Kristen Chapter #23: Challenge

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Published on 23.02.06 11:43 Age: 14 yrs

Letters : 18577 Words : 3055

By: Nemo

“Why so glum, chum?” Janet asked, taking a seat next to Kristen.

Kristen sat slumped over the redwood picnic table just outside the lifeguard station, with her chin resting on her folded arms, her eyes staring blankly at the table top. As Janet lowered herself onto the bench, Kristen sat up slowly and turned toward her. “I’m sorry, what?” she asked, dully.

“What’s wrong, Kristen?” Janet said. “You’ve been a million miles away all day. Didn’t you sleep very well last night?”

“Oh, I’ve never slept better,” Kristen said, with a weak smile. “You must have the world’s most comfortable couch.”

“Why so glum, chum?” Janet asked, taking a seat next to Kristen.

Kristen sat slumped over the redwood picnic table just outside the lifeguard station, with her chin resting on her folded arms, her eyes staring blankly at the table top. As Janet lowered herself onto the bench, Kristen sat up slowly and turned toward her. “I’m sorry, what?” she asked, dully.

“What’s wrong, Kristen?” Janet said. “You’ve been a million miles away all day. Didn’t you sleep very well last night?”

“Oh, I’ve never slept better,” Kristen said, with a weak smile. “You must have the world’s most comfortable couch.”

“It probably won’t seem as comfortable tonight,” Janet said. She handed Kristen a brown paper bag, and opened her own lunch bag. “Last night I think you were so tired you could have slept on a bed of nails.”

“I really appreciate your letting me sleep on your couch,” Kristen said, opening her lunch bag and peering inside. “But I think I’m just going to go straight home this afternoon. I was looking at the newspaper a little earlier, and—well, I’m just wasting my time looking for an apartment down here.”

“Oh, you’re not giving up already, are you?” Janet asked.

“‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I. In a cowslip’s bell I lie,’” muttered George, who sat on the other side of Kristen, eating an orange.

“What?” said Janet and Kristen, together.

“It’s Shakespeare,” George said. “‘There I couch when owls do cry. On the bat’s back I do fly after summer merrily.’”

“What does it mean?” Kristen asked, giving George a puzzled look.

George shrugged. “I dunno. Probably nothing. It just sort of popped into my head right now,” he said, with a mischievous smile. “Oh, here’s another: ‘There’s a divinity which shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.’”

“Uh oh,” said Richard, approaching the picnic table with his lunch bag in his hand. “I don’t know what you ladies have done, but things must be pretty desperate to have George quoting Shakespeare at you,” he said, chuckling. He sat down opposite Kristen at the picnic table. The other lifeguards were coming out of the lifeguard station one by one, lunches in hand, and taking seats around the table.

“Maybe you can help, Richard,” Janet said. “Kristen’s giving up on finding a place to stay after just one day. You own property around here. Do you have any ideas?”

Richard frowned. “The real estate market near the beach is always tight this time of year,” he said, sighing. “Janet, I think you’ve found the only people who leave just when the season’s starting.”

Kristen bit her lip and sighed. She looked at Janet. “See?” she said. “Some people just have a really long commute to their jobs. They manage somehow.” She shrugged. “It will just take a little while to get used to it, that’s all.”

Richard patted Kristen’s hand. “Hey, don’t give up too soon, kid,” he said. “I’ll think about it, and make a few phone calls tonight. Okay? I don’t want you to get your hopes up too much. It’s tough this time of year, but not necessarily impossible.”

“Thanks, Richard,” Kristen said with a shy smile. “Don’t go to too much trouble, okay? I—I’m thinking I’ve probably got some pretty unrealistic expectations now.”

“Unrealistic how?” Richard asked, taking a bite from a large sandwich.

Kristen blushed and put a hand over her eyes. “Ever since Janet told me she gets to go naked all summer, I’ve been really jealous,” she said, with an embarrassed laugh. “It’s weird, because just a few days ago the idea would have horrified me.”

Beth, who had taken a seat beside Richard, laughed. “See, Kristen?” she said. “I told you you’d like it here.”

Richard chuckled. “Well, because Black Knife is here, we tend to get some fairly open-minded people in this area. You’ve probably got a moderately decent chance of finding roommates and landlords who tolerate nudity around here. That is, if you can find a place at all. Listen, I’ll do my best, okay?” He patted Kristen’s hand again.

“Okay, thanks,” Kristen said with a wan smile. She absent-mindedly closed her lunch bag without taking out any of the food inside, and once again stared vacantly at the top of the table.

Janet gave Kristen a worried look. She glanced around the table, exchanging glances with the other lifeguards, who had all noticed Kristen’s distracted state.

“What’s the matter, Kristen?” Janet asked. “Aren’t you hungry?”

Kristen looked up and smiled. “Oh, I’m starved,” she said.

Janet frowned. “Then why don’t you eat something?” she said, tapping on Kristen’s lunch bag.

Kristen looked at the brown paper bag as if she hadn’t seen it before. “Oh—okay, thanks,” she said. She opened the bag again, and pulled out a sandwich.

“C’mon, Kristen,” Janet said. “What’s eating you? Richard said he was going to try to find you a place to stay. And you’re welcome to sleep on the couch until you can find something.”

“Oh, it’s not that,” Kristen said, smiling at Janet and Richard. “I—I really appreciate what you guys are doing for me. It’s not that. No—sometimes I just think too much.”

“What is it, Kristen?” Janet said, putting a hand on Kristen’s shoulder. “Something’s bothering you, and I’m starting to worry about you.”

Kristen let out a long, deep sigh. “Have you ever been convinced—really convinced—that you understand something, but everybody around you is convinced of exactly the opposite?” she asked.

Janet furrowed her brow, puzzled. “I dunno,” she said. “Maybe. What do you mean?”

Kristen sighed again, and paused for a long moment before she spoke. “Beth,” she asked, “do you think those gawkers are going to try to come back again?”

Beth frowned. “Don’t worry too much about the gawkers, Kristen,” she said. “Once we start to get the real crowds down here, we’ll have plenty of support in case we have to face those creeps again.”

“You know what scares me?” Trina said. “I’m afraid they’re going to come down here with guns or knives or something. Even if we’ve got a bunch of people to help us, somebody’s going to get hurt.”

Beth glared at Trina. “Well, yeah, that’s right,” she said, “But I’ve asked for an increased presence of the beach patrol down here, at least for the next few weeks. I don’t know if we’ll actually get it, but I’ve put in the paperwork.”

“They weren’t carrying any weapons yesterday when Richard and I frisked them,” Don said.

“Frisked them?” Janet said. “I was watching the whole thing, and I didn’t see you frisk them.”

Don laughed. “You saw them turn around and bump into us, didn’t you?”

“A misspent youth is never a total loss,” Richard said quietly, raising his eyebrows and smiling.

“And it always pays to find a talented mentor,” Don said, punching playfully at Richard’s shoulder. “Isn’t that right, Obi-Wan?” Richard just laughed and took another bite from his sandwich.

“Okay, so they weren’t carrying any weapons yesterday,” Kristen said. She furrowed her brow, and seemed lost in thought for a long moment. “Listen, guys,” she said, “if Tony comes down here again, could you all call off the cavalry and let me go face him alone?”

“What?” several shocked voices called out in unison.

“Kristen, you don’t know what you’re getting into,” Beth said. “Don’t you remember what I told you about Tony?”

Janet had a tight grip on Kristen’s forearm. “It’s too dangerous,” she said.

“Oh, you’re crazy,” Don said, shaking his head.

Trina let out a startled little squeal. Alicia rolled her eyes in disbelief.

George and Richard each gazed steadily at Kristen’s eyes. George wore a strange smile. Richard seemed puzzled and concerned.

“What are you thinking, Kristen?” George asked softly.

“Beth,” Kristen said, “how long has it been since that last encounter with the gawkers, when Tony attacked Lisa? Eight or nine years?”

Beth nodded. “I suppose that’s about right,” she said.

Kristen scanned the faces of all the lifeguards gathered at the table. “I’m not crazy,” she said. “But I think we’ve all been reading this wrong.” She looked at Alicia, who sat at the end of the table. “Alicia,” Kristen said, “when they came up to you yesterday, what exactly did they say?”

Alicia snorted. “Well, they were both breathing hard, and they were red in the face,” she said. “And as they got close to me, they both looked me up and down and gave me this really dirty smirk.”

“Did you recognize them?” Kristen asked.

“I recognized Tony from the pictures,” Alicia said. “I’d never seen the pimple-faced boy.”

“I don’t think any of us recognized the younger guy,” Beth said. “But everybody recognized Tony.”

“Okay,” Kristen said. “So, what did they say?”

“Well,” Alicia continued, “like I said, they both looked me up and down and gave me this filthy smile. Then Tony, in this really sarcastic tone of voice, says, ‘Oh, my, you’re certainly looking lovely today.’ And the pimple-faced kid lets out this dirty snicker. It’s been a while since a guy has looked at me and made me feel embarrassed, but I sure felt embarrassed right then.”

“That’s right,” Trina said. “And then, in the same snotty tone of voice, he said, ‘Can you suggest a good place for me to spread out a beach blanket?’ And the younger guy does that dirty laugh again.”

Kristen winced a little, and slowly shook her head.

“That’s about the time Beth and George came up,” Alicia said. “They gave Beth that same dirty leer, and Tony said something about how much he liked our outfits.” Her cheeks reddened a little as she told the story.

“I think Tony seemed pretty nervous after Beth arrived,” Trina said. “It was pretty obvious that she knew who he was.”

“I said, ‘Tony, you know you’re not welcome down here,’” Beth said, tersely.

Trina nodded. “That’s right. And it looked like that knocked some of the air out of him,” she said. “I guess that’s about the same time Richard and Don came running up.”

“They were afraid we were gonna kick their asses, that’s what it was,” Don said.

“Well, Tony looked pretty nervous. I think the younger guy was too dumb to feel scared,” Trina said. “But Tony squared his shoulders, looked over at Don and Richard, and said hello.”

“He said, ‘Good day, gentlemen,’” Richard said.

“That’s right,” Trina said. “I think he was sweating. He seemed pretty nervous. And then he made some sort of elaborate apology, about not wanting to upset anyone, still in that same snotty tone of voice.”

“He said, ‘We didn’t come down here to upset anyone,’” Beth added. “Then he said, ‘We certainly didn’t mean to give offense to any of you lovely people. Please accept my heartfelt apologies if we have wronged you in any way.’ And then he bowed, and grabbed Alicia’s hand and kissed it.”

“He took me completely by surprise,” Alicia said angrily.

“I think he was going to kiss my hand, too,” Beth said. “But I guess he saw the look in my eyes and thought better of it. Then they both turned around and more or less high-tailed it out of here.”

“After a discreet pat-down,” Don added with a laugh.

Kristen was frowning and kneading her temples. She shook her head slowly. “I think we’re reading this all wrong,” she said after a moment. “It—it’s just a gut feeling, but I think they were trying to be nice.”

The table erupted in derisive laughter. “Oh, Kristen,” Beth said, “take my word for it. Tony is not a nice person.”

“Had you ever seen him in person before yesterday, Beth?” Kristen asked.

“No,” Beth answered, “but I know his history. Richard’s seen him before.”

Richard was staring at Kristen’s face with an expression of keen interest. He nodded. “That’s right. I was down here the day he attacked Lisa.”

“Now, just think about it,” Kristen said. “He came down and he tried to pay you a compliment, right? Then he asked a civil question about where he could put his beach blanket.”

“Well, he didn’t have a beach blanket with him,” Alicia said testily.

Kristen shrugged. “Then Beth came up and told him he wasn’t welcome here,” she continued. “So Tony apologizes, and they leave.”

“You didn’t hear that sneery tone of voice, okay?” Alicia said angrily. “You didn’t hear the way that pimple-faced kid snickered all the time, or see the way they looked at us, okay?”

“Janet and I passed them twice on the trail, Alicia,” Kristen said. “I think I know what you’re talking about. They paid us the same kind of compliments, and my face sure turned red. Like I said, it’s just a gut feeling, but I think they were trying to be polite, and somehow they’ve just never learned how to act nice.”

George was looking steadily into Kristen’s eyes with a broad smile growing across his face.

“Don’t you remember the kinds of stuff Tony was involved in?” Janet asked.

“I remember,” Kristen responded. “Don’t you think somebody could change in eight or nine years?”

Richard reached across the table and put his hand on Kristen’s. “You’re betting an awful lot on a gut feeling, aren’t you, Kristen? It could be pretty risky if you’re wrong.”

Kristen looked at Richard and nodded. “Oh, I know. But I’ve got this theory—I guess it’s my mom’s theory, really—that everybody’s entitled to be respected. No matter how obnoxious they seem. Does that make any sense? And during the past few days I’ve learned that—some of the time, at least—the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. So I’m not afraid.”

Richard smiled. “If it’s any consolation, Kristen, I like your gut feeling,” he said. “Sometimes all it takes is a little understanding to turn an enemy into an ally.”

“What? You agree with her?” Beth said.

Richard bowed his head for a moment, then looked at Beth. “You know what I really think?” he said. “If we see Tony heading down to the beach this summer, I think we ought to saddle up the cavalry, as Kristen put it. But then I think we ought to hold our horses for a little bit, and give Kristen a chance to prove that people can change. If she’s wrong, then I want to come down on Tony with everything we’ve got. But, you know, I don’t think she’s going to be wrong.”

Beth let out a long, deep sigh. “I really value your judgment, Richard. But I hate to think about sending Kristen out to face that asshole—excuse the language—alone. She—she might be risking her life here.”

Kristen smiled. “I’m a lifeguard, Beth. Goes with the territory.”

Beth blushed a little. “Okay. You win,” she said. “I still want to be ready for the worst, but I’m willing to give Tony a chance to prove he’s changed his stripes.”

Richard smiled and shook Kristen’s hand. “I’m proud to know you, Kristen. You’re going to be a real asset to Black Knife Beach. Whether you’re right or wrong about Tony, you’ve got the right stuff.”

Kristen blushed. “Thank you,” she said softly.

There was a sudden twinkle in Richard’s eye. “You know,” he said, “if you’re brave—I mean really brave—I know a very nice house just about half a mile from the beach. A really nice place—nice big yard, swimming pool, plenty of privacy. Cheap rent, too. Two female housemates. You would be nude all the time there, and just get dressed to come back and forth to the beach.”

“Wow—sounds great,” Kristen said. “Why would I have to be brave? Is it one of those cliffside houses about to slide into the ocean?”

“No, nothing like that,” Richard said, laughing. “It’s just that, uh, one of the housemates is my sister.”

Janet shouted, “No!” A chorus of moans rose from the lifeguards gathered around the table.

“Richard, how could you?” Beth said.

Richard smiled and looked into Kristen’s eyes. “What do you think, Kristen? Are you up for a challenge?”

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