Will Nuessle holds a third-degree brown belt in ninjitsu, rides a Harley, primary caregives three small boys and claims he can recite the alphabet backwards in less than ten seconds. He also writes occasionally
The Feud (excerpt)
“Could somebody get the door?” “It’s Dad’s job. It’s the one thing we ask of him on this holy day.” Plus, the parade was on. Andy hadn’t seen Snoopy yet. “Well your father doesn’t seem to be in earshot and I’m up to my elbows in an eighteen-pound turkey, so will somebody please get the door?” “It’s Andy’s turn, I got the door last time.” “Last time? When Grandpa and Gramma came over for Easter?” “And I got the door that time.” From the kitchen: “Andromeda!!” Andy uncurled herself and slowly stood, blocking Mari’s view as long as possible. “Sheesh, Mom, no need to yell.” “I’m trying to remember why I’m thankful for you,” followed her down the hallway. Andy reached for her hood before she remembered she was wearing her green velvet dress for Thanksgiving. Oh, well, the Clarkes were like family. Not family enough to let themselves in, though, she thought irrelevantly. “Mari, do you have the cat?” She was not dressed for chasing felines around forests. After the Flower Child confirmed she did, Andy pulled the door open. “Hi!” “Happy Thanksgiving!” Pastor and Mrs. Clarke, and dear Brian. People she wasn’t fighting with. How nice. Not trusting Mari to keep Hopeful in her lap for long, Andy stepped to one side so they could go in. As she did so she glanced at the road outside the house, the one that led eventually to another front door. Sharon wouldn’t be invited over to the Tetamores for Thanksgiving, would she? Andy’s imagination was filled with holiday make-out nooks. Nope, not gonna think about it. Being thankful. “Sorry to make you wait; Dad’s supposed to get the door.” Pastor Clarke put a gentle hand on his wife’s back to encourage her to go in and beamed at Andy. “It was worth the wait for such a vision. Andy, you look lovely.” Did God just hear you fib? “You certainly do,” Mrs. Clarke agreed, ignoring her husband’s attempts to get her through the door. “More beautiful every time I see you.” She handed sweet potatoes to the Pastor and swept Andy into a hug. Isn’t there a commandment about lying? Pretty sure there’s a commandment about lying. She enjoyed the hug nonetheless. Finally getting them inside, she waved to Brian, bringing up the rear with cranberry sauce. “Hey, Happy Thanksgiving.” “Same unto you, College Stud. Is that the shirt I cried all over?” Checking, Brian shrugged. “I dunno; came out of the closet.” He looked at her and smiled. “Speaking of outfits…” Andy sighed, exasperated. “Are you going to tell me I look great too?” Not that she minded, but if they all kept this up, sooner or later somebody would be struck by lightning. Brian accepted a hug, then balanced the cranberries in one hand and held her at arm’s length with the other. “Since you mention it, yes,” he met her eyes, “you look beautiful.” It wasn’t flirty, just honest, and yet Andy tingled in a way she hadn’t expected. Following her old friend into the house, she wondered at Mom’s ulterior motive in twisting her arm to get her out of jeans and sweatshirt. She returned to the couch in time to see Snoopy, as Mari swept past for hugs and compliments on the powder-blue dress and yellow sweater combo she’d spent an hour on. At commercial Andy joined the kitchen conversation, Mrs. Clarke beaming at her. “I haven’t gotten the chance to say how proud I am of you and Marigold.” “For?” Like she didn’t know. She still liked hearing it. “The star of the play and the Director, under the same roof?” If we lose the stage lights, have Mrs. Clarke stand up, Andy mentally noted. Her smile could brighten the whole auditorium. Mari grinned. “Tickets on-sale, seating is limited.” Pastor Clarke laughed. “Not to worry; Brian bought us all one for opening night.” “If I’m not mistaken,” Mrs. Clarke winked, “somebody bought a ticket to all three performances.” Now Brian cleared his throat, looking mildly embarrassed. “Yeah, well, gotta support the arts. Plus, maybe somebody’ll fall off the stage.” The thought had somehow eluded Andy; given the gigantic can of worms waiting to be opened where certain fathers were concerned, would there even be a second and third performance? If she and Juliet were shipped to a convent Friday morning? Something else to worry about. “Where’s the man of the house?” Pastor Clarke asked. Mrs. Clarke pursed her lips. “You know perfectly well where he is. Why don’t you be a grown-up and ask politely if you can go watch football?” “Well,” he cleared his throat, “may I be allowed to go watch football, pretty please?” As the Sharpes laughed, Mrs. Clarke leveled a sweet-potato drenched spoon at her husband. “Yes, but I’ll thank you to remember our agreement.” Her eyes twinkled. “Yes, ma’am.” Pastor Clarke pretended to hang his head. “Which is?” “Andy,” her mother cautioned, but Mrs. Clarke waved it away. “No, tell them.” Pastor Clarke sighed theatrically. “When suppertime arrives, I come straight to the table and no excuses.” “Or…?” “Or my wife will schedule a speaking engagement during every Eagles game the rest of the season.” Andy and Mari both stifled giggles, while Mom didn’t hold back her laugh one bit. “And I’m serious, Matthew Hiram. FFA, 4H, I’ll call the Daughters of the American Revolution.” “On my honor before God, I will be in my places with bright, shiny faces.” “Off with you.” As he went, Mom called after him, “If you can drag the tenured Astronomy Professor along, I’d be beholdin’ to you.” “No promises,” he called back, greeting her father before the door closed. “Children,” Mom said, and Mrs. Clarke nodded. “We married six-foot tall children.” “Five Eight, in my case, which he calls ‘almost six foot.’” As she passed him, Mrs. Clarke put a hand on her son’s shoulder. “Brian, hon, you can join them if you want.” “Thanks, but, you know, American football.” Andy had spent enough time around Brian to know where this was going. “Still with that?” “With what?” Marigold asked, while Mom turned away with the hint of a smile on her face. “Ever since his Missions trip to Bolivia, Brian’s all ‘Soccer’s the real football.’ He gets super annoying about it,” Andy teased. “I was in Santa Cruz during the World Cup; Eagles fans just think they’re passionate.” Andy remembered what her father had been doing in the basement. “Would a simple game of ping-pong appeal to you? I know a table with a newly refurbished net.” “I could grab a paddle, teach someone some humility,” Brian teased back. Andy saw a bemused glance pass between the mothers. Yes, something was up. If Andy guessed what, she was on-board. “Only one way to find out.” “Sounds like fun, I’m in.” Marigold invited herself. Andy and Brian were spared the third wheel as Mom spoke up. “Marigold, don’t you have dessert to make?” “Oh yeah,” the scatterbrained Unicorn remembered. Pretty sure them-alone-in-the-basement was the idea, Andy still felt bad she wasn’t helping in the kitchen. “Sure it’s okay for me to play while you all work?” “Why should today be different?” earned the Flower Child a gentle thonk on the head with Mom’s half-cup measure. “Ow!” “You’re fine, Andy. Mari’s on dessert and Mrs. Clarke and I have everything else covered. After all,” and Mom, Mari and Andy spoke simultaneously, “it’s a three-butt kitchen.” “I do see three of you in there,” Andy laughed. “I notice nobody’s fighting to keep me out of the kitchen,” Brian commented. Mrs. Clarke raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure we could find something, sweetheart.” To Andy’s Mom, “I ever tell you about his ‘banana jelly’ experiment?” Brian shrugged in surrender. “Fine, okay. But before this life-or-death duel, I oughta use the restroom.” After he left, Mrs. Clarke was still in earshot and Andy wasn’t certain she was in on it. With Mari nose-deep in a cookbook, the coast was clear to sign to Mom: “I know what you’re doing.” Mom laughed with Mrs. Clarke over the Banana Jelly Debacle even as she responded, “Glad you made that deal with me?” Andy rolled her eyes and signed “Yes.” “Have fun. I’ll keep your sister here.” “I love you.” “I love you too.” With nothing better to do, Andy figured she should go make sure nobody’s unmentionables were hanging by the dryer. “Send my fearless opponent down when you see him?” “Will do,” Mom sang out, sounding pleased with life. There was indeed embarrassment hanging on the clothesline; a quick toss into the dryer solved that problem. Andy grabbed a paddle and ball, trying to boot-up her Flirting software. How do people do this? She realized her dress showed off her legs, even though Dad’s dress code had hem-length past her knees. Dad had not, perhaps, considered ping-pong tables. Outside her area of expertise, Andy thought if she perched on one corner… “Do not collapse on me,” she muttered to the table as she hopped up. She wasn’t sure her mother had this particular game in mind, but she was seventeen and by all that was holy somebody would notice. Brian came through the basement door and down the stairs with “All right, Missy, prepare to—” and his sentence trailed off as he turned the corner and saw her waiting for him, legs demurely crossed but still showing much more than the original hem length ever intended. “To what, exactly?” Smile at him, let the dress show off your eyes. “Wow.” Brian cleared his throat. “You sure know how to, um, get in a guy’s head.” “Pretty as a picture?” Oh, for heaven’s sake, how had that come out so corny? Why didn’t anybody teach me how to do this? Brian tore his eyes away. “Makes a guy wish for a camera.” The table edge was digging into her thigh, so with an attempt at grace Andy swung down, managing not to fall. She held out both paddles but when he grabbed one, she didn’t let go right away. Their eyes met and she smiled at him again. “You do look beautiful today.” Feeling mildly panicked, Andy let him have the paddle, relieved when he moved to the other side of the table. As he served, he said “If I’d guessed, I would’ve expected—” “Jeans and a sweatshirt?” She snapped the ball across the net, past his outstretched paddle. He shrugged and snagged the ball. “I’ve known you for what, most of your life?” A nice serve she had no hope of catching, “I’ve never seen you in a dress before.” She tossed him the ball. “Oh, you have so seen me in a dress before.” He held her eyes. “Maybe I’ve never seen you before.” He served without breaking eye contact, but she connected with a spin that sent him scrambling. “Darn! Was hoping that would distract you.” Oh, it did. Andy twirled her paddle. “Not my first time, soccer fan.” “So did you,” he concentrated on another serve, “get all gussied up for moi?” Several volleys before a wild Clarke return missed her side of the table by a mile, making it 3-1. Andy went after the ball, trying to remember to be ladylike and not scramble around on all fours. “Wish I could say yes, but Mom and I made a deal.” “You get dressed up—” “I believe ‘gussied’ was your actual term?” “You get all gussied up and even more prettified than usual, and…?” She bounced the ball to him. “Jeans and hoodie to Christmas Eve service.” She timed her sentence to end on his serve, and his laugh unbalanced him. 4-1 and her serve. They both concentrated for the next point; after her return hit the net, Brian frowned. “You still need the protection? Even on Christmas?” “Going to church typically means other people.” “Guess I’ve known you for so long, I don’t think about it anymore.” “See now,” as her patented twisty serve bounced off the back millimeter of his side, “when everybody’s known me long as you, I won’t need to hide.” This wasn’t breezy conversation. All those teen magazines said she should get the guy talking about himself. “Upstairs, you said you were in Santa Cruz during the World Cup?” “I did,” he grinned, missing yet another serve. “Okay, you might be a little too good at this.” “Don’t let my kicking your butt keep you from talking,” she grinned wickedly. “Bolivia had just lost to the United States, by the way.” Andy cocked her head. “Seriously?” Perfect. “The streets were choked with frustrated soccer fans, and our Country Coordinator decided that was the perfect time to tell people about Jesus…” Talking and playing wasn’t helping Brian’s game. Roughly the time his story finished, she whacked a return that ponged off the table past his ear for the win. “Yikes! Think you took some skin off.” She blew imaginary smoke off her paddle, smiling. “Best of three?” He flipped his paddle in the air and almost caught it. Andy stifled her laugh. “Sure. I don’t know how long before somebody’s annoying little sister joins us, though.” The nervousness and excitement had worked a number on her bladder. “Quick restroom break?” “As the lady wishes,” he bowed. She thought maybe he glanced at her legs as she jogged up the stairs. That’s the idea, Clarke. Andy wondered as she went if she wouldn’t have something to be thankful for today after all.
Fathers in the den, mothers in the kitchen and little sisters, blessedly, upstairs on the phone. After taking care of business, Andy paused on her way downstairs to grab a plate of deviled eggs, receiving a wink from her mother and a smile from Brian’s. Yeah, she’s in on it. And how nice would it be, to have something special with a guy she didn’t have to hide from her parents? At the basement door she was greeted with music from a forgotten record player. Seriously? “Polka music?” Brian grabbed several eggs. “Somebody knew how to party.” “I think the records were Grampa’s.” “Grampa had good tashte,” he offered, mouth full. Swallowing, he adopted a narrowed stare. “Let’s see how well you play whilst dancing the schottische.” “The what-i-sha?” “Schottische. Didn’t you ever read ‘Pippi Longstocking?’” “Not in the last twenty minutes.” Giving the guy a hard time was flirting, right? Oh well, if she couldn’t do that, no point in conversing anyway. It was her natural state. “You’re gonna have to show me how it’s done, there, Lawrence Welk.” She walked to the far side of the table. Brian laughed. “And-a one, and-a two,” and still dancing, returned her serve with a wicked cross-hand she pulled her paddle in front of only to see the ball bounce off the ceiling and roll behind the furnace. “I might be in trouble here.” “That, my friend, is the idea.” He retrieved the ball, saying, “And I expect you to dance, too, Miss Sharpe. Dance or talk; I let you off too easily last game.” “Ha!” She didn’t think she had a Schottische in her on this particular Thanksgiving Day. “What do you wanna talk about?” “Life in Verona?” “Sure.” Andy told Play stories until Polka Boy smacked a return off the far side of the table, winning the point and the game. “Were you hustling me, that first match?” “What can I say, dancing is my life.” He ignored her snort, changing the record and claiming the last deviled egg. “Think they’ll let us get in one more? Break the tie?” “By now, they’ve forgotten all about us.” She walked over to thumb through the records. “We could do whatever we want.” Andy’s throat was dry. The smidge of deviled egg on his lip helped her stay grounded. She straightened. “You have a little…” before she stopped herself, she reached out and flicked it off, letting her hand linger on his cheek. As she touched his face, she almost forgot her own. Andy felt his throat constrict as he swallowed. “You sure changed subjects fast when I mentioned certain neighbors.” Brian reached up and gently closed his hand around hers. “You wanted me to talk; there’s nothing to say.” “Big difference from the last time we were alone together.” Tingles. Heart pounding. Shortness of breath. “A lot can change in two months.” “You’re not still…” “I’m over it. I’m over him.” Talk about risking lightning strikes. “I’m ready for something real.” With her fingers still on his cheek, she ran her thumb gently along his jawline, thinking “KISS ME!” as loud as she could. He might have, if somebody’s annoying little sister hadn’t opened the basement door. “Hey, you guys still playing? I wanna—whoa!” Somebody else yanked her back out of the door and slammed it closed. The spell thoroughly broken, they both laughed and found some personal space. “Sisters,” only-child Brian offered. “Never a dull moment.” Her heart was still pounding. “Sooner or later we’re going to have to go upstairs and, like, turkey.” “So let’s find out who’s the best in this basement.” This time, there was no dancing or talking. Just an exciting tension in the air. Given what they almost…the possibility they still might…Andy made herself focus, giving it all she could, and by match point he was only ahead by one. It was her serve, and rather than try and send him packing with some laser-guided ping-pong missile, Andy laid up an easy return. Brian didn’t slam the ball over the net either, and then they were trading returns, almost like they didn’t want the game to end. I’m trying to let you win, Clarke. She saw her opportunity and swung early, the ball bouncing two, three, four times and off the table. Brian stepped back, looking pleased. “And that, my friend, is how it’s done.” “Good game, Brian Clarke.” Andy adopted a teasing, sultry voice. She stepped around her end of the table and slowly walked towards him. “You had me on the ropes for awhile, Sharpe.” She laughed throatily and bit her lip, feeling simultaneously excited and ridiculous. “You beat me.” The rubber facing on her paddle made a s-s-s-s-s-s noise as she dragged it lightly along the table’s edge. “Where I come from, winners deserve a reward.” In her head, she heard Dan: “Where you come from? Right here in this house?” Which helped; Brian knew when it was time to be silent. And silent he was, unmoving, as she turned the final corner, let her paddle drop, and walked her fingers up the front of his shirt until she could put her arms around his neck. “To the victor go the spoils,” she whispered. His olive-green eyes stared into hers. With her wrists at his neck Andy could feel his pulse racing almost as fast as her own. She closed her eyes, feeling lightheaded, probably because she had forgotten to breathe. “Please kiss me.” He still didn’t move or speak. Fine, she thought, I’ll do everything. She tried to lean in, stopped by a gentle but unyielding pressure at her stomach. Brian’s paddle. “Um…” She felt it on her cheek, when he let out the breath he was holding. “Andy…” and his voice held a pain that surprised her, “please stop.” She opened her eyes at this unexpected request and saw more pain, and sadness, in his. “What’s wrong?” Everything was falling apart, even as Andy scrambled to try and save it. “You want this as much as I do. Right?” She never expected to see him wince. He swallowed before he spoke. “For longer than you realize and more than you can imagine.” She tried to move in; the barrier remained. “So take what’s yours.” What I’m throwing at you! Sadness had become anger. “Because it’s not mine, and we both know that.” “What are you—?” “Tell me you’re not in love with him.” “Brian, I’m over him.” “That’s not what I asked.” She met his eyes and debated another lie, then realized her hesitation had shouted the truth. Andy dropped her hands and stepped away. He doesn’t want me, Brian. “You remember what I said when you asked why we weren’t dating?” “Yes.” Only an idiot would go after someone in love with someone else. His jaw worked. “I never thought you, of all people, would consider me an idiot.” A harsh, grating laugh. “Then again, I was stupid enough to let it go this far.” “Brian, I—” He turned away, slamming his paddle down. “I’ve been too hard on American football; think I’ll give the NFL another chance. No need to join us.” He walked away, turned the corner and climbed out of sight. The basement door shut a firm exclamation point on his exit. Andy felt prickly hot and hollow. Now that it was much too late, she wondered if she’d opened a door that couldn’t be closed. She climbed two flights of stairs dragging a twelve-foot-long sack of shame and embarrassment behind. She managed to squeeze it into her room and sat at the desk, staring at her shadowy self in the computer monitor. She didn’t say “Come in,” when her mother knocked. “How’s my favorite daughter?” “You know Marigold’s in earshot, right?” They could hear Mari gabbling through the wall. “She knows.” Mom leaned against Andy’s chair and they regarded one another in the dead monitor window. “What’s going on today?” “Nothing. Figured I’d do some writing.” “Isn’t it easier if the computer’s turned on?” “Probably.” “What happened, Andromeda?” “I don’t want to talk about it.” Her mom weighed this. “Fine. You get a pass today. But,” she went on, her gentle fingers teasing through Andy’s hair, “I know you‘re keeping big secrets. Which might involve Brian, might involve your friend Dan you carefully don’t talk about lately, and definitely involve a certain school play. “And much as you girls should have your own lives, without my interference, these secrets are driving you into the ground and I won’t lose you over them. Sooner or later, you’re telling me everything.” Mom kissed the top of her head and saw herself out. Andy’s heart clenched, remembering any minute now everybody, including Brian Clarke and even more including her, would be sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner.
Sit as far away as possible, minimize physical interaction? Or right next to him to not make eye contact? Before she figured it out Andy found herself seated right across from him. FanTAStic. She usually loved Thanksgiving, but being filled with self-hatred left no room for food. My new weight-loss program. Betray a close friend and watch the pounds melt away. She was concentrating on being miserable and ignoring everyone when a foot tapped hers under the table. Inadvertently Andy met his eyes. She expected anger and found concern. “Are you okay?” After what I did, he’s worried about me? Brian, why can’t I be in love with you? “Besides being the worst human on the planet? I’m fine.” “Andy,” he chided, as Clarkes and Sharpes swirled around, Thanksgiving bustle leaving them momentarily alone. “I was there. You can’t be more than fifth, sixth worst, tops.” She grimaced and kicked him under the table by reflex. Shutting her eyes, she hated herself all over again. What is wrong with me? “Stop trying to make me feel better.” “You’re my friend. I don’t want you to feel bad.” It cost her to look him in the eye again. “I’m sorry.” A rueful smile. “For kicking me?” “For everything. I was the idiot, thinking only about myself. I never meant to hurt you.” Family was settling; their private conversation window was closing fast. “Please-” she wanted to say forgive me but chickened out. “-believe me.” “I do, Andy,” and she knew, somehow, he meant both what she’d said and what she hadn’t. “You’re a better friend than I deserve.” “I know.” She figured he’d earned that. But maybe she could choke down a little turkey after all. Plus some mashed potatoes. And the cranberry sauce Mom made from scratch. Dad had been coaxed out of football stupor to the table. “Surprised you didn’t join us sooner, Brian, what were you doing?” Mari answered for them. “Ping-pong tournament. I didn’t get to play.” “Club’s age limit was fifteen.” Teasing her sister came naturally, whatever her emotional state. “Who won?” Mrs. Clarke smiled, as Pastor Clarke held her chair. Brian laughed. “I did, two to one.” “Not bad,” Dad allowed. “I usually can’t come close to beating her. Was there a prize?” With all the let’s-get-them-alone going on that afternoon, his question was so innocent yet so right to the heart of her huge mistake Andy found it unexpectedly hilarious, and mashed her lips together to keep from laughing. It’s Thanksgiving, it’s not funny and I refuse to look crazy. She held it in until Brian snorted. Then they both laughed like hyenas until he was wiping tears while she rubbed sore stomach muscles. Their family members, of course, stared at them like they were certifiable. Yeah, Andy thought, but at least we’re crazy together. “I’m sorry,” she giggled. “We’re not being Thanksgiving appropriate.” “Was it something I said?” She examined the ceiling, the turkey, anything but Brian, as he wheezed, “Like Andy said, very sorry. Guess you had to be there.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw him wave at his father. “Dad, please, pray or something.” “We’ll be good,” she offered, her voice wavering. Eye closing, hand-folding, solemnity. Just what the two idiots need. She still didn’t dare look at him. Pastor Clarke raised his eyes to the ceiling, muttering, “Lord, spare us from silly children.” That was the whole prayer? You call yourself a pastor? She clenched her fists and squeezed her eyes shut. Get a grip, Andromeda! “I think,” her mother’s quiet voice of wisdom offered, “the gooney birds will calm down during the blessing; Pastor Clarke we would be honored, if you don’t mind.” “Mind? All I’ve done is watch football, it’s the least I can do.” “Amen,” Mrs. Clarke offered promptly, which nearly set Andy off again. I don’t think I’ll be welcome at this restaurant anymore. Finally, an actual Thanksgiving Day prayer happened, and then there was food. As he handed Mrs. Clarke her plate, Dad asked Andy what she was thankful for. She thought about it while sampling some of Mrs. Clarke’s sweet potato pie. “To be honest, I’m thankful a month from now, this life-sucking Play will be over with,” to which Mari added a resounding “Amen,” around a mouthful of turkey. “Marigold.” “Shorry.” “I’m also thankful this has gone so well, and how everybody came together to make this project a reality. Mostly though,” she met Brian’s eyes, noting the pain he couldn’t quite hide. “I’m thankful for my friends.” He smiled. “Preach it.” He held out his sparkling cider glass and they clinked to friendship. Throughout the meal, and the game-playing and story-telling that followed, Andy felt the difference between Brian and herself. The innocent “you look beautiful” on her doorstep was gone. Yet there was a new shared strength. She would have to work at earning his trust again, but trusted him more than ever. During the goodbyes, she pulled him aside for a moment of semi-privacy, and knew it would be okay to hug him tightly, bury her face against his chest. She could feel the difference from the earlier hello, and a pang shot through her heart at what she had lost forever. But he held her too. “I’m sorry.” “I forgive you,” he said, making it official. “Um, if and when…” and he trailed off, cleared his throat. “No, I’ll say it. If and when you find yourself over him? Like really over him?” He leaned back and placed his hand on her face. “Call me. I’ll come running, hand to God.” He gently kissed her forehead, hugged her mother, shook her father’s hand, tousled Mari’s hair and was gone. “You okay?” Mom asked on her way back inside. “Better,” she allowed. “Make sure the cat didn’t get out?” For a long minute she stared at the road where the Clarkes had disappeared, feeling his kiss. That’s the second time he’s kissed me.Don’t know why he keeps missing. She remembered that he had tickets for each show and the ‘kidnap date’ the month before and realized, with a sudden shock, that he hadn’t been missing. He’d been holding back. Because he’s in love with me. How could she have been so stupid? Her mind replayed her mistake with the new information, and she finally understood how badly she’d hurt him. “And he still forgave me.” She wondered if she’d ever forgive herself.