Tag Archives: Annabelle Riley

The Star Of The Story

I have been loving this chance to introduce you to my characters. But there is someone very important who you may have noticed I have left until last to share with you:

Annabelle Riley

(imagine a blonde – young Blake Lively / Margo Robbie / Pamela Anderson – who has no idea how how pretty she is and thinks that she is just a failure at everything and has herself to blame for many of the challenges she has faced)

My protagonist – the central character whose story takes twists and turns, highs and lows along with loop the loops. The three part series revolves around Annabelle’s epic journey of learning about herself, love, challenges, friendships, romance, failure, regret, guilt and forgiveness. But along her journey and very much making the journey next to her are some wonderful characters who as well as helping her, reveal some of their own challenges and life lessons.

You may realize from my posts of the past week, that there are other characters who have made a big impression on Annabelle (and likewise she has on them). Her relationships with these other characters are a fundamental part of her journey. I have to admit that I love dwelling on those relationships and the contrasts between characters and the way they impact each other.

The story is one of love and life, relationships, growth and recovery. It is fair to say that mental health has become a strong undercurrent of these three books. That is not what I set out to write about, but as I sought to make my characters more real, more human – I realized that I could not just dabble lightly or make a trifle of complex issues, I was going have to dive right into the stories of my characters and reveal behaviours that made me slightly uncomfortable, but were so much more authentic than risking my character having a Disney princess outcome.

So…here is a synopsis of Annabelle as you meet her in Book One (avoiding spoilers):

  • she is a beauty and unwittingly attracts the attention of men, most of whom realize quickly she shows no signs of responding to their interest in her (Chris Ward does not give up though)
  • we first meet Annabelle in the fictional sleepy town of “Blackwood” in Wisconsin
  • Annabelle is lodging with a very kind couple – Bert and Pearl Jennings
  • the older residents of Blackwood have grown very fond of Annabelle
  • the gossip queens of Blackwood (Jenna, Margo and Amber and other members of the Blackwood Zumba Group) have started false rumours about Annabelle
  • she loves walking and eating – she has joined the Blackwood Rambling Group and appreciates all the kind hospitality extended to her by Blackwood folk
  • she works for numerous clients in the town doing their laundry and ironing, which pays for her lodgings and leaves her with some extra cash
  • she has experienced challenges – some more recent and quite horrific, but others long-term and insidious – which have had the biggest impact on Annabelle and her relationships and life course?….well you will have to read her story to find out!
  • there is a ten year period of Annabelle’s life she does not mention to anybody in Blackwood because she knows it would be viewed favourably by her new friends in Blackwood
  • she does not speak her family
  • although she is friendly and vivacious with her older friends (polite and cautious with the members of the Zumba group), Bert and Pearl sometimes notice Annabelle in a very tearful state, which she brushes off as soon as she realizes she is not alone

Under The Influence

Despite the openhearted kindness and warm hospitality extended to me by Sandy and also Liam, all of my thoughts were dominated by Dean’s words to me. My sleep was restless that night. I was clinging on to a hope, a wish, and was afraid that it could be slipping away.

On Friday morning, my slumber was disturbed by yet another heated feud downstairs. My dad was going back to work today. I guess he was first to notice the two cartons of milk in the refrigerator. Mom and Dad both signalling their dissatisfaction because the brand of milk was different than the one Mom usually bought. It didn’t help that there was not one wrong carton of milk, but two.

It suddenly crossed my mind that those damn milk cartons might end up causing a lot of trouble for me. Mom was bound to ask why I had brought back some strange brand. Plus, she had given me a $5 dollar bill. She would have been expecting some change. I had none, I just had her original bill. What was I going to tell her? If I risked the honest option, returning her money and crediting Sandy’s generosity, I was sure to make Mom angry. So what else could I do but deceive her? That was not a prospect I relished.

Dad left for work not long after seven o’clock. Not long afterwards I heard Mom climbing the stairs and letting out sighs of frustration. There was every reason for Mom to be tired after several busy days. When I mustered up the courage to open my bedroom door it was clear that she was designating that day as her washing day. I quickly volunteered to carry the laundry basket down the stairs. When she accepted my offer I became hopeful that I may be in her favour. But as soon as I placed the washing basket next to the washing machine, Mom almost thrust one of the milk cartons into my face, “What is this?”

I took a moment to think about my reply, “I’m sorry Mom, that’s all they had.”

Mom pursed her lips together and placed a hand on her hip, “And what possessed you to buy two cartons?”

I looked down at the floor searching for some inspired explanation. Doubtful that it would pass Mom’s scrutiny I offered a paltry lie, “They had a special offer and I thought it would be better value for money.”

Mom let out a noise somewhere between a tut and a “humph”. She shook her head, “You can’t just do what you are told, can you? Are you incapable of listening Annabelle?”

I had been listening for years and I was broken, just broken. Mom did not comprehend how overbearing her rebukes were. I had no ability to form any kind of response when she told me off. I was dumfounded at the injustice. The crushing hurt had brewed within me and led me to embarking on a terrible path to relieve my pain. At the age of fourteen, my arms and legs were covered with scars, and my parents and teachers had no idea how trapped I was in a cycle that I could not control. It was whenever I was confronted with a dispiriting, discouraging, dismal put-down that the urge to seek a release from that piercing ache took over.

Even today, I look back in shock at what I was doing. It was awful. Now I can see that adding to my self condemning thoughts was guilt about my avenue to deal with emotional heartbreak. I want to weep when I think about the fourteen year old who was gripped by this disturbing compulsion. Of course I wish I could go back in time and protect her and empower her to deal with emotional distress. But back then, I was on my own.

I told Dean though. I didn’t tell him everything, but about a month after Christmas I was still tormented by the lie I had told my mom. The five dollar bill reminded me of my sin. Abraham Lincoln seemed to glare at me in severe judgement.

It kept on playing on my mind. Dean had noticed I had been more quiet than usual, and eventually he probed enough for me to give way to tears. I did not tell him what my mom had said, I just communicated the remorse that I was wrestling with. When he asked me why I had not told my mom the truth about where the milk cartons had come from and returned her money, I confessed that if she knew who I had spent that day with the outcome would have been much worse. I was not prepared to risk losing my friends, so although I had no wish to be deceptive, I felt I had to hide the truth from my parents.

When I unburdened my conscience, confessing my deceit and stating how terrible I felt that I had kept the money Mom had given to me, Dean looked at me in absolute astonishment. He clearly thought I had lost my marbles to be feeling so awful about just five dollars. It seems laughable now. But at the time it was a huge ordeal to me.

Incredibly, Dean remembered my admission of regret and the reason behind it. It was the first of many occasions when he would see how scared I was to displease my parents and reap their disdain or condemnation. Later, Dean would see for himself how close-minded my parents could be. It provoked anger within him and he ended up writing off my parents as “kooks”. That whole milk-gate situation back when I was fourteen – well, it lingered in Dean’s memory long enough for him to think up the lyrics for the title track of their album “Hole In Your Soul”. Do you remember the following verse….

Nothing as heavy as a guilty conscience in your pocket
Leave it there over night and it will burn a deeper hole
Leave it there for long enough and it can even kill
This insane fear that your mother will explode like a rocket
Is poisoning your happiness and darkening your soul
You're torturing yourself over a five dollar bill

Yeah, that song captured how I felt about lying over those two cartons of milk. I still cannot think about the chorus lines about how excessive guilt drills into your core and leaves a hole in your soul – it hits a very raw nerve within me. Dean had no idea at the time just how insightful his words were. Gradually he was learning about me. Nobody else knew me like Dean did, not for many years.

Of course, my errors and misdemeanours paled into insignificance compared to the behaviour of Dean himself and his associates. It was no wonder that he had already felt some concern over the influence that he and his friends could have on me. There was one person in particular who had the potential to shape me perhaps more than anybody else – Lauren.

I first met Lauren and Rick during the first Saturday of January – it would have been the fifth of the month I guess. Rick did not have to say anything to dominate the room. It was clear that Dean, Liam and Greg looked up to him. I noticed that Greg seemed to be talking quietly to Rick before they began practicing and although I think Rick was listening, he only nodded slightly in response. While Greg was singing, it was Rick’s reaction he seemed to be watching.

Dean was right – Rick completely ignored my presence. He expressed no interest in who I was and why I was perching on the sofa watching in awe. It would be a long time before Rick began to acknowledge me, and that was purely because of Lauren’s growing attachment to me. I learnt a lot about Rick from Sandy, much more that Dean ever told me. Rick’s father had played guitar with one of the biggest heavy metal rock bands of the eighties. Rick had two older brothers who also played guitar, his oldest brother Kline was in a band that found a cult audience amongst a college-age audience.

Of course, I had never heard of them, but when I googled them it was easy to find some of their recordings and scheduled performances. Their music sounded very angry and hostile to me, full of cursing and offensive terms. What did I know at fourteen about what college students wanted to listen to?

Rick had grown up around musicians and guitars and it really was all he had ever known. Parties, drinking, cocaine, women, tattoos, motorbikes and the occasional fight either with one of his brothers or someone who had crossed him, it was all in a day’s work for Rick. When I met him, he was twenty-four years of age, and had already played with several other bands that had since dissolved. It was Dean’s Uncle Gary (who had played live with his father) that had introduced Rick to his nephew. Rick, like others, had spotted Dean’s talent and was keen to nurture his confidence and ambition. The other members of the band seemed to aspire to the self-assuredness and effortless commanding air that Rick manifest. Sandy was clearly smitten with him. The other guys wanted to be as respected as him. I was scared of him.

The day I met Rick I met his girlfriend Lauren. The band had already been through two songs when Lauren entered the garage. She walked past Rick and softly ran the flat of her hand up his chest as she turned. He swiftly responded by gripping her behind. Lauren then headed towards the sofa where I sat. An expression of confusion on seeing me registered. As she sat on the other side of the sofa and threw her legs up onto the cushions, I detected the cigarette smoke on her hair and clothes. Lauren did not say anything to me at first, but while I watched the band, I believe she was watching me. After around fifteen minutes, she crouched forwards and traversed the sofa on her hands and knees, leaning right over my lap and reaching for a bottle of beer from the crate next to the sofa. After opening it, she handed the bottle to me.

Liam stopped playing and crossed the garage in a couple of strides. He took the bottle out of my hand and put it in Lauren’s. He then picked up a can of 7UP and offered it to me. I took it. There were no words during this significant exchange. The others seemed irritated that Liam had stopped playing so suddenly. While they started the song again, I glanced at Lauren. She was grinning at me.

She was beautiful, well, I thought so. I had no idea back then of how much cosmetics could transform someone’s appearance. Lauren knew how to use make-up. I would learn that she was very pretty though even without make-up and due to years of dance lessons, she had a figure that was enticingly feminine. To Rick she was perfect. Lauren was devoted to Rick, and allowed him to order her around. But apart from Rick, Lauren had respect for nobody. You just had to hope that she liked you.

As it turned out, Lauren did end up liking me. Being liked by someone, it sometimes results in becoming very impressionable and easily swayed by their influence. Although Lauren shocked me many times, and I never felt entirely at ease with her, her affection for me prompted me to adore her. I was so glad to have a female friend. Lauren would advise me on all sorts of subjects Dean had no clue about – cosmetics and hair products, clothes, lingerie, and eventually she introduced me to subjects that would force me out of my childish ignorance – Lauren was behind the transformation that took place during the next year that followed.

Dean observed the outward metamorphosis, however it was his priority to shield the inner me that he had did not want to suffer corruption. Yet I suspect that he liked some of the changes he witnessed. Lauren certainly was key to me abandoning the sports bras Mom had bought me when it was clear I needed some sort of support. Just after I turned fifteen, Lauren convinced both me and Dean to allow her to take me to Harlem where Rick rented a tiny apartment. She took me to Victoria’s Secret and bought me some bras that seemed to completely change my shape.

That was just the start of Lauren’s mission to tailor me in accord with her ideals. I did come under her influence, but my conscience would never have allowed me to be a faithful disciple of Lauren. Dean may have sometimes been baffled by the ingrained tendency to suffer excess guilt, but for a long time it served as a protective restraint. Never commit the crime that you are being punished for – I read that somewhere. My parents may have been heavy-handed in their criticism, but I was never going to prove deserving of that degree of disapprobation. So Dean was never really at risk of losing the me that had won his attention and steadfast attachment.

Dinner And Disappointment

Liam disappeared into the garage, no doubt to greet Dean. My impulse was to follow, but Sandy had other ideas. How could I object when she asked me to give her a hand in the kitchen? Did she notice that I was so nervous that my hands trembled while I chopped vegetables up? I kept on expecting her to tell me I was doing it all wrong, and to tell me I was hopeless, and to dismiss me from the kitchen. Sandy was very different to my mom. She chatted away telling me how she was making the curry, starting with a ginger and garlic base and layering spices before adding minced onions. I wish I could remember every step of her recipe. I was concentrating on my assigned tasks so much that I could not retain any of Sandy’s tips.

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Soon, the aroma of the spices was filling the kitchen and wafting through to other rooms including the garage. I could only faintly hear the instruments as Liam and Dean played. Sandy told me they had installed top-grade soundproofing when they renovated the garage to house Liam’s drumkit and other musical equipment.

An hour after we began making dinner, Sandy asked me to lay the kitchen table. Then it all happened so quickly…I was sitting down, as Sandy had encouraged me to do at the same time as Liam entered the room, followed by Dean. I caught the expression of bewilderment on Dean’s face when he saw me. Instantly I interpreted that to mean Liam had not informed him of my presence. At that moment, I felt like such a fraud, as if I had invaded Dean’s territory without receiving his invitation and I was sure he felt offended by this incursion. Anxiety rose up into my throat. Dean clearly was directing his annoyance at Liam as evident by his glares. Did that mean he did not want me there?

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Sandy was not going to allow an uncomfortable atmosphere to linger. She provided Dean with a brief explanation that perhaps he had a right to. “Liam just happened to bump into Annabelle when she was on her way to buy milk for her mom, and as I overestimated how much milk we would get through over Christmas, Liam knew it would help us if Annabelle could take a couple of cartons. But we ended up chatting and getting on like a house on fire. It’s easy to see why you would enjoy the company of this young lady.”

As Dean’s expressions softened, indicating he accepted Sandy’s carefully worded comments, I felt much less uncomfortable. Questions were soon directed towards Dean as to how his Christmas had been. He evaded giving any detail, but I picked up on a few expressions. He said he could not remember much of it. They’d been living on pastries and muffins for the past few days as the coffee houses had over-ordered, so he had been allowed to take a crate of baked goods home on Christmas Eve. Mark had brought some girl home who had been wandering around the house in nothing but one of Mark’s shirts. A friend of Gary’s had turned up to ask to borrow money. Dean also shared that he had missed his mom a lot this year and written a song about her. I was drinking in every word trying to paint a picture in my mind of what those details may have looked like.

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I then heard more about the festivities in Sandy’s home. Her oldest daughter had stayed with her twin daughters over the weekend and right up to Christmas Day. Her first husband (clearly they were long since divorced) had come from West Virginia to spend the holidays with his children and grandchildren. Her parents had spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day under Sandy’s roof, before they had embarked on a trip to Florida. On Boxing day, Kevin, her second ex-his had visited with his son (from a previous relationship) along with Sandy’s brother and his partner who were on good terms with Kevin (who had originally introduced them). I marvelled that despite two divorces, Sandy seemed to be able to welcome her ex-husbands and their children into her home and only to say pleasant things about them. Her only criticism was the gift her first husband Jason had given her – she joked he had no idea what a woman in her forties would wear.

I was dreading the moment that questions were directed towards me about how our family Christmas had been. Somehow, a conversation developed that rescued me from that predicament. The subject of whether Sandy would ever consider re-marrying came up, and was one that clearly caused great amusement to all. Sandy asserted, “I am not against getting married again, but this time he would have to be filthy rich. Some tycoon who made his fortune from oil, or some tech phenomenon.”

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Liam claimed he knew who his mother had her eye on. Sandy did not have to guess who Liam was teasing her about. “Well, he is hot! I just have to figure out a way to get rid of that ill-mannered girlfriend who thinks she owns this place when she comes with him.” It quickly transpired that they were talking about Rick, the bass guitarist who I had still not met. Sandy asked me if I thought Rick was gorgeous. When they realized I did not know what Rick looked like, Liam asked Dean to show me some photos on his phone.

Dean leant over and scrolled through his pictures at a fast pace. I was peering at the screen and catching fleeting glimpses other photos that were of great interest to me. There were a lot of pictures of guitars, and groups of men, some women too. I saw images of Dean with a girl with brown hair, pictures of his uncle and cousin. Then finally Dean slowed down his scrolling and showed me a photo of Rick. The first thing I noticed was his muscular arms and upper body. His arms were covered with tattoos and he had a closely shaved hair and a jet stud in his ear. Then Dean showed me a photo of Rick with a girl. She seemed much younger than Rick did and had deep chestnut hair. Dean told me Rick’s girlfriend was Lauren. Most of the photos of Rick showed him in ripped jeans and looking dishevelled, but there were a few pictures of Rick at his brother’s wedding that revealed how good-looking could be.

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It’s hard to describe to you my blissful state while Dean was showing me photographs of his friends from his phone. Our physical proximity was closer than ever before, and I could breathe in his scent and try to memorize it’s trace. My knee touched his, and neither of us flinched. I would not put it past Sandy to have noticed my reaction to Dean. Perhaps that is why she stood up and asked if anybody would like some dessert. I felt full! The turkey baguette, the gingerbread, and now the delicious curry, I did not feel I could eat any more. However, the offer roused Dean to his senses and he was quick to volunteer to help take the dinner plates out to the kitchen.

In the end it was only Dean who wanted some dessert. After presenting a dish to Dean with a jug of cream, Sandy asked if she could have a word with her son Liam. I stared at the heap of Christmas pudding in front of Dean. If I had known, I would have asked for a serving. Dean tucked into it heartily. He made those hums of enjoyment with each mouthful. As if he needed to justify his reaction, he turned to me and said, “This is so good. Try some.” He held out his fork to me with some of the pudding balanced on the end. The moment he brought it to my lips was another I would recollect with glowing delight. It may have been a simple gesture, one that was open and unguarded, but I believe Sandy was weighing up everything she saw. She picked up that there was something sparking between Dean and I, and it concerned her.

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Within the next half an hour, all four of us were in Sandy’s car. She had insisted on driving me home and dropping Dean off at the branch of Food Bizarre he worked at. When she pulled over on Kelly Street, she climbed out of the car with me and accompanied me to the front door so she could be sure I had let myself in and was safe. She pressed the two cartons of milk into my arms and hugged me. “You’re a good girl Annabelle. Thank you for your company today.”

It felt odd, I should have been thanking Sandy for her astonishing hospitality. But I was overwhelmed at how the day had turned out for me. When I left the house around ten hours before, I could never have imagined how the day would develop. Making it back to our house before my parents was an extra blessing. No interrogation about where I had been all day, no demeaning telling off or criticism to take away from the joy I had felt that day. I put the milk cartons into the refrigerator and ran upstairs. When I was safely tucked up in bed, the thrill still lingered. It felt like a prisoner who had enjoyed a day of freedom undetected and made it back to his cell before the security guards noticed.

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How could I sleep that night with so much excitement within me? My mind and body were electrified with happiness. When my phone started to ring and I saw who was calling, I wondered if I was hallucinating. I answered it immediately, “Hi.”

“Hey Annabelle, it was a nice surprise to see you at Liam’s. Sandy said you had been with them most of the day?”

A punch of fear hit me deep in the stomach. Was Dean calling me because it irritated him that I had been there? “It was a total coincidence. Liam was on his way back from the gym, and I don’t why I told him about the milk…but then he told me I should take some of theirs and…well, I had no idea how nice his mom was gonna be…I’m sorry if it was weird of me to be there, they were just so kind.”

“Yeah, Sandy is great, I know. It’s cool you got to hang out with them. Sandy said some real sweet things about you in the car after she dropped you off.”

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The fear dissipated, but a nauseous suspicion that something I did not want to hear was coming. I wondered where along the heartbreak scale it was going to land. “She’s very kind.”

“So, look Annabelle, Sandy had a talk to Liam and me in the car. Hold on wait a minute, I am just going to go outside.” I waited for him. I could hear a door creak open and then slam shut. I waited a few seconds more, curious about what was going on. I heard him curse, and then his voice returned. “Annabelle, I’m no good at this kind of thing so bear with me.” It sounded as if he was drawing on a cigarette.

“Is everything ok?”

“Yes, yeah everything is fine. Sorry, I’m crap at this kind of stuff. Sandy told me I need to be straight with you and not play games with you. I hope you don’t think that’s what I am doing.” When I did not reply, he started to grumble and curse about how cold it was and he told me it had just started to snow. I peered out of my bedroom window to see a mix of snowflakes and sleet descending. Dean repeated to me, “I’ve told Sandy and I’m telling you I’m not playing games – ok?”

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My bewilderment made me more tense. What was I supposed to say to that? “Play games?”

“Yeah, I mean I was trying to make sure I was straight with you. You’re a kid, and I have been trying to make it clear that there is nothing going on here. Sandy told me I need to make it clearer though.”

“But I’m nearly fifteen.” Perhaps the high pitch of my voice communicated some of my distress at the conversation was attempting.

There was a long pause from Dean. “Being fourteen, being fifteen – it won’t last long. Before you know it, you’re gonna be an adult – with bills to pay and some job you hate, with a boss who is a jerk. Being a kid is good thing Annabelle, and you should make the most of it. You might not want to hear this, but in the future you will look back and wish you could have your childhood back – your innocence, your purity. Once you lose that, you will never be the same.”

“You keep on saying I’m a kid, but I…”

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“You are a kid, and I have to keep on telling myself that. Do you get that? Maybe you don’t, but I need to keep that fact in view. That’s all there is to say. Hell, it’s obvious you are not going to be a kid for much longer. Damn – Sandy should be saying this to you, she knows the words to use. She has some ideas about what is ok when it comes to spending time with you, and she’s right, I know she’s right.”

So soon after the deluge of happiness I had experienced, tears were brimming over my eyelids, “About what? I don’t understand.”

“Well, for a start it is freezing – it’s gonna snow next week. We can’t be walking around the park when it is that friggin’ cold.”

“But I don’t mind. I don’t mind being cold.”

“Well I do. My fingers were so friggin’ numb a couple of weeks go I couldn’t feel my guitar strings for half an hour. Sandy said she was impressed by you and that you are welcome there, but only if she is around. She feels a responsibly for a kid being around Liam’s friends. We respect Sandy, it’s great of her to let us play in her garage. But she has rules – no smokes, no trashing the place – we wouldn’t do anything to annoy her. But look, there is stuff I need to be straight with you about. When I am at Liam’s house, I’m on best behaviour. Do you get that? Do you know what I’m saying?”

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I am not sure I wanted to understand what Dean was trying to say. “I know you smoke.”

“Smoke? Yeah I smoke and more, plenty more. Man – this is hard to say – I’m a friggin’ terrible person for you to be spending time with Annabelle. For an hour a week, I make a real effort not to let that show, because I don’t want you to end up like me.”


“I don’t know how this is gonna work. I’m gonna have to check that Sandy will be at home, but it’s better that way. Her home is somewhere it is alright for you to be around someone like me. We’re all on her turf, her rules. You can’t come to my Uncle’s house and there is no point walking past in the hope you might be invited in, it’s not gonna happen. It’s a house with three men who don’t live by anyone’s rules – it’s not a place for someone like you.”

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My heart was pumping loudly. The message Dean was trying to deliver was sinking in, even though the details were sketchy. “So, this Saturday…”

“I already checked and Sandy is fine with you just going straight to hers. She will be around this Saturday. Rick is not back until the following week. He is on his best behaviour when he is at Sandy’s too and he will probably just ignore you anyway. But you will meet Lauren. Sandy is not keen on Lauren at all, so, well, that is gonna make things a little weird. Just don’t copy Lauren. Stay you Annabelle, just be like you were today.”

When Dean ended the call because he had to start work, I was left confused and uncertain. I loved that hour with Dean every Saturday, and I was disappointed at the belief he was abandoning that. Was that because of the risk of snow? Or the opinions of Sandy? I think he had said I was welcome to go to Sandy’s home when the band were practicing. There was a whole bunch of other things he had said that did not make any sense to me, and I was not ready to ask him to explain them. I was going to have to be patient and plucky. My attachment and awe of Dean prompted me to make the most of even the slightest sign that he was alright with me enjoying a fraction of his time and attention. There would be tests to my resilience for over a year though, and of course I had not foreseen what kind of world Dean was going to draw me into.

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Over the next few years, I guess I figured out what he had been trying to say to me that day. I saw Dean on his best behaviour, and Dean at his worst. Some of the things I saw with my eyes, I was completely ignorant with regards to their significance. While I was fourteen, while I was fifteen, I think Dean did maintain his efforts to be mindful of my youthful outlook. But by the time I was sixteen, the pressures in his life were building, the band were recording in a studio, they were playing at bars all over the state, he no longer seemed to have the energy to put on a polished front. I was going to be confronted with Dean’s habits and hard edge.

An Unexpected Welcome

I knew that we had been invited to spend Boxing Day at the home of Phil and Michelle, the parents of Alicia’s husband. But early that morning, Mom opened my door and presented the news that Alicia was so disappointed in my behaviour the day before, she was uneasy about the thought of a repeat performance of my childish temper tantrums in front of her in-laws.

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I had no words. I crossed my arms across my chest while Mom spelled out that everyone seemed to blame me for ruining their Christmas Day and now I was to be punished by being excluded from Boxing Day. I wish I could have returned to sleep, but it hurt. I could hear all those typical household noises of my parents moving about as they showered and dressed and prepared some breakfast before the drive up to Albany. They set off just after nine o’clock, their departure unmistakable as the front door slammed shut.

I gave in that day. It was the first time since October. Afterwards, the hurt inside faded, but instead I felt dead. Completely devoid of any emotion. When I looked at my phone and saw there was still no message from Dean, I just didn’t have the energy to feel any sadness. Around lunchtime I went downstairs in my pyjamas to see if there was any leftover Christmas pudding in the kitchen. The only leftovers I could find were the tub of roast potatoes in the fridge.

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I filled a bowl with cornflakes before realizing there was no milk in the refrigerator. I took the bowl of dry cornflakes through to the front room and in Dad’s armchair. Flicking through television channels was not going to provide me with the needed distraction from my dark frame of mind. Almost every channel had a Christmas movie portraying the perfect family sharing joy, or a romantic story of an unlikely couple finding love thanks to a Christmas miracle. It made me feel sick. With real fury I pressed the Off button and allowed myself to disconnect mentally to my surroundings and imagine stepping off some lofty precipice to fall into an abyss. What if there was no escape from that abyss? What if the abyss was worse than the situation I was in?

Being alone and afraid of being confronted with images of merriment, my numbness and disillusionment intensified. At around four o’clock in the afternoon, I selected Dean’s number on my phone and called it again. It rang and rang. He didn’t have an answer service. What did that mean? Did it mean his phone was on silent and he had not noticed it ringing? Or was he deliberately not taking my call?

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These questions and doubts about the one person who had provided happiness these past two months that had taken away the hopelessness and loneliness I felt – it was exhausting and demoralising. Being in love with someone who does not reply to your text messages or take your phone calls is impossibly hard. I could not say that to Dean. He would have called me insane and reminded me I was only fourteen.

Once the brief daylight had vanished, I showered and put on some clean pyjamas. I returned to bed and put in my headphones. Dean kept on talking about The National, so I listened to their latest album on Spotify. I kept on thinking about the previous Saturday and the thrill of seeing Dean play the guitar. He belonged on a stage at a festival or in front of a packed stadium. Last Saturday had made it very clear to me that his goals were not fanciful dreams, they were a real prospect if he were to keep developing on his talent. In harmony with the awe I felt for him was an awareness of how pathetic and devoid of any useful skill or talent I was. How long would he be willing to keep up the hour he allotted to me each Saturday lunchtime?

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I guess it must have been late when my parents were back from Albany. I felt a thud, which must have been the door slamming, but I was clinging to a dream I seemed to need a happy ending to. I was climbing up a steep cliff face and somebody was telling me to give up, that I would never make it, that it I would fail, but I could see something up above, something that impelled me to keep climbing, one inch at a time, to keep going in the hope there was some kind of wonderful waiting for me.

The dream was replaced by deep unconsciousness. I must have slept around thirteen hours, but still woke with a heavy lethargy. Dad was shouting upstairs to say there was no milk for his tea. Mom was clearly frustrated. She called back to him “Annabelle must have finished the milk of yesterday.” That annoyed me. Why was I blamed for everything? When Mom started the hoover began, Dad yelled that he could not hear the television. A loud exchange ensued. I did not want to hear it. I chose the shower as a way to drown out the irritable bickering downstairs. As soon as I was dressed, I slipped downstairs and opened the front door. Mom was quick to notice my escape. Before I even reached the sidewalk, I heard her crying my name, “Anabelle, Annabelle! Where do you think you are going?”

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Feeling defeated I came back to the house and in a quiet voice I replied, “I just wanted to go for a walk and have some fresh air.”

“Does that mean you don’t want to come to your Aunt Val’s?”

Honestly, I did not want to be with any of my family. I could not say that though. “I’m sorry Mom, I forgot.”

She shook her head disapprovingly. “If you are still playing the moody teenager, it’s probably better that you stay home. I am going to give you the spare key so that if your Dad and I have left before you are back from your walk, you can let yourself in.”

Mum turned to fetch the key and pressed it into my hand with a five dollar bill, “While you’re out you can pick up some milk. You should have left a note to say you had used the last of the milk.”

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I knew better than to correct her, “Sure Mom. What time will you be back?”

Mum was already closing the door. Perhaps she had not heard my question. I did not really care. I started walking, not thinking too much about my destination. Of course, I did not have anywhere else to go. There was nowhere else. It was foolish. I knew I was unlikely to see him, yet I had to be near to him.

A surprising encounter prevented me from every reaching Morris Avenue. In fact I had just reached the crossroads where 169th Street crosses 3rd Avenue, when I heard a welcome voice. “Hey! Annabelle, how’s it going?”

“Oh hi Liam,” I smiled, feeling slightly flattered that he remembered my name and that he manifest such a friendly demeanour.

“Did you have a good Crimbo?”

“It was ok.”

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Liam seemed to be expecting more of a response. He was slurping some kind of thick juice. A dark pink dribble splatted onto his shirt. “Frig!” he cursed and laughed at himself. “I ate too much this week, so I have just been to the gym. They have a juice bar their. This is one of their muscle blends – it’s called a purple people, or something like that.”

Even back then, there were signs that Liam had a wholesome and healthy streak within him. I would learn that he had an inner switch that flicked between a young man exposed to all the traps and temptations of fame and wealth at an early age and the decent, sensible well brought up young man who aspired to be worthy of respect. Liam was twenty years old when I met him, but he had figured out so much about what he wanted from life and and how he wanted to live it. That stability did not only benefit him, it was the glue that kept the band together through pressures and exhaustion. Liam could work hard but maintain balance. His default mood was easy going, light hearted. I did not know how much of a friend he would become to me, and how incredibly loyal he would be to Dean when he was at his lowest points.

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As I stood at the crossroads with Liam, it was probably obvious to him which direction I was headed in. Avoiding embarrassing me, he made me aware that I needed to abandon my plan. “I reckon he’ll be fast asleep now. You know he was back at work this morning. His Uncle and his cousin Mark will still have hangovers.”

“Oh, ok. I wasn’t really expecting to see him. I just wanted to have some fresh air.”

Liam smiled, “Today is not fresh, it’s freezing.”

“I don’t mind.”

He whole face was amiable, and I know Liam was not trying to make me feel stupid, but his next question was challenging for me to reply to. In a kindly tone, he asked, “Do your parents not mind you being out on your own? My mom gets nervous when I walk these streets on my own.”

My bottom lip quivered, “My parents are visiting family. They know I was going out for a walk. I have the spare key, and Mom gave me some money to buy some milk.”

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“Milk? If you need milk, there is no need to buy any, Mom went overboard with her grocery order and we have a gallon of milk we won’t get through. She’d be more than happy to give you a couple of cartons.”

That is how it came about that I was convinced to turn around and walk with Liam. When he reached Boston Road, he called his mom and told her he was bringing back the kid who he had told her about, and checked she had not given away all of the milk to the neighbours. I was amazed at the reaction of Liam’s mom when we arrived at his home. The door swung open, and I breathed in the warmth and an aroma of gingerbread as she greeted me, “Hello Sweetie, it’s nice to meet you. I am sorry I did not have chance on Saturday, the house was packed with visitors. I am very pleased you are going to help out with our milk lake dilemma.”

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To me Sandy seemed like the kindest mom in the world. I was a stranger to her. I had only met Liam a few days before. Yet both Sandy and Liam were generous and hospitable and welcoming in every way. They dignified me in a manner I had not experienced before. Sandy fixed turkey and stuffing baguettes for the three of us at lunchtime. Liam showed me what he did for work – managing social media for small businesses and other clients who “couldn’t be arsed to figure out how to do it themselves”. He was able to work from home, choose his working hours, and he said it was easy money. He showed me some of the websites and social media accounts he managed for his clients. I was impressed.

Sandy had a way of asking tactful questions that drew me out. She ascertained diplomatically that my parents had gone to visit relatives and I had been left to provide my own entertainment. She also quizzed me about how I had become associated with Dean. There was not a lot for me to tell her except for the truth. Sandy seemed satisfied with my answers. Perhaps I stirred in her some sympathy, pathetically lonely creature I must have seemed. After lunch, Sandy found a musical on television and welcomed me to make myself comfortable beside her. Liam sat on another sofa working on his laptop. Every now and then he glanced at the movie we were watching and laughed when he saw the reaction of his mom to some of her favourite scenes..

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It was four o’clock by the tome “My Fair Lady” had finished. I had never seen it before and I loved it as much as Sandy clearly did. Liam closed his laptop and told his Mom that Dean was on his way over to practice. I was already cheerful after the afternoon I have spent with two genuinely kind people and the musical that had lifted my spirits, but that news brought a wave of elation that made me forget how hurt I was that Dean had ignored my messages and calls that week.

Nothing Merry About It!

After that blissful Saturday – I had to encounter the most difficult time of year. Christmas. It was harder than ever. Although it was relief to have a break from school, seeing more of my mom made me tense, and it seemed to make her tense too. I understood that she had a lot to do. She was hosting my older siblings and my nephews. My Grandpa was coming too, which always seemed to stress Mom out. Grandpa had a habit of pointing out anything and everything that did not look quite right to him, which flustered my mother even more. Now that his hearing was so poor, the remarks which my Grandfather made (thinking he was being helpful) were delivered in a loud volume that could be heard in every room. My Mom had a lifelong chip on her shoulder about what she interpreted as Grandad being critical and belittling. I think my grandfather was oblivious to the image Mom painted him as.

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It is probably not fair for me to judge the complex nature of their relationship. They had suffered each other for over fifty years. Perhaps the accumulation of habitual negative comments and the extreme overreaction that we would witness. My dad unwittingly added to Mom’s anxious state of mind resulting from insecure perfectionism by being faddish and particular about mundane things such as how he liked his tea and the depth of a layer of butter on his sandwiches. Often Dad would pour away a mug of tea Mom had made because she had not got it quite right.

When tension built up and my mom exploded – there was a rupture in the peace of everybody in the house, and often in the peace of the neighbours as well. Mom always sought to blame someone else for anything that been pointed out as wrong or broken or skewwhiff. I had learnt that it was extremely risky to even breathe in a room that Mom had already tidied up ready to welcome family members. So I kept to my own bedroom, listening to music that Dean had enable me to discover and imagining how he would be spending Christmas. I didn’t know it at the time but my fanciful ideas of him enjoying a perfect festive scene were wildly contrasting to the reality.

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The most stressful day of the holiday season was always Christmas Day. As soon as Grandad entered the house, his booming voice was to be heard that the front door did not close properly. It had never closed properly unless you slammed it shut. Up in my room, I heard my older sister Alicia and her sons arrive. Not long afterwards my brother Andrew arrived with his girlfriend. Then I heard my Dad’s sister Val and her husband Norman. Lastly my brother Adam arrived. Once I knew everyone was here, I slinked downstairs and found a space on the other side of the sofa where I could sit on the floor, mostly out of view.

I had been too scared to go into the kitchen all day as Mom had started cooking early. My nephews were sitting on the floor on the other side of my dad’s armchair playing with new toys. I had missed the presenting of gifts. I already had an idea that the package under the tree with my name on would contain something I could use for school. There were some seasoned nuts on the coffee table and to quell the groanings in my tummy, I tried to discreetly grab a handful of them. With the lighting reactions of a ninja, Mom leapt over my brother’s long legs and slapped my hand away from the serving bowl. “They’re for your Grandad.”

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Dinner seemed very late. Grandad had already began grumbling about the time, and I could hear Mom in the kitchen lamenting that she had been working since dawn with no offer of help. Alicia stood up and glared at me, “I’ll help you Mom.” I wish my hearing was as poor as my Grandfather’s. Alicia feigned whispering, and made sure I heard her disapproval. “But she’s nearly fifteen, of course she’s capable, she’s just plain lazy.”

Mom had decided where everyone would sit. Dad at one end of the extended dining table and Mom at the other so she could easily jump up and return to the kitchen. Alicia and her husband either side of Mom and their sons beside them. Either side of my Dad were Val and my Grandad. I had been placed beside my Grandad and my brother Andrew. Andrew did say a word to me. His posture was turned towards his girlfriend and my mom and Alicia. Aunt Val and Uncle Norman directed a couple of questions to me about my schoolwork, which Dad answered. He told them my exam results had been disappointing, so this year I was under a no TV rule until I had finished my homework. Thanks Dad!

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Grandad voiced whatever he noticed was awry. His hearing was failing but he had an eagle’s eyesight. As soon as he sat down he spotted a cobweb around the lightshade. The roast potatoes were no where near as good as Grandma’s. He began to give advice on how to achieve perfectly crispy roast potatoes. Grandad probably could not hear Alicia telling Mom just to ignore him and claiming that everything was perfect. I noticed that my grandad seemed to be struggling to keep his peas on his fork and most of them ended up in my lap. I was not sure what to do with them. Rather than brushing them off my clothes and on to the carpet, I decided it would be a better idea to collect them and discreetly pile them underneath the rim of my dinnerplate.

Unexpectedly, he turned towards me and at full volume awarded a compliment to me, “Annabelle, you’re looking very pretty. You are really blossoming into a lovely young lady. You have your grandmother’s bewitching eyes, you know.” Of course everyone had heard Grandad. Alicia let out a gasp of laughter and shook her head. I wish I had not looked in her direction, I saw a fleeting flash of resentment in my mom’s eyes. I could have sympathised with her. She had been working all morning to prepare dinner and my Grandfather had not thought to compliment anything she had done. I understood how she may be feeling. It was very unfortunate for me that I had been the recipient of some kind praise from Mom’s father, the man she felt was impossible to please.

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However, the way Mom expressed her frustration about the apparent injustice made my empathy towards her disintegrate. It was those goddamn peas that tipped her over the edge. As she collected the dinner plates clearly in a state of angst, she spotted the pile of Grandad’s peas I had collected. She was furious with me. The berating scolding that followed, shaming me for behaving like a toddler, asserting that I had disgraced myself and had no gratitude for all that was done for me, concluding with the challenge, “What do you have to say for yourself you selfish girl?”

I could not find any words. In an effort to suppress my tears I almost choked. There was no point in attempting to defend myself, it would have been interpreted as disrespectful. My only option was to flee. I heard Alicia’s laughter as I ran up the stairs. Being secluded up in my room was a mix of relief like an oasis in the desert and a sense of confinement in the notorious Cell Block H. What frustrated me was that this not the first time something like this had happened, and not the first Christmas Day I had ended up alone in my room while Mom’s showpiece Christmas Pudding was served. Perhaps roast potatoes were not my mom’s forte, but the cakes and puddings she made were divine. I was missing dessert again – all because I tried to protect the carpet from Grandad’s fallen peas. The sense of indignation over this injustice was profound.

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I had already sent a text message to Dean that morning wishing him a Merry Christmas. I checked my phone for the hundredth time since I sent that text. Nothing. No reply. Dean never replied to my texts. He would send me just one text message each Friday to confirm he would meet me the following day before he went to Liam’s. It’s easy to see now that he was making sure he did not encourage my infatuation with him, if he had any inkling over how I felt. But I needed him. He did not comprehend how much I needed him.

In the end my longing got the better of me. I dialled his number. I listened to the ringing tone until the dialing was abruptly halted. I could only assume that he had rejected me call. I was simply devastated. Hot tears poured from my eyelids until I fell asleep. I slept soundly that night, not waking even when family members exited the house and the front door had to be slammed shut each time.

I am glad I did not know how Dean and his cousin and uncle spent the holidays. Of course, someone who has been drinking beer and smoking marijuana all day does not welcome a phone call from a fourteen year old kid.

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I just didn’t understand much about Dean at all back then. I did not know quite how much he hated his routine of stacking shelves until one o’clock in the morning, and then eating a meal to sustain him until he went to start delivering pastries to branches of a coffee house in a famous coffee house chain all over Manhattan. I didn’t realize that most of the text messages I sent to him were purely annoying as they disturbed his sleep. Neither was I aware of how he felt at Christmas time since his mother’s death. I could not possibly have comprehended back then how much weighed on Dean’s heart and how generous he was in making any time for me at all. I had just sulked because it was Christmas Day and I felt so lonely and the solution I yearned for was him.

My Hunger Was Growing

The knowledge that Dean lived just ten minutes walk away from my school consumed my thoughts in every class I sat through on Monday. It was hard to keep him out of my mind, and a couple of times a teacher spotted that I was day-dreaming and called me out by throwing a question to me. Listening to Geography, Algebra or Chemistry was futile. At lunchtime, I had skipped across Claremont Park via the gazebo in the hopes of catching sight of Dean. I didn’t seem him, which perhaps made it even harder to concentrate. My last class on a Monday was Art. The quiet of the classroom allowed me to recall every detail of him. Unintentionally, he had ignited a spark within me that was now burning merrily and for the first time I found a need to express that emotion on the paper in front of me. Mrs Andrews commended me for the first time that semester.

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Every single day that week followed a similar pattern. The fierce November chill did not put me off spending my lunchtimes sitting on a bench where I could see his home on Morris Avenue. I struggled to take in anything during my classes. My homework took me twice as long each evening as I had to read the textbook more carefully to be able to fulfill assignments.

The temptation to call him was unbearable. I sent three text messages during the week, none of which he replied to until Friday when he finally sent a brief message to me: SEE YOU TOMORROW AT 12 NOON – CROTONA AMPITHEATRE. I stayed up late to finish my homework so that Mom would not stop me from going out the next day.

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That message sent the feathered wings of some ecstatic creature flapping around inside me rapidly and intensely. My heart was tickled and jubilant. My reaction was one of pure youthful infatuation encouraged by the tiniest of gestures. Back then Dean could have no idea of the effect he was having on me. When I arrived at the amphitheater, there was no indication that he noticed that I had plastered my lips with a thick layer of glossy cherry balm and straightened my hair.

For almost an hour we walked, which we needed to do on that cold cold day. If Dean’s intention was to encourage me to talk, he had an odd way of showing it. But I was delighted that he was sharing so much of himself with me. His Mom had died when he was eleven years old – he didn’t say how she died. His Uncle had played with many other musicians and bands – just nobody I had heard of. Dean’s fondness and respect for his Uncle Gary was evident in everything he said about him. Dean told me that he worked a couple of jobs, one delivering freshly baked goods to coffee houses and the other stacking shelves at Food Bizarre. As far as he was concerned they were just temporary jobs that allowed him to save some money and the anti-social hours kept him out of trouble. He told me that it meant he often slept during the daytime and had time to himself to write lyrics and work out chord changes.

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Dean told me that as soon as the band he was in could find a decent vocalist, they were going to start plugging for more notice through social media and signing up for any live gigs they could. He sounded confidant that he would not be stacking shelves and delivering croissants forever.

With a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, he gave me advice, none of which I wanted to hear. Yet coming from him it was much more palatable than if anyone else had told me. He told me to work hard at school to give myself choices in life. He also told me to appreciate my parents, and that is their job to whinge at me about my homework. I had not told Dean anything about my parents so I slightly resented his words. The sting was softened when he moved on to how I should handle interest and pressure from guys at school. There was something very protective and caring in everything he said, but his indelicate and blunt choice of words incited deep layers of blushing.

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As I walked beside him, I felt so proud. Perhaps he had no clue just how effortlessly cool he looked. To be seen walking around the park with a guy who was several years older than I was and who had nailed every inch of the rock icon look with an edge of fresh zeal and sureness. I caught sight of other kids from my school who saw me with him and it felt great. At the end of the hour, Dean parted to go to his friend’s house to practice, just as he had forewarned me.

All I was going to be allowed was one hour every Saturday, walking around a park that grew bleaker and colder every week. That was nowhere near enough for me, but when I look back now it is amazing that Dean was making that time for me at all. The fact he did that tells me there is something sincere and unselfish in Dean that was stirred by sympathy. There could have been no other reason back then except for simple concern that I was lonely and miserable. I was plain and lanky, and I had hardly anything to say in response to all the fascinating things he shared with me. I could not even think up interesting questions to ask him. It was as if he had just deigned to take me under his tutelage on how to avoid the state of feeling sorry for myself descending into complete despair and becoming a total screw-up. He often graphicly described worst case scenarios, and it did not escape my notice that many of these included time in jail – which did all seem rather far-fetched.

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Then, one Saturday, almost two months after I had met Dean, something was different. He texted me as usual on Friday evening and asked if I had plans for the afternoon. I never had plans. I always made sure I had finished my homework before I trekked up to Crotona Park. After my hour with Dean I would return home and lay on my bed recovering from the blissful experience of being in his presence, before googling all the bands and musicians he had mentioned so that I could find out who on earth he was talking about. His text message that Friday evening the weekend just before Christmas piqued my curiosity and excitement.

He gave me no hint of his plan until the next day. All he said was that some of Liam’s family were over and because of the twins being there it was alright for him to take me along. I had no idea what that would mean. But on arrival at a one story property, we entered through a side door into a large double garage. There was Liam, sitting at a large drum kit, with two girls who could have been no more than ten, each grasping a drumstick and striking each part of the kit, most often the cymbals. Liam looked relieved to see Dean. The girls ran over to Dean and myself and started to fire questions at us: were we in Liam’s band? did we play an instrument? did we sing? did we like gingerbread? did we bring them any gifts?

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Liam had temporarily disappeared, but soon returned with a woman who looked as if she was in her mid-thirties, “Come on girls, Grandma has made us some lunch.” When they began to object, their Mom bargained with them that if they ate all of their lunch they would be allowed to come back later to see Liam and his friends.

Once the door was closed, Liam turned his attention to me. He was friendly and put me at ease. He fetched me a soda and pointed out the sofa against the wall. I had just sat down when the same side-door that Dean and I had used opened again and a guy with a mop of curly black hair strode in. He was grumbling about being held up in traffic. This turned out to be Greg. While the three young men held a quiet discussion about what they wanted to run through, I buried myself into the corner of the sofa and pulled the fleece throw over my legs. Feeling deeply privileged to be allowed in with Dean, I was trying not to be any nuisance, but my eyes wandered avidly drinking in this sacred location, the place Dean practiced with the band every Saturday afternoon.

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When they started to play, the drums were much louder than I imagined. Dean was playing an electric guitar and the sound filled the garage and made my bones vibrate. Greg began to sing, and although at first it was hard to make out all of his words, he seemed more enthusiastic and the memorable chorus lines were delivered in a way that clearly pleased Dean and Liam. They quickly oved on to another song which seemed to go just as well. But from following the initial smooth start, there seemed to be an issue with every other song. Dean kept on stopping and correcting Greg. After over half an hour of this, the frustration of both men was intensifying. There was a torrid of colourful language which made me nervous. Eventually they seemed to agree that part of the problem was the absence of their bass player Rick, who it turned out was way for the holidays.

Although I was fascinated by everything I witnessed, the tension made me uncomfortable. When Greg finally decided he reached his limit, it felt as if peace was restored. Liam and Dean spoke quietly together. It was as if they had forgotten I was present at all. Then something wonderful happened. The two of them began to play, I guess it was a sort of jamming session. They were in perfect synchronisation, with one feeding the other with cues to famous rock songs I did sort of recognize. I did not know on the day, but they were having fun playing some of their favourite iconic tracks – Nirvana, Aerosmith, The Fratelli’s, Lenny Kravitz, The Who, The Clash, Bon Jovi, Guns ‘n’ Roses and more. Both of them beamed broad smiles and the electric joy them emitted left me awestruck.

After that terrific spectacle of how great these two musicians were, I did not want to return home. I didn’t have to yet. Liam asked me a question Dean had still not asked me – where did I live? When I replied “Kelly Street”, he nodded indicating he knew the road, and then said, “That works.” Dean looked uncertain. But Liam was calling the shots at this point. The three of us were soon on our way to a Mexican restaurant called Parilla Azteca Cibaena.

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I had another two hours of sitting next to Dean and listening to Liam telling me how he had won a radio contest when he was at High School and the prize money had paid for the garage conversion and equipment he had. He also made fun of Dean for not wanting Rick to know about me. I asked who Rick was but didn’t receive much of a reply except Liam’s claim that Dean worshipped the dust Rick walked upon.

It may sound silly, but back then that day meant the world to me. I was on Cloud Nine – and my happiness provoked some confidence. I found Liam very easy to talk and laugh with. He was older than Dean but he seemed to be able to tailor the conversation so that I could be involved. I was coming out of a shell I did not know I had been in and it felt good. My inner joy was easily distinguished by my smiles and laughter. But it was not Liam that was the reason I felt so good, it was the young man sitting beside me. It felt really good to be close to him for so long. Dean was much quieter than usual, and if I was not mistaken, he seemed to be watching me.

It was Liam who insisted that they would walk me home as by the time we left the restaurant it was dark. When we reached Bill Rainey Park and I said I would be fine to walk the rest of the way home, Liam objected with a “No friggin’ way are you walking through that park on your own in the dark”.

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They almost delivered me to my front door, and I wonder if they may have done exactly that if I had not indicated that my parents would go crazy if they saw I had been with two guys who were several years older than me. Now, Dean knew where I lived. That night I could not sleep. My head was buzzing with the thrilling memories I had acquired that day. I felt alive. It was a glorious feeling. I was in love. I was an awkward, troubled fourteen year old and I was in love with an eighteen year old who was the epitome of cool and determined to remind me of our age difference every time I saw him. I had no idea how damn hard the next few years were going to be with this ache of attraction smoldering within. Neither did I realize that as I finally began to blossom and become more feminine just how hard I was going to make it for the young man who was trying to keep himself out of trouble and focus on his dream of a music career.

Yard Duty


“Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but I met you last week Claremont Park. You bought me a milkshake.”

“I remember you.”

There was a long pause which made me feel uneasy. I had lost my nerve and tried to justify myself by adding, “You said I could call you.”

“What’s up Kid? Are you in trouble?”

“No, I ‘m not in trouble. I just wanted to call you.”

Another awkward pause followed. I waited for his response, “I said you could call me if you needed someone to talk to. Do you need to talk?”

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“I…I just wanted to say Hi. I just…I guess, I mean…I just wanted to ask if I could, well, you know…see you again, maybe, just to say Hello, or maybe catch a movie with you, or something? Maybe not a movie…maybe pizza? I mean, if you like pizza, or something else? I don’t know. I just wanted to say Hi and maybe see you again, maybe? Only, if you didn’t have anything else planned, or you know, if you wanted to see me…to talk or something?”

The long pauses before he replied were mortifying to me. My embarrassment levels had risen up and I swear by that point my whole face was as red as a beetroot. Did he have any idea how much courage it had taken to call him? “Woah Kiddo, you told me the other day you are only fourteen, now you are trying to ask me out on a date? What the hell? Are you insane?”

My stomach churned with devastation and my legs felt as if they were going to give way. Instinctively I began to apologize, “I’m so sorry. I so stupid…”

“Not stupid, just insane! Let me ask you something – do you own a proper coat? One that will keep you warm?”

“Yeah sure I do. I just don’t usually wear it at school because I would forget…”

“So you can come and help work in the yard tomorrow. Make sure you wear your coat and a hat or something, it’s gonna be freezing.”

He told me to be at the gazebo in Claremont Park at 11am the next day. He said if I was not there on time he was not going to wait around for me. I was so scared to be late I ended up arriving over half an hour early. He was right, the temperature had plummeted overnight. I was wrapped up with a hat and scarf and my padded coat. The bronze leaves against the clear blue sky were quite stunning to behold. The half hour wait for him to arrive felt like hours. It was such a relief to finally see him heading in towards the gazebo. He looked a little different. He wasn’t wearing that leather jacket, but a check quilted shirt. He did not say a lot, except for telling me the house he lived in was on Morris Avenue. I walked beside him, daunted that he was taking me to his home. Something inside told me I was foolish to be trusting him so naively.

The next couple of hours were not even slightly what I had imagined. As soon as we arrived at the house, he passed me a broom and instructed me to sweep all the leaves that were scattered all over the drive and front yard. He didn’t say a word to me as he busied himself with sawing broken branches that overhung the drive. Every ten minutes he would scoop up the leaves I had swept and empty them into a garbage bin. He cleared out the leaves from the gutter and drains. He washed down the outdoor furniture on the deck and collected tools, a hose, and other items around the property and stored them in garage at the rear of the house.

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I just swept. There were so many leaves! It took over an hour to sweep the front and side of the property. When I reached the garage door, I realized there was a large yard at the back also waiting to be swept. He must have seen my dismayed expression “You’re doing a great job Kid. Do you need a break?”

“Could I have some water?”

“What about something warm? Do you want a tea? Or coffee?”

I shook my head, “Do you have any soda?”

He bounded up the steps to the back door, and kicked his boots off. I had not eaten anything that morning, so after the three kilometre walk and over an hour of sweeping, my energy level was low. I could hear voices inside the house, and then laughter. The door opened and a young man wearing shorts and a thin shirt grinned at me, “Who the frig’ are you?”

I felt like such an idiot. I replied in a low voice, “I’m Annabelle.”

He flicked his hand in a wave, “Hello Annabelle. Would you like some coffee?”

“No, thank you.”

He turned around and called into the house, “Her name is Annabelle and she doesn’t want any coffee.”

A deeper gruff voice called out, “Hold on, I know what she’ll like.”

The young man at the top of the steps told me his name was Mark. There was clearly great amusement in his eyes as he asked me how his cousin had managed to talk me into helping to clear the yard. I felt so small and ashamed. I was at the point of throwing the broom down and fleeing, when he appeared again. He pushed Mark and sat down on one of the benches he had cleaned earlier. He let out a sigh. He was followed by a much older man, who had a lot of stubble and tattooed forearms. He came right down the stairs and presented me with a mug, “Surely you like chocolate. You need something warm.”

The sweet hot chocolate revived me. While I was sipping it, I had an excuse not to say anything. The older man looked pensively at me, “I believe you’re Annabelle?” I nodded. “I’m Gary, Dean’s Uncle. You’ve done a great job of sweeping up.”

I did not stay long after that first awkward meeting. Gary insisted that his son Mark was going to get dressed and help Dean finish clearing the backyard. Gary provided me with two slices of buttered toast and offered to pay for me to catch the bus home. I took the hint, even though it was delivered so kindly by Gary. After thanking him, I glanced over towards Dean who was crouching down to gather up leaves. With Gary watching I felt uneasy about how to say goodbye to Dean, so I just turned and slowly wandered down the now clear driveway. I turned out onto the sidewalk and headed towards the pedestrian crossing.

“Hey, wait a moment!” My heart leapt. “Just wait a couple of minutes, I’m coming.”

Dean ran back into the house and less than a minute later he returned in a different jacket and boots. “I’m going over to a friend’s house on the other side of Crotona Park. We are practicing this afternoon. If that is on your way home, I’ll walk with you.”

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It took just over twenty minutes to reach Seabury Place. During that time Dean told me that he was in a band. He told me his Uncle Gary had taught him to play the guitar, and it was through his Uncle that he had met Liam who played the drums and Rick who played bass guitar. They had recently been trialing a guy called Greg who was trying to fit his vocals to their style. Dean was animated and energetic in providing all of this information. As we reached Seabury Place, Dean was firm in his farewell, “You can’t come with me. Do you feel safe walking home from here? Is it far for you?”

I was much closer to home. I told him I was fine. “You can’t come over to my Uncle’s. He made it clear that is not alright with him. Don’t take it personal – he is just talking straight, fourteen year old girl hanging out in a man cave – he said your parents will go mental if you had stepped a foot inside. But I come over to Liam’s every Saturday afternoon, so if you ever want to talk, we can meet in Crotona Park.”

His words gave me hope. “I would like that.”

“So, you can call me then. Just don’t get any ideas. You’re a just a kid, a lonely kid with a broken heart who doesn’t have anyone else to talk to. That’s the only thing we have in common. I was exactly that when I was your age. Things get better though. I have a lot I could tell you about that. But you have to be ready to talk.” With his earnest honesty, Dean was somehow piercing my core. “Annabelle, when you are ready to talk. But even before you are ready, you can still call and we can meet nearer to here. Just don’t come to my Uncle’s. He’ll friggin’ cane me.”

I must have looked shocked. Dean quickly corrected himself, “I’m joking. He wouldn’t do anything like that. He just threatens us to make sure we understand him.”

Who Is This Cold And Lonely Soul?


“I didn’t say nothin’.”

“So quit staring.”

I was absolutely not staring at him. I had deliberately been trying not to look at him. But the couple of occasions I had tried to steal a discreet glance at him, his eyes had already been fixed on me.

With no idea of how to reply to him, I just kept quiet and sat back against the cold railings. The metal pressed into my back and soon my shirt was soaked. In an effort to preserve some body heat, I folded my arms tightly. The cold air made me want to shiver. I guess I was a miserable sight.

In my mind, I was replaying the lecture Mrs McGuire had given me before presenting me with a detention note. What a decrepit crow! A lump came up into my throat as the hurt that her words inflicted resurfaced.

The cool dank breeze relieved the burning tears that had trailed down my cheeks. The hazy strumming of the guitar calmed the intensity of the storm within me. I could not do it here, not out in the open, not with an onlooker, I was going to have to contain the urge to dull this pain. So distracted by my own thoughts was I, it took some time to notice the song he was singing:

Stumbled over on spindly legs
Like a bewildered newborn foal
Sat down in a heap shivering
Who is this cold and lonely soul?

“Noone, I’m noone.”

“Don’t be daft, everyone is someone. What’s up with you Kid?”

“Nothing is up. I’m just cold.”

“If that is all, I can fix that,” he rose up from the bench he was perched on and took off his leather jacket. I was so surprised I could not find any words to object before he placed his peppery scented jacket around my shoulders. The warm layer provided a great cuddle of warmth that I needed.

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Still in shock at this absurd kindness, I gazed at him in puzzlement. He had returned to his guitar and was already strumming and humming to himself. I expressed my gratitude with a clear, “Thank you.”

“No problem,” he did not even look at me. He continued humming before he added, “If only all problems were that simple to fix.”

For the next fifteen minutes I was silent, trying to battle with sadness that sought to consume me. His presence, the constant sounds from his guitar helped me to keep rising above the dense darkness within.

Eventually, he put his guitar in the soft case that had been folded up on the bench next to him. He looked over towards me and said, “Now it’s me that is cold.”

Immediately, I stood up to give him back his jacket. But he shook his head. “How old are you Kid?”


“I thought you were about that. You’re tall though, so I wasn’t sure,” he was uneasy. “I’m starvin’. If you want, you can sit in the warm with me and watch me eat instead of watching me play guitar.”

“I wasn’t watching you.”

He let out a sort of snigger, “Come on Kid, there’s a juice bar that has snacks just across the road.” With that he headed down the steps from the gazebo and headed south through the park.

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Why the hell did I follow him? That one decision probably changed the course of my life. I guess I followed him mainly because I still had his jacket around my shoulders. Nothing about him made me feel threatened. He was not trying to gain my trust or lure me into some kind of danger. He was just open and honest in a way that came to mark his speech and actions for many years. Dean would just say things simply, sometimes with brutal honesty. He did not put on any act, there was no pretense. Sure, the record company tried to propel an image they could market. But Dean was always true to himself. He just talked straight and did what made sense to him in the moment.

I wasn’t hungry, but I was very glad to be inside. He bought me a mango, pineapple and cherry milkshake. I did end up watching him eat. In between bites of his sub, he asked me the most non-obtrusive questions you can imagine. He did not ask me anything about where I lived, which school I went to, or anything that could compromise my security. He just asked me what I enjoyed – food, music, movies. There was one last question he asked – if he gave me his cellphone number, would I call him if I ever needed to talk to someone? Maybe he did not realize that now I knew how to reach him, I was going to crave another chance to see him.

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The Boy From The Bronx

Looking back, I can see now that he was exactly the kind of boy that every parent would dread their teenage daughter crossing paths with. But at the age of fourteen it was beyond my ability to recognize all those warning signs. To me, he was just a guy, a guy with a guitar. He had a slightly odd scent lingering in his hair and clothes. I presumed it was those thin cigarettes he smoked. There was a lot about him that I accepted and never questioned simply because I was inexperienced and unawares. People all over the world see the man with the guitar. I have known him since he was a teenager. I knew the boy from the Bronx.

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I still remember the day we met as if it were just last week. I woke up that morning when the door slammed shut. Dad would have left the house hours before to make his way into the city. Mom had already yelled up the stairs to me to get ready for school. Exhausted, I had buried myself under the covers and returned to sleep. As soon as I heard the impact of the front door which seemed to cause a tremor within the whole house, I sat up in alarm. I reached for the alarm clock radio and saw that it was already 9:10am. Damn it!

The sick dread in my stomach was a telltale sign that despite watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off about twenty times I had still not learnt the art of how to dodge those teachers who seemed to want to make me grovel in the dirt and own up to being the lowest lifeform in the galaxy. Like a lamb on it’s way to the slaughter, I put on my clothes for school and gathered my school books into my backpack.

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There were only fifteen minutes left of our History lesson when I entered the classroom. I am sure Mrs McGuire rolled her eyes as I slipped into my seat. She was clearly in mid-flow, energetically describing the Confederate move against Fort Sumpter. I stared down at the text book trying to locate the section her lecture might be based on. It was not long before I was saved by the bell. Of course, there was no way I was going to be allowed out without giving an explanation to Mrs McGuire for my lateness. I was not on great form that day. I used a recycled lie, one that she had heard before. The claim I had turning back home to retrieve homework for another class was not going to fool her.

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I left with a detention letter. I made my way to the science wing so that I would not be late for Physics. Mr Bloomfield was not a teacher to trifle with. I could not bear his glare of disdain. Although it was my least favourite class I always made sure I prioritised with homework assignments as crossing Mr Bloomfield was to be avoided at all costs. His lesson on waves was one of the least dull classes I could remember. Despite that the rest of the class struggled to follow his monotone voice.

As soon as the lunch-bell sounded, I embarked on my pre-meditated plan of escape. There was no way I could be part of the Phys-Ed class that afternoon. I was going to have to avoid another interrogation from the athletics Coach. Some other kids were making their way up towards McDonalds. I headed straight into Claremont Park and to escape the drizzle of rain I wandered towards the gazebo.

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That is where I met him for the very first time. He was unfriendly, irritable, rude and obnoxious. Yet, I was a little fascinated by him and his guitar. His ability to compose a tune in his mind, strum his guitar and find the right chords and take the words I voiced and weave them into lyrics – it mesmerized me. Few people know this, but the first single on their second album “Rebel” was a song he came up with that day we met. He was poking fun at me for skipping school.

That was the first afternoon I spent with him, the first of many. If you had told me that day that this scruffy hostile guy was going provide me with the great escape I was longing for, I would never have imagined it. But he became my closest friend and my only confidant. There came a point when it I knew I could not be without him. I am not sure exactly when or how, but the gradual accumulation and intensifying or feelings and hormones also entwined the both of us so that by the time I left home to travel with him, it was as his partner. My father wanted to lynch him of course. That is how the song “Blue Lights in Bill Rainey Park” came about. Those guitar riffs are electrifying – but I always found the lyrics Dean had penned disturbing. I knew he despised my Dad, but releasing a song to enshrine that hatred was going too far.

A Letter For Dean

I found writing the LEARNERS AT LOVE series incredibly enjoyably and deeply satisfying. I am sure every other writer can understand that. I was going through my older posts and I remembered that a writing prompt from Kristian and Nova gave me the inspiration to give Dean an appearance in Annabelle’s journey. I love the way Dean turned out!!

In less than a month we will be putting our sandals and summer clothes into storage and pulling out scarves, and woolly jumpers! Autumn or fall is heading our way in the northern hemisphere.

And in less than thirty days Kristian and Nova are going to be hosting a Falling Into Autumn Blog party. To start the countdown Kristian has provided a gorgeous photo as a writing prompt:



Kristian told us:

“I am not putting any limitations on this. You may write as many words as you see fit. It can be a short story, poem, a paragraph, whatever your heart desires.”

Well, I loved Kristian’s photo prompt and all sorts of ideas went through my head. But at the moment I am fixated with working out what is going to happen to my fictional character Annabelle Riley.

In this post, I have let my thoughts wander to a character who has only received a couple of very brief mentions so far and has not yet been named, but he is about to make an appearance in Annabelle’s story. In the meantime, I thought I would use the photo as a setting for a conversation between Chris and Annabelle about this mysterious character. The two of them are sitting in that blue truck in Kristian’s photo, looking out at the lake and the trees.

As soon as Chris stopped his truck he turned to Annabelle, “I was told that this guy hurt you. Why do you feel like you want to make contact with him now?”

“Did Gina tell you that? asked Annabelle.

talking to gina.jpg“Gina? No, it was Pearl. Did you tell my sister about this guy?” asked Chris in surprise.

“I mentioned him.” Annabelle’s face reddened.

“She didn’t say anything about that to me.”

“I haven’t told Burt and Pearl a lot about him. I couldn’t really without concerning them. But Gina was so kind when she came over, I found it very easy to talk to her.”

“She’s a great listener.” grinned Chris.

“Indeed, you have a great sister. I am envious.”

chris truck2.jpgChris’ fingers brushed over the back of Annabelle’s hand which was wrapped around her seat, “So tell me, why now? Is it really going to help?”

“I think that to go forward, I need to go back a little. Dean always used to say to me that there is no going back, you can only go forward. But I can’t go forward Chris, not until I go back and clear up a few things. Dean is someone I owe a lot to. I think I owe him some explaining, some apologising.”

“Annie, this isn’t you going overboard with guilt again – is it?”

“These CBT appointments are giving me a lot to think about. I feel as if there are a lot of things I have said and done that I ought to feel bad about. I want to do what I can to fix them.”

mistakesChris heaved a sigh and tapped his hands on the steering wheel. “Annabelle, we all make mistakes. You can’t undo all of them. Look at all those millions of leaves out there. You can’t go chasing after every single leaf to clear this place up. It’s impossible. All of us have said probably a million things that maybe we shouldn’t have. We would go crazy if we tried to undo everything we think we said wrong.”

“At the moment Chris, there are lots of little explosions going on in my head. I am realizing things that I have not been aware of before. Some of these things I can just accept as a lesson learnt. But other things make me feel a sense of responsibility that what I did has had a big effect on someone else’s life. I have been talking to Robin about some of that. But the other person who I keep on thinking about is Dean.”

“Ok, so you’re going to write to him to get everything off your chest.”

Portrait of a cheerful blonde woman writing diary.

“No. I am going to write to him and ask him if I can see him.”

Chris shook his head in disbelief, “You’re funny – do you know that?”

“What? What’s wrong with that?”

“You actually want to go and see your ex. Some guy who badly hurt you. Is Robin ok with that?”

“Robin knows that I have a lot of regrets about what happened with Dean and me. I haven’t mentioned it to him yet, but I do think he will understand.”

“So are you going back to New York? Is that where Dean lives?”

Annabelle was clearly very hesitant to answer, “Dean has a place on the west coast. But he travels a lot, for work, so I am going to ask him where is best for him to meet?”

“And do you think he will agree to meeting you? What makes you think he is going to want to rake up the past with you?”

Annabelle shrugged her shoulders, “Well, I’ll have to wait and see.”

part of you.jpg“Annie, I am going to support you whatever you decide to do. I really want to help you get through this. But everything you have ever said or done, even your mistakes, it’s all part of you. It’s made you the person you are today. Look at all those million of leaves out there. Why would you want to change that? You might see a single leaf and think it’s all crumpled and discoloured. But together they make something beautiful. Don’t forget that, whatever you have done in the past, it’s all helped to make a beautiful person who we love. Robin loves you, Burt and Pearl love you, most of Blackwood love you and I love you – mistakes and all. We love you the way you are.”

“Thanks Bruno Mars.”

“I was thinking of James Blunt actually. Come on, I need to stretch my legs, let’s go and kick some leaves.” Chris and Annabelle both climbed out of the truck and started walking down towards the lake in front of them.

“Ha ha, my mistake! Let’s add that one to the pile of crumpled leaves hey.”

walk around lake“Something else to love about Annabelle Riley – terrible knowledge of music.” Chris grabbed hold of Annabelle’s hand and squeezed it in his.

“Well, now that you say that…” Annabelle paused.

“What? Are you going to claim you are an expert on music?”

“Christopher Ward, there is a lot you don’t know about me.”