In the two weeks following the homecoming dance, my life pretty much returned to normal. My father was back in Washington, D.C., which made things a lot more fun around my house, primarily because I could sneak out the window again and head to the graveyard for my late night forays. I don’t know what it was about the graveyard that attracted us so. Maybe it had something to do with the tombstones themselves, because as far as tombstones went, they were actually fairly comfortable to sit on.
We usually sat in a small plot where the Preston family had been buried about a hundred years ago. There were eight tombstones there, all arranged in a circle, making it easy to pass the boiled peanuts back and forth between us. One time my friends and I decided to learn what we could about the Preston family, and we went to the library to find out if anything had been written about them. I mean, if you’re going to sit on someone’s tombstone, you might as well know something about them, right?
It turns out that there wasn’t much about the family in the historical records, though we did find out one interesting tidbit of information. Henry Preston, the father, was a one-armed lumberjack, believe it or not. Supposedly he could cut down a tree as fast as any two-armed man. Now the vision of a one-armed lumberjack is pretty vivid right off the bat, so we talked about him a lot. We used to wonder what else he could do with only one arm, and we’d spend long hours discussing how fast he could pitch a baseball or whether or not he’d be able to swim across the Intracoastal Waterway. Our conversations weren’t exactly highbrow, I admit, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.
Well, Eric and me were out there one Saturday night with a couple of other friends, eating boiled peanuts and talking about Henry Preston, when Eric asked me how my “date” went with Jamie Sullivan. He and I hadn’t seen much of each other since the homecoming dance because the football season was already in the playoffs and Eric had been out of town the past few weekends with the team.
“It was okay,” I said, shrugging, doing my best to play it cool.
Eric playfully elbowed me in the ribs, and I grunted. He outweighed me by at least thirty pounds.
“Did you kiss her good-night?”
He took a long drink from his can of Budweiser as I answered. I don’t know how he did it, but Eric never had trouble buying beer, which was strange, being that everyone in town knew how old he was.
He wiped his lips with the back of his hand, tossing me a sidelong glance.
“I would have thought that after she helped you clean the bathroom, you would have at least kissed her good night.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
“Did you even try?”
“She’s not that kind of girl,” I said, and even though we all knew it was true, it still sounded like I was defending her.
Eric latched on to that like a leech.
“I think you like her,” he said.
“You’re full of crap,” I answered, and he slapped my back, hard enough to force the breath right out of me. Hanging out with Eric usually meant that I’d have a few bruises the following day.
“Yeah, I might be full of crap,” he said, winking at me, “but you’re the one who’s smitten with Jamie Sullivan.”
I knew we were treading on dangerous ground.
“I was just using her to impress Margaret,” I said. “And with all the love notes she’s been sending me lately, I reckon it must have worked.”
Eric laughed aloud, slapping me on the back again.
“You and Margaret—now that’s funny. . . .”
I knew I’d just dodged a major bullet, and I breathed a sigh of relief as the conversation spun off in a new direction. I joined in now and then, but I wasn’t really listening to what they were saying. Instead I kept hearing this little voice inside me that made me wonder about what Eric had said.
The thing was, Jamie was probably the best date I could have had that night, especially considering how the evening turned out. Not many dates—heck, not many people, period—would have done what she did. At the same time, her being a good date didn’t mean I liked her. I hadn’t talked to her at all since the dance, except when I saw her in drama class, and even then it was only a few words here and there. If I liked her at all, I told myself, I would have wanted to talk to her. If I liked her, I would have offered to walk her home. If I liked her, I would have wanted to bring her to Cecil’s Diner for a basket of hushpuppies and some RC cola. But I didn’t want to do any of those things. I really didn’t. In my mind, I’d already served my penance.
The next day, Sunday, I was in my room, working on my application to UNC. In addition to the transcripts from my high school and other personal information, they required five essays of the usual type. If you could meet one person in history, who would that person be and why? Name the most significant influence in your life and why you feel that way. What do you look for in a role model and why? The essay questions were fairly predictable—our English teacher had told us what to expect—and I’d already worked on a couple of variations in class as homework.
English was probably my best subject. I’d never received anything lower than an A since I first started school, and I was glad the emphasis for the application process was on writing. If it had been on math, I might have been in trouble, especially if it included those algebra questions that talked about the two trains leaving an hour apart, traveling in opposite directions at forty miles an hour, etc. It wasn’t that I was bad in math—I usually pulled at least a C—but it didn’t come naturally to me, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, I was writing one of my essays when the phone rang. The only phone we had was located in the kitchen, and I had to run downstairs to grab the receiver. I was breathing so loudly that I couldn’t make out the voice too well, though it sounded like Angela. I immediately smiled to myself. Even though she’d been sick all over the place and I’d had to clean it up, she was actually pretty fun to be around most of the time. And her dress really had been something, at least for the first hour. I figured she was probably calling to thank me or even to get together for a barbecue sandwich and hushpuppies or something.
“Oh, hey,” I said, playing it cool, “what’s going on?”
There was a short pause on the other end.
“How are you?”
It was then that I suddenly realized I wasn’t speaking to Angela. Instead it was Jamie, and I almost dropped the phone. I can’t say that I was happy about hearing from her, and for a second I wondered who had given her my phone number before I realized it was probably in the church records.
“I’m fine,” I finally blurted out, still in shock.
“Are you busy?” she asked.
“Oh . . . I see . . . ,”she said, trailing off. She paused again.
“Why are you calling me?” I asked.
It took her a few seconds to get the words out.
“Well . . . I just wanted to know if you wouldn’t mind coming by a little later this afternoon.”
“Yes. To my house.”
“Your house?” I didn’t even try to disguise the growing surprise in my voice. Jamie ignored it and went on.
“There’s something I want to talk to you about. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”
“Can’t you just tell me over the phone?”
“I’d rather not.”
“Well, I’m working on my college application essays all afternoon,” I said, trying to get out of it.
“Oh . . . well . . . like I said, it’s important, but I suppose I can talk to you Monday at school. . . .”
With that, I suddenly realized that she wasn’t going to let me off the hook and that we’d end up talking one way or the other. My brain suddenly clicked through the scenarios as I tried to figure out which one I should do—talk to her where my friends would see us or talk at her house. Though neither option was particularly good, there was something in the back of my mind, reminding me that she’d helped me out when I’d really needed it, and the least I could do was to listen to what she had to say. I may be irresponsible, but I’m a nice irresponsible, if I do say so myself.
Of course, that didn’t mean everyone else had to know about it.
“No,” I said, “today is fine. . . .”
We arranged to meet at five o’clock, and the rest of the afternoon ticked by slowly, like the drips from Chinese water torture. I left my house twenty minutes early, so I’d have plenty of time to get there. My house was located near the waterfront in the historic part of town, just a few doors down from where Blackbeard used to live, overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. Jamie lived on the other side of town, across the railroad tracks, so it would take me about that long to get there.
It was November, and the temperature was finally cooling down. One thing I really liked about Beaufort was the fact that the springs and falls lasted practically forever. It might get hot in the summer or snow once every six years, and there might be a cold spell that lasted a week or so in January, but for the most part all you needed was a light jacket to make it through the winter. Today was one of those perfect days—mid-seventies without a cloud in the sky.
I made it to Jamie’s house right on time and knocked on her door. Jamie answered it, and a quick peek inside revealed that Hegbert wasn’t around. It wasn’t quite warm enough for sweet tea or lemonade, and we sat in the chairs on the porch again, without anything to drink. The sun was beginning to lower itself in the sky, and there wasn’t anyone on the street. This time I didn’t have to move my chair. It hadn’t been moved since the last time I’d been there.
“Thank you for coming, Landon,” she said. “I know you’re busy, but I appreciate your taking the time to do this.”
“So, what’s so important?” I said, wanting to get this over with as quickly as possible.
Jamie, for the first time since I’d known her, actually looked nervous as she sat with me. She kept bringing her hands together and pulling them apart.
“I wanted to ask you a favor,” she said seriously.
At first I thought she was going to ask me to help her decorate the church, like she’d mentioned at homecoming, or maybe she needed me to use my mother’s car to bring some stuff to the orphans. Jamie didn’t have her license, and Hegbert needed their car anyway, being that there was always a funeral or something he had to go to. But it still took a few seconds for her to get the words out.
She sighed, her hands coming together again.
“I’d like to ask you if you wouldn’t mind playing Tom Thornton in the school play,” she said.
Tom Thornton, like I said before, was the man in search of the music box for his daughter, the one who meets the angel. Except for the angel, it was far and away the most important role.
“Well . . . I don’t know,” I said, confused. “I thought Eddie Jones was going to be Tom. That’s what Miss Garber told us.”
Eddie Jones was a lot like Carey Dennison, by the way. He was really skinny, with pimples all over his face, and he usually talked to you with his eyes all squinched up. He had a nervous tic, and he couldn’t help but squinch his eyes whenever he got nervous, which was practically all the time. He’d probably end up spouting his lines like a psychotic blind man if you put him in front of a crowd. To make things worse, he had a stutter, too, and it took him a long time to say anything at all. Miss Garber had given him the role because he’d been the only one who offered to do it, but even then it was obvious she didn’t want him either. Teachers were human, too, but she didn’t have much of an option, since no one else had come forward.
“Miss Garber didn’t say that exactly. What she said was that Eddie could have the role if no one else tried out for it.”
“Can’t someone else do it instead?”
But there really wasn’t anyone else, and I knew it. Because of Hegbert’s requirement that only seniors perform, the play was in a bind that year. There were about fifty senior boys at the high school, twenty-two of whom were on the football team, and with the team still in the running for the state title, none of them would have the time to go to the rehearsals. Of the thirty or so who were left, more than half were in the band and they had after-school practice as well. A quick calculation showed that there were maybe a dozen other people who could possibly do it.
Now, I didn’t want to do the play at all, and not only because I’d come to realize that drama was just about the most boring class ever invented. The thing was, I’d already taken Jamie to homecoming, and with her as the angel, I just couldn’t bear the thought that I’d have to spend every afternoon with her for the next month or so. Being seen with her once was bad enough . . . but being seen with her every day? What would my friends say?
But I could tell this was really important to her. The simple fact that she’d asked made that clear. Jamie never asked anyone for a favor. I think deep down she suspected that no one would ever do her a favor because of who she was. The very realization made me sad.
“What about Jeff Bangert? He might do it,” I offered.
Jamie shook her head. “He can’t. His father’s sick, and he has to work in the store after school until his father gets back on his feet.”
“What about Darren Woods?”
“He broke his arm last week when he slipped on the boat. His arm is in a sling.”
“Really? I didn’t know that,” I said, stalling, but Jamie knew what I was doing.
“I’ve been praying about it, Landon,” she said simply, and sighed for the second time. “I’d really like this play to be special this year, not for me, but because of my father. I want it to be the best production ever. I know how much it will mean to him to see me be the angel, because this play reminds him of my mother. . . .” She paused, collecting her thoughts. “It would be terrible if the play was a failure this year, especially since I’m involved.”
She stopped again before going on, her voice becoming more emotional as she went on.
“I know Eddie would do the best he could, I really do. And I’m not embarrassed to do the play with him, I’m really not. Actually, he’s a very nice person, but he told me that he’s having second thoughts about doing it. Sometimes people at school can be so . . . so . . . cruel, and I don’t want Eddie to be hurt. But . . .” She took a deep breath, “but the real reason I’m asking is because of my father. He’s such a good man, Landon. If people make fun of his memory of my mother while I’m playing the part . . . well, that would break my heart. And with Eddie and me . . . you know what people would say.”
I nodded, my lips pressed together, knowing that I would have been one of those people she was talking about. In fact, I already was. Jamie and Eddie, the dynamic duo, we called them after Miss Garber had announced that they’d be the ones doing the roles. The very fact that it was I who had started it up made me feel terrible, almost sick to my stomach.
She straightened up a little in her seat and looked at me sadly, as if she already knew I was going to say no. I guess she didn’t know how I was feeling. She went on.
“I know that challenges are always part of the Lord’s plan, but I don’t want to believe that the Lord is cruel, especially to someone like my father. He devotes his life to God, he gives to the community. And he’s already lost his wife and has had to raise me on his own. And I love him so much for it. . . .”
Jamie turned away, but I could see the tears in her eyes. It was the first time I’d ever seen her cry. I think part of me wanted to cry, too.
“I’m not asking you to do it for me,” she said softly, “I’m really not, and if you say no, I’ll still pray for you. I promise. But if you’d like to do something kind for a wonderful man who means so much to me . . . Will you just think about it?”
Her eyes looked like those of a cocker spaniel that had just messed on the rug. I looked down at my feet.
“I don’t have to think about it,” I finally said. “I’ll do it.”
I really didn’t have a choice, did I?