The Big Picture: Chapter One
“If I eat anymore popcorn, I’m gonna hurl.”
I shove the bucket away, and Charlie Benson, my date for the evening, takes it and peers inside.
“In other words, you ate the top layer where the butter was and now you’re done?”
I lean back in my chair and smile up at him. Smart boy.
The town of In Between doesn’t have much to offer, but I will give it points for a cool hangout spot for Friday nights. The drive-in. There are very few left in the country but, much like the rusty water tower and home grown shops downtown, In Between hangs onto its classics, including Bubba’s Big Picture Cinema.
Slurping sounds come from Frances’s direction.
“Nash,” I call to her boyfriend. “Get her another root beer so I can hear the previews.”
Charlie’s fingers intertwine with mine and he whispers close to my ear. “The previews are twenty years old.”
And that’s what makes them perfect.
The four of us sit beneath a sky crowded with stars and watch the screen pop and crack to life. Bubba’s only shows old movies, and tonight is eighties night. And with our chairs arranged in the back of Charlie’s truck, we settle in for the first flick of the evening, Sixteen Candles.
Frances spouts off some useless facts about Molly Ringwald, and while my ears are trained on my best friend, my eyes are totally glued to Charlie.
Charlie Benson, Mr. Four-Point-Oh and quarterback for the In Between Chihuahuas, is some pretty fine stuff. He and I have been spending a lot of time together lately. And you’d think that would be great. I mean, he’s hot, he’s brilliant, and he has some well defined, ‘roid-free muscles that make a girl want to just drool.
Sometimes I wonder if we’re just friends.
Who occasionally hold hands.
“Actually”—I bat my eyes at the boy beside me—”I could use another drink myself.”
Charlie steps toward the cab and digs into the cooler until he finds a Diet Dr. Pepper. He pops the top then places it in my waiting hand.
Awww, he’s sweet like that. All the time. Except when he avoids me at school. Like he has this past week.
Did I mention he’s not my boyfriend? But I want to rectify that tonight. You know, make him define what exactly we are. Maybe he thinks we’re exclusively dating, and assumes I think the same? Or what if he thinks we’re just really close friends and is under the impression that I know that’s all we are? But let me tell you, Frances and I are close friends, and she doesn’t open my cans and hold my hand.
As Charlie sits down, my green eyes lock onto his gray peepers. My expression says, Thanks for the drink. You’re so thoughtful. By the way, do you plan on kissing me anytime this century?
Behind us Frances and Nash break out the cookies, as Frances continues her list of everything she knows about the movie. Which is too much.
“Did you know the cake at the end of this movie is actually made of cardboard? And it’s interesting to note that when the girls are in the lunch line . . .”
Charlie looks over at the two of them then leans closer to me. “Frances still gets a little nervous around Nash, doesn’t she?”
I inhale his light scent and smile. “At least she no longer requires her inhaler every time he’s around. I’d say that’s progress. We did pretty well hooking those two up.”
His brown hair blows in the evening breeze. “Yeah, we’re a good team.”
See? He’s always saying things like that. We’re a good team? What does that mean? A good team as in Bert and Ernie? Or as in Spider-Man and Mary Jane?
The last few weeks Charlie and I have been hanging out. A lot. We’re at that point where we call each other every night. And my foster mom told me if I didn’t cut down on the texting, I was going to have to sell an organ to pay for the next bill. I love a good text message—but maybe not enough to sacrifice a kidney.
But lately Charlie’s been acting strangely. I’ve barely seen him at all this week at school. A suspicious girl would wonder if he’s avoiding her. But then tonight . . . he acts like there’s no place he’d rather be than out here, with me, watching a girl from the eighties try to figure out her life while wearing hideous blue eye shadow.
“Um . . . Charlie?” That’s it. I’m just going to put it out there. Lay it on the line.
“Yeah?” His eyes never leave the screen.
“I was wondering if maybe—”
He shifts in his seat. “Are you hungry?”
Hungry for us to move onto the next level? Why yes! I am.
“I packed some sandwiches for us. Er, for all of us.”
I lay my hand on his arm and scoot closer. “I don’t want a sandwich.” I want you telling the world I’m your girlfriend. I want to scribble your name on my notebook and have other girls look on with envy.
“I know we just had popcorn, but I thought maybe—”
“Charlie, I think we should talk.” I look behind us and make sure Frances and Nash aren’t listening in. “I was wondering if you and I—”
The trill of my phone cuts off my big moment.
I hold up a finger, silently telling Charlie to wait. I’m not through with you.
I check the number as I flip the phone open. “Hi, Millie.”
“Hi, sweetie. Are you having a good time?”
Oh, yeah, sure. I was just about to break out into a Céline Dion song and declare my undying devotion to Charlie. Great timing.
“Hon, I know you’ve looked forward to tonight all week, but I’m going to need you to have Charlie bring you home.” My foster mother pauses. “Now.”
The heart I was about to hand over to Charlie triples in speed. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?” My foster mom has been doing intense chemo treatments in the last month for breast cancer. It kinda freaks me out.
“Nothing’s wrong. No emergency. James and I just need you to come home. We’ll explain when you get here.”
I end the call and relay the message to my friends.
“Hop in the truck.” Charlie’s hand rubs my upper arm. “I’ll take you home. I’ll come back for Nash and Frances later.”
He opens my door as my best friend and her date set up their chairs on the ground. I wave good-bye and promise to call Frances later. Charlie pulls his Ford out of the drive-in lot and we head toward home.
“Sorry you’re having to miss the movie.” I tap my fingers on my knees. “You can just drop me off.”
Charlie pins me with an intense look. “Katie, I’m staying with you. I want to make sure everything’s all right.”
“Oh . . . um.” Now is so not a good time for this, but I blurt it out anyway. “Charlie, what are we?”
He frowns. “What do you mean?”
“I mean . . . are we friends?”
“Of course we’re friends. You’re a good friend.”
“No.” Boys are dumb. Boys are stupid. “I mean is that all we are? I don’t know how to read you lately. Are we going out?” I feel my face flame.
He stares straight ahead at the road. Speechless. I feel my stomach sink to the floorboard.
“I think we’re probably heading in that direction,” he finally says. “What’s the problem?”
“The problem is at school you’ve been pretty distant lately. But then we’ll spend two hours on the phone and hang out on the weekends. Are you embarrassed by me at school?” It’s not like I wear blue eye shadow.
“No. Of course not.” His face clouds. “I like hanging out with you.”
And here’s where he sticks in the big but.
“But I just don’t want anybody hurt.”
“Who’s going to get hurt?”
He turns on his blinker and navigates a turn. “I don’t want to lose this—us. But you probably need to know something.”
For the second time tonight, my body floods with panic. “Oh, my gosh, do you wear women’s underwear?”
“You like boys too?”
“You secretly listen to Clay Aiken and make up your own dance moves?”
“Katie, I’ve started spending time with Chelsea again.”
Like Voldemort to Harry Potter, I suck in my breath at the mere mention of this name. Chelsea Blake—his ex-girlfriend. A girl born with a silver spoon in her mouth and pompoms between her ears.
He reaches for my hand, but I move toward the door. “Why?”
“She’s going through some pretty tough times lately.”
“Who hasn’t?” Plus all she has to do is shop her troubles away. I feel blue! Come to me, oh, MasterCard and Visa! “Why does Chelsea need you?”
“I’m practically all she’s got. She doesn’t really have many friends.”
“Because she eats them for dinner,” I hiss.
“That’s not fair.”
“Need I remind you I was with you the day you saw Chelsea lip-locked with Trevor Jackson last month? She cheated on you. You don’t owe her anything. Let Trevor help her.”
“They were over before they started. She’s just so alone. You don’t know all the dysfunction she’s got going on.”
“Oh, what, did Mommy buy her a Dooney and Bourke instead of a Coach?”
“There’s more to Chelsea than that.”
Yeah, a couple hundred dollars worth of highlights. “What does she have to do with us anyway?”
“I need you to be okay with me hanging out with her. It’s the right thing to do.”
I study his face, honing in on his nose and consider tweaking it off his pretty face. “So we are just friends then. Because what you’re not saying is that you’re not sure your feelings for her are totally dead, am I right?”
I count the fence posts we pass until he answers.
“I’m not dating Chelsea.”
“But you’re also not dating me?”
“I do want to see where you and I—”
“You can’t have both of us. What’s wrong with Chelsea that she needs you so much?”
“I can’t tell you.”
I nod and process this. “Fine.”
“You know I can’t turn my back on Chelsea. That’s not the God thing to do.”
“And dating me is—while you sort out which one of us you like?”
“I said this wasn’t about liking Chelsea.”
The truck pulls into my driveway.
“And I don’t believe you.” I grab my purse.
He hops out to open my door, but I beat him to it, slamming it shut and stomping toward the front porch.
“Go home, Charlie. I’ll talk to you later.”
I hear him running to catch up with me. “I’ll walk you to the door.”
Yes, because that would be the polite thing to do after stomping on my heart. I speed up my pace, staying two steps ahead of him and race up the sidewalk.
“Katie, wait. Please, I want to talk to you.”
“Now is obviously not a good time. Go check on Chelsea and—” I halt in my tracks and Charlie smacks into the back of me, grabbing my waist with both arms to avoid a fall.
The front doors swings open and Millie files out. Followed by James. And the dog.
And one more person, who shoves past them all and holds her arms out wide.
Bobbie Ann Parker.
“I’ve come to take you home.”
Copied from The Big Picture, by Jenny B. Jones, copyright 2008, by permission of NavPress, www.navpress.com. All rights reserve