Bette On It: Weird Adolescence

Bette Wheelan is growing up. She is growing up through a world of changes, friendships, boys, confusion, sex, and heartache. Her childhood years molded her with teasing and bullying but got through it with a couple of good friends and two loving parents. And now she's about to break the mold through her teenage years. Like all teenagers, she learns what gives her power and who makes her weak in the knees. This is one girl's story from 7th Grade to graduation. Being a teenager is weird. You can bet on it!

This story is a love letter to my adolescence through rose-colored glasses. This is a story inspired by some of the people I knew, a few who never existed, and some I wish who did. There are lots of things that didn't happen to me and a few things that did. I leave you to sort out which are real and which are not.

This story is dedicated to those who find some resemblance of themselves in it. Unless you're a 'Keith', then you suck. You will find out why soon enough.

A special thanks to my Darling Dan. I couldn't have made it through any of this with out you.

...

******WARNING: Story depicts graphic language, mild violence, teen masturbation, teen smoking, teen drug use, teen drinking, sexual assault, 9/11, graphic teen sex, mentions of suicide, and sexual trauma******

.-*.-*.-*.-*Prologue.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

June 2, 2004

Bette Wheelan walked out to her mom's car. It was early, barely seven AM. She had graduated high school barely twelve hours earlier and had left the school-organized all night party for the newly graduated seniors. She stopped in the parking lot to retie her loose shoe. She wore her back pack on one shoulder, and it slipped off and fell to the pavement. As she finished, she stood and swung her backpack back over her shoulder, she heard a familiar voice cry out, "Whoa. I remember that swing. I should have let you know I was coming." Much closer than she realized, and towering over her as he always did, was Ozzy White.

She held up a hand to correct him, "I only take a swing at people when corrective action doesn't work the first three times."

"I remember," he said suppressing a laugh and looking across the lot to a group of boys: Jason Kaye, Norman, Brock A.

"Not my finest moments." She quickly looked around to everyone else leaving the event center.

"Mine either."

"What?"

"Nothing that's important now."

She let it go. "Did you have fun tonight?"

"Yeah. I beat Tylor and Greyson in mini golf. But they beat me in bowling. Sang some karaoke. You?"

"I had so much nervous energy about graduation; I think I was in the batting cage for an hour. Then Jenna and I hit up the costume and photo booth and got our hair braided. We were on the inflatable games over the last hour." She ran her hand over the braids. "I haven't done karaoke-"

"Since we did karaoke?"

She tried to change the subject, "Or the last time I saw you on stage-"

"Since I went off-lyric and got banned from school talent show?"

"Right," she awkwardly replied.

Across the lot, Tylor yelled, "You riding with us Oz?"

"I'll be there in a sec."

Bette spat out her question, "Would you want to write in my yearbook before you take off?"

"Only if you write something in mine," retorted Ozzy. He signaled to Tylor and Greyson what he was doing.

They traded books. She opened up his to see messages of well wishes and congratulations from classmates they had known for years. She flipped to the back of the book, turned back a page to find an empty spot where no one had written.

Ozzy-

.-*.-*.-* Chapter 1 .-*.-*.-*

7th Grade 1998-1999

Bette was determined to start the school year different than the year before. She had grown a bit over the summer and wasn't wearing clothes from the kids section of the store anymore. It was fun to actually develop a sense of taste in clothes. For her first day of school, she picked out a pair of designer jeans from the second hand store and a V-neck olive green shirt, a grey zip up hooded sweatshirt, and her hair out of her face in a headband. "Why don't you kids dress up for the first day anymore?" Bette's mother Lorna asked. "It's new Mom. New is nice." Lorna hadn't bothered to try picking Bette's clothes for her since second grade, and they were both grateful for not having to worry about the other. Lorna took the customary first day of school pictures of her daughter and sent her off to the bus stop.

She waited at the bus stop with one other girl she had known from the neighborhood forever, Cassandra. They weren't close, they just lived close.

Cassandra was blonde, tanned from being outside all summer, outgoing, was already wearing makeup, petite, yet proportionally developed.

Cassandra was all bounce and bubbles at the bus stop. "Hey girl. New year, new me, what do you think?" She did a turn to show off her look: a baby blue fitted t-shirt, light blue jeans, and her bright white sneakers had stripes that matched her top.

"Classic girl next door." Bette said. "A modern day Cinderella. Cassand-rella."

"Thank you. Thank you." Cassandra bowed. "You look nice."

Cassandra and Bette had been childhood opposites. Bette was taller, had raven hair, a naturally pale skin tone that didn't change from a summer covered in SPF 50, reserved but strong in character, no makeup, and her breasts and blackheads had come in strong, but nothing else seemed to with their age. Puberty looked like it gave Cassandra a kiss and Bette a slap.

On the bus they sat together and recounted the last couple weeks. Cassandra has spent a lot of her time with her family at a cabin. Bette went to a family reunion where no one was within six years of her age, so she spent most of her time reading whatever she could get her hands on.

"What did you read?"

"Are you familiar with the high quality novels of your local pharmacy?" Bette answered.

"No."

"Neither am I. There's no such thing."

Cassandra giggled.

More kids got on the bus. Mostly people they knew or at least had familiar faces from the last six years of school. About three blocks from their homes, the bus stopped again and let on one kid.

"He's huge." Cassandra turned from looking out the window, whispered to Bette, and elbowed her. Bette turned and saw him get on the bus. Bette was 5'2" at her checkup last month; this boy on the bus must have been 5'9". Neither of them knew him. He was husky, olive-tanned, brown-haired, and brown-eyed, but still very boyish in face for being so grown.

Bette whispered back to Cassandra and tried to dismiss her shock. "He's tall; he's probably an 8th grader."

He walked up the aisle of the bus, trying carefully not to bump anyone with his size. The rest of the ride into school, he sat alone.

The morning was the same kind of first day stuff she expected, but it was the first year they changed classes every hour.

When she got to lunch, she saw Cassandra again along with a couple of others to sit with. Cassandra had brought over Stella to sit with them who she knew from near her cabin. Bette had Jenna join the table too, who Bette considered her actual best friend. The four girls traded opinions on teachers and classes.

After lunch, Bette had two classes left, geography and gym. She was grateful for gym to be her last hour of the day. If she was going to get sweaty and gross, might as well go home right after.

She got to Geography class and saw that Mrs. Worth had assigned seats alphabetically by last name which was the third class to do so that day. She wasn't near Jenna, who had the same class, but it was nice to know she was there. Bette looked at the seating chart and sat at her spot. In the class walked the same tall kid from the bus that morning, she hadn't seen him since then. He looked taller now than he did that morning. He was taller than Mrs. Worth for sure. She saw him look at the seating chart he walked over and sat right behind Bette. Mrs. Worth had them hand out textbooks and then syllabus papers,

"Take one pass it back."

Most people passed them off over their shoulders, but Bette spun in her desk chair. "Here" She let one slide off the pile on to his desk and handed him the rest.

"Thanks." He said, quick, soft, and low.

"Sure," she turned back around and wrote a couple notes on the paper.

After class ended, she walked out with Jenna. Bette filled her in on what to expect in English class next hour, and Jenna told her gym class was reporting right to the gymnasium and not the locker room.

The gymnasium had some of the bleachers pulled out at she took a seat with everyone else. She looked around to see no good friends in the class. Great.

Following not far behind her into the gym, was the same big guy from Geography and the bus.

Mrs. Golden, the gym teacher did the same first day introductions, expectations, and syllabus handing out as all the other teachers.

That was easy.

After gym, it was a straight shot out the main doors and on to her bus to go home for the day.

The first couple days she found her routine: when to go to her locker, when to eat something after a class, and what not to eat at lunch. It was just another year of school.

A few weeks into school Bette and Jenna were leaving Geography and Bette asked her, "Were you going to come back for Puzzle club today? They mentioned it in the morning announcements."

"Why didn't you ask me at lunch?" Jenna asked.

"I had this feeling Stella was going to be mean about it. Call us nerds for wanting to go. I don't need that from her. Cassandra already said she wasn't going, so I don't have a ride. Please Jenna. It's not even nearly the walk home after for you after as it is for me."

"I will grace you with my presence," Jenna said playfully.

"Thank you! See you there." The girls separated for their respective classes. Bette changed into her gym clothes and reported to the soccer field for the unit. So much running. She had a sports bra, but it wasn't very good quality, and the class was miserable.

After Mrs. Golden dismissed them from the field, they all started walking back up to the school to the locker room to change. Bette was walking, feeling the wheeze in her throat, just focusing forward on getting there for a drink of water.

"What's Puzzles club?"

Bette looked on one side of herself than the other to see the big kid from the bus and Geography class, and no one else was walking near them.

"Holy shit, you mean me!" Bette replied with a rasp.

"Sorry. I shouldn't have-"

"No. No." She coughed. "Not that. I meant- You caught me by surprise." She caught her breath. "Ozzy, right?" She asked.

"Ozzy White."

"Not what I meant, but okay. Yeah. Puzzle club. It's just like it sounds. It's puzzles, games, logic, and lateral thinking. That sort of thing. Different stuff each week."

By this point they were at the divide of the locker room hallway. "It's actually right in Mrs. Worth's room after school today." Bette split off from him and went into the locker room to change. Her breasts ached from the class. Next time, two sports bras. Everyone else was in a hurry to go home, but she was going to puzzle club. She combed out her hair and wiped her face with a cold paper towel to try to get some of the redness out. It didn't help much.

Bette put her went to her locker and grabbed some trail mix and can of Diet Coke her dad had put in her back pack for her and read the little note he left for her that read 'Have fun my Puzzle Club Queen'. Jenna caught up with Bette and they went back to Mrs. Worth's class room. She asked the kids to push the desks back from their regular forward formation they were in into a ring with an open area in the middle. More kids showed up, a pair of fifth graders, some sixth graders, no eight graders, and then, Ozzy. Bette had nearly forgotten. Altogether, there were nine of them. It was the first club of the year, it was an expected amount, numbers would ebb and flow throughout the year.

Mrs. Worth had a big tote bin ready to go; on the top was "Clue-dun-it." She introduced herself to the other students who didn't know her or what the club was. She had the kids put out the big mat from the tote in the middle of the room along with the props and pawns. It was a giant, modified version of the game 'Clue.' She had each person grab a colored name tag, clipboard, a pen, and passed out cards. Bette grabbed the 'Green' name tag and hung it around her neck. Jenna grabbed 'Violet'. Ozzy grabbed his own name, 'White.' Bette got an excited smirk on her face. She liked this game and was pretty good at it. Each turn, you would make a suggestion to 'who broke into the school' with 'which object' and 'which room'. The first person after you who could disprove your suggestion would have to show you one of their cards. You could only suggest on your turn, but if you wanted to accuse someone, which is to try to end the game and guess the correct combination held by Mrs. Worth, you'd either win or the game or if you were wrong you would be eliminated and your cards would be passed out to everyone else who would continue until someone else accused and won.

It was two full rounds into the game and Bette had her game sheet narrowed down. Her sheet looked like a complicated checklist from how she was reading the other kid's choices and answers in the room. She knew the tool was a hammer, and the person was the girl wearing 'red,' but she wasn't sure if the room was the music room or the cafeteria. Do I go for it?

And out of turn came his voice, "I want to make an accusation." It was Ozzy.

Mrs. Worth had him show her his game sheet. She nodded, "Go ahead and say it."

"It was Miss Red, with the hammer, through the music room."

Mrs. Worth opened the game file and showed everyone he was right.

The game reset and they played again. When Bette was in the same spot again: narrowed down to one last thing to eliminate, Ozzy piped in with an accusation and was right. On the third game, she was determined to win, and she knew she was getting close, she was down to four to eliminate, when Ozzy made his accusation and was correct. By this time, there wasn't enough time to start another game, so the game was packed up and put away and the desks put back into place.

Bette and Jenna started the walk home. It was only a few blocks for Jenna, but a mile for Bette. "That was fun,"

"Fun? Yeah. Right up until I lost. Every time. I don't know how he did it."

"Maybe he's just better than you."

"That game had 10 rooms, 10 tools, and had 9 players. That's 900 possible combinations. He did it in less than 20 turns each time."

"You can fume about it as much as you want. But you shouldn't worry about it." She pointed. "This is my block. I'll see you tomorrow." Jenna walked away up her street and Bette walked on. A couple blocks later she stopped to tie her shoe and realized Ozzy was barely a half a block behind her. He did get on the bus after her in the morning, and off before her in the afternoon, so she had an idea of where he lived in the neighborhood from her, his would only be a few blocks past her from her walk. She intentionally retied the same shoe, and then switched and untied and retied her other shoe. By the time she was up and walking again, he was barely ten feet behind her.

"Hey," she said.

"Hey yourself," he kept walking.

The question persisted in her head as he past her and she took a few quick steps to catch up and walk with him. She looked up at him and asked, "How did you do it?"

"Do what?"

"'Do what?' You know what. You swept the games. I was this close to making the accusations and you pulled the rug out from under me every time. How did you do it?"

"Same as you. Process of elimination, logical reasoning."

"No," She persisted. "There had to be something else."
"What if there was? What would that change?"

"It wouldn't-I could have- I-" She let out an agitated huff and laughed at herself. "Jenna was right."
"What's so funny about that? And right about what?"

"I couldn't figure out how you beat me, and I was really annoyed. Jenna was right. You were just better." She chuckled.

"She wasn't totally right..." he curled in his lips and bit them to try and hide his smile.

"There is something you did! I knew it!"

He snickered. "Okay okay. It was two things. One, distinct advantage."

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

"Mr. Cerulean next to me couldn't hold his cards right to save his life. It's like I had a double hand. I didn't need to ask what any of his cards were. And once or twice, I suggested my own cards just to throw off the group."

"That's cheating!"

"No. That's being strategic, tall, and sitting next to a chump."

She laughed. "Fine, I'll concede that's not cheating. What's the other?"

"I don't know if I should say."

"Why not?"

"You might think it's weird."

"Weirder than me being annoyed at losing?"

"Maybe. You won't get scared and run off if I say?"

"You've seen me in gym class. I'm not running anywhere for the rest of the day."

"That may be true enough." He took a deep breath. "It was you."

"Me?!" She didn't think it was weird, but she didn't understand. "What about me?"

"You moved your lips. Your eyes were really intense looking around the room. You were deliberate when you marked your paper. With my own deductions, Mr. Cerulean's cards, and your complete lack of a poker face, there was no losing for me."

Bette stopped dead in her tracks. Ozzy walked another step before realizing she stopped and he turned. She was stunned. She started with a chuckle and she was laughing so hard until he couldn't help but laugh too. "So-" She tried to catch her breath, "I mean- You're saying there's no lying to you."

"You? No. Probably not. Not unless you somehow get really good, really fast." They kept walking. "But I don't see that happening."

"Why is that?"

"Because I know your tells already."

"You know it's not going to be 'Clue-dun-it' every week. I'm not always going to have a poker face to read. There are going to be co-operative games and other stuff too."

"So...you think I should go again next week?"

"I think it doesn't matter what my answer is because whatever I say, you'll know if it's true or not. But as I observed, you knew what you were doing, you won, and you seem to be good at it. So logic would dictate you probably would."

"Maybe I would go because it was fun."

"Well, yeah."

"Maybe that's all. Isn't that why you go?"

"It is. That, and it's so satisfying."

"How is a club satisfying?"

"I don't-I don't know why I said it like that."

"Yes, you do."

"Damn it. If you are going to be able to call me out on every little bluff or fib I ever make, I need you to be able to be honest with me too. If I tell you something, it's not going to be because I have no choice but to tell you the truth, but will you keep it private too?"

"The door swings and locks both ways." He offered his hand to shake on his word.

Bette looked at his hand then up at him, he was innocent, honest, and intuitive. He had been open with her. He gave her no reason not to trust him. She shook his warm, strong, yet gentle hand.

She took a deep breath. "It's fun being the cleaver one in the room," and it came out somewhat sad. Ozzy looked at her knowingly. "Because it's about all I can do. I'm not artistic or athletic as you've seen. And- and so if I can outwit people, that's something." She ran her hand through her hair. "It's what I can do. And I'm pretty good at it."

"And?"

"And what?"

"I still hear you holding back. I can see it."

"I don't want to say." She said it a little embarrassed.

"Alright. I get it. You're going to need some collateral."

"Wait what?"

"I'm going to tell you something, but I hope it's enough for us to understand that I am telling you this in the same good faith you told me a minute ago. The door swings and locks in both directions, remember?"

"Sure-"

"I barely spoke to anyone up until this week because my voice finally settled and I hated it changing that much."

"How-How did? You were able to- And no one-You were with-" She couldn't complete a single thought to reply. "I don't understand. It's so normal. All the guys are squeaking right now."

"Not all of them are taller than the teachers, have to squeeze in bus seats, and feel like a giant freak!"

"Oh my God. I see now. I know it all too well, and it isn't fair, is it?" She didn't want to touch her blackheads or her breasts, but she knew.

"It sucks."

"It does suck," she kicked a rock on the sidewalk.

"So what is it?"

"What's what?"

"What did my collateral buy? Why do you like being the clever one in the room?"

She huffed. "'Albino freak.' 'Ugly freak.' Which doesn't make sense, because it's not medically accurate. But those words used to wreck me. You know Jason Kaye, from gym?"

"Blond guy. Wiry. Only guy even close in height to me."

"Yep, him. His nicknames for me back in 5th grade. I used to come home crying. My mom offered to send me to private school, but I didn't want to leave my friends. One day I came home from school, upset from his name calling and my dad was there instead. He is a firm believer in 'two wrongs don't make a right.' Gave me different advice in this situation. He said next time he calls you one of those names to call him 'dickless.' Someone was hurting his little girl, and she had to stand up for herself because looking back on it, there was nothing he could do about it. So, a few days later here comes Jason Kaye, 'Hey albino, ugly freak.' I sharply reply with, 'Hey dickless,' and the look on his face was priceless. Never again did he call me 'ugly freak.' If I can't be the pretty one in the room, I'll be the clever one. I'll be the sharp one. I won't set myself up for that again."

"I'm sorry."

"No. Don't be, that was two years ago."

"No, about clue-dun-it. I didn't mean to take that from you. I wouldn't have had I known."

"Oh, don't you dare! I need a challenge in that club. And it seems like you're the one to step up to it."

They both didn't speak for a few steps. "You know it's not true though, right?"

"I'm pretty sure Jason has no dick, but I cannot confirm."

He laughed. "You are sharp. But not what I was going to say." He hesitated, "You're not a freak." She could hear the serious tone in his voice. "The room thing...What you said about-"

"Don't." Her face turned red again. "Don't do that, please. I wasn't trying to get you to say something nice."

He looked sad and regretful. "I wouldn't-I didn't-I didn't want to feel worse for having talked about it."

"Not at all." She gave him a gentle prod in the shoulder. "I have a very healthy level of self-esteem, thank you." She gave him a great, big smile. "Are we going to be okay?"

Ozzy smiled. "Yeah."

"You're telling me the truth? I haven't learned to read all your tells yet."

"I promise. I won't lie to you. And in the future, when it comes to you, anything you tell me that's private, stays private. Anyone asks anything, I simply don't know what they're talking about."

He offered his hand in agreement again and she accepted and replied, "This door swings and locks both ways. Anyone asks, 'I don't know what they're talking about.'"

"Your poker face is terrible, so it's going to be all about your wit."

"I accept the challenge." A minute later they were at the end of a block. "This is my turn. I'm the fourth house in on the left."

"I'm three blocks further and a few in. It's a teal one with a stone gargoyle in the front."

They high-fived again and went their separate ways.

The next morning when Cassandra and Bette sat on the bus and saw Ozzy get on Bette addressed him. "Mr. White."

"Ms. Green," he passed and took a seat a few rows back.

Cassandra leaned into her ear. "Does he know your last name is Wheelan, right?"

"Of course, we have two classes together."

"Green?"

"It was Clue-dun-it at puzzle club yesterday. He was there."

"What else did I miss?"

"He won all three games. Jenna saw it. I was so annoyed. But it was just a game. There's always next week."

"He beat you in three games of Clue?"

"What's his deal?"

"What do you mean?"

"We've been riding the bus with him, you have two classes with him, we've been in school almost a month and you are pulling out inside jokes? Where are you hiding this guy and what's in the cookie jar?" Cassandra asked suggestively.

"Ugh. Don't be weird. He's just a person who showed up to puzzle club. You could have if you didn't flake. I didn't get that much information. Besides," and she tried to say it somewhat loud, "I don't know what you're talking about." Bette turned her face away from Cassandra and made a little grin. I really do need to work on my poker face.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-* Chapter 2 .-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Over the next few months, Ozzy integrated more and more in school. She hadn't noticed it before, but Ozzy had been eating lunch with Tylor and Greyson, cousins who were practically brothers, who had gone to the same schools as her since kindergarten and another kid Norman. Bette and Cassandra made an effort to sit in the same row as him on the bus ride to school. By Thanksgiving, the silent kid from the first few weeks of school was gone. Ozzy impressed teachers, excelled in classes, made other kids laugh and gained their respect; his confidence skyrocketed yet he remained humble.

Christmas time came around and Cassandra handed out invitations to her parent's Christmas party. It was really an excuse for her parents to have a party with their friends and keep Cassandra out of their way in their basement rec room. In previous years when Bette had gone, it had been a slumber party, but this year, Cassandra was itching for boys to go. Her parents didn't care as long as everyone had their own way to and from the party and was gone by 11PM. The last week of school leading up to the holiday break, Cassandra had seven other kids from school going: Bette, Jenna, Stella, Ozzy, Greyson, Tylor, and Norman. It was a pretty easy reach for Cassandra to ask their one guy friend Ozzy, and have him rope in his friends.

Cassandra had asked Bette to help decorate before the party, which wasn't hard, the house was already decorated for Christmas and her parents held the party on the Saturday between Christmas and New Years'. The girls put up more tinseled garland and stringed lights, changed out the regular light bulbs for red and green ones, and set-up tables of snacks and sodas. When Cassandra was setting up the music system, Bette pulled Cassandra's dad's guitar out into a clear spot. Bette also pulled twister and a deck of cards out of the closet. Cassandra saw what she was doing, "Oh you are freaky. I don't know why I didn't think of that!" She realized what she was holding and dropped it and turned red, but the light bulb hid her coloring.

"No! I was looking for the conversation cards. I thought they were behind this box."

"Too late. It's too good of an idea," Cassandra burst with excitement and picked up the box.

"What are you even hoping will happen with Twister?"

"A good party, that's what."

Bette rolled her eyes at Cassandra but her mind was stirring. Ozzy had told her that he's been crushing on Cassandra and it grew more and more clear to Bette; Cassandra liked the attention, so she soaked it up. Bette had asked Ozzy for some information on Norman who she had liked since they were at the same session of summer camp at summer. He had treated her different outside of school and away from their respective friends after they had spent some time together. She hoped that there would be another opportunity tonight, considering they didn't have any classes together. She knew she couldn't tell Cassandra, she would have blabbed, but Jenna knew since summer, and Ozzy knew for a few weeks.

Everyone started trickling in and for the party. And for the first twenty minutes or so, nothing really happened. They talked about school and what they got for Christmas. It was Stella who decided to stir the pot. "This game of Twister is happening now." She flipped open the box and whipped the mat onto the floor. "Spin to see who plays?"

She had this tone of total authority. It wasn't even her party. "I'm in." Said Greyson.

"It wasn't an option." Stella replied. She took the spinner, held it out and spun it. It landed on Tylor and Jenna first. They both relented and played. Several rounds in, either of them fell over. "We need a third body." Stella spun the spinner again and it landed on herself.

"Now it's interesting," Jenna said with a smile. Stella handed the spinner off to Cassandra and a few more turns were played until Tylor fell over. People laughed and the iciness of the room was finally broken.

Norman had a hacky sack and showed Jenna and Bette how to play where the twister mat was. Stella found herself holding court with Tylor and Greyson, playing rounds of two truths and a lie. It didn't surprise Bette at all that Ozzy was following Cassandra around like a puppy, and she was eating it up.

Tylor, seeing what Ozzy was doing, saw an opportunity for him, "Ozzy, two truths and a lie: What can you do?"

Ozzy saw the eyes in him and glanced around the room. When he saw Bette, she eyed the guitar. It all took a split second.

"I got it. I can do a full cartwheel. I can play guitar. I can eat a whole jar of jalapenos. Which is the lie? One, two, or three?"

Stella answered, "It has to be the cartwheel."

"Cartwheel," guessed Jenna.

"Jalapenos," Greyson and Tylor said in unison.

"I'm with the girls. Cartwheel." Said Norman.

Bette made sure the space was clear between Ozzy and the guitar. "It's the jalapeños."

"Which is it," Asked Tylor.

In a graceful movement, Ozzy did a strong, steady cartwheel in the room and landed near the guitar and picked it up.

The roar of the room was clear, they were impressed. Bette gave a knowing applause to Ozzy and a wink to Tylor.

Cassandra turned the music down, "Now you have to show us!"

"It's okay to play this?"

"It hasn't been played in a while. Dad won't notice or care."

Ozzy took one of the chairs and opened the case. The acoustic guitar was ready to be played. Ozzy plucked the strings, "You sure it hasn't been played in a while? The case isn't dusty and it's in tune." Cassandra shrugged. "I'll only play if you guys sing along too." The everyone agreed. "Oddly enough, you guys know the words to 'With a Little Help From My Friends,' The Beatles?"

Ozzy closed his eyes and focused on the music and played. He started to sing and Greyson, Tylor, and Norman joined right away. The girls joined in a little slower. Bette wasn't watching Ozzy play, she watched Cassandra watch Ozzy and she became the puppy until the song was over. They applause him for his song.

"You pick someone else now," said Tylor.

Ozzy looked around. "Jenna. Is there something you can do?" Ozzy asked.

"I think I got something." She grabbed three dry, sealed cans of soda and tucked her foot into other leg to stand in tree pose. She juggled the cans and named the states in alphabetical order. When she got to Wyoming, she slammed all three cans on the table. "Now don't open those for 24 hours."

Her show got a laugh and light applause from everyone. "Stella. Truth or dare?"

Stella gave a sly smile. "Truth."

"What's the worst thing you've ever been in trouble for?"

Stella sucked a breath through her teeth and looked over at Cassandra.

"I wasn't the one who got in trouble," said Cassandra.

"So Cassandra and I, our families have cabins near each other. We went late night skinny dipping with some other girls and I snuck out first and took a most of the clothes. I got massive trouble when a different girl told. My girl Cass didn't squeal on me. I was grounded for the rest of the summer."

The boy's jaws hit the floor along with Jenna's. "That's ridiculous!" Said Bette. "Absolutely insane."

"I bet you've never done an insane thing in your life." Stella said to Bette.

She replied matter-of-factly, "Besides jump off the big rock at Pebble Lake. No, I have not committed any sexually offensive felonies."

"I didn't say felonies."

"She needs a dare," said Greyson just as matter-of-factly.

Bette tried to stand her ground even though Stella made her stomach churn. The tension in the room grew. Stella eyed their giggly friends, and the one person who wasn't laughing, Ozzy.

"Twister was just a warm up. I dare you to kiss Ozzy for 10 seconds." Everyone looked back and forth to their reactions.

"You dared me to do something, not him. He already did something," she replied quickly.

Ozzy set the guitar down and made his way over to Bette. He turned the music back up behind her, cupped his hand around her ear so only she could hear what he whispered.

"You don't have to if you don't want to. We can figure something out real quick." He pulled back and gave her a look. They had an audience.

She waved him down to her height, cupped her hand, and whispered back in his ear, "If we give them a decent show, they'll drop it. And Cassandra will get envious. We can do this. I trust you."

She let him go and he gave her a surprised-looking nod. Bette looked square at Stella, "We'll give you four seconds."

"Are we good with that?" Stella asked the room.

"Get it Oz," cheered Greyson.

Bette looked at Greyson with sarcastic contempt.

Ozzy placed a hand on her shoulder and went in for the kiss. They closed their eyes.

The room started counting, "One-one thousand."

I can't believe this is happening. How did I fall for her bullshit? Stella is such a petty brat.

"Two-one thousand."

Relax. It's a party. What did you think was going to happen? You have been saying 'I don't know what you're talking about' to these girls for weeks when it comes to Ozzy.

Their count was intentionally spoken slower, "Three-one thousand."

He's not so bad-

Ozzy pulled back and looked at the group, "You had your show. Move on." He was stern with them, and being so large, his voice boomed throughout the space. Bette had turned the other way and was looking at the music system.

"It's your turn to pick now Bette, if you're still up for it." Stella said with some attitude.

"I need a drink of water first," and she walked past the table full of sodas and away without looking at anyone. She went up the stairs and stood at the kitchen sink bracing herself against it. The light was on over the sink and it was dark outside and she could see her reflection in the window. She was red and embarrassed. Not for what she and Ozzy had done, but for letting Stella get to her. She opened up the cabinet and took out a glass, filled it from the tap, and drank it. The parties were going on in the rooms next to her and below her; it felt nice to be alone for a minute.

She finished her water and looked at the window again; Ozzy had come up the stairs.

"Jenna was going to come up to check on you, but I thought she would be better to listen in on anything said without us there. Are you going to be alright?"

She turned and leaned against the sink crossing her arms, still holding the glass. She held it up and looked at him through it with one eye closed. "I'm still a terrible liar, aren't I?"

"Only because I can tell."

"Then why ask?" She lowered the glass and looked at him with a head tilt.

"Because I won't know for sure unless I ask." He came and stood next to her. "Because not everything is a logic problem to be solved."

"And yet I solved nothing with our little show. You didn't have to, you know. You were right. We should have figured out something else."

"She could have easily picked any one of the other three, but she didn't. What would they have said or done? They're my buddies, and they're mostly smart, but guys can do dumb stuff too."

"Oh, I know that." Bette looked out into the living room to see the adults having their party. "They don't even see us. Look."

Ozzy stood next to her, looked over her head, to see a bunch of different adults in the living room: mingling, eating, drinking, "That has to be Stella's mom. They look exactly alike."

"Yeah. You live close, where are your parents?"

"They stopped coming to these parties years ago. I don't know why." She took a beat. "Look at them. It's weird, isn't it? If they don't notice us, you think they even hear us?"

"Let's find out." He looked towards the room, "Monkey hair!" Bette covered her mouth and less than gracefully hid a snorting laugh and stepped across the kitchen. He looked over at her. "Try it, they didn't even flinch." He looked over at the party again, "Fruity pancakes!"

"I can't. I won't." She said with a laugh. She made her way back to the basement. Ozzy stayed for another minute to see if there was a reaction.

Bette was flushed from laughing and all smiles when she came back into the room. "Take some time for round two?" Stella asked and she licked her lips at Bette.

"Close." She spoke with the sharpness she knew she had, "We were about to and your mom came in. She pushed me away, she ripped off her top. She was slurring her words. Said something about 'my biggest regret downstairs'. Then she tried to grope Ozzy's ass. I guess that sex offender thing runs in the family."

There was a collective "Oh" and laughter from the boys and Jenna. Stella was not amused. Ozzy came down the stairs a moment later to the reactions of the room.

"What happened?" He asked.

"You tell us," Stella said.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he answered. And for once, he really didn't know. Bette laughed even harder.

"It's all good. Hey Cassandra. How 'bout that thing you can do? That double jointed thing?" Bette knew Cassandra liked showing this trick off.

"Alright." She stood in the spot where the twister board was. She looked around and made sure there was enough space. She made sure everyone was looking.

Bette stood back by Ozzy and whispered up to him, "This is her favorite thing to show people when she gets the chance." Cassandra put out her arms and slid into a right split. She leaned forward, crawled to her stomach into a middle split and around into a left split and stood back up, ending with a playful curtsy.

"A-thank you." There was a round of applause from the group and more dropped jaws from the boys. "You close your mouths. Grayson, can you do anything? Or would you rather be asked something else?"

"Ask me anything."

"We know what Stella did to get in trouble, but have you ever done anything that you thought you were going to get in trouble for, but didn't?"

Greyson eyed Tylor and the two of them snickered and spoke in unison again, "Fourth of July!"

Greyson collected his laughter, "Okay. Okay. Fourth of July, we stole a whole bunch of fireworks and set them off in a canoe in Sandy Lake. I have no idea how we didn't get caught. The cops drove by us about three times."

"That was you guys," said Jenna. "I was at Sandy Lake. My parents were convinced I knew something about it."

Greyson continued to recount the story of how they did it. While he did, Stella pulled out an orange and signaled Tylor. She put it between her neck and collar bone and had him take it the same way without using his hands. Tylor looked to Bette, and she accepted. "You always carry around an orange for such occasions?" Bette asked after taking it.

"This was premeditated," Stella replied.

Bette turned to pass the orange to Norman but saw he had moved across the room. Ozzy had picked the guitar back up. Greyson was still recounting the story and Tylor was throwing in details. It was in that moment that she saw that no one had turned to take the orange from her. She let it drop into her hand.

Stella passed in front of her, "But that was an accident," she said with a cruel whisper. Stella sat down and kept laughing at Greyson and Tylor's story.

They all kept talking, exchanging stories, games, and songs for a couple hours. Jenna got picked up early at 10PM. When Bette took a moment to go to the powder room off the basement, she opened the door to hear the screaming laughter of everyone else. She hurried back into the room to see everyone laughing, "Aw, what did I miss?"

"Norm was just recounting tales of summer camp," Stella answered coldly.

Bette looked to him, "What kind of tales, Norman?" she said through gritted teeth. "Arts and crafts stuff right?"

"Something about your crafts busting open and everyone seeing your set of art," said Stella.

"Fuck." Bette's head dropped back.

"Shit, she's gonna cry," Stella snickered.

"No." Bette stood strongly. "But Norm might. Norman, are you familiar with the term 'mutually assured destruction?'"

"You wouldn't," he said.

"Clearly you did, so I'm going to have to. Truth. My most embarrassing moment? My boobs out grew my swimsuit top and it broke at camp and a flashed a bunch of kids. Norman included. I didn't swim for the last three days of camp because I was afraid it was going to happen to my other top. Truth. Norman's most embarrassing moment?"

"Shut up, Bette."

"No! You started it, so I'm going to finish it. He was on the dock and not in the water so the same group who saw my boobs saw him pop a boner when it happened. They were shocked at me, but they were laughing at him."

"Shut up!"

"I got cheers. He got pointing. We could only talk to each other for the rest of the week because no one else would."

Norman began to get up towards Bette, "I said shut up!" Ozzy set a hand on his shoulder and easily pushed him back down.

"Don't you dare." Ozzy gave her a nod.

"Whatever," Norman sneered. "That's supposed to happen to me. You're not supposed to be such a freak."

She looked at the hushed room, everyone was sitting except her. Everyone had been talking about her while she had been gone. Jenna had already gone home. Ozzy was sidled up next to Cassandra, he wasn't going to move. "Curious Norm, you were really nice to me after that had happened. What changed your mind since then?"

"Nothing changed. Bette Wheelan is still the pale kid who hangs out with Cassandra, now featuring big, weird boobs."

"I see now." The clock on the wall showed 10:45. "On that note, this pale kid is gonna get out of here. See you next week."

She started climbing the stairs and went to grab her coat from the guest room where they were all being kept. She was irritated, mostly at herself. Two wrongs don't make a right. You know that. If you'd kept his secret you wouldn't be such a freak.

"That wasn't cool what he did," of all the people who could have been nice to her in that moment, Tylor was not the person she expected.

Tylor was shorter than her and a little chubby with big cheeks and lips. He had braces on his teeth and copper-brown hair with dyed blond highlights. He looked more like he was cousins with Ozzy than Greyson. Greyson looked like he could have been related to Bette. Greyson was as pale as her with black hair too. He was taller than her and skinnier with a thin skinned face. Puberty had slapped him to with zits and a bizarrely deep voice. The cousins couldn't look more different.

"I didn't help the situation much. If I'd just leaned into the story instead of throwing one back, it wouldn't have ended like that."

"I wasn't talking about Norm." He grabbed his coat from the pile. He whispered, "Ozzy and I hang out most weekends and every day at lunch. I know you two are better friends than you let people know. If someone did to me what Norm did to you, he would have laid them out flat. The only reason he didn't is that he is blinded by Cassandra. He doesn't see anyone but her right now. But I can tell you this, Cass is a flash in the pan." He put on his coat. "He'll come back around to us."

"Thank you for that." She put her coat on and felt in her pockets.

He stood in the doorway looked behind him and back at her, "Maybe while he's preoccupied, maybe I'll be worth a look." He gave her a little smile, tapped the door frame and walked away. She looked at herself in the mirror of the room, she wasn't sure if was everything that had happened, the coat, or Tylor's words, but she was red in her face again. She walked out of the house and saw Tylor was waiting for his ride.

"It's cold. Why aren't you waiting inside?" Bette asked.
"It felt weird in there," Tylor scrunched his face.

"Thank God, it wasn't just me. That house has such a weird feeling."

"Yeah. It's like a super nice house but it feels..."

"...malicious?" She said it in a slow high-pitched voice.

"Yes!"

"I swear that house is about to sprout a poltergeist at any time."

"So how are you and Cassandra so close?"

She answered him pointedly, "Ah! We live close." She turned and pointed, "I'm half a block that way. We've known each other forever."

He gave her a laugh. "You're funny. You don't get enough credit for that."

"I can't believe you did that thing with the fireworks."

"That's just the tip of the iceberg. I've got so many more."

"Okay then."

"'Okay then' what?"

She pulled a pen from her pocket, pulled up her sleeve, and handed him the pen. "I'll call you and you can tell me more."

His face lit up. "Cool." He wrote his phone number on her wrist. "Or can I call you?" he asked excitedly.

"Yeah." She wrote her phone number on his wrist. "Tomorrow?"

The pair said their good nights and Bette walked home.

When school started back up again, Cassandra had made Ozzy her boyfriend. The lunch table got really big as all eight of them from the party started eating together regularly. Things remained frosty between Bette and Stella. Norm and Bette eventually apologized to each other and as far as they could tell, no one outside their group learned about their summer camp incident. They agreed that if they wouldn't make a big deal about it, no one else would either. Bette and Tylor grew to be better friends and even went on a date to a movie together; by the time it was over they both realized dating was a terrible idea.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 3.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

February came around and it was a cold morning on the bus. Bette got on alone that day. Ozzy got on and was happier than usual to see her. "Hey, I'm glad you're here. Kinda glad Cassandra isn't. I need your help with something for her."

"What's up?"

"I want to do something for Cassandra for Valentine's Day. What do you think she'd like?"

"She's pretty typical. The usual: flowers, card, basic nice things. You can't go wrong with commercial stuff with her."

"Really? You don't think I could do something more special than that?"

"Could you? I absolutely know you could. Should you? No."

"I was thinking I'd play some music-"

"Nope, buy her a CD."

He squinted at her pessimism. "I had been working on an original song."

"I'm sure it's super great. Buy her a card with a poem in it already."

"Bake her cupcakes?"

"Buy her chocolates. Seriously, you can't go wrong with $20 and the Walgreen's. That will make her feel special."

"I think you're wrong."

"You asked my advice. But you are clearly going to do what you want."

The school week ended. It was Sunday afternoon and Bette was at home in her room when she got a call. It was Ozzy, "Hey. Are you busy?"

"No. What's wrong?" She asked. His voice was timid at best.

"It's over. Cassandra broke up with me."

Bette was grateful they were on the phone and he couldn't see the look on her face. She knew it was a matter of time before Cassandra was going to do that to him. He was too into her to break up with her. She knew he was hurting. "What happened?"

"I'm not even sure. She said that she didn't want to be my girlfriend anymore. She said she thought she should be single for a while. I don't get it." She heard him sniffle. "Did she say anything to you?"

"No. She didn't." She took a deep breath. "Do you really want to know? I mean, really, know what I think?" He didn't reply. He just kept breathing and sniffling. "Okay. I can come there. And you can hear and see and hear the real truth. How about that?"

He managed to eek out, "Yeah. Please."

"I'll see you soon."

Bette told her mom what was going on and walked the three blocks to Ozzy's house. Ozzy lived with his Aunt Darrah. She was fun and kooky, and took great care of Ozzy. Bette liked her a lot. She knocked and Darrah let her in with a big hug. Bette hung up her coat on the rack. "He's in the basement. He won't come upstairs and he doesn't want to talk to me about it. Would you bring this down for him, see if you can get him to eat? He's been a mess all day."

Bette nodded and took the tray. It was the same kind of thing her dad would do when she was sick. A sandwich, a cut up apple, chocolate chip cookies, iced tea.

"You're a sweetheart," Darrah said as she opened the door to the basement.

"I'm no miracle worker, but I'll try."

Ozzy's basement was his own space. A TV, an old couch, a rocking chair, his guitar, some hand weights, a mini fridge and it had access to walk out to the back yard. When she got to the bottom of the stairs, she couldn't see him, "Ozzy? I brought tributes to Oz the great and powerful."

"He's not here." He said from the floor behind the couch. Bette looked up the stairs at Darrah and nodded. She set the tray on the end table and crouched on the floor. He was sitting on the far side of the floor by the wall with his head in his hands.

"You wanna try getting up? Maybe sitting on this side of the couch?"

"No."

"You know I gotta come back there then, right?"

"Fine."

She grabbed one of the pillows off the couch and set it near him and sat down next to him at the base of the floor lamp. "You know I've known Cassandra since before I can remember? We grew up at the same time, but we didn't grow up together, you know what I mean? Our moms used to be good friends. Then one day, they weren't anymore, don't know why. She and I just kept hanging out, it was convenient, it was easy. She was easy. Cassandra is a girl of convenience. Remember what I said? She'd feel good with $20 worth of pharmacy trinkets. She's pretty. She's shallow. But she doesn't understand special."

She sat there and waited. Ozzy wiped his face with the back of his hands again.

"It sucks."

"It does suck."

"I still can't stop thinking about her. The last two months. Her face. Holding her. The pain. All of it."

"She cut you pretty deep?"

"Yeah."

She looked forward at the doors to the back yard, two glass French doors.

"You come to two doors. Through one door is Cassandra; through the other is your guitar. You can only pick one forever. Which one do you pick?"

"My guitar. My music. Easy."

"How about picking that up? Holding that? Seeing how that feels?" She gave him a nudge. "Hm?"

He began to get up and she got up with him. She went around sat in the rocking chair next to the couch. He picked up the tea from the tray and drank it then set the glass down. He took the guitar off the stand and sat on the couch with it. He adjusted and rotated his pick around his fingers. He looked at it and played a few chords. He took a couple deep breaths and started to sing, "In My Room" by The Beach Boys. It was timid, somber, and he let out the pain he was feeling. He made it through the song, barely, and another tear streamed down his face.

"How did that feel?"

He wiped his face again. "Still sucks."

"As bad as before?"

"Maybe not." He couldn't even look up at her.

"Ozzy."

"Hm?"

"Look at me."

His puffy red eyes finally met hers. "Cassandra: is not that great. It's probably why you didn't sing about her now. It hurts because it's going to hurt, not because it was her."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because the first one always hurts. You were either going to be the one to hurt or get hurt. And I don't think you could have hurt her."

"How do you know all this? You hadn't mentioned being dumped before."

"I've seen it happen to enough people to know it's not easy. And I know you well enough. It helps to have someone around, doesn't it?"

He played a chord and sang, "It still sucks."

It made her smile. "But maybe a little less than it did before?"

"Yeah."

"You wanna try eating something?" She pointed back to the table.

He took half the sandwich and some apples slices off the plate and tossed her a few of them. He ate it quickly. They talked for a while longer until she was sure he was feeling better. She heard the clock upstairs strike five PM. "I should get home. Are you going to be alright?"

"Yeah." She knew he was going to be.

He walked her upstairs and to the door. "Bye Darrah." She leaned her head down the hallway and waved.

"See you in the morning."

"See you then."

Bette headed home.

The next morning Bette and Cassandra waited at the bus stop together. Cassandra was her usual perky self that morning. Bette was less than enthused to see her after the previous day. "Hey girl," said Cassandra.

"Hey yourself," said Bette tiredly. "How was your weekend?"

"Not great. But you should hear it from me; I broke up with Ozzy this weekend."

Bette looked up the street looking for the bus. "You don't say."

"Yeah. It was time. I knew I had to do it before Valentine's Day, otherwise I would have had to wait another month."

Bette had seen and heard the effects of what she had done to Ozzy, and she was sickened. "You know what? I don't want you to tell me about it. It's not my business, I don't want to hear your reasons," she barked at Cassandra.

"Jeez. What did he tell you?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. What I know is how you value things and treat people. I've seen how he is around you and how you are around him and it bums me out."

"I get it." Cassandra's attitude rose, "You were jealous. You like him. You're mad because you think I ruined him for you."

The bus pulled up and they got on, Bette followed Cassandra on. Cassandra got in a seat and slid in by a window and Bette intentionally sat in a seat across from her and a row back. Cassandra slid in the seat to the aisle. She saw what Bette did and leaned over the seat for her to hear. "Admit it!"

"What do you want me to say?"

"You like him and you're mad because he liked me and not you. He made his choice."

"You know why I'm mad Cass? You can have anything and value nothing."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You're a princess. And if you think that's a good thing, you're sadly mistaken."

"Whatever Bette. I've moved on. He's all yours."

"Ugh. You're gross."

They both slid back to their windows.

A minute later Ozzy got on the bus and Cassandra couldn't even look at him. He sat in the seat right behind Bette and leaned against the window. She leaned against the window too and spoke to him through the crack in the seat. "She told me," she said quietly. The bus engine was so loud and so many other kids were talking, there was no chance Cassandra would hear them.

"And?"

"I don't think you're the only one who broke up with her in the last day."

"I'm sorry."

"She isn't that great, but you were right."

"About what?"

"It does still suck."

Before lunch time, Bette had a chance to talk to Jenna. Ozzy took the time to talk to Tylor and Greyson. The five of them sat together at the boy's old table at lunch. Stella and Cassandra sat together at their old table with Norman. Ozzy and Bette had a rough couple days, but by the end of puzzle club on Wednesday, they were back to their old selves.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*. Chapter 4-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

It was late April on a Friday in gym class and unit focus was basketball. Bette was not happy about it. She lacked the coordination for it and could barely shoot. She had preferred the badminton unit they had finished the previous week or even the jump roping unit was manageable with the right sports bra. The class was in two rings, an inner and outer for chest passing drills. Most everyone was decent enough to compensate for one another's skill level, but Bette had this impending feeling of dread as Jason Kaye made his way in the ring closer to Bette. Over the school year he'd grown even taller and stronger. His wiry arms were more muscular than earlier in the year. She was worried. A couple more chest passes later and her heart was racing. Jason was the next person. Bette had her hands out in front of her ready to catch, but Jason's version of a chest pass was higher. To Bette, it seemed to happen in slow motion, yet still too fast to stop. Jason sneered and launched the ball from his chest at her. Being as tall and as strong as he had grown, the ball flew square into the bridge of her nose with a clear *whack*. It seemed inevitable. The pain was immediate and her nose was bloody and her eyes welled up with tears. She cried out, "What the hell!"

Jason actually laughed at her before trying to look ashamed.

Mrs. Golden heard the scream and saw Bette's face grow bloody. She rushed to the girl. "Did you hear it crack? Let's get you to the nurse." She turned to the closest girl, "Katie, bring Bette to the nurse's office."

Bette was still crying and blood trailed down her face and shirt.

"Jason. You know better than that. Watch yourself," Mrs. Golden snapped at him.

"Keep going everyone." Everyone got back into the formations, Ozzy intentionally moved himself next to Jason. Mrs. Golden blew her whistle. The kids kept passing balls between them.

"That wasn't cool." Ozzy said to Jason.

"No. But it was kinda funny."

"Tell me. How is making her bleed and cry funny?"

"She used to give me shit. So, I gave it back to her."

"That's messed up. You have no idea."

"Hey, if she doesn't know how to take a joke, how can she expect to take a hit? It's part of life. She's a freak."

Ozzy saw red. After he passed the ball and slapped Jason's ball out of his hands. "You dickless monster!" He jumped him and the pair crashed to the floor. "What's wrong with you?!" He shook Jason by his shoulders. Ozzy was bigger and weighed more than him but Jason was more athletic and was able to wrestle away from him. Mrs. Golden blew her whistle and broke it up as quickly as it started. "Ozzy. Hall. Now."

"Jason. Far wall. Now."

Katie arrived back to miss everything.

Meanwhile, Bette was in the nurse's office with tampons up her nose and a frozen gel pack on her eyes. "Sweetie. I need you to try and breathe slowly."

She cried, "Is it broken Mrs. Finch?"

The nurse pulled back the ice pack, "let me know where it hurts." Mrs. Finch lightly touched Bette's nose and got through it without wincing too much. "I think you got clocked. But no, it's not broken. If it were a bowling ball this would be a different story."

"Sure felt like one."

"Try taking those out of your nose."

Bette pulled out the tampons and sniffed. Only one had blood on it and it wasn't much. "Still hurts a bit."

"Take a couple of over the counter pain killers when you get home. If you're lucky, you'll come back to school on Monday with no black eye. You seem like a tough girl."

Bette looked at herself in the mirror and saw how red she was around her eyes. Bette walked out of the Mrs. Finch's office and by the principal's office. Both Ozzy and Jason were sitting there in their gym clothes. Jason looked annoyed and Ozzy looked sad, even a little scared. He gave her a little wave and she waved back before returning to the gym. By that time, they had been excused to the locker room to change.

Bette went to her locker and put in the combination. She looked over at Vanessa who was near her in the circle, "Did I miss something while I was getting checked out?"

"Yeah. Jason and Ozzy got into a fight," said Tina.

"You're kidding."

"Not exactly. It was more like Ozzy knocked over Jason, yelled at him, and then Mrs. Golden broke it up," Vanessa said.

"You didn't say the part where Jason scurried away like a cockroach," said Tina.

"He is a cockroach. A dickless cockroach," said Bette.

"How did you know that?" Asked Vanessa.

"Know what?" Asked Bette.

"That's what Ozzy said when he jumped Jason, except he said monster. Ozzy called him a 'dickless monster.' How did you know he said that?"

Bette tried to hide her smile by touching her nose and bruises. "I didn't. It must be known that Jason Kaye has no dick."

Vanessa, Katie, and Tina laughed. Bette turned into her locker to put her shoes in and closed the door. She stuffed the bloody shirt into the backpack. As the bells rang for school to be over, Bette passed by the office windows one more time, Jason must have already been in with the principal because she didn't see him. Ozzy was still sitting there, he was leaning his forearms into his knees, looking at the floor. She looked to him and tapped the glass. She saw him and he mouthed "Are you okay?" And pointed to his face. She nodded back. "Are you okay?" She mouthed. He shrugged and looked back down. She tapped the glass again and he looked at her. She mouthed, "Thank you." He nodded and she left.

Bette was making her way to the bus when she saw Ozzy's Aunt Darrah coming in for him looking rushed and worried. Bette crossed the hall to stop her. "Darrah. Hi. I guess you got called about Ozzy."

"Hi Bette. yeah, I did." She didn't sound as angry or frustrated as Bette imagined she would be.

"You need to know. Ozzy's in trouble because of me. It's not all his fault."

"Sweetheart, that other boy who Ozzy fought with, Ozzy was doing what he thought needed to be done. His reaction was probably bigger because you're friends, but it has more to do with his mom."

"His mom?" He rarely even mentioned about her.

"He can't stand girls getting hit. It's a visceral thing for him. Sweetie, I gotta go." And Darrah went to the office.

Bette was dumbfounded and left for the bus without saying a word to anyone else.

Monday morning came around and Ozzy got on the bus for school. He sat down across from her. "Hey."

"How are you feeling?" He asked and tried to subtly point to his face.

"Lots of ibuprofen and arnica gel. It doesn't hurt anymore. I can tell it's swollen, but I don't think anyone else can. If you look close there's just the tiniest hint of yellow bruising on the side of my nose left." She turned her head to show him. "What happened with you? You're here. You didn't get suspended."

"We both had to do Saturday school the next day. Easy sentence. Did my homework, lots of reading, and some puzzle books. Would have been easier if I didn't have to be in the same room with him."

"I still I can't believe you did that."

"He messed up. You didn't hear what he said after he did it. I can't believe they didn't even make him apologize to you. To me, what he did was unforgivable.

"He wouldn't have meant it. It wouldn't have been believable. I wouldn't have wanted to hear it."

"No."

Bette thought about what Darrah said to her. "I get the feeling you know about those kinds of lies. Those fake apologies. The ones that come from guys who hit girls."

"I don't know what you're talking about." He looked down the bus aisle out the front window and not at her.

"We don't have to talk about it." Ozzy mashed his mouth closed and bit his lips. "I don't expect to understand. But what you did was more than anyone I know would."

He looked back at her and tried to give her a smile. "I had to. He was so wrong."

"The best part is the silver lining in all this."

"There is?" He was confused at her joy.

"Of course! Now our whole gym class knows that Jason Kaye has no dick." They both smiled and high-fived.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-Chapter 5*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

The last week of school was always fun. Teachers stop caring, no more homework, warm weather, and fun clothes. The final tests and projects for classes are all spread out, so nothing felt like cramming. The last week of gym class became her absolute favorite: swing dancing. They didn't have to wear their gym clothes and she got to learn something new and fun. There were more girls in the class than boys and the girls mostly enjoyed it.

Mrs. Golden spent each class teaching basic steps, counting, and the rhythms. Bette and Vanessa paired well and got a nice, memorized routine going. On the last day she had them do round-robin partnering, "Have a new partner each whistle. If you have to wipe off your hands, do it politely and discretely. We've been going through these motions all year, I can still put in a zero for a final grade for any of you if you are little jerks to each other and you can do this again next year."

Bette and Vanessa found each other first. They had a solid eight-move routine with each other that they could get through twice before the whistle. Next Bette found Ozzy. He didn't have quite the pairing with her that she and Vanessa had, but he tried, he was good, and they had fun with it. Next few rounds, Bette found herself dulling her skills for a couple of skittish boys who didn't have much enjoyment for it. Then Tina, who was also enjoying it and another boy Terry who was pretty good too and didn't seem to hate it. Mrs. Golden blew her whistle one more time "Last round. Partner up!"

Something odd happened that Bette couldn't explain. It seemed like as soon as she stepped towards someone she hadn't partnered with who would be fine to dance with, they were pairing with someone else. It was this awful phenomenon that fell like dominoes before her eyes and she could see the undesirable result at the end: Jason Kaye as she soon as she saw it and tried to compensate for it, it was too late, they were the last two unmatched. They approached each other and the music started again. They did the most basic required steps to get through it. His hands felt like greasy chicken bones in her hands. He smelled like cheap, men's cologne. She tried to simply not smile, he glared at her. What was probably only 45 seconds to a minute felt like an eternity touching him.

Mrs. Golden blew the whistle twice and cut the music. "You can grab your bags and sign yearbooks if you want. The last 10 minutes before the bell are yours. Have a good summer."

Bette stepped away from him as quickly as possible and wiped her hands on her skirt. She heard Jason mutter behind her, "Freaky bitch."

Bette just closed her eyes and rolled them in her head. Two wrongs do not make a right. You don't have to see him for three months. She went over to her backpack and grabbed her water bottle out of it and took a drink and stuck it back in. Vanessa came up to Bette, "That was fun! You are so good at that. Correction. We are so good at that."

"Yeah. It was great, right up until the end," Bette said.

Ozzy approached them.

"Why," said Vanessa.

Bette looked around to make sure Jason Kaye and his friends were out of ear-shot. "It was nothing, really."
"No it wasn't," said Ozzy.

"Look, I was just gonna let it go. But I got paired with Jason Kaye and I heard him call me a 'freaky bitch' after it was done. It's over, I don't have to see him for three months and I don't want to worry about it. He's beneath me."

"That's very big of you," said Vanessa.

"Thank you." She took out a pen. "I haven't had Katie or Tina write in my yearbook yet." Bette walked away from them.

"You wanna do something about it?" Asked Vanessa sharply, looking up at him.

"Yep," said Ozzy with a single nod.

Katie and Tina got a signal from Vanessa, 'keep Bette occupied.' Ozzy went and asked Mrs. Golden a question to get her to turn her back to the door and distract her. Vanessa snuck out of the gym and started flagging down kids who were waiting by the doors to be dismissed and let them know the simple plan and if they wanted it to be epic, and legendary, tell everyone, because in 8 minutes, school was going to be over, but in 13 minutes, they could to be a part of history. She ran through a hallway and a teacher let out a class early, she knew a lot of people in that class and told them and told them to keep passing the word: when, where, and what to do. She ran up a flight of stairs and peaked into a class of a teacher who was notoriously apathetic. She opened the door and whispered to the first kid there the plan and to pass it on. She sprinted back to the gym and was able to sneak back in without Mrs. Golden noticing. Ozzy thanked Mrs. Golden for whatever she was talking about and walked away and to Vanessa.

"So?" he asked.

"If I lowball it, maybe 10-20 if they come through. But if it grows, it could be insane," said Vanessa

"I know she'll be there, she took her bike and I'll make sure, Can you get him there?"

Vanessa spoke dramatically, "It will be my greatest performance."

Ozzy went up to Bette who was laughing and talking on the floor with Tina and Katie. He crouched to a knee to join them. "I need your help with something." He ticked his head to ask her to get up and step away.

"What's up?"
"You are a bad liar," he hunched down slightly and spoke softly to her.

"We would file that under old news, but go on," she matched his tone.

"But Vanessa tells me acting is different than lying. It's a performance."

"Okay." She said it slowly and wasn't following his thought process.

"Something is going to happen in about six minutes, and I need you to act."

"Act like what?"

"Here's the hard part. It's a surprise and you need to not be surprised."

"And the easy part?"

"I guess this is also a hard part. You need to either act like you have done nothing at all or performed the greatest witchcraft that has ever been seen. It all depends on how well it works."

"But I can't know what it is?"

The school bell rang.

"Nope. Because you're about to find out. I need you to go to your bike and wait in clear shot of the flag pole." He ran out the door ahead of her along with everyone else and she made her way down to her bike. The bike racks were next to the wall of a school protected by some trees. She unlocked her bike and walked it the 20 feet into the grass towards the flag poll that was outside the main doors and the buses. She put the kickstand down and sat on the seat and crossed her arms and waited. She could see into one of the class rooms and one of the clocks. One minute. The sun shown down on her as she watched other kids gather, talk, get on buses, or start walking. For the last day of school, there was still a surprisingly large amount of kids still hanging around. Tylor and Jenna saw Bette and raced up to her.

"I just found out. I had to be a part of this," said Jenna.

"Same. I was in the class Vanessa poked her head in. I tried to tell at least ten people before coming out here, but most of them already knew," said Tylor.

And all of a sudden, it began. Vanessa had Jason Kaye near the flag pole and at the top of her lungs, Vanessa chanted, "Jason Kaye! Has no dick! Jason Kaye! Has no dick!" Vanessa was loud and every time she yelled it, more kids joined in and the chant grew.

"Jason Kaye! Has no dick!" There must have been forty kids shouting by this point, including Jenna, Tylor, Vanessa, and Ozzy. Bette covered her mouth and tried to hide her surprise and joy. "Jason Kaye! Has no dick!" Kids who didn't even know them were yelling from the bus windows "Jason Kaye! Has no dick!"

Jason was looking frantic and couldn't stop what was happening. "Jason Kaye! Has no dick!" Bette saw him look to Vanessa then point to her. "Jason Kaye! Has no dick! Jason Kay! Has no dick!" The greatest witchcraft that has ever been seen. Bette swirled her hands near each other in front of her chest and then imitated an explosion with them until her arms were stretched wide and made a sinister smile. "Jason Kaye! Has no dick! Jason Kaye! Has no dick!" Jason ran back into the school and the chant ended with cheering as he ran. At least a hundred and fifty kids were chanting from all over the yard and bus windows by the time it was over.

Ozzy and Vanessa ran over to Bette who was laughing and applauding. "I don't know how you did it. But that was so fucking awesome. Revenge is a dish best served cold...and by other people...chanting that Jason Kaye has no dick. What did you say to him that made him look over?"

"I told him this is what happens when you mistake powerful ladies for his enemies and there are more of us than there are of him," said Vanessa confidently.

"Do you know how much therapy, bed wetting, and nightmares he's going to have from this?!" Bette chimed.

"Karma is only a bitch if you are," said Jenna with some attitude.

"I'm more content with the idea of all the women who won't have to go to therapy because of him now," said Ozzy.

"We have become the monster," said Bette.

"No. We became your justice," said Vanessa. She gave Bette a hug before running to her bus before it took off. Ozzy was spending time with them and missed his bus. Bette, rolled slowly on her bike beside Jenna and Ozzy walking. Tylor walked in a different direction towards home. After Jenna peeled off from them, Bette and Ozzy continued towards home.

"You know you don't have to hang back with me," said Ozzy.

"You didn't have to miss the bus," said Bette pointedly. "So tell me. How did you do it?"
"Do what?"

"Circumnavigate the globe in less than seven days. Do what? I mean the chant. How did you do it?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Oscar White. Do not pull that with me."

"Alright. Alright. It was mostly Vanessa. I was the distraction for Mrs. Golden."

"That's why you were talking to her for so long?"

"Yeah. It was weird. She was talking about some sport she invented. I was really uncomfortable. Anyways, Vanessa got Katie's attention told her to keep talking to you with Tina. She snuck out; spread the word to enough people. Then she got Jason to come outside by the flag pole five minutes after the bell. And that was that."

"God, she is so cool."

"Yeah. It was her idea. She was really charismatic too. She whipped all those people together and spread the word in less than 15 minutes."

"That's amazing," Bette was in awe.

"Yeah. I guess she has some pull and some favors from doing the school plays, speech club, and stuff. She helps people and people like to help her."

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

"Was it her favor, the charisma, or her coolness that roped you in?" She tried to tease him.

"I was all for growing the common knowledge of Jason Kaye having no dick. Vanessa was just a bonus."

"So you admit, she was a bonus?" she teased him again.

"No! That wasn't what I meant. Working with her was a bonus. I couldn't have done that on my own. All those people in a short amount of time? I couldn't have done that. I'm not stealthy. She did about 90% of the work. I just had to make sure you were there."

"Well played. I'm convinced, for now."

"Whatever." He gently pushed her shoulder and it steered her on her bike away.

She turned herself back on course next to him, "Oh, dramatic comeback. I can't be stopped," she joked in a cartoony voice.

"Why don't you do that more?"

"Dramatic comebacks?"

"No. Be funny. You're sharp and witty, I know you know what is and isn't funny. Even Tylor told me. He asked if you're any funnier around me. He even told me he told you were. You're not an overly serious person and I know you like to laugh and have fun. Why aren't you making other people laugh?"

He seemed so worried for her, like her lack of outward humor was damnation of her soul if she didn't fix it. "That just now was osmosis. You're the funny one. That only happened because you touched me."

"See? You're clever. You add a dash of silly to that and you'd be hysterical."

He was so concerned. "Because I don't need to be the punch line for everyone. I don't need to be the clown."

"Of course you don't need to be, but don't you want to?"

"I want to be lots of things. But perception is a hard thing to change."

"I don't think it would be that hard if you wanted to be funny."

"No. It probably wouldn't be hard if I wanted to be funny. But you didn't know me before this year. You heard the camp story. You know about the pale, ugly, freaky bitch. There are a lot more you haven't. This healthy level of self-esteem did not come from being other people's punch line. I don't need it!" She looked over to him and he looked like he felt badly. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to dump on you like that. You don't deserve that."

"I'm sorry too."

"No. You didn't do anything wrong."

"I shouldn't have pushed you."

"Figuratively or literally?" she snickered a little.

"See! What am I supposed to think when you're funny that quick?"

"Hey. You set me up for that one. It was perfect. But seriously, seriously. I don't do it for everyone. I do it for people who are important to me; those who I let know me. Those I trust and can't lie to, sound familiar?"

"Yeah. It does. That still leaves me with another question."

"What's that? What kind of personal humiliation collateral am I going to have to tell you for you to tell me the other stuff I haven't heard?

"Oh, there are not enough human follies on this planet for me to tell some of these stories. There are grave-worthy stories and being buried alive, while terrifying, would be better than reliving some of those."

"That bad?"

"So, so bad."

"Well it breaks my heart."

"Nah. I came out of those experiences with this crispy candy shell."

He laughed at her then spoke in a serious tone. "It breaks my heart that I couldn't have been here for you sooner."

"Ozzy." She was touched. "You know you're too much, right?"

"That might not always be true. But you've been true. You can't hide that. I do not have the ability to un-see you."

"Damn it, Ozzy." She stepped off her bike and let it fall to the ground and she hugged him tightly around his middle, weaving her arms under his backpack. "You are too much. How did I get a friend like you? I shouldn't get a friend like you."

He carefully hugged her back around her shoulders and back and he touched his cheek to the top of her head. "I vomited on myself on the third grade trip to the zoo and somehow no one ever found out!"

"What now?"

"It was the last week of school and I had the flu and I was missing all the fun field trips, but I didn't want to miss the trip to the zoo, so I insisted to my mom that I go. I was in a small group with Tina, her mom was, still kinda is, one of those helicopter moms, and I couldn't get to the bathroom fast enough because we were too far from it and I vomited on my entire outfit. She had a whole change of clothes for Tina, put me in them instead, and then took me home. No one ever found out, except Tina of course, but she never told a soul."

"I was irrationally scared of chickens because of a petting zoo incident when I was little. And then, last year, I saw, in person, a chicken getting its neck wrung. I didn't eat chicken for three months after that. I still have some difficulty with it."

The pair stopped hugging and she picked up her bike and they kept walking. "I once bumped my nose while on a see-saw on the playground at recess and it gave me a bloody nose and I cried and a bunch of kids laughed at me. I haven't been on a see-saw since. I'm too scared of it happening again. Even though I'm probably too grown for that to ever happen again."

"I didn't learn to ride a bike until I was eight."

"I absolutely hate gum. It feels weird, it smells weird, and people look like cows when they chew it. I automatically think people are dumber than they are when they chew gum. People think I'm a snob because I don't like it."

Ozzy's voice got firm and throaty, "I live with my aunt because my mom can't take care of me because my asshole of a dad screwed her up. I haven't seen him since I was six and I'd be happy if I never see him for the rest of my life."

Bette stopped dead in her tracks. It was the most he has said about his parents all year. Her eyes got really big and she exhaled through her mouth slowly. Her face stumbled through nervousness and confusion. She tried to start saying a couple different things before she settled on something. "When I was seven, I found a porno magazine in the woods and it made me feel weird things. I kept it hidden for way longer than I should have."

Ozzy got a curious look on his face and tried to hide it. He turned to her and raised an eyebrow and cleared his throat and put his hands in his front pockets. "What...um...what kind of magazine was it, thematically?"

Bette got an awkward look on her face and tried to hide her smile, biting the inside of her cheek.

Ozzy sighed then got a great, big smile on his face. "Wow. It took you all year and it only lasted a moment, but you finally found a way to bluff me."

She gave him a Cheshire-cat smile and laugh. "It didn't happen to me, but someone I know."

They kept walking.

"Was it Cassandra?"

"No."

"Tina?"

"No.

"Jenna?"

"No."

"It was Jenna."

"You can't tell her I told you!"

"That's right, because you didn't tell me. And it's like we always said..."

They said it at the same time, "The door swings and locks in both directions."

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 6.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Over the summer Bette saw Ozzy at least twice a week. Aunt Darrah co-managed a grocery store, so the house was always stocked with the best snacks. Most of the time, Jenna, Tylor, Grayson or a mix of them were there too. There was always lots of music, games, and laughter. They rode their bikes everywhere and went on adventures to the pizzeria, ice cream shop, Pebble Lake, the video store, the public library, and more. Bette's house was a little more strict. She could only have Jenna over if her parents weren't home. So Ozzy, Vanessa, and others were over more frequently on weekend days for croquette, bocce ball, and lots of deli meat and cheese sandwiches. Part way through the summer after her parents got to know Vanessa, she was allowed to be there unsupervised too.

Bette's parents, John and Lorna, did encourage independence: if you want to go somewhere you can ride your bike or take the city bus, here's a little cash allowance, a little more if you need to buy lunch, and here are some chores you can do to earn some extra spending money, leave a note if you go out, be home by nine, call if you're running late or going somewhere else, if we tell you to be home, you better be home. As an only child of two working parents, it was a lot of trust for a 13 year old and she was careful not to abuse it. Over the last couple years, she heard other kids at school bad-mouth their parents. Kids who got a lot more in terms of stuff, money, privileges, and luxuries around their own homes. Bette could see how things like that spoiled them. Then there were the kids who had less and got away with more, which was even worse.

Lorna was a hospital administrator who liked antiques, vintage clothing, and décor which made a lot of the house miss-matched but had so much flavor and personality. John was an accountant for the state department who was worldly and loved history and movies, and the music and book collection in the house was vast. Bette figured their work was boring, but saw they weren't. She was an utter reflection of them: Lorna's pale skin, wavy hair, and her face, and John's black hair color, green eyes, and smile. Had she been born with the opposite looks, her mom's blonde hair and her father's ability to tan, she wondered how different things might be for her. Though Bette didn't have a lot of lofty desires, her needs were always fulfilled; there wasn't much to want for. When she did express interest in something John and Lorna nurtured her interest or hobby; but if anything required a commitment, they made sure she honored it.

It was a late Friday afternoon mid-August. Bette had Vanessa and Jenna over at her house for another game of croquette in the yard. John had taught her to be a good hostess, so she made sure there was plenty of lemonade, crackers, and deli meat and cheese cut before they showed up. The balls clacked against the mallets and the balls swished through the grass.

"You guys get your schedules yet?" asked Bette.

"Yeah, earlier this week," said Vanessa.

"Yesterday," said Jenna.

"It's always alphabetical! I probably won't get mine until next week. I swear there are no perks to having a W-last name."

"You always get to sit in the back of the class room," said Jenna.

"That's not really a perk to me."

"You're right next to Ozzy and you two are close. Wheelan / White. You don't worry about sitting next to someone you don't like," said Vanessa.

"We've only had two classes together and you were each in one of them. And how often did alphabetical order put us on the same team in Gym class. Except..." Bette grew a big smile and her whole expression warmed. "Badminton day."

Jenna looked at both of them. "What was badminton day?"

"I'm not sure. I thought we did that unit for two weeks."

"The Badminton unit was three weeks and it was awesome, because I was awesome at it. There was a day of round-robin doubles play and Ozzy and I got paired. We were undefeated that day. He had the reach and could be swift, and I was spry and willing to take a fall to make a shot. We were so synced up, there was no stopping us. It was the best day." Bette was in a daze.

"...of gym class?" Vanessa attempted to finish Bette's thought.

"What?"

"It was the best day of gym class is what you meant to say, right?" asked Jenna.

"Yeah. That. That's what I meant to say, Jenna."

Lorna pulled into the garage and walked through the yard to the house. "Hi girls. How long were you staying around? Should I anticipate two more for supper?" Lorna was outwardly sweet and chipper and as much as Bette knew Lorna adored Jenna, she wasn't fond of being responsible for other children when she wasn't asked and Bette knew that.

"I need to start biking home in about 15 minutes," said Jenna.

"My dad is picking me up around that time too," said Vanessa.

"I'll get the yard cleaned up and be in to help after, Mom." said Bette.

"No rush, Betty."

"Betty," said Vanessa. "That's still so weird to hear."

"Because she's the only one who calls me that." Bette pointed the croquette mallet at each of them. "The only one. Got it?"

Jenna took her turn and hit her ball through the final two hoops into the stake for the win. They helped her clean up the game and put it away in the garage. Bette paused and looked along one of the long walls in the garage before walking back out. With only a few spare minutes, Jenna took off on her bike a little early. Bette and Vanessa waited outside on the steps for her dad.

"You got kinda weird about that badminton thing," said Vanessa.

"What do you mean by that?" asked Bette.

"I'm not sure what you were more into: being undefeated, the game itself, or Ozzy."

Bette treaded carefully. "Do you not remember how un-athletic I was? I can barely do a 12 or 13 minute mile. Badminton was one of the few things I was great at doing. That and being your swing dance partner."

"What about Ozzy?"

"What about Ozzy?"

"What's your deal with him?"

"We're friends."

"That's it?"

"Yep."

"And there's nothing else between you two?"

"We had to kiss on a dare at Cassandra's Christmas party. Jenna was there, she could tell you. It wasn't a big deal. We trust each other."

"Trust each other like how?"

"We tell each other everything. We can't lie to each other. He knows where all my bodies are buried, I know where his are buried."

"So, he's your girlfriend."

Bette gave her an annoyed face. "Don't make it weird like that. He's a guy."

"OH!" She whispered, "He's gay, right?"

"No, he dated Cassandra for almost two months. He likes girls. I don't understand your questions."

"I'm just trying to understand what the deal is with you two."

"No deal. Just friendship, complete honesty and trust."

"Huh."

"It helps that he's a really good person. He's also talented, smart, and hilarious. All those things encompassed when you two coordinated the Jason Kaye chant, And I believe I can say this without violating his privacy, Ozzy told me how you did it, and he was impressed with you."

"He said that?"

"My words, not his. Let me be clear: he described what you two did in honest detail. I described you as cool and amazing and he agreed. I also recall he used the word charismatic to describe you."

"Really?" Vanessa sounded intrigued.

"He said he couldn't have done it without you."

"In truth, I couldn't have done it without him. He laid the groundwork with that awesome tackle after Jason hurt you. And what guy calls another guy a 'dickless monster'? He's brilliant. And we are told chivalry is dead." Vanessa's face lit up.

Bette knew she couldn't lie to Ozzy, but she couldn't let Vanessa down with the truth. "Keep your eyes and ears open around him. He's worth a look and a listen."

"And that wouldn't bother you?"

"I'm his friend. I'm not his keeper and I'm certainly not his mother. Ozzy is his own person who makes his own choices."

Vanessa's dad pulled up in front of the house. "There's my ride, she popped up from the stoop.

"Hey. I can give him your number if you want. Or I can ask to see if he would want yours."

"Would you offer him my number and tell me what he says?" Vanessa bounced on her toes.

"No, I won't violate his trust like that."

"But haven't you already telling me all this?" Vanessa asked with a head tilt. Bette thought about it. It was questionable, maybe, but she knew she'd talk to him about it soon enough.

Vanessa's dad honked the horn.

"I can do this or not," she said with a shrug.

"Give him my number and if he wants to, he can call me."

Bette smiled, "Absolutely."

The girls gave each other a wave and Vanessa got the car and left.

Bette went back into the house, put the leftover snacks back in the fridge with the lemonade, and met her Lorna in the living room. She had the news on and had steeped a pot of tea. She was sitting in her favorite sunny spot like a cat and she was buffing her nails through the view of her reading glasses. "Did you girls have fun?"

"Yeah. Jenna and I always have fun, and Vanessa is so cool."

"Cool." Lorna said in a playful, mocking tone.

"I take it you didn't need my help with supper?"

"Nah. It's Friday. I called your father; I was able to reach him before he left the office. I told him I was in the mood for that whiskey chicken and cornbread from The Lodge tonight."

"Sweet," she said in a deep, cartoony voice.

"Yeah. I thought it's a nice evening we can get a spot on the patio."

Bette was silent for a moment. "I feel a little weird about something I did today."

"Uh-oh. What is it Betty baby?"

"I think-I think I pimped out my friends to each other."

"W'oh!" Lorna gave Bette a pertinent, motherly look for her language choice.

"Sorry. What I mean is I think I kinda set up Vanessa and Ozzy and I didn't really ask Ozzy's opinion or permission."

"Uh-huh. And now what?" Lorna applied a clear coat of polish to her nails.

"Well. I need to tell him and see if he's either interested in her or if I need to apologize to him."

"Sounds easy enough. So what's the problem?"

Bette adjusted her seating and looked at her own nails. "I guess it's-" She took a breath, "If Ozzy's happy or mad about it, we can work it out, and it's going to be fine. But if Vanessa is happy or sad about it...I mean she's cool and a fun to hang around with but, and this is going to sound kind of cold but: I won't care. Does that make sense?"

Lorna answered in a way and tone that looked and sounded like a bobble-headed, singing bird. "Well sure. You and Vanessa only just became friends this summer. You and Ozzy have been friends for a year. It makes perfect sense."

"Then why does it feel like that's not the only thing?"

"What kind of thing Betty Baby?" She closed the bottle of clear coat with pointed out fingers.

"I don't know. And it's going to bug me. Maybe it'll come to me when I tell him." She popped up from the couch.

The side door of the house opened and closed. "Hello!" The gleeful greeting of her father John coming into the house and the living room. "My ladies: Lorna Vue and Bette for Two."

She hugged her father then he went over and happily kissed her mother, "JW!"

"I believe my fair baroness was interested in h-whiskey chicken this evening." said John, grand and playful.

"Yes, my good sir!" said Lorna in a happy, chirped tone.

"Then let me change into my finest attire from our Hawaiian escapades and we shall go." John kissed Lorna again and went to change.

It wasn't that they ignored Bette; she just saw them as so madly in love with each other that she wasn't always in their picture. So many of the kids at school had parents that were divorced. Ozzy didn't even have anything to do with his father. Bette knew how rare her parents' love was. "I think I also want to change and freshen up." Bette ran up to her room and changed out of the shorts and t-shirt she was in and into a long sundress. She kicked off her shoes and socks, slid on some sandals, and grabbed a cardigan sweater from the closet too. Before she went back downstairs, she grabbed the phone and called Ozzy, the phone rang and rang and she got the answering machine. "Hi Oz, It's Bette, I was hanging out with Vanessa today and long story short, she wanted me to give you her number and if you're interested, you should call her," she left the phone number. "Talk to you later." She hung up. It was the best she could do in the moment.

The three of them got in the car and headed to the restaurant, recounting their day on the way. They only had to wait ten minutes before getting a table outside. They ordered their food and continued to talk and enjoy each other as a family. Then something happened that frequently happened with Lorna and John whether there was an official dance floor or not. John got up and took Lorna's hand. They found a clear spot on the patio together and got into formation to do their basic tango routine. This time it was to "My Girl" by The Temptations playing over the restaurant music system. They had other dances in their repertoire that were much more elaborate, but in this moment, this was what they could do in the space. Bette loved watching them. She loved other people's reactions to watching them. She loved it when people came up to them and told them how wonderful they looked together. They were totally in sync and happy. They ended their dance with a kiss and sat back down. Bette asked them, "Mom, Dad, I know it's a little late in the season, but I was wondering, can we please get a badminton set for the yard?"

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 7.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

8th grade 1999-2000

Bette waited at the bus stop with Cassandra and there was another nervous looking fifth grader with a mop of sandy hair, big round glasses, and a back pack that was way too big for him. While Bette and Cassandra were no longer friends, they had found a comfortable co-existence waiting for the bus together. In the last year, Cassandra had grown to 5'2", had dyed her hair a richer tone of blonde, dressed in more trendy fashions with tighter clothes, more exposed skin, and a top in a horrific shade of electric pink. She also and wore more make up in a tan color that didn't match her actual fading tan and unnatural colored eye makeup, probably to deter from the braces she had to get on her teeth. Puberty had been a little more kind to Bette over the summer. She had grown to 5'4" and her waist and hips were finally more proportional to her now D-cup breasts and her blackheads were few and far between. Her mom had taken her clothing shopping at consignment stores where the clothes were usually higher-end and meant for women instead of teenagers, but about the same price as the mall and big box stores everyone else seemed to buy their clothes from. It was nice to have jeans that didn't fray at the bottom quickly or even the occasional designer brand. Her stuff was quality and it didn't look exactly like everyone else's, and it let her find and enhance her own tastes. That morning, she chose a pair of jeans, a black leather belt, black leather boots, a green blouse that was close to her eye color, and a black cardigan that was made of stretchy t-shirt fabric that she liked a lot, because she thought it would go with everything. She felt good; that healthy level of self-esteem had begun to turn into confidence.

"Morning Cassandra," Bette said following a yawn.

"Hey girly-girl," Cassandra replied in her usual bubbly tone.

"You're," she looked her up and down, "perky this morning."

"When you look good you feel good. How are you feeling?"

Bette mind flashed with sharp replies: I feel like you should eat your make up so you can be pretty on the inside. I feel you look like a child predictor victim trading card. That feeling you are having is a side effect from your lobotomies.

"I didn't sleep the greatest, but I'll shake it off soon enough."

"Nervous for the first day?"

"No. Sometimes, tired is just tired Cass."

"Oh!" Cassandra sidled up to her, but didn't make much of an effort to lower her voice, "Do you need a tampon? Is it that time? Because I have plenty of them if you need."

"Oh for fuck's sakes Cassandra, if we are going to do this 180 more times over the next nine months could you try not to make it awful on the first day?"

The boy snickered and turned back to them, "You said the F-word."

Bette looked at the boy, "And she said tampon," in a playful mock-judging way.

Cassandra gave them both an annoyed look.

"What's your name?" asked Bette.

"Todd."

"I'm Bette and we don't have a swear jar here. So I won't tell if you won't tell."

"Neat." He smiled with his giant front teeth poking out.

The bus came down the street and they got on. Cassandra sat in the back away from Bette and Todd. A couple stops later, Ozzy got on the bus. He had his hair shorter and gelled forward. His whiskers were at the point where he had to shave more than twice a week. He was a solid six feet tall now. His go to clothes were still black t-shirts with rock bands printed on them, but he had also incorporated a lot of button up shirts with flames or lightning on them. Like all boys of that age who played guitar, he wanted to be rock star himself and he tried to look the part. He sat across from her on the bus and tried to find a comfortable position to sit in.

Bette yawned again, "Mornin'"

"Don't you start with that."

"Nice to see you too."

"Sorry. I was working on some chord progressions until way too late and I'm zonked too. Mountain Dew shouldn't taste that good this early."

Bette cringed, "Esh. Too early for me for that stuff, I've never been a fan. But there is something magical about the combination of a Diet Coke and a bagel."

'Yuck. I don't know how you can drink that stuff."

"It's what my parents buy. They like it and don't ask my opinion. I drink what's available. Cass was a real piece of work about it though. She must wake up on a bed of fairy dust or something." She looked forward to the new kid. "Hey Todd. What did you think of Cassandra?" she tilted her head to the back of the bus.

"She looks like an icky Barbie." Todd said it with the blunt innocence only a ten year old boy could have.

Bette and Ozzy tried to control their laughter but failed. "We don't really like icky Barbie dolls, do we?"

"No way."

Bette's eyes got big with a deep inhale and a naughty thought, "Do you want to help me prank the icky Barbie doll?"

Todd thought for a second. "I was scared, and you are nice. I didn't think it was gonna be so cool to hear the F-word this early. Okay."

Ozzy looked at Bette and spoke with playful judgment. "Bette Wheelan. What are you doing corrupting the youth of tomorrow with your potty mouth?"

"Making it funnier."

The bus got to school and the kids trickled off of it. It was a nice morning and lots of kids were still outside on the grass talking and catching up. Cassandra was one of the last ones off the bus from sitting in the back. She was part way up the sidewalk and approaching Stella, Monica, and Angela when Todd got in front of her, pointed at her, and yelled at the top of his lungs, "Cassandra has plenty of tampons and is willing to share!" As quickly as he yelled it, he ran into the school. Cassandra was mortified, her face turned as pink as her top. Giggles and laughter echoed around her within 20 feet. Stella, Monica, and Angela laughed at her too. Cassandra walked past her friends into the school and away from the laughter and past two people who asked her for a tampon.

Ozzy and Bette stepped out from the sidelines of where it happened and started to head inside. "You don't think that was too mean?" Ozzy asked.

"Nah. Like Jenna says, Karma is only a bitch if you are. And I recall you being hurt by her."

Ozzy shuttered, "Don't remind me."

"Besides, I would wager you that I could go up to 10 different girls today, ask them for either a tampon or a pad, and nine of them would give me one."

"No way."

She stared at him assuredly. "Nine. Out of. Ten."

"Are we making a bet, Bette?"

"That's going to get too confusing. I wager I can get a pad or a tampon from nine out of ten different girls before the end of the day. One name per product, no repeats."

"What are the stakes?"

"If I win, you become my personal vending machine. You're gonna hold onto all of them at your house for when I need them there."

He only looked a little horrified. "Fine. But if you fail. I want- You need too-"

"How about a 12 pack of Mountain Dew and a family pack of Oreos?"

"Deal!" He said it with a big smile and bright eyes.

They shook on it and headed inside. They had different first hour classes, but the same second hour class, English with Mr. Dagner. As a teacher who was pushing retirement, his reputation for effort was low. He sat them in alphabetical order by last name and Ozzy was right behind her on the seating chart.

"You know if they have any of those specialty flavor Mountain Dews, I might prefer one of those," boasted Ozzy.

Bette couldn't look at him, but she shook her head side to side.

"I also prefer doublestuf Oreos."

She crossed her arm over her and held up her hand over her opposite shoulder and gave him the American Sign Language sign for "No" by snapping together her index and middle finger and thumb together like a beak.

At lunch time he prodded her about it again with cockiness. "We did not discuss when payment would be due. Obviously by the end of day today won't be possible, but I think you can probably manage by the end of the week."

"Ozzy, I'm not discussing it with you until we're on the bus. Is that fair?"

"Fine." He paused for a moment. "Seriously, doublestuf."

They also had art class together but Ozzy didn't bring it up there. At the end of the day before heading to the bus, Bette ran over to the vending machines. She bought a can of Mountain Dew and a bag of Mini Oreos before heading to the bus. She did not even try to hide the treats when she got on the bus. The bus was full and ended up sharing a seat with Ozzy. She rested her backpack on her lap.

"I believe the terms of our wager was a 12 pack and a family pack of Oreos."

"You are 100 percent correct."

"Does this mean I won?"

"Close your eyes and open your hands."

Ozzy grew a big smile on his face. Bette opened her back pack and turned it slightly to create a wall. She lowered Ozzy's hands into the open area between where they sat. She pulled out a bulky plastic shopping bag and placed it in Ozzy's hand. The expression on his face dropped. "Open your eyes."

In his hand was a double lined grocery bag filled with every brand, style, size, shape, and variety of tampon and maxi pad beyond what he thought was possible. There were at least 35 different individual items in the bag. He quickly closed the bag and shoved it between them.

"What did you accomplish? You said nine out of ten!"

She laughed with a snort and pulled out a notebook from her bag. "I know, I know. But it was just too easy." She opened the page and there was the list of girls who all gave her products.

"You even have Stella and Monica in here. I didn't even think they liked you because of Cassandra."

"They know a time will come when they will probably need to ask me for one, and I will gladly give."

"Wait, what are these numbers along the side?"

"That represents which class hour of the day they gave them to me in."

"But you have nine listed before I saw you second hour!"

"Yep."

"How did you accomplish this?"

"Are you kidding me? Did you not hear how self-assured I was about this this morning? Girls get prepped for this from 5th grade science class and their moms. What did they teach you at your old school?"

"Not this."

"You have one question mark in here. Who was that?"

"After I met my goal, I considered asking Jason Kaye because of the now common knowledge that he has no dick. But I didn't want to assume that meant he had a vagina. That would be too insulting to women."

"You are unbelievable." He was in awe of her.

"And it's like Vanessa said, do not underestimate powerful ladies. We are an empathetic bunch." She gave him the can of Mountain Dew and package of mini Oreos. "Enjoy them as a consolation prize. Because you now have to keep all of that stuff under your bathroom sink now."

"This may be the greatest witchcraft I've ever seen." He cracked open the can and took a long drink

"We are the only creatures I can think of that bleed for six days and don't die."

Ozzy spit out the Mountain Dew on the back of the seat and his back pack and coughed. He turned his head toward the window and attempted to collect himself. "That's messed up," he wiped his mouth with his wrist.

"But it's true."

Ozzy shoved the bag into his backpack and humbly accepted defeat. When Ozzy got off the bus and headed home, Aunt Darrah was already home from work.

"Aunt Darrah?"

"I'm in here Oz." He went out to the laundry room where he heard her call. "How was school hon?"

He cleared his throat. "You ever get in over your head and have no idea how you got there?"

"Oh Oz, what did you do?" she was worried.

"No. No. No. No! I didn't do anything wrong. I'm just an idiot."

"Oscar White. You say no such thing under my roof."

Ozzy opened his backpack, pulled out the bag of feminine products and let them spill on the table. He spoke with an embarrassed, humble smile, "In this case when I tell you, and I think you will agree, I'm an idiot."

Darrah covered her mouth with her hand and doubled over with laughter.

The next several weeks of school proceeded. Cassandra and Bette continued to have tension at the bus stop but Todd was really helpful for breaking it up. He would innocently tell her she looked like a Barbie doll and she would take it as a compliment but would look to Bette when Cassandra wasn't looking and show he had his fingers crossed. Despite not having spent much time around her younger cousins and being an only child, she would babysit Todd once in a while. He was a nice kid and he listened to her and it was super easy money. They were more of friends and it was less like work. On nights when she watched him and they had to eat leftovers or couldn't eat the things they wanted to eat, she taught him some of the puzzle club games or made sure they were engaged in stuff he liked. On the nights when his parents were late, and they couldn't eat his favorites, she'd give him a $5 kickback on Monday. It was their secret and they had fun with it. Todd enjoyed talking to Ozzy on the bus. Todd told him that he thought he was big and scary at first but after the first week, he wasn't scared of him anymore. They would do funny cartoon voices for each other and talk about music. Ozzy would bring a CD player on the bus and have him listen to music and help him find out what he liked. It was happy, innocent fun.

Life off the bus and in school was different. Even though everyone seemed to grow more confident, Bette included, the kids grew more attitude, more mean. Cassandra, Stella, Monica, and Angela while all claiming to be best friends were constantly badmouthing each other behind their backs. Jenna had always been Bette's best friend and while they remained so, they both found themselves a little less close that year. Jenna was starting to hang out with the theater and Speech club kids like Vanessa and Terry. Bette grew closer with Tina and Katie due to being in three different classes with each of them. They also got along really well with Greyson and Tylor, which made the lunch table super easy. But there were still tensions. Tylor's parents separated that summer and he was frustrated about it a lot and never wanted to talk about it so it made him angry. Greyson would get quiet for days at a time and no one could get him to open up. Bette was sensing some kind of wall between herself and Ozzy. She still felt like he told her everything and she for sure told him everything, but something was off, and she couldn't put her finger on it.

There was a strange rash of mean pranks in the school. Someone would raise their hand to answer a question, and if they were wrong, the next day they would have a bunch of pieces of paper with the wrong and mean answers written on it put on their desk at the beginning of class. In Earth Science, someone was supposed to answer a question with "Igneous rock" and it came out "Ignatius rock." The next day, there were pieces of paper covering his chair that said, idiot, ignoramus, incompetent, inferior, ignorant, intimidated, and more. Girls were getting their bra straps snapped by other girls. People were getting pushed over intentionally or their books kicked if they left them on the floor too long. People would close their lockers on you if you turned your back for a split second too long. Bette made the mistake of leaving her new favorite black t-shirt cardigan at a desk after school. When she found it in the lost and found the next day, it had been cut in half with scissors. The student's behavior was noticed and the administration made an announcement that if student behavior and morale didn't improve swiftly and for the better, they could say good-bye to dances and other extracurricular activities.

It was Tuesday October 12th and Bette arrived to her second hour English class. It had been a week since the behavior announcement and there had been a vast improvement in student behavior. She found herself holding her tongue a lot as to not contribute to any negative behavior, she was irritated, she didn't feel like herself. Ozzy came in and sat down in his spot behind her.

"Hey."

She sat sideways in her desk so she could talk to him. "Hey yourself," she replied. She sounded bitter at best.

"What's wrong?"

"Everything. Nothing. I don't even know anymore."

"Anything I can do?"

"I don't know. I think I just need some fun. You know? I asked my mom if we could go shopping this weekend to find something for the Halloween dance for a costume, but it doesn't feel like enough to make me feel better. Something's off. Don't you sense it?"

"I think a lot of people feel like that right now. I don't feel like that for myself."

The bell rang.

"Maybe that's part of it."

She turned around, rested her elbow on her desk and slid a hand into her hair.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 8.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

The end of the following week were the Halloween dances. The 5th and 6th graders had theirs on Friday night. The 7th and 8th graders had theirs on Saturday night. Lorna had taken Bette shopping at a vintage clothing store and found a beaded and fringed flapper dress in forest green with a black overlay that hugged her body just right. The shop had the right kind of headband and gloves too. Lorna already owned the right jewelry, purse, and a scarf wrap to go with it. She also helped Bette with her make up: sharp eyeliner, smoky eye shadow, lots of mascara, and a bold red lip.

When Bette came down the stairs her father was all charm, "Wowsy-bowsy. There's a femme fatale agent on the loose and she looks like she is out to kill. Alert all field agents to stand by!"

"Dad! You've been saying stuff like that since I got dressed for church pageants when I was six."

"I am not going to let you get out of here until I get the camera." John stepped out of the room and into the kitchen and grabbed where the camera was stored.

"I want one with you and your mama." Bette and Lorna posed and John snapped a couple photos. "My ladies. They always know a way to a man's heart."

"I know, just like mom taught me: through the third and fourth rib," she spoke in jest.

"That's right, Betty-baby." Said Lorna in her bird-like tone. She gave her daughter a kiss on the cheek.

John took a couple more photos before dropping Bette off at the school. "Party like Mata Hari! We'll rendezvous in the south lot at 11," he yelled from the car window. Bette had been meaning to research that first phrase for a while, but forgot it as soon as she was in the door.

She followed the crowd of kids inside and saw Tylor and Greyson first in the hallway outside the gym. Tylor was dressed as a werewolf and Greyson was dressed as Batman. "Hey guys. You look great!"

"Frnks." Tylor took out his fake fangs. "Thanks. We just got here."

"So you haven't seen anyone else yet?"

"Nope." said Greyson dryly, popping his 'p.'

"Wait. Greyson. Dick Greyson. Why didn't you dress as Robin?" Bette asked.

"See, I fucking told you this was going to happen! We've been here 30 seconds and it took a girl to do it. You're screwed. You are so screwed." said Tylor looking over at his cousin and pointing.

Greyson took a deep breath and exhaled with a blank look on his face. "Whatever. I'm gonna get some popcorn." And he walked away.

"Should I have not said that?" Bette cringed.

"No. You were just the first here. I warned him. My dad mentioned it. His brother said..."

Tylor kept talking but his voice faded in her head because in that moment she heard the music in the background grow, 'Hypnotize' by Notorious BIG and he walked in and towards them. In her head it happened in slow motion. Wearing a black, 1940s pinstripe suit, tie, a white rose in the lapel, fedora, spats, and carrying a cane, was Ozzy. Holy shit.

"Hey, hey. Look what the cat dragged in!" said Ozzy. He jumped and landed in front of them and did a spin. A robust, refined scent flew off him and for a split second, she didn't see clearly.

"Cool threads Ozzy," said Tylor.

Bette pulled herself together, "Yeah. Dapper suit. New?"

"Nah. It's just a rental, but isn't it great?" He bounced the cane on the floor and it flew back up and he caught it. He spoke in an attitude that matched his look, "What are we waiting for? We can't waste looking this good out here." Tylor put his fangs back in and howled. All three of them had a good laugh. "This ensemble demands an entrance," he said while tugging on his lapels. He offered her his arm. She let her shall wrap hang back and took his elbow. They walked into the gym and a few dozen kids were there already. DJ table at one end, dancing, some tables with chairs, bleachers partially pulled out, and in the lighter opposite corner, refreshments and snacks for sale.

Bette saw Jenna across the room dressed as Princess Peach and Vanessa dressed in a blue Juliette dress. She let go of Ozzy and ran to them with a squeal. Jenna knew how much fun Bette had at these dances, and after the last several weeks at school, she needed it. "Oh my gosh, you girls look so great. Jenna, you look like you walked off the screen. Vanessa, that dress looks like it was sewn on to you. I swear it's the exact color of your eyes."

"And you Bette." Jenna leaned in something only a best friend could say, "Your boobs are out of this world in that dress."

She made a weird face back at Jenna, "Why a-thank you, I grew them myself."

Ozzy strolled up and joined them. "Ladies, ladies. I think the party is here now, am I wrong?"

"Lookin' sharp Oz," said Vanessa.

"Yeah. Did you and Bette plan that?" asked Jenna.

"No, I'm 1920s, he's 1940s. It's totally different. Totally different." Bette answered quickly. The music changed to 'Livin' La Vida Loca' by Ricky Martin and Bette got excited. "I love this song. I am ready to go dance!"

"Lead the way." said Jenna.

Ozzy and Vanessa followed behind. Bette went wild on the dance floor. She didn't hold anything back when she was out there. She felt like her parents. It was a different era of music and a different style, but she was free. About an hour in, Bette needed a break for a drink. Others had taken breaks, she had not. She went up to the refreshments line and waited in the twin lines with other goblins, fairies, cats, and devils. She got to be the third to the front and tried to discretely pull her cash out from her dress strap and unfolded it.

"That seems convenient," she looked across to the vampire boy watching her. It was Mark Hall, back after having been gone the last two years of school. He had naturally brown hair but that night he wore it with black gel slicking it back, heavy white-grey makeup, a drawn in widow's peak, dark grey rings under his blue eyes, and a brown-red lip.

"Not really. Pockets. Pockets would actually be convenient. I bet that jacket has four of them?" He wasn't wearing a cheap Halloween store vampire costume. It was a vintage red smoking jacket with silver and red paisley brocade on the cuffs and lapels. He wore a white dress shirt with a black ascot and a white multi-rhinestone broach the size of a quarter holding the ascot in place. His overall look and make-up was a much more sophisticated take on a vampire than the vampire costumes other kids were wearing.

"Yeah. How did you know?"

She turned and showed the dress. "I know a thing or two about old clothes."

"You knew a thing or two about lots of stuff." His voice brightened, "You were the only one who knew what my stuffed mouse was on my backpack!"

"Diddl, from Germany."

"I can't believe you remember that," he said in the same bright voice.

"I had Diddl stationary and stickers."

They both got to the front of the line and spoke, "Twix bar."

Bette snorted a laugh. The parent volunteer behind the table reached in the box. "There's only one left."

"Go for it." said Mark.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Yeah."

"And a ginger ale." She paid and walked to the tables. Mark made his purchase and watched what Bette did next. She went to one of the tables where Ozzy, Greyson, Tylor, Vanessa, and Jenna were. Tylor was taking pictures with a disposable camera. Bette tossed the Twix bar to Ozzy. He opened it and held it like it was a cigar. Tylor took a picture of him. Bette went around the table and took a plastic Champaign saucer out of her purse and poured some of the ginger ale in it. Tylor took a picture of her posing. The song changed to 'No Scrubs' by TLC. Bette got excited again and she, the girls, and Tylor went and kept dancing.

Mark crossed the gym to where Ozzy and Greyson sat. "Hey, Ozzy, right?"

"Ozzy White, but I catch your drift all the way from down in history." Ozzy continued to lay on the thick personality of his costume. "What can I do, for you, Nosferatu?" He leaned back in the chair with the front two legs up, had a foot propped up on a crossbar under the table, and stuck the Twix bar between his back teeth.

"Exactly! History class...that's the one, we have together, you and me. Uh..." Mark fidgeted as he spoke, glancing at the table.

"Ozzy, you're scaring the Lord of Darkness. Take it down a notch." said Greyson flatly. He put down his popcorn, got up, and walked to the dance floor.

"He's right. It's the suit." Ozzy hopped up out of the chair. He gave himself a shake, hunched forward slightly, and he was a totally different person in attitude. "What's up?"

Mark tried to stand up straighter; Ozzy was still a solid four inches taller than him and roughly 80 pounds heavier. "What's-um-what's your situation with Bette? I see you two together a lot."

"My situation? There isn't one. She's my friend."

"Just friends?" Mark raised his eyebrows and tilted his head forward when he asked.

"That's it." Ozzy shrugged it off literally.

Mark gestured with his hands, "So I'm not going to end up sleeping with the fishes or with a wooden steak through my heart if I-"

"Mark. I'm not her boyfriend. It's not like that. You want some advice even?"

"Seriously?" He smiled.

"If you can answer me this," Ozzy took a bite and held the Twix like a cigar again and clamped his other hand on Mark's shoulder. Mark's eyes grew wide and he froze, glancing at Ozzy's huge, meaty hand.

Ozzy leaned into him a little, "You ever been mean to her?"

"No." he shook his head a tiny bit.

"Teased her? Even back in early elementary school? Behind her back or to her face?"

"No. She knows cool stuff. It was something we used to talk about when I went here back in 5th grade."

"5th grade, hm? What are your thoughts on Jason Kaye?" He poked the air up and down with his Twix-cigar.

"I don't like him. He was mean to me."

"Okay then." He ate another portion of the Twix and took his hand off Mark's shoulder. "Ask her to dance. Compliment her on something that she chose. And pay attention if she does the same for you, and show a little humility. If you can, somehow, have her show you something, as in teach you how to do something. Do that stuff, and you're in."

"That's it?! Did she tell you that?" Mark was perplexed by his humble-sounding advise.

Ozzy looked out at the girls dancing and having fun, all of them in a group: Jenna, Bette, Tina, Vanessa, and Katie. "Nope. That's just the ladies." He said it with the over confidence he had earlier, a head twist, and ran his non-Twix hand down his chest. "Except the dancing thing. Look at her," He tapped Mark with the back of his hand on his chest. "It's obvious she loves it." He then got a little serious and pointed at him, "Oh, and don't lie to her, because then she'll kill you."

"Is that 'the ladies?'" he did air quotes with his fingers to Ozzy's words.

"No, that's Bette. She's a powerful lady who does not like to be deceived." Ozzy finished eating the Twix bar, gave Mark finger guns, and went back to the dance floor to join his friends.

Mark took a couple of deep breaths, glanced at the table, mouthed some of the words Ozzy said to him to himself, and went back to his own friends.

Bette took another break mid song and drank more of her ginger ale. She was the only one of her friends at the table. She was taking a sip and the song change to a swing dance song, 'Jump, Jive, 'n Wail' by The Brian Setzer Orchestra and she was thrilled to hear it and took a few steps toward the dance floor to find one of the friends from gym class last year to be her partner. The dress needed it. Tina or Katie would do, Vanessa would have been great, but Ozzy would look spectacular with her in their costumes. She got a few more steps towards the floor when she saw it; Ozzy and Vanessa partner up and danced with chemistry and panache. He spun her and twirled her and did all the combinations she could have done with either of them. Water. A big cup of water. Bette swiftly walked back to the refreshments table and grabbed three wax paper cups of water chugging, crushing, and tossing into the garbage, one right after the other. She was about to go for a fourth when she heard him.

"Bette?" She turned to see Mark Hall again. "Do you wanna dance?" He pointed back to the dance floor with his thumb.

"Do you know how?' She tried to catch her breath from drinking all the water.

"Yeah." He smiled. "I'm actually pretty good." he chuckled. "I know how to lead if you know how to follow."

"Oh hell yeah I can follow." She walked with him across the gym out to the floor and he let her know the combinations he could do along with some other moves. She asked if he could do a couple other things. He got a big smile on his face and said yes. Mark took off his jacket, leaving it on a chair before getting to the floor. He and Bette got into formation and did a similar eight combination routine from gym class that she and Vanessa had done. Turns and twists and hand changes, and at first, they looked like everyone else, but then the song broke down in and they went into a freestyle. Bette did some flapper style dance moves that matched her costume. Mark did a tight double pirouette and a back hand spring flip. They got close together, he crouched down, and she assisted him in another flip. They got back together, went into another four combination routine and right as the song got towards the end, they were back to back, linked in arms, and he flipped her backwards over his head, she bounced up on her toes in the land, hoisted the bottom of her dress, and slid into a split as the song played the outro.

Bette caught her breath and for the first time, people were watching her like people watched her parents. There were other people still dancing, but a bunch were watching them. Mark whispered in her ear in a bow. "Finish the show."

She adjusted out of her split into a position where he could spin her into a stand. She gave a curtsy and the song transitioned into 'Back at One' by Brian McKnight. "Can we keep it going?" he asked.

"Yeah."

He put his hands around her waist and back and she rested her arms on his shoulders. They were close enough that they could talk into each other's ear without having to whisper or talk too loud, but not so far apart that they looked each other in the face. "'Pretty good.' You're more than pretty good." she said. "All of us had to learn this in gym at the end of last year. That's why you saw everyone doing the same moves. Where did you learn all that?"

"Dance camp. My mom thought it would be more interesting."

"More interesting than what?"

"Survival camp."

"And?"

"I have to admit, this is pretty interesting."

"Yeah, I might have to agree with you on that."

There was an awkward silence for a few seconds. "Your dress fit the song, it was a good costume choice," Mark chimed in quickly.

"I like how you put together your costume. So many people here look so cheap and out of the bag. Where did you find that gorgeous jacket?"

"It was my grandfather's. I found it when we cleaned out their attic last year."

"Isn't that weird how old stuff that was for adults fits us as 13 and 14 year olds now?"

"The man was a smoker."

She gave him a light laugh. "Yeah, the lady who had this dress probably was too. My grandma told me she used to pay two packs for a quarter when she smoked. Did you do your own makeup? You certainly got that widow's peak sharp."

"My step-mom did it for me. She's actually pretty cool. She makes my dad happier than I remember my mom making him."

"That sounds like it used to be tough."

"Not any more. After turning 14 in September, I was allowed to choose where I got to live. I didn't want to live in that tiny town with my mom and grandma and what felt like six other kids in the entire county. I wanted to come back here where I knew people."

"And you're not afraid that hurt her?"

"They're parents. They want what's best for us."

She saw over Mark's shoulder. Ozzy and Vanessa were dancing, closely and intimately. "I do know that. My parents have a love like Morticia and Gomez Addams."

"I always thought you gave off a Wednesday kind of vibe."

She laughed. "And like the Addams family they would do anything for their child. I'm very lucky. You sound pretty lucky too."

The song started to come to an end. Mark suggested one more choreographed move. They slid their arms out from each other until their hands joined, he half turned her wrapping their arms around her and they were hip to hip. On the last beat of the song, they gave each other a hip bump.

"I don't know if you remember, but I had three cups of water right before our big number," said Bette.

"By all means."

She grabbed her small bag from the table and walked to the restroom. She used the toilet and reapplied her lipstick. The rest of her make up looked pretty good still.

She made her way back to the gym and when she went to the table where all her friends' stuff was, and saw it was all gone. Bette's shawl, Ozzy's hat and cane, Greyson's black mask, Tylor's teeth, Vanessa's circlet, Jenna's yellow star were all gone. She walked over to the dance floor and flagged down Jenna.

"Our stuff is gone. I came back from the bathroom and all the stuff from the table is gone. Did someone move it?"

"No we've all been here.' Jenna got the other's attention, "Hey guys, did you see anyone at our table?"

They all looked over to see that their stuff was gone.

"I see our stuff," said Tylor. They looked at Tylor and saw where he was looking cross the gym. Along the side of the pulled out bleachers was Brock A dressed as a life guard in red shorts, neon sunglasses, and a shirt with the sleeves cut off and open on the side. They went and approached him.

"Give us our stuff back Brock." said Tylor.

"Yeah, those are rentals, they're not even mine." said Ozzy.

"Not cool." Said Vanessa.

Bette carefully removed her gloves and handed them to Jenna.

"I don't think so; these were all so helplessly abandoned." He said it in a thickly sarcastic tone while he put on Bette's shawl.

"Don't be a dick," said Greyson dryly. "Oops. Too late."

Bette calmly stepped forward. "Brock. You took stuff that wasn't yours. Tylor asked once. I am going to ask a second time. Return our items to us undamaged.

"Mmmm-no." He stuck Jenna's yellow stuffed star into the front of his red shorts. Jenna shrieked to what he did to her prop.

"That's uncalled for. If you return the items before you use both hands to put on Ozzy's hat, I will not make you scream like a little bitch."

Jenna smiled, but the rest of the friends looked at each other confused, not knowing what Bette was doing. Greyson chomped on popcorn.

"You?" he said with derision. "You're so much smaller than me. How are you going to make me scream like a-" Bette's power of suggestion worked. He used both hands to put the hat on and that was when she pounced. She dug her nails into his armpits and twisted.

"Give us our stuff, shit-bag!" She grizzled at him. The searing pain she caused brought Brock to his knees and then down to his side and his bodily instinct was to lower his arms, which enhanced the pain more and kept her hands in place hurting him further. The group was stunned by the demonstration, with the exception of Jenna. They all froze. "Grab the stuff!" She shouted back to the group kneeling next to him, pushing and twisting her nails into the flesh of his armpits. The group scrambled around Brock and grabbed their items back from screaming, crying Brock. When everything was off him, she let go and changed her position into a crouch with her knees together. He was heaving breaths trying to get through the feeling the pain she cause. She spoke to him calmly, "You took stuff that wasn't yours. We asked you three times to return it. Now a girl who is smaller than you made you scream like a little bitch. What have you learned?"

"You're a psycho," he barked at her and tried to see the claw marks she left behind under one of his arms.

She spoke softly, "No, no, no. Psychos can't be reasoned with. I am a powerful lady. And I know how to kill you in three ways from where you lie right now." She ran her fingertips across her collar bone, "Nice ribs." She hummed a laugh at him, stood up, and turned away. She looked at her friends again and her sinister smile grew to a big silly one. "Who's got my scarf?" she asked playfully and threw her arms in the air.

"Right here," said Ozzy. She went to him to take it back. "I already dusted it off, but it might stink like him."

"Nothing that a load in the wash can't handle. By the way, I know why you picked that costume."

"Why?"

"Because damn it feels good to be a gangster." The pair high-fived. Bette wrapped her shawl around her waist and tied it there with her purse so what had happened couldn't happen again. After washing her hands, Bette joined her friends back out on the dance floor and they all continued to have a good time. Mark and his friends danced with and near Bette's friends, and when the chances came for Bette and Mark to dance to a song that had well known choreography from the music video or the song itself had dance instructions, they took the opportunity to dance next to each other.

It was getting late in the evening and the DJ put on "I've Had the Time of My Life." from Dirty Dancing.

Bette started lip-syncing and dancing again with her girls. Mark gave her a tap. "Everyone knows this movie. You said you know how to follow?"

"Every time it comes on TV, I put in the tape instead. And you know I can."

He took her hand and moved them to a more open part of the dance floor. She took the shawl back off her waist and tossed it by the wayside. They got into the formation and he held his hand firmly on her back. They started with the basic mambo and meringue moves and he would say words like 'side,' turn,' 'twist,' 'cross,' and she followed the movement of his hand on her back. She swung her hips and the fringe on her dress flew. He got the bright look on his face and in his voice and said, "The hair thing." She understood what he meant. He took her waist; she put her hands over her head, and shook her hair like in the movie. He did the turn where they each had an arm out, she held the side of his neck, and he held her waist. It was also easy to throw in the same steps as the swing dancing with the retimed counts. It wasn't exactly the same as the movie, but it sure felt like it. He made a wide-armed turn outward with her and then pulled her close with both of his hands wrapped about her ribs and she grabbed his upper arms and did the grinding move with her hip to hip. The flirtatious look he gave her eye to eye showed through his heavy makeup and pierced her, and she never felt more beautiful. A few steps later he picked her up and gave her spin and she kicked her legs out with a big grin on her face. A few more steps later, they stopped and copied a few more things from the movie. He took her hand, looked her square in the eye and kissed her fingers. There was no stage to jump off of, so he did another back hand spring flip. She duplicated the thrown back head laugh. She stood by his side and did her best to copy the aisle dance with him as he did it: step, step, padabure, padabure, step, step, twist, twist, head twist, head twist, body roll, repeat. He pulled her back in for a few more mambo steps as the song began to crescendo. "I don't think we can do the lift that grand, but do you think we can try something else?" She nodded and he gave her a quick, basic instruction and right as the song came to the big moment, he crouched down, wrapped his arms around the top of her thighs and picked her straight up. They tilted her hips forward onto his shoulder and upper arm; she extended out one of her legs for balance, and for the three seconds with the song, was able to put her arms out wide, just like in the movie. He tapped on her leg a one, two, three, count and she dropped back and landed on her feet. They were both beaming. They went back into the dance formation and finished the song with more steps from the movie and lots of turns.

The DJ lead into another slow song, 'I'll Never Break Your Heart' by The Backstreet Boys. "Can we keep this going?" Bette asked.

"For sure," Mark said.

This time he didn't put both hands on her waist. He used the hand on her back to pull her close, and he took the other hand in hers, re-positioned it, and her hand rested on his chest with his around hers.

"You really learn all this at dance camp?" she asked.

"Not exactly. I've probably watched that movie as many times as you. I had a babysitter who was in gymnastics who taught me how to do the back hand spring when I was eight. It's a cool trick, so I make sure I can always do it."

"Nice moves guys!" said Mark's friend Robert as he walked past them.

"So that's what that's like."

"Hmm?"

"My parents go dancing on the regular together. Ball room dancing. It's how I know how to follow. My dad showed me. But what I mean is, we know Robert, obviously, but total strangers come up to them and tell them how great they look together after they dance."

"Morticia and Gomez: like you said before."

"Our house is full of old stuff." She looked over at Jenna who was off to the side and gave her a discreet thumbs up. They were silent for a moment. "Thank you for asking me to dance. School's been weird and bad, you know? I needed this more than you know."

"Yeah. I remember there were a few bad days, and a couple of mean people, but the level of meanness now is off the charts."

"I feel like I have this wall up. Like I can't say the things I really want to say, because it would make things worse, but then I feel worse for not saying what I think, and then things are bad because of other people anyways."

Mark's hand moved up and down her back. "That sounds really terrible."

"It is. But it doesn't make sense."

"As bad as it is, it sounds like it makes perfect sense."

"Not that. What I meant was, through everyone being so awful, how did you stay so nice?"

Mark smiled. "If your parents are the Addams, mine are probably the Banks from Fresh Prince." His voice brightened again, "They recast the mom on that too. That works." His voice returned to normal. "Anyways, all respect, all love, work hard, nothing gets handed to you, that kind of thing."

"Does that make you more of a Will or a Carlton?"

"I always thought Ashley got good story lines and not enough of them."

"Now that is a fine opinion. I'm probably more like Jazz. I have one favorite outfit, I say the wrong thing, and I usually leave places with a screaming, flying leap."

Mark's head fell back with a genuine laugh. "Jeez Bette. I remember you being smart, I don't remember you being this openly funny."

She saw Ozzy and Vanessa across the gym again. They were slow dancing too, and she could see his eyes were closed. His white lapel rose was in her blonde hair.

"Perception is a hard thing to change; other people's and I guess my own."

"It's, um, it's not that hard."

She heard his hesitation. "What makes you say that?"

He took a deep breath and opened their embrace and looked at her and she back at him. "I won't lie to you; I used to have a crush on you. You were smart about really cool stuff, even the weird stuff I liked you knew about, and that Wednesday thing, you-I, I thought- I just- you were cute!"

Bette felt the red in her face grow as she smiled. She pulled her hand off his shoulder and covered her eyes, "Thank God. Thank you. Thank you. Thank God, Thank you!" She uncovered her face and put her hand back on his shoulder and saw how confused he looked to her reaction.

"Did I miss something?"

"You did. You absolutely did. Thank God you did. The last two years you did. Because I don't think we would be talking right now if you saw the horror show this face and body went through the last two years."

"Probably about the same as me. Probably about the same as everyone else."

"But would you have asked me to dance if you had seen it?"

"Would you have said yes if you had seen me?"

She changed her stance, tilted her head, and spoke with playful attitude, "I recall saying 'Oh hell yeah.'"

"Yeah, you had a much bigger reaction than I imagined. I could see you liked to dance, but-"

"But you knew what you were doing. It makes all the difference in the world."

The DJ Announced the last song, ""For the Longest Time" by Billy Joel. The parent volunteers had stacked chairs, pushed back the bleaches, and put away most of the tables. Bette and Mark danced to it openly and joyfully mouthing the words to each other. Not a lot of other kids did, because they weren't sure how to dance to that song. They did do-wop and flapper style dance moves and some of the same swing dance steps, but a bit slower and with no real plan or forethought. They were free.

The song ended and Bette grabbed her shawl and purse from where she had left them a few songs earlier. Mark retrieved his jacket and said goodnight to his friends. Bette found Jenna putting on her jacket to say goodnight. "Bee, you looked so cool out there. You wouldn't believe the stuff people were saying."

"You can tell me all about it tomorrow. I'm just- Ah! He's so sweet and he's still super interesting. I'll tell you about it tomorrow! Ah! Bye!"

"Bye."

Bette scampered off to the door where Mark was waiting for her. Most everyone went out the main central doors, but Bette and Mark walked down a flight a stairs and down the hallway to the doors where the auxiliary south lot was. She always met her dad there for school dances. Less waiting time for him, less searching for him among cars for her. They waited inside the school doors.

"You know I only live across the street from here? I'm barely a block away. I was going to come out this door anyways," said Mark.

"Must be nice. You probably wake up about five minutes before class starts."

"More like 45. Fifteen if I oversleep bad."

She laughed and reached out and touched the broach on his ascot. "It really is a fine piece of rhinestone jewelry. Usually vintage pieces aren't this quality after so many years. They're usually missing stones."

"It isn't perfect. The pin on the back keeps popping open. I had to keep checking it to make sure it never flew off. See." He stepped a little closer and turned the back towards her and showed her that the locking mechanism was broken and was being held in place by a jagged piece of metal. It had chewed up some of the threads in his ascot in the spot where it sat.

"I think I can help with that." She took off her earrings and dropped the first one in her purse. She took the rubber backing off the hook of the second one and dropped the earring in her purse and closed it. "This is a little trick my mom taught me to make sure you don't lose your good pins and brooches." She stuck the rubber earring back onto the pin, pushed it in a little, made sure it still sat properly and in line on his ascot, and closed the pin. "There. Now even if it pops open. the backing will make sure it doesn't go anywhere. Just like an earring."

Mark took a deep breath. "Thank you for showing me that, for teaching me that." He took a another intense breath. "You said that you said yes to dancing with me because I knew what I was doing. That it made all the difference."

"Yeah."

He looked down at the pin. "I want to tell you good night, like, give you a proper good night, but I don't know what I'm doing and I think-I think that would make a difference." He looked back at her, with the sincerity on his face; she understood what he was trying to say.

She looked out the door, took his hand and lead him away from the glass to the nook where there was usually a big box of salt in the winter time. It was only three steps away. She looked back up the corridor to see that no one was there either. "If you can dance like that, this shouldn't be a problem." She put her other hand on the side of his head, pulled him close, and kissed him; closing their eyes. They both inhaled sharply through their noses and his free hand found the spot on her back where they mamboed. Their hands let go and their arms slowly and timidly found their way around each other. She felt like her whole body glowed in that kiss. His lips were soft, he didn't pucker too firmly, and in the kiss, she realized she was the one leading. When the moment felt right, she lowered her chin and pulled back a little looking at him.

He smiled and let out a light laugh. "I've wanted to do that since 5th grade. I never thought it would happen right bellow Mr. Barrow's classroom and be thankful for it."

"You want to thank Mr. Barrow in this moment?"

"In truth, it was Ozzy who gave me some advi-"

Bette pulled him in for another kiss. She adjusted her lips around his and he felt her change. She pulled him until her back was pressed up against the wall. Bette started to open her lips and turn her head a little further to the side, Mark's lips opened and his tongue touched her lip first. It was new, different, and exciting. She opened her mouth more and let their tongues swim over each other. She let out a clear sigh. He let out a concerned humming sound in return. She squeezed him and sighed again to assure him. He replied with a hum that sounded like 'okay'. She moved her arm to around his waist to pull herself tight into him and his erection in his pants touched her across her front. They both opened their eyes wide, seeing each other's reaction, and he pulled them apart. She was so heated that she had to brace herself against the wall and they both had to catch their breath. Mark turned away from her and adjusted himself in his pants, but she could still see what he did in the reflection of the glass door. She wiped the excess spit from her mouth and he found himself doing the same. When he turned back, she saw the brown-red lip color he wore earlier was long gone; the white make up around his mouth was smudged, and smears of Bette's red lipstick there. They gave each other great big smiles. "You-uh" she gulped. "You still wanna thank Mr. Barrow for this?" she asked as she stood up straight.

"No. I don't." He went back up to her and took her hands in his, "Thank you Bette. Thank you for a great night." He gave her one more innocent kiss on the lips before stepping up to the door.

"See you Monday," She said and gave a little wave with her fingers.

He looked back to her smiled again and headed out the door and walked away. She took the three steps to stand at the door to see him as he walked away. She refocused on her reflection instead of him. She wiped the white make up off her face with her hand, pulled out her lipstick, reapplied to cover the missing spots created by Mark and her and hoped that it would be dark enough that her father wouldn't notice. She saw he was now parked there and she stepped outside. She walked quickly and got into the front seat of the car.

"Thanks Dad. I hope you weren't waiting too long." She buckled her seat belt.

"No, just pulled up long enough to see young Hugh Hefner leave." He put the car in drive and looped in the lot to the entrance.

"He happened to have a taste for vintage wear. You didn't see his makeup. He was a vampire."

"Does this mean your mother needs to do a puncture wound check when we get home? Organic fluids test?" He was clearly a concerned father, but still quick and playful as always.

"Ew, no Dad. He was very respectful, polite, and an even better dance partner."

"Is that so, Jeannie Rousseau?"

"Is she a friend or coworker of yours?" She asked confused. "Anyways. You have nothing to be worried about. He's a nice boy who was a great dance partner and if he had done anything wrong he would have walked out of that door bleeding."

"If you say so. I won't be the overly protective mob father then. Just worried for my not-so-little-anymore girl."

"Thanks Dad."

"He'll get a 12 hour head start."

"Dad!"

"Does he have a passport," he joked and spoke evermore playfully. "How many languages does he speak? Do we know if he knows the importance of a quick-change?"

She laughed at her father. She continued to tell him about the evening, her friends, the costumes they wore, the dancing, the theft incident, and the show stopping numbers she and Mark put on. John smiled at his happy daughter.

When they got home, John went to bed and Bette went to her room. She quietly played the radio as she kicked off her dance heels and prepared to get settled in. She took off the dress and hung it back into her closet. She stood in front of the mirror and admired herself in the way she looked in her slip. She took off the accessories and put them on a tabletop by her door to give back to her mom in the morning. She went into her adjoining bathroom and washed the makeup off her face and brushed out her hair. The music played the right beat and tempo and she found herself mamboing back to her dresser thinking of Mark. She changed out of her clothes and put on a long sleep shirt. Before she hung her large bra from one of her dresser knobs, she unhooked the flat knife that was sheathed in the front center against her lower sternum all night and stuck it back into the dresser drawer. She turned out the light and went to sleep.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 9.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Monday morning came and Bette woke up spry and ready. The day before she talked with Jenna and they recounted the dance. Jenna told her how people were watching and gabbing about how good she and Mark had looked together. How cool it was when they helped each other do back flips during the swing number. How great their lift was during the Dirty Dancing number. Bette told her about their kisses in the hallway and something might be starting between them. Neither Bette nor Mark had asked each other for anything like a phone number beyond that night, but it did not feel like an isolated thing.

When Bette got dressed and ready that morning, she thought to send Mark a sign. She put on a fitted, long-sleeved black t-shirt, a black tartan skirt that sat just above her knee, her black boots, a pendant of a tooth or some kind of bone that her parents brought her from Alaska, and she parted her hair down the middle and put her hair into two braids. If this look didn't say Wednesday Addams to Mark, she didn't know what would.

When she got to the bus stop she stood there and Cassandra came up to her with her usual bubbly morning self. She had been at the dance too, dressed as Britney Spears, but they didn't talk at all. "Hey girl. That was some dance, I saw you." Cassandra gave Bette overly exaggerated facial expressions and elbow prods.

"Yeah, I had a good time," she said it flatly; she was enjoying the feeling of the Wednesday Addams look. Halloween wasn't actually until Sunday, but she was still having fun with the characterization of it.

"You 'had a good time?' Girl, you and Mark lit that place up and now you look like someone died."

"Wait," she said with a stare.

Cassandra looked disturbed by Bette's answer.

Todd came bounding on to the corner. "Mornin'."

"Mornin Todd," Bette said with a smile. She couldn't be Wednesday to him. "You have a good weekend?"

"Always!"

The bus pulled up and they got on. A few stops later, Ozzy got on looking a little different; He wasn't wearing his usual black. he was wearing a light brown plaid button up shirt with a light blue t-shirt under it, a brown leather woven belt, and brown shoes, much more of a mainstream look than he usually wore. He wore his usual jeans and his hair was still spiked forward, but the style choice was distinct.

"Hey stranger," she said to him.

He gave her an up and down with his eyes, "I could say the same thing to you." He sat down across from her.

She laughed. "I'm...still feeling the Halloween spirit. Hallow-week, if you will. What about you?" She waved her hand at his fashion choice. "Would this have something to do with your dance partner?"

"What if it did?" he was a little defensive in his answer.

She smiled, "Then I would say, good for you. You two looked like you had a good time."

"We did. We really did. And I have you to thank for that."

"Really?" Her face scrunched up.

"Yeah, did you forget? You gave me her number back in summer. Vanessa and I have been talking for some time."

"Oh yeah," she said it really softly. She had forgotten. "Why didn't you say something?"

"I guess...some things are private." His tone was odd. He hadn't said anything like that to her before. They had told each other everything. His tone returned to normal, "But what about you? You and Mark killed it on the floor! You wouldn't believe the things people said. 'Unbeliev-"

"What did you say to him?" she cut him off.

"What?"

"Mark said you said something to him. What was it?"

"I just gave him some advice."

"You gave him advise about me?" She was a little insulted in her tone.

"Mostly general advise. Told him he should be humble, compliment something you chose, notice if you did that too, and notice if you taught him something."

Bette covered her face, "This is not happening. My God, this is not happening." She looked back at Ozzy. "Wait, what was the non-general advise?" Her tone grew sharper with him.

"Ask you to dance, and not lie to you, but that's it."

"I don't believe this. I cannot believe you."

"Why? You two looked like you had a great time."

"But how do I know it's real? It's like you put a big asterisk on the statistic of that night!"

Ozzy went on the offense with his tone to her, "Mark came up to me. He asked me. I had to tell him we were friends, that I was not your boyfriend. That guy was scared to death of me."

"Of what?" Nothing about Ozzy seemed intimidating to her anymore.

"Of stepping on some other guy's toes to get to you. You should have seen how he talked and the look on his face. He thought I was going to kill him."

"Oh yeah. Like you could hurt anyone. Who got out stuff back from Brock? Me. No one else, me." She was frustrated and caustic with him.

"No one asked you to do that! We could have gotten any adult to get our stuff back."

"But no one did, did they?"

Todd turned in his seat. "Guys stop it. Stop."

They looked at Todd and each other. "I'm sorry Todd," said Ozzy.

"Me too. I'm sorry," said Bette.

"Not to me," said Todd, and he turned back around.

Bette and Ozzy both got sad looks on their faces, as much as they saw each other and talk and thought they told each other everything, it was truly the most honest conversation the pair of them had had together since summer. They didn't talk about their feelings much anymore. And that's when it occurred to Bette, that's what had been bothering her for months about Ozzy. She had lost her confidant, her emotional confidant. Ever since she gave him Vanessa's number, they weren't talking about those kinds of things anymore, that was the wall that went up, he didn't see it, because he had that emotional connection with Vanessa, and that wasn't his fault or Vanessa's, Bette handed that connection to him.

"I'm sorry," said Ozzy. "I shouldn't have said those things. Mark isn't a scared guy. He did some pretty gutsy things. And I'm sorry I broke your trust. It was wrong."

Bette's eyes welled up at their fight, her realization, and Ozzy's apology. "I'm so sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am. And you didn't do anything wrong with Mark. You said it yourself, he went to you. And the stuff you told him about me was right. He didn't lie to me and asking me to dance was the right thing to do." Tears were streaming down her face. "Everything had felt wrong for the last couple months and this was the first thing to go right and I couldn't believe it was real."

Ozzy reached across the bus aisle and hugged her, "It's okay. It's okay." She cried into his shoulder. "I'm sorry we haven't talked about it. I had no idea you were this unhappy." He pulled her into his seat and squeezed her. "You had been so far away and I thought you didn't want to come back, I didn't see that you needed me to come and get you. I didn't see it. I'm so sorry."

She pulled herself out of his arms and wiped her face with her sleeves. "Am I a total mess now?"

"No more than you were than when I got on."

She laughed. "How about your shirt?"

"No more swampy than I leave it on a regular basis, so I'd say it's fine."

She laughed harder. She pressed her eyes into the crux of her elbow to find a fresh, dry spot. She took a few deep breaths and smiled at Ozzy. "Thank you. I feel so much better."

"I'm glad."

"And you'll know this will be true. I'm really happy for you and Vanessa. You're right, there are things that should be private, I just don't want us to feel like we're hiding from each other anymore, you know?"

"I think that makes sense. You should know, she and I, we weren't telling anyone before, it wasn't just you. The dance was the first time anyone saw us together."

"Does that include Darrah?"

"Okay. She knows. She's been to the house."

"Aww! Ozzy! Look at you," Bette smiled and gave him a gentle punch to the shoulder and he returned it with a humble smile. The bus pulled up to the school and they all got out. He told her a little bit more, but not much, about how they had been getting to know each other over the phone and at each other's homes. His face lit up when he spoke about her. Bette told Ozzy how she and Mark used to geek out on obscure pop culture and movies back in 5th grade and how he had been sweet the other night, but she wasn't sure what he was thinking, but she had a plan to figure it out. The pair high-fived and went their respective ways to their lockers.

Bette shared a locker with Tina. They were in the same first hour math class and that's how they were paired. Tina was at the open locker when Bette approached. "Mornin' Teen'."

"Hey Bette. I'm almost done, and then it's all yours."

"Thanks. No rush. Take your time." Bette stood a couple feet behind her waiting as Tina was crouched down at the foot of it. She stood there patiently waiting when she heard his voice pass by behind her.

"Monday looking like Wednesday," said Mark in a low, sing-song voice. Bette whipped her head to the left to see him; feeling goose bumps he caused. He turned around and took a step backwards. He looked her up and down and she could see his face silently say an interested, lip-puckering 'ooh'. He tapped an open hand over his heart a couple times and reached for his collar. He turned it out to show the rhinestone brooch from the other night, and touched it to his lips. Bette gave him a wink. They both gave each other a flirty smile. She felt how red her face became. He turned and kept walking with a hop in his step. It all happened in three seconds, and as far as she could tell, no one else saw what happened between the two of them even though dozens of people were around.

"Locker's all yours," said Tina.

"What?" said Bette, turning her head forward to Tina again. "Right. Thanks." Bette smiled to herself and as she stepped forward to get to her locker, Stella, from two lockers over, closed it on her, turned away from Bette and walked away. In that moment, Bette didn't care, she entered her combination again, got the books and such she needed and went to her first hour math class.

When she got to English she was able to ask Ozzy what the 'ooh' face meant to a guy, and he let her know it was a good thing. She knew it was. She just wanted to hear it from another source. By lunch time Bette and Mark were able to pass notes to each other that let the other know again that they had a fun time, everyone has told them they looked great together, and the note ended with their respective phone numbers.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 10.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

On Sunday for Halloween, Todd's parent's made arrangements for her to keep an eye on him while he went trick-or-treating. It was a couple hours, an easy $20, a bunch of candy, and with Todd's parent's permission, Mark was allowed to walk with her. Todd didn't really need to be watched in their neighborhood, she used to go with Cassandra and Jenna unsupervised when they were eight trick-or-treating. But the money was there and Todd liked having her around too. She wore her mom's light brown trench coat instead of her dark blue jacket to be more visible. She draped a pashmina scarf over her neck and enjoyed the fact that it was a fairly warm evening for the time of year. She didn't even need to button up the coat or wrap the scarf.

Mark got dropped off at her house and knocked at the door; Bette opened it with a more nervous smile than him.

"Hi."

"Hey."

"I'm glad your dad was cool with letting you come on a school night like this. Come in."

"Thanks." He unzipped his fleece jacket and put his hands in his pockets. He didn't even appear to be nervous compared to her.

"Did you want to use the bathroom or anything before we left?"

"No. I'm good."

"Sure." She scratched the back of her head.

"Betty? You gonna come in or what?" Lorna chirped.

Bette felt her heart start to race. "You don't have to take your shoes off, we're only gonna be a minute."

"That's fine." he shrugged.

He followed her out of the entry way and into the living room where Bette's parents were sitting. Lorna had a paperback novel open with her reading glasses far down her nose. John had the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle folded into an accessible section and was leaning back into a chair working on what he could on propped on a magazine. The evening news played on the TV.

"Mom, Dad, this is Mark, from school. We're just going to be walking while Todd trick-or-treats."

John got up from where he sat an offered Mark a hand shake and he took it, "You can call me John and Bette's mother Lorna."

"Guten Abend," said Mark.

"Sprichst du Deutsch?" asked John is his beautiful, thick German accent.

"Nein. But Bette told me you did. And I understand about that much." And he put his finger and his thumb an inch apart.

"Whoa!" Said Lorna. "Impressive."

"He was the one other person who knew what Diddl was," said Bette.

"A culturally literate fellow, hmm? Say, I am stuck on one on my crossword. Maybe you can help, it's just one letter." John went and picked up the paper and handed it to him. Mark and Bette looked at it, each other, and both laughed.

"Are you serious, Dad?"

Nearly all the letters around it were full, except one. _EN. The clue was " _ & Stimpy" he had letters like B, H, and T all tested and failed as ideas in the margins of the puzzle.

Bette and Mark said it together, "It's Ren. It's a cartoon."

Lorna laughed with a snort.

"See where I get it from?" said Bette looking at Mark. She turned back to her parents, "We have to go. Todd will be waiting."

"Nice to meet you both," said Mark with a wave.

"Have fun," chimed Lorna.

They headed out the door and started walking the two blocks to Todd's house. "Thank God that's over," said Bette.

"Why? Your parents were cool. And your house was like you said, full of old stuff. It was kinda like the Addams house."

"I've never," she took a deep breath and sighed. "I'd never brought a guy to the house before, as in, I'm not sure how to say it..." she was irritated with herself.

"I think I know what you mean. We might have to do the same thing when you meet my dad and Cynthia."

"When?" She asked with a head tilt.

"Um, yeah." he touched his face and the side of his neck. "Since we've been talking on the phone and stuff, it's kinda hard to hide it. I mean, we have caller ID. And they wanna know. They want to meet you."

Bette touched her hand to her face, covering her eyes briefly. "Oh, they don't think I'm too creepy because I called twice yesterday?"

"Not at all. They just wanna see what I've been-" he cut himself off. He cleared his throat. "No." He said to himself before continuing. "I won't lie to you. They wanna see what I've been so happy about."

They were a couple houses away from Todd's house and no kids in close proximity. She took his arm, kissed his cheek, and gave him a smile, "I won't lie to you either. You made that dance one of the happiest days of my life."

Mark grew a big grin. "Yeah. Me too."

They got to Todd's house and picked him up and started walking together. Todd happily bounded from house to house while Bette and Mark were able to stroll along the sidewalk and talk. It wasn't long before she had her arm linked with his. They had been going for a while when they got to a familiar house. "Hey Todd," Bette called to him. "When you knock at that one, say 'trick or treat' as loud as you possibly can," She spoke from the end of the house's sidewalk.

Mark turned to her, "Why's that?"

Todd knocked and the door opened, it was Vanessa at Ozzy's door, and far too late for Bette to stop it, Todd yelled right in her face, "Trick or Treat!"

Bette covered her face and laughed. "That was not supposed to happen." She yelled down the side walk "Sorry Vanessa, that wasn't meant for you."

Ozzy came up to the door and gave Todd a high five. Todd pointed back to Bette and Mark and the two of them waved Bette and Mark over. "Looks like we all got put on trick-or-treating duty tonight," said Ozzy.

"It's good work if you can get it. Isn't that right Todd?"

Todd shook his bag, "Ca-ching!"

They all laughed. "You guys want anything? Pop?" asked Ozzy

Vanessa eyed Bette and had her step to the side of the stoop. "You two look like you're having a good time," she whispered in Bette's ear. The boys kept talking openly.

"We are. He was great with my parents and everything. I was so nervous about it. How 'bout you?" Bette whispered back.

"Not to be too weird, but he is such a good kisser, you have no idea! Well, I guess you have some idea."

"I told you, it was barely once. And just so you know, he wouldn't have told me about your details. He's a gentleman," Bette whispered.

"Not anymore, he isn't." Vanessa whispered lewdly.

Bette stepped back and saw the giddy look on Vanessa's face. She was nearly bouncing; giving Bette up-and-down eyebrows and a silly smile. Bette tried to give her a look that said 'good for you' and 'I tip my cap to you'. Vanessa nodded in understanding and put her arm around Ozzy's back. He put his arm around her shoulder, naturally and casually.

"Can we go? I have work to do." Said Todd.

"Sure thing. Have a good night you two," said Bette.

"We will," said Ozzy closing the door. Bette and Ozzy gave each other a friendly smile and a wave.

Todd ran to the next house. "What did you two say to each other?" Mark asked.

"Oh, just girl stuff. She thought you and I were looking like we were having a good time, and I told her we were." She touched her head to his shoulder briefly. "It would be unladylike for me to elaborate further."

"Ah. I had heard you were a powerful lady. I guess, um, what does that mean? Should I be worried?"

"You? No. That reputation comes from Ozzy and Vanessa oddly enough."

"Yeah...I did hear it from them, and what you did to Brock was being talked about this last week was pretty intense. It's not exactly rumor if there are witnesses." He hesitated, "And then there's something that happened at the end of last year?"

Bette through her head back and laughed. "You heard about the chant?"

"Yes! I think I've heard five different versions of it. And with a couple of versions, it lead back to Vanessa about it, so I asked her. She denied being the origin. She said it was a different 'powerful lady.' Was the origin you? Are you the powerful lady that gave Jason Kaye no dick?!"

Bette giggled into a snort. "I won't lie to you. I can tell you the whole story. It was a team effort, but it started from my dad."

Mark's face got shocked and confused. "Holy moley. Your parents are awesome!"

Soon they dropped off Todd and she collected her payment for an extremely easy night of babysitting. On the way out of the house, she grabbed a piece of candy from the trick or treat bowl, opened it and ate it and met Mark outside. They started walking back to Bette's house.

"That was fun. You been watching him a long time?"

"Not at all. Just since a few weeks after school started. I think his parents are a little over protective because he's young in the grade. He has a June birthday. He's sweet and I don't treat him like an obligation."

"Huh. When's your birthday?"

"November 25th. It's on Thanksgiving this year, which kinda sucks. I rarely do anything fun or interesting for my birthday because it's always so close to Thanksgiving. It's just another day."

"Maybe that will change this year."

"I doubt it."

They were on the corner of her street. All the neighborhood porch lights had been turned off to indicate to the trick-or-treaters to stop coming. They were under the thirty foot tall wooden street light post and just in the right spot that they were in shadows. It was an old neighborhood with mature trees, bushes, and privacy hedges, they couldn't see into any of the four houses near them. For being out on an open street corner, they were very much alone. Mark stopped them and turned to her taking her hands in his. "Bette. I..." he huffed. It was dark but they could still see each other clearly.

"It's okay. You don't have to-"

"But I want to. You have no idea how long I've wanted to say something." He took a deep breath and could only look down at her hands. "I know I'm not that different than other guys, but you are so different than all these other girls. I mean, just right now, it's dark out and I can see your skin glow." He squeezed and shook her hands in his. "It's so pretty. I've never seen that. You soak up knowledge and culture and you're not a snob about it. You're fun and your funny. You care about people. You have style."

"Mark-"

"What I'm saying is that there's not a ton to me, but there's so much to you and I want to get to know it better if you'll let me." He was pure, bold, and spoke intensely.

Bette's heart raced and knew how red her face was. She let go of one of his hands and put her hand on his face and tilted it up until their eyes met. He was flustered and genuine, and she softened her face and smiled to try to put him at ease. "I can't stand gum chewing, and I'm not a fan of junior mints, but I ate a box of them hoping I would get to do this." She pulled him into her and kissed him. She didn't start innocently this time. She let go of his other hand, touched it to his chest and slowly wrapped it around to his back. Mark wrapped his arms around her. Their mouths glossed open to each other and found a rhythm with each other that was easier, more natural, and even more arousing than at the dance. One of his hands swept up into her scalp and he twisted her body and Bette felt like she was in an old movie. She felt his mouth slow the kiss with her partially dipped. This time, he took the lead from her. He pulled his mouth back from hers and looked at Bette in his arms. Her eyes were still closed and she let out a ragged breath.

"When you didn't notice, Ozzy handed me a couple of Altoids tonight and said, 'mints not gum with her.'"

She opened her eyes and kissed him back quickly and softly. "If you're going to keep bringing up guys every time we kiss like that, that might be an issue for me as your girlfriend."

"You're saying you want me to be your boyfriend?" he spoke sweetly and joyfully.

"After all that? This powerful lady is powerless."

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 11.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Over the next few weeks, Bette was living in bliss. Every morning on the way to school, she and Ozzy had their old friend back with one another, while still reserving the privacy of their intimate details about their respective romances. At school, Bette didn't see or feel the negativity around her, all she did was put out respect and joy to anyone around her, just like Mark did. They would trade off eating at each other's lunch tables. and still give each other space if they needed. There was a day Bette needed finish a math assignment before the end of the day, so she didn't have time for him during lunch, and he understood and gave her the space she needed to finish it with Tina. There was a day that Robert was having a tough time and needed Mark's attention, so Bette left them alone to let them work it out. They didn't smother each other or overwhelm their friends with their relationship, and it made them happy.

The first weekend in November they got dropped off at the mall and went shopping and Bette had them take the city bus home, which he'd never done before. The second Saturday, Mark had rented an instructional video of music video choreography and they learned it at his house and got to make out some more. The following Sunday, Bette's parents had him over for supper and Scrabble. When she walked him to the door that evening, he gave her a kiss dipped deeper and longer than what he did on Halloween. By the following Saturday, Thanksgiving and her birthday had passed. Mark invited her over for a movie and she gladly went.

She arrived wearing jeans, her green blouse, a black zip up hoodie, and her favorite black boots. When she knocked, Cynthia answered the door. "Hi Bette, come on in, it's good to see you again."

"Nice to see you too. Love what you've done with your hair."

"When you do hair and make up for a living, you are always making changes, and you start on yourself." Cynthia was 34 at most. Bette's parents were 42. Cynthia was as cool as Mark had said. She was stylish and trendy without being trashy or cheap like the girls at school. Her makeup was always fabulous without ever being too much, which was a line Bette didn't know how to do for herself, so she avoided it by usually wearing none. She knew about new music, TV, and movies, and didn't treat them like they were dumb kids. She was as Mark said: all respect, all love, and hard work.

Mark came bounding up the stairs from the lower level and at the same time, his father, James, out of the hallway upstairs. Mark was the spitting image of his father with softer features. James was over six feet tall with a chiseled jaw and thick hair. He worked in city fleet management and did a ton of carpentry work in his home garage and it kept him fit. His bond with Mark was clear every time she saw them together: they were best friends. His dad was a strong, tough-guy but he encouraged Mark's creative side for dance and music. They still did all the typical stuff too like play sports in the yard, camping, and fishing. He also taught Mark about cooking, home repairs, and applying the problems and solutions that they had as teens now to real adult problems later to make him think of his future. He wasn't just raising a son; he was raising a member of society. His presence and way of speaking made Bette revere him.

Bette stood up straight and spoke clearly, "Hello James, good to see you again." She would have felt more comfortable calling him 'sir,' which was how much she respected him. She wanted to give him a firm handshake, but he didn't approach her to do so. When Mark leapt to Bette's side his face was ecstatic. "Can I tell her, please? I can't lie to her about this. About anything," he was absolutely giddy.

Bette looked around the room at the smiling faces as James stood next to Cynthia. "Go ahead, Mark," James said it with a breath of contentment.

Mark looked at his Dad and Cynthia then over to Bette looking a little confused. His face lit up, "I'm going to be a big brother."

Bette took a deep breath, smiled with a wide open mouth, and then covered it. The family looked so happy together. "That's wonderful. Congratulations." Bette's eyes welled up with a couple of tears and she herself couldn't believe how overwhelmed she was for them. Mark hugged her, Cynthia hugged her. She was prepared to shake his hand, but James hugged her.

"It's still pretty early. We just told Mark and a few others. So mum's the word," said Cynthia

"Absolutely! But truly. That's-it's great. I'm really happy for you. For all of you."

"The first thing Mark said was that he had a name suggestion," said James.

Bette looked to Mark, "Boy or girl: Nicky."

Fresh Prince, the baby at the end of season three. Bette smiled without teeth and literally bit her tongue and took a deep breath to keep herself from laughing. "It's a great name. It's great news. Thank you for sharing with me. It's an honor to be included. Congratulations again."

James put his arm around Cynthia and they walked up the stairs, she leaned her head on him and he kissed the top of her head. Mark took Bette's hand and lead her downstairs; she could hear James say to Cynthia, "She's a sweet girl."

Cynthia said back, "She is."

Mark brought her down to the lower level down the hallway to the smaller TV room where they could watch their movie. "I'm so happy for you and your family. I don't know a lot of people our age who would be happy about being a big brother for the first time."

Mark ran his hands through his hair excitedly. "It's great. I always wanted a little brother or sister. Someone to talk to about our parents, someone to always hang out with. I don't even care that they're going to be a baby throughout the time we're in high school. There's gonna be this other little person that's half my dad. Half of me. It's gonna be amazing!"

She took his hand. "You might be the sweetest person I know."

Mark collected himself. "Don't speak so soon on that yet." He reached in his pocket and pulled out a little wrapped box. "I know we couldn't see each other because of the holiday; Happy Birthday."

Her face dropped and she looked more gloomy than anything else, "Mark, when I told you that, I wasn't looking for you to do anything. I don't even like my birthday."

"You're 14 now. We're teenagers. If you can't have a good birthday now, when can you have a good one? And you didn't ask, that's why it's called a gift." He held out the box to her.

She closed her eyes and took a couple of breaths. She took the box out of his hand and tore the paper. It was a white cardboard box. She lifted the lid, inside on a black velour pillow, was a vintage, rhinestone pendant of five pear-shaped, clear stones set in a star shape, with one more circular rhinestone in the center, in a sterling silver base an inch across. "Sweet Jesus." She looked at him. "Mark. This is too much."

"No it wasn't. It was a second hand store find. I paid less than $10 for it but it's nicer than anything that's new in other stores. Bette, it's you! You're the star. You're beautiful. You glow in the night, and somehow you let me capture you."

She leaned in, kissed him fiercely but quickly, and stayed close. "A star is only caught when it falls. And I've fallen."

"I've fallen too," He kissed her back, slowly and softly. They both gave each other a smile followed by a long hug.

"I have a silver box chain at home that will be perfect for this."

He pulled out a piece black nylon cord from his pocket. "I remember you wearing it with all your other pendants, so this can just be for now."

She took the pendant out of the box and he threaded it. She turned, lifted her hair, and he tied it around her neck in a double knot. It sat in the center of her collarbone. He took her hand and kissed it. "My star."

Bette had an immediate idea, "Then that makes you my moon. The pin you wore at the dance. It was a circle with similar rhinestones; it looked like a full moon. And then you. You were the beacon I needed that night. That white make up, you were the man in the moon. My dancing man in the moon."

He put his arm around her, she leaned into him. "Moon and Star," he whispered.

Bette wanted to spend as much time with Mark as possible. In the TV room, they had a copy of Titanic on tape, and she suggested that be the movie they watch. She had seen it with Jenna in theaters, but she had no interest in actually watching it. Fifteen minutes in, she leaned over to Mark, "Hey." she whispered.

"Hmm?"

"I know I was the one who had the birthday, but I want to give you a gift."

He turned and looked at her. She was unzipping her hoodie. His eyes grew wide. They both sat up, turned to each other, and started kissing; slowly at first. By this point, they had figured out how the other liked to be kissed and their respective motions. He put his arms around her, one up in her hair and one on her back. She did not touch him back. Bette unbuttoned the top few buttons of her blouse and exposed her bra. Her bra was white, demi-cut, and not elaborate, but she had a feeling he wouldn't care. She put a hand on his face and stopped the kiss; he stared straight into her eyes. She spoke gently, "You can look. I want you to look."

Mark looked down at her chest in her open blouse and hoodie. "Oh man." He looked back up at her. Bette was both nervous and into it. She reached up, pulled his hand off the back of her head, and placed it on her collarbone. His hand was next to the star pendant and partially touching her breast.

The look on his face was of excitement, ecstasy, and total fear. "Wow."

She gave him a nod. She reached out and touched his chest in the same way, "Like this would be good." She slowly moved her hand over his peck and he did the same of her breast over her bra. She gave him the lightest squeeze and he duplicated. He let out a ragged breath. She enjoyed touching him too, and she realized the more she did, the less nervous they got and the more aroused they became. She ran her hand across his chest to his other peck and he did the same of her breast. His nervous breaths went to heated as did hers, she swept her hand to the side of his chest and pulled him tight and they kissed. Mark switched hands and touched her breast with his other hand. She broke the kiss and leaned into him and for the first time, she kissed his neck while she ran her hand through his hair while he continued to touch her body. They hummed and sighed at each other's growing, passionate touching. Mark kissed Bette's neck and she found herself sticking her nails into his back to the feeling and he moaned. He kept kissing his way down her collar bone and she wanted him to keep going, so she arched her back to lead him. His lips met the full flesh of her breast where it met the cup of her bra. He made his way across and went back up her collar bone to the side of her neck and hummed his way back to a kiss to her before stopping. They were both breathing desperately. "You are awesome," He kissed her. "You are so awesome. Has anyone ever told you that?"

She tried to catch her breath. "Not-not the way you mean it. There's a first time for everything. This is one of those times for me."

"Me too. Obviously. And-" He looked briefly down at her chest again. "You're not a star, you're an entire galaxy. Awesome. You are so beautiful."

"You are so sweet, and so good in so many ways. You're attractive. And you literally swept me off my feet. How did I get so lucky?"

"I guess I made a wish on a lucky star."

"I found the dancing man in the moon."

By the end of the movie, Bette had to re-hook her bra closed and fully re-button her blouse.

The next few weeks continued to be joyous, hormonal-driven bliss for Bette and Mark. There was more than one occasion where they were nearly caught with their hands all over each other at his house. At her house, they had to be much more careful, but they had much more quality time and talking there, which was a great balance that they needed. She doodled moons and stars on anything. She didn't even like doodling, she liked Mark. As much as they liked each other, they still made an effort for their other friends, they knew they had to, it would have been foolish not to. In the days leading up to Christmas, they talked about being able to see each other a couple times over the holiday break. She could bus to his house or they could bus to the mall, or they could go sledding on the big hill behind the school if there was enough snow with their friends. It was fun coming up with ideas. They gave each other a last hug on Thursday the 23rd before the Christmas break and promised to talk again soon.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 12.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Sunday afternoon the 26th, Bette and her mom had gone out to bring some old clothes and other items to the thrift store after cleaning out some closets that morning. It was a fun activity for them and it usually ended with Thai food, which wasn't John's favorite. Lorna and Bette came home late in the afternoon with their leftovers and all smiles. John stood in the living room with his hands in his pockets and waited for them to get their coats of and settled. "Bette, I need you to come in here,"

Bette knew that tone to her father's voice. It was scared, sad, serious, yet strong. It was a fatherly voice and it was never a good one to hear. Some of the times she heard it were when she once yelled at them, when John's father died when she was eight, and when they put they had to put the dog to sleep when she was six. It was a sound that vibrated in her in the worst way, and without him saying another word, tears came down her face. "What's wrong?"

Lorna heard the concern in John's voice and they all sat in the living room together. John had the box of tissues ready. "I took a call while you were out. There was a car crash earlier today. It was James and Mark Hall. Someone ran a red light, tried to hit their breaks, there was an icy skid and they were T-boned on the driver's side. James didn't make it. He died on the way to the hospital."

Bette sobbed silently.

"Mark's left leg is broken but he's safe now. He's shaken and bruised but he will heal."

"Can I see him?" she asked quietly.

"He's with his family right now. When Cynthia called, she said that Mark wanted you to know that he would be okay. He wanted you to know first. He didn't want you to think he was lying to you by not telling you as quickly as he possibly could, even if he couldn't do it himself."

Bette cried to her father's words, to Mark's actions, to the loss of James: a great man to Mark and Cynthia.

"I can't imagine how much he's suffering. Ah!" She wailed loudly.

John and Lorna held and rocked and cried with their aching daughter. Bette cried until she thought she had no more tears in her body and still found more. She cried herself to sleep that night and when she woke up in the middle of the night just to roll over, she cried more.

The funeral was scheduled for Thursday the 30th that week and John took off work that day to take Bette to it. He suggested they get two cards, one for the family and one she could give right to Mark. She put her hair in the Wednesday braids and wore the star pendant in hope that would bring Mark some form of comfort when he saw her.

The service was somber and respectful. She felt honored just to be in the Lutheran church sanctuary among James' family, friends, and coworkers. People eulogized his virtue and passion. The times when he lived in Europe out of a backpack for a year sleeping under bridges, in barns, and hostels. Learning carpentry from his grandfather and father. His love of fishing, conservation, and protection of endangered species. So many wonderful things she hadn't learned about him in in the short period she knew him, but got to know through the image of Mark. She considered herself blessed that James thought of her as 'a sweet girl.'

John and Bette sat further in the back among some teaches that she recognized and a whole lot of people she didn't. Mark's close friends like Robert, Hank, Hannah, and Ashleigh were further forward having been neighborhood friends since early elementary school.

The service concluded and there was a reception in the basement hall. Mark's family was receiving mourners but Bette was sad and nervous and wasn't sure what to do. Besides her grandfather's funeral when she was young, this was the first funeral she had been to where she saw the gravity of the situation and felt it for herself. She went through the short buffet line of ham, dollar rolls, pasta salads, vegetable trays, Jell-O salads, and dessert bars and looked around with her father for a place to sit. She saw Mark's friends sitting together, and John saw her looking. "Go ahead Bette. I think I see a person or two I can talk to," It was the same soft fatherly voice he spoke to her in when he gave her the bad news. She stood there for a moment while she saw him introduce himself to someone and make polite conversation. John could talk to a used car salesman and sell him something.

Bette went to the table where Mark's friends were. "Hi guys. Can I sit?"

"Yeah," said Robert.

She didn't know what to say, what to do, what to ask, what was appropriate, and by the looks on all their faces, they felt similarly. After a few minutes of quiet eating, Hank slapped a hand on the table and spoke, "He was a real bad ass. That stuff about Europe. I had no idea."

"He was like a second dad. He was everyone's second dad." said Robert.

Hannah looked around the table and tried to smile. "Remember in summer, when we'd be playing 'kick the can' and stuff? And he'd be wood working in his garage with the door open? Mark would go get a pop from the garage fridge with his dad and then yell to us to all come up and get one. I still have such a love for that store brand pop. That was James's generosity."

"He always had one of those things, you know, for our bikes, remember?" Ashleigh was grasping at words through her grief. "He was like the neighborhood filling station for our bike tires. And he'd oil our chains too. Not some cheap, hand air-pump. We didn't have to walk our bikes to the gas station. He had one of those tire-air-mechanical-pump-things. That was so cool to me."

"I didn't know him like you guys did. But I had serious respect for him. Being around him was like being around a general or a king. He once hugged me and called me a sweet girl. I'll never forget that." One more tear ran down Bette's face as she said it, she didn't even try to hide it.

"He was the king of the block," said Hank.

They all tried to crack a smile. "How-how's Mark holding up? I haven't been able to talk to him yet," Bette asked.

Robert and Hank exchanged glances. "He's pretty gutted," Said Robert. They all looked back across the hall to see Mark at a table with Cynthia, his mother, his grandmothers, grandfather, and other various relatives. Mark's face was drawn and he looked like he wasn't speaking much, he was receiving handshakes and hugs from his seated position. The cast on his left leg looked immense and the crutches looked stale by his side. "He barely spoke to me about it. I think he and Cynthia are clinging to each other pretty hard right now," said Robert.

"But he'll be back at school on Monday, right?" Bette asked.

"Probably. It's gonna suck, but I shouldn't see why not," said Hank.

They kept talking and eating for a little while longer when Bette saw a lull in the crowds around Mark and his family. She thanked her classmates, got up, tossed her plate, and made her way to her father. They walked over to Mark, Cynthia, and his family. When she walked up to him and she got a good look at him, the first thing on his face to her said 'hope'. He was still clearly, devastated, but in that moment, he appeared to be glad to see her. She took the quick steps, crouched beside him on his right and they embraced each other. He leaned forward slightly so her arms wouldn't be blocked by the chair. His hand found the spot on the back of her head where he touched her when he kissed her. She whispered through cries in his ear, "He was such a good man. I can't imagine how you feel. I'm so sorry. You don't deserve this."

"Breathe." Mark whispered. "Shh. Breathe. It's what they keep telling me. Breathe. Shh."

They held and whispered comforting words to each other while John introduced himself to Cynthia and Mark's mother Gina. He didn't look like her, but they had similar fidgety mannerisms and nervous speaking habits.

"I got a card for you. Just you." She opened their embrace and pulled the card out of the handbag she carried. "I kept adding to it over the last few days, so it might not make a lot of sense."

"I'm sure it's great." He took it looked at it and put it in his suit jacket pocket. He looked at her and took a breath. "It's gonna be hard for me, for a while. It's why I haven't called."

She nodded.

"It's good to be able to see you, but, the talking part it's-"

"It's okay. Can I give you another card? And more until you're ready?"

He mashed his mouth together. "That would be nice."

"Monday?"

He nodded.

She hugged him and whispered, "When you're ready. The stars are there night and day."

He squeezed her tightly before letting her go. Bette paid respects to Cynthia, Gina, and the rest of Mark's family before she and her father left.

She got home and did some digging in her closet, shelves, and drawers until she found the old Diddl stationary from when she was young. She wrote how sad and scared she was but how she would be ready for him when he would be. How things are terrible now, but they, hopefully, won't feel so terrible soon. She told him how handsome he looked in his suit in spite of the cast. She told him that like the Halloween dance, she hoped she could see him evening wear again; it was one of his best looks. She got to the end of the first sheet and realized she had so much more she could say, but stopped there. She took a couple notes and decided to save them for the next one.

That afternoon, she got calls from Jenna and Ozzy who had seen the announcement in the newspaper and asked her about how Mark was doing. She answered them honestly, she didn't know, but she knew it had to be terrible. She had only been around James a few times in two months and was wrecked herself. She knew it was mostly for Mark, but she had liked his dad a lot too. Ozzy tried to offer her some consolation. He told her Darrah was letting him have people over for New Years. Tylor and Greyson would obviously be there, Vanessa was going, and he said Jenna told him she would go if Bette would. That she would feel too awful about having a good time with their friends without Bette around. Bette asked her parents. They always went to a big new year's party and they told her since Ozzy lived close, she could go, but she had to be home by one AM, and they would be up to make sure. The weather wasn't set to be too cold that night, so she knew she could walk. The guys were staying there and Jenna was going to get picked up and stay over at Vanessa's.

Bette started walking to Ozzy's house shortly after her parent's left for their party. They offered to drive her, but she wanted to walk. The cold night air and the walking felt nice compared to shutting herself in the sad cocoon of her room for the last week. The air did hurt her face. Her skin was dry from all the crying, and despite attempting to put on facial lotion, it didn't help much. She knocked at Ozzy's door and he answered. "Hey. Come on in, Bee." His house had a comforting smell of clean laundry and popcorn, and the dated décor of the house with the lighting kept the space in a soft, warm yellowy hue. They had fuzzier carpet and less formal furniture than Bette's house. It gave her comfort and for the first time is the last week, she felt herself relax and not be mournful.

"How are you holding up," he asked.

"Better. Tough, but better. The walk helped a lot. More than I realized I needed it." She took off her hat, mittens, scarf, and coat. Ozzy took them and hung them up. "It's nice to be out of my room, you know? I haven't done anything besides go to the fune-" She sighed and touched her hand to her forehead. "I'm just going to be the sad girl all night, aren't I?"

"No. Tylor is fully prepared to re-enact Austin Powers in its entirety to make all of us laugh, not just you."

Bette laughed. "Did he, or did he not bring tear away pants for the fem-bot scene?"

"He didn't say, but he said he was completely committed to the 89 minute runtime and closing credit scenes."

Bette closed her eyes and laughed. It felt good to laugh again. "Yeah, baby," she said in her best Austin Powers voice. They went downstairs and joined everyone else. There were lots of hugs all around. Bette caught out of the corner of her eye Ozzy make a hand-to-neck motion to the group. He was telling them to stop or not do something. Within minutes, she realized it was the fact that none of them mentioned Mark, his father, or the funeral. No one brought it up. It felt good to not talk about it. As the night went on and they ate snacks, played games, Ozzy sang and played music on the guitar, Tylor did the entire opening song and dance to Austin Powers, she wasn't avoiding the pain and grief, she was moving through it. She wasn't drowning in her tears anymore; she had risen to the surface. She could see the shore. She knew it was still a ways away, but it was nice having her head above water for the first time in almost a week.

It was sometime after 11 and Tylor was using the bathroom in the basement. Bette went upstairs to use the bathroom off Ozzy's room. She took her time in his bathroom. She admired how clean he kept the sink. The variety of soaps and smells, none of them too aggressive. The fact he actually used floss, his toothpaste tube wasn't gross, and put his nail clippings in the garbage can. She thought of their wager from the first day of school. She peaked open the sink cabinet and the hinge squeaked. The products she had collected were there, but they weren't in the bag she collected them in. Tampons were stacked in a cut off square tissue box, and the pads were all in a row in a rectangular cut off tissue box. It was the first time she's looked since the wager. She was touched. She didn't need one in that moment, but she was touched all the same and she smiled with pride. She finished washing and drying her hands and opened the door, Vanessa was there and their faces were inches apart. "Oh shit, I didn't hear you coming," said Bette stepping back and to the side.

"I should have been louder. These old carpets put me in stealth mode. I needed Ozzy's bathroom. Sounded like you did too. I heard the cabinet."

She laughed. "You are welcome by the way," she said playfully with an exaggerated, welcoming arm movement.

"For what?"

"For the tampons and pads."

Vanessa looked confused. "Why should I thank you?"

Bette chuckled. "You think any guy our age would keep that much product in their bathroom? No. He lost a bet to me. He's my personal vending machine. The boxes weren't my idea though."

"They were mine." Vanessa's tone was stoic. "Excuse me." she closed herself inside the bathroom.

It took a second and hearing the cabinet squeak again to realize she may have made a mistake with Vanessa. She hurried back downstairs where Jenna was showing off a new contact juggling trick she had learned using a hard, acrylic ball she brought with her. Bette walked up behind the couch and leaned into Ozzy's ear and whispered. "Where did you tell Vanessa the tampons and stuff came from?"

"I didn't. I just said I had them if she needed them."

"Well, I didn't know that, and I wager she knows differently now." Ozzy snapped his head back to look at her, Bette gave him a concerned glare.

"I didn't tell her it had anything to do with you," he whispered.

"So she thought you were extra thoughtful and sensitive? And now thinks you lied about it. Not good."

Ozzy scurried off the couch with a worried look on his face and went up the stairs. After hearing the toilet flush through the house, Vanessa could be heard speaking to Ozzy about what had happened. It wasn't so much that she was yelling, but all those years in theater had made her voice strong. And similarly with Ozzy, his voice sounded louder and angrier from his sheer size and all the singing he did, even though they were speaking normally. Tylor, Greyson, and Jenna made naughty faces and tried to listen. Bette grabbed the TV remote and turned up the volume. "Guys. That's private." And she gave them the same hand-to-neck motion that Ozzy gave them about her at the beginning of the night. "Hand me the Bopit. How long do you think I can go without using my eyes?"

"No way." said Jenna. "If anything that makes it easier. One handed."

"I can do it with my feet," said Greyson flatly.

"That! Now I gotta see that!" said Bette.

They had a good laugh with the game. Eventually Ozzy and Vanessa came back down and acted like nothing was wrong. Midnight came and went and Ozzy and Vanessa didn't even kiss when the ball dropped. Vanessa offered to give her a ride, but she didn't want one, she wanted to walk again. Tylor had already crashed, and Greyson grazed on popcorn and consulted a Magic 8 Ball with various questions. Ozzy saw Bette to the door.

"Thank you for having me over tonight. I needed it. I didn't realize how much I needed it." She put on her coat, hat, scarf, and pulled her mittens out of her pockets.

"I'm glad you came over. It made the night more interesting."

"If by interesting, you mean I wrecked your new years with Vanessa, then yes, I did that."

"You didn't do that. I did."

"I didn't help the situation."

"You did, you kept everyone out of our hair and not weird about it."

"Damn it, Ozzy, can you let me feel shitty for a moment!" She closed her eyes, took a breath, and gulped before looking back at him. "I'm sorry. That wasn't fair to you."

He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked side to side. "I don't think anything has been fair for you for the last week. I can take it."

He gave her a hug and she was finally able to give and receive a hug without crying after talking about it. It felt like real progress.

"Thanks again. "I'll see you Monday." She headed out the door and started walking. The cool air felt good. Their neighborhood was quiet and she liked the stillness of it. There were lots of streetlights, porch lights, and old trees. She didn't feel unsafe walking home after midnight, and her parents weren't worried about it either. She got to the end of the block when she heard the sound: a clacking-stomping sound from behind her. It was Ozzy, in his hat, coat, and gloves jogging to catch up with her. She stopped and took a few steps back. "I couldn't have forgotten anything, I didn't bring anything."

"No. You didn't, I did. It's late. I should walk you home."

"Oz." He was sweet. She didn't think she needed the escort. "Alright."

They started the slow walk down the sidewalk.

"2000. We're living in the future," said Ozzy.

"Yeah it's weird. You know how it always takes you a day or two at the beginning of the month to date things correctly on homework and stuff? I wonder how long it's going to take me to remember writing 2000 on everything instead of 1999."

"Nothing exploded. So much for Y2k."

"I didn't think anything was going to happen with that. Jenna's dad bought a bunch of gallon jugs of water. I thought it was silly."

"Did you ever imagine being this old? Like when you were a kid?"

"Being 14? Living in 2000? No. I imagined what it might be like to have my own car or be an adult, but not to be our age? No."

"Like, being with Vanessa is weird. It's great, don't get me wrong. I feel old and not old enough at the same time, does that make sense?"

Bette's eyes got really wide and she spoke intensely, "Yes! Like everything tells you to go but you're scared shitless because you've never been on this ride before. Do you actually want to stop? You control the ride, right? But going feels so good. And once you get going you don't know where you wanna stop. And once it does stop all you can do is think about going again, all the time. All the damn time!" And she grunted.

Bette looked up at Ozzy's stunned face. "I was more talking about choices and responsibilities."

"What does that have to do with Vanessa?"

"Sometimes I think I might make different choices if she weren't my girlfriend. Nothing big. I pick a different brand of aftershave that I know she likes the smell of better. Or wear a shirt that has more blue in it to go with what she wears."

"What's right or wrong about that?"

"If I'm not making decisions for myself first, what's the point of getting older if I'm not being responsible for myself?"

"From what I can tell, you're extremely responsible for yourself. You've never seen Jenna and her sister's bathroom, it's a war zone. Your bathroom is immaculate. And the stuff with what you might pick for her. Do you like it? The aftershave? The clothes?"

"Yeah."

"Is it maybe better than wearing one shade of black all the time? And not smelling like Axe Body Spray, which is worn at way too high of a volume in our school?"

"There is more than one shade of black," he joked. "But I see your point."

"I had forgotten that I gave you Vanessa's number, but I did remember something. I told her Ozzy's his own person who makes his own choices. And as long as you don't lie to her like you don't lie to me, there shouldn't be any issues."

"It makes sense."

"It's what you told Mark. He doesn't lie to me. I don't lie to him."

"And somehow you two are on some kind of roller coaster."

"It's like nothing else I've ever experienced," She almost sang it.

"Yeah, I know what you mean." He got his own dreamy look in his eye.

A short time later they were at Bette's side door. "Thanks again for having me over tonight. And for walking me home. It helped a lot. It was better than staying home."

"My door always swings open. You know that."

"I need a reminder sometimes."

They gave each other another hug. "Happy New Year! MUAH!" He kissed the top of the knit cap.

She laughed and let go of him. She climbed two steps of her porch and waved him over. She grabbed him around his head and he leaned into her, "Happy New Year! MUAH!" She kissed the top of his knit cap. "Remember, the door locks in both directions too."

He made a zipper over his mouth mime. They high-fived and made goofy faces to each other and she went inside to her waiting parents.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 13.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Monday morning came and Bette wore the star pendant and Wednesday braids again. Robert and Hank stayed close to Mark's side and made sure people respected the space he wanted. Bette had science class with Hank right before lunch and gave him the card to give to Mark and asked how he was doing. He told her he was still pretty rough but was hanging in there. Tuesday, Bette wrote in the card for Mark that opening up and having fun with other things like she did on New Year's helped a lot. It probably won't be enough to ease him as it did her, but it might bring him a little comfort. On Wednesday that week, she gave Hank another letter for Mark, and at lunch when she saw Mark at his table with his friends, he was actually smiling and appeared to laugh. He looked so good to her in that moment and it took all the effort in her not to approach him. Thursday that week, he wasn't there, but she still had a card for Hank to deliver and he offered to drop it off at his house after school. Friday he looked sad again, and he wasn't smiling much. She had Hank deliver another card.

The weekend came and went and he did not call her, even though in her Friday card, she told him how she was looking forward to hearing from him. Monday she had another card for Hank to deliver. She asked how he was doing. He said he was getting better over the weekend, but he still wasn't ready. On Tuesday, Mark looked more like his old self again than he did since the funeral. His face was more smiles than sadness and she heard him laugh clear across the lunchroom once. Wednesday, she wrote in her card to him she hoped he would be ready to talk soon. She missed him and she hoped things weren't as hard as they used to be for him. On Thursday morning, Mark was looking more like his old self than ever before. Robert and Hank had stopped being his shields. Everyone was talking to him except her. He wasn't sad at all that morning when she saw him down the hallway. When she got to science class with Hank, she was hurt. She wrote a quick note on a piece of notebook paper saying, "Enough of this song and dance. I want to talk." When she got to lunch, she couldn't even look at him across the lunch room. She engaged her friends at the table. She had been going to him; he can come to her, despite the broken leg. Mark did not come to her for the rest of the day, nor did he call her that evening.

Friday came. That morning she wanted to make another visual statement to Mark. She wore a set of black tights that had silver flecks in them and it looks like the night sky, her black tartan skirt that he eyed her in after the dance, and a t-shirt that had a star on the chest that she had specifically bought after he gave her the pendant. She wore her hair in the Wednesday braids again and the pendant on the nylon cord he gave her and not her silver box chain. She wanted him to chase the stars. When Bette got to science class that day and Hank asked if she had a note for him, she said no. When they got to lunch Bette and Mark looked at each other. She tried to have no expression for him, the poker face she knew she lacked. When she saw Hank talk to Mark, she didn't look angry or sad, he looked scared. She hoped it would be enough for him to want to come talk to her or send her a note, but he didn't. He just kept avoiding her. When they passed each other in the hall between classes, he didn't speak to her then either, but she saw him speak to other people, and it hurt and angered her further. She started to imagine all the scenarios of what could have gone wrong in the letters she wrote to him with no communications back and it frustrated her further. If she was so awesome, smart, and beautiful, why didn't she deserve the dignity of a response? People who weren't even friends of his got that, and she had given him so much more than that.

At the end of the school day she was so hurt, irritated, and angry; she didn't want Mark to chase the stars anymore. Bette was ready to be a super nova. She went down to the south auxiliary door where she knew he left each day and waited. There was a spot along the wall where if she got there first, she knew she wouldn't be seen; with Mark still in his cast, she knew he would take longer than her to get there. She didn't care about missing the school bus; she would call her parents and catch a city bus home within an hour of school ending. She wouldn't care about waiting in the cold, she was boiling.

She heard the click-step of Mark on his crutches making his way down the hallway and talking with Robert. He lived across the street from Mark and was helping him get to and from school each day. Just as they were passing her she spoke to them.

"Are you ready yet?" her tone was cold.

"Bette, no. Not yet. Maybe next week." Robert got between them. Mark looked down at his cast.

"Maybe he can tell me that for himself. He seems to be able to say it to everyone else." She got in Robert's space; he tried to gently push her back. She wanted to push him away. She knew she could if she wanted to.

"No-" Robert interjected.

"It's fine Rob," Mark said. "It's fine. It's time. Go on. We'll be fine."

"You sure?" Robert asked Mark.

Mark nodded looking sad. Robert looked at each of them. Bette was still angry. Robert took off out of the doors and left them.

"So what is it? I get a little too weird? Did I say the wrong things? What could I have done to have hurt you so badly?"

"You didn't do anything wrong."

"So you speak to everyone except me for two weeks. Do you have any idea how that makes me feel?"

"Bette I have to go."

"I have not even begun to tell you how upset I've been. You know you could have talked with me through your grief. I would have listened."

"Bette I have to leave."

She began to tear up, "I'm not done! Do you have any idea what it's like? How awful it is to not be sure if you've been dumped or not? I know you're going through some hard times but part of having a girlfriend is being there to help you with it! I wanted to be there for you!"

Tears fell from Mark's face. "Bette you don't understand! I'm leaving at the end of the semester in a couple weeks! I am not staying here at school!"

Her anger melted away and she was completely shattered. "What?"

"With my dad gone, my mom gets sole custody. I can't stay here with Cynthia. I have to go back and live with my mom in that shitty little town. I don't have a choice!"

"Mark-"

"It gets worse. That day I was gone last week. I was home with Cynthia, we were feeling shitty together. She lost the pregnancy. I don't even get to have a little brother or sister anymore. I don't get to have that little piece of my dad around. I'm all that's left."

She dropped her backpack off her shoulders, wrapped her arms under his around his chest and hugged him, taking on as much of his weight as she could. His crutches fell to the floor. They were sobbing in each other's arms. "I was waiting so long to tell you because I knew as soon as I spoke to you I had to tell you. I knew I couldn't lie to you about it. The only thing I could do was avoid you and you kept giving me those wonderful cards and letters. They helped me so much. They were the only good thing I had in the last two weeks. When you gave me the notebook paper yesterday and no note today, I knew this was coming. I knew we were going to be over."

"It's not over yet. I'm still here. You're still here."

He caught his breath and stopped his tears. "If there's something I've learned in the last month. We call that stage one: denial."

He opened their embrace and wiped the tears from her face with his hand. "I'm so sorry I was angry with you. I said it once before and I'll say it again, I can't imagine how much you're suffering."

"Would you help me get home so we can talk about it?"

She nodded. He braced himself on the wall while she picked up her backpack and his crutches. It took a while to get situated. She carried his backpack in her free hand and he was able to move quicker down the sidewalk. His neighbors had been helpful and made sure that the sidewalk was clear of ice and snow for his walk to school. She called her mom when she got to his house and let her know where she was and would keep her updated on a time when she would be home. Lorna was understanding knowing that the two of them hadn't spoken and it was not a school night. Just call with any updates.

After some talking and lots of tissues, Mark filled her in. He was allowed to stay until the end of the semester for school, but in two more weeks when the semester ended, he would have to go back and live with his mom again. He explained the legal issues between his mom and Cynthia but it was all so foreign to her. Cynthia made them some dinner and they settled in the downstairs TV room to talk some more. Mark was laid up on the couch and Bette sat by his side holding his hand. Music played on rotation on the five-CD stereo.

"I knew life wasn't fair, but I didn't think it could suck so bad," said Bette.

"Yeah, I've been thinking about that kind of thing a lot. Dad used to tell me there's no such thing as fair. There's just what the world gives you and what you make with it."

"And what do you want to make with it?"

"I think," he looked at her hands. "I think we can make the best of the next couple weeks."

She cried another couple silent tears.

"I think I caught a falling star and it would be wrong to keep it bottled up after I'm gone. The stars need to be free."

"But not until then, right?"

"Okay." She wrapped her arms around him and they hugged for a long time. She stroked his hair and took in his scent. He ran his hands up and down her back and her sides. She felt a tear run off her face and onto him; she kissed his neck to pick it up. She wasn't thinking romantically, but he returned the kiss to a similar spot on her neck and it felt good. She returned the kiss to his neck, slower, longer and in more spots. As she did, the way he touched her back changed from comforting to desirous. His hand movement slowed, he squeezed, and he grazed the sides of her breasts with his thumbs. He leaned his head back so she could start kissing around his neck and up to is ear. She took his earlobe in her lips and he responded with a moan. He took a sure grip of her, twisted her, and pulled her into a sitting position across his lap and she gasped. Their arms were draped around each other and they took a moment to look at each other. Her legs didn't sit evenly because of his cast but they had never been so close, She settled how she sat and she realized she could feel his erection again, but this time, she wasn't surprised to feel it against her leg. And wearing tights, it felt even closer. And he didn't seem scared to realize she could feel it either. She gave him a slow kiss and moved her leg against it. When she withdrew, she kept moving her leg; he closed his eyes and enjoyed the feeling.

"Bette," he said softly.

"Yeah Mark," she whispered back.

"There's a CD. Do you mind putting it in?"

"Sure." He helped her off her lap and she went to the CD stereo. "Which one?"

"The white envelope. The ones Justin makes." Justin was the one kid in their grade who had his own computer with a cable modem and bought blank CDs and for $2 per CD he would burn you a mix of whatever you wanted of downloaded music from LimeWire. "And maybe, set the disc on repeat?"

She put the disc in and programmed the player to repeat the disc instead of rotating to the next one. The first song that started was "Cry to Me" by the Solomon Burke from Dirty Dancing.

"Would you dance with me Bette? Here?"

She thought of the scene in the movie. She went to him. She knelled across his unbroken right leg, straddling it. He sat up and wrapped his arms around her back. She hunched slightly to be close to the same height as him. He began to sway her to the music. His hands on her back took the lead like they did at the dance. His shoulders moved back and forth with hers, and even though his legs didn't move, he was still a terrific dancer. He opened their embrace and stretched her back into an arched back dip and her head nearly touched his cast. When he pulled her close again, she felt herself grinding against his leg near his knee. She ran her hands over his stomach and his chest over his shirt and around the back of his neck. When she opened up their embrace and they saw the looks on each other's faces and she felt where his hands were on her back she nodded. She kissed him. Their mouths opened to each other slowly and passionately, and while they did, Mark's hands slid up the back of her shirt and unhooked Bette's bra. She kept grinding her hip against his leg and she felt his hips swirl beneath her. His hands made their way to her front; he lifted her bra off her breasts, gently and thoughtfully massaging her breasts. He touched her in a way that felt more right than she could express, and she wanted him to keep going. She pulled away from the kiss and turned her head for him to kiss her neck and he gladly did. The music moved her. Mark's hands and lips heated hear and she grinded against his leg harder and faster. And before she realized it she was panting in Mark's ear.

He licked her neck and her ear and whispered, "If you're doing what I think you're doing, don't stop. I don't want you to stop."

She held him with one arm and braced her other arm on the arm of the couch, "I'm not sure what I'm doing, but I don't want to stop either."

"Can I look at you?" he whispered.

"Yes," she sighed.

He carefully opened their embrace not to throw off their rhythm. His hips still swiveled under her while she rubbed her groin against his leg. He looked her in the face, "I know that look." His fingers fondled her nipples. "I didn't know you did."

"I didn't. I don't. I-I-I- Ah!" Bette squeezed Mark's thigh with hers at the sensation that screamed through her body and breathed heavily through it. She'd never felt it before as it rippled from her core to the top of her head to the tip of her toes and back again over the next several seconds. She gripped the couch and his shoulder to keep herself from falling over. She breathed hard through it and realized what she did. She closed her eyes, straightened her legs over him, causing his hands to slide off her chest and out from under her shirt. Feeling embarrassed by what she had done, she covered her face with her arms in front of her. "Oh God, you must think I'm some kind of freaky perv now?" She sounded like she was about to cry, and in a different way than she had been earlier.

"Not at all."

"Cause I sure think I am. Who does that?" She stepped a leg off the couch and began to stand pulling herself out of his arms while still covering her face.

He reached up and yanked her back down to his lap, "I do!" Her hands were off her face and she could feel his erection in his pants again. "Did you forget that quick?"

"But you didn't, you know, finish the ride."

"Just because you don't see me do it, doesn't mean I don't. Everyone does it. Just before I had you change the music? Do you not remember the dance? That kiss?" His face was red. "I told you, I won't lie to you. What do you think I did two minutes after I got in my room that night? Am I a freaky perv?"

"No."

"No! Exactly. And you're my girlfriend and this stuff is private to us, right?" His tone changed to be concerned. "It is private?"

"You ever see that show Sex and the City on HBO? Girls actually talk like that. But I do believe in privacy." She touched the side of his face. "So I'm not gonna get weird looks from Robert and Hank about this?"

"Absolutely not. I won't get any weird looks from Jenna, Vanessa, or Ozzy, right?"

"I only tell Jenna about the basic stuff, like the fact we kiss, but I don't get specific, and she's not that interested in hearing about it. And I don't talk to the others about that stuff; privacy."

"Then as long as we're both okay with it, then we did nothing wrong, right?"

"It was kinda scary and weird for a moment, but it didn't feel wrong. I liked it...a lot"

He rubbed her back. "It was intense for me too. Nothing I've seen or talked about with anyone prepared me for that. I'll never forget that."

"As in two minutes after I leave can't forget?" she said raising her eyebrows and giving a wry smile.

"Oh yeah. For sure." She gave him a kiss and a hug and moved her leg against it. "Or you keep doing that, I'm not going to have to wait until you leave."

"God. You're sweet and you're sexy and that is a deadly combination."

"I'm sexy? I just had the prettiest girl in our grade jack it on me. You're a bonafide icon to me now."

She closed her eyes, laughed, and landed her forehead on his shoulder. "Ah, I'm never going to live that down with you, am I?"

He squeezed his arms around her, "Nope. But it's our secret."

They held each other stilled for a moment. "Two weeks, huh?"

"Yeah. When the semester ends. My mom comes with a moving truck; I'll be gone on Saturday. Two weeks from tomorrow."

"And it's over, isn't it?"

"I think we'd both be lying if we said it would be a good idea to keep trying to make this work after I'm gone."

"How long have you known?"

"I was told in the days after the funeral. It was all kind of a blur, I don't remember which one, but it was before we got back to school."

"I want to try to enjoy as much time with you as I can then. I want to help you pack. Get rid of stuff you don't want. You can tell me about that old junk," she smiled. "I want to be here for you. That is, if that is what you want."

"That sounds like a nice way to end it. But no tears. I don't want to see any more of that. I've seen too much of it already."

She gave him a little smile. "I think I can manage that." She gave him a kiss and felt him grow in his jeans for her. "Every time, huh?"

"Oh yeah. And that Monday after the dance when you wore this skirt and your hair like this." He made the 'ooh' face that he did in the hallway that morning. "I couldn't believe you dressed like that. And then you winked. You looked so hot."

"When you whispered you gave me goose bumps. And you with that pin! Did you see how red my face got? No one had ever looked at me like that before."

"If you could have seen my reaction after I turned. Or on the way home from the dance. It was all over my face."

"I didn't know what you were thinking after the dance. I had to figure out a way to get your attention."

"You always had my attention."

She sighed, leaning her head on his shoulder; she could see the wall of video tapes. "I can't believe I never noticed. I was so scared back in 5th grade. Just trying to get through the day without getting teased or bullied. I didn't know what a good guy looked like when he was talking to me about Johnny Carson tapes and Sailor Moon."

"You knew all those camp songs."

"It's pretty much the only time I sing at all."

They were quiet for a couple minutes.

"Did you ever think it was weird Mr. Barrow only had like six different shirts?" Mark asked.

"Yes!" Bette said. "And if you could get him to talk about sports, he wouldn't assign homework."

"Hank's older sister told me about that. I totally exploited that a couple of times."

"It worked better in spring with baseball season. I'm not sure what he liked more, talking about baseball or not grading homework."

"I'm sure it was a nasty combination of both."

They laughed and talked for a while longer until Cynthia gave Bette a ride home. She told her parents what was going on with Mark leaving at the end of the semester in two weeks and how he had to move away. They were both sad but facing it head on now. She asked then about helping him pack up after school over the next couple weeks. She could, as long as Cynthia was there and she was home by 6:30 each school night.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 14.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Those next two weeks were bittersweet. Bette let her friends know what was going on and why Mark was avoiding her for so long. She sat with Mark and his friends for the last two weeks he was there at school during lunch and her friends understood. After school each day she's help him home. They'd copy each other's science homework because it was the only class they had the same teacher for. Then she would help him pack. In the occasional box when he wasn't looking, she'd hide a note written of a memory of a good time they had together. She didn't know if he would find them days or years after he moved, but she hoped it would be something that would make him smile in the future. There was a lot of stuff that Mark found himself not keeping, like childhood toys, posters, and trophies. The things he wanted to keep was the stuff that belonged to his father, his watches, decorative boxes and chests he had made, their camping and fishing gear, photo albums, vintage t-shirts from his college years, his sunglasses, a gold ring with a sapphire he wore on his right hand, and other personal items. Cynthia objected to none of Marks choices, as far as she was concerned, it was all his to pick from first, anything else she would do with as he wished. When Mark wasn't sure what to do with all his father's clothes, Bette suggested donating the clothes to a homeless shelter, and Mark agreed. The more of Mark's old stuff they got rid of, the better he felt. He described it to her as a molting bird. He felt like he was shedding the old feathers needed so he could be who he was supposed to become. She tried not to look morose when he said it; she tried not to feel like one of his old feathers.

The semester ended and it was Mark's last day in town. Bette did her damnedest not to cry. She helped Cynthia and Gina load the last of the boxes into their vehicle along with Hank and Robert. Hannah and Ashleigh were also there waiting. It was a bright day for January and the air was still. Bette didn't even feel the cold of the 25 degree air, she just felt heartbroken. She let her body be Mark's crutch as he made his way to the car after everything was packed. His other friends said good bye to him and he asked his mom to give he and Bette a moment of privacy before they took off; the car was already running.

"This is it," Bette said.

"Yeah," said Mark

"I guess-I guess it's better that it ends this way then with us eventually not liking each other and then breaking up."

"I don't know if I could ever have done that."

She sniffled. She wasn't sure if it was the cold air or the unbearable heartache, "Damn it Mark. You make it impossible to not like you." They hugged in their bulky winter coats.

He whispered in her ear, "I fell for a star."

She whispered back, "I fell for the man in the moon." They gave each other one more soft, slow kiss. She thought of the Halloween dance. "Thank you for asking me to dance. I had a great time."

"I had an awesome time with you. Thank you."

She opened the car door and he got in. Bette closed the door behind him and went back up to the house door with Cynthia. No tears. They waved to each other and the vehicles took off. It was truly over. Cynthia let her in the house for a while and they talked for a bit about things other than Mark and then she took Bette home. Bette asked for her business card so she could go to her for haircuts in the future. As she dropped Bette off, she gave her a small envelope that had a little bulk to it.

"Mark asked me to give you this after he left. He didn't want you to think that a cold, outside goodbye was the only thing he wanted to say today."

"Thank you. Or I guess-um, you know, right?"

"I do."

They gave each other a big hug and Bette went into her house and up to her room to read the card.

She opened the envelope and the bulky item in it was the circle brooch he wore at the Halloween dance. My moon. She took out the card and read it.

My Star, Bette-

I'm sorry that our relationship had to end for reasons beyond what we could control. The world gave us our time together and we made with it what we could. You were a great dance partner, so smart, interesting, awesome, beautiful, and to me, forever an icon. But you have an inner light about you that glows brighter than you realize and that's what I liked about you most. You will forever hold a place in my heart.

-Your Moon, Mark.

She read the card again and again, what felt like 50 times because that was when the tears came. She collected herself enough to call Jenna to talk, but no one was home and she didn't want to leave a message in the state she was in. She picked up the phone again and called Ozzy.

"Hello?" he answered.

"Hi, it's Bee." her voice was distraught.

"You just get home from him leaving?"

"A little while ago."

"Sounds like it went pretty tough."

"It didn't get bad until I got home."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Are you available to hang out or something? I mean. My mom is great, but this is different, you know?"

"I remember you helping me with Cassandra. I follow."

She cried and he was didn't say anything for a moment.

"Can you give me an hour? I can be there within in an hour." he asked.

"Yeah,"

"I'll be there by then."

"'Kay."

"Bye."

She hung up the phone and sobbed for a bit longer on her bed. She got up and told her parents she was going to have Ozzy come by and help her out. She said she was sorry she didn't ask, but she hoped they would understand. They did, and let her make use of the living room for when he arrived. She answered the door when he knocked.

"Hey Oz." Her face was a red mess.

"Hey." He stepped in and took off his hat and coat. He stuck his CD player and headphones into his coat from where it clipped on his jeans and around his neck.

"You want some water or something? I mean, we have Diet Coke, but I know you don't like it."

"No I'm fine. I don't need anything; I ate before I came here."

"Sure." They went into the sunny living room and sat on the couch.

"How are you holding up?"

"I feel like wet garbage. Is it always this awful?"

"I don't think what you experienced was normal in terms of a break up. You looked down the barrel of a gun and watched the bullet come."

She closed her eyes and cried and wiped her face with more tissues. She handed him the card. "I can't believe he's such a good person. Who says stuff like that?" She took a drink from her glass of water as she let him read the card he had for her.

"An icon? What does that mean?"

She choked on her water a bit and coughed as she put the glass down. "Um, well. You know that, roller coaster ride?"

"Yeah."

"I...finished the ride."

Ozzy got the same stunned look on his face when he walked her home on new year's. He lowered his voice. "You mean you two-"

"No! We didn't-" She tried to listen for where her parents were in the house. She lowered her voice too. "We never did it. He didn't even use his hands. I never even saw him. We were making out and stuff, fully, almost fully clothed, and it just kinda happened for me."

"That can happen?"

"I didn't do anything to stop it."

Ozzy looked around and covered his mouth in shock. "Holy shit."

He so rarely swore, and she remembered they never got that personal with those kinds of details. "I shouldn't have said anything. That was messed up for me to say."

"No. Or, yeah. Um." He cleared his throat. "It's so...I mean I don't expect you to answer, I just don't understand how it's possible." He stared forward, not looking at her.

"Oh it's possible. I mean, now that I've said it," she gulped. "It feels kinda nice to be able to share it with someone. To talk about it. Privately." She said the word firmly. "Jenna doesn't like hearing details. It's nice to know someone else understands."

"But that's the thing. I don't understand."

"I barely understood it myself." She took another drink of water.

"It makes sense why you're so wrecked. I mean, Vanessa and I have been together longer than you and Mark were, and nothing like that has ever come close to happening to either of us."

"But it wasn't just that. That was just one small thing that happened one time. It was everything else that was so much bigger. Look at the card again. He said all those other things to me before he ever called me an 'icon.' And the part he said after he never said before. I never heard anything like that before."

"Really? You didn't know that? Everyone knows that about you. Why do you think you have the reputation of being a 'powerful lady?'"

She looked at him confused. "I-I don't-Vanessa did that."

"She might have coined the term. But people already know that about you. Everyone knows you're different and not everyone knows how to handle it. Why do you think Mark liked you so much? He wasn't intimidated by your inner light, he was inspired by it."

She cried more tears at the thought of Mark.

"He might be gone but you're going to be a bench mark for him for years. He mentioned 5th grade to me when he asked me about you. You already were his bench mark."

She cried, "You're not making this any easier."

"Shoot. Come here." He wrapped an arm around her and she raised her legs onto the couch. She rested her arm over his middle, clenching a tissue.

"Beach Boys? In My Room? You made it sound so nice."

"Okay."

Ozzy began to sing the song to her. He could feel her cry as he sang. As he continued to sing, he began to rock her and stroke her back. She sniffled, cried, and let it out until it didn't hurt as much as it did when he began. When the song was over, he waited for her to say something or move, and she didn't. He saw her hand across his stomach had gone limp, he pulled back some of her hair and realized she was asleep. A few minutes later, John walked by the door and Ozzy waved him down and made a 'shh' mime and pointed to Bette. Ozzy pointed to a blanket across the room and John draped it over her. Ozzy mimed and mouthed for his jacket and John brought it, with his free hand, he took his CD player out and listened to it and waited while Bette slept. Ozzy listened to his CD play through once fully and begin to repeat while Bette slept. Over an hour later, she took a deep inhale and woke up. When she moved, she realized she had fallen asleep on him. She felt the brown flannel blanket and his arm on her back. She turned her head and quickly sat up. Ozzy also took a deep inhale, he had fallen asleep too and her movement woke him up. He took down his headphones, rested them around his neck and turned off his CD player.

"Did that help? Do you feel better?" He asked causally, rubbing his eyes with his hands. "Hour long couch naps are the best, aren't they?"

"How did you get your CD player a-and the blanket?"

"Your dad handed them off while you slept."

Her eyes got big and she looked worried. "He saw us?"

"He had a really pleasant look on his face about it. So I think if he was mad about it, he wouldn't have helped. But seriously, how are you feeling?"

She took a moment to look outside at the snow and the dimness of the late afternoon. She was warm, comfortable, and heartbroken, but didn't feel as wrecked as she did earlier. She didn't feel as bad as she had in the last month. "I don't feel like wet garbage anymore. Maybe more like warm, dry garbage."

"It gets easier. I promise it gets easier. It will probably take longer than two days, but it gets easier."

"Thanks Ozzy."

"My door always swings open."

"Mine too."

The next several weeks Bette pushed through the difficulty of the break up with Mark. Valentine's Day was difficult and made her nauseous. It all felt so fake, but inside she knew she was a hypocrite because she and Mark would have been all over it, and she made herself sicker about it. She tried to engage herself with her friends more. She made a stronger effort to do math homework with Tina and her grades got better in the class. Katie and Bette talked about movies. She introduced Katie to her favorite movie: Cabaret and she loved it. They found themselves passing pencils and putting on invisible hats with Fosse-style dance moves in the hall, and it turned out, Greyson had seen the movie too and knew the references they were making and he opened up for the first time that year. They found themselves joking around with the song "Two Ladies" with him a lot and he stopped being so flat all the time. Bette and Tylor found themselves able to repeat bits from Saturday Night Live to each other and making the whole lunch table laugh. Jenna and Bette reconnected as best friends again spending hours together every weekend playing video games and board games with Jenna's sister. Ozzy remained her confidant through all of it.

There were still occasional tough days where she would think of Mark or come across the rhinestone moon and star in her jewelry box and it struck her in a way that brought her to tears and she would call Ozzy and he would talk her through it. Then there were days Ozzy asked her advice about harder times he was having with Vanessa. She wanted to help him like on New Years' but also didn't want to get too involved either. Between her breakup conversation about Mark. and Ozzy coming to her about Vanessa, the privacy line they had discussed was gone. She tried to do what her mom did to her, ask questions until he came to his own conclusions.

In late February, Vanessa broke up with Ozzy, and she had to be there for him again. They sat in his basement and he wept and she cried with him. It was different than when Cassandra broke up with him. He was destroyed this time. He shared how much Vanessa had meant to him and how much he had shared with her since school had started. Since her parents were divorced, he had shared about the issues he had with his parents, something he had never done with Bette, and he still didn't elaborate about it. Cassandra hurt him because he's never been hurt before, this time Vanessa had known Ozzy closely, more romantically, more personally, and for far longer. She didn't have him only sing the song "In My Room" by the Beach Boys. They listened to Beach Boys CDs until he felt better that day.

Through spring, the seven of them: Katie, Tina, Tylor, Greyson, Jenna, Bette, and Ozzy were tighter than ever. Life at school still wasn't perfect. Cliques and mean pranks still went on throughout the year. A letter calling out the mean behavior that had been written by a student was printed and dropped all over the school. Referring to the cooler trendier kids as 'prep lemmings' and how none of them had the ability to stand on their own as individuals, which is why they all had to stand together and make fun of everyone else and be mean to others who weren't like them. Bette secretly loved it because she agreed with it. It was like a badass secret pamphlet from geeky renegades and she strongly identified with the writer. She had been targeted by 'prep lemmings' herself: Brock A, Jason Kaye, Stella, and Norman. It felt good to know she wasn't alone; it felt good to know that she didn't feel like an isolated victim. No one ever found out who it was. A couple people asked her if she was the one who wrote it, but she said the sentence structures and language usage in it weren't her style and if she were to do something, this wouldn't be it. A dance and the Pi day fair did get cancelled due to the letter and the bad student behavior in the process.

The administration came up with an idea. Everyone had to say something nice about everyone else. Everyone in the grade was going to get a list of everyone else in the grade and they had to put a positive feature about them next to their name. While they had to turn in their list with their own name on the top so the teachers could see who took things seriously. All the recipients would get their accumulated lists of positive attributes anonymously, so no one would know who said what, and still know that not everyone around them is actually as cruel as they think, and maybe, they'll be a little less mean to each other. It would be something that would positively bond them. And maybe, just maybe, they would remember the nice things they said about each other, treat each other better, and not go into high school continuing to be jerks to each other. Bette got the list of the 200-plus kids in her grade. Most of whom she had known since elementary school. For most of them it was easy to find something good to say about them. She decided to take the project seriously, she didn't like the idea of people throwing away answers on her, she didn't want to do the same of them. When she got to someone she didn't know well at all, she complimented them on a piece of clothing they wore, or how they wore their hair. She tried to be thoughtful and respectful in her answers. When it came to the people she had difficulty with, she was able to answer honestly, and it wasn't that hard to find a positive attribute for the. Jason Kaye was 'super strong.' Stella 'didn't take crap from anyone.' Cassandra 'always had a positive bubbly attitude.' With her friends, it was easy. Tina could 'keep a secret like no one else.' Katie was 'a great dancer.' Greyson was 'a wonderful person when he chose to open up.' Tylor was 'more considerate than people give him credit for.' Jenna was 'the best friend any one could have.' When she got to Ozzy, she had thought about the last two years. People didn't know him as well as she did, with the exception of maybe Tylor and Greyson. She wanted to write something that would be singular to her, but not so different he would know she was the one who said it if no one else did. She stared at his name on the paper for a long time before she wrote, 'would trust him with my life.'

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 15.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

The last day of school for the eighth graders was a literal field day. The school rented a big tent and put it out on the soccer field and the events extended all the way over to the baseball field. There were big inflatable games, field games, water games, tournaments, a DJ, a cook out, and more. Bette had seen the event from the school windows the last three years and had been looking forward to it for a long time. Everyone was enjoying the morning and around midday when everyone was going through the buffet lines for lunch, Bette saw everyone getting a piece of paper at the end. She was with Jenna at the time they were getting their food.

"God I'm starving. That wiffleball game took more out of me than I thought." said Bette.

"Yeah. I'm glad we were on the same team for that. I'm so glad enough people wanted to play. I don't get why so many of the girls just want to rotate and bake in the sun up on the hill. They're missing out on all the fun." said Jenna

"I don't get it either." Bette dropped some broccoli and cauliflower florets on her paper plate. "Have you heard about what are they handing out at the end of the line?" asked Bette, craning her neck to look.

"It's the kindness surveys. Remember?"

"I forgot about that! Between final projects and stuff, It completely slipped my mind."

"I know! It's been a crazy couple weeks. And that history-art project, what a bitch."

"Ugh. Even with my Dad's help. I still got a B-. I'll take it." Bette topped her burger with all the fixings and grabbed a diet coke from the giant ice water tub of pop cans. They went up to the teachers handing out the surveys and got theirs by their last names. They looked around the tent to see Tylor and Greyson already seated and eating and went to join them.

"Hi guys. What's better, the food or the surveys?" asked Jenna.

Greyson was smiling ear to ear. "These things are insane. Great and insane. I had no idea people thought I was 'funny'." He looked to Bette and chuckled, "And probably because of you and Katie, people think I'm 'a ladies man.' I've never heard anything so ridiculous in my life!" Greyson couldn't stop laughing.

The girls laughed at Greyson laughing. "What about you Ty?" Bette asked.

"How many synonyms are there for 'funny?' because I think I got all of them. Oh, and someone out there thinks I'm 'super cute,' and I 'dress cool.' I just like weird t-shirts. I didn't think the 'Make 7 Up Yours' shirt was fashion. Just funny."

"I guess it's both in this case," said Jenna.

"Yeah, I was really bummed when I had to stop wearing it to school. What about you two?"

The girls unstapled their papers. Jenna read some of her highlights first, "Genuine. Athletic. Smart. The best friend anyone could ever have." She looked at Bette. "Gee, I wonder who wrote that one in."

"See you are smart." Bette looked at hers and read over the list and tried not to tear up. The last several years had so much bullying, hiding, and being private. She thought only her friends and Mark had seen her, but there were more than six different kind words on the paper, and they were all so different. The page before her touched her. "Asks great questions in class. Humble. Generous. Helpful. Stylish dresser." She saw them all but she stopped there. If she had kept reading them, she would have cried. She folded her paper back in half. "This was cool."

The four of them ate and traded yearbooks to write messages in. The guys finished first and left to join the water balloon toss game in in the field. Robert came up to Bette as she and Jenna were finishing eating.

"Bette, do you have a minute?"

"Sure, what's up?"

"Mark bought a yearbook back in fall. I'm having people sign it for him then I'm sending it to him. I thought you might want to put something in it."

She and Mark had made a clean break. They hadn't spoken with the exception of the notes. The notes had left him notes in his boxes and the one he had left her with the pin. She might as well leave him one more. It was a yearbook after all. "Sure. You want to write in mine while I write in his?"

"Sounds good."

Bette opened up Mark's yearbook and saw all the signatures and messages Robert had collected from their classmates. Lots of them were hoping he was doing well at his old/new school and wishing him the best. She went to picture in the yearbook from the Halloween dance she saw a few days ago when she got the yearbook. A photo she didn't even remember being taken. Her head swam with so much joy that night; the only camera she had remembered was Tylor's disposable camera. The picture was of her and Mark mid turn when she held the side of his neck and he held her waist during "Time of My Life." Only the first ten pages of the yearbook were in color, and this big beautiful picture of them was in there. The corner of that page of his yearbook was open and blank and she wrote to him there.

Mark-

While the school year has come to an end. I want you to know, It's with so much joy. Winter was awful but spring is here in more ways than one. Middle school is over. We are about to be freshmen and the world is at our feet. No. The entire sky is before us. But for us, the moon and star, it always was, wasn't it? This star is shining. I hope the moon is too.

I hope you Footloose the hell out of that small town over the next four years!

You will always have a place in my heart too.

(You can)

-Bette "on it" Wheelan

'(You can) Bette on it Wheelan' became her main yearbook signature for everyone that year, It worked after almost any positive well wish to someone, and she was pretty proud of the cleverness of it. She blew on the gel pen ink to make sure it was dry before closing the yearbook. "Thanks for doing that. I'm sure he'll appreciate that you did."

"I'm sure he'll appreciate you did too."

She wrote in Robert's yearbook too before she and Jenna got up and found their friends in the field for more games. When the bell rang at the end of the school day, she went to her bike and got ready to head home. Ozzy had taken his bike that day too.

"I didn't see you on the way in this morning," she said.

"I barely made it on time. I didn't time the trip in right."

"As if it would have mattered today. What are they gonna do, give you Saturday school?" She said it in a thickly sarcastic tone.

They unlocked their bikes and walked them through the groups of kids and up to the main sidewalk. "Lead the way," said Ozzy. They mounted their bikes and headed down the sidewalk home. Bette honked her old school bicycle horn to warn the walkers they were coming. After the second block, they had passed all the walkers on their bikes. A couple blocks later, Bette scratched her back below her neck and felt the immense pain of a sunburn. She saw the pharmacy coming up fast and came to a stop.

Ozzy saw the look on her face when he came to a stop next to her. "Yep. I should have reapplied. It's my own fault. I know better." She turned her back to him and lifted her hair and showed the bright red sunburn to him. "I can feel it. Is it bad?"

Ozzy made a wince face that she couldn't see. "Yeah. It's bad. That sucks."

"I'm gonna go in and get some aloe or something for it."

"I can wait without bikes so we don't have to lock them up again."

"Sounds good. You need anything?"

"Nah."

They backed up their bikes to a shady spot next to the building. Bette grabbed her wallet out of her backpack and went in, leaving it there on her bike with him. She walked through the pharmacy stopping by the rack of sunglasses. She turned her back and caught a glimpse of the burn on her back in the gap of her halter top in the narrow mirror of the display. She mentally kicked herself for not reapplying sunscreen a second time after her mom had put a layer on her that morning. She grabbed a tube of aloe, but when the pharmacy tech saw her and she showed her the burn, she suggested a hydrocortisone cream with aloe in it instead. It was more expensive, but it would be more healing. She grabbed it and a couple more things and checked out. She met Ozzy back outside in the shade sitting on the retaining wall. As she approached him she tossed something to him, "Heads up!" She tossed the Twix ice cream bar to him.

"You didn't have to do that."

"I know." She unwrapped her own Oreo ice cream sandwich. "It's weird, I didn't even mean to get ice cream that matched our looks, it just kinda happened."

He opened it and took a bite. "Oh yeah! That hits the spot. Thanks." They sat and enjoyed their ice cream and the beautiful weather. She finished her ice cream first, wiped her hand on her shorts, cracked open the cream she bought, and started applying it to the top of her back. Ozzy finished his ice cream and wiped his hands on his shorts. "You're missing most of it." He held out his hand to take to tube from her. "Here."

She hesitated, "Alright." She pulled out her bottle of SPF 50 and reapplied it to other visible spots while he got her back. She felt like she was scrubbing the sunscreen into her arms, face, lower thighs, knees, collar bone, and the little bit of her breast that showed. When she was rubbing what was left back into her hands, she realized how carefully Ozzy was touching her back, he was hardly touching her at all.

"Did you not see how I put on sunscreen? How I always put on sunscreen? You don't have to be so careful."

"I can feel the burn coming off you. I don't want to hurt you."

"It's going to hurt no matter what. It's like a Band-Aid coming off. Put down a thick layer and do it. You're already doing it; I'm going to have you put on sunscreen after. It's not a big deal!" As soon as she said it, she didn't know why she got so aggressive saying it.

"Okay! Fine!" He matched her energy answering her. He took a squirt of the tube and squeezed it hard and emptied half the tube on her and began to wipe it in. She gritted her teeth and closed her eyes tight. She felt the pain of the burn. Ozzy's enormous hands pushing on her and the heat that radiated off them didn't help much. The cream only did so much to help in the moment.

"Thank you for doing that." She said uncomfortably. "It hurts like hell, but it needed to be done."

He was quiet for a second then stopped. "I'm not sure what do here."

She didn't move. He tapped the side of her arm with the side of his arm. She turned and saw his hands were caked in the hydrocortisone cream. She looked up at the confused look on his face. She burst out laughing and snorted. "Okay. This helps. This helps a lot." She opened up her backpack and pulled out the t-shirt she won from one of the games that day. "Use this."

He gave her a goofy look. "Thanks albino."

"Thanks giant." She said it back in a cartoony-deep voice.

The terms had long since lost their negative power over them, and it was the right thing to say in the moment. He finished wiping off his hands and tossed the t-shirt into her face. "Your hands clear enough? I should still get some actual sunscreen back there, if you are still willing."

"Sure." He picked up the bottle from next to where she sat and applied it to her back. The sunscreen was warm from being in her backpack all day, outside, on such a nice day. Now that thy hydrocortisone was on her, it didn't feel so bad to have another layer going on.

"If you get some on the shirt, it's not a big deal; I'll probably change when I get home."

"Right."

"Did you have fun today? I didn't see you much."

"Yeah. I did."

Bette sat there and looked side to side as he helped her with the sunscreen and chose not to elaborate.

"Did you get your kindness survey?" She reached back, twisted up her hair so he could get the back of her neck.

"Uh-huh."

"And?"

"It was really nice."

"No shit, it was nice. That was the point." She felt like he had sufficiently covered her and turned around. She saw him pull his hands back and wipe what was left of the sunscreen onto the back of his hands and forearms. "What? What is it? I'm sorry I snapped at you before. It wasn't cool of me to do. It hurt. I'm sorry." The words flew out of her.

"No. It's not that. Don't worry about that."

"Then what is it?"

He pulled out his wallet and took out a piece of paper and unfolded it. It was the kindness survey. He handed it to her and she read it. His name at the top and all the things everyone said about him: Talented. Good singer. Good looking, Future rock star. Funny. Confident. Brave. Cute. Dresses well. Smart. Sweet. Strong. Tough. Cool. Artistic. Great friend. Respectful. Would trust him with my life.

She looked at him looking almost blue. "What's got you down? This is great!"

"I got my lunch early. I think I was one of the first ones to get it. I looked at it and as kind as it is. It doesn't feel true. I've only gone to school with all you guys for two years. Most of you all have known each other since practically kindergarten. Who says this stuff? Who believes this stuff? I feel like such a fake!"

Bette pulled out her kindness survey. She had put it in her wallet too. She handed it to Ozzy. He read the details about her: Asks great questions in class. Humble. Generous. Helpful. Stylish dresser. Smart. Powerful lady. Brave. Bad ass. Great dancer. Funny. Well read. Takes no crap. Caring. The prettiest one in the room. "You don't think I read that and felt like a total fake? I don't know who that is. But the people who know us sure do."

"But this is you," said Ozzy shaking the paper.

"And this is you." she replied shaking his paper back at him.

"But these people don't know me."

"I know you. I can tell you they're not wrong. I can tell you you're not a fake. Am I lying to you?"

"No."

"No. I'm not going to do that. None of us could. We all had to put our names on the surveys when we had to fill them out. No one could be an asshole about it. I took it very seriously, and it looks like everyone else did too. Did you?"

"Yeah. I did."

"After the surveys, did you notice people weren't being such dicks anymore?"

Ozzy scrunched up his face. "No, they weren't. People were a lot nicer in the last month. I thought it was the last month of school and the weather making everyone happier."

"I'm sure it helped. But Oz, don't get yourself down about this. I read mine with Jenna, Tylor, and Greyson. They were laughing and smiling. It took everything in me not to cry because I was so touched and full of disbelief. I have spent the last four years trying to hide enough to not get teased. I don't know who in our grade thinks I 'take no crap.' or am 'brave.' And being a powerful lady is basically an urban legend. I didn't earn that."

"The story of you taking down Brock A single-handedly was confirmed with witnesses, myself included." Ozzy was smiling again. "No one messes with the powerful lady after they find out what happens when someone steals from her."

Bette chuckled. They each took their papers back and put them away. "You think any of it will translate to us becoming freshman?"

"If all this is as true as you say, there shouldn't be any stopping us."

They high-fived and got back on their bikes and made their way towards home. Bette set the pace in front. They stopped at the corner near her house. "I can call you this weekend. We can set up the badminton net. The weather is supposed to be nice. No rain."

"Sounds like fun. You can count on it."

She looked at him, took a breath, "I'd trust you with my life on it."

"Come here." He sidled his bike close to hers and put his arms out. She leaned in and hugged him; he rested his cheek in her head. "You'll be the prettiest one in the room."

She squeezed him a little harder before letting him go. "Confident future rock star."

"Humble bad ass."

They started peddling away from each other. "Respectful good singer!"

"Funny, great question-asker!"

The summer was another wonderful time for Bette. She spent lots of time with Jenna, Tina, and Katie. The four girls became much closer over the spring and spent more time together in the summer. Katie was paler, but blonde, and she helped teach Bette do make up beyond the lip color and mascara she would wear. She had difficulty mastering the eyeliner, but she took a lot of time to practice it. Tina had never played bocce ball or croquet before, so Bette had fun teaching her. There were a lot of weekend games at her house when all four of them could play together. They also got to play doubles badminton, which got pretty competitive and lead to a couple of different fights between them. It would take a couple days for them to cool off with each other, but they were eventually fine and forgot what they were fighting about anyways. It was never important enough to remember. Bette learned they were better off not playing such an aggressively competitive game; or at least, she shouldn't play one with them.

That summer, Jenna's family also installed an above ground pool, so there were also lots of nice days spent at her house when they could get there. Bette could easily bike there and Jenna's family knew her, so they had no problem with the two of them using the pool when her parents weren't around. On the scorching hot days, Bette would still suggest they go to Pebble Lake. It was Thursday August 3rd on one of those a days she called Jenna to do so; but she wasn't home. Bette called Ozzy. He had been less available that summer. Between hanging out more with Tylor and Greyson, he made an effort to mow lawns in the neighborhood for cash, and was making pretty good money doing it. They only saw each other once every week or ten days. On that hot day, she did get a hold of him, and they did ride their bikes to Pebble Lake. They didn't go to the main public beach; they biked up the hiking path and locked their bikes to a couple of trees. They then hiked down the hillside to the hard rock path to the lesser known beach on Pebble Lake. They were the only ones on the hidden beach. Despite the hot, sticky day, the water still was cool going in, but as soon as she dunked her head, she was elated. Ozzy was still up on the beach as she swam and swirled in the water like an otter. She called to him, "Once you get in, it's so great!" She floated on her back with her eyes closed, propelling herself with her arms just enough to not sink. Even though her ears were underwater, she could hear him slowly sloshing his way into the lake. She heard the splash of him diving into the deeper water and felt the wave of the water move her. She gasped when she felt his hands come up from under the water, grab her around the waist, lift her up out of the water, and throw her a couple feet with a big splash. She squealed in the throw and landed in her otter-like swirl in the water. She surfaced. "You ass!" She splashed at him laughing. "You know I can't do that to you."

He laughed back, "You don't know unless you try." He stuck his arm out to her. She swam back over to him. He stood there solidly while she jokingly and exaggeratedly tried to move him by his forearm. He yawned. "Is there a breeze? A fly?" He joked. He playfully brushed her off him with his other hand.

"Yeah. Yeah." She swam away from him in a back crawl and gave him little splashes with her water shoes.

"Why the water shoes? Why not go barefoot?" Ozzy asked.

"I don't like burning my feet on the hot rocks. And I can't make the running jump of the big rock barefoot."

"You weren't lying about that?"

"Of course not. You know that."

Ozzy pointed down the lake to the big rock that Bette was referencing 100 feet away. It was a large, narrow rock that ramped up and over the lake. It had urban legends attached to it about it being part of a stone bridge, but there were no roads or paths near it. Another legend had it that someone put it there just so people could jump off it. There was graffiti on it, but no clear, safe way it could have been put there. The running leap you had to take off of it was only 18 inches wide at the top and you had to jump hard and far otherwise you might not hit the deep enough spot for it to be safe. The rise over the water was 20 feet up on rainier years and higher on drier years. "We've come here before and you never jumped off it."

"I didn't feel the need to show off that I could."

"There's no way you jumped off that." Ozzy's tone was more than a little patronizing to her.

Bette didn't say a word. She stared him down and walked out of the water and down the beach along the water's edge to the big rock. She climbed up it to the flat surface, made the running leap without hesitation and flew through the air and splashed down into the water below and swam back to where Ozzy was. She breathed somewhat heavily from the distance she had to swim. "I did that for the first time when I was nine. It's a fucking thrill. You should try it."

He laughed. "You're insane!"

"You know I'm a powerful lady." She ticked her head back to the rock. "There's the source of my power."

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 16.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Freshman year 2000-2001

It was a warm morning at the bus stop that first day of freshman year. She genuinely wanted to relax. The day before was a day for freshman only to walk through the school to get their schedules and lockers and get to know the building a little. She had had a good time seeing her friends, but realized when she compared her schedules with them; she didn't have lunch with any of them. They had some of the same teachers, but none of the same class periods. She got paired in a locker with a girl named Becca that she didn't even know. Becca had gone to the other middle school and seemed to be somewhat unassuming. Maybe she was nervous and didn't know anyone around her either.

Bette was at the bus stop alone. She actually wished for Cassandra's company that day. She didn't know if she got a ride or what, but she could have used that energy to feed off of, or at least put hers onto. The bus arrived and she got on. She didn't know anyone on it and she sat alone. She bounced her knee and waited for Ozzy, at least that would help. The bus stopped at his usual stop and other kids got on, but he didn't and her stomach churned. She was alone.

She went to her morning classes and she was assigned the first lunch hour where all her friends were in the second or third. She went to her locker to get her lunch after her last morning class before lunch and Becca was there. Becca had first lunch too and asked to sit with her and she was fine with it. The two of them sat in the hall outside the busy lunchroom with Becca's friend Lidia. They had both gone to the other middle school and were both fairly tight-lipped people. Bette found it hard being the third wheel to them.

The afternoon classes were not much better. The school was three floors. Her locker was on the third floor and her afternoon classes were on the first and second floors on opposite sides of the building and had her zigzagging across the building all day. She had no chance to get to her locker again before the end of the day. She had to carry three textbooks in her backpack and wasn't happy about it. She saw other people carrying one book and one notebook or girls carrying a purse for their stuff and she felt like an overloaded hiker. The building was huge. The student body was nearly 1700 students and the hallways were packed shoulder to shoulder between classes and they were herded like cattle. She felt small and insignificant and in the windowless hallways and the florescent lighting, she felt hideous prisoner. She was grateful when the day ended and she got on the bus. She didn't think she spoke more than 100 words that entire day. When she got on the bus, it filled up quickly, she saw Ozzy get on, but she didn't get to sit near him. She barely got more than a nod of a hello.

The routine of tight-lipped, loneliness went on for the first few months of school for Bette. She felt like early middle school all over again. But this time, she didn't even have Jenna or Cassandra to keep her company. Becca and Lidia were okay during lunch, but they weren't exciting. They didn't elevate her like her other friends did. One day in mid-November, Becca and Lidia said they didn't want to sit outside the Lunchroom anymore for lunch, they found out some of their other friends were eating their lunch outside the gym and Bette could come if she wanted. Bette clung to them like a life preserver. When they got to the spot in the alcove by the gym, there was this group of smiling, laughing, stylish girls who welcomed them by opening the circle and letting them sit. Bette knew Ashleigh in the group from middle school but most of them had gone to the other middle school. Bette sat next to her.

"It's cool if I sit here?" Bette asked.

"Sure." Ashleigh slid her books and moved her lunch bag.

Bette sat cross-legged next to her. "How do you know all these girls? I'm in English with Jen B but we haven't spoken. And Skye is in Algebra 1b with me, but there's usually no chance to talk in that class."

"Christa is my cousin and so I've know most of these girls for years. I used to go to their middle school dances and hang out in their neighborhoods, so I got all the dish on their boys and all the gossip if you want."

Bette cracked a playful face in school for the first time all year. "Ashleigh. I think you just made high school not suck."

The next several weeks Bette immersed herself among the girls. At first she listened and observed. Something about the cruelty of middle school had disappeared there. These girls were not like the cliquey girls she went to school with the last few years. These girls were not 'prep lemmings.' They didn't know her childhood humiliations. These girls didn't make fun of her for being so pale. They called her skin porcelain. They called her elegant-looking. These girls shared lunches when one of them forgot theirs. They loaned sweatshirts when one of them was cold. There were playful barrages of ibuprofen bottles when one of them complained of cramps. They traded homework and helped each other. They uplifted each other and encouraged each other. They shared make up and clothes. If one of them cleaned items out of their closet, they brought the items into the group to let them go through them first before getting rid of them. Skye was a bit of a hippie-type and one day after they a clothing pick among Jen H's clothes, they took what was left of them up to the lost and found, raided some of the clothes in the pile there, and left hers behind. Bette ended up with a black DKNY hoodie and felt naughty and thrilled about it. Skye justified it as they were giving back more than they were taking and as long as they didn't do it all the time, it wasn't a bad thing. Bette called Skye a powerful lady that day.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 17.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

It was mid-December and the all-school Holiday assembly was gathering in the gym. She walked in with Skye up the bleachers in the section where freshman sat. She looked around and saw her other friends. Jenna had reconnected again with Vanessa and Terry and more of the theater crowd. Ozzy was still tight with Greyson and Tylor and saw some other guys she recognized from classes but didn't know, along with a group of girls making aggressive flirtations at them. Tylor had hit a growth spurt, grown out of his chubby phase, ditched the blonde highlights, was done with braces, and had a thick goatee. Girls were swooning and Ozzy and company seemed to be catching the leftovers. Bette breathed a laugh and shook her head. Good practice for being a rock star. Skye and Bette sat along the aisle on the bleachers that was next to the section where the sophomores were. Bette and Skye were sitting and chatting and more students filled in around them. Across the bleachers someone called, "Hey Sunny Skye!"

Sky turned and Bette tried to see who she looked at among the waterfall of people. Skye yelled back, "Hey PJ!" She waved.

Bette still couldn't see who she was waving to; there were dozens of people in the general direction of where the voice came from.

"You know no one calls me that anymore." He got up and walked towards them and sat down on the bleacher across the aisle from them.

"And no one calls my Sunny Skye except my family." She barbed at him. "Bette this is Pete. We've lived on the same block forever."

"She was the best street hockey goalie to practice with," he said to Bette, pointing at Skye.

"And no one played Barbies like you. Can we move on?"

Bette loved how sharp Skye was and laughed. "Powerful ladies unite!" The girls did a high-five a slap of their own chests.

"And that would make this powerful lady, Bette?" Pete nodded to Bette and looked her up and down, clearly checking her out.

Bette and Skye made eye contact and she tried to silently ask Skye Is he serious? Pete was sitting down but she could tell he was taller than her, maybe 5'10". He was stocky, he had round glasses, and a buzz cut. He wasn't unattractive but he had a lot of confidence, he dressed well, and he came off as suave the way he spoke.

"My reputation as a powerful lady is small here, but it exists." Bette said crossing her legs with a little attitude.

"Does that make you a good witch or a bad witch?" Pete asked with a provocative tone.

"I only wielded the most powerful witchcraft ever seen a couple times. But it is not something I practice."

Skye laughed. "She took away a guy's dick. She's an urban-fucking-legend."

Before Bette could react with embarrassment, Pete got an intrigued look on his face and raised his eyebrows at her. "So you kept it then?"

Announcements came on over the microphone and the assembly started. Pete's reaction was not the kind of reaction that she normally got. When guys heard it they normally reacted with disgust or aggression or fear; rarely they laughed. Bette didn't tell the story a lot. She told it when she wanted a guy to leave her alone or when she wanted one of her girlfriends to feel better about a guy who had wronged her. This was the first time she thought a guy might have actually flirted with her about it. During different parts of the assembly Bette and Skye whispered to each other. Bette asked about who Pete was. What was he like? Was he mean to her growing up? Skye answered the best she could. Pete was kinda dorky. He was 16 and liked hockey but wasn't good enough for school sports teams. He liked anime and drawing it. He had a two cats and his parents were married. He had an older brother who graduated last year, but she was never close with him. She and Pete hadn't been close as friends the last couple years since they had gone to separate schools last year, but as far as she knew, he was never a bad guy and was never mean to her.

The next day in Algebra 1b Skye came dancing up to Bette. "Bee, BEE! He asked about you! Pete asked about you on the bus ride." Skye danced at Bette and almost sang at her.

"Alright, what did he say?" Bette got a little anxious.

"He wanted to know what I knew about you. Are you single? Are you crazy? Are you crazy in a good way? And so on."

Bette's face twisted. "Did you tell him I was crazy? Because among you girls I can be."

"I told him you were funny and thoughtful and sharp and definitely single."

"Why would you say 'definitely' single? That might make him think something's wrong with me!" Bette had a small panic.

"Sounds like someone is 'definitely' interested." Skye dropped her jaw at Bette.

"I haven't had a boyfriend since January. I haven't had anyone interested in me. Almost no guys were into me at my old school. I'm ready to take a chance," Bette was hopeful.

"He gave me his number to give you." She sing-song said it and wiggled as she handed it to Bette. It reminded her a little of Cassandra, but when Skye did it, it was sincere.

Bette took the paper from between Skye's fingers and unfolded it. It read: UR hot. Call me. Pete And his phone number was listed below. She started to turn red looking at the note. "Why did you call him PJ?"

"His last name is Johnson. When he stopped going by PJ he insisted he go by Pete. He said he was teased enough for having a two-cock name being called 'Peter Johnson.'"

Even after the short conversation with him, and that little information from Skye, knowing that this guy found her attractive and had been through the same kind of teasing gauntlet she had, she knew he was 'definitely' worth a chance now. Bette opened a notebook and wrote a note back: Sounds good. You can Bette 'on it' Wheelan And she wrote her phone number. "Give him my number. when you see him on the bus.

That weekend Bette and Pete called each other and got to know each other a little more. The phone calls were heavy with flirtation and innuendo and she was left charmed by him. The holiday break was coming up quickly and he asked her out for one of the evenings between Christmas and New Year's. It was Thursday evening the 28th when Pete arrived to pick her up. She saw him pull up from her bedroom window and ran out the house without giving him a chance to come to the door. She got in the car and he was still buckled up and had the car in drive. "You were ready fast." Pete said.

"You said you were going to be here at six. It's six. Where are we going?"

Pete took his foot off the break and started driving. "You ever been to Bumper's Pool?"

"No. Will they let us in?"

"They're a pool hall, not a bar, so it's not an issue. You play?"

"I like to. My parents and I go to The Lodge a lot. If we get a table in the bar are instead of the dining room, we play cut-throat. I never win. They also take no mercy on me. I expect you to do the same."

He looked at her through the corner of his eye. "No mercy. That's a promise."

They got to the pool hall and got set up with a table. As much as Bette was intrigued by Pete and as fun as it had been to flirt with and get to know him over the phone, they hadn't spent any time together in person, she was still hesitant. Before taking off her coat, she zipped up her hooded sweatshirt all the way when her back was towards him. He said she was hot, she knew her D-cup breasts were a draw, playing pool was a sexy date that he chose; she was not a total fool. He noticed immediately. "Aren't you going to take off your sweatshirt?"

"No, it was super cold out. I'm still kinda cold."

"You'll warm up soon enough." Pete set up the rack of balls on the table. "You wanna break?"

"Sure." Bette got in position prepared to take her shot. Pete stared her down, not in a creepy way or in a flirtatious way; she could sense he was trying to psyche her out. Bette took her shot and her break of the rack was not strong. Not a lot of the balls separated. His trick on her worked. She dropped her head in minor embarrassment. "Ah, you got me."

"You said 'no mercy.'" Pete walked to the side of the table and shot the cue ball against the rest with power. The balls flew across the table sinking two solids and one stripe. "Solids," he called. He continued to take his turn and sink two more balls before missing a shot.

"I see I have my work cut out for me." Bette took her turn sank one ball and missed the next. Pete missed his next shot. Bette sank one ball and missed the next. Pete sank two more then missed. They were into the game and not speaking much. He was focused and she liked competition. They didn't need to talk; the tension between them was thick but positive energy. Bette missed her next shot. Pete sank his last ball. "Eight ball corner pocket." He tapped the corner he called with his cue. Pete sank the shot with a hard, sharp clack on the table.

Bette gave him a smile and a light clap. "If I knew you were going to destroy me so badly, I might have found a way to practice."

Pete re-racked the balls. "No mercy."

She gave him a soft glare. "No mercy is a two-way street I can go down. Or we can keep these games a little more friendly," she tried to use her more seductive tone as she chalked her cue.

Pete went around the table and broke the rack with a power; none of the balls went in. "You said you were a powerful lady." He stepped around the table and leaned on it with wide arms, making himself visible under the table light. "I have yet to see it."

Bette heard the music play over the speaker system. The song "One Headlight" by The Wallflowers played. She listened for the beat.4/4 time. You can tango to this. The song was about death, not a seductive song, but a great song still. This is a dance. And you know how to dance. No mercy. Bette stepped around the table to where the cue ball was, and in time with the music, she did a back-step like a tango. This is a dance. Let him follow you. She lined up her shot with her body close to the table, arching her back making graceful lines with her body; she bent her knees with the music and made her hips go up and down. She watched his eyes watch her butt. She took her shot and sank a ball. "Solids." She said before getting out of the position. She had the lead. She took a couple steps with the rhythm of the music to where the cue ball ended up and attempted another shot but missed. When Pete came around the table to line up his shot, she walked to the opposite side to be in line with where his shot was going. She stood with both hands on the pool cue, tilted her head back and let her hair fall back. Pete sank his shot. He stepped around the table and she moved slowly away from him to the rhythm of the music to let him take his next shot. She stood behind the pocket where he was aligning his shot, and turned around, briefly, showing him her butt. Pete's ball ricochet off the pocket and missed. The song changed to "Cum On Feel The Noize" by Quiet Riot. Bette continued her dance. She clicked her boot heel on the floor to the beat which made the right parts of her jiggle, and swished her hair with the music. She flipped her hair back over her head as she lined up her shot. She sank her ball. The table was set in a way that left her no viable shots. She stared at the far wall of the pool hall and looked confused, Pete looked to see what she was looking at and Bette slid a striped ball across the table and one of her own solids into the pocket to improve her game. When Pete looked back at her, she shrugged. She took her next shot and missed. Pete walked around the table towards her to make his next shot. She walked around the table backwards staring him down so he could watch her. He lined up his shot and Bette put her hand on the zipper of her hoodie and moved it up and down a couple inches. She looked away from him nonchalantly but could still see him out of the corner of her view. As he appeared to pull back for his shot, Bette pulled her zipper half way down and Pete took his shot. He scratched the eight-ball and lost the game. Bette zipped back up.

Bette stood strong in place with one hand on the cue and the other on her waist. "Do you doubt my power now?"

Pete walked up to her and spoke in his suave tone, "The urban legend of the powerful lady. I had heard a story from Skye. When she said that at the assembly, you were not who I pictured would be the kind of person who that could be."

"To be clear, I am the source of disappearing the dick. The rest was a team effort of powerful ladies. We are everywhere."

"So you are a bad witch." He used his flirting tone again.

She reached into the corner pocket and picked up two of the billiard balls and smoothly rotated them in her right hand; a trick Jenna had taught her. "Only when no mercy is involved." She set the balls on the table. "You wanna make these games a little more friendly?"

"Yeah." He gave her a playful smile. "I'll rack 'em, you break 'em."

"I'll do a better job this time."

"Where did you learn that thing? That thing you did with the balls?"

"My best friend Jenna does contact juggling. She showed me how to do it. I can't quite do it with my left hand, or backwards, or with more than two, but she can."

"Contact juggling?"

"Yeah. You ever see the movie 'The Labyrinth?' That one with the Muppets and David Bowie? It came out around the time we were born."

"No, I haven't."

Bette's face lit up. "It's one of our all-time favorites. Top five for me, for sure." Bette broke the rack. "They do that style of juggling in the movie. People think the balls are on wires or are fake or something, but it's all real. It's awesome."

"What other movies do you like? What are the others in your top 5?" Pete took his turn.

"In no particular order: Dirty Dancing, Young Frankenstein, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, except my all-time favorite movie: Cabaret."

"I've seen the first three, but I don't know anything about Cabaret."

Bette's jaw dropped and spoke animatedly, "It's an amazing film. It won eight Oscars. It takes place in Germany right before the Nazi rise to power when there's all this great music, culture, art, and sex. Liza Minnelli is powerful in it. Bob Fosse, who directed it, was a genius and a perfectionist. Michael York, he played Basil Exposition in Austin Powers, he's young and handsome, and is a bisexual icon in it. I've probably watched it a hundred times."

"Basil plays a fag in it?" Pete chuckled.

Bette's face dropped. That's what he took from my love of Cabaret? "I don't like that word. I don't like people who use that word." She said steely.

He was still chuckling, "I'm sorry. I didn't see it coming."

"Yeah. Neither did I," she said coldly. She went and took her turn at the table, not caring, and didn't even come close to making her shot.

"Hey. Hey." He stepped around the table and faced her again. "Seriously, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say that. I always think I know the right thing to say until I say the extreme wrong thing. This was one of those extreme wrong things."

"It was pretty bad."

"The absolute worst you'll hear from me." Pete raised his right hand as he said it.

"Then I think we can move on." Over the next hour the conversation did remain friendly and less aggressively flirtatious. Bette did eventually unzip her hoodie and the shirt she had on was just a fitted t-shirt and wasn't revealing anyways. By the time they left Bumper's Pool, he tried holding her hand, even though they were wearing thick, winter mittens, she let him. She couldn't feel his hand, but she felt his intent. When they got back to the car, Pete turned up the heat full blast and took off his mittens, his hat, and unzipped his coat. The car got warm quickly and she did the same as he started driving her home. During the drive he reached over and held her hand again.

"This was fun." Bette said. "I get competitive when I play games. It doesn't always end well."

"I thought this ended well." He parked outside of her house.

Bette saw the porch lights were on, she could see the hall lights were on, but the living room lights were off. Her parents had gone to bed already. "Thanks for tonight," she said. Bette unbuckled the seat belt. Pete was still holding her hand and his thumb moved back and forth against her hand. She looked at their hands and up at him. She knew she felt attractive around him, and he had been fun to flirt with, but she wasn't feeling a real spark. He began to lean into her and she decided in that split second, if she felt something in that kiss, then maybe there was something there. He had leaned most of the way and she leaned a little toward him.

He was right in front of her face and let out a little laugh, "Hi," he said.

"Hi." she laughed. It was disarming enough to take the pressure off. He kissed her. His head tilted a little further to the side and his lips separated. She put her fingertips along his jaw to lead him. Pete's mouth shot open, his tongue jammed into her mouth, and he grabbed her breast with a hard squeeze. Bette's eye's shot open; she pushed her nails into his face, pushed him back, and slapped him.

"Ow! That fucking hurt!" He rubbed his cheek.

She quickly pulled back from him. "What the hell? Where did that come from? I touch your face and you do that?"

"I thought you would be into it. The way we've been talking on the phone and how you've been acting all night."

"Way to ask me!" She opened the car door.

"Fucking tease!" He yelled.

"Piece of shit!" She yelled back and slammed the door. She tightly held her coat closed as she walked up the sidewalk. He peeled away before she got to the door of the house.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 18.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Tuesday morning January 2nd, Bette was back in school. Her second hour class was Algebra 1b and Skye flagged her down before the bell. "Bee Bee! Talked to Pete this morning. He told me everything. When are you guys going out again?" Skye was excited for Bette.

"There's not going to be a second date," Bette said coldly and shuttered.

Skye leaned in and whispered, "He said that he got under your shirt and stuff and you were into it. You were into him. Did something else happen?"

Bette took a sharp inhale thinking of the events that led up to everything that happened with Pete. Powerful ladies unite. Urban legend. No mercy. Peter Johnson. Fucking tease. Piece of shit. "You know what. I was into him. I was. Until he touched my boob...and immediately came in his pants."

"You're kidding."

"Nope. I would say he suffers from premature ejaculation, but he seemed to enjoy it. And if he told you this, which means he probably told other people. So if you hear any whisper, or rumor, or anything..." Bette made clear eye contact with Skye and nodded slowly to communicate her true intentions, the way teenage girls can. "Let anyone know, on behalf of The Powerful Lady, Pete Johnson can't touch a boob without immediately cumming in his pants."

Skye high-fived Bette and they slapped their chests. "Powerful Ladies unite."

Over the course of the day, friends and classmates who she had told about Pete asked her how things went with him over Christmas break, and she answered, "Pete Johnson touched my boob and immediately came in his pants." She knew if she was going to say it, she had to make the story clear and consistent. She had to sacrifice a small part of her dignity for a much larger part of his. He was already telling people that he had felt her up, so if she agreed with it, it would be plausible, but the stigma of him suffering from premature ejaculation would be a rumor that would be hard to fix. She had some classes with sophomores and when they heard it they laughed hard.

At the end of the day, Bette made her way down the stairs through the hall to catch her bus; Pete found her and stopped her. "What the fuck, Bette?"

She shrugged his hand off her shoulder. "Don't touch me."

"I got people telling me I can't hold my load because of you. People are calling me 'Puh' because I don't have enough discipline to hold in the rest."

Bette snickered in his face. "You mess with a powerful lady and that's what you get."

"You bitch, I can't believe you!"

He started to walk away from her toward the lobby and she followed. "Me? You jammed your tongue in my mouth and groped me. You didn't ask."

"You were all over me!"

"I never touched you!"

"That was practically a lap dance you gave me around the pool table."

"It was a game!"

"You were so flirting with me on the phone, and with those tits. You were begging for it." He took a couple steps away from her.

Bette fumed. There was a river of students leaving all around them and the hum of them was loud, but she could be louder. She yelled in the lobby, "Pete Johnson touched my boob and immediately came in his pants!"

The dozens people around them laughed. Pete turned back around to her horrified then angry. She stood strong in place and stared at him sternly. He started to step back to her then he shook his head and walked away. Bette took a shaky breath and waited a moment before starting to walk to her bus. She stared forward feeling a twist in her stomach. She put her hands in her coat pockets to grip her stomach.

"That was you I heard yell, wasn't it?"

She looked up and to the side, it was Ozzy.

"Yeah. It's a big step up from 'monkey hair,' huh?" Bette said defeated.

"I heard about what happened to you today. I wanted to know how you were doing."

"I'm pissed. Mostly about what just happened, less about what happened last week. They were both bad. Hard to say which is worse."

They got on the bus and sat together.

"Did that really happen? What you yelled? What people were saying?" He asked.

Bette had Ozzy lean over and she whispered into his ear. She told him about the date, the heavy flirtation, how she moved for him around the table to throw off his game, how she wasn't that attracted to him, but he made her feel attractive. When Pete took her home he forcefully kissed her and groped her, but he didn't ejaculate. Then forcing him off her. She found out that morning that he was telling people that he did more with her and she had been more sexually aggressive with him. That's when she came up with the idea to add that to the story. Then in the lobby he yelled, swore at her, and told her she was asking for it. That's when Ozzy heard her yell.

By the time she finished whispering in his ear, she was crying.

"That's messed up. You know you did nothing that allowed him to do that. You are right, he should have asked."

She sniffled and wiped away her tears. She leaned her head on his shoulder of his black leather jacket. "I couldn't believe how quickly he switched like that. He was so smooth. He knew almost all the right things to say. I feel like such an idiot." She covered her face with her hand.

"That's how guys like that work. They're all shine no content."

Bette had an epiphany and gasped. "Oh my God." She looked at Ozzy. "He was! All he did was flirt with me and make me feel attractive. I think I got more info about him from Skye than I did from him. He took me to play pool, that's a sexy date, and cheap. He didn't get out of the car to pick me up. He didn't even put the car in park! He didn't care about me, he just wanted me. I could have been any girl! Ugh!" She bent over and put her face in her hands. "I think I'm gonna be sick."

Ozzy looked around and rubbed her back. "You don't want to do that. You're stronger than that."

"I think I still might be."

He whispered in her ear, "This isn't third grade and we're not at the zoo."

Bette inhaled sharply and sat up. "Okay, that's not fair. I did not tell you that so you could weaponize that against me."

"Are you going to puke?"

Bette thought for a second and the knot in her stomach was gone. "No. I'm not. How did you do that?"

"I didn't. You did."

"I feel so cheap, so icky."

He tapped his shoulder for her, offering her to lean on him again.

"No. That's okay." She stared forward with a blank look on her face.

Ozzy thought for a moment. He turned and started to sing "In My Room" by The Beach Boys in her ear softly. He was more whispering than singing and it comforted her. She began to relax and felt the tension and anger leave her body. She silently took his offer and leaned her head on his shoulder. He finished the song and she took a moment to enjoy the silence. "I needed that."

"It's amazing how that song works, isn't it?" Ozzy said.

"No. I needed you. We haven't talked much. The beginning of school was hard. It's gotten better, but, I hardly see any of our old friends anymore. I see Jenna on weekends, but we've all been scattered, you know?"

"You didn't call. We have no classes together. I had no idea."

"You looked so happy when I saw you around. I didn't want to bring you down."

The bus pulled up to Ozzy's stop. Bette sat up to let him get up. "Call me when you get home. Fill me in. Alright?"

Bette nodded. She got home and called Ozzy. She told him how lonely she had been up until Thanksgiving and how lucky she had become to meet the lunch group, especially Skye. Ozzy told her his new friends around him were 'the Ricks' from the other middle school. Rick M & Rick S. They both played bass and they jammed together on weekends. Ozzy told her how Tylor had been needing to beat off girls with a bat they were all over him. Tylor was loving the attention from the girls and Ozzy certainly did not mind the residuals that came off the crowds.

A few weeks later Ozzy called Bette. They had been talking more consistently again and it felt good to have her old friend back.

"Hey Bee, you got some time? I was hoping you might be able to maybe, possibly help me with something."

Bette could hear the hesitation in how he spoke. She was in her room standing at her dresser puttering and reorganizing stuff with one hand and holding the phone with the other. "What's going on?"

Ozzy took a deep breath. "I'm going to say some stuff. And I want you to hear me out on this. Do you think you can do that?"

"Okay." She looked at herself in the mirror at her own confused face.

"Okay. Alright. Okay. Um...You know how you've seen Tylor's swarm, right? All the girls? So, um, yeah. Some of them, a few of them, aren't all into him. I think some of them are kinda into me. And it's kinda scary. It's good. But it's scary. Like the roller coaster ride, you know?" He cleared his throat and she could tell he was pacing. "After what you told me what had happened with you and Pete. And it's been so long since Vanessa, I'm-I'm not sure what I'm doing." He groaned in a frustrated way. "I don't know where the lines are. I don't know where the boundaries are. Some of these girls are super flirty, but I don't know if it's just for fun or not. If-If they actually find me attractive. Like what you said happened to you. What I'm saying is, I need someone to show me what is and isn't okay to do with girl. And I'm hoping because we trust each other you would consider helping me find that line. What's good and what's bad. Specific-to my skills. Do you get what I'm trying to say?"

She could hear him plop down wherever he sat. Bette looked in her mirror with a red face. She had a jaw-dropping smile. She did everything in her power not to laugh. She was touched. She was flattered. He was so innocent. He was asking for a platonic make-out coach. She knew she had no way of lying to him, she never could. "Ozzy. Are you asking me to-help you-practice?"

"If you want to put it like that, yes," he said nervously.

Bette tried to speak in a gentle way to put him at ease without making him feel ashamed. "Ozzy, no. And I am going to tell you exactly why. Do you think you can hear me out on this?"

"Mm-hmm." Even without words, he still sounded skittish.

She took her time speaking, thinking of her reasons. "First of all, you have nothing to worry about. From what you told me about your time with Vanessa, you were a great boyfriend, and she told me you were a great kisser. So you already know what you're doing and you had less experience then. Second, you listen, you ask, you offer. You can read girls so well. You understand, and when you don't, you try. You said it yourself: they're into you. They're not Tylor's leftovers, they're your buffet. Third, you are absolutely no Pete. You are all content which is what makes you shine. Open your wallet and look at your kindness survey again if you need a reminder. At no point did anyone ever call you a 'smooth-talker' or 'a ladies man'. Even at the Halloween dance, people knew you were a gangster and not a pimp. It's not who you are. I could keep going. So, no, Ozzy, I will not help you find the line, because you have the ability to find it with whoever you are with. You don't need me to be your practice girl. You don't need some make-out coach. You are already working with everything you need, and the fact you care so much to ask for help, means you're going to be just fine." Ozzy was silent on the other side of the phone. "Ozzy? Are you there?"

"Yeah," his voice was hardly more than a whisper.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I will be."

Bette heard the ache in his voice. "Ozzy. It's been a tough year so far. It's been...lonelier than I thought it would be."

"For me too."

"You know I trust you with my life, right?"

"Yeah."

"I'm having a hard time trusting anyone right now. You've seen how I've been dressing lately? It's all baggy jeans and pull over sweatshirts for me. I don't want to be seen after what happened with Pete. I don't want to be visible to guys. I don't want to feel that cheap feeling again."

"I didn't mean to-"

"And I know you didn't. Which is why I'm not angry or hurt. You came to me for help, not out of lust, and I see the difference. It's that I don't know when I'm going to be able to trust any guy in a romantic-physical sense again. Even if it's with someone I trust with my life who asked me for help."

"I get it." He sniffled.

Bette heard it. He had gone out on such a limb asking to for help, she didn't know what he was feeling, but at the very least, he was hurting. "You know how helpful these last few weeks have been? I mean, I barely talk to you from the time school started to New Years, and now we're talking almost every day again. It's meant a lot to me."

"It has for me too."

"It might not be everything that you want or need right now, but I will always be here with a hug. I know there have been times when I could have used one from you and you weren't around."

He took a deep inhale, "I think I can manage that."

"And we're going to be okay?"

"Yeah. Going to be, but yeah," Ozzy's smile returned to his voice.

"And look at it this way. I was able to be your wing-woman for you once with Vanessa. I can easily do it again. All you have to do is tell me who."

Ozzy paused before speaking again. "If I gave you a grocery list of girls, would that be too much?"

"As long as it's not all junk chicks. I don't think I'll have any issues."

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 19.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

The next couple months got better for Bette. She made an effort to reconnect more with Jenna after reconnecting with Ozzy. Jenna was helping with stage crew in the late winter play, so she was hard to get a hold of on weeknights. But on weekends they worked on reconnecting again. Jenna gave Bette her first toke of weed in the garage next to the pool cleaning supplies. Bette coughed hard and wasn't graceful, but she got a good high and was giggly for a couple hours. The pair ate a whole box of Cap'n Crunch cereal and played Mario Kart and Mario Party for hours until it stopped being hilarious. "Why do you always pick Wario?" Jenna asked Bette.

In both games, he was a playable character. "Because no one picks Wario first. Why shouldn't someone pick him first? And he's a bad boy. I kinda like a big, bad boy." Bette snickered. "Why do you always pick Peach?"

"Because I'm the blonde princess. I've always liked Princess Peach." said Jenna.

"You are so not a princess. Cassandra's a princess. Stella's a princess. A bratty princess, but a princess." Bette was sharp and pointed when she said it.

"There's more than one definition of princess."

"What kind of princess does that make you?"

"One who rules. One who takes on unwanted subjects. Not a Disney one, that's for sure. Look at the Mushroom Kingdom. It's all weird creatures and stuff. Who wouldn't want to rule all those kingdoms with different kinds of beings?"

"Who's your Mario or Luigi then?"

"Screw that. I'm gonna get me one of those sick, green boots or a Tanooki suit from Mario 3, eat some 'shrooms, and tell the plumbers to fuck off. Bowser can stay to light the fireplace if he feels like it."

Bette laughed, but Jenna was serious. "Fair enough. As long as Wario here can get another bowl of Crunch Berries, I think that sounds like a bitchin' way to rule. And I'll be here for it."

It was Saturday April 21st and Ozzy was throwing a party. Darrah had gone out of town for the weekend and Ozzy was ready to take full advantage of the situation. Bette had been helping him out with Jen B from her lunch group, telling her good things about him. Jen B had been flirting with him in art class. Ozzy took the opportunity with the party to strike. Ozzy invited his friends: Tylor, Greyson, Rick M, Rick S, Bette, Jenna, Jen B, and some others he had grown closer with over the school year. Darrah had left the house fairly well stocked and everyone brought snacks, so there would be no running out of food with a bunch of hungry teenagers. Bette had walked to Ozzy's house and arrive after Tylor and Greyson. Hugs were passed around and they helped Ozzy set up. It was a warm evening so it would be nice to be able to be inside and outside. The basement was set up as more of a 'mood' area. Ozzy was hoping that something would happen with Jen B that night. Ozzy brought Bette down to the basement to ask her opinion of the set up and lighting.

Bette eyed the giant new couch, "Oz, that might be the biggest fucking couch I've ever seen." she said flatly.

He jumped on it and landed with his arms up. He was able to lay on his back and there was still a little space on either side of him. He was able to touch the armrests with his hands and feet, but no one else could. "It was an unsold custom couch. I got it at a great price. I wanted something big enough I could nap on without curling up."

"You got this from mowing lawns last summer?"

"Darrah matched me dollar for dollar. Still took a big chunk out of my cash. But I take good care of it so it'll last me a long time. The naps on this thing are amazing."

"You could get three couples going at it on this thing and it still wouldn't be an orgy." She was still in disbelief at the size of the couch.

Ozzy gave her a shocked but excited look. "You think the party could turn into that?"

"No! Maybe. I'm not sure yet. It depends on who Jen B brings."

Bette helped Ozzy move a few other things around. The rocking chair that used to be there was gone and a small love seat couch was in there next to the TV. They put out extra blankets and pillows around the room for comfort and privacy, so if it did turn into a hotter party, people would be comfortable. The last thing they did was dim the floor lamp to a romantic setting. He brought his guitar upstairs to the living room and set it up in there.

People started showing up, and Bette quickly realized that even though she knew most everyone there, this party was not her scene. The Ricks and Tylor were talking about girls in a way she had never heard him speak. Tylor talked about 'pussy' a lot, and the specific details of certain girl's bodies they knew. He never talked like that a year ago. Jen B and some of the other girls that came were ones from her other classes, not from their lunch group, and Bette quickly fell out of the conversation of not knowing the inside jokes and the references to middle school and interests that she did not like. Another guy brought a small bottle of gin. It was the cheapest, nastiest booze Bette had ever smelled and had no interest in partaking in it. She thought the pine-scented floor cleaner under the kitchen sink would have been preferable to the gin. Within an hour of the party starting, Bette was outside of the French doors of the basement with Greyson and Jenna. Greyson was smoking a cigarette and Jenna and Bette were sharing a joint.

"No one else better come out here. This is the only one I brought tonight." Jenna said. She exhaled smoothly and passed it to Bette.

"I consider myself lucky you're willing to share." Bette smiled at Jenna

"Aren't you worried about smelling when you get home?" Greyson asked.

Bette took a hit and coughed, "I smell with my nose all the time, not just at home." She handed the joint in the roach clip back to Jenna.

"You know what I mean." he said, taking a drag.

"Darrah keeps a stocked laundry room. Lysol spray. Febreeze. Dryer sheets. When I think about leaving I can spray myself down or throw stuff the dryer. I'd do the same if I were you. That's gotta be your second smoke tonight, Grey."

He ashed his cigarette. "Third. Whatever. Dad smokes. He doesn't smell it anymore."

"So much for the D.A.R.E. program." said Jenna.

"I always wondered where all those coke dealers were that they talked about. And what exactly is an 8-ball?" Asked Bette giggling.

"It's-" Greyson was cut off by a commotion they all heard in the basement behind them. From where they stood outside the doors it was dark, they specifically hadn't turned the patio light on so no one would bother them. They could see inside the room. Jen B was walking backwards across the room to the far side of the couch and set herself on the couch.

"Oh shit. It's happening." Bette said in an excited whisper.

"What's happening?" asked Jenna.

"Just wait, then we'll give them some privacy." Bette was giddy. Her excitement ended quickly when the person who joined Jen B on the couch was Rick S. "Oh fuck." Bette whispered.

"By the looks of it." Said Greyson taking his last drag and putting out his cigarette in the empty flower pot.

Jenna passed the joint to Greyson and he took an easy drag off it. Bette walked up the porch stairs away from Jenna and Greyson. She went in the dining room porch sliding doors and looked around. Tylor and a girl were talking in the kitchen. A couple others were grazing on food. She walked through the house to find Ozzy and Rick M playing their instruments for a couple other people, singing a song. When they ended Bette did an exaggerated clap and cheer for them. "Great job guys. Sounds like you've earned a break." She tried to make specific eye contact with Ozzy.

"Yeah, I could use a drink," said Rick M.

"Grab a Mountain Dew for me, would ya?" said Ozzy.

Bette gave him a specific stare to tell him she wanted to talk and sat in a chair next to him. "Do you notice anything here, Oz?" she spoke low.

He got a whiff of her, and gave her a look, one of minor judgment. "You're high."

"Yes." She said it a little agitated, "But that's beside the point." She collected herself, "Who would you want to hear you play, and who isn't in the room?"

Ozzy looked to one side to one room through the doorway and got up and looked in the kitchen and dining room and sat back down. "She left?" He sound confused.

"She didn't leave. She's in the basement," It came out more blunt than she wanted to say.

Ozzy closed his eyes and shook his head. "Rick S...I knew it." He muttered.

Rick M came back in the room and handed Ozzy the can of Mountain Dew. "Are we playing or what?"

Ozzy cracked open the can took a long drink, sniffed, set it down. "I'm in the mood for something old. You know 'I Get Around' by The Beach Boys?" Without waiting for Rick M's answer, Ozzy started playing his guitar. "This song only works if other people join in, otherwise it sounds weird," he said it cantankerously.

Rick M started playing along and singing with Ozzy. Bette sang the high notes in the chorus and clapped when the song required; she was stoned enough to not care what she sounded like. She knew Ozzy needed the song more than she needed her pride.

They finished the song and he took another long drink and set the can down. "'Help Me, Rhonda' by The Beach Boys. Go!" He rolled right into the song without leading Rick M into it. Bette tried singing what she could. She got up and stood in the door frame to the kitchen. Ozzy sang passionately and strong, but Bette could hear the stress in his music. During the interlude, she ran to the dining room door, opened it, and called and waved Jenna and Greyson to come in. They finished the song. Ozzy took another long drink from his can and appeared to be at the end of it.

"California Girls," Bette said before he put the can down. "It's Jenna's favorite, right?" She turned to Jenna who was behind her.

"She's right. It is my favorite song by The Beach Boys. You guys know that one?" Jenna and Bette sat on the floor of the living room.

"Yeah." Ozzy took the time to count out the song with Rick M and they started playing. The tempo was slower than the last two songs and she hoped that would calm him down. When the song got to the line about northern girls, Bette and Jenna sang it loudly, identifying regionally with that part of the song. When they got to the end of the song Jen B and Rick S had emerged from the basement and stood in the far door frame of the room. There was applause from the group after.

"Do you know 'God Only Knows' by The Beach Boys? We heard you playing their songs," Jen B asked.

"Nope." Ozzy said sharply. "I need some air." He put down his guitar and walked out of the room, through the dining room, out the sliding room doors and stood on the porch.

"I got this one." Greyson said to Bette quietly. Greyson went out onto the porch and talked to Ozzy. They went down the stairs and paced through the back yard. Bette uncontrollably grazed over the table of snacks watching them when she could. She could see the red glow of Greyson's cigarette go back and forth across the lawn.

The night was getting late and Bette's high came down. With Ozzy irritated and preoccupied, she found herself becoming the 'party mom.' Jenna had left for the night. Tylor was getting hot and heavy with a girl in the basement. The Ricks weren't her people. Jen B chatted up the friends Bette didn't know. Bette went from room to room picking up paper plates, empty cans, and putting things away. She cleaned up the snack table and put away the items that hadn't been opened and threw away stuff that was almost empty or no longer good. She loaded up the dishwasher and wiped down the counters. She took a couple bags of trash out to the cans in the attached garage and found Ozzy out there leaning on one of the walls.

"Hey stranger. You're missing your party."

"Ah." He scoffed. "That wasn't a party. That was an excuse."

"For Jen B?"

"Partially. Grey talked it out with me. I don't really want to anymore tonight if you don't mind."

She put the trash in the can. "Not at all. I think there are some things about tonight that won't want to be remembered, like my attempt at singing soprano and me wrecking the snacks like a hyena."

He laughed. "I find that hard to believe."

"I don't know how Jenna does it. I couldn't stop eating. She has wicked discipline."

"I wish I could tell you how." Ozzy tapped his own round stomach.

They went back inside the house. Bette threw her zip up hoodie in the dryer. She sprayed herself down with Febreeze air spray and rubbed her hair with a couple dryer sheets. She asked Ozzy to smell her hair and he gave her his seal of approval. Ozzy was grateful to see how much of the house was cleaned up by Bette and the amount of final cleaning he would have to do would be minimal.

People started to leave and Tylor's girl was one of the last ones to go. She went out the front door and he shut it behind her, he was staying for the night. He leaned against the door and grunted.

"Your fly is down, Ty," said Bette.

"You're looking?" He grinned at her.

"The same way someone looks at a train wreck." She sat in a chair and dismissed his comment.

"I still got fuel in the tank, Bee." He eyed her confidently.

"You know that didn't work for us." She looked at her nails and crossed her legs.

"That was two years ago, I've grown since then, you know what I mean?" He said lewdly.

"Yeah. That goatee never would have survived against your zits and braces."

He pointed to the goatee. "This thing is a pussy magnet! I had to ring it out like a sponge after we were done."

She tried not to look too disgusted at him. "If you ruined Ozzy's couch, he's going to kill you." She pointed to the basement stairs.

"Nah. She made us go in the bathroom. She didn't want anyone walk in on what we did."

"Thank God."

"Thank God for mirrors!" Ozzy came back upstairs from the basement carrying some empty cups and a bag of garbage. Tylor bear hugged Ozzy who was unable to hug him back. "Thank you. Thank you for this epic party!" Tylor bounced down into the basement.

"Where's he going? There's no more pussy down there." Bette said coldly.

"When he's done, he's done. He'll be out cold in two minutes."

"So much for 'fuel in the tank,'" she said.

"What?"

"It's so not important. Do you need any more help with anything?"

"I think you got most of it. Thanks for your help with that."

"I hate to say it, but besides you, Greyson, and Jenna, these weren't my people. I was more comfortable helping out. Which reminds me, Greyson left some butts in the flower pot on the patio. You might want to grab those."

"It didn't go unnoticed."

"I'm always glad to help," she said with a smile.

"I wasn't talking about me. Rick M thought you were sweet. He could tell what you were doing for me tonight. He told me he thought you were cute. He's super shy."

Rick M was barely taller than Bette, thin with a light-muscular build. He had curly, dark blonde hair that framed his face and a predominant nose and a deep voice, not as deep as Greyson's but deep enough that it complimented Ozzy's well when they sang together.

"Shy or not, he barely looked at me. I don't even think he said anything to me."

"Yeah. Super shy."

"But he had no problem singing or playing with you," Bette was thoroughly confused.

"It's what works for him. I read about these guys who will have terrible stutters, but then they get on stage and perform Shakespeare or whatever perfectly. Something clicks for them. That's Rick M."

Bette hesitated. "I don't know."

"He's a good guy. He's not a Pete. He's worth a chance."

Bette took a deep breath, "Here's what worries me, he's your buddy, right?"

"Yeah."

"And we're friends, right?"

"Yeah."

"What happened to Cassandra and I after you two broke up?"

"That was different. You said you two were friends out of convenience. And that was two years ago. That was a totally different situation."

"Exactly. You and Rick M chose each other. You two clearly have a better bond than Cassandra and I did. I don't want to even make you have to consider 'bros before hos' if something went wrong."

"You are not a ho." Ozzy said firmly.

"But don't you see my point? I'm not friends with Cassandra anymore. I don't hang out with Vanessa anymore. I don't know how much I want to talk to Jen B after tonight. If I'm going to consider looking at any guy, it has to be outside our group of friends. I never see Pete at school because we don't have any classes or overlap and I am grateful for that. Our only overlap is Skye and she isn't close with him and hasn't been for a while. I can't do that to you."

"You wouldn't be doing anything to me."

"You're right. I'd be doing it to myself. As much of a chance as Rick M may be worth, As good of a guy he may be, I'm not going to risk someone who hasn't said two words to me over us. That's a line I'm not willing to cross!"

The dryer buzzed in the laundry room. She and Ozzy looked at each other for another second before she went and got her hoodie. She opened the dryer door and dug among the clothes and pulled out her hooded sweat shirt. She closed her eyes and took a deep inhale of it. It smelled clean. It smelled good. It smelled comforting. Putting it on right out of the dryer was like putting on a warm hug, and maybe any of the residual pot smell on her shirt and hair would be absorbed by the cleanliness of the hoodie. She zipped it up and pulled up the hood and went back into the living room where Ozzy was. "Thanks again. I need to go. My parents will be expecting me soon."

"Thanks for coming over." The pair hugged. "Even if not everyone was your favorite, you're my favorite. Thanks for reminding me."

Bette felt his face rest on the top of her head as they hugged. She squeezed him a bit harder. "Pet Sounds."

"What about it?"

"Of all the Beach Boys albums, that's the one I think we've listened to the most. You know 'God Only Knows' and how to play it."

"She hadn't earned hearing it. Not even close."

Bette smiled and they gave each other another squeeze before letting go. "I'll see you Monday."

Ozzy opened the front door for her and Bette walked down the sidewalk and a little down the block. She turned back and could see him the living room window playing his guitar again. She smiled. She walked home whistling 'God Only Knows.'

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 20.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Spring Spirit week was the following week. The theme was "A Trip Through Time." Tuesday that week was 'Early 20th century' and Bette thought it would be a great excuse to wear the flapper dress from the year before. She had to put a tank top on underneath the dress to cover her cleavage and her bra straps for the dress code. She got lots of compliments from her friends at lunch and people she sat near in classes. When a couple of guys said her dress looked nice, it didn't feel awful. She didn't feel like they said it crudely. She didn't feel cheap or icky. She felt good.

Wednesday was a 1950s themed day. She channeled Rizzo, Cha-cha, and Sandy from the end of Grease. She wore a pair of tight jeans, a button up cardigan with beading on it of her mom's, strappy wood-heeled sandals, a red lip, high pony tail with a silk scarf around it and another around her neck. She felt fun and cheerful. She knew her look wasn't accurate, but it was great to try. More people told her look was great and she felt great about it.

Thursday was 1960s themed. She wore one of her long floral sundresses with a plain blowy blouse over it. She borrowed some of her mother's beaded jewelry and wore a folded brown bandanna around her forehead. She was relaxed and played up the characterization of the costume. At lunch, she went and grabbed a bunch of paper napkins from the lunch room, rolled them into flowers and started giving them out to people. She made people smile and it made her happy.

The theme for Friday was 1980s cartoons. Bette had an old flannel Care Bear bed sheet from when she was a kid. After Wednesday's spirit day, she asked Lorna if they could make it into a pair of pajama pants, and they did. Bette wore the pants to school on Friday and people were impressed. They asked where she got them and she told them she and her mom made them. Friday was the day of the assembly where the Spring king and queen nominations would be presented to the school. There would be an informal dance the next night where the whole school could go and the winners would be announced. It was better than doing it at prom where only part of the school could go and interrupting half that night. At the assembly they also announced the most school spirited in each grade and Bette won for the freshman class. She didn't even dress up on Monday's toga day. She was absolutely floored. She ran down the bleachers to cheers from her class and claimed her prize of a t-shirt and a couple of novelty costume props that had been sold as part of the fund raisers that week. She was bright red as she went back and sat down with Skye.

The next night at the dance, she bounced around from group of friends to group of friends. She went to the dance by herself and saw Ashleigh and Hannah first. They found some other people and went to dance. While on the floor, she saw Jenna, Katie, Vanessa, Terry and more kids from the theater crew dancing and danced with them for a while and traded moves. Terry was an especially good hip-hop dancer who had come out of his shell in the last year. Ozzy, Tylor, the Ricks, and their other music buddies were sitting on the bleachers talking. When Bette took a bathroom break she waved them out to the floor, but none of them came. She didn't know about the Ricks and the others, but Tylor and Ozzy used to love dancing. She wasn't going to be sad, but she was bummed for them that they were missing out on their own fun. The dance was paused for forty-five minutes for the coronation ceremony of the Senior Spring King and Queen. Bette didn't know who they were, and she didn't care. She cared about dancing. Even when she saw Pete across the gym a few times, the sight of him didn't bother her anymore. He wasn't important enough in her mind to upset her. She was free.

With summer coming up fast, Lorna insisted Bette get a job that summer. Lorna brought her to a job fair for summer jobs and Bette was less than enthused about most of them. They were all the typical jobs all teenagers got: fast food, gas stations, bagging groceries. The one that got Bette's attention the most was for the local history museum. She chatted up the lead docent. They knew John. John was on the board of directors for the museum and Bette had hope that her summer job would not suck. She filled out the application then and there for a job in guest services. The museum had fixed hours with the exception of special events that they would need hosts, coat room staff, and servers for, so the opportunities for extra money would be there. Lorna still made Bette fill out and turn in the other applications, but that was the only job she wanted. After an official interview with the manager, Bette got the summer job. Being only 15, she couldn't work a ton, but Lorna was glad she was working, and Bette was glad to be working at a job that didn't leave her smelling like grease. The job was hard. 'Guest services' turned out to be a glorified term for janitor. Bette spent her days at the museum cleaning glass, dusting, sweeping floors, picking up garbage, and wiping up fingerprints. She gave directions in the museum and took photos for people with exhibits. She helped tourists find things to do in town when they left the museum. She read placards for people who didn't feel like reading them. The work was both boring and interesting. She was both alone and around people all the time. She worked with another girl who went to Private West High did the same job as her named Kasey. She was a cheerleader for their school and was a grade ahead of her. Her mom was on the board of directors for the museum too, and they laughed about how their parents probably influenced their abilities to get the jobs there. Kasey made no qualms about it; she said her mom absolutely got her the job. The two of them didn't hang out outside of work, but they got along just fine.

That summer was harder. Anytime Bette wanted to hang out with one of her friends, she felt like a telemarketer. All her friends got jobs that summer. She would call one after the other and they would usually be working. If they weren't working, they were traveling with their families or already out. Jenna was her go-to first person to call. She was working in a fast food restaurant, so she worked a lot of evenings and weekends, so their schedules didn't line up a lot, but when they did they had a lot of fun in Jenna's pool or playing yard games at Bette's house. Ozzy was less available. A lawn care company noticed how much work he had been doing in his neighborhood, hired him, and bought out his client list. He made more money and had a better schedule working for them than he did working independently. When he wasn't doing that his Aunt Darrah would let him work at the grocery store in the evenings stocking shelves whenever he wanted. He saved all his cash and started thinking about his next guitar and the car he wanted to buy in the next couple years. Skye was easier to reach and talk to on the phone, but they didn't live in the same neighborhoods. Their parents worked so they didn't get to hang out much, but they talked a lot. Ashleigh had taken the same drivers community education class that year with Bette, so they would talk to each other about the countdown to turning sixteen and getting their driver's licenses.

Sophomore year 2001-2002

The school year had begun easier than the previous year. Bette had classes with more people she knew. She also had lunch with Skye, Ashleigh, Jenna, and Vanessa. Ozzy had the same lunch hour, but he sat with his music buddies at a different table. She felt more comfortable within days of starting that school year than in the entire first semester of last year.

It was Tuesday morning. Bette got dressed in a mix of old and new clothes. She had a new pair of orange and black jeans that reminded her a little of a tiger when it hit certain light when she had gone clothes shopping with her mom. Her old favorite black boots didn't fit anymore, but she recently bought new ones. When cleaning out some clothes, she went through her mom's old t-shirts from college and kept some for herself. There was a white one with orange lettering on it for a long-closed down restaurant and she wore it with the jeans. With her black leather belt, she felt fun, and it was enough of a contrast that she didn't look like a construction cone. Her mom also bought her a sweet leather jacket from the consignment store that went part way down her butt and had a belt. It was a fitted, ladies jacket and it made her feel cool, sexy, and sophisticated. When she got on the bus that morning, she and Ozzy traded opinions on their new fashions and talked about music.

Bette went to her first two classes that morning. Her third hour class was American History with Mrs. Carlson. It was only two doors away from her second hour English class. In the minute it took her to walk there, she heard things in the halls. Something was off. The hum of the crowds weren't the same as they usually were. Bette sat down in her desk and opened her history binder. Mrs. Carlson didn't use a typical history textbook, she created her own, and her class was lecture based, which was far more interesting than the American history classes of 5th and 8th grade. She also focused on 20th century history instead of starting at the time of the founding of the US colonies. Students trickled into the classroom and Bette saw the drawn faces of her classmates. Mrs. Carlson hushed the class and made the announcement. If we hadn't already heard, there had been an attack on US soil that morning. US commercial flights had been hijacked and flown into the Pentagon and one into one of the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. She turned on the TV and they all watched the live coverage on the news in silence. The room screamed when they all saw live the airplane hit the second World Trade Center building and fall. Students gasped, screamed, and swore. Mrs. Carlson wept. The rest of the day's classes were watching the news coverage. Bette hugged all her friends extra-long and hard that day. She didn't cry. She didn't understand. It was the worst thing she had ever seen in her entire life and no one knew what was happening. Bette got home that night and could tell John had been crying about it. They watched the news coverage and waited for details to emerge. The hours turned into days, then a week, then months of Post-9/11 coverage, war, and President Bush. It was in those months, Bette turned 16, and childhood as she knew it, was dead.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 21.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

It was Christmas time. Bette and Kasey had worked a catered lunch event at the museum and were done working for the Saturday. Kasey had a car and suggested they go to the mall for some Christmas shopping. Bette didn't really need to go there, but she wanted to do something and Kasey was good company. The only store Bette thought to look in for gifts for her parents was the book store. Kasey wanted to shop the music section and she told Bette to come find her when she was done. Bette went into the section of books on antiques and collectibles and picked up a book about the history of pinball machines and thought of her father. He loved pinball. His love of the game was imbued in her. He could play for an hour on a machine on one quarter and Bette would go through a whole roll of quarters playing a pinball machine next to him. It was a big book, practically a textbook. She paged through it smiling at the history, creativity, and joy the game had brought over the years. She saw someone approach the section out of the corner of her eye and took a couple steps back so they could either pursue the section or pass.

"Was that the only copy of that book?" the guy asked.

Bette closed the book and looked at the empty spot where she took it from. "I suppose so." She closed it back to front and saw the $69.95 price tag on the back of it. "I'm not going to get it through. It's all yours." She handed it to him and walked to another section. She looked up and around and saw the puzzle book section and grinned. She went to it and picked up a book of visual puzzles and optical illusions. She was a little annoyed when she knew most of the answers already. She put it down and picked up a different book of lateral thinking puzzles and paged through it.

"Pinball and puzzles. Are you shopping for yourself or someone else?" It was the same guy's voice as before. Bette stared at the page another couple seconds before turning her head. She took a look at him. He asked with his hands in his jacket pockets. He was wearing a Letterman jacket for Private West High with the name 'Keith' sewn on; shoulder patch was class of '03. He was a little bit taller than her, but not much. He was chubby, but good-looking, with narrow glasses, and hair that was a color that couldn't decide if it was blond or brown. He clearly doesn't work here, so why is he asking?

"A little bit of both."

"I don't typically see ladies our age look at books for antiques and puzzles with such interest."

"Who said I'm a lady? Maybe I'm a monster in a human costume."

"I can't see the seams, so you got the stitching right. I hope when your species comes to rule us, you will show me mercy."

He's quick, but I'm quicker. "Sounds like a plan, Keith." Bette put the book back and stepped back, walking away from him.

He gave her a smile as she walked to the music section to find Kasey. Kasey was sitting at a listening station playing tracks, bobbing her head to the music, and reading CD cases. Bette tapped Kasey on the shoulder and she took off the headphones. "Hey, you find anything you can't live without?"

"No. You?"

Bette got a weird look on her face and laughed. "I did not." She saw Kasey's cheer leading pompom key ring and she asked, "Do you know a 'Keith' in your class?"

"Keith...Martinson. Yeah. Kinda big, blondish, glasses. How do you know him?"

"That's the weird part. I don't. He just came up to me while I was paging through books. I wonder if he thought I was someone else or something."

"No. If he thought you were someone else, he would have talked to you about something specific you both knew. Keith is direct. We've been in band together over the years. He's the kind of guy where if he wants the solo, he's the first to sign up to audition. If he doesn't get it, he offers help to the person who does." Kasey put the headphones back on the hook and the pair exited the section.

"Has anything like that ever happened to you? A total stranger coming up to you and talking to you questions like that?"

"Eh. It's a little different when you have the cheer leading uniform. I get people coming up to me saying they know my mom and stuff like that."

"Yeah. But guys?"

"Away games. Especially when we go to state tournaments for something." Kasey was implying something sexual, but her tone didn't convey it.

The girls headed to the door, waiting there, was Keith. Bette tapped Kasey with the back of her forearm.

"Keith," said Kasey.

"Kasey," said Keith. "You two know each other?"

"We work together." Bette said.

"Monsters can get jobs?" Keith asked playfully. Kasey looked confused and Bette covered her face with a hand briefly, slightly embarrassed.

"Bette. My name is Bette." She gestured with the hand that had been on her face.

"Then I leave you with one more puzzle to think on, Bette." Keith handed her the small shopping bag and walked out the door before either she or Kasey could respond. The girls looked at each other. Bette opened the shopping bag and pulled out the book. It was the book of lateral thinking puzzles she was looking at before she went and talked to Kasey. The first page had a corner folded in already. Bette opened the cover and a message was written inside.

I saw you and had to see you closer. I saw what you read, and had to talk to you. I talked to you, and I would like for that to happen again.

-Keith Martinson

His phone number was written below.

"Direct? I didn't think it was possible for someone to be so direct," said Bette.

"Yeah. He has zero qualms about how people feel about him," Kasey said.

Bette snapped the book closed and slid it into the bag. She had a little smile on her face. "Both a puzzle and direct. Hmm."

Over the course of the next week, Bette did some of the puzzles in the book. They were ones she hadn't done before. They were ones unfamiliar to her from Puzzle Club from middle school. Every time she was done working on the book, she looked at the message in the front from Keith. She wondered what he saw in her that he had to see closer. Which book did he see her read that made him want to talk to her: the pinball or the puzzles? What was it that she said that made him want to talk to her again? It took her eight whole days to decide to answer the questions. It was Sunday when she picked up the phone and nervously called the phone number in the book.

"Hello?" It was a guy's voice.

"Hi. Is Keith available?"

"This is Keith."

She was grateful he answered the phone and not one of his parents. "Hi. This is Bette, from the book store. The puzzle book. Kasey's friend."

"Oh, I remember. I was beginning to think you forgot," Keith sounded relieved.

Bette was curious about his message, but was skittish about how to ask. "I-I wanted to call to say thank you for the book. It's been enjoyable. I've always been a fan of lateral thinking puzzles, riddles, and trivia."

"I'm glad to hear that."

"If it had been the pinball book, I wouldn't have accepted."

"Why's that?" He said it with a chuckle.

"I wasn't looking at it for me and it was a $70 book. I wasn't about to accept a $70 book from a stranger."

"But you still accepted a book," he said purposefully.

"It was a small book. And you weren't a total stranger. I had your first name, Kasey told me your last name, she said you were in band, you were direct, and you don't have doubts about who you are."

"Sounds like you've read a lot of those puzzle books. You saw me for 30 seconds, said 10 words to me, and after a couple minutes, figured all that out."

Bette felt her nagging question come back about why she called. "And what did you see? You wrote in the book that you saw me and you had to see me closer. What did that mean?"

He sighed a laugh. "You remember in the cartoons from the 70s when they would reuse the backgrounds, except for when the characters would have to open a cabinet or a box or something? That cabinet or box would be all popped out and have bold black lines and you knew the characters were going to open it and interact with it. I've probably been to that bookstore more times than I can remember and after a while, it felt like an old reused background. Then I saw the bold lines: black hair, black leather jacket, black belt, black boots. I was curious, what's in the box?"

Bette had a mashed smile on her face. "So you saw the box, you read the cover, maybe got the title page of the book that is me. You don't know me, I don't know you. Why want to talk to me again?"

"When you live where we do, you see the same things all the time. Then you see the bold lines of a girl who looks at books about pinball games and puzzles. Then when you spoke, were clearly bright. There's something there that isn't the same thing as everything else."

"Okay then," she said it with a smile.

Bette and Keith spoke for a couple hours getting to know each other Keith was 17 and a junior at Private West. He played trumpet in band for the last four years. He liked studying world religions and global economics, classes they didn't teach at Public North where she attended. His mother was a dentist and father worked at a big box hardware store. He had a younger sister who was 13 and his father's sister lived with them too. They lived in a big house on Sandy Lake and he had his own car; it was his mom's old car, but it was all his now. He didn't have an official job, but his mom let him do filing and cleaning at her office whenever he needed to make some extra cash and it was easy work.

Over the next several weeks, Keith and Bette got to know each other more. Keith and lots of knowledge and opinions on art, music, movies, life, politics, the world and more, but he was more interested in Bette's thoughts on all of it. He challenged her in new ways and she offered him different perspectives too. By mid-February, their conversations had gone from purely intellectual to more flirtatious.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 22.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Keith and Bette started to get together with some of his friends. Early March, he brought her to one of Private West's causal dances to meet them. Rita was an open lesbian and highly opinionated on everything. She was a fantastic dancer and super fun. Jamie was in her grade and reminded her a lot of Greyson and Tylor. He was dry, sarcastic, overtly sexual, and smoked like a chimney. Morrie was Keith's childhood friend. He was on the hockey team, popular, very good-looking and had a ditsy girlfriend named Annie. He reminded Bette of a male version of Cassandra. Keith's friend of convenience, but the two of them seemed to actually like each other.

It was getting late at the dance and Bette noticed Keith wasn't in the room. Their dances weren't held in the gym, but in an all-purpose room used for various smaller assemblies that had divider doors like a convention center hall. Bette leaned into Rita and whispered over the loud music, "Have you seen Keith?"

"Not recently."

Bette left the dance floor and went to the only logical place, towards the bathroom. On the way, she saw into one of the other subdivided rooms of the all-purpose rooms. There was Keith playing a piano in the darkened room by himself. The only light was from the hallway hitting him. Bette stopped dead in her tracks when she saw him. She watched her long shadow eclipse his body. He played a classical concerto piece she did not recognize. Being bigger, he took up most of the space on the bench, but she still sat down on the small space he left on the end facing opposite of him. He finished playing the piece. He adjusted on the bench to make more room for her.

"How long have you been in here?" Bette asked.

"Half hour. Forty minutes or so," he answered. Keith keyed a few more notes on the piano.

"Why didn't you say something?"

"You were having so much fun. I didn't want to interrupt," he said it a little down.

"You were having fun before. You were going crazy dancing. You're so out there when you do." She tried cheering him up

"I had had enough. I didn't feel like being laughed at anymore."

"They weren't laughing at you. You were making them laugh. There's a difference."

He hummed and closed the piano.

"You still could have told me. That's one of the things I like most about people. It's one of the things I like most about you, how direct you are."

"You're very thoughtful. Not just about all the stuff we talk about, but you care. You care about people. You're great like that." Keith smiled at her. Bette smiled and ran her hand down the back of his arm. He looked down at what she did and back up at her. "Do you want me to kiss you?" He asked with a sincere, surprised tone.

Bette smiled, "I do want that."

They leaned into each other and kissed. Their arms moved around each other and Bette opened her lips to him. Her hand on his back moved to the back of his neck and he let his mouth open to hers. He sighed and rubbed her back up and down. Bette felt her whole body warm the way he kissed her. He held her around her ribs and pulled her off him. She looked at him and saw he was as red as she felt.

"You might be the most singular girl I've ever met."

She smiled, "I've never known anyone like you before."

They kissed again until they were making out. They made out on the piano bench until they got in trouble for being in there and doing so. They got kicked out of the room giggling and holding hands. The DJ played "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" by Aerosmith and Bette suggested they go dance. Keith gladly obliged. They sang the song into each other's ears playing up Steven Tyler's voice and making each other laugh. They looked around the room for the chaperones and snuck in more kissing when they thought they weren't being watched. When the song was over they decided to get their jackets and leave. They went out to Keith's car, moved it to the back of the parking lot and made out some more. When Keith took Bette home that night, she could barely stop kissing him enough to get out of the car and it made them both laugh. Neither of them had to say it, but when the night ended, Bette had a new boyfriend. Keith had a new girlfriend.

The next several weeks for Bette and Keith were great fun. Keith was able to pick Bette up from school in the afternoons and give her rides home. Jenna's house was on the way, so she came along. She thought Keith was kind of an oddball, but he meshed well with Bette, and he made her happy, so it didn't matter. Bette and Keith ran into Ozzy at a music store while Keith was looking for a new music stand. The guys exchanged opinions on music and influences and when it was over, Ozzy gave Bette a punchy look to convey his thoughts of Keith. It was playful but opinionated. Bette didn't care, the two had fun.

As spring came, she spent more and more time at his house. They had lots of meals there and even more privacy. They got to hang out in his room with the door closed, which never would have happened at her house. Things began to physically escalate between them. Within a week of the dance, they were making out without their shirts on. A week after that, her bra was gone. The day they did that, they told each other they loved each other. It didn't seem too quick to either of them. It made sense to them. By April, she was touching his genitals outside his jeans. By the end of the month, they both had their hands in each other's underwear. They were learning. They were horny. They were in love.

Keith asked Bette to Private West's prom for May. She was so excited. Lorna and John were a bit hesitant. They thought as a sophomore she should wait another year before going to a prom, that it was meant for upper class men. She told them that their school's prom was a sophomore and up dance and even some freshmen went. They insisted she come home immediately after, no later than 12:45 AM. Keith had a cellphone and Bette's parents had the phone number, so they could always reach her if needed. Keith picked her up and her parents took pictures in the living room. It was a rainy afternoon and outdoor pictures weren't possible. Lorna didn't want Bette to go too financially crazy for her first prom. She didn't get her hair or make up professionally done. Lorna took Bette to the consignment store to find a dress. Bette wore a simple black gown with a boat-necked collar with some nice lines to it with a few of her mother's over-the-top rhinestone jewelry. Bette felt like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's. She liked the classic look, even if she wanted to be a little more sexy or trendy like other girls. She still felt pretty, and Keith thought so too. Bette and Keith had a fun time at the prom. By 10 PM, half of the students were already gone. She asked Keith why. He told her that at their school, people go to prom to look good, show up, take the formal picture, then go to private after parties. The people who were left were the people who didn't get invited to after parties. Bette looked around the room. These were her people. These people were having fun. She noticed Kasey from work wasn't there. She had gone to an after party. His friend Morrie wasn't there, he had been invited to his girlfriend's friend's party. Bette and Keith danced and spazzed-out on the dance floor. They made out like no one was watching. When Jamie gave them grief for making out, Keith would pick her up, kiss her, and they gave him the finger. They didn't care what anyone thought. It was a gift Keith gave Bette she had never embraced it before.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 23.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

A week later Bette was at Keith's house on Sunday. Saturday he had gone on a college tour and she had to work. After they had lunch, they went up to his room and started to get undressed in bed. He went down on her for the first time and as exciting as it was, he didn't know what he was doing, and she didn't know how to guide him. She went down on him and it was easier for her. It was more intuitive. She warned him not to cum in her mouth, that she wouldn't like that. He said he loved her and that he'd never do that to her. She found herself getting tired fast. She didn't know how to pace herself doing that for him. Keith was so happy she even tried. He tried to kiss her, but she couldn't stand the smell of her own loins on his breath. He got dressed, went to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, and came back. after he undressed and got in bed.

"You know these colleges are crazy, right?" He said seriously.

"We don't have to worry about that right now. That's over a year away." She said sweetly.

"I'm not worried about that yet. That's not what's crazy. It's the dorms. I've gone on a couple of tours now and some of them are super nice, and some of them look like poorly lit prisons."

Bette laughed.

"This last one...On the last tour, I stayed at the back of the group...when we were in the dorms. When I saw the vending machines there."

Keith turned and pulled something out from under his bed. "I was thinking...I was hoping...and after the last few weeks...and I love you so much..." He turned back around to Bette. He was holding a three-pack box of spermicide lubricated condoms. "We could try?"

Bette looked at the box and up at Keith. He was as nervous-looking as she felt. But it was all true. They had talked about sex. He knew how important condoms would be to her. He knew not using one was not an option with her. He even made sure to get ones that had spermicide in them. She wasn't on any birth control; this was a big deal on so many fronts to them. Neither of them had had sex before.

"Yes." She said softly. "I love you and I'm ready for us to try."

They gave each other a long kiss. When they opened the box, she was sure to have them actually read the instructions so he would correctly put it on and not put it on inside out. They had him get on her and she told him to go very, very slow. He told her to tell her everything she needed. Bette felt the immense pressure of penetration. Keith had clear pleasure on his face, Bette did not. She held him at his base and moved him slowly into her, but more quickly out. Keith was heavy on her. They didn't kiss much. Her legs stretched wide in discomfort. After a few more movements, the pressure was less intense, and she moved her hand off the base of him and held his chest with both arms. She adjusted her cramping legs, "Don't speed up." She whispered.
"Okay." He took a few breaths. "I love you."

"I love you." He leaned into her and kissed her.

They kept going. Keith kept his slow pace Bette set for him. He appeared to enjoy it. Bette wanted to be close to him, she liked being there for him, she loved him, but she was physically uncomfortable.

When Keith's breathing began to accelerate, Bette knew he was about to finish. Her eyes got wide. "Don't cum in me."

He pulled out, dropped his head, and groaned. He adjusted himself off her and flopped by her side. He took off the condom and dropped it in the garbage can on his side of the bed. He was breathing heavily and sweating. The only sweat on Bette was Keith's.

They both laid on their backs. Bette crossed and re-crossed her legs to find some comfort in putting them back together.

"I'm so happy we were each other's first." Keith said.

"Yeah. Me too." said Bette aloofly.

"I know...I know that wasn't great for you. It probably wasn't even good. I hope..." he took a breath and looked troubled. "I hope I wasn't so terrible that you won't want to try again."

"Keith." She turned to her side to face him. "I can't imagine that was great or good for you either. I would wager tortoises have more exciting sex than that." She laughed. He smiled back at her. "It's going to take time. We're still figuring each other out."

"I'm gonna get an orgasm out of you one of these days. I know it."

"I know they're in there. I promise they are." She laughed. "In the meantime, I love you and it's nice to be with you. Okay?"

"I love you too, Bette. And you know what?" He turned to the side of the bed and grabbed the other two condoms from the box and put them in her hand. "I want you to hang on to them. When or if it ever happens again. It's going to be your choice."

"How do I know you're not just going to buy more?"

Keith tried to hide his smile. He leaned over the bed and threw several more three-pack boxes of spermicide condoms on the bed. "They were a dollar a box! I emptied the machine."

Bette laughed as the boxes flew passed her.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 24.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

A less than a month later school ended. Bette hurried home after getting off the bus. With finals ending the school year the way they did, Bette got home at 1:30 instead of closer to 4 PM. It was a hot afternoon and Jenna was going to have people over in the pool. Bette ran in the door and saw her parents in the living room. It was unusual for them to be home that early on a weekday, but she didn't think much of it. She started to hurry up the stairs.

"Jenna's having people over. I'm gonna change then I was going to bike over."

"Bette. We need you to come here," said John. Bette froze on the stairs. She hadn't heard John use that voice since Mark's father died. Her heart raced in her chest and her stomach dropped. She turned on the stairs and slowly walked into the living room where John and Lorna were sitting on the couch. Lorna had been crying and John was upset but not shedding any tears. "Sit down, Bette." John said.

Bette's heart pounded as she sat in the separate chair in the room adjacent to her parents on the couch. There was a box of tissues next to Lorna

"What's going on?" Bette asked cautiously.

"Is there anything you want to tell us?" John asked.

"No."

"About Keith?"

"No."

Lorna shed a couple tears. "Three or twelve." Lorna uncovered the pair of condoms on the end table that Keith had given her to hold onto. "They're sold in boxes of three or twelve. How many have you and Keith gone through?"

"You went through my dresser drawers?" Bette started to cry. She pulled some tissues out of the box that was waiting on the table.

"That is not important. That is not what your mother asked you." John said. "How long has this been going on?"

She knew she was caught. There was no way she could lie to them. She never could. "Not long." Bette whispered through her cry.

"How many times were you...?" It clearly pained Lorna to ask her daughter. "intimate with him?"

"It's only been a few times. The week after prom."

"Did you use protection every time?" Lorna asked

"Yes, Mom. I'm not an idiot," Bette snapped through her cries.

"You are no longer an authority on smart decisions, young lady," John tried to speak firmly but his voice was breaking.

Bette sobbed into her the tissues.

John spoke in his firm tone. "Your mother and I have come to some decisions. First, you can be sure if we weren't two weeks away from our trip to London, that trip would be gone. Done. Cancelled. Those tickets have been bought and paid for, so that's still happening, so consider yourself lucky there. Second, until you get back from that trip, you don't get to see Keith. You can call him, but you are grounded from seeing him. We will know where you are and who you are with. There will be no sneaking around. You even think about it, there will be hell to pay. We would say you are on thin ice, but there is no ice for you right now. After we're back from our London trip, you can see him once a week. If you go to his house, one of his parents has to be home and you are home by 10 PM when you see him. Are we clear?"

Bette kept crying into her tissues and nodded.

"Betty. We are not doing this because we don't like Keith. We are doing this because we love you. You're our daughter and whether or not you think you're ready for being intimate, we aren't. You're 16. We don't think you are. We want you to spent these next few weeks thinking about that." Lorna spoke through her tears.

They kept talking about the seriousness of Bette's choices and the potential consequences of her actions if she disobeyed them. Bette loved Keith, but she loved and respected her parents more. She knew she was in deep, deep trouble with this and it was going to be a long time before she was going to be out of it again. Bette had to answer more of their questions about the seriousness of their relationship. She told them that she loved him; she wouldn't have done it if she didn't. She thought that would help the situation. It did not. After the painfully long conversation, she asked if she could still go to Jenna's house. They said she could, but they would be calling her parents to make sure Keith wasn't going to be there. Bette told them she understood and that she thought that was fair. They could have easily made the decision to not let her go at all. They could have told her she had to break up with him. They could have told her that they had to have all their dates at their house, but they didn't. They came up with punishments and options that would let them be together.

Bette went up to her room and called Jenna. She called her and let her know she had to take care of some stuff, but she would be over soon. Jenna could hear how upset Bette was. All she had to tell Jenna was, "My parents found out." And Jenna understood. After hanging up with her, she called Keith's cellphone. She tried to hold it together on the phone as long as she could, but it poured out of her quickly: her parents found the condoms, they knew they were having sex, she couldn't see him until she got back from her trip to London in three weeks, and then only once each week thereafter. Keith was crying. He told her how sorry he was. How scared he was for her. How he could come find a way to see her if she wanted. Bette absolutely put her foot down against it. She told him that the little bit of leeway her parents gave her was an absolute miracle. That they could not abuse that little bit they had left. He heard the panic in her voice when she said it and he relented to her concerns. She told him that she was going to see her friends that afternoon and that they would at least make her feel better since she couldn't see him. She recommended he do the same. Bette told him she loved him and that she would call him again before bed. He said he loved her too and looked forward to hearing back from her.

Bette changed clothes and put a change of clothes in her back pack and got ready to head to Jenna's. John said she would not be biking. He would drop her off and would pick her up again at 8:00 that evening. She wanted to fight to stay later, she knew their other friends would be, but she was in no position to do so.

She got to Jenna's house and Jenna greeted her with a big hug. She tried not to cry too long or hard to bring down the mood. Their friends were already there: Vanessa, Katie, Terry, Greyson, Ozzy, and others. It reminded her a lot of New Year's 2000: unbearable heartache and trying not to cry the whole time. She quickly ripped off the Band-Aid of telling them she was in trouble with her parents, and she didn't want to talk about it anymore. There was nothing she could do. There was nothing any of them could do. They all hugged her and they had a good time together. Terry showed off some new dance moves. Greyson had been experimenting with writing original one-liner jokes, and they were pretty good. Katie, Greyson, and Bette for old times' sake, did the "Two Ladies" song and dance from Cabaret and it made Bette cheer up a lot.

Bette was sitting in a shady spot in a lawn chair wrapped up in a towel after swimming. She ripped leaves off the tree that hung over her and tore them up while staring off into space while most everyone else was in the pool. She put herself in a hypnotic daze of love, grief, and confusion.

"You feeling alright?" Ozzy asked from the side of the pool.

Bette closed her eyes and shook her head for a second to bring herself back. "What? Um, yeah. I'm fine. I will be. It sucks right now."

He got out of the pool, grabbed a towel and sat in the chair next to her. "I know it hurts. But I can't begin to imagine the hurt you're feeling."

"It's not so much 'hurt'. It's...It's the doors. Like the fork in the road, remember?"

"How so?"

"My parents found out and now I am, Keith and I, are now having to go down this path that we didn't make. Well, we did make it, but it's this major change that we didn't want to make. We were supposed to go the other way. And it happened right at the beginning of summer too. His family has a boat on Sandy Lake and we had all this fun stuff planned, and now we can't do any of it until at least the week of July 4th. If my parents hadn't found out, things would be so much better."

"You come to two doors. One has Keith on the other side, nothing else. No boat, no summer plans, nothing. The other door has all this here right now: your friends, Greyson doing a weird German accent jonsing for a cigarette he can't sneak off to have, Terry trying to show Katie the latest Usher moves, and this beautiful day. What do you choose?"

She smiled. "You're saying I need to enjoy the moment and not worry."

"I think you came to that conclusion on your own. I just gave you the doors."

"Then there's the door that swings both ways with you. It's been a while since I opened it."

"It always has."

"How about you? You doing okay with Van here?"

He sloughed it off, "Oh yeah. We buried that hatchet a while ago. It's still a little weird though. Never saw her in a bikini when we were together." He cleared his throat. "That makes things..."

"Harder?" Bette laughed.

He covered his face with one hand and gave her a push in the arm with the other.

"You want me to try and touch her butt and let you know how it feels?"

"That would be hot, but redundant." He raised an eyebrow at her with a smirk.

She laughed again. "Thank you. You all cheered me up today. But that was the laugh I needed." She leaned over the plastic arm of the pool chair and hugged him. They smelled like pool chemicals. His skin was warm and dry but water still dripped off their hair. Of all the hugs and kindness she got from her friends that day, Ozzy's was the one who brought her the most comfort.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 25.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

The next couple weeks, Bette kept focus. She bused to work to the museum, did her job, worked the occasional catered event, and bused home. She called Keith in the evenings and they talked about how much they missed and loved each other. Things weren't totally terrible. Lorna took a day off work the same day as Bette. Bette wasn't sure if it was so Lorna could watch her or if was so they could do their fun tradition of closet clean outs, thrift and consignment shopping, and Thai food. Either way, it felt good to spend time with her mother that wasn't painful and awkward. That afternoon John helped Bette put up the badminton net and the two played until the mosquitoes became too irritating. It was nice to hear her father laugh with her and call her "Bette for Two" again.

The pair talked about their upcoming trip to London, just the two of them. He let her pick somewhere in the world to go, and that's where Bette was drawn. She didn't speak any other languages and the history, culture, museums, and more were going to be great. Lorna dropped John and Bette off at the airport in the morning. It was going to be nearly a full day of flights and layovers to get there, but they didn't care. Bette had never traveled internationally, John had. She listened to her father's advice about looking professional when traveling, but be comfortable too. They got to Heathrow airport and bought a fast pass for Madam Tusseaud's Wax Museum and a 24 hour ticket for a double decker bus tour. They went to their hotel first and dropped off their luggage. They got on their bus tour and one of the stops was near Madam Tusseaud's. They got off and were able to skip the block and a half long line to get in. They took tons of pictures and had a lot of laughs. When they left, they realized they were near a stop John wanted to make: The Sherlock Holmes' Museum. They walked the few blocks and John looked like he was meeting a rock star when they got to 221b Baker street. He had read her the stories when she was younger. She didn't always understand them, but she loved the sound of hearing him reading them to her. When they walked through, he pointed out all the little details from the books and recited lines. He sat in the chairs and put on the deerstalker cap and held the pipe. John was a kid in a literary candy store. After they had some lunch, they went back to the hotel room and Bette crashed. She hadn't slept on the plane at all and went out like a light for a solid eight hours after being awake for almost thirty.

The next several days had visits to The Tower of London where they spent the whole day there. They went to the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, walked by Buckingham Palace. They realized where they were: they were half way back to their hotel already, so they kept walking instead of taking the tube. They walked through a park and saw this great big building with tons of people coming in and out of it. Turned out it was a science museum which wasn't on their list of places to go or see. They went in and had a spectacular time. They took a day trip out to see Stonehenge. They took an overnight trip to see Liverpool. They went to pubs and restaurants. He told her travel stories from when he was young and taught her a drinking game he played with his fraternity brothers in college. They exchanged travel pages in books with other tourists, even though they didn't plan to go to the places they took pages for. John reminded Bette that the best way to make a friend was to let them do you a favor. On the flight back, Bette was grateful for the trip and could not stop thanking her father. John told her how glad he was to have had the time with her.

When John and Bette landed back home and walked up the jet way that evening, Bette saw him through the jet way windows and the terminal glass. Bette saw Keith standing next to her mother outside the gate. Bette's heart raced. As much as she wanted to see him, she knew this was not the time and place. John and Bette walked into the terminal and Bette could see the minor irritation on Lorna's face hidden behind the smile to see them.

"JW! Betty!" Lorna went up to them and hugged Bette then John. As soon as she was off Bette, Keith hastily made his way up to Bette and embraced her.

"God, I missed you." Keith said into her ear. "I missed you so much."

Bette struggled to figure out how to make her face look in front of her parents. "I missed you too Keith. Can I have a minute? I'm really tired."

He let her go. "Absolutely. Let me get your bag." He yanked it out of her hand without her handing it to him.

"We still have a couple to get from baggage claim," Bette said. Keith stepped ahead and lead the way. Bette looked at her parents awkwardly.

At baggage claim John and Bette began to recount some of their favorite moments from the trip. In Bette's carry-on bag, she pulled out the item she bought for Keith, a Union Jack flag. She had bought a second one for herself. She figured, if they each hung them in their rooms, it would be like they had this connection of being together. She said it to him in hushed tones so her parents couldn't hear her. It was a simple gift but would mean something bigger to them. Keith loved it and the idea behind it.

He hugged her and whispered in her ear, "I want to kiss you so bad right now."

"I wish we could. But now is not the time," she whispered back.

"When can I see you?"

"I'm resetting my clock tomorrow, and then I go back to work the next day. I'll call you."

"I can't wait. I love you."

"I love you too." Bette let go of him and went with her parents' home. Resetting her internal clock the six hours to get back to local time was easier than she thought. She hadn't slept on the plane at all over their day of travel. They got home in the evening and she went to bed at 10 PM that night.

The next day, since she was feeling normal again and didn't work at the museum, she asked her father if she could see Keith. He told her no, she saw him the night before, she could see him next week. Those were there terms and Keith was aware of them for the last three weeks. Bette's heart sank. She only got to see him for a little bit, maybe twenty awkward, tired minutes at the airport in front of her parents. She heard John's tone when he spoke to her, there was no fighting him on this and there was no point in getting upset. She agreed and walked away. She went to her room and called Keith. She got upset. She told him that him coming to see her at the airport counted as their visit that week, she couldn't see him again for another week. He got mad and blamed her father. He said he and mom were having a nice time talking before the plane landed. She got upset with him because she had told him they could only see each other weekly. If they had planned their get together for a day when she got back, this wouldn't have happened. Keith had missed her so much he said he didn't want to wait anymore. Those minutes with her off the plane were worth it, even if he couldn't kiss her or touch her more. She told him he was sweet. She told him she had unpacking and laundry to do and other gifts for friends to get together. She was also still tired and had more to do before getting back to work tomorrow. They said they loved each other and hung up.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 26.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

A week later, Bette and Keith were able to get together for fourth of July. Bette had the whole day off work. Keith picked her up early that day. She asked her parents if she could stay later so they could watch the fireworks over the lake on his family's boat. John and Lorna took time to discuss it, for the holiday, she could come home at 11 PM, but this would be a one-time exception, and she better not expect to ask for anything else anytime soon. Bette knew her father's tone, it was stern, his voice was a low roar. She thought she overextended herself too soon.

When Bette and Keith got to his house, the morning weather was not great. It was a bit rainy and a little windy. They couldn't go swimming right away like they discussed. Bette suggested that they go in the hot tub, but Keith didn't want to, he wanted to go right up to his room, so they did. They were all over each other. They had missed each other a lot, but Bette was still cautious. She had taken her warnings to heart. They stayed in his room for a few hours fooling around until lunch. They dressed and went downstairs and ate. By then, the weather had cleared up. The sun had come out and the day had gotten warmer. It wasn't warm enough to swim, but it would have been more than comfortable enough for the hot tub, to play horseshoes, or go in the boat. Keith was willing to play some horseshoes for a little while, but he was all over her the whole time. Soon they were so heated they went back up to his room and messed around some more. He went down on her again, but he still didn't know what he was doing. They had sex and she was left unsatisfied and it read all over her face and in her lack of vocal response.

"What am I doing wrong?" Keith asked.

"I'm not sure. I know we're doing it right. It's working for you." She tried not to sound too annoyed.

"Do you want me to try to use my fingers again?"

"No." She said it sharply and could not hide it well.

"Then what am I supposed to do?" He was just as annoyed as her. "Maybe it's not me."
She went from annoyed to frustrated. "Don't do that to me. It is not me. There is nothing wrong with me."

He began to raise his voice, "We've been trying different things for months and nothing works with you."

She shout-whispered at him, "Don't yell at me about this. We don't need to get in trouble about this here too. And things do work with me. You just haven't done it yet."

"Yeah right," he said with hard sarcasm.

"Yeah. That is right." She said curtly. She reached under the sheets. She closed her eyes and began to touch herself. She rubbed her breast, nipples, and her body with her other hand. She began to sigh and moan until a minute later she climaxed. She opened her eyes and Keith was watching her, shocked. "There. Nothing fucking wrong with me. I told you they were in there." She sat up.

"Why didn't you do that before?" he asked stunned

"Because I can do that in my own bed." She said still irritated with him. She began to get dressed.

"What are you doing?"

"I need to pee."

She threw the rest of her clothes on and went to the bathroom down the hall. She was still mad, but it felt good to have had an orgasm for once. He had warmed her up; she got herself the rest of the way there. She sat on the toilet and just enjoyed the quiet isolation. The bathroom window had a set of binoculars on the sill. She got up and flushed the toilet. She went over to the window and looked out. She looked and could see the far views of the lake. She picked up the binoculars and looked around the lake. She saw people on beaches and in boats. She saw birds flying. She saw a bald eagle nest. She saw the beauty of the day and wanted to be a part of it. She set the binoculars down and went back to Keith's room.

"We've been in here all day. I work inside at the museum all day. I want to go outside," Bette said. She tried to say it lighter than the argument than they had a few minutes earlier.

"Do you think I can forget what just happened? I think we need to talk about this."

"I think we can talk about this anytime. We don't get a lot of days like this. I thought we were going to go out on the lake. I might know people who are out there. We can bring your cell phone and the binoculars and we can call some people and have some fun."

"We can't take the boat out. It's not working right now. And I still think we need to talk about this."

Bette's face dropped. "We talked about this before my trip. You said we were going to go out on the boat today and watch fireworks and stuff."

"It happened a few days ago. We could take the paddle boat out if you really want."

"We've talked every day; you didn't think to tell me?"

"It wasn't important."

"It was important. I got my parents to give me an extra hour tonight because I told them we were watching the fireworks on the boat on the lake."

"We have an extra hour tonight? That's great!"

"No. You don't understand. I used to have so much freedom. I used to have straight-up independence. You did not see the look on Dad's face when he gifted me that hour today." She was furious, but tried to remain calm.

"He gifted you the hour?" He said it patronizingly.

"Oh my God. You still don't get it. Any teeny, tiny bit of trust I have earned back since they found out about us, I spent on that hour on today, and I don't think I can get it back."
"Then let's make use of it." He put his arms out to her.

She stared at him dumbfounded. She touched her fingertips to her forehead and silently said 'wow' to herself. She put her hands on her waist. "Keith. I want to go home."

"What? It's quarter to four. We have hours. I've barely seen you in weeks."

"Keith, if I have a chance to buy back some good faith with my parents and we can maybe use it for another time, I want to try that. And right now, I'm hoping they might see that and be happy with me."

"'Chance.' 'Hoping.' 'Try.' You use those words and might not get anything with them. We have right now."

She couldn't hide her frustration with him anymore and she teared up. "Which is what I was trying to tell you in the first place. I don't want to stay inside. I wanted to go outside, you want to stay here. I suggested going on the boat, which is the reason I'm staying late, and then you lied to me about it not working. If you can't work with me on this, I would rather go home and work with my parents."

Keith began to tear up too. "I didn't want to lie to you. I just thought the weather was going to be bad all day and we wouldn't be able to go. And you were going to want to be in here with me anyways."

She began to put her stuff back into her back pack. "You didn't tell me and you didn't ask." She zipped it up. "I'm ready to go."

"I'm not. I think we still need to talk." He wiped his face with the bed sheet.

"Keith, you can either be ready to take me home in five minutes, or I'm going to go downstairs, call my father, and tell him he can pick me up. It's a 15 minute drive home. What do you think we'll talk about?" She pointed at the door as she said it and her hand was shaking by the time she was done.

Keith wiped his face and sniffled. "Fine." He got up and started getting dressed.

The drive home started out bitter, and then he reached out and rubbed her leg. She wasn't in the mood to be touched so closely. She took his hand in hers and set it on the center console. It was an awkward compromise at best. He started to apologize for the day and the issues they had had. He cried while driving and it made her nervous. She accepted his apology. He asked if he could turn around and go back to the house. They were almost to her neighborhood. She didn't want to spend over an hour of her day off in a car going back and forth to his house for a second of potentially three times. She told him no. She still had a chance of buying some good will with her parents. Keith scoffed and dismissed her idea. He said her father was unreasonable. She told Keith to never speak negatively of him to her again. The kiss she gave him before she got out of the car was chaste at best that day.

Bette went in the house and told John about the boat issues with the boat and that Keith didn't tell her about it. She told him how frustrated she was that he lied to her, she wasn't happy with him in that moment. John was kind but not overly sympathetic to Bette and she understood why. She asked if she could see her other friends that day, he said it was alright, she could even use his truck, but the same rules applied: she can't see Keith again, and she has to be home by 11 PM, no later. She told him not seeing Keith again that day wouldn't be a problem, she didn't want to.

Bette called Jenna's house, but she was working. She called Ashleigh, but no one answered. She called Katie's house, but she was already out of the house that day. She called Ozzy and after a few rings, he answered.

"Hello?"

"Hi Oz. It's Bee."

"Hey. What's going on? I didn't think I would hear from you today."

"It's a long story. I don't really want to get into it. You available to do something? I got my dad's truck and I don't want to be inside anymore today."

"Um...Yeah. What did you have in mind?"

"I don't care. Anything." She looked around and saw her dad doing lawn work outside. "Ever since I got in trouble with my parents, I've lost almost all my freedoms with them. I feel super shitty. I got this little bit of leeway with them today and I don't want to waste it." It took everything in her not to tear up.

Ozzy took a moment to think. "Do you remember all the fun stuff we used to do that first summer we hung out?"

"Yeah."

"You're going to come pick me up, and we're going to squeeze in three months of that fun in the next few hours. How does that sound?"

Bette smiled. "I can be there in five minutes."

"I'll be ready."

Bette grabbed her back pack and told John she was going to pick up Ozzy and they were going to hang out. He said he was okay with that and to keep him updated with any changes and to be home by 11 PM. She got in the truck and left. She picked up Ozzy.

"Where to first?"

"Pebble Lake."

She put the truck in drive. "It's almost five. It rained today. The water is going to be cold."

"I have seen you swim in that lake on a sixty-five degree day. You still have a swimsuit on from earlier, for whatever reason, I'm not gonna ask. This is happening."

"It's on!" Bette grunted. They got to the park and the main beach was fairly open. Most of the park visitors had moved to the picnic area and she began to walk towards the beach.

"Where are you going?" He asked.

"I thought we were going to swim?" She asked confused.

"You're going to swim. But not here. And we won't be here long." He nodded his head toward the path. She grinned. They walked up the path, down the slope, along the hard path to the hidden beach.

She walked up to the water's edge and felt it with her feet. "It's cold, but it'll feel good once we're in."

"I told you. I'm not going in. You are." He pointed to the big rock down the way. "Go get your power back. You can't feel shitty when you're a powerful lady. Go get it."

She gave him a mush-mouthed smile and hugged him. She dropped her back pack, her shorts, and peeled off her tank top. She made her way down the water's edge to the big rock. The water on the edge was cold around her ankles and the chilliness made her heart race. She hadn't made the leap at all that summer and she forgot how scary it could be. She climbed up the rock and looked at the path of the rock that jutted out into the sky. She shook out her feet to make sure her water shoes wouldn't slip. Her heart pounded in her chest. Get your power back. She made the running leap into the air, "Yeah!" She felt her hair float off her neck and for a split second she flew with bent knees and wide arms. She held her nose and closed her eyes as her feet hit the water with jarring cold. She slowly descended to the bottom, her feet hit the lake floor, and she pushed herself to the surface and swam to shore where Ozzy grinned, applauding, holding towels.

"Bravo. The Russian judge only gave you a five for your dismount, but you stuck the landing."

"Oh! That's still a fucking rush. Fuck, that's cold."

"You want to go again?"

"No! Once was plenty. Do you wanna try it?"

"I'm dry. I'm good."

"Yeah. Yeah." She wrapped one towel around her waist and the other around her shoulders and opened her back pack and dug out her change of clothes. "Turn around so I can change."

He turned. "You're going to change out in the open like that?" he asked slowly.
"Under the towels." Under the skirted towel, she dropped her swim shorts and pulled on her under wear and jean shorts.

"Just like that?"

Under the draped towel around her shoulders, she untied her halter top bikini, put on her bra, and her t-shirt. "Just like that." She threw his damp towel at him. "It's fine, Oz." She sat down, took off her water shoes and put on the socks and sneakers she had in her back pack. He turned back around to see her fully dressed. She pulled a hair tie out of a smaller pocket and put her hair into a pony tail. "Alright." What's next?" She asked cheerfully while rolling up her swimsuit and water shoes into the towel.

"You hungry?"

"I can always eat." She hopped to her feet and they hurried up the path to the truck. Bette started the car put in the mix CD she had Terry make at her request. The CD had "Can I Get A..." by Jay-Z, the clean version, they rapped all the words. She thoroughly explained why she thought it was better than the uncensored version. He had her drive to the ice cream shop they used to go to a lot. Greyson was working and was able to help them. Bette was sure to leave him an extra-large tip. She got an ice cream cone and he got a malt. She quickly realized she couldn't drive anywhere else until she finished. They sat at one of the picnic tables outside.

"How is it?" Ozzy asked.

"It tastes the way it ought 'a."

"What?"

"It's something my dad says. It means it tastes good."

"Ah. He's really cool; taking you on that trip and everything. You two have a good time?"

"Oh my God! I can't believe I forgot!" She said with a mouthful if ice cream.

"What?" Ozzy asked with genuine concern.

"I picked you up something on the trip. I didn't buy a lot of stuff for people. Just Keith, Jenna, you, and some stuff I liked for myself, but I saw something that jumped out at me, and I thought: when am I ever going to be here again?"

"What is it?"

"Hold this." She handed him the ice cream cone and ran to the truck and came back holding a white box. "I put it in the center console. I did that thing where I put it in a safe place so I wouldn't forget it, then totally forgot it." She set the box on the table and took back her ice cream cone.

"You didn't have to get me anything."

"I know. I know. It just jumped out at me. But if it's not your style, I get it. It was more for one specific thing."

Ozzy gave her a confused look and took the lid off the small box. Inside was the 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club' drum logo in the form of a metal belt buckle. Under the cotton cushion it sat on, there was a certificate of authenticity of limited production. "Bette, this is sick. You get this from one of the flea markets or something?"

"No. We went to the Beatles Experience museum in Liverpool. It was so cool. I cried."

"So this is real? This is legit? Not some cheap bootleg?"

"Of course it is." She flapped her hand. "As in it's not a knock off."

"This is great!" He sounded like a little kid. He bear hugged her and she laughed.

"There were about a dozen different ones, but this one jumped out at me, you know why?"

"Why?"

She paused to build the anticipation she had been waiting for. "Cassandra's party.'With A Little Help From My Friends' is on that Beatles album. You remember?"

Ozzy's eyes squinted closed and made an awkward face. "Yeah. I remember."

"There it is. That was the one specific thing. That look on your face. I don't care if you never wear that belt buckle. That was why I bought it. That face was priceless. Totally worth it." She took a bite of the sugar cone.

Ozzy gave her an astute look. "Didn't they have pins or buttons or post cards or something less expensive with this album logo on it and you still could have said the same thing and gotten the same reaction out of me?"

Bette stopped mid-chew and stared. She swallowed hard. "But...then...you wouldn't have the belt buckle." She snickered at her complete lack of logic. "I can keep the belt buckle. I can use a belt buckle." She joked.

"Nope. I keep it. It's mine now." He put the lid back on the box and clutched it to his chest.

She continued to tease him. "I don't know. I think I still have a bag of airline pretzels that would be a more adequate gift."

"No." He said it in a high-pitched voice and put the box behind his back.

Bette shoved the last tip of her ice cream cone into her mouth. "Gimme the buckle!" She said with a full mouth and lunged to one side of him. Ozzy's long arms were easily able to keep the box away from her and a hilarious mock-game of keep away that made them laugh way too hard. After, Ozzy suggested yard games. She agreed and thought though it might be a little late to set up the badminton net or the whole croquet set, but bocce ball would be fun. They got back to her house and started a friendly game in the yard. She used some of her favorite strategies. She would throw the pallino when he wasn't looking or throw it in a spot of tall grass. He would get her back in the next round and throw it far down the yard, much further than she could make a controlled throw of the bocce balls. John even came out and joined them for a few rounds. They told Ozzy about their trip and more about the Beatles Experience museum. The conversation lead to a thorough discussion of Beatles vs. Rolling Stones without anyone getting heated or too opinionated. During the debate, Bette recognized her father's laugh when of being intellectually challenged; it was a good thing. Soon, Lorna called them in for supper. She let them know there was plenty and Ozzy was more than welcome. Lorna had made what was a standard go-to meal in the Wheelan home: bone in pork chops, baked potatoes, and vegetables. As Lorna put it: pork chops are inexpensive, they're easy, they taste good, and they're filling. When they finished eating, Bette started clearing the table and Ozzy started helping her load the dishwasher but John told them to go, he would take care of it. John told her if they wanted to go to the upstairs TV room, which would be okay.

Bette told Ozzy they could go watch a movie and they went to the other TV room. It was the renovated attic space in the house. It was often used by her and Jenna more than anyone else as a playroom when they were kids. Bette watched TV and movies up there a lot. They got up to the room and she turned on the lights and the ceiling fan.

She spun the movie tower of tapes and DVDs, "What movie do you want to watch? Otherwise check HBO, there might be something good on."

Ozzy settled against a pillow on one side of the futon and changed channels with the remote.

Before he could get to the channel, Bette had a DVD in each hand. "Shrek or Spinal Tap?!"

"You know me too well."

"They're not in my top five, but my top 10. They're near-perfect movies."

He looked at her for a moment, "Spinal Tap."

She put in the disk and sat on the opposite side of the futon. Within a few minutes of the movie, they were singing along with the movie and saying the words as it went. They knew all the jokes but they were still hilarious. A while in, Bette noticed Ozzy consistently adjusting how he sat. "Something wrong?"

"I didn't want to say, but this thing is not very comfortable."

"I guess I never think about that. I can sit or sleep on the futon when it's up or down." She handed him the pillow she was using. "Will that help?"

"I might be past that point." He looked down at the floor. "Would you walk on my back for me?"

"You gotta be kidding." She said laughing.

"Not at all. It would help a lot."

"Okay. Just tell me what I should do," she said cautiously.

He laid face down on the floor next to the futon so she could use the high point of it to balance herself. He had her stand at the base of his back and walk her way up in her socks until his back cracked a couple times and he let out a few sighs of relief.

"That's going to make work so much better tomorrow," he said as she stepped off him.

"You know I could have just as easily killed you," she said sitting back down.

"Nah. You're the right size for it." He got up and laid down again on the floor in front of the futon with one of the pillows behind his head. He continued to stretch out his back. "Aunt Darrah's bigger than you and she does that for me at least once a week."

"Jesus. Kind of work are you doing?" She muted the movie.

"It's not that it's hard. It's just a lot. And having that done is cheaper than a chiropractor. Ibuprofen handles any other muscle soreness."

"I don't know how you do it."

"Believe it or not, I love the work. It's a great workout all day long. I get to be outside a lot. Half the crew is Mexican, so I basically have free Spanish tutors all summer. And the money is si-i-i-ick!"

She laughed at him. "You put it like that, it sounds pretty nice. A good day at the museum is getting good tips from a catered wedding. A bad day is waiting an extra hour for a little old couple to leave on a Sunday before I get to leave."

"That doesn't sound too bad."

"I meant to say waiting for them to leave the restroom and then having to re-clean the bizarre, disgusting medical waste they leave behind. I don't understand what's wrong with people."

Ozzy winced. "I will never complain about dog poop again."

The phone rang. A minute later, John spoke up the stairs, "Bette for Two, phone for you!"

She looked at the clock. It was 8:30 PM, she knew it was Keith; her father didn't need to say. "It'll only be a sec. Sorry." Ozzy shrugged it off and watched the movie with the subtitles, muted, and said the lines. She picked up the phone. "Hello?"

"Hi Bette. I think we still needed to talk about earlier." It was Keith.

"Now's not a good time. Wait." She waited for her father to hang up the phone downstairs. The phone clicked. "Keith. I can't talk right now. I can call you after work tomorrow."

"Why not?" Ozzy laughed loudly at the movie. "Who are you with?" Keith asked suspiciously.

"I'm with a friend. I suggest you do the same. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

"I love you Bette."

"I love you too. Bye." She hung up the phone. She was took a moment to center herself. "Sorry about that."

"If you needed to talk to him, we can do this some other time," Ozzy offered.

Bette plopped herself back on the futon. "Absolutely not. He had his chance today and he ruined it. Who knows when our schedules are going to line up again?"

"I'm glad you called. I wasn't going to do anything today. I've been working 60 plus hour weeks since we got out of school. It felt good to rest, but it felt better to eat ice cream and get my back cracked. And get this sweet belt buckle." He tapped the pocket he had put it in.

She grinned thinking of their game of keep away from earlier. "I can't tell you how happy I am to have my power back. I never would have thought of that."

"Ya gotta recharge the batteries." He sat up and rested his arms on his knees.

"True." She leaned forward. "You know the secret: the power is transferable without me losing it?"

"Yeah, yeah." He waved off her claim

"I'm serious." She said brightly. "Skye and I figured it out."

He stared her down. "You're not totally lying."

She moved to the floor near him and sat cross-legged. "No, I'm not. It's like Vanessa said originally. Powerful ladies are everywhere. We charge each other up."

"You really believe that," he conceded to her belief.

"I do. We just have to unite." She offered her hand out for a high-five. He gave her a weak high-five. "No. You have to mean it, and then slap your chest after. That's how we do it." She had him do it again and after the high-five and chest slap, she reached for his sides, "Power transfer commence!" And tickled him, 'jumper cable-style'. Ozzy mashed his mouth closed and his eyes became saucers. He tried hard not to squeal laughing. He was easily tickled by his size. He grabbed her around her upper arms and plucked her off him breathing heavy. He trapped her easily under his strength. She laughed, "You got me." She made claws with her hands. "You got the tiny t-rex. Rawr!"

"Don't do that again." He held her firm and said it fairly seriously.

She nodded. "I will lock that door." She attempted to salute.

"You tell no one I'm that ticklish," he was genuinely horrified.

"I have no idea what their talking about." She made a key mime over her mouth.

"Okay." He let her go.

She saw how bothered he was. "I'm sorry. I thought it would be funny." She sat back up on the futon.

"It's fine. Don't worry about it." He reached over for the remote and un-muted the movie. He laid down on his side facing the TV, propping his head up on his hand. They finished watching the movie and decided to call it a night. They walked downstairs to the side door.

"The crew's picking me up at 6:30 in the morning. I gotta get some sleep."

"Right. I'm probably gonna go up myself too. It's weird how unimportant the fireworks become, isn't it?"

"Yeah. Something like that." He yawned.

"Thanks again for today."

"Yeah. This was fun." The pair hugged with her arms around his middle. "Don't even think about it."

"I won't do it again," she said, and she meant it.

"Good." He held her firm with one arm and moved his other hand just enough to poke her in the armpit once, making her gasp. "Remember. Doesn't matter how powerful of a lady you are." He leaned in to hear ear and whispered. "I could destroy you with tickles."

They let go of each other. She looked at him with a small amount of fear on her face and he had a little grin on his.

"Oz: The Great and Powerful." She opened the door.

"Powerful Lady: Bette on it."

The screen door slammed as he walked away.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 27.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

The next few weeks became a routine for Bette: get up, bus to work, work, bus home, clean up, eat dinner, talk to Keith, go to bed, repeat. On the days she got to see him, those days were the same too: he would pick her up in the morning, they would go to his house, they would go to his room, talk and mess around for a few hours, get dressed, eat lunch, talk and mess around some more, eat dinner, talk and mess around more, and at 8:30, she would have to push him to start getting ready to leave. It was a fight every time to try to get home on time. She reminded him she had to get home by 10 PM and she would rather be early and he always dragged his feet. The drive home was always an argument about how they had spent the day. She was frustrated because they had discussed the plans and opportunities they had made to enjoy the summer and all they did was fool around. Even on the day she was on her period, he was insistent that they make out almost naked. And through all of it, she was sexually unsatisfied by him. He would ask her to touch herself because it turned him on, but she didn't want to do that. Nothing changed for weeks and she was fed up.

It was Sunday August 4th and Bette bused into work. She had a good day at work. The people were friendly. She took tons of pictures for people so whole families could be in them. She worked with her favorite security guard Sean and Kasey worked too. People didn't leave trash everywhere. All the cleaning bottles were full and she didn't have to refill them. The mop heads didn't stink. No one left gum anywhere. No one put liquids in the garbage cans. No one stunk up the bathrooms. There was an expiring Snickers bar in the vending machine when she was refilling it and she got to keep it. It was a banner day as a glorified janitor. She got home after her day of work and Lorna told her she had a missed call from Keith. When she realized that her next day off was Wednesday and she knew he knew it, she called him back immediately.

"Hello?"

"Hi Keith."

"I missed you today," he said.

"What did you do today?"

"Worked on another admission essay, but it was hard to focus on it. I was thinking about you a lot."

Bette rolled her eyes. "Why?"

"What do you mean?"

"That essay is probably pretty important. By this time next year, you're going to be weeks away from heading to college. So why are you so worried about me? You should be worried about that." She was blunt.

"I didn't say I was worried. I said I was thinking about you."

"Then what were you thinking about?"

"When you were here last and we were in bed-"

"Stop. Stop Keith. I need to stop you right there."

"What?

"Is that all you think about with me anymore?" She went into her bathroom, closed the door, turned on the fan, and lowered her voice. "Sex?"

"No."

She still kept her voice low. "Because I have noticed a pretty distinct pattern in our relationship since prom."

"We love each other. It can only get better if we keep trying."

Bette took a deep breath and felt the tears come. "I don't want to try anymore."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing is getting better for us. This once a week thing isn't good. I miss my friends. I don't get to see them when my whole day is spent seeing you. All we do is eat and mess around. It's not healthy. I don't feel good about myself when I'm with you anymore. A day at work is preferable."

"Why haven't you said something?" He was crying.

"It's all we talk about! It's eat, fool around, how do we make things better? You think the answer is fool around and eat. There's so much more than that. It's not worth the fight anymore."

"I think it is."

"That's exactly it. All I do is relent to you. It's exhausting. I'm bored."

"Bette, I love you. Don't you remember? You're the most singular girl I've ever met."

"I haven't felt that in a while. I feel like all I am is something you stick your dick in and worship. And I'm done doing that. It's not fun for me."

"I can get better. I can get a book. We can get a vibrator or something."

"God Damn it Keith! You're still not getting it! We are far past all that. I'm done. I am not in love with you anymore. I'm done trying. We are not seeing each other on Wednesday. It's over. We are over."

"I can't believe what I'm hearing Bette. I love you. I don't want to break up."

"That's not your choice anymore. It's mine. I have the power to do that. And it's done. We're done. I am no longer your girlfriend. I don't want you to call me. I don't want to talk anymore."

"Bette wait!"

"No. I'm done waiting for you. It's been your way for too long. I'm going my way, and you don't get to come with me. Goodbye Keith."

She took the receiver away from her face. She could hear him beg and cry, but she hit the power button on the phone. She wiped off her face and looked in her mirror over her sink. She smiled at herself. "You powerful lady."

Monday morning Bette emailed Terry with a list of songs. He had become her new hook up for mix CDs in the last year and not only would he make mixes, he would throw in other fun music or remixes she hadn't heard of. He replied to her and let her know he could have the discs ready for her by the time he worked on Tuesday. He worked at a coffee shop downtown a couple blocks away from the regular bus stop she took home from work. He was a good friend to her and didn't even charge for the discs. She got ready for work and grabbed a couple of other CDs to listen to on the bus. She found herself subtly dancing in place and slightly swinging her hips. She watched everyone and everything from behind her sunglasses. After the last few months commuting, she started to recognize a lot of the same working professionals who got on the bus each day. The Monday crowds were lighter at the museum after the weekend. There were more elderly couples and families with young children looking bored. Bette did her usual rounds around the museum sweeping, cleaning, and answering questions for people. She had her music in her head from the morning bus ride in and found herself dancing with her broom. A little girl noticed and giggled at her. Bette looked at her and played up her dance moves even bigger and made silly faces to make the little girl laugh. When the little girl's parents looked at what she was laughing at, Bette stopped quickly and went back to sweeping and they didn't see what she had done. She looked at the little girl and made a 'shh' mime at her with a big smile. The little girl smiled back and nodded.

The next day after work, Bette went to the coffee shop where Terry worked and picked up the CDs he had made for her. He was able to take a moment to come out from behind the counter to see her when she came in. "Bee, BEE!" He greeted her in a comically high-pitched voice. "Got your music. I sensed a theme here: Destiny's Child 'Independent Women,' 'Bug-a-Boo,' Lenny Kravitz 'American Woman.' Something going on?"

"Yeah." She laughed as she said it. "I broke up with Keith this weekend. It was time. No. It was past time."

"Good for you. You look great. You look like you feel good about it. It showed in your mixes. I threw some extra tracks in to pad out the CDs; your lists were a little short."

"Thanks. As long as it isn't Britney Spears, I think it'll be fine."

"Hey! She's amazing."

"Sure, Terry-kins," she said dryly.

Three people came in the door and Terry shot up from the table where they sat and went back to work. Bette checked her watch and realized her bus was only minutes away. She gave him a wave goodbye as she left, but he didn't see. She waited at the bus stop and put in the new CD. She felt the music flow through her headphones and through her body. She swiveled her head, neck, and shoulders to the music, letting it move her. She watched people from behind her sunglasses with a little smirk on her face. She didn't need the big rock at Pebble Lake. She didn't need Skye to imbue her. She felt the ability to grow her own power in herself.

Wednesday Bette had the day off. She woke up early and dug up the $300 in tips she had received from a wedding event earlier that summer. She had caught a bridesmaid and a groomsman having sex in an exhibit and kicked them out. They got mad at her and they spilled a drink on her later in the evening. When she reported the incident to the manager and he brought the incident to the father of the bride, who was also the father of the groomsman, they paid her and the museum off to not call the police for defiling monuments, assaulting her with a drink, and committing a sexual act in front of a minor. Bette was excited for the cash when it happened. She would have taken $20 and an apology, but $300 was epic. She called Cynthia and made an appointment to get her hair cut and caught the first bus she could to see her. She greeted her with a big hug. "What are we doing today?" She pumped up the chair and combed out Bette's hair.

Bette's hair had grown down to her armpits. Her hair was thick and wavy as always, but the split ends had become many and bad and it made her hair frizzy at the ends. It was way too heavy and long for summer.

"I need a load off my mind. What would you do if it were yours?"

Cynthia combed it out a little more. "You always part it like this, right?" Bette nodded. "And we never do layers?" Bette shook her head, no. "I would bob you to here." She indicated a spot just above where her neck met her shoulder. "That will get rid of all the dead stuff and you'll still have enough length to put it in a low ponytail if you need. I can give you a blowout today too. You'll look so fresh."

"Do it. Cut me, Cyn!" Bette said with a smile. "And let's shape up my eyebrows too."

An hour later Bette was a whole new girl. She felt sharp and walked out with a sway in her step. After the salon, she walked the couple blocks to Ragstock. She perused the new fashions in the front of the store and picked out a few things. She went to the back of the store and found a lot more things in the one-off vintage section for less than $5 per item that were funky, different, and old. She liked the way they mixed with the new stuff from the front of the store and she knew that they would go with the stuff she had at home. She got out of the dressing room and saw a pair of pants that beaconed her: a pair of fabric pants that were cut like jeans made from a black and grey MC Escher art print. She grabbed them, immediately turned around and put them on in the dressing room. They were a little big, but she was in love with them. They were art and she felt like art in them. She knew her black leather belt at home would be enough to cinch them onto her, and she had to have them. She made her purchases and kept walking.

The global goods and clothing store was a few doors over. The stuff there wasn't always her style or her fit, but she was in the mind-set for a change. She opened the door and the smells of incense and vanilla seeped into her. There was no other place she ever went that smelled like it. The women behind the counter greeted her with a friendly hello while they priced products. Sitar music played on the stereo. Bette thought she didn't look like their usual customers, but she had money to spend, and wanted to see what they had to offer. She went to a circle rack that had skirts on it. She grabbed a couple wrap skirts, a brown one with decorative stitching and a knee-length one with swirls in green. She put on the green one and loved it. It was a definite buy. The brown was a little tougher, it didn't have the long ties on it like the green one did. She felt somewhat stupid because she couldn't figure it out. Then she remembered her father: The best way to make a friend is to let them do you a favor. She asked one of the women behind the counter for help on how to put it on. The employee explained that with that type of garment, it was more than a skirt, it was a top, or shorts, or scarf. She gave Bette an instructional sheet and showed her a buckle in the shape of a figure-8 that looked like a sea shell. The employee offered to help her fit her in the garment as a crop top. Bette's face lit up. The woman stepped into the dressing room with her and showed her how to securely tie and buckle the top onto herself. They stepped out and she looked at herself in the full length tri-fold mirror. She turned and checked herself out. With the skirt, her stomach showed from her natural waist to below her breasts. It was not where girls her age were showing their mid-drifts, but she liked the way it looked on her. She felt fun, earthy, and sexy without being slutty-looking; even without wearing a bra.

"You look like a fresh water lake mermaid, little sister," said the employee behind the counter.

Bette beamed. "You know, I was thinking that. It makes me wanna dole out swords or drown people who wrong me. It makes me feel powerful."

"You are vibrating at a high level." She arced her hands over Bette. "It's just radiating off you."

"Right on," Said the employee behind the counter.

"All three. The skirt, the top, the buckle. I'll wear them out." Bette said. She looked at herself in the mirror. She loved the way she looked. She loved herself. She was free.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 28.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Junior year 2002-2003

Bette waited at the bus stop with Cassandra. Cassandra had tamed her look. She wore tight-fitted jeans, sneakers, a fitted pink plaid shirt with a complimenting blue one underneath it. She wore her hair in a ponytail and lots of eyeliner. She was still perky but it didn't feel as fake as it used to be. "Morning Bette. Now those are some crazy pants."

Bette wore the new MC Escher pants, black boots, a fitted hunter green V-neck top, and a black cardigan that hugged around her breasts in a flattering way without being too overt. She wore her hair naturally down, with a little bit of black eye liner and a slightly reddish-brown lip. "Thanks. I saw them and I had to have them. It is a new year and a new me. That's for sure." She spoke confidently, knowing Cassandra hadn't actually complimented her pants.

"It suits you. Like: POW. You're you, but different. Like diet coke, with lemon." Cassandra made jazz-hands at Bette.

Bette smiled. "Thanks Cass. I appreciate it." She offered her a high-five and Cassandra accepted. Bette slapped her chest after. "Powerful ladies unite."

"Yeah...Powerful ladies." Cassandra slapped her chest too. "I like that."

A moment later the bus came and they got on. A few stops later Ozzy got on. She hadn't seen him since July 4th and hadn't talked to him since the end of that month. He had grown a goatee and his hair was longer and it had some curl to it and was intentionally messy, even with the little bit of gel he had put in it. He wore an open black hoodie and a grey plaid button up shirt under it with a black t-shirt under that. He sat in the seat across from her and she was glad to see him. "Long time, no see."

"Yeah, you too. You changed your hair."

"You grew yours."

Ozzy grabbed his new, thick goatee, giving it a couple of strokes. "Yeah. I tried not shaving it one week, and BAM, it was there."

"It suits you."

"What prompted your changed? You always wore your hair long. I don't think I ever saw it above your shoulders before."

Bette smirked and laughed a little. "Keith and I broke up a month ago. I needed a load off my mind in more ways than one."

"And you're okay?" He was concerned.

"I'm great. I dumped him. I've never felt better. If I had been upset I would have called. He had become such a pain in the ass. He still calls me once in a while I have to tell him not to."

Ozzy made a deliberate exhale. "Okay. Thank God. That guy was weird. I know I only met him the one time. But I got wacko vibes from him."

"You weren't the only one. The last time he called, I answered the phone in the living room and my parents were in the room. I had to tell him I didn't want to see him and that I wasn't in the mood to talk to him. This was just last weekend, by the way. I wanted to scream at him, but I didn't want to flip out in front of my parents. After I hung up, they asked why I hadn't seen him in a while. I hadn't told them I broke up with him. I wasn't ready to admit they were right. I told them I dumped him. They were dead silent but the looks on their faces were clear. I swear, I could hear Handel's 'Hallelujah Chorus' emanating from them." Bette snickered at her own joke.

"I'm glad you're feeling better. You look like you feel good about it. Last couple times we spoke, I was worried. I didn't think it wasn't my place to say what I thought it was him."

"Ozzy, we've always been honest with each other. I wish you had told me. I might have saved myself some frustration. Jenna told me she was never a fan of him either. She told me she thought he was weird before, but after I told her I dumped him, she had almost the same reaction. She said how much she didn't like him. I couldn't believe she didn't tell me. And she spent more time with him than you did."

"I'm sorry I didn't say something. I will next time. I will warn you of any and all creepers."

"Not all of them. I still have to learn things for myself." She held up a hand to him.

"Alright, alright. You know that goes both ways right?"

"Wing woman is standing by." She put out her hand for a high-five and he took it. She slapped her chest and he slapped his own too. For a brief second, she thought about pretending to poke his sides, but she was not about to break that promise.

Bette's fourth class of the day was physics. Her last one before lunch. She mostly took it because all the students who took the class would get to Adventure Field for the roller coaster project at the end of the school year, and Bette loved a good roller coaster. Mr. Van De Camp's class room was set up as a bunch of tables of two. He did not assign seats. She sat at a table in the second row of seven. Most people sat further back when given the opportunity and the classroom filled in from the back forward. She took the notebook she knew would be for that class and started doodling in it. She sat forward on the chair and leaned over the table with a hand in her hair. Other juniors and seniors came in and filled in at the tables further behind her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a student she had never seen before. He was tall, at least six feet, clean cut, a short tight light brown hair cut, and cute: like a young, husky, sweet-faced Harrison Ford, with even bolder blue eyes brought out by his blue polo shirt and silver chain and cross. Her heart raced. She had never been so struck by the good looks of a classmate. She tried not to keep looking; she kept doodling in her notebook. She wasn't sure what possessed her, or how it happened, but as he began to pass her table, she pushed out the unclaimed chair with her foot. He stopped and looked at the chair then her. Bette slowly looked up at him and gave him a little smile. What the fuck am I doing?! He looked a little bewildered, but not bothered. Bette couldn't believe it when he actually sat down.

"Hi," he said turning slightly towards her in his chair.

"Hi."

"Do I know you from somewhere?" He asked looking at her.

"Nope." She looked back down and doodled some woven squiggly lines in her notebook.

"I didn't see you at Mass?"

"Not Catholic," she resisted the urge to look at him.

"Then why did you move the chair?"

She sat up, crossed her legs to him and toyed with her pen in her hand against her notebook. She could see he looked at her breasts. "Who said I moved the chair." What the fuck am I doing?!

He got the same bewildered look on his face again. "Jesse. I'm Jesse."

"Bette Wheelan."

The bell rang and class started. Her toes tapped in her left boot through the whole class. When he opened his notebook she caught a whiff of him. The smell was something masculine, clean, subtle, but not overly commercial or processed and not cheap. She had to grip the chair leg with her leg and foot to keep herself upright and focused. The bell rang and class ended.

They stood and they pushed in their chairs. She could see how much taller than her he actually was. She was 5'7" in her boots. He was 6'2". She gave him a clear look over; she was not subtle this time. "See you tomorrow, Jesse."

"Yeah, Bette. See you then." He looked her over too, and he wasn't subtle either.

She left the class heated and shocked with herself as she went to her locker to get her lunch.

The next several weeks in physics class Bette and Jesse got to know each other. They got to talk in the few minutes before the lecture began. They would put a notebook between them and write to each other during class, which worked well because she was right handed and he was left-handed. And because they didn't talk or whisper, Mr. Van De Camp didn't notice, and if he noticed, he didn't care. Jesse Davis was a sophomore who had taken the prerequisite science classes at his old school as electives the previous year. He liked science; he wanted to be an engineer. He was diabetic. He had a younger brother and sister and his parents were married. He had lettered in field sports like shot-put and discus and also wrestling at his old school, but subtly bragged that he had muscled-out of his Letterman jacket and it didn't fit anymore. He liked lifting weights, playing poker, listening to classic rock, hard rock, rap music, and stand-up comedy. They referenced specific comedians and jokes to each other and would suggest movies and shows for the other to watch. Bette was always surprised when he took her suggestions and watched them quickly. He was surprisingly sweet. On a week when she had a cold, the second day he noticed her sniffling, he gave her a pack of tissues and cough drops. They discussed a stand-up comic she hadn't seen a special for, and the next day, he gave her a burned her the CD of the show. She dressed up in costumes for homecoming week each day, and he said something flattering to say about each of her outfits.

They got along well, and they were clearly attracted to each other too. Bette intentionally brought her back pack to class, even though she wouldn't need it, she would put the bag between them and dig things out of it so he could look down the front of her tops. She knew when he looked; which was every time. She changed up her looks to see what he liked: long skirts with high slits, tighter pants, tall boots, different colored clothes. She had an angora sweater and she told him to feel how soft it was and she could sense the tension between them when he touched her shoulder. She liked the different looks she wore, and as far as she could tell, he liked the way she looked in all of it. She would write a message to him in the notebook and he would write back quickly; quick enough that he would try and touch her more. In November, their written conversations became more flirtatious and less subtle. She wore the MC Escher pants another time and he wrote she was a work of art. She asked if it was the pants, her legs, her butt, or something else. He said all of her was the work of art. She wrote back asking to see his bicep. That she thought he probably crafted that work of art and she was curious to see it. He reached across with his right hand, lifted his sleeve, pretended to scratch his arm, and flexed for her. She couldn't hide how hard she had to breathe; he noticed and gave her a sexy smile. Another day he wrote that he could smell her hair when she had to get stuff out of her back pack and he liked it. She bought the same scent she wore in her hair in a body spray and sprayed the shared conversation notebook with it. When she slid it to him that day, she told him to smell it. He took a long inhale of it and looked at her after with a sly smile. He wrote asking if she always smells that good. She answered his question by asking him the same thing. He answered saying the only time he didn't was when he was lifting weights and sweating. He asked her again if she always smelled that good. She said that the only time she didn't smell that good was when she was in the process of getting that clean smell in the shower. He doodled a bug-eyed, jaw-dropped face with a drooling tongue on the paper. She wrote 'same' and drew an arrow up to his weight lifting comment.

She told Jenna and Tina about him at lunch after the class each day. Jenna would encourage her to ask him out. Be a 'Powerful Lady.' But after last year and getting her trust back with her parents, their extreme flirtation was enjoyable as it was. She had Geometry with Ozzy after lunch, but didn't talk to him about Jesse, even though they had discussed sharing opinions on prospective romances at the beginning of the year. She didn't need his opinion on this. She didn't want his potential judgment. She didn't want him thinking Jesse could be a creeper. The only ones she talked about him with was Jenna and Tina they kept her secret. Bette wasn't sure if it what she and Jesse shared was like, love, or lust or a combination of them, but she enjoyed it all the same.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 29.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

It was Saturday November 30th. Bette's grandparents had given her $50 in her birthday card that week. She and Jenna went to the movies and to see 8 Mile, Bette's treat with her birthday money. It had been out for a few weeks and everyone had been talking about it for a while, it was time to see what all the hype was about. Jenna was a Brittany Murphy fan, so she was excited to see it. They were in line to get their tickets and a voice behind her gave her goose bumps. Jesse Davis was there with a couple of his friends in line. The pair exchanged glances and her heart pounded. She whispered to Jenna, "He's here. Jesse's here. The big guy, white and blue shirt, grey coat."

Jenna subtly looked back. "That's physics guy? Yeah, I can see it. Definitely your type. That's for sure."

"Fuck. He would die of a broken pelvis if I had the chance."

"Calm your tits, Bee."

Bette playfully waved her hands out of her chest, pretending they were her breasts, and spoke in a silly voice, "No!"

They bought their tickets and their concessions and went into the theater. Bette liked to sit further in the front of the theater. She liked to 'swallow' the screen. Jenna did not object. They went in the doors and walked forward to the fifth row. It was close enough that the screen filled their whole perspective, but not so close that they had to lean back in their seats. They munched on the popcorn and Bette drank way too much of her Diet Coke. Twenty minutes into the movie, she walked up the aisle to go to the bathroom. She saw him; Jesse was in the theater with his friends half way up the theater. The two of them exchanged glances again. Bette went to the bathroom and when she came back in the door, she looked down the aisle, and didn't see his silhouette. She took a breath and before walking. She felt something hit her. She turned and there was Jesse in the far back, side row. He threw a piece of candy at her to get her attention. No one was in ten rows of him. The row he was in couldn't be seen from the door. Bette went and sat next to him. It was newer theater and the armrests were retractable, he had already put it up next to him before she got there.

She sat down and he spoke softly in her ear, "You like the movie so far?" She could feel his breath on her ear and neck. The coldness of the theater dissipated with each word he said.

She turned to whisper back, he leaned into her to hear, "It's fine. I don't really care about it." She rubbed her leg against his.

He turned his face back towards her to whisper again, but instead of turning her head back to listen, she kissed him instead. When he withdrew, she didn't give herself a chance to see his reaction. She grabbed the collar of his shirt and kissed him again, yanking him back to her. The kiss escalated quickly. Their mouths opened simultaneously, and their tongues chased into each other's mouths. He put his arm around her back and gave her a gentle pull. When she felt his hand grip her, she sighed and let go of his collar grabbed the side of his neck. She ran her hand down shoulder and squeezed his bicep. His hand moved off her back and slid forward around her ribs and he touched the side of her breast. She moaned in his mouth to let him know it was okay. When she did, he wrapped his arm around her to cover what he did with her: he touched her chest and massaged her with is other hand. Her nipples protruded through her bra and t-shirt the way he touched her. She threw one of her legs over his. She ran her hand down his body and massaged his thigh. Her leg hid where her hand touched his leg. He moaned as his tongue rubbed against hers. She rubbed and squeezed his thigh a little higher and he moaned again and he kissed her faster. He slipped his hand up her t-shirt and pushed down her bra cup to touch her nipple with his fingertips. She gripped him tighter with her leg and ran her hand over his hard-on in his jeans. He pulled back slightly from their kiss and looked at her. They were both breathing heavily. He looked out at the rest of the theater briefly to see if anyone was up or looking, he looked back at her and nodded. Bette kept rubbing him over his jeans. He kept touching her chest, kissing her deeply. She rubbed him faster and longer up and down him. She could tell he was well endowed, specifics were difficult to discern, but he was big and she wanted him beyond what they could do there. A few minutes later, he pulled back from the kiss again and looked at her. She tried to figure out how she could make touching him better for him in their position, while she was trying to figure it out, he took three breaths from his stomach and clenched his eyes closed. Bette could see on his face and feel it in his body, he came. He slowly took his hand out from under her shirt and she adjusted her bra back into place. They stood up and had one more long kiss while she grabbed his biceps and he grabbed her butt. She whispered, "See you Monday," and giggled.

"See you Monday." he laughed. He went out the theater door and she went back and sat with Jenna until the end of the movie. Bette could not wipe the smile off her face.

When Monday came, Bette rushed from her English class to Physics. She could not wait to see Jesse. She had imagined and fantasized how their notebook chat would go that day. Her heart palpitated as she waited for him. She put herself in the same position as the first day of school: she sat forward in her chair with her hand in her hair, over the table, doodling on a notebook page. When Jesse came in and approached the table, she slid the chair back with her foot and gave him an inviting glance.

She sat up and decided to have some fun with him, "You have a good weekend? I did."

"Yeah? Me too. I went to the movies. Saw 8 Mile." He was having the same fun with her.

"I saw that. There was this one scene I couldn't get out of my head."

"Which one?"

"Guess."

"The first rap battle?"

"Nope."

"The last rap battle."

"Nope." She felt how red her face was as they spoke.

"Oh. I think I know the one you mean," he said slyly. He pulled out the two notebooks. The one for his physics notes and the one he used to talk with her. He opened the shared notebook to a fresh page. He sat forward. He wrote in his beautiful cursive handwriting: The factory scene with Eminem and Brittany? It was a sex scene in the movie. He gave her a canny look. She wrote back: Non-stop. And drew a winking face.

He wrote: Where did you think about it?

She knew he meant a location like her room or something, but she had another idea for him. As the bell rang, she gave him a quick elbow. She dropped her hand into her lap and ran her fingers inside her upper thigh. She watched him watch her. He pulled himself close to the table and slid his chair under himself with his leg. He took a deep breath and gulped. She quickly put her hand back up on the table and looked forward like nothing happened.

The lecture that day was a new chapter and did not give them a chance to exchange further conversations in the shared notebook. After class, she walked with him out of the classroom. She tried to speak somewhat quietly and was able to walk by his side with him through the science wing; it was the one of the few sections of hallways in the school that wasn't jam packed between classes. "It was great to have finally do that this weekend, you know?"

"Yeah. I couldn't believe it went that far." He said plainly.

"I know we didn't get a chance to talk about it today. Can I call you? Can we talk about it?"

"I can call you tonight. Would that be okay? We can go over the new chapter from class today."

She gave him scoffing laugh. "Sure." He handed her the shared notebook and she wrote her phone number in it. She couldn't believe it had taken this long to give him her phone number. She held the notebook out to him for him to take back. She gripped it so he had to tug it more than once. He looked at her and she gave him a smirk and he had a shy smile back for her. "Later," she said as she turned and walked away from him.

"Bye."

That evening, Jesse called her. She was surprised that he actually talked for a solid ten minutes about the new chapter from physics class. "Okay. Sorry about that. I'm not supposed to make social calls on school nights."

"Seriously?"

"Yeah. My parents are pretty strict about social stuff. You know?"

"I do know what you mean. I just got my trust back with them. I don't want to mess that up again."

"How did that happen? Lose your trust with them?"

"I-uh." She was extremely hesitant to tell him about Keith. "I just turned 17 last Monday."

"Yeah. I remember."

"Put it this way: the movie we saw..."

"I follow."

"My parents didn't like who I saw the last movie with, because they found out I went to the movies."

"Oh." Jesse sounded genuinely surprised.

Bette felt herself turn red and her stomach churn. "I really didn't want to tell you that." She sounded sick when she said it.

"Why?"

"It's embarrassing. It's an ex-boyfriend. I can't stand him. He doesn't even go to our school. It would have been a non-issue. It has nothing to do with you." She tried not to sound too bothered but she failed.

"Can I ask you something? A-and I'll understand if you don't want to answer it."

"Sure, I guess."

"Do you think what happened at the movie would have happened if you didn't have that experience?"

She thought for a moment. "That's a bigger question than you realize. But I can tell you I wanted to do that. It was pretty clear you wanted to too."

"Like you wouldn't believe." His voice had a throatiness to it. She smiled and took a breath. "Thanks for the help with the notes Wheelan. I-I'll see you in class tomorrow." She heard the change in tone in his voice. She knew he had to be watched or overheard and couldn't talk anymore.

"Sure Jesse. Bye."

"Bye."

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 30.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Bette and Jesse continued to communicate through the shared notebook. He held on to it each day after class. It took more than a few days and more than a few questions to gauge Jesse's seriousness in interest in her. He was, he wanted to be with her, but he told her he couldn't. His parents were strict Catholics, he wasn't allowed to date until he was 18, and he couldn't date outside the church. He said how much he still liked her, how much he still wanted to keep talking like they were. Bette said she could live with that. She couldn't afford to get in trouble with her parents so soon either. She still liked him. She was unbelievably attracted to him. There was something about him that she couldn't shake. Jesse was sexy to her, there was something chemical about him she couldn't shake, he liked her weirdness and her quirks, and it drove her to him.

Saturday January 18 was the annual Darling Dance. It was the winter formal dance where girls would ask the boys Sadie Hawkins-style. Bette wanted to ask Jesse, but he had made it clear that since he wasn't allowed to date and she wasn't Catholic, it wasn't going to be an option. Bette had talked to Jenna about it at lunch and was bummed. Jenna had an idea. Jenna got down on one knee and asked Bette to be her date to the Darling Dance. Bette laughed but Jenna said she was serious. She said she knew how much fun they had at dances and it would be fun to do all the traditional couple stuff together, but with her best friend. Bette hugged Jenna and gladly accepted. They went and bought their couple ticket together and the faculty advisor didn't bat an eye at a girl-girl couple attending together. Jenna wore Bette's black dress from prom the spring before, and Bette wore one of Jenna's older sister's dresses in blue. They bought silk flowers from the craft store and made their own corsages. They did each other's hair and their own make up. They ate dinner at a diner instead of a fancy restaurant. Jenna drove them to the dance in her truck. They were able to do the whole night together for less than $75 while other couples spent hundreds of dollars on the evening. The girls arrived arm-in-arm with each other on the elevator. They checked their coats and went to the dance floor right away. Tina, Vanessa and their dates were there too and all danced in a big group. They saw Tylor who went with Katie briefly but they were mostly on the other side of the dance floor. No one gave the girls grief for going as a couple. No one cared. They were best friends having a great time. When slow songs came on, Bette and Jenna slow danced together. During one of the slow songs, Bette saw over Jenna's shoulder and her stomach dropped.

"Jenna. You are not going to believe it."

"What?"

"It's Jesse."

"He's here?"

Bette turned Jenna to show her. There was Jesse part way across the dance floor with Anita Stephanopoulos, another girl from their grade they had known for years. Bette was pissed and hurt. "What in the actual fuck?" Said Bette.

"No shit." Said Jenna. "You told me he said he wasn't allowed to date."

"That's what he told me." Bette took her hand off Jenna's shoulder and clutched the top of her stomach below her breast. "Fuck, he looks good though." Bette said it as if all the life was leaving her body.

"I can see why you'd think that."

"Can we get a drink or something?" Bette's voice ached.

"You wanna finish the song first?"

"Yeah."

Jenna hugged Bette closely in the dance and Bette did her damnedest not to cry. When the DJ changed songs Bette and Jenna went to the refreshments table and grabbed drinks. Bette grabbed a Diet Coke in one hand and a cup of water in the other. With her eyes closed she chugged the water then the Diet Coke. When she opened them, Jesse stood before her.

"I didn't think you'd be here. I guess I owe you an explanation." He said to her over the loud music. His tone was hard to understand through the music, but the look on his face seemed to be 'you caught me.'

She covered her mouth and tried to hide her burp. "What's to explain? You told me you couldn't date and you're on a date. You're either a hypocrite or a liar."

"She asked me; we're in Algebra 2 together. I told her I had to ask my parents. I told them I wanted to go. I told them she's a nice Greek Orthodox girl and they said I could honor my commitment if I said yes."

She tried not to glare to hard at him. "That's not even a form a Catholicism. I guess this lapsed Methodist whore can't get a date with you. I see how it is." Bette was frustrated with him, but after hearing his reasoning, she was more annoyed than anything else. She grabbed another cup of Diet Coke and stepped back from him.

Jesse stepped forward and leaned into her a little and whispered loudly at her. "I never said you were a whore."

"But I couldn't ask you out?" She glared as she said it.

"In general, yes. But this is different. This was special."

"Good to know I wasn't special, Jesse," she said flatly. She sipped her pop and turned from him.

He stepped back to her, reached over, and grabbed her shoulder. Bette had to hunch her back and pull the cup from her lips to keep from spilling her drink on herself. He leaned over to her. "Look. I don't even get to stay out 'til midnight. I have to leave at 10:45. I'd rather be here with you. And I wish you weren't mad at me for things I can't control." Jesse complained to her firmly.

None of that was an apology. Bette saw Anita come out of the bathroom. "Go back to your nice girl, Jesse," Bette sighed the words at him and put a hand up to let him know she was done talking with him.

Bette went and found Jenna and put Jesse out of her head. The pair danced and took fun pictures together. They enjoyed themselves and had fun. They found Tylor and Katie and hung out with them. Tylor and Katie traded off being dance partners with Bette and Jenna. Bette and Katie remembered some of their old swing dancing moves together. Bette and Tylor went nuts when they played 'Learn to Fly' by Foo Fighters. Katie and Jenna knew the steps to Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty" music video and made it sexy without being trashy. The three girls made Tylor look good during The Offspring's "Pretty Fly For a White Guy." They ran their hands over his chest and passed him around between the three of them and all had a laugh with it. By the end of the song he was on his knees begging all three of them to go home with him that night. Bette and Jenna laughed. Jenna told him there was no chance of that happening.

Bette took a break and went to the restroom. She saw a girl's cell phone and saw the time: 10:38 PM. She left the bathroom and went and found Jenna with a mission in mind. She got Jenna and walked with her. "Jenna. We've been best friends since we were six, right?"

"Absolutely."

"And you know I would never ask you to do anything you were uncomfortable with."

"Of course."

"I am hoping you would do me a favor."

Bette walked Jenna over to the walls that faced the elevator doors ten feet away from them and whispered in Jenna's ear. Jenna smiled and high-fived Bette. A couple minutes later, Jesse and Anita called the elevator to leave for the night. Jesse and Anita got in and turned around, when they faced forward; they saw Bette and Jenna making out. Bette was grabbing Jenna's butt and Jenna was giving Jesse the middle finger. As the door closed, Bette stopped kissing Jenna, opened her eyes, ran her hand down Jenna's breast, and saw the shocked look on Jesse's face.

"Thanks Jenna. I wanted to show him how special of a girl he was missing."

"He didn't know special when it jerked him off in a movie theater." Bette snickered and shushed Jenna, looking around to check to see that no one heard her. No one did. "Besides. I will always be here for you. That's what best friends are for. I will be by your side through thick and thin."

"You know I got a thick something that you two are more than welcome to join Katie and I for tonight. The offer still stands." said Tylor sidling up to them. "After that show you two just put on, we can go now. I'm ready to go now!"

Bette and Jenna eyed each other smirking. Bette used a sexy tone as she spoke, "You know what Tylor? Sure. You can watch as Katie, Jenna, and I get in a big pile." Bette put a hand on Tylor's arm and ran her fingertips up and down it and Jenna followed her lead and put her arm around Bette, leaning her head on her shoulder. Tylor's face lit up at what the girls did. "Then you can jump in, blow your load in thirty seconds, and the rest of us girls can actually satisfy each other. How does that sound?"

"I know you're messing with me right now. But it still sounds like an awesome time to me," he said with a big grin across his face.

Jenna and Bette laughed. "Not on your life, Ty." Said Jenna, giving his nose a squeeze with her free hand. Bette slapped his butt while they walked away from him.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 31.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Monday morning Bette when Bette went to physics class, she asked Mr. Van De Camp to sit in one of the open seats on the front row of class. Mr. Van De Camp didn't object to her request. Bette didn't care about sitting alone. It was preferable to sitting next to Jesse. As attractive as he was, as sexy as he was, as sweet as he had been in the previous months, he had been careless with her and she was having none of him anymore. She still wanted him so much, but she made the conscious choice to cut him off. He didn't seem to have a problem cutting her off, why should she? When Jesse came in, she didn't look up from her notebook as she prepared for her notes that day from what was written on the whiteboard.

Jesse stopped where she sat, "You changed seats."

Bette kept copying notes from the whiteboard. "Yep."

"You're still mad?"

"Mad would imply a need to forgive you. There's nothing to forgive. There's nothing you can change, remember?"

He sat down and leaned over the table and whispered at her. "No. I can't change my parent's minds. I thought you would understand that."

She turned in the chair to talk to him. "I do understand that. The least you could do is give me a sliver of consideration. I don't think you have any idea how cheap you made me feel."

"You did that yourself with your girlfriend."

"Wrong. Jenna loves me for who I am and always has. She would never try to hide it. She makes me feel priceless. We make each other powerful," she spoke firmly to him.

"And what was I then? Some experiment?"

The bell rang. "She's my best friend, Jesse. You were the one I wanted." She turned around and kept copying the whiteboard. Mr. Van De Camp went on with class as usual.

After class, Jesse stopped Bette in the hallway. "Look. I wanted you too. But obviously it's not going to work. We both have our reasons."

"I don't have reasons not to anymore. It's all on you Jesse."

"But you understand why, right?"

She glared at him softly. "No. I don't think I ever will with you. And I don't think you really wanted to try. I think I'll just be a crazy story you tell at parties in the future. Your weird girl in your weirdest place. And I have to live with that." She said it to him softly and bluntly and the way she said it seemed to leave him dejected. She turned away from him and went to lunch and told Jenna about how things went with Jesse. She was down about it, but Jenna hugged her and told Bette how proud of her she was.

Bette headed to geometry after lunch feeling mixed about the whole thing. She was proud of herself, she wasn't going to be Jesse's secret anymore, but it was still so difficult to turn off the attraction to him, even after he hurt her, then would remind herself to move on. It was a vicious cycle that repeated itself again and again. She sat down at her desk and stared at it blankly. "You feeling alright?" Ozzy asked. He leaned over his desk and said it into her ear. Bette turned in her chair and looked at him.

"Not really."

"You wanna talk about it now or later?"
"There's too much to unpack now."

"I can imagine there might be." He said it in a sympathetic way.

"How would you know? I haven't told you what it was."

"I came late with Thalia to the Darling Dance and we left pretty early. But I saw enough to know it probably wasn't Tylor who made you feel like this." He pointed to her face.

She smiled. "No. It wasn't Tylor."

"You need the Beach Boys after school today?"

He was offering music but she knew he meant his company. "No. Jenna's been pretty helpful this time. She's...she's the best friend a girl could ask for."

"Yeah. That's what Tylor said right before he came crying to me about his failed attempt at a four-some with you two." Bette laughed as the bell rang for class to start. After class ended, Bette turned back to Ozzy. "I know the door always swings open to you. Just not yet about this, you know?"

"I get it."

"You always did." She picked up her book and notebook and stood. "So Thalia, huh?"

"Yeah. We're in the same English class. She's pretty cool."

They walked out of the classroom and she walked with him to his next class. "I would have said pretty hot. Blonde. She's on the dance team. I don't remember how did you put it? You two arrived late and came early?" She teased him and gave him a light jab to the shoulder.

He closed his eyes and shook his head at her. "That's private."

"Oh!" Bette gave him a cheeky face. "That must mean she's important then. I'm glad for you."

"Thanks Bee. Let me know if you change your mind about wanting to talk about what's-his-name."

"I will."

Ozzy went into his Spanish class and Bette kept going on to her locker before heading home for the day.

Sunday February 9th, Bette came home from a shift at the museum. Lorna let her know she missed a call from Jesse shortly before coming home. They had a physics assignment for the weekend so Bette grabbed her backpack, went up to her room, and got out her homework. She knew she had to do it anyways, might as well get it done sooner rather than later. And if Jesse was calling about it, he might be able to get her through it quickly. Since they still sat close, they still had to partner up occasionally in class. It was uncomfortable at first, but they seemed to have come to an understanding when it came to class. She picked up the phone and called him, Jesse answered within one ring, "Hello?"

"Hi Jesse. It's Bette. You called?"

"Yeah. How's it going?"

"Fine. I just got home from work. Were you calling about the assignment? I have it here. I needed to do it anyways."

"No. That's not why I'm calling."

Bette got a confused stare on her face and closed her textbook. "What's going on?"

"The homework? I guess it's sorta why I'm calling."

"Sorta?"

"I grabbed the wrong notebook from my locker on Friday. I grabbed our notebook."

"You still have that?"

"Yeah. I started paging through it again. It still smells like you, just a little. I started thinking of all those great talks we had." Jesse spoke softly. Bette couldn't believe it, he was flirting with her again.

"Uh-huh," she spoke plainly.

"You wore the Escher pants last week."

"Yeah. They're my favorite."

He sighed. "They're my favorite too. Bette, you work of art." He said it with a seductive oomph.

When they spoke on the phone in the past, he was always schoolwork first, and he never called her by her first name on the phone. He always called her 'Wheelan' on the phone. "Jesse, what's going on?"

"What do you mean?"

"You don't speak this freely on the phone. You didn't speak this freely in the notebook or in the hallways. What's different?"

"I have the house to myself right now. I told them I wasn't feeling well when they decided to go out to a restaurant."

"And?"

"I know I see you every day, but I've been re-reading our conversations. I was thinking about the time at the movie. How hot you looked at the dance. It's been hard not talking to you every day. Even now it's hard."

Bette took a deep breath. "It's been difficult for me too, Jesse."

"No, Bette." He slipped back into his seductive tone again. "It's hard right now. You know?"

Bette saw her face in her dresser mirror and saw herself turn red as he spoke. "What is it that you want from me Jesse?"

"Be my hands and let me be yours."

She felt her whole body warm with his words. She got up and closed the door to her room. The latch didn't line up right and she had to open and close the door again. She had to do it a third time and lift the knob before it clicked and the doorknob button lock could be engaged. She laughed into the phone. As she sat back on the bed, the door lock clicked open. "There's something wrong with my bedroom door."

"Can you block it or something?"

"I could go in my bathroom."

"If that works for you."

She went around her bed and into her bathroom and locked the door. She looked around her bathroom. She grabbed a clean towel, balled it up and set it on the floor at one end of her bathmat. She got on the floor and laid back; even with the towel and the bathmat, the floor was hard beneath her and it was difficult to get comfortable.

"Are you ready yet?" He asked in a soft voice.

She twisted her back and held the phone, but the antenna kept bumping the floor. She saw a ball of her hair and dust under her sink that she had missed when she last cleaned and part of a Band-Aid wrapper, and suddenly, she didn't feel aroused anymore. "No, Jesse. I don't think I am going to be ready." She sounded let down as she sat up on her bathroom floor.

"Oh." He sounded disappointed too. "Do you think, you could still, you know? Talk to me? Be my hands?"

Bette sat uncomfortably on her bathroom floor next to her bathtub looking at her toilet and feeling incredibly unsexy. She spoke bluntly, "Is this the first chance you've had to call me without your family in the house?"

"I waited so long for this opportunity. Why do you think I picked up the phone so quick when you called back?"

Her face cringed and she covered her eyes with her free hand. "Oh God, you really don't have a sliver of consideration for me."

"I do Bette! It's why I want to be your hands for you."

"No! You just want to hear me do it so it gets you off. I'm not going to do that for you. I might have wanted to before, but you reminded me why I can't. I don't trust you."

"You can trust me."

"No. I can't. You can call me for homework. You can call me 'Wheelan.' But don't call me like this again. Do you understand me?" She spoke firmly to him.

"Yeah." She heard the defeat in his voice. "I'm sorry I did."

She softened her tone, "You know that's all I wanted to hear from you. I wish it hadn't taken you so long."

"I wish we could have met in two years."

Bette closed her eyes and shook her head. He still doesn't get it. "I'll see you in class tomorrow, Davis."

"See you then, Wheelan."

They hung up their phones. Bette clicked the phone back on and got up. She called Jenna to tell her what happened. Her mom answered and told her she was working and wouldn't be home until after close. After hanging up, she hesitated for a moment and called Ozzy. After a couple of rings, he answered.

"Hello?" She could hear the smile in his voice.

"Hi Oz. It's Bee. Are you busy?"

"I'll just be a minute." She could tell he was saying to someone in the room with him and not to her. He didn't do a good job covering the receiver to hide his voice. She heard him clearly on his old phone. He then spoke back into the phone to her. "Now's not a great time. Thalia's here." He whispered, "Aunt Darrah isn't." His voice returned to normal. "Is it something important?"

She smiled for him. "No Oz. Go get 'em."

"Thanks! I'll see you tomorrow," he said it with zest in his voice.

"Bye." Bette hung up the phone and set it on her dresser. She went over to the metal box she made in 7th grade shop class that held her CDs. She flipped through them until she found the mix of Beach Boys songs and put it in her CD player alarm clock. The first track was 'In My Room,' just as she asked Terry to make it for her. The song played and she braced herself on the dresser and stared in her mirror. The voices ran through her in a way they never had before and it was as if she was hearing the song for the first time. She was still wearing her work uniform and felt disgusted with herself. She peeled off the dark grey polo shirt and her khakis and by the time she was looking at herself again in her underwear, she was crying, and she wasn't sure why. She changed a setting on the CD player so the song would repeat. She went into the bathroom, grabbed some toilet paper, sat on her bed and cried. When the tears stopped and the song had played four or five times, Bette turned off the music, put fresh clothes on, and did her homework.

Weeks past. Jesse and Bette were finally able to have a conversation where she was able to tell him how she felt about feeling dismissed by him, like she was his secret shame, and that she felt like he thought she wasn't good enough for him. He apologized for making her feel cheap and small. He didn't want her to feel like that. She had been special to him. She was the closest thing to a girlfriend he had ever had. She was clear in telling him she was never his girlfriend. They had been special to each other at one point. They had understood each other. He told her that the first time he saw her and the chair slid out and she denied doing it, with how unconventionally pretty she was. He thought she was a witch. She laughed and told him that she wasn't a witch, but would add that to her list of times she's practiced witchcraft. She apologized to him if she and Jenna had made him and Anita uncomfortable at the Darling Dance with their kissing display. He laughed it off. He told her that Anita told him that she thought it had to do with Jenna disliking Anita from years ago and not them. Bette snickered. Bette and Jesse found a new sense of normal.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 32.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

In early March, Bette found some time to call and talk one evening after school to Ozzy and tell him everything that had happened all year with Jesse. She told him she had been embarrassed to talk to him about it after their conversation from the beginning of the year about screening creepers for each other. Now that she and Jesse had found closure with each other, that she wasn't angry or hurt by him anymore, she was fine with talking to him about it. Ozzy was sympathetic. He said he hadn't talked to her about Thalia because he thought Bette would call her a 'junk chick.' Bette said she didn't know enough about Thalia to feel anything about her. But she told him she was glad she made him happy.

"Yeah, not anymore," said Ozzy.

"You broke up with her?" Bette asked.

"No," he said a little mopey.

"Oh." She tried to think of the right thing to say. "How are you feeling?"

"It's weird. Upsetting for sure. She was something else, you know?"

"Not really. I think I had one class with her freshman year. We don't run in the same circles, you know? I don't know much about her and you never told me."

"Right."

"When did it happen?"

"Just this past weekend."

"Why didn't you call? You know, Beach Boys and all?"

"I didn't think you'd want to hear the details."

"You've always been able to tell me what you think and feel without always telling me the details."

"You didn't. It took you until now to tell me about everything with Jesse that happened."

Bette's stomach churned. He was right. She saw Ozzy and talked to him every day and never discussed Jesse all year. "You're right. I hid that from you. But I didn't always want to. A few weeks ago, I tried calling you about it. That Sunday you said Thalia was there. You were so excited. I couldn't harsh that for you."

Ozzy was silent a moment. "What did you end up doing?"

"What we always do. Beach Boys and cried it out."

"And I wasn't there for you." He sounded guilty.

"I guess that makes us even. You didn't want me to be there for you after Thalia. And you couldn't be there for me after Jesse."

"That doesn't make us even. That makes me worse." He sounded guiltier.

"That's not what I meant to say!" She said it quickly. "Both of us had bad timing, but we're talking now. And that makes it better. Right?"

"Hang on." Ozzy put the phone down. She could hear movement in the background and various clicks. Ozzy put on a CD. It was the song 'Don't Worry Baby,' by The Beach Boys. He picked the phone back up. He didn't say anything, he let the track play. The song faded out. "There. Now we were there for each other through it with The Beach Boys."

"Yeah," she whispered it. "Thanks."

"Thanks for opening the door, Bee."

"Always."

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 33.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

It was Sunday March 23. Bette and Ozzy had decided to work together on a large Geometry project for class. The golden rectangle project was a big part of their grade and required lots of work with art research, calculations of that art, and a written paper on their findings. They decided to work together and get it done in half the time. She walked to his house late in the morning that day. She got to his door as Darrah was leaving to work her 11-8 shift at the grocery store.

When she got there, Ozzy had already printed up a bunch of the art needed and had bullet points ready for their written papers. She was about to go get set up at the dining room table when she saw they had decided to finally renovate the dated look of the space.

"Darrah decided that she was tired of eating in the '80s," said Ozzy. The dining table and chairs were gone and plastic sheets were down for painting. "I would be on painting duty, but I told her we had this project."

"I'm not sure which one is better than the other to do," she said.

"They both have to get done at some point." He said as she followed him down to the basement. They worked on the big couch and traded papers back and forth over the next couple hours. They talked their way through the points of the paper and worded their sentences differently so they wouldn't hand in identical essays. When they were done, Bette breathed a sigh of relief and folded the papers in half and stuck them back in her Geometry book. "I didn't think I was going to get that done in time for tomorrow."

"Same," said Ozzy. "It was harder than I thought it would be. And it was a lot, ya'know?" He set his textbook on the end table next to the couch.

"It's not so bad once you understand it. It's like another language."

"I can speak Spanish, I don't speak Geometry."

"Are we not in the same class? Did we not just finish the same project? You speak it just fine."

"You did all the hard stuff."

"I did the calculations. You did all the stuff with the art. I couldn't have done that."

"Can we agree then that it was a team effort?"

"Fair enough." They high-fived. "Since we were done, did you need help with anything else?"

He was quiet for a second. "Nah. Forget it."

She looked at him slightly sideways. "Oscar White. Don't pull that with me. Either ask me or don't."

He sighed, "Fine. Since Thalia and I broke up, I'm still feeling stuck. I shaved off the goatee. Listening to The Beach Boys isn't having the same effect anymore, and I don't know what to do."

She looked at him sympathetically for about two seconds. And replied flatly "Are you kidding me?"

"Why would I joke about that? She broke up with me. And it still sucks."

"And that was how long ago?"

"Three weeks, yesterday."

"And you were with her for how long?"

"Six weeks."

"Jesus." She closed her eyes and shook her head. "Tell me, what is so magic about Thalia again?"

"She's pretty, and outgoing, she's got great style, she's on the dance team so she's got a great-" he started to make a hand gesture to indicate her butt. "-set of legs. She laughs at my jokes." He seemed exasperated at having to answer her question.

"Wanna know what I hear? I hear someone who likes something pretty on a pedestal. She found you funny. You have a great sense of humor. Everyone knows that. What did she ever do for you?"

"She was my girlfriend."

She gave him a little scowl. "Do you hear yourself? Really think for a minute." She thought of how special and then not special Jesse & Keith had made her feel in very different ways. "Besides let you touch her, what did she really do to make you feel special?"

"Well, she- she would-" Bette leaned in intently waiting for a real answer. "I don't know what it is. She's awesome and she liked me."

She was a little sad. "Wow. Alright. Can I share something with you?"

"Sure."

"Remember that guy I was with, Keith, who went to Private West?"

"Yeah."

"You wanna know why I dated him for six months last year?"

"Not really, but go on."

"Ha." She took a breath and collected her thoughts. "Keith is a year older than us. He was spastic but philosophical. If he were old and rich, people would call him eccentric. But yeah, he was really good to me for a while. He was genuinely interested in my opinions and goals. And while he wasn't the most handsome, he genuinely gave a shit about me. I loved him, or thought I did for a time. Towards the end, he seemed to lose interest in everything but me, it was too much. And I don't mean my mind and my interests. That's why I ended it last summer. I was his pretty thing on the pedestal. It's exhausting and boring." She shuttered in disgust at the thought of him. "I'm so glad we go to different schools."

"So?"

"So my point is, you're so much better than wanting pretty girl on a pedestal."

"You think so?"

"I know so. I've seen you go heartsick over these girls. You're so much better than that and I know you know it." At this point, she was irritated. "You never cease to amaze me year after year." She turned away from him and tucked the textbook back into her backpack. She zipped her book and pencil into her back pack, and when she sat up and turned to Ozzy again, he had swiftly moved next to her on the couch.

It was one of those moments where a thousand things seemed to happen in a split second. He placed his hand over hers and caressed the back of her hand with his fingers. He looked at her with his eyes darting back and forth between hers. He had a look on his face she had never seen before, a calm yet intense expression. Before she could react, kissed her. She was surprised, to say the least, but it wasn't wrong or aggressive; he was skillful kisser. It wasn't like when they were younger, he was gentle and more man than boy; he lightly moved his fingers over her hand. She inhaled deeply, felt her eyebrows rise, and strangest of all, felt herself kissing him back. A moment later when he withdrew, they looked at each other. He was still close; his hand was still on hers. Ozzy looked sweet and serious. Bette could feel how red she was and felt the confusion on her face. She glanced down at his hand on hers and turned her hand so the fronts of their hands touched. She looked at the olive-tan tone of his skin against the paleness of hers, the closeness of his legs to hers, the wear if his jeans, the way he draped his other arm over his lap, the bagginess of his t-shirt, the broadness of his shoulders, and his intentionally messy brown hair. And she was overwhelmed by the warmth and awe of her friend. It felt like all their years of good times culminated to that moment that she had no idea was ever coming. "Oh, why the hell not," and she nearly pounced on him with a much bigger kiss than he gave her, pressing her whole front into his chest, wrapping her hands over his shoulders and clutched him. He absorbed her with a surprised *hmph*. Their mouths slicked open while wrapping his arms about her back, leaning back against one of the big cushions, and massaged her back. Bette broke the connection and kissed him on the side of his neck, and took the chance to adjust the way she sat across his lap.

"Wow! This was not the reaction I expected," he chuckled and rubbed her back.

"I never thought there would be something to react to." She kept kissing his neck.

Ozzy reached back and dimmed the lamp behind the couch. Seeing the change in light, she stopped and they looked at each other again. Their expressions were different, nervous blank looks were now impish smiles. He lifted a single eyebrow and made a playful face and it made her snicker. She cupped his jaw in her hands and lingered her mouth over his to feel how he would respond.

"Are you sure?" Bette pulled back to his question, "I mean-we don't have to do any-," he gestured his hands behind her back and moved his head side to side, causing her to back up and her hands to fall to his chest. "I don't want to do anything you don't want to do."

Heat radiated off his hands on her back, his heart pounded in his chest under her hands, and clear, yet unseen, she felt how he grew in his jeans for her. She took a deep breath, grabbed his shoulders, and tightened her grip around him, causing him to close his eye and groan. "We've known each other a long time. I trust you. I'll say 'stop' if I want you to stop. You say 'stop' if you want me to stop."

Ozzy grew a big smile across his face. He pulled her close, twisted her downward, lying face to face on the couch kissed her neck and whispered, "Go, go, go." Ozzy kissed her neck, ear, the side of her face, the tip of her nose, and her mouth deeply. Bette bunched up the fabric of this t-shirt slid her hand up his back. When he kissed her particularly well, she tried to tell him by gripping his back, a light moan, and arching her back into him. He glided his hand down her back and butt, lifting her thigh over his hips to keep her close. In turn, she grip and squeeze him back into her with her leg.

As she continued to reach behind him, his shirt began to ride up in front, and Ozzy kept trying to lower it without stopping them. Bette noticed, "Stop a sec." Bette withdrew her hand from his back. Ozzy froze. "If my touching you like that is making you uncomfortable, say so."

"No! It's not that. It's good. It's me. It's my stomach. I feel weird about it."

Bette propped herself on her side on her elbow, "There's nothing wrong with you as you are. You're 6'3" and what, 260? If you were 160, I'd be worried for you."

Ozzy muttered, "274."

"What?"

"I weigh 274."

Bette sighed, "It's not all in your stomach. It's here," she gave a light squeeze to his upper arm that eclipsed her hand. "Here." She looked towards their legs and ran her leg against his. "And I know you have a great, big muscle in here." And she tapped on his chest over his heart." Ozzy mashed his lips together looked at her hand and enveloped it in his. "Besides." She touched her forehead to his and whispered, "I like big guys." Ozzy wrapped his arm around her back and kissed her. She let him sink into her. He skimmed his hand down her side and grasped her butt and upper thigh. And while what he did felt great, she couldn't help but sense her own insecurities with him. She darted her head back and gave him a push, "Now I know my butt is not my best feature, and you're an ass man."

"Um...I," he hesitated.

"Don't lie to me. I know when guys look at my chest, you don't, and I was never your type. I'm usually reserved. I'm not blonde, I don't tan in summer, I'm not as petite as other girls, and I have no ass. I was never on your radar." Her tone went from playful to concerned, "Why now?"

He seemed apprehensive to answer, "Maybe because I don't put you on a pedestal. Because you weren't on the radar. Because you trusted me and they didn't." He hesitated for a moment. "Maybe because when you told me 'no' freshman year, I didn't fully understand why then, but I do now. Because you just did more for me in the last couple hours than any of them ever did. And while 'why the hell not' isn't the same as 'yes,' it might be the best thing I've heard in a while."

Bette got a defeated look on her face, "Oh." She withdrew her leg from him. She tried to prop herself up on her side again while trying to make a little space between them, but lost the balance and rolled off the couch and hit the floor with a *whack*. "Jesus!" she exclaimed.

Ozzy sat up as quickly as she fell. "Are you okay?"

"Nothing hurt but my pride." She sat up and rested her arms on her knees. She planted her face into one of her hands processing everything.

"What is it? What did I say?" He grazed a couple fingers over her free hand.

Bette tried to choose her words carefully, "I know it wasn't your intention. You didn't say anything wrong. I- I just -I did. I felt-" Bette shook her hands in frustration. "I just felt suddenly, really cheap."

"No," he said slowly. He knew how much gravity that word carried with her.

Bette spit her words out, "And I know that. It was a feeling. You know I don't do this kind of thing with any guy, right?"

"I know. And you know I'm not like this with a bunch of girls."

"Yeah, I know. It's like I said, I did because I trust you. We know each other."

"Exactly." He skootched off the couch and sat by her feet. "You didn't do anything wrong. Did I?"

"No."

"Then why the bad feeling?"

Bette leaned against the couch. "We're good people, right?"

"Yeah."

Bette continued, "And we're young. We haven't been that close this year. A-and we want different things out of life. We have different interests..." She trailed off.

"Where are you going with this?"

She took a deep breath, "I didn't want to think either of us were settling for the other. And I made myself feel really awful."

Ozzy paused for a moment "Do you want to know why I asked you, specifically you, freshman year?"

"Why?"

"Because of everything you've said. It just proved that everything I know about you to be true: first you were a friend who was always honest with me, who showed me what boundaries were, whether or not you said it. And you always made sure I was comfortable, when other people made sure we weren't." He adjusted and sat next to her against the couch. "And just because you don't look like Vanessa, Cassandra, or Tahlia, doesn't mean you're not, obviously, really attractive." Ozzy focused forward and stared at his hands. "I didn't put you on a pedestal or on my radar as you put it. You were too important to ever be considered as a girlfriend rather than my really good friend who happens to be a girl. But I kissed you because it-it just felt right this time. Ya'know?" And he looked over at her, and she as looking at him.

"I do. Exactly." She reached up to his upper arm, giving it a squeeze with a heated look on her face. "Yes."

He turned himself towards her, "Yeah? You mean-?" He was focused back on her, seeing she has turned herself about and she was sitting on her knees towards him.

"Not as a consolation," she said.

He nodded to her. "And not as a favor."

She nodded back to him. "Because we both want to do this?"

"And why the hell not?" He said with a smile. They rose to their knees and embraced each other.

"Go," she whispered in his ear.

Their cheeks drifted over each other until their lips met again. Slowly at first this time; his full lower lip seemed to absorb her. He ran his tongue ever so slightly across her upper lip, and she kneaded at his back through his shirt. Ozzy adjusted his arms, throwing both of hers over his shoulders and around his neck. Next thing she knew she wasn't kneeling on the floor; she was hanging on to him and her feet weren't touching the ground. He wrapped one arm around her back and the other under her right leg, and in one sweeping movement, stood up with her, causing her to squeal and laugh. She gripped his sides with both legs as he turned and sat back on the couch with her comfortably across his lap.

His move impassioned her. When Bette's hands ran up the sides of his shirt, he helped take it off. She set a hand on the tuft of hair on his chest and saw how it streamed down his stomach and continued beyond into his jeans, "Wow," she beamed. "I didn't think it would look so- be so-"

"What?" He smiled at her.

"The muscles, the chest hair. It's all so...manly," her face lit up. "It's hot." She combed her fingers through it a few times. She glided her hands over his shoulders and arms and when she squeezed his muscle, he flexed it back, and her whole face glowed. She even took a moment to touch his stomach and waist; thoughtfully, carefully, and not in a way to make him feel bad about himself or tickle him. "Amazing. Absolutely incredible." A moment later she realized the odd look on her face and the patient interest on his. She slowly pulled back her hands and reached behind head to pull the shirt off her back. Ozzy slid his hands up her waist to help remove it. He wrapped his hands about her rib cage and she let his thumb sweep the side of the stitching of her bra. She gave him a nod. Ozzy skimmed his fingers along the lines of her straps and where the cup met her breast. He slowly grazed each of his thumbs over her nipples for a few strokes. She kept her stare intensely focused on him and let out an audible breath. Ozzy's arms wrapped around her back and lay down on the couch with her. With his other hand, he unhooked her bra. "That was a good move," she said with a light laugh as she helped take off her bra and let it hit the floor.

"I said I hadn't done this with a bunch of girls. There may have been one or two." Ozzy laid on his left side with Bette wrapped in his arms. He pulled her waist tight towards him and started running his lips and tongue down her neck, collar bone, and over her breasts. "Just because you never caught me staring, doesn't mean I wasn't looking." He swirled his lips and tongue around her nipples until they were pleasurably swelling from her chest. She moaned to let him know what he did was good. He looked up at her from her chest, "This might be the most beautiful thing I've seen and heard." She ran her fingers through his hair and massaged the back of his neck. She pulled his face back up to hers to take his mouth in hers for several minutes. She would grab his arm and he would flex a muscle. He ran his hand down her leg and she would wrap it around his leg in turn. He ran his fingers over her breasts, but she could tell he did it for her pleasure and not his own. While they kissed, he grinded into her between her legs. And once while he did, he found just the right spot and it made her moan louder than she had up until then and she scratched his back, hard. He winced and jerked up from her, and looked at her stunned.

"I'm sorry," she cringed. She glanced downward towards their hips. "You have, um, solid skills. I don't want to hurt you if you don't like that. It was unexpected."

"That makes two of us. Just maybe, no more marks for either of us?"

"Absolutely."

"Alright." He smiled down at her. She gently pulled him back into her with a long, passionate kiss.

When Ozzy eventually broke the connection, he cautiously asked, "Would it be okay-I mean, it would just be just-." He huffed and Bette tried not to laugh at his reluctance. "I would be more comfortable if I could take off my belt and I didn't want you to think I would assume-"

Bette pulled him in and gave him a quick kiss. "I get it." Ozzy reached down and unbuckled and removed his belt with one hand without looking away from her.

There was something about the look on his face, the intensity in his eyes, the pout of his thick lip, or maybe the single sweeping movement of the belt and it hitting the floor, but he had her on fire. "Go."

Ozzy's eyes got wide. "What?" He leaned back a little. "Are you serious?"

She gripped him surely. "Yes. I want us to keep going." She nodded too.

Ozzy took a few heavy breaths, "Oh my God, yes."

They both reached down and she unbuttoned his pants and he quickly unzipped and pulled them down and off himself. He reached for the top of her pants and as he did, she started stroking him outside his shorts. He let out a groan and closed his eyes and couldn't help but pause his hands. He wrapped his arms around her and devoured her mouth as she rubbed his length. She slipped her hand into the fly of his shorts. He could barely control his moans. "Holy-" he cut himself off to feel the pleasure she caused. She realized how quickly she had moved at first and slowed her movement. She tried to listen to his breaths, feel the motion of his grind, and do what felt good for him.

A few minutes later he panted, "Wait, wait, wait." Bette pulled her hands back to herself.

"Did I scratch? Did I do something wrong?"

"No. Not at all!" He breathed heavily still. He reached to unbutton her jeans again. "You," he said. "I want to do this for you."

She nodded and held his gaze. He unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans and she peeled them off. He looked over her body and ran the back of his fingers over the fabric of her panties. He took a moment to touch her back, hip, and thigh. He barely brushed his fingers over the front; he hesitated his fingers over the front of her panties. She could feel the excitement, the electricity radiating off his hand. When he felt the hot, almost damp spot he had caused, his hand froze completely. There was passion on his face but he was petrified in his eyes.

She reached down and intertwined her fingers with his and let them brush against her. "It might be better if..." She sat up, letting go of his hand, and opened the zipper pocket of her backpack and pulled out an Altoids tin with a rubber band around it. "If you lay back," she whispered. She pulled off the band and opened the tin and pulled out a trio of condoms. He looked away from her, closing his eyes, "This is really happening," he said to himself. He propped himself up on his elbows and turned to his slightly to his side. "How did you-? Do you always have-?"

She tore one off the grouping. "I said I don't do this with any guy, there was the one guy."

He sat up where she stood. She stuck her hands into the sides of her panties; he placed his hands over hers and slid them off her.

"Amazing," he said softly. He ran his hands up and down her hips and waist.

She leaned into him and kissed him, setting her hands on the fabric of his shorts. Ozzy lifted his hips and gave himself enough leeway to get them free. Bette took them off from the knees. "You're...wow." Her eyes danced across his body. "Magnificent." She knelled on the couch next to him. She placed a hand on his chest to guide him to lie back. He covered her hand with his, pulling her on to him.

She sat across his thighs and rolled the condom on to him. As she positioned herself over him, he held her around her hips. "Believe it or not, I am still going to need you to let me go slow."

He nodded and they both took a deep breath. Bette slowly led him into her a little and back out again, wincing a little. She did it again, going a little further, again, and again. Then, she wasn't wincing anymore; she was sighing and looking at the same heated, intense look on Ozzy's face as before. "Move with me," she spoke softly. She leaned onto his chest and he lightly held her. She ran her lips over his chest. When she met his eyes again, he started to move his hips. Slowly, tenderly, yet fully, he pressed himself back into the couch and forward into her again and again. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, letting out some throaty breaths and taking his pleasures. He cupped her face with his hand before running it in her hair.

Ozzy asked, "Tell me what you want."

Bette spoke through breathy words, "Just keep going," she sighed. They were braced in locked arms. Ozzy held her gaze and kept moving with her, speeding up and slowing down. Trying to follow the reactions on her face, and kept with her movement. All while feeling the wonder their bodies caused each other.

"Kiss me," he whispered. He embraced her. Their mouths entangled deeply with each other moaning and sighing.

Eventually, Bette reared back and rode his thrusts moaning, running her hand through her hair, and balancing herself with her other hand on his stomach, he watched her in awe in the light glow of the floor lamp, "I was wrong," Ozzy gasped. He ran his hand down her torso, "This is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen and heard."

Bette leaned back onto his chest, "You're not so bad yourself," she said with a grin.

He wrapped his hand around her head, entangling his fingers in her hair. He pulled her close, and she touched her forehead to his. They could feel each other's breath. He whispered, "Oh, Bette, I-" He pulled her lips in to his. Her tongue submerged into his mouth, and she wrapped her arm under him to stay close. And while mid-kiss, Ozzy let out a pair of deep moans right in her mouth and his whole body tensed, finishing. She finished kissing him and he lay there with his eyes closed, panting. "Oh my God," he whispered. She touched her forehead to his and kissed his cheek a couple times. She stopped, raised her head a little and he opened his eyes. He looked at her wide eyed and uncommonly innocent considering what had just happened. She reflected the same innocence in her smile. "Wow," he whispered. She nodded short and slow. He adjusted his hand around her head and pulled her in for a slow deep kiss while Bette lifted herself off of him. Ozzy reached down and pulled off the condom and stretched his arm across the couch and dropped it in to the waste bin on the floor.

"Oh, come here you." He playfully said as he pulled her down to the couch and embraced her in his arms by his side. She let out another happy squeal. He reached over the top of the couch and pulled down a big blanket and wrapped them in it. He nuzzled his nose against hers and gave her little pecks on her cheek. She reached up and brushed his hair back with her fingers. "Did that really just happen?" He asked. She tilted her head back and he kept kissing her collar and side of her neck.

She let out a breathy laugh, "Yeah. It did."

He stopped kissing her and they looked at each other. "I didn't want it to end. It was just so-overwhelming. Were you, um ...overwhelmed?"

She touched his cheek and smiled, "I didn't get there, but it was quite the journey."

"Oh," he seemed disappointed.

"Don't get me wrong!" She tried to make him feel better about it. "It was a really good journey; I just didn't make the overwhelming distance. I was on my way through."

He paused a moment then ran his fingertips over her breasts, "What would it take to get you there?" She gave him a smile and took his hand. She kissed him and his fingers. She turned and laid on her back, took his hand and brought it under the blanket to the crux of her legs. She planted his warm, strong fingers and showed him how she wanted to have him move his fingers in circles and streaks. And when he found the rhythm of her touch, she let go of his hand. He looked down to see what he was doing, but she raised his chin until their eyes met again. "You should see what it looks like here, not there." He massaged and slid in and out of her: she rolled her hips against his fingers with him. She let him know with moans and squeezes of his chest when he did things right. And a few moments later, he hit her peak causing her back to arch, her thighs to squeeze his hand, and let out a long moan. She panted in his arms.

She turned in his arms and kissed him. "Now I'm there." She said with a laugh. "Completely overwhelmed."

Ozzy had a goofy smile on his face. "I mean, you think something is going to look or feel a certain way, and then, it's nothing like you imagine. I can't believe it." He was in absolute awe.

"I know. I didn't think we would have ever done that." She nestled under his chin into his chest into a comfortable cuddle together. She smiled and put her fingers in his chest hair again. He preened his fingers through her hair and kissed the top of her head.

"Well yeah. That too."

"What then?"

"I'd never done that."

"Lots of girls our age don't know how to have an orgasm. The dumb ones will fake it and not tell you. Everyone is different."

"A-and that."

She heard his hesitation, "And what?"

His words had a chuckle to them, "Like I said, I'd never done that. I hadn't had sex before."

Bette's eyes got wide at his response, and it shattered her. "You're kidding. There is no way you're serious."

"Why wouldn't I be?" He was so calm.

She pulled herself out of his arms and looked down at him. "Why didn't you say before?"

"It didn't seem important. Wasn't it obvious?"

"Obvious?!" She snapped. "No, it was not obvious. You said there have been one or two."

"When we had our shirts off, that kind of thing."

"And you didn't think to say anything?"

"I could barely speak with the way you touched me. You said 'go', and I wanted to too."

"That is not what I meant!" She got up and started to pick her clothes from the floor. She began to recount what had happened, "I unbuttoned your pants you could say 'this is new for me.' I pulled out the condoms you could say, 'I've never.' You literally said, 'This is really happening.' and you could have followed it with 'for the first time!'" She grabbed her clothes and went into the bathroom and shut the door, peed, and cleaned herself up. "Is this freshman year all over again? Is this what you wanted this whole time? Just to get some practice so the next one would be easier to figure out?" She threw her clothes on quickly.

Ozzy answered from the other side of the door, hearing him get dressed, she could hear how close he was. "No! It wasn't like that."

Bette braced herself on the sink and stared in the mirror. "How am I supposed to believe that?"

"We both said it, because we trust each other. We know each other. We don't lie to each other. Bette, please. If the thing I did wrong was not telling you I was still a virgin, I don't understand why you're angry."

"You should have told me."

"Why does it matter?"

She opened the door and looked up at him with tears in her eyes, "Because it shouldn't have been me to do it."

"What? That's what's bothering you? Why?" She walked past him and pulled a hair tie from her backpack.

"You don't think it should have been with a serious girlfriend? Someone you were in love with? Someone you didn't ask for this kind of thing from two years ago?!"

"I never asked you for sex! Then or now."

She frantically finishing packing up her backpack. She fumed, "No one had ever asked me for something like that before or since. Because that's not the kind of thing you ask for from a friend. Granted, I was flattered at the time but now." She twisted her hair up into a ponytail. "I should have followed my gut when I said I felt cheap."

"I kissed you because I said it felt right. I said we could stop at any time. You were the one that said 'go' and took out the condoms. I don't understand."

"I didn't- I shouldn't-" She gasped in frustration, "If I had been any other but your first, this wouldn't be such a problem for me."

She grabbed her bag and walked a couple steps up. Ozzy grabbed her hand and she turned around, from where she stood, she could see him eye to eye, and he had tears welling up too. "It was you. And there's no changing that. I'm not sorry for what we did. But I am sorry for this."

Bette turned and placed a hand on his shoulders. He lightly placed his hands on her waist. His tears fell and she wiped them away with her thumb. Ozzy leaned into her hand. She gave him one more slow kiss. "There. Now you'll be ready for the next one."

"Please Bette-"

"Stop. Just stop." She ascended the stairs, put on her hoodie and shoes and left. She pulled the hood far over her face so no one could see her cry on her walk home.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 34.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Ozzy woke up the next morning with his mind flashing back and forth between moments from the day before. Bette's voice haunted him. Move with me. I felt cheap. Why the hell not. It shouldn't have been me. Just keep going. Stop. Just stop. He picked up the shirt he wore from the day before and smelled it; her scent was still faintly there under his own.

He headed to school and tried to put yesterday out of his mind, he needed a distraction badly. First hour of the day was Environmental Science class. They had just finished a unit on erosion and water table studies, and started a new chapter that lead into ecology. It helped, but she was still flashing in his mind. It was quite the journey. I should have followed my gut!

Ceramics class was all focus on his candelabra tree sculpture project, but working in near silence left him to his thoughts, and he could feel it coming out in his work: lines he didn't like, details that were off, and whole broken leaves when he got frustrated. You should see what it looks like here, not there. Nothing hurt but my pride. I like big guys.

Economics class helped. Mrs. Carlson was the kind of teacher that demanded respect and got it. All the students admired her; there was no room to mess around in her class, she never even turned her back to the students because she had her lectures memorized.

English class was mid-study in the short story unit. Lots of group work and discussions about heavy metaphor use, action verbs, and symbolism. It was another pleasant distraction.

By the time he got to lunch, it was easier to laugh and eat with Tylor, Greyson, and others, and talk about things that weren't bothering him.

Gym class was another good distraction too. It could be a mixed bag, especially right after lunch. Since it was a Monday, it was easy circuit training and running in the gym. It helped burn off his nervous energy. In the locker room after class, Ozzy got cleaned up and changed. He noticed Jason Kaye & Brock A were talking, and when he wasn't looking, they were pointing at him. "Hey Ozzy," called Jason.

"Yeah," He pulled on his jeans.

"You-um. You have a good weekend?" Jason had a look on his face like he was trying not to laugh.

"It was fine. Why?" He buckled his belt.

Jason approached him. "You sure you don't want to change your answer?" Jason gave him a slap on the back with his wiry-muscular arm, and it stung; more than it should have. Ozzy batted his hand away and the memory came back and is eyes widened. It was unexpected. He went over to the mirror and looked at his back; there were the four distinct nail marks Bette had left on him when she scratched him in a moment of pleasure. There was no hiding the fact they came from a hand. Ozzy had a surprised look on his face. Jason taunted, "What belle climbed the beast?"

"I don't know what you're talking about." Ozzy could deny it, but his face and the scratches couldn't. He put on his shirt and ran his hands through his hair to try to make himself look normal.

"No way. I'm not buying it." Jason tried to get in Ozzy's path between him and his gym locker. "Seriously, what bitch did-" And with one swift motion, Ozzy pinned Jason against a locker two feet behind where he stood. Shoving him with ease; his legs dangled over the bench. Only Ozzy's forearms held him up. "Stop." Just stop. Ozzy was stoic yet unrelenting. "I said I don't know what you're talking about." Ozzy let go of him and Jason fell to the floor with a thud and those who were blocking him parted a path for him. Ozzy left the locker room without saying another word.

He dreaded his walk to Geometry, and got there before she did. He found himself bouncing his knee and moving his pencil between his fingers in anticipation. Then he heard her voice in the hall: her echoing laugh among the dozens of chaotic voices, and for a moment, he hoped.

She came in wearing jeans and a zip up hoodie and avoided eye contact with him. She sat in her desk in front of his, but Ozzy's heart truly sank when he saw the make-shift patch across the back of her hoodie of an old red piece of fabric and safety pins: a stop sign. He'd never seen such a distinct message; he respected her request.

When he got home, he unzipped the cushion covers from his couch, took the blanket and clothes from the day before and ran them threw the wash. He vacuumed the remaining portions of the couch and emptied the garbage in the basement. After his laundry was done and he was putting the cushion covers back, he found one last scrap under his foot: the rubber band from around her mint tin that held the condoms. This is really happening. He began to imagine how it could have gone differently:

Ozzy closed his eyes, "This is really happening." He opened them and looked back at Bette. He quickly sat up and put his hand over her hand holding the condom. "Wait." She got a concerned look on her face. "I mean, if this is going to happen, you should know, I haven't-I haven't done it before."

Her face warmed. "Really?"

"Yeah, really."

"I'm glad you told me." She looked away from him at their clothes on the floor and back to him again. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Yes, I do."

"Now you answered that pretty quickly given the last hour, hour and a half. It may seem like saying yes, that may feel like a clear answer." She touched his cheek. "Know that either way you answer, I'll understand. I trust you. So let me ask again, do you want to go or stop?"

He paused, looking at the concern on her face. He turned his head and kissed her palm. He reached back to her and their arms came together.

Ozzy clutched the rubber band and left the basement for his room. He wrapped the rubber band around a pen, pulled out a notebook and started writing.

Over the next couple weeks, Bette stopped wearing the 'stop' hoodie to geometry class, but he still gave her space. Things were still cold between the two of them. On a day she ran out of notebook paper, she asked him for a sheet. A few days later, he asked to borrow a pencil, she gave him two pencils and a pen; and it confused him to no end.

After class that day, Ozzy walked down the main corridor where fliers and sign-up pages were posted. He'd been thinking about it for a couple days, but on that day, he signed up for the spring talent show auditions: Ozzy White - singer/guitar, original composition.

The spring talent show was always a solid variety show from all four classes. Most performance slots were given to upperclassmen, mostly because they auditioned more than underclassmen. Bette went to the Thursday night show with Jenna. Jenna was more excited than Bette to go, but she still wanted to see the show, there was always good talk after, sometimes a diner meet up if they were lucky.

The show opened with the senior dance team doing a signature performance. Next three guys did a comedy juggling act with clubs, plungers, cut off lacrosse sticks, mini-bats, a tennis racquet, and as they put it "whatever weird stuff we could find because we couldn't bring our flaming torches, so pretend we are on fire!" Then there was a barrage of people singing cover songs of artists they thought they sounded like. One freshman girl did a traditional dance from Thailand and a bunch of people talked through it, which pissed Bette off to no end.

Then, the curtain opened, the stage was dark and one single spotlight hit Ozzy. He sat alone with nothing but an acoustic guitar, and a couple of microphones. He started strumming his intro, a four-cord ballad. She thought he might sing a Beach Boys song at first, but she didn't recognize the tune. Bette tried not to make it look like she was scouring the program when she saw on the top of the second page: Ozzy White, Original Song "Bridge."

He closed his eyes and focused. All Bette could do was watch and listen.

Ozzy sang softly, gently, but clearly:

When we were young and the streams were small

Our bridges were stones, we could cross on a crawl

Crossing was easy it didn't hurt at all.

Then the streams turn to rivers and waterfalls.

The rivers grow wide, we take the time to cross.

It isn't always easy; journeys come at a cost.

We get older, we need more than rocks and moss,

I want a truss of trust to get to you without loss.

So we build a bridge. I want to-

Build a bridge with you.

He looked out and played an interlude. His voice grew stronger and more confident as he sang. His voice became rich, velvety, and dynamic.

Now the work takes time, it won't be easy to do,

I can bear the weight as you need me to,

I brought the timber, your design came through,

Can we work all day to build this bridge anew?

There are cuts, and burns, muscle aches.

The work moves slow for all the time it takes.

But I hear your voice and every sound it makes!

This truss of trust has left too much at stake.

As we build a bridge. I ask to-

Build a bridge with you.

His singing became powerful, soulful, and pained.

Then the hammer fell, the work came to a stop

Was it worth the work or was it all for naught?

Our bridge broke down, the gorge has grown wide!

I'm at the base of the steps, you're on the other side!

I ask for a bridge. I need you-

He stopped long enough for dead silence before hitting his crescendo. He wailed so hard; he hardly needed the microphones.

I'm asking you to go!

To go and build a bridge-

Go, go, go, go!

You let me take you on a journey there!

But all I wanted was a bridge-

He ended the song softly as he started.

Rebuild that bridge.

That bridge with you.

He strummed a final cord and the spotlight cut. For a brief second it was silent before roaring applause and cheers came from the audience. Bette wiped the tears from her face between claps.

The next few acts went on and before the final band went up to close the show, she leaned over to Jenna and whispered, "Do you mind dropping me off at home right after? I don't feel great."

"Yeah. Sure."

Bette was quiet and paler than usual on the walk back to Jenna's truck. She asked Bette, "You sure you're okay?"

"I just wanna go home. Why do they schedule these shows on Wednesdays and Thursdays anyways?"

"Maybe so everyone can talk about them the next day. Who knows?" They got in the truck and Jenna started driving. "What was your favorite act?"

"Everyone liked The Sproogs, they're good band," Bette said plainly.

"They were good. I was thoroughly impressed by that girl who did all that stuff with the balloons."

"Yeah, I'm really surprised they let her do that. You don't think she really ate that last one?"

"Nah." Jenna paused and made a turn. "That song Ozzy did was really something."

Bette was caught off-guard and her stomach sank. "Yeah."

"That's it? 'Yeah?'"

"What?"

"I saw you. You were bawling."

"I was not!"

"Your eyes were sweating?" Jenna retorted sarcastically.

"It- it was just really raw, you know? It was powerful. We've heard him play at parties and stuff, but nothing like that. Usually, it's just classic rock or comedy songs. What he did, it was so..." she couldn't think of a better word, "overwhelming. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who thought so. What did you think?"

"Yeah, powerful stuff. I mean, I know Thalia did a number on him, but I didn't think he would be so ballsy to put it out there like that. It sounded like she really broke him. What did he tell you?"

"Me? Why would I know?" Bette said defensively.

"Because you two are good friends." Jenna said plainly.

"No. He didn't say anything to me about it. We don't talk about that stuff anymore." Bette's stomach twisted.

Jenna pulled up in front of Bette's house. "Thanks for the ride. Sorry about missing out on after-show stuff."

"Don't worry about it. It's fine." The girls hugged. Jenna felt how long Bette was hugging her and patted her back. "Are you sure you're going to be okay?" Jenna asked.

Bette started tearing up again and sniffling. "I think so." They let go of each other.

"I know so." Jenna replied. "Just don't cry me a river." And as soon as she said it, the dots connected in her head. "River? River! Wait a sec. It wasn't Thalia. That's why you cried. It's you, isn't it? You're the one on the other side of Ozzy's river. Ozzy wants to build a bridge with you. That's what's bothering you, isn't it?" The girls looked at each other and Bette covered her mouth and tried shaking her head no. "Bette, you can tell me. What happened?"

"I don't know what you're talking about." She wiped off her face with her sleeve and got out of the truck. Jenna waited until Bette was inside before driving away.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 35.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Bette went to school on Friday knowing it was time to make things right with Ozzy. She considered putting on the t-shirt she wore the Sunday they had done the project and made love, but it seemed too heavy-handed to her. She had used a sign to tell him to not talk to her, perhaps another would work again. Ozzy used a metaphor, maybe a symbol would be a private way to speak to him again. She put on a kelly-green t-shirt Go, go, go, go! A matching set of earrings and a necklace that had little artistic trees on them. I brought the timber, your design came through. Along with grey pants and shoes. He looked at herself in the mirror. Do I look like rocks and moss?

By the time she got to Geometry class, she had no idea what she would say or do. Ozzy was already in his desk when she got there. Sitting in her desk talking to Ozzy, was Norman.

She approached, "Norm. Do you mind?" She gestured for him to move.

He sat back smugly against the side bar of the desk, "Nope. Not at all."

"Seriously? C'mon. It's my spot and you know it." She set her book down on the desk.

Ozzy chimed in, "Don't make her ask a third time. We can talk later. It's fine."

"Sure." Norman stood and looked coldly at Bette before walking back over to his desk. "Ozzy. Think fast!" From Norman's loose pocket, he pulled a small box and whipped it at Ozzy when he wasn't looking. But he didn't anticipate Bette staring him down, grabbing the box out of the air, and slamming it on Ozzy's desk without breaking icy eye contact.

"Not cool." She said. "Not cool."

The bell rang and Mr. Anderson came in the room back from the bathroom. Ozzy leaned into his desk and whispered in Bette's ear while Mr. Anderson spoke and wrote on the board with his back to them, "That might have been the coolest thing I've ever seen."

Bette gave herself a little mush-mouthed smile. She put her hand palm up over her shoulder and Ozzy gave her a silent, little high-five. If her clothes didn't say anything to him, hopefully her actions did.

He then opened his backpack and dropped the box into his bag. Bette caught a glimpse of what it was. It was a box of toothpicks, and he had several more boxes in his bag. It was odd.

After class, she was done for the day but she knew Ozzy had one more class. She timed packing her stuff with him to leave class at the same time. "I'm glad Mr. Anderson didn't assign anything this weekend. I'm clear for no homework for the weekend," she said to Ozzy leaving the class.

"I still have to finish the stuff from yesterday. I didn't get to it last night."

She didn't want to be obvious or direct, but it slipped out, "Because of the talent show?"

"Yeah. I probably rehearsed those same three minutes thirty times yesterday." He was surprisingly nonchalant about it.

"It was really good. You should be-"

"Hey Ozzy!" Another box came flying at him. This time it was from Stella. Ozzy caught them this time. "Thought you could use those!"

"Yeah. Whatever." Ozzy dismissed her and slid the box in his pocket.

"What was that about? Toothpicks?"

"It's a prank. It's stupid."

"Um, that's a given. Why keep them? Why not throw them away?"

"Because they'll just grab them from the garbage and do it again."

"But why toothpicks?" They were outside Ozzy's Spanish class.

Ozzy huffed and slouched down so he didn't have to speak up. "Do you remember 9th grade physical science?"

"Yeah."

"Well. The toothpick is a couple things. First, it's a small dick joke. 'I'm the size of a toothpick.' Ha ha. Then it's about how it's going to take a bajillion toothpicks for me to get anywhere."

"Why would toothpicks take you somewhere?" She didn't understand. The halls started clearing as people headed into classes.

"9th grade physical science? What was the big science project with toothpicks?"

The class bell rang. Bette's eyes got wide and Ozzy nodded. "Yeah. They're making fun of my song." Ozzy went into class and the door shut behind him.

The 9th grade physical science project everyone had to do, a bridge. A toothpick bridge. A bajillion toothpicks to get somewhere: across a bridge. At least ten different people had cruelly thought to make fun of Ozzy by giving him toothpicks to tease him for what he had done not even 24 hours earlier. She wondered who the other people were and who had pranked him. But she started processing: he wouldn't have been pranked if he didn't sing the song. He wouldn't have performed the song if she had just talked to him. She shut him out, and for what? For being his first sexual partner? Was that really such a bad thing? For either of them? She felt awful that evening after it had happened, but he must have felt awful for the last few weeks, and today didn't help any.

As Bette walked to her locker, she also realized that by stopping Norman's throw, it was one less box he had to endure that day. It was the first time they had said more than a few curt words to each other since that Sunday in the basement. The high-five was the first time they had touched each other. It gave her hope. She hoped things would be okay.

After school, Bette called Ozzy. "Are we okay to talk?" She asked. "I mean, do you want to talk?"

"Yeah. I do. And I can talk freely, Darrah's not home yet."

"Same. My parents are still at work too."

"I thought about it. And I wanted to tell you I'm sorry. I was wrong."

"About what?"

She took a deep breath, "After we were together that Sunday. I realized I was mad about nothing. Whether you told me or not before shouldn't make a difference. I may have felt deceived in that moment, but-" She sighed. "I felt bad after. But I can't imagine how you were feeling."

"What do you mean you felt bad after?"

"In the past, when a girl has hurt you, I've been there to help you pick up the pieces. I was angry with you and shut you out. I've always trusted you, and I felt deceived. I was the girl that hurt you and I wasn't there for you."

Ozzy took a deep breath. "I thought about it too. I should have told you. I didn't want to deceive you. I didn't want you to feel like you were being used. You mean more than that." He paused. "I'm sorry I didn't say so."

"I don't need an apology for that. I know you didn't do anything with malice."

"Since you say that. If I had told you beforehand, would we still have gone through with it?"

"I guess we won't know. At this point, I'd like to think so."

"Hmm."

"Why?"

"I wrote 'Bridge' the next day. The song idea came from if I had told you beforehand. You weren't speaking to me at the time. I didn't even know if you would hear it."

"I was there, at the talent show."

"I saw you. I made some impromptu changes at the end. Something I knew you would know the meaning of."

"Message received," She said with a smile.

"I had to submit my lyrics as part of the show's audition. Afterwards, they said I can't perform again. Changes aren't allowed."

"Even though people liked it? They weren't obscene or anything."

"No, but other people might get the idea that it's okay to improvise."

"It was a beautiful song. Is it wrong that I'm sorry I caused it?"

"Not at all. Don't be. We're good now. Right?

"We are. It was all so, surprising."

"Yeah. You only swear when you're surprised. 'Why the hell not.' You were more...enthusiastic than I imagined you might be." Bette could hear his smile.

She grinned. "Just cause, my friend. You gave me good reason."

"Like what?"

She giggled. "You remember what I said?"

"What specifically? Remind me." He said hit confidently, and with an air of flirtation.

"Are you by a mirror?"

"Yeah. I'm in my room."

"Take a look at yourself."

"And?"

"Are you wearing a shirt?"

The phone made a rustling noise. "Not anymore."

"Your muscles, your chest hair. It's incredible, that's what a man looks like."

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

"You're in your room?"

"Yeah."

"Go look at yourself." The phone made a rustling noise as she took off her shirt. "It wouldn't matter how big the auditorium could be. In a crowd of people, I will always see you. I saw you cry and that was when I knew we would be okay. Because I knew you understood. You are amazing. You've done more for me than you can imagine. And I don't just mean what we did on the couch."

She let out a breathy laugh, "When did that happen?"

"Since always. I never made a move on you because I knew you didn't want to. You didn't want me. For some reason, after what you said, it finally felt like the right time to try."

"It's not that I didn't want you, that's not right. There were times when I did. There were times when I wanted to make a move. I think- I think I wasn't ready for you. Does that make sense?"

"It does. I don't think you would have touched me like that any sooner if I had tried kissing you earlier."

"That freckle on your lower lip might as well be a bull's-eye. It was quite the kiss." She let out another breathy laugh. She crashed back on her bed she heard Ozzy do the same.

"And had quite an overwhelming result," he said boldly.

"You had felt so good. So warm. Those hands. Hmm," her tone changed, softer, sexier.

"I imagined how good it would feel to kiss you, to really kiss you, for so long. When I finally did, the real thing was so far beyond what I imagined," he heard the change and matched his tone to hers.

She sighed. "Ozzy?"

"Yeah."

"I wish-I wish you were here with me, right now."

He took a deep breath. His pause left her heart racing in anticipation. "I am. Imagine I am. Tell me what I should do if I were."

She eyed her room and adjusted on her bed. She spoke softly and hesitantly, "You-you already took my shirt off. I'm lying here on my side. You're behind me. Maybe your arm is draped over me."

"Yeah. You already took off mine. I can feel how soft your skin is against me." His voice was a velvet whisper back, and it put her at ease.

"I reach back and I'd want to touch your chest hair. Your shoulder. The back of your neck."

"I lightly run my hand over your stomach. Then I barely touch my fingers over the top of your breasts."

She sighed and spoke in a whisper. "I'm doing that, Ozzy. Yeah. You're doing it to me. Keep going."

"I'm kissing the back of your neck. And I'm slipping your bra strap down off your shoulder and kissing you there." She could hear the jingle of his belt unbuckling.

"I pull my arm out of the band. I twist myself back so I can hold you and kiss you."

"I've got my arms around you. I'm running my hands into your bra and teasing your tits."

She sighed, "You have gentle hands for being so strong. They feel so hot on me. I can feel you here. You have my tits hard."

"You've got me hard, Bette, so hard."

"I reach back and I start rubbing your big, hard dick."

"Yeah," He groaned. "You feel so good the way you touch me. I slide my fingers into the top of your panties."

She sighed. "Do you remember? Do you remember how I like it? How I showed you?"

"I do. You're soft and wet. Tell me, are you wet right now?"

"Yes." She moaned. "I am." She moaned for him again. "You got me so wet."

"Oh God, yeah. I'm running my fingers in you and over your clit."

"Ah, I want you Ozzy."

"I'm there Bette. You have me."

"Take off my panties."

"I get my hand around them and pull them off you."

"Yeah," she sighed.

"I take your thigh and pull it over mine. I'm kissing the back of your neck, holding you tight."

"I slide you into me."

"You feel so good as I roll into you again and again. I keep rubbing your clit."

"I'm yours. I reach back and twist so I can kiss you."

"Your mouth feels so good on mine. I wanna hear your voice."

"It's so good. I feel you. You're amazing. Ozzy!"

"Tell me more."

"You are so hot. I want you. Ah!"

"Yeah. I want you Bette. Hmm!"

"You're moving hard and good in me. It's everything."

"So wet."

"Take me. All of me."

"More!"

"Yeah. Ozzy, get it. I'm so close."

"Me too. Yeah."

She let out extended moans. "Ozzy!"

"Bette!" He heaved heavy breaths. They caught their breaths together and laughed. "How did-? I mean- God, you are amazing," he said.

"You have a way about you, I can tell you that much."

"Where does it come from? How do you do it? You're just...wild!"

She let out a breathy laugh. "Only with a man I can trust."

"So you're saying..."

"You were my first, over the phone, that is. I think that might be something you would understand."

"Oh, so much so." They laughed again. "I want to see you."

Bette smiled. "Yeah? When?"

"Darrah works 10-7 tomorrow and Sunday. What do you say?" Bette hesitated for a moment, concerned about his intentions. "I want to spend time with you. I think we have some stuff to talk about."

She smiled. "Yes. I'd like to see you too. I could make it there by around noon."

"I'll see you then. Bye Bette."

"Bye Oz."

By 11:45 AM, Bette was headed to Ozzy's house. Her heart raced. What did it all mean? She knocked and he answered with a grin.

"Hey."

"Hey yourself," he said with a coy smile. He let her in. She began to kick off her shoes and hang up her spring jacket when Ozzy seized her, picking her up in a hug and giving her a spin. "I couldn't wait to see you."

She held him back and gave him a quick peck. "Same. But can I at least get settled first?"

"Of course. You want something to drink? Have you had lunch? Or brunch?" He was spastic.

"Ozzy. We have time. A glass of water would be great." She walked with him up to the kitchen.

He poured a couple glasses of water from the sink and he finished his quickly.

"You wanna sit down?" He asked.

"How about at the kitchen table?"

"It's so good to see you."

"Likewise." She said cautiously, "Are you okay? You don't seem yourself."

"I feel amazing. After we finally talked yesterday. I just feel good. I feel so good about us."

"Yeah. And what do we think that is?" She was clearly not as excited as him, she tried to remain level headed, but in comparison to him, she was almost gloomy.

"I guess after everything and then yesterday, it seemed like we might take things to the next step."

"You wanna go out on a date?"

"I want you to be my girlfriend."

She sighed, "Ozzy, I want you to really think about this. You have been one of my best friends since 7th Grade. I trust you more than almost anyone. Is risking our friendship worth it for more physical stuff?"

"You're kidding? I barely kiss you and you practically jumped me. How am I supposed to take that?"

"This is why we're talking."

"You know I trusted you too." He stood up.

"Ozzy please." She held out her hands on the table, he sat and took it. "This is all really hard to navigate. I don't know where this is going either. We jumped into something with no forethought, but I know I can trust you if we just talk about it." She put her other hand on the table around his. "I think there's something between us that I don't know how to put into words. Something that isn't typical. Would you agree?"

"I think you supersede any pedestal that I could put any girl on. I know you're more important than that."

"I know you make me feel I how should feel: respected, desired, understood."

"You make me feel the same way."

"So what does this mean? What does this add up to?" She asked.

He pulled her hands close. "It's something more than friendship, but it's different than romance." He kissed her fingers.

"Yes. I agree. But what is it?"

"It's a foundation. A bridge. A door." She heard the soft calm of his voice. "It's trust."

"I want you to trust me with this."

"I always have."

Ozzy slid out of his chair on to his knees up to Bette and wrapped his arms around her. She caught him about his shoulders. He was so close to her face. He ran his hands up her back. "What are you doing?"

"I want to do something for you. But I can stop as soon as you say so."

He had that same sexual electricity radiating off him again, but this time, he was confident. She felt it flow into her. She closed her eyes and put her forehead to his. "Go."

He stood back up with her and carried her to his room closing the door behind him with his foot. It was surprisingly clean for being one of a 17 year old. He laid her down on the double bed. And she sat up slightly on her elbows. "You should know I don't have- I didn't bring my backpack, you know?"

"I'm not going to need one." He laid down next to her and hovered his mouth over hers. Bette waited, with quivering breaths as he stroked the back of his hand over her body. When he got to the button of her jeans, he finally kissed her, softly and barely. He unbuttoned the jeans and let down her zipper. He touched her panties in her jeans.

"You're warm."

She spoke through a jagged breath, "For you."

She gripped the front of his shirt as he touched her, slowly and methodically.

"I'm only starting." He spoke softly. He ran his hand over the front of her panties.

"Go." She whispered. He took a solid grip of her jeans and gave them a hard yank down. She gasped.

Ozzy barely touched his lips to hers. When her eyes were closed, he slid a finger into her panties and she let out a stunned moan in pleasure, but he took his hand right back out. He nudged her head to the side and slowly licked her neck and her ear, and when she would sigh, he'd slip a finger back into her again; teasing her body.

He looked at her intensely while she clung to him. Soon his fingers were more frequently inside of her panties than outside. He took her closer leg to him and held it between his legs to keep her in place. Bette was moaning and twitching to his touch when all of a sudden, he stopped. Ozzy rolled off the bed and stood looking down at Bette aroused and confused.

She panted, "is something wrong?"

He reached for her hips and firmly twisted her 90 degrees on the bed, making her let out a loud gasp. "Not even close." He lifted her and peeled her jeans and panties off her and knelled before her. He held her gaze while he wrapped his arms around her thighs and planted his mouth on her loins. "Holy shit!" She squealed. He barely touched her with his tongue. Her legs rested upon his shoulders. He ran one hand up her stomach and the other hand to hold back her hood to find the most pleasure for her.

He kept his eyes on her making slight movements with his lips and tongue, gratifying her body further. Her back arched to his movements. She pushed herself up to her elbows to watched him and he'd gently hold her down. She moaned and cried out in pleasure, everything he did was right. Her legs shook, "Ozzy, yes. Holy God! Yeah!" She pushed her hands into her scalp and pulled her own hair as she orgasmed. He gave her one more kiss and spasm before withdrawing from her. She was breathing heavily as he stood up and wiped his mouth.

"Are you just going to stand there?" She exclaimed. She turned and slid over to make room for him

He got back on the bed beside her. "Where did that come from?"

"Listening. Paying attention," he said nonchalantly.

"You paid attention so hard I nearly broke my own back," she laughed. She turned and kissed him.

"There really isn't a more beautiful sound than of you being overwhelmed." He reached up and touched her cheek with the back of his fingers. She took hold of his hand and kissed the back of it. "I'm going to need a moment."

She got up and went through the pocket door into his adjoining bathroom and used it. When she came back out again, he hadn't moved. She crawled back over him and plopped herself beside him. "I want to see you. All of you."

"I want to see all of you too."

They peeled off each other's clothes and laid there. They laid on their sides looking at each other under the covers. "When I was picturing you yesterday, I thought the image of you was clear, but the memory doesn't convey the full feeling, you know?" Said Ozzy.

"I do. After we were first together there was this thought that kept ringing out in my head: this isn't the boy you knew, this is a man." She reached out and touched his chest. "We're not kids anymore. It's so much more than that though."

"And somehow I know it's not the same as anything else," he said it, and it came out sad. "That's the problem with us, isn't it?"

"There's no solution to compare it to," she was sad too. He ran his hand down her back under the blankets. He pulled her close. "So what do we do?" She asked.

"We can stay here a while if you're alright with that."

"I would like that." She nestled herself under his chin. She took a deep breath taking in his scent and put her fingers in his chest hair. Ozzy took a deep breath of her hair and kissed the top of her head.

"You really are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen and heard."

"You are absolutely incredible. A magnificent man." She pulled herself out of his arms and looked at him. She leaned into him and kissed him once. She reached for his genitals under the covers. He rolled to his back while she touched him, closing his eyes and letting out soft moans. She pushed the blankets down and back to expose him. Ozzy cupped her face and pulled her close, right as he was about to kiss her again, she spoke, "You." He opened his eyes, "I want to do it for you." She lightly brushed her lips against his and started running her lips down his chest while still stroking him. She then took his length into her mouth. She crouched between his knees so he could see. She stroked and sucked, listening for reactions to what gave him pleasure. She'd look up at him and his chin would be tilted back and he'd be moaning. He whispered her name and swirl his hand in her hair without pushing her. She changed hands and rubbed his thighs and his stomach before interlocking her fingers with his. A moment later he whispered, "Wai-wait, Bette, wait." She stopped and he pulled her off him and back to his side. He leaned over the side of the bed and opened a drawer and pulled out his own box of condoms. He took a breath and looked at her, "If this is how it ends, I'd rather end like this than like that."

She nodded and he opened up the sealed box and one of the packages and rolled it onto himself.

"Like the first time?" She asked sitting up.

"For the last time." He said stepping off the bed. He pulled her to the side of the bed where he stood, she led him into her.

"Slow." She said. She rasped as he moved into her.

He wrapped his arms around her back and she gripped him back. Moving with her, he felt her, all of her. "You feel so good," she said.

"I've always wanted you." He whispered, kissing her neck.

"Look at me." He laid her back down as he continued to pleasure her. He hovered over her. "Don't forget how it feels." He kept going at her; he held one hand under the small of her back and rubbed her clitoris with his thumb. He stared intently at her, reading how he touched her. She moaned harder to his touch. A moment later she hit another climax, arching her back. "Ah! Yes. There. Oh! Do you feel it?" She squeezed her legs around his hips. She grabbed his hands and pulled him down to her, she kissed him. She held his face tightly and kissed him, running her tongue deep against his. She held his face in her hands and looked at him "How do you want it? How do you want it to end?" She whispered.

He wrapped his arms around her, picked her up, trading places with her. She was on his lap, steadying her grip around his shoulders. He held tight to her haunch and moved her back and forth. Ozzy let out a grunted moan. "You know how I wanted it to end?" He kissed her.

"How?" She moaned.

"I don't want it to." He groaned. "I don't...want it to!"

He thrusted her hard and fast onto himself. She loudly moaned and sighed in pleasure and tried to kiss him but he wrapped his arms around her tightly then groaned into her ear, "Bette, I love you!" He came; falling backwards onto the bed, pulling her down with him. Both of them panting. He held her tightly for a moment before he loosened his arms and she rolled off him, both of them breathless and sweating.

"Sweet Jesus," she panted.

Ozzy pushed the palms of his hands into his eyes then slicked his brow sweat back into his hair and got up. She sat up, not taking her eyes off him "Ozzy." He walked into the bathroom and took off the condom. He threw it so hard into the garbage can she heard the plastic can hit the wall and the plastic bag in it swish. She heard something else: the sound of him hitting the sink with medium force or slapping the shower wall; she couldn't clearly tell. She pushed herself to lean against the wall. He was in there over a minute before she called to him again. "Ozzy?" He came out and grabbed a clean pair of shorts from his dresser and put them on, not looking at her. She grabbed the top sheet and draped it over herself. "Ozzy!"

"What?!" He turned and put his arms out.

"Ozzy, talk to me. You've never said anything like that to me before." She was worried and nervous and clung to her knees.

"Now I have and it doesn't change anything." He said coldly.

"How can this not change anything? It's a big deal. You've never said that before."

"Before we came in here, I asked you to be my girlfriend and you turned me down."

"Those are two very different things."

"How?"

"You were acting erratically. I was confused about what you were feeling."

"I wasn't confused."

"I thought we were going to talk. It's why I didn't bring any protection with me today."

"We talked and you don't want to be with me romantically."

"I didn't say that. You did."

"And you agreed."

"Because you mentioned it!"

"And I know you weren't lying when you said we shouldn't. And you still let me take you in here and do all of this with you!" He turned away from her again and put his hands on his head and gripped his scalp. They were both upset.

She tried to speak calmly, "Ozzy. This is different."

He dropped his hands to his hips and his head forward. "I can't keep doing this," he said disheartened.

"Can't keep doing what?"

He spoke slowly and weakly, "You care for me, you want me, you trust me, but you don't love me. You said you can't be the one who helps me pick up the pieces after these girls break my heart. You've been breaking my heart for longer than you know. They're the ones who've been picking up the pieces. Every time you have said 'no' whether you've known it or not. I find someone who can patch me up long enough to feel good about being around you again."

She tried to keep her voice from breaking, she couldn't believe what he was saying, "Ozzy. You can't do this to me now. It's not right and it's not fair. I think you know that."

"I know what you said when you came here today."

"I said I didn't know how to put it into words. I said I know how I feel around you."

"Bette. I-" he sighed. He dropped his head again and put his hands over his face.

"Ozzy. Look at me."

He put his hands on his hips and looked at her. His face was all red and so was hers.

"Will you come here?" He sat down on the bed slouching and stared forward. She skootched forward and put an arm around him and leaned into him. She held him for a moment thinking before she spoke. "I don't think we could have made love the way we have if I didn't feel that for you. I have great affection for you. I have desire for you. Could we have romance? It's possible. We've never tried. I think we are young and we have spent a lot of time together. And maybe, just maybe, it came out in the wrong order. Hmm?"

"So you do want to be with me?"

"I think we've never discussed it properly. We never tried it."

Ozzy turned his head to see her warm expression for him and he kissed her temple.

"Since we're so out of order, where do we start?" He asked with hope.

"How about an actual date? We give each other a look, mutually, through that perspective."

"I think that sounds fair," he cracked a smile.

She let out a breathy laugh. "I should tell you. I don't have sex on the first date. Generally, nothing below the waist. It's a personal choice, it reflects nothing on you."

"So your saying, right now doesn't count?" He turned away and back and looked at her again with a cheeky smile and a raised eyebrow.

"I didn't exactly say that now did I?" She grinned.

He curled his arms around her and started kissing her neck. "See that would be allowed. I would be amenable to this." He spun back and laid down with her and tickled her. "This would not be," she laughed and tried tickling him back.

He lifted her off him; she braced herself against his chest. He pushed her hair back behind her ears. He smiled up at her. "Tomorrow? Would that be too soon?"

She kissed the palm of his hand that was against her cheek. "No, it wouldn't be. We can do that. I'd like that too." She smiled at him and then looked confused, "Wait, did you think of something already?"

"Not exactly. I guess," he took a breath. "I've been waiting for this for so long; I don't want to wait any longer."

She sighed. "It hasn't been as long of a wait for me, but I'm looking forward to it too." He reached up, held her face in his hands, pulled her in, and kissed her.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 36.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

The next morning Ozzy and Bette had their date. They decided to establish some ground rules before going. Just as Bette said: no sex on a first date. Ozzy insisted he pick her up. He chose where they would eat and she chose an activity for after. They wouldn't talk about their sexual or dating past with each other. If people saw them or asked about anything they did in public, they would admit to it. No more, "I don't know what you're talking about." The things that they do in public are public, the things that they do and say in private remain private. They truly wanted to treat it like a fresh perspective.

Ozzy asked that she be ready at 10:30 AM. He knocked at her door and he was standing with his hands in his pockets when she answered. He was wearing nice jeans, a blue button up shirt with beige panels on it, and his hair, for once, wasn't messy. Bette was wearing flowy black pants with a button up blouse with a dotted print, her hair half pulled back, and for once, makeup. She called back to her parents to let them know she was leaving and Ozzy gave them a hello and a wave.

Bette's parents watched them walk out to the car with her arm linked with his. He unlocked the door and opened it for her; she leaned over and opened his door in turn.

Bette's parents saw them go from the living room window. "What do you think about this? This is the first boy she's picked since Keith. She knows this one." John asked Lorna.

She turned the page of the newspaper, unworried. "She's smarter, she's more prepared, and Ozzy's always been a nice boy. If he's not, she knows where we keep the shovels."

Bette sat with one leg tucked under so she could be turned slightly towards Ozzy. "You look really nice."

"You look good too." He fidgeted in his seat, adjusting, tapping the wheel, overly checking the mirrors.

"Are you feeling okay?"

He came to a red light and saw the concern on her face, "I'm-I'm nervous. Aren't you?"

"Of course. I barely slept. I probably changed outfits six times and I'm still not happy with what I'm wearing." The light turned green.

"Thank God it's not just me."

"When you suggested we get brunch today, I wasn't sure if I should eat or starve beforehand. Do I order a little or a lot? Would I even be hungry? I've had butterflies all morning. So, if you are wondering if it feels like a first date, I can assure you, it does."

Ozzy snickered, which turned into a little laugh which grew and grew into a great big belly laugh.

"Why is that so funny?"

"Logical. Left brained. Sharp-as-a-tack you, is nervous!"

"You are. Why shouldn't I be?"

"You've always been so confident in yourself. One of the first times we spoke, I remember you said you had a healthy level of self-esteem."

"You remember that?" She said with a grin. "I can't believe you remember that."

"Why wouldn't I?"

"I don't know. I guess I didn't think you would."

"There's something else I remember. A theory. Something I was never able to prove."

"What's that?"

"I think you wanted to talk to me that day after puzzle club. I was walking behind you and I think you fake-tied and retied your shoes so I could catch up. Is that true?"

"It was on that day we established that I can't lie to you. Yes. It's true."

"I knew it. But here's another secret. While you were tying your shoes, I walked faster so I could catch up. I wanted to talk to you too."

"After all these years. It took you this long to tell me?"

"In all fairness, it took you just as long."

"True enough." Ozzy pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant. Ozzy wasn't fidgeting anymore and her stomach settled. "Ozzy." She unbuckled her seat belt and turned to him. "However this goes, I'm glad we're giving it a try."

"So am I." He put his hand out to her and she took it. They gave each other's hand a little squeeze before getting out of the car and going inside. The restaurant was a nicer place known for a reasonably priced brunch Ozzy had made reservations and they were seated quickly.

"Anything to drink?"

"Orange juice," said Ozzy.

"Coffee, black," said Bette.

"Really?" Ozzy asked. "Black coffee?"

"Every morning for the last two years."

Ozzy got a weird look on his face. "How did I not know that?"

"Probably because you've never seen me at home in the morning."

"No milk or sugar or anything?"

"Nah. It just gets in the way. I will if it's pretty bad coffee." The waiter brought the orange juice and poured Bette's coffee and walked off. "How do you think I stay so sharp?" She gave him a sly smile.

Ozzy leaned back in his chair. "Tell me something else I don't know about you."

"How about you tell me something?"

The waiter came back and asked them for their order. "Have you even looked yet?" Ozzy asked.

"I know what I want," she handed the waiter the menu, "The mixed berry pancakes with sausage patties."

Ozzy handed back his menu, "The rancher's skillet, no onion, with the English muffin."

The waiter left with their order.

"If I had known you were going to want pancakes, I would have had you over instead. I make fantastic pancakes."

She leaned back with her coffee cup and took a sip. "I would wager you can't make them without screwing up the first one."

"I can. I'll show you sometime."

"That sounds more like a morning after the fourth or fifth date kind of thing." She gave him a wink. He smiled back and raised an eyebrow at her and it made her giggle. She sat her coffee cup down and offered her hand across the table to him. He took her hand in his and ran his thumb across her fingers.

"Tell me something else I don't know," he said.

"I-I have no idea what I want to do with my life after graduation," she said it with a shrug.

"You're so smart. You get good grades. You could do anything."

"Which is precisely my dilemma."

Ozzy crinkled up his face, "Oh. I guess that does make sense."

"What I want to do in enjoy my free time. I want to have a job that doesn't kill me physically or mentally that allows for weekends and holidays off so I can have free time to do what I want when I want."

"That doesn't sound very exciting."

"That's the point. I don't want my work to be exciting. I'd rather have my life be exciting."

"You're usually so private. I mean, I know what I know because you let me, but besides Jenna and me, who knows what you're hiding?"

"My family knows me pretty well. I share just about everything with my mom."

"Everything?"

"Almost."

"Like I should be worried 'almost everything?'" He raised his eyebrows, a little worried.

She laughed. "No. You have no reason to be worried about my mom."

"Thank God." Ozzy took a sip of his juice.

"My father will tell you to get your passport and a six hour head start."

Ozzy coughed on his juice and grabbed his napkin to cover his face and turned from her. Bette winced. "Shit! It was a joke. Truly. I'm sorry." She slid him the water glass.

Ozzy caught his breath and took a large drink of water. "But seriously, I'm sorry."

"I'm fine. It would have been funnier if it wasn't in my lungs."

"I'll try to keep my humor out of your alveoli."

He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "But going back to my question: you've got a wild streak in there. I know it. I've heard it in your voice. I've seen it. You left it on my back. What are you going to do with it?"

She breathed a laugh and looked down and back up to him. "You'll find out." Their food arrived. "Don't leave here hungry and you'll see."

They ate and tried to talk as politely as they could through the meal. As they left the restaurant Bette got excited, she directed him where to drive and he ended up taking them to an indoor event center that had bowling, mini golf, arcade games, and a lot more.

They walked in holding hands; it was just before noon and it wasn't very busy. "What are we doing?" Ozzy asked.

"Guess."

"Um, go-karts?"

"Nope."

"Mini golf?"

"Nope."

"We're not bowling. I wouldn't take you for someone who'd want to go bowling."

"That's true." They approached the service counter. "Two for the high ropes course." No sooner than she said that he pulled her back.

"No." He was firm.

"What? Really?" She then tried to be discreet, "Ozzy. I called; there shouldn't be a weight issue. I checked."

"No. It's not that." He took a breath. "I hate heights."

"No one loves heights. But it's challenging and it's exciting-"

"And it's my biggest fear."

"But you're so tall," she tried to joke with him.

"Yeah, it doesn't work like that. I can't be on an edge like that and have it feel like there's nothing to stop me from falling even with railings and harnesses and stuff. I would wager if I brought you down to the funeral home and said let's try out some coffins for a while today, you'd be pretty adamant about stopping me."

His hand was clammy in hers and she felt bad. "Okay. I'm sorry. You know I didn't know. There are a dozen other things here we can do. What sounds fun to you?" She tried not to sound too deflated.

He looked up at the event center's offerings. "Could we get a karaoke room instead?"

"Yeah. Yeah. We could do that," she answered softly. She went up to the counter and ordered a room package for 10 songs. The employee assigned them a room and showed them how to set up and choose songs. They sat down in the big room that was meant for much bigger groups and began to page through the books of songs.

"Pick one. You're going to find one before me," she said.

Ozzy quickly found one in one of the books, selected the number and keyed it in. He was loud, strong, confident, and most of all talented. He finished and she smiled and clapped for him. "I still haven't decided. Why don't you pick another?" Ozzy gave her a weird look but conceded to her suggestion. He picked another classic rock song and sang his lungs out. He finished performing and she was smiling and clapping. "I'm still deciding."

"No you're not," he set the microphone down and sat adjacent from her on the couch and took a drink of water. "Why are you avoiding your turn?"

She answered bluntly. "Because this is my high ropes course." She gestured her hand to the room and the microphone. "The microphone plus singing plus the attention. It's too much for me."

"Why didn't you say something?"

"Because it was what you wanted."

"Not at your expense!"

"But you're enjoying it so much. I didn't want to ruin that for you!"

"You not enjoying it would ruin it for me, Bette. You're better than that!"

"You think I don't know that?!"

"Of course you know that! You're incredible!"

The disco and spot lights swirling around the room made their argument even more foolish.

She started laughing and planted her forehead into his shoulder. He began laughing and hugged her.

He mocked himself, laughing, "You're incredible!"

She mocked herself the same way, laughing, "I know that!"

"Seriously, it's just us in here. I've heard you sing. You know you can trust me. You must have some song you think you can do. I won't laugh."

"That's the thing. I do have a song. And it only works if you do laugh."

"Then I'll laugh."

"I may not always know when you're lying, but I know a fake laugh when I hear it."

"But you won't hear it over the music."

"Fine. But I need to see you laughing." She pointed at him in look and gesture. She flipped the page to the song she knew and punched the number in.

The song started to play. Ozzy sat back while Bette took up one of the microphones. It was 'Build Me Up Buttercup,' by The Foundations

"I know this song. Why should I laugh-?"

And Bette started to sing the song in her natural low alto range with a thick central-European accent that wandered somewhere between Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. "Vhy doo youh bilt me uhp, Buh-tah-cuhp bay-be, juhs tooh let mee dohwn? Ahnt mess mee ah-rount? An' den verst uf ahll, yoo nevah cahll bay-be ven yoo say yoo vill. buht Ich Libe Dich steel..."

Ozzy keeled over laughing from sheer surprise and was singing along from the couch. When the song was over, he wiped the tears from the corners of his eyes. He tried to speak through his laughter, "I knew you were funny but not that level of silly. Where did that come from?"

"Last year, when I went on a trip to London with my dad, we were in a pub one night and a bunch of drunk Germans kept putting this song on repeat on the jukebox. My dad speaks German and I know a hand full of phrases, so they were uber fun. They didn't think we were so bad for American tourists. It might have been one of the best nights ever."

"They let you in the pubs at 16?"

"Yeah it's weird there. They see you with another adult, they think you look old enough, they pour you beer."

"And your dad didn't stop them from serving you?"

"He's pretty open minded when it comes to certain stuff. You're with family, you're not driving, you only have one, it's not a big deal given the right circumstances."

"Cool."

"Not that cool for me. One beer there is one of those giant ones about the size of three here. And I hadn't had a drink before, at least not that much. It wasn't pretty. And he holds his beer about as well as me."

"There it is." He ran a finger down her cheek. "There's that wild streak."

She leaned against him again. "We have seven more songs. I want to hear you do another."

"Fine. But I want you to pick another that doesn't have a punch line."

Ozzy picked a song that had fun dance moves. They sang another that let them dance together. He sang one that made Bette laugh and she sang along with him without the other microphone. She performed one where she knew all the words to a rap song without having to look at the word prompts. They went through more and more songs until they had one left. "Last song. What should we do?" He sipped his glass of water.

"How secure do you think these rooms are?"

"There's a camera pod in the corner of the room. Enough for security. Not enough that I think they don't care unless we break or damage something."

She thought for a second. "Then I wanna do this one." She pointed to the line in the book.

"You really want to sing to that?"

She sidled up between him and the table, and pushed her butt into his thigh. "No." She looked up at him and changed her voice to the soft sexy tone like she did on the phone on Friday. "I want you to see me dance to that."

He looked out and took a deep, forcibly controlled breath. "Yep. Play it."

They moved two of the tables out of the way. She had him sit in a specific spot on the couch and she stood back by the door where the most space was. "Turn up all the show lighting options. Make sure you enter the one with full vocals, otherwise I won't be able to do it."

The song queued up "Lady Marmalade," the Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mya, Lil' Kim version from the movie Moulin Rouge. Bette started the song by unbuttoning the bottom of her blouse and tying it up under her breasts. Between the lights and her focus on remembering her choreography, she barely saw him. She was grateful for the extra mirrors in the room, it reminded her of a dance studio and it helped her remember her steps and facial expressions.

Body roll. Body roll. Body roll. Body roll.

Walk walk walk walk.

Walk, turn ,walk, turn, pirouette

Leap out, bend, shake up.

Hip roll, hip roll, shake up

Fan leg, knee out, arch back.

Drop, open knee, close knee, up

Arm swing, back, slap, crouch, thighs.

During the first chorus she did a walk forward towards him and away from him. The shocked, jaw-dropped, smile on his face was everything she hoped for. For the second verse she used the end of the couch that was near her when she started.

Sit, hip roll hip roll, hair flip

Fan kick, turn, faux split, in, squat

Shake, lean back, kick, land on back

Leg circle, leg circle, legs out, snap

Hand down whole body

The song transition between verses again. Bette rolled to her knees into a crawl. Ozzy had not moved a muscle.

Slide crawl. Slide crawl. Cat circle. Cat circle

Up to knees. Hands in hair. Thrust. Thrust

Slam, hop up, bend, hip, hip.

Step, step, step high leg turn.

Step, step, step low sweep, hair flip.

Hip circle, step, right, hip circle, step, left

Leg twist, leg twist, body roll, body roll.

Grapevine/shimmy strike, grapevine/shimmy, strike.

Plant hands, 'Oh face', slow hip circle.

She was having a lot of fun at this point. And the final verse was longer.

Extended pose arms

Extended pose twist

Extended pose hype up

Walk walk walk walk turn, drop, up

Hair whip, arm, walk, arms arms

Arms up, body roll, body roll.

Turn, pirouette, nelly, stick it, point, arms

Knees, knees, shake up.

Step, step, hip twist

Hip swing down and knees

Twist, turn, together bend, up

Arms, turn, arm swing.

Fan leg, twist, pose.

Walk walk walk, drop swing

Back back back, pose

Walk walk walk, hip swing

Sit on couch, hair flip, pose.

The song ended and Bette unceremoniously got up, untied her shirt, re-buttoned it to where it was. The monitors in the room displayed a 'thank you' message. She turned the light on by the door and looked back at him. She took a drink of water from her glass and grabbed her purse.

"I might need a minute," he said, still slack jawed. "I might need a thousand minutes. Holy shit. You just had that packed away this whole time?!"

"I took four week class this winter."

"You learned that in four weeks?"

"I learned it in four classes," she clarified.

"You were incredibly sexy."

"Yep." She said repeating him from earlier. She remained casual through his shock. "Come on. They probably need to turn the room over." She took his hand and walked him out.

They walked past the service desk again. "Thank you," she said to the staffer at the counter. She was practically dragging him.

"Have a good day," the employee said back.

Ozzy was thoroughly confused. He looked back and forth between her and the staffer at the counter. He got close to her and whispered feverishly, "What if he had been watching!? Or recording?!"

"Then he got the same show as you and clearly didn't care. And security cameras of that quality can barely make out faces in those lights anyways. At most, their security system saves the footage for 30 days or 15 days, realistically. And what I did is probably less interesting than what happens on those couches. They also have paperwork indicating I'm 17."

"You are not embarrassed, at all." He was still astounded.

"Nope," she remained unflappable.

They got back in the car. Ozzy was still dazed. "I still have so many questions."

"What do you want to know?"

"Where did you learn it? Why are you so chill about it? You can do that but you don't want to sing? What else can you do? Who else knows about this? I got about 50 more coming down the track."

"I took the class at a dance studio and lied about my age saying I was 18 so I could take it. I like dancing. You remember all the school dances? I go there to dance, not to sit around and hang out. I'm not a very good singer, which is why I sing songs with accents or ones that have about three different notes. I dance for me, not for anyone else. I did that for you because the opportunity was there and I felt the situation was right and I wanted to. Your observation was right, I am private, and the wild streak is in there. But it isn't special if I show it to everyone."

"You were spectacular."

"Thank you. It was a lot of hard work. And I wasn't even close to the best one in the class."

"I have one more question."

"Shoot."

"May I please kiss you?"

"Yes."

She moved closer to him in her seat and he did to her. He lightly touched her face with his fingertips and slowly kissed her. He was gentle and innocent and withdrew in a matter of seconds. Bette was taken aback by how politely he chose to kiss her. He started the car and stared at the wheel for a moment.

"No." He turned the car back off again.

"'No' what?"

"Get out of the car." He sounded determined.

"Okay." She got out and met him at the front of the vehicle. "Ozzy what is it?"

He took her hand and they walked with her back into the event center and up to the counter. The employee from before was still there. "Did you forget something? The room hasn't been cleaned yet so it should all still be in there."

"Two for the high ropes." Ozzy said.

This time Bette yanked him back, or at least she tried to with all her might, "Ozzy, Oz, wait, no, no! You don't need to do this."

"Between the doing karaoke and that dance, you went out on a limb for me, I literally want to do that for you."

"You don't owe me that." She held him firm. "You owe me nothing. If anything at all it's the other way around," she felt like she was panicking, negotiating with Ozzy being unnecessarily unreasonable for the first time ever.

"Let me show you how much you mean to me."

"Is this some macho-pride thing because of what I just did? Because it doesn't change how I feel about you whether you do it or not!"

"I know you Bette. And I know when you're holding back. You held back nothing with that dance." His tone went from determined to frustrated. "There are a dozen different things to do in here and you chose the ropes course for a reason. You weren't happy about us not doing it, and you have yet to tell me why."

"It's because they're bridges!" She nearly shrieked it, shook her hands in front of her face at him and turned and stepped away from him and planted her hands in her scalp.

"That's why?" he stepped back to her and realized how frantic he had made her.

"Yes, I was bummed before when you said you didn't want to, but when you told me why I understood. Look at it!" She pointed with an open palm to it across the center. "All the obstacles are basically bridges between the pillars and platforms. I wanted to walk on high up bridges with you. I wanted to show you that I want to build a bridge! That I was listening! That I think it is going to be worth the work!"

"Bette. I-"

"I learn a dance like that for myself, for next to no one to see. You put yourself out there by writing and sharing that song for everyone, even if I didn't hear it. Even if I hadn't seen the show. Would I have even heard about it? The ropes course is fun and exciting and yes it's scary and hard. It's something to be experienced and seen. And that's what I think we are embarking on today. For all those reason, I chose that. But I don't want to do the course if you think it's some kind of way of getting even with me!"

"Come here." He hugged her. "I'm sorry." He kissed the top of her head and rubbed her back. "I gave you an excuse and not a chance. I shouldn't have done that."

"Are we always going to make it this difficult for each other?" She tried not to smear make up on his nice shirt.

"No. No. This is just the...first pancake."

Bette turned them to the door and started walking with their arms around each other. "I recall someone claiming pancake proficiency to the tune of no bad first pancakes?"

"Ah, that would be my skill set with literal pancakes. I'm using pancakes as a metaphor."

"I see. Then what did my pancakes symbolize when I ordered them at brunch?" She joked with him.

"Ah." He made broad hand gestures with his free hand. "Your pancakes symbolize the greater, more fully encompassing genre of breakfast and the socio-economic issues derived from that."

"You are so full of shit," she laughed.

"Why do you think my eyes are brown?"

They laughed and got back into the car.

"Seriously though, if we're going to try this, we can't start deceiving each other now. I still need to be able to tell you everything, even if you're not going to like it."

"I always want you to be honest with me and I will be with you. Whether or not you think it's something I want to hear, it's probably something I need to hear," he replied.

"I hate what I'm wearing," she said.

"What's wrong with it?"

"I look like a secretary at happy hour. I only wore the outfit because I thought I would need the pants for the ropes course and this blouse is the only decent thing I had that worked with it."

"What would make you feel better?" Bette looked around outside. "Get on the main road here and make a left at the light."

Ozzy followed her directions. "My mom told me she would never make my dad be one of those sad, department store husbands waiting while their wives shop. Turn right here and park. And they have an extremely healthy relationship, like one of those ultra-marathoners. But would you be willing to give me no more than twelve minutes?"

Ozzy looked at the clock on the dash change minutes. "Twelve minutes? Go!"

Bette shot out of the car and into a small, women's, second-hand clothing store. Ozzy tried to watch her through the glass but it was hard to see past the mannequins.

Bette was a fury inside the store, she went to her size on a dress rack and grabbed ten of them and sped to a changing room. She took off her shirt and her pants but not her shoes. And threw on the first one: no, didn't fit in the chest. She peeled it off. She threw on the second one: no, bad color and it didn't zip up. She pulled it off. She put on the third. It was a knee length dress with some toole and a rockabilly feel. The straps were wide enough to cover her bra and there was smocking in the back that compensated for her large breasts. It was black with small, light blue polka dots on it and a light blue ribbon at the waist. Her shoes were low, black sequined chucks so the outfit worked. She grabbed her old clothes and ran to the counter. She ripped the tag off the dress and grabbed a pair of $2 vintage-looking sunglasses. She looked at the clock behind the counter, paid, grabbed her change and a bag with her old clothes in it, yelled, "I'm sorry about the mess, I'm on a first date." And ran out the door. She jumped into Ozzy's car and shut the door. "Did I make it in 12 minutes?" She was breathing heavily.

"Did you just sprint-shop?" He asked with genuine curiosity.

She pushed the sunglasses up to her hairline. "Only if I did it in 12 minutes."

He put the car into drive. "You were out in less than 10."

"Yes!" She buckled her seat belt. She opened her handbag, flipped down the mirror and reapplied her lipstick. She tried to push the wisps of hair off her face, but there was no stopping them after all the hair flips she had done earlier. She flipped the mirror back up and sat back. "Where are we going? We didn't have anything else planned."

"I thought of something while you were changing. One more thing I thought we could do before I took you home." Ozzy drove them to a county park. It was still well before Memorial Day, so the park was sparsely attended. "It's only about a five minute walk." He said. She took his hand and they started walking. "This has been great, not perfect, but super great. Nothing like I ever imagined it would be. The Sunday date is highly underrated, there's brunch, it's not too expensive, and everyone gets home at a reasonable time." Everything he said made her laugh, because it was all so sincere. "I didn't even get a good look at that dress on you." He extended their arms and gave her a twirl making the skirt flounce. "You're beautiful. Effortless. Another winner." He pulled her close and let go of her hand and put his arm around her shoulder. She wrapped her arm around his waist and held his back. "It's nice holding your hand but walking like this is better because I get to feel how close you are, I can kiss the top of your head, which I enjoy. And if I'm lucky, you might touch my butt or I might get a look down the front of your top." She laughed and gave him a playful pat on the chest. He took his hand out of his pocket and gestured with it. "But there's a point I'm getting to, I promise." They looked at each other. "It's true. It is going to be a lot of work. It's going to take time and it's not going to be easy. I mean, the song didn't even mention outside forces or storms or termites or rot or anything like that." The path curved and it came up to a bridge. He let go of her and turned to her with his back to the bridge. "But now, I don't think I can stop. Because this truss of trust has left too much at stake." He took a couple steps back. "So, I ask to..." he put out his hand. Bette started to take a step towards him, and he stepped back. She took another step forward and he took another step back. They kept going and Ozzy kept his eyes focused on her. They kept going and soon he was on the old, wooden foot bridge with arm rails that barely came up to his upper thigh. The drop under the bridge was at least 20 feet to the rapid-moving creek below. She knew full well that looking over the bridge would scare him. This was exactly the type of heights and lack of security he was talking about with his fear. With a few more steps from each of them, they were well onto the bridge at this point. He still had one hand out to her and one hand on the rail of the bridge. Sweat was beading around his forehead, he was breathing raggedly, and his hand out was beginning to shake. She tried to take another step and he stepped back.

"Ozzy stop!" And she rushed to him and they embraced each other.

"Bette, I didn't finish." They opened up their embrace. "I ask to build a bridge with you."

"Yes. Yes I do. I want to." She teared up and he touched his forehead to hers. He wiped the tear from her cheek with his thumb and she kissed the palm of his hand.

"This was it. This was the bridge," he said catching his breath.

"This one? Here in the park?" She asked.

"No. Here" He opened their embrace a little more. He took his other hand and traced the lines of their arms touching together between the two of their shoulders. "This was the bridge that inspired me. It isn't just you. It's you with me."

"Ozzy?" She took a few deep breaths.

"Yes."

"May I please kiss you?"

"Go. Go. Go. Go."

She pushed herself up onto her toes and tightened her grip around his shoulders. He pulled her waist tight to him and planted his mouth on hers. She slipped her lips open to take his lower lip in between hers. Ozzy slightly slicked his tongue over her lip then quickly ended it.

She looked at him with a short breath. "Jesus. How many first kisses can two people have?"

"By my count, four."

They opened up their embrace and walked back across the bridge down the path to the car. "How do you figure?"

He counted on his free hand as they walked. "One at the Christmas party when we were 13. The one a few weeks ago at my house. In the car today. And now is four."

"You wouldn't count yesterday or the day before at all?"

"Yesterday, there was some new kinds of kissing involved, but I wouldn't call it a first kiss."

"And via telecommunications?"

"Nah. I wouldn't count that either due to solo activities."

Bette smirked and let her hand give Ozzy's butt a little tap.

"Aww. You touched my butt. You really do care," he said happily and playfully while he squeezed her. "But there is a much more important topic I have to ask about." They looked at each other. "Tell me more about this dance class. Is it women only? Are guys allowed? Because I think there may be something there for me." Bette laughed. "Are there uniform requirements I will have to meet? Do I need to possess a certain level of flexibility?" She slipped her hand into his back pocket. "Will more questions get me more butt-touches? How will this affect our second date? Oh! Could we go to a class for our second date? There are endless possibilities!"

They got back to the car and got in. It was mid-afternoon. "I can't remember the last time I had such an unbelievable weekend," Bette said.

"Never. I have, genuinely, never had 48 hours like that. From the moment you grabbed those toothpicks out of the air, just great."

"There's only one thing that bums me out. The event center had probably five different photo booths and we didn't use one. Come to think of it, we don't have that many pictures of us at all, at least I don't."

Ozzy pulled into a gas station; they were only a couple blocks from her house. "Be back."

He was in and out in a minute when he got back in, he popped the new disposable camera from one hand into the other and handed it off to her and drove again. "There are usually four pictures on one of those photo booth strips, right?"

Bette opened the camera package. "Right."

"So what are four typical photos for those?"

"I guess because the pictures are usually separated in two. You want each person to get one sorta standard-nice one and then the other one which is either funny or silly or something else."

He pulled up in front of her house. "Put your window down and try to get close." He put his window down and angled himself with her. "See? We got ourselves a photo booth with no window glare." She had her hand on his shoulder and closed her eyes and leaned her forehead into him. She felt him tilt back. The camera clicked.

"I wasn't ready!" She said.

He spun the camera wheel. "It's okay. It's a first pancake. Remember?"

She was looking at him and she let out a breathy laugh with a genuine smile at him and he smiled back. His arm stretched and the camera clicked.

He spun the camera wheel. "You're too much, you know that?" She closed her eyes and kissed his cheek. The camera clicked.

He spun the camera wheel. "A funny face? Would you do the eyebrow thing?" She asked.

She made a weird shape with her lips and made her eyes really big. He held out the camera and clicked it.

"And that's four." He got out of the car and went to the other side to let her out. He opened the door and took her hand to help her out of the car.

"Such a gentleman. I didn't think the world made gentlemen anymore."

"We're not perfect, but we try."

"No. You try. Big difference." They got to her more commonly used side door.

"There's one more, a fifth." He said.

"A fifth picture."

"Yes. That and," he took her bags out of her hand and set them down. "A fifth first kiss." He pulled the camera back out of his pocket. "If I may?"

She nodded. He placed each of her hands. Her right hand on his left bicep and her left hand on his right shoulder. He spun the camera wheel in his right hand and held it out. His left arm met her right and he gently placed his fingers along her chin. They closed his eyes and kissed and the camera clicked. Ozzy's arm with the camera wrapped around Bette and lifted her slightly off the ground before opening his grip. After, she gave him another short kiss.

"I didn't want to ruin it-it's just that...after today; I don't think I'm ever going to be done kissing you."

He gave her a smile and slid the camera back into his pocket. He took her hand in both of his and kissed and it. "I'll see you tomorrow." He stepped back from her until she went inside. She went in and flipped a light switch even though it was still broad daylight. After he drove off, she still had to go back outside and get the bags she had left on the steps. She changed out of her new dress and called Jenna after her mom told her she had called, she answered.

"Hello?"

"Hi Jen. It's Bee."

"Hey, What's up? I tried calling you earlier; your mom said you were out with Ozzy."

"Is that how she put it?"

"Yeah."

Bette was quiet for a moment. "Yeah." She drew out the word as she said it. "You were right."

"About what?"

Bette spoke with a smile, "It was me. I was the one on the other side of Ozzy's river."

"So when your mom said you two were out, she didn't mean hanging out. She meant out out?"

"I just got home. It was very much a first date."

"Fuckin'-a Bette."

"You're telling me!"

"How did it happen?"

"I-It just kinda happened. And I suggested we go on a date to figure it out."

"That's it? That's all you're gonna say about it? Ozzy doesn't sing a song like that and you don't cry as a reaction and avoid talking about it if something isn't up."

"We talked. We had a couple fights. And we realized there was something more going on."

Jenna breathed into the phone. "Bette, come on. You're holding back. You told me about what happened with Pete all the shit with Keith and Jesse. What aren't you saying?"

"I'm sorry Jenna. This is different. I can't say. I won't say. I won't break his trust. I never have. I promised him that a long time ago."

"Alright then. I think I can handle that. Can you at least tell me about what happened today?"

Bette grew a big grin. "Oh yeah."

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 37.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

The next few weeks for Bette and Ozzy were low kindling flames. For as well as they knew each other, they took their relationship slow. They weren't having sex. They hardly did more than kiss. They continued to keep their dates formal and romantic like their first. They would get some food, do some activity, end it with a kiss, and go home. They both had jobs that got busier in spring. Bette continued to work at the local museum. It got busier in the spring time on weekends. She tried to work more Saturdays than Sundays so she could use them for school work and spending time with Ozzy. He tried to do the same, but it was hard. He worked with lawn care company early in the morning and Darrah could arrange the schedule for him to stock shelves at the grocery store in the evening and it let him save a lot of money away. The museum schedule for Bette was fairly fixed because of the museum's hours and pre-scheduled events, so she was often more available for him than he was for her. They made an effort to make Sunday afternoons their time together. Bette had him over for badminton on a nice day, which was their date that day. Her parents were hanging out laundry on the clothesline while they were playing. When they went inside to get something to drink, he asked her if they always make out like he saw when hanging up socks, she assured him, they do.

The two of them made sure to take off the whole weekend of work when he asked her to the prom. Lorna took her shopping and Bette found a dress. A halter style- dress, knee length in red with sporadic red sequins on it that reminded her a little of Marilyn Monroe in 'Seven Year Itch.' Lorna suggested she get a crinoline for it, but Bette didn't want one. She did put on a pair of her red short-shorts from her dance class underneath. She was ready to put on a show on the dance floor, but not an X-rated show. She bought tie-up ankle boots instead of dress heels that pushed her up to 5'9" with a thick rubber heel and platform and stuck cushioned insoles in them. She wanted to be taller to be closer to Ozzy, but she also wanted to wear a boot that would be comfortable enough to dance in all night. She had her hair styled in a basket weave pattern back out of her face, but her hair fell freely back so she could flip and throw it while she danced. Ozzy picked her up late that afternoon in a black tux with a black metallic vest and black satin tie. John and Lorna took all the classic pictures of them pinning on the boutineer and putting on the corsage in front of the blossoming crab apple tree in the yard. Bette insisted that at least a few silly ones get taken, so he picked her up for a piggyback ride and ran her up and down the yard. After the prom, Jenna was having some people over, including them, because John and Lorna knew Jenna and her parents so well, and Bette had told Lorna how slow she and Ozzy had been taking their courtship, they approved of Bette going to an overnight party in mixed company with Ozzy. She grabbed her purse and her overnight bag and the pair headed out.

Ozzy started driving and Bette checked her face in the flip down mirror. "Ugh. I hope those pictures turn out, I swear, my face is as red as my dress."

"You must be joking. You look gorgeous. I don't think I've ever seen you in this much red before."

"I never think of red being my best color. I always wear earth tones and black. Those are my best colors."

"You could wear a ball gown, a baseball uniform, or a potato sack, you would still look beautiful."

She looked down and up and over to him again, "What about you? I haven't seen you in a suit since...Halloween. 8th grade. You gangster. You look hot. I caught a whiff of your aftershave during that piggyback ride, I swear, I almost bit you." She reached over and gave his shoulder and arm a squeeze. "I swear, you need an excuse to wear a suit or a tux all the time, I would lose my mind."

"You think so?"

"Oh hell yeah! It's such a good look on you. Truth finally be told. When I saw you in that suit at the dance in 8th grade and you spun, I remember I caught a whiff of you. MPHF! I'm pretty sure I popped my first lady-boner."

Ozzy took a deep breath as he came to the red light. He reached out to her hand, leaned over, pulled her into him, held the side of her face and kissed her. He started slow, but then his lips slicked open and she felt his intensity and she wanted it. They kissed each other passionately and she sighed. They kissed until the car behind them honked and Ozzy quickly stopped, seeing the green light and kept driving. He hadn't kissed her like that since they last made love and he left her aroused. "Where did-" she gulped. "Where did that come from?"

He cleared his throat and adjusted how he sat. "I was making up for lost time."

She smiled. "You throw a kilt in there too, and I'll give you all the time in the world."

Ozzy breathed a laugh. "I always wondered if those were comfortable."

"That security guard at work, Sean, he wears one sometimes. He loves wearing 'em. He got approval to wear one as part of the uniform. You can wear one with anything. A t-shirt, It's part of a military uniform, or formal wear. It's a no-lose situation."

"Not sure I got the legs for it."

"I can assure you, you do."

The pair met with Jenna and Greyson at a restaurant. The two went as friends and the four of them had been looking forward to it. Jenna wore a lavender gown and Greyson wore a grey tuxedo with a lavender vest and bow tie to match her. Greyson had a good camera and took lots of pictures.

When the plates were cleared, Greyson and Jenna shared a glance and Jenna asked, "Are you two going to tell us how this really happened?" She pointed to Bette and Ozzy sitting close with his arm around the back of her chair.

They looked at each other and Bette started make weird faces and fumbled over her words. "There's not much to say. It just happened."

"That's what you said before. What does that mean?" Asked Jenna.

"Three words does not constitute an explanation." said Greyson.

Bette looked up at Ozzy and shrugged. "I don't have a better way of putting it."

"We were doing homework, I kissed her, we went on a date, we've been dating. End of story," Ozzy said it plainly and made it sound so easy; even though the process had been difficult and satisfying.

Jenna looked over to Bette, "But you said something about a fight or something, right?"

"I think we disagreed on what we wanted to call what we doing what we were doing," he knew just the right thing to say, it was just enough.

"We know where each other's bodies are buried. It was a different perspective for us. It was a big decision. We didn't make it lightly."

"You sure?" asked Greyson with a smirk.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Jenna asked.

"She knows." Ozzy pulled Bette into a lean and kissed her above her temple. "She knows I always liked her. It wasn't a big leap for me."

"Aww," said Jenna.

"That's because he's so tall. I sometimes have to take three steps for every one he does. A leap for him might as well be pole vaulting for me," Bette joked.

"Is there any pole vaulting happening?" Greyson asked.

Ozzy gave Greyson a look of derision and threw a napkin ring at him. "We're taking our time. It's only been a month."

"It's been nearly five years, Oz. Elephants gestate in two." said Greyson.

"Good thing he's not knocking up an elephant then. Isn't it, Grey?" Bette joked.

"You know what I mean." Greyson replied.

"It's been a month for us." She looked over to Ozzy. "I think it happened at the right time."

Ozzy took his hand off the back of her chair and wrapped his hand on the side of her face. She turned her face in his and kissed his palm. "She's right. I wouldn't have been ready for her any sooner."

"I wasn't either." They looked at each other with an endearing gaze.

Jenna and Greyson exchanged glances and looked at Bette and Ozzy's open affection for each other. "Fuck. I'm never going to get laid." Jenna said.

Bette and Ozzy turned to her.

"Don't worry about it." said Greyson turning his straw in his Sprite. "People like us get so much more ass in college anyways."

The four of them laughed.

They got to the prom and the music was loud and fun. The room glowed with a haze of orange, yellow, and green neon glow sticks on all the table centerpieces. The theme was 'nightclub' and it was tacky at best. Bette didn't care about the theme; she cared about dancing and having a good time with Ozzy. Bette and Ozzy went to have their formal pictures taken and the line in front of them was five or six couples long, and they were all doing basic side-by-side poses. The final couple was posing for their picture and Bette and Ozzy looked at each other and she gave him a little head shake. She tilted her head to have him lean over and whispered in his ear. Ozzy smiled and nodded. They stood in front of the backdrop of faux club doors with red velvet ropes and red carpet. The backdrop actually matched their outfits nicely. The photographer began to give them directions on how to pose. Bette slid an arm up his shoulder and he matched wrapping her around her back. The photographer said it looked good, then to hold hands, but they ignored him. Ozzy swept his other arm under the bottom of her dress and picked her up in his arms. She pointed one leg straight out and let the other hang with a pointed toe. With her outer arm, she gracefully took hold of his lapel. The two of them were grinning ear to ear. The photographer counted off one, two, three, and snapped the photo. They laughed, looked at each other, and then set her down. They walked out of the photo area with his arm around her shoulder and her arm around his back. When she thought no one was looking, she gave his butt a tap. In return, he squeezed her, and kissed the top of her head. She looked up at him and pushed her shoulders back slightly, he tilted his head a little, raised his eyebrow, and took a peak down the front of her dress and they gave each other another laugh before going to dance.

The night went on with dancing and great fun with all of their friends. Ozzy quickly ditched his jacket and tie. Bette whispered in his hear how hot he looked with the little bit of chest hair peeking out. He picked her up and she happily mashed her face into his chest and squealed. The DJ played "Zoot Suit Riot" by Cherry Poppin' Daddies; they remembered their old swing dancing steps from middle school. Ozzy spun Bette and made her circle skirt fly. He picked her up, holding her legs around his waist and did a big, circular dip with her. When he saw her face, he could see he had given her the biggest thrill.

When the DJ played "Beautiful" by Christina Aguilera, it was the first time they had ever slow danced before and it made Bette blush. It made her think of the first time he had made love to her. I was wrong. This is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen and heard. Even with the heels, he was still so tall. She had her left hand on his upper arm, his right hand was on her back; and they held hands. She closed her eyes and brought his hand into her and kissed it. He opened his grip around her hand and his fingers caressed her face. She felt the little bit of pressure his fingers put under her chin. She opened her eyes and looked up at him. He had a soft smile on his face, little white lights jumped off his face as the disco balls turned behind her on the ceiling. He leaned into her and kissed her.

"The most beautiful thing I've ever seen," she said.

"Yes you are," he said.

"No. You." She had an ingenuousness looking up at him.

Ozzy laughed.

"Those big sweet cheeks, that fabulous smile, pristine skin, and your eyes."

"Brown eyes are so boring," he tried dismissing her.

"Not yours. Yours have gold rings on the outside and you have a way of looking at me like no one ever has before. I've never noticed how powerful eyes can be on a man until you. You really are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

Ozzy giggled and genuinely looked flattered.

"I'm just sorry I couldn't think of something more original to say than what you said and then during a song called 'Beautiful.' I hope you know I truly mean it."

He took tight hold of her back and dipped her until her back was parallel to the floor, "You never could lie to me. I didn't think you could start there." He kissed her until he lifted her upright again.

Ozzy was taking a break at a table with Tylor, the Ricks, and their dates while Bette, Jenna, Greyson, Katie and some others were dancing. Bette looked over at Ozzy and could see him smiling, talking, and laughing. Bette stopped Jenna and whispered to her and pointed to an open spot on the dance floor near a corner. Jenna's face grew a big grin. Jenna whispered to Greyson and he laughed and looked to Bette. She nodded with a big grin on her face at him. He mouthed 'Okay.' Bette went to her purse and discretely grabbed her cash. She went to the DJ table and wrote out a request. She got his attention and flashed him the $20 and handed him the request. She asked him a couple questions and pointed to a couple spots. He told her what song to listen for. She smiled and thanked him. Bette ran back to Jenna and gave her the info and the signal. Bette's heart started pounding when she heard Kid Rock's "Cowboy" come on; she had less than four and a half minutes. She got Ozzy to come back to the dance floor to the corner. She had a guilty pleasure for the song because there was a line that said the word 'bet' in it, but it sounded like the song said her name. She stared Ozzy down as she danced and had fun with it. During the piano interlude she pulled him close and said, "When this song ends, you're going to want to be right there, and so will everyone else." He had a confused look on his face. As the song's final lines began to repeat, Bette, Jenna, and Greyson each grabbed a banquet chair and sat a five feet away from each other in a row in the emptier corner of the dance floor.

The DJ started hit a spot light on the three of them and started to play "Lady Marmalade" by Mya, Pink, Lil Kim, & Christina Aguilera. Bette, Jenna, and Greyson sat in various poses on their chairs snapping in sync with the song. Ozzy's jaw dropped and heads started turning to see a spotlight hitting the three of them. They stood and began the dance in a synchronized manor. They performed the first Mya verse in a similar manor. They had slight variations for their skill sets. During the first chorus, more people started watching them. Ozzy made sure people were back far enough so they could fully perform. For the second verse featuring Pink, Jenna pulled her chair forward and did a solo dance different than Greyson and Bette. Greyson and Bette did similar dances on their chairs in the back, but Jenna's solo was more refined, more styled, and sharper. During the chorus they changed positions again. They pushed their chairs back and Greyson took the center of the three of them and did a tighter, different choreographed dance during the that verse than what Bette and Jenna did behind him on either side. By this point, more people were watching the three of them than dancing to the song. Cameras were flashing and people were cheering them on. A few people actually balled up dollar bills and threw them at them, Tylor was one of them. Bette watched Ozzy and Tylor's face in pure shock at Greyson's talents. He was flexible, bold, full of rhythm, and sexy. He wasn't the dry, flat guy that they had known for years. Greyson was alive, and Lil' Kim was his goddess. After his solo, they transitioned in the chorus, and Bette took the front-center for the Christina Aguilera verse. She did the same dance she had done for Ozzy in the karaoke room, but in that red dress, platform heels, on a dance floor not carpet, she was better, bolder, sharper, and hotter. Greyson and Jenna did an accompanying dance that wasn't quite as bold or flashy as what Bette did, but that was the point. They each had their moment to shine before they got to the final verse and chorus when they came together and did more synchronized dance moves as the song came to an end. There were more camera flashes and the three of them hugged during the applause. Greyson picked up the cash.

Ozzy applauded his friends with the same jaw-dropping smile he had for Bette when she had performed for him alone. He picked her up and hugged her. "You three are unbelievable!"

"I told you I wasn't the best one in the class!" She laughed.

"What possessed you to do that?"

"It was you."

The DJ played "Underneath Your Clothes" by Shakira and they started slow dancing again, but with a little more sway.

"Me? I didn't do that. I couldn't have. That was all you," he chuckled.

"Yes. That, the dance. That was me. The wild streak, that's me too. I've spent all year embracing that. The Powerful Lady is here to stay; she's not hiding any more. I learned that in the last year but I didn't have my power when I learned it, so it didn't mean anything. Then on July fourth, you had me get my power back at Pebble Lake and I've been charging myself up ever since. Then a few songs ago, I saw you taking a break with the Tylor and the Ricks, and it was as if there was this last little sheen around me. This little bubble-like film: the hiding, the privacy. She doesn't need to be private anymore. She's given up what people think. No more. This is me. Fuck anyone who can't handle it."

He kissed her hairline and smiled at her. "See. I told you. It was all you. It's always been you. You didn't need me."

"We've had times where we were close and times where we weren't. But Ozzy, I always needed you."

He held her tight and whispered in her ear. "I always needed you too."

It was after 1:15 AM at Jenna's after prom party. Katie had fallen asleep in Jenna's room. Tylor had already famously crashed on the floor like he always did. Jenna and Greyson were sitting on bar stools in the back kitchenette talking quietly. Bette and Ozzy were on the couch. He was taking advantage of the large size of it and stretched out on it. Bette was on one end had the recliner feature popped up for herself. Ozzy's head was on a pillow resting on her legs and tucked under a twin-sized blanket. The movie on the TV was "10 Things I Hate About You." They had all seen it, so no one cared too much about watching or not watching it. Ozzy was half asleep from Bette running her fingers through his crunchy, gelled hair. She looked down at him and smiled.

She spoke softly into his ear, "Ozzy?"

"Hm?"

Every time she spoke, she leaned forward and spoke into his ear, "Two truths and a lie?"

"You can't beat me at two truths and a lie." His voice was barely a mutter from how tired he was. He didn't even open his eyes.

"I think it'll still be fun for you."

"M-kay."

"I am a gigantic sasquatch monster."

His eyes remained closed and he breathed a laugh.

"I want to be your girlfriend."

Ozzy's eyes popped open to see her tenderly smiling down on him. "What's the third?"

"I'm in love with you."

Ozzy smiled. "You're serious?" She nodded and smiled in the same gentle way after they had first made love. "I can't believe it."

"You know it's true." She ran her fingers through his hair.

"I know it is, but somehow I still can't believe it." His smile grew large. "A gigantic sasquatch monster loves me." He reached up to the side of her face to pull her in and she leaned into him and kissed him. Her lips found her favorite spot on his lower lip around his freckle. She gave him a couple more short pecks and they smiled at each other. "I love you Bette."

"I love you Ozzy."

"How long have you been a gigantic sasquatch monster? And will that have an effect on someone of your species being my girlfriend?"

She let out a hushed laugh, "The monster thing comes and goes. But it should have no effect on us being together." She kissed his forehead.

Ozzy adjusted on the couch and turned to his side, lifting the blanket. He patted the narrow spot on the couch in front of him. She put the recliner back down and got up. Ozzy moved on the couch and put the pillow at the arm of the couch. Bette laid down next to him, facing him with her face a little below his. His arm was out below her neck and the pillow was angled just right so they could both use it. They both wiggled and adjusted to find comfort. The blanket barely covered them, but they kept each other warm. Though the couch was long enough for Ozzy's height, it wasn't as deep as the one in his basement and they made do.

"Are you comfortable?" She asked.

"We could be like this on a sinking ship and I'd be comfortable." Her hands and arms were bunched up together in front of his chest, her hands tucked below her face, and his other arm was wrapped around her back holding her close. She lifted her chin and he lowered his to her. They shared a slow, deep, passionate kiss. Bette ran her fingers along his jaw afterward.

"I love you," She whispered.

"I love you," He whispered back.

He gave her another squeeze before they fell asleep.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 38.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Bette and Ozzy woke up early, before everyone else, a little before seven AM. Jenna was in her room with Katie and Greyson had fallen asleep on the other couch. The two of them made their way upstairs to the kitchen where Jenna's parents had bought bagels and cream cheese for them. They both prepared their own. Bette grabbed one more Diet Coke and Ozzy grabbed one more Mountain Dew. They left a note thanking them for hosting them and saying they didn't want to wake them when they got up, quietly got their stuff from downstairs and left. It was a cool, dewy morning as Ozzy made the half-mile drive to their neighborhood.

"Did you sleep okay?" Ozzy asked.

"Yeah. I was pretty tired after everything yesterday. I had such a good time with you. Did you sleep alright? I can't imagine you were able to move much or anything."

"I don't think I've ever had a better night of sleep," he said it through a yawn. "But that doesn't mean I won't be taking a nap later."

She reached over to him and touched his arm. They were pulling up to her block and Ozzy put on the turn signal. "My parents aren't expecting me until between 11 and noon."

He stopped at the intersection. The turn signal continued to click. They were the only car sitting there. He looked over at her hand and his eyes followed to the rest of her in her track pants, t-shirt, and zip up hoodie, her hair was still styled from the night before. She had a tight-lipped smile on her face and a spark in her eye. "Darrah had to open today." He glanced at the clock on the dash. "She's already gone by now."

"Do you want to go?"

He turned off the turn signal, "Let's go." He drove straight up the avenue the last few blocks to his house. She grabbed her overnight bag from the car and they went inside. They kept exchanging glances and every time they got close to each other, their hands passed over each other's backs or arms. She went into his bathroom and brushed her teeth. He still kept his bathroom sink pristine so she made sure she left it for him the same way. When they met each other at the pocket door between his bedroom and his bathroom, he already had his shirt off. He she stopped him by putting a hand on his chest in his hair, he let her push him into the door frame, and kissed him along his collar bone. He ran his hands into the back of her down hair in the back and kissed her forehead, and gently pulled her back, "We have time." He stepped away and brushed his teeth. She went back into his room and took off her hoodie, t-shirt, and socks. She waited impatiently on the bed. She heard him finish brushing his teeth, but he didn't come back in the room immediately. She heard him turn on the shower and the sound of the shower rings and curtain go back and forth on the bar. Bette saw one of Ozzy's pens on a table, used it to twist her hair into a bun to hold it in place. She went back into the bathroom, undressed, and pulled back the curtain.

"I'm making up for lost time," and she got in the shower with him.

Ozzy smiled, taking her in his hands, pushing her body through the water and holding her back against the wall of the shower.

"Cold!" she yipped. "Cold wall!"

"Sorry." They both had a bit of a laugh.

"I also want to try and keep my hair dry."

"I think we can manage that."

She stepped to the back part of the tub while he bent under the shower head and rinsed off. She looked around and saw he had a neutral scented body wash and used it. She reached out for some water, created a lather with his luffa and scrubbed herself over with white bubbles. "Would you get my back when you're done with your hair?" She asked holding out the luffa to him with her back to him.

"Do you know how many times you said that to me in my dreams?"

She turned around and pressed the luffa into her chest with a sexy smile. The bubbles effervesced and cascaded down her body. "Did it look like this?"

He took heavy breaths looking at her while she continued to squeeze the luffa over herself in various poses until it was out of bubbles.

"Better than I ever imagined." He reached back and unclipped the shower head. He stared at her with the same intensity as when he first took off his belt the first time they made love. She had a feeling of what he was going to do, but she didn't know how he was going to do it. "I had this installed after I hit six feet." He reached out and pulled her into him and started rinsing her off. He cleared the spot on her shoulder and neck and planted his mouth on her. She grasped his sides, tilted her head back, and let the warm water wash over her. She started to shift her hands down, but he gave her a half spin and held her close with his left arm under her breasts. "Not me, not yet." He clicked the handheld shower head from the spray, to the massage pulse. She reached her left arm back and held the back of his neck. She rested her other arm on his forearm. He whispered in her ear, "Tell me what it's like. How you like it. Everything." He moved the pulsing water of the shower head over her groin.

She gasped, "There. Back a little. Yes." She sighed. "You're warm and ah, ah, mmh. And it's good, like when-when-when you did it. When you went do-ow-own on me. Oh! It's-ah. Hold me tighter!"

He gave her a yank, and she was balancing on the balls of her feet. "Keep talking," he growled. His head was firmly against hers and his lips grazed her ear when he spoke. "Like the time on the phone."

She spoke through moans and sighs, "It's better than-than when I-mmh- do it myself. Ah! Cause-cause it's you. Kiss my neck." His mouth opened wide around her and he kissed her from her ear to her hairline to the back of her neck to her shoulder and back again. "It feels-feels bigger when you-ah,-you do it. Oh! It's more-more intense. I-ah-I can't-I can't do it the way you can. Oh! No one-no one has. I'm close! Yes! Ozzy! Ah!" Her climax blazed through her causing her body to ripple in his arms. She gripped the back of his neck and his forearm and her knees buckled putting her weight all in his arms, but he held her tight. The water pressure felt good until one pulse too many hit her and it started to hurt. She took a sharp breath in through her teeth. "Stop." She pushed his hand holding the shower head away. She panted as he gave her soft kisses on her neck and shoulder and found her bearings under her feet again.

"Beautiful." He loosened his grip around her ribs and she turned around to see him. He clicked the shower head back from the massage-pulse setting to the regular shower setting and gave himself another rinse over with a smile on his face. "Are you finished? I mean, I know you finished, but are you done in here? Because I'm only getting started."

A couple hours later, Ozzy and Bette were laying in his bed in a daze they had caused each other's bodies. He was lying back and she was sitting up massaging his hand and forearm with both of her hands.

"I would say I'm glad we waited, but we didn't exactly wait, did we?" Bette asked.

"Yes and no. But I know what you mean. Those first couple times were pretty great though. No bad first pancake," Ozzy answered, emphasizing the 'c' and 'k' sounds in pancake.

"You don't think all the issues we had along with those first two times were bad pancakes?" She asked again.

"Those were issues. I mean sex-pancakes." He was lighthearted but honest as always.

She laughed. "'Sex-Pancakes.' There's a name for your band."

"It's not a bad name. The big problem is finding a drummer who isn't in three bands already and a bassist who doesn't want to quit every week because we quote 'don't take him seriously creatively.'" He said the last part in a mocking tone.

She switched hands and started massaging his other hand and forearm. "Do you take your bassists serious creatively?"

"Rick M: I did. Rick S: I didn't."

"Why was that?"

"Rick S couldn't write a decent song to save his life. Too whiny."

"And you're the end all, be all when it comes to song writing?" She tried not to be too snarky when she said it.

"I know garbage when I hear it. I know beauty when I hear it."

As soon as he said it something clicked in her head. "Wait." She stopped massaging his hand and looked at him. "'Hear beauty' or 'beautiful' or 'most beautiful thing I've heard.' You said those things when we've been physical or when I've had an orgasm. Is that why you wanted me to talk in the shower?"

He looked up at her and shrugged. "I'm listening for inspiration. It worked before. 'Bridge' came from you."

Her face softened, "I want to say 'I can't believe it.' With anyone else I would, but, it's you. I know it's true."

Ozzy took his hand out of hers and rolled to the side of the bed. He opened a drawer by the floor and pulled out a spiral notebook with a pen in it and plopped it on her lap. "Here's proof. Start from about ten pages back from the last folded corner page. Take a look."

She started flipping pages. He kissed her arm once and stroked it with the back of his fingers as she read. She found the page with 'Bridge' written on it. There were lots of scribbles and crossed out lines and alternate lyrics. There were notes of guitar tabs that she recognized but didn't understand. She turned the page to see a song partially written called 'Silence' dated a few days after 'Bridges' but it had a big X over the whole thing. The page after that had one called 'Stop Stop' which was only partially written and had another big X over it. Below it there was one called 'Paper Hope' that was short and was more of a poem and less of a song. There were no guitar tabs with it. She turned the page and there was one dated the night of the talent show called 'Light in Darkness,' but it was unfinished with a bunch of question marks and rhyming words in the margins. There was one written the next day, the day they had phone sex called 'Wild Power.' That one had guitar tabs, doodles of lightning bolts, and was more detailed in development than 'Bridge' looked. The next one was dated the same day as their first date called 'Seein' Spots.' That one was also more developed with tabs and had little circles and dots doodled around the page. There were more pages with more songs written over the last month.

"Ozzy, this is wonderful. I-I don't feel worthy of this. On so many levels I don't. You got this, all this, from me?"

He flipped back to the page that had 'Bridge' on it and pointed to a line with an alternate lyric. He sang the lyric to her, "When I hear her voice and every sound she makes." He smiled up at her. "I'm looking for the next idea. 'Keep talking.' 'I want to hear your voice.' 'More.' It's why I said those things when we had phone sex and in the shower. Sometimes you say or do the right thing and it strikes me. You, your voice, always has."
She lowered herself in the bed and kissed him. "I still don't feel worthy. I can't believe I didn't see you. I'm sorry I took so long." She wrapped her arm over his chest and rested under his arm.

"We're here now. To be able to love you hand have you love me too, my friend, my muse," he began to chuckle, "and have you here naked. 'Worth the wait' doesn't begin to describe it." He ran his fingers down her back.

She beamed and ran her hand across his body. "I always felt so quiet and you heard me. I was invisible and you saw me. Since all the way back from that first walk home from puzzle club. I thought I was so smart. I was such a fool." She adjusted her lower arm and found a comfortable position. With the arm across his chest, she rested her hand to feel his heartbeat.

"No. Before that."

"It couldn't have been a time in gym class, could it? I was such a mess." She was a little baffled.

"You were a pretty mess. But before that."

She furrowed her brow in confusion and propped herself up look at him again. "When was it?"

Ozzy adjusted an arm behind his head. "'Here.'"

Bette was thoroughly baffled, "That doesn't make sense. I didn't come to your-"

"No." He shook his head. "That was the first thing you said to me. First day of school. Mrs. Worth's class. We were seated alphabetically by last name. I had been getting books and papers passed to me all day. You were the only one who turned around to hand me something. You were the only one who said something to me in class. You let the paper fall out of your hand onto my desk and you handed me the rest. You looked at me and said, 'Here.' That was when. Your hair flew as you turned around and I could smell your shampoo. I barely got out the word 'Thanks' when I got a good look at you. You were so pretty and showed me an ounce of kindness in a place where I knew no one. We were 12 and it was enough for me to see and hear to know that I was head over heels for you."

"Oz." She kissed him quickly. "So when Greyson said last night it had been five years?"

"He always knew. No...That's not completely right. I did talk to Tylor on the first day. He sat across from me in English and I told him I liked his t-shirt and I had a similar one. I asked to sit with him at lunch. It's how I met him and Greyson. It took a couple weeks to trust Grey and I told him I noticed you. He told me you had been bullied, so you kept close to a few people. When I heard you talk about Puzzle club, I thought I would have a chance to talk to you. When I did, that's when I truly saw who you were. I don't know how I knew it, but I knew we needed to be friends, that we were going to be. Even if I had other feelings for you too, I needed to be your friend. And I needed friends badly. I can't imagine the last four years of school without you three. Tylor has been by best buddy, but Greyson knows the secrets I couldn't tell you. I couldn't tell Tylor what I thought of you; he would have blabbed."

"Greyson's your Jenna. She knows the secrets I couldn't tell you." She chuckled.

"I guess so."

"Remind me never to play cards with Greyson. He has a better poker face than you." She kissed him innocently causing a memory to come back to her. "Wait a sec. Cassandra's Christmas party? You liked me then? Was that why Greyson cheered on the dare for us to kiss?"

"You did not see the look I gave him. I was ready to kill him when he said it. I thought everyone would have noticed and no one did."

"And Cassandra?"

"A distraction." He said it dismissively. "I think I was hoping you'd get jealous. But when you're 13 and any girl is willing to touch you, you take what you can get."

"I was such an idiot. You are so sweet. You always were." She saw the alarm clock and comically draped herself over him; it was 10:30 AM. She groaned. "No! I don't want to go home yet! I want to keep talking about when we were young and stupid. I don't want to put pants on and work on my English paper. Ugh!"

"I don't want to do laundry and my Environmental Science homework. Doing this," he playfully tapped her butt, "would be better."

She reacted to the slap with a laugh and a little grunt. "You do that again and you might have to." He laughed and gave her another light tap on her butt. She let out a short moan, "I'm not kidding. Don't start what you can't finish."

He raised his eyebrow and reached for the box of condoms. "I think we've established I've learned how to finish you."

The last few weeks of school went by in a blur. Summer became busy quickly. Bette and Ozzy arranged their work schedules for Tuesday to be their day off and their time together. Her other day off was usually Monday or Wednesday; his was usually Thursday or Friday. They made great times of their June Tuesdays. There was a day they went on a picnic and Ozzy played guitar for her and sang some of the songs from his notebook and covers of rock songs. Another day they went to an outdoor recreation store and bought a hammock that would support their weight together and tied it up in the trees in Ozzy's back yard. It was big, flat, and strong and they were able to lie in it comfortably together without incident. They played yard games in the afternoons at her house. They could drive, but for old times' sake, they would ride their bikes places for fun. They were best friends who were madly in love and having a great time together.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 39.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

July 4th was a Friday. The museum closed that day as was Ozzy's landscaping company. He did some shelf stocking in the morning for Aunt Darrah at the grocery store, but by noon, the day was theirs. They drove to Pebble Lake. Most people preferred Sandy Lake because it was bigger and usually warmer. Bette and Ozzy liked Pebble Lake better because it was their youth. They parked in the main lot and walked past the main park and beach where there were a couple dozen people. They made their way down the path the eight minute walk to wear the right break in the trees were and hiked off the path down the hillside. At the base of the hillside was another hard rock way that hadn't eroded to pebbles that lead to the lesser known beach of Pebble Lake. The beach they always went to as kids. Only four other people were there and that was how it always was, there were never more than ten people at that beach anytime they were there; often times, they and their friends were the only ones. They set up their chairs in a shady spot under some trees further away from where the other people were set up in the sunshine. Ozzy helped her apply another layer of SPF 50 to her back and they happily swam, played, and talked for hours. When the evening came and they had the opportunity to watch fireworks together, they didn't care or want to; they just wanted to be together. They wanted to make up for lost time. Darrah had gone to a girlfriend's house party for the evening. Bette and Ozzy were welcome to come but they didn't want to. When they went back to his house, the neighborhood was empty; everyone had gone out to watch the fireworks. She suggested they try having sex the way they had talked about during phone sex and were both excited about it, but she found it was uncomfortable, more so painful and was disappointed it didn't work. When they tried a different position afterwards, she found she was still hurting from the first try and felt awful for not being able to be there for him sexually that night and wasting the condom. But Ozzy was understanding. Things aren't always going to be perfect, he told her. That night they ended up only making out, and it was still pleasing for both of them.

The next week she surprised him by making a large payment on his layaway purchase for a new guitar and amp without telling him. When he went in to make his next payment and they found out he only had a small payment left and she was the one who paid it, the next Tuesday they got together he went down on her twice that day to thank her. Another day, she was getting done with work one day and he was able to pick her up from work and take her home instead of having to take the city bus. They got ice cream and made out before he had to go stock shelves that night. Late July, her parents took her on vacation to see relatives to see some relatives and they weren't able to see each other. She tried calling him when she thought he would be home, but they only connected a couple times while she was gone. It was unfortunate, but they were anticipating not being able to see each other or talk much.

When she got back from her family trip and they got to see each other on their Tuesday after Bette's parents had left for work. He surprised her by wearing a new black utili-kilt. She looked him square in the face and said, "I'm gonna ride you like a bull," before bringing him into the house to her room. He began to take off the kilt and she told him to stop, to keep it on. He asked her if she would put on the boots from prom and wear a spaghetti strap tank top and she did. She had him take off his boxer-briefs, lift the kilt and she held on to his belt during sex. She wore the same boots and tank top with a knee length skirt when they left the house and he couldn't stop running his fingers under the strap when he stopped at red lights and stop signs. That day they went to a center of specialty shops. There was a music store that sold sheet music and accessories where the Ozzy liked the knowledgeable staff and he had gotten to know them over the years. They went to a store that had paintings, pottery, stained glass, and more made by collective of artists. It was a store that Bette's parent's bought several pieces from for themselves and as gifts for other people over the years. When they walked out, Ozzy told her that she lit up when she talked about it. They walked through the glass ceiling plaza of the shopping center and the sun shone down on them. They put their sunglasses on. Bette could see people giving Ozzy looks of judgment for his kilt. After years of teasing and bullying, she recognized the look, even from total strangers.

She spoke softly, "Ozzy, I need you to kiss me. Right now."

"Sure." He gave her a quick peck on the lips.

"No. We have an audience." She lowered her sunglasses and pointed across the plaza with her eyes. She saw her own reflection in his silver aviators; she couldn't see his eyes. "Give 'em a show, rock star." She smiled slyly when she took a grip of the front of his shirt.

His raised eyebrow appeared from behind his sunglasses, "Love to." He wrapped his hand around her head and kissed her slow and long but fairly innocently.

She still held the front of his shirt tight when she lowered her chin, "Are they still looking?" she asked.

"Nope." He said as he adjusted his sunglasses.

"I figured if they're going to look, we should give them a real show." She pushed the vintage sunglasses up to her hairline like a headband.

"You keep that up, in those boots; the people will get a show. One from me at least." Ozzy adjusted how he stood and cleared his throat.

"Hmmm-No, they won't. See?" She straightened and flattened the front of his shirt, giving him a gentle push to stand up straight. "You not only have the legs for the kilt, you got a great build for it. No one can see you. It's a benefit of how they're made to be worn."

Ozzy made a face of surprised understanding looking down at her and himself in the kilt. "I may never wear jeans again."

As they walked in and out of stores they heard a familiar voice, "Ozzy? What are you wearing? Is that a skirt?" It was Norman. Though Ozzy had been getting some looks, Norman was the first person who said something to him.

They turned around hand in hand to see their classmate. "No, Norm. It's a kilt. It's actually quite comfortable," said Ozzy.

"Why isn't it plaid? It looks like a skirt." Norm said condescendingly.

"When you say plaid, you mean Tartan and those represent families and specific parts of the culture. Ozzy's wearing a utili-kilt; it's for anyone to wear." Bette corrected him.

"Anyone? As in guys and girls?" Norm continued to condescend.

"Yep. Just like t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers," said Ozzy dismissing his question.

"Yeah, but how many other dudes do you know who wear skirts?'

Bette touched the bridge of her nose in annoyance. "You know what Norm? Fine. Keep going. Keep it up. Have a laugh." She took a step towards him, let go of Ozzy, put one hand on her waist, and gestured tightly with her other hand. "We can go back and forth like this all day, but eventually Ozzy or myself is going to snap and who would you rather it be? The guy who's big enough to kill you by ripping you in half or his girlfriend who had the power to give Jason Kaye no dick and make shit-bag Brock cry? Which is it? Which would you prefer?" Her tone was sharp and clear without yelling at him. Ozzy crossed his arms behind her and flexed his biceps.

"I would rather..." Norman's sentence trailed off as he walked away from them quickly without apology.

She turned back around to see Ozzy's hardened face and stance melt for her. She jumped and wiggled in satisfaction. He hugged her, "You are my powerful, wild lady."

"And you are my Highland man." She squeezed him extra hard and grunted. "I would ask you to never take that kilt off, but I have to sleep sometime."

"I'll be there in your dreams like you've been in mine." He kissed the top of her head.

They kept shopping. Ozzy brought her to the Celtic shop. They separated in the store and checked out their products. She checked out the CDs, some had songs she had heard of, many she had not. She checked out the tankards with various symbols and animals etched into them. She felt the fuzzy wool sweaters and scarves even though it was early August. She spun the key ring rack that had last names and family coats of arms on them. The rack didn't have a spot for the last name 'Wheelan,' at least not her spelling of it. She appreciated the history and the beauty of the culture even though she didn't know a lot about it. As far as she knew, Lorna's family was Dutch-English; John's family was Irish-German. She had heard more about John's German side and Lorna's Dutch side of the family. She glanced across the store and saw Ozzy looking at the CDs she had been previously looking at when she came across the kilt pins. Most of them were swords and axes, but there was one that jumped out at her: a long, twisted Celtic knot with a mother of pearl colored stone at the top set in the steel. The stone was a circle; the knot zigzagged and came to a point at the bottom. It looked like an abstract 'Ozzy.' She reached in her purse and eyed the employee behind the counter and gave him a nod. She waited until Ozzy's back was turned, handed the clerk the cash and picked up the pin. He started to ask if she wanted a receipt, but she was already walking away from the clerk with the pin in her purse. "Any music you can't live without?" she asked.

"Not right now, but it's super interesting stuff." They walked out of the store and back through the shopping center hand in hand. "You know it was your co-worker Sean who told me this store could help me with the kilt."

"You asked Sean?"

"That day I picked you up from work. He was wearing a kilt. I asked where I could find one, he suggested this store. They had to special order it, but it turned out right. Sean was helpful, he's a cool guy."

"You know how there are those girls who have issues with their dads so they go for the wrong kind of guys?"

"Yeah?" Ozzy made a weird face.

"Sean doesn't give me daddy issues. He gives me granddaddy issues. I want him to be the grandpa I lost when I was little."

"You had me worried for a moment there. For an old guy he still seems pretty tough."

"Why do you think he's a security guard if he isn't tough?"

"It's a local history museum, not the Louvre."

"We still have items that are registered as national monuments. Vandalizing them would be the same as vandalizing the Lincoln Memorial." She was trying to make a point.

"You're protecting our treasures and I'm mowing lawns. Not sure which of us had the more exciting job." He was thick with sarcasm as he said it.

"Don't you do that Oscar White. We take the jobs we can get at our age. Jenna works at a drive-thru. Tylor works at a gas station. Greyson works at that ice cream shop and is still somehow skinny as a rail. Being in guest services at the museum would be a whole lot less exciting if I didn't help with the regular corporate parties and wedding receptions. Without those gigs, I'm a glorified janitor who reads placards to people who can't or won't read them for themselves. Those events are where the tip money comes in. Then, if I catch people messing around in the exhibits, I squirt them with water spray bottles and tell them they're defiling federal property. So they can either walk away or I can keep squirting them, but they will not report me without receiving a fine or a federal lawsuit."

"You can do that?"

"The water thing, yes. The lawsuit thing, no."

He took a tighter grip of her hand and snatched her into his arms in the sunshine of the plaza. "I love you my powerful, wild lady."

She held him with one arm and reached into her purse for the kilt pin. "And I love you my Highland man." She held it up to show him. "I bought it the split second your back was turned." She grinned up at him taking a half-step back. She got down on one knee before him and put the pin in place on the front corner of his kilt. The off-white stone and the steel shone in the sunshine and the brightness of it popped against the black of the kilt.

"Thank you. It's great. It looks great." He put out his hand to help her back up and when she took hold of him; she felt something in his hand. He smiled as he spoke, "You're not the only one waited for a turned back in that store." She stood and lifted the delicate silver rope chain from his hand to reveal a wavy silver symbol inlaid with a green stone the same shade as her eyes. "It's called the triple spiral. It's an ancient symbol. It represents female power, femininity, and growth. I couldn't have imagined a better symbol for you than that."

Bette smiled wide at him. "Will you put it on me?" Ozzy took the chain, opened it, reached around her neck and secured it there. His hands swept down her back into an open hug. She touched the symbol and looked down at it. "Thank you Ozzy. It's beautiful. I'm will always be amazed by how thoughtful you are."

He tightened his arms around her and kissed her. As he stopped kissing her, he whispered, "Ancient runes carved in the highland fields. Hold fewer secrets than she could ever reveal." He opened up their embrace. "I need a notebook and a pen, now!"

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 40.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

It was Thursday in the late afternoon in August and Bette was hurrying through her duties at the museum. There were no after hours events that evening and since it was getting late in the summer, the museum was getting less and less busy each day. She had already swept the floors through all the exhibit halls and cleaned all the glass in the displays along with the front windows. She had already cleaned the bathrooms and specifically left refilling the vending machine for one of her last duties. She knew she could check dates on the items and if something was close enough to expiring, she could pocket it and eat it on the bus. The museum closed at 5:00 PM that day and it was already 4:40 PM. She knew Sean wouldn't let any more people in for the day, so it was just a matter of waiting for the current guests to leave. If they could do their security sweep quickly, she could catch the 5:10 PM bus home instead of waiting for the 5:45 PM bus. She already loaded the bags of chips and pretzels into the top couple rows and was quickly moving her way down the rows. She had long memorized the price points and locations of where things went and kept her focus forward into the machine filling it and checking dates on items. So far, nothing expired. She was getting down to the bottom two rows and she was squatting checking dates and feeling for items in her basket when she heard the footsteps approaching and stop a few feet behind her.

"The floors should be dry in the bathrooms by now; I just haven't moved the signs yet."

"That's not what I needed to know," the person said.

"If you tell me what you want from the machine, I can give it to you if you have exact change." She was undeterred from her task.

"No. I was just wondering if you could tell me the date."

"It's Thursday the 21st." She kept checking dates and loading items.

"Huh. Interesting. Because it looks like Wednesday the ten to me."

Bette froze. That voice, those words. She slowly turned to see a pair of worn in running sneakers, lean-muscular legs, khaki cargo shorts, a nice watch, a maroon vintage screen printed t-shirt, an open light brown plaid button-up shirt, his right hand tapping on his chest wearing a gold ring with a sapphire, hovering at six feet tall, thick brown hair, smiling at her, more than the boy she knew but not quite the man his father was. "Mark." Her voice was barely more than a whisper.

"Hi Bette."

"What are you doing here? How did you know I was here?"

"I'm back. I called your house. You sound just like your mother, by the way. I reminded her of who I was, an old friend, she told me you worked here and would be home soon, but I couldn't wait."

What the hell, mom? Bette looked at her watch. "Look, Mark, it's nice to see you, but I'm working. I can talk to you after I get home."

"Did you drive?"

"No, I take the bus."

"I've got my own ride. I can give you a lift."

She checked her watch again. "Fine. I can meet you out front after close. But I need you to go now so I can finish up here. We're about to close anyway."

"Sure. It's a red pickup. I'll see you out there." He stepped back and away from her, turned and walked away.

She stood there stunned for a moment before finishing her work. She loaded up the rest of the items she could in the machine and put the rest away in the closet and locked it. She did a final sweep of the area and met Sean at the entrance.

"Did you have a nice reunion with your friend?" Sean chuckled.

"Is that what he said to you?"

"Yeah. He said he was an old friend of yours. He's a well-mannered fellow."

"Fuckin'-a Sean. I wish you would use a little more judgment before sending a guy bigger and stronger than me to at a dead end of the museum! Good thing he was the good old boyfriend and not the bad one! If you had sent Keith back there, we would not be speaking right now, and there might be more than one reason why!" Bette was red and shaking. She began to hyperventilate.

"Oh dear, Bette! He didn't say he was an old boyfriend." He approached her by her side and began to put a hand on her back.

"Not now Sean!" She batted his arm away. "We wear name tags! He could have been anyone who saw me at any time! Do you have any idea how scary that is for a girl? We have radios, you should have warned me! How can I trust you after this?" She went to where she stored her backpack, still in sight of him. She opened it and chugged the water from the bottle that was in there. It was tepid and unsatisfying, but it was what she had in the moment. "Are we done?" She snapped. "Can I clock out?"

She could see how crummy he felt for having wronged her. "I apologize Bette. Clock out. I'll see you later."

She punched her time card and put it away. She walked past Sean and back to him. She hugged him. "You're a sweet man who would never try and do me wrong. I know that." He gently hugged her back. "But you know you would have had to move any dead body I made, right?"

"I have tarps and 50 acres whenever you need."

She took a deep breath and felt his calming presence wash over her, "I'll bring the shovels."

"Atta-girl."

The pair said their good nights to each other and Bette headed out the front door of the museum. She had become so upset with Sean, that for a brief moment, she forgot about Mark. She got to the end of the courtyard entryway and instead of going right to the bus stop, she saw him parked on her left up the one-way street. She could see him smiling at her through the windshield. Three and a half years. He looked both completely different and totally the same; he had grown up, but so had she. She walked over to his truck, she could smell the heavy, late summer air, but she could also smell herself: cleaning chemicals, light sweat, and dust. Her dark grey uniform polo shirt and khakis were enough to make her feel invisible and plain, which is often what the job required of her. She only wore white dress shirts and black pants or skirts for the catered events. She got to Mark's truck door, got in, and buckled up. "Do you remember the address?"

"Of course." He put the truck in drive and took off.

They were quiet for a moment. "So, you said your back?" Bette asked.

"Yeah. Mom and I just moved back. She got a new job here in insurance. You can do insurance anywhere. She couldn't have done that seven years ago after the divorce?"

"I'm sure she had her reasons."

"She did and it had a big effect on me. I didn't like that town in middle school and high school wasn't much better. I spent my time doing a lot of running. I would put on my headphones and just go. The music, the road, and me. Even in the middle of winter. There were times, I'd get to the crossroad at the edge of town that met the state highway, more than once I wanted to make that turn and keep going. I had one friend, Greg. The one kid who wasn't a tobacco chewing, country droning, redneck. We had a lot of good times the last couple years. Then he tried to kiss me. I had to tell him no. We were okay, but it was hard for a while. He came to my house one night saying his dad found his stash and he thought he was going to kill him. Turned out he was going to send him to a conversion camp. He hanged himself in his closet that night. That was March 29th. That's when I told Mom I wasn't going to spend another school year there. I was getting out of there with or without her. That town killed Greg and it wasn't going to kill me too."

Bette wiped away the tear that fell. "I'm sorry that happened to your friend, and to you."

"Thanks. It wasn't all bad. There was one girl, Alice. She had red hair and was pretty into me. She was sweet and mousy. In a school that small, they only teach abstinence, so we did have a pregnancy scare once."

"Tenth grade health here was thorough. They taught us everything. I mean everything. As in there are 28 different contraceptives, everything. They armed us with so much knowledge and a healthy amount of fear of diseases and pregnancy. The fear of God is in me for getting pregnant. Seriously. If God himself wanted to have sex with me, He would have to wear a condom, and then it would still depend on what day of the month it is in my rhythm method count to consider it. And by the way, the pictures of diseased genitals they showed us, I still can't eat cauliflower." she shuttered.

Mark laughed. "Those were the things I had to tell you. Those were the things I couldn't lie to you about. I knew if I was going to see you, I couldn't keep that stuff from you." He reached over and brushed her arm and hand.

Bette looked into the side mirror and saw the redness grow on her face. She took a couple short breaths, "Mark, I won't lie to you either. I'm not single. I have a boyfriend."

He glanced at her, "Oh. Is it serious?"

"Yes, it's serious." She was firm with him.

"Is it anyone I would have known from before?" Mark sounded as if he had to force each word out of his mouth.

"Yeah. I'm seeing Ozzy. We're together."

"Ozzy? Seriously?" He said it as if she was pranking him.

"We're very serious. And we're very happy." She rubbed the triple spiral necklace Ozzy had given her.

"Then if you're happy. I'm happy for you. For how long?"

"It kinda started in April...or sorta March." She scrunched her face as she said it and it came out in her tone.

"That doesn't make sense."

"It doesn't need to make sense to you. It's private." They were both quiet for a moment as they were getting closer to her neighborhood. "Mark, when did you get back?"

"This month."

"Uh-huh. What day? When did you and your mom move, unpack, and get your phone hooked up?"

"My truck had boxes in it today. The phone was hooked up today. The first person I called was you." He spit the words out and they came out blunt and petulant.

Mark turned onto her street and parked. She unbuckled her seat belt and opened the door and placed one foot on the ground and looked over at him. As uncomfortable, annoyed, and angry as she was, she looked at her house and thought of her parents; she wanted to scream, but she spoke softly and calmly stared forward again at the glove box, "It was nice to see you Mark. It was. But your intentions with me were messed up. It sounds like you got some stuff to figure out. You should call your other friends." She got out and held the door open. "And don't tell me you're happy for me if you're not. It's a fucked up lie to tell someone." She closed her eyes as she said it. She couldn't stand to see him or his reaction. She slammed the door and went inside to her room. Her hands were shaking with rage and her face was red in the mirror.

She took a few deep breaths, grabbed the phone and called Ozzy. Darrah answered. "Hello?"

"Hi Darrah, It's Bette. Is Ozzy there?"

"He's taking a nap in the hammock before he goes in to stock from seven to close tonight. Should I get him?"

"No!" She snapped, but caught herself quickly. "No. Don't wake him. The only thing he likes more than a couch nap is a hammock nap. I wouldn't want to ruin that for him. He doesn't work tomorrow, right?"

"No, he doesn't. He's getting his grad pictures done in the afternoon though."

"Would you please tell him I called? If he doesn't have time to call before he goes in tonight, have him call me after eight tomorrow morning, but before 9:15, please. That's when I have to leave for work."

"I'll give him the message, Sweetheart."

"Thank you Darrah."

Bette hung up the phone and cried. She wasn't sure why. She didn't feel sad; she felt frustrated, confused, and nauseous. She couldn't connect one feeling to one reason. She was upset about how vulnerable Sean had left her in their workplace. She had been shocked to see Mark, she pitied what he had gone through, enraged by how he treated her, and taken aback by how good he looked. She wanted to tell Ozzy what had happened but felt stuck by the fact she couldn't yet. She could have had Darrah wake him, but knew how much he worked, that rest was a treasure to him, she didn't want to ruin it with her stress. And for what? Something she already handled. She told Mark off. She told Mark she and Ozzy were together, that they were 'very serious.' She called him messed up, fucked up, and a liar. And somehow, she felt terrible for doing that to Mark too. He had lost so much over the years: his father, his homes, the consistency. He lost the one friend he had living in that rural town with his mom. And with no friends, he called her first. Maybe he really did just need a friend. Maybe all that time running alone left him isolated and lonely. He said that girl Alice was into him, he never said he was into her, which might be even worse behavior. He didn't explain. She remembered she had left him all the hidden notes in his moving boxes. She wondered if he found them immediately after moving or if it did take him months or longer to find them. But then again, his motives weren't totally pure. 'Wednesday the ten?' Come on! What a line! And the way he tapped his chest with his hand like the Monday after the Halloween dance. She hadn't forgotten, and clearly, neither did he. The way he touched her in his truck. It was a small touch but for not seeing each other for so long, it felt pretty aggressive, especially after the heavy stuff he had told her. And he didn't even ask her about her! All he wanted to know was where she was. He wanted to see her. He wanted to touch her again before he wanted to know about her. At least that's how it all felt. Lorna heard Bette crying and came in and comforted her daughter. Bette breathed through her tears and told her mom what had happened, what she had been thinking about, and trying to figure out why it all upset her so much.

"I'm sorry I told him where you worked Betty. I remembered him from all those years ago and how you liked him then. I didn't think about it being a problem now. I didn't think he would show up to your work when I told him."

Bette sniffled. "He did. And frickin' Sean. Mark used to be so nice. Sean let him right in just because he said he was a friend. Will men ever get it? Will they ever understand?"

"Your father does. Good ones do. Even the not so good ones will listen and try and get better."

"Sean did apologize after. I could tell he felt pretty bad about it." Bette finally collected herself. "It's nice to talk about it, but I still want to tell Ozzy what happened. You know, as one of the good ones."

"He is good to you, isn't he?"

She touched the triple spiral pendant. "Always."

The next morning Ozzy called her. She asked him if he had the energy to come and see her before she had to go to work, he said he would gladly take her, even if it meant they could only see each other for that little bit that day. She felt better about that than telling him over the phone. He picked her up at 9AM and drove her to the museum. She told him about how she was working and how Mark showed up, what he said, how he said it, the ride home, everything. She started to cry again as she told him and how she wanted to tell him right away after it happened and how terrible she felt about the whole thing. Ozzy was quiet and listened. She kept talking and talking about her feelings and what happened until she realized that she was repeating herself. They were parked on the street outside the museum; she had some time before she had to go in.

She sniffled and wiped her face. "Oz, I'm sorry. Say something, please. I am so sorry."

He unbuckled his seat belt and leaned over to her and hugged her. He spoke softly, "You did nothing wrong. I'm sorry you had to go through that. I don't ever want to see you like this. He shouldn't have done that. It wasn't right." She hugged him back and he rocked her back and forth as her tears stopped. He kept affirming her as he hugged her. "It's okay. You have nothing to be sorry for. I love you."

"I love you too Ozzy. I love you so much. I had to tell you. I wanted to tell you right away. I slept so shitty last night because of it."

"You don't have to worry about it anymore. It's over." He opened his bear hug around her and wiped the tears from her face. She sniffled and looked down at her back pack. "Look at me." She glanced up at him from the corner of her eyes. "You are a powerful lady. You're through it. I'm here."

Bette opened her back pack, took out her water bottle and took a long drink. She took a few deep breaths after. She leaned in to kiss him and he leaned into her. It was a quick, sweet kiss; it was what they both wanted in that moment and nothing more. "Thank you for understanding. I was telling my mom: you are one of the good ones, and she agreed."

He kissed her forehead and gave her an easy smile. "You set a pretty high bar, but I'll always try to pole vault over it." She let out a little laugh. "That's what I wanted to see." He touched her cheek with his thumb. "Are you going to be alright to work today?"

"Yeah. I am now. Thank you. You look really good by the way. Let me know how your photo session goes today. Give me some tips for mine on Thursday next week. I should be home after six if you call."

"I will."

They hugged again and Bette went into the museum to work.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-* Chapter 41 .-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

The following Thursday, Bette woke up early to get her graduate pictures taken. Jenna's dad was a professional photographer and had taken family photos for the Wheelan's for years. Bette wasn't sure if it was excitement or nerves, but she woke up with a stomach ache. Lorna took the day off to be with her that day. She didn't want to eat, but Lorna insisted she eat something. She tried eating some plain toast, but it didn't sit right. The pair headed off to the salon to get her make up professionally done. She tried drinking some complimentary green tea when she got there, but it made her stomach ache worse. At least she was excited to see Cynthia as usual. Cynthia told her that Mark was back in town and had called her and asked if he had called her. Bette didn't want to lie to her, but she didn't want to talk about it either. Then she realized Mark didn't call her on the phone, he saw her in person, so she could tell Cynthia he didn't. She quickly changed the subject and talked about how excited she was about her photos that day. She had four outfits picked out for the studio and was going to do outdoor photos with Jenna early next week. Before they left the salon, Cynthia showed Bette pictures of her husband and their little girl's first birthday party.

Bette's and Lorna headed to Jenna's dad's studio for the photo session. Something was bothering Bette, She wasn't sure if it was Cynthia bringing up Mark or the drive, but her stomach ache was worse than it was than when she woke up, like little screwdrivers twisting below her bellybutton. She hid the growing pain from her mother. The photo session with Jenna's dad went well. Bette wasn't always comfortable in front of the camera, but he had a way of making her comfortable. When she was getting to the last few pictures on the roll for the session, Jenna happened to arrive to drop something off to her dad. He clicked the camera and said "Last frame." Bette called to Jenna. The girls wrapped their arms around each other and he took the last picture.

On the way home, Bette stopped hiding the discomfort she was in. She told her the twisting pain had been growing. They went home and Bette went back to bed. A short time later, she threw up the toast and the tea from that morning. She brushed her teeth and rinsed out her mouth, and when she looked at herself, she saw, even though her makeup, how pale, even for herself, she had become. She tried taking some ibuprofen, but she threw that up too. She tried sleeping, but sleep didn't come through the growing pain. She tried switching to the couch when her father came home that afternoon; being around him when she was sick was always helpful. John sat in the armchair adjacent to her on the couch, but sleep didn't come. All she did was moan in pain. She tried drinking water, but she couldn't hold that down either. Every hour that went by, her stomach pain grew. What started as little twists ended up feeling like multiple screwdrivers constantly turning from the inside out of her. John stayed up with her in the living room until she got some rest, but it wasn't for long. She only slept between 11-11:30 PM before the pain woke her up again. John woke Lorna and decided it was time to take Bette to the hospital: she couldn't eat, she couldn't drink, she couldn't sleep, and she was in constant, growing pain.

Bette hobbled into the hospital with her father just after midnight. They sat in the waiting room as he filled out the forms. She didn't have the strength to pick up a magazine. She was admitted and brought to a room for observation and testing. She got out of her hoodie, tank top, and pajama shorts and put on the hospital gown with one of the nurse's help. The nurses needed a urine sample, but she couldn't produce one, she hadn't held any water down all day. She was given an IV of saline and wailed as she was stuck with needles. She was already in awful pain, needles didn't make it better. She waited as nurses and doctors came and went from the room asking what felt like the same questions again and again. They all looked the same. Time became a blur; she couldn't tell if she had been there for ten minutes or five hours. All of a sudden, she had to pee. They brought her to the toilet. By this point, she was in excruciating pain and walking bent over, crying just to make it there. They gave her the funnel cup and some privacy. The torturous pain and the heavy flow of urine made her lose control. She over filled the cup, broke the funnel and spilled her urine everywhere. She sobbed harder. She added humiliation to her pain. She rang the nurse call button and apologized through her tears; there was still enough in the cup for a testable sample. She got back to the observation room and a short time later a doctor came in and confirmed all her test results: it was her appendix, it needed to come out immediately. Bette sobbed. She was scared. John held her hand and reminded her that she was in the best possible place and that she wouldn't be in so much pain soon. The nurse told her she needed to take off anything else she was wearing apart from the hospital gown. Bette sobbed harder when she took off the triple spiral necklace Ozzy gave her earlier that summer. It went in the bag with the other clothes she wore into the hospital. The nurse reminded her to breathe and that it would be all over soon. This was a routine procedure and as a healthy seventeen year old, she was in a best case scenario. The anesthesiologist came in and gave Bette a pre-surgery drug to calm her down. Within a minute, Bette felt the high wash over her, strong and intense. Stronger and more euphoric than any pot she had ever smoked. She held her father's hand before they took her out. With a dazed look on her face and dilated pupils, she spoke to John, "Tell my Highland man I'll be on the bridge." She let go of her father's hand and they rolled her into the operating room.

The last thing she remembered was the doctor standing over her upside down holding another saline bag saying, "We're going to put this one in you now."

Bette woke up in a different excruciating pain than she was in the night before. She could feel how swollen her arm with the IV in it had become. Her stomach still hurt, less like screwdrivers on the inside, more like a barbed-wire covered baseball bat had hit her. She touched her face with her right hand, her non-IV hand. She was in a hospital bed and was partially sitting up. She was alone. There was beeping coming from somewhere, she didn't know where, but somewhere. She felt something on her legs and tried to touch them together, the bed sheets and the hospital gown were in the way, so she couldn't figure out what it was. She touched her stomach and felt the ache and the bandages over her bellybutton and on her right side and she groaned. She looked around the room: rabbits, the room was painted with rabbits, and one on her left was staring at her. She set her right hand down where it was and it landed on the nurse call button. She picked it up and rang it. The remote beeped and there was a voice on it "Yes? Can I help?"

"I think I need some help," she rasped. Her throat was painfully dry.

"I'll be right there."

A moment later a nurse slid open the door and pushed back the curtain. "Mornin'. You had rough one."

"I need to pee," Bette said bluntly.

The nurse helped her to the toilet in the back of the room. It was severe pain to get there but amazing relief to go. She got back to the bed and the nurse answered all her questions. Her surgery was a success. Her appendix was removed after it had ruptured, which was why she had so much pain. The IV she's hooked up to is for nutrients, antibiotics, and a button that had a morphine hit if she felt a lot of pain. She wanted to use it, but had other questions first. The nurse let her know that her parents were notified of the procedure and that she could call them anytime she wanted. She moved a phone onto Bette's bed table and rolled it near her. The nurse told her what she was feeling on her legs were compression socks to protect her from blood clots. Bette thought they were really unsexy thigh-high stockings when she saw them when she was on the toilet.

As they continued to speak, one of the doctor's from the procedure from the night before came in and told her how well everything went with the procedure. He wanted to tell her himself that even in all the pain she was in and still is in, she's handling it well. he told her she could expect to be admitted through the weekend, and depending on how things go, she would be there up to a week. She shed a couple of tears. The pain was high, but missing her pictures with Jenna and missing the first day of her senior year put her over the edge. As the tears came, the pain intensified. The doctor told her, since she is awake and they have talked to her, if the pain is bad, she can use the morphine button, it works once every four hours. Bette pressed it hoping for relief, but it caused searing pain. The drug shot into her arm through the IV and she screamed. It felt like marbles being shot under her skin. She screamed and cried for her parents. She didn't understand why something that was supposed to make her feel better caused so much pain. The nurse tried to hold her hand and calm her, but it was too late. Bette's pain and suffering was through the roof. The next several minutes were a white-hot blur of pain until she felt like she wasn't in a hurricane of pain, but the eye of it. And the calm eye had pain on the edge of it, just beyond her reach, but still there. She wasn't sure what was worse, the pain before the drug, or the suspense of pain beyond her reach waiting to crash around her. There was a tower fan in the corner of the room oscillating a breeze through the room. It blew the privacy curtain and Bette saw images in it: she saw herself jumping off the big rock at Pebble Lake, swimming to shore, crawling back up it, running off of it, again and again. When she got tired of herself swimming she looked across the room. That rabbit on the wall to her left was glaring at her and it appeared to be drooling at her. It looked angry and hungry. She felt like she had wronged that rabbit. She reached down and tried to turn on the TV from the remote, but her hand couldn't focus the strength or dexterity to do so. She went back to watching herself jumping and swimming on the curtain, and it brought her enough comfort until she fell asleep.

When she woke again, Lorna was there. She came down to see her during her lunch hour and saw Bette sleeping.

"Mom?" Bette's eyes were hazy as she woke, and the relief that the morphine had brought her before was gone, the ache in her body had returned.

"I'm here Betty." Lorna stroked her daughter's hair and scalp with her long nails.

"That's nice mom. That always felt nice." Bette closed her eyes to the comforting feeling.

"I used to do this until you fell asleep for your naps. Do you remember that? You always loved this."

"I can tell you it's better than morphine." She laughed and groaned at the pain her laughter caused. "That was a bad idea. No laughing."

"Can you sit up a little but more? I'll French braid your hair, that way you won't have to worry about it."

"That would be nice too."

Lorna parted and combed out Bette's hair and braided each side down the back of her head and Bette told her about the little gaps in her memory that she had. She said she thought she remembered seeing John and Lorna as she came out of surgery. Lorna confirmed that for a moment she did and even spoke that she couldn't open her eyes. She said she remembered trying to pee in the night before the morning and there may have been a bedpan involved. Lorna picked up a dry bedpan next to the bed. She told her mom she remembered being high before the surgery and that it helped a lot. She had been scared and in so much pain, but that high was the best thing she felt. Lorna told her, John told her what Bette said in that moment, "Tell my Highland man I'll be on the bridge."

Bette's heart ached for Ozzy in that moment. "That's Ozzy, mom. Does he know I'm here?"

"Not yet. You came in so late. Your father and I went to work this morning. He probably thinks you went to work too."

"Mom, it's Friday. He's not working. I need to tell him. I can't hide this."

"I'm almost done Betty." Lorna finished the last few strands of Bette's hair, but Bette didn't care. She reached for the phone and started to call Ozzy.

"You call my work number by 4:30 if you think of anything you need from me."

Bette held the receiver to her ear, "Thanks Mom," she said as Lorna left.

"Hello?" Ozzy's voice brought her peace.

"Hi Ozzy. It's so good to hear you, you have no idea." She said it with a comforting exhale.

"I have to say I'm a little surprised. You're normally in the middle of your shift right now."

"I'm not at work."

"You have the day off? That's great! I can come get you."

Her voice sank, "I'm not at home."

"Where are you? What's wrong?"

"I'm in the hospital. I got my appendix out super early this morning."

"Shit." Ozzy whispered. "Are you going to be okay? Are you okay now?" She could hear the worry and fear in his voice.

"I'm fine. I'm sore. And I'm safe. I was so scared. I have been in so much pain." Tears rolled down her face. "I had never felt anything so awful before. I can hardly breathe it hurts so much. They give me this thing to breathe into and tell me to get the anesthesia out of my lungs. They put me in the children's ward because I'm still 17 and there are fucking rabbits on the wall and I'm pretty sure one of them wants to eat me." She started sniffling and crying harder, "They give me what are supposed to be good drugs and it's the worst feeling I've ever felt. I want to see you so bad because I think it's the one thing that might make me feel better but I can't imagine the terrible look on your face if you ever saw me like this! I'm road kill! I feel like death's leftovers!" She cried.

Ozzy sniffled too. "Children's ward. Rabbit room. I'm on my way." And the phone clicked.

"No," she whispered in to the dial tone. Bette rang for the nurse. She felt terrible because as helpful as these nurses were, she couldn't remember any of their names. She asked where her bag of clothes were from where she came in and the nurse gave her the bag. She dug out the triple spiral necklace and put it back on. She asked for tissues and water. She asked for a mirror to see what she looked like, when she saw herself she thought she looked worse than she imagined. She looked so pale that she was almost grey. She had been so dehydrated that her cheekbones popped and her lips were cracking. Her eyes were bloodshot from crying. Her hair was braided by her mom, but there were frizzy wisps everywhere and she thought she looked like she had been electrocuted. She tried wetting her hair down with the water but it didn't help much. She knew her hair would pop right back up as soon as it dried. She splashed herself with water to calm her face and try to un-redden her eyes, but nothing helped. She asked if there was anything else she could do for the pain besides the morphine, the nurse said no. She didn't want to be high and dazed when he showed up, so she didn't press the button. She thanked the nurse before she left. Bette tried to sit back and calm down before Ozzy arrived. She closed her eyes and tried to take a few deep breaths. She winced at the pain of her deep breaths. She tried to push down the wisps of her hair again. A little more fidgeting later, she heard his voice ask for her at the nurse's station.

A few quick steps later he knocked at the side of her door frame.

"Oz," she said weakly.

He stepped in and pushed around the curtain to see her. "Oh Bette." The look on his face was scared and sad for her, he couldn't hide it.

She teared up to his reaction. "I told you I didn't want to see that look on your face."

"I couldn't not come and see you after what you said." He grabbed the chair from along the wall and pulled it next to the bed by her left side and took her hand in his.

"Careful. The IV," she said.

"Does it hurt?"

"I'm aware of it. It hurts here," She waved her free hand over her whole middle. "And I look like hell."

"You look like you've been through the ringer."

She gave him a little smile. "Thank you for not lying to me."

"You are still beautiful for having been through the ringer."

She laughed and winced at the pain. She recounted to him everything that had happened since she had woken up the day before. How the pain grew, how awful it all was, what she said about him right before surgery, how much the morphine hurt, how much the rabbit on the wall wanted to kill and eat her. She pointed to the rabbit on the wall. Ozzy saw a cabinet next to the rabbit, got up, and moved the cabinet over the rabbit so it couldn't see her anymore. She was truly grateful he did that. They talked about other things until he could see she grew sleepy.

"I'll come back to see you again tomorrow after work."

She yawned and patted the edge of the bed. "I'll see you in my dreams my Highland man."

He moved off the chair and sat on the bed's edge. He leaned over her and kissed her forehead. He spoke softly, "I'll be on the bridge. I love you."

"I love you." She sighed and closed her eyes. She was asleep before he was on the elevator.

Bette woke up a few hours later. The room was dim and she had to turn the light on from the remote. There were a few new things on the table. It appeared her parents had come and gone while she had been asleep. Her mom had brought her toothbrush and toothpaste from home, a comb, a pen, and what looked like a couple pieces of mail for her: a couple magazines and a letter. She took the envelope and flipped it over to see who it was from; it just had her name on it, no address or stamp. She figured it was a note from her parents. She opened the envelope and opened the card inside.

Bette-

I owe you an apology for last week. You were right; my intentions were misguided when I came and found you. I am sorry. What I did was wrong. I found the notes you left for me in my moving boxes. I found one, then another, and then dug through every box until I thought I found them all. Then when I got the yearbook, I saw one more note from you. It didn't happen. I didn't Footloose the town. It didn't want me to. These last few years have not been good for me, and I am hoping to have senior year be a fresh start for myself. I hope you can consider giving me one too.

-Mark Hall

And he left his phone number. She read and reread the card and heard his voice in her head.

She called home and John answered. He told her he was the one who came by her hospital room and didn't want to wake her. She asked John for a few more things from home tomorrow to make her stay more comfortable: a different pillow, a bandanna for her hair, her CD player and some CDs, her address book that had her friends phone numbers in it, and some lip balm. Bette asked where the card came from. John said it was in the mailbox when he got home and if everything was alright with it. She let him know it was fine. It was from an old friend. She hung up with her father and hesitated for a moment. She truly had nothing better to do. She called Mark.

"Hello?" Mark answered.

"Hi. It's Bette."

"Hi." He sounded confused. "You're not calling from home?"

"No. I'm not home."

"It says here you're calling from the hospital. Are you okay?"

"Caller ID. Gets me every time." She sighed. "Yeah. I wasn't, but I will be. I got stabbed."

"What?!"

She laughed until it hurt. "I'm messing with you Mark. I got my appendix out."

"Jeez, Bette."

"My dad brought me the card."

"I kinda figured that's how you got my number."

She laughed and groaned in pain. "Oh. No laughing. I can't keep doing that."

"So you read the card though?"

"Yeah. I think...I think there's a lot more you haven't told me. You said there were those things you couldn't lie about. But I think I didn't give you a chance to tell me."

"Yeah, there is more. A lot more."

"And I assumed the worst and got angry, and I'm sorry."

"You had every reason to be angry. I'm sorry Bette. I won't do what I did to you again."

"Then I think we can move past that. A fresh start as you said."

"It would mean a lot to me."

She yawned again. "We can talk more tomorrow Mark. I'm tired from being in bed all day."

He laughed. "Feel better."

"Thanks. Bye."

"Bye."

She hung up the phone and pushed the table away. She called the nurse and went through the painful process of going to the bathroom, brushing her teeth, and getting ready for bed. It was so exhausting to do so; she was asleep within minutes of getting settled again.

Saturday morning, John and Lorna visited Bette with the items she requested. She told them Ozzy came and visited her and she was still in a lot of pain. Lorna was insistent she get up and walk around. Bette gave her own mother the middle finger. Because of the antibiotics in the IV, she couldn't eat. She hadn't held any solid food since Wednesday. She wasn't hungry because of the nutrients in the IV, but she was still tired, pained, and cranky all the same. Lorna was forgiving of Bette's attitude, but still made her get up and walk to the nurse's station and back. Bette cursed the whole time, but she didn't cry in pain anymore. Her parents left. The nurse was able to help her clean up a bit after and it was the best she had felt in the last few days. She still felt like garbage, but she felt like clean burning garbage.

She called Jenna to let her know she was going to miss their photo session on Tuesday, and proceeded to retell the story of her appendix rupturing. As she talked, she saw another hand knock at her door frame, one with a nice watch.

"Jenna. I gotta go," Bette said into the phone. The girls said their goodbyes and hung up. "You can come in."

Mark stepped in her room looking concerned for her. She almost preferred he saw her looking unwell. "Hi Bette. How are you feeling?"

"You ever have knives under your skin twist you from the inside out?" She said weakly.

"In my left leg."

Bette remembered it was when his father had died and he was there when it happened. "Why don't you grab a chair then?"

Mark grabbed a chair and placed it facing towards her halfway down the bed and sat. He fidgeted with his ring on his hand. "I'm not a fan of hospitals."

"I don't blame you for that. At least you're not the one who got cut open."

He tried to smile. "How long are they keeping you in here for?"

"Until Wednesday, I think. I'm going to miss the first day of school. Can you believe that?"

"Nothing happens on the first day of school."

"You'd be surprised." She smiled at the thought of Ozzy. "So what happened? Three and a half years of school, plus summers. We didn't talk through any of it. I never heard about you. What happened?"

Mark took a deep breath and exhaled through puffed cheeks. "You sure?"

"I got nowhere else to be."

Mark went on to recap the last three and a half years from the time he took off on the cold January Saturday with his mom. He cried on the three hour drive back to that small town, partially about Bette, partially about having to go back there. When he started unpacking his boxes, he found one of Bette's notes with a memory written in it and set it aside. When he found a second, he knew there had to be more. He dug through all the boxes, clothes, books, every nook and cranny until he found the eight different envelopes Bette had hidden for him. He told her how he read them along with the letters and cards she had written him after his dad had died. He saved them all. He started the new semester and he was the outside kid again. He was there barely six months earlier, but the local tight-knit kids didn't like him. He tried sharing their interests but they didn't want him around. He tried sharing his music and games, but they weren't interested in his either. The only one who paid any attention to him was Greg. Greg was skinny, pale, hair so blond it was almost white, and had acne. Greg had been bullied a lot like he and Bette had by Jason Kaye and others when they were younger and they bonded over it. Greg had a religious family, so he had to hide his mix tapes that he made off the radio. Greg liked pop music and R&B but the radio stations didn't come in very strong in their town. Mark shared his music with Greg at his house because Gina didn't care about that. The summer after 8th grade, Mark got the yearbook and showed Greg the pictures of his friends and saw the great picture of he and Bette and the message she left for him on the page. Greg was surprised he left a girl like that behind. That summer the two of them would tent camp in the yard, bike to the creek to go fishing, and play whatever two player board games they could find.

When freshman year began, they had both hoped things would be better and different. They weren't. Bullying got much worse for Greg. Mark hit a growth spurt and kept getting stronger. Greg didn't grow much and stayed skinny. He remained easy fodder for bullies. More often than he wanted, Mark threw punches and got in trouble for it. He knew his father would have been disappointed in him. He channeled his rage and frustration into running. Whenever he felt himself get mad, he ran. Upset, he ran. Sad, he ran. Like he told Bette, there were times when he saw that state highway sign and just wanted to keep going down it. When the weather was too awful to run, he'd do body weight exercises like burpees and sit ups. He couldn't stand his peers and he took it out on his body.

Sophomore year came and things didn't change. He and Greg were only friends to each other, but it was enough for them. Late in the school year, he had to work on a project with Alice. By this time Mark had gotten his driver's license and used a bit of his inheritance to buy his used truck, much to his mother's chagrin. After a week working on the project and taking her home from the library, she told him how much she had liked him. She thought this project was the universe's way of bringing them together. She saw him run past her house a lot and that the strong silent type was really attractive and she kissed him. He did nothing to stop it and she kept going. That first night she kissed him she went down on him in his truck in the library parking lot until he finished. She did it again the next night. He admitted it was nearly impossible to say no to. The day before the project was due; she wore a skirt when he took her to the library and she jumped him in his truck and had sex with him. Something about being in his truck with him made Alice not shy. Three weeks later she came to him and said she hadn't had her period yet and was starting to get nervous, she should have had it by now. Mark was nervous and didn't know what to do. He didn't want to be a father. He didn't want to get married. And she was too scared to make any decision or tell anyone but him. A week after that, she went to him and told him she got her period and they could be together. He told her no. That was not going to happen again. He was sorry, but he didn't feel the way for her the way she did for him. She cried and slapped him but left him alone. That summer he got a part time job a gas station just to do something. Every shift was the same customers: pack of reds guy, menthol lady, chew guy, chew guy, chew guy, old menthol lady, 3 gallon Bob, and the old guy who wants a free cup of coffee at the end of the night because we're closing. Why?

Junior year was all the same. More running. Mark and Greg hanging out. Nothing changed. Nothing was interesting for them. One night at Mark's house he was telling Greg that. How frustrating it was that there are no other people like them in their school. It would be nice if there were. Greg said that the two of them are okay and then kissed Mark. He was shocked but not angry and stopped him. He apologized to Greg for the misunderstanding, but he didn't feel that way about him. Greg was embarrassed and hurt. Mark told him he was flattered. He let his friend down easy. They still had an awkward few days afterwards. In late March, Greg came running to Mark's house scared. His father found his secret stash of porn. Greg thought he was going to die. That he thought his dad was going to murder him for being gay. Mark and Gina went with Greg home to see if they could talk his father down. When they got there, Greg's dad was calm. He said he could never hurt his son. There were other ways. Mark saw the pamphlet for the gay conversion camp and the sad look on Greg's face. Gina said there was nothing they could do and they left. That was the last time he saw Greg alive. He hanged himself in his closet that night. Greg would rather die than be who he wasn't. When Mark heard the news he went insane. He screamed at his mother. He blamed her for taking Greg home that night. He didn't have to die. He didn't want to live in this god forsaken town anymore. If this town can kill Greg it can just as easily kill me, he told her. He was going to be 18 by the beginning of the next school year. He had his truck and his inheritance. She can either go with him, or he can go alone, but either way, he's going. Gina said if he finished the school year, she would move back to their old home city, and get a new job. She couldn't stand the idea of losing Mark. Losing him to him either taking off alone or death. It took most of the summer to sell the house and for Gina to find a new job, but it was Thursday August 21st that Mark called Bette's phone number. Lorna answered and he told her who he was. She said she was at work at the museum and she would be home later. Lorna never said which museum. There were five different museums in town and Mark drove to all of them looking for her. He couldn't believe how she looked when he saw her: the grown up version of the girl he remembered. When he told her the things he did and she seemed to be touched and made the joke about contraceptives, he thought it meant she was being receptive to him. When she got angry with him when she got out of the truck, she didn't look at him, she didn't see him cry. He didn't mean to lie to her; he was just surprised she was with Ozzy. He didn't know how to react to her being with Ozzy. Why shouldn't she have any boyfriend? After a couple of days of trying to reach Hank and Robert without a lot of luck, he thought about calling Bette again, but didn't want to overstep. Then he thought about all the wonderful notes she had written him from so long ago, and just maybe, that would resonate with her. So he wrote the card and left it in the mailbox.

"And now we're here," Mark said.

"Wow...It's...It's a lot, Mark." She was taken aback by everything he had told her.

"I'm sure your story is better than mine."

"Not better or worse. Just different."

"Dad would say 'Different is just code for 'I don't like it.'" Mark smiled when he said it. It was one of the only things he smiled about through all the talking he did.

She smiled. "Tell me about him."

"My dad?"

She nodded.

He snickered. "This one time we were staying at my grandparent's house and I was in the tiny guest room next to their bedroom. This was Christmas time, 7th grade. I wake up in the morning and I hear my grandpa say to my grandma through the paper-thin walls," Mark made his voice comically gritty, "Come on, let me just hold your titty."

Bette got wide-eyed and laughed.

"Then at breakfast Dad says to Grandpa, 'Do you mind laying off the titty-talk until at least after breakfast?' Like it wasn't the weirdest thing in the universe to be talking about it over eggs and toast."

She threw her head back laughing and had to wipe a tear from the corner of her eye.

"He was a good man. You look just like him now."

Mark looked down at his watch and fingered his ring. He was about to say something else when another knock came at the doorway. Bette recognized Ozzy's hand knocking.

"Come in."

"I heard you laugh all the way from the elevator." Ozzy pushed back the curtain with a big smile on his face holding a small potted plant for her. He saw the plain look on Bette's face, and quickly realized why when he saw Mark. His smile shrank as he set the plant on her table. Bette put her non-IV hand out to Ozzy. "Come here. I'm glad you were able to come by." She took his hand pulled him into her and gave him a quick kiss. Ozzy had a concerned look on his face for her. "I could use a bathroom break before you get settled. It'll take a few minutes, maybe longer." She hit the button for the nurse.

"I should go. I'll give you two your space."

"Thanks Mark. It was nice catching up."

He mushed his mouth together and nodded and left the room as the nurse came in. "I don't want you to see this. I mean that, Oz." She said to him.

"Sure." He kissed her forehead and stepped out of the room. Ozzy jogged back to the elevator and stuck his hand in the door before it closed. He stepped in and stood next to Mark and put his hands in his pockets.

"Mark, I'm going to say a few things, and I would like you to listen. Do you think you can do that for me?" Ozzy kept looking forward at the elevator doors.

"Fine." He said blankly, shrugging.

"She tells me everything, you know that? Everything. She's told me about times when she's been humiliated and the best times of her life." Ozzy looked at Mark and Mark looked back. "She tells me all the iconic stories. So when she came to me last week and I saw her so upset and so hurt by what you said and did to her. I can tell you, I have not seen that look on a woman's face since my own mother. And that is something that cannot be tolerated."

The elevator dinged and they stepped off. "I apologized to her. It was a misunderstanding."

Ozzy continued to speak calmly. "I'm not finished. If I have to see that look on her face, those tears in her eyes, that pain in her voice like that again that you caused. I can promise you this: your body will not be found."

"I'm not afraid of you Ozzy." Mark scowled at him.

Ozzy gave him a little smile, "Oh no, no, no, Mark. You misunderstand me. You remember Bette is a powerful lady? She's more powerful now than when you left. She has an army around her. She has assassins and spies. They're everywhere and you have no idea who they are. All they need is one word from me." Ozzy pushed the button for the elevator. "Don't you dare give me a reason? Do you understand me?"

"I'm not going to do that again. I'm not a threat to her or you Ozzy. I'm not that kind of person. I needed a friend, and she's a good one."

Ozzy stepped onto the elevator. "Then it sounds like we're not going to have a problem." He gave Mark a genuine, warm smile, "Welcome back."

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-* Chapter 42 .-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Senior Year 2003-2004

Bette was sad to miss the first day of school. She spent the morning getting discharged from the hospital and picking up prescriptions with John. She looked through the other mail that her parents didn't bring to her including her class schedule. Now that she was a senior, she had nearly all her required credits to graduate. She had to take enough classes to make her transcript look good and she could take a couple interesting classes and arrange to not have a last class period again like she had last year. She didn't need to take a math or science. She was required to take Government 12, and for her English class, she choose the creative writing course. Everything else was open. She signed up for psychology and sociology which were each a semester course. She signed up for the life skills class that spent half the year teaching them to cook and the other half of the year teaching taxes, budgeting, resume building, and other things she would actually need to know after graduating. She also signed up for photography. She was never artistic with her hands, but she knew what she thought was beautiful, and she hoped she would learn how to better capture it.

Most seniors didn't take the school bus because they would have late arrival, or carpooled, but Bette took the option for early dismissal so she could have the option to go to work at the museum if she ever wanted or needed it. She stood at the stop and waited. She stood there tired from a week in bed recovering from her surgery. John made sure she ate a big breakfast that morning to get her energy back. Her jeans were still a little lose after a week of not eating in the hospital, even though she was full from the coffee, cereal, and toast she had a little while ago. She stood there looking at her nails when another student approached the stop. She didn't look up.

"Hi Bette."

Bette furrowed her brow and looked at her nails another second before looking over at the boy with the short sandy brown hair. He had braces and clear skin. He was barely taller than her with a body frame not much bigger than hers. He wore a navy sweater, jeans, and a silver chain around his neck with a sixteenth note charm on it. "Todd?!"

"Yep. In the flesh."

Bette melted. The two of them lived two blocks away but she hadn't seen him since she finished eighth grade. She put her arms out to him and hugged him. "Look at you. You're all grown up!"

"Not quite." They let go of each other. "But you look like you did."

"Not quite. But close."

"I thought you'd be driving in."

"Don't have a car," she shrugged. "Except when my parents go on vacation. Then I get to take one of their cars to school, which is fun. They're going to Panama for 10 days next month. I can give you rides in the morning."

"That sounds fucking awesome!"

Bette gave Todd the same pertinent look her mother gave her when she made poor word choices. "We still don't have a swear jar, young man. But I think you know better than that."

They laughed as the bus pulled up.

Bette met with Jenna before her first hour class. They had arranged to be locker partners for the year and it was the first time they ever got to be. Jenna gave Bette the combination and she put her backpack away. She was still under lifting restrictions for six weeks, so she couldn't carry much from class to class. She got lots of questions and comments from her classmates about missing the first day. Bette was never one to miss much school for anything. Over the years she had three different school years for perfect attendance. People who had known her well were surprised that she would miss the first day of school of all days. She told the short version again and again: she had her appendix taken out, she got out of the hospital yesterday, and she was fine. She didn't have a problem showing people two of the three scars on her stomach. Only Ozzy got to see the third one that was a few inches below her belly button. Her last class of the day was photography. She got the syllabus from the day before and the first assignment. She was surprised how thorough the class was going to be. She had seen other people around who were in the class in the past, but didn't know how intense it was. They were going to learn how to develop film and learn classic techniques. Photo assignments had different requirements about light, subject matter, and angles, and you weren't allowed to repeat your photographs. It made sense, but it meant that there was going to be a lot of film and a lot of work, more than she anticipated for the class. And of all the people who could have been in the class with her, Mark was not who she expected.

After class, Bette went to her locker and got ready to head home for the day. Most everyone else was in their last hour class; she had to leave fairly quickly. It was a three block walk to the right city bus stop and her bus would be there within twenty minutes. She was tired and she knew she would be walking slow. She walked out of the building and started down the block. She was grateful for the downhill slope. As she approached the end of the first block, a car horn honked and she looked at the source. It was a red pickup; Mark's red pickup.

"You're walking home?" He asked through the passenger window.

"I'm going to the bus stop." She said with a partially glazed look on her face.

"You look exhausted. I can give you a lift."

She looked down the street at the further walk, then up the street at the cars approaching behind him. She hop-walked and got into his truck. "Thanks." She took off her backpack, buckled up, and he started driving. "I didn't think I would be this tired."

"I didn't think you would have to take the city bus home."

"I have early dismissal. Ozzy has late arrival. If our schedules lined up he would drive us in his car. We only live a few blocks away from each other."

"I remember. Halloween."

Bette yawned. "Right."

"How are you feeling otherwise?"

"Just tired. Tired and weak. I can't work any shifts at the museum for six weeks under doctor's orders. They said school is intense enough."

"Are you still sore?"

"No. The pain was mostly gone Monday. I had them get that morphine machine out of my room so fast. I hated that thing. The worst pain after that was when my coworkers Kasey and Sean came by with flowers, balloons, a get well card from our other coworkers, and she brought me a vanilla milk shake."

"How is that painful?"

"They took the morphine machine, but I was still on antibiotics on an IV that made me nauseous when I ate. That shake tasted so good going down, and still surprisingly cold coming back up. I warned them, 'I'm gonna puke!' Kasey ran out of the room to get the nurse and she handed me this shallow kidney-shaped basin to puke in. I said, 'That's not gonna be big enough!' And they handed me the bedside washtub and it all came out."

"And it hurt?"

"Humiliation is a pain I know well. Vomiting in front of people is not one you forget quickly," she chuckled.

"You seem to be okay with it now."

"A lot has happened to me too in the last three and a half years. I'm not the same person who gets bullied by Jason Kaye or Stella anymore. I've given up what on caring what other people think of me. So I guess it wasn't that painful."

"The Powerful Lady has grown even more powerful."

Bette rubbed the triple spiral pendant. "Like you wouldn't believe."

A moment later he pulled up to her house and put his truck in park. "If you're okay with it, would you tell me about it? Like I told you?"

She yawned again, "Not today."

"I can give you a ride home again tomorrow. Would that be okay?" Mark looked scared asking her. He kept his hands on the wheel as he spoke.

"I can let you know in class tomorrow."

"That's more than fair."

She nodded. She could have fallen asleep right there in the warmth of the cab with the sun shining down on her. "Thanks for the ride home. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Anytime. Bye."

She went in the house and crashed on the couch and slept until her parents got home a couple hours later.

The next day, Friday September 5th, Bette started the day the same as before, she got through the morning only slightly less tired. At lunch, she finally got a chance to talk to Ozzy. She didn't get to talk to him the night before because he stocked shelves at the grocery store until close and they couldn't call each other. She took him aside for a private moment and let him know that Mark was in her photography class and he gave her a ride home. She was so tired from yesterday and today is not shaping up to be much better. She told him that she had no interest in Mark in any romantic sense. It's been far too long. He was a friend a long time ago, and he wanted to be again. She told Ozzy she loved him and asked him to continue to trust her. At the hospital, she had told Ozzy in the everything that Mark had told her about his last few years, his card, and his apology. He wanted a fresh start. He needed an old friend. There in the hallway at school, Ozzy hugged her, kissed her, and looked her square in the eyes and told her there was no way he could ever stop her from making her own choices. He had total faith in her. He always did.

"You always understood me, my Highland man." She hugged him around his middle and rested some of her weight on him.

"When you leave the door open to me, it's easy, my powerful, wild lady." He kissed the top of her head hugging her back with a side-to-side rock.

"You really are Oz the Great and Powerful. I love you."

"I love you too. You can Bette on it."

She got to photography class and when she saw Mark she made a driving mime at him and nodded. He timidly smiled and nodded back. After class she got her back pack and they walked to Mark's truck. She was yawning again. On the drive home that day, she only had enough time to tell him about the second semester of 8th grade. She opened her wallet and showed him the kindness survey. She kept it after all that time. It was creased and tearing, but she kept it all the same. Mark said that kind of thing would have been helpful at his old school. He could have used something like that. He asked to hear more. She said if he was willing, he could take her home like this again on Monday. He timidly smiled and nodded again with his hands on the wheel. It was in that moment she realized; Mark really wasn't the same joyful boy she knew from years ago. He said he wasn't going to let that small town kill him, but it was now clear to her, when he came back, part of him was already dead.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 43.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

October came and Bette's parents went on vacation. Lorna's parents watched her and the house while she was gone. She loved her grandparents and she had all the same freedoms while they were there. She also got to use her mom's car to go to school. She picked up Todd and she played the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack for Chicago for him. Lorna kept the CD in her car. Their favorite track quickly became "The Cell Block Tango." Todd had taken choir the last couple years at school, was still in it, and was pretty good. He sang "Mister Cellophane" beautifully. He said he didn't quite understand the pain of the song or how to capture it. Bette told him he still got the feeling right.

The Sunday her parents were gone, Ozzy's aunt worked that day, she went to his house and they spent the day together. They had sex in his room, on the couch in the basement, and pleasured each other in the shower, which they rarely had so much time to do. It was the first time she let him take her kneeling from behind and she screamed so loud in pleasure she was afraid the neighbors heard. He sang and played guitar for her. They gave each other massages and she walked on his back. She put on his t-shirts which were giant on her, tied them off with his belt, and put on a mock fashion show for him. He recited lines from movies in childhood cartoons in the voices to make her laugh. He rested his head on her legs while she read articles from the latest issues of Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone to him and she ran her fingers through his hair. He played downloaded music from his computer and danced with her. She made him pork chops, vegetables, and baked potatoes like her mom did and didn't mess it up. She was proud of herself and he asked for seconds. They were still best friends who were madly in love.

Over the season she applied for the colleges she was interested in going to and went on tours with her mom and dad on weekends when they had open house weekends for tours and programs. She liked the main state university and another one in a smaller city the most. Her creative writing class helped a lot when it came to writing the essays and was able to double up on submission essays for class and for the applications once and she felt positively naughty using the same paper three times to complete her work. The weekend after her 18th birthday, she got a big envelope in the mail from the state university main campus. She was accepted. She cried tears of joy as her parents both hugged her and cried too. She called Jenna first to give her the news and she was so happy for her. She was on track to go to a private university in the same area and wouldn't be far away from Bette next fall, so they would still be able to see each other occasionally. She called Ozzy next who was just as overjoyed for her. He told her how proud he was of her and how proud she should be of herself. She called Skye and told her. Skye had already been accepted there too and was excited to know someone around on such a big campus. Skye reminded her that as the school year went on, more and more people they knew would probably be accepted.

It was Sunday December 7th and Bette didn't have to work that day. She wanted to spend time with Ozzy, but he took a full day shift at the grocery store. She called Jenna, but she worked a full day at the fast food restaurant too. She called Mark. He didn't have a job; she figured he would be available. He answered and he was available. After talking for a little bit, they decided to go to the mall. She needed to do some Christmas shopping and he needed new running shoes. He offered to pick her up and she let him. They went to the shoe store and he picked out what he wanted right away, after they went to the book store. They separated in the store. He went to the music section and she went to check out books on travel and antiques for her parents. She was looking at a ten day guide through The Netherlands when she got a tap on the shoulder. "Long time, no see," said Jamie; Keith's old friend.

"Shit. How are you?" Bette and Jamie hugged. "It's been too long."

"No kidding. Things have been good this year. Frankly, I wish I had gotten you in the break up instead of Keith. He became such a whiny pain with a persecution complex. You wouldn't believe the stuff I had to talk him out of after you broke up with him."

"Like what?"

"Put it this way. If it weren't for me, there might be a restraining order with his name on it. That dumb motherfucker."

Bette shook her head with a small smile behind her hand. "Then I'm glad you were there to help." She looked over her shoulder at the music section and saw Mark checking out CDs. Jamie noticed.

"See something you like?" He asked in a cheeky attitude.

"Me? No. I have a boyfriend. The guy over there is a friend of mine. Brown hair, black jacket, white shopping bag. We came here together."

"Shit." Jamie said softly. "I wouldn't mind coming together with him one bit. Mind making me an introduction?"

Bette laughed. "Jamie! I don't mind playing the role of wing woman, but Mark isn't gay."

"Neither am I, but a mouth is a mouth. I love your boobs and I could probably love his dick if I had the chance."

Bette snickered a laugh into a snort but the look on Jamie's face was sincere. "You really want to meet him, don't you?"

"He doesn't even need to speak more than two words. I could do my business and go." That time Jamie sounded like he joked.

"Alright. But don't get mad at me if he's not interested."

"Give me five minutes. He'll be interested," Jamie popped a mint and shook his hair.

Bette touched her fingers to her forehead and shook her head at Jamie smiling. This is going to be insane. The pair walked back over to the music section.

Mark turned to them. "Doesn't look like you found any books."

"No. But my old friend Jamie found me," said Bette.

"Mark Hall," He offered his hand and Jamie shook it. "I haven't seen you at North."

"I go to Private West. But you'd be worth changing schools for." Jamie raised and lowered his eyebrows at Mark.

Bette covered her mouth and raised her eyebrows. Mark laughed. "There's a first time for everything."

"Wouldn't be my first time," said Jamie lowering the tone in his voice. He looked Mark up and down.

Mark looked over to Bette trying to hide the shock on her face. "You put him up to this," Mark asked Bette.

"I swear to God I did not." She was bright red trying not to laugh.

"I ask her to meet you. It's what friends do for each other," said Jamie had a heavily flirtatious look on his face for Mark.

Mark got a sarcastic smirk on his face. "Maybe with different friends we'll meet again." Mark turned and walked away from them.

Bette excused herself from Jamie and caught up to Mark.

"What the hell, Bette? Did you think that would be fun for me?" He said it irritated with her. "I told you about that stuff with Greg because I needed you to understand, not so you could make fun of me."

She suddenly felt awful about what had happened. "Mark, I swear. Jamie is a friend of the old, icky boyfriend. I told him you and I were friends. He said he wanted to meet you. I didn't think he would be so aggressive. I thought he was joking with me."

"It wasn't funny."

She stopped them and had him look at her. "Mark. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I didn't think about your history just now. When I spent more time with Jamie in the past he was always like that with people. He's bisexual. He's abrasive. He's sarcastic. He's obnoxious to people who don't know him. I like those things about him because he's so real, but not everyone likes that kind of fiery punch to the face and I'm sorry I didn't warn you or ask him to chill out!" She felt terrible and tried not to yell in the busy mall hallway.

Mark just looked at her blankly. "He's bi? You two weren't pulling a prank on me?"

"No. After all the stuff you told me about the time you've been gone, I would never use that against you. That would be cruel."

"I never thought you could be."

They left the mall and he took her home. He pulled up in front of her house as a gentle snow fell.

"Thanks for hanging out today. I'm just sorry I didn't find any Christmas presents for my parents," Bette said.

"You have them for Christmas. You're lucky."

"It's hard isn't it? This time of year?"

"It's the worst. Everyone else is so happy. We were going out to buy timber for his next project. I wanted to go with him. I sometimes wonder if I didn't get in the truck that day if he would still be alive," Mark said in a dower tone.

"You can't picture your life like that. You told me he told you there's what life gives you and what you make with it. Make something."

He let out a single laugh. He straightened his fingers on the steering wheel and looked at the ring. He smiled. "I'm glad we got to hang out today." He looked back over at her.

"Sure. Me too."

"And believe it or not. I'm glad I got to meet your friend Jamie. He was a trip."

Bette let out a breathy laugh. "You're kidding? He was so-" She couldn't think of a word quick enough.

"Honest," Mark interjected.

"Yeah. I guess."

"I always said I won't lie to you."

"I won't lie to you either."

Mark looked her square in the eye. "I'm bi."

She was quiet for a moment as they looked at each other. "Okay. That makes sense." She said it with no surprise in her voice.

"What makes you say that?" He seemed genuinely perplexed at her lack of judgment.

She took a deep breath and looked out the windshield and back to him. "Little things. The way you react to something. Certain things you've said about the past few years. The way you talked about Greg. The care and kinship without attraction. That and you're like the fourth person who's come out to me. I'm starting to think I have a beacon or something."

He laughed. "He wasn't my type."

Bette was genuinely curious and the question fell out of her mouth, "But I was?"

Mark patted his right hand over his heart and made the silent 'ooh' face. "Wednesday the ten."

She closed her eyes and shook her head. "I'll see you tomorrow." She opened the truck door.

"See you then."

Over the next couple weeks, Mark told Bette more about his struggles beyond what he had told her originally in the hospital. Mark had befriended Greg because he could tell he was gay and never made him feel bad about being different. Mark procured him the music that Greg liked and labeled it in a way only he would know and no one else would want to listen to it. Mark was also the one who got Greg the porn he wanted from the gas station and told him who else in town was buying it. It was part of why he was so angry and went so insane when Greg killed himself; he felt responsible for Greg's dad finding it. In the days after he died, the rumors started about Greg's death and his sexuality. Suicide in a closet had a clear context that couldn't be denied. Mark felt extra guilty having to deny the rumors as his friend. He asked Greg's father to be a pallbearer in his funeral but was refused a spot. He told Mark to never set foot in his house again. Fags aren't welcome in his home, but he couldn't stop him from coming to the funeral. His father wasn't going to make a scene there, and Mark wouldn't either. Mark started swiping liquor from the gas station after shifts and would drink until he passed out. He started flaking on school. His grades from earlier in the year were high enough to get him passing grades that year, but barely made it. He was eventually fired from the gas station. Without access to liquor anymore, he sobered up quick and did everything he could to help his mom sell the house.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 44.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

It was Sunday December 21st. Bette and Ozzy were working on their psychology homework together. They weren't in the same class period, but they had the same teacher and the same homework, so it was easy to have an excuse to get together to do the work. The psych homework was done quickly. Bette wore a long skirt that day so if she and Ozzy could have an opportunity to hook up, she'd be able to do so quickly. She also brought her camera with her to get some shots of Ozzy for both photography class and for themselves. She put in a separate roll of film in the camera just for them. She told him to take his guitar and play in a place that felt natural, where he felt his best; he sat on his bed. She told him to keep playing and she would do the rest. He started performing songs from his notebook. She adjusted the blinds and let the natural light come in. It was difficult to work with, but she loved the lines it created on him. The snow outside enhanced the brightness of the sunlight. She gave him a fixed point saying this spot was his audience, if you're going to look, look there. She moved to different points of the room focusing, refocusing, and clicking the camera while he performed for her. She constantly had to adjust the blinds to the changing light, but she didn't care. He was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen and she loved him. She stood in the spot where she told him his fixed point audience was and she watched him through the camera. He was sexy, passionate, and alive, but something was missing.

"Ozzy."

He stopped playing and looked at her as she lowered the camera. "Yeah."

"Do you remember the look you gave me when you first asked to take off your belt?"

"I'm pretty sure I looked like an idiot because I didn't know what to say."

"No." She giggled. "I mean the look you gave me while you took off your belt."

"Oh." He raised an eyebrow and lowered it. "I might need a little motivation for that."

"Keep performing, rock star." She said to him in her sexy voice to him.

He kept singing and playing she adjusted the camera's focus to where she wanted and when she had it right, she touched her breast with her free hand. Ozzy looked aroused, but it wasn't the face of his she wanted. She tried letting out a sexy moan, but he knew the sounds she made and the look on his face said 'you're kidding me.' She reached down with her free hand and started bunching up her skirt. Her hemline slowly rose up her leg. Ozzy's face started to change as she viewed him through the camera. He was turned on, but she wanted that face that was etched in her memory. Her skirt was bunched up around her hips and she showed him her panties; Ozzy started breathing harder as he sang. His face was closer to what she wanted to capture, but it still wasn't right. She stuck her fingers into the top of her panties and said softly, "Go." A split second later, Bette snapped the camera, took her hand out of her panties, and let her skirt hem fall. Ozzy had started to get up. "Stop. Got it. That was the look I wanted from you."

Ozzy's face dropped. "God you're good. You had me going there. I thought you actually wanted to have sex there for a minute."

She held her camera in front of her chest. "We are making art, not love right now."

"I can do both." He said with a playful smile.

She walked up to him. From where he sat on the bed, they were eye to eye. "First business then pleasure." She kissed him softly but quickly.

"How much more business is on the roll?"

"Another dozen."

"Can I try?"

She gave him a smirk. "Okay. But it means I can't use this roll for class. If it's not for an assignment, I can't use the darkroom. I'll have to get it developed elsewhere."

Ozzy grinned. He set his guitar aside and took the camera strap off her neck and put it around his. "Lie down."

She closed her eyes and chuckled. "Ozzy, I'm not going to-"

"I'm asking you to trust me. It's your camera. It's your film. I'll stop as soon as you tell me to stop." He didn't ask intrusively, but he wasn't begging either.

"Go ahead," She had total faith in him.

Ozzy had her take off her blouse. She had a spaghetti strap tank top and bra on underneath. He had her take the straps down and she tucked them into the sides of her bra. He had her get in the bed and use the top sheet to cover her chest and leave her arms and collarbone exposed. She looked like she could have been nude. He handed her purse and asked her to put on some lip color, just enough to make her lips pop. When he told her to then get comfortable, she propped her head on her hand and smiled for him. He told her no, he told her to look like she was sleeping. Bette was confused by his request but relented. At first, she couldn't relax. She had her eyes closed and waited in anticipation for the camera to click. Ozzy leaned over and kissed her. He whispered, "You are a sleeping sasquatch monster." Bette smiled and sighed. She relaxed. He moved the waves of her hair over the pillow and she relaxed further. He snapped the camera. "Roll and reposition like you would in the middle of the night." She kept her eyes closed and did as he said. He moved a few more strands of her hair and took a deep exhale. Ozzy snapped a photo. "On your side." She rolled to her side and adjusted the pillow. He moved a few more hairs. The camera snapped a couple times. Ozzy opened a drawer and handed her something. "Hold this." She kept her eyes closed, but she could tell it was a teddy bear. She clutched it under her arm and gave it a kiss. Ozzy snapped the camera when she did. She let out a laugh; he snapped the camera as she did. She finally opened her eyes and gave him a sly look. Ozzy snapped the camera when she looked down the lens at him. "Back to sleep sasquatch." She fell back to the pillow with her fingers curled by her face. He snapped another photo. She yawned. Ozzy snapped a photo. She opened her eyes and he was hovering over her. "I love you," he said. She smiled and he snapped a photo.

"I love you too." She stretched her arms out wide. Ozzy snapped another photo. Ozzy walked to the side of the bed and stood at an odd angle. He refocused the camera. He then laid down by her side and tried not to move the camera from where he held it.

"You're going to have to be the big spoon this time."

"I think I can live with that. A smile?"

"I can't think of a time I've ever been happier." He clicked the camera then looked at it. "That was the last one."

"I can't imagine how these are going to turn out," said Bette.

"With this much beauty on film. I'm amazed we didn't break your camera." He carefully set the camera down on his bedside table, turned over in place; they wrapped their arms around each other and gave each other a big kiss.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 45.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

On Friday December 26th, Bette had slept in a little. Her grandparents, Lorna's parents, had already left. They were early risers and not ones to stick around to say goodbye. She figured they were probably out the door by 7:30 AM. She didn't have to work again until Sunday and was looking forward to taking some days off. Christmas in the Wheelan home was small, but intimate and generous. Bette gave her parents some of her framed pictures from her photography class. They were pictures of her parents hanging laundry, in the kitchen together, at an event dancing together, and one of them kissing. John teared up. Bette's grandparents gave her $500 cash and she nearly fell out of her chair when she opened the envelope. Her grandmother also gave her a silver ear cuff that looked like a feather wing and a pair of black pearl earrings. She said she hadn't worn either of them since the '80s and someone should get some use out of them. Both were Bette's style and she sat and talked with her grandmother for a long time about her younger years as a nurse and how she met her grandfather at a USO. Her grandmother made a joke about still finding her grandfather sexy after all these years and using one shower in the house over the other because it fit both of them. Bette's jaw dropped at her epic, still banging, powerful lady of a grandma. She showed her pictures of Ozzy, the ones from their first date and prom, the triple spiral necklace he gave her and the meaning, and told her how happy they have been together. Her grandmother quietly asked Bette if as a big guy if he had a big shower. Bette nodded with an impish smile.

Early in the afternoon she was in the upstairs TV room flipping through channels when the phone rang. She answered. "Hello?"

"Hello. Is Bette there?"

She could hear it was Mark, and she could hear how distressed he sound. "It's me. I'd ask what's wrong, but I know what's wrong."

"Four years. It's been four years and it doesn't get any easier." His voice started to break.

"Breathe. Take a few deep breaths."

He took a couple moments before he spoke again. "I want to go see him. I don't think I can do it alone."

He didn't outright ask her, but she knew what he meant. "My dad didn't work today. I can pick you up. You probably shouldn't drive right now."

She heard him sniffle. "That would be nice." He gave her the address and she let him know she would be on her way soon. They needed to head out soon before they lost the daylight.

Bette hadn't been to his new home. He lived in Skye's neighborhood but not on the same block. She was a little taken a back when she realized how many times he had given her a ride home from school when she was so far out of his way. She pulled up to his address and started to get out of the truck when Mark trudged out of the front door. He had his camera bag with him. The got back into her dad's truck and she started driving. He told her where to go. She didn't say anything, she was there to listen and support him as he needed. The roads and the parking lot were clear at the cemetery which, to Bette, seemed like a dismal thing for Christmastime. Mark lead her through the cemetery past newest headstones to the one where his father was. Mark wiped the snow off it until it was clean and they stood back and looked at it. He looked at it for a few minutes before he spoke. When he did, he spoke slowly and quietly and every sentence seemed to be a struggle for him to say.

"Hi Dad. Sorry it took so long for me to come by. It's been too long. I miss you every day, but I think you probably know that." He sniffed. "There are so many things I wish I could have talked to you about. So many things I needed you for. It would have been hard to talk about, but you always understood. You never made me feel bad or wrong about the things I felt." He handed Bette the camera bag and looked at her. "Just a few. Whatever feels right." She nodded. He kept talking to the headstone. "You remember Bette." Mark ticked his head to her. She nodded her head to the stone as she opened the bag. "You didn't make me feel bad or weird when I came home with her lipstick smeared all over me. Any other dad would have." They both had awkward smiles on their faces. "You didn't get to be a dad again. I didn't get to be a big brother." Bette stepped back behind Mark and took a picture of him looking at the headstone. She started making a big circle around them. "Life is weird without you around Dad. It sucks a lot sometimes. I know you wouldn't like me saying it like that, but it's how it feels." Bette got a third of the way around and took another picture. "Everyone who knew you says I look just like you now. I don't know if that makes things easier or harder, especially for mom. I could never talk to her the way I talked to you. It's gotten better with her though, only because it absolutely had to. It wasn't fair to either of us." Bette stood a few feet behind the headstone and snapped one of Mark looking at it. "But you always said there was no such thing as fair. God knows that's true. It was always true." He wiped his nose and his face with the back of his glove and stepped up to the headstone and crouched down. He put his fingers below the words 'devoted father.' Words that existed only for him. Bette stood behind Mark a few feet at an angle and took one more photo. "I said once that you're half of me, but there's so much more than that. You're in everything I am and all I do. I love you Dad. I miss you. I'm sorry. And I hope you can forgive me." Mark leaned his head on the stone and cried. Bette put the camera back in his bag and closed it. It was as if she was at James Hall's funeral all over again, but Mark was the one who delivered the eulogy. She didn't know what to do or say. The afternoon was getting colder and she was starting to feel it. She slowly approached him and set her mittened hand on his shoulder. He stood, turned, embraced her and sobbed. He had thrown his arms over hers and she could only wrap her lower arms around his middle. At least he was warm.

"Breathe. It's okay. Breathe," she whispered.

He let go of her and wiped his face with the back of his glove again. "I'm cold. I wanna go."

"Okay." She nodded. They walked back to her dad's truck and she started it. "You can pick a station or a CD if you want." She popped open the center console and Mark took a look inside. She started the truck and let it warm up a minute.

"Soundtracks to 'That Thing You Do,' 'The Mask,' 'Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,' You keep these in here? Or pick them out for today?"

"No. They're my dad's. It doesn't matter what I achieve in my life. He will forever be cooler than me."

"He was pretty cool from what I remember."

"I'm not exaggerating either. We were running errands once and he knew all the words on the 'Waiting to Exhale' CD. It's not even embarrassing. It's just awesome."

Mark cracked a smile. "You appreciate him. You appreciate him now. You're going to miss them so much when you go to college in the fall."

"There's no doubt in my mind about that."

Mark selected the 'That Thing You Do' CD, put it in, and went to the second track, the title track. Bette started tapping the beat on the steering wheel with her class ring, making a clicking sound. She drove off and took him home.

The evening of Tuesday December 30th, Bette called Ozzy. She worked a shift at the museum and had picked up the pictures that she and Ozzy had taken from before Christmas. She wanted to show them to him. She had purchased doubles of the photos and was excited to give him his set of the pictures. She got changed and he came and picked her up and brought her back to his house. They went into his room and sat on his bed. Her heart raced watching his reaction to the photos she took of him.

"Bee. These are great photos. I love that they're in black and white," he said happily.

"It's what they require for class. I didn't understand why, but I love the look in so many of them."

Ozzy flipped to the last picture of him. The one that Bette achieved by touching herself. The one with the look on his face that set her on fire. "This one is my favorite of you. This is the face of yours, which you gave me with the belt."

Ozzy looked at the photo then over to her. "That face. Now I get it."

"Can you tell me what you're thinking? Do you remember?"

"Isn't it obvious? 'I want you.'"

"You knew that when you took off your belt the first time? You were so nervous. I told you I wanted to keep going and you asked me twice if I wanted to."

He smiled, "I had to be sure you wanted me too. Second base stuff is one thing, third is another. I hadn't done that, I wasn't sure what you had done. I was so scared and you weren't. You were amazing." He kissed her.

She leaned on his shoulder. "You weren't so bad yourself."

Ozzy rotated the picture to the first one he took of Bette in his bed with her eyes closed. She didn't look super asleep. "Look at you," he said affectionately.

"Yeah. I'm not always great in front of the camera."

"Knock that off. You're gorgeous." He flipped to the next one. She looked more relaxed, more natural. The next one was even more relaxed. "See. That first one was a first pancake, for both of us." The next two were her on her side; she did look like she was asleep. The two after that were with her kissing teddy bear and the one of her laughing. "I love these two."

"You just happened to have a bear?"

"I've always had that bear."

"Why does that not surprise me," she said sweetly.

The next photo was the one of her stating down the camera with the bear. "You can be sexy and innocent. I don't know how you do it." The next one had her hands by her face, the one where she was yawning, then the ones where they had said they loved each other. The last one was of them together. They looked at the last picture together for a moment.

"I can't wait to show these to people."

Ozzy snapped his head to her. "What? No way. These are so intimate. This is my room. These should be private," he was a bit firm when he said it.

"You let me take the pictures of you when you thought they were going to be for class."

"Yeah. Me fully clothed. Not you naked-looking in my bed," Ozzy remained firm.

Bette flipped back to some previous pictures. "You can see the outline of my clothes in this one. And this one you can see my shirt. And anyone I show them to I would tell I'm dressed."

"I'm not comfortable with that."

"What happened to 'my camera, my film?'"

"I still don't like it."

"You said you couldn't stop me from making my own choices," she became firm with him.

"This is a bad choice."

"I'm not going to make copies and hand them out. I'm going to show them to people I want to show them to. I want to show them to people who appreciate this kind of art."

"Like Mark?" Ozzy said it with a grit in his voice that he hadn't used with her before, ever.

"What's that supposed to mean?" She remained firm with him.

"I don't trust him."

"You don't need to. I do. He's a friend. He's done nothing to you."

"What about before you went into the hospital?"

"That was months ago. It was a misunderstanding! He apologized. I explained the situation of what happened in the hospital to you. There's a lot more to it than that."

"Why didn't you tell me there was more?"

"Because it was personal to him. It was private. It was stuff he doesn't want shared. It was stuff you didn't need to know."

Ozzy tossed the photos on the bed, stood, and crossed the room "Fuck, Bette! He's manipulating you! You don't see it!" He yelled.

"Kind of like saying I have spies and assassins and shit?" She said harshly.

"He told you that?" He asked with flustered surprise.

"Of course he told me that! Why would you threaten him like that? That's so stupid. I couldn't believe you did that. I didn't think you would do something so macho and stupid like that. It was so embarrassing!"

"I did it because I couldn't stand the idea seeing you hurt like that again. You looked like my mom. You don't understand how awful that was for me!"

"Because you never told me about it! It's been years and you've never wanted to talk about your parents."

"Because there's no way you'd understand."

"Just because I won't understand doesn't mean I won't listen or care. When did I ever not?"

"Whenever it wasn't convenient for you."

"The hell does that mean?"

"You didn't want to tell me about Keith or Jesse. That wasn't convenient for you. I would have listened and understood that. Maybe I had stuff going on at that time that I needed you for. You were pretty hard to reach when you were preoccupied with them."

"The door swings both ways Ozzy. Neither of them took up 100% of my time. You don't even take up 100% of my time."

"You sure make time for Mark."

"Oh my God! Friday?! It was the anniversary of his father's death you asshole! He hadn't been there since he died. I missed your phone call. I called you back!"

"I am not the asshole here. Again. He's manipulating you. He could have called anyone. He called you to go there. Don't you think that's a little calculating?"

"There was nothing calculating about the things he said he did that day. It was awful. I wouldn't wish that on anyone."

"Why won't you tell me about it so I can understand?!"

"Because it's not your place to understand!"

"Which is why I don't trust you with him!"

There it was. He didn't trust her and Ozzy was jealous. He had been jealous of Jesse and Keith in the past and they weren't even together at the time. He was jealous of Mark now. It wasn't that he didn't just distrust Mark. He didn't trust her anymore, and her stomach sank. She stood. Her voice was hardly more than a whisper, "Ozzy. If you don't trust me, you can't love me."

"Maybe I don't trust you anymore. It's been getting too hard to not worry. I can't trust him, I can deal with that. But it's getting too hard with you." His voice ached.

"For how long?" He dropped his head, put his hands on his face, and shook it back and forth. "How long have you felt like you can't trust me Ozzy?!"

"A while. Month, month and a half."

She looked at him with wide-eyed understanding. "After I got my acceptance letter for college. This isn't all about Mark, is it?"

"It doesn't matter the reasons."

"Either way, you still don't trust me to stay with you anymore."

Ozzy nodded. Bette reached behind her neck and unclasped the triple spiral necklace. "No. That was a gift. Whether or not you keep wearing it, it's still yours."

She clasped it back on. She tried to keep her voice from breaking. "Same with the kilt pin and the belt buckle."

Ozzy stepped up to Bette and yanked her into his arms, turned, and kissed her. "One last time as the bridge breaks?"

"Fine." She was upset but heated. As angry and hurt as she was, he still had a way of turning her on. His hands held firmly around her head and he kissed her with the passion he always had for her. She reached under her skirt and took off her panties. She then reached for his belt and unbuckled it. She unbuttoned it and unzipped his pants and lowered his jeans and shorts to his knees.

Bette pulled his hands off her face and attempted to push him back onto his bed. He didn't move much under her power, but he fell back anyways. "I was always so bothered by the fact that I could never control you."

"You were the one that had total control over me. That was the problem."

She grabbed a condom from the bedside table and ripped it open, "I mean physically. If I wanted you to hold me down or go harder, it's not because I wanted to be dominated, it's because I like how big and strong you feel." She rolled the condom on to him and pushed him back. It was the same thing, he didn't move under her strength, but he fell back anyways.

"I couldn't stand the idea of hurting you, even if it got you off."

"We're past that now, aren't we?" She climbed on top of him and put him in her and they both moaned.

"I might have been able to if Pete, Keith, and Jesse hadn't messed you up." He grabbed her butt under her skirt. She planted her hands on his chest, gripping his shirt, and thrusted herself on him again and again.

"That might not have happened if you had tried sooner." She moaned.

They focused on each other. They moaned, groaned, and sighed while they spoke through their break-up sex.

"I wanted to kiss you the fourth of July you tickled me. I was so turned on. But I'm not the kind to guy kiss someone else's girlfriend. Uh!"

"That would have been hard to say no to-ooh!"

"You should have said yes when I asked yo-ou to teach me freshman year."

"I-I was scared of ah-all guys at the time, except you. I wa-anted to say yes."

"I kissed you on-on top of your head the night of my pa-arty freshman year. You, umph, just didn't know it."

"I liked the way you touched me when yo-ou would put sun-sunscreen on-on my back. I bought halter tops on-on purpose."

"That always gave me a hard on! UH! That's why I could barely speak when I, ah, did that."

"I wanted you so, so bad at the Halloween Dance in 8th grade. Ah! I was so fucking jealous of Vanessa."

"Ah! Then why did you give me her number?"

"I was young a-and stupid and I di-idn't think you were into me. I could barely admit how much I-I liked you to myself. Ah! We spent so much of that summer together. How many times did you see me in a swimsuit? Uh!"

"UH! Enough to take longer than you to get out of the water every time."

"You ate so-o-o many of those caramel apple suckers. I-I wanted to be every one."

"Oh yeah! I wanted to be all those ice cream cones you ate."

"I-I got a-a-a badminton set because of how well we played together in-in gym."

"We were uh-undefeated in gym class!"

"That's when I first got a crush on you!"

"Uh! I got a hard on in front of you when you, ah, said you found the porno mag in-in the woods. Ah! I had to hide it by putting my hands in my pockets."

"I knew it! Your eyebrow is your horny tell. Ah!"

"Uh! I would have killed Jason Kaye for you! As in actual homicide after he hurt you if I-uh- had been given the chance."

"That would have been amazing!"

"I, ah, wanted to kiss you after Cassandra dumped me, but, uh, I thought I-I looked too pathetic. Ah!"

"I-I wanted to kiss you too if only to-oo make you feel better."

"You were a better kisser than all of them. AH!"

"You OH! were my first kiss!"

"Mine too!"

Bette fell forward and embraced Ozzy and he wrapped his arms around her. They kissed deeply and angrily. They both had tears coming off their faces. Ozzy rolled them to the side and thrust himself into her hard and she responded with loud pants, moans, and pleasurable screams. She kneaded her hands into the back of his t-shirt. "Use your nails." Bette pushed her nails into is back. "You can go harder."

"You don't want that."

"This time, I do." He tilted his head back and sang, "I'm asking you to go!" She dug her nails into his back and scratched him. He kept singing, "To go and build a bridge. Go, go, go, go! You let me take you on a journey there! But all I wanted was a bridge." Bette stopped scratching and he was crying as he tilted his head back down and they looked at each other. Tears fell from his face, she didn't know if it was from her nails or the heartbreak. They stared at each other and Ozzy let out a trio of hard moans, finishing. She moved to kiss him but he rolled back and away from her. He muttered his tune, "Broke that bridge for you."

Bette covered her face with her hands, cried, and balled herself up under her skirt. She felt him get off the bed. She heard him take off the condom. She heard and felt him pull his pants back up, buckle his belt, and move a little across the room. He placed a hand on her back and she pulled away from him.

"Stop." She whispered through her cry. She sniffled and got up without looking at him. She went in the bathroom and peed. She opened the sink cabinet and grabbed the last few giant maxi pads that were left there from their wager back in 8th grade along with a body spray she kept there. While she was in there, Ozzy started to play his acoustic guitar and sing. It wasn't The Beach Boys like she imagined he might play after a girl had hurt him in the past. The tune and the words were familiar. It was a cover song; she didn't recognize it until he got to the chorus. It was "Wicked Games" by Chris Isaak. Ozzy didn't sing it like he did. He performed it in a different minor key more suited to his vocal range. Most people thought of the song as a sexy, love song, but Bette heard the lyrics for what they truly were in that moment: It was a song about heartbreak, and they were broken.

She waited for him to finish before flushing the toilet and leaving the bathroom. She went back in his room and grabbed her panties off the floor and put them back on. Ozzy sat in his chair and held his guitar, strumming a few notes. He didn't look at her. Two doors. Me or his music? His music will never leave him like I eventually will. And holding his guitar makes him feel better. It's the easier choice. She put the items from the bathroom in the purse. She looked over at the bed and saw the now creased and wrinkled photographs she had just brought. She went back to the bed and took the ones that had her in them, including the one of her and Ozzy. She put them back in her purse and went out of Ozzy's bedroom door. She deliberately closed it behind her. She put on her long winter coat, boots, hat, scarf, and mittens and walked home in tears. I hate Christmas break. She sobbed to Lorna when she got home. She told her how she and Ozzy had just broken up. She said that they didn't trust each other anymore and it was enough reason to end it. Lorna held and rocked her into the night.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 46 .-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

The next night was New Year's Eve. Jenna was having some girls over: Bette, Katie, and Vanessa. Bette tried not to be a total wreck the whole night, but it was hard. Not long after midnight, Katie and Jenna went to sleep in Jenna's room Bette and Vanessa were on the couch each under their own blanket. They had the movie 'Bruce Almighty' on, but neither of them were laughing too much. Vanessa muted the DVD.

"Do you wanna talk about it?" She asked Bette.

"You really wanna know?" Bette was dower.

"Who better would understand?" Vanessa was genuinely sweet.

Bette adjusted on the couch and faced her. "We had this routine. Whenever one of us got our hearts broken, we'd listen to The Beach Boys. It started when he first got dumped. We had to listen to three of their CDs when you broke up with him. It's a compliment to you. It means you meant a lot to him. But now? I can't do that. Jenna is my best friend until the day I die, don't get me wrong. But Ozzy." She started to cry again. "I lost something yesterday that I don't know how to explain."

Vanessa crossed the couch and bear hugged Bette and rubbed her back. "It's awful, isn't it?" She rocked Bette.

"We didn't speak after. He was my friend and my love. I'm angry and upset, but not at him. It feels like he died!"

"Sweetie. It's barely been a day. If this is how you feel, how do you think he feels?"

"He's always been so thoughtful. I can't imagine how much he hurts right now. He said he didn't trust me anymore. He sang how it hurt. He sang our song he wrote. This truss of trust really did leave too much at stake. And now there's an entire ocean between us." Bette sobbed.

"Can I tell you something? About my break up with him?"

"Okay."

"As much as I liked him. And as much as I knew he liked me. Towards the end, I knew he wasn't interested in me anymore. We were going through the motions. The making out was fun. He was into that. But I think when he saw you were single again; I didn't have a chance to make him happy anymore."

Bette took a few deep breaths. "But, that took weeks. You didn't break up with him until the end of February."

"You remember that?"

Bette opened up their hug and took a drink of her water. "Pet Sounds. Surfer Girl. Summer Days. Those were the albums we listened to when you broke up with him. We ate apples and chocolate chip cookies. He told me how much you meant to him and said he shared stuff with you about his mom. Stuff he still hasn't told me to this day. He cried and I cried with him."

Vanessa teared up a bit. "I had no idea."

"We had an agreement from the time we became friends: we don't lie to each other. We tell each other everything. But clearly that wasn't the case. Ozzy has a type of girl he likes and Ozzy has buddies. You were his type of girl. Up until last spring, I thought I was his buddy. I thought I became the exception to the rule. Maybe I never was. I don't know. But what I know is that everything sucks right now. Things are going to be weird at lunch on Monday. And I have no idea what I'm doing."

"You are going to be fine, Bette. You are a powerful lady."

"Powerful Ladies Unite." Bette put her hand put for a high-five. Vanessa accepted. They both slapped their chests. Bette finally cracked a little smile.

Bette was right though. Monday January 5th was difficult. When she got to lunch, she did see Ozzy, and he looked different. He cut off his messy curls and dyed his hair black. His goatee was growing back in and colored black in too. He also had his left eyebrow pierced. The same eyebrow he would raise when he was aroused. She thought it looked like he got a fishing hook caught in his face. He even wore his glasses, which seemed extra weird, especially after the piercing. He always wore his contacts to school. She rarely even saw him in his glasses in his house. He looked like he was trying that new emo look and she thought it didn't suit him. He was beautiful before, to her, it was like he was trying to cover it up. When she got to photography class, her lunch in her stomach was sitting like a brick. She had to develop some pictures in the dark room and the chemical smell made her queasy. She didn't vomit, but she found herself burping quite a bit. After class she headed to her locker, Mark caught up with her.

"It's cold out. You don't look like you're feeling well. You want a lift home today?" He was genuinely concerned.

She covered her mouth, turned away, and burped again. "Sure. Thanks." She saw herself in her locker mirror. She was pale, even for herself, more grey. She had bags under her eyes and her eyes were red. She felt like toxic garbage. She grabbed her stuff and they started to head out of the school to his truck.

"So, what's wrong? Bad lunch?" He asked.

"I think you know that this face is not the result of a bad lunch." She took a deep breath. "It's over with Ozzy."

"Oh." He said it in a downward tone. He sounded like he genuinely felt bad for her. "How are you holding up?"

"I feel like boiled shit!" She said savagely outside the building. She gasped. "I'm sorry. That's not fair to you." She covered her face with her hands for a moment.

"We don't have to talk about it. I shouldn't have asked."

"It's fine that you did. I might have thought there was something wrong with you if you saw this," she pointed to her face, "and thought everything was fine. Especially with all the burping."

"It's not bad; just call it a...solar flare." He gave her a light bump with his elbow, but she reacted in a silly way like it was much bigger and jumped with a small, exaggerated shout.

"Solar flare disrupts space station!" She grabbed the back of his truck and shook it. "Emergency fleet stand by!" She joked and laughed at herself. "But seriously. I'll be fine. I think."

They got in the truck and he started it. "Can I ask you something? About after I left? After our break up?"

"Sure."

"What was it like for you?"

She took a deep breath and exhaled through puffed cheeks. "Your card with the brooch was a nice touch. There was lots of crying. I hate Valentine's Day now. That's not a real holiday in my mind. It was hard at first, for sure. But I maintain what I said when you left. I think it was better to have a clean break than wait for us to dislike each other than break up. I've gone through that, at least been the person who's done the disliking. That sucks. Why?"

"I was hoping I didn't make you as miserable as you feel right now."

"Mark. It's different. It's not better or worse. We were kids. I learned how to get through that. You did. I'll figure this out. I'm going to be okay soon enough. I have no other choice."

"See. This is why you're smarter than me." He tapped the steering wheel when he said it. "I wouldn't have seen it like that."

Bette looked over at Mark a little confused. "How do you see it then?"

"I guess I'd be mad or more bitter."

"It's different with him."

"That's code for I don't like it."

"It's code for I don't like the way you're talking about it," she said sternly.

"Sorry Bette. I guess I don't get it."

"You don't need to. You don't have to understand to be a good friend. You just have to be there."

Mark waited before replying. When he spoke, he said it with the brightness in his voice of having had an epiphany, "Which is exactly why you're smarter than me. You've always done that. You were a good friend even when I didn't know it. All those notes. Then just last week. You said almost nothing when you took me to see Dad. You were just there for me. Wow."

"It's been hard for you, not having a lot of friends and your dad?"

"It really has."

Bette felt conflicted with what she was about to offer Mark, but felt like he needed it, and in that moment, she needed it too. "We said we weren't going to lie to each other, right?"

"Of course."

"I want you to know. I don't tell people the private stuff you have told me, not even Jenna. I believe that the stuff I tell you has remained private too, right?"

"Absolutely."

"That's what I call the door swinging and locking in both directions. Your secrets are safe with me. Anyone asks, I simply don't know what they're talking about."

"Even the iconic ones?" Mark said pointedly.

"That was a momentary lapse in judgment shared in grief when I thought I was never going to see you again. And that was something I did, not you. You just happened to be there."

Mark spoke playfully and sarcastically, "Oh. So now I just happened to be there when you had your first 'big O.' I had nothing to do with it. Sure!"

She joked back with him. "I'll give you 25% of the credit, no more."

"I want 50%. My leg, hands, and mouth were involved."

"They were accessories at best. I did all the work. You keep arguing with me on this, I'll go down to 15%." They kept teasing each other.

"30%, I asked you to dance with me on the couch, set the rhythm, and licked your neck the way you liked."

"Fine. You were 30% responsible for my first orgasm. But if the door is going to swing and lock in both directions. It means I'm the only one you can discuss it with."

"I accept. The door swings and locks in both directions. 100% of your secrets are safe with me." He laughed a little.

"Okay." She was quiet for a moment as they got close to her street. "I think it's really cool you're bi."

"I think it's great you're cool with it."

"I made out with Jenna at the Darling Dance last year to get back at a guy. She was a good kisser but I wasn't aroused. So I don't think I am."

"She's your friend." He said it dismissively. "It's not like I want to bang Robert."

He parked in front of her house. "I wish we could keep talking, but I'm not allowed to have guys in the house when my parents aren't home."

"I can call you when I get home."

"I'd like that."

"I need to hear the full Jenna-dance-make out story."

Bette laughed. "It's a doozy."

Over the next week Mark helped talk Bette through her break up with Ozzy. There were days it was easier and days where she was nearly inconsolable. The week was freezing so he gave her rides home each day from school so she wouldn't have to walk the three blocks to take the city bus. He was the friend she needed in the moment. He was the emotional confidant that she lost with Ozzy. They talked about old times in 5th grade and even older times in early elementary school. She told him about her experiences with Pete, Keith, and Jesse and how those guys had affected her over the last few years. How she had given up on caring what other people thought of her and how liberating it felt. He said that maybe after high school, being bisexual, he could do the same, but he wasn't ready to do that yet. The following week, she was finally feeling better to not talk about Ozzy or how she felt about it every day. They just talked.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-* Chapter 47.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

On Friday the 16th, Bette asked Mark to the Darling Dance which was only eight days away. She apologized for it being a fairly last-minute ask, but she remembered how much fun they had dancing back at the Halloween dance in 8th grade, and going to dances always made her feel better. She told him she already had a dress that she bought on clearance after prom season last year; he would just need a suit with a red tie. She would take care of everything else. She started to feel desperate when he didn't reply at first. He said yes. He said he was just listening. In the week leading up to the dance, he told Robert that Bette had asked him and Robert invited them to join him, Hank, and their dates Ami and Sonja at dinner at The Lodge. Bette was happy to go with a group outside her usual group of friends. She still drove her dad's truck and picked Mark up. She arrived to his house and knocked. He opened the door and he was wearing a black suit, black dress shirt, and a red satin tie. Gina wanted to take pictures. Bette took off her coat. She wore a black, stretchy, fitted halter dress that had an above knee-length hem in the front and low hem above her ankle in the back. There were thin red ribbons around the halter neck and some around the extra fabric of thin ruffles of the high-low hem with more red ribbon. She called it her 'tango' dress. She also had a sheer black bolero that perfectly covered the back of the halter and her arms instead of a wrap or a scarf. She wore a new red beaded bracelet, her grandmother's black pearl earrings, and the white star pendant Mark had given her years ago. She picked out white flowers for the corsage and boutineer. Gina took pictures of them in the living room and they left in Bette's dad's truck for the restaurant to meet with the rest of his friends.

"You look great," said Mark.

"Thank you. You do too. You look like the sophisticated vampire I remember."

"This old thing?" He joked. "Just something I had tucked in the back of the closet. Or should I say coffin?"

"That's what I was going to say. I've literally had this dress in my closet since June. It was $9 on clearance."

Mark made a face of curious surprise. "I'd say you got your money's worth out of it."

"Believe it or not, the flowers cost more. I went into the florist and I asked for something specific."

"Specific in what way?"

Bette had put her corsage back in the clear plastic box after the pictures to not wreck it when she put her coat back on. She held it out to Mark and had him take it. "The big flower is a lily. The smaller one is a tropical morning glory." She gave him a quick glance and a smirk as she drove. She reached into her coat pocket and held something in her hand. "Most people get roses. They're so obvious. I'm not a fan of roses myself. Carnations are pretty, but cheap. They're a funeral flower. I got the lily and the tropical morning glory because of their other names."

Bette stopped at a red light.

"What are their other names?" he asked.

She smirked and smiled still. "Stargazer lily and moonflower. I asked if they had flowers with the words 'moon' and 'star' in them." She said and opened her hand to reveal the old rhinestone circle brooch he had given her years earlier. "The moon and star are going to shine tonight." She said smiling. "You should find a spot for that."

He took the pin out of her hand, took the rubber earring back that was still there after all those years off it, secured it onto his tie like a tie tack, put the backing on, and closed the pin. "You kept them both. I wasn't going to say anything when I saw you wearing the star pendant. I was going to wait for you to remind me," he said shyly.

"Why wouldn't I keep them? You said you kept my notes, and those were just notes," she dismissed.

"Those weren't just notes. Those were life preserves to me," he said seriously. "I didn't just read them when you gave them to me. I read them when times were hard. When I felt alone. When I missed my dad and didn't know how to deal with it. I heard you in those notes and letters when there was nothing but emptiness around me."

Bette pulled into the restaurant parking lot and parked. "It's lonely in the void of space sometimes, isn't it? We see everything around us. We see all of the Earth and no one thinks we play a part for them. And if we do, it's not for long."

Mark cracked a smile. "It's going to be like you said." His smile grew. "We're going to shine tonight!"

Bette grinned. "Oh hell yeah."

They went in the restaurant and met up with Robert and Ami with Hank and Sonja. They hadn't been waiting long. They shared an appetizer orders of bread sticks, artichoke dip, and steak tips. Bette loved the food at The Lodge and knew what she was going to order before the menu came: whiskey chicken, corn bread with honey butter, and spinach salad. The group ate, talked, and enjoyed each other's company. They talked about old times and funny stories. Bette liked seeing Mark light up with Hank and Robert. They were old childhood friends and they acted like happy kids together. After the meal, Ami and Sonja got up to go to the restroom. Bette didn't need to go, but Ami eyed Bette to join them and she did. Bette looked at herself in the mirror and reapplied her burgundy lipstick while the other girls peed and they washed their hands. "I ate way too much. I shouldn't have ordered the steak. I feel bloated," said Sonja.

"I told you to get control top pantyhose. They do more work than you realize," said Ami.

"She's right. They smooth everything out." Bette turned and looked at herself in the mirror. "They flatten out my ass, but I don't have much of an ass anyways. Yet, no love handles. A fair compromise for this dress." Bette slapped her own tight butt. "Uh!"

Ami and Sonja laughed.

"I had to wear my new cute underwear. I got a matching set in this great deep purple color," said Sonja. She flushed the toilet and came out of the stall and washed her hands too.

"So it's on with Hank tonight?" Ami asked.

"It better be! It's been a couple weeks of hand and mouth stuff. I'm ready to wreck him!" Said Sonja. "I do this thing where I push on the nerve behind his balls." She mimed with a few fingers, then curled them into a loose fist and made a circular motion. "He fucking loves it; he throws his head back and moans when I do that. But now, I just want to jump him. He's got that sick body from playing baseball. You know he never stops training?" She was almost drooling.

"Hank is hot for sure, I'll give you that. Robert might not be much to look at, but makes up for it with a great cock and by going down on me for an hour at a time. I asked him what he's doing down there and he says he's writing out the digits of pi, the Preamble to the Constitution, or the periodic table. He says it keeps him from shooting his load too quick. I swear you two have it wrong: bang nerds. They take good care of you and they appreciate you." Ami grinned and fanned herself in a lighthearted way.

Bette looked at Sonja with a saucy smile. Ami and Sonja were good friends and Bette had been acquainted with them at best. She was surprised they were being so open with her after such a short period of time. Ami looked to Bette. "I shouldn't say that without knowing the deal with you and Mark. What's that situation?"

Bette shrugged. "I was his girlfriend back in eighth grade. We're just friends now."

Ami and Sonja looked at each other for a second. "No way." Said Ami. "I promise you this: they are talking about the same stuff we are out there right now with maps and charts and shit trying to help Mark get you tonight."

Bette scoffed. "I doubt that." She had sudden curiosity, "What makes you so sure?"
"They're guys!" Said Sonja. "It's all they think about."

She wasn't buying their reasoning. "He's not like that with me. We trust each other. We've talked about those old times. It's not weird like that." said Bette.

"Girl! You look this good." Ami waved her hand in front of Bette. "He wants on."

"Whatever." Bette dismissed with a smile and a red face. "We should go back before they think we all fell in."

Bette opened the bathroom door and walked out holding the door open behind her for the other two.

At the Darling Dance, the six of them had fun together. Between all of them, they had four disposable cameras; one of them was Bette's. They got passed around to each other and lots of pictures were taken. Pictures of the three guys grinning ear to ear and arm and arm. Three girls posing like they were Charlie's Angels. Ami dipping Sonja. Sonja crawling out from under Ami's dress. Bette showing off her cleavage. Ami being held by Robert with her legs wrapped around his waist. Sonja sitting on Bette's lap. Bette and Sonja holding up Ami in their arms. Hank giving Mark a piggyback ride. All three guys dancing synchronized. Bette and Mark in various dance formations. Sonja kissing Hank. Ami and Robert kissing aggressively. Sonja and Ami kissing. Hank and Bette break dance battling. Lots of pictures of all of them dancing, smiling, and laughing. During 'All My Life' by KC & Jojo, Bette and Mark finally got a chance to slow dance and catch their breaths from all the faster dancing.

"I like your buddies. And Ami and Sonja are fun too. I'm just sorry I wasn't friends with them years ago," said Bette.

"They're the best guys. I wish I had kept contact with them while I was gone the last few years. What was it about the girls that makes you say that?"

Bette snickered. "It would be unladylike for me to say."

"That bad?"

"That awesome! Those girls are nuts, but in a good way. They're my kind of 'don't give a fuck.'"

Mark laughed. He let go of her waist and gave her a spin. "Sounds like a good way to be."

She grabbed back a hold of his shoulder and clicked her heels together with the beat of the song. "Soon enough my friend, soon enough."

Midnight came and the dance ended. The lights came up and everyone started to leave. Bette hugged the other four of the group and thanked them for letting her join them for the evening. She told them she had so much fun with them and it meant a lot to her and it probably meant a lot to Mark. She drove Mark home recounting their favorite moments of the evening laughing. She pulled up and parked in front of his dark house with the front porch light on.

"Thanks again for asking me tonight. I didn't do any of this at the other school. I forgot how fun it could be," said Mark.

Bette shifted in her seat. "It was fun. I had a great time," she said quickly.

"Is something wrong?"

"I gotta pee," she said anxiously.

"C'mon." He ticked his head towards the house. "You can go before you go."

"Thank you!" she said relieved as she turned off the truck. They rushed up the sidewalk through the cold. Mark let them in the house. "Which way?" She whispered.

Mark opened a door off the kitchen and ticked his head and lead her down the carpeted stairway. He turned on the light switch at the top of the stairs. They got to the base of the stairs and Bette saw the space; it was a 'mother-in-law' suite in the basement. They were in the living room space of it with the couch, TV, weights, and stereo.

"Through the door, then on the left. Light switches are on your right."

Bette saw the first light switch as she rushed through the door and saw the bathroom through the second door. She flipped on the light switch, closed the door, lifted her dress, pulled down her pantyhose, and sat on the toilet right in time. She breathed a sigh of relief and quickly realized that the smells in the room weren't just clean bathroom smells, they were masculine smells. This was Mark's bathroom. She looked around and saw shaving cream, razor, electric trimmer, cologne, aftershave, lotions, hair gel and more. She finished, got up, and flushed. She washed her hands with the lemon scented hand soap, the one of the few things that didn't have a matching masculine scent to it. She dried her hands and heard that Mark was playing the stereo in the other room. She opened the bathroom door and saw that it passed through his bedroom before the bathroom. She had been in such a rush to use the bathroom; she missed noticing his bedroom completely. He had some clothes in a hamper, magazines on a bedside table, and his backpack and camera bag near the foot of the bed. She kept her glance short and looked back into the living room. Mark was standing by the stereo holding a couple CDs. He had shed his shoes, suit jacket, dress shirt, and tie. He was wearing a tight black tank top that hugged his torso. Holy Swayze in Dirty Dancing. The years of running, fitness, and dancing had done his body right. She tried to not gawk.

"Better?" He asked.

"Yeah." She closed his door behind her. She looked around, "You get the whole basement?"

"Yeah. I saw it and called 'dibs.' Mom didn't object."

"Right."

The song on the stereo changed to 'Bailamos' by Enrique Iglesias. "One more dance before you go?"

"I could do that." She said softly. They walked up to each other behind the couch where the most space was. He put his right hand on her back where he knew to lead her. Her left arm formed the tight frame on his arm up to his shoulder. Their other hands joined. They found the count in the song and he moved them. It was a 4/4 timed count song. He lead her with a mambo at first, then some tight turns, a meringue, and salsa steps. They hand little smiles on their faces and moved through the song with swinging hips. They danced as well as they did only an hour ago and just like then, they did it for fun and they did it for themselves. It gave them the fun they were in need of. At the end of the song, he turned her far out and then pulled her back in. Bette still had her shoes on and one got caught on the carpet. She tripped forward and felt the horror on her face as she toppled forward. Mark was quick. He still held her hand and got his arm around her back and caught her in a lunge. Her arm wrapped around his shoulders as she caught him. Their faces were close enough that she could tell that he had eaten wintergreen mints and not chewed gum.

"You know, if you wanted to tango, you just had to say so." Mark chuckled.

Bette stood up straight in his arms and tried to wipe the stun off her face. The CD stereo switched to the next disc and played 'Lately' by Divine.

"Did you plan that?" She asked.

"How could I plan you tripping?" He said. She meant the music and the mints.

He was still holding her and started moving her with the song. She liked the song and hadn't heard it in a long time; not since middle school dances. She closed her eyes and moved her hand to a more comfortable position across his shoulders. Her hand settled on the skin right below his neck. His hand moved up her back and his fingertips touched the skin of her back under her sheer bolero. She felt his change opened their embrace until they were looking at each other. She could feel how red her face was. Mark looked at her: sweet and serious, he didn't move closer or lean into her. She looked down at their hands. She saw and felt his thumb moving against her hand. He barely moved his thumb, but it was enough for her to know that the girls were right earlier, and none of this was an accident. He was warm. He was sexy. He had been open and raw with her. He became impossible to say 'no' to. She pulled their hands close into them and she kissed the side of his thumb. It wasn't just a peck; her lips slowly enrobed his thumb until it nearly touched her teeth. Mark took a deep inhale when she did. She let his thumb out of her lips and looked up at him. He took her hand in his and pulled it to his lips. He did the same to her index finger while staring her down. Bette let out a soft breath from her stomach. Mark took her finger into his mouth to the second knuckle before letting it slide out and giving her finger another kiss. Bette lowered their hands and put some pressure on the back of his neck. She turned her head and began to close her eyes and could see Mark do the same as they started to kiss. It was different than when they were younger. It felt like a first kiss for the two again, but this time Mark was a man, and she was a woman. Their mouths opened to each other in a way that was instinctive. The warm memories came flooding back to Bette. He cared for her then, and he did now, and it made her feel incredible. Their hands turned and their fingers interwove with each other. His arm around her pulled her tight into him and this time, when she felt his erection, it felt as natural as the kiss. He pulled back from the kiss looking passionately at her; she held his gaze for a moment and closed her eyes. Her hand on his back slid across his shoulder and to his upper arm. She gave his firm bicep a squeeze. He held her waist tight against him, they swiveled their hips together, and gave her a couple grinds in rhythm with the song.

The song ended and the next one that played was '2 Become 1' by The Spice Girls. Mark stepped back from Bette a little and dropped his hand from her back. She finally opened her eyes. He unwove their fingers. "Bette, I think you know I want you to stay longer than one song."

Bette felt the sweat that that built between her breasts and how hot he had made her in her very core. It was after 12:30 AM. She knew her parents were asleep at home and they trusted her to come home, but she didn't want to rush home in the middle of the night in her dress, exhausted, doing the walk of shame. And she still had moments where she was plagued by thoughts Ozzy; it was too soon. As much as she wanted Mark, this was not the moment.

"Yeah. I kinda figured that."

He let go of her hand and stepped back. "I think you want to stay too. I won't push you. I was pushed. I wouldn't dream of doing that to you."

"I-I think this isn't the time. I think I'm not ready yet. It's only been a few weeks." She said nervously. She was scared of hurting him or letting him down.

He gave her a little smile and put his hands in his pockets. "In that case: Thank you for the extra dances. I had lots of fun tonight. And I'll see you in class on Monday."

She gave him a little smile. "Thank you for a wonderful evening." She walked towards the stairs and up them and he followed behind her. She got to the top and she cracked the door to the kitchen, stopped, and turned around. "Before I go," she held out her right hand to him, "Could you kiss these two fingers," she pointed to her middle and ring finger, "Like you did before," she whispered.

Mark gave her a grin and climbed the next stair until he was eye to eye and right against her. He wrapped his right arm around her waist and took her right hand in his left. He positioned her fingers in his hand and gave her a sexy gaze. He took her middle and ring fingers into his mouth and closed his eyes while her did. She watched him and gave him a moan for his efforts. "I'm glad to do it. Tell me to do that anywhere at any time and I don't think I'll have a reason not to. But, um, why?"

She held his chin and gave him a slow, romantic kiss then spoke in her soft, sexy voice, "I wanted you to have 100% of the credit for what would happen two minutes after I got in my room tonight."

"That makes two of us," he said with a breathy laugh.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-* Chapter 48 .-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

On Monday, Bette put one of those warm memories to use. She wore a black maxi-skirt with a side slit, a black scoop-necked long sleeved top, the bolero sheer cover up from the dance, and a pendant of a little green bottle she liked because it looked like poison, white tights, and black boots. She braided her hair in a single braid: Wednesday Addams was all grown up. When She got to photography class, she sat with crossed legs and the slit in the skirt opened and showed much of her legs. When Mark came in, Bette was just as surprised to see he appeared to make a visual statement for her. He wore black pants and a black fitted short sleeved button up shirt with the tight back tank underneath tucked into the pants. Mark usually wore a t-shirt as an undershirt, an untucked button up, and nothing that tailored or tight. And he wore the circle brooch on a black nylon cord around his neck. When they saw each other across the room, Mark saw the gawked look on Bette's face and he smiled. He quickly scanned the room, saw no one looking, lifted his sleeve, and flexed his bicep for her. Bette patted her chest with an open palm and gave him the 'ooh' face. Mark had to cover his mouth with the side of his hand to hide his laugh. She knew he was laughing with her and not at her.

After class they were able to talk. He took her home and they were able to talk freely parked in front of her house. She reminded him that they need to remain open and clear with each other about what their intentions, needs, wants, and desires were. He told her everything. He told her that he's been interested in her romantically ever since her saw her working at the vending machine, but when she said she wasn't single, got angry with him, and after what Ozzy said to him, he knew he couldn't and wouldn't do anything to her. She had to make any kind of move, he wasn't going to do anything beyond apologize and offer friendship. When he did and she accepted, he knew all he would still do is wait because she was still with Ozzy. He was not going to be a bad guy. He didn't say anything crude, or look at her lewdly, or touch her; he remained a friend. The only time he broke his own rule was when he hugged her when they visited his father's grave. When she told him after Christmas break she broke up with Ozzy, he remained her friend. The worst thing he could possibly do is make a move. It would have been cheap and gross. She needed a friend and she chose to trust him with her grief, he didn't want to ruin that. It was a massive show of faith from her.

When she asked him to the Darling Dance, he said he had to hold back his 'yes' until she finished talking. He had to hide how excited he was. When she brought the moon and star jewelry and flowers, he became hopeful for how she might feel. Dancing was finally a chance to touch her, and he wanted to so much. He couldn't believe his luck when they got to his house and she needed to use the bathroom. He said so little because if he said more, he thought he would have looked anxious. He could have easily had her use the main floor bathroom, but he saw the chance to be alone with her for the first time since being back, and took the chance. As soon as she was through the bathroom door, his shoes were off, along with his upper layers, and checked how he smelled. He chomped up some Altoids he had on his shelf and put in the mix CDs he had ready just in case. The look on her face when he seemed so casual was priceless. He said she looked like he felt for the last several months. He knew his last shot to get one more touch in was one more dance. Her tripping truly was an accident for both of them. He couldn't believe his luck again when he saw the look on her face. He took the chance and kept dancing with her. When she went with it, he touched her back and ran his thumb on her skin of her hand; he said he felt like that was the first physical move he made. Her response was hotter than he imagined she would do and he was just trying to keep up. When they did kiss he didn't want to stop. She was a better kisser than he remembered. It felt like she touched him like she wanted him, so he danced with her to tell her he wanted her. When the song ended and the next song was about sex, he knew he had to back off. He had to make it her choice. The way she said no, was not never, it was not now, and he understood why. When she asked him to lick her fingers, he joked that he could have finished before she reached her truck. The outfit choice that day was inspired by the void of space they talked about, and it was a similar outfit that Enrique Iglesias wears in the 'Bailamos' music video.

"I can't believe you waited around for me," she said.

"I wouldn't call it waiting around. We've been friends this whole time. If you didn't get out of the truck after dropping me off, we wouldn't be talking about this. I wouldn't have told you all that."

"You would have been fine with us just being friends?" She asked.

"Haven't I been? You're a great friend. I couldn't wreck that. I knew anything beyond that had to be initiated by you. Anything I did would automatically make me a 'Pete.'"

"So you didn't think bringing me down to your little bachelor pad and showing me your painted on shirt was initiating?" She teased.

"I brought the bull to the China shop. I didn't lead him into the door or make him break anything." He held up a finger to make his point clear; he grinned though.

She turned a little further in the seat of his truck. "Oh. So I'm a bull in a China shop now? I trip once and I'm suddenly that ungraceful?" She continued to tease.

He pointed again. "I didn't say that."

She leaned forward slightly and grabbed his finger. "Then what did you mean to say?"

"I saw an opportunity and I took it."

She reached down and unbuckled her seat belt. "This is your opportunity."

"Thank God."

He unbuckled his seat belt and they met in the middle of his truck and Mark's hand found the old familiar spot on the back of her head, pulled Bette in close and kissed her. Their kisses the other night had been romantic, but this time, they felt like crazy fourteen year olds again. Bette unbuttoned her bulky coat. Mark's other hand slid up her shirt and caressed her breast. He pulled away from her mouth, kissed and licked her neck the way they remembered. Bette moaned as she ran her hands over his body inside his open coat.

"It is not fucking fair how hot you got. How is that even possible?" she rasped.

"I was going to say the same thing to you." He ran his tongue up her collar bone after he said it.

"You don't look like the emptiness of space. You're like Swayze, but better looking somehow." She reached down and squeezed his thigh. "My God, that feels incredible." She grabbed the collar of his coat, twisted her neck, pushed his head with hers, and kissed his neck."

"You look so sexy today. When you wear skirts and get dressed up and stuff. You look so seductive when you're more feminine. Anyone can wear jeans, but you take looking good to another world."

Her lips had just licked his ear when he said that. She whispered, "Tell me what else you'd want to see me in."

He sighed and hesitated. "Lace a-and lingerie. It sounds kinda old fashioned, but the idea of you...in lace, and silk." He made an 'ooh' sound and she knew the face that went with it.

She pulled back from him with a naughty smile on her face; she saw they had partially fogged up his truck. "I've seen these shorts in the Sunday newspaper ads. They're these tight boxer-briefs, but for fitness, I think. They're black and seamless. I bet they would make you look like a god."

Mark got a little grin on his face, "I have three of those. I was wearing them Saturday."

Bette made her eyes roll into the back of her head and groaned. "I might have stayed if I had known that."

"Really?" Mark said with a bright, cocky attitude.

"Mmmm-probably not. I don't have sex on the first date."

"That was a first date?" Mark said smiling, but not cocky.

"No. That was two friends going to the Darling Dance. I think we need to have a proper new first date, and then we can discuss lace and shorts." She gave his chest a pat and pushed herself back. She could feel how muscular he was and hesitated before taking her hand back; her arousal read all over her face. "I think if we do that, I might be ready by then."

Mark reached for the defrost controls and turned them all the way up and the fog began to come down in the cab of the truck. "I can live with that. Can I still take you home from school?"

"Yes. But we're not fogging up anymore windows in the meantime."

"Fair enough," he snickered.

"What happened to no such thing as fair?"

"I think you and I have had enough unfair stuff happen to us. We're making our own fair. And it's not just going to be fair; it's going to be a carnival." He smiled. "This weekend? Are you available Saturday?"

Bette made a cringe-worthy face. "I have a double shift. 3 PM to wedding break down. How about right after school on Friday? It's not ideal but-"

"It's great!" He interjected. "I would like to do that."

Bette grinned. "Okay," She laughed as she said it. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"See you then."

That week Bette and Mark remained flirtatious. Bette dressed less aggressively feminine that week to keep herself and Mark at bay. He told her it was unnecessary, but he understood why and respected her choice. On Thursday that week, he told her to bring warm outdoor clothes for Friday after school: snow pants, snow boots, good mittens, etc. She asked what they would be doing; he said it was a surprise. After school Friday, he had her close her eyes before getting in sight of his truck. When they got up to it, he had her open her eyes, strapped down in the back was a snowmobile. Bette's face lit up and she jumped. She'd never gone snowmobiling before. He took her out to Sandy Lake where he unloaded it and he had her get on behind him. He sped her all over the frozen lake and she hung onto him for dear life. After a while, he offered to let her drive. She squealed when the engine revved and took off. He hung onto her around her waist and she could still hear him talk in her ear telling her where to drive. They looped all the way around the lake before getting back to his truck. He offered to let her warm up in the truck, but she wanted to help him load it back up. It was after 5:00 PM by the time they were done and the sun was below the tree line and almost fully dipped below the horizon. Bette looked up at the waxing moon and the first few stars starting to come out. Where they had parked, it was quiet; the main road was a quarter mile away. They had been the loud ones on the lake, and they had left it still.

"Come here," she said softly from the side of the truck. Mark locked the hitch and checked a strap before standing next to her. They looked at each other and she looked up to the sky. "How is it we never looked at them together before?"

He looked at the growing darkness of the sky. "I always looked. Out in the country, there were so many stars. The moon got so bright. I kept my bed by the window and would count them."

"My dad taught me some of the constellations one night." She turned and pointed to some of the emerging stars. "I only know the really recognizable ones. Big dipper. Little dipper. Cassiopeia. Orion. The North Star."

"Those are good ones to know." Mark looked around the sky. "Too early to see more. I can show you the ones I know after dinner if you want. You like sushi?"

Bette nodded and they got into the truck and left for the restaurant. They had sashimi, sushi rolls, and ended the meal with red bean ice cream. When they left and they got back in his truck, Bette buckled herself in the center seat of the truck. Mark could not stop smiling when she did.

"This was so different, I mean unexpected, than what I thought this was going to be. When did you even get a snowmobile?"

"That old thing? It was Dad's. I got it out of storage a couple years back and paid a few bucks to get it fixed up. It's not even as nice or as fast as the newer ones. I can't bear to part with it because of him."

"It's fun and all. You have the memories. Stuff is stuff. I get rid of old stuff on the regular. It feels great. Remember when you got rid of your old stuff when you moved? You felt so good. Even when you donated your dad's clothes, you were so happy."

"How about the fact it's just worth a few hundred bucks?" He said in a playful tone.

"Okay. That makes sense." She laughed and leaned her head on his shoulder. "When you said you wanted to plan this tonight and weren't going to tell me what we were doing, I was a little nervous. I wasn't sure what you had in mind."

"It truly didn't matter to me what we did. I just wanted to be with you. If you were terrified of getting on the snowmobile or hated sushi, we would have come up with something else. I, once again, can't believe my own luck that you liked both."

"Don't you remember? I kinda have a thing for thrill rides." She giggled. "And getting to hold on to you was a nice perk."

Mark smirked. "'Finishing the ride.' I remember that's how you phrased it. I just didn't think of it translating to this. And I know there were about four layers between us, but it felt pretty good to have you hold on to me."

"I know I don't have much in the way of a butt, but I know you liked holding on to me too. I could feel it back there." She skipped using her flirtatious tone and went right to her sexier voice with him, and said it right into his ear.

Mark let out a moan. "It didn't matter how bulky your coat was. How weird the snow pants looked. How salt stained your boots were. I still know how you looked and felt in that dress last week. You're still there. You're right here. You're choosing to be. I can't believe that wish I made on a lucky star is still coming true." Mark was speaking to her but remained focused on driving. He never could look at her when he said something big like that. At least he was consistent; at least he was a safe driver. She kissed his cheek and leaned her head against his shoulder again. He brought her home. He gave her a hand carrying her backpack and boots into the house and after, showed her the other winter constellations he knew in the yard. Enough time passed outside that Bette noticed the lights go out inside and knew her parents went to bed. She brought Mark into the side door to warm up and tell him goodnight before he left. She took off her hat, mittens, scarf and coat. Mark took off his mittens and opened his coat.

"I can't tell you how much this meant to me. The fact you made the effort. And I don't just mean tonight." Bette said sweetly.

"Believe it or not, you made it easy. Being your friend isn't a punishment. And I don't see tonight as a reward for waiting."

Bette felt herself get red. "Do you remember the last time we were right here?" Mark smiled. "Would you do that again?"

"I was already thinking it, but I wanted so bad for you to say it." He took off his knit hat and his coat and let them both fall to the floor. They reached out to each other. Bette wrapped an arm around his shoulder, and the other around his back. Mark put a hand in her hair and the other firmly around her back. He touched his forehead to hers first. They were close enough again that they could tell the other had eaten mints when they weren't looking. Bette let out a single breathy laugh when she noticed. He ran the tip his nose down hers and turned his head. He finally kissed her in a way that made Bette's heart race. He slowly dipped her until her back was parallel with the floor. She clung to him, not because she was afraid of being dropped, but because he felt so amazing. She sighed and felt her body roll against him once. When she did, he gave her a hum back then moved his tongue against hers slowly. He closed his lips, turned her head in his hand, kissed her neck, gave her the smallest bite, just enough for her to know there was pressure, it made her gasp, and stood back up with her quickly. He opened up their embrace to look at her, but still held her. Bette had a dazed look on her face.

"Was that the thrill ride you were seeking?"

"Wow." She looked up at him and had to take a couple deep breaths. "Where did that come from?"

"You approve of the sophisticated vampire?"

She nodded. "February 17th. Start counting."

Mark looked at her confused.

"It will have been long enough for me by then. Tuesday of winter break. My parents work. I'm sure your mom does. I don't want to rush the day, but we'll have the day. And I'll have time to find some lace between now and then." She said it so sure and he had her so hot; it didn't come out sexy, just matter-of-factly. She wanted him, and she wanted to be clear with her wants and desires like he had been with her. She owed him that much, even if it came out a little business-like. She pulled herself tight into him and felt he was hard. When it happened for him, she didn't know, but it happened.

"Monday the 16th. It's a bank holiday, but she'll still be at work all day. I can pick you up if you're good with that. I'll wear the shorts."

"It's fucking on." She grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and kissed him deeply.

He pulled back. "I don't like it when you swear."

"I only do it when I'm surprised." She pulled him in for another peck. "I like chest hair. I think it's a bummer you shave it."

Mark smiled and gave a surprised hum. "The guys said their girls don't like it. Everyone on TV and in movies are bare chested right now. I'm good with letting it grow back."

Bette awkwardly looked down and back up a couple times a s she spoke, "What, um, what do you prefer...you know...when it comes to...hair?"

He gave her another sweet kiss. "I've never had a chance to have a preference. I guess I would say do what you're comfortable with. As long as you, all of you, will be there, you do whatever you want."

She pulled him in for one more deep kiss. "Is it the sixteenth yet?"

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 49.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Over the next couple weeks, Mark kept taking Bette home from school each day except on days she worked. They kept themselves to kissing and not much more to keep building the anticipation. They had another date after school on Friday the 6th, and he kissed her the same long deep way inside her back room like had the week before. On Saturday the 7th, she went shopping at the mall with Jenna as soon as the stores opened; they both had to work closing shifts that night. Bette had told Jenna that she and Mark had a nice time at the Darling Dance, but nothing else. The secrets she and Mark shared were their own, and it was getting difficult to not tell Jenna. They went into DEB clothing. Bette started by moving the clothes around the clearance rack but was eyeing the underwear and lingerie.

"See anything you want to try on yet?" Jenna asked.

"A few things." Bette had grabbed a set of pajamas and a red and black lace bra and pantie set wrapped underneath it. She was able to grab it when Jenna wasn't looking. "How about you?"

"No. But I think there's more you're trying on than clothes." She said with a telling tone.

Bette looked at Jenna. "In what sense?" She couldn't hide the weirdness on her face, not from Jenna.

"Bee. I see you every day at lunch. I see how you dress. I notice the jewelry you wear. Obviously you and Ozzy broke up a month ago. I didn't expect you to keep wearing his necklace. But I remember Mark's." Jenna opened the clothes Bette held and pulled out the lingerie and let it fall again.

Bette touched the rhinestone star around her neck on the silver box chain. "I didn't think anyone would. It had been so long."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Jenna asked sympathetically.

"We've only been out a couple times. I was afraid of what people would think of me moving on so quickly."

Jenna sighed and tilted her head at her. "What happened to the girl I knew who gave up what other people thought of her?" Bette cringed to Jenna. "You don't mean other people. You mean Ozzy."

Bette nodded. "I like Mark so much. He's sweet, romantic, attentive, sensitive, and so sexy. Ozzy said Mark was trying to manipulate me. He didn't. It was my choice. But he was interested the whole time. He was a friend and he would have remained that way if I wanted. I don't need Ozzy to think he was right about this. At least, not yet."

Jenna rubbed her eyes for a second. "Okay. I'm only telling you this because you're my best friend. I wouldn't tell anyone else because I think it's terrible gossip and you know how I feel about gossip."

"Of course."

Jenna took a deep sigh. "I was hanging out with Vanessa after school a couple weeks ago and she had a sweatshirt in her room that wasn't hers."

"So."

"It smelled like a guy. It was black with 'AC/DC' on the front. See where I'm going with this?"

"And?"

"It was a 3XL."

Bette's jaw dropped. "You're shitting me."

"I didn't ask her and she didn't say anything about it."

"I practically threw her back at him on New Year's at your house. I'm such an idiot!" Bette was irritated.

"I could be totally wrong. It was one hoodie-"

"No. It makes perfect sense." Bette shook her head and found herself coming to her senses. "You know what? It's good. I always said Ozzy is his own person who makes his own choices. He said he couldn't stop me from making my own choices. Even if he and I aren't talking right now, we were friends first and for a long time. I want him to be happy. She was always his type. Even if you're wrong, even if it's not true, I still want him to be happy. I'd like to think he would want me to be happy." Bette put the pajamas that she had no interest in back on the rack. She held up the red bra with the matching red skirted pantie that was covered in black lace. "This make me happy. What do you think?"

Jenna smiled at Bette. "I think you know that's not my style. But a powerful lady needs her armor."

The morning of Monday February 16th arrived. Mark arrived to pick her up that morning. John didn't work that day and he answered the door when Mark knocked, much to Bette's horror. She was still in her bathroom getting ready. She told her father that she and Mark were going to be spending the day together, but wasn't expecting her dad to intercept Mark at the door. She made sure she had everything she possibly needed in her pockets and purse. She used mouthwash one more time running around her room. She tried not to run down the stairs in too much of a hurry. She realized she didn't need to when Mark and her father were exchanging phrases in German and Bette had no idea what they were saying. John said something in German, Mark replied, and John laughed; Mark joined him in laughing. Bette replied in American Sign Language with 'shit, I don't know' and an uncomfortable face. The pair soon took off and Bette breathed a sigh of relief in Mark's truck.

"What were you two talking about?" She asked as she bucked her seat belt.

"Nothing much. It was basic conversational stuff: How are you? What do you do? That kind of thing."

"What did you say to make him laugh?"

"Can I tell you later?"

"You know what? You don't have to if you don't want to. I trust you. I can't imagine you said anything to him that could be bad. You made him laugh. I know when my dad's uncomfortable. He wasn't with you."

Mark smiled and touched her hand for a moment. "That means a lot. All of that."

She held his hand and kissed the back of it. "You mean a lot to me Mark. I hope you know that."

"I do know that. You mean a lot to me too." He pulled her hand over to his mouth and kissed it.

They arrived at his house and went down to his basement. He offered her a beverage but all she wanted was water. When he came back down from the kitchen with a pitcher of water and some glasses and set them down on his table, Bette pulled him onto the couch on top of her and kissed him. He pushed himself above her. "We have all day," he said with a smile.

She had an awful thought strike her and covered her face with her hands, "Oh God, I'm pushing you. I'm no better than Alice right now, am I?"

"No, Bette. You didn't push me. You couldn't have pulled me onto the couch if I didn't want you to. I want you here. I want you. You want me, right?"

"Like you wouldn't believe."

Mark adjusted back to sit down and Bette sat up. "I feel the same way. It takes a lot to not want to keep going. You know I've only done it once. And you have a bit more experience than me." He took her hands and looked down at them. "I've been waiting a long time for this. And I'm pretty sure it's going to be awesome for me no matter what. I'm worried about not being able to get you to the end of the ride."

She ran her thumbs over his hands. "Look at me Mark." He tentatively looked up at her. "You didn't know what you were doing for our first kiss and I almost fell over it was so good. You dance, so you have rhythm; you dance well. You were there when I got off for the first time." She smiled wide for him. "That wouldn't have happened without you. And having a partner with some experience isn't a bad thing. It means I know my body and I'll know how to guide you if you need it. I'm not going to lie to you about what I do and don't like. I have nothing to gain from that. I hope you tell me if I do something wrong or if there's something I can do better for you."

"I want to be everything you want in a man."

"And I hope I can live up to your fantasy. Because I have to admit, that's pretty scary for me too. This pedestal is not a good thing to be on."

He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her and she hugged him back. "Maybe we didn't push, but maybe we did put a bit of pressure on each other."

"Maybe." She turned her head and she saw the TV. "Maybe we can watch the rest of Price is Right for now."

Mark laughed and reached for the remote. They opened their embrace and got settled on the couch. She leaned against him and he put his arm around her. The TV played commercials for reverse mortgages and floor cleaners. "I asked if he was a spy or a killer," said Mark.

"What?"

"When your dad and I were talking, I asked what he did. He said he worked for the government. It makes sense. It's a holiday; of course he would have the day off. I asked him if he was a spy, but I didn't know the word for 'assassin' in German, so I said 'killer.' He laughed, so I laughed. He never answered my question as to what he did specifically."

Bette burst out laughing and snorted.

The show ended and Bette took her purse and used his bathroom. She made some clothing adjustments from the items in her zipped purse pockets and took her hair out of the ponytail it was in and put it into one braid. Wednesday the ten. When she came out of the bathroom Mark was standing by the stereo, he'd taken off his blue button up shirt and was in his tight black tank and jeans looking through CDs like he was a couple weeks earlier.

"I think you know I'm absolutely weak for that look on you," she said.

"What about you? You just braided your hair on a whim?"

She leaned on the corner of the door frame. "We all make decisions. Did you pick a CD?"

He looked at the stereo "It's a five-"

"Your CD player in here only plays one." He looked at her unzipping her hoodie with the same wide eyes he had when he was 14.

He approached her with a CD around one of his fingers. He got close to her and put his hands on her waist inside her hoodie. She put her right hand on his chest. She touched her fingertips to his skin where his chest hair was slowly growing back. She then ran her hand up his collarbone, his neck, and held the side of his face. "When I was young I said I fell for the dancing man in the moon."

"I fell for a star."

"I think I didn't know how to say it yet, but it feels a lot like this." Mark smiled. "I love you Mark."

"I love you too Bette."

She pulled him in for a kiss and moved off the door frame. Mark turned them and led them into his room while still kissing her. The CD on his finger ran against her waist in such a way that it tickled her and she laughed. She looked up at him and unbuckled his belt. He had an awestruck smile on his face. He let out a slow breath as she unbuttoned his jeans and unzipped his fly. Her body had felt his genitals before, but her hands had never been so close before. He closed his eyes and gulped as she ran her hand over his length over his smooth, tight shorts and his jeans fell to the floor. He reached up and pushed her hoodie off her shoulders. She had to stop touching him in order to take it off. He opened his eyes and looked at her. Bette was calm and confident.

"Put the music on. I'm curious what you picked," she said.

Mark went over to his alarm clock CD player and put the CD in. The first song that played was 'Cry to Me' by Solomon Burke; it made them smile.

"Sit down. Get comfortable." Mark started to peel off the tank top. "Not that yet, please."

He grinned. "What about you?" He sat on the bed and leaned against the wall by the pillows. He bent one knee and rested an arm on it. "Are you going to sit down, get comfortable, take of that t-shirt and jeans? Or let me?" He bit his lower lip.

Bette spoke confidently but her face still turned red. "Close your eyes. Really cover them." Mark smiled and put his eyes in the corner of his elbow. "I went shopping like I said I would. I found some stuff. Silk is expensive. $85 for a little nightie? I don't think so. I hope you can't tell the difference between that and polyester. For a fraction of the price, I can barely tell the difference. And I would have brought the shoes I wore to the dance, but I couldn't fit them into my purse. I had to fit everything else in the zipper pockets and stuff." Bette tried to find a pose that worked. She stepped to the side of the door and leaned on it but it started to close and she slipped. She was grateful he didn't see it.

"Can I open my eyes yet?" He asked.

"Not yet." She closed his door.

She went to the edge of the wall in front of the bathroom door where the closet wall jutted out. She started with her hand on the head leaning on the wall and her hip popped out but it felt unnatural. She turned and leaned on the wall but it didn't feel right to show off her look. Keep it simple, stupid. She went back to where she undressed and put one hand on her hip and let the other hand fall to her side. She stood up straight with her chin out. She was right in front of him at the foot of the bed. "You can look. I want you to look." She smiled a smirk as he dropped his arm and opened his eyes.

"Dear God." Mark's eyes were wide and his jaw dropped looking at her. Bette wore white thigh-high stockings with floral lace at the top. A black mini slip. The red bra with the black lace was not fully covered at the top of the slip. She made a turn for him and lifted the black slip. The skirted matching red and black lace pantie was underneath. The skirt on the pantie only covered half of her butt and the pantie portion was a thong. When she looked at Mark again he was breathing heavily.

"Lace and lingerie. By the look on your face I think I got it right."

"I think I hit the jackpot. Did you have that on this whole time?"

She started to walk towards him on the side of the bed he was on. "The bra, yes. I put on everything else when I went to the bathroom before. These undies aren't very comfortable."

He turned to her and began to touch her over the slip, the lace of the bra, and down to the pantie. "Can I do something about that?" He touched the fabric of the skirt of the pantie.

She nodded with a little smile on her face. "Yes."

"Hold on and enjoy the ride." He said it in a playful whisper. Mark stood slightly, wrapped his arms around her and fell to the bed with her side by side. Their mouths slid open to each other and she sighed as he pressed his groin into hers to the rhythm of the music. But he didn't kiss her for long. He unwrapped his arms from her body and ran his fingertips over the slip and the front of her. He sat up on his knees over her and she was in awe of how gorgeous he was. She reached out and rubbed him over his shorts again. He tilted his head back and groaned but quickly stopped her. "There will be time for that." He placed his hand over hers and stopped her. When he let go of her hand he reached under her hips and pulled the panties off her. "I've always wanted to do this. Just tell me if I do it wrong for you." He began to put his face near her the crux of her legs.

She nodded. "You'll know if you do-OOH!"

Mark's tongue started licking, swirling, and swiping against her already wet mound. She sighed and moaned to how he went down on her. Her back arched in pleasure, but she wanted so much to look at him. He held her body and rolled them to the side. She ran a hand through his hair and tried not to push him. He had such great thick hair. He wrapped his upper arm over her body and slowly caressed her. She lowered the upper strap of her bra and the slip down her shoulder. She took his hand and brought it up to her bare breast. As far as she could remember, he had touched it, but he'd never seen it. His thumb and finger cradled her nipple and he looked up at her while he continued to devour her. Their eyes met and he looked at her intensely trying to read the pleasures on her face, but her pleasure was loud and clear.

"Slo-slow down. It's-It's happ-ah!" Bette howled as her body pulsated uncontrollably and she gripped his scalp and forearm. Mark slowed his mouth down around her loins and she let go of his hair and arm. He kissed her thighs above the stockings as she caught her breath.

"That was greater than I thought it would be." He burped, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and they both had a light laugh. He was on all fours, crawled over to her side, and slid into place next to her, spooning her.

Bette panted a few more times. She reached down to her groin and gave it a little push and a moan. "Uh! After shocks!" She giggled. She rolled in place, faced him, and kissed him. "It's pretty obvious how it was for me. How was it for you?"

Mark was grinning in a weird way, "Illuminating. Enlightening. You're like nothing I've ever tasted before. It's nothing I've ever felt before. And I don't just mean on my mouth. There was this whole feeling in my chest and my stomach while I was doing that. Feelings that just spread and kinda tingled almost like that feeling when your foot falls asleep, but it felt good instead of numb. And then you. I got to see you. I got to see what it was like for you," he started to chuckle. "And I got to be 100% responsible this time."

She smiled back as he said it. "Can I tell you a secret?"

"Please."

She gave him a slow kiss and then sat up on her knees. She beaconed him with a finger for him to do the same. "I guess it's a few secrets." Mark sat up next to her. "First. I am shocked how good you were at it. The first guy was terrible at it, and I hear about guys that hate doing it." She reached under his shirt and peeled it off him. She grunted at the sight of him. "I will never get tired of looking at your body. Mphf! Second, this bra is super cheap and itches like hell." Mark didn't need her to move any further. He reached behind her, felt for the clasps for a moment, and unhooked her bra. She took the straps off while still wearing the slip and the bra dropped; she moved it aside. She loosened the straps of the slip and the neckline fell below her nipples. She pulled him into her and he started kissing her neck, collar bone, breasts, and soon took her nipple into his mouth. He held her arched back and he swirled his tongue the same way he did when he went down on her and it made her sigh. He took the straps of the slip down; they kept repositioning their arms until it pooled around her knees. "And Third, I like doing it too. I don't tell my friends that. I think it makes me sound like a bad feminist or a whore or something. But, if I can make you feel that good too, I'm ready when you are."

Mark let her breast fall out of his mouth and looked at her. "Oh yeah."

She sat on the side of her hip and he sat back against the wall. "I'm better at it if you lie down flat. You won't see as much, but I think you might like it more."

His eyes grew wide as his head slid to the pillow. She moved herself to be near his hips. As they took of his shorts she asked with a concerned look on her face, "Does it bother you that I know that stuff about myself? That I like doing it?"

"You weren't bothered by the fact I knew what I was doing for you. You liked it."

Bette furrowed her brow. "You said you never did that before."

"Doesn't mean I didn't get some idea of what to do first."

Bette smiled, rested the right side of her head on his stomach, and took him into her mouth long, slow, and once. "Ooh," he whispered; she knew the face he made.

"As long as you don't cum in my mouth, you let me know when you want me to stop. Or when you're ready for the condoms in my purse." She took him back in her mouth and kept going. She rubbed his thighs and listen to him sigh and moan. She even took Sonja's advice and pushed on the skin behind his balls and he responded positively. His feet twitched under the sheet. She raised her head and looked over at him while she sucked him.

"Ah-The lyrics to 'Time of My Life' ah." He took and squeezed her hand, tilted his head back for a moment then looked at her again. "I was -ah-writing out the lyrics to that song on you-ou. It was the, uh, first time I felt your butt, a-and grinded on you, a-and kissed your h-hand!"

She took him out of her mouth, kept stroking, and looked at him, and he at her. "You are unbelievable. Nothing in this world is perfect, but you might be close."

"I love you Bette. And I want you. I'm ready now," he groaned.

She kept her eyes locked on him. She let go of him, crawled back off the bed, grabbed the condoms and lube from her purse, and went back to him. She put the strip of condoms into his hand and took off the thigh high stockings. "I love you. I'm glad to wear those for you too, but they were getting hot and itchy."

He looked at the condoms she brought. "Do the ribbed ones really make a difference for you?" He was genuinely curious.

"You ever try jerking off wearing a rubber glove and no lube or lotion?" Mark looked horrified. "I wouldn't say it's for my pleasure, but for avoiding that face...Yeah."

She tore off one of the condoms, opened it, and unrolled it onto him. She opened the little bottle of lube she brought and tried dropping a little in her hands but laughed when she realized the bottle was still sealed. "I got this," he said. Mark rolled to his side and opened his bedside table and pulled out a larger bottle of the same brand of lube, partially empty. He popped the top, put a few drops on himself and rubbed it in.

"How do you want to start?" She asked.

"I want to be close to you, and I want to kiss you. And I want you to enjoy it."

Bette was lying on her side and Mark was on his back. "Come here." He adjusted to his side; she put her hand on the side of his face and opened her mouth to his. His tongue grazed her lips and her whole body warmed from the inside out as he put his arm around her and pulled her close. She pulled him on to her, reached down and told him, "Go slow at first. It'll take me a minute."

"Sure."

She led him into her and he sighed. "It's a dance, I'm your partner. Listen to the music." She moved with him. The song that played was 'You Sang to Me' by Marc Anthony.

"You feel unbelievable. I love you Bette," he whispered.

"Yes you are." She gave him a gentle smile. "I love you Mark." She wrapped her right leg around him and held her ankle with her left hand. She started to speed up her movements with him. He planted his mouth on hers and his tongue submerged into her mouth and followed his tongue back out with hers. He moved with moans, hums, and sighs to the touch of her body. They turned their heads into each other and kissed each other's necks and shoulders at the same time which they knew the other liked. He pushed himself up, causing her to let go of her ankle, and he looked over her body move to the waving patterns he caused. She gave him a soft smile as he continued to breathe hard through his slightly parted jaw. As much as she liked touching him all over and seeing him use his muscles, she braced her elbows against her rib cage and took some pressure off his arms by pushing up on his chest. It didn't hurt that he felt good under her hands too. He adjusted around her hands, stopping them from being pillars between them, and lowered himself back onto her chest and touched his forehead to hers with a couple of firm thrusts. Bette moaned, but not as much as Mark did.

"What-what do you like? How do you want it?" He asked.

"Turn us to the side."

Mark pushed against the mattress until her leg was under him. "Like this?"

She gave him a deep, long kiss. She then pushed herself against his chest until she was perpendicular with him. "Now keep going. Try different things."

Their arms close to the bed held hands. With his upper arm, he would move her thigh around as he moved into her and listened for her pleasures. She was more vocal when he went harder or sped up. "You like that," he smirked.

"Yeah. Harder," she moaned.

He pushed a couple of hard thrusts into her and she gasped. "Yeah. Oh!"

"That's how you want me," his voice rumbled with a smirk on his face.

"Yeah," she sighed and tilted her head back feeling the pleasure he caused.

He thrusted and his hips slapped into hers repeatedly until his breath started to accelerate. She heard the sounds and looked to him. He held her hips tight, gave her a few more hard thrusts, and they both let out some loud groans as he came. "Holy God," he said as they rolled to their backs. He turned to his side, pulled off the condom, wrapped it in a tissue, and tossed it in the garbage can next to the bedside table.

Bette laughed. "Lotion or lube, tissues or toilet paper, garbage. I don't think I've met a guy who doesn't have a bedside spank station."

Mark laughed. "This is high end compared what other guys do."

"I believe it. I once overheard in the lunch line in school a guy say if you use a banana peel, Vaseline, then microwave it for 20 seconds it quote 'feels like the real thing.'"

"I am both revolted and curious."

"No need to be curious. You got the real thing now." She giggled, rolled over, and kissed him. "Be back." She got up and went to use his bathroom. When she came back, she put on the non-lace panties she wore to his house and got back into bed with him. He put out his arm and she got under it and lay across his chest and they looked at each other. "I know you weren't a virgin before, but, does it feel any different?"

He ran her braid around his fingers. He smiled then ran his fingertips into her scalp. Bette closed her eyes and rolled her tongue in her mouth to make a purring sound. "What does it feel like to have your fantasy come true?"

"Hey! I said I didn't want to be on a pedestal."

"No pedestal. Fantasies? Wishes? Luck? Maybe none of that's actually real. But you are."

"You're sweet, but you're avoiding my question. How do you feel?" She poked his chest a couple times.

He took a deep breath and sighed, "I feel like I've never felt before." He grinned. "I can't think of any people who get to have sex with their first crush."

She braced herself up over his chest and rubbed the rhinestone star pendant. "You're still too much. You know that?"

"Not even close. Just one moon looking at a star."

Winter break continued to be fun for them. They got together the next day. Her parents had left for work, so she was able to finally show him her room and had more sex there. Bette worked a shift on Wednesday and they weren't able to get together. Thursday she got her period so they did other things besides mess around. They went snow tubing at the local ski hill; the date they were never able to do in the past and had a ton of fun doing it. They had so much fun; they went again Friday with Sonia and Hank able to join them. Saturday afternoon Bette worked a double shift at the museum and they weren't able to get together. On Sunday, Gina took Bette and Mark to brunch and it was the first time Bette got to spend any real time with her and saw where Mark got more of his sweetness, thoughtfulness, and mannerisms from. That same evening, Bette's parents had him over for supper and Scrabble. Bette felt 14 all over again. They were madly in love and weren't going to hide it anymore.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 50.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Monday morning February 23rd, at the bus stop, she stood cold but antsy as Todd approached. He'd grown quite a bit in the last few months; he was a full head taller than her now. "Mornin' Bee."

"What up Hot Toddy?"

"You're in a good mood this morning considering it's all of twenty degrees outside."

"I had a good break. Did you?" She had a giant grin under her scarf.

"Browsed and downloaded all night. Slept 'til noon each day. Mom and Dad made me shovel a bit, but the heavy lifting was done at night. You know?" Todd made a jerking off motion. They had become close enough friends over the school year that they made each other laugh with perverted jokes and not disgusted.

"I would say 'gross,' but I did my own heavy lifting over break." Bette pretended to lick her hand then made a spanking and thrusting mime.

"No way! You're back with Ozzy?"

"No. We're still over. We haven't even talked since we broke up." She scratched her nose. "I doubt you'll remember, but the one time I took you trick-or-treating? The guy who walked with us? Mark? Him."

"Barely. You seem pretty happy about it."

"We are. We really are."

"Would you tell me something about it? Anything to put in the 'bank?'"

"Jesus Todd. I can't imagine I can tell you anything new that you haven't downloaded already."

"Come on Bee. I know that stuff isn't real. I need a tiny bit of reality to let me know what to hope for in my life."

Bette paused. "Something real, huh?" She snickered. "Do you have access to banana peels, Vaseline, and a microwave?"

Todd's eyes became frozen saucers. "What the fuck? What are you two doing?"

Over the next couple weeks at school, Bette and Mark stopped hiding the fact they were together, but they tried not to show it off either, but it was hard. The last time they were in a relationship, they weren't having sex, and this was years in the making. They told their friends they were together and their friends were happy for them. Jenna noticed the sheer difference in Bette when she wasn't hiding the fact she and Mark were more or less together when they weren't after the Darling Dance. Jenna said it was like last year when she was flirting with Jesse and not telling anyone but her and Tina: happy but a little guilty. But now that time was over, Bette was just happy, she was happy with Mark.

It was even more fun when the first week of March was Winter Spirit week. The theme was Movie Madness. Over the last four years, the themes of the spirit weeks were recycled time and time again with slightly different labels, which lead to three spirit weeks each year and only about ten different costumes. Monday was Magic Fantasy. Bette wasn't a fan of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, but she loved The Chronicles of Narnia. She wanted to dress as the White Witch. Lorna had made her own wedding dress when she married John; a long sleeved, full length, rope-belted, off-white dress with a plunging V-neck. It was super sexy on Bette, but not Lorna and she had to wear a white blouse under it to school. Bette had also made a long white wand, white crown, wore powdery white make up, and silver spray in her hair. She was a little annoyed explaining her costume again and again. The only Chronicles of Narnia movie she had seen were the British ones made in the 1980s. She still felt like a powerful lady.

Tuesday was Haunted Horror. For Bette, it was a no-brainer, she dressed as Wednesday Addams. When she was in the dark room that day in photography class, Mark snuck up behind her and whispered in her ear how sexy she looked and what he wanted to do with her. Bette felt herself get hot for him, even with other people in the room, and he touched her butt and she grazed his groin and felt he was hard for her. After school, he took her home, feeling each other up in his truck while he drove. When they got there, she took off her black tights and put the white thigh high stockings on with the white floral lace, and they had quick, rough sex before her parents got home while she was still mostly clothed. They both loved it.

Wednesday was Toga party. This was the third time in four years that there was a toga outfit for a theme day. She had skipped doing it once, she had messed it up and looked sloppy the second time, but got it right this time. She was the right size for folding over and partially up a full-sized top bed sheet held in place with a whole lot of safety pins and a gold nylon rope as a belt. She still had the ivy crown from the last year's toga day with the sloppy toga. The fun thing to do was not wear white bed sheets, but fun ones, and she wore flannel ones with cartoon sheep on them. When she got to school, she bought more ivy garlands as part of the fundraiser and wore them around her arms. Some underclassmen came up to her and asked her for help with their togas and she gladly helped. Mark once again got turned on by the fact she appeared to be wearing nothing but bedding. She assured him that she had a tank top with a strap down and a skirt underneath, but he said couldn't tell the difference. He wanted to have sex at her house again after school that day, and as much as she wanted to, she had to tell him no. The outfit had too many pins keeping it on her and they might not have enough time to finish before her mom got home; and the sex from the day before, while amazing, left her a little sore. He felt bad for hurting her and apologized; she told him not to feel bad, it was like being sore the next day after an intense workout. He understood, kissed her, and offered to go down on her instead. She broke five safety pins running up her stairs with him to her room. Turned out, they did have enough time for both of them to get off and for him to leave before her mom got home.

Thursday was Hollywood Glamour, which was really an excuse for lots of girls to wear prom dresses. A couple guys known for being class clowns wore prom dresses with fake boobs and bad wigs and as long as they didn't disrupt class, teachers didn't care. These guys wanted a reaction, and if no one gave them one, no one got in trouble, and no one did. Bette wore her red prom dress from the year before and Lorna helped her style her hair like Marilyn Monroe, she drew in a mole on her face, and wore a bold red lip. She looked like a devilish version of Marilyn in 'Seven Year Itch' and it made her feel even more powerful. Mark once again was bowled over by how beautiful she was. He wore a tuxedo t-shirt that day and she said he looked just as sexy.

Friday was Movie Daze, which was an excuse to wear pajamas and the fundraiser t-shirt with the week's theme printed on it. Bette bought the t-shirt and wore it along with the Care Bear pants she and her mom made freshman year. She had to tell people that, 'Yes, there was a Care Bear movie, thank you very much.' At the assembly that day, someone else was named most spirited in the senior class. It was Blake Johnson, one of the guys who dressed in drag on the glamour day and had worn Snoopy bed sheets on the toga day with an exposed nipple. Maybe if I had exposed my nipple. He didn't dress up for fantasy day and his horror outfit was a Friday the 13th t-shirt. Bette was secretly bitter about it since she had put so much effort into her looks all week, and Blake hadn't. It was a nice consolation when her friends and others came up to her and told her she should have won. One of the people who came up to her to her was Vanessa.

"Bee BEE!"

"Hey Van."

"I think it's total horseshit you didn't get most spirited today."

"I appreciate that."

"You worked hard on those looks. That White Witch look on Monday was inspired."

Bette's face lit up. "Thank you!" She threw her hands up. "Finally someone gets it without me having to explain it. Just because those tacky yet awesome British made-for-TV movies were only at the public library, doesn't mean I was the only one who saw them!"

Vanessa cringed. "Yeah. I had to have someone tell me. After they told me I had to look it up, then I got the reference."

"Ah." She replied plainly. "Who told you?"

Vanessa hesitated and spoke slowly, awkwardly, and in a high-pitched voice, "Ozzy."

Bette smiled. "I showed him those movies." She laughed at the old memory. "You know it's cool, right? Just because we don't talk, doesn't mean I'm mad at him. I never was. And I wouldn't be mad at you for it either." Vanessa looked slightly less awkward. "Do you remember what I told you a long time ago? Ozzy is his own person who makes his own choices. You do too, obviously."

"It's been going on a while. We told people not to tell you. We weren't sure how you'd react, then you come back from winter break and you and Mark are all over each other."

Bette got wide eyed. "I didn't think we were that bad."

"You two walk around hanging all over each other. And there's a rumor that you two were caught feeling each other up in the dark room."

"We hold hands after one class and that never happened!" She heard herself lie to the second part of her reply. If Ozzy had been there, he would have called her out on it. Bette collected herself before she spoke again. "I appreciate what you said about my costumes. And I hope you and Ozzy make each other happy. You were always his type."

Vanessa nodded. "Thanks. It's weird isn't it? It's kinda like 8th grade all over again."

"Yeah." Bette got a little sad at the thought. She and Ozzy were distant then too. Both times were hard and painful. She didn't understand why back then until they had a fight and got over it. This time, they fought, and it had split them. She was happy now, but 'missing' Ozzy didn't seem like the right feeling she wanted to use to describe what she felt. They had years of kinship, understanding, and months in love, and all of that was gone with no more words between them for two months now. They hadn't gone that long talking ever when they were friends. Even when she spoke to Greyson and Tylor, they didn't talk to her about him; Ozzy had probably asked them not to. Vanessa was the first person, besides Jenna and Mark, to talk to her about him beyond basic sympathies, and she seemed to bring him up by mistake. Bette didn't want Vanessa to regret that mistake, especially if she would have to talk to Ozzy about it. She hugged Vanessa. "I think you're great, you know that, right? You really helped me on New Year's. You were the one who dubbed me a 'Powerful Lady.' I wouldn't be that without you."

Vanessa hugged her back. "You were always a powerful lady. I just let Jason Kaye know that you were one not to be fucked with anymore."

Bette laughed and wiped a tear from her eye before they stopped hugging. "Would you be willing to do me a small favor, one powerful lady to another?"

"What is it?'

Bette spoke cautiously, "If you could tell him something? Just-let him know my door is always open if he needs an old buddy. I don't know what I would do if I tried saying that to his face or called him and he reacted poorly. I guess I'd rather put it out there and know he knows, you know?"

Vanessa looked sympathetic. "I get it. Powerful ladies unite." Vanessa offered Bette a high-five; they did, and slapped their chests after.

The night of March 6th was the coronation dance for the Winter Spirit Week king and queen. Bette and Mark went and had an amazing time dancing. They didn't play as many slow songs at the casual dances as they DJs did at the Darling Dance and Prom, but that wasn't the point of these events. The only person that Bette had any interest in voting for on the nominees was Hank. Granted, everyone in school voted in their second hour class, but he was only one she was generally familiar with and liked. The four girls who were nominated she didn't was barely acquainted with and one of the other guys nominated was Jason Kaye. Neither Hank nor Jason won that night for Winter Spirit king. When Hank and Sonja joined Bette and Mark on the dance floor, Hank said he wasn't mad about it. He was relieved he didn't win; but said Jason was sure pissed he didn't win. Bette laughed until she snorted at the news.

Bette and Sonja took a break from dancing and went to the bathroom together.

Bette checked the stalls and made sure the pair were alone. "I wanted to tell you, that behind-the-ball nerve thing. It totally works." Bette made the same partially fisted hand motion Sonja did the night of the Darling Dance along with a naughty face.

Sonja smiled, but didn't look too happy. "I'm glad it's working out for you two."

"Is something wrong? With you and Hank?

"It's weird. I feel like we're more like friends who have sex sometimes and less like a couple." She said it in a down way. "Does that make sense?"

"That doesn't sound like a bad thing. What don't you like about it?"

"It's like, he'd rather get head from me; he hates giving it, absolutely hates it. And he's not great at fingering me either. And when we do have sex, it's fast, boring missionary position, or super-fast doggie-style. Like, done in a minute when he's back there."

"But what about the friend thing? If the sex is so-so, what's the other stuff like?"

Sonja lit up, "Hank is wonderful everywhere else. He's sweet, he listens, he remembers stuff I tell him. He's obviously a great dancer. He's so smart. You'd think all that time playing sports would make him a dumb jock, but he isn't. He's so well rounded."

"What do you think would make you both happy?"

Sonja shook her head slightly then spoke clearly, "It's so obvious: we need to stop fucking."

Bette suddenly felt worried and potentially a little guilty for breaking a couple up. "Are-are you sure? Maybe you wanna talk to Hank first?"

Sonja's face was a clear, happy, epiphany. "I'm going to tell him that he doesn't have to fuck me anymore. I want someone who wants to fuck me. I want what Ami and Robert have. I want what you and Mark have. I want someone who wants to write the entire phone book with their tongue on my clit. Hank would rather eat scorpions than do that." She bear hugged Bette and ran out of the bathroom like an awestruck zombie before she could respond. "I'm gonna tell him right now." Sonja's voice faded as the door closed.

That evening when Mark took Bette home from the coronation dance, she told him what happened with Sonja in the bathroom.

"It was weird. She said they were more like friends who have sex and less like a couple. I don't get it," She said confused. "Did he say anything to you about it?"

"Um...sorta," Mark hesitated.

"How can he 'sorta' say something? He's one of your best friends, right?"

"Y-yeah." He hesitated again.

Bette listened to how Mark hesitated. "Does Hank not like being with Sonja?"

"He has a great time with her. You know how much fun we had when we went tubing."

"They didn't kiss or hug or hold hands or anything while we were out that day. We did."

"We were just back together. We could barely keep our hands off each other. Those two had been going together for a while."

"Girls talk. I know I said it would be unladylike to bring it up, but, she had some stuff to say about how she and Hank have sex. And she wasn't vague. He ever talk to you about that?"

"...Sometimes." He hesitated again.

The pieces were coming together for Bette then it struck her all at once. "Mark, is Hank gay?"

Mark gulped and looked at Bette in an uncomfortable way. "No one else knows. You can't tell anyone."

Bette's eyes grew wide. She thought she was guessing, but she didn't expect to be right. "I wouldn't dream of telling anyone. The door swings and locks in both directions, remember?"

"Right." He parked in front of her dark house with the side porch light on.

"Can I ask how long you've known?"

Mark mashed his mouth closed before he spoke. "I won't lie to you Bette. I always said that." He took a deep breath. "Since dance camp."

"What? But you were away after fifth grade."

"That summer after sixth grade, that school year was bad. Mom and Dad gave me summer camp options to cheer me up, I chose dance camp. Turned out, Hank chose it too. I wanted to go for the dancing and the ratio of girls. He said he needed it agility and flexibility training and it was something the baseball coach recommended. When we were there we were so happy to see each other; we even got to stay in the same cabin. We got to sign up for individual classes. I picked swing and Latin based on Dad's recommendations; and girls, you know? Hank picked break dancing, which is why he knew how to do all that stuff. It was the second night there and he woke me up in the middle of the night, took me outside to the side of the cabin and next thing I knew," Mark began to tear up, "Stuff was happening. And we liked it. And then night after night it kept happening. He said we couldn't tell anyone. We were kids! I barely knew what jerking off was and my best friend's mouth was-And I-" Mark was sobbing and he couldn't get through anymore. Bette couldn't believe what she was hearing. Suddenly, Mark being bisexual didn't seem so cool anymore when she saw how it had affected him, and how young. He caught his breath, "We never spoke of it after camp. I never told anyone that."

"I'm sorry," she said softly. "I'm so sorry I asked."

"I used to think it was this messed up dream I used to have. Like it didn't actually happen. Some bizarre, puberty, wet dream shit that was tied in with the trauma of hating living away from here. But then when I came back in 8th grade, Hank would look at me sometimes in this certain way, and I knew it had happened. I knew I didn't imagine it." He wiped his face and collected himself.

"I'm so sorry Mark. When I say the door swings and locks in both directions and we don't lie to each other, I didn't mean to force you to tell me this. That was wrong of me."

"No." He took a few more deep breaths. "You asked. And I never want to lie to you. And you want to know what the crazy part is? I actually feel better."

"It's odd how that works, isn't it? Getting those old secrets off your chest. It's like a whole shackle is gone, isn't it?"

"Yeah." Mark had the same awestruck look that Sonja had earlier in the evening. "Thank-" he coughed. "Thank you for listening. I never thought anyone would ever understand."

She didn't understand what he had gone through, but she loved him, cared for him, and listened to him, and that was enough for them. "Do you want to come in for some water or something? It always makes me feel better."

Mark mushed his mouth together again and nodded. They got out of the truck and went in the house. She took off her coat and shoes and had him do the same. She brought him into the kitchen and poured them each a glass of water. "There's a new Saturday Night Live on. Colin Firth is hosting. We can catch the end of it if you want. I think that would be okay. I would have stayed up and watched it if you didn't come in."

"That would be nice."

They went back into the living room, she turned on the TV, and he sat on the couch. "I was gonna get an apple or some Ritz or something. You hungry?"

"Whatever you have I'll have. Thanks." He reached his hand out to hers, took it, and gave it a squeeze. She squeezed his hand back and smiled.

"Okay." She whispered. She went back to the kitchen and perused the fridge and the cabinets. She pulled out a couple apples from the crisper and emptied the rest of a sleeve of Ritz crackers into a cereal bowl. She cut the apples with a tic-tac-toe board cut but left the cores on the plate, she would eat them. She carried them into the living room and saw in the glow of the light of the TV that Mark had fallen asleep on the couch. She paused in place for a moment. She turned off the TV, went back to the kitchen, set the dishes down, and turned off the kitchen light. She went upstairs to see that her parent's bedroom light was on. She knew by the light that it was her mom's reading light. She tapped the door lightly and heard Lorna answer her in a whisper. Bette went in the room where she saw John sleeping and Lorna reading a paperback novel with her reading glasses on. Bette crouched by the bed and told her mom enough that she was comfortable telling her: Mark had told her some childhood trauma, he came in for some water and to calm down, he fell asleep on the couch, and she didn't feel right waking him up to have him drive home tired, upset, and unsafe. Lorna wasn't ecstatic about it, but she saw Bette's concern. Lorna said he could sleep there if Bette called his mother and told her. If Bette could do that, then he could stay asleep on the couch. Bette nodded and hear heart pounded to the awkward late-night call she was about to make. She went into her room, picked up the cordless phone and called Mark's house. Gina answered after a couple rings after clearly having been woken up by the call. Bette apologized for calling and doing so. She told her that Mark had been upset that evening after the coronation dance, they were talking at her house, he fell asleep on the couch, and didn't think it would be safe to wake him to have him try to drive tired. Gina was annoyed but Bette couldn't tell if it was from the situation or being woken up. She said it was fine and she and Mark would discuss it in the morning and hung up on Bette. Bette felt awkward but relieved.

Bette went back downstairs and threw a blanket over Mark. Any other time she would have kissed him, but this was not the moment. She went back to the kitchen, ate a couple of the crackers to settle her stomach, and put the apple slices in the fridge. She took a piece of paper and wrote out a note: Our moms know you slept here. It's okay for now. I love you. She went and stuck it in the same coat pocket of his where his keys were in case he woke up, panicked, and left. She turned on the bathroom cabinet light and left the door open knowing it would be enough light between him and the side door if that did happen. She gave his dark silhouette another look before climbing the stairs to go to bed. She woke a little after 8 AM. Any other Sunday morning she would bask in the warmth of her bed and listen to music and read, but she knew Mark could still be there. She rushed out of bed and looked out the window and saw his truck was gone. She hoped that he found her note, got home safe, and that he wouldn't be in too much trouble with his mom. Bette worked a shift that day at the museum, and spent the day in quiet worry for Mark. When she got home, she found out he hadn't called. She gave him his space until Monday.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 51.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Monday March 8th's classes and lunch were agony to get through. She wolfed her lunch down and it sat in her stomach like a brick again. She didn't go into photography class right away, she always got there before him; she waited outside the door. Mark came up looking stoic.

"Hey. I was worried about you. You didn't call," she said softly.

"You said you worked yesterday."

"Did you find my note? Did everything turn out okay?"

Mark made a face at her he never had before; not even the time at the mall with Jamie. This was an expression of anger and pain. "You didn't have to call her, you know. I don't have a curfew. She lets me have my freedom to come and go as I please as long as I keep my grades up and I don't drink."

"Oh." She looked at him blankly. "You hadn't mentioned that."

"It wasn't an issue before. You're the one who has rules." His tone sounded, to her, like it was a bad thing.

"I'm sorry if I got you in trouble. My mom said if I was going to let you stay asleep on the couch, I had to call your house and tell your mom. She said I had to be responsible."

"You should have woken me up."

"It would have been irresponsible to have you drive home half asleep."

"We don't know that now, do we?"

The bell rang for class to start and they walked in to their seats. She didn't understand why he was mad. It wasn't an issue before. What issue? And before what? Her head swam in confusion for the 55 minutes of class. As soon as the bell rang, she zipped back to Mark. "Mark. I don't understand." She spoke with panic. "What did I do wrong?"

"You pulled one wrong thread. You told her I was upset when you called."

"You were." She kept her voice down. "It was a big deal. I thought being vague would be better. It was late. I had to let her to know you were safe. I didn't know you didn't have a curfew."

Mark huffed a breath. "I don't lie to you. I also don't lie to my mom, not anymore. Not after what I've been through the last few years. But I didn't tell her about that. So when I rolled home at 5 AM and she was awake saying she had barely slept and had no fathomable idea why I would be so upset that I would fall asleep in unusual places because she knows the only time I do that are times like when I was getting my cast on when Dad died, on the living room floor after screaming at her when Greg died, and in the Applebee's right after I saw my mom make out with her boss when I was nine. What could have upset me so much that I could fall asleep on a couch of my girlfriend's parent's house that I sure-as-shit didn't get permission to stay at beforehand? What was it?"

The halls had mostly cleared out for everyone going into the last class period of the day. They stood by Mark's locker. Bette teared up at the realization of the domino effect that she had caused. "I'm sorry you had to do that."

"I had to do that because of you." He slammed the locker door and started to walk away from her.

She was starting to panic again. She had a metallic taste in her mouth she had never felt before. She walked to catch up with him. He started to leave the school for his truck. She didn't have her coat or her backpack but she kept following him. "What happened to feeling better about sharing it?"

He spoke low through gritted teeth. "Yeah, cause everyone wants to tell their mommy about giving and getting blowies from their best friend when they were twelve."

"You know I understand what that's like. I told you I had to have that God-awful sex talk with my parents and got in huge trouble for it. I can't imagine your mom was mad at you for this."

"No, she wasn't mad. But it was something I wasn't prepared to talk about with her at 5:30 in the morning after having just told you. So much for the door locking with you."

Bette felt her stomach churn. She didn't even notice the freezing air in her blouse with no sweater or coat; she was actually beginning to sweat. "You know I had no idea about that kind of dynamic between you getting upset and sleep. Mark, I love you. I care about you. If the night had been the other way around, my parents would need to know where I was and they would want you to be man enough to tell them yourself."

"And that didn't happen, did it? You happened." He unlocked his truck, opened the door and got in. Bette got between the door and the truck so he couldn't close the door. "Bette. I need you to move please." His tone was as cold as the air.

"No." Her heart raced and she felt her hands shake. She wasn't sure if it was the cold or the panic.

"Bette, move."

"Mark. It was a mistake. I'm sorry." Her eyes teared up and he became a blur in front of her.

"Bette!"

She felt a level of panic she'd never experienced in her entire life and the words came out. "I once let Keith fuck me in the ass when I was on my period! I hated it so much! I hated him for it! I shit and cried in the bathroom after!" Bette doubled over and vomited so hard that it came out of her nose and it felt like her teeth were curling. It splashed onto her pants and shoes. She got so disoriented she fell over backwards to the asphalt and the wet slush started to soak through her jeans. Her textbook and notebook fell to her side. She was in a fetal position as she shivered and shook. Her face was a mess of sweat, tears, snot, and vomit. She felt like there was cotton in her ears she could barely hear herself. She couldn't bear to open her eyes through her crying howls. She couldn't see what Mark looked like, and she couldn't imagine looking anymore disgusting to him in that moment. She became the monster-freak-bitch she joked about or was bullied about being her whole life, but it was real this time. She felt like she was there for an eternity the way the wet cold soaked in; she imagined it was what Hell felt like. The cotton-in-ear feeling dissipated and she heard the footsteps around her. She felt the pressure, warmth, and smell of Mark's coat around her shoulders and over her back. She knew there was hope in that moment and wiped her face with the back of her shirt sleeve. She opened her eyes and saw the vomit on the ground, on her shoes and pants, and the bits of it on the back of her sleeve. She sniffed back hard, swallowed, and wiped her face again with her other blouse sleeve; there was almost no vomit on that wipe.

He whispered in her ear. "I'm going to put my arms around you and help you up, alright?" She could feel him crouched behind her. She nodded. He locked his arms around her and stood up with her and she felt like she was starting to ascend out of Hell. Her butt and thighs were cold and soaked. Her mouth was still filled with gritty bile. She still felt like a monster. He turned her around and she covered her nose and mouth with her hands when he did. He picked up her textbook and notebook. He was calm and put a hand on her shoulder. "You are going to sit in here with the heat on. I'm going to get your coat and backpack. Is there anything else that's in there that you need?" Bette silently shook her head. "You sit tight, I'll be back." Mark turned and ran back towards the school. Bette finally felt herself come out of her panic; she wasn't sure how long she stood there after he left. She turned around and saw he left the truck running with his driver's side door open. She got in in a way so she wouldn't get his driver's side seat wet or any vomit on the upholstery. She closed the door and sat in her wet jeans. She saw the mess on her sleeve. That can't get any worse. Then wiped the gritty bile in her mouth on the sleeves of her blouse in fresh spots. A minute later Mark came running back up to the truck and opened his door and got in with her coat and backpack. "You got it nice and warm in here," he said softly. From under her coat he pulled and held out a bottle of ginger ale. "I thought this might help too: for your stomach and to get the taste out of your mouth." Bette took a deep inhale and took the bottle. She twisted off the cap, poured some into her mouth, swished it, opened the truck door, and spit it out. She sighed in relief and sipped some more of it. She slammed the door shut and he started driving. "There was only one other time I've seen you drink ginger ale. Do you remember?" He didn't look at her as he drove but she nodded; they spoke of the night so much. "The Halloween dance. 8th grade. I was so glad to be back here at school. I couldn't believe how pretty you had gotten in the time I was gone. Then I saw you in that green and black dress and my jaw just about hit the floor. Robert knew I liked you before and he saw me looking at you. He told me to go get in the snack line when you did. That that moment would be a chance to talk to you; it would be quiet enough over there. I had no idea about what. We hadn't talked since Mr. Barrow's class. Then we were getting closer and closer to the front of the line and you got out your money. It was the only thing I could think of to talk to you about in that moment. You looked so spooked that I caught you getting your money out of your bra, but you saved face so quickly. You were resilient. And all of a sudden we were 11 again. Nothing was weird. You snorted when you laughed and you didn't care. Then you got a can of ginger ale. I got a Milky Way and paid with a five so I could get the two ones you paid with. I put those ones in the inside pocket of the jacket so I wouldn't forget. I got nervous again when I saw you toss the Twix to Ozzy. Robert said he dated Cassandra the year before, but wasn't sure what your situation was when we saw you two walk in together in similar era costumes. I went over to the table where he and Greyson were sitting and I saw your Champaign cup with the ginger ale in it and your lipstick on the rim. I was so nervous but I kept looking past Ozzy at your ginger ale and he helped me. And the rest was history."

Mark pulled up in front of her house and turned off the truck. She had a weak smile on her face. "Let's get you cleaned up." He took her coat and backpack and they both got out of the truck. He put his other arm around her shoulder and walked her up to the house. She still held the bottle of ginger ale. They walked in the house took off their shoes and he hung up their coats. She was still zombie-like going up the stairs to her bathroom. She pulled some pajamas out of a drawer and plopped them on the bed. She went into the bathroom and brushed her teeth. Mark started the shower for her. "Apples and Ritz crackers, right? Those will probably make you feel better too." She nodded. He left the room and went down to the kitchen. She peeled off her layers and got in the shower. She realized there had been vomit in her hair the whole time. She washed her hair and scrubbed herself clean. She got out and wrapped herself in dry, fluffy towels and saw the color was starting to come back to her face. She went back into her room and put on her pajamas, her soiled clothes were gone, and on her bedside table was a plate of apple slices and crackers along with a glass of water. On a piece of torn notebook paper, he left a note: Feel better. We can talk when you feel up to it. I love you. She ate a couple crackers and drank a little more of the ginger ale. When her head hit the pillow, she was asleep within a minute.

It was dark in her room when Bette felt her mother's nails run in her scalp and her eyes started to open. It was a wonderfully comforting way to be woken up. "Mom?"

"How are you feeling Betty?"

Bette yawned. Her mouth was dry and she rolled from her side to her back then sat up. She reached for the cup of water and took a sip. "Better. But how did you know I wasn't feeling well?" Her voice still rasped a little.

"Mark told me before he left." Lorna's words fully woke Bette up and she looked scared. "It's okay Betty." Lorna sat on the side of Bette's bed with her. "He told me that you had some kind of panic attack after school today and were ill. He said he wanted to make sure you got to bed alright. He also wanted to thank me for letting him stay here on the couch the other night. He said that he had to wait and tell me that himself, that it was important that he do that."

Bette choked up and a couple tears fell. "I didn't ask him to do that. I didn't know he was here when I was asleep."

Lorna spoke like she was talking about a puppy, "He was so sweet Betty. So nervous. He didn't want you to get in trouble for a choice he said he was making, one you didn't know he was making."

"I was so scared. I got so sick," she said through her cries. She hugged her mom. "I was such a freak and he made sure I was okay."

"Oh," she rocked her daughter. "I know. I know. He's a good boy to you, isn't he?"

"No, Mom. He's a good man."

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 52.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Over the rest of the week, Bette and Mark had the chance to talk on the way home from school each day. They shared more of their traumas and secrets, ones they hadn't shared with Jenna and Ozzy or Hank and Robert. They said they had never been closer to anyone else in their entire lives. When Bette went to his house that weekend, Gina discreetly thanked her for getting him to open up. Mark had said at his father's grave that he and his mom had trouble communicating, and now he didn't lie to her, but she couldn't imagine what that journey was like for the two of them. Mark and Bette turned on the TV in his basement living room with the volume turned up, but went into his bedroom.

"I got some stuff I wanted to show you," said Mark. He handed her a photo envelope. "I finally got these from Robert, Hank, and Ami. Doubles from the dance in January."

They sat on the bed and opened the envelopes. They flipped through pictures leaning against each other, smiling and laughing at the memories of the night. "You looked so handsome that night. Let's be honest. You look handsome every night," she said with a smile. "My moon."

They flipped a few more pictures. "I meant to ask, where did you learn to break dance like that?"

Bette laughed. "When Hank started showing his stuff, I had to show him he wasn't the only one who could." She flipped a picture. "Terry taught a bunch of us to pop and lock at a party once." She flipped another picture. "The worm is really just starting in a handstand and then a push with the right body control and a kick. People tell me I do it backwards, I don't know how to do it forwards." She flipped to another picture. "And when I was in dance class as a little kid, they called them 'coffee grinders,' other people call them 'helicopters.' They were part of our warm ups." She flipped to another picture. "And I guess I still have the flexibility to do the splits when I have that kind of adrenaline going."

"You were shining," he whispered.

She turned to a picture of them dancing; she was looking at the camera and he was looking at her. "We were shining." She turned and kissed him. "I can't believe I was in such denial. Look at the look on your face here. Now, I see you look at me like this. Were you always?"

"Yeah." They looped back to the beginning of the photos again.

"There was something else I wanted to show you." He got up and walked around his bed and opened the drawer there and took out some pamphlets. "It's pretty obvious we haven't talked about what's going to happen after this summer. I mean, You're going to The main State U' and I haven't made any plans." He sat back down next to her and turned the pamphlets away from her. "I think about Dad a lot, so I call Grandpa on most Sundays. He's been helpful. He and Grandma are in Florida, so I don't get to see them much, but I talk to him more and more. I asked him what Dad wanted when he was my age. How did he end up working in fleet management of all places? Grandpa said he needed a stable income, benefits, and stuff. Dad would have been a carpenter, a builder, or a contractor if he could have. There are so many more options and opportunities now; I talked to the guidance counselor about it. The growth for our generation in the trades is going to be insane when the boomers start retiring. And the money in it is great." He showed her the pamphlets. They were for trade schools near her university. "I don't want to wait around here to get turkey dumped by you at Thanksgiving come fall. Or sooner when you leave. And I know it's going to be hard. I know we've only been together a couple months, but-school's going to be over in another couple months and I don't want to miss this chance if we have a chance." It was the first time he said something heavy and serious to her while looking at her.

She beamed, "You're serious."

"I am."

"No. That wasn't a question. I know you're serious." She turned on the bed towards him.

He grinned back, "I already submitted my applications for August. I'm just waiting to hear back. I should know in the next few weeks. Then I can find a place to live and work in the area over the summer."

"You really want to do this," it wasn't a question again.

He took her hands in his, "I do." He kissed the back of her left hand. "You want to do this?"

"I do," she whispered, and kissed the back of his left hand. She didn't mean to set up their phrasing and actions to be so clumsy, direct, and committed, but he went with it and not only did Mark run with it, he all out sprinted. They wrapped their arms around each other. She touched her forehead to his and they let out little laughs. He ran the tip of his nose down hers and she sighed; it was one of her favorite affectionate things he did.

"I love you," she breathed.

"I always loved you," he said before kissing her, leaning back on the bed with her.

Bette thought she was in love with Mark before, but the next few weeks continued to blossom between them. In her life skills class she learned about taxes and investing and talked to him about it for their future. He told her he had learned a lot about that stuff when his dad had died. It's how he was able to afford to do so much: he didn't eat away at his inheritance; he got monthly interest dividends off it and didn't even spend all of it. Dad had taught him to not be stupid with his money and worked with his same CPA even after James passed away. Bette was shocked that he was ahead of his time in fiscal intelligence at such a young age. He showed her the places he was interested in living near her. Places that were within a ten minute drive or one to two buses of where she would be living on campus. They looked into things to do over the summer. She started working more afternoons after school at the museum and Saturday double shifts knowing it meant she could have more money for her future with him over the summer. She told him she didn't want his money, it wasn't why she loved him, it never was. He said he knew that and loved the fact she liked to work and worked hard. He liked her work stories; she always came back from wedding events or corporate events with great stories. The snow melted early at the end of March and she had him over for bocce ball. It was barely 50 degrees out and they still wore their winter boots in the yard, but it felt good to have fun outside. It was a Sunday when they played and Lorna and John took advantage of the day and hung up laundry on the clothes line. She had to tell Mark: yes, they always make out when they hang up socks. He whispered to her that he would look for a place where he could hang a clothes line.

She was a little bummed out that he decided to spend his spring break in Florida with his grandparents. He had raved so much about them, she understood. He was going spend time with his dad's parents and soak up some sun and come back a tanned god. She was going to spend as much time working at the museum. April 11th was Easter and the last day of spring break. She had worked a whole lot of hours and Easter weekend was usually the kick-off to wedding and event season. There was a Saturday wedding and multiple catered events that Easter Sunday. Bette went home that weekend with nearly $200 in cash tips. She knew that the season would only get better, and now that she was coming into her third summer working there, she had seniority on the calendar and could work more of the profitable events and fewer weekday hourly shifts. With her life skills class's lessons and advice from her father, she kept track of networking within the museum. She made friends with the catering managers, the vendors, the frequent event attendees. She learned who bigger donors were, how they liked their drinks when they were with their wives and when they were with their mistresses. Her pockets were financially lined with her discretion. She served a couple of elderly guests and assisted them with their questions about the museum and they seemed impressed by her knowledge and passion for working at the museum at one of the Easter brunch services. When the lead docent flagged her down asking if she had seen that elderly couple, she told her that they were lovely people and she liked talking to them about the museum. The docent was shocked. The elderly couple were major potential benefactors. They owned one of the biggest timber processors in the state: their family was a part of the history and was considering donating family heirlooms, artifacts, and large financial grants to the museum. Bette told the docent to relax. They were lovely people, and she was polite to them. If the docent does her job right there wouldn't be an issue. Bette spoke confidently, but when she walked away, her stomach twisted and hoped she hadn't said anything wrong. Turned out, the couple was charmed by Bette, the docent, and the museum and they did make a generous donation.

When she returned to school on Monday April 12th, she couldn't wait to see Mark. She was flushed with cash and stories and was excited to hear his too. They weren't able to talk while he was gone by phone or email. If he had heard "Let me hold your titty," from his Grandpa by mistake once when he was 13, she couldn't imagine what stories he would have after a week with them. And the pictures! Mark would have brought his good camera with him; she couldn't wait to see what his grandparents looked like. She waited outside the photography classroom for him before class started and she was antsy to see him. When she saw Mark walk up the hallway to the classroom, he wasn't a smiling, bronzed god. He was a depressed ghost. She had seen that drawn look on his face before, and it was bad. She kept her eyes on him and wove through the other students to get to him. He saw her approach, stopped seeing her concern, and let her embrace him.

"What's wrong? What happened?" She tried to take on as much of his weight as possible.

"He-he had a heart attack Tuesday. He's recovering, but-" He couldn't finish. He covered his face with one hand and held her with his other arm. Students dispersed around them into classes and the bell rang.

"Come on. We're leaving."

They rushed to their lockers and to the office. Being that they were both 18, they were able to sign themselves out of school without being considered unexcused from class. She rarely did it, her parents didn't like her doing it, but she thought they might forgive her for this one. They went to their lockers, got their stuff and went out to his truck. Bette drove as he talked. Mark had only been with his at his grandparent's house a few days when they were out at lunch and his grandpa suffered a heart attack at the table. They were lucky enough that someone knew what to do quickly and he got to a hospital fast enough. They didn't get to do the other stuff they had planned like deep sea fishing, road biking, and go to his pickle ball league. He spent most of his time at the hospital and helping his grandmother. They were a wreck the rest of the week with him in the hospital. When he did finally make it home from the hospital on Saturday, it was just as bad. They spent the day arranging schedules with their local family friends and home health care workers to help them while his grandfather recovered. Mark had to fly back home the next morning. He couldn't even be there with them for their Easter church service.

"It was like all the life got sucked out of him in just a few days. I mean, he's 70. He seemed so healthy. He was active. It's like it came out of nowhere."

"I'm so sorry for your family. You've been through so much heartache. And you had to witness so much of it. The world shouldn't give you such burden."

He leaned against her on the couch with her arms draped over him. She heard him almost laugh. "You wanted to say 'it isn't fair,' didn't you?" He tilted his head back and up looked at her.

"Creative writing class has me paging through the thesaurus a lot. And saying it's not fair seems childish at this point. There's what the world gives us and what we make of it." She kissed the top of his head. "Make something. Go call your grandparents. See how they're doing today."

He smiled up at her, "Not fair is you quoting my own dad to me." He sat up and turned to her. "I told them about you, you know. I showed them our pictures."

"Should I brace for impact?"

"Grandma thought you looked glamorous, like Hedy Lamarr meets Carmen Miranda."

"I think she misplaced where my fruit was. And I am no Hedy Lamarr." Bette playfully poked her breasts and her stomach.

"So you get that? I didn't get it; she had to show me pictures in books about old Hollywood. But I told her you weren't just a Hollywood star. You were the star and how lucky I was. How happy we were."

"What did your Grandpa say?"

"He looked at our pictures said he used to look like me looking at girls like that."

"And what did you say?"

"I told him you let me hold your titty."

Bette laughed until she snorted. She had to tell him again to go call his grandparents and she would wait, that it was okay, take the time. He went in his room and she waited on the couch with a couple of his magazines and the TV on. She skimmed the magazine and ignored the TV, it oddly felt like being in the waiting room of a doctor's office waiting to hear the updated medical news. A few minutes later he came out holding the phone.

"Is everything okay today? Any updates?"

Mark had a funny smile on his face; his thumb was over the receiver. "I got him at a good time; he just woke up from a nap when I called. I told him you were here...He wants to say hello to you."

Mark held out the phone. Bette was dumbstruck to the request. What could he possibly have to say to me? She took the phone from him and muted the TV. "Hello? This is Bette."

"Hello Bette, dear. How are you?"

"I'm very well, Sir. How are you feeling this week?"

He had a low rumble-laugh like an old lion. "'Sir.' That's sweet of you. You can call me Joel. And I'm feeling as well as can be expected all things considered. You know I remember you from years ago. When we lost James. Mark pointed you out in the reception hall and then I believe you two hugged for five minutes. You paid respects to each and every one of us. Such manners."

"He was a good man." She looked at Mark when she said it. "Respect was the least I could do for your family. It feels like so long ago, but I'm sure it doesn't to you."

"Not at my age. Not when you can measure things in decades and the Tonight Show hasn't been good since Carson hosted."

"I can make my peace with watching Letterman instead, but I always love a good Carnac joke."

He laughed. "You got one?"

She thought for a second. "A sheep, a drum, and a snake." She imitated the tearing of an envelope and blowing it open like Carson would. "Baa-dum-sss." Imitating a rim-shot.

Joel laughed. "You are just as he said: sweet, fun, and bright, and in more ways than one. You're just lovely in your pictures."

"Thank you Joel. Mark raves about you too." She looked up at him and smiled again.

"All the good things I hope."

"All the best stories to hang on to." She grabbed her breast and winked at him. "Would you like me to hand you back to him?"

"That would be fine. It was nice speaking with you."

"You too." She handed the phone back to Mark and they wrapped up the call.

He sat back down with her on the couch. "He liked you. He said you're a real keeper. Most of his friend's grand kids wouldn't know who Hedy Lamarr, Carmen Miranda, or even Johnny Carson are. You're an old soul."

"Good thing they put me in a new body and not a used one. You might not have given me a second look if I was an old lady in an old body."

He took her hand. "Same for me. But someday we'll both be old, and I'll still look at you like I do in these pictures."

They both smiled, turned red in the face, and hugged.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 53.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Mark kept Bette updated daily about his grandparents. Some days were better, some days were worse. Some days he would call and he would hear the stress in his grandmother's voice or the weakness in his grandfather's. It wore Mark out. Bette saw the ache it caused in him. She saw the worry, stress, and pain. Mark's eating; sleeping, mood, and grades were affected by it and was miserable. Bette got dressed up for Spring Spirit week, and Mark barely noticed or cared. It was Tuesday April 27th and after school, Bette brought Mark to the school library instead of leaving immediately.

"There's something I wanted to show you," she said.

"What is it?"

"You and I have a lot of the same teachers and classes. The one we didn't was your German class."

"Yeah."

Bette logged into one of the library computers and pulled up email correspondence with various teachers. "I did some asking around. We're less than six weeks out from the end of school. All our teachers have their finals ready. Mark, I asked our teachers. You can take your finals as soon as this week under the excuse of family emergency or duress. You can test out and still be part of our graduating class and go be with your grandparents."

Mark looked at her surprised and sad, "You want me to go?"

She sipped from her water bottle, "You need to go."

"Bette, I can't go and help take care of them and put together everything I need to do for trade school come August. I can't get a place to live near you, a job, and have a life with you and take care of them there at the same time."

Bette took a deep breath with the same sad look on her face as him. "I know that."

He put one arm around the back of her chair and his other hand on her leg. "Bette, that's not the plan. We have a plan. We're making something. I know it's going to be challenging, but-"

"But it's not what the world is giving us."

"No." She could tell he wanted to speak louder, but it was prissily why she brought him to the library and not the computer lab to show him this.

She put her hand on his. "Mark, what would you give for more time with your dad?" He got a wrought look on his face. "If you have the opportunity to spend time with them, to learn more about your dad through your Grandpa Joel and your Grandma Ellen, to get some quality years with them, you need to do that. I can't be the reason you miss out on that."

"I can't believe what I'm hearing. You looked into this and didn't tell me?" He was shocked and bitter.

She remained calm. "When you were in the shower I picked up your phone and looked at the call history. You call them every day, sometimes twice, and they're not short calls either. You're not here. You're there."

"That's not true. I'm here by your side every day."

"I dressed up as a pirate, an alien, a leopard, and Indiana Jones last week and you didn't notice. I could have screamed this from the top of the school and I don't think you would have heard me. You needed to see that it was half done already. This is bigger than us. This is your family."

"Bette I love you. I don't know if I can give you up for this."

"You're not giving this up, I am. I already called your grandparents. They want you there too."

"You went behind my back? I don't believe you. You wouldn't lie to me about this."

Bette pulled up another email thread, one from her personal account to Mark's aunt about the arrangements for him to stay with her that the two of them had discussed and had him read it.

"I had to. There was no way you were going to."

"I don't know If I can do this, after everything we've talked about."

"The fact you're not sure, means you should do this. And if you were sure you didn't want to go, then I would know there was something truly wrong with you after how you've been feeling lately. You need to do this. You need to be with your family, and you need to do it as soon as possible."

"Maybe you can come with me? You could apply for spring semester there!" He was bright and hopeful.

"No." She took her hand off his and touched his cheek. "My tuition and arrangements are already set here for the main U'. That's not what I want for myself. That's not what I want for us."

"But what do you want for us?"

She finally shed a couple tears. "I want us to be happy. And I don't think that can happen while one of us is miserable while we're together."

He wrapped his arm from the back of her chair on to her back and hugged her. She heard him sniffle and cry into her hair. He whispered into her ear. "You weren't a wish or luck. You are a miracle."

"I couldn't do it without a sacrifice. I can't think of a greater one than you." She embraced him back.

Over the rest of the week, Mark crammed and took a final each day for each one of his classes. He went in for Saturday school and took two that morning. He passed his classes and spent the first few days of May packing up his clothes and necessities for his cross-country move. Tuesday afternoon May 4th Bette started walking towards the city bus stop after school. It was nice to finally have some nice days weather-wise and a back pack with only one textbook in it for homework. She waited at the bus stop looking at her nails and kicking pebbles under her feet when a car horn honked and it made her look up; coming up the side avenue on her right, was Mark in his fully packed truck.

"One last ride home?"

She couldn't crack a smile looking at him, "Okay." She crossed the street and got in. She buckled up and he started driving. "We did this Sunday. I don't know if I can do this again."

"I'm gonna be on the road the next couple days. I needed to see one last familiar face before I left."

"You're not making this any easier."

"I thought about that. Look in the glove box." Bette opened it. There was an envelope and a small brown leather jewelry box. "Don't open them now, but you had said that it helped last time. We always could say the important stuff on paper when we had to."

She was already hurting; she held up the narrow box. "Mark, I can't accept this, whatever this is. It's too much."

"You haven't even opened it," he said it offended.

"This is a nice box. This isn't a cheap box. Whatever is in it you didn't pay less than $10 for at a second hand store. Where am I going to wear it? I don't have a prom date. I don't need it to get stolen by my college roommate. I don't want to eventually explain where it came from to some guy in the future. I don't want to hide it and I don't want it to collect dust. I shouldn't have it!" She burst into tears. "I don't deserve it." She dropped the envelope and the box to land by her feet and she covered her face with her hands.

Mark pulled over and parked. He unbuckled himself and slid over to her. "I didn't think of it like that." She leaned into him and he hugged her. "I thought it would be a nice touch like you said before." He stroked her hair.

"It's been hard enough to let you go, to push you away, and you show up to take me home one more time with a note and box and looking as gorgeous and as sweet as always-" she sniffled. "I just thought I was done crying myself to sleep on Sunday night."

"It was like that for me too. You know how hard it was to not dig open those boxes to see if you snuck in notes for me like before?"

"I knew it was going to be so much harder this time." She pulled himself out of his embrace. "I know we can still reach each other by phone, email, and AIM, but it might be easier if we don't. I guess I'm not sure yet."

"I'm not going to have any friends there."

"No. You're going to have your family, your cousins, you're Grandpa Joel. You are going to have so much love around you."

"The love I-"

Bette put her fingertips on his lips. "You need to stop making this harder for us." She dropped her hand and they gave each other little, pained smiles.

"What would make it easier?" He let her go and sat back a bit from her and she sat up.

Bette looked around outside. "Ice cream. No notes. No boxes. Ice cream, and then you leave."

"Okay."

Mark slid back behind the wheel, put his truck back in drive, and pulled into the lot of the ice cream shop. They got out of the truck and went in and ordered ice cream. Bette got an ice cream cone and Mark got a shake. They sat outside at one of the picnic tables.

"I thought you'd get a vanilla milk shake," Mark said.

"Not after having one in reverse." Bette licked the chocolate malt chip ice cream cone. "This is my go-to flavor when I come here."

"You come here a lot?"

Bette pointed. "We're six blocks from my house. I used to bike here probably twice a week in summer when I was younger. It was a great halfway meet up spot for Jenna and me." Bette's face started to brighten at the memories. "Jenna, Tylor, and Greyson would come from that way on their bikes. Ozzy and I would come from that way on our bikes. This was the summer after 7th grade. On weekends there would be epic games of croquet in my yard. On really hot days we'd all go to Pebble Lake. There was a day where we were here and we all got caught in the rain and we all went to Ozzy's and had to wear his clothes until our stuff dried off in the dryer. Jenna and I looked ridiculous!"

Mark gave her a strange look. "Why didn't you two stop at your house and put on your clothes? It's between here and his house."

Bette had a bitter-sweet thought, "When you're young and stupid, you want everything to keep going. You don't want to stop. It's go, go, go."

Mark slurped the end of his shake; Bette was not done with her ice cream yet. "You ready to go?"

She held her ice cream and looked at his sweet face. She put her back pack back on and took the paper cup out of his hand. "I'm going to go get some water and then I'm going to walk home like it's 7th grade. Like you weren't here. Okay?"

"Okay."

They both got up from the picnic table and she walked up to the door of the ice cream shop. "Thanks for asking me to dance Mark. It was an iconic time with you."

He gave her a big smile. "Oh Hell yeah it was, Bette. Thanks for an awesome time."

She grinned back before turning away from him and going into the shop. She threw his cup away, got a cup of water, drank it and refilled it. She sat back down with her back towards the door and had more of her ice cream cone. A couple minutes later, the door opened. "Bee?"

"Hey Grey."

"I thought I saw you from outside. I'm about to start a shift. Wanna come outside with me before I start?" He made a smoking mime.

"Sure."

She got up and went outside to the back of the building with him. Mark's truck was gone. "What's goin' on?"

"Sometimes you just need some ice cream, you know?"

"Like right after you break up with your boyfriend when he moves away for the second time?" He said it with the deep flatness he always did, but it was his way of caring.

"Yeah." She sighed. "It sucks."

"How you holding up?" He took another drag of his cigarette.

"It's pretty fucking awful." She took a bite of the cone. "The walk home will help. It's about all I can do for now. Any distraction is a good distraction. You know what it's like?"

"You know I don't."

"Right. You and Jenna still going to prom again?"

"Yeah. She made arrangements for us to go with Katie and Hank. I have no idea why. He and I are going to have nothing to talk about and we're all going to his house after." Greyson looked confused. "No clue why he's wanna hang out with me anyways."

Bette shoved the rest of her cone in her mouth to keep herself from laughing. She put her hand over her mouth while she chewed and spoke. "I'm sure you guys will come up with something. Something you'll both enjoy."

He saw her expression, her lack of a poker face he knew she had too. "Bette, what do you know?"

She swallowed the last of the cone. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said with a crooked smile. "But I know I already feel better. That ice cream and talking to you helped a lot. Would you call me when you're done?"

He put out his cigarette. "Sure Bee," he laughed.

The pair high-fived and slapped their chests before walking away from each other.

Bette enjoyed the spring time sun on her walk home. It felt good to distract herself with the weather and the sounds of birds. She found a good sized rock and kicked it for three blocks. It was a fun game to play with herself. It was something she did when she would do when she would walk home from Puzzle club in the early part of middle school when Cassandra didn't go and she had to walk home alone and didn't catch a city bus. It made her feel young and even though she was alone, she didn't feel lonely. She was getting to the last couple blocks to home when she saw Todd mowing the front lawn at his house. He was jamming on his headphones behind the lawnmower. She waved to him and he stopped and took off his headphones.

"'Sup Bee? What's got you walking home?"

"Long story. Short version, I needed some ice cream and I still don't have a car, so I walked."

Todd's headphones still blasted Usher's 'Yeah.' "Sounds like a good reason to stop. I still have a sweet tooth. I'm pretty sure I spent my allowance there every week there the summer after seventh grade."

Bette laughed hard.

"What's so funny?"

"I was just telling someone I did nearly the same thing. I had to do extra chores just to get extra spending cash that summer. I remember I would check the weather and do chores on rainy or cooler days or try to cram them in in the morning so I could get the cash. Then a bunch of us realized a year later if we could just agree on a flavor or two, we could just by a damn half gallon of ice cream for the same price along with cones and malt powder and have so much more. We still went to the ice cream shop to meet up though."

He put out his hand and twitched his fingers, "We're not at the bus stop! Money in the swear jar!"

"No," she said flatly, but to them, playfully.

"Fine. Then I gotta get back to mowing. I need to earn my own swear jar money."

"Later Toddy."

He put his headphones back on and started the lawnmower again. She started taking a few more steps towards home and looked back towards Todd mowing. He padabured behind the mower and bobbing his head to the music in his headphones. She smiled and had a warm thought. Bette walked back and tapped him on his shoulder. He took his headphones off again and the song blasting this time was 'Ghetto Superstar' by Pras, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and Mya. "Todd, Do you want to go to prom with me?"

"No fucking way." He said with a big smile.

Bette was taken aback. "Jesus. A simple no would have been fine."

"No! I mean yes! As in sure I'll go to prom with you. I just can't believe I'm getting asked, as in un-fucking-believable!"

She held up her hand. "Just to be clear: you have zero chance of having sex with me. I am glad to buy you some bananas and some Vaseline though."

"I wouldn't expect anything less," he said it with a sparkle in his eye.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 54.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Saturday May 15th was the night of the prom. Bette once again, did not want to spend much money on the night. She had been a similar build as Jenna's sister before so she asked if she had another dress to borrow. Turned out she had been in a wedding a month prior and had a bridesmaid dress in a soft green color called 'clover' that on some people would have been horrific, but was fabulous on Jenna's sister and on Bette. It was corseted-strapless, knee-length with a slit in the back and had matching shoes. Bette's only green jewelry was the triple spiral necklace from Ozzy, but she didn't feel right about wearing it, so she asked her mom for another option. Lorna loaned her grey marcasite stoned collar, hematite earrings, and a bracelet with another big grey marcasite-looking stone in it. Lorna did her hair in a French twist and Bette did her own make up. Bette bought a simple white carnation boutineer for Todd and wore the silk floral corsage she made with Jenna from the year before. She told Todd the only thing he needed was a suit, he didn't even need to rent a tux if he didn't want to, and he could wear whatever color he wanted; matching didn't matter and it was overrated at this point. They were going as friends and he was glad to oblige. They went to the new trendy pizza restaurant where some other people had gone to dinner prior to prom too. Todd saw a sophomore girl he knew and Bette recognized the junior guy she was with from her photography class. Todd relaxed knowing he wasn't going to be the only underclassman there.

"Why did you ask me anyways?" Todd asked.

"Because I wanted to go to prom with someone who liked music and could dance. And I seem to recall your car dancing and having rhythm when we played music on the way to school those times when I had my parent's car."

"Yeah, but why me? I'm sure there was someone in your class who would have gone with you."

Bette shamefully shook her head. "I just broke up with Mark. And if I were to be really honest with you," she leaned forward and waved him forward to do the same. "If you haven't noticed, everyone dates in their own social circle, it's almost incestuous. And ever since I became 'the powerful lady, who took away Jason Kaye's dick,' I'm a freak to guys. And I wasn't attractive before that either."

"That was you!" He said it right to her face. "That story is a legend! There's still a last day of school chant about something or someone every year. Everyone hopes that it won't be about them. Last year the eighth graders crowded the seventh grade hallway after sixth period and chanted 'sevs.' Because everyone knows-"

They said it at the same time, "Sevs are the worst!"

"Isn't it weird how the second oldest students in the school are considered the lowest on the social rung in the school?" Bette asked.

"Yes! I thought it was just our grade that thought that." He laughed. "That's so crazy how that doesn't change."

"Mr. Barrow still wears the same six shirts, doesn't he?"

Todd's eyes became saucers. "Holy shit, he does!" He laughed again. "That sucks though, being a freak. You were always super cool to me. Freaks like us gotta stick together."

She looked at him a little crooked, "Todd, you are so main stream; you might as well be a salmon."

"You missed seeing me sixth through eighth grade. I think I finally evened out. I got my braces off this last Thanksgiving. I didn't get over five feet tall until last year. I went through a weird Anime phase. I had greasy skin and hair. I took way too long to figure out how to use deodorant and how important it was. I spent last summer reinventing myself hoping the kids from the other middle school would give me a chance."

"How's that working out for you?"

"Pretty good actually. I like the new stuff about myself. I like the friends I made in choir and Spanish class. High school is way better than middle school. I didn't think I'd get to go to prom as a freshman. You wouldn't believe what the other baritones were saying. They say senior girls turn baritones into basses." He said it lewdly and raised his eyebrows a couple times.

She glared at him playfully and crossed her arms sitting back in the booth. "Did you forget the story I just told you? I'm the powerful lady who took away a guy's dick. Nothing is going to happen between you and me. You try anything, and you'll be singing soprano."

"I know." He waved his hand at her. "It's just fun to joke about that stuff. You can dish it out with the best of 'em. Besides. I could never try to get with Ozzy's old girlfriend. You don't try to get with your buddy's ex-girlfriend."

She playfully sneered at him. "Then as your buddy, you have my blessing to try and get with any of my ex-boyfriends, Ozzy included. So good luck with that."

"See! You always can dish it out! But seriously, his girlfriend Vanessa is hot, you think he'd let me sandwich her with him?"

Bette snorted a laugh. She couldn't tell if Todd was joking or not.

When Bette and Todd got to the prom, he didn't just walk in, he walked in dancing. The world became his dance floor when he heard 'Everybody (Backstreet's Back)' by The Backstreet Boys, and he was fun dancer. The DJ played rock, rap, and pop and he liked dancing to all of it. They met up on the dance floor with Jenna, Greyson, Katie, Hank, Ami, and Robert. Todd got along well with all of them. Bette was unable to break dance battle Hank in the dress based on the fabric, cut, and tightness, but Todd could. Todd didn't know as many elaborate moves as Hank, but he did a round-off cartwheel that went down into a partial split and a face-down ass-shake that caught everyone by surprise. Bette doubled over in squealing, snorting laughter. He knew how to swing dance from the previous years in gym class. He wasn't great at it, but he tried, she had to lead, and it was fun. They danced to the slow songs, and though it didn't mean anything romantic, it was nice to be touched around her back by him. The DJ played a country song; Bette and Todd both got sour looks on their faces and said they'd sync back up on the dance floor in a bit. He needed a drink and she needed the bathroom. She walked out of the bathroom stall at the same time as the girl next to her, Vanessa. She wore a black, one shoulder strapped dress and a studded leather collar. Her makeup had heavy black eyeliner which didn't compliment her blue eyes. She had dark low-light streaks in her hair and her up-do wasn't in curls like most of the other girls, it was spiked out on the ends. She had changed her look for Ozzy. They stood at the sinks side by side; Vanessa seemed surprised to see her there.

Bette thought of what Todd had said, "You're lookin' hot tonight, Van." Bette reapplied her nude lipstick.

"Thanks Bee. You look good too. The White Witch has found the spring." Vanessa applied a deep red lip gloss.

"I did." She ignored the subtle dig. "Are you and Ozzy having fun tonight?"

"Not that it's any of your business, but we are."

Bette looked down at her hands as she washed them and furrowed her brow to Vanessa's phrasing. "You two are out at prom. It's kinda public knowledge. I just wanted to wish you well."

"Oh." Vanessa rinsed her hands. "I just thought that since Mark was gone you were going to be weird about it. I saw that guy you brought. Couldn't tell what the deal was between you two."

Bette smiled. "Oh, no it's not serious. You've met Todd before. Ozzy knows him."

"When did I meet him? He's not a junior. I don't recognize him."

Bette giggled. "Trick or treating? 8th grade? He yelled in your face."

Vanessa laughed. "That kid you babysat?!"

"Yeah. Ca-ching!" She laughed again. "He's a freshman. We ride the bus in every morning together. He cracks me up and he can dance."

"Fuck Bette. And I thought you moved on from Ozzy to Mark fast. It hasn't even been two weeks since Mark left."

They started to walk out of the bathroom together. "It's not like that. I just needed a friend tonight, and he's a good one."

"Okay then Bee." Vanessa put up a hand to Bette and walked away from her. Bette stood by a the railing that overlooked the fountain at the entrance of the building. She could hear the combination of the water splashing on itself and the music in the ballroom. She closed her eyes, took a breath, and took a moment to herself.

"You alright?" Jenna asked her.

"Yeah." She turned and leaned back on the railing. "Just...figuring something out."

"What is it? Something I can help with?"

"I made a mistake. I trusted the wrong person." Jenna looked at her confused. "I asked Vanessa to do something for me. I asked her to tell Ozzy that he could come to me if he needed a friend. He never did call or anything. I told her that during Winter Spirit week. It took me to now to realize she never did it. I realized she never said she would actually help me. I was too scared of how he would react if I were to tell him myself. I still am. I fully believe now she never told him what I asked."

"That bitch," Jenna said plainly.

"No." Bette was calm and nonchalant. "I'm not mad at her. She has her reasons. I have no one to blame but myself. It's like you said, I don't care what people think, but I care what he thinks. And I'm scared to see how he'll react to anything I have to say."

Jenna put her arm around Bette and started walking her back into the ballroom. "I think you shouldn't worry about that right now." Their eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room. They saw their friends back on the dance floor. Katie, Hank, Todd, and Greyson all dancing together with a few others they knew. "I think we are at our senior prom and we only get one of these." Jenna gave Bette a tight-lipped smile.

"You want a piggy-back ride?" Bette offered with the same kind of smile.

"You're damn right I do." Jenna hopped onto Bette's back and she ran to the floor with her best friend.

The night went on and the DJ played more songs they loved. Bette filled out some song requests at the DJ table and rejoined her friends. When he played 'Lady Marmalade,' Jenna, Greyson, and Bette quickly grabbed chairs and did their choreographed dance from the year before. It didn't attract the crowds or attention like last year, but they still had fun doing it. Bette watched Hank's face and tried her damnedest not to laugh at his attempts to remain calm, but she saw the excitement in his eyes. Todd was thoroughly impressed and asked Greyson if that level of dancing gets him laid. Greyson said he hoped it would. When 'Jumpin' Jumpin' by Destiny's Child played, Bette and Ami did some of the choreography from the music video. The clean version of 'Country Grammar' by Nelly made Jenna, Bette, and Todd lose control on the dance floor. It was a favorite of Bette and Jenna's since freshman year and Todd loved the song too. They knew all the words.

When 'Pony' by Ginuwine played, Todd had Bette and Jenna sit in chairs and he gave them both a lap dance; and he was surprisingly good and confident. There were lots of camera flashes. Bette was bright red, and covering her mouth the whole time from shock and laughter. Jenna just shook her head. Bette had to remind him that he still wasn't going to get laid. He told her it wasn't so much for her, but he wanted to see if any other girls were paying attention. She apologized for not looking on his behalf. Turned out, his plan worked, a girl he knew was paying attention and asked to dance with him during a slow song: 'Kiss from a Rose' by Seal. Bette kicked him in the butt to go. She watched Todd's face light up as he swayed with the sophomore girl.

"You wanna keep me company in the short term?" Hank asked Bette.

"Um, okay," She was genuinely surprised he asked her.

They stood and swayed close enough that they didn't look each other in the face. He was a bit taller than her, but in the heels she wore, she could just barely see over his shoulder. Jenna and Katie were dancing with each other. No one could see Bette smirk.

"How are you holding up?" He asked.

"It's tough for sure. I miss him. I guess quitting him cold turkey makes it easier. It was last time. How about you?"

"I get it. Why he had to do it. I mean, we grew up together. He worshiped his dad. I think when he got close with his grandpa he got a glimpse of that again. I can't be mad at him for it."

"Yeah. But how are you holding up?"

"Probably about the same as you."

"If Jenna left me twice without knowing when I'd see her next, I think I'd be a wreck. She's the sister I never had. And she has a sister."

"Mark's my best friend. He knows me better than anyone."

"I get that. Same with Jenna. She and I know each other better than anyone too. Hell, Mark knows stuff that I never told her."

"The iconic secrets?"

She laughed. "He told me he wasn't going to tell you that."

"So that was true? I thought he made that up! I didn't think that was possible the way he described it."

"Oh yeah. Been chasing that high ever since. How long did it take him to tell you?"

"About thirty seconds after you left his house that day."

"Are you sure it wasn't two minutes and thirty seconds?"

'What?"

"Nothing." She saw Ozzy and Vanessa over his shoulder. "It took him leaving the first time for me to tell someone that happened. They didn't believe it was possible to happen like that either."

"Jenna?"

"No. Ozzy."

"You get your rocks off and the first person you told was a guy? What were you trying to accomplish?"

"It was an accident. Mark called me an icon in his goodbye note to me. Ozzy asked, and I answered. We don't-didn't lie to each other."

"Mark said the same thing. He said you would have killed him if he lied to you."

"It was really hard those last couple weeks after spring break. He wasn't the same. I knew there was no way he was going to be happy here. Like you said about his dad, he worshiped him. Thinking I could make him happy enough? I was lying to myself, and it was killing us. That door swung both ways with us."

"It locked both ways too as I understood."

"It did. We didn't lie to each other and we didn't share each other's iconic secrets. I still won't."

"What are you implying?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," she said aloofly.

Hank scoffed a laugh. "He told me about that too. Thanks Bette."

"Sure thing, Hank."

"Is, um...speaking of iconic sure things..." he trailed off nervously.

She breathed a laugh and saw Ozzy and Vanessa over his shoulder again. "You want some advice?"

"Yes!"

"Compliment them on something they chose, and notice if they do the same for you. You show a little humility. If you can, have them teach you something. And don't lie. Lying kills everything."

"Sounds easy enough."

"And wear a rubber."

Hank laughed. "I don't think-"

"Tenth grade health class, man. Just wear it."

The song ended and the pair hugged. She offered him a high-five too. She slapped her chest after and he did too. The night went on and the group continued to have fun. The DJ played 'Wicked Games' by Chris Isaak and Bette danced with Todd. She specifically moved him to a certain part of the floor, one where she could see Ozzy and Vanessa at their table, and she kept Todd in place from turning her. She balled up her hand into a loose fist on his shoulder and peaked at them around it. Vanessa tried to get Ozzy to get up and dance, but he shook his head and pulled his hand back from her. She could see him mouth 'I don't want to' and 'no.' She couldn't see what Vanessa said to him, but she appeared to get frustrated with him. Ozzy remained calm while she stormed off. Ozzy closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose; he'd stopped wearing his glasses some time ago and the black hair dye had faded out, Bette didn't remember when he did that. She didn't necessarily want to or mean to sabotage them with her song request, but she was fascinated by the result.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 55.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

The last few weeks of school went by in a blink. Her friends and acquaintances started trading invitations for graduation parties in the summertime. The seniors had a special dinner where there was a slideshow of video clips and pictures of the entire school year. Bette had been asked to give a video sound bite at the casual homecoming dance about how she was enjoying it and something about the graduating class. She had watched enough reality TV to know what they would want to hear. She spoke positively and clearly for the clip and thanked the committee that put it on, congratulated the homecoming king and queen nominees, and congratulated the rest of the class for making it through with her. The video played through the school year chronologically. When the entirety of the homecoming segment played and Bette's clip didn't play, she was bummed, but not shocked. She was left out one more time by her peers. The cherry on the bullying and teasing cake that she had known her whole life. The goal of the video was to have the entire class featured. There were some people who had multiple clips and were in it a lot over the forty-five minute run time. She was in one single group picture with Ami, Sonja, and Jenna; a photo she knew Ami had given the video committee.

Yearbooks came out. She was in the yearbook quite a bit. The yearbook committee was good about heavily featuring seniors, especially those who submitted photos when requested. Bette gave pictures when they were requested for the fashion page, the jobs page, the homecoming dance page, and the extreme sports page when she jumped in Pebble Lake in the middle of winter. They used her pictures in different various capacities than what she submitted them for, but it was nice to see them used. It was the most she had ever been in the yearbook, even if she was mis-credited a few times and some of the other pictures that the yearbook photographers took of her; you could barely see her face. The yearbook staff had a weird creative outlook where they would take pictures from odd angles or while people were talking and it resulted in, to Bette, confusing photos. She only had one year of photography class under her belt, but the perspective was still bizarre to her.

The graduation issue of the school paper came out. It listed the intentions of the entire senior class of what their plans were for the fall for school or work. It featured articles of graduates going to interesting colleges. One guy from the football team was getting a full ride scholarship to Notre Dame. Two girls were going to Harvard after getting perfect scores on the ACTs and SATs and GPAs. Thirty other graduates were going to the same Main State University as Bette, so it was nice to know there would be more familiar faces than just Skye and Greyson. Of the 427 graduate of their class, there were 22 who had 4.0 GPAs for all four years of high school, resulting in all of them being valedictorians, which happened every year at Public North. It always seemed funny to Bette when on TV shows and movies when two kids competed for one valedictorian spot at graduation, there can be more than one, it was never an exclusive thing at their school. Bette saw that Ozzy was staying in town and going to the community college and continuing to work. Vanessa was going to the local private college. Vanessa wasn't leaving Ozzy like Bette had planned to do.

June 1, 2004

The evening of graduation and Bette had taken a nap in the afternoon before she got her cap and gown ready. The school used to rent nice ones, but in the last few years, they switched to ones that were basically disposable. That night Bette wore a sleeveless teal V-neck blouse, a denim knee skirt with her black leather belt, and Mary Jane shoes. She stuck a white-out pen in her pocket before she left her bedroom that day. She prepped her backpack with a change of clothes for the all night graduation party that would immediately follow the graduation ceremony. All the students would board buses and go to the event center and get locked in and have food and sodas and get to enjoy the place all night with games, fun, and entertainment. The same event center Bette and Ozzy went on for their first date. Before leaving, Bette and her family had dinner at the house. It was a simple dinner of tacos, fruit salad, and flan for dessert. Bette's grandmothers and grandfather came from out of town for the dinner and ceremony. There were lots of pictures taken in the yard of the house. When John and Lorna took Bette to the ceremony, they let her know that they would leave Lorna's car at the event center for after the all night graduation party and Bette could take it home. John and Lorna volunteered to do clean up at the party and hadn't told Bette about it until the drive to graduation. She wouldn't have talked them out of it, she wouldn't have been embarrassed by them, but she was surprised all the same. She just thought she was going to get picked up by John in the morning. The car was a last minute surprise if she wanted to go out and get breakfast with her friends or anything like that. They gave her the car keys and she stuck them in her backpack. They dropped her off at the local college gymnasium where the graduation was held before parking the car. Public North's auditorium didn't have big enough accommodations for the graduating class, families, faculty, and band; weather was always too iffy to have it outside. As soon as Bette was dropped off, she took out the white out pen from her pocket and got to work on her cap. She wrote on the black cap "❤ MOM & DAD." Where her parents were up on the gymnasium bleachers, she knew they would see it.

Bette got in line with everyone else alphabetically by last name and her heart started to race when Ozzy started to approach to get in line behind her. They hadn't spoken since they broke up just over five months earlier, and they hadn't been in such close proximity since then. They both knew this moment was coming, their pictures were next to each other in the yearbook and their names were next to each other in the graduation issue of the school paper. It was an inevitable moment that was about to last hours. The black hair dye had fully washed out of his hair, shaved off his goatee, but still had his eyebrow pierced. His skin was already growing more tan from working outside with the lawn care company. He always did tan quickly. He didn't touch her or even stand that close to her, but she felt him all the same. She felt his energy, his strength, his power and it made her nervous. She felt her dinner move in her stomach. She was grateful to be standing for some time before the ceremony started and shifted her weight from foot to foot and shook out her hands in the billowy sleeves of the gown. With the last name Wheelan, she was one of the last 15 people to walk into the gymnasium. She was grateful to have had the time to shake out her nerves. Her nerves mostly dissipated when she saw her parents and grandparents up in the bleachers. She blew them kisses and she could see that they could see the top of her cap and they reacted with big smiles and laughter. Only a couple other people had dressed outside the formality of the gown. One guy wore shorts and barefoot so he looked naked, another girl wore a feather boa, and one girl put Mickey Mouse ears on her hat. Bette was the only one who put words on hers. She sat through the ceremony and listened to speech after speech. After each speech ended, she immediately forgot what it had been about. She was so distracted sitting next to Ozzy she couldn't think straight. She tapped her toes inside her shoes and tried to breath and meditate through it and just thinking about anything else to distract herself. She thought about cartoons, comedians, her next shift at work later in the week, what she might do for breakfast tomorrow, what she would do at the event center that night; anything to distract herself from the tension that she felt from him. When the reading of the names began and everyone started to go up and get their diplomas, she was happy to see her friends go by. Jenna, Skye, Cassandra, Ami, Sonja, Greyson, Tylor, Hank, Robert, and so many familiar faces over so many years. They were all grown up but still looked exactly the same as they were when they were kids and it was a weird feeling. When they read the name 'Mark Hall in abstention,' Bette's nervousness got the best of her, and she let a tear fall. She thought she was done crying over him, but he was still there making her heart ache. She closed her eyes, sniffled, and wiped her cheek. She took a deep breath through her mouth. Bette felt a tap on her forearm. She opened her eyes, and there was Ozzy's hand. Between his fingers extended to her were a couple of tissues. God damn it, he knows me too well. She tentatively took the tissues, closed her eyes, and dabbed her face to not ruin her makeup. She lifted the side of the gown and stuck the tissues into her skirt pocket. She stared forward again and tried to distract herself with the reading of the names. She felt another tap from Ozzy on her arm, this time, he held out a notepad and a pen.

The note pad read: U ok?

Bette glanced at the pad and slowly up at his face. He wasn't angry. He wasn't sad. He genuinely looked concerned. The notepad wasn't new. She didn't page through it, but she knew he would have kept it on himself for song ideas when he had them. She took the pad out of his hand.

She wrote: I am. How have u been?

She handed the pen and pad to him.

Ozzy wrote: Good. Weird. Hard. Mom's here. Dumped Vanessa.

He handed her the pen and pad. The names being read were alphabetically up to the 17 Johnsons in the class. She couldn't believe he told her so much in so few words.

Bette wrote: Why? Ur both staying here in town.

Ozzy took the pad and wrote: She lied to me.

Honesty had been an issue with Vanessa and Ozzy in the past, and the question itched at her fingers as she held the pen and pad. She wrote: Can I ask about what?

Ozzy wrote back quickly: U. Jenna and Grey told me U wanted to open the door. U asked Van to tell me. She never did.

Bette looked up at Ozzy, they both looked sorry at each other. She wrote: Why didn't U try to open the door?

Ozzy wrote: Because U told me to STOP. I gave U no reason to trust me again. And Mark

Bette wrote: What about Mark?

Ozzy wrote were with him. I was ur ex. U 2 were in️ 3.

Bette wrote talk to Grey. U know he's gone. U know why?

Ozzy wrote: I do know.

Bette wrote: Telling Grey everything was not an accident. I'm no fool. If I couldn't open the door with U, maybe I could leave open a window with Grey.

Ozzy wrote: U always were the clever one in the room. Bette Wheelan, In the Gymnasium, With the pen and paper. Clue-dun-it.

Bette wrote: Yet U were the one who beat me at the game. U brought the pen and pad. Ozzy White, undefeated in Clue-dun-it.

She breathed a laugh. He heard it and laughed too. She still held the pad and wrote: It was so long ago, but it feels like last week.

Ozzy wrote: True.

The notepad was almost out of pages. Ozzy lifted the side of his gown, pulled a small piece of paper from his pocket, and he handed it to her; it was an invitation to his graduation party for Saturday June 5. Bette pulled lifted the side of her gown and pulled a piece of paper of an invitation for her graduation party on Sunday June 13. Ozzy took her invitation and the notepad and put them back in his pocket. There was so much more she wanted to say and he left her voiceless in that moment.

The commencement ceremony ended. Bette found her parents and took more teary-eyed pictures with the white-out written cap. She saw Ozzy on the bleachers with his Aunt Darrah and his mom. She had never seen Ozzy's mom before in person or in pictures. She didn't even know her name. Bette wondered if she knew anything about her. She was tall, had Ozzy's skin tone, and hair color, but that was where the similarities ended. Ozzy probably looked like his father, and that was probably hard for her. Bette quickly hugged her family, left the cap and gown with them, found Jenna, and zoomed to the buses for the all night grad party. Jenna and Bette ended up on a bus with a bunch of people who were not their friends during the years of school: mostly hockey and football players. They chanted filthy things about each other, but it was all in good fun and Bette and Jenna joined in the chants. There was 'Paul licks pussy,' 'Adam eats ass,' 'Rod's big rod,' 'Meghan's big muff.' When the guys started to taper off from their friends, Jenna shouted, 'Jenna licks genitals!' And the guys continued chanting her words with laughter and screams. When her chant died off, Bette shouted, 'Bette on blow jobs!' The guys embraced her chant too.

Bette and Jenna inhaled a pizza and a pitcher of Diet Coke when they got there. They changed out of their skirts and put on their jeans and sneakers and grabbed the free disposable cameras that were included in their backpacks. They started off by bowling a few frames but quickly got bored, reset the game and moved on. They went to the batting cages where almost no one was. Bette and Jenna got cages next to each other and got really into it, grunting hard like tennis players. Jenna was a switch hitter, so they could look at each other while they were in the cages. Bette cracked ball after ball until blisters started to form on her hands, but it felt so good. She hadn't been in a batting cage since she was a young kid and she knew she would be sore in the next couple days because of it. They pretended to be men and adjusted their jocks and gave each other fake baseball signals. Bette kept telling Jenna to steal third. Jenna said she always does. When they got out of the cages they took pictures of each other pretending the baseball bats and balls were penises and testicles on themselves until they cried laughing. Bette gave Jenna a piggyback ride through the event center until they came to the magician doing card tricks and Bette stopped dead in her tracks. Bette stopped and watched with some other girls watching the tricks. Bette got to pick a card and jumped and squealed when the magician tricked her with his illusion. She jumped up and down and applauded like a little kid when he was done with each trick. She forgot how much she loved close up card trick magic. Jenna shouted to Bette, "Sequin and fringe dresses!" Bette's head spun and she went running to Jenna. There were a bunch of dresses and suits that were open in the back like hospital gowns and faux backgrounds along with motorcycles to pose with. Bette and Jenna changed into costume after costume and took pictures on the motorcycles and in the different backgrounds. They went in the changing booth together and took one of themselves in their bras together with silly faces. After getting dressed, the pair found the hair station. Bette saw Cynthia volunteering there and gave her a great, big hug. She was pregnant again. She waited for her station to have her braid her hair back. Jenna had her hair braided by another stylist. While there, they exchanged yearbooks with other grads and signed messages to each other and recounted memories of years past. The Rosaline twins had gone to the other middle school and were in line to get their hair braided too. As Bette got to chatting with them, she was laughing and joking with them; they were amazing girls. They were honor students yet total partiers. They invited her to a party they were having that weekend, and not just their graduation party; a party-party. She wondered how she was not friends with them sooner; they had absolutely embraced who she was in that moment. She called them powerful ladies and they high-fived slapped their chests and they both hugged her. Jenna offered to bring weed to the party; the twins said 'pot-lucking' was encouraged.

After the braiding, Bette took some time to walk around the event center to find other people to sign her yearbook and talk about old times. A guy named Raymond told her that her Lady Marmalade dances at prom were a total turn on, and he grunted and put his hand on his crotch. They had flirted once or twice in physical science class freshman year, but she couldn't believe he was telling her this. She told him to call her, but the look on his face was total shock when she was sincere. He was joking around, she wasn't. The politics of high school didn't matter anymore, she didn't care what people thought. She was single. He was a blond, auto shop, farm boy-type; totally different than anyone she had been interested in before. She wasn't even sure if she was interested, but why not give someone new a chance? It was more of a chance than most guys had given her. She wrote her phone number in his yearbook, applied a layer of lipstick, and put a kiss print next to it. It was another What the fuck am I doing?! moment, but when she walked away, she could feel her face turn red. Ray's buddies with him made lewd comment about getting 'two hands full' and his 'wick dipped,' and she heard all of it. She found Skye and Terry and told them about what had just happened with Raymond. Skye told her she had heard that Ray likes to 'take care of his ladies' but make sure to make him wear a condom. Bette said that anyone who wants in her Wheelhouse is required to have Rubbermaid tires. Terry and Skye laughed.

She realized how good, confident, how powerful of a lady she continued to be; she couldn't be stopped. She went to the high ropes course and got harnessed in. She climbed the ladders and crossed the bridges and obstacles. Her heart races as she stared down at the plank and pulled the rope to ring the bell at the highest point of the course. It got applause from the people below. She was sweating and her hands were shaking, but it was all worth it. She went down the three story corkscrew slide to get back to the bottom and her hair was staticky from the plastic tube and she was dizzy when she got there, but she loved the thrill of it. She wanted more thrills. She ran around and found Jenna again. She challenged her to the inflatable games. There was an inflatable relay race and Jenna beat Bette two out of three races. There was a game of giant sumo suits and Bette beat Jenna at that game. There was a game of pugil sticks on platforms to knock each other off, They each won two rounds and decided to keep it a tie. They had someone in line take pictures of them playing all the games. Bette was having the time of her life with her best friend.

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*Chapter 56.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

When the commencement ceremony ended, Bette took off like a shot away from Ozzy. He wasn't ready for her to leave. She went and embraced her family. He figured he had a few minutes to do the same. He went up the bleachers to Darrah and his mom and gave them each a hug and handed off his cap and gown to them. They told him how handsome he looked and how proud they were of him. It took everything in him to keep it together. He had already given Bette his tissues. Tylor and Greyson yelled to him to join them on the shuttle bus to the all night grad party. Greyson and Ozzy sat together on the bus. Greyson showed Ozzy the nicotine patch he threw on to keep himself from going insane all night from not smoking. Ozzy showed Greyson the notepad; his back and forth with Bette. It was the most they had spoken since their break up and they hadn't said anything out loud, and he had Greyson to thank for it. Greyson told him the night was young and there would be more opportunities to talk out loud. Ozzy wasn't sure how much she wanted to talk. Greyson pointed to the note: Telling Grey everything was not an accident. I'm no fool. If I couldn't open the door with you, maybe I could leave open a window with Grey. "She wants to talk. She said so. Don't be the fool," Greyson said.

"Not sure when I'll find the opportunity," Ozzy said worried.

"You'll know it when you see it." Greyson was not concerned. "You already got the invite to her grad party. You gave her yours. If not tonight, there's always then."

Ozzy sighed. Something about finally breaking the silence of the last five months told him that this was his opportunity to talk to Bette. He didn't want to wait for the weekend. The guys got there and shared a pizza. Seeing Bette shotgun a pizza and half a pitcher of pop cracked him up, she never was afraid of eating. He saw her go to bowl. She doesn't even like bowling. Tylor wanted to bowl, so the three guys went to bowl too. The Ricks and Norman bowled in the lane next to them. They were six lanes down from Bette and Jenna. By the time Ozzy got up to his fourth frame, Bette and Jenna were gone. He tried to dismiss the idea of catching up with her in the short term and have fun instead, but he was a terrible bowler, despite being so strong; he couldn't focus. Half his throws were gutter balls. They finished the game and Ozzy wandered near the arcade. He played some games and could hear Bette grunt and laugh in the batting cages. He tried to be entertained by the games, but he kept losing. He kept listening for her. Bette and Jenna took off in the opposite direction of the arcade and he missed his opportunity. He went back and sat with the guys while they bowled another game. He exchanged and wrote in yearbooks with people around them while they bowled another game. Greyson gave Ozzy a look and a shrug. Ozzy shook his head no. After the game, Ozzy took a lap around the event center, he didn't find Bette. Tylor told him to buck the fuck up when he met them back at the service counter. He tossed Ozzy a mini golf club and a hot pink ball. Ozzy joked that it was Tylor who loved 'the pink' and Tylor snatched the ball out of Ozzy's hand and reclaimed it for himself for their game. Ozzy relaxed through the 18 holes of mini-golf and won the game. They got off the course and the trio was laughing and joking. They returned the clubs to the service desk and they heard Raymond and his buddies talking about how he was going to fuck Bette and were taking dates as to how soon it would happen. Ozzy came up behind them and asked if they were serious. Raymond was under six feet tall and not intimidated by Ozzy. Ozzy and Bette's friendship, relationship, and breakup were public knowledge. Ozzy said there was no way Raymond had a chance with her. He opened his yearbook and showed him Bette's entry: Raymond- We once had physical science, maybe we could have chemistry. Call me. (You Can) Bette 'on it' Wheelan. Along with her kiss mark and her phone number, Ozzy couldn't believe she had been that forward with Raymond. He couldn't remember a time when they had ever even talked about Raymond. Raymond asked Ozzy if he had any tips for him. Ozzy cheerlessly told him not to lie to her. He walked away from them and went to the vending machines. Ozzy got a Twix out of the vending machine and ate it upstairs in the bar area of the event center and sipped a Mountain Dew. There weren't a lot of people there. There were mostly parent volunteers between shifts enjoying the quiet. He looked through the glass that overlooked much of the center. He stepped back when he realized how high up he was and it made him uncomfortable. He saw his own reflection in the glass and became irritated with himself. Fool.

He stood there looking when he heard a familiar voice, "Hi Oz." It wasn't another graduate; it was Bette's father John.

"Hi." Ozzy stuck the empty wrapper in his pocket and offered John a handshake and he took it. "What are you doing here?"

"Lorna and I signed up for volunteering. We were never big joiners for school events for Bette. This was our last chance. We didn't even tell her we were doing this until we were on our way to commencement."

"Have you seen her yet?" Ozzy prodded but tried to remain casual.

John pointed out the glass to the high ropes course. Bette was at the end of the plank ringing the bell. She had a huge smile on her face. "She always has been fearless. She gets that from her mother."

"Really? She used to tell me you were the traveler, the outgoing one, you could talk to anyone."

"That came from how I was raised. My mother made sure my brother and I knew how to behave. It's all variations of manners. You always had good manners. But Bette, Lorna-" John shook his head. "You can't teach what they have. Did Bette ever tell you how we met?"

"No."

"Right. She said she never could lie to you. I guess maybe she could have trusted you with this story. When she tells people how we met, she doesn't tell the full version." Ozzy looked at John confused. "Lorna and I met right after college. We were recruited into the same agency at the same time."

"But she works at the hospital. You're an accountant," Ozzy was more confused.

"Now she's an administrator for the hospital. She made the change when she got pregnant with Bette in '85. She didn't want to stay in the same State Department sector, but I did. We made it work. But I digress. We met when we were 22 and fresh out of college. I didn't have a dime to my name. To be clear, Lorna was recruited, I applied. They technically weren't taking applications. You know how hard it is to find an application for a job that technically doesn't exist? They hired me on the spot when I figured it out how. It was quite the puzzle. We were in D.C. with all the other recruits and they broke us up into smaller training groups. You ever hear the nicknames that Bette's mother and I call each other?"

"She calls you JW. You call her Lorna Vue."

"That's right." John smiled. "Vue is short for Voogt. It's her maiden name." John patted Ozzy on the shoulder. "The groups were alphabetical by last name. Think about it." John walked away from Ozzy.

Ozzy looked back out at the ropes course and saw Bette was gone from it. He finished his Mountain Dew and left the bar area. He found Greyson and Tylor and got them a karaoke room. Ozzy powered himself up singing. They all sang songs from late middle school: 'Thong Song' by Sisqo, 'I Want It That Way' by The Backstreet Boys, 'Bad Touch' by The Bloodhound Gang, 'Forgot About Dre' by Dr. Dre featuring Eminem and a bunch more. Ozzy was free.

June 2, 2004

Ozzy saw Bette hug her parents and her girls as she got ready to leave the event center at the end of the all night grad party. Greyson saw him looking at her. "She's right there. It's not too late," said Greyson.

Ozzy made a dismissive face. "Ah," he scoffed. "There's always this weekend."

"She's literally going out the door. If that's not a direct metaphor for your relationship, I don't know what is," he said flatly.

Ozzy opened his mouth to speak again, but Tylor interrupted. "Go you fucking dumb ass!" Greyson and Ozzy looked at Tylor. "I thought she liked me because she winked at me at Cassandra's party and played pass the orange with me. She always liked you best, whether you were her friend or her boyfriend. If you don't, someone else is going to. Go!"

Ozzy looked at Tylor wide eyed and walked to the doors like a man on a mission. The guys followed behind him and kept walking to Greyson's car. There she was tying her shoe. You'll know when you see it. Ozzy walked fast to get close behind her before she got up. She stood and swung her backpack.

They had their awkward talk about their first date and when he sang 'Bridge' at the talent show for her. She asked to write in his yearbook.

Bette took his book and found a spot. She had wanted to say so much to him for so long. She could have written an encyclopedia for him, but she started.

Ozzy-

We've had five amazing years of friendship and more. It breaks my heart we lost the last five months. Hopefully we can work on that. We are living in the future now. I'll be around for a while and always a phone call, an email, or an AIM away. There was never a time I didn't need you: The lie detector. The giant. The rock star. The Highland man. My confidant. I may not always be the one you want or need in the right moment, but hopefully you will see that the door came off the hinges a long time ago. You are always welcome. Whether it's been five months, five years, or five decades. My door is always open; you just have to find it.

(You Can) Bette 'On It' Wheelan

She blew the ink dry on the page before closing it. Ozzy was already finished writing in her book. "I'll see you this weekend?" He asked.

She smiled, "I will grace you with my presence," she said playfully.

They handed their yearbooks back to each other. They hugged, high-fived, and slapped their chests. Ozzy took his book and started walking away. Something in Bette itched. What did he write? Find it NOW! She opened up the front and back pages of her yearbook and found Ozzy's entry to her.

Bette-

We fixed the bridge together in the end

Impossible work without you, my friend

Will it hold or will we have to mend?

It's up to both of us, I guess it depends.

For all we've gone from stream to sea

This bridge still stands only we can see

It cost so much and yet the price was free

We're standing at the arch just you and me.

We built this bridge. It was an honor to-

Build this bridge with you.

And he signed his name.

He was well over 20 feet away from her when she yelled to him at the top of her lungs, "Fruity pancakes!" Ozzy turned around and gave her a knowing smile. Other people looked at her, but she didn't see them. She didn't care. "You told me you made pretty good pancakes." She just wanted him to say something back, anything. "Is that still true?"

He nodded. "I do."

"You said you could make pancakes without a bad first pancake." He started walking back to her.

"It's true."

"Could we go make pancakes? Would you teach me?"

Ozzy turned and waved off his other friends.

"Let's go."

.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*.-*

Epilogue:

April 18, 2012

It was a pretty typical day for Bette. She had been managing the storage unit facility in the suburbs for two and a half years now. April was the time of year when things started to get busier. It was Wednesday morning. She had already done her bank run for the day and the initial check of the doors. It was mid-month, so there weren't any new move outs. It was a decent morning, and no new leads had come in by email. She started to prepare her phone list for the day. She didn't have that many late tenants to call who hadn't paid their rent yet. It was the same 30-40 people by this time each month. She would make the calls in the slower part of the afternoon. She would rather get the outside clean up done in the morning while it was still cool outside. She would make her checklist for the garden beds and let the regional manager know how many bags of wood chips and flats of flowers she wanted for the three garden beds. She lived in an apartment; the gardening in the spring was a nice thing to work on. May was the busiest time of the year for her work with storage unit turnovers; this was the calm before the storm.

She got her gardening gloves, a couple garbage bags, her walkie-talkie, her keys, and put on her Panama hat and was about to go walk the property to pick up garbage and move any wayward palates when a sleek BMW pulled into the lot. She had no scheduled showings that morning, but walk-ins were always anticipated. She took off her hat and stood. She watched the tall, blonde woman get out of her car and walk up and into the office.

"Good morning. How can I help you today?" Bette asked with a smile.

"Hi. I guess I need some storage for my stuff." The woman said.

Bette was 5'7" in her work boots. This woman was 5'11" and had a strapping, athletic build. She had stunning bone structure in her face yet gentle-looking around her eyes. Bette recognized plastic surgery breasts a mile away, but hers were spectacular and proportional to her body.

"You've come to the right place. My name is Bette. Can I get your name please?"

"Brenda."

"And what are you looking to store Brenda?"

Brenda took a deep breath. "I guess you could say I'm starting over. I'm sorting through some old stuff and I need a place to keep it while I put the new stuff where it belongs."

Bette offered a comforting expression, "I understand that around here. Nobody puts stuff in storage for reasons like 'I won the lotto' or 'I have too many Porsches at home.' I am here to make things as easy as possible." She picked up a clip board and asked a few more questions to Brenda about what she needed to store and let her know what spaces they had available. Bette walked her out on the property and showed her a storage unit to suit the needs she required. Brenda had a confidence about her, but a melancholy too. She spoke with softness in her voice that Bette recognized as practiced. Brenda opened up a little about how some of her family didn't speak to her anymore since she started over and Bette sympathized with her. There was a familiarity about her that Bette absolutely knew about her but would never say out loud, it would be unfathomably rude.

"I want to let you know, I'm here to help. I know that this is just one little thing: storing your stuff, but there's quite a bit I can do here. You need palates to get yours stuff off the concrete, I got you. We can put your stuff in a south facing unit if you know you have to access it in winter, less shoveling. See the cameras? I can put you in a unit directly in front of a camera if you need. And I protect the anonymity of my tenants. No one will know you rent here but you so long as you don't tell anyone. Discretion is incredibly important to me."

Brenda gave Bette a smile, more of a smirk as they re-entered the rental office. "I believe that about you. I read a couple reviews about your facility online. I was looking for a place to store my stuff and there are half a dozen places to store within five miles of here, but the reviews said I could 'Bette on you,' to take care of my storage needs."

Bette smiled. "I do what I can within my power to help people."

Brenda put out her hand palm up, she was asking for a high-five. Bette gladly gave her one. Brenda slapped her chest afterwards. "Powerful ladies unite. We are everywhere."

Bette's face grew shocked. Brenda gave her a knowing smile. "No way," she said in disbelief, Bette finally fully recognized the woman in front of her.

"It's been a long time, Bette."

"I would have never guessed," she said it with a big grin.

"It was like you were the first to know after me. It's why I looked so shocked when we were kids. It's like you read my mind. You knew what I dreamed of when anyone else would have thought it was a nightmare. And I was so cruel to you."

"I am so sorry. You know I had no idea," Bette was still smiling in disbelief.

"I'm sorry too. I was awful to you."

"May-May I hug you?" Bette asked.

Brenda nodded. "Absolutely."

Bette stepped around the desk again and looked at the tall, fashionable, fabulous woman before her. "You look great. You know that, right?" The pair hugged.

"It took years to look this good, honey. You get to roll outta bed and look that pretty."

"Oh God, I look like Hell. I wear men's shorts, steel-toed boots, and no makeup to work, and keep wasp spray behind the desk to make sure I don't end up serial killer victim. Frump is a safety precaution when you're a woman."

"Oh, I've learned. I may not be small, but I'm not as strong as I used to be, physically. I'm lucky to be standing here." They let go of each other.

Bette saw the powerful lady before her. This was a woman she had known for years. This was a woman who had sent her home from school crying when she was a child. When she was eleven and called Jason Kaye 'dickless,' this was not the end result that she had in mind.

June 23, 2020

Bette had been working from home for the last four months. Working in the zoning permit office for the city was a job that could be done remotely and she was one of the first ones to volunteer to work from home when COVID lockdown began. She liked working from home. Government work was great. She got paid well, had great benefits, which was an absolute blessing for her, especially in the last three years, and she had a lot of downtime between her tasks to do whatever she wanted around the house.

She received all her tasks by email and all the filing was done online and only had to make phone calls to people when they filed their permits incorrectly. Most of the time, they didn't answer their phones, so she left a lot of messages. No one answered their phones anymore. Since lockdown, lots more homeowners were doing home improvements which led to a large influx of permit applications and therefore, more filings errors. Bette had a decent workload each day. She put on her music playlist of Celtic music and got to work for the day. She looked in her inbox and saw the series of names to call. She saw a name on her call list and it made her smile. She chalked it up to coincidence but still changed her music playlist to her teenage years mix.

She spent her morning trudging through her emails and making calls. She left messages and took the calls of the people who returned them. She got to the name that made her smile and she dialed it, she fully expected a voicemail, but didn't get one.

"Hello?" He answered.

Her heart palpitated a bit. "H-Hello. Good morning. This is Betty from the city permit office. We got your application for your back yard project and I needed to follow up on a couple of irregularities on it." When she started working there, someone in the office called her Betty and she never bothered to correct them. It was on her work email and that tiny bit of anonymity at work versus her private life was nice. Work was work, her private life was her private life, and she did not mix the two. She liked it that way.

"Sure. One sec, sorry," She could hear him lower the phone. "Ellie, JJ, enough with the iPad. Go play outside."

"Yes Dad." The children said without whining. Bette could hear them over the phone. Her headset picked up everything.

"Sorry about that." He said. "You said there were some problems with my permit ap?"

Bette went over the blank spots in his architectural drawings, he missed filling in a couple numbers and missed another line on the application itself. He answered her questions and she was able to fill in the blanks he had left behind.

"I have to say, this was one of the more interesting applications I got to look at in a while. Not everyone builds their own playground equipment. It looks a bit like one from the elementary school I went to."

"That's what I designed it after. I drew it from memory. I'm using reclaimed wood from the barn on my property. I didn't think they had wood and steel playground equipment at the schools around here." He said.

"Oh, I'm not from around here. I'm from up north," she said casually.

"Really? Me too. The design is from Pebble Lake Elementary. They had to tear down the old playground about 15, 20 years ago. I guess they didn't think it was safe enough for kids anymore." He almost laughed as he said it.

Bette's heart palpitated again, she almost whispered, "I went to Pebble Lake Elementary. They got rid of the see-saws when I was in second grade. I once got hurt on them once and some kids blamed me for them being gone."

"I was in second grade when they got rid of the see—Are you listening to Enrique Iglesias?!" He asked with a bright tone.

"Holy shit."

"I beg your pardon?"

Bette stared at her screen at the application in disbelief: the name, the voice. It had been half a lifetime. She had occasionally searched for the name but it was so common that he had been impossible to find. He wasn't even on Facebook among their mutual friends. He had been dust in the wind for well over a decade when his email addresses didn't work anymore. His was a voice she thought she would never hear again.

"I'm sorry. I- I just can't believe it. It's been so long. I know you don't like it when I swear, Mark."

"Wait…Bette?"

"Yeah."

She could hear him drop to his couch. "Holy shit is right."

"You're telling me. There aren't that many Bette Wheelans out there, but do you know how many Mark Halls there are?"

"Yeah, I do actually. Holy moley. How are you?" He was genuinely interested.

"I'm pretty good all things considered. I'm locking down and staying safe. My mom lives close by now so she and I bubble together."

"Your dad?"

"Pancreatic cancer, four years ago. It was genetic. You wouldn't believe the domino effect that caused." Bette touched her abdomen and her chest where her hysterectomy and mastectomy scars were. She wasn't the hot, young, stunner he once knew, she didn't feel like it, at least she was healthy and safe now.

"I think you know I would. I would understand that kind of effect better than anyone."

She had a bittersweet smile on her face. "What about you? How are you? You're a dad. That makes so much sense. I bet you're an amazing dad."

"The kids and I are great. It's so different now than when we were kids. That's for sure. I try to raise them like I was. Ellie is nine, JJ is seven now. But damn it's hard. Everything's faster. Did it feel this fast when we were kids?"

"God, no. It took forever. But it feels like an eternity ago now, doesn't it?"

"Yeah." They were silent for a moment on the phone for a moment. Bette's music played, 'Crazy' by K-Ci & JoJo. "Um, you're working. I should let you get back to it," the joy left his voice.

"Yeah. I guess I should. Of all the Mark Halls to call today, I can't believe I got to call you."

"You always were a lucky star." Bette felt herself turn red in the face. It was a feeling that hadn't happened for a long time. "Can we talk again?"

Bette adjusted in her home desk chair. She heard Mark's phone vibrate over her headset. "Check your messages."

Mark looked at his smartphone and opened the text message. The photo in it showed Bette: messy black hair, no makeup, a big smile, glasses, a chubbier face, in a t-shirt filled out with A-cup breasts. The message read: No lie, I'm looking forward to it.

Bette's phone buzzed back with a photo of Mark. He had a full goatee with a few silver hairs in the beard, some in the mustache, and scattered about in his scalp. His hairline wasn't receding, but she would call what he had a 'five-head' instead of a forehead. He had a wrinkle or two around his eyes. His cheeks had grown full and his neck had grown thick. His blue eyes still had a sparkle to them and the same grin she remembered. The look and grin that he made when he looked at her when they were teenagers. The same expressions in the photos she had in old albums. She knew she was the one who put that expression there in that moment. His message read with it: Today may be Tuesday the 23rd, but Wednesday the ten never changes.