Randi and the Maestro
a novel by Christi Brekke
Forbidden music, forbidden love
Sheltered musical prodigy JENNIFER HARRINGTON thinks her life is destined for misery, until she meets RANDI, a wily, talented young vocalist with a chip on her shoulder. They fall madly in love — raising the eyebrows of peers and inciting her religious father’s rage. The two form a romantic bond, then a heavy metal band. With her mother’s help, Jennifer escapes her abusive, misogynistic father and the girls run away to chase their rock and roll dreams.
Enjoy Chapter One…
“Jennifer, get your ass down here, pronto! You’re going to be late for school!” Bill Harrington hollered to his daughter from downstairs in the living room.
His voice was deep and harsh, as always, reverberating throughout the house as though emanating from its very foundation. She finished brushing the last few strokes of her hair and lazily tossed the brush on the counter by the sink with a sigh of resignation. She peered into her lifeless eyes with discontent, barely recognizing herself.
It didn’t feel like the first day of school. But it felt like the first day of something.
“Count of three, or I’m coming up!”
Jennifer wiped a lowly tear that managed to trickle from her parched eye down her milky cheek. She turned away from the mirror and started towards the stairs, grabbing her guitar with one hand and strapping her purse over her shoulder with the other.
“That girl is testing my patience this morning,” Bill said to his wife in that deep, authoritative voice.
“She’s readjusting to school, that’s all,” Millie replied in her daughter’s defense, tying an apron around her waist in preparation for the day’s chores. “And you’ve been a bit cross with her lately, you know.”
Bill looked at his wife with wide, disapproving eyes, his brows lowering from surprise to authority. He walked directly in front of her and grabbed her by the base of her ponytail, forcing her head backwards. She gasped. The sound of Jennifer’s footsteps grew closer. “Since I’ve already tucked my shirt in,” he said to her in a frighteningly gentle tone, “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just mouth off to me.” He smiled, released her and gently combed her hair with his fingers.
“Okay, I’m going,” Jennifer said as she emerged from the staircase and marched towards the front door.
“Hold on, young lady,” Bill said, walking towards her. He looked at Jennifer with disapproving eyes, paying particular attention to her tank top. “What in God’s name is this?” He grabbed it by the collar, along with her bra strap.
As a respected member of the community, and a patriarch above all things, Bill Harrington had an image to uphold, and carefully monitoring his daughter’s choice of wardrobe was an important part of that responsibility. He never allowed Jennifer to wear anything he considered revealing. A year or so ago, he caught her wearing a pair of those super short cutoffs, like the ones that hussy wears on that silly Dukes of Hazzard program. After that, he started making regular sweeps of her drawers and closet to encourage and ensure her compliance. He couldn’t imagine where she’d acquired the tight fitting, breast flaunting atrocity she had on. He ordered her to go upstairs immediately and change into something appropriate for school.
Jennifer pulled her newly acquired ’71 Plymouth Duster into the Dugan High School student parking lot. It was an ugly car, no question about it. Pea soup green. But it didn’t matter. Just having your own car at seventeen was pretty damn cool. No more riding the school bus. The scraped, dented front passenger side fender made the car look like it’d been around the block a few times. She put it there herself while learning to parallel park. Daddy was livid. She carefully negotiated the Duster into her designated parking spot, put it in park and killed the engine.
Jennifer was an above average student, popular with her classmates and liked by her teachers and administrators. Smart, studious, trustworthy and compliant, she was one of those kids the teachers always called upon to take on higher duties, such as taking roll, helping grade papers or watching the class in their absence. She was well groomed for the scholastic environment. She had to be. Her father was a school principal.
She was a full-fledged, card carrying band geek. With experience singing and playing several instruments proficiently, she was the envy of every band and choir director in the tri-county region. Her primary band instrument was alto saxophone. At the previous year’s Spring Concert, the Honors Band performed a cool arrangement of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street on which Jennifer played all the signature sax parts. It was awesome, but talk about pressure. After all, what is Baker Street without those killer sax runs?
It was a warm morning as Jennifer made her way up to the high school band hall. She flung the door open, greeted by the familiar smells of brass polish, valve oil and spit, and walked to the choir room. As she strolled past the trophy case, she remembered all the competitions and performances, as well as the praise and recognition. It was like a shrine in honor of her musical greatness. She stepped in the choir room and saw most of the same faces she’d seen in choir since seventh grade. That’s the thing about band and choir; the faces didn’t change much from year to year.
A group of four girls, including Sarah Foster, Jennifer’s best friend since kindergarten, rushed and hugged around Jennifer. They proceeded with their first day of school exchanges of stories about vacations, 4th of July and other summer happenings.
Not more than a minute later, Jennifer noticed a tall, unusually dressed girl sitting by herself near the back corner of the choir room. At a small school in a small town like Dugan, new people stick out like sore thumbs, and she was always intrigued with newcomers.
“Who is that?” Jennifer asked Sarah as discreetly as possible, gesturing her eyes toward the new girl. Sarah’s aunt worked in the school’s attendance office, so she knew who everybody was.
“Some girl from California,” Sarah answered with little show of interest.
“What’s her name?”
“Brandy or something, I can’t remember.” She leaned and whispered in Jennifer’s ear. “She’s some kind of troublemaker. Gets kicked out of schools all the time.”
Choir class went on as usual. Breathing exercises, vocal warmups, sight singing, etc. All the while Jennifer couldn’t keep from fixating on that new girl, who kept to herself but didn’t seem shy. There was a cockiness about her. She was a wolf amongst collies and poodles; quiet, but not fearful or in any way concerned about what anyone thought of her. She wore faded, skin tight jeans with holes worn out at the knees, quite out of character for someone in Dugan, Oklahoma in 1980. Beneath her faded, denim vest, she had on a gray sweatshirt that was a couple sizes too big. Her hair was short and somewhat unkempt. She was slender and attractive, but didn’t want to appear so. And she was tall, close to six feet, Jennifer thought.
Jennifer could see Randi singing, but couldn’t hear her through the wall of loudmouthed sopranos. Soprano sections are notorious for screaming divas, and there was no way to pick Randi’s voice out of the crowd. She couldn’t help but wonder what kind of voice she had.
As the class neared its end for the day and all the students gathered at the door, Randi remained behind, seated in the same corner of the room where Jennifer first noticed her. Jennifer split from her group and walked over to her.
“Hi,” she opened, pulling a chair close to Randi. She sat and placed her backpack on the floor beside her. “I’m Jennifer.”
“Hey.” Randi looked up slowly. She cracked a brief smile, and then looked back to the floor.
The girls sat silently for a brief, awkward moment. Then Jennifer broke the ice. “So, what kind of music do you like?”
“Rock. Metal,” Randi answered, sourly, expecting a negative response.
Jennifer’s eyes lit up. “Really? Me too,” she said with a hush in her voice. She glanced around the room. “But don’t tell anyone. My dad’d kill me.”
Randi glared at Jennifer with her right eyebrow cocked in disbelief. “You mean you can’t listen to any rock?”
Jennifer shook her head, and then went on to explain how her father is a Deacon at the church and how he thinks rock music leads to devil worship. She told her about the time she got in big trouble because he found a KISS Destroyer LP under her mattress; a story even her best friend Sarah didn’t know. It just sort of flowed from her lips as though she and Randi were as close as sisters. She felt so comfortable with Randi, whose abrasive personality typically pushed people away.
The bell rang and everyone rushed out the door. Jennifer and Randi followed the crowd. “So, I guess I’ll see you around,” Jennifer said.
“Yep, see ya ‘round.”
Jennifer stared as Randi walked away down the hall in the opposite direction, admiring her tall, slender figure and, most of all, her bold and mysterious personality. What was it about Randi that she was so drawn to? Surely their shared musical interest was a factor, but there was something more. Randi was so unlike anyone she’d ever known, and maybe that was part of her appeal.
Of course, there was the obvious physical attraction.
Jennifer was masterful at keeping her sexual preference a secret from the world, as anyone in Dugan, Oklahoma would if they didn’t want to be lynched or worse. But the way her eyes were glued to Randi’s rear end as she walked away might start to raise suspicions. And one needn’t have looked far for other telltale signs. The fact that she never dated, had boyfriends or even talked about boys should have been a dead giveaway, except that her appearance didn’t fit the image of what the average Duganite would consider lesbian. She was petite, attractive and feminine, with medium brown hair, feathered like on Charlie’s Angels; not all butch with a crew cut and deep voice as the stereotype suggests.
Outwardly, Jennifer Harrington was like the All-American Girl Next Door; pretty, innocent, the daughter of a school principal and church Deacon. On the inside, however, she was someone else entirely; and that someone was itching to surface and make herself known.
The school day pressed onward and Jennifer was hoping that she would have at least one more class with Randi, but no luck. She tried to find her at lunch too, but she was nowhere to be seen. When the 8th period bell rang, signaling the end of the school day, she ran to the main doors hoping to find Randi. Again, no luck.
“Gonna be at church choir tonight?” Sarah Foster blurted as she approached Jennifer from behind.
“Church choir?” Jennifer hesitated. “Yeah, sure,” she answered, cracking an artificial smile.
“Okay, see you then.”
Jennifer waited another fifteen minutes, but no sign of Randi. She walked over to the parking lot, hopped in the Duster and drove home. On the way, she was unable to think of anything but Randi; her look, her eyes, her way of saying things, and her fuck you attitude. She was having impure thoughts about her. She’d been attracted to other girls, but nothing like this. She drove along, playing the radio as loud as possible.
The Harringtons lived two miles south of Dugan on Route 7. The farmhouse was old, but solid with a new coat of off-white paint and a newly added deck built onto the front. It was isolated, with the nearest neighbor about half a mile away. It was peaceful and quiet, usually.
Jennifer pulled up to the house and parked in her regular spot. She grabbed her backpack from the passenger seat and went inside. Daddy wasn’t home yet and Mama must’ve been downstairs in the basement or out working in her vegetable garden. Relieved that nobody was around, she made her way up the stairs to her bedroom, quickly changed into her pajamas and jumped into bed. A few minutes later, she drifted into a blissful nap.
“Church choir at seven, Jennifer!” Bill shouted from downstairs. His voice was stern as it rattled the girl from her slumber.
She slowly and lazily turned onto her back, looked at the clock, and then stretched her arms out with a big yawn. She felt rested and peaceful, but the powerful sound of her dad’s voice dominated the air waves and shook her nerves.
“Jennifer! Time to go!” His voice resonated up the stairs and through the walls, louder and sterner, with a slight Southern inflection. It was like the house was equipped with a school PA system, the way his voice carried throughout it.
She didn’t budge. After another minute or so, she heard footsteps coming up the stairs; a sound she learned to dread at an early age. Up the stairs and down the hallway, the footsteps got closer to the point where they were felt as well as heard. Then her bedroom door flew open.
“Are you losing your hearing? It’s time to go to church choir!”
“I don’t feel like it tonight,” Jennifer mumbled, lazily scooting herself into a more upright position, bouncing slightly on the bed. “Do I have to?”
“Are you sick?” he asked, walking to her. He put his hand onto her forehead to feel for a fever. She instinctively recoiled, expecting a slap.
“No,” she whined, “I just don’t feel like it.”
“You don’t feel like it?” He walked over and closed the bedroom door, which was seldom a good sign. “You don’t feel like it,” he repeated as a statement. His voice was soft and deep, sending shudders down Jennifer’s spine. “Well, sometimes we have to do things we don’t feel like doing. You made a commitment to the church, remember? We always honor our commitments. You know that.”
“I already know all my parts, Daddy. They don’t need me every practice. I just had a long day and I’m tired.” She stretched her arms and faked a yawn.
Bill started getting angry. Again, not a good sign. “Do we need to have another lesson on the meaning of commitment? ’Cause I can refresh your little memory real fast.”
“Fine, I’ll go!” Jennifer blurted, slamming her hands on the bed and kicking her blankets onto the floor.
“Excuse me?” He went to her and grabbed her by the right arm just below her shoulder. Squeezing tightly, he leaned in close and asked her in that calm, deep and terrifying voice, “Do we need an attitude adjustment this evening, my dear?”
Grimacing from the pressure of his grip, she answered shakily, “No, Sir. I’m sorry.” Her face returned to normal as he released his hand from her arm. She was fighting back tears.
“You have exactly three minutes to get yourself cleaned up, dressed, out the door and on your way to the church,” he told her, walking towards the door. He grabbed the doorknob, and then looked over his shoulder at her with that same principal look feared by all sixth, seventh and eighth graders in Dugan. “You understand me, girl?”
“Yes, Sir,” she answered contritely as she bent down and picked the blankets up off the floor.
He opened the door and left the room.
Jennifer threw on one of her frumpy church dresses and some shoes, then grabbed her purse and darted out the door. “Have a nice time, dear,” she heard her Mama say just before she closed the front door behind her.
She hopped into the Duster and slammed the door so hard that part of the inside door handle broke off in her hand. “Shit!” She threw the handle over her shoulder into the backseat, then started the engine and drove off.
About half a mile down the road, where it winds out of sight from the house, she pulled over and stopped the car. She reached underneath the seat and took out a small, brown paper sack. She opened the sack and took out an 8-track tape labeled Church Songs. It was actually Judas Priest’s Stained Class album, transferred to tape from a borrowed LP on her Daddy’s own record player. It always made her giggle to think about the sounds of Judas Priest playing through her father’s stereo speakers. If he knew, he would surely burn the stereo in some sort of ceremony. She wasn’t brave enough to play the tape very often, but she liked to play it whenever she felt particularly upset or rebellious. And at this point, she felt both.
Jennifer’s life had become so predictable in her high school years. Her destiny predetermined by Daddy and society. After high school, she would attend OSU and earn a MA in Music Education. When Mrs. Reynolds retires, Jennifer would take over as the high school Choir Director. She would become the organist at Calvary Baptist Church, even though her musical skills would far surpass those of the church Music Director; a position she could never hold as a woman. She would be expected to marry some puke ten years older because he’s a Deacon in the church. Then she’d pop out two or three babies, at which time she’d have to quit working and become a proper house mouse like her mother. The thought of it all was becoming unbearable.
She blazed up Route 7 towards Dugan with Judas Priest’s Exciter blaring from her one, half blown dashboard speaker. Something about that music pumped her up. It gave her hope and provided her with an escape from the predictable, humdrum nightmare that had become her life. Her musical talent was so adept that she could easily learn the awful school and church music expected of her, while focusing her real attention on the music that truly moved her, heavy metal.
As she approached the Dugan city limit sign, she saw a familiar figure walking down the sidewalk. She got closer and her heart began to race when she realized it was Randi. She turned the rearview mirror towards herself and tried to fix her hair with her fingers. “Damn, I look like shit!” she told herself. She pulled the Duster to the curb.
“Hey!” Jennifer shouted through the passenger side window as she leaned over and rolled it down.
Randi turned and looked. She casually sauntered toward the Duster.
Jennifer was grinning from ear to ear and her heart was pounding like a kick drum. “Need a ride?”
Randi hesitated, looking around as though waiting for someone to arrive.
“I’ll take you anywhere you want. I’m in no hurry.”
“Okay, Maestro. Why not?” she agreed, opening the passenger door and scooting herself inside.
“Maestro?” Jennifer inquired.
“Well, all I heard all day was how you’re supposedly the best musician in the school, and…”
“In the school?” Jennifer interrupted. “I’m the best musician in this whole fucking county.” A rush of adrenaline coursed through her body as she said it. She cussed to herself often, but rarely ever in front of anyone. She was thrilled that Randi seemed to have an interest in her. She reached down and turned the radio back up. Priest’s Invader was playing.
Taking notice of both the music and Jennifer’s show of confidence, Randi smiled. She looked more closely at her. “Nice Dress. Where’re we going, Half Pint, Walnut Grove?”
Jennifer forgot everything that happened at home before she left for church choir. But it all came back to her as she glanced down at her dress. A sense of somberness came over her, knowing that severe consequences were in store if she deviated from her father’s instructions. She signaled, and then pulled the Duster back onto the street and drove further into town; deciding then and there that church choir wasn’t happening that night. Consequences be damned.
Jennifer didn’t want to admit to Randi that she was on her way to church choir practice, but how else could she explain the frumpy church dress that looked like something Elizabeth would wear to school on The Waltons? She wanted so much to gain Randi’s respect. She didn’t want to appear as innocent and unworldly as she really was. Even though they were about the same age, Jennifer thought that Randi was so mature, and she felt like a little girl in her presence. Then she did what any musician does when at a loss for words, reached down and cranked up the radio. If nothing else, it might buy her more time to come up with a plausible lie to explain the dress.
The two cruised up and down Dugan’s main thoroughfare for about twenty minutes, blasting that homemade Judas Priest 8-track. Jennifer listened intently, and she could occasionally hear Randi singing along, but still not enough to really hear what she sounded like. She had to know.
“So,” Jennifer said as she reached down and lowered the volume enough to talk, “I have a guitar in the trunk. Wanna go to Pioneer Park and play?” She remembered too that she had a change of clothes in the trunk, so maybe she could change out of that ugly dress and finally hear Randi sing.
“Cool. Let’s stop and get something to drink.” Randi pointed ahead to the Speedy Mart.
Jennifer pulled the Duster into the store parking lot. She knew better than to go inside because somebody would surely recognize her and rat her out to her father. “I’ll wait,” she said.
“Have it your way, Maestro.” Randi got out and casually strolled into the store.
Jennifer was mesmerized whenever she watched Randi walk. Could it be love? Lust? She didn’t know. But she knew one thing. Her life would never be the same after that night. She didn’t know how or why. She just knew.
A few minutes later, Randi emerged from the store with a malicious smirk on her face carrying a bag of corn chips and a 12-pack of beer. Jennifer’s jaw dropped and her eyes exploded with disbelief as a rush of excitement flowed through her. She nervously scanned the parking lot with her big eyes, and then started the engine. Randi hopped into the car, and they sped off.
“Oh, my God!” Jennifer mumbled, half laughing. “How did you do that? How old are you?”
“Calm down, Maestro. I’m only seventeen.” She reached over and turned the radio back up. “Let’s go to the park,” she hollered over Judas Priest’s Better by You, Better Than Me. Then she reached down and grabbed a beer. “Want one?”
Jennifer would’ve never admitted it, but she’d never had a sip of alcohol in her life and hadn’t had any desire to try it. But that night she was already in so much trouble, what the hell? “Yeah,” she answered eagerly. Randi opened it as she handed it to her. When Jennifer took a sip, a cute scowl came across her face. “Mmmm, cold,” she said as the first swallow sent a chill down her spine. She ducked her head below the steering wheel with each sip. Her worried eyes surveyed the road feverishly for cops or anyone who might recognize the Duster.
They pulled into Pioneer Park and Jennifer drove down by the river where there are lots of trees and bushes. It was only about 7:30, still daylight, so there were people playing, swimming in the river, etc. Jennifer looked carefully for anyone she knew, but saw no one. She tossed her empty beer can into a nearby dumpster, and then opened the trunk and took out her guitar. She reached into her duffle bag and pulled out a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Randi got out with the beer and chips and walked over to a picnic table that was only a few steps from the river bank.
“I’m going to go behind the bushes and change out of this dumb dress,” said Jennifer, setting the guitar up on the table.
“I got a lighter if you want to burn it.” They laughed as Randi lit a cigarette.
Jennifer emerged from the bushes, now wearing blue jeans that were a little too tight for her and a green t-shirt. It wasn’t exactly the look she’d have hoped for when hanging out with Randi, but it was way better than that stupid church dress.
“Feel better?” asked Randi as she cracked open another beer.
“Definitely.” Jennifer was feeling a bit light headed from the beer and the evening’s exploits. She unlatched the guitar case. “I worked all last summer for this.”
“Nice,” Randi commented as Jennifer lifted the shiny, sunburst guitar from its velvety case.
“It’s a Hummingbird,” Jennifer said proudly. She carefully sat with the guitar in her hands and strummed an E chord that was a bit out of tune. She reached up and made the necessary tuning adjustments, and then played random chord patterns to warm up. The guitar seemed gigantic in her lap, but she played it like a pro. She could hear Randi humming melodies to herself. “So, what should we sing?” she asked enthusiastically.
“You’re the maestro, Maestro,” Randi replied after a gulp of her sudsy beer. “Surprise me.”
Jennifer loved that Randi called her Maestro. It gave her confidence. She reached over the table and grabbed another beer. It was only the second beer she’d ever had in her life, but she popped it open and took a big swig like she’d been drinking for years. “Alright then, let’s see if you know this one.” She set the beer on the table, positioned her fingers and started playing.
“Oh, fuck yeah!” Randi said, watching in awe as Jennifer played the intro to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven better than Jimmy Page. Her eyes widened and her spine tingled as the first verse approached.
Jennifer looked up when Randi started singing. She was mesmerized. Randi’s voice was so much better than she’d imagined. She had the passion of Robert Plant, or maybe even Janis Joplin, technical chops rivaling those of Rob Halford, and a tonal quality like Heart’s Ann Wilson. She felt a brief stab of jealousy, accustomed to always being the best singer, but it went as quickly as it came. For once, it didn’t matter that someone else was better than she. They played through the entire song, and then another, and then another.
For about an hour and a half, until it was almost dark outside, they sat by the riverbank, sang songs together, talked and laughed, and had a great time. They seemed to click, personally and musically. Randi was amazed with Jennifer’s guitar playing and equally impressed with her vocal harmony skills. And after hearing Randi sing, Jennifer would be forever under her spell.
By the time it became too dark to even see the Duster from the picnic table, they both agreed it was time to go. They packed up Jennifer’s guitar and tossed out the empty beer cans that had accumulated on the table. Then they got in the car and drove off, ever so cautiously.
“You okay to drive?” Randi asked, knowing that Jennifer hadn’t had much experience drinking.
Jennifer was buzzing for sure, but was maintaining herself well; at least for the moment. “Yeah, I’m fine. Where do you live?”
“Not sure what street it is, but I know how to get there. Go that way at the stop sign.”
Randi helped navigate while Jennifer drove, too slowly not to arouse suspicion had a cop passed by. Fortune was on their side.
“Turn in right here,” Randi said, pointing at the driveway to her house.
Jennifer pulled the car alongside the driveway and threw it in park. “I never had so much fun. We need to start a band.”
“For sure.” Randi slid over close to Jennifer. “You sure you’re okay? To drive, I mean.”
“Yeah, it’s kinda late and…”
“You’ve never drank beer before?”
“Shut up!” Jennifer snapped playfully, with a smirk.
“You should come in for a while, have some coffee or something.”
“No, I have to go home now. I’m okay.” Her speech became childlike. “But I had the most bestest time ever.”
Too worried to let her drive, Randi reached over, killed the engine and took the keys. She’d spent plenty of time around drunks and could see that Jennifer was fading fast. She got out to help her giggling Maestro into the house where she could sober up either with some coffee or a nap. While stepping out of the car, Jennifer fell to the ground in hysterics. She got up and fell again. Randi picked her up and helped her inside.
She led Jennifer to the sofa and let her fall into it with a whimper; still awake, but barely. Randi wedged a pillow beneath her head and spread a comforter over her. Then she went to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. When she returned, Jennifer was out cold.
Randi sat on the loveseat, opposite the sofa, and drank her coffee while watching Jennifer sleep. She was falling for the little Maestro, and that scared her. So many people over the course of her life, people who were supposedly “close,” ended up either leaving or sending her away. This forced Randi to build a protective shield around herself that was meant to repel others from getting too close. The shield was useless, however, up against Jennifer’s childlike charm and Mozart-like musical chops.
An hour or so later, Jennifer awoke in a panic. She didn’t know where she was. She didn’t remember being taken inside. She stood, stumbling to regain her balance, tossing the comforter onto the floor, and scanned the table for her keys. Randi heard the commotion and went to her.
“What the hell?” Jennifer hollered frantically, disoriented. Her own voice caused an explosion in her head and she slowly collapsed back onto the sofa.
Randi sat and gave her a fresh cup of coffee while she became more coherent.
While driving back home, Jennifer tried to compose herself, but she knew all too well what would be awaiting her when she got there. She’d never done anything even close to the things she did that night, and certainly had never been so disobedient to her father. The lingering beer buzz did nothing to help calm her fears.
Out on Route 7, everything became blurry. The nap at Randi’s wasn’t long enough to have slept off the effects of the beer still sloshing in her belly, along with the coffee and corn chips she had before leaving. Headlights from oncoming cars seemed to streak like comets while Priest’s White Heat, Red Hot blared from the radio. Afraid that every oncoming car was a cop, she did her best to stay in control, but not always successfully. The Duster was swerving at times as though its steering was failing. Luckily, she knew the area like the back of her hand, so she was able to get home by pure instinct.
As Jennifer pulled up to the house, she noticed that it was about 11:30 and the lights were still on. Her parents were normally in bed by 9:00 or 9:30 at the latest. She staggered out of the car and, without warning, a frothy concoction of beer, coffee and corn chips spewed from her mouth onto the gravel below with a dull splat. She dropped down on all fours and proceeded to empty the rest of her tummy. Afterwards, she tried to stand. In the attempt, she stepped into her mess, slipped and fell backwards onto her rear end, laughing uncontrollably.
From the front porch, her parents were watching the entire spectacle.
“We can’t let her go on like this,” Millie pleaded to her husband. She walked towards the steps.
“Don’t you leave this porch, woman!” Bill barked, firmly grabbing her arm. “She did this to herself. She can suffer through it by herself.”
They watched as Jennifer tried again to stand, grabbing the Duster for support. This time she was successful. She stood straight in a silly attempt to compose herself and not appear as the drunken buffoon she was at that moment. She made her way to the front porch, only stumbling two more times before finally reaching the steps where she grabbed onto the handrail for dear life. Managing to pull herself up the four steps, she looked up and was greeted by her father’s scowl; scowlier than ever.
“Hi, Daddy!” she slurred in her cutest drunken, infantile tone, thinking she was well in control.
“Enjoying yourself tonight, my dear?”
“Yes, Sir!” She looked over and saw her mother quietly crying with her hand over her mouth. “What’s wrong, Mama?” she mumbled sorrowfully, tears forming. She turned towards her.
“Don’t you turn away from me, girl,” Bill ordered, grabbing her arm.
In a moment of uncontrolled reflex, Jennifer swung her arms up above her head to free herself and her right hand came in direct contact with Bill’s face, causing an audible smack and sending his eyeglasses several feet into the air. Rage flushed through his body and he backhanded his daughter straight across her right cheek. Her head flew back and down she went with a yelp, her back slamming on the hard, wooden decking.
“BILL!” Millie shrieked. She ran to her unresponsive daughter. “My God, what have you done to my baby?” She stroked Jennifer’s hair, sobbing. “Jenny? Baby?” she pleaded. “Wake up, Baby?”
“Leave her be,” he commanded, wiping the dirt from his glasses with the bottom of his shirt.
“Oh, no,” she begged, “we have to take her to the hospital.”
“She’s fine. She’s just drunk.”
“She’s not fine, Bill.” She gently turned Jennifer’s head so he could see her right cheek that was beginning to swell. “Look what you did to her!”
“She did this to herself.” He walked over and put his hand on Millie’s shoulder. “There’s nothing we can do for her. So, we’re going to let her sleep it off, then we’ll deal with her tomorrow. Let’s go.” He tapped her shoulder as he turned and headed for the front door.
“No, we’re at least taking her to bed,” she said softly.
“Millie, come on.” He went back to her and grabbed her arm.
“No!” She jerked her arm from his grip.
He cocked his hand about halfway in the air and landed a slap to Millie’s head, just above her left ear. The blow forced her down, but she caught herself with her right hand.
“You can beat me bloody, William Randall Harrington,” she said with a strange calmness, staring straight into his eyes, “but my daughter is not spending the night out here, even if I have to drag her all by myself.”
He paused as he gazed at his wife, sitting on the floor that way, defiant, and prepared to endure his wrath. It was not uncommon for her to defend Jennifer with words, but to see her willing to sacrifice herself in this way was unusual indeed. What audacity! He reached for his belt buckle, started to take it off, but then stopped.
It was silent for a moment. Only distant crickets and locusts in the nearby fields could be heard.
“Is everyone losing their mind in this damn house tonight?” Bill finally asked rhetorically. He looked at his wife, then at his daughter, shaking his head. Then he turned and headed back to the front door, too tired to dole out a whipping at that ungodly hour.
“What about your daughter, Bill?”
“Do what you want with her.” He walked inside, looking back before closing the door behind him.
Millie returned to Jennifer’s side and tried again to wake her. “Jenny? Baby? It’s Mama, Sweetheart. Please wake up for me?” She stroked Jennifer’s hair, and then realized she wasn’t going to wake up. At first, she tried scooping her up to carry her, but was unable to lift her. She went around behind, grabbed her wrists and dragged her by the arms to the front door. She managed to get Jennifer inside the house, where it became easier because she slid more easily over the well waxed, hardwood floor.
“Well, there’s a sight,” Bill said as he saw Millie pulling his daughter across the room towards the stairway. “I’ve heard of the blind leading the blind, but the crazy towing the drunk?”
“You’re a real bastard, you know it?” Millie replied, starting to get winded from the exertion needed for a 145-pound woman to drag a 120-pound teenager across the room.
Bill rose and darted towards them. “Who do you think you are to talk to me like that, woman?”
She ignored him and rested for a moment to catch her breath.
Bill stopped, shook his head, turned and walked away.
“Okay, Baby,” Millie sighed, more to herself than to her daughter, reaching down for Jennifer’s arms to resume the trek across the floor. When she reached the bottom of the hardwood staircase, she sat on the first step and pulled Jennifer to a more upright position between her legs; like two bobsled riders about to make an Olympic run. With all the strength she could muster from her legs, Millie pushed herself up one step while pulling Jennifer along one step below her.
She repeated this process for all sixteen steps until they were securely upstairs, where it was an easy slide to Jennifer’s bedroom. She dragged her inside next to the bed and laid her gently on her left side. Noticing that Jennifer’s right cheek was swelling, she ran downstairs to the kitchen and took a bag of peas from the freezer to use as an ice pack. When she returned and applied the peas to Jennifer’s cheek, she began to slowly regain consciousness.
“Jenny!” she whispered excitedly as a tear ran down her cheek. She touched her forehead and lightly tapped on her shoulder. “Baby? Can you hear me?”
Millie dropped the peas and embraced her daughter, tears flowing. “I’m so sorry, Baby,” she said, almost incoherently through the tears.
When they were all but cried out, Millie pulled back and looked at her daughter, who was a little more coherent now but looked like she’d just crawled out of a landfill. Her hair was a complete mess, with drying vomit caked on the ends. Her clothes were a mess too, with a thick line of dried puke streaking down her t-shirt and her blue jeans moist and reeking of pee. She was a far cry from the pretty girl who’d left just a few short hours ago in her flowery dress to attend church choir.
Millie spent the next twenty minutes or so helping Jennifer bathe. It was like Little Jenny was five years old again; playful and innocent, splashing about in the tub and playing with her rubber mermaid. At that moment, Millie realized that her little girl was growing up for good and that soon her youthful innocence would fall by the wayside, just as her rubber mermaid did many years ago. But would she love her any less for it? Would she adhere to her husband’s tough love approach and start shunning her own daughter?
Jennifer, with her mother’s aid, staggered her way back to her bedroom and crawled into bed. “I’m sorry, Mama,” she said, tears starting to swell again.
“I know, Baby,” Millie replied softly while stroking her daughter’s hair, still damp from the bath. She bent down and kissed Jennifer on her forehead. “Now go to sleep, and everything will be better in the morning.”
“Okay, Mama. I love you.” She tried to smile in appreciation of her Mama’s labors that night, but all that came out were more tears.
“I love you too.” Millie sat on the bed next to her daughter and took hold of her hand. “And I will always love you, no matter what. Do you understand that?” Jennifer nodded, wiping her eyes with the corner of her pillowcase. “Good.” She stood, released Jennifer’s hand and walked to the door.
“Mommy, wait!” She reached her hand towards Millie as if to grab and pull her back.
“What is it, Baby?” She only heard Mommy when her daughter was at her most needy, even well into her teenage years.
“Sleep with me tonight?”
It was a little tough to decipher what she was saying through the sniffles, but somehow moms always understand their children and she’d heard this particular request many times over the years. Knowing she wouldn’t be sleeping with her husband that night anyway, Millie agreed.
“Thank you, Mommy.” She smiled, scooting herself over to make room on the twin bed.
Millie slipped into one of Jennifer’s nighties, crawled into bed with her and with that, the first day of Jennifer Harrington’s senior year in high school finally concluded.
END OF CHAPTER ONE