Josie was on a quest. She felt confident and mysterious as she strode through the Walsh River International Airport with no cumbersome luggage to weigh her down. In fact, Josie had no luggage to retrieve. Several hours and time zones and brain cells ago she had strode with the same confident air from a taxi into LAX and purchased a ticket to fly first class to go back to that proverbial place you can never go back to. But going she was with no luggage and a sense of purpose she had not felt for such a long time. Josie's strength was fortified by the half-dozen or so margaritas that had settled into her brain at thirty thousand feet. Happy birthday dear Josie, happy birthday to you, she hummed to herself with a relaxed smile on her face. She was pleased with how neatly everything had fallen into place today. You should get what you want for your birthday, she thought, and today what Josie had given herself was peace of mind. She felt peace and clarity and relief. Soon there would be closure and all would be well. Nobody is expecting me and by the time I'm through everyone will know I've come home to celebrate in style.
The flight was smooth and uneventful. Josie loved to fly, it didn't seem real to her that you boarded in one place and then a few hours later you got off and you were somewhere else, perhaps thousands of miles away. She thought of it as some sort of magical whisking away that had nothing to do with physics and jet engines. Josie liked to view the pretty surface of things without getting all tangled up in the realities involved. She didn't live in denial of facts, she just preferred to be secure in the knowledge that things functioned the way that they did and she didn't have to understand all the details. This particular trait of Josie's always drove Wyn crazy. Wyn was analytical and wanted to tear into everything and find out just what made it tick with great zeal. As if all the mechanisms of nature as well as those manmade were dependent upon her understanding in order to work at all. Josie missed Wyn and was sad that she would not see her on this trip. She missed Nina, too, but didn't feel sad about not seeing her. Nina was in her heart and always would be. Wyn was there, too, and Josie suddenly felt a little sad but no less resolved in her homecoming mission. Mercifully the wait was short for the Ford dealership employee to arrive with her rental car. A deep emerald green Taurus. Josie got in and they drove the few blocks to the dealership where she flipped out her Visa card for the second time that day and signed her name and took the keys.
Josie loved to drive but hadn't had the pleasure of the pedals beneath her feet for some time. Los Angeles was just too big and too fast for her to feel comfortable behind the wheel so she rarely ventured out alone. Her most recent crummy boyfriend chided her for owning three cars that she
never drove, implying that maybe that money could be better spent on other things that he might enjoy. Josie usually had someone drive her for personal errands and then relied on one of the studio limos to whisk her off to work or official functions connected to the show. It felt satisfying to be on familiar ground and in the driver's seat.
Josie first smiled and then chuckled out loud when passing the sign declaring Walsh River International Airport. Such a big name for such a small destination. International only by the virtue of being so close to the Canadian border. The sleek, modern Paxton Terminal existed primarily as an ego trip for Freddie Paxton and Paxton Industries. The small number of passengers who passed though its gates appreciated the unexpected amenities found there. The airport was one of the many jewels in the crown of Walsh River, bought and paid for by the Paxton family, and largely ignored by the locals. Josie's chuckling intensified into giggles over the horrible injustice of Freddie Paxton, local businessman and philanthropist, her lifelong friend's unseen father, and his utter failure to secure the affection of his community despite his numerous attempts to buy it. Poor Freddie, he had never been allowed to really grow up, even when his own father Fred Sr.had died Freddie hadn't been able to shake the diminutive form of his name. Freddie had died at the age of seventy-three owning half the town and jealous of the regard that it had placed on his wife. He had given Walsh River a first class airport and employed its citizens. How could that be overshadowed by Miriam teaching a few adults to read and helping unwed mothers. Giggling felt good but it reminded her that she was in need of a bathroom. She really should have used the bathroom at the airport but there had been no real opportunity with her rental car being right on time and no baggage to claim. None of the usual delays that provide slices of time to get small things taken care of . Josie's need for a bathroom was growing more urgent by the minute as she approached the main highway intersection . In less than a half mile there would be strip malls and fast food joints affording her ample choices in indoor plumbing. And maybe a chance to be recognized and graciously provide her autograph to a fan. For once the thought of facing her adoring public didn't appall and panic her. Adara Adams just took over and signed the 8 x 10 publicity photos while shy Josie retreated into the background but today Josie herself felt up to the task.
It wasn't all that likely she would be recognized. Midday on a weekday Josie found the Two Rivers Mall nearly deserted. Wearing only a modest amount of make-up and dressed down in jeans and a silk tank top with a matching long sleeve shirt over the top she didn't stand out. At five feet, two inches Josie was much shorter than she appeared on television, and she was so distinctly different from the over the top character she played on Silicon Valley Girls that she often was able to slip around unnoticed. She was grateful for her ability to blend in because it spared her from having to deal with fans, a growing reality for her and her co-stars to deal with now that the popular night-time soap had been around long enough to be in syndication.
So familiar and common were the storefronts and ficus trees in the raised brick planters and the brick and polished cedar benches. Identical to any mall in any mid-sized city anywhere in the country. She could be just blocks from her palm surrounded pink stucco Spanish style home in LA but here she was in Walsh River. The Gap. TCBY. Victoria's Secret. The comfortable and fuzzily indistinct homogozination of American culture. Fuzzy and indistinct. "Shit." Thought Josie as she removed her prescription sunglasses. She had left so abruptly that morning that she
had neglected to toss either glasses or contact lenses into her purse. She had been more intent at the time to remember the very different contents of her medicine cabinet that would now be impossible to procure. Too bad that Ethan had reformed or he might have been useful in such a situation. The other thought that came to mind was that her dearly loved but flaky brother would now be either dead or in still in jail had he not reformed. She felt around in her purse and was reassured by the cool, solid feel of the large prescription bottle as her hand closed around it. Josie proceeded to the customer service department of Dayton's where the restrooms were located. It was unusual for her to not be distracted by the racks of dresses and leather handbags that she passed. Even silk tank tops identical to the one she was wearing. Josie loved silk and dressed in it nearly every day. She had mentioned to Wyn in a telephone conversation a couple of years ago how much more widely available silk clothing had become. Wyn had conjured up visions of overworked and underpaid silkworms toiling away without benefit of legal representation. Josie had laughed at the time. Funny how now she had no desire to stop and admire the items that used to beckon from the racks. For the first time in her life earthly pleasures and material wealth no longer had a grasp on her. For a woman who had found a meaningful existance in a shopping habit that knew no bounds this was truly a remarkable change of heart. Heading back out to her car Josie dug in her bag for the unfamiliar set of keys. It was a beautiful day and she was on a mission of closure and redemption.
Josie eased the car out into the gathering noonday traffic. Walsh River wasn't large enough to truly experience a rush hour but out near the mall and the industrial park the fast-food and other restaurants beckoned the empty stomachs in the local-filled cars. It shouldn't take more than ten minutes to get where she was going. Josie gasped internally. What if she couldn't find the spot on Old Miller's Road? What if someone had cut down the trees to build more houses or another convenience store and she couldn't find her landmark? The dirt road corner that had been witness to her pain and humiliation and blood. The trees would still be there, she reassured herself once more by slipping her hand into her purse and finding the bottle that contained her personal remedy for that afternoon more than half her life ago. Josie was surprised to feel a tear stealing its way out from her eyelashes and coursing noiselessly down her cheek only to be joined by another and another until her eyes were streaming and she choked back the raw sobs that were coming from her throat. It just never went away. That was why she had the Valium to begin with, more recently Prozac seemed to help. First to fend off the panic attacks and then to help her sleep and then to help her smile her way through the day and lately just to make her able to get up and deal with life and work. She had a network of doctors and clinics and pharmacies who were willing to write the prescriptions and dispense the cycle of drugs she had become dependent upon in the last few years. She had managed to hoard an assortment of pills in the last six months, stealing them away into one bottle that she had come to think of as her sweet dreams stash. A little chemical help to ease her into whatever may be next in this great metaphysical cycle we call life and death. Whatever came next would have to be better than this, whenever the sweet dreams stash was full she would be ready. Ready for what she really hadn't been sure of until just this morning.
When Miriam Anderson had announced to her family sixteen years earlier that she was dropping out of college one semester shy of graduation to marry young Frederick Paxton they couldn't have been happier. The most prominent family in town and Freddie was considered to be quite a catch. He was very good-looking and they made a striking couple, the fifteen year age difference was really not that great an issue to anyone in the families. It was just great fodder for gossip in a small town that was trying to grow up. Besides, the general feeling was that a man in his position could afford to wait a while to marry. So what if he was a bit of a cold fish, he could certainly buy Miriam enough blankets to keep her warm in that enormous mausoleum of a house. The important thing was that she was young and healthy and from a good family, there simply must be another generation of Paxtons. And Winifred Paxton simply adored Miriam, she saw in her a younger version of her own self and took it upon herself to take her in and nurture her as if Miriam were the daughter she had never been blessed with. Winifred was actually a bit relieved that her son had decided to settle down and marry. She had always been concerned about how Freddie treated people in a dismissive and distant way. He had always placed more interest in books and his hobbies than the company of other human beings. Even as a child he had preferred solitary pursuits and games and conversing with adults to playing with children his own age. Winifred had placed the blame for her son's anti-social behavior on herself, she had wanted more children, in fact her desire had been to raise a large family. But her husband had lost interest in her sexually once she had produced a son for him, if only Freddie had grown up amidst children instead of adults, she thought he would have turned out differently.
And of course there had been rumours. For the most part when Miriam appeared on the scene as the future Mrs. Frederick Paxton III the speculative chatter died down and was finally laid to rest when the couple produced three children in the first five years. In the collective mind of Walsh River residents only bonafide heterosexuals were capable of becoming parents. The truth of the matter was that Freddie had felt tremendous pressure to marry and have children to make his mother happy. He wanted the marriage and to be a father and made a real effort for some time to be a model husband. Freddie really preferred solitude and quiet and was put off by physical intimacy. The joyful racket and chaos that comes with small children eventually caused him to retreat into his work and his chosen pastimes and a separate bedroom. Miriam was dismayed at his moving down the hall but discovered she really didn't miss him much. On the rare occasions when they did share the same bed she felt no closer to him, she was certain that Freddie didn't see other women on the side and she had never seen evidence that he was interested in men. To her he had always been mostly indifferent to sex and had serviced her only out of duty to give his mother the grandchildren she desired. Always the dutiful son he felt a bit alienated in this house full of women. Between his mother, his wife and his three daughters he felt he scarcely had room to breathe. Fortunately for him there was the country club and golf and the numerous organizations he was committed to, and of course his work. His spacious office at Paxton Industries was his real home, a refuge for his public image self and the trappings that went along with it. For Freddie, the best part of being wealthy was the insulation it afforded him from people he had no use for.
As Freddie dressed for the anniversary party he complimented himself for the handsome reflection that faced him in the full length mirror. Not bad for a fifty-one year old, he thought. The prospect of heading downstairs in a few minutes left him feeling a bit uneasy as he tied his tie and noted that his eyebrows were getting a little gray and unruly. He made a mental note to have them trimmed a bit the next time he had a haircut. He pasted on his best board meeting smile and carefully adjusted his dress jacket so just the right amount of cuff was revealed at his wrist. Checking the inside pocket of his jacket he found the velveteen jewelers case that held the diamond-studded watch that he would soon present to his wife. Freddie felt some dismay as he met his own gaze in the mirror. His marriage wasn't entirely a sham, he thought as he turned toward the door. And I'm about to prove it by putting on the show of my life as the epitome of devoted husband and father.
Miriam flawlessly split her time between floating among the guests and checking on preparations for the dinner in the kitchen. She absently checked her wrist for the time and discovered she had forgotten to put on her watch, sighing as she glanced at the clock above the refrigerator she made her way out of the kitchen and through the dining room to see if Freddie had come down to join the party. Moving with a smile through the sea of guests in the great room and foyer she felt a warm smile come over her face as she stopped and looked up the stairs. Freddie certainly knew how to make an entrance. Ten year old Hope led the way with her father just two steps behind. Gracing his arms were twelve year old Thea and fourteen year old Greta. Awash with smiles and lace adorned dresses and carefully arranged hair they beautifully framed their patrician father as they descended the stairs together. Miriam brushed aside a forming tear as she moved to meet them at the bottom of the stairs. It started with just one or two people putting their hands together but applause is infectious and soon the entire room erupted into an ovation and calls for a speech and a toast. Out of nowhere Winifred Paxton appearred with two crystal flutes of champagne and handed the delicate glasses to her son and daughter-in-law. All around the room glasses were raised in a congratulatory toast led by Winifred. The hired photographer materialized as well and caught the moment as perfectly as it played out.
Freddie reached into his inside jacket pocket and produced the velvet box with the same grand gesture he had rehearsed just minutes before in front of his bedroom mirror. "For my lovely wife, just a small token for our fifteen wonderful years together." Miriam took the box and smiled as she opened it. Freddie removed the sparkly watch from the gift box and carefully fastened it about Miriam's left wrist. It seemed the perfect gesture to complete the moment and he kissed her hand before gently releasing it.
Miriam admired the watch and thanked her husband. There was a nearly audible pause as guests were unsure as to whether they should return to conversation with each other or if they should continue to give their attention to their hosts.
"I would like to thank everyone for coming to our home today to help us celebrate," said Miriam. "I would also like to thank everyone who so generously made contributions to The Winifred Paxton Society in honor of this occasion. So many local, less fortunate children will benefit from your generosity. And while we are on the subject of children, I would now like to give my
husband my anniversary gift. I have very recently learned that I am pregnant and in six months my gift to you is our fourth child. I've never been happier!"
The room erupted once more into applause and words of congratulations. Freddie and Miriam made their way to the bottom of the stairs and soon a receiving line formed. Freddie was obviously stunned at the news of once more being a father. He was annoyed at the thought of there being another squalling infant around. Why, the girls had just gotten to manageable ages where they were almost tolerable company. But a baby! Freddie smiled and shook hands and accepted congratulations in a daze. How could such a thing have happened! They rarely shared the same bed in their adjoining bedrooms but there was that odd night of throwing caution to the wind. There must have been one of those a couple months ago but he was hard pressed to recall any details. At any rate, there would be a fourth Paxton, maybe this time a son. Freddie's attitude shifted a bit closer to acceptance. A son. Maybe things weren't as bleak as he first thought.
Thea, Greta, and Hope were delighted with the idea of a new baby's arrival. They scarcely left their mother's side for the remainder of the evening. Amongst themselves they discussed possible names for their new sibling and what he or she would look like and promised Miriam that they would help with the baby whenever she asked. As the last guests left the party Miriam became a bit pensive over what her husband's private reaction to her pregnancy would be. She busied herself with tucking her daughters into bed and then wandered downstairs to check on the details of cleaning up after the party. Extra help had been enlisted from the employees at the country club for the day and they seemed to be doing a fine job. As she climbed the stairs for the last time that day she stopped off to knock on the door of her mother-in-law's bedroom suite.
"Come in," replied Winifred from within. Miriam stepped in and closed the door. Winifred was in her favorite brocade wing chair before a roaring fire. She lowered her book and removed her reading glasses. "Come. Sit with me, dear." Winifred indicated the large ottoman before her chair that also held a small tray bearing an empty teacup and an untouched plate of cookies.
"Oh, Winnie, what have I done? I should have told him in private instead of making such an announcement in front of everyone. I just couldn't bring myself to tell him. I've suspected for weeks but just found out for sure last Tuesday. I don't think I've ever been afraid of facing him before."
"My dear, this is wonderful news and who cares how he takes it! If you ask me, my son's greatest accomplishment in life was marrying you and giving me grandchildren. Another child won't alter his life any more than the first three did. Don't think he doesn't know that, Freddie has never found it easy to be with people, not even his own family. He's a pathetic lone wolf who's stuck in this houseful of women. What matters is how you feel about it."
"At first I couldn't quite believe it and thought maybe I was losing my mind. But now I'm happy about it and the girls are so excited. I didn't realize how much I wanted another child. You know, if this is another girl it just might kill him." The two women laughed together and puzzled over the man who was Winifred's son and Miriam's husband. And this baby's father whether he
liked it or not.
There was to be considerable and not always polite debate concerning the naming of the child throughout the rest of Miriam's otherwise uneventful pregnancy. Freddie insisted that if it was a boy he simply must be Frederick Paxton III and if it was a girl she must be named after his mother, Winifred Wilhelmina. Miriam wasn't pleased with either of those choices but had to admit that Freddie had given her pretty much free range in naming the first three whatever she wanted. She focused on serenity and calmness for the sake of the child she was carrying whenever Freddie went off on the naming the baby tangent. Miriam was convinced that the child was a girl even though the law of probability nearly dictated that it should be a boy, by this time she was equally convinced that Freddie only fired X's. The great name debate continued in the delivery room of the hospital even though Freddie remained out in the hall giving orders to the nurses and anyone else who would listen. When baby girl Paxton #4 finally arrived Miriam was exhausted from labor and the incessant intrusions from Freddie. Miriam relented to naming her after Winifred despite her aversion to the name. Miriam loved her mother-in-law but wasn't fond of her name. Freddie would always regret going home for a nap and leaving the paperwork to his wife. Miriam decided that the clunker of a name would be lightened a bit by changing the "i" to a "y".
Doted on by her mother and spoiled by her older sisters who adored her, Wynifred with a "y" came to be called Wyn and eventually grew into a pale and ethereal beauty. So blonde and fair that you almost had to look twice to see that she was there. Her appearance suggested that she had been conceived in the last possible seconds of her parents' waning fertility. She may have looked frail and wispy but deep down she had a steely core of strength and intelligence. Wyn was born to have it all and except for her father's affection she did. Not that she knew it was missing from her life, she had so much from everyone else she hardly noticed.
Freddie seemed to take out his residual resentment over the naming incident on his infant daughter. Sure, Miriam had gone along with naming her after his mother but that last little dig at him by spelling it with a "y' was just too much to take. He hadn't wanted another child at his age, he resented Wyn simply because she existed. Freddie took to locking himself in his study any time that he found himself at home, appearing only for dinner. He presided over the evening meal like a king who had granted audience to his subjects. Otherwise he tended to his stock portfolio and his stamp collection, sequestering himself away from the cruel turn of fate that had placed him in this houseful of women.
I hate winter, especially January, thought Nina. I hate my life. Only stupid people could possibly live in this town. I will not make friends here because who needs stupid friends. Maybe if I stand here really, really still and close my eyes no one will notice me and I'll disappear. I'll wake up in my real life where I live in a Paris penthouse that looks out over the Seinne and I eat chocolates for breakfast. The harsh reality of a below zero gust of wind convinced her to take those last twenty steps and enter the Walsh River Senior High School. Her mother had offered, in fact nearly insisted on coming with her that morning but Nina had prevailed in being just as insistant that she wanted to go alone to her first day at school. Considering how cold it was outside she had consented to her mother giving her a ride rather than walking the seven or so blocks. Now I just have to find the main office and the fun will begin.
"Nina? Nina Bradbury?" she heard from behind and to the left. Nina turned and saw the girl who had called out to her, she was very blonde and a little taller than herself. Nina was used to being the tallest girl in school but here was a Nordic Amazon girl who bested her in height by about two inches.
"Yeah." said Nina tentatively.
"Wyn Paxton." She smiled and extended her hand in greeting. "Hi, I'm the student council ambassador assigned to you. I'm in charge of introducing you to our school so you're stuck with me for the whole day. Actually, you're stuck with me every day. Our class schedules are exactly the same so I was the logical choice. First we have to go to the office and get your schedule and books and locker assignment. Welcome to Walsh River High!"
"Thanks." Nina pulled back her hand and rubbed her index finger. This Amazon girl had quite a grip. Nina easily matched Wyn's long strides as they walked down the hall to the office. "What did you say your name was?"
"Wyn. Short for Wynifred. And it gets worse, my middle name is Wilhelmina. I think my parents ran out of names on my three sisters so they named me after my grandmother. Here's the office." Wyn held the door for Nina and motioned her through. Mrs. Lindermann, the secretary, handed Nina a clipboard with some forms for her to fill out and a folder containing a school handbook, her class schedule, a hot lunch ticket, and her locker assignment and combination. The girls stood at the counter while Nina filled out the forms and Wyn chatted with Mrs.
Lindermann about the upcoming Sadie Hawkins dance preparations. After a brief stop at Nina's locker where she shed her coat and the books she wouldn't need till the afternoon classes the girls were off to English Lit. followed by American History. Next was Health which alternated two days each week with P.E. In each class Wyn introduced Nina and filled her in on each teacher's expectations and drawbacks. Next was lunch. Nina was surprised to find herself feeling hungry. Usually she needed at least a week to feel comfortable enough to eat at school but Wyn was so engaging and funny that this first day wasn't nearly as miserable as she had expected.
And lunch turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The school was only a couple of years old so the lunch room was spacious and bright with color and activity. The light from the icy blue winter sky spilled in through four enormous skylights and bounced off the highly polished tile floor. The smells suggested that the food may even be edible. There was the typical long counter with a ledge on which to slide your tray past the offerings for the day but there was also a salad bar with a remarkable selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. Wyn chose the cheeseburger and a chocolate chip cookie while Nina opted to assemble a chef's salad from the offerings at the salad bar. I could get used to this Nina thought as she followed Wyn to a table near the center of the room. I wonder if I'll have the chance to. Wyn introduced Nina to the other six students at the table whose names muddled together in her brain. She recognized a girl named Bonnie from English Lit and a boy named Eric from the history class. Bonnie and Eric appeared to be an item due to how closely they were sitting to each other while still managing to eat. Chemistry lab was next and Nina met Wyn's best friend Josie.
Office practice class rounded out the day and once again the three girls found themselves together. Their teacher, Mr. Henderson, was engaged in an intense conversation at his desk with a female student in a remarkably tight sweater. Josie leaned over toward Nina with a knowing expression on her face. She indicated with her eyes the girl in the front of the classroom and said in a low voice, "Candy Preston, ask me after school." Josie raised her eyebrows and grinned a rather nasty grin that appeared incongruous on her pretty, elfin face. The bell rang and Candy sat down in the front row. Mr. Henderson slouched comfortably across the corner of his desk as he gave instructions for the next hour and called attention to the assignment that was written on the board.
"I see that we have a new student in class today, Nina Bradbury is her name and I believe Wyn is responsible for introductions," said Mr. Henderson.
Wyn stood and went to the front of the class. "Mr. Henderson, our business classes coordinator, sixth period Office Practice Class, this is Nina, she just moved here from Andover with her mother who is the new courtroom supervisor and reporter for Judge Tabor at the district courthouse here. Nina likes basketball and journalism. Let's all do our best to make her feel welcome."
"Thank you, Wyn," said Mr. Henderson as Wyn took her seat. "Let's get started." He smiled at Nina and she felt like he might try to sell her a car next. Or maybe offer her a cocktail. There was something decidedly creepy about this guy. She returned her artificial, formal smile as she turned on the electric typewriter before her and went about transcribing a letter from the lesson in
The hour went by quickly and Nina was relieved that the first day was now behind her. The three o' clock bell sounded and students erupted into the hallways on their way to lockers and after school activities. The lockers had originally been assigned alphabetically so Wyn's and Josie's were just two away from each other. As a latecomer Nina's locker was near the other end of the hall so they parted ways to unload books and supplies and to determine what needed to go home to complete the homework for the day. Nina put on her coat and mittens and picked up her chemistry book and a notebook to take home. She turned to find Josie and Wyn waiting for her. "Need a ride home?" inquired Wyn.
"That'd be great," said Nina, "It's really cold out today. Thanks."
"I could take you home or you could come over to my house. We could pretend to do homework and gossip and eat. That's our routine after school," said Wyn.
"Unless we have other stuff we have to do. Like pretending to do homework or eating or gossiping," added Josie.
"You guys are weird," said Nina. "How long have you known each other, anyway?" She glanced up at Wyn and down at Josie for any clues they might unwittingly offer.
"Since we were three," they chorused. "In preschool. When we were the same height." All three girls giggled in unison. Nina felt comfortable with these two and passed it off to her experience with new people and situations. Good thing there were two non-stupid people in the whole school. She was lucky she had found both of them the first day.
Wyn led the way through the parking lot to a yellow Honda hatchback. Nina was impressed with the late model of the car and assumed it must belong to Wyn's mother or something. "I guess since I'm the shortest I'm stuck with the back seat," said Josie as she hopped in the car. She sighed dramatically over her demotion and lamented over how short people got no respect in this society.
"Is she always like this?" asked Nina.
"Mostly," said Wyn, "she talks a lot to compensate for her size."
"I do not!" protested Josie. "I just like to talk and I have a lot to say."
"So what's the big deal about Candy what's-her-name?" asked Nina. They were now driving down Main Street and Nina was taking in the names of all the local stores. The tires groaned as they rolled over the compacted ice and snow on the pavement.
"Have I got a story for you. She's only screwing the teacher." said Josie.
"We don't know for sure," added Wyn, "but we have our suspicions, we just need some hard evidence."
"You mean the office practice teacher?" asked Nina.
"Yeah. Didn't you notice how cozy they were together? She's his student assistant, too, she does filing and runs off worksheets and stuff . I think there's just a little too much opportunity for hanky-panky there. Did you notice how she practically sticks her tits right in his face? Anyway, she's graduating this spring so he's gonna have to find another squeeze." said Josie.
"He's really good-looking," observed Nina, "but there's something sorta creepy about him, too. Is he married?"
"Very married," said Wyn. "Fat wife, three nasty kids, and a dog married. Just don't ever give him an opportunity to corner you. He's not even careful about it anymore, he used to be pretty discreet about his little pet students but he's gotten pretty sloppy. I think he drinks a lot, too. One time Candy told us he has a bottle of Jack Daniels in his file cabinet but who knows if she's telling the truth."
"I thought we were going to your house, Wyn. What's this?" Nina asked as they turned off 12th Avenue through a gate with a private tree-lined drive.
"Home sweet home." answered Wyn. "Welcome to Winbrook."
Josie giggled. "Couldn't you tell from the car? Wyn's a spoiled little rich brat who lives on a palatial estate with servants and everything."
"That is not even close to accurate, Nina, Josie's the spoiled brat among us so don't listen to her."
Nina didn't know who to believe as they rounded the last curve through the trees and came upon a large, stone house with a circular drive and carefully manicured bushes and lawns. They must have a gardener, thought Nina. It was apparent even under the ice and snow of the season that this yard was professionally maintained. She sat in silence as Wyn maneuvered the car around to the four-stall garage behind the house and parked inside.
"I suppose since this is your first time here I should have brought you in through the front door so you'd be suitably impressed but I always go in the back way. And Josie likes going in the front door so I drag her in through the kitchen to keep her in her place. Don't be intimidated." Wyn turned toward Nina and smiled. "It's just where I live, it's not who I am."
"If you say so," said Nina.
"I'm not the poor little rich girl," said Josie as they walked past what Nina recognized as a large solarium containing a jungle of plants. "My house doesn't have a name."
"Mine does." said Nina dryly. "There's a sign right on the front that says MeadowLark Apartments and a phone number. Very similar to this, actually." They all laughed together and Nina felt a little more comfortable. The girls settled in the enormous kitchen that was a mix of antique and modern fixtures. The stone floor and cavernous fireplace that had once been used for cooking set a rustic backdrop for the shiny steel appliances and the porcelain tile that covered the counter tops and formed the backsplash above the sink. The vintage of the oak cabinets and the long, farm style work table fell somewhere in between. Wyn peered into the refrigerator as she removed her coat and offered soft drinks and sizable, chewy pretzels still warm on top of the stove to her friends. Nina asked the question that everyone asked about their difference in height and how they looked mismatched as best friends. Wyn related that they had been nearly the same size all along until they were around twelve years old. Wyn's theory was that Josie would be considerably taller if all of her growth potential had gone into bone length rather than breasts. Nina enjoyed the familiarity between her two new friends. Their banter was effortless and entertaining like an act that was so well-rehearsed it could only be natural. She drank in the atmosphere of the wonderful old house and committed the sights and sounds to memory so she could record them in her journal when she got home. Who knew, this may be her only opportunity to experience this. Nina wondered how she could fit in with these two girls who were obviously out of her league socially. She wondered what Josie's house was like.
"So, how did your mom end up working for Judge Tabor?" asked Josie.
"She's only interested because he sent her brother to the slammer." said Wyn.
Nina frowned. "You're kidding, right?"
"Long story." said Wyn when she saw Josie's reaction to what she had revealed. "Sorry, Jose, that was really crude of me, it's your story to tell if you want to, sorry I brought it up."
"It's okay. I shouldn't be so sensitive about it." Josie turned sadly to Nina. "My brother's in the state pen because when he wrecked my mom's car a year ago they found a whole bunch of cocaine in the car and he wouldn't talk about where it came from so he's in jail. He's up for parole this summer so I hope he gets out, I really miss him. He's not a criminal, he just did something really stupid, end of story."
"Josie, that's too bad, I'm sorry, it's not the sort of thing you'd want to talk about." said Nina. "Anyway, about my mom's job, she's always looking for a better work situation so we've moved around a lot. It's just the two of us, my dad died when I was two. I'm halfway through eleventh grade and this is my eighth school, third high school. I hate moving and I hate being the new girl but I really like you two and..." Nina burst into tears. Wyn and Josie looked at each other, uncertain as to how they should react. In light of the fact that they had so far allowed her to creep into their personal circle more deeply in one afternoon than they had ever permitted anyone else their analysis was swift. Immediately they were at her side with kleenexes and reassurances. Nina blew her nose soundly and wiped her eyes. "Sorry. I feel like such a toad. I shouldn't be here. If only I could tesseract."
"A Wrinkle in Time!" said Wyn with amazement. "That is my absolutely favorite book!"
"Mine, too," said Nina.
"Don't look at me, Wyn's always giving me a hard time about how I never read any books. So I like People magazine!" said Josie.
"I think I've read it seven, maybe eight times. How about you?" asked Wyn.
"I don't know," said Nina, "the first time I read it I was in third grade, and I guess I read it again about once a year. Yeah, maybe eight times by now."
"Both of you are really weird with this reading the same book over and over again." said Josie. "You should see this book that she carries around practically all of the time, you'd think it was the Holy Bible or something."
"I happen to enjoy The Fountainhead but I don't worship it." said Wyn.
"Oh, it's so great," agreed Nina. "I've only gotten through it once but I thought the story worked on all these different levels, I need to read it again to catch all that it has to say. I just finished Atlas Shrugged, it's another Ayn Rand book, but don't bother reading it unless you're stranded on a desert island or something. It's really preachy and makes the same points over and over again like it's some sort of revolutionary instructional manual."
"Listen, either we talk about something more interesting or we do the chemistry homework." said Josie. "You two can do your book club thing when I'm not around."
The girls were just completing the assignment when Nina observed the time. "It's getting late, I really should be getting home or my mom's gonna chew my ass off." she said.
"I'll run you guys home, no problem. I'm surprised Maxie isn't here to start dinner, she usually throws us out about now." said Wyn. "It's already getting dark, this time of year is so depressing."
Once again the three girls loaded up into Wyn's car and she ferried the other two home. After that, they met regularly at one of the girls' homes after school at least two or three times a week. It became a regular thing for the three of them to gather and do a little homework, exchange their life stories, eat whatever snacks that were around, the best ones invariably at Josie's house, and compare the gossip from school. As the hours of daylight increased toward spring's arrival the girls shared secrets and bonded and held sleepovers at each other's homes. It was during one late night confessional over hot fudge sundaes in Josie's ruffly, feminine bedroom that the subject of sexual activity came up. Over the last four months they had discussed at length who was doing what with whom and how far and where and any details the other two could provide were pondered over at length. Josie and Wyn had boyfriends but admitted that they were both virgins. They eyed Nina intently after divulging this information and waited for her to confess as well.
"We must be the only three virgins left in the whole high school. Maybe we should form a club or something." joked Nina. She absently picked up her spoon and licked off the remaining hot fudge sauce that had solidified on it. "What?!" she implored as Josie and Wyn burst into giggles.
"Absolutely, we should." said Wyn.
"Should what?" asked Nina.
"Form a club." said Josie. "The Virgins Club. We could have a meeting whenever we talk about sex and stuff and swear that we will keep all of our secrets just in this little circle."
"This is great! We should make it official with officers and rules and we have to take an oath that we'll keep no secrets from each other. We could draw up a charter and sign it and be there for each other. Always. And we would have to tell how far we've gone, you know, swear to our collective virginity when we take roll call for a meeting. And have some kind of ceremony when we're deflowered, a real rite of passage." Wyn continued to go on about the club and how essential it was that they get it all in writing as she rummaged on top of Josie's desk for a pad of paper and a pen.
And so The Virgins Club came to be. Wyn's future as a lawyer was foreshadowed in the complicated charter and list of bylaws she penned. Josie and Nina signed at the bottom along with Wyn without hesitation. In conspiratorial comradery they attempted to sign in blood but were not able to obtain enough by just pricking their fingers so they settled for a red Flair pen. Somewhere within their solemn vow to be completely honest and forthcoming with one another they unconsciously gave themselves implicit license to lie. From that day forward they gave each other permission to construct their own realities that they could be comfortable living inside of. Individually they were able to rationalize that it is only when you admit to yourself that you have been dishonest or perhaps been deceived that it becomes real. Unless you get caught red- handed you can tell others whatever you wish, later on if you have a change of heart then you can tell the truth. Children universally know this and accept it because it gives them a sense of control and safety in an uncontrollable and sometimes frightening world. Josie, Nina, and Wyn were on the verge of becoming adults but wouldn't actually arrive until they learned the difference between truth and facts, the similarities between rationalizing and lying and that being out of control was a fact of life that must simply be accepted. Without a flinch or a backward glance they were about to take their first baby steps beyond their collective childhood's end. Truth and facts, facts and truth, such a fine line of interpretation separates the two. Are we testatifying in court or searching for a higher ideal. Eventually these things are sorted out and nobody ever really gets through unscathed. Sometimes you just need some distance for things to become clear.