The Liberation of Peter H. Thorkelson
The large bowl slipped from his soapy hands and crashed to the floor. For several seconds, he just stood there on his stool, looking at the shattered glass in horror. Then he heard a gasp. He looked up to see his mother standing in the doorway, staring at the broken bowl. She glared at him, and his heart began to beat faster. "I'm sorry, Mama," he whispered fearfully. "I'll c-clean it up." He hopped off the stool, but didn't get a chance to do anything else. His mother rushed up to him and smacked him with all her force. The blow sent the boy reeling. He tripped over his stool and fell to the floor. He scooted away, hoping she would stop now, but she only yanked him to his feet and slapped him again.
"Why, Peter?" she cried. "Why do I have to get stuck with a worthless, clumsy, stupid little boy like you?"
"I'm s-s-sorry, Mama," he said, sobbing.
"Do you know that was my best mixing bowl?! Your father's going to hear about this when he gets home!"
Peter's eyes widened. "No, Mama! Please don't tell him!"
"Shut up!" she shouted, slapping him again. "I don't want to hear you! I don't want to see you!" She dragged him to his room and threw him in. "Stay in here and don't come out!" She slammed the door, and he listened to her angry footsteps until they died away.
Peter collapsed onto the bed, sobbing. He buried his face in his pillow, trying not to make any noise. He didn't want his mother to come back. Eventually, the tears subsided. He reached under his bed and found his teddy bear. Peter lay on the bed for a long time, clutching the bear and listening to the other kids playing. He wished he could go out and play with them. But even if he was allowed outside, he wouldn't have the courage to talk to any of them. What if they teased him like the kids at school did? He looked down at the bear and sighed. "You're my only friend, Peterbear," he whispered, using the nickname his grandmother had given to him. The shiny black eyes stared back at him comfortingly. Peter imagined what his bear would say if he could speak. He would say, Of course I am, Peter. I would never tease you and I would never hit you. You're the best friend a bear could ever have! Feeling a little better, Peter smiled and tweaked the bear's shiny nose, the way Nana used to do him.
Soon, Peter heard the front door slam. His father was home. He jumped up and shoved his teddy bear deep into his closet. He was supposed to have thrown it away years ago, but it had been a gift from his grandmother and he just couldn't let it go. If his father saw it, though, he would be in even deeper trouble than he already was. Stuffed animals were for babies and sissies only. Peter shuddered. He could hear the heavy, familiar footsteps coming down the hall toward his room. Trembling, he sat on his bed and waited for his father to come in with the belt.
"Peter Thorkelson." Peter walked up to the desk and took his report card. He sat down and waited while the rest of the names were called. The teacher reminded them that the report cards had to be returned the next day with a parent's signature, and class was dismissed. Peter looked at his report card and sighed heavily. Maybe he'd do better next time. He shoved the paper into his bag and walked out. He just wouldn't show it to his parents. He wasn't bothered by the need for a signature. From a sense of self preservation, he had mastered both his parent's signatures several years ago. He could probably forge a check by now without getting caught.
Before he made it to his bicycle, he was startled by a sharp tap on the back of his head. "Hey, DORKelson! Whadja get, all F's?" Peter rolled his eyes and walked on, pretending he hadn't heard Billy's remark. Billy wasn't going to let him go that easily. He stood in front of Peter, blocking his path. "What's the matter, dummy? To DUMB to understand English?"
"Leave me alone. I have to get to work." Peter sidestepped him, only to be blocked by one of Billy's friends.
"Oh, come on, Peter," Max said sweetly. "We all know you're too stupid to have a job." That was met with laughter from several voices. Peter turned and saw that all the other members of Billy's little gang was there. Great. They surrounded him, teasing him laughing at him. Peter stared straight ahead and forced himself not to react. He knew from experience that if he said anything, they would either use it to insult him some more, or, if they were in a bad mood, they would just beat him up. And if he cried - Oh, God! He didn't even want to think of the troubles he would have then.
After what seemed like an eternity, they started to lose interest. With only a few more taunts and a shove or two, they left him alone. He unlocked his bike and rode to work. He didn't know how long he'd been standing there, but he rode extra fast, hoping he wouldn't be late. His boss hated it when he was late, and he didn't want to lose his job. Besides the fact that his father would very likely kill him if he did, Peter really liked working at the pawn shop. He especially liked the area with the instruments. It was his favorite part of the store. He usually worked more slowly in that area, while trying not to seem too obvious about it.
Mr. Ames' store wasn't large, but he had guitars, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, harmonicas, banjos, violins and almost any other instrument you could imagine. Peter loved looking at all of them. Sometimes, he would even take one down and pick out songs on it when his boss wasn't around. He knew how to play most of them now, but his favorite was the guitar. He'd already decided which one he wanted. A beautiful acoustic guitar made from dark brown wood, which got lighter near the sound hole. He'd started saving to buy it about six months ago. His parents only let him keep a fraction of his check, but he'd saved every bit of it that he could. One of these days, he was going to buy that guitar.
Peter rode to the back of the tiny pawn shop and put his bike away. "You're late."
He turned to face his employer. The man was a little shorter than Peter, but he was still very intimidating. He stood there, arms folded over his rounded paunch, glaring at Peter from underneath bushy grey eyebrows. "I'm sorry, Mr. Ames," he said. "I got held up at school, and - "
"I don't want to hear your excuses."
"Yes, sir." Peter grabbed the broom, cursing himself for not having rode faster. He liked working for Mr. Ames, even if he was a grouch most of the time. He was a good man who would treat you well if you worked hard.
"Don't bother with that right now," Mr. Ames said. "Your father's here to see you."
Peter blanched. "M-my father's here?"
"That's what I said, isn't it? He's been waiting for you for twenty minutes, and he doesn't look too happy about it. Now go on. He's in there." He nodded toward the front of the shop.
Peter walked slowly toward the main area of the pawn shop. His father was there with his back toward him, looking at his watch. He could tell by the way that his father's strong, broad shoulders were tensed that he was really angry. He shuddered and stepped out quietly from behind the desk. "Dad?"
His father whirled around to face him. His strong, angular face was bright red and his hazel eyes were filled with such fury that Peter took a step back. "Where the hell have you been?!" he yelled. "You're supposed to be at work at 3:30! It's almost four o'clock!!"
His father advanced on him and Peter took another step back. "I'm s-s-sorry, Dad," he said. "I d-didn't know you were coming."
"It's no wonder you can't make any decent money around here, coming to work late all the time!"
"I don't come late all the time," Peter said.
His father backhanded him forcefully and he staggered back. "Don't you talk back to me, boy!" he shouted. Peter cringed, but his father didn't hit him again. Instead, he said, "I got a call from your school today." Peter looked up at his father worriedly, his stomach beginning to tighten. "They said to expect report cards to come home today. I took time out of my lunch break to come down here and look at yours before you try to tear it up or change the grades on it or something. Now go and get it." Peter turned and walked toward the back slowly. His stomach churned, and he could feel a wave of panic beginning to grow. "Hurry up!" his father shouted. "I don't have all day to wait for you. I'm already running late."
Peter quickened his pace, lowering his head as he passed Mr. Ames. He found the cursed report card and took it back to his father. The man snatched it from him and looked it over. Peter kept his head down, afraid to look at his father's face. After a moment, his father held the paper out towards him. "What is this, Peter?" he asked. "What the hell is this?!"
"I... it's... it's...."
His father slapped him before he could think of anything to say. "Do you think I raised you to be some kind of an idiot? Do you??" He tossed the report card onto the counter and hit Peter again, harder than before.
Peter backed away, starting to tremble. "N-n-o, sir. I... I just - "
"Shut up!" his father yelled, smacking him again. "I don't want to hear your stuttering excuses!" He punched Peter in the chest. Peter backed away again, but his father continued to advance on him, slapping him and punching him repeatedly. Soon, Peter found himself backed into a corner. His father continued to beat him furiously, while Peter shielded himself with his arms as best he could. Finally, after punching Peter in the stomach several times in a row, the man stopped. Peter sank to his knees, bent double with his face almost touching the floor, crying, coughing and trying not to vomit all over Mr. Ames' floor. "Pathetic," he heard his father say. "You're pathetic, Peter. And you'd better start to shape up quick. Do you understand me?"
"Y-y-yes, sir," Peter choked out, knowing how dangerous it could be not to answer a question from his father. He heard his father walk away, but he didn't relax until he heard the jingle from the door telling him that his father was definitely out of the building. He sat up slowly, wiping away the shameful tears. He looked around, grateful to see that no customers had come in to witness the event. Then he noticed Mr. Ames standing behind the desk frowning, and he knew that he had probably seen the whole thing. Burning with shame, Peter lowered his eyes and stood up. The room started to spin, and he wavered. Mr. Ames came over quickly to help. He put his arm around Peter's shoulder, steadying him.
"I'm sorry about this, sir," Peter said softly. "I'll t-try to come early tomorrow to make up the time."
"Don't be ridiculous, boy," Mr. Ames said. He helped Peter to the back and made him sit down. "Now you just sit there until you feel well enough to get home."
"Oh, no, please don't sent me home," Peter cried. His father would beat him again if he found out that Peter hadn't been paid for a full day. "I'll be fine, really!" Mr. Ames looked at him as if he was definitely not convinced. "Please, sir. I really need the money."
Ames frowned at him, but nodded. "All right, you can stay."
"Thank you, sir," Peter said gratefully.
"But you just sit there for a while, you hear?"
Mr. Ames left the office for a few minutes. When he came back, he was holding Peter's report card in his hand. Peter's face reddened, and he stared at his lap. Mr. Ames hmmmmed and tsked at his grades. Then he said, "Tell me something, Peter. Do you go to all your classes?"
"Do you try your best at school?"
Peter swallowed. "Yes, sir. I try, but..."
"Can't be easy to do your homework when you work until 8:00 every night," Mr. Ames said. "Especially if your father behaves that way at home." Peter kept his head down and didn't answer. "What did you get in Math last year, Peter?"
He sighed. "Failed."
"Failed," Peter whispered, hanging his head even further.
"I got a D."
"Hmmmm. It says here this time you got D's in Math, History and Science this time. Brought English up to a C." Peter shrugged. He'd failed all the classes Mr. Ames hadn't mentioned. One C on his entire report card wasn't enough to please his father. Obviously. "The point I'm trying to make here, boy," his employer said, "is that you're improving. Your grades may not be wonderful, but they're better than they were last time. You're a good worker, Peter. You always do your best in this shop, and I believe you when you say you do your best in school. I respect a man who does the best he can. I'm proud of you, boy."
Peter looked up at Mr. Ames in astonishment. "You ... you really mean that?"
"I never say anything I don't mean. And I'll tell you something else. If you improve some of these other grades next time, I'll give you something nice. Now go on. I'm giving you the rest of the day off."
"But, sir! I - "
"I won't hear another word about it. You'll get paid for today, but you're taking the rest of the day off! Now get out of here. Go and enjoy yourself."
Peter thanked Mr. Ames again and again. He left the shop feeling lighter than air. His parents didn't expect him to be home for hours! He had the whole evening to himself. As he walked, Peter replayed his boss' words over and over again. I'm proud of you, boy. I'm proud of you. No one had ever said those words to him before. Not ever. Peter hadn't felt this happy in a long, long time.
Peter ran to the shop, abuzz with excitement. Nothing could bring him down today. Not the fact that he still hadn't made any friends this year. Not the fact that he'd been surrounded by Billy's gang after school again and been held up for almost thirty hellish minutes. Not even the knowledge that he would almost certainly be getting a beating that night for bringing home a report card full of D's could bring down his spirits. What did he care about all of that? Today was the day. Today he would buy his guitar!
Peter ran into the shop and headed straight for the instruments. When he looked at the place where his guitar usually hung, he practically screeched to a halt. It was gone. Gone! Peter tried to calm down. Maybe it wasn't really sold. Maybe Mr. Ames had moved some things around and the guitar had been one of them. He went to the back and called Mr. Ames. "You know that dark guitar? It used to hang right there?" he asked, pointing.
"Indeed I do," Mr. Ames replied. "Fella bought it this morning. 'Bout time, too. It's been on that wall gathering dust for much too long." Peter was crestfallen. All this time, no one had seemed interested in buying his guitar. Why did someone have to notice it now? "Cheer up, boy, what's the matter with you?" Peter shook his head. He didn't even want to talk about it. "Listen," Mr. Ames said. "If you work hard today, maybe I'll let you out early. And you got your grades back today, didn't you?"
"Well, remember what I said. If you've improved, I'll give you something nice. Now go on, get to work." Peter did as he was told, trying not to look so depressed. He didn't want to seem ungrateful, but he wasn't even sure Mr. Ames would be giving him anything anyway. He'd gotten straight D's. Some classes had improved, but his English grade had gone down this time. He was sure that wouldn't be enough to warrant a gift. Besides, the only thing he wanted right now was that guitar.
About two hours before his shift ended, Mr. Ames called to Peter. "Come here, boy."
"Let's see those grades now."
"Yes, sir," Peter said, sighing. He got his report card and showed it to his employer.
"Hmmmm. What happened to English?"
Peter looked at the floor. "I don't know. The class got harder, I guess."
"Well, these other two have gone up. I'd say that cancels out the bad English grade, wouldn't you?"
Peter looked up timidly. "You're not disappointed?"
"Of course not. I'm proud of you. You didn't fail a single class this time. Wait here and I'll get your gift." Mr. Ames went upstairs, where Peter knew the elderly man had his apartment.
Peter smiled. He berated himself for thinking that he wouldn't love anything Mr. Ames chose to give him. It might not be his beloved guitar, but it would be a gift from a man who was proud of him. Just hearing Mr. Ames say that made Peter feel good inside. In a moment, Mr. Ames returned. Peter gasped when he saw what he carried. It was the guitar! He stood there staring at it in utter disbelief. Mr. Ames laughed. "Close your mouth, boy. You're gonna catch a fly."
Peter closed his mouth, but he was still astonished. "But... but you said..."
"I lied, son. Couldn't ruin the surprise, could I?" Mr. Ames smiled broadly. "Well? Are you going to take it or not?"
Peter reached out and took the guitar. A thrill rushed through him when he felt the smooth wood in his hands. "Thank you, Mr. Ames," he said softly. "Thank you so much."
"But how did you know this is the one I wanted?" Peter asked.
The older man looked at him as if he were crazy. "You must be joking! I've seen the look that comes into your eyes every time you see that thing! I'd have to be blind not to. You're like a starving man at a buffet. And don't think I haven't heard you playing it."
Peter blushed. "I'm sorry, sir. I know I'm not supposed to..."
"Don't apologize," Mr. Ames cut in. "I'm not angry with you. Besides, it's yours now anyway."
"Mine," Peter whispered, looking down at it. "I was going to buy it today, you know," he told his boss. "I'll give you the money if you want."
"If I took money for it, it wouldn't be a gift, now would it?"
"No, sir," Peter said, smiling.
"That's right. Now you keep that money in a safe place. Save it for an emergency or something. And mind you take good care of that guitar."
"Oh, I will!"
Mr. Ames grinned, and rumpled Peter's hair the way fathers did on television. "Now go on. Have yourself a good time."
Peter slung the guitar - his guitar! - over his back, and picked up his book bag. He thanked Mr. Ames again and again. In fact, he thanked him so many times that the man threatened to take his gift back if Peter said "thank you" one more time. Peter left the shop and rode to a nearby park. He found his favorite spot - a secluded patch of grass surrounded by a group of large trees. No one else ever came here. He sat down and spent several minutes just gazing at the guitar, thinking about how much he loved Mr. Ames. Finally, he tuned it up and started to play.
By the time he stopped, several hours had passed. He rushed home, managing to make it at the same time he usually did. He put his bike away and went inside. Immediately, his mother confronted him. "Where'd you get that?" she asked. "Did you steal it?"
"No, Mama! I wouldn't steal," Peter replied.
"Then how did you get it? I know you didn't buy it!"
"No, Mama, I..."
"What is this?!" his father interrupted, stalking into the room. "Are you bringing stolen goods into this house?" He snatched the guitar from Peter's hands.
Peter resisted the urge to grab the guitar back. "No, Dad," he said as calmly as he could. "Mr. Ames gave it to me."
"Don't lie to me, Peter," his father growled.
"I'm not," Peter said, edging away a little. His father gave him a dangerous look and Peter held up his hands. "I swear! He said I could have it because I didn't fail any of my classes this time."
"Ha," his mother laughed. "Didn't fail? What did you get, all D's?" she asked derisively. Peter blushed and looked away uncomfortably. She laughed again. "I knew it. That might as well be failing! I don't know why that boss of yours thinks something like that deserves a present!"
"I don't either," his father said. "It deserves a kick in the pants!" Peter backed away nervously. "How many times to I have to tell you, Peter? Your mother and I didn't raise you to be stupid! And I didn't raise you to be some kind of good for nothing, lazy musician either!" he shouted, shaking the guitar at him. "I want you to take this piece of junk down to that pawn shop tomorrow and give it back!"
"Dad, no!" Peter cried. "Please let me keep it!"
"No! It goes back tomorrow."
"Oh, please, I haven't even had it a whole day yet!"
"I said no! Don't make me say it again," he said, raising his fist.
"Oh, let him keep it, Vince," his mother said. Peter looked at her in shock. So did his father. "Well, what are you worried about?" she asked. "He'll never be good enough to be a real musician! So what harm could it do for him to keep the thing? Maybe when he realizes he's a failure at that, just like he is at everything else, he'll settle down and do something he can handle." She giggled. "Like laying bricks," she said, laughing some more.
Peter stared at the floor, trying to pretend he wasn't hurt by his mother's laughter. Finally, his father spoke. "I think you're right, Faye. Here." He shoved the guitar into Peter's arms.
Peter looked up. "I can keep it?"
"Sure, why not? Your mother's right. You'll never amount to anything, so you might as well get it out of your system now. But I'm warning you. The minute you start slacking with your chores, or at work, the guitar goes. Understand?"
"Yes, sir," Peter said. They seemed to be done with him, so he went to his room and sat down, cradling his guitar. He tried to keep the tears from falling, but it was impossible. His mother's ridicule, and his father's certainty that he would never amount to anything hurt him terribly. Why couldn't they be nice to him, just once? Just one time, why couldn't they say - "Go for it, Peter, I believe in you!" Peter sighed. Yeah right. He reached under the bed and pulled out his faithful teddy bear. "You believe in me, don't you, Peterbear?" he said quietly. Of course I do, Peter! I believe you can do anything. You're the most talented friend a bear could ever have! Peter smiled and tweaked the bear's shiny nose.
Peter played his guitar all through the summer. He had already taught himself several songs before Mr. Ames gave him the guitar. Over the summer, he learned many more, sounding them out from the radio and any old records that Mr. Ames would let him borrow. Peter never played in front of anyone. Sometimes, when he knew his parents wouldn't be home for several hours at least, he would play at home, but he usually played in his lonely spot at the park. The only "people" who ever heard him play were Peterbear, when he played at home, and any squirrels who happened to pass by him in the park. Although he sometimes imagined himself playing in front of a real audience, he knew he could never do it. Even though they were mean to have said it, he knew his parents were right. He would never be good enough to be a real musician. He wasn't good at anything else, so why should he be any good at music?
The knowledge that he could never hope to amount to anything special in music didn't stop Peter from loving it. Even though his father never failed to point out to him that all musicians were lazy and worthless, and his mother took every opportunity to ridicule his playing, even though she'd never heard it, Peter didn't stop. He played his guitar every single day, without fail. He was careful to do all his chores and more so his father would have no excuse to take his precious guitar away from him. He couldn't lose it. He was never happier than when playing his guitar. Whenever he felt sad or upset he would go and play until he felt better. It might take minutes, or hours depending on how upset he was, but eventually the music would take over and his cares would disappear. Sometimes, after a vicious tongue lashing from his mother, or a particularly bad beating from his father (or both) Peter would go to the park and lose himself in the music for the entire night.
The summer wore on, and soon it was time for school again. Peter dreaded the coming of school with a passion. Just thinking about it made him uneasy. School meant trudging through hours of frustrating homework assignments, listening to angry teachers yell at him and tell him he wasn't trying hard enough, hiding test results and progress reports from his parents, and trying to avoid Billy and his five-man posse. Peter tried to be positive. Maybe this year he would be lucky. Maybe he wouldn't have any classes with Billy or his pals. Maybe he would actually make a friend this year. Maybe a miracle would happen, and he would finally get grades his Dad would be proud of. Peter picked up his guitar, chuckling morosely. And right after that horses will fly out of my ears.
Michelle hated changing schools. Feeling like an outsider was always hard and she usually ended up being a wallflower with her nose in a book while everyone else socialized. This year promised to be extremely difficult. She couldn't believe her father had made her change schools her senior year! The few friends she'd managed to make last year would be graduating without her and she would have to walk the aisle with a bunch of strangers. Her father told her to look on the bright side of things, but so far she hadn't found any bright side.
They'd moved into the new neighborhood just three weeks ago. All they'd had time to do was unpack - and they still weren't finished. She didn't know her way around the neighborhood and she hadn't met anyone her own age yet. She didn't even know if anyone her own age lived in the neighborhood! Her first day of school was going badly already. Her first two classes were hard, and she already had a ton of homework. The first break of the day had lasted only 20 minutes, but it seemed to take forever. She spent the whole time being unceremoniously kicked out of various areas because they belonged to someone's clique.
Michelle had a little trouble finding her third class - Chemistry. She wasn't late, but she didn't make it in time to get a seat in the front. She had to take a seat all the way in the back of the room. A few minutes after class started, a boy rushed into the room. The teacher glared at his back until he sat down. He took the seat next to her and Michelle felt that her day might be getting better after all. He was really cute! He was fairly tall - about 5'11", and had a very nice figure. He looked strong, but he wasn't bulging with muscles like a body builder. His straight blonde hair was cut short, and neatly brushed to the side. He had brown eyes, a perfect Cupid's bow mouth, a prominent nose, and a pointed chin. His ears were big, and they stuck out quite a bit, but Michelle didn't mind that too much. In fact, she thought they made him look kind of endearing.
She watched him pull out a little folder, then search around in his bag. Maybe he was looking for a pen. Hmmm. Nice hands. He continued to search until the teacher noticed him. "Mister Thorkelson!" he snapped.
The boy sat up straight, blushing a little bit when the rest of the class turned to look at him. "Yes, sir?" he said nervously. Michelle smiled at the sound of his lovely baritone voice.
"You have already interrupted my class once by being late. Must you continue to cause a disturbance with that annoying rustling?"
He turned an even deeper shade of red. "I'm sorry, Mr. Anderson. It won't happen again."
"See that it doesn't. I don't want any trouble out of you, Thorkelson. In fact, it would give me great pleasure to actually see you graduate this year."
There were a few snickers from some of the students, and the teacher went back to his lesson. Michelle frowned. He didn't have to be so harsh, she thought. He was only five minutes late. Michelle looked over at "Mr. Thorkelson." His face was still red, and his eyes were trained on his folder. She reached into her bag and pulled out one of her five extra pens. (It never hurt to be prepared.) When Mr. Anderson wasn't looking, she reached over and put the pen on his desk. He looked surprised. Then he turned to her and smiled, showing a set of absolutely beautiful dimples.
"Thank you," he whispered.
She smiled back at him. "You're welcome."
"Now," Mr. Anderson said. "There will be several lab assignments, for which you will require a partner." He held up a small cardboard box. "You will each pull a number from this box. The person with the number that matches yours will be your lab partner for the duration of the semester. Prepare to get used to each other." He passed the box around and they all picked a number. Michelle unfolded the little sheet of paper. Seven. She looked around, feeling a little intimidated. So many people in the class seemed to know each other. Most of them had already found their partners, and were expressing varying degrees of joy or dismay with who they'd ended up getting.
Michelle turned in the boy on her right. He didn't seem to have found his partner yet. In fact, he was looking around almost as hesitantly as she was herself. She found that a little strange, since he obviously wasn't new to the school. The teacher had known who he was right away. She shrugged. He must just have first day of school jitters. Hmmm. He was cute, and he seemed nice from what she'd seen so far. Maybe she would be lucky enough to get him as a partner. Yeah right. Not with the way my day's been going so far. At least he seemed fairly approachable. She cleared her throat.
"Excuse me?" she asked timidly. He turned and smiled faintly at her. "What number do you have?"
"Seven," he said.
Michelle grinned. "That's my number, too!" she said excitedly.
He smiled even wider. The suddenly, the boy sitting in front of Michelle turned to face them. When her new lab partner saw him, his smiled immediately faded and he looked down at his desk. "Boy, do I feel sorry for you!" the other boy said to Michelle. "Getting stuck with Thorkelson the Dorkelson is the worst kind of luck!"
Michelle was shocked. She couldn't believe he had just said that! She looked uncomfortably in her partner's direction. He was still looking down, and he was starting to blush. Michelle frowned at the boy in front of her. "Why did you say that?" she asked angrily.
"Are you kidding?" he asked. "Dorkelson's the stupidest kid in this whole school! He's been held back so many times he's got to be in his twenties by now. Isn't that right, Dorkelson?" Michelle scowled at him, but several other people laughed at the joke.
Then Michelle gasped as the boy sitting behind her partner slapped her neighbor on the back of his head. "Hey, Dorkelson! What are you, deaf? Billy asked you a question!"
"You know he's not deaf, Max," another boy said. "He can't be with those gigantic ears of his! Can you, Dumbo?" he asked, shoving the blonde boy's arm while the others laughed.
"Cut it out!" Michelle snapped angrily. She looked at the object of their laughter. He'd sunk so low in his seat that it was a wonder he didn't slide right to the floor. His face was an unusually deep shade of red, and he was breathing heavily.
"Yeah, cut it out, Danny," said one of the girls. "I think he's gonna cry!" Another chorus of laughter followed this statement, but it was soon cut off by Mr. Anderson.
"All right, class, settle down," he said sharply. "You should all have found your partners by now. It's time to begin our lesson." He scanned the class, making sure everyone was paying attention. His eyes fell on her lab partner and he frowned. "Mr. Thorkelson! Please sit properly in your seat." He sat up straight, but kept his eyes trained on his desk. Class continued, but Michelle was too angry to pay proper attention. She couldn't believe how mean they all had been. And to top it all off, of all the people for Mr. Anderson to scold, he picks on her partner for his posture! She kept looking over at her neighbor, wondering if there was any way she could cheer him up. His face gradually lost it's red tint, but he spent the rest of the period staring down at his notebook with his hands clasped together in front of him. Maybe she would try to talk to him after class.
At the end of class, Michelle's lab partner grabbed his bag and rushed out of the room before she could say anything. Michelle sighed. He must be terribly embarrassed. She wanted to tell him that she didn't care what those mean kids had said, but now she'd probably have to wait a whole day before she saw him again. She pulled out her class schedule and looked up the next room number. Hmmm. English Literature, room 501A. No idea where that is. She went to the front of the class and asked Mr. Anderson for directions. She ended up getting lost and had to ask three other people before she found her way to the room. She was late. She hated being late. Michelle crept into the class room, trying not to make too much noise. The instructor stopped speaking and turned her disapproving eyes toward Michelle.
"Miss Jacobson. As this is the first day of school, I will excuse your tardiness. But please understand that after today, I will expect strict punctuality from all of my students. Is that quite clear?"
"Good. You may find a seat."
Michelle looked around for an empty desk, wondering why Mr. Anderson should be able to balance chemical equations with ease, but couldn't give decent directions in his own school. She was pleased to see a familiar face in the room. Her neighbor from Chemistry was sitting in the back. He blushed and averted his eyes when she looked his way, and she figured he must still be embarrassed about what happened in Chemistry. Michelle took the seat next to him, hoping she might get a chance to talk to him after all.
Soon, class was over and Michelle had yet another load to add to her already large amount of homework. She was not looking forward to lunchtime. It meant another stint of wandering around the campus trying to find a place, and looking very obviously like the new kid at school. She looked over at the boy next to her. Maybe he would let her join his group. She tried to work up the courage to speak to him. She was still shy, and she knew that lending someone a pen was one thing. Asking to join him for lunch was totally different. He glanced shyly at her for a split second, then walked away.
Uh-oh, he's leaving. Now or never. Michelle stood up and walked after him. "Umm.... Excuse me?" He walked on, not hearing her. Oh, what was his name? All those people teasing him, and not one of them had used his first name. "Uh... Mr. Thorkelson?" He turned suddenly, looking confused. When he saw that it was her, his face reddened and he lowered his eyes. Michelle was afraid he might walk away again, but he stood there waiting for her to catch up. "Sorry about that," she said. "I didn't know your first name, and I wanted to catch you before you went away."
"That's okay," he said. He reached into his bag and produced the pen she'd given him. "Sorry," he said, handing it to her. "I should have given it to you earlier."
"No, no, you can keep that," she said, feeling a bit embarrassed. "That's not why I wanted to talk to you."
"It's not?" he asked, looking at her with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.
Okay. Here comes the hard part, she thought. "You see, I'm new here, and ... I don't really know anyone at school yet, so.... I was just wondering... if you don't mind of course... if I could...." Michelle sighed. "What I'm trying to say is, would you mind if I ate lunch with you?" She twirled the edges of her shirt nervously, certain that she had made a complete idiot of herself. Maybe he would overlook it. When he didn't answer her, she looked up and saw that he was staring at her with a shocked expression on his face.
"You - you want to have lunch with me?" he asked incredulously.
She nodded. "Only if you want to, of course," she said suddenly. "I mean, if you'd rather not, I guess...."
"No, no," he said. "That's fine!"
Michelle smiled brightly. "Thank you." He smiled back, seemingly amazed that she was so happy. She wasn't surprised. After what had happened in Chemistry, he probably expected her to avoid him at all costs. Michelle followed him outside to a quiet corner of the campus in between two of the buildings. It was a secluded spot where no one else seemed to eat.
"This is where I usually sit," he said. "But we can go somewhere else if you don't like it."
"No, it's nice." He seemed pleased. They sat down on the small patch of grass. "Are you sure your friends won't mind me joining you?" she asked as they pulled out their lunches.
He blushed and looked down at his food. "I... I usually sit by myself," he said quietly.
Michelle wished she hadn't said anything. She felt awful. He might just as well have said, "I don't have any friends." She knew that's what he meant. Michelle didn't know what was worse: changing schools so much you never got a chance to make friends, or being in the same school for years and never making any because everyone teased you. "You know what?" she said, trying to change the subject. "I still don't know your first name. It'll be a little weird if I go around calling you Mr. Thorkelson, don't you think?"
He nodded, laughing a little. "Definitely. And I can't call you Miss Jacobson either."
Michelle giggled. "No, you can't. My name is Michelle."
They were quiet for a moment. Then Michelle said, "About what happened in class today..."
Peter blushed again and looked at the ground. "Yeah?"
"I just wanted to say that I think they were wrong to be so mean to you."
"They're right, though," he said quietly. "I'm not very smart and I don't get good grades. You'd probably be better off with another partner. Mr. Anderson might let us switch, but I don't think anyone else is going to want to trade with you."
Michelle frowned, clamping down on the overpowering urge to deliver one of her father's self-confidence-is-key lectures. She thought he might need to hear it, but she didn't want to scare him off by being too pushy. Instead, she opted for a milder approach. "I don't want another partner, Peter," she said. "I was happy when I saw that you were my partner, and nothing those people said has changed my mind." Peter looked at her incredulously. "I mean it," she assured him. At that moment the bell rang announcing the end of lunch. Michelle sighed. No time to say more. "Well, I guess a see you tomorrow."
"Okay," he said, still looking mildly amazed. "Wait a minute," he said suddenly. "Do you know how to get your next class?"
Michelle rolled her eyes. "I can't believe how silly I am! I have no idea," she said.
Peter smiled. "I'll give you directions. Can I see your schedule?" Michelle handed it over. "Hey, it looks like we have the same math teacher. Only I have him first thing in the morning." He pointed to one of the buildings. "First go to the second floor of that building. The room is all the way down the hall on the right. Then your last class is on the third floor of the same building right by the stairs."
"You're welcome. See you tomorrow." Peter walked away, turning once to give her a shy, uncertain smile. Michelle headed toward her next class, thinking about how endearing Peter was. By the end of the day, however, she had other things to think about. She had more homework than she thought should be legal on the first day of school. She rode her bike home and started to work.
When the first break finally came the next day, Michelle wondered if Peter would mind her sitting with him again. She wandered over to his spot to see if he was there. She found him huddled over his Chemistry book. He scribbled something in his notebook, then immediately erased it. With a frustrated sigh, he went back to looking in the book. Michelle cleared her throat. Startled, Peter looked up. "Oh, hi," he said with a small smile.
"Mind if I sit with you?" she asked. He shook his head and Michelle sat down next to him. "Can I help you with that?" she asked, pointing to his book.
Peter sighed. "Stupid Chemistry. I'll never get it done in time."
"Oh, come on. Don't say that," Michelle chided. "How much did you get done yesterday?"
"None," he said.
Peter lowered his head. "I couldn't. My father made me turn out the lights before I could finish everything."
"Hmmm." Michelle looked at her watch. Only fifteen minutes left in the break. Peter might be right about not finishing in time. "Well, let's look at it together," she said. "Maybe if we can get some of it done, he'll give you partial credit." Peter looked at her doubtfully, but put his book down where they could both see it. Michelle explained the first problem to Peter, answering all his questions as he worked his way through it. With her help, he came up with the right answer. "That's it," she said, smiling. "Now you try the next one by yourself."
Michelle watched Peter work on the next problem. She forced herself not to giggle when, in deep concentration, he stuck his tongue out of the corner of his mouth. How cute! After a few minutes, he was finished. "There," he said, showing it to her.
Michelle looked it over and found an error. "Remember what I told you about Oxygen," she said. Peter frowned and looked at the problem again. He made a few corrections and showed it to her again. "That's right!" she said, smiling.
"I got it?"
"You sure did. Now let's..." Michelle was interrupted by the bell. "Oh, man! We have to go."
Peter looked disappointed. "I have eight more!"
"That's okay, Peter," she said. "It's just the first assignment. And two out of eight is better than none at all, right?"
"I guess you're right." Michelle helped Peter gather his things and they hurried to class. That day, Mr. Anderson explained about their final project and suggested that they start researching as soon as possible. He also reviewed lab safety in preparation for the next day's experiments. When class was over, Peter turned to Michelle. "Would - would you like to walk to English together?" he asked timidly.
While they were walking, Peter said, "I forgot to thank you for helping me with my homework."
"Oh, it was my pleasure," she said. "I'm just sorry we couldn't get more done."
Peter looked down. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm pretty slow."
"Don't be silly!" Michelle cried. She was finding it harder and harder to hold down the urge to give him the lengthy pep talk he obviously needed. "All you had was fifteen minutes. You did very well!"
Peter smiled brightly at the praise. "Michelle?" he asked hesitantly. "Do you.... do you think you could help me some more?"
"I'd love to, Peter. Maybe we could get together after school. I just moved into a house on 9th street."
"Really?" he said, sounding excited. "Are you in the brick house in the middle of the block?"
Michelle gasped. "Yes! How did you know that?"
"I live on 6th street," he replied. "I saw the moving van a few weeks ago, but I... I guess I was too shy to go and say hello."
Michelle grinned broadly. "That's great! It should be really easy for us to study together if we live so close. We could just go home together right after school."
Peter suddenly looked despondent. "I have to work after school. But I really want your help! No one has ever explained anything to me like you did this morning."
"What do you mean?" Michelle asked. She didn't think there was anything special about the way she helped Peter.
"Well," he replied hesitantly, searching for the right words. "I'm not sure. You ... you made me feel like it was okay to be confused. You know what I mean? You didn't make me feel like.... like I was dumb for having to ask."
Michelle nodded, thinking that if that's the way people usually "helped" him, it was no wonder he had such a hard time in school. "I'm glad I could help you," she said. "And I'd love to help you some more. Listen, just come over whenever you can."
"I don't know," he said. "It might be pretty late. I don't get off work until 8:00."
"That's okay. I'll wait up for you."
"But won't your parents mind?"
"I'm sure my dad will be okay with it, since I'll be doing school work. So, is it a date?" Michelle cringed slightly, worried that he would take note of her suggestive choice of words.
Peter merely grinned. "Okay. It's a date."
Peter walked up to the little brick house and rang the bell. In a few moments, a young man came to the door. He looked very much like Michelle. He had the same cinnamon-brown skin, full lips, and dark, almond shaped eyes that Michelle had. His face was heart-shaped like hers, but his chin was a bit less pointy and his jaw was wider. His hair was the same dark brown as Michelle's, but it was much shorter. He was also much taller than she - about Peter's height - and he seemed to be about four or five years older. The young man eyed him with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. "Can I help you?" he asked warily.
"I'm... I'm sorry to bother you," Peter began. "But I could you tell me if Michelle's at home? We're supposed to study."
"Oh!" the man said, suddenly understanding. "You must be Peter. Come on in." He stood aside and Peter walked in. "I'm Michelle's brother Martin," he said, shaking Peter's hand. "Please excuse the mess," he said, gesturing toward several half empty boxes that littered the living room floor. "I'm sure Michelle must have told you we just moved in."
Peter nodded. "Welcome to the neighborhood," he said.
Martin grinned. "Thanks."
"Who's at the door?" a male voice called from the direction of the kitchen.
"It's Michelle's homework buddy," Martin replied. In a flash, Michelle appeared from the kitchen, wiping her hands on an apron and brushing back a few wisps of hair that had escaped her long, thick pony tail.
"Hi, Peter!" she said with a smile. "I wasn't expecting you so soon."
"I'm sorry," he said. "Maybe I shouldn't have..."
"No, it's perfect!" Just then, a taller, older version of Martin came out of the kitchen. Martin led Peter further into the house and Michelle put a hand on his shoulder. "Daddy, this is Peter. Peter, this is my father, Martin Senior. And you've already met Martin Jr."
Peter shook Mr. Jacobson's hand, feeling extremely nervous. He was afraid to make a bad impression on Michelle's father. "Nice to meet you, sir," he said.
"And you, young man," he said in a deep, but surprisingly mellow tone. He was much more soft-spoken than Peter's father.
"I wasn't expecting you until 8:30 at the earliest! How did you get here so soon?" Michelle asked.
"My boss said I could get off early during the week if I come in on Saturdays."
"Well, that was nice of him," Michelle said. "And it works out perfectly. We were just about to have dinner. Why don't you join us?"
Peter glanced anxiously at Michelle's father. "I wouldn't want to intrude," he said.
"You won't be intruding," Mr. Jacobson said. "There's plenty to go around."
"What Dad means to say," Martin said, "is that if you don't stay, we'll have to eat Michelle's awful cooking all by ourselves."
"Shut up, Martin!" Michelle cried, punching her brother harmlessly in the arm. Martin merely laughed. Peter grinned faintly at the little exchange.
"Why don't you set a place for our guest, Martin?" his father asked. "And go ahead and bring the food out, Michelle." The two siblings went to do as they were told. Peter involuntarily jumped when Mr. Jacobson put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry, I won't bite," he said chuckling. "Have a seat." He gestured to one of the dining chairs.
"Thank you, sir," Peter said, sitting down. Mr. Jacobson sat on Peter's right, at the head of the table. When he finished setting a place in front of Peter, Martin took the seat at his father's right. There was only one other place to sit - at the foot of the table. Peter wondered where Martin and Michelle's mother was. Soon, Michelle came in, holding a large serving dish. She set it in the middle of the table and took the top off. Peter grinned when the steam cleared away. Mmmmmm. He loved spaghetti and meatballs! Michelle went back to the kitchen and came out with a little bowl of rolls and some butter. Peter's stomach growled.
Michelle sat down opposite her father and they bowed their heads. Peter did likewise. Mr. Jacobson said grace, and they started to eat. Peter was glad everyone had insisted he have dinner with them. Despite Martin's teasing, the food was delicious. He finished his first serving in almost no time. He stared at the dish in indecision. He didn't want to seem greedy, but he really wanted some more. "Go ahead," Michelle coaxed. Peter blushed, but took a second helping anyway. "You like it?" she asked.
"It's great!" Peter enthused.
"Oh, you poor boy!" Martin teased. "You must be starving!"
"Martin," Mr. Jacobson warned. "Stop embarrassing your sister in front of her friend."
"Okay, okay. I'm sorry, short stuff. You should really be a five star chef." Michelle scowled but Mr. Jacobson quickly changed the subject.
"Tell me, Peter," he said. "What would you like to do when you finish school? Do you think you'll go on to college?"
"No, I don't think so, sir."
"Into business, then?"
Peter shook his head. "I... I think I'd like to be a musician," he said suddenly, surprising himself. He'd never said those words out loud, even to himself.
"Really?" Michelle leaned toward him eagerly. Peter was surprised by her avid interest. "What instrument do you play? Or do you sing?"
"I play the guitar. Mostly," he added.
"What do you mean 'mostly'?" Martin asked.
"Well, I can play the banjo and the piano, too. And I know a little clarinet, some french horn, harmonica, drums and a little on the trumpet. Only..." Peter stopped speaking. The other three people at the table were all gaping at him with open mouths. Peter shifted uncomfortably.
"You know all those instruments?" Michelle asked incredulously. Peter nodded.
"How did you learn them all?" Mr. Jacobson asked.
"I work at a pawn shop and my boss always has a lot of instruments. I taught myself during my breaks," he explained. Then he sighed, looking glumly at his plate as reality set in. "I could never be a real musician, though," he said.
"HUH?" Michelle cried.
"Why on earth not?!" Martin asked at the same time.
Peter looked up to see everyone at the table gaping at him as if they thought he was insane. He blushed and fidgeted nervously under their scrutiny. "Well... it's... I... it's just that I'm not good enough." They all stared at him as if to say, You have got to be kidding. Peter fidgeted some more. "Besides," he said softly. "Even if I were good enough, my father would kill me if I tried to join a band or anything like that. He hates musicians. He says that you can't make any money that way and he thinks all musicians are just lazy, good-for-nothing bums who only play music to avoid doing real work."
Mr. Jacobson shook his head. "I don't believe that," he said. "And I think it's sad that a lot of people have that impression. But there is truth in some of what your father says. It's very hard to make a living as a musician. But like I've told Michelle, if you're committed and if you're prepared to struggle, I see no reason why you shouldn't become one."
Peter smiled. If only he could get his father to see things that way. Maybe Mr. Jacobson wasn't so scary after all. Suddenly, the rest of Mr. Jacobson's words registered. "You tell Michelle that? You want to be a musician, too?" he asked her.
Michelle nodded. "I play the flute and the piano, but I'm learning the guitar now, too."
"Really? That's great!" Peter smiled, feeling extremely pleased that Michelle liked music too. "I've never tried the flute before. Maybe... maybe you could show me," he suggested timidly.
"I'd like that," she said. "And maybe you could help me with the guitar some time."
Peter blushed. He was still nervous about playing in front of anyone, but he couldn't refuse her. "All right," he said softly. Michelle gave him a dazzling smile.
"Uh-oh," Martin said suddenly. "We're going to have to watch this one, Dad," he said, pointing to Peter. "I think Michelle has a crush on him!"
Michelle's eyes widened and she slapped her brother audibly in the arm. "Stop it!" she cried, becoming almost as red as Peter was.
"Whoa!" he said, rubbing his arm. "Hey, there must be some truth to that, eh, Dad? Look how they're blushing!"
Peter turned a deeper shade of red, and Michelle's eyes grew even wider. "MARTIN!!!"
"That's enough, Martin," Mr. Jacobson said. His voice sounded serious, but Peter could see the shadow of a smile on his face. "And Michelle," he continued. "Make sure that if you do give any music lessons tonight, you finish your homework first."
"Okay," she said, still scowling at Martin. Peter helped them clear away the dishes, then followed Michelle to her room. The room was pretty large, with a big bed, a desk, a couple of chairs, and a dresser. There was also a large book case that was half filled with books, music and stuffed animals. There were still several boxes on the floor which hadn't been unpacked yet. Michelle shoved them into a corner, giving Peter a sheepish grin. "Sorry," she said. "I meant to have this mess cleaned up before you got here."
"That's okay," Peter said. "I like it."
"You like the mess?"
Peter grinned. "No, I like your room. It's nice and big."
"Oh, thanks," she said smiling. "It'll be better when I get all this junk cleaned up and put some posters on the wall. If I ever get the time!" She sighed and pulled the chairs up to her desk. "Come on, let's get to work."
They sat down and started their homework. Michelle worked through all the Math and Chemistry problems with Peter, explaining each one until he understood it. They had homework in the classes that they didn't share, but she answered all his questions on those assignments as well. Peter was amazed at how much he was getting done. He'd never been able to finish homework so fast before. He marveled at Michelle's patience. She never got frustrated with him or gave up on him, even when he seemed to be taking forever to understand something. She would just try another way of explaining it and keep at it until he understood. Peter had never had this much fun doing homework either. Michelle always managed to find some kind of humor in what they were doing. She even found ways to keep him smiling when he got so frustrated that he thought he would just chuck his books right out the window.
Finally, they were on the last assignment. They had saved the literature assignment for last. It was the one Peter dreaded the most. They were supposed to read the first act of a Shakespeare play, but he could never understand a single word of what was said in those plays. He usually gave up after struggling through the first two lines. This time, however, it was different. Michelle suggested that they read it to each other. Peter tried, but as usual, stumbled over every word. Michelle stopped him after he'd read one line. "No one's ever taught you how to read Shakespeare, have they?"
Peter shrugged, feeling embarrassed. "I've had it before, but I just don't get it. I guess I'm just not smart enough to read Shakespeare."
"Oh, Peter, don't be silly! That stuff is like another language! If I handed you a book in Italian, you wouldn't think you were stupid if you couldn't read it, right?" Peter shook his head. "Well, it's the same with Shakespeare. If no one ever took the time to explain it to you so that you could understand, you can't be expected to read it now. I'll see if I can help you out."
Michelle explained how to read in iambic pentameter. He'd never understood the concept before, but when Michelle compared it to the upstroke and down stroke on a guitar it became clear to him immediately. They read the passages as if they were doing the play, which was much more fun than just reading to yourself. Then, after every few lines, Michelle translated what they said into English that Peter could understand. She never did it the same way, either. Sometimes she would adopt a phony English accent, or impersonate a star while translating. She had Peter laughing for a full five minutes with her flower-child rendition of one of Hamlet's speeches. Before he knew it, they were finished with the act.
"Hey, we're done," Peter said, after reading the last line.
"Aye, and welcome, for mine eyes are weary, and I do tire of this scholar's toil." She extended a hand to Peter. "Which is to say...?"
Peter thought for a moment. "Which is to say..... 'Yes we are, and thank goodness, because my eyes are tired and ... and I'm sick of doing homework!"
"That's right!" she said. "I think you're getting the hang of this."
"Thanks to you." Peter smiled. "I've never had this much fun doing homework before. Actually, I've never had any fun doing homework before. I don't know how I'm going to go back to doing it alone again."
"Well, in that case, maybe we should do this every day," Michelle suggested.
"Really? You mean, you'd really help me every day?"
"Sure, why not?"
Peter shrugged and looked at the floor. "Well, ... it's just that I'm so slow. I know you would have been finished a long time ago if it hadn't been for me holding you up. I kept worrying about it," he admitted. "I thought you'd be upset."
"Is that why you seemed to get so nervous every time I had to explain something to you more than two times?" she asked.
Peter nodded. "I was afraid you would get mad and start yelling at me because I'm so stupid and it takes me so long to understand things."
"Oh, no!" Michelle cried. "Peter, I would never do that to you. And I don't think you're stupid. You just need someone with a little patience to explain things to you, that's all."
Peter smiled hesitantly. "Well, you have plenty of patience," he said.
"That's exactly why I'd like to tutor you," she said. "Besides, I had fun helping you. I love the way your face lights up when you understand something we've been working on." She giggled. "And I love how..." She stopped suddenly. "Never mind."
"What?" Peter asked.
"Nothing," she said. "It's silly."
"Come on," Peter coaxed. "What were you going to say?"
Michelle sighed. "Okay. I was going to say that..." She sighed again and started to blush. "I like the way your tongue sticks out of the corner of your mouth when you concentrate. I think it's really cute."
"Oh." Now it was Peter's turn to blush. He hadn't even paid attention to the habit before, but he found himself very pleased that she liked it.
"Awwwww!" Peter jumped and turned to see Martin standing in the doorway. His hands were clasped together and he had an exaggerated smile on his face. "Isn't that sweet?" he crooned.
Peter turned even redder. Then he laughed when one of Michelle's stuffed animals went flying through the air and bounced off of Martin's forehead. "Get out!"
Laughing, Martin picked up the little bear and tossed it onto Michelle's bed. "Watch it, short stuff," he said. "You could put somebody's eye out with that."
Peter chuckled a little. Michelle smiled, too, but she scowled again immediately. "What do you want, Martin?"
"Dad told me to ask you how much longer you think you'll be at it. It's getting late."
"We're just finishing up," Michelle replied.
"Oh, okay. Peter, do you need a ride home?"
"No thanks. I can ride my bike."
"Are you sure? It's really late."
"That's okay. I live close by and I wouldn't want to trouble you for a short trip like that."
"I don't mind," he said.
"It really is okay, Peter," Michelle said. "You see, you'll be doing Martin a big favor."
"Yeah. Daddy hardly ever lets him use the car, so Martin clings to any excuse he can use to get the keys out of him. Then he exaggerates the time it takes to get somewhere and goes joy riding. Isn't that so, Martin?" He looked mildly surprised, and Michelle blinked sweetly at him.
"Be careful, shorty," he warned. "If I decide you know too much about me, I'll have to kill you. Nothing personal, of course. Security reasons."
Michelle laughed. "Whatever you say."
Peter smiled. "Okay, then. You can drive me. And even though I'd never lie to your father, I promise I'll never volunteer to tell him where I live either."
"Great!" Martin smiled and patted Peter on the back. "You know something kid? You're an okay guy. You have my official permission to flirt with my sister."
Peter blushed and Michelle smacked Martin on the arm. "Quit it!"
Martin laughed. "Come on, Peter."
"Good night, Michelle," Peter said, following Martin out. "Thanks again for all your help. And for dinner!"
"You're welcome, Peter. See you tomorrow."
Mr. Jacobson looked up from his book when Peter and Martin walked in. "All done?"
"Dad, do you mind if I give Peter a ride home?"
"Go ahead. Just be careful."
"I will." He picked up the keys and led Peter out the door. "Be back in about 20 minutes," he called. Grinning, Peter got into the car. He gave Martin directions, and they made the three and a half blocks to Peter's house in all of thirty seconds. "Here you are," he said.
"Thanks, Martin. Good night."
Peter put his bike away and went into the house. He said hello to his parents and went straight to his room, feeling great. Tomorrow, he'd be able to turn in an assignment for every single class. And he would see Michelle again. He'd actually managed to find a friend at school! She was smart, attractive and very kind. And she seemed to like him, despite the fact that he was definitely neither smart nor attractive himself. And he had an excuse to see her every night after work as long as they had homework to do. Not a bad day, on the whole. Not bad at all.
Michelle took the last empty box out to the trash and went back to her room. She looked around with a satisfied grin on her face. Finally, everything was unpacked. Because she'd tutored Peter ever night during the week, she hadn't had any time to work on her room. All day Saturday, she'd helped Martin and her father unpack the other rooms in the house. Today, she spent all her time fixing up her own room and it was finally just the way she wanted it. Now it was time to go play. She got her flute and went to her father's room. He was still busy unpacking. "Daddy?"
"Yes?" he asked, looking up from a half empty box.
"I'm done. Do you mind if I go to the park to practice?"
"Do you know how to get there?"
"Sure, Peter told me."
"All right. But be back before it gets dark. We don't know the neighborhood well enough yet."
"Okay. See you later." Michelle got her bike and rode to the park.
When she finally arrived, she rode past the picnic tables and swing sets, where the crowds were. A little further on, she came to a part of the park that she liked better. There were more trees and fewer people. Michelle got off her bike and walked, looking for a nice, secluded spot to play her flute. Just as Peter had said, the park was huge. She walked further and further in, enjoying the peaceful sounds of the wind rustling the leaves.
Soon, she was surprised to hear a different sound. Someone was playing the guitar! Smiling, Michelle followed the sound, wondering if there was a concert going on. As she drew nearer to the source of the music, she realized that it couldn't be a concert. Far from there being a crowd, Michelle could see no one in this area of the park at all. She shrugged and continued to let the pleasant folk tune lead her. Eventually, in a little clearing behind several trees and bushes, she found the source. It was Peter! He sat cross legged beside his bicycle, playing a tune on a lovely dark guitar. His eyes were closed and he seemed very intent on the music. Not wanting to disturb him, Michelle quietly laid her bike on the grass and sat down to watch.
Michelle enjoyed herself very much. Not only was the song beautiful, but it was nice watching Peter play. He always seemed to be so afraid of displeasing anyone that he was usually tense and worried for one reason or another. But there was no trace of that now. His only concern was the music. He was more at ease than Michelle had ever seen him and he seemed to have a passionate connection to the guitar. His long, agile fingers moved along it's neck with easy grace. She continued to watch him for several more minutes. When he stopped, she smiled and applauded.
She immediately regretted it, because Peter nearly jumped out of his skin. He gaped at her in shock and seemed unable to speak. Michelle felt awful. "I'm so sorry, Peter," she said. "I shouldn't have scared you like that, but I couldn't help clapping. That was beautiful!"
Peter turned about as red as an apple and looked down at the grass. "Thanks," he whispered.
"I'm really sorry I scared you," she said again. "I shouldn't have barged in on your quiet spot."
"It's okay," Peter said. "I... I don't mind sharing it with you."
"Really?" He nodded. "Thanks, Peter." Michelle brought her bike closer and sat across from Peter on the grass. "You play beautifully!" she said.
Peter blushed again. "Thank you."
"Will you play another?"
Peter's face got even redder. "I don't know," he said nervously. "I've never played in front of anyone before."
"Please?" she asked. "You don't have to be nervous. Just pretend I'm not here." He still looked hesitant. "Come on. Please? Listen. If I play you something for you, will you play something for me after?"
"All right," Peter said.
"Great." Michelle got out her flute and put it together while Peter watched. She'd told Peter not to be nervous, and here she was feeling jittery herself. She'd played for people before, but there was something very intimidating about playing by herself for one person. Especially when that one person was a boy she really wanted to impress. Michelle closed her eyes and tried to pretend she was alone with only the trees to hear her. She played one of her favorite solos, letting go of her nervousness after a while and allowing the music to take over. When she was finished, Peter applauded.
"Wow, you're really good!" he told her.
"I'll bet you could get into any orchestra you wanted to playing like that!"
"Oh, I'm not so sure," Michelle said. "It's hard to make it professionally. There's a lot of competition out there."
"That might be true, but I still think you could do it."
"Thank you," she said, smiling. "I figure even if I don't get into a famous orchestra, I'll have to find a place somewhere. Even if I just end up playing weddings and Christmas parties on my own or something. I'm determined to try, anyway."
Peter smiled at her. "You'll do it. I know you will. You play really well."
Michelle blushed and thanked him again. "It's your turn now," she reminded him.
Obviously nervous, Peter got into position and started to play. In a few seconds, all traces of self consciousness faded away. He was in his element again, playing with the confidence he never showed at other times. When he finished, Michelle clapped for him again.
"That was great, Peter!" she exclaimed.
"Thank you," he said, ducking his head shyly.
Michelle shook her head. "I can't believe your father doesn't think you should be a musician!" Peter looked down and shrugged. "Has he ever heard you play?"
Peter shook his head vigorously. "No! I'd never play in front of my father."
"But why not? You're great! All he'd have to do is hear you play, and he would know that you were born to be a musician!"
Peter looked up at her with wide eyes. "Do you really think that?" he asked her earnestly.
"Definitely," she said.
He smiled for a moment, then looked serious again. "In that case, I can't ever let him hear me play," he said quietly.
Michelle was confused. "Why not?" she asked.
Peter looked down at his guitar and gripped it tightly. "He'd take it away if he thought I was really any good."
Michelle frowned. "I don't understand."
"I told you. My father thinks all musicians are lazy, worthless slackers. He's only letting me keep the guitar because he thinks I'll never be any good at it. He thinks I'll get it out of my system when I realize I'm a failure at it. Then I'll settle down and get a real job." Peter sighed. "He's probably right. What good is it to know how to play the guitar anyway? I'd probably be more useful laying bricks like my mother says." He sighed again, looking down at his guitar with a mournful expression on his face.
"Oh, Peter...." Michelle looked at him with sadness in her eyes. She hated to hear him talk so despondently. Especially when he obviously love playing with a passion. But she could understand why he spoke that way, considering his father's opinions. She couldn't imagine her own father having such an attitude. She couldn't imagine him actually wanting her to fail at something. And apparently, Peter's mother was no better. "Peter, I.... you...." Michelle broke off, searching for the right words. "You have so much talent," she said at last. "You're great at the guitar, and you know all those other instruments, too. I mean, do you know how special that is? Not a lot of people can do that even if someone teaches them. And for you to have taught yourself! You... you just can't believe your father when he says something like that is worthless! It's not!
"Music is important, Peter. It has the power to make people feel good. When people hear music they like, it takes their minds off of their troubles, even if it's only for a few minutes. For a little while, they can forget whatever problems they might be having, and just enjoy the music. I think that without that little break from reality every now and then, most people would just go insane. That's why it's such a special gift to be able to make music." Michelle reached out and put a hand on Peter's arm. "You have that gift, Peter. I really think you should use it."
Peter was silent for several moments. When he looked up, Michelle was surprised to see tears in his eyes. "I... I'm glad I met you, Michelle," he said simply. He quickly looked down again and wiped his eyes before any tears could actually fall.
Michelle blushed, flattered by the emotions she could feel behind those simple words. "I'm glad I met you, too, Peter," she said. She looked down and waited for Peter to finish drying his eyes. After a moment, she said "Hey! Didn't you say you wanted to try the flute?"
Peter looked up. "Yeah?"
"Well, now's as good a time as any. Would you like me to show you?"
"Sure!" Peter perked up considerably. He put his guitar down on the grass and Michelle moved to sit beside him.
"Okay," she said, holding the flute as if she were going to play. "See my hands?" Peter nodded, and she gave him the flute. He mimicked her hand position almost exactly. "Now, your fingers are right, except you have to skip that key," she said pointing.
"Oh," he said. "Kind of like the saxophone."
"Exactly," Michelle said.
Peter smiled. "Okay, now what?"
"Have you ever made a sound by blowing over the top of a bottle?" Peter nodded. "Well, that's the same way to make a sound with the flute."
"Try it." Peter played a note, then smiled brightly. "Good!" Michelle said excitedly. "It's only your first note, and already you have nice tone."
Peter grinned. "Cut it out," he said, waving a hand at her. "You're just making that up."
"No, really!" Peter shook his head, then played a few more notes on her flute. In a few minutes, he'd picked out a little song. Michelle smiled. "You see? You're a natural!"
Peter blushed. "Want me to show you some guitar now?"
Peter gingerly put Michelle's flute down, then handed her his guitar. Michelle slipped the strap on and waited. "You said you already know some, right?"
"A little," Michelle said. "Really nothing compared to you."
Peter smiled and shook his head. "Don't say that," he said. "Come on, show me what you know."
Self consciously, Michelle played the few chords she knew. "Really, that's all," she said. "I can play a the chords all right one at a time, but when I try to play any faster, I can't seem to move fast enough."
"That's good, though," Peter said. "Only, you could be a little more relaxed. You probably can't move fast enough because you're squeezing down so hard. And your hand's gonna cramp if you play like that for too long."
Michelle nodded and tried to lighten up. "How's that?"
"That's better," Peter said. "But you could be even lighter. It'll still make a sound, as long as you keep your fingers close to the bars." Michelle tried again, keeping her fingers as close to the frets as she could. "Much better!" Peter said smiling. "Ready to play a song?"
"But all I know is a few little chords."
"That's all you need. Look, I'll show you which ones." He took the guitar and fingered each one. Michelle tried looking over his shoulder, but when she tried it herself, she couldn't make her fingers do the right thing. "Okay, you keep it," Peter said. He went behind her, knelt down and put his left hand on hers, guiding her fingers into the right position.
Michelle found it highly difficult to concentrate on the chords he was showing her. She was paying more attention to the fact that this sweet, cute guy she had a big crush on was kneeling behind her with his arms around her. The fact that he was explaining things to her in a deep voice that she found incredibly pleasing didn't help either. Michelle forced herself to concentrate, and soon learned the chords Peter was showing her. "Now," he said. "All you have to do is play those in that order. Then when I tell you, play that last one I taught you, okay?"
"Okay." Michelle began to play. After she'd played the progression a few times, Peter started to sing. Michelle smiled, and tried not to mess up when she heard that his singing voice was just as nice as his speaking voice. She played the song with him, varying the way she played the chord every now and then, when it seemed right. She even managed to play the special chord right when Peter gave the signal.
"That was great!" Peter exclaimed when the song was over. "Now who's a natural?"
Michelle rolled her eyes and waved dismissively, but she couldn't help feeling proud of herself. "I wish I had a guitar so I could practice at home."
"Maybe your dad could get you one for Christmas or something," Peter suggested.
"Wouldn't that be nice." Michelle smiled. "I'll have to start working him over now, though. He's not easy to convince when it comes to expensive things like this."
"You could get one pretty cheap at the pawn shop," Peter said.
"Is that where you got yours?" Peter nodded. "It's beautiful," Michelle said, fingering the dark wood. "I'll bet it cost a fortune."
"It would have," Peter said. "But I got it as a gift."
"Really?" Michelle frowned. "But I thought your parents..."
"No, no. Mr. Ames - my boss gave it to me."
"Was it your birthday or something?" Michelle asked.
Peter shook his head. "He gave it to me for good grades."
"Oh? Did you do really well on a report card?"
He shook his head. "Not really," he said, looking a little embarrassed. "It was only good because there weren't any F's on it."
Michelle smiled. "He sounds like a really nice guy," she said.
Peter seemed relieved that Michelle hadn't commented on his report card. "He's great," he said smiling. "How did you get your flute?" he asked.
"It belonged to my mother," she replied. "She gave it to me for my tenth birthday."
Peter looked uncertain, and Michelle knew what question was coming next. "What ... what happened to your mother?" he asked timidly.
"She died," Michelle said.
Peter looked pained. "I'm sorry. Maybe I shouldn't have ..."
"It's okay," she said. "It happened six years ago. I don't really mind talking about it anymore. She had breast cancer."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"Thank you," Michelle said. "But we're all right now. She's not in pain anymore, and even though I miss her, I like to think that she's happier now."
Peter smiled. "That's a nice way to look at things."
Michelle nodded. "It helps a lot." She sighed, then shook her head. "Anyway, would you mind playing another song for me?"
"Not at all." Michelle gave Peter his guitar, and he played another song. Then Michelle played something else on her flute, and they went back and forth, totally losing track of time. Before she knew it, it was dark out.
Michelle gasped. "Oh, brother! It's dark already?"
Peter looked around. "Yeah," he said, unconcerned. "It's starting to get dark pretty early."
"I was supposed to be home before it got dark," she said, packing up her flute.
"You were?!" Peter jumped up, suddenly very worried. "You'd better hurry!"
"Sorry I have to go so soon," she said, picking up her bike.
"That's okay," he said hurriedly. "Come on, I'll show you a short cut." He slung his guitar onto his back, hopped on his bike and rode quickly toward the park exit. Michelle followed him, doing her best to keep up. She noticed that it was a little lighter once they got out from under the trees, but it would still be dark before she got home.
Peter led her to her house along a different route that the one she'd used earlier. It was more complex, but definitely took less time. Especially since Peter kept up such a fast pace. Every once in a while, he would look behind him to see that she was following. In about fifteen minutes, they pulled up to the house. Michelle was panting for breath, but Peter hardly looked taxed at all. He did look worried, though. "We didn't make it," he said, looking up at the dark sky. "Will you be in a lot of trouble?" he asked anxiously.
"I'll be all right," she said. "Thanks a lot, Peter."
"You're welcome," he said distractedly. "I hope your father won't be too angry that you're late."
"Don't worry," Michelle said, puzzled by his excessive concern. "I'll be fine. But I'd better get inside." Peter nodded. Michelle went to the door, followed hesitantly by Peter. Her father and brother were in the living room playing cards. They looked up when she came in.
"Oh, hello, Michelle," Martin said.
"Hi," she said. "Sorry I'm late. I lost track of time."
"Michelle," her father said, entering lecture mode. "I told you to be home before dark. Now, when I tell you to come home before dark, I... Oh, hello, Peter."
Michelle turned. Peter was peeking in the doorway, looking nervous. "I'm sorry, sir," he said. "It was my fault. I kept her out later than she should have been." Michelle gaped at him.
"That's all right," her father said. "It's okay if you were with her. I just don't want Michelle out there alone until she knows the area better. But you know the neighborhood and I trust you, so it's fine."
Peter smiled brightly, pleased with the compliment. Michelle smiled, too, pleased with being off the hook. "Thank you, Daddy," she said. "I'll just put my bike away and see Peter off, okay?"
Michelle led Peter back outside. "Thanks for covering for me, Peter," she said. "That was very sweet of you."
"You're welcome. I'm just glad you didn't get into trouble."
"I noticed that you seemed really worried about that. But I only missed sundown by a few minutes. He would have just given me a lecture about it and told me to pay more attention next time."
"Really?" he asked, looking at her in wonder. Michelle nodded and put her bike away. When she turned around, Peter was looking wistfully toward their front door. "You're so lucky," he whispered.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
He started a little, as if he hadn't expected her to hear. "I... Nothing," he said, shaking his head. "Good night, Michelle. See you in class."
"Good night, Peter." Michelle watched Peter ride away, wondering very much what he wasn't telling her.
Every week night for the next several weeks, Peter went to Michelle's house after work. He ate dinner with the family and spent hours doing homework with Michelle. On weekends, they usually met in the park and played music for each other. Besides Mr. Ames, Michelle was the only person Peter felt comfortable playing for. He loved spending time with her. She was so nice! As often as he could, he went to see her. In fact, he ended up at their house so much that Mr. Jacobson teased that Peter's parents would soon forget what he looked like if he kept coming over so often.
Although Michelle assured him that her father was only teasing, Peter worried that he might be imposing on them by coming so much. His concern was aggravated by his own father's frequent comments about Peter going over there every night like "some kind of freeloader." (His mother thought that if Mr. Jacobson wanted to waste money feeding somebody else's kid, that was his business.) Tonight, Peter had decided to contribute to dinner. He convinced Mr. Ames to let him go home a little early and started baking cookies.
"What are you making?" his mother asked.
"I'm taking dessert over there tonight," he answered.
"Oh, really?" his father said. "They got tired of you freeloading, did they?"
"They don't know yet," Peter said, working to keep the defensive tone out of his voice. "It's a surprise."
"I told you before, if that man wants to feed other people's kids, let him," his mother snapped. "But I have no intention of doing the same! I don't have eggs and flour and things to waste on some other family!"
"What if I pay you back for the ingredients?" Peter offered. "Will that be okay?"
His mother looked mildly satisfied. "Don't break any of my dishes," she said.
"No, Mama," Peter said.
"What time will you be back," his father asked.
"Around eleven, I guess."
His mother shook her head. "I don't believe any girl would spend the whole night doing homework with a dunce like you. What are you two really doing over there? Is she letting you copy her answers?"
"No, Mama, I wouldn't cheat! And neither would she!"
"Peter, did I just hear you raise your voice to your mother?" his father asked grimly.
Peter looked meekly at the floor. "I'm sorry, sir," he said.
"Don't let me have to speak to you about it again."
"I won't." His father nodded in satisfaction, then left the room. His mother watched him for a few more minutes. Finally, she left and Peter finished his cookies in peace. When they were finished, he put them in a nice dish that he hoped his mother wouldn't miss.
He hastily left the house and rode to Michelle's. He rested his bike against the side of the Jacobson house and knocked at the door. Michelle opened it and smiled warmly. "Hi, Peter! Come on in. You're just in time for dinner."
Peter smiled. He always felt better when he saw Michelle. She always smiled when she saw him. It was nice to have someone smile just because he came into a room. Heaven knows that never happened at home. "I brought you some cookies for dessert," he said.
Michelle smiled brightly. "Peter, that's so sweet! Here, I'll put them in the kitchen." Peter gave her the container and sat at his regular spot. They ate dinner, talking and laughing as usual. Eventually, dinner was over Michelle brought out his cookies.
"I hope you like them," Peter said. "It's my own recipe."
They each took a cookie and Peter watched eagerly as they tasted them. Their faces registered surprise at first. Then they looked at each other, confused. Finally, Mr. Jacobson asked, "What kind of cookies are these?"
"Peanut butter oatmeal cookies with raisins and chocolate chips," Peter answered.
"Ohhhh," he said. "That's... that's very creative, Peter."
"I like it," Michelle said, finishing her cookie with a smile.
Martin put his cookie down and looked at Peter with deep sincerity. "Well, Peter," he said. "It's official. You and Michelle were definitely meant to be together." The others looked at Martin with perplexed expressions, waiting for him to explain himself. After a dramatic pause, he did. "Destiny will never again bring together two people who cook as badly as the two of you!" He grinned at Peter to show he was just teasing.
"Martin," Mr. Jacobson warned.
"It was very nice of Peter to make dessert for us!" Michelle exclaimed.
"I'm not saying it wasn't a nice thing to do," Martin said. "It's the thought that counts, right? And Peter has obviously put a lot of thought into these ultra-weird cookies."
"Be quiet, you jerk!" Michelle cried. "They're good."
"You hear that?" Martin said, winking and nudging Peter confidentially. "Destiny."
Michelle tossed a napkin at her brother and Peter couldn't hold it in any longer. He started giggling uncontrollably. He kept laughing and before long the others were laughing, too. Peter kept giggling until he was out of breath and practically ready to fall off the chair. Finally, he calmed down and offered to help with the dishes.
"You're our guest, Peter," Mr. Jacobson said, still grinning a little.
"Yeah, you don't have to do that," said Michelle.
"But I want to," Peter said. "You guys have let me eat dinner with you almost every night since school started, and I haven't done anything for you until today. I really want to help out."
"All right," Mr. Jacobson said. "If you insist."
Martin looked at Peter as if he were insane. "I cannot believe you just thanked my father for letting you help with the dishes," he said. "Man, you are one strange kid."
Peter only grinned and followed Michelle into the kitchen. "You know," she said, handing Peter a big apron. "I have to agree with my brother on that one."
"But you help me with my homework every day! And you feed me dinner and your brother drives me home sometimes. It's only fair that I do something for you guys in return, right?"
"I suppose so," she said. "It's still very sweet of you to offer, though."
Peter smiled at the compliment. "It's the least I can do. Especially since my cookies didn't go over so well," he said.
"I liked your cookies a lot!" Michelle said.
"I think you're the only one," Peter said grinning. "Martin thinks they're 'ultra-weird'."
"Oh, you know you can't listen to Martin. Even if something's delicious, he's going to make fun of it."
Peter chuckled. "I know."
"One thing's for sure," she said. "He likes you a lot. He only teases the people he feels at ease with."
"Yeah. And he's taken to teasing you almost as much as he teases me. You're practically at 'little sibling' status!"
Peter grinned. It was nice to know that Martin liked him so much. Being teased wasn't so bad when it was friendly teasing. Together they took care of the dishes, then went off to do their homework. Thanks to Michelle, Peter could understand most of their Shakespeare reading on his own this time. He still liked to hear her humorous translations, though. Sometimes he ventured to make up his own. Most of the homework was still very hard for him, but Michelle was patient as always. After a few hours, they were finished. Michelle walked him to the door.
"Hey, need a ride?" Martin asked.
"Need to get out of the house, huh?" Peter asked with a grin.
"You know it, man. So?"
"If you don't feel like putting your bike in the car and all that, you can leave it here and pick it up in the morning," Michelle suggested. "Then we can ride to school together."
"You'd just love that, wouldn't you, Chell?"
"Oh, be quiet!"
"Be careful, Peter," Martin said. "Riding to school together is only a step away from going steady, you know. I know my sister. Next thing you know, she'll be asking for a ring!"
Peter chuckled and shook his head. "That sounds great, Michelle," he said.
"Whoa!" Martin exclaimed. "Sounds great, huh? What am I warning you for, then? You want her to ask for a ring!"
Peter blushed. "That isn't what I meant."
"Sure it isn't."
"No, really! I meant riding to school together would be great!"
Martin shook his head. "Freudian slips are a window to the soul, you know."
"Martin, cut it out," Michelle said. "Are you going to take Peter home or not?" Peter noticed that even though she sounded frustrated with her brother, she looked mildly pleased by what he'd said. Peter blushed some more.
"All right, come on, lover boy," Martin said. "Let's get you home. Tell Dad I'll be back in about thirty minutes, okay shrimp?"
Michelle rolled her eyes. "All right, twerp." Then she turned to Peter and smiled sweetly. "Good night, Peter."
"Good night, Michelle. See you tomorrow."
Peter got into the car and Martin took him home, teasing him about Michelle all the way. "Here ya go, kid," he said when they pulled up.
Peter hopped out of the car. "Thanks, Martin."
"You're welcome. See you tomorrow."
Peter trotted up the walkway and opened the door. He stopped short. His father was standing in the doorway waiting for him. Peter was immediately worried. He could smell the alcohol even from outside the house. He hated it when his father drank. Some people loosened up and got a little silly when they were drunk. Peter's dad only became meaner and more irrational than he was when he was sober. And judging from the smell, his father was really drunk. Peter stepped back, but his father grabbed him by the collar and yanked him into the house, slamming the door behind them. He pulled Peter to the small desk in the living room and shoved him down so that his face was inches from the clock. "What does that say?!" he yelled.
"It... it s-says eleven o'clock," Peter answered nervously.
His father hit the back of his head sharply. "Try again, Peter. Read the clock!"
Peter gulped nervously. He could see where this was headed. "I... I'm s-sorry I'm late," he said, hoping to placate his father before he got too angry.
Too late. His father grabbed his head and slammed it down on the desk. Then he yanked his head back up again. "Read the clock," he said through clenched teeth. Peter blinked the tears out of his eyes, trying to read the numbers. Before he could say anything, his father slammed his head against the table and yanked it up again. "Read it!" he shouted.
"Eleven o' three," he said quickly. "It s-says eleven o' three!"
He grabbed Peter's shoulder and whirled him around so that he faced him. "What time did you tell me you would be home?" he asked. Peter opened his mouth to answer, but his father interrupted him. "Eleven o'cock, Peter! You were supposed to be here at eleven!"
"I.... I know, D-dad," Peter said. "I'm s-s-sorry."
His father grabbed his collar and glared down at him. "What the hell do you think you're doing waltzing in here late?!"
"Dad, p-please," Peter said, starting to tremble. "It... it w-wasn't even f-five minutes!" Peter knew that it was the wrong thing to say the moment the words were out of his mouth. Scowling, his father punched him squarely in the eye. Peter staggered back, raising a hand to his face.
"Don't give me that shit, Peter, do you hear me?!" he yelled, punching Peter again. "Next time you tell me you'll be home by eleven, you make sure your ass is inside this house no later than eleven o'clock! Is that clear?"
"Y-y-yes," Peter stammered breathlessly, backing away.
Growling, his father reached back and slammed his fist into Peter's eye again. Peter reeled back against the wall and slid down, dazed from the pain. Before he could even catch his breath, his father grabbed his collar and forced him into an upright position. He raised his fist again and Peter cringed fearfully. "What did you just say to me?" he asked in a menacingly quiet voice.
"Y-yes, s-sir," Peter amended. His father nodded in satisfaction and released him. Peter staggered back against the wall, leaning on it for support. He didn't move until he was sure that his father was no longer paying him any attention. Then he crept into his room and shut the door as quietly as he could. He dropped his bag onto the floor and laid down. He would have liked an ice pack and some aspirin for the major headache he was developing, but he wasn't coming out of his room until morning. No use attracting any more attention to himself if he didn't have to. Peter closed his eyes, trying to ignore the pain and get some sleep. After about an hour of tossing and turning, he gave up and pulled out his guitar. He couldn't play, and he didn't even dare to turn on the light. But he held the instrument in his hands and fingered the strings quietly, hoping it would do the trick. After a couple of hours, he felt better. He fished his teddy bear out from under the bed and laid down again. He was so tired that he soon fell asleep despite the pain.
Peter awoke groggily and sat up, setting off a pounding headache. He groaned and stumbled into the bathroom. "Yuck," he whispered, looking at himself in the mirror. He looked as bad as he felt. Not only were his eye and cheek turning some interesting shades of red and purple, but he hadn't been able to put any ice on it last night, so his eye was practically swollen shut. Peter frowned. He hated going to school with a black eye. Everyone stared at him and Billy could usually find something nasty to say about it. He sighed and splashed some cold water on his face. Then he grabbed some aspirin. He took two and kept the rest to put in his backpack for later.
When he went back to his room, Peter caught sight of the time. Yipe! He was supposed to be out of the house by how! Peter rushed to get dressed, trying to work as quickly and as quietly as possible. He wasn't worried about getting to school on time. He knew he would make it if he rode fast enough. But he had to get out of the house before his father woke up. Peter knew that the man was in for a colossal hangover and he didn't want to be anywhere near the place when it hit. His father was at least as dangerous the morning after drinking heavily as he was when he was actually drunk. And his mood wouldn't be improved if he saw Peter's eye and remembered that he already had a reason to be angry. Peter knew he would regret not eating breakfast or packing a lunch, but being hungry for one day was much preferable to being bruised for several weeks.
Peter grabbed his stuff and crept out of the house, closing the door silently behind him. He trotted to the spot where he always kept his bike and was shocked to see that it wasn't there. After a moment of worried confusion, he remembered that he'd left it at Michelle's. Damn! Now, not only was he running late, but he was making Michelle late as well. And he would have to think up a reasonable explanation for his huge black eye without the benefit of having a bike to fall off of. The day had just started and already it was not going well.
Peter ran all the way to Michelle's house and knocked on the door. "I'm sorry I'm late," he said, as soon as the door opened.
"Good God, what happened to your eye?" Martin exclaimed. "How did you get into a fight this early in the morning?"
"I didn't. I... I fell," Peter answered lamely.
Martin raised his eyebrows skeptically. "Where'd you fall from, a tree?"
Peter blushed. Then he heard Michelle say, "Martin, what are you saying to Peter? If you're teasing him again, cut it out, because..." Just then, she came to the door and saw Peter's face. She gasped and her eyes grew wide. "Oh my God, Peter, what happened to you? Are you okay? Who hit you?"
"My... um... n-nobody hit me," he said with a nervous glance at Martin. "I fell."
Michelle raised her eyebrows, fixing him with the exact same expression her brother had given him. "You fell?" Peter nodded and lowered his eyes so Michelle wouldn't see the guilty look on his face. "Peter, you don't have to..."
"Chell," Martin interrupted, giving his sister a meaningful look. "You'd better get going. You don't want to be any later than you already are."
Michelle nodded. "You're right. I'm sorry, Peter. Here I am wasting time when we're already running late. Maybe if we ride fast, we can make it."
"Okay," Peter said, feeling relieved. He was glad Martin and Michelle weren't going to press the issue, even though it was obvious that neither one of them believed him for an instant. He followed Michelle to their bikes and they rode to school as quickly as they could. Even so, they were several minutes late. "I'm really sorry," Peter said. "I shouldn't have overslept!"
"It's okay, Peter," Michelle said smiling. "I understand."
Feeling mildly reassured, Peter trotted off to his first class, receiving a long lecture on tardiness before he was allowed to take his seat. All through class the students who weren't stealing glances at his eye were openly staring at him. He tried to ignore it, but he couldn't help feeling self conscious. There was never a moment throughout the whole class period when someone's eyes weren't on him. After class, someone tripped him and he fell into a teacher, causing her to spill her papers all over the floor. While he picked them up, she lectured him on courtesy in the halls. She talked at him so long that he was late to his second class, earning him yet another tardiness lecture. By the end of second period - after sitting through another hour of not-quite-hidden staring - Peter was feeling frustrated and depressed. His mood wasn't aided by the fact that he was extremely hungry and his aspirin had worn off.
Peter went into the bathroom and fished two aspirin out of his bag. Just before he pulled them out, he heard the door open. "Whatcha got there, Dorkelson? Drugs?"
Peter groaned at the sound of Billy's voice, followed by a few snickers. "No, it's not drugs," he said, standing up. Great. The whole gang was there. Just what he needed.
"Whoa, who lit into you?" Danny cried.
"Was it your drug dealer?" Eric asked.
"It's not drugs, it's aspirin."
"Really?" Eric asked. "Let's see." Peter opened his hand and showed them the pills.
"I don't know, guys," Daryl said. "Looks like drugs to me."
"Yeah, where'd you get the drugs, Peter?" Billy asked.
Peter sighed. He was not in the mood for this. He turned to the sink, but someone gave him a rough shove before he could take the aspirin. The little white pills fell down the drain. Damn! "Hey, you jerk!" Max's voice. "Billy asked you a question!"
Peter turned around slowly. "I already told you guys it was aspirin," he said, trying to sound neutral.
"I don't think I like your attitude," Billy said. Apparently, he hadn't sounded neutral enough. "I think Dorkelson needs to take a swim. What do you think, guys?" The others nodded their approval, fixing Peter with evil grins.
Peter swallowed. He knew what it meant to "take a swim." He tried to run, but they already had him surrounded. They grabbed him and started to drag him to one of the stalls. Peter struggled hard, but he was no match for all five of them. They pushed him into the stall and forced him to his knees. "Watch the door, Eric," Danny commanded. Daryl and Max held his arms while Danny shoved his head down into the toilet bowl. Peter held his breath. He heard the triumphant cries of the boys as the toilet flushed. Peter felt the water swirl violently around his head for several seconds. Finally, Danny let him up and he took a deep breath.
"Again," Billy said. Before Peter could protest, Danny pushed his head down again and Billy flushed. This time, water got in his nose and when Danny finally let him go, he came up coughing and spluttering. "Again!" Billy commanded.
"No, wait! Let me catch my - " splash! Peter struggled in vain while Danny held his head down long enough for Billy to flush again. After what seemed like an eternity, they finally let him up. Coughing and gagging, Peter spat out the fould water. Then he gasped for air, trying to catch his breath quickly before they dunked him.
"Again?" Danny asked excitedly.
Peter shook his head, looking pleadingly at Billy. He just gave Peter a mean smile and nodded. "Yeah!" the others cried. Struggling helplessly, Peter endured yet another flushing. He was more than grateful to hear the bell ring when they let him up.
Billy sighed. "Oh, well. Fun's over, guys. Let's go." With disappointed groans, the others let Peter go. Billy walked past him with a triumphant grin on his face and they left.
Peter bent over the toilet and spat repeatedly, trying to get the awful taste out of his mouth. He slumped against the wall, feeling tired and utterly disgusted. His stomach felt sick and his head pounded mercilessly. For several minutes, Peter just sat there, hoping the pulsing in his head would stop. It didn't. Then the final bell rang, making it worse.
Peter got up and walked slowly to the sink. He rinsed his mouth out several times and washed his face. Then he let the water run over his whole head for a long time. Feeling marginally less filthy, he searched his bag for more aspirin. He found three and took all of them. Finally, he trudged down the hall to his Chemistry class. When he walked in, everyone was at the lab stations working on an experiment.
Mr. Anderson looked over at him, then frowned at the clock. "What do you mean by coming in here a full twenty minutes late?"
"I'm sorry, sir," he said. "I was sick."
"Do you have a note from the nurse's office?"
Peter sighed. "No, sir."
"That's worthy of detention, Mr. Thorkelson," the teacher said. "Thirty minutes today after school."
"But..." Peter sighed and shook his head, deciding not to protest. Mr. Anderson would probably only add another half an hour, making him get to work even later. Besides, he just didn't have the energy. He put his bag down in his seat and headed toward his and Michelle's lab station. He had to pass by Billy and Danny to get to it. He lowered his head and walked quickly so he wouldn't have to see the derisive looks on their faces. Just before he passed their table, Billy stuck out his foot. Peter tripped and fell to the floor amid the laughter of the class.
Immediately, Michelle was there, kneeling beside him with a concerned look on her face. "Are you okay?"
Peter nodded, even though he was far from okay. The fall had made his already aching head start to spin. He had difficulty even getting to his knees. "What's the matter, Dorkelson? Drugs making you clumsy?"
"Shut up, you stupid jerk!!" Michelle shouted.
"That's enough," Mr. Anderson said sternly. "Everyone back to your experiments."
"Come on," Michelle said, helping him up. He swayed a little and steadied himself on the lab table. Michelle looked worried. "Oh, Peter, you look awful! Maybe you should go to the nurse."
He shook his head. "I'll be okay," he whispered. Michelle didn't argue, but she didn't look convinced either. She held onto his arm until she was sure he wouldn't fall. "Thank you," Peter said.
"No problem." She continued to stare worriedly at him. "What happened to your shirt? It's all wet."
Peter gestured in the direction of his tormentors. "They did."
Michelle scowled. "I do not like those boys! What did they do?"
Peter glanced at Billy and the others. How could he tell Michelle about the disgusting, utterly humiliating ordeal they had put him through? "I... I'd rather not talk about it."
"All right, Peter," she said, still looking concerned.
"Table six, I don't see any work being done," Mr. Anderson announced.
Michelle rolled her eyes and Peter asked her to explain the experiment to him. The experiment was a success, but only because Michelle did all the work. Peter tried his best to help her, but his head hurt so much that he couldn't concentrate on anything. Peter apologized to her on the way to English. "I'm really sorry about the lab," he said. "I know I should have been helping more, but..."
"Peter, you don't have to apologize," she said.
"But I left you to do all the work! I should have - "
"Peter, don't apologize," she said. "I don't mind. Really. You looked like you were about to pass out any minute, for goodness' sake! It was just one little science experiment. Don't worry about it. Okay?"
"Okay," he said hesitantly. Peter's day started to go a little better after that. English class went well. He wasn't late for the first time all day and the aspirin had finally started to work, so he could pay attention to the lesson.
At lunchtime, Michelle pulled out her food. Mmmm. A tuna sandwich! Peter's stomach growled. "Where's your lunch?" Michelle asked.
"I didn't have time to make it," he said.
"Did you have anything for breakfast?" He shook his head and Michelle frowned. She offered half of her sandwich to him. "Here," she said.
"I can't take that," Peter protested. "That's half your lunch!"
"Take it, Peter," she insisted. "It's no wonder you're feeling sick, if you haven't eaten all day."
"But what about you?"
"I still have half of it, Peter. Eat the sandwich! You'll feel better."
"EAT!" Peter took the sandwich without further protest. He didn't even bother to argue when she gave him her apple, and some of her chips. They talked for a while, until Peter caught sight of Billy and the others approaching. He groaned. Why did they have to bother him at lunch today? "What's the matter?" Michelle asked.
"Hey, toilet head!"
Peter stared at the ground, feeling his borrowed lunch start to turn sour. "Beat it, you jerks!" Michelle snapped angrily. Peter looked up sharply. What was she doing? Getting on Billy's bad side could be pretty awful. Especially if you were new to the school, like she was.
"Hey, nobody talks to us like that," Billy said.
"Well, I just did," she said. "What are you going to do about it?"
The boys frowned. "What's wrong with your little colored girlfriend, Dorkelson," Danny asked. "You'd better tell her to keep her mouth shut before she gets into trouble."
"Michelle, maybe you should listen to him," he said worriedly. The last thing he wanted was for Michelle to be hounded by these guys, too.
"Why?" she asked. "They can't do anything to me. What are you going to do?" she asked them. "Are you going to hit me?"
Billy looked mildly shocked. Then he scowled. "Maybe," he said menacingly.
Michelle just laughed. "Only a first class sissy would ever hit a girl. Are you telling me you're a sissy?"
"Then what are you going to do about it?"
Billy thought for a moment. Then he smiled. "I'll make sure none of the popular girls will talk to you," he said triumphantly. The others looked down at Michelle as if they had just scored a major point. Then Michelle ruined it for them.
"So?" she asked slowly. They blinked. Billy looked confused, as if he wasn't quite sure what to say to that. "I'm new and I'm colored. What makes you think the popular girls talk to me now?"
"Yeah, but none of them ever will! And I'll make sure the other colored girls don't talk to you either."
"And I'm supposed to care because...?" Confounded, they stood there for several moments trying to think of something to say. Michelle fixed them with a contemptuous look, then smiled sweetly. "Let me know when you figure something out, okay boys?" she asked in a sugary voice. "Let's go, Peter. It smells like garbage over here."
Trying not to let his smile show, Peter followed Michelle to a different area. "You were great," he said, when they could no longer hear him. "They're not used to people standing up to them."
Michelle scowled. "They just make me so mad! I wish I was a boy. Then I'd give that jerk Billy a good beating!"
Peter shook his head. "You're lucky you're a girl," he said. "You'd never have gotten away with that if you weren't."
"Because they won't hit girls. If I tried something like that, they'd pulverize me before I could get the words out of my mouth."
Michelle shook her head. "Punks." The lunch bell rang, and Michelle and Peter said goodbye. Then Michelle snapped her fingers. "I almost forgot to tell you! My brother invited someone to the house tonight, and he asked 'us kids' to be scarce. Could we have our homework session at your house tonight?"
The tiny bit of good feeling that Peter had managed to attain during lunch immediately vanished. He did NOT want Michelle to come to his house. He didn't want her to see how mean his parents were. He didn't want them to say anything offensive to her. But he couldn't tell her that, and he couldn't very well refuse without an explanation. Especially after her family had opened their doors to him every night for the past several weeks without asking for anything in return. After standing in indecision for a few moments, Peter said, "That'll be fine."
"Are you sure?" she asked. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Peter said. "I... I just..."
"I'm sorry it's such short notice. If it's a problem, I guess we could skip tonight," she said hesitantly.
"No, no!" Peter exclaimed, not wanting her to think she was unwelcome. "It's fine! I just have to let my parents know, that's all."
"I'll come get you when I get off work," Peter said.
"Sounds good. See you then."
"See you." Peter watched her walk away, already feeling nervous about the whole situation. The rest of his day went as well as could be expected. People still stared at his black eye and he got the usual amount of teasing from the usual people. During detention, he started his homework. After a long thirty minutes, he rode to work and apologized to Mr. Ames for being late.
"What happened?" he asked.
"No, I mean your eye. Those bullies again?" Peter shook his head. "Oh." Peter didn't have to explain further. He knew Mr. Ames understood. "Come to the back for a bit," his employer said.
"But the sweeping," Peter said.
"It can wait. Come to the back." Smiling, Peter rested his broom against the wall and followed his boss to the back room. "Have a seat. I'll be right back." Peter sat down and waited. Mr. Ames went upstairs and came back with a full ice pack. "Put this over that eye, boy."
"Thanks a lot," Peter said, doing as he was told.
Mr. Ames nodded. "Now, tell me all about it."
Peter sighed and told Mr. Ames about his father's tirade the night before. Then he told him about everything that had happened at school that day. Peter's story was interspersed by sympathetic comments from Mr. Ames, often followed by very violent ones regarding his father, Billy's gang and whoever happened to be causing Peter pain at the moment. "And now Michelle's coming to my house to do homework!" Peter concluded. "What's she going to think when she meets my parents? She'll probably never want to see me again!"
"Peter, don't be ridiculous," Mr. Ames said. "If what you've told me about that girl is true, she's not going to decide she hates you because of who your parents are."
"But what if they say something nasty to her?"
"Then you apologize when they aren't listening. She'll understand."
"You really think so?"
"Of course. Now stop worrying! How's that eye coming along?"
"It feels much better, thank you."
Peter gave the ice pack back to Mr. Ames and got to work. His head wasn't the only thing that felt better. He always felt good after talking to Mr. Ames. It was nice to have someone listen to him. His boss was the only person he felt he could talk freely to about all his problems. He always managed to say something that made Peter feel better. Even if it was only a long list of things he'd like to do to Billy and his goons if he got the chance. Mr. Ames could be pretty creative. Peter swept up, dusted, and went about completing the rest of his duties in the store. When his shift was over, he thanked Mr. Ames for the ice and the open ears, then rode to Michelle's.
Michelle opened the door, suppressing a worried frown at the sight of Peter's bruised eye. She still wanted to know the truth about it. She and Martin both knew he'd been lying when he told them he'd fallen. His face looked so guilty at the time that he might as well have been carrying a sign that read "Peter Thorkelson is lying through his teeth!" But, as Martin had told her later, he obviously didn't want anyone to know the truth, or he wouldn't have lied. "If he wants you to know what happened, he'll tell you in his own time," Martin had said.
"Hey!" Michelle said, smiling at him. "Come on in. I'll just get my backpack and we can go."
"Okay." Peter sat down and Martin kept him company while Michelle went to get her bag.
"See you, Daddy."
"Okay, Chell," he replied, smiling.
Michelle went back out to where Peter sat. "All set," she said. Peter smiled and stood up. "Bye, Martin. Have a good time."
Martin chuckled. "Okay, shrimp. See you two love birds later."
Michelle rolled her eyes and led Peter outside. She noticed that although Peter seemed to be feeling a little better than he was at lunch that day, he still seemed pretty subdued. He hardly spoke at all as they rode to the house. Michelle wondered if he was still worried about taking her to his house. He'd looked positively stricken when she first asked. All afternoon, she'd been trying to figure out why. Maybe they had less money than her family did. Maybe he was afraid she wouldn't want to be his friend anymore if she saw their house. She wanted to let him know that she didn't really care if Peter was poor. She was glad to be his friend anyway.
When they reached Peter's home, however, she saw that her theory couldn't be right. Like most of the other houses in the neighborhood, his house was a one story brick building. There was a low gate enclosing moderately sized yard. His house was definitely smaller than theirs, but it was very well kept. The grass was neatly trimmed and everything else looked well maintained. She could certainly see no reason for Peter to be ashamed of it. However, as Peter opened the gate for her and showed her where to put her bike, he seemed to get more and more uncomfortable.
Michelle followed Peter up to the door and he let them both in. The moment Peter stepped into the house, his entire body changed. He grew tense and seemed to draw in on himself. He looked around warily, as if he expected some wild animal to jump out of one of the doorways any moment. His odd behavior made Michelle nervous, too. She nearly jumped when someone really did come out. A woman of about forty or fifty came in from the kitchen. She was a little shorter than Peter - maybe 5'7" - and she had light brown hair, but Michelle could easily see the resemblance in their faces. Their lips and eyes were the same, and Peter had obviously gotten his pointed chin from her. But Peter's face was much sweeter. This woman looked as if she were always scowling at something. Right now, she was scowling at Peter.
Peter lowered his eyes. "Hi, Mama," he said softly. "This is Michelle. We'd like to do our homework here tonight, if it's okay."
Mrs. Thorkelson shifted her gaze from Peter to Michelle. She looked her up and down for a moment. "So, you're Peter's study partner, are you, girl?"
"Yes, ma'am," Michelle replied, trying not to be offended by the sneering tone she used when she said "girl".
"Are you helping him cheat?" she asked.
"No, ma'am!" Michelle said, taken aback.
"Mama, I told you already, we don't cheat!" Peter exclaimed.
"Watch yourself, Peter!" his mother said sharply. "Don't you dare take that tone with me again!"
Peter immediately backed off. "I'm sorry, Mama," he said meekly. "But we really don't cheat. Michelle just explains things to me until I understand."
"Ha!" she scoffed. "In that case, you'll be here all night trying to get anything through that thick skull of his." Michelle was speechless. How could she say something like that? And with Peter standing right there!
"Mama, don't talk like that!" Peter pleaded.
"And why shouldn't I?" she asked. "It's true, isn't it?" She turned to Michelle. "Listen to me, girl. You're wasting your time trying to teach him anything. You'd be better off just letting him copy your answers. He's really too stupid to handle anything else."
Peter glanced at Michelle, obviously mortified. "Mama, stop it!" he cried.
Suddenly, his mother slapped him hard in the face, right where his black eye was. Michelle gasped, unable to believe what she had just done. "What did I just tell you, Peter?!" she snapped. "You will not speak to me that way, do you hear? I won't have it!"
Peter's face reddened and his eyes glistened with tears. He lowered his head and said softly, "I'm sorry, Mama."
Just then, a large, broad shouldered man stepped into the room. Immediately, Peter stiffened. He sucked in his breath sharply, glancing worriedly at the newcomer for a moment before lowering his eyes again. The man looked a lot like Peter. His blonde hair was cut short just like Peter's, and he had the same large nose and ears. However, he exuded an air of confidence that Peter never showed. He struck Michelle as the kind of person who was very much aware of his power and wasn't afraid to use it. Although he was only about three inches taller than Peter, he was much wider, and he seemed to tower over his son. The illusion was increased by the way Peter stood. His head was lowered and his shoulders were stooped. He seemed to be trying to make himself as small as possible.
"What's the problem, Faye?" the man asked. He came closer and noticed Michelle. "Who's this?"
"That's Michelle," Mrs. Thorkelson answered. "She goes to school with Peter."
Mr. Thorkelson looked at her with piercing blue eyes that were more than a little intimidating. Nervously, Michelle extended her hand. "Nice to meet you, sir," she said timidly.
He nodded curtly, shaking her hand with a powerful grip. "What brings you here?" he asked.
"I came to tutor Peter," she replied.
"Oh, yeah. The homework girl." He snorted. "Good luck," he said with a derisive look at Peter. Then he turned to his wife. "What was all the commotion about?"
"Your son thinks that just because he has company he can talk back and speak to me however he pleases!" Mrs. Thorkelson complained.
Mr. Thorkelson glared at Peter. "Is that true?" he asked.
Peter gulped nervously. "N-no, Dad, I..."
"Oh, I'm a liar now, am I?" his mother asked.
"No!" Peter said quickly, looking from his mother to his father in alarm. "Th-that's n-not what I meant. It's... it's just that..."
His father took a step forward, scowling even more deeply at Peter. Peter backed away. Michelle thought that she could see him trembling. She looked at Peter's father worriedly, wondering what he was going to do that had Peter so scared he'd started to shake. Then she jumped and let out a startled cry. Without a moment's hesitation, Mr. Thorkelson had backhanded Peter hard enough to send him staggering against the front door. Like his wife, he'd hit Peter directly on his already blackened eye. Peter stood there looking mildly dazed, tears of pain falling from his eyes. Mr. Thorkelson walked toward him and Peter flattened himself against the door, cringing and holding a protective hand to his eye. "I'm warning you, Peter," his father said in a low voice. "If I hear you've talked back to your mother one more time, you're going to regret it. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," Peter whispered in a shaky voice.
"Good. Now go." He jerked his head in the direction of the hallway.
With a swift glance in Michelle's general direction, Peter walked quickly past his parents and into a small bedroom. Forcing herself to stop staring at Peter's father, Michelle followed Peter to his room. She was in a state of complete shock. How could Peter's parents treat him that way? And in front of a total stranger, too! They were at least as mean to him as the bullies at school had been! No wonder Peter had seemed so reluctant to let her come to his house.
As soon as Michelle entered Peter's bedroom, he closed the door quietly behind her and leaned against it. He sighed shakily and made a visible effort to stop any more tears from falling. Michelle wanted to take him and hold him in her arms, but she wasn't sure if he would want that. She settled for resting a hand on his shoulder. "Will you be okay?" she asked softly. He nodded and tried to pull himself together.
After a few moments, Peter looked at Michelle hesitantly. She could see the shame in his eyes. "I'm sorry about them," he said. "It's okay if you'd rather not stay."
"You don't have to apologize, Peter," Michelle said. "I'll stay here." She sighed and looked at the dark bruise on his eye, and his red, swollen face. "Your father gave you the black eye, didn't he?" Peter looked at the floor and his face grew red with shame. "I didn't want to mention this earlier today, but Martin told me he saw somebody grab you last night after he dropped you off."
Peter looked up suddenly. "He saw that?"
Michelle nodded. "I was worried about you. We both were. Then you were late and you had that awful bruise... He gave it to you, didn't he?" Peter sighed and nodded. "Why?"
"I told him I'd be home by eleven and I was late."
Michelle frowned. "But... but you left at eleven and Martin drove you! You couldn't have been more than a minute late."
"Three minutes," Peter said. "At least, that's what our clock said."
"He hit you for being three minutes late?"
"He was drunk," Peter said. Then he sighed. "But it doesn't really matter. If I was ten minutes late and he was sober, it would have been the same." Michelle just gaped at him for a moment. It was incomprehensible to her that anyone could be so unreasonable. Or so cruel. But she'd seen the way his parents acted with her own eyes. After a moment, Peter looked up at her, a worried expression on his face. "Please.... please don't tell your brother. Well, I think he probably knows already. But don't tell your father. I - I don't want him to know."
"I won't say anything," Michelle told him. "I promise."
Peter looked relieved. "Thank you."
Michelle smiled. "You just have to promise to let me know if there's anything I can do to help you," she said. "I mean it, Peter. Anything." Peter nodded. Michelle looked around the bedroom. It was small and sparsely furnished. He had a twin-sized bed, a small dresser and a chair in one corner on which sat his guitar.
"There's not really a good place to work, like in your room," Peter said worriedly.
"That's okay," Michelle said. "We can just sit on the floor." They sat down in front of Peter's bed and got out their books. Michelle started to help Peter with his homework, but she soon realized that it wasn't going to work. Peter was too upset to concentrate properly. He kept making really silly mistakes on simple problems. Then, when he realized what he was doing, he would become so nervous and apologetic that it took Michelle several minutes to calm him down again. After thirty minutes had gone by, they'd still only done three problems.
"I'm sorry," Peter said, after Michelle found yet another mistake with the next equation. "I'll try again."
"No, Peter," Michelle said. "I think we should stop."
Peter looked worried. "But I'll get it this time, I promise."
Michelle shook her head. "You're not concentrating, Peter. I think we should stop for the night."
Peter looked down and sighed. "You're right," he said dolefully. "I'm sorry! I've been wasting your time. I don't know what's wrong with me!"
"You're upset, Peter," Michelle said. "And you should be! Your parents weren't very kind to you tonight and it's got you all worked up. I think we need to just forget about homework tonight and do something fun."
"But, what about your grades? And your dad?" Peter asked worriedly. "I don't want you to get in trouble for not doing your homework."
"Peter, no one's going to give us an F in a class just for skipping one night's homework! And if I explain things the right way, my dad won't mind. So, don't worry."
"Okay," he said, relaxing a little. "What would you like to do?"
"How about playing something," she said, looking over at his guitar. "That always seems to cheer you up."
Peter shook his head. "Not while they're here," he said.
"Oh, yeah. I forgot." Michelle looked around, trying to find something else for them to do. There wasn't much in the room other than Peter's guitar.
"How about cards?" Peter suggested. "I think I have a deck around here somewhere."
"Okay," Michelle said smiling. Peter got up to look for the cards and Michelle leaned back to watch him. She rested her hands on the floor behind her and felt something soft. Curious, she reached under the bed and pulled it out. Michelle smiled. How cute! It was a little tan teddy bear, with shiny black eyes, a cute brown nose and a sewed on smile. There were two thin ribbons - one white and one brown - tied in a bow around it's neck. Aside from being slightly faded, the bear was in very good condition. Michelle squeezed it, amazed by how soft it was.
"How cute!" she exclaimed. Peter stopped rooting around in his dresser to look at what she had found. His eyes widened and he turned a bright shade of red. Michelle grinned at him. "Is this yours?" He nodded, still blushing deeply. "This is SO cute!!!" she cried again. "Have you had it for a long time?" Peter nodded again. He seemed to be unusually embarrassed about the teddy bear and Michelle couldn't understand why. Plenty of people had old childhood toys lying around. Then she noticed something. She had assumed the teddy bear must have been underneath Peter's bed for ages. But when she looked at it again, she saw that there wasn't any dust on it. She looked at Peter's reddened face and realization dawned. "Peter, do... do you still sleep with this?"
Peter's face turned about three shades redder and he stared at the floor. "Sometimes," he said in a barely audible whisper.
Michelle smiled. "That's so sweet," she said. Peter looked at her, astonished. "What?"
"You... you aren't going to laugh at me?"
"Of course not," she said. "Why should I laugh?"
Looking relieved, Peter said, "Well, my dad always says - "
"What are you doing?!" Michelle gasped and Peter jumped about a foot into the air at the sound of his father's voice. "Aren't you supposed to be working?"
Peter looked at his father fearfully. "I... I w-was j-j-just...." He swallowed dryly, unable to think of anything to say.
"He was looking for a pencil sharpener, sir," Michelle supplied. She held up her pencil as evidence. "I can't stand working with dull lead."
"Oh," Mr. Thorkelson said, nodding. Michelle caught the relieved look on Peter's face and smiled a little. Then Mr. Thorkelson pointed at Peter's teddy bear. "What's that?"
Michelle glanced at Peter. His relieved expression had been replaced by one of sheer panic. Something told her that this wasn't the time for honesty. "It's mine," she answered, noticing with satisfaction that Peter looked a little calmer. She put on a sheepish smile. "It's silly, I know," she said, pretending to be embarrassed. "But he helps me think."
"Hmph." Mr. Thorkelson frowned thoughtfully at the bear. "It looks a lot like that damned thing Peter used to carry around all the time."
"Really?" Michelle turned to Peter, pretending not to notice his renewed panic. "Did you used to have a teddy bear too?" Wide eyed, Peter gaped at her for a second before nodding slowly. "Don't have it anymore, huh?" He shook his head. "Wonder whatever happened to it," she said absently. Then she shook her head. "Anyway, Peter, I think we should get back to work. Nevermind the pencil sharpener. I'll just have to do without it."
"Okay," Peter said. He closed the drawer he'd been searching and sat down next to Michelle on the floor.
Michelle looked up at Mr. Thorkelson, still standing in the doorway. "Thanks for looking in on us, Mr. Thorkelson," she said, smiling pleasantly. He nodded and turned away, closing the door behind him.
Peter leaned toward the door, listening. Only when his father's footsteps sounded fairly distant did he relax. Then he let out a long, deep sigh of relief. He looked at Michelle with a look of pure gratitude on his face. "Thank you so much!" he said.
"You're welcome," Michelle said. She handed Peter the bear and he held it close to him. "What would have happened if he found out that was yours?" Michelle asked.
"He would have taken him," Peter said. "He might have just thrown him away, or he might have burned him or something."
"He thinks stuffed animals are for sissies. He told me to get rid of him years ago." Peter held the bear even tighter. "But I can't get rid of him. I just can't!" He sighed. "I guess that makes me a sissy. That's why I thought you would laugh at me."
Michelle shook her head. "Peter, everybody needs a little comfort sometimes. That doesn't make you a sissy." Peter shrugged, unconvinced. "Look. You don't think Martin is a sissy, do you?"
"No!" Peter said, shaking his head.
"And you're not just saying that because he's my brother and you don't want to offend me?"
"Well, I'm going to tell you something. But you have to promise me you won't tell Martin I told you."
"Okay," he said, looking at her curiously. "I promise."
"You have to mean it," Michelle warned. "If Martin ever finds out I told you this, he will kill me! Seriously!"
"I swear," Peter assured her.
"All right," she said, taking a deep breath. "Sometimes Martin sleeps with his old baby blanket."
Peter's eyes widened. "He does?"
Michelle nodded. "I can always tell when he's really upset about something, because he starts searching all around the house for something and he won't tell anyone what he's looking for. But I know he's looking for his blanket. I've even seen him curled up with it a few times."
"But... " Peter looked down, reluctant to continue. "But I don't do it just once in a while," he said quietly. "I do it a lot." He looked at Michelle beseechingly, as if searching for answers.
"Peter," Michelle began. "I don't want to insult your parents or anything. But from what I saw tonight... oh, how can I put this?"
Michelle paused. "I think they give you reasons to be really upset a lot more often than Martin. Know what I mean?"
Peter nodded. "I know," he said, looking toward the door.
"So, you know you never have to be embarrassed about this around me," Michelle continued. "I understand, okay?"
"Okay. Thanks, Michelle," he said sincerely.
She smiled at him. "No problem," she said. She reached out for the teddy bear. "Can I hold him?" Peter handed the bear to her and she gently cradled it in her arms. "You are just so adorable!" she told the bear. "Does he have a name?"
"It's silly," Peter said, blushing.
Peter looked down. "His name's Peterbear," he said after a pause.
Michelle giggled. "How cute! Who named him that, you?"
"Sort of. My grandmother used to call me Peterbear all the time. She said it was because I was cute and cuddly, just like a teddy bear." Peter smiled. Obviously, it was a fond memory. "When she gave him to me, she said, 'This is for you. He's cuddly and sweet, just like my Peterbear. Nobody can take him away, because he's Peter's bear.' I tried to call him Peter's bear at first, but 'Peterbear' was all that came out. It just stuck."
Michelle smiled. "That's adorable," she said. "Your grandmother sounds like a really nice woman. Is... is she still alive?"
Peter looked down sadly and shook his head. "She died when I was five."
Michelle reached out and touched his hand gently. "I'm sorry, Peter."
He sighed heavily. "I still miss her a lot." After a moment, he glanced up at her, brightening up a little. "Maybe she's in a nicer place," he said. "Like you said about your mother."
"I'm sure she is," Michelle told him.
"Peterbear is all I have of hers. My dad wanted me to get rid of him after the funeral, but I just couldn't do it."
"I don't blame you!" Michelle cried. "I can't believe he would want you to get rid of a gift from your grandmother, anyway."
"He thought she was spoiling me to have given it to me in the first place," Peter said. "When she died, he said I was old enough to start behaving like a real man."
"But you just told me you were only five!"
Peter shrugged. "Stuffed animals are for babies and sissies only," he said in a good imitation of his father's voice. "And I didn't raise you to become a sissy! He said that if I didn't get rid of him myself, he would. So I hid Peterbear and told my dad that I'd thrown him away."
"Pretty sneaky," Michelle said smiling. "How long have you had him?"
Peter thought for a moment. "Sixteen years," he said.
Michelle gaped at him. "Sixteen years!?" She looked down at the bear with new respect.
Peter nodded. "My grandmother gave him to me for my third birthday." His eyes took on a distant quality. "He's the only real birthday present I've ever had," he said softly. Michelle looked at Peter sadly. She stroked the little bear gently and carefully put him back under the bed, making sure he couldn't be seen.
They spent the rest of the evening talking. They kept their books out so that they could easily pretend to work when Mr. Thorkelson poked his head in. After a few hours, they decided it was probably time for Michelle to leave. "Would you like me to see you home?" Peter asked.
"Only if your parents don't mind," she answered.
She followed Peter out to the door and past his parents, who looked up from their discussion when they entered the room. "Finaly finished, eh?" Mr. Thorkelson asked.
Peter nodded. "Do you mind if I take Michelle home?"
"What do you mean? She's on a bike!"
"I just want to ride her home. It's pretty late and I don't think she should ride alone."
"Quite the gentleman, aren't we?" Mr. Thorkelson said derisively. Then he shrugged. "Go ahead. But no detours."
"No, sir." Peter started to walk away.
Even though, to be mild, Michelle didn't like Peter's parents at all and she couldn't wait to get out of their presence, she didn't want to seem rude by leaving without saying anything. "Good night, Mr. and Mrs. Thorkelson," she said. "Thanks for the hospitality." They looked at her as if they were trying to decide whether that was supposed to be sarcasm. Michelle kept the pleasant smile on her face until they grudgingly told her good night.
Peter accompanied her home. She insisted that he leave right away, so he wouldn't get in trouble. They parted and Michelle went into the house to hear all about the big date. According to Martin, it had gone well. When asked how her night fared, Michelle said that it would probably be best if she and Peter didn't try to do homework at his house anymore. She explained that there were "a lot of distractions" at Peter's house and it was hard to concentrate. Her father agreed that if he or Martin ever needed privacy again, Michelle and Peter could go ahead and stay in the house, as long as they made themslves invisible. After a little bit of banter with her brother about his date, she went to bed.
After that night, Peter and Michelle started spending even more time together. In fact, they spent so much time together that her father had started referring to them as the Siamese twins. Peter took to meeting Michelle at the house in the mornings so they could ride to school together every day. They spent their entire weekends together as well - barring the time Peter had to work. They spent the days playing at the park, riding through the neighborhood or just hanging out at Michelle's house, playing board games (sometimes with her family) and talking to one another. Of course, they endured endless teasing about this from Martin. He never lost an opportunity to make some comment about love birds, wedding bells and awful cooking combinations.
Sometimes Peter would come over with bruises, either on his face or in other places that Michelle would discover after bumping into him and getting an unreasonably strong reaction. Peter didn't try to make excuses to her about where his bruises came from. He usually told her whether it was his parents or the bullies at school who were to blame. On days like that, Michelle would go with Peter directly to their special spot in the park whether it was a school night or not. There, he would play his guitar while Michelle watched in wonder as his muscles gradually relaxed and he grew calm. Somehow, playing always made him feel better, no matter how angry or hurt he was before he started.
Eventually, the time for their midterm exams drew near. Peter was extremely nervous about the prospect of an entire week of testing, but Michelle assured him that he would be fine as long as they studied. And study they did. Every night after their regular assignments were finished, Michelle spent time helping Peter study for the tests. She studied with him on the weekends as well. She was quite pleased with how well Peter was doing and she told him often - usually when he was having one of his many nervous moments.
The first morning of their midterm week, Peter met Michelle early. He looked fairly nervous, and she tried to give him a pep talk as they rode. "Just don't worry," she told him. "You know that material in and out. You'll be fine."
"If you say so," he replied.
Peter's half hearted resolve seemed to be completely gone by the time third period came. "Well, are you ready?" Michelle asked as they took their seats. When Peter didn't answer, she turned to look at him. "What's the matter?" she cried anxiously. He was pale and wide eyed, and he kept rubbing his hands on his pants as if they were sweaty. "Peter, are you sick?"
He shook his head. "I'm going to fail," he said.
"Peter, don't say that!"
"But I am."
"Peter, you are not going to fail," Michelle said sternly.
"Yes he is," Billy said. "He always does, don't you Dorkelson?"
"Hey!" Michelle said loudly. "Haven't I told you to stay out of my business?"
"But he's right," Peter said.
"He's wrong, Peter! How many quizzes have you failed since I've been helping you?"
Peter thought for a moment, then looked mildly surprised. "None," he said incredulously.
"But this isn't a quiz," Billy said. "It's a huge test that's worth half of your grade." He pointed at Peter. "And you're going to fail it!" As usual, Billy's posse backed up what he said, announcing their belief that Peter was the stupidest person in the school - and maybe on the planet.
Peter looked like he was on the verge of tears. Michelle glared at them. "Shut up!" she snapped. "Listen, Peter. Who are you going to believe? Me, your friend, or that idiotic twit who couldn't tell his head from his ass even if somebody drew him a full color diagram?"
Peter gasped and the others who had been listening gaped at her in wide eyed wonder. After the initial shock, Billy scowled at her furiously. "That's the last time you talk to me like that, girl," he said through clenched teeth. He brandished his fist at her.
"Do it," she said. "I dare you!" Billy blinked, not expecting her to take him at his word.
"Michelle!" Peter exclaimed.
"Listen to me, you pathetic twerp," Michelle said sharply. "You hit me and I'll see to it that my brothers beat you until you can't see straight. Literally."
"Yeah, right," Billy said. "Your brothers are probably as weak and stupid as Dorkelson here."
"Let me tell you something about my brothers. All five of them are over six feet tall and weigh about 250 pounds. My youngest brother alone could pound you into the ground with one hand while juggling the rest of your pitiful little friends in the other."
"Who are you calling pitiful?" Max exclaimed.
"Hey, at least my friends are cool!" Billy said. "Your friend drinks toilet water!" The others laughed, and Peter's face turned a deep red.
"What are you talking about," she asked.
"You mean, Dorkelson didn't tell you?"
"Tell me what?" she asked, glancing at Peter. He was shaking his head at Billy, a panicked look in his eyes.
"What's the matter, Dorkelson," Danny asked. "Don't want your girlfriend to know you got your head flushed?" There was resounding laughter from the students who could hear. Peter glanced, mortified, at Michelle for a split second before he trained his eyes on his desk. He looked very much like he wished the desk would come alive and eat him so he wouldn't have to hear the laughter.
"You flushed his head down the toilet?" Michelle asked incredulously.
"That's right," Daryl said. "That morning Peter's drug dealer gave him the black eye."
"Hey!" Eric said. "Heard anything from your drug dealer lately, Dorkelson?"
Michelle watched Peter sink lower and lower into his chair as the students ridiculed him, and she grew red with fury. "Shut up!" she shouted. "Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!" They quieted down, and Michelle glared at them with all the cold fury she could show in her face. "Listen to me, you punks," she said. "Peter is my friend! I catch any of you screwing with him again and I'll see to it that my brothers come down here and personally pound you into oblivion. Got it?"
Billy chucked a little. "You're kidding, right?"
"Do I look like I'm kidding?" she asked through clenched teeth.
"You're lying!" Billy said, looking uncertain. "There's no way all your brothers are are coming down here to protect that dork. And there's no way they're all that big either."
"Are you sure?" she asked.
Billy stared at her for a few seconds longer. She matched his gaze and he started to look even more doubtful. "Come on, Billy," Daryl said. "You don't believe her, do you?"
"Of course not!" Billy said, trying to look macho again. "I've never seen any of your so called brothers. I don't think you really have any! In fact, I'll prove it!" He grinned at Peter. "Friday after school, we're gonna whip your ass in front of the whole school!" He smirked at Michelle. "We'll see where these 'brothers' of yours are then!" His friends fixed her with looks that said, "Take that." Then Mr. Anderson came into the room and they all turned to face the front of the room.
Michelle looked over at Peter. He was looking fairly green and Michelle knew she had to do something, or he would he too nervous to concentrate on the test. She wrote him a short note. "DON'T worry! I have a plan. Just relax and do your best on the exam. You know this stuff."
Peter read the note, then looked at her worriedly. "But..." he whispered.
"Trust me," she whispered back. "Okay?"
Peter nodded and after a brief explanation, Mr. Anderson passed out the exams. Michelle took the test, looking over at Peter occasionally to see how he was doing. He still seemed nervous, but she hoped he was thinking clearly enough to get the right answers. Finally, the test was over. Mr. Anderson collected their papers and announced that the tests would be returned at the end of the week. Michelle waited for Billy and all his friends to leave before she walked out with Peter. "What do you think?" she asked.
"It was hard," he said. "But I think I did okay. Hopefully I'll at least get a D."
"Peter, you'll do more than that! I'm sure of it!"
Peter shrugged. "It doesn't really matter. I mean, I'm dead meat as of 3:00 Friday afternoon anyway."
"Peter, trust me. By Friday afternoon, I will have five of the tallest, strongest, meanest looking brothers you've ever seen, waiting to teach our friends a lesson." Peter looked skeptical. "Trust me! Just relax and concentrate on your exams."
"But how can I relax when..."
"Look at it this way, Peter. You don't have to worry about them all week. Billy's not sure whether I'm telling the truth, right? So he's not going to want to try anything before Friday. He'll probably leave you alone entirely until then, just in case."
Peter smiled. "Hey, you're right. I hadn't thought of that."
"There, you see? Nothing to worry about. Now let's get a move on before we're late to English again."
The rest of the week passed fairly smoothly for Peter. Well, as smoothly as could be expected. He still had tests in almost every class every day of the week, which kept him pretty stressed, but Michelle was helping him. She studied with him every night for the tests he had the next day. He still didn't know how Michelle planned to pull off her plan on Friday. She refused to discuss it with him, saying that they had to "study more and worry about stupid jerks less." Even though he was still a little nervous about it, Michelle seemed to be right about them leaving him alone. Aside from a few jeers, and the occasional "Just wait 'til Friday," they left him in peace for the time being. He was able to put aside his fears about them and concentrate on his fears about the exams. Michelle seemed very confident that he would do well, but after years of failing nearly every test he'd ever taken, he was pretty hard to convince.
Finally, the day of reckoning came. Friday. The day his exams would be returned to him, and he would see if all that studying had really worked. The day that Billy and his gang would most likely beat the living daylights out of him. Peter picked Michelle up from her house as usual. On the way to school, he listened to her chat about how she was glad the tests were finally over, and how she couldn't wait to see her grades. Peter thought that he could wait forever. Despite Michelle's many pep talks, he was still sure he would get bad grades on the tests. He was anxious not only because of his grades, but because he hated to have to disappoint Michelle. His mood wasn't helped by the fact that Billy, Danny, Eric, Daryl and Max were all waiting for them at the bike racks to remind them about Peter's grim fate after school. As if he needed a reminder.
Michelle told them that they'd better worry about themselves, and that she hoped their parents had good health insurance. Then she proceeded to walk away, ignoring everything else they had to say. "See you in a couple of hours," she said to Peter when they were out of earshot.
"Bye," he said with a half-hearted smile. Peter worried through his Math class, not really paying attention to the lesson. At the end of class, the exams were returned. His teacher passed them out face down. The students all turned theirs over immediately, smiling or groaning where appropriate. Unwilling to see the awful grade he knew he'd received, he slid his test into his folder without looking at it. He did the same in his next class. Then he made his way to his break spot.
"Well?" Michelle asked eagerly. "How did you do?"
"I don't know," Peter said.
"What do you mean? Didn't they give you your tests back?"
"Yes." Peter paused. "But I'm afraid to look."
"Oh, Peter! I'm sure you did great. Come on, take a look."
Peter shook his head. "Uh-uh. I want to wait and get it all over with at the same time."
Michelle sighed heavily. "Okay. But I don't see how you can stand not looking! I'm dying to know, and they're not even my tests!"
"I think you'll be disappointed."
"Never! Even if you failed every one - which I know you didn't - I'll still be proud of you."
"You will?" Peter asked incredulously.
"Yes. You worked hard for those tests, Peter! We both did. You deserve the good grades I know you got on those tests."
Peter smiled a little. "Thanks a lot, Michelle. You're sweet."
"Thank you. Now let's see them."
"No! I still don't want to see yet."
Michelle rolled her eyes. "Okay, okay! I can't believe you are making me wait!"
"Patience is a virtue, right?"
"Uh-huh. Sure. I think you just want to torture me with suspense!"
Peter only chuckled. Then the bell rang and hey headed to class together. Peter was not looking forward to Chemistry. Almost everyone in Billy's gang was in the class, and today of all days he did not want to see them. They whispered boasts and threats at him all through class while Michelle glared. Eventually, Mr. Anderson passed back their tests. Peter hid his in his notebook immediately, before Billy got it into his head to grab it and show his grade to the whole class.
"Yes!" Michelle whispered.
"What did you get," Peter asked.
"Oh, I see! You won't show me your grades, but I'm supposed to show you mine, huh?"
Peter blushed. "Well, I ..."
"I'm just kidding, Peter. I got an A. Which is lucky! I was worried about this test."
"You were worried?"
"Sure I was. You know how I feel about this class! Chemistry is -"
"Math's slightly less evil little brother," Peter finished smiling.
"Exactly. I have to wait until after lunch to find out how I did in Big Brother's class."
English was better, as usual. For one thing, there were no bullies. Miss Wilson was very nice for a teacher, and English had become one of Peter's favorite subjects. Today, Miss Wilson gave them an easy assignment to work on. "I think your brains deserve a rest after all that testing, don't you?" Naturally, everyone agreed. At the end of class, they got their tests. Peter put it with the others without looking at it, and accompanied Michelle to their favorite spot.
Peter got out his lunch and started to eat. After a moment, he glanced up at Michelle and was surprised to see that she wasn't eating. Instead, she was staring intently at him. "Do you want to share my lunch?" he asked.
"No, thank you," she said, continuing to look keenly at him. Peter hesitantly went back to his sandwich. Then suddenly, Michelle cried, "I can't take it! Let me see!"
"Let me see your grades! Please? I can't wait any more!"
"Come on, Peter! Please? We worked so hard studying, and I just can't wait! I want to see how well you did."
"I promise, I won't show you if you don't want me to."
Peter sighed. "Okay. But only if you swear you won't show them to me."
"I swear," she said immediately.
Peter pulled out his exams and gave them quickly to Michelle. Suddenly, he was extremely nervous. He wanted to snatch the tests out of her hands before she looked at them. She had spent hours and hours studying with him! What would happen when she saw how poorly he had done? She had always been patient with his mistakes, but he doubted her patience would stand up to that. She would probably yell at him. She would hate him!
Michelle gasped and Peter quickly lowered his head. He didn't want to see her disappointment. He heard the slight rustling of papers, and Michelle gasped louder. Peter cringed, waiting for the tirade to start. Instead of yelling, however, Michelle did something totally unexpected. Without warning, she vaulted toward him and flung her arms around him, squeezing tight. "Oh, Peter, you did it!" she squealed. "You did it!!" Then she shocked him again by kissing him hard on the cheek and squeezing him even tighter, threatening to cut off his air supply. "I knew you could do it!"
Stunned, Peter just sat there with his mouth open, unable to say anything. Michelle released him and sat down again, grinning widely. "I... I guess I did all right then?" he asked.
"All right?? Peter, you... Oh, wait! Nevermind. I'm not supposed to tell you what you got."
Peter frowned slightly. Now he was incredibly curious. Maybe he'd made C's! Wouldn't that be great! He peered toward the papers Michelle held. Hmmmm. "Um... Michelle?"
"Yes?" she asked eagerly.
"Maybe I will take a look."
"Good!" she said, sounding excited and relieved. "I don't think I could have held it in much longer." She flipped through his tests and pulled one out. "Here. Look at this one first."
Peter looked down at his Math test and smiled. "Hey! I did get a 'C'!"
"Yup!" she said excitedly. "Our hardest class, too. Okay. Now look at this one." She handed him his History test.
Peter gaped at it in utter astonishment. "A 'B'? I got a 'B'?"
"You sure did."
Peter smiled broadly. "I've never had a 'B' before!"
"Never?" Michelle asked. "Well, congratulations."
"Wait till I show Mr. Ames! And my parents!"
"Don't you want to show them this one, too?" She asked, handing him his Chemistry test.
Peter gasped. Another 'B'! And in Chemistry!! He laughed. "I can't believe it! I never expected to get a 'B' in Chemistry! I never expected to get a 'B' in anything!" Michelle chuckled a little and looked down at the last test in her hand. "What?" Peter asked. "Don't tell me I got a 'B' in English, too." Michelle grinned an extra-wide grin. "No way! Three 'B's? Let me see!" Michelle gave Peter the last test and his jaw dropped. He froze, staring at the large red letter at the top of the page as if it were alien handwriting. After about thirty seconds of staring, Peter looked up at Michelle. She was grinning broadly at him and her eyes were shining with pleasure. He tried to speak, but nothing came out.
Michelle giggled. "You're going to catch a fly, Peter." Peter closed his mouth and looked back down at his test. He read the red letter again. He couldn't believe it. An 'A'. Never in his life had he even dreamed of getting an 'A' on anything. Not ever. He still couldn't say anything. He just stared at the grade as if it might vanish at any moment if he didn't watch it carefully. "Turn to the last page, Peter," Michelle said.
He looked at her quizzically before doing as she said. There was more writing on the bottom. "Marvelous improvement from last year. Excellent work, Peter! I'm impressed!" Peter's mouth dropped open again. Not only had he gotten an A, but his teacher had actually written praise on his test! Peter swallowed hard. He tried to stop the tears he could feel welling up, but it didn't work. He quickly moved his test out of the way so it wouldn't get wet. Then he pressed his palms to his eyes and took a few deep breaths. He heard Michelle stir, and a moment later her arm was around his shoulders. Peter chuckled. "You must think I'm pretty pathetic, huh?" he asked, rubbing his eyes dry. "One little 'A' and I fall apart."
"Considering the fact that you've never even had a 'B' before, I think you're handling it very well," Michelle said. "I'm so proud of you, Peter!"
"Thank you," he said. He pulled away, wiping the last of the tears from his eyes. "Thanks for everything. I never would have gotten those grades if it hadn't been for you."
Michelle smiled. "My pleasure, Peter." The lunch bell rang. Michelle sighed. "Oh well. Never try to have a touching moment at a high school! I'll see you after school, okay?"
"Okay." Peter waved and headed for his next class feeling great. This time, he went ahead and looked at his tests. Two more 'B's!! Peter was high as a kite when he trotted toward the bike racks. He was surprised to see that Michelle wasn't there. There was a note taped to his bike. "Meet me outside the back gate." Peter shrugged and rode toward the back gate. He couldn't wait to show Michelle his last two grades.
Just outside the gate, a large crowd of people were gathered. Peter got off his bike and waled through the crowd, searching for Michelle. Several people whispered when he passed and pointed at him, but he didn't pay any attention. He was used to people making fun of him and whispering behind his back. He was too happy to let it bother him today. After a few moments of wading, the crowd suddenly dispersed, leaving a wide circle. At the center stood Billy and the entire gang. Peter stopped short. Suddenly, the crowd grew eerily quiet. In all the excitement over his grades, he had completely forgotten that he was due to be pulverized after school. He looked around, trying to quell a rising sense of panic. Michelle was nowhere in sight.
"Your girlfriend's not here to protect you, Dorkelson," Billy said.
"And neither are her so-called brothers," Danny added.
Peter started to back away slowly. Billy grinned. "Now the whole school is going to watch you get pounded." Billy nodded toward him. "Eric, Daryl - hold him." Peter jumped onto his bike, but Eric and Daryl were too quick. They grabbed him and dragged him off the bike. There were various, "Oooh's" and other commentary from the crowd. Daryl and Eric each one took an arm and held on tight. Peter tried to back away again, but Daryl and Eric held him fast. Peter's breaths started to come very quickly. He'd experience a beating like this at the hands of Billy and his friends a few times before. The memories were far from pleasant.
Billy, Danny and Max walked slowly toward him, grinning wickedly and slamming their fists into their palms. "You are so dead," Billy said. Peter cringed as Billy raised his fist, ready to strike the first blow. However, instead of the pain he expected, he heard Billy cry out in shock. "I wouldn't do that if I were you, kid," said a low voice. Peter opened his eyes to see Billy staring up at an extremely tall, broad-shouldered Black man. Peter gaped, at least as shocked as Billy. The man must have been at least 6'6" tall! Looking down at Billy with an intimidating scowl, he held the boy's raised arm in a strong grip.
Peter heard Eric and Daryl gasp. Two men - one nearly as tall as the first - had clapped hefty hands on their shoulders. The shorter one, whom Peter immediately recognized, said "How about letting our friend go?" Peter was instantly set free. Martin winked at Peter. Then he and the other man shoved Eric and Daryl forward. Two other men stepped up behind Max and Danny and shoved them forward, too. Peter stared, completely astounded. Michelle had actually found four huge guys to pretend to be her brothers. At that moment, Michelle herself stepped up beside Peter. "Sorry I'm late," she whispered.
Peter gaped at Michelle. "How... how did you..."
"Later. Just watch the show."
Peter turned back to the scene in front of him. The tallest of the men still held Billy's wrist tightly. The others had formed a wide circle (along with Michelle and Peter) around the boys. The crowd craned their necks, eager to see what would happen after this new turn of events. "You all right, Peter?" the man holding Billy asked.
Peter nodded, not quite trusting himself to speak yet.
"That's lucky for you, you little punk," he said, grabbing Billy's collar and jerking him forward. "Nobody messes with my sister, or any of her friends. You understand me?" Billy gulped and nodded quickly. "Good," the man said. "Because I wouldn't want to have to come back down here to talk to you again. That might make me angry." Billy gasped, and the rest of the crowd did the same a second later as the man proceeded to lift Billy completely off his feet. When Billy was at eye level - which is to say, about six inches off the ground - the man said grimly, "I tend to get violent when I'm angry. You get me?"
"That goes for the rest of you jerks, too," he said, pointing at the others. "Any of us hears about you causing trouble for Peter and we'll all be back to deal with you." The boys looked around at all five grim faces, and Peter could tell that they believed what he said. He couldn't blame them. With their colossal appearance and their angry expressions, they were enough to make Peter nervous, and he knew they were on his side. Without warning, the first man dropped Billy unceremoniously to the ground. "Beat it," he ordered.
Billy quickly picked himself up and backed away. With a nervous glance at Peter and Michelle (who smiled and waved smugly), he and the others retreated through the crowd. They teased Billy and the others as they retreated, but there being no fight imminent, the crowd slowly dissipated. Michelle smiled broadly. "Yes!" she cried. "You guys are the best!"
"We know," Martin said, grinning mischievously. The other men came closer, all with similar smiles on their faces. They seemed much less intimidating when they weren't glowering at people. It was still rather unnerving, however, to be one of the shortest people in the group when he was only an inch shy of six feet.
"That was fun," one said.
Michelle giggled. "I thought Billy was going to wet his pants when you lifted him off the ground like that," she said to the tallest of them.
He grinned and clapped a strong, friendly hand on Peter's shoulder. "I don't think you'll have any trouble from them any more, do you?"
"No, sir," Peter said, smiling. "Thank you so much! Thanks all of you."
"You're welcome. And it's Joseph," he said, extending his hand.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Michelle said, as Peter shook Joseph's hand. "Peter, meet Joseph, James, Isaiah and David. And of course, you know Martin."
Peter shook hands all around, thanking each of them again. "I really appreciate this, you guys," he said. "I just can't believe after all these years, Billy and the others are really off my back!"
"Amazing, isn't it?" Michelle said.
Peter nodded. Then he said, "Not to be a pest, but NOW are you going to tell me how you got these very nice, very tall men to come down here and pretend to be your brothers?"
Michelle smiled. "Well, they are Martin's brothers. Sort of."
"Not sort of, Chell," David said.
"We're frat brothers," Martin explained. "Alpha Delta Kai. Solidarity - "
"Integrity and Brotherhood Forever," they finished in unison. Then they touched their fists together.
"When any of our brothers needs help, it's our responsibility to do what we can," Isaiah said.
"And naturally, any sister of one is the sister of everyone else," James said. "Isn't that right, shrimp?"
Michelle rolled her eyes. "That's right, beanpole," she answered. "You see, Peter, this is what we like to call a mixed blessing. All the protection of 20 older brothers, plus all the annoyance." Peter chuckled, and the others laughed too. Then the five men started to talk and laugh loudly about their fraternity adventures.
"What happened on your last two tests?" Michelle asked suddenly.
Peter grinned. "I got two more 'B's!" he said proudly.
"That's great, Peter! Your parents will be so proud of you!"
"I can't wait to tell them. In fact, I think I'll stop at home and show my mother before I go to work."
"Great," she said. "I can't wait to hear what she says! You'd better get going, though. You're pretty late as it is."
"You're right. Thanks again, everybody," he said loudly. "I really can't thank you enough."
"Don't mention it," James said.
"You just let us know if we have to come back down here and hand out some discipline," Joseph told him.
"I will. See you tonight, Michelle." He hopped on his bike and waved. Once again, he felt lighter than air. With guys like that protecting him, he would never have to worry about Billy again! It was unbelievable. That alone was enough to make his school year. But added to the fact that he'd gotten his first "A" today, Peter was soaring. He couldn't wait to show his mother his grades. He was sure Mr. Ames wouldn't mind him being late once he explained himself. Grinning happily at the image of the proud smile his mother would soon have on her face, Peter rode quickly toward home.
"So? How did your exams go?" Mr. Jacobson asked.
"Very well, thanks," Michelle replied. "Almost all 'A's."
"That's wonderful, sweetheart," her father exclaimed.
"I think 'freakish ' would be the more appropriate term," Martin said.
"Hey!" Michelle cried.
"Well, what normal high school senior gets all 'A's on her midterms?"
"I didn't get all 'A's," Michelle said defensively. Martin looked at her skeptically. "I didn't get an 'A' in Math!"
Martin rolled his eyes. "Oh, excuse me. I'm sorry! Let me guess. You got a 'B', didn't you?" Reluctantly, Michelle nodded. "Uh-huh. Just as I thought. Your worst subject, and the lowest grade you could come up with was a 'B'? You're a freak."
"Martin, stop teasing your sister," their father said. "I think it's great that she gets such excellent grades."
"But you're her father," Martin said. "You're supposed to think that. But as a brother, I have a nearer perspective on the situation. And believe me, sis. You are a freak."
"Martin," his father warned.
"Okay, okay," he said. "But since Peter's not here, can I tease him? He's another freak."
"Hey, watch it!" Michelle exclaimed.
"Deny it," Martin challenged. "I'll bet all the time you two were supposed to be doing homework, he was actually doing homework."
"Of course he was," Michelle replied.
"Acted like a perfect gentleman, didn't he?"
"Of course he did!"
"Well, there you have it," Martin said. "I rest my case. Peter is a sad excuse for a teenage boy. No normally functioning boy his age comes to a girl's house every night - behind closed doors - and doesn't try something at least once. It's just not right."
Michelle opened her mouth to protest, but her father beat her to it. "I seem to recall that you had quite a few paired study sessions in your school years," he said. "Am I to understand that there was something going on besides homework?"
Michelle smiled at Martin's immediate discomfort. "Er... well... I... we..." Martin sighed and chuckled a little. "I guess I set myself up for that one."
"You certainly did," Michelle said grinning.
"Well, enough about me," he said suddenly. "Tell us, Michelle. How did your little pupil do on his tests?"
"He did great," Michelle said. "He got four 'B's, and he's never had a 'B' on a test before!"
"Wow," her Dad said. "Not bad."
"But here's the best part," Michelle continued excitedly. “He aced his English exam. His first 'A' in his whole life!"
"That's great, hun."
"Not too shabby," Martin said.
"I'm so excited for him! I wonder what his parents will have to say."
"I'm sure they'll be thrilled," her father said. "I know I'm impressed."
"Yeah," Martin said. "I guess being a sad excuse for a teenager has its advantages." Michelle grabbed a pillow from the couch and whacked her brother with it.
"Anyway, I'm very proud of you, Chell. Tutoring Peter every night and keeping up your own grades couldn't have been easy. I think this calls for a celebration. What do you say we find the fanciest restaurant in town and take you and Peter out to dinner?"
"Sure, why not? I think the two of you deserve it."
"Thanks, Daddy! This is great!" Michelle's excited smile gave way to a concerned frown. "I wonder if that will be okay with Peter's parents. They might be doing something for him tonight."
"Well, if they are, we'll just go tomorrow."
Michelle's smile returned. "This is great," she said again. "I want to go to the pawn shop and tell him right now."
"Go ahead. You know where it is, right?"
Michelle nodded. "I might stay until he gets off, okay?"
Michelle left the house and headed toward the pawn shop. She found it easily. She'd been past it several times with Peter, although she'd never been inside. She hopped of her bike an approached the door. Suddenly, it was flung wide. It slammed into her bike and knocked her to the ground.
"Stupid kids," a man growled. Michelle looked up to see the retreating figure of a large blonde man. He looked familiar, but she didn't get the opportunity to find out why. Without a backward glance at her, the man stormed to his car and drove away.
"Well, there's a real gentleman," she muttered. "Could have at least helped me up." Gingerly, Michelle disentangled herself from her bicycle and stood up. She brushed herself off, shook her fist in the direction the rude man had one and went into the shop.
Bells tinkled lightly as the door closed behind her. She didn't see Peter or anyone else in the room. Maybe someone would be out in a minute. In the meantime, Michelle rested her bike against a wall and glanced around the shop. There were tons of interesting things for sale, but her eyes immediately focused on the musical instruments. There was a wide selection. She went over to look, trying to find a nice one. Her lessons with Peter were coming along nicely, and she could play several chords and songs. Maybe she would take Peter's advice and try to convince her father to buy her one.
"May I help you?"
Michelle jumped and turned to face the speaker. A man of about sixty stood behind he counter - his thick arms folded over his large, round belly. His expression was rather grim and Michelle felt a little intimidated. She cleared her throat nervously. "I'm... I'm looking for Peter," she said timidly.
His frown deepened and he glanced behind him. "He can't come out right now."
"Oh," Michelle said, feeling mildly disappointed. "Well, could you please tell him that Michelle came by? I just wanted to..."
"You're Michelle?" he asked suddenly.
"Yes, sir," she replied nervously.
He smiled slightly. "Then you must be the one responsible for the excellent grades Peter got on his exams."
Michelle relaxed a little, encouraged by the man's sudden friendliness. "I can't take credit for that, sir," she said. "It was all Peter's doing. He just needed someone to be patient and work with him."
"Well, you certainly did it for him," the man said. "I've never seen him as proud of his grades as he was today, and I know it's thanks to your helping him study all those nights. It's good to finally meet you." He extended a hand. "I'm Walter Ames."
"Oh," Michelle said brightly, shaking his hand. "It's great to meet you, too. Peter's told me a lot about you. He's always talking about how wonderful you are and how much he loves working for you."
Mr. Ames grinned, obviously pleased. "He speaks of you a lot, too."
"Oh, yes. Can't say enough good things about you. All I have to do is mention your name and his face just lights up." Michelle blushed, embarrassed and extremely pleased by Mr. Ames' revelations. The shopkeeper glanced behind him, a worried look briefly crossing his face. He turned back to Michelle, and his face held a look of such intensity that it startled her. "You're good for him, Michelle," he said. "I'd say that besides me, you're the only person in his life who treats him like he might be more than just a piece of garbage."
Michelle blushed. "I... I don't know what to say, sir," she said softly.
"You don't have to say anything. Just you go on being a friend to him like you have been." Mr. Ames glanced behind him again. Michelle wondered what he was looking for. "I'm sorry Peter couldn't come out to talk to you," he said to her. "But I will tell him you came by."
"Thank you, Mr. Ames," Michelle said, heading for the door.
"No problem. You have a nice one."
"Thanks, you too." With a wave, Michelle left the pawn shop and rode toward home, wondering why Peter hadn't been able to come out. Probably working on some project that couldn't be interrupted, she guessed. She was eager to see him, and not just because she wanted to tell him about the celebration dinner. She remembered that Peter had planned to show his mother the midterms right after school, and Michelle couldn't wait to hear what her reaction had been. Oh well, she thought. I'll just have to ask him about it when he comes over tonight.
Earlier that day...
Mrs. Thorkelson scowled angrily at Peter. Then she raised her hand and slapped him harshly across the face. "Don't lie to me, Peter!" she shouted.
Peter backed away, raising a hand to his face. "But I didn't, Mama," he cried. "I swear!"
His mother slapped him again, harder this time. "I said don't lie to me!"
"But I didn't cheat!" he said, trying to keep the sob out of his voice. "Why don't you believe me?"
Mrs. Thorkelson glared at him. "Because you're an idiot, Peter! You always have been, and you always will be. You've never done well in school before, so why should I believe you're getting 'A's and 'B's all of a sudden? Do you think I'm stupid? You do, don't you? You think you're fooling me, going over to that colored girl's house every night pretending to study, don't you? Well, you're not! I'm not the stupid one, Peter. You are. You're too stupid to have ever gotten grades like this on your own! I know you!"
"No you don't!" Peter yelled, no longer trying to keep his tears from flowing. "You don't know me at all! If you did, you'd know I would never cheat!"
"Peter, don't you dare raise your voice to-"
"SHUT UP!" he yelled. His mother gasped, completely shocked. Peter was beyond caring. "What is wrong with you?" he cried. "I finally do something good and you won't even believe me! Why?? Why can't you just be happy for me???"
She stared at him blankly for a moment. Then she scowled. "You're father is going to hear about this," she said warningly. Peter glared at her and grabbed his tests from the coffee table. He picked up his bag and turned away. "Don't you walk away from me," his mother exclaimed. "I'm not finished talking to you yet!"
Not even slowing down, Peter stormed out of the house and slammed the door behind him so hard that the windows rattled. He jumped on his bike and rode furiously to the pawn shop. He rode blindly, unable to see through his angry tears. By the time he got to the shop, his rage had abated. He was left only with a feeling of deep hurt and disappointment. He dried his eyes and put his bike in its usual spot.
"There you are!" Mr. Ames said.
"I'm sorry I'm late, sir," Peter said, putting on his apron.
"What kept you?"
"I stopped at home to show my mother my test grades."
"She hit me and said I was a liar. And an idiot. And... and I must have cheated b-because I could never get grades like that on my own because I'm too stupid." Peter's voice cracked and his eyes started to fill with tears again.
Mr. Ames sighed and laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, son," he said. "Some people just won't see a good thing, even when it slaps them in the face." Then he scowled darkly. "Which is exactly what I'd like to do to your mother right about now," he added.
Peter dried his tears again. Then he sighed heavily. "To top it all off, I'm probably going to get the beating of a lifetime when I get home," he said.
Mr. Ames looked shocked. "You didn't hit her, did you?"
"No!" Peter cried. The very idea frightened him. "But I did yell at her and slam the door in her face," he admitted.
"Hmmm. Can't say I blame you. But still, it's pretty strange for you. Made you awful mad, didn't she?"
Peter nodded. "I couldn't help it! I worked hard studying for those tests, and she... she just - "
"I know, son. I know. Don't get yourself all worked up again, all right?"
"All right," he said, making an effort to calm down. He looked uncertainly at his employer. "Would you like to see them?" he asked hesitantly.
"Now what kind of a question is that? Of course I want to see!" Peter smiled and pulled out his tests. He arranged them so that the best grade came at the end, then handed them to Mr. Ames. He watched with a gradually growing smile as Mr. Ames' eyes grew wider and wider. But the time he got to Peter's English exam, he looked like his eyes were going to pop right out of his head. "These are wonderful, Peter!" he exclaimed. He shook his head. "I can't believe it. You really outdid yourself this time!"
Peter smiled. "Thanks, Mr. Ames."
"Look at that! Every single one of them excellent!"
"Even the 'C'?" Peter asked, feeling himself start to blush.
"When's the last time you got a 'C' on a Math test? It's wonderful, Peter. I'm very proud of you!" Peter grinned happily at the sight of Mr. Ames' expression. It was the look he'd wanted to see on his mother's face. But somehow, seeing pride radiating from Mr. Ames' face instead of his mother's was far from disappointing. Mr. Ames shook his head in amazement. "This is great work," he said again. He patted Peter's shoulder. "You're going to do great things, son," he said. "I know you are. You work too hard not to. Whatever you do with your life, I know you're going to shine."
Peter blushed deeply and looked down at the floor. "Thank you," he said softly.
Mr. Ames ran a hand through Peter's hair. "You're a good boy, Peter. You keep up the good work in school, and you'll have a big surprise when you graduate."
"Really?" Peter asked, suddenly curious. "What is it?"
Mr. Ames chuckled and shook his head. "You know better than that," he said. "Now get to work."
"Yes, sir." Peter went to find the broom, once again feeling better than he had when he arrived. He was a little worried about what would happen after work. He knew he was in for a beating when he got home, but there was nothing he could do about it so he tried not to think about it. He went about his duties, sweeping, dusting, organizing, and occasionally answering questions from customers. He was busy sweeping away more dust when someone tapped him on the shoulder.
Peter turned and was immediately sent sprawling by a heavy blow to his face. Peter looked up from his position on the floor to see his father standing over him. "Dad!" he cried.
"Shut up!" his father snapped, kicking Peter in the stomach. Peter doubled over and tried to scoot away. "What the hell is your problem Peter?" His father rushed to him and dragged him to his feet. "You think you can talk to your mother any way you want?" he yelled, punching Peter in the jaw. "Do you?" Peter was too nervous to speak. His father punched him again, in the stomach this time. "Answer me, you little shit!"
"D-dad, please, I didn't-"
Peter was cut short by another blow to his face. "Don't even think about denying it!"
"Don't you raise your voice to me, dammit!" his father shouted, raising his fist again. Peter raised his hands in front of his face in self defense, forgetting that he was still clutching the broom. The end of it bumped his father's chin slightly and he glared at Peter. "You attacking me now?"
"What? No!" His father snatched the broom from him and hit him hard in the arm. Peter yelped and backed away. "Dad, I swear! It was an accident!"
"Shut up!" he yelled, striking Peter again. "You think you can get away with anything now, don't you?" He hit Peter across the face. "Don't you?!"
Peter didn't answer. He was too busy wiping the blood from his mouth. Vince hit him again in the head and Peter fell to the floor. Dazed, he watched the blood from his mouth and nose drip slowly to the floor. He was brought out of his stupor by another blow from the broom. His father hit him again, then again. Peter tried to shield himself, but it was impossible. Vince wielded the broom like a baseball bat, striking Peter with all his force. Peter backed into a corner and curled himself into a tight ball, trying to protect his head at least from the vicious onslaught. Vince hit him over and over again until Peter was sure he would die right there on the pawn shop floor.
Then suddenly, the blows ceased. At first, Peter was afraid to move lest they start again. Then he heard Mr. Ames' voice. "Get out of my store," he said through clenched teeth. His voice was so cold and hard that Peter was shocked into looking up. Peter had never seen the old man look as furious as he did just then. But what really made Peter's eyes widen was the double barreled shotgun Mr. Ames held, aimed directly at his father's chest.
Vince looked at least as shocked as Peter, but after a second of indecision, he scowled at Mr. Ames. "Stay out of this, old man. This is between me and my son."
"This is my store, and I won't have you coming in here chasing my customers off and beating up my employee. Now get out of here, or do I have to show you that I know how to use this thing?"
Vince glared furiously. "You will not come between me and my son," he shouted. "He's my son, and I'll discipline him however I want!"
"Not in here, you won't." Mr. Ames braced the gun firmly against his shoulder and checked the sights. "Peter, go to the back right now."
Peter tried to stand up, but his head swam and his stomach got queasy just getting to his knees. He knew he would fall down right away if he managed to stand. When he could, he started to crawl toward the back of the shop. "Where the hell do you think you're going?" his father cried. "Get back here!"
Peter stopped. "Go, Peter," Mr. Ames said.
"Right now." Peter hesitated for a moment, torn between the urge to obey Mr. Ames and go to safety of the back room, and fear of what would happen if he didn't listen to his father. He looked at his father's furious, burning expression and made his decision. He crawled behind the counter.
"Peter," his father said dangerously. "Get back here!" Peter shut his eyes and kept crawling. "Peter! Dammit if you don't-"
"Get out of my store, Vince Thorkelson," Mr. Ames said. "Now, before I call the police!"
Peter hesitated behind the counter, not wanting to leave Mr. Ames alone, even though he was the one with the shotgun. He could see his father wavering, probably uncertain about whether Mr. Ames would really shoot him if he tried to hit Peter again. Finally, he pointed at Peter and scowled darkly. "You can't hide behind this old man forever," he said. "And when you come home, we are going to finish this!"
"Go to the back, Peter," Mr. Ames said. "Go!"
Peter went to the back room and sat down. He felt sick, his head pounded horribly, and he couldn't stop shaking. He heard the door's bells ring, and the door slammed, but he was still afraid. What would happen when he went home? His father would kill him! And his mother would probably stand over him and laugh about it.
Mr. Ames stayed out front for some time, and Peter began to worry. He heard muffled voices, but he couldn't tell what they were saying. Maybe he was getting rid of a customer. Peter felt guilty about causing Mr. Ames to lose business on top of everything else. He wanted to say that it was okay, he could go ahead and take care of the customers, but even the thought of moving made him dizzy.
After a while, Mr. Ames came to the back room, carrying his ice pack. He rested it gently on Peter's head and sat beside him. "Thank you, sir," Peter said. "I'm... I'm s-"
"Don't you dare apologize," Mr. Ames said. Peter noticed that he was shaking just a little, and he couldn't decide if it was from nervousness or anger. When he started cursing about Peter's father and mother, he figured it must be anger. After a few minutes, Mr. Ames stood up and looked into Peter's face. "Son. I don't like to say this. I really hate having to say this about a man's own father, but that man..." Mr. Ames shook his head. "He's no good, Peter. He's poisonous! Like a disease. Both of them are."
"I know," Peter said softly.
"I'm afraid for you, son. I... I don't think you should go back home." Peter looked up, surprised. As angry as Mr. Ames had often been because of Peter's father, he'd never made a suggestion like that before. "I know how it sounds. But, Peter, you're over eighteen, and your father can't legally hold you in his house."
"But... what about s-school?"
Mr. Ames touched Peter lightly on the head. "You can still finish if you want. You should finish, in fact. You're doing so well, I'd hate to see you stop now."
Peter didn't speak for a while. His head swam, and it wasn't just from the beating he'd just received. As many times as he'd fantasized about running away from home, it just never seemed possible. It seemed like the most unimaginable, unattainable fantasy, just like reaching the bottom of the ocean or flying by flapping your arms. It frightened him. His lip trembled slightly, and he fought tears. "But... what will I... where will I go? I c-can't-"
"Stay with me."
Peter's mouth dropped open and he stared at Mr. Ames as if he had lost his mind. His mouth worked, but he could only make unintelligible sounds at first. "Mr. Ames," he said breathlessly. "I... I c-couldn't. I..." His voice cracked, and he could feel his eyes start to sting with tears.
"Stay with me, Peter," Mr. Ames said again. "You're a good boy. I've known you for years, and I can't stand to see this happen to you anymore. I'll provide for you until you graduate high school. Longer if you need it."
Peter could feel the tears flowing down his face, but he couldn't stop them. "I... y-you would do that for me?"
"I told you, Peter. I don't say things I don't mean. My place isn't as big as your house, mind you. You'd have to sleep on the couch, and it might be tight in other ways."
Peter shook his head. "That doesn't-" He couldn't finish. He was so overwhelmed by Mr. Ames' offer that he couldn't keep his sobs at bay anymore. Mr. Ames let him cry, patting his arm every few moments. "Th-thank you, s-sir," he said when he could finally make words come through his sobs. "Thank you so m-much. Thank you."
"Hush now," Mr. Ames said, still patting Peter reassuringly. "It's all right, son. You just rest here a while, all right?"
"Yes, sir," Peter said. "Thank you so-"
"Hush now," he said again. "I should have done this a long time ago. Just sit here. I'm going to call Bess and let her know she'll have a guest for a while."
Mr. Ames patted Peter once more, then went off to make his phone call. Peter sat in the chair, mind in a whirl. He had never felt more grateful, or more frightened in all his life. He had never thought it possible to actually leave his father's home. He'd been stuck in the same school, and the same awful situation at home for so long that to actually have an alternative was almost terrifying. He was plagued with fears that something would happen to destroy this unbelievable waking dream. What if "Bess" didn't want Peter to live with them. What if his father tried to put up a fight? Force him to stay home? What if Mr. Ames realized it was crazy to try to take care of a teenager and changed his mind?
Peter had worked himself into quite a nervous state by the time Mr. Ames came back. "It's all settled," he said. "You're staying with me."
Peter could only smile, relieved that part of his worries had been unfounded. He was still afraid of being stopped by his father. "I should get my things from home," he said. "My father will be back at work now. I can..."
"Peter, you need to rest. I don't think you can take a ride back to your house, do you?"
"I'm feeling a lot better," he said. "There are some things I have to get, Mr. Ames. My... my guitar is still there. He'll break it or sell it."
Mr. Ames didn't look like he wanted Peter to go, but he relented, and Peter rode home. He wasn't quite up to the ride at all, so he took it slow. He was relieved to see that his father's car wasn't in the driveway. He didn't particularly want to see his mother either, but he was in mortal fear of his father. Peter rested his bike against the wall and took a deep breath. This wasn't going to be easy, but knowing that Mr. Ames was on his side, willing to stand up to his father, and give him a place in his own home gave Peter courage he had never felt before.
His mother was sitting on the couch watching television. She stood up immediately when he came in.
"So you're back are you?" Peter didn't answer her. He walked past her into his bedroom and started gathering his belongings. "How dare you walk away from me? Does your father know where you are?" He pulled out his few items of clothing, and shoved them into a little canvas bag that would have to serve as his suitcase. "HEY!"
Peter turned to his mother. She reached back and swung at him with her open hand. Peter grabbed her hand before she could make contact with his face. She was shocked, and completely speechless. "You are not going to hit me any more," he said sternly, shocking himself with his own audacity. She was flabbergasted enough to leave him alone while he pulled Peterbear out from under the bed and stuffed him deep (but gently) into the canvas bag. Peter grabbed his guitar and took a glance around the room. There was nothing else he wanted or needed. He looked for a moment at his mother, who was still gaping at him as if she couldn't believe her eyes. He debated whether or not he should say goodbye, but he didn't want to say another word to her. She was nothing but a trigger for bad memories stretching as far back as he could remember. He couldn't wait to get away from her.
Peter walked to the door. He heard his mother gasp when he put his hand on the knob. "Where do you think you're going?" she asked sharply.
Peter turned back to her and smiled. "Away from you." He left the house, closing the door firmly behind him. He rode slowly back to the pawn shop, back to someone who actually cared about him.
Michelle started to worry when Peter didn't show up at his usual time for their evening "date", as Martin had taken to calling it. His boss, Mr. Ames, had seemed so agitated when she had first asked about Peter. She began to wonder if something might have happened to him.
"I'm sure he's fine," her father said when she paced the floor for the tenth time. "He'll be here soon enough."
"I hope you're right," she said under her breath. She felt a little guilty for not telling her father what really had her worried, but she couldn't break her promise to Peter. Michelle didn't have to worry for much longer. A few minutes after she peeked out the window yet again to find out if she could see Peter's bicycle rolling down the street, she finally heard a knock on the door.
Michelle stepped back with a gasp when she saw Peter. His face and neck were bruised much worse than Michelle had yet seen them, and one eye looked like it had already started to swell. He gave her a small smile, but she was too upset by his bruises to return it. "Peter, what happened?"
Peter smiled. "It's okay, Michelle," he said. "I'm fine."
"Chell, are you going to let him in the house, or is he going to have to stand on the porch all evening?"
"Sorry, Peter," she said, stepping aside to let him into the house. When Martin and her father saw Peter they both rushed over to him, concerned looks on their faces.
"Oh man, what happened to you, kid?" Martin cried. "And don't give me that story about falling, there's no way you could have gotten that from a fall."
"No, I didn't fall," Peter said.
"Well what did happen," their father asked. "Michelle told me you've had problems with the kids at school. Did they do this to you?"
"No, sir," Peter said. "My..." he looked embarrassed, and Michelle wondered if he would say more. Peter sighed and looked up into her father's face. "My father did it to me," he said. "He beats me all the time, and I... I never said anything because I was ashamed. I'm sorry I lied to you, sir."
Martin Sr. shook his head. "You don't have to apologize to me, Peter," he said. "A man handles things the best way he can."
Peter smiled and drew himself to his full height and Michelle wondered if anyone had ever referred to him as a man before. "It's over now," he said, with a glance at Michelle. "I don't live there anymore."
"You don't? Where... do you have a place to stay?" Michelle asked worriedly.
"Mr. Ames is letting me stay with him until I finish school."
"That was good of him," Martin said. "I'm glad he's helping you get out of that house."
"Me, too," Michelle said. "I've been worried about you, Peter."
"I'm all right now. I'm sorry I was late today. I had to get some things from my parents' house."
"It's okay," she said. "I was a little worried, but I'm so glad Mr. Ames is helping you. He's a nice man."
"You know him?" Peter asked, surprised.
"I met him this afternoon. I went looking for you at the store, because I wanted to invite you to dinner."
Peter looked a little confused. "But... I always come to dinner," he said.
"This was going to be special," Michelle said.
"I had planned to take you and Michelle out for a celebratory dinner," her father explained. "As a reward for doing so well on your exams. But you may not be up to that now."
Peter looked at Martin Sr. with a shocked smile. "You... you were going to buy me dinner?"
"I sure was. But I think it might be better for you to rest today." Peter looked disappointed, but his disappointment didn't last for long. "What do you say we order some pizza?" he asked them.
Everyone brightened immediately. "That would be great, Mr. Jacobson," Peter said excitedly.
"Yeah, thanks Daddy," Michelle said.
"I'll call it in," Martin offered. "What do you love birds want on yours?"
Michelle rolled her eyes and asked Peter what his favorite toppings were. They found that they were both partial to pineapple and anchovies. Martin and her father grimaced, and Martin made a comment about "destiny". They ordered their boring pepperoni, and the four of them spent a pleasant evening together, playing word games, watching television, talking and laughing.
Michelle noticed that Peter started to look tired earlier than usual. "Are you okay?" she asked. "You must be in a lot of pain."
"I think that aspirin Mr. Ames gave me is wearing off," he said.
"We should get you home," Michelle said, concerned. "Martin, do you think you could give Peter a ride, if Daddy doesn't mind?"
"I don't mind," her father said, in response to Martin's inquisitive look.
"Come on, kid," he said. "You'll have to give me directions to your boss' house, though."
"No problem," Peter said. "Thank you very much for dinner, Mr. Jacobson. I really had a great time."
"Well, I'm glad you enjoyed yourself, Peter. Get some rest tonight, all right."
"Yes, sir." He smiled at Michelle and she gave him a quick hug, heedless of what her brother would doubtless have to say about it.
"See you tomorrow?" she asked.
"Definitely," Peter said.
Peter frowned as they turned the final corner onto Mr. Ames' street. Martin tsked. "Isn't that your dad's car?" he asked, pulling up in front of the house.Peter nodded, frowning deeply. "What's he doing here?" he whispered.
"I'll walk you to the door," Martin said.
"Oh, you don't have to do that," Peter said, more than grateful for the offer all the same.
"I'll walk you to the door," he said again, more firmly this time. Peter smiled and got out of the car. Martin followed a couple of feet behind him. As they drew nearer to the door, Peter could hear yelling. Soon, he could distinguish his father's voice.
"Now, old man. You tell me where he is now!"
"Even if I knew, I wouldn't tell you!"
Peter opened the door just in time to see his father punch Mr. Ames in the eye, sending the old man sprawling to the floor. He heard a sharp cry from Martin, and a scream from Bess Ames, Mr. Ames' older sister. Peter rushed past his father to check on Mr. Ames, Martin right behind him. The elderly man was already sitting up, looking shaken, but extremely furious. Peter was speechless. He couldn't believe what he had just seen. "Are... are you all right, sir?" he stammered. Mr. Ames nodded.
Martin supported Mr. Ames on the other side, giving him a friendly smile which probably stood for, "I'll introduce myself later."
"Where the hell have you been?" Peter's father shouted.
Peter whirled to face his father, more angry than he could ever remember being. How dare he attack Mr. Ames? It his own home! "It's none of your business," he snapped.
His father was stunned. Never had Peter spoken to him that way before. Not ever. Peter would have been shocked himself, if he wasn't so angry he could hardly see straight. Mr. Ames had taken Peter in, and offered to help him when his own parents acted like it was a burden to even look at him. How dare his father come here and take out his anger on Mr. Ames? "Have you completely lost your mind?" Vince asked incredulously. "Don't you ever talk to me like that!"
"You need to leave," Peter said. "Get out of this house."
"Wha-" His father's jaw dropped, but shock gave way to fury in an instant. He advanced on Peter and swung.
Peter side-stepped the swing, and his father caught him on the arm instead of the face. His fury flared and he swung again, hitting Peter in the jaw. Peter staggered, but he felt strong hands holding him steady. "You okay?" Martin whispered. Peter nodded and opened his eyes to glare at his father.
"I told you to get out of my house!" Mr. Ames was on his feet again, his face flushed with anger.
Vince whirled on him and pointed a warning finger. "Stay out of my business with my son!"
"I've had enough of you! Bess, call the police."
Miss Ames moved toward the phone, and Vince stepped toward her. "Don't you touch that phone, you old hag!" he yelled.
Miss Ames gasped and held a shaking hand to her chest, as if she couldn't believe someone had actually spoken to her that way. Peter couldn't believe it either. Miss Ames was over seventy years old, small and frail. He was stunned. He looked at his father as if he were some kind of wild dog, or monster, foaming at the mouth. Mr. Ames got in his face then, poking him hard in the chest. "If you ever speak to my sister like that again, you'll have hell to pay!"
Vince glared. "Don't touch me, old man!" he cried, punching Mr. Ames in the eye again. There was another scream from his sister, and Mr. Ames fell back ward against the wall. Vince drew closer to him, fist clenched.
Peter couldn't take it anymore. His rage boiled over, and he rushed over to his father, jerked him back by his collar and slammed his fist into Vince's jaw. Vince looked at him in utter shock. Peter was at least as surprised as his father. He had never even dreamed of striking his father before. It was a terrifying feeling - as if he had committed the most awful sin in the world. But he couldn't let it go on. He couldn't let him terrorize Mr. Ames and his family in their own house. Peter had already crossed a line he never thought he would cross, and there was no turning back now.
The image of Miss Ames shaking and worried, and Mr. Ames backed against a wall fueled Peter's anger, and he barely even felt it when his father reached back and punched him in the chest. Peter staggered, but kept his feet and did the unthinkable. He fought back. He punched his father again, then again, with all the force his fury could muster. He called up all the humiliations, all the ridicule, all the beatings he had suffered throughout his life, and the memories filled him with an almost super-human strength. He knew his father was hitting him back, but he couldn't feel anything beyond his own fists pummeling his father again and again. His fury filled him with a wildness he had never known. He became aware of unintelligible screams added to the sound of punching and kicking. They were his own! Eventually, his shouts condensed into something like words. Hate. "I hate you! I hate you!"
Soon after the screaming started, Peter could feel hands on his arms, and more voices were added to the fray. He couldn't understand them at first, either. The hands tugged at him, and the words slowly became clear. "Peter. Peter, stop!" He was pulled away from his father, and the blind rage dissipated from him. His father was on the floor, arms in front of his face, breathing hard.
For several moments, there was no sound besides that of everyone breathing. Slowly, Peter's father stood up, staring at Peter with a look of mingled fury and fear on his bruised and bloodied face. He glared and pointed at Peter. "You will never set foot in my house again," he said.
"I hate you," Peter said, surprised by the calm tone of his voice. "I hope I never have to see you again for the rest of my life."
Vince looked frustrated that his declaration didn't have the desired effect. He glared at the rest of the people in the room, then left, slamming the door behind him. Peter heaved a shuddering sigh and looked behind him. It was Martin who'd pulled him off of his father. "Are you all right?" he asked.
Peter nodded. "Thank you," he whispered. "I'm s-sorry about this." He turned to Mr. Ames and his sister, and found he could barely look at them. "I'm sorry, sir," he said. "Ma'am. I n-never thought he would..." Peter sighed shakily. "I'll understand if you don't want me to stay now," he said in a low voice.
"Nonsense, Peter," Mr. Ames said. "I'd never turn you out at a time like this. Bess?"
"You're still welcome here as far as I'm concerned, Peter," she said, still shaking slightly.
Peter felt like he could collapse from relief. He swayed, and Martin tightened his grip on Peter's shoulders. "Come on, kid," he said gently, guiding Peter to the couch. Mr. Ames sat down beside him and looked closely at his face.
"We'll need to put some ice on this," he said decisively.
"On yours, too, Wally," Miss Ames said. "Come along and give me a hand, young man," she said to Martin.
"Yes, ma'am," he said, patting Peter on the shoulder.
Mr. Ames sighed and sat back against the pillows. "There's more fire in you than anyone realized, Peter," he said. "I'll be willing to bet your father won't boher you again."
"I... I've never done anything like that before," Peter whispered, looking at his hands as if they didn't belong to him. His knuckles were red and raw from all the blows he dealt. He shuddered.
"People can do scary things when they're backed into a corner," Mr. Ames said. "But don't beat yourself up about what happened. You spoke the only language your father understands to protect yourself and the people around you. You don't have anything to feel bad about."
Peter smiled at Mr. Ames, amazed by how well he was able to read the train of his thoughts. "Thank you, Mr. Ames. I'm so sorry he hurt you."
"I've been through war, boy," Mr. Ames said. "A few nicks from a blustering coward don't bother me."
Martin and Miss Ames came back with two ice packs and some water for the two wounded men. "Here you go, sir," Martin said, handing his ice pack to Mr. Ames.
"Thank you, young man. You're a friend of Peter I suppose?"
"I'm sorry," Peter said. "This is Michelle's brother, Martin. Martin this is my boss, Walter Ames and his sister, Bess."
"Pleased to meet you. Now, I'd better be getting back, or Dad will start worrying."
"Thanks for coming with me," Peter said.
"You're welcome, Peter. I'll see you around okay?" He said goodbye to Peter's benefactors and left the house.
Miss Ames watched over Peter and her brother for a while longer. After a while, the excitement of the evening took its toll, and everyone in the house grew tired. Miss Ames brought out blankets and an extra pillow for Peter, and the two went off to their rooms to bed. Peter lay on the couch, unable to sleep despite his exhaustion. His mind raced, as he thought about all of the events of the day. He couldn't believe how much his life had changed in such a short time. In just a matter of hours, he had gone from being a downtrodden, meek boy to a strong man, brave enough to stand up to the father who had terrorized and humiliated him for his entire life.
Peter sighed contentedly. His head ached, he felt weak all over, but he was out of his parent's house, and they couldn't do anything about it. They couldn't hurt him anymore. He was free.
The rest of the school year passed like a dream for Peter. Billy and his little posse never bothered him again, still in fear of Michelle's "brothers". He got to spend almost all of his time with Michelle, when he wasn't at school, or working in Mr. Ames' shop. They continued to do homework and learn music together, and by the end of the year, she'd become a pretty good guitar player, and Peter could add the flute to his long list of known instruments. He did see his father a few times after their fight, but the man never spoke to him, which was just fine by Peter.
It wasn't until very near graduation that Peter began to feel his worries cropping up again. He was sure that he would graduate this year, so he wouldn't have to deal with seeing the people who had tormented him for so many years ever again. But he wasn't sure what would happen after graduation. He knew that he couldn't afford to go to college, and even if he could have, he didn't want to. He'd been in school for most of his life, and all but the last 6 months of it had been traumatizing to say the least. He couldn't see himself voluntarily putting himself through four more years of it.
Ever since he'd left his parents' house, the idea of pursuing music had seemed like more and more of a possibility. Michelle had managed to convince him to play for her family, and for Mr. Ames and his sister, and everyone seemed to think he had real talent. With so many people he cared about backing him and telling him that he could really make something of himself in music, he actually began to believe it himself. He had plans to travel west. He'd heard that musicians were making it big in the coastal cities, and he was sure he could find odd jobs here and there to feed himself until he found a way to support himself with music.
Michelle, on the other hand, would definitely be going to college. She'd already been accepted at several schools, and just had to decide which one she wanted to attend. They would have to be separated - maybe for years. Peter was not looking forward to it. He tried to put his worries on the back burner and concentrate on his studies, but it became more and more difficult. He found himself making excuses to spend even more time with Michelle than usual. Michelle didn't seem to mind at all. They were both well aware that their time together was growing short.
The day Peter graduated might have been the very proudest day of his life. The Ames' were there to support him, and of course the Jacobson's had come, too. They were there for Michelle, but they cheered loudly for him as well. The looks of pride and joy on Mr. Ames' face, and on Mr. Jacobson's were the world to him.
Peter spent the entire summer after graduation with Michelle. They went everywhere together, and Martin started teasing him about when he was going to finally produce a ring. Peter took the idea seriously.
"I wish I could do it, you know," Peter said when they went to her room after one of Martin's teasing sessions.
"Do what?" Michelle asked. "Smack him for me?"
"No," Peter said with a chuckle. His serious tone returned almost immediately. "I... I wish I could buy you a ring."
Michelle blushed deeply, and lowered her eyes. "I..." She looked into his eyes. "I would accept it, Peter," she said seriously.
It was Peter's turn to blush. "But I can't," he said softly. "I can't provide for you on a stock-boy's salary. And I can't make you follow me around some musician's town while I try to make a living with a guitar."
"I'd follow you anywhere."
Peter looked at her for several moments, letting those words sink in. Did she mean what he thought she meant? "You'd give up-"
"Anything," she said. "Besides, it wouldn't be giving up. It would be gaining happiness."
Peter flushed a deep red. He wanted to say yes. He wanted to take her with him wherever it was he planned to go. But it wasn't fair. "Michelle, I can't do that," he said sadly. "It isn't fair to your family. Or to you. You have a great future."
"And I want you in it!"
"I will be," he said firmly. "After you finish school."
"That's four years at least," she said, eyes glistening with tears. "Would you really wait four years for me?"
"I'd wait forever," he said seriously. Her eyes widened, and Peter nodded. "I'll wait for you, if you'll wait for me."
"I will," she said fervently. He brushed the tears from her cheek. Slowly, tenderly, he pulled her face close to his and kissed her.
Michelle stared at the little teddy bear and shook her head. "I can't take this!"
"Why not?" Peter asked. "I want you to have him."
"But, Peter, your Grandmother gave him to you."
"Exactly," he said. "He's very special to me, and I know you'll take good care of him. Who knows what would happen to him if I have to carry him around the country in a backpack or a duffel bag?"
"Please," he said. "I want you to keep him. To remind you of me."
"I could never forget you, Peter," she whispered.
"If... if you bring him back to me when you have your degree, I promise I'll give you something even better in return."
She smiled brightly and squeezed him in a tight hug. "I love you," she whispered.
Peter blushed and kissed her cheek. "I love you, too."
Michelle sighed and picked up her suitcase. Peter took it from her, picked up her second bag and walked with her toward the gate where her father and brother stood. "'Bout time you two finally admitted it," Martin said. Mr. Jacobson just smiled at them.
Peter couldn't keep tears from coming to his eyes when he watched the train leave the station, and waved goodbye to Michelle for the last time. He didn't feel so bad when he noticed that neither Martin nor his father had dry eyes.
Two weeks later, Peter was on his own journey. Mr. Ames had given him his graduation present - $700 to help him start out on his way in the world. Mr. Jacobson had also given him a gift of another $300, which had stunned and touched Peter so much he'd had to fight tears.
He'd made his tearful goodbyes to the four people in town who cared about him, and set out on the road west without giving a second thought about to parents. They were the darkest part of his past, and Peter didn't have time for painful memories. He looked out of the Grayhound bus window and said a quiet goodbye to everything he'd ever known. He smiled. His future wasn't certain, but then, neither was anyone else's. The trials of his childhood and his teenage years were in the past, and he was sure that his future would be a bright one.
Six years later...
Michelle sighed and stared at the classified ads in frustration. How hard could it really be to find a place to live around here? She was beginning to wonder if coming to California was as bad an idea as her brother seemed to think it was. "When are you going to settle down?" he would ask her. "You can't spend your whole life looking for the perfect group, you know. What was wrong with the chamber group from Georgia?"
She'd said the same thing she'd said about the flute choir from Tampa and the orchestra in Maine. "They weren't for me."
Eventually, she knew she would have to come to terms with the fact that it wasn't the groups that weren't for her. It was the fact that Peter was not with her. She'd tried for over a year to find him, but she hadn't had any success. Her last letter from Peter had come two years before she graduated. He'd told her he was moving, but wasn't sure of his address yet. She moved to housing off-campus a few months later, and didn't have any way of getting her new address to Peter.
Mr. Ames' sister had passed away shortly before she graduated, and Mr. Ames himself passed away soon after. Apparently, a distant cousin had handled all the arrangements, but hadn't held on to many of their "unimporant" documents, including the forwarding address for the young man they'd cared for half a decade before. She'd heard that a young man no one seemed to know attended the funeral, but he hadn't given any personal information to the family.
Her father had relocated again for the job, and Martin was in training at a Police Academy in Detroit. Neither of them had heard from Peter any more recently than Michelle. She tried many times to locate a Peter Thorkelson in directories for several states, but she had no luck with any of them. It was almost as if Peter had dropped off the face of the earth.
Michelle sighed again and forced herself to focus on the classifieds. Too expensive. Too big. Too small. Too far. She was about to toss the paper and try again tomorrow, when she caught sight of the "roommates wanted" ads. There were a few that looked promising, but one in particular caught her eye. It was a four-bedroom place in Malibu, overlooking the beach, and the rent seemed too good to be true. "Are they serious?" she said aloud. She jotted down the address and decided to take a look for herself. It couldn't hurt, even though there had to be some kind of catch for the amount of rent they were asking.
She took the bus to the proper address. The view was indeed breathtaking, and the house was right on the beach. Michelle walked up the stairs to the proper floor. She crossed her fingers, hoping that the offer hadn't already been grabbed by someone else.
Michelle took a deep breath and knocked on the door. After a few minutes, she could hear rustling, followed by quick footsteps. The door opened and a tall, thin man smiled down at her. She was a little surprised by his appearance. He had dark brown, wavy hair that grew well below his ears. He wore black slacks and a red shirt with two rows of large white buttons down the front. On his head was a green wool cap, with a little pom on top.
"Hi," he said, smiling down at her. "Can I help you?"
Michelle smiled at his southern twang. Sounded like he was from Texas. "I came in response to your ad," she said. "Do you still have the extra room available?"
"We sure do. Come on in, miss, I'll show you around. M'name's Mike, by the way."
"I'm Michelle," she said, shaking his hand. "Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you. This here's the living room. You can set your bag down anywhere." Michelle put her suitcase down and looked around. There were several bizarre decorations on the walls - street signs, framed quotes, even a fake moose head. The living room was definitely lived in. Magazines littered the coffee table, jackets had been draped over chairs, and there were several sheets of paper covered in messy handwriting on the sofa. "Sorry about the mess," Mike mumbled, straightening up the papers. "I think my roommate's been in here writing songs again and forgot to clean up."
Michelle brightened up immediately. "Your roommate is a musician?"
"Yeah, we all are," Mike said, smiling. "Gee, most people don't seem to like that."
"Hey, Mike, have you seen my- oh!" Michelle looked toward newcomer with the deep, British accent, and was surprised to see that it belonged to a man only a shade taller than herself. His brown hair was also long, and he wore an outfit identical to Mike's. "Sorry, I didn't know we had company," he said.
"She's here about the ad," Mike explained. "Her name's Michelle, and she likes musicians."
"Really?" He flashed her a dazzling smile. "That's wonderful! So, you wouldn't have a problem with us rehearsing during the day?"
"Not at all," Michelle said.
"Great!" He looked past her, squinted, then smiled and reached a hand under one of the couch cushions. He pulled out a huge, bright red maraca. "Here it is! Now if I can only find the other four..."
"Four what, Davy?" Another man entered, and Michelle began to see why the rent was so cheap.
"Um... how many people live here?" she asked quietly.
"Four," Mike said.
"Four what?" the newest man asked again.
"People," Mike said.
"Maracas," the other man - Davy - said at the same time.
"Yeeesh! Sorry! Hey, who's this?"
"Her name's Michelle. She's interested in the spare bed."
"She likes musicians, Micky," Davy informed him.
"Oh yeah? Cool!" Micky came over and shook hands. He was about as tall as Mike, though he was a bit thicker, with wild, curly hair that made him seem even taller than he was. He, too, was wearing the black and red uniform. "Did you get the tour? C'mon, I'll show you around."
Without actually waiting for an answer, Micky took over showing her the house. Mike trailed along behind, adding comments as they went along. She was shown the spare bedroom, which was a very nice size, already furnished with a small bed. The other rooms were just as messy and insanely decorated as the living room had been. Mike apologized for the mess in every room and made an effort to tidy up one item or another before Micky bounded off to another room. Once in a while, Davy would poke his head in and ask if anyone had seen one or more of his maracas.
By the time the tour ended, Michelle was convinced that she wanted to take it. The place was large and comfortable looking (even if it was messy), and the view was wonderful. They had an entire band-stand set up in front of a huge bay window, and the idea of living with other musicians was appealing, even if she did play classical while they apparently played rock. It was a little disconcerting to think that she would be living with four men, but Mike assured her that the downstairs bathroom would be reserved only for her, and she could put a lock on her door for privacy if she wanted.
"Well," Mike said, when they had gathered back in the living room. "What do you think?"
"I like it a lot," she said. "Do I have to sign an agreement or something?"
"Oh, no, we don't have a contract," Mike said.
"Is the room available immediately?"
"Sure," Micky said.
"Er... wait a minute," Davy said. "Shouldn't we let Peter met her first?"
Michelle suppressed the thrill she always got when she heard that name. Cut it out, she told herself. She knew it was silly to get her hopes up, when Peter must be one of the most common names in America, but she never could make herself get used to hearing it without thinking about her Peter.
"You think he'd mind?" Micky asked.
"Not sure," Mike said. "But Davy's right, we shouldn't make a final decision without asking what he thinks."
"Where is he, anyway?" Micky asked.
"His turn to pay the bills," Davy replied. "He should be back any minute. Would you mind waiting around a bit?"
"Not at all," Michelle said.
"Make yourself at home," Mike said. "Like something to drink?"
"Oh, no thanks. I'll be fine."
Their hostly duties fulfilled, the young men wandered off to do whatever it was they had been doing before she came. Micky trotted to the kitchen, while Davy and Mike walked over to the dais where the instruments were set up. Davy counted out four red maracas, sighed and began the hunt for the last one. Mike picked up a guitar and started tuning the strings.
Michelle sighed. Must not be my Peter after all, she thought. As far as she knew, Peter didn't play any of the other instruments she saw. She was annoyed with herself for even entertaining the idea enough to be disappointed.
She waited for around ten minutes, glancing at the magazines and feeling a little like she was waiting for a dentist's appointment. She hoped this fourth roommate was nice, and liked her well enough to want to live with her. She was already getting used to the idea of staying in the downstairs bedroom, and maybe helping these men get the house organized. Talk about a bunch of bachelors. She itched to start picking up, even though she had no idea where anything belonged, and she didn't eve like housework.
Finally, she heard the door open, and a man walked in, also wearing black slacks. She could see part of his red sleeves, but not much else. He carried a pyramid of grocery bags, the third one reaching above his head, and Michelle wondered how he'd even made it in the door. Mike looked up from his guitar and rushed over to help with the groceries. "I gotcha," he said, taking two of the bags away.
"Thanks, Mike." Michelle gasped at the sound of his voice, and her jaw dropped when Mike moved away and she could see the face of the fourth roommate. Peter! His blonde hair was much longer than she remembered - almost collar length. His long bangs were swept to one side, and he was thicker, and more muscular than he'd been in high school. Other than that, he was practically unchanged. Same twinkling brown eyes, same cute, pointy chin, same gorgeous dimple.
He tossed a set of keys onto the table by the door and turned toward the kitchen. He stopped short when he saw Michelle staring at him, and the bag of groceries fell to the floor. Michelle heard footsteps coming from the direction of the kitchen. "Oh, Pe-tah!" Davy's voice, accent coming through strong in his exasperation.
"What happened," Mike asked. "Oh, man, I hope those weren't the eggs."
Peter didn't seem to hear anything that was said to him. He kept his eyes on her, and Michelle kept her eyes on him. She stood up slowly, and took a hesitant step toward him, almost afraid that if she moved too fast, he might disappear. "Pe... Peter?" she whispered.
He smiled broadly. Seconds later, he was in front of her, squeezing her in a breath-taking hug. Michelle hugged him back, gripping him as tight as she could. They stayed that way for a long time, the rest of the room fading into the background - unimportant. Finally, Peter released her, still keeping hold of her arms, and stared at her, eyes glistening with tears. "I can't believe it," he whispered. "It's really you." Michelle could only nod, practically blinded by her own happy tears.
"Ahem." Michelle jumped slightly, and turned to see Mike, Davy and Micky all staring at them. "So... y'all know each other, then?" Mike asked.
"This is Michelle!" Peter said, as if that explained it all.
"Well we know her name, Pe- ohhhhhh." Understanding dawned. "You mean, your Michelle? The Michelle?"
"Yes!" Peter said excitedly. Michelle grinned, amused by being referred to as THE Michelle.
"Hey, well congratulations, Pete!" Mike cried, coming to pat Peter on the back. "Ya found her! Or, she found you." The others gathered around, giving their congratulations as well.
"I guess it's settled, then," Davy said. "We already agreed, and we were just waiting for you to get home so we could find out if you'd be okay with having her for our new roommate."
"Okay? I'd love it! You saw the ad?" Peter asked. Michelle nodded, and he squeezed her into another embrace. "This is perfect! Oh, I don't think I've ever been so happy in my whole life."
"Me either," Michelle said, unable to wipe the grin off her face. "Oh! Hang on a minute." She went to the other side of the room and crouched down beside her suitcase. She unzipped the bag, and pulled out a soft package, wrapped in a smooth piece of blue cloth. She handled it gently, and presented it to Peter almost reverently. "This belongs to you."
Peter looked slightly confused, but she could see his smile widening as he opened the package. He let out a joyful laugh when he saw the teddy bear, and squeezed it to his chest. "Wow, he's as good as new!" he cried. "I knew you I could trust you with him!"
Michelle smiled, feelings of incredible joy welling up inside of her. "I want you to know," she said, kissing him lightly on the cheek. "I intend to hold you to that trade you promised me."