I WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU ANYWAY – First 30 Pages
Tonight is going to be awesome. It has to be the best…next year things will be different. I doubt Jack and I will ever get to celebrate our birthdays together again…at least not like we have for the past three years. Since tenth grade we’ve had a back-to-school/birthday bash at my parent’s cabin. Jack is my best friend…has been since the day he moved in across the street from us. We were nine then; today I’m turning eighteen. I still tease him about being a day younger than me.
I’ve thought a lot about him today…about our relationship. We love each other, but we’re not in love. We’re dating, and that’s the way it will be, until one of us finds that special someone. Sometimes I dream about finding him…my knight riding in on a white charger to save me.
“Hey, Presley,” mom smiled as I came through the door. “Did you get everything ready?”
“I think so. I’m meeting Jack at six, so I don’t have much time.”
“I picked up that top you wanted; it’s on your bed. By the way, I left a letter on your dresser.”
I bounded up the stairs wondering what I would find. It wasn’t the raised eyebrows or even the little tremor in her voice that had me worried; it was the inward anxiety and the questions screaming in her head that made me anxious. But then Mom’s prone to overreact at times.
The letter was obvious and one look explained Mom’s reaction. My name was sketched in bright red. The “O” in O’Conner wasn’t an “O” but a skull. My fingers trembled and as I pulled the page from the envelope something dropped to the floor. I didn’t look down. As my eyes trailed across the words, my fingers curled back and the page joined the object that lay on my bedroom floor. Eyes fixed straight ahead, I slowly sank beside the dresser as the blood congealed in my veins. Finally I reached for the page and read the words again.
Happy Birthday. Enjoy it. It’s your last. See you soon.
With the words seared in my brain, I lifted the object that had fallen when I’d first opened the letter. Involuntarily my breath sucked in as my fingers traced across my senior picture. My eyes were missing…cut from the picture along with deep slashes across both cheeks and my forehead. “soon” was written in the same red ink across my face.
It was Mom’s voice that jolted me back to reality. I stuffed everything into the envelope and shoved it in the top drawer of my nightstand. I refused to let myself believe this was real. Surely it was someone’s idea of a cruel joke….someone’s name flashed through my mind.
In that instant I decided to keep the letter a secret. If it was who I had in mind, I could take care of him…and I would. Mom and Dad certainly didn’t need to know.
I showered and dressed for the party, planning just what to tell Mom. She was so predictable. I put on my biggest smile and answered her question before she could ask.
“Just a goofy card from Julie. Don’t worry she’s got a birthday next month…I’ll get her back.” As soon as Jack pulled in the drive I hurried out, telling Mom we were running late. I didn’t want her making any comments about the letter in front of Jack. I wasn’t telling him either. Telling him would only lead to the million dollar question…who do you think it is?
The party was everything I hoped it would be…and I thought I did a pretty fantastic job of being the birthday girl. Apparently I should have taken acting lessons.
“So, you gonna tell me what’s wrong?” Jack questioned as he locked the cabin door and started down the steps.
“Have I done something to make you mad?”
“Mad? Jack you never make me mad…I’m just…just sad because this is probably the last time we’ll get to do this.”
He dropped my hand and wrapped his arm around my shoulder pulling me close. “Humph…and I thought you weren’t the sentimental type,” he smiled and then kissed me softly.
I tried to lighten up on the drive home, but when he left me at my front door with an even shorter kiss I knew I was in trouble.
“You’re gonna have to tell me sooner or later…and just so you’ll know…you suck at lying.”
The nightmare began that night. And now three weeks later, it’s still haunting me. It hasn’t changed. The darkness surrounding me is impenetrable and cold…and the eyes are watching.
It’s the eyes I fear the most—more than the dark. Some nights they seem familiar; other nights they freeze my heart. I’ve been checking out my number one suspect, especially his eyes. I just can’t be sure…but to say he doesn’t like me would be a gross understatement. Knowing how he feels, I don’t want to be alone with him—but he isn’t harboring murderous thoughts—I would know. Maybe I’m missing something. It has to be him.
That’s why I’m going on the theory the note is just his idea of a sick joke. Sometimes though, especially after one of these nightmares, I wish I’d shown the note to Jack.
Jack. I can’t get him off my mind. I spent hours last night working on an assignment for Mrs. Glenn’s senior English class. We had to write about an honest friend from a quote she’d given us by Robert Louis Stevenson. Honest—that’s why I’d struggled so hard. My subject is honest…to a fault sometimes…but writing about Jack only makes me feel guilty. I’m going to find a way to make this up to him. He doesn’t deserve a liar. I keep thinking every day the scumbag that sent the note will slip up and I can nail him…maybe today. Then I can finally tell Jack.
Pulling on my favorite pair of jeans and t-shirt, I walked to my bedroom door and listened. The house was quiet. I’d purposely waited until Mom and Dad left for work before going downstairs. Less contact meant less lying. I grabbed a soda from the refrigerator and headed for my car. My stomach couldn’t handle solid food. I drove to school on autopilot. Not even the radio blasting could keep my thoughts from the dark and his eyes.
Jack looked up and smiled as I entered the Commons area where everyone waited before school. Julie looked up too; the determination in her eyes confirmed my fears. She already had a plan to help me with Jack. The last three weeks had taken a toll on mine and Jack’s relationship and Julie noticed. I’d used the same excuse with her as I had with Jack, but obviously she didn’t believe me either. As soon as I reached him, I leaned down, giving him a quick kiss on the lips. Her face told me I was going to have to do a lot better than that.
Jack draped his long arm around my shoulders. “Hmmm, looks like you’re in a better mood.”
“Yeah, guess I am,” I forced a smile and hoped he wouldn’t see through it. “I’m sorry. I know I’ve been crazy lately, but it has nothing to do with us. It’s nothing really.”
“Nothing. Okay, if you say so.”
I’d feel better if he’d just yell at me. Then maybe, just maybe, I could scream back, “You bet I’m acting crazy! You’d be crazy too, if someone was trying to kill you!”
The bell jolted me back to reality and Julie’s glaring stare.
“Okay,” I mouthed as I grabbed Jack’s hand and started off for first period. The warmth of his hand made me feel safe again. Safe…but sick. My stomach churned thinking of all the lies I’d told him. It made me even sicker to know how much I was hurting him. For the first time in my life I hated my little gift. I can read other’s emotions. Oh, not that body language…I know you’re upset stuff…I mean the deep, true emotions—I’m my own personal lie detector. And now, when Jack acts like he’s okay, I hate myself.
I’ll live with it though…it’s better if Jack doesn’t know.
I gave my best performance to date at lunch. I held Jack’s hand, smiled, and laughed at all of Julie’s jokes. Reading the atmosphere around the table I’d say I fooled everyone but Jack. I thought about that as Julie and I crossed the campus and headed for the gym seventh period. Seventh period is Mr. Black’s history class, but not today. Tonight is the first home football game—our first pep rally; so instead of Bernard-the-Boring, we’re being treated to Coach Jackson’s monologue of “let’s hear it for this year’s State Champions!” We all knew his speech by heart. He’d been giving it for three years now, ever since the year my brother, Josh, was a senior and the team had taken home the coveted trophy.
“Okay guys; you all know what an outstanding tailback Jack Smith is…well, he has a shot at smashing Reid Montgomery’s rushing record this year! So let’s hear it for Jack!”
Coach Jackson was beaming.
My mind began to drift…to Josh’s senior year and to Reid Montgomery. A wicked little grin pulled at the corners of my mouth.
Reid. My brain shifted into overdrive, pulling up his gorgeous face. Tall, dark, and handsome was too nondescript. Rugged, killer smile, a body that made me drool even now as I thought of him…that was getting closer, but still it wasn’t any of those things that had made my heart stop when I’d spot him in the hall. It was his eyes—those two deep pools of blue that sparkled when he smiled and turned my insides to mush. I took a deep breath. I’d forgotten how those eyes affected me—how they affected me even now as a warm, deep ache spread through my body.
“Presley! Wahoo, Presley. Are you there?” Julie was waving her hands in front of my face.
“Huh? Yeah, guess I was daydreaming.” I mumbled.
“It must have been some dream. You were drooling! I hope it was Jack!”
“Well, you know how good looking guys affect me.” And at least for a change, I didn’t lie.
Dad’s truck was in the drive when I got home. My parents, Mike and Rose O’Conner, owned O’Conner’s Department Store; Dad always leaves the store early on game day. He is a football fanatic—never misses a game.
Dad grew up in Franklin and played football for the Panthers until he was injured at the beginning of his senior year. He’d spent his last season watching from the sidelines. I knew that story by heart.
He was on his way home from practice and didn’t see the flashing lights at the railroad crossing. The engine dragged his truck over five hundred feet before it lodged on the edge of a guardrail. If it hadn’t been for the quick actions of Caleb Montgomery, Dad wouldn’t have made it. Caleb—Reid’s grandfather.
Another Montgomery was suddenly invading my thoughts. Maybe resurrecting Reid’s memory had done more than make my heart flutter again; maybe seeing him had pushed me over the edge. Jeez, I need to get a grip, I thought as I came through the kitchen door dropping my books on the table.
Mom was making dad a sandwich…or at least trying to. He had his arms around her waist, making some goofy kissing noises as she giggled.
“Hey guys,” I called, “break it up. There’s a kid present.”
“Humph, I’m old. I’m not dead.”
Dad’s humorous side does come through sometimes…when he’s not being overbearing. Dad doesn’t have much of a middle ground…not like Mom. It’s hard to tell which one I’m the most like.
I brushed off Mom’s offer for a sandwich, telling her I’d gotten something with Julie before coming home. “Thanks, anyway. Gotta get ready for the game.”
Standing under the stream of hot water I thought about the day. I’d spent most of it being extra attentive to Jack. That slowed his questions, but it hadn’t stopped him from worrying. And then there was my little hallucination of Reid Montgomery. I had no idea why he’d run through my thoughts. But since his gorgeous face had melted my insides this afternoon, I couldn’t shake the feeling he was somehow watching me.
I made it back downstairs just as my parents were leaving. “Don’t forget you’re bringing my car home after the game. I won’t be too late.”
“You and Jack have a good time at the dance. And Presley…not too late. You need to sleep. You’re getting dark circles under your eyes,” Mom said.
“I’ll sleep in…promise.” Like that was going to happen. My record since the dream began playing nightly was four hours.
Julie was waiting in the student section looking toward the end zone where the players were huddled waiting to run onto the field.
“Hey, you’re late; game’s about to start,” she said as I scooted into the spot she’d saved for me.
“Couldn’t decide what to wear!” I didn’t have to worry about saying more as the crowd began to scream…the Panthers took the field.
They won the toss and elected to kick. Drew Matthews put it in the end zone and the Elm Springs Devils started on their own 20. Three quick downs and only 1 yard gained and their punting team trotted on the field. Mike Kimble caught the ball and made it to the Panthers 30 before being tackled. Ethan handed off the ball to Jack who looked to be caught behind the line of scrimmage, but with one quick twist he was free and sprinting down field toward the goal line. Touchdown! And as they say, “the rest was history”. Panthers 42. Devils 0. Definitely a good start to the season and hopefully to the night.
I waited with Julie just outside the field house, waiting for Jack to shower. He’d rushed for over 200 yards…the record was definitely in danger of falling. I was thinking about that when the truck pulled up beside us.
“Going to the dance?” Cory asked.
“Yeah. With Jack!” I said.
“Have fun.” He pushed the accelerator to the floor, fishtailing as he pulled from the parking lot.
Julie rolled her eyes. “Show off!”
Everyone was at the dance. Jack was definitely hyped and for awhile that good feeling rubbed off on me. I felt free again. By the time we left, I was smiling. Julie and Ethan, and Angie and Drew were going to Mickey’s, the local hangout, but Jack declined their invitation.
“You don’t want to go?” I asked.
“Not tonight. Let’s go to Hanner’s Point. We need to talk.”
So much for good feelings.
Hanner’s Point is about six miles outside of town. It’s a small overlook on one of the higher mountains that surrounded Franklin and a place we’ve been many times before. A place I usually like to go, but tonight it would be the place where Jack would demand to know what is going on with me. The ride was quiet. I closed my eyes and concentrated on his breathing, listening with my mind. He was worried and afraid. The only thing I’d ever known Jack to be afraid of was the dark. I’m probably the only person outside of his family that knows he slept with a nightlight until the sixth grade.
He pulled close to the railing and we got out, leaning against the hood of his car.
“Gosh, the moon is bright. Where’s the Big Dipper?”
“In the sky. And I don’t want to look at the stars…not tonight.”
“Jack, I told you…”
He took both of my hands, holding them palms together and raised them to his lips. “If you tell me one more time it’s nothing…” he closed his eyes. “Why have you been lying to me?”
I couldn’t look at him any longer. I had been so sure I could do this, but not anymore.
“I just need to know. If it’s someone else…”
“No! There’s no one else…I should have told you about it…but I was afraid…” I whispered.
He leaned me further back; his face confused. “Afraid? What in the world have you done that you would be afraid to tell me?”
“Not me! I haven’t done anything…except let my imagination make more out of this…I don’t know why I didn’t just throw it away and forget it…”
“You’re rambling, Presley. Just tell me.”
I took a deep breath. “The day of our party I got a letter.” Tears spilled down my face. “It said this would be my last birthday…and something about seeing me soon. My senior picture was in it too…part of my face was cut away…” I couldn’t finish; it was the one detail I’d done my best to block…the one detail that still froze my heart. His face was hard; his eyes spoke what was burning through his body. “You’ve been keeping this from me! Why? If it’s a joke…it’s NOT funny…if…what did your dad do?” his voice was harsh…a tone he’d never used with me before.
“I haven’t told him. I haven’t told anyone but you now.”
“You haven’t told him,” he said. “And there was a good reason why, I’m sure,” his sarcasm was impossible to miss.
“I was hoping…it could be a joke…and nothing else has happened.” I bit my lip, deserving the pain. “And you know dad. He’d probably home school me for the rest of the year. You know, graduation in the living room, the whole bit. I’m not telling Dad. Not right now anyway.
“I’m sorry. I am…really sorry. I thought I could figure this out by myself.”
“Why would you be afraid to tell me?”
I paused trying to decide just how much to tell. “It’s got to be someone I know; they had my senior picture. And I know you Jack…I don’t want you in trouble.”
“There’s going to be trouble alright. When I find out who this lowlife is, you can bet there’s going to be a crap load of trouble.”
“Please, promise me you won’t tell. I won’t keep anything else from you; just don’t tell…not right now.” “I don’t know…will you show me the letter?”
I nodded and kissed him gently. “I’m glad you know. I don’t think I could have done this by myself much longer.”
“You didn’t have to do anything by yourself…you never had too.” He wiped a tear sliding down my cheek and then returned my kiss.
“Do you have any idea who sent it? Or why someone would do this?”
The second question was easier to answer. I was still determined not to tell him about Cory.
“I have no idea why. What could I have done that would make someone want to kill me?” We were quiet the rest of the drive. I’m sure he was going through lists like I’d done the day the letter arrived. I was simply trying to prepare for the moment he saw the picture.
Jack went to the den and I went quietly to mom and dad’s room just like I do on any normal night when I come in from a date.
“Mom, I’m home. Jack and I are just going to watch TV, if that’s okay,” I whispered.
“Sure honey,” mom mumbled.
“Night mom, love you,” I said quietly as I shut their bedroom door.
Going to my room I pulled the note from its hiding place. I ran my fingers across the lettering on the front. It wasn’t an accident my name was written in red…and no matter how much I wanted it to be…it wasn’t a joke. I’d been lying to myself…just like I’d lied to Jack.
Jack stared at the note and my picture without speaking. The muscles in his jaw tightened, his mouth twitched, and when he finally looked at me, his eyes held the same anger he’d had on the mountain. “I can’t believe you’ve kept this to yourself! What were you thinking?”
My face betrayed me. He dropped the picture on the table and wrapped his arms around me. “You know I’m not mad at you…but you should have told me…you should have told your parents.” He was no longer seeing that as an option now that he’d seen the picture.
“No, you promised. I was wrong not to tell you…please Jack…I can’t tell them right now.” As soon as he flipped the picture over I knew what he was hoping to find. I always wrote a note on the back of every picture I gave out. Jack’s said, “You’ll always own a part of my heart. I can’t believe I’ve been so lucky to have you. Love you always, Pres.”
This one was blank.
“I know what you’re thinking. I’m positive I wrote on the back of each picture. It must be a copy.”
“It’s not a copy.” He lifted the picture, staring at my butchered face, and then flipped it over. “See this mark. It’s not a copy. This is one of the pictures Deacon developed.” Jack’s brother, Deacon, owned the photography studio that made our pictures.
The thought of it really being someone we knew tore through him and I flinched at the anger. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen him really mad, but I’ve never seen him like this. I wanted this to go away; I just wanted us to go back to be the “do-gooders” Julie always teased us of being.
You and Jack are pathetic, she would laugh; I can always count on you two do-gooders to take up for the underdogs. Always the rescuers. Hope you guys never get in a tight spot, who would rescue you? She’d said this again just last week when Jack and I had climbed in a drainage ditch to rescue a puppy that had fallen in. Jack took the little ball of fur home after winning the coin toss to see who got him. “Lucky” was the fourth dog Jack had taken home and his mom laughed and repeated for the fourth time it was the last dog he was keeping. “We’re going to find out who this is; I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
“I trust you Jack, but promise me you’ll be careful…I couldn’t stand it if you were hurt.”
He kissed me softly on the cheek. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said getting up from the sofa, “Go get some sleep. It’s going to be okay.” I drew a deep breath and knew he didn’t believe that any more than I did.
At 3:00 am I was flipping through last year’s annual, hoping if I looked at everyone’s picture it would come to me. By 4:00 I was compiling yet another list and once again Cory was my prime suspect. Telling Jack about him still wasn’t an option. Somewhere around 5:00 I must have drifted off.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened the next day or any day for the next few weeks. Jack and I spent hours talking about it. We were driving our friends crazy. Even Ethan complained, demanding to know what was wrong with us, but Jack shrugged him off. When nothing more happened, Jack lightened up. I was getting better at pretending; something I found easier to do since the nightmare had occurred only once since telling Jack. I almost had myself convinced it was over.
School was…well, school. Jack and I spent more time together which made Julie happy. She was all about being in love. She thought everyone should be. The worst that had happened in weeks was Cory’s health issue. I’m sure he must have an equilibrium problem…but only when Jack isn’t around. I have a bruise on my shoulder where I hit the locker from an accidental bump. But he is always very apologetic. He makes me sick. On the positive side the Panthers are still winning. They’re 6-0 right now and in 1st place in our conference. And I’ve started working Saturdays at Dr. Casey’s office, even though Angie and Julie give me grief. Neither understands why I’m happy scooping poop instead of shopping with them. But I am.
My job is a good thing. At one time I was sure I wanted to be a vet. I bandaged my first puppy at age 5. Of course, Bandit was stuffed and didn’t care that I turned him upside down and mashed his head into the floor to tie the ace bandage around his leg.
Saturday morning I pulled into the parking lot just as Dr. Casey was putting his bag in his truck. “Morning Presley; how are you?” he asked cheerfully. “I’m going out to the Morris’ place. Need to check a calf; then Martha and I are going to visit the grandkids. Today’s Cari’s birthday; she’s four. We’re taking her a puppy—imagine that!” he laughed. “The phones are already transferred to the answering service. Mr. Abrams picked up Blackie early so you just have 4 dogs and a cat in the back. Just do your usual and don’t worry about staying until 5:00 today; leave whenever you’re through.”
“Thanks, Dr. Casey and have a good time at the birthday party. See you next week.”
When I walked through the back I couldn’t help but smile. Our guests were four of my favorites—Sampson, a St. Bernard, Javier, the ferocious dachshund, Chester, an English bulldog, and Max, my favorite chocolate lab. I took them out to the fenced area then hosed down the pens and cleaned the food and water bowls, being careful to disinfect things the way Dr. Casey had shown me. When the pens were clean, I went to the back to check on the dogs.
“Playing possum again, Chester?” As I bent down to rub his stomach he rolled his head to the side, his tongue lolling out. At twelve, this was the most excitement he could manage.
Searching for Javier I spotted his rear end, tail alert, under one of the large shrubs at the back. He had his own system—dig furiously, grab a mouthful of dirt, and then wiggle out to deposit it on the ground. Humph, he was his own personal backhoe.
Sampson and Max were busy running from tree to tree, barking at the squirrels that totally ignored them. Only Max trotted over to me.
“Hey, Max. What’s my favorite boy doing?”
He flopped down as close to me as he could, laid his long face on my lap, and looked up at me with those huge brown eyes. If I could only teach Max to play poker, I could make millions. His is the perfect poker face. I laid my head against him and closed my eyes. I felt absolute peace around animals. I think it’s because they love unconditionally. They listen to your darkest secrets, your hopes, and dreams….and when you cry; they lick your tears away.
“Thank you Max, you’re my favorite guy. I love you.”
I sat for awhile slowly stroking Max. He gave a long sigh and looked up, eyebrows twitching, when I finally made a move to get up. I leaned over and kissed his nose.
“Sorry, got to get busy. I can’t sit here all day, you know”.
I led Sampson and Chester back in and then pulled Javier from the shrubs. The little goof had dug so deep he was completely submerged in the hole. I pushed the dirt back and patted it down as best I could. Then I took Max in giving him an extra hug or two before closing the door.
The only cat was Mrs. Johnson’s tabby. The Johnsons lived across the street from us. Mr. Johnson died last spring and now Mrs. Johnson frequently left town to visit her daughter, leaving Gidgit with Dr. Casey. I’d promised to take extra care of her…so I let Gidgit out to stretch her legs while I finished my work.
Dr. Casey hadn’t asked me to clean the rest of the office. He usually had a general cleaning crew that came in for that, but I liked to stay busy. A shipment of cat food had been delivered early this morning, so I stacked that in the bins in the front office. There were also some pamphlets he had ordered on heart worms and I took those in his office and placed them on his desk. His calendar caught my eye—October 17th.
The student counsel was sponsoring a dance on October 31; under normal circumstances I’d be excited. Now the thought of monsters only dredged up the note.
The note—it was always there in the back of my mind. Soon—the word flashed before me just as something rubbed against my leg. I screamed, jumping back and falling over the desk chair. Gidgit screeched, leaping to the desk, and knocking the phone and pencil caddy to the floor.
“I know girl. You scared me too. I’m sorry.” I said as soothingly as I could. I gently lifted Gidgit and placed her back in her cage. She curled up and closed her eyes. I could hear her purring as I walked back to the front to make one last check, close the blinds, and shut off the lights.
Driving home I thought about the upcoming dance. Going to the dance with Jack is just one of those unspoken assumptions. He hasn’t asked, but like any normal couple, it’s just understood. Chewing my bottom lip I wondered how we’d feel when one of us found someone else. I hoped I would be as fine as I’d assured Jack I would be if he were the one to find love first.
He came over around 7:00 to watch a movie—our new routine. Neither of us felt like going out lately. Jack was always tired from the game on Friday and lifting weights on Saturday. I was still looking over my shoulder, something I didn’t share with Jack.
“Uh,” I said as the movie ended, “I was thinking this afternoon about the dance on Halloween. It’s in two weeks. Who are we going to be?”
“Well, I’ve still got the hat and machine gun from the junior class play last year; we could go as Bonnie and Clyde.”
“No, they got gunned down, remember? Let’s don’t do blood and guts; I don’t think I feel that safe yet.” I said softly.
“There’s always Romeo and Juliet?”
I raised one eyebrow, “No, I don’t think so. Our friends may believe that’s us, but let’s don’t encourage them. Julie isn’t totally convinced we’re okay…she’s still giving me tips to improve our love life. How about Fred and Wilma Flintstone, or better yet Shaggy and Scooby?” I laughed.
“Fred and Shaggy are pretty lame Presley; come on give me some credit here,” he looked offended. Then he smirked, “Tips, huh?”
I rolled my eyes; it was best to ignore his last comment.
“Okay, I’ve got it! The perfect couple—Captain Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swan.” Besides I smiled, “you’ll make a great pirate.” I leaned back, eyeing him up and down, “hmmm, yeah, better than Johnny Depp.”
“Uh huh, better than Depp, right!” he mumbled.
“You don’t suppose coach would let you grow a goatee? I could braid it for you!”
“Yeah, you bet. Not over his dead body…or mine. I don’t have to wear one of stupid long wigs, do I?”
“Oh come on Jack, it’ll be fun. I’ll find the perfect costumes for us. You won’t have to do a thing.”
“I’m sure you will. I never doubt you,” he shook his head in defeat.
His kiss goodnight was different…a little more passionate…maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned Julie’s offer for tips.
Crawling into bed, my thoughts turned to the note. It had been two months; surely no contact was a positive sign. I turned off my light and drifted into dreamland.
Two hours later I was huddled in the center of my bed. Lights back on. The old dream was back. And now I remembered what bothered me after the first time I dreamed of the dark and the eyes. It was the second pair of eyes…those not as close…the anger and hatred was there, but something else…something drawing me. And I shivered alone until morning.
Somehow I made it through the remainder of the weekend without another nightmare; I couldn’t shake the feeling it was Cory. The bumping had stopped, miraculously after mentioning I would tell Jack. Now he merely smirked, eyeing me like I was some prize.
He still made me want to puke.
After school on Monday I stopped by the store to see if mom had been able to find costumes in one of their specialty catalogs. She had the perfect ones and I smiled as I thought of Jack as the outrageous, but always charming Jack Sparrow.
“Thanks mom. You’re a life saver! I’m going to Julie’s. See you at home,” Julie volunteered me to help with the food committee for the dance. This was her thing. Not mine. After two hours and searching every cookbook Mrs. Hanner owned, she was finally satisfied. With my list of things to do tucked in my jacket pocket, I drove home, thinking how quickly time was passing. It was almost the end of October. That meant Thanksgiving and Christmas were not far away and then before I knew it, graduation would be here.
It was a little unnerving to think I’d soon be out of school. I was sure I wasn’t ready to make decisions about my future yet. Right now I just hope I have a future.
Mom beat me home. “Hey honey, did you and Julie get everything worked out?”
“Yeah. Do you think you can make witches fingers and bloody eyeballs?” I snickered showing her the recipes and the pictures we had copied so she could get the idea.
“Hmmm, very appetizing. I think I can handle it though.”
“I knew I could count on you. I’m going up to do homework, if you don’t need help down here?”
“No, I’m fine; go get your homework. Got to keep those grades up. Graduation will be here before we know it. I can’t believe it’s already the end of October.”
“I know, I was thinking about that as I was driving home,” I mumbled. “I have no idea what I want to do next year. You and Dad may just be stuck with me.”
“There’s no rush, honey. You have lots of time. I’m not sure any 18 year old really knows what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And Presley, even though we wouldn’t mind, I don’t think we’re going to be stuck with you.”
The next two weeks flew. Julie and I spent most afternoons at my house working on decorations for the dance. Jack and Ethan came over after practice. If mom didn’t cook, we’d order pizza and sometimes, when we had no choice, we’d do homework.
Friday, October 30, the whole town turned out for a huge pep rally at Franklin Park. The park, just past the main downtown area, was named for the family that first settled in this area.
I joined Julie, Angie, and the rest of our group at the entrance to the park and we squeezed through the crowd to get to the area where the other students had gathered to cheer on the team. Jack made a typical “Jack” speech—short. He didn’t mention the school record that would certainly be broken tonight; he never cared about the spotlight.
Our relationship had been on my mind a lot these last few weeks. The letter still had me spooked. Maybe that was why. Or maybe it was the fact that all my best friends had real boyfriends and technically…I didn’t. Maybe Julie had been right. Maybe I should try harder with Jack.
As soon as the pep rally ended, Jack found me. “Great crowd, huh?”
“Well, I am a little disappointed,” I admitted looking around at the dispersing group. “I don’t see residents from Middleton’s Nursing Home here. I was sure they would haul those poor people out here—oxygen tanks and all.” “Funny, Pres. You’re a real comedian. I hear they’re looking for a new act at Pete’s Do-Drop-Inn—those guys would think you’re a hoot!”
“Really? Maybe I could squeeze that in on Saturday nights. I’m off by 5:00. You couldn’t put in a good word for me, could you?” We laughed all the way out to my car.
“Uh, I need you to promise me something,” he said holding my car door open.
“Sure, anything,” I said.
“No laughing tomorrow when I pick you up for the dance. I tried on the costume last night. One crack about the hair and we’ll go as Jack Smith and Elizabeth Swan! I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.”
“I promise, no laughing. But you’re going to be hot, I know it.”
“Hot,” he rolled his eyes. “Just remember, you promised.”
“Stop spazzing! Go get ready for the game.” I reached up giving him a quick kiss, “Good luck.”
Jack didn’t have to wait long to make it into school history. His first run netted 30 yards and the celebration that followed delayed the game more than twenty minutes. The referees finally threatened to penalize the Panthers if Coach Jackson didn’t get the crowd off the field. It took the coach and all of the police officers at the game to finally get the crowd settled down. The Walnut Bend Hawks, tonight’s opponent, were no pushovers. They wanted nothing more than to spoil a perfect season and it was a hard fought battle the rest of the night.
Once Coach Jackson charged onto the field to protest a call, but quickly retreated when he realized he would be listening to the end of the game from the locker room if he didn’t get off the field. After that both he and the team seemed to settle down and go methodically about the business of winning. When the final buzzer sounded the Panthers realized their dream had come true. Final score: Panthers 28 Hawks 14.
I waited for Jack in the lobby of the field house as usual. Tonight was no different. He and Ethan were still the last two out.
Tonight both guys were in high spirits. We were meeting the rest of the group at Mickey’s for burgers and then everyone was headed to Jack’s house to hang out and finish celebrating tonight’s big win.
By the time we made it to Jack’s the game had been replayed at least twice and depending on whose version you believed, the win was solely the result of the outstanding defense or the red hot offense. Jack managed to change the subject every time someone brought up his record breaking night. Only Ethan seemed to be able to get by with bringing it up.
“Someone needs to call Montgomery…wherever he is now…and tell him his old record is history!”
“Yeah, pretty boy’s no longer the hero,” Drew raised his drink with a laugh.
I snuggled closer to Jack as a now familiar ache spread through me. It was hard to tell what unsettled me more—the nightmare, the feeling I had anytime I thought of Reid, or how the two seemed to be connected. Drew’s hand in front of my face brought me back to the moment.
“Hey girl; you with us?”
“Ignore him. If you didn’t hear; don’t ask.” Jack said.
I looked at the other five couples and a sharp pang of jealousy washed over me. Would I find someone who made me—what was it Julie said the other day when she was gushing about Ethan? Oh yeah—who made me want to jump his bones! I snickered and everyone turned to stare at me. I didn’t care; I was thinking about the one person I wouldn’t mind jumping.
I stood in front of my full length mirror straightening my sash and smiled. Our choice of costumes was a good one. I couldn’t wait to see Jack.
“Wow, honey, you look great,” mom said leaning against my door.
“Thanks. And thanks for ordering the costumes mom; you know you’re the best!”
“You’re welcome. It’s good to see you smiling; I’ve been worried about you lately. Presley, is something wrong?”
“Wrong? No. Why?” I said trying to act surprised.
“I don’t know. You’ve just not been as happy as usual. You seem worried. If there’s anything you want to talk about, you know I’m here to listen. You would tell me if something was wrong, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course. There’s nothing wrong. I promise.”
The doorbell ended our conversation. “That’s Jack. I can’t wait to see him!” Then I remembered my promise. “Uh, mom, don’t laugh when you see him; he’s really worried about the wig.”
“Hey Presley, Jack’s here,” Dad called, “And he’s looking real good too!”
I rolled my eyes. “Looks like I should have warned dad, huh? Let’s go before he says something to really embarrass Jack.”
Seeing Jack in costume I couldn’t stop the smile.
“Yep, I was right. Johnny Depp has nothing on you!”
“I’m kinda liking that hair myself. Think coach will let you wear it in next weeks game? Hear Ashville has a center just over 300 pounds. You might just tickle his fancy….might throw him off a little,” dad punched Jack on the arm.
“Dad! Cute. Real cute. Let’s go before he makes anymore smart cracks.”
“Sorry, Jack, I was just joking. Both of you kids look great.” Dad said trying to look guilty, but he just couldn’t quite wipe the smirk off his face.
“No problem, Mr. O’Conner. I see where Presley gets her comedic talent now.”
This time I punched him.
“Bye dad; bye mom; see ya later.”
“Bye kids; have a good time. Be careful,” they said together.
“You really do look great,” Jack said as he opened the car door for me. “The Black Pearl awaits you. Let’s go party.”
“Aye, Aye, Captain. Whatever you say.”
The gym parking lot was already crowded by the time we pulled in. Jim and Cassady Sanders pulled in next to us. They were dressed as Robin Hood and Maid Marian. As they walked ahead, Jack pulled me close, “If you ever want to end our relationship…just ask me to wear green tights.”
Mr. Nelson and Mrs. Glenn were taking money at the door. As Jack paid for the tickets an ear splitting wolf whistle echoed through the lobby. We both turned at the same time.
Only one person could whistle that loud. Deacon was set up in the corner of the lobby and he wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to harass Jack.
“You’re just jealous because I have hair—even under this wig. You might want to stay away from those lights though…might fry what little you have left.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Deacon snickered. “Susan’s been trying to get me to shave it all off. I don’t think the world’s ready for that. Come on over. Let’s get a picture before you two go in.”
Deacon’s backdrop was a simple cliff scene. Standing here I could almost hear the waves crashing below me…feel the wind whistling…Soon. A shiver rolled down my spine. Jack looked at me, wrapping his arm around my waist. Then he smiled one of those mouth spreading smiles and the gold tooth sparkled. I lost it. “Laugh and you walk the plank!”
I would have replied, but I couldn’t stop laughing. He pulled his sword and placed it under my neck with a scowl, and that was the way Deacon snapped the picture.
“Miss Swan, I believe I hear our song