TITLE: Summer of Truth
By Celeste Ammirata
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I am so thankful my Aunt Kelly never told Cindy how my mom really died. Cindy thinks my mom had a bad heart. That isn’t far from the truth.
Cindy is perfect. Perfect looks, perfect family, perfect friends, and perfect boyfriend. Just ask her and she’ll tell you all about it.
I think my cousin felt it her civic duty to add to my humiliation, like that day in history class….
The open window did nothing to ease that heavy stillness that pressed down on us as Mrs. Characid droned on about the final we were taking the next day. The stench of overheated bodies and cheap perfumed permeated the stale air, assaulting me with every breath.
I scanned the room, my eyes passing over zombie like faces and dozing classmates before coming to rest on Mike Mackay. I raked my fingers through the damp tendrils that clung to the back of my neck. A song played in my head.
The Valentines I never knew, the Friday nights charades of youth. Were spent on one more beautiful; at seventeen I learned the truth.
Mike Mackay was the captain of the football and baseball teams, and the most exotic looking guy I’d ever seen. I’d bet money he never dated a girl from a Janis Ian song. A girl like me.
His jet-black hair, cut in layers, hung just above his shoulders. And that mouth! I indulged myself for a moment, staring at those full lips.
Gathering my hair into a ponytail, my gaze traveled up his face and rested on his dark, almond eyes. It took a second for it register they were zeroed in on mine. He raised his eyebrows and drew his lips up into a playful grin that could make a girl forget her name.
Mortified, I dropped my jaw in a perfect impression of a large mouth bass. The heat in my cheeks meant they had turned a lovely shade of lobster. He’d probably tell his friends and they’d all share a good laugh on me. Determined to salvage what was left of my pride, I kept my eyes glued on Mrs. Characid for the next twenty minutes.
The bell rang and I hurriedly gathered up my books and rushed of out the room.
Cindy saw the whole thing. She couldn’t catch up with me fast enough. “Smooth, Sara. I’m impressed.”
I shrugged. “Well, at least he smiled at me.”
“Of course he smiled at you. You were practically drooling. What else was he supposed to do?” She shook her head, sighed in dramatic fashion. “Oh Sara, what am I going to do with you? Oh, there’s Scott. I gotta go.” She breezed away to catch up with her boyfriend. She looped her arm through his, glanced back at me, and said, “Oh, love the ponytail,” then graced me with her trademark head tilt and toothy smile.
Trying to get to my Algebra II class was like trying to get into a general admission rock concert. I think. I’ve never been to a rock concert, but can imagine the rush of wall-to-wall bodies, shoving past anything in their way.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned to see Ray Kaplan smiling at me. My belly did a little flip as he tucked his light brown hair behind his ear. Where Mike was gorgeous in a dark, exotic kind of way, Ray had the laid-back surfer look going on. At first glance, you wouldn’t notice anything special about him. But it only took moments for his easygoing personality and confident smile to win a person over. His green eyes reminded me of the ocean after a storm. I’ve spend very summer of the last seven years at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the unofficial surfing capitol of the east coast. So, I’d grown somewhat partial to the look.
“Hey kiddo, how’s it going? You’re going to enter that contest aren’t you?”
The Philadelphia School of Art was sponsoring a contest, with a grand prize being a full scholarship. I’ve always dreamed of getting into a school like that.
I shook my head. “I don’t know if I’m good enough. But you really should.”
“Are you kidding me? You’re one of the best I’ve ever seen.” He smiled again, showing the tiny space between his two front teeth that added to his irresistible charm. His broad nose had been broken twice. First time, he went over the handles of his dirt bike. About a year later, while sticking up for a smaller kid being picked on by most of the football team, one of their gorillas slammed him with a sucker punch.
“I’ll tell you what…we’ll work on it together. I’ll give you a call. See ya.” He turned down a hall to the left and disappeared into a wave of student bodies.
Work on it together? Okay, I could definitely do that.
Ray had a way of capturing the soul of his models. I walked by a portrait he had done in art class and could swear the eyes were following me. I half expected it to start talking. There is no way I’d win that scholarship over him. But if he wanted to spend some up close and personal time helping me, who was I to argue?
I was surprised he still had my number. He hadn’t called me in two years. I gave it to him our freshmen year when we worked on the backdrops for the school play, Anything Goes. Sometimes I would catch him looking at me. He was so funny and charming; I almost convinced myself he liked me. He didn’t. Not in that way.
After school, I studied a few hours for my History final. Getting a B would cement my honor roll status. When the words became fuzzy and started running together, I decided it was time for a break. I took Duke, my dog for a walk to the park. Or I should say he took me. He’s a mixed breed, part Lab and part German shepherd, and weighs about 110 pounds.
The evening was beautiful, like a picture post-card. A warm breeze blew as pink cotton candy clouds sailed past the bright orange sun hanging lazily below treetops. Lawn mowers droned, filling the air with the sweet scent of fresh cut grass. Sprinklers watered lawns. Their choreographed drops tapped against the warm cement of the sidewalk. I love the smell of water on warm cement. It’s a summer smell.
Duke’s tail wagged in constant happy motion as he pulled me along. “Guess what Duke? Mike Mackay smiled at me today.” In response to my exciting news, Duke stopped and sniffed a fire hydrant. That Duke, he always finds the most perfect ways of cheering me on.
A couple neighborhood kids cooled themselves running through a lawn sprinkler, playing a game of catch with an old tennis ball. One fell, and muttered a few choice words at his friend, who laughed at him. They saw Duke and ran over to pet him. He indulged them for about a minute before giving in to the temptation of the many smells waiting to be investigated. I smiled, thinking about how lucky I was that he came into my life when he did.
“So, what are you so happy about?” a gruff voice said from behind me.
I jumped, stumbled over my size ten feet, and then turned around to look into the gorgeous face of Mike Mackay.
“Um, what do you mean?” Smooth response, Sara. I kept walking, as I had no choice with Duke at the lead.
“You’re smiling. What are you so happy about?” he asked, matching his pace with mine. He grinned down at me, looking so sure of himself with his hands pushed into the front pockets of his jeans. I think he knew just how good he looked.
I felt the heat in my cheeks and could swear he could hear my heart pounding. “I was just thinking about Duke, my dog.”
“Oh yeah? What about him?”
“I love him. He’s been a real blessing to me.”
“What do you mean; a blessing?”
“Well, you know…a gift from…well, just a gift.”
“A gift, huh?” he said, turning his head to follow a red firebird racing by.
Duke stopped to sniff a large bush and leave his mark on it. I prayed that he wouldn’t leave a mess that I’d have to pick up in front of Mike.
I caught the light scent of honeysuckle and breathed in deep.
“What are you doing?”
“I love the smell of honeysuckle.”
“Oh, I thought maybe you were trying to smell what Duke left on the bush.”
My cheeks burned and I opened my mouth to speak, but closed it when I couldn’t think of anything reasonable to say.
“Boy, you love a lot of things don’t you? Your dog, the smell of honeysuckle, and drawing; anything else I should know about you?”
How did he know I love to draw? “How do you know I love to draw?”
“I saw your work in the cafeteria, and sometimes it’s in the halls. You’re pretty good.” He smiled and leaned over to pet Duke. I resisted the urge to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming.
“Thank you.” I told myself to stay calm. Even though he said he liked my art, and was petting Duke, it did not mean he was interested in me. My plan: try to not say or do anything stupid.
“Those pictures of the lighthouse are really good. Have you ever been there?”
“Yes, they’re from the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. I spend summers there with my dad.”
“Does it take you long to do one of those paintings. That is what you use, paint, right?”
“Sometimes, and I also use pastels, charcoal, or colored pencils. When I see something I like, I make a quick sketch and then work on it later when I have more time.”
Duke took off, pulling me with him, and Mike kept up with us. “Do you ever sketch Duke?”
“Yes, I’ve done a lot of pictures of him.”
“How about me? Did you ever sketch me?” His eyes locked on mine and a cocky grin spread across his lips.
I was so not ready for this conversation. I stammered, “No…I’ve never sketched you. Like I said, I sketch things I like,” I said, trying to sound cool, feeling anything but.
“But I’ve seen you looking at me, like today in class.” His grin broadened.
I tried to turn the tables and embarrass him. “So you were looking at me today?”
No such luck. He raised his brows. “Yeah, I was.”
That’s when I knew he was playing games with me. He figured I liked him and he was messing with me, making me look like a fool. What a jerk! Like I would really believe that he, Mike the magnificent had been looking at me, Sara the nobody.
I looked away from him and called Duke, pulling on his leash. “Come on boy, we have to go.” I felt a little guilty because Duke loved his walks. If not for Mike, I probably would have stayed out at least another half hour.
“Hey, why are you leaving now? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter. I just have to get home to study for our history test.” I turned to leave, but Duke had other ideas. He would not budge from Mike’s side. I tried to coax him. “Come on Duke, you want a treat?”
“I want a treat,” Mike said.
I smiled, in spite of my resolve not to. “Sure. Here.” I said, handing him one of Duke’s favorite pleasures. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were a dog biscuit kind of guy.”
Okay Sara, just play it cool and see what happens.
“Thank you,” he said, taking the treat. “Here buddy.” He handed it over to Duke, who inhaled it in less than two seconds. Mike straightened up and looked at me. “But I didn’t mean that kind of treat.”
Determined to hide my embarrassment, I tipped my chin up, looked him in the eye. “What kind of treat did you mean?”
“I thought maybe a kiss.”
Okay, could he be any more arrogant? He probably thought I’d fall all over him like his Steinbeck groupies do at school. He couldn’t even say hi to me all year, and now he wanted a kiss? I don’t think so! I grabbed Duke’s leash and yanked hard. “Let’s go Duke.”
Duke refused to cooperate.
Mike smiled at Duke, then reached up and pulled a leaf from a branch above his head. I tried not to stare as his hair fell in front of his eyes, and the muscles in his arms flexed. He walked up to me with the leaf in his hand and cleared his throat. “Don’t go. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it about the kiss. I just wanted to see what your reaction would be.”
Gee, why didn’t that make me feel any better?
He handed me the leaf. “Friends?”
I willed my hand not to shake as I took the leaf from him, and prayed he couldn’t hear my heart pounding. I wished he would leave. But I didn’t want him to leave. I caught myself chewing my lip and stopped. Not knowing what to do or say, I followed Duke. When we got to the trail that cut through the woods, I wasn’t sure what to do. Mike seemed harmless enough, in a kind of bad boy sort of way. I said a quick prayer, knowing that if I shouldn’t go on the trail; my guardian angel would let me know. I got no bad feelings, so I followed Duke onto the trail.
I love everything about the woods. The animals, trees, bushes, and especially the wildflowers with their sweet aromas. These walks with Duke were my favorite time of the day. I always felt closer to God on those trails of vibrant colors.
“Do you always walk through these trails alone?” Mike asked.
“I’m not alone. Duke is with me. I love it here. ” I inhaled. “Can you smell the hydrangea?”
“Yeah, I guess it’s pretty nice.” He looked around. “I don’t think it’s safe, even with Duke. You can’t see what’s around the next curve with all the bushes and trees.”
“You’re afraid of the woods?”
I tried to not to smile when his face turned a little red. Good. He deserved to be embarrassed.
“No, I’m not afraid,” he barked, “I just don’t think it’s safe for a girl all alone, that’s all. Bad things do happen sometimes, you know.”
“I know they do. But I love it here too much to stay away just because something bad can possibly happen. I say a quick prayer for protection before I turn onto the trail. If I’m to die on a certain day, staying off the trail won’t change that.”
Mike shook his head. “That’s just stupid. Being killed isn’t the only bad thing that can happen to a girl, you know.”
“I know that. When I say the prayer, if I get a bad feeling, which I have at times, I know my guardian angel is warning me to stay away. I always listen to my gut feelings.” I tried to read his face, but couldn’t. I bit my lip. He probably thought I was an idiot.
“You actually believe in prayers and guardian angels?”
“Did you pray just now?”
“And what did your gut feeling tell you?”
“That I can trust you.”
“You can,” He nodded solemnly. “Do you think
everyone gets those gut feelings?”
“Yes I do.”
“Then why do good people sometimes get hurt?” His jaw clenched and raw pain flickered in his eyes for a second before disappearing.
My stomach rolled and my hands shook, not a lot, so I don’t think he noticed. I was no good at talking about this. Why wouldn’t he leave it alone? “Well, I think that sometimes people ignore when they get a bad feeling. They try to rationalize their fears. They just don’t understand where the feelings come from.”
“You mean from angels?” Mike asked, without sarcasm.
“So you think that nothing bad will happen to you if you listen to guardian angels? If that were true, then nothing bad should ever happen to good, God fearing people, right?”
“No, that’s not true. Bad things happen to everybody. I don’t know why. I’m not an expert, but I know that God exists, and that he uses His angels to help us here.” When he didn’t say anything I asked, “Does that make any sense?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I guess, but I don’t know. I just know that if God does exist, He doesn’t care about us.” He cleared his throat. “At least not about me.”
We came to the end of the trail, and when Mike walked over to a picnic table, I followed.
“He does care about you Mike. Have you ever seriously thought about all you have been blessed with?”
He shook his head and let out a bitter laugh. “I haven’t been blessed with anything.”
“No? What about your athletic talent? You were offered a scholarship in both baseball and football. Michael, do you know how many kids in school would do anything to be you, with your looks and abilities?”
His head snapped towards me. His back straightened and I couldn’t read his eyes as they stared at me. Maybe I crossed some sort of line. The tension grew so thick; I could literally feel it pushing on my chest. Then he sighed and let out a long breath. He hopped up and sat on the table, resting his feet on the bench.
I stood there for a second not sure if I should follow. What if he didn’t want me to? Deciding on the safer route, I said, “Okay, bye, Mike, it was nice talking to you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You’re leaving already? Don’t go yet.” He tapped the space next to him. “Come on, it’s such a nice night, and I like talking to you. Have a seat.”
I climbed up and sat next to him. He gave me his patented, knee weakening, oh so nice smile. I bet he practiced that smile in front of the mirror.
He raked his hands through his hair. “I know that I have more going for me than the average kid, you know, and that’s cool…”
“But….” I said for him.
“But, I don’t think it’s from God. I mean, if it is, it’s all a big joke to Him. I believe that He is the creator of the universe. But I can’t believe that He cares about us. We’re insignificant in His eyes,” Mike said, looking at me as if willing me to understand.
Someone called Mike’s name and we both turned to see Sammy, Mike’s friend, walking toward us. Sammy had reddish-brown, long, curly hair. He stood about six-four, and could have used a few pounds on his lanky frame.
“Mike, there you are, I tried calling you but you weren’t home.” He stopped short. “Hey, who’s this?” He asked, looking at me. “Aren’t you Sara, the artist, from school?” He sat down next to me. “Hi. I’m Sammy.”
“Hi, Sammy,” I said. I caught myself chewing on my bottom lip and stopped.
“What did you want?” Mike asked.
“What?” Sammy asked. He kept staring at me.
“You said you called my house. What did you want?” Mike leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees.
Sammy pulled his eyes away from me and glared at Mike. “I wanted to know if you wanted to go to the field for some BP.”
“What’s BP?” I asked.
“Batting practice.” They answered in unison.
The night was getting too weird. “Well guys, I have to go. It was nice talking to you.” I stepped down off the picnic bench and called Duke. Mike and Sammy jumped down, too.
“You don’t have to go. It’s too dark now for BP anyway.” Mike said, sounding like he wanted me to stay.
“I have to finish studying for the history final tomorrow.” I had to get out of there before I did something stupid to ruin the night.
“I have to take that test too, want to study together?” He put his hand on my arm. It felt so warm where his hand rested against my bare skin. Little sparks of energy shot up my arm and made their way to my belly.
“Mike, you’re acing that course, why do you need to study for the test? Come on. I’m starving. Let’s go get something to eat,” Sammy said.
Mike’s dark eyes shot daggers at Sammy, who held up his hands up in defense. “What?”
Mike turned back to me. “I can help you study, Sara.” The way he looked at me made me nervous. I pulled my arm away and took a step backward. I peeked to see if it was pink where he touched me. It amazed me that it looked just like the rest of my arm.
Sammy said, “Yeah, Mike, studying is what you want to help her with.” He held up his hand. “We’ll all be at the quarry when you’re finished.” He looked at me and said, “See you Sara, take it easy.”
“Bye, Sammy.” I smiled at him, though Mike’s presence seemed to fill up the whole park. I had no idea of what to make of him. “Mike, I appreciate your offer to help me, but I study best when I’m alone. I have a little system worked out. Thanks anyway.” I looked over to the parking lot, where Sammy sat in his car, revving up the engine. “If you hurry, you could still catch up with him. I have to get going anyway.” I reached down and picked up Duke’s leash.
“I can walk you home.”
Sammy’s words came back to me. “Like studying is what you want to help her with.”
What was up with him?
“No thank you. I know the way.” I didn’t even try to keep the sarcasm from my voice.
“You’re mad. Why? Sara, I only offered to walk you home.”
“What did Sammy mean? What exactly do you want to help me with?” Not used to confrontations, I couldn’t calm my pounding heart or cool the heat in my cheeks. And that made me even angrier. I reached down to pet Duke, trying to get control of my emotions. I am usually not an emotional girl. When he stood there, staring at me as if I just levated two feet off the ground, I said, “Bye, Mike.”
At first, he looked confused, then his eyes darkened and he looked mad. “First of all, Sammy is a jerk. He’s jealous because I got to talk to you first. Secondly, I have noticed you in school. I just never had the chance to meet up with you. Thirdly, I wanted to help you study, because, yes, I do want to get to know you better.” He put his hand on my arm, quickly pulled it away, and shoved his hand into his pocket. “What’s so wrong with that? You seem nice, like someone who is easy to talk to.” His eyes softened, “And I wanted to walk you home because I wanted to make sure you were safe.”
“Oh… Thank you.” Boy, talk about smooth. This guy was way out of my league. I had to be very careful with him or he’d crush me like a bug. I let out a long breath. “I’m sorry if I insulted you.” Duke pulled me toward the parking lot. Mike followed.
“It’s okay. No hard feelings.” He hesitated, looking a little unsure of himself. “I still want to walk you home, though, if that’s okay.”
“Okay, thank you.”
“Are you always so polite?”
“Usually. Does it bother you?”
He grinned at me. “No, I think it’s nice.”
“Thank you.” I smiled up at him.
Darkness settled in as we walked. The warm wind rustled through the leaves of trees lining the streets. Before I knew it, we were at my house I looked up at Mike. “Well, this is my house. Thanks again for walking me home.”
I reached for the door and he grabbed my wrist, but not hard. He had this strange look in his eyes and for a second I thought he was going to kiss me. My eyes went wide.
He smiled and let go of my wrist. “Sara, can I have your phone number? So I can call you some time.”
I swallowed hard. I knew he’d never call. He probably wouldn’t even look at me the next day in school. I bit my lip, contemplating what to do and wished he would stop looking at me like that.
“I’ll tell you what, if you ask me for my number tomorrow, I’ll give it to you.”
His eyes widened. I guess not very many girls would turn down the opportunity to have the Mighty Mike Mackay call them.
He smiled, stepped closer and rubbed my forearm with the back of his fingers. “Wow, you’re tough.” He looked deep into my eyes, making me very nervous.
I gave him a quick smile. “Well, good night Mike. Thanks for walking me home. I have to get Duke some water. It was nice talking with you. See you tomorrow.” I hurried into the house and only dared to look at him once I had the screen door closed between us. He kind of looked like the big bad wolf, just waiting for the chance to gobble me up.
He smiled. “Alrighty then. Good night. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I watched him walk away. He even looked great from the back. I shut the door and locked it. What a strange night.
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