Links to the previous chapters are HERE
The night darkened and the house fell silent. I hated feeling trapped. Even though I didn't have anywhere I needed to go, the feeling drove me to pace through the house. My parents were playing cards with friends. They'd be away until at least midnight. I stayed home, safe in the house, but I couldn't hide.
I waited until everything quieted in the world before I stepped out the back door and moved to the fence, getting out of range of the automatic light. I stood in the shadows for a long while, listening. No cars went by. I could hear nothing unusual. Even the breeze lessened and silence filled the world.
I started away at a fast walk, my heart pounding and my face damp with perspiration. I rushed past the Calabrias' house, glancing towards the window. They were watching TV, and I could see Gian laughing. I raced around the corner, and out of the lamplight, and as fast as I could.
I was running from something, and I didn't know why. And worse, I realized I was running towards Akio. I stopped in the shadow of a redwood fence, feeling my head pound as I gasped. I wanted to curl up and cry.
No, I would not be weak. I refused to be. And I would not run any more, either.
I sat on the dew damp grass and watched as a couple cars went by, circling around and around, following the path of the roads through Deervale. We lived in a little circle of our own world, cut off from everything else. I knew I couldn't stay and hide in the shadows. Before long I would leave Deervale for the larger world. If I couldn’t handle life here, how could I hope to survive out there?
I turned and stared at the brightly lit glass and steel of AviTen Headquarters. Old man Avi lived in a penthouse on the top of the building. I tried to remember the last time he left our valley.
Shangri-La: I hadn't realized we lived in a dream world while something evil crept in among us. Something slipped in when we weren't looking --
And as if on cue, Nadine drove by.
She came down the road from the AviTen building or the cemetery. I suspected she must have been at AviTen, since I couldn't imagine why she would go to the cemetery if she couldn't even attend the funeral. I wondered what she was doing there after hours, though, and how Old Man Avi dealt with her. Her usual show wouldn't intimidate him.
I could see the edge of the Kimura house from where I sat and watched as Nadine pulled into the driveway. I could see her shadow as she moved from the car to the front of the house. A moment later I heard the door slam.
She wasn't happy.
Nadine had more to do with things going wrong in Deervale than I had considered. Even leaving off if she drugged Akio, she had married Seiji and brought her bitchy poison into our community. No, we weren't perfect before her, but I still felt as though she'd been the one to change things.
Or maybe I was trying to find someone to blame. Maybe I wanted easy answers and she provided them for me: The outsider, the intruder. I didn't like her, but that didn't mean she was evil.
Except, maybe, she was.
I touched my watch and the face glowed. Nearly eleven. Hell. I felt better for having been out, though. I stood and stretched, ready to head towards the house and get some sleep.
I heard the door slam again.
"Akio! Damn you! Where are you?"
She screamed the words at the top of her lungs and I bet the entire valley heard. I leapt into the shadows, wondering where Akio might be. I feared Nadine would see me. My breath caught. I feared she'd think I was spying on her or Akio.
Apparently Nadine found no sign of her. I heard a couple dogs barking in counter point to Nadine's cursing. She finally went into the house. I crept away, anxious to get home.
I wondered if Akio still sat alone under the canopy, staring at her father's grave. I felt such a welling of guilt at her being alone that I almost headed to the cemetery before I realized she wouldn't be there this late at night because security would have seen her. I didn't need security to find me wandering around the cemetery and call my parents. She was hiding from Nadine. She'd hid from her before.
She used to come and hide at my house sometimes.
I headed towards home, hoping to avoid notice and wondering if I felt any better. For a moment, I had found my balance, but I lost the calm again within five minutes. I guessed finding it again wasn't going to be easy.
I wasn't thinking clearly and I almost walked right past Missy's house. I stopped when I saw a faint light from the garage and spotted Missy sitting on the hood of her car with someone I didn't recognize. I saw his hand go under her blouse, and didn't know if I felt disgust or amusement as she slapped his fingers away.
"Come on Missy," he said in a deep, accented voice. Southern. "You owe me."
She leaned back and he rolled over on her, right there. Shit. I backtracked, trying to get the image out of my brain. This day couldn't get any worse. I cut through a yard, and kept heading for home. At least I knew Missy was occupied for the moment.
I reached the house about fifteen minutes later, walking past the dark Calabria home. I didn't see dad's car, so I knew they were still out. I unlocked the door, keyed in the proper code to keep the alarm from going off, and keyed on security again, which we always put on late at night. I hurried upstairs, and into my room, intending to be well asleep and not have to talk about what I had done tonight.
I crawled into bed a few minutes later, half tempted to pull a teddy bear from the shelf, but sleep came suddenly after all.
Mom popped open the door to my room and stood there in her robe. She threw on the light, blinding me.
The alarms kept ringing. I looked at my clock. 4 am.
"Get your robe."
"There's a fire in the garage. Come on! Move!"
I leapt from the bed and grabbed my robe from the closet as the lights began blinking and scaring me fully awake. I had trouble getting my arms in the robe and I couldn't make myself walk at the same time. I felt as though my brain couldn't make the connections I needed.
I could taste smoke. I turned frantically around the room, wondering what to grab. Fire? God no -- what could I take? What could I carry? I didn't want to lose --
"Come on!" Mom grabbed my arm and dragged me out before I could grab anything. I followed her downstairs where I could see smoke, but no fire. I thought I couldn't breathe, though. I thought my legs would give out in sheer panic.
We stepped out into a very cold, dark night. I pulled the robe tight, aware that I wore only a PJ top and panties underneath. What if everything burnt? What if I had to go somewhere without my clothes? I felt a wave of mortification overcome my fear.
Mr. Calabria ran from the house next door, his feet bare and his shirt open.
"Fire department es on the way," he said. "Let us get garden hose before spread far!"
Dad and Mr. Calabria dashed around the side of the house. I could see smoke coming out from around the garage doors and an odd flickering of light through the windows. I didn't want them to go near the fire. I didn't care if we lost everything so long as they stayed safe.
"Mary -- is your purse inside the door?" dad yelled. "Can you get to the garage door opener? And for God's sake, stay back when you open them!"
Mrs. Calabria arrived, and caught hold of my arm, pulling me to the sidewalk. I watched mom hurry into the house and felt my throat close in absolute terror because I couldn't see either of my parents. But nothing terrible had happened yet and I could hear the fire engines and police cars not far away.
Mom came back out and rushed to where I stood. She looked grim as she opened the garage doors. For a moment the fire flared inside, and then died down. I panicked though, when I saw fires under both cars. I thought about the gasoline, and all the cars I'd seen explode on television.
Mom put an arm over my shoulder as the fire trucks and police arrived and herded us towards the Calabria house. Dad and Mr. Calabria joined us a minute later, both red-faced and hot, but not hurt. Some of the Calabria kids came out and I could see Gian rolling our way. He stopped beside us and his mother put a hand on his shoulder, shaking her head. They spoke in Italian. Mom said nothing at all.
The fire department put the fire out quickly, though. The firemen and police pushed both cars out into the street where the firemen sprayed them with more foam. The police told us they had sent for tow trucks already.
"Deliberate," the policeman said as he crossed to us. "We found the remains of wooden crates under both cars, and slow burning rags under a pile of newspaper soaked in kerosene so this was planned to burn through before the fire spread. Without the smoke detectors, things would have been far, far worse."
"Who would do this?" mom asked, sounding shocked and dismayed for the first time. She could have understood an accident, but not something deliberate.
"There's been a good many odd things going on the last couple days." The policeman glanced at me and nodded, probably about my own car. We were now zero for three on vehicles. I wondered if my bike had survived. "You're safe to go into your house, but we're going to ask you to stay out of the garage until we're through with the investigation."
"Do you have any idea who is behind this?" dad asked. He appeared grim and worried. I'd never seen him in so somber a mood, which didn't help my growing fear.
"We have one suspicion. We had a disturbance call earlier tonight, and have yet to locate Akio Kimura."
My heart sank. I glanced at Gian and saw his face go hard and his eyes narrow.
"How did anyone get into the garage?" mom asked, staring at the house with worry. "We have alarms."
"Someone cut a power wire to the garage, which makes me certain this was done by someone who knows the systems. All of you here in Deervale have the same installation."
A local, he meant, which made me mad. I began to tremble again.
"We'll know more tomorrow when we get some experts in here. Your house alarms appear to be functioning fine, though. If they'd tried to get from the garage into the house, all hell would have broken loose. You're safe there. Those alarms are still running."
He was right. The sound of alarms had melded into the others, like some primal scream in the back of my mind. I wanted the noise to stop. I wanted everything to go away and the nightmare to end. I don't know how much time passed as I stood, numb. Beyond emotions. I wanted the world to return to normal.
"You're certain we're safe?" Mom asked, watching as they towed her car away.
"The fire is out and we're going to keep a car in this area for the next few days," the police officer said with a nod. "And if you hear anything out of the ordinary, you call us."
"Thank you." Mom put a hand around my waist. The Calabrias headed home, mother and father flanking Gian and speaking in Italian. I heard them say Akio several times and I was glad I couldn’t understand. Dad talked to the firemen.
I went with mom inside. Smoke made the rooms stuffy so Mom opened the windows and went to make coffee. I decided to pass and went to my room.
For a while out there, I feared I would never see these things again. I sat on the bed, cried for a few minutes . . . and then I got angry. I pounded my pillow a dozen times. I put on a tee-shirt and placed a pair of pants right by the bed. I knew I would go to bed prepared for trouble for a long time.
I don't know when I went to sleep. My alarm went off and I leapt straight out of bed with a cry of surprise. I could still taste smoke in my mouth.
"I'm up!" I shouted, and louder than I intended. I headed straight for the bathroom and stayed a long time in the shower, shaking and angry. I had felt a rollercoaster of emotions the last few days. I wanted off the ride now. I didn't even want to go to school, graduation or prom. I wanted out. I wanted calm.
I wasn't going to find calm in the shower with the water going cold.
I dressed and headed for the kitchen, determined to face the day like an adult. Both my parents appeared as shell-shocked as I felt. We grunted greetings, mumbled through the meal, and I left to walk to school in the damp, foggy morning. Of course the weather was crappy and I suspected I'd have a downpour before I got to school. It was that kind of day.
I looked back at the house and the garage. The yellow police tape made me shiver so I started to walk away as fast as I could, but I didn't get far.
I leapt at the call of my name, and spun around to find Gian's brother, Marco, running to catch me. He slid to a stop on the slick sidewalk, and I caught his arm.
"Sorry." He must have seen how much he startled me. His hair was darker than Gian's and he had a thinner face and lighter eyes. I'd never noticed before. "Gian saw you walking by and told me to grab you. You can ride to school with him."
"Don't the rest of you ride with him?" I asked.
"Nah. I ride my bike with Andy across the street, and the others walk with their friends. Sometimes Gian goes with them, but not in this weather. You've lived next door all this time and never noticed?"
I frowned at the twelve year old, but he didn't look much impressed by my stern stare. I capitulated and shrugged. "Watching you little rug rats has never been high on my list."
"As long as Gian isn't with us," he replied and danced away before I could wrap my fingers around his treacherous little throat.
I followed Marco to the house, glad to be out of the weather. The rain started as we got to the door. Marco led me straight to the kitchen and I accepted some toast and orange marmalade from Mrs. Calabria. I sat back and watched the comical havoc of getting so many kids out the door and off to school. I could smell coffee and toast and not the scent of smoke, like in my house. I could have sat here all day. I almost napped as the weight of the night before caught up with me.
Eventually only Gian and I remained.
"A moment," Mr. Calabria said. He stopped at the table and frowned. "I have some news. I called the police this morning, to check on the matters for last night. They say they found Miss Kimura had, indeed, been away from home. However, security saw her in the cemetery for many, many hours and they think it unlikely she could have gotten the supplies and to your house. The police released her early this morning."
I nodded and tried to test my emotions. Glad? Worried? Well, at least that was better than rage and fear. Gian nodded as well, though he seemed more worried and I wondered if I should be as well. If Akio hadn't been the one, then who had started the fire?
We went to school, and I headed for trig, remembering the test of the day before, and dreading to learn the outcome -- and yet not caring at the same time. I felt as though my personality split right down the middle, and I kept finding myself pulled more and more towards not caring any more.
"Test scores." Mrs. Kipfer started handing out the papers. I sat with mine on my desk for a moment. I finally turned the paper over expecting --
I got four out of five correct. I had missed the last one and I could see right where I lost the track, which was the point where my mind veered off into space and the trouble with Akio.
I felt a wave of relief. I saw less happy faces elsewhere.
"All right. You have one half hour to redo as many of the problems as you can," Mrs. Kipfer said. "Starting . . . now."
Everyone grabbed pencils in shocked surprise. I glanced at her. She smiled.
I redid the problem, working out the last part with careful steps and my mind focused where it needed to be. I knew I had the right answer this time. I turned the paper over with a sigh of relief. All those hours at the computer trying to figure out trig must have sunk in after all.
I even had plenty of time to watch the others working feverishly over their papers. Mrs. Kipfer picked up mine and patted my shoulder. When did the teachers get to be so nice?
I went to music appreciation rather than gym and felt grateful for the class for the first time all year. We listened to Mahler and Sibelius which was not the stuff I usually enjoy, but I found the music relaxing today. I also didn't have to worry about a test since we'd taken the last one on Friday. We had an hour to relax and appreciate music. I had to fight to stay awake. After the class, I headed for Study Hall and filled the time going over the stuff for English Lit and Modern American History.
I realized my days here were almost over. I glanced around the room, feeling comically startled by the idea. I would be at UCLA next fall. I was leaving Shangri-La and going out into the real world.
Gian glanced at me, puzzled. I must have looked stupid and I know I blushed for no reason and turned away, only to find Missy looking at me. I thought she hadn't come in today since everything had been so calm and quiet. Ah well. Maybe, by some miracle, she had matured overnight.
Then I remembered her with the stud on the hood of her car and felt disgust again. I went back to my Modern American History book with a vengeance and stayed there until the bell.
Lunch. Gian waited inside the room this time, nodding to me. I saw Missy go past with a little glare towards me and a sway of her hips by Gian. She couldn't get more obvious, could she? I rolled my eyes and Gian laughed. She turned our way and knew we were laughing at her.
"Are we going to starve again today?" I asked.
"Nah. I brought us lunch." He patted the black bag strung over the side of his chair. "Mama made us something special."
My mouth started watering and I smiled. He laughed and patted my hand. A tingling raced up my arm and to my heart.
We headed down the ramp towards a bright, wonderful day. The rain of the morning had disappeared and I felt as though summer might be around the corner after all. I felt as though I might get my balance back.
So when I saw Missy waiting by the door with a few of her hangers-on -- and some others gathered to see what happened next -- I lost all my sense. I was not going to let her stop me from having this wonderful lunch with Gian.
She stepped forward to meet me; shorter than usual, I realized. They wouldn't let her wear heels at school. I could stare her straight in the eyes. She was about to say something nasty.
I beat her to it.
"You know, I'm surprised you were awake enough to come to school today, after your little romp on the hood of your car with your friend."
Color drained out of her face. She took a step away and put a hand to the wall and her friends watched her with consternation.
"You're lying," she replied, her voice soft and shaken. She glanced at Gian. Hell, I hadn't even considered she had a crush on him. "You're trying to ruin my reputation!"
I didn't even have a chance to answer before someone in the crowd sniggered, and someone else laughed outright. She spun, rage growing in her face. Gian and I went outside. I saw a couple of the teachers lounging on the steps by the auditorium, eating their own lunches. We wouldn't be bothered, so we went out to the edge of the walk and a bench beneath one of the trees.
"That was weird," I said. "And stupid on my part."
"Did you really see her?"
I sat on the bench and sighed. "I went out last night. Just walking. Running at first. I hate the feelings I've had lately."
He nodded, opened the bag and handed me a cloth napkin. I smiled a little and spread the cloth on my lap. So old world. So like his mother to send such things with him. He handed me a bowl and spoon and poured some wonderful minestrone soup from a thermos. Then he pulled out slices of homemade bread.
"I'd love to learn to cook like your mother."
"She'd be glad to teach you," he said and smiled.
What a wonderful excuse to spend time at his house! Oh yeah, cooking was about to become my favorite hobby. I'd have to grab some books from the library so I didn't look like a complete and total dork. We ate and laughed and I wanted the noon hour to never end -- like those summers, so long ago.
I looked towards the door and saw Missy and two of her friends come outside. She appeared frantic, but when she glanced my way and I could see the rage come to her face. I had made a bad mistake; a stupid, bad mistake.
"Don't worry about her." Gian put a hand on my arm as he scowled at Missy. "Did you really see her doing the nasty thing?"
"No, thank God," I said. His eyes went wide. "I mean I saw her and some guy rolling around on the hood of her car, but I left before -- you know. Yuck."
"Ah." He seemed relieved. He reached into his magic bag. "Ready for dessert?"
We had homemade apple pie. I was going to waddle to English Lit. But I ate my piece, and barely kept myself from licking the plate. Lunch ended too soon and I reluctantly walked with Gian to the building.
I didn't see Missy, and I decided to do my best to avoid her. Sunday was prom; the following Friday was graduation, and no school days between. I could avoid her for the few more days we'd share at Deervale High.