Jen Meets Her Match, Chapter 4

(Looking for Chapter 1? It’s here:  Chapter 1, Double-Dog Dare.)

Chapter 4. Double Anchovies

I knew Frank had gone insane when the very next thing he did was pick up the kitchen phone and order five pizzas. I just stared at him. If anything, it was more surreal than the zombie. Frank still held the shotgun, but his wand had vanished.

He made another brief phone call, then unplugged the phone and took it out to the patio, where he plugged it into a weatherproof extension jack. He dragged over a deck chair for me and I flopped down into it, glad to be away from the zombie’s stench. I still didn’t feel entirely well, and the thought of pizza wasn’t helping. Frank dragged over a chair for himself. The phone rang.

Frank picked it up. “This is Frank. Yeah, that’s right. It’s all over, or Round One is, anyway. The mess is out front. We’re around back. Oh, and call the cops for me, will you? They know you.”

Soon a couple of vans pulled up in the alley. We could just see them over the back fence. Men piled out and Frank shouted, “Come on in!” Six armed and uniformed private security guards trooped in. Four carried shotguns.

Frank greeted a middle-aged man who was clearly in charge. “Hey, Bill. Don’t let anyone mess up the crime scene out front. D.R. should be here any minute. Oh, and this is my girlfriend.” He turned to me. “Jen, meet Bill the Vampire Slayer.”

We shook hands. I’d heard of Bill, actually. He was a local celebrity.

Frank treated Bill with respect but not deference, as if they were peers. Bill named the rest of his crew and departed for the front of the house with two of his men.

A few minutes later we heard a couple of vehicles pull up in front, and we soon saw a man in a rumpled suit who turned out to be a police detective, accompanied by a uniformed cop. Frank stood and introduced himself to both men, shaking hands. He introduced me with cheerful possessiveness as his girlfriend. I belonged to him and he made sure everyone knew it. I kind of liked it.

Detective Cartwright asked us questions while Sergeant Dickens took shorthand notes.

Frank didn’t tone down his jokey obnoxiousness much, but he answered serious questions with precision.

Before we’d gotten much further than names, ages, and home addresses, four men in rubber boots, rubber aprons, and rubber gloves showed up.

Detective Cartwright looked irritated and said, “Hands off the crime scene until my photographer and the coroner are done with it.” He told the sergeant to light a fire under the coroner, then decided to point out the boundary of the crime scene to the newcomers himself, and they all left.

“Who were they?” I asked.

“Disaster recovery,” said Frank. “They’ll clean up the mess and hang a new door. Tonight, if I’m lucky. You okay, baby doll?”

“I guess,” I said. “What happens next, lambkin?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Probably everyone stands around until the coroner says, ‘Yep, that’s a dead zombie, all right.’ He’ll call an ambulance to cart away the pieces and then D.R. cleans up. Bill and the boys will stick around until I have a front door again. With any luck, someone will remember to follow the back trail. Maybe they’ll find out what happened.”

I thought about this. “I should probably call my grandma.”

He gestured to the phone and said, “Feel free.”

Grandma was happy to hear from me. A news flash about a zombie attack had come over the radio, but without details. Grandma said she didn’t want me walking home. I didn’t blame her. I told her I’d call again when I was ready to leave.

Suburban zombie attacks were rare at the time (except near graveyards), but they happened. They were often random, or random-ish: the worse the deterioration of the zombie, the more confused they were about the unfinished business that reanimated them in the first place. Eventually they settled for random violence and human flesh. Especially brains, of course. But I had a hunch that Frank’s house hadn’t been chosen at random.

I hung up the phone and noticed that Frank looked like he’d lost his last friend. It scared me. “Why so sad, bubby?”

He took my hand. “Oh, you know. I finally get you alone and zombies and cops barge in. I wouldn’t blame you if you bailed on me.”

Finally? You only met me at lunch!”

“Don’t be prosaic. We’ve been destined to be together since always.”

“Oh, we have, have we?”

He made a vague gesture with his free hand, indicating the swarm of strangers. “Ask anybody.”

“But that means you were two-timing me when you were with … I’m so sorry!”

For some reason, my reference to his lost love didn’t strike home this time. He waved away my concern. “Yep, that’s me. I’m the worst kind of cad. When I look back on all the terrible things I did, all I can say is, ‘Wow, was I cool or what?’”

“What.”

“But I’m sure I can be redeemed by the love of a good woman.” He paused for dramatic effect. “I don’t suppose you know one?”

“You have to settle for me, big boy. I have two dollars invested in you. I own you.”

“Fair enough.” He smiled at me with dancing eyes, his sadness gone.

The coroner and the pizzas arrived at the same time. The coroner, an elderly man with a cherubic smile, was ecstatic that one of the pizzas had—I kid you not—double anchovies. It takes all kinds.

Frank’s five pizzas were none too many. There were at least fifteen people present, not counting me and Frank. The only one he’d met before was Bill, so he was playing host to a mob of strangers. Frank dragged out a couple of six-packs of beer and one of soda from somewhere, along with a bag of ice from the freezer, and work ceased for a time. Business was brisk and none of the beers stayed on ice for more than thirty seconds.

I was surprised at all the people who were happily drinking on duty, but Frank told me that “on duty” and “one beer” were never mutually exclusive as far as he could tell.

I took a soda. It helped. I couldn’t touch the pizza, though. Not even the ones without anchovies. Nor could Frank. It was one of those little things that reminded me that he was a kid like me. He wasn’t like the hardened professionals who were eating his pizza and drinking his beer. The zombie had put him off his feed, too.

The cops resumed their interview over pizza. Frank revealed with pride that I was the heroic zombie slayer, not him. Both I and the shotgun were admired and praised by everyone present. It felt good! I mean, really good. I’d impressed the cynical veterans. It felt a lot better than winning another spelling bee.

I was afraid Frank would get into trouble. I’d heard that sawed-off shotguns were illegal. Apparently it was half an inch longer than the legal minimum.

Soon everyone was back at work. The zombie was gathered into two body bags and taken away in an ambulance. The coroner and the cops departed and the disaster recovery folks got to work. They were keen on chlorine bleach and hydrogen peroxide and strongly perfumed detergents.

The good news was that the door frame was fine and they could get an equivalent door installed tonight. This would be followed by a stronger one in a few days, along with another upgraded door for the back, and a third for the doorway between the garage and the house. They quoted a price that made my eyes bug out, but Frank didn’t turn a hair.

The bad news was that the white shag carpet had cleaned up beautifully and no longer had any stains or smells. We’d hoped it was ruined.

Soon it was time for me to think about heading home. It was a beautiful afternoon and it was silly not to walk, though Frank offered to call me a cab. I called Grandma and she arrived at a typical family compromise. She told my twin younger brothers to run over and escort me back. They either missed the implication about their own expendability or were too excited about the crime scene to care. In a few minutes they trotted into the front yard, which was already presentable again.

“Frank,” I said, “these are my loathsome brothers, Stuart and Roy. They’re both eleven.”

Frank shook hands. He hadn’t shaken hands with me when he introduced himself. Just everyone else on the planet. What was his deal? He said, “You guys look too much alike. One of you should grow a mustache.”

“I’ll do it,” said Stuart.

“No, me!” said Roy.

“Have a race,” said Frank. “First one to pass as Groucho Marx wins.”

“That’s just shoe polish,” said Roy scornfully.

“Karl Marx, then.”

“Are you really Jen’s boyfriend?” asked Stuart.

“Sure. I’ll prove it to you. Call her a name and I’ll punch you out.”

They both blinked at this offer. Frank added, “Boyfriends aren’t just romantic. They’re possessive and protective and violent. Though today I let Jen do all the killing.”

That distracted them. Frank took them to admire the splintered, buckshot-chewed door. They turned and looked at me with wide eyes. They were disappointed that the zombie had been removed. Not even a whiff of it remained. The disaster recovery people were good.

Then it was time to go. “You’re not really going to kiss her, are you?” asked Stuart.

Which of course meant that Frank not only kissed me, he did it with unnecessary theatricality that made me giggle, more or less ruining it. The jerk.

And then I walked home with my brothers, who were all agog and danced around me asking stupid questions, most of which I couldn’t answer.

And that was my first day as Frank’s girlfriend.

Continued in Chapter 5, “Blind Keyhole.”

Jen Meets Her Match, Chapter 3

(Looking for Chapter 1? It’s here:  Chapter 1, Double-Dog Dare.)

Chapter 3. Shotgun Kiss

The TV had turned itself on. It treated us to a wide-angle side view of the front steps, complete with zombie. Just one zombie, but that was plenty. Nice security system he had there. Too bad he really needed it.

Now, we all know girls who think zombies are to die for, in a manner of speaking. Maybe you’re one of them, God help you. You can have my share.

This particular zombie wasn’t the desiccated, mummy-like type. No, it was the juicy kind, fairly fresh without being anywhere near fresh enough. It had been young and muscular. A man in his twenties who died in a car crash, at a guess. If it made it into the house, the white carpet was done for and we’d be lucky if the smell ever went away completely.

“Frank, honey, this is not the after-school activity I signed up for!”

“Yeah, no kidding. Let’s retreat to the safe room and let Security handle this one.”

What safe room? But retreat was a good idea … wasn’t it?

He added, “If they can.”

“You’re not filling me with confidence here, snookums.”

“Oh, we’ll be all right. It’s just a zombie.”

The safe room, it turned out, was the master bathroom. Frank locked the surprisingly heavy door and barred it with three steel bars he pulled from the linen closet.

There was a phone on the wall and he picked it up and dialed, tapping his foot until someone answered. Then he said, “Yeah, hello, it’s Frank Barron. I’m in the safe room with a guest. That’s right. There’s a zombie at the front door. No, of course it’s after us! If it was selling encyclopedias, it’d carry a sample case!” He slammed down the phone. “Idiot.”

I felt trapped. What were we doing in here? I felt like the room was a vending machine and we were the candy bars. We were helpless, reduced to hoping the monsters were all out of dimes. I wanted out! “I’m starting to freak out, sweetie.”

“Do you want me to comfort you?”

“Get rid of the damned zombie, you moron!”

He laughed. “Atta girl.” He swelled with purpose. He really did. He seemed larger. More dangerous.

There was a little portable TV on the counter. He turned it on. It showed the zombie pounding away slowly with its fists. The front door was already badly splintered.

Frank barely glanced at it. He turned away and opened the cabinet that concealed the water heater. Next, he demonstrated that the water heater was a fake. It spun around like a lazy Susan and revealed … a treasure trove.

He pulled out a nickel-plated double-barreled sawed-off shotgun and handed it to me. “You know how to use this?”

I’d done some skeet shooting. Who hasn’t? I snapped the action partway open. It was loaded, all right. I closed the action. Oh, my. It made the most wonderful muted clicking sound, announcing that Death was in the room. “Just point and shoot, lover boy.”

“Remember to cock the hammers, too, pumpkin.” He handed me a canvas ammo pouch and I slung it over my shoulder.

For himself, he took out a slim brown wooden rod about a foot and a half long, tapering at one end and with a wrapped leather grip at the other. Too thin to be a nightstick. It was a magic wand. Had to be. A businesslike magic wand. Oversized and without a trace of ornamentation. He put its leather strap around his right wrist and said, “Ready, tootsie?”

“Don’t call me tootsie, sweetums.”

“Ready, Jen?”

“Let’s do this?” I didn’t mean for it to come out as a question, but it did.

He bent down and kissed me on the lips. It was quick, over almost before it began. “Come on.”

Yes, that’s right. That’s the story of my first kiss. But I have to admit that it wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t bad at all. Okay, okay! It was wonderful. Just you try kissing a boy while holding a sawed-off shotgun loaded with (as I found out later) silver buckshot while a zombie is doing its best to break in and kill you. It’s vivid, that’s what it is. It made me feel special. Loved. Invincible.

Frank took the lead and we strode back into the living room. The zombie had battered a hole in the front door that gave us a good view of its chest and head. It saw us, gave a strangled roar, and redoubled its efforts. The hole wasn’t big enough to let the zombie in, but its stench was coming through loud and clear.

“You go first, sweet cheeks,” said Frank. “Just one barrel at a time. That thing kicks like a mule.”

Maybe I should have been scared out of my wits, but Frank was confident enough for both of us. I made a mental note to murder him if he ever called me “sweet cheeks” again. I cocked both hammers and raised the shotgun. I pulled the stock firmly against my shoulder and squeezed the first trigger.

Geysers of rotting gore spurted from the zombie’s chest as the buckshot struck home. Some sprayed into the room. Fortunately, we were too far back to be spattered. The zombie gave a muffled bellow—muffled, I suppose, because the buckshot had perforated its lungs. It fell back out of sight but then popped up like a Jack-in-the-box. It was looking distinctly ragged. I gave it the second barrel, then snapped open the action to reload.

Frank shouted, “That’s right, world! She’s my girlfriend!” Then all was quiet.

My fingers were trembling, making it hard to load the two new shells. I wanted to curse and rush things, but I made myself slow down. I found a pace my fingers could manage, and that felt a lot better.

The click when I closed the action did its magic again. Bring it on! I took a step forward, intending to peer out the greatly enlarged hole in the door. Frank put a hand on my shoulder. “No using the front door, remember?”

A glance at TV showed that my second shot had left the zombie more or less headless. It wasn’t even twitching anymore. The battle was over.

My excitement faded quickly. It was replaced by … other feelings. I sagged. “Can I throw up now?”

Frank deftly relieved me of the shotgun and led me to the hall bathroom. His tone was gentle. “All the comforts of home. Nothing’s too good for my zombie-slaying girlfriend.”

I vomited into the toilet and said weakly, “I promised my father I wouldn’t kill on a first date.”

“No problemo. It was already dead.”

“Frank, darling?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re a jerk.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not.”

“Are too!”

“What? And I thought everything was going so well!”

I couldn’t help smiling at that. I waited for my stomach to settle (or not, as the case may be). Frank’s attention was mostly on the front door. It had become a merely nominal barrier. He watched me out of the corner of his eye, though. Every time I looked at him, we both cracked up. I don’t know why. A minute later I got to my feet, used the bathroom tumbler to rinse my mouth, and said, “Frank, honey?”

“Babe?”

“If this is a quiet afternoon at home, what the heck is going to happen at the dance?”

To be continued in Chapter 4, “Double Anchovies.”

Jen Meets Her Match, Chapter 2

(Looking for Chapter 1? It’s here:  Chapter 1, Double-Dog Dare.)

Chapter 2. White Shag Carpet

Let’s face it: my new boyfriend was unpredictable, even weird. I wondered what he’d do when we met on the front steps after school. I half-expected to want to hit him with a brick within seconds. He did not disappoint. He walked over with a cheerful smile and looked me slowly up and down.

This was a first for me and I didn’t like it. Not one bit. I felt myself blushing.

He said, “Come on,” turned on his heel, and walked away.

I had to run to catch up. “That was the least boyfriendly greeting I’ve ever seen. I hate you!”

“Oh, it could have been so much worse.”

“It could have been a lot better, too!”

“Jen, you’re the love of my life, but—”

“I am?”

He hesitated, then said, “Love of my life du jour?”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

He stopped walking and looked around. We were more or less alone. He said, “Time out.”

That scared me. It really did. There was a method to his madness. I knew that. The protective shell of obnoxiousness and nonsense really helped. It was safer, somehow. Still … “Okay.”

“I’m hopeful, Jen. I know we just met, but I have a good feeling about us. I think this could be real.”

Weren’t we too young for that? Wasn’t it doomed to be over in a week, a month, a year at most? He didn’t know anything about me! But … I liked him. “Me, too.”

“Just so you know. Time in.”

“Can I hold your hand?” Asking made me feel five years old, but I needed something from him. My stomach knotted at the thought that he’d make fun of me for asking.

“Sure. You’re my girlfriend.”

It felt awkward, taking his hand for the first time. I was glad we didn’t have an audience.

And so the rest of the walk was romantic, right? Don’t be stupid. After behaving himself for less than a block, Frank sped up, slowed down, spun us around in circles, and even tried to steer me into trees and mailboxes.

Okay, I admit it was really funny. And I almost managed to steer him into a lamp post. When I finally stopped laughing, I announced, “Rule Number Four. Knock it off, or I’m going to need a barf bag and you’re going to need an undertaker. Sweetums.”

“Whatever you say, my precious little rose petal.” He behaved after that.

Once he stopped horsing around, walking hand-in-hand with Frank was delightful. I’m not saying I’ll ever write a sonnet about it, but he wanted to hold hands with me.

This all took place in a town you’ve never heard of in California, by the way. It was a pleasant, sunny day. Most of them are.

After a few more blocks he pointed out his house, a single-story ranch house with an attached two-car garage. It was newly painted and the yard was unnaturally neat and trim.

“You just bought this?” I asked.

“Yep. Only had it about a month. Oh, promise me you’ll never open the front door.”

“Why not?”

“Booby traps.”

“Fair enough.” But I didn’t believe him. No, I assumed the living room had a white carpet. White carpets are one of those warning signs of insanity. You know, like wearing underpants on your head. Once someone installs white carpet, they demand that no one use the front door and that everyone levitate when crossing the living room. A white shag carpet means they’re incurable.

We went around to the back, which was just as tidy as the front and featured a patio, a swimming pool, and a redwood hot tub, leaving space for only a token patch of lawn. Redwood furniture with those lumpy waterproof cushions completed the ensemble.

1974 had a lot of trendy methods for getting people naked. It was a peak year for that sort of thing. In addition to streaking, nude hot-tubbing was a favorite. I looked sourly at Frank, but he was unlocking the door and didn’t notice.

Frank opened the door and waved me in. “Home sweet home.”

The kitchen was too clean and too empty. By the look of it, it only had about half the dishes and cookware you’d expect. Frank opened a drawer and pulled out a key. “This is for you. It works on the back door. Always lock it behind you. Don’t prop it open for a second unless I say it’s okay.”

He should not be giving me a key already. I accepted it anyway. “Why not?”

“Burglar alarm. Oh, and take off your shoes. White shag carpet in the living room.”

Do I ever get tired of being right? No, I do not.

He gave me the grand tour. The themes were “unlived-in” and “upscale.” This was a good neighborhood, but the furnishings were a couple of notches beyond what you’d expect. All the furniture was classy and it was either antique or brand-new: nothing in the middle. The living room had a wonderful antique leather couch along with a new quadraphonic stereo with two turntables, AM/FM receiver, reel-to-reel tape, and cassette tape. No eight-track, though. A real audio-snob setup. It was all turned off, but I glanced at the receiver. It was tuned to the local Classical FM station. Yes, I really do notice things like that. I read the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was ten and trained myself to observe.

There was also an enormous Zenith color TV, its dial set to the local NBC station. A shelf held a row of Victorian or even earlier clocks and instruments, all glass and polished brass and wood.

Frank’s bedroom was the most lived-in room of the house, but that didn’t take much. It was actually quite tidy except for his desk, where a few books and notes were scattered. No posters on the walls, no stereo. He hadn’t really moved in yet.

A glance at the dial on his clock radio showed it was tuned to the local Top Forty station and his alarm was at 5:30. He must be some kind of athlete. He looked fit enough.

The master bedroom wasn’t being used as a bedroom at all, but as a library. Some of the bookcases had locked doors. Not glass-fronted doors, either. Solid wood. For secrecy or security? I yearned for a peek inside.

A light was blinking on the library phone. The light on the kitchen wall phone had also been blinking, but Frank had missed it. He said, “Make yourself scarce for a couple of minutes, honey bun. I need to call my answering service.” He picked up the receiver and dialed.

I continued my tour. There were two other bedrooms, one with a king-sided water bed occupying pretty much the entire room and one with a double bed. Both had some clothes and shoes in the closets, but they gave me the impression of being guest rooms nonetheless. This emboldened me to open a couple of drawers. They were empty.

Frank lived alone.

Well, that explained a lot. But how awful for him! His parents were not only absent, they’d been gone for a long time. Everything about the house had been set up assuming they’d be gone. The tidiness of the yard, pool, and house meant that Frank had services that came in and took care of them for him. Plus a burglar alarm service and an answering service. Frank had the best loneliness money could buy.

But it was worse than that. This was a new school for him. A new town. He didn’t know anyone. And to top it all off, he was mourning a lost love.

No wonder he was rushing things! The poor kid must be so desolate that he’d fall in love with a cardboard cutout.

It wasn’t a comforting thought. Or a flattering one. Jen Simonson, the Amazing Cardboard Girl. But the fact remained … I liked him. And at least his loneliness implied that I’d matter to him. I wanted to matter to him.

I wandered back into the kitchen and looked in the refrigerator. It was about one-third full of the usual stuff. Always the most expensive brands you could buy at the local Safeway. Most people like a mix of cheap brands and premium brands, but whoever stocked this fridge (and I guessed it wasn’t Frank) bought the expensive stuff on reflex. Interesting.

Frank came back out. He looked cheerful enough. “You didn’t die of boredom?”

“I did! I totally did, but this funky guy with a beard and a halo showed up and slapped me a few times. He brought me down and everything’s groovy.”

“Glad to hear it.” He made a gesture indicating the house and said, “What do you think?”

“Frank, darling, you know I love you, but a white carpet is a sign of a diseased mind.” I felt a little dizzy at how easily the words “I love you” escaped my lips. But it was just a joke, right? And I’d said, “I hate you” earlier. Maybe it just balanced things out?

“Jen, honey, sweetheart, pumpkin, I couldn’t agree more. Wasn’t my idea. But what I meant was, ‘You know my methods, Watson. Apply them.’”

“From my observations, Holmes, I’ve deduced that you have oodles and bags of money. You live alone. You lead a double life. You jerk! What have you dragged me into?”

“It’s not that bad. Mom should be back in a month or two. And it’s only, oh, one and a quarter lives. One and a half, tops. How creeped out are you?”

Creeped out? Me? “Don’t be feeble-minded, sweetie. Get back to the business at hand.”

He looked blank for a moment, then said, “Oh, right, sorry.” He smiled and looked me up and down. I liked it better than last time. “Jen, my pet, you look scrumptious this afternoon. If you’re not too busy, step over here and put your arms around me.”

So I did.

I’d more than half-expected an embrace from Frank to devolve into a tickle fight or something equally ridiculous. But Frank behaved himself. Thank goodness for Rule Number Four.

A hug from Frank is like his handshake: definite, masculine, accepting. Something about it told me that he’d set aside all his outrageousness and I could trust him completely. I relaxed against him with a happy sigh.

A tension that I hadn’t known he was carrying left him. He shuddered.

I almost burst into tears. I don’t know why. I told myself it was just the aching loneliness of a boy who’d been abandoned by his family. I knew how empty he must feel. Oh, yes. But it wasn’t love. It wasn’t about me. It couldn’t be.

But when I looked up at him, he was smiling at me. As if I were beautiful. As if he loved me. I let myself be swept into the dream and smiled back as he bent down to kiss me.

A thunderous knock on the front door made me jump. Why me? Then there was another knock. Really loud. Of course there was.

Frank straightened and swore under his breath. Then he crossed to the front door and peered through the peephole. The pounding continued, with a tremendous knock every couple of seconds.

Frank turned around. He looked puzzled. “I wasn’t expecting any zombies. How about you?”

To be continued in Chapter 3, “Shotgun Kiss.”

Jen Meets Her Match, Chapter 1

This is the opening chapter of one of my two in-progress young adult urban fantasy novels, Jen Meets Her Match, which I’ll publish in paperback and Kindle format before the end of 2020. Let me know what you think!

Chapter 1. Double-Dog Dare

My boyfriend is a real piece of work. Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard of girls whose boyfriends are vampires, werewolves, or even zombies. Those girls are lightweights. I don’t mean to brag, but they wouldn’t last five minutes with my boyfriend. Not that Frank is undead or anything. That would be too easy.

It all started during the first week of school. Sophomore year. Wednesday, September 4, 1974. Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby” was at the top of the charts, but other than that I was doing okay. I was minding my own business when Frank showed up next to me in the lunch line. He was new and we’d never spoken, but we had a few classes together and I knew his name.

What does Frank look like? He’s about a head taller than me. Reasonably attractive. Pleasantly fit. A good, solid 8.0. Maybe an 8.5.

Me? Don’t ask. Braces. Not enough curves. I’m Jen, by the way. Hi.

Frank plunked down his tray and told the lunch lady, “I’ll have the spécialité de la maison, please,” by which he meant the usual slop. Then he gave me a smile and said, “So, Jen, do you have a date for the dance on Friday?”

“I’m not going to the dance.”

“No date?”

“What’s it to you?” What a jerk! No, of course I didn’t have a date. I’d never been on a date in my life. Or kissed a boy, for that matter. Boys don’t go for the sharp-tongued Brainiac type. He didn’t have to rub it in.

Frank said, “Well, it’s like this. I’m about to ask you to the dance, so I hope you’ve dumped your old boyfriends. I don’t think three isn’t a crowd.”

Wait, what? Was he joking? I mean, yes, of course he was joking. But he seemed serious at the same time. “Hang on.” I picked out a dessert and made my way past the register. What was his deal, anyway?

He caught up and asked, “Where are we sitting?”

I led him to my usual table, which was empty, thank God.

Frank sat down and said, “My name’s Frank. Frank Barron. Which is a fertile field for puns if you like that sort of thing.”

“Frankly, it sounds like a barren field. And I’m Jen. Jen Simonson. But you knew that.”

“Genevieve Aster Simonson,” he agreed. “I hope you never go by your initials. That would be ghastly. So tell me about your current boyfriend or boyfriends.”

“They’re symptoms of your delirium, Frank.”

“You were too good for them, anyway.”

I was impressed! Most boys can’t banter their way out of a wet paper bag, but Frank was good. That bit about multiple boyfriends? Flattering. And so nutty that it was impossible to take offense. Oh, what the heck, why not go to the dance with him?

He said, “So what about the dance? And while we’re at it, let’s go steady.”

“You jerk! Don’t up the ante like that!”

“Now, don’t be hasty, Jen. It’s a great idea. You’ll love it. I’m enjoying being your boyfriend already.”

“You’re not my boyfriend!”

“Bet you a dollar you agree to be my girlfriend in the next five minutes.”

“Done.” I’d take his money. I held out my hand and he shook it. It was a good handshake. He didn’t try to crush my bones, but it wasn’t weak, either. He took his time and did it right. It makes a girl thoughtful.

Then his smile vanished. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I double-dog dare you to be my girlfriend.”

I stared at him. “Are you serious?”

“Deathly.” For the first time, I saw uncertainty in his eyes. He wanted me to say yes and was afraid I wouldn’t.

I took out a dollar and handed it to him. I mean, what else could I do?

He was delighted. I was pretty happy, too. Now, I knew going steady isn’t a forever thing. As likely as not, it wouldn’t last into next week. To be honest, that was one of its attractions. But losing this bet felt … promising.

Then I said, “Now tell me why.”

“Not yet.”

“You’re my boyfriend, Frank.” I stopped. “That sounds weird! Anyway, you’re not supposed to keep secrets from me.”

“I am, though. I have to.”

This irritated me. Frank Barron was not a Man of Mystery. He was just another sophomore, a fifteen-year-old kid like me. “Frank, honey, sugar, sweetheart, I’ll bet you a dollar that you won’t be my boyfriend five minutes from now.”

Strangely, this delighted him. “Done.” We shook hands again.

“Well?” I prompted.

“You’re going through those dollars awfully fast.”

“Never mind that.”

“You’re my girlfriend. I have a responsibility. Anyway, I’ll tell you the obvious part. I asked who the smartest girl in our class was, and everyone said it was you. Not that I really needed to ask. You know my methods, Watson.”

“What do you care how smart I am?”

“I’m sick of girls whose brains explode when they hear a bit of sesquipedalian grandiloquence.”

“Why would you overwhelm them with pompous nonsense in the first place?”

“The point is that your brain is made of sterner stuff. The rest of you isn’t too bad, either.”

“So?”

“Me want.”

I took out another dollar and gave it to him. I could have run out the clock—I had another four minutes—but I knew he’d won. Any boy who can switch between cave-man talk and sesquipedalian grandiloquence is a boy to be treasured. But I knew he’d railroad me if I gave him the chance.

I said, “We need some rules.”

“No we don’t.”

I jabbed an index finger at him. “Rule Number One: Don’t automatically contradict me. Jerk.”

His eyes twinkled. “Oh, all right.”

“Rule Number Two: If I say ‘time out,’ I mean it. You have to act like a decent human being. If you can.”

“Good idea. And vice versa. You wouldn’t believe what a delicate flower I am.”

I looked at him in deep suspicion. He said, “See? You don’t believe me.”

I buried my face in my hands. Straightening back up, I said, “I thought going steady was a sign of maturity.”

“Poor, sweet, innocent Jen. Don’t worry: I’ll take care of you. Your food’s getting cold.”

I obediently picked up my fork and looked at the entrée without enthusiasm. At least it came with a floor show today. I said, “Protecting me from your own idiocy doesn’t count.”

“Somebody has to. I should get some credit.”

“Eat your lunch, sweetums.”

“Anything you say, poopsie.” He picked up his fork.

“Rule Number Three: Don’t be revolting when I’m eating. No trying to make milk come out of my nose. And never call me poopsie again. Twit.”

He chuckled. He liked the sharp-tongued Brainiac type.

There were a few minutes of blessed silence while we ate. At least he had good table manners.

When Frank finished eating, he said, “I don’t suppose you can dance.”

“I dance like an angel.”

Anyone but Frank would have fallen for it. “Do angels dance?”

“Not a step. Not on the head of a pin or anywhere else.”

“Me neither. Should we learn by Friday or just show up and make fun of everyone else?”

“Remind me, darling: why are we going to a dance if we can’t dance?”

“We’re going to all the school functions, honey bun. It builds team spirit and valuable social skills. I read that in a magazine.”

“Yeah, right. What’s your real reason, sugar bear?”

“If all we do together is homework and making out, cutie pie, we’d get bored. We’d start to argue. I’m timid and bashful. I just crumple up when a girl speaks sharply to me. So we have to mix things up. Or I do—you seem plenty mixed up already.”

“You can keep this up all day, can’t … no, wait, don’t say it. You can keep it up all night, too. Very funny.”

“I didn’t say anything. You have a dirty mind, little girl.”

“And you have a little mind, dirty boy. Where were we?”

“I was telling you that the last few minutes convinced me that I like you and I want to spend a lot of time with you.”

That was more like it! But was it bravado? Frank gave the impression he could take the rough with the smooth, but could he? “Frank, dear, have you ever had a girlfriend before?”

“Guess.”

I looked at him as I considered. “Yes, of course you have. Obviously. Poor girl. I’ll bet it killed her.”

He turned his head away, but not before I saw his eyes fill with tears.

“Oh, my god, Frank, I’m so sorry!”

“Not your fault.” After a few seconds he sighed and met my gaze again. “You free after school?”

“Until six.”

“Your place or mine?” He delivered the line almost dully, without his usual flair.

I said, “Mine’s fine if you want to meet my grandmother and my two little brothers. They’re okay. It’s about five blocks away.”

“My place will be empty. Let’s go there. We need to talk.”

He was already maneuvering to get me alone. Well, what do you expect from a boy who starts with a double-dog dare?

He saw my hesitation. “I’ll bet you’re still my girlfriend a week from today, doll-face. You have ten bucks? I’m offering ten to one odds.”

“Wait, you’ll pay me a hundred dollars just to break up with you?”

The twinkle was back in his eyes. “Come on, Jen. You know better than that. You’ll forego a hundred-dollar payout just to keep us together. Of course you will. Plus lose a sawbuck of your own money. That’s how serious you are about us. Maybe not yet, but a week is a long time.”

My head was spinning. “I don’t think I can afford you, hon.”

“Sure you can, sport. Just stop betting against us. Put your money where your mouth is. It’s as safe as houses. My house. After school. Let’s walk over together, but I’ll give you my address and phone number anyway.”

So I wrote down mine as well. The bell rang. We had about half our classes together, but fourth period wasn’t one of them, so we parted. It was probably just as well. I was running out of endearments and insults.

Fourth period was dull and gave me time to think. You might think that Frank’s tragic past was romantic. You do, don’t you? You’re an idiot. It was 100% iron-clad board-certified Grade A bad news. Frank was hard enough to manage without going all weepy at random times. I’d never even kissed a boy, and I was entering a competition with another girl—and I was going to lose. Being safely dead as well as more experienced, she held all the aces. I hated her. I wished I knew her name so I could curse her properly.

Did I even have a chance? Maybe? Not a good one. When I thought about it, I just knew he hadn’t acted the same way with her. No, his obnoxiousness was new. A protective shell. Had to be. I mean, how many girls could put up with it at all? And in spite of it being all his fault, the rat, he’d compare the tenderness he’d had with her to the prickliness that he’d saddled us with…

It wasn’t fair. What a jerk. But I had two bucks invested in him and I was going to get my money’s worth if it killed me. Or, better yet, him.

Continued in Chapter 2, White Shag Carpet.