Chapter 23

 

Cossack Holiday

 

 

The first sign that something about Alex Dmitria was seriously amiss came when Robin Neapolitan invited their lunch-bunch to what she insisted was not a birthday party, despite her turning fourteen that same week.

 

“Birthday parties are for little kids.  This is gonna be a jam session.

 

“Yeah whatever,” said Sheila Quirk, following Robin along the cafeteria steam counter.  “You’re sure it’s happening, this time?”

 

“I said so, didn’t I?”

 

“You’ve been saying so for the past two weeks—when you aren’t saying it’s off again.”

 

“Well now it’s on again, this time for sure.  With guys there, too.”

 

“What sort of guys?” Vicki asked.

 

“Cool guys.  Rockin’ guys—”

 

“—is who we want,” quipped Sheila-Q.  “But we’ll settle for Band guys.  Just as well I haven’t finished dumping Roy yet.  Guess I better go eat with him,” she sighed as they paid the cashier.

 

“What about our argument?” Robin demanded.  (Question of the day: were the Bay City Rollers retarded?)

 

“You shoulda thought of that before throwing a party with only one day’s notice.”

 

“It’s a jam session,” Robin flung after her as Sheila left them.

 

“What is?” asked Alex Dmitria, passing by with a selection of jocks.

 

“Party tomorrow night, my place—wanna come?” Robin asked, directing the invite not so much to Alex as the musclemen, particularly Craig Clerkington, whom Robin’d had a surly thing for since fifth grade.

 

Alex’s predictable answer: “Oh sorry, I’m busy tomorrow.”

 

“Aw c’mon, live a little!” Craig advised her, giving Alex a hearty swat on the tush.  Which apparently packed the zappage of a 220-volt joy buzzer, given Alex’s “AIEEE!!” and pivot-thrusting a tray of spaghetti, meat sauce, and tossed green salad into Craig’s solar plexus.

 

Mild oof from Craig.

 

Whirl and begone by Alex.

 

What the hell just happened? from the witnesses.

 

Hoot by Brad Faussett: “You’re supposed to put the food in your mouth, dummy!”

 

“Hunh?” from befuddled Craig, staring at the messy tray clutched to his midsection like a recovered fumble.

 

Becca Blair strode up and took charge.  “Only an accident,” she informed the faculty monitor.  “Get napkins—lots of them,” she ordered Brad and other laughing jocks.  “Take that to the tray return,” she instructed Craig.

 

Her red LEDs caught Vicki’s stunned gawk for a brief second.

 

She saw it too.

 

How blanched Alex’s face had gone.  Eyeballs white all round the irises.  Mouth in a rictus like a bad Lisa Lohe imitation (something you’d expect from Britt Groningen, but never Alex).

 

“C’mon, your slop’s getting cold,” said Robin, annoyed at having lost an opportunity to mop Craig off.  “Guess what!” she told their lunch table, “Clerkington hit on Dmitria just now, and she hit him back!”

 

Startled gasp from Laurie.  Raised brows by Joss.  “(Where’s my milk?)” asked Fiona, hunched over her staff-paper spiral.

 

“What happened?  Is Alex okay?”

 

“He goosed her—she creamed him with Chef Boy-ar-dee—he went ‘oof’—she ran off—they’re hosing him down.  Just as he was about to say he’d be at my jam session, too.”

 

“(Sure he was,)” muttered Fiona through a mouthful of Froot Loops.

 

“He coulda been!”

 

“(Did he goose you?)”

 

“Oh never mind.  You don’t understand how hornyboys think.”

 

“None of us do, ‘cause none of them can,” said Joss.  (Sub-inquiring What did happen? to Vicki.)

 

(Tell you later.)  “So anyway, about this ‘jam session’—what do you want us who aren’t in Band to bring?”

 

“An ass you can dance off, baby!” Robin told her.  “We are gonna get down at Villa Neapolitan!”

 

“And I can come, right?” asked Laurie Harrison, bouncing with hesitant excitement.

 

“I thought you were coming!” Robin answered, as though Laurie were trying to weasel out of an RSVP.

 

“Oh!  Well yeah, I am, but what I meant to ask is—can Susie come too, y’know my sister?  She really loves par—I mean jam sessions.”

 

“I dunno,” mused Robin, twirling spaghetti onto her fork.  “Might be too much for her to handle.  Once we get going, things could turn pretty damn rowdy—”

 

“(Riiiight,)” went Fiona.  “(No beer—no weed—and Fat Bob’s old lady chaperoning?  Be lucky if it just gets loudie.)”

 

“Are you done with that new song yet?” Robin growled.  “It better have an extended drum solo.”

 

“Susie can take care of herself,” Laurie bravely persisted.  “And she really wants to be there.  So... um?...”

 

“Will you both bring me presents?”

 

“Jam session presents, that is—not birthday,” Joss interposed.  “A nice jar of musical marmalade, or harmonious preserves—”

 

“No sandwich spreads,” said Robin.  “Make it one present each and you can bring anyone you please—so long as none of ‘em are named Mustardman, Otis, or Tattaglia.  Don’t say it—” she warned Fiona, to forestall any he’s-a-pimp-ing.

 

“(‘Breaks a new heart ev’ry day,’)” Fiona sang instead.

 

The bell rang and the girls gathered themselves for departure.  Vicki was set to grab Joss and hurry her off to discuss the goosing/creaming, when Robin leaned in between them.

 

“Er, Volester—can I talk to you a sec, like in private?”

 

She must know something about Alex! Vicki sub-alerted Joss, who took the hint.

 

“C’mon Laurie, c’mon Feef—I got a bunch of other ideas for jam session gifties.”

 

“(Jambalaya,)” Fiona proposed.  “(With brine shrimp.)”

 

“You better not give me sea monkeys!” Robin hollered after them, before leading Vicki to the second-floor Home Base washroom and bullying their way to one of its mirrors.  There, her voice lowered to almost Fiona-volume, she said:

 

“(You’re good with makeup—can you give me any tips?  And before you say anything, yes—I do drown myself in Clearasil every night.)”

 

What’s this got to do with Alex freaking out? Vicki nearly said aloud.  “Um—you mean for tomorrow?  What’ll you be wearing?”

 

“Well gee, I’m fresh outta evening gowns, so same as I always dress.”  (Jeans belted with a heavy-duty buckle, scuffed combat boots, and a black leather jacket over a primary-color T-shirt.)  “Why?  Does it matter?”

 

“Well of course it does!  Your makeup should always complement your outfit.”

 

“Really?” said Robin, sounding very unRobinlike.

 

It had taken Vicki awhile to warm up to this Hell’s Angel-in-training.  “(She’s an acquired taste,)” Fiona once put it while sitting right next to Robin, who snapped “I am not!”  But when you got past the zits and peroxide and belligerence, there was a lot about Robin worth befriending—not least her common sense, as shown in choosing Vicki for makeup consultation.  (Joss was a cosmetic minimalist; Laurie played it oversafe; Fiona was frankly out to startle if not unnerve onlookers; and Sheila-Q would prefer to argue than advise.  “You’d have to be a Dainty-Drawers to wear that shade of blush!” she’d say.)

 

So Vicki tried to be helpful and patient, even though Robin kept them in the washroom through the entire free period.  “If anybody catches us, I’ll act sick and you act like you’re gonna take me to the nurse.”

 

Reminding Vicki of how Alex had looked before she’d vanished.

 

Worries upon worries.

 

While Vicki played Avon Lady, and Robin took notes about how to lay it on thick.  “Thanks, Volester!  You’re a pal.  Bet I land a fella at least as good as Oily Roy Hodeau.  Whaddaya suppose Quirk sees in that slimeball, aside from his French horn?”

 

“ROB-in!”

 

“Oh don’t be so dirtyminded.  I’m talking about his Band instrument, not the one in his pants.”

 

On which note they parted: Robin for fifth period Science with Mr. Dunn, and Vicki for Vocal Music with Mrs. Wellerand Alex Dmitria, who slipped into the big Home Base classroom just before the tardy bell.  Vicki, a soprano, could only peek surreptitiously at her among the altos during forty minutes of pitch-matching; but she caught up with Alex for a fleeting minute on the way back to Z-Wing.

 

“’Kay?” asked Vicki.

 

“Course,” said Alex.

 

She didn’t look ‘kay, though: still very pale, with supernovas turned to black holes.

 

“Do you—” Vicki began.

 

“See ya,” Alex ended, disappearing into Z204 for Advanced Math.

 

Vicki’d had her fill of Plain Old Math for the day and did not follow her in.  Becca Blair did, though, giving Vicki another cybernated eyescan as she passed by.

 

(Brrrr...)

 

Retreat across the hall to Z201 and spend most of Spanish giving el mal de ojo to Craig Clerkington.  Who still seemed perplexed by the cafeteria incident, plus having a meat-sauce splotch on his shirt.  Vicki hoped this was a new shirt, his best shirt, and Craig’s mom would give him hell for ruining it, while Brad Faussett laughed until he choked—just as he was doing now.

 

“What’s so funny?” Carly Thibert wanted to know.

 

“HE is!” gargled Brad.

 

“En Español, por favor,” Señorita DeStefano requested.

 

“Uhhhh... ¿El es?

 

“Muy bueno.

 

“¡HA!” went Brad.

 

“Aw, quit it,” whined Craig.

 

By seventh period Joss was agog for updates on all the goings-on.  But Mr. Dunn started droning right away about forces and motion, so Vicki put the headlines on hold; Science, for whatever reason (sheer boredom?) had become her least-understandable class.

 

After school, she sub-told Joss.

 

Special! Joss sub-answered.  Later adding “Is that all?” when Vicki explained about Robin’s makeover researchwhich Joss still found more interesting than the state of Alex’s buttocks or psyche.

 

“But she got so upset!”

 

“We’ve all had to get over Craig’s meatheadedness,” shrugged Joss.  “You did, that day he made those piggy-snorts at your ‘hind-riders.’”

 

“All my pants are ‘hind-riders,’” Vicki grumbled.  “As soon as cross country’s done with, I’m wearing a skirt to school every day.  On top of half-a-dozen petticoats.”

 

“Like a clog dancer?” said Joss.  “Don’t worry about Alex—she’s strong, she can take it.  And if Craig pulls any more piggy-stunts, you two can clog long-distance over his ass!”

 

“Incredibly gross,” Vicki told her.

 

*

 

The Ladybugs had no practice that Thursday afternoon; they were tapering down training before the big Cityland Invitational a week from Saturday.  So Vicki had to wait till Friday morning to see Alex again.

 

Wait.  And wait.  And not see.  Because Alex didn’t show for their run to school, and that had never happened before: not a single morning missed or late till now.  Vicki looked up her phone number on the L-Bug team roster, and twice tried calling Sprangletop Road: both times the line was busy.

 

Finally it got so late she had to beg a ride from Felicia, who wasn’t pleased to be kept waiting while Vicki got a jump on her new resolution and changed into a skirt.  No time to hunt for a half-slip or pull on pantyhose, so she took a pair of L’eggs out to the Firebird and wriggled into them there—lying on the back seat with feet in the air, skirt round her waist, and Bicentennial panties patriotically exposed for any passing driver to admire.

 

“Victoria Lorraine!  WHAT do you think you’re doing??”

 

“Um... trying not to snag my hose?”

 

“Well, also try not to give your poor old mother a stroke!”

 

“Aw, you’re not so poor,” Vicki pertly ventured (and was relieved to get a smile).

 

Friday meant Health & Hygiene in first period Phys Ed, so no need to get hideously gymsuited, but Ms. Swanson still maintained her bark and whistle as she called the roll:

 

“Denvour!”

 

“Here.”

 

“Disseldorf!”

 

“Here.”

 

“Dmitria!...  Dmitria?...  Where’s Alex??”

 

Surprise rippling through the gym bleachers, except for Vicki and those who’d already heard no answer from Alex in Mr. Folz’s homeroom.  Absence lists weren’t distributed till second period, so Ms. Swanson’d had no tip-off that the longest perfect attendance streak in Vanderlund Township School District history was broken.

 

Redoubled worries upon worries.  Not simply for Alex’s wellbeing, but that of the Ladybugs: an unexcused absence counted as missing a team practice, even on Fridays when none was held.  Which would scratch Alex from The Cityland Invitational, and hobble any hope of the L-Bugs distinguishing themselves there.

 

Becca Blair beckoned Vicki over at the end of Ms. Swanson’s don’t-abuse-drugs lecture.  Vicki felt irritated with herself for complying at once, and for feeling as undeveloped as Susie Zane in Becca’s presenceand for letting Becca interrogate her in transit to the Z-Wing, mostly to confirm things Becca already seemed to know.  Yes, Vicki and Alex regularly ran to school together.  Yes, Vicki’d tried and failed (twice!) to get in touch with Alex that morning.  Yes, Vicki had seen what shed thought she saw yesterday, and been worrying (upon worrying) about ever since.

 

“Do you know Mike Spurgeon?” Becca tersely queried, halting just outside Z202.

 

“Um, I’ve heard the name,” said Vicki.  Now irritated with herself for standing at attention—and at her pantyseats for wedgie-ing upward, L’eggs and Bicentennials both: threatening to take her skirtbottom with them and make it a hind-rider.  (A hazard Little Sue never had to deal with.)  She contrived a discreet pluck-out while vowing to locate every petticoat in her wardrobe the moment she got home.

 

“Rowr rowr,” went Roger Mustardman as he swaggered into the classroom.

 

(Gahd!  Boys were such piggy-snorting tush-disrespecting animals!)

 

“I’ll tell you something about Mike and Alex,” Becca was saying, ignoring both Roger and Vicki’s nether predicament.  “Meet me out on the walkway after fourth period.  You’ve got Mr. Gillies for homeroom, right?  I’ll let him know you’ll be with me during study hall.”

 

Ma’am yes ma’am.  Robin was correct: no way could you say “can’t” or “won’t” to Becca Blair.  Barely in her teens, yet indistinguishable from a student teacher; dater of guys in high school, who felt lucky to be so favored; co-captain of the eighth-grade Pompon Squad with haughty Gigi Pylewho had three of her personal clique (including Kim Zimmer) backing her up; yet they all knew Becca’s cheer was law.  She was a clique unto herself.

 

Which made it all the odder when she sighed and murmured, “Damn I hate English,” as they entered Miss McInerney’s class.

 

Vicki tucked that away to ponder later as she praised Robin’s remade face; rolled eyes with Fiona at this same remake; and sub-informed Joss, Boy have I got a lot to tell you!

 

“I bet it’s bull-oney,” Joss snortled between second and third periods.  “‘Something to tell about Mike and Alex’—ha!  Obviously Becca wants your beauty-salon guidance.  She saw the wonders you worked with Robin, and—”

 

“Blah blah blah.  Who is this Mike Spurgeon?”

 

“Him?  He’s King of the Towheads—got more hair than I do.  There was a big fuss last year whether he could play football without going to a barber.  I forget what happened, except he did get to be the sevvie quarterback even though he didn’t get a haircut.  He was a Z, but I haven’t seen him over here this year—maybe he transferred out.”

 

“Disappointed?”

 

“Nahhhh—he’s a towhead, remember.  Too blond for me.

 

*

 

“I’ve known Alex since kindergarten” (said Becca Blair, examining her fingernails on the stark stone walkway) “and she’s always been like she is now.  The good part, I mean.  Always into games—kickball, softball, tetherball, you name it.  Boys liked her for that, years before they took any notice of her looks.  Not just letting her play on their teams, but picking her first when choosing up sides.”

 

(Fishing a bottle of Chanel polish out of a Gucci bag.)

 

“That should’ve driven me crazy.  But how can you be jealous of someone like Alex?  She loved everybody and we all loved her.  She’s always been that sort of person.”

 

(Pause for nail-painting: gold lamé to correspond with her pumpkin-colored sweater-dress.)

 

“You said... the good part?” Vicki timidly probed.

 

“Mmm.  In grade school, she and Mike Spurgeon were like best buddies.  The other guys never gave him a hard time about ‘playing with a girl,’ ‘cause it was Alex and they all wished they were him.  It seemed so obvious, him and Alex being together.  Mike was always great-looking too; girls had crushes on him back in sandbox days.  But again, none of us was ever jealous, ‘cause we all knew they were bound to be a real couple when they grew up.”

 

(Pause to blow on wet nails.  And keep pausing.  And keep blowing.)

 

“Something... bad happened?” Vicki prompted.

 

“Mmm.  Last April, during spring break.  Im not sure exactly whateither Mike made a move on her, and she freaked and fought him off; or he got Alex to go along with it, and her dad caught them.  Have you met Mr. Dmitria yet?  Well, don’t be in any rush to—believe me.

 

“Anyway, she’s been a bundle of nerves since then.  Especially when guys hit on her.  Which of course they’re always doing.  Not all of them as dumb as Craig was yesterday, but Alex gets jumpy even when it’s a nice guy.  She wouldn’t go out for Pompon Squad even though she’d’ve been a shoo-in.  Said it was because we can’t be on any other sports teams, but really it was ‘cause she didn’t want a crowd of guys watching her lead cheers.  You know, the way guys do.  And even if she did, her ‘Papa’ sure as hell wouldn’t.”

 

(Pause for renewed nail inspection.)

 

(A teacher patrolling the walkway started toward them, recognized Becca, and passed by with a courteous nod.)

 

“I was hoping she’d get better over the summer,” Becca continued.  “But now she’s out sick, for the first time ever.  Alex doesn’t get sick, even when everybody else does; she plays nurse.  She really cares about people.  And dogs, birds, trees, you name it.  The only one she won’t take care of is herself.  She thinks she does.  But only runs herself raggedy.”

 

Vicki squirmed on the stark stone bench.  “How can I help?”

 

“Maybe she’ll listen to you.  You’re new here.  You’re her neighbor, her teammate.  She picked you to run to school with.”

 

“But... what can I say to make her feel better?

 

Becca shouldered her bag and rose to her feet: honeyskinned, creamy-aura’d, golden-lamé’d.  Vicki scrambled up too and reached deferentially for the Z-Wing door, but held off opening it for Becca till she received an answer.

 

Junoesque sigh.  “Something that won’t keep her clammed up in a shell.”

 

*

 

“You okay?” Joss asked Vicki four hours later.

 

“Yeah... thanks again for coming with me.”

 

“Hey, it’s Friday—your casa is my casa tonight.  And once we’re done here, we’ve got a party (‘scuse me, a jam session) to get ready for.  Think she might wanna go with us?”

 

“Alex??  To Robin’s??”

 

“You said Robin invited her, before Meathand got ass-slappy—Jeez Louise!  Is this where she lives?”

 

240 Sprangletop Road: the Mission Revival house.

 

“You inlanders!” Joss said appreciatively.  “Never a dull homestead!”

 

“I guess,” said Vicki.  She pressed the Mission Revival buzzer, and a series of shrill yip yip yips resounded inside.  “(Gahd, I hope that’s not Alex.)”

 

The door opened.  “Yes?” went a lady who hopefully also wasn’t Alex, grown a quarter-century older and harder-faced overnight.

 

“Um, hi!  Is Alex Dmitria here?  I mean I’m sure she is, this is her house—we knew she was out sick today—but could we see her, please?  I run with Alex, y’know like to school and cross country and so on, this here’s my friend Joss uh Jocelyn and my name’s Vicki and look, we brought Alex’s homework.”

 

Yip yip yip at a distance.

 

The lady smiled, which made her look much more like present-day (or at least yesterday) Alex.  “Please, come in.  I am Alejandra’s mother.  She will be glad to see you—and her homework.”  Latin accent, with a parched tone to it: like freeze-dried guacamole.

 

The same was true of the Dmitriass interior decoration.  It resembled a fairly exclusive yet aridly austere hotel lobby in Odessa (Texas or the Ukraine: take your pick).

 

They found Alex in a spartan bedroom, not at all like Joss’s aerie or Vicki’s cozy corner.  One wall was dominated by a truly spooky poster of a masked hockey goalie—The City’s own Mr. Zero, signed by his own bold hand; but still.

 

Alex, in a tightly-knotted kimono, was staring not at this prize possession but out a window, with an I’m-unjustly-grounded! posture and attitude.  Clutched in her arms was a Chihuahua who yipped at the visitors with a Jesus-save-me! tenor and expression.

 

“Vicki!  Ohmygosh!” cried Alex.  “I am soooo sorry about this morning, you would not believe the silliness I’ve gone through today, all I can say is it wasn’t my fault, my PARENTS overreacted and jumped to all kinds of conclusions when really I was perfectly fine, but they went and made me ruin my perfect attendance record for NO reason—”

 

She stopped long enough to inhale, and Vicki seized the opportunity to give her the folder of homework assignments.  “I got your Health and English and Music—Becca got your Math and Science and Social Studies—”

 

“—and I got your French from Monsieur Blumer,” said Joss, catching the Chihuahua as it plunged headlong out of Alex’s loosened grasp.

 

“Oh thank heavens, this is such a load off my mind, I was soooo afraid I was gonna fall behind and never catch up again—thanks, you guys! and thank Becca for me too!”

 

“Um... you remember Joss Murrisch,” said Vicki, who’d hastily introduced them that one time Alex bolted through lunch at their cafeteria table.

 

“Sure!  Hi, Joss!  We’re so glad you’re here—that’s Tonio, he’s my baby” (who was trying to hide inside Joss’s baggy T-shirt) “—and that’s Yermak, he’s my sweetheart” (a handsome Borzoi stretched out by a Windsor chair).

 

Joss deposited the Chihuahua on the floor, where he took shelter under the bedcorner farthest away from Alex.  “Tonio, hunh?  Typical male, going straight for my ti—throat,” she said, neatly sidestepping dangerous topics.

 

“Oh no, not Tonio, he’s supergentle!  Please don’t think bad of him, he’s just the sweetest little dog—”

 

“Um, I was only kidding—” Joss faltered, before Vicki stepped up to the line as a responsible Ladybug should.  Removing the homework from Alex’s hands; placing it on a severely organized desktop; making Alex sit beside her on the bounce-a-quarter-off-its-coverlet bed.  Mr. Zero stared down at them from one wall, while rows of eyes in framed group photos peered out from another.  Joss, counting the many teams and clubs and Girl Scout troops Alex’d been in over the years, retreated to the Windsor chair and there had her shoes sniffed by Yermak.  “(Jeez, dog, you too?)”

 

Meanwhile Vicki told Alex “a little story.”  Modifying the past to fit present needs and not forgetting melancholy Paulette Schoop, she led Alex to believe that a recklessly neglected sprain had cost Vicki a career in ballet, which might’ve been salvaged had she not overdone her ankle before its ligament could heal.

 

“But I don’t have a sprain!” Alex objected.  “Nothing’s the matter, why won’t anyone believe that?  You know me, Vicki, I’m calm as a rock

 

“Alex, now listen: you have got to start taking things easier.”

 

“Oh don’t you start, not you too!”

 

“You’d say the exact same if you saw me or Laurie or Sheila or any of us wearing ourselves out.  I’ve heard you do it, Alex—to Susie before Athens Grove; you told her not to push herself too hard like Lisa does, or she’d end up hurting herself.”

 

“She would ‘cause she was, and Laurie wasn’t going to warn her in time ‘cause she’s so close to Susie she didn’t notice it.”

 

“Well,” said Vicki, “I’ve noticed what you’re doing, so let me warn you in time.  Either promise to start easing up, right this very minute, or else I’m gonna run outta here and go SNITCH on you!  To Mumbles and Mr. Heathcote!”

 

Joss, who’d kept her mouth shut till then, lost it at SNITCH and had one of her silent gigglefits that were impossible to resist joining in.  Even Alex unknotted enough to share some of the mirth; and Yermak trotted over to rest his noble head on her knee.

 

“Um,” said Alex, scratching him behind his noble ears.  “Maybe.  I sure don’t want Mumbles yelling at me.  But there’s so many things I need to do—

 

“Which you can,” said Vicki, “if you get in a little rest and relaxation first.”

 

“What do you think I was doing, cooped up here all day today?”

 

“You don’t look rested and you’re not acting relaxed.”

 

“I tell you what,” said Joss.  “You two’ve got practice tomorrow, right?  I’ll bike down to school after my cornet lesson—you guys get changed after your practice—and then the three of us’ll go do the Green Bridge.”

 

“That’s a great idea!” Vicki applauded.  “Alex, didn’t you say you get a discount at all the Green Bridge stores ‘cause of your dad?”

 

“What?” went Joss.  “And I’m only hearing about this now?  Well, you’ve got no choice, Alex; this is gonna happen.”

 

“Oh but I can’t, not tomorrow afternoon—I’ve gotta be at the animal shelter by two!”

 

“No you do not,” announced her mother, entering with a platter of cups and saucers.  “I have telephoned them already to say you will be indisposed.”

 

“Mama, you didn’t!” 

 

Rapidfire confab in Spanish, of which Vicki could translate very few words—other than Mama Dmitria’s having the last one on the subject.

 

“Te de canela,” she offered.  “Cinnamon tea.  Best in the mornings, but very healthful all the day.  And here are polvorones—shortbread cookies.”

 

“Mama!  We’re in training!”

 

“We’re tapering down,” Vicki quickly reminded her.

 

“Oh, yum!  I’ll eat yours, Alex,” said Joss.

 

No need.  Tonio, drawn by the smell of cinnamon, came out from under the bed to spring atop it and wheedle a cookie from Alex.  (“Just this once, she consented.)  Yermak was too proud to beg, but nobly accepted half a polvorón from Joss.

 

“Forget it,” Vicki told both dogs.  “I’m eating all of mine.”

 

Over their tea, she and Joss talked about that night’s Band Jam—being extra careful not to call it a “party” lest Alex be reminded of yesterday’s invitation/incident.  They told her instead about Fiona Weller’s father Lem, who’d spent the past decade going from folk music to folk-rock to psychedelia, and was now on the road fifty weeks a year “still hoping to become the next Van Dyke Parks.”  His wife Martha (Mrs. Weller of Vocal Music) had moved in with her sister Polly (an uplifting weaver), brother-in-law Cass Rumpelmagen (an optimistic architect), and their five wholesome little Rumpelmagens (to whom elder cousin Fiona was “Fee Fi Fo Fum”) in a house mostly made of plexiglassat which you shouldn’t throw stones, though “Feef” did hurl verbal brickbats.

 

“She must be so unhappy,” murmured compassionate Alex.  “I would be, if my Papa was always out of town.  Though I’d love it if I had a lot of little cousins living with me.”

 

Vicki produced a sheet of paper from the notebook in her knapsack.  “These are the lyrics to Fiona’s new song—me ‘n’ Laurie ‘n’ Little Sue are gonna sing backup when she debuts it tonight.”
 

 

Take me to your empty attic 

    and show me the dust on your mirror:

 then I can make it my business 

   to find a highway out of here

 

Quit being a face in your crowd 

   and stop whistling against your din:

 hark how the Snake of Nirvana

    sheds whole centuries like a skin

 
 

(Fiona, tipped off by Vicki, had read Pamela Sykes’s Mirror of Danger.)

 

“Gee!” breathed Alex.  “That’s... I don’t know what to say.  Its hard to believe shes really Mrs. Weller’s daughter.”

 

“Yep!” said Joss, setting down a drained cup and cleaned plate.  “Weirdly cool, that’s our Feef.  Well, not to eat and dash, but we really gotta get going if we’re gonna be at the Band Jam in time.  Alex, you rest up for tomorrow, and don’t forget to bring your card or badge or whatever gets your Green Bridge discount

 

A heavy door thumped open and shut.

 

Tonio, letting out one constricted yip, hopped back under the bed; Yermak squeezed himself beneath the Windsor chair.

 

“Papa’s home!” said Alex.  “Come meet him before you go.”

 

A great slab of a man, sorting through a fistful of mail in the arid austere living room.  He almost reminded Vicki of Telly Savalas—same big bald head, tinted glasses, and a toothpick not unlike a Tootsie Pop stick protruding from between his lips.  Then he glanced up, and Vicki abruptly recalled The Beast of Yucca Flats.

 

Deep rumble of a voice: “You are feeling better, Alexandra?”

 

“Oh Papa, I’m just fine.  These are my friends, Vicki and Joss; they brought me my homework, wasn’t that nice?  Is it okay if I go with them to the Green Bridge tomorrow after cross country practice?”

 

“To do what?”

 

“Why, visit the store, of course—”

 

“—and all the other stores—” Joss couldn’t help interjecting.

 

“—to window-shop,” Vicki volunteered, just in case money was an object.

 

Behind the tinted glasses, Mr. Dmitria’s big bald eyes did not shift from Alex as he took a fresh bite on his toothpick.  “Shopping, you say.  Or perhaps—to meet somebody?”

 

Stillness in the living room.

 

“No, Papa,” Alex murmured.  “It’d just be me ‘n’ my girlfriends here.  Nobody else.”  (Swallow.)  “Doctor said, y’know, I’m s’posed to... um... lighten up.”

 

Joss and Vicki sub-nudged each other.  A doctor said.

 

“Lighten up, yes.  That you can do at home.  As you did today.  I do not like the idea of you slacking off.”

 

“¡Dios mio!” from Mrs. Dmitria, listening in the kitchen.  Delivering a stream of what didn’t sound like Spanish so much as an angry tape recording played in reverse.

 

The tinted lenses turned kitchenward for a moment, then were trained on the other girls.  Joss feigned sudden interest in whether her bike was still parked safely out front.

 

Vicki wanted to run join Tonio under Alex’s bed.

 

Then she remembered something Gran had said one day back when Vicki, no older than six, had been frightened by a brusque druggist in the Schmelzes’s old neighborhood:

 

Never mind, Miss.  He is only a Russss-ee-an.

 

So, drawing herself up like a proud Litvak, she returned the big bald glare; and it was Mr. Dmitria who looked away first.

 

Alex cleared her throat with a piteous ahem.  “Please, Papa?”

 

Toothpick-bearing lips widened, in an approximation of a smile.  “Very well.  This once, you may go.”

 

“Oh thank you, Papa!” went Alex, bounding into his arms.

 

“Well, we’ll be skedaddling,” said Joss, tugging Vicki to and out the door, retrieving her bicycle and holding her breath till they were safely distant from Sprangletop Road.  Only then did she exhale a tremendous “JEEEEEEEZ!!”

 

“Joss...”

 

“And I thought Robin was a daddy’s girl!”

 

“Joss...

 

“I mean I love my father too, but not with my hips and tongue!”

 

“JOSS!  Ssshhhh!”

 

“That had to be the scariest damn man I’ve ever seen—and I just got over my Devil’s Rain nightmares, too!”

 

“Now, it wasn’t... that bad...”

 

“It wasn’t that good, either!” said Joss, shaking her mass of curls.  “Poor Alex!  We really do hafta help her.”

 

*

 

Robin Neapolitan’s being a daddy’s girl was freely acknowledged and put on exhibit that evening in their heavily-soundproofed basement (bigger than the Villa above it) on Pottage Road.  Two snapshots blown up to square-yard size: one of baby Robin in a tiny helmet and leather suit, perched happily in front of Fat Bob on his tricked-out Sportster; the other at age eight, inspired (however hotly she might deny it now) by Melody on Josie and the Pussycats, trying out Fat Bob’s drum kit for the first time.

 

And here was Robin at fourteen, live and in person and looking pretty good all told: partly due to laid-on-thick makeup, partly to the excellent turnout (and male-to-female ratio) for her birthday jam.  There was even a high school junior here, Susie Zane’s brother Jason, who’d given her and Laurie a lift to Villa Neapolitan and then hung around when he saw all the Harleys in Fat Bob’s garage.  Not to mention the free pizza, cake, gelato, and nymphetry in the heavily-soundproofed basement.

 

“Jason’s such a scuzz,” Little Sue confided to Vicki.  “Always taking advantage of Laurie!”

 

“Like how?” gasped Vicki.

 

Like cajoling her into doing his chores and lending him money, which he’d repay by snapping her bra straps and pantybands.  Which never failed to send Laurie into an ardent step-amorous daze.

 

“He knows better’n to try that with me,” said Susie“He knows I’d give him a knee in the ding-dongs—and that I’ll do it if he tries anything else with her, too!”

 

Not much of an illicit nature got undertaken that night, by Jason or anyone else, thanks to the presence of Fat Bob’s old lady Charlotte Pauk.  She was a heavyset fortyish diner waitress who’d seen it all, joined in a lot of it, and could nip damn near anything in the bud with piercing squawk-talk:

 

“Okay, you kids, if you feel like you’re gonna upchuck?  This is what you do, see—take ten deep breaths, and with every breath take a giant step this-a-way, see, and when you make it over this-a-way you can either use this here can that flushes, or this here bucket that doesn’t.  But if you want someone to hold your hair while you upchuck, see, you better bring along a friend, ‘cause I got on a new pair o’ corkheels and no way are any o’ you gonna decorate ‘em for me!  See?  Ain’t that right, Bob?”

 

“You got it, Charlotte!  No aimless puking!”

 

Nor any beer, weed, Seven Minutes In Heaven, or sneaking out behind the garage to indulge in any of the above.  Or sneaking in to crash the party if your name was Mustardman, Otis, or Tattaglia.  (Robin had supplied her father with descriptions of all three Smarkses, and Fat Bob went on periodic picket duty armed with a pool cue.)

 

Jamming was permissible and in constant swing; ditto dancing to same.  Robin got to show off her extended percussion chops; Joss played keyboard as well as cornet; Sheila Quirk swapped her flute for a rhythm guitar; Roy Hodeau went on a horny French toot; and a starveling guy called “Skully” Erle revivified the late Paul Gonsalves with chorus after chorus on tenor sax.  Fiona, who’d been teaching herself the electric bass, performed “Dust On Your Mirror” and “Ultravirgin” plus a cover of “Someday, Little Girl” (the theme song from True Grit) as it might be interpreted by Suzi Quatro rather than Glen Campbell:

 

YOU’LL!  FIND!  THE!  SUN!  WUNNNNNNN-DAY!  (YEAH!!!)

 

(No muttering done when there’s a song to be sung.)

 

Vicki, huddled with fellow backup vocalists Sue and Laurie, told them: "Too bad Mumbles isn’t here—she’d fit right in.

 

What?” they replied.  “Did you say something?

 

*

 

“Unh-unh!” said Alex on Saturday afternoon.  “I can’t eat ice cream—we can’t, Vicki!  My Mama’s shortbread’s one thing, but we’ve got the Invitational next week!”

 

“Right—next week,” Vicki replied.  “And we don’t have to order ice cream—”

 

“I do,” said Joss.

 

“—Zephyr Heaven’s got this fizzy lemonade that’s supergood.  They make it with a special syrup—no ice cream.”


“It’s carbonated?  That cuts down your wind.”

 

“Not if you burp it out,” said Joss.

 

“Just one glass,” urged Vicki.  “While we watch Joss torture us, slurping a cone—”

 

“Blah blah blah,” scoffed Joss.

 

“There’s at least 250 calories in an ice cream cone,” Alex calculated.  “It can take half an hour to exercise that off.”

 

“And you guys exercised for over an hour,” said Joss, triple-chaining her bicycle to one of the Green Bridge racks.  “So you’re entitled to a couple cones each—and I’ll be glad to eat ‘em if you won’t.”  (Click. Click. Click.)  “There now!  Anybody wants to steal this bike, they’ll have to put in some exercise too.”

 

The L-Bugs, prepped by Mumbles (over the phone: more earaches), had made no big deal of Alex’s sick day.  Mr. Heathcote questioned her privately about the doctor’s diagnosis, but went ahead and put Alex through the full workout, which she completed without mishap or vacillation.

 

Now at Zephyr Heaven they were able to grab one of the outdoor bistro tables—no small feat on a pleasant Saturday afternoon—and have their refreshments al fresco, watching the world (or at least part of a suburb) roll by.

 

“Ooh!” went Alex, sipping her lemon fizz, “this is good.  It tastes like champagne!”

 

“Hunh?” went Vicki.  “Mine doesn’t.”

 

“What I mean is, it’s been so long since I’ve had a pop—it’s like all these bubbles up my nose, y’know?  Not that I drink a lot of champagne, of course.”  She looked around at the rolling-by suburbanites, and heaved a sigh that was half-titter.  “This is—it’s so—I feel like I’m ditching school, or something!  Even though it’s the weekend.  And not that I’ve done a lot of ditching, either.”

 

“Of course,” Joss slurped.  “But c’mon—you live right across the canal, and your dad manages one of the stores here.  Don’t you ever just hang out at the Green Bridge?”

 

“I help out at Papa’s store sometimes,” said Alex, finishing her drink.  “Shall we go there next?”

 

“Let’s wind up there,” Vicki suggested, “after we’ve checked out everyplace else.”

 

So she and Joss ushered Alex through Bonnachoven’s, and the Della Verita Boutique, and Tanya’s Fine Shoes, and the juniors department at the miniCathedral.  Persuading her that yes, you could bring a knapsack into the shops, so long as it was zippered shut and no unbought merchandise got stuffed inside it.  And yes, items could be taken off hangers or from folded stacks, to be held up in front of you or tried on in a fitting room—even if you had no intention of buying it that day, or indeed ever.

 

They coached her on the subtle arts of determining whether this garment or that accessory would go with anything already in your wardrobe (or your best friend’s, from which you were entitled to borrow); whether the same item could be found more affordably elsewhere; and, if not, whether you could sustain its purchase out of your own pocket, or had to cadge an extension of parental funding.

 

It felt like they were introducing a foreign exchange student to upper-middle-class American merchandising, and how to cope with this on an eighth-grader’s budget.  Here was Alex Dmitria, tall/slim/poised/lovely enough to be a model; yet taking no more than an am-I-tidy? interest in her personal appearance.  Still content at nearly fourteen to be outfitted by her mother, for crying out loud!  It seemed like such a waste—a betrayal of teenage capability.

 

However, their Young Grasshoppper wasn’t an honor student for nothing.  By the time they reached the miniCathedral, Alex could zero in unassisted on a pair of fancy red-and-black tricot pajamas, bedecked not with ladybugs but tiny dancing Cossacks.

 

“Oh, wouldn’t these be perfect?  I wish I could buy them!”

 

“How much are they, $12?  Do you need some money?  I can lend you—well, a little,” said Vicki, poking dolefully into her pocketbook.

 

“Oh no, that’s sweet of you, with my discount they’d be $10 and I’ve got that.  It’s just... I’ve never... bought my own PJs before.  It seems like such a grownup thing to do.  Or does that sound stupid?”

 

“Well, I’ve done it,” Vicki pointed out, “and you’re older’n me.”  Alex’s birthday was December 19th: not the best of all possible dates for well-distributed gift-expectations.

 

“And I’ve done it, and she’s older’n me,” added Joss, whose birthday was April 11th.

 

“Only by six weeks,” Vicki responded.  (Irksome to be reminded while surrounded by lingerie that somebody six weeks younger, even your dearest friend, could have so much more bustline.  Which long-distance running did nothing to enhance—even Alex the Gazelle couldn’t quite fill an A-cup.)

 

“Anyway,” Joss continued, “we’ve been buying as much of our own clothes as we’ve had money to spend on, for a long time now.  Course, me ‘n’ Vicki have older sisters who ‘greased the skids’ for us, shoppingwise—”

 

“Yuck!” went Vicki.  “That sounds like something Roy Hodeau’d do.”

 

“Eew!” went Joss.  “Anyway, Alex: consider us your personal fashion guides, even if we are younger’n you.”

 

“That’s right!” Vicki agreed.  “And we won’t let you outta here till you buy those pajamas.”

 

“Oh, you guys,” Alex beamed.  “Okay, you talked me into it!  But it’ll be your fault if I start dreaming I’m doing the kazatsky.

 

“The what?”

 

Alex glanced this way and that.  Then, in a graceful swoop, arms were folded and haunches squatted upon; legs were kicked out left—right—left—right—with a leap up high for a final “HEY!”

 

And a peal of cheerybabe laughter, only semi-abashed.

 

*

 

They weren’t ordered to leave the miniCathedral after that, since the irate saleslady recognized Squat-Kickin’ Alex; but it was generally agreed they should ring up their Cossack pajamas and move along.  Doing so, they encountered Fiona Weller and Robin Neapolitan coming out of Carry-a-Tune with a flat plastic sack.

 

“Hey there!  How’s the hangovers?” Joss inquired.

 

“(The what?)” Alex asked Vicki.

 

“(Just a joke,)” Vicki replied.

 

“My ears’re still ringing, if that’s what you mean,” Robin said complacently.  “And she’s gonna be incoherent for a week,” nodding at Fiona.  “That’s what she gets for singing full-tilt like a boogie diva.”

 

Feef, her eyesockets raccoonified with fatigue and Maybelline, muttered something unintelligible but less than sprightly.  Moana, Groana, and Fiona...

 

Robin’s lunch-bunch had chipped in to buy her a big Carry-a-Tune gift certificate (after debating Sheilas suggestion that a set of teensy certificates, individually wrapped, would be more hilarious) and Robin had lost no time converting it to LPs.  She’d bought The Who by Numbers, Deep Purple’s Come Taste the Banddespite Ritchie Blackmore having bailed the previous Juneand Bongo Fury by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, featuring Captain Beefheart.

 

Alex, though smiling as these albums were debagged for display, did so with foreign exchange-ish mystification.

 

Joss and Vicki, by dint of facial contortions, were able to dissuade Robin from asking if Alex’s ass had recuperated from Craig's slappage; and Fiona, though heedless of deterrence on this and every other question, was fortunately too hoarse to be heard.

 

“Well ciao, babies!” said Robin, climbing onto her chief birthday present: a secondhand Margutta scooter.  Fat Bob had been able to rationalize this gift because [a] Italian-made, to a Neapolitan, was the same as 100% American; [b] he’d taken the scooter in trade from an American, born and raised in Kenosha; and [c] it wasn’t a goddamned undernourished moped. 

 

Alex, who rode real live horses without a qualm, shied away from the Margutta as Fiona took her seat and Robin revved it up.

 

“(Is she really old enough to drive that thing?)” Alex asked.

 

“(She thinks so,)” Joss answered.

 

“We’re gonna go play these records at Skully Erle’s house,” Robin smirked over the vrooming.  “And maybe play a little house too, if he and his brother get lucky!”

 

Fiona leaned forward and made a mutter-observation in Robin’s ear.

 

“Hunh?  What?  Really?  Where?  Uh oh,” said Robin.  “Better watch out, you guys—it looks like you got a daytime Night Stalker.”

 

Vicki’s trio wheeled around and caught Mr. Dmitria dodging behind an ornamental sapling.

 

“Why, that’s Papa!” went Alex, giving him a vigorous wave.  “Hi, Papa!  Come meet more of my friends!”

 

Mr. Dmitria didn’t budge.

 

“See ya Monday—if you survive!” Robin called over Fiona’s shoulder as they buzzed off down Bedeguar Way.

 

Vicki and Joss trailed after Alex to Mr. Dmitria’s sapling, behind which he tried to reassert his Yucca Flats beastliness.

 

“I thought you told me, Alexandra, you were not meeting anyone here.”

 

“You mean Fiona and Robin, Papa?  We just ran into them—they’re in our English class, and Fiona’s mother’s my Music teacher—Vicki’s, too.  Mrs. Weller, remember?  You met her at Open House.”

 

“Are you saying they are your age?  Riding a motor scooter?  Perhaps taking one that does not belong to them, stealing it for a joyride?  And you call them your friends?”

 

“That scooter’s a birthday gift to Robin from her father, who loves her very much,” said a voice: crisply civil, with no-nonsense authority.  Vicki wondered if Mrs. Driscoll or Becca Blair had joined the conversation—before realizing she was the one who’d spoken.

 

Now she wondered how much it was going to hurt when she fainted on the sidewalk.

 

But Joss (chiming in with a “S’right!”) took her elbow encouragingly, and Alex piped up with gentle yet unmistakable reproach: “Papa, I’m surprised at you.  That wasn’t a very nice thing to say at all.”

 

The toothpick dropped from Mr. Dmitria’s gaping mouth, as though he’d had a plateful of spaghetti thrust into his considerable gut.

 

“Now, I know you didn’t mean it,” Alex smiled.  “You were afraid I might take a ride on Robin’s scooter, weren’t you?  That’s silly, Papa, you know I’d never do such a thing—give me a pony any day.  C’mon, let’s all go to the store!  Oh and look at the pajamas I bought, Papa!  Aren’t they darling?  I picked them out and paid for them myself!”

 

She led her buffaloed Beast back to his lair at Double-A Sporting Goods.  Joss and Vicki followed a few steps after them, Joss still supporting Vicki’s elbow as she moved forward on wobbly legs.

 

“(You okay, champ?)”

 

“(Did I really say that?  To him?  Was that really me talking?)”

 

“(Unless you’ve got somebody else throwing their voice out of yours,)” said Joss.

 

*

 

So much progress was made that Saturday afternoon, and more followed on Monday morning—before lightning struck a second lunchtime.

 

Craig Clerkington, to his credit, apologized for ham-handedly upsetting Alex; and she graciously forgave himthough with a foreign exchange-y air, as though for some long-ago antic that had no connection to her caboose.

 

Then during study hall Becca took a red pen to Alex’s extracurricular list, paring down its breadth and depth.  This semester Alex was Secretary of 8-Z and on the Eighth Grade Executive Board; a leading alto in both the Mixed Chorus and Girls Glee Club; a vital figure in the negotiations to merge the French and Spanish Clubs (whose memberships were flagging) and the campaign to expand the Math Club into basic computer programming.  This on top of being in three advanced-level classes; an aide in the Media Center during free periods; a current cross country and upcoming basketball Ladybug; a Silver Award-winning Cadette Girl Scout; teaching little kids elementary sports at the Petty Hills Country Club; working at the SPCA animal shelter on Saturdays; going horseback riding with Mumbles Metcalf on Sundays; and giving serious thought to taking up racquetball.

 

“But Becca—“ Alex protested, as the red pen reduced her duties and cut back on hours.

 

“You still get to do everything on this list—just less of it.  With more time to rest and relax, every day of the week.”

 

“I know, but—”

 

“Do you want to be home sick more often?”

 

“Homesick?  No...”

 

“Well then!” went Becca.  Deaf, as usual, to the words “can’t” and “don’t.”

 

Earlier that morning in the locker room she’d informed Vicki, “You did good—Alex seems a lot better—but I need you to keep tabs on her—make sure she doesn’t start overdoing it again, first chance she gets—or the next time something bad happens.”

 

“Will it?” asked Vicki in dismay.

 

“Always does,” said pragmatic Becca, toweling down her terrific torso.

 

And she was proved right that very day in the cafeteria.

 

Alex, resuming her lunchroom rounds, dined again at Vicki’s table.  This time she ate at a leisurely pace, chewing each bite more than twice; making easy conversation with the whole bunch, not just her fellow L-Bugs; and getting less alarmed than before by Robin and Sheila-Q’s daily quarrel.  (Today’s subject: could Seventeen magazine remain pertinent till its title age, or did it wear out its suitability in junior high?)

 

“Oh, Jeez,” groaned Joss, not at this debate but as a latter-day Daisy Duck hove into view.  Hauling a guy in tow—a towhead, in fact, sporting an inordinate amount of fair hairwith whom she practically started slowdancing right where Joss and Vicki couldn’t help but see them.  Snuggle cuddle nuzzle they went, almost in your face as you were trying to eat.

 

Joss made a big production of repacking her half-finished lunch.

 

So who was Kimmy Zimmer’s smitten sucker?  Could it be the Hunk With No Name, whose apparition still haunted Pre-Algebra?  Nope—this guy looked less like Vincent Van Patten than his Three for the Road brother, Leif Garrett.  Not quite as twerpy-faced as Leif, yet nowhere near as heartthrobbable as Vince.  A towhead, all right. 

 

Laurie Harrison, peering around to see what Joss and Vicki were eww-ing at, let out a bunny-squeal.  “Mike Spurgeon!  With Kim!  I knew theyd start going together, now that he’s on Y!  Oh, isn’t he dreamy?”

 

Vicki glanced at Alex seated on her other side.  And found her turned to stone.

 

She’d pushed her stool back as though to stand and depart, only to stay where she was.  Eyes down.  Head bent.  Hands visible in her lap, scrunching a napkin with whitening knuckles.

 

Vicki scooted over to block any view, then laid her own hand atop Alex’s.  Which let go of the napkin, swiveled up, and clasped Vicki’s.

 

They never spoke of this occurrence afterward; nor would Alex so much as allude to who or what had triggered it.  But Vicki began to worry-upon-worry about her all over again, trying to keep tabs on Alex without getting on her fragile nerves, or Mr. Dmitria’s—

 

—or, increasingly, Joss’s.

 

Back up a step.  Jog down to Sprangletop Road on alternate weekday mornings to meet Alex at the Mission Revival.  Always warm greetings from Mama, slipping Vicki a baked goodie to take to school.  Papa, when encountered, would nod at Vicki and widen his lips and avoid meeting the Litvak look in her Polish eyes.

 

On the other weekday mornings, Alex came up to Burrow Lane but without her former frantic hurry.  And Goofus—never one to willingly get out of bed—began rising of his own accord to scrub hands and face, dress with fourth-grade spruceness, and wait by the window for Alex’s approach.

 

“Hey there, Slugger!  Love your hair,” she’d greet him, rumpling his orange locks; making Goof react as the boys in Miss Durbin’s class had when Nina the Gypsy Infanta’d shown them any attention.

 

He’s getting to be that age, you know.

 

(Oh grohhssss...)

 

“What a sweet little guy,” Alex remarked one day as they left for VW.

 

“He isn’t!” Vicki insisted.  “It’s all an act, ‘cause he’s crazy about you.” 

 

She clapped a mental hand over her yap the instant these words left it, fearing they might trigger another freak-out.  But Alex, though blushing beet-red, looked very pleased.

 

“I’d love to have a kid brother—I always wanted one.  Actually I always wanted a lot of brothers, like Sheila has.  Life’d be just about perfect then.”

 

“You can help yourself to mine.  I’m serious, Alex—rent him by the month, if you won’t take him for free.”

 

Alex laughed.  “Wish I could, but Papa’d be jealous.”

 

Vicki jogged the rest of the way with a sagging jaw.  Don’t gape, Miss, or your tongue may not fit inside your mouth...

 

“Hey, I’d like to have a whole lot of ‘bruthas’ too,” gibed Joss when Vicki relayed this chatter.

 

“Hardy har har.  But honestly—wouldn’t having a dad like that make a girl turn, y’know, all twisty inside?”

 

“Don’t ask me—Robin’s our daddy’s-girl expert.  Though she seems okay, so long as Charlotte only sleeps over but doesn’t move in with her and Fat Bob.  Anyway, now she’s interested in that stoner Skully Erle, except I think he and Fiona’d make a ‘cuter’ couple—”

 

“Joss!  I’m talking about Alex!”

 

“Yeah, I noticed.”

 

“Well, I don’t mean to go on and on about her, but I’m worried!”

 

“So’m I,” said Joss with a dry sigh.  “But that doesn’t mean we can’t gossip about somebody else for awhile, does it?”

 

“It’s just that, y’know, every time I think she’s gonna be okay, she says something—”

 

“‘Twisty’—I get it.”  With a louder, longer, drier sigh.

 

For the first time since they first met, Vicki felt herself to be on thin ice with Jocelyn Murrisch.  She considered sub-repeating her vow to never drift away in a thousand years; but suppose that made Joss sub-react with We’ve been through this, can you please do me a favor and quit brooding about it already??

 

Which, even sub-unsaid, wasn’t conducive to that happening anytime soon.

 

*

 

The Cityland Invitational was run: VW finished midway in the pack, not a bad showing for a first-year program.  Cross country season ended: the L-Bugs held a banquet at Mumbles’s house, where Mr. Heathcote awarded special pioneer letters to Captain Yvette and Roadrunner Rhonda and Moana Lisa and Big Sue, while Alex and Vicki and Sheila-Q rounded out that year’s varsity seven.

 

Alex then had a free afternoon before basketball practice started.  She dropped by Burrow Lane for some R&R while Joss was there—

 

—and suddenly nerves were gotten on.  Spurred into a furious high-speed gallop.

 

It was all Goofus’s fault (Vicki decided later) for trying to horn in on a girls-only get-together.  Vicki sent Joss and Alex up to her bedroom while she notified Goof that if he persisted in poking his head where it didn’t belong, she would samsonize it and leave him no orange hair to be tousled by any teen-idol-of-his-heart.

 

“Kid brothers!  Go figure,” she groused to herself as she headed upstairs.  And found her guests had gotten way ahead of her, grousewise: both standing very tall and very opposite each other and very bristly-bellicose.

 

Joss (as Vicki subsequently reconstructed) had sparked it off by calling Alex “Al”; to which Alex took exception, saying “That’s a boy’s name!”  “What, unlike Alex?” Joss retorted, citing the heroine of Constance C. Greene’s A Girl Named Al and You Know Me, Al as another short-for-Alexandra.  At which point Alex blurted that she didn’t like fiction because it was “all make-believe” and therefore untrustworthy; which wounded Joss on behalf of fine artists in every medium, so she made a comment on what jockminded people didn’t know they were missing; and that provoked a remark from Alex about the benefits of exercise for those who needed more support than Maidenform could provide.

 

On which note Vicki entered her bedroom.

 

And flash-forwarded five minutes or so.  Seeing the future unfold with a terrible hard-edged clarity, as on the night her ballerina dreams were smashed:

 

Alex and Joss ignoring her mute appeals for peace.  This isn’t working—yank the plug on “good times”—you’ll have to choose between us.  But how?  There was absolutely no way she could do without Joss; yet she didn’t want to lose Alex either, so try hemming and hawing and patching things up, and fail dismally.  After a dead-silent moment both girls would go “FINE” and walk out, searing Vicki with glares of such withering damnation she would be branded and stranded for the rest of her life, while Joss abandoned all hope forever and Alex dissolved into permanent freaked-out fragments, for which everybody would hold Vicki responsible and drop her like a soggy potatoshe’d be shunned, ostracized, left in utter isolation just as she’d dreaded would happen the day she came to Vanderlund, but now it’d be a trillion times worse because she’d known the communion of true friendship and would never, ever, experience anything remotely close to it again—

 

Please don’t fight!!” she begged out loud in the here-and-now, covering her eyes and bursting into sobs.

 

Joss and Alex traded looks of complete horror before rushing to comfort her.

 

“Oh, Vicki... we’re not fighting... just a little disagreement... like Sheila ‘n’ Robin have... we like each other, really we do... that’s right, and we both love you... never do anything to make you feel bad... please don’t cry...”

 

Vicki tried pretending she wasn’t, that this jag had been a clever reconciliation ruse, but succumbed to hiccups instead which made them all laugh (shakily) while she bathed her face.

 

They went out then to play keepaway with Goofus and his football, still feeling shy and ambiguous with each other, yet light enough to take off and soar through the air.

 

“Maybe my flopperoos could do with some exercise,” Joss allowed.  “Like a couple of push-ups, or something.”

 

“Would you mind lending me your Al books?” asked Alex.  “If they’re about an Alexandra, I guess I ought to read them.”

 

“Hic,” went Vicki, with deepest relief; though Goof kept leaping at her and yelling “BOO!”to cure her affliction, he claimed; because he was a horrible little Halloweenie, she rebutted.

 

*

 

Thus the girls became a triumvirate, like Snowy and Bev and Puddles in Ruth Doan MacDougall’s The Cheerleaderone of the franker novels on Joss’s bookshelf, right up there with Judy Blume’s Forever..., which kept Joss from tossing it even after Kim Zimmer turned its title into an overweening ambition.

 

Joss and Vicki’s friendship proceeded as freshly/bestly as before: pre-bedtime phone talks every night, rotating sleepovers twice a week.  Alex’s acquaintance-circle remained much wider than theirs, encompassing many groups and individuals; yet the rounds she made were now far less feverish.  Stress levels dropped, blood pressure improved, and radiance shone without flickering—even when Kim flaunted her capture of Mike Spurgeon.

 

During R&R interludes, Alex gravitated toward but did not intrude upon Vicki and Joss’s company; and this worked out well for all concerned.  There was increasingly less need to keep tabs, and more time for them all to have fun together.  Alex’s discount at the Green Bridge came in handy, but Joss introduced her to broader-scale sprees at the New Sherwood Shopping Center—though Alex wouldn’t set foot in its sporting goods emporium, not even to scout out the competition.

 

“What would people say?” she demurred.

 

“That you’re an undercover spy,” said Joss.  “How well can you slink?

 

“Never you mind,” Alex laughed.

 

And it was Joss who told Vicki it was up to them to remedy Alex’s being stuck with a birthday the same week as Christmas.  So in early November they guided her oh-so-casually to New Sherwood’s Chapeaux-To-Go, where Alex was presented with an already-paid-for-and-giftwrapped hat.  And not just an ordinary everyday hat, but a ushanka of fake white fur that Vicki’d spotted while window-shopping.  With the giftwrap, it cost as much as the miniCathedral’s pricey pajamas; but was worth every penny to see Alex bury her nose in it and shed happy tears upon it and beam glowingly as she tried it on.

 

“Oh, you guys... you two are my most special friends!”

 

The triumvirate enjoyed a big sisterly all-around hug, till Joss asked: “Wait—do you mean like special ed?

 

“Joss!” Vicki and Alex chided.

 

“That’s me.  Hey, I know!—let’s get a picture of us wearing the hat!”

 

So they wedged themselves gigglishly into the New Sherwood photo booth: Alex and Joss (“you two Amazonesses”) side by side and Vicki balanced petitely atop their knees, her arms back behind their necks.  The resulting four-pic strip made them all look so radiant they stayed in the booth for two more, so each girl could have a special/best-friends set—each one showing her wearing Alex’s Cossack holiday topper.


     

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
   

 

Return to Chapter 22                          Proceed to Chapter 24

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2012 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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