(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—”
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.”
“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.”