Chapter 1 of With Friends Like These
Charlie Thornton was probably the only person in our small town who didn’t know I was dating Nicole Grant.
That’s because Charlie spent the Christmas holidays in England visiting his grandparents and recovering from the fight he’d had with Luke Trent in the middle of Harry’s Restaurant.
Of course, I knew Charlie wouldn’t stay in the dark long. But I sure didn’t expect Luke Trent, my best friend since nursery school, to be the one to bring him up to speed.
As I followed Luke out of history class on the Monday morning we went back to school, he yelled, “Guess you lost this one, Charlie.”
Charlie was ahead of us, so when he stopped dead to stare at Luke he caused a bit of a collision among the rest of the students streaming out of the classroom. “What are you talking about? What did I lose? Not the fight I had with you before Christmas!”
I managed to squeeze through the doorway behind Luke, and I tried to escape by going sideways down the hall, keeping my eyes on Luke and Charlie. I didn’t get far before bumping into a half-open locker. No big deal, except the belt loop on the back of my jeans caught on the locker’s catch.
“Bet you can’t guess who dated Nicole Grant during Christmas holidays?” Luke’s tone was deliberately provoking.
“Look,” Charlie said. “If you’ve got something to tell me, why don’t you just say it?”
They stood in the hallway, Charlie’s styled blond locks practically parallel to Luke’s dark mound of unruly curls.
“We all know you’ve done everything possible to get a date with her,” was Luke’s response.
“Luke, why don’t you just go to your next class? You aren’t going to start another fight with me.” Charlie started walking away.
“Looks like she found a better man.” Luke smiled.
I wanted to yell, “Shut up, you idiot!” but, of course, I couldn’t do that without drawing attention to myself—and to my being attached to a locker.
Charlie stopped and glared at Luke. “I heard you tried to date Nicole yourself.”
This happened to be true, but it didn’t seem to bother Luke. He grinned and said, “When you find out, you’re going to feel so stupid!”
Charlie was moving again. “You’re just trying to start an argument,” he yelled over his shoulder.
“Glen Sauten, that’s who!” Luke’s voice was triumphant. “How’s that for a nice surprise?”
Several people laughed.
I couldn’t see Charlie’s face, but I could imagine him rolling his eyes as he said, “Yeah, right, she’s dating Glen. Nice try.”
“No lie, buddy.”
“Nicole went out with Glen,” Charlie stated in a matter-of-fact voice. “As if!”
“No joke, man.”
“Give it up. He wouldn’t even have the guts to ask her.”
Luke shrugged. “Maybe she asked him.”
I managed to free my belt loop from the grasp of the locker, and backed carefully down the hall away from them. So what if my next class was in the opposite direction?
“Sure she did,” said Charlie. “How stupid do you think I am?”
“Maybe you should ask how many people saw them together during the holidays.” Luke looked like a boxer about to land a knockout punch.
“Don’t you ever give up?”
“Why should I? It’s true.” Luke broke out in a mock chant. “Nicole li-ikes Gle-en.” He repeated it several times.
At that point, Marta Billing’s strident voice rang out. “He’s right, Charlie. Nicole and Glen have been seen together. They’ve even been holding hands and all that mushy stuff.”
Several voices mumbled agreement.
An explosive “What?” came from Charlie’s direction. It was followed by “That…” and a string of expletives I won’t repeat here, with my name tacked onto the end.
Thanks a lot, Luke. I turned a corner and got out of there.
. . . . . . . . . .
I don’t need to mention that Charlie and Luke don’t exactly like each other. I think saying they hate each other’s guts would be closer to the truth.
Well, maybe not in Charlie’s case. But Luke disliked Charlie from the day Charlie moved here. Luke was the best football and basketball player until Charlie arrived—not to mention the top guy with the girls. So before Charlie had been here a week, they were like two stags, each trying to prove himself better than the other, and getting their antlers stuck together half the time.
However, the thing that really made Luke hate Charlie’s guts was that, just before Christmas, Luke’s girlfriend Jamie Ramsdale broke up with him to go out with Charlie.
As for Marta—I’ve known her as long as I’ve known Luke. Probably from nursery school. She was a pain in the butt even then. Now, with her long straight black hair and her black clothes and even black lipstick, she made me think of a Halloween ad for witch costumes. And the way she acts doesn’t exactly contradict the idea.
Charlie was dating Marta before he asked Jamie out. Okay, he was mostly dating Marta to try to make Nicole jealous. But Marta had as good a reason to be annoyed with Charlie as Luke did.
Oh, man, this sounds complicated!
Anyway, there I was, the monkey stuck in the middle, with no one giving me a chance to catch the ball.
Luke had been angry when I was friendly to Charlie after he first moved here. I didn’t see why Luke should tell me who I could have for a friend. But, of course, now that I was dating the girl he wanted, Charlie had become my enemy. Never mind that I was completely shocked when Nicole said she liked me. So now I was waiting for the next domino to fall—and I figured it would likely fall on my head.
I made it through the next class and part way through lunch before Charlie showed up at my side. Brandon Lovansky and Matt Robertson were eating with me, but the rats scurried away when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up. Sure enough, Charlie was standing there, a big smile on his face. “So, Glen, why don’t you tell me all about it?”
I kept chewing, but my tuna sandwich tasted like Styrofoam.
“I’ve been hearing the strangest stories.” Charlie’s voice was soft, but it scared me more than it would have if he’d yelled.
I cleared my throat, then glanced around, hoping to find somebody—anybody—who could help me out. A waste of time. The cafeteria was three-quarters full of kids, and the few who weren’t talking to one another or bent over their cell phones didn’t seem interested in Charlie and me. The only good thing was that I knew Nicole and Zoey had gone to Nicole’s house for lunch. Charlie probably knew that, too.
Back to the present.
Charlie had lowered himself onto the chair Brandon had vacated. “I’m waiting,” he said.
My dry lips managed to push out a few barely audible words. “Well, you see, Nicole—uh—she—uh—likes me.”
“So it’s true? She’s been going out with you?”
“Well, she went to the church youth Christmas party with me, and we’ve done a few other things together.”
The smile left his face and he lost his friendly manner. “You?” It’s hard to put on paper the disdain that word carried. If I’d been deflatable, I’d have shrivelled up and withered through a crack in the tile floor. His fist was waggling in my face, index finger pointing at me. “If you expect me to believe for one minute that Nicole Grant wants to go out with you, forget it!”
Aside from getting into one of those back and forth, “Yes, she does”— “No, she doesn’t” arguments, I didn’t know what more to say. But Charlie didn’t seem to expect an answer. He stared at me for a long, uncomfortable moment, and then he leaned his elbows on the cafeteria table and stared into space. I eased off my chair and started for the door.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he growled as he swung around.
I stopped and faced him. “Uh, I thought—you know—that you were finished.”
“I’m finished all right. Finished letting you think you’re a friend of mine! Finished pretending you’re anything except a weasel that doesn’t have the brains of a woodpecker. Why I was stupid enough to let you hang out with me since I moved here—! I guess I felt sorry for you. Well, I don’t any more!”
In one motion, he stood up and grabbed the front of my shirt. “If I ever catch you with Nicole, you’ll find out how it feels to have Charlie Thornton on your case! Got it, creep?” With that, he strode angrily out of the cafeteria.
I took a deep breath and blew the air out. Although I’d known from the first time I dated Nicole that Charlie would be upset when he found out, I really hadn’t known how he’d react. I could live with his threats. It was what else he might do that worried me.
I looked around.
Not one single person was looking in my direction. Yeah, right. They were pretending they hadn’t noticed. But by the end of the day, everybody in the school would know what had happened, and they’d all be waiting to find out if I was scared of Charlie.
I gathered the remains of my half-eaten lunch and walked slowly to the recycling bins.
I mean, weird that with all the guys in our town who had been begging her for a date, Nicole Grant should decide to like me. Me! Glen Sauten, youngest and least exciting of six Sautens, average height, average build, average looks, average brown hair, average brains, average everything.
Until Charlie moved to our town four months ago, my life was uneventful and safe. I mean that in a good way. I liked uneventful and safe. Since he’d moved here, a lot had happened, both good and bad. But nothing had prepared me for explaining to him what I was doing going out with the only girl in town he’d failed to date—and, wouldn’t you know, the only one he really wanted!
I trudged to my locker, my mind spinning in circles, trying to figure out if there was anything I could do to restore a certain degree of peace with Charlie. While I really wasn’t interested in being his friend any more, I had zero desire to get into a fight with him.
However, I really couldn’t see any way out of it if Charlie meant what he’d just said.
Charlie and I had been friends since his family moved to our town at the beginning of the school year in September, and I thought I knew him better than anybody. Everyone else saw him as intelligent and rich and good-looking and polite. For a long time, I thought the same. I also thought he was my best friend. But just before Christmas, I’d realized he was also shallow, vengeful, and concerned mainly about Charlie Thornton.
Having him for a friend was like being on a roller coaster ride. Having him for an enemy was something I didn’t even want to think about.
But neither did I want to think about never going out with Nicole again. Besides, she’d soon hear all about Charlie’s threat. If I told her I didn’t want to go out with her, she’d think it was because I was a coward. The whole school would. Who’m I kidding? In a place the size of Wallace—population 1,482 as of January first this year—the whole town would think I was a coward!
I made it through afternoon classes without getting yelled at more than three times. Don’t ask me what the classes were about, though; I spent the whole time mulling over my options. Go out with Nicole and have Charlie for my enemy, or not go out with Nicole and have her and everybody else think I was a coward. How about a third choice?
Way too soon, the last bell rang.
I turned to look at Charlie, and knocked my pen on the floor. Nervously leaning over to pick it up, I knocked my book onto the floor on the other side. Klutz! Can’t you do anything without making a fool of yourself? I finally found the pen just as somebody set my book on the desk. I looked up and saw Nicole.
She smiled. “Ready?”
I turned to look toward the back of the room. Charlie was standing there, legs apart, arms folded on his chest, watching.
The teacher left the room, but nearly everyone else pretended to be looking for a book or doing some last-minute work to give them an excuse to stay.
I shut my eyes and slumped into the seat. Surely Charlie wouldn’t start a fight right here!
“Glen, are you coming?” Nicole’s voice seemed far away. For a second, I wished I could just dissolve into the floor. But, of course, I couldn’t. Slowly, I opened my eyes and looked up at her. All I could think of was how pretty she is. No, beautiful. With her long golden hair and heart-shaped face, she looks like Cinderella might have after she became a princess.
“Glen, what are you doing?” she asked in a low voice. She frowned. “I heard some story about Charlie threatening you at lunch time. Did he?”
I stood up slowly. Charlie’s eyes were burning a hole in my back.
“Uh, Nicole, I—uh, I—” Words escaped me. Not for the first time.
Nicole’s green eyes were looking straight into mine, waiting for an explanation. How was it possible that I was dating the most gorgeous girl in town?
“Glen? What’s going on? You don’t really think Charlie would do something stupid, do you? He has to be bluffing.” She shook her head. “And he’s got absolutely no say in who I date. Who does he think he is, anyway?” She frowned again. “I’ll tell him if you want.”
I grabbed her arm. “No, don’t say anything!”
She gave me a funny look. “Glen, you’re not afraid of him, are you? I know he had a fight with Luke before Christmas. But that was over Jamie. And anyway, Luke started it. You would never start a fight, would you?”
“No. No, I wouldn’t.”
“Well, are we going for a Coke or not?”
I took a deep breath. Man or mouse. This was one decision no one else could make for me.
I grabbed my books with my left hand. “I thought we were going for a milkshake,” I said, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear. “Let’s hurry up so we can get a booth.”
Out in the hallway, Nicole’s friend, Zoey Burgess, was waiting at the locker they shared. “Class late getting out?” Zoey asked.
“No.” Nicole turned to me. “Glen, please tell me what’s going on. Everyone seemed to be watching us.”
“They were?” I shrugged, making my voice casual. “I didn’t notice.”
She wrinkled her forehead.
“Let’s hurry up so we can get a place to sit,” I urged, desperate to change the subject.
A hand clapped me on the back. “Way to go, buddy!”
Luke. Just what I needed.
“Get lost.” I’d mumbled out of the side of my mouth, and either he didn’t hear or he was ignoring me.
“Way to go!” he repeated.
Nicole and Zoey both gave him that puzzled look I mentioned earlier.
“Thanks a lot,” I muttered.
“Going to Harry’s?”
“Let’s go then. We can talk on the way.”
Remembering it was cold outside, I grabbed my winter jacket from my locker. There was a book I should have looked for, too, but this was not the time to worry about mundane things like homework.
The four of us left the school and started toward Harry’s Restaurant. It took us about ten minutes to get to Main Street, where all but a few stores are located.
I didn’t say much as we walked. Neither did Luke. I wanted to ask him what he thought he was doing, butting in like he was, but I couldn’t very well. I also wanted to ask him why he was walking downtown with us and leaving his car in the parking lot at the school. But I didn’t. And I wanted to tell him not to talk about Charlie and his threat, but I couldn’t do that, either.
I did make a face at him once. He asked if I had something in my eye, and then Nicole and Zoey wanted to know if I was okay. I gave up.
. . . . . . . . . .
Harry’s Restaurant has been the main hangout for kids in Wallace for forty years. According to my mother, the appearance hasn’t changed in all that time.
The walls are beige with posters of sports cars, and the curtains on the windows that line the front wall are red with brown and beige polka dots.
There’s a long brown and beige counter with a dozen red stools in front of the kitchen area, and there are four tables with chairs between the counter and the outside windows. Then, along one side, going back into a corner next to the enclosed part of the kitchen, there are six booths with high-backed red plastic seats and brown melamine table tops.
Some other kids were already there, but I didn’t see Charlie, so I relaxed. We sat in a booth in the back corner and drank milkshakes and ate French fries and talked about ordinary stuff. Actually, Nicole and Zoey did most of the talking. I never have much to say, and besides, I still felt like I should be pinching myself to find out if this was real.
Luke was a lot quieter than usual. He spent most of his time looking around, like he was watching for somebody. Maybe Jamie. That’s who he dated all last summer and fall before they quarrelled and she went out with Charlie.
Luke left us outside the restaurant. I didn’t say anything, just assumed he was walking back to the school to get his car.
Zoey lives on a farm twenty minutes away, but her mom was in town today to do some shopping and was going to pick her up later, so the three of us walked to Nicole’s house.
We were talking about school starting and other mundane things when Nicole suddenly said, “You’re going to be working hard the rest of the year, aren’t you Glen?”
“Huh?” ‘Working’ and ‘hard’ aren’t words I tend to use.
“You need good marks to get into college, and your marks haven’t always been the greatest. You are planning to work hard this term, aren’t you? I know you could get better marks if you just put in more effort.”
I hadn’t thought much about it. Studying and I aren’t exactly on a first name basis. True, I’d managed to get a couple of good marks before Christmas, but they were the exception, not the rule. And I’d had to work hard for them. “I guess.”
“I’ll help you if you want.”
The thought of studying with Nicole sure beat the thought of not studying by myself. “That’d be great,” I said with enthusiasm.
“But you’ll really have to work.” She laughed, her eyes sparkling up at me.
I made a face and she and Zoey both laughed.
We came to Nicole’s house. “Well, thanks for the milkshake, Glen,” she said.
Zoey said, “Yes, Glen, thanks. I hope you know you didn’t have to pay for mine.”
“Uh, that’s okay.” I looked at the sidewalk. “Dad and Mom won’t let me buy a car, so I’ve got all this money I saved from my job last summer just sitting in my bank account gathering interest.”
“Well, don’t spend all your money on us,” Nicole said. “You’ll need it for college.”
I stared at her. She sounded just like my dad.
“You have applied, haven’t you?”
“I—uh. Oh—oh, yeah, sure.”
Then Zoey opened the door and Nicole started to follow her in.
“I just wondered—well, should we figure out what we want to do? I mean, like, do you want to do something Friday? Maybe go bowling?”
We had a small bowling alley in town, next to Ed’s Pool Hall. Ed owned both. I wasn’t sure if she’d go bowling. Because Nicole’s dad is a pastor, and because she’s a Christian, she doesn’t do a lot of things other kids take for granted. I was still learning what was okay and what wasn’t.
But she immediately said, “Yes, I like bowling.”
She smiled. “I’ll check with my parents and let you know for sure tomorrow. But I think it will be okay. Would it be all right if I ask Zoey to come?”
Not exactly what I had in mind. “Uh, yeah, sure. Should I get somebody else? Matt or Brandon, maybe?”
“I’ll ask her. She might like to invite Ted or Andy.”
“Sure.” I didn’t really want Zoey along, and certainly not Ted or Andy or one of the other guys from the church. Most of them were annoyed that I was dating Nicole, too. Matt or Brandon were easy-going buddies of mine and would be nice and safe.
“Bye.” She gave me a huge smile and went inside.
That smile made me forget all about Zoey, Charlie, school, everything.
. . . . . . . . . .
I’d only walked a block and a half when Charlie’s car drove up beside me. He had the passenger’s window down and he leaned over to yell, “Get in!”
I ignored him and kept walking.
His car stayed beside me. “I said get in, jerk!”
“I don’t need a ride, thanks,” I answered, trying to keep my voice normal.
But as I came to the end of the block, Charlie’s tires squealed as he pulled his car directly across my path.
Feeling a surge of adrenaline, I whipped around behind his car and tore down the next block. I cut across the elementary school grounds onto a walking path between some houses and sneaked through another walkway and a couple of backyards to the street I lived on.
Charlie couldn’t have followed me because, after the elementary school, which is next to the high school, the houses are built in courts and circles instead of the square blocks the rest of the town is built in. Why new areas are like that, I don’t know. Usually, I find it annoying. But right now I was glad. Charlie had to drive the long way around while I could cut through.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t be ahead of me. And since his house is kitty-corner from mine, I still had to go by his place to get to mine.
Sure enough. His car was in the driveway and he was standing at the edge of the road watching for me.
I slowed to a crawl and tried to think of some way to get into my house without having to confront him.
“You look like you’ve been running for your life,” Charlie called out when he saw me. “Did something scare you? Your shadow, maybe?”
I didn’t say anything. Even if I wasn’t out of breath, I wouldn’t know what to say.
I kept walking until I was level with his house. At the same time, Charlie crossed over to my side and stood directly in front of me.
I stopped a few feet from him.
“I told you to stay away from Nicole,” he said. Both the look on his face and the tone of his voice were what I’d call menacing.
I stopped. “Since when do I have to do what you say?” The words were mine, but I couldn’t believe I’d said them.
“You don’t have to do anything,” he said evenly, “but if you’re smart—”
Don’t ask me what would have happened next. All I know is that Mrs. Pearson, who lives three doors down from us and is at least 75 years old, came out onto her front porch just then and called out, “Glen! Glen Sauten, is that you?”
“Uh, yeah!” I tried not to look and sound too happy, but, believe me, I was happy. “Yeah, it’s me! Do you need me?”
“Oh, Glen, I thought it was you I saw going by. I’m so glad you’re still outside. Your friend, too. I wonder if you boys could be so kind as to come and move something for me? I’ve been wondering all day how to move it, but two big strong boys like you should have no trouble at all.”
With a glare at me and, I suspect, another one at Mrs. Pearson, Charlie followed me into her house. It’s hard to explain, but her house is a lot older than ours. It was once a farmhouse, and when they built the new subdivision, Mrs. Pearson refused to move or sell out, so they just planned the new houses around hers. Now, her old two-story is surrounded by bungalows and split-levels and a few other two-story houses, none of which look at all like hers.
Charlie and I pulled a solid oak bureau out from the wall for her. Apparently, when she was dusting this morning, one of the many pictures of her children and grandchildren fell behind, and there was no way on earth she could get it out.
She held it now, lovingly wiping it off with her apron, a smile covering her face. “Oh, thank you so much, boys! I’m sure I don’t know how I’d have managed without you. Come and have some juice and cookies.”
We put the bureau back, and then Charlie said he had to go, but I quickly accepted her offer. He glared at me before he left. But I was feeling pretty good. Fate seemed to be on my side this time.
Besides, Mrs. Pearson makes great cookies.