Almost perfect, p.6
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       Almost Perfect, p.6

           Brian Katcher

  “No.” I paused. “Well, once.”

  “Really?” asked Laura with interest. “Who?” As a former Boyer Bear, she still knew everyone at school.

  “New girl, no one you know. And she turned me down.”

  Laura rolled her eyes. “Then she’s stupid. But at least—”

  I cut her off. “It wasn’t like that. There’s something going on with her parents. She says she’s not allowed to date. She’s been homeschooled since junior high.”

  “Sounds like she has personal issues, and you’re probably better off. But now that—”

  “It’s weird, though. Her younger sister can date, but she can’t. And her sister went to regular school.”

  Laura was giving me a perplexed look. “Well, that’s her problem, isn’t it?”

  “Yeah, but … I dunno.”

  Laura suddenly grinned. “So you do like her. What’s her name?”

  I blushed a little. It’s not like I was ten years old; I could admit to liking a girl. “Her name is Sage. She transferred to Boyer a couple of weeks ago.”

  “What’s she like?”

  “Weird. Dresses like she’s been in a paint factory accident. But she’s funny and cute and puts up with Jack and Tim. And sometimes she acts like she can’t keep her hands off me. But she freaked out when I tried to kiss her. And then she baked me cookies. She won’t tell me anything about her family, but she sneaked out to be with me twice. And it’s not like I couldn’t get a date with anyone else. It’s like …” I tried to figure out how to explain it.

  Laura finished my thought. “Like as long as you think you might have a chance with Sage, then you aren’t interested in anyone else.”

  I nodded. “If she’d just say she didn’t like me, I could deal with it. But there’s some other reason why we can’t go out. I don’t buy her line that it’s because of her parents. She’s nearly as sneaky as you were.”

  My sister shrugged off the compliment. “I’m glad you’re dating again. For your own sake, and for the women of the world. Sounds like Sage just doesn’t trust people very easily. Give her some time. Either she’ll come around, or she’ll end up regretting it.” Laura picked up the popcorn bowl and walked the three steps to the kitchen. “I’m just glad you’re getting over a certain slut.”

  Two weeks ago, I might have taken offense at Laura insulting Brenda like that. Now I just chuckled.

  chapter nine

  LAURA STAYED for two days before returning to Columbia, land of indoor plumbing and ’lectricity. That Saturday I helped her load her bags in the trunk. Mom was working the lunch shift, and I’d spent the day hanging out with my big sister. It was funny, but she hadn’t gotten together with any of her old friends while she was in town. Most of them were still around. I wondered if Laura was trying to forget about Boyer. I wondered if I would.

  “Guess I’ll see you at Christmas,” I said. I was already starting to miss her.

  “You know, you could come up and visit me some weekend. Have Jack drive you. I’ve got friends you could crash with.”

  “Maybe. Um, thanks for talking with me the other night.”

  Laura smiled. “My pleasure. Keep being nice to Sage. Maybe she got used by some guy and wants to make sure you’re as great as you seem. But if it doesn’t work out, I know about ten girls in my dorm I can set you up with.”

  Laura hugged me, then hopped in her car and took off. I suddenly felt desperately lonely. I wanted to talk to someone. But Jack was still out of town and Tim was probably in a food coma. I remembered how I’d talk to Brenda when I was sad.

  Then I realized I was having false memory syndrome. I never talked to Brenda about my father. Or my fears about the future. In three years of dating, we’d only ever had one serious discussion. Our last one. Now that I thought back on it, Brenda had never once told me when she was sad or scared or lonely. Every time I asked, she’d just smile and say she was fine. And she’d never really wanted to know how I was doing.

  I returned to the trailer and started to pick up some of the mess that Laura had left behind. I was making the bed in her old room when the phone rang.

  “Logan? This is Sage.”

  I grinned into the receiver. I didn’t know why she was calling, but I suddenly felt joyous. Even if she hung up after two minutes, it would still mean she’d been thinking about me.

  “Hey, Sage.” For the first time in five years, my voice cracked.

  “How was Turkey Day? Did you get a drumstick?”

  I remembered the foil-wrapped ham slices in the fridge. “Uh, no.”

  “So, what have you been up to? Watching football?”

  “I did the other day.” I got to see my favorite team, the St. Louis Rams, have their collective ass handed to them.

  I could hear Sage munching on something over the line. “Did anyone hit a home run?”

  I snickered. “Sage, that’s baseball.”

  “I know. I just wanted you to feel superior for a minute.”


  “So, are you doing anything? Mom and Tammi are shopping and Dad ran in to work. Feel like a picnic? I understand if you can’t come.”

  I think I would have chewed my own leg off to go meet her.

  “I’d like that.”

  “Great. Meet me at the gas station in half an hour.” She didn’t say goodbye and hung up.

  I don’t think Sage realized how far from “town” I lived. I had to haul ass on my bike to get there on time. I found Sage sitting on a curb reading a copy of the Randolph County Recycler, the free paper that advertised farm auctions and cattle for sale. She was wearing a fake-leather jacket studded with rhinestones.

  She grinned when she saw me ride up. As soon as I parked my bike, she enveloped me in a bone-crushing hug.

  “I missed you,” she said, still embracing me. Her arms wrapped completely around my back and her chin rested on top of my skull.

  I didn’t answer. I figured if I said anything, she’d release me.

  Eventually, she let me go. I contemplated kissing her cheek or gently touching the back of her neck. Something to bust me out of this impossible neutral situation I found myself in. But Sage had bent down and was picking something up off the ground.

  “Here.” She handed me a large convenience store bag filled with plastic-wrapped sandwiches, mini bags of chips, and some bottled fruit juice.

  “Now, where should we eat, Logan?”

  I was rummaging through the bag. Sage had bought four different types of sandwiches, and I didn’t like any of them. But we’d known each other less than a month, after all. Why did I have such a hard time remembering that?

  “We could go to the park.”

  Sage pulled one of her curls, then let it boing back into place like a spring. “Uh, maybe we could go somewhere a little more … you know, isolated?”

  That got my heart pounding until I realized she was referring to her dating ban. She didn’t want us to be seen eating together. Why? Brenda’s parents had liked me. When she’d gotten her license, they’d allowed us to go out alone together.

  But Sage’s parents … She couldn’t even sit in a public park with me! What did they think would happen?

  Mrs. Hendricks, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but I just saw your daughter eating a ham and cheese sandwich with a boy. Right out on the playground, where anyone could see them! I don’t know how they do things in Joplin, but we have rules in this town.

  Well, at least Sage was willing to eat in secret with me, which was something. I remembered an isolated place where Jack, Tim, and I used to set off fireworks. “There’s the old Arborville Road Cemetery. Are you up for a walk?”

  It was a glorious cold, late-autumn afternoon. The sky was a deep, cloudless blue. Flocks of geese honked their way from horizon to horizon, off to Texas or Mexico or wherever. You could feel the bite of the coming winter in your ears and lungs. It was the sort of day that made you want to run outside, take a deep breath, and then go back in and watch
TV all day.

  Sage literally skipped as we made our way down County Road 1124. She seemed inclined to stop and inspect every rock, blade of grass, and shattered whiskey bottle beside the road.

  “This is so neat!” she said, laughing. “Back in Joplin, you had to drive everywhere. You couldn’t go twenty feet without passing a Burger King.”

  I thought that actually sounded kind of nice. “Watch out for hypodermic needles,” I warned.

  Sage stopped prancing around and started walking next to me. “So, did you have a good Thanksgiving?”

  “Yeah. My sister was in town.”

  “She goes to Mizzou, doesn’t she?”

  Hmm. Sage had actually been paying attention when I’d mentioned Laura. With Brenda, I’d sometimes gotten the impression she listened to me just to be polite.

  “Yeah, she’s a freshman.”

  “I bet that’s hard on your parents, her moving out and all.”

  “Um, I guess I never told you. I don’t have a father.”

  Sage froze. “I’m sorry, Logan. I didn’t know. When did he pass away?”

  She was looking at me with such gentle compassion that I didn’t want to tell the truth. “He actually ran away. I never really knew him.”

  Divorce was part of life in Boyer. Half of everyone’s parents were divorced, and the other half had never been married in the first place. But Sage didn’t look any less sorrowful than when she’d thought my father was dead. For a moment I thought she was going to hug me again, but instead she offered me her arm. I slipped my hand over her elbow, and we began walking. I wanted to wrap my arm around her waist. I wanted to tell her she was pretty. I wanted to reach up and kiss her.

  We arrived at the cemetery before I could do anything stupid. It consisted of about three dozen ancient tombstones, mostly too eroded to read. Whatever farmer owned the property kept the small plot mowed.

  Sage found a bare patch of earth and spread out our post-Thanksgiving feast. I choked down a prepackaged corned beef sandwich while Sage gulped down two sandwiches and a bag of chips.

  There was something very natural and insanely frustrating about being here, quietly eating with Sage. I tried to put my finger on it. Maybe it was the silence. When was the last time I’d just sat quietly with someone? Certainly not around Jack. Or my mom. Or Brenda. Silence with her had always been awkward; I’d always felt like she was bored.

  But with Sage, we didn’t talk and it was okay. Two good friends, enjoying each other’s company.

  “Penny for your thoughts, Logan.” Sage leaned against a tree, smiling at me. Her reddish-brown hair contrasted against the yellow leaf that was stuck on top of her head. With her freckles and tomboyish ways, she looked like something out of an Outdoor Missouri ad. Maybe without the purple jacket.

  “C’mon, Logan, what are you thinking about?”

  And that was the frustrating part. I didn’t want to be friends. I didn’t want to be the guy she leaned on, the rock in the storm, the best pal who was always there for her. Well, I did, but I also wanted to kiss her. I wanted to take her face in my hands, press our lips together, and enjoy another type of silence.

  “It’s nice out,” I said. “Warm for this time of year.”

  Sage stood up and dusted off her legs. Then she joined me, sitting back against the rotten rail fence around the cemetery.

  “Logan, can I ask you a personal question?”

  Never, ever a good sign. “Yeah?”

  “Tell me what happened with you and your old girlfriend.”

  “That’s not a question.”

  “Will you tell me what happened?”

  I didn’t want to talk about it. I’d only ever talked about it with Laura. “Why?”

  Sage touched my cheek lightly. “Because you’re my friend, and I want to know.”

  I could have reminded her that she was keeping secrets, but I didn’t. “She cheated on me. We broke up. End of story.” C’mon, let’s play the quiet game.

  Sage tucked her long legs up under her chin. “There’s more to it than that,” she prodded.

  “You really want the whole sorry episode?” When I’d told Laura what happened, I’d summed everything up in one sentence: Brenda cheated on me. Why did Sage want to know more than that? And why was I about to tell her? Maybe I wanted her pity, or I thought that if I told her my secrets, she’d be more open with me.

  Mostly, I think I just wanted to vomit out the whole humiliating incident. Lance it like a boil. Purge my breakup like a bout of diarrhea. The fact that I was thinking of my ex in terms of gross bodily functions was probably a sign that it was time to move on.

  Sage nodded, staring at me with wide eyes.

  “Okay.” I tried to keep my voice steady. If I was going to tell this story to Sage, the last thing I wanted was to sound whiny. “Brenda and I started going out in ninth grade. We’d never dated anyone else. She’s the only girl I’ve ever kissed. And that’s all we ever did.”

  Sage’s eyes got wide. She must have thought I had more experience with girls. I wished I’d kept that detail to myself. Sage might not be a virgin. I’d just made myself look inexperienced and awkward.

  “Anyway, we’d been together for three years. We were going to go to Mizzou together. Live in the same dorm.” I paused. “I thought, you know, we were in love. I was stupid.” I let out a fake, sarcastic laugh. This was sounding a bit too much like poor, poor Logan.

  “You weren’t stupid!” yelped Sage suddenly. “Don’t ever think that.”

  I reddened at the compliment. But Sage was wrong. I’d wasted almost all of high school feeling giddy and in love with a girl who didn’t even like me enough to tell me she didn’t like me.

  I walked away from Sage and sat down near Ida Woodlawn (1899–1960, loving wife and mother). I closed my eyes to the world and continued.

  “Then I was a fool. Every time I saw her, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. We’d hang out all the time. We went to dances; she’d go to my track meets. It was like I’d won the lottery.”

  I paused for a minute, remembering Brenda. Our first kiss. The first time she told me she loved me. Those nights after basketball games when I tried to get her to go out to the rock quarry. When did she start having second thoughts? How many times had she told me she loved me when she didn’t mean it? How many kisses? I hoped to God I’d never find out.

  I sighed. Sage had asked for the whole story, so I might as well tell her everything. Opening my eyes, I braced myself for the best part. The really funny part.

  “So back in October, Jack came up to me. He was all nervous and stammering, but it was Jack, after all. He said that he was cruising downtown and saw Brenda in a car with some guy out behind the Dollar General.”

  Sage no longer looked compassionate; she looked furious. It was probably for the better that she hadn’t been around during the breakup. Brenda might not have been safe.

  “So what did you do?” she asked.

  “I punched Jack. Right in the gut.” Not very hard, but enough that he’d lost his footing and fallen on his ass right in front of everyone in the parking lot.

  Sage looked at me with awe. “You punched him?”

  I flicked a dandelion, causing the seeds to spray everywhere. “My best friend. I was that sure he was lying. Brenda and I had never … you know.”

  “I know.”

  “She’d always stop me. Kept telling me that the time wasn’t right. Telling me that we should wait, that then it would be all the more special when it happened. I never even got to second base. Not that I minded. I mean, I minded, but I was willing to do whatever she asked. And then, one night, she just jumps into the backseat with some prick from Moberly. She’d known him less than a week, and was willing to …” I couldn’t finish. Three years of convincing myself what a great, wonderful guy I was for respecting Brenda like that—never pushing, never insisting, never demanding. What a sap.

  “Maybe they didn’t,” offered Sage, as if the idea might not ha
ve occurred to me.

  “They did. She told me the next day. She tried to be nice about it, but once your girlfriend gets naked with some guy … I haven’t talked to her since.” I stood and began picking up our trash.

  “Logan. Listen to me—”

  “Please don’t say anything. Seriously.” I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. In fact, I didn’t want to talk about it ever again. Or think about it. Or about Brenda. Maybe that was for the best. There was more to life than wondering what I’d done wrong. Maybe telling the story had helped drive that home, just a bit.

  “But … thanks for listening, Sage. I … it was good to get that off my chest.”

  Unlike most girls, Sage didn’t force conversation. When we were ready to go, she paused and took my hand.

  “Remember, you can always talk to me if you need anything. I promise, Logan.” She smiled and moved in for a hug.

  I knew I shouldn’t ask. She’d told me not to talk about it again. But I’d just opened up. Now it was her turn.

  “Why were you homeschooled, Sage?”

  Sage’s expression didn’t change. “So how are the Chiefs doing this year?”

  “I know you told me not to ask …”

  “Or the Rams? What’s your favorite team?” She was grinning like a funhouse clown.

  “I just thought maybe you’d talk to me.”

  “How about baseball? You like the Cardinals?” There was a defiant smirk on her lips. Obviously, her life was still a closed subject. We started walking back to the road.

  “Hey, Sage?”

  She turned and gave me a real smile. “Yes, Logan?”

  “You’ve got leaves on your butt.”

  We didn’t talk all the way back to town. It wasn’t the serene silence of earlier. It was heavy. It was like our thoughts had congealed and were hanging in the air like humidity. I wanted to thank Sage for listening. And I almost wanted to holler that she could trust me and tell me her secrets, to let her know that I was worthy of her confidence.

  Maybe Sage was thinking her own heavy thoughts.

  When we reached the highway, Sage turned to me. “I’m going the other way. See you at school.”

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