Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T is for Twenty-Six Tips For Being Adventurous at Home

Hello again, dear readers.

Way back at the letter F, I told you about the Female Nomad, my personal ambassador for living a life less ordinary.

Rita was kind enough to share twenty-six tips with us. Follow her suggestions, and you can have many adventures without leaving home. She says your comfort level with these exercises is also a good guide to see if you are ready for the type of experiential traveling she loves.

Do any of these tips sound appealing to you? Have you done anything like this before?

Rita’s Travel Tips:

Smile a lot.       Talk to strangers.     Say yes to all invitations.     Eat whatever you’re offered.

Some fun things to try that will help you break down your inhibitions and rewire your life.
1.      Start the day by brushing your teeth with the other hand.
2.      Eat dinner food for breakfast
3.      Take a different route to work or to the supermarket, down streets you’ve never been on.
4.      Buy a vegetable or fruit that you’ve never tried and figure out what to do with it.
5.      Sit at a different place at the dinner table.
6.      Serve dessert first; if there are kids, don’t let them eat the meal until they finish dessert.
7.      Talk to a stranger in line with you at a supermarket or bank.
8.      Have dinner alone in a nice restaurant.
9.      Spend a day without a bra and underpants.
10.   Wear sneakers or slippers or go barefoot when it is totally inappropriate.
11.   If you never wear tank tops, buy and wear one.
12.   Go to an event without make-up; or if you never wear make-up, put it on for a day, a lot.
13.   Buy a CD of songs from your teen years and sing along at the top of your voice…in the car or at home alone.  Especially if you think you can’t carry a tune.
14.   Dance when you’re home alone.
15.   Walk around with a sketch book, sketching, if you think you can’t draw.
16.   Invite a foreign family for dinner.  Ask them to teach you a song in their language…or a dance…or how to cook an ethnic food.  How about the owners of your favorite Thai restaurant?
(And when the dinner invitation is reciprocated, accept.)
17.   If you are in a university town, invite a couple of foreign students over for Thanksgiving.
18.   Go away for a weekend alone.
19.   Go for a motorcycle ride.
20.   Try parasailing.
21.   Buy a hula hoop and practice until you can do it.
22.   Blow bubbles in a park somewhere.
23.   If you are a non-stop doer, spend a weekend doing nothing.  (Just what is nothing?)
24.   Eat a quart of ice cream instead of dinner.
25.   Take a walk in the pouring rain.
26.   Go to Clown Camp. (Google: Mooseburger Clown Camp)

Come up with a list of things that are outside your personal comfort zone, things that make you feel foolish or silly.

Then do them! And have fun.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

S is for Support

I should warn you about something, dear readers.

Nothing worth having comes easy.

When you put yourself out there and chase your dreams, there are going to be bumps along the way. There will be false friends, rejection, and disappointment.

In the immortal words of the great Rocky Balboa: "It ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done."

As many times as Rocky stepped into the ring alone, he was never really alone. He had Adrian. And Mickey. And all the others who loved and cared about him. Whenever Rocky got knocked down, it was the people who loved him who pushed him to greatness.

Support is essential to success. You need to build a network of people who will be there for you when times get rough. Who will listen to gnash your teeth and wail, and then remind you that you have to keep going.

And don't forget to be supportive of others too. Support is a pay-it-forward kind of thing. When you're strong, lift someone else up, as you hope to be lifted when you fall.

I found out yesterday that I wasn't picked as a finalist for the 60 Days in Paradise contest. To say I was disappointed would be the understatement of the year. I put everything I had into my application--I really tried my best, and thought I'd done a good job.

Support came from both expected and unexpected places. Thankfully, I can always count on my boyfriend and my closest friends to be there when I need them.

And then, out of the blue, came this blog post. It reminded me that I'm not here to win contests. I'm here to give back--to be a good person, a good friend. (And, in case you're wondering why my praise was less than effusive, Tyner asked me to tell him if his manuscript sucked.) :)

The moral of this tale is, when you get knocked down, you have to get right back up. You never know who will need you to help them stand.

(If you like the paranormal, check out Tyner's book The Watch. It's awesome. No one can write about cops as well as Tyner, because he actually is a police officer.)

Monday, April 21, 2014

R is for Rockstar

When I was in my late teens, I dated a rockstar.

Well, not really…perhaps playing gigs at the local Pizza Hut didn't count. But to me, he was a rockstar all the same. He had the skintight jeans and the long hair to prove it, and he was awesome at playing the drums. I would listen to him play for hours, and never failed to be enthralled.

If anyone asked him what he planned to do with his life, he answered without hesitation. "I'm going to be a rockstar."

As much as I believed in him--and I really, really did--his answer was scary. After all, how many people get to be rockstars? What was his Plan B, just in case?

Since my rockstar clearly wasn't interested in Plan B, I decided to help. I came up with a few options that were quite clever, because he could earn money by working in the music industry (as a studio musician, an engineer, a sound tech, among other things…) while he waited to be discovered.

Clever or not, he wasn't having any of it. He wanted to play the drums, not be part of the great machine that was the music industry. It was rockstar or nothing.

Meanwhile, I wanted to be a novelist. But how many people get to be full-time novelists? I came up with a sensible Plan B, and learned how to use my writing ability to earn a living. At various points in my career, I was a journalist, a publicist, and a communications and marketing specialist. I blogged and tweeted. I wrote website copy, newsletters, and annual reports.

Not only was it difficult to find the time to write fiction, I often had no enthusiasm after writing for other people all day long. My Plan B had become my Plan A, and even after quitting my day job over a year ago, I'm still struggling to realign those priorities.

I'd love to tell you that the boyfriend of my teenage years became a rockstar after all. That would make this a much better story. He didn't. BUT he found a job he loves that pays the bills and has nothing to do with music. His music never turned into work for him. He didn't wear out his creativity by becoming a sound engineer. He played for love when he was nineteen, and he still does today.

Thank god he didn't listen to me.

I thought I was so wise back then, with my sensible Plan B. And while I don't regret the incredible career I've had and all the amazing people and experiences that have come into my life because of it, I do regret how long it's taken me to return my focus to Plan A. The place where my focus should have been all along.

So, to those who have an "impossible" dream, I give this irresponsible advice: go for it, and go for it wholeheartedly. Hold nothing back. You may not achieve it, but you'll never regret the effort.

Don't worry about Plan B. Having a Plan B is saying it's okay to fail at Plan A. Plan B makes it too easy to give up. You can get a Plan B later…or never.

Go ahead.

Be a rockstar.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q is for Questions to Ask Yourself

What is my ideal self?

Have I done anything worth remembering lately?

What activities make me lose track of time?

What needs to exist that hasn't been invented yet?

What three things would I take to a deserted island?

When was the last time I truly felt happy, and why?

Who do I love, and what am I doing about it?

What would I do if money weren't an issue?

If I had one year left to live, how would I spend the time? One week? One day? One hour?

Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Val Kilmer, or Christian Bale?

What would I do differently if I knew no one would judge me?

If I had the chance to get a message out to a large group of people, what would it be?

Do I celebrate the good things in my life?

Am I holding onto something I need to let go of?

Should Oprah always be on the cover of her magazine?

If I had to do one thing for the rest of my life, what would it be?

Why haven't I started the Seinfeld Productivity Secret like Holli suggested?

Feel free to share some of your answers in the comments! I'd love to know if these questions resulted in any lightbulb moments for you.

Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for Perfect

So far during this A to Z Challenge, each word I've chosen will help you achieve a life less ordinary. Here's the exception.

If you strive to be perfect, I can pretty much guarantee you won't meet your goals. Sounds counterintuitive, huh? Who wouldn't want to be perfect? And that's the problem. Nobody's perfect, but you can drive yourself perfectly crazy by striving to reach unattainable standards.

I know a really talented writer who will probably never publish a book. Why? His novels, while fantastic and well written, aren't perfect. Every time he goes over his work, he finds more mistakes, or something he could tweak or make better. He's been rewriting the same books for years, and still, they can't measure up. Of course not. The more he writes, the better a writer he becomes, and the more flaws he will find in his early work. That's to be expected. But does that mean he shouldn't publish anything until it's perfect?

That's a classic example of perfectionism, but it can go far beyond that. How many of us put off something we really want to do or experience because the timing isn't perfect?

Can't have a child until we're out of debt and finished school and set up in our careers.

Can't take that family portrait until we've reached our goal weight.

Can't write that book until we can find a spare hour or two everyday.

Can't have people over until the house looks perfect.

Can't sell the house until it is perfect.

The truth is, if everyone waited for the timing to be perfect, no one would have a child. Or move to another country. Or fight in the ring. Or travel around the world. Or write a book. Or sing on stage.

You can always be better. You can always spend more time striving for perfection. The irony is, often getting out and actually doing the things we're putting off gets us closer to that unattainable goal.

Sometimes it's better to have a less-than-perfect novel published than to never be published at all.

What do you think? Are there instances in your life where perfectionism has held you back?

Fiction Fridays: Lost Chapter Twenty-Seven

Hello Dear Readers,

This megalopolis chapter contains some sexual content. Viewer discretion is advised.

During the month of April I'll be double-posting on Fridays because of my participation in the A to Z Challenge. I decided it wouldn't be fair to my fellow challengers to plunk them in the middle of this story with no context. Each chapter of Lost will post on Friday at 7 a.m. Central, as always.

If you miss a chapter of Lost, don't despair. All of the posts can be located by clicking on that lovely turquoise badge to the left of this post. Since the story has been running for a while, you now need to scroll down to the bottom of the file and select Older Posts to start from the beginning. Thanks for reading!
~ Chapter Twenty-seven ~

It wasn’t Thanksgiving yet, but the radio station was already playing Christmas carols. Silent Night faded into I’ll Be Home For Christmas, and Jake observed how depressing most of the season’s music was. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that more people committed suicide at Christmas than at any other time of year.
            The weather had warmed up slightly, and sleet tapped against the windows.  Beyond the restaurant’s entrance, people bustled back and forth, doing some early holiday shopping and squabbling over the last of the frozen turkeys in the grocery store. But in The Clubhouse, it was dark and quiet. Even their waitress hadn’t bothered to stop by for some time.
            Jake stared out the window. The weather suited his mood.
            “I’m sorry, Jake,” Audrey said. “I hope you understand.”
            He nodded. “Of course I do. You know I do.”
            “It’s only that, after what happened with Sara, I feel like I need to concentrate on her. My God, that girl has lost so much. First her father, and now her sister. She needs my full attention right now.”
            Jake reached across the table and took her hand. He was relieved when she didn’t pull away. “I know.”
            “And she’s never been happy about us dating. I don’t want to risk doing anything that might push her over the edge again. She’s been doing so well. Do you know she started going back to school?”
            “That’s great. Really, Audrey, you don’t have to explain. We were never sure where this was going.”
            Jake was surprised by the depth of his sadness. Audrey was the only woman he’d loved in the seven years since Beth. When Audrey said they needed to talk on this miserable, damp Saturday, he’d known the news wouldn’t be good. He’d been prepared for the worst, but that didn’t seem to matter.
            “You have no idea how badly I feel about this. When I think of all you’ve done for me…for my family…you’ve always been there for us.”
            He yearned to leave his chair, to come around to her side of the table and hold her, but what was the point? It would only make it that much harder for both of them. “And I always will be. That won’t change.”
            Audrey’s eyes brightened a little. She is so beautiful, he thought, but maybe this is for the best. In some ways, she will always be Jim’s wife. “Really?” she asked. “That’s a relief. I thought I might have wrecked everything.”
            He managed a smile. “You’ve wrecked nothing. This is a bad time for both of us. I do understand.”
            “I want you to keep in touch.”
            “Of course.”
            “And I’ll still want to know what’s happening with the investigation.”
            “I’ll call you with every new development,” he promised. “I will find them, Audrey. Whoever did this to Tessie will be punished.”
            She wrapped both of her hands around his and held on tightly. “I know. God, you’re such a good man. I must be an idiot.”
            He couldn’t help thinking that he was the idiot—an idiot for believing that a relationship of his could ever work.
* * * *
“Sara! Hey, Sara, wait up.”
            Sara stared at the boy who ran to catch up with her. Clayton Edwards was in a few of her classes, but they’d barely spoken. And now he was flagging her down like his life depended on it.
            “Hey.” He panted, attempting to catch his breath. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
            “Why? What’s up?”
            “I have to talk to you, but not here. Can we go get a coffee or something?”
            Sara glanced at her watch, a Fossil with a wide steel band. “I guess so. I have a free period until two, so I was going to leave anyway. But what’s this about?”
            Clayton glanced over his shoulder like he expected someone to be listening in. The gesture struck Sara as comical, as if Clayton thought he was a big spy or something. Or maybe he’s in the FBI’s witness protection program.
            “I’d rather not talk about it here. Why don’t I meet you at Frankie’s in half an hour?”
            The burger joint was a popular lunchtime hangout with the high school crowd. Sara decided she had to find out why Clayton was being so secretive.
            “Okay. I’ll meet you there, but promise me one thing?”
            “What’s that?” Clayton had already started to back away from her. He seemed anxious to keep his distance.
            “Don’t try to make me eat anything. I’m sick of people trying to force food down my throat.”
            “Don’t worry. I haven’t had much of an appetite lately myself.”

Frankie’s was deserted when Clayton walked into the diner at half-past one. The weekday lunch rush was over and only a few stragglers remained, nursing their extra-large sodas and coffees. The restaurant was an odd mix of ’50s memorabilia and Italian-American kitsch. Glossy red vinyl booths were punctuated by the occasional cigarette burn and garnished with blue-inked graffiti. The tables were covered by red-and-white checked plastic cloths and adorned with tiny jukeboxes. Coke collectibles and grease-stained posters of Elvis, Marilyn, and James Dean cluttered the walls.
The proprietor, a heavy-set man named Pat, grinned broadly when he caught a glimpse of his latest customer. “Hey, Clay. How they hangin’?”
            “Great, Pat, thanks for asking.” Clayton was eager to have the niceties over with. He’d already spotted Sara sitting in a corner booth at the back of the restaurant.
            Pat had been a fixture at Frankie’s for as long as Clayton could remember. No one knew who Frankie was, if there had ever been such a person. The full name of the place was Frankie’s Beef Bar, but Clayton had never heard anyone but tourists refer to it that way. He assumed Pat was Italian, though he’d never bothered to ask. While Pat was never seen without his oil-spotted apron, T-shirts, and jeans, Clayton could easily picture him in Armani, making slick deals like a mafia don.
            Clayton loved being a regular at Frankie’s, and not only for the milkshakes so thick with ice cream that you ate them with a spoon. He appreciated that he was simply Clayton there, not the mayor’s son or anybody special. Pat didn’t stand with formalities, and he treated Clayton Edwards as he did his other loyal customers—just like any other kid.
            “Haven’t seen you in here for a while. You been scoutin’ out the competition?” Pat mock scowled.
“Nope, I’ve been sick lately.”
Pat’s thick eyebrows met in the middle of his forehead as he studied Clayton with concern.  “No offense, kid, but you look it.” The worry lines hadn’t yet left his face, and they began to deepen. “You all right? It’s not serious, is it?”
            “No, no. Just the flu. I lost some weight.”
            “Kid, you cannot afford to go losing weight. The wind will come along and blow you away. You need food.”
            “Maybe later, Pat.” Clayton smiled in spite of himself. For all his machismo, Pat was a mother hen to his teenage customers. “Right now, all I want is a cup of coffee.”
            “Kid, if I tell you that you need food, it’s food you’re gonna get. Drinking coffee on an empty stomach is going to make you sicker. Now, you want the usual?”
            The usual for Clayton was a bacon-mushroom double cheeseburger, topped with a lavish dollop of Pat’s secret sauce. There were a lot of lewd jokes about what was in Pat’s secret sauce, but Clayton didn’t care. Suspicious-looking or not, it was delicious.
            The cheeseburger was Pat’s pride and joy, beef patties so thick and juicy that it was a challenge to fit the thing in your mouth. Clayton thought of all that rich food (the meal came with a heaping helping of seasoned fries and a chocolate shake) and his stomach lurched. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten a real dinner, and he couldn’t imagine making that big a pig of himself in front of Sara Martin.
            But when Pat meant business, there was no swaying him, and Clayton knew it. Pat was bound to make him the burger, whether it was paid for or not. Sara had noticed him now. Clayton could feel her studying him, and his hands started to shake.
            “Sure, Pat,” he said quickly. He pulled some crumpled dollar bills out of his pocket and shoved them across the counter. “I’ll have the usual.”
            Pat assessed him a moment longer before handing Clayton his change. “See. Pat’s right. You need food.”
“Pat is always right,” Clayton agreed. He struggled to keep his expression serious, but couldn’t hide a smirk.
Pat swiped at him with a meaty paw, barely missing the back of his head. “Get outta here, you smartass kid. I’ll bring your food over when it’s ready.”
As Clayton turned toward the back of the restaurant, his smile faded. Sara sat in a darkened corner, waiting with her hands folded in front of her on the table. A cup of coffee sat adrift on the table’s surface.
A wave of panic came over him, and he almost lost his nerve. Can I do this? Can I talk to this girl and pretend that nothing is wrong, other than this stuff with the Starks? Can I live with that?
He would have to. He wouldn’t let Rosemary lose everything she owned, but he couldn’t go to prison.
Without warning, the echo of Tessie’s screams ripped through his brain like a migraine headache. Clayton grimaced in pain.
Sara watched his faltering progress to her booth with concern. She was starting to stand up. Smarten up, you fucking tool, a voice in Clayton’s brain snapped. It reminded him of Ash. Get through this without making a complete retard of yourself, and she won’t know a thing.
This thought had the effect of icy water splashed on his face. He mustered up enough courage to smile reassuringly at Sara, who sank down into her side of the booth to wait for him. He managed to walk the rest of the way to her table and slide in across from her without incident.
“Hi. Sorry I’m late.”
“You weren’t late. I was early. Too curious to wait, I guess.”
“Yeah, you must think I’m crazy. I’m sorry about the mysterious crap before. I didn’t mean to get all weird on you. It’s just that…well, what I’m about to do could get me in a lot of trouble with my friends.”
Sara frowned at him while Clayton stared back, dumbfounded at the sudden hostility in her expression.
“Rich didn’t send you, did he?”
“Rich? Rich who?” Suddenly Clayton realized she was referring to that blond gorilla he’d seen her with. “No, don’t worry. This has got nothing to do with him.
The smile returned to Sara’s face, and Clayton noticed what a good-looking girl she was. She’s really beautiful. He forced himself to stay focused. He had a suspicion that the upcoming conversation was going to require all of his remaining mental energy.
Pat chose that moment to slam a tray down in front of them. Both Clayton and Sara jumped, and then grinned sheepishly at each other. Sara glanced at the tray’s artery-clogging contents and cocked an eyebrow.
“So much for not having an appetite.”
“I was forced into it.” Clayton shot a pointed look at Pat, who towered over them in his greasy apron.
“At least I care if you fade away,” Pat retorted. “Your friend want anything?”
Clayton looked at Sara and grinned, remembering the promise she’d extracted before agreeing to meet him. “I don’t know. Sara, you want something?”
She had a second to stick out her tongue at him before Pat gave her his undivided attention.
“Girl, you are too thin. You must have food.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“No, no, no! No choice. No one is going to starve to death in my restaurant.”
“All right.” Sara made a big show out of conceding defeat. “Bring me some of your special mushrooms then…and a Coke.”
Pat’s “special mushrooms” were glorious, batter-coated creations, served with sauce on the side for dipping. Leave it to Pat to take something healthy and turn it into heart attack on a plate, Clayton thought.
“Anythin’ else?” Pat glowered down at Sara, and Clayton made strange snorting noises into his milkshake as he tried to hide his laughter.
“No, Pat, that’s fine. You’re a doll.” She batted her eyelashes dramatically.
“Don’t smart mouth me, girl,” Pat said, but Clayton could tell he was flattered. The large man swaggered back to his grill, leaving them with Clayton’s gigantic hamburger. Alone at last, both teens burst into laughter that didn’t stop until their stomach muscles ached and tears ran down their cheeks.
“Wow, that felt really good,” Sara said when they’d calmed down. She wiped her face with a paper napkin. “I was beginning to think I’d never laugh again.”
“I’m really sorry, Sara,” Clayton said, surprising himself. “I’m really sorry about what happened to your sister.”
“Thanks.” She managed another little smile. The laugh-a-thon of minutes before seemed far behind them. “I really miss her.”
You have no idea how sorry I am. I would give anything to go back, to do things differently.
“Hey. Hell-ooo.” Sara snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Where’d you go?”
He forced himself back to the present. “Sorry. I was lost in thought. I haven’t been sleeping that well, and my mind has a tendency to wander these days.”
“No problem. Are you sure you’re okay? You seem…troubled, or something.”
“Yeah, I guess I am a little upset.” Clayton absently stirred his milkshake with a spoon. Some of the creamy brown concoction slopped over the tall glass and made a mud puddle on his tray. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“At last. The big secret is about to be revealed,” Sara teased. Seeing the look on his face, she grew serious. “What is it?”
 “Some kids are planning to set the Starks’ place on fire tonight.”
Silence stretched out between them. When Clayton couldn’t stand the tension any longer, he looked up from his milkshake. Sara was staring at him, her face pale.
“Did you know about this?”
She shook her head. “No…I heard about the drive-by last week, but not about this.”
“Well, I wanted to talk to you about it, because you’re about the only person who can stop it.”
“Why would I want to stop it?”
“Sara, you know Matthew had nothing to do with what happened to your sister.”
Seeing that the couple appeared to be deep in conversation, Pat slipped Sara’s cardboard carton of mushrooms onto the table as unobtrusively as he could.
“I don’t know anything of the kind.” Sara lowered her eyes from Clayton’s.
“Yes, you do.”
“What makes you so sure? He could have.”
Clayton was horrified to see that she was on the verge of tears. “No, he couldn’t have, and you know it. We went to school with Matthew. You know he’s not capable of something like that. He’s a whacked-out kid that everybody makes fun of, but he’s not violent.”
“What about the funeral?  What about that, huh?”
“Who knows? I’m not claiming to understand him. Maybe you were nice to him once, and he felt bad about what happened to your sister. Maybe he wanted to feel a part of things…I don’t know. But I know he didn’t kill anybody.”
“What do you expect me to do?”
“Do you know Tubbs? He’s apparently behind this.”
“Yeah,” she admitted, “unfortunately, I do.”
“Then talk to him. Get him to call it off. You’re the only person he’ll listen to. He’s doing it for you, Sara, and if you tell him you don’t think it’s a good idea, it won’t happen. Maybe you could even threaten to tell the police….”
Sara’s eyes widened. “I wouldn’t do that. I’m not a snitch.”
“I never said for you to do it, but you might have to say it in order to scare him a little. To make him pay attention, you know? The fact that your mom is dating the Chief of Police should be enough to make him think twice.”
“Not anymore.”
“My mom. She’s not dating Glover any more. She broke up with him last weekend.”
“Oh. Well, Tubbs doesn’t have to know that, right? I mean, I didn’t know. We can still use it as leverage.”
“What’s in this for you? Is Crazy Matt a friend of yours or something?”
Clayton laughed. “Hardly. I’d tell you why this is important to me, but you’ll think it’s stupid.”
“No, I won’t. Tell me.”
“His mom is really nice, all right?” Clayton confessed, his cheeks growing warm. “She was good to me when I was a little kid. I always wished she were my mom. See? I told you it’s stupid.”
“No, it’s not. I remember her from back then, too. She helped out with the sports days and stuff. For a while, she was always there, but then she stopped showing up at school. What happened to her?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it got too hard for her to come around, you know? It couldn’t have been easy to watch her son get harassed like that.”
“I’ve never told anyone this before, but I always felt sorry for Matthew. Sure, he’s creepy, but he can’t help it.”
“So, you’ll talk to Tubbs?”
Sara hesitated a minute, then nodded. “I never did feel good about any of the stuff people were saying about Matt, you know? But ever since Tessie died, I feel so shitty all the time. It’s like I want other people to feel shitty, too, because I do. I know Matthew wasn’t the one who hurt my sister—he’s never even been to one of our parties before—but I didn’t care if people blamed him for it.” Her eyes glimmered with tears. “Do you think I’m a terrible person?”
“No way. I think you’re great.”
She smiled, wiping her tears away with a crumpled napkin. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Clayton returned his attention to his tray, where his monstrous burger was getting soggy. “Guess we better start eating all this food before Pat blows his top.”
Sara nodded and reached for an oozing mushroom. She smeared it in sauce but paused before popping it into her mouth. “Hey, you used to go out with Julie Patterson, right?”
Clayton froze, the dripping cheeseburger halfway to his mouth. “Yeah. Why do you ask?”
Julie.  Just hearing her name was enough to make him feel like shit. Julie Patterson had been his first serious girlfriend. His only serious girlfriend. They’d broken up over a year ago, but he still couldn’t think about her without feeling like his insides were being ripped apart.
“She’s a friend. Well, we’re not super close or anything, but we talk once in a while, you know? I really like her. What happened with you two, if you don’t mind me asking? You seem like a nice guy.”
Yeah, I’m a nice guy. So nice that I treated my girlfriend like crap. Julie never liked Ash and Gregg. She thought they were losers. But the real problem was that Ash didn’t like her

Clayton met Julie before he started hanging out with Ash and Gregg, back when he cared about what people thought of him. He was getting good grades instead of getting high, and his biggest goal in life was to make the track team. All of that changed when he hooked up with the guys and started getting stoned. Gregg and Ash seemed to have their priorities straight. They certainly knew how to have a good time. You never use the shit you learn in high school anyways, they said.
Julie didn’t like his new buddies, not to mention the way her boyfriend’s attitude seemed to change overnight. “What the hell are you doing, Clay?” she yelled at him when she caught him smoking up behind the school instead of going to class. “I thought you were better than this.”
“Wow, someone’s pussy-whipped,” Ash laughed. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Clayton Edwards?” he squeaked in a cruel imitation of Julie that made all the guys laugh.
Julie glared at Ash and waited for Clayton to defend her—to tell his friend to shut the hell up. But he laughed along with the others until she stormed back into the school, slamming the door behind her. Ash and Gregg went into hysterics then, and Clayton joined in their amusement, if half-heartedly. He’d seen the expression on Julie’s face and felt terrible about being the one to put it there. It took a week of his best sucking up to get Julie to forgive him, but she finally agreed to give him another chance.
“C’mon, Jules, you know how guys get when they’re together,” he pleaded. “It didn’t mean anything.”
The situation came to a head a month later at a house party. Julie ran up to where he was drinking a beer with Gregg and insisted that he take her home. He was having a good time and considered blowing her off, but something about Julie’s face made him change his mind. Saying goodbye to Gregg, they left the party.
Once they were alone in his car, Julie burst into tears. It took Clayton a long time to calm her down enough so that she could tell him what was wrong. The story she told made his blood boil.
In spite of Julie’s protests, Clayton went back to the party. He found Ash in the kitchen, calmly sipping a beer, and shoved him hard enough in the chest to send him flying backward. Ash slammed into the counter. He gaped at Clayton in shock.
“What the fuck was that for, friend?”
Clayton swung a wild right cross at Ash’s face, but the other boy easily ducked the punch. He grabbed Clayton’s arm with surprising strength, and twisted it hard enough to cause considerable pain.
“I said, what the fuck is your problem, Clay?”
Instantly the party was silent. Everyone waited for what was going to happen next. Now that his initial burst of anger was gone, Clayton realized that there were way too many guys standing around for comfort. Friends of Ash who would happily tear him to bits.
“He messed with my girlfriend,” Clayton yelled, hoping to get the other guys on his side. “He was going to rape her.”
Ash never lost his cool. “Is that what you think?” he asked, incredulous. “Is that what she fucking said happened?” He let go of Clayton’s arm, confident that his friend wasn’t going to take another shot at him, at least for the time being. He scanned the crowd of teens that had gathered around them.
“Steve,” he called once he spotted the person he wanted. “Steve, you saw us come out of the bathroom, right?”
“Yeah,” the tall senior slurred. “I saw ya.”
“Did Julie look like she’d been attacked?”
“No,” Steve said. “She acted like she didn’t want me to see her. She seemed embarrassed.” He grinned at Ash, a lecherous smile that made Clayton long to hit him. “I definitely got the feeling I’d interrupted something.”
“Thank you. Now, everybody leave us alone. This is between me and Clay.”
People were reluctant to give up on the opportunity of seeing a good fight. But eventually they got bored and went back to their smoking up, drinking down, and making out.
Ash guided Clayton to a relatively private corner of the kitchen. “I’ll tell you the truth about what happened. I wasn’t going to say anything, because I know how you feel about this girl. But I should have known something like this would happen. I should have told you right away.”
“Should have told me what?” Clayton demanded, his hands aching to smash Ash’s face into little bits, to tear his eyes out for what he did to Julie.
“I went to use the can upstairs. I’d finished taking a piss when the door opened. It was your girlfriend. Before I could zip up, she reached around me and grabbed my cock,” Ash confided, his voice low.
“Bullshit. Julie would never do something like that.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about your precious Julie,” Ash said, his lock on Clayton’s eyes never wavering. “I’m telling you the truth, man.”
Ash continued with his story. In his version, Julie was the aggressor. She’d moved her hand up and down his penis, refused to let go, talked about how she’d always been hot for him, how she’d waited for so long to catch him alone.
“That’s bullshit. Julie can’t stand you. She fucking hates you. She’d never do something like that.”
But a glimmer of doubt was beginning to flicker in his mind. Ash was popular with the ladies, way more so than Clayton. Why would he need to go for Julie?
“Maybe so, Clayton. Maybe so. But don’t you see what she’s really after?”
“What are you talking about?”
“She’s trying to break us up, buddy. She hates us hanging out together, and knew this would drive a wedge between us. She made up this bullshit story about being attacked in the hopes you’d rearrange my face. Are you too stupid to see that?”
Suddenly, everything became clear. Julie was a bitch about Ash. And she was smart. She probably knew that this was the one way to get what she wanted. Clayton would go back to his old friends and his old ways, becoming Mr. Perfect Student and Mr. Attentive Boyfriend for her again. Well, fuck that.
“Besides, no offense, but why would I go after Julie when I can have Melissa any time I want?”
With those words he removed the last shred of doubt from Clayton’s mind. Melissa was blonde, gorgeous, and stacked. Julie’s smallish breasts and cute, girl-next-door good looks paled in comparison.
Clayton held his hand out for Ash to shake. “I’m sorry, man. I don’t know what I was thinking. No hard feelings?”
Ash returned the gesture without hesitation. “Of course. What’s a little misunderstanding between friends? But don’t ever hit me again.”

Clayton remembered Julie’s reaction when confronted with Ash’s version of the story. Initially she’d wept and begged Clayton to believe her, but when she saw he was not going to change his mind, she was furious. She told him to get away from her house and never come back, and that was fine with him…until his own anger wore off.
Then he’d missed her. Julie was a better friend to him than the guys. She was smart, she was funny as hell, and he loved her. Hell, he had planned on marrying her some day. Her betrayal confused him. If she hated Ash that much, why didn’t she tell me, instead of making up that stupid story? He’d agonized over it at the time, but now he knew that even if she had confided in him, it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference.
He’d always believed Ash, but now he knew better.

 “I’m sorry—did I say something wrong?” Sara asked, and Clayton was brought back to the present in a rush.
“No, not at all. It’s a long story. Kind of difficult for me to talk about, you know?”
“I totally understand. Break-ups suck in the worst way, don’t they?”
“Yeah. You could say that.”
“Well,” Sara glanced at her watch. “I hate to say this, but I should get back to the old grind. I’ve got physics in a few minutes.”
“No problem. Thanks for hearing me out.”
“Thanks for caring enough to get me to do the right thing.” Without warning, she gave him an awkward hug. She felt fragile in his arms. “It was nice talking to you, Clayton.”

“It was nice talking to you too.” He was surprised to find that he was speaking the truth.

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