"Where the hell have you been?" Grandpa asked as I walked through the door.
"Over at Bryan's house," I replied easily.
"Your girlfriend called a few times, and so did Jake for that matter." He ducked under the hood of the car he was working on and began muttering incoherently.
"What's wrong with this one, grandpa?" I asked, as I closed the distance between us.
"Do it yourselfer-itis," He replied grimly as he straightened up and popped his back while eyeing the engine compartment.
"What?" I asked.
"Guy tried to fix it himself. People do it all the time, not just with cars. The worst thing is usually when people try to fix themselves by themselves. Sometimes they just shove their heads even farther up their asses than they already have," he shrugged as he picked up an S-wrench. "Or, sometimes they drop pencils down the throttle of the carburetor."
I began to giggle, "Why would they do that?"
"Well, they try to fix things without really understanding the issue. People think if they cut themselves off or don't believe in others that they can't be hurt, but that's just plain not true. Same thing here; dumb-ass didn't know what was wrong, so he jammed a pencil in the carburetor to try and get it to start."
"How could that possibly help?" I asked.
"Who the hell knows? I didn't say it made sense. I just said that's what they do." He shrugged and ducked behind the hood of the little coupe again. I headed back to the kitchen and put my backpack on the floor next to the door. After grabbing a drink, I grabbed the phone and dialed Jess's number.
"Hello?" Jess answered the phone.
"Hi, did someone at this number order a pizza?" I asked in as formal a tone as I could muster.
"Very funny. Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yeah. I'm better now, thanks."
"Well?" She asked expectantly.
"Well, what?" I replied.
"Are you going to tell me what the problem was?"
"No, I don't think so," I replied slowly. "Bryan and I had a long talk and I think that helped."
"Kris," she said in a tone of warning, and I giggled.
"It's just me being stupid is all; I can tell you about it later, ok?"
"I don't like this," she replied sourly.
"I know, but I have some good news," I replied with a grin.
"And that would be?"
"Bryan will be bringing a small bathing suit," I burst into a fit of giggles , and could practically hear her blush and fume all at once through the phone line.
"Bad elf, bad."
"I do have a question, though," I said.
"Oh, and I suppose you think I'm in the mood to answer your questions when you needle in on my personal pain?" she said dramatically.
"Bryan is the best thing that could happen to you right now, besides me of course," I replied. "The question is, why did you ask him to talk to me?"
"Simple, dummy, you weren't talking to me. So what gives with that anyways? Bryan was like a last ditch effort; what's so special about him that you'll talk to him and not me?" she asked.
"Because the reason I wasn't talking was...well, it was partially because of you." I replied.
"This guy, he seems to think that we are going out or something. He pinned me up against a wall and told me that I was to stay away from you if I knew what was good for me `cause you were his girl. I didn't even know you were dating someone."
"That's because I am not, who the hell was this guy?" she asked.
"I have no idea. I've never seen him. He was huge though, humongous."
"Kris, everyone looks humongous to you," she giggled.
"Ok, ok, laugh while you can, but when he beats me to a bloody pulp, then we'll see how much you laugh then."
"Well, we do need to find out who it is. I can't have anyone beating on my house elf!" she cackled.
"I am a lot better looking than Dobby!" I seethed, referring to the house elf from Harry Potter.
"Well, I suppose that could be said. Did you get a good look at him?" she asked.
"Close enough to say he had lousy breath, but to be honest I was so scared out of my mind...I don't have a really clear idea except that his nose was really weird looking," I replied uncertainly.
"Well, did his voice sound like anyone you knew or were there any distinguishing things about him you can remember?" she asked.
"No, not really. That's the frustrating part. I totally freaked out and forgot where I was."
"I was hoping you'd remember something that would help me to know who it is," she muttered as if she were biting her lip. "Well, what do we do to figure out who he is?"
"I don't know; I don't want to wait for him to see me with you again and beat me," I replied shuddering at the thought.
"Ok, yeah, I'll go along with that. So, how can we get him to not focus on you without changing how we hang out? You are the only one that isn't trying to get in my pants in science class. I swear to God if one more guy makes a crude reference about an extendable microscope..."
"I have an idea," I said, with a burst of insight.
"What's that?" she asked.
"Well, this guy thinks we are dating. So what if you dated someone else?" I asked.
"I don't think I like the sound of this," she said warily.
"Well, if it's public knowledge you are dating someone then he won't focus on me, right?" I asked.
"I will not date Bryan, no way," she said firmly.
"Well, who else would do it then? It has to be someone that can take care of himself in a fight if it came to that. I don't want to see anyone hurt on my account," I told her.
"I think I know someone I can talk into it. I don't like this, elf."
"I was threatened, not you. How do you think I feel about it?"
My mind was on the conversation I had with Bryan and the implications. Was I wrong to read anything at all into it? I mean, I guess I could safely assume that he cares about me. Were there any such things as safe assumptions? But then it was Jess who put him up to it, so does that mean that she cares and he did it because she asked him to? Does that then make the central question, would he have cared enough to have done it without the prodding from Jess? Or was the opportunity to get into her good graces just too big a prize to pass up? These were questions for which I had no ready answers.
Bryan had seemed so sincere during our talk, and I guess I was being a little foolish to question his motives. Well, I mean, I am sure Jess had something to do with it, but he seemed pretty concerned in his own right. He was a guy, after all, and we don't ask each other about our feelings, right?
"Ok, tell me." My grandfather rolled over on a creeper from the car he had been working on.
"What?" I asked.
"Kris, I am not playing games. Something is eating you and I don't want to pry. But you obviously need to get something off your chest. So spill it, and let's see if we can figure out what needs to be said or done.
"You make it sound so easy," I sighed as I looked back at the internal engine part in my hand.
"It is. There is no reason to not say what needs saying. There is always a right and wrong time, but if something needs to be said or discussed, then it should be. Are you not happy here?" he asked.
"I'm very happy here, Grandpa. I love being able to look forward to coming home and not have to worry about anything more than getting my homework done or getting a couple of chores to do," I sighed deeply.
He sat up and moved over next to me, placing a hand on my shoulder, "Kris, sometimes the hardest things to say...well, you should just spit them out."
"I'm scared." I said in a near whisper.
"We are all scared, at one time or another. I used to tense up every time your grandmother slid under the covers with me," he deadpanned and I giggled at him. "You laugh, but I think they had her in mind when they came out with two single beds in the same room for married couples."
"Grandpa..." I chuckled.
"Point is, don't be too scared as long as you have people around you that care. You got me, and it sounds like you have some friends. So what's scaring you?"
"My father," I sighed and looked down at my hands, "You were right when you said he used to beat me. He gave me twisted ankles, bruised ribs from kicking them and dislocated shoulders. I hate him," I gave a ragged breath as sobs threatened to take over and my grandfather's grip firmed up on me.
"Today at school, someone trapped me in a small place and got in my face and I...It screwed me up so bad, I was so scared. Instead of the school walls, all I could see was the walls in my father's house. I could smell the stale beer and smoke that was always on his breath. I was so scared," I felt one tear trickle down my cheek and I squashed it ruthlessly under the heel of my hand.
"That's going to happen, Kris. I won't lie. I can't protect you from that and you'll have to protect yourself somewhat. If I go down there and talk to a teacher or that moron of a principal, they still can't protect you all the time. But you listen to me," he leaned in close and I looked into his lined face. "If someone traps you like that again, you kick him square in the nuts and as he drops, you put you knee where his nose is. He will figure out fast enough that he doesn't want to screw with you and look for someone easier."
"Bryan said he'd help me," I offered.
"I like that boy," He straightened and stretched out, "Hard to believe he and Eleanor are related." He strolled back towards his car before half turning to face me. "You know, people build all sorts of things; but the thing they are best at is building walls. The kind you can't see. People use them to keep from getting hurt mostly, but sometimes they go overboard and they build their walls so high and so wide that they block out a lot of good things too. Sometimes, walls have to be taken down for someone to grow and get better. Just like tearing down an engine so you can get at the stuff that went bad and make it run better again. It's not an easy thing to do, but like anything that's worth doing..." He regarded me for a moment, then continued to amble across the garage.
I regarded my engine, which lay silently before me in all its dismantled glory. It remained silent and I wondered how difficult it would be to make it work right again, and wondered to myself if I ever would again. My watch read seven thirty and I thought about going to do my homework when the shop door opened and Jake stepped through, giving me a quick smile. He was already dressed in work clothes, damn it. That would have been a bonus to the day, glancing at him as he changed.
"Hi Kris, why are you looking at me like that?" he asked with a curiously bemused look on his face.
"Nothing, Jake, nothing. What brings you here?" I asked.
"You just landed me a girlfriend, and I came over to thank you personally," he smiled at me. I laughed and realized who Jess had called. I was relieved, truth be told, that it wasn't Bryan. I know, he's straight and I have about as much chance as a snowball in hell, but I guess after today I just wasn't ready to let him go.
"Well, congratulations!" I smiled at him.
"She says I have to hold her hand at school and everything, so I figured you owed me an explanation at the very least," he chuckled.
"She didn't just ask you?"
"If you even think that, you don't know Jess," he laughed.
I sighed and decided that I would spill all of my sordid details to Jake, who was such a good listener to start with. We picked up parts and pieces and began to put my cars engine back together, with occasional guidance from my grandfather who poked his head in here and there, while I unraveled my story to him.
"People do some strange things, I don't pretend to understand them all, but they do." I sighed. "I don't think I am all that. My dad definitely didn't think so, and my mom was just kind of there." I looked at him, studying his eyes that were riveted to me. I licked my lips, looking away from his eyes before continuing.
"My dad dislocated my shoulder three times," I sighed. "My own dad. My mom stood by and watched it happen or just went into another room so she didn't have to deal with it. I've had a ton of twisted ankles and bruised ribs, well," I gave chuckle. "I've had a few of those too."
"I don't have the smarts like you and Bryan or Jess, and my parents reminded me of that. I know that their car or the coffee table meant more to them than I ever would, but I still want to be happy and safe."
"Kris I had no idea," Jake started but I held a hand up to silence him.
"Today when I was at school, I got trapped in a corner by this huge guy." I blinked back tears of frustration. "Jake I was so scared that I could smell my father's breath, I could see the stained walls of his house. I know I am not worth much, but I am tired of being scared and it's even worse because I was starting to enjoy being happy and safe with my grandfather and Jess, with Bryan and...and with you, Jake." I said softly, unable to meet his eyes.
"Buddy, I don't know why you hold onto any of that poisonous information your parents fed you, but there is nothing wrong with you," Jake said with tears standing in his eyes. "I think you're awesome, and I know Jess just loves you and as for Bryan, well, Bryan doesn't waste his time on anyone he doesn't like. You are worth the effort to get to know you, and more important, you're worth it to fight to be happy."
When we looked at the clock next it was almost eleven and we had made significant progress on the major engine parts. I have to admit, I felt better about myself too.
"That's cool, Kris. I knew you had a lot of stuff going on, I'm actually pretty happy you told me what's up, you know? I feel like you trust me," Jake smiled and I did a double take, man was he beautiful!
"Well, yeah, I guess I do. But I spent all night talking and you know all this stuff about me, and I know almost nothing about you," I said with a small smile, "I don't even know your last name!"
"Jacob Charbonneau, your mother wants you home," my grandfather called out from the kitchen. He was outfitted in his stock gear, boxer shorts, and black socks. I rolled my eyes and looked at Jake.
"Well, I guess that's one mystery solved." He laughed, "If you want the unabridged version, we could meet at Nelson's tomorrow after school?" he asked me with such a cute expression, I could almost think he was asking me on a date!
"Sounds good," I smiled in return.
"See you there, then," he grinned and backed away from me, backing into the garage door before ducking out the business door.
The new day brought few feelings of dread concerning my tormentor from the day before, and I attributed that directly to my grandfather and, strangely enough, Jake. Jake Charbonneau, mystery boy, good for what ails me. I smiled at the thought and headed to my first class, which was abuzz with normal chatter before the bell rang, which it did, and class began.
This continued until I got to the class just before lunch, when two gossip mavens' in front of me could be overheard talking about news in the school. Apparently Jessica Hussy had a boyfriend, and what a shocker it was! Jake Charbonneau! One of the girls semi-privately opined that she was sure Jake was gay since he had declined to go out with her, but now it looked like he just was after snooty bitches. I hid my face in my arms and laughed into the crook of my elbow. Wait till I tell Jess she's a snooty bitch!
Lunch just was. You know, after you tell people what they served one time, how many different ways can you express high school cafeteria food sucked? I guess it's one of the few binding things across America, kids everywhere agree cafeteria food in their school is the worst, unless you go to some exclusive prep school or something.
I got my warm plate of regurgitated chicken parts and headed towards my corner table when Bryan's voice halted me.
"Kris! Come over here, man," he waved and I hesitated before changing course. What could he want now? He didn't usually talk to me in school.
"Sit down, man. You know J.R. right?" he asked as he pointed to the third member of his little group of friends. J.R. nodded at me and I retuned the gesture. Bryan smiled at me and I felt a strange sense of peace. Isn't that weird?
"Excuse me?" she eyed me. I looked at her as innocently as I could.
"What? Did I say something inappropriate?" I asked.
"Who did you say said that?" she asked after slapping me on the arm for my impudence.
"I don't know their names," I replied, "They are in my third period class."
"I'll bet it was that cow Tanya Coleman," she remarked. I shook my head in confusion.
"Or maybe it was that troll Carrie Freeman, she has never liked me and I think she had the hots for Jake at one time," she mumbled to herself.
"Well, why did Jake turn her down," I asked innocently.
"Because he is a total sweetheart and he has great taste in people," she wrinkled her nose, "well, except for Bryan."
"I wish you'd get off Bryan's back; he's a really good guy. I just don't know why you can't see that," I said firmly.
"Yeah, yeah, sure, sure kid," she grinned. I glowered at her and class started; oh, but revenge will be had!
I closed my locker and glanced around at the throng of people that teemed through the hallways. I headed for the front door and Jake fell into step beside me. I noticed him after a few feet and grinned at him, and he responded by grinning back at me.
"Just making sure you didn't chicken out," he grinned at me.
"Hey, why would I do that? I don't have to do most of the talking!" I laughed.
"Well, jeez, what if I tell you I am a serial dog-napper or something?" he grinned at me again.
"Oh, the shame! The embarrassment! How can I ever take you home to meet mother?" I placed my arm across my forehead dramatically. Jake broke into laughter as we walked and continued to engage in small talk on the way to Nelson's. We took a booth and ordered two chocolate malteds and relaxed into the red naugahyde.
"So what do you want to know?" he asked.
"Well, I don't know; I just want to know what makes you, well, you." I replied sheepishly.
"Well, I'm sixteen. I was born here and have lived here all my life. My parents are Alan and Marla and they are really cool parents. Dad likes to mess with your head, and mom is just like this totally nurturing type person. I have one older brother, who is in college and a younger sister who's in sixth grade."
"Do you get along with your siblings?" I asked.
"Well, my brother is a few years older so we never really traveled in the same circles you might say, and my sister and I...I think she's adopted," he laughed and I joined him.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"She's got this nasty ass temper and who knows where she got it from? She's just like this little alien in our house. I dunno," he grinned and chuckled at me.
"Do you like sports?" I asked.
"Yeah, Baseball and I like to watch some football. Only if Pitt plays though, or the Steelers. Please say you're not a Bills fan?" he gave me a pleading look.
"No, no Bills. I back the Bengals even though I don't like to admit that in public very much," I replied. He chuckled at my eye rolls and relaxed back into his chair.
"What about favorite color?" I asked.
"Black, what about you?" he asked.
"A tie between green and blue. What's your favorite food?" I asked.
"White pizza with ricotta cheese and broccoli; what about you?"
"Anything I don't have to cook!" I laughed and he joined me.
"So I heard this girl talking today, she was bitching that when she asked you out you said no. Why would she still be pissed I wonder?" I asked, more to myself than to him.
"Must be Carolyn Bowers," he said immediately, "Slim black girl with red highlights in her hair?"
"Yeah, actually, I think she did have red highlights now that you mention it."
"Yeah, she has this unnatural fascination with me. She would stop by and pet my dog when I wasn't home, if he was outside. She was just creepy," he shivered to illustrate the point.
"Yeah, I guess so. Do you think that anything might come out of you and Jess dating?" I asked as casually as I could.
"No, trust me, Jess and I will only ever be friends to each other," he smiled. I realized that I was hoping then that Jake and Jess would hook up and maybe Bryan would give up on that idea. Jesus there was something wrong with me. Why couldn't I let that boy go, at least in the romantic sense.
"So, are you satisfied that I am not a total stranger to you anymore?" He grinned at me and I was struck again at his simple beauty. Did anyone ever tell this boy, I wonder, how attractive he really is?
"Yeah, I think I like who you are, Jake Charbonneau," I replied with a small smile.
"Cool beans," he grinned back, "Want to go work on your car some more?"
The clock moved past nine o'clock and the little radio grandpa had beat into working order was playing an old eighties tune from the movie Sixteen Candles, If You Were Here. The song put me in mind of Bryan, and then of my growing pleasure of spending time with Jake. But Jake was here, and for that I was truly thankful.
But just like the rain
The synthesizer faded from the radio and the next song came on, one I didn't recognize. Jake placed the finishing touches to the head bolts. The head had been planed, whatever that meant. My grandfather said it was the smart thing to do, so we did it.
The garage door opened and Bryan stepped through the door, waving to us both as he crossed the room to my car, which was getting closer and closer to being fixed.
"Hey, what's up guys?" he asked.
"Well, it looks like the patient will recover. At least until he starts learning how to drive it," Jake grinned as he stepped away from me, "I think his grandfather ordered a new clutch just for that eventuality!" He was wise to have stepped back as I swiped at him, but I decided his comments warranted being pursued and proceeded to do just that, grease covered clothes and all. Jake was giggling and trying to run, so I caught him and promptly knocked him off balance. We tumbled to the concrete floor where I proceeded to move into a position to tickle him.
He bucked under me as my fingers found his ribs and I slid back down his frame, valiantly trying to reach his ribs again but his hands caught me by the wrists and I found that twist as I might, he had me fast in his grip. I then realized that I was straddling his waist and hopped off him, almost taking a nose dive as he lost his grip on my wrists. I felt the sweat trickling down the insides of my shirt and my cheeks felt flushed, not from exertion, but from the intimate contact with a guy that many people would probably draw blood to have a chance with.
He chuckled as he slowly got to his feet and I tried to calm down. No one saw anything; don't panic.
"What's up Bryan?" Jake asked with a grin.
"Oh, I just stopped by to talk to Kris," Bryan replied smoothly. Jake threw his arm around me and pulled me tightly to him.
"We only have one Kris and I am using him right now!" Jake laughed and I felt silly.
"I didn't know you guys were working on his car," Bryan held up his hands in mock surrender.
"Well, I think I have to head for home anyways. I can go get cleaned up and maybe borrow some sweats from Kris if you guys want to talk, then maybe I can bum a ride home from you?" Jake asked Bryan who nodded his assent.
All I could think of was Jake in my bedroom, wet and naked. I shivered uncontrollably.
"Um, Kris? Is that cool?" Jake was speaking to me.
"Um, yeah, no problem," I said.
"This feels weird, talking like this," he looked at me askance.
"You don't have to, you know." I said quietly.
"I know," he said sighing, "But it feels good sometimes, I have to hurry though, Jake will be done soon. I felt better these last couple of days about myself, and I think you have a lot to do with that. I never really comforted anyone or felt like someone took some...I dunno, strength from me. I never thought of myself like that. You understand?" he looked at me earnestly and I would have walked across coals to give him an affirmative, so eager to be confirmed was his expression.
"I sat there all night thinking about how cool that was, and how you were telling me about doing what I wanted. I think you were telling me to do what makes me happy, even if it happens to please my mother at the same time, yeah?" he asked and I nodded the affirmative.
"All that's great, but I have one problem," he sighed and looked down and his hands.
"What is it Bryan? I can't think of anything you can't overcome."
"I'm in love with someone that doesn't feel the same way for me," he sighed.
Oh shit. Not now, not this, not when I just felt like I was important to him! He wants to pour his heart out about Jess now?
"I need your help, Kris. I love her, but I need some help to keep me on the right track, I want her to see that I can be the things she needs. Can you help me?" He gave me those eyes.
God damn it! I wanted to be her! I wanted to be everything Bryan needs and he everything I need! Oh god this hurts, I don't think I can take this! I'd rather get beat than this, I never thought you could feel a heart break! Shit, he's waiting for me to answer. I'll tell him I love him, I'll tell him I want to make him happy in every way. I'll...
"Sure, Bryan, you know you can always count on me." I told him.
I'll wimp out.