That Never Happened

It was the first day of my senior year at Hillsboro High and I was feeling pretty excited and hopeful. I had become a well known personality at school because of my football participation and because I had dated Prom Princess Katie McDougall for nearly two years before she moved away (and broke my heart!) at the end of junior year.

As much as I missed Katie, I was still feeling pretty good about senior year. The football team was really good and I was a big personality in a relatively small school. I was looking forward to riding the wave of senior knighthood all the way to the graduation ceremony.

I was walking down the hall on the first day of school with the guys picking up right where we left off at the end of junior year (except no Katie) when out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a girl standing alone along locker row. Her reddish brown hair is what initially grabbed my attention but then I did a double take when I saw the girl's face.

I stopped dead in my tracks and peered at her. She looked away but when I didn't move she glanced back with annoyance and then my mouth dropped open.

"Mabel?" I asked tentatively.

She didn't recognize me at first. Of course, I had grown about five inches and gained about sixty pounds since the last time she saw me. I no longer wore glasses and my face had cleared up. I kept looking at her and finally it came to her and she became flustered.

"Go away," she muttered, looking around awkwardly.

"Mabel!" I laughed, excited to see her. It had been five years since we were last together.

"Please don't talk to me," she begged. "Let's just pretend we don't know each other, okay?"

I was hurt by her standoffish reaction and I chewed on my lip trying to decide what the best thing to do was – honor her request and go catch up with the guys or try to pick up where we left off (although that was highly unlikely). Mabel didn't look all that much different from the last time I saw her except that she had grown up of course – but her face was the same and her hair was too.

"You're going to school here this year?" I asked with disbelief.

She tried to push past me but I reached out and stopped her by taking hold of her arm.

"Mabel," I said. "If you're new here, I can be your friend," I offered. "Show you around. Introduce you to people. Help you fit in."

"Did you ever tell anybody about me?" She worried. "I don't need that kind of reputation, thank you very much."

I made a 'cross my heart' sign over my chest. "Never mentioned it to anybody," I vowed.

She looked at me suspiciously.

"We can pretend none of that ever happened if you want," I suggested.

"None of that ever happened," She agreed forcefully. Then she broke from my hold and scampered down the hallway.

I watched her go with a mixture of perplexed disappointment and conflicted emotions.

Mabel Henshaw is the first girl I ever saw naked.

It was unexpected, it was bizarre and it was totally bohemian. My mother dragged me on a vacation I didn't want to attend. She was good friends with Mabel's mom as kids and the two moms tried to keep that friendship going in adulthood. The Henshaws lived in Miller City about thirty miles away and we'd see them on occasion. The kids were home schooled and they seemed to enjoy a sort of hippie type life style. They lived in a big old farm house with various animals in the barnyard and there always seemed to be people coming and going almost like it was a commune or something.

That particular summer we were invited to the Henshaw's cabin in the woods for a few days. My kid sister Ginny had become good friends with Mabel's kid sister Phyllis and that connection gave my mother a reason to spend more time with the family. Unfortunately, that also made me the odd guy out as I was the only boy among the four siblings (Mabel and Phyllis also had another kid sister named Alice) and while my mother let me skip visits to Miller City she wasn't about to leave me behind while she went on a vacation out of town. My father had to work but my mother didn't trust me being alone all day so I was forced to attend the mini-vacation in the woods.

So that was the set up as we drove to the Henshaw's hole in the wall cabin out in the middle of the nowhere. I sat sulking in the front seat for the entire ride but my mother basically ignored me, content on having a good time no matter what my mood happened to be. I was twelve years old and pissed off that I had to leave my friends and summer activities to hang out with a bunch of pre-teen girls in the woods. I wasn't sure what the deal was with Mr. Henshaw but he wasn't there when we arrived at the cabin.

How we found the place I'll never know. It was 427 miles from nowhere, deep in the woods. We followed a country round and turned off onto a dirt road that turned into a trail that turned into a path that the car barely fit on and suddenly in front of us loomed a hug log cabin. I hated it even before I saw it because my mother told us during the ride that the dump didn't have electricity or a bathroom.

"Huh?" Eleven year old confused Ginny asked from the back seat. "Where do we go?"

"The outhouse," my mother explained.

A frigin' outhouse !? Just shoot me now.

My mother parked our car behind the Hendshaw's Volvo station wagon and we dragged our luggage down the path to the cabin that sat overlooking a small marshy pond. There was a dock, a raft and a canoe, but nothing else. Even with the shade of the woods that encircled the cabin and pond, it was still hot and sticky.

Mrs. Henshaw greeted us wearing some sort of flimsy white sun dress and it was pretty obvious she wasn't wearing anything underneath. She had long dark black hair that was presently unkempt and wild looking. Even with my naïve, adolescent, untrained eyes I could see her nipples and a hint of a muff through the light fabric of her dress that flapped in the breeze and it was almost see through with the sun light upon it.

"Judith!" Mrs. Henshaw greeted my mother with a hug. "It's great to have you here!

And then it happened. Mabel, Phyllis and Alice came running up from the pond…none of them wearing any clothes!

My mother was caught off guard, Ginny started giggling and I nearly had a heart attack as I gawked at the three nude girls, especially Mabel who was the one I identified with the most because we were the same age and I usually gravitated toward her during visits even though I didn't know her well.

I knew there had to be something perverted about seeing twelve year old Mabel, eleven year old Phyllis and ten year old Alice totally naked but the three of them hardly blinked apparently not having an issue being nude in front of me. Phyllis was happy to see her friend Ginny and she told my sister to hurry up and come join them!

I'm not sure if my mother was too embarrassed to say anything, didn't want to wreck the vacation right off the bat by freaking out, or simply resigned herself to the situation and decided to accept the circumstances we found ourselves in but she quickly recovered from her initial shock and acted as if everything was perfectly normal.

Mrs. Henshaw led us into the cabin which had a large open living area, two bedrooms off of it, a small kitchenette area with a water pump, ancient gas powered ice box, and gas stove in the corner, and a large open loft above.

"There's plenty of room up there for you two," Mrs. Henshaw announced to me and Ginny. "Make yourselves at home."

Wait? I was sleeping in the same room with four girls, three of whom I just saw naked?

"Judith, you can have the other bedroom down here," Mrs. Henshaw continued as she started walking toward the door to the second bedroom.

My mother bent over close to my ear. "Just do what you think is right, dear," she whispered. "Whatever you're comfortable with." Then she followed her friend to the guest bedroom.

Ginny was giddy with excitement. She climbed the ladder to the loft and I reluctantly followed. The three girls were still outside. Ginny claimed a bunk and then started undressing.

"What the hell are you doing?" I asked in horror as I stood in the middle of the loft that featured six sets of double bunk beds built into the far wall.

"Getting naked," she said with a shrug. "I don't want to feel out of place."

I couldn't believe what was happening. Suddenly, my sweet and innocent sister was as naked as a jaybird and she didn't have a care in the world as she climbed down the ladder and ran outside to join the others.

There was no way in hell I was getting naked in front of girls! I had a hard enough time stripping down to take a shower after gym class and that was in a locker room full of guys!

I took the bunk farthest from the others, stuffing my bag underneath the bottom one. But then I wasn't sure what to do next. Hide out in the loft like some sort of anti-social freak? Venture back downstairs and outside like some sort of perverted voyeur? My mother's instruction to do what I thought was right and comfortable made me feel a little better and Ginny's total willingness to join the group attire was impressive but I was nowhere near as confident and relaxed as my sister.

I had brought a couple of books with me so I took one of them from my bag and slowly ventured down the loft ladder to the cabin's first floor. My mother was putting some of the groceries and other supplies she brought into the cupboards and ice box. She gave me a smile and a nod which further empowered me to do my own thing and not worry about it. I appreciated her sympathy for me finding myself in a truly strange situation and because she was giving me permission to be in the moment I didn't feel perverted, ashamed or guilty. Just awkward!

I went outside and tried not to look at anything noticeable as I found a tree stump to sit on and read my book. The girls were skylarking about laughing and fooling around, having a good time running around naked in the beauty of the natural surroundings. I guess it was understandable on one level but it was still extremely odd for me to try to comprehend such behavior.

I was a self-conscious skinny kid with goofy looking glasses and the start of acne on my face. I didn't know how to deal with girls who were dressed let alone those running around naked!

Mabel had long reddish brown hair with freckles. She was just starting to develop with small round tomato breasts and thin hair between her legs (not that I tried to notice). What captured my attention the most (not that I was looking) was a cute heart shaped mole on her right butt cheek. Phyllis had blond hair with just the hint of lumps on her chest and a few strands of hair down there. Alice was brown-haired and she hadn't started developing at all but she didn't' seem to care. I didn't want to look at my black haired sister feeling uncomfortable seeing her naked.

Later, when it cooled off, the girls got dressed and things felt more normal. We ate dinner at the picnic table inside the cabin and spent the evening playing board games while our mothers drank wine and chatted on the other side of the room. Mabel was fun to be around when she was wearing clothes. She was down to earth, good humored, good natured, and adapt at winning the various board games. I was dying to ask her why she wasn't embarrassed being seen naked by a boy but I didn't know how to bring the subject up.

The absolute worse part about the vacation was the smelly outhouse behind the cabin. I peed in the woods to avoid it and held going number two until I absolutely had to go and then I would rush into the shack and do what I needed to do as quickly as I could. Sleeping in the loft with the four girls was also kind of strange. I mean, what if I needed to fart?

The next day was more of the same - it was sunny and hot and eventually the four girls were naked again goofing off, splashing around in the pond, and sun bathing in the sun. Phyllis and Ginny razzed me to join them several times but I was simply too shy, insecure, timid and paranoid to even think about it. I was grateful that Mabel didn't give me a hard time.

I read most of my book that day and I also took the canoe out for a ride. Later, when she was dressed, Mabel went out on the canoe with me. The pond wasn't that big but it was still nice to get away from the cabin and feel independent and grown up out on the pond.

Ironically, it was Mabel's mother who wanted to talk about the situation I found myself in. Several times she came up to me where I was reading my book and she would mention the politics of feminism and body image even though I really didn't know what she was talking about. She continued to wear clothes that barely covered her body parts and once I nearly died from humiliation when I stepped out of the cabin and saw her standing in the pond up to her knees with her back to me, stark naked. I blushed and sneaked back into the cabin before she saw me.

That afternoon while I was reading my book on my tree stump, a nude Mabel approached me and asked if I wanted to go for another canoe ride. I tried my hardest to look her directly in the eyes.

"Could you put some clothes on?" I requested, trying not to blush.

She giggled and did what I asked and when we were out on the pond I finally mustered the courage to ask the one obvious question that had been burning my mind from the moment I saw her and her sisters coming up from the pond naked.

"Don't you care?" I asked.

"About what?" She asked from the front of the canoe.

"That I saw you without your clothes on."

"Am I supposed to?"

"Usually," I said sarcastically.

"I guess getting publicly naked isn't a big deal if you're used to it," she said.

"You do it often?" I asked with surprise.

"When we're up here," she said. "Sorry if you're weirded out by it."

"I wasn't expecting it," I confessed nervously. "I guess I'm a prude."

"You should have seen how white skinned we were when we first got here," Mabel said from her perch in the front of the canoe. "Now we're all as brown as Indians all over."

"You don't mind me seeing?" I asked with amazement.

"My mom says that going natural breeds a body-positive attitude that helps us come to terms with any body issues we have or might have in the future," Mabel explained. "She says we shouldn't worry about our external beauty but that we should be more concerned about our internal beauty being visible to others without hiding it underneath clothes because it will help our confidence."

I really didn't know what she was talking about and it sounded pretty flakey to me but I liked that she was talking to me about it.

When we got back from our interesting canoe ride and conversation, Mabel's mother once again broached the subject at hand when she found me alone.

"Remember, Jeremy, nudism and naturalism isn't about sensationalism or sexualization regarding the perception of women and their bodies," she said.

"I know," I said even though at twelve I didn't have a clue what she was saying except maybe warning me not to get a hard on looking at Mabel when she was naked.
"Nudity in these circumstances isn't sexual," Mrs. Henshaw continued. "Instead, it's quite natural. I hope you find yourself enlightened by our relaxed non-judgmental attitudes towards each other. When we're here, it's all about living our normal life but without clothes, concerns or insecurity. It's all about freedom and independence and self-expression."

"Okay," I said, even though it was the weirdest conversation I had with anybody's mother in my entire life.

We left the next day. My mother said she needed to get back to work but I knew that was a lie because I heard her tell my father she had the whole week off before we left for the cabin. I could only assume that she was uncomfortable having me around four naked pre-teen girls and that she didn't like Mrs. Henshaw's bohemian way of life out in the woods.

I had to admit I was disappointed to be leaving. Ginny wasn't happy with the unexpected change of plans and she grumbled as she stormed naked into the cabin to get dressed for the ride home. Mabel and her sisters, meanwhile, remained naked as my mother and I loaded up the car.

I wasn't sure how I was supposed to say goodbye to Mabel. A hug seemed inappropriate without her wearing clothes so I strategically headed for the car while giving a wave. Strangely, my last image of her was her waving farewell totally naked and then turning and walking back toward the pond and I got once last look at her mole on her fanny.

We hardly talked during the ride home until my mother finally brought the pink elephant in the room subject up.

"Maybe don't tell your father some of what happened at the cabin," she suggested nervously.

"Why not?" Ginny asked innocently from the back seat.

"Because girls aren't supposed to be running around naked in front of boys," I said. "Duh."

"Oh come on, you're my brother," Ginny laughed. "Who cares?"

"Mabel and the others aren't my sisters," I pointed out.

"Oh," Ginny realized after a few moments of thought. "Yeah, maybe Daddy doesn't need to know that part."

And we never talked about it again. As far as I can remember, my mother never visited with the Henshaws after that either. My mother never mentioned Mrs. Henshaw in any context. It took me a while, but I eventually stopped thinking about the naked Mabel Henshaw and her sisters, not to mention Mrs. Henshaw's bare ass that I saw too.

I think my mother worried about me for a while, fearful that perhaps I had become sexualized at an earlier age than usual for reasons she could have and should have prevented. I never asked, but I'm pretty sure she thought she was wrong to bring me on that vacation and that I should have stayed home. Of course, I'm also convinced that Mom had no idea Mrs. Henshaw was a hippie-dippie gypsy type free spirit who didn't care if some twelve year old boy saw her daughters in the raw.

As far as I could tell, I wasn't permanently scared, perverted or messed up as a result of those few memorable days in the woods. I think I became the same teenager I would have otherwise become even if I hadn't seen Mabel and her sisters naked. In fact, I think I was a little bit more confident, bold, and secure around girls my age as I aged because Mabel taught me that beauty wasn't just skin deep because when the clothes were removed there still had to be something interesting to relate to besides the nudity. When I thought about Mabel, I didn't think about her developing naked body or that memorable mole on her ass cheek (well, not too much anyway!) - I remembered her smile, her honesty, and her willingness to be herself in front of me.

And now, out of the blue, all these years later, Mabel Henshaw was back in my life. She was different though. I could see that she had changed drastically. Gone was the easy going care free attitude that allowed her to prance around naked in front of me. Now she was shut down, embarrassed, paranoid and extremely self-conscious and that made me feel sad. I wondered what had happened to her.

I didn't see Mabel again until fourth period when she walked into my Civics and The Media class, looking a little bewildered and lost, her schedule in her hand as she glanced around. She saw me sitting at my desk, hesitated for a moment, and then reluctantly took a seat next to me.

'Finding your way around okay?" I asked politely.

"Sort of," she answered.

"Remember, I'm here whenever you need me," I smiled.

The fact that she sat next to me was a hopeful sign but I wasn't going to come on strong or force her to let me be her chaperone. She seemed overwhelmed by it all and I felt sorry for her. I also wondered what her story was. Did her family move from Miller City? Why wasn't she home schooled anymore? I also noticed that she was wearing a modest and conservative outfit – a plaid skirt with a yellow blouse.

Mr. Diamond was teaching the class. I had him for History sophomore year and enjoyed his teaching skills. He gave an overview of the class and the objectives for the semester. It seemed like it was going to be an interesting course. The bell rang and I walked Mabel out of the class.

"What do you have next?" I asked.

"Lunch," she answered.

"Me too," I smiled. "Would you like me to show you the wonderful world of our school cafeteria!?"

"Okay," she said shyly and I walked her to the lunch room.

I gave Mabel a quick tour of the various food stations and walked her through the cashier line. I noticed some of Katie's posse sitting at their usual table and figured I might as well introduce Mabel to the gang. They were a good clique and I knew they'd help the new girl out, perhaps even seeing her as a replacement for the missing Katie.

"Ladies, this is Mabel Henshaw," I said, walking Mabel to the Katie table. "It's her first day and I know you'll welcome her with welcome arms."

Mabel shot me a surprised yet appreciative glance before taking a seat in the very chair Katie once occupied. I nodded to Katie's friends before heading for my table with the guys.

"Geez, Ingelson, McDougall ain't even cold in her grave yet and you're hanging out with the hot new chick?" Fuller harassed when I took my seat.

"Can't waste time missing the old," I joked, honoring Mabel's wish that nobody know about our past by pretending this was our first meeting.

"She don't talk much," Andrews observed. "She's in my Sociology class. Didn't say a peep."

"It's tough being new," I said. "Give her a few days. Especially now that she's hooked up with Katie's girls."

It was weird not having Katie around but we had agreed when she left in June that we would make a clean break of it so neither of us would feel obligated to the other and we could be free to see other people if we wished. We cared about each other and had a fun and close relationship but we were both acute enough to know that it was over with her moving clear across the country.

I bumped into Mabel one more time that day for seventh period study hall. It was held in the auditorium but I explained to her that she could get a library pass if she wanted a quieter place to hang out. That's what I usually did and I'd be happy to have her come along if she was interested. She thanked me for my offer but because it was the first day of school she didn't have any homework so there was no need.

We were sitting away from most of the other kids and I figured this was our chance to talk.

"Did Wanda and Darby welcome you okay?" I asked, referencing Katie's friends.

"Yes, they're very nice," Mabel replied, fidgeting in her seat. "Thanks for doing that for me."

"You'll have fun with them," I predicted. "They're good people."

"It would be nice to have some acquaintances," Mabel said. "Sorry about Katie," she added.

"Oh, they told you about her already, huh?"

"California is a long way away."

I nodded in sad agreement. "I'll never see her again," I sighed with resignation.

"Never say never," Mabel offered.

"That's true," I smirked. "I never thought I'd see you again."

She blushed and glanced away.

"So, what brings you here, Mabel?" I asked. "Did you family move from Miller City?"

"No, they're still there," she revealed. "I'm not," she added mysteriously.

"How come?" I wondered.

"Because I wanted out," she said, her voice haggard. "My aunt took me in. She lives here in Hillsboro."

"Did something happen?" I feared.

"Plenty," she mumbled.

"Well, I'm glad you're here," I said cheerfully.

"I'm not the same person you knew before," she was quick to point out, sounding meek and uncertain.

"Yeah, I kind of figured that part out," I said.

"I just don't want you getting the wrong idea," she clarified

"I understand," I said. "But I'll be around if you ever need anything."

And that's how I left it. The next few days went by. Mabel sat next to me in Civics and the Media and I'd see her in the lunch room, sometimes exchanging a hello. Periodically we'd go to the library during seventh period study hall together but we didn't talk all that much. She seemed to be accepted into the Wanda-Darby clique but Wanda told me that Mabel kept to herself and didn't have a whole to say.

I saw Mabel getting off the school bus one morning and I stopped her. "Hey, I have my own car," I let her know. "I'd be glad to give you a ride in the mornings so you don't have to ride with the freshman and sophomores."

She considered the offer as we walked into the school. "Maybe," she agreed having thought about it, realizing that riding the school bus as a senior was pretty lame.

"Where do you live?" I asked.
"27 Hillberry Lane," she said.

"I know where Hillberry is," I said. "I'll pick you up at 7:30, okay?"

"If you don't mind," she said, giving me a nervous smile as we walked toward locker row.

Because she was H for Henshaw and I was I for Ingelson our lockers were only about five apart and I was glad I saw her there several times a day most days. By now, Mabel seemed to have settled into the school routine although she struck me as timid and shy, not the free spirited care free young girl I remember running around naked at the cabin.

I wanted to respect Mabel's boundaries but it struck me that she was a bit of a loner even when she was with Wanda and Darby. I was preoccupied with football most of the time and because I was giving Mabel her space I wasn't interacting with her that much but I decided that our morning rides to school would be my time to conduct meaningful conversations with her. I hadn't told my mother about the return of Mabel yet, not sure how she might take the news. Ginny was attending the Catholic High School of all places (she found the course work more challenging) and I wondered how Sister Margaret the Principal would react if she knew one of her star students had run around nude in public with three other girls when she was eleven.

I had little trouble finding Mabel's aunt's house the next morning. I had been in the neighborhood several times before and recognized the house, pulling into the cement driveway and waiting a moment for Mabel to emerge from the house. She looked like she was a person in the witness protection program when she came out, glancing around as if she was being watched and walking with her head down to avoid eye contact as she approached.

She climbed into my car and dropped her back pack between her legs in the passenger's seat.

"Good morning," I said pleasantly with a smile.

"Hey," she said softly.

Such a sad girl. I wanted to ask her what in the hell happened to her but there was no point being a demanding jerk. I needed to earn Mabel's confidence and trust and to do that I needed to slowly prove to her that I was an okay guy that she could rely on as a friend. I gave her an update on my family during our first ride to school together – letting her know that my mother was still a nurse at the local hospital and my father managed the Super 8 Motel in Greenville.

"I never met your Dad," Mabel revealed.

"Oh yeah?" I asked with surprise.

"I was only to your house once or twice and he was never there," she said.

"Yeah, we usually visited at your house," I recalled.

I told her that my sister Ginny was an honor roll student at the catholic school and I asked after Phyllis.

"She's a mother," Mabel informed me.

"What?" I asked with shock.

"She had a baby a few months ago," Mabel confirmed. "Barely sixteen."

"Oh….wow….." I really didn't know what to say, not wanting to come across as too judgmental. "Well, how's Alice?" I asked hopefully.

"She's a pothead," Mabel revealed. "She's stoned all the time."

"Gee," I stumbled.

"Well, my father grows it in the back yard and under sunlamps in the house so who can be surprised?"

I was beginning to get an idea why Mabel 'wanted out' as she put it that day although I had a sneaky suspicion I hadn't heard half the story of her life yet.

Luckily, we arrived at the school to end the weird conversation and I tried to act as if everything was fine even though I understood why Mabel was so morose these days. We walked into the school together but soon got separated by people and socializing – as a football player with the pack of guys always around and girls interested in shooting the breeze, I was always in demand but Mabel tended to melt into the shadows unnoticed unless Wanda and Darby went out of their way to include her in their gabbing.

Mabel came into Civics and The Media and took a seat in her chair. I noticed that she seemed to be in a better mood when she was in class. She seemed to enjoy the learning environment.

"Is this your first year not being home schooled?"

"My aunt works full time," she said. "I had no choice."

"Well, you know, school is more than just classroom time," I told her. "Take advantage of the social opportunities. Join a club. Meet people. Run for student council. Come to my football games with Wanda and Darby."

She looked at me and for the first time since the cabin days I saw a slight smile on her face. "I didn't realize you were the student counselor here," Mabel smirked.

"I just hate seeing you so..." I tried to search for a word that wouldn't offend her. "Not yourself."

"People change over five years," she pointed out. "I'm just different now."

Mr. Diamond started the class so I didn't have a chance to respond to her response.

I thought about what Mabel said and when the bell rang at the end of the period I walked her to lunch.

"Do you think I've changed?" I asked. "Since you last knew me?"

Mabel looked at me like I was a total doof. "You were about as socially inept then as I am now," she cracked.

I couldn't help but laugh, taking her remark as a compliment.

"But I told you none of that happened back then," She reminded me with a pained look on her face.

"Right," I agreed.

Suddenly, she looked embarrassed, timid and shy again and her smirk was gone. I let Mabel sit with Wanda, Darby and the other girls as her refuge while I went and goofed off with the guys on the other side of the room.

Mabel and I went to the library for seventh period study hall.

"Will you come watch my game Friday night?" I asked.

"Did Katie go to your games?" She asked.

"She was a cheerleader," I sighed. "That was our initial connection."

"Of course," Mabel replied, rolling her eyes. "How cliché is that!?"

"But that was what I was trying to tell you in Civics," I replied. "That's how I got socially involved."

"Playing football?"

I nodded my head yes. "I was involved in something bigger than myself," I explained. "I was part of the team. I got to be somebody I otherwise wouldn't have been. And over time, as I trained and grew and got better, I established my own identity within the team and that helped with my confidence. Katie never would have looked twice if I didn't make my presence known on the team."
"Why do you care if I come to your game?"

"Because you'll become part of something bigger than yourself too," I said hopefully. "Plus, I'd like to see you there. It would mean a lot to me if you cheered me on."

"My presence would hardly make a difference," she said.

"It would to me," I replied.

She gave me a funny look, like she couldn't believe I had said such a thing.

I smiled in reply. "I've got to be honest with you, Mabel," I said.

"Please don't bring up..."

"No, no, not that," I assured her. "It's about Katie."

"Oh."

"We both made a clean break and promised to move on at the end of junior year and I showed up here on the first day acting like I was over her, but I've got to tell you I was a basket case all summer," I confessed.

"I heard you two were the in couple," she said.

"So when I saw you on the first day it was like I was given a do over," I said. "Sure, Katie's gone and that sucks, but hey - look – it's Mabel Henshaw!"

"We both know why you were happy to see me," she said unhappily

"It was your smile," I told her.

She rolled her eyes cynically. "Yeah, right."

"Your smile is what I've always remembered all these years," I said. "And I remember how that smile made me feel. You're right - I was socially inept back then. But you made me feel like I belonged. I loved those nights when we played board games and you always won. And making shmores over the fire pit. And sharing the bunk room made me feel special too."

"None of that ever happened," she said, looking away with pain on her face.

"What happened to you?" I asked.

"Finish your homework," she replied and our conversation was over.

As it turns out, Mabel went to our football game that Friday night. I saw her sitting in the bleachers with Wanda, Darby and the other girls during warm ups and it made me feel really good knowing she was there. I was disappointed that she was gone by the time we walked off the field after our win against Riverside but just knowing she had come was good enough for me.

I only worked at Fontaine's on the weekends during football season. My parents wanted me to be responsible for gas money and insurance on the car and I also liked having my own spending money so I tended to jam as many hours as I could around homework and sleep on the weekends in the fall which didn't leave a whole lot of time for socializing.

It was Sunday evening and I was bagging with Donna Marsh as the cashier when I saw Mabel coming to the line with a professional looking well dressed attractive woman whom I assumed was Mabel's aunt. Her hair was well styled and she was wearing make up even though it was a Sunday evening and she was in casual clothes (that looked expensive and from some famous designer). I could see the resemblance of Mabel's mother in her aunt's face but I was pretty sure that the similarities ended there

"Hi, Mabel," I said enthusiastically as she began to unload the grocery cart onto the counter belt.

She glanced up and seemed surprised to see me. "Oh, um, Hi Jeremy," she said awkwardly.

"What'd you think of the game?" I asked proudly.

"Congratulations on the victory," she said but I could tell she really didn't have any emotional interest in the actual outcome.

"Thanks," I smiled.

I noticed that Mabel's aunt was giving me a curious look and I wondered if Mabel was going to make the introductions. I didn't want to embarrass Mabel by being presumptuous enough to do it myself so I started bagging the groceries without making any further remarks. It was Mabel's aunt who extended the conversation.

"Who's your friend, Mabe?" She asked her niece with interest.

'Oh, er, this is Jeremy Iberson from school," Mabel replied. "Jeremy, this is my Aunt Kristen."

"Iberson?" Aunt Kristen inquired with interest. "Judith and Mort's son?"

"That's me," I confirmed.

"Hmm," Aunt Kristen replied with a sly smile on her face. "Isn't it a small world?"

"Our mothers are no longer friends," Mabel said with ice in her voice.

"Well, that's certainly not Judith's fault, dear," Aunt Kristen replied with understanding. "I was at your parents' wedding, Jeremy. It was a very nice ceremony."

"I'm glad," I said politely.

"Is this the boy giving you rides in the morning, Mabe?" Aunt Kristen asked.

"Yes, and he's the one who introduced me to Wanda and the others," Mabel revealed.

"Well, thank you so much for helping Mabel fit in at school, Jeremy," Aunt Kristen said with sincerity.

"My pleasure," I said warmly. "It's great having Mabel here."

"We'll have to have you over for dinner sometime," Aunt Kristen smiled.

I put the last of the bags in their cart and Mabel and Aunt Kristen strolled off.

"Say Hi to your mom for me," Aunt Kristen called back.

Of course, I hadn't told my mother about Mabel being back in my life. I still wasn't sure what the whole story was between her and Mabel's mom and I didn't want to cause any undue stress for her by bringing the subject up even though sooner or later I knew I'd have to.

Mabel seemed annoyed when I picked her for school in the morning.

"What's up?" I asked, picking up on her mood.

"My Aunt wants to have you over for dinner tomorrow night," she sighed.

"And that's a bad thing?" I asked, slightly offended.

"No, I guess not," Mabel replied. "I just…" Her voice trailed off.

"Just what?" I asked as I drove the car.

"I just want to keep my school life separate from my other life," she said with a groan.

"What other life is that?" I asked.

"You know what I mean, Jeremy."

"Do I?"

"Look, my life is in a state of transition right now," she explained. "I'm still trying to settle in with my Aunt and get used to all the change that's going on for me. I don't want to complicate matters."

"I'm a complication?"

"You're a reminder of my past," she sighed.

"And that's a bad thing?"

"Usually."

I decided not to continue the conversation because I knew it would take us into the that never happened area and I knew that wasn't something Mabel wanted to talk about.

"I have football practice but I make it around 6:30," I let Mabel know.

"Fine," she groaned with resignation. "I'll let Kristen know."

Mabel mingled into the crowded hallway when we got to school and I let her have her space. I respected her feelings and mood and I tried not to take it personally. We barely talked during Civics and I left her alone during lunch. She stayed behind during 7th period study when I went to the library and it because obvious she was keeping her distance from me. Mabel was still distant when I picked her up on Tuesday and we pretty much repeated the same pattern as the day before. I figured I could take it until I arrived for dinner and then Mabel would have to talk to me in front of her Aunt!

I showed up at Mabel's with a house plant in my hands hoping that would help warm Mabel up a little. Aunt Kristen was thrilled by the gesture and I was impressed with her house. I would learn during the course of dinner that Kristen was a successful executive in one of the corporate insurance companies in Springdale. It was a long daily commute but she liked the job and the perks it brought, including the ability to travel – especially as a single woman nearing forty. Aunt Kristen's house was attractive in its appearance and interior design, a far cry from the old from the old drafty, dumpy, communal Henshaw farmhouse I remember with its broken furniture, slivery wooden floors and cracked windows.

Mabel didn't have a lot to say so it was Kristen who carried the majority of the evening's conversation, telling me about some of her trips and how nice it was to have Mabel living with her now, and telling me stories about my mother in her younger days which I found interesting. We chatted over a delicious lasagna dinner with salad and bread sticks and near the end of the meal Kristen finally addressed Mabel's lack of enthusiasm and participation.

"Mabel tends to get moody," Kristen said to me but I didn't want to get caught in the middle of those two's issues so I quickly changed the subject to my football participation, sensing the silent underbelly of tension and stress between Mabel and her Aunt.

Kristen seemed like a nice lady but I didn't know the history of Mabel's relationship with her and I didn't want to make any assumptions that may or may not have been true. I was kind of relieved when we were done eating because Mabel's mood seemed to be getting darker as the evening wore on. We helped Kristen clean up and wash the dishes and then Kristen suggested to Mabel that she show me her room.

"You've done such a good job making it your own," Kristen said.

I got the feeling that Mabel really didn't want me in her room but she motioned for me to follow her anyway and we went upstairs. Mabel's room was comfortable and pleasant, painted in bright colors with several stuffed animals occupying the room. Her bed had a bright cover and there were some positive affirmation type posters on her wall. I complimented her on her room's appearance and then sat in the seat built into the window. Mabel sat on the side of her bed, still looking annoyed and unhappy.

"Something going on between you and your Aunt?" I asked.

She was surprised by the question. "Of course not," she frowned. "Kristen rescued me. I will always be grateful and indebted to her kindness, compassion and willingness to take me in."

"So why are you so frumpy?" I asked and then I remembered her initial complaint. "Oh, you're mad at me," I realized. "Because I'm seeing your other life."

"I don't like it that you know my secrets," Mable admitted tartly.

"So, this is what it's been all about from the first day of school," I said. "You're afraid people are going to find out."

"Of course," She groaned.

"I would never tell," I promised her.

"People could find out in other ways," she worried.

"Geez, Mabel, you're not Lindsey Lohan," I laughed. "I really don't think most people are paying that much attention."

"Kids like to gossip," Mabel said. "Especially about new kids."

"Well, you're not really the new kid anymore," I said. "You're part of Wanda and Darby's crew so I think you're pretty safe. This isn't Mean Girls."

Mabel chewed on her lower lip for a moment. "Maybe I have been a little paranoid," she admitted.

"Are you ever going to tell me what happened?" I asked quietly.

"My family's nuts," Mabel replied. "What else is there to know?"

Her statement came so suddenly, so bluntly, and so honestly that I was momentarily caught off guard.

I peered at her waiting for her to volunteer more information.

"My family's been broken for a long time," She said painfully. "Everything became so convoluted that I don't even know what the truth is anymore."

"Maybe it doesn't even matter," I suggested. "You're out of it now. You're here."

"Strangers were always coming and going into our house," Mabel complained bitterly. "Ex hippies and weirdoes and addicts and perverts. When I was young, I really didn't notice or care but then things started getting really crazy and I started becoming aware of the dysfunction, and crisis, and chaos and I found it disdainful. I was maturing physically and I didn't feel safe in my own house. My parents weren't parenting and their lifestyle choices were putting me and my sisters in danger."

"I didn't know," I said.

She gave me a deadpan look. "You didn't think the farm was out of whack?"

"A little weird maybe," I confessed.

"Well, trust me, it got a lot weirder," she sighed.

"You're out of there," I pointed out. "Can't you forgive them their sins?"

"How can I forgive them for putting me in harm's way over and over again?" She countered bitterly. "They knew what they were doing."

"You got out of there, Mabel," I repeated.

"Because I finally dared to stand up to them," Mabel said. "I had to confront them, threaten them, even fight them. My mother is off her rocker. My father is in his own world, oblivious to the realities around him. Neither are all mentally there and they're both dangerously unfit."

I was surprised to hear her rant so emotionally and personally and I suddenly understood her moodiness and frumpiness. It sounded like she had been through hell.

"My upbringing had a great impact and influence on me and not necessarily in a good way," she continued. "My lack of confidence and optimism and my sense of shame stems from their disregard for conventional standards of behavior. Now I have to figure out what normal behaviors, standards and norms really are."

'I think you're in the right place for that," I smiled.

"A normal sense of family would have given me the skills to make better choices," Mabel told me. "Being half-assed homeschooled has left me feeling stupid. Only because I self-educated myself with books am I able to survive academically at Hilslboro High. I don't socialize because I'm hold up here trying to figure my schoolwork out."

"I can help you," I offered. "We can study together."

"My mother basically left it up to me to figure it all out," Mabel sighed.

"Why would she do that?" I asked.

"Because she's crazy," Mabel answered with authority. "By the time I was thirteen I knew there was something wrong but I was too young and scared to figure out what it was. Why was my mother so fascinated meeting new people? Why were they smoking pot in front of us? Why was being naked in mixed company a good thing? Why did both my parents take on lovers while living in the same house as a couple even though they never married? Why were they always taking off, leaving us kids behind to fend for ourselves?"

"I don't know," I confessed but I was interested that she finally mentioned the pink elephant between us that supposedly never happened.

"I don't think my mother could deal with you guys running around naked in front of me," I revealed.

"She never said anything," Mabel remarked.

"Yeah, it was never mentioned again after we left," I said. "And we never saw you guys again either."

"There was a girl down the road that I used to visit sometimes," Mabel recalled. "Maddy. Or Mattie. I forget. She was my only normal friend. She was horrified when I got back from the pond and I told her about us being naked in front of you."

"That never happened," I said, hoping to let her off the hook.

"That's when I first started thinking about maybe things weren't quite right in my family," Mabel said, ignoring my last remark. She took in a deep breath and looked at me. "So, anyway, I apologize if I come across as a moody bitch sometimes. I hope you can understand why it's so hard for me being with you again."

"Actually, I don't," I admitted.

"I'm ashamed of what happened at the pond," she said with defeat and frustration in her voice. "I'm embarrassed every time I see you."

"You have nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about, Mabel," I assured her. "You didn't do anything wrong. I'll admit it was the weirdest few days of my life but it was also among the best few days of my life too. I really meant what I said before - about your smile, and hanging out with you playing board games, and sharing the bunk room. I never felt as close and bonded to a girl as I did during those few days."

"Come on, you had Katie."

"I never saw Katie naked," I revealed.

Mabel was surprised and I could tell she didn't believe me.

"For all her beauty and popularity as a cheerleader and all the stereotypes that came with it, she was deep down an old fashioned, traditional, virtuous person and she made it clear she wasn't ready to have a physical relationship with me or anybody else. She was modest and humble and sure we fooled around but we always had our clothes on."

"Wow," Mabel remarked with amazement. "You don't hear that sort of stuff very often anymore."

"Nobody knows the truth but you," I said. "Most people assumed we were doing it just because I'm the jock and she was the pretty cheerleader and we played the roles pretty well."

Mabel stared at me with a dumbfounded look on her face.

"You're the only girl I've ever seen naked," I whispered. "Well, you and our sisters that is," I added sheepishly.

Mabel blushed and looked away like she always did but then she slowly looked back at me and our eyes met. We looked at each other for a long time with silent understanding and suddenly I knew that things were going to be okay between us.

"I should probably get home," I let her know.

"Sure," she said with understanding as she stood from the bed.

"Thanks for having me over," I said as I left the window seat and started for the door. "I'll see you in the morning."

"Okay," she agreed as we walked down the stairs together.

Aunt Kristen met us at the bottom of the stairs and I thanked her for the wonderful meal.

"You're quite welcome, Jeremy," Aunt Kristen said with a smile. "You're welcome here anytime."

Things did get better between Mabel and me. She was less moody and embarrassed around me. She didn't walk around with her eyes toward the ground so much anymore. She seemed to be more assertive and involved in Wanda and Darby's pack. She came to my football games (even the away ones!). We went to the 7th period library together most days. I helped her with her school work. We partnered on a Civics and the Media project that included a trip to the Greenville radio station to conduct interviews with some of the on-air personalities.

In some ways, Mabel had become my replacement Katie (except we weren't actually dating). I liked being in her company and we got along well together. There weren't any expectations or pressures and we felt comfortable when we spent time together. We didn't talk about her family too much - occasionally Mabel would make a snide remark about something one of her parents said or did or she'd express concern about her sisters - but we never talked about the pond.

There was one piece of unfinished business I needed to deal with though. Sooner or later, I was going to have to come clean with my mother and let her know (for better or worse) about Mabel. I wasn't sure how she'd react but I knew it would be better if she heard it from me first instead of bumping into us together around town somewhere. Besides, I had a few questions to ask regarding the history of the Henshaws.

I took my mother out for Sunday breakfast at Johnny C's Diner before one of my marathon shifts at Fontaine's. My mother was tickled to be going out with me but she knew there had to be a reason for my invite. We made small talk until our food was delivered to the booth and then my mother got serious.

"Okay, what's going on?" She asked with her usual uncanny insight.

"Huh?" I asked, playing dumb.

"You obvious brought me here to tell me something or ask me something or confess something to me," she said suspiciously. "Which one is it and what do you have to say?"

I grinned, amused to be found out so easily by my all-knowing mother who sat in the booth with class and confidence eyeing her son with interest.

"What's the story with the Henshaws?" I bluntly asked.

"The Henshaws!?" My mother reacted with unexpected surprise. "You brought me here to talk about the Henshaws!?

"Yeah," I said openly. "I know you were friends with the mother...I forget her name."

"Rita," my mother told me. "We grew up together," she said fondly, reflecting back on her earlier life. "She made me laugh. We had a good time. She was always such a free spirit. I liked her spontaneity. There was never anything boring about being with Rita Henshaw. "

"Didn't she become kind of...eccentric?" I asked.

My mother laughed. "Oh, that's one way you could describe her," she said diplomatically.

"Why did you stay friends with her?"

"Because we were friends," my mother said. "She came to my wedding. She had her girl around the same time I had you. We were young parents together. I'm thinking that's what started her straying off the reservation. Some sort of bizarre postpartum reaction that changed her core essence."

"Well, wasn't her husband...or boyfriend...or significant other...or whatever the hell he was...kind of...eccentric too?" I asked.

"Definitely," my mother agreed. "He certainly didn't help things."

"But you stayed friends with her anyway," I said.

"Yes, I kept hoping I'd be able to help her," my mother said. "Hoping she'd snap out of it. Grow up a little. Take her responsibilities of parenthood more seriously. I was probably in some sort of state of denial as the years went on. I was loyal and I didn't want to give up on a long term friend like that."

"So, what happened?" I asked. "They just sort of dropped out of our lives."

"I really don't want to talk about it, Jeremy," my mother said, clearly uncomfortable now.

"I'm almost eighteen, Mom," I reminded her. "I think I can handle the truth."

"I think you know what happened," my mother muttered.

"Ah, the pond," I said, realizing my mother had the same hang up that Mabel did about that memorable experience that nobody talked about.

Mom ordered a refill on her coffee and she sucked in a huge breath. "I never should have brought you there," she sighed. "Worse mistake I ever made as a parent."

"It wasn't that bad," I said sincerely.

"I thought you brought me here to talk about Katie," my mother remarked. "That you were going to run off to California to be with her or that she was pregnant."

I laughed and blushed at the same time. "Nothing like that, Mom."

"So what made you think about Rita Henshaw?"

"Mabel's attending Hillsboro High this year," I announced.

"Oh really!?" My mother said with obvious surprise.

"She lives here with her Aunt now," I said.

"Kristen?" My mother nodded her head with approval. "She always had her head on straight."

"The rest of the family isn't doing so well but Mabel seems to have her act together," I said.

"I'm glad to hear it," my mother smiled.

"We've been hanging out some," I added. "I showed her around, took her under my wings, that sort of stuff."

"Well, good for you," my mother grinned. "It's probably helped you not miss Katie so much."

"I guess," I said, although I was surprised to realize that I didn't think about Katie so much anymore.

"Well, just do whatever feels right for you," My mother advised. "Whatever you're comfortable with."

I smiled, knowing that's pretty much what she told me to do when we were at the pond.

"And be sure to bring her by sometime soon," My mother added. "I'd love to see her."

With my mother duly informed of Mabel Henshaw being back in my life, I let Mabel know that she was welcomed at my house any time soon. We spent a lot of time at Mabel's place doing school work, usually at night after supper and I figured it might be nice to mix it up some. Mabel seemed hesitate at first but I let her know that my mother wanted to see her so Mabel finally acquiesced and we stopped by my house late one afternoon after an early football practice.

My mother was thrilled to see Mabel and she welcomed her into our house with a hug and all sorts of uplifting comments. Interestingly, the three of us avoided the subject of Mabel's family and the pond, concentrating on Mabel's new life in Hillsboro and how her Aunt Kristen was doing. It was a pleasant and relaxing visit and I was glad that Mabel had finally come.

Our house was much more lived in as far as its appearance went as compared to Kristen's tidy and artsy house. We had furniture that could use replacing and junk lying around here and there but it was our home. I brought Mabel to my room which was a bit of a mess so I quickly spiffed it up, shoving discarded clothes under the bed and picking up the trash I'd left tossed around.

We were reviewing some of our homework with the door open when my sister Ginny walked by having just returned home. She glanced in as she strolled past and stopped short when she saw that I had a girl with me, something that hadn't happened since Katie moved away.

"Well, hello!" Ginny said enthusiastically, excited to see a new girl hanging out with her brother.

Ginny had grown up and matured well, a serious and dedicated student but a down to earth person who was quite personable and friendly.

"Ginny, you probably remember Mabel," I said, trying to be low key and matter of fact.

Ginny did a double take and gawked at Mabel. "Oh my God! Mabel!" My sister shrieked. "I don't believe it!"

Mabel stood from the chair and accepted Ginny's powerful hug.

"It's so great to see you!" Ginny exclaimed. "You look great! Wow!"

"Thanks," Mabel said sheepishly.

"God," Ginny realized when she started taking it all in. "I haven't thought about you guys in a long time. How's Phyllis and Alice doing?"

"Not so great," Mabel sighed.

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

"Phyllis had a baby and Alice is a bit of a stoner," I explained.

"Holy shit," Ginny replied. "Wow, I didn't see that coming."

"But Mabel is doing great at Hillsboro High," I beamed.

"That's great!" Ginny enthused. "Wow, so you guys are together?"

"We're friends," Mabel said awkwardly.

"That's cool," Ginny smiled.

"Since you're here, I'd like to apologize to you," Mabel said shyly.

"Apologize?" Ginny was confused. "For what?"

"For forcing you to get naked with us at the pond," Mabel said quietly.

"Forced?" Ginny burst out laughing. "Are you kidding? Nobody made me do anything. I thought it was great! Nobody even asked me. I just tore my clothes off and joined you guys. It was crazy wild fun! I've never been that decadent again," she said. "I bet some of the kids I go to school with now at St Anne's would be shocked to know I ran around bare-assed out in nature for two whole days!"

I couldn't help but laugh at my sister's freeing honesty.

"I wish we could do it again," Ginny added with a wink before leaving my room.

Mabel gave me a perplexed look. "I wasn't expecting that," she admitted.

"I think what Ginny was trying to tell you is don't worry about it so much," I smiled.

"Maybe," Mabel realized, looking strangely relieved for some reason.

There was a subtle change in Mabel's attitude and outlook after that encounter with my sister. She seemed to let go of some of her shame, embarrassment and weirdness about the pond and as time went on things between us became more comfortable and relaxed. Eventually, Mabel forgot all about the pond (or at least it never came up again) and our friendship grew stronger, almost as if the pond really did never happen and we picked up where we left off before the pond visit.

In some ways, Mabel sort of replaced Katie in my life, at least as far as having a female companion even if it wasn't romantic in nature. Wanda, Darby and the rest of that pack had fully accepted Mabel as one of them and she was happy to fit into her new role. We started hanging out as a group - me and some of the guys, and Wanda, Darby, Mabel and some of the other girls and it became a fun senior group as the year progressed.

We lost to Greenville in the big Thanksgiving Day football rivalry football game and just like that my schoolboy sports career was over. I was surprised when Mabel decided to join the swim team having never competitively swam before but Wanda talked her into the commitment mostly as a chance to try something new.

"It's really just a peer group socialization opportunity," Mabel told me. "I doubt I'll actually get in the water during a meet."

Mabel joining the swim team gave me a chance to root her and the swim team on which was a good thing and it didn't hurt my social life either as most of the swimmers appreciated my cheering support.

There was a school Christmas pageant and I was part of the crew. Mabel attended with her friends and we all went out for ice cream afterwards. Mabel came over to our house on Christmas Eve with Aunt Kristen for corn chowder and eggnog. I gave her a swimming medallion for a present - my gesture caught her off guard but I think she appreciated me thinking of her.

With football season over, I picked up more hours at Fontaine's - especially over the Christmas school vacation so that kept me busy but I still found time to hang out with Mabel and the gang when time and schedules allowed. My pal Swag-man had a relatively controlled and limited safe New Year's Eve Party with adult supervision and chaperones but I spent most of the evening in Mabel's company and we were together to bring the New Year. Ironically the previous New Year's Eve was when Katie told me her family would be moving at the end of the school year so that celebration was muted and conflicted. This year felt new and hopeful for some reason - maybe because of the newness that Mabel brought into my life.

We returned to school for the second half of the year and Mabel surprised me when she decided to try out for the spring musical. For a kid who arrived at Hillsboro shy, reserved and a bit of a wallflower Mabel sure was blooming as the year went on. I agreed to work on the crew so I could be with her on the project.

"You're so nice to me," Mabel smiled happily. "I don't know how this year would have worked out if you hadn't been willing to be there for me."

I raised an eyebrow and grinned. "You're making it fun for me too," I said.

The Valentine's Dance was coming up and Mabel and I agreed to go together "as friends". Wanda told me that most people assumed we were together anyway which was why nobody asked Mabel for a date and it never occurred to me to ask anybody else.

We had a good time and I have to admit that Mabel looked fantastic in the dress she wore - a tight red silky or satin thing that stopped just above her knees. We danced mostly to fast number but we also danced to a couple of the slower numbers near the end of the dance. Then we went out to get something to eat with the rest of the gang afterwards.

The swim team did okay - Mabel actually competed in a couple of swim meets at the end of the season and she was proud when she actually placed in one of them. I was too!

Then it was time to focus on the spring musical (Snoopy) which was a lot of fun. Mabel was a good Peppermint Patty with a surprisingly strong singing voice. I was kind of envious of her talent on stage and she really got along well with the rest of the cast and crew during the rehearsal run. A part of me wondered if Mabel's new found popularity and social status was going to affect our friendship especially when Rog Cromwell- the guy playing her on stage love interest Charlie Brown - started to semi-kind of sort of hit on her in real life (at least that's how I perceived it).

"So, tell him to knock it off," Wanda shrugged. "Start standing up for yourself if you really care," she advised but I was afraid I might strain things between us if I told Mabel that I was jealous of Cromwell.

The play was a success and I enjoyed watching Mabel perform from my spot in the wings. She seemed to come alive on stage and I was taken by her talents and ability. We hung out at the cast party together and I was flattered when Mabel deflected Cromwell's interest by telling him she was with me.

With the play over, the seniors were starting to become aware that we were in the home stretch for graduation. I was undecided about my future so I decided that doing two years at Blue County Community College was the prudent thing to do - hopefully I would move on to a quality four year school when I was ready to commit to a specific discipline.

Aunt Kristen had forced Mabel to apply to just about every college in America it seemed - but with her suspect home school record Mabel was having a hard time garnering much interest so she decided to go to BCCC too and work on her grades and academic record. I was thrilled to know we would be together again.

During the last several months, I had come to realize that Mabel and I had developed an enjoyable friendship based on a comfortable level of acceptance and trust in each other. We conversed easily, I was interested in what she had to say, and I sensed that she enjoyed listening to me too. I had opened up to Mabel as easily and completely as I had with Katie - I think mostly because it felt like I already knew Mabel.

There was prom (again, Mabel and I went together "as friends") and then the senior Class trip to Summer Beach and it meant a lot spending so much quality time with Mabel. Bobo Dixon, Reeb Escobar and Desiree Morrison were in charge of the video for Senior Day - and it turned out to be a greatly produced scrapbook of interviews, still photos, and other memories of our time at Hillsboro High. It was emotional, funny, celebratory and moving. And then it ended with a shot of four anonymous naked female asses - from the mid thighs to the waists - no way to know who they belonged to. 'The End' flashed over the fannies and then the film faded to black. The two second shot elicited cat calls, cheers, laughter and applause and nobody got in trouble for the unexpected and inappropriate moon shots.

For the next several days folks tried to figure out who posed for the naked ass shots but nobody was talking. Dixon and Escobar said Desiree pulled off the prank and she refused to even hint on how it came about. I, of course, knew the identity of one of the asses and I could pretty much figure out who the other three were by association but I kept my mouth shut until the hysteria and humor died down.

I drove Mabel home two days before graduation and we were sitting in Aunt Kristen's driveway.

"You know," I said to Mabel. "For a person who was so shocked, embarrassed and humiliated to know I had seen her naked ass when she was twelve I'm surprised you participated in the moon shot for senior day," I said.

Mabel blushed and she tried to deny her involvement. "You know I'd never do something like that," she said strongly.

"Mabel," I said carefully. "I'd recognize that mole anywhere."

"Huh?" She said with surprise.

"That mole on your right butt cheek. Looks like a heart. I've never forgotten it."

Her mouth dropped open. "You remembered...?" I nodded my head and she looked amazed. "Oh my God," she said with disbelief.

"It's okay," I grinned. "That never happened."

She smiled, leaned over and kissed me right smack on the lips. "But that did," she said happily.

Finally! Just what I'd been hoping, wishing and praying for. Stepping out from behind friendship into romance as I was pretty sure the kiss indicated.

"You can't tell anybody!" Mabel pleased.

"Yes, I'm sure Wanda, Darby, and Cass would be humiliated to know I know it's their asses up there with yours!"

"I thought it was an honest way to bond with them and finally get over my own phobias," Mabel confessed. "I forgot about the mole."

I laughed and kissed her back before giving her a hug. "You're terrific," I let her know.

"Are you over Katie?" Mabel wanted to know in a whisper.

"I'm with you now," I assured her.

She smiled gleefully and stared into my eyes. "I'm glad this happened," she told me as she kissed me one more time.