Life Like This

 

-Part One

        "How do you do?"  She said as she curtsied, "My name is Belle."  She stood in the office doorway and waited.  To Joe it was as if an angel had decided to grace his presence.  It was not so much her appearance, though she was the vision of beauty, nor was it her melodious voice.  What Joe saw, were her eyes.  They were the eyes of someone who knew so much, yet conveyed the look of purest innocence.  They weren't exactly devious, but had a more playful look, as if the owner of the eyes knew what was going on, but wanted to play dumb anyway.  It was the eyes that he fell in love with.

        Joe was in eighth grade when he met Belle.  She had just moved into town from the other side of the country, and, as class president, and this hour's office aide, it was his duty, though he considered it a privilege, to show her around campus.  It was only the second week of school, so there were still a few kids wandering around looking for classes, though they were usually 6th graders, and he knew that Belle wouldn't have much trouble fitting into the school cliques this early into the year.

        She talked as he showed her around.  Her father had been in the navy, so they had moved all the time when she was younger.  Her mother had died when she was seven, leaving her and her younger sister to be looked after by the navy child care specialists, or, as Belle called them, navy nannies, while their father was away.  They had continued to move to different bases as their father was transferred all over the country, but last month he had gone out on a mission, and had not returned.  The navy officers were not sure where he, or they rest of the crew of his patrol boat had gone, but they feared the worse.

        It was at this point that they were in the gym, as he had been showing her where the locker and weight rooms were, and she had suddenly sat down on the extended gymnasium seats.  She was crying.  He looked around and saw, to his relief, that no one else occupied the gym at the moment.  He had a feeling that she had never told anyone the story, or that she needed to tell it to someone, to get it off her chest and out of her system.  When he sat down next to her she continued to cry, now sobbing and hiccupping as well.  Hesitantly, he put his arms around her and told her it was ok.  Immediately she turned and began to cry into his shoulder.  For a long time he held her and her sobs was the only noise in the gym.

        After a goodly while her tears began to abate and he released her.  She looked at him and smiled.  "Thank you," she nearly whispered, "It's been a long time since I've had anyone my age to talk to.  I think I just needed someone to listen, to be my friend."  She looked at him solemnly, probably half expecting him to laugh, or say something to ruin how grateful she was feeling.  Instead, what he did, was change the course of both their lives.

        "I will be your friend."  Joe was sure that it sounded corny, something a kid would say to a new playmate, but to Belle, it was something new, something she'd never had before.  She began talking again.  She told him about the places she had been, and the things her dad used to do.  Once the navy officers were almost certain that her father was not coming back, they had decided to send Belle and her sister to their Aunt and Uncle’s here.  Belle had only met her uncle Rupert twice before, and he'd always seemed nice enough, and besides, there was nothing really she could do.  They had enrolled them in school once they had gotten there, and now, she concluded, the tears nearly dry, she was here.

        They had continued to talk as he had shown her the school that first day.  He sat with her at lunch and talked some more, each sharing things of their life.  By the end of the day, they had bonded, Joe realized that he knew more about her than he knew about most of his buddies he'd grown up with.  He walked her home that day; she lived only a block from his house, and offered to walk with her in the morning if she wanted company.  She had smiled and accepted the offer.

        Then, when they had reached the door of her uncle’s house, standing on the giant, country style wrap around porch, she had stopped and looked at him.  Again he could see tears welling up in her eyes.  She reached out and hugged him tight.  "Thank you," she said, "you're the best friend I've ever had."  Then, quite suddenly, she disengaged and went quickly into the house.

        Joe walked home with all sort of thoughts in his head, but the words still ringing most clearly, 'You're the best friend I've ever had.'

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-Part Two

        Ninth grade started with Joe waiting on Belle's front porch.  Everyday since she had come to town, Joe had walked with Belle to school.  He had met her Uncle Rupert a few days after she had moved in and he had seemed to take a shine to him.  He didn't say anything about him being with her all the time anyway, and if he hadn't gone to work when Joe came in the mornings he invited him in for juice and toast.  Joe's parents were not too concerned either.  They had raised him well and knew that he wouldn't do anything improper.  Joe had no siblings and his mother treated Belle as a daughter.  In fact, it wasn't strange for Joe to come home from a game or another friends on a Saturday and find Belle and his mother baking or playing scrabble at the kitchen table.  The feeling that had come over Joe was still unclear, but he knew that he enjoyed it.  And while he wasn't certain if it was love or not, he knew that he wouldn't trade it for anything.

        Belle came out of the house looking especially radiant.  He guessed she wanted to make a good impression on their first day of High School.  Over the summer they had talked about how high school would be and all of the things they wanted to do.  Both had agreed that they didn't want to do anything stupid.  They didn't want to do anything that they would regret later in life.  He didn't really remember how they had gotten on the subject, but he remembered the promise.  To keep out of bad situations, never to get into any sort of drugs or anything stupid like that, to stay friends and help each other through whatever they were going through, and to keep the other one safe no matter what happened.  He never did recall what they had been doing, but he never forgot THE Promise.

        Walking down the main boulevard where the school was located, Belle began to talk.  "I'm so excited.  I just hope that I didn't forget anything."  As she said it, she was rummaging through her purse and making sure everything was there.  "I wonder what our teachers are going to be like.  Do you think that the older kids will really pick on us like you see in the movies?  I don't think they will 'cause you know everything in the movies are just made up anyway."  She continued to talk as Joe just listened, not really answering, or saying much, just walking straight ahead.

        He was worried about something his father had said to him.  Before he'd walked out the door his father had pulled him aside.  "Son," he had said in his concerned parent voice, "I want to tell you how proud I am of you.  You've done well for yourself, and have a lot going for you.  You made the Football team and are in the Student Council and a lot more besides.  You have an image.  One that I, to be honest with you, would have killed to have going into high school."  Joe had regarded him at that statement.  Looking at him now, you would have thought his father would have been an all-star in high school.  Joe had the same build as him and got his looks from his father as well.  His mother had told him about his father though.

        In his own freshman year he had been an all-star.  Starter on all the team sports; football, basketball, baseball, even soccer, but something had happened during the second to last game of the football season.  The team had done extraordinarily well that year, and was sure to go to state; all they had to do was win one of their last two games.  It was supposed to be a given already 'cause the other two teams weren't all that good and hadn't won more than two or three of their games.  They had started off strong and scored two touchdowns the first ten minutes of the game. Then, near the end of the first quarter, disaster had struck.  The ball had been passed to his father, and he had had to jump for it.  The first boy had gotten his knees in the front; the second had gotten him from behind.  Both legs had broken and the knees were totally ruined.  He hadn't gotten back on a field after that, but he had won the MVP that year anyway.

        "I just wanted you to know," he continued," that you don't want to get into to much stuff that you get buried.  High school can be some of the best years of your life, but you have to remember that there is life after it too."  His father thought he was giving him a warning about some of the dangers high school could bring.  He didn't know about THE Promise though.  "I know you'll do what's right, but I want you to know that other people may see more than what's really there."  He gave Joe a strange look when he said that.  Joe had the sudden impression that he was talking about Belle and he got angry.  What did his father know!  She was his best friend, nothing more.  At least, he told himself that.  As he walked to school and listened to Belle though, he wasn't so sure as he had been this morning.

        Belle had slowly tapered off her constant stream of questions and concerns about high school when she realized that Joe seemed preoccupied.  They walked in silence for a few moments before she spoke again.  "Are you ok?" she asked, concerned.

        Her voice suddenly seemed to burst the fog of thought he had been lost in and he looked up at her.  The worried look on his face was replaced by a sly grin.  The school was only half a block up the road now and in sight.  "I'll race you!" he said and began to move faster.  She laughed and they both took off full speed for the school.  It was only later that she realized he had never answered her question.

 

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Part 3-

 

         The best thing Joe could see about high school, was that you got to meet so many more people.  Sure classes were classes, and they had done them the same way in middle school, but in middle school, you had still only been with people in your own grade.  In his classes now, there were students two or three years older than him.  Sure he still had a lot of his old friends in his around him, but he also got to meet some of the older boys in town, some that he had not talked to since they entered high school.  He guessed it was his popularity that allowed him to intermingle with the upper classmen so easily.  Some even pointed it out to him, how he had it so easy.  One of his new found friends, Chris Mannel had confided in him one day to tell him just that.  "Well Joe, what do you know?  You're class president, all-star athlete, get good grades, and you're even in band for Christ's sake!  That's a lot for one kid to handle, it's only fair that we teach you what we know."

         Besides having classes with a lot of upper classmen, he also had most of his classes with Belle.  She had told him before school had started that she wanted to be in as many of his classes as she could.  That had suited him just at the time.  Belle was a lot smarter than him, even though he did pretty well; she was his best friend though, so it didn’t really bother him.  It was only after school had begun that seeing her all the time began to make him uneasy.  The older guys would leer at her in class and whisper to each other while looking at her.  When she would move over to sit with him while working on an assignment in class, the guys would then leer at him and wink, as if they knew something he didn't.  It added up so much that Joe worried about it whenever she sat near him.  He tried to tell the older boys that Belle wasn't his girlfriend or anything, but they always just smiled at him and rolled their eyes.

 

         Belle enjoyed high school.  With so many different classes, she could take the ones she wanted, and not be held back by others.  She had hated last year because she could only move as fast as the others in her class, and because she was in the most advanced classes, she could never advance.  The only thing that had made the year tolerable at all had been Joe.  She didn't know if he realized how much he had helped her last year, but without him, she probably would have gone crazy with nothing to do.  Before she had moved to her uncle's, her and her sister, Claire, had been taught by the navy "nannies" and had been able to go as fast as she wanted.  Although she didn't push too far ahead of her peers, she didn't realize how much she missed the opportunity to be able to.  Her earlier schooling, she also realized after going to a normal school, had pushed into a lot of practical things not taught where she was now.  Things like problem solving, situation analysis, and even self defense classes, which she had done for several years and become a black belt, were never worried about in an average persons life.  This was very sad, she thought, because they missed so much of the world around them.

         One thing Belle did get to do in the normal school was sing.  She had taken choir last year and was taking it again in high school.  There had never been an opportunity to sing in a choir before, as the naval choir was all adults.  It wouldn't make her famous, but she loved to sing.  The teachers said she had natural talent, and many people had remarked on her lovely voice, even without her singing.  Before she had met Joe, it had been her only escape.  After her mother had died and when her father was away, she would sing to herself quietly in her room to make her feel safe, or to her little sister, to chase away the monsters.  Now, she sang for herself, for the joy and the pleasure it brought her.  It was something else that made her special.

 

         Joe was excited.  He had just watched the first half of the Homecoming game some of his buddies.  They were winning, which was good, but not unexpected since their team hadn't lost a single game this season, and now the homecoming court was about to be announced.  Being one of those nominated and also being the student body president, he had had to step out of the whole process early.  He was almost as much surprised as anyone else when they called him out to the field as Freshman King.  He waved as he walked onto the field and stood in line.  They had called him right before the game and he had brought clothes he had changed into at the beginning of half time.  The girl who told him where to stand, the junior class president, whispered in his ear that he looked very nice, and he blushed.  They then called out the Freshman Queen.  His jaw dropped as Belle came out onto the field in a dress of deep maroon and stood next to him.  She had told him, when asked if she wanted to go to the game, that a couple of her friends were going to go with her.  Now though, she stood next to him in the homecoming court.

         "I'm sorry," she whispered to him, as the rest of the court was announced.  "They called me right before the game, I didn't have time to tell you."  She looked worried, like she had done something wrong.  Though he was a little surprised, he guessed he probably shouldn't be.  Belle had made a lot of other friends since she'd moved in, and a lot more since the beginning of the year.  Though she wasn't the most popular girl, though he only thought it was because she didn't want to be, she was probably the most recognizable and liked.

         "It's ok.  It's not like I can say anything," he gestured to the plastic crown on his head, "they stuck me the same way.  It's not that bad though, at least we'll have someone to dance with."  He froze and blushed at the same time as the last sentence came out.  He realized that, indeed, the homecoming court had to dance the first song together.  He had been worried about what the older guys were thinking before, and now he was going to have to dance with her in front of everybody.

 

         Belle saw Joe freeze and knew what he was thinking.  She had noticed what the older boys had been doing, and it hadn't taken long for her to figure out why.  She loved Joe, he was her best friend, and she didn't want to make him uncomfortable.  "Joe," she whispered to him as the audience cheered the Senior King, who had just picked up the his Queen, who happened to actually be his girlfriend, and kissed her, "can I talk to you before the game starts again?"

 

         Still a little worried about what was coming, Joe nodded to her and looked at her.  The expression on her face was strange, pained, like she didn't want to say whatever it was she wanted to talk about.  They bowed as they were dismissed, once again to the cheers of the crowd, and the marching band, which he had been dismissed from to attend these duties, took the field.  He followed Belle around the side of the stadium as the band began to play.

 

         Facing him, Belle began, "Joe, I know what you're thinking about.  We haven't been friends our whole lives, but you've been the closest friend I've ever had, and I know that I couldn't know anyone better.  So I just wanted to tell you that I don't want to hurt you."  She looked into his eyes as she said it, and saw the recognition of what she was saying in them.  Continuing, she went on, "If you want me to back off in classes and such, I can do that.  If you want a little distance, fine.  I just want you to know, that I'll still be your friend and don't want to do anything to embarrass you."  She stopped again.  Waiting for an answer, something to show his agreement and acceptance, she was totally stunned by what he did.

 

         As she spoke, Joe's mind filled with all the images of the older boys winking, and smiling knowingly at him when they were together.  He realized that they didn't know anything.  That all they were doing is showing their own ignorance and the shallowness of their minds.  They had never known a friendship like his, and were clueless to how it worked.  Here she was, telling him she would do whatever it took to make him comfortable, when really, the only he was caring about was his image.  His father's warning came back to him, and he realized that he didn't care.  Belle was his friend, and more, his best friend.  He should have been doing all he could have to make her comfortable, and help her.  This insight made him realize that as far as the opinions of others went, he really didn't give a rip.  As she finished speaking, he let her know just that.

 

         Much later, after the dance, Belle sat up in her room next to the window with the lights off.  She looked out at the stars and marveled that they could be so peaceful looking, when they were really flaming balls of gas billions of miles away.  She wondered when the first snow was going to fall, since it was rapidly approaching winter and the temperature had been dropping.  She wondered how she would do at her choir concert tomorrow.  She wondered when she'd have time to work on her homework for Algebra II.  She wondered why he had hugged her and said that now he knew better.

 

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Part 4-

         Disaster struck for Belle three weeks before school was to begin again.  Her grandmother had been out grocery shopping, leaving her and Claire home alone to tidy the house and decide what they wanted for dinner.  Her uncle, Rupert was working and so he wasn't home either.  They had finished their chores and tidying the house and were watching a program on the television when the phone rang.  Being closest to it, Claire picked it up.  Belle, not being able to hear the whole conversation became worried very quickly listening to her sister’s voice.

     "Hello?...Umm, he's not here right now, I think he's still at work...What?  Is she ok?  What's happened?...I don't know how to reach him.  I don't know if he has a work number...What does she need?...Ok.  Thank you.  Good Bye."

         Claire was shaking so bad the phone fell from her hands. there were tears in her eyes.  "What happened?!"  Belle demanded.  "Is it Aunt Denice?  Is she ok?"  Belle was now cradling her younger sisters head, as tears flowed freely down her face.  Through tears and with worried tones Claire told what had happened.         

         Apparently there had been a robbery at the bank, and Aunt Denice, who was very forgetful sometimes, had been standing in line to withdraw some money when the robber had come in.  When he had demanded that everyone get down on the floor, aunt Denice had panicked and tried to run for the door in the back.  The robber had shot her in the back as she run, and then ran himself in a panic from the bank.  Paramedics had arrived on the scene in time, but apparently her condition was critical.

         "They were looking for uncle Ru."  Claire had sobbed out.  "They wanted him to come down to fill out paper work and bring the things she needed.  Except uncle Ru's out doing deliveries right now and he doesn't get back to the plant for another three hours."  Belle held Claire for a few minutes as they both cried.  Though they had been with them for only a few years, uncle Ru and aunt Denice were more of a family to them than their father or mother, who had always been on some assignment or patrol or other, had ever been.  Belle knew that the hospital needed some identification and insurance stuff, as well as personal items for her aunt, and she went about gathering it all together in a bag.  Claire tried to help, but was shaking so bad that Belle had told her to sit back down.  It was only after she had gotten everything together that she realized that they had no way to get to the hospital, which was on the other side of town.  She was was crying again, but this time the tears were of frustration and anger.  Her aunt was lying in a hospital bed somewhere and could be dying, and they had no way to get there to see her.

         It was then that that bell rang.  She looked up and wondered whom it could be.  She didn't know of anyone who was supposed to be coming over.  When she opened the door Joe was standing there.  She looked into his face and saw tears in his eyes and a worried expression.  The bag, full of the things for her aunt and still in her hands, fell with a soft thud and she grabbed onto him and started crying again.  Claire was off the couch by this time and had joined in the hug.

         As Joe's parents drove them to the hospital Belle asked Joe how he had known.  He whispered to her, "Dad was across the street at that car dealership and heard the alarms go off.  When the ambulance arrived, he went to see what had happened.  He saw them take Denice off and rushed home.  I was going to call you, but every time I did, the phone was busy."  Belle realized that after the call from the hospital that neither her nor Claire had hung the phone back up because they were both too worried.  "Dad called Uncle Ru's manager," Joe continued, "and told him what happened and they're going to try and reach him on the radio to tell him.  Then we came to get you two since I couldn't get a hold of you."

        For his part, Joe was worried too.  For the last two years Belle's aunt and uncle had been like his own.  Though he didn't think her uncle quite approved of all the time he spent with Belle, he had continued to be quite amiable.  Her aunt though seemed to adore him.  As Belle was the daughter she never had, she treated Joe as the son she never had.  His whole family had been to their home several times for dinner and games and such, and the four adults seemed to get along quite well.  Rupert and Denice weren't much older than his mother and father he knew and his mother had told him that Denice and her were both part of the same volleyball team when she went to the gym to play with some of the other neighborhood women.  When he had found out about what had happened it had been his idea to go see her in the hospital.  His father had known that Rupert would be out working and had suggested they go and get the girls.  Which is how he had shown up at their door at just the right moment.

         They had been in the hospital room for scarcely more than fifteen minutes before when Rupert had burst in and ran to the bedside.  His boss had gotten him on the radio a few minutes after Joe's father had called.  Not even taking the company truck back to the factory, he had parked the huge 18-wheeler in front of the hospital, taking up nearly 10 spaces, and run all the way to the room, getting directions by an orderly who had to shout to be heard as he ran by.  The rest of them had decided to step outside for a few minutes and give them privacy.

         When he finally came out he had tears in his eyes, but also a look of resolve on his face.  He hugged Belle and Claire both, and then to his surprise, shook Joe's hand.  "Thank you for getting them here and bringing everything down here.  Your a good young man."  In that instant, Joe thought he could feel Rupert's attitude towards him change.  He didn't know how, or quite why, but somehow, he knew that it had changed for the better, because from then on, it seemed that he was shown none of the tolerating attitude Rupert had always shown him before.

         It was only a few days before the beginning of sophomore year, and a few weeks after the accident when Belle's aunt was finally able to come home.  She would never be the same though.  The bullet wound had torn nerves in her spine and she was paralyzed from the waist down.  The doctors had also said that the bullet had taken a portion of her liver with it as well.  She had to be very careful when around anyone with any kind of sickness; because her weakened immune system might not be able to handle anything more than a cold.

          Belle knew her aunt tried to put on a happy face for her and Claire, but could tell that she was hurting, and even more, worried.  Both her and Claire had to help a lot more around the house and do many of the things that Denice had done before.  Belle was worried what was going to happen when school started and she wasn't home all day to help her aunt.  Even more than that, she was worried about her uncle.  He seemed to be really stressed and trying really hard to do everything perfectly.

         Claire had said that she would do more chores to help when she got home, but Belle knew that though younger, Claire did a lot more activities with school and things that she didn't, and therefore wouldn't have enough time to do half the things she promised.  Overall, Belle felt overwhelmed and wasn't looking forward to the school year.  Though that and keeping the house in order would be a challenge, there was something even more worrying to her.  Every time she caught her aunt and uncle looking at each other, she couldn't help seeing the looks of despair and dread that were exchanged.  She couldn't help fearing that they hadn't told her something, and that that something was coming very, very soon.

 

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Part 5