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CHAPTER ONE



The Alabama humidity clung to my lungs and made it hard to breathe in the large attic bedroom.  Once a gift for my teenage privacy, now a burden that put an abrupt and brutal halt on ever having a decent hair day or getting a pair of jeans on in under 15 minutes. Such is the case after your best friend has convinced you to go to a show tonight, your hair looks like shit and your jeans will require a can opener to get off.

“I can’t wear this D, it’s making me sweat more.” I turned around from the long view mirror and gave my best friend Darla the dubious stare of defeat.

“You’re gonna make those boys sweat tonight doll face, just trust me you won’t be in them size tens very long.” She patted me on the ass and rummaged through the top rack of my walk-in closet for something to cover my upper half. I envied Darla for her small frame, light skin, and beautiful tight blonde curls. I was the polar opposite.

“And what, pray tell,” I did a squat and let out an exaggerated groan for how uncomfortable they felt already, “do you mean by that?” I began unzipping them.

“We’re gonna get you some sugar!” She shot me her beautiful white smile; the annoying kind that if you weren’t keen on it you’d look away in disgust, or slap her.

“I don’t ‘get some’, Darla.” The jeans came off and I stared at myself for a moment in the mirror. I pulled my hair over one shoulder and slouched, a sigh along with it. One moment you’re somewhere in high school, the metabolism of a gymnast and the next minute you’re 20 years old and learning that pizza and brownies don’t just disappear anymore.

Darla loosened her grip on my favorite white tunic top and walked over to me. “I know my girl and that has got to change. I see this look you give yourself,” she took my chin in her hand and twisted my face towards hers, “and there ain’t nothing I can do but tell you how beautiful you are.” She leaned in and gave me a quick peck on the lips. I always loved Darla for her complete lack of respect for people’s personal space. “Boone’s gonna be here in 20 minutes, get your gorgeous ass into something soon before we wind up in Birmingham County Jail for being nude in public.” She winked at me and stepped aside from the closet entrance. I defaulted to my comfort outfit, a white cotton eyelet babydoll dress, navy blue cardigan, and my decade old brown cowboy boots.

* * *

As Boone promised, always prompt like a typical Southern gentleman, he arrived 20 minutes later and held the door open for us as we piled in en route to downtown Birmingham. “You girls look nice. I hope these boys planned on falling in love tonight.” All the compliments a girl could ever want would always come from our childhood best friend and my neighbor, Boone Whitaker. He and I grew up next to each other, our acres of farmland separated by nothing more than a rotting wood fence painted a putrid green. He gripped hard on the steering wheel, glancing sideways at me with his crooked smile; the kind that made your heart flutter. You’d get lost staring at him if you didn’t take a deep breath every once in awhile. He had that thick, tan skin you expected anyone below the line to have if they had any real experience in the outdoors like their daddies and their daddy’s daddy. His top half was heavy with muscle and his bottom always in loose jeans and work boots.

“Thanks Boone.” I smiled at him and leaned over from the passenger’s side to rest my head on his shoulder.

I heard Darla sigh from the backseat. She’s so impatient, this one. “Boone, is Katie coming tonight?” Katie was Boone’s on again off again girlfriend. She went to school with Darla and me; both of us were convinced she didn’t deserve him. They had met in high school and for the last 3 years since our Junior year she was playing with his sweet heart like it was a throw away toy. She was the kind of girl you’d wish harm on if you weren’t a good Christian girl. She didn’t even deserve a clean toilet seat.

“Nah, she’s going with some of the team to a movie.” The thing about the south is that you only do two things in life: play football or play football. And your teammates, no matter how many years since graduation, will always be referred to as, "the team". “We aren’t really talking again, she doesn’t think it’s going anywhere.”

“Again.” Darla and I said in unison. I lifted my head from his shoulder to shake it and share a glance with Darla. She and I both had our suspicions that Katie was up to no good with someone else.

“Boone, you have got to get some too. This is my mission tonight, it has been decided!” Darla threw up an exaggerated pointer finger toward the ceiling of the car. We all laughed. I reached for the volume knob to the truck’s radio and began singing along dramatically to the classic rock song that bellowed through the speakers. I reached my arm over the seat and curled my fingers underneath Boone’s muscled forearm. He turned and shared a soft smile with me. Darla was that friend with a lot of boyfriends, we didn’t judge her, but we both knew we could never relate to her as far as sex was concerned.

We made it inside the bar, Spits Grille and Tap, just as the opening band was taking the stage. A small girl with beautifully crafted pin-up style curls and a flower dress sat down on one of two stools seated in front of a microphone. The other stool was already occupied by a tall and lanky boy wearing a pair of dress pants, button up shirt, and a black suit vest. I was suddenly picturing our night bombing down a dark road only known better as Wedding Cover Band. I groaned and rolled my head towards Darla. “Remind me what the hell we’re doing here?”

“Don’t you dare judge that book by its cover Penny Amaryllis. You wait and see.” She nodded her head matter-of-factly, sliding into the round booth to the right of the stage.

“Anybody for drinks?” Boone asked both of us.

“Yeah, a whiskey sour and can you get me some extra of those little cherries? Thanks Boone.” There’s that annoying smile she shoots you when she’s got something more to say but doesn’t.

“I’m all set.” I fished through my bag to text my dad that we had made it to Birmingham and that I’d be home later. I looked up from my cellphone and straight at Darla’s inquisitive stare. “What?” I didn’t wait for her response. I turned my head back to the stage, the duo was singing into either side of the microphone about falling in love in a coffee shop. They finished the song and introduced themselves as The Sadie Anne’s. Oh isn’t this just so cute.

“I don’t understand you, Penn, why won’t you have a little fun with me every once in awhile?” She shook her head and directed her glance to the stage.

“I have plenty of fun with you Darla. I just don’t feel like drinking, or getting caught.” No one needed to point out that we were still underage and the Spits bartenders never seemed to check, thus beginning a pattern of us always ending up here on a Friday night.

“Are you guys ready to kick it up a notch? Let’s get our other half out here.” Oh thank god, maybe they’ll get better. A shorter man entered from the side stage, wearing a long sleeved heather grey Henley unbuttoned at his collarbone, his skin at that same dark stain as Boone's. He looked up from his guitar and locked eyes with me, his bangs off to one side and mostly hidden under a baggy knit hat. I couldn’t help but drag my eyes down in embarrassment, his tan legs sticking out of cut off jeans at the knee, and curiously without shoes on.  

Lawdy.” I exaggerated my drawl.

Darla’s head whipped back in my direction. “Ah, welcome to the light you bitch!” She laughed and shook her head at me. “That’s Jack Hawkes, a nice piece of man meat if you’re hungry.” I laughed at her and broke my stare as Boone stood in front of us, placing her drink down and handing her a small plastic cup of Maraschino cherries. “You’re too good to me, Boone.”

“I know,” he put a glass of lemonade down in front of me with a wink, I smiled that he remembers after all these years what my favorites are. “And you don’t deserve it for making us sit through whatever this is.”  She threw a cherry at him and he caught it in his mouth, I watched her stare at his throat while he swallowed. I saw that same look of need in her eyes that I’ve seen for the past few years. I wouldn’t pry her, but I was hoping some day soon she’d tell me the truth about how she felt about Boone. He took a long swig from his beer bottle and she looked away, her face falling without emotion toward the stage.

The pair on stage began humming and singing at barely a whisper. Jack began his guitar playing and the two began singing louder. They had both managed to pull instruments from behind them, a violin for her and an acoustic for him. Jack’s notes getting more vigorous and the violin joining him. I watched his body as it buckled down over his guitar and he slammed his foot down onto the ground. His passion for the notes coming from his fingertips was palpable and the audience began to get louder with the band. I smiled and watched him take their energy into his chords. His eyes found mine again and I couldn’t look away, the corners of his mouth turning up just slightly. His eyes closed and his foot slammed again onto the ground while he yelled out words without the use of a microphone. The way his voice carried through the club sent a shoulder quaking shiver down my spine.

“Dang doll face you really have seen the light haven’t you?” I snapped out of my trance and turned to face her. “Here I was thinking it was going to take a damn miracle to get you out of that dress tonight.” She smirked and swallowed down the rest of her whiskey sour.

“I’m not going to fucking sleep with him, Darla.” She was relentless; I had to give her some credit. But she had absolutely no clue how to decipher between a casual glance and a ‘come fuck me’ stare down. I wondered if this was how she ended up in the trouble that she did. I’d picked up her broken pieces one too many times. I was beginning to think she thought the world’s population of men only knew the quickest way to the bedroom and not to her heart. Maybe I’d have to help her see the light too. I glanced at Boone to see him looking at her while she looked on at the stage.

* * *

The band continued a few more songs with the same enthusiasm and then Jack stepped off for the calming duo to finish the set. I’d much prefer to see the trio, those tan feet on the stage once more, the stage seemed emptier and more boring now. Darla, now a few drinks into the night, watched Boone sipping his second beer while I chewed ice from my empty lemonade glass. Darla announced that she had to pee and I volunteered to accompany her.

“Boone will you stay here with our stuff?” I tossed my navy cardigan over my bag and walked with Darla through the crowd and down the people packed hallway towards the bathrooms.

“Hey Penn, what do you think about Boone?” She asked me from the stall next to mine. Wait… was this going to finally happen all on its own?

“Uh, what do you mean? I mean he’s my best friend. I’ve known him since we were kids, he’s probably the only person I’d trust with my life.”

“Hey!” she slammed her hand against our shared stall wall and even without seeing her I knew the exact same defeated sad face she was making, she had been making it over the last 3 years we had been friends.

“No, I just mean, he was the first friend I had when we moved here and there’s never been anything more than friendship between us. He’s too good for me anyway; you know he helped Miss Abel bring her entire house outside when they had to fume for the bugs? He even stayed so he could bring it all back in when they were done.”

I met her again at the sinks and searched her eyes for anything I could pull out. Come on Darla, give me something here. “You two should hang out sometime, you know, without me.” She nodded without a worded reply and I had hoped that was her consideration.

We began pushing through the crowd in the hallway and I wasn’t paying attention as we came to an abrupt halt. I looked up and brought my eyes to where Darla was fixed on. A boy I had recently seen her with had pinned up a country cute blonde girl against the wall and had his hand running up her way too perfect long legs. What the hell was his name? Joe? John?

“JEB!” Darla yelled it as if she knew I was searching. “What. The. Fuck!” She stalked towards him and his face fell. “You told me you were going to help your Gran with her Spring cleaning.” Darla might not be a daughter of the BiblBelt but she would never cuss in the same sentence she used "your Gran". “This doesn’t look like anyone’s cleaning to me?” She got three inches from his face and I forgot to swallow, I choked out a cough and she snapped her head back to me and instantly back to him.
“Listen, sweetheart, I never made you any promises.” Oh, he was one of the casual glancers. My poor sweet Darla, I reached for her arm and she swung back at me and lurched her fist forward inches from Jeb’s face. Ok, we’ll do this her way.

“Does she plan on attacking? If so I’m going to get my camera phone ready.” I recognized the voice as it wrapped around my ear inches from my neck. This time the shudder lingered on my spine and I instantly flushed in embarrassment. “I hear she’s a firecracker, but she wouldn’t actually slug him would she?”

I leaned my ear closer to his lips; his sweat was so thick I was breathing in his salt through my nose. “No. Well, maybe. Darla’s like cooked spaghetti: if you pull her too hard she’ll eventually break.” I watched her and Jeb sling words back and forth and tried to ignore her admitting to a crowd of people that they had just had sex a few hours ago. I winced and turned to face him. My breath caught, my cheeks warmed, and I instantly ached somewhere that hadn’t had much feeling up until this moment.

“Spaghetti, huh?” His eyes roamed my face.

“You don’t compare life moments to food, too?” I raised one eyebrow in a smirk.

“Sure, I do. Crème Brulêe.” His lips returned the smirk. I could hear Darla’s profanity getting more lewd behind me and I turned briefly to make sure she hadn’t actually slugged him. I turned back to him as his gaze was coming back up my body to my eyes.

“And what’s that in reference to?” I kept an ear turned toward the dueling lovers.
“A delicious looking woman standing in front of me.” His words dripped and I fought the urge to let my mouth drop. I let out a short laugh instead and turned back around just as Jeb was lifting his open hand toward Darla.

“HEY!” I yelled, and before I could move, Boone was in my place punching Jeb square in the jaw and tossing him to the ground with a single blow. Darla stumbled backward into my arms and we stood and watched as Boone grabbed Jeb by the collar of his shirt and lifted him a few inches from the ground.

“You watch your mouth, and your hand around women you worthless piece of shit.” Boone threw Jeb back onto the floor and stepped away. Jeb put his hand to his nose and then inspected his hand with a scoff.

“Go on and fix your crazy bitch. No man wants to deal with her shit!” Jeb’s words seemed to gargle the blood I assumed was dripping into his mouth now. Boone instantly drew his hand back and Jeb flinched. He grabbed his blonde tot and ran for the door.

“We have to go, now.” I eyed the bar employee’s heading for the hallway. Darla turned around to wear Jack stood behind me.

“Hey Jackson, that was an incredible show. Sorry to ruin your night.” She smiled flirtatiously at him. I was instantly pained with jealousy, quickly followed by regret. I knew that smile, I knew that one more than all the others. That was the smile she gave when someone’s heart had been hers, at least for a little while. But why had I never heard of Jack before now?

He glanced between the both of us and settled his grey eyes on Darla with a soft smile. “Aw sweet Darla you could never ruin my night. Thanks for coming.” There was the recognition in his tone; his affirmation of my assumption that they had been together. “And it was nice to meet you…” Those eyes found me again and the jealousy and regret were gone. I started thinking maybe it could work, I mean, how attached could Darla have really been to someone who she hadn't even mentioned to me, right? Darla shoved me and responded with the word I couldn't form: “Penny.”

I nodded curtly at her admission.

“Just Penny?” he reached for the back of his neck and rubbed the nape of his neck, scratching the hairs just under his hat.

“Just Penny.” I felt Boone behind me. “Sorry, time to go. Great show by the way.” Darla took my hand in her hand and Boone held onto the back of my shoulders. I started to turn away when I felt Jackson grab my empty hand.

“Can I call you sometime, 'Just Penny'?” I stared at him, he wasn’t that funny, but I felt the urge to laugh. I started to shake my head and withdraw my hand from his.

“No. I’m sorry.” I felt my whole body sink as we turned and walked away. I may have seen the lightly briefly, but it went out; I could never be where Darla had been.