Chapter 22

It was the last week of school. All the kids were focused on final exams. Not a one of them wanted to fail a test and have to go to summer school. That was unthinkable. They'd be sabotaging the family's success before it even got off the ground.

There was a little bit of a buzz around school about the potential new careers of Keith and Laurie. Some of the kids who weren't friends with them were considering approaching them and hoping to get to know them before they became famous. After all, once they were famous, they didn't stand a shot at becoming their friends, right?

But, Keith and Laurie were so nonchalant about the whole thing, that most of the kids eventually just let it blow over.

Brenda was only too happy to hear that many of the girls who'd considered approaching Keith hoping to be able to say they'd dated him before he became famous or who might have thought about being his girlfriend 'while' he was famous had mostly been shot down. Keith had no time to date right now. The family was spending every available minute practicing and when the youngest kids were finally sent to bed, Keith spent several more hours in the garage writing more songs.

Reuben had finally moved himself, lock, stock and barrel to California. He spent many long hours with Keith giving him pointers on what would work and what wouldn't work. However, when it came right down to it, Keith was the songwriter and what he decided on was the final decision. Reuben was just there to either gently guide or subtly nudge – more than that he couldn't do.

Beth watched it all with sadness, gladness, pain and wonder. Her somewhat shy, almost boyfriend of several months before, was blossoming into a much more confident young man. He talked freely with the girls who approached him but never once had time to ask one of them out.

She'd caught him watching her with a thoughtful look on his face once and wondered what he was thinking. She'd have been surprised to know that he was wondering why she looked so sad. She thought she'd done a pretty good job of hiding her sadness. She'd told her family that she wasn't feeling well when she'd gotten home from visiting Barbara and having her miscarriage. Her pale face had convinced her family that she wasn't lying. She'd had a hard time talking her mother out of taking her to the doctor and thus had had to force herself to go back to school before she'd wanted to. She'd have loved to hide away for the rest of the school year.

Seeing Keith was almost painful. He was still the same cute boy that had turned her and her sister's heads. He still had the most contagious smile she'd ever seen. In fact, while she'd watched him the last weeks, she'd found herself smiling when he smiled. If he noticed her watching him, he'd ignored her. She guessed turnabout was fair play. He'd warned her that he was over her and now she finally had to admit that he was. She cried herself to sleep the night she'd admitted that to herself but then had given herself a pep talk the next morning just to get her through the last few weeks of school. Once the summer started, she would be joining her sister hundreds of miles away from San Pueblo. She was both excited and depressed at the thought.

She was wandering the school halls fifteen minutes after the final bell had rung. As per the normal, the school had emptied quickly as the kids were all happy to be done with another day. She picked up her pace wanting to get home herself. Two days to go. She could make it. Then, what she had dreaded happened. She bumped headlong into Keith when she came around the corner.

"Oh, ummmm, hi." She mumbled as soon as she recognized him.

"Hi yourself." Keith grinned at her. She was so pretty she just automatically made him smile.

"What are you doing here?" She could feel her face starting to smile in answer. Just moments before she'd been down in the dumps thinking about everything she'd been through and now here she was smiling goofily.

"I go to school here." Keith reminded her. "What are you doing here?"

"Ha, ha. I mean, what are you STILL doing here? Everyone else is gone." Beth reminded him.

"You're not." Keith pointed out helpfully.

"No, I had to pick up my cap and gown for graduation. I missed the pick up at lunch because I was helping Mrs. Williams with a project." Beth explained.

"Ah, are you getting excited?" Keith asked.

"About what?" Beth had been so busy watching his smiling mouth that she'd become a little distracted.

"Graduating." Keith frowned at her.

"Oh, yes, of course. Yeah, I'm definitely excited." She said with less enthusiasm than her words would have led him to believe.

"I can see that." Keith said and was surprised when Beth threw down the items she'd been carrying and put her hands behind Keith's head pulling him down for a kiss.

It was completely unexpected; by both of them. Beth had no idea she was planning on doing it and Keith was even more surprised. Not that he didn't recover quickly and return the kiss. He was human, after all.

"Oh, god, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that." Beth suddenly jumped back and put her hand over her mouth.

"I'm not. Sorry that is. You can do that any time you like." Keith grinned at her.

"Oh, you don't understand. It shouldn't have happened. It can't happen again. It just can't." Beth said and ran to the nearest door pushing her way through. Lucky for her it was the women's bathroom.

Keith stood there stunned. What had he done? She'd initiated the kiss – again. They hadn't even kissed that long. What was the big deal? He glanced around to confirm that no one had seen them. Or, at least if they had, they weren't around any longer.

Keith glanced down at the cap and gown laying in a pile on the hallway floor. He picked them up and knocked on the bathroom door. "Beth?"

"Go away!" She wailed from inside.

"Beth, I can't leave until I know you're alright." Keith said and then finally decided to just go in and see if she was alright. There was no one else at school, right?

"Beth." Keith said right behind her as she leaned over one of the sinks fighting the urge to sob her heart out.

She spun around in shock that he was standing right behind her – in the women's bathroom. "You can't be in here."

"Why not? There's no one else in here." Keith looked at her face closely. She was pale and she looked tired. Like she hadn't slept good for quite some time.

"Because, it's the women's bathroom. You're not a woman." Beth was still trying to slow down her heartbeat.

"Glad you noticed." Keith grinned.

"Stop it!" Beth slapped him on his arm.

"What?" Keith frowned his puzzlement.

"Stop flirting with me!" Beth accused.

"I'm not." Keith said at first and then realized he was. "Sorry, guess I was. I'll stop."

"Thank you." Beth said and then motioned him toward the door. "You should go."

"You're sure you're alright?" Keith asked. He wasn't going to leave until he was sure.

"I'm fine." Beth tried to make her answer as confident as possible.

"Alright, well here's the stuff you dropped." Keith handed her the cap and gown and was about to turn and leave when she stopped him by putting her hand on his arm.

"Keith?" She said tentatively.

"Yeah."

"You're really going to record an album with your family?" Beth had been meaning to congratulate him on doing what he had always known he'd wanted to do which was making a living with music.

"Yeah, we are." Keith said proudly. He knew she would understand, so he didn't downplay his excitement like he did with everyone else.

"I'm happy for you. Really." She added for emphasis.

"Thanks." Keith smiled at her again.

"Now get out of here before someone finds you in here." Beth put her best effort into giving him a genuine smile. It must have worked. He seemed satisfied and walked out of the room. She literally felt her face melt from the smile to tears within moments of the door swishing closed. Her hormones had yet to return to normal. The tears were so hard to control. Thank god Keith wasn't around to see her cry her heart out once again.

xoxo

"The only thing in the mail is a letter for Keith." Danny reported as he sat down at the breakfast table the first Saturday after school was over. They would be leaving for their concert tour in four short days.

"Ok, he should be down shortly. We have practice in 15 minutes." Shirley said as she began to dish out oatmeal to her hungry waiting children.

"Ha, we're lucky if he's down by then. He went out to celebrate the end of school with Gordy and Skizzy last night. I'll bet he was late for curfew again." Laurie joked.

"No, he wasn't." Keith said as he walked into the room and took one of the vacant chairs at the table.

"Really? You couldn't come up with anything to keep you out late?" Laurie continued to tease.

"Not that's more important than this concert tour. You?" Keith shot back knowing that Laurie had been at a party the night before too. They just hadn't been at the same one.

"Home well before." Laurie grinned back. They'd all made promises to their mom that they would toe the line and spend every waking moment practicing in preparation for this tour.

"Hey, there's a letter for you. It's from a girl." Danny said as he handed the envelope to Keith.

"How can you tell?" Keith glanced at the letter and frowned. Who did he know that would be writing him a letter?

"The handwriting is girly." Danny announced. "So, who's the girl?"

"No idea." Keith said as he slid his finger under the flap to open it. He started to read it and then stopped suddenly putting it back in the envelope. "May I be excused?"

"Sure, honey. Aren't you hungry?" He just waved at her as he walked back out of the kitchen. Shirley called after him. "Don't forget we have practice in fifteen minutes."

Keith walked back up to his room, closed the door and pulled the letter back out of the envelope. It had been too personal to read in front of everyone. He sat down on the edge of his bed and started to read.

Dear Keith,

I just wanted to tell you that I'm really happy for you. I know how much your music means to you. I know you're going to be a big star someday. And, with this opportunity, that someday won't be too far off.

I needed to let you know that we won't be seeing each other again. I'm leaving the Saturday after school to go to L.A. by Barbara. In fact, by the time you read this I'll be gone. I'm getting a job for the summer and won't be coming back home. I wanted to tell you that the other day, in the bathroom, but I just couldn't bring myself to tell you. You seemed very happy and I didn't want my news to bring you down. If it would have that is.

You see, I don't know how you feel about me anymore. You told me once before that you were over me and that you'd moved on, but I never did see you dating anyone else. Well, except for a few girls here and there, but only for one date. Anyway, if you are truly over me, that's good news. Because I want you to have a happy and full life going forward.

You deserve only the best. I was never able to bring myself to tell you the truth about how I felt. I think that what I felt for you was love, but you came into my life at a time when I wasn't sure what that was anymore. I know I shouldn't be bringing this up now that we'll never see each other again. I guess it's selfish of me to want to clear my conscience. Well, actually, there are some things that I'll never tell you. I'm not courageous enough for that. But, I just needed you to know that you were – are very special to me. You helped me through so much. You were the one bright spot in my life for quite a while.

But, and you just knew there had to be a but, didn't you? But, you and I both know that we can never be together. I'm not going to blame this on my sister having feelings for you. I lied to myself long enough and used that as an excuse to keep pushing you away. The reality is that I don't have the courage to openly admit my feelings. I'm too scared to let myself love you for reasons that you will never know.

I know that you've lost so much already in your life and I can no longer allow myself to continue to bring you any more pain. If I cut myself out of your life once and for all, you can start to forget me and heal. If I keep coming back, we'll keep bringing each other pain.

Just know that in my own twisted way I loved you. Love you still.

Always,

Beth

Keith fell backwards on his bed crumpling the letter in his hand. He closed his eyes as a strange pain started in his chest. He wasn't fanciful enough to think it was his heart breaking, but he also knew it wasn't heartburn. He'd skipped breakfast. Was there a physical pain when your heart was breaking?

He ran through everything Beth had written in her letter. He could almost remember it verbatim after only having read it once. Her words were seared into his brain – into his heart.

xoxo

Beth drove in the brand new car her parents had bought her for a graduation present. She had what felt like her whole life packed in the trunk and the back seat. She cried for the first 30 miles as she thought about her letter to Keith. She hoped he never found out about her deepest, darkest secret.

She still wasn't sure if she could forgive herself for being momentarily happy about the miscarriage. She figured that now that she was away from home, she might just join one of the grief counseling groups to help her deal with her feelings. She knew she'd become depressed over the last couple of months. The only thing that brought her any joy was Keith and she knew that all she could bring him was pain, so she'd done the only thing she could do. She'd told him good-bye. She hadn't been strong enough to do it in person. She actually smiled to think of how that would have likely ended. She may very well have ended up pregnant again.

This was for the best. Certainly for her, hopefully for Keith. Within a week, he would perform live in front of a huge audience for the first time. He had his whole future ahead of him. She'd have only brought him down.

An idea struck her just as she noticed the signs declaring the upcoming exit ramp to her sister's apartment. They were going to be roomies for her sister's senior year and Beth's freshman year at UCLA. Maybe Barbara wouldn't mind making a road trip to Las Vegas. She could sit anonymously in the audience and watch Keith become a star.

It was inevitable in her estimation. He was too talented not to become a respected musician and song writer and he was way too good looking not to become a sex symbol.

She would look back and say, 'I knew him when'. Who knew maybe someday they'd meet again and things could be different. A girl could dream.

Right now, all she knew for sure is that her heart was broken. Love – she scoffed at the word that was used to describe a beautiful and mutual feeling between two people. Love was also pain – especially when the feeling wasn't returned or when love was lost. She cursed the day she'd ever realized that she'd fallen in love for Keith. Their love had been doomed from the beginning. She smiled sadly as the memories flashed through her mind. Of the first time she'd seen him getting out of the family station wagon. How she'd teased her sister about her feelings for him and then had gone and fallen even harder for him herself. The day at the football field. The night in his garage. The night at Muldoon's Point. The last time she'd kissed him in the hallway at school and their conversation in the women's bathroom. The memories made her smile and then finally made her cry again.

Love – she could sure do without it.

xoxo

There was a soft knock on the door and he quickly sat up shoving the letter back into its envelope as best he could in its crumpled state.

"Keith?" Shirley said as she pushed the door open. She saw him sitting on the bed looking very sad and trying to shove the crumbled paper back into the envelope. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah, sure. Why wouldn't I be?" Keith asked as he got up to stick the letter in his desk drawer.

"Well, we were supposed to start practice 10 minutes ago and you're never late." Shirley reminded him.

"Oh, yeah, why didn't you start without me?" Keith said as he walked toward the door hoping his mom would get the hint that they could leave.

"Because, you sing lead on most songs." Shirley reminded him. Something was definitely wrong. "Who was the letter from?"

"Oh, ummm, Molly." Keith lied.

"Funny, Danny didn't mention a postmark from Texas. That's something he would have noticed." Shirley pointed out.

Keith knew he was caught and didn't try to deny it. "Oh alright, it wasn't from Molly."

Shirley just raised an eyebrow at him and closed the door that she was still holding onto.

"I'd rather not talk about it." Keith started and Shirley was trying to decide whether or not to push him when he started talking on his own. "Why does love hurt so much?"

"I don't know, honey. I do know that most of the time love is wonderful." Shirley was feeling her way through this one.

"How can you say that? You loved dad and now he's gone. I know that hurts you." Keith turned away from the spark of pain that appeared in her eyes at his words.

"Yes, it does. But, Keith, I also have many happy memories of your father. Memories that bring me joy every day too." Shirley followed her son across his room and stood behind him as he gazed out his window.

"Well, I know that I never want to fall in love." Keith said vehemently and fisted his curtains in his hand as he pulled them back.

"Sounds to me like it might be too late." Shirley said quietly.

"No. Well, not anymore. The letter; it was a Dear John." Keith laughed shortly.

"Oh, honey, I'm sorry. Are you alright?" Shirley put her hand on his arm letting him know that she was there for him.

"Yeah, sure. I don't know." Keith waffled. He'd told himself so many times that he was over Beth, yet her letter made him realize that he'd been hiding from his feelings. As many times as she'd rejected him, he'd developed a mechanism to protect his heart from the next time she'd push him away. And inevitably she would. He'd talked himself out of loving her after every one of their encounters. He'd had to because each time they'd been together he'd fallen 'in' love.

"So, who was the letter from?" Shirley wasn't sure she'd get an answer, but she thought she'd try. He'd started to open up to her about so many things. Maybe if she knew more she could help.

"Beth Morgan." Keith said and then regretted telling her. Expecting to hear a lecture about how she was too old for him and he should have known.

"Ah, I should have guessed." Shirley admitted. After the scene her father had interrupted in the garage, she'd known that Keith and Beth had feelings for each other. And, as if a light bulb had gone off in her head, she realized who Keith had been with on the night he'd been late for his curfew. What they were doing she refused to think about. After all, Beth was older and likely more experienced than her son. She stopped herself with that thought.

"How?" Keith turned to see his mother smiling gently at him.

"Oh, Keith, I remember falling in love when I was your age too. I mean really in love. Not just liking someone a whole lot. He was a boy in my high school class – Richard Benson. We dated and I was head over heels for the boy. He was popular and handsome. He was smart and talented. And eventually, he fell in love with Martha Selby. It hurt so bad I thought my life was over. I had to watch them every day at school after he broke up with me. It was a pain I never thought I would recover from. But the next year I went away to college and met this wonderful man. This time, the love was mutual. It was much deeper and much more wonderful than what I felt for Richard. Someday Keith, you'll find that same kind of love." Shirley hoped that her words were true with all her heart. Everyone deserved to find their soul mate. She just knew that sometimes it didn't happen that way. But she had that hope for all of her children.

"But, Mom, dad's gone now. Doesn't that hurt more than you can stand?" Keith had to know if this pain would fade.

"It does sometimes. Sometimes, it hurts so much it takes my breath away. But every day I'm able to wake up and hear our beautiful children playing, laughing, arguing. It's the most beautiful sound in the world." Shirley smiled with a far away look on her face.

"You find our arguing to be a beautiful sound?" Keith teased and at his mother's nod he continued. "Guess I'll have to start picking on Danny more."

"Only if you want to lose every argument you have. You know he never gives in." Shirley reminded him.

"Right, maybe I should have said Laurie." Keith smiled at his mom who smiled back. "So you don't regret loving?"

"Not for one second. We'd never know how wonderful love can be if we never experienced loss. There is no good without the bad. It's all part of being – part of living." Shirley hated to admit it but her son was old enough to hear it. "Keith, I know it hurts right now, but every day it'll hurt a little less. It may not seem like it at first, but it's true. I still miss your father terribly, but each day there's more good than bad. There's more happy than sad. I don't know how else to explain it."

"No, you've done a good job explaining it. I think I get it. Dad always told me that I needed to experience heart break to be a good song writer. And, much as I hate to admit it, I already have some ideas running through my head from this. Does that make me a bad person?" Keith admitted sheepishly.

"No, honey. I'd say you're very normal. More song ideas, hmmm? Can we just learn the ones you've written so far? I don't know how much more we have time for." Shirley joked as they headed down to the garage.

Keith smiled at his mom. He hoped the smile was genuine enough o make her feel like she'd helped him and maybe someday it would. Right now, his heart was aching.

Love – he could sure do without it.

In his opinion, love was a four letter word.

The End