Chapter 33

 

A Pitcher of Gossipade

 

 

There are swan dives done without a splash, and belly flops that cause a tidal wave.  Tricia Volester’s plunge left everybody high and dry—particularly her parents and sister.

 

Friends, relations, and countrymen would be told that Tricia was taking a break from college to try her luck in Tinsel Town—a statement no lie detector ought to find fault with.  The fact that “Lucia Vantrop” was credited with appearing in Playboy’s “Girls of the Big Ten” helped keep the so-to-speak veil drawn, since reporters (including from the World’s Greatest Newspaper on Michigan Avenue) were able to contact and interview some of the Girls, but had to acknowledge others had used assumed names and could not be located.

 

Goofus and his eleven-year-old cronies, by their lack of reaction, were apparently still too young to peruse Playboy or at least lay hands on a copy to peek at.  Other family members who doubtless did so, like Gross Uncle Doug and Diamond Joel and cousin T.J.-formerly-known-as-Beaver, either failed to recognize Lucia as Tricia or kept mum about it.  Her male classmates at Ann Arbor and Pfiester High were all safely distant; the Daddy-and-Princess commercials for Volester Motors had ceased airing a couple years earlier, drying up that connection; and Tricia’d never loitered around Vanderlund long enough to gain a visual foothold in memories there.

 

Apart from 3132 Burrow Lane.

 

Where, for Vicki on August 1st, déjà was vu-ing all over again.

 

Hey Mom?  Couldja come here a moment?  Now, please?

 

What’s the matter?

 

Mom, look...

 

Handing over the unsourced envelope and its contents.  Sitting huddled on the bed in terrycloth minirobe and two towels.  Keeping eyes fixed on ten bare toes, idly noting which ones needed fresh nail polish.  Hearing Felicia start to breathe as if she’d just run upstairs, which she had; but more like Miss Maudie in To Kill a Mockingbird when the news came of Tom Robinson’s being shot dead.

 

Feeling her mother reach out, as though for a light switch in pitch darkness, and run a hand over the top of her (meaning your) sweaty Dorothy Hamill wedge.

 

Don’t worry about it.  Said without words; and no more effective than a kiss to make an owwie feel better.  Repeated aloud when the garage door rumbled open, and Ozzie sounded his usual Honey I’m home toot on the Honda horn.

 

Mutual sigh by mother and daughter.

 

Then mother took herself off, taking the evidence with her; while daughter took her towels and robe off, taking a belated behindhand shower.  Taking her time about it, too.  As she did drying; as she did dressing; as she did pausing every few steps down the staircase, straining her ears for any reason to retreat.

 

But the house was deathly still.

 

Hurry into the empty kitchen just long enough to grab food and drink for the evening, then bolt back upstairs to hide inside your cozy corner.  Grateful for one small mercy: Goofus was away on a camping trip with his friend Breezy, so called because of his gaseous nature; so be extra grateful not to have to share their tent.

 

Dinner dispensed with, plate and glass and utensils set aside for later rinsing, remove the polish from all twenty nails—upper as well as lower—so as to repaint them a nice cool lavender, matching this wisteria room.  And mood of the moment.  Flipping on The Big 89 in hopes of lightening the latter; but it must be Morose Monday at WLS, playing songs with downbeat lyrics like Heart’s “Barracuda” and Pablo Cruise’s “Whatcha Gonna Do” and Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” instead of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” or Rita Coolidge’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”

 

Thanks a lot, Music People.

 

Then Nora Corazon’s “Porque le Vas” came on, reminding Vicki of what Fiona’d written about her dad (her dad, not Ozzie) and also that Feef was coming home today, might already be home by now, so the bunch really ought to arrange a get-together sometime before Robin left for that motorcycle rally in South Dakota, assuming her dad’s leg (Fat Bob’s, not Ozzie’s) had fully healed by then—

 

Ugh.  Too many father-related thoughts...

 

Which weren’t diminished in the slightest when Vicki picked up the phone for her nightly chat with Joss, and caught a few seconds of lachrymose huskiness that didn’t sound like it was coming out of Felicia’s mouth or tear ducts.

 

Ozzie was in fact an easy weeper, with a hundred macho-preserving alibis“I was remembering the onions on my lunch burger”and, like PopPop the sentimental Austrian, always kept a big cotton bandanna ready for service.  “Nothing like a sunny day on a car lot to interfere with a feller’s eyes.”

 

But it was an awful thing for a girl to overhear her father doing.  (And to whom?  Not PopPop and MomMom—they’d be the last people to break the truth to.)

 

So replace the receiver in its cradle as painstakingly as if it were a bomb that might detonate, and leave the phone severely alone afterward.  With no summons to answer any incoming calls, which implied that Joss was being balked by constant busy signals.

 

Don’t dare try to sneak out of the house or even the cozy corner, except to rush down the hall to the bathroom and back, and only after pressing an ear to the door first.

 

Take another stab at Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself—till Sally started to worry that her father would die at the age of forty-two (which was exactly how old Ozzie was).  Turn off the radio when Andy Gibb falsetto’d “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” for the umpteenth unbearable time.  Let out a treble shriek of your own at the sight of a human face peering in through the dark uncovered window—

 

(Dammit.)

 

(Too the hell many déjà vu’s tonight.)

 

(And damn you too, Lana Eisenstein: this is my room now, and has been for the past two years, so go haunt somebody else’s.)

 

If only the face belonged to Joss, wanting to know why she couldn’t get through on the phone; or to Fiona, unimaginably climbing a tree to proclaim her return from L.A.; or to Tricia, even less imaginably repentant about absconding to L.A.—

 

But it didn’t, and it didn’t, and it didn’t.

 

So give up and go to bed ridiculously early, and to sleep after a considerable delay, and to dream of posing in the complete nude for a photographer no a painter no a sculptor who looked half like Humphrey Bogart and half like Buster Keaton as he ran half-hooded eyes over every inch of your squirming exposure while he wielded mallet and chisel on a block of stone no of metal no of wood that split and split and split wherever he hit it—

 

—giving you the latest in what promises to be a lifelong string of shakening awakening J-O-L-T-s.

 

Creep downstairs next morning (with more clothes on than you’d normally wear on a summer’s day, in case Buster Bogart was lying in wait) and find no trace of Ozzie, other than a reeking brimful ashtray.  He’d never quite given up smoking, despite many vows to do so, but generally confined it to the Lot or alone in the car or out behind the garage.

 

Yet this ashtray was in the kitchen, at Felicia the tobaccophobe’s very elbow as she sat with the phone clenched in one hand—and a burning cigarette in the other.

 

Vicki had only the haziest remembrance of her mother as a smoker, twelve years back before the New Baby mutated into Goofus instead of Julie the Raindrop.  So maybe seeing Fel with a cigarette now was another dream, which would account for her indistinct murmur murmur murmur into the phone—except that she interspersed this with out-of-practice hack hawk hoffs.

 

Tiptoe around behind her, breakfasting lightly and as silently as possible (no Rice Krispies, no whistling tea kettle) as you watch for a chance to de-elbowize that repulsive ashtray; surely Felicia wouldn’t keep smoking without one close at hand, not here in her house-proud kitchen.  But when you edged toward it, she unbent that elbow and twined its arm around your waist, holding you snugly—no, tightly—against her thinner-than-it-used-to-be torso.

 

...Mommy?

 

What am I going to do?

 

To me?

 

All of us...

 

Snapping back to the present then; she plucking at your long-sleeved jersey with the hand that held the lighted cigarette.

 

My goodness, you’ll boil alive in a thing like this on a day like this.

 

Pull away so you can pull it off (revealing a regulation Petty Hills Country Club Junior Staff T-shirt underneath) and seize the opportunity to nab the overflowing ashtray and spirit it over to the garbage bin, oh grohhssss oh grohhssss—

 

You are a good girl, Victoria, murmured a different voice as you scoured your befouled hands in the sink, wiped them on a clean dishcloth, wrote going to joss across the kitchen chalkboard, and hightailed it out to (or at least toward) carefreedom.

 

Blessedly, neither Vicki nor Joss was scheduled to work before noon on Tuesdays, Vicki teaching kiddysports or Joss “playing bag lady” again at the Jewel Foods on Sendt Street.  Not that Joss was unoccupied at home, what with Toughie vacationing in Mississippi and Meg getting a jumpstart on college in Ohio and Beth off rehearsing with an all-prodigy chamber group and Invisible Amy’s tendency to shirk household work.

 

So Joss was found mowing the Queen Anne’s lawn (definitely an early-morning chore in this weather) when Vicki pedaled up on her Sears Free Spirit with a dark cloud hovering over her bowed head.  Joss took one look, suppressed any gibes about the ongoing telephone marathon at Burrow Lane, and led the way to the aerie via the linen closet for fluffy absorbents to blot their streaming humidity.  Then:

 

“Okay... spill.”

 

Vicki, with lips locked, held forth an inexorable pinky.

 

“Aw c’mon, do I have to swear not to blab before I even hear what it is first?”

 

“This time, yes.”

 

With a groan, Joss linked pinkies and vowed confidentiality.  “This sufficient?  Or should I go get the family Bible?”

 

Vicki hesitated.  “Maybe you better.”

 

Joss’s small blue twinkly eyes widened.  “Is it that bad?”

 

“Well, it’s not good.”

 

Joss fetched the ornate Bible originally belonging to Hermione McGonigle Barnabas.  Placing a solemn hand on it, she pledged eternal top-secrecy—and soon was clutching the Good Book to her flopperoos while succumbing to one of her silent bust-a-gut gigglefits.

 

“It isn’t funny!

 

“(Course not,)” Joss gargled, collapsing backward onto her brass bed and into full-bellied laughter that Vicki, as per usual, could not resist joining in or surpassing till she rolled on the aerie floor in mute hysterics, and Fingers the cat sought refuge in the left-open linen closet.

 

Eventually the girls regained consciousness and adjourned their aching sides to the wide screened porch with a pitcher of Country Time lemonade, just as rain began to fall on the new-mown lawn.

 

“Oh great, now it’s gonna grow all over again,” said Joss.  “So... you saw the actual nudie shot?  How’d she look?”

 

“Sensational, of course.  Nothing at all like me—”

 

“What, aren’t you even a little sensational?”

 

“Oh shut up, you know what I mean—she’s blonde and stacked and peaches-and-creamy, with green eyes and so on.  Thank Gahd it wasn’t my cousin Barbara who did it, not that she ever would—but Barb ‘n’ I look a helluva lot more like sisters than Tricia ‘n’ me, and I bet she’d have used her real name too.  Then every guy in town who reads Playboy would’ve seen ‘Volester’ and practically known what I look like... like that.”

 

“Like that,” haw—word’s nayyyyked, Vic.  Say it wimme—

 

(Not sub-said by Joss, but an echo out of the past-and-gone.)

 

“I’m sorry I laughed,” said Joss.  “You know how much I feel for you and your dad, and your poor mom—we have got to stop her from smoking again—but honestly, from everything you’ve ever said about Tricia, she’s a smart cookie who won’t let herself be taken advantage of, right?  And it could be so much worse—she might’ve run off without giving you any idea why, or stolen the money by forging your dad’s signature to bad checks, or had a secret baby and snuck it into a basket on your doorstep for you to bring up—”

 

“—okay okay okay you’re forgiven,” said Vicki.  “But just ‘cause it could be worse doesn’t mean it’s not bad enough.”

 

“I know, I know.  I keep thinking, ‘What if it’d been Meg—’”

 

“Quit it, Joss!”

 

“—she’d probably have put ol’ Hef plumb out of business—”

 

“Quit it right this minute!  My stomach hurts from laughing too much already!”

 

“But you feel better now, right?”

 

“Always do, when I come over here.  Even though this is lousy lemonade.”

 

“‘Not too tart, not too sweet,’ just mediocre—but easy to mix.  Oh hey!  When things simmer down at your house, you can probably move into Tricia’s room and finally get those mirrored doors you’ve always wanted.”

 

“Maybe not...” said Vicki, recalling how creepacious the ghostly flickers in those doors had seemed yesterday.  “Right now I just want to pretend nothing happened—or will happen.  I mean, Gahd!  Think how horrible the first day of senior high’d be if all the guys there were pointing and leering at you—”

 

“—they do that already, to pretty much every girl—”

 

“—yeah, but suppose it’s ‘cause they know your sister posed that way and what she looks like that way, even if it is nothing like the way you look—”

 

“—they’d be pointing and jeering, if Meg had done it—”

 

“—I would die, absolutely die of shame if that ever happens—”

 

“—well, don’t fret.  I swore to keep this under wraps, even if Tricia didn’t—”

 

“—dammit!  I said quit it, Joss!—”

 

“—and we’ll just have to make sure our favorite blabberyap doesn’t get wind of it.”

 

“Oh Gahd!” went Vicki.  “How do we do that?  She’s practically got antennas in her pooftails!”

 

*

 

Even as they spoke and only a couple miles away, Laurie Harrison was perishing of embarrassment while stuck on her bike in slow-moving traffic on Bashford Avenue, as the downpour transformed her into an unwilling wet T-shirt contestant.

 

Of course she’d had to put on a pastel pink top today, focusing on prettiness and forgetting one of the cardinal rules for babysitters: never wear anything that can show stains.  Why oh why hadn’t she gone with navy blue or charcoal gray, some shade that rain wouldn’t reduce to near-transparency?

 

I am so dumb.

 

And deathly afraid that a busload of every boy she’d ever known might pull up alongside, to gawk and catcall and snap Polaroids of her through spattered windows.

 

Unable to cover her chest while steering the bike, Laurie scrunched down over the handlebars and tried to maneuver over to the sidewalk—only to get honked at and sprayed below the waist by a duck-and-dash sports car.  So now her shorts were as drenched as her top, and since they too were pastel pink (so dumb! so dumb!) she might as well be parading around town in just her undies.

 

She wasn’t as straitlaced as Rachel Gleistein or supermodest as Samantha Tiggs, but any girl would be mortified by this predicament (EEK! was that a wolf whistle, coming from that truck?) unless she was a megaflirt like Carly Thibert or an ultraseductress like Tess Disseldorf.  Laurie was neither—simply an ordinary woebegone who should’ve taken side streets home, but was dumb enough to believe Bashford would be quicker at this time of day.

 

She’d been hired for a six-hour babysitting job with the Levinsons, and had almost pacified Errol (the showoff) and Lydia (the fussbudget) to manageable levels, when Mrs. Levinson came home in a humongous snit—having driven all the way to the Magnificent Mile for an important appointment that’d been canceled without notice.  By the time she got back, this had somehow become Laurie’s fault; and though payment was tendered for time served, there didn’t seem much likelihood of future engagements—or being given a bike-strapped-to-car-roof ride home through the sudden summer squall.

 

This wouldn’t have been a problem last year, when she and Susie had run a small-scale daycare center out of their home on Grouseland Street.  There was a big back yard with shady trees and a large toolshed convertible into a playhouse, and everything went fine till those nasty Clevingers next door complained (repeatedly!) about the noise.  Not that they were any too quiet, with their sheepdogs who worked in shifts to keep the neighborhood barksome.

 

So this summer Harrison & Zane reverted to freelance childminding; and now, just because Laurie was a nice person who wanted to help busy parents and nurture little kids and earn a few dollars in the bargain, she’d been turned into a mobile poster girl for all sorts of squelchy fetishes.  Drenched teen babysitter in see-through clothing on a stalled bicycle: why couldn’t this happen to Kinks Farghetti?

 

Finally she reached Grouseland and the sanctuary of her own mud room, where she closed all the blinds and locked both doors before stripping down to the skin, piling sodden duds and probably-ruined gym shoes on the washer for later laundering.  Laurie undid her dripping pooftails, wrapped her hair in a turban-towel, gave her bod a vigorous rubdown with a second towel that became a shortie sarong, and cautiously unlocked the kitchen door.

 

“Hello?...”

 

Mom and Pa Zane were at work, and Jason was supposedly on a pre-college road trip in Colorado, but she wouldn’t put it past him to return unannounced just to catch her in a state of undress.  (Which had happened before, and been fervently documented in Laurie’s diary, much to Susie’s disgust.)

 

(“I have told you and told you that you cannot have a thing for Jason!  It’s got nothing to do with him being your stepbrother—it’s ‘cause he’s such a SCUZZ!”)

 

(But I could change all that, thought Laurie: her wellworn catchphrase regarding men.)

 

As it happened, the house was quiet and Jason-free (sigh) so she hitched the sarong-towel more snugly under her armpits and trudged upstairs, remembering the “Tropic Island Cruise” costumes at last May’s Cicada Dance, and how Kim Zimmer’s had fallen off when she’d tried to hang herself afterward.  Now there was talk that the Zimmers had separated and left Vanderlund, neither parent wanting custody of poor Kim, which in spite of all the mean things she’d said and done to you was a terrible thing to contemplate—

 

—but nowhere near one-hundredth as bad as entering your own personal private bedroom wearing just a couple of wet towels to find your own little sister making out with Patrick Baxter while both were stretched out on Susie’s mattress with nothing on above either one’s waist

 

Laurie let out a scream that set the Clevinger sheepdogs to barking and Susie to saying “Can’t you knock first?” and Patrick to going “All riiiight!” at the sight of so much Laurie in so little covering, for which topless Susie slapped his face just hard enough to leave no doubt that no ménage à trois would be taking place here or anywhere, now or ever.

 

Patrick, to his credit, had become genuinely enamored with Susie and was quite sincere when he asked her to be his girlfriend, producing a prized NRA Sharpshooter medal as her token of their going together.  But he was also a fourteen-year-old hornyboy who’d “taken an interest” in Laurie Harrison since earliest pubescence, and y’know like they say, “the more the merrier”—

 

“GET OUT OF HERE!!” Laurie shouted over her shoulder, having pivoted away to grab her bathrobe off its hook and drop it on the carpet and refuse to bend over or squat down to pick it up in Patrck’s presence.

 

“C’mon, Puddin’,” said Susie, putting Patrick in a half nelson and tugging him off the bed.  “Let’s go—”

 

“NOT WITHOUT YOUR SHIRTS ON!!”

 

“They’re on, Lo, they’re on... almost.”

 

“Yeah, don’t mind us,” grinned Puddin’ with a final squint at Laurie’s toweled rump, before escorting Susie out the door and shutting it behind them.

 

Leaving Laurie alone amid the ruins of pollution, to raise tear-filled eyes and spot Susie’s bra—her real bra, not a hated trainer but the real one bought not two months ago at the Della Verita Boutique, earned at long last “because Patrick’s love made me blossom”—dangling from the overhead light fixture like a broken kite, or Kim Zimmer suspended from the rafters after her botched attempt at suicide.

 

*

 

I am so dumb.

 

I am so dumb.

 

I am so dumb.

 

Hardly a day of Laurie Harrison’s life had gone by without her saying or thinking or feeling this.

 

One of her longest-ago memories was of Daddy (then a park ranger at Auldforest Woods) insisting with a straight face that Ranger Smith was the real star of Yogi Bear’s cartoons.  Little Laurie earnestly tried to make him understand that Yogi had to be the star, his name was in the title; till Daddy said “I’m just funnin’ with ya, Bunny Rabbit.”

 

I am so dumb.

 

Daddy taught her a love for nature that she never lost, though he wasn’t always in a condition to share it with her.  Daddy often got sick, throwing up down the potty and having to lie down with bad headaches.  His work sounded damply dangerous, with him needing to be dried out after falling off wagons.  Fortunately Mommy was a real live nurse and able to take good care of him, till the night Daddy got in an accident and wrecked his Jeep and lost his job and had to go to a place called Joliet.

 

Little Laurie devoted a whole weekend to creating a huge welcome home daddy! glitter-and-construction-paper banner so it’d be ready when needed... only to be told that Daddy wasn’t leaving Joliet anytime soon, and would not be welcome home when he did.

 

I am so dumb.

 

Then it was just her and Mommy, who went back to nursing at a clinic full-time; but that was okay because Laurie could go home after school with Ingrid Morton, her best friend who lived across the street.  If they took special care looking both ways before crossing Grouseland, they were allowed to play in Laurie’s back yard which Ingrid preferred because it was extra big and extra long, running down to a tall thick hedge and taller thicker fence that separated it from the Expressway.  Ingrid said this made it like one of the Wide Open Spaces Out West that she was always reading and dreaming about.

 

(Laurie was just glad the cars on the Expressway couldn’t jump over the fence and hedge, and land in the yard while they were trying to play.)

 

Ingrid Morton was very imaginative.  She had all the Little House on the Prairie books, knew most of them by heart, and was always wanting to act them out.  Laurie got to be Laura, while the other roles were taken by Ingrid or assigned to Wanda Lynn Reid who lived down the block.  (Wanda Lynn didn’t have much imagination, but could perform if she was coached, and as the prettiest of the three made a good spoiled Nellie Oleson.)

 

At McGrum Elementary they hung out with other girls, like JoJo Murrisch who was friendly and funny and had wonderful curls, and Kimmy Zimmer who in those days was easy to get along with if you understood she was smarter and better-looking and more popular than you were.  (Kim would’ve made a spectacular Nellie Oleson.)  They usually all ate lunch together and spent recess together; you’d invite them to your birthday parties, they’d come with presents and invite you to theirs.

 

They also rallied around poor Jo when tragedies struck: first both her grandparents whom she lived with having to be put into a nursing home, then her mother getting ill and iller and actually dying.  How Jo could be strong enough to survive all that, nobody knew; but she was and she did, and in time even became her old funny self again.

 

Laurie, meanwhile, remained the same dumb self she’d always been.  Saying things that made everybody laugh, though she hadn’t intended to be hilarious.  Reading the wrong chapter, studying the wrong examples, filling in mistaken blanks, and then forgetting to bring her homework to school.  Paying less attention to what Mrs. Clay (the lovely-but-strict fifth grade teacher) was saying than to pondering where she got her outfits, whether she had children of her own, how old they might be, and did they have to raise their hands at home before asking questions—

 

“Laurie!  Are you woolgathering again?”

 

“Um... gathering what was it, Mrs. Clay?”

 

[Laughter] from the other students.

 

I am so dumb.

 

Every report card registered disappointment in Harrison, Laurel Stacy’s grades, Work Habits, Responsibility, sometimes even Self-Control.  Yet they always showed tiptop marks in Getting Along With Others; and Mrs. Clay concluded fifth grade with the memorable remark that “Despite everything, [she was] a joy to have in class.”

 

That report card went up on the refrigerator.

 

The best thing about Laurie was her fascination with people, her eagerness to listen as they talked about themselves and not boring old science or arithmetic.  Mrs. Clay found she lent a sympathetic ear even while being kept after school to make up missed assignments, or for gabbling too much to schoolmates, passing along what A’d said to B about C.  Some of the ABC’s used Laurie to float trial balloons or conduct inquiries—“Find out if he likes me” was a frequent commission by fifth-grade girls—since everyone knew she would never (knowingly) tell a lie or snitch to a grownup, but could be induced to provide misdirection with planted rumors.

 

“Don’t believe everything you hear,” Ingrid would say.  Laurie, though, was deficient in skepticism while overblessed with naiveté, and increasingly needed a guardian angel.

 

Seldom more so than the afternoon she left school late and alone (having done more making-up of boring old assignments) and a man parked on McGrum Street beckoned her over to politely ask if she knew the way to Spanish Castle Square.  Apparently confused by Laurie’s helpful go-down-here-then-over-there gestures, he asked (politely) if she wouldn’t mind getting in his car and showing him how to get there—

 

—before zooming off without a goodbye when sixth-grader Susan Baxter barreled up from the playground with a basketball under her arm to bellow “HEY!”

 

“Why’d you scare him like that?” Laurie asked.

 

“Don’t you know better than to talk to strangers, kid?  That was a bad guy!  He wanted to do bad things to you!  That’s why he laid rubber when I yelled!”

 

(Which, from Susan Baxter, was a speech of phenomenal length.)

 

“But I just... he was asking... so I tried...”

 

Dither and tremble and start to cry, more from fear that Big Sue would keep yelling at her or even cuff the back of her head, as was frequently and publicly done to grubby little brother Patrick.  But Big Sue took pity and said no more about it—after extracting a promise that Laurie would try to act like she had a brain in her skull.

 

Laurie never saw the polite man again; but bad things began to happen even so.

 

First of all Ingrid Morton moved to Montana, about which she was ecstatic—Wide Open Spaces Out West, for real!—and imaginatively able to make the miserable Laurie giggle through her sobs at the notion of living in a place called “Butte.”

 

(They vowed to keep in touch and resolutely did so, writing letters every month or two to apprise each other of updates and discuss the Little House on the Prairie TV show.  Laurie knew any dumb errors she made in spelling or grammar would be overlooked; but it was harder to comprehend why Ingrid never came back to visit Vanderlund.)

 

Wanda Lynn Reid still lived down the block, and though she lacked imagination she knew lots about fashionable clothes and accessories: just the type of girl you’d want with you for counsel and advice on trips to the New Sherwood Shopping Center.

 

Then they started sixth grade, upon which Gigi Pyle descended like a hundredweight of glamorous bricks, or a haughty princess auditioning local peasants to be her courtiers.  Kim Zimmer reacted with the resentful hissiness of a house cat whose domicile had been invaded by a pedigreed feline.  Jo Murrisch laughed at Gigi’s airs and graces, calling her “Dixie Cups” for her antebellum accent and precocious bustline (both of which Jo suspected were artificial).  Laurie and Wanda Lynn were willing to accept these on faith, and be in biddable awe of Gigi as a true Southern belle.

 

She weighed them in her aristocratic balance; accepted Wanda Lynn as a sidekick/attendant; and dismissed Laurie with withering scornful contempt.

 

Mrs. Harrison RN returned from the clinic that afternoon to find her only child staring frantically at a mirror.

 

“Mommy!  I don’t have a harelip, do I?”

 

“Of course not, Laurie.  Whatever gave you that idea?”

 

“Um... Huckleberry Finn?

 

Which wasn’t a total fib.  But Mark Twain could not be blamed for branding her as “Harelip Harrison,” nor for causing her bunnylike nostrils to start quivering whenever she got nervous or upset.

 

And when didn’t she, nowadays?  It was her first persistent targeting by an indisputable Mean Girl, and Laurie had no idea how to cope.  Ingrid was a million miles away.  Wanda Lynn barely spoke to her anymore.  Kim claimed to despise Gigi, but in a keep-your-complaints-to-yourself way.  And Jo just smiled and shrugged and said “Don’t let her get to you.”  Which was all very well for a fearless survivor like Jo to say; Gigi didn’t take random-nips-for-no-reason out of her—and if she did, Jo would know how to respond without sounding or feeling or being so dumb about it.

 

Or so wounded.

 

Or so lonesome...

 

That desolate autumn, Laurie was abandoned even by her beloved Munchkin; and as she watered his grave with her tears, she swore to never fill his cage with another hamster.

 

Then her sad sorry life threatened to get even worse.  Mommy came home from a Parents Without Partners meeting to smilingly divulge she’d gotten to know a nice man there, a very nice man who had a couple of kids—one “a daughter about your age”—and who’d invited them out for dinner that Saturday evening at the Flame Steakhouse.

 

Laurie’s nostrils went into quivery overdrive.  Oh gosh!  Oh gosh!  Suppose this “very nice man” was the Polite Bad Guy, who’d tracked her down through her mother to take another chance at doing bad things to them both?  And this Daughter About Your Age—what if she turned out to be Gigi Pyle?  Laurie would have to dig a bigger, deeper hole in the back yard and bury herself beside Munchkin, while cars whizzed by on the Expressway for all eternity.

 

She tried to make her opinion of this dinner subtly known by putting on her drabbest outfit, but Mommy made her change into a pretty red A-line frock and pantyhose, even saying she could—and ought to!—apply lipgloss.  (Some of which got on the tips of her plaited pooftails as she anxiously nibbled them, bunnylike.)

 

Oh gosh.  Oh gosh.  Oh gosh.  I am so dumb—

 

“Laurie darling, I’d like you to meet my good friend Mr. Grayson Zane.  His son Jason couldn’t join us tonight, I’m afraid.  But this is Susie.”

 

Briefly clasp Mr. Good Friend’s firm dry hand while taking a peripheral peek at his Daughter About Your Age.  Who’d stepped off a page from one of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books: a scruffy little tomboy dolled up for the occasion, and not pleased about it.

 

No sooner did they get seated at the Flame than Susie leaped to her feet, saying she needed to find the washroom.  And tugging at Laurie’s sleeve till Laurie realized she was being asked to come along.  And saying, once they passed through the door marked Ladies:

 

“Does this stupid dress make me look dorky?”

 

“Hunh?”

 

“C’mon, you know about clothes—”

 

“I do?”

 

“—so tell me the truth, I can take it.”  (With a slow brave inhalation.)

 

“Um,” said Laurie, gazing at a brown plaid belted smock with Peter Pan collar.  “No, it’s cute on you.  Though it might be better in green—”

 

“I hate wearing dresses!  My legs are too skinny!”

 

“Well, but how old are you?”

 

“Ten, and I look eight.  I’m the youngest-looking kid in my whole class this year, and it just sickens me!”  Scowling at her reflection over the sinks, then down at Laurie’s pantyhosed gams.  “I mean lookit yours, they’re gorgeous!  You shaving them yet?”

 

“Um... once or twice—”

 

“I knew it!  And you’re wearing a bra, right?”

 

“Well... just a training one—”

 

“A bra is a bra,” Susie stated loftily.  “Are you really only eleven?  My dad said you’re eleven.  You may be eleven, but you look fourteen—the waiter might even ask if you wanna order a cocktail!  And won’t offer me anything stronger’n chocolate milk!”

 

Laurie smiled for what felt like the first time since Ingrid Morton moved to Butte.  “Can I tell you something?”

 

Another slow brave inhalation.  “Okay—shoot.”

 

“You don’t have a thing to worry about.  ‘Cause when you blossom, you’re gonna outknockout us all.”

 

Susie tried to hide a grin by tossing her dolled-up-tomboy head.  “If I blossom, you mean.  Like maybe when I turn fifty.”

 

“Or eleven,” said Laurie, tentatively straightening her Peter Pan collar.

 

The washroom door swung open and Mrs. Harrison RN glanced in.  “Girls?...  Is everything all right?”

 

“Mom?  After dinner, can Susie come home with us?”

 

“Yeah, can I?  I’ve got a toothbrush in this stupid purse my Dad made me bring.  (Does it make me look dorky?)”

 

*

 

By the following spring they were official sisters, having worked tirelessly in the meantime to bring this about.

 

Laurie put in extra-over-meantime toward this goal after Jason Zane—a freshman in high school and fresh man in l’amour—put in an appearance.  Greeting Laurie with a “Hey, what we got here?” hand-cup of her ready-to-swoon chin; then infiltrating the back of her jeans and snapping her virginal pantyband.  Which jumped Laurie several spaces ahead on the gameboard of adolescence; and made Susie shake her fist and say Jason would get a knee in the ding-dongs if he ever tried that again.

 

(A warning she’d often repeat over the years to come.)

 

Laurie was always careful to introduce and refer to Jason as her stepbrother—no blood relation, nothing to prevent their relationship from developing someday into legitimate coupledom.  However, she was not so dumb as to share this romantic fantasy with Susie.  No, it must be hugged close to her secret bosom—which, like her real one, got progressively jigglier each time Jason thanked her for a small loan by yanking her bra strap.

 

I could be his Golden Fleece, Laurie s-i-g-h-ed after encountering Greek mythology at school.

 

Susie hated her brother not just for standard kid-sibling reasons, but because (she said) he’d inherited all of their mother’s scuzzier traits.  The First Mrs. Zane (as Susie called her) had been an extravagant libertine, racking up thousands of dollars in debt, bedding every sort of adulterer, and finally choosing one with a fat bankroll to run away with.

 

“I thank Gahd every day I look so much like Dad,” Susie confided.  “Even if that means I don’t look good in dresses—”

 

“You do so, you’re cute in everything—”

 

“Cute schmute.  Swear you’ll smother me with a pillow if I ever start acting scuzzy.”

 

“I could never do that!” Laurie protested.  “We’d have to make one of those pacts where we’d die together—”

 

[Laughter] and a hug from Susie, who started calling Mrs. Harrison RN “Mom” the minute she blushingly showed the girls her new engagement ring.  Very slim was its gold band and very small its diamond, since Grayson Zane was a man of honor who’d refused to declare bankruptcy, laboring for years to pay off his ex’s debts.  Now, after having holed up for so long in a tiny apartment, the Zanes were glad to move into the house on Grouseland Street, where Jason settled down (to a certain extent) in a renovated basement living space, and Susie was welcomed with open arms into Laurie’s room.

 

Harrison & Zane read the glitter-and-construction-paper sign they framed outside its door.  Knock before entering (this means you, Jason).

 

After some internal debate, Laurie decided to call her stepfather “Pa,” but stayed loyal to her own Daddy as he tried to make a new start on parole and then up in the forests of Alaska.  That was enough incentive for Laurie to maintain the name she’d been born with—that plus Nana’s pledge to bequeath her entire jewel box to Laurie if she remained a Harrison till her wedding day.

 

So not a single regret, except that she and Susie were in different grades and would be going to different schools that fall.  Laurie gave some thought to flunking and repeating sixth grade at McGrum, but Susie wouldn’t hear of it and went so far as to check and correct Laurie’s homework.

 

“You’re so smart, Susie, you should be going into seventh grade.  Can’t you get them to promote you a year?”

 

“Not unless you can clone me your figure.  I’m not gonna be the even-younger-youngest-looking girl in my class!”

 

Thus that September Laurie had to go to Vanderlund Junior High all by herself—if you didn’t count the other students, particularly those assigned to the 7-Y team.  Her fellow McGrummians were there, Jo and Kim and Gigi and Wanda Lynn, along with alumni from Bashford and Petty Elementary Schools.

 

Among these was a buoyant brunette named Delia Shanafelt, who had milky-blue slightly-bulbous eyes and wore a perpetual giddy smile.  She and Laurie struck up an immediate kindred spiritship, one that necessitating their being shifted apart from each other in Math and English after too much chatter and exchange of notes.  Laurie began to put on an incessant happyface of her own, writing Ingrid Morton that You will always be my bestest freind friend (to the end!) who isn’t my sister, but I am so glad I met Delia.

 

Until cracks appeared in their kindredhood, due to Delia’s being not so dumb as much as she was so absentminded, if not plain so thoughtless.

 

“Where were you?  I thought we were gonna meet at Zephyr Heaven at 4:30, I waited there for like an hour!”

 

“OopsSorryIforgot.”

 

No kidding.  It was Delia, though, who coaxed the reluctant Laurie into trying out with her for VW’s drill team; though it was Laurie who phoned Delia (twice) with reminders as to where and when the tryouts were taking place.  Then it was Delia, not Laurie, who made the drill team along with Gigi Pyle and Wanda Lynn Reid—while Kim Zimmer, after sneezing at the wrongest-possible time, wound up as an alternate and then had a meltdown on Jo Murrisch’s shoulder.  (Jo did not try out, since she disliked anything more athletic than bike-riding and cornet-blowing.)

 

After that, Laurie found herself more and more absent from Delia’s mindedness.  They quit making plans that wouldn’t be remembered without prodding; and while Delia still passed the occasional note in Math and English and Girls Glee Club, Laurie sometimes felt like wearing a nametag so Delia could identify her.  The finishing touch to their friendship breach didn’t come till a year later, when Delia lured—lured!—away Chipper Farlowe and gave Laurie a royal case of denial hives.

 

Before Chipper, there were a number of other boys in her VW love life.  Laurie might not be the prettiest or shapeliest or sexiest girl on 7-Y (Gigi Pyle held all those titles) but she was far enough up the winsome totem pole to attract plenty of male attention—even on days she didn’t get her miniskirt caught in a jammed locker door.

 

The first guy to ask her out was Tyler Canute, who’d already loaded a trophy shelf on the swimming, diving, and water polo circuits.  He was also cut from the same pork loin as Jason Zane, as Susie was ready to deduce when she bristlingly inspected Ty pre-date.

 

“So, you’re the really cute one in this family,” he told her, with a covert wink at Laurie.

 

“Um, that’s right, she is,” Laurie gamely picked up her cue (after a brief Does he like Sue better than me? qualm).  “Have you got a brother or cousin or something, so we can maybe double-date sometime?”

 

“Just so happens I do,” said Ty.  “You into bowling, Susie?  We could all go to the Red Devil Bowl next weekend.”

 

“Uh... sure... I guess,” gulped Susie.  “Well then... you two enjoy the movie.”

 

“We will,” Ty assured her, taking Laurie’s hand (ohhh) and leading her out of the house before remarking: “Y’know, you just asked me out on a second date before we even started this one.”

 

“OhmygoshI’msorry!” gasped Laurie, ready to sink through the front sidewalk.  But Ty gave her another wink and a heartening pat on the rear (ohhhhh) as he guided Laurie down the garden path.

 

OhmygoshI’vegotaboyfriend!

 

They did hit the lanes with Susie and Ty’s kid brother Hardy the following weekend, and had a fine time till Susie kicked Hardy in the shin for saying she “bowled pretty good for a girl.”  Nevertheless, she could now boast to her peers of having gone on her first date—with a light dusting of cosmetics and freshly-pierced ears, too—all thanks to her big sister’s insistence that Susie not be left out or behind when it came to life’s great milestones.

 

Some of these could only be shared secondhandedly.  Such as Ty’s hand on Laurie’s caboose; then around her shoulders as they watched Juggernaut at the New Sherwood; then holding hers as he bestowed her blissful First Kiss; then holding the rest of her close while the other hand conferred her First Feel-Ups (proceeding from over-sweater to under-sweater/over-blouse to partly-under-blouse/not-quite-over-bra); then slipping his swimmer’s ID bracelet over her wrist (ohhhhhhh) as a First Going-Together symbol—

 

—that proved to be only on loan, since Tyler requested its return so he could pass it along to Nanette Magnus, who didn’t thwart his getting altogether to unfettered second base.

 

Which resulted in Laurie’s First Post-Dump Crying Jag, in her sister’s enraged arms, while Susie wished through gnashing teeth that she’d kicked both Canute brothers and significantly higher than their shins.

 

Distraction from this grief was provided by the unbridled woe of Wanda Lynn Reid, who got cast out of Gigi Pyle’s clique for “sloppiness at a sleepover” (or so the story went) and made plea after unheeded plea for clemency and reinstatement.  Laurie’s heartache eased a few degrees as she delved into this scandal—at some peril to herself, since the spurned Wanda Lynn turned hard and bitter as a calcified grapefruit.  Enlisting as a henchgirl with the notorious ninth-grader Bunty O’Toole (emphasis on the T—no Bunny she) whom even hoodlum-boys treated warily, Wanda Lynn let it be known that she now went by “Razor,” was armed with her namesake, and would not hesitate to use it as she saw fit.

 

The Reids were reportedly distraught; but Gigi Pyle was heard to say that if “Whiny Lynn” had access to a razor, she ought to try employing it on her armpits.

 

“Pretty sharp talk from someone who just turned thirteen,” Jo gibed at lunch after Laurie imparted the latest.

 

“Ssshhhh!” hissed Kim.  “(Don’t talk so loud about them!)”

 

“Waste of a good name,” Jo continued.  “I always envied her getting to be ‘Wanda Lynn.’  If she doesn’t want it anymore, I’ll combine it with mine and start calling myself ‘Jocelyn.’”

 

“Oh don’t be silly,” said Kim.

 

“No, seriously—I’m tired of being stuck with just two letters.  This way I can go around jostlin’ people, and say I’m only living up to my name.”

 

“Could I be... I dunno... maybe ‘Lorelei’?” asked Laurie.

 

Snort from Kim.

 

“Well,” mused Jo(celyn), “you’ve got a good singing voice.  Think you can tempt a sailor to wreck his boat on a rock?”

 

“Oh, I could never do that—”

 

“Can we talk about something else, please?” Kim grated to Jocelyn (not Laurie), glaring at Jocelyn (not Laurie).

 

And from that day on, she was Alternate Kim Zimmer in more ways than one.  Her behavior went from unusual to unpredictable to downright erratic—even with Jocelyn, her best friend since kindergarten.  “She didn’t used to be like this,” Joss told people, including Laurie who knew it already and was just glad Kim had quit biting off her own inoffensive head.  Better to be ignored, which had been feelings-hurtful when Wanda Lynn did it, but was a lot less wounding than decapitation.

 

It almost seemed like Kim had gotten possessed, like in The Exorcist.  At Jocelyn’s birthday party that April, Laurie overheard Kim raking Joss over incomprehensible coals:

 

Are you saying you think that’s what I wanna do?

 

No, I’m not saying that or thinking that—

 

Oh, because some of us aren’t as endowed as others of us, is THAT what you’re saying you’re thinking?

 

Jeez, Kim, it’s my birthday!  Why are you acting so weird?

 

ME??  Why am I acting so weird??

 

All this raking-over done in a quacky splutter, as if Daisy Duck (to whom Kim had always borne a noticeable resemblance) was channeling the hair-trigger-tempered Donald.

 

And hearing it made Laurie too queasy to enjoy her slice of birthday cake.

 

Though not sick enough to stay home from school, as she had to with German measles for three days in May.  And by the time she returned to 7-Y, it had been shaken by a new scandal—Kim’s taking her Alternativity to a possessed extreme by verbally attacking Jocelyn, in front of Gigi and her snotty clique, like a spoken version of the shark in Jaws.

 

Had it been anyone else, Laurie would’ve scrambled to the top of the scandalous lemon tree and begun squeezing detailjuice out of every rumorfruit to brew a giant pitcher of gossipade.  This, though, was too stomach-turningly sour to think about, much less talk.

 

Being ditched by Wanda Lynn Reid had been saddening, yet not unfathomable; she was always a doer-as-told, a performer-as-coached, whether by Ingrid or Gigi or Bunty O’Toole.  And Wanda Lynn’d never called Laurie “Harelip” or made mean fun of her like Gigi did.  Nor for that matter had Ding-a-Ling Delia, who might be thoughtless yet not a “snide-ass,” as Joss would say.  But Kim Zimmer—

 

How could Kim have done that?  To her best friend, her oldest friend, her bosom friend?  Was it because Joss was growing quite a full bosom, and Kim (with her cheerleader aspirations) hadn’t?

 

No, Laurie didn’t need to squeeze any lemons to guess the answer: Kim had betrayed her way into Gigi’s good graces (make that bad graces—airs and graces—disgraces) to join the snotty clique, and achieve belittling popularity.

 

Laurie wished with all her heart for the courage of a lioness, so she could tell Kim Zimmer exactly what she thought of her.  Yes, she’d say, I might be so dumb, but I would never ever stab a friend in the back or anywhere else—especially not one who’d lost her mother and didn’t get along that well with her sisters, so who knew whose shoulder was available for poor Joss to cry on?

 

Laurie wasn’t sure her own shoulder was qualified.

 

She tried to offer it anyway, and got the distinct impression that Joss was avoiding her—withdrawing to a remote cafeteria table, seeking asylum with a couple of Band buddies.

 

‘Cause she thinks I’ll want to ask about it, and talk about it, and blab about it.

 

Laurie felt a deep rush of shame, worse even than when her skirt had been hiked up almost to indecency by the jammed locker door.  That had been simply embarrassing; this made her feel almost as guilty as Gigi or Kim.

 

She took a solemn vow to keep her yap shut forevermore.

 

Massive distraction was required, so Laurie began babysitting that summer and found it easy to interact with her young clientele.  For the most part, the little girls thought she was smart and sought her opinion of everything going on in their miniature lives; while the little boys thought she was pretty and sought her admiration of their lookit what I can do! feats of kiddystrength.

 

Laurie worked on her own feats too, jogging around the neighborhood with Susie before the summer mornings grew too hot and humid.  Susie was a born athlete, while Laurie could sprint fairly quickly and had good breath control from her singing lessons—plus, probably, all that finished-and-done-with blabberyapping.

 

Sometimes they heard (and felt) the thud! thud! thud! of Susan Baxter gradually overtaking them, making the earth quake with her broadjump strides, laconically saying “C’mon now, don’t lemme lap you,” so they’d redouble their pace yet still fall behind.  Susie idolized Big Sue and pounced on her terse suggestion that they try out for the new girls cross country team that was—no, wasn’t—yes, was after all—being formed at VW that fall.

 

Were it not for Susie’s boundless enthusiasm, Laurie would’ve quailed at risking another tryout washout; but besides the two of them and Big Sue, only nine others showed up and they all made the squad automatically.

 

It was the best thing to happen to Laurie since the advent of the Zanes.  She loved being a Ladybug, looked forward to every practice, rooted for her teammates even as they ran against her, was never the fastest but won praise for always doing her Personal Best.

 

It took all her strength, though, to stick to her resolve and not relapse into yappery, no matter how fascinating the other L-Bugs might be.  None more than Alex Dmitria the Russkie-Chicana, who seemed to have come to Vanderlund from some superlative planet where everyone was beautiful and tireless and generous and kindhearted—the incarnation of Good Graces, and exact opposite (except beautywise) of Gigi Pyle.  Laurie took Alex as her role model, renewing her oath of personal-best gossip-silence—

 

—that got strained to the breaking point when she inadvertently eavesdropped on what Kim told Gigi about the new-girl-in-town (not-from-another-planet) Ladybug.

 

Vicki Volester was small and dark and longhaired and brighteyed and trimbodied. Very nice-looking and nice-acting, with no indication of deception or disguise about her.  Yet Kim claimed that Vicki hailed from an urban slum where she’d belonged to a cutthroat gang even more brutally violent than Bunty O’Toole’s!

 

Laurie’s entire being cried out to learn more, especially when she saw Vicki eating lunch with a smiling Jocelyn Murrisch.

 

Finally she dared to carry her tray over to their table—ask if it was okay for her to sit there—and nearly shed tears of relief when Joss showed every sign of being glad to see her, of having really missed her, of wanting to hear all the latest Y-Wing news now that Joss had transferred to Z.

 

But through her unshed tears, Laurie could not help but glance at and cower away from the two Band buddies lunching there—zitfaced biker chick Robin Neapolitan and gaunt punk sorceress Fiona Weller, both of whom did look capable of brutal violence—

 

“Vicki, can I ask you something?” she blurted through a mouthful of lettuce.  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but is it really true—that is, y’know, if you don’t mind my asking—I mean...”

 

“Gahd, Laurie, what??”

 

“—were you really in a gang when you lived in The City?”

 

(So dumb.  So dumb.)

 

Everybody laughed, Robin so hard that milk shot through her pimply nose; and Joss, going into one of her trademark patter routines, improvised a career for Vicki (alias Guadalupe Velez) as Loopy the Enforcer, sergeant-at-arms of the Pfiester Park Pherrettes.

 

“Gahd, Joss!  Ferrets?” went Vicki.  “What kind of gang name is that?”

 

“Better’n Ladybugs,” said Robin, wiping milk off her face.

 

“I’ve always thought ferrets are cute,” Laurie offered by way of humble amends.

 

Vicki held no grudge and soon became one of Laurie’s favorite teammates, as did noisy boisterous Sheila Quirk who joined their lunch-bunch (and had several hunky older brothers).  For quite a while, though, Laurie remained half-afraid of Robin and two-thirds terrified of Fiona, even after they invited her and Susie to supply backup vocals alongside Vicki at Robin’s birthday jam session.

 

She sang for her supper too, if that was something you could do at lunch.  The bunch would say “Tell us the latest, Laurie”—or “Brenda Starr Girl Reporter” as Sheila-Q called her, which was really sweet even though Laurie didn’t have a red bouffant—and she’d serve them fresh glasses of gossipade, modifying her oath to I will always use these powers for good, like Alex Dmitria would.

 

Very soon she got to do so in support of Alex herself, who demonstrated that even a Supergirl was vulnerable to the Kryptonite-stress of overactivity.  Vicki told the bunch they’d have to keep tabs on Alex, to reduce her velocity from faster-than-a-speeding-bullet; and Laurie played an instrumental part in doing this.  Ditto when Fiona succumbed to an eating disorder, and they all had to make sure she’d dine on more than cereal snackpacks.

 

Then it was Laurie’s turn to need aid and comfort, when Delia Shanafelt stole—yes, stole!—Chipper Farlowe from her, in an act of ding-a-ling treachery beyond understanding:

 

“They weren’t!  He wouldn’t!  She’s not like that, not really!  And I keep telling you, this rash is just a reaction to my new wool dress—”

 

“It’s not, they were, he does, and she is like that!” Susie asserted in spite of Laurie’s denial hives.  And the bunch all agreed, telling Laurie she was much better off (hives or no hives) without Chipper and his jive.

 

She’d met him at a Petty Hills Country Club ceremony honoring Pa’s boss for something Laurie took no interest in after spotting Chipper in the crowd.  He was a bit like Jason Zane, though less twisted; a bit like Tyler Canute, though less splashy; and almost as refined as Becca Blair’s suitor Ralph Waldo Emerson Lorgnon III, though the Farlowes wouldn’t pay to send Chipper to Front Tree Country Day School.  For which Laurie’d given daily thanks, as Chipper ushered her around 8-Y and VW and Vanderlund and the wide bright world.  Again she knew the thrill of heartfelt kisses and embraces; again she bore with the disquiet of breast-and-buttockfelt liberty-taking.

 

On the one hand (as it were) Laurie was vigilant against her modesty being outraged, as she knew Alex Dmitria must be—Alex had reacted to a public bottom-slap by ramming a plate of pasta and meat sauce into Craig Clerkington’s midsection.

 

On the other hand (so to speak) Laurie got some novel sensations in her midsection when Chipper started stroking and fondling and doing French things with their tongues.  Sometimes this got so sensational it was Chipper who had to surface for breath first, and Laurie who drew him back into the deeps—though she kept most of her clothes buttoned and zippered and hooked.  He hardly ever got rough or crude with her, and even aced the Three Little Words litmus test on occasion.

 

Laurie, of course, had advanced from terms of endearment to picking out their silver pattern.  Many a school notebook and diary page was filled with curlicued variations on Laurie Farlowe, Laurel S. Harrison-Farlowe, Mrs. Charles Gilbert Farlowe, and so forth.

 

Please watch your step with that guy,” Susie repeatedly advised.

 

“He’s different.  We’re in love.”

 

“You always say that, every single time.”

 

“And you haven’t ever liked any of my boyfriends.”

 

“’Cause none of ‘em’ve been worthy of you!  You deserve a prince—

 

“Well, I’ve found one!  Didn’t he give me a real glass slipper?”

 

(Chipper had, in teensy Christmas-tree-ornament form.)

 

“Just watch out that you don’t end up in the cinders, that’s all!”

 

“Just you wait till you find your true love, and I get to be your matron of honor!”

 

“Oh, Lo...” sighed Susie; and the bunch sighed with her, all the way up to Chipper’s turning fickle with Delia.  Whereupon he learned a fundamental fact of life:

 

Never jilt a gossipmonger—you’ll never hear the end of it.

 

Laurie Harrison was no Kinks Farghetti.  She had no need to stalk Chipper’s every step or forage through his trash cans; her powers of observation and communication were honed to a finer edge.  Delia, down on the ding-a-ling mezzanine, might stay blithely unaware; but Chipper’s ears must’ve burned to crisps if they sensed what was being said (and spread) about him by the girl he’d “let down easy” with a yo-heave-ho out of their highflying whirlybird.

 

Back on terra firma and done with denial, Laurie was clairvoyant where Chipper was concerned.  Long before he became aware of it, she divined that Delia’d begun to unload him so as to take on Mike Spurgeon (then being rotated from one snottycliquer to the next).  Laurie shared this revelation with the bunch, who unanimously urged her to dig a moat and stock it with alligators to prevent Chipper’s returning to her.  Susie went so far as to get down on dramatic knees and implore Laurie to bar the door, nail the windows shut, and stop up the chimney.

 

“...but then maybe he won’t, y’know, like ever wanna get back together...”

 

Very slow, very deep inhalation.  “Then—make—him—crawl—first!”

 

Laurie tried to picture how Vicki Volester would handle such a situation, since it was difficult to imagine Alex Dmitria ever getting dumped, whereas Vicki seemed to have some mysterious poignant affaire de coeur in her past.  (Laurie’d often speculated about this, yet felt a curious reluctance to probe further; Vicki, in her own quiet way, could be more daunting than Sheila or Robin or even Fiona.)

 

At any rate, when Chipper Farlowe did come a-knockin’ at her beg-your-pardon door, Laurie played it cool and standoffish and hard to get.  Which evidently made her twice as desirable in Chipper’s eyes and loins, so that he went all out when she did forgive him just before the Bicentennial Cicada Dance.  For this he coughed up the costliest red-white-and-blue wrist corsage obtainable at Bedeguar Way Florist.

 

Regrettably, it also made Chipper go all out after the dance, and then accuse Laurie of “stringing him along” when she wouldn’t dish up her desirability on a plate.  Laurie spent the rest of that night working through a box of Kleenex, listening to “Silly Love Songs” and “Right Back Where We Started From.”

 

Her sister and bunch cared enough to not say We told you so more than a few times.

 

The subsequent summer was riddled with speedbumps.  Harrison & Zane’s daycare center kept garnering complaints from those nasty Clevingers; Jason damaged the family’s Vega Notchback by failing to set the brake while parking with a girl whose father had forbidden her to date him; Susie had to get braces, and wanted to indict the orthodontist for not prescribing them earlier so she could be done with them sooner; Laurie’s application to transfer from VW’s Y team to join her friends on X or Z was rejected.

 

And then came Mr. Rebound Guy, Mack “The Arm” Pittley, who was supposed to be Laurie and Susie’s golf caddy/trainer at Petty Hills—and nearly taught Laurie an extra reason why sand traps are called “hazards.”

 

That notwithstanding, Laurie let Mack take her to the Back-to-School Dance, where the Rosa Dartles were gutsily trying to play through a bombardment of jeers and popcorn when all the lights went out, and the Phantom of the Sock-Hop went on a sexual harassment rampage.  Laurie had only “The Arm” to contend with in the darkness, but others weren’t so lucky (if that was the right word) as she discovered when she put on her Brenda Starr Girl Reporter hat and began investigating.

 

Among the victimized were Vicki Volester, Crystal Denvour, LeAnn Anobile, Rachel Gleistein, and Samantha Tiggs.  All had been pawed and groped in different ways—some above, some below, some behind—but in every case by an apparently disembodied hand, like Thing on The Addams Family.

 

Laurie heard some of this firsthand (as it were, so to speak) and collected more from the grapevine, including that the Dartles might be held responsible for the entire “riot.”  Vicki, as their manager, was going to lead the band into a summit meeting with Principal Driscoll; but before its outcome could be guesstimated, Laurie herself had an altercation in the very gym where “Feedbackgate” (aka “Fondlegate”) had occurred just forty hours earlier.

 

Well, not so much in the gym as the girls locker room before fourth period Phys Ed.  This was the only class to which Laurie, Rachel, Samantha, and Kim Zimmer were all assigned; and as they changed into their gymsuits, Kim made some extraordinarily uncalled-for comments about how Rachel and Sammi had finally gotten some action by flaunting their underwear at a school dance—so why bother to put on gymsuits now, when they could just keep putting out?

 

Sammi (beetfaced) and Rachel (blanching) made no reply; but Laurie felt their palpable reproach that Kim was recycling hearsay from—who else?—Miss Blabberyap, Señorita Can’t-Hold-Her-Tongue, Fräulein Mighty-Talkative-For-Someone-Who’s-So-Dumb

 

—and with that coup de grâce, Laurie marched over to get in Kim’s recoiling face and tell her off from head to toe, not only for today’s snide-ass snortles but also her disloyal Daisy Duck perfidy toward Joss, culminating in a resonant “SO THERE!” followed by a brusque “Let’s go play softball!” to the stunned locker room.

 

(An exit line Laurie almost spoiled by heading out without gym shoes; but Sammi Tiggs grabbed them off the bench and hurried after her.)

 

Midway through the game, Laurie’s adrenaline plummeted.  What had she done?  A “civilian” couldn’t bawl out a cheerleader without consequences—which, from Kim Zimmer, could involve a lethal beanball aimed at her noggin.  And just because nothing happened before the whistle tweeted them back indoors didn’t mean Kim wasn’t biding her time to bite Laurie’s head off once and for all.

 

So go through the zombiefied motions of taking a shower, putting on regular clothes, heading to 8-Y for study hall, numbly feeling as though a round had been boxed with Apollo Creed but there were nine more to go, full of nosebreaking and eyecutting and mutilation...

 

When she zombiewalked from Y-Wing to Home Base for lunch, Laurie found that tidings of the contretemps had preceded herbroadcast not just by eyewitnesses but Alex Dmitria herself.  Laurie cringed, thinking how gravely disappointed in her Alex must be; yet Alex, who tried hard to love everybody, could accept and even approve of chastisement when a Most Special Friend like Joss had been hurt, deliberately and coldbloodedly.

 

Kim Zimmer was a prominent member of the popular crowd, but not that many people actually liked her; and being taken down by Laurie Harrison (à la the killer rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) eclipsed even Vicki’s triumphant defense of the Dartles as a good-news noontime bulletin.

 

Kim skipped lunch that day to hide in a washroom stall; Laurie received hugs and applause and extra desserts.  Best of all, Rachel and Sammi were now two of her Most Special Friends—though the three of them had little in common, at first, other than being female and on the 8-Y team.

 

Rachel Gleistein gave you the impression of being a foreign lady scientist in a spy movie, what with her exotic Middle Eastern looks, elegant intellectual attitude, and tendency to make whatever she wore seem like a labcoat—though her wardrobe was in fact suitable for any B’nai B’rith Youth Organization event.

 

She had a lot of similarities to her fellow future physician Becca Blair, with whom Rachel vied for top academic ranking.  She had a lot more to Alex Dmitria, doing endless good deeds and good works: Red Cross Club, March of Dimes, Handicapped Awareness, Children of the Covenant—all received many hours of Rachel’s labors.

 

Laurie learned two key things about her before the week was out.  First, Rachel had an easily-bruised sense of personal dignity, which turned black-and-blue when the Sock-Hop Phantom pulled up the back of her skirt, stuffed it into the seat of her wedgified panties, and left Rachel to spin around saying “What? What?” when the gym lights went on.

 

Second, though cordially acquainted with half of VW, Rachel had no intimate friends she could talk to about fleeing from the dance with shouts of Hey Sweetcheeks! and Nice ass, Gleistein! ringing in her humiliated ears.  Laurie the Listener fulfilled that need very well, and didn’t argue when Rachel debunked the “disembodied hand” theory as irrational hokum.

 

“Sorry—I’m so dumb—”

 

“Don’t you ever say that!” chided Rachel, like lovely-but-strict Mrs. Clay back in fifth grade when Laurie’d use it as an all-purpose excuse.  “Don’t even think it—and don’t let other people say it or think it about you, either.”

 

“’Kay,” said Laurie, tucking into the plate of afterschool fruit-and-veg snacks Rachel had prepared.  “Is this Jewish food?  It’s certainly delicious.”

 

As for Samantha Tiggs, the first impression everybody got was Tall Chick.  Aged fourteen, she was six-foot-one and hadn’t finished growing.  On an athletic field or court she felt comfortable in her own skin and whatever uniform covered it; anywhere else in any other outfit could be agony.  Sammi got her stature from her highrise-window-washer father; her mother and older sister Sabrina were both petite and drop-dead-gorgeous.  They did their best to put Sammi at ease with her self-image, but struggled to stay patient with her habitual Oh what’s the use and I don’t wanna try it on and ‘Cause it’ll make me look even freakier.

 

Samantha was in fact a textbook example of sporty-cuteness, with a womanly figure marred only by yard-long thighbones.  Her mom and Sabrina kept hinting that a tailored ensemble would conceal these while accentuating her many positive features; but the only garment Sammi put stock in was a no-frills Free Swing Tennis Bra—which the Phantom of the Sock-Hop ruthlessly lobbed and volleyed and disembodily-manhandled.

 

“And after you’d come to the dance and everything,” Laurie sympathized.

 

“(I was just passing through,)” mumbled Samantha, arms folded across her chest.

 

She’d only done that after some major persuasion by Alex Dmitria.  Sammi was shy even around other girls, having been cursed till quite recently with a Cindy Brady lisp (callous graduates of Bashford Elementary still called her Thammi Tiggth) even before she’d “giraffified.”  But mingling with boys was a triple torment: her profound self-consciousness clashed with full-throttle hormones and a mawkish schmaltzy taste in fiction, to produce hopeless inept crushes-from-afar.

 

“My dream,” she hesitantly revealed to Laurie, “would be to meet a guy I’d have to, um, stand on tiptoe to, y’know, like... kiss on the lips.  I know it’s ridiculous.”  (Ducking her head and awaiting guffaws )

 

“No!” went Laurie.  “It’s soooo romantic!  I can see it happening!  Not at any school dance, though—more like a fancy-dress ball—out on a terrace, under the moonlight—”

 

“Really?” breathed Samantha.  “What’m I wearing?”

 

“High heels!”

 

“No way!  Me?  Never—”

 

“Yes you are—it’s fancy-dress, remember.  And even in heels, you still have to stand on tiptoe!”

 

“Wow... and what about Him, how’s He dressed?”

 

It was like telling a bedtime story to one of Laurie’s little babysittees, even though Sammi was so much taller and a couple months older, and her story forged ahead to a much more grownup bedtime.  (After a dream wedding, of course.)

 

The only drawback to these two Most Special Friendships was that Rachel and Samantha didn’t really take to each other, sticking to their own cafeteria tables (caregivers vs. jockettes) rather than join Laurie at the lunch-bunch’s.  She did get them to come to the self-defense lessons at Villa Neapolitan; but they found Robin and her daily arguments with Sheila Quirk to be off-putting rather than enjoyable.

 

Both wanted Laurie to eat with them, so she took another leaf from Alex’s book (or was it tree? Vicki’d once asked the same question) and began to circulate, dining-and-dishing with different groups on different days, getting involved with them all.  She convinced Sammi it was safe to join the cross country squad this year, since their coach Mr. Heathcote respected the sanctity of the Ladybug locker room.  Sammi in turn talked Laurie into going out for basketball; and while she didn’t get much playing time or rack up impressive stats, the team voted her Most Valuable Second-Stringer for her esprit de corps.  Meanwhile Rachel put her in charge of drumming up contributions to Red Cross Club’s canned food drive, which was a great success; and she tutored Laurie in every subject except Phys Ed and Home Ec, resulting in a personal-best report card for each grade period.

 

Most notably, Rachel and Samantha tipped the balance that Susie and the bunch had been weighing in on for weeks: Laurie should cut herself free from the grip of Mack “The Arm” Pittley, an amorous albatross if ever there was one (outside rejected titles for a Disney live-action film).

 

She did jettison Mack and his shackle of an Arm; then tried for the first time to switch off her please ask me out beacon.  Here again the paragon to pattern after was Alex, who went steady with the entire school (and not in a “town pump” way) instead of any individual.

 

Rachel too was unattached, having withdrawn from the dating game after breaking up with Hillel Schiller—“His mother can say till she’s blue in the face that he’s a Nice Jewish Boy, but that’ll never make it true!”  Starry-eyed Samantha was counting the days till senior high, where there’d be a much larger pool of amazing colossal men.  (In ninth grade the taller boys invariably seemed to favor shorter girls, while Sammi’s most ardent admirers came from upward-gazing shrimp stock.)

 

Laurie hadn’t taken herself completely off the courtship market, and thought she’d hit the jackpot when she met Jerome Schei—so handsome, so well-groomed, so interested in her, they had so very much in common—

 

“Yeah,” Susie delicately disclosed, “you both like guys.”

 

But I could change all that, thought Laurie, garbing and painting and scenting herself as sexily as she dared—only to have Jerome whoop and whistle and want to know which lucky fellow she was out to ensnare: “I want to take a gander at him!”

 

I bet you do.  I am so—

 

No; not “dumb.”  A tad ironically-fortuned, maybe.

 

Jerome was still her pal and gossip-colleague, and they had plenty to work with that winter and spring.  There was Vicki Volester’s descent into and recovery from a deep dark funk (result of another tragic secret affaire?); Carly Thibert’s sophisticorruption of Keiko Nakayama; Gumbo Krauss’s breaking up with Carly and hooking up with Joss Murrisch as her first known-of boyfriend; Arlo Sowell’s transferring elephantine affections to Robin Neapolitan from her best friend Fiona Weller (despite Fiona’s being much less gaunt and more striking this year); the Rosa Dartles’s comeback concert at the Vinyl Spinnaker, which pre-empted Gigi Pyle’s supper party; the thrilling midterm-cheatsheet trial of Tony Pierro and Byron Wyszynski; the return of the Phantom of the Sock-Hop, this time to afflict and demoralize the Carnival! musical; the Cicada staff desertions by Gumbo (after Joss dumped him) and Petula Pierro (gone radically agitprop); the eleventh-hour yearbook salvage by Vicki and Joss and Crystal Denvour, ensuring that this wonderful school year would be memorialized in grayscale photos and sans-serif captions; the “Tropic Island Cruise” dance, where Alex Dmitria was deservedly tiara’d as Cicada Queen—

 

—and which Harrison & Zane attended in the double-date company of the Messrs. Herbert Clark Marcellus Jr. and Patrick Warren Baxter.

 

Laurie’d crossed paths with Buddy Marcellus at assorted VW functions, as well as the Red Devil Bowl where the Pachyderms (Buddy, Arlo Sowell, Haystack Dobbs, Nature Boy Rutherford) and the Pindoras (Laurie, Susie, Sammi, and Tina Korva who was tone-deaf and opinionated but could pick up a 7-10 split) both plied the lanes.  At and away from the alley, Buddy was a fun-loving guy; but “Romeo” wouldn’t be the first role a casting director might call him for—unless it was a comic-opera adaptation.

 

Even so, Vicki Volester had dated him—once—and encouraged Laurie to give him a try, noting that he’d paid to dry-clean her overcoat after it got doused with a malted milkshake.  (“Accidentally, and I wasn’t in it at the time.”)  Yielding to this matchmaking, Laurie went with Buddy to see the re-released Fantasia and out for burgers (but no shakes).  She then invited him to Grouseland Street to sample her award-winning carrot cake soufflé, which Buddy packed away and on bended knee declared to be reason enough for him to propose marriage—or at least their taking the Tropic Island Cruise together.

 

Laurie did not regret accepting, other than Bud’s being heftier (and sweatier) than her beau ideal.  He lived up to his reputation as a great (if sweaty) dancer, and was definitely the nicest guy who’d ever asked her out; only... why couldn’t he and Jerome Schei have traded bodies at birth?

 

She took pardonable pride in being one of the few of her friends to go to the Cicada Dance as half of a couple.  Sheila-Q went with Phonsie Alphonse and Crystal with longtime sweetheart Rags Ragnarsson (after a post-tiff patchup).  But Alex and Vicki and Joss bought what Joss called “single-broad tickets” (she was still crabby about Gumbo) as did Rachel, though she’d leave on the arm of Bennett Fayne who’d come with Irina Saranoff who’d been carrying on with Mike Spurgeon for weeks behind Sell-O’s back though everyone knew Mike would’ve taken Keiko Nakayama if her scandalized parents had let her go in the first place.

 

Robin and Fiona were also no-shows—they never went to school dances unless performing as the Dartles—and so was Samantha, though Laurie’d sounded her out about maybe going with Haystack Dobbs.  He was much taller than Sammi but also twice as wide, and impossible to envision wearing a tux on a terrace under moonlight.

 

Sammi was willing to wait for her Dream Man to happen along.

 

Susie was not, since he already existed in real life and a few blocks away.

 

She’d known Patrick Baxter since moving to Grouseland Street.  They’d been in the same sixth-grade class at McGrum, assigned to the 7-Y and 8-Y teams at VW, and for most of that time Susie hadn’t thought much of Patrick—in quantity or quality.  But all that flipped when the Baxters returned from a spring break fishing trip with Patrick sporting stubble, plus a couple inches more height than he’d had previously.

 

“It’s not fair!” raged Susie.  “Girls’re supposed to mature sooner ‘n’ faster’n boys!  So where does that leave ME?”

 

(Almost fourteen, yet looking not quite twelve.)

 

To Laurie, she was still the cutest little Ramonalike sister you could hope for; though this probably wasn’t the best time to say so.

 

“Don’t worry, Sue, you are gonna outknockout ‘em all before you know it—”

 

“Oh sure, ‘when I blossom’—like you’ve been telling me for three years now, Lo!  Well, it’s never gonna happen and he’s never gonna like me!”

 

(Storming off to the back yard to whack the tetherball around its pole.)

 

It was Laurie’s first inkling that Susie’d come down with a crush—on Patrick of all people—and a serious-bordering-on-critical one, if the tetherball blows were any clue... to somebody whose powers of observation clearly weren’t up to their usual scratch.

 

Polish them up, then, and put them to good use.  Grieve to see how piningly doleful Susie got when treated like One Of The Guys while she and Patrick helped plan next year’s cross country program.  Verify the crush, ratify its depth, and get hold of Big Sue on the hush-hush to stealthily ask:

 

“Has your brother got a girlfriend yet?”

 

“Haw!  He wishes.  Why you asking?”

 

“Not for me,” Laurie hastily disclaimed.  “It’s Susie, she’s kind of fallen for him.”

 

“She can do better.”

 

“I guess, but is there any way you could maybe, um, well, sort of persuade Patrick to, I dunno... ask... her... out... or something?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Said so, didn’t I?”

 

One cuff to the back of the head later, Patrick issued a token invite to the Cicada Dance.  Which Susie assumed was the real deal, shoving all her chips into the pot as she thrust Patrick up against her locker and planted a Briar Rose wake-up smooch on his mouth (and tonsils) to emerge from her long beauty sleep as an undeniable teenage flower in bloom.

 

She’d probably always be on the lean if not twiggy side.  Yet Susie Zane, whether due to love or passion or sheer coincidence, was suddenly able to almost support a strapless gown on her natural own, without resorting to Scotch tape or padded tissues.

 

This warranted a special trip to the Della Verita Boutique, to lay the foundation for Susie’s adolescent lingerie drawer.  No plain white cotton today; look for the most colorful lace and decorative frills.  Laurie recalled Vicki quoting her sister (who used to appear in television commercials for Volester Motors and thus knew about glamour) that just knowing you had on pretty underwear made you feel prettier and be prettier—“works every time.”

 

“Well, take care that you’re the only ones who know it,” cautioned Mrs. Harrison-Zane RN.

 

“Oh Mom!” chorused her girls, exclaiming over an especially exquisite brassiere...

 

...that now dangled like a broken kite from the bedroom light fixture above Laurie’s tear-filled eyes.

 

Right Back Where We Started From.

 

I can never sleep in here again.  I’ll have to move down to the basement.  Jason won’t need it anymore.  It won’t be so bad until winter comes...

 

I thought she told me everything.  I thought I knew her.  I thought she was my sister...

 

“Smother me with a pillow, she said, “if I ever start acting scuzzy.  Like the First Mrs. Zane, her mother, her real true mother—not mine...

 

How long have they been doing this?  How far have they gone?  Where are they now?  Over at Patrick’s house, picking up where they left off, finishing what they began?

 

Does anyone else suspect—or do they already know, everybody but me, and they all know I don’t know and they’re laughing and shaking their heads and saying “That Harelip Harrison is such a nitwit, such a patsy, such a sucker—

 

I am so dumb.

 

I am so dumb!

 

I AM SO DUMB!!

 

Digging fingernails into still-damp hair.  Feeling the world rip and shred like so many split ends.

 

Had Mrs. Levinson’s important appointment really been canceled?  Or had it all been a prank, a trick, with little Errol and Lydia in on the joke, giggling till they got hiccups when you biked away in the pouring rain—“We fooled her, Mama, we fooled her!”

 

At the Cicada Dance, when Buddy Marcellus said “You were robbed!” you gasped and reached for your earrings and other jewelry but he just laughed, saying “I mean you oughta be up there!” meaning the Queen’s Court with Alex and Vicki and Crystal, which you thought very sweet at the time (and made you feel sorry to take spiteful pleasure in Kim and Delia’s not making it either, plus Gigi Pyle’s finishing fourth runner-up)—

 

—but Buddy’d laughed, howled with laughter at you like Jerome and Chipper and Tyler and Jason and every other guy you’d ever cared for, pointing and jeering and talking about you behind your back, probably to tell the world you’d gone all the way with them—even Jerome!—and say you’d do it with anybody and charge them money for it like a hooker but lots cheaper than you were worth ‘cause you’re so DUMB

 

—no—noNO

 

—you’ve got to get out of here—

 

—look, it’s stopped raining—

 

—throw on some dry clothes (charcoal gray this time, to be safe) and a spare pair of racing flats—

 

—go out and find a friend, even if it’s only a pretend “friend”—

 

—someone you can talk to, watching for hidden smirks as you ask for advice and plead for guidance and beg for reassurance—

 

who, though?  Who can you trust?  Who can be of help?  Not Rachel, not Sammi, not Alex—they’d all be shocked by talk of wanton toplessness, if they’re sincere that is, and your heart would break if Alex was deceitful.  Sheila-Q’d be perfect, having to deal with mealy-mouthed Amelia who was capable of way worse than toplessness—but at this time of day Sheila’d be on volunteer duty at St. Benedict’s.  Joss!  If there was anyone nearby who had to be true-blue dependable yet unshockable, it’d be her—and you’re pretty sure she doesn’t start work till after noon.  So hop on your bike and pedal fast as you can over to Jupiter Street—

 

—and if Joss laughs at you, run away to Montana and live with Ingrid Morton—

 

—or go find Wanda Lynn Reid, and ask to join Bunty O’Toole’s desperadoes—

 

—or tie a rope to a garage rafter, and show everybody you can do something Kim Zimmer’d failed at.

 

*

 

“Waal,” Vicki la-de-da’d, “guess I’d best be moseying over to The Club.”

 

“Yaas,” Joss tra-la-la’d, “got to teach Pookster McJinglepockets how to gallop that polo pony.”

 

“Oh don’t start talking ponies, or Alex’ll have us back in her stable again.”

 

“Hobble-de-hoy!  No thanks.”

 

“I’ll try to call tonight, usual time, if I can wrench the phone out of my folkss hands—”

 

“Oh my Gahd... look who’s coming!”

 

“Wh—  It is her!  How’d she find out so soon?

 

“Don’t look at me, I’ve been here with you since I heard—”

 

“She really must have antennas in her pooftails—”

 

“Where are her pooftails?  Her hair’s all—”  Opening the scrollwork porch’s screen door: “Laurie?  Are you okay?”

 

“What’s the matter?” Vicki chimed in.  “Has something happened?—Laurie!

 

They sprang down the half-mown lawn and caught their favorite blabberyap as she collapsed off her bicycle, bursting into shuddery spastic sobs like Ralph at the end of Lord of the Flies.

 

*

 

“My Grandmother Schmelz used to say, ‘We all need to cry a little from time to time—it clears the head like rain does the air.’”

 

“(Not around here it doesn’t.  Just makes it muggier.)”

 

“You need help with that?”

 

“(Noooo, almost got it—there!  Thanks again—this is great.)”

 

Fiona gave Vicki another hug (startlingly demonstrative, from doesn’t-like-to-be-touched Feef) and gloated over the tiny electric-bass bracelet-charm Vicki’d found in Florida.  Vicki presented this mucho-belated birthday gift after tracking Fiona down to Villa Neapolitan’s cellar (where she’d spent the day communing with her new amp); and Fiona, not wanting to snag a braceleted wrist on Fender strings, affixed the bass-charm to her FTW necklace-pendant.

 

“I hope that stands for your initials, Feef.”

 

“(That’s what I tell people,)” Fiona said blandly.  “(So then what happened?)”

 

“Oh, with Laurie?  We cleaned her up—she was all over little wet grass clippings—and tried to mellow her out with lemonade—”

 

“(D’ja add peppermint schnapps?)”

 

“Now where would we get any of that?  You know Toughie doesn’t allow a drop of liquor in that house.  Anyway, I had to leave for work at Petty Hills, but Joss asked her to stay for lunch so Laurie could vent some more.  I think she just needed to know, y’know, that we were ‘there’ for her—like we all do, when we freak out.”

 

“(Yeah.  I know...  You should all get fake IDs, though.  Then you can at least buy beer and wine.)”

 

“Gahd, Feef!” went Vicki, peering at F.T. Weller (aged nineteen)’s new California license.  “What else did you bring back from Out There?”

 

“(Well...)”

 

“AAY LOOP-AAY!” from Robin, upstairs in the Villa kitchen.

 

Yeah?”

 

Loopy, you staying for dinner?”

 

Yes please!...  I’m in no hurry to go home.  My folks’re in a tizzy ‘cause—well—see, my sister dropped out of college and ran off to L.A.”

 

“(Cool.  Maybe I bumped into her.  She look like you?)”

 

“No, more like the complete opposite.”

 

“(What, like a six-foot-tall guy with a beard?)”

 

“No!  ‘Member that day you all came over while our parents decided what parties the Dartles could play at?  We hung out in my sister’s room, and Sheila tried on her clothes—”

 

“(Oh right—we had to pry her out of that one dress.)”

 

“Yeah, and she ‘borrowed’ another one that Tricia noticed was missing right away the next time she whooshed through.  I suppose Sheila can keep it now, if Mealy hasn’t swiped it...  Anyway, Tricia’s blonde and stacked and peaches-and-creamy and has green eyes.”

 

“(I did meet a girl like that,)” said Fiona.  “(Except mine had green hair...)”

 

*

 

Laurie coasted back to Grouseland through the sunset, having gone from Joss’s house to St. Benedict’s for a chat with Sheila-Q in the hospital coffee shop, then over to the Y where Samantha (too shy to hit the beach) was swimming laps, then over to Rachel’s for dinner with the Gleisteins.  At each place she had less to say about what was troubling her, partly because she gradually calmed down over the course of the day—at least insofar as her friends were concerned, since they were her friends and concerned about her.

 

(Unless they were all superskillful actresses.  Rachel the spy-movie foreign scientist, maybe; Sammi the devourer of Young Love romance comics, improbable.)

 

Laurie was trying not to glance up at the garage rafters while parking her bike, when she got forcibly collared and propelled into the toolshed/playhouse.  “Quit shoving—oof!” as she landed on one of the old chairs they’d brought out here, twisting away from the shadow taking a seat in the neighboring chair.

 

“First,” said the shadow, “I wanna thank you for coming home when you did—we hadn’t ever done anything like that before, we just started kissing and then kept going almost like we were daring each other along, and if you hadn’t shown up—well, I don’t know what ‘cept I wasn’t ready, and Patrick—well of course he was ‘ready’ but not ready, y’know, so things might’ve gotten... and turned out... anyway, thank you.

 

“Second—I’m so, so sorry we did what we did in our room, I know it was wrong ‘n’ gross ‘n’ I’ve cleaned everything up (I did your laundry too, and dried out your shoes) and wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to move into the basement or someplace but please don’t, it’s your room ‘n’ you made it our room ‘n’ I promise I’ll never do anything like that in there again.

 

“Third—I can guess what you’re thinking about me doing what I did, anywhere, but it’s not like that—I really, really love him, Lo, and I’m pretty sure he loves me and wants me too, which I never thought’d ever happen, but we had a long talk, him ‘n’ me, and agreed to take things slower ‘n’ stay outta each other’s bedrooms from now on, I mean suppose it’d been Big Sue who walked in on us—

 

“Fourth...” [throat cleared] “Patrick’s not the very best thing that ever happened to me... you are, you ‘n’ Mom” [throat cleared] “you two are my sister ‘n’ mother, ‘n’ you can smother me with a pillow if I ever do anything that might spoil that.”

 

Silence in the playhouse, as dusk descended.

 

Then a thin tight bloodshot-sounding postscript:

 

“...you believe me, dontcha Lo?...”

 

“Course I do.”

 

Said without forethought, in the same valiant voice that denounced Kim Zimmer in front of an entire locker room.  Said with an additional oof, as Susie leaped into Laurie’s lap and buried her face into Laurie’s neck.

 

It did put a whole new spin on the day’s events if some guardian angel had stage-managed it all, sending Laurie home in the unscheduled nick of time to rescue Susie from potential disaster; just as Big Sue had left the playground to save Laurie from the polite bad guy in the car outside McGrum.

 

But however comforting that notion might be, it did little to thaw the icicle-slivers that had entered Laurie’s heart during Susie’s professed confession—each a Yeah right or I’ll bet or Easy to say that now, making Laurie writhe like an amateur acupuncturist’s needle.

 

Maybe, though, these weren’t lingering doubts.

 

Perhaps they were steps away from being so dumb—climbing the ladder, rung by painful rung, toward adulthood.

 

Grownups were more skeptical than kids, harder to hoodwink, and Susie’d always been that way: the big sister in everything except age and size.  So possibly Laurie was just catching up mentally and emotionally, as Susie’d done physically last spring.

 

Which didn’t mean that it didn’t hurt like hell, there in the hot humid twilight, as she hugged her sister back and held on for dear life. 

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Return to Chapter 32                          Proceed to Chapter 34

 

 

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

 

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