Forrest Michaelson showed up in my homeroom the Wednesday after Easter vacation. It had been a typically wet April morning, and he had on jeans, a T-shirt, and cowboy boots. An ankle-length, buff-leather, oilskin slicker made him look like he’d blown into town out of a Clint Eastwood western. He gave Mr. Riegert a form from the office. Raking his fingers through his tousled, black hair, he gave the rest of us a bemused look as Mr. Riegert shuffled us about so he could reseat us alphabetically.
But the thing that struck me most was how totally unself-conscious he was. His whole demeanor said: Whatever’s going on here, I’m not getting uptight about it.
“Shophead,” sniffed Linda Matthews, who sat behind me.
That said it all. But as Mr. Riegert read the roll to make up a new seating chart, I couldn’t help noticing how Forrest Michaelson paid close attention to each name as it was called out. And when Mr. Riegert called my name and I said, “Here,” our eyes met momentarily. He had sharp, clear eyes, and he winked at me, like we had something in common.
I turned away sharply to tell him he was wrong.
But after the bell rang, he caught up with me in the hall.
“Kinda new here, you know. Direct me to D-wing? Room 104.” He pointed to the first class on his schedule. I almost gaped. Auto shop, of course, but he was also signed up for AP calculus.
I said, “First room on the right past the cafeteria.”
“Thanks.” He ambled off down the hall.
After civics I went to the cafeteria and sat down at my usual place. When Forrest Michaelson put his tray down right across the table from me I didn’t notice him. Well, Rob Herndon had just walked in with Linda and I was thinking it would be nice if he ever wanted to eat lunch with me. I looked up and nearly choked on my tuna fish sandwich.
“Thought we should get to know each other better,” Forrest said. “It seems that we constitute a minority of two.”
“What minority of two?” I finally said.
“Mormons,” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “At least in the senior class. That’s what I gathered from your father.”
Of course. I nearly smacked myself on the side of the head. The Michaelsons. Monday, Mom and Dad had gone over to help a family who were just moving into the ward. But I never connected them with this Forrest Michaelson.
Forrest read my reaction with a smile. “Initial impressions can be misleading.” He glanced around the cafeteria. “So, how about a tour of the student body? Beginning with the pack of jackals over there, for example.” He nodded to where Rob and his teammates were sitting.
“That’s Rob Herndon,” I said, coldly. “He’s on the wrestling team, and he’s a nice guy.”
“If you say so.”
“Initial impressions can be misleading.”
“Touché,” he said, touching his forehead in a kind of salute.
He always sat with me during lunch. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, and I knew as long as Forrest was sitting there, no one else would dare to.
“You know, Forrest,” I finally said to him one day, “I don’t know why you think you have to sit with me. We really don’t have anything in common.”
That provoked a raised eyebrow. “I would have thought we had most everything in common. We sure don’t share the same taste in fashion, but we believe the same things, and that makes us pretty even.”
“Oh, really? What about those shophead friends of yours? I’ve got a lot more in common with Rob than you do with them.”
“No, you don’t. Okay, maybe my friends don’t believe the same things I do, but they don’t pretend they do, either.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The people who hang around guys like Herndon, they want to think he’s their friend because they want to pretend they’re his friends.”
I didn’t pretend to understand what he had just said. I just laughed. “You expect me to believe he’s such a terrible person just because you don’t get along with him?”
“I really don’t worry about getting along with Herndon or not, Heather. But I don’t laugh at his jokes or marvel at who he goes out with, so that kind of counts me out, doesn’t it? Every school I’ve been in has a pack of them. And they come on to you depending on what kind of a person they think you are.”
“He’s always been nice to me,” I protested.
“He’s as nice as it takes.”
The worst thing about these arguments was that they convinced everybody that Forrest and I were a serious thing. Even Linda was convinced. Linda would ask me about him, about us, and about other things as well, which was a total shock, because before Linda hardly said two sentences to me. We became pretty good friends, though. She even got me on the publicity committee for senior class night at Jumpin’ Jacks drive-in.
Friday I stayed late cleaning up in art class and missed the bus. I was standing at the front entrance debating whether to call Mom or wait for the late bus when Forrest walked up.
“Miss your bus?”
I hesitated a moment too long.
“Be right back,” Forrest said and jogged off to the student lot. He drove up and got the door for me.
“So what’s this big deal at Jumpin’ Jacks?” he asked.
“It’s the drive-in across from the park by the river marina. The Friday before Memorial Day is senior class night. Nothing formal. Just a chance to have a good time before the Regents exams begin.” I waited as long as I thought I could before I felt I had to ask him the obvious question. “I don’t expect you’d want to come?”
“I thought I might.”
“Really? I didn’t think you’d be interested in that kind of thing. After all, Rob Herndon and his friends will be there.”
“Ordinarily I wouldn’t be. But if you’re going to be there …”
“I don’t need a chaperon, Forrest.”
He pulled into our driveway. I got out and slammed the door to show just how grateful I wasn’t for the ride and stormed up the steps and into the house.
Mom was in the kitchen preparing dinner. “Forrest drive you home?”
I sat down at the kitchen table and folded my arms and didn’t answer.
Mom wasn’t impressed by my attitude. “Forrest taking you to Jumpin’ Jacks tonight?”
“Mom!” I exploded, “Why does everybody think I’m dating Forrest Michaelson?”
Mom looked at me quite innocently. “I didn’t think you were dating Forrest. It just seemed reasonable that he would give you a ride, if you’re both going.”
“I wouldn’t go out with him if he were the last man on Earth,” I stated. “He’s stubborn and opinionated. He always thinks he’s right.”
I could tell by the way Mom reacted that she didn’t like my choice of words, and I cringed inside at the anticipated correction.
“Well, yes,” Mom said, after giving it some thought, “but it’s more than that.”
I looked at Mom, amazed. She was actually agreeing with me.
“I think, like most teenagers, he can’t bring himself to be just another slice of bread. But he’s smart enough to know what’s important. So it’s his way of proving what the Church means to him without having to come out and say it. The same way you wouldn’t respect a lion if it barked like a Chihuahua. He’s protecting what he respects.”
“He’s determined to protect me as well,” I said glumly. “He’s got an opinion about all my friends, whether I ought to be associating with them at all, whether they’re really my friends. Like it’s any of his business.”
Mom laughed. “Young men like Forrest suffer from being taken too seriously too much of the time. I think humoring him would go a long way.”
“Then he’s going to have to be humored at a distance.”
It was only a short walk through the park to the drive-in. Someone came up behind me and I turned around. It was Forrest.
There were tons of kids there already. We crowded into line. It was great food but pretty expensive. I had eaten dinner so I wouldn’t be tempted, but Forrest ordered a seafood platter that made my mouth water. When we sat down and Forrest said, “Have a shrimp,” I couldn’t refuse.
“So where’s Linda?” Forrest asked.
I didn’t know.
A moment later he said, “Speak of the devil.”
Rob drove up and he and Linda got out. She looked flustered, a bit disheveled, and a little scared. Rob just looked angry.
After they ordered, Linda brought her plate over to our table. I couldn’t believe she knew what she was doing. I could tell Rob was hating it.
“Don’t mind, do you?” Rob said icily.
“Not at all,” Forrest said. “In fact, I was just leaving.
“Yes,” I said, almost without thinking, “we were just leaving.”
The rest of the jackals then crowded around the table, pushing us out of the way.
“Are you really leaving?” Linda asked quietly. She tried to laugh and stood up. “I guess I don’t care much for the company of some of my friends,” she said as she began to follow us.
“I don’t care much for the company of some of your friends, either,” Forrest said.
Rob stood up and looked around. “Hey, Linda, where are you going? Get over here. C’mon, the night is still young.”
I heard the jackals laughing. I used to think it was funny, the way Rob talked to Linda, but I felt cold and sick inside.
Then Rob grabbed for her. Linda shied away. “Quit playing hard to get, Linda.” He reached for her again, and Forrest caught Rob’s wrist like a vice grip. Rob’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “You got some kind of problem?”
It suddenly got quiet.
“No problem,” Forrest said. He stepped to the side and let go of Rob’s wrist. Rob immediately lurched forward, thumping Forrest hard on his shoulders. Forrest backed away, showing the palms of his hands.
“Let’s go, Linda,” I said quietly.
Rob stood, flushed and angry. Forrest, facing him, looked like he had just solved a math problem too simple to bother with in the first place. When we reached the sidewalk, he turned and walked away.
“That’s right, chump!” Rob shouted. “Go ahead, walk away!”
“I’m sorry,” said Linda, when Forrest joined us.
Forrest simply shrugged.
We walked through the park, then up Lakeside Avenue to the Michaelsons’s house. It was reassuring to have Forrest with us. So I did have more in common with him than Rob Herndon, a lot more. But I could live with that. When you’ve been in a den of jackals, you come to appreciate the pride of lions.