Summer stalked in like a lion that year: fierce, angry, and looking for something to eat. Our high school graduation had caused more than one student — and a lot of parents — to suffer heatstroke, overloading our already stretched town hospital to the point where they tried to call in reinforcements from San Francisco.
The city was having none of it. They had their own problems, particularly in Haight-Ashbury, and were trying to bring in relief from local towns. One of them was my daddy, Chief of Police in Wentworth, CA. He would travel down to San Francisco for days, then return with a sad face and a shaking head, telling me on no account was I to go to the city that summer.
Of course, that made me want to go even more.
Angela and I spent our days hanging around the crowded, stagnant lake, fighting our way through the laid-out towels, trying to find the fastest route to the shore. We were desperate for some succor from the hot, dry air. She would bring drinks, and we'd find a spot in the sand to bury them to keep them cool. We'd lost more than one can that year, and we would laugh that in a thousand years, an archaeologist would dig them up and scratch his head, wondering what cultural significance a can of Tab could have on the world.
When evening came, we would run back to Angela's house on Maple Street, giggling at the way the boys tried to push out their bare chests to impress us or at something one of the cheerleaders had said. We'd race to be the first to her garage, where she kept the turntable her mom had given her for her eighteenth birthday the previous month. We were always bickering about whose musical tastes were superior.
Angela played a lot of Sergeant Pepper. Though I loved the Beatles, I wanted to throttle Mr. Kite and was weirded out by the haunting sitar that wound its way through the music. I'd run faster to get my own choice on the record player. Angela would try to keep up, complaining that my favorite disc, "Ode to Billy Joe," not only depressed her but actually made her want to throw herself off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
We laughed a lot that summer.
"It's not fair. You always were the faster runner," Angela complained when she finally caught up. I was standing inside the oven masquerading as a garage, lifting the gramophone needle gently and placing it on the vinyl, listening as the familiar guitar rhythm filled the room. I whipped around, grinning wildly at Angela and started to sing in time to Bobbie Gentry's mellifluous tones.
"It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day…"
Angela shook her head, stuck out her tongue, and then threw her hands up in the air, opening her lips to join in the song.
"I was out choppin' cotton, and my brother was balin' hay …"
She lunged across the concrete floor of the garage and grabbed my waist, swinging me around much faster than the tempo of the record called for. My dark brown hair whipped around my face, tickling my nose, and the two of us collapsed in a heap, giggling, while Bobbie sang about Brother Taylor coming around.
When the song finished and the needle was making scratchy noises against the vinyl, Angela looked up at me, her pale, even features drawn down into a frown.
"That has to be the most depressing song I've ever heard. What's it all about, anyway?"
We'd had this discussion before, but it never failed to entertain us. Why did Billy Joe McAllister throw himself off the Tallahatchie Bridge?
"You know what I think?" I began, trying to fix my hair in the rusty, dusty mirror hanging at the end of the garage. "I reckon she had his baby, and that's what Brother Taylor saw being thrown in the river."
Angela shook her head. "I think he was gay. Imagine the outcry if that got found out."
"Nah, it was definitely a baby." I clipped my hair back, winding the final few tendrils behind my ears.
"How come nobody knew she was pregnant, then?" Angela pushed me away from the mirror and touched up her lipstick. We'd both bought the palest we could find, not far off white, and spent a large part of our day reapplying.
"Maybe she hid it well. I don't know." I shrugged.
"Talking of hiding, did you hear about Jessica Stanley?" She turned to face me, a little 'I know something you don't know' smile on her face. I grabbed her hand and we walked out on to her driveway, dragging two metal garden chairs behind us. We liked to sit here in the evenings and watch the world go by. We spent our time giggling at the boys from our school and rolling our eyes at the moms calling in their children.
"What about Jessica?" I asked, dropping down onto the warm, metal seat. I had never been a fan of Jessica Stanley — or rather she'd never been a fan of me — though we'd shared a lot of classes senior year. She was a cheerleader, a golden girl, who spent most of her time fogging up the glass in Mike Newton's brand new Ford Mustang.
"Word has it she's having a baby." Angela's grin was big. She wasn't a fan, either.
My eyebrows rose up into my hairline. This was news.
Angela nodded her head. "Uh huh. Funny how only a few weeks ago she was moaning about having to get a job after graduation. Seems like her career choice is set in stone."
I grinned back. "Looks as though we'll be going to a summer wedding."
"Let's hope Mike doesn't throw himself off the Tallahatchie Bridge." Angela wiggled her eyebrows.
I kinda hoped he would. Mike had been the bane of my existence since I could remember; pulling my pigtails in grade school, tripping me over in junior high. By the time we reached senior year, he'd become a little crueler; planting a dead mouse in my locker and trying to make me kiss him under the bleachers after school. He'd made me cry that day.
"I guess she'll be joining the Junior League and having lunch with all the ladies of the town." We both smiled. Angela and I had spent all year applying to colleges, stoking our dreams of escaping, of getting out of Wentworth. Angela, who had the superior intellect, had been accepted into Columbia, whereas I would be studying English at Berkeley. I was eager for September to arrive and frightened that it would be here too soon. We had less than two months to grow up.
A station wagon slowly drove down Maple, swinging into the driveway opposite Angela's house. We watched as Mrs. Black unloaded her three children, shooing them up the driveway and shouting at the dog as he refused to leave the trunk of the car.
"I'm going to San Francisco next week." Angela confided as the eldest son turned around and stuck his tongue out at us.
"What? Why?" And the unspoken sentence: Can I come?
"One of Martin Luther King's staff is coming to make a speech. I missed his visit in January. I'm sure as hell not going to miss this." Angela was the queen of politics at Wentworth High, and I was her willing aide. Together, we'd arranged demonstrations, written banned articles, and — our pièce de résistance — orchestrated a sit-in against the Vietnam War that lasted four days. The principal hadn't been pleased. "Plus, I seriously want to see the hippies in Haight-Ashbury. It's social history in the making. Are you coming?"
"My dad will never let me go." I picked at the rust on the arm of the chair, letting the flakes fall to the ground.
"So, don't ask him. Tell him you're sleeping over with me. My mom will back us up." Mrs. Weber was what my dad called "permissive." It wasn't a compliment.
Rolling my bottom lip between my teeth, I scanned through my options. I could stay here while Angela went and had all the fun, getting to experience the excitement that was San Francisco. Or I could go with her, throw myself into the experience, and come back with a story I could tell my grandchildren one day.
For most people, that wasn't much of a choice. But I was a good girl, always maintaining decent grades, always home before curfew. I was afraid of authority, particularly fearful of my dad, and this made me procrastinate for longer than I should.
"Okay, I'll go." My stomach lurched at the thought.
"Really?" Angela was as surprised as I was. I nodded, unable to speak, scared that the nausea rumbling at the pit of my stomach would rise up and make itself known. Angela grabbed my hand, her grin wide with excitement. "This is going to be so much fun, Bella. I'll give Ben a call and tell him he needs to make room for one more."
Ben was Angela's on-again, off-again boyfriend. A college junior, she only saw him during school breaks, but the two of them shared a love of all things political. A debate between them was a sight to be seen. She confided that their battles followed them into the bedroom or the back seat of his car, an image that made me want to douse my brain with Lysol.
"Sounds good," I replied, trying to return her smile.
I spent the week on tenterhooks, trying to cajole my father's schedule from him, casually mentioning sleepovers and not being around.
The evening before we were due to go, I was so fretful I could barely eat. My dad was scooping up his peas with his fork, his other hand holding the evening paper, occasionally tutting as he read the news. Eventually, with a rustle and a clang of metal on porcelain, he put down his paper and fork and stared over at me, drawing his eyebrows together.
"So you want to sleep over at the Weber girl's?" His voice, as always, was low and gruff. He was feared by the community, as well as his daughter.
I nodded. "Yes, sir. Her mother has agreed to it."
He scrutinized me, running his eyes up and down my face. I could feel myself falling short of his expectations, whether he knew it or not. "Very well. I'm not a big fan of Mrs. Weber, but if you promise to be in bed by 10:00 p.m., then I'll let you go."
"Of course." I was eager to acquiesce. "I'll be sure to do that."
"Hmmm." He lifted the paper back up to his eyes, signaling the discussion was over. I pushed myself up to standing, taking his plate, balancing it on my own.
I barely slept that night. I tried to work out what to wear — knowing my usual, Charlie-sanctioned, conservative dresses would make me stick out like a sore thumb. Eventually, I'd chosen a short, monochrome A-line dress that Angela had given me for my birthday. I'd hidden it at the back of my closet, not wanting to see my father's face if I wore it. It would be cool enough to keep my temperature under control, and maybe — just maybe — for once, I wouldn't stand out as different.
I hated being different.
I arrived at Angela's house at 6 a.m. We ran up to her room, grabbed her cosmetic bag, and proceeded to apply each other's makeup; painting on a base of pale foundation, followed by thick, dark kohl and a paler lipstick. When we were finished, we looked at our handiwork in her bedroom mirror and grinned.
The excitement was bubbling in my stomach. We were really doing this. Travelling into the city of love to soak up the atmosphere of Haight-Ashbury, then listen to a speech by a man close to Martin Luther King himself. I could feel the blood fizzing in my veins like a just-opened bottle of Coke.
"They should be here soon. It might be a squash."
"Who's coming, anyway?" I noticed a stray bit of kohl and rubbed it gently, trying not to ruin the rest of my make-up.
"A few of Ben's friends from college. I've never met them." Angela pulled me away from the mirror, scanning me up and down. "Jesus, Bella, you look beautiful. We definitely should get you some more clothes before you head to Cali State."
I glowed under her approbation. We'd been friends since freshman year, but I'd always thought of her as the prettier, smarter, more dynamic friend. It made my heart explode to hear she thought I was pretty.
We were waiting on the sidewalk when Ben pulled up in his mom's station wagon. Angela skipped to the front, pulling the door open and tapping her feet until the guy sitting there got out, grumbling about girlfriends and calling shotgun. Ben opened the driver's door and walked around to Angela, sweeping her up in his arms and planting his lips firmly on hers.
"Hey, babe. Ready?"
Eventually he glanced over at me. "Hi, Bella. I'm afraid you're going to have to sit with these jackasses." He pointed to the two men standing on the sidewalk. "That's Tyler Crowley. Feel free to ignore him. We do." Tyler winked at me and doffed an imaginary cap. I hadn't seen many African-American men before, but the way his dark skin sparkled under the early morning sun made me want to touch him.
"And that's Edward Cullen. He doesn't like to be ignored."
The second guy looked up, a crooked grin on his face. As he caught my eye, he blinked twice, long lashes sweeping his cheeks. It was as if he had been sculpted – his bone structure was so perfect – and I wondered if anybody had ever cut themselves trying to touch it.
I wanted to find out.
"Hi, Bella." Edward reached forward and took my hand. Swallowing hard, I tried to ignore the way my heart raced and my blood boiled as we touched. His eyes glanced down, scanning my body, and I found myself worrying about my too-thin, pale legs and the way my new dress left everything exposed.
"Hi." It was all I could manage. I wanted to scan him, too, and enjoy the way his white t-shirt clung to his abdomen, rising and falling gently over his firm ridges of muscle. I could only imagine the way his blue jeans fell from his hips, though I was determined to check it out by the end of the day.
"We'd better get going. Hop in." Ben opened the passenger door, and Angela climbed in gracefully.
The rest of us scrambled into the hot backseat; Edward on the left, me in the middle, then Tyler to my right. They both wound down their windows, leaning their arms on the door edge, and I tried to make myself as small as possible in the middle, not wanting to touch my legs against them. We were almost on the outskirts of town when Ben came to a stop outside a rickety, old bungalow, beeping his horn loudly. I'd been to this place once or twice with Angela since Eric Yorkie worked on the school paper with us. We'd hung around the darkroom in his basement. I'd been fascinated with the process he followed, developing the pictures he had taken with his scratched Kodak.
Eric flung open the door, his camera swinging around his neck as he clambered down his porch steps, his straggly hair falling in his eyes. I looked around the car with my brows knitted, wondering exactly how he was going to fit inside.
"Um, is Eric going in the trunk?" I leaned forward and asked Ben. He turned around and looked at me, a wicked grin on his lips.
"It's gonna get a little cozy in the back there. Sorry about that, Bella."
I swallowed slowly. My leg was barely an inch away from Edward's, and though Tyler was doing his best to give me room, the cotton of his pants had glanced my thigh a few times. Squeezing an extra body in there and glancing would be the least of my worries.
I fanned my face. Though the sun had barely been up for an hour, the interior of the car was already sweltering. God only knew what adding Eric Yorkie into the mix would do.
"I'll sit up front with you," I suggested to Angela, then pulled back when I saw Ben's hand wrapped around her bare knee. Bad idea.
Eric pulled open the door next to Tyler, who tried to move along the bench seat without touching me. Even with Eric's scant frame, there was no disguising we were going to be packed like sardines in the back. As I scooted across, my hip rubbed against Edward's jeans, and I felt a blush steal across my face when our thighs smashed together. Glancing up, I saw his eyes trained to the bare skin above my knees, my dress riding up so it barely covered the tops of my legs.
"This isn't going to work," Eric complained. "Bella, you're going to have to sit on somebody's lap."
My flush deepened. Out of all of them, the one I'd prefer to sit on would be Eric, but even with my slim body, I'd squash him like a fly.
"Come here." Edward's voice was gruff. He curled his hands around my waist and lifted me effortlessly, dragging me across his legs until I was settled on his lap. He kept them there, holding me tightly, and I told my lungs to breathe. Edward groaned.
"Am I heavy?" I asked, wriggling around to take the weight off his thighs.
"Not heavy, just... try to sit still."
I stopped moving, willing my body to relax, trying to loosen the muscles of my back so I wasn't ramrod-straight. "Are you sure I'm not hurting you?"
Ben laughed in the front. "Only one part of him."
I rolled my eyes.
"Shut up, Cheney," Edward muttered. "Just get on and drive."
Ben tuned his crackly car radio to KPMX. Scott McKenzie's "San Francisco" blasted through the speaker. I felt Edward relax behind me, leaning back into the cushion of the bench seat. I tried to do the same, feeling his hard muscles against my back. He was singing softly, his voice surprisingly pleasant, and I closed my eyes, wondering if I should wear a flower in my hair when we got to Haight-Ashbury.
"This song is shit." Eric complained, bursting through our peaceful moment. "It's almost as bad as 'California Dreamin'."
Edward laughed, his chest rising up and down against my spine, his deep chuckle resonating through my ears. I cracked open an eyelid and stared over at Eric. A scowl marred his whole face.
"What sort of music do you like?" Tyler asked him.
"None of that hippy crap. I prefer rock; Beatles, The Stones. That sort of thing."
"I hear George Harrison is in Haight-Ashbury," Ben remarked, turning his head around. I opened my eyes fully and saw his hand holding the large steering wheel, his grip easy and relaxed. "He's brought Patti Boyd with him."
"No way!" Eric leaned forward, his head almost touching the back of Angela's seat. "Do you think we'll see him?"
Ben shrugged. "Maybe, I've no idea. You'll find all sorts of people playing music in the streets there. Just keep your eyes open. Right, Edward?"
I turned to look at him. His face was so close to mine it was hard to focus. His breath danced softly against my skin, and I had to remind myself to exhale right along with him.
"Right," he agreed, his eyes never leaving my face. "But you want to be careful, too. I know it's all about free love and happiness, but there're some assholes there who've just arrived for a fight."
"Have you been staying in Frisco?" I asked him, my voice just creeping out past the nervous lump in my throat.
"I helped out at the Free Clinic for a few weeks before staying at Ben's," he replied.
"Edward's studying medicine," Ben added. "Although, his dad has threatened to disown him, so I hear."
Edward laughed, a deep chuckle that warmed my blood. "My father's a congressman. He doesn't take too kindly to my spending time in Haight."
I mouthed an "oh" and watched his eyes darken as he stared back at me. His grip around my waist tightened, and I found myself wanting to wriggle against him again. This wasn't good.
"Do you want to be a doctor?" Eric asked, his attention drawn away from the music. "All that blood and guts? Man, so cool."
"Eventually," Edward agreed. "I finished pre-med this year. Then once I'm back, I hope to complete my studies."
"Back from where?" I questioned, finally finding my voice.
The car turned silent. The word was like a gag; it stopped us all from speaking. I felt the nausea rise in my stomach as I considered this beautiful boy fighting in Asia.
"You're going to 'Nam?" I eventually whispered.
He wasn't the first boy I knew who went to fight. My cousin was drafted a year before, and I remembered hugging him as he walked toward the station, his hair shorn close to his scalp, his uniform strangling his hulking body like a snake wrapping around a neck. He didn't come back.
"Bella's anti-Vietnam," Eric interjected, ignoring the angry glare I shot him. "She and Angela arranged a demo at our school. Bella even wrote it up in the school paper."
Angela laughed. "You took the photos to accompany Bella's article, Eric, so don't play the innocent."
Eric spluttered, "Only because Bella threatened to castrate me if I didn't." It was true. I'd wanted some candid photographs to accompany my words, not that we were even allowed to print it. We did manage to sneak into the school one evening and send a few copies through the press, though. I still had one at home, tucked under my mattress, ready to show to whomever ran the newspaper at Cal State.
"She certainly looks like a big threat," Tyler agreed, a twinkle in his eye. He didn't speak much, but when he did, he made me smile with his deadpan wit. "No wonder you bent over and took it like a man."
Edward leaned forward and whispered in my ear. "I'd like to see that article." His breath tickled my neck, and I had to hold myself very still. I had the strongest urge to lean back until his lips touched my skin.
"We've all got copies." Angela turned around and looked at us, her eyes widening when she saw how close we were sitting. She cleared her throat. "So why are you going to fight, anyway? You don't look like the military type."
Edward shrugged. "I'm not, but I refuse to let my father buy me out of service. If going to Vietnam is good enough for the rest of America, then I'm not running away to Canada."
"When do you go?" My voice was rougher than I'd thought.
"I start basic training in September."
So soon. I was spending this last summer before college getting worked up about leaving home and becoming an adult. Meanwhile, Edward Cullen was about to fight a war he didn't necessarily agree with, and the thought made me feel small.
"You take care out there." I twisted in his lap and touched his shoulder. His skin burned beneath the thin cotton of his t-shirt. He glanced down at my hand and then back at my eyes before nodding.
It was enough.
Thank you all so much for reading. This story was inspired by a photo sent to me by MidnightCougar. I started to write a one-shot and then kept on going. I plan to post once a week, but I've never been the most patient of people, so you may see faster updates!
SunflowerFran betas, and Mid, Sparrow and Pates pre-read. Thank you guys for your support.
Finally, the lovely SparrowNotes24 made the best banner I have ever seen for this story. I adore it and her.
See you soon, and have a great week.