Chapter 27

 

Now You Don't

 

 

It came back to Vicki in a dream, from the deepest reaches of her memory.

 

That feeling of being lost, like Mole, in the Wild Wood on a cold still winter afternoon as dusk descended; lost among shadows of secret darkness and whatever they might conceal.  Something or Other was spying on her, creeping and crawling unseen till it sprang up and raced toward her, a furious violent hate-filled face with lacerating eyes—it was the Mad Man! out to get away with murder! and Vicki tried to yell for her Gardening Angel, tried to hide but could only take off running, endless relentless running like a terrified kittycat chased by a savage dog or wolf or Beast that stretched out its talons and was about to grab hold—

 

—when the digital alarm went b-z-z-z-z.

 

And she awoke, panting and shaking, in her own tangled bedsheets.

 

Big girls could tremble.  Big girls could whimper.  Only babies cried.

 

Big girls could also hurt their hand clutching a mustard-yellow Pet Rock.  This stupid so-called undercover talisman: “I am real—the dreams are fake.”  (Yeah right.)

 

She rose and thrust the thing into her lingerie drawer.  Then hastily retrieved it (Roger didn’t deserve that gratification) and buried it beneath thermal tights in the bureau’s bottom drawer.  Her bottom wouldn’t need longjohns today: a warm September morning, first of the new school year.

 

She’d already notified Alex she would be walking (briskly) to VW this first day.  Time enough to run there tomorrow; today Vicki intended to arrive cool, dry, and immaculate in her brand-new ecru tunic top, scooter skirt and T-straps.  For this was the day (or week/month/semester) she was going to select a steady boyfriend—one who wouldn’t dissolve into nothingness, after denying Vicki’s very existence.

 

She was fourteen-and-a-half: ready/willing/able and pretty damn pretty, if she did say so to her reflectionary self.  Joss could pine for a Great Black Hope; Alex and Robin could loiter in Daddy’s Girl Land; Fiona could continue not giving a rat’s ass whether guys checked her out (which they did a lot more since her Joan Jettification, making Feef shrink to Vicki’s or Robin’s or Joss’s side); and Laurie Harrison could lower her standards to accommodate Mack “The Arm” Pittley, most caddish of Petty Hills caddies, who outscuzzed even her stepbrother Jason Zane.

 

“Are you out of your mind??” Susie’d reacted when she found Laurie and Mack in a sand trap, the Pittley Arm entwined around the Harrison hips, from which the Harrison shorts were in danger of being tugged down.

 

“He was helping me find my ball.”

 

“Did you HEAR what you just SAID??

 

“Don’t make me feel bad, Sue!  You know I feel worse enough already!”

 

Laurie’d applied for a transfer from Y team to Z or X, only to learn that no transfers would be permitted that year.  Enrollment was down again, had been dropping steadily through the Seventies; there were even rumors that one VW wing might be closed before the end of the decade, shifting ninth grade back to Vanderlund Senior High.

 

But not this year.  No, today status remained quo, freshman perks and privileges were still intact, and you could take the front stairs (at long last!) up to the top floor.  Traipsing pretty-damn-prettily over to 9-Z and Mrs. Hurlburt’s homeroom, almost identical studentwise to Mr. Gillies’s: Joss was there, wearing the magnifique T-shirt you’d persuaded her to buy; Carly and Fiona were again your seat-neighbors and locker-neighbors; and Byron Wyszynski occupied his customary last desk of the last row—Tail-End, as usual.

 

Roger Mustardman, of course, was nowhere to be seen.

 

(Vicki wondered briefly if he still haunted the school basement—then resolutely evicted him from her conscious mind.)

 

All morning she evaluated the guys who glanced appreciatively at her gauzy new top, leg-exhibiting skirt, and olivaceous summer tan.  I might just be available, boys; fill out your applications to prove yourselves dateable.

 

First period she stayed put in Z304 for Mrs. Hurlburt’s Algebra class.  Robin had this too, as did Craig Clerkington (eww! out of the question) and Tail-End sticking around like a gum-glob on a shoe-sole.  Vicki grabbed the desk next to Robin’s at the opposite side of the room, behind Buddy Marcellus who turned and gave her a complimentary leer.  Hmm now, Buddy Marcellus: great dancer, lively sense of humor, fun to be around; not unlike Jimmy Maxwell back at Reulbach.  But (again like Jimmy) Bud was rather hefty and inclined to sweat, even at 8:20 a.m.  Still—let’s count him as a possible dateable.

 

Second period was Earth Science in Z303.  Tail-End followed her there and nearly took a place at Vicki’s work station, but Fiona and Carly were also present and quickly claimable as lab partners.  Earth Science was taught by Ms. Tays-the-Tease, a thirtyish divorcée who made male lips smack as she discussed the “heavenly bodies” they’d be studying in their astronomy unit.  Brad Faussett (eww! out of the question) smacked his lips the loudest, much to Carly’s outteased indignation.  Not quite as noisy was John Alphonse, naturally known as “Phonsie” in that Happy Days-dominated year, but who didn’t let the name go too much to his head.  Even though that head was far more crushworthy, if less thoroughly blowdried, than Brad’s.  Chalk Phonsie up as another possible dateable.

 

Third period Vicki had Advanced Civics in Z305, where old Mr. Koehler made them observe a moment of silence for the late Senator Dirksen “on this, the seventh anniversary of his passing.”  Nobody said Gas? out loud, since this was an honors class that included Alex and Becca and Artie Rist the Anarchist (eww! out of the question, though even he didnt say Gas? aloud) and, somehow, Tail-End again.  But also Tony Pierro, a very definite possibility: like the Hunk With No Name repackaged in darker, sleeker, compacter form, keeping the same diffident charm-your-pants-off distractability.  However, Tony came from a seasonal contractor’s teeming family, and held down several afterschool/weekend jobs to help contribute to it.  Admirable, but not leaving him enough time or money to seriously date.

 

Fourth period was Advanced Language Arts in Z302, to which Vicki was yet again trailed by Tail-End—who’d better not be checking out the back of her scooter skirt en route.  (Oh Gahd!  Did it show visible panty lines?  Detour to the washroom and do a survey.)

 

In Honors English she and Joss finally got to share a class, their only one together all morning.  Here Vicki felt tinglishly “appreciated” by the suave Continental regard of Mr. Erickson, who filled the fantasizable role for girls that Ms. Tays did for guys.  He had a voice like an FM DJ, exactly right to caress you with spoken sonnets; you could imagine him pledging to whisk you away to Paris, three-and-a-half years from now, for a passionately mad affair.

 

“(Ain’t gonna happen,)” Joss snortled at her elbow.

 

“(Shut up.  I can dream.)”

 

“(You shut up.  And quit talking in your sleep.”)

 

“Gir-r-r-rls?” purred Mr. Erickson, raising a s-i-g-h from females all over the room.  “Did you have a question?”

 

Yes, are you married?  When’s your birthday?  What’s your favorite color?  (Please let it be violet.)  Do you appreciate visible panty lines on a really cute derriere?

 

Ooh la la! c’est très français!

 

Ooh la la la la, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you—

 

“Gir-r-r-rls?  Any question?”

 

“No, Mr. Erickson,” Vicki demurely answered.

 

Then came a full 45-minute free period that she had to spend in the third-floor Home Base Art room.  Summer Council was holding one of its final sessions before the fall semester Student Council got elected; and this meeting had actual significance, since a vote would be taken on which band to book for Back-to-School Dance.  It might even be a binding vote, if enough members showed up to constitute a quorum—which had happened precisely once since June.  They’d spent the summer subdivided into “task forces,” with a few of the people doing most of the work—and sharing all of the credit with the Council President.

 

Bennett Fayne was the sort of guy who, back in kindergarten, introduced himself with a jocular lookit-us-acting-like-big-kids (yet still firm) handshake.  He always wore an ear-to-ear smile, much like the Georgia peanut farmer currently campaigning for the White House.  Bennett had launched his VW political career with a smiling speech to 7-X, freely admitting that others might be idealistic but he was an unabashed sell-out, ready to compromise any means for a “greater good” end.  This was chastised by adults, yet thought to be refreshingly candid in that Watergateful year, so Bennett got elected by a landslide—and tagged by Roger Mustardman with the enduring epithet of “Sell-O” Fayne.

 

This past summer Sell-O’d delegated all Council duties to underlings before heading off to the beach, returning in time to accept congrats for any mission accomplished.  Vicki knew this from her own efforts on the Orientation Day task force: she and Crystal Denvour had done the bulk of notifying sevvies-to-be about this event, where new kids were introduced to life at junior high and (hopefully) had their fears and uncertainties alleviated.  So it was a genuine public service, one in which the “Orientationeers” took pride and a sense of achievement—

 

—despite knowing Sell-O would hog the plaudits and receive the heartiest administrative handclasp.

 

“Then you’ll see him—now you don’t,” as Crystal Denvour remarked.

 

Entering an Art room already redolent with paint and clay after a single morning’s classes, Vicki did a quick headcount and hopped onto the tall stool beside Crystal.  After exchanging Hi’s and Cute outfits!, Vicki asked: “Is this all who’s coming?  Where’s Rags?”

 

“He’s got Gym fourth period, but he’ll be here.  If he knows what’s good for him,” said Crystal with curvaceous complacence.

 

She was a dimpled dollybabe, rivaling even Becca Blair as the embodiment of well-roundedness—as Vicki could enviously attest, from having taken showers in their Clara Klean company four mornings a week all last year.

 

“Wish I had Gym fourth period,” she gnarled.  “This semester it’s right after lunch!  How’ll I keep anything down?”

 

“Well, that’s one way to stay in shape,” said Crystal.  “I usually barf from nerves before every concert.”

 

She was the star soloist of VW’s Mixed Chorus, and had sung “America My Country, O What You Mean to Me!” before the Maine Street Beach Bicentennial fireworks.  But though the Herald hailed her as a future Beverly Sills, Crystals personal favorite tune was Janis Joplin’s “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” and she’d helped Vicki canvass Summer Council for the Rosa Dartles.

 

“Okay, so here’s my guesstimates for the vote.  We’ve got you, me, Rags, K.C.—”

 

“Y’think?  He ‘n’ Sheila agreed to see other people.”

 

“They didn’t break up from having a fight, though, so he’ll want to keep on her good side in case they get back together.”

 

Nanette Magnus and Delia Shanafelt strolled in unhurriedly.  “Lookit those two,” glowered Vicki.  “How can they not wanna dance to an all-girl band?”

 

“You have to ask?” said Crystal.

 

The top-seeded band for Back-to-School bookage was Chinese Fire Drill, fronted by Mike Spurgeon, King of the Towheads.  (Who justified his group’s name by drummer Slim Jim Khim having Korean grandparents.)  And if Laurie Harrison’s hearsay was accurate, Gigi Pyle had ordered Kim Zimmer to give Mike up—“You’ve had him long enough”—to the rest of her clique.  Miked dated Nanette last winter, Delia last spring, and then (“once he got fully tenderized”) was appropriated by Gigi herself, as a consolation prize for her losing the cheerleader captaincy to Becca.

 

Speaking of prizes: Rags Ragnarsson tumbled through the door, like a Norwegian elkhound transformed into a ninth-grade jock in some ancient saga or Disney movie.

 

“Bay-ubb!” he barked, giving Crystal a resounding smackeroo.

 

“About time, slowpoke!”

 

“You know it, lover gal!” gloated Rags, leaning in for a second kiss.

 

“Ladies and gents, we have us a quorum!” smiled Sell-O, thunk-ing the art mallet serving as gavel.

 

Summer Council sat through the solemn hoopla of moving, seconding, and approving the previous session’s minutes.  That done, they advanced to yeas and nays on which band, based on submitted demo tapes, would play at Saturday evening’s dance.

 

Six voted for the Rosa Dartles; six for Chinese Fire Drill; twelve were absent.

 

Sell-O Fayne grinned so widely his face’s upper half almost detached.  “In cases like this, the chair can cast a tiebreaker,” he informed the Council; pausing so long they despaired of finishing in time for lunch.  “However, in this case, Ms. Yehle AND I came up with a little ‘scheme’ we’d like to share with you.  Ms. Yehle?”

 

Their faculty advisor struck a pose: half Rhoda Morgenstern, half that silent film star burlesqued by Carol Burnett.

 

Ms. Yehle’s talents had mowed a wide swath at many different outlets—advertising agency, repertory company, fashion magazine, Channel 7’s TV station—before “leaving the rat race for the mouse race” by teaching Art at VW.  She wore handsewn jumpsuits and headscarves, created Kabuki posters on consignment, and addressed her students with a great deal of expressive mouth-mobility:

 

“My dear young friends—a way lies before us to resolve this deadlock—yes, a way that can fan enthusiasm to fever pitch—and that will happen if we agree to stage a...”

 

“Battle of the Bands??” squawked Robin Neapolitan, in line at the cafeteria steam counter.  “Seriously?  Just a fistfight, or do I get to use my sticks?”

 

“You alternate half-hour sets,” Vicki explained, “and at the end of the dance, the judges decide who won.”

 

“What judges?” asked Sheila-Q, paying the cashier for a Sloppy Joe, creamed corn, and sliced peaches.

 

“Ms. Yehle, Coach Smitty—y’know, the chaperones.”

 

Uffa!” went Robin.  “What the hell do they know about rock music?  I won’t forget this, Loopy.”

 

“Robbo, you can’t even remember to brownbag a lunch,” said Sheila.

 

“Don’t remind me,” Robin growled at her gloppy tray.  Adding “Sorry, boys, no spare change,” as Mike Spurgeon and Slim Jim Khim sauntered into step beside them. 

 

“None needed,” said Mike, who’d been cultivating a Peter Frampton mien, manner, and shoulder-length tow-colored ringlets that he now shook at Robin.  “Just wanted to wish you gals a whole lotta luck.  May the best man—I mean, the best band—win.”

 

“Spurgeon, we’re gonna make you eat those words before you can swallow that Sloppy Joe!”

 

She and Vicki and Sheila turned toward the bunch’s table, but Slim Jim piped up behind them.  “Yeah, we’ll give you the first set—ladies go first, y’know.”

 

“Like hell!  We ain’t your opening act,” fumed Robin, handing Vicki her tray (“Here, take this”) and advancing on Slim Jim knuckles first.  “Let’s me ‘n’ you settle this like a coupla drummers—if you’re up to it, that is!”

 

“OoooOOOOoooh” from the gathering crowd.

 

“Robbo, can’t we eat first?” from S-Q.

 

“And soon?” from Vicki, trying to balance two trays.

 

“Come on, Mike, it’s getting late!” from Gigi Pyle’s cliquish table.

 

“Oh Jeez, what now?” from Joss at the bunch’s.

 

“Tell ya what, we’ll flip a coin,” said Mike, fishing a quarter out of his jeans.  “Call it in the air—”

 

“Wait!  Why should I call it?”

 

“It’s my quarter.”

 

“Okay then,” Robin grumbled.  “heads!” as the coin got flipped.

 

Slap of coin on back of hand.  “TAILS!” Mike trumpeted.

 

And, as if in response, there was a crash that shook the cafeteria and temporarily subdued its hubbub.  Byron Wyszynski lay sprawled on the linoleum, his face in his tray, off which flowed streams of brown and yellow and orange and (from Tail-End’s nose) red.

 

*

 

At noon on Saturday thirty girls signed up for cross country, to the satisfaction of Captain Alex and Mr. Heathcote.  Britt chose not to run this year, concentrating instead on music; and Sheila-Q might’ve done the same, if her sister Amelia hadn’t decided to “see what long-distance stuff feels like.”  No way would Sheila yield the track to Mealy, so back she came.  As did Laurie and Susie and Karen Lee Bobko and Caroline Appercy—though the Bobbsey Twins were no longer on speaking terms:

 

“Susie, would you please tell you-know-who to quit slamming my dad’s car door?”

 

“Sue, would you kindly tell a certain person that’s the only way to make sure it stays shut as she knows perfectly well?”

 

Chloe Rumpelmagen and a batch of other sevvies signed up too, trooping off after practice to get their hair done for that night’s dance.  Though “casually informal,” it was these pre-teens’s first excursion into junior high social affairs, and their excited anticipation made Vicki feel a trifle elderly.  Once, long ago, she’dve been just as carefree; now her brain had to be all executive and managerial.

 

There were the Rosa Dartles to look after.  According to Joss, they’d nailed every number at their last rehearsal, locking into a groove so hard and tight “I was afraid the vice squad might bust us!”  But if a bad rehearsal meant a great performance, what did a nailed-and-locked one foretell?

 

There was the dance itself, Summer Council’s closing act.  Vicki and Crystal had spent the week taping up what felt like a hundred publicity posters throughout Home Base and the three wings—even as they pictured Sell-O Fayne taking a solo bow for each one.

 

There was the question of how Vicki should prioritize guys at the dance: Buddy Marcellus had the best moves, Phonsie Alphonse had the most flair, Tony Pierro had the highest potential, not forgetting Mr. Erickson if he subbed as a chaperone...

 

At least there was no doubt what she and her band were going to wear.  Britt had designed a group logo—crimson smoochmark scored through by a line of DayGlo diamonds, with a splattery DayGlo THE ROSA above and DARTLES below—

 

 

—which she got screen-printed on the front of black T-shirts and the rear pocket of black bermudas.  (Decorous length, yet huggy in the seat.)

 

After cross country practice Vicki ran home, stepped out of her varsity uniform, hit the shower, and changed into this casually informal I’m-with-the-band ensemble.  Joss, returning to Burrow Lane from her cornet lesson, put on the same costume; and at six they were collected by Robin and Fiona (also black-clad) in Fat Bob’s truck.  They communicated via CB radio with Burke Quirk as he convoy’d Britt and Sheila (similarly sable-garbed) plus Mealy and three of her friends.  The bands would be using the school’s amps, mikes, and drum kit, so there was much less gear to transport than usual; but Fat Bob was staying to help them set up, check amp levels, and—in an XXL Dartles T-shirt—see his Baby Doll make her debut.

 

(Baa-Baa dropped his passengers off on Knopper Drive before hightailing away.)

 

At VW the dance decoration task force gave them early admittance, along with Martha Weller who’d brought Chloe and three of her friends, and was serving as one of the chaperones.  She would abstain from Battle judgment due to maternal conflict of interest, but treated the band to a pep talk (“Good posture plays such an important part in good music”) while Fiona succumbed to quiet mortification.

 

The other chaperones were Mr. “Mispronounced” Martincich, the speech teacher; Ms. Yehle, in a hoppity-skippity jumpsuit; Mr. and Mrs. Hollinger of the PTA, who’d had to cope with a decade of Ted Bessell jokes; and Coach Smitty, monitoring the state of his gym floor.  The big accordion wall separating the boys and girls gymnasiums had been folded open, creating a vast expanse festooned with streamers, balloons, and a

 

SHAKE SHAKE SHAKE SHAKE SHAKE SHAKE SHAKE your booty

 

banner.  Refreshment tables were placed at one end of the combo-gym; a portable platform, imported from the auditorium for bandstand use, stood at the other; GO BEETLES! declared the inlaid sign above the boys bleachers; GO LADYBUGS! countered the sign on the opposite wall; and up near the ceiling, small rectangular portholes allowed the setting sun to supplement interior fluorescence.

 

At seven the playing-field doors were thrown open, and in (at a dollar a head) surged the students of Vanderlund Junior High.  Ms. Yehle had been right about a Battle of Bands whetting their enthusiasm (if not—as yet—to fever pitch) and Sell-O Fayne, calculating the night’s intake, mentally boosted future ticket prices to $1.25.

 

Just before showtime, Vicki joined her group behind the platform.  “Well, um... go kill ‘em dead, you guys.”

 

Britt, of all people, pulled an Alex Dmitria: extending a freckly arm, palm down, and saying “All together now—this is it!” as her bandmates piled their hands on top.

 

Oh!” they chanted, “but really, isn’t it really, though?

 

“ROCK ON!” concurred their roadie Fat Bob.

 

Vicki sidestepped away from the platform as Sell-O climbed onto it.  S-m-i-l-i-n-g-l-y introducing himself (“For those of you who don’t know me, ha ha ha!”), welcoming everyone to VW and its Back-to-School Dance.  “And now, without further ado, let’s begin our first annual Battle of the Bands!  Here’s our opening act—” (snarl from Robin) “—ladies and gents, put your hands together as I present to you the ROHHH-SAAA DARRR-TLES!!”

 

Who struck up an explosive “Keep A-Knockin’ (But You Can’t Come In),” made famous by Little Richard but recently covered by Suzi Quatro.  Unsubtle lyrics by Fiona’s standards, but the Dartles deemed it a kick-ass kickoff to loosen up the gym.

 

All hell got loosened instead.

 

A volley of boos, jeers, and taunts from certain boys in the throng’s front ranks—slimeballs like Lenny Otis and Dino Tattaglia, Dwight Whitehead and Roy Hodeau—who also launched a salvo of popcorn and other small items at the band.  The Dartles responded true-rocker-style by pumping up their volume—and got targeted by larger, wetter debris.

 

Vicki, standing with Alex at the side of the platform, heard some voices raised in protest—Coach Smitty’s What the hell is going on here?; K.C. Battenburg’s Hey c’mon, give ‘em a chance!; Arlo Sowell’s Yeah, shuddup ya dicks!—that were drowned out by earsplitting feedback as a heavy airborne object collided with the biggest amp.  She watched openmouthed as Fat Bob, charging forward from behind the platform like a maddened hippo, got enmeshed by cables that tripped him more spectacularly than Tail-End in the cafeteria as he went bellydiving into the horrified audience while feedback screamed up into a HOWWWWLLLL—

 

—and then the gym lights winked out.

 

“Stay calm!  Stay calm, everybody! Alex shouted, vanishing before Vicki could grab her hand.

 

“Wait!  Wait!  Alex?  Alex?  Joss??  Joss??  Feef???

 

Unheard in the bedlam, she fumbled for the bandstand but got bumped and shoved by anonymous nonentities till all bearings were lost in a darkness broken only by neon exit signs and scraps of portholed twilight.  Vicki teetered on the verge of panic—

 

OW!  What the—?  Had someone pinched her butt?  Try to whirl round and confront him, but the world was in slo-mo and by the time she got pivoted, her assailant had shifted likewise and begun tweaking both cheeks.  “Quit it!” she cried, swatting backwards yet making no contact with a hand or arm even though the nipping persisted—squirm left, wriggle right, lunge away from a full-blown goose gahdammit “DON’T!” she shrieked, sounding beseechful despite her outrage and to no avail as that unswattable hand started sliding down the front of her bermudas, trespassing where nobody’s fingers belonged except her own—no! not there! not there!why the hell couldn’t she get a grip on this bastard’s hand, stop its creeping and crawling unseen like the Mad Man of her nightmares?? screaming “LEAVE ME ALONE!” as she windmilled fast as possible with sluggish arms to fend off the terror that kept grabbing hold

 

—till daylight flashed through the dark.

 

Sort of.  More like dusk-descending light than day.

 

Yet vivid enough to frame a tall silhouette in the opened playing-field doorway.

 

Alex! was her first thankful thought.  But this silhouette was taller and broader and shaggier and unAlexier.  It leaned in to offer Vicki a hand—a visible, tangible hand—that she took and was drawn outside by.  Feeling suddenly free of any other hand, with nothing but fabric between her thighs.

 

Chaperone-voices were urging everyone to watch their step, take their time, not be in a hurry; but cross country instinct told Vicki to run strong, jockey for position, stay on pace.  Her escort too showed the moves of a track star, striding away from the horde as he guided her to an isolated spot by the Oakapple fence.  There, illuminated by streetlamp, she got her first look at his face.

 

“OhmyGahd—Jonathan?  Jonathan DohrWhat’re YOU doing here??”

 

His free hand rose to rub his nose, obscuring his mouth as he said: “The name’s Dave.  I don’t go here.  Just passing by.”

 

Vicki stared up at him, her strings twanging as they’d done back in Pfiester Park.  Surely there couldn’t be two teen Nureyev lookalikes on the North Side or its suburbs!  And the increasing nightfall only highlighted his familiarity—the pensive expression, the somber eyes, the flowing-aloof hair.

 

His voice, of course, was a novelty.

 

Though it had the enigmatic stillness Vicki would’ve expected from Jonathan Dohr.

 

“Walk you home?” he asked.

 

Yes! went her body and soul; but the managerial brain overruled them.  “Oh—no—I hafta find my friends, y’know—see what’s happening ‘n’ all...”  Tugging at his wrist: “Come with me?”

 

“Can’t.  Gotta be going.”

 

“But—when’ll I see you again?”

 

“Tomorrow morning,” he told her, mouth still finger-shielded.  “Early, though.  Be all right?”

 

“Yes!” she exclaimed, and was about to give him directions to Burrow Lane when she remembered this was Saturday.  “I’m staying at my friend’s house tonight.  1008 Jupiter Street?  Just off Sendt?”

 

“I’ll find it.”

 

“Promise?”

 

He lowered the hand from his mouth, bent down and kissed her on the brow.

 

Okay, more like a peck—touch of teeth as well as lips—but still: pound pound pound went her heart, thump thump thump went her soul, up tilted her head to invite a second helping...

 

...and watch him withdraw, emptyhandedly, to the school gate.

 

After him! commanded heart and soul.  Before he gets away! added brain.

 

But it was feet that failed her now, resistant to go where shadows were thickening.

 

Please don’t leave yet.

 

Don’t worry.  You’ll see me in my dreams.

 

In my—?  You ARE Jonathan Dohr!

 

The name’s Dave, he reiterated, disappearing from view.

 

Deeply-heaved depths-of-bosom bra-strap-straining SIGH, such as she’d never exhaled for Mr. Erickson.

 

Then reality rushed in to engulf her.  Reality and an aimless crowd of meandering students, against whose drift Vicki gradually swam back upstream, steering clear of any scuffling roughhouse types who might’ve been her molester.  No one was recognizable, even in the undimmed blaze of VW’s exterior lights; and Vicki encountered none of her bunch till pushing through to the black hole of the gym doorway, where a Senior Girl Scout stood on sentinel duty.

 

“Alex!  Have you seen Joss or Feef or any of ‘em?”

 

“I think they’re still inside, a lot of people didn’t come out—whoa there, Vicki!” said Alex, overlapping “Just a minute, young lady!” from Mr. Hollinger of the PTA, who’d had a taxing last half-hour and now barred re-entrance to the school.

 

“But my friends—” Vicki pleaded, daring to put one executive Adidas over the threshold—

 

—at which point all the indoor lights winked back on.

 

“How’d you do that?” asked Alex.

 

Vicki almost retracted her foot, to see if they’d turn off again; but took advantage of Mr. Hollinger’s gaping disbelief to duck under his arm and hustle in.

 

Bracing herself for a scene from a disaster movie (Return of the Cicada Queen?) yet the banner, streamers, balloons all hung merrily undisturbed from the ceiling.  The gym floor was a different story—snacks and drinks had been dropped and trampled on, which meant a long night ahead for the clean-up task force; Coach Smitty’d see to that.

 

Vicki found the Rosa Dartles huddled on the platform.  Joss, blinking in the sudden brightness, leaped off to prove her best-friend infinitude with an enveloping hug and “Are you okay?”  Sheila-Q was in K.C.’s arms, her head resting on his shoulder, as if they’d had a little blackout makeout.  Britt, with a face so drained of blood its freckles stood out like polka-dots, was slowly testing and repacking the instruments.  Fat Bob had a frightful gory cloth pressed to his button nose, which he’d landed on after his bellydive; Alex galloped up to doctor it with ice salvaged by Arlo Sowell from the refreshment table.  Robin clung to Fat Bob’s side, her makeup turned molten by rabid bawling.  Fiona crouched next to them, offering the Neapolitans frail comfort with one hand, and the same to whimpery Chloe and shellshocked Mrs. Weller with the other.

 

So far as the Dartles were concerned, fever pitch had proved to be a bean ball.

 

Meanwhile Chinese Fire Drill surrounded Sell-O Fayne (“Hey!  What about our set?”) even as ticketholders began to utter the dread word “refund.”

 

Then a stage hiss penetrated the gym-din: “Psssst... Vicki!... psssst... Vicki!...

 

Who contemplated fainting as she held onto Joss.

 

Who head-twitched “Up there!” toward the top of the boys bleachers.

 

Not letting go of each other, they warily ascended to discover a redfaced Crystal Denvour hunkering down by the wall, halfway out of her sundress.

 

“Can you help me?  I’m stuck...”

 

“Um,” Vicki commented as she got Crystal’s zipper unjammed and refastened, while Joss screened them from display.  But Crystal’s face was red with wrath, not shame, and she hadn’t been caught having a blackout makeout with her boyfriend... or anyone else.

 

“What happened?  Where’s Rags?”

 

“He’s late as usual!” snapped Crystal, adjusting her ample breasts back into their cuppage.  “And ‘what happened’ was I got haul-assed up here and squeezed more completely than a damn roll of Charmin!  I thought at first it was Rags, acting boisterous—but I know what his hands feel like, and these weren’t them!  I tried to yell, but everyone was yelling, and the groper kept on groping, and what was really weird about it?  The hands didn’t seem to, well, belong to anybody—”

 

Vicki’s jaw dropped.  “OHMYGAHD—YOU TOO??”

 

*

 

Never had she been so grateful for a Jupiter Street sleepover than on that particular Saturday night.

 

Every time her haunches got the notion they were being treated like loaves of Wonder Bread and kneaded into wanton fishbait, she awoke to realize Joss was there beside her in the big brass double bed, making her no-I-do-not­snore-you’re-thinking-of-Meg slumberland noises.  And the only Fingers to fret about was the cat snuggled in between them, who didn’t enjoy buffeting by restless bedmates.

 

So: try to settle down.  And dream about Dave (if that truly was his name).

 

See him at last, after most of the night had passed.  Standing in a gray hooded sweat suit and racing flats, under a streetlamp, with one hand raised as if to wave.  Or was it to beckon?  Here I am.  Here I am.  HERE

 

Sit bolt upright.  Ease out from under the covers.  Stealth-step to the aerie window.  Lift the edge of the curtain, the side of the blind.  And take a cautious peep over Jupiter.

 

No Great Red Spot.  No Space Odyssey monolith.

 

But, yes!  There was a gray profile beside the lamppost on the corner of Sendt Street.  Lifting a hand before her goggling eyes.

 

“Whussmatt?” from the bed as Vicki stealth-rushed into and out of the bathroom, out of her jammies and into her track suit.

 

“(He’s here!  Out there!  That guy!)”

 

“The groper guy?”

 

“(Shhhh!  No—the guy who said his name is Dave!)”

 

She had confided the whole happenstance to Joss, who sat up now and whisper-demanded, “(Where do you think you’re going?)”

 

“(Myeep!)” added Fingers.

 

“(To see him, talk to him.)”

 

“(Now??)”

 

“(Look, it’s after six.)”  Brandishing a luminescent watch that showed 6:01, meaning the local curfew for kids-unaccompanied-by-adults had ended a full minute ago.

 

“(The sun’s not up yet—hold on a sec!)”  Joss rose, slipping on a lightweight robe.  “(C’mon—we’ll use the kitchen stairs—you go out the back door—I’ll watch through the front window.)”

 

“(Whaddaya mean, watch?)”

 

“(Do you know this guy’s not the groper?)”

 

“(Yes I do!)”

 

“(Well I don’t, which is why I’m keeping an eye on you both.)”

 

No disputing Jocelyn, even if it did put a damper on the romance of the moment.  So they snuck down to the kitchen, Vicki stealth-exited and tiptoed round to the front of the house, glancing back at Joss’s windowframed face trying to see past the porch brackets and spindles.

 

Dash over to the lamppost then, as the beckoning hand lowered... to again shield his mouth.

 

“Up for a run?” came his voice from behind it.

 

“Yeah,” said eloquent Vicki.  Turning to give Joss an exaggerated A-OK and two-fingered run run run signal.

 

You are entirely crazy! Joss sub-glared from clear across Jupiter.

 

Maybe so, she sub-admitted, but I can’t help myself.

 

And off they ran up Sendt Street.

 

A few blocks northa few blocks eastback to the northback to the eastvarying direction whenever a jogger or dog-walker or Mass-going pedestrian loomed on the horizon.  Dave took the lead and set the pace, cutting Vicki no slack; not that a varsity L-Bug needed any, thank you.  Vicki pulled ahead on this zig and that zag, to show off her fleet feet... and finey heinie, if truth be told.  Off-limits to perv-pinches, but proudly hailable in the dawn’s early light.  (Redden tingle blush.)

 

Then, side by side at the deserted Maine Street Beach shoreline, they beheld sunrise over the Lake As Big As An Ocean.

 

Which, for Vicki, was no mere experience, but absolute hallelujah communion.

 

Which she felt more than ready to celebrate.

 

Which could certainly involve hugs and kisses.

 

Dave put his near arm around her shoulders—and raised his far hand to his mouth.

 

“How often do you stay at your friend’s?” he asked, behindhandedly.

 

“Oh, most every Saturday night.  And Sunday morning.”  Put down that hand and kiss me.  I’ll kiss you back.

 

“We could go running every Sunday.  If you don’t mind being early.”  You wouldn’t like kissing me back.

 

“Early’s good, I like early.  If it’s not too dark out.”  I bet I would.  Let’s try it and see.

 

“Well—hate to leave.  But I gotta be going.”  Trust me.  Not a good idea yet.  Be patient and it’ll happen.

 

“I’m not in any hurry.”  If I told you that, you’d call me a “tease.

 

“You will be when I run you home.”  I wouldn’t.  You don’t have a mouth like mine.

 

On the way back (now south, now west) Vicki deliberately reduced her pace, slowing Dave just enough for one of their conversations to continue:

 

“So... what’s your last name?”

 

“Solovay.”

 

“Is that like French?”

 

“Russian.  Means ‘nightingale.’”

 

“Oh pretty!  Er, I mean, that’s nice...  Do you know my name?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“So what is it, then?”

 

“Don’t you know?”

 

“Yes, I do.  Can you say it?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Will you say it?”

 

“Vic-to-ri-a.”

 

“All right then.  But call me Vicki.  So where do you live?”

 

“Down south.”

 

“What, you mean like Florida?”

 

“Not that far.”

 

“Where do you go to school?”

 

“Same place.”

 

“Aargh—what is this, Twenty Questions?”

 

“Sure.  You got ten left.”

 

“What?

 

“Make that nine.”

 

“Oh... kay.  Are you, like, seeing anybody?”

 

Glance toward her; then face forward again.  “I am now.”

 

Awreet!  “Can you see this somebody after school tomorrow?”

 

“Nope.”

 

“Later this week?”

 

“Not till Sunday morning.  Early.”

 

“Why??”

 

“Got things to do I don’t want to do, but have to do.  Five to go.”

 

“Hunh?”

 

“Five more questions.  Except now it’s four.”

 

“That’s not fair!  And not very nice, either.”

 

Silence as they changed from zig to zag.

 

“Have you stopped talking to me?”

 

“You didn’t ask a question.  Till just now.”

 

Whaare we playing Jeopardy now?”

 

“Twenty Questions.  You got two left.”

 

“Grrrr!...  Okay: when’s your birthday?”

 

“Fifteen years ago.”

 

“(Sigh.)  What’s your favorite color?”

 

Glance at her hair, then down at her eyes, which his deep-set regard caught and held.

 

Black, black, black—you know the rest of that song.

 

Ohhhhhhh... good answer.

 

They turned the corner onto Jupiter and came to a halt by the streetlamp (now off) across from Joss’s Queen Anne.

 

So does this mean you “love the ground whereon I stand?

 

Sorry—you ran out of questions.

 

She could tell he was smiling behind that big long stumbling-block of a hand; and, emboldened by ballad-lyrics, she grabbed it and tugged it but couldn’t dislodge it.  So drew it and his head down far enough to imprint a consummate buss upon the knuckles.

 

“Mmm,” went Dave.

 

“C’mon in and meet my friend, have breakfast with us—”

 

Dave used his free hand to stroke the side of her face, the nape of her neck, the length of her arm through its sleeve (ohmyGahd keep going) before bestowing a single squeeze round her waist.  She mashed her face against his gray chest, scented like a lightly used sports sock full of pennies.

 

Then he detached himself and stepped swiftly away.

 

See you next Sunday.  Same time in the morning.

 

See you in my dreams.  Then, dipping into the past, she added:  Shouldn’t that be the other way around?

 

And, just as before from Jonathan Dohr, came the echo: It already is.

 

*

 

Laurie Harrison spent that Sunday glued to the phone for twelve hours straight, grinding the gossip mill.

 

Her call to Villa Neapolitan got fielded by Fiona at Robin’s request (Answer that willya??) while Boss Girl remained in a stew over Fat Bob’s schnoz.

 

“(You’d think she thinks he’s never busted it before,)” Fiona told Laurie.

 

“What?”

 

“(His nose.)”

 

“What?” went Laurie, cramming a bunny-ear into the receiver.

 

“(I said, you’d think—”)

 

“Okay okay okay, I’m sure you’re right—but listen to this, Feef!—”

 

Rumors were being spread that the Dartles had [a] caused last night’s “riot” by playing so badly, and [b] blown the gym’s fuses by getting wires crossed while setting up.  There was even scuttlebutt that “damages” would be levied against the band, to compensate for fuse replacement and ticket refunds.

 

“(But we didn’t do anything wrong!)”

 

“I know that, I was there!” Laurie hastened to agree.  “I’m just saying what I’m hearing.  And that isn’t all, either!—”

 

As gleaned from the grapevine, parents were calling Mrs. Driscoll (at home on a Sunday) not just to complain about the dance melee (promptly dubbed “Feedbackgate”) but what’d happened to some of their daughters when the lights went out.

 

Laurie had details to dish about two of her 9-Y teammates.  One, Samantha Tiggs, was very tall and sturdy-shapely and sporty-cute, but painfully shy around boys her own age, many of whom she towered over.  Sammi’d declined to go out for cross country because it was coached by a man, despite Alex’s assurances that Mr. Heathcote respected Ladybug locker room privacy.  Alex had been able to coax Sammi into “just passing through the Back-to-School Dance at the comfortably familiar gym, wearing a comfortably informal gym-type outfit.  This included a Free Swing Tennis Bra, whose contents got extensively double-faulted in the dark by a pair of audacious marauding hands... that didn’t seem connected to anyone’s arms.

 

Then there was Rachel Gleistein, who shared Becca Blair’s aspiration to be a future physician—with an imperial effect upon spectators, Rachel having Queen-of-Sheba looks and Hadassah-soirée deportment.  Her resemblance to Becca figurewise was partly gaugeable at yesterday’s dance when the lights went back on, since the seat of Rachel’s skirt had been stuffed into the rear of her prim white underpants after the latter got yanked up into a divulgent wedgie.  Which was the sort of milestone Rachel’d planned to reach on her wedding night, in the bridal suite with her fellow-doctor bridegroom, rather than in front of ass-aficionados at a school dance.  Thanks to a perpetrator who’d seemed to be a roving pair of unattached hands; which offended Rachel’s scientific sensibilities almost as much as her maidenly modesty.

 

Laurie’d also spoken to 9-Z gropee LeAnn Anobile, who—though not the brightest bulb in any chandelier—was the first to conjecture whether her curves had been manhandled by the Phantom of the Sock-Hop.  “Even though we, like, kept our shoes on to dance in.”

 

Fiona was glad to’ve been stranded on the platform, encircled by bandmates.  “(What about you?)” she asked Laurie.  “(Did you get felt up?)”

 

“No!  Well, not by any Phantom guy.  I mean I know who was there with me—

 

Mack “The Arm” Pittley: ewwgh.  Fionad prefer abuse from a Phantom any old time.  “(What about Alex?)”

 

“Oh I hope not!” gasped Laurie.  “But no—she was racing around telling everyone to calm down, remember?  And putting ice on Mr. Neapolitan’s nose?  All the things she normally does.  Whew!  That’s a relief!”

 

So it was.  If a single butt-slap freaked Alex to pieces, how would she react to indecent pawing from someone (or something) other than a stray dog at the animal shelter?

 

Fiona reviewed and rearranged last night’s puzzle pieces, paying less than full attention to Laurie’s gabble that Becca Blair hadn’t shown up till the “riot” was over, y’know how she makes those fashionably late entrances, so she was okay though Laurie’d bet not even a Phantom would dare lay a finger on her—

 

“(Yeah,)” Fiona interrupted, playing impatient air bass on the phone cord.  “(You talk to Vicki yet?)”

 

“I tried, but she’d left Joss’s house when I called there and hadn’t got to hers yet when I called there, y’know she runs back and forth between their houses now that cross country’s started, it’s about three miles or I should say five kilometers, the metric system y’know, and—”

 

“(Oh  kay,)” went Fiona, spacing out like Moth.  “(I’ll get hold of Vicki.  And then we’ll come up with a way to break all this to Robin.  Unless you’d like to do it?)”

 

“Ulp no thanks!” choked Laurie.  “UmgoodluckwiththatFeefseeyouguysatlunchtomorrowbyenow—”

 

(Click.)

 

*

 

And click click click went Vicki’s angry heels at quarter to noon on Monday the 13th, as they marched from 9-Z to Home Base and down to the main office.  With Joss and Fiona and Robin attempting to keep up, and met midway by Sheila and Britt out of 9-X.  Only Joss had ever seen Vicki this infuriated before, and Joss hadn’t seen it for such a duration; so everyone was treading carefully, even Robin Neapolitan who wrote the book on umbrage.

 

Yesterday evening Vicki’s blissful sunrise-on-the-beach glow had gotten doused by Feef’s briefing on Laurie’s tidings.  Sleeping solitary that night, she’d been plagued by ghostly floplimbed puppets jerking fitfully at her pajama bottoms—now up into a wedgie, now down into a moonie, nuhnuhnuhnuh—

 

Running to school that morning, Vicki’d brought Alex up to date about unpleasant truths, guesses and misgivings.  Alex’s radiance had clouded over, but she was more resilent than a year ago and didn’t break stride as she said:

 

“Things did get out of hand—but none of it was you guys’s fault.  Except maybe Robin’s papa falling off the platform, and he was the only one who got hurt—I mean, badly enough to need bandages.  Mrs. Driscoll knows that, doesn’t she?”

 

“All I know is what she told Joss’s dad yesterday on the phone—the whole band’s supposed to go see her during free period, to ‘plead our case.’  At least that’s what it feels like, and OOH it makes me mad!

 

So Alex ran carefully the rest of the way to the girls locker room, where they freshened up and Vicki put on her most mature summer dress: a sleeveless mauve wrap-look (that thankfully hadn’t gotten wrinkled in her knapsack: hooray for polyester) plus a pair of open-toed pumps whose heels now click click clicked into the faculty conference room.

 

Mrs. Driscoll, slightly worse for wear after a Sunday full of parental calls, took the head of the long polished table; Mr. O’Brien and his goatee took the foot; the dance chaperones lined up on one side, while the Rosa Dartles arranged themselves on the other.  Sheila and Joss flanked Robin, planning to seize her if necessary to prevent mayhem; Vicki sat between Joss and Fiona, with Britt on the end acting bored.

 

The band had resolved to let Vicki do most of their talking.  And Vicki, who would’ve been petrified to go through this alone, drew irate strength from their bolstering presence—and from reminders that Gran can see what I see and hear what I hear.

 

Crisply and concisely she responded to questions from the adults, recounting what she’d witnessed.  Seldom hesitating to name names, or to use frank language in describing what she herself had undergone (which caused most of the men in the room to cough and avert their gaze).  Joss made an occasional sub-suggestion, and Feef muttered prompts that only Vicki could hear; so she felt like a true executive providing a managerial affidavit.

 

“We know about some other girls who got hassled just as bad or worse,” she grimly concluded, “and we’ve told them to come talk to you about it—confidentially, of course.”

 

“Of course,” the Principal nodded, then shook her dreadnought head.  “I’m sure I speak on behalf of the entire school in conveying our deep regret at what happened Saturday night.  Such behavior by an audience is inexcusable, and you have my word it will be investigated and punished appropriately.  Does anyone have anything to add?”

 

“Yeah, I do!” said Robin, making the other Dartles cringe.  Yet she kept her temper, channeling rage into righteousness: “There was a lotta little girls there, twelve-year-olds at their first dance, and they hadda put up with goings-on like that?  Well, I say we oughta start having self-defense classes here—and if the school won’t do it, we’ll organize ‘em ourselves!”

 

Mrs. Driscoll expressed noncommittal interest, thanked the Dartles for their time, and sent them off to no-damages-levied lunch.

 

They didn’t quite carry Vicki on their shoulders to the cafeteria, and Britt peeled off separately before they arrived; but Victorious Vindication was in the air—mingling with the aroma of lasagna and green beans.

 

Then Laurie Harrison came wobbling up to the bunch’s table with eyes like glazed doughnuts.

 

“I—I—I—I—”

 

“Laurie?  Are you all right?  What’s happened?”

 

“She told off Kim Zimmer!” reported Alex, who’d heard all about it from Y teamers.  Kimmy had snortled some allegations about Samantha Tiggs’s bra, Rachel Gleistein’s panties, and their accessibility by the general male public.  Laurie—stabbed with guilt for yesterday’s scandalmongering—had stood up in front of everyone to rebuke and berate her, leaving Kim totally donnerblitzened.

 

Kim spent that lunch period in a forlorn washroom stall, wracked with angst (having already been informed by Gigi that no freshman cheerleader should play in the Band, even though it wasn’t a Marching Band; but the Zimmers had spent a fortune on her flute and would refuse to let Kim quit) while Laurie was being bunny-lionized.  Rachel and Sammi both wanted her to start dining with them, and from that day on Laurie tablehopped from one lunch group to another like Alex did.  She began to acquire aplomb and self-esteem, and best of all Sammi and Rachel helped Susie convince her she could do far, far better than Mack “The Arm” Pittley.  Whom she duly dumped: the first time in her life that Laurie Harrison’d initiated a breakup.

 

Mrs. Driscoll officially exonerated the Dartles of any responsibility for Feedbackgate (aka Fondlegate) at an all-school assembly, laying the blame instead on disruptive male chauvinism.  As would be further exemplified when an aberration in a layered blonde wig, with double-baseball bustline and tennis-racket guitar, sought Dartle membership:

 

“HI-ee, Weirdona!  Im Fradley Faussett-Majors.”

 

“(Dragley Falsetto?)” Feef mutter-snarked.  “(Big surprise.)

 

“Maybe Dragley’d like to add a false set o’ teeth to that getup,” interjected Robin.

 

“Oh gee, girls!  Don’t knock the daylights out of me!”

 

battle of bands turns rowdy read a minor squib in the Vanderlund Herald, ascribing all the turmoil to electrical malfunction.  Vicki suspected Ms. Yehle of planting this whitewash, but kept her yap shut about it after Ms. Yehle urged her to join the Cicada staff.  Yearbook editors needed just the sort of demeanor Vicki’d shown in the conference room:

 

“A strong steady hand is essential—one that can sense precisely what to cut—like a surgeon, or a seamstress, or a hairstylist—without taking the false snip that can drop a bloody ear to the floor...”

 

Vicki and Joss got the reluctant Crystal to tell Mrs. Driscoll (confidentially) about being haul-assed and Charmin-squeezed, though not about Crystals making Rags feel culpable for her ordeal by showing up late for the dance.  Consequently he tried to be more punctual and attentive, even plunking his Ragamuffin buns down at the bunch’s cafeteria table when Crystal began lunching there.

 

Fiona regarded Rags’s attendance as though he’d intruded into a boudoir.  “(Do you mind?)” she mutter-objected—doubly so after K.C. Battenburg started taking the stool next to Sheila-Q’s.

 

“Hey!  We’re trying to have an argument here!” Robin told him.

 

“’Bout what?”

 

“Your horning in!”

 

“He’s good at that!” Sheila giggled, trading lover’s-nudges with K.C.  “Don’t worry, Robbo, you can cuss your head off around him.”

 

“And I’ll keep my mouth full while you argue,” K.C. vowed, suiting deed to word by chomping his cheeseburger.

 

“Okay then—let’s talk self-defense,” Robin told Sheila.  “Which hurts most when it’s rammed into a guy’s groin?  Your foot, your knee, or your fist holding a roll of nickels?”

 

Gagging groans from K.C. and Rags.

 

“(Let’s find out,)” exhorted Fiona.

 

Their first self-defense seminar took place in the Carlsbad-sized cellar at Villa Neapolitan.  No males were allowed; even Fat Bob stayed upstairs.  Besides the bunch and new friends like Crystal, Rachel, and Samantha, a few sisters and cousins and even mothers came to hear Charlotte Pauk lecture on the subject:

 

“All right, you girls, you may not wanna hear this?  But back in the day, see, I looked a lot like you do now—and I didn’t just get hit on, I got clobbered.  Not just by boys my age either but all sorts of men, and some of ‘em were disgusting.  Maybe you think things’ve changed for me, and I don’t hafta worry about none of that anymore?  Well, I’m here to tell you, see, that things’ll never change.  Ain’t that right, moms?  Not for me or for you girls—so long as we got these” [solid clap of hands on boobs] “men and boys’ll act like dogs around us.  You can train good dogs to sit and beg and roll over, see, but the mean ones you got to be ready to get mean back at, if you get my meaning.  See?”

 

By the end of the seminar, consensus was that a knee would be the handiest hurtmaker—though a roll of nickels, of course, always came in handy.

 

*

 

The Auldforest Woods were in Willowhelm, a mile or so south of the Vanderlund border.  Auldforest was not a park but a “preserve,” which Joss said sounded like God had put it up in a celestial Mason jar.  Actually itd been saved from countryclubbification by Angus Auld of Ayrshire, who’d condemned golf as “the worst atrocity foisted upon Scotland and the world”—after pitching his own clubs into the Firth of Clyde, then emigrating to make a fortune as a railroad pioneer in The City.  When golf pursued him there in the 1890s, Angus retreated north to his Willowhelm estate and studied High Calvinism while collecting hundreds of tin toy trains.  Dying heirless in 1915, he deeded Auldforest to The County on condition that “no infernal links be ever laid out or located upon it.”

 

Thus: 200 acres of sanctified forest preserve, coveted by developers as Willowhelm billowed into a bedroom suburb.  Lyman T. Green had to make do with the periphery, where he built a popular model train museum for Angus’s collection; the New Sherwood Shopping Center, between the Woods and the Expressway; and Downsborough Junior High on Auldforest Road.  DJH and VW were archrival schools, and this year Downsborough was launching a girls cross country program—laggardly copycatting Vanderlund, as per usual.

 

On Saturday the 18th (a very long week after VW’s Back-to-School Dance) the Ladybugs ran down Oakapple to Clubroot Drive, then east across the Expressway overpass to Sendt Street, then south into enemy territory (unless you were headed to New Sherwood for an afternoon’s shopping) till they entered Auldforest Woods.  The preserve had picnic groves, birdwatching spots, trails for hiking and biking, plus in winter a famous sledding hill called Dead Man’s Slope, under which Mukatapenaise the Potawatomi chief was said to be buried.  There was also an unpaved 1.5 mile jogging path, on which the Downsborough Lady Whitecaps would host their first dual meet next Thursday—already whining that it wasn’t fair for them to run against the Ladybugs, since VW was a three-year school and DJH had only sevvies and eighters.  Alex Dmitria generously offered to let them enlist freshmen from Willowhelm High, but no one there would revert to junior-high status for as long as a single hour.

 

Even so, the L-Bugs didn’t hold a prodigious advantage.  This year’s team keenly felt the absence of Rhonda and Lisa and Mumbles and Big Sue; only three of last season’s varsity seven remained.  And though they were captained by Alex the Gazelle, with good reliable sprinters in Vicki, Sheila, and up-and-coming Susie Zane, their star power shone a lot less brightly.  Or maybe not a lot less: Lauried prevailed upon Samantha Tiggs to give cross country a whirl, though Sammi still blushed from head to toe around Mr. Heathcote, and took her post-practice showers draped in a towel.

 

The Auldforest jogging path was unlike any the Ladybugs had ever trekked as a team.  Four girls could run it shoulder to shoulder, but the bordering trees were so big and close, their branches forming such a dense canopy overhead, that the way seemed narrow.  Alex the Girl Scout could name every tree and shrub and flower growing around them, including invasive ones like buckthorn and thistles.  Vicki could identify only oaks, maples, and predictable willows by the Auldbrook, which babbled at the L-Bugs as they tromped over its footbridge.  Circling a hollow dell reminiscent of Eeyore’s Gloomy Place (rather boggy and sad) they returned to the Sendt Street entrance—and ran smack into the Lady Whitecaps, about to commence their own boo-hiss practice.

 

Mr. Heathcote greeted Downsborough’s coach while Alex shook cordial hands with Whitecap captain Lillie Guldbaer, who was already a champion swimmer and so had no business running cross country too.

 

“(I hear she never wears a suit in the pool if she can help it!)” Caroline asked Susie to tell Karen Lee.

 

“(D’you think that’s a bad idea?)” Amelia whispered to Chloe.  “(Wouldn’t you say that’d let chlorine do stuff to your insides?)”

 

“Vicki!  Sheila!” called Alex, telling Lillie Guldbaer, “These are two of them.”

 

“Hey, are you guys with that Darbies band?” inquired Lillie, looking too damn blonde, built, and bright-eyed for an eighth-grader.  “Oh wow, I heard you caused like a riot at a dance last week.”

 

“That’s not true—”

 

“It wasn’t our fault—”

 

“Do the Darbies play parties?” Lillie wanted to know.  “How much do you cost?  Would fifty bucks be enough?”

 

*

 

Nine dollars per musician (after deducting the manager’s 10%) ought to be adequate, considering the band would probably play for a slice of cake apiece.  But Vicki had more immediate concerns that Saturday night:

 

“I’m your very best friend, right?” Joss was asking.

 

“Course you are!”

 

“Well then, understand why I don’t want you going out with That Guy again till I get a chance to talk to him, face to face.”

 

“I can’t ask him in here at six a.m., can I?  What would your dad say, and Meg?—and Toughie?

 

“I’m not saying it has to be six a.m.  Does he turn into stone when the sun comes up, like a troll?  Why can’t we meet him somewhere later in the day?  Don’t you want to see him whenever you can?”

 

“Yes,” Vicki moaned.  “But he said he’s got things to do he doesn’t want to do but has to do.”

 

“What things?”

 

“He didn’t say.”

 

“Did you ask?

 

“I ran out of questions.”

 

“You’re a nut, you know that?  You ought to by now, I tell you often enough!”

 

And Joss wouldn’t be jollied out of this huff, especially when Vicki’s painstaking efforts to not wake her at dawn on Sunday proved futile.

 

“...gr-r-r-r...”

 

“(I’m sorry—I’m sorry—back to sleep now—sweet dreams—lullaby, lullaby—)”

 

Joss, balefully scratching herself through a baggy Edgar Stubley T-shirt, got up and trudged over to the aerie window.  “(He out there?)”

 

“(Um, yeah.)”

 

“(You going?)”

 

“(Just for a run.  I’ll try to talk him into coming back later, when he can.  If he can.)”

 

“(This is insane, you know.)”

 

“(Yeah... but kind of fantastic.)”

 

Throwing on jeans and a sweater, Joss accompanied Vicki out and around to the front porch, from which she stared undauntedly at the gray silhouette by the lamppost across the street.  Where Vicki joined it, gesticulating earnestly, pointing back toward Joss—at whom the shady shape waved...

 

...as it spirited Vicki away.

 

South they headed this time, past Clubroot and into Willowhelm.  “Are you taking me to see where you live?”

 

“Home away from home,” said Dave.

 

Straight down Sendt they went, to the sign on the chained gateway stating auldforest woods / forest preserve / closed sunset.

 

“I was just here yesterday with my cross country team!  How long will we have to wait before going in?”

 

Dave, dexterously clasping her slender middle, vaulted them both over the chained gateway and Vicki past the rapture point as they set off into the Woods.

 

Breathing fairly hard for so early in a run, she said: “We’ve got a meet—here next Thursday—four o’clock—I’d really like it—if you can be there—I mean here—so can you?”

 

“Wish I could.”

 

“Oh pleeeease?”

 

“Sorry.”

 

“But aren’t we ever—gonna see each other—except on Sunday mornings?”

 

“Told you.  Got things I don’t want to do—”

 

“—but have to do, yeah yeah yeah—like what, exactly?—do you go running with a bunch of different girls?”

 

“(Snortle.)  Nope.”

 

“So what then?”

 

“Earn my keep.”

 

“Your keep?  Do your folks make you work?”

 

“Got no folks.  Not real ones.”

 

OhmyGahd is he an orphan?  Living in a foster home with cruel persecutors, like David Copperfield and the Murdstones?  Did they force him to wash empty bottles while he suffered secret agonies of the soul?  Vicki shed hot tears at this image, faltering as they reached the footbridge, babbling like the Auldbrook below it:

 

“Y’wanna come live with us? (shniff) we’ve got an extra room (shniff) my sister hardly ever uses (shniff) she could sleep in mine we used to share (sob) I don’t want you to be all hopeless and miserable from having to work with Mealy Potatohhhhes...”

 

Hey.  Hey now.  Don’t cry...

 

I don’t mean Amelia Quirk, you don’t know who that is, oh Gahd I must be a mess, stop looking at me—

 

You’re the loveliest girl in the world.

 

Away from the bridge he led her then, off the trail toward Eeyores Gloomy Place, into what Alex called a copse of ashes—perhaps because they rose from the dew like plumes of smoke.  And there he took her in his arms and held her mistily enfolded, his sharp-tipped lips now on her cheek, now on her brow, now sinking into her silky wedge-cut hair: each kiss making her reverberate like the peal of a carillon.

 

*

 

Vicki’s parents hadn’t humiliated her for a commendably long time, but they jumped in with all four feet when Lillie Guldbaer wanted to book the Rosa Dartles for a party.  Before the band could seal the deal, Ozzie and Felicia convened the other Dartle ancestors at Burrow Lane to thrash out just which/when/where gigs could be undertaken—For The Girlss Own Good, and Because We Say So.

 

Fat Bob Neapolitan came, and Martha Weller and Raymond Murrisch and Gloria Quirk (whose husband Ross had the evening shift at the Grand Parade) and Dr. Hilde Krühler (whose husband Hoyt had the evening weather to report).  The Volesters ushered them into the lower-level family room, from which festive wingding sounds soon wafted to annoy the Dartles, banished upstairs when not taking turns to slink down and eavesdrop.

 

“They forgot all the hell about us!” groused Robin.  “We coulda brought our instruments and played a damn party gig right here!”

 

The girls were in Tricia’s room, which Vicki was tidying in case Dave changed his mind and, somehow, did move in.  Though tidying wasn’t easy when three of your friends were slouched on bed, chair, and rug, watching a fourth friend brass-boldly doff her outer clothes to try on Tricia’s high school wardrobe.

 

“Sheila!  I’m trying to clean this place up!”

 

“So stick my stuff in a corner.  Ooh I like this one!” said Sheila-Q, admiring her bod in the mirrored closet doors after wrestling on a red dress that’d been a mini on Tricia, but didn’t quite cover Sheila’s crotch.

 

“Yeah, that’s a nice top,” Joss observed.

 

“So I’m tallish!  You’re one to talk.  Oog!—uh, can you help me take it off?  Careful now—don’t tear it!—”

 

“How often do you say that to K.C.?” wondered Robin as they extracted Sheila.  “Your bra’s got pit stains, Quirk.  Haw!  Made you look!”

 

“No you did not ‘cause no it does not, this is brand-new.  I’m breaking it in before Mealy can steal it.”

 

Britt edged through the bedroom door, rolling heavy eyelids at Miss Unmentionables.  “Have they booked you to jump out of the party cake?”

 

“Yukkity yuk,” went Sheila, selecting a marginally longer green dress.

 

Fiona heaved a sigh and got up to take her stakeout turn.  “(Anything happening?)”

 

“Somebody’s put on a mambo record,” said Britt.

 

“Oh Gahd!  That means my dad’ll dance with all your moms!” cried Vicki.  “I am so sorry, you guys!”

 

“Mambo on shag carpet?  This I gotta see,” said Joss.  “Is there film in your camera?”

 

“If not, grab Goofus’s.”

 

“Tell him we’re taking cheesecake shots of Quirk here.”

 

“Will your sister mind if I borrow this?  Like until further notice?” asked Sheila, shake-shake-shaking round green booty at the closet mirror.

 

“She might, if she ever stopped by long enough to check,” said Vicki. “That week she was here in June?  I think I saw her maybe fifteen minutes total.”

 

“Lucky!” chorused Sheila and Britt, burdened fulltime with Mealy and Fleur.

 

Yes I’m ready / so come on Luckie,” belted Fiona, settling back on the bed as Joss pre-empted her slinkdown turn.  Serenading the room with the opening number from Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, her bandmates chiming in when the complex chords and lyrics permitted: “I’m gonna go get Luckie, I’m gonna go get Luckie...

 

*

 

Lillie Guldbaer’s fifty-dollar overture was rebuffed, since Lillie couldn’t guarantee an adult would be on her party premises.  The Dartle parents clucked a-plenty about that, making it an ironclad proviso for any future gig.

 

As if any’d be forthcoming now, the girls thought; but then Fat Bob reserved the Grand Parade B&G for a private shindig—all grill, no bar—on the Monday before Robin’s fifteenth birthday.  The band was invited to make faster!  louder!  brasher! music there within realistic bounds—no cover charge, yet orders could be taken for Dartle T-shirts (and buttons, stickers, and decals: Britt had been busy) while birthday gifts were acceptable so long as cash didn’t exchange hands.

 

The place was packed, the show went well and even better in embellished retelling, so the Dartles gained a greater name for hardcore bad-assery.  Which almost offset Fleur Groningens not engaging them to play at her VHS Homecoming Queen election-celebration; nor were they asked to perform at VW’s Halloween Dance.  (Which subsisted on prerecorded entertainment, meaning Chinese Fire Drill also got skunked, so it was almost worthwhile.)

 

But other party-planners approached the Dartles at school, at the Green Bridge, at cross country meets—Aren’t you with that all-girl band?  Did they really call the cops to bust you guys?  Can you play at my house a week from Friday?—though each deal had to be fielded by a Dartle parent.

 

“I bet the Ramones don’t hafta run everything past their daddy and mommy!” Robin carped.

 

On the cross country circuit, the L-Bugs did tolerably well.  Vicki finished fourth on the varsity squad, after Alex and Sammi and Sheila (who ran extra fast to outstrip Mealy) and before Susie, Karen Lee and Caroline.  Laurie missed the cut but wasn’t devastated, cheerfully applauding her friends and stepsister, then going out for basketball with Sammi and Alex even though she’d spend the season mostly warming benches.  Meanwhile Rachel Gleistein got Laurie involved with Red Cross Club, where her “powers of communication” were invaluable in organizing the annual canned food drive.  Everyone in the bunch was proud of Laurie, even those who still thought her dumb.

 

Once cross country was done with, Vicki focused on Cicada and Mixed Chorus and Student Council (to which she’d been re-elected as homeroom rep, to counteract further underhandedness by Sell-O Fayne) plus pesky distractions like homework and household chores.

 

She got asked out periodically.  Buddy Marcellus wanted to feed her burgers; John Alphonse proposed they go see Shout at the Devil; Tony Pierro mentioned part-time openings at his various workplaces, and willingness to help Vicki fill them.  Even Mr. Erickson seemed to call on her more often than other girls, and smile more appreciatively at her answers—or her panty lines, whose visibility resisted concealment no matter what she wore.

 

“Guess you’re just fated to be a sexy tease,” Joss remarked at Burrow Lane, after Vicki wrenched off and stamped on the latest in a series of ineffective half-slips.

 

“Well I don’t wanna be!  A tease, anyway—I can’t compete with Carly or Ms. Tays.”

 

She turned down all date/job offers, citing lack of available time, which was true enough—though, needless to add, not the sole reason.  There were eleven others: the eleven Sunday dawns she shared with Dave Solovay.

 

Sometimes they ran through Auldforest Woods; sometimes to Maine Street Beach or Spanish Castle Square, around the fountain modeled after Seville’s Torre del Oro.  Vicki could never lure him back onto her own inland turf, west of the Expressway—“Got to keep near the Lake,” he’d say, giving no explanation why.  So they remained close to the shore, where running was like sailing or soaring or swooping to alight and bask in the sunrise, greeting daybreak with a little cockcrow.

 

(So to speak.)

 

On such occasions Vicki wished she were bolder, more assertive, like Sheila with K.C. or Crystal with Rags, or Carly with her playing field: swapping clinchy smooches in the halls and stairwells.  She yearned to throw herself on Dave’s neck (a phrase found in books) and twine her legs round his waist (as depicted in other books) while they stretched out on the beach, or by the footbridge, or in the fountain with waves sloshing over them like in From Here to Eternity (which she and Joss had watched on TV).

 

But instead of Hawaii or Spain they had the northern ‘burbs in November, and temps falling along with the leaves.  Vicki was obliged to raid that bottom bureau drawer for thermal undies, and fortify her upper self with gloves and scarf and stocking cap before sneaking out.  Which may have enhanced her cuteness, but didn’t quite evoke passion ‘neath the surging tide.

 

“Warm me up?” she politely requested on November 21st, their eleventh Sunday, as she hopped from one foot to the other: both wearing waterproof gym shoes over wool socks over cotton socks, yet still numb.

 

Dave—bareheaded, barehanded, in his regular racing flats and sweatsuit with hood off—picked her up and held her firmly.  Not as tightly as Vicki would’ve enjoyed, given her layerage; yet warranting a deeeep smoky exhalation in his copper-scented ear.

 

“I won’t be able to come next Sunday,” she murmured.  “Running, I mean, around here—Thanksgiving weekend, y’know.  My sister ‘n’ grandparents’ll be at my house, and Joss’ll have family at hers too.  But I could get out if we do it—run, that is—around Burrow Lane?  West of Lesser Park?  Next Sunday we could maybe run there?  And over to the Green Bridge and around my school—”

 

We’ll see.

 

Oh yay!

 

She pressed vestal tummy and thighs against his amplified awareness, with a pound pound pound of her heart as she timidly thump thump thumped with her hips—

 

“—go west on Panama to Lesser Drive take that about a mile to Foxtail turn right then left on Burrow Lane it’s a cul-de-sac I live at 3132—”

 

I said: We’ll see.

 

Which would’ve been a bummer note, had his hands not stroked slowly down till each cupped a pantylined nethercheek.  Handling these with gallant tender consideration—no pinches, no gooses, just strong smooth steadiness.  To-have-and-to-holding till Vicki’s thumps quickened into from-this-chafe-forward—

 

friction—what it means... what it means... what it meeeeans—

 

OhhhhmyyyyGahhhhhhhdddd...

 

(So who needs Hawaii or Spain?)

 

*

 

Tricia’d last been glimpsed in August on her eighteenth birthday, for which her family’d had to visit Saugatuck where she was doing summer stock.

 

“Hey,” she’d said then.

 

“Hey,” Vicki’d replied.  “Happy birthday.”

 

“Cut your hair?”

 

“Yeah—six months ago.”

 

“Looks nice.”  (Her intonation implying that “nice” was no longer a goal on Tricia’s looks-agenda.)

 

(Big Princess Smartysnoot.)

 

She did fly home for Thanksgiving, together with MomMom and PopPop on their first-ever trip by plane.  PopPop needed a heap of convincing why travel by car was not an option; MomMom’s “Walter!  The roads!  The weather!  Your age!” didn’t do the trick, but Tricia’s “We fly or I don’t go” got them onboard.

 

“Hey,” she greeted Vicki at the airport.

 

“Hey.  Happy Thanksgiving.”

 

“Cut your hair?”

 

“Yeah—last February.

 

“Maybe you should grow it out.”

 

Oh really?  I’ll have you know me and my hair made out with a real honey of a guy last Sunday—serious making out, by Spanish Castle Fountain, where tons of people would’ve seen us if it’d been later in the day.

 

That’s what Vicki wanted to boast, but Tricia limited sisterly chitchat to demanding the whereabouts of her swiped green dress.  Not that she was inclined to ever wear it again; yet no dragon kept a more comprehensive inventory of its material possessions.

 

“How should I know where your stupid old clothes are?”

 

Dragon-blast of emerald glare: “It was in that closet last June.”

 

“Well I’ve got my own clothes in my own closet—and you know I don’t look good in green.  You used to know that, anyway.”

 

Fleeting mutual remembrance of Tricia teaching Vicki what colors did and didn’t go with a cherish-and-treasurable olive complexion.

 

“Oh forget it—I don’t have time for this.”  Sashaying off to the bathroom like a Big College Hotdog.

 

“You think you’ve got troubles?” Joss unsympathized over the phone.  Her Aunt Sally was in town too, with five children who got quartered in their cousins’s rooms like Redcoats before the Revolution.  Joss had been assigned twelve-year-old Georgette alias Georgy Girl, who spent the whole long weekend acting neurotic:

 

“Do we have to be on the top floor?  What if the roof leaks?  How do we escape if there’s a fire and we can’t get to any stairs?  And what is with Beth?  Who is this ‘Amy’ she keeps talking about?  Why does she keep using the word invisible?”

 

“Jeez, I wish you were here,” Joss lamented.

 

So did Vicki, though only in part for Joss’s sake.

 

At any rate, on Sunday the 28th she occupied her own bed at Burrow Lane till digitally buzzed out of it at six a.m.  Out of bed, out of the house, out of the cul-de-sac... finding no gray silhouette waiting anywhere near the vicinity.  Finally taking a virgin-spinster run by her lonesome self in Lesser Park.

 

He could’ve shown.  He knows your address.  You gave him your phone number, too—he could at least have said he wouldn’t be here.

 

Didn’t letting him squeeze you That Way count for anything?  If he really, truly, thinks you’re the “loveliest girl in the world”?

 

No sooner do they call you that, than they vanish forever.

 

And this one didn’t even give you a lousy Pet Rock.

 

*

 

So: Thanksfornothing.  Followed by a very cold week of below-zero windchills that frigidified body heart and soul; then a Friday afternoon snowbardment snarling the Expressway, till it took Ozzie three hazardous hours to commute home from The Lot.

 

Toughie again sent Lamar to retrieve Joss from VW, bringing her back to Jupiter Street safe and sound—and discontented: “Just once in my life, is getting stranded in a car overnight with Lamar Twofields too much to ask??”

 

So: no sleepovers for the second consecutive weekend.  Joss semi-promised to rise at dawn on Sunday to check for Dave, but she and Vicki and Fingers were all aware that nobody’d be leaving that brass bed till nine at the earliest.  The aerie had a phone but not its own line, and if Vicki tried calling before sunrise she’d wake Mr. Murrisch for sure—or, worse yet, Meg.

 

Picture poor Dave out by the lamppost, snow piled up past his knees, waiting for someone confined three miles away.  But, hell!  It was his own damn fault!  Vicki had no clue where he lived (other than “down south”) or with whom (other than not “real folks”) whereas he could contact her whenever he chose.  And the fact that he didn’t was scarcely an encouraging thought.

 

Another snowstorm struck on Monday, making the rest of that week’s Winter Concert rehearsals superdelightful.  It was such fun slogging down Eugene G. Green Road behind Alex, for whom Zero Hour was practically sacrosanct and late arrival akin to blasphemy:

 

“C’mon, let’s get cracking!... let’s get the lead out!... let’s get a move on!... hey, wouldn’t it be great if we could cross-country ski to school?”

 

(Spiffy.)

 

And then, slog done, such fun to stand on the Mixed Chorus risers and croak sixty minutes of holiday tunes.  Culminating in Mrs. Weller’s yearly homage to Burt Bacharach—this one being “Turkey Lurkey Time” from Promises, Promises, and so ootsie-cutesy-cunning it should’ve been a solo for Spacyjane Groh, onstage by herself.  While the rest of Chorus spent Zero Hour warm and dry at home.

 

Vicki felt blah all week long: the crummy sort of blah that doesn’t worsen into unarguable illness, yet won’t clear up and go away.  Goofus claimed she’d come down with swine flu—“You’ve had all the symptoms for years!”—but Felicia diagnosed it as a teenage case of winter doldrums.

 

“When you’re little, snow is something to play in.  As you get older, it’s more of an obstacle.  And (sigh) that’s true about more than just snow.”

 

“So... it’ll never get better?”

 

“Well, darling, as you grow up you find ways to cope.”

 

“Can I start having a glass of wine with dinner?”

 

“Nice try, Brownie.”

 

By Friday afternoon they were sufficiently acclimated to the weather for Joss to resume sleeping over at Vicki’s, on the air mattress she liked to inflate by mouth with Dizzy Gillespie gusto.

 

“Mmmmmmm, that’s good lung power!”  (Sub-adding You okay?)

 

(No, I’m new and lost.)  “We’re ‘nice’ girls, right?”

 

“Unfortunately.”

 

“Why can’t we fall for nice guys, then?  Ones we can go with, ‘n’ who’ll go with us—all day every day of the week?”

 

“I’m looking for a nice ‘brutha.’  Maybe I’ll find him when we take Alex to that Bull-onies game for her birthday.  But even if he falls for me at first sight, what’ll happen if he ‘n’ I try getting lovey-dovey anywhere around here?  We’ll have to go move someplace like France.”

 

“Don’t you dare!—not unless I can go with you.”

 

Felicia wouldn’t authorize their emigration, but did drive them (Firebird tire chains clanking) as far as Jupiter Street on Saturday.  Immense relief for Vicki to see the Queen Anne again—and, on the opposite corner, an untenanted lamppost.

 

I won’t look out the window tomorrow morning.  Let him come knock on the door and ask to see me.  Let him call me on the phone and make a real true date.  Let him mail me a Christmas card and sing me a Christmas carol and kiss me on the lips between verses.  ‘Cause I am a nice girl and I’d be a wonderful girlfriend and these are not unreasonable things to wish for.

 

Even if I am too old to believe in Santa Claus.

 

Um... thank you and amen.

 

*

 

And then: the twelfth Sunday.  On the twelfth day of the twelfth month.

 

She awoke shivering, though for no worse reason than Joss and Fingers were a couple of blanket-hogs.  Before tussling back her share, Vicki detoured to the aerie bathroom (wincing at the toilet seat’s chilly touch) and glanced at the trumpet-shaped novelty clock that hung above its tiny nightlight.

 

Straight-up vertical line: little hand on six, big hand on twelve.

 

I won’t do it.  I don’t have to.  I can’t stand this.

 

But still.

 

Stealth-step.  Curtain-edge.  Blind-side.  Just one cautious peep...

 

At a world still black with night, yet white with snow.

 

And a gray lamppost beside a gray profile lifting a long gray hand.  To display what appeared to be a knight errant’s shield—if those were constructed like Flexible Flyers.

 

Oh, for crying out loud...

 

“It’s too early to go sledding,” she told him.

 

“Missed you too,” he replied.

 

She hadn’t intended to get washed or dressed.  Hadn’t brought gym shoes this inclement weekend, so wore boots that were sinking into white stuff on the street corner.

 

He laid the Flyer at her feet, then used that gray hand to shield his mouth once again.  “Get on,” from behind it.  “Give you a ride.”

 

“Gahd, don’t you ever listen?  It’s—too—early.”

 

“After six.  C’mon.  Got something to show you.”

 

Her clothes would get soaked, she’d contract pneumonia, no way would she climb on this bundle of boards

 

and go zooming down the snowpacked sidewalk as Dave ran ahead, towing the sled at the end of a long knotted rope.  How could he run in this weather, in those thin racing flats?  With no skidding, no wading, no freezing despite its being maybe twenty degrees out?

 

“Duck,” he said, dropping the rope and leaping over the Auldforest gateway as the sled sailed below it, Vicki flattening herself with a strangled shriek and barely making clearance.

 

I can’t be doing this, it doesn’t feel a bit romantic, just c-o-l-d and creepy and like it’ll stay dark forever—

 

He regained the rope, dragging her now toward Dead Man’s Slope: notorious as a hill where “Flexible Flyers came to die.”  And, sometimes, take their riders with them—hurled off on highspeed bumps, pitched against tree trunks or into ravines.  It was not a place for the fainthearted even at the height of day, much less before sunrise, so no sledding was allowed till noon.

 

We’re not here for sledding.

 

“Wh-what?  Then wh-why...?”

 

“Told you.  Something to show.”

 

Hauling sled and occupant to a highpiled snowbank at the side of the hill.  There, behind a heavy-laden clump of bushes, leaned a large white board; and behind that was a—

 

“Snow cave,” Dave unveiled.  “Dug it for you.  Big enough for us both.”

 

Bending down, reaching in, snapping on a Coleman lantern.  Igloo interior, near at hand; shadows further off.

 

Was this where he lived?  Buried under snow like Parnell Travers the Astral Slacker?  Enticing girls into his lair for luded-out orgies?

 

“Go on.  Look inside.”

 

But this was Dead Man’s Slope, thered be a tomb full of bones, that old Indian chief’s skeleton bricked up like “The Cask of Amontillado”—

 

“Please... don’t make me go in there...”

 

“It’s safe.  Good roof, good walls.  Packed firm.  Pads to sit on.  Vent hole for breathing.”

 

I’m scared...

 

I’m here with you...

 

Bent over at the icy threshold, reaching out his free hand, while from behind the unextended other came words of a song:

 

  Ochi chornyye, ochi strastnyye,
Ochi zhguchiye i prekrasnyye...
 

 

Black eyes; passionate eyes; burning and beautiful eyes...

 

Grasping her then by the multilayered wrist—tugging her through the hole and into the cave—

 

NO!!!

 

Trying to recoil, to break free, to plant bootheels on the hole’s hardpacked snowsill, only to have them slip out from under in a slapstick pratfall as her arms flailed and his caught hold only to be pulled down on top of her along with the Coleman lantern irradiating Vicki’s first full view of Dave Solovay’s uncovered face—

 

OhhhhmyyyyGAHHHHHHHDDDD

 

—mouth an abandoned graveyard of bucktoothed yellow fangs all jagged and crooked encased in barbaric wire dripping spittle he sprayed saying things she couldn’t hear over the pound pound pounding in her ears head heart soul pinned on her back him spreadeagled atop pressing unbudgeably down that mouth an inch away those teeth braces spittle can’t so much as squirm—

 

—till she recalled the consensus about knees being handiest.

 

To cross-garter this twelfth night.

 

And then take off running, endless relentless running like a terrified kittycat.

 

Somehow, sometime after that, she got back to Jupiter on her own without killing herself.  However much she might want to die.

 

She’d been given her own Queen Anne key by Toughie (“You need to be able to come and go, child”) but this hellish morning her gloves were so palsied she couldn’t fit the key in the lock, and was about to collapse on the mat when the knob turned and the kitchen door swung open.

 

Joss?...  Meg?...  Mr. Murrisch?...

 

Nobody there.

 

Except for Beth, way over at the stove.  Keeping her back to Vicki as she owlishly remarked: “We got up early too.  Care for some scrambled eggs?”

 

*

 

Ten evenings later, Fiona Weller sat disgruntledly in a Home Base washroom stall—the same one Kim Zimmer used for angst-wracking—and wondered if Dr. Drogue, her gynecologist, could ever prescribe some med with no side effects.

 

Such as rampant constipation.

 

She checked her watch, weighing the odds of doing any “business” (ewwgh) before intermission ended.  It was bad enough being here at Winter Concert, playing clarinet instead of electric bass, without having any surplus afflictions.

 

Last night had been even worse: taking her “log jam” (ewwgh squared) down to The City for an honest-to-godawful NBA game.  And it wasn’t like she and just-turned-fifteen Alex Dmitria were bosom chums; a polite invite and gracious beg-off should’ve been satisfactory.  Except that Alex personally appealed for her to come:

 

“I need you there to keep me from yelling so loud I’ll lose my voice before Winter Concert.  You’re the expert on how not to do that!  Please, Fiona?”

 

Then Joss had privately seconded this request, saying Vicki was in a deep dark funk (as Fiona’d noticed) and ought to have as many friends around her as possible—especially Feef, their expert on this topic too.

 

Then Robin got into the act, reversing her hell-no-not-gonna-happen stance, adding that if she could go see a team that’d lost every game it played in November—thirteen straight!—then Spooky damn well better also.

 

So she and her “cloggage” (ewwgh cubed) had gone, to supply uppage for Vicki and downage for Alex and sidekickage for Robin.  While a crowd of extremely tall, extremely sweaty men bounced basketballs back and forth and back and forth and back and forth into interminable double overtime.

 

Fiona’s presence hadn’t even made a measurable difference: Alex cheered her lungs out, then had to swill honey and lemon so they’d be in working order for tonight; and Vicki remained adrift on some separate plane of existence, far more dismal than the one frequented by Parnell Travers.

 

Fiona knew what life was like on the Dismal Plane: innumerable fathoms below any other.

 

Ain’t nothing deeper than whaleshit.  Even unshat.

 

(Speaking of which...)

 

(Sigh.)

 

Go through flush-and-handwash motions.  Pondering what she—hardly a little ray of sunshine—could do to rekindle the stars in Vicki’s eyes.  Which led toward a line of speculation that Fiona didn’t want to pursue just then.  Particularly with the second half of a Winter Concert to sit through, in her current cloggish state.

 

At least the finale might not be as excruciating as everybodyd feared.  “Turkey Lurkey Time” had driven Band and Chorus to the brink of mutiny, before Amelia Quirk stepped up to volunteer an accompanying dance by herself with Karen Lee Bobko and Caroline Appercy (a pairing at which many marveled) wearing leotards, Santa hats, and shakable tailfeathers.

 

It took the combined forces of Joss, Robin, and Fiona to dissuade Sheila-Q from murdering her showoff sister every time this got rehearsed and “Taters” (as she’d asked to be billed) practiced accepting bouquets.

 

“You just had to call her ‘Mealy Potatoes,’ didn’t you?” Sheila seethed.  “Like ‘Mealy-Mouth’ wasn’t accurate enough already?”

 

(Turkey Lurkey with Tater Tots.)

 

Fiona left the washroom, wiping hands on a coarse brown paper towel, and was very nearly cured of constipation right there in the corridor when her way was blocked (as it were) by a strange guy.  An ashen beanstalk of a guy who had somber-pensive eyes, flowing-aloof hair, and an aura of inscrutable stillness.

 

They stared each other down for a long brooding moment.

 

Think like Vicki—talk like Robin—laugh like Joss—

 

“(I can scream louder than anyone in this school if I have to,)” Fiona muttered.

 

The wayblocker went her one better, responding through shut-tight lips:

 

Do you know Vic-to-ri-a?

 

*

 

Pay no attention to that girl behind the curtain.

 

Who was not listening to the Band play selections from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, but heard only a perverse voice from a year past:

 

 

Every time you feel what you think is pain, you get prettier; and that only brings you more pain.  I’m hurting you now, talking this way, and you’re prettifying before my eyes.

 

 

If that were true, she must be the loveliest girl in the whole damned world.

 

For ten days now, people had been telling her “How nice you look.”

 

Not feel, though; nobody’d mentioned that.

 

Nor had anyone been informed about the twelfth of the twelfth.  Not even Joss, though she could sub-sense enough to stay nearby and ask nothing—two crucial attributes of a very best friend.

 

As Vicki, again and again, by day and by night, relived that scene at the hole in the slope.

 

Now she valiantly saved her own life and virtue; now she botched and bungled and misconstrued.  Now her knee merely lifted long enough to wriggle out from under; now it dealt a vicious mortal blow, deservedly or not.

 

Either way: pain.  Klumsy Klutzer pain.  However much it became her.

 

The Band finished its medley (will winter ever be warm as it was then?) and Mixed Chorus returned to its risers.  The curtain went up and Crystal Denvour began her a capella solo, “King David” as sung by Judy Collins on Bread and Roses.  The rest of the Chorus provided ahhh-ahhh backing vocals for this pièce de résistance (as Mrs. Weller accented it) while Vicki tried to résist absorbing the pièce’s lyrics.

 

Why couldn’t they have picked a different king, like Cole or Arthur or Wenceslas?  Why did it have to be DAVID—a sorrowful man with no cause for his sorrow, which a hundred harpists couldn’t charm away?  Why did he have to walk alone in a moonlit garden where a nightingale “jargoned” in a cypress tree?

 

Thou little bird (King David asked) who taught my grief to thee?

 

And as Crystal’s prizewinning soprano swooped and soared above the ahhh-ahhhs, Vicki’s grief welled up to blur vision and endanger mascara.

 

Willing the tears not to spill or trickle, she tipped her head back a few inches... and thought she saw a silhouette loom grayly just inside the balcony door.

 

So, while King David hearkened to the heedless nightingale’s song till his own sorrowfulness was gone, Vicki recited silent lines that Mr. Erickson had made them learn in Language Arts:

 

  That I might drink, and leave the world unseen
  And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
  What thou among the leaves hast never known...
 

 

(Lots of snortling during class discussion—“What sort of drink?  What kind of leaves?”—and lots of scribbling by Vicki of the word nightingale in her notebook.)

 

Solo over, Crystal stretched out her arms to share the ovation with Chorus and Mrs. Weller.  Then the house got brought down by the Bobbsey Triplets, dancing to “Turkey Lurkey Time,” and Vicki seized this opportunity to dab at her lashes—

 

—but when she peered again at the balcony, no silhouette could be seen.

 

Of course.

 

And yet...

 

As soon as the final curtain call was taken, Fiona raced up onstage like a varsity Ladybug, hustling Vicki off to a secluded corner of the wings.

 

“Feef?  What the—?”

 

Panting: “(There was this guy... out in the hall... and he asked me... if I knew you... and he gave me... this to give you... said he made it.)”

 

Vicki goggled at the sack she was holding.  “He was here?  In the school?  You talked to him?  Where’d he go?  Did he limp?  Or, y’know, kind of hunch over and walk careful?”

 

Fiona’s turn to goggle as Vicki jabbered that maybe he had been Jonathan Dohr but got all humpty-dumptied in some horrific accident and put back together again like The Six Million Dollar Man except they’d run out of funds before they could finish the mouth—

 

“(Vicki—)”

 

“—what?”

 

Rattling the sack: “(He said to tell you he made it.)”

 

Eyeing the sack: “Anything else?”

 

Thrusting the sack: “(He said to tell you Cool Yule.)”

 

Dodging the sack: “Anything else?”

 

Placing the sack in Vicki’s hands: “(Yeah...  he said... to tell you... good-bye.)”

 

Not—not for keeps?

 

Dunno—he didn’t say.

 

Back welled the tears as Vicki opened the sack and found a little figure sculpted out of copper tubing.  With a key on one side, which when wound made its arms and legs move up and down, like a jogger’s.

 

At the bottom of the sack was a Hans Christian Andersen picture postcard.  One side showed an old Chinese man in a silver bed wreathed in black, weeping as he watched a bird on a green branch outside a bright red casement.  The other side bore four words executed in Magic Marker:

 

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Return to Chapter 26                          Proceed to Chapter 28

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2014-2017 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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