Mitch always picked Francesca up and drove her to school. Well, always since he had turned sixteen two years ago and found the Lincoln Navigator in his driveway, the keys beside his coffee cup on the kitchen table that morning. Before that, he had walked the half mile from his house to her condo to escort her to school, even though his school was twenty minutes in the other direction by car and he would have to walk back home before his father drove him to his private school in a neighboring county. His mother didn’t approve of his continued relationship with Francesca, but her disapproval had little to do with the girl herself.
“That mother of hers, Mitch.”
His mother would shake her head and sigh, just had she been doing when speaking of Mrs. Brooks for the past six years or so, once Mitch and Francesca had become old enough to understand that some of Francesca’s mother’s behaviors were undesirable from a social standpoint. Francesca didn’t seem to mind too much, and as long as Francesca wasn’t bothered, neither was Mitch. His mother, however, was very concerned with appearances and warned Mitch to be diligent when he visited the Brooks’ home.
“There are rumors,” she would whisper loudly, staring into Mitch’s eyes as if she could transmit the same through her stare. Mitch knew all about the rumors, about the absent husband, the neighbor, the brother . . . about so many things. Francesca seemed oblivious, but Mitch couldn’t be sure. His best friend seemed unaware of what her mother did or what she was capable of doing, or at least, she wasn’t focused on whatever her mother was up to. As long as it didn’t affect her, Francesca pretty much minded her own business, unlike Mitch’s mother.
When Mitch pulled into the very short driveway that separated the Brooks’ condominium from its neighbor, he could see that Francesca was at the screen door, speaking with someone who had her by the arm, as she struggled to pull away. Mitch was about to get out of the SUV to see what was going on when she shoved the door open and stepped out, pushing it closed behind her. Francesca’s twin brother Ricky stared out at her, his childish pout ridiculously comical as he watched his sister walk quickly to the passenger side door of the Navigator. Mitch knew that Ricky envied him the vehicle, and took it out on Francesca. When Francesca sat down and buckled her seat belt, Mitch remained quiet while she settled herself and adjusted the concern on his face to a relaxed smile. He knew she didn’t care to be questioned too much about her family, mostly because she had little or no answers. They were who they were, she had said so often with a shrug. She would leave one day and they would do what they would with or without her, and she wasn’t going to lose any sleep over them. After all, their behavior was their own, and she didn’t see why she might be judged by it. Mitch knew differently, and that she was, in fact, judged by it intensely. When she raised her gaze to his face, Mitch caught his breath. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes clear and blue and free of any cosmetics, and when she saw him, finally, her lips drew up in a wide smile.
“Sorry about that, Mitch. You know how it is.”
He longed to take her hand in his, but he would wait, because he knew that within moments, she would grab his and squeeze once before letting it go so he could take the wheel. They had a routine of sorts, and as much and as often as he wanted to take her into his arms, if he waited, she would offer him the physical affection he needed from her. As friends from childhood, she saw no reason to stop this contact, although some observers could see that it affected Mitch and his romantic notions on a level that Francesca seemed to miss. She was well-liked, though, and so, no one could or would reprimand her for what seemed like leading poor Mitch on. After all, he figured, it was up to him to make his interest known to her, and if he didn’t because he was afraid of losing her friendship, well, that was his choice to make. Every single day.
She took his hand in hers and squeezed it, holding it for a moment longer than usual.
“Good to go?” he asked, hoping that his grasp on her hand wasn’t too tight, too obviously a grip that he never wanted to let go. She sighed, her smile lessening but not evaporating, and raised his hand to her lips, kissing the knuckles briefly before letting his hand go. Everything in him tightened and he concentrated on maintaining slow, even breaths as she spoke.
“It’s too bad we can’t just ditch school and hang out. I don’t think it would be such a big deal for me, but if you’re going to be prepared for MIT, you can’t slack off.”
Mitch could still feel the softness of her lips on his hand and was unsure how to respond, but she continued to speak and saved him the struggle.
“Why don’t you come over Friday night? Mamma is going out, I mean, of course she’s going out, and Tricia is spending the night.”
Tricia, Francesca’s only other close friend, had been pregnant last year and had given the baby up for adoption. Many of Tricia’s other friends had kept a distance during the pregnancy that continued now, but Francesca had never abandoned her. Some of his friends from school wondered why Mitch didn’t give Tricia a ‘try’ since she’d proven an easy mark, or so they suggested. She’s a sure thing, they said. Why not take what you can get? Mitch knew that, according to Francesca, Tricia hadn’t been playing fast and loose when she became pregnant, but now, was just abstaining completely and focusing on school. Mitch had known Tricia almost as long as he had known Francesca, and knew as well as both girls did that nothing would ever happen between him and Tricia, but Mitch’s mother would never allow him to stay at Francesca’s if she knew Tricia was there, because by her estimation, Tricia would try to get pregnant again on purpose to trap him.
“She’s a gold digger,” his mother insisted. Mitch wondered if that term was still in use by anyone but his parent. His parents’ financial status was more trouble than not, but he didn’t complain out loud. After all, he could spend what he wanted, on himself, on Francesca. Francesca always appreciated the pricey coffee from the local chain with which he often surprised her, as her own money earned from working fast food in the summers was stashed in a bank account for college. College far away. Far away from her mother, her brother, and unfortunately, from Mitch. He had been thinking of ways to get her college choices closer to his own, or, conversely, his own near hers. He was pretty much locked into MIT now, which made his efforts difficult.
“I’ll see what I can do. You know how my mom is.”
They smiled at each other for a moment as she accepted his answer, then she leaned over and kissed his cheek. It took all of his self control not to turn his face so his lips would meet hers. He couldn’t do anything to damage their friendship or scare her away. Francesca was everything. How could she not know that?
“I do know. Thanks for the ride, as always.”
Her hair was slipping from its ponytail, and a strand of it, dark gold in the sun, swayed in front of her face. He moved it gently away, longing to lay his hand along her cheek.
She would never say no to coffee, even if it made her a few minutes late to school. Actually, she wouldn’t be late this morning as long as the line at the drive up window wasn’t too long. She had pre-calc first thing, he knew, and she had never had trouble with math. Her teachers adored her, as she was always prepared, but never pushy in answering. Everyone liked Francesca. Everyone except her mother and brother. If Mitch could get here away from her family, he might have a chance, he thought. If he could somehow get her to see him as someone other than a childhood friend who used to play naked in a baby pool with her . . . dear God, her mother had those pictures. Her mother would be thrilled if Francesca would develop a romantic interest in him. The money. Her mother was all about money. Money and their neighbor.
“Sure. And Friday night we’ll get pizza, my treat. Tricia is still trying to lose baby weight, although I think she looks fine, so she’ll probably just eat a salad or something lame and healthy. We can share a big greasy pepperoni pizza from Tony’s. Sound good?”
As far as Mitch was concerned, anything sounded good coming from Francesca’s lips. He’d be damned if he let her spend her college money on pizza, though. He wouldn’t bring it up until Friday night, when he would pick the pizza up and pay for it on the way to her home before she could do anything about it. He’d also be damned if that hustling loser of a brother of hers ruined their time together. Ricky would probably be at some party on Friday night, groping one girl or another, depending on the size of the girls’ parents’ bank accounts and her breasts. As long as he wasn’t home to get in Mitch’s face and try to be friends with him; as if Ricky knew what being friends meant. Mitch was sure Ricky had taken some money from Mitch’s parents’ bedroom when Mitch caught him sneaking around during his birthday party last year, while everyone else was out by the pool. Ricky had claimed to be looking for the bathroom, but he looked guilty. Ricky was born guilty.
“Sure does. Let’s get you some caffeine.”
He broke his gaze from hers and turned to the wheel, shifting the SUV into reverse and backing out slowly, a not-so-small part of him wishing that her brother was behind them, then under the vehicle, his bones crushing to pieces under the weight of the SUV like small hollow sticks.
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