May 8, 2014 | by Mark McDonald
Lightning Strikes Thrice


{To follow, enjoy a Whitman’s Sampler of more fiction to come …}

Chapter 1

Strange how the eyes have a way of driving the mind. First time Clint sees her climb out of the swimming pool at Dogwood Park, he will never again view girls in the same boyish way. Especially this girl.

Beyond that, Clint has no way of knowing that in a matter of seconds his life is about to change. Change for good … change for bad … and mostly, change for ever and ever.

Her head is bowed slightly, so Clint could not quite see her face, as she rises from the pool and reaches for the chrome ladder handrails. He can, however, see how the summer afternoon sun kisses her strong, rounded shoulders as she pulls herself onto the pool deck.

“Hey, Landry … you getting hungry?”

Nodding, the young girl wraps herself in a beach towel, but not before Clint notices how the chartreuse two-piece suit clings to a tight figure of a pixie, accented by a trim waist. With her summer tan, the girl’s friends kid her about looking half-Hispanic, or maybe Italian. Clint doesn’t know her ethnic background and right now, he doesn’t care.

Whewww, he thinks to himself, that girl’s honey-brown skin must be six inches deep.

Standing about 5 feet, 2 inches tall, she has the well-turned shape of a teenager who is not yet a woman. Then again, even an amateur like Clint can tell this blossoming teenager is no longer a child. Oh, no.

Far, far from it.

Self-conscious about his rookie ways, Clint ducks his head and tries not to get caught staring, but at age 15, he is not yet the highly skilled, agile woman-watcher he would one day become. Instead, this is a teenager awakening to a whole new world.

His eyesight is not failing him. In fact, Clint has always been one of the most gifted athletes in his age group, and this fateful day, his vision serves him well. Or does it?

He is just learning the position but already Clint was proving to be a better-than-average catcher who could hit a baseball into the next parking lot. In football, he isn’t speedy but already a touch over 6-feet, 2 inches and growing like the national debt, Clint has a set of shoulders to match.

Local coaches have taken notice. They say Clint has a sense of balance and can move laterally. He’s got what physical trainers call a “strong core” to go with what the guys with whistles and clipboards call “flexible hips.”

It will be years before Clint knows what any of that means, he noticed he is beginning to take satisfaction in the “ooof” from opponents when he drives his shoulder pads into their chests.  He especially likes hitting the guys from cross-town Steiner Middle School.

Clint has only recently begun to realize how much he enjoys smashing into the hated Steiner Panthers, perennial champs in football, basketball, track and, presumably, break-dancing.

The Steiner “Pussycats,” Clint calls them, fairly spitting with disdain at the very mention of his local rivals. Clint goes to Lone Pine, and though the two junior highs share the same zip code, they are natural rivals, like the intra-state “brotherly love” shared by the North Carolina Tar Heels and the N.C. State Wolfpack. Aggies and Longhorns. Buckeyes and Wolverines. Auburn and Alabama.

But this particular afternoon is a contest of a different type. Oh, this is a collision, all right. But instead of a jarring blow at the line of scrimmage, this is a chance encounter in which a young fellow not only meeting his match, he’s getting steam-rolled.

Clint’s throat feels like he has swallowed a dish rag. His feet are tied together by an invisible bungee chord. His blood system spurts his first-ever burst of testosterone, as this teenager is transformed into a new-born colt, trying to stand on wobbly legs.

Clint looks at the pool deck, hoping nobody spots him suffering through this uncomfortable moment of vulnerability. Too late. Rags sees Clint struck by this unseen chemical thunderbolt, and is not about to let the moment pass.

After all, Rags is old school. In his world, if you can’t shaft your friends, whom can you shaft?

“Okay, Clint,” Rags says with a chuckle, “put your eyes back in their sockets.”

“That’s Landry. She’s new. Some say she’s a Mexican. I hear she moved here from Phoenix.”

Clint and Rags are the unofficial leaders of the local wolf pack, a bunch of local 8th graders who play video games, basketball, football and baseball together. In between, they ride bikes around the city of Rosberg, consuming untold calories and going to the high school varsity games of their beloved Coyotes.

On these summer nights, they have just about grown out of pitching a tent in Clint’s back yard. Importing a portable TV, the kids could plug it in with a long orange extension cord. Don’t want to miss pro wrestling on Friday nights.

This form of “camping out” would mean watching fireflies as they light the North Carolina sky. Eating fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies right out of Rags’ mom’s oven. Staying up late talking about foreign lands and the great unknowns of life … strange and exotic places.

Places like the neighboring state of Virginia and mysteries like … well … like girls. More and more, these deep discussions covered the topic of girls, and what to do in their presence.

Dang it, Clint figures, it’s one thing to trade barbs with Rags, with nobody to hear their midnight patter. But this is totally different, and standing in broad daylight, next to a busy public swimming pool, there’s no place to hide.

Embarrassed that his buddy has caught him gawking, Clint drops his head and pretends to reach for his cap and sunglasses. About then, a dry puff blows off the hills to the west, giving Landry a severe dose of the summer goose bumps.

Getting busy with her beach towel, she brushes her firm, muscular thighs and wraps up against the sudden chill. Too late. Landry’s mop-up duty is just a bit tardy to ward off the natural effects of the rapid cool-down.

The breeze has had some natural effects on Clint, too. His 20-20 vision sharpened by an all-new awareness and curiosity, he can not help but notice that the dry summer air has done something wondrous to enhance Landry’s perky breasts.

‘Tennnn-shun!

Suddenly the girl’s suit top features a pronounced set of matching headlights. “High beams,” Rags calls them. Clint’s eyes and imagination can take no more.

Wincing, he turns away and lets out his breath through pursed lips. A guy can only take so much, Clint’s inner voice pleads, as he gulps for oxygen.

Again, Rags enjoys a moment at his friend’s expense.

“Man, she could cut glass with those things, huh, Clint.”

Off-balance again, Clint says nary a word. Instead he tries vainly to play it cool, mumbling something about “what are you talking about?”

Rags senses the upper hand and presses his advantage.

“Son-n-n-n! She’s stronger than new rope!”

Clint shakes his head and pokes Rags on the shoulder. Not too hard, but hard enough to convey a message.

“Let’s get outta here,” Clint says, awkwardly fumbling for his sandals. With his running buddy on the ropes, Rags is having too, too much fun.

“She’d make a bulldog break his chain, huh, Clint? … Ain’t that right, Clint? …Clint, you still with us?”

At a loss for comment, Clint struggles to get things under control, and he almost does it. At least he does until the new girl, some 50 feet away, turns and with a youthful laugh, begins to head for the pool exit with her friend, Nancy.

That’s when – for the first time – Landry feels his eyes on her.

What happens next seems to unfold in ultra-slow motion, like suspended animation. In Clint’s addled mind, this is playing out like a train wreck, a car skidding on black ice, out of control with no peaceful end in sight. If this were a Hollywood film, the director would shoot the scene in black-and-white, for greater impact.

Turning to look over her shoulder, Landry runs her towel over her dripping hair and notices the long-legged, square-shouldered fellow staring her way. Suddenly liking what she sees, she cannot suppress a self-conscious smile.

Hmmm, she wonders. Who’s that guy?

He’s got the kind of stubborn jaw that Landry likes to see in the fashion magazines. Kinda big, too. Must be six feet tall or better. Does he have brown eyes, or hazel? She can’t tell for sure.

Only Nancy’s sharp voice jars Landry away from her thoughts.

“Forget about that fool,” Nancy says, sighing in disdain as she finishes tapping out a text message on her cell phone. “Name is Clint Brody. Some say he’s a good football player, but who cares?

“What do you mean?”

“He’s not much of a dancer,” Nancy sighs with mild but noticeable disgust, “and he’s too shy to ask a girl to hang out.”

Landry has a different impression, as she often does. Already, her new acquaintances in Rosberg have learned she has a way of making up her own mind. And just because Nancy does not give the guy high marks for social skills, Landry is not ready to close the book on this awkward lad across the pool.

She does not know why, but his clumsy bashfulness only makes her more curious. This is new to her. Landry steals a glance over her shoulder, while Nancy chatters away. Just when the girls reach the pool gate, Clint pulls on a T-shirt that he has just about outgrown.

Fits just ri-i-ight, Landry thinks.

Just as the girls enter the parking lot, Landry discovers Clint looking directly at her, now nearly 50 yards away. In turn, she finds herself returning the gaze. She cannot seem to stop herself from looking back.

Suddenly, Landry feels the weirdest flip-flop in her stomach.

Ooowhat was that?

She has never experienced this before. Landry is not the giggly sort, but responding to the tickle in her tummy, she stifles a schoolgirl squeal.

Capturing her poise, Landry can’t keep from shooting a quick smile in Clint’s direction, her white teeth contrasting with a summer suntan. Landry is no Annie Oakley, but this time her aim is true, hitting her target perfectly.

Bull’s-eye. Right in the heart.

Clint half-stumbles over nothing, and jolts backward, as if catching a 40-pound football thrown by a giant quarterback. The world is spinning into a blur, with colors now more vivid, sharper edges on every object.

Dan-n-ng, Clint says to himself, get a grip.

Good thing Rags didn’t see this oneHe would really bring out the needle.

Clint swallows his Adam’s apple and looks down, trying to muffle his response.

Nice smile, Landry thinks, and finds herself reluctant to leave the pool just yet. That hamburger with Nancy could wait. But Landry’s new friend is hungry.

With a knowing sigh, Nancy shakes her head and reaches for Landry’s arm.

“Come on, Miss Arizona. Time to go. You stirred up the local clowns enough already.

“None of those guys can drive yet, so what good are they? Bunch of losers.”

With a gentle nudge in the back, the slightly jealous Nancy prods Landry toward the gate. Shrugging in mild protest, Landry sneaks one last glance across the pool and walked out the gate.

Now fully smitten, Clint takes a deep breath and tries not to stare at the departing girl. No luck. Clint’s full attention has been captivated by the sight of Landry’s athletic frame. Already, he has the sight of her committed to memory.

This is a tidy structure of a gymnast, a body trained for bounding dashes across the floor that send her soaring in acrobatic flips and turns. A girl gets these delicious shoulders working on the uneven bars, not sitting in a car at the A&W root beer stand.

As Landry’s walking tribute to youth and fitness feeds a teenager’s eyes and sparks neurons in the poor kid’s brain pan, not even the beach towels can disguise her youthful swish.

“Looky, Clint,” Rags says with a slap-stick chuckle. “Looks like two bobcats in a sack.”

Once again, Clint has no comeback.

At his young age, he doesn’t claim to know much, especially at this particular moment. But as his eyes track the newcomer disappearing behind a hedge row, one thing becomes immediately certain: He knows he has to learn more about this girl.

There is no fallback option. For a 15-year-old, this is a must, a priority item, like college football Saturday afternoons on TV, or pouring root beer over your ice cream.

Clint isn’t sure just how or when, but he finds already plotting a way to get close enough to Landry to actually meet her. For the first time ever, he finds himself willing to risk rejection, or even embarrassment, in the presence of a girl. This takes the youth by surprise.

Wonder what she’s really like, Clint whispers to himself. Hope I get to find out, and I hope it’s soon.

Even as he tries to figure out how to get around Nancy’s protective umbrella over her new friend, Clint has faint reservations. Somewhere in the back of his mind he gets the vague feeling this chance encounter might mean trouble.

Clint knows the football coaches expect a big season out of him as the team’s fullback and co-captain. It is challenging enough for a growing teenager to wake up every morning with his eyes just a little farther from the ground. No need for more of what Coach Tuttle would call “gol-dang distractions.”

Then there is Mom.

The mother of three and vice-principal at Rosberg High, Clint’s mother is well-educated, accomplished in the education field, a semi-genius in the kitchen and, most of all, driven to succeed. Though she has always been “Mom,” in every sense of the word, Clint figures he get most of his competitive fire from his mother.

His father, on the other hand, is more the diplomat, an alliance-builder who runs the City’s public works department with a can-do spirit of good will.

Clint is a well-focused lad, especially for a kid his age. He is all about sports, school and eating everything not nailed to the kitchen table. Lately, he finds himself on weekends searching satellite networks for hunting and fishing shows.

This young fellow has not counted on a girl, any girl – but especially one that leaves a nuclear mushroom cloud in his head like this newcomer named Landry. Clint knows he is ill equipped to handle the fallout. Worse yet, Clint knows he might be overmatched, right from the jump.

“Well crap, the scenery just fell apart,” Rags says, breaking into Clint’s thoughts.

“Let’s go to the house. I’ve got a new video game. We’ll call Hawk and Willie Bill. They need a good butt-kicking.”

Suddenly back to the present, Clint only nods, falling strangely silent. The wet blanket of the here-and-now of reality settles over him as he numbly pulls his 10-speed out of the bike rack.

Out of sight but definitely not out of mind, Clint has a clear vision of what he had just witnessed. The new girl is totally dominating center stage of his thoughts.

Groping to cope with new emotions, new sights, new chemicals banging around in his system, all Clint can do is drop his head, turn to the side, squint and clinch his teeth.

Bending at the waist as his mouth moved into a pronounced oval, Clint lets loose a rebel yell of triumph. Or is it frustration?

“Yeeee-owwwww!”

Anyone within earshot would have been startled, had anyone actually heard it. No one does. Alas, despite Clint’s considerable effort, no sound comes out.

His vocal chords failing, his mind clogged with visions of a young brunette in a beach towel, Clint blindly pushes his bicycle toward home — and pedals directly into the street curb.

Spokes of his bike grinding on the pavement, Clint puts his foot down for a clumsy dismount. He hopes nobody noticed. Among accomplished bike-riders, this bush-league move is considered amateurish. Among teenagers, it’s decidedly un-cool. Which is worse.

Clint can only shake his head, check for wheel damage and climb back on the seat, hoping his blunder has escaped notice. No such luck.

Clint, as he pedals through the pines, he notices for the first time that tall-topped cumulous clouds have begun to huddle in the distance. He hears the first faint rumble of thunderstorm, and for the first time in what seems like eternity, his youthful mind is clear.

I love a summer shower, he says to himself. The rain makes the pine needles smell like heaven.

Just when he is enjoying the impending change in weather, Clint yet again feels his buddy’s harpoon.

Pendejo!” Rags cackles, hollering over his shoulder in Spanish learned from Hispanic buddies at school.

“Clint, you are one more dumb-ass — in two languages.”

Rags might be right, Clint mumbles to himself, but I just saw something nobody else did.

 

(see chapter 2 to come) 

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