Another New Story!

Another New Story!

Here’s another gift to readers of the Dream Series books.  This is the second of three short pieces written especially for the holidays (you can find the first one, “Girl’s Best Friend”, right here).

This story takes place during the first book of the series, DREAM STUDENT.  In the book, we discover that Brian’s mother, Helen Alderson, is not especially fond of Sara.  But here we see that Helen’s dislike runs far deeper than Sara could imagine.  I hope you enjoy it – this story takes place at Christmas of 1989, and  it’s called “That Girl”

“Helen, the boy is eighteen years old.  You ought to be glad he’s met a girl.  It’s past time.”

Helen Alderson gaped at her husband.  How could he say that?  How could he even think it?  That’s how they had lost Jack.  It started with a girl, and it went downhill from there.  Did he really not remember what happened with their eldest son?  How he’d signed up for Junior ROTC because of some girl in his tenth grade history class, and two years later he was enlisting in the Army?

Helen found her voice.  “Wonderful.  I get to watch Brian throw his life away, just like his brother did.  It really makes all the work we did raising him worthwhile.”

“I’d hardly say that Jack has thrown his life away,” Ben Alderson said, in the same calm tone he nearly always employed.  “He has a good job, a wife, and two beautiful children.”

Helen was not calmed.  “How do we even know they’re real children?  We’ve only ever seen pictures!”  Even to her own ears, her words sounded absurd, but she continued on regardless.  “People do that.  They fake photos.  They hire whole fake families.  I’ve read about it!  It was in Time Magazine last year!”

Ben shook his head and walked into the living room.  Helen followed.  Ben sat on the couch, picked up the remote control, stared at it for a moment, as though weighing what, if anything, he should say next.  He set the remote back down, sighed, and said, “I read that article.  Sensationalist nonsense.  They took a silly phenomenon in Japan and made it sound like a trend sweeping the world.  Our grandchildren are real, Helen.”

Her husband’s words sounded reasonable, just as they always did.  But Helen could not bring herself to be reasonable at the moment.  “Japan!  Exactly!  And Jack is in Germany.  They were allies.  They fought together in the war.  If the Japanese do it, the Germans can do it, too.”

Ben shook his head.  “There’s a big difference between Japan and Germany,” he said.  “But let’s leave it for now.  ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ is on.  Wouldn’t you rather watch that than argue about whether our eldest son has hired a fake wife and fake children?”

It was her favorite movie.  She let Ben turn on the TV, and it wasn’t until almost half an hour into the film that she remembered her concern wasn’t Jack’s possibly fake children, but Brian’s very real new girlfriend.  But, she knew, she would get nowhere with Ben on the topic tonight.  She’d just have to plan her next move more carefully, gather as much information as she could, so that when she raised the issue again, he’d see she was right.  Because she was right.  Jack was several thousand miles away, they hadn’t seen him in person for years, and ultimately all because of a girl.  She wasn’t going to stand idly by while it happened to Brian, too.

 

***

 

She’d bided her time for a week, but enough was enough.  The moment Brian got out of the car, he ran into the house and went straight for the phone.  And not just any phone – the one in Ben’s office.  With the door shut!

The entire ride back from the airport, she’d been expecting to hear about his final exams, and what grades he thought he’d gotten and all the other details about his college life.  She heard none of that: what she actually got was a solid hour of “Sara this” and “Sara that.”

This was exactly like Jack in high school.  Exactly.  That girl – Helen refused to say the name, even in the privacy of her own mind – completely ruined Jack’s life.  And now it was happening all over again.  She couldn’t imagine what horrible path this “Sara” was going to try and lead her son down, but the girl had to be stopped.

The only good thing about the drive home was that she, finally, had Sara’s last name, and some information on the girl’s parents.  She didn’t recognize the name, “Barnes,” but she had a guess as to where the father worked.  He was a sales manager at a chemical company, according to Brian, and based on where he lived, there was really only one place it could be.

Luckily, Helen knew someone who worked there: Michelle Sandberg’s husband.  Michelle could be flighty – her term as treasurer of their chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, two years ago, had been a rocky one – but when you absolutely needed the latest gossip, there was nowhere better to turn.  So she called Michelle.  She asked her to find out what she could about Mr. Barnes the sales manager.  “I’m just curious,” Helen said when Michelle asked her why she wanted to know.

“You’re never just curious,” Michelle replied.

“I didn’t want to say anything,” Helen lied, “but his daughter is in Brian’s dormitory.  She might be able to help Brian get a job there this summer.  Get his foot in the door.  I’d just like to know a little more about her, first.”

Michelle accepted that answer, perhaps a little bit too easily.  At her next bridge club meeting, she would probably wonder aloud why Ben and Helen needed any help to get their son a decent summer job.  But it couldn’t be helped, and, anyway, that was far better than the truth.

Helen was in the middle of cooking dinner when Michelle called back, with – no surprise – a detailed report.  The Barnes family lived exactly where Brian had reported, in a “pretty nice” two-story house.  The father, Howard, was forty-three years old and well-regarded at his company.  His title wasn’t merely “sales manager” but Regional Sales Manager.  He drove a two-year-old Toyota which he kept in good condition.  He had two children: the girl, who was a junior in college and planning to go to medical school; and a son who was still in high school and “a little weird.”  The family owned a Golden Retriever who was poorly trained.  The wife, Betty, stayed at home, kept a neat house, attended nearly every company event at which family was expected and was a year older than her husband.

While she finished preparing the lasagna and got it in the oven, Helen considered everything.  There were definite red flags there.  The girl was two years ahead of Brian, and on top of that, everyone knew that girls matured faster than boys.  The two year age difference might as well be four or five years.  For all practical purposes, her son was really dating a twenty-three or twenty-four year old woman, for Heaven’s sake!  And obviously it ran in the family, with the mother being older than the father.  And, if the parents were only forty-three and forty-four, that meant they’d had their first child when they were barely out of college.  If they’d gone at all.  And then there was the dog: a badly trained dog was clearly a sign of laziness, selfishness or worse.

Helen gave Ben the report the moment he got home from work.  “They sound like a lovely family,” he said.  She didn’t understand how he could not see any of the blatantly obvious red flags.  He was blind to the danger that this girl – and her family – presented to Brian and to the life he ought to have.

“Ben…”

“Helen, it seems to me that our son picked a real winner here.  A pre-med student?  A solid family?  What else do you want?  We ought to be happy for him.”

She sighed heavily.  He just wouldn’t understand, not until he saw them all up close, when they would – she was certain – reveal themselves, warts and all.  Yes – that was it!  She smiled, as the plan came together.  Bring them all here for Christmas Eve dinner.  It would be worth spoiling the family tradition just this once, to show both Ben and Brian the error of their ways.  One fiasco of a dinner was a small price to pay to save her son’s life, wasn’t it?

Helen picked up the phone; there was no time like the present to make the arrangements.  A woman’s voice answered the phone.  It couldn’t be the daughter; that wasn’t the voice of a twenty-year old.  “Hello?”

“Mrs. Barnes?  This is Helen Alderson.”  She wondered what the girl’s parents thought of all this.  They probably weren’t any happier than she was.  They were probably shocked that their daughter was dating a much younger boy.  How could they be pleased about that?  But better to let them be the ones to disapprove.  The thing to do here, Helen knew, was to sound as though she approved of this madness, and force them to show their hand.  “I’ve heard so much about your daughter from Brian, I feel like I know her already.  I’m sure it’s the same for you,” she said, hitting the ball squarely into Betty Barnes’ court.

“What?”  It came out automatically, instantly.  Helen knew at once that it was a genuine reaction.  “I – I’m sorry, you must have the wrong number.”

“No,’ Helen said, with a laugh.  In five seconds, she’d won.  The girl obviously hadn’t told her parents about Brian.  That meant one of two things.  Either that she wasn’t serious about him, and that would come out soon enough; or she knew her parents would disapprove, which would end the relationship just the same.  “Brian is my son.  He just came home from college today, and all he can talk about is Sara.  So I thought it would be nice to have her and her family here for Christmas Eve dinner.  You’re all invited – you and your husband, and your son, too, of course.”  It was perfect.  Let the woman wonder how I know everything about her family, Helen thought, but she knows absolutely nothing about the boy her daughter is seeing.

“Oh – that Brian.  Of course,” Betty said.  Helen heard the hesitation, and the too-casual laugh.  The woman was a terrible liar.  Helen supposed that was a good quality.  But then, everyone had some good qualities – that didn’t mean one had to mix with them socially.  “That’s a very kind invitation, but we couldn’t possibly impose on you like that.”

“Oh, it’s no bother,” Helen said, in a firm tone.  “No bother at all.  I insist.”  And when Helen Alderson insisted, that was the last word on any subject.

 

***

 

Helen had to admit that she was a little concerned Brian was still talking non-stop about Sara.  She’d expected that not seeing the girl for several days would help get her out of his system.  She knew what went on at colleges these days, especially with co-ed dormitories.  The girl probably wandered around half-dressed all the time, showing herself off to every boy in the building.  It was no wonder that Brian was so taken with that – how could he not be?

It hadn’t been like that at Lehigh.  At least, it hadn’t been like that for Helen.  Boys were strictly forbidden in her dormitory, and the house mother, Mrs. Donatello, enforced that policy without exception.  She also seemed to have eyes not only in the back of her head, but strategically located throughout the building.

It was a very different era; she hadn’t even properly kissed Ben until her junior year.  God alone knew what the students got up to these days.  But whatever the girl was doing to – or, worse, with – her son, it would end soon enough.  In just a couple of hours, if Helen had anything to say about it.

Dinner was almost all prepared, and the Barnes family was supposed to arrive at two o’clock.  At five minutes to two, Helen heard a car coming up the driveway, and, sure enough, there was the two-year-old Toyota.  Helen walked out to the entrance hall, where her husband and her son were already opening the door.  She took her place beside Ben, looking over the Barnes family as introductions were made.

The father wore a nice, if somewhat dated, suit with a Christmas-themed tie.  It galled her to admit that he was better dressed than Ben – who insisted on wearing the horrendous sweater his sister made for him.  The mother was also conservatively dressed, in a long skirt and a white sweater.  Helen did notice the diamond earrings, which were, she conceded, quite understated and tasteful.  If she were being honest, they were exactly the sort of thing she herself might pick out.  The son wore his suit as though it were something alien – which went along with the report of him being weird.  Obviously he was more comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt, as so many of the kids were these days.

She turned her attention to the girl.  The mother must have dressed her, because she was extremely neat and demure.  Her skirt went down to her ankles, her sweater was feminine without being too tight or cut too low and even her shoes were both flattering and at the same time very sensible.  She looked nothing like the tramp that Helen knew she must be.

While Brian took the girl in a brief tour of the house – not quite as brief as Helen would have preferred, however – she introduced the Barneses to her brother-in-law and his wife and daughter, got them drinks and showed them into the living room.

A few minutes later, dinner was served.  The girl had to have been coached by her mother; she was on her best behavior.  She spoke politely, used all the proper utensils when she ate, didn’t spill a drop of her water or a crumb of her food.  She talked about her plans after college, which Helen already knew.  “So you’ll be in school another four years, and a resident for four years after that, before you’ll have any time for a social life,” Helen said, and the girl showed surprise for the first time.

It was clear to Helen what was going on: the girl thought so highly of herself, it hadn’t occurred to her that Helen would see right through her.  She obviously hadn’t planned on that.  Brian might be a naïve boy whose head could be turned by any girl willing to lounge around the dormitory in her underwear, but Helen Alderson wasn’t so easily fooled.

The girl continued to be surprised throughout dinner, and dessert.  She seemed to genuinely not understand Helen’s suspicions.  Obviously she thought that Brian was lucky she even deigned to speak to him, and that his parents ought to be equally grateful.  Helen knew why the girl believed that: Crewe University had twice as many boys as girls – it had been a big point in that school’s favor when Brian was applying, as far as Helen was concerned.  The downside to that ratio was sitting at her Christmas Eve table, however: while there were less girls around to distract Brian, if one of them did set her sights on him, how could he possibly be expected to resist?

After dessert, everyone moved into the living room, where, to Helen’s annoyance, Ben turned on the TV to watch the stupid Philadelphia Eagles.  And – this was unexpected, although, probably, she should have anticipated it – Ben and the girl’s father began to bond as they watched.  She’d seen it before, two men of vastly different stations in life, becoming fast friends thanks to their shared love of a bunch of overgrown apes in green and white uniforms.

But the worst was still to come.  When the game ended – with Ben and the father talking about trying to get together next week to watch another game – the girl ran out to their car and returned with a wrapped package.  It had to be a gift for Brian.  Worse, she saw that Brian had a gift for her, too – a small box.  There was only one thing that came in a box that size: jewelry.

Helen had to fight down a sudden fear: what if it wasn’t merely jewelry in that box, but a ring?  A diamond ring?  Brian didn’t have the money for anything like that, and to even imagine such a thing was madness, but that didn’t mean it was impossible.

Brian opened his gift from the girl: an autograph of some baseball player, which Brian and Ben and the girl’s father all fawned over.  And then the girl opened her gift from Brian.  Helen held her breath, saying a silent prayer, and for a moment she thought she’d been answered.  It wasn’t a ring – she could tell immediately from the type of box it was.

But it was jewelry, and – Helen knew at once, with a single glance – expensive jewelry.  An emerald – small, but perfect, on a chain that was unquestionably real gold.  The girl gasped and then – Helen was sure this was an act – pretended to nearly faint.  And then she turned her head to let Brian put the necklace on her, and she collapsed into her son’s arms.

Helen had no idea where he’d gotten the money.  She knew he had money in the bank to buy a used car this summer.  Surely he hadn’t spent that – thrown it away on some girl he barely knew?  That wasn’t possible.  And yet the scene playing out in front of her said otherwise.  The girl was putting on a very good show of looking as though she was completely smitten with Brian, and Brian was – Helen had to accept it – head-over-heels in love with her.

What a disaster – Helen had expected this dreadful little romance to be over by the time the Barneses went home.  She’d expected Brian to be upset for a day or two – perhaps even to cry a little – but then he’d get over it, focus on his schoolwork again and everything would be back to normal.  But this – this was as far from normal as Helen could imagine.

How was she supposed to keep Brian on track now?  What could she possibly do to be rid of this terrible, impossible girl?  There had to be a way, and Helen would find it.  That’s just all there was to it.

 

 

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