"So she thinks Sheila's what?" James asked later that night.
"I don't know," John said. "Someone I'm sleeping with I suppose."
"Why don't you tell her the truth?"
"It wouldn't serve any purpose, then or now. Either she trusts me or she doesn't."
"But you hadn't gotten to the point of being exclusive had you?"
"I don't think she's the type to have multiple boyfriends, James, so I'm sure the presumption on her part was if I was spending time with her that was it."
"She knew you had friends that were girls?"
"Sure, but I didn't know Sheila was going to come over that night. My parents were gone so I told Claire just to come in when she got there in case I was in the shower or whatever. She wasn't certain what time she'd be able to get out of her house either after homework and stuff. So it was kind of up in the air."
"Sheila came over because she and Don got into an argument because she was late. Once she'd calmed down we watched some TV. She fell asleep, I left her there while I took my shower, figured I'd wake her up when Claire and I were about to leave. She clearly needed rest if she'd fallen asleep on my bed while watching TV. So, I took my shower and Claire walked in."
"I wasn't dressed, James. I forgot to bring clothes with me into the bathroom. She came in when I was in my room getting them."
"Oh," he said. "But Sheila was?"
"Well, yes, of course, she wasn't in the shower with me."
"You didn't explain…"
"I didn't have the chance to explain. She saw me in a towel, Sheila sleeping on my bed, called me a choice name or two, turned around, and left before I could even really process what exactly had happened. I couldn't blame her. I knew what it looked like."
"You really think she'd think you'd have sex with someone else and then go out with her a few minutes later?"
"Well, I wasn't having sex with her so maybe. I don't know how chicks think! And considering she told me the next day in no uncertain terms was I to call her again, evidently she thought I was capable of doing that."
"Wow. I didn't know."
"Not many did."
He scoffed. "Yeah, she slept through the whole thing. She felt bad when I told her, but she was so wrapped up with her own stuff."
"I told you, James, were you listening. She was late."
John chuckled softly.
"She's pregnant?" James asked, evidently processing the facts.
"I guess, I assume, but I don't know for sure. She drank a lot, I heard she'd gotten drunk at a party or something when Don wasn't there. I haven't talked to her much about it. I was kind of mad at her that night. You didn't notice she's pregnant?"
"I just thought she'd put on some weight, I didn't know."
"Christ, don't tell her that."
"So, she's talking to you tonight, happy to see you, and then sees Sheila."
"Who is obviously pregnant to me, but maybe not if you didn't notice."
"Are you going to explain to her tomorrow?"
"No," he said softly. "She gave me her address before she saw Sheila; maybe I'll write her a letter. I tried more than once, finally got one to sound decent but I never sent it."
"Dude, talk to her. She was into you until then. I saw it. Sheila won't be with us tomorrow, so she'd have to think you wouldn't go without her if you two were going to be parents. You should forget about wearing civilian clothes, though. You have a huge advantage."
"It's not an advantage."
"But it is."
"I didn't enlist to get a girlfriend, James."
"Yeah, but if it helps you get one, why not?"
John shook his head. "We're going to the mall in the morning, James. If I have to steal your car I'm getting some clothes."
"All right," he said.
He'd bought just enough to get him through the week. James thought he was crazy, but John didn't care. He was not going to use his uniform as some sort of tool to get Claire to talk to him. Either she would talk to him if she was there when they were or she wouldn't.
"You going to be able to fit all that in your bag," James had joked. He hadn't bought a huge assortment, a couple pair of jeans, some T-shirts, and a few flannel shirts. Funny, at boot camp he hadn't felt the need to cover up, but back here in Shermer the instinct to hide his father's handiwork was strong even though he was out of the house now.
They arrived at Churchill Woods around one o'clock. It was packed. They had to park a good distance away from where the actual picnic area was. John was used to the distance, but James wasn't so much.
James was one of John's more normal friends so he didn't stand out too much here as being different. He was a senior now, but it seemed like there were current and former students alike here today so he doubted that would matter. No one stopped and stared or pointed at them, asking why they were there.
"God I hate this, you realize being here means I'll have to talk to people I didn't even like talking to when I was in school."
"Find Claire, talk to her."
"You're entirely too concerned about my love life."
"Obviously you're not, so I have to be. Jesus, I wouldn't let her walk away over something stupid like that."
"It wasn't so stupid at the time. She was going to college; I was going nowhere so I didn't see the point."
"Well, no, but that was months ago and she clearly was over it until she saw Sheila again. And you're not going nowhere now."
"Why did you want to come here anyway?" he asked.
James shrugged a little and John realized when he saw James glancing in someone's direction his friend evidently had his eye on someone, too. He didn't know her, so he wasn't sure if she was a senior, too, or what.
"I see," John said. "Go talk to her then, it'll give you something to do other than worry about me talking to Claire."
John grabbed a can of Coke from a huge cooler, looking for Andy or Allison. He wasn't sure if they organized this whole thing by themselves or with others or what and while he doubted he'd eat anything he'd certainly pay for the pop he drank.
"You made it," Allison said when he found her.
"Yeah. Thanks," he said. "Not sure what I owe you for this," he held up the Coke can.
"We have plenty," she said, gesturing to an area where they did in fact have an abundance of cases of pop. "You look more relaxed today."
"Yeah, you know, in regular clothes."
"Ah, yeah, I had just gotten into town yesterday and James sort of dragged me out before I could do much else."
"Where is he anyway? I remember seeing you with him in the smoking area at school."
John gestured toward where he'd seen James walk off to. "Talking to someone."
"Oh," she said. "And why aren't you talking to anyone?"
"I am talking to someone."
"Not who you want to be talking to."
"Christ, why is everyone so hung up on Claire and me talking?"
"Maybe because it's obvious you two like each other and should be talking."
"Sometimes liking each other isn't enough." He said, taking a sip of his pop. He spotted Andy talking to some guys by the grills. They had a couple of them going strong. There appeared to be more than enough food, but there was no telling how many people would actually show up to something like this. "After Harper are you going to go to Southern then?"
"Probably. I don't know. We'll see."
"Is he worth it?"
"You wondering about yourself?"
"No, everything I've done has been for me. I'm just wondering. You're night and day different from that day. I'm pretty much the same, just with Drill Instructors instead of a prick of a father dictating my every move."
He spotted Claire about the same time she seemed to see him. She scanned the area around him, returning her attention to whatever her friend was saying.
"She still drink Tab?" he asked.
"Or Diet Coke."
"Why you guys drink that crap is beyond me."
Allison shrugged. John handed her some money. "I'm not a freeloader," he said before heading to the coolers again to find a Diet Coke. He noticed Allison put the money in a cup with money others had evidently contributed. James was on his own beyond a couple of pops.
"Hi," he said when he approached her and her friends.
"Hi," she said. The two other girls she was talking to didn't say anything. He expected that. He knew them by face, but probably hadn't said more than two words to them his entire life.
"Thirsty?" he asked, offering her the pop.
"Thanks," she said, taking it.
"Can we talk a minute?"
She sighed loud enough for him to hear. "I guess. I'll be back," she said to the two girls and walked with him a ways away.
"So, Sheila is why you got mad last night, right?"
"Is that her name?"
"You've known her as long as you've known me, Claire. We went to the same schools you did all our lives. Don't act like that."
"I was just surprised to see her with you last night, too."
"She wasn't with me. I mean, she was with me, but so were James, Tony, and Kevin. They're the only people I kept in touch with once I left. I almost didn't with Sheila."
"My parents know her. She lives a few houses down from them."
"I made her promise to never tell them anything about me. She swears she won't. She even offered to get a post office box so I could mail her letters there instead of her house. I didn't make her go that far."
"Would they hurt her to try to get information about you?"
"No," he said, taking a sip of his pop. "Well, at least I don't think so. I honestly don't know."
They were both quiet for a minute, probably both thinking about that. He hadn't really entertained the thought Sheila might be in danger by knowing where he was until now. He just didn't want her to leave letters from him or his address laying around to where her parents could see them and relay the information unwittingly to his parents.
"It's not mine," he said after a few minutes of silence. They'd sort of walked away from the crowds. There were a few people around, but not a huge group like back at the picnic area.
"Well, obviously she thought it was."
"No," he said. "You jumped to conclusions."
"You were in a towel and she was in your bedroom."
"Yes, I know what it looked like. I do, and it's why I never tried to explain myself to you. I knew no matter what I said you'd picture how you found us. She came over to talk because she'd gotten into a fight with her boyfriend after telling him she was pregnant. I'd told her walking home from school that my parents would be gone for the night. She didn't know I had plans. We watched some TV and she fell asleep."
"So you always watch TV with her on your bed?"
"I guess. Yeah. We've known one another since we were kids. We played in her pool together when it was no big deal if she had a top on or not. You know? I wanted to take a shower; she was asleep, seemed silly to wake her up when she was obviously tired so I let her keep sleeping. I just forgot to bring clothes with me into the bathroom."
"And you let me think."
"I knew what you thought and I knew you were mad enough that my explanation wasn't going to wash. I didn't see the point. You were going away and I wasn't. I guess I figured it was for the best it happened that way instead of later on."
"I thought you were a two-timing asshole."
"Were we even dating, Claire? I don't know what we were doing."
"So you were sleeping with other girls?"
"No! Christ. No! It wasn't like that. Why does everything come down to who I am or have had sex with with you?"
"Well, while you were seeing me it matters."
"I didn't have sex with anyone while I was seeing you."
"And you don't believe me," he said when she was quiet for a minute or two after he said that. "Claire, I wouldn't do that to you. I knew what seeing me meant for you, I knew what the rules were."
"You just asked me if we were even dating."
"Well, sure, because I'm not sure we were. Had we gotten to that point yet? Do I qualify as an ex-boyfriend in your eyes? I didn't think we'd gotten there, but I wanted to so I went by what your rules were."
"So, other girls you see don't care if you have sex with your other girlfriends?"
"I've never seen anyone else. Not like you're talking at least so no they didn't care because I wasn't exclusive with them."
"I saw her last night."
"Yeah, I knew when I turned around and saw that James had sat near her that you'd jump to conclusions."
"Is she okay?"
He shrugged. "She says she is in her letters. I just got into town yesterday so haven't really talked to her or anything. She'll probably pick me up for dinner one night while I'm in town."
"You write to her?"
"Yes when she writes me I write her back. Boot camp isn't a cocktail party, Princess. It was nice to hear from the real world even if I didn't have a lot of friends to write to me. James did a couple of times, the other guys I was with last night Kevin and Tony wrote once I think," he shrugged.
"You could've written me. I would've written back."
"You told me not to contact you again."
"I was mad."
"I did actually, but I threw them away. I figured better to throw them away on my end; at least I'd know for sure they weren't read."
"I would've read it."
"You say that now. I knew what it looked like."
"Made an excuse? Told you what had really happened? You wouldn't have believed me at the time. Besides, I kind of figured you were better off anyway."
"Yes. You didn't need someone like me weighing you down."
"You weren't a weight, John. I liked spending time with you. When it was just the two of us at my house or something you were always so nice, different. God, I loved watching you draw. It was the only time I ever saw you look peaceful."
"I know you did," he said. "I'd still like to draw you."
He had, of course, several times, after they'd stopped seeing each other. Most of it was embellished from his mind's imaginings, though he didn't embellish too much just guessed what things he hadn't seen looked like.
"I'm not going to pose naked for you," she said, blushing pretty deeply.
"That's a pity."
"Why?" she asked, sounding suspicious.
"Because it would be great to have that next to my bed."
"Shut up," she said.
"I'm not going to shut up when I'm being honest, Princess."
"So, you leave when?"
"I fly out next Sunday morning. I don't have to be there until Monday, but I figured I'd get there and settle in a day early."
"How long will you be gone?"
"I'm not coming back. I came here this time because I really had nowhere else to go and while you get paid in boot camp it's not enough to take a vacation with or anything. I left here with nothing and I had to buy some things. James offered his couch. Regardless, I probably won't get leave between Infantry school and reporting to my first duty station, but I'll be in Infantry school for two months."
"Yes, and I don't know when my next leave will be."
"What are you going to do all week?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. I got the shopping done today."
"I see that."
"You don't like it?" he asked. While nothing special, they were actually nice clothes for him. They were new and clean with no holes or stains on them at any rate, so that was pretty nice in his world.
"You just look strange without the hair," she said.
"Yeah, it'll grow back eventually."
"Are you going to grow it back out?"
"I hadn't thought about it. Maybe, I guess I'll see how I feel when I'm in a position to choose." He finished his Coke, squeezing the can as he looked around the area. They weren't the only ones off by themselves, but she'd been talking to other people when he'd gotten there.
"Listen," he said. "I just wanted to explain, to say that Sheila's situation isn't my fault. I didn't want you thinking I knocked her up when I was seeing you. If you want to get back to your friends that's cool, I'll leave you alone."
"John," she said.
He pulled his wallet out of his pocket and the slip of paper she'd given him last night from it. "Do you want me to use this, Princess?"
"If you want to write to me, yes."
"Are you going to write back?"
She smiled a little. "I might."
"Might, huh? Well, I'll mail a letter next week with my address if you want to use it. Just don't get upset with me if I don't write you every day or anything. I've been told not to expect too much downtime other than maybe Thanksgiving or Christmas."
"You think you'll be there through Christmas?"
"Probably, yeah," he said. "I'll be somewhere anyway."
"That's too bad."
"Because it's Christmas."
"To you that's probably too bad. To me, Christmas was just another day so it doesn't matter."
"What are you going to do?"
"No," she laughed. "Now."
"Find James, talk him into leaving."
"There's no one else I really wanted to talk to. I have nothing to say to Allison or Andy beyond what I've already said."
"Well, you could stay and talk to me. Maybe have a hot dog or something."
"Surely you have people waiting to talk to you."
"That doesn't mean you can't talk to me, too."
"In front of them?"
She shrugged. "Why not?"
"I'm not exactly their type."
She slid her hand through his arm. "They're not going to bite you, John. You're with me, so they'll be nice to you and talk to you as if they did all through school."
"Great," he said. He tossed his crumpled Coke can into a trash bin they passed on their way back toward the larger group of people. "Why exactly am I doing this instead of finding James?"
"Because when we're done I'm going to give you a ride back to his place."
"Yes. Unless you had something else to do. He looks like he's talking to someone anyway, so I doubt you're going to convince him to leave."
"I suppose that's an incentive to socialize with people I had no desire to ever see again."
"Does that include me?"
"I wish you'd told me what was really going on."
"I've explained why I didn't."
"I know I still wish you would've."
"It wouldn't have mattered, Princess. I still couldn't have taken you to prom or anything."
She stopped walking. "Is that why you didn't say anything?"
"Part of it. At the time, you were getting acceptance letters from Yale and Stanford."
"I know, but you were pretty excited about Yale."
"I sort of figured what was the point. You wouldn't really want to be strapped with a loser like me back home anyway."
"You're not a loser."
"I came pretty close to getting arrested," he admitted.
"Yeah. The cop had seen me before, knew what I was up to. He gave me some choices, but if it had been another cop instead of him I'd probably be sitting in a jail cell about now."
"But you're not."
"Yes, but at the time, Vernon was right."
"Vernon was an ass."
"He was, but he was right about me not being in a position to amount to anything. My parents' fault in part, but it was my fault, too. It doesn't really matter anyway, does it?"
"I just wish."
"Who knows where I'd be if things didn't happen the way they did that night, Claire. I'm not saying I'm glad, but it was probably for the best."
"Is she still with him?"
"Oh, Sheila? Yeah, sort of, I'm not sure how well it's going. He thinks it may not be his."
"Why?" she asked with a frown.
He chuckled softly. "You really want to hear this?"
"I don't know, do I?"
"He doesn't think it's mine, but I guess she got pretty trashed at a party one night and there was a rumor going around that she, uh, had a good time with a couple of guys."
"A couple of guys? And she's your friend?"
"Don't judge, Claire. She was drunk, and I don't believe it's true. I know her; I've known her all of my life. She's not that kind of girl. Now if you want the names of girls I would believe that about I can give you a list."
"No," she said. "That's okay."
"Don heard the rumors, though, and it took him a while to believe she didn't either."
"But he does believe her?"
"I think so. The last letter she sent me, though, said he told her he's going to get a paternity test done once it's born."
"Well, I can't blame him. Can you?"
"No, given the circumstances, I'd do the same thing. It would sure suck to pay child support for eighteen years for a kid that wasn't even yours."
"I saw her last night and I thought…"
"I can imagine what you thought."
"I thought you were an asshole all over again, talking to me while you were there with your pregnant girlfriend."
"Can I ask you something?"
"Did you really think I'd have sex with her right before you were going to come over?"
"I didn't know what to think! I reacted to what I saw, there wasn't much thought behind it."
"If it's any consolation, I had an equally bad reaction on the night of prom."
"Yes. I think that was the most miserable night of my life."
"Did you have fun?"
She shrugged a little. "It was nice."
"Yeah, you know, nothing real exciting."
"Do you have any pictures?"
"Yeah," she scoffed. Of course, she probably had a couple rolls of film worth of pictures.
"Of just you?"
"Send me one?"
"Are you going to hang it next to your bed?"
He chuckled. "No, that spot is reserved for a better picture. But I'll keep it."
"I can do that."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com