Mid 90’s, grunge, Deep Ellum. It’s been almost two years since the punk-obsessed teen Nathan developed his unlikely crush on Vanessa, the daughter of a local Baptist preacher. Now, in the midst of producing his first low budget zombie film, his young love has just returned from a mysterious freshman year of college giving him a chance to revive their relationship. But Nate has only a few days to rush in before she leaves yet again, for a summer-long backpacking adventure through Europe. Can he reconcile the conservative values of her father—who became something of a father to him as well—with the exciting attitudes of his stage-diving, cop-trouncing companions? And who can possibly resist the charms of their neon-haired, pill-popping friend Roxy, as cutely endearing as she is dangerous? Read the rest at Jukepop and help me win the contest and get this work published by remembering to vote for each chapter!
You don’t know a girl really loves you—I mean truly loves you—until she pounces onto the hood of your car as you peel away in reverse and unloads all six rounds of an antique revolver into your front windshield, pop-pop-pop [pothole] pop-pop [pothole] pop. Gravel and glass fly in every direction as she’s slung from the hood into the dirt then hops right back up, bloody-nosed and wearing nothing but the Bad Religion T-shirt she claimed from your floor pile the first time she stayed over, her index finger still mashing mindlessly on the trigger, click-click-click, as you speed away in a giant nebula of dust. That’s love. When a girl like that kisses you it’s like sticking your tongue into an electrical socket. Da-ding! Your nerves light up like the switches on a pinball machine, ready for action. How can those skinny girls you meet at church camp who stand there dumbly puckering their lips with their eyes closed ever come close? They expect good manners and sweet nothings on account of their virginity, as if their little sweet-n-low kisses and Sunday-school-hallelujahs are all there is to life. But can they restring your guitar when you’re too stoned to do it yourself? Will they Jump on a cop’s back going arms-flailing-ape-shit on him because he tried to cuff you? Stick to the crazy ones. Insanity, after all, is the hallmark of romance.
Yeash, I sound like a jerk. I guess all the time spent carousing with Rex and Sid is finally paying off. It also probably helps that I’m drunker than an Irish wedding, which might be a good reason for me to stop waxing poetic and focus on the yellow dashes zipping past. The tachometer is redlining. White-knuckling the wheel, the cuts on my left hand throb. My feet feel like cinder blocks. How long have I been pounding the engine like this? Does Roxy notice, or even care? Of course not. She’s leaned forward in the front seat beside me contentedly drumming out speedy rhythms on the dash, bobbing her electric blue head to whatever riff screams inside it.
* * *
I was at church camp when I first learned what virgin meant. Not what some stupid dictionary said it meant—my biological curiosity had already been stoked and remedied the same way as every other boy’s, from the lingerie section of his mother’s discarded shopping catalogues. This was when I discovered its meaning in a more pragmatic sense, to the deadly serious business of pubescent politics. It happened in a place referred to, ominously enough, as Cabin13. Hunkered on the fringes of the Falls Creek Easter Retreat and overtaken by an untamed explosion of brambles and poison ivy, it was a stale one-room full of skeletal bunks with limp springs—an asylum delinquent sheep could stray to between Morning Prayer and Evening Worship for a quick tutorial on French kissing, or to be regaled with legends of an ancient tome, allegedly replete with diagram after diagram of sexual erudition. It was Free Devotional—mid-afternoon—and, while most campers were off setting new Gum Tree records or frolicking in The Devil’s Bathtub, I’d been dragged through a thicket, lured by Tommy with the vividly lurid pages of Spawn #18, which I’d been eager to add to my comic collection. As I struggled to keep up with Tommy’s wicked pace the harsh foliage lashed at my legs, depositing its barbs in my socks. You’d think I was trailing Indiana Jones as he fiendishly hunted down some invaluable and forbidden relic.
As soon as we arrived I had my swollen feet propped and resting. I was reclined on a nearby bunk with my new comic, pouring through its glossy pages of necromantic carnage while Tommy and five others huddled on their knees in a circle a few feet away, a dozen eyes magnetically fixed upon the spinning axis of an empty Coke bottle as it whirled around, uttering its oracle in a series of echoic clinks and jingles.
“No way!” One of the girls protested, “You’ve won the first three spins!”
Tommy, glowing pink and plastered with a fat grin, shrugged his eyebrows. The blond freckly squirt setting next to him leapt up and insisted with a husky voice that Tommy donate the prize to someone else; adding to his persuasiveness was a pack of Marlboro Reds, rolled into the sleeve of his white T-shirt. The jury (one gap-toothed, peach-lipped thirteen-year-old) concurred, “Yea, man. Spread the love.” The room got quieter than Evening Meditation.
Meanwhile, I was engrossed by the smoldering crimson eye socket of a meddlesome army MP who lied sprawled on his back, recently wasted by my comic’s antihero, a masked fugitive despised equally by the cohorts of both heaven and hell. “You’re joking!” the husky voice said. “Nathan is still a virgin? Ha!” Apart from having recently learned the virgins’ knack for rearing Messiahs, this class of people had apparently not come to my attention as persistently as it had with my fellow campers. Virginity was clearly something a person could be condemned to their own private lunch table for. The girls (three junior varsity cheerleaders) giggled. The new comic was snatched from my hands. I balled my fists as I hopped up from the bed, ready to cauliflower someone’s ear for it. But it was too late. The group had already united against me, and a sentence was swiftly and mercilessly handed down: Seven Minutes in Heaven with Christina LeDane.
The closet they crammed us into had a light switch without a bulb to go with it, and the space went black as the door clicked shut behind us. Something dull and heavy rumbled across the floor outside and thudded against the door. They’d blocked us in with a bunk.
After a minute of sweaty silence Christina impatiently asked, “Uh, aren’t you going to kiss me or something?”
Drying my palms on my shorts, I answered, “Do you want me to?” There was a pause. Then her vinyl boots creaked as she leaned in close enough for me to feel her heat and smell her watermelon lip-gloss. Her metal bracelets tinkled, sliding down her forearm as she placed a hand on my thigh.
Outside the closet an adult voice demanded unexpectedly, “What in God’s name is going on here?” Gasping, Christina removed her hand from my leg. It sounded like Pastor Ridgeley, the man most responsible for my being at the retreat—a man many campers referred to with rolling eyes as The Father. He had the jutting square jaw and no-nonsense stride of a spaghetti western gun slinger. This fear-striking gait was quickly betrayed, however, by his seemingly compulsive urge to pardon, dispensing bible verses and Kleenex at the faintest whimper of compunction. “What group are you boys and girls affiliated with?” Nobody answered. “Who’s in the closet?” Floorboards creaked, the bunk rumbled as it was shoved aside. Daylight rushed in as the door swung open. Pastor Ridgeley stood there in his ostrich cowboy boots looking down, first at the girl, then at me. “Oh, Nate.” His face became tired, sagging the way it did when he spoke to my mother about other members of the AA group he ran on Thursday nights who couldn’t ‘stay on the wagon’.
Soon after my mother had joined the group I was taken on as another of his projects, once the old ladies who sat fanning themselves with service programs in the front pew had championed my story: once upon a time, soon after I was born, my father split to be a stooge for some disgraceful rock-n-roll band. The last phrase was stressed with a special disdain reserved for musicians and prostitutes. Pastor Ridgeley was an intercessory, self-appointed to bridge my own parents’ supreme lack of vigilance. Taking his advice (and full advantage of the free child-care), my mother told me as I was loaded into the church’s shaky, primer-patched van for the first time, “I’m tired of chasing vandals off my doorstep.” One corner of her mouth curled. “Try and meet some new sorts, will ya?” She waved goodbye with one hand as the other threw the door shut with a hollow clatter.
I expected a lecture once we returned to our home cabin, but the pastor simply instructed me to sit down on a bunk in the boys’ room and remove my bramble-infested socks. The only thing more intimidating than his sermons were his silences. After laying the bloodied socks I gave him on the bed he walked off. Moments later he returned with a first-aid kit and rolled up his sleeves. One by one he began pulling briars from my legs and feet with tweezers, dabbing the wounds with stinging swabs of alcohol. As he worked the metal watch on his wrist slid up, and I caught a glimpse of black ink—long, faded black spindles reached up his wrist from under the band. Noticing my eyes, he slid the watch back down to cover the tattoo. As his pace quickened the Christian emblem on the side of his watch gleamed. When he was finished he stood with a grunt and looked off. His brow wrinkled as he rubbed his fingers over the silver scruff of his jaw.
“I suppose you’re going to let my mom know I took off.”
He tucked his fingers into his back pockets leaving his thumbs hanging out and took a deep breath. There was a knock at the door.
A girl’s voice called through it, “Daddy?”
He looked. “Yes, Van. What do you need? —You can come in.”
The pastor’s daughter, Vanessa, was the chief pleasure of my newfound religion. Mesmerized, I would watch her sing from my mother and I’s pew near the back, seated in a row with the other non-committal and irregular attendees—Guests, as we were designated by the checkbox my mother marked for us each week on the attendance slip. Sometimes for the Alter Call Vanessa would perform a solo. An outdated concoction of synthesized instruments would blare over the PA from an old cassette tape as she clutched the mic against her bony chest. Her eyes would close, head tilting as she went limp, overcome by divine splendor as she softly swayed in the ambient glow of sentimentally themed projector slides. She wasn’t smeared with eye-shadow and lip-gloss or ornamented with gaudy plastic thingamajigs. Vanessa was just plain beautiful. She had a good family and participated in her community, and all this was novel to me. She was also a year older. As far as my thirteen-year-old brain was concerned she was a holy priestess—which, I concluded, made her off-limits to some outlier relegated to the back pew by his mother’s spiritual timidity. That and The Father’s sentinel eyes, slicing assiduously through the chapel like a pair of weapons-grade lasers guarding a diamond in a steal vault. Even though the pastor was a dude eager to forgive, I was pretty sure laying my lips on his little girl was one trespass that would not be easily over-looked.
“I said you can come in,” Pastor Ridgeley repeated after Vanessa knocked again.
The door of the boys’ room slowly opened, and she trotted in. A Goosebumps novel was tucked under her arm—The Haunted Mask, one of the few I’d read. This observation gave me butterflies. She stopped— “Oh…I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“That’s okay. What’s up?” the pastor asked.
Her free fingers fidgeted with the hem of her Hollister polo, its tiny seagull logo silhouetted so you couldn’t be certain whether it was coming to roost or flying out to sea. The preppiness of the shirt clashed with her art-stained Chuck Taylors, colorfully dappled in casualty paint that had fallen from her brush on its way to the canvas.
“…Yes?” The Father asked.
“Could I stay with Ann’s church tonight? —Before saying No, her youth consular already said he doesn’t mind one bit.”
After a pause The Father told her, “Let me think about it.”
Her shoulders fell.
“That one is not too bad,” I said, pointing to her book. “One of the better ones anyway.”
“Yea. It’s okay.”
I tried to think of something to add.
The latches on the first aid kit rattled as The Father tossed the lid closed—“Is that all?”
Vanessa nodded and took a couple steps back, looking me over before turning to leave.
Her father studied me carefully, then unrolled the confiscated Spawn comic from his back pocket and tossed it into my lap. “You’ve still got another thirty minutes of devotion time left. Maybe you can try reading the bible I gave you.”
Ryan Hash is a kimchee connoisseur, fanatic expatriate, drawer of weird things. He devours Kurt Vonnegut books, Kung Fu movies and documentaries. He does try to be a humanist, but not so much in traffic. If you’ve been recently cut off by a charcoal 2008 Passat with a Saris bike rack on the back, he apologizes. He’ll soon return to Seoul, South Korea to teach a literature course and resume his world travels.