Afternoon had latened to evening beyond the houses and a dry wind had picked up when Karen stomped out onto the back porch to sulk. Summer was fading from the air, taking with it the last of her freedom. School would start in a week—tenth grade. But, for once, that wasn’t what was bothering her.
She slumped onto the porch steps and brushed a rebellious strand of hair back from her face. Near the beginning of summer she had trimmed her hair and dyed it a gothic black, and ever since then it had been getting in her way. Not that she was going to tell anyone.
Her friends had probably gone to the skate park without her, she knew. None of them skated; mostly they just went to get stoned or drunk or laid. Any other night Karen would have been there with them.
But her dad had grounded her. Again.
She kicked at the cobwebs that fluttered among the weeds at her feet. She had missed curfew the night before—ten minutes, big deal. Her dad was acting paranoid for some reason. He’d been that way ever since the accident. Before Jeff had flipped his truck across the freeway median and gotten slammed by a rig, Karen would never have been grounded from going to a skate park. She probably wouldn’t have dyed her hair, either. Nothing was the same anymore.
Wind guttered along the fence, and she glanced toward the neighboring yard. Crazy Ray was sweeping his patio. A boom box sat inside his kitchen window, sputtering fuzzy strains of mariachi. Out on the lawn, a rusty barbecue was letting thin curls of smoke into the dry air. Crazy Ray was whistling, humming to the music. He noticed her watching him and grinned. “Well, howdy doo, Miss Kay! And what great philosophies are you contemplating this fine evening?”
Karen forced a smile. “I’m bored out of my skull.”
Crazy Ray nodded approvingly. “Sounds like a high order of thought, to be sure.” He gestured toward the grill. “You want to come over and have some shish kabobs? I got plenty!”
“No thanks.” Karen shook her head. “I’m not in the mood.”
“Well, so you ain’t. You upset about something?”
She sighed. “I’m grounded, and my dad’s being a total jerk. He hates my friends and finds any excuse he can to keep me away from them.” She got up and strode across the darkening yard to the fence, letting the wind pull her hair down across her eyes again. “I can’t stand it anymore.”
“To be sure, to be sure.” Crazy Ray set the broom aside and crossed to the barbecue. He opened the lid, releasing a cloud of black smoke. “You ever wonder why he don’t like your friends?”
Karen shrugged. “I guess he’s afraid I’ll end up on drugs or pregnant or something.”
Crazy Ray dumped a bottle of barbecue sauce over the strips of chicken that sizzled on the grill, then shut the lid and turned to face her. “Well, that seems mighty ridiculous, don’t it.” There was a twinkle in his eye.
“Yeah, I mean—” She hesitated, realizing what he meant. “Some of my friends do that kind of stuff, but I don’t. Not much.”
Crazy Ray nodded, grinning. He stepped down from the patio and joined her at the fence. “How much you gotta do it before you get hurt?”
Karen looked at the ground. “Not much.”
“You ever thought, Miss Kay, that your dad might just be trying to keep you safe?”
She scoffed. “Sure, but—I mean, he doesn’t have to be a jerk.”
Crazy Ray laughed, the sound echoing between the houses. “Well, you gotta give him a chance. You know, when your brother died, your dad got mighty scared. Scared for you. Scared you’re gonna die too.”
“Missing curfew by ten minutes isn’t going to get me killed.”
Crazy Ray held up his hands. “I never said that. Maybe it wasn’t right for your dad to ground you because you was late. But he just wants the best for you, see?”
She shrugged. “Yeah. I guess I should talk to him.”
“Talking helps, don’t it.” He was grinning. “How about you and your dad come over for some dinner? Then we can all talk!”
Karen grinned. “Sure. I’ll be right back.”
She moved toward the back door, feeling the dusky wind lift her hair. As she opened the screen, she could hear Crazy Ray whistling, sweeping his porch.
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