she had a few more weeks til she was free of them. She wasn’t beautiful, but Ethel Muggs was easy to be around, and she was memorable. Her slate gray eyes were her best feature, fringed with curling lashes and arched brows. Her nose was slightly irregular, long and narrow and emphasized even more by the gauntness of her face. She wore her black hair in a manageable, spiky little bob. Her sense of style wasn’t overly girly except for the occasional long skirt. Ethel hated her legs.

“He’s not coming,” Ethel sighed. It sucked. She was a fifth wheel.

“He might show,” Betty insisted. She nudged her with her shoulder. Ethel nudged her back, absently.

“This sucks.”

“Aw. We’ll still have fun. Tell him what he missed out on.” And they did have fun. Somewhat.

She’d had a crush on him since fourth grade. They’d been playing freeze tag. She was the only girl faster than he was, or as tall. She liked the way he combed his hair, and his funny little beanie cap. He’d covered it in buttons and sports patches that were fun to stare at when she sat behind him on the bus. He had a red Nike windbreaker that made her assume he liked red. So she wore red. Lots of it. For three years, til she overheard him mention to Betty that it was green. She left him a love note in his locker, once, in eight grade. He tore it up and ignored her for a year. She injected hope into every hello and every smile he gave. Maybe he’s noticing me. She brought homemade cookies to senior prom committee meetings and Spanish club. Snickerdoodles. His favorite. She always ran down the hall, first out of fifth period English to catch him coming out of intermediate French. She was living on crumbs.

Dates with other boys were few and far between. And they used her. Badly. Ethel wasn’t a virgin. She’d dispatched that particular obstacle with a boy named Alex Cabot, who eventually transferred to a different school. He was wealthy and sure of himself. Sexy. Funny. Even full of baloney. He flattered her to make her blush. When no one was asking her to dance at homecoming, he invited her outside.

He’d kissed her mid-sentence, and her heart flipped. She clung to him while a dozen questions flew through her head. Did he really think she was pretty? Would he want to go out with her? Did it mean anything to him, being with her like this? His hands roamed beneath her clothes. She hissed a warning that someone would see. He took her out to his car. The upholstery of his parents’ BWM felt cool at her back as he worked her out of her sweater. Her legs were tangled with his and cramped in the confines of the back seat. It hurt, and she was so embarrassed about not knowing what to do. He still seemed satisfied with her fumbling efforts and the feel of her as he plunged in and out of her lithe, firm body.

He only spared her a glance or two as they got dressed. They furtively made their way back to the gym. She checked herself for blood spots in the bathroom and was grateful she wore black jeans. And that was it. When he’d ever kissed her again, it was always in private and always brief, even perfunctory. Rumor had it, he’d taken up with a blonde named Melody who played drums in a basement band. She wished them well. He wasn’t Jughead, but Alex provided a distraction. It made talking with Jughead less awkward and more natural, not to want him so desperately. At least some men found her attractive. She just liked Jughead best.

*

The next few days brought only obligatory calls from Midge. They left him cold.

Hey.

Hey.

What’re you doing?

Nothin’. Practice tomorrow. Just wanted to see what’s goin’ on.

Not much. Just hangin’ out. You?

Out with Ronnie. She wanted to shopping, so I tagged along. Lately, that was all she did. He ran into them at the Chok’lit Shoppe. He gave her a brief peck. It was fine, or she at least seemed fine with it. On his way out, he saw them through the window, talking about him. Fine, then. He’d worn a groove in the road, and it felt disconcerting, disconnected not to automatically drive to her house after school.

She was the bright spot in his day. He still craved her. His wool football jacket still held a remnant of her perfume. He longed for the earliest encounters between them that found her in his lap, kissing him greedily and hearing her moan. She knew what turned him on and what made him tick. He was already a few blocks down the road when he saw Reggie Mantle’s blue Honda Accord pull up outside. Something made him pause. His gut knotted strangely, and he changed his mind. Turned his car around and circled the block. They didn’t see his truck, now parked on the adjacent block instead of across the street. But he saw them. He’d kept his distance, like a good boy.

But he had to trust his instincts. Just this once.

Reggie never made it inside. She came out and met him at the door. Ronnie followed them out. They chatted. They laughed. Ronnie playfully punched Reggie. No love lost between them. She waved goodbye. Midge looped her arm through Reggie’s and waved back. Ronnie fumbled with her keys, crammed them into the ignition and careened off in her Porsche. She missed Reggie wrapping his arms around her friend’s waist, nuzzling her throat. She pretended to shove him away. He took umbrage. His palms cupped her ass as he gave her a long, sloppy kiss.

She arched into him, pressing her chest and belly against his. His grip was possessive; hers was greedy. Moose’s mouth went dry. His heart knocked in his chest. Blood seemed to pound in his ears and temples. He saw Red. A crimson haze of pain and rage rooted him to his seat. His fingers crept to the glove box. He took out his phone and dialed hers from the contact list. She was in his top five…what a fucking joke.

How could she do that? Why? How could she be so low? Who did she think she was?

Reggie. Why was he surprised? That bastard. Motherfucker. He punched the send button after texting a terse message. He watched her break apart from him. He watched her movements and the look of irritation on her face. She arrowed down through the messages. Moose waited, his heartbeat a hollow drumming. He tapped his knuckles against the steering wheel. He watched her freeze. He watched her mouth the words

“Oh, shit.” She covered her mouth.

What’s wrong? he asks her.

Moose. She hands the phone to him. One solitary word onscreen:

Bitch.

Moose was done with being a good boy. He tore off down the street, not missing her stricken face or Reg’s look of shock.

*

Tomatoes. Enchilada sauce. Cheddar. Tortillas. Ethel reviewed the scrap of paper, making her way through her mother’s scratchy handwriting. Shop-Rite was crowded already, and it was only ten AM. She hated long lines. The air conditioning felt drafty against her bare ankles; she wished she’d worn her tapered jeans instead of her capris. Ethel made her way through the produce section first. She hoped her red plastic shopping basket would make heavily laden carts before her in line take pity on her. Fat chance, Petunia. She’d found everything before she belatedly remembered the bathroom upstairs needed toilet paper. She was nearly buried under an avalanche of jumbo packs of Charmin as she rounded the end of aisle six.

“Ack!”

“Aw, man…m’sorry, ‘Bee,” Moose offered, holding out his hands, clutching his sticker punch. Some of her friends called her “Bee,” or B.E., for “Big Ethel.” She loathed the nickname since kindergarten, but it stuck. They knelt in tandem to retrieve the fallen stack and reassemble it. Their hands inadvertently bumped. His were warm and thick-knuckled; hers were slender and long, slightly clammy from handling the damp tomatoes. “Thanks.”

“No biggie. I only needed one roll,” she joked.

“Sure? We’re having a special,” he grinned back. He was cute when he grinned. Moose had a boyish face with clear, baby blue eyes that crinkled when he smiled. He had the kind of fair skin that mottled and flushed a deep red when he was angry, or embarrassed, which was the case now.

“Knocking the whole shelf on me again might talk me into it.”

“What’re you doin’?”

“Helping Mom. She’s making stuff for a potluck. Enchilada casserole.”

“Damn. That sounds good. Makin’ me hungry.”

“Working here probably does that anyway.”

“Once in a while. After a while, though, I get sick of the smells from the deli.”

“Good point.” He shooed her back.

“I’ve got this; don’t worry about it.”

“Okay,” she allowed quietly. He worked quickly, an the smile gradually faded from his face. “Moose?”

“Yeah?”

“You okay?”

“Eh.”

“Eh?” she probed.

“Yeah. Kinda.” He kneaded his neck. His eyes looked tired, with dark smudges beneath them.

“You seem down.” She noticed small differences in him, treating herself to a long, thorough look. His broad shoulders were more slumped than usual. Beneath his red work apron, his white oxford shirt was wrinkled. He wore the sleeves rolled up, baring his generous biceps. They were covered in a fine layer of dark blond hair.

“Had a lot on my mind, lately.”

“Like?”

“Had a fight. With Midge.”

“Ooh.” She tensed, and waited. He sighed.

“She cheated on me. I saw her with Reggie.”

Ouch. “Ouch,” she said aloud.

“Listen, Bee, I hafta get back to work. Talk to you later.”

Her words tumbled out of her mouth without reason or pause. “Moose! What time do you get off?”

“Uh…seven, I think.” Why? “Why?”

Ooh. “Er, no biggie. I just didn’t know if…you were gonna be hungry.” She grasped at straws. He looked confused.

“Sure. I guess.” He’d be ravenous.

“So how about some decent food?”

“Where?” She calculated quickly.

“My place,” she blurted out. Ethel didn’t know where the heck this was coming from. Neither did Moose.

“Like…cooked food?” After the fact, he thought Homemade food? She didn’t laugh. She just smiled.

“That’s my favorite kind. I’ll save some of the casserole. Might have a few other things, too.” His smile slowly returned.

“Yeah.” Her stomach dipped in surprise.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Eight?”

“Eight. Okay.”

“Okay.” On her way out of the store, he waved to her at the check stand. Why did she suddenly feel giddy? Moose stocked and scanned and bagged his way through the rest of his shift. A tiny smile frequently toyed with his lips.

*

“Don’t lie to me and try to tell me I’m not in deep shit.”

“You’re not. Take it easy.”

“Have you talked to him?”

“He won’t return my calls.” She paused, twisting the phone cord nervously. “He just gave me this cold look before I went to P.E.”

“You’re calling him?” She detected a hint of resentment in his voice.

“Why wouldn’t I? You don’t understand.”

“Okaaaaaayyy. Enlighten me.” His tone didn’t hold confidence that she could.

“I’ve been with him for four years. He loves me so much. He’s so…needy. He’s always been so afraid he’d lose me if any other guy came near me. It’s just stifling. I feel like I’m his property sometimes.”

“So what about this? Seems like you proved him right about losing you after what happened.”

“He wasn’t supposed to see us.” It was stupid on her part; she’d admit it. Reggie was silent on the other end of the line, brooding. “I mean, I told him how I felt. I needed a break. I care about him, but still…”

“Listen. No big deal, but I’ve gotta go.” Reggie decided an excuse was a waste of breath.

“Call you later.” “Reg…”

“See ya.” She stared numbly at the handset, then cradled it with an exasperated sigh. She stared miserably at the framed photo Jughead had snapped of her with Moose at a car wash fundraiser the year before. Midge felt something inside her wilt a little.

*

“He found out. I told her he would.” Ronnie’s voice was muffled as she took a bite of ice cream.

“I can’t believe she did that to him. If she wanted to see other people, why lie?”

“Reggie’s a dick. He doesn’t care, as long as he gets his. Moose is her steady. Reg is just a go-to guy.”

“She’s so selfish.”

“Moose is kinda insecure.”

“Still doesn’t make it right.”

“Good thing he’s not that bright. Maybe he would’ve figured it out a long time ago.”

“Don’t say that. He’s not dumb at all.” She amended her statement. “He just didn’t look for the clues. He thought she loved him.”

“So he’s clueless,” Ronnie snarked. “There you go.”

“You’re so mean,” Betty sniffed.

*

Her directions were simple enough. Ethel lived in the only blue house on Jones Street, on the right corner of the block. He parked his truck a block down, trying not to block the other two cars parked out front. She mentioned a potluck? Once he started up the front walk, he smelled the casserole, and his stomach growled. He rang the doorbell and was surprised at how loud it was; he peered around to see if anyone else was outside to hear it. He heard her footsteps and chirpy cry of “I’ll get it!” before she snatched open the front door. “Moose! C’mon in!”

Ethel looked flushed and slightly relieved to see him. She’d changed her outfit and wore black jeans and a cropped white sweater, showing only a hint of her flat, firm midriff. He caught a whiff of her light, powdery perfume as she pulled him inside by his sleeve. “Hope you’re hungry! We’ve got tons of food left!”

“Wow,” he muttered as she led him into the dining room. The table was spread with a harvest-printed cloth and loaded with food. Tupperware bowls and baking dishes whose tin foil exposed their contents tempted him. Ethel wasted no time in dishing him a plate. “Sit!” she ordered fondly.

“I can get that-“

“No. Sit. Take a load off. You worked all day on your feet. I’ll fix you some of the good stuff that’s left.” She ladled casserole, potato salad, chicken fajitas, rice and beans onto his plate and retrieved a red plastic party cup for him.

“Who’s your friend, sweetie?”

“This is Moose! He’s in my history class!” Something about the way she beamed when she told her mother that warmed him.

“Nice to meet you!” Like her daughter, Ethel’s mom was tall, reed-thin and had a strong handshake. She nearly pumped his arm off. Just as he was tucking into the food, which was delicious, he heard the Muggs saying their goodbyes to two couples in the foyer.

“Man, I’m glad that’s over,” Ethel sighed, rolling her eyes. Her shoulders slumped in exhaustion. Moose smiled back.

“Long day?” “You don’t know the half of it. Buying the food, stocking the cooler, cleaning the house, running errands, plus I babysat Betty’s nephew while her sister Polly was in town. Kid’s cute, but a handful.”

“Sounds like work.”

“I like kids. I’m just not ready to have any.”

“Every time I walk into a room, kids run screaming at first, cuz I’m so big. Once they find out I’m no threat, they climb me like a tree.”

“geez… me too.” Ethel snickered and popped a piece of poundcake into her mouth. He followed her movements as she licked her fingers. She had a tiny crumb at the corner of her mouth, sticking to her pink lip gloss.

“You’re got something. Right here.”

“Where?” She looked embarrassed and patted her face, missing the speck repeatedly. Moose sighed.

“Hold still.” He reached out and plucked it off with his thick fingers. His touch was gentle; she still felt it when he leaned back into his seat. Ethel’s cheeks grew warm and she fidgeted slightly.

“Thanks for, uh, getting that.”

“Just needed help feeding yourself,” he suggested, giving her a lopsided smile. Her parents were still out front, thankfully. “You’re so skinny, Bee.”

She tsked and tossed a tiny bit of tortilla at him in umbrage. “Don’t! Everybody says that!”

“How can you eat all this good food and stay so thin?” That made her feel better. Slightly.

“Dunno. I guess I eat what I want, but only til I’m full.” Moose was chasing the last of the rice around his plate with his fork.

“Can I have some of that cake?”

“Knock yourself out.” Ten minutes later they ruminated over empty plates and a messy table. When she rose to clear, he was already grabbing empty cups and crumpled napkins. Moose smothered a burp but failed; the sound resonated up from his chest and Ethel grimaced. “Geez…what’d you eat?” He shrugged, then half-hiccuped, half-burped again.

“Sorry. Almost as good the second time.”

“Eww…” Jughead had nothing on Moose. His belches were vile, and they were legend. Her parents lingered by the doorway long enough to make sure Ethel put away the food. Her mother pecked her goodnight.

“Lock up once your friend leaves, sweetie.”

“I’ll remind her,” Moose offered.

“Sure you will, sport,” her father scoffed, slapping his shoulder firmly as he led his wife down the back hall. He took the meaningful look in his dark eyes to mean Don’t overstay your welcome. It spoke volumes.

Two things occurred to him as they headed for the front door. One. Ethel had a nice home and decent folks. Photos of her were proudly displayed here and there in the study and foyer. Two. Ethel. Huh. Ethel… She was cute when she smiled. She nervously tucked a lock of her glossy black hair behind her ear as she stood at the threshold.

When he stepped down onto the porch, they were nearly of a height. “Thanks. It was great.”

“Thanks for coming. It was nice,” she stammered.

“I’ll, uh, get going.”

“Yeah. Sure. Um, good night.” She fumbled, attempting a wave, but her hand faltered. She wanted to reach for him, to touch him in some way. He paused a moment, watching her indecision flicker on her face. Something in her gesture moved him. Aw, what the heck. Maybe it was the longtime ritual of kissing Midge outside her door every time they went out. Seeing a girl off on the porch just seemed to require a gesture of affection. So he stepped up and folded her hand in his. Hers was soft and her fingers curling his felt right, somehow. “Good night, Bee,” he murmured, and he edged closer, narrowing the gap between them. She released a pent-up breath as he stamped a light kiss against the corner of her mouth. Before she could purse her lips in response, he backed away and released her. Butterflies beat themselves mercilessly in her gut, and her heart tripped. Ethel gripped the doorknob to support herself as she listened to him jingling his keys on the way to his truck. He waved as he sped off. She was still weak in the knees.

*

Moose was restless for the remainder of the night. What the heck had he done that for?

Chapter Text

“I called you.” Moose paused from searching for his math book and turned to face the voice by his shoulder.

“Must’ve missed it,” he shrugged, turning away from her again, but not before she caught his stony look.

“Moose…”

“Don’t talk to me. Do us both a favor.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?” He punctuated his words with a brisk slam and began walking away. Midge hurried after him in the crowded hallway.

“I screwed up,” she cried.

“Dunno. Looked like you were having plenty of fun with Reg from where I sat.” Like when he stuck his tongue down your throat and grabbed your ass.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you!”

“You didn’t mean to let me catch ya.”

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry you had to see that the way you did, Moose…”

“Yeah? How should I have seen it, then? In high-definition widescreen? Slow motion playback?” She looked baffled, letting her mouth drop open. Midge had once mentioned to Veronica that Moose had a keener sense of humor than most people thought.

She’d just never been the target before.

“All I saw was my girl, making out on the street with an asshat who already gets plenty of ass, or haven’t you noticed?”

“Nice. Fine. You’re mad, Moose, and I know why – “

“Sure you do.” He ached. Her face was pleading and still beautiful. Moose longed to pull her somewhere private and kiss her hard and deep, to erase the stain of Reggie’s touch from her body. Yet she’d betrayed him. Him, after he’d been loyal and devoted to her.

“I never did that to you. I’d never do that to you. I never just let you dangle and then lied to you.”

“No. But it was always about you, or about us. It was never about me.” He simply stared.

“Huh?” There. She did it again, reducing him back to monosyllables.

“You love sports. You love action movies and popcorn with extra butter. You want to go to state next fall. You want to move away from Riverdale when you finish. You obsess over your truck. You get bored whenever I want to take us to a restaurant without a drive-thru window.” She threw up her hands.

She didn’t want fries with that. Moose realized this with a sinking heart.

“We always went along with what you wanted to do, Moose. I needed a change.”

“Geez…” He shook his head and took a few seconds to process the information. She mistook his expression for one of blankness.

“Reggie liked me for a long time. We like some of the same things.”

“He’s full of crap! Don’t you get it?” The very thought exasperated him and put him on the defensive.

“I’ll be fine.”

“You’ll be fine. Don’t you get it?”

“What, Moose?”

“You say you’re sorry…but you really want to be with Reggie? And you’re ‘fine’ with the fact that he just wants a piece of ass?”

“Moose, stop it,” she glared. Her arms crossed over her chest. “Look, I just wanted to talk. I miss you. But I just want to try something else out for a while.”

“I’m not okay with it,” he informed her.

“It’s not all up to you. And news flash, Moose, you can see other people if you want.”

Other people.

“Thanks,” he muttered, feeling numb. “Sounds like a plan.”

Not likely.

“You can do what you want now, Moose. We don’t have to agree on everything.”

He could do what he wanted now. That was the problem.

He wanted Midge.

“You say you wanna try something else for a while. What does that mean?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

“You want to date other people and then get back together?” He was incredulous. Some part of him was actually hopeful.

“Moose…” She wouldn’t commit to an answer.

The bell rang. “I’m gonna go.” Once again, he felt hollow watching her walk away without kissing him goodbye.

That blew his concentration, which wasn’t saying much, since it was math class. Dilton was a patient tutor, not a miracle worker, but he never belittled him, nor did Moose make a point of patronizing his friend about his diminutive size. Halloween of freshman year found them dressing up as the Skipper and Gilligan, and Moose had free rein to call Dilt “Little Buddy” as the night progressed. Their friendship was one that could take some ribbing.

The day was too long. Every time he left a class, a cluster of girls would whisper under their breath, watching him with busy eyes. He spied Midge with Ronnie and made only scant eye contact until hers skirted away. Reggie wisely kept his distance. Moose’s knuckles itched and a mean little voice whispered words that made his blood boil: Reggie stole your girlfriend. Go kick his ass. Hard.

Then he asked himself the burning question: Was it worth it?

He honestly didn’t know. That scared him.

He was under more scrutiny than he knew.

A large contingent of girls at Riverdale High despised Midge and weren’t sorry to see her get caught. She was a maneater. Boys found her desirable because she was supposedly “unattainable.” Her lips said I’m taken. Her body language said You can be next. Moose was equal parts envied and ridiculed behind his back. It was coming to light now that he was alone.

To a smaller contingent of girls, he was single.

Guys avoided him over the next few days, heeding the tight set of his jaw and defensive posture. Football season was over; basketball tryouts were in two weeks, so he had a much needed break.

He knew Reggie would try out. The asshole was keeping himself scarce. That didn’t stop him from taking liberties with Moose’s self-control. He spied them by Reggie’s locker before homeroom, leaning down to Midge for a sloppy kiss, pressing her back against the door. Over Midge’s head, lips still locked on hers, he opened his eyes and gave Moose a knowing look. Moose burned.

Ethel enjoyed home ec; she’d taken it as an elective twice. She put her books away and retrieved her favorite cotton apron from a peg, enjoying the last couple of minutes to herself before the rest of her class arrived.

Betty arrived first and joined her quickly. “Hey, Ethel.”

“Hey.”

“We’re going to a movie on Saturday. Wanna come?”

“Who’s we?”

“Me and Ronnie and Nancy this time.”

“And?”

“And nobody.” Ethel was enthusiastic until she said “Well, Archie’s taking me, and Ron’s going with Jason. Chuck said he might meet us at the theater a little late.”

“Count me out.” Betty stomped her foot and pouted.

“Awwww!”

“I don’t feel like just tagging along.”

“You wouldn’t be. You’re invited. Just come.”

“I don’t have a date. You all have a date,” Ethel pointed out. “That’s called tagging along.”

“It doesn’t matter who you bring with you. Bring a friend. It doesn’t have to be a date.”

“I’ll feel stupid if it’s not.” Ethel contemplated it. “I’d be better off going alone. Maybe I’ll just meet you guys there. Or maybe not. I don’t know.”

“We’ll have fun,” Betty promised. “C’mon. We can hit the lanes afterward and the Chok’lit Shoppe. I want to try that new shake Pop has.”

Ethel tried to ignore Betty’s pleas as she set up her work space and wiped down the counter. Out of the corner of her eye, she spied Jughead walking down the hall and wished he’d turn and see her. Betty caught her glance.

“Ask him again.”

“What’s the point?”

“He might get to show up this time.”

“All I got out of him was that he was busy and he forgot.”

“Did he lose your number?”

“I called him twice on his cell to remind him. If anything, he has it on his phone. Easily.” Ethel sighed.

She longed to call him. She liked talking to him. But she wouldn’t…chase him.

Or at least not in front of Betty.

Class was uneventful enough. Ethel printed herself a copy of the cinnamon roll recipe to take home and headed to French.

Without having to wish for it, she saw Jughead stopping at the water fountain. He looked cute; his hair looked like he’d just had it cut, and he’d left his beanie in his locker for a change. Ethel’s heart fluttered. She steeled herself for something to say.

“Hi, Juggie.” It was good enough.

“Hey, Bee.” He straightened up and wiped his mouth with his fingers. “What’s up? Where ya headed?”

“English. Big test today.”

“You ready for it?”

“Yup. Hey, Jug, are you busy this weekend?”

“I dunno.” His shrug was as much of an answer as she was going to get out of him. She waited for him to add onto it, but it was futile.

“Not a movie or anything? Bets mentioned maybe going to see that Halle Berry flick on Saturday.”

“Eh. Maybe.”

“It might be fun.” Ethel wasn’t overly enthused at seeing that particular movie, but her friends were going. If anything, she was going more for them.

And for Juggie.

Across the hall, Veronica and Cheryl Blossom watched the conversation in amusement.

“There she goes again,” Ron sighed. “What does she see in him?”

“Who cares? It’s Ethel. He’s a boy, and she’s desperate. That’s probably all.”

“No, she’s not that bad.”

“You still don’t sound like you disagree with me.”

“Well…okay. Maybe she is desperate…” Ron watched Jughead in disgust. Even on his best day, he annoyed her. Even when Betty wasn’t trailing after Archie, Jughead was hogging his time with football games and other guy crap. Jason stepped in at just the right time to pick up the slack.

“She’s so plain.”

“She might not look bad when she gets her braces off.” Veronica envied Ethel’s tall, lithe frame, even if she didn’t have any breasts to speak off, but she wore her clothes well, like a store mannequin. Unlike Veronica, she didn’t slave over losing another inch to fit into her skinny jeans. All of Ethel’s pants were her “skinny jeans.”

“He’s not much of a catch.”

“Ethel thinks so.”

“Eh.”

“Going to the movies this weekend?”

“I might. My friend Sebastian called and wondered if I was doing anything. Maybe I’ll tell him yes.”

“Doesn’t he have money?”

“Tons. If I decide to go with him, I’ll be the one showing up in the convertible.”

“Brat.” Veronica couldn’t point fingers, but her only complaint was that her own Benz wasn’t a convertible. She was just reaching into her bag for a piece of gum when they saw Midge walking by with Reggie. “God, I hate her.”

“What?”

“Midge. Over there. Look at her. She’s such a slut.”

“Who cares?”

“All the guys drool over her, and all she does is cheat on her boyfriend.”

“Ron, what do you care? You’re going out with my brother this weekend! Hello? Didn’t you just go out for pizza, like, three days ago with Archie?”

“Playoffs this weekend. On Sunday. He’ll be at Juggie’s.” She nodded back to Ethel, who looked dismayed as Jughead walked toward his French class. “So Ethel might not get to see her Prince Charming anyway.”

“The movie’s Saturday.”

“When has that ever stopped him from dangling her and making excuses? Man, she’d be so much better off.” Despite the fact that Ethel and Ron had never been close, she pitied her.

The girls walked to class and then saw the missing half of “Moose and Midge” at the water fountain, taking long, thirsty gulps.

“I heard he caught them fucking.”

“Uh-uh. I was practically there. They were outside the Chok’lit Shoppe.”

“Almost as bad,” Cheryl mumbled around the fresh piece of Wrigley’s she folded into her mouth.

“She’s been running around on him for a while. He didn’t have a clue.”

“Since when does Moose ever have a clue?” Maria sidled up to them, catching up with their long strides.

“You won’t believe this,” she informed them without preamble or greeting. “I was across the street and saw Moose pulling up at Big Ethel’s!” Cheryl’s green eyes widened with interest.

“When?”

“A couple of Saturdays ago. Her parents were having this party. Moose didn’t leave til it was over. And get this…” She leaned in conspiratorially, eyes dancing, “He kissed her goodnight.” She didn’t elaborate.

To Ronnie and Cheryl, “He kissed her goodnight” had more dramatic meaning than a peck on the cheek.

“Ohhhh, shit,” Cheryl crowed. “That didn’t take long!”

“No way,” Ron insisted.

“It’s true! I saw!”

“I still don’t believe it.”

“She’s not even his type! And he still looks pissed since Midge dumped him.”

“She didn’t dump him,” Ronnie corrected Cheryl. “Not technically. Remember, they’d still be together if he hadn’t caught her. Poor guy,” she muttered.

“It is too bad; he’s so hurt,” Maria murmured. “Big lug.”

“No, I mean poor Moose if he stayed with her!”

“Gee, Ronnie, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you didn’t like Midge very much,” Maria said sweetly.

“What was your first clue?” Archie had an eye for Midge once, but had the common sense to back off and avoid having his ass kicked.

Wuss. But he was her wuss.

“What was he even doing at her house?”

“Huh,” Ronnie considered. “Good question.”

“Ask her,” Cheryl urged. “When she gets out of class, ask her!”

They didn’t catch up to her until last period lunch. But the lips around school had been flapping all day. Cheryl and Maria weren’t known for being discreet.

Ethel had a strange feeling of being watched all afternoon. A couple of girls pointed at her as she entered the rest room to fix her hair. There were a few snickers when Miss Haggly rang up her lunch, too. What the heck was going on?

“Ethel! Psst!” Ronnie motioned her over to her lunch table. She’d been about to sit outside, since the weather was still just nice enough. True to form, they didn’t make room for her to set her tray down.

“Hi.”

“So what’s the deal with you and Moose?” Ethel’s stomach dropped into her shoes, and she felt a hot flush spread across her cheeks.

“What!”

“I heard he was at your house a little while back.”

“Where did you hear that?” Maria quickly looked away, pretending great interest in her tuna salad.

“Well, was he?”

“Well…I guess. He came over after he got off from work. My parents were holding a dinner for their friends. I asked him if he wanted to come and eat.”

“Ooooh,” Cheryl cooed. “Hot date, huh?” Maria elbowed her. Ethel had never been fond of Cheryl.

“Not much of a date.”

“But it was a date, right?”

“No,” Ethel admitted. “It wasn’t. I just asked him if he wanted to come and eat, since I happened to see him that day. He didn’t even stay that long, and my parents’ friends were still at the house.”

“Awwww,” Cheryl pouted. “Well, better luck next time.” Ethel stared at her like she’d grown another head.

“What next time? He…he just came over for dinner!”

“He’s cute,” Ron teased. “And he’s single!”

For some reason, the prospect started to sound less ridiculous and more…appealing.

“Oh, stop it,” she said, still blushing. “I’m gonna go eat.” They still didn’t invite her to sit. She didn’t wait for them to try.

Just because they were already in a mood to be bad, Ronnie caught sight of Moose coming out of the cafeteria line with a full tray and a bottle of sports drink.

“Nice,” Cheryl grinned. “Wanna ask him?”

“No,” Maria protested.

“You do it this time,” Ron decided. She took a sip of her diet Pepsi. This was getting good.

“Hey, Moose!” Cheryl beckoned, smiling winningly. “C’mere!”

“What’s goin’ on?” he rumbled, setting his tray down without waiting for them to move. He took a big gulp of his Power-Ade and wiped a droplet from his lip.

“Nothing much. Just wondering what you’ve been up to lately.”

“Not football. Season’s over.” It was always the first thing on his mind when he wasn’t thinking about Midge.

No contest, now, at least for a while. And there was always basketball…

“Yeah? What else?”

What was this, twenty questions? “Eh. Work. Doing stuff with my truck.”

“Nothing social? No dates?” Ronnie wasn’t subtle. Cheryl rolled her eyes.

“Uh…what?”

“Dates. Haven’t gone out with anyone recently?”

Who’s not Midge? her voice implied.

“No.” Then it occurred to him. “Why?”

“Word has it you have your eye on a new girl.”

“We don’t have any new girls in school,” he argued.

“No, no…a new date!”

“Who?” His face twisted in distaste.

“Her initials are B.E.”

“Betty’s last name is Cooper.” He ruled out that rumor, thank goodness, even though it was farfetched. Betty was chasing after Archie again.

“Who else do you know whose name starts with a B?”

“B?” He had no clue. Maria smothered a giggle. Cheryl smirked before chugging her diet soda.

“Sometimes we even call her Bee.” Ronnie enjoyed watching the blank look on his face dissolve. His blue eyes widened and his mouth gaped.

“Wait…Bee? ETHEL?” He was incredulous, and Moose’s cheeks suddenly felt hot.

“That’s what I heard.”

“Aw, man,” he groaned. “That’s a bunch of bullshit. I’m not dating Ethel. I swear.”

“You went to her house, didn’t you?”

It came back to him in a dash of cold water.

Sure. He went to her house. She invited him, nice as you please.

She invited him.

Surely…she didn’t think…did she?

“Uh-uh. No way. It wasn’t a date. She had me over. I said hi to her parents. I ate. Then I left,” he said, ticking off each point slowly so they’d understand. A first for Moose. “You heard wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.”

“She’s nice,” Ronnie nudged.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not into Bee! She’s not my type. Not by a longshot.”

Perhaps it was because he was indignant. Maybe it was listening to all the whispers and avoiding all the stares since Midge left him high and dry. Maybe it was because he was suddenly alone.

But suddenly he couldn’t shut up. His need to defend himself was on autopilot, and sensitivity of any kind headed for the exit.

“She’s smart. Great personality,” Cheryl added.

“Everyone says a girl has a nice personality when she’s butt ugly,” Moose scoffed. To be fair…he was being kinda unfair. She wasn’t bad looking; not really. She just wasn’t his cup of tea. Or anybody else’s that he knew, for the record.

“True that,” Maria murmured under her breath.

“So no fireworks, huh?” Ron conceded.

“None. I’m not hard up enough that I’m gonna date Bee.” Suddenly, all three girls froze. Their smiles dropped and they suddenly looked uneasy. “What?” Maria feebly waved to someone standing behind him.

Hot prickles ran down Moose’s back and his nostrils flared. Crap. Don’t tell me…it’s…

He turned slowly and swallowed as Ethel stared him up and down. She swallowed, too; the gesture was stark, given the long, bony column of her neck. It would be “swanlike” when she was older and more filled out, but for the moment, Ethel Muggs was who she was.

And evidently, that wasn’t good enough.

“Bee,” he stammered. “Wait…”

Without a word, she turned and stalked to the lunch tray carousel and flung it onto the rack. She didn’t look back, and a trail of eyes stared in her wake. A few onlookers stared at Moose like he’d just passed gas.

“Ooooh. That didn’t look good,” Cheryl muttered.

“Ouch.” Ron was contrite.

“Aw, man. Moose,” Maria tsked, even though she started the problem in the first place. “You’re choking on your foot, ‘bro.”

He disagreed. He’d stuck his head up his ass.

He shoved his half-finished drink bottle in his jacket pocket and abandoned his food. The trio didn’t say anything to deter him when he followed her out.

 

*

She made it to the solitude of the girl’s locker room relatively quickly. Eighth period field hockey was in full swing, so it was empty. Ethel’s low sobs echoed off the gym lockers, and she gathered up sheet after sheet of the fragile toilet tissue from the dispenser.

What did it matter what he said? She didn’t like Moose that way, anyway. She was all about Juggie. But still…

It hurt. It hurt like hell.

“I don’t care,” she insisted out loud. She hated how wavering and choked her voice sounded. Ronnie, Cheryl and Maria’s faces swam before her vision, and she gave in to rage.

“Bitches!” she hissed miserably. Why did they feel they were so much better than her? She never treated them that way, even when any of them said anything she felt was ignorant or best left unspoken.

And Moose. No, she wasn’t his type, granted. She reminded herself that fickle, high-maintenance girls with perfect bodies like Midge were more his type.

“What’s wrong with him?” she cried. And what was wrong with her?

She felt a hollow ache in her chest that made it hard to breathe. She bent her head into her palms, elbows propped on her knees, a classic pose of anguish.

That was how Betty found her. “Ethel?”

“Go away,” she whimpered, sniffling and wiping her nose on one of the pieces of tissue. “Just leave me alone.”

“Are you okay, sweetie?”

“No! What do you think? I’m friggin’ great!” When she looked up her face was blotchy and streaked with tears, and her soft gray eyes were puffy and red. She smeared away the tears with her palm, wishing she could wipe away the last ten minutes.

“What happened?” Betty disobeyed her and sat beside her on the bench. “Was it Juggie?”

“No.” She almost wished it was. At least Jug would have given her the time of day. Then, maybe she’d be cured of wanting him.

“Tell me.” Betty’s touch was soothing as she rubbed Ethel’s back. It always startled her how slim Ethel was; she could easily feel the bumps of her spine. She was wearing a lightweight black sweater and boot-cut jeans that emphasized her gauntness, but it wasn’t unbecoming. Not at all. Despite her own slightly generous curves, Betty envied her.

“I just feel so…I feel like I just got punched. I’m so mad. I hate Ron and her friends.”

“What did she do now?” Betty sighed. She’d been there, done that, even though Ron was one of her closest friends.

“Her and the other two Weird Sisters,” Ethel complained. Betty stifled a chuckle. “They were talking to Moose in the cafeteria when I came by to dump my tray. I was minding my own business, and-and th-they were talking to him, and I guess they found saw him with me, or something.” Betty looked confused. “He came to my house a couple of weeks ago.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because I invited him over, Bets, that’s why!”

“You did?” It surprised her. “What made you decide to have him over?”

“Because, I…I just saw him at work. I was helping my mom with that party.”

“Right, right. I got it, I got it. You helped Polly that weekend. She said thanks again, by the way. You were awesome.”

“At least someone thinks so,” she muttered.

“Hey, I do too. And you are.”

“I hate it. I don’t get it. I’m not a bad person.”

“No. Not at all.” More back rubbing ensued. Betty handed her another sheet of tissue and tugged a wastebasket closer with her foot.

“I just want…people to notice me, and think I’m pretty and fun and sexy the way they do you, or Ron, or Cheryl or Midge…”

“Are you kidding? I feel like I fade into the wallpaper sometimes. And you are pretty. It’s the good kind of pretty, too. You’ve practically got your braces off. That’s gotta make you happy. You’ll be a knockout.”

“You’re not bitchy.”

“Thanks.” Bets shot her a grin and hugged her. “I appreciate the vote of confidence, Bee.”

“Don’t call me that,” she sniffed.

“Okay.” Betty didn’t argue.

“So, okay…what happened was that Moose made a big deal of saying he’d never go out with me.”

“Ooookaaaayyy…it was dinner at your house. Not a date. What’s his deal?”

“I know. That’s what I thought.”

“And you were trying to be nice.”

“I was. I thought I was. He was so sad when I saw him at work. I don’t know where it even came from, but before I could even think about it, I asked him over. And he was fine with it. He just said ‘sure’ and showed up on my front doorstep.” Then it dawned on her. “That’s it. Maria!”

“Maria what?”

“Maria lives on my street. I forgot about that. She saw him come to my door. God, no wonder.”

“It’ll be all over the school,” Betty pointed out.

“Aw, man…I hate my life!”

“So how was it?”

“Huh?”

“Having him at your house?”

“Fine. It was fine. We had a good time.” She amended that to “I had a good time, anyway.”

“How was he?”

“Nice. Happy. Funny. Ate like a truck driver and was polite to my folks.”

“Good.”

“It wasn’t even a date, but…I don’t know. When he left…”

“What’d he do?”

“He just leaned over and…gave me a tiny little kiss.”

“No. Way.” Betty’s eyes grew round. “Well, shit!”

“I know,” Ethel winced.

“He kissed you.”

“Yeah. It was like a handshake…but I liked it.”

“Wow.”

“I know. Wow.”

“No wonder you’re upset.”

“That just makes this worse. He was so nice to me, and he was such a dick a few minutes ago. Why doesn’t he just be consistent and honest instead of two-faced and embarrassing me in front of everybody?”

“That bad, huh?”

“I caught him just as he was talking about me. Everyone just stared…God, Betty, it sucked.” She straightened up. Betty ruffled her hair.

“C’mon. Let’s fix you up and get outta here.”

“I don’t want to go back out there.”

“You don’t want detention, either.”

“I have study hall, anyway.”

“Attendance counts. We can still make it if we hurry.” She linked arms with her and led her to the mirror.

She was a wreck; Ethel moaned in dismay. “I look like hell.”

“Don’t worry about it. Here.” Betty handed her a tiny black comb she had in her jeans pocket and some pink lipstick. “Wash your face. You’ll feel better.”

Suddenly there was a scuffle at the door of the locker room.

“You can’t come in here,” a girlish voice insisted. Betty and Midge heard a rumbling voice in the hall that sounded vaguely familiar.

“What’s going on?”

“I dunno.”

“Look, there’s no way I’m letting you in…oh. Wait. Who? Let me see if she’s here.” Sabrina came into the locker room, eyes scanning each row of lockers until she did a double take at the sink. “Oh, there you are, Ethel. Someone’s waiting for you outside.” She grinned. “Boyfriend?”

“No,” Ethel snarled. “Fat chance of that.”

“Think it’s him?” Betty inquired.

“Why would it be?”

“Because he might be sorry?”

“I doubt it.” She handed Betty the lipstick after she painted her lips with a light coat.

“Go!” Betty shooed her out. Sabrina looked on with curious eyes.

“What happened?”

“Ya don’t wanna know,” Betty assured her. Ethel heard the exchange and thanked God that at least one of her friends wasn’t having a field day at her expense.

He was leaning against the wall, looking uncomfortable and polishing off the last of his Power-Ade. He shot it into the garbage can for a two-pointer before he noticed her. He straightened up automatically and suddenly looked like a little boy who’d been bad.

“Bee…shit. I was hoping we could talk.”

“So talk.” She wanted her voice to sound hard. It ended up sounding hurt.

“I’m sorry.”

“You are, huh.”

“You heard…everything?”

“Yeah. I’d say I heard enough, Moose.”

“Shit…sorry. Uh, I didn’t mean-“

“Yes. You did. You’d be hard up. I got it. Don’t worry about it. It’s over and done with. Water under the bridge. I understand, Moose.”

“What I said was kinda stupid.”

“If you say so.”

“Well…I do say so.” His cheeks burned and he looked down at his feet for a moment. When he faced her again, he said “I also kinda feel like an asshole.” She considered whether to agree with him. Oh, what the hell.

“Yeah. You probably should. Or at least it was bad timing, huh? Guess you didn’t see me.”

“No. I didn’t.”

“I bet you would’ve been more careful then. Better luck next time.”

“There’s no next time, Bee.” He scowled. “Were you crying?”

“No,” she lied.

“Looks like it.”

“I said no.” She straightened up to her full height, with some semblance of pride. “Why would I cry? I’m used to it.”

“What?”

“People thinking I’m hard up. ‘There goes Big Ethel.’ Me and my ‘great personality.’” Moose winced.

“It is kinda nice…” Then he realized it was off-track. “Um. It’s nothing personal. I just…you know how things are with me and Midge.”

Sure. She dumped you. Like the cheating bitch she is. “What about you two?”

“I dunno. She’s just the kind of girl I go for. I don’t know why.” He folded his arms across his chest and looked forlorn. Ethel thawed a little. “I just always have. She just…has a hold on me. I loved her. I still love her, even though I’m so pissed off I just want to kick Reggie’s ass.”

“Kinda don’t blame you. Reggie’s a dick sometimes.”

“That’s what I told her.” Moose almost felt vindicated. But this wasn’t about him.

“Let her do her own thing. If it’s meant to be with you two, then it’s meant to be. Sorry I gave everybody the wrong impression when you came to my house.”

“What impression?”

“You already know what I’m talking about. Just tell everyone you were dropping off something for my mom. Or delivering the newspaper. Be creative.”

“But-“

“Bye.” She spun and took off again. Moose sighed, rubbing his nape.

Did he just make things worse?

Chapter Text

Saturday. Movie night.

Ethel parked her parents’ Jeep as close to the back of the lot as she could to avoid a ding or a dent. The walk to the theater was too short as she reminded herself of the reasons she should have stayed home.

Fifth wheel. I don’t want to be a fifth wheel. I didn’t need to see this movie, anyway. I could be at home, watching Cheaters or Desperate Housewives.

Her friends were missing from the lobby; Ethel wondered if they already went inside the theater.

Ethel listened with half an ear to the ticket counter girl’s excuse that she might not find a seat beside whoever she came to meet. She shelled out a ridiculous amount of cash for a single admission and a medium popcorn. The attendant let her through and punched her stub with a look of pity. She despised him on sight.

A sudden burst of insight hit when she grabbed the door handle.

She didn’t have to watch this crappy movie. It was a couples movie. Hello? She made an about-face and headed for Live Free or Die Hard, which she’d been drooling over.

The theater was packed, just as the ticket girl promised, but she found an end seat with an empty spot beside it. Perfect.

Five minutes past the first hail of bullets, heavy footsteps stopped beside her.

“This seat taken?”

“Oh. No. Here.” She stood, guarding her popcorn with her hand. She froze, much to the annoyance of the man behind her.

“Do you mind, Bee?”

“Yeah, lady, do you MIND? Let him siddown! Down in front!” Ethel was flustered, feeling several sets of eyes staring at her. It didn’t help that she was so tall.

Well, there you had it. Ethel numbly moved over and sank into her tippy chair. She bumped him as they both went for the armrest. Ethel flinched away as though he burned her.

But he felt so solid and warm.

He finished his Mike and Ikes halfway through. Ethel had been sparing with her popcorn. She stole looks at him. His knuckles. His pants leg. His sleeve. She still resented him. She was just being civil. Ethel tingled with remembered shame from the scene in the cafeteria.

His ear.

His…eyes? Geez…

“Popcorn?” her mouth moved without permission. He looked just as surprised that she asked.

“Extra butter?”

“Any other way is unthinkable,” she whispered back. He had cute ears. She heard his lips crack as he smiled in the dark and turned back to the screen. His hand brushed her arm inadvertently as he reached into the bucket.

Wasn’t she supposed to be pissed? Couldn’t he buy his own popcorn?

His large soda cup nudged her over the armrest.

A peace offering?

He had really, really big hands.

She accepted a long sip of cool fruit punch. They consumed the popcorn down to its last fragments, licking their fingers clean.

Look how fair her skin is. The glow from the movie screen illuminated her face, softening it. He stole a few more looks at her, glancing away when it seemed she would face him again.

Ethel didn’t budge except to let a couple by as they left the row. She loved watching the credits. Moose stood and stretched his legs, watching her expectantly.

“You coming?”

“Nope. Not yet.” She wasn’t expecting him to sink back into his seat.

“Why not?”

“I like getting my money’s worth.”

“Nah. I always skip the previews.”

“I missed them because I came late, but I watch those, too. But credits are cool sometimes. Sometimes they show stuff that wasn’t in the rest of the movie, or a hidden scene.”

“You can get that on the DVD and jump to it from the menu.”

“It’s not the same!” Then it occurred to her: Why the heck was she arguing with him? Why was she even TALKING to him??? “You go ahead.”

“I don’t have to leave yet,” he protested, watching the credits roll up the screen. To prove his point, he settled more deeply into his seat.

“You don’t have to stay, Moose.” She took matters into her own hands and rose to leave the long way, toward the opposite end of the row. Standing up too fast after her long legs were so cramped after an hour and a half in that cramped chair made her head spin.

“Ethel!” She flicked a brief wave over her shoulder without turning back.

Her exit was made less poetic when she tripped on a bump in the aisle carpet, snagging her foot. “Whoop! Oh, shit!!” She wrenched her ankle and she hopped to right herself, making it worse.

“Bee? You all right, Bee?”

“Ow. Ow. Ow.”

“Slow down,” he tsked as he caught up to her. She flinched again when he reached out to her to steady her. Bad enough that she was still (kinda) mad at him. But now she could add embarrassed to death to the list.

“I’m fine,” she lied. Her ankle faltered as she tried to walk on it.

“Not even. C’mere.”

“No,” she told him petulantly, wanting to shake him off, but he was insistent. Moose caught her swatting hand and folded it around his elbow.

“You’re hardheaded, you know that?”

“You could have just moved out of the way.”

“You didn’t have to run off.”

“Was I supposed to climb over you?”

“It’s a free country.”

Her suggestion didn’t bother him; Ethel wore a short denim skirt that was out of character but sexy, revealing those long, slim legs of hers. If anything, her climbing over him would have offered him a glance underneath. Granted, this was Ethel. But she looked good in that skirt.

“I’m fine. You can go ahead.”

“I’m walking you to your car.”

“I need to find Betty. That’s who I was supposed to meet.”

“I didn’t see her come in, or leave.”

“She saw a different movie.”

“So why didn’t you see the same movie?” She limped as fast as she could toward the exit, grudgingly accepting his help. It was easy to lean on him, given his height, so compatible with hers.

“It was too chick-flickish.”

“You’re a chick,” he pointed out.

“Watching that kind of movie’s fine when you’re home alone. When you’re out, it’s a date movie. Do I look like I had a date?”

“You dressed for one.” She stopped, scowling at him.

“No I didn’t.”

“You look dressed up to me. Makeup. Skirt. High heels.” He was impressed; Ethel wore backless high-heeled black shoes. Not many tall girls that he knew wanted to look taller in heels.

“What do you care what I wear or how I look?”

“I don’t!” He recanted, noticing how she rolled her eyes and curled her lip. “I mean, you can wear what you want. You just look different from how you do at school.”

“Hard up,” she muttered. He was about to argue the point with her, feeling slightly annoyed at the turn of their talk, when she suddenly looked around him and waved. Her face lit up. “Bets! BETTY!”

“Where were you?” she cried. She noticed Ethel leaning on Moose. “What’s wrong with you?”

“She hurt her ankle,” Moose replied.

“Ouch.” Betty was sympathetic. “We’re going to Pop’s. Wanna go?”

“Who else is going?”

“Ronnie and Nancy. And the boys.” Betty looked pointedly. “Moose, you’re coming with us, right?”

“I’m headed home,” Ethel said, cutting her off.

“You said you wanted to go with us after the movie.” Betty pouted. Over her shoulder, Ethel saw Nancy grinning and looking curiously at the scene they made. Ronnie looked uncomfortable before turning away to talk to Jason.

Like hell she’d go to Pop’s.

“I might call it an early night.”

“We didn’t even get to spend any time together. Tell her, Moose.”

“Huh?”

“She was supposed to hang out with us, but she’s here with you. You can’t hog her all to yourself.” Ethel and Moose both stared at her as though she passed gas.

Ethel still felt her hand pressed against Moose’s side from her snug grip on his arm. She gently removed it and ventured away from them both. “My car’s parked in the back.”

“We all came in two. So you can leave Pop’s whenever you want, but please come. Moose, talk her into it. You come, too.”

“I was just gonna head home-“

“That means you don’t have any plans, so you’re free to come, too.”

“Uh…”

“But-“

“See you guys there,” Betty chirped. She turned back to Ronnie and Nancy. “These guys are coming, too!” Ethel and Moose stood rooted to the ground, staring at each other.

“Um,” Moose offered as Betty ran off with their friends. “Are we going?”

“We’ll never hear the last of it if we don’t.”

With that in mind, neither of them decided to decline.

 

*

If anything, the night grew even more awkward. Ethel wondered why she didn’t just make her excuses and head home. Instead, she let Moose hold the door for her after they each parked.

“Hey, gorgeous,” Pop called out, holding his arms wide. “You’re breaking my heart, kiddo. Now it’s a party!” She blushed and laughed.

She had a nice laugh.

Betty waved them over to a booth before she could consider her usual perch at the counter. Archie was thirstily drinking his glass of water. Nancy emerged from the ladies’ room and made her way into the booth from the opposite end of the circular seat.

“Plenty of room,” Nancy mentioned, patting the seat beside her. “C’mon in!” Ethel weighed her options and took the spot less than eagerly. Nancy was nice; but at this rate, she might have to climb over Moose after all, before the night was through.

“Missed you at the movie, Ethel,” Chuck said.

“I was in the theater.”

“We watched the new Die Hard flick. It was awesome.”

“You were there, too? Did you go together?” Nancy grinned as she looked up from her menu.

“Well…”

“Not…really,” Moose hedged. “Just kinda ended up that way.”

Veronica and Cheryl picked that moment to enter the shop, with Cheryl’s brother Jason in tow. All of them reeked of money and clouds of cologne. Veronica clicked the lock button on her key ring, and Moose heard her Porsche chirp from out on the street. Ethel looked unsettled; the feeling was mutual from the look on Ron’s face. Moose sighed. Great.

“Bee! I didn’t think you were coming.”

“Bets talked me into it. Gang’s all here,” she shrugged. Cheryl smirked.

“Guess so. Hey, Moose.”

“What’s up.” Her green eyes were full of accusations and finger-pointing, like she’d caught him raiding the cookie jar.

“Are we gonna have enough room?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Ronnie said.

“We’ve got one more,” Cheryl corrected her. “He’s out parking the car. We need another menu,” she beckoned to the waitress.

“Taking him long enough.” Ronnie stirred her water with a straw, making the ice chips clink against the glass. She still had sour grapes that Cheryl’s date had a nicer car than she did.

“Don’t order yet; that way we can get everything at the same time.”

“I’m starved,” Archie complained.

“I heard that,” Moose agreed.

“I’ll see you at tryouts, right dude?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.”

“Ethel, why don’t you ever go out for basketball?” Ronnie’s voice didn’t have any malice, but Ethel was tired of that question any of the other thousands of times people asked.

“Not my game. I like to run track.”

“Careful, Moose, she might catch you if you’re not quick enough,” Cheryl teased. Ethel glared daggers at her from across the table. Moose clenched his knuckles.

“Maybe she would. I hate running suicides.” Ethel gave him a hooded look.

“I’m not into chasing anybody,” she emphasized.

“It’s just nice to have a reason to run,” Cheryl purred. She turned from the table, and her face lit up. “It’s about time!”

“I couldn’t find a spot on the street,” Alex complained.

Ethel’s stomach dropped into her shoes and her palms grew clammy. Of all the boys, in all of the places, why the Chok’lit Shoppe, why now, and why when Ethel was here? He bent down and gave Cheryl a sloppy kiss.

“Ew. Get a room.” Ronnie looked disgusted, but Jason’s hand was on her leg under the table. Ethel felt a wave of jealousy and embarrassment watching them.

She shouldn’t have cared.

He shouldn’t look so good.

Moose felt Ethel tense up beside him as Alex made his hellos around the table. He thought she liked Jug?

Alex's eyes nearly skipped over her as he nodded to Moose. They jerked back, noticing the girl who was trying to disappear into the booth. “Hey, Bee. Didn’t see you there.”

“H-hi.”

“What’re you doing here? I didn’t know you knew Cheryl?” He looked at Cheryl accusingly. “Small world.”

“Who knew?” she teased.

“She was supposed to meet us at the movie,” Betty added.

“I did.”

“She was hiding out with Moose, instead.” Betty grinned. Ethel wished she were invisible. But Alex gave Moose a long, measured look.

“Ethel likes hiding out in dark places.” His gaze shifted to Ethel, traveling over her outfit. Ethel suddenly wished she’d worn jeans as he snatched a peek at her long legs. She instinctively drew them back, tightening her posture.

“She picks good movies,” Moose countered. He was looking at Ethel when he said “Never would have figured she like action.”

“I already knew that,” Alex said. He leered. Cheryl scowled. Ethel wanted to die.

And Moose got pissed.

They eventually squeeze into the booth; Cheryl arranged herself on Alex’s lap while he sat at the end, leaving Cheryl’s feet free to dangle in the aisle. They were sickening together. She periodically stole his fries, then made a display of feeding them to him. Ethel sipped her Coke.

“You’re not hungry, Ethel?” Archie asked.

“Nah. I already had popcorn.”

“That’s why she’s so skinny,” Cheryl announced. “You’re so thin; you make me sick sometimes.”

The feeling’s mutual. “Fast metabolism, I guess.”

“Good genes,” Moose mumbled around a mouthful of his bacon cheeseburger.

“Heard much from Midge lately?” Cheryl was on a roll.

“Geez, girl, what d’ya think?” Nancy wrinkled her nose.

“I’m just asking.”

“I haven’t called her,” Moose told her.

“Everyone’s talking about her at school. That must have sucked.”

“Cheryl, knock it off,” Betty grumbled.

“What, I’m just saying.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t,” Ethel said quietly. Cheryl’s smile dropped.

“All the more for you, then, huh Bee?”

“Excuse me?”

“You won’t have to share Moose here with her. She doesn’t mind sharing, though.”

“Cher, that’s enough,” Betty hissed.

Ethel’s ears burned. Alex was just sitting there, listening to his date run off at the mouth while he stared at Ethel. He was less handsome; Ethel suddenly saw him as indolent and spoiled, and she decided he was a better match for Cheryl Blossom. She could have him, with Ethel’s blessings.

Ethel dug in her purse. “Here.” She slid a fiver over the table to Betty. “I’m gonna go. I’m tired, and I’ve had enough.” She practically shoved Moose off the end of the bench seat in her effort to rise.

“Ethel, don’t go,” Betty protested, glaring back at Cheryl.

“It’s still early,” Ronnie chimed in. Jason looked bored.

“Have fun,” she tossed back as she hurried out. She waved briefly at Pop, who raised an eyebrow as he dried a sundae glass at the counter. Jason and Sebastian watched appreciatively as her long legs flashed on her way out the door.

Without further word, Moose dug into his pocket and fished out his wallet, peeling off a handful of bills. He tossed them at Betty, too, nodding to her.

“I’m gonna bail!” He didn’t give a fuck who stared or what they said after he left.

Bee had the right idea.

“Okaaaaay,” Archie murmured. “What just happened here?”

“Got me,” Chuck mused, kneading Nancy’s neck as she stole a sip of his shake.

“Did they come together or what?” Jason asked.

“No.”

“Looks like they’re leaving together, though.”

 

Ethel fumbled with her car keys, hating that her hands were shaking.

She hated them all right now, maybe with the exception of Betty. They made sport of her. They were supposed to be her friends, weren’t they?

She wondered how long they had laughed at her expense, not with her, but at her. Was it just fun for them?

“Bee! Wait!”

“I’m going home,” she insisted. “Just leave me alone.”

“Take it easy. Shit,” he muttered as he approached her car. “What’s the matter?”

“What do you think? Don’t give them any more ideas.”

“Cheryl’s full of shit.”

“Don’t rub it in.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Just go, before things get worse. I know they’re talking about us. I know they’re talking about me back there, and they’re wondering why you came out here after me.”

“Who cares why I came out here?”

“Why did you?” she accused, finally getting the right key and punching it into the lock. He caught her hands and slapped her car door shut before she could open it all the way.

“Give me a second, Bee.” He sighed, then insinuated himself between her and the car, leaning back against it. “What’s the big deal? Don’t let Cheryl bother you.” Then it hit him. “Why was that asshole talking to you like that?”

“Who?”

“Whatsisfuck. The one Cheryl was sitting on.”

“Oh.” She folded her arms around herself protectively.

“Why were you acting so embarrassed around him?”

“I don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

“Did he do something to piss you off?” Ethel wondered why it mattered to him, noting how his mouth turned into a thin, hard line.

“No. It’s just…it’s nothing. I liked him. It didn’t work out.”

“You liked him? Really?”

“I like other guys besides Jug,” she pointed out.

“I didn’t say you didn’t, but why him?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

“He doesn’t seem like your type.”

“I don’t have a type.” She nudged him. “Move, please.”

“Everyone’s got a type.”

“Fine, Moose. You know what? My type is any guy who will give me the time of day who doesn’t think I’m ugly and who will actually CALL. Who won’t stand me up or just hang out with me so I’ll do them favors. I want a guy who I don’t have to chase, who won’t be embarrassed to be seen with me and who will admit that he’s dating me! Is that too much?” Her voice had risen in pitch, and she flung her hands up, nearly hitting him in the process. Moose actually shrank back, wincing at the hurt in her eyes and how her voice wavered on her last words.

“Hey,” he interrupted. “Take it easy!”

“I don’t feel like taking it easy! I want to go home, Moose. Just get out of my way and I’ll get out of yours and everyone else’s for the night. I’m done tagging along.” She gave his shoulder a light shove. Reluctantly, he moved aside, unblocking her door.

“Ethel,” he murmured, “calm down. Just hold on.” He caught her arm in a firm but gentle grip. She turned her face away from him. It was so quiet between them for a few moments that he could hear her breathing. “You’re not in the way.”

She shook her head in denial, still not looking at him.

“You’re not ugly,” he continued.

“Sure,” she mumbled.

“You’re not.”

“Everybody else thinks so.”

“No they don’t. There’s plenty of people who think you look just fine.”

“That’s not the same thing as looking hot.”

“You look fine,” he said, putting different emphasis on the word. She was still wrapped in a dark cloud of indignance and frustration, but she almost laughed. She looked at the ground, wanting to be anywhere but there.

She just felt…inadequate.

“You do. You look nice tonight.” He didn’t release her; instead he tugged her back toward him, nearly making her stumble, but held both her upper arms in his big hands. He was so close she felt him sigh at her back.

“No I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I can’t stand Cheryl and Veronica.”

“Some of us can’t.” Ethel was surprised.

“They hang out in the same crowd you do.”

“No. They hang out with Midge sometimes.” He didn’t add that none of them were close friends. “They always talk shit. It gets old.”

“So why did you decide to come here?”

“You came here,” he reminded her. “And Betty asked me.”

“She was the one who talked me into a movie.”

“She’s cool. She wanted to hang out with you. Nothing wrong with that.”

“She had a date. They all had a date. I came out by myself.” The memory of it tightened her throat and she felt a burning prick behind her eyes.

“Would you rather be by yourself?”

“No. I’m tired of it. No one…no one ever asks me to do anything first! I’ve always gotta ask first, or they just invite me as an afterthought! I hate it! I want…someone to like me the best, for a change!” She exhaled a shuddering breath and pinched the narrow bridge of her nose.

It disarmed him and dumbfounded him. “I didn’t know you felt that way.”

“Well, I do, okay?” she sobbed. Her voice was clogged with tears, and Moose felt something inside him crack. His hands tightened on her arms and pulled her back completely against him. She didn’t struggle when his arms crept around her waist. He held her gently, bowing his chin into her shoulder. He sighed.

“It’s okay, Ethel. Don’t be upset.”

“I can’t help it.” A tear dripped and landed on his wrist. She hastily wiped it from his skin before scrubbing her face. “You can let me go. I’m fine.”

“You don’t sound fine.” His voice was low and soothing and completely at odds with how she knew him. She adopted his slow, even breathing as she grew accustomed to his solid bulk. He was oh, so warm and firm and snuggly. “Smell good, though.”

“I bathed,” she quipped. He huffed a laugh that squished her against him even more. She didn’t mind.

“You don’t have to do a guy favors just because you like him,” Moose told her. He noogied her shoulder with his chin. She swatted his hands, but he didn’t let her go.

“I don’t, huh?”

“Midge never did me any favors.” But she sure thought she did.

“Ah.” She nodded sagely. Of course not.

“No. What you need is a guy who’s direct and who gives you all the attention.”

“Tell me when you find me one of those.” She shrugged out of his hug. “They’re few and far in-between.”

“One question, Bee.”

“What?” She was already getting into her car and peering up at him through her window.

“What the hell do you see in Jughead?”

“I don’t even know how to explain it.” She didn’t want to defend her preference. She was starting to wonder that herself, though. “But I thought Alex liked me.”

“You did?”

“We kinda had a thing.”

“Wait. A thing?”

“It’s called sleeping together, Moose.”

Whoa.

“Wow.” He rocked back on his heels.

“Don’t look so shocked.”

“You could do better.” She swallowed.

“Maybe I could.” She didn’t look like she believed him. “G’night, Moose.”

“Night, Bee.”

He didn’t bother going back into the shop. Moose spent the rest of the night after he got home replaying the night in his head.

His favorite part was sharing popcorn with her.

Chapter Text

The rows of multiple choice answers began to blur in front of Moose’s eyes as he sounded out each word for the gazillionth time. Math was bad enough. Vocabulary was killing him. He never used any of these in everyday conversation. He doubted anyone that he’d known during grades K thru twelve ever did. Except maybe Dilt.

Poor little guy sounded like hell.

“Hey, buddy.”

“Oh, man, Moose…I hate to break it to you, but I really don’t feel good. We’re talking stomach flu for the past eight hours. I don’t think I’ve even slept two. Mom threatened to feed me chicken soup through an IV.”

“Yeesh.” Moose shuddered.

“You don’t want my germs.”

“I know, but shit! I need to review these.”

“Keep reviewing. You’ll live. I probably won’t…”

“It’s easier with you coaching me and reading them out loud.” It helped, for some reason, to have someone reading the words who could actually pronounce them.

“Just remember what we went over about verb roots.” Dilton was a third-year Latin student. Moose only knew pig Latin.

“You can’t just take something?”

“I can’t even keep anything down.”

“Aw, man!”

They rang off. Moose wondered if he could claim stomach flu the day of the SAT and ask them for a do-over.

The more he worried, the harder the words looked. His eyes swam from looking in his pocket dictionary and studying his word lists.

It was too sunny outside. His basketball mocked him from the corner of his room. Play with me, it said. C’mon, big boy, you know you want to… His fingers itched.

His stomach growled. Moose lumbered downstairs and rooted through the fridge. He downed a liter of Coke and demolished half of his mother’s apple pie.

His truck looked dirty as he stared through the kitchen window. He dug the bucket and soap from the garage and was half-soaked an hour later, shammying it dry and Windexing the bugs from the windshield. He even polished the dash with Armor All, making the vinyl gleam.

When he came back inside, it was ten minutes from when he needed to be to work.

“Shitshitshit!”

He’d screwed himself, plain and simple. Forty-eight hours til Saturday, and he spent four of them dicking around. Visions of rejection letters danced in his head if he botched that test. He drove to work under a dark cloud.

*

 

Pampered Chef. It was official. Now that it was the end of the school year, every mom in Ethel’s mom’s address book was throwing a party. Her mother was talked into hostess duty again, and she had her eye on the pizza stone this time.

Ethel peered at the shopping list again. Olives. Cheese. Soda. Refrigerated bread dough. Cilantro.

She spent the whole afternoon helping her mother move furniture, spraying down some vinyl chairs in the garage, shampooing the carpet (which made it smell worse than it did before, in her opinion), making out invitation cards and scribbling down messages from the people who RSVP’ed.

So she was back in the grocery store, muttering the contents of her list as she searched for each item, once again freezing to death in the freezer section. Goosebumps rose on her arms, making her regret the tiny black Bebe tee shirt she wore. Gotta suffer for beauty, she shrugged to herself. The top made her feel cute, for a change. Betty had talked her into it.

“Phyllo,” she announced, grabbing a package and tossing it into her red basket.

“Do you always talk to yourself?” a voice inquired over her shoulder, scaring her out of her wits.

“OH! Moose!” she hissed, throwing her hand over her chest in mock-shock. “Don’t DO that!” He grinned.

“You jumped a mile. Nice.”

“Not nice,” she argued.

“What’re you getting now?”

“Stuff for another party.” She made a face.

“You throwing one?”

“Nope. Mom is, this time.”

“When are you gonna throw one?”

“When pigs fly.”

“Hm. Too bad. You and your mom can cook.” Ethel flushed, then peered at him through her lashes.

“I guess.”

“You can.”

“It’s just something I can kinda ‘do.’”

“No, it’s not. You’re hella good at it. So go back.”

“What?”

“Go back to me saying ‘You and your mom can cook.’ Then you say ‘Gee, thanks, Moose!’ Take a compliment when someone gives you one!” His mom always said that.

“Gee, thanks, Moose,” she repeated, poking him with the phyllo. “They aren’t working you hard enough?”

“Eh. Just stocking.” He clicked his label maker for emphasis. “Here. What do you think you’re worth?” he grinned, taking her hand. He pressed an orange sticker onto the back of it. “Two for .79” winked back up at her.

“Moose!” She tugged her hand back and swatted him this time. He grinned and ducked.

“Hey, there’s a special on Ethel today, didn’t you read it in the color ads?”

“Asshat,” she muttered, but she was still trying not to smile.

“What’ve you got on?” he mused, suddenly looking her over. “Stand back a minute?”

“Why?”

“What do you mean, ‘why?’ I wanna see your outfit? Look at you,” he leered, looking her up and down. Reflexively she crossed her arms over her stomach, but the basket banged her hip. “Give me that,” he told her with a sigh. He took the basket and set it down. “I wanna better look.”

“Moose!” She was so embarrassed and flustered, but she felt a warm little glow anyway at his approving look.

“Whatsamatter? I’m just enjoying the view. C’mon, Ethel, work it, work it!” he teased. She turned in an awkward circle, making a face at him the whole time and rolling her eyes. She even added a silly sashay. A few shoppers stared and smiled.

But she looked cute.

She wore cargo capris and a snug little black cotton shirt, one of those little numbers with the rhinestones spelling out the brand name stretched out across the boobs. Midge had a couple like that, and sure, they were hot, especially since Midge was stacked. But Ethel…she was a different story.

He was used to seeing her wear roomy baseball jerseys or button-down blouses, maybe the occasional cropped sweater with something under it. Lately, she just…blossomed.

She wasn’t just bony anymore. She was, well…what was a word Dilton had thrown at him lately? Willowy. Yeah, that fit. She just had a little handful up top, but it was a nice handful. She was lean from running track and playing softball all spring, leaving her with a taut stomach and a butt he could no doubt bounce a quarter off of.

It just surprised him that he never noticed it before. There were a lot of things he never noticed.

In the meantime, she was still hovering somewhere between embarrassment and indignance. “Go sticker something,” she complained, taking back her basket.

“The day feels too long already.”

“Why?”

“I was studying my review stuff for SAT’s. I hate it. Vocab sucks.”

“Aww, it’s not that bad. I’m good with words.”

“I suck at ‘em.”

“Just guessing the definition, the right spelling, or analogies?”

“All of the above.”

“Once in a while, ‘all of the above’ might be the right answer.”

“Can’t I just mark them all ‘true?’”

“Nope.”

“Shit.”

“Read them often enough, and some of the definitions will stick with you.”

“My head’s about to explode.”

“Have you been reviewing them regularly?”

“Not for the past couple of days. I’m screwed. Dilly was helping me, but he’s been sick.”

“How sick?”

“Sounding like he’s gonna hurl even when we’re on the phone.”

“Aw. Ew.”

“That’s what I said.”

“How was he helping you?”

“Walking me through ‘em, I guess. He reads all the time.”

“Don’t like to read much?”

“Sports Illustrated. The newspaper front page, the movie listings, and the sports pages.”

“Ah,” she said, nodding. “Got it.” Ethel’s bookcase at home was overstuffed. Most of her novels were dog-eared from rereading them. Okay. So he wasn’t much of a reader.

Moose still looked worried. He sighed and kept playing with his labeler.

“Two more days, Moose.”

“Don’t remind me. Sucks.”

“Come over,” she blurted. He whipped his head up from his sulk.

“When?” His response was so quick she didn’t believe her ears.

“Um. When, when…shit. How about tomorrow after school? Or tonight? How long do you have to work?”

“Til nine.”

“Crap. Too late. Okay, tomorrow then. Okay?”

“What time?”

“Three?”

“Three. Should I bring anything to eat?”

“Whatever you think you want. Or I can make something. Bring your word lists. Bring everything you need. I could use the review myself.” She made a mental note to pick up some Oreos and other things on her way out.

“I’ll be there with bells on.”

“No bells. Please.”

“Okay. Here.” He reached for her hand again and gave her another label.

“Moose, geez!”

“It’s better than the last one.”

And it was. It read “1000000.00”

“You’re so bad,” she chided him, but her voice was shy. “Don’t waste all your labels.”

“I’ve got a whole roll. There’s still some empty space on you for more.”

“Bye, Moose.”

“Tomorrow at three?”

“Tomorrow at three.”

There was that weird…giddy feeling again. Ethel dismissed it on her way out to her car.

*

 

“Quit it, Alex!” He was tickling her. She hated it when he tickled her.

“C’mon.”

“I’m supposed to call Ronnie.”

“Call her later. C’mon,” he whined, closing her text book for her.

“Alex…quit it!” He could be annoying. Sexy, but annoying. Alex was used to getting his own way and having precious few people tell him no. Even then, he figured they didn’t mean it.

Cheryl was his cup of tea. Just as rich as he was, just as shallow, up for a good time, and she made him hard. Frequently. She was glossy and shiny, and it was an ego trip having her and making everyone else wondering what it was like to have her.

They were in her room, pretending to study. She snuck him up there while her mom was in the shower; Penelope. Blossom called upstairs that she was headed out for a mani-pedi. They both held their breath until the door downstairs slammed. They had a little over an hour.

“I told her I’d call. I wanna see when I’m gonna meet her. We’re going to the movies.”

“Just go with me on Saturday night.”

“I promised I’d go with her.”

“She can go with your other girlfriends,” he reasoned, shrugging. He started pulling her away from her desk by her wheeled chair. She held onto it’s cushion with both hands.

“Alex! STOP IT!” She was half-serious. He was growing hard watching her struggle. He spun her chair around and tried to finesse her off of it. She waylaid his effort by grabbing her cell phone from her desk.

“I’ve got her in my five,” she announced, hitting the send button. He twisted his mouth into a scowl. He still looked sexy. She ran her tongue over her plump upper lip, teasing him. “Ron? Hey, it’s me. Did you look up the time for the movie?”

“Did you look up the time for the movie?” he mimicked in a falsetto, making talking motions with his hand. She reached out and pinched him, evoking a grin and smothered yelp.

“No. I’m wearing my Seven jeans. You can wear those cute little…shit. Stop,” she hissed as Alex got down on his knees and nudged himself between her legs. “You can wear your Lucky ones. No. I’m wearing my Sevens, people will think you copied me. No, you copied ME. Wait a minute, Ron…quit it!” He bowed his head and bumped her arm out of the way, so he had better access to the side of her throat. He crushed her between his chest and the chair, sloppily laving her neck. She shivered, and her nipples hardened into stiff little buds.

“No, you can’t borrow my shoes. I just bought those shoes. Yeah, I still have your Mac lipstick, it doesn’t look right on me, so I’ll give it baAA-AA-ACCCCK!” He pushed up her tiny skirt and was already digging for treasure between her legs, making sounds of need in his throat.

“Hang up,” he whispered in her ear, sucking her tender lobe.

“Ron, what time…shit…what time do you…wait a minute,” she hissed again, juggling her phone and fighting his grab for it. His finger chafed her before he found the edge of her black panties and tugged them aside, abrading her plump lip with the elastic. She felt hot and soft to him, and his finger slithered between her folds, testing her. She was already wet, making her protests a lie.

She wanted him to fuck her. Badly.

Cheryl’s voice was getting breathier.

“Should I call you back?” Ronnie quipped, noticing the change in her friend’s tone. Slut…

“You don’t have to…oh, God! Right. Bye, Ronnie.” She clicked off the phone moments before she dropped it. “ALEX!”

“Finally. Stay off the fucking phone,” he muttered into her ear before he suckled it harder, making her wetter when he thrust his tongue inside the canal. She squirmed at how hot her flesh felt, how she wanted to come out of skin with anticipation.

“You need to learn how to wait.”

“Fine.” His hand was twisting and thrusting inside her, making her slick. She moaned in approval.

“It’s not nice to interrupt my phone call.”

“Mmmmmm,” he murmured, trailing sloppy, biting kisses along her jaw before reaching her mouth. His lips were hard and she loved the way they felt, but hated the inevitable marks they’d leave behind. Cheryl wasn’t wearing a turtleneck in the middle of May. No way.

“Why are you always so…oh. Mmmm. Oh, God, Alex,” she breathed as he yanked her bottom toward the edge of the seat, yanking down her panties this time. He rearranged her, jerking her skirt above her waist and baring her bottom half for his scrutiny.

Cheryl Blossom was hot. Her skin was creamy and smooth, impeccably waxed, and framed the sweet, patrician-looking pussy. She was a natural redhead, but even that was carefully waxed into a tidy landing strip, exposing those lips for him. A hint of moisture was already collected there from his efforts. He spread her thighs wide and tickled the tiny nub once he found it, then pressed it harder. She was already wriggling and thrusting back against the movement, making tiny mewling sounds.

She didn’t like nice boys. Cheryl liked a boy with an ego who went out of his way to prove he knew how to fuck. A bad boy like Alex fit the bill.

“You know you want it, don’t tell me you don’t want it.” She made a sexy picture, bare from the waist down, but he wanted more. He was greedy. He kissed her hard, keeping his hand inside her, plumbing her more deeply while she moaned and hissed his name. His free hand crept beneath her shirt, finding one round, luscious breast. He kneaded it roughly, growling with contentment. Her arms were clinging to him, and she clawed her fingers through his thick dark hair. He fumbled, then yanked at her bra until she reached back to unfasten it herself before he ruined it.

“That feels so good, don’t stop,” she panted.

“Aw, yeah, that’s nice,” he muttered, pulling the hem of her top up and rolling it up over her breasts. They were lush, creamy like the rest of her, and slightly flushed with color from her arousal. Huge, stiff nipples were a deep ruby pink, and he moaned into her flesh as he tasted one, lolling one around on his tongue. He suckled and grunted from how good it was. Alex's cock was already hard, and he paused at probing her to unzip his jeans. Cheryl ran the back of her toes against his bulge, teasing him.

He’d had enough. He wanted her. Alex tugged her out of the chair and shoved her onto the bed. She rolled to her back, breasts jiggling with the motion and still framed by her sweater and skirt, both rucked up to give him a better view. He couldn’t wait any longer. He shoved his jeans down to his knees, revealing a bobbing, leaking cock.

“Use something.”

“I didn’t bring anything,” he shrugged, reaching for her again. He fingered her, harder this time, stroking her and twisting his knuckles. Reason was fast leaving her.

“Then wait a minute…wait!” She pawed at her bedside table and found a tiny package of spermicidal cream.

Moments later, he was pounding into her, her legs thrown over his shoulders. It felt so raw and hard. Pressure built up in his cock, making it turgid and curving it slightly. She groaned against the faint ache, but it felt so good.

He changed angles and worked her legs in different positions, flipping her, practically bending her like a pretzel…she stopped caring. Just make me come. She silently prayed it while crying out and moaning his name, muffling curses.

“God! So fucking…good, fuck, FUCK!” He spasmed. The expression on his face was comical, except she couldn’t laugh. He was emptying his load, making her sticky and flooding out of her body. His hips jerked in tight, hard little shocks, jarring her. His fingers dug into her thighs, squeezing her hard enough to leave marks. He was replete and spent, panting and sweating as he kissed her knee. He practically tossed her legs off of him.

“Go ahead and use the bathroom first,” he offered, straightening himself. He wiped his sticky cock on a nearby bath towel hanging on a peg over her bedroom door. It was still swollen and red but slowly fading. She looked at it longingly, feeling bereft. She did as she was told, fixing her clothes as she went.

When she came out of the bathroom, he was gathering up his books.

“Where are you going?” They still had plenty of time to horse around, she hoped, and to fool around some more, too.

“I’ve gotta go. Boy, Cheryl, you sure are horny, you can’t seem to get enough!” he cajoled, kissing her and giving her breasts one last squeeze. She swatted him and scowled as he walked out the door.

“Jerk,” she hissed.

She still wanted him to call her later.

Cheryl called Ronnie back moments after she heard his car pull out of the driveway. She opened the room to air out the smell of sex.

“So how was it?” Ronnie asked right off the bat.

“Quit it.”

“You know you went at it as soon as you got off the phone with me,” she accused.

“You still can’t borrow my shoes.”

“I don’t want to anymore. Let me borrow Alex.” Cheryl grinned, happy to have made Ron jealous, even if she’d been disappointed.

“Bitch.”

“I just remembered…how did Ethel say she knew him?”

“She didn’t.” Cheryl wrinkled her nose as she searched her dresser for her brush.

“Yes, she did. Wait, he did. He knew her from somewhere.”

“Bullshit,” Cheryl muttered.

“Maybe they were secret lovers,” Ronnie told her in a breathy, dramatic voice, emphasizing “secret.”

“Fuck off.”

“You never know.”

“She’s not his type. Why would he want that?”

“Because he wants what he can get?” Ronnie had dangled Archie for ages using that logic and never gave in. It was fun just to play the game.

“I think he’s a little pickier than that. I should know.”

No way was Cheryl Blossom going to admit a girl like Big Ethel had a chance with her boyfriend. Ever.

 

*

“Okay, now this one. Is it A, effervessent, B, effervescent, C, affervescent, or D, effervescent?”

“Shit.”

“C’mon, Moose, sound it out. I know you know this one.” He scowled and silently moved his lips over each one. She felt his restlessness but didn’t know what to do about it.

“Remember, these are short vowel sounds. What would one ‘f’ do?”

“Make it long?”

“Right. There’s an ‘e’ at the end that would make that vowel long, especially with one ‘f.” Which other one can we eliminate?”

“C. I can’t even pronounce it.”

“You don’t have to.”

“It’s the only one with an ‘a.’”

“Bingo. Okay, time for the sixty-four dollar prize: Which one is it?”

“Uhhhhhhh…”

“Tick, tick, tick…”

“B?”

“Yes!” she cried, slugging him in the shoulder. She jumped up and did a goofy Cabbage Patch Dance. His smile was lopsided as he stared.

“Uh-huh. I get it right, and she goes into convulsions…” And there it was again. When he was alone, he was funny. Fun.

Nice.

And surprisingly bright.

“Just remember, you have to look twice at the spellings, Moose, but don’t take too long guessing. Speed counts so you can try to answer all of them, and it increases your chances of getting more right.”

“I just hate these.”

“You’re getting so much better. Here.” She held up the bowl of popcorn and plucked a piece. He opened his mouth; she tossed one in, a maneuver they’d repeated each time he got one correct.

“Okay. Here we go,” she continued. “Analogies.”

“Booooo. Sssssss. Boooo. Sssssss.”

“Suck it up. It’s go time. First one. ‘Absolve is to forgive, as indict is to a) ignore, b) question, c) indicate, or d) accuse?”

“Geez…”

“Is this a synonym, or an antonym?”

“Uh…synonym?”

“Yup. Knock this one out of the park.”

“Man, I suck at these…”

“No, you don’t. You’re a champ.”

“Bullshit.”

“You are, too. Say ‘Gee, thanks, Ethel’ when I tell you you’re not bad at this. It’s called a compliment.”

They were lolling around in the basement, which her dad had redesigned into a rec room. Ethel was seated criss-cross applesauce on the floor; Moose lounged on an overstuffed couch in his stocking feet. Thankfully he’d worn his loafers; his smelly sneakers were legend.

“C’mon, big guy,” she encouraged.

“It’s hard!”

“I’m not gonna be sitting next to you during the text, Moose. You need to know these!”

“I CAN’T!”

There was a roaring in his ears. He knew she meant well, but the words were swimming in his vision again, and frustration choked him, making the skin at the base of his skull tight. Thinking of locking up during the test was keeping him up at night.

He wanted to get into college. He could play, but that wasn’t enough.

Why couldn’t he be like Dilton? Why couldn’t he just already know it all without it seeming so impossible?

“I’m not dumb,” he said in a small voice, so low Ethel barely heard it.

“Moose?” Hers was filled with concern. He felt her shift, setting down the pages and moving to him on her knees. He didn’t notice that he was rubbing his eyes and cradling his forehead in his palm until she reached for his free hand that was dangling and limp. She tugged on his fingers. He shook his head.

“It’s okay.” It wasn’t. He couldn’t do it anymore.

“I can’t do it anymore,” he sighed.

A tear dripped free, darkening the knee of his faded jeans. She stifled her surprise and merely took his hand this time, kneading his large, scarred knuckles. Her hands were cool and soft. He squeezed hers back.

“You can do it,” she pronounced. “And you will do it, Moose. You don’t give up.”

“I want to.”

“You can’t. And you never have. I know how hard you work. Look at you. Letters in three sports, you’re passing your general ed, and you’re getting ready to go off to school. That’s hard work. That, on top of a job to pay for your truck. That’s nothing to sneeze at.” He sniffed. She gently flicked away a tear, then wiped away the track it left on his cheek. His blue eyes were watery and bloodshot when he straightened slightly.

“Sorry.” He wiped his eyes.

“Don’t be. It’s okay.”

“I’m burnt out.”

“Senioritis.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“Your eyes are all red.”

“Man. Looks like I was crying, doesn’t it? I hate that. I bet it looks like crap.”

“No. Don’t look so sad.” His cheek was smooth and cleanly shaven; sometimes she noticed a hint of dark gold stubble on him, but today, his face looked younger, more boyish than usual. But still so sad. She rose, then leaned back against the arm of the couch, patting his shoulder. “It makes me sad to see you look sad.”

“I’m okay,” he muttered, staring at the mountain of review sheets on the coffee table. He began to relax; Ethel hadn’t taken her hand away yet, and she was gently rubbing his nape. It felt good.

“Good. Let me know when you want to get back to it. We’ve got time. But we can take a break.”

“I need it. I wasted time this week, but I still need a break from this.”

“What did you do?” He groaned beneath her hand as she kneaded his neck more firmly, applying pressure to his trapezius muscles. They were sculpted and hard, but relaxed and loosened slightly the more she rubbed.

She didn’t know how it came about that she was touching him. All that she knew was that she was enjoying it. The contact was pleasant, and it gave her a warm glow. It was so strange. He always seemed so hard. Now he was pliant.

Just a great, big…teddy bear.

“I washed my truck.”

“That’s fun. I like washing cars when it gets hot.”

“Me, too. My truck, anyway. I even did the white walls.”

“Nice.”

“Mmmmmmmm…” She was lulling him into a stupor and let his head drop. She took that as encouragement to continue. He shifted and stretched his long legs out on the couch, nearly reclined.

She turned so she had a better angle and stood behind him, and she gave him a very slow, thorough massage that made him limp. He groaned low in his throat beneath her hands as she kneaded and probed his muscles with her fingers, occasionally knuckling them to knead out knots.

“You’re so…tight,” she remarked.

“Practice is over,” he muttered.

“Ah,” she agreed.

“Not in the gym as much right now, trying to get this done.”

“That’ll give you something to look forward to.”

She smelled good; she was close enough that he smelled that powdery little cologne she wore, along with her detergent and shampoo. She combed her fingers through the back of his hair, and they sighed in unison. He smiled lazily.

“I can’t move.”

“That’s the point. Don’t think for a while, either.”

“Okay,” he replied sleepily. She was turning him into a lump.

“Feel better?”

“Mmmmmmm.” His voice was a deep rumble.

“Can I take that as a yes?” She felt a hint of excitement as she absorbed some of the warmth of his body, gently leaning against him.

He tipped his head back to look up at her with those puppy dog eyes of his; the crown of his head pressed back against her ribcage, just shy of her breasts. She was afraid he could hear her heart pounding in her chest. He reached up and caught her hand mid-rub, squeezing it.

“Thanks, Bee.”

“You’re welcome, Moose.” His touch was firm…almost insistent as he flattened her palm against him, then gentled again when his thick, slightly calloused fingertips traveled up her arm in a caress that made her shiver.

The look he gave her, coupled with his touch sizzled along her nerve endings.

“Can I get you anything?” He shook his head slowly; the back of his head brushed against her again. It was innocent, but she felt euphoric.

“I’m fine, now,” he answered.

He watched her gray eyes travel over his face, concern slowly leaving them, replaced with reverence of a sort.

He felt the pulse in her wrist jump, then triple.

“C’mere,” he murmured. She swallowed around a lump in her throat.

“Moose…” His fingers drew lazy patterns over the back of her hand, and the sensations were addictive.

What was he doing to her?

She gathered every drop of courage she had and bent those last few inches toward his face. He met her halfway, cupping the back of her neck and pulling her into a soft kiss. Ethel’s stomach flipped.

That excitement was back, bubbling inside her and making her tingle as she responded to his kiss. She followed the stroke and press of his lips, never having someone’s mouth fit hers so well before. He sighed, and the warmth breath from his nostrils steamed her skin, they were so close.

Man, she’s good at this.

His fingers tangled in her short hair as he deepened the kiss, teasing her lips. She tentatively opened for him and he took a thorough taste. His tongue stroked her, warm, wet, and velvety. He clasped her other hand, sliding it down from his shoulder until it rested on the hard planes of his chest. Her breath shuddered at the feel of his heart pounding just as strongly as hers…

“ETHEL! You downstairs?” Their eyes flew open and Ethel’s teeth accidentally scraped Moose’s bottom lip as they broke apart. The moment was dashed to bits.

“Ouch,” Moose whispered, probing his mouth.

“Sorry,” she hissed. “Yeah, Dad?”

“What are you up to?”

“Reviewing SAT stuff.”

“Could your friend move his truck? I need to go to the hardware store, and he’s blocking me.”

She mouthed “shit!” and facepalmed in embarrassment.

“All right, sir,” Moose called back. “I’ll move it right now.”

“Appreciate that, pal.”

“Geez,” she muttered under her breath at her father’s retreating footsteps.

“I better go, anyway.” Ethel was immediately bereft. She folded her arms beneath her breasts; the gesture made her look vulnerable.

“Okay, Moose,” she said softly. He looked up from where he gathered up the review sheets and saw how lonely she looked.

She’d always looked that lonely. He never realized it before. Moose made a small noise in his throat as he watched her. “What?”

“Are you taking tomorrow’s test?”

“Uh-huh. My last name’s in the same group as yours.” She smiled shyly. “You may see me.” He tucked the last of the materials into his backpack and straightened up. “Good luck, Moose, I know you can do-mmmmph!” Moose’s hands slid around her waist and tugged her to him. It was satisfying to kiss someone without having to lean down at all. She seemed to agree with him if the way she moaned into his mouth was any clue.

“Okay,” he told her as he let her go. She was off-balance and dreamy-eyed. “I’ll take off before your dad decides to tow my truck.”

“Uh-huh,” she said. Her voice sounded disconnected; she hardly recognized it.

“Bye, Bee,” he told her.

“Uh-huh,” she repeated.

He’d reduced her to monosyllables. She followed him numbly upstairs and waved to him from behind the screen door as he pulled out of her driveway.

“What were you two up to?”

“SAT review.”

“Studying, huh?”

“Uh-huh.” Her lips still felt him. Her father shook his head and raised his brow at her dazed look.

“Uh-huh.”

 

*

This is it. The big day. Doomsday.

Moose lingered in the shower, letting the hot spray beat down on him and soothe a kink in his neck from sleeping on it wrong. The tension Ethel had rubbed away was back in full force.

“Here,” his mother told him, pressing a glass of orange juice in his hand before he sat down to breakfast. “I haven’t gone shopping yet, so just have a bagel.”

“We don’t have any eggs?” He rooted through the fridge just to check.

“Just two.”

“Can you fix those?”

“Okay, sweetie.” She noticed his brooding look and came to him. Mrs. Mason smoothed his hair from his brow and kissed it. “I can’t believe you’ve come this far, so fast. Do your best, Duke.” She was the only one who ever called him by his first name, or her favorite diminutive instead of his moniker from school.

“What if I don’t?” He was growing anxious again. “I mean, what if my scores aren’t that high, and if I don’t get into the school that I want this year?”

“Then we let you take a break for a semester. Go to the JC downtown and take a general ed class or two. They look at sports at the state school, sweetie, but being an incoming freshman isn’t your last chance to get in. You can transfer if you want.” He mulled that as she cracked the eggs into the frying pan.

“Everyone else is going to state as soon as they get out.”

“Who said you had to do the same thing as everyone else?”

“I dunno,” he mumbled around a gulp of orange juice.

“Sweetie, just do the best you can.”

“What if it’s not good enough?”

“It will be,” she assured him. “You can do anything, Duke.”

“I hate the verbal part.”

“Dilton helped you with that, I thought.”

“Yup. Kinda. But he was sick this week.” His mother slid the plate of eggs and toast in front of him. “I got a little help yesterday from this girl. Bee. She’s better with words than I am. Like, a lot better.”

“You’ve never mentioned her before.”

“Eh.” He shrugged and spread a generous dollop of strawberry preserves on one half of the bagel.

“Is she in your classes?”

“She’s in my lunch.” He remembered back to that awful afternoon and how hurt she looked. His stomach knotted in response, but he crammed the toast into his mouth, anyway.

“It was nice of her to help you.”

“She is pretty nice,” he agreed.

“Where is she in your yearbooks?”

“Ma!”

“They’re right here,” she called over her shoulder as she went to retrieve one. She came back and flipped to the sophomore section from two years before. “What’s her name?”

“Her last name’s Muggs.”

“Muggs…wait. I know this nice lady in my knitting club! Is she tall and kind of slender, with dark hair?” His mother’s face lit up.

“Yeah.”

“That’s her! Oh, I just love her. Nice as can be. Gave me a chicken taco recipe that looked great. Why don’t you bring your friend by the house one of these days? I can hang out with her mom while you guys do something?” She suggested it as easily as she would set up a playdate, as if he was five. He rolled his eyes. She flipped through the book. “Oh, this must be her. Look at that.”

“She’s always looked the same. Even when we were kids.” Except then, her teeth were still buck and took up half her face when she smiled. In the meantime, she still had “tinsel teeth.”

Hadn’t she already had braces for around three years? Or four?

“She’s her mom’s spitting image. She’s a nice looking woman, too, so elegant and tall and thin. The woman can wear anything!” Moose strongly resembled his mother, with the same eyes and mouth, but he inherited his father’s burly build and firm bone structure. His mother was pleasantly plump and blonde and she’d been homecoming queen, back in the day. That still made her wistful, and she frequently shook her head at her reflection when she walked by. Moose thought his mother was beautiful.

“Does she have to take the test today?”

“Yup,” he mumbled as he finished the eggs. It helped; at least he wouldn’t be starved, on top of being nervous. “Ma, I’m gonna go.”

“Are you doing anything else today?”

“I’ll call if I do, but I’ll have my phone turned off during the test.”

“Good boy,” she chirped. She hugged and kissed him, ruffling his hair. “Go get ‘em.”

 

*

Easier said than done. He nodded to all of his friends as he made his way to the classroom. Miss Grundy was proctoring for sections A thru M; Mr. Flutesnoot was talking N thru Z. He wore his basketball jersey for good luck, and saw that Andrews and Clayton had the same idea, nodding a greeting.

He saw the back of a familiar dark head a few people ahead of him in line. “Bee?” he said.

“Oh. There you are,” she replied, and her smile was happy and relieved. “Come on.” She let him cut in front of her to keep her company.

“Made it.”

“I knew you would.”

“I can’t wait til this is over.”

“Me, too. But this is it. This is the hardest thing you’ll have to do for the rest of the school year. Then just send in those apps and watch the acceptance letters roll in.” He was still nervous. She nudged him with her shoulder and grinned. He nudged back, nearly knocking her off-balance. She poked him in the side. He took umbrage, and it turned into a pinching tickle fight in less than a minute.

She yelped with laughter, making a few heads turn their way. She had him in a headlock, knuckles poised for a noogie when she heard Midge cry out, “Moose?” Mr. Flutesnoot was already staring disapprovingly at their mischief until Midge broke it up with her arrival. He went back to his registration sheet.

Moose straightened. Ethel stepped back to let her approach.

She was comfortably dressed in dark red Southpole sweats and wore her makeup already, despite that it was an early Saturday morning.

“Hi,” she greeted him, not caring that she’d stepped between Moose and Ethel. “Are you ready?”

“As ready as I’m gonna be.” He nodded over her shoulder. “Bee helped.”

“I thought Dilt was helping you with math.” Her brows drew together.

“So? He wasn’t around.”

“Oh. Okay. I called you. I left you a text, too.”

“Guess I was out.”

“I’ve been pretty busy, anyway.”

“I bet.” Sure enough, Reggie materialized by the door and was shooting the shit with Archie and Chuck. He caught his eye and froze. Reggie’s mouth twisted as he noticed Midge, and he turned away, ignoring them both. The base of Moose’s skull throbbed.

He didn’t need this. Not now.

“I was just wondering what you were up to.” She looked back toward the door where Reggie was still showing off, and she scowled as she noticed that he was flirting now with Valerie Jones. “I’m gonna go. See you after the test.”

“I guess.”

“Bye.” She turned around. “Oh, bye, Bee.”

“See you,” she replied woodenly. Midge rushed off in a cloud of Curve perfume. Ethel fumed.

There it was. The sad puppy dog look. The tense posture and tightening of his fists.

Moose was still hung up on Midge.

Well. There you had it.

Chapter Text

Ethel punctured the apple she’d just removed the stem from with a small wooden skewer and dipped it into the red mixture in the pot. The aromas of the kitchen floated out into the hallway as she worked.

“Don’t let that stuff overboil, or you’ll burn it,” Miss Haggly complained as she watched Ethel twirl one apple after another in the candy coating.

“I won’t.”

“Dip a few of ‘em into the chopped nuts and check on the brownies; they should be just about done.”

Despite herself, Ethel liked their grumpy cafeteria manager, but she was just about pooped. Bake sales could be exhausting. Betty had dropped off two pies and an angel food cake that she and her mother made at home, and Nancy left after making a batch of oatmeal cookies with Ethel.

“I have to take these out. Just set those on the tray like we did for the caramel ones.”

“Got it.”

“You’re a big help, you know that?” Miss Haggly shot her a smile that threatened to make her withered face crack.

“Thanks, ma’am. Any time.”

“Let’s get this show on the road.” Ethel watched her pick up the plastic-wrapped trays of sweets and set them on a small cart. She wheeled them down the hall with clumping footsteps. Ethel sighed, glad for the moment to be alone.

“Bee?” She was just rolling an apple in sprinkles with a heavy hand when she heard a familiar, welcome voice. She looked up and beamed. Moose was scanning the kitchen, looking at the remaining goodies with interest.

“Hey.”

“There’s no way you’re not letting me sample this stuff.”

“It’s for the bake sale.” Riverdale High was holding a car wash as well to go toward the sober grad activities for the big night. Just think, no more bake sales after this summer. It felt strange that this might be her last time in the school’s home ec kitchens.

“Aw, c’mon! One little cookie? Ooh, never mind. I want one of those!” He nodded to the apples, practically salivating. She shook her head.

“Knock yourself out, then. I’ve never liked these. They’re such a tease.” Ethel wrinkled her nose at the candy apples.

“Why not? I love ‘em.”

“These,” she said, pointing to her gleaming braces. “And they’re impossible to eat. I mean, they’re all shiny and red and look good to eat, but then you can’t bite through all that hard candy to get to the apple. Why not just have a plain apple?”

“Where’s the challenge in that?” Moose took one from the serving rack, eyeing it, and took a noisy, hearty bite. “Perfect. They’re pretty damned good, considering you hate ‘em.”

“Ugh.”

“Some things are so good that they’re worth the trouble,” he pointed out. She shrugged and cocked her head in thought.

“Hm.”

“I started it for you. Here.” He proffered it; she peered at the large white divot in the cracked candy shell, marked with clear impressions from his even teeth. She gingerly bit into it, where his mouth had been.

“Mmmm. I still think it’s a waste of a good apple, but this is easier.”

“Don’t like anything you have to work for?”

“I like immediate gratification. So sue me.”

“Spoilsport.” He dispatched the apple easily while she dipped the rest.

“I’m not into gloss. Give me the nice, sweet apply that I can enjoy underneath.”

“You done?”

“Pretty much, thank God. I’m beat. I’ve whipped, chopped, sliced, baked, iced, frosted, sprinkled and cut my heart out today. If I have to measure or time one more thing, I’m gonna scream.”

“So c’mon. You’ve been in here too long.”

“I have to help Miss Haggly…”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Yuh-huh,” she countered, jutting her chin stubbornly. “I’m putting you to work. Help me take these out.” The timer dinged; she removed the brownies from the oven while he juggled two plates of sliced cake.

“It’s too nice to hang out inside,” Moose grumbled at her. “Take a break!”

“Eh. I dunno…”

“Sure you do. You take all this stuff out, you take off that apron…hot stuff, by the way, work it, Bee…” She smirked, tempted to bean him with one of the apples. “And then we take off.”

“Uh…we?”

“Yeah, cuz…you need someone to keep you from making a beeline back here to work away the rest of a perfectly good afternoon.” She eyed him warily. “C’mon.” He looked like a petulant little boy.

“No,” she argued. “You can go ahead. I’m pretty busy.”

“Bullshit.”

“I promised I’d help sell.”

“Geez,” he muttered. She headed to the long table set up outside in the courtyard. He set down the plates while she laid out the rest of the trays, setting the apples in front where they could be noticed.

“You don’t have to wait for me.”

“You don’t have to hang out here,” he countered.

“I want to hang out here.” Yet she didn’t. She was tempted.

But Ethel was confused.

Her yearbook pages danced in the back of her head. The ugly laughter. Her hot tears of embarrassment. Miss Grundy’s look of pity.

The Moose she thought she knew wasn’t the Moose standing before her now…was he?

He’d kissed her.

Yet, Sebastian had kissed her. Had taken her virginity, and what did she have to show for it?

No boyfriend.

Moose had stood up for her at Pop’s.

And hadn’t he…held her?

Her? It still baffled her.

“Don’t be such a bench-sitter,” he nagged. Annoyance crossed her features.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Everyone else is out there,” he gestured, waving to their classmates. Archie was spraying Chuck with a hose while Chuck tossed a fully laden sponge at him. Betty and Veronica were detailing a small Civic and whispering to each other. Several others were beckoning drivers into the lot, dancing, flirting and giving cheerful calls and waves.

“I’m doing what I can to help right here.”

“Why not come out and have fun?”

“Define fun, Moose.” Her voice became hard. “Look, you don’t have to even hang out here with me, if you think I’m such a spoilsport, or a ‘bench-sitter.’ Let me sit on my damned bench. Go have fun with everyone else.” His smile faded by slow degrees.

His blue eyes looked hurt.

“Whatsamatter, Bee?”

“Ethel,” she muttered. “My name is Ethel. Not Bee. Not B.E. Not Big Ethel. Ethel Muggs. Maybe you should use it for a change.”

“Sorry. Didn’t know it was such a big deal.”

“Well, it is.”

“Never has been for me.” Not really. “They call me Big Moose. No big deal, since I AM big.”

“That’s fine for you,” she muttered, but she knew he had a point. “You’re a guy. It’s fine for you to be big, or even for everyone to call you Moose.”

“It’s not like I started calling myself that,” he said. Moose sighed heavily. “Look…I’m sorry. You never said you didn’t like it before.”

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.”

“Fine. You know what? Next time, Ethel, use really, really small words to explain it to me, okay? That’s all I understand half the time!” Their easy mood from a few minutes ago evaporated. Ethel suddenly realized she’d put her foot in her mouth.

“That’s not true! Moose!” He was backing away, hands thrown up.

“You don’t feel like hanging out. Have fun selling this stuff. I get it. Bye.”

She was about to go after him, but Miss Haggly came by with the petty cash box and thunked it down on the table. “You take the first shift. Betty’s coming back at noon, okay, sweetie?”

She watched his stiff posture walking away and nodded.

What did I have to say that for? Ethel’s heart sank.

She glimpsed him a few minutes later, horsing around with Archie and making a concentrated effort to ignore her.

To add insult to injury, Midge showed up, wearing cargo capris and a tight white tank. Naturally, she was the first one to end up sprayed with the hose “by accident.”

Ethel watched Moose waver, his stance and face turning defensive. She watched the old resentment and anger rising up in him before he backed down. That didn’t deter Midge. She held her arms out from herself, crying out in mock anger and amusement as she stood dripping before him. Ethel watched her flick her damp waves of hair back from her face and grin at him. The gesture was sexy and second nature.

It burned her up. Why was it so easy for some girls?

So she hawked goodies for the better part of the afternoon, even after Betty showed up. The day grew hot, and she began to wish she’d joined the car wash. She stayed put until the last brownie was gone. They’d sold everything, and the bake sale was a success. Miss Haggly looked pleased.

“Nice turnout. I told Mr. Wetherbee these things were a good idea whenever we can plan ‘em.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You’ve been awfully quiet today.”

“I’m fine.”

“Why so glum?” She surveyed the car wash; fewer cars were trickling into the lot now. “Why not go out there for a while?”

“I’ll help clean up.”

“No. Go on. I can take this. It’s a beautiful day! Enjoy it. You’re only young once,” Miss Haggly prodded. Her usual gruff expression twisted into a smile.

“Well…okay.”

“Have fun.” Ethel wandered almost reluctantly toward the lot, side-stepping puddles of soapy water out of habit. She knew she might get wet over there, but she felt like talking to Betty. Dilton and Nancy were helping her wash a minivan.

“It’s about time,” Betty remarked. “Come and help us! Grab the Windex, you can do the front and back. There’s a ton of bugs on ‘em.”

“Ew,” she grimaced. Ethel retrieved a squeegee and the bottle of blue cleaner.

She no sooner turned around than she was paralyzed by a freezing blast of cold water that washed over her, soaking her to the skin.

Her scream was shrill and choked her; every muscle in her upper body hunched like an angry cat’s. Betty skipped out of the way just in time, but covered her mouth in surprise.

“Oooooo, that was cold,” Nancy breathed.

“Nice,” Frankie hooted from the pavement where he was lounging with Maria.

“Oops,” Jason Blossom crowed. “It got away from me. Sorry.” He sniggered and shrugged, holding an empty, soapy bucket.

Myriad emotions flooded her.

Anger. Embarrassment. Shock.

Then…umbrage.

“Hose,” she murmured to Betty.

“Huh?”

“Give. Me. The. Hose.” Betty’s lips curled.

“Be my guest. Knock yourself out.”

“Turn up the pressure while you’re at it,” she suggested. Nancy did her bidding eagerly, turning it up full blast.

“Oh, Jaaaaaay-sonnnnnnn,” she sang cheerfully, once his back was turned. He was smug as he followed the voice to its source.

“AAIIIGGGGH! SHIT!”

“Hold on, I missed a spot!” she called out, charging forward with the hose as she pelted him with sharp, icy spray. His friends scattered out of the way and applauded her chase with cat calls and raucous laughter.

His run was awkward as he dodged her attack. “Quit it! Shit! That’s cold, that’s COLD!” he yelped.

“I’m sorry, it slipped!” she told him. It was exhilarating.

“What on earth…is that Big Ethel, chasing Jay with a hose?” Midge sounded incredulous.

“Huh?” Moose replied, stirred from their talk by the note of disbelief in her voice. “Geez…”

She was soaked to the skin. Her tee shirt and long shorts clung and her dark hair was plastered around her face in slick, shining runnels.

She was laughing. Chortling, giggling, snickering, you name it. Ethel was having a ball.

Her face was becomingly flushed, not her usual fair pallor.

Guess she’s done sitting on the bench.

Moose felt a warm flush work its way through him, watching her. His skin prickled, waking something in him. Beside him, Midge laughed, then wrinkled her nose.

“That’s not something you see everyday. Look at her, she’d drenched!”

“Wow.”

“I know. Poor Jay.”

“He had it coming,” Moose mumbled. Midge turned to him and noticed his rapt look.

“Moose?”

“Huh?”

“Earth to Moose?”

“What’s up?” Belatedly he turned back to her. She was staring at him in a funny way. He felt disconcerted, almost as though she’d caught him breaking a rule.

“I can’t believe she did that.”

“I can.”

“I guess.”

“He’s always given her a hard time. Him and his sister. She’s a piece of shit.”

“MOOSE!”

“Sorry…she’s a piece of work.”

“I get along with her.”

He’d always meant to ask her why.

“She hangs out with us often enough,” Midge went on. “You never had a problem with her before.”

“She’s a bitch. She talks about everybody, her and Ron. It gets old after a while.” Midge was taken aback.

“Mee-owwww,” she muttered, flicking imaginary claws at him before poking him in the chest. “What’s with you today?” She moved closer to him and toyed with the hem of his jersey. Midge peered up at him through her lashes, giving him the sexy look he’d missed.

Through her white tank her nipples were hard.

“I’m all wet,” she pointed out. “I wouldn’t mind going home to dry off.” That caught his attention. His nostrils flared.

“So go ahead and go home.” He scanned the lot. “Where did you park?”

“Betty gave me a ride.” Midge pouted. “I don’t want to drip all over her car.”

“So what’re you gonna do?”

“I need to get out of these wet clothes.”

Her low voice and the way she emphasized “wet” socked him in the gut. He was restless and aroused.

Midge laid her palm against the center of his chest, stroking him idly with her thumb.

“What’re you doin’?”

“Nothing. I just wanted to know if you could help me get dry.”

“Go see if anyone has a towel.”

“I don’t want a towel.” Her upper lip shone with perspiration and water. She licked it dry, leaving the flesh rosy and ripe.

Across the courtyard, Ethel brandished the hose. Jason was evading her, hiding behind his friends, who occasionally shoved him back into the open.

Midge.

Moose was rooted to the spot by something she said. He clenched his fists and then ran his fingers through his hair.

Then…they left.

Together.

Ethel’s grip on the hose grew limp until the nozzle fell from her hand.

“I’m done,” she muttered. The hose was spewing water across the asphalt; she kicked it toward Betty. “Turn it off. I’m packing it in.”

 

*

Minutes later, both of them were crammed into the cab of his truck. His hands and lips were heated against her chilled, damp flesh. She straddled his lap and worked herself against him, grinding against the stiff bulge at his crotch. His body screamed for more as she dominated his mouth.

“Mmmmmm…Moose…oh, God,” she moaned. “You feel so good, Moose.” He wasn’t in the mood to talk for fear it would ruin it. He didn’t want to think. He didn’t want to question it.

She was in his arms, on his lap, and half naked and squirming against him.

“I’ve missed you,” she whimpered over his mouth. He “mmmm’ed” his agreement and gripped her hips, urging her to rub against him harder.

Sunlight and shadow dappled her back. It could have been any other afternoon they’d spent before together, stealing time to make love out in the open, in the middle of nowhere, no matter what time of day.

Except it wasn’t.

“Mmmmph, geez…” he rasped beneath her lips. She was greedy and aggressive, makng him crane his neck as she shoved him back against the headrest. Their noses bumped, causing him brief pain, but he ignored it.

He was just going to give her a ride home. That was all. He was doing Midge a favor.

He was doing Midge!

She made sounds of satisfaction as she tasted him, sucking on his lip, but something was…off.

Moose was hard as a rock. His body responded to her easily, but he faltered. She felt the shift in his mood and drew back mid-kiss. Her eyes flicked over him, their dreamy glaze gone.

“What’s wrong?”

“Wha-nothing.”

“Moose.”

“Nothing’s wrong.” She softened and leaned in again.

His hands tightened around her waist, but as her lips touched his, Moose firmly held her back. Her look was thwarted and annoyed. Moose’s mouth tightened.

“What’s this about, Moose? What’s the matter?”

“Midge…I just…is this it?”

“Is what it?”

“This. You and me.”

“You tell me. It could be.” She leaned in and nibbled the corner of his mouth. “If you want it to be.”

Did he? The question rang in his head like a thousand bells. Did he?

“If I want it to be?” he repeated. She waited impatiently, then moved in on him again. He jerked when she closed her small teeth over his earlobe.

“Do you?” she husked.

“I don’t know. That’s just it. Stop, stop.” She sighed and then climbed off his lap. “What happened, Midge?”

“You just pushed me away.”

“No! No. I know.” She gestured to him to continue. “Here.” He handed her shirt back to her.

“It’s all wet!”

“It’ll dry.” He rolled down the window. “What happened? You wanted Reggie. I was smothering you, so I’m not now? You even said it was fine if I saw other people.” His voice held a pleading note. “Did you mean it?”

“Well, did you?”

“Did I what?”

“See other people?”

“No,” he hedged, but he looked and sounded guilty. “I haven’t seen anyone.”

“It’s just funny,” Midge insisted. “Rumor around the school is that you and Big Ethel are a hot item.”

“Bullshit,” he snapped too quickly.

“Take it easy, sport. Just messing around with you. I can’t joke with you anymore?”

“That’s not funny.”

“C’mon,” she teased. “It’s a little funny. You’d be ‘Big Moose and Big Ethel.’ What’s the matter, is she not your type? She’s got a great personality.”

“Shut up, Midge!” Her voice interrupted the brief reverie he’d slipped into, annoying him.

Ethel did have a great personality. Not only that, but she cook her butt off.

And she was smart.

Funny.

She had nice legs.

Did she see the two of them leave?

“Geez, Moose. Whatever. She’s not good enough for you, huh?”

“She’s not my type! I’m not into Ethel, for cripes’ sake.”

“If you say so.”

“I do say so. Just drop it. Quit talking about her.”

“Sensitive…” She shrugged back into her bra and damp shirt.

Moose didn’t mind.

*

 

“Wow,” someone muttered behind Ethel as she unlocked her car, “what happened to you?”

Juggie?

Ethel shyly tucked a lock of damp hair behind her ear and smiled, trying to seem casual. Her pulse sped up and she felt that familiar flush of goosebumps running up her arms as he stared at her.

“I didn’t see you earlier.”

“I just came a minute ago. My car was dirty, and I wanted to check out the bake sale.”

“Obviously,” she agreed. “Park over there and buy a ticket. We’ve got a few cookies and other stuff left.”

“Lead on,” he grinned. Jughead’s appetite was legend. He’d won every eating contest at every fundraising carnival at Riverdale High all four years in a row and had taken home ec repeatedly as an elective.

Ethel felt self-conscious at her bedraggled appearance as she passed the windshield of Archie’s jalopy. Her clothes clung to her, even her baggy Bermuda-cut shorts. Thankfully she’d worn a dark shirt…

“We’ve sold everything except these. Take some home.”

“Nope. I won’t even make it that far,” he admitted around a mouthful of blonde brownie.

“Knock yourself out.” He polished off half a plate of chocolate chip cookies as she wrapped the remaining trays in plastic.

Without her asking him, Jughead followed her as she carried the food back inside.

“I’ll get that, Bee,” he offered, holding the door for her. Her cheeks pinkened at the gesture.

He’d have done it for anyone, she reminded herself.

“I’ll leave those in here.”

“You’re all wet,” Jughead remarked.

“Yeah, kinda…”

“Going home like that?”

“Probably.”

“I might have an extra shirt in my locker,” he suggested easily.

“I look that bad, huh?”

“I wouldn’t go anywhere looking like that.” He nodded at her, then let his gaze linger.

“Sheesh. Don’t hold back, Juggie, tell me what you really think.”

“That’s not what I meant, Bee.” She’d bantered with him over her shoulder while she worked.

Her hands paused over a box of tin foil as his fingertips feathered the back of her arm, right above her elbow. She suddenly tingled. All over. Ethel felt her stomach dip.

He was touching her.

“You don’t look bad.”

“Oh…er,” Ethel muttered.

“You’re all wet,” he repeated, slowly stroking the length of her arm and teasing her skin in circles over the curve of her shoulder. “Your shirt’s a lost cause.”

“It is?” she murmured, not wanting to sound as nervous as she felt.

He was so close that she could smell his Speed Stick and detergent.

“You’re standing up at attention,” he whispered into her hair.

Her nipples confirmed this. They turned into aching knots.

“Juggie?” she wondered aloud. “How…why…you’ve never…?”

“Never what?” he murmured. His chest grazed her back and his breath tickled her ear.

Ethel was excited. And petrified.

“You know…this.”

You’ve never seen me. You’ve never touched me.

“This what?” he cajoled.

“Juggie?” She turned to face him and was hushed by his mouth snatching her breath.

Jughead Jones is kissing me.

It was totally unexpected.

It was…so awkward.

His nose bumped hers painfully and his teeth grazed her upper lip when she kept them closed.

She’d dreamed of this. How to tilt her head. When to close her eyes.

Their teeth clicked together when she overcompensated for their noses. She didn’t know where to put her hands. Her ring finger bent under as she attempted to lay them on his shoulders.

Then came his tongue.

Ew. Oh, wow. Ew. Ew. Ew.

What was going on here? What was wrong with her? This was her dream come true, right?

Right?

…was he exploring her braces? With his TONGUE?

“Mmmph…she murmured. He mistook the tightening of her fingers in his tee shirt for pulling him closer.

His body felt like she expected it to. He was lean and firm, but her hands felt confused, wondering…where was the rest of him?

And what was up with his hands?

He groped her? (Why wasn’t it a turn-on?) It just felt…weird. Like he was kneading bread dough. The sensation was almost…annoying. She couldn’t process it. She just couldn’t.

Footsteps. Thank goodness.

“I’m gonna lock up…oh, hi, Forsythe, I didn’t see you earlier today!” Her other star pupil looked sheepish, arms folded across his chest. He cleared his throat and waved. Ethel ducked, pretending to pick up a dish towel from the floor. She hastily wiped her mouth while she was down there.

Now she knew, after all those years.

Ethel wanted to weep.

Chapter Text

“You’re kidding me. Get out of here.”

“That’s just it. I had to get outta there.”

“Ethel…wow.”

“I know,” she told Betty miserably. They laid out on the school lawn listening to Betty’s MP3 with a dual jack for both pairs of ear buds. Ethel flopped onto her back. The cloudy blue sky was reflected in her shades.

“It was the kiss from hell. Everything that could go wrong with that kiss went wrong. It was the Murphy’s Law of sucking face.”

“Hee,” Betty smirked. “You’re evil.”

“No. Life is evil, Bets. How many YEARS did I wait for it? It’s like my entire existence of liking boys at all was a total bust!”

“There’s been other guys, right?”

“Hardly,” she said sourly. Thinking of Alex just made her cringe.

Almost on cue, there he was, sauntering by to guide Cheryl to his car by the elbow. She dragged her feet as she made “call me” motions with her hand to Ronnie. As Cheryl climbed into his car, Alex paused to scan the courtyard.

He caught Ethel’s eye and winked before getting in.

“Jerk,” Betty muttered.

“Just kill me now.”

“Ethel, I’ve gotta ask, hate me if you want…was Alex at least a worse mistake than Juggie?”

“Yes!” she pounced without hesitation. “A thousand times, yes.”

 

*

“Moose, c’mon!” Archie nagged, holding up a Frisbee and nodding toward the field. Moose perked up and closed his mobile. No new texts from Midge. He was relieved. Sort of.

The fresh air felt good on his face and cleared his head. He wasn’t in the mood to go off-campus for lunch. Throwing something sounded good.

The girls clustered around the field took notice as the “Ten Most Wanted” list went out to play.

“Show-offs,” Betty pronounced.

“Yup.” Ethel leaned up on her elbows and lifted her shades to hold back her hair. She ran her tongue over her teeth absently.

One more day.

Impromptu teams formed; the “skins” stripped down to their cotton undershirts as discretion allowed. The “shirts” made cat calls and jeered them accordingly. The girls simply drooled.

“Reggie’s an asshole,” Betty murmured, “But he’s fine..”

“Bets!” Ethel smacked her with her notebook.

“What?”

“I can’t stand him. Look what he did to Moose!”

“He had help,” Betty tsked.

“Don’t get me started.” Midge came up beside Ronnie and popped open a Pepsi. They giggled between them furtively.

“You know who they’re talking about.”

Ethel fumed.

Archie sucked at keeping himself open. Moose was growing steadily more pissed and wondering how much force he’d have to use to take Mantle’s head off.

“C’mon, dude, have ya fallin’ love with it? Throw it!”

“C’mon, Moose, go low!” Archie yelled.

Moose felt a pounding in his temples.

Midge was watching. He saw her take a long pull of her soda and lick her lips.

“Don’t hog it,” Reggie accused.

Wrong words…
Moose’s snap was wicked. The disc’s flight was clean and smooth, flashing as it spun.

Reggie mouthed “oh, shit!” as he realized its destination. Wisely he ducked, face planting in the grass.

Moose felt a moment of triumph before everything went wrong.

“Shit…oh, shit! Bee! BEE!”

“What on earth…?”

“DUCK!”

“She turned at the sound of his voice; it was instinctive.

WHACK!

 

*

“Right between the eyes.”

“Man, poor Bee.”

“I’ve got her backpack.”

“How’s she doing?”

“I think she’s holding up,” Betty told Nancy as she turned the combination to Ethel’s locker and hung the pack inside. “Moose stayed with her.”

*

Pain.

It ricocheted through her brain at the contact of polyurethane with her vulnerable face. Her sunglasses were knocked from her head.

“Ohhhh, my God,” she gurgled as she templed her hands over her nose.

“Bee!” Betty hovered over her. Ethel was disoriented; her friend’s face looked sideways.

Soon Moose’s swam into her line of vision from the other side.

“I’m so fucking sorry!” He held her elbow in his gentle grip. His face was contrite, even mournful. “Take it easy, Bee. Are you okay? Aw, man, I feel like shit.”

Betty could tell. The arc of his body was broad and protective as he leaned over her.

He’d escorted her to the nurse’s office, guiding her, supporting her and holding the door. They left shocked murmurs in their wake.

And there they were, waiting outside the nurse’s office. Ethel clutched an ice pack against the goose egg forming above her brows.

“Ouch,” Moose winced.

“I’m supposed to say that.”

“Sorry. I’m sorry.”

“I know, I know. Man.”

“You okay?”

“Wondering how I’m gonna live this down is worse than this,” she said, pointing to the bump.

“Could’ve been worse. It was my fault. Didn’t mean to throw it so hard.” Then he amended his words. “At least not at you.”

“Riiight…lemme guess. Reg?” He sighed.

Ms. Phlipps came out of Mr. Wetherbee’s office two doors down and folded her arms. “You’re lucky, Marmaduke. No detention. Mr. Wetherbee decided the punishment should fit the crime. Two hours volunteering at Riverdale Elementary to give the kids a presentation on playground safety. Next time, don’t forget your own strength?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Back to class.” She gestured for him to take Ethel with him. She dropped the ice pack in a nearby trash can as they departed.

He leaned against the locker next to hers as she fished out her Spanish book. He looked sheepish and rubbed his nape.

“She wants to start things up again.” Ethel paused in closing her locker door.

“Wow. That’s…great. You must be pretty happy about it.” Her voice was flat.

“I don’t know. No. Yes…”

“Do you still think about her?”

“Yup.”

She felt ridiculous and indignant talking with him about her. The image of him leaving the courtyard with Midge while she was dripping wet was stuck in her mind; it burned.

“Do you love her, Moose?”

“I can’t help it, but I do.” His blue eyes pleaded with her to understand. “I’ve always cared about her. No one else. I just feel like I’m supposed to be with her!”

“I get it.” She closed her locker. “You’re whipped.” He straightened and huffed.

“Am not!”

“You don’t have to live your life waiting for Midge to make up her mind. She’s not the sun, Moose. You don’t have to revolve around her and wonder if she’s just gonna leave you in the dark.” Their easy rapport was gone.

“What’re you saying?”

“She’s dangling you, Moose, and you deserve better than being used.”

“What gets me is that you don’t think that applies to you.”

“What!”

“Get the splinter out of your own eye, Bee.” His mother always used that phrase; he never appreciated it until now. “You wanna talk about whipped, look in the mirror! You’re obsessed with Needle-Nose!”

“I am NOT!” At least not at this moment.

“You bake for him. You lend him your notes. You hold his door and all but fall at his feet.”

“Maybe I’m just being nice.”

“Maybe you’re just beating your head against the wall. He doesn’t notice any of it.”

“He noticed me,” she claimed. “He even kissed me, which isn’t any of your business.” She hadn’t meant to blurt it out.

Moose’s mouth hung open.

“News flash, Moose: No one else notices me, anyway.”

“You haven’t given anyone else a chance! You always worry what Jug thinks and what he likes!”

“No one else wants a chance!”

“Well, I do!”

“Huh?” His sigh was ragged. Moose’s arm snaked out and hooked around her waist. “Moose? Hey! What…mmmmmmm!”

He was a much better kisser than Juggie. It was like comparing apples to unpitted prunes. She sighed into his mouth and relaxed against his warm bulk.

He was practically cradling her. Moose’s palms slid down her spine, tracing every bump. He brushed her lips with his, teasing them open to better taste her. His tongue wrapped around hers slowly, giving her the chance to savor him. Her fingers combed through his thick hair.

Her combination lock dug into his backside as they stumbled back against it, but he didn’t care. It was exciting and it felt so right, holding her so easily and completely against him.

He broke the kiss and didn’t laugh at her dazed expression; instead he nuzzled her and kissed the tip of her nose.

“Ethel…”

“That’s enough,” Mr. Wetherbee snapped. “Don’t make me separate you two. Class. Now.”

They separated, both flushed and wanting more answers.

Chapter Text

“All right, Ethel! All ready for the big reveal?”

Ethel’s mouth ached; her teeth and gums smarted a little and her jaw was sore from holding it open, but she was exhilarated. She nodded.

Her orthodontist turned her chair until it faced a mirror hanging on the wall. “Ta-da!” he announced with a flourish.

“Oh. Wow.” Ethel’s smile was hesitant at first, testing how it felt without the braces. She widened it, turning her head one way, then the other.

Her overbite was gone. No more buck teeth. Even her lips looked different.

“That’s amazing,” she murmured as she touched her mouth. Tears pricked her eyes and she sniffled. “Thank you,” she cried, reaching for his hand.

“Another satisfied customer?” he inquired fondly. “You’ve been an excellent patient. You look fantastic, kiddo.”

“Thank you,” she repeated, wiping her eyes. He handed her a Kleenex. “No sad faces! Show off that smile. Knock ‘em dead.”

“Sounds good to me,” she agreed as he whisked away the drape and stood back so she could get up.

Ethel sailed out of the office on a cloud. She mentally counted how many people she wanted to show first. Her mom was at the top of the list.

She was waiting in the kitchen for her when she got home. She looked up from the stack of bills on the kitchen table and smiled up at her. “Well? Let’s see.”

Ethel flashed a triumphant grin. Her mother squealed and clapped.

“Honey, hush!”

“My mouth’s killing me.”

“That’ll go away, but in the meantime, it was worth it! Wow.” Her mother looked thoughtful. “My parents never got me braces. Sometimes I regret it.”

“Why? Mom, you look fine. Your teeth aren’t as bad as mine.”

“As they were,” her mom corrected her. “They weren’t bad, but I never really liked them.”

“I like the way you look,” Ethel offered, coming behind her and giving her a warm hug.

“Well, thanks,” she chuckled. Ethel grabbed a glass from the dish rack and poured herself some apple juice. “Oh, by the way, you missed a call from your friend.”

“Which one?” She naturally assumed it was Betty. She knew about Ethel’s appointment after listening to her count down the days, ad nauseam, for over a month.

“That young man. What did you call him? Moose?” Ethel choked on a gulp of juice. She set the glass down on the counter and nearly coughed up a lung. Her mom came over and held her arms up to help it pass.

“Good grief…”

“He…*kaff*…called? When?”

“Right after when you got out from school; you had already gone to your appointment by then. I told him you’d probably call him back?”

“Did he leave his number?”

“Oh, no, sweetie; I’m sorry, I thought you had it.” Her mom looked contrite.

“Darn it. Phooey.” Ethel sat and pouted over her juice. “That’s okay, I’ll just call up Bets.”

“Why not? Spread the good news, have a good time,” her mother urged. “So what’s going on with him, anyway? Moose? What’s his last name?”

“Mason. Why?”

“Mason…why does that sound familiar? Do his parents call him Moose?”

“No!” Ethel laughed. “His name’s Marmaduke.”

“Wow! That’s old-fashioned, isn’t it? I like it, though. I like names that not everyone has. That’s why I picked yours. It’s elegant-sounding.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ethel scoffed. Since kindergarten, she’d longed to be a Heather, Jennifer, Michelle, or Tiffany.

“You’ll appreciate it more as an adult. People remember someone with a name like Ethel.”

“They call me Big Ethel at school,” she complained sourly. Her mom made a face.

“I hate that. I hated it when I was in high school, too. But if they didn’t pick on you because you’re tall, they would find something else. Kids pick on people for whatever reason they can come up with just to make themselves feel important. They have too much time on their hands.”

“They ragged on me because of my teeth before, and then some more when I got my braces.”

“You look great, and they’re jealous. And again, ten years from now, they’ll remember you when you go to your class reunion.”

Ethel headed upstairs and emptied her backpack, planning to study. Her phone was too tempting. She eventually dove for the handset and flopped back on her bed, speed-dialing Betty.

“Okay, tell me how they look!”

“Can’t you come over?”

“Uh-uh. Trig homework. Yuck.”

“Ugh. Don’t remind me…I’m staring at my books, and they’re staring back at me.” Betty giggled. “I want to show off my smile!”

“Go out for a while.”

“I don’t have anywhere to go.”

“Hit the Chok’lit Shoppe later.”

“Are you gonna go?”

“Only if I have time.”

“Call me.”

“Sounds good.”

“Ooh, before you hang up…Mom said Moose called while I was out.” She heard Betty’s gasp and what sounded like her stomping her feet in a happy dance in the background.

“ETHEL!”

“Geez, a little louder, Bets, I still have some eardrums left.”

“That’s awesome! Go! Get off the phone, now! Hang up and call him back!”

“I can’t!” Ethel whined. “I don’t have his number written down anywhere. Any time when I’ve hung out with him, we’ve seen each other at school, or…wait. At work. I wonder if he’s working today?”

“Go,” Betty commanded. “Go, NOW.”

“I’ve gotta change into a different shirt-“

“Stop making excuses and skedaddle, woman! Now! Up and at ‘em!”

“Right…”

“Bye!”

“Wait, Bets!”

“Go! Bye, already!” Click.

“Sheesh.” Ethel cradled the phone and pondered her closet. She peered into her full-length mirror. She smiled, testing again how it felt.

She left.

 

*

 

He was working at the deli counter this time. She watched him for a moment, enjoying his profile as he worked. He always seemed to take up a lot of space in his surroundings, but for someone so big, he moved well. Not graceful, just well-balanced and strong; you’d expect someone with such a broad build to lumber like a bear. Ethel liked watching him.

He finished packing up a pint of lo mein and passing it to the cashier when he spied her out of the corner of his eye.

“Ethel?”

“Hey, Moose.”

“Hey. What’re you doing?”

“Nothing…just stopping by.” She flushed when he noticed she wasn’t holding a shopping basket. “My mom said you called.”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Um…I didn’t have your number.”

“Really?”

Ethel felt more awkward. Was he going to make her spell it out?

“I didn’t know if you wanted to do anything, or anything, some time.”

He shrugged. “Can I call you again later?” She deflated slightly. A customer approached and ordered some pot stickers. She was embarrassed and quickly moved out of the way.

“I guess, if I’m at home.” Suddenly she craved a soda at Pop’s. She didn’t want to sound too eager.

Still, he called her, right?

She began to back away from the counter. He went back to what he was doing. She knew he was busy, but still…all she wanted to do was get his number. Didn’t she?

And maybe show off a little? Her happy glow faded a bit.

“I’ll let you get back to work, you’re busy,” she hedged. She waved and turned. Moose was in the middle of stickering the lid on a tub of potato salad.

He saw her long, retreating back and felt a hint of panic. “Bee! Wait!” He fumbled quickly for the small Sharpie pen by the register. He grabbed a paper napkin from a dispenser and darted out from the short swinging door at the end of the counter.

She turned, surprised.

“Here.” He made his best attempt to scrawl something on the napkin using his palm as a tablet. She took it from him and barely made out two phone numbers scrawled in his big print.

“My house and my cell,” he explained hurriedly. “Look…I’m sorry I missed you. Wish I had time to talk. What are you doing now?”

“Pop’s. Then homework.”

“How long will that take you?”

“Dunno. A couple of hours?”

“Do you have to eat at home tonight?”

“Probably not…”

“Then skip Pop’s. Wait til I can come and pick you up and we’ll both go.” She brightened, and her happy pink glow came back. Ethel tucked the napkin into her pocket.

“Why do you look different?” he pondered aloud, studying her with interest. “New haircut?”

“Uh-uh.” She shook her head, then flashed him a smile at full wattage. He cocked his head, then his eyes widened.

“Your teeth! Dude, look at your teeth! Wow,” he marveled.

“Moose,” his supervisor beckoned from the counter,” can you wait on this man, please?”

“Shoot,” he hissed, looking over his shoulder. “Gotta jet. Call me,” he told her.

“Okay, I will.”

“It’s a date. C’mere a sec.” He leaned in and gave her a brief kiss that made her stomach flip. “Nice.”

“Mmmmm-hmmmm,” she purred in agreement. She felt her face glaze over in delight but didn’t care if anyone saw it.

“Later.”

“Uh-huh.” She gave him a tiny wave and floated out to her car.

She didn’t feel herself being watched.

“Midge,” Cheryl hissed. She elbowed her sharply, diverting her from an issue of Marie Clare.

“What?”

“Look.” She pointed one long red fingernail toward the taller girl as she leaned up and kissed a familiar, burly blond.

“Moose,” she muttered. “What the hell?”

“Did he just kiss Big Ethel?”

“I know I didn’t just see that. Oh, my freakin’ God.”

“No shit.”

“I mean…she didn’t just kiss Moose.”

“Looked like he kissed her,” Cheryl corrected her, unsympathetic.

After all, it wasn’t like Ethel was making time with her boyfriend, Alex. It was just Moose.

“What was he thinking? What’s going on?” Midge was incredulous. She was still slightly agape as she tucked the magazine back into the rack.

Curiosity won out. Cheryl ignored her as Midge told her she’d meet her in the car. Instead of standing in the checkout line, Cheryl followed her a few steps behind as she strode to the deli.

He was up to his elbows in customer orders when he finally saw her staring at him. Moose’s brows drew together. Midge stood impatiently, arms crossed beneath her breasts.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“I’m kinda busy.”

“I can wait.”

“I don’t have a break for another ten minutes.”

“I can come back.” She turned on her heel and left. Cheryl was smirking, staring back at him over her shoulder as the girls both left.

Moose felt unease creep down his back, and his scalp was tight.

The crowd died down at the counter just as he headed outside to the parking lot, Coke in hand.

“I saw something pretty interesting back in the store.”

“Like what?” He wanted to tell her about the special on black olives in aisle six, instinctively, after having stocked the shelves.

“You kissing Ethel.” He choked, sending Coke back up into his nasal passages. “That was you doing that.”

“Midge…geez,” he sputtered, wiping the corner of his mouth.

“So what, are you going out with her now?”

“Why?” She looked annoyed.

“What do you mean, ‘why?’ Moose…tell me I’m just imagining that you kissed her. You like her?” She pronounced “like” with a pound of disbelief, the same way she’d ask someone else “you mean, you like squashed turnips?”

“It was a little peck,” he reasoned. Warning bells went off in his head. His mouth seemed to be running on autopilot. “She just wanted to show off her new teeth.”

“Right,” Midge scoffed, folding her arms again.

“She did. They look nice.”

“Big deal. So she looks less like Babs Bunny.”

“Cut it out,” Moose advised. “That’s not cool. She looks nice. Don’t be such a bitch, Midge.”

“So I’m a bitch, now.”

“Don’t act like one, then.”

“You kissed me. Huh? What about that?”

“I know.” He knew. It felt like old times. Except that it wasn’t.

“That’s pretty recent to be kissing Big Ethel now.”

“I thought we were through,” Moose countered softly. “You never really said ‘let’s go out again, Moose.’”

“So, me making out with you doesn’t mean we’re getting back together?”

“Are you done with Reg?”

“Moose! Oh, come on! We’ve been over for a while.” It was almost true. Once in a while, she saw him. Stole a kiss from him and watched him dangle other girls, too, just because he could. Reggie Mantle felt no compunction about breaking hearts, and she was no exception. He’d chased her since freshman year. Once he caught Midge Klump, he lost interest.

Moose tried to avoid looking at Midge, but he felt her dark eyes pinning him. He slowly turned the Coke can in his hands.

“What do you care who I kiss?” Moose said.

“Moose! Well…I know we said ‘let’s see other people,’ but come on! Do you know what people will say if you go out with her?” Moose’s head snapped up, and his scowl was dark.

“What’ll they say, Midge?”

“You know,” she accused.

“No. You think I should know.” He stood from the curb and faced her squarely. “If I want to see Ethel, I’ll see her. Do I like her? Yes, Midge, I like Ethel.”

“You can’t,” she insisted on a note of nervous laughter. “There’s no way…Moose, there’s no way you can like someone like me, and then go out with someone like her.”

The muscle in Moose’s jaw worked.

She wasn’t the only person who would feel that way, seeing him with Ethel. The mean little voice in his head nagged him to see that reason, but the way Midge said it left him sour.

He said the only thing he could. “Watch me.”

He didn’t even tell her goodbye. Moose’s break was over.

Midge fumed all the way back to her car. Tears of humiliation threatened to shame her. Cheryl was waiting for her in the passenger seat.

“Well?”

“He’s such a prick.”

“Shit. You’re kidding.” Cheryl looked stunned. “Big Ethel.”

“Big Ethel.”

“Wow.” They drove off to the mall and spent an hour commiserating over chili dogs at Orange Julius.

Cheryl made her goodbye hugs and promises to be there for Midge as she dropped her back home.

As soon as she got inside her house, she whipped out her phone and dialed Ronnie and half her address book with the news. She talked until she was hoarse.

*

An act of God made Ethel finish her homework in under an hour. Once the last paper was tucked neatly inside her three-ring binder, she stood in front of her closet, a woman on a mission.

The Perfect First Date Outfit.

Shoes were easy. She played eeny-meeny-miney-mo with three pairs of strappy sandals and chose her black suede pair. No-brainer.

“Ethel, are you coming down for dinner?”

“I’m not hungry,” she called back impatiently. It was true. Her stomach was in knots.

“We wouldn’t mind seeing your shining face at the table,” her dad chimed in.

“You can see it before I head out the door.” Ethel hovered at the head of the stairs. He looked amused and curious.

“Where are you going?”

“Dinner,” she said simply.

“What, with one of your friends? On a school night?”

“I’ll be back before nine,” she shrugged. Ethel had an impeccable record of keeping her curfew.

“At the very latest,” her dad warned. “No funny business.” Then he held up his digital camera. “Say cheese!”

“DAAAAADDD!” The flash blinded her during what had to be one jacked-up photo, namely Ethel with her mouth open and hands thrown out to shield herself.

“C’mon, a real one this time.”

“Cheese,” she muttered. He took another.

“Much better.”

“Can I get ready now?”

“How much do you have to do to get ready for Betty?”

She froze.

Of course he assumed that.

“Well, I dunno,” she hedged.

Please don’t make me say it’s Moose. She felt hot and prickly. “Dad, let me finish, okay?” She ducked back into her room.

Her mom came to the rescue. She nagged him to the table and served his plate. Ethel sighed in relief, grateful to breathe again.

Back to work.

Jeans. Her skinny black pair.

No.

Peasant skirt with embroidered blouse.

Definitely not.

Beige shell sweater with pedal-pushers.

Gads, no.

Green blouse. Maybe.

Wait. Wait…

The Dress. Ethel’s hand paused on the hanger. She stroked its smooth fabric thoughtfully.

No. Too much, too soon. He’ll think you’re desperate… Her hands didn’t obey her own advice; they tugged the hanger from the rod and held the dress up beneath her chin.

Betty had talked her into it; Nancy nearly manhandled her to the cash register. The dress was special. It could make or break her. Her heart pounded.

She laid it on the bed and resolutely ran her shower. Do or die.

Her tiny stereo on the commode top piped Amy Winehouse into the tub with her as she shampooed her hair. The warm water felt good, calming her, but her butterflies hadn’t gone away yet.

Even little kisses from him made her weak. The music was affecting her, evoking images of dirty dancing and fogged up windows. Excitement made her tingle with a warm glow.

“I like him,” she said aloud. “I like Moose.” A lot. If she had to use one word to sum it up, she felt giddy. And something else, just as keenly.

Aroused.

Ethel felt a heaviness throbbing in her sex. Her rosy-beige nipples peaked beneath the spray. She gently touched one, then squeezed it, moaning in satisfaction. Ethel closed her eyes and leaned back into the spray.

She imagined the kiss in the basement. The very first one. She still felt the wonder and the way her heart stopped as he closed the gap between them. His embrace felt comfortable, warm, solid and safe. Had Midge felt that way when he held her?

How would those big hands feel, touching her? Stroking her, if he kissed her again?

Her hands acted it out. She explored her breasts, stroking them at first, then kneading them. She soaped them with her bar of Dial slowly, making them slippery and smooth. She continued down her flat belly, letting the foam slide in runnels along her groin. Her short fingernails combed through the narrow, neat patch of dark curls, finding sensitive flesh.

She found the delicate little kernel between her lips, waiting to be touched. Ethel leaned her foot against the edge of the tub for better access and balance and stroked herself. It felt so good, and Moose’s kisses were on her mind, and the way his voice sounded when he was this close…

She reached behind her and probed her damp tunnel with two fingers, sliding them inside and twisting them. Ethel kneaded her tender clit in time with her soft thrusts. The warm spray and her music drowned out the raspy cries she made as she pleasured herself.

Her thoughts jumbled together in a sweet rush. So close. So close. Closer. Oh. Yeah. Closeclosecloseyesclosepleasesoclosenowclose…

She jerked as the first throb and pulse of her climax hit her. Her muscles shuddered in sweet, fast release. She rubbed it out as long as it would let her, and she rode out her bliss with Moose’s name on her lips.

There. Better.

She was breathless, limp and exhilarated. The stereo stayed on while she towel-dried her hair.

Bring the pain…Ethel dug in her vanity for the tweezers. Her thick brows stared back at her. Mocking her.

“Ooh. Ooh. Ooch. Ouch. Ow.” They took shape one excruciating hair at a time. She left her natural arch alone, merely neatening them. There. Better.

She skipped foundation, deciding to let her summer freckles show, since there were only a few.

Deodorant. Cetaphil cream on her elbows and legs. The last spray of Liz Claiborne Bora Bora left in the bottle. Lightweight leave-in conditioner. Gel, just a bit.

The dryer vibrated in her hand, blasting her hair with hot gusts and roaring over the music. She wrapped her bobbed hair around a barrel brush, praying to the good hair day fairies. Amen.

“Please, Lord, let it work. Don’t let me goof this up. Good first date, good first date,” she chanted under her breath as she whirled from the vanity to the dresser to the closet.

Cute black panties, for confidence. Matching strapless Angels bra. Strappy shoes. The Dress. The cute black clutch with faux bamboo handles.

Finally…lipstick.

Unapologetically red. Shiny as wet glass. She performed the age-old pucker and checked her teeth for smears.

Ding dong…

“Crap,” she hissed. Ethel nearly stumbled over the discarded pile of clothes beside the closet as she grabbed her purse. She flew downstairs at light speed, attempting to beat her dad to the door.

No such luck…

“Hi. Is Ethel ready yet, sir?” Her father’s reply was surprised and curious; Ethel hoped he wasn’t annoyed…

She smoothed her skirt with shaky palms, coming up behind her dad in the foyer.

“…I think she’s ready, she headed up a while ago…ETHEL!” He turned and bellowed in her face by accident, not realizing she was already standing there.

“Ack…” Ethel rocked back on her heels and drilled a finger into her ear.

“Oops, sorry, Eth…ummm,” he said, noticing her appearance. “Just dinner?” He appraised her, making her turn around. He seemed to widen his narrow frame to block Moose’s view. He was unsuccessful.

“Wow,” Moose muttered. He restrained the urge to whistle. “Ethel…you look…wow.”

“Wow, indeed. Aren’t you getting a draft?”

“Dad!” she squealed. Moose fought the laugh lodged in this throat and tried not to stare. Her mortified look and short dress both made that impossible. She recovered quickly.

“G’night, Daddy,” she chirped, kissing his cheek and skirting around him, letting Moose hold the door.

“Nine,” he called after her.

“Nine,” Moose echoed, nodding. Ethel’s dad’s eyes promised slow and painful death. “Maybe a little sooner…”

“Let’s go!” Ethel said, almost running to the passenger side of his truck. She tried the door handle, frustrated that it was locked.

“Here.” He joined her a moment later and hated it.

“Don’t you have a little clicker?”

“I wanted to help you get in,” he shrugged. His hand at her back was gentle as he let her climb up into the high seat. He had a perfect view of her legs.

Ethel’s mother joined her dad at the picture window.

“Can you say ‘ten more gray hairs?’”

“I stopped counting when she was twelve, when I bought her first training bra. Let it go, dear.”

*

 

Moose peered across the table from Ethel, who was shyly staring back, not knowing what to do with her hands. She kept leaning them on the table, then pulling them back into her lap, tucking her hair behind her ears, or any other number of mundane tasks.

“What’s up? You’re all edgy.”

“What? Oh, no. Sorry. I’m just…it’s just that…”

“C’mon, Bee, out with it.”

“I’m not used to…this.”

“What, we always go to Pop’s!” he reasoned.

“Not together,” she pointed out.

“Oh.” That made sense.

“It’s not exactly a news bulletin, Moose, but I haven’t been on a lot of dates. I’m kind of small talk impaired.”

“I suck at it, too,” Moose agreed. “Why not have some real talk, instead.”

“Like?”

“Dilt’s helping me with my college applications. All I need are my test scores.” Ethel lit up.

“Awesome! That’s great, I hope you get in. I know you’ve been waiting for this.” Moose beamed, then looked shy. Pop brought over their sodas and set them on the table.

“Who’s this vision of beauty?” he announced, lightly socking Moose in the shoulder and nodding toward Ethel. “This guy behaving himself, gorgeous?”

“Yes,” she admitted sheepishly.

“You sure? You don’t need me to take him outside and rough him up?”

“No!” She was embarrassed, but Ethel enjoyed the attention. Moose was grinning at the way she flushed. Pop was medium height and slightly portly, so the mental image of him giving Moose the bum’s rush out the front door made her laugh.

“Look at that smile,” Pop marveled.

“I got ‘em off today.”

“Gotta take them for a test run, huh? Attagirl!” He made his way back to the kitchen with their meal order. Moose sighed, still regarding her with interest.

“You excited for college?”

“Are you kidding? I can’t wait another second. I’m so tired of Riverdale.” Moose was taken aback.

“Why?”

“Don’t get me started. I think it’s nice, but I’ve never really fit in. It’s too small. Too many people know me and know everyone else’s business all the time.”

“I’ve always lived here. I like Riverdale, but I’m ready for a little change. I’ve always wanted to go to college and play ball.”

“Play ball? What else?” He made a thoughtful sound and leaned back into the booth.

“Dunno. I’m still undeclared.”

“What do you want to be when you grow up? Any thoughts? Fireman? Policeman? Crossing guard? Accountant?” He made a face. “Butcher? Baker? Candlestick maker?” That made him snort. He waved away the question.

“I’m still figuring that out.”

“Better figure it out quick.”

“I’ve got four years.”

“Sure. But why take that long deciding? You could reach out and take what you want from life more easily than just waiting for it to walk up to you.”

“You sound like my mom.”

“I like your mom.”

“She likes yours, too.”

“I didn’t know they knew each other.”

“They like a lot of the same stuff; that’s what she said.” He reached across the table and took the straw from her hand. She looked surprised; he peeled off the wrapper and stuck it into her glass for her. “You look like your mom.”

“Everyone says that.”

“That’s a good thing.”

“She said kids used to pick on her, too.”

“Why?”

“Because of this.” Ethel motioned to herself.

“What? A hot little red dress?”

“Moose!”

Inside, Ethel did a little happy dance. He noticed! He noticed!

“No, silly. Being like me. Tall and skinny with weird teeth, and a big nose and a long chin…”

“Whoa,” he argued, making her talk to the hand. “No. Back it up. You don’t mean that!”

“Sure I do.”

“Cut it out, then.”

“Okay,” she shrugged. She still looked insecure.

“Ethel, listen,” he began, “don’t say that stuff about yourself. You and your mom both shouldn’t. There’s nothing wrong with how you look. Nothing at all. And as far as being tall goes, look who you’re talking to. I don’t mind being tall. It’s fun.”

“It never really has been for me.”

“Are you kidding? It’s sexy on you.” Her gray eyes widened. He looked wolfish. “C’mon, admit it. You’ve been hiding the real Ethel all along, haven’t you?”

“Have not!”

“C’mon, I know what you’re about! As soon as you get the braces off, you haul out the big guns! Just like Superman, you jumped into the phone booth and KA-BLAM! Foxy dress, awesome bod…nice mouth,” he added. His eyes flicked over it. She swung her eyes away and stirred her soda.

“Liar.”

“S’true.”

“Oh…okay,” she conceded. “Like Superman, huh?”

“Ka-blam,” he reminded her. “So that’s it. No more saying mean stuff about yourself. Got it?”

“I got it.”

“Can’t hear you…”

“I got it, I got it, already!”

“Good. Now, say something nice about me.”

“Moose!” she giggled. “Okay, okay, give me a minute…”

“Geez, take forever trying to think about something! Thanks a lot!” He looked wounded.

“It won’t take long at all. You’re pretty neat.”

“Neat? That’s all I get?”

“No, that’s not all you get, Mr. Impatient. You’re good at sports…”

“I’m fantastic at sports,” he interjected.

“I stand corrected. Fantastic at sports. Funny. Sweet,” she emphasized.

“Hm.” He raised his brows. His smile was sheepish.

“You know you are. Let’s see…oh, and cute. Very cute.”

“I’m not cute; men aren’t cute. Men are ‘handsome.’”

“Oh, excuse me!”

“This once.”

“You’re ridiculously good-looking and you give great hugs.”

“Really?”

“Uh-huh. Definitely.”

“And?”

“What, you want more?”

“C’mon, I’m feeling greedy!”

“Fine, then. I have fun with you. I never expected that it would be fun hanging out with you, because I never thought people like us would spend time with each other.”

“I can be fun.” He sounded put out.

“I know that now.”

“I was fun before.”

“No. You threw spitballs at me before.”

“Bee…you’re right.”

“It’s water under the bridge.”

“I was a jerk.”

“Leave that under the bridge, too.” He sighed heavily. He unclenched his fingers and slid them across the table, tucking her hand into his. His grip was warm. Ethel tingled.

“You’re different.”

“I know.”

“No. It’s a good kind of different. Just…sane.” She giggled.

“Not everyone would agree.”

“I’m serious. You don’t care what everybody else thinks. You’re ‘you.’”

“I do care what other people think, but I can’t help it. I am what I am. I can’t be someone else. I’ve tried,” she admitted.

“Don’t.”

“Okay. You, either.”

“I like being me.”

“Do you sometimes do stuff because everyone else says it’s cool?”

“No!”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” He’d begun to pull away and release her, but she caught his hand again. Her slender fingers massaged his large knuckles thoughtfully as she spoke.

“It’s easy for you, Moose. You’re good at sports. People think that’s cool. So you hang out with the guys on the football team or the basketball team or the baseball team. You do what they do and wear what they wear. They tell a joke, you laugh. You look the right way and you say the right things, and you know you do because they let you fit in when you do it. And it’s not just sports. You’re good-looking. Even if you didn’t play a sport, you’d still fit in. You don’t have to worry about people laughing at you.”

“That’s just because people are afraid of me.”

“I’m not.”

“It’s not just because I’m big.” He stared at their linked hands. “Everyone thinks I’m dumb.”

“But you’re not.”

“I still feel that way.”

“Then don’t.”

“Know how it started?”

“How?”

“My shoes. I couldn’t tie them myself until third grade. And I couldn’t color inside the lines.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Don’t laugh!”

“I’m not laughing at you!” But she did look amused. “That’s no big deal.”

“Sure it wasn’t.”

“Name one person who makes a living coloring inside the lines.”

“I’m serious.”

“So’m I.”

“It sucked. Everyone laughed at me.”

“They didn’t know you. They didn’t know me, either.”

“What’d you ever see in Jug?”

“Okaaaaayyyy…how did we jump to that subject?”

“C’mon. What did you see in him?”

“I thought he was cute.” She didn’t know why, in hindsight, but she sorted through her impressions of him from earlier years. “He was silly. And…this sounds stupid…”

“Tell me. You know you want to.”

“No. I don’t.”

“Spill.”

“He reminded me of myself. I thought we’d look good together.” His lips twisted. “What?”

“Nothing…” His chest spasmed.

“Moose…you’d better not be laughing.”

“M’not.” He attempted to school his features into sober lines. A snort escaped him.

“Oh, that’s it!” She took her hand back and began to rise from the table.

“BEE!” He leaned up halfway and blocked her exit.

“You. Laughed.” She leveled him with her patented scary librarian look. He suppressed a chuckle.

“C’mon…it was a little funny.” She turned the scary face up a notch. “Bee, come on!”

“Nope.”

“Was, too.”

“Hmmph.” She lowered herself back into her seat indignantly. Moose grinned and reached for the small white carnation that stood in a small glass vase as the table’s centerpiece. Moose tore off half the stem and leaned over, tucking it behind her ear.

“Trust me when I tell you you’re much better looking than Needle-Nose.”

“Well, gee, thanks.”

“Any time.”

Pop’s was relatively empty; only about six tables were occupied and none of their friends were around. Ethel felt relieved; she could have him to herself and not feel awkward beneath their scrutiny.

Moose was also relieved, but he didn’t want to admit why. What Midge said still rankled. He warred with himself that he didn’t agree with her. He couldn’t agree with her.

They enjoyed each other’s company. Eight-fifteen stared them in the face from Pop’s old-fashioned clock above the door. Ethel was bereft.

“Wish we had more time.”

“We’ve got a little time,” he said. Moose settled the bill and led her back to his truck.

“This was fun. I had fun, Moose.”

“The fun’s not done yet.” He pulled her to a stop before she could reach the door. His large, warm hands fastened firmly around her waist, and her tiny exclamation of surprise evaporated as he kissed her. It was a long, lazy kiss, thorough and hot; she leaned into it and tightened her arms around his neck.

This wasn’t the furtive response he’d had to her before. He took his time, savoring the feel of her lithe body against him and the smooth texture of the light, airy fabric of her dress against her skin. Every touch brought with it a surprise.

Kiss me again. Touch me. Please.

You taste so good. Make that sound again.

He was solid where she was slender; his skin had that tough smoothness that came with a recent shave when she caressed his cheek. He leaned in closer, happy with the ease with which he could kiss her without bending over. She suited him well, and yes, Ethel could kiss.

The cool night breeze was toying with the ruffled hem of her short, flared dress. The air caressed her legs and stimulated her skin, contrasting sharply with the heat of Moose’s body. Her hands explored him, learning the contours and firmness of his muscles. She didn’t feel herself stumble back until she made contact with the truck’s hard door.

His body pinned her there while he kissed her breathless. Ethel made small sounds of need; her body betrayed her; she ground against him despite common sense. Curfew beckoned. Her dad would kill her.

His fingers crept into her hair, massaging the tender skin behind her ears. His firm lips whispered over her skin, warming her cheeks.

“Doggone it, Bee,” he muttered, “why do you have to go home so early?”

“I don’t make the rules,” she mourned. “Don’t stop, though.”

“Okay.” He traced the contour of her jaw and neck with his kisses. Pleasure gathered in her belly. Through the thin dress, she felt evidence that she was affecting him, bulging and hardening against her.

She longed to stay and find out what happened next. Her moan held her complaint as he drew back.

“This sucks. I don’t want to take you home yet.”

“Tough break.”

“So what do we do?”

“I have your cell.”

“So?” He kissed one cheek, then the other, landing on her mouth. She sighed into his. Her face was lax and pleased.

“So I call you. You turn off your lights after you say you’re going to bed. And we talk. Then you call me again, and we have another date.”

“And?”

“And another. And another…you’re distracting me.” Her nipples pebbled as he teased her ear, nibbling on her lobe.

“And then what?” he pressed, enjoying the way she squirmed against him. Her gray eyes were hazy with pleasure. They regarded him with amusement. She shrugged.

“I don’t know what to tell you. But I want to see you again.”

She knew what she couldn’t tell him, namely that her heart was pounding its way out of her chest and that she could think straight around the sinking feeling in her belly.

Ethel was petrified.

Don’t be like Alex.

If she went too far with Moose, he’d leave her cold. He’d make her want him, make her think about him, and then walk away.

“Moose?” she asked quietly. Her fingertips traced his jaw. “What…what do you want from me?”

“Whaddya mean?”

“Do you…you know…” She gave him “the look” and gestured for him to understand her.

“Well…what do you think, Bee?”

“I think you’re thinking about it.”

“You think right.”

“And I’m scared.” He furrowed his brows.

“Don’t be. Don’t be scared of me, Bee.” She could tell the concept upset him.

“I’m not scared of you, Moose…”

“Then what? What’s the matter?”

“Sometimes things don’t work out for me the way I want them to.”

“What…in bed?”

“Moose!” His bluntness made her turn beet red. “No. After.”

“After what?”

“You know what I’m talking about.”

“No. I don’t.” He tugged her away from the truck and rotated them so his back was against the door instead. His arms were looped around her waist, still holding her against him. His forehead lightly butted hers; they were close enough to share breath. “Tell me.”

“I don’t want you to not call me back if we ‘do anything’, Moose. I like you.”

“I like you,” he agreed, drumming his fingers at her lower back. Ethel sighed. “And I will call you.” He punctuated the promise with a kiss.

“I have a lousy track record.”

“You’re track record’s better than mine. I can’t run the fifty worth crap.”

“MOOSE!” She tweaked his ear. “You know what I mean!!!”

“You do!” he argued. She didn’t know whether to kiss him or pop him one. She chose the former, and he rewarded her with a low “mmmm” of contentment.

“Moose…just…whatever happens, if I come up to you in the hall, don’t act like you don’t…” Her words trailed off. It chafed her. Moose sobered.

“Bee…” She had a hard time looking him in the eye. He tilted her chin up to meet his gaze; it was sober and deep. “I won’t act like anything.”

“Do you promise?” She hated how vulnerable her voice sounded. She longed to believe him.

“If you want me to promise, then I promise.”

“I want you to promise.”

“Okay. Cross my heart, Scout’s honor.”

“You were in Cub Scouts?”

“Fourth grade. Mom keeps saying she’ll show my old picture the next time I bring a girl to the house. Don’t let her,” he warned.

“Are you kidding? I’m taking her up on it!” She didn’t ask the question screaming itself in the back of her mind: When are you taking me to your house?

“Still don’t wanna take you home.”

“Still have to,” she reminded him. He shared her sigh this time and reluctantly helped her back into the truck.

He drove carefully enough. Her fingers crept closer to him across the seat. He cupped them in his large hand and tucked hers around the gearshift, letting her help him shift to second.

They drove past her neighborhood. She bit back a cry.

“I’ll get you home in a minute,” he explained just as she stared at him. “Take it easy.” She relaxed slightly, then stared out the windshield. It was a perfect night; street lamps threw long arcs of their white-yellow glow over their faces, illuminating Moose’s blond hair in the dark.

They pulled into a vacant lot behind Riverdale Elementary, a mile back from the main property. There were no street lamps; the tires crunched over gravel as Moose parked.

“I’m taking you home, Bee,” he explained as he unfastened her seat belt, “but I want a little more time to tell you goodnight.”

“Me, too,” she told him, and she didn’t object to him pulling her across the broad bench seat and into his arms.

It was a prelude to a deeper physical connection, and Ethel was so torn. Moose felt conflicting emotions, too, caught up as he was in how she felt against him, touching him. How was she affecting him so strongly? Why now?

His fingers were roaming over the flimsy confection of a dress. She didn’t object as he turned her and tugged her into his lap. Her long legs draped over the seat as he cradled her. He left the radio on after he killed the ignition; he reached around her and turned the volume nearly as low as it would go before he resumed his exploration of her outfit. He traced the narrow spaghetti straps delicately, tickling her and testing their strength. Ethel ground herself against his lap inadvertently, but couldn’t help the sensations building within her when he stroked the sensitive skin above her knee, just beneath the ruffled hem. She was flushed with heat. He felt so good…

She nearly came undone when he explored her small, soft breast, contemplating its pert shape. Ethel’s breath caught; Moose’s kiss pulled her under. She wanted to tell him to stop…she didn’t want him to stop…

“Mmmph…Moose?”

“W’as wrong?” he murmured into her flesh. His thumb, painstakingly gentle, found her nipple.

“We shouldn’t be doing this.”

“I know.” He didn’t resist when her arms twined around him more tightly. He moaned into her neck over how soft she felt, nestled over his throbbing bulge. Cripes, he was hard! “I know it’s late, but I have to see you. Just for a second.”

“Then we go home so I’m not busted.”

“Then we go,” he agreed, but his voice was hoarse and strained. His fingers shook as he lowered the strap of her red dress and peeled the neckline away from her bare skin.

Her exposed breast tingled from contact with the slightly cool air. Her skin was pale and translucent in the darkness of the truck except for its slightly darker nipple; the skin was ruched and firm as he traced its shape. Ethel moaned, her breath quickening as he drew her close and steamed her collarbone with his lips.

“You look so good tonight,” he groaned.

What was he doing to her? Her voice of reason was frighteningly silent as he caressed her, gradually sliding the other strap down. Somehow he managed to reposition her on his lap to straddle him. Warning bells went off in his head; those weren’t his hands roaming over her cool, soft skin, his lips tasting her. Not if he was a smart man…

No one ever accused him of being a smart man. Except Dilt, or even Ethel herself…

It was a war between Moose and his willpower when she tasted so good. His lips fastened firmly around her nipple, and he drew on it like it was hard candy. The way she cupped his head and slid her fingers through his hair, holding him closer, told him she was having just as hard a time turning it off.

Self-control. Self-control. Self-control. Moose chanted it in his head. He knew he had to steady himself.

“Damn it,” he hissed, letting her flesh slip free. His pulse pounded in his neck and his flesh throbbed. Both of them were out of breath. He felt her warm breath panting against the side of his neck. He leaned his forehead against her bare chest, mastering himself. She trembled.

“Let’s go,” she whispered. “I don’t want to, but let’s please go.”

“Okay.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me, too.” They disengaged themselves awkwardly and set down the road to her home.

Moose was quiet and thoughtful as she unbuckled herself and reached for her purse. Her skin still tingled where he’d suckled it; the feel of his fingers and mouth would follow her into sleep.

“Call me,” she said hopefully.

“Yeah.”

“G’night.”

“G’night.” She squeezed his hand, but felt strangely fearful as his fingers slid free from hers.

What if she’d made a grave mistake? Ethel’s sandals flew up the front walk in sharp, quick little steps. She didn’t risk a look behind her until she reached the porch. Moose was already backing out of the driveway and threw her one last glance. He waved. She waved back, hoping she didn’t look desperate.

The entryway was dark when she came inside. Her father’s voice drifted down the hall as she set foot on the stairs.

“Cutting it a little close.” She eyed the hall clock. 9:05PM. Shit, she mouthed. Guilty and sheepish, Ethel descended the stairs, hoping her dad wouldn’t stop her at her parents’ bedroom door. She caught a glimpse of herself in the bathroom mirror as she passed it. Her hair was slightly wild, and she had the suspicious-looking beginnings of a hickey. Her lipstick had served its purpose. It had been kissed off, down to the barest ring around the border of her lipline.

She laid awake in the dark, having exchanged her dress for airy little baby doll pajamas.

Was he thinking about her?

It nagged her. She was wide awake and restless.

She knew she should just leave it alone, but she had to know…what?

That she wasn’t just dreaming? That she hadn’t come this close to going all the way with Moose, and that he hadn’t responded to her just as strongly?

She didn’t stop herself from crawling out of bed and lunging for her small phone. She heard her dad settling back into bed at the other end of the hall.

Furtively she dialed the cell number and waited. What if he was already in bed? Did he have a noisy ringtone? She toyed with the idea of hanging up…

“Hey,” he whispered.

“I said I wanted to call you.”

“No kidding.”

“I had a nice time tonight.”

“So did I. You looked hot.”

“You, too.” Sorry I had to rush off like that.”

“Next time we’ll do something earlier, or on a Saturday.”

He said next time! Ethel mouthed a silent “Yes!” in the dark and collapsed back into her pillows. She crossed her leg over her knee and swung her foot in the air as she murmured into the handset for a good part of the night.

For the first time, Ethel legitimately felt like she had a boyfriend. It felt incredible.

 

*

The next day, Ethel’s teeth weren’t so sore anymore. She spent most of her morning flashing her grin upon request, showing them off.

“Looking GOOD!” Betty trilled.

“Work it, girl!” Nancy chimed in, doing a little “raise the roof” dance. Ethel giggled and face-palmed.

She tried not to notice people glancing at her in the halls, but Ethel enjoyed the attention. Some of the girls gossiped behind their hands; some of them gave her approving nods and smiles.

She parted ways with her friends and dialed the combination to her locker.

“Hey, Legs,” a familiar voice greeted her. His tone was indolent, slightly arrogant, and completely unexpected.

Alex.

Her stomach twisted and she felt a rash of cold prickles as he leaned back aginst the locker beside hers.

“Heard you did something to yourself. Everyone’s talking about the new you.”

“Not that new,” she sniffed. His casual smile still made her pulse quicken, but she still felt uncomfortable.

Shouldn’t you be panting after Cheryl like her lap dog, right about now? Ethel’s eyes flitted around the hall, looking for the vivacious redhead.

“C’mon, Bee. Show me.”

“There’s nothing to see,” she insisted. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He darted out a hand to tickle her ribs. She sucked in her stomach and twisted away from his reach. Her laughter was tense.

“Stop it!”

“Look at you! C’mon, you know wanna smile…” Laughter mingled with irritation. “There they are.”

“Quit it,” she told him, batting away his hand. Ethel crossed her arms protectively over her middle.

“Just wanted to see those pearly whites. Don’t be afraid to show me what you’ve got.”

She hadn’t. Look where that got her, she thought sourly.

“I like what I’ve got.” She turned away from him and resumed her search for her book. He watched her, staring.

“What are you doing?”

“Going to class?” she asked, as though he were a small child.

He was still effortlessly handsome, having the same brand of sharp good looks that Reggie possessed, but Alex also possessed the aloofness and arrogance of someone with lots of money and self-entitlement.

“Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Whatever,” she shrugged, puzzled that he would even say that. He winked, then walked off. She watched him round the corner when another male voice interrupted her regard, startling her.

“What’d he want?”

“Geez! Moose, you scared me!”

“What’d he say to you?”

“He wanted to see my teeth.” A muscle in Moose’s jaw worked.

He only saw the last bit of their exchange, just enough to see she wasn’t pleased with Alex attention. But Moose felt that old flare of anger when Alex stood too close, getting a little bit too familiar as he touched her…

“He doesn’t need to see ‘em,” Moose muttered under his breath. Ethel snorted.

“You can say that again.” She stared at him. “What? What’s bothering you?”

“Why did he touch you?”

“He was being an idiot. I told him to knock it off. I didn’t ask him to, Moose.”

Next time, I’ll tell him… Moose shook it off.

Their classmates peered at them as they walked by. Moose was on edge and waited impatiently for them to disperse. They had thirty seconds until the second bell. Ethel wasn’t paying attention to them as she leaned in toward him shyly.

“What are you doing after school?”

“Dunno,” he replied. She was close enough to affect him; it made it hard to think straight. He wanted to kiss her…

…he didn’t want an audience.

“Listen, Bee,” he said, leaning away from her and straightening up, “I better jet.” Ethel was crestfallen, but she nodded.

“Okay,” she murmured into his wake. She felt bereft.

No kiss?

For the rest of the day, it drove her nuts.

Chapter Text

The prom was around the corner. The school buzzed with activity and anticipation. Posters quickly appeared in the halls and on the bulletin boards, and the male population of Riverdale High gave up any attempts to hold any semblance of conversation that didn’t involve hearing about a girl gush about clothes, decorations, music, etc. Men were different beasts. Haircut, gas in the car, showing up on time. That was their modus operandi.

Basketball season had already faded to baseball season. Moose immersed himself in work, practices and study dates either with Dilton or Ethel, depending on the subject. But sometimes, he went over to see her just to see her. She built him up, and it was addictive.

Every now and again, he surprised her. Occasionally she would find a note in her locker. He texted her and left heart and smiley emoticons in the message, with the simple words “Thinking about you” in the subject line. He brought various offerings from the grocery, sometimes ingredients for when she would bake for him.

It was comfortable to Moose, and a new experience for Ethel. She’d never been so content.

But why did she still have misgivings?

*

“When was the last time he called you?” Betty applied another coat of pink polish to her toenails. Ethel sighed heavily.

“I’m usually the one calling him.” It wasn’t completely true. It was just frequent, lately. Moose had become distracted.

“That’s okay. I call Arch all the time.”

“I just want this to be different.”

“Different, how?”

“I don’t want to chase him. I’m sick of being the chaser. I want to be the ‘chasee’ for a change.”

“Aww…” Betty looked sympathetic, and she wanted to argue the point on Ethel’s behalf. But she came up empty.

“I want to spend more time with him.”

“So tell him that.”

“I feel weird about it. It’s like I’m begging him.”

“You are not!” Ethel shrugged, then stared down at her lap. Betty looked up at her from her vantage point on Ethel’s bedroom floor. Ethel sat on her bed, hugging her long legs. She looked sad and vulnerable. “Ethel, I’m pretty sure he likes you.” Betty smiled. “He was so cute that day he accidentally hit you with the Frisbee. He was all protective of you.”

“I know,” Ethel mused, reaching for another chocolate-covered Oreo.

“Let me do your toes,” Betty suggested.

“Not the pink.”

“Red?”

“Yup.” Lately, it became Ethel’s favorite color. While Betty lived in pastels and they suited her sunny, golden good looks, Ethel liked darker, bold colors.

She savored the memory of Moose’s hands feeling her body through the thin, wispy fabric of her red dress. She suppressed a shiver.

“Has he talked to Midge?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“It seems like he’s getting over her, finally.”

“You think so?”

“C’mon. Give yourself some credit for that, kiddo. He just used to hover over her so much. Sometimes, it seemed like he was at her beck and call like a puppy.”

“Must be nice,” Ethel remarked. “But that’s just it. I want a guy to be with me because he wants to. I don’t want to control him. That’s just not me.”

“It’s not me, either,” Betty admitted. “But yeah, sometimes it must be nice to be the head bitch in charge.” Ethel’s eyes grew round. She bopped Betty with a Hello Kitty throw pillow and released a bubble of laughter.

“BETS! You didn’t just say that!”

“Aw, I know. And I’m not just talking about Midge. She’s not a bad person, but sometimes I feel like she takes advantage. Like some other girls I know.” Ethel gave her a knowing look.

“Veronica breathing down Archie’s neck again?”

“Gee, what was your first clue?”

“Prom?”

“Still up in the air. I’m going. Who with, that’s the hard part.”

“Got any second choices?”

“Not Reggie,” Betty said automatically.

“Has he even asked?”

“No. But he’s been fishing. I know he wants to take Veronica, but she’s already dangling Jason and Archie.”

“Must be nice.” Ethel was secretly glad he didn’t want to take Midge.

“I even threatened to twist Juggie’s arm,” Betty chuckled. Ethel made a face. “What?”

“It drives me nuts that a year ago, even a few months ago, I would have given anything for him to notice me. What was I thinking?”

“It’s okay. You liked him. So what? Now you’ve moved on.”

“I want Moose to take me.”

“So ask him.”

“I want him to ask.”

“Woo-hoo. Someone ate her Wheaties today. Well, go for it! Drop a few hints. Romance him. Flirt with him.”

“I don’t know…”

“Sure you do. Have a little confidence.” Betty blew on Ethel’s toes to dry the first coat. It tickled; Ethel wiggled them back. “Don’t let a sexy pedicure like this go to waste.”

“First things first. I want to go out with him. On a real date. Then on a few more real dates.”

“Sounds good to me.”

*

Moose sat on the bench, rotating his shoulder to work out a kink. He ached, but it was a good ache. Baseball season was half over, and his grades were still good enough to keep him on the field; more than good enough, in fact. He had Ethel to thank for that, lately.

It was just getting so difficult.

Ethel was such a nice girl. That made it harder to reconcile the feelings he was beginning to have for her.

Her parents indulged her. They were always polite to him when he showed up for their study sessions. If her dad still gave him his Sunday best “don’t fuck my daughter” look over the edge of his newspaper whenever he came over, Moose at least knew where he stood. Her folks acknowledged him as Ethel’s boyfriend.

As for Moose, he was still on the fence in that regard.

She was just so appealing. Ask him six months ago how he felt about Ethel Muggs, and he would have scoffed “What is there to feel?” But she was so different, and Moose saw her with new eyes.

Keeping his hands off of her behind closed doors was getting harder and harder. Her honest response to his kisses, the tiny, desperate sounds she made drove him crazy. He began to crave the feel of her soft skin, taxing his self-control. It was so easy to want to slip beneath her thin tee shirts and trace her curves, or feel her pounding heart beneath her narrow ribs.

Most dangerous of all was that she continued to let him. It took all he had not to give in.

The thought nagged at him that she wasn’t a virgin. It was both a relief and sore spot with him. Not that he hadn’t been her first, but that Alex Cabot had.

He wanted Ethel to himself. Moose was walking dangerous ground. He didn’t want to share her.

Yet he also didn’t want an audience. He knew Ethel was confused and thwarted by his furtive conversations between classes when he held her at arm’s length.

People still stared, and they still whispered. Moose hated the hot flush that crept up into his cheeks when he felt their eyes on them, on him.

Midge’s eyes were the hardest, the most invasive, judging him the most sharply. They followed him. Mocked him. She gave up on Reggie, something that didn’t matter to Moose anymore. Tongues didn’t wag for her anymore, but they shifted to Ethel, clearly an easier, more desirable target.

Ethel, in the meantime, was different. She walked with more confidence, smiled with more flair, suddenly owning a fragment of her adult beauty.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t appreciated by all.

Cheryl caught sight of the leggy brunette behind her as she glanced at herself in her locker mirror. She paused in the act of applying more red lipstick and poked Veronica.

“What?”

“Look.”

“What am I looking at?”

“Big Ethel. She’s just so…”

“What’s the big deal.” Veronica watched her with little interest, even slight amusement as Ethel stopped for a sip from a nearby fountain.

“Who does she think she is? I mean, just because something comes in your size, that doesn’t mean you have to wear it.”

“Geez, Cher…she actually doesn’t look bad.”

“She looks like a pipe cleaner!” Cheryl insisted. “I mean, it’s better than looking like Mr. Ed, but still-“

“There’s Alex,” Veronica said, pointing.

Cheryl’s green eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed with scorn. “What. The. Hell.”

Was that her boyfriend coming up behind Beaver Girl?

Ethel felt a presence behind her as she took her last swallow of cool water. The sudden poke of fingers at either side of her waist shocked her. She leaned too hard on the button of the fountain, squirting herself in the nose.

“GAH!”

“Ooh. Sorry.” She wiped her damp nose on the back of her hand and stared at Alex, who was grinning. He eyed her up and down. Ethel felt annoyed and uncomfortable under his scrutiny.

“What are you doing?”

“Gonna hog all the water?”

“I wasn’t hogging it!”

“Can’t hold your water, I guess. You’ve got a drinking problem,” he shrugged, amused at the water dripping off the tip of her long nose. Ethel’s sigh was long-suffering; his pun was horrible.

“I’ll get out of your way.”

“You’re not in my way.”

“I have French,” she explained.

“I know French.”

“Say something in it,” she dared, despite that she was already bored with the conversation.

“I didn’t say I spoke it.”

Ugh.

Then something odd happened. As Ethel reflected back on that event late that night, she still wouldn’t understand it.

“Like your shirt,” Alex remarked. It was her black Bebe tee, the same one Moose admired in the store. “Are they real?”

“What?” Ethel looked confused.

“Those little sparkly things.”

“Oh…” She blushed furiously. He stared unabashed at her chest. “No.”

“What did you think I meant?”

“Hey guys, what’s up?” Cheryl swooped down on them and threaded her arm through Alex’s, pressing herself possessively against him.

“I was just asking Ethel if those were real diamonds on her top.”

“Please!” Cheryl swatted him and made a face. “As if! I have that same shirt in pink.” Her expression suggested that she wore it ten times better. Ethel shrugged.

“Well? Are they real?” he asked, winking at Ethel.

“Alex! Don’t be a jerk!”

Ethel felt a solid presence at her back before she even heard Moose’s voice. It seemed to boom over her shoulder.

“What’s up?”

“Everybody keeps asking that,” Ethel offered, but that didn’t pacify him.

“Nothing. Just checking out Bee’s shirt,” Alex offered.

“Okay. You’ve seen it.” The set of Moose’s mouth was hard and brooked no bullshit.

“Um…okay,” Ethel said sheepishly.

Moose’s hand slipped around to the dent of Ethel’s narrow waist, tightening around it. His grip was greedy and spoke volumes. His stance was broad and stiff.

Ethel was more self-conscious than ever, feeling the stares of her peers. She saw what they did in her mind’s eye, herself flanked by Moose, and Cheryl clinging to Alex like a leech in some strange…stand-off.

“You’ve got French,” Moose reminded her, not looking at her.

“Alex says he already knows French,” Ethel muttered. “Some of us need a book.”

“Alex isn’t taking French,” Cheryl argued, staring at him. “What are you talking about?” Obviously, Ethel was confused. She had to be.

The meaning wasn’t lost on Moose.

“Then he doesn’t need any help,” he said. “Do you.”

“Guess not.”

“Guess she’s too busy helping someone else,” Cheryl sniffed. Moose gave her a stony look.

“French class. Gotta go,” Ethel interjected. She backed away, gently prying herself from Moose’s grasp, even though the contact felt good. “Bye.”

“Have fun,” Cheryl piped up, giving her a little bye-bye wave.

Moose caught up to her, surprising her again. This time his hand closed over her shoulder and he steered her through a set of double doors.

“My class isn’t this way.”

“That’s okay.”

“You look pissed.”

“I’m fine.”

“Okaaaay. Moose is fine,” Ethel murmured. He looked around furtively and pushed her into an empty classroom, shutting the door behind him. They had two minutes before the next bell.

“What was that all about?” he asked. His nostrils flared, and his posture wasn’t as stiff, but she read his frustration in his voice and the way he shoved his hands into his pockets as he leaned back against a desk.

“Nothing. Just Alex being a jerk, but what else is new?”

“Why was he telling you he knew French?”

“Because he was showing off. I just thought he wanted to use the water fountain.”

“Sure. Sure, he did.”

“Moose, don’t get your nose out of joint.”

“It’s not out of joint,” he insisted indignantly, but he slowly deflated. He crossed his arms over his beefy chest defensively. Ethel reached out and gently stroked his wrist.

“Moose…is this about Alex? Or about me? Did I do something to upset you?”

“What should I be upset about? You talking to Alex? It doesn’t matter that you used to be with him! What do I have to worry about?”

“Nothing,” Ethel replied simply. She sighed. “Moose, I don’t like him anymore. I told you that already.” Then the thought occurred to her. “Why did you pull us in here?”

“I wanted to talk with you alone.” Moose’s stance relaxed. He tugged her closer until she stood between his spread feet. “Is that a problem?” He looped his arms around her waist. Ethel flushed with delight.

“Not a problem at all.”

“I like being alone with you,” he murmured, kissing her cheek. She leaned into it, letting him nuzzle her.

“You’re gonna make me late.” He kissed her other cheek. “Bad Moose.”

“I’ve been a good boy,” he protested softly as she brushed the tip of his chin with her lips, then gently sucked on it. She felt him growing hard at the junction of where their pelvises met, and the hairs stood up on her arms. “Don’t talk to him anymore.”

The spell was broken.

“I don’t want to talk to him. He talked to me.” Once again she pried herself loose, but this time she was irritated. “I don’t like him. There’s no reason to think I’m going to step out with him! Besides, look at Cheryl. She was all over him, anyway.”

“She needs to put a leash on him.”

“You don’t need to put one on me.” Ethel swept out of the room, leaving him staring after her.

“Ethel,” he called, suddenly not caring who heard him. He chased after her. “Bee!”

“Don’t call me that,” she muttered under her breath.

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too. You don’t trust me.”

“I do. I want to.”

“Want to?”

“Can we talk about this later?” he suggested.

“Sure,” she said, but she was still upset. She leaned in to kiss him goodbye, but he backed off and did a quick one-eighty.

“Bye, Bee.” Ethel’s grip on her books tightened.

“Bye.”

What the hell was that all about?

*

 

What was he thinking?

Moose was troubled all day, focusing on zero percent of his classes and giving lukewarm effort at baseball practice. Even at work, he drifted through his shift, tagging stock in a fog.

Why did I do that?

It was instinctive. Alex might as well have grown horns and a tail, which was only a slightly smaller sin than approaching Moose’s girl. His new girl.

But the difference was, this was Ethel, and she had a past with Alex.

She had sex with him, nagged the too little acknowledged voice of reason in his head, not a past. From her own admission, he used Ethel. Moose knew how that felt from the jump, and he knew that wasn’t the only thing that drew him to Ethel. Empathy took a back seat to an attraction that he couldn’t – and didn’t want – to control.

He saw red. Alex stood too close to Ethel, smiled a little too knowingly, and talked a little too smooth for Moose’s taste. It was like wanting to murder Reggie Mantle all over again, constantly fighting the temptation to punch his teeth down his throat.

Moose was tired of trying to figure out how he could have kept his day from going so wrong. The look of confusion and hurt on Ethel’s face when they parted followed him to his truck. He needed a break from thinking.

So he went to the one place where someone could do his thinking for him.

“What’s going on? What’s your poison?”

“Cocoa?”

“Mom just made some. And snickerdoodles.”

“Solid.” Dilton stood aside and let Moose lumber inside, hanging his letter jacket on its customary peg of the coat rack. He automatically sought refuge in Dilton’s lab in the Doiley family’s garage, which smelled faintly of motor oil.

Dilton’s work table was cluttered with beakers and test tubes, an expensive microscope, and an array of tools and instruments whose purpose Moose could only guess. More amusingly, Dilton kept several small models of classic cars and cartoon characters, including one of Jack Skellington from the Nightmare Before Christmas.

“Why do you look pissed?”

“I dunno. I just feel like shit.”

“Girl or school?”

“Girl.”

“Midge?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Oh. Hm.” Dilton disappeared briefly, leaving Moose to his thoughts. He came back with two cups of cocoa and a plate of cookies. The snack suspended conversation for a few minutes. Moose brushed crumbs of sugar from the corners of his mouth and downed half his cup of chocolate.

“Ya knew I liked Ethel, right?”

“Wrong. I had no clue!” Dilton’s eyes rounded in disbelief behind his glasses. “Really?”

“Yup.”

“You’re not shitting me?”

“Nope.”

“Big Ethel?”

“Ethel,” Moose corrected him.

“Wow.”

“It’s no big deal.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Everyone else thinks it’s a big deal,” Moose admitted.

“Everyone else who?” Moose sighed, then rubbed his face.

“It just sucks. Everyone talks. Everyone stares at us whenever I just wanna talk ta her in the hallway. We’ve only been on one date.”

“How was it?”

“Nice,” he confessed. “That’s what makes it hard.”

“What’s so hard about it? She’s cool,” Dilton reasoned with a shrug. “Always seemed a little desperate, but she’s nice. I’ve never had a problem getting along with her. She’s good friends with Betty.” Dilton admired Betty, one of the few girls in school who didn’t just treat him like a poindexter or pepper him with requests for favors. Plus, she was cute.

What Dilton didn’t admit was that he saw Ethel in the same boat as he was, treated differently because of her size. Where Ethel towered over most of the girls in school and even some of the guys, Dilton had a slim, narrow frame and was quite short. He was wiry and a decent gymnast, but he otherwise shied away from sports and from raucous personalities.

Except Moose. As early as kindergarten, he’d always accepted him, defending the underdog that he was.

“Talk to her. Go on more dates.”

“I don’t…it’s just…”

“What? It isn’t rocket science! You like her!”

“I’m crazy about her! That’s not the point!”

“Then what is the point?”

“I’m afraid of what people will think if I’m dating her!” Moose blurted out.

Dilton stared at him like he grew another head.

“Moose…that’s ridiculous. As a matter of fact…that sucks. Tell me you don’t really think that.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Then don’t. Moose…Ethel’s different from the other girls. She always has been. Not everyone can be a Betty or a Veronica, or even a Midge. It’s like having to only choose between chocolate or vanilla when you really like caramel the best. Not everyone likes caramel. But what’s important is that YOU enjoy it, and don’t just have to have chocolate or vanilla because everyone else is eating it.”

“So Ethel’s caramel.”

“In a sense.”

Moose mulled it over.

“Ethel would be hurt if she knew how you felt about being seen with her. Really hurt.” Dilton fiddled with his test tubes, taking the empty ones to a nearby sink. “Don’t leave it up to everyone else.”

“I won’t.”

“Then man up. Go out with her. Show her a good time. Shoot, she might like it if you show her off!”

“I don’t like how people talk about her.”

“You used to talk about her like that.”

“Bullshit!” Moose flared.

“You did. Remember that time you guys grabbed her yearbook?” Dilton leaned back against his worktable and folded his arms. He leveled Moose with a gaze that always unnerved him, like Dilt could see into his soul. Moose always felt like a guilty little boy when he gave him that look…

“We were joking around.”

“She cried.” Moose flushed and looked down, shamed.

“I forgot about that.”

“She probably didn’t.” Dilton went back to washing his beakers, scrubbing them out with a small wire bottle brush. “But she likes you anyway. Obviously she had a chance to see you in a different light. And she likes what she sees.” Dilton’s voice lost some of its hard edge. “How does she make you feel?”

“Great. Like I’m important. She lets me get a word in edgewise. Likes a lot of the stuff I like.”

“Good.”

“And she makes this little noise when we’re making out, when I touch her-“

“Okay. That’s enough. I don’t need to know.”

 

*

When Moose got home, his mother waited for him in the kitchen.

“Coming in a little late for a school night.”

“Sorry. Went to Dilt’s.” He kissed her temple. She smiled and handed him an envelope.

“Open it.”

“Wait…it’s my SAT?” Suddenly he fumbled with it, hands shaking as he jerked open the strip and yanked out the thin sheet. He held it under the range top light and squinted down at the numbers printed in dark gray ink.

Math: 550
Verbal: 600

“I did it,” he murmured in disbelief.

“What’d you get?”

“Here,” he said numbly. It took a while to process what he saw. She took the envelope from his limp fingers.

“So how do you know how well you- OH!” Moose couldn’t contain himself, promptly launching into a touchdown end-zone dance complete with pumping fists.

“YES! YES! YES! YES! WHOOOOOOOOOO!”

It was more than enough to get into state with his extracurriculars. He was bursting. He had to tell someone.

“You’ve done so well,” his mother beamed, and he saw a sheen of tears in her eyes. He hugged her so tightly that it hurt. “I’m so proud of you,” she whispered into his shirt. “That’s my baby boy.”

“Ma,” he protested, but he was teetering on the edge of his own emotions, too.

“Show your father,” she told him. “I might frame this.”

“I need a copy to send to state.”

“The school gives them copies.”

Several back-clapping hugs from his father, a few calls to his relatives and a celebratory ice cream soda later (Moose didn’t mention his earlier sugar binge at Dilton’s), Moose had one person on his mind that he wanted to share this milestone with.

“Hello?” Ethel’s voice never sounded so sweet when she picked up the phone.

“I did it,” he said breathlessly.

“You did it?” she asked, baffled.

“My scores. You got yours already, right?”

“Sure,” she agreed with building enthusiasm. “Did pretty decent. But never mind. What’d you get?”

“Eleven fifty.”

“Oh. My. God.”

“Tell me who the man is.”

“You’re the man. Oh, Moose, I’m so proud of you!” she gushed. “You must be on top of the world. You can write your own ticket.”

“What are you doing right now?” he said.

“Finishing my trig. Ugh.”

“Can you go out? Meet me?”

“No way.”

“Awww!”

“I want to. God, I want to, but my folks will duct tape me to my chair if I even think of going out this late.” Her voice was filled with disappointment.

“Then stay where you are. Don’t move.”

“Wait…what?”

“Bye!” he whooped. The phone clicked, and she stared at the silent handset, thoroughly confused.

“Ma!”

“Yes, dear?”

“I’m goin’ out!”

“It’s so late!”

“I’ll be back! I promise!” He bolted out the door, jacket half-on as he yanked it shut. Moose barely avoided a speeding ticket as he made his way out of his neighborhood.

The porch light was still on at the modest blue house on Jones Street. Mrs. Mugg’s white daffodils were just beginning to push their way through the soil and a light breeze spun the blades of her garden windmill. Moose’s heart pounded with excitement as he leaned on the doorbell.

He heard swift footsteps from the other side of the door, knowing it was Ethel. He was extremely grateful it wasn’t her dad.

She yanked open the door. “Moose! Are you nuts? Do you know what time it is? He didn’t wait for her to open the screen door, twisting the knob and reaching inside for her. She stifled a small cry as he pulled her out onto the porch in her slippers and pajama pants.

“This couldn’t wait,” he said. “I had to come tell you!”

“That’s awesome. You did so well,” she said, echoing his mother’s words.

“Thank you. You don’t know what it means to me, how much help you gave me. I couldn’t have done it without you.” His voice was earnest, and his eyes danced. She saw herself reflected in their blue depths, right before he kissed her.

“Mmmph…” she sighed. Her arms twined around his neck as she gave herself up to it, feeling completely satisfied, basking in that warm, fuzzy glow she’d become so addicted to.

Barring her dad finding them that way on the porch, nothing could ruin that moment, or her memory of it the next day.

Her assumption proved to be oh, so wrong.

Chapter Text

May proved unseasonably hot, the first Friday reaching a whopping ninety degrees. Betty Cooper had one goal in mind.

Getting that perfect pre-prom tan.

Veronica and Maria were on-board. Nancy was indifferent, but wanted to give her new lime green bikini its virgin run on the beach.

What started as a handful of close friends heading to Riverdale Cove, however, soon became a shindig. Nancy casually mentioned it to Chuck, and he offered to bring the sodas. Veronica bragged about her new red one-piece to Cheryl, who had to one-up her with her new pair of Ray-Bans and her Gucci beach dress. Archie and Reggie each heard the word “beach” and had visions of bikinis dancing in their heads.

Betty came up to Ethel just as she opened her locker and pulled out her French text.

“Beach?”

“When?”

“Today, silly goose.”

“I have to get my suit from home. I also wanna call Moose to see when he gets off work.”

“Ask him before he leaves.”

“I haven’t seen him all day,” Ethel admitted. He’d been making himself scarce again, which bothered her. What glimpses she’d had of him the past few days were frustrating.

*

 

Her stomach would flutter with excitement to see him in the hall, but then a handful of his friends would swamp him, more common now that he made good SAT scores. Everyone had college applications on the brain, and Moose already applied to three schools. Ethel’s had already been mailed out in March. It felt good to get it all over with, but now that she saw an end to her high school career just over the horizon, she was nervous.

Whenever Moose mingled with his friends, all of the sudden she ended up on the fringes, or on the sidelines altogether. She called his name sometimes, only to catch him smile and spare her a glimpse, but then he would get back to the conversation at hand. During which time she would wait patiently for his attention…

…and wait…

And wait…

And wait…

She’d feel her smile falter a little, unable to keep it glued to her face. Ethel’s shoulders inevitably slumped, and she would slink away unnoticed, determined that she would merely catch him after school or send him a text during lunch.

Her only consolation was that Midge had stopped stalking him so much. The brunette was beginning to enjoy her single status and already lined up a prom date after asking Jughead to introduce her to his cute cousin, Bingo.

Then, toward the end of the day, when Ethel was preparing to leave and just keying her way into her car, Moose would pop up, usually slightly out of breath from his jog across the parking lot.

She hated herself for letting her heart leap the way it did when he showed up, and for that bubble of excitement that gave her fizzy, happy little tingles. She was supposed to be mad at him, right? She demanded explanations, didn’t she?

Well, didn’t she?

But he’d invade her personal space, snuggle her too close for public consumption, and kiss her silly. Lazy, lingering kisses that made her tongue dizzy.

So they danced the same dance every day, but Ethel wanted to change the song.

*

 

Ethel closed her locker. She sighed.

“It won’t kill him if you’re not waiting at home by the phone for one afternoon,” Betty pointed out. “C’mon!”

“I don’t know…”

“Ethel,” Betty nagged, looping her arm through Ethel’s and tugging her along. “You know you want to. Think of it. Feel that yummy sunshine turning you a nice, golden brown before prom…smell the hot dogs at the snack shack…I’m bringing my new Coldplay CD…”

Ethel was still torn. “I still need to get my suit,” she mumbled.

“That’s the spirit.”

“I don’t know if I have any clean beach towels.”

“I have a whole bunch! I keep spare ones in the car,” Betty reassured her. “You’re going. No excuses. Don’t make me hunt you down.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll be there.”

“This is gonna be so much fun.” Betty hugged her and let out a little whoop, then began jumping up and down until Ethel had to, too. Ethel blushed and snickered.

“Geez…”

“I can’t wait,” Betty added. “See you!”

Now that Ethel actually had a plan for her afternoon after school, the rest of her classes went by agonizingly slow. She had visions of swimming and sunning herself in her head, and her growling stomach didn’t help matters. Ethel got to lunch too late to finish her sandwich and ended up throwing out half of it. A hot dog at the shack sounded really, really good.

She kept her phone turned on in her purse. No messages yet. She frowned in disappointment, then headed out to her car once the bell rang.

Betty honked at her just as they were converging at the parking lot exit and joining a long line of cars on their way out. “Meet us at the beach!” she yelled, honking. Nancy was in the passenger seat waving to her. Ethel waved back.

“I will! Find us a good spot!”

“Don’t take too long, Ethel!” Nancy yelled.

Ethel breezed into the house and found her mom’s note on the fridge that she’d be out for the afternoon and to help herself to dinner when she was ready for it. She lifted the lid on a pot on the stove and was pleased to find beef stew.

Ethel wasted no more time. She ran upstairs to her room and rooted through her underwear drawer, finding her red bikini with white polka dots and a flirty ruffle across the top that gave her the illusion of a fuller bust. She hopped into it and shoved her feet into some black flip-flops and pulled a black, strapless terrycloth beach dress over her head. She ran by the mirror and ran a hand through her hair, deciding it wasn’t too bad for the moment, just good enough before she got it wet swimming, anyway. Ethel shoved some lip balm, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a sudoku book into a small tote and trotted downstairs.

She felt better the closer she got to the beach, before it struck her that she never checked her room phone for messages, either.

A red, digital number ‘1’ flashed on the tiny display.

*

 

Moose tried to call Ethel at home again, but it rang what seemed endlessly until he got the machine again. He didn’t feel like leaving another message, at the expense of seeming desperate or annoying Ethel’s dad.

In hindsight, he should have mentioned that he had the day off from work. But Moose didn’t want to get sidetracked from his errands, particularly the ones he had in mind.

His first stop was the florist’s. Instinctively he ordered a rose corsage, a large red rose flanked by two white buds. Moose remembered Ethel’s red dress fondly and wondered if she already had a gown picked out for the prom. He just liked her in red. He ordered himself the matching boutonniere and next headed to the mall.

Shoes. Moose hated formal shoes and how they were always made out of hard leather. But he didn’t want to cop out and put on his Nikes with his tux. He always found it annoying when people did that, or worse, when girls wore sneakers with their gowns to be funny. On the one hand, he didn’t blame them, those spike heels they wore looked brutal. But on the other, it was tacky. He picked out a simple black pair modestly priced at thirty dollars and added on a can of shoe polish.

Moose was grateful that he was the only customer in the tuxedo shop. He always felt self-conscious about public changing rooms, and he wanted to be fitted privately, without feeling like he was on display. He had moments where he still felt self-conscious about his size, even though he’d bragged otherwise to Ethel. But the clerk at the shop was actually friendly and jovial, cracking jokes as he took Moose’s measurements and showed him the catalogs of what they had. Moose initially thought about getting his accessories in blue, which his mother would have said matched his eyes, but he changed his mind and picked out white ones to go with the black suit. In the back of his mind, all he was missing was a top hat. Moose hoped Ethel wouldn’t think he looked like a big nerd…

Moose was blowing his savings in what seemed like just one day, and he was only halfway finished. He headed home and called about six restaurants before he found one that wasn’t overbooked with reservations for prom weekend. The hostess laughed when he initially told her he wanted her to book it under Moose Mason; he clarified it was Marmaduke before he hung up. Why did people always have to be so stupid about his name?

Moose tried Ethel’s home phone again and there was still no answer. It never occurred to him to try her cell. In the back of his mind, he just figured she would have gone straight home after school. Moose went inside and munched on half a bag of tortilla chips and fumed with disappointment.

*

Ethel considered calling Moose after she got to the beach, but Betty neatly sidetracked her.

“Aha! Just the woman I want to see!”

“Why?”

“Put some of this on my back real quick? Nancy and Chuck took off a little while ago.” Betty handed her the sunscreen. Ethel dutifully rubbed a generous amount on Betty’s fair skin.

“You already have a few freckles coming out.”

“I know. I hate that.”

“Why? They’re cute.”

“I want a nice, even tan, not spots,” she complained.

“Beats a burn and freckles. I don’t know why Arch punishes himself that way every summer.” Ethel nodded to Archie, who was in the middle of playing Frisbee with Reggie, Frankie and Jason. Sure enough, his skin was just beginning to turn an ominous shade of pink.

“Poor baby has that gorgeous Irish coloring,” Betty sighed. “I lent him some sunscreen earlier, I hope it helps.”

“Lent him some, huh?” Ethel gave her a smug look. “Offered to help him with it?” Betty giggled, swatting Ethel with her sudoku book after she unloaded her bag.

“You could say that! There were places he couldn’t reach.”

“I don’t wanna know.”

Ethel still felt slightly self-conscious about wearing her suit at the beach and showing her meager assets, but Betty assured her that she looked cute in it once she shucked the dress and laid out. The breeze and sunshine felt decadent. After a half hour, Betty asked her for some cash and brought back two hot dogs and a couple of Cokes.

“I should be studying,” Ethel mused.

“So does that mean you’re going to hop up right now, go home and bury your nose in a book?”

“Uh-uh.”

“That’s what I thought. Here, have some mustard.”

Veronica eventually joined them once she made the rounds at the lifeguard stands, flirting with whomever was on duty. Jason patently ignored her in favor of his Frisbee game, but Veronica was nonplussed; she’d take attention wherever she could get it, and she inevitably did. Lots of it. Her bikini was scandalously cut and would have given her father apoplexy had he seen her walking out the door in it.

Veronica was surprised to see Ethel with Betty. “What’s going on? I didn’t know you were coming to the beach.” Her tone was friendly but almost accusing. Ethel caught the underlying sentiment You’ve never been cool enough before to hang out with us at the beach. But Ethel just smiled.

“Last minute change of plan.”

“I dragged her into it,” Betty admitted. Nancy and Chuck returned soon with more snacks from a nearby convenience store, and the gathering began to feel more like a party.

Ethel was enjoying herself, then felt slightly guilty that she hadn’t called Moose, particularly when Dilton, of all people, actually showed up for a change.

“Hey, Ethel.”

“Hey, buddy. What’s going on?”

“I tried to talk Moose into coming out today, but he had errands to run?”

“I figured he was working today.”

“Nope.”

“He never called me,” she pointed out. Her cell phone never rang, vibrated or otherwise made a peep.

“He might be back by now. Try him at home,” Dilton suggested. Then a lightbulb went on in Ethel’s head.

Maybe he called her at home…shit.

Ethel decided she needed a moment of privacy. “Bets, I’m gonna go make a call.”

“Don’t take too long,” Betty said.

“I won’t.”

Ethel made a beeline for the beach shack’s changing rooms. The women’s cabana was empty. She slipped inside and dialed Moose’s home number.

“H’lo?”

“Moose?”

“Bee! Baby, where were you?”

“With Betty,” she shrugged.

“I tried to reach you today. I thought you’d be home.”

“Why?”

“Well…just because.” His tone reminded her of Veronica’s when she met her outside, accusing and making odd assumptions that were very telling.

“Well, why wouldn’t I be at the beach?” Ethel retorted. “It’s a great day out, and I was invited, for a change.”

“Who else is there?”

“Everyone.”

“Everyone who?”

Ethel felt a slight flush creep into her cheeks.

“Arch, Chuck, Nancy, Ronnie, Jason, Reggie, Betty…” she ticked each name off on her fingers as she spoke, even though he couldn’t see the gesture. She leaned back against the small sink’s cold porcelain and sighed. “That’s mostly it.”

“No one else?”

“Not yet. Why don’t you come out?”

“Maybe I will.” Then Ethel beamed.

“Well, maybe you should.” Then she told him in as much of a purr as she could manage, “I miss you.”

“Me too,” he admitted huskily. “Ethel?”

“Hmm?”

“What’re you wearing?”

“MOOSE!”

“C’mon, tell me!”

“Come to the beach and find out.”

“Just tell me.”

“Moose…” she whined. She heard him sigh.

“Okay. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Ethel decided to make a pitstop first and went to the rearmost stall. She upholstered the seat with toilet paper strips first once she noticed there were no seat covers.

Before she could even flush, she heard footsteps and two familiar voices.

One of them was Cheryl’s.

“I don’t know why my brother’s so hung up on Veronica.”

“Same reason most guys are, Cher.” That sounded like Midge. Ethel sucked in a breath.

She didn’t want to be seen coming out of there. She closed the lid as silently as she could, then climbed on top of it so her feet wouldn’t show below the stall walls.

That gave her a perfect, if awkward, vantage point to listen in.

“And I thought she was your friend.”

“To a degree,” Cheryl said.

“I liked her suit.”

“You would.”

“I couldn’t wear it.”

“Be grateful. It was tacky.”

Sour grapes, Ethel thought.

She heard a shuffling of what sounded like clothing hitting the floor as the girls changed, then smelled cosmetics and sunscreen. Leave it to those two to wear makeup to the beach, since neither of them intended to swim…

They continued to gossip. “I saw Betty outside.”

“That’s another one my brother talks about all the time.”

“She’s nice.”

“She’s a goodie-goodie.”

“She made good brownies whenever we had cheerleading sleepovers,” Midge shrugged.

“No, I take that back. The REAL goodie-goodie is Big Ethel. She’s such a nerd.”

Ethel bit back a hiss. Bitch!

Midge groaned in agreement. “Don’t get me started on her.”

Don’t get you started on what? Ethel was itching to hear what she had to say.

“Looks like she’s still making time with your man.”

“He’s not my man anymore,” Midge huffed. “And Ethel? Please. She wouldn’t know how to make time with anyone if you gave her a stop watch.”

“You’re so mean!”

“I just don’t get it. Moose could do better.”

“You’re being too nice. Not many girls would put up with him being jealous like he was when you were with him. And newsflash, he isn’t the brightest light on the Christmas tree.”

“Maybe that’s why he likes her. He doesn’t have to be jealous of Ethel.”

“At least she won’t run around on him,” Cheryl agreed.

How dare you. How dare you. Ethel bit her lip and felt the spark of tears threatening. She wanted to exit the stall and slap them both, but she was bigger than that.

Not to mention bigger than them. It wouldn’t look good if she physically attacked either of them, even though it was tempting. For the first time, she knew how Moose felt in that regard, at least. It was hard to keep your self-control, even when you knew you had to.

“I bet she’s a virgin,” Midge continued.

“Gee, ya think?”

They stayed for what seemed an interminable time talking smack about Ethel and her friends and fiddling with their makeup and hair. They finally walked out, and only then did Ethel take a deep breath.

She was fuming. Steaming.

What the heck was she supposed to care what they said about her, though? Ethel was who she was. The school year was over, it was almost time to go to college and to enjoy her summer vacation in the meantime, and who were they to rain on her parade?

Ethel flushed and exited the stall. She checked her appearance in the mirror and noticed her eyes were red, even though she didn’t allow herself to cry. With an exasperated breath, she ducked her face and splashed cool water on it to freshen up.

She was blotting her face with a paper towel and didn’t see who entered the changing room.

“Hey, stranger.”

“Shit!” she yelped, going stiff as a board and nearly jumping out of her skin. She dropped the paper towel and her hands darted out to catch it.

Alex laughed. “You should’ve seen your face. You jumped a mile!” He was completely unapologetic.

“You shouldn’t be in here.”

“I know,” he shrugged. “I was looking for Cheryl.”

“She already left.” Thank God, she amended.

“Guess I’ll catch her outside.”

“Maybe you should.” She chucked the towel in the trash and tried to move around him. He blocked her path.

“Not so fast. What’s this little get-up you have on, here?”

“It’s called a bathing suit.”

“Not on you, it isn’t. Showing a little skin, huh?” He gave her a low wolf whistle that managed to sound snide. Ethel made an exasperated noise. “Look at this…rowrrrr!”

His hand veered too close to her breast as he carelessly batted at the flirty ruffle on her top.

“Quit it!”

“What? I’m just checkin’ out your latest fashion,” he insisted. His eyes raked over her body, and Ethel felt both foolish and naked. “It’s sexy.”

“No it’s not,” she muttered. “It’s just a suit. I’m too tall for a one-piece suit to be comfortable. I have a long torso.”

“Aw, is that your excuse?”

“Alex, this is a women’s changing room! You need to get out! And while you’re at it, let me out!

“So, I might as well get changed. Why don’t you help me?”

 

*

Moose pulled into the lot and then wrangled with the parking attendant about his sticker being out of date. He paid five dollars up front for a temporary parking pass and stuck it in the windshield of his truck. He parked in the back and headed for the beach, looking for his friends.

He spied Betty, lying out close to the lifeguard stand. Archie and Jughead were beside her, raiding the bags of snacks that Nancy bought.

“Hey,” Moose called. Betty looked up and waved him over with a big smile.

“Yay, you showed up. Ethel was wondering what you were up to today. She’ll be stoked that you came.”

“I had some running around to do,” Moose confessed.

“What kind?”

“The running around kind,” he offered. Betty elbowed him, smelling a juicy secret.

“C’mon, tell me. Did it involve anyone we know?”

“Bets, c’mon!” Moose felt his face growing pink.

“Yeah, big guy, give it up!” Arch chimed in.

“I was at the mall, okay? Sheesh.”

“Their food court’s gotten better,” Jughead mused as he polished off a grab bag of chips.

“I wasn’t at the food court. I had to go to the rental shop.”

“Game Stop?” Jug asked.

“Formal,” Moose corrected him.

“Oooo! The prom! You got your stuff for the prom!” Betty grinned at him. “YAY!”

“Shhhh,” he hissed, “don’t tell. It’s a surprise.”

“Hee, hee. Okay, I promise.” She made key-turning motions at her mouth. “Yay.”

“What is it about you women and proms?” Juggie sighed.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Betty sniffed.

“Where is she, anyway?”

“I don’t know. I think she was gonna call you. I thought she’d be back by now.”

Moose sat back and rolled out his towel beside theirs and anchored it down with his sneakers. He put on sunscreen and his shades and watched the waves roll in. He hoped she showed up soon.

*

“Alex. Please move.”

“What’s your rush?”

“I don’t want to leave my friends hanging. I do have friends,” she pointed out for his benefit, and in her mind, to Cheryl’s, even though the redhead wasn’t there to hear it.

He wasn’t listening. Alex grabbed the hem of his snug tank top and pulled it up over his head, revealing his toned chest. Ethel silently admitted to herself that he was well built and looked good, but the gesture left her cold. He was such a show-off.

“I said I had to get changed,” he reminded her.

“So do it in the men’s room.”

“I’m fine right here.”

“Well, I’m not!”

He blocked her way again, and this time he caught her wrist in his tight grip. Her entire body tensed at the contact, and she glared at him this time, through with being polite.

“Let go of me!”

“I’m not done admiring that suit of yours, Bee!” He pushed her back against the wall of the first stall, and it felt cold at her back.

“Stop it, Alex!” Ethel felt a cold knot of dread settle in her stomach. What was wrong with him?

The face that she once considered handsome was twisted in a smirk that took away its appeal. “C’mon. You know you like it.”

“No I don’t! Ow, you’re hurting me!” She kept trying to pull her wrist away and shoved him back, but he caught her other wrist, too. Only then did true panic grip her.

He had no intention of letting her out of that changing room. And she was all alone.

 

*

“I wonder where she went?” Moose asked.

“Look for her,” Betty nagged. “She wanted to be alone for a sec to call you. Guess she didn’t want lil’ ol’ me listening in. Maybe try the parking lot?”

“Or the cabanas,” Arch added hopefully.

“Eh. Okay.” Moose got up and brushed the sand off his flanks, then lumbered over the hot sand to the changing rooms.

He wasn’t far from them when he heard his name, and it wasn’t someone intentionally calling out to him.

A quick glance found Cheryl and Midge running their mouths again, and they froze suddenly when they felt his eyes on them.

“Hey, Moose,” Cheryl greeted him, giving him a fake smile. Midge looked up at him through her lashes, then pretended to ignore him while she put on more lotion.

“Thought I heard someone using my name in vain,” Moose said evenly.

“Who, me?”

“You look pretty vain,” Moose shrugged. Cheryl’s smile evaporated. Midge snorted out a gulp of Coke through her nose in shock.

“Jerk,” Cheryl hissed.

“Have you seen Ethel?” he said, changing the subject.

“Not yet.”

“She stand out like a sore thumb if we did.”

Moose rounded on Midge. “Don’t talk about her like that. She doesn’t deserve that from you.”

“Why, are you protecting her, now?”

“She shouldn’t need protecting. Leave her alone,” Moose warned. He turned his hard gaze on Cheryl. “You, too, princess.”

They waited until he’d stalked off. “Asshole,” Cheryl muttered.

*

Alex pressed Ethel back against the wall with his full body, and she felt his pelvis crushing hers. She shrank back in disgust as the hard knob of flesh between his thighs poked her, and she felt dirty.

“C’mon, now, sexy girl like you doesn’t have to be shy,” Alex crooned. His breath felt hot against her neck, and he leaned in and bit her earlobe, even as she craned her neck away.

“Let me GO!”

“Sssshhh!”

“LEAVE ME ALONE!”

“I said shut up!” he hissed, all humor gone from his tone.

He struck her. Her cheek smarted from the unyielding bones in the back of his hand.

“Bastard,” Ethel sobbed.

“Then just cooperate, and it’ll feel real good. You know you’ve missed this.” His hand groped her breast, kneading it roughly through the thin, slippery spandex of her top. He found her sensitive nipple and pinched it.

“Don’t!” she whimpered. She continued to thrash and whip her head away from him when he tried to kiss her. His fingernails clawed her skin when he dug them under the edge of her top and pulled it all the way down her ribcage. Her small breasts were exposed, and Ethel felt so ashamed.

“Not much, but not bad,” he muttered, groping and kneading one while he continued to press himself against her, holding her immobile. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Leave me alone, just leave me alone,” she wept.

She heard heavy footsteps just outside.

She didn’t Alex to hit her again, but she needed to cry out again in the chance that someone would hear her, possibly help her…

“NO! LET ME GO!!” she shrieked. Her voice was louder and more shrill than it had ever sounded before, and it hurt her vocal cords to raise it like that. Alex’s face was thunderous.

“Shut up, bitch!”

“NO!”

He hit her again, and she bit the inside her lip. She tasted blood this time.

He pulled her away from the wall and was dragging her back into the handicapped changing stall. She stumbled, then dragged her feet, letting her body go limp and slump to the floor to weigh him down. He had a harder time pulling her dead weight.

That was the scene that Moose walked in on, bursting in through the door.

*

He saw red.

His girlfriend was mewling and sobbing, suit top jerked down while Alex was attempting to jerk her to her feet by the wrist. The rich boy’s face was twisted in a sneer until he spotted Moose.

He quickly released Ethel and backed away.

“Moose?” Ethel whimpered. She scrambled away from Alex on the heels of her hands, backing away as far as she could before stumbling to her feet. She righted herself, trying to fix her top, but Moose saw the red scratches over her breast, anyway.

“Motherfucker.” Moose’s voice was low and cold. “You fucking sonofabitch.”

“Hey, man, c’mon…it’s, she was…”

“Moose, I didn’t ask for this,” Ethel insisted brokenly. Her face said as much. Her bloodshot, red-rimmed eyes told him everything he needed to know.

“You laid your hands on her!” Moose’s nostrils flared and fists clenched.

“She’s lying, dude, she WAS asking for it, she came on to me and dragged me in here-“

Moose would have none of it.

He plowed into Alex, knocking him back against the stall wall. His forearm pinned him to it by his throat. He squeezed the breath out of him, and Alex saw stars from the impact with the cool metal.

“Moose, NO!”

“You like picking on girls? Even though she doesn’t want you?”

Pent-up rage fueled him. He slammed him back against it again, satisfied to hear the back of his head smack sickly against it once more.

“Don’t!” Alex cried.

Moose turned and flung him back, letting him stumble to the floor. Alex tried to crawl away from him. Moose savagely kicked him in the ribs.

“MOOSE!”

“You made her cry!” Moose snarled. “You don’t touch her. You don’t even look at her, you greasy bastard, y’hear me?” Moose knelt by him and gripped him by the shoulder. Alex was whimpering himself now, arm flung over his head to guard his face. Moose clutched his arm and lifted him enough to force him to look at him.

He practically stabbed his finger in Alex’s teeth. “If you wanna play sick games like that with your stuck up bitch girlfriend, she’s outside. But don’t you EVER touch Ethel again.”

Moose backed away. Alex made no move to follow him or attack him. Moose was shaking. He held out his hand to Ethel.

She gripped it and let him lead her outside.

Wisely, Moose herded her out to the parking lot as quickly as he could manage. He fumbled with his keys and opened up his truck.

He pulled her inside and turned on the air conditioning before he urged her to come closer.

“C’mere, baby…are you all right?” he crooned. She shook her head.

“No.” Her voice was so hoarse and soft he almost couldn’t hear her. She let him pull her close, handling her as gently as he could. She sobbed into his neck, and he rocked her to soothe her.

“He…he tried…”

“I know. I saw. I won’t let him do that shit again.”

“He s-said that I-I dragged him in, but I didn’t, he was lying-“

“I know.”

“H-he always lies. He tried to hurt me.”

“I know. He’s a bastard.”

“I hate him now!”

He knew how hard that was for her to say. She’d been with him intimately once before, and this flew in the face of that previous trust and admiration. Now he no longer deserved even her respect.

“I wish I’d been here sooner. I looked for you.”

“Me, too,” she sniffled. He felt the tentative press of her lips against his collarbone, conveying her gratitude more eloquently than words. It was so hard to speak, when she was so hoarse. “I missed you.”

“I know, baby, I know!”

“I came to the beach…just wanted to have…some fun, that’s all. I didn’t want this to happen, I didn’t…want you to see me like this!”

Moose suddenly hated himself.

Time with him. Having some fun. Damn it.

She was right. He hadn’t been giving her much of his time, and they’d hardly done anything together, whether it was the two of them, or time spent with all their friends. Out in the open, like a beach outing.

And look what happened when he left her alone, with bastards like Alex thinking it was fine to take advantage of her because of it. Not just because she was in the changing room by herself, but because Moose hadn’t made himself plain enough that Ethel was spoken for.

He had strong feelings for her, and she deserved more credit for it, and more respect.

The thought that something horrible had nearly happened to her made Moose hug her a bit more tightly. He breathed in the scent of her hair and sunscreen, glad for the tangible feel of holding her.

“I hated him touching me,” she confessed.

“Does that make you uncomfortable?”

“Not when you touch me,” she informed him. That made him feel better. “But he was rough.” Her sobs returned. “He was never like that to me before.”

That made Moose truly want to kill him.

He didn’t have time to fantasize about it. There was a frantic knocking against his car window.

He turned to find Betty and Archie, looking very worried. He rolled down the window. Ethel’s face was still buried in his chest.

“What happened?” Betty demanded. “Ethel, what’s wrong?”

“Did something happen to her?” Archie added, dark brows drawing together as he saw how she was huddled against Moose, and his friend looked angry, too.

“Yeah. Something happened to her. Cheryl’s dipshit boyfriend got fresh with her. He tried to force himself on her. Back at the changing room.” Betty looked horrified.

“Ethel, are you all right?” Ethel nodded silently. Her hand was gripping Moose’s shoulder. Betty reached into the car and patted it. Ethel took hers and squeezed it for support.

“That bastard,” Archie muttered. “Always knew there was something I didn’t like about that guy.”

“I wanted to kick his ass,” Moose confessed.

“You should have.”

Moose didn’t want to say aloud that the only reason he didn’t was because Ethel was watching him, and she was already shook up. And for some reason, doing violence in front of her, when she had such a tender heart, reviled him and would have made him hate himself.

Moose was rubbing Ethel’s back.

“At least you’re taking good care of her,” Betty assured him. She looked upset, too, but she managed a weak smile for Moose.

“It's all I wanna do," Moose replied soberly.

Chapter Text

As much as Betty and Archie held up their end of their agreement with Moose and Ethel to keep things quiet, the entire school had gotten wind of what happened at the beach by the following Monday. Ethel wanted to die.

Following some inquiries by concerned parents, fueled by discussions of the incident with their children, the school investigated the rumors and followed up with the town beach committee. To Ethel’s shame, her parents were called into the school for a conference, and she had to come clean about what happened. Betty and Archie followed up and gave their accounts of what they witnessed of Ethel and Moose leaving the cabanas that afternoon. Mr. Wetherbee, Superintendent Haskins and the school board decided to enforce the one-whiff, zero tolerance student policy and met with the Cabots to discuss suspension and possible expulsion.

They were outraged. Posthaste, they withdrew Alex from Riverdale High and transferred him back to Pembroke Academy for the remainder of the school year, and their lawyer drew up a gag order to keep the incident out of the local press. Ethel thought bitterly that it must have been nice to have that kind of money and influence and to be able to escape prying eyes.

In the meantime, everyone else’s were on her. Again. Every day was an ordeal, bringing a mixture of disbelieving or pitying stares.

Why would someone like Alex want to be with her?

She’s Ethel, for crying out loud. Big Ethel. She’s desperate. Why would she say no?

I heard that they slept together. I’m not kidding. Don’t know why she’s being a tease…

I heard Moose almost killed him. He tore him up big time.

No, he didn’t! I saw Alex, he didn’t have a mark on him. Bet he peed himself, though…

Cheryl’s pissed. He was gonna take her to the prom.

Big deal. I hate that bitch…

 

That part wasn’t Ethel’s problem. Or it shouldn’t have been. But she was exhausted during the day from her frequently sleepless nights. The day at the cabana kept replaying itself in excruciating detail in her head. Despite almost daily reassurances from Betty that it wasn’t her fault, Ethel wallowed in guilt.

If only he would’ve just left me alone. I was minding my own business. I didn’t deserve that. I know I didn’t. Feeling despondent and ashamed, Ethel threw out her red bikini, giving in to the niggling, desperate voice inside her that insisted that she’d somehow brought it on herself by wearing something too sexy.

She felt like a tramp. She felt ugly. She felt guilty.

In the meantime, it was tearing Moose apart.

He was under just as much scrutiny, even though less of it was negative. Moose was spared the worst of it by the fact that he was seen less as the jealous boyfriend and more of Ethel’s savior, something that almost surprised him. His relationship with Midge had cast him in such a possessive light. Good old Moose; you could count on him to say something hilarious without meaning it that way, to score a touchdown in the last ten seconds of the quarter, and to kick someone’s ass if they were caught putting the moves on his girl. Only this time, the girl wasn’t Midge.

That baffled the fuck out of everyone.

The worst part was seeing her look so sad and withdrawn. It still didn’t stop him from offering her every available free minute when he wasn’t at work or practice, and Moose was grateful that the season was nearly over. His last game was the same week as the prom, and he couldn’t wait to just catch his breath. Their phone calls were frequent but subdued, often ending with the time that they would meet on that given day.

There was one thing that Ethel and Moose were grateful for in common: The dynamic among their friends changed, too, and suddenly neither of them dangled on the fringes of their group. They openly maneuvered their way through the school as a pair, seeming joined at the hip whenever they congregated in their usual spots, no longer two outcasts but an acceptable, likable couple. Boys who casually ignored Ethel before, or who had poked fun at her when they were younger now treated her with kid gloves, even Reggie, which shocked her. There was an unspoken respect that they held for Moose for protecting one of their own.

Veronica genuinely surprised Ethel, easily siding with her and letting on that she’d never been able to stand the Cabot twins or her father’s continued business dealings with their father. Maria and Nancy joined the enclave of what began to be a “sisterhood” of girls who stood by her in the wake of her attack, but Cheryl wouldn’t be swayed.

Ethel was the girl who ruined everything in Cheryl’s universe, unraveling like a run in a pair of pantyhose. Ugly, gawky, geeky Big Ethel, boy crazy and desperate, had cost Cheryl her boyfriend and prom date and set everyone’s lips flapping at her expense. It was laughable, insanely unjust and defied logic. These things never happened to a Blossom.

Every day, Cheryl pinned her with The Glare, brief, venomous and to the point, a modern day descendant of the Victorian era’s “cut direct.” Her green eyes were full of acid and casual hatred where before they’d merely held scorn and derision. Ethel grew proficient at ignoring her, but she felt those eyes boring into her back whenever she passed, heard bits and snatches of vile names and slurs muttered beneath her breath.

What struck Ethel most keenly was that Cheryl lost her beauty in Ethel’s eyes, much as Alex had from the night the gang had met at Pop’s after the movie. There was nothing soft or pleasant in her demeanor; even the flirtatious smirk lost its luster, if the wary way her peers stared after her in the halls was any indication. Her cohorts were loyal in their collaborative, collective hatred of Ethel Muggs, and Ethel was resigned.

It tired her out too much to care.

*

 

Ethel was startled out of waiting for her turn to exit the student parking lot by the trill of her cell from her purse. She dug for it one-handed and hit the tiny speaker button. She knew she probably looked funny talking into the air from outside the car. “It’s me. What’s up?”

“We’re kidnapping you.”

“We who?”

“Me, Nancy and Maria. We need girl time.”

“Bets-“

“YOU need girl time. No buts, no ‘Bets,’ you’re going.”

“I was just gonna head home and call Moose.”

“Call him anyway and tell him we’re borrowing you for a couple of hours.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s time for some pampering. No one deserves it more than you. Full treatment. Mani pedi’s, facials, you name it. We’re treating you.”

“I don’t feel like going anywhere.”

“I know. That’s why you have to go.” Ethel cursed under her breath as her turn to go arrived and the school parking attendant waved her forward with his orange sign. She set her phone on the seat beside her and continued to shout at it while she made her turn.

“I just feel like crawling into bed.”

“No. We’re not letting you. Be ready in ten. We’re picking you up in Nancy’s car.” Betty clicked off before Ethel could argue. She sighed as she turned onto her block, knowing it was pointless to argue with her best friend when she had it in mind to play “Dr. Betty.” To her surprise, her father was home early, already cutting the grass with his Craftsman gas mower. She parked the car all the way up to the garage and smiled as she got out, chuckling at his battered fishing hat that he wore to protect his balding scalp from the sun.

“Hi, Daddy.” She pecked his cheek as he turned off the mower. He looked her over appraisingly. “What’re you doing home?”

“Decided to come home after my afternoon meeting. I didn’t have anything else pressing on my day planner.”

“Need any help?”

“Nope. I’m almost done. All I have left is the pruning.” Ethel noticed the rose fertilizer and bypass clippers on the porch swing.

“I can help with that.”

“It’s fine. Go do your homework. Take a load off, I’ve been home longer than you.” He patted her shoulder, but his smile faded. “You look tired, kiddo. You okay?”

“I guess. Nancy and Betty are coming over, anyway, but I’m not in the mood to do anything.”

“C’mere.” Her father took her hand and led her to the porch, where he sat on the top step and bade her to do the same. “You’ve been dragging around here a lot lately like you’re a little under the weather. Anything I can do?”

“Can you make everyone at school mind their own business?”

“Your classmates are notorious for not minding their own business. It’s part of the job description of being in high school.”

“It sucks.”

“Only a couple more weeks, sweetheart, then you’re home free. You’ll get to leave all this behind you, and then you won’t know what to do with yourself. Not only that, but this is actually the easiest that your life will ever be during the course of your adult life.”

“Daddy! Are you kidding? I hate this! All anyone’s ever done is make fun of me!” Her father’s sympathetic expression opened the floodgates, and all of the frustration building in her chest that choked her all week burst forth. “I’m just Ethel, the big ugly girl, and the pretty girls are mean to me, and…” Her breath hitched, and her father’s arm automatically went around her shoulders. “They act like it’s all my fault. Alex was the one who came after me, and they’re all blaming me for him being kicked out of school.”

“It was his fault, not yours. Not all men are like that, Ethel. And news flash, you aren’t ugly. Your young man doesn’t think so, obviously. I’ve seen the way he looks at you when you think I’m not paying attention.”

“Daddy!” Heat rushed into her cheeks; she knew they were crimson and her hands flew up to cover her mouth. “Don’t SAY that!” She was mortified, but that didn’t squelch the warm glow she felt at her father’s revelation. Does he really look at me like that?

“It’s true,” he shrugged. “I might not like it, but I wouldn’t lie about that, kiddo. He’s not even that bad, I guess, not that it matters. Even the Pope could knock on the door saying he’s here to take you out to dinner, and I’d still want to give him the bum’s rush out of here. You’re my baby.”

“I’m not a baby anymore.”

“You’re still my baby,” he corrected. “You’re my world. When I think of that Cabot boy putting his hands on you, it makes me want to go to his house with a baseball bat.”

“Moose would have really hurt him. He almost kicked his ass.” He tsked at her language. “Sorry, Daddy…”

“Watch your tongue, sweetie. But I get it. I don’t blame him. I would have, too, if I’d walked in on that. But, Ethel? It wasn’t your fault.”

“Daddy…there’s a reason Alex thought it was okay. I…I was with him a long time ago. We didn’t date, but…I was with him, y’know?”

“Ah. I see.” He wasn’t pleased, but he let her talk.

“I was curious about it, and he acted like he liked me. No one ever likes me like that, so, I guess it made me feel special. But I wasn’t special, because he never called and he started dating other girls. So I found out he was a real jerk, y’know? He always seemed to be making fun of me like everyone else, but then whenever he caught up to me when I was alone, he was different. Just…creepy.”

“But when you were alone in the cabana, you told him no, right?”

“Yes. I did. I was waiting to meet Moose outside. Alex snuck up on me inside and wouldn’t let me out. I didn’t like him anymore. Moose treats me so well, and I didn’t even think Alex was cute anymore, after what he did to me.”

“Ugly behavior makes people ugly,” her father agreed. “If you weren’t encouraging him anymore, and he pushed himself on you anyway, then it wasn’t your fault. He was wrong. Don’t let anyone else try to tell you differently.”

“Okay.” He kissed her cheek with a loud smack.

“Go. Put your things away and grab a snack. Your mother made cookies. Get one before I eat ‘em all.” On that happy note, she waved back to him as she hurried inside. He sighed, muttering under his breath, “You could have gone easy on me, Lord, and just given me a son, but noooooooooo…” He whistled cheerfully as he began pruning the roses.

Ethel felt slightly better than she had after coming clean with her dad and finding that he supported her, but she still wasn’t in the mood to go out. Almost on cue, as soon as she went into the bathroom and began applying Noxzema scrub to her face, her phone rang. Hastily she wiped her hands on a towel and dove for it over the side of her bed. “H’lo?”

“Hey, Bee.”

“Hey.” Her smile was shy and pleased, even though Moose wasn’t there to see it. “Whatcha doin’?”

“Workin’. Wonderin’ what you were up to,” he shrugged. “Are you naked?”

“MOOSE!”

“C’mon, Bee, don’t hold out on me. What’re you wearing?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know! Face cream. I’m getting ready to go out with Bets. They’re dragging me out.”

“Good.”

“I wanted to see what you were doing,” she argued.

“Gotta work til seven. Then I’ve got a few things to do for my mom. I’ll have to eat dinner here at work.”

“That sucks,” she complained, thumping the phone cord against her mattress idly. The Noxzema was cooling on her cheeks as she flipped onto her back. “I wanted to see you.”

“Me, too.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Tonight, before you turn in, maybe. Will your folks mind if I drop by a little later and take you out for a quick soda or something?”

“If it isn’t too late. Miss you.”

“Miss you, too.”

“I think we’re going to the mall. I don’t know how long we’ll be there. I’ll have my cell turned on.”

“It’s okay. Have fun with the girls. I won’t send out the search dogs if you don’t call me, Bee. I’ll assume you were busy.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I’ll behave myself. Kinda.” She chuckled.

“Brat.”

“See ya, Bee.”

“Bye, Moose.” She tucked the phone on her bedside table and finished fixing her face, deciding she didn’t know why she bothered. Her eyes were ringed with dark circles and her cheeks looked pale. Ethel remembered that Betty mentioned facials and set down her blush brush.

“I look like hell,” she muttered. Her hair wasn’t a lost cause; she scrunched a puff of mousse into it and dampened her hair brush, slicking it into a neat flip. She added a small butterfly-shaped purple barette with rhinestone eyes, twisting and wrapping her bangs and anchoring them back from her face. She felt more human with more upbeat hair.

“Good enough,” she pronounced as she changed into a pair of denim capris with rolled cuffs that she’d slashed here and there with a razor blade. Her white Southpole tee that she wore to school was fine, and she added her black mule sandals with their two-inch heel. She didn’t care that they made her look taller; they made her feel pretty. She marshaled her resolve and headed downstairs. By coincidence, her father nudged open the front door just as she reached the front hall.

“Betty’s here.” He stepped aside and Nancy and Betty automatically jumped her.

“Here’s your purse,” Nancy chirped. “Move it along, girl, time’s a wastin’.”

“Nice hair. Hurry up, get in the car,” Betty added. “Bye, sir!” she called over her shoulder. Ethel’s expression cried “Help!” as they dragged her outside.

“Bye, honey!” he called after her. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” He headed for the kitchen, then stopped himself. He ran back toward the front door and leaned out of it. “I MEANT THAT! DON’T DO ANYTHING I WOULDN’T DO!”

“OKAY!”

“Time for some pampering,” Betty informed her. She dove into the back and left Ethel with the front passenger seat due to her long legs. She no sooner buckled herself in than Nancy cranked the music and rolled down the windows.

“All right now, ladies, here’s the plan. Chuck’s doing man stuff with his pop, I’ve got my mama’s ride for the day til I hafta go get her from work, and the food court’s calling our name. I’m seeing mani-pedi’s, I’m seeing mud packs, I’m seeing shoe-shopping and indecent amounts of junk food in our future. Maria and Sabrina are gonna meet us there.”

“Sweet,” Betty added. “The more, the merrier.” Ethel had her misgivings. Nancy reached over and patted her knee.

“Cheer up.”

“I know.”

“We’ll have fun,” Betty chimed in, squeezing her shoulder.

“I know.”

“Did you get marching orders from Moose yet?”

“He’s good to go. He’s working and I already said I’d see him later, hopefully.” She wanted to see him now, but Betty’s concerned face in Nancy’s rearview mirror made her shake it off. “I’m in the mood for Orange Julius.”

“I want a Cinnabon,” Nancy countered.

“So don’t need one of those. I don’t want my prom dress to be too tight.”

“Ethel? Are you kidding? Bets, tell me she’s kidding.”

“You’ll be fine, kiddo. I couldn’t fit one leg into your prom gown. I always wanted to be tall and thin. Next to you, I feel like Quasimodo.”

“Please!” Ethel scoffed. “You’ve got boobs. What else do you need?”

“I still think you’re lucky.”

“Hey, it’s all good,” Nancy pointed out. “You’ve got the legs, you’ve got the girls, and I’ve got this rockin’ big booty. We’re all set!”

“Good Lord,” Ethel snickered. Nancy just wasn’t right…

 

*

Two hours later, Ethel wiggled her fingers with a flourish, admiring the candy apple red manicure with tiny rhinestones that had to last two more days for the prom. She sipped her strawberry whip as they perused the front window of Forever 21 and took the proffered strip of cinnamon roll that Nancy held out to her.

“I’m broke as a joke or I’d go in there and buy that,” Ethel murmured, nodding to the outfit on the mannequin.

“Come back and show it to Moose,” Nancy suggested. “He might get it for you.”

“No. I can’t do that.”

“It’s not like you have to hold him at gunpoint, just show it to him. He might like to get you a present.”

“I don’t like fishing for things like that. I don’t start my job until the end of the month.” She blew her nest egg on her prom dress, shoes and graduation outfit already, and Ethel still had butterflies about even going. She didn’t want everyone’s eyes to be on her, didn’t want to hear the whispered gossip. She deserved to have fun at the last big event of her high school career as much as anyone else.

Just when her day was finally picking up, along came the fly in the ointment.

“Betty! BETTY!” Ethel’s smile evaporated as she saw Midge approaching with Sabrina and Maria, and she turned away, ducking inside the shop. No one said anything about her showing up, and prickles of unease marched up and down her back. Out in the corridor, Nancy pasted on a smile and waved, then turned and caught Ethel’s eye. She made a Girl, I had no idea this heifer was planning to show up shrug and eye roll for Ethel’s benefit. Ethel sighed and shrugged back. She pretended to look at a rack of earrings and bracelets and sipped her shake, wondering how long she would have to stay out of sight.

The decision was taken out of her hands when the girls entered the shop. Sabrina and Maria accosted her. “Where were you? Betty said you were here!” Sabrina accused, poking her in the side. Ethel flinched; there was something about Sabrina that she could never figure out. Nice enough, but just…weird. “Poof! You disappeared from sight!”

“Haven’t seen you in a while, chica,” Maria added, cracking her gum.

“I’ve been here and there.” Ethel checked her watch. She had another hour and a half before Moose was off work, and he still might have homework. She wondered if she could beg off with the same excuse now. Before she could put the question to Nancy, however, Midge insinuated herself into the three girls’ conversation.

“Can I talk to you for a minute? Out there?”

Hell, no. “Sure.” Ethel sauntered out into the corridor and chucked her cup into the trash. She folded her arms across her chest and pinned Midge with her sober gaze. “What’s on your mind?”

“I tagged along when Maria said you guys would be here.”

“That’s fine,” Ethel shrugged. It was anything but fine. “It’s a free country.”

Midge noticed the uncomfortable set of Ethel’s shoulders and her wary look. “Everyone’s talking about what happened at the beach.”

“Gee, ya think?” Midge cringed noticeably and crossed her arms protectively around herself, too.

“I’m sorry he did that to you.”

“Thanks,” Ethel said dully. “At least someone’s sorry. Everyone thinks it’s practically the other way around.”

“Not everybody,” Midge said. “I saw you leave with Moose. You looked pretty shook up.” Ethel’s face burned.

“I was hoping no one saw us.”

“It’s okay. I didn’t see much.”

“I don’t really wanna talk about it.”

“I’m sorry. It’s just…Cheryl and I were in there right before you. I wish we’d heard what was going on.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It kinda does. I didn’t know things were like that with Alex or that he was like that. Has he always been like that with you?”

“Sometimes,” Ethel hedged. “But only when people weren’t looking. Look, Midge, you say you wish you had heard what happened, but right before that, I heard you and Cheryl talking in the cabana. I was in there.” Midge looked shocked and embarrassed. “You actually said Moose could do better than me. I guess I’m not sure what you meant by that. I’m not like you. Guys don’t follow me around and wonder if I have a boyfriend already, and if I did, I wouldn’t act like it was okay for other guys to ask me for my phone number. Moose is a great guy, Midge, and I was sorry when you guys broke up, because he was heartbroken about it. But you hurt him really bad.”

“He didn’t act like it. It looked like you snuck up and caught him on the rebound,” Midge accused huffily.

“Snuck up? Who snuck? Moose talked to me. Moose hung out with me and told me his problems and asked me for help with his studying and came over to eat at my house. You and Cheryl just couldn’t get over the fact that he would find someone like me attractive, huh? I couldn’t either, to be honest. You could have knocked me over with a feather. But he really likes me. I enjoy being with him, and I’m not playing with his mind.”

“Listen to you,” Midge snorted. “You act like you’ve got me all figured out. I didn’t play with Moose’s mind! Moose wanted to get back together when Reg and I stopped seeing each other.” Ethel’s stomach flipped. “I only went out with Reggie because Moose was being too clingy.”

“Too clingy?” Ethel was incredulous. “So you’d rather be with Reggie, who’s an asshole to girls, rather than Moose, who adored you, just because maybe he called you a little too often and gave you too much attention? Are you listening to yourself?”

“A ‘little’? He was like my shadow,” Midge bragged. “He’s a great big child.”

“No he isn’t. But you treated him like he was, that’s the funny thing. Moose is brighter than you give him credit for.”

“I’ve had enough of this shit,” Midge decided, smiling wryly. “Tell yourself everything you’re telling me if you want. Believe that if you want.”

“You had your chance.”

“Please! You can have him, with my blessing!” But Ethel read hurt in Midge’s eyes, and her confident swagger was gone. “When he won’t let you out of his sight and gets all jealous when you talk to any other guys, then you’ll be sorry. Have fun, Ethel. Good luck.” She headed into the store and made a hasty goodbye to the other girls, then shot Ethel a parting glare as she left. Ethel sighed raggedly.

“Good riddance,” she muttered under her breath. Ethel wanted to take some small vestige of satisfaction that Midge apologized to her for her ordeal at Alex’s hands, at least; there was at least one more person who wasn’t blaming her for the incident, but she felt the words she’d stifled for so long tumbling out of her mouth, and Ethel didn’t want to stop them. She hoped Moose never got wind of what happened; he had to be just as sick of having his name thrown around as Ethel was, let alone by Ethel herself.

Nancy came out of the store and stared after Midge’s retreating back. “Man. Can’t hang, huh?”

“Huh?”

“Miss Thang. She give you a hard time?”

“Nah. I’m done.”

“She ain’t trying to step with your man?”

“Nope. She just tried to tell me why she broke up with him, and why I’d better watch out if I date him.”

“Poor you,” Nancy tsked.

 

*

The confrontation with Midge ate at her all night. It was impossible to study for her French final, or even think straight, for that matter.

“I’ve had enough of this shit. Believe that if you want,” Ethel muttered to herself, mimicking Midge and making a face into her text. “Sheesh.”

Just when Ethel thought she couldn’t mull it over any further or build things up to seem any worse than they were, she remembered back to the day of the car wash. She couldn’t get the image of Moose riding off with Midge off her mind. As if that wasn’t enough, images of the two of them when they were still a solid couple, joined at the hip, came to mind. Moose and Midge. Midge and Moose. They were a study in physical opposites; her dark looks and petite yet lush curves complemented his massive physique and blond boyishness. Ethel wondered in her mind’s eye how she and Moose looked together in other people’s eyes.

Then she stopped herself. Who the hell cared?

“Why’m I acting like this is worth two squirts of piss?” She stood and sauntered over to her full-length mirror and looked long and hard at herself, trying to be objective instead of negative. She practiced a smile, the novelty of having her braces taken off hadn’t worn off yet. She had nice teeth, and by extension, a nice mouth. The same clear gray eyes that stared back at her every morning were actually pretty, not too wide, not too close together, and her lashes were nice and dark like her hair, and they weren’t too sparse. Perhaps the rest of her face would never quite catch up to her nose…well, whatever. So it was a little prominent…

But every once in a while, Ethel would skim through her fashion magazines, and when she wasn’t bemoaning that she would never be those perfect, airbrushed women, she would sometimes notice tiny flaws. That odd, different something would jump out at her if she stared at it long enough. Perhaps a willowy redhead would have ears that stuck out a hair too much, or that she appeared to conceal beneath a large, frizzy updo. Sometimes she found one with imperfect teeth, perhaps not as extremely buck as hers had been, but definitely a prominent overbite, slightly snagged canines, or a gap. It was all in how they smiled, or in some cases, didn’t smile. Girls with those less than pristine teeth almost never opened their mouth all the way, just enough to relax the set of their face for a more natural photograph, or in some cases, to draw your attention to their eyes instead.

Plenty of them were Ethel’s height or taller. That was some consolation, and by the same token, they weren’t that endowed in the breast department; some of them even looked like walking coat hangers. She’d read somewhere that even Paris Hilton had enormous feet. Ethel looked down and wiggled her long, slender toes. Okay, so her size eleven feet didn’t automatically put her in Paris’ league, but it was a consolation of sorts. They didn’t make her a freak. So there you had it.

Her attention went back to her breasts. They weren’t quite as meager as they were in junior high, or even sophomore year. With luck, perhaps they weren’t finished growing, either. Her hands rose to gently cover them, testing their firmness and heft with a little bounce. They hardly jiggled at all. That wasn’t a bad thing, was it? She stroked them again, and they were soft, yielding; she wondered what Moose thought about them.

Ethel sighed; if Moose had to work all summer full time, with possible overtime, they’d never have any time together to explore that question. Ethel’s desire for him hadn’t waned, and she was unsure of his reticence to take that next step. Again, she had to ask herself, was it her? Maybe he didn’t want her enough…

She stopped herself, her reverie broken, and she hugged herself against the chill that swept over her. Please don’t let it be that, please let him want me. I want him to feel the same way about me that I do about him. I want him to care more about me than he did about Midge. Is that too much to ask?

She prayed that it wasn’t.

*

Ethel finally managed to buckle down and study her French translations, and she was so deep in concentration that she nearly jumped out of her skin when her phone trilled at her.

“Shit,” she hissed as she dove across the bed for it. “Hello?” she answered breathlessly.

“Hey, baby.” She couldn’t stop the slow-spreading smile that plastered itself on her face, and he heard it in her voice.

“Hi.”

“You got a free minute?”

“Might have a few. Can I see you?” She peered at her clock. It was already eight-fifteen, which she knew was pushing it, but she just needed to see him, somehow. Her fingers drummed themselves against her flat belly and she stared up at the ceiling. She felt nervous and restless, and the questions that had plagued her all evening longed to burst from her lips.

“Pop’s?”

“Pop’s.”

“You already ready to go?”

“I just need my shoes.”

“See ya.” He hung up before she could say goodbye. She felt slightly bereft, until she considered that maybe he was impatient to come over. She shoved her feet back into her sandals and turned off her bedroom light.

Her father stopped her as he saw her enter the kitchen and rummage through the coat hooks for her purse. “Hey. Where are you going?”

“Out. With Moose for a snack at Pop’s.”

“You just ate.”

“I know. We won’t be long.” She’d only picked at her food at dinner, and a float sounded good, especially in the recent heat. Her father sighed and shook his head.

“I don’t like you out this late.”

“It’s not that late!” she insisted, looping her strap over her shoulder.

Her father didn’t like the slightly restless look in her eye or the anxious set of her shoulders, the way she leaned into the knock-kneed stance he remembered from when she was in grade school. She always assumed that pose when she was about to ask for something, like getting her ears pierced or a dog.

That Mason boy put that look there, and Ethel’s father wanted to hate him for it. He peered back at his wife, who sat at the kitchen table with her arms folded across her chest.

“Tonight’s a school night,” she reminded her.

“I studied. I don’t be out that late! C’mon, Mom!” Her heavy sigh matched her husband’s. To Ethel’s dismay, they had their We’re your parents, not your schoolmates, and we don’t have to be cool faces on. That usually meant trouble.

“Honey…”

“C’monnnnn…”

She was saved by the honk of Moose’s horn out front. Yesssssss!

“Nine-thirty.”

“Bye!” She pounced on her father. “Muah!” Her mother’s kiss was equally perfunctory, and they watched her whirl out the door anxiously, wincing at the slam of the front door.

“Ouch.”

“I hate when she does that.”

*

 

They bought their floats to go and headed back toward the schoolyard, where they’d sojourned after their first date. Moose rolled down the windows to let in the warm breeze. Ethel tuned his radio and turned down the volume. She unbuckled her lap belt and slid across the bench seat into his waiting embrace, setting her drink into the cup holder.

She braced herself, then let her mouth have its way with what was on her mind, hoping she wouldn’t hate herself…

“MooseIranintoMidgetodayatthemallandshesaidsomecrappythingsaboutyouandme.”

“What…the heck…?”

“I’m sorry. Sorry. I got pissed at some of the things that she said.”

“Like what?” His blond brows drew together, and he leaned just far enough back from their cuddle to peer down into her face.

“Just like, how I’d be sorry I was with you, when you didn’t give me enough space.”

That made his gut twist. “Um…no. Bee, I give you enough space already.” He scowled when she hesitated. “Don’t I?”

“Moose! Of course you do! Pfft…are you kidding?” She reached up and gently cradled his jaw in her palm; it was currently set at a stubborn angle, and his blue eyes looked hurt. “I’m enjoying myself so much with you. Every time I’m with you. I hardly get to see you as it is.”

“So I’m not calling too often? There aren’t any boyfriends that are ‘just a friend’ waiting to crawl out from under the bed?”

“NO!” She punched his chest.

“Ow…” He still looked doubtful.

“And that was something I told Midge today, too. I won’t play around on you.” Then she huffed and looked away from him, staring at his dashboard. “Not like I get a lot of offers, anyway.”

“What’re you saying?” He tugged a lock of her hair to make her look at him. “You make it sound like I’m your last resort.” She realized belatedly that she mucked up what she was trying to say, but he tapped the tip of her nose. “Bee, if you ever wanna see other people, tell me before I catch someone else with their tongue down your throat, okay?”

“Wow. I forgot that’s how you found out.”

“I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“Okay.” She settled back against him, feeling guilty for spoiling their good mood.

A few moments passed, and a slow song Ethel liked came on, wafting out onto the warm night air and making her pensive.

“I wouldn’t do that to you, Moose. I hate how that feels, and I would never hurt you like that.” His arms tightened around her and Moose’s lips traced her hairline.

“I wouldn’t do that to you, either, Ethel.”

“You don’t want to get back with Midge? Like, ever?”

“Hell, no.” His fingers were doing wicked things to her nape, making delicious little shivers run down her back and excitement blossom in her gut.

“Good. Because I want dibs on you.” She leaned in and kissed his collarbones through his tee.

“Ethel, I’m yours.”

Happiness exploded inside her. “Promise?” she murmured.

“Promise. Scout’s honor.” He kissed her, and she whimpered in surprise and contentment at how good it felt; he even tasted sweet from his root beer float. He indolently possessed her mouth, taking his sweet time, and she craned herself against him in an effort to get as close as she could, wanting to practically crawl inside him. Her fingers stole into his hair and her tongue met his, letting it caress her and explore her heat. Her low hum of approval turned into a moan of burning, overwhelming need, and Moose answered her with a deep rumble that rose up from his chest, and his hands roamed over her body. It almost frightened him how much he wanted her, and she made it difficult to say no.

“Ethel,” he whispered against the tender place behind her ear before lapping at it, making her insides quiver. His voice was choked and husky and his lips felt hot against her skin. Ethel’s eyes drooped shut in pleasure and her own hands began to explore him tentatively, kneading his broad back and neck and palming his heartbeat. Her touch made him restless, and his self-control took a nosedive when she captured his large hand and guided it to her chest, and Moose groaned at the feel of her small, sweet breast. His hand trembled slightly as he traced the peak of her nipple with his thumb, making her mewl and strain against him.

“That feels so good,” she breathed, suddenly wishing she wore fewer clothes.

“Ethel…Ethel…baby, wait. Wait a minute.” Moose broke their kiss and cupped her face to make her look at him. His eyes were pained, she realized with alarm, and she tightened up, bracing herself for disappointment. But Moose’s words surprised her. “Are you sure you want this?” She nodded, turning her face just a fraction and kissing the thick pad of his palm. Her hand covered the back of his and stroked its way down his wrist, then molded the shape of his bicep, kneading and testing the generous muscle. “Do you?”

“You don’t know how much I want you. I want you,” she told him earnestly. She nibbled his palm again and the head of his erection throbbed, chafing at the sudden tightness of his denim shorts. “Moose…I…” Her voice clogged with emotion.

I think I’m falling for you. She pushed the thought away hastily, unwilling to chance scaring him away with the revelation that frightened her.

“You don’t know how much I want to get you alone right now.” His skin was flushed and his hair was slightly disheveled from her running her hands through it. Ethel nodded gravely.

“Then take me where we can be.”

He reluctantly, quickly restarted his truck. Ethel hastily buckled her seatbelt and they tore out of the lot.

Ethel only vaguely recognized the road signs as they headed a few minutes out of town. Moose took the turnoff for Central City, but then turned off the road into a deserted thicket. The night sounds drifted inside the truck, underscoring the low volume of the radio. Moose reached over and undid her belt and pulled her to him, and any ounce of hesitation he felt before evaporated.

Removing their clothes within the confines of the cab was a tricky endeavor, one that annoyed Moose as he fumbled with her zipper and she with his. Both of them had long legs, something of a disadvantage since his truck didn’t have a back seat. But their clothing was finally divested and laying in a sloppy pile on the driver’s side once he moved out from behind the wheel, and Ethel situated herself on his lap. Arousal made her skin tingle, and his was so hot and smooth beneath her hands. They caressed and groped each other, and he captured her nipple carefully between his teeth. Ethel reached between them and ringed him in her fist, pumping his silky length, enjoying how hard he’d grown and how he flexed slightly in her grip with each pull. Ethel lacked significant experience, but he gave her an A for effort as his breathing quickened and shocks of pleasure made his flesh jerk. The guilty thought crossed Ethel’s mind that she wished this could be her first time, that Moose could be her first, and it troubled her that he knew that it wasn’t.

“Ethel…oh, God, you feel so good,” Moose groaned as his hands smoothed over the planes of her back and drifted down to grip her narrow hips. “You’re so hot.” She paused in kissing him and drew back a moment.

“I am?”

“Yeah.” He leaned up and kissed her lips, satisfied with how rosy they were now in the dark. “C’mon, Bee. You are.”

“Am I pretty?” she blurted out. The question was ridiculous and it stunned him.

“Are you pretty? Bee, are you kidding?” His hand tangled in her dark locks and pulled her down into a hard, demanding kiss that made her whimper. When he let them up for air, his eyes were dark with arousal and desire. “No.” He chuckled at her sudden scowl and winced as she slapped his chest. “Who said anything about pretty?”

“Jerk,” she hissed, but her face implored him.

“You’re gorgeous,” he clarified, reaching up to caress her cheek with reverent fingertips. “You’re sexy.” His expression was so earnest that it made her ache. “And you drive me crazy.”

“In a good way,” she said hopefully. He nodded, and a hint of a smile toyed with his lips.

“Wanna reach into the glove box?”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to get either of us in trouble.”

“You won’t if you get me home on time, Moose.”

“That’s not what I mean. Open it up.” She sighed and craned herself around, removing herself from his tempting erection before she opened the compartment with impatient fingers. She spied a strip of shiny foil packets and extracted them, nodding in a knowing manner.

“So I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about this,” she mused as she tore off one of the packets and tucked the remainder back in the box, snapping it shut. “Want me to do it? You’re probably more of an expert at it than I am.”

“Hey!” His brows drew together over a crooked smile. “I resemble that remark!” She giggled and kissed him and some of the awkwardness Ethel felt tapered off, but her stomach was full of nervous jitters. This was it, what she’d fantasized about, and she didn’t want to ruin it.

She tore open the foil carefully and slipped out the tiny disc of latex; it felt slick with its light coat of lubricant.

“Careful with it,” Moose murmured as he watched her. “Want me to do it?”

“No. Let me…we wore one last time, but…y’know…I didn’t get to-“

“I get it, Ethel.” He couldn’t listen to her talking about suiting up Alex Cabot to take a crack at her. His misgivings disappeared as she gently maneuvered his cock’s plump, silky head inside the condom and began to roll it down the shaft. His gasp was choked and she watched him nervously.

“You okay?”

“…sure…oh, God…” Pressure was building up inside him, combined from the tempting closeness of her nude, sweet body and the succulent flesh between her legs that was beckoning to him every time she moved her hips over his lap. She lightly trailed her fingertips over his chest, teasing his nipple and tracing the divide of his ribs.

Moose’s hands explored her with equal intensity, mapping out her body with his touch. She quivered when his fingers slipped between her soft, moist folds and probed her. Her face tensed around one moan after the other as his hand dipped inside her heat; the feel of her flesh drawing and sucking around his hand was erotic and making it hard for him to think. He craved that consummation, that joining with her and from the desperation in her eyes, she yearned for him just as much. She ground against his hand and squirmed against him as he kissed her senseless. The night’s sultry heat and faint breeze brushing over their bare skin made the sensations they created between them more delicious.

He encouraged her to move her hips, sliding them against him, and he occasionally reached between them and rubbed the sensitive little kernel hidden beneath its hood of soft flesh as she moved, stimulating it, worshipping it. She moved languorously and slowly against him, unconsciously following the ballad playing on the radio. Her curves were silhouetted in the dim moonlight and the remainder of the glow from the highway, picking out the slope of her breasts and flare of her hips, her soft, flat belly and modest navel. It was so new and exciting, seeing all of her at once, and the look of anticipation on her face was sensuous…

…and it was so beautiful.

“Please,” he rasped. “Now?”

“Yes.” She reached down and bumped his hand as they fumbled in the dark to line him up with her waiting entrance, and she braced herself for the inevitable discomfort, hoping she didn’t cry out, or just cry, period. Her first time hadn’t been all she hoped.

Suddenly, that didn’t matter. Moose thrust up in tandem with Ethel lowering and impaling herself on him, and she exhaled choppily at the sensation of being stretched and filled. Heat rushed over her as she lowered herself again, thrusting against him and bringing him into contact with a hot zone inside her that she had never found by herself. A shock of pleasure greeted this contact and she moaned in contentment and wonder.

“Feel good?”

“Moose…” Her voice was breathless and husky, different than he’d ever heard it, and the sound licked him all over. “Please, Moose…”

That was all he needed to hear.

It was uneven and at times awkward and desperate, but they fought to maintain some semblance of a rhythm, straining cramped muscles and negotiating the narrow space they occupied for the best angles and most frequently stroked hot spots. Moose didn’t want to be rough with her, but her voice and the way she squeezed herself around him milked him and wiped out any other thought than possessing her, taking her completely, reaching his own climax as efficiently as possible before he died of a heart attack. Her uneven rhythm was endearing and it couldn’t be helped, but it was defeating him, killing him, and his primitive need to thrust and shunt himself to completion – his and hers – tightened his grip on her hips.

Ethel’s thighs strained with the effort to keep up with his need, and she began to tire. Panic made sweat break out over her brow. What if I can’t please him? I want to make him happy. Is he going to come? Will he get mad at me if he doesn’t? Moose glanced up and caught the worry in her face, and that made up his mind for him.

They could work on endurance next time. He savored the concept of next time and gave her a wicked smile.

“Take it easy,” he murmured against her lips, kissing her to soothe her ego. She sighed into his mouth and as soon as her hips relaxed, he took over, thrusting up into her with surprising strength. Moose’s thighs were taut and rock hard as he jutted his hips up repeatedly from the truck’s seat, making the springs creak. Thrills of sensation rose in her womb as he hit that perfect spot at just the right angle, over and over, and her cries were longer, louder and more ragged. Moose never expected to see and hear her grow so wild, and it excited him to evoke such an honest, intense and thorough reaction from her. Ethel wrapped her arms around his shoulders and bowed her face into his neck as she rode him, finally picking up the rhythm he set and rolling with it. Her nipples jiggled and tingled with the impact and the friction built between them when they grazed fine, downy hairs on his chest. His fingers found her again, toying with her clit despite how awkward it was around their quickened thrusts, but it accomplished his purpose, since she was crying out, mewling his name and practically speaking in tongues.

Moose reached his peak, already chafed inside the condom’s thin sheath and so engorged he wanted to die. Ohyeahyeahohyeahbabypleaseit’scomingit’sniceohGodohGODit’sNICE… His thoughts were a mad jumble that evaporated completely when his orgasm broke loose. His eyes flew open wide and he stared up at her in openmouthed shock. His words failed him as he spasmed against her, hips jerking of their own will and bouncing her against him. Euphoria rippled through him as every muscle in his body reacted to his climax that seemed to overwhelm his entire nervous system. Moose’s arms convulsed, crushing her to him in an embrace that took her breath.

It was just the push she needed to follow him, and she met his look of surprise with one of her own moments later as he emptied himself in a gushing burst. He felt the change in her, but it was amazing to witness it up close, the flush of color in her skin and the way her breathing changed, the dilation of her pupils and flare of her nostrils, the beseeching look she gave him paired with the way her voice died down to a strange, hoarse squeak.

She collapsed against him. Trying to catch their breath was a hopeless endeavor; their heavy panting drowned out the sound of the soft music that still played, even though they had stopped paying attention to it.

“Good…grief…” she gasped brokenly. “Moose…wow.”

“Wow,” he agreed easily, laying an exhausted kiss on her collarbones. He stroked her soft skin and noticed that she was trembling. “You okay?”

“You’ve turned me into jelly.” He snickered. “I don’t want to move.”

“I’m getting a cramp.”

“Ooh. Sorry. Right. I’ll just be moving, now.” Gingerly she slid off of him, and the depleted condom slipped off onto the floor. “Ick…”

“Let me throw that out. I don’t want my mom finding it if she uses my truck to run an errand,” Moose explained. She watched him finish the chore and tuck the ripped wrapper into the cup rest. She enjoyed the chance to really look him over, and she liked what she saw. A chuckle escaped her. “What?”

She nodded to his feet. “Socks.” He was bare as the day he was born, and he was ridiculously sexy that way, but his gray cotton knee socks cracked her up. “Cute.”

“Goofball,” he muttered as she began handing him his clothes. He sighed and reached over to brush her hair back from her cheek; at some point she’d lost her barette, and her locks were in complete disarray. “You were great,” he confessed. Her smile warmed him until her gray eyes flitted to the display on his radio.

“No, I’m GROUNDED! CRAP!”

Chapter Text

Ethel barely escaped being grounded, but her father’s annoyed, disappointed look when she meekly locked the front door and stumbled up to her room was punishment enough. Phone calls to Moose throughout that following week were furtive and guilty, even though her parents decided that she could be a bit more liberal with her curfew, now that she was eighteen, since the moment she started college in the fall, it would disappear. Ethel couldn’t believe her senior year had gone by so fast. It felt surreal, and even terrifying.

Her time with Moose was also at a premium, and it was precious. Ethel worried for the first three days following their stolen night together that he would be like Alex, that Moose wouldn’t call her or that things would be awkward between them in school. When Moose finally called her, it was to explain that his truck needed a tune-up and that he was relying on his bike to get to work.

If anything, Ethel’s worries that he would blow her off were unfounded; he found excuses to touch her, gently nudging her through the door first whenever he held it for her and other random gestures that made her sigh. It felt so odd not to feel “undesirable” anymore.

Maybe that was her problem, she mused. Ethel had a hard time not assigning the responsibility of her self-worth to other people’s opinions. If anyone said that she was too tall, she slouched and tried to blend in with the wallpaper. If they said she was too skinny, she wore baggy clothes to hide it. If they said she was ugly, she hid her face behind a book. At the end of the day, she wondered why she let it get to her, why she didn’t just tell everyone to vacation in hell with a popsicle and some SPF 50.

The Moose she cared about wasn’t the same one who vandalized her yearbook or called her Bucky or Tinsel Teeth in junior high. It felt odd to tell herself that: I care about Moose. I think I’m in love with him. It hit her in the middle of tossing a salad while she was helping her mother make dinner. She stared into space for a few moments, utensils hovering over the bowl of mixed greens.

“Honey? Are you done with that?”

“Huh?”

“Ethel? What’s up? Are you in there?”

“Heh. Yeah. Here.” She handed her mother the bowl and moved on to poking the boiled potatoes with a fork.

“Those are done. Mash them up, if you want.”

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“How old were you when you met Dad?”

“Oh. Hm. Probably about twenty-two. We met through a friend. Actually, he was dating one of my friends.”

“What’s the story behind that?” Ethel pried, intrigued. She plunged the masher into the spuds as she listened.

“My friend Peggy was a pretty girl, and she was a total flirt. We all used to go out for drinks on Saturday nights, and as soon as we got there, every time, the men would come over and chat her up. Your dad dated her for maybe three months. Or four. It wasn’t long. But Peggy was flaky.”

“Flaky?”

“She’d make excuses. Not return his calls. Her roommates would tell her that he left messages, but she’d shrug them off and say she’d get around to it, but she never called back.”

“So what made him decide he liked you?”

“It was nothing out of the ordinary. We ran in the same circle of friends. Even when he was dating Peggy, we just used to make polite small talk, but once they were single, we still just ran into each other a lot. He asked me out at my friend Karen’s party after asking me if I thought it was weird.”

“Did it feel weird?”

“Nope. I was tickled pink, and your father was very cute.”

Ethel bit her tongue and cringed. It was definitely weird to hear her mom describe him that way and to imagine them as boyfriend and girlfriend when they were little more than her age. “Peggy didn’t give you a hard time about it?”

“It wasn’t up to her to give me permission,” her mother sniffed. “She was annoyed with me for a while that I decided to go out with him, but she admitted that she didn’t want him back. He looked better to her once I was interested in him. It’s always like that when someone you break up with starts going out with someone else.”

“That’s stupid,” Ethel muttered sourly as she fluffed the potatoes with a fork and whipped in some butter.

“Hey, I’m not the one who wrote that rule.” Her mother was mixing some ground beef with bread crumbs and eggs for a meatloaf, and she peered over her shoulder at her daughter suspiciously. “So what’s going on? How’s old Moose doing?”

“He’s fine.”

“He calls you often enough,” her mother muttered. “Popular little somebody, aren’t you?”

“Mommmmm!” Ethel whined. Her nape prickled and she felt herself flush. “It’s no big deal. He doesn’t call that much.” Her mother swatted her with a dish towel.

“Trust me. Your father keeps getting that funny look on his face whenever the phone’s for you.” Ethel knew that “funny look” and she snickered. “It’s going to freeze that way.”

*

Ethel hated shoe shopping. Having a size eleven foot made salesman give her pitying looks whenever they told her that they didn’t carry it in anything cute. She went with her mother to a warehouse outlet store in Central City, and she managed to score a pretty pair of red satin sandals with a stiletto heel. Her mother whistled at the price.

“Ouch. Lot of money to pay for a pair of shoes you’ll only wear once.”

“They’re worth it. These are the ones. I have to take these home.” Ethel beamed, and she imagined Moose’s reaction to seeing them with the dress she picked out. He still liked her legs, and he teased her skin with his fingertips, caressing them whenever she wore a skirt. Ethel knew she was falling back into her old habit of trying to please him by being what he seemed to want her to be, not unlike what she did when she liked Juggie. She wore more skirts, and she knew it probably wasn’t fair to exploit his weakness, but when he stroked her knee, or drew small circles with his fingers over her inner thigh, she felt sparks go off in her stomach.

Her mother still made a face at the shoes as the clerk bagged them up and handed them to her daughter over the counter. “Your father will have a fit.”

“They’re just shoes!” Ethel insisted. Her mother looked unconvinced as they drove home, but inwardly, Ethel was satisfied. They were very sexy shoes, and she had no doubt that her father would hate them.

That meant they were perfect.

*

The night of the prom:

Moose fidgeted as his mother fixed his tie, manipulating the red acetate into a neat bow. “I would have loved to see you in blue to match your eyes,” she murmured. “But you look nice.”

“Is it on straight?” Moose turned to check himself in the mirror, running his hand through the back of his hair. He’d had it cut the day before, and he made a face. “It’s too short.”

“No it’s not. You look dapper and cleaned up.”

“Do you think she’ll like it?”

“Of course she will!” Moose’s mother smoothed her hands over his sleeves, admiring his black tuxedo. Moose eyed her suspiciously.

“You’re not just saying that because you’re my mom, right?”

“I wouldn’t lie to you. I’m biased, I’ll admit it, but I’d let you know if you looked lame, sweetie.” Moose tsked; his mother’s attempts to use his catch words were usually amusing or disastrous.

Moose kept fidgeting as he watched the clock, pacing the house, making sure he didn’t forget anything.

“Keys,” he muttered, patting his pants pockets.

“They’re in your shirt pocket,” his mother reminded him.

“I’ll put them in the pants, then.” He fumbled with them, dropped them, then shoved them into his pants pocket impatiently. “Got any mints?”

“You have time to run out and get some, if it means you’ll stop pacing, Duke.”

“I can’t help it.”

“You weren’t this worked up when you went to junior prom,” she reminded him.

“This is the last one,” he reminded her. “It’s different.”

And he was taking someone who wasn’t Midge Klump. She’d been his steady date to every dance for over four years. It was going to be different, dancing with a girl who was his height and who smelled different, kissed different, and who wasn’t worried about him smothering her or being “clingy.”

Midge was all he thought he ever wanted, like a favorite pastime or ice cream flavor. Ethel blew everything he ever knew about himself, or wanted for himself, completely out of the water.

“I don’t want to mess this up,” Moose muttered to his reflection as he ran his hand through his hair again.

“What makes you think you will?” his mother asked softly.

“She’s special.” His cheeks burned. It was weird talking about these things with his mother.

She sensed his reticence and sighed inwardly. When did her little boy grow up and leave her behind? What happened to solving all of his worldly problems with PB&J sandwiches or a trip to 7-11 for a Slurpee? Who was this stranger in an adult’s body, staring back at her with her eyes? She’d had to pack his twin-sized set of Star Wars bed sheets into the Goodwill bag two years ago, and it hurt.

It was hard watching him get his heart broken when he broke up with that Klump girl, even though he put on a gruff, stoic mask and closed himself off from her. She didn’t dislike Midge, but she hated it when girls played games, and when anyone hurt her baby.

“You’ll have a good time,” she told him, smoothing his lapel and straightening his cuff. “Remember your manners. Open her door. Pull out her chair. Don’t keep her out too late.”

“She doesn’t have curfew tonight,” he argued.

“Pretend she does.” Moose snorted. His mother gave him the stink-eye.

“Here’s some money.”

“I’m fine, Ma! I already cashed my check.”

“You won’t be able to work so many hours next fall once you’re in school full-time,” she reminded him. “Save your cash while you can.”

“I know,” he admitted. “She believed in me. Ethel helped me with my SAT’s.”

“That was kind of her.”

“She doesn’t think-“ Moose’s lips tightened as he bit back what he’d been about to say.

“What doesn’t she think?” Moose turned away from his mother and paced to the refrigerator, searching for the orange juice. His mother patiently handed him a glass to keep him from swigging it straight from the pitcher. Out of habit, he glugged it down thirstily, set down the glass with a thunk, and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. She sighed and shook her head. “You can tell me,” she prodded hopefully.

“Ma… she doesn’t think I’m an idiot,” he blurted out.

“Of course she doesn’t!” she insisted.

“Everyone else does,” he confessed awkwardly. Moose’s throat closed up. “Everyone else thinks so. Even Midge did.”

“Duke, you’re a bright kid and sharp as a tack. Momma didn’t raise no fools,” she jibed. He tried to laugh but he couldn’t meet her eyes until she reached up to him, gripping his chin to hold his attention. “Never doubt yourself. Give yourself plenty of credit, Moose. You’re more than just a pretty face and a killer tackle. Ethel likes you for you, not for what you can do for her, from the sound of it.”

“I gotta go, Ma.” He was close to choking up, and he couldn’t do that in front of his mother. He already felt lame enough…

“Bring her back by. I want to take pictures.”

“MA!” He threw up his hands in exasperation. She reached up, tweaked his ear and insisted on a quick peck goodbye.

“Oh, don’t forget your corsage.” She headed back to the fridge and pulled out the clear plastic box. “Red roses. Classic. Good job, Duke.”

“It matches her dress,” he said bashfully. “Ma, I gotta go.”

*

“How’s my hair?” Ethel typed frantically, peering up into her Web cam.

“It’s fine,” Betty texted back, and her footage showed the blonde giving her a thumbs-up. Ethel sighed, then kept on typing.

“I’m nervous.”

“Don’t be. This will be fun.”

“Everyone’s going to stare at us.”

“Whatever. Let them stare. They’re jerks, anyway. Who cares what they think?”

“I do. I want to have fun.”

“So have fun. Can’t wait to see you at the restaurant.” Betty planned to meet Ethel and Nancy at the Riverdale Lakeside Resort and Tavern for dinner so they could go over to the prom together, one last big night out before they graduated. Veronica said she planned to go, but she had a few more stops to make before she met them, so she would be more than fashionably late. They all turned down the chance to share her limo with it in mind to get to dinner early enough to beat the crowd and meet their reservation time.

“I need help with my makeup.”

“No you don’t. You look nice. Wear that raisin lipstick you have and the smoky eye shadow.”

“I can’t do mine like you can.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Bitch…

“LOL.”

They chatted briefly, and Ethel took occasionally “brb” breaks to search for things like her earrings and shoes or to put on her deodorant. When they finally logged off, her butterflies came back and she was breaking out into nervous sweat.

Junior prom was a disaster. She didn’t have a date and only ended up on the dance floor for “sympathy” slow songs with Fangs Fogarty and Dilton. It sucked. Betty and Nancy were nice enough to stand up for a prom photo with her, but it wasn’t the same by far. It was awesome yet weird to have a date. It was even weirder that her date was Moose.

Yet it was perfect. A year ago, he and Midge were attached at the hip and the lip, slow-dragging, making out, standing spooned by the punch bowl and swaying back and forth to the music. It was sickening, and Ethel was jealous, not of Midge, per se, but at what couples like those two and like what Chuck and Nancy had. They were “items.” They had a safety net of always having someone to go to a movie with on Saturday night or always having “someone to check in with” on their cells when they drove home from school. Ethel sometimes wondered why Betty put up with so much nonsense from Archie and his obsession with Veronica, or his indecision in general between them. In Ethel’s mind, Betty was pretty, sweet, and could do so much better if she tried, or stepped out of her safe little box. She’d never tell her that, because she was such a great friend, and she’d never burst her bubble. Ethel knew how that felt…

Cheryl would be there. That much, Ethel knew. Rumor had it she was going with Jason’s friend Cedric, whom Ethel couldn’t stand, since he wasn’t any better than the Blossom twins or any of the other snooty kids at Pembroke. Veronica still ran in those circles from time to time, but she had no loyalty to Cheryl, and she had new sympathy, and even respect for Ethel in the wake of the “Alex” fiasco. Ethel still wasn’t used to the idea of Veronica giving her the time of day, and she remembered how she used to whisper about her behind her hand in the lunch line or when they played duck-duck-goose in third grade PE. But people changed, or so Ethel hoped.

This was her night to feel pretty and to belong. This was her night to have one last hurrah with her friends and to kiss this phase of her life goodbye. Her hands shook as she struggled with her mascara and the eye shadow brush, but she felt a little more confident as she applied a raisin matte pout and turned to the side, smoothing her palms over her flat abdomen, savoring the smooth, slick fabric.

She was ready.

*

Moose fidgeted one last time and toyed with his collar before he rang the doorbell. His palms were sweating, making the plastic flower box feel slippery in his grip. Prickles rose up his nape as he heard hurried footsteps inside, and he held his breath. I’ll get it! He heard his girlfriend’s familiar, excited alto, and he felt relieved that she was going to answer the door. Anticipation almost made his heart stop as the inner door swung open in a rush, making the hinge squeal.

“Oh, shit,” he murmured before he could stop himself. “Um. Wow. Hi.”

“Hi,” Ethel breathed, and she smiled at him nervously. “Look at you!”

“Look at you.” And he was looking at her, eyes roaming over her appreciatively and in quiet awe. Her hand nervously twitched her filmy, short, flared skirt that revealed long, long, shapely legs. All he saw was red, and Ethel’s creamy skin, more of it than usual, and he felt his briefs beneath his dress slacks grow uncomfortably tight.

He was adorable. Not just handsome, but as nervous as she was, but the way he was staring at her made Ethel want to burst, to hug him, to kiss him senseless, until her father cleared her throat in warning from behind her.

“Got your hair cut,” he noted.

“Yessir.”

“C’mon in. Time for pictures. Want a drink? Soda? Water before you two take off?”

“No, sir.”

“Let me get my camera!” Ethel’s mother practically fainted and made such a big fuss when Ethel came down the stairs that she almost ran back up and slammed her door behind her. She was embarrassed and tickled pink at the same time, but her heart was still hammering in her chest.

Seeing Moose, feeling him take her hand and tuck it in the crook of his arm for the first shot was worth it. She felt the pulse in his wrist jump, practically felt his heartbeat in his grip. It was heady and made her cheeks flush with pride. “Smile!” her father encouraged. Her mother made motions from the sidelines, motioning for Ethel to pull her neckline up. Ethel wanted to sink into the ground, but she complied, making a face back.

More pictures were snapped, candids of Ethel’s mom handing her the tiny red evening bag and of Moose pinning on her corsage and Ethel doing the honors with his boutonniere. “You guys are like my own paparazzi,” she told them. “Can we go now?”

“Drive carefully.” Her father gave her a careful kiss so he wouldn’t smudge her makeup. “I don’t want to smell alcohol when you come home. I’ll be calling Veronica’s parents. And Betty’s.”

“No wild parties at anyone’s houses,” her mother added sternly.

“The cops will be out all night, anyway,” Ethel grumbled.

“We’ll behave,” Moose added dryly. Ethel’s father lifted his brow. “I’ll behave,” he corrected himself.

It was tricky, as usual, for Ethel to climb up into his truck gracefully in the short dress, but she managed, and Moose turned on the A/C to avoid rolling down a window, so he wouldn’t muss her hair. Ethel buckled her seatbelt, but she promptly leaned in toward him for a kiss, wiping off her lipstick from his cheek.

“You look hot.”

“So do you.” His hand drifted over from the gear shift after he tugged it over to second to stroke her knee, giving her goosebumps.

“Can we just skip the dance and go somewhere so I can get you out of that dress?”

“One-track mind much?”

“You can’t blame me. Damn it, Bee.” He growled his approval at her and laughter bubbled up in her chest.

“I like your haircut.” She gently combed her fingers through the back of it. “You’re so handsome in that tux.”

“Eh.”

“I mean it.”

“Do I look good enough that you wanna bone me after the dance? Can we leave early?”

“MOOSE!”

“For real.”

“We’re not leaving early,” she complained, but then she had second thoughts. “Maybe we’ll leave a little early,” she amended. “It depends on how it is when we get there, I guess.”

“It’ll be fun,” he reasoned as he took her hand, lacing his fingers through hers and squeezing them. He peered over at her, and he hated the worried look on her face. “Quit making a fuss.”

“I’m scared.”

“Why?” He was baffled.

“People are going to talk about me.”

“So? What else is new? We’re not allowed to go to the fucking prom because of a few people running their mouths?” Moose was indignant at the thought, but he tread lightly on the subject, since it was a tender one with his girlfriend. “It’s the prom. We’re not missing it. You’re not missing it.”

“It was so embarrassing. I can’t believe he actually did that to me.” She didn’t say Alex’s name out loud, because she still couldn’t.

“I wouldn’t let him. I’d never let him.” Moose turned onto the freeway at Maple Avenue and turned on his signal, merging into the growing traffic. He saw a few cars he recognized and waved and honked.

“I liked her dress,” Ethel commented as she waved to a girl she knew who was hanging her head out the window in her effort to get their attention.

“I like yours.”

“Thanks.”

“What’s it look like laying on the floor?”

“MOOSE!”

“I’m serious!”

“You’re a horn dog!”

“You don’t mind,” he pointed out, leering at her.

“Keep your eyes on the road, buddy.” But her hand crept to his thigh, and she massaged it through the smooth black slacks. A sudden erection made him strain the seams and Moose shuddered. He caught her hand to make her stop, lacing their fingers together again as a safety measure.

“Watch those hands, sister.” They made it to the resort without further incident, but they both almost wished they had stayed home together in front of a movie, in pajamas… or less.

*

“I knew homegirl would be late,” Nancy grumbled as they met in the lobby and the hostess showed them to their table out on the patio.

“She’s texting me now,” Betty piped up as she stared into the tiny screen of her Verizon phone. “She’s at Maria’s house, lending her a necklace. She already took pictures at home. I guess Reggie’s meeting her later.” Betty sounded slightly smug and she practically purred as Archie leaned his chin against her shoulder to stare with her at the text. Ethel mentally rolled her eyes, and she and Moose shared a look.

They ordered food that they never would have thought to eat otherwise, figuring it was a rare treat, and Ethel decided she could do without escargot if anyone ever offered it to her again. The crème brulee wasn’t a disappointment, though, and she was envious of Moose’s porterhouse steak. They saw a few of their friends at neighboring tables, and several girls came up to say hi and show off their finery.

“I love your dress,” Cricket chirped. The tiny redhead was decked out in emerald green, not surprisingly, and she’d gone heavy on the foundation to hide her freckles, but Ethel thought she looked nice.

“Thanks!”

“Where’s Midge?” she piped up, puzzled for the moment. Ethel winced, but Moose recovered the moment quickly.

“She made other plans.”

“Then who are you with?” she asked cluelessly. Ethel raised her hand and smiled sheepishly. “Oh. Right.” Moose leaned back in his seat and held Ethel’s hand under the table. Cricket turned bright red.

“That was awkward,” Ethel muttered after she left.

“She isn’t asking you about whatshisname,” Nancy pointed out. “And isn’t it nice that there’s someone that isn’t totally informed and talking about you like a dog?”

“She might be now,” Ethel said bitterly.

“Pfft. Whatever, girl. You look fine,” Chuck mentioned.

“Don’t get any ideas,” Nancy told him, cutting her eyes, “o-kay?” He held up his hands and shook his head helplessly, giving Ethel a “see what you made me do?” look. Betty and Archie snickered and Ethel blushed for what felt like the millionth time that night.

*

Dinner helped; she didn’t feel as ginned up and nervous by the time they reached the high school’s courtyard. Moose offered to let her out at the curb while he parked, but she declined. “You’re going up there with me,” she insisted.

“I know that!”

“Then don’t throw me out to the lions.”

“We’ll bring ketchup,” he suggested. He took her hand and kissed her knuckles, then lightly bit one. “Damn, you look hot…”

“Quit it,” she scolded, because it was becoming more difficult to put him off. Moose felt the electricity sparking between them, and with a wicked look in his blue eyes, he leaned over and unfastened her seatbelt. “Uh-oh,” she muttered in mock alarm. She knew that look.

He was on her, not caring about her lipstick, sliding his hands around her tiny waist and letting his blunt nails run down her back, a provocative sensation over the satin and chiffon. He kissed her hard, and their breath mingled, steaming her lips and making her body temperature rise another two degrees. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “We’ve gotta go.” But she didn’t want to go, not when he was attacking her neck, nipping it, tasting it, sucking on it just shy of a hickey. She had to restrain herself from mussing his hair when she wanted to run her fingers through the short blond waves.

“Sure you still wanna go in?”

“We have to. We’re already here.”

“That’s not fair,” he complained into her ear as he licked the whorls. Ethel shuddered with need. His cologne and the taste of his skin was intoxicating, and he toyed with her neckline, slipping his finger just inside the pleated bodice and unerringly finding her stiff, tingling nipple.

“No, you’re being unfair,” she rationalized. “We paid for the damned tickets. You rented a tux.”

“Let’s get this over with,” he complained, but Ethel could tell he was kidding. “God, Bee, you’re such a horn dog.” She swatted him, and he got out and came around to open her door and help her out. Ethel checked herself in his rearview one last time and fixed her lipstick.

She missed his, however, and Chuck was quick to pick up on it when they met them at the courtyard, where everyone was lining up to get in at the ticket desk. “That ain’t your color, man.”

“Shit!” Moose struggled to wipe off his upper lip and Ethel buried her face behind her hand, snickering under her breath.

“Geez, Ethel, just attack him, for cryin’ out loud,” Betty accused.

“Oh, I see how it is, take separate cars, go make out in the parking lot while we’re waiting on your behinds,” Nancy added, folding her arms beneath her breasts.

“I didn’t hear you guys saying you wanted to share cars,” Ethel shot back. “Yeah, that’s what I thought!” She elbowed Betty and all of them cracked up. The tension left her, and Ethel started to have a good time.

“There’s Cheryl,” Nancy murmured. “Don’t turn around yet.”

“Ugh,” Ethel muttered, and her stomach instantly knotted up again. She didn’t want to see the conceited, spiteful redhead. She caught her from the back and tsked when she noticed her cutting in line with her friends who were about thirty people in front of their group.

“What a bitch,” Betty said, wrinkling her nose.

“Are you surprised?” Nancy sure wasn’t. “Girlfriend thinks her shit don’t stank.”

“It’s stanky,” Ethel agreed. Moose’s hand crept to her waist, resting there just to remind her that he was there, and she leaned back against him slightly, absorbing his warmth and scent.

Midge walked by next, and she caught sight of them, making Ethel’s breath catch. Ethel forced herself to look away. Don’t come over here. Just ignore me. She chanted it like a litany to herself, trying to be casual and pretend she was just watching the crowd and looking for familiar faces.

It didn’t help. Midge was coming her way, expression neutral and polite. “What time did you guys get here?” she asked Betty.

“Just now. We ended up parking all the way in the back.”

“We got here a half an hour ago. We ended up at Rose’s Tavern,” she bragged. “Teddy’s already inside.” She ended up going with a friend of Jughead’s cousin Bingo’s, who admittedly was a bit of a hound, but he had dark good looks and he’d show her a good time. Going with Reggie was out of the question; they weren’t speaking, and Veronica agreed to go with him when Archie asked Betty first.

“I like your dress.” Midge’s words directed her way shocked Ethel out of her musings.

“Oh. Thanks. You, too.”

“My mom convinced me to get this one instead of the red, but everyone’s wearing black tonight,” Midge complained of her long, tapered black gown with a red sash. The length and cut made the tiny brunette look taller, and her short, spiky haircut made the look edgy and glam. She was right, Ethel supposed; everyone always wore black on prom night.

“Where are you guys going after?” she asked her ex, who was holding on to Ethel’s hand suspiciously tight. She felt him tense and sighed under her breath.

“Don’t know yet.”

“We might end up at Ron’s for a little bit,” Betty informed her.

“Us, too. See you there,” she said hopefully, but Moose and Ethel didn’t agree to be there.

It was still up in the air.

Ethel murmured, “Wow.”

“What?”

“I wasn’t expecting that.”

“It’s no big deal,” Moose shrugged.

“It could have been.”

“She knows not to talk shit,” Moose claimed.

“I hate drama.”

“Folks around here act like they love it,” Nancy said in disgust. “Don’t even sweat it, girl.” Nancy dug in her purse and handed all of them a piece of Trident while they waited in line. Once in a while, Ethel caught Midge staring after them, and she tried to smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes.

She didn’t know why she was worrying about Midge.

Moose didn’t want her back. It was obvious by the way he stayed close to Ethel and didn’t encourage the conversation or suggest they meet up later. Even though it seemed like Midge was still interested, she wasn’t flirty or making much of an effort. A mean little voice in her head screamed, If she wanted him back, she could take him from her. They were together for a long time, and Midge had a lot going for her.

But it hit her, suddenly, as she watched Midge meeting up with her date and giggling at something he said. Midge wasn’t the beginning and end of Moose’s universe anymore. Midge was the kind of girl who could have anybody, but that wasn’t always the kind of girl a guy wanted to call his own, if he felt he couldn’t. For all Ethel’s lack of flash and glamour, she was loyal, and she didn’t play games. She’d gone for too long “without” to take any relationship she had for granted when it came along.

And it had. Moose had done a complete one-eighty. No more furtive meetings or acting like they weren’t dating. Moose finally brought their status as a couple out into the open, and he finally behaved like he was proud of it, and Ethel couldn’t be happier.

That is, until they made it inside. Ethel decided she wanted to adjust her lipstick just one last time…

*

She left Nancy and Betty by the punch bowl, talking animatedly with Sabrina and Samantha. Moose found his buddies from the softball team in typical fashion, eschewing the dance floor in favor of bragging about scores and trying out for the local semi-pro team, the Riverdale Wranglers, over the summer. Ethel didn’t notice the sensation of venomous eyes staring down, stabbing into her retreating back. She hummed to herself as she made her way into the rest room. Her lipstick was almost perfect; she checked her teeth for any stray streaks and neatened the corner of her mouth. She gave her neckline a quick check and hitched it up a bit, covering the edge of her strapless underwire bra. The more she saw herself in the flirty red formal, the more she liked it, even if her nagging little voice told her that it made her collarbones look knobby.

She was just fluffing her bangs when the rest room door swished open quickly, sweeping in the cloying, sweet cloud of Curve. “Look what the cat dragged in,” Cheryl’s voice snapped from over her shoulder. Ethel caught sight of her in the mirror behind her, and she averted her eyes, busying herself with putting away her lipstick.

Cheryl didn’t get the message. “You look like a tramp. A homely, desperate tramp.”

“You’re calling me a tramp?” Ethel scoffed dryly. “Back up, Cher.”

“Why did you lie and tell everyone that Alex came on to you? Why would he ever be interested in you?” She emphasized the last word as though she were describing dog shit. Ethel fumed.

“He didn’t come on to me. He attacked me and tried to force himself on me. You don’t get it, do you? Alex Cabot is a creepy bastard and a rapist.”

“How dare you open your fucking mouth!” Cheryl hissed. High spots of color rose up in her cheeks, and Ethel was pleased to see that her scowl made her less attractive, despite an expensive up-do and a peach gown that Ethel knew was couture. “He was MY boyfriend! My parents won’t let me see him anymore because of what you did to him!”

“So it doesn’t matter what he did to me? He wouldn’t want me because I’m not like you? Please, bitch!” Cheryl looked shocked, and before she could recover, Ethel lit into her. “You think the sun rises and sets on your ass, Cheryl. And that makes you pathetic. You think because you have a rich boyfriend that you can lead around by the nose that he isn’t looking anywhere else, but he looked at me. Not only that, but Alex doesn’t want you to know that he liked me a long time ago. He didn’t want anyone else to know, either. I’m ashamed of it, now. I don’t know why you’re so proud, and why you think he’s such a catch, but you must be pretty desperate.”

“ME?” Her mouth gaped. “The hell I am! Look at you! You’re with MOOSE? Fucking Moose MASON? He’s retarded! Of course he likes you, because he’s… STUPID! Why the hell would he break up with Midge, just to be with YOU??? Not only that, but you thought you could steal Alex?”

“Wow. You’re full of yourself.”

“Everyone knows how easy you are,” Cheryl said, gloating. “Big, skinny, desperate, boy crazy Ethel Muggs. Moose wouldn’t have touched you with a ten-foot-pole before you told him you’d put out-“

Ethel’s hand stung and burned with the slap that echoed through the bathroom. Everything seemed to fall away except for the sound of her own harsh breathing and the look of stunned outrage on Cheryl’s face, the darkening red handprint on her cheek. Her mouth worked, pushing out no words, and she looked like she wanted to round on Ethel, but Ethel held up her hand in warning. “Don’t. Even. Try it.”

“Bitch,” Cheryl hissed. Tears welled up in her eyes.

“You called Moose stupid, and I won’t stand for it. Call me desperate, or ugly, or anything else you want. I don’t care. Your opinion doesn’t mean crap to me, Cheryl Blossom. I’ve tried. I’ve always tried to stay under the radar of people like you. You get your kicks from putting me and people like me down to make yourself feel bigger. You fucking have everything, but you still have to build yourself up by giving the ‘ugly girl’ a hard time.”

“SHUT UP!” Cheryl blurted. Her finger stabbed the air, pointing straight into Ethel’s face, but Ethel gave her a warning hand again, making it easy for her to believe that she meant business when the brunette towered over her, more than ever in heels. “Alex said you used to chase him around and call him. You wouldn’t leave him alone.”

“After the third call, I gave up, Cher. He was a flake. How do you think I got his number? Huh? Alex used me and blew me off. Then he went to Pembroke, and I thought I’d at least be lucky enough never to run into him again, but then he came back here, and you two hooked up. Two people never deserved each other more than you two. God, you both suck.”

“You’re lying! I know you’re lying. He used you. How dare you?”

“Why? Because he can do so much better than me? He’s a guy, Cheryl. Give me a break.” It was like a second slap in the face. Cheryl let out a low, strangled sob and shoved Ethel roughly out of the way as she ran out of the bathroom. Ethel stumbled against the sink but recovered. Still, she felt a sense of shame. Now Cheryl knew her dirty little secret, and she felt like shit.

But she pried it out of her. She just kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing, and Ethel wasn’t supposed to push back? Ethel leaned over the sink and let her head drop a moment, closing her eyes and trying to get back her composure.

People would talk. They were probably already talking. It sucked. Couldn’t she have a drama-free night out?

She heard the door swing open again, and this time, Betty, Nancy, and Veronica rushed inside. “Girl, what happened? Why did Miss Thang come running outta here like her weave was on fire?”

“Did you hit her?” Veronica whispered conspiratorially. Her dark eyes gleamed at the possibility. Ethel sighed.

“My hand slipped.

“Ooh!” Nancy clapped her hand over her mouth. “Girl, do you wanna end up getting thrown out of prom?”

“There’s two weeks left of school. They’d still have to mail you your diploma,” Betty reasoned. Ethel paled. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks. Now I feel a whole lot better.”

“What did she say, Ethel?” Ronnie demanded. She listened with half an ear while she checked her own hair in the mirror and spritzed on some more perfume.

“She was just running her mouth. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Aw, no. We need to hear this. If you slapped the daylights out of Cheryl ‘My shit don’t stank’ Blossom, we want details, woman.”

“She called Moose retarded.”

“That’s messed up.”

“Ouch,” Betty murmured. “What a shitty thing to say.”

“Moose has his slow moments, girl, but that’s just because he’s male, not because he’s dumb.” Veronica and Betty snickered and Ethel rolled her eyes.

“Everyone’s going to be talking about this all night.”

“So?”

“I don’t know if I even want to stay now.”

“Don’t run out of here like Cheryl drove you out, or that’s all people will say. She doesn’t control you. She doesn’t have the power to make you unhappy unless you let her, Ethel Muggs.” Nancy shared her usual font of wisdom while she straightened her skirt, then turned in the bathroom door mirror in the classic “Does this make my butt look big?” gesture over the shoulder.

“I heard she’s going to Europe this summer,” Veronica added. “It’s not like you’ll see much of her after this.” Inwardly, she gloated that she was going to Europe, too, for a tour of the couture houses to shop for her fall wardrobe. She couldn’t wait for her first semester at Stanford, and visions of sorority sweaters danced in her head.

“It’s not like you’ll see much of anybody after the summer,” Nancy pointed out. All four of them grew contemplative at the thought. Ethel felt a squeezing in her chest.

“Wow.” The brief thought crossed her mind that she and Moose were going to separate schools. She had three short months before the unthinkable.

And she was wasting it on worrying about what Cheryl Blossom thought. It hit her like a sack of hammers that she had bigger things to think about.

Nancy was right. Just like always, she was right. After tonight, she was home free. She didn’t have to worry about who was gossiping about her, people staring at her Monday morning based on “I heard from a friend of a friend” about what she did, or didn’t do, on her weekends. She wasn’t “fair game” anymore. Her mind reeled at the possibilities.

“I’ll see you guys in a while.”

“Where are you going, girlfriend?” Nancy folded her arms again and gave her the stink-eye.

“I’m going to go make out with Moose in public. And I’m going to rub everyone’s nose in it.”

Veronica huffed. “Nice.”

*

“Wanna explain to me why Cheryl threw a fit a few minutes ago?”

“No.”

“Whaddya mean, ‘no?’” His blond brows drew together, and he pulled back from her for a moment, staring. “Should I be worried?”

“No.”

“Are you gonna get arrested?”

“I hope not.” Her voice was calm, and she drew him back down to her, forcing herself to enjoy her favorite slow song and to tune out the surrounding noise of the crowd, and what she knew were whispers.

“That sounds dubious.” Ethel chuckled; it was one of the words on the verbal portion of the entrance tests, and it sounded funny coming out of his mouth. “I don’t trust that laugh, either, Bee.”

“Ya don’t wanna know.”

“You sure you’re not gonna get arrested?”

“No one can prove anything.”

“Geez…” Moose pretended to cringe. Ethel tightened her arms around his neck, and she was pleased to feel his warm palms stroking her back, pulling her more deeply into his embrace.

From around his shoulder, she noticed her friends out on the floor. Betty was rapt, focused on nothing else but Archie, which didn’t surprise her. Veronica and Reggie were easily matched, both smooth, practiced dancers, but their choice to go to the prom together was one of mutual convenience. Ethel periodically noticed Reggie staring at Archie and Betty, wondering what the big deal was, when it hit her: Reggie liked Betty.

And Betty didn’t have a clue.

She knew she was right. There. He did it again, when Veronica was distracted by one of their friends calling out to her from the border of the dance floor. She wasn’t just imagining it.

She noticed Jughead, and for a moment she didn’t believe her eyes. She’d never seen him at any dance before, but what was more remarkable was his date. “Bridget?”

“Huh?”

“Juggie came with Bridget?”

“So? He’s been into her for a while. You didn’t know?”

“No!”

“She’s cool, I guess,” Moose allowed. “She likes to eat as much as he does.”

“That’s not nice, Moose.”

“Naw. I don’t mean it that way. But it’s true. You know Jughead. And she likes him, from what I hear. He goes to all of her shows. I’ve seen them at Pop’s a few times already.” Ethel still couldn’t believe her eyes. Jughead wore a black tux with a brocade vest and green tie underneath. Bridget wore a green dress with a snug bodice and long, flowing skirt, and her light brown hair was piled on her head. She had plump curves, but she looked proud of them, and Bridget and Juggie were a study in opposites, with him being dark, tall and lean with sharper features. They looked comfortable together and happy, another odd couple like her and Moose.

It felt odd, seeing him with someone else after she’d liked him for so long, but Ethel didn’t feel jealous. If anything, it hammered home her surprise that she’d chased him so much before.

“By the way,” Moose interjected, “quit changing the subject.”

“I’m not.”

“What happened with Cheryl?”

“She was talking shit.” Moose stiffened.

“Do you want me to go talk to her?”

“No, Moose. Please.” The corners of his mouth hardened, but Ethel shook her head adamantly. “I handled it myself.”

“I’m scared when you say stuff like that, Bee.”

“Don’t be.” Ethel almost wanted to tell him If I didn’t slap her, someone else eventually would have. It was long overdue…

They were absorbed in each other, and Ethel blushed when Miss Grundy tapped them on the shoulder for getting too “comfortable”, but it was difficult when she wanted him so much, when his offer to sneak back to his truck tempted her enough to want to take him up on it.

Mr. Wetherbee headed for the microphone set up on the dais, and he tapped it briefly to bring all eyes on him. “Good evening,” he announced. “I hope you’re all having a good time tonight!” Cheers and whistles greeted him, and he made “calm down” motions with his hands, but he looked amused. “I’d like to welcome the Class of 2011 and the future Class of 2012 to Riverdale High School’s Junior/Senior prom!” He ignored a cat call of “Shake it, Waldo!” and pointed an accusing finger into the crowd, making “I’ve got my eye on you” gestures knowingly; he’d done this job for a long time.

“It’s time for the promenade. I want every senior couple to line up and walk in a circle around basketball court B and face the stage on your way over. The judging for this year’s prom queen and escort is about to begin. Get ready to smile, ladies. You all look fantastic tonight.” He gestured to the deejay to play the prom’s theme song, and it blasted from the speakers as the lights went down again, with a spot light that shone in front of the judge’s table.

Ethel felt nervous. She hated being under scrutiny, and she begged Moose, “Do we have to do this?”

“Heck, yeah. I look good.” He smirked. She rolled her eyes. He took her hand and looped it over the crook of his arm, and they moved into the line. They made their way around the court as part of the crowd, and Ethel noticed Veronica, Cheryl, and a few of the other girls from the cheerleading team nudging their way toward the front and showing off when they reached the table. Cheryl wasn’t the worse for wear, now that she had the chance to be the center of attention again, and she vamped for the judges, doing a theatrical little turn; her date looked amused and bored.

She tolerated her time in the spotlight as briefly as possible, giving the judges a shy wave. They nodded and smiled back, but Ethel knew she hadn’t impressed them much. That was fine. She didn’t have anything to prove.

Did she?

No. She didn’t. When the song ended, the judging was officially over, and the Gorillaz found her tugging Moose back out onto the floor. Over the next hour, half the girls were reduced to dancing in their stocking feet, high heels abandoned in the bleachers, sweat beading their skin, hairstyles loosening up from layers of Aqua Net. Boys loosened their ties and left their tuxedo jackets hanging over the backs of chairs, and the punch bowls emptied faster than they could be refilled.

By the time Mr. Wetherbee took the mic again, everyone was restless and impatient. They greeted him with cheers and stamping feet this time, and it took a longer time to get everyone quiet so he could make his announcement. “If you quiet down, I can tell you who your Prom Queen and her court are for 2011,” he suggested dryly. A couple more cat calls greeted this, but he eventually saved them from the suspense.

“The first attendant in the Prom Queen’s court is…” he hesitated a moment, peering smugly around the crowd, enjoying the chance for payback, “Nancy Woods!” Nancy covered her mouth in shock before she began hopping down. Ethel laughed when she saw Chuck making fist pumps and slapping Archie a high-five. Nancy was fanning herself, trying not to cry.

“Damn, girl! They called my name!” she cried to Betty.

“Get up there!” Betty squeed as she shoved her in the general direction of the dais. Miss Grundy handed her the sash, helping her to fasten it over her shoulder. Mr. Wetherbee nodded over to her.

“Congratulations, Nancy.” He went back to his index cards. “The second attendant in this year’s court is…” Ethel held her breath. “Midge Klump!” Her stomach squeezed in grudging disappointment. Sure. Why wouldn’t she get it? Ethel sighed, and Moose nudged her.

“Aw. C’mere.” He wrapped his arms around her waist, and she settled back against him.

“It’s no big deal.”

“It isn’t.” He leaned down and murmured into her ear, “You still look hot.”

That helped.

She peered around the gym, and she noticed Veronica and Cheryl looking equally anxious, straining at the seams. It was what both of them worked for over the past four years, she figured. Both of them earned superlatives in the yearbook and were always the most frequently photographed. Best Smile. Most Popular. Most Attractive. Best School Spirit, even though Cheryl always ran her mouth about how much better Pembroke was. It got old.

“The last attendant in this year’s court is…” Everyone waited with bated breath. Ethel figured she couldn’t be anymore disappointed going forward for the rest of the night, but she’d survived an ugly encounter in the girl’s room – “Veronica Lodge?”

“WHAT?” Veronica’s yelp was aghast and comical. “What…he…that’s…FOUL! I call FOUL!” Betty covered her mouth.

“She looks pissed.”

“She IS pissed,” Moose confirmed. “That’s not good.”

“That’s BULLSHIT! I demand a recount!”

“We didn’t vote,” Betty reminded her kindly. She wrapped her arm around her bestie soothingly. “C’mon. Go get your sash.”

“I can’t believe this,” she said miserably. Betty shrugged.

“I didn’t make it to the court,” she pointed out. “You’ll still be in the yearbook. There’s still the Miss Riverdale County contest this July,” she said hopefully.

“I need a drink,” Veronica deadpanned. “Shit. Let me go get this over with.”

“Good job, Ronnie,” Ethel called after her. She was disappointed that Betty hadn’t gotten a nod, but Betty was snuggled up to Archie and, as usual, being a good sport. Ethel supposed she couldn’t be surprised.

So that left Cheryl. Ethel saw Cheryl drifting closer to the dais with her friends in tow, straightening her hair and skirt. Ethel felt a surge of restlessness for Mr. Wetherbee to just get on with it, already.

“And this year’s Prom Queen of 2011 is…” Jughead was on the Zildjian set that had been assembled off to the side of the dais, giving the prerequisite drum roll. “…Miss ETHEL MUGGS!”

“WHAT?” She found herself being spun around, and Moose was in her face, grinning and giving her a little shake.

“Get up there! They called you! Go, GO!”

“Shut. Up.”

“Get up there!”

“I can’t!” Ethel heard a sea of noise closing in on her and thought she would faint. Her heart hammered and her feet felt rooted to the ground.

“Yes, you can, Ethel. Get up there,” Betty encouraged. Nancy was hopping up and down at the dais while Midge and Veronica stood gaping.

“Come on up here, girl!” Nancy bellowed. “Come and get that crown!”

“Go,” Moose encouraged. He kissed her cheek and gave her lower back a little push.

“Come with me,” she mouthed. He nodded, following her, and all she felt was dazed.

She heard a few cat calls, but people were cheering. Things like this just didn’t happen to her. Never to her. Ethel Lorraine Muggs, candy apple maker, fifty-yard dash runner, chess club member and class nerd.

Ethel Lorraine Muggs, Prom Queen of 2011.

The tiara almost slipped off when Mr. Wetherbee reached up to place it on her head; Miss Grundy and Ethel were of a height, and her English teacher straightened it for her and handed her the bouquet of red and white roses. The satin sash felt cool against her bare shoulder, and she twitched it into place before she sat on the throne for the photographs.

Cheryl was beside herself. “No. Way.”

“Just run away now, man,” Jason told Cedric, elbowing him. “This is gonna get ugly in a minute.”

“They elected HER?”

“Ouch…” Cedric winced. “Man. Beaten by a townie.”

“Beaten by Big Ethel,” Jason corrected him. “What’s wrong with this school, dude?”

“I spent…two thousand… dollars on THIS dress… I had my hair done, a silk wrap on my nails… an oxygen facial…” Cheryl listed a litany of feats that it took her to get to the prom, voice shaking. Her green eyes sparked with venom as she ranted to her friends. “And they elected HER?”

“Now what’s she going on about?” Veronica tsked, not owning that she sounded just as petty mere minutes before. She gloated a little as she turned her runner-up sash in her hands, toying with it.

“Karma,” Nancy said simply. Chuck shrugged.

“Karma,” he agreed.

“You’re all blind!” Cheryl spat in the teachers’ general direction. “She looks like Mr. Ed!”

“Cher, shut up!” Reggie jeered. “Get over yourself!”

“Fuck you, Mantle!” she hissed, looking like she wanted to hit him with her shoe. He bade her to “talk to the hand” and ignored her. Cheryl’s friends surrounded her in a protective little enclave, but their number was dwindling. After the next three songs played, they began to tune her out, only listening to how unfairly she’d been treated with half an ear. Cedric took up residence by the punch bowl, hanging out with his friends and checking his watch. Several teachers watched the drama unfolding around them, shaking their heads.

“Ten years from now, they won’t care about any of this,” Miss Grundy sighed.

“They don’t know how easy they have it now,” Miss Haggly agreed. “Drinks at Grady’s after this is over?”

“Make it a double.” Mr. Flutesnoot ran his hand over his bald spot and he looked exhausted. “Too much drama. I’m getting too old for this.”

*

Ethel hardly remembered the rest of the night; it went by in a blur. She handed back the tiara but staggered out to Moose’s truck with her sash looped over arm, already tired of carrying the bouquet. Moose took it briefly as he let her into his truck, then laid it across her lap as he gently shut the door. Ethel’s feet throbbed, and she kicked off her shoes gratefully.

“Roll down the window.” They turned out of the lot and gradually broke free of the long line of cars filing out of the lot.

“Don’t mind messing up your hair?”

“I don’t have anyone else to impress. I can’t wait to get out of all this.”

“I thought we were going to Ron’s.”

“Do you feel like it?”

“No,” he admitted.

“So now what?” She looked at him pointedly, and when he faced her, the shadows between street lights were passing over her fair skin and making her grey eyes gleam.

“I’m not ready to take you home yet, Ethel.”

*

They ended up stopping at a convenience store for some soda and chips, and Moose picked up a cheap flannel throw blanket from the novelty items in the back. Ethel waited in the truck, musing. Moose looked slightly mussed, dress shirt wrinkled, tie loosened from its impeccable knot.

He was desirable to her, sexy, uncomplicated, very male, and very sweet. She turned on the radio, and Ethel smiled when she heard her favorite slow song again. Moose strode outside carrying a plastic bag and chugging down a Gatorade. Ethel eyed it enviously; she was parched. “Got another one of those?”

“Got you a Coke. Is that okay?” Ethel was already unscrewing the cap and taking a grateful swallow.

“Man, that’s good,” she sighed. He turned on the ignition again and checked the flow of traffic in his rearview as he merged with traffic coming out of the lot. “Where are we headed?”

“It’s a surprise.”

“Please tell me?”

“Chill. Drink your Coke.” His look was mischievous.

“Hmmmm…” She drank the cola and rooted through the rest of the bag. She was curious when he chucked the blanket into the back of the truck, but her suspicions were confirmed when she found a small box under the can of Pringles and bag of gummy worms that was too small to be Twizzlers and too big to be gum. The shiny lettering winked up at her as she read the words “lubricated with nonoxynol-9, barrier contraceptive.”

“Moose!’ She swatted him.

“We don’t have to worry about looking good anymore,” he shrugged.

“Uh-huh,” Ethel accused, smirking.

They turned back toward the resort. “Why are we coming back here?”

“There’s a spot nearby where we can hang out.” It was off the beaten path. Ethel was curious as they drove away from the picnic area roughly two miles from the restaurant. Her stomach churned with anticipation and she munched on a couple of Pringles to distract herself.

But she forced herself to enjoy the drive and relax, and soon she had the top portion of her seatbelt pushed off her shoulder so she could rest her head against Moose’s shoulder, and he drove one-handed to let himself wrap his arm around her. Their time together was at a premium, and he was ticking down a silent countdown to when he knew he’d have to take her home.

They found an unmarked path to the lake and parked off the road, deep in the brush. Moose cut off the engine and beckoned to her to get out for a minute. He flipped her seat down and reached into the compartment behind it. Ethel watched in amusement as he pulled out a sleeping roll and a couple of pillows. “Aha,” she accused.

“I knew we wouldn’t be able to get a hotel tonight.”

“My parents would have killed me if we tried.” She watched him shuck the tie and toss it onto the seat. He helped her up into the truck bed after he laid out the sleeping bag and unzipped it, opening it out to make a blanket space wide enough for two. They laid back on the pillows and stared up at the sky. Moose turned on his phone and opened up his playlist at low volume. “It’s beautiful out here.”

“You cold?”

“A little.” He pulled her to lie against him, and she dissolved into his warm bulk, content. His heartbeat thudded under her cheek, and she felt it quicken slightly when he grazed her hairline with his lips. “Tonight was great. Scary, but great.”

“I still don’t know why you were scared, Bee.”

“Same reason I’m always scared. But now I don’t know why, anymore.”

“About what people think?”

“About what they think, what they say…”

“I think you’re amazing,” he confessed as he watched the clouds shift to reveal more stars. “And I’m telling you that-“ He wasn’t expecting her to struggle up from him and kiss him into silence, and Moose groaned, tangling his fingers in her short dark hair and encouraging her to spread herself out over him.

They had more time to explore each other, and their kisses were hot, slow and deep. Ethel tried to argue that they needed to get home, but her resistance faded away when Moose told her “I just need to see you.” She needed to see him, too, and she dismissed the random thought that her dress would be a wreck later as he unzipped the bodice, lowering it to better savor her. Soon, she was moving plaintively beneath him, no more barriers between them, and the sensation of skin on skin undid her.

She heard the crinkle of foil in the dark, the telltale snap of latex, and he loomed over, broad, powerful and solid, skin warm and firm beneath her touch. “Please, Moose…”

“I want you,” he rasped. She nodded, giving in to the inevitable as he kissed her one last time in a bid for permission. Her palm cradled his cheek.

“I love you, Moose.” He bowed his face into her neck and let his lips play over her sensitive flesh. “I love you, Moose,” she repeated, worried for a moment that she’d ruined the moment.

She dismissed her worry as he moved against her, his erection butting insistently against her, and the air between them grew sultry and charged. Her long legs scissored around his waist and her fingernails grazed his back. His fingers found her sweet spots and toyed with them; she saw stars behind her closed lids when his teeth just barely closed around her nipple.

They’d only been together once before, and Moose wanted to remind her of his passion for her, how crazy she made him and make up for their past awkwardness. He entered her in one hard, smooth thrust and he heard her hiss in shock, but then moan as he began to move. The truck bed was still hard on his knees and beneath her back, and she was getting a touch of rug burn from the flannel lining of the sleeping back, but he felt so good, stretching her, pushing into her and sending pressure and heat to all of the right places.

“Damn it,” he hissed as he felt himself getting close. “Feel so good,” he rasped out. Sweat beaded up on his skin as they arched into each other. The sight of his cock sheathing itself in her dark, soft nest in the dark was erotic, and she felt incredible, yielding and hot wrapped around him. The sounds rising from her throat were growing more frantic and higher in pitch, and he sped up, needing more friction and to hear her call his name again.

“I love you, Moose!” There were those words again, about to undo him. “Oh, God…” Her voice came out in short little gasps, music to his ears as he began to pound into her.

“Please,” he rasped. Please. Not yet. He was hanging on by a thread, feeling himself growing painfully tight and engorged. He needed to send her over the edge. “Ethel.” There was a note of desperation in his husky voice and she clung to him. “Ethel.” Her name never sounded so good to her own ears. His thrusts grew harder, jolting her insides and building with heat.

“I love you.”

“I love you.” His hips jerked, spasming, speeding up until he reached a fever pitch that left them both frantic, needy…

He felt the change in her, saw her eyes snap open and stare up at him in confusion. “Moose…” Her breath shuddered out from her chest and she bucked against him, hips thrusting up into his pelvis. Ethel’s mouth opened in throaty moans and gasps as she came for him. She was sensual and beautiful to him, and her sweet heat was still coddling his length.

“I love you,” he grated out roughly, pushing himself to that last degree until he fell over the edge after her. His face contorted above her, and the veins and cords of muscle stood out in his broad neck, jaw set and tight, and every muscle in his body went hard as a rock as he climaxed. “Love you. Love. You.” His voice died off, hoarse and ineffective as he collapsed. His arms were limp and unsupportive but still had enough strength to flip them over so that she lay plastered over him.

They were both breathing hard and shivering, not from the cold, but from the intensity of the experience. “Ethel,” he rasped.

“I love… you,” she insisted unevenly. “You’re my world.”

“I need you in mine.” His fingers reached for her and began to stroke her silky skin, drawing lazy circles over her shoulder.

“Keep in touch this summer?”

“Yeah,” he chuckled. “Of course, Bee.” He peered at his phone. “Starting today, since technically, it’s tomorrow.” She groaned disbelievingly at the flashing numbers on the display.

“Here we go again.” More laughter rumbled in his chest, and she poked him.

“Two more weeks.”

“No more curfews.”

“No more study hall. No more “Chef’s Choice” every Thursday at sixth period lunch.”

“No more detention.” Ethel giggled.

“No more gossip in the halls.”

“No shit.” Their laughter mingled with the music and drifted on the low breeze that began to kick up, stirring the warm summer air.

Moose and Ethel each found a new center of their universe, revolving around each other in mutually strong gravity and attraction. For each of them, no other star shone brighter.

FIN.