Preamble, July 4th, 2014
As some of you may know, there are companies that provide services of artists and writers for those who don’t employ them in house. They act as talent-at-the-ready firms, providing you can pay for the talent. You’re reading this for free. Now, isn’t that neat? Any way. Yes, Yours Truly once offered his services for such mercenary application. (It was either that or taking a job as a whale proctologist, and I didn’t own a wet suit.)
The executive I dealt with asked me to provide work examples. I did. He would then ask for more. I attempted to show I would make an agreeable, prompt, and reliable employee. Thus, I quickly filled each request for works of SF, Fantasy, Horror, and any spin and variation of each. (Thankfully, he didn’t ask for anything on whale proctology.) As a writer, I had drawers and computer folders full of such stuff, anyhow. Then he asked me to send him something that was, drum roll, quote “non-genre.”
All right. I took that to mean a story not from any Speculative Fiction category. Yes, that would simply be another form of genre. I didn’t want to debate the term genre, because I’ve learned that if you say or think the word genre over and over, it sounds like a handsaw cutting wood. Looking to cut a deal instead, I made a heroic effort to comply with his request. However, I had no such, um, let’s call it thematically appropriate work. I still wanted to appear reliable and fast and looked at what story I had that best fit the bill.
I took “Juliet By Any Other Name” and rewrote it free of the Horror aspects. (“Juliet…” is a part of the NIGHTMARES AND OTHER VICES, Volume 1 e-book, and the combined NIGHTMARES Print Edition.) I tried to turn a potential negative into opportunity. I thought a display of recrafting a story in another thematic context would show worthwhile skills in editing and reimagining material for other use. Repurposing in prose. This exec was gobsmacked by the result. He found it utterly brilliant. He saw the significance of such skill as being so profound and overwhelming that he leapt from his high-rise window because he could never match such artistic excellence.
Yeah, okay. Maybe not. (I’ve since seen that particular company has repurposed itself since this adventure.) I think the resulting story is an entertaining little piece of suburban Americana that people anywhere will appreciate. Also, my site has a section devoted to the theme of alternate realities. (Click the Memories From Parallel Earth(s) tab if you haven’t already—after reading this story, of course.) Please enjoy an alternate version of one young man’s experience when a quite natural, not super-natural, aspect of adolescence enters his life. I give you the non-Horror, if not non-genre version of “Juliet by Any Other Name,” know as…
“What doesn’t kill you”
Bruce S. Larson
Spring came, and with it change. The days became brighter, and the grass grew greener. To Montgomery’s dismay, it also grew longer. The one dreaded constant in warmer months returned to his young, suburban life. Montgomery had to mow the lawn. A lot. He pushed the noisy, gas burning beast through the grass his father fertilized into a dense matt of wet emerald. He thought of the animated science videos at school that showed chemicals leech into the water supply and kill cartoon fish. He looked at the grass stains on his blistered hands and wondered if it would kill him. He knew it would probably not even make him sick, and so he would always need to mow the lawn. Forever.
The afternoon sun cast a shadow of the towering fir tree across the street into Montgomery’s yard. It linked the empty rental house to Montgomery’s home with a bridge of shade. He enjoyed the cool moments of passing through the tree’s shadow as he pushed the heavy mower. Listening to the loud drone of the engine, Montgomery remembered his father quoting some dead German guy who once said: whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The dead guy obviously never mowed lawns. Neither did Montgomery’s dad, any more.
In the days between mows after school, Montgomery sat in the shadow and enjoyed doing nothing. That was until Charlie and Pete, his best buddies, invaded the front yard. Sometimes they would bean him in the head with a long-range pinecone toss before a full frontal assault. On really hot days, Montgomery’s retaliation with the garden hose was a welcomed counterattack. One day the neighborhood calm wasn’t broken by the sounds of cavorting boys. A small storm of girls and their mother moved into the rental house with the big tree. Just as suddenly, it was quiet again.
“Renters,” Montgomery’s mother said it like a curse from behind the closed curtain. “How odd; no father. And all the girls look identical. Are they some kind of quads or sextuplets? Terence, did you hear if they were sextuplets?”
“No, Phyllis,” the erect newspaper and gripping fingers answered. Montgomery watched it lower over the plaid shirt and reveal his father’s bemused face. His eyes still seemed focused on the missing pages.
“And did you see their clothes?” Phyllis finally stepped from the edge of the window. “Those exposed bellies. And shorts. I think I could see some of those girls’ rear ends. Is that what we have to look forward to, now? Young women wearing–well, practically naked!”
For a moment, Montgomery’s father was silent. His eyes seemed to gaze toward something unseen, but quite pleasant. He smiled.
“Yes, Phyllis. I mean, no!”
Montgomery kept quiet and sipped his soda. He was mowing the front lawn when the feminine invasion occurred. All the girls seemed a few years older than him. They were probably all able to drive. One was slightly shorter than her sisters, but just as shapely. It was she that caught Montgomery’s glances, and stopped to return one long enough for Montgomery to halt mowing and turn to unhook the empty catcher. The red had since cleared from his cheeks. Now he rested and pondered the somewhat uncomfortable possibilities offered by the blonde hair, exposed bellies and–he sipped his soda and drew a breath–the short shorts. His mother didn’t mention most of the girls were barefoot. He sipped his soda again. Pop dripped down his chin as he prematurely pulled the can from his lips. His gaze drifted to that same place his father enjoyed a moment ago.
To see if the girl shared a similar interest in him would mean being bolder than jumping into an abandoned backyard and braving the tall grass. And he wouldn’t want Charlie or Pete around when he found out. They wouldn’t be climbing that big tree together, anymore. But maybe Montgomery could with a different partner. Although his curiosity was now greater than stealing glimpses at his father’s hidden magazines, Montgomery did not feel that bold. Not yet. He sipped his soda again.
Adolescent fear of embarrassment made life difficult for Montgomery. Parents and relatives always told him he was too shy. Now he had a good reason for it. He wanted to go outside. He just couldn’t. He needed a line to break the ice with one of the girls who sometimes unknowingly tortured him and annoyed his mother by sunbathing in their front yard. But first he needed the courage just to speak to one. Especially the shorter one. His father grew tired of his reluctance to perform his chores in the all‑important front yard. The mail he could fetch quickly. However, mowing the lawn meant exposure outside for long minutes. He caught glimpses of the focus of his curiosity from behind his own curtains in his room. He did so only for a few seconds at time, but several times.
The days were different now. Charlie and Pete’s invasions still occurred but were now limited to more quite and far drier assaults into the living room and Montgomery’s room. Outside the sun seemed trapped in golden hair where there was no shade to offer protection from being burned. Pete and Charlie saw the source of both Montgomery’s torture and good fortune when racing down the street to find pinecones to pelt him with. They nearly burned out their scooter brakes when suddenly forced to steer clear of the big tree. They had been harvesting ammo from the rental house’s yard since they were little kids. Now they were older and their interests in girls grew from equal opportunity targets to targets of spying while they sunbathed. And Montgomery’s room provided an actual opportunity to do so.
“Gomer! I forgot my cell. Break out a camera, will ya!” Pete said as he eyed one of Montgomery’s new neighbors on a beach towel across the street through a slit in the curtains.
“No way!” Montgomery answered, and propped against his bed. He was a little annoyed his friends took over exactly what he had been doing before their arrival. “You’d just post the pics.”
“Dude! That is an awesome idea!” Pete’s voice rose to a high pitch at the thought.
“No way! They’d think it was me! I’d get sued.”
“Exactly, Gomer!” Pete nodded with a smile.
Charlie kept his eyes peering through the curtain slit.
Montgomery was too perturbed by Pete’s willingness to post photos of his coveted neighbors to protest the use of the nickname ‘Gomer.’
“No, man.” Charlie said from the edge of the curtains. “You’d get jailed. Big time. But have some mercy for the less fortunate. Call me when they come out. I don’t care if it’s at four A.M!”
“Dude, who would be outside at four A.M!” Pete asked as he angled his face to displace Charlie from the curtain.
Charlie held fast without moving his eyes from the curtain slit or even blinking.
“Hey, if they are, so am I!” Charlie snapped his head back as an idea exploded in his mind. “Dude! Maybe they need their lawn mowed. And then one day, your mower would break down, and, and–you know!”
“We should climb the tree at four, and then wait.” Pete said. “Geez, can you imagine what they might be doing in the backyard!”
“You’d just fall asleep, then fall out and die.” Charlie replied.
“Yeah. They’d find him the next day in the grass.” Montgomery furthered. “The news would say: boy horndog dies in fall. Parents burry perv in backyard.”
“Shut up!” Pete yelled, and then began laughing with Pete and ‘Gomer.’
“Have you talked to any of them?” Charlie suddenly asked.
“Um, sure.” Montgomery lied.
“What did they say?” Pete asked. “Did you get inside the house?”
“Uh, no.” Montgomery twitched and looked around his room for something to distract his friends from the curtains, as if that were possible.
“Dude, he hasn’t said nothing to nobody!” Charlie said. “He just stands here like you. Except maybe with—”
“Shut up, Charlie.” Montgomery spat. “You couldn’t talk to them, either. You’d die.”
“Yeah, no tree needed. Just, Ugh!” Pete collapsed to the floor in mock heart attack beside Montgomery.
“I wouldn’t die, man. I get to first base, easy.” Charlie said with baseless confidence.
“You don’t even know what that is.” Montgomery said.
“I know more than you.” Charlie countered.
“Then prove it!”
“Yeah, C.” Pete sprang up. “You go talk to her.”
“Why? I got a good view right here.” Charlie eased his left eye against the curtain slit.
“Yeah, but it ain’t first base.” Montgomery said.
“You’re chicken, C.” Pete charged. “Chickens don’t fly, they fry.”
“So are you!” Charlie shouted.
“No I’m not.” Pete casually answered.
“Then do it. Go over there.” Charlie challenged Pete.
Montgomery remained silent, just happy not to be the focus of the dare.
“Give me twenty bucks.” Pete said.
“I’ll give you a pink belly, loser!” Charlie became more aggressive and forgot about the focus of his concealed staring.
“All mouth.” Pete said. “You’re just all mouth, C. Or you’d just do it.”
Pete eased back against Montgomery’s bed as if the contest was over. No one would disturb the object of their burgeoning desires, and he relaxed into his own fantasy about her. There was quiet. And then Charlie rocked the world.
“OK.” He said quietly, and slowly walked out of Montgomery’s room.
Pete and Montgomery looked at each other in jaw-dropped amazement as they heard the front screen door open and yank itself shut. Montgomery and Pete nearly formed a human pretzel as they collided while bolting up to rush outside and witness Charlie do the impossible.
When both boys exploded out of the house and dove across the lawn, Charlie was already at the edge of the yard. He confidently walked across the street and straight for the girl on the towel. In his friends’ eyes, Charlie headed for destiny and greatness. And then she spoke to him. One word.
It stopped Charlie’s advance. His reply almost sounded like ‘hi,’ but more like the moan of a wounded cow. It was over. At the edge of paradise, Charlie turned from Venus and picked up a pinecone. He hurled it at the ducked Pete and Montgomery. A knowing laugh came from the beach towel.
Charlie bolted down the street. Pete sprang up and ran after him. Montgomery, his position compromised, slowly rose up. He was caught in the teeth of a smile from clear across the width of both yards and the street. He heard the one, stunning word ‘hi,’ spoken again. This time it was louder and aimed directly at Montgomery. He resisted uttering like a wounded cow, gave a nervous wave, and headed back inside. For once he wished he had been mowing the lawn. Indoors, he looked at his sweaty hands and felt his rapid heartbeat and wondered if this embarrassment would kill him.
Montgomery did admire Charlie, a little. He got up the edge of the girl’s yard before he tanked. Montgomery knew one day he would be cornered outside all alone by a nearly naked girl. Or at least a girl in very short shorts, who would use that magic, freezing word ‘hi’ and paralyze him for life. Perhaps if he knew what went on after the freezing word was spoken, he would have more confidence to do more than give a lame wave. Perhaps if he knew more about what went on long passed the exchange of words and gestures, he would have even more confidence. Maybe then he would gain the respect of Charlie, Pete, and everyone else in town.
The only person he knew for sure had the answers he sought was closer than the girls, but in a way more distant. He needed the right moment to ask his father about what happened after ‘hi.’ Such a moment would be one when his mother was nowhere around.
Montgomery stayed awake one night trying to think of the right way to ask the question. Shuffling footsteps to the hall bathroom provided an opportunity to act. The bathroom door opened. Montgomery’s father was surprised to see his son standing in the hall in the faint light filtering in from streetlights and the moon. He grunted.
“It’s all yours, son. But you might want to strike a match.”
“Uh, dad.” Montgomery swallowed.
“There next to that smelly little candle. The pink one.”
“No, uh, I was wondering if, uh, you knew about…”
“Yeah. About sex.”
“Sex?” His father stepped toward Montgomery with a fixed stare. “Sex?” he repeated, this time almost as an accusation.
“Uh, yeah, dad. Uh, do you know anything about it?”
“Do I what?”
Montgomery could see the whites of his father’s eyes grow wider even in the dim light.
“Look, kid! You’re here, aren’t you?”
“Well, yeah.” The sudden realization in Montgomery’s mind that his existence was also due to an act of sex, and one between his mother and father suddenly made existing almost repulsive. His face reflected his disgust.
“Now what the hell is that look for?” His father asked.
“Um, nothing, dad. I guess I just—”
“It’s those girls across the street, isn’t it?”
“Well,” Montgomery paused a very long time. It was the need to exhale that forced him to open his mouth. He uttered “yeah” as slowly as humanly possible while there was still potential to make sense of the word.
“Look, son. They’re pretty. All of them.”
Montgomery was a little surprised his father admitted to noticing the girls, but glad his tone grew calmer.
“If you think that maybe one of them likes you, well—”
Montgomery prepared for his questions to be answered, even if it was knowledge that would shock him. He braced for the male wisdom of the ages, all the secrets of life. All things wondrous, yet still icky about being a man, would now flow from his father’s mouth. Soon he would know it all and amaze everyone with whom he shared the secrets. They did not come.
“Then you just stay away from her, you hear!” His fathered turned.
Montgomery gasped. “But, dad!”
“Look, son, girls are always ahead of the game. Boys, and I was one of them, are always playing catch up. We always are. But you are just too damn young to be worrying about that. So go to bed. And stay out of my bottom desk drawer!”
A cautioning finger jabbed at Montgomery. He quietly watched his father walk to his parent’s bedroom. To press further would risk his allowance finally cut off for good. Most of his friends had already suffered that fate. The prospect of getting a summer job was still a few years away, not that such a fate appealed to him anyway. And there was really no way he was going to stay out of his father’s bottom desk drawer. He couldn’t break the Internet nanny programs on his PC (a source of constant ridicule by Charlie and Pete). Although, now, he would be more careful about the order of the magazines in the drawer.
One warm day, more than one of the young beauties graced the front yard with beach towels. One towel held the shorter girl that was about Montgomery’s age. He still had no knowledge of what came after neither ‘hi,’ nor an opening line or any increased courage to go into his front yard when any of the girls were visible. Life was the pain of reality and the pleasure of ignorant fantasies. One day the fantasies would be real. That was his dream, and nightmare.
Montgomery’s fears about the results or failures of meeting the girl around his age solidified into five-foot, four-inches of blonde, smiling, paralyzing reality as she walked into his front yard. She stood in the center of the front lawn, circled by concentric arcs of mown grass. Montgomery summoned the courage to shut off the mower and croak out a hello.
“Hello, back” she said.
A sudden, cool breeze fluttered the lace trim of her summer top. And, of course, to make matter worse or more spectacular, she wore the short shorts. She moved closer to Montgomery. Her path put her between Montgomery and his front door. Montgomery held his position and grip on the mower.
“What’s your name?” the girl asked cocking her head and smiling.
Perhaps she was nervous too, Montgomery hoped. He remembered his father’s one bit of advice on women and figured that was not even possible.
“Uh, um, Montgomery.” He suddenly remembered.
“Montgomery? Wow, that’s a big one. Don’t your parents like you?” She smiled.
“Um, yeah. I guess so.” Such a question had never occurred to him.
“It was a joke. Sorry. How about we shorten it to Monty?” She playfully reached out and pushed his shoulder.
Montgomery resisted jumping back completely, but lost his sweaty grip on the mower’s handle. He hated that nickname. His obvious distaste was visible on his face. Yet, he didn’t want to blow this and end up looking like a chump. He became more afraid of Pete and Charlie or anyone else on Earth appearing and shouting jeers than what he faced now. However, he still wanted to get out of everyone’s sight. Maybe he could get her to walk to the nice, cool and shaded alley where he hid from bullies as a little kid. He suddenly thought of the possibilities of being alone with this girl and cursed his father.
“Yeah, I guess.” He said, and lifted the catcher off the mower with one arm. “But, nobody calls me–”
“You’re cute. You know that?”
Montgomery’s courage began to bleed away. He felt naked with all his secrets exposed, like maybe she knew he was cute from seeing his face peering out from between slits in the curtains. His face began to flush. The catcher became very heavy.
“Yeah, I guess.” He said with genuine modesty.
“Aren’t you going to ask me?” she said.
“Um, ask? Um.” The catcher hit the lawn with a thud.
“My name? It’s Janice.” She laughed.
Montgomery found his hand lifted up and handled by two smaller, softer hands frighteningly close to those short shorts and bare midriff.
“So, are you seeing anyone? I haven’t seen any girls around here. Boys. No girls.” She smiled at him still holding his hand.
“Nope.” Montgomery has glad he had just been working hard. The sweat would account for his hand’s moisture.
“Would you like to?” Janice asked. “I mean, we could hit the mall. My sister Jody can drive.”
She held his hand and smiled. Montgomery thought that maybe she was inviting him to make the first move. The sudden reality of her closeness overcame his fear. He rose to the occasion. His lips met hers in front of the entire world. She didn’t pull away, but somehow she laughed a little. Montgomery thought he heard feminine cheers in the distance. He also thought he heard a chorus of angles and the blood pushed by his racing heart thundering through his teeth and toes. Then, as he gently pulled away from their caress of lips, he thought he heard his mother’s voice call to him. Of all the things he just dreamt he heard, that was the stupidest one of all. But it was real. Montgomery looked up at the front door. His heart raced for different reasons.
“Dear?” Montgomery’s mother said. “I said dinner is almost ready. And who is your friend?”
Montgomery stood immobilized with all the wonderful physical sensations rippling through his body now freezing and falling away. Janice did not act embarrassed and saved them both.
“I’m Janice,” she answered over Montgomery’s unintelligible, breathless mutter. “I live across the street.”
“Oh, I see.” Montgomery’s mother said, and looked at her son. “Well, young man, how rude of you.”
Montgomery braced for the coming assault and life ending humiliation of being lectured about kissing a girl by his mother–in front of the girl.
“Do you have so many girlfriends you can’t remember their names?” His mother asked him.
Another unintelligible sound escaped Montgomery, but his face muscles that had begun to cramp now eased. Janice laughed gently and playfully bumped his shoulder.
“Well, Janice, how is your family doing?” Montgomery’s mother got straight to her inquires. “It must be hard to be new in town.”
“Um, no. We’re fine.”
“Where is your family from?”
“LA. But I was born here. My dad’s an insurance investigator. So we move a lot.”
“Father, Oh? He must be away right now.”
“Yeah. He’s still got a case in LA.” Janice answered. “But he’ll be here next week.”
“Oh, I see. Well, would you like to join us for dinner, Janice?” Montgomery’s mother offered.
Jolts of fear and realization shot through Montgomery as his brain unfroze, but ideas rattled in his skull like ice cubes: the idea of sitting across the table from Janice; the embarrassment from his impulsive kiss; his father shooting stares at him all night; his mother dropping innuendoes for the rest of his life about what she had just interrupted.
“No. But thank you.” Janice answered.
Montgomery remembered not being able to move despite his mother’s harsh gaze until Janice was on her way across the street. He didn’t remember emptying the catcher, nor dinner, nor going to bed. However embarrassing it might prove, he remembered the kiss and felt a new sense of peace.
The spring flew quickly by, and a very interesting school year ended. In the summer, Montgomery still hung out with Charlie and Pete. But he also made time for his new friend whose blonde hair trapped the sunlight. Janice, however, did not climb trees. And although she was willing to kiss and frequently wore those short shorts, there was a lot she did not do. Montgomery may have not received the talk from his father that he wanted, but knew how to respect people. Pete and Charlie respected Janice, too, as well as her sisters. They had to, or get smacked in the shoulder by the former Gomer, now know as Monty.
Montgomery grew to like his new nickname. One aspect of life did become much harder for him. It was almost impossible to push the mower while also holding hands with Janice. As much as his right arm would ache afterward, he was sure it wouldn’t kill him. He was beginning to think that nothing could. Still, he let his father fertilize the lawn.
Janice’s father didn’t put chemicals on his lawn. He knew his daughters like to lay across it on warm days, joined by a young man he grew to tolerate. After all, the kid volunteered to mow his lawn. Monty seemed like a nice kid. Even if he hung out with his girls. A lot.
For Monty, doing so brought more than a sense of peace. His world grew from a slit between curtains to a wide world among beach towels with Janice and all her glorious sisters. Monty had survived them, and now thrived among them. Although, once in a while he still got beaned in the head by a pinecone.
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