"A Ludlow girl? Oh man ... you're out of your mind, bro, there's no way ..." Samuel commented. Tom had been with almost every girl in town, but he never crossed to the other side of Bluebridge where the better halves were living, let alone Bill Ludlow's daughter. "You don't wanna mess with Bill Ludlow, he's got grip on this town, don't wanna know what he'll do to you if he found out you're messing with his daughter," Ryan agreed.
He wasn't planning to mess around with this girl, though, not really. The moment he laid eyes on her, it was pure attraction. He'd never been attached to anything in his life after his mom left, he learned to mend for himself from such an early age. He explored his sexuality by having casual sex with many girls, but never really have a steady girlfriend before. When he saw Charlene, something inside him felt tamed, withdrawn from his usual wild ways of approaching the opposite sex, it was a feeling he didn't recognize.
His family fell apart after his younger brother died in a drowning accident. Gregory Raven was known to be an alcoholic loser who sold his home and drank himself stupid after his son died, his wife left him for another man. Tom was only 13 when his brother died, and a week shy of his 14th birthday when his mom suddenly disappeared from his life. He didn't quite understand what happened, he just knew that his mother didn't love him enough to stick around and left him with a man who hated him enough that he often beat him up and reminded him of how worthless he was.
He dropped out of school at sixteen, started working odd jobs to survive on his own, slept on people's couches and porches because he couldn't bring himself to go back to the caravan he shared with his abusive dad.
Everyone in his side of town knew who he was and vice versa. The girls knew that if Tom Raven was fixing their house in the day, chances are, he'll be sleeping on their bed at night. They were more than glad when they see Tom around their house. By reputation, eventually the girls knew that Tom Raven is not the guy they can expect to commit, but never disappoint when it comes to sex. So when Tom shied away at the sight of Charlene coming into the store, it was a side that his friends never saw before. His face was beaming and immediately followed her into Mrs. Cooper's store. "That's her? Oh wow ... you really are in deep shit!" Samuel joked and laughed with the other boys.
Mrs. Cooper greeted her when she walked in, followed by Tom. "Tom! Oh no, young man! You better go back to where you came!"
He took off his cap, "Oh come on, Mrs. Cooper, I'm just here to help out with the groceries," he said.
"Hey Tommy!" she greeted him.
"Tommy? Charlene ... stay away from him, do you hear me? Your momma's not gonna be happy to know you're hanging out with this boy." Mrs. Cooper looked genuinely concerned.
As she gathered all her mom's orders, Charlene smiled, "That's okay Mrs. Cooper, Tommy's just helping out."
The middle aged woman shook her head in disbelief. She couldn't believe the odds of Charlene Ludlow's first time out of her house and bumped into Tom Raven at her store.
"How are you, Charlie?"
That awkward question made Charlie laughed, "I'm fine, how are you?"
His friends were looking in through the window, yelling and teasing. "Are those your friends?" Charlie leaned to look.
"Yeah ... sorry 'bout that," he was embarrassed.
"For the love of God, Tom! If you don't tell those boys to behave, I'll go out there myself and give them a good smack!" Mrs. Cooper was at the end of her wits.
"Yes, ma'am, I'll make sure they be quiet ... wait one second, Charlie," he was at his best behavior unlike his friends. He went outside to talk to them.
"Country boys! They have no manners! Charlene ... dear, these boys are trouble, especially Tom Raven, a girl like you shouldn't be around boys like them ... they're not good for you," Mrs. Cooper took the chance to talk her out of it.
"He hasn't done anything wrong ... we're just talking," she was almost always smiling pleasantly. When his friends were quiet, Tom came back inside.
Charlene made her payment, Tom picked up the bags and all the while he couldn't hide the eagerness from his face. There was nothing Mrs. Cooper could do when she caught a glimpse of Charlene's eyes when he looked at him. That boy was easy on the eyes, some say Tom Raven was wasting his good looks to be a troubled country boy in Bluebridge.
They walked side by side with more ease this time, followed by his friends gaze at them until they were far enough away from them. "Why don't you start by telling me where you live?" she started the conversation.
He was prepared this time, even though it means he was risking her to avoid him completely afterwards, "My dad lives at the back of the junkyard, near the lumber mill, I stayed there sometimes, but mostly I stayed at my friend's house ... which is also around the slums of Bluebridge ... a place where a girl like you would never visit," he told her somewhat holding his breath.
"A girl like me? That's the second time I heard that term today ... why aren't you living with your dad?"
He took a moment before answering with a somber look on his face, "We don't really get along."
She felt like there was a story behind his answer, but she didn't want to pry. "Tell me, Tommy, what kind of girl am I?" if anything, that term was bothering her.
"Well ... you know, educated, classy beautiful ... don't belong in the slums," he cleared his throat.
"I'm barely out of high school, I wouldn't consider myself as educated ... not yet, beautiful? I don't believe there's no beautiful girl living in the slums ... but then again, nobody belong in the slums, I think people should work hard and get themselves out of there," she said.
He scoffed, "Smart ... beautiful and smart, that's the kind of girl you are." She didn't reply to that. "How did you managed to stay in for so long that I've never seen you around before?" he was curious.
"Well ... we have a driver who takes me everywhere, and maids who did our groceries, I've just recently got permission to walk to school by myself, and do the groceries, my 17th birthday is coming up and it's only fair that I asked for a bit of freedom," she answered.
Her smooth white skin was glowing under the sunlight, the wind blew her brown hair with strands sometimes tangled over her face. He realized she didn't just look like a princess, she was one. It was a kind of life, Tom had never heard before.
Being dirt poor, he had never known luxury in all his life. He had known the harsh reality of life from being a kid from a family with no means, he knew that labor pays just enough to get by. He had no interest in school, to him, school was just a waste of time and waste of money that he didn't have. He had been taking care of himself since he was 4 years old, dressed himself, prepared food for himself, played by himself, slept by himself, to know that there are people who had maids and drivers and not allowed to go out by themselves for 16 years was as foreign as a fairytale for him.
"What do you do for fun, Charlie?"
She took a moment before answering, "I love the movies, we watch movies at home, I love to read, music ... my sister plays the piano, I sing, we have board games at home ... stuff like that, my sister and I used to play hide and seek with the maids when we were little, but ... we're too old for that now."
Tom was half laughing to see how adorable she was when she explained that.
"What?" she didn't think there was anything funny.
"Hide and seek? I'd love to play hide and seek with you," and a lot of other things he had gradually accumulating in his mind.
She laughed realizing how silly 'hide and seek' sounded now that he had mentioned it, "What about you? What do you do for fun?"
Tom pursed his lips and looked away, "I don't think you'd approve of my idea of fun."
She tilted her head to look at him with a grimace, she wasn't sure what he meant by that. "I meant, what do you do around town to have fun ... something that might interest me," she rephrased it.
He took a deep breath, "Okay ... well ... we go out swimming at the lake, me and my friends, ... and then there's dance night every once a month at the community center, everyone in the neighborhood gathered for drinks and dancing, that's where we get to know everyone ... the ladies usually cooks and bring food, it's very-boring-small-town-activities, though."
"Really? You know everybody?" she interrupted him.
"Yeah, everybody knows everybody around here ... we also go out camping and fishing every once in awhile, I don't like fishing very much but sometimes I go just to be with friends ... you know?"
Charlene nodded, even though she couldn't relate, but the image of what Tom had described was intriguing. Being cooped up in her house all these times made everything sounded interesting. She was being obedient to her father's wishes, but that never stopped her from dreaming of another life that awaits outside of her golden cage.
"Would you like to join us sometime?" he wondered loudly.
"I'd love that ... sometime," she smiled.
When they arrived at the gate of her house, Mrs. Ludlow standing by the gate with both hands on her waist. "Oh no ... that's my mom," Charlie muttered.
Mrs. Ludlow didn't look very happy, her eyes were piercing at Tom. "Charlene ... go inside," she said with a low voice.
"Mom, this is Tom, he offered me to help with the groceries," she tried to explain.
"I know ... you go on inside, I'd like to talk to this young man," she said firmly.
"But mom ... "
"Get inside, Charlene."
Charlie looked at Tom helplessly, but he seemed calm and took off his cap to greet Mrs. Ludlow. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Ludlow," he said with a smile.
"Aren't you gonna introduce yourself, young man?"
"My name's Tom Raven, Ma'am."
She paused for a moment. "You're Gregory's boy?"
He nodded, he knew that was the nail in the coffin for him.
"How old are you, Tom Raven?"
"I'm almost twenty, Ma'am," he said with both hands still holding his cap in front of him.
Mrs. Ludlow nodded, "Listen now, Tom ... I'm just gonna be straight with you, I'm sure you're a nice young man, you have all the time in the world to make a life for yourself ... I'm assuming you don't go to school?"
Tom shook his head and looked down, he knew what he was getting himself into. "My daughter Charlene, has never had a bad day in her life, you know what I mean?" He nodded. "Now, I intend to keep it that way," she added.
Tom didn't have anything to say, he was put in his place. "I appreciate you helped her with the groceries, but this can't go any further than that, do you understand?" she was firm with her words. He didn't respond. "I don't want you coming around my daughter again, Tom Raven, I've heard too much about you to know better, Mr. Ludlow is not gonna be happy if he finds out ... but I'm gonna let it go for now, but I need your word," she insisted.
He took a deep breath and put his cap back on, "Yes, Ma'am."
"Good ... now off you go," she said.
He tilted his cap and walked away. All the things he had done is now coming back to bite him, his reputation had obviously heard by Mrs. Ludlow. He assumed Mrs. Cooper had told her as a warning because she didn't want to lose her most valuable customer over a menace like him. He looked back and saw the massive two story building, who did he think he was to be dreaming of the beautiful girl who lives in it when he has absolutely nothing to offer her.
"What did you say to him?" Charlene waited for her mom in the kitchen.
Mrs. Ludlow took her apron and put it back on, "I told him what he needed to know."
"Mom?" she whined.
"I heard enough stories to keep you as far away from that boy, Charlene, glad that Mrs. Cooper had given me the heads up about him ... he's slept with half the town is what I heard, he was following you around because you're probably one of the few he hasn't done yet," she warned her frowning daughter. "On top of that, he's Gregory Raven's boy, you don't wanna know who and what that man is."
Charlene was taken aback with what her mom just said, Tommy didn't strike her as a predator that her mom had assumed. "He seemed like a nice guy, anyways, we were just talking, it's not like we're getting married," she was being defensive.
"Oh yeah, he's nice alright ... he wouldn't have slept with all those girls if he wasn't nice, bright blue eyes, a face fit for a magazine cover, he's a handsome boy, Charlene, and that's all you'll ever get from him ... not for you!" her mother pointed a finger at her. She sighed, nobody ever listens to what she had to say. Everybody always telling her what she can and cannot do, and apparently, who she can and cannot be friends with.
"I told him to leave you alone, and I hope he keeps his words, 'cause your daddy's not gonna like it if he finds out," her mom added.
"Jeez, mom, you didn't have to treat it like a disaster, he was just ..."
"Not for you, Charlene! Now go upstairs and change, and then come back down and help me with dinner."