Classes ended at 2:30 PM, but practices and rehearsals did not begin until 3:10. Had to leave room for detention. For those who didn’t have it, there was nothing to do in those forty minutes but do one’s homework, hang out with one’s friends, and wait.
Between the time when the weather turned cold in October, to when winter finally let out in late April or early May, this waiting would take place on the bleachers in the gym, or perhaps in the breezeway between the rest of the school and the Arts Wing. But for now, it was September, it was still warm and sunny, and Angelina preferred to wait outside.
Belford High School’s parking lot was behind the school, and beyond it were the woods. It was bordered on one edge by a sidewalk. Double-wide metal stairways with flaking green paint led fifty feet down a steep slope to the athletic fields. A gravel path led past tennis courts; two baseball fields; a soccer field; a field hockey field; through a gate in a white chain-link fence; down another, gentler, ten-foot slope to Belford’s crown jewel: the football field.
The football field, and the cinder track around it, was on some of the lowest ground in Belford. A minor branch of Shady River known as Hobson’s Creek ran no more than twenty yards behind it, and the river-chill made even the early fall games a bit frigid. By the time the season ended in early November, games were bitterly cold. The river washed out the track nearly every spring, and there was always talk of building a new one. But nothing ever materialized.
Back up at the top of the stairs, between the end of the sidewalk and the edge of the woods, there was a swath of green, with several picnic tables where students were allowed to eat lunch in good weather. Angelina sat at one of these picnic tables, looking out over the fields, contemplating the frighteningly accurate rumors about the murder, the murder itself, and the likelihood that someone on the force was going to get fired. Soon that gave way to lighter thoughts—one can only stay somber for so long—and she began to contemplate such things as the beginning of a new school year, and Jason’s eyes.
It was strange. They’d been friends for years, and they’d seen each other through several relationships and breakups. They had it down to a science: he needed someone to pat him on the back, listen to him rant, and critique his post-breakup artwork (black…always too much black. You could tell he was feeling better when he started using light colors again). She needed someone to go to the gym with her while she exercised her muscles into grief-laden pudding, then hand her tissues while she cried.
In all that time, she wondered if he’d ever thought of having a relationship with her. She knew that she’d never thought of him as boyfriend material—he was her friend, someone she could talk to and relax with, no pressure or expectations. A girl friend. Just…male.
She was thinking of him that way now. Thinking of his sense of humor, his kindness…how he had looked coming out of the water that day at Black Lake.
Love was friendship set on fire, she’d heard. Maybe, maybe.
But how would he respond if she brought this up? Would it freak him out? Would it ruin the ‘no pressure, no expectations’ aspect of their friendship? These were things she really, really didn’t want to risk. Better think about it some more.
It was as she was thinking about it some more that a shadow fell over her.
She looked up, a smile on her face. Maybe it was Kara (no, no, couldn’t be Kara, she’d had to run to her job at the Millwheel Museum) or Marc so she could talk this out. Or even better, Jason himself. Her smile vanished the instant she saw her visitor. No such luck.
“Hey,” he greeted her, as close to diffident as he ever came. Not very.
“Yes?” she greeted him coolly.
“I was just hoping we could talk—you know—about the conversation we had the other day.”
“What is there to talk about?” she asked, her voice not warming at all.
He sat down beside her, and she immediately edged away. He either didn’t notice or ignored it. “Things didn’t really go too well in that conversation,” he said. “Things didn’t come out the way they were supposed to—“
Was he actually going to apologize?
“So I was hoping we could both just let it go and start over.”
“So,” she said, “Even after everything I said, in front of all those people—“
His grin grew strained for a moment.
“—You’re willing to just forgive and forget? Let bygones be bygones?”
He nodded, and his grin broadened. She understood just how much of a favor he was doing her. “Water under the bridge,” he said benevolently.
“Gosh, I don’t know if I deserve it.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” he said, swinging his arm up and resting it on the table behind her. She edged further away, to where she was now sitting on the end of the bench. “You know, I was also hoping to talk about the other part of that conversation.”
“The part about us going out together?”
“Yes. Have you given that any more thought?”
Darren’s smile fell away, revealing not the look of shock, hurt, or dismay that Angelina might have expected from someone else, but a snarl of rage. Then his smile flashed back into place. Angelina was not surprised by the fact that the smile still managed to look sincere—she knew that Darren was skilled at deceit. What frightened her was the sudden depth of the rage beneath it. Maybe Jason was right. Maybe Darren was as crazy as Psycho Mike.
Which meant that it wasn’t good to be around him, however strong and capable she might be. Someone that crazy could do anything.
“My offer still stands, you know,” he continued. “Why not give me a try? I can show you a good time.”
“I don’t think I’m interested in your kind of good time.”
“Come on,” he cajoled. “Just think about it.”
She sighed deeply. He was like a tick. He wouldn’t come away until he was burned off. She turned her head and locked eyes with him for the first time since he’d sat down. “Darren, I have thought about it. And I’m not interested. I barely know you, and more importantly, I don’t like you. Those things you said were racist and disgusting and not that easy to pass off as ‘water under the bridge’. What’s more, I don’t like the way you treat women, especially your girlfriends, so I really don’t want to become one.” She stood up to go. “Now, if you’ll excuse me—“
He caught her arm. She looked down at him, and his smile was frozen on his face. “Maybe you should think about the other side of the equation,” he said.
She was afraid, but she was starting to get angry, too. “What ‘other side’?”
“You dump me, and it pretty much proves that you’re a dyke. Everyone thinks so already—you’re always hanging around with that Kara cunt. Even if you’re not, you’re still a fucking freak. What guy is going to want you if you’re so fucking frigid that you’ll turn me down? Maybe that fairy Olsen, but he’ll stay away if he knows what’s good for him. You turn me down, and life gets a whole lot harder from here on.”
She stared at him in shock for a moment.
“Darren, I have given you my answer already. Five times. And if you think that threatening me can change it, then you don’t know me, and you have no clue what it means to be a boyfriend. Now leave me alone.” She turned on her heel and started to walk away, when he grabbed her arm again.
“Maybe you’d better think about it a little bit more,” He grated.
Angelina tensed. All of the self-defense lessons her father had taught her were coming back. As satisfying as it would be to spin on him and punch him in the nose, then leave while he was blind with his nose’s stinging and bleeding, it would be his kind of fight. He might be ready for it—and he had her in height, reach, and weight. By a lot, on all counts. No, she would kick back into his shin or stomp his instep, then run for the doors.
Both of them looked across the parking lot. Roughly a half-dozen members of the field hockey team were coming out of the doors. Tiffany Chance was one of them.
Darren released her arm immediately. “We’ll talk about this some more later, bitch,” He muttered as he started to walk away.
“Don’t bother. I won’t have anything new to say,” she answered.
“We’ll see about that.” Then he pasted his smile back on. He crossed the parking lot and made his way through the crowd, smiling and excusing himself as he entered the school.
A flock of giggling field hockey players darted across the parking lot to where Angelina stood, suddenly feeling exhausted as the adrenaline drained out of her. They clustered around her, chattering in excitement. Overwhelmed, she could only manage dazed replies.
“Look at you! Lucky wench.”
“You have to tell me how you do it.”
“Congratulations. I mean, he’s the captain of the football team. Oh, I know that there are technically two other captains, but everyone knows—“
“But we’re not going out,” Angelina protested.
The collective gasp was deafening.
“Don’t you know what kind of status boost it would be?”
“You didn’t turn him down, did you?”
“Guys!” All heads swiveled to where Tiffany Chance stood at the back of the group. She raised her hand and pointed at her wrist. “We’re going to be late. Let’s get a move on.”
The others glanced at their own watches, and with a collective squeal of dismay, they scurried for the doors.
Tiffany and Angelina lingered, walking across the parking lot at a much slower pace.
“You okay, Mack?” Tiffany asked
“I will be,” Angelina replied. “It’s just…” She paused. How could she explain what she’d seen? The frightening rage she’d seen under Darren’s glittering surface? Not that she thought Tiffany would disbelieve her, but she still didn’t think she would understand. She hardly comprehended herself. She’d known that Darren was a jerk, but she’d never imagined… “It’s just that Darren is more of an asshole than any of us suspected, I think.”
“Yeah? Want to tell me about it?”
“Maybe later. Right now, it’s 3:05 and I think we’d better move.”
They both took off at a jog across the remaining distance of parking lot, into the safety that was the inside of the school and the presence of other people.
Darren stormed into the boys’ locker room, his face like a thunderhead. There were few players present yet, and most of them were his own contingent. Good.
“Bitch!” he spat as he pounded on one locker.
“Cunt!” he snarled as he kicked another.
He snatched up his helmet and hurled it across the room—“Spic whore!” he roared–where it bounced off a locker, leaving a dent and skipping away across the floor until it fetched up against a wall.
Mike, Alan, and Rich looked grim. A second attempt had failed. Not good. This had never happened before. Worse, the chance to put the bitch in her place privately, boyfriend-to-girlfriend, like these things were supposed to be done, was apparently gone. Time to get serious.
Jeff Corrinn, on the other hand, didn’t know how historically unprecedented and serious this was. “So!” he said, walking up to where Darren stood, panting in rage. “Date-Rape Darren actually failed to score, huh?” He patted Darren on the shoulder condescendingly. “Don’t worry about it, man. Welcome to the human race.”
Darren, remembering who he was, took a few deep breaths and calmed down. Most of the guys on the team called him “Date-Rape Darren.” Big joke—they refused to believe that he got as much pussy as he did on pure looks and charm.
Idiots. If only they knew. But then, it was important that they didn’t know, and that he didn’t give them any clues. Otherwise, they might start believing the bitter sluts who kept trying to smear his reputation after he dumped them. Calm. Calm.
Mike, on the other hand, went ballistic. He grabbed Jeff by the shoulder pads and slammed him up against the lockers.
Darren had already dismissed them, and heard Mike’s roars of rage and Jeff’s pleas for mercy as mere background noise:
“You shut the fuck up! You think this is fucking funny?”
“Hey, I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Then you shouldn’t have opened your fucking mouth! You better watch yourself. You’re gonna be in scrimmage sometime, and the next thing you know, you’ll be down on the ground with a broken leg.”
“Look, I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry!”
Darren knew that it was already too late for Jeff Corrinn. His leg would be broken within two weeks. No great loss. He was a shitty receiver anyway.
“Don’t worry,” he said to Alan and Rich, drawing their attention away from staring at Mike. This isn’t over yet. That bitch is going to wish she’d never started with me.”
Marc was playing his latest composition. He hoped desperately that Vicki would like it. It had taken most of his courage to offer to play; it would take the rest to ask how she had liked it. If she did, he would be floating for days. If not, he would crawl into a dark place and not come out.
He need not have worried. Vicki was entranced. She closed her eyes and submerged herself in the world of the singing piano. Heaven. This was as close to Heaven as she was ever going to get.
This thought reminded her of just how far from Heaven she currently was, and she sighed.
His volume dropped precipitately. “Are you alright?” He asked.
“Finish the song. Please,” was her only answer, her eyes still closed.
The world of the piano submerged her again. The song was loud and racing and grand. It was like standing in the charged and pounding heart of a thunderstorm.
He finished the song with a grand flourish, and she began to clap. “That was amazing,” she said, and it was. There was only the piano in the room, but when Marc played, she could hear the drums and the electric guitars, and an Epic-rock titan like Meatloaf or Bonnie Tyler on the vocals.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said, rising from the piano bench and taking a bow. Then he settled back down and said. “I’m glad you liked it. Now—why so deep a sigh?”
She paused and shifted uncomfortably. How much should she tell him? She’d sighed in the middle of his song—now she wished she hadn’t done that—so he knew something was wrong. But how much should she tell him?
“I’m sorry,” he said, noting her hesitancy. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No, no, it’s okay,” She said. “It’s not that. I’m just trying to figure out where to start.”
“Take your time,” he said. “I’m here to help.”
Where do guys like him come from, she wondered, smiling. Oh, hell, why not. I can give him the edited version. It’s not like I’m going to get all touchy-feely and “sharing my feelings.”
“I’m just kinda having a bad day,” she explained.
“What’s wrong?” He asked.
“Well, a couple weeks back, some asshole nearly ran me off the road up by the Cop Drop.” Yeah. A dead, imaginary asshole.
“Oh, my God!” he exclaimed, jumping to his feet. She realized that, despite the fact that it was weeks later and she was obviously all right, he wanted to see if she was all right.
She waved him back down onto the piano bench. “It’s all right. I’m okay—didn’t have a mark on me. But the back of the car was all dented to hell, and my mom’s blaming me for it.”
“That makes sense,” he said, shaking his head as he sat back down.
“Tell me about it. Then I get back to school and I get away from that, only ‘Tasha VanDyne starts right in being bitchy all over again—“
“What else would she be?”
“I know. Then we get to talking about the fall play. Now, I know that the last thing I need is Lehrer and Singer making my life difficult in addition all this other shit, but I can’t not try out for the play, can I?”
He nodded. He understood the Addiction. Some people just did theatre for fun, but for others, it was their Art. Just like his songs were his Art. And once you found your Art, there was no going back. It was in your blood for good.
“And on top of all that shit, I—“ she paused, surprised, as her throat suddenly caught. Sudden tears stung her eyes again, and she forced her voice to be unwavering. “I think I’m going to miss Bud Larrance.”
Damn. Where did that come from? He doesn’t want to get into all that.
If he didn’t, he showed no sign. He just nodded. “You were friends?”
“Not really. Not so much. It’s just that he was a good guy, you know?”
Marc nodded again. “Yes, I do.”
Vicki was shocked. “You do?”
“I knew him,” he replied. “Not very well. But he seemed like a nice guy.”
“He was,” Vicki said. “And it’s just not right that nobody’s talking about it. It’s like he never lived and it doesn’t matter that he’s dead.” She snorted in disgust. “But he’ll have plenty of friends when it’s time to skip school and go to the memorial service.”
“Why don’t you tell me about him?”
So she did. She told him about Mortal Kombat and bartending, of failed attempts at hooking up with her (this led to a minor digression on the topic of her relationship with Rodney, a topic that left him a combination of outraged at Rodney’s treatment of her and aroused at her descriptions of the ‘good parts’. She saw him squirming on his piano bench and realized that she was being cruel, but what the hell, he asked), and of lazy days spent watching bad movies.
At some point, she realized that, despite her original resolve not to tell him about her feelings, that was exactly what she was doing. She shut up quickly. “You’re a good listener, Marc.”
“Hey. It’s what I’m for,” he answered.
She smiled. “That’s sweet.” Then her smile faded a little and she sighed gustily. “You know what I need?” She said suddenly. “I need to get laid. Maybe I’ll call Kyle Morris or something.”
It was cruel, she knew. But some part of her was frantically trying to raise some of the defenses that she’d momentarily let down. Unlike Rodney, or Kyle, or even Bud, she couldn’t tell what this man wanted from her. And that scared her.
Suddenly, on impulse, she kissed the tips of two fingers and touched his nose. “Thanks for caring,” she said as she turned and walked back up the aisle.
Then, there were the parts of her that wanted to let him in entirely, that had somehow gotten the crazy idea that it was safe. That he could be trusted. Hell, she’d almost let the truth about the Roadster slip, and how would that have gone over?
She thought she’d split the difference quite well.
Damn! I didn’t get to play it for her! I didn’t even get a chance to ask! Oh, well. She needed something else today. There’ll be other chances.
Angelina trudged across the fields toward the stairs. The blasting heat of summer had softened somewhat, and mist and shadows were starting to settle into the deep bowl where the sports fields rested.
She was tired. Bone-weary. Not just from the workout, though that had been hard enough. She was beginning to wonder just what the hell was wrong with DiLeo this year. They were working harder than they ever had—much harder—and yet she still chewed them out at the end of every practice. Ranting about teamwork, dedication, and school spirit as if they were a bunch of bickering, lazy, slackers rather than latest proud incarnation of the team that had been the sectional champs for the past five years, and regional champs for two of those years.
No, it wasn’t the workout. She was weary with thoughts. Darren had threatened her, and he had threatened Jason. She would tell Jason, Kara, and Marc, of course. She had already told Tiffany.
She couldn’t tell her father. He’d want to arrest Darren for harassment. When he cooled down a bit, he would call the school, Darren’s parents…it would be a disaster. The dirty job-stealing Mexican police chief against Belford’s golden boy? He’d be out of his job before he even knew what happened. And she couldn’t tell her mother, because her mother would tell her father.
Just then, her thoughts were interrupted by joyful shouts.
The shouts were answered by equally joyous yips and barks, and she looked up to see Buddy streaking across the field toward them.
Buddy was a great, huge, shaggy, black bear of a dog of indeterminate breed and unknown ownership. It didn’t seem that he could be a stray, he was too clean. But no one had ever been heard to claim ownership of him.
He was running for the densest concentration of girls, but he suddenly veered off and headed straight for her.
Angelina grinned as she saw him coming. This would be just what the doctor ordered. It was like Buddy sensed that one of his two-legged friends was upset, and needed cheering up.
“C’mere, Buddy, ‘cmere,” she called, patting her thighs. She reached out to him and whistled, her feet set wide and braced for impact. He crashed into her like a furry, affectionate rocket.
“Hey, Buddy! Hey!” He rubbed and licked at her frantically—How can he stand that? I must taste awful!—while she hugged him and scratched his ears and shoofed her fingers through his thick ruff. “How’ve you been, Buddy? Huh? I haven’t seen you in so long—what’ve you been doing all summer? Did you meet a nice girl-dog? Maybe have some puppies? You’re not going to leave us, are you Buddy?”
Buddy grinned up at her. Gentlemen didn’t talk about such things, he seemed to say. But no, he would never leave them.
“Oh, that’s good to know.” She took his front paws in her hands. “Care to dance, Buddy?”
Yes, he would like to dance.
She only had a few minutes to play. The buses left at 5:30. She didn’t have to catch one, but the locker room was only open for so long. Buddy understood. As a gentleman should, he walked her to the door. When they reached it, she turned to him. “Thank you, Buddy. That was just what I needed. But I’m afraid you can’t come in here. I’ll see you around.”
He yipped happily, then turned and swaggered away.
Angelina was floating when she entered the locker room, her worries wiped away. So she didn’t notice the unusual quiet, or the people watching her—some with concern, some with something that only looked like it.
Maura Weston tried to intercept her on the way to her locker. “ ‘Lina? Maybe you shouldn’t go over there right now.”
“Why?” Angelina asked, instinctively stepping around her. “Is something—“
“No, wait!” Maura cried, trying to stop her.
“Oh, my God.”
“Missy went to get DiLeo,” Maura said helplessly.
Angelina didn’t respond. She was too busy standing there, feeling as if she’d been kicked in the gut.
Etched into the face of her locker, in letters a foot high, was the word SPIC.
Tiffany, who had also taken a moment to play with Buddy, came up behind her. “Hey, Mack, what’re you…staring…at.”
Tiffany froze for a long moment, staring. Then her face flushed, and she whirled on the rest of the locker room, which had gathered around them. “Who did this?” she shrieked. “Who?”
Angelina stood, staring at her defaced locker, shaking with rage. Her question was not “who” but “how.”: she knew damn well who had done this. But the Girls’ Locker Room had been locked the entire time they’d been gone. The coach of the last team out locked the doors, and the coach of the first one in unlocked it. How had he even…
Maybe one of his little concubines…no. Wait. Stop. Don’t get fixated on the first suspect. Let the evidence speak for itself. After all, it’s not like this is the first time this kind of shit has happened.
Tiffany was still shouting when a stern voice barked. “Calm down, Chance! What’s the problem here?”
The teams parted to allow Coach DiLeo through.
A massive figure, nearly six feet tall and blocky, Coach DiLeo commanded instant attention.
Angelina and Tiffany stepped away from the locker to let her see…well away. Hardass that she was, DiLeo always stood up for her girls. It was going to get very loud in here very quickly.
“Is that the problem?” DiLeo demanded. “That’s what all this fuss is about? Some graffiti? For crying out loud, call a janitor. Do I have to do all of your thinking for you?”
With that, she turned on her heel and stormed back out of the locker room, leaving most of the girls’ sports teams staring after her in shock—and a few with well-hidden smirks.