Everywhere he looked there were shells exploding, guns firing, and people dying. He was standing in front of a massive opposing army, paralyzed with terror. You're a soldier, dammit, he reminded himself. Now act like one. He looked down at the weapon in his hands and realized with horror that all he had to defend himself with was his color guard flag.
Suddenly the enemy troops turned into a pack of rabid dogs, all foaming at the mouth and howling for his blood. He tried to run, but tripped over one of his father's contact lenses and found himself flying into the air.
The next thing he knew, he was looking down at the dogs from at least twenty feet in the air. He sighed in relief, realizing he was safe. Then he looked up to see what was holding him up and finally noticed that he was hanging by his underpants from a flagpole. The dogs closed in around the pole and he heard them barking, "Shake, shake, quiver and quake!" as the elastic in his briefs slowly started to give way....
A bugle blared, waking Jake Morgendorffer with a start. The sixteen-year-old cadet looked around at the olive drab-painted wooden walls of the barracks at Buxton Ridge Military Academy and sighed. I'd rather take on the rabid dogs.
After more than three years of the same morning routine, Jake didn't need to check his watch to know that it was six o'clock in the morning. He pulled himself out of his bunk--little more than a cot, really--and started pulling clothes out of his battered old trunk as he braced himself for yet another day in hell. "More than a year to go before graduation," he grumbled to himself. "I'm counting the days already."
The sun hadn't risen by the time the cadets finished their training march, and the fall air was still very chilly as they filed into the mess hall for breakfast. Jake dropped into an empty seat with his tray, inhaling the room's usual smell of old grease and burnt food as he struggled to catch his breath. His muscles felt like they were on fire, but he hunched his aching shoulders in hopes that no one would notice him.
"Hey, Quaky Jakey! After all the practice you've had I'm surprised you're still so bad at marching!"
It was Frank Tabbert, and he was surrounded by his usual band of thugs. Of course I can't be that lucky. I'm never lucky, damn it. Frank, taller than most of the other cadets and seeming even taller yet thanks to his habit of standing at attention even when he didn't have to, smirked down at him.
One of Frank's cronies snickered. "Did you see him marching around the bullring last night? More like hobbling!"
Jake's jaw clenched reflexively. He had spent hours marching in that bullring the previous night as yet another punishment for a ridiculously minor "crime." He couldn't even remember what he'd done that time. Too sloppy salute? Shoelaces tied with the wrong kind of knot? He given up keeping track, but clearly the others had not.
"To be fair, he marches a hell of a lot better than he runs," another of Frank's friends said. To illustrate his point, he did an exaggerated impersonation of Jake's running style, along with a goofy face and flailing arms. The other boys around them burst into laughter.
"Stop it," he protested. The laughing only grew louder and he felt his face growing hot. "Please?"
"C'mon, fellas," Frank finally called out as the guffaws faded into snickers. "Let's leave Quaky Jakey to his breakfast." He grinned and ran his fingers through his pale blond hair. "Run along, now."
The group moved on, although a few of the boys did their own imitations of Jake's running as they left. Soon Jake was left in peace, until a tray plopped down at the place next to him a few minutes later.
"Let me guess," a voice remarked. "Frank and his pals stopped by t'shoot the breeze. You'd think the lame bastards'd come up with better jokes after a few years, wouldn't you?"
Jake looked up. "Hi, Randy," he muttered to the short, stocky boy with thick limbs and a barrel-shaped chest who sat down next to him. Randy Fletcher's bright red hair was cut in the same buzz cut as everyone else, but somehow it still managed to look unkempt.
"Mornin', Jake," Randy replied. His thick eyebrows, usually drawn down over his eyes in his customary scowl, were raised in feigned cheerfulness. "Good march today, huh? Nice and relaxing, and the weather was just perfect."
In spite of his bad mood, Jake couldn't help a small snort of laughter at Randy's sarcastic tone. The two had met during Jake's very first week at Buxton Ridge, and had been close friends ever since.
Randy nodded approvingly at the laughter. "That's better. Shake it off, man. You and I both know Frank's an idiot."
"Too bad no one else here knows it," Jake replied with a glare in Frank's direction. "The rest of this school--instructors included--think he's the best thing to happen to the military since boot polish."
"Naw," Randy argued. "Boot polish is much smarter than Frank Tabbert'll ever be."
Jake's mouth twitched into an involuntary smile. "Wouldn't mind using his ass to shine my boots, anyway. With great force."
Randy slapped Jake on the back--a little too hard, but Jake didn't say anything. "Attaboy! Serve him right, too. Bet his skinny ass wouldn't last three seconds in a real fight without his friends around him."
"I don't know about that," Jake replied. Frank was thinner than average, but even without any intimidating muscles he was able to give off the impression that he could cause you a great deal of harm without any effort.
"With any luck, we'll find out for sure one of these days." Randy picked up his fork and pushed the rubbery eggs around his plate. "Anyway, on to more pleasant subjects. Did you hear they've announced when training's gonna start for the Nutcracker?"
Jake swallowed a mouthful of breakfast with a grimace. "The Nutcracker" was the cadets' nickname for the Leadership Platoon Reaction Course, the grueling day-long obstacle course accompanied by "simulated battle conditions" that students were expected to complete at the end of their penultimate year at Buxton Ridge. Jake had been dreading since the moment he'd heard about it.
It was known as the Nutcracker in part because it had a history of driving some cadets past the breaking point due to stress and fatigue, causing them to crack like nuts. The nickname also came from a longstanding off-color joke that some older students had shared with Jake in his first year, when he'd innocently assumed they were talking about ballet. The horror stories they'd heaped on him still haunted him years later.
Still wincing internally at the memory, Jake tried to hide his fear as he looked at Randy. "Really? When?"
Randy grunted. "Middle of goddamn December. We're going to be crawling through barbed wire in a blizzard." His hand was gripping his fork so hard Jake thought it was beginning to bend. Randy, Jake knew from experience, had a lot of anger issues. He could--and often did--go off at any time.
Hoping to distract him before he built up to an explosion, Jake said, "But the course is at the end of the year, in May. It'll be practically summer then, right?"
Relaxing his grip on the fork but looking no less angry, Randy rolled his eyes. "Yeah, and I'll bet they schedule the Nutcracker for the hottest part of the afternoon."
Jake laughed nervously, still trying to defuse his friend. "But at least it'll be a nice break from the snow, huh?"
After a few tense moments, Randy calmed down and sighed. "True, buddy. Very true."
The rest of the morning and afternoon passed in a blur of the usual classes, duties, and merciless taunts by Jake's fellow cadets. That night, Jake staggered through the mess hall with his dinner tray, only just making it to where Randy sat before collapsing into the chair next to him.
The two ate in silence for awhile. "Latrine duty again," Jake eventually muttered, staring across the rows and rows of long tables. "I am beat."
"No kidding?" Randy snapped back. "Gee, all I did was arrange flowers all day, so I feel just wonderful!"
Immediately recognizing that Randy was in one of his darker moods, Jake backed off. "Good stew tonight," he commented after a few minutes. "I think they added more chilies than usual."
"I hate it," Randy grumbled, although the rage was gone from his voice now.
"Really?" Jake asked, surprised. He couldn't imagine anyone not liking Kitchen Sink Stew. "You never mentioned that before."
Randy just shrugged, but before he could reply, a voice boomed out over the mess hall.
"Attention, cadets!" Every student in the hall automatically stood up, backs straight, as Corporal Ellenbogen approached. He continued, "The date for this year's Military Ball has been set for Saturday, May 13th and is open to all upperclassmen. As I'm sure you're all aware, this year's Leadership Platoon Reaction Course will take place on the 12th, so those of you who get through the course in one piece will be welcome to attend the dance the following day."
Jake felt certain everyone was looking in his direction as Ellenbogen paused.
The announcements continued. "Those of you who don't make it through, well...you're not going to feel much like dancing anyway, are you?"
Most of the cadets laughed at this, and Jake could see several of them looking his way with smirks and knowing looks.
"This year's musical, The Pirates of Penzance, will be...." Corporal Ellenbogen continued, eventually finishing the evening's announcements and leaving the mess hall.
Jake sank back into his seat with a face hot from all-too-familiar embarrassment. He took another bite of his stew and, perhaps fueled by the extra chilies, that feeling shifted into one that was just as familiar: resentment.
"I can't wait to see their faces when I ace the Leadership Platoon Reaction Course, show up at the Military Ball the next day with a gorgeous girl on my arm, and dance my damn feet off right in front of them!" he muttered.
Randy raised an eyebrow. "You think you can ace the Nutcracker?"
"You're going to get a date for the Military Ball?"
"It could happen!"
"You know how to dance?"
"Randy, whose side are you on here?"
Holding his hands up in mock surrender, Randy said, "Sorry, man. I'm sure that'll all work out great."
"You're damn right it will!"
"And then Corporal Ellenbogen will put on a grass skirt and do the hula."
Jake sighed, his bravado gone. "You're a real pal, you know that?"
"Best one you'll ever have, too." The two smirked at each other and turned back to their dinner.
The next day was Saturday, which still meant waking up at 6 AM for a training march, but no classes. Also, once they'd finished their morning duties (Jake was on the laundry squad this time), the cadets were free to spend their time however they chose. For most of them, that meant going to the nearby town to hang out at the diner, see a movie at the theater, or smoke behind the gas station.
There weren't a whole lot of other options, but the small town was the only available alternative to staying at Buxton Ridge and doing nothing at all, so that's where most of them went. The frequent joke was that the town's population doubled every Saturday when the cadets poured in, and it wasn't actually that much of an exaggeration.
As usual, Jake headed straight for the diner, the Eat 'n' Leave. Trailing behind him, Randy said sarcastically, "Gee, Jake. I didn't know you were hungry."
Jake ignored him, entered the diner, and immediately started looking around. He ignored the garish orange-and-pink décor, made even more hideous by the fluorescent lights above. His eyes passed right over the dusty jukebox--out of order for more than a year. He barely noticed the chipped counter covered with old coffee stains and cigarette burns.
At last he spotted what he was looking for: a skinny waitress with short brown hair and wide, friendly eyes. "Hi, Carol!" he called out, making his way toward her.
"Oh, golly!" Randy muttered in mock surprise. "You mean you came in here because you wanted to talk to Carol Williamson? Again? Like you do every single damn time we come into town?"
"Shut up," Jake whispered through gritted teeth as the waitress smiled and began making her way toward them.
"Hi, Jake!" Carol said cheerfully, tucking her order pad into a pocket. "Hello, Randy," she added with slightly less enthusiasm.
"Ma'am," Randy replied with exaggerated formality, tipping an imaginary hat and keeping his expression solemn. Looking between the two, he added, "Guess I'll be heading over to the Texaco to watch the smokers cough on each other. Thrilling stuff."
Randy left the diner and Carol visibly relaxed. "How's life at Buxton Ridge?" she asked Jake.
"Hell on Earth," Jake chirped. "How's life working at the Eat 'n' Leave?"
"About the same," she replied, "only with fewer weapons and more grease."
"I wouldn't bet on that last part," Jake teased. "You haven't seen the food in the mess hall lately." As Carol chuckled, he shyly added, "But I think the company's much better here."
She gave him a smile, one so cheerful that it even seemed to clear away the dark shadows under her tired eyes, and Jake felt his face grow warm. The top of her head barely reached his chin, and yet he felt more nervous around her than he usually did around Frank and his pals. He stammered out, "So...uh...do--do you come here often?"
She raised her eyebrows. "I work here, remember?"
"Oh, yeah! I mean, yeah! I knew that! What I meant was, um, how often are you here? It seems like I always come here while you're working." He blushed again and quickly amended, "That is, you're always working when I come here."
If she noticed the slip, Carol didn't show it. "I'm just part time," she explained. "After school and Saturdays, although I got more hours when I first started working here over this past summer."
"That's great!" Jake frowned. "Isn't it?"
She smiled again, almost making Jake forget how to stand upright. "Work is work, and speaking of...." She fished her order pad back out of her pocket. "I've got to get back to it."
Jake nodded, trying not to show his disappointment. "Right. Well, have a great day!"
As he turned to leave, Carol called after him, "Aren't you going to get any food while you're here?"
Oops. Normally Jake at least ordered a cup of coffee so his visit to the diner didn't seem odd, but the joy of having a real conversation with Carol Williamson had left his mind empty of everything but her. "Sorry, I can't. I was going to, but I just remembered...er...I left the munitions hut on fire and I have to go put it out! Better hurry! Bye!"
He hurried out of the Eat 'n' Leave, alternately cursing his terrible choice of an excuse and rejoicing that he'd just exchanged more words with the woman of his dreams in five minutes than he had in the previous two months. Even Randy's snarky remarks upon rejoining his friend couldn't wipe the smile off his face.
Training for the Leadership Platoon Reaction Course began the following month, and Jake woke up that morning with an even greater feeling of dread than usual. In spite of Randy's prediction, there was no blizzard outside. Only a thin layer of crisp frost met Jake's eyes when he looked out the barracks window at the mid-December morning.
After shivering through the training march, Jake was only able to eat a few bites of gluey oatmeal before pushing away the bowl with a groan. He leaned forward until his face was resting on the table and stayed there without moving.
"Eat up, buddy," Randy said next to him. "You're gonna need all your strength for Nutcracker training."
"Too nervous," Jake mumbled, voice muffled slightly against the table. "And it wouldn't do any good--I'm going to die out there no matter what I eat."
"Aw, that's not true!" Randy argued. When Jake turned his head to look at him, he continued, "I'll bet if you drank some of the crap they call coffee here, you'd be dead before you even reach the training area."
Jake's face turned back and he moaned into the table. "You're. Not. Helping."
"Nah. But who said I was trying to help?" Seeing that jokes weren't lifting his friend's mood, he sighed and slapped him on the back. "Buck up, Jake. If we do die out there, at least we'll die together."
Sitting up, Jake gave Randy a shaky smile. "And maybe we'll take a few of the bastards down with us."
"That's the spirit! Now let's go meet our doom!"
The pack on Jake's back seemed to grow heavier with every step he took. Persevering through nothing more than sheer stubbornness, he plunged forward toward the next obstacle: the climbing wall.
As he hauled himself to the top, Jake could see that all of the other cadets were well ahead of him. He tried not to think about it as he prepared to rappel down the other side. Reaching the ground, he ignored the thigh burns and looked to see what was next.
He groaned. Rope climbing. Memories of other boys laughing at him and a long, terrifying night spent clinging to a rope high above the ground burst into his brain and he felt himself start to shake.
Tweeeeeeet! "Time!" bellowed the drill instructor and Jake sighed with relief. He trudged toward the rest of the group, all of whom seemed to have completed the course long before.
"Last to finish as usual, Morgendorffer," the instructor called out as he approached. "Not only that, but you forgot to rescue your civilian." He pointed at a dummy placed halfway through the course.
"Hey," interrupted the unwelcome voice of Frank Tabbert. "If we ever find ourselves in a real battle, can we take the dummy and leave Quaky Jakey behind? It'd probably be more helpful in a fight."
The drill instructor laughed along with almost all of the other cadets. Randy alone was silent. Jake saw beads of sweat forming on his friend's face in spite of the cold weather and began taking slow, careful steps toward him. As he got closer, he saw Randy's hands shaking while his fists constantly clenched and unclenched. In order to reach him, he had to pass by Frank.
"Shake, shake, quiver and quake," Frank muttered quietly to Jake as soon as he was within earshot.
Randy exploded. "Shut up, you rotten son of a bitch!" he screamed, face suddenly red.
"Randy," Jake murmured, recognizing another bad situation in the making. Clearly the physical exhaustion had combined with Randy's usual lack of patience for Frank's taunts to push him over the edge...again.
Randy ignored Jake completely. "You're just a--Why don't you--I should--" The rest of Randy's tirade was unintelligible, as his temper had apparently taken control of his higher brain functions. Jake lunged forward and grabbed Randy around the shoulders from behind, just barely preventing him from attacking Frank. Even held back, Randy gave a howl of rage and swiped the air toward Frank, who kept his smug expression even as he took a few hurried steps backward.
"C'mon," Frank called to his cronies. "Let's leave these two lovebirds alone." The boys walked away and the drill instructor, long accustomed to turning a blind eye to fights between the cadets, went with them.
Randy struggled for a few more seconds until Jake pleaded, "Stop. They'll kill you."
At last Randy took a few deep breaths and relaxed. "Let 'em come," he muttered, but Jake could see that the worst of the rage had passed.
He released his friend and stepped back. "Yeah, I know. You could take them all with one hand tied behind your back."
"Not a chance in hell," Randy said. "But it'd sure be fun trying."
Jake kept at least one eye on Randy during classes the rest of the day, but he showed no sign of exploding again. By the time they got to History, the last class of the day, he was breathing normally and had even made a couple of sarcastic comments.
Everything's back to normal, Jake thought with relief, settling into his desk for the lecture.
"...And now one of you is going to give me a clear and concise definition of Manifest Destiny--now! Morgendorffer!"
Jake rose from his seat and stood at attention, startled so badly his mind had gone blank. "Manifest Destiny, um, let's see...manifest...it's a...list of...er...fates?" he squeaked at last.
"Pitiful," sneered the instructor. "Tabbert!"
Jake sank back down as Frank stood up. "Manifest Destiny is a philosophy from the nineteenth century that explains why it was absolutely necessary for The U.S. to expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Because it was, and still is, our patriotic right and duty to spread the American way of life not only across the entire country but also the entire world!"
The classroom erupted in cheers and applause, and the instructor gave Frank a nod of approval. "Well done, Tabbert. I wish more of your classmates shared both your historical knowledge and national pride!"
Yup, Jake thought as he fought the urge to sink even further down in his seat. Everything's back to normal.
Saturday arrived after an eternity of classes, mockery, and Nutcracker training sessions. Breakfast ended with mail call as usual, and Jake received a rare letter from home. It was accompanied by a familiar-looking yellow notice informing him that he had been sent a care package, but it had been confiscated. He looked at the checklist of reasons and saw that this time they'd checked off "smudged address" and "suspected explosives."
Randy leaned over to read the notice. "Wow, your mother must've started putting gunpowder in her cookies."
Jake crumpled the notice and growled, "They just pick reasons out at random; you know that as well as I do. Why the hell is she still sending cookies when they always get confiscated? She might as well mail them directly to the Commandant."
"Next time tell her to put Ex-Lax in 'em," Randy suggested.
Rolling his eyes, Jake turned his attention to the letter and suddenly perked up. "Hey! I get to come home for Christmas this year!"
"Yeah? Enjoy the cookies," Randy replied flatly.
Jake regretted his enthusiasm the instant he remembered that Randy always dreaded going home to his family. The Fletchers, from what Randy told him, only took time out from screaming at him to scream at each other instead. "Sorry, man." He tried to change the subject. "Want to head into town later?"
Randy shrugged. "Guess I'll go if you're going." He gave Jake a knowing look. "And I bet it goes without saying that you're planning on it. Carol'd probably think you fell off the climbing wall and broke your neck if you didn't show up as usual."
As they started to leave the mess hall, Frank blocked their path to the door. "Thanks for the cookies, Quaky Jakey," he said with a grin. "The commandant was kind enough to share."
Jake could practically feel the anger radiating off of Randy and grabbed his arm to stop him from reacting. "Maybe those were the ones with Ex-Lax in them," he muttered in his ear. Randy snorted, but his face was still red and the muscles in his arm were tense.
Just walk away, Jake pleaded silently with Frank. Just walk away before everything goes straight to hell.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Frank continued. "Did you want some of them? I'm sure we didn't intend to leave you hungry." He leaned forward with a menacing grin. "Got your dress socks on you?"
Jake gulped at the thought of being force-fed yet another pair of socks. "Not today!" he squeaked, and feeling Randy start to pull forward, he dragged his friend away as fast as he could. Jake could hear the shouts of laughter behind him, but all he cared about at that point was getting Randy out before he did something they'd both regret. The burning feelings of shame and humiliation would still be waiting for him once they were safely away from Frank.
The two parted ways as soon as they got into town, and Jake reached the Eat 'n' Leave just in time to see Carol walk out the door. "Done with work already?" he asked.
She nodded. "I got the early morning shift today." She gestured behind her toward the diner. "Going in?" she asked.
Jake looked at the diner, trying to come up with a good lie. Then he looked back to see her smiling at him with one eyebrow raised and realized that her deep brown eyes held a glimmer of mischief. No lie was needed. "Nah," he replied. "Mind if I walk with you?"
"I was wondering when you'd ask," she replied with a wink.
He fell into step beside her and neither spoke at first. Finally Jake cracked under the oppressive silence and blurted out, "So what do you like to do? I mean, when you're not working?"
Carol shrugged. "I don't really have a lot of free time. My father's dead and my mother works full time, so when I'm not at school or work I'm usually taking care of my little brother and sisters. Keeping them out of trouble, helping with homework, cooking them dinner...." She was quiet for a few moments. "I suppose I do enjoy that part. Cooking."
"You like to cook? I've always wanted to learn how! Only my dad said--well, never mind that. Hey, have you ever made something called Kitchen Sink Stew? They call it that because they put in everything but the kitchen sink!" Too late he realized he was babbling and stopped himself. Silence dropped between them again.
"How about you?" Carol finally asked. "What do you like to do when you're not at Buxton Ridge?"
"I like doing anything that involves not being at Buxton Ridge," Jake replied darkly. Seeing Carol's startled expression he added, "I also like model railroading."
"You mean like toy trains?"
"Oh, it's much more complex than children's toys," Jake assured her, trying not to think about how often--and how recently--he'd pushed his trains around a track while yelling "Choo choo!" He cleared his throat and started talking about scales and gauges and other facts while Carol listened with a mixture of interest and amusement. After almost twenty minutes Jake stopped walking and looked around. "Um, where are we going again?"
Carol laughed. "We've been walking around the block." She pointed. "My house is just over there, though."
"Oh!" Disappointment jump-started Jake's mouth before his brain even noticed what was going on. "Hey, you know the theater is showing Rio Bravo in a little while and if you aren't busy today, I mean, I know there's your brother and sisters, but I saw it when I was a kid and it's really good, so if you want maybe we could...go see it...together?" Jake's brain had finally caught up with the rest of him, but all he could do was stand there, paralyzed, while he waited for her answer.
"I'd love to. I'm a big John Wayne fan!"
She slipped her tiny hand into Jake's, and he floated next to her all the way to the theater.
The holiday break came, and with it Jake's visit home. At first he was relieved to be away from Buxton Ridge, but after the first few hours of listening to Mad Dog's list of everything that was wrong with him he was almost feeling homesick for military school.
He returned in early January, just in time for his birthday. Now I'm 17, he thought as he pushed the shovel into the mound of dirt mixed with sludgy, half-melted snow. One more year and I graduate...and the old bastard can't control me anymore.
Grunting with the effort, he carried the shovel over to another large mound a few yards away and dropped the dirt on top of it. I bet I'll have over a hundred demerits by then. Current count is 73 and rising.
Jake took a short break to catch his breath, leaning on the handle of the shovel and shivering as he thought once again how unfair it was that he was being punished for having a dirty uniform. It was perfectly clean right up until Frank shoved me into the mud! But does he get punished? Of course not!
He walked over and jabbed into the first mound of dirt again. The fresh burst of anger gave him the energy to move a few more shovelfuls before tiring again. Frank never gets punished. No matter what he does, he always sweet-talks his way out of it. He gets whatever he wants, whenever he wants it, with nothing more than a sincere look and the right tone of voice. Manipulative bastard. Gullible idiots.
"I hate them," he grumbled to himself as he continued carrying out his punishment. "Every last stinking one of 'em." He looked from one pile to the other. "Dammit! Which one am I supposed to be moving again?"
When Jake finally staggered into the barracks later that night, muscles almost numb from pain, Randy was waiting for him. Stretched out in his bunk, he watched with amusement as Jake fell face first into his own bed.
"Betcha couldn't wait to get back to this while you were away on break," he commented, voice low even though lights out wasn't for another few minutes.
"Mad Dog or Corporal Ellenbogen," Jake said through his pillow. "Hard call to make."
"Good point." Randy chuckled. "Of course, I'd be shocked if a certain waitress I could name didn't push the balance in favor of Buxton Ridge."
Jake raised his head, unable to resist a small smile. "The thought did cross my mind."
Randy wiped away an imaginary tear. "Lovers reunited after being apart for two whole weeks. It's like Romeo and Juliet, man."
"So we're both gonna end up dead?"
"Maybe not Carol, but I don't like your odds against the Nutcracker in the spring."
Jake groaned and turned over. "You had to remind me of that."
"It's what friends are for, right? But if you do survive, at least you can look forward to dancing with your Juliet at the Military Ball."
"The Military Ball?" Jake frowned. "I'd forgotten about that. You think she'd go with me?"
Randy sat up and gaped at him. "You mean you haven't asked her?"
"I told you; I forgot all about it until now."
Randy dropped back down and let out a quiet whistle. "Well, you'd better remember on Saturday. If you don't ask her soon, I guarantee you someone else will."
"Gah!" Jake's eyes widened in surprise. "You think someone else might have asked her already?"
"Could be. The cadets at this dump only outnumber the girls in town by, what, six to one? But who knows? The dumb kid seems to actually like you, so maybe she turned 'em down."
Jake relaxed, but only slightly. "I sure hope you're right."
Randy shrugged. "I'm usually right about everything. Then again, with your luck she's probably already agreed to go with Frank."
The pillow hit him in the face just as "Taps" sounded, signaling lights out.
The Eat 'n' Leave was practically deserted, the chilly weather and threat of snow driving away all but the most stubborn regulars who mostly sat at the counter drinking coffee while complaining about the chilly weather and threat of snow.
Carol was refilling one of their mugs when Jake came to stand behind her. "Hey, pilgrim," he drawled in a passable John Wayne impression.
She turned to see him and her tired face brightened. "You're back!" She hurried behind the counter to set down the coffee pot and continued on to a back room off to one side. She came out again with her purse soon after, calling to an unseen boss, "I'll be on break for a few minutes." She waved Jake over to an empty booth and they sat down. Opening the purse, she reached in and pulled out a small, wrapped box and handed it to Jake. "It's a little late for a Christmas gift, but I hope you like it."
"You...got me a present?" Jake stopped breathing. I didn't get anything for her! I should have gotten something for her. Can I pretend I have to go to the bathroom and buy something in town? What would she want for Christmas? Do I have any money on me? Why is the room spinning like that? Just in time, he started breathing again. "Gee, thanks, Carol. Um, I didn't get you anything. Yet, I mean. I will! I promise!"
"It's okay," she said, patting his shaking hands. "Just open yours."
He tore away the brightly-colored paper to find a miniature barn.
"It's for your model trains," she explained. "My uncle has a friend who owns a hobby store. O scale, right?"
Jake was too busy staring at the barn in shock to reply.
"I know, it's kind of shabby, but they didn't have a lot to choose from. Is it at least okay?" she asked.
Still gazing in awe at his gift, he finally murmured, "It's the most beautiful barn I've ever seen in my life." He looked up guiltily. "Now I really feel bad I didn't get you anything. I'm sorry, Carol."
She waved his apology away. "Don't worry about it. I'm sure you'll think of something."
He looked at those kind eyes and suddenly something clicked into place. He leaned across the table, put his hands on either side of her adorable heart-shaped face, and kissed her on the lips.
When at last he pulled away, she blinked at him in surprise and then smiled. "It's just the gift I wanted. Merry Christmas to you, too."
It wasn't until after he'd gotten back to Buxton Ridge that he realized he'd forgotten to mention the Military Ball, but nothing could spoil his good mood. Not even having boiling-hot Kitchen Sink Stew dumped in his lap by Frank Tabbert.
"Shake, shake, quiver and quake! Shake, shake, quiver and quake! Shake, shake, quiver and quake!"
The shouted mantra was infuriating even under normal circumstances. Hearing it bellowed by over a dozen cadets while he was desperately trying to keep his balance on a makeshift rope bridge was enough to make Jake want to explode. He could feel the blood pulsing in his temples in time to the chanting and began to feel it surrounding him, suffocating, until his entire world was Shake, shake, quiver and quake!
He looked up, sweating even in the frosty February air, and saw Randy looking back at him. The other boy nodded toward Jake and gave him a thumbs up sign. Then, jerking his head to indicate the other cadets, he rotated the hand and raised his middle finger. The meaning was clear. Screw them. You can do this.
He gritted his teeth, shifted the pack on his back, and plunged forward across the bridge. Tuning out the chant, he picked his way through the fake minefield and crossed to the end of the course. He was panting and almost ready to fall over, but when he saw Randy's grin and outstretched hand he took the extra few steps to his friend and grabbed his hand for a hearty shake.
"Nice job, man," Randy called out over the jeers and taunts of the other boys. "Better'n last time. And at least you didn't get stuck in the 'quicksand.'"
Jake nodded sympathetically, recalling Randy's failed training session earlier that afternoon. "Could have happened to anybody."
"Yeah, well, it only happened to me. Good thing I don't give a rat's ass about any of this, huh?" Randy threw a hate-filled glare at the drill instructor and the rest of the cadets, making Jake doubt the truth of that claim. "Still, that's one more day of Nutcracker training behind us."
"Hey, yeah!" Jake said with sudden excitement. "And it's Friday, too!"
"Why does--oh. Tomorrow's the big day, right?"
Jake grinned and nodded. The next day was not only Saturday, but specifically the Saturday before Valentine's Day. Carol had managed to get the day off work so that she and Jake could go on a special date for the holiday. He was especially proud of himself for remembering to get her a gift this time.
I hope she likes it.
Although Jake wanted to rush through the next morning's duties as quickly as possible, he knew that if he screwed something up he'd risk being forced to stay at Buxton Ridge and miss his date. Working carefully, he managed to finish them with plenty of time to meet Carol in town.
They met up at the Cluster Burger, the only restaurant in town aside from the diner--which Carol was adamant about avoiding on her day off. The food was greasy, oversalted, and horrible, but Jake didn't taste a single bite. Every bit of his attention was focused on Carol.
"...so then Laura started insisting that Johnny ate all the cookies, and he said that Anna did it, but I found cookie crumbs on all three of them. So by the time I sorted out that mess our mother finally got home and I thought I'd never make it here on time!"
Jake laughed at both her story and her exaggerated way of telling it. "I guess I'm lucky that I only have one sister," he said, "and she's almost ten years older than I am."
"Oh, so you were the cookie stealer in your house!" she teased.
He responded with another laugh, but her joke reminded him that if he'd ever been caught stealing cookies--or doing anything else that failed to meet Mad Dog's impossible-to-reach expectations--he'd have been punished severely. It was no wonder Leah had gotten married and moved out so quickly. He shook off the memories and changed the subject. "Hey, I got you a present!" He pulled the sloppily-wrapped gift out of a bag and handed it to her.
"Thank you, Jake!" Carol reached into her purse and handed Jake a gift in return.
They each tore away wrapping paper to reveal the gifts inside. Jake was delighted to find another model train building, this time a beautiful cathedral.
Carol peered at the thing in her hands with polite curiosity, clearly at a loss for words.
"It's a candle. I molded it myself," Jake explained, feeling self-conscious about the handmade gift. He had barely any spending money because what little his mother could sneak to him almost always got stolen. "It's supposed to look like a sheriff. John T. Chance."
"From Rio Bravo!" Carol's eyes lit up. "Our first date. Oh, I love it!"
Jake relaxed with a sigh and grinned at her. "Do you like it as much as your Christmas gift?"
To his surprise, Carol blushed slightly before grinning back. "Well, I'm still not sure about the Christmas gift. I was thinking I might have to return that one." The words had only just left her mouth before she rose up from her seat and kissed him over the table.
Now it was Jake's turn to blush. "Hmm, I don't know," he said, trying to hide how flustered he felt. "Maybe I'll have to return that one."
She giggled. "If we keep that up, this is going to turn into a tennis match! But be careful--I've got a mean backhand."
"Really?" Jake asked. "I mean, do you really play tennis?"
Carol's smile faded a little and she watched him out of the corners of her eyes. "Well...yes. I know, I know, it's not ladylike or--"
"I love tennis!" he cried. "I even wanted to go to tennis camp, but, um...that's not important. Do you like other sports, too?"
Her smile returned and she leaned forward eagerly. "A little. I only play tennis, but I also like watching basketball."
"Me too!" Jake's voice was a little too loud, but the restaurant was mostly empty so he didn't care. He suddenly frowned in concern. "What about football?" After being burned by his disastrous football tryout, he wasn't very comfortable talking about the game. Still, if it's what she likes, then....
"I hate it."
Oh, thank God. Then her flat, unhappy tone registered. "Um, is everything okay?"
Carol stared at the tabletop and rolled the wax sheriff around in her hands, thinking for a very long time. At last, so quiet Jake could barely hear her even in the almost silent restaurant, she said, "My father liked football."
"I...see." Jake wasn't sure how to respond. "Um, I guess thinking about the game must make you miss him very--"
"Not one bit," she growled fiercely, squeezing the candle until Jake could see her fingertips starting to sink into the wax. Apparently realizing she was about to destroy the gift, she set it down gently on the table.
Silence stretched between them for several minutes. Jake was terrified of saying something to make her even more upset, while Carol was staring at the tabletop in deep concentration as though translating some complex foreign language written across it that only she could see. At last Jake cleared his throat. "I--"
"My father was not a good man." Carol's words, though said softly, seemed to fill the room. Another long pause went by as she continued staring downward. "He hit my mom. He yelled at all us kids--even Anna when she was a baby. There were times I was afraid he was going to start hitting us, too, and I think he would have, eventually. But he didn't get the chance, since he died a couple years ago." She glared at a small ketchup stain on the table. "Only good thing that bastard ever did for our family." She closed her eyes and said through clenched teeth, "I hate him."
Jake had no idea what to say. I'm sorry he was so awful? Congratulations on his death? Want me to clean up that ketchup for you? While his brain was busy trying to come up with the perfect reply, his mouth started up on autopilot. "Me too. I mean, I don't hate your dad although I bet I would if I'd ever met him. I mean my dad. He's a bastard, too. Angry. Spiteful. Cruel."
He stopped, horrified at his sudden outburst, but Carol opened her eyes and looked at him with relief and fascination. "Tell me."
So he did. He told her about the rainy camping trips without a tent. The arbitrary banning of both G.I. Joe figures and cats from the Morgendorffer house. The refusal to even visit him at military school and occasionally making him stay at Buxton Ridge over holidays.
The more Jake told Carol about Mad Dog, the more she began telling him about her own father. Although her stories were worse than his, they kept trading stories until they both found themselves gripping the sides of the table with tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces. Carol seemed pale and out of breath while Jake felt as if he'd just done a three-hour-long Nutcracker training session.
"Thank you," Carol whispered to him. She reached out a shaky hand and placed it on his, and neither spoke for awhile. At last she glanced at her watch and sighed.
Jake knew what was coming. The date was about to end. This is your chance, he realized. Ask her to the Military Ball, dammit!
He opened his mouth and the door to the Cluster Burger banged open at the same instant. Startled, Jake and Carol both looked up at the interruption.
Oh, no. It was Frank Tabbert and a bunch of his friends. Don't look this way don't look this way don't look this way don't look--
"Hey, look! It's Quaky Jakey and he's got himself a girlfriend!" One of Frank's friends saw them first and pointed.
Frank's head whipped around to see them and he grinned in a way that made Jake want to leap through the nearest window. "Girlfriend?" he asked. "Really?"
"I think he means 'recently escaped mental patient,'" joked another friend.
Jake groaned. "Maybe we should...." he said, starting to stand up.
"Aw, don't leave, Quaky Jakey!" Frank called out. He began making his way over to their booth. "You haven't introduced us to the poor girl you've tricked into spending time with you." He reached them and saw Carol. "Oh, hey, it's you. You work at the Eat 'n' Leave, don't you? Karen something."
"Carol Williamson," she corrected with a friendly smile.
"Carol, right." He smiled back and took her hand. "Frank Tabbert."
"Pleased to meet you," she replied. Jake wanted to scream at how nice she was being to his worst enemy.
Frank leaned in. "Listen, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but Jake here is--"
"--Leave them alone, Tabbert."
Everyone turned to see Randy standing behind the group, glaring at Frank.
"You got something to say, Fletcher?" Frank asked Randy, stepping toward him.
"I just did, moron," Randy growled. "Leave. Them. Alone."
Frank chuckled, looking at his friends and then back at Randy. "Or what?"
"Or maybe my fists get to go up close and personal with your ugly goddamn face!" Randy's voice got louder and angrier with every word. His face was bright red and he was bouncing slightly on his feet as if preparing to lunge at Frank at any moment. "So are you gonna back off or am I gonna make you back off?"
Jake could see one of the Cluster Burger employees edging toward the phone and knew he had to do something. Before he could figure out what that might be, Carol did it first.
"We're leaving," she said abruptly, standing up and pushing her way through the crowd. "Now."
Jake hurried after her, jerking his head toward the door as he passed by Randy. He caught up to Carol outside, where he found her leaning against the wall of the building with her eyes closed, taking deep breaths. "Are you okay?" he asked her.
She nodded and opened her eyes. "Fine. It just got a little...much...in there, that's all."
"Don't pay any attention to him," Jake said, glancing at the door to make sure Frank wasn't coming back out after them. "He's the biggest jerk at Buxton Ridge."
"I can believe that," she replied, "but why do you--"
She never finished her sentence because Randy chose that moment to storm outside, still fuming but uninjured, to Jake's relief. "Buncha assholes," he muttered darkly under his breath. "Just gimme five minutes with 'em and we'll see who's laughing after. Oh, hi, Jake. How's it going?" He nodded to Carol. "Ma'am."
Jake remembered that he still had an important question for Carol. "Hey, Randy. Can you give us a minute? Carol and I were just about to--"
"--say goodbye," Carol finished, turning away and walking in the opposite direction. "Bye, Jake," she added over her shoulder. "I'll see you next weekend."
"Bye, Carol," Jake called after her. He turned miserable eyes toward Randy. "Frank ruins everything," he told his friend matter-of-factly. "Everything."
The next few weeks plodded by in a haze spiked with humiliation and frustration.
...I'm going to make it! Jake realized during one Nutcracker training session. I'm actually going to make it through without any big screw-ups! He tightened his grip on the civilian dummy, which he'd finally remembered to rescue, and headed for the rope bridge.
The moment he stepped onto it, it shifted and he nearly lost his balance. The good news was that he didn't fall off. The bad news was that while keeping himself upright, he lost his hold on the civilian, which fell twenty feet to the ground below. Jake could only watch in horror as the dummy's head popped clean off the body, bouncing out of sight.
Well, that's bound to cost me at least a few points....
...Gah dammit! I'm late for color guard! Jake raced into his barracks, felt around under his bunk, and snatched his flag. He immediately turned and ran as fast as he could, skidding to a stop as he reached the practice area. His stomach flopped over when he saw that Corporal Ellenbogen was leading the practice that day.
"I'm here!" he cried out, gasping for breath as he went to stand in the formation.
"Morgendorffer!" Corporal Ellenbogen bellowed. "What the hell is that supposed to be?" He jabbed a huge finger at what Jake was holding.
"My color guard flag, sir!" Jake stood as close to attention as he could, considering his lungs felt like they were going to explode.
"Look again, Morgendorffer!"
Jake looked down and saw that, instead of the familiar red-colored flag, he was holding a pole with a white sheet attached. There seemed to be writing on the sheet. Shaking with dread, he pulled the sheet out to read it: SHAKE SHAKE QUIVER AND QUAKE!....
...His legs were almost numb with the pain. He'd been marching around the bullring for what seemed like forever. "Making a mockery of the color guard"? he thought bitterly. Anyone with half a brain would realize I would never have sabotaged my own flag. Of course, you'd need to be insane to accuse Corporal Ellenbogen of having anywhere close to half a brain....
...Come on, Jakey. Just a couple more obstacles and you're done. The Nutcracker wasn't getting any easier. If anything, it appeared to be getting harder with every practice. At least I'm getting better at ignoring the insults, he reasoned.
He looked at the course ahead and saw the next task: a straw-filled figure was propped up and waiting. Enemy combatant, he remembered. Stab with the bayonet and move on to the next task.
Picturing the straw man as Frank Tabbert, he let loose with a very satisfying jab. He pulled the rifle out again, turned to move on...and managed to drop the rifle and trip over it at the exact same time. He lurched forward, his feet tangling beneath him, and slammed headfirst into the straw man. The straw man toppled over, landing on Jake's back and pinning him face-down on the ground.
"That's twenty points to the straw man!" Frank shouted from the sidelines....
"...In fact, I think that may well be the absolute stupidest, most asinine response to a simple question I've ever heard in my entire career as an instructor at Buxton Ridge Military Academy. Congratulations, and your World's Dumbest Cadet trophy should arrive sometime in the next few days. Well done, Morgendorffer."
As Jake sank into his seat, he heard a few students start up a round of mocking applause. He felt his ears burning hot, and suddenly he couldn't stand it anymore. He shot back up and stared the still-smirking instructor right in the eyes. He took a deep breath....
...He plunged the shovel into the mound of dirt and shrugged. It was worth it....
...Don't look down. Whatever you do, don't look down! Jake could see that he'd almost reached the top of the climbing rope. A couple more feet and he'd be within reach of the little flag hanging there, waiting for him to grab it. Just. Don't. Look. Down.
He looked down.
The next thing he knew, he was falling through the air, jabbering and clawing at thin air....
...It had been another long day, but at last it was over. Jake trudged toward the barracks, looking forward to the one thing that always cheered him up at the end of every day. He passed Frank exiting as he reached the door, but for once Frank seemed content to give Jake a smug grin and continue on his way.
Jake sighed with relief and made his way inside, heading straight for the chest that sat at the foot of his bed. Swinging it open with an eager smile, he stared in shock at the mangled bits of wooden debris that greeted him.
That was all that was left of the barn and the cathedral Carol had given him....
Sitting at the counter of the Eat 'n' Leave, Jake stared glumly into his mug of hot cocoa. The warm spring weather of late March made the hot drink unnecessary, but he wanted to keep himself occupied so Carol wouldn't notice how upset he was. He just didn't know how he could tell her about the destroyed models.
"Jake, isn't there something you need to talk to me about?" Carol's voice startled him, nearly making him pour hot cocoa down the front of his shirt.
"Gahhh!" She knows! But...how? Jake looked up nervously and tried to stall. "What do you mean?" he asked.
She rolled her eyes and smiled. "The Military Ball is about a month and a half away. Were you planning to ask me to it, or do I have to find someone else to take me?"
"Oh, that!" Jake almost fell off his stool in relief. "Yeah! That'd be great!" He finally caught himself. "I mean, do you want to go to the Military Ball with me?"
She clasped her hands under her chin in delight. "Why, Jake Morgendorffer, what a wonderful surprise! Of course I'll go to the Military Ball with you!" Then she shook her head incredulously and, still smiling, poured Jake another cup of cocoa.
By April, even with the Nutcracker looming on the horizon, Jake was in a great mood. Another school year was nearing its end. He'd actually been allowed to come home for Easter vacation. And, best of all, he had a date to the Military Ball.
So when Frank began taunting him in the mess hall one morning after breakfast, Jake barely paid any attention.
"Didn't you hear me?" Frank's voice rang out, filling the huge room and drawing everyone's notice. "I asked you what you thought of the improvements I made to the little toys your so-called 'girlfriend' gave you."
Jake stomach clenched, churning the eggs he'd just eaten and making him slightly queasy. He'd tried to forget about the destroyed train models, but it seemed Frank wasn't going to let him. Don't react, he reminded himself. Keep ignoring him. He'll go away soon. Please, for the love of God, let him go away soon.
"Of course, we all know the truth. You could never get yourself a girlfriend like Carol Williamson. Especially since you've already got a girlfriend named Randy Fletcher!"
"You shut your goddamn mouth, Tabbert!"
"Oh, no," Jake whispered. It was Randy, who had returned from bussing his tray at the worst possible time.
"Well, look at that!" Frank announced to the entire room. "Here's Mrs. Quaky Jakey now, riding in to rescue his beloved as usual!"
"I thought I told ya to shut your goddamn mouth." Randy's voice had gone from furious to calm, which Jake knew was a very, very bad sign.
"Stop," he muttered desperately to his friend, but Randy was either out of earshot or past the point of listening.
Frank's attention was now focused completely on Randy. "Actually, I don't think I will, thank you. You, on the other hand, are more than welcome to shut the hell up."
"Why don't you come over here and make me?" Randy's voice was getting quieter.
"What, right now? It'd be a shame to ruin everyone's nice breakfast by smearing your blood and guts all over the mess hall floor."
"Then how 'bout we just take this outside?"
Frank let out a sharp bark of laughter. "You're kidding, right?" He sneered. "Look, you talk a big game, Fletcher, but everyone here knows you're full of crap." He looked over at Jake again. "So how about you take your sweetheart here and find yourself a nice little love nest? Just make sure Quaky Jakey doesn't fall out of it."
There was an immediate roar of laughter, led by Frank, but it was drowned out by Randy's roar of anger. He launched himself at Frank, who was too shocked to react. Jake was paralyzed, unable to stop Randy. He could only watch in numb horror as time itself seemed to slow down.
Frank's back hits the mess hall floor. Randy lands on top of him. Draws back his elbow.
Fist slams into Frank's face. Once. Twice.
Other fist pulls back. Pounds into Frank's chest. Frank lets out a sound in between a gasp and a moan. A couple of Frank's friends snap out of it and grab Randy, dragging him off of Frank. Randy jerks free.
Randy's foot smashes into Frank's stomach. Then against his head. Then everywhere he can reach before Frank's friends grab hold of him again and pull him away.
A whistle deafened the room and time sped back up. Corporal Ellenbogen marched into view and glared at everyone until his gaze fell on Frank, bleeding and unconscious on the floor. He went pale, then shouted for someone to call the school medic. He took in the sight of Randy being restrained by the other boys and hollered at the top of his lungs again, this time for the MPs.
Randy, who had stopped struggling and gone quiet, looked up. He stared blankly at Frank, then at Corporal Ellenbogen, and then at the approaching MPs. Finally he looked at Jake, and then Jake knew what was about to happen.
With an almost primal scream, Randy tore free of his captors and shoved through the crowd. He burst through the mess hall doors without even looking back...and was gone.
AWOL. Jake turned the acronym over in his mind on his way into town that Saturday. Absent Without Leave. It makes it sound like Randy just went out for a walk without telling anyone. He sighed. More like DWOT--Disappeared Without a Trace.
The past few days had been the worst of his life, even worse than when he'd first started at Buxton Ridge. Under normal circumstances he'd be glad Frank was still in the hospital and therefore unable to torment him, but losing the only friend he'd ever had overshadowed any relief he might have felt. The one thing that had kept him going was the thought of seeing Carol at the end of the week.
She would understand. She always did.
He neared the Eat 'n' Leave and saw Carol coming from the other direction. She noticed him and began running to meet him. "I heard," she said. "The whole town is talking about it. Is he okay?"
Jake shrugged and looked at her in misery. "I don't know. I haven't heard anything from him since he went AWOL."
She frowned. "I'm talking about Frank. They've been saying he might be in the hospital for at least another week thanks to that vicious hoodlum!"
He stared at her, unable to speak for a few moments. "'Vicious hoodlum'?" he finally asked, voice shriller than he expected. "You're talking about Randy!"
"Of course I am!" she snapped. "He was a ticking time bomb, and it was only a matter of time before that thug seriously hurt someone."
"Thug?" Jake took a step back. "He was my friend!"
She crossed her arms and looked away. "I know that. And honestly, I can't believe you never saw him for what he really was."
Jake spluttered. Everything was going wrong. "You don't understand! He was a really great guy! He just--"
"--he just had a history of screaming at people, threatening violence against them, and beating them half to death!" Carol turned her face back toward him again, and she was glaring. "Everyone in town heard about his reputation. And I saw it with my own eyes." Her glare softened and she turned pleading eyes on him. "Admit it, Jake: you know what kind of boy he was."
The image of Randy giving him a thumbs up during Nutcracker training popped into Jake's head and wouldn't go away. His hands clenched involuntarily into fists and his face suddenly felt extremely hot. "You're right," he growled. "I do know what kind of boy he was. He was my best friend, and a better person than everyone else at that hellhole put together. The truth is," he continued, vaguely aware that his voice was getting too loud, "that Frank Tabbert got exactly what was coming to him!"
Carol flinched slightly at his tone, then straightened her back and looked coolly at him. "I think we're done," she said without emotion. "Have a nice life." She swept past Jake and into the diner without a second look.
Jake stood there, unmoving, for several minutes as he tried to understand what had just happened. Eventually he gave up and turned back toward the military academy feeling even more miserable than when he'd left.
After that, Jake stopped going into town on Saturdays. He stayed at Buxton Ridge, going through the motions of attending classes, performing various duties, going through training sessions, and all the rest without really paying attention to any of it. When Frank returned from the hospital, bearing stitches on his head and a cast on his arm, he gave Jake a look that promised the worst was yet to come. Jake no longer cared.
The fog cleared in May, as both the end of the school year and the long-anticipated Leadership Platoon Reaction Course arrived.
Jake stood, waiting for his turn on the Nutcracker, and realized he was trembling. His emotions had returned at the worst possible time, and first among them was a gripping terror about what he was about to endure. Everyone, from the youngest cadets to the Commandant, will be watching. My performance is going to be recorded and reported to Mad Dog. If I screw this up, it's gonna follow me for the rest of my life.
Fortunately, Jake's turn arrived before his fear had a chance to completely paralyze him. The whistle blew, and Jake marched forward on reflex.
Crawling on his belly through the barbed wire, Jake clutched his rifle and tried to concentrate. It was almost impossible; it seemed as though every movement caused some part of his body to run into the wire and tear open another stinging wound. He gritted his teeth and pushed onward.
He didn't hear it until he was halfway through the course. Snickering. Against his better judgment, he glanced over. Frank had been exempted from the course due to his injuries, but he still showed up to watch. And there he was with all his cronies, staring at Jake and laughing.
"Shake, shake, quiver and quake! Shake, shake, quiver and quake! SHAKE, SHAKE, QUIVER AND QUAKE!" The chant had reached full volume, echoing across the entire course, by the time Jake reached the climbing wall. He began hauling himself up as they began shouting faster and faster.
He reached the top of the wall and the chant consumed him. He couldn't think of anything else. It filled his brain and his body, all the way down into his veins. It throbbed in him like a pulse and suddenly it wasn't the chant coursing through him anymore but instead pure, hot rage. Rage at the loss of Randy and Carol, rage at the other cadets for mocking him, rage at the entire world without a single exception.
Fueled by sheer anger, he grabbed the rope and rappelled down without hesitating. His thighs screamed in pain at the rope burns, but he kept moving.
He climbed up the rope, grunting and glaring the whole way. The calluses on his palms broke open as he rose, leaving bloodstains on the rope until he reached the top and snatched the civilian dummy.
He stalked around the fake quicksand, spitting into it along the way, then reached the straw enemy soldier and ran him through with a triumphant snarl. The shock of the impact rippled up his arms and nearly sprained both wrists, but he didn't care.
He stormed across the rickety rope bridge as though it were made of solid stone and finally bounded through the minefield at top speed, but didn't miss a single step.
He burst through the end of the course, burning with pain and panting with exhaustion. The anger he'd felt had faded slightly but hadn't left him. It still simmered, and Jake reveled in the strength it had given him.
The other cadets were silent, most of them ignoring him as he passed by. It was the most spectacular praise he'd ever been given.
It wasn't until the next morning that Jake remembered the Military Ball. He overheard a few cadets talking about it at breakfast and felt a stinging pain shoot through him. He'd almost been able to put Carol completely out of his mind, and now she was all he could think about.
It's the end of the year, he realized. Today is the last Saturday before I pack up and head back home for the summer. I've got to talk to her before I leave.
Although he was tempted to skip his morning duties entirely and head straight into town to find her, he knew his every move had been under intense scrutiny since Randy's freakout. He mechanically worked with the rest of the laundry squad until he was finally free to go, then ran like Corporal Ellenbogen was chasing him.
He went to her house first, pounding on the door but getting no answer. Next he raced to the Eat 'n' Leave, but didn't see her. He got the attention of a waitress and eagerly asked, "Is Carol here today?"
The girl shook her head. "Naw, she's off today. Said something about a dance up at Buxton Ridge."
Jake walked out of the diner, stunned. She's still planning to come to the Military Ball! he thought with sudden joy. That's perfect--I'll meet her there and we can work everything out. It's not too late after all.
Time dragged toward evening more slowly than Jake had ever experienced. He spent the rest of the day avoiding Frank and his cronies and getting ready for the dance. He took great care in ironing his dress blues, shining his shoes, and a million other things in hopes that if he looked as good as possible then Carol would forget about their argument and everything would go back to the way it was before.
At last the time of the dance approached. Jake was the first one there and waited impatiently as other boys came in with their dates. Several times he saw groups of boys walk in with a single girl and smiled to himself at his luck in getting a date entirely to himself.
Then he saw her. She seemed to glide into the room wearing a deep blue gown that draped perfectly around her small frame. She'd curled her hair and tucked little white flowers into the curls. Her eyes were shining and her smile was so beautiful Jake couldn't understand why the whole room hadn't gone still in amazement. He took a step forward, and at the same moment noticed the person holding Carol's hand.
Jake stopped moving so fast he almost tripped over his own feet. He stared at her in growing horror and suddenly found himself striding forward once again. He reached Carol in seconds. She turned and saw him, her eyes widening in surprise, but Jake grabbed her arm and pulled her away before she could speak.
"What are you doing here with that...with such a...with him?" he demanded.
She yanked her arm free and glared at him. "He asked me, and since I no longer had a date I said yes," she replied coldly. "He's a lot nicer than you make him out to be."
"Carol, there are psychopaths that are nicer than Frank Tabbert."
"You want to talk about psychopaths? Have you forgotten that that poor boy is still recovering from serious injuries he got from your friend?"
Jake looked at "that poor boy," who was laughing uproariously with his friends at another cadet's slightly pudgy date. He stared at her, unbelieving. "So you came to the dance with the worst guy at Buxton Ridge...out of pity?" He leaned in so their noses were almost touching. "You think you know what kind of person Frank is, but you're wrong."
She stepped back. "That's possible. I've been wrong about people before, after all."
He felt the full force of her disdainful gaze and began shaking with anger. "You're just like everyone else," he snarled. "You think I'm worthless. That you can just toss me aside and walk all over me." His hands clenched into fists and rose along with his voice. "Well, you know what? You're wrong! Everyone here is wrong! Ol' Jakey isn't going to lie down and take it anymore!"
He realized too late that he was screaming at her. Carol took half a step back, terror clear on her face. Before Jake could apologize or even calm himself down, she whirled around and fled back to Frank, who put a protective arm around her and sneered at Jake.
Jake felt the blood pounding in his temples and the sting of his fingernails digging into his palms. Everyone else at the Military Ball turned their attention to other things, but he stayed there, unmoving, for several minutes. It took some time for his pulse to slow down. Gradually his hands relaxed and dropped down to his sides. His furious glare softened and melted into an expression of pure agony.
All around him people were talking, laughing, and dancing, but Jake was entirely on his own.
I've brought this on myself, he thought. I let my anger get in the way, and it ruined everything. Just like Randy. He willed his legs to move, and found his way to an empty chair in a shadowy corner of the room. Randy. He buried his face in his hands. If I don't get my temper under control, that's exactly who I'm going to end up like. Full of rage and all alone.
He closed his eyes and took a few breaths, trying to clear the last of the anger from his mind. Then he remembered pounding through the Nutcracker course the previous day--and the strength anger had given him. I don't want to lose that. He groaned quietly. So my choice is to be either calm but spineless or angry but lonely?
The answer came to him before he even fully realized it. Keep the anger, but also keep it hidden. He considered the idea. Be angry on the inside, where you need to be strong. Be happy--or at least look like it--on the outside, where other people can see it.
A wide, slightly manic grin spread across his face as I tried on his mask for the first time. A cadet he vaguely recognized walked by. "Hey, my man, how's it going?" he called out to him cheerfully. The other cadet, slightly surprised, gave him a brief nod of acknowledgment and continued on his way toward the punch bowl.
The mask fell away again. It'll take some practice, he decided. But I think I can do this.
Shake, shake, quiver and quake? Not anymore.
Thanks to RLobinske for beta reading.