After church, I walked the dogs, hoping I’d see Dean. But he’d of course already done his paper route and I don’t think he’d come out just to see me. I spent extra time with the Three Musketeers, rehearsing in my mind what and how I would say to Dean. Finally, checking my celly for the time (1:25pm) and messages (none), I felt confident that I had it right and set out for his house.
His father answered my knocks. “Fran! How are you?” Mr. Frazier is a tall man who fills the doorway; he wears a plaid shirt and dark jeans, a much older version of Dean with stubbly face and black-rimmed glasses.
“Um, hi, can I talk to Dean?” came out all in breath as one long word.
“No, sorry he’s not home. He and Dusty Connor went to the movie. Should be back about four or so. I’ll tell him you were by, though.”
My throat tightened up so painfully I thought I’d choke, but at least I didn’t trip over my feet. I must have nodded as I backed away. The echoes of the door shutting followed me as I retraced my steps to the Wessenfeld’s house.
I sat on the porch with the big lab’s head in my lap. Tears plopped on Aramis’ ears as I smoothed them into his fur. Porthos, on my left, nudged my elbow, and I reached over to pet him, then Athos on my right side. I buried my face into Armis’ nape and bawled until I got the hiccups. Finally, I was able to stop, and wipe my eyes clear of the last of my tears.
“You’re really great friends, you guys,” I sniffled. “Not like someone I thought was my friend.”
Each of the dogs licked me, on the face, hands, arms and Porthos managed to jump into lap and get his licks on my ear.
“Enough!” I pushed them away, gently, grateful for their loyalty. “I’ll see you guys later. Go inside now.” I ducked into the bathroom and splashed some water on my face before I eased out the door and locked it.
How was I going to act tomorrow at school around Dusty? Like nothing had happened to change my feelings about our friendship? Hah! What friendship?!
I couldn’t get images of Dean holding her hand, or maybe kissing her. Crap! I still had to ask Dean if he wanted to mow the Wessenfeld’s lawn weekly. He could do it all by himself. I wish I could hand him the edger. Here, buddy, take that and shove it!
I spent a long afternoon doing homework and holed up in my bedroom with Wizard’s Holiday by Diane Duane, about a perfect world that isn’t. It suited my mood.
It also suited my life. The next day at school, I avoided Dusty, pretending I hadn’t seen her when she waved to me going down the hall. I stayed longer than necessary at my locker, getting to class as the bell blared.
Mrs. Hammershaw came in the door with a pinched face and pink slips. “Annie, and,” she looked pained, “Fran. Principal’s office.”
Me? I look to Annie, who has gone pale. She shuffles papers into a pile, then stands up, smoothes her skirt and fluffs her hair. Marcy is focused on her math book, and Steve stares at me for a long moment, as if to telepathically convey a message. Without a word, Annie and I pair up and walk the long hall to the principal’s office.
I have an awful feeling this is about the Facebook picture.
In the outer office of the principal, Brian, Justin, Timothy and Collin sit in a row of chairs. They are very quiet.
Before I can sit in a chair, Mrs. Aster motions to me to come into her office. I have this stupid nervous habit of wadding and twisting my skirt at the hip and I make myself stop. I try to iron the wrinkles out with my sweaty palm.
“Fran, sit down, please.” Mrs. Aster scoots her chair close to her desk and leans on her elbows the time it takes me to sit down in the chair to face her.
“Not a very flattering picture of you on the internet, Fran.”
I shake my head. I wish I could shake away the cobwebs in my brain, shake away Mrs. Aster, this school and everyone in it.
“Well, I know that there were cigarettes, Fran. Was there alcohol?”
She just cuts to the bone, doesn’t she?
“I don’t know,” I blurt out this lie.
“But you were there.”
“I know who posted the picture.”
I want to ask her who? “I didn’t,” I reply stupidly. She just told me she knew.
“Fran, do you realize the seriousness of this?”
Oh, yeah. “Yes, ma’am.” But I didn’t do anything!
I look her straight in the eye, “I don’t smoke or drink.”
“Have you heard of the old saying ‘guilt by association’?”
“No,” I say almost in a whisper. Where is she going with this?
She sits back into her chair, never taking her eyes off mine. “You’re judged by the company you keep. If you are with others who are doing illegal activity, then you are guilty by association. I’ve talked with the others, Brian, Justin, Collin and Timothy; they thought it was just a joke. It is not. This is a serious offense. This state has anti-bullying laws, and that makes posting pictures and rumors on the web illegal. They will be doing in-school community service hours for their part in this.” She pauses, placing her hands palm down on her desk. “I want you to consider who your friends really are, Fran. Do you think you can just delete that picture on Facebook and have it go away?”
Well, yeah, I really did. “I don’t know what you mean, Mrs. Aster.”
“Fran, that picture is on there forever. It could crop up on your employer’s computer screen ten years from now!”
“I don’t even know who took that picture, Mrs. Aster! I wasn’t smoking!” My whole body is quaking, and I’m not sure if I’m really scared or really mad.
“I believe you. Just think about what I said to you. I’ve talked with the others about the Golden Rule and bullying behavior.” She rises out of her chair and leans across the desk. “This will not be tolerated at my school!”
My mouth drops open at her vehement outcry. All I can do is nod my head in agreement.
“Send Annie in here on your way back to class.”
My wobbly knees manage to get me out of there, but barely. I whisper to Annie, why I’m not sure, but it seems like I should be kind of quiet about it, “Annie, she wants to see you.”
Annie reminds me of a contrite Porthos with her big, round, brown eyes. She twists her hair furiously and also is a little shaky on her legs as she goes into the black hole. But if I know Annie, and I do, she’ll come out of this looking like a martyred saint.
I didn’t want to ask Mrs. Aster, but I wonder if my parents know about this meeting. I’ll probably have to sit down and discuss this with both Mom and Dad. I wonder if I could get the flu between now and dinnertime.
Lucky for me, I slipped into second period without fanfare. I avoided Dusty, Dean and Annie at lunch by going to the library to do my homework. The rest of the day is a blur until after I have walked the dogs and know that I must face my parents.
My Dad is reading the newspaper and my Mom is paying bills on the computer when I come home. Annie has left five text messages for me, but I don’t answer. Dusty called and left a message to call her back, but I don’t. What I do is email Dean that Mrs. W would like him to mow her lawn weekly. Contact her if you are interested.
I stay in my room and read until my Mom calls me for dinner.
“How’d it go today?” My Dad runs his hand over my head, just like petting a dog.
My Mom gives me a significant look, which I interpret as she knows about the meeting with Mrs. Aster.
I look from one to the other and shrug. “I’ve had better days. For sure.”
“You had a talk with Mrs. Aster, did you?” asks my Mother, so sweetly.
“Yeah, and she even managed to get the Golden Rule into the conversation about, you know, Facebook.”
For some reason it made me feel good to see my Mom smile at that.
No more was said about Facebook. My Dad and I had a nice chat about world events and history. We try to find threads from the past to the present in politics and world events. We were so involved in our discussion, that it was past my bedtime. I was even too tired to cop a chapter or two before falling asleep.
For two days I avoided talking with anyone, even Marcy didn’t have an opportunity to catch me off guard with a snide remark. I didn’t see Dean on his paper route, either, so I guess I was being avoided, too.
Dusty cornered me Friday in the library.
“Fran, we have got to talk,” she blocked my exit, putting her backpack down on the table between us.
“You can do the presentation, I’ll just be the background,” I said with wave of my hand, like I really don’t care about any of this!
“Oh, Fran, don’t be like that!” she pleaded. “We need to talk about Dean.”
Oh, please, do I want to hear about your date with Dean? Are you going to tell me all the details, like how he kisses?
“What’s to talk about?” I cross my arms and glare at her.
She sighs and sits back hard against the back of the chair. “He thinks you’re mad at him about the other day. You know,” she hastens to add when I roll my eyes, “he likes you. He thinks you think there’s something wrong with him. You need to talk to him.”
I lean in close and whisper, “Yeah, he likes me so much he takes you to a movie. Hmmm.”
“Get over it, Fran! Dean and I have been friends for a long time. I’m someone he can talk to.”
Suddenly, all the anger deflates and all the bad stuff from that day sickens me. I look directly at Dusty and realize that I want to be mad at her so that I don’t have to think about what I didn’t do, what I did do.
“I don’t know, I just don’t understand.”
“His mother,” Dusty hesitates, looks around, then leans closer to me and says softly, “is in rehab. She’s done some horrible things to Dean when she was drunk. His Dad kicked her out and won’t let her even call Dean.”
“He told you all this?” I blurt. “Just spilled his guts to you?”
“I’ve known him for a lot longer than you have, Fran.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do? Walk up to him and say…what?”
There is a puddle of silence between us. Dusty throws the first stony word in. “The truth? How you feel?”
I pick at a hangnail. “How easy it is in Dusty’s world.”
“All right, then come over to my house and I’ll leave you and Dean alone to talk things out.” She popped up and grabbed her backpack as the bell rang. “This afternoon?”
Oh not today, dear. I have other plans with my real friends. But when I look at Dusty, look into her eyes, I see she’s sincere. Maybe she is right.
The hours dragged, the hours flew by, all the while I rehearsed what I should say to Dean. By the end of the hour of walking the dogs, I had thought out a little speech.
Dusty let me in front door and waved me to the tv room where Dean sat on the couch playing a computer game on Dusty’s Mac. He looked up and with that half-smile simply said, “Hey.”
I stood about mile away from him. “Hey.” I amazed myself by actually going over to the couch and sitting next to him.
He closed the game and shut the lid on the computer. Still we said nothing.
“Did you get my email about Mrs. Wessenfeld wanting you to mow her lawn?”
“Yeah.” He looked at me. “Very businesslike, your email.”
“Well, it was about business.”
We sat there. Silently. All those great words I have thought of saying didn’t get out of my mouth. I turned to look at him. He looked at me.
“I miss you on my walks. The Three Musketeers miss you, too.”
“I g-g-got a new route. Longer. I leave earlier and come back later.”
I’m done, this isn’t going to work out. Stupid, Dusty, stupid!
“Fran,” Dean leans close enough I can smell him, “I’m sorry about what happened.”
“Why are you sorry? I’m the one that did nothing!!”
He touches my hand, ever so softly, too briefly. “You stood beside me. You can’t fight my battles for me, but you were there beside me.”
“I was scared. Not just for you. For me, too.”
“Yeah,” he says with a small laugh. “You and me both.”
“So, we’re friends again?” I mean, how can I ask him if he’ll ever kiss me again?
He slips his arm around my shoulder and hugs me tight, without saying anything for a few minutes.
“I have to go.”
“Bye, Dusty! We’re leaving!”
She comes to the door as Dean and I walk side by side towards my house. Dean and I walk without touching but I feel we are closer than ever. He stops at the steps leading to the front door of my house and leans over to peck my cheek. I blush.
He laughs and turns to walk home, singing to himself. Funny, I thought, he doesn’t stutter when he sings.
And for this moment, my world is perfect.