Fiction . . .
A Short Story
By Ken K. Gourdin
© 1992. All rights reserved. Except in the case of brief quotations used in reviews, in whole or in part, this work may not be copied, redistributed, stored in any data storage or retrieval device, or otherwise distributed or used in any form without prior written permission of the copyright holder.
“Casual elegance.” That’s the way most of the girls at Central High would have described Steve Foster as he stepped out the door on his way to meet his best friend. He wasn’t dressed in anything particularly special, but then, his clothes didn’t make Steve look good—Steve made his clothes look good. Mike Marlowe and he were set to “double” tonight, and he was looking forward to the experience.
Steve was also intensely curious, and he was sure Mike was too, as neither one knew who the other had asked out. It added to the mystique of the evening. He glanced skyward. The stars shone with the intense brilliance of finely cut diamonds on black velvet. The full moon shone as he took in the scene above him.
Reluctantly, he unlocked the door and slid in behind the wheel of the blue sedan in the driveway. Now the car’s ceiling blocked out the scene which had so captivated him. He started the engine and revved it to a low-pitched purr, backed out of the driveway, and headed for Mike’s place.
As he drove, he thought of another source of beauty, the young lady he would have the pleasure of escorting tonight. What a source of beauty, indeed: Unwittingly, perhaps, he had become the envy of nearly the whole senior class. “It would be a real feat for Mike to top her,” he thought, and he found himself wondering aloud who Mike had asked. He knew that Mike, like himself, was not really serious about any one particular young lady. They had gone out together two or three times before, and Mike had asked a different girl each time. Beyond that, he was sure Mike hadn’t dated much, if at all.
Minutes later, he pulled up in front of Mike’s house, came to a stop, and gave the horn a couple of light taps to summon him. Out of the house and down the steps he came. Mike walked with a severe limp, the cause of which Steve didn’t know. (Steve had never asked, and Mike had never offered an explanation.) But Mike simply seemed to be very matter-of-fact about it. He called his walk “distinctive.” Mike walked with a pair of forearm crutches much of the time, but tonight Steve noticed that they were absent. He reached over and opened the passenger door for his friend. “Hi,” Steve said, as Mike slid in beside him and closed the door. “How ya doin’?”
“Not bad,” Mike said. “Not bad at all. How ’bout you?”
“Awesome,” Steve said. “Simply awesome.” They pulled away from the curb.
“Serves you right,” his friend said. This comment brought laughter.
“Thanks. Glad you think so,” Steve said, still laughing. Then, in a more serious tone, he added, “You don’t have your ‘sticks.’” Mike usually walked with a pair of forearm crutches, or with a pronounced limp without them; Steve noticed they were absent.
Mike’s tone was unbelieving. “What? You don’t really think I want them getting in my way tonight, do you?”
“Good point,” Steve agreed. After a short pause, Steve asked, “So, who are you going with tonight?”
“Who did you ask?” Mike parroted.
“I asked you first!” Steve shot back.
“So?” Mike asked, raising his eyebrows and smiling good-naturedly. By this time, however, it was pointless, as Steve knew Mike would recognize the well-lit, three-story brick house they had just pulled up in front of. Mike turned and looked. Yes, he was familiar with the house, and yes, like everyone else at CHS, he knew who lived there. He turned back to Steve, his mouth wide open. “Traci Evans?” he breathed, incredulous. “You got a date with Traci Evans?”
“Sure,” Steve said nonchalantly. “Is that so surprising?”
“Only to me and the rest of the guys in the senior class. I don’t even know how you got on her waiting list, let alone got a date with her!”
“Hmph!” Steve snorted in disgust. Then, with mock sadness, he added, “I’m hurt that you would so seriously underestimate my abilities!”
Mike laughed. “Miss Universe awaits,” he reminded him.
“You’re quite right, quite right,” Steve agreed with mock urbanity. Then, clearing his throat, he said, “Kindly take a back seat.”
Mike laughed again and shook his head at Steve’s antics while he complied. Steve, meanwhile, made his exit.
Shortly he returned with the “object” of his affections. Watching the two come down the walk, Mike’s first thought was “Wow! This could be the start of something big.”
With a flourish and a genteel bow, Steve opened the door for her. She made her entrance, and Steve made introductions. “Traci, this is my friend, Mike Marlowe. Mike, this is Traci Evans.”
“Hi,” she said.
Mike didn’t answer. He was sure that he must be dreaming, as her soft, pleasant voice seemed to float into his ears with an almost ethereal quality. A full two or three seconds passed, and Mike swallowed hard to lubricate the sudden dryness in his throat.
“Hi,” he croaked back.
“Oh, no! That’s not my voice, is it?” he thought. He gave a sudden start as he realized that it was. He cleared his throat audibly, in hopes that it would enable him to talk like a normal human being again, and turned himself to an examination of her features.
Sandy-blond hair in endless curls framed a gently angular and fairly complexioned face, a face with high cheekbones, and eyes—deeply set eyes that shone like blue sapphires, and were framed by long, thick lashes; yes, the eyes were the crowning jewels in that flawless face. He could really see what Steve saw in her—what he couldn’t see was what she saw in Steve, especially since, as he’d mentioned earlier, Traci had the pick of the cream of the crop!
“Where to, man?” Steve’s question brought Mike out of his reverie. He’d forgotten he had to give Steve directions to his date’s house.
“Oh. Um, go to the corner and turn left. He continued to guide Steve, and was secretly pleased by the knowledge that seeing the house wouldn’t tip Steve off as to Mike’s date’s identity.
“Turn right up here, and it will be the third house on the left,” Mike said. Steve complied, and they found themselves in front of their destination.
“This is the place,” Mike announced as he opened the door. “I’ll be right back.”
“Do you know who lives here?” Steve asked Traci after Mike made his exit.
“No idea,” she answered, shaking her head.
“This oughta be interesting,” Steve said. “Very interesting.”
Both pairs of eyes were attentively watching the walk leading to the “Mystery Date’s” house. After a minute or two, their wait was rewarded, as Mike and his date made their way out of the house. Traci couldn’t help but notice Steve’s reaction as they made their way down the walk. She knew he wasn’t staring because he found Mike’s date attractive. No, there was something else which made him stare. She decided to let it pass—for now.
“Oh, yeah, I know her!” Traci exclaimed. “I’ve tutored her in a couple of classes.”
“Tutored her?” Steve asked. “Knowing Mike like I do, I would have thought he’d at least have the good sense to date somebody intelligent.”
Traci opened her mouth to reply, but bit back the sharp retort she was about to give. Instead, she forced herself to laugh like Steve expected. Inwardly, though, she chided herself for not defending Mike’s date. “Come on, Steve!” she thought. “Needing a tutor doesn’t have anything to do with a lack of intelligence! Most of the time, pride prevents people from getting the help they really need.”
“Wow!” Steve thought. “If I knew Mike was that desperate, I would have lined him up with someone.”
The rear door on the passenger side opened up, and Steve and Traci Turned their heads. “Steve, Traci, this is Carrie Prescott. Carrie, this is my friend, Steve Foster, and his date, Traci Evans.”
Traci spoke first. “We’ve met. Hi, Carrie. How are you?”
Carrie’s speech was thick, slow, and labored. “I’m just fine, and you?”
“I’m fantastic. It’s really good to see you tonight. I’m glad you could make it. You look marvelous. Where did you get that sweater. It looks great on you . . .”
“By this time, Mike had come around and gotten into the car behind Steve. Steve peered over his shoulder and threw a doubtful glance at Mike as they listened to the exchange and proceeded to the restaurant where they were to eat.
Steve continued to keep to himself, oblivious to the conversation as it continued. He had a hard time understanding Carrie, but he didn’t want to admit it. Noting her thick speech, he thought, “Sounds like she’s been sippin’ the bottle lately. Besides, she walks like it too.” This thought caused a smile to creep across his face.
What are you smiling about, Steve?” Traci asked.
“Oh, nothing,” he said, throwing a quick glance over his shoulder at Carrie. But Traci saw the deep red color of embarrassment come into his face.
“Oh, that’s right, I forgot,” Steve thought. “You guys walk ‘distinctively.’”
They pulled up in front of the restaurant. The thought of going into a public place with Carrie in the group both relieved and embarrassed him. At last, he wouldn’t have to be “alone” in this crowd, but what would people think when they saw Carrie? He knew that she didn’t mind, but did she really know how she looked to other people? It was if her head wasn’t really balanced on her neck. It rolled from side to side, and it was only with the greatest of effort that t she was able to keep it upright. Her lips contorted grotesquely sometimes in her effort to communicate. It was not a pretty sight. He heaved a long sigh and announced, “Well, here we are.”
Relieved, they all got out of the car with a chorus of comments about being hungry. One by one, they filed into the restaurant. Mike and Steve brought up the rear as they held the doors for Carrie and Traci.
Once they entered, a hostess greeted them. “Table for four?” She asked.
Never in his life had Steve wished more for an intimate table for two, and only two, than he did tonight. The fleeting thought crossed his mind that maybe he should suggest that the couples be seated at separate tables. As quickly as it came, he dismissed it.
“Smoking or non?” she asked.
“Non,” Mike replied.
“I’m sorry,” the hostess said. “It looks like all we have available is a table for two in smoking, and a table for two in non. Would you like to wait?”
“Now’s my chance,” Steve thought, and he quickly jumped in. Gesturing toward Traci, he began, “That won’t be necessary. We’ll take the table—“ He broke off. Even as he started to say it, he regretted it. “Never mind,” he finished quietly, studying the carpet as if it were a final exam.
“What, Steve?” Traci asked.
“Thinking quickly, Steve looked at his watch and replied, “I just figured that since the movie starts at 7 o’clock, we won’t have time to wait for a table.”
“Don’t worry,” Mike interjected. “The movie doesn’t start until 7:30. We have plenty of time.”
“Oh. I didn’t know,” Steve lied, faking relief.
“After a few minutes their party was called, and the hostess came to seat them. Once seated, they studied the menu to decide what they wanted to eat. After he had made his decision, Mike looked over at Carrie. She was still studying her menu intently, and he admired her secretly. Even her handicap couldn’t hide her beauty. Soft waves of auburn hair framed a face of soft, subtle features—brown eyes, short nose, and her smile; yes—he loved to see her smile. It came readily to her lips, and was more like an event than just an action. Her lips pursed, then parted, then opened wide, revealing two rows of teeth, as white as teeth could be—almost like pearls.
It was obvious that she took great pride in her appearance. And in spite of himself, Mike felt a sudden wave of emotion as he realized how much effort it must be for her hands to make her look that good. If other girls actually do spend hours getting ready for dates, he could only imagine how long it took her.
She looked up and caught his steady gaze. He shrugged and smiled. She smiled that smile back.
“Have you decided?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I’d like the chicken cordon bleu.”
“Once more?” Mike asked, cocking his head.
She repeated her order, but Mike still couldn’t understand.
“Okay. Let’s try a new tack,” Mike said, smiling. “Can you spell your order for me?” Across the table, Steve rolled his eyes, and sighed.
“Ah, the chicken cordon bleu!” Mike exclaimed, nodding. “Excellent choice.”
“Right,” Carrie said. “It’s unfortunate. I can’t speak English very well, let alone French!” she added good-naturedly.
“Au contraire, Madamoiselle!” Mike replied, laughing. “ Au contraire! Besides, even if you don’t know French, all you do have to know is how to spell!”
And it’s a good thing you’re such a good guesser,” she added, also laughing.
“What can I say?” he asked. I watch a lot of Wheel of Fortune.”
The waitress came to take orders, and Carrie was last. “And what would you like?” she asked.
Unfortunately, it was a repeat of what had just happened. Mike quickly broke in. “She’d like the chicken cordon bleu.”
“Okay, and what would she like to drink with that?” the waitress asked Mike.
“Ask her,” Mike gently directed. “She understands you perfectly.”
“What would you like to drink?”
“Water would be fine,” Carrie replied.
Steve, meanwhile, was clearly uncomfortable with all of these “performances,” and after the waitress left, he excused himself to go to the restroom.
The three remaining at the table passed the time in pleasant conversation. Five minutes passed. Then ten. Then fifteen. The orders came, and still no Steve.
“Well,” Mike joked. “You would think that after all these years, that’s one thing he could do without any help. But you never know. Maybe I’d better go check.” Then he leaned across the table toward Traci, cupped his hand against the left side of his mouth, and whispered,”I think maybe he didn’t go to the restroom just to go to the restroom.”
He found Steve leaning against the wall in front of the entrance to the men’s room. “What gives, Steve?” he asked.
“What gives?” Steve repeated, sounding confused. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” said Mike, “that since we picked up Carrie, you haven’t been the same all night. You haven’t said more than a dozen words to anyone, your date wonders if you have a shy twin who’s covering for you tonight, my date wonders if you’re the same guy I told her about, and you’ve spent enough time here to use the facilities at least five times. You’ve been acting really strange. Now, come on. Level with me.”
Steve said nothing, and stared at the floor like he wanted to memorize every inch of it.
After a long pause, Mike asked, “Is it Carrie?”
Steve shifted his gaze from the floor, but averted his head to avoid Mike.
Then Mike asked more forcefully, “Is it?”
The answer was faint, almost inaudible. “I just thought you’d pick someone more—more—normal.”
“Am I ‘normal’?”
“Steve, I’ll never walk—or do a lot of other things—normally, at least not in this life. Neither will Carrie. I’m not so different from her as you might think. As a matter of fact, he have the same condition. It’s called Cerebral Palsy. Her case is more severe than mine, but it’s still the same condition. But that doesn’t matter, because both of us—all of us—are exactly the same where it counts, in the heart. We all have the same desires—to be wanted, to be loved, and yes, even to be considered attractive.”
Mike paused to let all of this sink in. After several seconds of silence, he asked, “Steve, do you consider Carrie attractive?”
Steve cleared his throat and said, “You know what they say, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.”
“Then I’m asking you to ‘behold’ Carrie. Is she beautiful?”
Steve hesitated. “Well, yes, in her own way.”
“No, Steve,” Mike answered. “Carrie is beautiful, period. Inside and out. You know as well as I do that if she didn’t have CP, people would find her as attractive as they find Traci. The fact that they don’t because she does have CP is their fault, not hers. You know, I think that if you had met Carrie in any other situation besides on a date it would have been much easier for for you to accept her.”
Another long pause. Mike took a deep breath.
“I hope you won’t be hurt by what I’m about to say, but I think that the fact that someone does find Carrie attractive is threatening to you.”
Steve’s head shot up, and he reacted almost as if he’d had the wind knocked out of him. Still, he said nothing. The silence hung heavily in the air. Finally, Mike said, “Think about what I’m saying, Steve.” With that, he turned and left Steve standing in the very same spot where he’d found him minutes before.
Back at the table, Mike picked up the check, saying, “Somebody’s gotta pay for this,” He hurried up to the cashier, paid the bill, and returned to where Steve was still standing. “Let’s go home, Steve.”
Wordlessly, Steve fell into step behind Mike as they made their way back to the table, where they rejoined Traci and Carrie. Hurriedly, the somber party made its way out to the car, and each member assumed his or her prior place. The dead silence that had separated Steve and Mike was now multiplied times four. Steve and Mike were silent with their thoughts about had come between them. Traci and Carrie were silent, knowing that something was very wrong, but not knowing exactly what.
After both of the young ladies had been dropped off and apologies had been made for the way the evening had turned out, Mike assumed his former place in the front passenger seat as they headed for his house. Steve pulled up and parked by the walk leading up to it. Mike was the first to speak. “Steve, I’m sorry.”
Steve looked up, surprised. “For what?”
“For not telling you about Carrie before tonight,” Mike replied.
“That doesn’t matter. It’s still no excuse for the way I acted,” Steve observed.
“And I’m sorry for not telling you more about me,” Mike continued.
Again, Steve was surprised. “You?” he asked.
“Yes, me,” he replied. “Since my handicap is such a big part of who I am, I have no right to hide it from anyone. Before tonight, as far as you knew, I could have done something as simple as broken a foot. I realized that if I had told you more about CP, you would have been much more comfortable around Carrie.”
“You’re right,” Steve said simply.
“And I’m sorry for being so hard on you earlier,” Mike apologized.
“Sometimes, the truth hurts, but that’s when we need to hear it the most,” Steve answered.
“Speaking of the truth,” Mike said, “I think I ought to go talk to Carrie, you ought to go talk to Traci—and then I think you ought to talk to Carrie—alone.”
Thirty minutes later, after the first part of this plan had been completed, Steve drove back to Carrie’s house and met Mike out front. “She understands everything—I mean, about the way you acted tonight. Opening the passenger door, Mike said, “I’ll wait here. She’s expecting you.”
Steve nodded, made his way up the walk, and hesitantly rang the bell. Carrie answered. “Hi, Carrie,” Steve said. “Can we talk?”
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