It Only Takes a Moment
by CE Fox
c. May, 2001
Author's note: All the schools mentioned are purely figments of my imagination.
Author's note: All the schools mentioned are purely figments of my imagination.
Jim Reed lined up his toes along the free throw line, bounced the basketball three times fast, then eyed
the rim and backboard. He raised the ball toward his chin, turned it so the logo faced him, took a
breath, then lobbed it in an arc toward the net. It hit the backboard, then circled the rim and fell away to
the side. A collective groan arose from the crowd of parents and kids in the bleachers as the players
scrambled for the loose ball. A forward from Verdugo High School nabbed it and dribbled it down the
court and neatly dunked it into the basket. Verdugo 50, Foothill High 42.
"Way to go, hotshot," Jim's teammate Gino Spirelli muttered as he tossed the ball in bounds to Jim.
Jim tried to ignore the humiliation of missing an easy free throw, but his face felt like it was on fire. He dribbled the ball and moved down court, trying to focus on the game and not on the memory of the girl in the seats behind the scorekeeper's table. The girl with long reddish brown hair and big brown eyes who had looked startled and then happy when his eyes inadvertently caught hers. He'd always thought those cornball lines about hearts skipping a beat were nothing but goofy scenes in stuffy English Lit books, but as they stared at each other, he swore his own heart gave a funky little flutter.
A defender slapped at the ball and it skittered out from under Jim's hand and across the court. Almost immediately he heard Coach Meyers yell, "Reed! Focus!"
Jim turned on his heel and raced down the court, just in time to see the ball swoosh through the net. Another assist to the wrong side from Jim Reed.
And Coach Meyers gravelly voice barked again. "Reed, get outta there!"
Jim jogged off the court, passing his replacement, a short freshman with glasses named Herman Swadley. Jim's humiliation burned deeper. Herman wasn't second string. He wasn't even third or fourth string. He was a step below water boy. If Coach was trying to make a statement, Jim got the message loud and clear. Jim walked to the far end of the row of folding chairs. He grabbed the towel draped across the chair back and slumped into the seat, covering his head so the towel hung down and hid his face, and his view of the game, Coach, and . . . her.
But his mind wouldn't let go of the image of those big dark eyes smiling at him. I gotta find out who that is . . .
He felt an elbow nudge him. "Hey, Reed, don't sweat it," Howie Hewlitt whispered. "Coach is a jerk."
Jim pulled the towel down. "No, he's not. I screwed up, plain and simple."
"Reed, you know what your problem is?"
Yeah, a red-haired, dark-eyed chick in the third row of bleachers . . .
"You're too straight. Way too straight."
Jim rolled his eyes and watched the game progress. Without him bumbling around in a daze on the court, the Foothill High Jaguars closed the gap to within four. Jim waited for Coach to put him back in, but he remained marooned on the bench. Coach glared at him once, then turned his back and never looked at him again. Jim sighed at the prospect of his basketball career going down in flames. Oh well, I like track better, anyway.
The game ended fifteen minutes later. Verdugo 68, Foothill 64. Jim dragged himself to his feet and avoided looking at any of his teammates. His two screwups had cost them the game.
After enduring the handshaking ritual with the other team, Jim walked slowly toward the locker room. Eyes downcast, he didn't see the girl until she spoke up almost at his elbow.
Jim stopped in his tracks and looked down at her. She was short. Really short. Almost a head shorter than him. "Hi," he mumbled. His heart was racing, but darned if he would let her know that.
"I'm sorry you didn't win," she said when the silence stretched toward awkwardness.
Jim's mind was blank. Absolutely blank. "Yeah," he finally managed. Stupid, Reed. You are so stupid!
"Hi," he said. "Uh, I'm, uh, Jim. Reed. Jim Reed."
She giggled. "Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you." Jim was in agony. Here she was, right in front of him, talking to him, and he couldn't think of one darn thing to say. He licked his lips, then wished he hadn't. He didn't know what to do with his hands, or where to look. He wanted to stare at her, but then she'd think he was some kinda sicko. He looked down toward his shoes. She probably thinks I drool. And oh man, that zit on my nose. I probably look like a leper. And do I stink? I gotta stink, after playing like that . . . oh, God, if you'll just make the floor swallow me up right now I swear I'll become a monk and never ask you for anything else again.
The hardwood didn't open beneath him, and then to his horror he heard himself blurt, "Uh, you wanna go get a hamburger?"
"Sure! I'll wait for you right here."
Jim managed to move his eyes from his shoetops and gave her a shy smile. "Okay," he said, then hurriedly turned toward the locker room. He didn't realize the judge's table was so close and he rammed into it with his leg. The table screeched across the wooden parquet floor and Jim staggered and sidestepped and just kept himself from falling on his face. He glanced back at her. "Oops, I didn't see . . . I mean, the table . . ."
"Gotta watch those tables," Jean said with a smile.
He felt a sappy grin crawl across his face. "Yeah," he laughed. "I, uh, I'll be right . . I gotta go change . . ." He walked backward away from her, hit the doorway with his shoulder and stumbled through the door into the safety of the locker room.
She likes me!
"He likes me!" Jean giggled to herself happily after Jim stumbled and disappeared into the locker room. She hugged her sweater to her chest and smiled. She wanted to throw her sweater up to the ceiling and dance across the gym, but she didn't. He might come back and see her and that would definitely leave the wrong impression. Her best friend Ruth always accused her of being flighty, and Jean sure didn't want Jim Reed thinking she was a flake.
She sat down on the bleachers to wait. She twirled a strand of hair around her finger and daydreamed about those blue eyes. Blue as the sky . . . no, more like the ocean. She smiled slightly. The ocean when the sun is setting and the water is dark and mysterious and full of secrets.
She sighed. Ever since her family had moved and she started attending Foothill High a month ago, any time she walked through the hallways, she'd kept her eyes out for a glimpse of the tall, skinny senior. She'd seen him on her very first day, when Ruthie had been pointing out all the cute guys, most of whom Jean thought were pretty square, until she spied a tall, kind of gawky kid who had just tripped and dropped his books on the floor.
"Who's that?"she whispered, nudging Ruth.
"Who . . . oh, that's just Jim Reed. What a klutz," Ruthie said, immediately dismissing him. "Now that guy behind him, the sandy-haired guy that tripped him, Howie, now he's a real swinger. He's got his own Corvette."
But Jean kept watching Jim Reed as he gathered his books back into a pile. Howie said something to him that she couldn't hear. Jim laughed, threw a fake punch to the boy's midsection, and they both walked down the hall and out of sight. "Jim Reed," she said softly.
"Jean, trust me, you don't want him. Boring as heck. All he talks about, when he does finally open his mouth to talk to a girl, is sports and cars. The guy's as square as they come."
"Maybe I like square."
Ruthie looked at her askance. "You've got to be kidding! Jean Carver, who I've gone to church with since we were six, suddenly likes squares? Is this the same Jean who said she would only date the cool guys?"
"Yes, and I'll start with Jim Reed."
"Jean, trust me. He's a lost cause. I can count on one hand the number of girls he's asked out. Four or five at the most."
"So, maybe he's picky."
"Picky, ha! Chicken, if you ask me. He's scared of girls, mark my words. He turns into a bumbling idiot around them. I've seen it."
"Well, I think he's got a cute smile."
Ruthie sighed. "If you really want to date all the cool guys at Foothill, you better not wait for Jim Reed to ask you. It won't happen."
Jean smiled at the memory. Well, Ruthie, she thought . . . it just happened.
Jim felt sick. He managed to shower and dress and comb his hair, but as he stood at the locker room door, he wasn't sure he could go back out there. He swiped the back of his hand across his nose, then cupped his hand around his mouth and blew into it and sniffed. He didn't smell anything, but his nose was kind of stopped up today. For all he knew, his mouth smelled like a sewer.
"Hey, Reed, watcha waitin' for? A written invitation?" Howie slapped him on the shoulder and grabbed the back of his neck. Howie was always doing that. Jim hated it.
"No, Howie, I'm not."
"Then step aside, my friend. I have places to go and people to see." Howie slapped Jim again, nearly sending him into the wall, then plunged out the door.
Jim took a deep breath. No sense delaying the inevitable, he supposed. He followed Howie out the door, belatedly throwing an arm up to catch the door's back swing. He managed to keep it from hitting him in the face, and then he walked slowly out into the gym. Sure enough, she was still waiting. The butterflies in his stomach cranked up their act. He rubbed his sweating palms on his jeans. "Uh, hi," he said quietly. "You ready to go?"
Jean smiled. "Yeah." She stood up and waited.
Jim wasn't sure whether he should take her hand or what. It didn't seem like the right thing to do, but he didn't know what was the right thing to do. She was looking at him expectantly, though, so he knew he had to do something. He finally decided on fishing out his car keys. "I'm parked around front."
"Okay." She walked beside him out to his car, a big lavender 1950 Ford, and when she saw it, she slowed a step. "Uh, nice car."
"It's my first car," Jim said, unable to keep the pride out of his voice. He hurried around and held the door open for her. He glanced at the seat to make sure no trash was cluttering it up. Sometimes Jim was a little slow in picking up stray candy wrappers. But for once it was clean, and she slid onto the white seat. Well, it was almost white, except for the strip of duct tape he'd used to repair a rip. He closed the door for her, then hurried around to the driver side. As he slid behind the wheel, he noticed her fingering the bright orange gear shift knob. "I got that at a junkyard."
"Oh. It's, uh, nice."
"Yeah, I got that and the frenched headlights for a really good price. I'd been looking for them for months. The headlights, I mean. The gearshift knob was there in the same box and I thought it was kinda neat so I bought it, too."
Jim grinned. "You like it? I painted it myself. I think it looks kinda cool."
"Yeah," she said weakly.
Jim's smile faded. She hates my car. He wanted to pound himself senseless against the steering wheel. But he didn't. He just started the car, then pulled on his seatbelt. "Uh, you wanna put-" He pointed to the seatbelt.
"Oh, sure. Sorry, I didn't realize your car had them."
"That's okay. I added them myself-they're actually out of an old airplane that somebody junked out at the airport where I worked last summer. I had to replace the car seat anyway, so I went ahead and put in the seatbelts. I mean, it seems pretty smart, when you think about it, having seatbelts in a car. Race car drivers have them, and since I race this thing sometimes, I thought it might be a good idea to have them. And even on regular streets, a lot of people lose their lives when they don't need to, just because they weren't wearing a seatbelt and get thrown out the windshield."
"Yes, sir, Officer Reed," she joked.
He felt his cheeks grow warm. "I'm sorry, I guess I did kinda sound like a cop. That's what I want to be. Or a fireman, maybe. I can't decide. But I'm thinking fireman. I'll probably go to college first, though." Jeez, Reed, she doesn't want to know all that. Would you just shut up? He clamped his lips shut before any more lame information about himself dribbled out. He put the car in reverse and backed carefully out of the parking spot. "Is Ernie's okay? I know most of the kids hang out at the Double Dip, but I kinda like Ernie's cheeseburgers better."
"Ernie's is fine."
"You sure? Because we could go to Double Dip. It'd be okay with me, really."
"No, really. Ernie's is fine."
Man, she hates Ernie's. I blew it.
He flexed nervous fingers on the steering wheel and concentrated fiercely on making sure he didn't do anything stupid on the way to Ernie's. Like miss a stop sign and get pulled over. Or rear-end a fruit truck. Or stop too quick and throw Jean into the dashboard. The dashboard that she hated . . .
"Have you always gone to Foothill High?" she suddenly asked, breaking into his dismal train of thought.
"Huh?" he blurted.
"Foothill High-have you always gone here?"
"Oh, yeah. My whole life." He winced. "I mean, not my whole life, but I've always lived here. In this district. In the same house, I mean."
"I just moved here about a month ago. I'm a junior."
"Yeah, I know. I mean, I know that you're new, because I haven't ever noticed . . . ." Way to go, Reed, make her think she's so plain and ugly she blends into the woodwork. "I mean, uh . . . I don't think we have any classes together."
"No, I don't think we do."
They finally reached Ernie's. Jim parked the car and then walked around to Jean's side and opened her door. She gave him a smile that made his heart do that weird little flutter again. But as she tried to slide across the seat to get out, he heard a ripping noise and she got a funny look on her face.
"What was that?" he asked.
She felt underneath her skirt, then tugged on the fabric. The ripping sound was repeated. "I think I'm caught on that duct tape," she said.
The weird little flutter of his heart sagged to his stomach. "Oh, gee, I'm sorry, I'm real sorry." He leaned around her to see if he could help free her from the tape.
"No, Jim, I can get it, really-oops!" she yelped as he lost his balance and fell across her lap.
He scrambled off of her, trying not to touch . . . anything. He banged his head on the door frame as he stood up.
"Ooh, don't hurt yourself."
He rubbed the stinging spot on his scalp. "It's nothing," he assured her, wishing he'd knocked himself silly so he could escape this mess he'd found himself in. He watched from a safe distance as she peeled the duct tape off her skirt and got out. "Is your dress, um, I mean skirt, okay?"
She examined it. "Yep. Looks fine. But you'll have to replace the tape. Sorry about that."
"No, it was my fault. It was starting to peel off anyway. I guess I just need to replace that whole seat."
She gave him a smile that nearly blinded him, then turned for the restaurant door. He shut the car door absentmindedly and followed.
They found a booth in the back and he ordered a double-stack cheeseburger with everything, large order of fries, and a large chocolate shake. She ordered a Coke. He looked at her askance. "You can get more than that."
"This is fine, really. If I eat much right now I won't have any room for supper."
"I can eat this and supper, too," Jim admitted sheepishly.
She laughed. Silence fell between them, then they both spoke at the same time.
"Do you like basket-"
"So you're graduating-"
Jean giggled again. "Go ahead."
"Oh, I was just gonna ask if you liked basketball much."
She started to turn red. "Actually, I can't stand basketball."
"You don't? Well, why did you . . . oh. Oh!" he blurted as he watched her turn a bright rosy red and realization belatedly dawned.
"I went because I hoped to meet you." She giggled. "And it worked."
"Yeah," he said, then swallowed. "I, uh, hope you weren't too bored with it all."
"No, I wasn't, not really. And it's turning out to be just as much fun as I expected."
A warm glow blossomed in Jim's chest, but he figured he'd better play it cool. "So what do you like to do for fun?" Jim asked.
"I like to read. Go to movies. Walk. Go to the beach. Palisades Park. Listen to records. Stuff like that."
"Yeah, me too. I like to race my car some. Drag racing mostly, out at the old airport."
"Do you win?"
"Sometimes," Jim admitted with a touch of pride, but then he made a face. "But it's not running as good as it should. The timing's just a little off, and it's not getting the power it should. I need to adjust the carb. And the plugs-I gotta check the gaps and the leads, and the rotors. And I think I'm getting some premature detonation. Something's just not quite right."
She blinked at him. "I don't understand a word you just said."
"Sorry," he laughed. "I get a little carried away."
"Well, I love the color."
The waitress arrived with Jean's Coke and Jim's food and plunked it down on the table. Jim took a bite of his cheeseburger, but he felt funny eating with Jean just sitting there. "Have some french fries," he offered.
She pulled one french fry off his plate and nibbled on it.
"You can have more than one."
She pulled one more off. "There, now I have two."
"You really don't eat much, do you?"
The waitress came back to their booth before Jean could answer. "Hey, kid, didn't you come here in a big purple car?"
Jim looked wide-eyed at Jean then back at the waitress. "Yeah, why?" he asked, trepidation making his voice quaver. "Did somebody hit it?"
"No, but some guy just drove off in it."
"Oh no!" Jim shouted, dropping his cheeseburger. He lunged out of the booth and out the front door. Where his beloved Ford had been parked was nothing but bare asphalt. He grabbed the both sides of his head and spun around in a helpless circle as he looked in vain for his car. "Oh, man," he wailed.
Jean ran up behind him. "Oh, Jim, I'm so sorry."
The lot was empty, and there was no sign of his car in either direction on the street. Jim felt like crying. He felt like someone had kicked him in the stomach and driven all the air out of his lungs.
"I called the cops, honey," the waitress said from the open doorway. "You might as well come in and finish your food."
He gave her a stricken glance. How could anyone mention food in the face of such overwhelming disaster? "I'm not hungry anymore. I guess I better call my dad. He's gonna kill me," he said glumly. He fished in his pocket for a dime, accidently spilling a handful of change onto the parking lot. "Oh." He bent down and tried to gather up the scattered pennies and dimes.
"I'll get them, Jim," Jean said. "Go call your dad."
Jim stood up, then realized he hadn't picked up the dime, but when he bent back down, the waitress stopped him. "Save your dime, kid. This one's on me." She pulled a dime out of her tips pocket and handed it to him. "Phone's on the wall over there."
A black and white patrol car pulled up before Jim could make his phone call. "Somebody here report a stolen car?" the officer driving called out of his open window.
Jim shoved his hands back in his pockets. "Yes, sir," he said miserably. "It was my car."
Jim heard the officer crank the parking brake and shut off the engine. He and his partner climbed out of the black and white. "What's your name, son?"
"James A. Reed."
"How old are you?"
"I just turned eighteen."
"You got parents around? I can't do anything until I talk to your parents."
"Mom's at home, Dad's at work. At the filling station on Waverly and Sepulveda."
"Oh yeah? John Reed? He's your dad?"
"Good guy. You look like him." The officer pulled out his report book. "Okay, we're gonna have to talk to one of your parents for the official report, but for now, you got any identification?"
Jim fished out his wallet and pulled out his driver's license. "I can't believe this. I just can't believe this."
"Happens a lot, kid," the officer said, not unkindly. "Did you have the car locked?"
"Yeah, I always-" Jim started, a little outraged that the officer would think he'd overlook something that simple, but he stopped as a sudden doubt loomed. "Oh, man." He looked at Jean, then back at the empty parking space. "I don't know if I locked the passenger door." He kicked at a rock. "Stupid! I'm so stupid!" he yelled.
"Hey, kid, take it easy. It happens."
"Not to me, it doesn't," Jim mumbled, but he quit kicking rocks. He gave the license plate number and a description to the officer, who wrote it all down in his notebook. "I don't suppose there's much chance I'll get it back?"
The officer pursed his lips and shrugged. "Wouldn't count on it. But you never know about these things. Look, how d'you wanna handle getting a parent? You gonna call one of 'em?"
"Well, Dad's all alone at the station, so he can't really come, and he's got the car, so even if we call Mom, she can't come get me until Dad comes home."
"We can give you a ride home. Your little lady, too."
Jim glanced at Jean, trying to maintain his cool even though the words your little lady sent a thrill through him all the way to his toenails. "I can still call my dad, if you don't want to ride in a cop car."
"No, that's okay. Don't bother him. I don't mind a ride in a patrol car."
Jim nodded. "Okay, Officer. Could you drop Jean off first, though?"
"Sure. Just hop in the back seat."
They crawled in the back seat while the two officers got in the front. As upset as Jim was at losing his car, he couldn't help feeling a thrill at being in an actual patrol car. He wanted to pepper the officers with questions, especially when the radio started to chatter out a bunch of incomprehensible numbers and letters. They had it turned too low for him to make out more than a word or number here and there.
"Jim," Jean whispered.
"I'm really sorry about your car."
"Yeah, me, too. But I guess I'll just save my money and get a new one. At least we're getting a ride in a real police car. There's always something to be thankful for, I guess."
She didn't look like she thought a ride in a black and white was all that great. "My mom's going to have a heart attack, seeing a police car pull up outside."
Jim's stomach, which had finally unwound, knotted back up. "I'm sorry. I didn't think of that . . I should have called my dad . . ."
"Don't worry about it. It'll give her something to talk about with her bridge group."
Jim smiled uncertainly. "Yeah, guess so."
They fell silent. Several blocks later, they pulled up outside a small stucco house with a big sycamore three in the front yard. "Here we are, young lady," the officer in the passenger seat said. He got out and opened the back door for Jean.
Jean started to slide out of the seat, then turned to Jim. "See you at school Monday?"
"Sure," Jim said, working up a smile for her. "Monday." Monday, when he'd face the indignity of having to ride the bus to school, or worse, having his mother drop him off. Maybe he could walk. It'd only take about forty minutes. Dang, why'd they have to live at the uttermost edge of the district, anyway?
Jean showed a pair of pretty dimples as she gave him another smile, then she was out of the car and jogging across the lawn toward her front door, where a woman in her forties stood looking out with concern creasing her brow. They hugged, Jean waved, then they both disappeared into the house. The officer dropped back behind the wheel. "You said 4419 Broadmoor, right, kid?"
"Be there in two shakes."
As they pulled away from the curb, the second officer turned around in his seat. "So, kid, you ever been in a police car?"
"Good, keep it that way."
"Hey, Williams, the kid might want to be cop some day," the driver joked.
The officer named Williams looked Jim up and down with dark eyes that Jim figured didn't miss much. "Whaddya say to that, kid? Wanna be a cop? Get called pig and have drunks puke in your lap and prostitutes rip your uniform to shreds?"
Jim blinked, not sure what to say. "Uh . . ."
"Just ignore Williams, kid. He's having a bad day." The driver's bright blue eyes twinkled at Jim in the rear-view mirror. "Although sometimes all that does happen."
"Yes, sir," Jim finally said.
The radio suddenly squawked out more gibberish, but this time both officers stiffened and exchanged concerned glances. Williams straightened around in his seat. Jim could feel the tension building inside the car. He wanted in the worst way to ask what the call had meant, but he kept quiet. He watched the two officers closely.
"We should buy that one, Frank," Williams murmured.
Frank looked at Jim in the rear-view mirror. "Kid, you mind walking home from here? We'll swing back around later and finish out the report."
Jim shook his head emphatically. "No, sir, I don't mind."
Williams jumped out and opened the rear door and Jim slid out. Williams gave him a slap on the back of the shoulder, said, "Come by the station any time. Ask for Joe Williams or Frank Messner," and dove back into the car. The lights and sirens jumped to life, and the black and white roared down the road. Jim stood for a moment, watching the flashing amber lights fade into the distance. He wanted to be in that car, off to whatever adventure was awaiting the two officers. Maybe a lady was having a baby in the middle of a traffic jam. Or maybe somebody was robbing a bank. Or threatening to blow up a building.
But he wasn't in the car. He wasn't in any car, and probably wouldn't be for a long, long time. He shoved his hands in his pockets and headed for home.
It took him an hour to walk home. Not because the officers had dropped him off that far away, but because the closer he got to home, and having to explain to his dad that his car was gone, the more his steps lagged. He spent half an hour sitting on a bus bench a block from his house, staring at his high-top basketball sneakers and wishing a bus would come along and run over him. None did, and the sun was starting to slide toward evening, so he dragged himself to his feet and finished the journey. He quietly let himself in through the back door. He smelled meatloaf as he walked into the kitchen.
"Jim, I didn't hear you pull in!" his mother exclaimed.
"Nuh uh," Jim said. He leaned against the counter and jammed his hands as deep into his pockets as he could get them.
"What's the matter?" Dorothy Reed immediately asked. She blew a strand of blond hair off her forehead and fixed a pair of concerned blue eyes on her son.
"Mom, somebody-" he started, but before he could finish, the front door opened and his father's booming voice filled the house.
"Honey, I'm home and I'm starved!"
Jim's dad, John A. Reed, came into the kitchen, kissed his wife, and headed for the sink to wash his hands. "Charlie finally decided to show up for work, so I beat it out of there to come home," he said happily. John Reed tended to fill any room he walked into. Tall and broad across the shoulders, with a thick shock of dark brown hair and a winning smile, he seemed to overflow with vitality. Jim watched him scrub grease out from the creases of his skin and nails and wished he could be as confident, as positive about life, as his dad was. And he wished he didn't have to tell him that he'd managed to get his car stolen. John glanced up from his scrubbing, noticing Jim for the first time. "Jim! I didn't expect to see you here. Didn't see that purple people-eater of yours out front."
"No, it's not out there," Jim said. His heart was hanging from his tonsils, but he couldn't put it off any longer. His voice broke a little as he blurted, "Somebody stole it, Dad."
"Oh, Jim," Dorothy exclaimed.
John's brow darkened. "What happened?"
Jim couldn't meet his father's eyes. "After the game, I took a girl over to Ernie's. While we were inside, I guess somebody drove off in it."
"Did you have it locked?"
"I thought I did. I mean, I always do, but I dunno . . . I might've forgot." He braced himself for an explosion of temper.
But instead, John sighed, then reached out and squeezed Jim's shoulder. "I'm sorry, son. I sure am sorry."
Jim looked up, startled. He'd been expecting God's own wrath to come down on him, and here his dad was, his hand on Jim's shoulder and sympathy in his eyes. And it was Jim's undoing. To his utter mortification, he felt his eyes flood with tears and his knotted up. "Dad, I'm s-s-orry," he choked out.
His dad pulled him in a rough embrace. "Kid, it's not your fault. Anybody can get their car stolen." He pushed him away but kept his hands on Jim's shoulders. "What are you going to do about it?"
Jim swiped his hand across his nose as he shrugged. "The police were gonna bring me home and take the report with Mom, but they got some kinda hot call and had to drop me off. They're gonna come by later, they said. And they said don't expect to get my car back."
"Well, unfortunately, they're probably right." John took a closer look at his son. "A girl, eh?"
Jim blushed. "Yeah."
John looked at Dorothy. "As I live and breathe, our boy's finally showing signs of life. I figured our only hope was that he'd marry a car some day."
"You be nice to Jim, John Reed," Dorothy scolded.
"Is she pretty?" John demanded, ignoring his wife.
"Kinda? Just 'kinda'?"
"She's pretty," Jim assured him.
"Pretty enough to make you forget to lock your car door?" John said quietly.
Shame flooded Jim's cheeks. "Yeah," he whispered.
John pulled Jim toward him and whispered just loud enough for Dorothy to hear. "Someday you get your mama to tell you the story of our first date."
Jim looked in surprise at his mother. He knew it was stupid, but he'd never really thought about his parents ever being young enough to date.
His mom read his mind. "Yes, dear, your father and I were young once, too, as hard as that is to believe. And on our first date, your father wasn't paying attention to his driving and ran your grandfather's car into a culvert."
Jim looked at his dad, who shrugged. "It happens, son. Just one of those rites of passage to manhood. At least you had the sense to get your own car stolen instead of mine."
"Did Grandpa get mad?"
"Oh, let's just say that we had a session out in the woodshed." John ruefully rubbed his backside, and Jim laughed. And boy, did it feel good to laugh.
A week later, after the sting of losing his car had worn off a little, and after all his buddies got all the wisecracks out of their systems and his kid sister quit teasing him about it, Jim sat in study hall, pondering what to do about getting another set of wheels. He'd poured most of the money he'd made working at an airport over the summer into that car, and he didn't have enough left over to buy another one. He doodled in the margin of his algebra book. If A is the cost of a new set of wheels, and B is the hours Jim would have to work to pay for A, when will B equal A? Jim figured somewhere around the twelfth of never.
He thought back to those two officers. He wondered if Williams had really been serious about Jim coming by the station and asking for him. He'd sure love to get a look at a police station. Maybe get the grand tour. And get to ask some questions.
"Pssst, hey, Reed," Howie hissed from behind him.
Jim turned enough in his seat to peek over his left shoulder. "What?"
"You gonna ask Jean to the dance?"
"I dunno. Maybe."
"Well, you better hurry if you are. I heard Gino Spirelli bragging that she was gonna go with him."
"Germy Gino? You gotta be kidding?" Jim blurted. The study hall monitor gave him a sharp glance, and he lowered his voice. "Where'd you hear that?"
"In the locker room after practice last night. Gino's was mouthing it off pretty big, but I got the impression he hadn't actually asked her yet. But you know, Jean's a hot ticket, Reed. You better punch it before anybody else does."
Jim rolled his eyes. Sometimes Howie sounded like a bad James Dean flick. Jim straightened back around in his chair and added asking Jean to the dance to his list of worries.
Jim didn't see Jean that afternoon. He'd made himself late for basketball practice wasting time looking for her after seventh hour. As he sat in the locker room, hurriedly undressing for basketball practice, he ran over in his mind several different approaches to asking her to the dance. He could try the casual approach-bump into her and act surprised to see her, then sort of spring it on her like he'd just thought of it that very moment. Or he could call her at home. He'd have to look it up in the phone book, and even though Carver was a pretty common name, he doubted there were more than one Carver family living on her street. But as he pulled a tee-shirt over his head, he sighed. Man, what am I thinking? I'll never work up the nerve . . . and besides that, I can't dance to save my life. Thoroughly depressed, he yanked his shoes off and threw them into his locker with so much force one of them rebounded against the back and bounced out.
He heard a noisy clatter behind him. Gino Spirelli dropped his athletic bag on the bench, then peeled out of his grimy letterman jacket. His biceps flexed as he yanked his tee-shirt over his head. Jim doubted he'd ever have arms like Gino's, even if he lifted hundred-pound weights all day. He was just too skinny. His dad kept telling him not to worry, that he'd been a late bloomer himself, but Jim just knew he was doomed to go through life as a beanpole. Gino caught Jim looking at him and grinned widely. He cocked his arm and flexed his bicep. "Hey, Reed, whassamatter? Ain't you never seen an Italian stallion before?"
Jim rolled his eyes and turned his back on Gino. There wasn't much love lost between the two of them. Gino thought Jim was a bookworm, and Jim considered Gino a step below algae on the food chain. I can't believe he thinks he has a chance with Jean. No way would she'd ever say yes to him. But what if she did? Jim heard Gino banging around in his locker and knew he'd have to move fast, just in case he misjudged her. Although if he'd misjudged her that badly, if she really did go for the gorilla type, he didn't have a chance anyway. He yanked his left sneaker on with a vicious tug.
A towel suddenly landed on Jim's head. He reached up and yanked it off. "Knock it off, Germy. We're both late."
"'Knock it off, Germy'," Gino mimicked. "Reed, you got me shakin' in my shoes, pal."
Jim ignored him and concentrated on tying his sneakers.
"You dig that new chick, Jean Carver?"
How did he know . . . Howie! I'm gonna kill him. Jim straightened up slowly and turned around. "What's it to you?"
"Nothin'," Gino shrugged. "'ceptin' I'm gonna be the one to take her to that dance Friday. Chick that fine don't need to be hangin' out with some creepy little bookworm like you."
Jim didn't say anything. He finished tying his shoes, then walked out of the locker room into the gym. Coach Meyers glared at him, then shifted his gaze behind Reed. "Spirelli, Reed-ten laps. Hop to it. And the one that finishes last gets another five. I'll be counting, so don't try anything cute."
Jim cringed. Running ten laps around the second-floor balcony hallways of the field house was standard punishment for tardiness, but the extra five to the loser was a direct hit against Gino. Everybody knew Gino was slower than a three-legged turtle, same as everyone knew Jim usually made all-Conference in track. It was a given that Jim would finish first, so why Coach laid that on Spirelli, Jim couldn't imagine. But he didn't have to imagine the rage on Gino's face. It was there for the entire team to see. Jim decided keeping his mouth shut was the wiser course and simply turned on his heel and headed up the stairs.
Coach blew his whistle, and the team started their drills. As the squeak of tennis shoes and the thud of basketballs hitting the hardwood floated up to him from below, he also made out the thud-thud of Gino's heavy tread behind him. He waited at the top of the stairs, then said quietly, "We can run it together. That way neither of us has to run the extra five."
Gino glared at him. "Stuff it, Reed," he growled, and shoved Jim aside as he ran ahead.
Jim caught himself before he hit the lockers lining the hallway. He shook his head. "You're a fool, Gino," he whispered. No way could Gino keep up that pace.
Jim started on his own laps, not pushing too hard but keeping to a pace that would allow him to easily pass Gino. By the third lap, Gino was only about thirty feet ahead of him. Jim watched him clumsily navigate the turn and disappear into the one hallway that wasn't visible from the gym floor. He picked up his own pace a bit and made the turn without slowing down. He looked down the hallway, expecting to see Gino, but he'd disappeared. Jim didn't have time to wonder about it before he was slammed into from behind. He hit the floor hard, but wasn't hurt. Gino's legs flashed by, and by the time Jim regained his footing, Gino was around the far corner.
Stupid jerk. Gino didn't gain anything by that stunt other than sparking off Jim's temper. Jim lengthened his own stride and came around the corner flying. Gino was half a lap ahead of him. He glanced back and saw Jim was up and gaining on him, and he tried to put on his own burst of speed. He managed to maintain his lead for the next half-lap, but Jim knew he'd have him before they emerged again from the back hallway.
Except that Jim hadn't counted on Gino trying the same trick twice. This time, Gino didn't bother with simply knocking Jim down. As Jim made the corner, Gino flew at him like a linebacker and drove him hard into the wall. He added a hard punch to Jim's midsection, and Jim felt like a popped balloon. He sagged to the floor, not a breath left in his body. Gino waited long enough to be sure that Jim wouldn't be getting up any time soon, then kept running.
Jim lay in quiet agony on the floor, wondering vaguely if Coach would realize there was a problem before or after Jim died of massive internal bleeding. He shut his eyes and groaned. Or he would have groaned if he had the breath. Then he realized he didn't hear the sounds of the basketball drills any more.
Sure enough, within a few seconds, there was a clatter of footsteps-more than Gino's two clodhoppers. Jim opened his eyes and found Coach Meyers squatting over him.
"Reed, what happened?"
Howie leaned over Coach's left shoulder. "I'm tellin' you, Coach, Gino musta waylaid him. No way Gino'd get that far ahead of Reed on his own," he insisted. "Jim, ain't that right?"
Jim started to nod, then changed his mind. "I-I tripped," he said.
Howie's jaw dropped, and Coach didn't look like he bought the lie either, but he didn't argue. "Can you get up?"
Jim nodded and shoved himself to a sitting position. Now that he could breath again, he realized he wasn't really hurt. He accepted Coach's hand and staggered to his feet. "Thanks, Coach."
"You didn't hit your head or anything, did you?"
"No, I'm fine. Really."
"All right, then," Coach said, turning away from Jim. "Everybody get back to those lay-up drills. Hustle!"
Howie hung back to walk with Jim. "What the heck do you call that?" he hissed. "Sticking up for Gino like that? You nuts or something?"
Jim rubbed his ribcage. "Howie, lay off. I just don't want to stir up more trouble."
"Reed, you're a fool, you know that? Gino's not the type to look kindly on your, uh, charity."
"Well, I guess that's my problem, isn't it?" Jim broke into a jog and left Howie behind.
"Reed, in my office!" Coach Meyers called out as Jim started out of the locker room. Practice had gone smoothly enough, with only some minor elbow gouging on Gino's part that Jim had thought Coach hadn't noticed. But from the look on Coach's face, Jim figured he was wrong. Maybe they were both about to get kicked off the team. After Jim's botched free throws last Saturday, he figured he was an eyelash from getting cut even without Spirelli's interference.
Jim stared dejectedly at his shoes for a moment, then followed Coach down the stairs to his cubbyhole office in the boiler room. After working up a sweat in practice and then enduring the steamy heat of the locker room showers, the warmth radiating through Coach's office felt like a blast from hell itself. Coach didn't seem affected by it as he tossed his clipboard onto his desk. "Sit down, Reed."
Jim dropped into the wooden chair opposite Coach's desk. He didn't say anything, just sat and waited for the chop.
Coach leaned back in his own chair and steepled his fingers. "What really happened in that hallway, Reed? And don't give me any bull about tripping. You're the surest-footed kid on my team."
"Coach, it was no big deal-"
"Any time one of my kids gets knocked around like you did, it's a big deal. Come on, out with it. What's going on between you and Spirelli? And don't think I didn't notice all those cheap shots he threw at you during drills."
Jim knew he had to come clean. "I dunno, Coach. I guess we just rub each other wrong or something."
"What about the hallway?"
Jim shrugged. "Gino didn't want to lose, so he rammed into me and knocked me down. I got the wind knocked out of me, that's all."
"And what about all those shenanigans during the drills?"
Jim shrugged helplessly.
Coach made a face, then leaned forward on the desk. "Reed, I don't like fighting on my team."
"But, Coach, I didn't-"
"I know, I know," Coach said as he waved off Jim's protests. "You didn't start any of it. Don't worry, I realize that. Look, Reed, you're the best guard I've got. You got good footwork, you're aggressive but smart enough to keep out of foul trouble. Heck, kid, you're the dadgummed captain. But Spirelli's flat out got the best jump shot on the squad and there ain't a kid in the state that can intimidate him. He's up for a scholarship with Pasadena, and you've got a good shot at one with Valley College. I don't want to lose either of you, but if you two can't play side by side peaceably, I'll have to do something about it. And that would put both of your college careers in serious jeopardy. I'd hate to see that happen, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, sir," Jim said softly.
"Get out of here and go home."
Feeling like he'd just dodged a major bullet, Jim wasted no time beating it out of Coach Meyer's office. He took the steps up from the basement two at a time and dove out into the relatively cool late afternoon air. He started for the parking lot, then remembered with a pang that he no longer had the car. He glanced at his watch. 4:30. Howie and most of the other guys he could bum a ride with were already gone. He'd have to hoof it. At least the weather was nice. He kicked idly at a rock as he walked, banishing his worries about the team by thinking some more about asking Jean out. But those thoughts disturbed him even more than thinking about Germy Gino. He kicked the rock out into the street.
How had life gotten so complicated?
Jim finally tracked down Jean in the hallway the next day as she was getting a drink out of the water fountain. After an internal debate that lasted roughly three seconds, he shifted his books to his other hand and approached. "Hi, Jean."
She stood up, surprised, then immediately brightened. "Jim! Did you get your car back yet?"
"No," Jim shrugged, trying to make it seem like no big deal.
"I'm sorry to hear that. I haven't seen you around much."
"I guess we just keep missing each other."
The first bell rang. They had five more minutes to get to class or be counted tardy. She glanced quickly down the hall, but she remained standing beside him. Waiting. Jim felt a momentary panic. Oh, God, I know she wants me to ask her to the dance. I can't . . . what if she says no? What if she says YES? I can't dance . . . . "Would you like to go with me to the dance Friday?" he heard himself ask. Oh, God, what have I done? Kill me. Please please please just strike me dead. . . .
She beamed. "I'd love to!"
"Great." Maybe between now and Friday I'll get struck by lightning. "I'll pick you up at seven. I'll borrow my dad's car."
"See you then," Jean smiled. She touched him on the arm, then hurried off to class.
Jim stood in the hallway, his hand over the spot on his arm where her warm fingers had briefly rested. He watched her until she ducked into a classroom, then he continued to stare down the empty corridor until the tardy bell rang and Mr. Popson, the English Lit teacher, glared at him. "Master Reed, are you going to class or do you intend to stand gaping in the hallway for the remainder of second period?"
Jim shut his mouth and ran.
Lightning didn't strike.
"I can't get it tied right!" Jim roared as he stripped the tie from his shirt and threw it across the bathroom. "Ties are stupid, anyway!"
"Jimmy's getting nervous, Jimmy's getting nervous!" his fourteen-year-old sister Julie crowed in a singsong from the doorway. She screamed and ran down the hall when he lunged at her.
"I'll wring your scrawny little neck!" Jim yelled, then slammed the bathroom door shut.
"Jim, you all right in there?" his father's voice called out.
Jim glared at the offending strip of dark red silk now hanging haphazardly from the bathtub faucet. He reached over and snatched it up, then yanked open the door. "I can't get this thing tied."
His dad came into the bathroom and stood behind his son as he positioned Jim in front of the bathroom mirror. "Jim, if you're going to have a good time, you better calm down some. And don't threaten to murder your sister." He draped the tie around Jim's neck, then reached around Jim to tie the knot.
"I'm sorry," Jim mumbled. "I guess I am nervous."
"Why, son? You've been out on dates before."
John Reed made a face at the mirror as he put the finishing touch on the Windsor knot. "'I dunno'," he mimicked. "What's with kids these days and 'I dunno' all the time?"
Jim grinned. "I dunno."
John slapped the back of his head. "Smart aleck."
Jim untwisted the lid off a bottle of Aqua Velva. "Dad, can I ask you something?"
"Sure, kid, shoot." John leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb and crossed his arms.
"When you met Mom, how did you know she was the one?"
John's blue eyes twinkled. "You already thinkin' this Jean is the one?"
"No, not really," Jim said hurriedly. Liar. "It's just . . . well, I mean, I'm curious. That's all."
"Uh huh," John said skeptically. "Well, just to satisfy your curiosity, your mother and I dated for about three months before I knew she was the girl for me. It was another six months after that when I finally asked her father for permission to marry her."
Three months. Talk about moving slow. Jim slapped aftershave on his cheeks, then studied himself in the mirror. Blue eyes that always looked worried, nose too short and mouth too wide. And a stupid dent in the middle of a dorky square chin-it wasn't deep enough to be a true cleft chin like Kirk Douglas'. Just a stupid ol' dent. But at least tonight he didn't have any zits. "Dad?"
"What is it about girls, anyway?"
John laughed. "Son, if I knew the answer to that, we'd be living in Bel Air. Here, take the keys and have a good time. Home by midnight or you're grounded for two weeks."
"Yes, sir," Jim said, rolling his eyes. He snatched the keys, Jean's corsage and his best navy blue suit coat and headed out the door.
Jean checked her face in the mirror for the fourteenth time. Jim was due any minute, and she was living in fear that her lipstick had smeared or faded or gotten on her teeth. She bared her teeth and scrubbed them with her finger, just to be sure. The crunch of tires in the driveway made her jump. "Mom! He's here!" she shrieked. She hurriedly pulled on a pair of gloves as her mother and father came into the room. "Do I look okay? How's my hair? Is this dress really okay, do you think? Maybe I shouldn't wear the gloves--"
Louise Carver smiled and cupped her daughter's face in her hands. "Darling, Audrey Hepburn couldn't look any prettier than you do, so please, try to relax."
Jean nodded. She took two deep breaths and let them out slowly. "Okay. I'm fine."
She noticed her father rolling his eyes. Then she noticed the ratty sweater he was wearing. "Dad! Take that thing off!"
He looked down at the brown sweater. "What's wrong with my sweater?" he asked.
"Harold, it's horrible, that's what's wrong with it," Louise Carver said firmly. "Take it off so you don't embarrass your daughter."
With a snort, he put down the newspaper he'd been holding. "Don't see what the fuss is all about. Few holes and some unraveled yarn never hurt anybody."
"Dad," Jean wailed. "Hurry!"
He gave her a stern look over the top of his reading glasses.
"And take off those corny glasses!"
He looked from his daughter to his wife. "Maybe you two would rather I just hid in the closet until Romeo's gone."
"Harold, there's no need to be snide," Louise snapped.
He sighed and scratched his ear, but finally pulled off the sweater and tucked it out of sight behind the piano. That earned him another exasperated look from his wife, but a kiss on the cheek from his daughter. When Jean had her back turned he stuck his tongue out at his wife.
The doorbell rang. They all stared at each other like frightened deer, until Harold rolled his eyes. "I'll get it." He opened the door and eyed the tall, skinny kid standing under the glare of the yellow porch light. "We don't want any," he snarled, then slammed the door shut.
"Daaaaad!" Jean wailed, then pushed past him and yanked the door open. Jim was still standing there, a pole-axed look on his face.
"Jean?" he said uncertainly.
"Ignore my father, Jim. He has a twisted sense of humor," she said, with a pointed glare over her shoulder. She stepped back from the door. "Come in."
Jim walked into the room, and Harold stuck his hand out. "Harold Carver," he said with a smile. "And this is my wife, Louise Carver. I was just funnin' with you. Hope you don't mind."
"No, sir," Jim said with a nervous laugh. "Nice to meet you both."
Harold nodded, approving of the kid's firm handshake, even if his hand was a little cold and sweaty. "What are your intentions?"
"Intentions?" Jim blurted. "I, uh, I . . . "
"Harold, will you behave!" Louise whispered, jabbing an elbow deep into his rib cage.
Harold curled his lip at his wife. "Spoilsport," he whispered, then turned to Jim. "In other words, when will you have my daughter back home?"
"Oh, uh, by eleven or eleven-thirty, if that's okay?"
"Fine, fine. Have a good time, then."
"Th-Thank you," Jim said, still obviously rattled. He helped Jean with her coat, gave her the corsage to carry, then shook Harold's hand again. "Nice meeting you, sir. Mrs. Carver."
"Have a good time," Louise said with a smile.
They stood side by side as the two teenagers left. As soon as the door was closed, Louise gave her husband's shoulder a mighty thwack. "You should be ashamed of yourself!" she cried, but then she started to laugh. "Oh, the look on that poor kid's face . . . "
Harold smiled widely as he peeked through the curtains at the disappearing station wagon. "He's a good-looking kid, isn't he?"
"He was white as a sheet, thanks to you."
"You know, Lulu, Jean's paraded her share of goofy boys through our living room, but this one I've got a good feeling about."
"Harold, you've just met the boy!"
"Don't matter. He had just the right amount of sheer terror in his eyes when he looked at me. My little girl's safe with him."
"Harold, you're impossible."
Jean started crying as soon as Jim pulled out of the Carver's driveway. "Aw, Jean, don't cry," Jim immediately said. He hated it when girls cried.
Jean's reply was muffled by her handkerchief. "I'm so embarrassed I could just die!"
Jim bit his lip, then tried to smile. "It's okay, really. I think your dad's kinda funny."
He didn't, really, but no need to tell her that.
She pulled the handkerchief away from her face with a long drawn-out wail. "He wants me to become a nun!"
Jim did smile at that. "Aw, come on, it's not that bad."
"Oh, you have no idea," she seethed. "No idea. He pulls stunts like this every time I meet a new boy. He does it deliberately to scare them off, and it usually works."
Jim took a firmer grip on the steering wheel and said quietly, "I don't scare easily." He risked another glance at her to see what her reaction was.
Her cheeks were rosy as she dropped her gaze shyly to her to lap. "I'm glad."
That funky flutter rippled through Jim's heart again. He tried not to grin like a fool, but as he guided the station wagon into the high school parking lot, he figured anybody who wasn't blind could see it in an instant: Jim Reed was in love.
"Let me help with that," Jim said, taking the corsage out of the box as they stood in the hallway outside the gymnasium. Strains from an Elvis Presley song floated past the closed doors. He slipped the pink and purple orchid over her wrist. He'd thought about getting the kind that pinned on, but he knew a gentleman would help pin it on, and he was scared to death to touch her anywhere near...
"It's beautiful," Jean breathed, interrupting his thoughts.
He thought it paled next to her own beauty. He wanted to tell her just that, but the words locked in his throat. "It looks real pretty," he managed, then with a little more confidence, "S-so do you."
She blushed, then smiled. "Thank you."
"Uh, I guess we should go in." He pulled the door open for her, and bravely put his hand on the small of her back as he ushered her into the gymnasium.
"Oh, it's lovely!" she said, pausing in the doorway.
Pink and red balloons floated amongst red and white crepe paper streamers. The overhead lights were off, but the stage lights and several spotlights washed the ceiling in a soft glow of pale pinkish-white. Jim had to admit, it was a far cry from the basketball court he was used to running around on. A drummer, guitarist and bass player stood on the stage at the far end. They'd finished the Elvis Presley song and had moved on to one by Chuck Berry. "Wonder who the band is?"
"I don't know. They're pretty good, though."
They moved into the gym, elbowing past gyrating kids, and then it hit Jim: eventually, he'd have to get out there and dance. He stopped and stared at the mass of humanity bopping and shaking out on the dance floor, and an unpleasant clammy sensation started in the palms of his hands. It spread up his arms and down his back, settling in his stomach as a sour pit of nausea. He swallowed hard.
He blinked, then realized Jean was staring at him oddly. "Huh?"
"Are you okay?"
"Uh, yeah. I'm fine. I was just, uh, watching everybody dance."
She smiled. "I can't wait to get out there. Come on!"
And before he could prepare himself or make up an excuse, she grabbed him by the arm and hauled him into the midst of all of his fellow students, all of whom he'd have to face in the hallways and in the classrooms on Monday, after they'd found out that Jim Reed had two left feet and no sense of rhythm.
As the band ended the Chuck Berry song and launched into a Beatles' tune, the only thing that saved Jim was that the floor was so packed he could barely move, rhythmically or otherwise. He managed to sway a little, but he bumped into a gal behind him. He looked over his shoulder with a mumbled apology, but she wasn't paying any attention to him. Someone stepped on his foot, and someone else's hand knocked him on the side of his head. He turned and saw the hand belonged to Howie Hewlitt, who was flailing his arms around like he was under attack from angry hornets. Jim thought about yelling at him to cool it, then gave up when another dancer's elbow whacked him in the arm. He looked back toward Jean, who was doing the twist and pretty much oblivious to Jim and everyone else around. He sighed. Surely I can't look any more stupid than Howie. Or anybody else out here, including Jean.
So he got brave and actually relaxed his knees enough to bounce up and down a little.
"Dancing's not really your thing, is it?" Jean asked as they sipped punch while the band was taking a break. They'd stayed out there for five more songs, not one of which was slow enough for how Jim really wanted to dance.
"Shows that much?" Jim asked ruefully.
"You do fine. You just need to relax."
I just need a slow song so I can hold you . . .
Jim tossed back the cup of punch before he could say what he had just thought. He swallowed wrong and choked, spilling some of his punch on his tie and shirt.
"I'm fine," he insisted as soon as he was able to speak. "Just swallowed wrong or something." He grabbed a napkin and dabbed at the spots of pink that had blossomed on his white shirt.
"Here, let me help you," Jean said, taking the napkin from him. She wiped his tie, then lifted his coat and dabbed at the wet spots. He watched the top of her head, her hair shining just beneath his chin, as her hands touched him lightly and gently. He didn't think he breathed until she stepped back and pronounced him presentable.
Something in the way he said the word must have startled her, because her eyes widened, just like they had the first time they'd looked at each other at the basketball game. Her gaze held his for a long heartbeat, then she looked down at the crumpled napkin in her hands. "I-I need to throw this away."
Jim reached down and took it from her, tossing it on the table. Then he reached down and took her hand. "Let's dance," he whispered.
"But there's no music . . . "
Jim's heart was pounding so fast he was afraid he might pass out, but he couldn't stop. Not now. Her small hand in his was sending a warm current of electricity fizzing up his arm. He pulled her away from the table, away from the dance floor and into a small alcove between the bleachers and the wall. "We'll make our own music," he whispered in her ear as he drew her close.
She looked up at him, unsure at first, but then the uncertainty melted away from her face and she smiled. "I think I can hear it already."
Jean couldn't believe it . . . finally, there she was, in his arms, dancing in the quiet dark corner to no music at all. But somewhere, there was music playing, just for them. She sighed softly and moved a little closer. Jim tightened his arms around her briefly, almost tentatively, like he was afraid she'd break or something. Such a gentleman . . . . and so romantic! Jean felt like she'd died and gone to heaven. She didn't want the moment to end, ever.
She laid her head against his chest. She could hear his heartbeat. And it was hammering away like he'd just played a full game of basketball. She couldn't help but giggle.
"What?" Jim said, pulling back so he could look at her.
"Nothing," she said, then she giggled again. He's scared to death! When his puzzled look changed to a worried frown, she gave in. "It's just that I can hear how fast your heart is pounding."
He deflated like he was a balloon she'd just pricked with a pin. "I'm sorry. I'm just . . . it's just that . . ."
"Jim, hush," she said softly, laying her finger across his lips. She couldn't believe how soft they felt. "It's okay, really."
He looked at her for a long time before a glimmer started to shine deep in his eyes. He kissed her finger, then grasped it in his hand and held it to his chest, pulling her close again. "It is okay, isn't it?" he asked. "You and me . . . it's okay."
"It's fine, Jim. Absolutely fine."
She felt him sigh and relax. His arms gave her another squeeze, and this time there was nothing tentative about it. She tilted her head up and he lowered his face toward hers . . .
"Hey, Jim! Jim!"
They both jumped apart. Jean whirled around, ready to brain the idiot that had
interrupted what was certain to have been the best kiss Jean had ever gotten in her entire life. Howie Hewlitt stood by the end of the bleachers, squinting at them. "Jim, that you back there?"
"Howie!" Jim snapped. "What do you want?"
Some of Jean's anger subsided when she saw the panicked look on Howie's face.
Jim reached for her hand. "What's wrong, Howie?"
"Jim, it's Gino Spirelli. He's here."
"So? It's a free country."
"Jim, he's not here to dance. He's out in the parking lot. He's spouting off about getting Jean. And you."
Jim scowled. "So what do you want me to do? Run like a scared rabbit? If he wants me, he can come find me. Now scram."
"But Jim," Howie pleaded. "He's got a baseball bat and about five of his brother's toughs with him."
Jean took a sharp breath. She looked quickly at Jim, but Jim didn't seem overly concerned. "He's not that stupid, Howie. He won't do anything."
"Maybe if he was sober, but he's drunk, Jim. You need to get out of here."
Jim glanced from Howie to Jean, suddenly indecisive. She gave his hand a squeeze, and was gratified to see his confusion resolve into determination. "Howie," he said, "if Spirelli wants to make trouble, he'll find it, but I'm not going to provoke him, and I'm not going to run."
Howie shook his head. "Man, you're stupid, you know that? He's gonna clean your clock and then some."
Jim looked again at Jean, then back to Howie. "Howie, we came here to dance, and we're going to dance."
Howie looked like he was going to protest some more, but he finally shrugged. "Your neck, Jim. But I'll be around. Somebody better watch your back, since you don't seem to think you need to."
Jean took a deep breath in the silence left behind Howie's departure. "Jim, maybe Howie's right. Why don't we leave?"
Jim's chin jutted. "I'm not going to let a gorilla like Spirelli chase me away from this dance. Besides, he's not stupid. He's not gonna blow a chance at a basketball scholarship, which is exactly what'll happen if he picks a fight with me."
"But Howie said he's drunk, Jim. He might not be thinking too clearly right now."
The band started playing again, and he gave her hand a squeeze. "Don't worry about it. Let's dance."
Jean followed him out to the dance floor, but her gaze kept straying to the doorways around the gym. Lord, don't let anything bad happen.
Jim stood alone by the punch table.
"Where'd Jean run off to?" Howie asked, ambling up and grabbing a glass of punch.
"Powder her nose."
"Oh, yeah. Girls sure do that a lot. And I never can see any powder when they come out."
Jim stared at him, trying to decide if Howie really was clueless, or was just pulling his leg. He couldn't tell, so he changed the subject. "Germy Gino still out there? It's been over an hour and no gorillas have stampeded the joint."
"He's still out there. He's sitting on the hood of your dad's car, along with his buddies. Biker types, lot older than us. You know that gang Gino's brother hangs with-it's probably some of them. Look, when you and Jean are ready to go, I'll round up the guys from the team. Trust me, nobody gives a rip if Gino keeps his scholarship, but they don't want to see you get pounded. They're all ready when you are. Whaddya say?"
Jim chewed his lower lip. The last thing he wanted was for this mess to spill over onto his friends and teammates. He was grateful for their show of support, but he didn't especially plan on being the centerpiece of an impromptu gang rumble. "You got your car?"
"Yeah. I'm parked around back, by the football field. You wanna use it, it's yours."
"I don't know yet." The thought of slinking off in Howie's car rankled Jim. But if a blow to his pride meant that Jean stayed safe, so be it. "Actually, yeah. I think I will, at that. Gimme the keys."
"Thank God, he's showing some sense at last," Howie muttered as he dug his keys out. "Tell you what. Give me your keys and I'll drive your dad's car home and tell him what's going on. You can take me home after you drop off Jean."
"What about all those goons hanging all over my dad's car?"
Howie shrugged. "I can talk my way out of anything. No sweat."
Jim nodded, still unsure. "If you think so. I can always come back up here tomorrow and pick it up."
"We'll see. If the wind ain't blowing just exactly right and I decide to bug out without the car, I'll call your folks and leave a message for you not to worry. I can hitch a ride home with whoever."
Jim suddenly realized Howie's date was nowhere to be found. "Uh, Howie, what happened to Barbara?"
"Can you believe she left with George Kimble? She dumped me for a sophomore!"
"Man, that's gotta hurt," Jim sympathized.
"I'll get over it. She talked too much anyway."
Jim laughed, but his smile quickly faded. "Thanks, Howie. And, hey, I'm sorry I got mad at you. I mean, when you first found me to tell me about Gino."
"Don't sweat it, Jim. I know my timing wasn't exactly, uh, impeccable when I burst in on you two like that."
Jim laughed ruefully.
Howie edged closer and lowered his voice. "So is she . . . ?"
"Is she what?"
"You know, is she, shall we say, amenable to your advances?" he leered.
"A gentleman never kisses and tells, Howie."
Howie snorted. "Since you're no gentleman, that means there hasn't been any kiss to tell about."
"I am too a gentleman."
"But no kiss."
"Howie, shut up."
Fifteen minutes later, Jean still hadn't come back from powdering her nose. Jim gave up pacing by the punch bowl and headed out into the hallway. Howie trailed along behind him. "I got nothing else to do," he explained when Jim gave him a questioning look.
Jim stopped a girl who was heading into the ladies' room. "Jill? Could you tell Jean Carver that I'm out here waiting?"
Jill Plummer flashed a quick smile. "Sure thing, Jim." She disappeared into the bathroom, then almost immediately came back out. "Jim, she's not in here."
"Are you sure? Jean Carver, the new girl? About this high, red hair?"
"I know who she is, Jim, and sorry, but she's not in here."
Her sympathetic smile told him she figured he'd just gotten dumped, but the icy fist gripping his heart wasn't from being rejected. He spun on his heel. "Come on, Howie."
Howie grabbed him by the arm. "Jim, wait. We can't go storming out there, just the two of us. Let me get some of the guys-"
"You do what you want. I'm going to get Jean." Jim yanked his arm free and ran out the front doors.
Howie hesitated, then turned and ran for the gymnasium.
"Hey!" Jim yelled as loudly and as fiercely as he knew how.
Gino looked up as Jim pounded across the parking lot toward him. Gino had his arms around Jean in an unwelcome embrace. As Jim got closer, he could see the tears running down her cheeks. The fury inside him burst into an almost murderous rage. "Hey!" he screamed again.
When Gino saw that Jim had no intention of slowing down, he roughly shoved Jean toward one of his buddies. "Watch the broad, would you?" he snarled, just as Jim flew into him, knocking him to the ground. Jim noticed only peripherally that Jean was able to avoid the long-armed grab of one of the toughs leaning on the car, but nearly all of his attention was now focused on one thing: pounding Gino Spirelli's face into oblivion.
He landed one punch, splitting the skin across Gino's cheekbone, before somebody yanked him off Spirelli and onto his back. Like a bucket of ice water, the realization that he was up against more than he could handle cooled his rage into fear. "Jean, run!" he managed to shout before someone kicked him viciously in the ribs. Jim's world suddenly disintegrated into a thousand sharp needles of pain. He tried to roll to his feet, but his body was slow to respond. Another boot swung toward him, but this time he was able to grab it and yank. The punk wearing it cursed as he lost his balance and fell against his buddy, knocking him to the ground as well. Jim staggered to his feet, grabbing his aching ribs. He glanced quickly around. Howie'd said there were five guys with Gino, but he only saw two. Howie never could count . . .
Fortunately, Jean was gone. He finally spotted her, running toward the school building. Toward safety.
That was all the time he had before Gino plowed into him, driving him back against the station wagon. Jim grunted at the impact, but he managed to grab Gino by the shoulders and use Gino's own momentum to hurl him across the hood of the car. But then Gino's buddies seemed to swarm all over Jim. One grabbed his arms; the other grabbed him by the hair. He twisted and squirmed, but they held him fast. All he could do was watch helplessly as Gino climbed to his feet and picked up the baseball bat.
"You're gonna pay for that, Reed. You're gonna wish you'd never been born." He raised the bat and drove it like a battering ram toward Jim's abdomen.
Jim twisted violently and the bat struck a glancing blow to his hip. Gino staggered off-balance, but didn't go down. He came back for another go at Jim, and Jim did the only thing he could think of. He lifted both feet off the ground, kicking as hard as he could. It was clumsy, but he got lucky and caught Gino square in the chest and drove him back. Time. I just need to buy enough time until the cavalry arrives. God, send the cavalry and send it quick!
Gino glared at Jim, then came at him again. This time the punks holding him didn't let him use the same ploy. The bat found its mark this time, and Jim doubled over. He thought he heard Jean scream. Run, Jean . . . get away, get far away . . . Another blow drove him to his knees, and the world started to blur into a gray haze. His ears buzzed strangely, and a coppery taste filled his mouth. He shook his head, trying to clear it.
"Hold him up!" Gino growled, and Jim felt himself get jerked upright. His head snapped back and he found himself looking straight into Gino's black eyes.
"Don't . . . do this," Jim gasped.
Gino cursed and pulled the bat back, aiming for Jim's face. Before he could drive it forward, headlights washed over them.
"Cops!" the kid to Jim's left yelled and immediately dropped Jim. The other tough did the same. Jim fell to his hands and knees and immediately tried to crab backward, out of reach of Gino's bat. But Gino simply dropped the bat, gave Jim one last baleful look, and raced off into the night.
Jim teetered back onto his heels, keeping one hand on the ground for balance and holding his aching stomach with the other. The black and white patrol car rocked to a halt beside him, and Jim watched with dull eyes as the city seal on the white door swung toward him. "Kid, you okay?"
He stared at the shiny shoes, then up the dark pants, past the gunbelt and holster, to the badge and finally to the concerned face looking down at him from what seemed like an enormous height. Jim realized he knew the man. It was Officer Messner, the same one that took the report on his stolen car a lifetime ago. Messner squinted down at him, then repeated himself, "You okay?"
"Uh, yeah," Jim finally said. "I'm okay." He thought about getting up, but it seemed like too much trouble.
The officer glanced over at his partner. "Stay with him, Joe. I'll see if I can track down those others."
From his knee-high vantage point, Jim watched the dark pants climb back in the cruiser. The door swung shut and the city seal and the words "To Protect and To Serve" floated away.
"Kid, you sure you're okay?"
Jim blinked a few times, then groaned. "I think I'm-I'm gonna be sick!"
"I saw that hit you took to the breadbasket, kid, and I ain't-" Joe Williams' sympathetic words were interrupted by a girl's loud cries.
Jim looked up and completely forgot his aches and pains when he saw Jean running frantically toward him. He staggered to his feet, and she threw herself into his arms. "Oh, Jim, are you all right? Did they hurt you?"
"No, honey, I'm fine, I'm fine. Quit crying." He held her close, smelling her hair and feeling her softness against him. He spent a long moment being very, very grateful, then pushed her back enough to look at her. "Are you okay? Gino didn't. . . . ?"
She shook her head. "I'm fine, Jim. I'm j-just g-glad . . . " She couldn't say any more. She buried her face in his shirt and started to sob.
Jim took shaky breath of his own and held her tight. "I'm sorry, honey. I'm really sorry. I didn't think-I should have looked for you sooner."
"Kid, you wanna tell me what happened here?" Williams asked. He'd been patiently watching their reunion but now he had his notebook out and a get-down-to-business expression on his face.
Jim gave him the condensed version of the whole fiasco, and with a lot of grunts and head nods, the officer jotted down the facts in a small notebook. "I guess Howie musta called you guys, huh?" Jim finished.
"Howie Hewlitt. He was gonna get help . . ." Jim's voice trailed off at the officer's blank expression. He glanced at Jean, then glowered back toward the gym. "Where the heck did he go? Some back up he turned out to be."
Williams laughed. "Better choose your partner a little more wisely next time, kid. And speaking of partners, there's mine. Let's hope he bagged your buddies."
The black and white police car rolled to a stop along the curb. Before Officer Messner could get out, a small army of boys boiled out of the gymnasium doors, led by Howie. "Jim! You okay?"
Jim watched with mixed feelings of disgust and gratification as the basketball team, followed by Coach Meyers, approached. "Howie," he said in a pained voice. "What took you so long? If the cops hadn't come by when they did, you guys would be looking for a new guard for tomorrow's game."
Howie looked unabashed. "You know how long it takes to round up five guys who're scattered all over the place, making out with their girls behind the bleachers just like you and Jean . . . oh, uh, sorry, Jean," Howie stammered.
Jean, who'd finally stopped crying, narrowed her eyes at him and scowled. Howie blushed and looked down at his feet.
Coach Meyers took in Jim's bedraggled appearance. He started to comment, but switched his attention to the police officer. "What's going on, officers?"
"We're still sorting it out, sir, but it looks to me like this kid here-Reed, ain't it?" Williams waited for Jim's affirmative, then continued, "got waylaid by those three in the back seat of the patrol car." He jerked his head toward the back seat. "Kid, you wanna look and tell me if those are them?"
Jim peered into the back seat and saw Gino glaring at him. "That's them," he said confidently. "You gonna arrest them?"
"Hold your horses, kid, while I talk with my partner," Williams said as Messner approached. He pulled Messner to the side, and Jim watched them talk quietly. As Williams talked, a look of distaste passed across Messner's rough features as he shook his head. Williams frowned, tapped his notebook a few times, then walked over to Jim. "Kid, look, there's nothing I would like better than arrest those three. But the truth of the matter is, we didn't see the entire thing, and it's a case of their word against yours. I'm afraid as soon as you press charges against them, they'll turn right around and press charges against you, then you'd all be arrested because it looks like a case of mutual combat. It might be best if you all just went your separate ways."
"But they started it!" Jim protested hotly. "And you saw it-it was three against one!"
"I know, I know. We did see the tail end of the fight, and it didn't look exactly fair. But the plain truth is that we're getting a different story from them. Yes, your girl can help out, but we're still looking at their assertion that you started the fight."
Jim couldn't believe what he was hearing. "What was I supposed to do? Let 'em just take Jean and . . . and . . ." He couldn't finish out the thought.
"No, but you should have gotten one of the teachers or called us. Tell me, kid, is it worth it to get hauled to the station, processed through jail, then have to wait for a court date and a judge to sort it all out? And if it doesn't go your way, you're awful young to start out life with a record."
"Okay, okay," Jim grumbled. "But what about Jean? Can she press charges?"
"How old is she?"
"She's a minor. If she wants to press charges, she can do so, but we'll have to have her parents come down and sign out the complaint."
Jim looked over at Jean. "What do you want to do?"
"Officer, what do you think I should do?" she asked timidly.
"I can't say one way or another, ma'am," Williams said apologetically.
"Jim, I don't know if I want to cause you more trouble," she said softly to Jim.
"Hey, don't worry about me. Whatever you wanna do, I'm beside you all the way."
She chewed her lip. "What would he be charged with?"
Messner spoke up. "From what you've told us, plus your boyfriend's testimony and the rip in your dress and your scraped chin, I'd say there's enough to charge him with assault."
"Would they go to jail?"
"We would take him into custody, but sentencing would be up to the courts."
Jean studied the car's occupants, wavering indecisively. She finally shook her head. "No, officer. I don't guess I'll press charges."
"All right then, Frank, cut 'em loose. Read them the riot act and tell 'em to scram."
Jim shoved his hands in his pants pockets as they stood well away from the police cruiser, watching Gino and his pals make tracks away from the school parking lot. Gino's black stare didn't escape Jim's notice, but he chose to ignore it. Howie and the rest of the basketball squad followed Gino to the edge of the lot, yelling taunts at them the entire way. The two officers retreated to stand beside their patrol car, talking, and Coach joined them, leaving Jean and Jim alone for the first time since the whole fiasco broke loose. "I'm sorry, Jean," Jim sighed. "I really screwed up all the way around."
"Jim, it's not your fault. Who knew you could be arrested for coming to the rescue?"
"Yeah," Jim said glumly. Then he took her hand. "But I'd do it again."
Jean's eyes glowed.
Coach cleared his throat noisily. "Reed, it might be a good idea if you call it a night and take your girlfriend home."
Jim nodded. "Right, Coach. Hey, Howie," he called. "You still got my keys?"
Howie jogged back over, then fished them out of his pocket. Jim thanked him as they exchanged sets. "And Howie? I'm sorry I snapped at you."
Howie shrugged good-naturedly. "No problem. See you Monday." Howie and the rest of the basketball team sauntered back into the gym.
Jim unlocked Jean's door and held it open for her. "No duct tape this time," he said with a grin.
He closed the door behind her and started around the front of the car. That was when he noticed the left fender was suspiciously lower than the right. "Oh no," he muttered, hurrying around to check the tire. Flat. He squatted down. "Hey! Somebody slashed it!" He looked at the back tire. It was slashed as well.
Messner and Williams heard Jim's outcry and came over to look. "Five'll get you ten that's Spirelli's handiwork," Williams said.
"My dad's gonna kill me," Jim groaned.
"I don't guess you have two spares?" Messner asked.
Jim shook his head and stood up. Williams had walked all the way around the car, then stooped to pick something up. "Lookee here," he said, holding up an open switchblade by the point. "Good thing your friends didn't have this handy when you laid into them. You know, we might have reason to pick up Spirelli after all."
Jim looked at the blade glinting in the parking lot lights and suddenly felt very odd. His knees started to tremble, then something way down deep in his gut started to shiver, and before he knew it, his hands were shaking like he had some kind of palsy. He shoved his hands under his armpits so no one would see, but it was too late.
"You okay, Reed?" Coach asked.
"Yeah," Jim said, but his voice wavered.
Messner's gaze sharpened. "How hard did you get hit, kid?"
Jim shook his head. He wasn't shaking because anything hurt. He really couldn't say why he was shaking. Sure, the knife scared him, but not that badly. "I . . .just can't stop shaking," he finally whispered. He didn't want Jean to hear.
Messner took him by the arm and walked him over to the patrol car. "Sit down in the back seat for a minute until you calm down."
"I'm s-sorry," Jim said miserably.
"Nothing to be sorry about, son. You've had a bad scare and now reaction's setting in. A little shock, a lot of relief . . . your mind doesn't really know what to do with it all, so it sometimes comes out in the shakes."
"You sure nothing hurts? We can run you by Central Receiving, get you checked out."
Jim shook his head. "I'm okay, really. I mean, my stomach hardly hurts at all now."
"Okay." Messner squeezed Jim's shoulder, then turned to Coach Meyers. "Sir, this kid's in no shape to drive. Any chance you can run him home?"
"No, I really need to stay here at the dance. But I can call his parents for him."
Jim shook his head and pointed at the station wagon. "I've got the only car."
"How about the girl's parents?"
"Our car's in the shop," Jean said. No one had noticed that she'd gotten out. She leaned down to look at Jim. "Are you okay?"
Jim immediately shot to his feet. "I'm fine, really. We'll just walk home." But he wobbled and had to grab the roof of the black and white.
Messner snorted. "Fine, my foot. Sit back in that car, kid. You, too, young lady. We'll run you both home. Again," he added wryly.
"These two are becoming a full-time job for us," Williams grumbled as he removed his hat and dropped into the passenger side of the front seat.
While the officers said their good-byes to Coach, Jim slid gratefully back onto the vinyl bench seat. Jean immediately scooted over as close to him as she could get. He draped his arm across her shoulders protectively. It occurred to him that nothing had ever felt more right to him in his entire life than feeling those small shoulders under his arm. He might not be the biggest guy in the school, or wily enough to fight off three thugs completely without help, but he'd given her a chance to get away. That alone was worth a whole chest full of broken ribs. And the risk of jail.
She leaned her head on his shoulder. "Jim?" she whispered as they pulled out of the parking lot.
"You called me 'honey'."
He looked down at her. "Is that okay?"
She smiled. "It's fine, Jim. Absolutely fine."
The closer they got to Jean's house, the more Jim's nerves jangled. He leaned forward and tapped Messner on the shoulder. "Uh, you can drop us off at the corner."
"And have you pass out on the sidewalk? No thanks. We're driving you both to her door. We're bending enough rules as it is, carting you two around like this is a taxi service."
Jim blushed and sat back. When they finally rolled down Jean's street, Messner pulled to a halt alongside the curb, avoiding making a spectacle out of the showy black and white patrol car by pulling all the way into the driveway. Messner turned and leaned his elbow on the back of the seat. "Okay, kid, now walk your girl to the door, kiss her and if her folks notice us out here, just tell 'em the truth. Trust me, they'll think you're a hero."
Jean gave Jim's hand a squeeze. "They will, Jim. Honest."
"Think of it this way, Jim," Williams chimed in. "If it hadn't been for you, we might have had to call on her folks with far worse news."
Jim looked from one officer to the other and finally nodded. "Okay."
Williams got out and opened Jean's door. Jim slid across the seat and got out after her. Williams touched the brim of his hat in a mock salute. "We'll wait," he said with a wink.
Jim took Jean's elbow and guided her up the sidewalk. He glanced at his watch. Fifteen minutes before her curfew. At least that one small part of the evening went right. They climbed the porch steps. He hesitated before he opened the screen door for her. "Jean, I'm really sorry this turned out the way it did."
"I'm just glad you're okay," she said softly. She fingered a rip in his sleeve. "I guess you'll have to get a new jacket."
Jim shrugged. "The sleeves are getting too short anyway."
She smiled fleetingly, then took a deep breath and studied him. "I had a wonderful time. Truly."
"So did I, despite everything."
She glanced back toward the street, and the patrol car, then leaned closer to Jim. "But the next time, promise me you won't bring your cop buddies."
"Oh, I don't know. I'm kind of getting used to having them around."
She rolled her eyes. "Do like Officer Messner said, Jim. Kiss me goodnight."
"In front of the cops?"
Jean looked back at the police car again, then at Jim and pursed her lips speculatively. "I think," she said slowly, "that I might have to get used to it."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Jim asked.
She shook her head. "Nothing. Just some weird feeling I had."
Jim looked at her, standing there in the glow of the porch light, and he suddenly didn't care that there were two cops parked in a black and white less than forty feet away. He didn't care that he could see the shadowy outline of Jean's father silhouetted in the window. His world had narrowed down to the simple beauty of her face turned toward his. He bent his head down, and touched her lips with his. Tentatively. Softly. So very tenderly. He couldn't bear the thought that he might crush this beautiful rose that had been given him. And he couldn't bear thinking that his kiss might remind her of the far rougher treatment she'd received tonight. It only took a moment when their eyes first met for him to know she was something special, and, now it would only take a moment to spoil it all . . . he didn't dare risk it.
They parted, and the soft smile lighting her eyes told him he didn't have anything to worry about. "Thank you, Jim," she whispered.
He touched her cheek. Why do I already want to say 'I love you'? He didn't say it. Not yet. But he wondered if his eyes were giving away the secret he couldn't voice. He stepped back and opened the screen door for her. "Good night, Jean."
Jean smiled, then opened the front door and slipped in. The door closed softly behind her, and Jim took a deep breath. He held the screen door as it swung shut so it wouldn't clatter, then started down the sidewalk. Halfway to the patrol car, he cringed at the sudden sound of Mr. Carver's voice booming through the darkness.
"You brought her home in a police car? Again?"
Sometimes what starts out as a simple story turns into a real headache! Special thanks to Happypasture, Officer Doc, Kate and Leslie for helping me track down the information I needed. And thanks to Karen and Susu for beta-reads and encouragement. And of course, thanks to the creators, et al of Adam-12.