After high school I planned to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My father wanted me to go to Harvard or Princeton like some of the sons of other congressmen did, but with my grades it wasn’t possible. Not that I was a bad student. I just didn’t focus on my studies, and my grades weren’t exactly up to snuff for the Ivy Leagues. By my senior year it was pretty much touch and go whether I’d even get accepted at UNC, and this was my father’s alma mater, a place where he could pull some strings. During one of his few weekends home, my father came up with the plan to put me over the top. I’d just finished my first week of school and we were sitting down for dinner. He was home for three days on account of Labor Day weekend.
“I think you should run for student body president,” he said. “You’ll be graduating in June, and I think it would look good on your record. Your mother thinks so, too, by the way.”
My mother nodded as she chewed a mouthful of peas. She didn’t speak much when my father had the floor, though she winked at me. Sometimes I think my mother liked to see me squirm, even though she was sweet.
“I don’t think I’d have a chance at winning,” I said. Though I was probably the richest kid in school, I was by no means the most popular. That honor belonged to Eric Hunter, my best friend. He could throw a baseball at almost ninety miles an hour, and he’d led the football team to back-to-back state titles as the star quarterback. He was a stud. Even his name sounded cool.
“Of course you can win,” my father said quickly. “We Carters always win.”
That’s another one of the reasons I didn’t like spending time with my father. During those few times he was home, I think he wanted to mold me into a miniature version of himself. Since I’d grown up pretty much without him, I’d come to resent having him around. This was the first conversation we’d had in weeks. He rarely talked to me on the phone.
“But what if I don’t want to?”
My father put down his fork, a bite of his pork chop still on the tines. He looked at me crossly, giving me the once-over. He was wearing a suit even though it was over eighty degrees in the house, and it made him even more intimidating. My father always wore a suit, by the way.
“I think,” he said slowly, “that it would be a good idea.”
I knew that when he talked that way the issue was settled. That’s the way it was in my family. My father’s word was law. But the fact was, even after I agreed, I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to waste my afternoons meeting with teachers after school—after school!—every week for the rest of the year, dreaming up themes for school dances or trying to decide what colors the streamers should be. That’s really all the class presidents did, at least back when I was in high school. It wasn’t like students had the power to actually decide anything meaningful.
But then again, I knew my father had a point. If I wanted to go to UNC, I had to do something. I didn’t play football or basketball, I didn’t play an instrument, I wasn’t in the chess club or the bowling club or anything else. I didn’t excel in the classroom—hell, I didn’t excel at much of anything. Growing despondent, I started listing the things I actually could do, but to be honest, there really wasn’t that much. I could tie eight different types of sailing knots, I could walk barefoot across hot asphalt farther than anyone I knew, I could balance a pencil vertically on my finger for thirty seconds . . . but I didn’t think that any of those things would really stand out on a college application. So there I was, lying in bed all night long, slowly coming to the sinking realization that I was a loser. Thanks, Dad.
The next morning I went to the principal’s office and added my name to the list of candidates. There were two other people running—John Foreman and Maggie Brown. Now, John didn’t stand a chance, I knew that right off. He was the kind of guy who’d pick lint off your clothes while he talked to you. But he was a good student. He sat in the front row and raised his hand every time the teacher asked a question. If he was called to give the answer, he would almost always give the right one, and he’d turn his head from side to side with a smug look on his face, as if proving how superior his intellect was when compared with those of the other peons in the room. Eric and I used to shoot spitballs at him when the teacher’s back was turned.
Maggie Brown was another matter. She was a good student as well. She’d served on the student council for the first three years and had been the junior class president the year before. The only real strike against her was the fact that she wasn’t very attractive, and she’d put on twenty pounds that summer. I knew that not a single guy would vote for her.
After seeing the competition, I figured that I might have a chance after all. My entire future was on the line here, so I formulated my strategy. Eric was the first to agree.
“Sure, I’ll get all the guys on the team to vote for you, no problem. If that’s what you really want.”
“How about their girlfriends, too?” I asked.
That was pretty much my entire campaign. Of course, I went to the debates like I was supposed to, and I passed out those dorky “What I’ll do if I’m elected president” fliers, but in the end it was Eric Hunter who probably got me where I needed to be. Beaufort High School had only about four hundred students, so getting the athletic vote was critical, and most of the jocks didn’t give a hoot who they voted for anyway. In the end it worked out just the way I planned.
I was voted student body president with a fairly large majority of the vote. I had no idea what trouble it would eventually lead me to.
When I was a junior I went steady with a girl named Angela Clark. She was my first real girlfriend, though it lasted for only a few months. Just before school let out for the summer, she dumped me for a guy named Lew who was twenty years old and worked as a mechanic in his father’s garage. His primary attribute, as far as I could tell, was that he had a really nice car. He always wore a white T-shirt with a pack of Camels folded into the sleeve, and he’d lean against the hood of his Thunderbird, looking back and forth, saying things like “Hey, baby” whenever a girl walked by. He was a real winner, if you know what I mean.
Well, anyway, the homecoming dance was coming up, and because of the whole Angela situation, I still didn’t have a date. Everyone on the student council had to attend—it was mandatory. I had to help decorate the gym and clean up the next day—and besides, it was usually a pretty good time. I called a couple of girls I knew, but they already had dates, so I called a few more. They had dates, too. By the final week the pickings were getting pretty slim. The pool was down to the kinds of girls who had thick glasses and talked with lisps. Beaufort was never exactly a hotbed for beauties anyway, but then again I had to find somebody. I didn’t want to go to the dance without a date—what would that look like? I’d be the only student body president ever to attend the homecoming dance alone. I’d end up being the guy scooping punch all night long or mopping up the barf in the bathroom. That’s what people without dates usually did.
Growing sort of panicky, I pulled out the yearbook from the year before and started flipping through the pages one by one, looking for anyone who might not have a date. First I looked through the pages with the seniors. Though a lot of them were off at college, a few of them were still around town. Even though I didn’t think I had much of a chance with them, I called anyway, and sure enough, I was proven right. I couldn’t find anyone, at least not anyone who would go with me. I was getting pretty good at handling rejection, I’ll tell you, though that’s not the sort of thing you brag about to your grandkids. My mom knew what I was going through, and she finally came into my room and sat on the bed beside me.
“If you can’t get a date, I’ll be happy to go with you,” she said.
“Thanks, Mom,” I said dejectedly.
When she left the room, I felt even worse than I had before. Even my mom didn’t think I could find somebody. And if I showed up with her? If I lived a hundred years, I’d never live that down.
There was another guy in my boat, by the way. Carey Dennison had been elected treasurer, and he still didn’t have a date, either. Carey was the kind of guy no one wanted to spend time with at all, and the only reason he’d been elected was because he’d run unopposed. Even then I think the vote was fairly close. He played the tuba in the marching band, and his body looked all out of proportion, as if he’d stopped growing halfway through puberty. He had a great big stomach and gangly arms and legs, like the Hoos in Hooville, if you know what I mean. He also had a high-pitched way of talking—it’s what made him such a good tuba player, I reckon—and he never stopped asking questions. “Where did you go last weekend? Was it fun? Did you see any girls?” He wouldn’t even wait for an answer, and he’d move around constantly as he asked so you had to keep turning your head to keep him in sight. I swear he was probably the most annoying person I’d ever met. If I didn’t get a date, he’d stand off on one side with me all night long, firing questions like some deranged prosecutor.
So there I was, flipping through the pages in the junior class section, when I saw Jamie Sullivan’s picture. I paused for just a second, then turned the page, cursing myself for even thinking about it. I spent the next hour searching for anyone halfway decent looking, but I slowly came to the realization that there wasn’t anyone left. In time I finally turned back to her picture and looked again. She wasn’t bad looking, I told myself, and she’s really sweet. She’d probably say yes, I thought. . . .
I closed the yearbook. Jamie Sullivan? Hegbert’s daughter? No way. Absolutely not. My friends would roast me alive.
But compared with dating your mother or cleaning up puke or even, God forbid . . . Carey Dennison?
I spent the rest of the evening debating the pros and cons of my dilemma. Believe me, I went back and forth for a while, but in the end the choice was obvious, even to me. I had to ask Jamie to the dance, and I paced around the room thinking of the best way to ask her.
It was then that I realized something terrible, something absolutely frightening. Carey Dennison, I suddenly realized, was probably doing the exact same thing I was doing right now. He was probably looking through the yearbook, too! He was weird, but he wasn’t the kind of guy who liked cleaning up puke, either, and if you’d seen his mother, you’d know that his choice was even worse than mine. What if he asked Jamie first? Jamie wouldn’t say no to him, and realistically she was the only option he had. No one besides her would be caught dead with him. Jamie helped everyone—she was one of those equal opportunity saints. She’d probably listen to Carey’s squeaky voice, see the goodness radiating from his heart, and accept right off the bat.
So there I was, sitting in my room, frantic with the possibility that Jamie might not go to the dance with me. I barely slept that night, I tell you, which was just about the strangest thing I’d ever experienced. I don’t think anyone ever fretted about asking Jamie out before. I planned to ask her first thing in the morning, while I still had my courage, but Jamie wasn’t in school. I assumed she was working with the orphans over in Morehead City, the way she did every month. A few of us had tried to get out of school using that excuse, too, but Jamie was the only one who ever got away with it. The principal knew she was reading to them or doing crafts or just sitting around playing games with them. She wasn’t sneaking out to the beach or hanging out at Cecil’s Diner or anything. That concept was absolutely ludicrous.
“Got a date yet?” Eric asked me in between classes. He knew very well that I didn’t, but even though he was my best friend, he liked to stick it to me once in a while.
“Not yet,” I said, “but I’m working on it.”
Down the hall, Carey Denison was reaching into his locker. I swear he shot me a beady glare when he thought I wasn’t looking.
That’s the kind of day it was.
The minutes ticked by slowly during my final class. The way I figured it—if Carey and I got out at the same time, I’d be able to get to her house first, what with those gawky legs and all. I started to psych myself up, and when the bell rang, I took off from school running at a full clip. I was flying for about a hundred yards or so, and then I started to get kind of tired, and then a cramp set in. Pretty soon all I could do was walk, but that cramp really started to get to me, and I had to bend over and hold my side while I kept moving. As I made my way down the streets of Beaufort, I looked like a wheezing version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Behind me I thought I heard Carey’s high-pitched laughter. I turned around, digging my fingers into my gut to stifle the pain, but I couldn’t see him. Maybe he was cutting through someone’s backyard! He was a sneaky bastard, that guy. You couldn’t trust him even for a minute.
I started to stumble along even faster, and pretty soon I reached Jamie’s street. By then I was sweating all over—my shirt was soaked right through—and I was still wheezing something fierce. Well, I reached her front door, took a second to catch my breath, and finally knocked. Despite my fevered rush to her house, my pessimistic side assumed that Carey would be the one who opened the door for me. I imagined him smiling at me with a victorious look in his eye, one that essentially meant “Sorry, partner, you’re too late.”
But it wasn’t Carey who answered, it was Jamie, and for the first time in my life I saw what she’d look like if she were an ordinary person. She was wearing jeans and a red blouse, and though her hair was still pulled up into a bun, she looked more casual than she usually did. I realized she could actually be cute if she gave herself the opportunity.
“Landon,” she said as she held open the door, “this is a surprise!” Jamie was always glad to see everyone, including me, though I think my appearance startled her. “You look like you’ve been exercising,” she said.
“Not really,” I lied, wiping my brow. Luckily the cramp was fading fast.
“You’ve sweat clean through your shirt.”
“Oh, that?” I looked at my shirt. “That’s nothing. I just sweat a lot sometimes.”
“Maybe you should have it checked by a doctor.”
“I’ll be okay, I’m sure.”
“I’ll say a prayer for you anyway,” she offered as she smiled. Jamie was always praying for someone. I might as well join the club.
“Thanks,” I said.
She looked down and sort of shuffled her feet for a moment. “Well, I’d invite you in, but my father isn’t home, and he doesn’t allow boys in the house while he’s not around.”
“Oh,” I said dejectedly, “that’s okay. We can talk out here, I guess.” If I’d had my way, I would have done this inside.
“Would you like some lemonade while we sit?” she asked. “I just made some.”
“I’d love some,” I said.
“I’ll be right back.” She walked back into the house, but she left the door open and I took a quick glance around. The house, I noticed, was small but tidy, with a piano against one wall and a sofa against the other. A small fan sat oscillating in the corner. On the coffee table there were books with names like Listening to Jesus and Faith Is the Answer. Her Bible was there, too, and it was opened to the chapter on Luke.
A moment later Jamie returned with the lemonade, and we took a seat in two chairs near the corner of the porch. I knew she and her father sat there in the evenings because I passed by their house now and then. As soon as we were seated, I saw Mrs. Hastings, her neighbor across the street, wave to us. Jamie waved back while I sort of scooted my chair so that Mrs. Hastings couldn’t see my face. Even though I was going to ask Jamie to the dance, I didn’t want anyone—even Mrs. Hastings—to see me there on the off chance that she’d already accepted Carey’s offer. It was one thing to actually go with Jamie, it was another thing to be rejected by her in favor of a guy like Carey.
“What are you doing?” Jamie asked me. “You’re moving your chair into the sun.”
“I like the sun,” I said. She was right, though. Almost immediately I could feel the rays burning through my shirt and making me sweat again.
“If that’s what you want,” she said, smiling. “So, what did you want to talk to me about?”
Jamie reached up and started to adjust her hair. By my reckoning, it hadn’t moved at all. I took a deep breath, trying to gather myself, but I couldn’t force myself to come out with it just yet.
“So,” I said instead, “you were at the orphanage today?”
Jamie looked at me curiously. “No. My father and I were at the doctor’s office.”
“Is he okay?”
She smiled. “Healthy as can be.”
I nodded and glanced across the street. Mrs. Hastings had gone back inside, and I couldn’t see anyone else in the vicinity. The coast was finally clear, but I still wasn’t ready.
“Sure is a beautiful day,” I said, stalling.
“Yes, it is.”
“That’s because you’re in the sun.”
I looked around, feeling the pressure building. “Why, I’ll bet there’s not a single cloud in the whole sky.”
This time Jamie didn’t respond, and we sat in silence for a few moments.
“Landon,” she finally said, “you didn’t come here to talk about the weather, did you?”
“Then why are you here?”
The moment of truth had arrived, and I cleared my throat.
“Well . . . I wanted to know if you were going to the homecoming dance.”
“Oh,” she said. Her tone made it seem as if she were unaware that such a thing existed. I fidgeted in my seat and waited for her answer.
“I really hadn’t planned on going,” she finally said.
“But if someone asked you to go, you might?”
It took a moment for her to answer.
“I’m not sure,” she said, thinking carefully. “I suppose I might go, if I got the chance. I’ve never been to a homecoming dance before.”
“They’re fun,” I said quickly. “Not too much fun, but fun.” Especially when compared to my other options, I didn’t add.
She smiled at my turn of phrase. “I’d have to talk to my father, of course, but if he said it was okay, then I guess I could.”
In the tree beside the porch, a bird started to chirp noisily, as if he knew I wasn’t supposed to be here. I concentrated on the sound, trying to calm my nerves. Just two days ago I couldn’t have imagined myself even thinking about it, but suddenly there I was, listening to myself as I spoke the magic words.
“Well, would you like to go to the dance with me?”
I could tell she was surprised. I think she believed that the little lead-up to the question probably had to do with someone else asking her. Sometimes teenagers sent their friends out to “scout the terrain,” so to speak, so as not to face possible rejection. Even though Jamie wasn’t much like other teenagers, I’m sure she was familiar with the concept, at least in theory.
Instead of answering right away, though, Jamie glanced away for a long moment. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach because I assumed she was going to say no. Visions of my mother, puke, and Carey flooded through my mind, and all of a sudden I regretted the way I’d behaved toward her all these years. I kept remembering all the times I’d teased her or called her father a fornicator or simply made fun of her behind her back. Just when I was feeling awful about the whole thing and imagining how I would ever be able to avoid Carey for five hours, she turned and faced me again. She had a slight smile on her face.
“I’d love to,” she finally said, “on one condition.”
I steadied myself, hoping it wasn’t something too awful.
“You have to promise that you won’t fall in love with me.”
I knew she was kidding by the way she laughed, and I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. Sometimes, I had to admit, Jamie had a pretty good sense of humor.
I smiled and gave her my word.