My sixteen years hadn't prepared me for Jenna's question. The answer was stuck in my gut and wouldn't pass through my parched mouth. I licked my lips. I did it again. It was a simple question.
"Well?" she asked.
Her eyes were hypnotic. Two big pools of brown that penetrated my soul, weakened my knees, and melted my heart.
Somehow I managed to squeak that out. Sitting under the bleachers of the school's empty football field, the word that was so hard to get out was almost lost in the open air.
Jenna crossed her arms. Her eyes narrowed. Her lips pressed together.
"Cory Wayne Masters, will you love me forever?"
Even with the bleachers casting a mid-day shadow on her face, I saw that her eyes were now shinier. It would break my heart to see a single tear roll down her cheek. All of a sudden my answer was clear. It burst forth, loud enough to be heard at both end zones.
I pulled her hands out from under her crossed arms and, pressing them together, carried them to my lips. Her eyes got bigger when I kissed them.
"I will love you forever. More than forever. We'll grow old together and then spend eternity in heaven together. I will always love you, Jenna, always. Now. Forever. On earth. In heaven. For eternity."
The tear rolled down her cheek. With her hands clasped in mine, I extended a finger to brush it away. My heart didn't break. On the contrary, it threatened to burst with happiness.
The pounding on the wooden bleacher bench caused me to jump. I heard Jenna gasp as I spun around. The assistant principal, Mr. Fargo, stood with feet shoulder width apart and his hands on his hips. His tie flapped in the warm breeze.
"Mr. Masters, Miss Sturgess, what are you two doing?"
"Just talking," I said.
"It looked like more. I know about you, you and your family. Nothing but a bunch of-"
"All we were doing was talking."
"Don't talk back to me, you little twerp."
I was about to say more when I felt Jenna's fingers squeeze my forearm. I turned, and when I saw the look on her face my anger subsided. She was like an angel.
"I'm sending notes to both of your mothers," Mr. Fargo said. Before I could respond, he added, "Now both of you get back in there. You know you're not allowed out of the building during your lunch period."
Jenna and I scrambled out from under the bleachers and started for the closest entrance. I stopped when Mr. Fargo grabbed Jenna's arm.
"Not together," he said. "You two need to be separated."
My fingers curled into fists, but a quick shake of Jenna's head had me walking towards the building. I glanced over my shoulder once to see Mr. Fargo wagging a finger at Jenna as he spoke. She stood silent, head bowed, looking at her feet.
When I entered the building, Joe Birch was waiting. I used to hang out with him before I met Jenna.
"So has she spread her legs for you yet?" he asked.
"Get out of my way."
I could have walked around him. Instead, I plowed my shoulder into him as I passed. He stumbled backwards.
"Dude, what's gotten into you?" he yelled as I kept walking. "We used to have fun."
Not replying, I scurried down the hallway. We had fun, but it was different now-I was different. Jenna changed me. I wasn't that Cory any more. In fact, that Cory was never really me. If my father's verdict had been not guilty, I wouldn't have accepted Birch's friendship.
Being a year older than Jenna, we shared no classes so I didn't see her the rest of the day. I did see Mr. Fargo when he stormed into my math class. My teacher stopped talking mid-word with her mouth gaping. He made a big production of handing me the note and announcing that I would not be allowed back in school without it being signed by my mother. The snickers around the room were, I'm sure, what he sought. They hurt. It's impossible to get a second chance in a small town. Jenna and I would have to find our way elsewhere.
When I got home, I handed my mother the note and waited with my hands stuffed inside my jeans pockets while she read it.
"It's that Sturgess girl again," she said when she looked up. "Why do you bother with her? She'll only give you trouble."
"Mom, I love her."
"You're sixteen. You don't know what love is."
"What's age got to do with it?"
"It has everything to do with it. I fell in love with your dad when I was sixteen. Look what good that did."
My eyes watered, but I wasn't going to fight with her again. "He's innocent."
My mother sighed. "So he says."
"You don't believe him?"
She stared into my eyes before looking away. "I don't know what to believe anymore."
"Well, I believe him. He wouldn't lie to me."
She looked back at me. "Everyone in town thinks he's guilty. And the Sturgesses-"
"Jenna isn't like her parents," I said in a voice louder than I had intended.
"I don't care. Those stuck-up-" Mom stamped her foot. Her face was red and the veins on her temples protruded. "Just 'cause he's the mayor and rich-" She stamped her foot again, but this time she took a deep breath and let the air out in a loud whoosh. In a calmer voice, she said, "They're ruining our lives. Don't you understand that? I don't want you to see that girl anymore. She's no good for you."
I was about to object when she added, "It's making it harder for me, too. I have to live in this town. Don't you understand? I forbid you ever to see her again."
I bolted from the kitchen. What could I do? Promise never to see Jenna again? I wasn't a liar. Not the bad person the whole town thought I was. As I sat on my bed, my anger subsided somewhat. Well, not everyone. Not Jenna. She was my whole world. There was no reason to live without her.
The next morning, I waited for Jenna at our usual meeting place before first class. I skulked behind the big tree until her long, black limo drove off. Only then did I step into the open and wave. She always teased me that my smile caused my ears to lift up. Seeing her trot towards me, I felt them do just that. When she was close enough, I gave her a quick kiss on the lips. She grabbed both sides of my head and plastered her lips to mine with her tongue inside my mouth.
"So everything's cool?" I said.
Jenna looked at her feet. I waited.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
She looked up. "My mother said I can't see you any more."
"Mine said the same. So?"
"Your mother doesn't want you to see me?"
I felt my face flush. "It's, um, it's not you. It's your parents."
"I don't care what they say. I can't live without you."
I cupped her face in my hands and stared into her eyes. My heart was about to burst. "I love you."
Jenna giggled. "Yeah, you said that yesterday."
"When we get married we'll leave this place. We'll start a new life."
"Don't you want to marry me?" I couldn't breathe.
She stepped back and rubbed her chin, looking at me from head to toe. Then her smile threatened to split her face in two.
"You bet I do. And I'm gonna hold you to that."
"Are we still on for tonight?"
"I thought you said your mom won't let you see me."
"She doesn't need to know. I just asked to borrow the car."
"What about me? Do I need to know what you have planned?" Jenna batted her long eyelashes.
"Where do you want to go?"
"Anywhere with you. Let's start driving and never look back."
I glanced at my watch and then pecked her lips with mine. "We better go. If I'm late, Fargo will probably send me home. Then I'll be grounded."
We walked to the building separately. No need asking for trouble. I wanted that night to be special and being seen together would ruin it.
All day long, I could think of nothing but my date with Jenna. Not meeting for lunch made the day longer-and lonelier-but we weren't taking chances. Mr. Fargo would surely make trouble and I couldn't chance that. I saw him a few times in the halls and once spotted him peeking through the glass window in my history class door.
When school ended, I went directly home. Dinner was a blur and then it was time to leave.
"Where are you going?" my mother asked while spinning the car keys on her finger.
"Then why do you need my car?"
"Mom, I had a hard week. I need to unwind. I'll go for a drive and probably to the arcade in the mall. Please, you promised."
My mother eyed me. She knew I wasn't telling her everything, she always knew. But she smiled and handed me the keys. I kissed her cheek and fled. I drove two blocks before realizing my heart was beating fast. Stopped at a traffic light, I took a few deep breaths and drove to the park near Jenna's house. She was waiting on the corner.
Jenna yanked the passenger door open before the car even stopped and jumped in. She leaned across the bucket seats and sealed her lips to mine. My hand went to the back of her head to hold her as we kissed.
When the kiss ended, I said, "I guess you're happy to see me."
"Nah, it was just cold out there."
I looked through the windshield at the clouds. "Yeah, weather's coming in."
"Who cares about the weather? Where are we going?"
"Where do you want to go?"
"Hey, you asked me out. You decide."
Jenna draped an arm around me with her head on my shoulder. She had to move her leg so that I could shift into drive, but then she seemed to get even closer. As soon as I drove off, large raindrops splattered the windshield.
We hadn't driven far when a sheet of water came down on us. I switched the wipers to their fastest speed. It didn't help. I leaned forward to see better and felt both of Jenna's arms around my neck holding me tight. And then my foot slammed the brakes.
There in the road, straight ahead, a car was stalled, the engine was dead. I couldn't stop, so I swerved to the right. I'll never forget the sounds that night. The screeching tires, the busting glass, the painful scream that I heard last.
When I awoke, I pushed the collapsed air bag out of the way. Jenna was gone. I started towards her open door. The pain in my side caused me to stop. I unclasped my seat belt and crawled over the seats. A sharp pain in my wrist almost stopped me, but I needed to find my love. Where was she?
I fell from the car onto the soaked grass. My side hurt. My wrist hurt. My neck hurt. The pain was awful, but I struggled to my hands and knees. I crawled, wincing with every movement. The rain poured down, but something else-something warm-flowed through my eyes.
There she was, crumpled on the ground. I lifted her head and she looked at me.
"Hold me, darling, just a little while," she said.
I held her close and kissed her. Jenna's eyes closed.
People stood around us. I looked from one to the other while holding Jenna in my arms. Why couldn't someone help her? Then the sirens blared. A uniformed man dropped to a knee next to me. He was talking. I stared at him. And then another man pulled Jenna from my arms.
I blacked out.
The first things I noticed when I awoke were how bright the room was, how white it was, and how sparse it was. It wasn't my room. I wasn't lying in my bed. Startled, I sat up, only to crash back down when the room spun.
I took a few deep breaths staring at the ceiling. It was difficult to turn my head-I had a neck brace on-but I was able to see IV tubes which I followed to my arm. I lifted my other arm. The wrist was in a cast. It seemed the leg on that side was also.
"Hello?" I called out. It came out raspy.
I tried calling again, but to no avail. I waited and waited. And then the door swung open. A lady wearing a white starched uniform entered. She smiled as she walked to me.
"How are you feeling?" she said.
"My throat hurts."
"I'll get you a drink in a minute."
"And I feel dizzy, sort of like I'm floating."
"That's the pain medication. It's normal."
My mind cleared for an instant and I shouted as best I could, "Where's Jenna?"
"I don't know of a patient with that name. You were the only one brought here."
The nurse gave me a cup of water and then left. Lying in a strange bed all alone, tears ran down both sides of my face. Why hadn't I died? I had nothing to live for. I lost my love, my life. If I had known that was going to be our last kiss would I have done it differently? Would I have said something?