The Natural Evolution of Lenore Barrett

It was the fate of living in the same neighborhood and having moms who socialized that brought them together even before kindergarten started. What was strange about the scenario was that Lenore Barrett and Billy Herbert were both quiet and shy kids and their mothers figured they could be two quiet shy kids together. What better way to build a friendship than to be afraid of their own shadows together?

The two friends were destined to be acquaintances as they progressed through the Hillsboro school system together. Billy later called it "The Core" – that select group of kids who found each other sitting in the same room on the first day of kindergarten at Hillside Elementary School who ended up wearing cap and gowns together thirteen years later when they received their diplomas as fellow graduates of Hillsboro High School.

Lenore wore her black hair long from the first day of kindergarten through the high school graduation ceremony when it fell down her shoulders from underneath her white cap. Billy had more hairstyle preferences in those thirteen years than the Beatles – crew cut, mop cut, long cut, shoulder length, greased back, duck tailed down, and finally – for graduation – a modest cut. His hair was a dark sandy brown and he had blue eyes like Lenore.

Because they had a familiarity with one another from pervious encounters, the first day of kindergarten wasn't quite as scary when Lenore's and Billy's respective mothers left them in Ms. Hutton's classroom. It was Lenore who decided to sit next to Billy, tugging on her mother's hand when she saw Billy across the room slumped down in his seat with his chin glued to his chest looking like he wanted to cry.

"Of course," her mother smiled as she walked Lenore across the room and helped her into the seat next to the frightened boy.

Lenore wordlessly offered her mother a small wave as Mrs. Barrett left the room and Lenore felt her heart skip a beat, not sure if she was upset that her mother was gone or because she was feeling excited sitting next to Billy.

"Hi, Billy," she whispered.

Lenore could hear him swallow but he didn't say anything.

"It's going to be okay," she told him with confidence.

Billy admired Lenore's brave confidence and having her sitting next to him made him feel better even though this classroom and this school was the last place he wanted to be. He missed his mom and his toys.

Even though he previously enjoyed several play dates with Lenore, Billy hadn't mastered the art of actually conversing with the little girl. Most of their communication was unspoken. They willingly play together and understood each other but Billy rarely had much to say.

He liked her laugh though. Billy also thought Lenore was pretty even though he didn't really know what pretty was. He just knew she looked different from him with that long hair of hers, sometimes worn in a pony tail, other times in two braids. Sometimes Lenore had ribbons in her hair and sometimes it was brushed straight out, hanging half way down her back.

Lenore was wearing a yellow dress, white socks, red sneakers, and she had her hair pulled back underneath a green bandana for the first day of kindergarten. Billy felt his heart flutter when he glanced at her and realized how pretty she was up close. He was glad he liked her and he was relieved that she was sitting next to him. Billy actually half-smiled when he finally looked into her eyes and that made her grin with happiness.

"Let's be best friends from now on," Lenore said.

Billy wasn't going to argue with that.

Kindergarten was new and scary with so many other children around but as long as Lenore was close by Billy got used to it. He was shy around the other kids but he began to socialize a little more although he tended to stay near Lenore most of the time. She was as quiet as him and she didn't make all that many new friends either so they were happy to be friends with each other although sometimes Ms. Hutton purposely separated them to force them to interact with the other children.

Lenore and Billy saw each other outside of kindergarten, usually in the neighborhood when their mothers visited. The two youngsters would play while their mothers talked. Billy and Lenore also saw each other at church, especially at Sunday school, and they sat together there too, coloring pictures of Jesus and Angels and the Mother Mary.

Billy was nervous about first grade because there were two classrooms for each grade and he was afraid he was going to be separated from Lenore but luckily they both ended up in Ms. Fairfield's class although they sat a couple of rows apart from one another. There was recess and lunch to spend time together and they partnered up whenever they could. They were best friends even though both had made friendly acquaintances with others in their class and neighborhood. Lenore liked Nancy and Billy was friendly with a kid everybody called Gummie.

Lenore and Billy rarely volunteered to raise their hands in class. They both loathed having to read aloud (although they both loved reading to themselves). Lenore got better grades than Billy who wasn't dumb but he wasn't disciplined either and he tended to get bored with his schoolwork especially if he didn't like the subject.

They were split for second grade – Billy getting assigned to the ancient Mrs. Hobson while Lenore was taught by the younger Miss St. Cloud. They hated being apart although they still got to hang out at recess and they saw each other in the lunch room (although they couldn't sit together). Luckily, there was still Sunday School and the neighborhood for Lenore and Billy to have time together.

Billy was now allowed to venture down to the corner and that's where he'd meet Lenore who lived on the next block. They'd sit on the curb and talk. On other days, one of the mothers might drop one of the kids off at the other's house and they enjoyed play dates in the backyard. They were both good at board games and Lenore taught Billy how to play checkers.

Billy and Lenore were reunited for third grade, both getting Mrs. Callahan as their teacher. She was a strict but fair instructor and she was the first teacher who motivated Billy to try harder to do better. The teacher also saw that he was good friends with Lenore so she often assigned them as partners on various projects and activities.

That was the year Billy got his tonsils out and Lenore visited him in his bedroom, the first time she had been upstairs in his house. Four months later, Lenore got appendicitis and this time it was Billy visiting Lenore's petty room. It was his job to bring Lenore her homework on the days she missed school and she did the same for him whenever he was sick.

The two friends were split up for fourth grade – Billy feeling alone with Mrs. Keith while Lenore liked her teacher, Mrs. Simpson. Mrs. Keith was another forceful teacher who motivated Billy to move outside his comfort zone and do things he wasn't normally accustomed to doing, including an oral book report that turned out to be fairly impressive much to Billy's surprise.

Fourth grade was around the time that Billy began becoming aware of the differences between him and Lenore and their families. Lenore's parents were nice but they were very protective and domineering when it came to Lenore, her activities, where she was and what she was doing. Lenore was a girl of routine, repetition, discipline and order. She had to do her homework first after school before doing anything else. There were limits to where she could go in the neighborhood. She wasn't allowed in other people's houses if a parent wasn't home. She had to be home by five o'clock every day. She had to ask permission before she did anything that hadn't been previous approved. She was a picky eater, probably because her mother was constantly making her specialty meals.

Lenore's mother was always home. The Barrett house was neat and tidy with everything in its place and whenever Billy was inside he was self conscious about spilling something or breaking stuff. Billy could see that Lenore idolized her father but she was also afraid of ruffling his feathers by getting him upset. She was prim and proper, shy and reserved, meek and mousy. Another thing that Billy observed was that Lenore did everything with her parents. He frequently saw her in the backseat of their car driving off with one or both of them - grocery shopping, running errands, heading off to church. They did everything as a family. Mr. Barrett worked in the factory and Mrs. Barrett was a housewife.

Billy's parents both worked so he was home alone with his older brother Rob and sister Pam a lot of the time (Lenore was not allowed at his house if a parent wasn't home). There weren't many rules in Billy's house. As long as nobody was dying, hurt or in trouble with the law the kids were free to do what they wanted with age, experience and earned trust. Billy's Dad worked long hours as a DPW worker and his mom was often too tired after working all day as a dental hygienist to spend a whole of time fussing about specialty meals or worrying about Billy's wardrobe choices. The house was in a constant state of disarray with dishes in the sink and dust on the living room bookcase. There was always load of laundry to do and sheets went for a month on the beds without being changed.

On the other hand, Lenore didn't have an older brother who picked on her the way Rob picked on Billy. Billy's sister Pam was six years older than him so he didn't spend a whole lot of time with her. Pam seemed mature and worldly as a 10th grader in Billy's fourth grade eyes. Rob wasn't all bad news - he toughened Billy up (even while tearing him down), taught him how to defend himself, got him involved in little league (even though he wasn't very good), and let him help deliver the paper on Rob's paper route.

Lenore thought that Rob was loud and obnoxious, rude and uncouth, sarcastic and crude. She also thought Billy's family was kind of wild, crazy and strange but she liked Billy and she would sometimes tease him - wondering if maybe he was adopted because he wasn't a tough guy like Rob or flamboyant like his older sister Pam.

"Maybe that's why I'm so shy," Billy realized. "How can I compete with those two!?"

The summer after fourth grade was when Lenore and Billy both began attending the Hillsboro Summer Recreation Program (Billy's sister Pam was a counselor). Billy played baseball (not very well) and Lenore participated in arts and crafts activities. There was also the 4th of July fireworks and the church picnic in August, two activities Lenore and Billy and their families participated in every summer.

Fifth grade was the year of Mr. Dixon, the first male teacher in Billy's life. He and Lenore were in the same class again although the classes rotated with the other fifth grade teacher, Ms. Southern. By now, Gummie was the class clown and prankster who sometimes got Billy in trouble just by association. Fifth grade was the year of square dancing, the Christmas pageant, and the play Noah's Ark (Billy was a rabbit, Lenore was a mouse). It was also the year Lenore taught Billy the great game of Chess, advancing up from checkers.

Lenore was good at science and subscribed to the theory of evolution but when they were at Sunday School Lenore was quick to talk about Adam and Eve and creationism.

"You can't have it both ways," Billy protested.

"Why not?" Lenore reasoned. "God created both the Big Bang Theory and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden."

Billy learned not to debate Lenore's theory of creationism evolution but he enjoyed watching her evolve each year as they progressed through school and Sunday school.

Billy broke his leg playing baseball that summer and he didn't see much of Lenore because her mother wouldn't let her visit if one of his parents weren't home (and they rarely were during the day). Sometimes Billy would sit out on the front porch with his leg propped up on the rail and Lenore would slowly ride her bike by (she couldn't stop). They would yell out their conversations as she passed!

Billy was still in a leg cast and on crutches for the church picnic and he spent the afternoon sitting in a lawn chair observing others. The good news was he got waited on hand and foot by his mother and Lenore spent most of the afternoon sitting with him which was very nice. It was a picture perfect August summer afternoon with blue skies and just a few puffy white clouds for the picnic. Billy couldn't stop smiling as he enjoyed Lenore's company, her innocent eyes and sweet face perfect for the setting.

Maddie Morgan stopped by to say hello. She was a year older and very pretty and Billy quickly got all tongue tied and embarrassed trying to acknowledge even a "Hey there". Lenore threw him a look and saw that Billy was all flushed and blushed trying to mumble something to Maddie who walked off giggling.

"Are you always so nervous around girls?" Lenore asked with curiosity.

"Except with you," Billy replied.

"Why not me?" She teased.

"Because I've known you forever," he explained.

"I'm still a girl."

"You're better than a girl," he replied.

"I'm your friend?" Lenore smiled.

"I don't have very many," Billy confessed.

It was true. He had classmates and acquaintances from church. Gummie was his best pal. He knew Lenore's friend Nancy but she made him nervous too. He didn't really hang out with other kids unless it was in a controlled environment – most notably lunch at school and little league baseball. Billy definitely didn't hang out with girls except for Lenore and by extension Nancy, a blond haired blue eyed pretty girl who was destined to be among the most beautiful girls when she got older.

Billy was comfortable when he was with Lenore. She was the first (and so far only) girl who put him at such ease. He liked being with her and although he couldn't exactly explain the feelings he liked the way she made him feel.

"I'm glad we're friends," he said, feeling foolish as soon as he said it.

"I am too," Lenore smiled shyly.

They both seemed to blush at the same time but Lenore giggled and that made Billy relax. It was a cute giggle and he was comforted every time he heard it. He liked it when she smiled too because she had such a pretty smile.

Sixth grade was a whole new start – middle school in a new building for sixth, seventh and eighth grades on the opposite end of the high school campus, sharing the auditorium and gym.

Middle school was multiple teachers and transferring from classroom to classroom after each period. It was mingling with older kids and having the added pressure of trying to fit in and finding a comfortable peer group to survive in. Lenore started playing the flute in the middle school band and Billy went out for sports even though he wasn't very good at any of them.

Lenore and Billy occasionally had a class together but Lenore had done better academically in elementary school because of her discipline and she was placed on a higher academic level than Billy in most of the major subjects. But they'd met up in the library during study halls, eat lunch together, and sit together at school assemblies.

Middle school forced Billy to branch out socially. Gummie remained his best pal but Billy became familiar with a few other guys through sports and because he didn't see Lenore around school as much as he would have liked so he started to become less dependent on her although the two hung out together in the neighborhood when Lenore's parents allowed and approved such occasions. .

There was still Sunday school where they sat next to each other every week 'evolving' through their religious studies and teasing each other about science, creationism and evolution.

"Don't tell God," was one of Billy's favorite responses whenever Lenore was talking science.

At church, sixth grade was the year Billy was cast as Joseph and Lenore played the role of Mary for the Christmas Nativity scene play. There were no lines involved (it was narrated by the minister) but Billy loved playing Lenore's devout husband and being on the altar with her.

Because both youngsters were starting to change physically and emotionally, Lenore's parents became more conscious of such differences and challenges and they kept the reins on their daughter fairly tight. Billy felt hurt and even insulted whenever Lenore told him she couldn't go for pizza or an ice cream because her mother said no.

The first tragedy of their young lives came during the summer after their seventh grade school year. Nancy went swimming in the Blue River with a couple of boys (Lenore wasn't allowed anywhere near the river) and Nancy drowned when she was caught in a current (the river was high from recent rains) and swept away.

News travelled fast (Billy's brother Rob was the one who told him of the tragedy in rather gruesome and rude details) and Billy's first reaction was to rush to Lenore's house but her mother advised him that it was not a good time. Billy kept returning until the grim faced Mrs. Barrett finally relented and allowed him inside to see Lenore.

She was lying on the couch in the family room curled up in a ball, her face white and blank. Billy could hear her quiet sniffles.

"Are you okay?" Billy foolishly asked, his heart pounding.

This was his first experience with death and he didn't know how to deal with it – what to do or what to say. He had never seen Lenore looking so weak, vulnerable and defeated. She was usually sweet and cheerful, positive and hopeful. Now she looked blank and lifeless. Billy stood at the foot of the couch staring at her and Lenore finally acknowledged his presence by looking up at him, tears streaming down her face.

"How can a twelve year old girl die?" She asked angrily. "That's not fair."

"I don't know," Billy sighed.

"B-Billy…?" Her voice cracked and she tried to swallow a sob. "What am I going to do without her?"

He had no clue what to say and that frustrated him because it reminded him of how socially inept he really was. Billy knew if he was the one who had died, Nancy would be comforting Lenore with hugs and soothing words but all he could do was stand there like a statue watching her quietly sob.

"You still have me," Billy finally mumbled, although that seemed kind of dumb (and self serving) when he thought about it.

"I…know…..I know that," Lenore grumbled with annoyance. "But it's not the same thing."

Billy tried not to feel hurt or rejected by her statement of truth. This was about Nancy and he needed to be present for Lenore instead of being so insecure about his role in Lenore's life that he had to remind her of their friendship when she was grieving another friend. Knowing he had screwed it up, Billy was desperate to make it to her, to prove to her that he really did understand and care.

He sat on the couch above her head and pushed the hair out of her face. It was the first time he had done anything so intimate and she sat up on the couch, looking him in the eyes as her tears continued to fall. She searched his face for some sort of sign, desperate to be comforted in her time of need. Finally, Billy mustered the courage to wrap his arm around her shoulder and pull her toward him in an awkward hug.

"I'll always be there for you," he promised.

Billy's mom went to the funeral with him. He sat several rows behind Lenore and her parents watching Lenore quietly sob through most of the service. He stood next to her at the cemetery when they lowered Nancy's casket into the ground and he sat with her at the reception that followed. They didn't talk much but at least he was there for her in his own clumsy way.

It was a horrible summer to get through. Nancy was dead and that reality felt surreal. Lenore's mom was a little bit less restrictive in the weeks following the funeral, letting Billy visit more often knowing Lenore needed company and distractions. Mrs. Barrett even let them ride their bikes to Red's Tastee Freeze for ice cream.

Lenore was a quiet kid before the tragedy but now she was even more silent with her best friend gone. When she could bring herself to talk about Nancy, Lenore mostly lamented all the lost chances and missing moments to come. The two girls had been looking forward to high school and now Lenore was going to have to venture ahead without Nancy. There will always be something missing in her life.

Billy knew he could never replace Nancy because it just wasn't the same as Lenore had told him that day. Billy hung out with Lenore at the church picnic but she was hardly in a mood to celebrate or have fun. Returning to school was difficult because the two boys who had been with Nancy at the river were students there and Lenore became upset whenever she saw them. Nancy had gone to the river on her own free will but Lenore felt the boys were responsible for poor choices and peer pressure, convincing Nancy that going for a swim would be fun.

The school was full of rumors of course – that the three had been skinny dipping and all sorts of other crazy stories and that got Lenore upset even more. Billy didn't know what to think about any of it. He felt guilty because he never made any real attempt to get to know Nancy. In truth, he was afraid of her and, as usual, he got nervous and awkward when he was around her, never knowing what to say or how to act, especially because she was so good looking. Now she was gone and Billy was surprised by the amount of loss he felt even though he wasn't all that close to the girl. Billy also felt sad for Lenore and he felt remorse for being so pathetic around Nancy all those years.

One of the boys involved in the incident transferred to St. Anne's Catholic School after a few weeks to escape the rumors and gossip. The other guy dropped out of school when he turned sixteen a few years later and Billy was convinced the poor guy was haunted by Nancy's death. How does one recover and move on from something like that?

Billy remembered being in the locker room after gym class one day and overhearing a couple of guys talking about the drowning in the next row of lockers.

"He said everything happened so fast," one guy said. "They didn't realize how swift the river was. They didn't know it was dangerous. She panicked and they couldn't get to her in time. She went under and they had to swim back to save themselves."

Lenore slowly got back into a normal routine as the school year progressed. Her anger at God eased after some frank discussions with the minister and talks about death in Sunday school which allowed Lenore to 'evolve' in her thoughts and feelings about Nancy's death. Billy actually felt a little bit better knowing that Nancy was in heaven waiting for them. Lenore didn't talk much about the accident but once in a while the subject would come up, usually after Lenore reminisced about Nancy.

"Maybe things would have been different had I been with her," Lenore theorized. "I would have stopped her from going in the river."

"Or you might have drowned too," Billy countered.

"Oh, who am I fooling anyway?" Lenore sighed with frustration. "I never would have gone there. My parents made it off limits and I never would have sneaked down there. I feel guilty about that."

"You shouldn't," Billy told her. "You didn't do anything wrong."

Lenore's parents were even more protective of her after Nancy's death and they grilled her with questions whenever Lenore asked for permission to do anything, whether it was staying after school late to watch one of Billy's sporting events or stopping by Johnny C's Diner for a shake and some fries. Billy understood that a piece of their innocent childhood had been lost with Nancy's death but he didn't understand why Lenore wasn't allowed to live her life with a little bit more freedom and trust. Wasn't that part of the evolution of growing up?

Lenore never questioned her parents' authority or discipline even when Billy complained and criticized it. She accepted her parents' judgment and decisions without comment and she defended her folks whenever Billy was critical.

"They have my best interests at heart," was Lenore's standard response whenever she was prevented from participating in some activity.

Billy though Lenore deserved better. She was an honest, caring, careful, reasoned, trustworthy person who should have been allowed more freedom to be able to interact with peers from school in outside environments as part of the natural evolution of growing older. Lenore had a reputation of being a goody-goody because of her parents' restrictions and it didn't seem fair to have kids making fun of her behind her back in Billy's opinion.

As for Billy, he tried to hide his insecurities behind the camaraderie and popularity of sports. He was among the least talented players on whatever team he played but at least he had a sense of belonging and an identity that protected him from his own faults and weaknesses. Billy spent more time with Lenore in eighth grade than the previous two middle school years because of what happened to Nancy but Lenore had other girls to chum around with too and by the end of the school year Audrey had moved into the Nancy role and Billy once again reverted back into his insecurities when he was around her. Audrey wasn't as pretty as Nancy but she was attractive in her own way and she was much more forceful in her personality than Nancy had been. Billy had difficulty adjusting to the change but Lenore was happy to have a girl friend and Billy was okay with that.

The school year came to an end and high school loomed on the horizon. Lenore was excited by the prospect but Billy felt overwhelmed by the new challenges, settings, demands, and responsibilities. He had inherited Rob's paper route a few years earlier but now felt he had had outgrown it so he gave it up even though he didn't have other options lined up. Billy mowed lawns and found odd jobs for spending money and when he could he hung out with Lenore, usually under her mother's watchful eye.

Billy went to the Fourth of July fireworks with Lenore and her parents and both families attended the church picnic in August together, although Lenore really couldn't get out of her parents' watchful view that day. That situation struck Billy as odd since they were about to enter high school. Didn't Lenore deserve some added freedom and trust with age? Would her evolution always be stymied by her parents overprotective nature?

They had yet to swim together in the pool at the picnic in all these years because Lenore's parents wouldn't let her wear a bathing suit in mixed company, especially at a church picnic. Lenore always dressed modestly and conservatively and her mother still took her shopping for all her clothes, usually at Donovan's Department Store in Greenville which, according to Billy's sister Pam, was about forty years behind the times.

"We are on the crisp of something really big happening in our lives, Billy," Lenore told him as they sat eating hot dogs at the picnic. "High school is going to change everything," she predicted.

"That's the natural evolution of things," Billy agreed.

The freshman football team trained with the junior varsity and varsity in pre-season camp so Billy's summer ended sooner than normal and he realized just how out of shape and untalented he was when he worked out with some of the older guys. But Billy was happy to be a part of the team even if he wasn't a very good player.

Billy found high school to be intimidating, especially as a rookie freshmen. The upper classmen seemed refined and mature (especially the girls!). Billy was extremely self-conscious for the first few weeks, still paralyzing shy around girls and feeling lost as he wandered the hallways of Hillsboro High.

Billy could go days without seeing Lenore if he didn't make the effort to track her down. She continued to play in the band and she joined the Office Girls Club, running messages, delivering notes, and offering assistance in the main office. They were both busy with commitments, obligations and responsibilities – football practice took up so much time for Billy – and he missed seeing Lenore. He hadn't realized that the evolution into high school was going to make it more difficult to spend time together.

But there was still Sunday school and church and now that they were in high school, Lenore and Billy got to join the church youth group that met on Sunday evenings and that evolution gave the two another opportunity to spend time together.

There were certain activities Lenore was allowed to attend (football games because she was in the marching band and her parents were in the stands), study group, Homecoming float making (at Audrey's house), and most church activities. There were also certain activities she wasn't allowed to partake in – the Freshman Welcome and all other dances, high school parties of any kind, and going to the movies with boys unless it was in a large group with an equal number of girls.

Lenore told Billy that she wasn't allowed to date which struck him as excessively restrictive.

"Until when?" He asked with interest as they ate lunch together at school one day.

Lenore shrugged to indicate she didn't know the answer. "I guess they'll let me know," she remarked.

Billy thought that Lenore's parents treated her like she was still in kindergarten. "That's just not right," he complained.

"They say I'm still too young," Lenore explained. "And that I don't know what romance and love is about yet."

"You'll definitely know when it happens," Billy theorized.

"Oh yeah?" Lenore teased, knowing Billy's shortfalls and insecurities. "Will you know when you love someone?"

He blushed and he resisted the urge to confess 'I already do' as he glanced at her.

"Well, there are many kinds of love," he said awkwardly.

"Such as?" She goated, always delighted to engage him in these kinds of conversations, thinking it was cute watching him get flustered.

"You know," Billy mumbled with embarrassment. "You love your parents differently than you love your spouse. You love your dog differently from the way you love your girlfriend. You love God differently from the way you love pizza."

"And how do you love me, Billy?" Lenore asked with a giggle.

He turned beat red and tried not to stumble over his words. "I love you like….a special friend," he said

"Special?" She waited for him to continue.

"Let's not get weird about this," Billy requested with embarrassment.

Lenore chuckled good-naturedly. "Don't worry about it, Billy. I'm just funning with you."

Billy wondered if Lenore really was just teasing him or if she had the same feelings for him as a 'special friend' that he had for her in the secret place of his inner heart. He also wondered how Lenore was supposed to evolve in the romance and dating department if she wasn't allowed to experience either.

By sophomore year, Billy had established himself within the class and school structure. He was known for his sports play (even if he wasn't very good) and he was accepted by his fellow teammates which gave him added stature and a presence around the school that he wouldn't have otherwise enjoyed. The seniors talked to him which was a real plus in the reputation department.

Girls started noticing and talking to Billy more often – girls from the classes above him as well as the new Freshman girls who tended to take better interest in older boys. The first time a girl sat next to him at the lunch table unsolicited, Billy almost fell out of his chair.

Lenore was still doing her thing, following the rules and meeting the expectations of her parents. She usually hugged Billy when they said goodbye after spending time together and that made Billy feel incredibly warm and happy. He knew the gesture meant that he was still precious to her and as long as he stayed in the picture he would have a chance with her – even if that meant 'only' being her 'special' friend.

In the spring of sophomore year, Lenore was finally allowed to attend her first high school dance (the spring fling) – however, she arrived on the arm of her cousin Danny from Miller City. Luckily, nobody besides Billy knew who Danny was so Lenore was able to fake her way through an evening of being socially acceptable in her peers' eyes. Was this part of her new evolution?

Billy had met Danny at a couple of family functions. He was a nice guy but he wasn't all that socially refined, having the knack for saying stupid things at inappropriate moments thinking he was being funny when he was actually being foolish.

Billy somehow landed one of his first dates when Sherri Waterman agreed to attend the dance with him. Sherri wasn't exactly his type – she was loud and opinionated, slightly rude with boundaries issues (Billy's brother Rob would probably like her!), but she was pretty with curly blond hair and Billy knew he wasn't in the position to be picky when it came to girls.

Billy was thrilled to be seen with a girl but he found himself chatting with Lenore whenever he could during the evening and because Danny wasn't interested in dancing with his cousin all night he was happy to have a few dances with Sherri while Billy and Lenore spent time together (although they didn't dance together).

At one point, Lenore and Billy were standing by the refreshment table watching the activities.

"I guess this is all rather silly," Lenore admitted with a shrug.

"It's not silly being here together," Billy offered with a smile. "Our first dance together."

"Thanks for not laughing about me coming with my cousin," Lenore told him. "You should be dancing with Sherri."

"I'm not a very good dancer," Billy admitted.

"I'm starting to think maybe my parents are slightly clueless," Lenore said. "Who sends their daughter to a dance with her cousin?"

"It's a safe arrangement," Billy said.

"Is Sherri a safe arrangement?" Lenore wondered.

"I don't think Sherri and I are going to last," Billy admitted, watching her sweep across the dance floor in Danny's arms.

Danny was a senior at Miller City High and Sherri was tickled to be dancing with an older boy – a mysterious stranger at that – instead of hanging out with a dweeb like Billy.

"Me either," Lenore agreed with a smirk.

Billy suddenly felt incredibly sad. He was standing next to the only girl he really cared about watching other couples dancing and laughing and smiling having a good time but he was unable to ask Lenore to join him on the dance floor, afraid of how he'd feel if she declined his offer. He felt empty knowing she was so close yet so far.

Billy offered her a brave smile, hoping he didn't look pitiful at the moment. Maybe all of this had been a bad idea. Maybe he should have just stayed home.

"I'll never let my parents talk me into something like this again," Lenore remarked, tossing him a look of melancholy while trying not to feel sorry for herself. Billy boldly put his hand on her shoulder to offer comfort and support. She was wearing a modest light blue dress – a high collar with a cut down below her knees, although it was fluffy on the bottom. Billy wouldn't have been surprised if it was one of her mother's old high school dresses.

"Don't worry about it," he advised. "I'm glad you're here."

"I'm glad you're here too," Lenore smiled. "It would really be torture if you weren't."

Billy smiled with contentment. "That's what friends are for."

Billy's date with Sherri was one and out. He didn't date much after that dance experience, partly because he was basically shy and nervous around girls and partly because he wanted to show solidarity with Lenore who (still) wasn't allowed to date. He occasionally flirted with girls who gave him the time of day but Billy never asked anybody out and he stopped going to dances so Lenore wouldn't feel obligated to show up with her cousin.

Lenore and Billy spent April school vacation week in the classroom of Howell's Driving School watching movies and listening to lectures as part of their requirement for getting a state driver's license when they were age eligible.

"I don't know why I'm bothering," Lenore remarked in a rare moment of total honesty as she and Billy sat next to each other on two wobbly old wooden desk arm chairs in the driving school's classroom. "My parents aren't ever going to let me go anywhere or do anything anyway."

It saddened Billy to see Lenore living such a restricted and regimented lifestyle. To him, she was perfect - kind, gentle, humble, sweet and personable, easily the most mature girl Billy had ever known. At sixteen, Lenore was definitely coming of age in a strikingly blooming way and Billy felt that her parents should trust her more by giving her some room to experience life. That was what her evolution was supposed to be all about.

Gummie continued to be a goof off and buffoon but Billy worked hard on trying to establish a serious reputation so he would be seen as something else besides a second rate jock with an anxiety disorder hanging out with the class clown! Audrey remained Lenore's closest friend but the ghost of Nancy hung in the shadows. Most people had forgotten about her three years after the drowning but Billy knew that Lenore hadn't - and never would. Billy thought about Nancy often too knowing that part of the sadness that engulfed Lenore had to do with Nancy.

Billy worked hard not to repeat the mistake he made with Nancy when it came to Audrey, going out of his way to get to know her and get along with her instead of competing with her or feeling jealous because she was Lenore's friend. He was older now, of course, so it was a little easier for him to interact with Audrey. Maybe that was part of his evolution. Besides, it didn't hurt his image to be seen with a popular and pretty girl like Audrey who was now dating Kit Mason, the eleventh grade basketball player.

Driver's Ed class was fun because Lenore and Billy got to spend six hours together every day. Lenore's mother drove them to Greenville each morning and they'd get a slice of pizza together during the lunch break. Lenore's mom would pick them up after class and drop Billy off at home. Mrs. Barrett wasn't the most talkative woman and sometimes the entire ride would be spent in silence. Billy never knew what to say anyway.

Billy's parents only agreed to pay for half of the driver's ed class so Billy landed a job at Red's Tastee Freeze at the end of the school year to make money to pay them back. He also had to complete the road driving lessons part of the course. He and Lenore scheduled their lessons for the same time so they could be in the car together - either driving or observing.

Billy worked as many hours as he could serving ice cream so he could pocket enough money to hopefully buy a junk car when he finally got his license. Lenore was less concerned with that, still uncertain if her parents would let her drive once she became licensed anyway. Billy didn't criticize Lenore's parents so much anymore, figuring Lenore already felt bad enough about some of their discipline restrictions and she didn't need him riding her more. Instead, Billy was supportive and positive in an effort to make her feel accepted and normal despite her parents' strictness.

Billy went with Lenore and her parents to Hillsboro's Fourth of July festivities as well as joining them for the church picnic in August. Lenore's parents accepted Billy as a friend of Lenore and – by extension – a friend of the family but they remained guarded even with him when it came to socializing with their daughter. Lenore still wasn't allowed in Billy's house if a parent wasn't home and Lenore was not allowed to have boys – even Billy – in her house if her mom wasn't home.

Billy got his license a few days after the church picnic but Lenore had to wait another month before she turned sixteen and a half. Billy hadn't saved enough money for a beater yet but his mother let him use her car on occasion (usually evenings) although a new rule for Lenore was that she couldn't ride with any boy in any car. Lenore could ride with Audrey, however, who also recently got her license.

Football practice began and although Billy promoted to the varsity squad as a junior he wasn't good enough to break into the starting line up and he was relegated to special teams and back up.
Billy landed his first real girlfriend junior year although it was mostly by accident. Maria Paquette started hanging out with him without being invited and she pretty much announced that they were going out although it was news to Billy. But he didn't deny or fight it knowing it was good for his image and his ego. Maria was a nice girl – short cropped black hair, a fire plug body, a lively personality and – something totally new for Billy – a mouth that never shut up. He let her do all the talking.

Maria wasn't quite sure what to make of Billy's relationship with Lenore but she didn't seem threatened by it because – as most people in the school knew – Lenore was a wallflower who didn't date and hardly socialized.

"Does she even talk?" Maria asked Billy on more than one occasion.

"So, you have a girlfriend now," Lenore observed while sitting with Billy at Sunday School (Maria didn't go to their church).

"I guess," Billy admitted.

But, in truth, Billy wasn't sure what to think of his new relationship status. He really didn't know how to be a boyfriend and as he sat there peering at Lenore he realized that he wasn't sure he wanted to have a girlfriend if it wasn't Lenore. In the coming weeks, Billy got the sense that things had gotten awkward between him and Lenore. She still treated him the same but something just felt…..different…..between them. He didn't see as much of Lenore as he would have liked with his new time commitment to Maria, his football schedule, and still working some hours at the Tastee Freeze (at least until October when it closed) as he continued to save money for a car.

Billy came to realize that he wasn't a very good boyfriend. He wasn't much of a romantic. He was uptight and socially inept never having gone down this road before with a girl. Dating and romance wasn't something he comprehended very well and he didn't know how to express himself openly either.

Billy wasn't sure how Lenore felt about him having a girlfriend or what she thought of Maria as a person because she never talked about it to him. He was slightly confused because he wasn't sure if Lenore was upset with him, jealous of Maria, or if she could have cared less. But they were still friends, right? They still enjoyed the close bond they always shared, correct? Their evolution would continue even with a girlfriend in the picture, right?

Billy knew he should be focused on Maria who was in theory his girlfriend but he didn't feel any spark between them. Plus she was always talking – about anything and nothing. He missed the gentle quietness he enjoyed with Lenore when they didn't have to say much yet they still communicated. He never thought he'd feel lonely having a girlfriend but he really did miss Lenore and her companionship. Billy's biggest fear was that something permanent would change between them because of Maria and that bothered him.

By Halloween, Maria was pressuring Billy about 'taking the next step' in their relationship. She had already initiated every step along the way – the first to hold hands, the first to offer a kiss, the first to give him a grope – and now she was ready to 'get between the sheets'.

But Billy wasn't interested in taking that next step with Maria. He liked her but he didn't feel attracted to her in that way and the thought of having sex at this stage of his life scared the hell out of him, especially if it wasn't with Lenore. Wait? What? Wow! Was that what was holding him back from getting naked with Maria? That he really wanted to get between the sheets with Lenore, the only girl for him? How was that for evolution!?

Billy showed up at Maria's house one evening after football practice at her request. Her parents weren't home which immediately made Billy nervous. They were supposed to be studying and Maria went into the kitchen for some snacks, only when she returned she was totally naked, giggling while telling Billy that she had some real snacks for him!

He panicked and semi-freaked and that was the end of their relationship as Maria took his resistance as the ultimate insult and rejection and threw him out of the house, screaming and cursing at him. The final image of her was standing in the foray of her house stark naked giving him the finger and calling him a homo before turning and running up the stairs sobbing, her full naked rear the last sight of her to be seen.

Billy felt horribly guilty about what happened with Maria and how it ended but he was relieved to be free of the pressures of dating. He felt bad but he didn't mope about it and the first thing he told Lenore when he saw her at Sunday school was that he had broken up with Maria, although he skipped all the embarrassing details.

"Oh, that's too bad," Lenore replied although Billy was pretty sure he detected a slight grin on her face.

Lenore had big news too – she had taken and passed her driving test the previous week and she was now a licensed driver although as predicted her parents hadn't allowed her to drive their car yet.

"Just tell them you want to go for a drive," Billy advised.

"You know they're going to have all sorts of rules," Lenore sighed.

"And I'm sure you will obey and follow them just as you always do," Billy replied, hoping the sarcasm didn't appear in his tone.

A few days later, Billy was coming out of his house when Lenore drove by driving her parents' car (alone!). She gave a toot of the horn and waved and Billy laughed as he waved back, tickled that Lenore was finally allowed to drive. It was a big step on her evolutionary cycle.

Of course, there were rules – Lenore couldn't have any boys in the car and she had to tell her parents her complete itinerary and time line whenever she used the car. But at least she had some independence now.

Billy sometimes wondered if Lenore would ever break any of her parents' rules. As far as he was aware, she never had. When they were younger, he would pressure her to do something behind her parents' back but Lenore was adamant about never violating her parents trust or betraying them in anyway.

"They have my welfare and wellbeing in mind always," Lenore said way back in sixth grade and she never changed her attitude on that fact.

Billy came to respect that about Lenore being disciplined enough and value-centered enough and strong enough to follow and obey her parents. It said something about her strength and depth of character.

Maria proved that she didn't have a whole lot of character – spreading rumors and saying mean things about Billy but he didn't care what she had to say. He never talked bad about her or told anybody about what happened that day – he knew it wouldn't help Maria's reputation if everybody in the school knew she got naked for him.

The big football rivalry between the Greenville Giants and Hillsboro Hurricanes was played on Thanksgiving morning. Lenore was in the stands in her uniform with the rest of the band and Billy actually got into several plays on special teams, his first experience of playing in the big game in his third year on the team. It was an exciting thrill and he was glad that Lenore got to see him play.

With football season over, Billy decided to skip basketball (he was going to ride the bench anyway) and he get a job at Fontaine's Family Grocery Store to finance his car – his brother Rob found him an eight hundred dollar relic that was in pretty good shape and even though his parents agreed to put the car on their insurance Billy still had to pay the taxes, gas, and upkeep. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), Lenore wasn't allowed to ride with Billy in his car.

Billy drove his wheels to Lenore's house the moment he drove it out of the old lady's garage that he had bought it from, happy and proud to show her his new vehicle. Billy still wasn't interested in dating other girls and he was grateful for his friendship with Lenore regardless of what his true feelings may have been toward her.

Lenore's parents hosted a Christmas party at their home that year and Billy joked to Lenore that it was the only way he could get into her house. Mr. and Mrs. Barrett were surprisingly sociable and cheerful as hosts. Billy was used to seeing them in their roles as parents keeping a stern rudder on their daughter so it was interesting to see them shooting the breeze with various people, laughing, singing Christmas carols and talking to Billy as if he was a real person and not just the schmuck hanging around with their kid. That Christmas party was the first time Billy felt like he was treated as an adult by Lenore's parents. Mr. Barrett was actually a funny guy when he relaxed after a few drinks and Mrs. Barrett went out of her way to be polite and hospitable, welcoming Billy as if he was Prince William. Lenore looked radiant in a colorful decorative Christmas skirt and sweater and the two were able to roam through the house without being questioned or watched and it was a freeing experience. It was a big jump on Lenore's evolutionary scale!

Lenore wasn't going to do something stupid like let Billy into her room but they sat in the family room cellar without being interupted much and Billy was pretty sure it was the best time he ever had with Lenore who was relaxed and happy.

"'Tis the season," Billy joked.

"Tis the season," Lenore agreed warmly.

It had been their custom in the past to exchange Christmas presents – usually on the last day of school before vacation or the last day of Sunday School before the holiday. Lenore would give Billy things like baseball cards, a subscription to Sports Illustrated, a gift card to Johnny C's Diner, her photograph (sometimes framed), and one year Carl Yaztermski's autograph (on a napkin). Bobby would give her perfume, hair clips and ribbons, finger nail polish, a book, and one year a composition Nancy had written on friendship in sixth grade (he asked her kid brother if there was any of her stuff still around that might interest Lenore).

This year, knowing he was going to be at the Barretts' party, Billy decided to give Lenore his gift then. So, sitting on the couch in the cellar family room, he pulled out a sloppily gift wrapped small box and handed it to her, mumbling 'Merry Christmas'.

Lenore's face lit up and she opened the box with excitement and anticipation. It was a silver necklace with a cross and a medallion of Saint William.

"There's four or five Saint Williams," Billy explained. "This is William of Gellone who is remembered for his faithful service and loyalty."

"Oh," Lenore said, getting slightly misty eyed as she put the necklace over her head. "Thanks, Billy. I'll always cherish this."

Billy nodded and he smiled when she gave him an appreciative hug. "Thanks for being so loyal to me," she whispered.

Billy worked as many hours as he could at Fontaine's Family Grocery Store during the holidays, vacation breaks and weekends through the winter until baseball season started in the spring. He loved baseball (even though he wasn't very good at it) and he wanted to play, even coming off the bench. His friendship with Lenore continued status quo and it occurred to him that their evolution together was often stuck in one place. Sometimes she'd stop by Fontaine's to chat when he worked, they still had Sunday school together and they met up at school whenever their schedules allowed.

Summer meant as many shifts as he could get at Fontaine's and he even picked up some odd hours as a fill in at Red's Tastee Freeze. Billy barely saw Lenore unless she stopped by the store or ice cream stand to say hello or if they met and sat together at church. That arrangement was okay with Lenore's parents if they weren't at the service too because the Barretts' knew there wouldn't be any monkey business going on in front of God (and Pastor Wesley!).

Billy's sister Pam got married in June. Lenore came (because her parents were invited too) and Billy was pleased to be able to spend such a happy, lovely, emotional and meaningful day with Lenore.

There was the Fourth of July celebration to attend together (this time with Billy's parents for a change) as well as the church picnic in August.

"Do you think this will be our last church picnic together?" Lenore asked Billy as they walked around the grounds eating cotton candy together.

"What makes you say that?" Billy worried.

"Well, next year we won't even be in high school," Lenore reminded him. "We're getting older, Billy. Things are going to change."

It hardly seemed possible that Lenore and Bill were seniors in high school, among that 'core group' who sat in Ms. Hutton's kindergarten classroom at Hillside Elementary all those years ago. Of the 22 children from that first day, eighteen were still together as senior year began and Billy was grateful that Lenore was part of that core, the perfect evolution.

Senior year was one of excitement, anticipation, celebrations, events, closings, endings and farewells. Every time the class experienced something as a group they turned and looked at each other and asked 'Last time?'

There were all sorts of pressures about picking a college but Billy ended his drama early by deciding to go to Blue County Community College until he figured out what he wanted to do with his life. Lenore's parents were also thinking BCCC or nearby Green College for their daughter but Lenore applied to several colleges – Emerson, Boston College, UMASS, Worcester State, Westfield State, Holy Cross, UCONN, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, URI, Syracuse and – just for the fun of it – Stanford.

"I couldn't stand the thought of you being in California," Billy admitted with worry.

"Don't worry about it," Lenore replied. "I come from a middle class family and a small high school with no chance for a lot of scholarships and financial aid," she said. "I just wanted to see if I got accepted any place besides where my parents want me to go."

Billy secretly hoped Lenore would pick BCCC or Green College so they could still be together beyond high school even if it was just as special friends.

Lenore was a member of the Yearbook Staff in addition to her Office Girl role, band duties, and serving as a peer mentor for Freshmen girls. Billy assisted Lenore selling yearbook ads but that was the extent of his extracurricular activities beyond sports.

The football team did pretty well that season and Billy was grateful every time he ran onto the field. He was given more playing time as a senior (even if he wasn't very good), mostly at defensive back. He loved looking into the stands and seeing Lenore sitting with the band, playing for him (or so he pretended). When the Hurricanes lost to The Giants 36-12 on Thanksgiving, Billy walked off the field for the last time, glancing up to see Lenore standing and waving at him in a half hello-half salute.

He skipped basketball again, choosing to work as many shifts as he could get at Fontaine's Family Grocery store once again.

Lenore was accepted by several colleges which helped her confidence and made her feel good but she reluctantly elected to honor her parents' wishes and she decided on Green College.

"You don't sound very excited," Billy said with disappointment. "We'll be able to hang out."

"Nothing's going to change, Billy," Lenore sighed. "My parents are still going to be keeping track of me and telling me what to do."

"You'll be an adult."

"I'll still be living with them," she said as they sat together in the school library. "They'll want to protect me and make sure I'm okay."

"Maybe they'll change," Billy said hopefully.

Lenore gave him a deadpanned look as if to say 'Seriously?'

There wasn't any Christmas party at the Barrett house that year but Lenore and Billy managed to exchange gifts (her senior photo for him, a gift certificate to a spa for her).

Lenore and Billy both participated in class-sponsored community support event that holiday season, singing Christmas carols at several local nursing homes and senior centers.

Billy suited up for his last year as a Baseball Hurricane even though he missed half the season with a broken thumb. There was Prom – Lenore was only allowed to go if Billy was her escort. Billy finally felt accepted and trusted by the Barretts' for the first time and he appreciated the show of respect he was given. He was also thrilled to be going to the prom with Lenore! She had a midnight curfew but Billy didn't care about that either.

The families got together for the pre-prom photos. Lenore actually wore the same dress she had worn to that spring fling dance a few years earlier – Billy wore a purple tux. Pam showed up with her new husband to wish the couple well and Billy's Dad let him drive his sporty coupe to the Sun Rise Lake Inn instead of his beat up junker.

It was the closest thing to a romantic night Billy could have imaged – getting their photos taken together 'in the garden of romance', sharing a table with Audrey and her date (Kevin, replacing the now college student Kit) and Gummie (Greg) and his date, Sarah.

Lenore and Billy actually danced a couple of times, slightly awkwardly and weirdly but they were out there just the same – mostly to the fast numbers.

There was the overnight class trip to NYC for a Broadway show, heavily chaperoned (including Mrs. Barrett!) but Lenore and Billy had a great time as the evolution of senior year continued.

The yearbooks arrived – including a memorial page in memory of Nancy – and Billy made sure Lenore signed his ("My special friend", she wrote) and he of course signed hers ('From K to 12 – and beyond!').

And suddenly, it was graduation night – Lenore and Billy processing in as partners and proudly receiving their diplomas to finally break up 'The Core' and face the future as part of their ongoing evolution. Nancy was remembered - her parents accepting an honorary diploma in her name and Lenore got a little teary eyed at the sight.

The all night safe party at the bowling ally was fun (this time Mr. Barrett was among the chaperones) and Billy began to sense that this was somehow his last 'fling' with Lenore. Sure, they still had the summer but he would be working and then college would be starting and who knew what the future might hold for either of them.

For that reason, Billy hardly left Lenore's side all night. She crapped out for a few snoozes but Billy stayed awake for the duration, talking with classmates, shooting pool, bowling, and playing video games when Lenore was either indisposed or hanging out with Audrey and some of the other girls from the graduating class.

The party ended at 6 a.m. and Lenore gave Billy a hug goodbye before leaving with her father and Billy had a weird premonition that things were never going to be the same again.

Billy started working full time shifts at Fontaine's the next day. He also continued to fill in at Red's and he joined the Beansboro Beansters of the Amateur Serguci Baseball League that played a 42 game schedule from Memorial Day to Labor Day at Hillsboro's Beano Field along with seven other teams from the Blue County area. The Beansters were the league's flagship team but the team had been perennial losers for many years. Billy wasn't a very good player but he was excited to be on the team playing with college guys and older players who also couldn't give up the dream.

Lenore and Billy attended their final Sunday school session in early June although Lenore became a volunteer with the high school youth group for the summer. There wasn't a whole lot of free time to see each other during the summer, although they attended the Fourth of July celebration together as was their custom. Billy was glad to see Lenore (usually with Audrey or her Dad) at most of the Beanster games. The park was historic and picturesque and Billy couldn't think of a better way to spend a summer's evening than watching (and in his case, playing in) an amateur baseball game.

The Barretts' began a major renovation of their house soon after the 4th Holiday - new roof, new siding, new windows, rebuilding of the front brick façade, and the complete reconstructin of the driveway was on the list being done by Boone The Builder's Construction Company.

Billy drove by the Barrett House a few times to check on the progress of the work and a concerned Audrey stopped by to see Billy either at the grocery store.

"There's a weird guy on the construction crew," Audrey reported.

"What are you talking about?" Billy frowned.

"Some young guy," Audrey said. "Every time I go over there Lenore's talking with him."

"I'm sure her mother's watching with a pair of binoculars and a hidden listening device," Billy said sarcastically.

"He rides a motorcycle. Has a leather jacket. Tattoos. Long hair. Smokes."

"Yeah, he sounds like Lenore's type," Billy remarked, rolling his eyes.

"I'm serious, Bill," Audrey warned with concern in her voice, grabbing Billy by the arms and dragging him down the aisle of the grocery store so nobody would overhear the conversation. "I've never seen Lenore so….enamored…..before."

Billy laughed. "Come on, Aud, this is Lenore we're talking about."

"Yes, the repressed, over-protected, over controlled sweet virginal Lenore," Audrey said with worry. "Maybe her parents squashed her down so far and tight that she's ready to explode."

"With this guy?" Billy asked with disbelief.

"Why not?" Audrey shrugged.

"Because why not with me instead?" Billy wanted to know.

Audrey looked at him with surprise. "Really?"

"Never mind," Billy said, waving his hand as if to brush the entire conversation away. "Lenore has been the perfect saintly angel all her life. She's not going to do something stupid now, especially with some stranger putting a roof on her parent's house. That would go against her natural evolution."

"Are you sure?" Audrey sighed heavily before turning and walking out of the grocery store.

Billy was pretty sure. But he found himself driving by the Barrett house more frequently, sometimes stopping to check on the progress of the work (and to secretly check out 'the guy' too). The mystery man wasn't hard to miss, sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the burly head shaved regular construction guys. This guy had hair that was longer that Lenore's, a scraggly beard, earrings, more tattoos than a Sailor, and bad teeth. He spoke with a southern accent and Lenore quickly came out of the house to try to shoo Billy away from the guy.

"Who is that?" an amused Billy asked as Lenore walked him away from the workers.

"I dunno," Lenore replied.

"You don't?" Billy asked with raised eyebrows.

"Just one of the workers," Lenore mumbled.

"What's his name?" Billy wondered.

"Uh, um, er, Ray, I guess."

"Ray?"

"I heard some of the other guys call him that," a red faced Lenore said.

It was the first time Billy had ever been aware of Lenore lying - or at least being evasive - to his face.

"Just leave it be, Billy," Lenore requested with a sigh.

She looked embarrassed, hurt, frustrated, and annoyed all at the same time and Billy decided he wasn't going to ride her about this. It was clear nothing was going to happen between her and this Ray character, a guy in his early twenties who had absolutely nothing in common with the sheltered, sweet and inexperienced Lenore.

"I'll see you around, Lennie," Billy said with an easy going smile before leaving the yard.

Audrey stopped by Red's Tastee Freeze a few days later as Billy was leaving after a fill in shift.

"So?" She said, stopping him in the parking lot. "What did you think?"

"Of what?" Billy asked.

"The guy!?" Audrey said with annoyance.

"Ray?"

"Is that his name?"

"I wouldn't worry about him," Billy said. "He's not Lenore's type."

"I don't think type has a whole lot to do with it, Bill," Audrey warned. "I'm telling you this guy is going to be bad news."

"As soon as the project is done he'll be long gone," Billy predicted. "You'll see."

"You'd better hope you're right," Audrey said with concern.

The church picnic was the following week. Billy showed up with his parents and of course Lenore was there with her parents too and she and Billy spent some time together.

"The remodeling on the house is almost done," Lenore informed Billy as they walked around the picnic grounds enjoying the afternoon sun and observing the various events going on around them.

"It's looking good," Billy said.

"College will be starting soon," Lenore remarked.

"Can you believe it?" Billy smiled.

"I want to thank you, Billy, for standing by my side all these years," Lenore said, stopping and turning to look at him. "You're my best friend. We've known each other for a long time. I couldn't have made it without you."

"I feel the same way about you," Billy assured her. "But relax, nothing's going to change just because high school is over. We'll still see each other all the time," he predicted. "You'll be living at home while going to Green. It's going to be great. The natural evolution continues."

"Yeah, sure," she smiled bravely. "But always remember that you mean the world to me, okay? Promise you'll always remember us."

"Of course," Billy smiled warmly, taking her hand in his. "We're special friends. Always. Forever."

She nodded her head in agreement and bit her bottom lip. "Thanks," she said.

Billy saw Lenore leaving the picnic later with her parents and he waved at her. "See ya!" He called cheerfully.

Lenore broke ranks from her parents to give a surprised Billy a long and meaningful hug. "I care so much about you," she whispered into his ear. "Be good."

He gave her a squeeze and kissed her on the cheek. "I'll see you soon," he promised.

She nodded as she broke the embrace and trotted off to join her parents as they exited the picnic grounds. Billy figured Lenore was nervous about college and making a new start. He wouldn't be with her on the Green College campus and she was probably insecure about meeting new people.

A few days later, Billy played a ball game with the Beansboro Beansters at Beano Field. He was disappointed when he didn't see Lenore or her parents in the stands but they didn't come to every game so he didn't think too much about it. Billy entered the game as a defensive replacement in the sixth inning and went 0-2 at the plate as the Beansters lost to the County Crusaders 10-3. He was sweaty and tired after the game on a hot summer night as he walked out of the park.

"She's gone!"

Billy turned to see Audrey standing behind him, a look of fear and disbelief on her face.

"What? Who?"

"Lenore!"

"Gone where?" A confused Billy asked with a frown.

"I don't know!" Audrey exclaimed. "Nobody knows! She hasn't been seen in two days. All the money in her bank account is gone. Her favorite stuffed animal is missing along with some of her clothes and her Mary Poppins bag.

"Gone?" Billy squeaked with disbelief.

"Didn't I tell you?" Audrey demanded. "Didn't I warn you? I told you that guy was bad news."

"You think she ran off with Ray?" Billy asked dumbly.

"Ah, duh, yeah, Bill!" Audrey groaned. "Where do you think she is? A girl scout camp out?"

Billy rubbed his eyes. "This is unbelievable," he said, stunned to the point that he felt dazed. "I never thought she'd ever do something so...radical."

"You can only oppress somebody for so long," Audrey said bitterly. "Her parents screwed her down so tight that she finally exploded."

Billy took a seat on the cement wall that ran along the sidewalk outside the park feeling like he was going to throw up. "But why that guy?" he asked meekly.

Audrey took a spot on the wall next to him and patted his thigh. "Because he was the first one who broke the code."

"The code?" Billy asked, his head pounding.

"He obviously knew how to get through all her boundaries and defenses and fire walls," Audrey said. "He got inside her head and her soul and he reprogrammed her computer. The rules no longer mattered."

"But what about us?" Billy asked desperately. "How could she do this to you and me?"

"She was only thinking about herself," Audrey explained. "Her freedom. Her independence. Her break out."

Billy sucked in her breath. "She'll be back," he predicted.

Audrey sadly shook her head no. "No she won't," she said knowingly.

"Did she say something to you?" Billy wanted to know.

"No," Audrey admitted. "She knew I would have tried to talk her out of it. That Ray is trailer park trash. But she wouldn't have listened to either of us anyway. This was something she had to do for herself."

"She'll be back," He said again, even more desperately this time.

"She can't come back, Bill," Audrey told him. "She broke the ultimate rule. She betrayed her parents' trust and everything they stood for. How can she possibly come back? She just burned all the bridges. Her parents will never forgive her for this."

"How do you know?" Billy worried.

"I was over there earlier," Audrey revealed, physically shuddering from the memory. "It was almost as if Lenore had never existed. As if they had already written her off - written her out of the family script. It was really spooky."

Billy stared at Audrey for a long moment. Suddenly, he knew she was right. And he remembered the church picnic and what Lenore had said to him. That was her goodbye. He just didn't pick up on it, convinced that everything was great and status quo. She'd be going to Green College and he'd be going to Blue County Community College and nothing would change. How could he have been so blind? How could he have been so wrong? How could the natural evolution of their life be destroyed so easily?

"You going to be okay?" Audrey asked softly.

"No," Billy admitted. "I'm never going to be okay again."

"Me either," Audrey sighed, rubbing his back. "But we'll get through this somehow."

Billy never did, really. For days...weeks...months...he waited for Lenore to come home, apologetic and chagrined, begging for forgiveness and a second chance. Even if her parents weren't willing to start anew, Billy was ready, able and willing to welcome Lenore back with open arms and gratitude. That would be their natural evolution the way it was meant to be.

But she never did return. As the summer played out, Billy mostly went through the motions. He played his Serguci League games. Mr. and Mrs. Barrett attended a couple of them. He saw them in church too and while they acknowledged him with a nod or a hello they never brought up the subject of Lenore and he knew better than to ask about her.

Billy worked his shifts at Fontaine's Family Grocery Store and occasionally he'd see Mrs. Barrett shopping. For so many years Lenore was by her side but now Mrs. Barrett was alone, a huge part of her life ripped from her but she never spoke of it. Billy started his classes at Blue County Community College while working his shifts at Fontaine's and as the autumn turned to winter and there was no word from - or sign of - Lenore, Billy began to slowly accept the reality that she really was gone for good. Christmas came and went and Billy's fantasy of Lenore coming home for Christmas, a Santa surprise, never happened. That saddened and depressed him. Audrey was attending Syracuse University and she wasn't home much. Gummie joined the Navy and was off sailing the seven seas. Billy really was on his own and he didn't know what to do with himself. He met a girl at BCCC - Doris, a cute and bubbly girl from Miller City who took a shining to him. He was sad and lonely missing Lenore but knowing she was certainly sleeping with Ray he realized there was no point waiting for her any longer. He let Doris seduce him. She was amazed and flattered that Billy was a virgin and she was very gentle, compassionate, giving and loving when they finally made love.

His romance with Doris was wonderful but once the novelty of the new and exciting sex wore off Doris became bored with the relationship and Billy was on his own again. There would be other girls but Billy found himself thinking about Lenore just about every day, missing her...grieving her. He'd drive by the Barrett house hoping he'd see Lenore walking up the front walk. He kept going to church hoping she'd walk through the door with her parents for the service. But it never happened.

Billy got through his first year at BCCC without Lenore in his life. He accepted the reality that she was gone and he tried to move on with his life. He played Serguci League ball again in the summer while working at Fontaine's Family Grocery Store but he skipped the annual church picnic – there wasn't any point in going if Lenore wasn't going to be there.

Billy returned to the community college in the fall, worked at Fontaine's, dated a little, and continued to miss Lenore. He thought about Nancy and how she disappeared from the world one day and that's how it felt with Lenore's absence although he knew that Lenore hadn't drowned and he assumed she was doing okay although he couldn't imagine her being happy with a guy like Ray. Billy still couldn't believe Lenore left everything she knew and loved on a whim to be with that loser.

Maybe Lenore would grow tired of Ray just as Doris had tired of him but Billy had a feeling Audrey was right – Lenore probably felt like she could never come back after the violation she caused.

Billy graduated from BCCC but he didn't see himself going on to a four year college. He didn't see himself working at Fontaine's Family Grocery Store for the rest of his life either so he landed a job at Hillsboro Plastics, finally moving out of his parents house and getting his own apartment in one of the old Victorians close to downtown.

The evolution he had envisioned and hoped for had been ruined.

Five years passed since Lenore left town. She would have been a Green College Graduate. Instead she was just a distant memory even though as hard as Billy tried to forget about her he just never could. One day his mother called on the phone.

"There's a letter for you here," she said.

"Who would write to me?" Billy asked with surprise.

"It kind of looks like Lenore's handwriting," his mother informed him.

Billy nearly dropped the phone and he fell into a chair, his heart pounding in his chest. Five years with not a word and suddenly out of the blue a letter arrives? Maybe his mother was mistaken. But Billy was in his car in a flash and he arrived at his parents' house three minutes later. His mother handed him the envelope. It was a dirty white used envelope with the imprinted return address of Sam's Auto Repair and Junk Yard with logo, both scratched out. There was no other return address and the envelope was addressed to 'William Hebert' in what looked to be Lenore's script.

Lenore always sent Billy and his mom thank you notes, holiday cards, birthday greetings and other etiquette mailings so they were familiar with her handwriting. Of course, she used fancy and attractive stationary or sent formal notes and cards so to see a greasy stained used envelope with a scratched out return address was quite surprising.

Billy swallowed hard as he strolled into the back yard and nervously opened the envelope. Inside was a faded yellow bill receipt – the kind produced from those old pull metal machines with the two holes on top – the original staying with the business guy, the yellow copy given to the customer. The yellow receipt was also from Sam's Auto Repair and Junk Yard with an address of Highway 7, Earle Township, South Carolina. There was a note scrawled on the back.

SOS. Drive past Sam's south on 7. Right at broken billboard. Trailer on right. If yellow pick up in drive don't stop. Need you. Don't tell anybody. L.

The date was written below her initial which – strangely – was about four months earlier than the postmark on the outside envelope. It clearly took Lenore a while to mail the plea for help. Billy stuffed the envelope in his pocket and he didn't bother going back into the house to get grilled by his mother. He had a few vacation days coming so he called his boss and asked for them immediately due to a "family crisis". He map-quested Sam's Auto Repair in Earle Township South Carolina and Billy was on the road two hours later, driving non-stop through the night for twelve hours on his desperate and strange rescue mission. He had no idea what he was going to find when he arrived in Earle Township.

Highway Seven was a few miles off the interstate and Earle Township was another forty miles from there, a two lane blacktop twisting and turning through the hills and small towns of South Carolina until Billy finally saw Sam's on the right. Another quarter mile down the road was the abandoned and decrepit billboard Lenore had mentioned. Billy turned right onto a dirt road and about fifty yards up the road was an old rusting metal white mobile home set back from the road surrounded by rusted hulks of old junk cars and other debris. There was a yellow pick up truck in the dirt driveway so Billy kept driving until he rounded a curve in the road. He pulled his car off to the side wondering if Ray (assuming Lenore was still with him) would come this way and spot the Massachusetts plate on the car. But then he saw the weathered and dented road sign ahead that said "No Exit" and he figured he was safe from detection.

Billy walked along the side of the road to the top of the embanked curve and saw that he had a clear view across the field to the trailer. He stood behind a large tree waiting to see if the yellow pick up truck would leave.

More than an hour passed before Billy finally saw a man come out of the aging mobile home. From the distance it looked like it could be Ray – long hair, lanky, motorcycle boots and what looked like a Harley tee shirt. Billy saw him slip the key to the door under a rock in the driveway before climbing into the noisy pick up and driving off in the opposite direction. Billy waited for ten minutes before he jogged back to his car and quickly drove to the trailer, his heart pounding in his chest. He skidded the car to a stop in the driveway and located the rock where Ray had left the key – four of them on one ring. Grabbing the keys, Billy hopped up the steps and rapped on the door.

"Lenore?" He called several times but there was no answer even with the banging.

Billy found the correct key that opened the door and he stepped into the messy, crowded, dirty, hot, stale interior. "Lenore?" He called.

Still no response.

He checked out the various rooms – the living room full of newspapers, magazines, beer cans and junk food bags scattered about the tables and floors, the messy kitchen with dirty dishes in the sink, and a large messy bedroom with dirty sheets, an unmade bed and dirty clothes strewn about.

The only other door was closed – with a double lock on it. Billy rapped on it. "Lenore?"

He thought he heard a whimper from the other side. It took Billy a few moments to figure out which key operated which lock – which included a chained pad lock looped through the door latch and around the door frame to the living room. When Billy was finally able to open all the locks, he pushed the door open to reveal a small hot smelly bathroom. The window was covered by a slab of metal that was screwed tightly to the wall to prevent escape. Sitting on the commode was a naked woman shielding her eyes from the light. There were welts, bruises and marks all over her body.

"Lenore?"

He wasn't even sure if it was her. Her long black hair looked like it had been hacked off randomly by a pair of garden sheers. Her skin was white and unhealthy. There were black circles under her eyes. Her breasts sagged.

"Lenore?" He asked.

She slowly looked up and tried to make out his face. "Billy?" She whispered through her squint.

"Jesus Christ!" Billy helped her to her feet. "What in the hell is going on?"

"Can you get me out of here?" Lenore pleaded.

"Holy shit," was all he could think to say.

Billy escorted Lenore from the stinky small bathroom/jail cell that had no ventilation and led her into the bedroom. She found some clothes to put on but she seemed unsteady on her feet, weak and maybe a little confused so he held her up the arm and helped her get dressed.

"Is there anything else you want from here?" Billy asked.

She shook her head no.

Billy escorted her from the trailer, leaving the front door open as he put her in the front seat of the car. Neither spoke as he turned the car around and sped out of the driveway like a thief leaving a crime scene. Lenore ducked down as they passed Sam's Auto Repair and Billy saw the yellow pick up truck parked on the side of the building. Once they were safely down the road, Lenore sat up and stared out the window as they drove along Route 7 toward the interstate. It was as if she was in a trance and she didn't say a word. Billy didn't bother asking any questions or making any comments. He could smell her body odor and he wondered when was the last time she showered. She must have become aware of her stench because she cracked the window even with the air conditioner going.

Billy kept soft music playing the radio and when he stopped to gas the car up for the first time he asked Lenore if she wanted anything to eat or drink. She said no but he brought back a lemonade and some twinkees (used to be her favorites) just in case.

Billy drove for nearly eight hours and they were pretty far up into New Jersey but he was exhausted from having driven through the night after working all day and he didn't think it was safe for him to continue driving even though it was only five o'clock in the afternoon. He explained the situation to Lenore.

"Would it be okay if we stopped at a motel for the night?" He asked. "Get refreshed and re-grounded before we get home?"

"Home?" Lenore seemed to realize for the first time that he was taking her back to Hillsboro. "I can't go home."

"I have an apartment," he explained. "You can stay there. Nobody has to know until you're ready."

She thought about if for a while. "We can stop if you want," she finally decided.

Billy got off the interstate and stopped at a drug store, picking up various toiletries and other items he figured Lenore would need since she left the mobile home with nothing but the clothes on her back. Then he pulled into a Quality Inn not far from the interstate and checked them into a clean and comfortable larger room with two queen beds.

Billy helped Lenore into the room and she sat on one of the beds, still looking dazed and lost. She was wearing a simple flowered blouse that looked like it came from a tag sale and a pair of khaki shorts that were faded and tattered. Her sandals were cracked and soiled.

"Do you want to take a shower?" Billy wondered.

"A bath," she realized. "Would you help me?"

Billy nodded and helped her into the bathroom. Lenore sat on the commode while he ran the bath water. Then he helped her unbutton her blouse and slip out of her khakis and worn panties which she tossed into the tub water and Billy realized she was washing them. He helped the naked Lenore to her feet and assisted her as she stepped into the tub and sat in the warm soapy water. He started for the door.

"Stay," she requested timidly. "I don't want to be alone."

Billy took a seat on the toilet and tried not to stare at her breasts floating just below the water surface.

"Did you ever think you'd see me like this?" She sighed.

In another time and place, he would have joked 'Naked?' but too much time and obvious pain had passed to be so flippant after a five year separation. "No," he confessed.

"I was an honor roll National Honor Society high school student with a near-perfect GPA about to start college."

"You were," Billy concurred.

"And then I threw it all away," she sighed.

"You made a bad choice," Billy clarified.

"I gave up paradise for hell just because I let some psychopath seduce me."

"You made a mistake," Billy agreed.

"Everything that happened could have been prevented if I just listened to my head instead of forgetting everything I knew to be true and rejecting my virtues." She glanced at him. "I betrayed the people who knew me best. The people who loved me unconditionally. I don't know how to even talk about what happened to me."

"You don't have to talk about it until you're ready," Billy told her.

"It was unbearable the last year or so," she revealed. "That's when he became completely obsessed and paranoid and started locking me naked in the bathroom whenever he left me home alone. Before that he was slapping me around and threatening to kill me if I ever left but I guess he got to a point that he just didn't trust me not to run away so he started holding me captive."

"That's sick," Billy told her.

"He had a gun," she said. "I honestly thought he'd use it. He'd open the shower curtain when I was showering, holding the blender plugged into an extension cord and running. He said he'd throw it in and either electrocute me or chop me up. I was afraid to escape – or take a shower for that matter."

"Geez, Lenore. Should we call the cops?"

"Only if he comes looking for me," she decided. "There aren't any black and blue marks on my face right now so they probably wouldn't believe me anyway."

"Of course they would," Billy said.

"I knew I would be dead sooner or later," Lenore told him. "You got my SOS?"

Billy nodded affirmatively.

"I had to hide that for months and then one night he finally took me out for dinner. I left the letter stamped in the booth hoping somebody would find it and mail it for me."

"I guess somebody did," Billy said.

"I could have gotten killed if he found out," she said. "Thanks for coming for me."

"It took a lot of guts for you to take the chance," Billy said. "But now you're out of that abusive relationship."

"He could come looking for me," Lenore warned.

"He'd be a fool to try," Billy said.

"I just want to be as far removed from that hell as possible," Lenore said. "It's been torture."

"That was your old life," Billy said. "This is your new one."

"I'm sorry I screwed up the one I had," she said honestly. "I never thought I'd end up being held captive in my bathroom and terrorized on a daily basis."

Billy noticed some of the scars, scabs and other marks everywhere on her body.

"He broke my arm once," she said. "Fractured a few ribs. Knocked a tooth out." She opened her mouth to show Billy the space on the left side of her mouth.

"I'm so sorry, Lennie," Billy said with defeat and sorrow. "It's barbaric."

"It wasn't so bad at first," Lenore said. "I don't know why I ran away with him. It just seemed like something bold and thrilling and unexpected. I wanted to be with him and I knew my parents would never approve. So I hopped on the back of his motorcycle and off we went."

Billy remembered how he felt when Audrey told him the news about Lenore leaving town.

"He treated me right at first," Lenore continued. "He was gentle and understanding, patient and kind. He waited until I was ready. We travelled from town to town. He'd work odd jobs and I'd take care of where ever we were living at the time. It was all very romantic and storybook. He taught me things. He bought me things. I thought he was crazy about me."

Billy wasn't sure if he wanted to hear some of this stuff.
"But after a while he started getting controlling and rude. Angry and upset over the most unimportant of things." She held her hand up to her face. "I remember the first time he hit me." Her eyes got teary. "Nobody had ever hit me before. Never. Not my father. Nobody. I was shocked and crushed. I couldn't believe he would do that to me."
"You should have left then," Billy said.

"I thought it was a one time only incident," Lenore sighed. "I thought he loved me. We ended up in Earle Township. He worked for Sam at the gas station. Sam let us rent that trailer for cheap. Things were tranquil for a while. We had a few friends. I chatted with people at the gas station. I started a garden. He was treating me with respect but then one day he came home and I was talking with some stupid traveling salesman who stopped by and he made me sleep outside in the rain as punishment. Then he started keeping tabs on me. Stopping me from going out. Not allowing me to have a social life unless he was with me. Yelling and screaming a lot. Then the daily confinement in the bathroom began along with more physical abuse and death threats with the gun in his hand. He actually fired it at me once but missed – to this day I'm still not sure if he missed on purpose or not."

Billy couldn't believe the stories she was telling him.

"One day I almost had the window pried open when he came home. He nearly killed me that night." She rubbed her side. "Knocked me out cold. When I awoke he was slapping me with a rubber water hose. My hands and feet were bound with duct tape. I was nude and bleeding. I was lying on the bathroom floor but with no electricity. He didn't let me out for two days. Solitary confinement," she said sarcastically.

"That's horrific," Billy said sadly.

"You're the first one I've ever told," Lenore revealed. "I was absolutely in fear for my life. I had to get that SOS to you."

"But why me, Lennie?" Billy needed to know.

"Who else?" she sighed. "Who else could I trust? Who else could I believe in? Who else would come for me without asking questions?"

Billy had to fight back the tears from flowing as he stared at her sitting in the bathtub with all her physical and emotional scars. She couldn't weigh more than 100 pounds. The last time he saw her she at least 130. Her eyes were vacant and sad. She looked defeated and broken.

"You're going to be okay." Billy needed to say that affirmation.

She looked at him with disbelieving eyes. "I'm not so sure," she admitted and that made him feel even worse.

Lenore sighed as she found the soap and washcloth in the water and started scrubbing herself. Then she dunked her head under the water and rubbed the soap bar through her hair a few times before rinsing it out with the bath water.

"I think I'm done," Lenore announced, reaching over and releasing the drain.

Billy got up from the toilet and grabbed a towel from the rack, handing it to her as she stood. He moved back as Lenore stepped out of the tub, dried herself, and then wrapped the towel around her body. She scooped her clothes from the water, ringed them out, and hung them from the shower curtain rod to dry. Billy left the bathroom and found the binder full of local information.

"You really should eat something," he said when Lenore came out of the bathroom a few minutes later.

"I suppose."

"How 'bout Chinese?" He suggested when he came across a flyer for a local take out.

"Fine," she replied without much interest.

Billy called the order in while Lenore sat on one of the beds not saying or doing much. He turned on the television and found some mindless escapist comedy to watch. Lenore hid in the bathroom when the take out guy finally showed up and then returned to the room still wrapped in her towel to eat, each of them on their separate beds eating the food and staring blankly at the television, neither talking.

Billy had a hard time keeping his eyes open once he finished eating and using the bathroom, kicking off his sneakers and sprawling out on his bed, exhausted from the last few days. When he awoke hours later to use the bathroom again, the motel room was dark, the television was off and a naked Lenore was sleeping next to him in his bed instead of in her own bed. It was a comforting realization to know she felt safe and secure enough to share a bed with him after all the separation and her horrible drama. Was that the natural evolution now?

Lenore was up and dressed when Billy awoke in the morning, still not having much to say. Billy washed up, used the toilet, cleaned up the room, and then checked out while Lenore waited in the car. Three and a half hours later they were back in Hillsboro and Billy could sense how nervous and uncertain Lenore had become.

"You can take all the time you need to regroup and recharge," he told her.

"That might take forever," she sighed, staring blankly out the side window at the now familiar scenery and landmarks.

The Victorian house Billy lived in had been converted into three apartments years ago. His lived on the second floor, a long four room apartment with wide rooms and big windows, a second story front porch, and rustic wood floors.

Billy went to the local CVS and bought some items he figured Lenore could use and he borrowed clothes from his sister Pam so Lenore would have a few different outfits to wear. He went to Donovan's Department Store in Greenville for undergarments and other necessities and he even made a stop at the local thrift store for a few more selections.

Lenore still didn't have much to say and the two fell into a comfortable routine. Billy would go work his 7-3 shift at the plastics factory while Lenore hid out at the apartment, refusing to leave under any circumstances. She kept the place clean and she cooked supper for him but she wasn't in a talkative mood and Billy didn't push her. He offered to take her out at night for an ice cream at Red's, a dog at Beano Field (he had quit playing ball the previous year), or a meal at Johnny C's but Lenore was paranoid about being seen by anybody.

"Sooner or later, when you're ready," was Billy's frequent response.

They both wondered if Ray would show up looking for Lenore and Billy scoped out her parents house several times to see if the yellow pick up truck with South Carolina plates was parked outside. It never was and after a few weeks went by Billy was pretty sure Ray was history.

Although Lenore shared Billy's bed, it was an odd brother-sister like roommate situation. Billy certainly understood that Lenore needed time to decompress from her ordeal with the psychopath and slowly transition into a new state of normal evolution – whatever that was given that she was still a captive, although this time of her own choice.

Lenore agreed to have Pam stop by the apartment under the veil of NSA sworn secrecy to work on Lenore's butchered hair which Pam trimmed into a presentable pixie, the shortest the hair had been in Lenore's life.

"It's a whole new look for a whole new start," Bill told her.

She was eating healthy foods and putting on some weight on her thin frame. The color returned to her skin and her face began to look natural again.

Billy knew that the biggest hurdle facing Lenore was making an attempt at reconciling with her parents. He thought that would be the natural evolution of her return but the very idea petrified Lenore. She refused to talk about reunification when Billy first broached the subject but he gently kept bringing the reality up and slowly Lenore began to confront her fears and reservations.

"I betrayed them," she said flatly. "They hate me."

"You'll be able to leave the apartment and start your life again once you face your past," Billy told her. "What's the worst that can happen?"

"They won't want anything to do with me," Lenore answered. "And I wouldn't blame them."

"Then at least you'll know," Billy replied. "And then you take it from there."

It took several weeks of Billy talking to Lenore about meeting her parents before she finally agreed to let them know that Billy was in contact with their daughter to see what their reaction was to the news, testing the waters if they were interested in meeting with their missing child.

Billy still went to church occasionally and that's where he saw Mr. and Mrs. Barrett the most often. On a warm and pleasant Sunday morning, Billy nervously approached the couple after the service. They exchanged pleasantries over the years after Lenore left but they never talked about her absence.

"Could I talk to you folks for a minute?" Billy asked after they were done with the polite small talk.

The Barretts' agreed and they followed Billy to a bench underneath a shady tree.

Billy cleared his throat once they were seated. "I have some news regarding Lenore," he announced nervously, not quite sure what to expect in response to the bombshell.

He saw that Mrs. Barrett's eyes went wide while Mr. Barrett's eyes became watery.

"Is she okay?" Mr. Barrett asked forcefully.

"Yes, she's okay," Billy answered warmly. "She's wants to know if you're willing to see her."

Mrs. Barrett burst into tears and she fell into her husband.

"Of course, Billy," Mr. Barrett replied, hugging his wife. "We want to see her desperately."

"I thought she was dead," Mrs. Barrett wailed. "Oh my poor sweet baby."

Billy was admiringly surprised by their reaction. Given their stoic silent attitude of the past five years he assumed the couple had written their daughter off. He was encouraged by their emotional response knowing it was the natural evolution of the process.

"She's hoping you won't ask her any questions about the past five years," Billy informed them, relaying the conditions Lenore had given him. "She doesn't want to talk about what happened, what she did, or why she left. She just wants to come home."

"Billy, tell her we miss her and love her and we want her to come home too," Mr. Barrett stated strongly.

"The past doesn't matter," Mrs. Barrett insisted through her sobs. "All we care about is her. Tell her to please come home."

"Okay," Bill said with a smile, relieved that the Barretts' were so accepting and open and moved by their emotions and their obvious joy with the news.

Billy would never tell Lenore that he thought she was wrong to have left the way she did. It must have been torturous hell for her parents just as it had been for him. Five Christmases missed. Five church picnics without her. Five birthdays lost. Billy stood and offered his hand to Mr. Barrett who accepted it with a hard pressed shake.

"Bring her back to us, Bill," Mr. Barrett said as he continued to console his wife.

It suddenly occurred to Billy that the Barretts looked much older and burdened than their mid-forties stated age. Five years of Lenore being missing had taken its toll on them.

Billy returned to the apartment and found Lenore sitting on the outside second story porch. She glanced up at him and waited for his report.

"They thought you were dead," he said.

Lenore rolled her eyes. "I sent a couple of post cards," she said defensively. "Misdirected and mailed from places we weren't at but I told them I was safe and not to worry."

"When you'd send the last one?" Billy wondered, taking a seat next to her.

She shrugged. "It's been a few years," she admitted guiltily. "Once we landed in Earle I couldn't risk them coming looking for me."

Billy nodded with understanding. "They were happy to hear my news," he told her.

"I'm sure they'll hold a grudge," she sighed.

"They seemed to accept your conditions," Billy informed her.

"It's going to be awkward and uncomfortable," Lenore sighed.

"For you or them?" Billy wondered.

"They'll never forgive me for what I did," she predicted, wiping a tear from her eye.

"I didn't sense that," Billy said.

"You're not their kid, Billy," Lenore snapped. "They were strict and they smothered me with their love."

"You're not a kid anymore," Billy reminded her. "You don't have to move in with them."

"Where else am I supposed to go?"

"Stay with me," Billy invited with serious want.

She d stared at him with disbelief. "I did the same thing to you as I did to them, Billy," she whispered with shame.

"I forgive you," he replied.

Lenore broke into tears, flew out of her chair and ran crying into the apartment. Billy followed, finding her collapsed on the bed sobbing into the pillow.

"They're supposed to hate me," she said angrily through her sobs. "You too," she added. "Then I'd have a reason not to have to feel so badly for what I did to all of you."

"Unconditional love means forgiving those who hurt us," Billy said. "You went to church and Sunday School and Youth Group all those years and you don't think any of that stuff matters now?"

"I don't know what I think or feel," Lenore confessed with defeat. "I hate myself for what I did."

"We don't hate you," Billy said softly. "We love you."

"I rebelled against my parents because I didn't like some of their rules," she sighed with embarrassment as she sat up on the bed, rubbing her tears and snot from her face. "I showed my disapproval by running away with the wrong man, destroying my parents' expectations of me, and hurting everybody I loved."

"You made a mistake," Billy reframed.

"My selfish rebellious mistake hurt my family and you and everybody else," she cried.

"You get a do over now," Billy reminded her.

"My life these past five years has been one big mistake," She confessed with shame. "Meaningless with no direction or purpose. I blamed my parents for my unhappiness but the path I chose led me to failure, misery, pain, sorrow and abuse. I feel so empty and worthless, guilty and responsible. I don't deserve a second chance."

"Of course you do," Billy said, taking a seat next to her on the bed and combing his hand through her hair. "Don't you still believe in God?" He wanted to know.

"I want to," she said softly. "I betrayed him too."

"God always forgives and forgets," Billy said. "You are now at a turning point in your life. Welcome God back and understand how much you're deeply loved despite your mistakes and faults," he encouraged her. "You can honor and love your parents despite their faults."

"This is so humiliating," Lenore told him. "I'm so ashamed."

"It should be humbling, not humiliating, Lennie," Billy told her. "If you want reconciliation, apologize, forgive yourself, and move on with your life."

"I don't know if I have the courage," she sighed. "I'm so afraid to face everybody."

"Everybody else is just like you," Billy said with comfort, continuing to stroke her hair. "People make mistakes, have broken pasts and open wounds. We may not be able to heal totally but we can get better."

"You think I can move on?" She asked.

"You already have," Billy smiled. "And now it's time to meet with your parents moving forward and spending time with them the way it should be and not the way it was. You can make the relationship stronger now by learning from the mistakes made. We can all be free from the hurt and resentment of the past."

Lenore sighed and looked into his eyes. "I don't deserve your kindness," she said. "I don't deserve your forgiveness."

Billy leaned into her and spontaneously kissed her, catching her off guard with the unexpected gesture. She flinched for a moment but then relented and kissed him back with meaning and desperation. Billy smiled into the kiss, happy that they were finally seriously doing this after all this lost time. He was the one she should have broken the rules with all along. He knew this was the natural evolution of their relationship.

Lenore felt a surge of emotions rush through her. She didn't think she'd ever feel anything again after the years of abuse and control she suffered but now she felt a strange new hopeful awareness. Could she actually be happy again? Did she really deserve a second chance? A do over as Billy put it? She was kissing Billy, a dream come true. Everything was suddenly clear and obvious. This was the way it was meant to be. This was truly her natural evolution.

Lenore felt tears streaming down her face as they continued to kiss on the bed. Billy gently put his hand to her cheeks and wiped them away as she stared into his eyes.

"I love you," Billy told her, breaking the kiss to speak. "Always have. Always will."

Her eyes widened and the tears began flowing again. "I…I thought you would never love me again…after what I did," she confessed

"I could never not love you," he replied with such genuine sincerity that Lenore almost fell off the bed.

Instead, she fell on her back on the bed and looked up at him expectedly. Billy glanced down at her, smiling warmly.

"I love you even with your flaws and faults," he said.

The tears were streaming down her cheeks again. "I love you too," she revealed. "Always have, always will."

He fell onto her, embracing her and letting her cry into his shoulder. She continued to cry all through their lovemaking, not protesting when he undressed her and watching expectedly as he undressed himself. She cried because he was so gentle and compassionate, giving and sharing, and she finally knew what true lovemaking was all about. All those years of abuse and power and struggle and unwanted advances and sexual assault disappeared as she let the only boy she ever loved make love to her the way she always thought it should be.

Later, when they were done, and she lay next to him cuddling naked, sticky with her tears and perspiration, she looked up into his eyes.

"There's only been five people in my life I've truly cared about," Lenore revealed. "Nancy. Audrey. You. And my parents. As much as I resented some of their restrictions, I've come to see these past few years that they really were my companions for all those years. We did so much together. I should have embraced that instead of rejecting it. I was such a fool."

"We learn from our experiences," Billy said.

"I'm ready to see my parents now," she announced.

"Great," Billy smiled with relief. Then he looked into her face with confusion. "You mean right now!?"

"Yes," she giggled, sitting up on the bed and staring into his face. "It's time."

"Maybe we should get dressed first," Billy joked.

She laughed and kissed him happily. "That's probably a reasonable rule," she agreed.
The natural evolution of Lenore Barrett had finally come full circle.