CHAPTER Ten: CRAZY DAYS AT SCHOOL


     Friday was half office day, half bird counting. Saturday morning, as expected, Vic wasn’t around for the morning stair session. He finally saw the Anderson family car come home about 11 o’clock. When she hadn’t shown up by 1 o’clock, he thought that was it. He was disappointed.

   An hour later, there was a light knock on his door, and there she was. “Can I come in?” she asked.

   He looked over toward her house. “Sure, but don’t you want to sit on the steps? It’s sort of traditional.”

   “No. Today, I want to sit here,” and she settled down in his one arm chair. She looked around his one room, which (he was thankful) was actually pretty tidy. “Nice place you got here.”

   She was obviously in a peculiar mood. “It’s small, but it’s home. So, how was your week, and especially how was your Junior-Senior prom?”

   She seemed to relax a bit. “The week was a little crazy, because of the upcoming prom, and the fact that it’s only a couple weeks until graduation. The ball was fun! Mandy and I were both gorgeous (as I recall, you predicted that) and the boys actually rented tuxes, and brought us flowers. It was amazing!” She started to sing, “I could have danced all night.”

   “I’m glad. I was sending a lot of long-distance wishes that you would have a once-in-a-lifetime evening. Now, did you get my photograph?”

   “We’ll see,” she said. “Now, I’m really disappointed that I missed meeting my rival.”

   “Your rival?”

   “Yes, ‘the other woman.’”

   “Vic, you are nutty as a fruitcake...”

   “Is she pretty?”

    He decided to play along. “Very pretty.”

    “As pretty as me?”

    “She’s tall – not as tall as you, but adequate...”

    “Did you kiss her?”

    “Vic! She was here two days! I don’t go around kissing any female in the vicinity.”

    “So I’ve noticed.”

     Greg didn’t respond to that. “Well, I would have liked to meet her.”

    “And she would have liked to meet you. She said so.”

    “To check out her rival?”

    “Something like that. Now, are we finished with that subject?”

   “Yes, but I have something important I want to talk to you about. Do you really want to dance with me, sometime?”

   That caught him off guard. “I wasn’t sure you heard me.”

   “Oh, I heard you, all right. And that bit about asking my future boyfriend for permission!”

   He was getting back on stride. “Well, it seems it would be the appropriate thing to do. You know, being upfront and aboveboard about it, so there wouldn’t be any cause for  misunderstanding.”

   “Oh…  Oh, fiddlesticks! Why don’t you just say what you want to say, instead of being so obtuse about it? Oh, never mind. I’m just going to ask you what I really want to ask. Do you have a girlfriend?

   “A girlfriend? Other than you and Venita?”

   “Stop that! I think most college boys have girlfriends. Do you have a girlfriend?’

   He saw she was too serious for more kidding. “I had a girlfriend.”

   “Had? What happened to her?”

   “I don’t really know. One day we were together, and the next day we weren’t.”

   “How does that work? You have her, and then you don’t?”

   He’d been perched on the edge of his bed, and now he walked over and stood by her. “Do we have some time? Will your folks be looking for you, since we aren’t out in view on the porch? It’s kind of a long, complicated story.”

   “Get it out,” she said.

   He pulled a kitchen chair right in front of her. “Okay, here goes. The past two years at college were really crazy. If you’d been gone a year, then came back, you wouldn’t believe you were in the same place. It started out mostly about the Viet Nam War. Nobody understood why we were fighting a war in a foreign country most of us had never even heard about. That started all kinds of anti-war marches and protests on campus. More personal for many of us was that the Army was drafting men like crazy, and most of us were in the age group that was most eligible to be called up. Few of us had anything going that would keep us from being drafted. Being in school was a short-term fix, but if you ever got selected in the lottery and then were deferred because you were in school, you set yourself up to be drafted as soon as you graduated. We were indignant, not being able to choose whether or not we wanted to be in the Army. More than that, we were really scared. Nobody had any real information, but it was pretty clear a lot of men were getting killed over there. And if you didn’t actually die, it seemed like it was almost certain that you would come home injured, maybe really seriously. Guys started talking about moving to Canada until the war was over. I don’t know how many actually went, but I know some who did.”

   “It sounds pretty awful,” said Vic. “But how does losing a girlfriend tie into this?”

   “You are an impatient creature, aren’t you?”

   “Maybe. Maybe not. Just tell me.”

   “Okay. I guess this is as good a place in the story as any. Beth – her name is Mary Beth – and I met in our Junior year, and we ‘went steady,’ as they say, until about six months ago. We ate lunch together, occasionally went to a movie or the diner (not often, because neither of us had much money to spend), studied together, walked on the beach…” He slowed down.

   “And other stuff?” she prompted.

   “Yes, Victoria. When people ‘go steady’ for a year and a half, there is usually some other stuff involved.  Our other stuff was just regular boyfriend-girlfriend stuff, not anything more… well, more romantic.”

   “Okay. Good… I mean, we still haven’t lost Beth. Keep going.”

   “When all the marches and protests started, Beth was eager to get involved. I wasn’t, partly because I was trying to graduate. But also there were rumors that, if you were ever caught demonstrating against the war, you would immediately be drafted. I still don’t know if that was true – probably wasn’t – but I was too scared to risk it. Anyway, Beth started to go to the marches and rallies without me.

   “At that point, I thought things were pretty bad, but it got a lot worse. In addition to the war protests, rallies and marches started up for every cause anybody could imagine – women’s rights, African-American rights, environmental rights… Even homosexual rights. You couldn’t go anywhere on campus where you weren’t in a mob of students carrying signs, singing, and yelling. Beth seemed to be involved in every one of them.

   “Then suddenly, everybody had drugs – LSD and marijuana. They weren’t considered really bad – like heroin or cocaine – but they gave you hallucinations or made you crazy for a while. I’m sure there were drugs on campus before, but now they were all over, and nobody was hiding that they were taking them.”

   Greg took a deep breath. “Not bad enough, yet? All the talk about women’s rights and women’s freedom was having an effect, too. Some college boys were always seeking more other stuff, then bragging about it. It was mostly lies, I’m sure, and it was pretty much all one-way. Suddenly, the women seemed as interested as men, and a lot was going on in public that was a pretty good indication that a lot more was happening in private. As I said, it was all getting crazier and crazier.”

   “And you and Beth?”

   “Well, five or six months ago, we just drifted apart. We didn’t ‘break up’ or anything official; we just stopped seeing each other. She was always off in some protest or rally, anyway. When the semester ended, I made sure I had all my credits approved, and all my graduation paperwork taken care of, and left campus as fast as I could. I didn’t go back for graduation ceremonies, and didn’t see her again.”

   Vic was quiet for a few minutes. “Did Beth take drugs?”

   Greg hesitated. “I want to say no, but I don’t know. She was hanging around with a lot of people who did, so… “

   “How about… well, the other stuff?”

   Greg just shrugged. “Don’t know,” he said, quietly. He got up, walked over to the door, and looked out on the compound.

   “I’m sorry,” said Vic.

   He turned back, and gave her a sad smile. “Yeah, me too.”

   Vic seemed content to sit in his armchair forever, but he was beginning to worry a little bit about how long they had been in his house and out of sight. “Want to go out on the steps for a bit? I think it’s plenty warm.”

   She seemed to get his unspoken message. “Sure, that’s a good idea. I think I can stay a little longer.”

  They went out. She wiggled around a little, loosening up, and finally decided that they looked like they had been sitting casually there for hours. Careful not to look his way, she whispered, “Thanks for telling me all that. And I am sorry.”

  He reached out, and lightly touched her arm (spoiling, she thought, the picture of careless nonchalance that she had been seeking to achieve!). “Thanks, but it’s okay. We liked each other, and were happy to be together, but I don’t think either of us really thought of ourselves as future boyfriend or future  girlfriend. I don’t think we really had a lot of common interests.”

   “Except the other stuff,” she murmured.

   He just laughed, and shook his head.

   “Anyway,” she continued, as if it was an ongoing conversation, “I have some more questions.”

   “You are insatiable, Vic!”

    “If that means that I am seeking answers, then, yes, I am. Can’t you just help me here, and quit fighting it?”

    “I guess I have to. What’s on your mind?”

    She acted like she was gathering her thoughts. “Well, I know that I was born in North Dakota. Mandy was born the same place, a year and a half later. We lived there until about 1950, and then moved to another North Dakota refuge farther west. We lived there until we came here, in 1958. Despite all the moving around, here I am graduating high school at just the age I should be.

   “Now, you are the same age as me…”

   “Vic!”

   “No, we discussed this. You are the same age as me, yet you have finished four years of college. How is that possible?”

   He shook his head. “I’m not sure I can completely ignore the ‘same age’ stuff, but I’ll try to explain. It’s a complicated story. Do you want the long, or the short, version?”

   She made an elaborate, barely interested sort of gesture. “Just start talking. If I get bored, I’ll yawn loudly.”

   Again, he just shook his head. “Okay. When I started grammar school, I was the smartest kid in the whole city, regardless of age. All the little girls were crazy about me, that still being the time when academic wizards were as exciting to girls as football stars.”

   “Bragging about your masculine appeal – real or imaginary – is not attractive.” She glanced at her wrist, where a watch might have been (but wasn’t). “Besides, it’s slowing down the story. Get on with it.”

   “Yes, miss. Well, my teachers thought I was so smart that they had to skip me ahead a half-year. I don’t think I really even noticed. I was still with all the same kids, and elementary school really was elementary in those days. So it was all right for the next year. Then, they suddenly decided that I was smarter than the whole bunch of them put together, and they had no more they could teach me. They skipped me ahead a whole grade that time.  That’s where my tale of woe really begins.”

   “If you were so smart, what happened then?”

   “The grade I skipped was the Sixth. The 5th grade was in elementary school; the 7th was in another school entirely, what California calls junior high.  Suddenly, I was in a brand new school with absolutely nobody I knew.”

   “That would have been hard.”

   “It was, but that wasn’t even the worst of it. In junior high, I quickly learned that 7th grade math was mostly a review of 6th grade math, which I had never had. And you know 6th is about the time when you quit learning arithmetic, and start learning real math. I didn’t know anything about that class, and was too embarrassed to even ask for help. In a couple weeks, I went from smartest math kid in the whole world to the dumbest.”

   “Oh, no!”

   “Oh, yes. And even that’s not the worst of it. I was in such bad shape from the math failures that I couldn’t concentrate on the other subjects, where I should have still been king of the school – or, at least, of those classes. Suddenly, I was just an average – or maybe a little below average – student. I was in pretty bad shape.

   “Well, I did make it through junior high, and went on to high school, but it was the 11th grade before I felt that I had finally caught up with at least the average kids. Even so, I was still doing so poorly in math that I didn’t take hardly any ‘college prep’ type classes. That made for a potential problem getting into college, but I did make it. I wasn’t even 17 yet when I moved into the dorm at school. It was my first time away from home for more than a few days, and on my own.

   “Now, do you have the information you wanted?”

   She faked a yawn. “It took a lot of prodding, and a lot of extra work keeping you on track, but I’m fairly satisfied for the moment. I’ll probably have more questions, later.”

   “No doubt,” he said.

***

   Vic had been restless in the night, thinking more than she thought she would about yesterday’s time with Greg. Sunday, she was up early, and happened to be looking toward his house when she saw him come out, binoculars around his neck. She pulled on her shoes, and hurried toward the front door. Her mother was in the kitchen.

   “I’m going to help Greg with his bird count this morning. I’ll be back soon.”

   Alice looked up from her cooking. “Does he know it?”

   Vic grinned at her. “Well, of course!” And she was out the door, and running toward the path to the woods. Greg was already out of sight, but, as she came to the first trees, she saw that he had stopped just ahead, and was watching something. She waited until he was finished.

   “Hey, mister,” she called.

   He turned, and felt uncommonly pleased to see her there. He decided not to show it. “Hey, mister? Is that a proper greeting? For a moment, I thought poor little orphan boy, Oliver Twist, had followed me, and was begging for a little more gruel for breakfast.” He did his best with the accent.  ‘”Please, sir, I want some more!’

   Vic had been walking toward him as he spoke, when she suddenly felt quite winded from her run. She reached for his arms, at the same time lowering her head against his chest, and stood there, taking gasping breaths.

   Greg was alarmed. “Are you okay, Vic?”

   “Not Oliver, sir,” she whispered, against him. She looked up, and smiled. “It’s me, Miss Victoria, come to help the gentleman with his bird count.”

   With their faces only inches apart, Greg found himself battling with conflicting impulses. He chose the one that was actually least appealing to him, and looked away from her. “Funny, I can’t remember arranging for your help today.”

   “Oh, you did,” she said with authority, still leaning against him. Her breathing seemed to have returned to normal, so he extricated himself from her grasp, and stepped away. He wasn’t sure his own breathing was normal.

   “Nevertheless, it seems like you wasted your time. There don’t seem to be many birds, and I seem to have lost interest in watching them.”

   She took hold of his arm. “Then, I think we should just walk and talk.”

   They walked and talked, although later neither could remember most of what they talked about. As they neared the edge of the woods below Vic’s house, Greg decided he wasn’t ready to part with her. There was a side trail he hadn’t explored yet, and he guided them on to it. They hadn’t gone far along it when Vic felt herself being roughly pushed to the ground. Then, Greg was on top of her. Completely disoriented, she tried to sit up, only to be pushed down again. As she was flattened by his body, she felt some kind of disturbance in the air over them. Then, Greg was commanding her to crawl forward into a denser area of vegetation. It was only after they were behind some larger trees that he let her sit up. He tried to pull her closer to him but, confused and more than a little scared, she pushed him away. “Stop, Greg! What are you doing?”

   He motioned to her to turn her head, and look up. She did. In a tree directly above where she had first been pushed sat a very large owl, moving its head around, clenching and unclenching its feet, and giving every appearance of getting ready to fly. “That,” said Greg, indicating the owl, “was about to flatten you, if I hadn’t done it first.”

   “That owl tried to hit me?”

   “Twice. It almost got you the first time. I didn’t see it until it was in mid-swoop. That’s why I didn’t have time to warn you. The second time, I saw that it was getting ready to take another pass at us, and I acted accordingly. Sorry if my motives were misinterpreted.”

  She did move closer to him, then. “Why is it after us?”

  “Territory. It has a nest nearby, either with eggs or young owls, probably the latter this late in the year. Until the young birds are fledged, the parents will try to keep all intruders away from them. That includes dive-bombing any mammal – human or otherwise – that they think has come too close.”

   “Would it really have hurt me?”

   “Well, the actual intent is to intimidate – scare away – but once the owl has started its dive, talons extended, I doubt there’s much consideration given to the ultimate outcome. The motive for the attack is no different than the motive of an angry blackbird or robin flying at you because you’re too near to its nest. The owl’s ability to do damage means one should prepare for the worst.  Probably in the majority of cases, the interloper just gets swooped, but I have heard of cases in which there was real damage done with the talons.”

   She leaned against him “So, you’re my hero, rather than…”

   “I think we can safely move away, if we’re quiet,” he said, as he pulled her to her feet.

   As they walked, they spent most of the next few minutes silently brushing leaves and twigs off their clothes and out of their hair.  “You know,” Vic finally spoke, “this has been an amazing morning.”

   “Well, one doesn’t get attacked by a great horned owl before breakfast very often.”

   “Oh, I didn’t mean that. I was thinking that you had two amazing chances to kiss me – once when I was leaning against you, helplessly gasping for air, and then again, when you threw me to the ground and then held me – and you didn’t take advantage of either.”

   Greg didn’t respond. “Well, why not?” she demanded.

   “Why do you think I would want to kiss you?”

   “Okay. First, because you once said I was beautiful. Second, everybody knows that all men want to kiss beautiful women. Third – and most important – you especially want to kiss me!”

   He turned to look at her, and smiled. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

 

   When they reached Vic’s house, they were still brushing forest debris off themselves, and were definitely looking a bit disheveled. Mandy saw them from the porch. “My god, Vic, what happened to you?”

   “Oh, it was awful, sis! Greg threw me to the ground, and then pulled me behind some trees.” She saw that she was getting the hoped-for reaction from Mandy. What she didn’t see was her father appear on the porch, and hear her emotion-filled words. The look on his face suggested that all his worst fears had just come to fruition. He started down the stairs toward Greg, who held up his hands, and tried to diffuse the situation that was obviously building. “Chuck, before you kill me, or call the sheriff, let us tell the whole story.” The diffusing didn’t seem to be working, but by then, Vic had realized what was happening – or about to happen. She stepped between Chuck and Greg. “Dad, nothing happened! Well, something did happen, but not what you are apparently thinking. Greg saved me, not… Oh, let me explain!”

   By this time, Alice had come out onto the porch. Vic and Greg took turns telling parts of the story, and things finally started to calm down. Alice asked if something should be done about the owls, if the situation was dangerous.

   “No,” replied Greg, “We’re the only ones that go down there. The owls aren’t concerned about people any place except right near their nest, and we know where to avoid, now. Besides, in another week or so, the owlets will be fledged, and the adults won’t worry about their territory again until next April.”

   While the others went inside to breakfast, Vic linked her arm with Greg’s, and walked a little ways with him. “That was really something!” she exclaimed. “I was really scared.”

   “You think you were scared. I thought your father was going to kill me!”

   Vic pulled them to a stop. “You were scared! Are all men so self-involved they don’t care about other people being scared?”

   This took Greg by surprise, and he didn’t know how to react. “I apologize if I haven’t shown enough concern for your feelings. What were you afraid of?”

   “I was afraid that Daddy was going to kill you before I got my promised kiss.”

   Greg pulled away a little bit. “Victoria Anderson, you are nuts. There is no promised kiss!”

   She tightened her link with his arm, and reeled him back in.

  “Maybe not. But, maybe so.”

  

 

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