Cadet Morgendorffer stood at rigid attention as the Corporal, hands behind his back, slowly surrounded him in a one-man ambush.
"Sir, yes Sir!"
"What are YOU gonna do when the commies arrive, Morgendorffer?"
Jake swallowed noisily, feeling the eyes of his platoon drilling into him, greedily tasting his discomfort, each one thankful that it was Jake, not him, on the receiving end of Corporal Ellenbogen's taunts. Thankful but still, Jake knew, contemptuous.
"The commies, Sir?"
"That's right, Morgendorffer. The commies. The stinking, red flag waving, slogan chanting, Godless, vodka drinking, sister raping, freedom hating COMMIES!"
"Er, do, Sir?"
"CAN'T YOU SPEAK IN SENTENCES OF MORE THAN THREE WORDS, MORGENDORFFER?"
"Sir, yes Sir!"
Ellenbogen's face was inches from Jake's. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine that it was his father, "Mad Dog" Morgendorffer, standing there bellowing at him. He had to concentrate to stop himself from gagging.
A titter escaped from the platoon. Jake felt the heat of a blush extending from his neck to his face and he loathed himself for his weakness.
Ellenbogen smelled victory and turned from Jake to the platoon.
"YOU THINK IT'S FUNNY DO YOU? Well let me tell you, you pack of pussies, the commies are no laughing matter! They'd stick a knife - or worse - into your sister, or your mother, and they'd laugh while they were doing it." He paused for effect. "And that, my friends, is why we're here. Our country's depending on us - you and me - to defend it when that time comes. And believe me, it's gonna come! Sooner than you think!
Jake felt himself drifting off as Corporal Ellenbogen launched into another one of his endless tirades against the commies. If the commies did come, he thought, a bunch of kids with rifles wouldn't be much use against atomic bombs. Of course Mad Dog wouldn't see it that way. Oh no. Mad Dog would be right there behind Ellenbogen, yelling at Jake to catch the bombs as they fell and screaming at his uselessness as he failed, as he always did, dooming America and the Free World to nuclear Armageddon, eternal rule by the commies, his fault...his fault...
"I SAID IS THAT RIGHT, MORGENDORFFER?"
Jake snapped out of his reverie. He had no idea of what Ellenbogen had been saying. He took a gamble.
"Sir, yes Sir!" he snapped with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.
Jake heard the laughter of his "buddies". Wrong answer. Again.
* * *
"You goin' to the dance tomorrow night, Morgendorffer?"
Jake lay back on his bunk, past seething in indignation. These days it just washed over him. He didn't need to be reminded of his worthlessness, it was a fact of life. His father knew it, Corporal Ellenbogen knew it, his platoon buddies knew it, and he knew it.
Johanssen raised his foot and prodded Jake through the mattress from the bunk below. "I said are y' goin' t' the dance?"
"Oh. Yeah. I mean no. I mean...I don't know. What's the point?"
Johanssen stood up and leaned against the top bunk, staring into Jake's face in mock surprise. "The point? What's the point? Damn, Jakey, you ain't goin' all queer on me now, are ya? Chicks, man! Chicks! That's the point! You remember what chicks are, don't ya, Jakie?"
Jake smiled despite himself. Johanssen was about the only one who bothered to talk to him these days, though that was probably just because he occupied the bunk below. "I remember. I just don't see any point. No chicks are going to pay any attention to me. It'll be like all the other times. You-know-who will be surrounded by girls and I'll hang around the punch bowl until it's time to get back to school. Why bother?"
"Your choice, man. But one thing's for sure - ain't gonna be no chicks here tomorrow night! 'Sides, if you don't come, ain't gonna be no-one less attractive to them chicks than me! Haw haw!"
When Johanssen laughed his buck teeth stuck out even further than usual. Sadly, Jake recognised that he was right. Even acne-scarred, buck-toothed Johanssen managed to strike up the odd conversation with a girl from time to time, but none of them had ever shown any interest in Jake. What the hell, he thought, it beats sitting around at school all night while everyone else is out having fun. He and Johanssen were usually wallflowers anyway, at least they could keep each other company.
"Yeah, okay Johanssen. I'll come."
Johanssen grinned and punched Jake in the arm. "Yee-haw! That's mah man! You never know, Morgendorffer, you just might get lucky."
"And the commies might just shit in Ellenbogen's shoes again, eh?"
That set Johanssen off on another laughing jag.
* * *
"Going to spend the night keeping the punch bowl company again, Morgendorffer?" The voice made Jake cringe. A whole bus full of seats and Corporal Ellenbogen's son had to sit right behind him and Johanssen. Andrew Jackson Macarthur Ellenbogen Jr. One year ahead of Jake - mercifully - at least he'd graduate this year. A chip off the old block and someone not to be trifled with, on his own account or his father's. Known, when he was reliably out of earshot, simply as Junior but, to his face, as Ellenbogen.
Johanssen spun around enthusiastically and grinned at Junior . "Naw, Ellenbogen. Jake's gonna get lucky tonight, aren't ya Jakey?" He punched Jake in the shoulder again.
Jake knew that Johanssen meant well, but he wished he wouldn't.
Junior ignored Johanssen and concentrated on Jake. "Lucky? You? Hah! You know why you're never gonna get lucky, Morgendorffer?"
"No." Jake muttered, thinking but I'm sure you're gonna to tell me and the rest of the bus and, again, sensing the rising heat of a blush on his cheeks and the rising gorge of self-loathing he felt whenever Ellenbogen or Junior bullied him.
"Because you're a PUSSY, Morgendorffer. Women like men who know how to look after themselves. Women want to know their place, know who's the boss." His voice became less strident and he leaned back against the seatback, placing his hands behind his head. "Yes, sir, that's what a woman needs. A firm hand to keep her in line. Not like these damn hippie whores, talking about peace and equality. When they can carry a gun, pilot a fighter jet, captain a ship, then they can talk about equality!" He tensed and leaned forward again. "They're all commies you know, Morgendorffer. That's what those damn filthy hippies are. COMMIES. They're all part of a plot to subvert all that's good and decent about America! Goddamn, son, if any woman of mine started talking like that she'd damn soon learn which way was up!" He punched his open palm.
Johanssen laughed uneasily and, caught between the collective need to avoid antagonising Junior and a residual sense of empathy with his bunkmate, flashed Junior a half-hearted grin.
"You mark my words, Morgendorffer," Junior continued. "If you want to pull a woman tonight, start acting like a man and not a pussy. Let her know you're the boss."
"Thanks for the advice, Ellenbogen." Jake muttered darkly. Hope your ass explodes he thought. He spent the rest of the bus ride trying to reconcile the revulsion he felt for Junior and his advice with the terrible possibility that he may be right. After all, that was the way that his father always treated his mother, wasn't it? And Junior himself never seemed to have any trouble getting girls. He shuddered at the thought. If that's what it takes I'll stay single.
Buxton Ridge Military Academy and Saint Agnes's School for Young Ladies had a longstanding arrangement. Three times a year the upperclassmen from Buxton Ridge Military Academy were bussed to the Saint Agnes's for a dance in the gym. The Harvest Ball, Winter Ball and Spring Fling were chances for disciplined young men and good Catholic girls to meet and socialise in a supervised environment. Neither the nuns from St Agnes's or the staff from Buxton Ridge had any need to worry about inappropriate influences. A band, comprising a piano player, saxophonist and drummer, none of whom were younger than 60 when they'd first been hired fifteen years ago, provided wholesome music (although Mother Superior had commented the previous year that she had detected a hint of that sinful jazz influence in the Pride of Erin, and that had put a stop to that). The cadets in their freshly-ironed dress uniforms and the young ladies in their modest dresses were allowed to socialise until the wee small hour of 11:00pm sharp under the watchful gaze of the nuns and Academy staff. The evenings always commenced with a welcome and prayer by Mother Superior followed by a response from the accompanying Academy officer - in this case, Corporal Ellenbogen, Jake's nemesis and father of Jake's nemesis.
As the bus pulled up outside Saint Agnes's Corporal Ellenbogen stood and addressed the cadets.
"At ease, men." He looked a Jake. "And boys. As always, I require every one of you to uphold the dignity of Buxton Ridge tonight. And by 'uphold the dignity' I mean that I catch any one of you with his hand down or up the dress of any of the Saint Agnes girls, I will personally feed your sorry ass, finely chopped, to my Dobermans without first removing it from your broken and bleeding body. And your privates will decorate my Christmas wreath. Is that clear?"
"SIR, YES SIR!" chorused the cadets.
"Now I know that many of you are not of the Catholic faith, nevertheless I expect you to respect the dignity of Saint Agnes's tradition during Mother Superior's introductory prayer. Is that also clear?"
"SIR, YES SIR!"
The cadets filed off the bus and into the gym, which the girls had decorated with Christmas scenes and red, white and blue paper streamers. A sheet, painted with the words "Merry Christmas Buxton Ridge Cadets" had been hung on the far wall and the Michael O'Flaherty All Stars, dressed in tuxedos that were unashamed of their proud years of service, sat under the welcome banner. When the cadets had filed in and lined up, Mother Superior stepped up to the microphone.
"Would the girls sitting along the benches at the side cross their legs please? Thank you. Now that the gates of Hell are closed, it is my pleasure to once again welcome the fine young men from Buxton Ridge to Saint Agnes's. I know that you're all eager to join in the festivities tonight so I won't bore you with formalities. Let us begin with the traditional prayer." The assembled cadets and young ladies bowed their heads reverentially. "Heavenly Father, we give thanks to you for once again bringing us together in a night of wholesome intercourse." Corporal Ellenbogen cast a wary eye over the assembled cadets to ensure that no one disgraced the Academy by snickering. "Watch over us and keep us from unholy influences and sinful temptations of the flesh that we may not burn in the eternal fires of damnation where unspeakable torments await young people unable to control their sinful primal urges. Amen."
"Amen" echoed the multitude. The Catholics among the cadets and all the young women crossed themselves.
Corporal Ellenbogen addressed the microphone for the response. "Thank you Mother Superior for that inspiring prayer. On behalf of the cadets of Buxton Ridge I'd like to thank you, the Sisters of Saint Agnes, and the charming young ladies for your warm welcome. Let the dance begin."
The All Stars took their cue and launched into a rousing rendition of When Irish Eyes are Smiling, played strictly a tempo ever since Michael O'Flaherty had introduced two bars of syncopation last year and earned the wrath of Mother Superior. The cadets broke ranks and started to mingle.
Cadets Morgendorffer and Johanssen ambled listlessly over to the punch bowl which had been set up opposite the band. Johanssen eagerly cast around for a possible target, landing on, then immediately rejecting as way out of his league, the group of three immaculately-dressed girls whose figures their modest clothes were doing a heroic, but ultimately hopeless, job of camouflaging. Junior, he noticed, was making a bee line for them anyway. He dug Jake in the ribs. "No shortage o' talent here tonight eh, Jakey boy? And I don't mean the band! Haw haw."
"Dammit Willie! You nearly made me spill the punch." exclaimed Jake, but Johanssen's attention was elsewhere. Jake turned to follow his gaze. Approaching them was a plump dark-haired girl who, it seemed, shared Johanssen's predilection for pimples. She took a glass off the table and lowered the ladle into the bowl. Johanssen grinned at her, displaying as fine a set of teeth as was ever contained in two mouths. Assuming that the sophisticated approach stood the best chance of success, he grinned at her and said "Well now, ain't you the purdy one!"
She looked up, a non-committal expression on her face.
Johanssen snapped to attention and saluted. "Cadet Willie Johanssen, at y'r service, ma'm!"
She continued to size him up, looking him over with a practiced eye. Finally all the pieces came together and she made a decision. "Say, Cadet Willie Johanssen, you wouldn't just happen to have a chocolate bar on you now, would you?"
Johanssen's grin, in contravention of all the known laws of both physics and dentistry, widened. He dug around in his pocket and pulled out a Three Musketeers bar, somewhat limp but still recognisable, and offered it to her.
She smiled the victorious smile of someone whose chocolate detection system had, once again, passed a crucial battlefield test. "So, Cadet Willie Johanssen," she purred, taking the proffered gift and offering him her arm, "come and sit down and tell me all about yourself, you big, strong military type man."
Johanssen took her arm and let her lead him off towards the benches that had been set up along the side walls of the gym, looking back at Jake over his shoulder with a look that screamed "Got me a live one here, Jakey boy!"
Jake sighed. He looked over at the group of three girls who, by now, had surrounded Junior. Junior was in full flight, miming a person climbing a ladder, looking around, freezing, then blubbering. He looked back towards Jake, indicating him with a flick of his head. The girls turned, stared at Jake and burst out laughing. Jake sighed again and turned back towards the punch bowl, intent on drowning his sorrows in the heady mix of orange and pineapple juice. Canned cherries bobbed around in the bowl like putrefying goldfish floating atop a stagnant aquarium.
Jake stared out across the gym, not seeing anything, not feeling anything, not thinking anything, drifting along in merciful nothingness. A harsh voice behind him startled him back to the present.
"Why don't you watch where you're going, clumsy?"
He spun around to see the group of three girls and Junior just as one of the girls bumped into the back of another who'd just poured herself a glass of punch, spilling it down her dress. The group walked off laughing. The girl whose punch had spilled looked down at herself, sadly assessing the damage.
Jake pulled a clean handkerchief out of his pocket and reached across the punch bowl, offering it to her. "Damn. I mean gosh, you know I think she did that on purpose!"
She looked up, sniffed back a tear, and gratefully accepted the handkerchief, dabbing ineffectively at the spilled punch. "Thanks," she said, smiling wanly at him. "They're always doing stuff like that." Looking down, she realised that the handkerchief wasn't going to do much good on the sticky juice. She looked back up at Jake. "I'm going to have to go into the Ladies room and try to rinse some of this out. Can I..." she looked down at the handkerchief.
Jake caught himself staring. "Wha...oh...uh..yeah - of course!" He smiled at her.
"Thanks." she said, distractedly returning his smile and striding damply off towards the ladies' washroom.
Jake stared after her, mesmerised by the way her shoulder-length honey blond hair moved as she walked. The unmistakeable bray of Johanssen's laugh, followed immediately by a horse cackle from his new companion made him turn back towards the dance floor where groups of cadets and their partners were performing a Texas Twostep which Johanssen obviously found hilarious. Jake watched with a combination of envy and ennui.
"That's a little better, but your handkerchief's soaked I'm afraid."
He turned to see the girl standing behind him.
"I think I got the worst of the punch out. It's only water now. I'll wash your handkerchief and get it back to you if that's okay."
"Handkerchief? What? Oh, yeah, no problem." Jake felt a familiar sensation of heat ascending his face, but this time without any of the familiar feelings of loathing that accompanied it.
She smiled again. "I'm Amanda. Amanda Phillips."
Jake stared at hazel-green eyes. "Amanda." he breathed.
Her smile turned to a grin. "And you're..."
"No, I'm Amanda. You're..." She waited, slowly nodding encouragingly.
Jake shook himself. "JAKE!" He shouted then, realising what he'd done, said "Jake Morgendorffer. I mean..." he snapped to attention as Johanssen had done. "Cadet Jake Morgendorffer at your service, Ma'm!"
She politely stifled a chuckle. "It's a pleasure to meet you Jake. And it's Amanda, not Ma'm."
By this time Jake was doing a passable imitation of a beet. "Oh," he stammered. "Oh, the pleasure's all...mine." He forced himself to regain some composure. "I'm sorry about your dress. I hope it isn't...um...damaged."
Amanda looked down at her dress again then back at Jake. "No, it'll be alright, but it's uncomfortable." She looked around for an open door. "Maybe we could go outside. There's a breeze. It might help me to dry off."
Jake tried to stop himself from looking around to see who was behind him, not quite believing that Amanda was talking to him. He swallowed noisily again. "Outside? Can we go outside?" he looked around the gym. "I mean are we allowed to? I thought we had to stay in here."
"There's a balcony over there." She indicated a door. "There's always a nun standing guard out there but at least it's outside."
Like Johanssen's friend had done, she offered Jake her arm. He looked, half-understanding what was expected of him, but too dumbfounded to move. Amanda smiled again, took his hand and put it on her arm, then led him to the balcony. The mid-January night was cool and clear, a high waning gibbous moon washed out the stars and a light breeze blew from the south.. At the far end of the balcony a nun sat under a light reading a black-bound Bible with one eye while she watched out for potential sin with the other. The noise from the gym was muted out here and they walked up to the steel railing that surrounded the low concrete balcony. Steps leading down to the school grounds had been roped off to prevent escape, but the sounds from inside provided enough background for them to feel a sense of modest privacy providing they spoke quietly.
Jake broke out into a sweat. Say something, dammit, his mind urged, but his mouth refused to co-operate. Finally he forced out the first line he could think of. "Do you come here often?"
Amanda again stifled a laugh. "I go to school here. Actually, I live here too. I'm a boarder."
The weight of his inadequacy descended on Jake like a cartoon anvil on an animated coyote. He deflated, and with the realisation that both he and Amanda were wasting their time, he lost his nervousness. He looked straight at her, his face showing his disappointment. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I can't do this."
"Can't do what, Jake? I don't understand."
"I can't pretend to be...I don't know. Anything. I mean I know that I should make witty conversation, or be charming, or funny, or manly, or something like that, but I can't and I'm not. Ellenbogen's right. I'm a pussy." He turned towards the door. "Come on. It's cold out here and you're wet. You should go and talk to your friends. I'll keep the punch bowl company until it's time to go."
She reached out and took his arm, stopping him from walking off. "Jake, I didn't want you to be any of those things! I just wanted to talk to you. Besides..." That sadness crossed her face again. "I don't have any..." A light dawned. "Um, you don't get to talk to girls much, do you?"
His face fell further. "I guess it's obvious."
"It is a little." She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. "Brr, you're right, Jake. It is cold."
Jake started. "Oh darn - what was I thinking! I'm sorry!" He slipped his jacket off and put it round her shoulders.
She wrapped the coat around her shoulders and looked up at him. "Thanks, but now you're going to be cold."
"Oh, I'm fine. I don't feel the cold," he lied. "But what happened in there with the punch? Why did that girl bump into you? She did it on purpose didn't she?"
Amanda turned to look out over the railing, across the school. "Sandra. She's been like that to me since I started here. She's one of the 'popular' girls - you know the type. They pick on anyone who isn't part of the 'in' crowd, who don't share their obsession with fashion and dating. I guess I'm one of her favourite punching bags. I've never really felt like I belonged here." Jake couldn't see her face, but heard the change in her voice, and he felt what she felt.
"I can't believe that," he said quietly. "How could anybody not like you?"
"I guess it's easy. If you don't fit in with the way everyone else thinks, you end up being the butt of the jokes. I don't suppose you'd understand."
"Understand? Oh God! I mean Oh Gosh! You've just described me! Did you see that guy with them?" She nodded, surprised at the animation in his voice. "That's Andrew Jackson Macarthur Ellenbogen Jr. He's the son of the bas...the guy who made the speech. Between the two of them they've made my life miserable since I got sent to that rotten, stinking, lou..." He caught himself and blushed again. "Oh damn...I mean darn...I'm sorry."
She laughed and smiled at him, nodding towards the nun who had raised both eyes to glare at Jake. "I don't mind, but I think you'd better tone it down a little. Sister Assumpta's about to blow a fuse."
Jake looked round and grinned nervously at Sister Assumpta. "Pardon me, Sister. It won't happen again."
Sister Assumpta stared over the top of her spectacles. "I should hope not, young man! One can be expressive without being offensive, and particularly without taking the Lord's name in vain!" she said in a voice that was surprisingly free of malice, then looked down at her bible again.
Amanda stared past Jake to where the nun sat in the cold light of the lamp. "She's actually very nice - my art teacher. She's been the only person here who I actually think of as a friend." She looked up at Jake. "We've got something in common I guess."
"Hey! I guess we have!" Jake grinned, relaxing a little.
He listened to Amanda talk about how Sister Assumpta had nurtured her love of art, amazed at the way she described the sensuous feel of wet clay on the wheel beneath her fingers. Sometimes, she said, it made her feel as if a living thing was taking shape in her hands. She felt the genuineness of Jake's empathy when she described how the other girls teased and bullied her because she didn't care about clothes or boys, or how she'd rather read a book than go to the movies. He told her about his father, Mad Dog, about how he hated military school, how he hated Junior and his father and everything they stood for. She told him about the school, pointing to the building across from the gym. "See the second window on the left down the bottom?" He nodded. "That's my room."
"You have your own room? Wow! We have dormitories with 40 kids each in them! Your parents must be rich!"
She laughed in surprise. "No! Nothing like it. We live in the next county, about three hours away by bus. When I started here I used to be a day girl. I'd get up at four in the morning and get home at eight at night. I was so tired when I got home that I'd just go to bed. They could have sent me to a closer school, but Dad wanted me to go to a Catholic school and Saint Agnes's was the closest school big enough for me to study art. Dad works really long hours to pay for me to board. The rooms are tiny. They used to be nuns' cells."
"Cells?" exclaimed Jake. "This was a jail? For nuns?"
"No!" She chuckled. "It was a convent. Cells was what they called the rooms that the nuns slept in. They're really only big enough for a bed and a desk, but they let us have some posters on the wall."
"Oh. Well, you're still lucky. We don't get any privacy at all." Bitterness crept into his voice. "I hate it."
Amanda started as she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned to see the face of Sister Assumpta. "It's almost ten thirty, dear. I know you haven't noticed, but your friend here has been shivering for the last half hour. Perhaps you'd both better go in and warm up before the boys have to leave."
Amanda looked at Jake with horror. "Oh Jake - I'm so sorry!" She slipped his jacket off and handed it back to him, then turned to Sister Assumpta. "Thank you Sister."
"Oh, I'm sure your young friend hadn't noticed. You two have been lost to the world. Now go in and get warm."
Jake slipped on his jacket. He hadn't noticed how cold he was until she'd mentioned it. "Thanks Sister," he grinned as they walked towards the door. Sister Assumpta smiled and nodded in acknowledgement. "She's pretty cool for a nun. Are you dry?"
Amanda nodded. "I've been dry for an hour." She stopped and turned to Jake. "I've really enjoyed talking to you, Jake. Do you...I mean...do you think we could...?"
Jake swallowed noisily again. He couldn't believe what he was hearing and the easy rapport between them vanished as quickly as it had come. He blushed. "Do you mean...could we...?"
Amanda felt herself blushing, but she steeled herself. "Could we get together again some time? I mean do they let you out?"
Jake felt an odd sensation in the pit of his stomach. "Yeah. Yeah - we get free time on Saturdays. Maybe we could..."
"Maybe we could meet for a soda or something? On the Saturday after school gets back from Christmas break?"
"Do you know Gilberts? The malt shop on Manson Street?"
"Next to the drug store? Sure"
"Uh, how about midday Saturday? Could you be there?"
She nodded. "Uh huh."
There was a pause as they stared uncertainly at each other. Finally, Jake looked up at the clock. "We've got another half hour. Do you want to sit down?"
Jake looked around, saw some space next to Johanssen and his friend and started walking over to it, Amanda walking beside him. As they moved, their hands brushed. Though neither of them could remember later who had made the first move, when they sat down they were holding hands.
* * *
Amanda watched the bus leave, too focused on the disappearing tail lights to notice that Sister Assumpta was standing beside her.
"I get the impression you like him."
Amanda kept her eyes on the bus's tail lights as it turned the corner at the end of the street, hoping that the darkness was concealing the colour in her face. "He's nice."
Sister Assumpta smiled gently, looking at the way Amanda was holding Jake's now dry handkerchief tightly in her hand. "I hope you'll be able to convince him to tone down his damn language," she deadpanned.
Amanda spun round to stare at the nun, her mouth open in shock. It was the first time she'd ever heard any of the sisters swear, but the sparkle in Sister Assumpta's eyes gave her away, and they burst out laughing.
* * *
The rest of Jake's week passed in a haze, much of it filled with visions of Amanda. Johanssen was as taken with Hilda as Jake was with Amanda, but there the similarity ceased. Where Jake was tongue-tied when he tried to talk about Amanda, so he tended not to, Johanssen would bray continuously about Hilda's endearing qualities.
"I tell ya, Jakey, she's one fine mess o' woman. Man! Did you see the way she attacked that chocolate bar? Like a hound on a prime rib! My, but that was a fine site t' see!"
Jake couldn't help smiling at Johanssens' enthusiasm. He leaned over the side of the bunk to see Johanssen lying back with his hands behind his head and a grin wide enough to contain most of his teeth. "So what is it with you and, uh, ample women, Johanssen? I mean you're as skinny as a rake. What is it? Attraction of opposites?"
Johanssen turned to look up at Jake's upside down face. "Well lemme tell ya, Jake. Before my daddy packed me off t' Buxton Ridge he took me aside and he said to me 'Willy,' he said - he always called me Willy, 'cause of that's m' name -'Willy,' he said, 'when the time comes for ya to find yerself a wife, take my advice, son. Find yourself a woman who likes her food. It's a sure thing that woman as likes her food's gonna be a good cook. And son,' sometimes he called me 'son', too, 'Son,' he said, 'there ain't nothin' as is more important in a wife than bein' a good cook.' An' Jake, I always listened to what m' daddy told me. He was fine man, m' Pa, God rest his soul."
"So your Mom was a good cook?"
"A good cook? Haw haw!" Johanssen brayed. "A good cook? Jake, my Ma couldn't cook t' save herself. I mean look at me! If Ma could cook do you think I'd be skinny as last year's scarecrow now? Oh no. I'm sure it was Ma's cookin' that sent daddy off to a early grave. Not that she didn't mean well, mind, but Lord, when we was young 'uns, Pa used ta use her hotcakes fer shoe leather, an' I'll tell ya Jake, our shoes just used ta last an' last. Haw. Good cook! That's rich!" But he caught himself and looked at Jake seriously. "Don't get me wrong, Jakey - I love m' Ma - she just cain't cook fer nuts. Never could."
Jake could never tell whether Johanssen was joking or not, but there was no doubt that he was as happy as a man could be at having met Hilda.
"So, Jake, what I did was, I decided to always carry a chocolate bar around with me, 'cause it seemed t' me that a woman who liked her food'd be pleased t' see a man who came prepared for a famine, and Lord, didn't that pay off, I swear!"
"You'd better stock up then."
"I'm way ahead o' ya, Jakey." He grinned, got up and opened his footlocker, and triumphantly pulled out a carton of two dozen Three Musketeers bars and another of Snickers. "So who'd a' thunk it, eh, Jakey boy? You an' me gettin' lucky on the same night! That Amanda, she's a pretty one alright. Too skinny fer my likin' o' course, but pretty all the same."
Jake lay back and sighed. "For the first time in my life someone actually likes me for who I am. I don't have to try to be something I'm not with her." He looked back over the edge of the bunk. "I think I love her, Willy."
"Couldn't a' guessed in a million years, Jakey, not in a million years! Haw haw."
* * *
Most of next week was taken up with pre-Christmas preparations and the routine relaxed a little.
The Wednesday before Christmas break was traditionally given to the cadets to go into town to get any last-minute Christmas shopping done. For Jake it was traditionally a time of resentment and anger and the older he got the worse it was. The older he got the less he could accept that giving presents at Christmas was something you just did, and the more he understood it was something you did for people you cared about. Did he care about Mad Dog? Oh yeah. He cared alright. He cared enough to fantasize about how good it would be when he died. He cared enough to understand that his mother was afraid of his father so much that she could never take Jakey's side, but had to support Mad Dog. For fear of what he'd do to her? He loved his mother. She was the only source of love he'd ever known, though fear of Mad Dog tempered that love. He could buy something for his mother. Not much of course. His allowance was small, but he didn't have anything to spend it on most of the time so he managed to save most of it. But buy something for Mad Dog? How much was hemlock? Wasn't that what that Greek guy drank when he committed suicide? Was death by hemlock poisoning painful? He hoped so. Could you buy hemlock from the druggist? Gift wrapped?
"Here Dad, this is for you."
"Hemlock? Gee, thanks Son. I'll drink it now."
"Yeah. You do that, Dad. Drink up, Shriner."
The shopping trip ended, as it had these past few years, with a pair of socks for Mad Dog and a handkerchief for his Mom, gift wrapped at the store with a little card on each, printed with a snowy Christmas scene and the words "To:" and "From:" with space for writing the names. On the socks he wrote "Dad" and "Jake", on the handkerchief "Mom" and "Jakey, with love." He felt as empty as the the gesture.
By Thursday afternoon most of the cadets had packed their bags ready for the break. On Friday morning some would be picked up by their parents, some would take taxis to the airport and some, like Jake and Willy, would take the bus to the train station.
They were sitting around quietly, each with his own thoughts, when Corporal Ellenbogen opened the door and walked in followed by a gust of cold wind. The cadets jumped off their bunks but Ellenbogen growled "At ease" and strode over to Jake, who, by then, was standing at the foot of his bunk. Ellenbogen handed Jake an envelope.
"Letter from your Father, Morgendorffer." said Ellenbogen. A shot of adreneline coursed though Jake's system. Ellenbogen never spoke quietly.
Jake took the envelope, addressed to Corporal Ellenbogen, and took out the small note inside.
Don't send my son home this Christmas. His mother and I will be visiting her family in Toronto.
T. E. "Mad Dog" Morgendorffer
Jake looked up at Corporal Ellenbogen. "But..." he stammered.
"You're a big disappointment to your father, Morgendorffer." Ellenbogen growled. He turned and strode out, leaving Jake holding the note, staring at the space that the Corporal's face had occupied seconds before.
Without looking round Jake passed the note back to Willy.
"Visiting your Ma's folks in Toronto? I didn't know your Ma had folks in Toronto."
"She doesn't. Her family's from Saint Paul Minnesota."
"But what...oh. So what...?"
Jake climbed up on his bunk again. "Simple. They don't want me to come home for Christmas. I think they'd be happiest if I never came back."
"Damn, Jakey. I just can't figure that yer folks wouldn't want y' at home at Christmas. I'm real sorry, man."
Jake looked inside himself and found nothing. "I'm not." He peered down over the edge of the bunk. "You know, I don't even think I care. In fact maybe it's a good thing."
Johanssen looked into Jake's face. "No, man! No. How can that be good? You should love yer Ma and Pa, and they should love you. It ain't right. I'm real, real sorry."
Jake lay back on his bunk "I've told you what it's like, Willy." His voice was neutral.
"Yeah. I know, Jakey. I'm still sorry though."
* * *
On Friday morning the dormitory emptied. Jake lay back on his bunk, ignoring the bustle and being ignored by it. Everyone knew the story, but they were either too embarrassed to mention it or, more likely, just didn't care.
Before he left Willy stood by Jake's bunk and held out his hand. Jake took it and they shook. "Merry Christmas Jakey. See you real soon eh?"
"Merry Christmas Willy. Have fun." They dropped hands. "This is the first Christmas you'll spend without your Pa, isn't it?"
"Yeah." He paused. "Yeah, it is. It's gonna be hard on Ma."
"I'm sorry Willy. Wish her merry Christmas from me, will you."
"I will Jakey. See y' in a few days, ok?"
Jake managed a smile. "OK. See you, Willy."
He watched Willy walk out and heard the bus pull away a few minutes later. The last of the cadets left and closed the door.
Jake was no stranger to aloneness. Nevertheless, the emptiness of the dorm seemed to close in on him, the void outside mocking the void inside. If he'd felt sorrow or anger he would have felt...normal. But he was empty. Filled with nothingness.
The days that followed were his. No-one bothered him. A skeleton staff stayed on at the Academy to look after the resident teaching and grounds staff. He picked up his meals from the refectory and could eat them there or in the dorm, though he usually ate alone in the refectory because it was less trouble. Sometimes he sensed that the kitchen staff felt sorry for him, but the more he thought about the horrors of another Christmas at home, with Mad Dog using every opportunity to tell him what a disappointment he was, the better he felt about being at school. Sometimes he'd walk around the grounds. A river - more of a wide stream - ran past the south boundary and on into the town. Sometimes he'd sit and watch the water, letting his thoughts drift with the ripples, and he found, more often than not, they turned to Amanda.
Christmas day was a Monday and it passed like all the other days except that there was Turkey with cranberry sauce and gravy and sweet potato pie for dinner. On Wednesday there was a card for him, waiting at the place he always sat, though he had the run of the tables. He didn't recognise the writing, but the spelling made him suspect who it was from. He opened the envelope, ignoring the smiling snowman and Santa Clause on the front.
Im sorry that you didnt get home for Christmas. I told Ma what you said. She cried. She wanted me to bring you some of the Christmas cake she made but I told her you were alergick to cake. Its ok - you dont have to thank me. We visited Pas grave on Christmas Day. Im real sorry hes gone. I wish you could of had a Pa like mine Jakey.
I hope your feeling ok. Im sure looking forward to seeing Hilda when I get back. I guess your looking forward to seeing Amanda to. Maybe if you think a lot about her you wont feel bad.
Your friend Willy
Jake never decided, even years afterward, whether the tears were for himself or for Willy and his Mom.
But Willy was right. Jake's thoughts were increasingly filled with Amanda. And it was good.
On Tuesday, January 2nd the kids returned, happy, refreshed, with Christmas presents to show off and talk about. Jake was glad to see them back though none of them, with the exception of Willy, took any notice of him, nor he of them. They just filled some of the emptiness. By the end of the week things were, relatively, back to normal.
And then it was Saturday.
* * *
A dozen cadets filed out of the bus as it pulled up in the main street and went their separate ways. Half of them - including, to Jake's chagrin, Junior - headed in the direction of Gilbert's Malt Shop.
Before the door had closed behind them Joahnssen dug Jake in the ribs with his elbow, nodding towards a booth about half way down on the left. Hilda was facing the door and as soon as she caught sight of them she spoke eagerly to the person sitting opposite her, identifiable only by a blond head visible over the seat back. Hilda grinned and beckoned. Johanssen strode over to the booth and slid in beside Hilda, flashing her a smile that would have been a yard wide if all his teeth had been lined up together. Jake approached more cautiously. Amanda turned toward him and smiled. Jake froze, unable to work out where the music was coming from. Choirs of angels seemed an unlikely choice for a malt shop jukebox and, come to think of it, he didn't remember having seen a jukebox. Instead of the shapeless dress she'd been wearing on Wednesday night she was dressed simply in faded jeans, a light pale blue cotton print top gathered at the neck, her hair tied back with a pale blue ribbon matching her top. A small, plain gold crucifix hung from a fine chain around her neck. If Jake could have spoken at that moment he would have said "Take me, Lord, I'm ready to go."
He slid in beside her as Johanssen turned to Hilda and said "Close yer eyes and hold out yer hand, sweetie pie." Hilda giggled and obeyed. Johanssen pulled a Snickers bar out of his pocket and put it in her open hand. She opened her eyes, looked down and grinned at him. "Why, Willy Johanssen, you sure know the way to a girl's heart."
He looked at her and lowered his voice about two octaves, doing a fair Elvis impersonation. "There's plenty more where that came from, sugar." The other three burst out laughing.
Jake turned back to Amanda, all the ease of the other night forgotten. "It's see to good you." he breathed. "I mean good to see you. Dammit!"
"Haw haw, nice one Jakey!" laughed Johanssen. "Now where's yer manners, boy!" He turned between Hilda and Amanda. "What would you two lovely ladies like? I hear tell the banana splits here are real good!"
Hilda slid a glass bowl with a spoon and remnants of ice cream in front of him. "Not bad at all." Then, in response to the unasked question, "We've been waiting half an hour for you boys. A girl could starve."
Willy looked at the bowl, then at Hilda. "Starve? Sugar, forgive me f' neglectin' your needs so bad. What was I thinkin'? So what'll it be ladies?"
"Yeah!" exclaimed Jake, pleased that Willy had taken the initiative. "What'll it be?"
"I'm not so hungry after that banana split," said Hilda. "I'll just have a double chocolate double malted and a slice of blueberry pie with extra whipped cream."
"Why sure, honeybunch. And you, pretty lady?"
Amanda stifled a laugh. "Just a cherry Coke for me."
Jake grinned. "Cherry Coke? Hey! I love cherry too! Cherry's my favourite!"
A burst of laughter from the next booth drew Jake's attention to the fact that Junior, Sandra, and her two friends were sitting behind them.
"Ooh - please take my cherry, Jakey," squeaked Junior, falsetto. Then, in a fair imitation of Jake, "Sure! I just loooove cherry!" Another peal of laughter rose from the booth.
Jake felt a wave of fury pass over him. Bullying him was one thing, but he wasn't going to stand by and listen to that bastard insulting Amanda. His face turned red with anger and he started to slide out of the booth when he felt Johanssen's hand clutch his arm. He turned to see Johanssen shaking his head.
"Don't get into the cage with the monkeys, Jake." he murmured. "It ain't worth it. If you think you're embarrassed now, just try goin' for Junior."
Amanda reached out and gently took his other arm. "Please Jake, it's alright. They're bad enough already. They'll make life even worse if we react. Maybe we could move to another booth."
Jake sat back down, his face still red, logic slowly getting the better of anger. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Come on - there's an empty booth down there," nodding to the far end of the room. They rose, and as they walked away one of the girls called after them "Make love not war, eh Amanda?" and laughter rose again.
Jake started to turn, but immediately Amanda reached for his hand and squeezed. Whether it was intentional or not it had the desired effect. All the anger drained from Jake and an involuntary sigh escaped as his body relaxed. Jake and Johanssen stopped to order while the girls slid into the booth.
"They're bad news, Jakey. The last thing either of us needs right now is Junior - and that means his old man - gunnin' for us. A run-in with Junior and we wouldn't get out on weekends for the rest of the year, an' I dunno about you, but I want all the weekends I can get if y' take my meanin'."
"Oh - jeez - yeah. Thanks Johanssen. Damn - it's so hard though, listening to that moron make fun of Amanda. I tell you Willy - if I ever get the chance..."
"You'll shit in his shoes?"
Jake grinned. Their order arrived and they took it back to the booth. Johanssen unloaded the tray, took it back to the counter then eased in next to Hilda, watching with pleasure as she attacked the blueberry pie like a lioness tearing apart a particularly ripe wildebeest. "Whooee! I'm sure glad you had that banana split first, Honey, else I might o' had to move afore you started in on me!" Hilda shook with mirth and dug him the ribs.
Willy's and Hilda's antics covered Jake and Amanda's awkwardness, but under the table their hands met and, slowly, they moved closer together until their bodies touched, unfamiliar sensations flowing and mingling.
Amanda turned to face Jake. "Maybe we could go for a walk?"
"A walk? Uh, sure, good idea!" Jake noticed that Willy had slipped his arm around Hilda's shoulders. "Er, would you mind...?"
"Mind?" said Willy, grinning. "Oh no. We wouldn't mind at all, would we sweetie pie?" Hilda shook her head. "See you back at the bus stop Jakey. Four o'clock sharp."
Jake grinned at Willy. "I'll be there."
Hilda looked down at the two untouched cherry Cokes. "You two ain't gonna want those now, are you?"
"Be our guests," smiled Jake, and they walked out, hand in hand. If there were any taunts from Junior's booth neither of them noticed.
* * *
They walked slowly, talking, oblivious of their surroundings. Amanda led them to a deserted park that sloped gently down to the river, grey under leafless trees anticipating spring, and a January sun low in the south that wouldn't give up its warmth for weeks to come. They sat on a park bench overlooking last season's reeds, dead and brown, while under the water's edge living buds slept dreaming vegetable dreams of light and warmth. Though it was only two o'clock the air was getting crisp. Amanda shivered. Jake put his arm around her shoulder for warmth and she hesitantly slipped an arm around his waist under his jacket. They turned to face each other, explorers, lost in silent and uncharted depths of brown and hazel-green.
* * *
The January days passed, and two outcasts found belonging and strength in each other. Their friendship was a barb that their tormentors prodded them with mercilessly, but none of it seemed to work any more. Instead of getting upset, or angry, or running off in tears, Amanda and Jake just let it all wash over them, secure in the completeness they found in each other. Weeks were only interludes between weekends but, freed from the bonds of their otherness, their weeks improved and so did their school performance. Instead of dwelling on the unfairness and resentment that consumed him, Jake was able to concentrate on the task at hand. His grades picked up and, while it was clear that his heart was never going to be in military training, he didn't screw up quite as predictably.
Amanda had always been a good student, but Sister Assumpta saw a freshness and inspiration in her art work that, in other circumstances, she might have called passion.
They met in the malt shop every Saturday, shared a cherry Coke while Willy and Hilda cemented their relationship over banana splits, blueberry pies, Three Musketeers and Snickers bars. Amanda felt, at first, that their relationships seemed so different - Willy and Hilda were always laughing and joking while she and Jake had something that seemed more intense, a bond based on shared experience of of mutual difference and social rejection. But then she realised that the differences were probably superficial and, in a way, she envied Willy and Hilda the lightness of their friendship. But when the intensity was upon them she wouldn't have traded places with anyone.
They'd walk to the park or, more often, stroll in the opposite direction out of town past small farms with red barns and empty winter fields. Sometimes they'd stop to talk to a palomino pony that would stroll across to the fence when it saw them coming, hoping for an apple or a sugar cube or perhaps just some company. Sometimes when they felt alone they kissed, the pressure of their bodies a physical counterpart to a more subtle closeness. Before they dared to say the word to each other, each of them recognised love for what it was.
The season changed.
* * *
Tuesday dawned like any other, but it was a day Jake had been dreading for a week. The obstacle course. Mostly it was just a pain the butt. Jake knew that he'd never been particularly athletic or even well co-ordinated, but he could cope with leaping through the tires carrying his rifle, or crawling under the barbed wire, or walking across logs across the muddy ditch. But there was one part of the course that filled him with dread. The ropes. Ever since Mad Dog had dangled him over the edge of the bridge by his ankles when he was five he'd been terrified of heights. The thought of climbing the fifteen foot rope made him break out in a cold sweat.
Morning classes usually dragged on forever but today they flew, conspiring to bring on the afternoon. Lunch was over almost as soon as it began and afternoon classes made the wink of an eye seem like an eternity. What made the whole thing worse was that everyone else looked forward to the obstacle course and had been chattering about it all day. When the last class ended they had twenty minutes to get changed and down to the course carrying replica rifles, weighted to simulate the real thing.
They lined up in ranks of five. Ellenbogen blew his whistle and the first rank ran forward into the tire maze, high-stepping through thirty yards of randomly placed tires, a task that needed concentration and agility to avoid falling and, potentially, snapping an ankle. When the first group cleared the maze and dived forward to crawl under the barbed wire, the second group started. The barbed wire was set just high enough for them to crawl on their bellies, heads down, for another thirty yards. Looking up to see how far in you were always result in at least a painful scratch on the head and the weight of the replica rifles made the crawl a difficult and muscle-straining exercise. After that a muddy ditch had to be negotiated by walking across a single strand of rope with two ropes on either side as handrails. The first time it looked easy, but the slightest misstep would start the bottom rope swaying and that would almost always lead to a dunking. It was rumoured that the ditch had been the site of the original Academy latrines and, though the staff never confirmed it if asked, they never denied it either. Finally, five fifteen-foot high climbing ropes dangled over a ditch also filled with the same muddy water. The idea was to leap from the edge of the ditch, grab the rope and climb to the top, then climb down and swing across to the other side.
Jake stared at the ropes at the far end of the course trying to force himself to relax. Climbing up was tolerable - he could stare at the top without looking down. But once he was there it was impossible to stop the acrophobia from hitting, impossible to shut out the vision of the river under the bridge...the turbid yellow-brown water rushing by thirty feet below...a five-year-old's imagination...falling...hitting the water head first...the current...impossibly strong...dragging him down...sinking...drowning...
Jake came to, seeing the other four already halfway through the tire maze, and he dashed forward with the laughter of his platoon in his ears. Through the tires, tripping once, getting up, diving under the barbed wire, struggling to catch up, across the rope bridge and almost falling but just recovering, then the rope. He leaped forward and grabbed it, swinging a foot above the water. Staring up, hand over hand, ankles grasping the rope as he went, higher, finally...the river...rushing by...his muscles clenched, frozen...the current...a five-year-old's imagination...
The rest of the platoon rearranged themselves into ranks of four. When the last group had gone through Ellenbogen stood staring at Jake dangling from the rope, his eyes shut tight. "Well, Morgendorffer, the other cadets are gonna turn in - seems they're all tuckered out from laughing at your cowardice. Guess I'll have to leave you here for the night. By the way your father called and I told him all about it. He says don't bother coming home for easter."
Ellenbogen walked off, ignoring the voice straining with fear behind him, saying "Help me".
As the stars came out the pain of his cramped fingers and arms - and the pain of his situation - became too much to bear. Beyond the bridge and the muddy river, beyond the fear and the self-loathing and the anger and the hatred that typified his life there was a glimmer, a pinpoint of light in the dark.
He painfully inched his way down the rope, his muscles knotting in protest, and started swinging, kicking his legs out to amplify the movement and, at just the right instant, let go and landed on the other side of the ditch. He stood, panting, then made his way to and over the wall and down the road towards town.
Gathering clouds scudded across the sky.
* * *
Jake arrived at Saint Agnes's in time to see the lights in the cells go out. He waited in the shadows for ten minutes until clouds obscured the moon and quietly crept up to the second window on the left, his heart pounding, and he rapped with what he hoped was just enough force for Amanda to hear, but not enough to rouse anyone else. Nothing. He tried again, three slow taps. The curtain parted and Amanda looked out into the night to find Jake's face staring at her. He was terrified that she was going to shriek, but her fright at seeing a face at the window was averted by instant recognition. She silently opened the window and hissed "What the hell are you doing here?" She looked around, her eyes wild. "Do you know what kind of trouble we'd be in if..." She looked at his face and her anger melted away. "I guess you do. What's wrong?" She glanced left and right.
Jake realised that simply seeing her was enough. She looked so beautiful that he was lost for words, her hair untidy, her left hand clutching the collar of her winter nightdress. All the urgency and the hurt had disappeared, and he felt like a fool. "I...I just wanted...I just wanted to see you." He hung his head, ashamed that he'd taken such a risk, and worse, made her take one too. "I'll go. I'm sorry."
She looked down at him, silent for a few seconds, then whispered "Wait there." She closed the curtains. A minute later they opened again. Slowly she lifted the window all the way up and swung a leg out, followed by the other. He lifted her down. She'd pulled on a pair of jeans and sneakers without socks, and put a coat on over her nightdress. "Close the window," she whispered. "Not all the way - leave it open a little so that I can get back in."
They looked round to make sure there was no-one about. Clouds still covered the moon and there were no lights on outside. She grabbed his hand and led him through the darkest areas, crouching, around the front of the gym and into the street, turning two streets down into the road the led out of town, walking a couple of blocks to where the houses started to thin until she hissed, quietly, "What the hell is this all about Jake Morgendorffer? You know this could get me expelled! Do you have any idea how stupid this is?"
Jake was already on the point of panic at the stupidity of what he'd done and words, once again, failed him. His mouth opened and closed like a fish blowing bubbles.
She stopped, turned, and looked at him. "What happened Jake? Why? What made you do it?"
They walked on and he described his humiliation at dangling at the top of the rope, his fellow cadets laughing at his fear while Ellenbogen chuckled, and how, as he hung petrified, his muscles cramped and aching as the sun set and the moon rose in the east, it was his decision to find her that had given him the courage to climb down. He told her about how Mad Dog had dangled him over the side of the bridge, screaming in terror until he couldn't scream any more, how his father had given up and pulled him back, white and trembling, disgusted at the five-year-old's cowardice, and made Jake walk home alone along unfamiliar streets. Then, how, at the sight of her at the window, all of it had gone, leaving him with nothing but knowledge of his own stupidity and recklessness.
As he turned to suggest they go back the heavens opened. Fat raindrops plopped onto the road around them. Amanda pulled her coat up over her head and they ran down the road towards the only cover that they knew the now-familiar road offered - the barn where the palomino pony lived, half a mile in front of them. Soaked, Jake held the wires of the fence open for Amanda, who'd given up trying to stay dry, to climb through, and he followed her in through the barn doors which were mercifully open a crack. Inside it was pitch black and they stood, dripping, cold and silent, while the downpour lashed the barn, trickling through cracks in the roof.
A snort made Amanda jump and a squeak burst from her mouth when she realised it was the pony in its stall, and they both laughed nervously. "Sorry fella," said Jake quietly. "No apple tonight."
"Jake, I'm freezing," Amanda shuddered, her teeth chattering.
"There must be something we can wrap around ourselves, maybe some blankets for the horse or something. Hold on. I'll see what I can find."
She stood there, shivering, while Jake felt his way along the wall, trying to hold the lightening-bright image in his mind and being reminded, every time he cracked his shin on something, how unreliable memory can be. Finally he felt his way to the stall and felt the rails then, seconds later, the warm, moist breath of the pony sniffing him in the hope that he'd been teasing about the apple. Jake stroked the pony's nose and whispered "Have you got a blanket, boy? Would you mind if we borrowed it, just until we get warm?" The pony snorted again and Jake smiled through the darkness, feeling along the rails. "Bingo!" he said as his hand touched a rough woollen blanket thrown over the rail.
"What have you found?" came Amanda's voice out of the blackness.
"A blanket. Can you make your way over here? There are some hay bales that we can sit on. Be careful, there's a lot of stuff on the floor."
Jake heard her shuffling along, completely invisible in the blackness, and eventually felt her hand touch his head as it probed the way ahead. He instinctively reached out to guide her and felt...
She sounded annoyed. "You weren't going to wrap us up in the blanket in our wet clothes were you? Great idea, Jake! Why not just hold the blanket out in the rain for a while? Get out of yours too - we'll hang them over the rail so that we can find them again." He heard the sound a zipper.
"Your choice, Jake, modesty or pneumonia. It's not as if we can see anything."
She lifted the blanket off the rail. "OK. Stay wet. You're not getting under this in those wet clothes though." She felt around behind her and found the hay bale and sat down. "Arggh!" she exclaimed, jumping up again.
"What happened? Are you okay?"
"Have you ever sat on a hay bale without any clothes on?"
He grinned. "Oh."
He gingerly took off his wet things and draped them over the rail. "Okay. Where are you?"
She reached out a hand and touched his. "Oh God, you're freezing." She spread the blanket over the bale and guided him to sit beside her, then she pulled the blanket up around them. As it tightened, their arms touched. "Eeww. Cold! Wet!"
He jerked away from her. "Sorry. Wow! You're warm."
She gently put an arm around his waist and pulled him close.
* * *
Jake woke an indeterminate time later. The storm had passed and the full moon shone through the cracks in the roof and reflected through the window.
Amanda was breathing deeply and slowly, her head on his shoulder, one leg across his and her arm across his chest. In the moonlight he could see her face, every detail clear but soft in the diffuse light. A few whisps of hair fell across her face and his eyes traced the line of her cheekbones back to the pale curve of her neck, soft down visible just below her hairline. The blanket had fallen off her shoulder and he slowly pulled it up, trying not to wake her. She stirred and pulled herself closer to him and, involuntarily, he hugged back. She opened her eyes and looked at him, the faintest of smiles playing across her lips. "What time is it?"
He brought his arm out from beneath the blanket and stared hard at the luminous hands of his watch. "Quarter past twelve."
She kissed him on the cheek. "Happy Valentine's day, sweet Jake."
He drowned in a flood of emotion, his eyes brimming.
She drew back a little to bring him into focus. "Jake? Are you alright?"
"I'm alright." He took a deep, ragged breath. "I'm alright for the first time in my life." He traced the line of her lips with his finger and she gently kissed it. "You're like...like all the beautiful things that have ever been, come together in one place, in one person. I can't believe that you've happened to me."
She snuggled into him again.
"None of it matters now. Not Ellenbogen, not Mad Dog. None of it." He looked over at her eyes. "Amanda?"
"I love you."
She lifted herself onto one elbow and looked down into his eyes, then slowly brought her lips down to his.
* * *
"We'd better go. What time is it now?"
He peered at the watch dial again. "Two thirty."
"I hate the thought of getting back into those wet clothes." She sat up reluctantly.
Jake sighed. "It's going to be colder than it was earlier. If you run you can be back in twenty minutes."
Her breath steamed in the cold air. "Oh God. When I get out from under I'm going to have to put my clothes on and run or I'll freeze. You'll have to do the same thing." She lay back down, pulled the blanket over her and snuggled up to him one last time.
After a few minutes she reluctantly got up. He stared, speechless, overwhelmed. She muttered as she pulled on the wet clothes, then turned to him before she left. "Come on, Jake. You've got farther to go than I have. Get up."
He did, and she stared, as he had. He stood still as she slowly approached and leaned forward, avoiding getting him wet, and kissed him. "Saturday?"
She turned and was gone. He heard her footsteps as she ran off down the road. Her presence faded and Jake felt himself fading with it, as if he was becoming insubstantial. He wanted her back desperately. He wanted to lie under the blanket with her forever - thoughts of Buxton Ridge, Corporal Ellenbogen, Junior, and Mad Dog banished for eternity by the warmth of her soft body. "Amanda..."
The pony neighed, bringing Jake back to reality. He shivered, and reluctantly pulled on his clothes, the wet, clammy fabric clinging to his skin. He threw the blanket back over the rail, stroked the pony's nose, and left, climbing through the fence and out onto the road, looking one last time in the direction of town, knowing she was gone but hoping...
The moon shone brilliantly, washing out all but the brightest stars and lighting the road and the landscape in frigid detail. He turned and jogged off in the opposite direction to the one he so badly wanted to take, back to purgatory.
* * *
Amanda slowed as she neared the school. The run had left her warmer but breathless and she knew she'd have to be able to hold her breath if she was to get in without being heard. In minutes she was shivering again. The bright moonlight was going to make getting back in much trickier than getting out had been. She crouched low and close to the buildings, taking the long way around the back of the gym, hugging the shadows. The cold was forgotten and her heart beat like a triphammer as she prised the window up, placed her hands on the sill, and sprung from her toes. She leaned forward into the room, her legs dangling as she silently slid onto the floor. Picking herself up she turned round and cautiously peered between the curtains. There was no-one. The room was silent. She breathed again and closed the window.
She threw off her cold wet clothes and rummaged around in the drawer for a dry nightdress. Slipping it over her head she climbed into bed, exhausted, sore and cold, longing for a hot bath.
As sleep crept up on her she was filled with conflicting feelings of guilt and joy, tingling with the memory of him, the feeling of the rough blanket against her skin, the earthy smells of horse and last summer's hay, his gentle, nervous touch, You're like...like all the beautiful things that have ever been, come together in one place, in one person. I can't believe that you've happened to me. She fell asleep to the sound of his voice saying "I love you."
* * *
Jake ran until he was out of breath, then slowed to a walk. But soon the cold crept in and he picked up the pace, eventually finding a stride that he could maintain and that kept him tolerably warm.
It took more than an hour to get back to Buxton Ridge and, like Amanda, he slowed to catch his breath and think. At some point in the run he'd dried off. How to get in? The front gate was easy, but he'd have to cross an expanse of playing field and driveway to get to the dorm. He could cut around to the eastern wall then skirt the parade ground. That might be best - he could get straight up to the dorm that way without having to pass any of the staff quarters. He wondered whether anyone had missed the fact that he hadn't come in last night. If he came in now someone was sure to hear him or see him. Once again he envied Amanda her own room.
The more he thought about it the more it seemed that the best idea was to tough it out. Just walk in and say that he'd spent the night up the rope, or wandering the grounds. They couldn't punish him for that could they? After leaving him up there? Could they? Well yes, they could. Those bastards could do any damn thing they wanted to - and they generally wanted to where he was concerned. But it was the best idea he could think of. He walked around to the eastern wall. The moon was still bright but it was lower in the west now and there was shrubbery along the wall so, with any luck, he should be able to get in without any problems. He chose a spot where the bushes were high enough to hide him, slipped over the low wall and walked along, crouching, until he could use the shadow of the dormitory to cover him. He made his way quietly to the door - no sense in waking anyone if he could avoid it and, besides, he was dog tired. If he could catch a couple of hours sleep before reveille he might be able to make it through the day.
The door opened silently and he tiptoed in, closing it behind him. The floor creaked a couple of times but no-one stirred. He got to his bunk without incident and reached up to get his pyjamas. Changing quietly wasn't too hard since his clothes were dry and, finally ready, he threw his clothes onto the top bunk and started to climb the ladder. At the second rung his foot slipped and he fell with all the grace and subtlety of an elephant with diarrhoea.
The dorm burst into life, yells of "What was that?", "Who...", "Arrgg", "Morgendorffer?", "Hey - Morgendorffer's back!", "Where the hell have you been Morgendorffer?". The light went on and cadets surrounded him. He stared up into a sea of angry faces.
He felt an arm behind his back helping him to sit up. "Stand back y' idiots - can't y' see he's hurt?" Jake looked up into Willy's eyes and saw the faintest of winks. It took him a second to realise what was going on, but he caught on.
"Oh - I mean ooooohhhh, my leeeeg!" He writhed, clutching his leg and wincing in pain.
"I don't think it's broke. Mason - help me get him onto the bed!"
A cadet bent down and he and Willy lifted Jake onto the bottom bunk. The others muttered and swore, but slowly went back to bed. "You'd better have a good excuse Morgendorffer!" more than one of them commented. The lights went out.
As the sounds of snoring returned, Jake whispered "Thanks Willy. What the hell was that all about?"
"Man, you're in deep shit. Ellenbogen went out after sunset to get you down off'n that rope but you weren't there. He had us out until midnight searchin' the grounds for you. The guys were pissed I can tell ya."
Jake felt sick.
"Where were you, man?"
He sighed, quietly. "In a barn."
"In a what?"
"In a barn. With Amanda."
"A barn? With Amanda? What in tarnation...?"
"Later Willy." He lay back and sighed again. "I'm screwed. Let me get an hour's sleep. And thanks."
Willy grinned. "Okay, Jakey. I'll get into the top bunk. But man, I'm lookin' forward t' hearin' this story!"
Jake was asleep before Willy had climbed the ladder.
* * *
Though he'd slept for an hour and a half it felt to Jake as if his eyes had only just closed when reveille sounded and it all came back. He was going to have to face Ellenbogen. He trudged to the showers, undressed and walked into a stall, bracing himself as he turned on the cold water first then added hot water until the temperature stabilised. As he showered he wondered whether it might be better to face the ire of his squad than Ellenbogen, but then he realised that his squad would only beat him to a bloody pulp. Ellenbogen, on the other hand, could really hurt him. He drifted off as the warm water splashed over him and the vivid image of Amanda getting up from under the blanket in the moonlit barn blazed in his mind's eye. How was it possible that, all the time his life had been a non-stop disaster movie, the universe had held something as beautiful as her?
Jake's eyes snapped open painfully, revealing the sneering visage of Corporal Andrew Jackson Macarthur Ellenbogen glaring at him. Even in his befuddled state the irony of the scene change didn't escape him. Before he could react, Ellenbogen snapped "My office. Ten minutes." and walked out. Jake quickly rinsed off, dried and dressed, wondering all the while what difference it would make if he was late. Could things be any worse?
He tied his tie as he walked into the administration block and up to Ellenbogen's office. Bracing himself, he knocked.
"Come in Morgendorffer" came the feared voice, low and quiet, like a cheetah crouching to spring. He opened the door and walked in.
Corporal Ellenbogen watched him enter as if he was trying to decide which limb to remove first. He gestured to Jake to sit in one of the bentwood chairs that faced his desk. Jake sat, waiting. Ellenbogen continued to stare silently, his expression blank, as if he was looking at a particularly interesting beetle, or a side of beef he was considering serving to his dobermans. Finally he spoke.
"You surprise me, Morgendorffer."
"S...sir?" Jake stammered.
"I suppose you know that I went out to get you down from the rope."
"But you weren't up the rope, were you Morgendorffer?"
"Got the whole dormitory out looking for you, Morgendorffer. Searched the grounds, searched the buildings."
"But you weren't in the grounds, were you Morgendorffer?"
"Where were you?"
"I...I...went for a...walk, sir."
"You went for a walk."
"I mean it's not your style, is it Morgendorffer? Your style's more the foetal curl, whimpering, crying for Mommy." He stood up, walked round to the front of the desk and sat, looking down at Jake. "But this time, you got down all by yourself and you went for a walk. Where did you go, Morgendorffer? Into town?"
Jake couldn't work out where this was leading. "No sir. I went the other way sir."
"Mm. Out of town eh?"
Ellenbogen waited. "It rained."
"Get wet, did you?"
"Yes sir." Jake shuddered inside. He knows.
"What did you do?"
"I, um, sheltered under some trees."
"Yes sir. Er - oaks I think, sir."
"Must have been cold."
"Yes sir. I...um...I ran for a while after the rain stopped. To get warm. And dry."
Ellenbogen stared at him. Jake was sure that any moment he was going to pull out a large manila envelope, open it, and show Jake the photographs. That was how it happened, wasn't it? What's it worth to you Morgendorffer? he'd say. How much to stop me from showing these to your parents? How much to stop me showing them to HER parents?
"It's an improvement, Morgendorffer."
"Er, an improvement, sir?"
"Mmm. There might be hope for you yet. I've seen signs of an improvement in you over the last few weeks."
Jake breathed again. "Um, thank you sir."
Ellenbogen stood again and walked around to face Jake.
"I want you to work on those ropes, Morgendorffer. I want to see you spend your spare time on them. Climb up a couple of feet and back down. Get up a foot higher the next day. Take it in stages. Get over that acrophobia."
"Yes sir. Thank you sir." Damn. I'm going to get out of it!
"Don't think you're getting off lightly, Morgendorffer. If you ever do something like this again I'll personally put my hand down your throat and rip your lungs out. Understood?"
"Yes sir! I won't sir!"
"I want to see you at least half way up that rope in two weeks time. Is that understood too?"
"Yes sir. Thank you sir!"
"Alright Morgendorffer. Dismissed."
Jake sprung to attention and saluted, then turned on his heel and walked toward the door. As his hand touched the knob, Ellenbogen spoke again.
"Oh, and Morgendorffer..."
Jake turned. "Sir?"
"Standard punishment for being AWOL - loss of weekend privileges for the rest of the semester. Now get to class."
* * *
Amanda found it increasingly difficult to pay attention to Hilda. By Friday she'd admitted to herself that she was living for Saturday and, though it had seemed like a good idea at the time, she was beginning to regret that she'd talked Hilda into getting to Gilbert's an hour early just in case. Apart from anything else it had cost her a large slice of coconut cream pie.
Willy walked in without Jake. His face wasn't its usual grinning self and, as he slid into the seat beside Hilda Amanda knew there was something wrong. Willy kissed Hilda on the cheek and Amanda felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. Willy turned to see her staring at him, her face pale.
"Uh, Amanda, Jake ain't gonna make it today." he said quietly.
She felt like throwing up. The demons of guilt had been working overtime since Wednesday. It happened, didn't it? They were all sweetness and light until they got what they wanted and then...but not Jake...not Jake...please no not Jake. It wasn't like that. He said he loved her. And she trusted him. But she couldn't stop the feeling. GodnoGodnoGodno...
Willy reached into his pocket and handed her an envelope. With trembling hands she tore it open.
I've been grounded. Willy will tell you the story.
I'm not very good at expressing myself. I wish I could write poetry because I feel like writing poetry when I think about you. I can't even quote someone else's poetry but I think I'll start reading some so that I can one day
The only words I can give you are these - I love you. I'm wish I could be there to say them to you. I wish I could look into your eyes and tell you.
Amanda pulled a handkerchief out her handbag and dabbed her eyes. Thank you God. She read on.
I've lost weekend privileges for the rest of the semester. But I'll get out. We'll arrange a time through Willy. I can't be away from you for that long.
I hope everything's alright with you. Send a note back with Willy if you like.
I love you more than life Amanda.
She folded the letter and put it back in her envelope, her eyes wet with relief and disappointment.
"He was real upset, Amanda." said Willy quietly. "I thought he was gonna cry on me there fer a minute. He...likes ya a real lot."
"What happened, Willy?"
He told her the story, just as Jake had told it to him. "That Ellenbogen, man, he's been a real ba...been real mean t' Jakey, but Jake said this time he wasn't mean, it was just like, you know, the same as if he'd had t' write some lines on the blackboard or somethin'. Ellenbogen didn't know what it meant. But Jake's been real down. He ain't gonna wait, Amanda. He's gonna make a date 'n time and find a way to meet ya."
Amanda's mind shifted into high gear. "What if he got caught again, Willy? What would happen?"
Willy thought for a moment. "Can't rightly say. I mean up until now Ellenbogen would've expelled him fer sure. Jake said the he was...sorta...friendly. But I dunno, I wouldn't trust that basta...guy as far as I could throw him."
"But he could get expelled, couldn't he?"
"Yeah. Yeah, he could." Then understanding dawned. "Oh, yeah - I see what you mean. Damn."
"Will you take a note back to him?"
He looked at her with the most serious expression she'd ever seen him wear, a compassion behind it that wasn't usually visible behind his clowning. He reached out to her and took her hand. "Pretty lady, I'd take you back to him if I could."
She smiled at him through wet eyes, then reached into her handbag for a notepad and pen, and she wrote. When she was finished she folded the letter and handed it to him. "I haven't...got an envelope."
"I have." he smiled, placing the folded note in his shirt pocket and patting it. "It's as safe in here as it'd be in Fort Knox. Ain't no-one gonna read it except Jake."
Amanda smiled back and slid out of the seat. "Thanks Willy. I'll leave you two to yourselves. Um, will you give him something else for me?"
"Why sure - I'd be glad to." he grinned.
She leaned over and kissed him gently on the cheek.
Willy turned bright red. "Uh, Amanda, I'm sorry - I ain't gonna kiss him for NO one!"
Hilda squealed with delight and elbowed Willy in the ribs.
* * *
Jake was lying on his bunk with his eyes closed when Willy arrived back at the dorm. He assumed that Jake was asleep and he pondered whether to wake him, then cursed himself for a fool for even thinking about it. He put a hand on Jake's shoulder and shook. "Jake?"
Jake sat bolt upright. "Was she there?"
"Of course she was there! Damn Jakey - she was as cut up about it as you are. She cried when I told her what had happened."
"She cried? Oh Jesus, Willy." Jake's stomach knotted.
"Yeah. She was real upset, Jake. But damn - she's smart you know. She's real smart."
"What do you mean?"
Willy took the folded note out of his pocket. "I don't know what she said in here, Jakey - I'm sure it's real private, but I bet I know one thing she said."
Jake grabbed the note from Willy's hand and read it.
Sweet Jake! "Happy Valentine's Day sweet Jake" she'd said. He'd been happier at that moment than he'd ever been in his life.
Willy told me what happened. I wanted so badly to see you.
But please Jake, please don't risk getting caught again. Willy said that you could get expelled. Even if we don't see each other until after Summer vacation, we can write, and Willy can take messages between us. But if you got expelled I don't know what would happen. It'd be harder than this though, I'm sure about that. Please think about it.
It's going to be hard anyway. I think about Tuesday night all the time. I'll write to you. I'll write every day and on Saturday I'll give Willy my letter to take to you. Will you do the same thing? It's not like being together, but it's not like being apart either.
Please don't take the risk Jake. I love you.
Jake thought that his heart would jump out of his body. He looked at Willy. "She loves me?"
Willy grinned. "Okay Jakey - two things. She said that she didn't want ya t' risk gettin' out again, didn't she?"
"Yeah. But Jesus Willy - I can't just rot in here for three months without seeing her!"
"Yes y' can, Jake." He was serious again. "She's right. If you get caught again, what's Ellenbogen gonna do to ya? You ain't gonna stay in his good books f'rever! And then what'd happen Jakey? What if y' got expelled? What kind o' chance would you have then? Y'd get sent off t' some other school somewheres next year and that'd be it, man. That'd be it. She's right Jake. She's smart an' she's right and you know it."
Jake stared at the note. She'd held it in her hand. Written her thoughts on it. "Yeah." he scowled. "Yeah - she's right."
The week passed slowly. Every night Jake wrote his thoughts to her and every night he read her letter. I love you. I think about Tuesday night all the time. I love you. He could have subsisted on nothing but her words.
On Saturday Willy came back with a six page letter. She'd done the same thing that he had, writing her thoughts, telling him the little details of her days. She'd been right. It wasn't like being together, but there was there was a different and satisfying intimacy in it. Nothing made him feel so good, though, as when she wrote, simply, "I love you."
As the weeks passed they got better at it. Amanda told him that Sandra and her friends didn't bother her any more - they tried, but she didn't care, so she ignored them. Jake told her that Junior was still as obnoxious as ever, but he just didn't care. Junior and his old man had come to seem less menacing - more patetic. What sort of sorry life would you have to lead, he wondered, to make you need to bring other people down to make yourself feel good? What sort of contempt for women would you have to have to talk about them - to treat them - the way they did? The way that Mad Dog did. And when he thought like that, Mad Dog didn't seem so menacing any more either. "If I ever have kids," he wrote, "I'm damned if I'll treat them the way he treated me."
Amanda wrote about how embarrassed she'd been when Sister Assumpta had talked about the "delicacy of her work" and the "subtlety she was developing with glazes and firing techniques" in front of the class. He could hear the excitement in her voice when she told him that she was entering some work in an art show, how Sister Assumpta felt that she had a good chance of a prize.
Jake spent Easter at school and used it as an opportunity to do what he said he'd do. He spent a lot of it in the library, trying to pick his way through Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and the other romantic poets, appreciating for the first time how words could capture the way people felt.
They wrote about their childhoods. They came to know each other and it never got old, or boring, or uninteresting. Whatever they wrote, "I love you" was always there at the end. And the months passed. Amanda's plate won third prize in the art show, the first time that a non-professional had ever received a prize. Jake shared her excitement and pleasure. She'd given the plate to Sister Assumpta to thank her.
But there was one thing that Amanda never mentioned.
On May 24th the senior classes graduated. In the Junior Year Awards Amanda came top of her year in Art and her plate and the prize it won was displayed as an example of the work that Saint Agnes's students produced. Jake didn't win any prizes, but Summer Vacation was prize enough. It was a milestone that signalled the start of the countdown to next year and the return of Saturday privileges. They'd survived three months. They'd survive another three. They'd write every week, just as they'd done at school.
He never got another letter from her.
To be continued.