Even before they were near enough to distinguish the words, they knew it was Merv Griffin's voice, and that he had once again left his heart in Avalon. They had long since memorized that song.
"It's him," Maggie Russell cried, and Maria Ricali began to sing softly along with Freddy Martin's Orchestra.
The Avalon Ballroom! How often they had listened to the music of the great bands--Glen Miller, the Casa Loma, The Dorseys--broadcast from right here, on Santa Catalina. Riding in Ford convertibles. Pajama parties. Lying in the hot sun on the wide, white beaches of Southern California. And now it was theirs, for the entire summer, or at least as much of the summer as Gerri's parents remained at their summerhouse.
What a summer it was, too, as sure and golden as the future that lay before them. The war in Europe was over and everyone said that the war with Japan would soon be ended as well. The boys, Maria's own Dino among them, would be coming home soon.
It was more, though, than merely the prospect of peace that lay before them, more even than those legions of heroes, those swaggering figures who wore their uniforms as gracefully as their youth.
Before them lay, their lives. They were out of school, about to embark upon the great adventure awaiting them.
The future was no mystery to them, however. Gerri would be an actress. Everyone knew that. Certainly, everyone knew who had ever seen her in any of her starring roles at Sanderson High. And if proof were needed, though among the girls themselves, none was, they had that too: in the fall, Gerri would be performing with no less a company than the Pasadena Playhouse. It was only a small part, and Gerri's ambitions were for motion pictures, not the stage; but The Pasadena Playhouse.
No one except occasionally Maria herself doubted that Maria would be famous as a singer.
"Doris day can't hold a candle to our Maria," Maggie was fond of saying.
It was true, Maria did not as yet have the guarantee of a contract, as Gerri did, but she was entered in the talent contest to be held here at The Avalon Ballroom the following week, and there was no doubt among the three that she was going to win.
"Maybe Freddy Martin will sign you up right there on the spot," Gerri had said, and the three of them had spent an entire evening planning what Maria would wear when she made her singing debut with Freddy Martin's Orchestra.
As great as the futures of these two could be seen to be, however, there was nonetheless in their frequent and detailed descriptions of what lay before them something of an apology. They were to be "career women" and the movies that were their food and drink had prepared them for the losses and conflicts this would entail.
For Maggie, there would be no such conflicts, no such losses. It was true, she did write poetry in a little notebook for her own pleasure and that of her friends, but this did not count toward a career. Maggie's "career" was to wed. Not merely to marry, but to wed--magically, splendidly, wonderfully wed.
"The president of a company, at least," Maria predicted, and Gerri had once said, "Wouldn't it be fabulous if Maggie married the president of a movie studio and Maria and I were their biggest stars?"
Maggie, who thought at once of Louis Mayer with his fleshy face and intrusive nose, said, "what if it was..." pausing for dramatic effect, "The President of the United States?"
The girls had squealed with delight at the suggestion, but not with disbelief. For Maggie, the most beautiful of them, no future was too beautiful to be out of reach.
The band had segued into, "Apple Blossom Time," and the dance floor was packed with tightly clinging couples. Partings and longed-for reunions had taken on a special intensity during these years of war. In the center of the ceiling a many-faceted glass globe spun slowly, reflecting a thousand rainbow lights upon the dancers and the gleaming brass of the orchestra.
"Oh, oh," Gerri said, "Don't look now, but guess who's heading straight here.
Maria looked. "It's Rush Conroy."
"The very first boy we meet and it would have to be him," Gerri said, making a face.
"It's because he's in love with Maggie," Maria teased.
Maggie said, "Couldn't you just die?"
"Dare you to dance with him," Maria said.
"I will not," Maggie said.
Giggling, Gerri said, "Dare you to flirt with him."
"Double dare you," Maria said.
"Don't be ridiculous," Maggie said. Rush was trying to catch her eye as he made his way through the crowd of dancers. She pointedly looked in the other direction, as if searching for someone.
Undaunted, Rush came directly to her. "Hi, Maggie," he said, and, a heartbeat later, "Hi, girls."
"Hi, Rush," Gerri and Maria said in unison. Maria said, with a sly look at her friend, "Maggie was just saying, she wondered if you were here."
"She was?" Rush turned red. "You were?"
Maggie shot an evil look at her girlfriends.
Rush Conroy was an island boy who had come late to an awkward adolescence. He had remained a "shrimp" during all those years of his early teens while the other boys towered increasingly over him, and when at last he began to grow, it was all higgledy-piggledy. His arms and legs were suddenly too long for his body, his hands and feet laughably enormous, and his torso still skinny and undeveloped. When he was around girls, his voice broke embarrassingly.
He had literally stumbled upon them their very first day on the island. Running across the beach at the very moment when Maggie had stood up to go into the water, Rush had been so smitten that he had actually stumbled over Maria's feet and fallen headlong across their blanket.
"He fell for Maggie right off," Maria liked to tease her. To Maggie's undying humiliation, the peculiarly gangly young man had indeed fallen quite in love with her.
"Would you," Rush began, and paused to bring his voice down a half tone, "Would you like to dance?"
Maggie was about to refuse when Gerri and Maria burst into muffled giggles. Annoyed with them and oddly embarrassed for Rush, Maggie said on an impulse, "Why not?"
She could feel Rush trembling when he took her in his arms. It made her feel sorry for him, and angry with him all at the same time. Truth to tell, she had observed in their frequent but brief encounters that Rush was not quite the fool that they made him out to be. In her opinion, it was love that made him foolish, and she could not help being flattered to know that she was so irresistible. If only he weren't such a lout.
There it was, though. Even if she wanted to be nice to him, the other two would never stop making fun, and she would only make herself look foolish by taking him seriously.
At this thought, and seeing her friends giggling on the sidelines, Maggie thrust aside her feelings of guilt and entered into the spirit of mischief, suddenly clinging to Rush as if in the throes of passion. Over his shoulder, she stuck out her tongue.
Rush was quick to respond, holding her body against his with such fervor that it was all but impossible to dance.
"Don't," Maggie said, struggling against him.
"I thought you wanted to dance close." He brought a foot down heavily upon one of her saddle oxfords.
"Ouch. It's too warm in here," Maggie said, managing to get a space between them.
It was warm, too. Despite the doors open to the breezes, the room was packed with dancing, swaying bodies. The salty scent of the ocean mingled with the smell of sweat and Tabu, of shoe polish and orchid corsages and "Brylcreme, a little dab'll do you."
"Want to go outside for some air? I've got some whiskey," he added, his voice cracking slightly.
"I can't drink it straight," Maggie said, and realized belatedly that she had all but committed herself to going outside with him.
"I'll get some cokes." The song ended. He held her hand as if she might run away and watched her with the liquid eyes of a spaniel. "Okay?"
"Oh, I guess so," she said, relenting. If she went back to Gerri and Maria, he would only follow, and they would only continue to make fun. At least if she went outside with Rush, they couldn't watch, and afterward she would be able to tell them anything she wanted. She could make herself out brilliant and cutting, and Rush all the more a lovesick fool.
Besides, they would be jealous when they found out she had been drinking whiskey and coke. They had tried, just the night before, to get "drunk" on coke and aspirin, something they had heard about in school, and though she had pretended to be tipsy, she was sure Gerri and Maria had gotten no more effect from it than she had.
She even decided she would stagger a little when she came back in. That would teach them to double dare her.
Rush was back with the cokes in record time. Maggie led the way outside, determined to linger no more than a few minutes. At the beach, Rush paused to partially empty their bottles, refilling them with whiskey from a half-pint bottle.
Someone had painted a Kilroy-was-here on the wall beside them, the crude face giving the impression of observing them. From the distance, they could hear the music and, more faintly from the other direction, the sound of the surf on the sand. The moonlight turned Maggie's yellow hair to silver.
"Here's looking at you, kid," Rush said, in a bad Bogart imitation.
Maggie took a tentative sip. The coke bubbles tickled her nose, reeking of whiskey.
"Oh, it's too strong." She made a face.
"Maybe I put too much in. Do you want to take mine instead?"
"No, that's okay. I probably won't drink much of it anyway."
Someone moved a short distance away and a throat was cleared meaningfully. Maggie looked and saw couple in the shadow of a doorway, locked in an embrace.
"Let's walk," she said quickly, before Rush got any ideas.
They passed other couples standing in shadowy alcoves or lying full length on the sand, too engrossed in their lovemaking to pay any notice to Maggie and Rush.
When they came to an empty stretch of beach, Rush took off his sweater and laid it on the ground for Maggie to sit on. She folded her pleated skirt carefully under her knees and leaned back against the stone levee.
"Want some more?" Rush produced the whiskey bottle again.
"You're kidding," Maggie said. "I won't finish this."
An enormous yacht approached in the harbor, its running lights spilling garishly upon the water. She could hear voices, too distant to distinguish the actual words, but they sounded happy, excited. She wondered who was on the boat--maybe her Mister Right?
Sometimes she grew so impatient with waiting, waiting for everything, that she wanted to scream. It seemed as if she had been waiting all her life for her life to begin, and now, suddenly, she was on the threshold at last--but of what, she couldn't say.
"Maggie?" Rush took a noisy swallow of his drink.
"Can I..." His voice broke. "I mean, would you let me kiss you?"
"Don't be a drip," her tone scornful.
"Come on. Just one."
Maggie sighed. She supposed one little kiss couldn't hurt anything. At least there was no one to see, though if she had to kiss Rush Conroy she would rather he hadn't asked first. If he had just kissed her without asking permission, she could be indignant, maybe even slap his face. This way, it was like she was a party to it.
"Just one," she said firmly. She closed her eyes, so she would not have to look at him.
What she expected to be a quick peck on her lips, however, turned out to be something longer and far more ardent. At first she tolerated it passively, but when she felt his tongue thrusting between her lips, she twisted her face aside.
"Stop that," she said sharply. "That's enough now."
"That's called a French kiss," Rush said, not letting her go. She could feel his trembling, and when she looked into his eyes she was surprised by the absence of the hangdog expression he usually wore with her. She had a fleeting thought that this was a different Rush Conroy from the one they were used to, but she wasn't sure what exactly the difference was.
"I don't care what it's called, I don't like it," she said sharply.
"Just one more."
"No. Stop it, I say." She twisted her face from side to side and pushed one hand against his chest.
"You're a real Delilah, you know."
She giggled despite herself. Of all the cornball lines. "Don't be a jerk."
"The most beautiful girl in the world..."His voice trailed off to a whisper in her ear.
"Rush Conroy, you stop this very minute, do you hear me?"
Despite her resistance, he managed to plant his lips upon hers once again, and it suddenly seemed to her pointless to make such a to-do about a mere kiss. Once again his tongue intruded and she found the sensation not nearly as unpleasant as it had been at first. Almost unconsciously, she leaned back against his arm. So that was what a French kiss was. She had heard of them, of course....
It was a shock suddenly to realize that somehow or other Rush had managed to get a hand between them and was fondling her breasts through her sweater. A strange, rippling sensation went through her.
"Stop it," she said sharply. She fought against him and was surprised at how strong he actually was, and how persistent. Until now, she had only to snap her fingers to make him do whatever she wanted, and suddenly he had turned into some kind of animal. "Let me go, I'm telling you, I'll scream."
She seemed unable to escape his lips, let alone his arms. It was hard to say what might have happened if fate hadn't just then taken a hand. "Thank my lucky stars," Maggie would say afterward.
Fate, in the form of a long, vague shadow that spilled across them and a baritone voice that said, emphatically and plainly, "Let her go."
Maggie looked over Rush's shoulder and saw the dark uniform of the Army Air Corps, too flawlessly fitted to be anything but tailor made. Long legs, planted firmly apart. Hands clenched into fists. Broad shoulders. Hadn't she seen this very same scene in a movie recently?
"What?" Rush asked, unnecessarily.
"You heard me. I said, let her go."
"Look, fella, don't you know better than to interrupt a guy and a girl when they're having a little fun?"
"I don't think the lady's having much fun. And, I said, let her go." Without further preamble the stranger leaned down and, taking a firm grip on the collar of Rush's shirt, jerked him upward violently.
Rush, having grown up smaller than his peers, was no stranger to fistfights and had long ago gotten over any fear of them. Moreover, despite his gangly appearance, he possessed a wiry strength that had taken more than one opponent by surprise.
On this occasion, however, there was simply no contest. He took one swing at the airman and the next moment found himself staggering backward, his arms spinning like windmills. He toppled to his knees in the sand. Before he could get his breath back, he had been yanked to his feet again and something that felt like a sledgehammer crashed into his midsection, and an instant later a matching sledgehammer caught him under the chin with a loud crack. A lavish display of fireworks erupted before his eyes, then vanished into blackness.
"No, don't," Maggie said. She caught the airman's arm, as he was about to hit Rush again. He let go of Rush's shirtfront and Rush fell unconscious to the ground.
"Sorry. I guess I got a little carried away."
"Will he be all right?" Maggie felt a guilty impulse when she looked down at the crumpled figure on the sand.
"Just a headache. And some improved manners, maybe. Is he your boyfriend?"
"Rush? Oh, no, he's just, well, he's nobody, really." She blushed and turned to look at the stranger. She could see his face now, and he was so handsome, with red hair and a faint sprinkling of freckles--like Van Johnson, she was thinking, but better looking. "I hope you don't think...I mean, letting him kiss me...."
"He looked pretty persistent." He smiled then. "So, his name is Rush, and yours is...?"
"Maggie. Maggie Russell." She felt all at once shy.
"I'm Bill Alexander." There was a moment's pause. "You know," he said, "I've been listening to that groovy music all evening and wishing I had a girl as pretty as you in my arms. What do you say?"
Maggie glanced once more down at Rush.
"Unless you'd rather wait for him to wake up?" Bill Alexander said, grinning.
"Oh, no." She gave her head a toss that sent her silvery hair shimmering in the moonlight. "Let's go."
She was relieved, though, when she glanced back over her shoulder and saw that Rush was sitting up, rubbing his jaw.
Later, Bill Alexander walked all three of the girls home.
It had been a wonderful evening. Maggie felt as if she were walking somewhere above the boardwalk, buoyed up by nothing less than her own ecstatic happiness.
Only one flaw had marred her otherwise perfect time with Bill Alexander. They were dancing, to Stardust, when suddenly she saw Rush, standing with the hungry looking stags who edged the dance floor, and glowering at her. His lip was badly swollen and still stained with blood, and for a moment she thought he was going to come out onto the dance floor and pick another fight.
Bill swung her around just then, and when Rush came back into view, their eyes met for a fleeting moment. It was a disquieting glance, full of meanings she was too unsophisticated to read. She had been about to warn Bill, but now the warning caught in her throat.
As it turned out, the warning proved unnecessary. As quickly as his eyes had sought hers, Rush turned away, and the next moment he pushed his way through the crowd and disappeared.
She had a quick, troubling thought that perhaps what had happened on the beach had not been entirely his fault. After all, she had teased him, and gone outside with him, and she had taken the drink he offered, and even agreed to that first kiss. And she did know how he felt about her. That was obvious.
Bill swung her around again, a shifting panorama of dancers gliding past her, and when next she looked in that direction, Rush was gone--and with him, her guilt. Why on earth should she blame herself? Rush Conroy could look moon-eyes at her all he wanted. He certainly knew she wasn't in love with him, and he hadn't any right to molest her like she was some cheap dime-a-dance girl he had picked up somewhere.
By the time the dance had ended and she walked along the boardwalk with her hand in Bill's, not entirely unaware of her friends' envious glances, she had mostly put Rush Conroy out of her mind.
At Gerri's house, the other two girls said hasty "good nights" and disappeared inside.
"You live here?" Bill asked, glancing up at the light that appeared in the window above them. They could hear a low murmur of voices and a quick, high ascent of laughter.
Maggie shook her head. "It's the Grants' summer house. Maria and I are just visiting."
"For the summer?"
"Uh huh. What about you?"
"I'm here for a month," he said. "A little less, actually. What's left of a thirty-day leave. Then it's back, into the wild blue yonder." He sang the last softly.
"You're a pilot?"
"Yep. 'fraid so."
"Isn't that awfully dangerous?"
"Not for a confirmed coward," he said with a grin.
Maggie smiled with him. He was certainly no coward, as he had proven earlier on the beach. "Maybe the war will be over before you go back," she said, without much conviction. The memory of what he would go back to cast a pall over the evening's romance. She looked down at their feet, at her brown and white oxfords and his black military shoes, shined to a mirror-like brightness.
"Won't be long, anyway," he said. "Say, what're you doing tomorrow? Would you like to go sailing? I've got a boat here."
"Your own boat?"
"Well, it's the family's but it's mine while my leave lasts. What do you say, ever seen the back side of the island?"
"No. And I'd love to."
"Good, it's settled then. I'll pick you up at ten o'clock and we'll make a day of it."
An awkward silence descended. She had never let a boy kiss her before on a first date--if you didn't count that silliness with Rush, but this was different. For one thing, she had never felt like this with any other fellow. Anyway, the war had changed things. Time was short, and you could never know...and when you met someone special, when it happened like this for you, wasn't it wrong to waste a moment?
He put his hands on her shoulders and Maggie closed her eyes in anticipation, tilting her head back. To her surprise, he only gave her forehead a quick peck. Maggie's eyes flew open.
"Till tomorrow, then," he said. He started along the street but had gone only a few steps when he paused and turned back. "Oh, hey, listen," he called, "If your friends want to come along, there's plenty of room, okay?"
Maria and Gerri were waiting when she came up. They greeted her with muffled laughter.
"Tell everything," Maria demanded.
"Did he kiss you?" Gerri asked.
"Well...." Maggie was unable to maintain her pretended nonchalance. "Yes," she admitted with a laugh of her own.
"I knew it." Maria stood up on the bed, jumping gleefully.
"And he's from La Jolla," Gerri said. "That means money."
"He's got a boat. And, we're all invited to go sailing tomorrow."
This set off a new round of frenzy. "What kind of boat?" Maria asked, and Gerri said, "I'll bet it's a yacht, he just looks rich."
"He's a dreamy dancer," Maggie said, "And he's got the smoothest manners."
It was hours before the girls talked themselves out on the subject of Maggie's conquest and drifted off to an untroubled sleep.
Rush Conroy, whose name never entered into the conversation, was forgotten completely.