Everyone knows the four rules of Punch Buggy:
• If you start the game, you can’t be the first to quit.
• Convertible bugs are worth two punches.
• No blocking hits.
• When playing with a girl, you don’t hit hard.
Karl broke the fourth rule.
From the back seat, I watched Liz do her best to be brave, but a tremor in her lower lip hinted strongly at her pain. Karl knew he’d fucked up. He danced back and forth between being apologetic and trying to play it off like it was no big deal. Neither approach drew Liz out of the angry silence she’d folded into. The Bug rattled past us heading north. Surfboards strapped to the roof with bungee cords threatened to fly free at any second.
I fought the urge to jump into the situation. Karl and I went back a ways but when Liz came into our lives things became awkward. We both liked her, she liked us, and that was fine as long as we were just friends. But it’s tough staying just friends with the hottest chick at Stonewall Jackson High. Karl is a big meaty guy who laughs easy and he makes girls feel safe around him, so unsurprisingly she gravitated his way.
I hoped his unsportsmanlike punch would knock her out of his orbit.
“Hey Liz, there might be some ice in the cooler if you want,” I said.
“I’m okay,” she replied.
“Get some for my hand,” Karl said. “Her damn thigh is like a rock. What’s with you swimmers anyway, Liz?”
She cut her eyes at Karl then turned back towards me, her face softening.
“Thank you, James. You were kind to offer.”
As much as I loved hearing my name from her lips, I did feel a little bad for Karl. He didn’t mean to hurt her. I know from experience. My Pops, when he slugs Mom, now he’s trying to hurt. It’s always when he’s drinking, which is why I don’t drink. And it’s always after she says something like “I never shoulda settled for you.” Which is why I try not to let words bother me too much. Thinking about my parents reminded me of why I was glad to be away with my friends and how I didn’t want this stupid thing with their game to ruin our Ultimate Summer Road Trip. We were headed to Avon to meet up with half the senior class for the fireworks. Sun, sand, surf, and no chaperone. I’d been dreaming about it for months.
Karl gave up trying to make amends and slouched sideways in his seat, gripping the top of the steering wheel in one hand. After a minute he cranked up the radio to about 90 decibels, blasting us with “1999” which, no disrespect to The Purple One, I was tired of hearing. It’s 1999. We get it. Party on.
Liz rolled down her window and stuck a bare foot out, wiggling her toes in the wind. Over the next thirty miles I contented myself with studying her calf, ankle and foot and decided there were far worse ways to pass the time.
A fat water balloon thwapped against the windshield as we pulled up to the beach cottage. Liz bailed before the tires stopped rolling and hobbled over to a cluster of girlfriends who screamed and laughed like they hadn’t seen her in a decade. A couple of guys two-fisting Solo cups met Karl and me at the front door. I took one to be polite. Working our way through a gauntlet of backslaps, hugs, fist bumps, and high fives we claimed a pair of couches in the living room then raced out to the beach. Although barely after four, a bonfire was already roaring. The sharp hiss and crack of butterfly rockets punctuated the boom of heavy surf.
I was so damn happy in the moment I almost forgot about Liz, but then I noticed her strolling toward the ocean in her Daisy Dukes and a pink bikini top. Karl was looking her way too so he didn’t catch me staring.
“Chicks, man. Chicks. Do one dumb thing and… man. Go figure.”
“Yep,” I said.
Karl chugged his beer then jogged toward a pickup football game. Liz glanced our way and gave me a slight finger wave before plunging in the ocean.
Fireworks from the show at the Avon Pier burst overhead, bathing everyone in a fleeting glow of reds, whites and blues. I lay propped up on my elbows in the sand munching on a s’more when a familiar pair of feet stepped next to me.
“Hey you,” Liz said.
She dropped to her knees, sloshing beer from her cup on my shoulder.
“Oh shit, sorry.” She wiped the beer with her hand, succeeding only in spreading it down my arm and across my chest. “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry,” came out “Shorry. Shorry. Shorry.”
She giggled and kept wiping away. I laughed and put my hand over hers.
“Don’t worry, Liz. It’ll evaporate in two seconds.”
She turned her hand over. Her fingers entwined in mine. With profound, glassy-eyed sincerity she said, “You’re so nice. You know that? I always liked you.”
I couldn’t get a “thanks” out before she’d leaned in to kiss me. It was a full-blown lip lock, swirling tongues and everything. It was the kiss I’d fantasized about for the last three years except this was even better because she’d made the move instead of me.
But the longer we kissed the more I became aware of something wrong. I felt her… trying. There wasn’t anything behind the kiss other than a momentary drunken impulse. The fireworks in my head should have been louder than the ones popping off in the sky above us, and definitely louder than the echo of Mom’s voice mocking, “I never shoulda settled for…”
I sat up, pushing Liz gently away.
“Karl’s really sorry,” I said. “He just doesn’t know how to say it.”
J.C. Towler spins tales of mystery, suspense, science fiction and is particularly fond the deep, penetrating horror tale. The Outer Banks of North Carolina is his home which is odd considering he’s afraid of the ocean and doesn’t eat fish.