Don't Tripp

Leon Tripp watched the snow fall outside the store front window. He was manning his can and bottle redemption post at Caldwell's Groceries and Liquors but business was understandably slow with the storm and he waited as the clock hands slowly moved toward the end of his shift. Leon picked up as many hours as he could (especially on weekends) with his unglamorous and mundane part time job because he really didn't have anything better to do.

Frank Caldwell, one of the store's second generation co-owners, was working the front counter alone already having sent the two cashiers home because of the weather and Leon wondered if he'd get an early dismissal too seeing how only a fool would bother redeeming their cans and bottles in a near blizzard. Amazingly, a surprising number of customers came in for their booze, lotto tickets, and cigarettes despite the weather.

The Caldwell's were good bosses and they valued Leon as an employee because there weren't a lot of people willing to perform the grungy and degrading job of counting sticky messy cans and dragging huge plastic bags full of aluminum into the back room. Leon had already tidied up the redemption area and performed the odd jobs Mr. Caldwell had assigned during the afternoon and now it was simply a waiting game. Leon was, as usual, covered with stains and spots from the cans he had counted during the day – most folks didn't bother washing out their cans and he was constantly being soaked by drips that flew from the cans as he dumped them out of bags and tossed them into the boxes.

"Okay, Leon, let's call it a day," Mr. Caldwell announced. "If anybody comes in with cans and bottles in this stuff they're out of luck."

Leon glanced at the clock and saw that it was 4:00 – an hour before his shift was scheduled to end. "Thanks, Mr. Caldwell."

Leon hoped his beat up twenty-year old Corolla started in the cold when he left the store and he was relieved when it did. It took him a few minutes to brush off the six inches of snow that had fallen since he arrived at nine and he carefully drove the car out of the side lot of the market. He had to wait for a recent model black Cadillac to pass, the only car on the road. Leon was going in the same direction and he followed in the tire marks left by the Caddy. Visibility was tough and the driving conditions were horrible but luckily Leon's house was only a mile or so away.

The Caddy in front of him turned off of Deerville Street and onto River Street which ran along the bank of the Mill River. Suddenly, the Caddy swerved, picked up speed and sailed off the side of the road.

"Watch out!" Leon screamed as if that was going to make a difference.

The Cadillac flew through a cloud of snow, down the bank and into the river.

Leon couldn't believe what he had just witnessed. He slid his car to a stop and leapt from the vehicle running down the bank to the car that was half sunk in four feet of ice chunked river. His heart racing, Leon saw the face of a terrified elderly woman through the car window and he knew she would drown if he didn't do something.

Without thinking about his own safety (or his family's history with this river), Leon ran into the water and latched onto the handle of the driver's door of the car that was still buoyed in the water but Leon knew not for long. He struggled to get the door open as the car bobbed in the chopping water and somehow the door came free. The interior of the automobile was already filling with river water.

"Come on, Lady," Leon urged, but the woman was dazed and incoherent.

Leon struggled to get her seat belt off and when he accomplished that he yanked her from her seat, wrapped his arms underneath her arms and pulled her from the rapidly sinking car. He somehow managed to lug her to the shore in the icy water even as the weight of his wet clothes and boots dragged him under. A snow plow driver was standing on the bank waiving for Leon who struggled to make it to the shore with the woman cradled in his grasp.

"Come on kid, just a few more feet!" The driver yelled through the falling snow as the sounds of sirens could be heard in the distance.

The plow driver reached out and grabbed the woman once Leon maneuvered close enough to the bank and the Good Samaritan yanked her onto the shore while Leon pushed her from the water before he dragged himself out of the river too. Within moments Fire Rescue personnel and paramedics were on the scene. Somebody wrapped a blanket around Leon and he was helped up the bank by rescue personnel. His teeth were chattering and his lips had turned blue and once he was inside an ambulance the paramedics stripped him of his wet clothes as the vehicle headed for the Emergency Room of the Blue County Medical Center. Leon was embarrassed by both the attention and the indignity.

The ER Administrative staff took care of his paperwork and the Medical Staff checked him over for any apparent injuries, keeping him warm and watching for any signs of distress. A police officer stopped by the bay to take his down his statement and ask a few questions.

"Are you Bob Tripp's kid?" The middle aged veteran Officer asked with interest.

Leon nodded affirmatively and the cop shook his head with disbelief.

"What were the chances the river would be involved again?" the cop remarked. "You okay?"

Leon nodded affirmatively again. "What about the woman?"

"She wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you, kid," the cop replied.

The Officer left and fifteen minutes later a second policeman entered Leon's ER cubical. "Just wanted to let you know we drove your car to your house since it was just down the road," the red haired cop let him know. "We talked to your mom and offered to bring her here but she had no interest in leaving the house. Guess she's afraid of the snow."

"Not just the snow," Leon replied unhappily.

The medical staff kept Leon in the bay for another hour or so, checking his vitals, giving him liquids, and keeping him warm. An understanding nurse finally gave the patient a pair of medical scrubs to wear so he didn't have to sit naked under a couple of blankets any longer. He was getting anxious to be discharged, feeling awkward about the entire scenario.

Bill Swenson entered the cubical. Leon recognized the popular car dealership owner because of his many television ads that had been running for years. With him were his daughters Kerry and Kelly, both of who attended Greenville High School with Leon although he had never once spoken to either of them.

"Leon Tripp," Bill Swenson announced in his booming voice. He was tall, good looking and just as striking in person as he was on television.

"Yes sir," A confused Leon replied, not quite sure what the Swensons were doing in his cubical.

Bill Swenson stuck his hand out. "Thank you for saving my mother, son," he said. "That was a real act of bravery."

Holy Shit. Leon had saved Kelly Swenson's grandmother!? He glanced at Kelly, a girl who was taller than him by three inches, last fall's Homecoming Queen and one of the most popular, well liked and prettiest girls in the school. She had a perplexed look on her face as she studied Leon, probably trying to place him seeing how he was an nobody at Greenville High. She was wearing a winter jacket with ski lift tickets tied to the cords and a thick white wool hat with her long brown hair coming down from underneath. She was also wearing high leather snow boots and skin tight jeans.

"Is she going to be okay?" Leon asked Mr. Swenson, referring to his mother.

"I'm not sure," Mr. Swenson admitted honestly. "Hope so. We'll have to wait and see. But I know you saved her life and I'll always be grateful for that. I have no idea what she was doing in that part of town."

A nurse stuck her head into the cubical. "Excuse me, Mr. Swenson, but we need your signature on a few forms," she said.

"Okay," he replied over his shoulder. "Girls, keep young Mr. Tripp here company for a moment. I'll be right back."

Kerry, who didn't look much different form her sister, rolled her eyes and folded her arms across her chest while Kelly nervously shifted from foot to foot.

"You're Don't Tripp," Kerry grumbled once her father was gone from the cubical. "The school's biggest loser."

"Yeah, that's me," Leon replied.

"I don't think I've seen you around school," Kelly said with a less critical tone.

"You weren't looking," Leon replied.

"Why would she look for a loser like you?" Kerry laughed. "You're invisible."

Mr. Swenson returned to the cubical and gave the rescuer an appreciative smile. "Okay girls, we should go," he said before nodding his head to Leon and leaving the room. Kerry sighed with relief and started for the door while Kelly threw Leon a strange look before following the others out of the room.

Man, Kelly Swenson! What were the chances that the elderly woman Leon rescued from the icy river would turn out to be her grandmother? Not that it mattered much. Kelly Swenson wasn't the type of girl who was going to give a guy like Leon Tripp the time of day. 'Don't trip' was the joke around school when it came to making remarks about him - whether behind his back or to his face like Kerry had just done to further humiliate him in front of Kelly.

The doctor returned eventually and cleared Leon for discharge. His temperature had remained consistent and he showed no signs of hypothermia.

"Go home and get a good night's rest," the young and peppy Doctor advised. "Stay warm. Drink some liquids."

The nurse gave Leon a pair of disposable slippers and she handed him his still wet clothes in a heavy plastic bag. He was escorted to the reception area where he was discharged. He wandered into the lobby trying to figure out how he was going to get home. He noticed Mr. Swenson talking on his cell phone outside the door. It looked like the snow had let up some but it was hard to tell in the dark. Mr. Swenson finished the call and came through the door.

"You're discharged?' Mr. Swenson asked when he saw Leon standing in the lobby.

Leon nodded.

"Got a ride?"

Leon shrugged with embarrassment.

"Hey, Kelly!" Mr. Swenson called.

Leon saw that Mr. Swenson's eldest daughter had just come out of the lobby bathroom.

"Could you give our hero a ride home please?" Her father requested.

Kelly was taken aback by the request. "But what about Grandma?" She asked with concern.

"She's stable," her Dad replied. "You can leave for a few minutes."

Kelly nodded but Leon could tell she wasn't thrilled with the assignment. "Wait here," she told him with a sigh as she walked past him. "I'll bring the car up to the door."

Mr. Swenson patted Leon on the shoulder before heading through the double doors into the ER bay area. Leon stepped to the entrance door and waited for Kelly to bring the car around. The snow had let up but it was still falling and the parking lot was a mess. A moment later, a spiffy looking yellow sports car pulled to the door and Leon quickly scooted out of the hospital lobby and into Kelly's car.

"Where do you live?" Kelly asked, not looking at him.

"River Street."

"You're kidding," she replied with a frown.

Leon shook his head no, suddenly feeling even more 'less than'.

Kelly didn't say anything as she carefully drove the car out of the ER Entrance. River Street was only a mile or so from the hospital but it was still slow going with the road conditions. She turned the music on which Leon took as a hint that she wasn't interesting in conversing with him. He couldn't blame her. He had zilch in common with the popular girl. He knew she was smart (National Honor Society), popular (cheerleader, home coming queen), talented (class plays, band, talent show), and well liked (she always seemed to have a guy on her arm). Leon was so far down the social ladder of Greenville High that he'd need a stool just to reach the bottom rung.

There wasn't any point trying to talk to a chick like Kelly Swenson so Leon stared out the window at the falling snow. There wasn't any traffic except for an occasional snow plow. Kelly drove down Main Street and Leon saw that most businesses were closed. When she reached River Street, Leon finally spoke.

"Turn right," he instructed.

Kelly obeyed and they hadn't travel very far when Leon gestured to the right.

"There's where your Grandmother went off the road," he said.

Kelly slowed the car to a stop and stared toward the river barely visible in the falling snow. "Oh my God," she said. "Poor Grandma. What in the hell was she doing in this part of town in the first place?"

Did she mean Leon's part of town?

The river looked even more furious than it did at the time of the accident. Kelly stared at Leon with fascination.

"Why'd you do it?" She asked.

"Do what?" Leon asked.

"Jump in a dangerously cold and swift river to save a stranger?"

"I didn't even think about it," Leon answered truthfully. "My house is just down the road" he said. "I know you want to get back to the hospital."

She didn't say anything as she slowly drove the car down the street. They passed a few houses and Leon pointed to a run down gray house on the right. "I live there," he said.

"Oh," Kelly said and he could tell she was surprised by the condition of the house.

It had been a VA Loan repossession and Leon's father bought it at a steal but no work had been done to it and now it was even in worse shape than it was when he bought it.

Kelly pulled her car to a stop on the side of the road, afraid she'd get stuck if she tried to park in the driveway. Leon saw his car parked in the short driveway. The house sat fairly close to the bank of the Mill River (although high above it) which could be seen from the road.

"Thanks for the lift," Leon said.

"My sister says you father died in the river," Kelly remarked.

Leon nodded and pointed to the end of the driveway where a fence once was. "Drove right off there," he reported.

"On purpose?" Kelly asked softly.

"Nobody knows for sure," Leon admitted. "He was drunk. Could have been an accident. Could have been on purpose. Don't suppose it makes much difference now."

"He drowned?"

"They said he was probably knocked unconscious. Never made it out of the car."

"I'm sorry," Kelly offered awkwardly.

"It was a long time ago," Leon said before opening the door and getting out the car.

He knew Kelly was probably thinking the same thing most people thought when they heard the story of Bob Tripp: a psychotic drunk double amputee war veteran who couldn't take it anymore and killed himself. And now that she saw where he lived – a much different neighborhood than her impressive Green Hill section of town with the large expensive houses – she knew he came from a poor family.

Leon ran through the snow getting his hospital issued foam slippers soaked as Kelly drove off. The house was dark and Leon's mother had already gone to bed He was surprised she hadn't waited up to see how he was doing but his mother spent most of her time in her room and that was just as well anyway.

Monday morning's paper had the account of Mrs. Helen Swenson driving into the Blue River, a front page tabloid piece since the Swenson name was so well know. Leon had declined several interview requests but the reporter made sure she mentioned that the teenaged rescuer was the son of the man who had drowned "almost in the same place" seven years earlier.

Leon's mother didn't mention the incident but she rarely talked about anything anyway. She was a thin, hallowed faced woman who looked much older than her actual age. Her hair was usually unkempt and she rarely bothered to get dressed. Leon's father was ten years older than Lorraine McKinney when the career soldier met her in a pizza place not far from the Army Base outside of Watertown NY. Lorraine was nineteen and she came from a broken home, working part time as a waitress, and ready to get out of her dreary life. Bob Tripp was handsome and interesting. They married three months after they met and Leon was born six months later.

Leon had few memories of his early years except that they moved a lot and they were always living on a different base. Leon's kid brother Greg was born four years later but he was nearly three months premature and suffered from several birth defects and other complications. He was a special needs child that required plenty of attention and frequent hospitalizations. Leon remembered the house being full of stress and anxiety regarding Greg who was always sick. The boy died shortly after his third birthday of complications from a high fever.

Leon's mother was the never the same after the loss of her son and not long after Greg died Leon's Dad was sent to Iraq. Leon remembered feeling incredibly lonely. His mother was unable to be present for him, his brother was dead, his Dad was gone, and Leon had few friends.

Then his father was seriously wounded by a road side bomb explosion in Iraq and he spent more than a year at various Army hospitals recovering from his injuries. Leon's mother continued to struggle emotionally from her grief and the burdens of her husband's severe injuries and Leon mostly remained invisible. His father was medically discharged and the family moved to Greenville when a former Army buddy informed Bob of the available VA house and offered Bob a job. Less than a year later, Bob Tripp was dead under bizarre circumstances.

Leon had been hustled awake by a neighbor who got him out of the house that fateful morning. Leon saw the rescue vehicles as he was hurried away but his father's car had been in the river for hours before being discovered with Bob Tripp dead inside.

Leon was basically on his own after his father's death. His mother became disabled due to her mental diagnosis. Leon heard such terms as manic-depressive, bi-polar, and extreme anxiety disorder being discussed regarding her case. Plus she drank. Outreach workers came to the house once or twice a week to check on her wellbeing and assist her with her daily living functions.

Leon was independent – he got the job at Caldwell's when he was fourteen, he bought his car with his own saved money when he was sixteen, and he went to school on his own without being promoted or forced. He hoped to graduate and join the service, not seeing any purpose to hanging around Greenville for the rest of his life.

There was buzz at school on Monday. Some people acknowledged Leon's heroics, including Karen Swenson the third sister (Kelly was a senior like Leon, Kerry was a junior, and Karen was a sophomore). The three sisters looked similar in facial appearance and body shape.

"Thanks for saving my Grammie, Don't Tripp," Karen said as she passed him in the hall.

Leon was amused that people were actually chatting with him about the newspaper story. Usually, he drifted through the halls like the invisible man although he had a few acquaintances, the most familiar being Jerry 'Jasper' Mahoney who hung out with him from time to time. Mahoney was a big burly red headed Irish kid who looked like he played football but didn't.

"Out of everybody in this frigin' school, you had to rescue the snob family's granny," Jasper complained.

"I didn't know who she was," Leon defended as they stood in the hall waiting for the bell to ring.

"Those Swenson snots think their shit don't stink," Jasper commented. "They think they're school royalty. The Queens."

"I don't pay much attention to that stuff," Leon remarked.
"You're full of shit," Jasper rebutted. "I've seen you looking at the Swenson chick."

"Which one?" Leon asked defensively.

"What difference does it make?" Jasper frowned. "They're interchangeable. They all have the stuck up gene. If your parents don't make a hundred grand a year and you don't belong to the country club they ain't talking to you."

"Their father spoke to me," Leon pointed out.

"Ah, yes, the television star salesman," Jasper laughed. "He'd talk to the devil if he could make a good deal. And what about their mother? She won't sell a house for under five hundred grand. They call her 'The Regal Realtor'!"

"You sound awfully bitter," Leon remarked. "And how come you know so much about them?"

"I dated Kerry for about five minutes sophomore year," Jasper admitted sheepishly. "I wasn't good enough for her. Haven't spoken to any of them since. They're all fakes and frauds. So full of themselves."

"Maybe you should have saved their grandmother," Leon said.

"You still won't be good enough," Jasper warned. "Don't even fool yourself into thinking any of them will really care about you. A dead father? A troubled mother? Living on River Street? You might as well be one of Fagin's street orphans from Oliver."

Leon laughed because sometimes that's exactly how he felt, only instead of stealing money for Fagin he was counting cans for the Caldwells. The bell mercifully rang to break up Jasper's analysis of the Swenson family. A little harsh, Leon thought, but he had to agree that the Swensons were among the school's elite.

Although Leon saw Kelly around the school halls the next few days, she didn't say anything to him and he knew it wasn't his place to approach her. He may have saved their grandmother's life but he was still Leon Tripp, Class Nobody - don't trip! Whenever Kerry passed him in the hall, she gave him a scowl or made some sort of frowning face at him.

The initial gossip on Monday about his daring river rescue died down as the week progressed and most people had forgotten about Leon's briefest moment of celebrity which meant Kelly and Kerry could ignore him when other people were looking in order to protect their reputation as The Queens.

Leon was leaving school on Wednesday afternoon when Kelly's voice stopped him.

"Can I talk to you for a second?"

She popped out from between a row of cars in the student parking lot, looking around like she was a secret agent trying not to be seen. She obviously didn't want to be caught talking with a guy like Don't Tripp. She looked uncomfortable, annoyed, and like she wanted to be anywhere else.

"My parents want to invite to our house on Friday night to thank you for what you did," she informed him unhappily.

Leon was stunned by the invitation. He couldn't picture himself in the fancy Swenson house. "How's your grandmother doing?"

"They're running tests," Kelly replied sadly. "Looks like she has the onset of Alzheimer's."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Leon said with sympathy.

"She's been sort of flaky and confused for months now," Kelly sighed. "Doing strange things. Getting dates mixed up. Showing up for Thanksgiving thinking it was 4th of July. At Christmas, she didn't bring any presents which was so unlike her. We still don't know what she was doing out driving in a snow storm in that part of town. Best guess is Church but she was five miles off course and going in the wrong direction. She doesn't remember what happened or what she was doing."

"It's tough when someone you care about isn't all there," Leon said with understanding, thinking of his own mother.

Kelly chewed on her lip. "I don't know why I'm telling you all this. I don't even know you."

"I know," Leon said.

"Anyway, you can arrive at 6 p.m. The address is 29 Green Hill Plateau. The large purple Victorian on the curve."

Kelly disappeared into the sea of cars as mysteriously as she had arrived making Leon feel like he was some narc criminal who wasn't supposed to be seen. He had never been invited anywhere before and the thought of having dinner with the Swenson family made him nervous. Jasper was greatly amused when Leon told him about the dinner invitation the next day.

"So, you've been summoned to the palace, hey?" Jasper laughed. "An audience with the Holy See. Make sure you follow proper etiquitte," he warned. "Soup spoon and all the rest of it."

Leon realized he was clueless when it came to manners and the correct way to dine. He actually went on line to see what he was supposed to do so he wouldn't' totally embarrass himself any more than he was going to anyway just by showing up in the first place. Did good manners mean don't slurp his food or hold his fork wrong? Should he put his napkin in his lap or on his knee? What was he supposed to wear – Kelly wasn't specific about it being formal or informal.

Leon was pretty sure he could be properly polite and courtous but would that be good enough? What if he didn't talk enough? What if talked too much!? What if he said something stupid or offensive? Should he bring a gift? Flowers? Chocolate? What silverwear did he use when? Where did he put the silverware when he wasn't using it? On the side of the plate? On the table? What if he didn't like what was being served? When should he stand? During grace? When somebody else got up or entered the room? Leon couldn't even remember the last time he ate in a resturant let alone somebody else's house.

Leon went to the Salvation Army Thrift store after school and found a respectable looking gray wool suitcoat that fit him. At home, he pressed his jeans, dug out his clean tennis sneakers from the closet, and found a dress shirt that still fit him. He swiped one of his father's old ties to wear and he brushed his hair into a presentable style.

Leon drove to Green Hill arriving at the Swenson house percicely at 6:00. He had to fight the urge to keep on driving and his car looked out of place on the street of this nice neighborhood. Saturday's snow had melted some but there were still snow banks. The Swenson house was large and attractive, standing out from the others on the street because it was painted a bright purple. Although the house was old it looked modern with expensive windows and fine dressings, including elequent porch rails and carved woodwork.

Leon nervously pushed the bell which rang in a pretty chime echoing throughout the house. After a moment, the heavy oak door was opened and a smaller version of Kelly was peering at him. Leon hadn't realized there was a fourth Swenson Queen, this one a thirteen year old eighth grader.

"Are you the guy who saved my grandmother?" the brown haired blue eyed beauty asked.

"Leon Tripp," he confirmed.

The girl gave him a spontaneous hug. "Thank you," she said. "I love my Grandmother so much."

"You're welcome," Leon replied, not sure what to do in response. He hadn't been embraced….ever.

"I'm Krystal," the girl announced. "I'm in middle school."

"Nice to meet you," Leon said, awkwardly handing her the large box of chocolates he had brought, a red bow tied across it.

"Whitman's," Krystal smiled with approval. "Great."

"Good evening, young man."

Leon looked up to see an older version of Kelly/Kerry/Karen/Krystal standing in the doorway and he knew she was Mrs. Swenson. She was as tall as her daughters which meant she was taller than Leon. She wore her hair much shorter than her girls, a brownish blonde styled to her collar. She was well dressed in a fancy pants suit with expensive jewlry and she took Leon's hand in a welcoming shake.

"Thank you for coming," she said earnestly. "I'm happy to meet such a gallant young man."

"Anybody would have done the same," Leon insisted.

"I'm not so sure of that," Mrs. Swenson said as she led Leon into the living room.

The interior of the Swenson house looked like it was a showcase for an upscale furniture store display or the front cover of a Better Homes and Magazine cover. The furniture was in perfect condition, interspersed with older antique pieces to add character and style. There were hard word floors, cozy carpets, picturesque paintings and other art work, countless family and individual photos, and plenty of artifacts and collectables.

The place looked perfect. And in the living room were Mrs. Swenson's perfect children - the three beautiful daughters joined by the youngest, Krystal who entered the room behind her mother and Leon. Krystal was excited, Karen was amused, Kerry looked bored, and Kelly seemed annoyed but the family was polite and welcoming of Leon in a 'my-parents-forced-us-to-do-this' kind of way.

Mr. Swenson soon entered the room with his son Kyle, a freshman at nearby Green College who still lived at home. He looked perfect too. Leon remembered seeing the Swenson brother around school before he graduated last year, a popular tennis player and class president. He shook Leon's hand and thanked him for helping out their grandmother.

Mrs. Swenson poured her husband a drink at the bar in the corner of the room while Leon tried to decide if he should take a seat or continue standing. If he sat, where should he sit? On the couch with Kelly and Kerry or the other one with Karen? Krystal had taken a seat on the arm of the couch Karen was sitting on and Leon realized how perfectly dressed all of the Swensons' looked. Even in designer jeans, Kelly still appeared as a magazine model as did the other girls, whether they were wearing slacks or skirts.

Mrs. Swenson handed her husband a drink before excusing herself to check on dinner. Kerry offered to help and left the room with her mother. Mr. Swenson and Kyle remained standing so Leon did too. Mr. Swenson did most of the talking, giving the kids an update on their grandmother who had physically recovered from the river accident and was now receiving home care services to help her stay on track and out of trouble.

"We should probably spend as much time with her as we can," Mr. Swenson advised. "The doctor says her memory and functioning skills are going to progressively get worse."

The news put a pall over the room so Mr. Swenson turned his attention to Leon, once again thanking him for his kind and brave deed. The others joined in with their appreciation and Leon heard several great stories about their grandmother. She was a wonderful cook, especially with baked goods. She was one of the first female bank vice presidents at Greenville Savings Bank. She loved to travel and she often took one of the grandchildren with her on exotic adventures. She had a terrific sense of humor and she rarely got upset. She was an avid reader who constantly read to the kids when they were young. She volunteered with several organizations and she had passed that attitude of charity on to her grandchildren - Kyle gave free golfing lessons to kids at the country club and Kelly volunteered at an afternoon play group.

"Dinner's ready," Mrs. Swenson announced and Leon was led by the others into the large dining room with the huge table in the middle of the road. Krystal took it upon herself to seat Leon between her and Kelly with Kerry, Karen and Kyle on the other side and the parents at either end. Mrs. Swenson served a huge lasagna with a tasty tossed salad and once the family was seated and began the meal, Mr. Swenson turned his attention to their guest.

"We are deeply grateful for what you did, Leon," he said.

"Yes sir," Leon replied, trying to emulate the others as far as their table manners went.

"I understand you live on River Street?" Mr. Swenson remarked.

"Yes, my father bought a house from the VA," Leon explained.

"He served in the Army?"

"Medically discharged from wounds suffered in Iraq," Leon confirmed. "He died when I was ten."

The inference was that his father died from his wounds received in combat and Leon elected not to correct the misconception although he felt Kelly's eyes on him and Kerry audibly cleared her throat in protest. Leon was pretty sure everybody knew about the car in the river anyway.

"How's your mom doing?" Mr. Swenson asked.

"She's doing okay," Leon replied.

It wasn't exactly a lie. She was doing okay as far as her usual behavior was concerned. She hadn't been hospitalized in the psych unit for nearly a year now so that was a positive.

Sensing the awkwardness of the subject of Leon's family, Mrs. Swenson changed the subject by asking Karen about her dance class and Krystal was more than happy to tell everybody about her spelling bee competition coming up. Mr. Swenson asked Kyle about his college activities and Kelly talked about the upcoming prom of which she was the committee chair.

"You going with Pete?" Kerry asked.

Kelly smiled and nodded with enthusiasm. Leon pretended to be interested but talk about prom was probably the last thing he wanted to hear about. He tried to interject a thought here or there as the dinner conversation continued but he really had very little to contribute. He had nothing in common with any of the Swensons, nothing from the past he could brag about and he didn't feel comfortable trying to fit in with the conversation anyway. If he hadn't jumped in the river to help their grandmother, they never would have looked twice at him. Even now, they were barely paying attention to him as he sat with them at the table.

Jasper was right. There was something noble, regal, and royal about this clan. They all looked and acted perfect. The perfectly happy family with their perfectly happy lives in their big luxury house on the hill. They got along with one another and enjoyed each other's company. They clearly loved their grandmother and Leon was glad he was able to do a good thing but he really had no idea what he was doing eating dinner with these people. He didn't belong to the country club. He didn't play golf or tennis. He wasn't a dancer or a cheerleader or a home coming queen. He wasn't going to the prom. He didn't belong here.

Leon observed the group and listened to their conversations. He wondered if this was the typical example of a normal happy family in America. He had known no such thing. His memories were of an absent father, a sick brother who didn't live, and an unhappy mother who couldn't relate to anything going on around her. Leon couldn't remember a time when his family sat around a table conversing on a variety of subjects with clarity and interest. He never met his paternal grandparents and the few times he met his mother's folks it was stressful and awkward. There had been talk of him going to live with his maternal grandparents after his father's death but his mother refused to leave the house or Greenville.

"I ran away for a reason," Leon remembers his mother saying soon after his father died.

Mrs. Swenson served a cheese cake with coffee after the meal was concluded. There was talk of sports – Kerry was on the softball team with its season coming up soon – and Karen was continuing on in her brother's footsteps with tennis.

"Do you play sports, Leon?" Mr. Swenson asked.

"No," Leon had to admit, but he volunteered that he worked at Caldwell's Grocery and Liquor Store.

"Isn't that place kind of seedy?" Mrs. Swenson asked. "It's not in the best part of town."

It was a booze store with lottery tickets and cigarettes and Leon knew that most of the cliental didn't hang out on Green Hill.

"I work in the redemption section," he justified.

"You count cans?" Kyle laughed.

"And bottles," Leon confirmed.

There was an awkward pause and Leon knew he was poor white trash compared to the upper middle class lifestyle and attitudes of the Swenson family with their regal realtor mother and successful Dad who owned four car dealerships in three Blue County towns. What would they think if they learned his mother was on disability receiving state services for mental illness?

"Well, Caldwell's isn't that far from River Street," Kelly pointed out.

Leon wasn't sure if she was trying to help him out or if she was further criticizing and judging him.

The houses on River Street were not the kind of houses Mrs. Swenson would list. The street also housed a junk yard and had been cut off when the interstate was built years ago. There was also a trucking company that didn't add a whole lot of class to the neighborhood.

"Does the river ever flood?" Krystal asked.

"They dug it out along that section," Leon explained. "There are high banks and it's only flooded the junk yard once in the past twenty five years."

"Oh," Krystal replied with satisfaction. "I don't think I've ever been that way."

"Some people cut through there to get to Blue County Community College," Kyle offered.

"Brandon Boulevard is a much prettier way," Mrs. Swenson said.

Well, the verdict was in, Leon realized. He lived in a crummy part of town and he was not the type of 'people' the Swenson's associated with unless (as Jasper would probably cynically point out) Mr. Swenson was trying to sell a car.

When the cheese cake was eaten the coffee drunk, the family finally excused themselves from the table. Kerry and Karen helped Mrs. Swenson with the clean up while Kyle, Kelly, Krystal and Mr. Swenson escorted Leon into the living room. Mr. Swenson offered his hand.

"We will always be grateful for what you did for us, Leon," he said with sincerity. "Thank you. If there's anything we can ever do for you, please let us know."

"Thank you, sir," Leon replied.

"Kelly, why don't you walk Leon to his car?" Mr. Swenson suggested and Leon knew his audience with the Royal Swensons was now over.

"Goodbye, Leon!" It was Krystal smiling at him but Leon wasn't sure if she was being nice or catty.

Kerry returned from the kitchen long enough to step close to him and whisper in his year. "Go on home to your mental case mother."

Kelly led Leon from the house and down the front walk to where his junky car was parked at the curb. Kelly probably thought it belonged in the River Street Junkyard!

"I'm sorry it wasn't Prince Charming who jumped into the river to save your grandmother," Leon said, trying not to sound hurt or resentful. "Or Pete even."

"What do you mean?" Kelly frowned.

"I realize I'd never be cast in the role of superhero," Leon replied. "I'm not handsome, interesting, or particularly talented. I live in the poor section of town. I come from a troubled home. I'm short. I have no redeeming attributes. I know I embarrass you even being seen talking to me."

"Th….That's not true," a defensive Kelly replied.

"Its okay, Kelly," Leon replied knowingly. "I understand."

He smiled his goodbye before climbing into the car and driving off leaving a humiliated Kelly standing on the curb gawking after him. Maybe it was rude for Leon to call her out like that but he was pretty sure Jasper was correct in his opinion – the Swenson Queens wouldn't want anything to do with a guy like Leon Don't Tripp.

Leon worked his two weekend shifts at Caldwell's, trying to get back to his regular routine now that his interaction with the Swensons was over. They had checked off the thank you box, given him a dinner, and now everybody could go back to their separate lives. The Royals didn't have to associate themselves with the commoner Leon.

Leon was getting close to the end of his Sunday shift. He was sitting on the stool in the redemption center area waiting for the next customer but it had been slow for a while. The tip jar didn't look all that promising either but everyday was different as far as the redemption traffic went, depending on the weather and other factors.

The bell on the door jingled as it opened and Leon did a double take when he saw Kelly Swenson enter the store, looking hopelessly out of place with her fancy ski jacket, wool topped boots, thick ski hat and leather gloves. She glanced around and when she saw the redemption center she headed in Leon's direction.

He was sure she was going to tell him off for what he had the gall to say to her the other night when leaving her house. Who did he think he was!?

"Hello," Kelly said awkwardly when she reached the large gray trough table in front of Leon.

"Where are your bottles?" He joked, hoping to keep things lighthearted.

"Maybe next time," she replied as she examined the redemption area which consisted of a dozen large cardboard boxes with plastic bags inside of them for the cans. There was also a metal stack for the bottles that were turned in, a box of plastic gloves, an adding machine and a cash register, along with the tip jar and several posters of various beer advertisements, including a large one for Three Stooges Beer over Leon's head.

"What are you doing here?" Leon asked with confusion.

"So, this is where you work," Kelly commented, looking around the store. "It's not so bad."

"The Caldwell's are nice people," Leon said, feeling the need to defend them from the Swenson's obvious disapproval of the store and neighborhood.

"I'm sure they are," Kelly replied. "When do you get off?"

"Five," he replied with uncertainty, not sure why she cared.

"I'll wait for you outside," Kelly told him.

"Be sure to lock your car doors!" Leon called after her as she headed for the door.

Leon assumed that Kelly didn't want to berate him and dress him down in front of other people and that she would yell at him when he got off shift. Lucy the counter girl at the front of the store gave Leon a smirk, apparently impressed that such an obvious high class girl had been chatting with him.

"Leon, what secrets have you been keeping!?" She laughed.

He couldn't think of a humorous response so he didn't say anything in reply but he hoped his standing in Lucy's eyes went up a notch after Kelly's appearance. The front end staff usually didn't pay a whole lot of attention to Leon in the back. In the store pecking order, he was at the bottom and h was not taken very seriously or included in most of the store scuttlebutt. His responsibility was to count the cans and don't trip.

Leon made a point of washing his sticky hands when his shift was over before heading outside. He saw Kelly's spiffy yellow sports car parked in the side lot not far from his junk and he walked to it. The passenger door popped open and Leon glanced inside the vehicle wondering if Kelly had some guy waiting in there to beat the shift out of him.

"Get in," Kelly ordered in a flat tone.

Leon couldn't think of a reason not to comply so he climbed into the car and shut the door, waiting for her wrath to explode.

"I really love my grandmother," Kelly said with emotion in her voice. "It really breaks my heart to know she has the onset of Alzheimer's. I miss her already."

"It must be hard," Leon said.

"Kyle says maybe she would have been better off if she drowned in the river," Kelly revealed with annoyance. "How could he say something so cruel?"

"It's going to be difficult for everybody," Leon remarked. "He was probably just reacting emotionally to the realization that she's sick."

"Maybe," Kelly said sadly. "But I still didn't like it."

Leon nodded with understanding.

"I don't care that it wasn't Prince Charming who saved my grandmother," Kelly said, giving him a long look. "I'm so thankful for you giving me the chance to spend time with my grandmother for the long goodbye as President Reagan once put it."

Leon nodded again, feeling moved by her sentiments.

"I was chagrined by what you said the other night but I have to admit I can't deny it," she sighed. "I know we have a certain reputation about status and all that and it's true that I act a certain way but I can't help who I am or where I come from."

"Neither can I," Leon pointed out.

"I know," she sighed. "I really can't relate to what you've been though with your Dad or what you must be going through with your mom."

"I don't suppose it's all that much different between my mom and your grandmother," Leon observed.

"And it's true my mother would be upset if she knew I was in this neighborhood talking with you," Kelly said.

"I'm from the wrong side of the railroad tracks," Leon remarked with understanding.

"Well, in this case I guess it's the wrong side of the river," Kelly replied with the hint of a smirk.

"You don't have to explain yourself to me, Kelly," Leon said. "I'm sorry about your grandmother and I'm glad you have a chance to spend some quality time with her now. You don't owe me anything."

"I feel like I do," Kelly sighed. "And I'm conflicted because of it."

"Because of who I am," he guessed. "Where I live."

"Yes," she admitted sheepishly. "I realize that doesn't reflect well on me but its just the way it is."

"Don't worry, you don't have to talk to me in school," Leon said.

"I'm sorry," she said with embarrassment.

"About everything?" He wondered.

"My mom really likes Pete," Kelly explained.

"Do you like Pete?" Leon asked.

"I'm supposed to like guys like Pete," she revealed.

"And not guys like me," Leon realized.

"Right," she confessed.

"Well, thanks for be honest with me," Leon said, opening the door to the car. "I'll let you get back to your regularly scheduled life now."

"Wait," Kelly pleaded.

The door open, Leon peered back at Kelly wondering what she was going to say next.

"Listen, Sunday evenings are reserved as family nights at our house," she said.

"What's that got to do with me?"

"Maybe you could come over on Sunday evenings after work and hang out with us," she suggested hopefully.

"I'm sure your mom would like that!" Leon frowned.

"She'd deal with it as long as you park in back," Kelly deadpanned.

"Thanks for the offer," Leon said with true appreciation. "But I'm sure it would be weird for everybody. I can tell Kerry hates me."

"Kerry hates everybody," Kelly assured him. "You saved my grandmother's life, Leon," Kelly said. "I really respect you for that."

"I don't belong on the hill," Leon told her.

"We have pizza. Watch a movie sometimes. Hang out down cellar in the family room."

"I wouldn't feel welcomed."

She stared at him for a long moment. "Please?"

"I don't know," Leon said hesitantly. "It's probably not a good idea. What's that line from Ghostbusters? Dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria!"

Kelly laughed but then she sighed heavily. "It would mean a lot if I could hang out with the guy who saved my grandmother," she told him. "You are my superhero."

"Just not in public," Leon commented knowingly.

"Couldn't you at least compromise with me half way, Leon?" Kelly challenged.

He thought about it for a moment. "Maybe I could stop by once in a while," he finally said.

"Great!" Kelly beamed. "I'll let everybody know. Maybe next Sunday?"

"Sure," Leon said as he started to get out of the car. "Thanks for the invite."

He wasn't sure if he should be flattered or insulted by Kelly's offer as he climbed into his own car, watching as Kelly sped off in her spiffy yellow sport's car. At least she was honest about her convictions and attitudes, he'd give her that much. It must be hard being a Swenson, a member of local royalty with an image to protect.

Leon elected not to tell Jasper about Kelly's conditional invitation. Jasper would surely go nuts with such a secret arrangement, spending time in the Swenson cellar secretly without anybody knowing. It was bad enough that Jasper interrogated him about the dinner when he got to school on Monday, wanting to know all the embarrassing details and offering his commentary on every thing that happened and was said.

"I'm surprised they let you eat at the table," Jasper laughed.

Leon couldn't stop thinking about Kelly's invitation or the way she smelled and looked but as the week went by and Leon was regulated to his normal lonely routine at school he sort of forgot about the Sunday Swenson Family evening and focused on getting through the day as the invisible guy before going home to face whatever awaited him at home with his unpredictable mother. He picked up a weeknight shift at Caldwell's here and there just to get out of the house.

At 4:45 on Sunday evening, Kelly Swenson strolled into Caldwell's carrying two large trash bags full of soda cans for redemption. Leon saw a sparkle in her eye which made him nervous and unsure.

"Hey," she said.

"Hello," Leon replied in his professional bottle counter tone, slightly surprised to see her there. "I'm pretty sure there's a redemption place closer to Green Hill. Stop and Save, maybe?"

"I know," she replied. "But I wanted to make sure you came over for family evening today," she explained.

"Did you tell your family about inviting me?" He asked.

"Everybody's onboard with it," she faked smiled.

"I hardly doubt that," Leon challenged

"It's mostly true," Kelly offered.

"I'm sure Kerry bitched."

"She always bitches."

"What about your mother?" Leon asked.

"She's okay with it," Kelly smiled. "As long as you don't tell anybody!"

Leon made a face as he reached out and took the two large bags from her, dumping the soda cans onto the trough table to sort them out. Most of them were diet coke and diet dr. pepper cans, along with some Heineken beer cans. Leon sorted them and counted them while Kelly watched and it was hard for him to concentrate on his job with her standing there.

"So, how was you shift?" Kelly asked.

"Okay," he replied. "Busy this afternoon."

"That's good, right?"

"Yeah," he smiled.

He punched in the numbers and handed Kelly the receipt to cash in at the register up front.

"Thanks," Kelly said with a smile, tossing a five dollar bill into the tip jar which was almost as much as the receipt was worth.

"That's too much," Leon said.

"You work hard," Kelly told him.

"Thanks," he said sheepishly.

"I'll wait for you outside," Kelly informed him. "You can follow me to the Hill."

Leon watched her go to the front of the line where an impressed Lucy cashed in her receipt, surprised to see the rich girl from the hill back in the store for a second time. Lucy was a pretty girl but she looked rather plain standing next to Kelly Swenson and Leon realized that all the Swenson Queens had a certain look about them that made them stand out from the other girls.

When Leon was done with his shift, he passed the grinning Lucy and went outside to find Kelly waiting for him in her spiffy yellow sports car. He nodded to her and she waved in return, motioning for him to follow in his car.

A few minutes later, Leon pulled his car into the Swenson driveway, following Kelly's car all the way around back and Leon hadn't realized that there was a large lot next to a four bay brick garage with a second floor on it behind the house. There were enough spots in the large area to park at least twenty cars and the backyard seemed to go on forever with a large gazelle, statues and other fixtures throughout the snow covered yard.

Kelly climbed out of the car and led him into the house. He was actually more nervous now than he was coming for dinner because that evening was an obligation on the Swenson's part and now his presence was in intrusion on his part. There were stairs off the kitchen that led to the cellar which was remodeled into an impressive family room with a huge bar and kitchen area, a large entertainment center, a pool table and ping pong table, an old fashioned juke box, and several couches and lazy boy chairs. Several pizza boxes were on top of the bar.

All the Swensons were present except for Kyle who was out on a date. Karen and Krystal greeted Leon with smiles but Kerry had a disgusted look on her face letting him know she was not pleased to have him in her cellar. Krystal took it upon herself to give their guest a tour before they began eating the pizza.

Leon was getting himself a slice when Kerry leaned over and whispered into his ear. "You're just a pathetic charity case," she said. "Kelly feels sorry for yourself because you're such a loser. She was always bringing home strays and that's just what you are. A lost cause."

Leon felt like shit but he didn't say anything in response to Kerry's cruel words.

Mr. and Mrs. Swenson hung around for a while eating pizza and making small talk with Leon, giving him an update on the grandmother and welcoming him back before they went upstairs, leaving the five teens alone in the cellar.

Leon wasn't sure how he felt to be hanging out with The Queens. Jasper called them The Queens as in insult but Leon saw it as a compliment. A queen, after all, was an admired woman who stood out above all others and how else could Leon describe the Swenson Sisters? Leon knew that these were special young women and he was gratified for the opportunity to hang out with them. He watched Kerry and Kelly play pool while he ate some pizza and when he was done eating Krystal challenged him to a game of ping pong. The eighth grader smoked him!

Leon knew that the common bond between him and The Swenson Queens was their grandmother so that's the topic he focused on whenever he visited for Family Night. He asked about her and he heard the Queens' favorite stories about her. After a few Sunday nights of visiting for Family Evening, Leon felt like he had gotten to know the woman pretty well. According to the Queens, she was an amazing woman, wife, mother, grandmother and professional woman involved with her family and her community. She was dependable and her word was golden.

"She always wrote hand written notes," Kelly said with fondness. "Not just thank you notes, but personal notes offering advice, support, commentary and praise. I so looked forward to getting one of her notes in the mail."

"She even would have given someone like you a loan," Kerry remarked acidly. "She was the George Bailey of Greenville when she ran the bank."

"She was politically active but it was hard to know what her politics really were," Kelly said. "She could get mad at the television when she saw the screw ups politicians made but she was always fair and rational about her opinions. She never said a mean thing about anybody."

"She had little tolerance for self pity," Karen laughed. "She'd always tell us to be strong and to stand up and believe in ourselves."

"Grandpa died when I was only six but I remember how much Grandma loved him," Krystal remarked. "I liked it that two people who were married so long still acted liked they were in love."

"It's hard now because she was always so healthy," Kelly sighed. "She still is physically. Hell, the river couldn't kill her! But now her mind is betraying her and it's just so sad because she was always such an intelligent, involved, active and aware person."

"She always won when she played Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy!" Karen laughed.

"She was always there whenever you needed to talk and she always had the answer whenever you needed any piece of information or advice," Kerry recalled.

"She always made us brownies and cookies whenever we came to visit," Kelly smiled. "She just did all the things a grandmother does when we were growing up."

Leon was awed by the incredible impression their grandmother left on the Queens. Her strength had certainly been passed on to her granddaughters.

In subsequent family night visits, Leon met Kyle's girlfriend and he even bumped into Pete a few times as prom approached. One family evening, Leon had the honor of meeting the grandmother in person for the first time since he fished her out of the river that cold snowy winter night.

The older Mrs. Swenson had no memory of that incident and the family didn't introduce Leon as her rescuer but instead as a family friend and that had a nice ring to it even it if really wasn't true. The older Mrs. Swenson was attractive and personable but it was clear that her mind wasn't as sharp as The Queens remembered it and she had difficulty remembering what she was saying or keeping up with conversations taking place around her.

"She's worse every time we see her," Kelly cried after her father brought their grandmother home. "It's so sad seeing her deteriorate so quickly."

"At least Gramps just dropped dead," Kyle said. "It was easier that he just disappeared instead of watching this."

"Don't' start," Kelly warned.

Leon didn't see a lot of fighting, arguing or disagreeing among the siblings during his family night visits except when it came to Kyle making negative comments about their grandmother or when Kerry was particularly bitchy in general. Kyle was the only one who was cynical about their grandmother's condition. The Four Queens were happy to have her still among them and they wanted to be positive about the situation.

Each Swenson had a different personality but they were oddly similar in their outlooks, attitudes and family philosophy. Some treated Leon like was he was one of their cousins when he arrived for family night but when he was out in the real world (mostly Greenville High School) Kelly and Kerry ignored him, acting as if they had no idea who he was although Karen was more likely to say hello to him if they passed in the hall. Karen was a sophomore and had less to lose talking to an upperclassman, even if he was the invisible Leon Don't Tripp.

Leon liked three of the four Queens – Krystal was by far the friendliest and funniest, too young to be worried about her image and probably even unaware that Leon was a loser in most people's eyes. She joked with him whenever they were together and they played at least one ping pong game whenever he was in the cellar visiting. Karen liked to tease Leon and if she liked the attention of an older boy paying attention to him even if it was Leon Don't Tripp The Invisible boy. Kerry was the most stuck up of the four sisters and she wanted nothing to do with Leon, unwilling to even tolerate him when he was at the house and going out of her way to insult him whenever she could.

Kelly remained conflicted trying to balance her school image of aloof status against her at home friendliness and even interest in Leon. She genuinely seemed happy to see him each time Leon came for family night.

Kelly also stopped by Caldwell's from time to time to say hello to Leon which made him feel good and even special. He knew she was going out of her way and making an effort to be nice to him even though she ignored him at school. Leon was aware that Kelly was dating Pete but that really didn't bother him – she had a right to live her life and he appreciated whatever attention she paid to him.

Kelly showed up at Caldwell's late in his shift on a Saturday and Leon smiled, happy to see her.

"How's your day going?" She asked as she handed him two large trash bags of soda cans.

"Better now," Leon replied.

She smiled, appreciating the compliment. "Do you want to go get something to eat when you get off shift?" She asked, catching him totally off guard.

"You mean, in public?"

She made a face. "Yes, in public," she said. "Just not around here," she added with a smirk.

"Okay," he agreed, handing her the receipt for the cans he had just sorted and counted.

She tossed another five in the tip can. "Thanks," Kelly said before heading for the front cashier where a grinning Lucy waited for her. "I'll wait for you outside," she called back.

A half hour later Leon was exiting Caldwell's hoping he looked presentable enough for her. He had put on his sweatshirt over his soda-stained tee shirt and he hoped that would be enough. He had also washed his hands. Kelly motioned for him to get into her spiffy yellow sports car when she saw him emerge from the store. Leon slipped into the passenger seat and Kelly headed south until she hit State Route 105 which ran parallel to the interstate, continuing south.

Kelly let out a loud sigh as they drove.

"Something wrong?" Leon wondered.

Kelly paused, giving it some thought. "My grandmother had a rough morning," she revealed. "Guess that has me feeling a bit sad."

"What happened?"

"I went over to visit with Krystal but she kept calling Krystal Karen and me Kerry," Kelly explained. "I know it's not a big deal but even after we corrected her several times she kept doing it. It's like she forgot that me and Krystal existed or something. Like the oldest and the youngest girls fell off the radar."

"My mother calls me Bob a lot," Leon revealed.

"Who's Bob?"

"My father."

"Oh."

"She's on a lot of medication and easily gets loopy," Leon explained. "She also manages to get her hands on booze which I haven't quite figured out how she does that yet because she never leaves the house. Plus she's just mentally not all there."

Kelly looked at him with surprise. "I guess I shouldn't be so upset," she admitted. "Sounds like you have it worse."

"I'm just more used to it than you," Leon said, offering a weak smile.

"We have an uncle nobody ever talks about," Kelly told him. "Like he never existed. Whenever somebody mentions his name – which was Brian by the way - my mother clams up like a shell. It's her brother but it's as if he stopped existing when he turned eighteen. She'll tell childhood stories about him but nothing about him as an adult."

"My brother died when he was three," Leon revealed. "Maybe your Uncle is dead too and your mom doesn't like to remember that."

"Maybe," Kelly shrugged. "But I think there's some sort of scandal tied to it too. Like he shamed the family somehow."

"Maybe," Leon said.

"Sorry about your brother," Kelly said softly. "What happened?"

"He was sick," Leon answered. "Barely lived beyond his third birthday."

Kelly slowed the car and turned it into the truck stop diner by Exit 23 of the interstate. "Nobody will know either of us here," she remarked.

"Nobody knows me anywhere," Leon replied, but he realized he needed to stop feeling sorry for himself when he was around Kelly or she would think he really was a loser. "I'm in the mood for some spaghetti," he announced, sounding more cheerful.

They strolled into the diner. The place was full with several truckers having supper and a few locals who liked the food selection. Leon wondered if some of the truckers thought he and Kelly was a couple. Kelly had three inches on him but he still felt tall in stature being seen next to her. They took a seat in a booth and a middle aged waitress gave them menus before taking their drink orders.

"I've never been here before," Kelly admitted once the waitress had left.

"Me either," Leon said. Why would he? He peered at her for a few moments. "Why'd you ask me?" He wondered.

"Pete doesn't like me going on about my grandmother," Kelly pouted. "He just doesn't care. It doesn't concern him so he's not interested."

"If he cares about you he should care about her," Leon prophesized.

Kelly looked at him as if that was the most amazing thing she had ever heard. "I kind of see you as her guardian angel in a way," she said. "I guess that's why I wanted to tell you about it."

The waitress returned and they placed their orders – Leon went with the spaghetti while Kelly ordered soup and a sandwich. "I'm supposed to meet Pete for a movie later so I'd better not overeat," she said.

Leon had never been to a movie. "Great," he said, although he really didn't mean it. He would love to go to a movie with her.

Kelly rested her chin in her hand and studied him. She looked great as always, well dressed, perfect hair, just the right touch of make up. "There's nothing wrong with you, Leon," she announced. "You just think there is."

"Says the girl hiding out with me in a truck stop," Leon noted.

She blushed and broke her gaze. "I know, I'm a bitch," she grumbled.

"That's not what I meant," he said.

"But it's the truth," she muttered. "I'm dating Perfect Pete because he fills everything listed on the image list yet I can't talk to him about my own grandmother."

"You can talk to me," Leon reminded her.

"I can," she said with amazement. "I'm already feeling better now."

"That's good," he said.

"Yeah," she agreed. "Thanks a lot."

"Glad I could help," he said, not quite believing that any of this was happening.

Had he had found a friend in Kelly Swenson of all people? Who would have believed? Sure, it was a secret friendship but she was the first girl he had really carried on a conversation and friendship with and the fact that it was with one of the Four Queens was pretty remarkable. Her grandmother driving into the Mill River – ironically enough – was the best thing that ever happened to Leon, it turned out.

The waitress arrived with their orders and the two began eating their meals.

"My grandmother still sings," Kelly announced with a sentimental smile. "She has such a lovely voice. I'm going to really miss it."

"You should tape her every time you're with her from now on," Leon suggested. "Get her to sing. Ask her questions. Get her oral history down to preserve."

"That's a fantastic idea!" Kelly marveled. "Gram loved taking us to New York to see Broadway plays. I'm a sucker for musicals."

Kelly spent most of the rest of the meal telling him about all the trips to The Big Apple she made with her grandmother, listing off the dozen or so plays and musicals she had seen and telling him about her other adventures in the city.

"You've ever been?" She asked.

Leon shook his head no, realizing just how much he had missed out on life all these years. He was months away from graduating from high school and all he accomplished was a job counting cans. Kelly had been to New York and Aspen and the Bahamas and Disneyworld and Bermuda and even to a Solar Eclipse in the Middle East.

Kelly must have seen the perplexed look on his face. "Something wrong?" She frowned.

"No," he said. "It's great talking with you, that's all," He smiled to mask his sudden sadness regarding his life.
"I'm enjoying it too," she told him. "You're one of the few guys who actually listens to what I have to say. Sometimes I can see Pete's eyes practically glaze over when I'm talking."

"What'd you say?" He joked and that made her laugh.

Leon was surprised when Kelly extended her hand across the table and put it on his cheek. It was their first physical contact and her touch awakened something inside of him he had never felt before. He was so moved he wanted to cry, so desperate for human contact that he suddenly understood how lonely he was. He went to a female barber simply because he liked how it felt to have a woman touching him like that.
Kelly pulled back her hand almost in an embarrassed fashion. It was not a gesture she meant to make. She was seeing another guy she had to remind herself. And Leon Tripp certainly wasn't the kind of guy she could be with - what would her friends think? Her parents? Why did she do that? Why did she want to touch his face? Because he was real? Vulnerable? Different?

They didn't talk much after that, finishing their meal, going Dutch, and leaving the truck stop in the near dark. Kelly drove Leon back to Caldwell's so he could get his car that was parked in the side lot.

"Thanks for talking to me," Kelly said sincerely when she pulled her spiffy yellow sports car along side his junky old crate.

"Thanks for..." he didn't want to say 'having dinner with me' or 'going out with me' so he hesitated for a moment and then said "a nice time."

"Sure," she smiled.

"Enjoy the movie." Leon didn't mean it as a dig but that's how it came out. He opened the door and glanced at her, needing to finish the evening on a positive note. "Remember, record your grandmother," he said with a smile.

"I will," she said cheerfully. "See you."

"Bye." Leon climbed out of the car and watched Kelly drive off. He sighed in his loneliness as he got in his own car and drove home to his depressingly sad house where his mother was already in bed even though it was barely after seven.

Leon thought about skipping the next evening's Swenson Family Night event not sure if there was any point in attending. But considering his options - home after counting cansto an empty house with a catatonic mother - he figured torturing himself with the Four Queens was less painful than torturing himself alone at home.

The Greenville Pizza House pizza was good as always. Leon was getting better competing against Krystal at ping pong ("table tennis," Krystal insisted) and Mrs. Swenson acted less suspicious of him although he knew that Pete would always be her favorite and that he would always be the boy from River Street.

There was more talk about prom as the big night drew near. The Three Queens talked about gowns. Karen didn't mind wearing one of Kelly's old ones but Kerry insisted that she had to have a brand new one and Kerry was debating about borrowing one from one of Kyle's college friends.

"Who are you going with, Leon?" Krystal asked innocently.

Karen and Kelly looked at him with pity while Kerry could be heard snickering.

"I'm working that night," Leon said, trying to sound disinterested.

"You should come over and see everybody in their gowns," Krystal said.

"It's not family night," Leon responded.

"You don't have to come over only on family night," Krystal said.

"Okay, Krystal," Kelly said awkwardly. "Leon can do what he wants."

That wasn't exactly true, of course. If it was, he'd be on Green Hill every day and hanging out with Kelly at school all the time. It wasn't as if he could go to the prom anyway. He didn't know how to wear a tuxedo. He didn't how to dance. All he would hear all night would be 'Don't Tripp!' He was better off counting cans than he would be embarrassing the hell out of Kelly not that she would ever let him take her to the prom to begin with.

The prom talk made Leon realize that even though he had been attending these Swenson family nights he still was an undesirable outsider who would never be asked to the prom.

Leon was disappointed that Kelly didn't show up at Caldwell's the following Saturday afternoon but he had been fooling himself thinking that the previous weekend at the truck stop diner had been anything other than a fluke. It was the weekend before the prom and Kelly surely had better things to do then spend time (in hiding) with him.

Leon drove home after his Saturday shift and checked on his mother who was lying listlessly on her bed without having much to say, as usual. He made himself some Kraft macaroni and cheese out of the box and collapsed into an overstuffed chair in the living room watching some mindless crap on the television. The doorbell rang - croaked really as it didn't work all that well – surprising Leon since they never got visitors other than the outreach workers and home care folks who worked with his mother.

Leon went to the door and opened it with a squeak, shocked to see Kelly Swenson standing on the rickety old porch.

"Am I interrupting anything?" She asked.

"Ah, er, no," a flustered Leon replied, suddenly humiliated that a proper girl from Green Hill would see how he lived. He hesitated for a moment, gawking at her.

"Can I come in?" Kelly asked.

"Oh, of course, sure," Leon replied stepping back and motioning for her to enter.

The house wasn't exactly a dump but it was definitely run down. The furniture was old and used. The wallpaper on the walls was faded and in some places torn. There was cracked plaster and some of the doors were off their hinges. The house had been in rough shape when they moved in and not many repairs were done since. The windows were drafty. The stairs creaked. The ceilings were cracked. The floor boards were warped and the carpet worn and tattered.

"Are you hungry?" Leon asked when he saw Kelly looking at his bowl of macaroni and cheese on the stained coffee table.

"I'm supposed to meet Pete later," she admitted. "Thanks anyway."

"Is anything wrong?" Leon wondered.

"I wanted to show you the DVD me and Krystal made of our grandmother," Kelly proudly announced. "You're the only one outside the family who would appreciate it."

"Sure, but I don't have a DVD player," he admitted with embarrassment.

"I brought my lap top," Kelly replied, taking a large pouch off her shoulder and placing it on the coffee table. "Do you want to watch?"

"Of course," Leon smiled.

They both took seats on the springy couch and Kelly took the laptop out of the pouch, placing it on both their legs as they sat side by side.

"I've been working on this all week," she announced with pride. "Krystal too. I hope you like it."

She pushed a button and the computer screen lit up with music coming from the speakers. The presentation began with a montage of still photographs – from Mrs. Swenson as a young child all the way up to last week. Then snippets from old home movies and videos were seen, most of it featuring the Four Queens (and Kyle) as young kids enjoying their grandmother's company and Leon got a kick out of seeing Kelly as a little kid.

"Wow," Leon remarked on more than one occasion as he witnessed the life of Kelly's grandmother.

Then DVD then focused in on Mrs. Swenson as she was today, as beautiful as always well dressed and groomed sitting in a chair in her living room smiling at the camera even if she did look slightly befuddled. Kelly asked several questions from off camera and Mrs. Swenson willingly answered them although she would occasionally lose her train of thought or stare blankly at the camera. The camera was obviously turned off and restarted several times when Mrs. Swenson became confused but Kelly was able to capture some funny, warm, sentimental and meaningful stories and memories straight from her grandmother's mouth – what her parents were like and how it was growing up as a WWII baby, how she met her husband, what her married life was like, her memories of Greenville, and what it was like being a grandmother. Kelly even got her grandmother to sing a couple of songs for the camera and when she was done Mrs. Swenson stared at the camera with a smile on her face.

"I love you, Grandma," Kelly's voice can be heard from off camera before the DVD faded out.

"That was beautiful," Leon remarked with amazement but when he glanced at Kelly sitting next to him on the couch she was in tears, her mascara streaming down her face.

Kelly was overcome with emotion, sobbing like a baby, holding her hand up to her nose to try to stop some snot from spilling out. Leon wasn't sure what to say or do. He awkwardly patted her thigh.

"It's okay," he said nervously.

Kelly fell into him, resting her head on his shoulder as she freely cried. He cautiously put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her into him. It was the first time any girl had been this close to him and he had never seen somebody being so vulnerable in front of him before.

"She's getting worse," Kelly said through her sobs. "Every time I see her she's worse than the time before."

Leon nodded but didn't say anything as he handed her a napkin that he was going to use for his macaroni and cheese. She took it and wiped her eyes, face and nose.

"I'm sorry, I didn't know it was going to hit me like that," Kelly said. "I've been working on it from a technical viewpoint but that's the first time I saw it as a finished project and it really got to me."

"It's very powerful," Leon said. "Extremely moving. Very loving."

"Thanks," Kelly said, sucking in her breath. "I'm going to show it to everybody during family night tomorrow. Will you come, please?"

"Of course," Leon said. "My pleasure. I'd be honored."

"Thanks," she smiled.

Kelly turned off the computer and put it back in the pouch. "Do you think it's good?"

"It's a wonderful testament and homage to your grandmother," Leon assured her. "It's perfect." He wanted to add 'Just like you' but he knew that would be a mistake.

"I wanted you to see it first in case you saw something that shouldn't be in there," she said.

"Everything's fine," Leon said.

Kelly nodded and stood. "Sorry for the waterworks," she said sheepishly.

"It's okay," he smiled.

"Well, I need to go. I'm supposed to meet Pete at the Grille at nine."

"Have fun," Leon replied, putting on his best smile even though he wanted to say 'stay here with me'.

He let her out the door and watched her walk to her car feeling sadder than he had ever felt in his life.

The Swenson family night gathering the next evening turned out to be quite the event. After enjoying the pizza, Kelly announced that she had a major surprise for the family and when she played the tribute to their grandmother there was barely a dry eye in the cellar. The family spent the rest of the evening talking about their grandmother and how wonderful Kelly's memorial had been.

"I really owe it to Leon," Kelly said. "He's the one who came up with the idea and of course there would have been no interview had he not saved Grammie in the first place."

"You've become like an honorary brother," Karen told Leon happily.

"Just like Billy Carter," Kerry remarked.

But brothers don't go to prom with sisters and losers don't go to the prom with Queens so Leon endured prom week in silent suffering and on the day of the big event he worked a double shift at Caldwell's to try to keep his mind off of the gala. He showed up for the Swenson family night gathering the next evening and was able to see all the prom photos and the lovely gowns and the lucky guys who got to escort the three beautiful queens. Maybe Karen considered Leon an honorary brother but as he looked at their prom photographs Leon felt as distant from the family as he could get. He wasn't a brother. He wasn't a boyfriend. He was just the lonely loser Don't Trip guy who saved the grandmother.

Mr. Swenson announced that he and his wife were taking his mother to Florida as a sort of last hurrah vacation trip while she was still lucid enough to enjoy it. The kids endorsed the idea even though they weren't going. Leon noticed some of the siblings exchanging knowing looks and he sensed that something was up although he wasn't sure exactly what.

Leon endured another lonely week of being ignored by the Queens at school but then on Friday as he was leaving the building, Karen caught up to him.

"Hey Leon!" She said, sounding almost seductive in her tone.

"Hi Karen," Leon replied, surprised she was talking to him in public.

"Did anybody invite you to the Soirée?"

"Soiree?" He asked with confusion

Karen giggled and pulled a small orange ticket from her pocket. "It's by invitation only," she whispered. "Only a select few get in" She handed him the ticket. "I'm inviting you."

Leon glanced at the card: The Second Annual Secret Special Swenson Soiree by private invitation only. You must present this ticket for entry. Mums the word.

"Our house tomorrow, starting at one," she said.

"What should I wear?" Leon wondered.

"Oh, don't worry about that," Karen said with a smirk as she disappeared out the door.

At first, Leon felt special that he had been invited to the Second Annual Secret Special Swenson Soiree by private invitation only but then he wondered why Karen had been the one who invited him and not Kelly. Didn't Kelly think he was special enough to be let in on the 'secret' soiree? Didn't he merit a private invitation from the one Queen he had spent the most time with? Was he not worthy of her attention? Leon was hurt that Kelly hadn't thought well enough of him to ask him to the special soiree even though he had not idea what the Second Annual Secret Special Swenson Soiree by private invitation only was all about.

Maybe he wasn't supposed to go if Kelly hadn't been the one to invite him. But Karen was a Swenson Sister and one of the Four Queens so certainly her offer was just as legitimate, right? He had been to dinner at the house and attended most of the Swenson Family nights since pulling the grandmother out of the icy river so surely he would be welcomed at the Soiree, would he not?

Hanging around The Queens these past few months - especially Kelly - had been good for Leon's confidence. If he showed up for dinner he could certainly show up for the Soiree - otherwise he'd just keep tripping and remain the kid from the dump house on River Street.

Leon called Saunders and asked if he'd work the second half of his Saturday shift for him. He had helped Saunders out enough to get a favor in return and he was relieved with Saunders said yes.

Leon left Caldwell's shortly before one on Saturday, went home and took a quick shower, put on his best jeans and the same sneakers he had worn to dinner, along with a red tee shirt and a corduroy suit jacket he had picked up at the thrift shop a few weeks earlier just in case he was ever presented the opportunity to wear it meaningfully.

There were a few cars parked in the Swenson driveway when Leon arrived. He parked out front and nervously headed toward the front door. He noticed that all the shades in the house were pulled and that struck him as odd for a sunny Saturday afternoon in May. He pulled the special invitation from his pocket and rang the front door to the Swenson house. After a moment the door opened a few feet and Krystal stuck her head into the opening, the rest of her shielded by the door.

"Leon?" she said with surprise. "What are you doing here?"

"Karen invited me," he replied, holding up the secret special invitation.

"Oh, wow!" An amazed Krystal replied. "You sure?"

Leon frowned. "Sure I'm sure."

"Well," she said with wide eyes. "If you say so. Come on in."

Leon stepped through the door which Krystal closed and Leon was stunned when he glanced at her and saw that she was completely naked. His face turned red and he looked away.

"It's okay," Krystal said, stepping in front of him. "That's what Secret Soiree means. If Karen thinks you should be here then I do too."

"What are you talking about?" He asked, his voice cracking.

"It's crazy, I know," Krystal admitted. Her breasts were small and she had just the hint of pubic hair between her legs. "But boldness doesn't get more daring than this."

She turned and walked toward the living room, exposing her flat fanny for him to follow. Leon knew he should turn and escape before taking another step toward the unknown. He couldn't imagine what was going on through the other side of the door and he really didn't want to find out but Krystal looked at him over her shoulder.

"You were invited, Leon," she reasoned. "It would be rude to leave now."

Leon swallowed and stepped into the living room which was full of six or seven naked teenagers. Kerry was sitting on the couch with a couple of girls he recognized from school, all three of them naked. Kerry had her feet up on the coffee table and he could see right between her legs. Her breasts weren't as big as he expected and she gave him an annoyed look when she saw him gawking at her and he quickly looked away as she closed her legs, put an arm across her breasts and flashed him the finger.

"Who in the hell invited him?" Kerry demanded angrily.

Karen was standing by the book case chatting with some nude girl Leon had never seen before along with the guy who had taken Karen to the prom. The Third Queen noticed the stunned Leon staring at her and she waved and laughed, unabashedly unconcerned that she was showing him everything - full round breasts larger then her older sister Kerry's and a full muff that matched her hair.

"I did," Karen announced proudly. "Deal with it."

"You're an asshole, Karen," Kerry grumbled. "Our soiree isn't meant for rift raft river rats."

A naked Kyle was standing in the other corner of the room with his nude girlfriend. Most people had drinks in their hands and while a few of the soiree attendees appeared to be frowning at Leon nobody made an effort to cover themselves up or run from the room. It looked like a normal social gathering except that nobody was wearing any clothes.

Past Karen Leon noticed someone standing in the doorway to the dining room with her back to him talking to a naked Pete and Leon realized that the naked backside he was looking at belonged to Kelly. Leon felt embarrassment and shame knowing he was seeing things he never thought he'd see. He looked with a desperately disgusted and ashamed look at Karen as if to say 'Why did you do this to me?' and she shrugged indifferently in response.

"You deserve to be here, bro," was all Karen cared to say.

Kelly must have sensed something going on behind her - perhaps it was the strange look on Pete's face - so she glanced over her shoulder and she was humiliated when she saw the fully clothed Leon standing among the room of naked Secret Soiree participants. Her jaw dropped and then her eyes met Leon's and she saw the hurt in them.

Kelly sighed, turned and walked toward him, her breasts jiggling as she quickly approached, no hair between her legs and Leon dropped his head down, staring at the floor.

Leon felt a hand grab his and he was practically yanked from the room as Kelly led him through the door and dragged him up the stairs. He looked up so he wouldn't trip on the stairs and he saw Kelly's round rear almost in his face as they went up the stairs. Kelly rushed him into her bedroom, closed the door behind her and took a printed silk robe off the hook on the back of the door, putting it on to cover her nakedness.

"What are you doing here, Leon?" She asked with hurt in her voice.

He weakly held up the invitation. "Karen told me to come," he mumbled. "I didn't know."
Kelly rolled her eyes and shook her head with disapproval. "I guess she thought it would be funny."

"So how come nobody's laughing?" Leon wanted to know.
"Because it really isn't funny," Kelly replied.

"The Secret Swenson Soiree is a sex party?" A shocked Leon asked.

"No," Kelly replied with annoyance, taking a seat on the end of her bed and holding her robe closed tight to her. "It's a nude party," she explained softly.

"Your parents go to Florida and you have a nude party?" Leon frowned. "Do they know?"

"Of course not," Kelly groaned. "Our cousin Cindy came back from college last year and said it was the rage on her campus so we had one of our own when our parents were in Chicago last April. Just a handful of close personal intimate family and friends."

"And you decided to do it again?" Leon asked with disbelief.

Kelly shrugged. "It's fun pushing the envelope."
"That's what you call this?"

"Look, when you live on the hill you're considered elite so you have to find stuff to do that defines you as different and special and entitled and daring," Kelly explained. "Breaking the rules without getting in trouble. This is just our way of defying expectations and standards. We do it because we can get away with it."

"And nobody else knows?" Leon asked as he stood in the center of the room soaked in nervous sweat.
"Everybody signs a confidentially agreement," Kelly explained. "All electronic devices are locked in a drawer in the study. Mums the word."

"I can't believe you guys could be so comfortable being naked," Leon remarked.
"This is just our way of rebelling against the norm," she said. "We're expressing ourselves by revealing something that we wouldn't normally express but in a safe and private way. I don't think there's anything to be ashamed about as long as it stays a secret soiree. It's not a reflection on our personal lives or our morals. It's sort of like that skinny dipping scene with all those rich kids in The Last Picture Show movie with Cybil Shepard."

"Never saw it."

"Bottom line is what happens here stays here," Kelly insisted.

"I guess I should go," Leon sighed. "I know you don't want me here."

"Leon, it's not that," Kelly said defensively. "Please don't be insulted."

"I'm not insulted," Leon replied with a heavy sigh.

"Yes you are," she frowned, standing and stepping toward him. "I didn't invite you because I like you too much to do that to you."

He rolled his eyes. 'Yeah, right," he mumbled reaching out for the door.

"No, wait," Kelly pleaded, stepping between him and the door to prevent him from leaving. "Look, I know you're shy," she said.

"You think I'm a prude," he complained.

"Well, you were a little freaked out down there," Kelly said.

"I had no idea the Secret Swenson Soiree was going to be a nude party," he said with exasperation. "Sorry if I was caught off guard. It's not something you see everyday."

"I know," Kelly said. "That's why I didn't invite you."

"You sure it's not more like you just don't want me around anywhere people can see me with you?" Leon accused. "That I'm not important enough to be invited to a soiree...or a birthday party...or a prom...or your lunch table in the cafeteria?"

Kelly sighed with guilt. "I'm sorry."

"I'm not good enough to be seen with someone like you," Leon stated. "You're way out of my league."

"You're much better than I'll ever be, Leon," Kelly confessed as her eyes watering with tears. "You're the most real guy I've ever known."

He was surprised by her comment. "Nobody's ever called me real before," he said.

"I like you to much to have you see me naked for the first time in the room full of other people," she said. "That's why I didn't invite you. I didn't want to do that to you. I didn't want you to think I was some sort of...weirdo."

"I'm the weirdo," he groaned, stepping away from her and falling onto the bed in a clump.

"No you're not," Kelly insisted, taking a seat next to him on the bed.

"These past few months have been like a fantasy for me," Leon admitted with defeat. "I saved a woman in a river because it was the right thing to do. I didn't know who she was and when I found out it was your grandmother I felt cursed because I knew that you wanted nothing to do with me."

"You saved my grandmother's life, Leon," Kelly said earnestly, taking his hand in hers. "I will forever be grateful and indebted to you for that."

"Privately," Leon pointed out bitterly.

"At first I thought I had a duty and an obligation to be appreciative and thankful," Kelly admitted. "My father made us go into the ER bay and thank you. He asked me to give you a ride home. It was weird seeing where you lived and hearing your story. I couldn't relate. But then I started thinking about my grandmother and how much I love her and how appreciative I was for what you did. But I couldn't bring myself to break the mode. I know what people think of the Swenson Sisters. I know we're called The Queens. I know we act all entitled but I can't help it that my parents have money and we live on the hill and hang out with the other rich kids, I wanted to tell everybody how great you were for what you did but I couldn't risk upsetting the status quo."

"Yeah, it's lonely on the top," Leon said sarcastically.

"I should have been more willing to been seen with you," she admitted with shame. "I sold you out and I feel bad about it."

He didn't respond to her apology.
"I don't expect you to forgive me," she sighed.

"I've given up hope that I'll ever be accepted by anybody," Leon confessed. "I walk into an orgy of exhibitionists and I'm still not welcomed."

"It's not that," Kelly said.

"It's okay," Leon replied. "You're right. I didn't feel right about being around naked people which means I'll probably never fit in anywhere."

"Yes you will," Kelly said.

Leon sighed, feeling sorry for himself.

Kelly stood and went to the mirror on her dresser where she started combing out her hair.
"You should enter a beauty contest," Leon said as he watched her comb her hair. "I could see you winning one."

She smiled into the reflection of the mirror. "You're very sweet to say that but that's not what I'm about."

"How do you like the soiree?" He tried not to sound judgmental.

"I do it because I'm not supposed too," she responded, putting the comb down and returning to the bed, sitting beside him again. "I'm sorry I shattered all your illusions and ideals about me."

"I still think you're wonderful," he replied.

She stared into his eyes. "Well, in that case, I guess I'm glad you're here although I sure was embarrassed when I first saw you."
There was a brief silence. Then Leon said, "You should probably get back downstairs. Pete is probably missing you."

"Are you kidding?" She groaned, rolling her eyes. "He's in the middle of a room full of naked girls. He probably doesn't even realize I'm gone."

"I would," Leon said.

"What is it about me?" She asked with curiosity. "Why do you think you like me?"

"It's not as if I'm an expert on girls," Leon replied, almost apologetically. "But I know you're special."

"You just think I am because I'm one of the Queens."
"All I know is that you're the most interesting girl I've even remotely known," he said. "Getting to know you has been a big deal for me."
"Do you like me because you're lonely and I'm the first girl you've gotten to know or because you think I'm good to look at?" She wanted to know.

"I like you because you're you," Leon told her.
"But you hardly know me," she pointed out. "So, how can you like me? How can you think I'm so special when you don't know anything about me?"

"I know a few things about you."

"Like what?" She tested.

"How much you love your grandmother for one," Leon answered. "And your family. How close you are to your sisters. And that you have a mole on your right butt cheek."
She rolled her eyes and punched him on the arm. "Shut up!"
He smirked before turning serious again. "Look, I don't know very much about girls or being social or fitting in but I have picked up a few things here and there by observing people and paying attention to stuff."
Kelly stared at him for a long moment. "I don't want to be at the soiree any more," she decided.

"What about Pete?"

"Oh, the hell with Pete!" She groaned. "He's going to dump me when he heads out to Stanford anyway," she shrugged.
"What do you want to do?"

"Go to the movies," she decided. "With you."

"With me?" He asked with surprise. "Really?"

She nodded as she stood. She went to her dresser and pulled out some undergarments and then walked to her walk in closet still in her silk robe, returning a few moments later dressed in a skirt and blouse. She wrapped her arm through his.

"Why would you want to go to the movies with me?" Leon asked with disbelief.

"You saved my grandmother Leon," Kelly told him. "Now it's time to rescue me."

She opened the bedroom door and walked him out of the room and down the stairs, diverting into the living room where most of the secret soiree guests were still mingling in the nude.

"For those of you who don't know, this is Leon Tripp, the guy who saved my grandmother from drowning," Kelly announced. "We're going to the movies. And on Monday when we get to school we're hanging out together so if anybody has a problem with that you're just going to have to deal with it."

"It's about time," Karen laughed knowingly.

"They'll eat you alive," Kerry warned.

"Let them," an unworried Kelly replied.

"Does this mean Leon's your boyfriend now?" A confused Krystal asked.

"Yes, that's exactly what it means," Kelly stated proudly. She glanced at Pete. "We both knew this was coming, Pete. You don't care about my grandmother."

"I…what….ah, whatever you say," Pete said with annoyance. "You've been acting weird for months anyway."

Leon had to resist the urge to laugh at all the naked people gawking at them as if they were the weirdos as Kelly led Leon out of the house where they stood on the front porch steps for a few moments.

"Do you think you can make me real, Leon?" Kelly asked.

"I can try," he answered. "Do you think you can keep me from tripping?"

"I can teach you," she smiled.