Chapter 2: I'm On Fire
When school came back around, John was a little bit taller, tanned and toned from his work on the farm. But that was about the only thing that was new. His classmates were full of summer gossip, who was going out with who, who'd thrown the best house party, whose parents had taken them to California for the summer, but to John it was all the same nonsense they talked about for the rest of the year. The only piece of gossip he was interested in was what Jessica was doing, and frustratingly it seemed she and Aaron were stronger than ever.
He spent the week kicking himself for having spent the whole summer thinking about her, until Friday which was the basketball tryouts for this years team. John had put a lot of effort in over the summer and he knew he'd improved. He was determined to rub his coach's nose in it and poured everything into his game. When it was over he knew he'd been one of the highest scorers and watched his coach's face for a reaction but all he got was a raised eyebrow, and a tick by his name. John rolled his eyes. Still, at least he'd made the team.
He scanned across the crowd of students who had come to watch and suddenly saw a familiar head of blonde hair. Jessica was sat on the upper steps of the bleachers with a few friends. He brushed sweaty hair from his forehead and gave her a smile, she smiled back. She stood up and descended down to the court to speak to him. "Hey," she greeted. "How was your summer?"
"Alright." John said, there was little else to say. While the rest of his class had been having fun he'd been working his ass off. "What are you doing here? I didn't see Aaron trying out." He looked around, although he knew the other boy wasn't there. The school sports program was intense and there was no way you could play for more than one team. You had to pick your sport and stick to it, and Aaron's was football.
Jessica laughed, "My friends just wanted to come and gawp at some basketball boys." She indicated the group of giggling girls she'd been sat with. "It's very sleazy. I promise I'm only here as a serious fan of the sport."
John smirked, "Serious fan huh? So, you think you have a favourite player this year?"
"Yeah, that boy over there." She teased, indicating a smallish boy, who had tried hard but who had sadly been run ragged by the taller, stronger boys.
John smiled, "Backing the underdog. I can appreciate that."
"So, it's September, you going to the Fair tonight right?" Every year for three weeks in September, Puyallup hosted the state's biggest fair. John could see the Ferris wheel from the back of his house, and all week the air had been filled with the smell of cotton candy and the sounds of the various rides.
"I was thinking about it."
"What's to think about?" Jessica saw that her friend's were waiting for her. "I have to go. Maybe I'll see you tonight?"
"Maybe." John said.
Jessica left to join her friends and heard one of them say, "Why you talking to him? You know he's like, a proper loner right?"
John's heart sank as he trudged to the showers, 'proper loner', yeah, that was him, he thought. Proper loser, he corrected.
John spent the evening helping his mother repaint the weatherboard on their house instead. It was hardly what the cool kids would consider fun, but they played music and chatted while they worked and it took John's mind off the fair. There was no way he was going there if it meant standing on the sidelines watching Jessica with Aaron all night.
"So," his mother dabbed his nose with the end of her wet paintbrush to get his attention. "Who is she?" She crossed her arms over her chest as she studied him. His mother was a petite woman with dark hair that she'd pulled up and hidden under a bandanna to protect it while she worked. It hadn't worked, the scrap of red material had slipped and there was a streak of white in her exposed hair. They were both in old jeans and tee shirts and bare feet to keep from ruining their shoes. Somehow they'd both gotten completely covered in paint.
"Who's who Mom?" John asked, feigning ignorance.
"The girl you're mooning over. Come on, Mom's know everything."
John just sighed and looked down at his feet. "It doesn't matter, she's with someone else. Some football jerk."
"Well," she had to stand up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "She doesn't know what she's missing. So, it's your birthday soon, sweet sixteen. Any idea what you want?"
A smile settled on John face, "I think I do."
It was the middle of the night when John woke to the sound of something tapping against his window. He shot awake and listened. There is was again, a tap on his window. He flung back the covers and went to look out. Jessica was stood under his window, dressed in the sundress she'd worn to the fair. Her hair was disheveled and her mascara had run down her face where she'd been crying.
"Jessica?" He gasped. "What's wrong?"
"Can we talk?" She said, her voice wavering.
"Yeah, sure. Hold on." He pulled on his paint-stained jeans and tee shirt from the pile on the floor, grabbed his jean jacket from the back of his door and slipped out the window and dropped to the ground beside her.
She wiped the tears from her cheeks and gave him a shaky smile as he placed his jacket round her shoulders. It wasn't cold, but the lateness of the hour had brought a chill to the air. They sat together on the front step of the veranda of the small house and John for waited her to explain.
"Aaron's an asshole!" She said vehemently.
John stifled a smirk but said nothing.
"We were at the fair. Some of the boys brought a bottle of cheap ass whiskey and got stupid drunk. Then he started accusing me of sleeping with you."
John frowned but let her continue her story.
"We had a fight and he stormed off. I told him not to drive but he did anyway. He crashed his car into a tree."
John felt a flare of anger at the boy's stupidity, but tamped it down and managed to sound sincere when he asked. "Is he hurt?"
"He killed Billy." Billy was another football player and one of Aaron's closest friends. "I went to go and see him at the hospital and he blamed me in front of everyone."
"You know it's not your fault don't you?" John said gently.
"But if we hadn't had that fight he wouldn't have been so angry and driven so fast. I could've convinced him to walk home instead."
"No." John said firmly. "Don't do that to yourself. He was being stupid. And if Billy got in the car with him while he was drunk then Billy was being stupid too." It was perhaps the wrong thing to say, not very sympathetic to his classmate who'd just died, but he was furious that Jessica was being blamed for something that had nothing to do with her.
"My Mom blames me too." Jessica admitted. "She's not said as much but I can see it in her eyes. I don't want to go home."
"You can stay here if you like." John said the words before he thought about them, but as soon as the words had left his lips he was sure he'd made a mistake. Her boyfriend just almost died, and you're a proper loser, he reminded himself.
He was thoroughly taken aback when she looked him in the eyes and said, "Could I?"
He stood up and took her by the hand, guiding her to her feet. Her legs were trembling at the stresses of the evening but he realised his were too, but with anticipation. He'd spent all summer thinking of her, he couldn't actually believe that she was about to enter his room. She probably just wanted to sleep, he told himself, but at the same time his body was reacting with excitement in a way he couldn't control. He could only hope that it was dark enough that she didn't notice the uncomfortable bulge in his jeans. Stop it, he told himself, she'll think you're a loser and a perve, but his little self-admonition didn't work.
"I'll..." John had to clear his throat before the words would come out. "I'll go round and open the door, gimme a minute."
He went to grab the flagpole to climb back into his room, but she held out an arm and stopped him. "Give me a boost." She said instead.
He did as he was told, kneeling and lacing his fingers together. She placed her foot delicately in his hands and as he boosted her she reached up and grabbed the flagpole, pulling herself up and wrapping her skinny legs round the pole as she shimmied towards his window. He watched her in awe as she slipped into his room.
He followed her up and climbed in after her. She was glancing round the small room, trying to learn something new about its occupant from the things in it. John suddenly felt a flash of shame at the spartan accommodations, the single bed, the ancient peeling wallpaper that his posters had tried but failed to hide, the pile of dirty clothes on the floor. He knew she lived in the nicer part of town and that Aaron's parents made good money. He kicked the dirty clothes under the bed, hoping she wouldn't notice. She obviously did, but pretended not to, instead going to his bedside table and picking up the framed photo there.
The picture was old and the colour had been bleached by the sun. It had been taken the day that his father had come home from Vietnam. His father was dressed smartly in full dress uniform, with a wide grin on his face as he clutched his mother to him in a tight hug, while holding John, aged 4, on his hip. His parents looked happy, but John, who peered out from under a mop of dark hair just looked a bit bewildered, sat on the hip of a man he barely knew but who he was supposed to be elated to see.
"Your dad looks nice." Jessica commented. John just shrugged. He wasn't the only kid in class to have been made fatherless, they were at an age where most of their dads had been drafted. He'd been the only one who'd gotten his dad back only to lose him in a refinery accident two months later though. It was a tragedy the town still talked about ten years later, Conor Feris had been well liked by all and the loss still hurt.
John felt the mood shift, clearly a non-committal shrug was the wrong response. After all, she'd shared her emotions with him, it seemed only fair to give something back. "I guess so, everyone said he was. I never really got the chance to know him." It wasn't much but it was the best he could manage.
She put the photo down and smiled at him. She still had tears on her cheeks, he reached forward and wiped them away with his thumb. They were stood close now, he towered over her, breathing her in. She smelt of fruity shampoo and cotton candy from the fair. He wanted to pull her closer but was so nervous, so convinced he was about to screw this up.
It was Jessica who look the lead, standing on tiptoe and pulling his head down into a kiss. John kissed back, clumsily at first, his heart racing, but he managed to slow himself down, matching her more practiced technique until they were both left gasping. Jessica smiled at him gently and lead him to the bed. She kissed him again and then pulled his shirt over his head, running her hands over his smooth, tanned chest. John played with the thin straps of her sundress, tugging them down gently until the thin fabric pooled at her waist.
"This is my first time." John stammered out nervously as a warning as he traced his fingers across her collarbone and then down to her breast.
"Mine too." She admitted. John had no idea if it was the truth or whether she was just saying it to make him feel better. As he caught her lips in his again, he decided he didn't care.