When Veronica stomped onto the gravel track, head-down, blinking from the sunlight like a baby mole, Tim thought that the girl was going to punch him.
Every morning, Tim gulped down a glass of orange juice, ate a power bar and went to the town reservoir to run. He never listened to music. Once he had brought his iPod, but found that the tinny voices messed with his mental rhythm. The honking of the geese, the panting of the other runners, the sound of the gravel impacting beneath his feet—these were enough.
Veronica huffed, her pale face flushed, her brown hair limp with sweat. She was wearing a black turtleneck in the middle of a heat wave. Tim wondered if she was one of those Goth girls, the kind who listened to mopey music and drew morbid pictures on themselves with ink. She stood in his path, arms crossed and fingers hooked around her elbows.
“Nice day, isn’t it?”
Tim jogged in place, “I guess,” he said, already bored with the conversation. Two miles to go. He pumped his legs up and down; he wasn’t going to sacrifice his exercise for this twiggy girl.
“We need to talk,” she said. She had thin lips, like two worms kissing. The girl was giving Tim the creeps.
“Did you follow me here?” he asked.
Veronica had wide eyes and frizzy dark hair. He never noticed her at school, but now he recalled seeing her once at the gym reading a paperback book on the bleachers while the track team practiced. He only noticed then because his friend Mark had pointed her out, “She’s sleeping with the coach.”
Mark thought everyone was having sex with everyone else. Mr. Harris, the pudgy geometry teacher, was having an affair with the school librarian, the vice principal Ms. Penny was having sex with the school nurse, and his classmates were going at it like squirrels. This was, of course, because Mark had never gotten past first base. He was also madly in love with Beth; a futile relationship because Beth lived in California and Mark’s only contact with her had been through an online dating site.
No, what had really caught Tim’s attention was that Veronica was reading one of his mom’s books, “Devilish Duke.”
“Yeah, and I have a shrine of you in my closet. Would you please take me to prom?” Her voice was heavy with sarcasm. “I didn’t come here to ask you out. It’s about your mother.”
Tim stopped jogging in place.
“She’s screwing my dad.” She said this with a peculiar expression on her face, as if she had bitten into something sour.
Tim walked into his mom’s office, not caring that his sneakers dirtied the woven carpet or that the water bottle he had dropped to the floor was creating a damp mess. Since Veronica had told him the horrible thing about his mom, he had only been capable of staccato thinking.
The room was empty. He kicked his mother’s mahogany desk. He had barged into the house, slamming doors and stomping around hoping to confront her and she had dared to be absent.
The office was proof of his father’s love for his mom. When the house was being built, his father had insisted that the office was the first room to be finished. Tim’s Uncle Pete worked as a contractor who despised what he termed “cookie-cutter shacks” and so he made sure that his brother’s house was fashioned to suit the needs of the family.
Tim’s mom helped design the office as it was where she wrote her historical romance novels and spent most of her day. When Tim got ready to run, often before dawn, it was normal for his mother to already be at her computer jabbing at the keyboard with one hand and holding a cup of coffee with the other. If his father smelt like powdered sugar, his mom always smelt of roasted coffee beans.
The office was a small cramped space that his mom deemed “cozy.” Wall-to-wall bookshelves were stuffed with dusty tomes. Whenever Tim read a book from the library (which was such a rare event that his mom would peer over her thick lenses at him as if he had sprouted an extra limb) he would sneeze so much that he suspected that he was allergic to them.
They were all Victorian novels. His mom always made the embarrassing joke that she wrote enough about sex, she didn’t need to read about it too.
The shelf above her desk and computer had a copy of all of her books from “Dastardly Duke” to “Dancing with the Duke.”
He ripped “Dastardly Duke” from the shelf. The paperback book was bright pink with florid font and an illustration of a shirtless Fabio riding a horse on the cover. Fabio’s hair was depicted as if it was being whipped back by a harsh wind. The Duke Drake Englesbury was the romantic lead in all of his mom’s books. He often rode in on a magnificent steed to save a damsel from pirates, thieves, or scoundrels. He was noble, brave, and Tim thought a bit stupid.
He flipped the novel open to a random page and read:
Drake picked up the young maiden as if she weighed nothing more than a loaf of bread and placed her on his faithful horse Juniper.
“Love, don’t be frightened,” he said, tossing his auburn locks over a strong shoulder.
“I am not your love! I have never seen you before in my life. We must go back; the dragon will kill my family if we do not,” the beauty sobbed into Drake’s emerald cloak.
“My apologies. You need not fear anymore. I will be by your side until I am sure you and your family are out of danger,” the Duke said. He knew that their time together would be brief, but there was something that drew him to this strange, pretty girl.
The Duke was always thinking drippy things like that. And in all of the books he fell deeply in love with the woman he rescued only to forget her promptly in the next book in the series.
Tim had never been in love, but he hoped it wasn’t like the romances in his mom’s books.
Was Veronica’s dad the Duke? Tim’s father certainly wasn’t.
His dad was losing his hair and had never saved anyone in his entire life. He smelled like powdered sugar and had a round, soft face. Every weekend when Tim was little his father brought home a brown paper bag filled with buttery croissants, Italian cookies and cupcakes from The Doughboy, the bakery he owned. This stopped when Tim was 12 and his stomach rolled over the waist of his jeans like an inner tube had melded to his body. His mother suggested that he join the track team and his father stopped bringing sweets home.
Tim tossed the book onto the desk, knocking a ceramic mug over. He picked up the mug and placed it upright, thankful that it had been empty. Something, though, made him take it again in his hands. Since the mug had been made with pudgy fingers, the rim was misshapen and the blue paint had been sloppily applied, traces of brush bristles leaving feathery marks. A wisp of a memory settled lightly on Tim’s conscious. He was in a basement, possibly one of his father’s baker friends because of the intoxicating smell of warm cookies. His hands were wet with clay. He had made this mug. He was four and couldn’t read the cards at the convenience store, so he had frowned at his father and had said, “Mom doesn’t want that.” At that early age he had already connected his mom with coffee mugs and he had wanted to make her one.
He flopped down on the chair, drawing his knees up to his chest and balancing the mug that he had made and hadn’t recognized on top of them. He wondered where his mom had decided to go so early in the morning. Tim gazed around at the empty room once more and wished he knew what his mom wanted now.
At the reservoir he had shoved that Veronica girl and she had fallen onto the gravel. Her stupid black turtleneck got dirty. She threw a fistful of gravel at Tim, but she had horrible aim and the rocks flew harmlessly past his shoulder. “It’s not my fault, moron!” she shouted.
Tim suddenly thought how this must look. Some of his neighbors jogged along the reservoir. He offered a hand to help her up, but she pushed the gesture aside and scrambled up by herself.
“Look,” he said, wiping sweat from the back of his neck, “I don’t know you, but my parents are happy.” The shape of the words felt awkward in his mouth.
“Happy people don’t have affairs,” Veronica replied.
Shadows rimmed her eyes; she hadn’t been sleeping. For the first time Tim noticed how short Veronica was compared to him. She picked gravel off of her jeans and Tim pretended that he hadn’t seen her blink back tears.
“Why did you tell me this?” he asked.
“You’re going to help me end it.”
Read the next installment of “The Duke” in the next issue of The Hoot.