Recently I wrote a Rock Fiction short – at the challenge of a fellow writer – inspired by a Bob Seger song of my choosing. I’d never done this type of writing before, so I was open to the challenge. I think I found an inner Nicholas Sparks that I didn’t know existed.
“Did you remember to bring your change of clothes for afterwards?” Sue Ellen asked her daughter, clinging to her mom hat for as long as she could wear it.
“Yes, Mom,” Jane replied with a chuckle. “I have everything I need. You know I’ll be leaving the nest soon. You’re gonna to have to trust I can take care of myself.”
Sue Ellen turned into the school’s driveway. She pulled the car to a stop and sighed as she looked at her daughter, now an adult, but forever her little girl. “Can you indulge me, please? Let me parent you for one more day.”
Jane tilted her head and smiled at her mother. “Okay, fine. Yes, Mom. I have all my things.” She gathered her purse and reached behind her for her cap and gown and then stopped. “Do you think he’s proud of me?”
“I know he is.”
Jane stiffened her quivering chin and wiped away her tears. “Thanks, Mom. I love you.”
Sue Ellen hugged her daughter, fighting back her own desire to cry and swallowed the lump in her throat. She whispered, “I love you too, kiddo.”
Jane left the car to join her classmates, and Sue Ellen shifted into drive so she could find a place to park. Her foot didn’t release the brake. She stared at the school’s entrance, and somehow it was 1984 again, and she was walking down the long hallway inside.
Sue Ellen approached her locker after history class. She knew Luke Parker would be waiting at her locker – he hadn’t missed a day yet. Though she resisted his advances each time, she looked forward to their encounters. The most popular guy and the football team’s star quarterback, and he wanted plain, bookish Sue Ellen. He didn’t disappoint; he was right where she’d expected to find him. Leaning against her locker, combing his fingers through his jet-black hair.
“It’s about time you showed up,” said Luke, smiling that dazzling smile that had girls swooning all around them, though he only paid attention to Sue Ellen. “I was worried you weren’t here today.”
She felt her cheeks heat up, but she couldn’t let him know he was affecting her. Sue Ellen straightened her face. “Well, I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.”
“The only way you could disappoint me is if you reject me again.”
She fought her muscles from forming the smile she could feel erupting on her face. “Luke, I told you…”
He took a step toward her. “You told me you didn’t think it was a good idea. Well, how will you know unless you give me a chance? Please? One date. If you don’t enjoy yourself, or you feel nothing toward me, I’ll leave you alone forever. I just think we would miss out on something amazing if we don’t at least try.”
Sue Ellen chuckled. “What cheesy teen flick did you get that line from?”
“Come on. You don’t want me to beg, do you? I will.”
Sue Ellen stood there gazing into Luke’s deep brown eyes that crinkled when he smiled, brightening his entire face, his perfect teeth, his imperfect, crooked nose, and his heart-shaped cupid’s bow.
“Okay, you asked for it, “ he said as he lowered himself to his knees.
“What are you doing?” she asked, grabbing his hand to urge him back up. “Fine! Okay, Friday night. Just get up. Please!” She walked away, shaking her head, hugging her books to her chest with an ear-to-ear smile she hoped he wouldn’t see.
That Friday, Sue Ellen sat in her living room waiting for the obnoxious horn from Luke’s truck. When she’d decided that he wouldn’t show up, the doorbell chimed through her house.
“I’ll get it!” she yelled, running to the door in hopes she’d reach it before her parents. To her chagrin, her father got there first.
She heard his voice before she saw him. “Good evening, Mr. Waterfield. I’m Luke Parker. I go to school with your daughter. I’ve come to ask your permission to take her out this evening.”
Sue Ellen stood in the foyer, staring with her mouth agape as her father accepted Luke’s outstretched hand. After twenty minutes of discussing the school’s successful football season, and the coveted scholarship that Luke had won, Sue Ellen’s father gave his blessing and sent the two teenagers off for the night.
“You two kids have fun,” he said as they walked down the path to Luke’s red Chevy. “Be home by midnight!”
Sue Ellen and Luke drove in silence for the first fifteen minutes of their date. She was nervous and still unsure of his intentions.
“So, where are we going tonight?” she finally asked, disrupting the silence.
“I thought we’d go see a movie at the drive-in,” he replied.
“The drive-in?” she repeated, realizing she’d been right about him. There was only one reason people went to the outdoor movie park. Sue Ellen was angry that she hadn’t listened to her first instinct. Why else would the jock want to date the lonely bookworm? She was a conquest he could brag to his friends about. Well, Sue Ellen would not reduce herself to a notch on his bedpost. They pulled into an empty spot in the half-full lot.
“I’m so happy you agreed to come,” said Luke, as he left the driver’s side of the Chevy. Sue Ellen watched as Luke rounded the back of the truck and pulled something from the bed. He walked to the passenger side clutching two chairs. He opened her door and offered his free hand.
“Are you coming?”
Sue Ellen was stumped. Where were they going? Her curiosity heightened, and she gave him her hand. They sat down in the chairs in front of the truck’s grill.
Luke took Sue Ellen’s hand. “I thought it would be nicer to sit under the stars.” She’d been so wrong about him. He wasn’t the jerk jock. Sue Ellen missed most of the movie because she spent the better part of the night looking at Luke, instead of Kevin Bacon dancing onscreen. She had never smiled as much as she did on the ride home. Sue Ellen was ready to let Luke kiss her goodnight, but when he walked her to the front door of her house, he merely pressed his lips to her cheek.
“I hope you had a good time tonight,” he said.
Without saying a word, she pulled him in and wrapped her lips around his. When she went inside, her face burned with elation, and Sue Ellen knew she was smitten.
Sue Ellen took her seat with the other parents while the graduates navigated through the sea of navy caps and gowns in an effort to find their chairs. Jane didn’t have the same challenge; she had already found her seat on stage with the other honour students. She was looking at her lap through closed eyes, clutching her index cards and fluttering her lips as she practised her valedictorian speech. Sometimes Sue Ellen found it too difficult to look at her. Jane had his chiselled face, his black hair and matching thick lashes, his brown eyes. She was his perfect doppelganger. It felt like only yesterday that Sue Ellen had sat in that same chair, rehearsing her own speech.
“Congratulations, Sue Belle,” said Luke after the ceremony completed. He kissed her temple and wrapped his arms around her neck, pulling her into his body. “I’m so proud of you.”
“Thanks, Luke. I’m proud of you too.”
He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, so much to be proud of.”
“Have you told your parents yet?”
“No, not yet.”
“They’ll know you lost your scholarship when…”
“Shhh. I’ll tell them this weekend. I have a plan. For now, I just want to enjoy being free of this place. Do you wanna go home and change first, or are you okay to leave from here?”
Sue Ellen wasn’t in the mood to party with a bunch of drunkards at the top of The Mound. “Maybe I should just stay home tonight.”
“Sue Belle, we only have a few days left before you leave. This may be the last time that we all get to hang out together.”
Sue Ellen sighed and conceded defeat. “Okay, I’m gonna go home with my folks and get changed. Pick me up later?”
“I’ll see you at eight.”
Later that night, Luke’s truck pulled up the winding road to the peak of the largest hill in town, where everyone had started celebrating. The stench of beer and pot smoke filled the forest while speakers blared Seger and Van Halen into the evening air. The sun was setting over the city, bringing the day to an end. High school wouldn’t be the only thing coming to an end that night. Something had been nagging Sue Ellen all week. And she couldn’t wait any longer.
“We need to talk,” she whispered in Luke’s ear, just as he was about to agree to a game of beer pong at a makeshift table someone had fashioned in a clearing.
“Alright,” he said. “Everything okay?”
She led him through the woods in silence, and they found the dark, secluded part of the hilltop where people went to be alone. No one was drunk enough to use that space yet. They stopped at a fallen tree trunk. Luke leaned against it while Sue Ellen planted her feet to the ground. Her eyes welled up. “Luke, I just want you to know how much I care about you.”
“Uh oh,” Luke replied, pushing himself away from the trunk. “I’m not gonna like this, am I?”
Sue Ellen hadn’t rehearsed what she would say to Luke. She needed to break things off with him. When Luke had injured himself during a game, lost his scholarship and started talking about following her to school, things got too serious for her. She needed to end things. She hadn’t decided on doing it on grad night until that moment.
Sue Ellen took a deep breath and without thinking, blurted, “I can’t do the long distance thing.”
“We don’t have to. I’m gonna move out there and get a job. We can still be together.”
“You can’t leave everything behind for me.”
“Sue Belle, you are everything. If you leave, there’s nothing here for me.”
She wiped away the tears soaking into her shirt. “We’ve only been together a few months. We’re too young to make such a commitment.”
Luke pushed off the trunk and kicked a tree root. His eyebrows angled down as his chin wrinkled. He angrily rubbed his eyes. “Why did you agree to go out with me if you were just gonna dump me?”
Sue Ellen struggled to speak. She cleared the tension in her throat. “I’m sorry. I honestly didn’t believe I could care for you this much when I said yes to our first date. I didn’t think I could, but I fell in love with you.”
“Yeah, so much that you don’t want to be with me anymore.”
“Please, Luke. I just need to focus on school for now. Don’t hate me.”
He stopped and looked at her. “I could never hate you. I could never love anyone as much as I love you.” He stepped towards her. Seeing him in so much pain made the decision to break up that much harder.
Sue Ellen pulled him into her and held him tight. “Luke, this is for the best. If we’re meant to be together, we’ll find each other again when the time is right.” She hugged Luke and committed each detail of him to memory. The way the fabric of his sweater felt against her face, scratching her skin in the most uncomfortable, yet enjoyable way. The way his Old Spice and fabric softener blended, a smell that would forever belong to him. How his arms felt holding her.
She didn’t want the moment to end, but she needed to leave. “I think you should take me home.”
“Wait,” he said. He pulled away from Sue Ellen to bring their eyes together. “If this is our last night together, can we make this night one we’ll both remember?”
“What, here?” she asked, her cheeks blushing.
He smiled. “We have the truck, we have the stars, and we have Bob to serenade us. I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye. Tomorrow we’ll go our separate ways, but tonight,” his lips parted into a smile, “well, we’ve got tonight.”
“Okay, you win for cheesiest come-ons,” Sue Ellen said with a laugh. She knew it was the worst idea, and logic told her to say no and just go home. But she wanted to be with him too. They walked back to the truck, hand in hand, and drove over to the lookout. They had it all to themselves. That night, atop a blanket in the bed of his Chevy, they said goodbye under the stars.
The directions read, “Results in forty-five minutes”. It took a just under thirty. Sue Ellen hadn’t yet completed her first semester, and now a little vial filled with pee announced that her life was about to change.
“This can’t be happening,” she said out loud.
“I’m coming home for Thanksgiving,” she said to Luke’s answering machine later that night. “I was hoping maybe we could get together, grab a bite to eat, talk…”
“Hello? Sue Belle? I’m here!” Luke was panting as he answered the phone. “Yes, I want to see you. Let’s eat. Let’s talk! Our place.”
Sue Ellen had never been more nervous than she was on the drive home. Her parents had surprised her. Though they expressed disappointment in her lapse in judgement, they acknowledged that ‘these things happen’ and they were willing to help her finish school and take care of the baby if that’s what she wanted to do. It was what she wanted to do.
Sitting at their diner, as she waited for Luke, Sue Ellen wondered if he would be as supportive as her folks. He loved her, but would he love her as much when he found out that they were forever bound by this life they created together. She had heard from some mutual friends that Luke was working as a foreman on one of his uncle’s construction sites. Maybe he’d be open to being a father too.
After the first hour, Sue Ellen just figured maybe they’d mixed up the times. By the end of the second hour, she’d reconciled he stood up. For a brief moment, she wondered if there was any way he could have found out about the baby. But the only people who knew were her parents, and they wouldn’t have said anything, knowing she was meeting him to reveal her secret. When she’d decided she couldn’t stomach another milkshake, Sue Ellen paid her bill and left the diner. On the drive home, she wondered why he would have left her sitting there, after sounding so eager to see her. Maybe something had come up, and he’d left word with her parents. But they knew where she was, and they would have called the diner. Somewhere between concerned and pissed off, she rounded the end of the street up to her house.
Sue Ellen’s mother was sitting on the porch swing when she pulled into the driveway. She’d been crying. Sue Ellen’s stomach lurched, not from the morning sickness she’d become familiar with, but from that sickening feeling of knowing something was terribly wrong.
“Luke?” Sue Ellen asked as she walked up to her mother, tears filling her eyes.
“Oh, baby. I’m so sorry.”
“No. No!” Sue Ellen unleashed a scream from deep within her and fell to the ground. Her mother ran to her and cradled her. “Luke, no!”
“Sue Ellen, sweetheart,” her father said. “He was on his way to meet you, and… honey, he just couldn’t stop his truck in time.”
She sobbed into the arms of her parents. “I was so angry with him. I thought he stood me up.”
“No, baby,” her mother whispered. “He wanted to see you. He was going to ask…”
“Angela,” her father cut in. “No.”
“She should know,” her mother replied.
Her father asserted himself. “Not now.”
“What?” Sue Ellen asked, pulling herself out of their protective shell. “Tell me. Dad, please. What is it?”
Her dad took a breath and let out a reluctant sigh. “Sweetie, Mr. Parker said they found a ring in Luke’s jacket pocket.”
“A ring?” Sue Ellen stood up. “What kind of a ring?”
“An engagement ring.”
Sue Ellen’s stomach betrayed her as she lost the battle to keep her meal down. “He was going to ask me…? Did he know?”
“About the baby? No, I don’t think so. He’d had the ring engraved. Looks like he’d bought it some time ago.”
“What did it say?”
“We’ve got forever.”
Sue Ellen looked down at the ring on her left hand and spun it the way she did when she was agitated. With eyes filled with tears of joy and sadness, she looked up as her daughter approached the podium on stage, accepting her diploma.
“Luka Jane Parker!” announced the principal, handing her the scroll tied with white ribbon. Though Luke left them on that devastating night, Sue Ellen knew that he had been with them every step of the way.
“Yes, sweet Jane,” Sue Ellen whispered to herself. “He is very proud of you. We both are.”