A Tangle of Branches, by Michel Gauthier

Tom Walker stopped chewing on his fries and strained to hear the girls who were gossiping in the booth behind his. When one of them repeated that Charlie Gunter had left town to join the Air Force, he almost choked. After he swallowed, he clenched his fist, raised his eyes to the ceiling, and mouthed a silent “yes”. Finally, he could pursue Ally McNair. Oh sure, his friends would say that she was off limits because, technically, she was still Charlie’s girl, but he couldn’t care less about details like that. As far as he was concerned, she was fair game.

He wolfed down what was left of his fries, then stepped out into the heat of the midday sun. Far beyond the orange and brown A&W sign, a strong wind chased the tail end of a storm. He strode across the parking lot, careful to avoid the few puddles left on the new, shiny black asphalt. Main Street was already dry. He folded down the leather rooftop of the Mustang Convertible his dad had given him last month. Then yielding to an urge to drive by Ally’s house, he powered out of the parking lot and headed for Cedar Street. Less than a minute later, he let the Mustang coast at walking speed along a string of flower borders and white picket fences. Ally’s red and green house appeared from behind a retreating row of birch trees. She was sitting in a folding chair on the porch, writing something on a piece of paper laid over a hard-covered book balanced on her knees. School was out, so it had to be a letter to Charlie. Should he stop or keep going? He honked. She looked up and waved at him with her pen, but the motion had no pep. Before he had time to raise his hand in return, she turned her head sideways and eyed the front yard of Charlie’s house, next door to hers. A fleeting smile crossed her face. What did she find funny about a sorry-looking growth of crabgrass and plantain, especially on a street where every lawn was perfectly mowed and trimmed? She started writing again. Damn! Charlie was hundreds of miles away, and yet he was wrecking Tom’s day, as he had done since they were kids.

He drove slowly past both houses. No sense rushing things; time was on his side. In a few weeks, she would be more receptive. The clump of lilacs at the corner of Third Street, reminded him of how he hated her when she and Charlie started going steady. At the time, he thought she had stolen his friend. He took revenge on her by ringing the doorbell of her house then racing to the corner of the street and hiding deep in the lilacs before she answered the door. It pleased him so much to see her search for the culprit around her porch that from then on, he did it every time he wandered past her house at night. The last time he rang her bell was years later on a cold October evening. Instead of hiding in the bushes as he usually did, he jumped the hedge between her place and Charlie’s in the hope that she would see a running shape in the dark and think it was Charlie. His plan backfired when he bumped into her as she came out of Charlie’s shed. She fell to the gravel drive. In the glow of the light escaping from the house windows, he could see surprise in her face, almost fright.
“Tommy?” she whispered.

He was caught. What would he tell her? As he tried to think up a lie, Charlie appeared at her side.
“What’s going on?” Charlie asked, in a voice so soft that he was barely audible.
Tom was still trying to think of what to say when he heard Ally’s front door open. Seconds later, Mrs. McNair yelled things that made no sense.
Ally pointed an accusing finger at him. “It was you,” she said.

The back door to the McNairs creaked open then slammed shut. “I’m calling the police!” shouted Mr. McNair.
Tom tried to make a run for it, but Charlie grabbed him by the arms. His palms were warm and sweaty. Why was meek, mild-mannered Charlie so brave tonight? Curious to find out what was going on, Tom did not resist the feeble hold.
“What did you do?” Charlie asked, again in a low voice.
Tom looked down on his boyhood friend for a few second, then without answering the question, let his eyes stray to Ally. She was doing up the buttons of her blouse. When she noticed he was looking at her, she hurried. Now he understood why these two were speaking so softly: they had been making out in the shed and were afraid their parents would find out. Whatever Tom said or did now, they would not protest because Ally's father would hear their voices and come over. Tom broke free of Charlie’s grasp and shoved him against the shed wall. “Don’t ever touch me again, Charlie.” He faced Ally. Oddly, seeing fear in her face excited him. He chuckled. “Why don’t you call your Dad, Ally? C’mon. Do it!”

She sidestepped to Charlie’s side. “Leave us,”—her voice cracked—“alone.”
Her distress aroused him. He felt powerful, in command of her destiny, and he liked it.
“Please, Tommy,’ she said, “Go away.”
He took a long look at her body. Her blouse clung to her damp skin. She was not wearing a bra, and her firm little breast jumped with every beat of her heart. In that moment, in the dim light of Charlie Gunter’s backyard, his hate for Ally McNair changed into a burning lust. He glanced at Charlie. “You two keep your mouth shut and I won’t say a word.”


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