Helen Wurthmann: Not Funny Ha-Ha (fiction)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and raised in Missouri, whose Southern statehood led to the civil war, regardless of whether or not modern Missourians consider themselves Southerners. Missouri and I are the middle children of our respective families: often overlooked but still legitimate. I was also lucky enough to be raised by a strong female role model hailing from Tennessee, who still falls into her southern drawl when she speaks passionately on any subject. She introduced me to Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, both of whom taught me the difference between crazy and brilliant.

Not Funny Ha-Ha

“Do you clench your teeth often?” the dentist asks, hovering over her as she lies on the sticky leather chair. He removes the mirror from her mouth so she can respond.

“I don’t think so,” Angelique replies.

“Some people grind their teeth in their sleep,” he explains off handedly. He taps a hook against her bottom front teeth. “These bottom ones here have almost completely lost their outer protective coat. And you’ve worn down your canines so they’re almost indistinguishable from your other teeth.”

“If fat fikable?”

“Pardon?” he asks, drawing the hook out of her mouth.

“Is that fixable?” she repeats.

“Nope,” he says, pulling off his latex gloves. “But a mouth guard can prevent more damage. They’re about thirty bucks at most convenience stores.”

Pulling out of the dentist parking lot, Angelique knows the only solution to impending toothlessness is to stop grinding her teeth since she can’t afford a mouth guard. She flips down the visor to block out the blaring sunlight and rolls down the window to let out the car’s stale air.

Not until she hits a stop light does she realize she’s gripping the steering wheel too tightly. Letting go of the wheel, she reaches for the cigarette lighter, leans back in her seat, and sighs. Willingly, she clenches her fists and releases, clenches and releases. Maybe if she consciously starts clenching her fists, she won’t unconsciously grind her teeth at night. Her hands spike with pain as the muscles and bones adjust to the enforced relaxed state. Looking up, the light is still red.

* * *

Angelique uselessly brushed water from her forehead. Normally, she wouldn’t mind the rain so much. Some of her best memories were sitting at her window listening to thunderstorms. That was before someone slashed open the vinyl top of her convertible and stole her stereo. Now everything seeped through the duct tape she’d used to temporarily mend the car.

The light turned green as the cigarette lighter popped out and she reflexively hit the gas. She didn’t see the man in the crosswalk until he leapt out of her way. She slammed on her brakes too late, car skidding until it came to a complete stop. Angelique’s entire body tightened as she made eye contact with him, seeing that it was someone she knew. The man looked perfectly familiar.

But after a couple seconds of mouth-gaped staring, she realized it couldn’t be Him. The stranger, who had miraculously not been hit, must have taken her expression for stupidity because he was now shouting, “Hey! Hello in there!” at the window. Cars were starting to honk at her.

With a deep breath, she readjusted her car and pulled away, headed once again for home.

That man had looked like any other thin man in a baseball cap, but to Angelique he had looked like Joel. She hadn’t thought of Joel in—she counted the months on her fingers, working backwards—half a year.

“Don’t think about it,” she muttered aloud, trying to focus on the road in front of her.

Joel had been a junior in high school who walked her home from the bus stop when she was in eighth grade. He watched only her as they walked. Joel would do most of the talking in the daily four minutes of strolling, though he always asked, “So how are you?” multiple times in each conversation. After a week or so he must have gotten bored with her consistent, “I’m fine,” and switched his question to, “What are you thinking about?”

Angelique always enjoyed this question, because most of the time her answer was a bit of a surprise, even to her. When asked the same question, Joel would only smile and say, “Nothing,” followed by a long silence that sometimes lasted until they were at her front door. Then, without fail, he’d smile again and say, “See you later.”

One day, Joel explained why he took the bus when every other kid his age drove a car.

“I have epilepsy,” he explained. “They won’t let you drive a car if you could have a seizure at any moment.”

“That stinks,” Angelique admitted.

He nodded. “So…do you have your license yet?” Angelique laughed. Joel laughed too, but his smile faltered. “Permit?”

Angelique stopped laughing and looked at him sideways. “You know I’m still in middle school, right?” she asked. Joel looked stunned.

“I’m sorry—it’s just—you don’t…What grade are you?”

“Eighth,” Angelique said.

“So you’re…”

“Thirteen. Since last December,” she finished with an awkward smile.

“Oh.”

They walked slowly to her mailbox in silence. Joel wasn’t looking at her, so Angelique tried to lighten the mood.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Joel said, but this time he didn’t smile or even look at her. “I’ll…see you later, then,” he said. All Angelique could manage was a, “Goodbye,” before Joel turned and slumped away. He had never left reaching Angelique’s door, and this was the first and last time she’d seen Joel walk away from her. She had never noticed he didn’t live in this direction before.

Joel never walked her home after that day.

* * *

Inside her apartment building, Angelique wrung her hair out as she climbed the stairs, considering investing in a poncho for her car. When she reached her landing, she found Ted waiting for her outside her door.

“You. Are. Soaked,” he stated. “You know, I’ve never waited fifteen minutes on a girl.”

“That’s okay,” Angelique replied. “I’ve never cooked for a boy. But life’s about branching out.”

“Who are you calling ‘boy’? I’m a man, little honey, and don’t you forget it.” He tickled her and chased her into the apartment. She shrieked with laughter as she attacked him with a towel and they tumbled to the ground together, laughing full-belly and kissing.

When she started up the gas stove for dinner, Ted threw the towel at her.

“Not around an open flame, Ted!” she snapped.

Ted laughed as she disappeared behind the screen separating her bedroom from the kitchen. “Lighten up!” he shouted after her.

* * *

The summer after eighth grade, Joel went from non-existent to ever-present. Angelique began seeing him everywhere she went: at the mall with her friends, at the park while she walked the dog. He would talk at her for what felt like hours, hardly ever saying anything new. Eventually, Angelique began forming lists of excuses in case she needed to make a quick exit.

During one encounter, he appeared while she was making a perfect free throw in her driveway.

“Hey, Angie. Whatchya…” Joel caught sight of Angelique’s friend, Stephanie, painting her nails on the steps leading up from the driveway to her front door. “Oh, hey,” he said to Stephanie, shrinking into his spine. Stephanie looked him up and down before turning her attention back to her nails.

“Hey, Joel,” Angelique said, sounding tired. Joel looked at her and smiled toothily.

“Whatchya doin’?”

“Shooting hoops,” Angelique said, demonstrating with another shot. The ball rolled around the rim before bouncing off. They both ran after it and Angelique snatched it up first. Joel looked at her expectantly, but she refused to invite him to play. Not only did he not seem like the sporty type, but the whole reason she’d invited Stephanie over was because she was fine letting Angelique play basketball on her own.

After a few moments of awkward silence, Joel smiled again and said, “Well—”

“Good to see you,” Angelique interrupted, smiling back and turning to dribble her way to the hoop. After two failed attempts and one successful shot, she turned and saw to her relief that Stephanie was the only one there.

“Who was that? Your stalker?” she said with a snort.

“No,” Angelique said. “Just a guy. He rides my bus.”

Another day, she and her mom were shopping for her eighth grade graduation party when she caught Joel approaching out of the corner of her eye. Her stomach churned. This was the third time that week she had talked to him.

“Hey, Angelique. Fancy running into you here.”

“Hi, Joel,” Angelique said, not meeting anyone’s gaze, even her questioning mother’s.

“Whatchya doin’?” he asked.

“Buying cookies.” Angelique threw a package of Oreos into the cart. For the first time, Angelique realized how awkward Joel looked. She hadn’t seen him public place until now, but compared to other people, he didn’t look quite human. His bodily proportions were off, his neck and arms too long for his torso.

“Looks like you’re throwing a party,” he observed, a hint of defeat in his voice.

“Stocking up on snacks for the summer actually,” Angelique’s mother interrupted. Angelique glanced at her, surprised by this blatant lie.

“Oh,” said Joel, smiling again. “I’m Joel by the way, a friend of Angelique’s.” He extended a hand, which Angelique’s mom took after a moment’s hesitation.

“Mrs. Anderson,” she replied.

“Angelique Anderson,” he said, as if the words rolled off the tongue in some savory way. “Ha! I’d call you ‘AA’ but that’d only bring up a different implication.” He laughed again, and Angelique smiled as if to assure him he was funny.

“Yes, well, we should be going,” Mrs. Anderson said flatly.

They began to walk away when Joel called after them. “Why don’t I help you carry your groceries to your car?”

“Thank you, dear, but we have a cart for that. Good bye,” she emphasized as they continued walking towards the checkout lines.

She and her mother didn’t talk until they were back in the car driving home.

“So how do you know Joel?” her mom asked.

“He rides my bus,” Angelique answered.

“The bus from our new house or the one you’re still taking from the old house?”

“From Dad’s house.”

You don’t like him?” she asked rhetorically.

Angelique shrugged. “He’s just…funny.”

“Funny,” her mom repeated.

“Like, not funny ha-ha, just…”

“Gay?”

“No, weird.”

“Well I haven’t seen you tense up like that since last Halloween when that werewolf jumped at you.” Mrs. Anderson said, stifling her laugh as they entered their subdivision. Angelique stared at the identical houses passing by, imagining Joel’s smiling face beneath the werewolf mask.

“Thanks for not telling Joel about the party,” Angelique said as they pulled into their garage.

“Not a problem, dear. Go get your brother to help us carry these groceries in.”

* * *

When the dishes were washed and set to dry beside the sink, Angelique joined Ted on the carpet. They had eaten on the floor since Angelique didn’t have much furniture.

“Wanna watch a movie?” he offered. “I brought my laptop from work.”

“Sure.” Angelique connected the computer to her neighbor’s unprotected internet and snuggled up to Ted, but by the time they made it through the opening credits of “Charade,” she’d shifted half a dozen times.

“Comfortable?” Ted asked sarcastically, trying to settle his arm around her shoulders.

Angelique didn’t answer. Her whole body ached and she had the sudden urge to kick Ted out and lie down in bed. “You look a lot like Carey Grant,” she observed.

“Really? I heard he was gay,” Ted said. “Besides, he must be fifty in this.”

* * *

Angelique ran into Joel at her church’s annual garage sale in the fall of her freshman year. Her two hour shift at the clothing section ended at ten o’clock, giving her plenty of time to wander around before she caught a ride home with the Banks family at eleven-thirty.

She felt him watching her before she saw him paging through a used copy of Harry Potter.

“Hey Angelique. Whatchya got there?” Joel gestured to the locket she held. “It’s beautiful.”

Angelique shrugged. “It’s alright I guess.”

“Allow me.” Joel reached for the necklace. She impulsively pulled the necklace back, but he still managed to grab it. Before she could object he was behind her, clasping the thing around her neck. His fingers brushing against the nape, sending goosebumps down her spine.

“There.” He put a firm hand on each shoulder. “You look beautiful, Angie,” and then, turning to the woman running the jewelry table said, “How much for the necklace?”

“Four dollars,” said the woman perkily.

“That’s okay, I don’t want it,” said Angelique, reaching for the clasp.

“It’s a gift,” said Joel, pulling out a wallet from his back pocket.

“Don’t, Joel,” said Angelique, desperately fidgeting at the chain.

“It’s okay; I want you to have it.”

“It does look very pretty on you, dear,” said the woman, taking the money from Joel.

“It’s just a necklace, Angie.” Joel tried lower Angelique’s hands, but Angelique pulled away, nudging the jewelry-laden table.

“It’s ugly, and I hate it!” Angelique snapped, pulling the chain over her head so the strain left red marks on her cheeks. People in the parking lot looked at her. Angelique slammed the locket on the card table and stormed off, preferring to walk rather than wait for a ride home.

* * *

Ted and Angelique weren’t watching the movie anymore. Clothes flung around the apartment made a trail from the carpet to the bed. Putting a condom on was the only foreplay they ever needed, but that night Ted hesitated when he found he could not slide into her as easily as he was accustomed to.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, I’m just…” she couldn’t find the right words to describe it. Her body had committed mutiny.

“Do you have any lube?”

Angelique shook her head.

“Just relax,” Ted coaxed.

“I’m trying,” Angelique said, gripping the sheets.

“Stop trying so hard?” Ted joked. Angelique glared at him. “Okay, let me try—” Ted thrust at her as hard as he could, but the effect was like reverse childbirth, causing them both to howl out in pain.

“Godammit!” Angelique groaned, pushing Ted away and rolling away from him. This hadn’t happened to her since she’d lost her virginity in the eleventh grade.

“And I thought men were the only ones who had trouble performing.”

“Well maybe this is revenge for your ‘trouble performing’ last week,” Angelique grumbled.

“Jesus, you’ve been acting weird all night,” Ted said defensively. “We were great yesterday, and suddenly you can’t stand me. What’s your problem?”

Angelique couldn’t answer.

Eventually, the angry blood pounding in her ears was replaced by rain hitting the window. After a few minutes, Angelique felt Ted’s strong hands on her shoulders.

“What are you doing?” Angelique sighed, annoyed.

“Lie on your stomach,” Ted directed, pressing his thumbs between her shoulder blades.

“A massage isn’t going to work,” she warned.

“We don’t have to tonight if you don’t want to,” Ted assured her.

“I’m very mad at you.” Even as she said these words, she turned onto her stomach.

“I know,” said Ted.

Angelique snorted. “That’s a terrible apology.”

Ted shrugged. “You haven’t apologized either.”

“For what?”

“For not telling me what’s wrong. Then yelling at me for it.” Ted rubbed her shoulders. He didn’t give good massages, but Angelique had never bothered to tell him that, either.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said at last.

“Do you want to break up?” he asked.

“What? No!” said Angelique, trying to turn around and face him. Ted was sitting on top of her, but after a moment of fumbling they faced each other. “Do you want to break up?” Angelique asked aggressively.

“No.”

“Then why would you ask that?”

“Because…” Ted made an exasperated gesture. “We’ve been dating for about a month now and out of the blue you go from carefree to…this.”

“What is ‘this?’” she asked, imitating him gesturing to her whole body.

“I just don’t know what to think about you right now.”

“Can’t a girl have a bad day?”

“Sure—”

“Then just let me be in a bad mood.”

“Maybe if you just told me what’s up, I’d stop assuming it’s about me.”

“I almost hit a guy with my car on the way home today,” she blurted.

Silence.

Ted laughed. “Is that all?” then, seeing Angelique’s angry expression, “You didn’t actually hit him, right? He’s okay?”

“Yeah. It was no big deal,” Angelique said, turning away from him again.

* * *

Joel didn’t have a beard for a couple years after they first met; Angelique pictured him with a beard in all her memories of him. He didn’t always wear hats; she always pictured him with the same ratty baseball cap. People get older; she always pictured him nineteen. That’s how he looked on her first date.

On the last day before winter break of her sophomore year, Chance Miller asked her to the movies.

“I thought he was going out with Tanya Flores,” Stephanie sulked.

Angelique shrugged. “Now he’s going out with me.”

“Now you’re going out with him,” she corrected.

Back at home, Angelique spent three hours getting ready for her date. With her new found maturity, she felt she shouldn’t have to suffer questions like, “When is your friend getting here?” from her moody dad standing in her bedroom doorway.

Chance is getting here at six thirty,” she said, adjusting the fuzzy blue sweater she planned to abandon as soon as they got out of the house.

There was a knock at the door. He was fifteen minutes early! Was that normal? Her eyes darted to her dad, who held up his hands and said, “I’ll tell him you’re still getting ready,” in his best imitation of her mom.

“Be nice, Dad,” she called after him, wishing she was at her mom’s this weekend.

From across the house, she heard the door open and muffled voices speaking. Angelique threw the contents of her everyday purse into a cuter purse and headed to the living room. As she rounded the hallway corner, she saw her Dad had still not invited Chance in. Then she heard the voice on the other side of the door: “I’m sure if you just go get her, she’ll tell you we made plans today to watch old movies.”

Angelique froze. That day, Joel had sat with her at lunch. Even though he was a senior, Angelique had quickly realized no one liked Joel—not even the underclassmen respected him. She felt sorry for him. So, despite her friends’ glares, Angelique made room for him that day. She vaguely remembered saying, “Yeah sure,” when he’d asked if she liked old movies.

“I’m only going to tell you this one more time, kid,” said her dad in his calm-angry voice. “Angie’s got other plans tonight. I’ll tell her to give you a call when she gets back.”

“But she doesn’t have my number,” said Joel’s voice.

“That’s your problem, kid.”

“Here.” Angelique saw a hand shove a piece of paper into her dad’s palm. Without a good night, her dad shut the door and turned towards her, looking peeved. He held up the scrap of paper as a question. Angelique released her clenched fist, reached out and took it.

“Did you make plans with two different boys tonight?” he asked. “That’s not a nice thing to do to a guy, Angie.”

She threw the number on the coffee table beside a pile of junk mail.

Twenty minutes later, Chance arrived. He rang the doorbell. He shook her dad’s hand. He introduced himself as “Chance Miller.” He smiled at her.

“Be back by ten,” her dad said sternly.

“Will do, sir,” Chance assured him. He said “sir.”

As they walked down the path from her front door to the driveway, he leaned in and said, “We’ll have to see a shorter movie if I’m gonna have you home on time.” He winked at her. She smiled like she understood.

“So what’s it like having a license?” Angelique asked as they neared his minivan.

“Great. Well, you know. When I have my mom’s car. Otherwise it’s just another piece of plastic in my wallet.”

Angelique laughed her you’re-so-funny laugh.

“I’m going to try and get my permit this Tuesday,” she said.

“Really? I could drive you there if you want.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I want to. What time?”

Chance opened the car door for her, but as she said “thank you,” another voice said, “Hey, Angie!”

Joel ran towards them. Angelique jumped in the car without looking twice, but Chance wouldn’t shut the door. He was looking desperately between Angelique and Joel, not used to the sudden off-script date they were now performing. Joel’s lanky figure appeared in the doorway.

“Hey. I thought we were watching old movies tonight.”

She didn’t look him in the eye. “Nope. You’re wrong. Let’s go, Chance,” she said pointedly, pulling the door closed herself. Joel just managed to back away before getting smashed. Joel looked at Angelique with puppy-eyes, but stepped back again as they drove away.

They drove in silence until Chance glanced in his rear view mirror. “Is he…following us?”

Angelique squinted through the back window. “Oh god,” she groaned, sinking in her seat.

“Look, um…Are you dating that guy too?”

Angelique flashed him an “are you kidding me” look, but Chance was focused on the road and didn’t catch it.

“Because I know causal dating is a thing some people do, so it’s cool…And, yeah. I just got out of a pretty serious relationship, so…you know…”

“I’m not dating Joel,” Angelique said in disgust.

“Okay. But, you know. It’d be cool if you were dating other people. I’d be okay with it. You know, keeping this—what we’re doing—casual.”

Angelique winced. “Sure,” she said. Whatever, she thought.

When they reached the theater, Joel pulled in too. He didn’t acknowledge them save for brushing shoulders with Chance to enter the box office before they did.

“Watch where you’re going man,” Chance warned.

“’Scuse me,” Joel said as an after-thought. They did their best to ignore him as Chance bought tickets to the next showing of “Stranger than Fiction.”

“What have you heard about this movie?” Angelique tried as they ordered popcorn.

“Heard it’s strange,” he replied, “stranger than fiction.”

Angelique laughed, but this time they were both aware it wasn’t a funny joke. However, by the time they sat down in the old cushioned seats, some level or normalcy had returned to their date. Angelique began a popcorn war, which eventually shifted to a basketball game between the popcorn and Chance’s mouth. They giggled through the previews and gave scathing reviews like sophisticated film critics. As the lights dimmed and the “Feature Presentation” jingle began, Joel appeared at the bottom of the stairs.

“Oh please no,” Angelique whispered, squeezing Chance’s hand.

Following her gaze, Chance squeezed her hand back and said, “Just ignore him.” Realizing this was not how she wanted to make first contact with Chance, she released his hand and shifted in her seat. Chance frowned and crossed his arms. Joel sat in the row directly behind them. They had only just found out that Will Ferrell was hearing voices when Angelique and Chance heard, “Hey. Angie.”

Angelique, who had been leaning on Chance’s shoulder, turned around and glared at Joel, whose face was lit in the inconsistent light of the movie screen.

“Are you kidding me?” she stage whispered.

“Yeah, man. Back off,” said Chance, putting his arm around Angelique and turning her back towards the movie.

“Hey, I need to talk to you,” Joel insisted, not pretending to whisper this time.

Chance turned. “You mind, man? Some people are trying to enjoy the movie.”

“This is important,” Joel retorted.

“Well if you can’t tell, we’re kind of on a date here.”

“Angie—”

“Shut up, man!” said Chance, his voice rising. People were shushing them now.

“This has nothing to do with you,” Joel snapped.

“No, Joel. This,” Angelique gestured between herself and Chance, “has nothing to do with you.”

Joel looked broken, like he had the last time he walked her home. Angelique tried to settle back into the movie, but now she was completely lost.

“Angelique, I really need to talk to you. It’s important.”

“I can’t believe you dated this faggot,” Chance muttered. At this, Joel reached up and shoved Chance’s skull forward with his palm, causing his shaggy hair to fall even further into his eyes.

She felt Chance’s body tense, so before he could make a move, she stood. “I’ll just see what he wants and be right back,” and then, turning sharply to Joel said, “Make this quick,” leading him out of the theater. A few audience members clapped sarcastically as they left. When they reached the hallway, she wanted to slap Joel’s dumb smile off his face.

“What do you want, Joel?”

“We were supposed to watch old movies together tonight,” he said.

“No. We weren’t.”

“But when I asked you at lunch, you said, ‘yeah,’” he insisted.

“I don’t even remember you asking me that,” Angelique said, turning to go. Joel grabbed her by the arm. “Let go of me, Joel,” she said coldly.

He didn’t. “Why would you stand me up like that, Angie?”

“Let go of me, Joel,” she repeated.

“I waited a long time to ask you out. I waited a long time for you, Angie.”

“Stop calling me, ‘Angie,’ like we’re friends.” She pulled away from him. “Leave me alone, Joel. I mean it.”

“But…I waited for you.”

“So what?” she said, raising her arms in exasperation. Without waiting for a reply, Angelique stormed back into the theater only to run right into Chance.

“Whoa, hey,” Chance said, steadying her. “Everything alright?”

“Yeah,” Angelique said, rubbing her temples. She was getting a bad headache and wanted to go home, but was too afraid to leave the theater for fear that Joel would still be standing there, waiting for her.

* * *

Ted had long since left her apartment by the time morning arrived. Angelique had not slept at all. Maybe she could call in sick from work. She got out of bed and squinted out her window to the bright, dirty street below. A white car halted at the stop sign. Joel had driven a white car. She had never discovered if his driving was illegal or if he had lied about the epilepsy.

A shot of pain in her jaw made her realize that she had been clenching her teeth for God knew how long. Going slack-jawed did nothing to reverse the effects. There was no way she could go into work unable to form words, yet she couldn’t afford to lose tips with rent due next week. With a groan, she made her way to the bathroom and popped two doses of pain killers before grabbing her coat.

* * *

Her junior year of high school, Angelique was invited to a party in celebration of Ashley Trainer’s parents not being home. It was the first party she’d been invited to since her fiasco first date with Chance. A senior, Jimmy, had asked her to the party.

“I’m kind of going out on a limb here, asking you out,” he admitted to her, when she made the slightest hesitation before saying yes. After their first date, Chance had wasted no time telling everyone that she was going out with Joel. No one had bothered to ask her out since, especially when Joel perpetuated the rumor by following her around the rest of the year. With Joel graduated, however, things were beginning to look up.

Jimmy was one of those ugly popular guys whose troll appearance had only been saved by the football team. Angelique felt like a child beside him as he wrapped his arm around her waist and asked if she wanted a drink.

“Sure,” said Angelique. At least it would give her something to do. She stood alone beside a crowded couch, smiling at her old friend, Stephanie, who smiled at her briefly before returning to another conversation.

“Angelique!” said a squeaky voice behind her.

“Hey Ashley,” Angelique said. “Great party.”

“I know,” she said with a long nod. Her blue eyes had a tipsy glaze over them. “It’s good that you came.”

“Thanks,” Angelique replied. Jimmy returned with red cups filled to the brim with foamy beer.

“Bottoms up, ladies,” he said, chugging his own drink. Angelique took a long gulp and swayed to the loud music. Ashley and Jimmy began talking about his amazing play last night, but Angelique had been to the game and the play hadn’t been that amazing. She drank more beer and began looking for something more interesting to do.

Two and a half cups later, Angelique got on the dance floor with several other girls. While most of the guys were content to watch them, Jimmy came up behind Angelique and handed her a shot of something before dancing with her. The liquor burned her throat in a good way as she swayed against Jimmy. He wasn’t so bad when she didn’t have to look at him. She liked the way her shoulders felt against his broad chest, the way his large hands held her hips as they danced. Another guy—she recognized him but couldn’t remember his name—began dancing in front of her. He was much skinnier than Jimmy with spikier hair. She gave into the urge to mess it up, causing the new boy to do the same to her hair.

At this, Jimmy pulled Angelique off the dance floor, despite of her protestations of, “Hey!” and brought her to the kitchen. He lifted her onto the sticky counter and handed her another cup of beer. She held it with a both hands and sipped, now at eye level with Jimmy. He leaned on the section of counter between her knees and asked if she was having a good time.

She nodded. “I’d really like to find the bathroom, though,” she admitted.

He laughed at her, and Angelique laughed as well, even though she had no idea why. “Follow me,” he said, pulling her off the counter and leading her to the bathroom. A line of five people filed out beside the bathroom door.

“Oh no,” Angelique moaned.

Jimmy leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Maybe there’s another bathroom connected to Ashley’s parents’ bedroom.”

“Good point,” Angelique whispered back, leading the way upstairs. The first two doors turned out to be a closet and Ashley’s bedroom, but the door at the end of the hall opened into a room filled mostly with a king sized bed. Angelique hurried across to a door, which indeed yielded a large pearly bathroom. “Jackpot!” she shouted, and disappeared inside. The quiet whiteness of the bathroom was a relief from the dark noise of downstairs. As she sat on the toilet, she felt giddy. This was what she’d been missing out on all last year. And she still had almost two full years left to make the most of high school.

* * *

At the lunch shift, she gave a fat woman a diet soda instead of a non-diet soda and got chewed out by her manager for it. She couldn’t focus on customers’ orders; she kept feeling someone’s eyes on her, kept feeling the need to turn around and scan the crowd for a baseball hat and a beard. She nearly dropped a tray of potato skins when a man with a beard asked her where the bathroom was.

By the time she got home, the muscles between her shoulder blades were spasming. Collapsing in bed, Angelique vaguely remembered her car insurance was due today, in addition to a gas bill.

Two hours later, Angelique was still staring at her dark ceiling.

She lumbered into the bathroom and raided her medicine cabinet for the muscle relaxants she’d been prescribed when she threw her back out two years ago. Without thinking, she swallowed a pill dry and threw up five minutes later. She checked the bottle: Take one pill every 8 hours with food or milk. Her milk was expired, but she ate a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter and swallowed another pill. Her stomach was not happy, but she didn’t vomit again. Angelique’s reflection looked critically back at her.

“He’s not here,” she said aloud. “You can’t run into him now.”

* * *

When Angelique left the bathroom, she saw Jimmy sitting on the bed.

“Feel better?” he said with a laugh.

She blushed. “Shut up,” she said playfully. Jimmy reached out and took her hand.

“I’m glad you came tonight.”

“Me too,” she said happily. “Come on, let’s go dance again.” She tried to pull him towards the door, but Jimmy wouldn’t budge.

“Let’s stay here for a while,” he said. “We can dance later.”

“I want to dance now,” she pouted.

“In a minute,” he said, pulling her towards him. His hand could easily fit around her forearm, but Angelique pulled her arm away.

“Stop being a jerk, Jimmy.”

“Stop trying to escape,” he teased, grabbing her by the waist and pulling her onto his lap. When had he unzipped his pants?

“Let go of me!” she said, aware that Jimmy was enjoying her squirming. He had her whole body clenched in one arm while his other hand pulled up her skirt and ran up her thigh to her panties. Angelique screamed in pain, but Jimmy put a hand over her mouth.

“Stop killing the mood, Angie,” he said, annoyed. In her peripheral vision, Angelique saw the door open.

“What the hell?!” Joel appeared in the room, and seeing the two of them on the bed, ran over and began pulling on Jimmy’s arms. His skinny frame was no stronger than it looked, however, and it only took a shove from Jimmy to send Joel flying.

“We’re busy, loser. Get your own or get lost,” Jimmy said, and then cried out in pain as Angelique clamped her jaws down on his beefy finger. There was a thud—another cry—a crack, and then Jimmy went limp. Angelique struggled away and stood up screaming. Joel was inches away kneeling on the bed behind Jimmy’s fallen body, smashing his head with the bedside telephone.

“Stopstopstop!” she yelled, pulling at Joel’s arm and trying not to get hit with the phone. “You’re killing him!”

Joel dropped the phone and crawled backwards off the bed. Angelique was crying, watching the blood seep out of Jimmy’s head like sea water bubbles out of a hermit crab’s hole.

“What the hell, Joel,” she gasped, fumbling for her phone to call 911. Joel was leaning against the wall, breathing heavily.

“911, what is your emergency?”

“Hi. There’s a guy here who’s bleeding and unconscious.”

“This is what happens, Angie,” said Joel matter-of-factly. “This is what happens when you go out with other guys.”

“What is your location.”

“I don’t know,” said Angelique desperately. She stumbled out of the room and down the stairs. Joel followed.

“Why don’t you just admit that we’re meant to be together?” asked Joel.

“What are you even doing here!” she yelled at him, pushing through the crowd of people and out the door, searching for an address. “134 W Tybalt Street,” she said into the phone.

“What is your name, ma’am?”

Why were they asking so many questions? “Angelique Anderson.”

“An ambulance is on its way. Is the man breathing?” asked the lady on the phone.

“I don’t know,” sobbed Angelique, running back inside to look.

“I never actually left,” Joel explained. “I missed you too much.”

Angelique tripped on the stairs, dropping her phone. Joel tried to help her up, but she shook him off. She crawled on all fours up the remaining stairs and ran back to the master bedroom. The blood was staining the comforter now. Jimmy wasn’t moving.

“Where’s my phone!” Angelique yelled, spinning around into Joel, who handed the phone to her. “Hello? Yes. He’s not moving,” she reported.

“Stay calm, ma’am. An ambulance will be there shortly, but please stay on the line until—”

“Okay. We’re on the second floor,” she added, and hung up.

Joel put a hand on her shoulder, which Angelique shoved off.

“What’s wrong with you?” she cried.

“I was just trying to help. He was raping you, Angie,” he said desperately. “I won’t let anyone ever touch you again.” A small smile. “You’re safe with me.”

Angelique looked at him, dumbfounded. Finally she said, “I’m going home,” and left the room.

“Let me give you a ride,” Joel said, chasing after her.

“No, Joel!” She slammed the door behind her and walked down the dark street, vaguely aware that she’d left her underwear back at Ashley’s. An ambulance pulled up to the house.

“Angie!” Joel called after her. She started running. “I’ll never leave you!”

* * *

Her apartment grew dark, but Angelique couldn’t think of a reason to get up and turn on the light. She fingered a post-it with directions on it, feeling the muscle relaxants she’d taken kick in. The last step read, “Vermont State Penitentiary.”

* * *

Twice Angelique collapsed on the sidewalk, lying on lawns like a beached whale. She lay there until a car came by, then she ran again. When she reached her house, she collapsed one last time as she closed the front door.

“…Mom…” she called out languorously. No doubt her mom would be asleep at this hour. “Mom,” she cried again. The hallway light came on.

“Angel?” her mom said, worry already seeping into her sleepy voice. She appeared at the top of the split level steps and gasped. “What happened?” She didn’t actually need an explanation as she helped Angelique sit up. She sat on the floor with her daughter and rocked her as Angelique sobbed in her arms.

Angelique still remembered the feeling of cool washcloths on her body. The one on her forehead quickly absorbed the heat radiating from her body while her mother wiped her arms. She faded between crying and unconsciousness, but her mother’s gasp woke her enough to know she’d reached her daughter’s legs. There, her skin still throbbed so badly she had forgotten about the four scratches leading up her thigh until her mother accidentally brushed them.

“My poor baby,” was all her mom said when Angelique calmed down again.

Then, Angelique remembered the sound of her mom on the phone in the next room, calling the doctor.

Peroxide poured on her cuts as she lay on a towel.

Waking up the next day to find herself alone in her room.

Nearly choking on pain killers when she heard she’d missed five days of school and would have detention if she missed another.

The house’s eerie silence broken by strangers at the door asking if Angelique was available for questioning.

All the while, the only thing she could see were Joel’s savage eyes as he struck down with a telephone.

* * *

She’d never visited Joel in jail before now.

The prison was as cold and gray as they depicted on TV, but the industrial lighting made it brighter than Angelique had expected. She was breathing fine until Joel appeared on the other side of the thick glass. His hair was already thinning and receding even though he was still in his mid-twenties. His smile had changed too. It was more hollow than the sad smile she’d been given the day of the court ruling. He picked up the phone.

“Hey, Angie. I knew you’d show up sooner or later.”

Angelique realized she was scowling and tried to fix her face. Joel waited for her to say something, but after two minutes of complete silence, his smile began to echo amusement.

“Well. I’ve been good. You know, considering…” Joel gestured to the room. “Luckily good behavior isn’t hard to come by, so hopefully I’ll make my parole.”

Angelique shut her eyes tight and opened them again.

“And you’re not the first person to visit me, either,” he continued. “My mom still comes by once a week and I get a lot of visits from Mr. Carver, my old English teacher.”

“I just…came to tell you…” Angelique began. Joel fell silent again, a flash of eagerness in his eyes. “That I don’t want to see you ever again.”

“You came to see me to tell me you don’t want to see me?”

Angelique sighed. “My testimony the day of your trial. That wasn’t me saving you or even defending you. It was just me telling what actually happened.”

Joel nodded.

Angelique swallowed. “So I’m sorry if you’ve spent the last five years in here thinking I liked you or I was waiting for you to get out so we could be together. I have a boyfriend now—a real boyfriend who cares about me and loves me. And I love him too.”

Joel sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Why don’t you like me, Angie?” It was more an attack than a question. Joel took her silence as an invitation to keep talking. “I’ve never done anything but try to be nice to you, to look after you. So what is it?”

“You’re a murderer,” Angelique said plainly, naming the only item on her list of reasons she could put into words.

“I sacrificed everything to save you,” he spat. “Who knew being a good friend would land a person in prison with the world hating his guts.”

“You never wanted to be my friend,” she said, almost sadly.

Joel didn’t seem to hear her. “I can’t believe I threw my life away for someone who treats people like shit.” She took the phone away from her ear for a moment and he said something she didn’t catch.

“I’m sorry I have to treat you like shit,” she said, not looking away from his glaring eyes. “Goodbye, Joel.”

* * *

Pulling out of the dentist parking lot, Angelique knows the only solution to impending toothlessness is to stop grinding her teeth since she can’t afford a thirty dollar mouth guard. Willingly, she clenches her fists and releases, clenches and releases. Maybe if she consciously starts clenching her fists, she won’t grind her teeth at night. Her hands spike with pain as the muscles and bones adjust to the enforced relaxed state. She waits for the light to turn green.

Written by

Dead Mule Staff