He had no idea why he was here. He had absolutely no good reason to be back. He'd sworn when he left in July that he'd never set foot in this town again. Certainly, he hadn't come back for his parents. As far as he knew they had no idea he was in town. He had no intention on correcting that either.
It so happened that his leave timed perfectly with Shermer High's homecoming. He only knew that because one or two of the handful of people he'd kept in touch with through letters since graduation had told him.
It was those people he'd come back to see. He took one guy up on his offered couch until he had to get on a plane next Sunday morning to go to his ordered next stop. He hadn't had a lot when he left Shermer. If people could see the stuff he'd come back to town with they wouldn't believe it. He could hardly believe it.
"I wish I could blame letting you talk me into this on my being drunk," he said as his friend James drove them toward the high school and the annual homecoming football game. He had regular clothes, but they were pretty old and he didn't want to wear them. He'd saved every penny he could while in boot camp, spending only what he had to on uniforms and items needed while there.
"It'll be fun, Man," James said, taking a second to turn up the radio playing Dire Straits' Money For Nothing.
"For you." Sadly, he was sober for this excursion James had roped him into going on.
"Oh come on, you can't tell me Vernon seeing you won't make you laugh."
"If I never see that asshole again I'd be happy."
"You're going to give him a heart attack if he sees you. You should have gone with the dress blues, Man, I'm telling you. Much more effectively shocking and impressive, I guarantee you'd get lucky this weekend anyway."
"I'm not looking to get laid. That's the last thing I need right now. I'm even less out to give anyone, least of all Vernon, a heart attack. I wouldn't want that guy's bad health or demise on my conscious."
He reached inside the collar of his shirt at the thought of the assistant principal and tugged on the ball chain that held his dog tags. It was the only thing that he was required to wear every day, all day, for the next four years. His clothes could change based on what he was doing at any given time, but the dog tags had to stay.
Whether he wanted to admit it or not, he owed his current career path to Assistant Principal Richard Vernon. Well, in part, anyway. The other person he owed was much nicer to look at. It was Vernon who had put the idea of what John was going to do with his future in his head.
He didn't have a whole lot of choices available to him.
Prison seemed to be the most logical path he was heading down, but something had changed in him that day. Someone had been kind to him, touched him and expected nothing in return. Well, nothing beyond him touching her back.
He'd hung out with her more than a few times after that day. He thought they stood a chance. A chance of what? He hadn't been sure, just knew that she'd surprised him in how she was. She wasn't a stuck up bitch at all. He was open to more.
Like everything else in his life that had potential he'd screwed it up with her, too. It hadn't been his fault this time, though, and that fact ate at him when he took the time to think on it.
She'd walked in on him in what she thought was a compromising position with one of his girl friends. It wasn't, but he knew what it looked like and there was no way she was going to believe his denial that they'd just been talking. Their conversation the day of detention about whether he believed in one guy and one girl came back to haunt him. He couldn't blame her and rather than look like a sniveling idiot who chased after a girl he'd gone out on a couple of dates with he'd let her go.
He'd written her more than one letter while at boot camp. He hadn't mailed any of them because they all sounded pathetic. He would've rather gotten letters from her than James, Kevin, Tony, and Sheila (who, ironically, was the girl who he'd been caught with). By the time he'd written one that didn't sound hopelessly pathetic she'd been away at college and he had no idea where so he hadn't mailed that one either.
He'd contemplated wearing his dress blues tonight. The possibility of seeing Vernon and people like him while wearing them did paint a nice picture in his head. A nice fuck you to everyone who thought he'd be dead or in prison by now.
He'd decided against it, thinking the more subtle service uniform would be more effective. He wasn't here to make a statement, not really. He was here to hang out with the few people he considered friends before heading back out west for Infantry school. He'd made James promise tomorrow they'd hit Woodfield Mall so John could have access to something less conspicuous for the rest of his leave. He'd taken solace in the fact he wasn't the only one in boot camp who had essentially nothing but the shirts on their back.
He clutched his garrison cap to him before stepping out of James' car once they'd gotten there. God, he was an idiot. He had absolutely no business coming back here. He was one of those people who firmly believed his past was better left behind him. He slid the cap on, tugging on the sweater he wore over his khaki shirt instead of the standard issued coat.
"I swear to God if I have a miserable time this is your fault."
"It'll be fun."
"For you," he said under his breath. "At my expense."
James was one of four people John liked well enough to write letters to. After the first couple of weeks he probably would have written anyone back who'd taken the time to write him truthfully, but he hadn't wanted anyone but a select few to know where he'd gone off to.
It wasn't too bad actually. He and James met up with the other three he'd kept in touch with, grabbing seats on the bleachers to watch the game. John had absolutely no interest in watching the game, but Kevin's younger brother was playing so that was the reason they were actually watching and not standing around talking to one another. Tony had his eye on a cheerleader, so his attention was more on them than the game but it was all right. Sheila was just here to see him because they'd known one another since they were kids. She swore never to tell his parents anything about him or his whereabouts, it was the only reason he kept in touch with her.
Shermer was ahead by two points in a pretty uneventful game partway through the second quarter.
He glared at James with a shake of his head, glancing in the direction his name had been called from.
Wow had she changed and judging by the possessive arm around her she and Andrew were still hot and heavy. He wondered where Andy had chosen to go to college, John was sure he had more than one scholarship offer.
"Wow," she said. "I had no idea."
"Uh, yeah, no one did really and I prefer it stay that way."
"Is that a real uniform," Andy asked.
"Uh, yeah, I think you can get in more trouble than I'd be looking for for stealing military uniforms."
"Well, they sell stuff at Army Surplus."
John pulled his dog tags out from under his shirt and sweater. "These look real enough to you, Andrew?" he asked. There was no question they were real. Like all dog tags they gave an informational rundown: name, blood type, social security number, military branch, gas mask size, and his religious preference. He'd scoffed at the last, but had selected Protestant in the end.
They were, of course, to identify him in the event he was dead and too destroyed to identify by any other means. He had both of them on the ball chain around his neck. Once he got out of school, his next stop, and saw action in the field he'd start wearing one of them on a boot in the event his leg got severed from his body. Or his leg was all that remained of his body. This wasn't Vietnam so he wasn't counting on that happening.
He hadn't been counting on seeing combat, but as it turned out his choosing to enter under the Infantry MOS had been right up his alley. He was able to become an Expert on the rifle range. The physical requirements of the MOS were almost his undoing, but for once instead of someone talking down to him, encouraging him to fail his DI had actually been encouraging. As encouraging as a Marine Drill Instructor could be anyway. He was on his way to Infantry Training after leave, so whatever the DI had done had worked to get John to pass the tests he had to pass.
"Yeah, I guess they do. You're on leave then?"
"Yeah, ten days in between boot camp and training."
"For what?" Andy asked.
"Infantry and Combat Camera, hoping to get assigned as a Combat Illustrator but that's not up to me."
"I didn't know you draw," Allison said, overlapping Andy's "cool."
John shrugged a little. He wasn't sure it was cool exactly to line up to fire a gun at the enemy, but for whatever reason he seemed to have a natural talent for that.
"So, you two. School?"
"I'm down at Southern."
"Got your scholarship somewhat close to home then?"
"Yeah," Andy said.
"I'm still at home, going to Harper," Allison said with a shrug.
"Nothing wrong with Harper." Harper was a local community college that a lot of people went to for a variety of reasons. He wasn't sure what Allison's were, perhaps her parents couldn't afford a four year college and she didn't want to be up to her eyeballs in debt upon graduation. She'd still have to go to a four-year college to get a Bachelor's degree, but he imagined Harper fees were a little less so the debt would be a little less than someone going to a big university all four years.
"Yeah, well, if I could get out of my parents' house I'd like it a lot better."
"I hear ya," John said.
"I know you do," she said with a shrug.
John chuckled a little at that. "Yeah, I suppose the way I went about it was a little extreme."
"How'd you do it anyway?"
"Honestly, about a month after the day of detention I was on the verge of getting into some real trouble. A cop caught me, knew I was up to no good. He pulled me aside, bought me a cup of coffee, and told me the next time he saw me he was going to arrest me and I'd have that on my record for the rest of my life since I was an adult. He gave me a couple of options."
"And you chose the Marines?"
"I didn't have a whole lot of choices open to me, Andy. The cop was right, I knew where I was headed. If he had arrested me that night instead of taking me to Denny's and talking to me I wouldn't even be able to be an Illustrator, you have to pass a security clearance check."
"I'm glad someone talked you straight," Allison said.
"Thanks," John said, knowing Allison meant it. She was a bit odd, but then he supposed who wasn't.
"Did you see Claire?" Andy asked.
"No," John said.
She was here? He hadn't expected that. He'd assumed she was somewhere far away from Chicago. During their brief time together he knew she'd gotten acceptance letters from Yale and Stanford, both very far away. Another reason he hadn't pressed too hard on getting her to believe he hadn't been fooling around with Sheila the night she'd walked in on them. There was no point if she was going to end up in Connecticut or California. Ironically, he'd ended up in California but he hadn't known that at the time.
"She's here somewhere. We just saw her a few minutes ago."
"Really?" he asked, for the first time not thinking it was such a dumb idea for James to drag him here.
"Alone, too," Allison said. "Well, with friends but, you know, alone."
"Al," Andy said.
"What? He can't know she's not with someone?"
"He probably doesn't care if he hasn't even looked for her."
"Why would I look for her here? Isn't she at school?"
"She's just here for the weekend. She was last year's queen," Andy said.
"Oh," John said. "Right."
He had no idea not having ever set foot in the stands of the football stadium before ever. He certainly hadn't gone to any of the homecoming dances to know what was done. He supposed last year's king and queen would get to take their final bow, but what if they were too far away?
"I haven't seen her either way," John said.
"Oh, hey, there's a party at Churchill Woods tomorrow if you want to come," Andy said.
"I'm kind of dependent on James for a ride while I'm in town," John said with a shrug.
"He can come, too."
"Sounds good," James said.
Like Andy knew who James was but for some reason he was being included in the invite it seemed. For that matter, John wasn't sure why Andy was inviting him. A few months ago he would've assumed it was to bring some weed with him, but clearly he didn't have access to anything like that now. He still had resources, but he wasn't getting near anything illegal while on leave.
"Ally and I will get there around eleven to stake out a good spot in the picnic area. We'll hang some signs up that'll say Shermer on them, just follow them."
"Cool," John said.
He had no idea if he'd go or not, but he supposed if James wanted to drag him there he'd go along. It was better than sitting at James' house all day doing nothing. Almost twelve weeks of boot camp and seeing nobody but other recruits or actual Marines he was ready to see some normal people before getting back to it.
"Dude, you didn't tell me you were friends with Andy Clark and Claire Standish."
"I'm not, not really."
"Could've fooled me. If it was just me here he would never have said one word to me and I certainly wouldn't have snagged an invite to Churchill Woods."
"You knew about it?"
"Sure, everyone knows about it. There's a party there the Saturday of homecoming weekend every year, but if you're not invited you don't go."
"Huh," he said, he'd never known about it. Then he never got involved in school activities to care that people got together outside of school for barbeques and picnics. "That means you want to go I take it?"
"Well, yeah, come on."
"All right. There's a mall out that way we can go to instead of Woodfield Mall."
"I don't see why you don't just wear your uniform all week."
"Because I don't want to! I'll wear it enough over the next four years."
"Yeah, yeah, so are you going to go say hi to her?"
James shrugged. "I saw the way you reacted to hearing she was here. I never pegged her as your type, but you know she's real pretty and all. And she's right over there by the concessions."
John glanced that way, sure enough there she was. She was hard to miss even in the crowd. He hadn't paid her much mind before the day of detention but afterward he was hyperaware of her presence everywhere. He was especially aware of her unhappy glances cast toward him after finding him with Sheila. Evidently four months away from her hadn't dampened that awareness.
"Yeah, sure, I could use a Coke anyway. Want one?"
"You're not going to let me come with?"
"Fine, you get the Cokes," he said, handing James a couple of dollars to cover three of them as they headed in that direction.
"What are you going to say to her, Man? Is she going to flip like Vernon would to see you like this?"
"I don't know," he said, honestly not knowing how she'd react to seeing him. They'd fooled around in the storage closet the day of detention and he hadn't pushed her for anything more than that the following Monday at school. He hadn't really known what he wanted from her or her from him. The time they spent together after that day never saw them get past first base.
He still wasn't sure what he'd want from her, especially being he was shipping back to California in less than two weeks. He had to admit, he'd look forward to letters from her a lot more than he did James, Kevin, Tony, and Sheila.
He knew when she noticed him. He saw the look of clear surprise in her eyes despite it being night time. She happened to be standing near a light pole. She was talking to a couple of other girls, but she'd stopped when she spotted him.
"Go get those Cokes, James. Three of them," he said when she started walking toward them.
"Yes, sir," James said with a chuckle.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi yourself," he said, acting as casually and calmly as he could. Almost twelve weeks of boot camp aided him quite a bit, but she still affected him. "Handing over your crown, huh?"
"Yeah," she said with a shrug.
"That's quite an expense for a tiara."
"Yeah, flying here."
"Oh," he said. "Obviously you're not going to school in Connecticut or California."
"No, I chose Purdue."
"Ah," he said. "Close to home without being too close."
"This your first weekend home?"
He chuckled a bit. "Yeah. I just got out of boot camp, yeah."
"When did you decide to enlist?"
"About two weeks before graduation."
"How did you pass the drug test?"
"I stopped after I talked to the recruiter, was pretty upfront with him because he seemed like a decent guy who wanted to help me turn my life around. He made sure I'd pass the test."
"So you haven't?"
"In months, no. Have you?"
She shrugged. "Not really. A couple of times, but it was never anything I purposely sought out."
It was one of the reasons he liked her. She'd smoked up with him the day of detention but hadn't been hanging onto him, looking for product after that day. That happened to him more often than not because his stuff was the best in school.
"So, Purdue huh?"
"Ah, going to teach the youngsters of the future, eh? You like it?"
"Yes, so far. I mean, right now I'm still doing mandatory classes. I'd ask the same, but does anyone really like boot camp?"
"Not really, but it was better than the alternatives I faced."
"Yeah, you know what those are."
"I'm glad. I mean, really, I'm glad if nothing else you got out of your house and you're safe."
"It's a sad state when my Drill Instructor was pretty easy after living with my parents for eighteen years."
"I know," she said, settling her hand against his. She didn't hold it exactly, just brushed her fingers against the back of his hand. He glanced at her hand, surprised a little because she'd been pretty pissed off the night she in no uncertain terms told him whatever was beginning between them was finished.
"I thought of writing you," he said.
"You could've, I would've written back."
"I can give you my address if you want. I mean, Mom and Dad would forward it to me, but it'd take longer."
"Right. Yeah, I'm not sure how much time I'll have over the next couple of months, but I'd like that."
She reached into her purse, grabbing a pen and a slip of paper.
"Where to?" She handed him the paper, which had her address on it.
"Back to California for Infantry school," he said.
"You're going to shoot people?"
"Well, not every day, but that is what Marines do. So, yeah."
"Oh," she said. "I suppose. I guess I never thought much about it."
"I'm going for a secondary MOS as a Combat Illustrator, too."
"Really?" she asked. "I'm so glad. You drew more then?"
"Yes, you have to submit a portfolio to even be considered. That's what I did with my time between starting the recruitment process and boot camp."
"That's great. I think I still have some of your supplies at my house if you need them."
"Nah," he said.
She was one of the few who knew he drew. He'd done it a few times at her house while she worked on her homework. He'd left things there, the better things that he knew if his mom or dad saw they'd break or throw away just to be spiteful. He hadn't counted on the fact she'd be out of his life as quickly as she entered it. She'd probably freak out if she knew that of the twenty pieces in the portfolio he submitted she, or parts of her, accounted for about eighty percent of the work.
"You can keep them. You draw, too, I know."
"You look nice by the way," she said.
He smirked a little at that. "Surprised I clean up well, Princess?"
"No," she said. "I knew you would," she said.
They hadn't gotten to the point of talking about prom, but he'd thought about asking her. She mentioned finding a dress one day after school when he'd gone home with her. He had been too chicken to ask her because he had no money. He could probably have swung the money to pay for his ticket, but not both tickets, a tuxedo, a corsage, and whatever else went into prom. So, he never asked and then she was gone from his life. She'd gone with someone and he'd been itching for a fight that night, thinking of her with someone else. All because he'd been a friend to the one person in his neighborhood he'd been able to count on most of his life. That had pissed him off more than anything.
James approached them, handing them each a cup of Coke and walked away.
"Who was that?"
"Friend I'm staying with while I'm in town."
"I saw Andy and Allison. He invited James and me to hit Churchill Woods tomorrow."
"Are you going to come?"
"James wants to."
God, why was talking to her so difficult? It shouldn't be, but it was.
"Beats sitting at his place twiddling my thumbs, I guess. I only have ten days, I may as well do stuff with them. I don't have a car while I'm in town so I'm kind of relying on him to get around. We were going to go to the mall tomorrow anyway."
"The mall? You?"
"Yes, I left here with pretty much nothing so that means I came back with pretty much nothing. I'd like to wear more than my service uniform while I'm in town."
"I wouldn't wear anything but it if I were you."
"Yeah?" he asked.
She shrugged a little, glancing behind him. She was blushing, which looked kind of nice on her. Her eyes got hard then, she looked downright mad in fact. What the fuck was that about?
"I have to get back to my friends," she said.
"Okay," he said, confused. "Will I see you tomorrow?"
"I don't know," she said dismissively.
"If I don't go shopping would I get better than an 'I don't know' as an answer?"
"No," she said and walked away, leaving him to wonder what the deal with her personality change was.
He turned around and realized what she'd probably seen that pissed her off.
She'd seen where James went to sit. She wouldn't have known Kevin or Tony was with him, but she would probably have assumed Sheila was.
"Great," he muttered.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com