A Closet Full of Memories

by K. F. Garrison

©May, 2005

LAPD Patrol Officer Pete Malloy dropped his briefcase and helmet bag onto the floor of Central Division's locker room, then reached in his pocket for the key to his locker door. Man, am I glad this day's over. What a shift. What a week. He fumbled with the key, but finally managed to get the door open. Beside him, his partner, Jim Reed, dropped his own equipment onto the floor and sank down onto the bench in front of the lockers with a loud sigh.

"I hear you, partner," Pete said, with sympathy. Pete had been a police officer for over ten years, but this past week had easily made his top ten "worst weeks on the job" list.

"Is it just me, Pete, or has this been the longest week of my career?"

Pete leaned against his locker and studied his partner. The younger man looked utterly exhausted. Pete could hardly blame him, either. Their week on PM Watch had been particularly rough. Bank robbers, child molesters, drunk drivers, and burglars all seemed to pick the last week to perpetrate their dastardly deeds, and they all somehow managed to wind up Pete and Jim's district. It seemed to Pete that 1-Adam-12 had been the only unit the dispatcher had tagged with the difficult calls. More often than not, Reed had been called upon to chase down the suspects in lengthy foot pursuits, wrestle down a perp hopped up on God-knew-what drug, or otherwise push his body above and beyond routine duty to get the job done. Jim Reed deserved to be tired.

"It's been a rough one," Pete agreed. "But tomorrow's our day off."

"Yeah." Jim paused.

Jim's voice held a trace of bitterness that took Pete by surprise. He looked more closely at Jim, noticing his partner's slumped shoulders and face etched with lines of fatigue. Those didn't bother Pete as much as the dullness he saw in Jim's usually lively eyes. He seems tired in spirit as well as body. "What's wrong? You usually get enthusiastic about a day off."

"That's just it; it's only one day, not two." Jim ran a hand through his hair and blew out a breath. "Sometimes I wonder why I ever took this job."

"You know why you took it," Pete said, wondering why Jim seemed so morose. "And remember, we agreed to trim a day off for five weeks so we could have seven days off without dipping into vacation," Pete's voice took on a dreamy tone. "Think in the long term...in just a few weeks, we'll spend five days fishing one of the most beautiful lakes in the state, stay in a secluded cabin in the quiet, cool woods...you and Jean kissing under a starry sky..." Pete waved his hand expansively and grinned.

Pete's drama had the desired effect. Jim rolled his eyes and, with an obvious effort, pushed himself up off the bench. "I know, I know." Jim pulled out his keys and opened his locker. "I only hope my body can last another three weeks."

"You're the young one," Pete said. "You'll make it."

"I might be the young one, but I'm the one with the wife, kid, and a house to take care of." Jim removed his tie and hung it on hook on the backside of the door without even looking. "Last week on my one day off, my neighbor decided to cut his grass at 6:30 in the morning, and then started pruning that oak tree closest to my house with a chain saw!"

"I remember you saying that," Pete said, trying not to laugh.

"And of course, once I was up at that godforsaken hour, Jean and Jimmy found plenty of ways to turn a day of rest into a day of work." Jim hung his shirt on the hook in the back of his locker.

"You know you love playing with Jimmy," Pete said.

"Of course I do," Jim said. "And I usually like puttering around the house, too. But I always do that on my first day off, and rest on the second."

"So you're grouchy because your routine's been thrown out of kilter."


"Maybe tomorrow you'll get some rest. And you'll fall in love with the job all over again."

Jim turned a sour look on Pete. "No such luck. Jean's got a project for me, and I've been putting her off and putting her off. If I don't do it tomorrow, I'm gonna wind up sleeping on the couch."

"Sorry to hear that," Pete said, wincing in sympathy. "What's the project?"

"The closet in the guest bedroom. Jean wants it cleaned out."

"That doesn't sound so bad."

Jim snorted. "Shows what you know. It's a double closet. And it's packed to the rafters with junk. And I admit, it's mostly mine. There's some boxes in there that I packed up when I left home for college!"

"That's pretty bad, Jim."

"I know. And the boxes are falling apart. Jean wants me to either re-box them or throw the things away. So I'm going to have to go through them one by one and repack the stuff. It'll probably take me all day."

"I sympathize. What made Jean want this done all of a sudden?"

"Well," Jim hedged a bit, "she's been after me to do this quite a while, and I've been dodging the issue. Besides, we may have to convert that room to something else soon, and she wants to get a head start."

"Something else? Like what?"

"Like maybe moving Jimmy to that room, if he wants to." Jim paused a beat. "Or maybe a nursery."

"A nursery!" Pete's eyes widened. "Are you keeping something from me?"

"Not that I know of," Jim said with a tired laugh. "But then, again, there's always that fishing trip and the starry sky."

Pete grinned at his partner, inwardly congratulating himself for bullying Jim out of his sour mood. And just to make sure Jim didn't backslide into irritability, Pete immediately launched into a recitation of all the fish they could expect to be reeling in and roasting over a campfire on the upcoming fishing trip. He kept up the spirited conversation until they both had finished changing. By the time they reached the parking lot, Jim's grins had become genuine and the tired lines around his eyes had relaxed.

After they'd said their goodbyes and Jim had steered his car out of the lot, Pete slid into his own car, chuckling quietly to himself. I think I just did Jean Reed a big favor.


"Jim, how long are you going to stall before you start on the closet?"

Jim looked up from the floor of his son's room, where he and Jimmy had been building towers from blocks, and turned his most innocent look on his wife. If her facial expression accurately reflected her mood, Jim figured he was in trouble.

"I'm not stalling, honey," he said, matching his innocent look with an equally innocent tone. "I just wanted to spend a little time with Jimmy before I got started."

"Uh huh," Jean said. She crossed her arms and deepened the scowl on her face.

"We pway wif bwocks, Mommy," Jimmy said. He held up a small square. "See?"

"I see, sweetheart," Jean softened the tone of her voice when she spoke to her three-year-old.

"And we knock down!" Jimmy swatted at the half-built tower standing between he and his father, and the blocks crashed to the floor, scattering in all directions. "See, Mommy, see?" Jimmy clapped his hands gleefully, a bit of devilment crossing his angelic face.

"That was quite a crash, Jimmy," Jean said. She uncrossed her arms and stepped into the room.

"We do it again!" Jimmy started gathering the blocks and making a pile in Jim's lap.

"Not right now, son. Daddy has to do something for Mommy," Jean said firmly. She shot Jim an irritated look, then reached over and brushed hair out of Jimmy's eyes. "And you need to clean up your room, because your Mamaw and Papaw are coming over."

Jimmy's eyes brightened. "Mamaw and Papaw!" he said excitedly.

Jim frowned up at his wife, then scrambled to his feet. "What's up?"

"I'll tell you in a minute," Jean said, then spoke to Jimmy again. "You be a good boy and put up all your blocks and toys where they belong and just maybe Mamaw and Papaw will have a surprise for you."

"A s'pwise! Oh, boy, oh boy!" Jimmy moved into high gear, picking up his blocks and putting them into the plastic tub where they belonged.

"Mommy will be right back to see if you're done. But I need to show Daddy what he needs to do for me." Jean tugged on Jim's arm, pulling him toward the door.

"Do a good job, son," Jim said, following Jean out the door.

"Okay, Daddy!"

"Honestly, Jim, Jimmy follows directions better than you do," Jean said, once they had moved into the guest bedroom that Jean had stocked with the supplies Jim needed for his job. "The longer you put this off, the later it'll be when you finish."

"Oh, come on, honey, I really did want to spend some time with Jimmy this morning. I promised you I'd do this today, and I will." Jim pulled Jean to him in a hug and kissed the top of her head, hoping to placate her. "Now tell me what's going on with your parents."

"Well," Jean slipped her arms around Jim's waist and grinned up at him. "It's a bribe for you."

"What? What makes you think I need a bribe?"

"I haven't been married to you for over six years without learning how you work up here," Jean tapped Jim's temple, a knowing smile on her face.

"You think so, huh?" Jim tried to look hurt, but couldn't help but smile back.

"I know so," Jean said, but she tiptoed up to kiss Jim on the cheek.

Jim snorted and tried to get the hurt look back on his face. "I'm hurt that you think I need a bribe. I promised you I'd do it."

Jean rolled her eyes. "Like you've been promising me for the past three months?"

"Okay, okay, I deserved that. So, tell me about the bribe."

"Momma and Daddy want to take Jimmy to a fund-raiser festival the youth are having at their church. They've got some kiddie games, and food, balloons, clowns, you know."

"That sounds like fun. Jimmy'll like that."

"They'd asked me last week if they could take him, and then let him stay the night so they can take him to the zoo the next day."

"Sounds like quite a plan. Why didn't you tell me about this earlier?"

"Because they didn't know the date of the festival for sure; Momma's always forgetting things. And Daddy had to be sure he could be off work. But it's perfect timing. Jimmy'll be out of your way, and having a great time, and you can work undisturbed."

"Jean, I hate to tell you, but that's not much of a bribe," Jim said. "It sounds like Jimmy'll be having all the fun."

"I haven't gotten to the bribe part yet. Think about it -- if Jimmy's with Momma and Daddy, we'll have the whole evening to ourselves, and all day tomorrow before you have to go in for PM watch." Jean hugged Jim tighter. "Just you and me...and an empty house...a romantic evening...sleeping late...." Jean reached up and brushed Jim's ear with a breathy kiss. "All the time to ourselves that we want...."

"I get the picture," Jim murmured into her hair. "I think I like the way you think."

"Correction. The way you think." Jean grinned up at him.

"Oh, yeah."

"Did I get it right?"

"Very right. Now, how about a little down payment on that bribe?" Jim leaned down and kissed her warmly.

Jimmy's childish voice broke into their intimate moment. "Mommy! I frew wif my bwocks! Come wook!"

Jean pulled away from Jim's embrace. "Hold that thought," she said.

"Don't worry."

"But get to work."

"Yes, sarge."


An hour and a half later, Jim had the guest room closet emptied, despite being interrupted by his in-laws and going through the ritual of saying good-bye to his son, which, at three, always turned into a lengthy production. Jim looked in dismay at the piles of boxes, bags, and loose clothing that somehow had to be placed into a neat, coherent system by the end of the day. He wiped sweat from his brow and pulled at his t-shirt that had glued itself to his skin. This is impossible. Forget a romantic evening...I'll be here 'til midnight trying to sort this out.

"Should I start with the easy stuff and get it out of the way, or start with the worst and end up easy when I'm tired?" Jim asked aloud. He debated with himself briefly. "Better start with the bad stuff and get it over with."

Jim reached for the oldest, most deteriorated box and opened the rotting cardboard with little effort. A conglomeration of papers, pictures, and faded memorabilia filled the box to overflowing. Jim rifled through the contents and grinned when he turned up programs from elementary school presentations, sporting events, and other special occasions. I haven't seen this stuff in years. Oh, man, there's a program from Jane's first piano recital. Why on earth did I save some of this stuff? Jim pulled some of the papers out and made a pile of things to throw away, but even as he did so, he knew he couldn't do it. Jane might want to see these. And Jimmy might get a kick out of it in a few years. Instead of throwing the papers out, he grabbed a fresh, somewhat smaller box and transferred the contents. He taped up the box and dutifully labeled it with the contents and the date, then set it aside. That wasn't so hard...maybe this won't be as bad as I thought.

Jim selected another box and opened it. This one held a gold mine of photo albums full of family pictures and scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings from his high school sports career. He pulled the first album off the top and opened it. A grin split his face as he looked at old pictures of himself, his sister Jane, and his parents. "I sure was a goofy-looking kid," he said, chuckling at his 5th grade school picture. Jim flipped through a few more pages, and stopped when a loose picture fell from the book to the floor. He retrieved the picture, and felt his heart warm when he looked at the images there.

"Dad and me at the gas station," Jim said quietly. He ran a finger over the black and white image of himself at sixteen, his father's arm draped around his shoulders, standing in front of the gas station where his father had made his living until Jim's senior year in high school. It had been during that monumental year when circumstances had caused John Reed to sell the station and take other work. Those same circumstances had helped bring about convictions in Jim's own soul that eventually led him to his life's work. Jim remembered so well one of those life-changing times that had etched itself into his memory so deeply he could recall almost every detail of that day...


A loud knock at his bedroom door roused Jim Reed from a deep sleep. The sixteen-year-old moaned and pulled his pillow over his head. "Go 'way," he mumbled. If that's Jane messing with me, I'll kill her. As he turned over and pulled the pillow tighter, Jim realized it couldn't be his sister; she'd gotten married and moved out three months ago.

The knock sounded again and then the door opened. "Jim, wake up, son," John Reed stuck his head in the door.

"Dad?" Jim raised up on an elbow, and peeked out from under the pillow, wincing as sore muscles protested. Last night's football game had been a rough one, and he hurt over every square inch of his body. Winning the game and having a good personal performance only took away a little of the edge of that pain.

"Yeah. Son, I'm sorry, but I've got a problem. Ronnie's called in sick, and I don't have any help at the station this morning. I hate to get you up so early, but I need you to come in and work." His father sounded apologetic.

Oh, not today. I hurt too much. I'm too tired. I've got a big chemistry test on Monday. I need to study. "Bill can't come in early?" Jim asked hopefully.

"Bill's son has a ball game this morning and I promised him the morning off. I don't want to take him from that. Just like I don't like missing your games, son."

Jim couldn't stop his heavy sigh. "Sure, Dad, I'll help you out." He sat up slowly and looked at the clock. Seven-fifteen. Oh, man. What a way to spend a Saturday.

"Thanks, son. I'll pay you, of course."

"Dad, you don't have to do that." Jim wiped sleep from his eyes and stretched, wincing again at the renewed pain.

"Sure I do. You still need money for that car you've got your eyes on, right?" John asked his son.

"About fifty bucks," Jim confirmed.

"Well, you won't get all of it today, but maybe enough to put your first tank of gas in," John laughed.

"Yes, sir." Jim kicked off the sheets and sat up slowly.

"You sore today, son?" John asked, apparently noticing his son's stiffness.

"Yes, sir."

"You played quite a game last night. I'm not surprised you're sore." John smiled at his son in sympathy. "You got a nice mention in today's paper."

"Really?" Good press never hurt; it might increase his chances for a college scholarship. "Did I get a picture?"

John laughed again. "Not this time, hot-shot. But you keep racking up 100-yard games and you'll make it. Go take a hot shower and get dressed. That hot water'll loosen up those muscles. Your mother needs the car today, so she'll drive us in. You can eat on the way."

"Okay, Dad."

Jim did feel better after a hot, albeit brief, shower. He dressed hurriedly, hating to have to wear the blue work shirt that had his name monogrammed on a white patch over the left pocket. I hope none of my buddies see me dressed like this. Jim immediately felt guilty for thinking that way; he knew how hard his father worked to provide a good home for the family. There never seemed to be enough money, but they never lacked for anything. Somehow, his parents always managed to find the resources somewhere. Dad shouldn't have to pay me for helping out...especially after all the money they spent on Jane's wedding. Jim bent down and tied the laces of his work shoes, moaning as his back and thighs protested the stretch.

"Jim, get a move on, son!"

"I'm coming, Dad!" Jim double-timed it into the kitchen. "I'm ready."

"Good morning, son," Alice Reed greeted Jim.

"Hi, Mom," Jim grabbed up the sports section from the kitchen table, then planted a quick kiss on his mother's cheek. She pressed a soft hand to his own cheek and patted it, a warm smile lighting her eyes and face.

"I'm afraid your father's in a bit of a hurry, Jim. I put your egg and some bacon between two slices of toast. You can eat it in the car. I'll carry a cup of milk for you to drink to wash it down."

Jim looked at the makeshift sandwich sitting on a napkin on the table. "Neato," he said, scooping it up with his free hand. "Thanks." He followed his mother and father out of the house to the car, navigating the furniture from memory, his eyes not leaving the article on last night's game.

Jim read and munched his breakfast as his father drove them to the gas station."Why do quarterbacks get all the glory?" Jim asked around his last mouthful of sandwich. The picture accompanying the article had been of Westlawn High's quarterback fading back to pass.

"Don't talk with your mouth full, son," Alice said. She handed him the plastic cup full of milk, and Jim took a gulp.

"Don't talk at all if you're going to gripe," John said, with a tone of reprimand. "You play on a team, remember? I thought Steve Greene was your friend."

"He is, Dad. I'm not mad at him. It's just that out of all these pictures in the sports, they're all of quarterbacks. Maybe I picked the wrong position." Jim finished off the milk in a couple more large swallows.

"If you're playing football just to get your picture in the paper then I suggest you turn in your uniform on Monday," his father said, the tone of reprimand deepening. "I'm disappointed in that attitude, Jim. I've taught you better than that."

"Sorry," Jim mumbled, shrinking down in the seat a little to escape the rearview mirror glare from his father.

"You should be. Jim, you've got a lot of talent. You've got a good head on your shoulders, you can make quick decisions on the field, and best of all, you're fast. Not only do you have speed, you've got quickness, and a natural stride like I haven't seen in a long time. You're a natural-born runner. You're playing exactly where you need to be; where you can best help your team. If you do your job the best that you can, when the time comes, you'll be noticed."

"Yes, sir."

Jim's mother turned around in her seat and smiled. "You should always do what you do best, and do it the best you can," she said, in her usual quiet, supportive manner. "When you do that, good things will happen."

"Yes, ma'am." Jim said. He felt about as big as a gnat, and wished he could take back his earlier grumbling. Hearing his father say that he was disappointed in him stung him deeply. I guess I did sound like a whiny brat. I'll make it up to him by working extra hard today.

Which is exactly what Jim did all morning. He knew his father's routine well, and he put all of his considerable energy into cleaning up around the station, pumping gas, and being extra polite to customers so that his father could take care of car repairs in the garage area. The movement helped him work out the soreness in his aching muscles, and soon, most of the pesky pain had completely stopped. Keeping busy made for a fast morning, and before he knew it, Jim's stomach growled to remind him of approaching lunchtime.

I hope Mom gets here soon with lunch. I'm already starving. Jim scrubbed at one of the gas pumps with an oil rag dampened with a cleaning solution. He crinkled his nose in distaste at the odor, but determination to show his father he could be depended upon kept him working hard. Jim scrubbed at the pump until he'd cleaned it to his satisfaction. He'd just started cleaning the second pump when he heard the crunch of tires in the front entrance. Jim looked up as a Los Angeles Police Patrol car pulled up to the pump, activating the ding of the chime.

Jim recognized the two men in the black-and-white cruiser immediately as the regular day patrol officers. He'd seen and spoken to them many times as they prowled the area around his father's station. The officers often stopped to speak, and seeing them in the area always made Jim feel safer. His father's station had been robbed once before, and whenever Jim worked, the thought of a robbery loitered somewhere in the back of his mind. Besides, he liked leaning in and listening to the quiet chatter from the radio as he talked with the two personable policemen. None of it made any sense to him, but it all seemed exciting.

"Hi, Officer Markham, Officer Reynolds," Jim greeted the two men. "Do you need gas?"

"No, son," the older of the two officers, Reynolds, grinned at him. "We're just driving by and saw you out here. Your dad short on help today?"

"Yes, sir. Ronnie called in sick, and Bill's got the morning off. So I got elected."

"Is that any way to treat the hero of last night's game?" Officer Markham, the younger officer, and the driver of the cruiser, laughed. "Read the article in the paper this morning, Jim. Two touchdowns and 107 yards...not a bad night, young man!"

Jim couldn't keep the grin off his face at the praise. "Thank you." Then, as his father's reprimand about teamwork resurfaced, he added, "I've got some good blockers."

"Listen to that, Rick," Officer Reynolds laughed. "So modest."

"A real team player, looks like," Officer Markham agreed.

Jim blushed and ducked his head. "Thanks," he said again.

"Who you got next week, kid?" Reynolds asked.

"Phillips High. They're undefeated. It'll be a tough game."

"Yeah, I saw where they beat Coolidge by 25 points last night," Markham said. "Good luck."

"Thanks. We'll need it, I'm sure."

"Where is your dad, anyway?" Reynolds asked.

"In the service bay," Jim jerked a finger over his shoulder. "Installing a new alternator in a Buick."

"Well, tell him we dropped by. Maybe we can shoot the breeze next trip around the district."

"I will. He always enjoys talking to you." Jim stopped as the radio chattering seemed to increase. Neither officer seemed concerned. "How do you make sense of all that?" Jim asked, nodding toward the radio.

"You get used to it," Markham said. "There's a lot of chatter, but you learn to sift through it all and listen for your car designation."

"You thinking of joining the force, Jim?" Reynolds laughed.

"Who, me?" Jim asked in genuine surprise. "No, sir, I don't think so." Truth to be told, Jim hadn't made up his mind yet what he wanted to do with his life. The choice of a career was only one of a thousand decisions he knew he'd have to make in the next year or two, and the thought of having to do so made him weak in the knees. He'd always wanted to be a fireman, but lately he'd begun to think that had been merely a childish fantasy. Still, he wanted to do something meaningful, and certainly the fire service held a lot of opportunity for that.

"Give the kid a break, Paul. At the rate he's going, he'll be playing for the Rams, making the big bucks, not scratching around in a prowl car."

Once again, Jim reddened at the praise, and decided to change the subject. "Are you sure you don't need gas? Or your windshield cleaned?"

"What we need is lunch," Officer Reynolds said, patting his stomach. "We're headed down the street to Oliver's Diner, but when we saw you, we decided to say hello. Remember to tell your dad we stopped by."

"I will."

"See you around, kid," Reynolds waved as Markham pulled off.

"Yes, sir. Thanks again." Jim waved at the two officers and then returned to his pump scrubbing.

Jim had to gas up two more cars and clean their windshields before he caught sight of his mother driving down the block. "Finally, lunch!" He jogged to the service bay. "Hey, Dad, Mom's here with lunch."

John Reed lifted a grimy face, the grease making his teeth look almost stark white in comparison. "Just in time. I'm starving. How 'bout you?"

"Me, too. I'll watch the front while you go wash up. I'll help Mom get the food out of the car."

"Okay, son. If the Wilsons call about their car, tell them they can pick it up any time after 1:00. I'm almost done."

"Right." Jim trotted out to the car his mother had parked beside the service bay entrance as his father headed to the restroom in the back to wash up. "Hi, Mom! What's for lunch? I'm starving!"

"Oh, was I supposed to bring lunch?" Alice Reed asked, raising a hand to her mouth.

"Mom!" Jim said, recognizing his mother's teasing immediately. Dad's warped sense of humor is rubbing off on her. "I can see the box in the front seat."

"Can't get anything past you, can I, Jim?" Alice opened the rear door and took out a grocery bag. "If you can get the box, I can get this."

"Sure." Jim opened the door and grabbed up the box. The savory smell of home cooked food caused his mouth to water. "It sure smells good, Mom. Is that fried chicken?"

"Yes, it is."


"Try to find a clean spot on your father's desk and set it down there," his mother said.

Jim pushed a pile of papers aside and set down the box. He reached in to snitch a piece of warm fried chicken. The aroma of the fried bird not only had his mouth watering, but his stomach growling. But his mother playfully swatted at his hand, intercepting his attempt.

"Jim Reed! Do not touch that food until you've washed up. You don't look dirty, but I can smell the gasoline on you. Shoo and wash."

"I have to watch the front until Dad gets back. What if a customer comes?"

"Fine, but don't touch the food yet." Alice Reed softened her words with a smile.

"Do I smell fried chicken?" John Reed's deep voice boomed from the door leading to the service bay.

"Yes, honey. And potato salad and baked beans," Alice said.

"I knew there was a reason I married you," John said. He reached for his wife's waist and drew her close.

"John! Don't get grease on my blouse!" Alice said, but she offered no resistance to her husband's embrace.

"I'm clean, I promise," John said. He kissed Alice quickly, then turned to Jim. "Go wash up so I can kiss your mother properly. You're still too young to witness these things."

"Dad, good grief!" Jim rolled his eyes. "I've seen you kiss Mom a thousand times."

"Oh, really? Well, in that case..." John leaned down and kissed his wife again, this time, with more obvious feeling.

"I'm gonna go wash up now," Jim said, shuffling past his parents and heading for the back. He would have never admitted it to his parents -- or to anyone, for that matter -- but seeing his parents kiss and act so obviously in love was a great source of comfort to Jim. He had a lot of friends whose parents fought constantly, or who never spoke or spent time together, and he knew from what those friends told him how much of an emotional toll it took to live in that type of home.

Jim entered the bathroom and turned on the water full blast, soaping up and scrubbing his hands. I'm lucky. I've got great parents. So we're not rich like the Hewlitts. But there are things more important than money. I'd rather be happy than rich any day. I hope that I can find someone that'll make me as happy as Mom makes Dad. Someone who loves kids, and who can cook. I guess she'd better like sports, too. And a good kisser. Gotta find a girl who can kiss.

Jim shut off the water and took his time drying his hands, wanting to give his parents a little more private time together. He studied his reflection in the mirror over the sink, critical of what he saw there. Who am I kidding? I'll be lucky to find anybody to put up with this ugly mug. I'd better play for the Rams...that's probably the only way I'll ever get a girl to notice me.

Jim left the bathroom with a sigh, and decided to concentrate on satisfying his hunger rather than mapping out his future. Thinking about a future career and a probable wife made his stomach hurt. He walked through the service bay, surprised to hear a strange voice coming from the office area. An angry, strange voice. Jim slowed his pace. I didn't hear the chime. Then Jim heard his father's voice, also angry, but tinged with fear.

"This is it. Take it and get out!"

"Quit jiving me, man! You got a floor safe! Get it open, or the lady gets it!"

Jim froze in mid-step as he realized his idle thoughts of being robbed now had become frightening reality. A robber! Somebody's robbing the station!" Jim heard his mother gasp and squeal, and then his father's voice sounded again. This time, the fear in John Reed's voice transcended all other emotions.

"Leave her alone! I'll give you whatever you want. Just let her go."

Jim felt his own knees go weak as fear for his parents' lives washed over him. Then he heard his mother squeal again, as if in pain, and the fear turned in an instant to blind anger. Jim's first instinct was to rush into the office, tackle the robber and beat him senseless, but fortunately, his common sense prevailed. Instead, his heart pounding in his chest, Jim lay flat against the wall of the service bay and inched as quietly as he could toward the door leading to the office. He'd tackle the guy if he had the angles...and if he had the courage.

"I'll open the safe. But you've got to let me get the key."

"Where's the key, man? Where you keep it?"

"On my key ring. It's on the desk, right there, see?"

"I see it. Get it. No tricks, or I'll blow her head off!"

"Take it easy, man. No tricks. I promise."

Jim reached the door then. Fear had his breathing so ragged he wondered if the robber could hear him. Just in case, Jim took a breath and held it, then eased his head ever so slightly into the door. Jim's heart turned over at what he saw. The robber, a small, wiry black man, stood less than four feet from him, with one arm wrapped tightly around Alice Reed's neck. The robber held the biggest gun Jim had ever seen in his other hand, and he had the barrel pressed right against his mother's temple. She whimpered from fear and discomfort. Jim had to grind his jaw to keep from screaming out in rage at the intruder.

The robber had his back turned to Jim, all of his attention focused on John Reed, who stood at the desk, reaching slowly for the key ring that held the keys to the floor safe. Jim felt certain he could tackle the guy, but if something went wrong and the gun went off, his mother would die. Jim knew he could never live with that. Jim wanted to do something; he needed to do something; but his mind seemed shut off, unable to think, clouded by anger and fear. God help me. What do I do? Please don't let him hurt them! Show me what to do! In frustration, Jim clenched his hands into fists at his side. He wanted nothing more than to use those fists to break the robber's jaw and a few other bones, but deep inside, some inner voice warned him that attacking would be a mistake.

Jim saw his father pick up the key ring and turn back toward the robber slowly. When his father faced the robber fully, he made eye contact with Jim. John's expression changed ever so slightly before he lowered his gaze back to the robber. The robber flinched as if to turn toward Jim, and Jim jerked his head back out of sight.

"I've got the keys right here," John spoke up quickly.

"Man, get over there and open that safe. And make it fast!"

"I am," John said, his voice loud -- much louder than when he'd earlier spoken. "Don't do anything stupid. I'll give you what you want."

"You got that right, man. Give me everything."

Jim knew that his father's words were meant for him. Don't do anything stupid. But I've got to do something...what can I do? Even as he asked the question, his mother's words from earlier in the day sprang into his mind. You should always do what you do best, and do it the best that you can. When you do that, good things will happen. Jim squeezed his eyes shut briefly, fighting back the fear. What do I do best? Run. I can run...but how can I run when my parents' lives are at stake? How can I just leave? And where do I.... And then the answer hit him, as swift and powerful as a lightning bolt. Oliver's Diner! Officers Markham and Reynolds are eating lunch...they can be here faster than even a phone call could bring them!

Jim knew then exactly what he had to do. The decision made, he pushed doubt and fear aside and started to move. He quietly snaked his way around the service bay, keeping out of sight of the office, until he reached the back. Jim slithered silently through the back door, and once he hit the pavement, he started to run. He ran into the alley behind the gas station, turned right, and streaked for Oliver's Diner.

Jim Reed ran as fast as he'd ever run in his life, even though his heavy workboots felt like lead on his feet. He ran as if three two-hundred-pound linebackers pursued him. He ran, the horrific sight of his own mother with a gun to her head pushing him to speed that he didn't know he had in him. Jim had to leap over a fallen garbage can and a series of boxes that the massive furniture store nearby had carelessly let fill the alley. He dodged around one of their garish yellow delivery trucks and nearly knocked over someone -- he didn't know or care who -- and kept running.

Jim reached the end of the block, made only a cursory glance at the cross-alley and kept running. His chest began to ache from the exertion, but he ignored it and ran on. It seemed like it was taking forever to run the two and a half blocks to the diner. When he reached the end of the second block, he remembered that the diner sat on the opposite side of the street from the gas station, and he'd have to cross a very busy thoroughfare. Jim's feet pounded a rapid rhythm on the pavement that accompanied the prayers in his head. Please God...don't let him hurt Mom and Dad...please let the officers still be at the diner...don't let me get run over crossing the street...

When Jim reached mid-block, he cut in between the small dry cleaners and the parking lot of the Beauty-Rama Beauty Parlor. That put Oliver's Diner directly across the street from him. Relief flooded through him when he saw the LAPD black-and-white cruiser sitting in the side parking lot. Thank you, God!

However, the biggest obstacle remained -- crossing the street. Jim slowed only long enough to check to his left. A flood of cars headed slowly his way, having just been released by the traffic light at the end of the block. If I don't go now...Jim bolted across the closest two lanes of traffic, but the blare of a horn and the squeal of tires caused him to slow down. A station wagon screeched to a stop, smoke coming from the tires on pavement, its rear-end fishtailing in an effort to keep from striking Jim. Jim calculated the distance the car would travel, then altered his trajectory and streaked the rest of the way across the street. He didn't even register that another driver in the far lane had to stand on the brakes to keep from hitting either the fishtailing station wagon or Jim himself.

Nor did Jim care about the traffic any longer. He'd reached his goal. Help for his parents lay behind the door. He could be back at the gas station with the officers in under a minute if he could make them understand the urgency. Jim burst through the door of the diner, sweat pouring down his body, chest heaving, his breath coming in ragged gasps, lungs burning. Several customers looked up as Jim burst through wildly. A few squealed, startled. Jim swept the large dining area with a frantic gaze, but he didn't see the officers.

"Officer Reynolds! Officer Markham!" Jim yelled as loudly as his breathless condition allowed. Jim arbitrarily ran to his right, searching for the blue uniforms of the patrol officers. "Officer Reynolds! Officer Markham!"

"What on earth?" From across the room, Officer Reynolds' head appeared over a glass partition that separated the room in two halves. "Jim?"

"I need ... your help!" Jim gasped, still desperate for air. He raced around the corner and slid to a stop at the officers' table. "A robber, at the station! He's got...my mother! Come on!" Jim waved for the officers to follow him, then turned to run.

"Whoa! Wait a minute!" Officer Reynolds snagged Jim's arm and pulled him to a stop. "Settle down, son."

"There's no time to waste! He's got a gun...he's got it right up against her head," Jim could hardly say the horrible words. He struggled to keep his voice from breaking. He ignored the horrified, curious stares of the patrons in the diner.

"What kind of gun?" Officer Markham stood, his brow wrinkling.


"Shotgun or handgun?" Reynolds asked. He looked Jim square in the eyes and kept his voice low and calm.

Something in the officer's demeanor knifed through Jim's fear-induced mental fog. "Handgun. Long barrel. Blue steel." Jim dragged in a deep, shaky breath, and the need to do something tugged relentlessly at his heart. "Why are you just standing here?"

"The more we know, the better we can help you and your parents, son," Reynolds said, not unkindly. "Did the robber see you?"

"No. He didn't. I was in the back...he had his back to me when I walked up."

"Was he alone?"


"Did you see a car?" Reynolds and Markham started walking toward the door, and Reynolds pulled Jim along with him.

"No. But I ran out the back to come get you and I didn't really look."

"Describe him."

"Male negro. Shorter than me...maybe five feet ten inches. Skinny, kinda wiry looking. Looked about 30 or so."

"What was he wearing?" Markham asked. They'd reached the door, and the younger officer muscled it open.

"W...wearing? Oh, Lord..." Jim tried to dredge up the robber's image in his mind, but what stuck out most continued to be the gun to his mother's head and her sounds of fear.

"Get in the back, Jim," Reynolds said. He opened the door for Jim, then got in the front and jerked up the radio microphone.

"This is 8-Adam-3. We have a two-eleven in progress at 1524 West Burton Boulevard. One suspect, male, negro approximately 30, approximately five feet ten inches tall..."

"He was wearing jeans, a black t-shirt and a black jacket!" Jim yelled from the backseat, as his memory finally coughed up the image.

"Wearing blue jeans, black t-shirt, black jacket. Requesting back-up."

"Eight-Adam-3, roger."

Jim clearly heard the dispatcher acknowledge the call and send another unit for back up as Officer Markham wheeled the black-and-white out of the parking lot and made the sweeping left turn heading back toward the gas station.

Officer Reynolds bent over and brought up a shotgun from somewhere underneath his seat. He turned to Jim. "Listen, Jim, we're gonna go through the alley and come up from the back. Maybe we can take him by surprise. When we get there, you lay down in the back seat and don't get out until we say so."

"What about my Mom?" Jim asked. Now that he'd done everything he could do, he felt his insides start to quiver. He fought to keep that quiver buried and out of his voice.

"Your parents' safety is our first priority," Reynolds said, his eyes and voice both full of kindness. "And yours as well. Stay in the car. Understand?"

For the second time that day, Jim balled his hands into fists at his side, more to keep them from shaking than anything. Sitting in safety and doing nothing while his parents faced death went against every instinct he felt tugging at his heart, but he nodded to the officer. "I understand."

"Good. Rick, don't take the car past the furniture store. I don't want him to make us too early."

"Right," Markham said, tight lipped.

Jim sat forward in the seat, leaning between the two officers, his heart pounding. He'd recovered his breath, but his thoughts still raced darkly in his mind. Please don't let them be dead. Don't let them be dead. Markham eased the black-and-white around the yellow furniture delivery truck and pulled up to the edge of the massive furniture store's building.

Before Markham could get the cruiser stopped, a blur of motion burst from the back of the gas station and headed toward them down the alley. Jim's heart leaped as he recognized the robber, who now had a bulging bag in his left hand.

"There he is! There he is!" Jim pointed to the fleeing felon. "That's him!"

Markham hit the gas and the black-and-white lurched forward. The robber, confronted with an LAPD cruiser moving toward him, dug in his heels and stopped. After a brief moment of indecision, the robber backpedaled, then reached into his jacket.

"Get down!" Reynolds yelled. He pushed Jim back with his left hand, then ducked down himself as Markham hit the brakes hard and sank down in the seat. A second later, a shot rang out, and the front windshield shattered, sending glass flying in all directions.

"Son of a...!" Reynolds yelled. He slung his door open and Jim heard him jack a shell into the shotgun's chamber.

"Stay down, Jim!" Markham said, as he slammed the car into park and bailed out his own door.

"Freeze! Police!" Reynolds said, his voice turned to pure iron.

"Now! Drop the gun!" Markham echoed.

Jim couldn't resist easing into a sitting position to look. He cleared the backrest of the front seat just in time to see the robber turn to run. The man popped another shot over his shoulder that went wild. The two LAPD officers did not give the robber another warning. Reynolds unloaded both barrels and Markham fired almost simultaneously. Jim didn't know which one of the officers hit the bandit, but he spun and fell sprawling on the alley pavement. His gun skittered across the alley.

"Don't you move, mister!" Reynolds ordered. "Keep your hands where I can see 'em!"

Jim wondered why Reynolds bothered to talk to the robber. He looked unconscious to Jim, maybe even dead. The noise from the shotgun and Markham's .38 reverberated in Jim's head, leaving him a little shell-shocked. He wondered how it might feel to get shot. It sure looked like it hurt. The guy was crazy to shoot at a couple of cops. The words of his own thoughts turned Jim's blood cold and pulled him instantly out of his brief shock. If he'd shoot at cops...maybe he'd...oh no!

Jim grabbed the handle of the back door and slung it open. Forgetting his promise to stay put, Jim ran for the service station, praying that he wouldn't find his parents dead.

"Jim, get back here!" Markham yelled.

Jim ignored him. He became vaguely aware that both Markham and Reynolds ran toward the suspect, but Jim's trajectory turned his back to any further action by the police. Jim raced towards the office, heart in his throat. "Mom! Dad!" Jim burst into the office, looking around, but he did not see his mother and father in there. "Mom! Dad!" Jim yelled. He moved through the side door leading to the service bay and fought down panic. What if the robber had taken them to the back and..."Mom! Dad!"

"Jim? Jim!"

Jim had never been so glad to hear his father's voice, followed by the sounds of his mother sobbing. He ran toward the sound, and then his mother came hurriedly through the back door, tears rolling down her face. His father followed right behind her.

"Jim! Oh, sweetie, you're okay!" Alice grabbed Jim in a fierce hug. She kissed him on the cheek, her tears leaving wetness there.

"Me? You!" Jim squeezed his mother close, barely able to get out a coherent thought. "You were the ones in here! He had that gun..."

John Reed put his arms around his family and hugged them to his chest. "We didn't know where you were, son. When we heard the shots, we feared the worst."

"Are you both okay?" Jim asked. His legs felt like cooked noodles and his insides started to quiver again. He fought desperately to quell the shaking that threatened to take over his entire body. "Mom, did he hurt you?"

"No, son." Alice dropped her head onto Jim's chest and cried all the harder. He awkwardly tried to comfort her.

"Fine. We're fine," John said, "Now that we know you're not hurt. Just scared and angry." He stopped and looked at Jim. "How did the police get here so fast?"

Alice lifted her head and wiped tears from her face. "You're soaking wet, Jim. What happened?"

Jim disengaged himself from his mother's arms, after patting her shaking back and kissing her cheek again, and leaned back against the service bay wall, crossing his arms to hide his own shaking.

"Did you run next door and call the police? They must have been right in the block!" John said. Now that Jim had let go of his mother, John wrapped his arms around her, consoling her by rubbing her arms and back.

Jim paused a moment before answering. Run next door and call? I didn't even consider it. No. Going to the diner was the thing to do. He shook his head and took a careful, deep breath. "Right before Mom came, Officer Markham and Officer Reynolds pulled up and talked to me by the pumps. They told me they were going to eat lunch down at Oliver's. I remembered that. So I ran down there and got them."

Alice stared at her son. "No wonder you're soaked in sweat! That's almost three blocks! And you had to cross the street!"

"Mom, I know how to cross the street," Jim said, pretending to be insulted. No need to scare her further by mentioning his close encounter with the station wagon.

"By God, son, that's using your head," John said, obviously proud.

Two more LAPD black-and-whites roared into the front area of the service station. One wheeled around back to the alley, the other pulled up in front of the service bay, and two officers got out with guns drawn, heading their way.

John still looked at Jim with undisguised pride.

"I got your message Dad, loud and clear," Jim said.

"Thank God for that," John said. "For a minute there I thought you were going to do some damned fool thing like try to tackle that guy."

"Jim!" Alice cried. "You wouldn't have!"

"Of course not, Mom," Jim said hastily. He would not admit that action had, indeed, been his first instinct.

"You people all okay?" One of the police officers, a tall, intimidating-looking black man, asked.

"We're fine," John assured him. "Your buddies out back got the guy."

"He dead?" the officer asked.

"Don't think so. I heard them call for an ambulance."

"I'm Officer Johnson, and this is my partner, Officer Quarles. He's going to take your report."

Officer Quarles pulled out a notebook. "I'm going to need some information from you, sir," he said, as Johnson moved to the back.

John suppressed a sigh. "I know the drill."

They spent the next few minutes answering the routine questions from the officer and describing the events that had occurred during the robbery. About half-way through the questioning, an ambulance roared into the gas station lot, sirens blaring and lights flashing. It went around the back to apparently collect the injured robber. About the time that Quarles handed his report book to John to sign, Officer Reynolds walked up and stood in the door leading to the service bay, hands on his hips.

"Thank you, Mr. Reed," Quarles said, when John handed the report back. "Reynolds, how's the suspect?"

"He'll live," Reynolds said. "Markham and I will book him absentee after we take care of some business here."

"Good thing you guys were in the area," Quarles said. He closed his book with a snap and pointed it at Jim. "And that this one here's got a great set of wheels."

"That's my son," John said with pride.

"Good thing is right," Reynolds said. "You know who we got out there? Rufus White."

"No kidding?" Quarles' eyes widened. "How long have we been trying to nab him with something that would stick?"

"A long time. Looks like we scored today. I guarantee this job'll stick like glue."

"That'll make the sarge happy. We'll tag up on these reports later, okay?"

"Fine. Go ahead and clear. We'll wrap up here." Reynolds waved the officer on. "Thanks for your help."


The ambulance sirens started up again, and it left the station at a more sedate pace than it had arrived. As Quarles left to retrieve his partner, Reynolds crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Jim.

"Jim Reed," he barked.

"Yes, sir?" Jim had finally gotten over most of his shaking as the routine of recounting the facts had calmed him, but the tone of Reynolds' voice started his heart racing again.

"What was the last thing I told you to do in the car back there?" Reynolds asked.

"Uhhhh...to stay in the car until you told me to get out."

"Which you promised me you'd do," Reynolds reminded. "And which is exactly what you didn't do." The officer's scowl deepened.

"But you got the guy! He was down. And I had to see about my parents."

"He was on the ground, yes. But for all we -- and you -- knew, he was faking. He could have had another gun. He could have gotten up and grabbed you as you ran by. The situation wasn't secure. You took a big risk." Reynolds stared at Jim until he dropped his eyes.

"Sorry," Jim mumbled.

"You'd be sorrier if that had been you in that ambulance."

"Oh, Jim, son," Alice said, with a frightened sigh. "You should never put yourself in danger like that!"

"I'm sorry, Mom. I...I guess I just didn't stop to think that he could be faking."

"That's because you haven't been trained to think that way," Reynolds said. "That's what we're paid to do and why you should listen when a police officer gives you instructions. Understood, Jim?"

"Yes, sir," Jim said contritely.

Reynolds softened his tone and the scowl left his face. "John, that's quite a boy you've got there. He's got a lot of guts."

"You don't have to tell me that," John said, his face beaming.

"And he's got it up here, too, apparently," Reynolds tapped the side of his head with his index finger. "If you could control that impulsive streak you've got, maybe you should reconsider joining the force, Jim. That is, after you're done with the Rams!"




Jim tucked the picture of he and his father into the fold of the album. Well, Officer Reynolds, I never made it to the Rams. But I did make it to the force after all. That day had certainly contributed to his decision to become a police officer, but the actual moment of decision had come much later, after a lot of soul searching, more family crises, and a lot of grief. My life changed so much in the next few months. We had a great football season, I made All-Conference in basketball, and I was tearing up the track and the baseball diamond. I thought I was on top of the world. Jim turned a few more pages in the album and found himself becoming melancholy as picture after picture reminded him of his early family life and most especially of the mother he lost too soon. Funny how you can fall so hard off the top of the world...


Jim stood at home plate staring down the opposing pitcher, a sixteen-year-old phenom from rival Central High School who had a curve ball that could slice down Mickey Mantle. Jim licked his lips and choked up a little on the bat. His Westlawn High Wildcats were on the wrong end of a 4-3 score in the bottom of the eighth inning, with two outs and two on base. This game held important implications for the Wildcats; a win put them in a tie for first in their area, whereas a loss dropped them two games back. With the playoff season just around the corner, every win became important.

Jim refused to let a 1-2 pitch count rattle him. Be patient. Be patient. Wait on your pitch. Jim never took his eyes off the pitcher, though he could hear his coach and teammates yelling encouragement to him.

The opposing pitcher entered his stretch and delivered another sweeping curve ball like the first two that had put Jim in the hole. Jim flinched but didn't swing when he determined that this one would miss the strike zone. The ball hit the catcher's mitt with a thud and the umpire called out "BALL!" in a gruff screech.

The Wildcat's home crowd cheered and applauded. Jim heard his brother-in-law, Phil Barstow, yelling over the din of the crowd. "Way to watch, Jimbo! You've got him now!"

Jim hated it when Phil called him Jimbo. He'd been trying to lose that nickname since 6th grade. He grit his teeth and shoved thoughts of his sister's new husband out of his mind. Focus on the game. Put the ball into play. Wait.

The pitcher stepped off the mound and Jim stepped out of the batter's box as scattered boos erupted from the partisan crowd. Jim looked over at his coach and watched him give signs. Then the coach clapped his hands and yelled over, "Stay with it, Jim!"

Jim nodded once, then stepped back into the batter's box. He glanced at the crowd quickly, as the opposing pitcher looked to his own coach for signs. Jim saw his mother, sister Jane, and Phil sitting front and center, along with a healthy crowd of other parents and Westlawn students. His father, short on help again at the gas station, had not been able to make this game. Jim knew that his father hated it worse than he did when he had to miss a game, so he tried not to show his disappointment when his dad couldn't make it.

The pitcher looked to home, then, and Jim raised the bat off his shoulder. Again, he stared at the pitcher, studying his moves, watching his eyes. Patience. Focus. This time the pitcher didn't pitch from the stretch and Jim's heart leaped. Maybe this is my fast ball...bring on the heat, man.

The pitcher obliged him, offering up a fastball. Jim's eyes widened in anticipation, and then even wider in fear when the pitch flew wildly out of control, high and tight toward Jim's head. Jim jerked backward to keep from being beaned by the baseball, lost his balance and sat down hard as the ball went over the catcher's head and rolled to the backstop.

"BALL!" The umpire screeched again, but it was lost in the roar of the crowd as the base runners advanced ninety feet.

Jim picked himself up and dusted himself off. His teammates yelled and grumbled from the dugout, naturally assuming that the pitch had been intentional intimidation. A round of catcalls and boos from the crowd echoed the sentiment.

"Shake it off, Jim!" Coach Conner yelled. "Don't let him spook you!"

No way. No way this little jerk's gonna intimidate me. Jim took his position in the box again and hardened his stare at Central High's ace pitcher. Bring it on.

The Central hurler served up three consecutive curve balls, all of which Jim fouled away, staying alive for his at bat. The confrontation became a battle of wills; one Jim had every intention of winning. I'm not gonna blink first. He can't throw that curve just right 4 times in a row.

Jim narrowed his focus down to the pitcher and his motions. He shut out the crowd, his teammates on base, even his coach. The world for Jim Reed became the sixty feet and six inches between home plate and the mound. The Central pitcher entered his stretch, and it seemed to Jim that time had slowed down. He saw the ball at the exact moment of release from the pitcher's hand, and knew immediately that the pitch looked different. The ball seemed to float toward home, chest high, slightly outside, hanging there like a grapefruit ripe for the picking. Hold back, hold back. Jim waited until just the right moment, then took a powerful, level swing at the hanging curve ball.

The resulting solid thwack of leather on wood told Jim Reed all he needed to know. He'd gotten all of that pitch, and they'd be lucky to find it buried in the weeds beyond the right field fence. He dropped the bat and ran for first, not looking at the arcing flight of the ball, but listening to the reaction of the crowd to confirm that he'd just hit his 18th home run of the season, and put his team up by two runs.

Jim rounded the bases in his home-run trot as the home crowd celebrated. He kept his eyes down and the grin that wanted to come out off his face. His father had taught him to always show class whether in victory or defeat, and to never flaunt his accomplishments in front of the enemy, because you just never knew when that would come back to haunt you.

But celebrating with friends was another matter altogether. Jim's teammates had formed a ring around home base, already glad-handing the two Wildcats who had crossed home already to score. They moved aside to let Jim tap the plate, then mobbed him with handshakes, cheers, and hearty slaps on the back. Jim let the grin loose then, and joined in the celebration. He chanced a look up in the stands, and his grin widened as he caught sight of his mother standing up, bouncing for joy, leading the cheers. Jim held back as the team returned to the dugout and gave his family a big "thumbs-up" sign. His brother-in-law returned the sign, his sister waved, and his mother blew him a kiss.

Jim took his seat on the bench feeling pretty good about himself and the way the game had changed. I wish Dad could have seen that. "Come on, Mark, get us another one!" Jim yelled encouragement to his teammate heading for the plate.

Central's pitcher, apparently shaken by Jim's homer, walked the next two batters, causing the crowd to go into another cheering frenzy. However, the cheers died when Westlawn's next man up hit a soft grounder straight to the second baseman, who stepped on the bag for out number three.

"Okay, guys! Three outs from a win!" Coach Conner clapped his hands. "Focus out there, and we can all go home and eat dinner early! Jeb...you good to go one more?"

"Yes, sir!" Jeb Walker, Westlawn's pitcher for the day, answered, as he put on his hat.

Jim grabbed his glove and trotted to his shortstop position. Glad I'm not in the pitching rotation today. I like it here better. He dug his feet in the dirt, flexed his knees slightly and pounded his glove three times with his free fist -- his ritual for settling in at shortstop. "Put it to 'em Jeb!" He yelled at his friend.

Jeb did "put it to" Central's first batter, striking him out on three straight pitches. However, the next Central batter hit a looping Texas Leaguer into short right field and beat out the throw to first. Despite encouragement from the crowd and his teammates to "shake it off," Jeb walked the next batter, which put the possible winning run at the plate.

Coach Conner came out of the dugout and walked to the mound, and the infielders gathered around their teammate and coach.

"Jeb, are you out of steam?" Conner asked.

"No, coach, honest. I can do it. I can get these guys. That looper was a fluke, and I swear ball four should have been strike three. I can do this."

Jim watched as Coach Connor rocked back on his heels and chewed on his cheek. Jim knew his coach always did that when he had to make an important decision. He even did it in the classroom before answering a tough question. The coach made eye contact with Jim, then the other infielders. "Whaddya say, men?"

"Okay by me, Coach," Wally Bryce, Westlawn's giant third baseman, said.

"If Jeb says he's okay, I believe him," Jim said, looking his friend in the eyes. "He wouldn't risk the game."

The other infielders nodded assent and murmured support.

"All right, Jeb, it's your ball game," Coach Connor said, tapping Jeb on the shoulder. "Do your best." He turned and headed for the dugout.

"Thanks, Coach," Jeb said. "Guys, let's do it!"

The young men left the mound and scattered to their respective positions.

"Play ball!" The umpire roared.

Jeb took a breath, entered his stretch and delivered a strike to the outside corner. The crowd applauded appreciatively. The next two pitches went high and wide, pushing the count to two balls and one strike.

"Come on, Jeb, you can do it!" Jim said encouragingly.

"Take your time, Jeb," Mike Murphy, the first baseman, called over.

Jeb sent the next ball almost dead center of the plate, and belt-high. Jim felt his heart leap, fearing the batter would jump all over the mistake and send it flying over the fence. Central's batter took a home run hack at the ball, but the swing came too early, and he missed. The ball plonked safely into the Westlawn catcher's glove.

"Strike!" The umpire called and motioned as the crowd cheered again.

Jeb walked off the mound and took a deep breath.

"One more strike, Jeb!" Wally yelled from third.

"Set him down, Jeb!" Coach Conner called from the dugout.

Jim added his own cry of encouragement as the crowd whistled and cheered. The Central team voiced their own cheer for their batter. The noise became nearly deafening.

Jeb returned to the mound and, after he took a moment to settle down, delivered his next pitch, a fastball that pushed low and inside. The Central batter turned on the ball and hit a rifle shot that skimmed just above the field, heading for the gap between second and shortstop.

Jim reacted almost without thinking. If that ball got past him the game would most likely be tied and the winning run in scoring position with only one out. Jim dove for the ball and snaked his glove hand out to knock the speeding orb to the dirt. He belly-flopped and felt the breath whoosh out of his lungs as he hit hard. But the ball struck his glove and dropped to the ground in front of him. The runner from second had already streaked past him for third, and Jim could see the runner from first just steps away from second base.

Without getting up, Jim grabbed the ball with his bare hand and gave it a back-handed flip to Billy Sandoval, who waited at second base. Sandoval caught it, then whirled and hurled the ball to first a split second before the batter reached the bag. The umpire signaled the out at first, confirming the game-ending 6-4-3 double play.

The home crowd really went wild then, standing to congratulate their victorious team with more clapping, whistles, and cheers. Someone started an impromptu rendition of Westlawn's fight song, and soon the whole student section joined in.

Jim didn't have a chance to get up from the infield dirt, because Sandoval whooped and leaped on Jim in celebration. Sandoval pounded him on the back. "What a stop, Jim! What a stop!"

Jeb made his way off the mound and joined Sandoval in the playful mobbing of Jim, and it didn't take long for the rest of his teammates to join in. Coach Conner rescued Jim from suffocation after giving the team a chance to celebrate.

"Okay, men, line up and shake," Coach Conner said, prodding a few of the boys toward the first base line, where traditionally, Westlawn players shook hands with their opponents at the end of every game, win or lose. The coach helped Jim get to his feet and shook his head at the sight of his shortstop covered in red dirt from the infield. "Your mother's going to kill you."

Jim grinned and tried to brush some of the dirt off his uniform. "Nah, she'll be okay with it."

"I wouldn't want to lose my shortstop before the next game."

"You won't."

Coach Conner grinned at him. "Nice stop, Jim."

"Thanks, coach."

"Now get over there and shake hands."

"Yes, sir." Jim trotted over and joined his teammates in the ritual handshakes. Once the Central players had left the field to get back on their bus, the Westlawn teammates started their own celebration again.

Jeb made his way back to Jim and grabbed his hand in a strong shake. "Thanks for saving my butt, man."

"You threw the right pitch," Jim said, returning the shake.

"Man, I thought Coach was gonna pull me," Jeb said. "Thanks for speaking up for me. I owe you."

"Forget it," Jim said with a shrug.

Jeb grinned at him, then pounded him on the back one more time. "Sure."

Jim spoke with a few other teammates before heading over to the stands to talk to his family, who waited patiently for him to finish celebrating with his fellow Wildcats. Before he reached them, though, a few of his classmates stopped to congratulate him and chat.

"Oh, Jim, you played so wonderful!" Tammy Belden bounced up to Jim, then hugged him and kissed him on the cheek.

"Uh, thanks," Jim tried to politely extricate himself from Tammy's clutches. Tammy had the reputation around school for chasing athletes, and Jim had done his best to stay out of her radar range. Jim thought Tammy could have been pretty if she didn't wear so much make up and act so obviously provocative. Both of those things turned him off completely.

Tammy batted her overly made-up eyes at him and flipped her overly bleached hair behind her shoulders. "I'm going over to The Dairy Barn for an after-game snack," she cooed at him, still clutching his arms. "Why don't you join me there?" Her look left no doubt that an after-game snack would turn into an after-game trip to the nearest make-out point.

"Thanks, Tammy, but I have plans," Jim smiled at her, but this time firmly pulled away from her grasp.

"Maybe some other time," Tammy breathed, flipping her hair yet again.

"Maybe." Jim walked around her and escaped to the relative safety of his family.

"Who's the looker?" Phil asked, when Jim approached. That earned him an elbow in the ribs from Jane. "Ow, honey, I meant for Jimbo, not me!"

"Nobody interesting," Jim said. "Just a classmate."

"You played a great game, son," Alice Reed said. She lay a gentle hand on Jim's shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

"Thanks, Mom," Jim said, then tugged at his filthy uniform shirt. "I got a little dirty."

"So I see," Alice smiled. "Don't worry. It'll wash out."

"Too bad Dad couldn't have been here," Jane said. "This was one of your better games."

Jim shrugged. "Yeah, I wish he could have seen this one."

"Well, you'll have a lot to talk about over dinner tonight," Jim's mother said, patting his shoulder again. "You are coming home for dinner?"

"Of course. I'll be home after I clean up and change," Jim looked down at his dirt-encrusted uniform again.

"I've made a big pot of chili," Alice said. "Extra spicy, just the way you and your father like it."

"Great!" Jim grinned. "I can't wait!"

"Jane, do you and Phil want to join us? I have plenty."

"Thanks, Mom, but we've got to stay home. Phil's expecting a call from a client tonight."

"And I need all of those I can get these days. Being married is expensive," Phil said, with a smile at Jane. "Take my advice, Jimbo, and stay single as long as you can."

Jane swatted her husband playfully on the arm. "Listen to you! We're hardly married nine months and already you're starting."

"I'm just kidding, honey," Phil said. "I love being married. Jimbo here knows I'm kidding, right?"

"Sure," Jim said. He hoped he sounded convincing, and not irritated. Jim found very little to like about his brother-in-law. Anything to get him to shut up. I don't know what it is about him that rubs me the wrong way. I guess I'd feel this way about anybody Jane married.

"We'll miss you," Mrs. Reed said, cutting off further comments. "But I'll save you some and Jim can drop it by tomorrow. Can you do that, son?"

"Sure, Mom. I can do that." Jim agreed readily. He had finally saved up enough money to buy his dream car, a 1950 Ford. He'd only had it for about six weeks, but he had big plans for that car, and had already started making improvements on it, as he had time and money. He'd run any errand just to get behind the wheel.

"Hey, Reed, you'd better move it or coach is gonna lock you out!" Sandoval called to Jim from across the parking lot.

"Okay!" Jim waved and called back. "I'd better go and clean up, Mom. Coach has to lock up and all and..."

"Go, honey," his mother said. "I'll see you at home."

"Okay. I won't be long."

"Bye, pest," Jane said, reaching up for a hug. "You played great."

"Yeah, kid, great game," Phil echoed.

"Thanks for coming. I'll see you tomorrow." Jim jogged off with a wave to his family. He made his way to the athletic locker room where most of his teammates had already started dressing for home or dates or whatever.

"Hey, Reed, I saw you talking to Tammy Belden," Mike Murphy said with a wiggle of his eyebrows. "Somebody's gonna get lucky tonight!"

"Musta been the homer," Wally Bryce grinned. "Tammy just loves a guy who can hit a home run!" He cackled at his own words and those within earshot of the conversation joined in the laugher.

Jim couldn't keep from reddening. My goose is cooked. No matter what I say, I can't win. If I say I'm not going out with her, they'll think I'm a loser. But I don't want them associating me with her, either, or the really nice girls'll never speak to me again.

Jim glared at Bryce and dropped his dirty uniform shirt onto the floor. "I'm not going out with her," he said.

"Man, you're an idiot, Reed," Murphy shook his head.

"You're not the first person to think so," Jim shot back. He gathered up a towel and soap from his locker and headed to the shower to wash the dirt off him. He could feel the stares of his friends boring into his back as he walked away. Maybe I am an idiot. I could never make those guys understand that I want more from a girl than just a body. Heck, I don't even think I understand it myself. Maybe something's wrong with me.

Jim stayed under the shower and scrubbed a long time; longer than necessary, actually, to clean up. He hoped his buddies would leave and he could dress in peace and leave without further discussion of Tammy Belden. Jim let the water flow over him and tried to wash away his conflicting feelings along with the dirt. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to help clear his mind.

"Reed!" Coach Connor's voice boomed from just outside the shower, and startled Jim out of his thoughts. "Get outta there! The LA Unified School District can't afford to pay its water bill as it is!"

"Sorry, coach!" Jim shut off the water and grabbed for his towel.

"I gotta wife waiting dinner on me at home, Reed. Double-time it!"

"Yessir!" Jim toweled off, wrapped it around him and finished dressing at his locker. As he'd hoped, his teammates had already left. Jim ran a comb through his hair and gathered up his dirty uniform. He stuffed it into his gym bag, along with his cleats and glove, and hurried for the door. Coach Connor stood there, arms crossed over his chest.

"Sorry I held you up, Coach," Jim apologized.

"Everything okay, Jim?"

"Oh, sure, Coach, yeah, everything's fine. I was just daydreaming. Sorry."

Coach Connor looked him square in the eyes. "You're a good kid, Jim. Don't let other people make decisions for you. You stick to your guns and do what you know to be right."

Jim looked back at his Coach and nodded. He must have heard us talking. "Yes, sir. Thanks."

"Good night, Jim."

"See you tomorrow, Coach." Jim fished his car keys out of his pocket, stowed his gym bag in the trunk, then headed for home. As soon as he cranked the car and got her moving, he felt better. Jim loved having his own set of wheels. He felt somehow liberated from his mundane life when he drove his very own car. His father had helped him tune up the car and work on the engine, so now it ran like a dream. Runs like a dream, looks like a nightmare. I've gotta get to work on this thing. It needs a new paint job real bad. I hate this old dirty white. I need a color with more style. Something that doesn't scream "Jim Reed's a square" when you see it. Even though I am a square. Jim sighed. I guess there's worse things than being a square. But I can't think of anything right now.

Jim drove home mostly on autopilot, still unable to completely rid the locker room conversation from his mind. He knew that he'd made the right decision to stay away from Tammy Belden and her ilk, but it still hurt to be ridiculed by his teammates. So what if I don't take advantage. It doesn't make me any less a guy. What's wrong with being a gentleman?

Jim reached his home, then, and parked his car on the street in front of the house so he wouldn't block the family car. He retrieved his gym bag from the trunk and sauntered down the sidewalk to the house, letting the familiar feeling of home take some of the burden off his heart. He could smell the chili his mother had prepared before he even opened the door.

"Mom, I'm home," Jim called.

"In the kitchen, Jim," his mother said.

Jim walked in and found his mother standing over the stove stirring the chili.

"I was starting to worry," Alice said.

"Sorry, Mom. I got distracted in the locker room," Jim said. "I lost track of time."

"It's okay, son. Why don't you go out back and shake the dirt out of your uniform. I've run some water in the washer to soak it in."

"Okay, Mom."

"While you do that, I'll fix you a big bowl of chili. I know you're hungry."

"Don't you want me to wait on Dad?" Jim asked, his hand on the back door handle.

"Your father's been delayed a bit. He called and told me not to come for another hour. He wanted to finish working on some car before he came home."

"Oh." Jim walked outside and brushed the loose dirt from his uniform and pounded his shoes on the side of the back steps to dislodge pieces of turf and more dirt from his cleats. That done, he returned the cleats to his gym bag, then went back inside and stuffed his uniform into the washer. He left his gym bag by the machine.

"The chili smells good," Jim said. He slid into his customary chair at the table, where his mother had placed a large bowl of chili and his usual accompaniments: onion, cheese, corn chips, and a big glass of milk.

"Eat up. I made plenty." Jim's mother sat down at the table with him, but she didn't bring herself anything to eat.

"Aren't you going to eat, too?"

"I'll wait on your father."

Jim looked more closely at his mother and noticed she'd done her hair and put on a pale purple dress and a pearl necklace. She looks pretty. "Are you going somewhere? I thought you had to pick up Dad."

"I do. But I have to stop at Cindy Martin's house and drop off a casserole first. She had her baby this afternoon, and I'm sure her husband would appreciate some food."

"Boy or girl?" Jim asked.


"Ummmm." Jim said around a mouthful of chili. He washed it down with some milk, then took another bite. "This is really good, Mom."

"Thank you, dear."

Jim's mother watched him eat a few minutes, then said, "You're upset with Phil, aren't you?"

"Huh?" Jim stopped his spoon halfway to his mouth.

His mother frowned.

"I mean, ma'am?" Jim hastily took another bite.

"When Phil teased you about that girl today. I could tell you didn't like that."

Jim shook his head as he took another long gulp of milk, and he waved a hand in dismissal.

"She was a pretty girl, Jim. Do you like her?"

Jim set his glass of milk down. "No, I don't."

"I just worry about you since Barbara broke up with you. She's not the only fish in the sea, son. And don't let one bad experience with a girl scare you off from dating again." Alice reached out and patted Jim's hand gently.

"Mom, I'm okay," Jim said. He didn't want to talk about Barbara Gentile, who had truly broken his heart just a few months earlier. Jim had finally put that experience behind him and he didn't want to bring up the past. And he certainly didn't want to talk about Tammy Belden with his mother. He stared into his bowl of chili and took another bite, hoping his mother would drop the subject.

"So, what's her name?"


Alice rolled her eyes and made an exasperated sound. "The pretty girl at the ball park."

Jim couldn't hold back a sigh. She's not going to let it go. "Her name is Tammy. And I'm not interested in her. Not at all. I don't even like her as a friend."

His mother looked surprised. "She seemed taken with you, Jim."

"Jeepers, Mom, that's the problem! Tammy's taken with just about any guy! She's...she's...not a nice girl, if you know what I mean. I don't want anything to do with her. I don't care how pretty she is." Jim spoke with a little more heat than he'd intended, and he ducked his head, chagrined at speaking to his mother in that tone. "Sorry, Mom," he mumbled.

His mother reached out and touched his hand again, but this time, she grasped it and held it. "No, I'm the one who's sorry. I shouldn't have been so nosy."

Jim shrugged, but looked up again. "You're my mother. I guess you're supposed to ask things like that."

"I'm supposed to trust you," Alice said. She squeezed Jim's hand gently, then let it go. "You've never given us any reason not to trust you. And that should apply to girls, too. As long as you're happy, I shouldn't worry."

"Don't worry about me, Mom."

"You know that Phil's just trying to be nice," Alice said, in an abrupt reversal of the subject. "He likes you and wants to get to know you better."

"I know that." Jim busied himself with eating again. I just wish he wouldn't try so hard.

"Your sister's very happy," Alice said. "She's found a good man."

Jim swallowed. "I'm glad she's happy."

"And one day, you'll find the right woman, and you'll be happy with her. And she'll be lucky to have a man like you for a husband."

Jim felt himself blush and he fought against it. He felt weird talking to his mother like this, especially after everything that had transpired in the locker room. Sometimes, he despaired that he'd ever find anyone who'd fall in love with him. And despite what he'd told his mother earlier, he did worry about finding a good girl; he worried that he came across as too square to get any quality girl to give him a chance. Jim shoved a spoonful of chili into his mouth to cover his embarrassment.

Apparently, the maneuver didn't fool his mother. "Jim, the right girl for you is out there. Don't give up looking. Don't let what Barbara did to you make you distrust all girls."

Jim nodded as he swallowed, still unwilling to meet his mother's eyes. How will I know? How can I tell? I thought I knew Barbara pretty well. And then I caught her kissing Rick Black... He pushed the memory of that heartbreaking sight from his head.

His mother spoke again, breaking into his thoughts, almost as if she could read them. "Believe me, son, she's out there. And you'll know it when you meet her. You'll know."

Jim looked up at his mother. "I hope so," he managed to say.

Alice smiled at Jim and patted his hand again. "You will. Trust me. I've been praying since the day you and your sister were born for your future mates."

"You have?" Jim didn't attempt to hide his surprise.

Alice nodded. "It's too important a decision not to." She stood and smiled again. "There's nothing more important than family, Jim. Don't ever forget that." She leaned over and kissed Jim on the head. "And I've got to go get this casserole over to the Martin's so I can be on time picking up your father." She picked up a paper sack sitting on the counter.

"Do you want me to ride with you?" Jim asked. "It's getting dark."

Alice laughed. "No silly. I want you to eat your dinner and then start your homework."

"Okay, Mom."

"I'll be back in about an hour and a half."


Alice started for the living room, then turned back. "You're sure you're not upset?"

"I'm sure, Mom."

Alice gave him a long look, then broke into another smile. "I love you, son."

"Love you, too."

"See you later."


Jim waited until he heard the front door close, then he wolfed down the rest of the chili. Now that his mother had left he felt safe in reverting to a little less polite table manners. Still hungry, he scooped out another bowl of the spicy chili, poured himself a new glass of milk and finished it off in record time. His hunger satisfied, he put his bowl and glass in the sink and fished his American Lit book out of his gym bag. Jim plopped down on the couch, kicked off his tennis shoes and used his legs as a prop for his book. He thumbed through the massive tome until he located the evening's assignment, O. Henry's Gift of the Magi, then started reading.

Oh, great, this guy's name is Jim...

A half hour later, the story read and re-read, he pulled out the question sheet he'd stuffed in the back of the book, ran back to his room for a pencil, then tackled the written part of the assignment.

"Question 1," Jim read aloud. "What is the theme of the story?" Jim thought a minute. "It's stupid to buy expensive presents when you're poor. No, Mrs. Fleming won't like that one. Besides, it was Christmas. How about 'even the best plans usually don't work?' No, that's stupid, too." Jim sighed. "I guess I'm going to have to write something about love and sacrifice." Great. After all that's happened today, I had to read a story about a guy named Jim whose wife loved him so much she chopped off her hair. I'll never find anyone to love me that much. I hope Mom's praying real hard.

Before he could get anything down on paper, the phone shrilled. Glad for the excuse to stop, Jim pushed his work aside and went into the hallway to answer the phone. "Reed residence."

"Hello, slugger," his Dad's voice, full of pride, boomed through the phone.

"Hi, Dad. Mom told you about my homer, huh?"

"She told me when I called earlier. Wish I could have been there, Jim."

"It's okay. You'll catch the next one."

"You bet. It's Saturday, right?"

"Right. And it's at Taft, so that's close to the station."

"Good. That'll help. Jim, when did your mother leave? I expected her by now."

"She left about an hour ago. But she had to go by the Martin's and deliver a casserole."

"Ahhh, that's right. She mentioned that. She's probably gabbing. You know how women are."

"Yeah," Jim agreed, though actually, he didn't have much of a clue about how women were.

"I'm sure she's on her way. Are you doing your homework?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, get back to it, then. I'll see you in a few minutes."

"Okay, Dad. Bye."


Jim returned to the couch and formulated what he hoped would be an answer Mrs. Fleming would find acceptable. He scratched it down on the paper and moved to the next question. That one proved to be difficult, as well. A half-hour passed, and Jim had just put the finishing touches on the last question, when he heard a car pull up outside. Jim folded his assignment and slammed the book shut. "About time," he muttered. To prevent his mother fussing at him for leaving his things laying around the house, he picked up his shoes, book, and started for the kitchen to grab his gym bag. But before he made it to the kitchen, a frantic knock sounded at the door.

What? Mom and Dad wouldn't knock. Jim turned around and headed for the door. The pounding continued, and now Jim heard his brother-in-law's voice through the door.

"Jim! Jim! Open the door! It's Phil! Hurry!"

Jim raced to the door and jerked it open. Phil stood there, face red, looking frantic.

"What's the matter?" Jim asked, eyes wide. "Jane?" Jim's sister, had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in her late teens, and sometimes had spells that required an emergency room visit.

"No, get your shoes and come on. Your Dad called. Your Mom's had an accident."

"What?" Instead of moving, Jim felt frozen in place. "Is she hurt? Where is she?"

"I don't know. She's at the hospital. Your Dad said to hurry." Phil reached out, grabbed Jim's arm, and jerked him out the door.

Jim dropped his lit book, then managed to snag the door and close it as Phil pulled him along. Once he got moving, Jim shook loose of Phil's grasp and sprinted for the car, grasping his shoes in his right hand. He slung open the back door and dove in before Phil had even reached the driver's side.

"Jane, what did Dad say?" Jim demanded. Fear had all but consumed him and he fought to keep his voice from shaking.

"He didn't say anything much," Jane wailed. Tears rolled down her face and she made no effort to stop them. "He was so upset...the police were there and they were taking him to the hospital."

Phil hopped in, put the car into gear, and roared out of the driveway.

"What hospital?" Jim asked. He struggled to push his feet into his tennis shoes. His heart pounded crazily in his chest, and his sister's quiet sobs and entreaties to her husband to "hurry" pushed his emotions to the limit.

"Foothill," Phil said. He drove faster than Jim had ever seen him drive, but it still seemed to Jim to be too slow.

"Mom's a good driver," Jane smiffled, wiping at her eyes. "She's always so careful. I can't believe she's had a wreck."

Jim didn't say anything. He remembered his offer to his mother to ride with her, and it caused a surge of guilt. I should have insisted. I should have gone with her.

"It's got to be bad," Jane said, obviously voicing her innermost fears. "Dad sounded frantic."

"But he hadn't been to the hospital," Phil said, not taking his eyes from the road. "Don't assume the worst. Maybe it's not as bad as you think."

"Oh, I hope not!"

Again, Jim said nothing. He pushed his own fears as deep inside himself as he could stuff them, and silently repeated please God please God please God over and over. He couldn't bring himself to think beyond that.

After what seemed a nightmarish eternity, Phil pulled the car into the Emergency Room entrance of Foothill Memorial Hospital. Jim bailed out of the car even before Phil had brought it to a complete stop, and raced through the glass doors into the waiting area. Jim stopped and looked around for any sign of his father. He saw a lot of people sitting waiting, nurses and doctors walking around, and two LAPD officers sitting in chairs writing reports, but he didn't see his father.

Jim rushed to the Emergency Room's check-in desk and flagged down the only person standing there, a middle-aged nurse. She had her back turned to Jim, thumbing through a chart. "Excuse me! Excuse me, ma'am, I'm looking for my mother!"

The nurse turned and frowned at Jim. "No need to yell, young man. What's her name?"

"Reed. Alice...Mrs. John Reed. They said she was in an accident!"

The nurse's look immediately softened. She didn't even need to consult her files to say, "She's being seen in the treatment area. You'll have to wait for the doctors to finish."

"Is my dad here yet?" Jim's frustration climbed almost to the bursting point. He heard Jane and Phil come up behind him and he glanced briefly at them before pinning a questioning look on the nurse.

"He's here," she said softly. "Those two police officers over there brought him in."

"Can we see our mother?" Jane asked, her voice still sounding more like a wail.

"No, I'm sorry, she's in treatment. If you'll just have a seat, the doctor will be out to speak to you as soon as he can."

"Can't you go back there and bring us a progress report?" Phil asked.

"I'll see what I can do," the nurse said. "Go over there and have a seat."

While the nurse slipped out from behind the desk and went down the hall, Phil shepherded Jane and Jim toward the waiting area. One of the police officers looked up as they passed and Jim stopped.

"Sir, the nurse said you brought my dad in," he said. "John Reed?"

"I did," the officer said, his voice quiet and kind. "I'm Officer Delaney."

"Did you see...were you at ... the accident?" Jim asked, shamed that his voice shook; almost afraid to hear the officer's answer.

Delaney, a tall, lanky man of about thirty, stood and shook his head. "No, son. We just went and informed your father of the accident and transported him here, since he was stranded."

"So you don't know what happened?" Phil asked, from over Jim's shoulder.

"I'm sorry, no," Delaney said. "But the investigating officers will have a report prepared within 48 hours. And of course, they'll talk with you, if you wish."

"You can't tell us anything?" Jim asked.

"No, I'm sorry." Delaney's face reflected sympathy. "Why don't you all sit down and wait?"

"Thank you, Officer," Phil said. "Come on."

Jim couldn't bring himself to sit. Instead, he stood and paced the length of the waiting area, his arms wrapped around his chest, as if it would either keep his emotions bottled in, or bad news at bay. He had only made a couple of rounds when the nurse from the check-in desk called to them.

"Reed family?"

Jane and Phil jumped up from their chairs and joined Jim as he hurried to the nurse's side.

"Come with me, please," the nurse said. She turned and walked down the hall before they could ask her anything. She stopped in front of a closed door marked "Conference" that sat between two large treatment rooms. The nurse knocked once on the door, then opened it. "The rest of the family is here," she announced to unseen occupants.

"Send them in," a disembodied male voice quietly said.

The nurse pushed the door open wider. "Go on in," she said, avoiding looking at them directly.

Something in her demeanor sent Jim's anxiety level up another notch. He didn't want to go into that room. Jim stiffened and held back, letting Phil and Jane go in ahead of him.

Jim heard Jane make a tiny cry, then say, "Dad?" Jim stepped into the room enough to see that his father sat in a chair on one side of the room, slumped over, his head in his hands. A doctor stood beside him, one hand on John's back.

Jane moved away from her husband's arm and went to her father. "Dad? Dad, what's happening?"

John Reed lifted his head, and Jim could see tears trickling down his father's face. Jim gripped the side of the door and froze, stunned. He'd never seen his father cry, ever. Jim's heart raced in his chest and he felt himself begin to shut a part of himself away, anticipating hearing the worst news of his life.

"Your mother," John said, his voice so choked and quiet that Jim had to strain to hear him, "she's..." John shook his head and dropped it down again, a ragged sob tearing from his throat.

Jane slipped her arms around her father, but looked up at the doctor as he spoke, his voice as quiet as John's.

"We did all that we could for her. We used all of our resources, but her injuries were too severe. I'm sorry."

Jim's blood turned frigid in his veins. His legs shook and threatened to collapse beneath him; only his iron grip on the door kept him from sinking to the floor. A dull roaring sounded in his ears, muting his father's rough sobs and Jane's heart-rending wail as she realized that their mother was dead. Jim fought to keep his own swell of emotions inside. Unbearable grief and sorrow boiled up inside him, but he viciously damped it down and bottled it. Somewhere, in a distant part of his mind, he equated the display of emotions as validation of the horrific fact that his mother had been taken from him. If he refused to acknowledge the sorrow, maybe it hadn't happened after all.

Jim attempted to isolate himself further from the storm of emotion playing out in the consultation room by shutting his eyes against the sight of his grief-stricken father and sister, arms wrapped around one another, crying without inhibition. Phil stood next to Jane, stroking her hair, his own tears falling. Those raw emotions acted like a whilrlpool, inexorably drawing Jim closer to his own emotional meltdown.

Staggered by the tragic news that had just shattered his life, incapable of any rational, coherent thought, Jim's mind raged silently against the truth. No no no no... Instinct took over; the instinct to escape the torrent of emotions and the walls of the tiny room that seemed to be closing in on him, stealing the very breath from his lungs.

Jim took a step back. Then another. And another, until he had backed completely into the hallway. The doctor frowned and took a step toward him, holding out a beckoning hand. The physician's gesture made something snap inside Jim. He turned and fled.

Jim barreled down the hallway, heedless of equipment or persons in his path. Driven by the need to escape his surroundings; the smell, the sorrow, the death present in the hospital, he rushed through the doorway leading to the waiting area, slowing only enough so that he didn't run over a child who stood in the aisle. Jim then slammed his way through the Emergency Department's entrance door into the chill darkness of the evening.

Jim bolted across the paved ambulance throughway into the parking lot, dodging cars and the orange-and-white striped mechanical arms that routed traffic in and out of the area. Like a wounded animal blinded by pain and driven by desperation to escape its source, Jim kept running. He ran until the hospital became a distant speck behind him. He ran until his physical body, ravaged by the emotional trauma, failed him. His knees became too weak to hold him, and he could no longer drag in enough air to keep up with the demands of running.

Jim staggered off the sidewalk onto a grassy area and collapsed to his knees, gasping for breath and shaking with suppressed emotion. Bile rose in his throat and he gagged, then retched, emptying his stomach of the chili he'd eaten for dinner. Afterwards, sick, exhausted, and numb with grief, he lay on the ground, the damp coolness of the grass quenching some of the fire in his body.

Why, God, why...why, God, why...Jim clutched at the grass, buried his face in it and fought down the urge to scream, to pound the earth, to rage against God. Even though emotional shock kept him from verbalizing it and robbed him of the logical thought processes to reason it out, Jim clung to his control as though the fate of the world depended on his stoic demeanor. Without conscious thought, Jim shut out the world, drained himself of every speck of emotion he could ferret out. He refused to think, but made his mind a void. Numbness and denial anesthetized his soul, until he felt empty; a shell of a person.

Jim didn't know how long he lay on the grass, nor did he care. If the earth had opened up and swallowed him, he would have counted it a relief. The world around him became meaningless. So when the sound of a car door opening and closing sounded from the street, Jim ignored it. He also ignored the quiet footfalls of someone approaching him.

"Jim? Son, are you all right?"

The voice did not belong to John Reed, so Jim turned his head to see who knew his name and called him "son." The bright beam of a flashlight blinded him, but despite that and his mental fog, Jim recognized Officer Delaney.

The officer walked up to him, then knelt down and put a hand on Jim's shoulder, killing the beam from the flashlight. "Jim, your family's worried about you."

Jim squeezed his eyes shut to stop the tears that thinking of his family brought to his eyes. He didn't say anything.

Delaney didn't move his hand from Jim's shoulder and, in fact, squeezed it slightly. "I'm sorry about your mother," he said with obvious, sincere sympathy. "I can only imagine how rough it has to be, facing something like this. But this is no place for you, Jim." When Jim still didn't answer, Delaney continued, "You need your family, Jim, and your family needs you. Come on and sit up for me."

Jim let the officer help him to a sitting position, but he kept his eyes lowered and his head hanging down. Just that small movement exhausted him. He barely had the energy to breathe. His body trembled.

Officer Delaney took off his duty jacket and draped it around Jim's shoulders. "Your Dad was frantic when he realized you were gone from the hospital," he said, pulling the fabric of the jacket closed. "I told him I'd bring you back. You know, the last thing he needs after having lost his wife is to have to worry about losing his son."

Jim looked up and into Delaney's kind, dark eyes. He saw no condemnation there, only concern. A flicker of shame coursed through his numbed spirit, but he still couldn't find the strength to speak.

"I have a beautiful wife," Delaney said, looking straight back into Jim's eyes, "and two great kids. If, God forbid, anything happened to Deb, I know for sure that my first instinct would be to hold those kids as tight as I could. They would be my only link to surviving such a loss."

Jim nodded, his sense of shame growing. Running away had been the ultimate selfish act. The tears boiled up into his eyes and this time he couldn't keep them all at bay. He dropped his head again, ashamed, but Delaney cupped a hand under Jim's chin and lifted it gently.

"Don't be embarrassed. There's no shame in tears shed in grief over the loss of someone you love. Come on, let me take to your Dad."



Jim closed the album quickly and took a deep breath. I can't believe how sharp the pain still can be after nearly ten years. Now I remember why I haven't looked at this album in years. He stared at the album's leather cover, wanting to open it again, yet unwilling to wade through the sadness that some of the images brought to his heart. Dad was never really the same after she died. I guess the only thing that kept us both sane was working on my old car together. Dad said she would've loved the lavender...

"Jim? Honey?"

"Huh?" Jim looked up, surprised to see Jean standing in the door of the bedroom, looking at him, a strange look on her face.

"Are you all right? I've called you three times and you haven't answered me." Jean stepped into the room.

"Uh, sure, baby," Jim said. He had to clear his throat to erase the tightness there. He turned away from her and set the album into one of the newer boxes.

"No, you're not," Jean said, as usual, clearly seeing through his denial. "What were you looking at?"

"Oh, just some old pictures. I guess I got caught up in them."

Jean snuggled against his back and encircled his waist with her arms. "You looked so sad, honey. You want to talk about it?"

Jim rubbed her arms a moment, then turned and wrapped her up in a big hug. "I love you," he whispered into her hair. I'd die myself if anything happened to Jean like that. I couldn't survive it.

"I love you, too," Jean said. "You were looking at pictures of your parents, weren't you?"

"Yeah." How does this woman know these things without me telling her? Jim ran his hands through her long hair, something that always calmed and comforted him, then reached down and kissed her. "I miss them so much," he said after they broke their kiss.

"I know you do. I never knew your mom, but your dad was a great man. And so is his son." Jean smiled up at him, then they kissed again.

"I wish I could have met you a year earlier," Jim said. "Dad was nuts about you and Mom would have been, too. Did I ever tell you that Mom told me that she prayed about the people that Jane and I would marry ever since we were born?"

"No, you didn't," Jean said, "but your dad did once."

"He did?"

"He sure did. It was his way of telling me that she would have approved of me, I guess. It meant a lot to me, at the time."

"Oh, she definitely would have approved," Jim said, smiling down at his wife. "When did he tell you?"

"I can't remember exactly. Sometime after we got engaged. Probably at one of the millions of sports events we went to together to watch you play. He loved watching you play, you know."

"I know. After Mom died, I think it was the only thing that gave him any real joy," Jim said.

"I like watching you play, too," Jean said, smiling slyly. "Ever since that first basketball game. You remember that night, don't you?"

"What night?" Jim asked innocently.

Jean swatted his arm playfully. "You!" She fussed. "The night we met!"

"Oh, yeah, that was at a basketball game, wasn't it?" Jim teased.

Jean stuck her lower lip out in a pout. "You're terrible," she accused.

"Honey," Jim tightened his hold on her, pressing her against him. "I could no more forget that night than I could my own name. That's the night that changed my life forever."

"That's better," Jean smiled.

Jim leaned down for another kiss, a warm, passionate kiss that helped transport his mind back to that fateful basketball game. January 16, Westlawn versus Bellmont...I can even remember the score of that game...


Jim Reed put the finishing touches on the laces of his basketball shoes just as the coach of the Westlawn Wildcats called to his basketball team to conference.

"Okay, men, gather round, gather round," Coach Griffin took his usual stance -- one foot up on a bench, his clipboard balanced on the raised knee, and waved his players over, his pen clutched between two fingers, looking rather like a skinny cigar.

Jim finished tucking his royal blue uniform shirt into his shorts and joined his teammates.

He had a good feeling about tonight's game; Jim felt very ready to play in all aspects of his game.

"Move up, Jim," Howie Hewlitt hissed as he poked Jim in the back. "I can't see."

"That's 'cause you're so short," Jim said over his shoulder. He stepped aside so that Howie could move up.

Howie poked him in the back again, harder this time. "No short jokes. I'm just a late bloomer, that's all. And besides, I'm only a couple of inches shorter than you."

Coach Griffin cleared his throat and started his pre-game pep talk. "Men, I know it's early in the season. You might think that this game isn't all that big a deal. After all, we've got way over half a season to go, and we've only got one loss. You're playing well. But I think you're starting to get a little over confident. Our practice yesterday was sloppy, and you weren't concentrating. I think you're overlooking Bellmont because they've lost two straight games and they're sitting right on a five hundred record. But we have a chance to make a big statement here, men; we're in enemy territory, playing one of our big rivals, and despite what you think, Bellmont's got a good team. You know they'll be gunning for us because if they beat us it'll put new life in their season. But if we come in here and beat them in their own gym, we'll pick up our own season, not to mention a lot of respect. This is a tough gym to win in. This is a game we should win, on paper. But you all know games aren't played on paper; they're played on the court.

"So I want you to play hard and play smart. Focus and remember your fundamentals. I want you to get the ball inside to Keith as much as possible, just like we practiced it. But we'll pull it outside for Jim and Mark if we get a good set up. Defensively, I want you to keep pressure on them; you know your defensive assignments, so make sure you follow through, because they're a good outside shooting team. Show me some energy in your warm ups out there. Show me you really want to win this one."

Coach Griffin put out his hand, and his players layered their hands over it, recited their ritual cheer, then broke it up with a single, unison hand clap and headed for the court.

Howie walked up beside Jim and punched him playfully on the shoulder. "Let's win one for the Gipper," he joked.

Jim frowned at Howie. Sometimes the guy could be downright irritating. "Don't you ever take anything seriously?" he asked.

"Sure I do, Jim," Howie said. "Cars and girls!"

"You're hopeless," Jim said with a shake of his head as they walked through the door from the visitors dressing area and entered the gym. Bellmont had a large gym, one of the newer facilities in the city, and Bellmont students and supporters had already almost filled the home side to capacity. The Bellmont cheerleaders led the student section in raucous cheering. Coach was right. They're gunning for us. Forty-five minutes 'til tipoff and they're already loud.

"You know your problem, Jim," Howie said as Jim grabbed a warm-up ball from the bag the manager held. Jim gave that one to Howie, hoping it would shut him up, and took another one for himself, refusing to offer Howie an opening.

"You take everything too seriously," Howie went on, undeterred. "Lighten up!"

Jim just shook his head again and dribbled out to the top of the key for a quick shot before he settled into the warm up routine. His shot went true, slipping through the net with a satisfying swish. Keith Barr, their center, swooped up the ball and tossed it back to Jim. He dribbled to his favorite shooting position on the court, the right hand corner, and took a shot. Jim knew when it left his hands it would fall through as well, and it did. A surge of confidence welled up inside him. It's gonna be a good night.

Coach Griffin blew his whistle, and the Wildcats went into a carefully orchestrated warm up routine. First came dribbling and passing drills, then they formed the two sided queue for shooting alternating layups. As he took his fourth layup, Jim saw his father enter the gym through the rear doors, then stop and lean against the wall to watch. Jim acknowledged his father with a small wave, and his father smiled and nodded back. Just that small gesture boosted Jim's confidence another notch.

The team finished up the layup drill, then lined up for foul shots. Jim took his place in line and noted that his father moved to a seat on the visitor's side behind the bench, several rows up. Jim always wanted to know where his father sat. Many times his father could help Jim's game with a look or a gesture better than his coaches could with five minutes of lecture.

"Hey Jim," Howie leaned up and spoke into Jim's ear. "What're you doin' after the game?"

"I dunno. Going home, I guess," Jim said. He moved up a spot in line as a teammate made his required three foul shots in a row and moved off to the back of the line.

"It's Saturday night, Jim!" Howie said. "Don't you have a date?"

"No, I don't have a date."

"Bets and I are going to the Dairy Barn after the game. Why don't you come with us?"

"I'm sure Betsy would love that," Jim said.

"Her cousin's in town..."

"No blind dates, Howie," Jim said, cutting off anything further Howie had to say.

"Aw, come on, Jim, live a little."


Howie sighed. "Man, do me a favor just this once. Bets will kill me if I don't get her cousin a date."

"No way, Howie. Ask Keith. He'll do it." Jim moved up in line again, anxious for his own turn at the stripe. Howie's irritating conversation disturbed his concentration.

"Keith! Bets said get a nice guy. Not a skirt-chaser."

"Then ask Brian."

"Brian Appleby? That nerd?"

"Howie..." Jim didn't want to have this conversation during game warm-up. He didn't want to have it with Howie, anytime. Howie made a career out of not being at home, ostensibly to escape his argumentative parents. A guy like Howie couldn't begin to understand Jim's preference for the comfort of his home. "You're buggin' me."


Jim's turn came next, saving him from having to acknowledge Howie further. He took the ball passed to him by Coach Griffin, then stepped to the charity stripe and lined up his shot. The ball went through the hoop, as did his next two.

"Good shooting, Jim," Coach Griffin said, and Jim peeled off to go to the back of the line. The team went through this routine twice more, and this time Howie left him alone. Without his distraction, Jim got deeper and deeper into his "game attitude," where almost all of his practice shots went in the hoop, and his body felt primed and ready for competition.

Jim enjoyed the last part of warm up -- free shooting -- the best. Even though Jim played almost all sports, he felt most at home on the basketball court. The combination of running, skill shooting and quick decisions required of a player challenged him like no other sport. Playing basketball freed his mind and heart of a myriad of unplesantries he faced daily, such as what he wanted to do with his life, where he planned to go to college, and how much he missed his mother.

Jim moved from place to place on the court, shooting at will, and making most of them. He chased down errant shots and put them back up, knowing in his heart he would have an outstanding game. Jim threw up a shot from just beyond the top of the key, but it caromed off the iron and bounced away at a hard angle, toward the home bleachers. Jim ran to intercept the ball before it got away, but it struck another ball thrown up by a teammate and took a different path toward the back wall.

Jim ran off the court after the wayward ball. He'd just about reached it when a small child darted through the door from the lobby and ran directly into his path. Jim twisted sideways to keep from running down the little girl, barely able to tap the ball with his outstretched right hand to deflect it away from her. The child stopped, wide-eyed, and Jim missed her, as did the ball, but in his effort to do so, his feet became tangled with each other, and he half-stumbled, half-fell sideways several steps trying to regain his equilibrium. Unfortunately, his momentum carried him directly in front of the door just as a crowd of girls walked through.

The girls squealed as Jim stumbled across their path, still trying to stand upright. He bumped into the lead girl, a tall, slender, leggy brunette who fell back into her companions, trying to maintain her own balance. Jim reached out and steadied her, barely steady himself.

"Excuse me!" Jim said breathlessly. "I'm sorry."

The girl frowned at him and pushed Jim's hand away from her arm. "Really!" She harumphed. "You should watch where you're going!"

"I'm really sorry," Jim said again. "Are you all right? You're not hurt?"

The girl's look did not soften. "No thanks to you," she said, a tone of haughtiness to her voice. "I might expect someone from Westlawn to be a ruffian."

"Oh, Ruthie, don't be silly. It was an accident." The lilting voice came from behind the tall girl, and Jim had to drop his gaze to see the person when she walked out from behind her companion.

And when Jim Reed saw her, his heart turned over in his chest.

Long reddish-brown hair that shone like a polished penny framed a pixie-like face with big brown eyes that seemed as large as two dark moons. Her skin glowed with a natural beauty, her cheeks slightly flushed with excitement. Her generous lips turned up in a shy smile that almost buckled Jim's knees and made him literally stop breathing. The deep green sweater she wore hugged her body closely enough to reveal her curves, but not too tightly as to be indecent. She had on a pair of matching pedal pushers that framed shapely legs and slim ankles. Jim gaped at her, stunned by her delicate, wholesome beauty and petite figure. He'd never seen a girl so breathtaking, so wholesomely sexy, so...perfect.

The tall girl, apparently named Ruthie, harumphed again. "Jean Smithson, leave it to you to defend the enemy!"

Jim opened his mouth to apologize yet again, but his voice wouldn't work. His brain seemed to have deserted his body. All he could do was continue to stare, totally captivated by the tiny girl standing next to her tall friend.

"Don't mind Ruthie," Jean Smithson looked up at Jim and broadened her smile. "She's just got a lot of school spirit."

Jim thought he might faint on the spot if Jean said another word to him. Her smile blinded him. Her voice sounded like the chimes of Heaven. Again, Jim tried to say something -- anything -- to this beautiful girl, but his throat had become cracked parchment. He felt like he'd been struck by lightning.

"I think this belongs to you?" Jean stretched out her arms and Jim noticed for the first time that she held the basketball.

"Ummmm, yeah," Jim stammered. Idiot! Say something!

Jean tossed him the ball and he caught it, still mesmerized and unable to speak coherently.

"Come on Jeannie," Ruthie said, taking Jean's arm. "This guy's obviously a moron."

Jim sucked in a breath. No, don't go, don't go! I need your phone number. I can't let you get away from me. Jim knew what he wanted to say, but all he managed to get out was a squeaky "Thanks."

"You're welcome," Jean said. She dropped her eyes a bit as she followed Ruthie through the door, and brushed up against Jim ever so slightly as she passed him.

Jim's heart leaped again and his whole body tingled at her touch. He turned to watch her walk away, his brain completely fogged by the sway of her hips and the bounce of her hair. She left a faint smell of sweet lemon in her wake that completely intoxicated Jim.

"Reed!" Coach Griffin barked, somehow slicing through Jim's near-trance. "Get back here!"

"Yes, sir!" Jim said. It took all his willpower to tear his eyes from the sight of Jean Smithson, but he dribbled the ball back onto the court and took a shot. It hit the backboard and bounced back to him. Jim grabbed the rebound and put it back up. This time his shot hit the rim of the iron and fell away. Howie passed him a fresh ball, and Jim put up a third shot. This, too, refused to fall.

Jim took a deep breath and shook his head as if to clear it. But he couldn't shake the vision of Jean Smithson out of his head. When he first saw her, he had literally stopped breathing, and felt like his heart had stopped as well. Now, as he thought of her his heart hammered in his chest and his palms started to sweat. What's the matter with me? She's just a girl. She's just a girl. Jim blew out a breath. Just a girl I've got to see again. He turned to the home bleachers, searching for the auburn-haired beauty in the green sweater. In the press of the large home crowd, it took Jim a moment to find her, but he finally did. He marked her location in his memory, determined that she would not leave this gymnasium without giving him her phone number. Because all of a sudden, nothing mattered in the world to Jim but talking to Jean Smithson again.

The horn sounded then to mark the end of the warm up period, and Jim made his way over to the bench and took a seat while the home school began pre-game festivities. Ritual cheers gave way to the introduction of the starting line up. Jim managed to jog to center court when the announcer called his name, but he couldn't keep his eyes from straying across the way to find Jean's face in the crowd, or his mind from wandering to his brief encounter with her. He concentrated more on how he could make sure he talked with her again than on game strategy.

A Bellmont student took the microphone and sang the national anthem. Jim stood solemnly at attention during the song, but he wouldn't have noticed if the girl had sung the words to "Yankee Doodle" instead. He kept looking at Jean Smithson in the crowd, noting that she stood with her hand over her heart during the song. She's so beautiful. I wish she'd look at me. No, don't look at me. I'm too sweaty. I would have to meet the most beautiful girl in the world when I'm in a sweaty basketball uniform and my knobby knees are hanging out. My hair's probably standing straight up. She probably agrees with her girlfriend and thinks I'm a moron. Oh, no, she's looking at me! Did she smile at me? Jim dropped his eyes immediately. I gotta stop staring at her. She'll think I'm a masher or something, then I'll never get to know her...

"Jim!" Keith Barr grabbed him by the arm and jerked him away from his thoughts. "Are you gonna stand in the middle of the court all night?"

"Sorry," Jim followed Keith back to the bench and crowded with this teammates around his coach, who gave final instructions to his starting five. Jim managed to keep focused on what his coach had to say, then trotted out to mid court for the opening tip. He looked up at his father, who nodded and gave him a "thumbs-up," a ritual Jim remembered since his earliest playing days.

Jim chanced one last glance at Jean Smithson, but then the referee blew his whistle and tossed the ball off to start the game, and Jim turned his attention to the action on the court. Bellmont's center won the opening tip and got the ball to the man Jim had been assigned to guard. The Bellmont player turned and dribbled for his end of the court, but Jim couldn't get around a well-placed screen in time to head him off. The player took the ball all the way to the basket and scored easily on a layup, Jim two steps behind him. The home crowd cheered wildly as Bellmont took the early lead.

Westlawn guard Mark Jefferson took the ball out of bounds and tossed it in to Jim, who dribbled the ball up the court. He saw Keith make a move underneath the basket, so he stopped and passed the ball in between two Bellmont players to his center. One of the Bellmont players anticipated the move, and intercepted Jim's pass. After dribbling out of a crowd, the Bellmont player threw it the length of the court to a teammate who had gotten behind Westlawn's defense, and he easily put it in the basket for another two points. The home crowd's cheering got louder.

Westlawn managed to run an error-free play next time up the court, and the Wildcats scored their first two points of the game when Manuel Santiago buried a short jump shot. Bellmont brought the ball back up the court, and the ball got placed into the hands of the player who Jim guarded. Jim played him closer this time, but when the Bellmont player made his move to the basket, he caught Jim off guard. They tangled, and the referee whistled Jim for the personal foul.

Both of the Bellmont foul shots went in and the Bulldogs took a 6-2 lead.

"Come on, focus!" Coach Griffin yelled from the sidelines. "Show me some hustle!"

The next four minutes of the ballgame progressed in almost the same manner. Bellmont played almost perfectly, while Westlawn, and particularly Jim, struggled. Jim put up six shots in those four minutes, none of which went through the hoop; he got called for another personal foul which produced two more points for their opponents; he also got the ball stolen from him once and threw the ball away once.

After he threw the ball away, Jim heard his father's voice even over the din of the crowd yell, "Get your head in the game, son!"

Jim cringed, embarrassed and frustrated at his inability to do anything right. His father rarely made any public spectacle of his disappointment in Jim's play -- so Jim knew that it must look even worse from the bleachers than it did from the court. The score had become lopsided, Bellmont taking a 24-8 lead five minutes into the game. Jim knew his lack of concentration had a great deal to do with that deficit. What's the matter with me? I can't even think straight. This can't be about her, can it?

Coach Griffin called a much needed time-out and the Wildcats gathered around their coach. "Reed, are you sick?" Griffin asked, point-blank when Jim trudged up.

"No, sir," Jim said. His face burned with embarrassment.

"You're playing like a 4th grader," Griffin said. "And the rest of you aren't any better. Maybe some bench time would help your game!" The coach glared at them all. "Have you completely forgotten our game plan? You're better than this! I don't know what's got you rattled, but if you don't get your focus back and quick, this game's gonna be over before halftime!"

Jim looked up to where his father sat, or rather, now stood, arms crossed, a concerned look on his face. Jim dropped his gaze quickly, before he made eye contact, hating to disappoint his father, his coach, his teammates with his poor play. But he'd never been so unable to focus on a game ever and it confused and upset him that he couldn't pull out of whatever it was that bugged him.

"...I think that will work. Does everyone understand?" Griffin asked, and Jim realized in horror that he'd missed whatever his coach had just said. But he nodded along with the rest of the team, praying he could fake it and wouldn't make any more stupid blunders. What's wrong with me? Snap out of it, you idiot!

"Get out there and play your game!" Griffin clapped his hands and sent the starting five back onto the court.

When Jim turned and trotted back to the far side of the court where Bellmont would inbound the ball, he couldn't stop himself from looking up in the crowd to look at Jean. He found her quickly enough, surrounded by her jubilant Bellmont friends, but Jean did not seem to be joining in the celebration. She stood silently, her hands clasped together under her chin, and an expression on her face not unlike that of his own father. She had her gaze turned in Jim's direction, and that realization sent a jolt through Jim.

Is she looking at me? She IS! She's watching me! Jim let his gaze meet hers and stay there, even as he reached his proper position on the court. Something about her look, her expression, her demeanor sliced through Jim's mental fog. I think she's pulling for me. Am I crazy? No way she'd do that. Or maybe she would...she's certainly not cheering. And I'm playing like crap. Come on, Jim get over it. Get into the game. With an effort, Jim tore his eyes away from her and focused on the Bellmont player in front of him. I'm gonna show her how I really can play, and then we'll see.

The Bellmont player threw the ball in to a teammate, who dribbled a few steps and passed the ball to Jim's man. Jim anticipated the move, stepped in front and intercepted the pass. He dribbled to the basket and put the ball in the hoop for his first two points of the night. Better! That's better!

Jim got back on defense as Bellmont inbounded the ball again. He stayed right with his man, playing him as close as second skin. Another Bellmont player put up a shot which missed, and Jim stepped around his man to grab the rebound. Three dribbles later, Jim passed off to his teammate Mark, who had streaked past him down the court. Mark pulled up for a long jumper that went true. The Bellmont crowd quieted down a notch, and the Westlawn faithful finally had something to cheer about.

On the next Bellmont inbound, Keith blocked the pass and grabbed it. He put up a shot that rimmed out, but Jim leaped up for the offensive rebound. He tipped the ball in just as he was hit hard by a Bellmont player. The basket counted and Jim got to go to the line for a foul shot.

Jim placed his toes on the line, took the ball from the official and dribbled it ritually -- one, two, three times; a pause, then two more dribbles -- and with practiced precision lifted up on his toes and put the ball right through the hoop.

Now the score read Bellmont 24, Westlawn 13. Still not great, but much better. Jim turned to run down the court for defense, and he chanced a look up at Jean. She still stood with her hands clasped, but now her dazzling smile had returned. Their gazes met ever so briefly, and Jim didn't imagine her slight nod of approval. His heart soared.

She IS pulling for me! She IS! A thrill went down Jim's spine at that realization, and suddenly, he felt like he could fly down the court. Something clicked inside him, and the feeling of confidence and excitement returned. You keep watching me, Jean Smithson. I'm gonna play the best game of my life!

Westlawn continued to play hard and battled their way back into the game. Once Jim started to get back in his groove, the rest of the team followed, and by halftime, the Wildcats had tied the game at 35 points.

Jim entered the visitors' locker room during the halftime break feeling a whole lot better about himself and his effort. The satisfied small smile had returned to his father's face, and that took a great load off Jim's shoulders. He felt a whole lot better, too, knowing that he'd broken through whatever spell meeting Jean Smithson had on him. His heart still fluttered when he thought of her; he still tried to catch her eye unobtrusively when he had a chance; he still couldn't wait for the game to end so he could talk with her again; but being able to keep her in his thoughts and still be able to focus on his game comforted him immeasurably. He felt much less an idiot now.

"What's that stupid smile on your face for?" Howie punched Jim in the back as they waited for their turn at the water fountain.

"We tied the game," Jim said evasively. "Isn't that worth a stupid smile?"

"Yeah. Because we were sure looking stupid in the first few mintues of the game. Where was your brain, anyway?"

Jim scowled at Howie. "You weren't doing any better," he reminded him.

"I'm not the All-Conference team superstar, either," Howie laughed.

Jim leaned over and took a drink from the fountain as Manuel finished. "I'm not a superstar," he said, wiping his mouth.

"Whatever you say, Jim. Hey, you sure you don't want to go out with Bets's cousin?"

"I'm sure, Howie." Boy, am I sure. With any luck, I'm gonna have a date with Jean Smithson. Jim moved away from the water fountain and joined his teammates to listen to Coach Griffin's halftime peptalk.

Jim only half-paid attention to his coach's instructions. He listened to the game plan and the design of a new play the coach wanted to try, but he needed no pep talk to lift his spirits. All Jim had to do to get motivated was to call up the vision of Jean Smithson's dark eyes watching him play and her smile of approval as he'd improved. Jim developed his own "game plan" for getting to her after the game and asking her out for pizza or a burger afterwards. At the very least, he wouldn't leave without her phone number. Thinking of spending time with her later sent a shiver of excitement throughout his body. His heart still pounded with each rememberance of her face. The feelings both exhilirated and terrified him.

When the team returned to the court, it took all his willpower to keep from seeking her out immediately. Be cool, Jim, be cool. Instead, he turned his attention to his father and caught his eye. They exchanged a look and a nod, then Jim grabbed a ball and went for the two-minute warm up before the 2nd half buzzer. Only as he chased down a missed shot did he chance a look up in the Bellmont stands to see Jean. She's still there. And she's still beautiful. His insides quivered again when she turned from talking to her tall friend Ruthie to look his way. Jim risked smiling at her as he grabbed up the ball he'd been chasing. Jean returned his smile without hesitation, and Jim's knees nearly buckled at the radiance on her face.

Jim purposefully turned away from her, torn between wanting to simply stare at her and the need to push her out of his mind to concentrate on his game. He dribbled the ball under the basket and tossed a layup off the glass into the basket. The intensity of his emotions scared him. If he'd had time to really think about it, he knew he'd be even more scared.

The horn to start the second half sounded, and Jim relinquished his practice ball to the manager. He took his starting position on the court and waited for the second half tip. Westlawn won this one with Howie running down Keith's tip. Howie dribbled the ball, then passed off to Mark, who pulled up for an uncontested jumper that went through. Westlawn claimed its first lead of the night.

The rest of the game proceeded in much the same manner as the end of the first half had. Westlawn played well, and Jim had one of his best games ever. His shots fell, and his defense stymied Bellmont opposition. However, the Bulldogs wouldn't roll over and die. They continued to play hard, and the score fluctuated from moment to moment, the lead changing hands every few seconds. As the game dwindled down to its final minutes, Westlawn clung to a three-point lead. The Bellmont home crowd grew louder and louder, screaming support to its team. The atmosphere on the court became tense as every play became critical.

With two minutes and thirty-seven seconds left in the game, the Bellmont player assigned to Jim drove to the basket for a layup. Jim went up with the player and knocked the ball away, but got too much of the Bellmont player's body and got whistled for the personal foul, his fourth. The Bellmont player stumbled off-balance when he came down to the gym floor. He regained his balance quickly, however, and rounded on Jim angrily. He reached out with one arm and shoved Jim in the back as he headed for his place under the basket.

The Westlawn crowd booed, but the referee stepped in with a quick whistle and placed himself between Jim and the angry Bellmont player before Jim could react himself. The man in stripes issued a terse warning to both players, then to both coaches before he allowed the game to continue. The referee did not call a technical foul on the Bellmont player, something that caused Coach Griffin to object loudly from his place on the Westlawn bench. This in turn, caused the referee to declare he would call a technical on Griffin if he didn't settle down and allow the Bellmont player to shoot his two foul shots.

Coach Griffin complied, but the Westlawn crowd continued to be restive, parents and fans still upset over the perceived injustice. In response, the Bellmont crowd raised its own level of noise to drown out the Wildcat supporters. The gym became awash in barely leashed bedlam.

Jim looked to his coach. Griffin usually removed a player with four fouls from the game, but with such little time remaining, Jim thought it senseless. He motioned that he wanted to stay in, and Griffin nodded. Jim turned back to the game, satisfied. He wanted to win this game badly.

The Bellmont player set up at the charity stripe to shoot his two shots. His first one stripped the net, reducing the Westlawn lead to two points. However, his second shot bounced off the front of the iron, and a Bellmont player grabbed it. The Bulldogs set up a new offensive play, and killed several seconds off the clock passing the ball before putting up a shot. The long-range jump shot split the net almost perfectly, despite Keith Barr standing in the shooter's face with his lengthy arms extended.

The score now tied at 52 points apiece, the home crowd exploded into jubilant cheers as Westlawn set up its own offense.

Jim now had no time to think about Jean Smithson. He had become so immersed in the emotions of the game that his focus had narrowed to the hardwood between the goals. He took a pass from Howie, dribbled through traffic with a spin move, then made a spectacular blind pass in to Keith under the basket, who lay the ball cleanly in the goal. The Bellmont crowd quieted only slightly as the Westlawn faithful cheered at the beautifully executed play.

Bellmont brought the ball back down the court, but Howie managed to get behind the dribbling point guard and knock the ball loose. Manuel scooped up the free ball, and passed it back to Howie, who had streaked for the basket. Howie scored easily. Westlawn now had a four-point lead, and Howie had an ear-to-ear grin as his teammates congratulated him on a rare made-basket.

"Back on defense! Back on defense!" Coach Griffin screamed over the din in the gymnasium.

One minute and twenty-three seconds remained in the game as Bellmont inbounded the ball for the return trip up the floor. As they set up their offense, Jim thought he recognized the pattern of the play developing. He's gonna pass to my man. Jim backed off the player he'd been guarding enough to give himself some room to maneuver. When the Bellmont player made the expected pass, Jim cut around his man and intercepted the ball. Jim used his blazing speed and dribbled the ball down for an easy layup. However, the Bellmont man who had inadvertently passed the ball into Jim's hands moved to cut him off. Jim's speed brought him to the basket a step ahead of the defender, and as Jim went up for his shot, the Bellmont man ran into him, hard. With his feet off the floor, the impact flipped Jim up and he flailed his arms for balance. The ball flew from his hand and fell to the hardwood about the same time as Jim crashed to the gym floor.

Jim's left hip hit the floor first, and it absorbed the brunt of the blow before he rolled backwards and his skull impacted the wood. He hit hard enough to see stars but the sharp pain in his hipbone kept him alert. Somewhere in the distance he heard the referee blow his whistle and he heard a mix of cheering, booing, and angry voices.

Jim sat up and took the hand that Keith Barr extended to him. "You okay, Jim?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I think so." Jim let Keith help him up and when the gym didn't spin around him Jim felt relieved. But when he saw that Mark Jefferson had to hold Howie back from mixing it up with a Bellmont player over the incident, the feeling of relief vanished.

"Settle down, settle down!" All of the officials had moved to the action, setting up a ragged barrier between the blue-clad Wildcats and the maroon-and-white uniformed Bulldogs. The lead referee yelled his warning to both teams, and physically pulled a Bellmont player away from Howie.

"Knock it off, Howie!" Jim hissed as he limped toward the line. "We don't need a technical!" He's such a hothead. Always mouthing off.

"Number twenty-two, are you able to shoot your foul shots?" One of the officials asked Jim.

"Yes, sir," Jim said. He tried not to acknowledge the burning pain in his hip. The game's almost over. I'm not going out now. Jim purposefully avoided looking at his father and concentrated on getting to the line without further limping. He took the ball that the official tossed to him and took a look at the clock before he began his ritual dribble. One minute, nine seconds. Jim took a deep breath and deliberately paused before he started his dribble. With the clock standing still, he could afford to stall a bit to give his teammates time to regroup.

Even though the gym reverberated with the noise of the fans and coaches yelling, Jim closed it all out. He narrowed his vision down to the basket. He made his three-plus-two ritual dribbles, then put the ball up. It went through the net with a satisfying swish. The Westlawn crowd cheered and Jim's teammates clapped and congratulated him. Jim acknowledged them, then slowly stepped back to the line. Again he repeated his dribbles and put up his second foul shot. It, too, went right through the net. Westlawn now claimed a six point lead, 58-52. Jim smiled grimly. Take that, Bellmont.

Bellmont wasted no time in bringing the ball up the court. Once the Bulldogs moved the ball past the center court stripe, their coach called a time-out with fifty-nine seconds left to play.

"Jim, you're limping," Griffin said, as his team gathered around for quick instructions. "Do you need to sit?"

"No sir," Jim said. "I'm all right."

Griffin narrowed his eyes at Jim. "Don't play if you might injure yourself any more."

"Really, I'm okay, coach."

"All right. We'll check you out in the locker room before we get on the bus for home."

"Yes, sir."

"Listen up. We've got less than a minute, and we have a six-point lead. You can't quit playing defense, because that six points can disappear in a heartbeat. Play close, but no stupid fouls, okay? Jim, you've got four, so I'm bet they'll bring the ball in to your man Peterson to try and get you fouled out. I'd take you off him, but he's fast and you're our best bet of keeping him corralled. Let's just stick to the game plan and keep our heads and we'll walk out of here winners. Keep cool, men. You hearing me, Hewlitt?"

"Yes, coach," Howie said.

The whistle sounded, marking the end of the time out and the teams headed back to the court to resume play. Griffin's prediction turned out to be correct. The Bellmont player that Jim guarded, Peterson, got the ball on the inbounds pass. He dribbed quickly to the basket, with Jim guarding him closely. Jim stayed on him so closely he forced the boy to pass the ball to a teammate. With time running away, the player put up a long shot that went in the basket at 48 seconds to go. Westlawn 58, Bellmont 54. The Bulldogs immediately called another time out.

After a brief strategy session where Coach Griffin instructed them to run all the clock they could and keep it in Jim or Mark's hands, because of their skill at the foul line, the teams returned to the court. Bellmont applied a full-court press, making it difficult for Howie to get the ball in-bounded. Finally, right before the allotted time expired, Howie got the ball into Keith, who got fouled immediately.

"Come on, Keith, you can hit this," Jim encouraged the tall center as they went to the stripe for the foul shot. Keith had the poorest foul-shooting percentage on the team, but Jim figured thinking positively would be better than moaning that Keith had gotten the foul.

Keith nodded, took his spot, and put up his shot. It hit off the back of the iron and bounced right into the hands of a Bellmont player. One long pass and a layup later, the score stood at Westlawn 58, Bellmont 56. If possible, the Bellmont crowd screamed even louder.

Howie took the ball out under the basket for the toss-in with 41 seconds left in the game. Again, Bellmont employed the press, and Howie had no choice but to inbound the ball to Keith, the tallest and least guarded man on the court. Again, Keith got fouled immediately. Two seconds rolled off the clock.

Bellmont called their last time-out to ice Keith at the line. Both teams retreated to the sidelines where their respective coaches issues frantic last-minute instructions. When the time-out ended, the teams lined up and Keith took his spot at the foul stripe. Unfortunately, the result of the foul shot mimicked the last one. Keith's shot hit the back of the iron, but this time, instead of caroming outwards, the ball shot high toward the ceiling. All ten players converged under the goal awaiting the ball's return. Elbows flew. Jerseys got grabbed. Referees seemed to ignore all the extracurricular physical contact as the seconds ticked away. Someone slammed into Jim's sore hip, but he had no time to give into the pain.

Bellmont's center got a hand on the ball, but it bounced off his fingertips onto the hand of a teammate. He couldn't grab hold of it, either, and it rolled off his hands to the floor. Somethin akin to a rugby scrum ensued as players scrambled for the loose ball. Jim dove for it, but it skittered out of his reach and he merely bounced hard to the wooden floor. As the ball rolled toward the sidelines, the press of players moved after it. Jim scrambled to his feet and started to follow, but by that time, Mark Jefferson had recovered the ball. Jim backpedaled away from the crowd and yelled for Mark to pass him the ball. Mark sailed a wild pass over the wad of players that unfortunately went over Jim's head as well. Jim turned to chase it down as it crossed the center line into the back court, with the majority of the other players on his tail.

Even with a sore hip, Jim's speed served him well. He caught up with the runaway ball and began a dribble. As the Bellmont players converged on him, Jim reverted to his halfback football skills. He threw a feint to his left, then moved right, avoiding the players, and the foul. Jim started a meandering dribble toward Westlawn's basket, moving lightning fast, keeping the ball and his body out of reach of the Bellmont players who wanted to foul him. But Jim's skill in avoiding tacklers in football translated well to the basketball court. His ball-handling ability kept the basketball firmly in his possession as he killed time off the clock with his snake-like path to the other end of the court.

The screams of the crowd dissolved into the inevitable countdown: ten, nine, eight, seven... Jim avoided yet another would-be fouler and skirted around him, just out of arms' reach. six, five, four, three, two...

Jim stopped suddenly and put up a long jump shot that he knew had no chance of actually going through the hoop. But the arch he put on the ball and the distance from which he threw it would ensure that time expired before Bellmont could regain posession.

One! As the game-ending horn sounded, Jim's shot hit the backboard and bounced harmlessly to the hardwood. The game ended with the final score Westlawn 58, Bellmont 56.

The Bellmont faithful fell silent as the Westlawn crowd cheered and clapped. The Wildcats converged on one another on the court, congratulating each other with exhausted grins and handshakes. Jim turned his gaze toward the visitor stands to locate his father. Jim located him easily; his father stood with as large a grin as he ever offered up these days, applauding along with the rest of the crowd. Jim grinned back as their gazes met, and the comfort of shared pleasure rolled over him.

"Hey, Jim, great moves!" Keith Barr grabbed him from behind in a breath-stealing hug and playfully lifted him up off the floor.

"Thanks!" Jim said, managing to escape Keith's exuberant grasp. His sore hip jangled when his feet returned to the hardwood, but he ignored it as he had been for the final seconds of the game. Who cares about a sore hip? I've got to go find Jean Smithson.

Jim turned to the Bellmont side to seek out Jean's face, but loud voices from his left side caused him to turn in that direction. Howie and a Bellmont player stood, face to face, exchanging heated words. Mark Jefferson tugged on Howie's arm, trying to pull him away.

Howie, you idiot! You're gonna start something. Jim hurried over and took Howie's other arm. "Howie, cut it out!" Jim helped Mark pull Howie away from the Bellmont player, as Coach Griffin called from somewhere in the distance.

"Hewlitt, back off!" Griffin yelled.

After that, the situation deteriorated quickly. The Bellmont home crowd caught on to the exchange on the court, and some of the students began to boo. Both coaches made their way to where the players had knotted up, most of them trying to calm down the few who insisted on trying to fight. Several cups of ice got thrown onto the court from the Bellmont side, and a few of the more aggressive fans spilled onto the court to join the argument. Several Westlawn students mimicked that move, wanting to support their own team. The noise grew again in the gymnasium and the atmosphere became volatile.

Jim and Mark managed to get Howie pulled away from the Bellmont player, who had his own coach and a teammate pulling on him. The three officials blew their whistles and stepped into the near-melee.

"Coaches, get your teams off the court, now!" The head referee yelled. "Get 'em in the locker rooms!"

"Come on, men, you heard him. Let's go!" Griffin started pulling his players toward the sidelines, even as a booming male voice sounded over the PA.

"Everyone get off the court, now. Any Bellmont student on the court after this announcement is over will be suspended from school on Monday. Evacuate the gym immediately, in an orderly fashion, or the police will be called!"

Jim kept a hold on Howie's arm and moved along with his coach and teammates to the Westlawn sidelines. He looked over his shoulder to the Bellmont side, where the fans reluctantly seemed to be obeying the school official's order. He searched for Jean Smithson, hoping she hadn't been caught up in the craziness, but he didn't see her. Jim realized then that by being herded into the locker room that he wouldn't get a chance to see her again or get her phone number.

No, this can't be happening. I've got to get over there! Jim let go of Howie's arm and stopped, straining to see through the press of people to find the girl of his dreams. Jim searched for the auburn hair or the green sweater, but he couldn't find her. No! Where is she? This can't happen!

"Reed, keep moving!" Griffin's voice sounded in his ear. "Come on!"

Jim's heart fell. To come so close, and lose the opportunity now! I'll call every Smithson in the phone book. I have to. I'll die if I can't see her again.

Jim trudged as slowly as he could toward the locker room, still scanning the departing crowd for any glimpse of Jean Smithson. He didn't see her, but he did manage to find her tall companion, Ruthie. Jim stopped, hoping Jean would be nearby. He moved his gaze quickly from person to person around Ruthie, until finally, he located the green sweater and the shiny auburn hair. Good, she's still here. There's still a chance. God, make her look this way!

Jean stood near the doorway, her petite form hard to see clearly as the multitudes passed by her to exit. But Jim could tell that she seemed to be searching for someone herself. Jim raised an arm and waved it broadly, hoping to catch her attention. She can't see me! Jim put up a second arm, and jumped up and down, signaling as hard as he could, desperation driving his actions, masking the pain in his hip and head.

"Jim, come on! What are you doing?" Manuel tugged on Jim's jersey. "Get in the locker room before somebody decides to take your head off!"

Jim stumbled after Manuel, caught up in the flow of his team and the Westlawn crowd heading in the same direction. He craned his neck to keep looking at Jean Smithson. He kept waving with his left arm. Look at me! Look at me, please! At the last possible moment, just before he rounded the corner to head into the locker room, their gazes met. Yes! Jim stopped short and waved at her. She lifted a hand and waved back, smiling, and Jim felt that tingling swoop in his stomach that he'd felt each time he'd looked at Jean Smithson. Physical pain disappeared, replaced by an exquisite emotional upheaval.

But then fate intervened.

Jean's friend Ruthie grabbed her by the arm and tugged her out the door, just as Keith Barr pushed Jim from behind to move him around the corner. By the time Jim had recovered and looked back, Jean Smithson had disappeared.

No! Oh, no, no! Crushed, Jim dragged himself into the locker room, the pain from his bumps and bruises, and the numbing fatigue from a hard-fought game pressing in on his body. He couldn't shake the feeling that when Jean Smithson had disappeared, a part of his future had disappeared with her. No...it's not fair! I'll die if I don't get to see her again! I'll just die.

Lost in his misery, Jim ignored the jubilant din of his teammates' celebration. He moved to stand in front of the locker where he'd stowed his gear, and stared at the dull gray door, feeling very empty inside except for the confusing, unexpected ache in his soul. Jim wondered if some cruel version of Cupid had purposefully stomped on his heart.

"Jim," Coach Griffin's voice sounded in Jim's ear, startling him. His coach slipped an arm around Jim's shoulders. "You did good out there tonight."

"Thanks, Coach," Jim said, but his voice lacked enthusiasm. Jim could have cared less at that moment about his performance. All he wanted to do was go home and start calling every Smithson in Los Angeles to find Jean.

"What's the matter, son?" Griffin asked, apparently sensing Jim's unhappiness.

"Nothing, sir," Jim shook his head.

Griffin narrowed his eyes at Jim. "Is your hip bothering you?"

"No, sir, not really."

"I'll have Dr. Jefferson come in here and look you over."

Not more delay of getting out of here! The last thing I want is somebody poking at me, even if it is Mark's dad. "Coach, I don't need that."

"How about we let a doctor decide what you need?" Griffin turned to one of his team managers. "Clint, poke your head out of the door and see if Dr. Jefferson is standing nearby. Ask him to come in."

"Sure thing, coach!"

"Take a seat, Jim, and relax until he gets in." Griffin pointed to a bench, then raised his voice as he guided Jim to sit. "Okay, men, gather 'round, gather 'round."

The team moved to sit or stand near Jim and their coach, still chattering excitedly about the game. Most of them asked Jim how he felt, and congratulated him on his performance. But even their concern and appreciation couldn't lift the cloud that hung over Jim's head. Jim suppressed a sigh as Griffin settled the team down and started in on his post-game congratulatory speech.

Jim didn't hear a word of it. Instead, he ducked his head and conjured up the vision of Jean Smithson's dazzling smile in his mind. Only it got crowded out by his last glimpse of her being dragged away by her friend. I've got to find her. There's got to be a way. There's got to be a way. I don't think I can stand it if I don't get to talk to her again.

Sweat dripped off his face and Jim swiped at it with an equally sweaty arm. His insides swirled, besieged by confusing and conflicting emotions. What's wrong with me? Why can't I get her out of my head?

"Jim, how are you feeling, buddy?"

Jim looked up, startled out of his morose thoughts for the second time in just a few minutes. His teammates had disappeared, as had Coach Griffin, and Mark Jefferson's father, the unofficial team doctor, sat next to Jim, looking at him with concern.

Jim straightened. "Oh...Dr. Jefferson...I'm okay."

"That was quite a fall you took there at the end. You seem a little dazed." Dr. Jefferson pulled a penlight from his pocket and thumbed it on.

"No, really, it's nothing." Jim came more to himself and heard the showers running in thie background. He also heard Coach Griffin's voice, stern with reprimand, obviously giving Howie Hewlitt a loud lecture in self-control somewhere beyond the stand of lockers.

"Well, let's take a look, anyway, all right?" Dr. Jefferson smiled at him. "Your dad's outside, and he's a little concerned, too. I'd like to be able to reassure him."


"Just look straight at my nose, Jim." Dr. Jefferson flashed the light into Jim's eyes. "That's good. You remember the day and date?"

"Yes, sir. Saturday. January 26."

"Good." Dr. Jefferson put his light back in his pocket. "Any headache?"

"A little. More sore, I guess."

"Where?" Dr. Jefferson ran his hands over the back of Jim's head.

"Ow," Jim hissed when the doctor's fingers located the spot where his head had hit the gym floor.

"Found it, huh?" Dr. Jefferson flashed a smile at him. "You have a little knot right there." Dr. Jefferson got up and moved behind Jim to more closely examine his head. "It's not too bad. I don't think you've got a concussion. An ice bag on it when you get home will help keep the swelling down. No vision troubles?"

"No, sir. I can see just fine."

"Good. Now, stand up and walk for me, and then I'll take a look at that hip."

Jim got up and took a few strides between the lockers, unable to stop his slight limp.

"Okay, that's fine, Jim. I can see you're favoring that hip. Describe the pain for me. Sharp, dull?"

"Just sore, sir. Like a bruise. It's okay, really."

"Show me where."

Jim rubbed the side of his hip. "Here."

"Lean over and let me take a look."

Jim braced against a locker and endured a brief examination by Dr. Jefferson.

"You've got quite a bruise forming there already," the physician told him. "There's a little swelling, but nothing serious. My prescription is to go home, take a couple of aspirin, then get in the bed with an ice pack on your head and your hip and stay there for the rest of the night. If the pain worsens or you develop any double vision or nausea, get to the emergency room right away. No practicing tomorrow, even on your driveway. Got it?"

"Yes, sir," Jim said. Why argue? My night's ruined anyway. Maybe my life's ruined. Might as well hide in the bed.

"We'll see how you're feeling on Monday before we go any further. I think you've just got a couple of king-size bruises." Dr. Jefferson clapped Jim on the shoulder. "Now, go hit the shower and relax."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

Dr. Jefferson smiled at him again. "I'll go tell your dad that you'll live."

"Thanks." Yeah, I'll live, but I won't be happy unless I can see her again.

Jim trudged into the shower just as most of his teammates were finishing theirs.

"Come on, Jim, you're holding up the bus!" Keith said as they passed one another. "We've got dates waiting on us, so move it!"

"All right, I'm hurrying."

Jim did, indeed, hurry through his shower. His mind roiled with possibilities as he finished cleaning up and dressed at his locker. Maybe she's still in the parking lot. Maybe she's waiting on me. Who are you kidding? Even if she wanted to stay, that tall girl probably wouldn't let her. But I can still go home and start calling. I'll find that number somehow. I bet there's a million Smithsons in the book. If I only knew her father's name or her street. Who do I know that goes to Bellmont that I could ask? Nobody. Well, nobody except some of the football players. Like I'd call them anyway, since they hate our guts. I can see me calling somebody like Dwight Murphy and asking about Jean Smithson. He'd tell me where to go real fast, that jerk.

"All right, men, let's load up the bus!" Coach Griffin clapped his hands and walked up to the remaining players still dressing. "The parking lot's cleared out and we can get out of here and go home."

"I'm for that!" Howie said, with a sigh. Like Jim, he'd been one of the last dressed, thanks to Coach Griffin's lecture. "Bets is going to be furious with me for being so late. And for not having a date for her cousin. How 'bout it, Jimbo? Last chance."

Jim pulled the zipper shut on his gym bag with undue force and scowled. "Howie, if you call me that again, I'll break your face. And for the last time, no, I don't want to go out with Betsy's cousin." Jim limped away from Howie toward the locker room door.

"Jim, you're such a grouch sometimes," Howie said.

"And you're a jerk all of the time," Mark Jefferson said to Howie. "Get off his back. He's hurting."

More than you know. Jim jerked the door open and walked through it, moving out of earshot of any response Howie might have formulated. He stopped short, though, when he saw his father standing up against the wall, apparently waiting for him to come out.

"Dad," Jim said. "You're still here?"

"Obviously," John Reed said, his voice dry.

"Didn't Dr. Jefferson tell you I'm all right?"

"He did. But I thought I'd offer you a ride home in the car, rather than the bus, if you're banged up."

"My car's at the school," Jim said. "I might as well ride the bus."

"Are you up to driving?"

"Yes, Dad, I'm fine," Jim said, with a little more snap in his voice than he'd intended.

John Reed crossed his arms over his chest and regarded his son with that longsuffering, yet piercing look that only a father intimately familiar with his child could produce. "I'm not convinced of that, but not because of the fall you took."

Jim dropped his head and looked away from that intense gaze . "Sorry, Dad, I didn't mean to yell."

"What's bothering you, son?"

Jim looked up into the concerned face of his father and suddenly felt six years old again. The disappointment he'd been swallowing welled up in his throat, choking him. Why am I acting like such a darned fool?

Jim squirmed under the continued, silent scrutiny of his father's gaze. Finally, he gave up the fight and took a breath. "It's...it's a long story, Dad," he managed to say. "I'll tell you when I get home." Even though its the last thing I want to do.

John Reed regarded his son for another full ten seconds that seemed like an eternity to Jim. Then he relaxed his posture. "All right, then. You're sure you don't want to ride with me?"

"I'm sure, Dad, thanks."

"I'll see you at home. Be careful driving."

"I will, Dad." Jim turned to head out the door, but a loud call stopped him in mid-movement.

"Jim! Hey, Jim!"

Jim looked to his right where the team's equipment manager, Eddie Williams, came running up to him, breathless, dragging a bag of basketballs behind him. He waved a small piece of paper at Jim.

"What's the matter, Eddie?" Jim asked.

"I almost forgot," Eddie said, handing the paper to Jim. "Someone gave me this note to give to you. You were in the shower when I came in, and I stuck it in my pocket."

"Thanks, Eddie," Jim said. He turned the folded paper over, and saw his name and basketball number written there in flowery, feminine handwriting. His heart leaped.

Jim opened the note with trembling hands, oblivious to his father's puzzled stare, forgetting he had a bus to catch. But the words he read written there erased all the disappointment, discouragement, and discomfort.

I'm going to Papa Bear's Den after the game. Please meet me there. Jean.

"Yes!" Jim exclaimed, not taking his eyes off the flowing handwriting. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Jim's knees went weak with relief, but at the same time he thought he could have run to Papa Bear's Den without missing a beat, sore hip or not. Excitement surged through him, followed on its heels by nervous fear. I'm going to see her again. I'm going to see her again.


"Huh?" Jim looked up when his father spoke. "I mean, uh, sir?"

"What's going on?" John Reed's eyebrows knit together over the bridge of his nose, a sure sign of impending irritation.

"Uh...." Jim looked from his father's face to the note, then back again. Embarrassment overwhelmed him. I don't want to tell Dad about her. Not yet.

"Reed!" Coach Griffin's voice boomed from the outer gym door. "The bus is pulling off without you if you aren't out here in ten seconds!"

"Dad, uh, I've gotta go!" Jim said, and edged for the door. He clutched the note in his hand and surreptitiously crumpled it inside his fist. "I'll be home before midnight."

"What?" John Reed's voice thundered, and he took Jim by the arm, stopping his exit.

"Dad, the bus!"

"What's this 'I'll be home by midnight' business? Dr. Jefferson said you needed aspirin, a couple of ice packs and the bed."

"I'm all right, Dad, really! I've got to meet someone. It's important."

"It can't be as important as your health." John Reed didn't relinquish his hold on Jim's arm. If anything, the vice-grip tightened.

"It is important, Dad," Jim insisted, panic at the prospect of losing this golden opportunity clutching at his heart. How could he make his father understand? "It's..it's life and death, Dad!"

"Life and...Jim, what on earth is the matter with you?"

"I'm gonna miss the bus, Dad, and if I don't hurry, I'll miss her, too! She might not wait. And if I miss her..."

"She? You mean all these...theatrics...is about a girl?"

Jim's face flamed red. In his hurry and excitement, he'd said far more than he'd planned. And the unreadable look that framed his father's face sent Jim to the depths of embarrassment. "Yes, sir," he finally said.

"Reed!" Griffin's voice came again from the door. "Yes or no?"

Jim gave his father his best pleading look. It seemed like an eternity, but John Reed nodded and dropped his hold on Jim's arm. "He's coming, Coach," he yelled out. "I've held him up."

"Thanks, Dad." Jim grinned.

"I'll trust your judgment, Jim, but I want an explanation when you get home. At eleven."

"Eleven! Dad, by the time I get there, it'll be ten and that's just not enough time!"

John Reed sighed. "Where are you going?"

"Papa Bear's Den, down on Crown."

"That's Bellmont territory."

"I know. That's where she goes to school."

John Reed's eyebrows went up, then he shook his head. "Not one second later than eleven-thirty. Got it?"

"Yes, sir, thanks!" Jim bolted for the door, his gym bag banging against his sore hip.

"Don't make me regret this!"

"I won't, Dad!" Jim scrambled down the Bellmont gym steps and crossed the lot to the bus. He limped up the bus steps and was greeted by complaints from his irritated teammates.

"Reed, you might not have a social life, but some of us do!" Howie's whine carried over the rest of the teams' grumbling. "Thanks a lot!"

"Sorry, I'm sorry," Jim dove into the nearest empty seat as the bus lurched forward.

"If Bets breaks up with me you really will be sorry!"

Jim ignored Howie and the rest of his teammates' chatter. He took Jean Smithson's note and uncrumpled it, running his hands over the paper to smooth it. In the darkened bus, he couldn't read the beautifully penned words, but in his mind's eye he could see them clearly. Please meet me there. She said please. She said please. He folded the paper carefully, then rummaged through his gym bag for his wallet. He pulled it out from under his sweat-soaked uniform and placed the folded missive in it behind the picture of his mother.

That's when he nearly panicked again. Money. Do I have any money? Jim pulled a few bills from the wallet, and as they passed under a street light, he could see that he had a five and two ones. Yeah, that's enough. He stuffed the wallet into his back jeans pocket, then went rummaging again through the gym bag for a piece of gum. Can't have stinky breath. Trial and error finally produced a soggy remnant of a pack of Dentyne, and Jim put two pieces of the small cinnamon gum in his mouth, hoping that his dirty gym clothes hadn't contaminated them. Jim also retrieved his comb and watch from the bag and put them in and on the appropriate places. Too bad I don't have any cologne with me. I bet Howie does...no, I'm not gonna ask him. He'll start asking too many questions. I wish I had a better shirt on. My car's a mess. And I've got all my junk in the front seat.

As they passed under another street light, Jim held up his watch. 9:15. God, please don't let her leave! Jim started mentally calculating how long it would take the bus to make it to school, and how long it would take him to make it back to Papa Bear's Den. It's gonna be another half -hour at least. Plus I have to clean out the car. God, please don't let her leave. Don't let this old clunker of a bus break down.

Jim continued to imagine all the possible scenarios that could keep him from connecting with Jean Smithson. But no lighning bolts fell from the sky to incinerate him, no major earthquake swallowed Los Angeles, or caused California to fall off into the sea, and the bus rumbled toward Westlawn High, unimpeded by breakdown or accident. So Jim sat quietly, albeit nervously, on the bus, not taking part in the usual rowdy antics of the team after a victory, but staring out the window, seeing Jean's pretty face and perfect, petite figure in the reflection of the glass. His teammates left him to himself, probably thinking his reverie a result of his injury, and that suited Jim just fine. It gave him the time he needed to formulate what he would say to Jean when he finally got the chance. I have to say the right thing. I can't do anything to make her think I'm an idiot. But what can I say? Why do I have to be such a total loser with girls?

Finally, the bus pulled into the parking lot of Westlawn High School, and Jim bolted off the bus as soon as the driver stopped it and opened the folding door. He could hear Coach Griffin yell after him, but whatever his coach said, he ignored. Jim ran to his car and opened the trunk, stowing his gym bag in there. He then ran to the passenger side of the car, unlocked that door and started grabbing up his books, assorted junk and trash that littered the interior. He wound up with a sizeable pile that he staggered with to the trunk and tossed in.

"Where's the fire, Jim?" Keith asked, walking up to his car that was parked next to Jim's.

"No fire, Keith. I, uh, well...I'll tell you later. Maybe." Jim closed the trunk lid and hurried around to the driver's side. "See you Monday."

"Yeah. Sure. Monday." Keith shook his head and got into his own car.

Jim cranked his car and pulled it out of the parking lot as fast as he dared, given that it crawled with his coach, his teammates, and their parents and girls waiting for them to return. His pride and joy would certainly fly, and Jim prided himself on his driving skills. He'd raced dirt bikes since late childhood, and he'd even run in a few drag races since he'd gotten his license. But John Reed had threatened Jim with dire consequences if he ever caught him dragging on the street or if he ever got ticketed for reckless driving. Jim respected that, even moreso after losing his mother in an automobile accident. So Jim clamped down on his impatience and eagerness to reach Papa Bear's Den and drove just a couple of miles per hour over the posted speed limit. He stuck to main streets with a higher speed limit and timed his driving to make the lights as best as he could. His hip jangled with discomfort, but he hardly noticed it.

Jim did his driving almost on automatic, so he could rehearse how he would greet Jean Smithson when they met face to face. He repeated the word "hi" in as many different tones as he could create -- casual, shy, enthusiastic, deep and resonant, lilting and light, and what he hoped would she would interpret as sexy. None of them pleased him. Jim immediately discarded the combination of "Hi, Jean," as sounding too much like a Health class gone bad. When "hi" didn't work, Jim switched to "Hello," running through the same intonations with it as he had with the simple "hi." Why does everything suddenly sound so stupid? So...inadequate?

Before he could make a final decision on his greeting, Jim had reached Crown. He made the right turn onto the busy boulevard, and less than a minute, the neon lights that outlined the shape of Papa Bear's Den flashed into view.

Jim's palms began to sweat. His heart raced. His mouth went dry. His stomach churned. His mind shut down. I'm about to see her. What am I gonna do? What am I gonna say? Jim concentrated on squeezing his lavender Ford into the crowded parking lot. As usual on a Saturday night, young people swarmed the popular burger and shake joint. Most of the teenaged boys wore the maroon of Bellmont High, and Jim suddenly felt conspicuous and vulnerable wearing his Westlawn royal blue and white letterman's jacket. He chose a parking spot near the exit to Crown, but away from a streetlamp. He took off his jacket, folded it and lay it in the passenger seat.

Jim licked his parched lips nervously, and took his comb out of his pocket. He turned the rearview mirror for a final inspection of his hair and face. My hair's awful. My nose is too big. Why can't I be handsome like Dad is? Why didn't I wear a nicer looking shirt? She's gonna think I'm a bum or something. Jim raked the comb through his hair a couple of times, then gave up with a sigh. Go in. Just go in. She'll have to love you the way you are. Love? Did I say that?

Jim got out of the car and locked it. He shoved the comb back into his pocket, then made his way through the parking lot, tensing against the chilly January evening. His thin shirt afforded little protection from the cold, but walking into Papa Bear's Den in his Westlawn jacket would have been akin to suicide. Or at the very least like pouring salt into an open wound. Jim kept his head ducked as he passed some young men he recognized from sports competitions. He even noticed one of the Westlawn basketball players sitting on the hood of his car talking to a girl. Jim turned his head the other way, suddenly finding his heart pounding from more than nervousness over meeting Jean Smithson. I hope nobody recognizes me, or I might not get the chance to see her.

Jim made it through the parking lot without incident, but he paused with his hand on the door to the burger joint. Through the glass, he could see the place had kids literally bouncing off the walls. Some sat in one of the many booths, some danced near the juke box, some lounged at the counter, while still others stood in little groups wherever a space presented itself. He didn't find Jean Smithson's green sweater, but he couldn't see into every part of the building. Come on, Jim, get in there. She's waiting.

Jim took a deep breath and pushed open the door. Rick Nelson's Travelin' Man washed over him loudly, accompanied by the cacophany of scores of happy teenage voices. Even though he still felt conspicious, no one turned his way when he walked through into the room. Jim stopped a couple of steps inside the door and looked for Jean Smithson. His gaze tracked across the room, searching each booth, each counter stool, each group of giggling girls, until finally, near the back of the crowded room, he locked gazes with her.

There she is. She's here. She waited. Jim's heart rate accelerated even more when he saw the lovely features he remembered. The same flawless, pixie-like face, framed by that coppery waterfall of hair smiled at him from the back corner booth. Jean Smithson's smile broadened when he looked at her and smiled back. The smile lighted her whole face into even greater radiance. She's beautiful. She's so beautiful. Jim took a deep, shuddering breath, wondering at the feelings that seemed to overwhelm him. Then Jean waved at him, beckoning him to join her. Jim raised his hand in acknowledgement and flashed his own broadened smile. He had to almost remind himself how to walk, but he somehow managed to make it through the press of dancing teens and reach her side.

All of his rehearsed greeting lines fled from his brain as Jim stood gawking at Jean Smithson, totally mesmerized by her beauty. He barely registered the presence of her tall friend in the other side of the booth. All he could do was grin at Jean.

"You got my note, I see," Jean said, finally breaking the silence.

"Yeah," Jim said. He wanted to say more. He wanted to tell her how beautiful she looked, and how excited he was that she'd asked to see him. He wanted to talk about anything -- everything -- with this girl, but words lodged sideways in his throat. All that he could manage to say seemed to be monosyallabic and definitely not sparkling conversation.

"I had almost given up on you," Jean spoke again.

"Sorry. I had to ride the bus back to school to get my car."

"I thought you might have been hurt when you fell at the end of the game. And you were limping."

"It's nothing," Jim assured her. And truly, right now, he felt no pain. All he felt was giddy. He kept staring at her, a sappy grin plastered on his face, enjoying the sight and wanting more.

"You play really good," Jean said.


The tall girl sighed theatrically and looked up at Jim . "Are you just going to stand there all night and drool all over yourself?" she asked, her voice disdainful.

Jim reddened, realizing that he probably did look like an idiot. Before he could shake out of his stupor and respond, Ruthie jumped in her seat and yelped "Ow! What did you...ow!"

"Ruthie was just leaving," Jean said sweetly.

Jim's grin widened. Jean kicked her! She's full of surprises. She's got some spirit. I like that.

Ruthie slid out of the seat, rubbing at her right calf. "I hope you know what you're doing, Jean Smithson."

"Nice to meet you, Ruthie," Jim said, as the tall girl stood.

"I still think you're a moron," Ruthie said, as she passed by him. "And Jeannie's running a close second."

"I don't think she likes me," Jim said, after Ruthie moved out of earshot.

Jean giggled. "Don't worry about Ruthie."

"I won't. May I sit down?"

"Please do."

Jim slid into the booth, never taking his eyes off of Jean. I can't believe it. I'm sitting here with the most perfect girl on Earth.

After a space, Jean ducked her head shyly and Jim noticed a flush creep across her face. "I'm sorry," Jim apologized, realizing his intense stare had embarrassed her. "It's just...you're...I think that you're...I'm glad you wrote that note," Jim finshed, feeling awkward, and foolish, and totally inadequate.

Jean looked up at him without lifting her head. Her hair had fallen across her face, but her doe-like eyes sparkled through the coppery strands. "I am too," she said.

Jim's heart turned over in his chest. He felt like he'd been trapped in a dime store romance novel. He'd always throught all that talk about pounding hearts, sweaty palms and difficulty in breathing was stupid exaggeration. But it's true. It's true. What's happening to me? He took a deep breath and tried to settle the butterflies in his stomach. "Are you hungry?" Jim blurted.

Jean flipped her hair back over her shoulder, a move that sent an extra flutter coursing through Jim's stomach. "Not really, but I bet you are, after playing so hard."

Actually, Jim hadn't given food a second thought, but maybe eating would calm him and give him something to do while getting to know Jean a little better. "I should probably eat a little something. What's good here?"

"Everything," Jean said. She pulled a well-worn menu from under the napkin holder on the table and slid it toward Jim.

Jim looked the menu over. The prices fit his budget and once he started looking at pictures of food, his appetite returned. "That cheeseburger looks pretty good," he said. "I'll have that and a chocolate shake. What do you want?"

Jean smiled. "Just a Pepsi." She glanced at her watch. "I have to be home by eleven."

Jim looked at his own watch. Already ten-twenty! And she has to be home by eleven. This place is so crowded I might not get my food for a half-hour. And I'm taking her home. No way I'm not taking her home. "I'll settle for the milkshake, then,"Jim said. "I don't want you to get in trouble for not getting home on time." When Jean looked at him questioningly, he said, "I'd like to drive you home, if that's all right."

"I'd like that."

"Good. It'd probably be faster if I went to the counter and ordered. Will you be all right here while I do that?"

"Sure." Jean flashed him that brilliant smile again that made Jim's knees feel like water.

Jim managed to slide out of the booth and get to his feet. "I'll be right back."

Jim hadn't gone far when Jean's friend Ruthie called to him, pushing her way through a crowd of dancing teenagers. Jim stopped and looked at her. She looked worried. "What's wrong?" he asked when Ruthie reached his side.

"Trouble," she said, her voice tense and breathless. "You need to get out of here, now."

Jim figured that Ruthie didn't like him, but he never thought she'd be so bold as to actually tell him to get lost. It made him angry. "Now wait a minute, Ruthie. I know you don't like me, but I'm not leaving. I want to get to know Jean a little better, and..."

"Shut up and listen to me!" Ruthie interrupted him. "Somebody saw you with Jean, and they recognized you. They went and told a guy that Jean used to date, and he's coming after you."

"Great," Jim sighed. Is the whole world conspiring against me getting to know Jean? "Look, I'll just take Jean and we'll go somewhere else. I don't want any trouble. Thanks for the warning."

"What?" Ruthie said, looking genuinely surprised. "No declaration of male bravado? No 'bring him on, I'll fight him?"

Jim shrugged. This girl had really started to irritate him. What normal girl used phrases like 'male bravado?' "I'm not scared, if that's what you're thinking. I'd fight him if I had to. I just think there are smarter ways to settle things. And I sure don't want to drag Jean in to any trouble."

Ruthie's look and voice both softened. "Maybe you aren't quite the moron I thought you were."

Jean appeared at Jim's side. "What's going on?" she asked, looking from Ruthie to Jim, her brow wrinkled.

"Dwight's here. Cliff Morrison saw you and Jim sitting together and went and told him. Someone heard Dwight say he was going to come in here and teach Jim a lesson," Ruthie explained.

"Ohhhh!" Jean put her hands on her hips. "I can't believe him! He's such a jerk! I never should have gone out with Dwight Murphy, ever."

"Dwight Murphy!" Jim exclaimed, surprised and stunned. Flashbacks of football season ran through Jim's head: a six-foot-six, two-hundred-forty pound linebacker breathing down his neck on nearly every play in the Westlawn versus Bellmont game. A nightmare in maroon, Dwight Murphy made his life miserable that night. Murphy not only played tough, he played mean and dirty, and backed it up with his formidable size and deceptive speed. Barring injury, Jim knew that Dwight Murphy would have a career in professional football one day. "You went out with that jerk Dwight Murphy?"

"You know him?" Jean asked.

"From football," Jim said. The thoughts of a jerk like Dwight Murphy even touching Jean made an irrational anger burn inside Jim. It almost disappointed him that Jean would go out with such a brute.

As if reading his thoughts, Jean spoke up in her defense. "I only went out with him twice," she said. "He was okay on the first date, and I thought people had just been misjudging him because he's a big, tough guy. But then on the second date, he showed his true colors. We barely even got out of my driveway before he was putting the moves on me... pawing at me... saying such vulgar things. Before I knew it, we weren't headed for the movies where he said he'd take me. I was begging him to take me back home, but instead, he took me someplace and parked, and all of a sudden he was all over me. It was like fighting off a giant octopus," Jean shivered, looking scared and embarrassed at the memory.

"How did you manage it?" Jim asked. The flame of his anger toward Murphy grew. Now he really wanted to fight the bully, even though the size difference between them would probably mean he'd get pounded to mush.

"These," Jean held up her hands to reveal beautifully manicured, long fingernails. "I had to practically scratch his eyes out. I managed to hurt him enough so I could get out of the car. Luckily, we were in a safe area, and I got to a phone and called my daddy. I thought Dwight would get the message, but he still kept bothering me at school, asking me out, and calling me 'his girl.' Daddy called his father and talked to him, and Dwight backed off. I thought he'd finally given up. Apparently he hasn't."

"Well, don't you worry, he's not going to hurt you ever again," Jim declared. "Come on, let's get out of here. I'll take you home. We can talk in the car." Jim held his hand out to her. Even though he'd just met Jean, and they hadn't spent even five minutes alone, Jim knew that he didn't want anybody hurting this girl, let alone Dwight Murphy.

Jean grasped his hand, which sent the butterflies flying in Jim's stomach again. Her touch sent a jolt through his whole body. She smiled at him gratefully. "That sounds wonderful."

They shared a long, meaningful look, which Ruthie interrupted.

"Come on, go if you're going," she urged. "Before something happens."

"The only way out's through the front door," Jean fretted.

"Then that's where we'll go. Don't worry, it's all right," Jim assured her. He stayed calm on the surface, but inside, he fumed. I know leaving's the right thing to do. I know avoiding a fight is the right thing to do, too. But I hate this. I'd love to punch Dwight Murphy's lights out. I hope Jean doesn't think I'm a coward because I haven't offered to go out there and beat the crap out of him. Which is what he deserves, the punk.

Jean squeezed Jim's hand more tightly and Jim pulled her close to him as he guided her through the crowd. Ruthie walked ahead of them.

They'd almost made it to the exit, and Jim had begun to hope that the whole thing had been an exaggerated rumor, when the front door opened and Dwight Murphy swaggered in, followed by two other Bellmont athletes who Jim also recognized from football.

"Oh, Jim, there he is," Jean said, the fear and worry evident in her voice.

"I see him." Jim swallowed at the sight of the massive young man. He looks even bigger in street clothes!

"I'll go see if I can distract him," Ruthie offered.

"No," Jim said. He took Ruthie by the arm and steered her toward the counter. "Go over there and see if you can find the manager."

Ruthie nodded, apparently seeing the wisdom in that action. "Okay." She disappeared into a crowd of kids.

"Jim, what are we going to do?" Jean asked. Her grip on Jim's hand had become vise-like.

"We're going to walk right out of here," Jim said firmly. He turned and looked straight into Jean's deep brown eyes. He realized he could get lost in the depths of those eyes, but now he couldn't afford the luxury. There's plenty of time for that. Right now, I have to get us out of here.

"What if he starts something?"

"Then he'll be sorry if he does," Jim said, with a whole lot more confidence than he really felt. "And if he does, you get out of the way, you hear? I don't want you getting hurt."

"Oh, Jim, let's go out through the kitchen," Jean begged.

"No way." Jim knew that would probably be the wisest course of action, but he drew the line at skulking out a back door just because some jerk wanted to start trouble. He sure didn't want to look weak in front of Jean. But he didn't think fighting would impress her, either. "I'm not looking for a fight, but I'm not going to run from that idiot, either."

"Okay. I trust you. I know you'll do the right thing," Jean smiled up at him, and Jim suddenly felt invincible. To gain her trust, so soon...this is amazing.

Dwight must have caught sight of the two of them, for Jim heard his booming voice, loud over the din of the joint, yelling at them. "Jean Smithson! Don't you move!" He pointed a massive finger in their direction, and, almost on cue, the teenaged crowd fell silent, and parted as Dwight stormed in their direction. Only the music from the juke box droned on, and Elvis Presley's Blue Suede Shoes became the background music for the inevitable confrontation.

Dwight stumbled as he moved around a couple of girls who couldn't quite get out of his way, and Jim thought there was something odd about his appearance and his gait. The large kid looked disheveled and red in the face -- more than what just anger could account for. Has he been drinking? He looks wasted.

Jean crowded a little closer to Jim, and he squeezed her hand in reassurance. Jim gently moved her behind him and stood his ground in the face of the lumbering young man.

Dwight half-stumbled, half-swaggered up to Jim and stopped less than a foot from him. Jim caught the unmistakable scent of alcohol, then, and had his suspicions confirmed.

"Jim Reed, you piece of Westlawn... trash. Get your hands off my girl." Dwight thundered, slurring some of his words and putting a massive fist under Jim's nose.

"I'm not your girl, Dwight Murphy!" Jean yelled, stomping her foot. She inched out from behind Jim, but he kept a firm hold on her hand to keep her from getting too close to the angry Murphy. "I never was!"

"Jean, honey," Dwight said, swaying slightly, "I can't believe you'd let this...worm touch you. He's the enemy."

"Don't call me that! I'm not your honey! Now go away and leave us alone!"

Dwight sneered at Jim. "Wassamatter, Reed? You gonna let this little gal do your fighting for you?"

Jim stood his ground and looked Dwight Murphy straight in his bloodshot, glassy eyes. "There's nothing to fight about," he said evenly, but with an unmistakable edge to his voice. "You heard the lady. She's not your girl. She's with me tonight, and we were just leaving. So just step aside and let us by."

"In your dreams, Reed! I should've pulh-verized you on the field when I had the chance!"

"Yeah, well, you didn't, did you? Because you're too slow to catch me."

Dwight leaned in closer to Jim, swaying again, and his sneer grew more threatening. "Well, guess what, little worm? You don't have a hundred yards of turf in here to get away from me. You've got a lotta nerve, show...showing up here, espechially after tonight's game! Didya think you could get away with in...invading our territory without paying for it?"

"Last I heard, this was a public place. And besides, I was invited."

"That's right," Jean said. Though Jim could feel her trembling, her voice rang firm and steady. "I invited him."

"Jean, Jean, baby," Dwight shook his head and moaned. "You've lost your mind. Come on with me and I'll forgive you. I'm crazy about you, girl."

"Leave me alone, Dwight."

"Come on, Jean, just leave here with me. We belong together, you and me. I've been telling you that for weekshs, now."

"And I've been telling you for weeks to get lost! I'm not interested."

"I tell you what. You leave with me, and I won't bash this worm's face in. We'll just walk out of here real quiet-like, and go someplace where we can be alone. We're meant to be, Jean. I know it."

"Look, Murphy, get a clue!" Jim yelled. The idea of Jean being alone with Dwight Murphy pushed him over the edge. "She doesn't want to go out with you. She's told you over and over again, but you aren't getting it. She's not a piece of property that you can own, or some slave you can order around. She's a woman, with her own mind, and she can choose who she wants to date and spend time with. And she chooses not to be with you! So get out of here and don't ever come near her again. You got that, Murphy?"

Some of the girls in the onlooking crowd started clapping and cheering after Jim's outburst. That approval only served to make Dwight more angry. "You're dead, Reed!" Dwight cried. He drew back to deliver a blow.

Jim pushed Jean aside and ducked Dwight's roundhouse swing, all in one smooth motion. Dwight's coordination left a lot to be desired due to the alcohol he'd imbibed, and his wild swing at Jim caused Murphy to stumble into a booth. Jim backed up a step and kept his hands down, even though every instinct and desire he had told him to jump Dwight while he was off-balance.

The onlooking teenagers squealed and yelled. Some scurried out of reach of the action, while others cheered for the fight to intensify. Jim chanced a quick glance toward Jean and reassured himself that she remained out of harm's way. That glance was all he had time for, because Dwight righted himself and charged toward Jim with a yell.

Jim spun away from the charge, his speed and natural athletic ability serving him well. He easily sidestepped the lumbering Murphy, whose momentum and instability caused him to stumble yet again. Murphy reached out a hand to steady himself on a booth bench, but his hand slipped and he crashed to the floor with a loud oomph.

Jim kept an eye on Dwight, trying to anticipate a next move, but he stood easily, not in a fight stance at all. A loud, raspy voice from behind him caused him to turn in surprise.

"What's going on here? Who's fighting in here? I don't allow that! I'm going to call the cops!" An older woman, dressed in a blue waitress's dress and soiled white apron, pushed her way through the crowd of teenagers and stood with her hand on her hips, scowling at Jim and the fallen Dwight Murphy.

Looks like Ruthie found the manager. "Oh, no, ma'am, there's no fight here," Jim said, using his most polite tone. He even flashed her a smile and held up his hands in a peaceable gesture. "My...friend there just fell down." Jim pointed to Dwight, who had managed to drag himself up to a sitting position.

"That's true,"Jean spoke up. "I saw him fall."

"I don't allow fighting in here!" The older woman narrowed her eyes at Jim, and the added wrinkles made her face look even more like a relief map. She held her gaze on Jim for a few seconds, then turned her attention to Dwight. "You kids know the rules!"

"Yes, ma'am," Jim agreed, still nodding and smiling. "I was just leaving, anyway."

"Good, 'cause I don't want to have to call the cops!"

Jim reached out and took Jean's hand again. He pulled her gently back to his side and gave her a big grin, which Jean returned, along with a look that made Jim stop and catch his breath. With a huge effort, Jim tore his gaze from Jean's face and faced the angry manager yet again. "Well, ma'am, there wasn't any fight, but," Jim leaned in close to the manager and lowered his voice to a whisper, "you might want to call the police anyway, because, well...I'm afraid my friend has been drinking, and as you can see, he's clearly underage."

"What? Drinking?" The woman's face grew red and the furrows deepened. "I don't allow alcohol here! This ain't no bar!"

"I sure would feel bad if he got in his car and had an accident because he'd been drinking," Jim finished a bit drammatically. I should get an Oscar for this.

Dwight struggled to get to his feet. "Jim Reed, you're a dead man," he threatened, his face flushed scarlet, apparently both from being intoxicated and from embarrassment. "I'm gonna..."

"You ain't doin' nothing but shuttin' your yap, boy!" The abrasive woman pushed past Jim and stood over Dwight, sniffing. "I smell the alcohol on you, boy! I'm definitely calling the police! I don't allow no drinking in here!" She waggled a finger in Dwight's face and continued to lecture him about the evils of underaged drinking.

The lecture provided a good distraction for an unobtrusive exit. Jim looked at Jean and grinned all the wider. "Let's get outta here, okay?"

Jean nodded, all smiles herself. "Okay."

Jim steered Jean toward the door, noting that Dwight Murphy's companions had long gone. I hope they aren't waiting for me in the parking lot. Jim noticed that many of the kids in the place gave him approving glances as they passed; unfortunately, almost as many scowled at him. I made as many enemies here tonight as I did friends. That's okay, as long as Jean's on my side. They reached the door then, and Jim opened it for Jean, and for Ruthie, who had hurried to follow them out the door.

"My advice to you is to get in your car and get out of here, fast, before any of Dwight's buddies decide to take up for him," Ruthie said.

"Dwight's so-called buddies deserted him," Jim said. He dropped Jean's hand and, instead, draped his arm around her shoulders to shield her from a chilly breeze. "Thanks for finding the manager, Ruthie. It made a difference."

"Sorry it took so long," Ruthie apologized, "but she was in the bathroom."

"I guess everybody's gotta go sometime," Jim said. "It worked out okay."

Jean giggled, and Ruthie smiled at Jim for the first time since they'd met. "I've got to hand it to you, Jim. You really fixed his wagon, and you didn't have to throw a punch."

Jim shrugged. "There are things worth fighting for," he said, "but I've always said it's better to solve your problems in other ways."

"See, Ruthie? I told you he was no moron." Jean favored Jim with another admiring look and a dazzling smile.

"I'll put off judgment a while longer," Ruthie said.

They reached Jim's car then, and he took his keys out of his pocket.

"This is your car?" Ruthie asked, as Jim walked Jean around to the passenger side.



"Lavender," Jim corrected. "My Dad and I painted her ourselves."

"It's beautiful," Jean said.

"It's lavender," Ruthie repeated. "I admit to being confused. You're a talented jock who doesn't like to fight, thinks women can think for themselves, and drives a lavender car. What kind of grades do you make?"

"Ruthie!" Jean exclaimed. "I'll call you tomorrow."

Jim settled Jean into the passenger seat, but couldn't resist giving Ruthie a teasing grin. "A-B honor roll every six weeks since 9th grade."

Ruthie shook her head. "Do you have a brother?" she asked.

Jim laughed. "Sorry, no. Nice to meet you Ruthie, and thanks for the assist in there."

"You're welcome."

"I'll call you tomorrow, Ruthie," Jean said again, when Jim opened the door and slid in.

"Right. You two behave."

Jim cranked up the car and gave Ruthie a small wave as he backed out of his parking space. He stopped at the entrance to Olympic. "Which way, Jean?"

"Which way? Oh, to my house!" Jean looked at her watch. "Oh, my goodness, it's 10:45! Right. Turn right."

"Right it is. Do we have time to make it before eleven?" Jim steered the car onto Olympic.

"Just barely. Stay on Olympic until Saratoga, then make another right."

"Okay." Jim reached over and took Jean's hand. "Alone at last," he said.

"At last. Fifteen minutes, all to ourselves." Jean giggled and squeezed Jim's hand.

"Fifteen minutes," Jim sighed. "Not even enough time for a decent conversation. I'm sorry things got so crazy tonight."

"It wasn't your fault. I'm the one who should apologize. I didn't know Dwight would come around and cause a scene."

"It's nobody's fault. Just one of those things, I guess. The important thing is, we're here now."

"Yeah," Jean said, a dreamy tone to her voice. After a brief pause she spoke again. "Jim, did you really mean what you told Dwight? About me...being a woman and having my own mind?"

"Sure, I did. It's true."

"Wow," Jean said simply. "No one's ever called me a woman before. Or really respected my opinions." Jean looked at Jim with a mixture of gratitude and admiration. "You're the most incredible guy I've ever met."

Jim's heart soared. She thinks I'm incredible! She thinks I'm incredible! "You're pretty incredible yourself," he said, and his euphoria retreated. Oh, that was stupid. What's wrong with my brain? Everytime I try to say something intelligent I sound like a clod!

"Thanks. Saratoga's the next light."

"Okay." Jim slowed the car. Say something. Say the right thing. "Jean, will you go out with me tomorrow? I mean, on a real date?" Jim's heart pounded as he waited for her answer.

"Oh, Jim, I'd love to! That is, if my parents will let me. My Daddy's really strict about my dating. And with tomorrow being Sunday and all, and a school night, he might not."

"How about in the afternoon? After church, just for a drive and that milkshake we never got tonight? I could have you home before dark." Jim gave his turn signal and turned right onto Saratoga. "Anything would be better than nothing."

"That sounds wonderful. I'll ask my parents tomorrow, after Sunday lunch."

"Give me your phone number and I'll call you. Around two okay?"

"That'd be good. Oh, turn left up here, on Robin Lane. If Daddy does let me go, he'll make you come in so he can meet you."

"That's okay. Dads usually do that. I know my Dad screened all my sister's dates like some private eye or something."

Jean giggled yet again. Jim loved the sound of that giggle; it sounded as delicate as the tinkling of a bell, and it thrilled him down to the tips of his toes. "I guess that's just part of being a dad," she said.

"Yeah. I know when I'm a Dad, I'll do it to my daughters."

"Do you want a family?" Jean asked.

"Of course. There's nothing more important than family. I like kids a lot. I'd love to have a half a dozen of 'em. That is, if my wife agrees," he amended. Jim turned the car on to Robin Lane.

"I want to have lots of babies, too," Jean said. "I'm crazy about babies and kids. I think being a wife and a mother is the highest calling there is. I can hardly wait to have my own home and family."

Jim looked at Jean, and in that moment, he knew -- he knew -- that he wanted to be a part of her home and family. The realization so overwhelmed him that he could say nothing. He swallowed, hard, in a too-tight throat. What am I doing? I don't even know her middle name! Or how old she is. I don't even have her phone number. And I'm thinking of a home and family...with her?

"Listen to me," Jean laughed. "I barely even know you, and I'm prattling away about babies and homes and families. But somehow, Jim, I feel like I can talk to you about anything."

"I feel the same way about you, too." Jim said it without even thinking, without hesitation. He looked away from his driving long enough to meet the intense gaze Jean regarded him with. He felt again the magnetic pull of her eyes -- they seemed like endless dark pools of emotion that showed him the depths of her soul. I may not know her phone number, but I know she's a good person. And I know I want to spend as much time with her as I can. I know...

"Jim! This is my street!" Jean exclaimed, pointing to the left. Her cry dragged Jim away from his mental wanderings.

Jim hit the brakes hard, and managed to make the left hand turn onto Bradford Drive without spinning out. "Sorry," he apologized.

"It's okay. That's my house there. Number 326. The house where the porch light is on."

Jim admired the two-story brick structure with its nicely maintained lawn and sprawling front porch. An oversized elm tree in the front yard completed the homey picture. "That's a nice house."

"Thanks. My Daddy is in construction. We remodeled the house last year, and he designed and supervised the whole thing."

"Should I pull in the drive, or stay on the street?"

"The driveway's fine. Oh, dear," Jean sighed. "Daddy's already looking out the window."

"It's not past eleven, is it?" Jim eased his big lavender Ford into the driveway and killed the engine.

"No, it's 10:56. But he starts looking early." Jean opened her purse and rummaged around for something. "I'll have time to give you my phone number, but that's about it."

"Yeah, I'll need that." Jim watched her locate pen and paper, and she wrote her address and phone number in that same flowery, feminine writing with which she'd written her note to him.

"Here," Jean handed him the paper. Jim looked at it, read it back to her, then folded it and put it in his pocket. "And I guess I need to go on in."

Jim didn't want the evening to end. I could sit and stare at her all night. I could sit and hold her hand and look at her forever. "I'll walk you to the door."


Jim got out of the car and hurried around to open Jean's door. He took her hand and helped her out of the car. They intertwined their fingers and walked slowly to the porch. Jim noticed a dark-haired man peeking out from behind the lace curtains in the front window. So much for a goodnight kiss. Not even on the cheek. He'd probably come out here and shoot me.

"I had a nice time, Jim," Jean said, as they lingered outside her front door.

Jim smiled. "That's nice of you to say, but I'm afraid I didn't offer you much of a good time."

"You offered me a whole lot more than that, Jim Reed." Jean looked up into his eyes again, and once more, Jim felt himself overwhelmed with a queasy giddiness. Her face and expression were so open, so innocent, so trusting, that Jim felt like a champion. He wanted to take her in his arms, hold her close and kiss those oh, so inviting lips, but he knew that now wasn't the time. He didn't want to risk frightening her or losing that trust he'd already established in their brief acquaintance. Or making her father angry! As badly as I want to...it's not right. It's not the time. Be strong.

The porch lights flickered on and off and Jean rolled her eyes. "How embarrassing," she said. "My Daddy's hopeless."

"Not hopeless. Just a caring dad." Jim paused. "I'm going to count the seconds until I can see you again."

"Me, too. Somehow, I'll talk Daddy into tomorrow afternoon. You call me."

"I will. Two o'clock sharp."

"I'll be waiting."

Jim took both her hands in his and gave them a gentle squeeze. He then lifted her right hand to his lips and kissed the top of it lightly. "Good night, Jean."

Jean sighed quietly. "Good night, Jim."

Jim reluctantly released her hands, and Jean opened the door. She stepped inside, turned and blew him a kiss, then disappeared inside.

Jim stood on the porch staring at the closed door, almost grieved at no longer having Jean by his side. The porch light blinked off after a few seconds, and Jim turned and walked back to his car, feeling lonely, yet still giddy, and definitely confused. He stopped by his car door, shivering in the cool air, and looked up to the sky, full of stars. Mom, this may be the one you prayed for all these years. Maybe. But I'm just not sure. I'm scared, Mom. Is this what...love feels like? How can I love a girl I've only spent a half-hour with? That can't be possible. Can it? Jim took a deep breath, trying to settle the butterflies that still fluttered around in his stomach. He took a last look at the stars before getting into the car. Don't stop praying for me, Mom.


"That night we met was a wild one, wasn't it?" Jim asked. He held Jean close to him and continued to stroke her hair.

"It was," Jean agreed, "but I knew from the moment I saw you in the gym that you were special. And the way you handled Dwight at Papa Bear's Den just confirmed it."

"Dwight Murphy. What a jerk he was. Still is."

"Well, baby, we don't have to worry about him any more. He's way on the other side of the country, playing pro football."

"Making a ton of money, too," Jim scowled. "There's no justice in the world."

"But you know he's not happy. He's already on his second wife."

"Yeah. That's really too bad. Even though he's a jerk, I don't wish that kind of unhappiness on anybody."

"That's what makes you different from men like Dwight. You even want your enemies to be happy. I'm proud to be married to a man like you."

Jim smiled down at his wife and gave her a quick kiss. "I'm glad you feel that way. That first night, I had some doubts that you'd want to see me again."

"Are you kidding? You were a perfect gentleman all night -- so different from any guy I'd ever known. And then when you kissed my hand at the door...I knew I wanted to marry you right then."

"I couldn't marry you right then. You were only 16."

"Silly, you know what I mean."

"I know." Jim kissed the top of her head. "I knew that night, too. I knew you were the one."

"You did not," Jean said accusingly.

"I did, too," Jim said. "I was just too scared to admit it."

"That I believe." Jean gave Jim a quick kiss, then slipped away from his grasp. "I also believe that you need to get back to work."

Jim sighed. "Especially ff I'm going to finish in time for us to have any time to ourselves tonight."

"You'll get it done, baby. I'm going to run to the grocery store and pick up some bread and milk. Can I get anything for you?"

"Yeah, about a gallon of liniment for the sore muscles I'm going to get after all this work."

"Ewww...if you want some time alone with me tonight, you better not put any of that stinky stuff on!" Jean blew him a kiss and disappeared from sight.


Part 2