“Have I told you how weird you are?” Kara asked from the passenger seat of “the Bus”, Jason’s old, but lovingly preserved van.
“Only six times in this trip alone,” Jason responded.
“Well, I’m sorry, but who drives down the road blasting Pachelbel’s Canon in D?”
“Hey,” Jason said defensively. “That’s not the only song on the tape.”
“And that’s another thing. Who makes a mix tape of Pachelbel, O Fortuna from the Carmina Burana, Eric Clapton, Meatloaf, and Weird Al Yankovic?”
“You forgot the Indigo Girls and Charlie Daniels.”
Kara threw up her hands. “And the Indigo Girls and Charlie Daniels!”
“Oh, yeah. And ABBA.”
“And – will you stop that?”
“I’m sorry,” Jason said meekly, hunching down behind the steering wheel, trying to look pitiful.
“Oh, knock it off.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jason said, still meekly, straightening. “So what did you think of the new paint job?”
“She’ll love it.”
“What do you mean ‘she’? I asked how you—“
Kara arched an eyebrow at him.
Jason caved. “Okay, okay. I’m hoping it’ll impress her. Happy?”
“You should know better than to try and hide things from me, Jay. It never works.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t try.”
Kara rolled her eyes, shook her head, reached over and patted his shoulder. “You don’t have to, you big goof. It’s not like I’m jealous or anything. If you’re hot for our Angelita gloriosa, I say go for it.”
Jason’s face turned serious. “We have to tell her first.”
Kara nodded. “That’s probably for the best.” She paused, chewed on her lip for a moment, then glanced sideways at her friend. “How do you think she’ll take it?”
“She’s never been judgmental before.”
Kara grinned. “That’s the truth. She—and you—were the most supportive friends I had when I came out.” She chuckled. “Once Angelina picked herself up off the floor, that is.” Then she paused and chewed on her lip thoughtfully for a moment as she looked at him. “You weren’t surprised, though. Why was that?”
“Oh, I’d known for a while.”
“How?” She challenged.
“You don’t hide things very well, either,” he grinned. “You were the only girl I knew who stared at other girls’ boobs.”
They both burst out laughing.
When they finished, Jason took a deep breath. “So…we tell her, first reasonable opportunity?”
Kara nodded. “As soon as we get somewhere that we can sit her down and talk to her—someplace peaceful and private.”
“So we’re not going to get to do it tonight, are we?”
“Peace and privacy in La Casa de Cruz?” Kara laughed. “I don’t think so.”
Jason laughed in agreement as he turned the wheel, and the Bus turned off the summer-dusty road and into the parking lot of Belford High School.
Angelina trudged toward the stairs that led up the hill to the Belford High Parking Lot from the athletic fields.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but she felt like crap. Oh, she was doing better than many. She’d run, swam, and worked out at the Iron Works throughout the summer, so she was in far better condition than the ones who’d only resumed training within the past couple days, if at all. You could always recognize those—tongues hanging, feet dragging, panting like dogs, fifty yards behind everyone else while running laps. Three of those had puked and one—Missy Lipinsky—had fainted today.
Angelina had some sympathy for them, but not much. Did they think they could just show up and be ready? Did they think they didn’t have to put any effort in? Still, she had to admit that six hours of running in ninety degree weather wasn’t good for anyone. Every square inch of her clothing was drenched with sweat. She couldn’t stand her own smell. Her hair hung in limp, sweaty strands that she had to keep brushing out of her eyes. Her body felt too heavy to move, and her legs in particular felt like lead. Or maybe something more rigid, like iron. She could feel them stiffening up already, the soreness sinking into her muscles, to be buried under exhausted numbness until she woke up the next morning. To top it all off, she had a pounding headache. Probably dehydration. Jesus, Maria, y Jose but she couldn’t wait to get home
Angelina turned her head and smiled wearily at the speaker.
Tiffany Chance. If someone had called Central Casting for an exact physical opposite of Angelina, Tiffany would have been a good choice. They were roughly the same height, but there all resemblance ended. Tiffany’s hair, currently pulled back into a ragged ponytail with a sweat-stained scrunchy, was sunlight-blond, and her eyes were the color of sky. Her creamy skin didn’t seem to have been affected by the summer—which meant that her face was flushed scarlet. What was more, what was easiest to see from a distance, was that Tiffany was very slender, and she seemed even moreso beside the broad-shouldered Angelina.
Angelina had known Tiffany, and her sisters Tara and Tanya for her entire life. Tara was two years older than Tiffany and Angelina, and Tanya—at that very moment jogging over from the JV practice field—was two years younger. Despite their age differences, the Chance sisters all looked remarkably alike. They shared the same eyes, hair, and build. They even shared what they called the “A-Cup Curse.”
It was Tiffany who had dubbed Angelina “Mack” back when they’d both been on the ninth grade field hockey team. She’d been determined that they should have some sort of “Call Sign” out on the field, and she’d been trying to think of some sort of play on “Angel” for Angelina’s. Then, one day, Angelina’s on-field ferocity had inspired Tiffany to remember her Sunday School classes, and the “Ass-Kicking Angel”—Michael. Add one mouth guard to the equation, and “Mack” had stuck with Angelina ever since.
“So,” Tiffany said. “Is it me, or is DiLeo even more sadistic than usual this year?”
“It’s not you,” Angelina assured her. “That last set of wind sprints up the hill was just unnecessary. Still, whatever doesn’t kill you…”
“Yeah, well, I just about thought it was going to.” Tiffany groused. They walked in silence for a moment, then she spoke up again. “Think we’ll go regional this year?”
“If we don’t, it won’t be because I didn’t—carajo.”
Tiffany followed Angelina’s gaze up the steps between them and the parking lot: double-wide, peeling green paint, bent railings, worn treads, and right now they looked very long and very steep. “I second that.”
Darren Edwards and his three-man entourage walked up the gravel track that led up from the football field, past the other fields, to the parking lot. They carried their helmets, the only piece of equipment they’d used on that first day. Among this entourage was Michael “Psycho Mike” Higgmann.
The topic, of course, was football, and Darren was holding forth: of course the team had been good the last few years, how could they be otherwise with Siwarski as coach? But only good. This year was going to be a banner year. Why? First of all, the team had shed a great deal of dead weight, like that fairy Jason Olsen. Second, a lot of promising new players had come up from JV to replace said dead weight. Finally, and most importantly, the team had some true leaders in the captains’ positions for the first time in years.
Psycho Mike and Alan Chadwick both listened eagerly, inspired by Darren’s visions of a stellar season (and, in Mike’s case, flattered that Darren recognized his leadership ability), but Rich Vintner had something else on his mind. Finally, he could contain himself no longer: “Hey, Darren. Dude?”
Darren broke off in the middle of enumerating the weaknesses of one of Belford’s least-threatening opponents. “Yeah, Rich? What is it?”
“I just gotta know, man. What happened with you and Cindy?” He pointed his thumb back over his shoulder. The others glanced back to where he was pointing. They saw several cheerleaders clustered around one of their number who was sitting at the bottom of the bleachers with her face in her hands.
Darren shrugged. “What’s to know? We had a good summer.” He held his sober expression for a moment, then his face lit up with a devilish grin. “Actually, it was a great summer. Her parents were away for weeks at a time, to Europe and shit. So I’d be up there just about every day, and we’d be fucking.”
“A tightass like Cindy?” Psycho Mike scoffed. “Bullshit.”
“She was a tightass when the summer began,” Darren corrected. “But I made it clear from the get-go that I wasn’t having that shit. By August, I had her fucking trained.”
By now, all three of the others were leaning in as much as they could while still walking, eager grins on their faces.
“I had her swallowing, taking facials, doing anal…stuff from porn films, man. She would do anything. Any damn thing I wanted.”
Rich’s face grew perplexed again. “So why’d you dump her, man?”
Darren shook his head and rolled his eyes to heaven at his friend’s denseness. He looped an arm around Rich’s shoulders in a paternal manner, and began the lesson: “Rich, imagine you’re in the gym. Got that?” Rich nodded. “And you have been working long and hard to be able to bench 300. Then, finally, one day, you do it. You bench 300. Now do you put down the weights and say “Okay, I did it, I’m done”? Or do you set a new goal and start working toward it?”
“Set a new goal?” Rich answered.
Darren nodded. “And when we’ve just whupped some team’s ass, do we sit back and say ‘We can take it easy now, we don’t have to practice as hard, we’re as good as we need to be’? Or do we just keep our eye on the next team and practice even harder?”
“Practice even harder,” Rich answered. That one was easy. Coach asked it all the time.
“It’s just like that with everything,” Darren continued, making a sweeping gesture with his free arm to indicate ‘everything.’ “You can’t rest on your laurels. You always have to keep moving on to the next challenge.”
“Is that why you dumped Cindy, then?” Rich asked.
Darren nodded and released Rich’s shoulders. “Yep. That’s the thing, see. Once you get a chick trained to the point where she meets you at the door with your drink mixed just how you like it and she doesn’t even ask for the lube, it’s time to move on to the next challenge.”
The other three nodded and muttered in agreement with this pronouncement.
“And it’s not even like you’ve really given her up,” Darren continued. “Once you get a chick trained like that, she’s yours. She’ll always beg you to come back.”
His disciples pondered this wisdom in silence for a moment, then he suddenly broke that silence again. “Hey, check it out. Who’s that over there?”
They all looked where he was pointing.
“Looks like…Tiff Chance and…what’s her name, Chief Cruz’s daughter.” Alan supplied.
“Angelina,” Darren said.
“Why’d you ask if you already knew?” Mike grumped.
“I just wanted to point her out to you,” Darren explained. “Because she, my friends, is the next challenge.” He frowned in annoyance when his friends’ only response was to look at him, and each other, dubiously. “What? Don’t you guys recognize a fine piece when it’s pointed out to you?”
“Of course we do,” Alan protested. “It’s just…well…” He turned to Rich for assistance.
“She’s a notorious tightass, man.” Rich completed.
Alan nodded in agreement. “Yeah, man. Talk about where no man has gone before.”
“And besides,” Mike added with a look of disgust. “She’s…Mexican or something.”
Darren shook his head at Mike’s dullness. “Like you never ate a taco,” He retorted. “And I know she’s a tightass,” he said to Alan and Rich. “That’s the point. That’s what makes her a challenge.” He grinned as he turned toward the two girls and began to trot to catch up with them. “Watch the master work.”
”Oh, God. Trouble coming,” Tiffany said, deliberately not looking behind her.
Taking her cue from Tiffany, Angelina took a very short glance to see what the trouble was, then turned back to the stairs. “Crap. Darren.”
“Quick, let’s get up to the parking lot where there’s more people.”
“Little paranoid? We can brush him off. He’s not going to attack us right here.”
“Walk heavy, so we can say we didn’t hear him calling.”
“Hey, Tiff! Angie!” Darren called, waving to catch their attention. “Wait, I just—“ He gave up. They probably couldn’t hear him, stomping up the metal stairs the way they were.
He tried to swallow his sudden flare of anger and embarrassment. They’d made him look foolish in front of his boys. But they hadn’t done it on purpose, and being mad about it wouldn’t help win Cruz over.
Angelina and Tiffany reached the top of the stairs and hurried down the sidewalk toward the area where most of the athletes were gathered, awaiting their rides, hoping to lose the Four Pigs of the Apocalypse in the crowd and stay lost until they could escape.
At first it seemed to be working – take a deep breath, relax, wave hello to Maura Weston from the Girls’ Cross-Country Team – but then:
Darren. Angelina sighed. Of the many different ways her name could be shortened and familiarized, the only one that she really hated was ‘Angie’.
“Yes, Darren?” She turned to watch him approach.
Watching him approach, Angelina understood perfectly why he had such success with the other young women of Belford. He looked like the male lead from a romance novel. He was tall and muscular, what Father Sheehan would call a “Great Strappin’ Lad” in his exaggerated joke-brogue. His eyes were ice-blue and his hair was black as the river Styx. That hair was a sweaty mess at the moment, but it still managed to look boyishly tousled. His face looked like it had been cut from a diamond: all sharp edges and angles. But his grin lit it up with mischief. All in all, the picture of the dashing rogue.
Lucifer was beautiful, too.
Psycho Mike, on the other hand, was worlds away from beautiful. In fact, he looked rather like a bulldog given human form. He was stocky and massively muscled, the result of endless, obsessive weight lifting and – if the rumors were true – a regimen of steroids. His crew-cut hair was the color of gunmetal, and his heavy, pugnacious jaw gave his face a perpetual scowl.
The other two…well, sadly, they just looked dumb. Alan was a six-foot-six farm boy with carrot-colored hair and a round, slack moon-face. Meanwhile, Rich was shorter than she was and had a greasy mustache that made him look like a rat.
“Hey, Angie.” he said as he arrived. “Tiff,” he nodded. “How you doing?”
“Okay. And you?” Angelina replied.
“I have great news for you,” he announced, ignoring her question. “I…have recently become single.” He waited for her response.
A perplexed look flashed across his face, but was replaced by his usual confident expression almost instantly. Angelina fought down a smirk. Got you, you arrogant jerk.
Darren composed himself to make another generous pronouncement: “How would you like…to be the girl who changes that?”
“No thanks. If that was all you wanted…” She started to turn to go.
“Hey, hey wait,” he cajoled, catching her shoulder. She turned back to him. “I don’t think you quite get what I’m offering you,” he said, smiling winningly.
Persistent, she thought. He can’t imagine a woman who wouldn’t want him. “You did just ask me out, right?”
“Right.” He nodded and smiled, as if a slow child had finally gotten a difficult concept.
“Then I understood perfectly. Thanks, but no thanks.” She started to turn away again.
“Come on, now! I’m serious about this. All you have to do is say the word, and you can be my Latina lover.”
Angelina stiffened. “What did you say?”
“I said I’m up for a little dance to that Latin beat.” He snapped his fingers in imitation of castanets. “Aren’t you Puerto Rican chicas supposed to be all hot and passionate, and need a real macho man to meet your needs? Well, that man is me.”
Angelina could barely move from the shock. She’d seen this sort of thing before, of course. Her father had always told her that she had to do it better than the other kids – study harder, practice longer, behave better; that as the eldest daughter of the only Hispanic family in town, she was always representing la raza. But he’d also promised her that if she did those things, sooner or later she would win over the kids who didn’t like her because she was different (and never mind the mutterings of “quotas” and “stealing jobs from hard-working white folks” that had come with his promotion to police chief). She hadn’t seen it yet. From her first day in kindergarten there’d been taco jokes and bean jokes, accusations of illegal immigration and dealing drugs, affirmative action references and straight-up slurs.
What she’d never experienced was someone who expected her to be grateful for his racism.
Her shock crystallized into anger, hard and sharp as a knife blade. She turned to fully face Darren and fixed her eyes on his. She had to look up, but his smile still faltered. “Point one, Darren:” she held up a finger. “I’m not Puerto Rican. I’m Dominican. Point two:” she held up another finger. “Even if we are unusually hot and passionate, it won’t do you any good. Did you think you could just come up to me, shoot a long stream of racist diarrhea out of your mouth and expect me to just fall on my back? What the hell are you on?”
Rich and Alan looked startled by her outburst, and Mike glowered, but Darren Edwards had long experience in soothing angry women…or at least in looking like he was the reasonable man calming a crazy shrew who’d chosen to get all hysterical in public.
“Hey now, baby, don’t be like that,” he said. “I’m the whitest man you’re ever going to get. Improve your color like no other. Want to become a real American? I’m the man to make it happen.”
Angelina just stared. Did he have any idea what “improve her color” even meant? Probably not. Best to just deal with him on his own level.
“Know what? I’ll stay brown, thanks.”
Psycho Mike’s head snapped to the side, fixing a death glare on a group of bystanders who all immediately started looking very innocent. Whoever it was, Angelina wished that they’d just kept their mouth shut. Darren Edwards did not like it when people made him look bad in public, especially not girls. His smile was gone now, and an ugly flush was spreading across his face.
“What are you, a dyke or something?” He demanded. “I’m making you the best offer you’re ever going to get. I! Me! Darren Edwards! I am willing to go out with you. Way I see it, I’m doing you a big favor. I mean, who else wants to go out with you?” He paused. “This is your last chance.”
Angelina was clear. Cold. The Police Chief’s Daughter was in charge now. She needed to keep control of the situation, or it might get bad. Calm, but firm.
“I don’t need another chance, Darren. I already said no. Four times. Get the point. I am not interested in you. I will never be interested in you. I don’t even like you. Especially not after this little display. Now please leave me alone.” Her voice was ice.
“You know what? I think maybe you are some kind of dyke!” Mike declared.
“I’m not. And if I were, it wouldn’t be any of your business.” Angelina replied, turning away. “Come on, Tiff.”
Tiffany nodded, a triumphant smirk on her face. “You go, girl,” she whispered.
“Should’ve known, what with you hanging around with that carpet munching Sauer bitch all the time,” Mike called after her.
No response. Keep walking.
A few heavy steps behind her were all the warning she had before he grabbed her shoulder and spun her back around. “Don’t you walk away from me!” He snarled.
Angelina didn’t answer. Better not to swat the bull on the nose. Instead she braced herself, gripping her hockey stick. Mike was just crazy enough to do something right here and now.
Satisfied that she was cowed, he began to crowd into her personal space, looming over her. “Maybe what you need is someone to straighten you out.”
Angelina’s mind raced through the self-defense moves her father had taught her. A rake to the eyes, maybe…or maybe the butt of her stick to his solar plexus would slow him down enough so she and Tiffany could get away before he was after them like a raging bull.
Then Darren’s hand was on Mike’s arm. “Let it go, man.”
“Come on. We don’t need more of a scene.”
It was then, as the four stooges walked away, that Angelina realized that just about everyone was watching them. Everyone was watching them, and she’d just turned down one of the captains of the football team. She could already see the looks of poisonous jealousy on some of the girls’ faces, scorn on some of the boys’. She could already hear “stuck up bitch” and “who does she think she is?” circulating among them.
She sighed and covered her eyes. “Great.”
Darren stalked away across the parking lot with his followers trailing behind him.
“Darren! Man!” Mike said as he caught up. He had to walk fast to keep up with his friend’s longer strides. “What are you doing? Are you just going to let—“
“I’m not going to ‘just’ anything,” Darren replied coldly. “Nobody makes Darren Edwards look bad in front of his public. The bitch is going to pay for that.”
Angelina let her breath out in a gusty sigh as Darren walked away and everyone turned to each other and began murmuring among themselves.
“You okay, Mack?” Tiffany asked.
Angelina was about to answer with an automatic ‘yes’ when she realized that she was trembling from the unspent adrenaline. In the focus and clarity of the moment, she hadn’t realized how afraid she’d been. She raised her shaking hand to eye level for a moment, stared at it, then dropped it with another sigh. “I will be. I’ve just gotta get home.”
It was at that very moment that “the Bus” pulled into the parking lot, blasting the Carmina Burana. All Angelina—and indeed, everyone else—could do was stare. Jason had repainted the Bus. Again. Last time, it had been dolphins leaping from a sunlit sea on either side of the van. This time, it was wild horses running through a river with dawn-lit mountains in the background. It was gorgeous.
Angelina didn’t give them a chance to park, but instead jogged across the parking lot to meet them, waving good-bye to Tiffany.
The side door slid open as she arrived.
“Your carriage, my lady,” Jason grinned from the driver’s seat.
“Thank you, kind sir,” she said as she hauled herself in. She slammed the door behind her, then flopped into the middle seat. “You’re a godsend.” She groaned.
“Glad to be of service,” he answered. Then he paused, made a face and opened the window. “Whoo!” He said. “M’lady stinks!”
“Don’t make me cut you, gringo,” she said. “Just take me home.”
“So Darren hit on you?” Kara asked, after Angelina had finished her story.
“I’m sorry,” Kara said.
“He didn’t feel like taking no for an answer, either.” Angelina said.
“He never does,” Jason said grimly.
“Well, he’s just going to have to this time,” Angelina declared. “And consider himself lucky. I was about to shove Ninja up his ass.” She hefted her field hockey stick. In ninth grade. for some reason she couldn’t even remember, she had wrapped it in black electrical tape. Tiffany, of course, had been the one to start calling it her “ninja stick,” which had shortened to “Ninja” over time. Time had passed, Angelina had kept Ninja in fresh wrappings, and its legend had grown on the fields of the league.
“Careful,” Jason warned. “Sometimes I think that Darren’s at least as crazy as Mike. He just doesn’t advertise it as much.”
“You think he might be trouble?” Angelina asked.
“You made him look bad in public,” Jason answered. “I’m pretty sure he will be. Better keep an eye out.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it, chica,” Kara said, reaching back and patting Angelina’s knee. “We’ve got your back. Don’t we, Jay?”
“Of course we do, it’s just…”
“Enough! Enough!” Angelina shouted, waving them off. “Let’s worry about him when we have to, all right? I’m not going to let him ruin the rest of my day.”
“Okay,” the other two answered simultaneously.
“Jinx!” Kara chirped. Jason rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“So…what’s for dinner?” he asked after a moment.
Dinner was arroz con pollo. Kara, of course, focused on the arroz. Evangelina Santos-De La Cruz, as usual, fussed over Jason, saying that he was “too thin” and shoveling as much food at him as could possibly fit on his piled-high plate. Jason, as always, was happy to oblige, packing away four helpings. Angelina didn’t have the heart to tell her mother that he always ate that much, but that it didn’t affect his weight at all. There was no small number of women at Belford High who would gladly have killed him if they thought they could loot his metabolism from his corpse.
Kara was an only child, and Jason’s only sibling was his older sister, who was off at college. Despite the good food, they always found meals at the Cruz household just a tad overwhelming. Young Master Gabriel, entering eighth grade this year, just one year to go until high school, kept interrupting discussions about high school to compare the topics to his middle-school experiences. In this way, he tried to prove that he was neither less cool, nor less mature, than his sister and her friends. He was ready to go to high school and, more importantly, do whatever Angelina was allowed to do.
Gloria, one year behind Gabriel in school, grinned in the I-told-you-so manner that drives older brothers to violence when there are no adults present. She had been pointing out errors in Gabriel’s stories. Other than that, her only contribution to the conversations at the table was to occasionally spout a random bit of trivia, either hoping that one would start a conversation, or hoping that she could prove herself smarter than the High Schoolers. They suspected the latter, as her smug grin when “Did you know…” was answered with “No” tempted them to violence.
Miguel, who, as a fifth grader, was one of the Big Shots of Belford Elementary, had a more direct method of showing off. But for some reason, he just couldn’t get the spoon to stay on his nose.
Esperanza, on the other hand, a kindergartner who just couldn’t deal with this sudden influx of “big kids,” didn’t say a word or look up from her plate once during the entire meal.
At the other end of the table, little Maria sat in her high chair and tried earnestly to maneuver the bits of chicken clutched in her pudgy fingers into her mouth. Her hand didn’t seem to be familiar with the path to her mouth, so her success was moderate and seemed to be based on luck and perseverance.
There was a moment, right at the start of the meal, that could have been uncomfortable if anyone had noticed. As they always did, the de la Cruz family had joined their hands, bowed their heads, and said grace before they ate. As always, they included their guests in the circle of joined hands.
Once, Kara had found that habit warm and welcoming. Now…she looked up at the benevolent Jesus smiling gently down from the wall, palm leaves from Palm Sunday tucked behind his gilt frame, and felt like an intruder. Like she could be caught and thrown out at any time. As kindly as that Jesus looked – and as she believed Him to be – she knew that the Cruzes would consider it their duty to Him to throw her out if they found out the truth about her. Duty to Him, and to their children. Angelina would never be allowed to see her again, for fear of her corrupting influence. And that would break her heart. What would she do if –
And that was when Angelina, sitting at her right, squeezed her hand. She didn’t know how Angelina had known she was starting to freak out, she hoped it didn’t show, but now she was reminded that at least one of the Cruzes knew and still welcomed her, and that let her relax.
Dinner eventually ended, of course, and cleanup needed to be done. As always, Kara and Jason offered to help. And as always, they were politely refused. They were guests! Help clean up…what a silly idea. The younger Cruz children, on the other hand, scattered as quickly as they could, after doing as little work as they could, leaving Angelina to help her mother with the larger part of the cleanup. Kara and Jason sat at the kitchen table while she did so, continuing their conversation with her and her mother about hopes for the school year, with far less interruption this time.
After cleanup was finished, the three of them wanted a place to sit and talk undisturbed. Angelina’s room was out of the question. Not with a boy present. Besides, it was too beautiful—and hot—an evening to sit inside. So they retreated to the back patio, each with a drink, to speak of the events of the day, of the summer, and of the future.
They were discussing their respective art forms when they got The News.
“Of course I’m going to be in the choir,” Angelina answered Jason. “But I really don’t know if I’m going to do the fall play. Coach DiLeo is being even tighter than usual this year.”
Kara and Jason looked at each other.
“What?” Angelina demanded.
“Well, it’s just that you’ve said that for the last two years,” Jason answered.
Kara raised her hand. “I’m a witness to this.”
“Well, I’m serious this time. I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it this time.”
“You will,” Kara said, blase. “You always do.”
Angelina rolled her eyes and shook her head, waving their arguments away with a pffft. “Yeah, whatever,” she dismissed them.
Kara and Jason smirked knowingly at each other.
“So, Jay,” Angelina interrupted in an attempt to redirect the conversation. “You going to paint our sets again this year?”
Jason shrugged. “Glad to, if they’ll have me.”
Kara chuckled in disbelief and shook her head. “If they’ll have me, he says. Do you believe this guy?”
“You’re the best we ever had, Jay. Everyone knows it.” Angelina suddenly scowled. “Even Whitney and Price.”
Kara grinned bitterly. “Not that they’ll necessarily admit it.”
“Well, I’m not too worried if they don’t,” Jason said. “I’ve got some projects of my own that I’m working on. I need to build a portfolio for college. I—“
“Oh, oh,” Kara interrupted. “That reminds me—I can’t believe I forgot—speaking of projects, I have this one story that I’m going to send into Marion Zimmer Bradley Magazine. With any luck at all, I could be—“
It was then that Rafael de la Cruz came out the door from the house.
“Papi!” Angelina squealed as she jumped up and raced over to hug him. In many ways, she was daddy’s girl, and she hadn’t seen him since her discovery at Black Lake.
“Hey, mami,” He said softly as he patted her back. Then he guided her back to her seat, and took another for himself. Once sitting, he leaned forward, looking at them all intently for a long moment, his elbows resting on his knees and his hands clasped in front of him.
He was an athletic man. Once upon a time, he had been a star fútbol player. In the intervening years, he had done his best to stay in shape: going on runs and to the gym with his daughter when he could. He was quite good friends with Frank Barker, the owner of the Iron Works. Still, the years of stress, poor sleep, food grabbed on the run, and few opportunities for exercise had taken their toll. Though he was still lean, his muscle had softened, and his black hair was already salted with silver.
Right now he looked very, very tired. Not a surprise, really. Angelina doubted that he had slept more than three hours a night since her discovery. But there was something else there. Angelina had seen that weariness on her father’s face before. It was a weariness that went beyond simple physical fatigue. She’d seen it each time he’d been there to see a teenager’s corpse pulled from the twisted pieces of metal that had once been a car. Each time he’d answered a domestic-disturbance call to find a battered-bloody wife who refused to admit that anything was wrong. But the worst she’d ever seen it was the time two years ago when Dwight Coleman had accidentally shot his son John while out hunting deer, then turned his gun on himself. It was a weariness that meant that he didn’t want to face the world anymore.
But there was something else there. Something that was so rare on Rafael de la Cruz’s face that it took a while for Angelina to recognize it.
Her father was afraid.
“We found Lila Benson,” he said without preamble, then fell silent again.
“Dead?” Angelina asked. She already knew. But she needed to hear it aloud.
He nodded grimly.
“Was it her boyfriend?” Kara asked.
He shook his head. “That Zerschmitt boy? No. We expect to find him soon. Whoever did this was very, very strong.”
“Which Jeremy was not,” Jason said.
“That’s why we ruled him out,” Rafael agreed. He paused for a moment, then straightened. “Listen, muchachos, I want you to start being very careful. Someone out there es muy, muy loco.” At that point, Angelina started getting scared. Her father was a very precise man. When he spoke English, he spoke English. When he spoke Spanish, he spoke Spanish. When he started languageslipping, it was a sign that he was extremely upset. “Digan sus amigos. Hell, tell your enemies. No quiero what happened to este chica pobre to happen to anyone.”
He paused, perhaps trying to decide if he should continue. Finally, he did:
“If her wallet hadn’t been on her body, we would have had to run DNA tests just to find out who she was. They’re going to have to sew her back together for the funeral.”
If any of Kara’s neighbors were watching (and, knowing her neighbors, they were), they’d think they were seeing the end of a rather polite and old-fashioned date: the Bus pulled up to the curb in front of the Sauer household. It sat for a moment, then the engine died. The lights followed soon after. It was late-summer twilight, and the world was illuminated in a deep red that was fading into black. The streetlights were just starting to flicker on. But it wasn’t too dark to see a male and a female silhouette climb out of the big, painted van and walk to the front porch. He could be doing the gentlemanly thing and seeing her safely home, or he could be hoping for a last kiss.
Edna Portman sighed in relief and turned away from her window. It was about time that girl found herself a young man. Back in her day, when girls dressed and cut their hair like Kara Sauer did, it meant only one thing, and the thought of having one of…those living next door was just too awful to imagine.
Well, no more need to worry about that, thank God. All it took was the right young man, just like she’d always said. If those dykes and bulldaggers in the big cities would just find the right young man, they’d get better, too.
“And here you are,” Jason announced as they arrived at the front door. “Safe and sound at your own front door.” He patted the door in question. “Olsen taxi: we go that extra mile.”
“Why, thank you, kind sir,” Kara replied, fluttering her eyelashes demurely.
Jason hooked his thumbs into his belt. “Shucks, ma’am, ‘tweren’t nothin’,” He drawled.
“I know it wasn’t,” she grinned. Then her face turned serious. “Are you going to be okay, going home?”
“I’ll be fine. I live right down in the heart of town, remember? You’re the one who lives up here on the edge.”
She hadn’t thought of that. “Well, I was just worried about you going home alone.”
“Don’t worry. I have a plan. Want to hear it?”
“Sure,” she nodded. “Speak on.”
“I plan to take my tire iron and sprint from the Bus to my back door. Then, I plan to lock every door behind me until I get into my bedroom, lock that door behind me, too. Then I plan to sleep with that tire iron in my hand. Sound like a plan?”
Kara nodded sagely. “Sounds like a plan.”
They grinned at each other for a moment. Finally, Jason spoke through his grin: “We’re just going to keep pretending this is funny, aren’t we?”
Kara’s grin remained equally fixed. “If I don’t laugh, I’ll start screaming.”
“Black humor it is, then.”
After a moment more of fixed, frantic grinning, Jason reached up and “wiped” his grin away. “So…we didn’t tell her.”
“We weren’t planning to, remember?” she reminded him. “Cruz house? Chaos? Lots of nosey little kids around? Any bells ringing?”
“I know. It’s just…” His shoulders drooped and he looked down at his shoes with a sigh. “I really hate keeping secrets from her.”
She laid a hand on his shoulder. “We’re not keeping secrets. We will tell her. As soon as we can. It just wasn’t to be tonight.”
“I know, but…” He flapped his arms once or twice helplessly, unable to express himself.
“Are you ashamed of what happened?” she asked softly.
“No!” he said vehemently, his head snapping up. “Never. I’m just really, really worried what she’ll think.”
Kara chuckled and shook her head. “You’ve got it bad for her, don’t you?”
He grinned, and his eyes went slightly dreamy. “Yeah. Guess I do.” Then his eyes went wide and horrified at what he’d just said. “Oh, God, Kara, I didn’t mean—“
She put a finger to his lips. “It’s okay, Jay. It really is. Don’t even ask if I’m sure, ‘cause I am. I know as well as you do that it can’t work. I love you like I love no one else in the world, but—“ She shrugged. “You’re a guy.” She grinned. “I just can’t ‘get it up’ for you.” She moved her finger away.
He smiled down at her. “No one can say we didn’t try, though, can they?”
She shook her head, returning his smile. “No, they can’t,” she said, holding out her arms.
Usually, Jason’s “Viking Hugs” threatened rib and breast alike. But this hug was soft and warm and safe. Kara sank into it like her own bed. “If only, if only, if only you were a woman,” she murmured.
He smiled. “Gonna be okay?” he asked after a long moment.
“Yes.” She stepped out of the hug. “Go get her, Jay. If you want her, don’t let her get away. Life’s too short to not have as much love as you can get. And don’t worry about me,” she smiled bravely. “My heart belongs to another.”
“Oh, really?” he asked. “And who is she? Someone I know?”
For the first time, Kara’s smile turned sad. “Yes,” she answered, then turned around and went inside without another word.
It wasn’t until Jason was lying in bed, staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars he’d stuck to the ceiling, with his tire iron close at hand, that he figured it out. When he did, he threw his arm across his eyes. “Aw, Jesus, Kara. Aw, no.”