by Nick Gallup
He heard the horn blowing out front but ignored it.
“Don’t exert yourself, Ford,” his mother yelled. “I’ll see who it is.”
She opened the screen door and walked outside. He heard her talking to someone. It sounded like another woman. They were laughing. His mother came back inside and called to him.
“There’s someone here to see you, Number Six.”
He opened his bedroom door and walked out into the hall. She was at the foot of the stairs looking at him with amusement.
“The number of your football jersey.”
“Who is it?”
“She said to tell you her name is Lauren and that she hates you.”
“She got a gun?”
“She’s armed with the deadliest weapon of all.”
“Think Byron.” His mother was an English Lit teacher.
“She doth teach the torch to burn brightly.”
“That’s Shakespeare, and she’s probably looking for George.”
“Maybe your luck’s changing.”
He was definitely intrigued and bolted outside. He saw a Carolina–blue ‘55 T-Bird with the top down. That was beautiful, but what was inside was even more beautiful, a girl he’d known for years, but only from afar. He now knew her name, Lauren, and he’d never seen her in anything but shorts. She was a cheerleader for Austin High School, the cross-town rival of his high school, Harrington. She was blonde and had her hair tied back in a pony tail. Her eyes were as Carolina–blue as her car. She was dressed in shorts and an Austin High T-shirt.
“Hey, Number Six,” she called.
“My name’s Hayes, Ford—”
“Bond, James Bond,” she said playfully.
“You looking for George?”
“Gorgeous George Williams?”
“Why would you ask that?’
“You wouldn’t be the first pretty girl to stop by here petitioning me to be her emissary. They know we’re best friends.”
“I’m here to see you.”
“Need your car washed or something?”
“No,” she smiled, motioning for him to join her in the Bird.
He put his left hand on the top of the seat and his right hand on the door and athletically vaulted inside, which was the way any self-respecting male got into a Bird in those days. He leaned back in the passenger seat and took a long look at her.
“It’s not polite to stare.”
“It’s not polite to blow your horn in front of someone’s house either. You’re supposed to get out of your car and knock on the front door.”
“That’s what your mother said.”
“And you said…”
“I did it to annoy you.”
“Payback. Know what we call you at school?”
“No, ‘The Austin Strangler’.”
“I strangled someone at Austin?”
“Figuratively speaking. Three times, as a matter of fact.”
“That’s how many times you caught a touchdown pass in the last few seconds of the game and strangled our chances to make the play-offs.”
“Why blame me? George threw the passes.”
“You scored the touchdowns. Always at the last second in your lily-white uniform. The only time you play is when Harrington gets behind.”
“There’s a reason.”
“Explanation, please,” she requested, mimicking him.
“I’m a situational player. The only thing I do well is catch George’s rockets. Coach Bryant doesn’t like to pass. So I only play when things get desperate. Usually we can win with our run game. Austin always seems to shut it down, though, so that’s when they call on yours truly.”
“Why does Gorgeous throw the ball so hard?”
“He says that’s just the way they come out. We grew up together. He’s been throwing to me since we were six years old. After years of pain, I finally figured out how to catch his throws. He knows just where I want them, and, as soon as I make my cut, the ball’s right there. He throws me a hundred balls after every practice.”
“Practice makes perfect?”
“Maybe not perfect, but close.”
“You the only one who can catch his passes?”
“Pretty much.” He held up his hands for her to examine. “My mom almost cries when she looks at my hands. She said I had nice, normal hands until George started throwing his damned rockets to me. Now I’ve got prosthetics.”
Lauren was no orthopedic surgeon, but even she could see where several of his fingers had been broken at one point or another.
“Why do it?”
He pointed to a state championship ring on one of his semi-gnarled fingers. “How many people you know have three of these?”
Cheerleaders, too, understood football. She nodded her understanding and added, “Why wouldn’t you think I’m here to see you?”
“Because most of my life I’ve played Quasimodo to his Don Juan. Know what they call me at school?”
She laughed. “And Gorgeous is Superman?”
“So it’s really a surprise I’m here to see you?”
“That’s for sure, although a very pleasant one. To be truthful, I hardly watch the games we play against Austin.”
“What do you watch?”
“An Austin High cheerleader.”
“I’ll bet I know which one it is. Ruthie, the tall brunette. She looks like she’d be your type.”
“What’s your type?”
He turned the rear-view mirror towards her. “Look in the mirror.”
“I’d like to say I admire your taste, but all I can see is one eye and some blonde hair. One-eyed blondes your type?”
It was his turn to laugh.
“You have a nice laugh – and a nice smile, too.”
“My dentist thanks you. Now, you gonna tell me why you came here?”
“I want you to take me to my Senior Prom.”
“That sounds dangerous. If they find out I’m The Austin Strangler, the football team will probably want to strangle me.”
“We’re a civilized high school, unlike Harrington.”
He knew that wasn’t true, especially where their football team was concerned. Risk aside, though, anything involving her had significant appeal to him. He decided to accept the invitation but include a condition. “You’ve got a date,” he agreed, locking his eyes on to her big blues, “but only if we can seal the agreement with a kiss.”
“How about a handshake instead?” She stuck out a manicured hand.
Ignoring the proffered hand, he confidently cupped her chin in his left hand. She didn’t resist. He tilted it towards him and gave her a drive-in theater kiss, lips parted, moderate pressure, and a hint of tongue. He started to pull away, but she held his hand under her chin and pressed her lips against his. She wanted it to continue. He obliged. It broke his record for longest kiss. He wondered about hers. He decided she needed more kisses like that, and he’d be more than happy to be the one to deliver them to her.
He pulled back and studied her eyes. Other than the fact they were glazed over, he couldn’t tell much. He conceded his ability to analyze was undoubtedly handicapped by glaze of his own.
“My eyes as glazed as yours?”
She adjusted the mirror and studied her eyes.
“Well, looks like I’m contractually bound to take you to your prom.”
“Lucky me.” She fanned herself with a hand.
“People will say I’m the lucky one. Either that or you’re visually challenged. I believe I’m supposed to ask you what color dress you’ll be wearing to the prom, so I can pick out an appropriate corsage.”
“Blue. I already told your mom. She said you probably wouldn’t think to ask.”
They talked a little more, and she gave him all the details he’d need for the prom date. Then she said she had to leave. “Got to go buy a blue prom dress.”
He exited the Bird. “Don’t buy a prom dress,” he requested, “with all those frills and lace. Get something—“
“There’s a dress code.”
“That’s for common folk.”
She gave him a pleased look and pulled away.
His mother was waiting inside. “Details,” she commanded.
He saw George the next day and told him about his surprise visitor. George didn’t look happy about it. “If I didn’t know you’d sat on the bench most of your football career, I’d say you’d taken too many hits and are suffering from brain damage.”
“Think, Ford, think. Why in the hell would she want to invite ‘The Austin Strangler’ to her Senior Prom?”
“Possibly because I’m handsome and charming?”
“Dream on. How about possibly to exact revenge on her boyfriend of long-standing, Joey Galloway, the QB of the Austin High football team, whose asses we knocked out of the playoffs three consecutive years, and who recently dumped her in favor of her best friend, Ruthie, the head cheerleader at Austin? And what better way to do it than by bringing Joey’s most despised enemy, The Austin Strangler, to his senior prom? It would be the ultimate insult.”
“And you know all of this how?”
“I have sources.”
“Female, no doubt.”
“They’re more reliable. Trust me, she’s playing you like a banjo.”
”She’s beautiful, George.”
“You’re seriously going to do it?”
“Let’s go see Bruce.”
Bruce ran the gym where George worked out every day to obtain the gorgeous body that went with his gorgeous looks. Bruce was also a veteran martial arts cage fighter.
“What’d want me to do, George? Beat some sense into him?”
“That’d be a waste of time, Bruce. He’s in love. Galloway outweighs him by 30 pounds and is going to kick his ass. Show him enough to stay alive.”
“How much time do I have?”
“A week,” Ford answered.
“That’s good. Galloway will be drunk.”
“So, all you have to do is stay sober. It’s easy to dodge a drunk’s punch and then take him out with my special gloves.”
“They look padded, but actually have hard rubber inserts.”
“I don’t want to kill anyone.”
“You won’t. Just punch him in the face hard when he staggers by you.”
“I’ve never punched anyone in my life.”
“You’ve got a week to learn.”
The day of the prom arrived, and Ford, driving his mom’s Camry, pulled up to Lauren’s mini-mansion. He thought seriously about parking in front of the house and blowing the horn but chose to ring the doorbell instead. An older version of Lauren appeared.
“Hello, Ford. I’m Lauren’s mother.”
He said what any reasonably intelligent person would say in situations like that. “Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Collins. I can see now where Lauren gets her good looks.”
“Aren’t you sweet. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ve heard so many good things about you.”
“You’ve obviously been talking to my mother.”
She laughed. “Lauren said you had a good sense of humor.”
Mr. Collins wandered in. Ford shook hands with him, and the three of them stood at the bottom of the stairs waiting for Lauren, Queen of Austin, to descend. No trumpets were sounding when she appeared, but there should have been. She was stunning.
“How does it feel to be the parents of a goddess?”
“Poor,” her father joked. “I just got the bill for that prom dress.”
That’s no prom dress, Ford reckoned. They’d never let her through the door at his high school wearing it. It was an authentic evening gown, one designed to lure men to their…well, whatever it is Lorelei takes them to.
“She walks in beauty like a night of cloudless clime and starry skies, and all the best of dark and bright is in her aspect and her eyes,” he said with dramatic flair and courtly flourish.
“No, sir. A lesser poet, Lord Byron.”
“His mother teaches English Lit,” the goddess explained.
“You’re beautiful, Lauren.”
“Thank you, Ford. You’re very handsome in your tux.”
He had two corsages. One, a handful of weeds he plucked from his mother’s garden and a bone fide blue and white one he’d paid a fortune for. He deftly hid the real corsage behind his back and handed the weeds to Mrs. Collins. “Ma-am,” he requested, “If you’d be so kind as to pin this corsage on your lovely daughter.”
It achieved the desired effect. He fought not to laugh at the three astonished faces as they stared at the assortment of weeds, which he’d embellished with several blue ribbons. He looked at them innocently and finally broke into laughter. He handed them the real McCoy.
Fortunately, his humor created no ill will. They all laughed. Mr. Collins accepted the bouquet of weeds. “I’ll put these in some water,” he graciously offered. Mrs. Collins pinned Ford’s full month’s allowance to Lauren’s gown.
Ford hoped her parents weren’t noticing as he gave their luscious daughter a full-body scan. She didn’t blink a Carolina–blue eye as he mentally undressed her. She just smiled that knowing way gorgeous girls do when boys overflowing with testosterone ogle them.
He understood Lauren wanted to make an entrance, so he patiently sat with her in the car until she decided the time was right to enter the gym, where the prom was being held. A red convertible roared past them and skidded into a vacant parking spot. Two couples exited the car and, talking loudly, walked across the lot. He watched Lauren watching them. After they’d passed, she deemed it time to join the festivities.
The teachers guarding the door were a little disconcerted when Lauren approached. She’d shattered the dress code. Several of the male teachers were giving her looks not unlike the one he’d given her. She smiled sweetly and greeted them all by name and title. Entry was gained despite several open mouths.
“You can hold my hand, Ford.”
The gym was large and multi-purpose. The bleacher seats were retracted back to the walls. Tables were set up on three sides of the gym and a band ensconced on the fourth. All of the tables were claimed.
“Reserved seats. We’re next to the band.”
Heads snapped round as Lauren promenaded down the gym. The males gawked. The girls glared. It was the entrance she’d hoped for.
Each table seated eight. She stopped at the table that’d just been claimed by the boisterous four who’d passed them in the parking lot. They were exchanging hugs and kisses with a third couple who’d arrived early.
“Save room for us,” Lauren requested.
The three couples turned towards them.
Lauren smiled brightly and introduced Ford. No one recognized him as The Austin Strangler. So, the intros were civil. It was Mike and Gale, Rock and Charlotte, Joey and Ruthie, and, of course, Ford and Lauren. Four football jocks and four cheerleaders.
The guys had smuggled in booze, and they spiked the punch. The VIP’s welcomed everyone, and the band began to play. Lauren downed two glasses of punch, and she was ready to party. She led Ford to the dance floor.
Ford was a home-schooled dancer, but schooled well by his mom and older sister, both of whom had studied dance. The first few dances were swing. He and Lauren were the best couple on the floor. The band then played a song with a Latin beat.
“Can you rhumba?”
“I can anything.”
“Care to prove it?”
He did. They danced six straight dances, then returned to the table. The girls all wanted to dance, but their guys were interested only in inhaling the spiked punch. A dance-deprived Gail whisked Ford away before he could sit down.
“You don’t mind, do you, Lauren?”
Gail didn’t wait for an answer and hustled him to the dance floor. They played a swing, then cut to something slow, during which Gail explained why Lauren and Joey had parted ways.
“Lauren wouldn’t give it up.”
Ford’s dance card was pretty full that night. Even Ruthie dragged him out to dance. He was more The Designated Dancer than The Austin Strangler.
Lauren waited until late in the prom to tell the group who Ford really was. All they’d been told until then was that he and Lauren had met through a mutual friend. Her T-Bird, Ford theorized.
After Lauren leaked word that her date was the despicable “Austin Strangler,” dark looks were directed his way. Joey was border-line apoplectic when he heard. Sweet revenge for Lauren.
She took Ford’s hand and held it tightly as they exited. She walked very slowly, almost as if she didn’t want to go outside. He had an inkling why.
“Hurry up, kids,” the chaperones called. “Dance is over.”
They slowly walked towards the parking lot. Her pace, not his. The teachers and chaperones had cleared out. There were about ten cars left in the parking lot. An anti-strangler mob had assembled around the Camry. Joey Galloway was standing next to the car. He’d taken his coat off.
“I’m gonna strangle the Austin Strangler,” he announced.
His supporters laughed. Clearly, he enjoyed limelight.
Ford was sober. Joey wasn’t.
Ford pried Lauren’s fingers from his. He slipped out of his tux coat, folded it neatly, and casually placed it on the hood. He casually put the fighting gloves on. Holes were cut out for the fingers.
His calm, cage-fighter demeanor hadn’t gone unnoticed.
As Bruce had predicted, Joey came at him in slow-motion and attacked him with a looping right-hand. Ford easily evaded it and punched him hard in the jaw. Joey dropped to his knees.
“Ford, behind you!” cried Lauren.
Ford quickly turned. Rock, even drunker than Joey, was lumbering towards him with all the speed he could muster, but, again, it was pathetically slo-mo. Ford launched another right hand. It stopped Rock in his tracks. Blood splattered, and his nose now pointed east rather than north. Energy did equal mass times speed to the second power.
Bruce’s last piece of advice was to vacate the area post haste. Ford pocketed the gloves, retrieved his tux coat, and looked quizzically at Lauren.
“Coming with me?”
“You really want me to?” She sounded incredulous.
“I’ve got a thing for one-eyed blondes,” he grinned.
She hurried towards him. They got into the Camry and quickly exited the parking lot. The crowd scarcely noticed, as they were attending the latest victims of The Austin Strangler.
“Where’re we going?”
“My mother’s spending the night at her boyfriend’s. The house is ours.”
He sneaked a quick look at her. She was smiling.
To win without risk, he thought to himself, is a triumph without glory.
Nick Gallup is an Army veteran and retired Department of Defense mid-level contracting official. He’s also a would-be novelist who spends his time now writing short stories, many of which are excerpts from novels languishing in his closet or in deep storage on his computer.