Cadet Private Phil Boydon slouched against the seat of the Greyhound and looked out the window at the turning leaves of a Virginia October. The patches of woods and the harvested fields were as colorful as his thoughts were dark. The first was, of course, having to ride the bus when other cadets had ridden the Chesapeake and Ohio passenger train and were already home. Cost, he'd been told. Or was it just one more punishment put on him?
He scratched his crew cut blond hair and looked down at his open gray blouse at the shirt and tie. He'd heard on the train some of the guys changed into civilian clothes, even though they weren't supposed to. Probably the Youngsters, like himself, couldn't. But how could an Oldster do anything if he were in civvies? Well, he was still stuck in his uniform, though he was a bit proud of it now, especially since there was a ribbon over his left breast pocket showing he was on the honor roll. But the bus still seemed unfair.
He knew he couldn't blame El, but at least she was at Mount Vernon, with friends she had known all her life. She could watch TV in the evening and not have to march to meals, or stand reveille or Sunday Morning Inspection. She didn't have to stand on her window sill and clean windows or polish brass or shoes. All that happened to her was she spent August with her grandparents and would be there for Christmas and Easter, too. Well, he was the boy, so maybe he should get the worse punishment, but it did seem like his folks piled it on him.
The bus slowed and stopped at a gas station. Next to the pole holding the yellow and red Shell sign was a woman and a suitcase. She picked up the bag and Phil lost sight of her as she got on. Moments later she climbed the few steps to the upper section of the crowded bus and obviously saw the vacant seat next to him.
"Can I?" she asked. He looked at her. She was more a teen than a woman, with long blond hair and a skirt that came down below her calf. She wore a white blouse and a pale yellow sweater.
He nodded. "Sure," and took his flat brimmed saucer cap off the aisle seat. She sat down, and he could see her looking at him.
"You must go to one of them military schools in the Valley," she said. "My friend, she dated a boy who went to Fork Union. That's on this side the mountain."
Phil nodded. "I know. I go to Newberry. We play Fork Union."
"My friend, she said he went there 'cause his grades wasn't so good. That why you go to military school?"
Phil shook his head. "Nope. My dad's in the army." He hoped that might be enough.
"Really? You live all over? What's it like?" He breathed a sigh of relief. She didn't seem to think him awful just because he was a brat.
"Well, I haven't lived all over, but I've been to a few places." Maybe she would ask him where and he could talk about Japan and Hong Kong or Wisconsin and Oklahoma.
"Do all boys whose pap is in the army go to military school? If it warn't grades, you done something wrong?" Her brown eyes fixed on him.
And there it was. He turned away from her. "Sorta. My girl and me. Our folks want us apart. So they sent me to Newberry."
The girl didn't say anything for a moment. "You look pretty young for that. You gonna have to get married or something? I had a cousin who had to. She was just fifteen when she got hitched. They're over to Rockingham now, working in the poultry plant."
Phil laughed. "No, our parents just thought we were too serious. I turned fourteen in September and she's fourteen tomorrow." He didn't say that he'd have to sneak her present to her, but he was sure Becky would do it. Becky was El's best friend, after all, had been since first grade, or so El had told him.
"Well, good luck to you, then, cadet." She dug a Modern Romance out of her purse and opened it. He breathed deeply. He wouldn't tell her much, but how hard might she have pried to get his story? No, their story. It was his mother standing in his bedroom door and seeing El and himself naked on his bed that sent him to Newberry. Him to Newberry and El to good old M.V. High. And him to this bus.
Phil hit another low as the bus pulled into Alexandria. He saw his parents standing there, his mother in a business suit, reminding him that she was actually working as a writer to help pay for his school. But even more upsetting was his father, in uniform, the major's leaves shining on the blouse shoulders. He was going to have to salute his father. "I will salute all officers and all colors and standards not cased," said the general order. So he stood up as the door opened, walked down and stepped smartly onto the tarmac. Then his mother rushed to him and hugged him just as his right hand came up.
"Oh, Phil. You look so smart," she said.
"Hi, Mom." He tore himself from her embrace. "Hi, Dad. I tried to salute."
His father gave him a lopsided grin. "I saw that, Mr. Boydon. That's okay. Go get your bag." So Phil did, grabbing it when the driver swung it out of the bus luggage space. Even as he did, his father took it from him and marched towards the station wagon.
His mother's questions filled the ride back to the house. They shot by the street where El lived and he looked down it, while knowing that he could not see the house and school wasn't over anyway.
When he got home he took his bag up to his room and changed into chinos and a long sleeve checked shirt, and tennis shoes. His room, despite the model airplanes on the shelf and his old childhood stuffed rabbit in the closet, seemed strangely bare. Leaving it and the memories it held, he found his mother gone and his father by the door.
"The high school buses will be by soon, Phil. Don't try to contact Elaine Goodman. Your buddy Mark said he'd be by and you can go anywhere as long as you don't try to see her. You understand?" Phil thought his father might have looked like that when he told some private to guard the retreat during the Battle of the Bulge.
"Yes, sir. We know we can't see each other. I may go see Becky Greenwood, though. She's okay, isn't she?" Phil wished he had something else to do while he talked to his father, anything to keep his hands from shaking or jerking.
His father gave him the special grin that Phil remembered seeing his father give to lieutenants and sergeants in the past. So maybe there was some advantage to being a cadet. He could figure out more about his father. Then the Major was gone, a hurried "bye" trailing after him like a paratrooper's static line.
As soon as his father was gone, Phil raced upstairs, opened his suitcase and took out a small brown paper bag. He checked inside it to look at the small gift wrapped box and then wrapped up the top before leaving with it in his left hand.
He went to his front porch, closed the door, sat down and waited for the first school bus to pass. As soon as it did, he jumped up and walked rapidly after it. At the next corner it stopped, but he kept walking and was waiting when it stopped again and Becky Greenwood stepped off. He waved and called, "Hi, Becky."
She stopped dead when she saw him. Once more he thought that maybe it would be easier with Marc, who was his best friend here, and not Becky, who never had liked him all that much and was probably the most beautiful ninth grader at Mount Vernon.
"I sure didn't expect to see you, Phil Boydon," she said, looking over his shoulder as she hugged her books to her chest. He noted she didn't give her little sweep of her blond hair or inhale to accentuate her breasts, which, unlike El's, really didn't need any help.
He grinned. "Well, Becky, I'd rather see El, but I can't. It's her birthday and I thought you'd take her present to her." He took a small gift wrapped present out of the paper bag and showed Becky.
Becky's eyes popped open, her mouth sagged and her cheeks began to color. "Now you know I can't do that." She turned to walk away, but Phil jumped in her path.
"What do you mean, can't do that? You're El's best friend. Have been since before first grade, El says." He looked at Becky and the blue eyes became slits, making her eyes look like the edges of knife blades.
"Why can't you?" Phil held out the small square box.
"Because of you, Phil Boydon. Because of what you did to her. Elaine's rep is gone, because of you." Phil looked at her, not believing her. Becky had to know they hadn't done anything. Or hadn't done IT. She glowered at him. "You ruined my best friend. I guess you army brats just don't care."
He gulped a few times and skipped in front of her as she tried to walk away. "Becky, we didn't. Not what you think. It didn't happen. El's still, still. . .good." He caught himself. Even in her defense, how could he say "virgin" to some other girl? This conversation was beyond all boundaries anyway.
"You two weren't just making out. Not for her to be sent away and you to go off to school. What else would it be? Good girls just can't be around her. I bet you think you're so cool." She looked away, back towards El's house.
Phil remembered El telling him about Becky's dare to let a boy touch her breasts. He remembered El telling him that Becky had implied she'd petted with a boy, then had said she had. He grabbed Becky's shoulder. "El Goodman hasn't done anything more than you've done, Becky."
Becky looked at him again and took his hand off her shoulder. "I think she has, Phil. Your mom caught you. I'll bet in your room. You weren't just talking."
Phil knew his face turned red and he cast his eyes down towards the still green grass. How could she be so close to what had actually happened. She was accurate except for the simple fact they'd been caught before they'd had a chance to do it. "What makes you so sure of that?" he asked, trying to make his voice stern, but knowing it was almost a whisper.
"Ya'll were so wrapped up in each other, you didn't see me, but I saw both of you turn around and go back to your house after your mom drove away. I saw you throw your bikes down and rush inside as if you couldn't wait and then saw your mom return home. She'd left her car running. She must have forgotten something. But then she came flying out and turned off the motor and slammed the car door and the front door, too. She was mad.
"I just waited and then she came out with Elaine, who was crying and put her bike in the back of her car and drove off towards Elaine's house. You didn't come out and wave. So what else would you have been doing?" Her beautiful face smirked at Phil, but her eyes were dull, hurt looking. "She was my best friend, Phil Boydon until you came along."
Phil looked at her, ignoring her last statement. "You're awful, Becky. You didn't have to tell anybody what you saw. And what really happened is not what you think. I'm going to tell people you lied, so there."
Becky laughed, a short, violent snort. "The boy who ruined Elaine swears they didn't. Nobody at Mount Vernon will believe you. Go see your friend Mark. He'll give it to her. Maybe he'll try to tell her it's from him. All the boys are crawling over her now. And when they try to get fresh, the good girls just say 'I'm not Elaine Goodman. I'm a good girl'." She didn't smile at that and her eyes turned towards the ground.
Phil turned away, in the direction of Elaine's house, then looked back at Becky. "You aren't a good girl, Becky Greenwood. You're a lying little bitch." As the word left him, shock hit him that he had said such a word to a girl. Almost in a panic he ran towards Elaine's. Behind him, he could hear Becky yelling at him, but couldn't understand her words.
He tore down the steep hill and turned left at the bottom, running as fast as he could. It's futile, he thought. He couldn't see her, he knew, but he could look from the street. Her bedroom was in the back, so he couldn't even see her window and he knew he couldn't go onto the yard. But he could see her house. Then he was in front of the house and there was a car in the drive.
Her parents, or at least one, had to be home. He could go knock on the door and apologize, beg their forgiveness. He could tell them how El was ostracized at school and take the blame. Her parents could go to Mount Vernon and talk to the teachers, to her counselor and get things straightened out. Her mom could call Becky's mom and get this foolishness stopped.
He squared his shoulders, held his head high and marched up the drive, squaring his corners as he took the walk to the porch, climbed the steps as he had been trained to climb the steps from the Newberry parade field and rang the bell.
It opened and Phil looked at a stranger, a boy, older than El, but with her freckles and hair redder than El's bright chestnut. "Yes?" the boy, who looked like he might be in college, said.
"Are you George? Is your mom or dad home?"
"Mom is. Why? Who are you?"
"I really need to talk to your mom," Phil said, feeling perspiration trickle down his face.
The boy looked at him. "You're Phil Boydon, aren't you? You aren't supposed to see my sister. You aren't even supposed to be here." He stepped back, about to close the door, Phil knew.
"Please, George. I know I can't see El. I want to see your mom. I want to apologize and tell her something. The kids at school are being mean to El. Your mom has got to help her." He wiped the sweat from his face and his hands locked in front of him, like he was praying.
George stared at Phil, locking his eyes as a snake did a rat's before eating him. Then George nodded and said, "Wait here," and closed the door. Phil could hear steps and then it was quiet. A car drove down the street behind him and he could hear two kids yell at each other, obviously chasing each other on bikes. Then the door opened and Phil wanted to close his eyes. He knew it was George telling him to leave, that his mom would not speak to him. He lowered his eyes to the porch floor.
"You aren't supposed to be here, Phillip," Mrs. Goodman said and Phil raised his head to look at her. He noticed, for the first time, just how much her mom looked like El, just older and fuller.
"I know, ma'am. I'm going to get in trouble at home. But I had to talk to you, ma'am. El's in trouble at school. None of her girl friends will talk to her. They think she's bad. It's all my fault, Mrs. Goodman. It's all my fault. I love El and I've ruined her life and everything. How can I make it up to her? Or you and her dad?" Then he hiccupped while he could feel his eyes water. And he noticed the small bag in his hand and knew at once that Mrs. Goodman would know it was a birthday present. Would she punish El because he wanted to give her a present for her fourteenth birthday?
There was silence on the porch, except for Phil's hiccupping, which seemed to come faster. "Come in and sit down in the living room, Phil. I'll get you some water," Mrs. Goodman said, her voice soft.
Surprised, he followed her in and sat on the love seat he'd sat on the evening they learned they would be separated. He could feel El in the room and looked at the piano, expecting almost to see her there, back straight, palms raised at the keyboard as he had watched her practice so many times during June and July. His hiccups continued and he brushed his eyes with his shirt sleeve. Mrs. Goodman returned and handed him a full glass of water. "Drink it all down, Phil. One gulp and don't stop." He did, forcing the water down his throat. When the water was gone, he took the glass from his lips and the hiccups seemed over.
"Thanks, Mrs. Goodman. I guess you think I'm a baby or something. I just feel awful."
She took the glass from him. "I'm sorry that you didn't think of what might happen before. I suspected Elaine was getting the cold shoulder from her friends. I don't know what I can do, but perhaps I can do something to help her." She sighed. "There's not much you can do, Phil. I accept your apology. It sounds genuine now. El knows you are here. Her brother is with her until you leave, which will be very soon."
She gave him a faint smile. "I don't think you've ruined her life, Phil. You could have and we are going to make sure you don't and that she doesn't let you. But I think you've shown you can be a very brave and determined young man and I think you really care for my daughter." She put the glass down on the coffee table, on a magazine. "I suspect that little brown paper bag in your hand has a gift in it."
Phil tried to make it disappear, but he couldn't. Now he knew he'd brought fresh punishment on El. Why had he been so stupid? "Yes, ma'am. That's why I looked for Becky. Please don't punish El because I wanted to give her a present." Were his eyes beginning to water again? They just couldn't.
Mrs. Goodman really smiled so that she looked almost identical to El. "I won't, Phil. I'll give it to her if you'd like."
He knew his heart stopped. "Would you, Mrs. Goodman? That would be swell. Oh, thank you." Phil stood up and handed her the brown bag.
She moved towards the door and Phil followed. He was being shown out. "Phil, I'm not going to call your folks about this. But don't come back during this leave of yours, you understand? And no more presents."
He nodded. "Yes, ma'am. I won't. I really am sorry and thank you for letting me give her the present and I won't try to see her now and..."
"That's okay, Phil. Good bye," she said as she gently pushed him out the door. It closed behind him and he walked down the steps and back to the drive way, walking back to the street where he turned around.
He felt relief. But even more he felt sadness and shame. Here he'd been thinking he'd received the worst punishment and El had gotten off light. He was so wrong. She'd made the sacrifice, and she was getting the worst. Never again would he complain about his punishment.
He turned and began to trudge home.
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