Links to the previous chapters are HERE
I happily prepared to ride with Gian and his father to school the next day. Dad pointed out how bright eyed and bushy tailed I looked, despite the early hour and I even laughed. I was still on an adrenaline high and hoped the feeling lasted for the rest of the day since I'd had so little sleep.
Dad mentioned he would have a car this afternoon and I'd have one before prom so Gian and I could ride there without having his father take us and drop us off. Good -- though I wouldn't have minded.
The weather had turned bright and warm for a change and I would have liked walking to school with Gian if we weren't so worried about trouble. His father dropped us off and I pushed Gian in through the school gate while I finally tried to focus on being here and not being with Gian. I wondered what Mrs. Kipfer had in mind for today since we'd taken the last test. And I wondered if I could skip gym and avoid Missy and her friends. No. They wouldn’t scare me off.
Gian took my hand and kissed my fingers as we parted. I smiled with absolute delight and before I saw Missy coming in the gate. Her face went hard with anger as she turned away towards her first class.
"Missy saw us," I warned.
"Good. I won't have to tell her later. See you for lunch? Mom sent food."
"Why don't you weigh more?"
"I work out. A lot. Better hurry or we'll be late. See you later."
I skipped to class. I listened to a talk about what we would be doing in college if we pursued a science or math degree. I grinned like an idiot. So much to do! I had to order some flowers for Akio to help brighten up her drab room! I could call between classes if I worked fast.
I would be heading to gym next and maybe being a little late wouldn't hurt.
My parents have an account at the place by the clinic. After trig I found a quiet spot and ordered some flowers. They'd check with mom before they sent them, but I knew she wouldn't mind. I wondered what else I could do. It felt good, doing something nice for Akio -- especially since I had Gian's approval. I briefly considered what I would have done if he hadn't approved, but I dismissed the thought. I had plenty of real things going on to worry over.
I reached the gym rooms after the bell rang. Ms. Bowling shook her head and pulled out a pencil and notepad, ready to take down my name. I almost laughed, to think being late would have mattered at all now.
"I'm just doing my best to avoid more trouble," I said.
She had started to write on her paper, but after a moment, she nodded and scratched my name off. I hurried to get ready, throwing my clothes in my locker as I changed --
Someone snapped the locker closed on my hand.
I yowled. I think I cursed too. Ms. Bowling raced around the corner, saw my hand and led me away to her office. I sat there gasping -- but that came from anger.
"Move your fingers."
I did. The fingers hurt but they all moved. Nothing broken.
"Good. I'll send you to the nurse in a minute. I'll be right back with your clothing."
I hadn't realized I only wore my underwear until now. I would have been embarrassed if I hadn't been so damned mad I could hardly see straight.
She returned a little later with a cold, wet cloth and carefully wrapped my hand, then helped me get dressed. Trish stood by the door, ready to walk with me to the nurse. I thought about saying I could go alone, but you know, I felt better for having someone with me.
"I didn't see who did it." I winced as I held my right hand in my left.
"Mary," Trish reported with a snarl. "Ms. Bowling is personally escorting her to the principal. I'm betting she's going to get kicked out of school."
"Great. I need another of enemy in Missy's group."
"What did you expect once word got around about you and Gian?"
"That was fast!"
"Small school," she replied with a laugh. "Besides, Gian announced he was taking you to the prom just before English." I grinned and she laughed. "Glad you two got things worked out. We all worried about Gian and how he's been doing."
I liked them all the better for hearing those words. I spent the rest of gym with the nurse. Then I went to study hall. Gian sat by the door, plainly waiting for me. He didn't appear happy, so I knew he'd already heard.
"I'm all right, Gian."
"Just bruised and sore." I waved my hand a little. "Let's get settled. We'll talk at lunch."
He nodded. I went to my place, glancing aside to see Missy. She glared at me and I had trouble with the concept that she acted this way over Gian. The entire situation seemed so childish. Maybe I was more adult than I thought.
I tried to imagine how I would have reacted if he had turned to Missy instead of me. I know I would have been horribly upset, but I would never have tried to hurt her. Missy was sick, but the knowledge didn't make her any easier to deal with today. I wondered why Mary had slammed the locker on me. Why had she done something so obvious for Missy? Why would others act this way for her?
Unless . . . once again I remembered the story going around about how Missy only had friends she could blackmail. I'd thought the joke funny at the time. Now I wondered if there wasn't more truth there than some of us realized.
Things had gone too strange the last few days. I could believe almost anything.
I opened my English lit book to a few poems because they would keep my attention for a little while. I didn't have work left for any of my classes. We had today and tomorrow, and then high school would be over forever. I glanced around, wondering what classes would be like next year at UCLA. Not really much different, I suspected, just different faces. New opportunities. I would be staying near the campus during the week and come back to Deervale on the weekends: a little fledgling flight away from home.
I read more poems, or at least I stared at the pages for a while. I wondered where Gian would be next year. And Missy for that matter.
The class went too quickly. My hand hurt as I stood, waiting as others went past, and eyeing them all with a little distrust in case some were Missy's friends. She had already left the room. Where would she or her minions be waiting next time?
Gian waited for me outside the door. I started to push him, but he took my hand. "No. I can do it. You look pale. Sure you're all right?"
"That's mostly anger," I admitted. "Let's go have lunch."
We went out and found a quiet corner in an area normally off limits for students and well away from where anyone would bother us. Principal White saw us there, nodded, and went away, which made me feel better towards everyone.
And the food helped too.
By the end of the last class my hand didn't hurt as much. I even looked forward to seeing Akio. I told Gian I would walk to the clinic, but he insisted I go in the van.
"Gian told me about the problem today," Mr. Calabria said with a shake of his head. "He appears to think this trouble was instigated by Missy Murphy."
"So do I, but I'm all right. And we have only one more day of class."
"You do not sound entirely happy about this," Mr. Calabria replied, glancing over his shoulder at a stop sign.
"I don't know. I think I'll miss this place."
"Yeah," Gian agreed. "The good parts, at least. UCLA is going to be so different."
"You're going to UCLA? Me too!"
He grinned. I didn't ask what he was taking and I knew UCLA was huge and we wouldn't be anywhere near each other -- but we'd be closer than if he went to college on the East Coast.
Life kept getting better.
We reached the clinic and watched as a couple went inside. I saw Mr. Jackson, who was recovering from hip surgery, climbing into a car. No sign of Missy. Good so far.
"If Missy shows up this time, call the library," Gian told me as I got out. He reached out and I took his hand. "I'm sure Mrs. Berlin will come and get you. Don't take any chances."
"I'll call," I promised, and managed not to shiver at the reminder of the night before. I didn't want to make the same run again. I wished I had a way to tag Missy so I knew where she was all the time. "Or I'll call home. Dad is supposed to have a car today."
"Construction workers were at your house this afternoon," Mr. Calabria said. "The damage will be repaired soon."
"Thanks. Nice to know something is going right. I'll see you at work tonight, Gian!"
"See you then!"
They waited until I walked safely inside the building, which made me feel silly and wonderful at the same time. Sally the receptionist smiled when I entered.
"You sent lovely flowers. I think they helped her a great deal," Sally said. "Dr. Webster is talking to her but you can go on down."
I headed towards her room, feeling less self-conscious this time. Dr. Webster sat in the chair by the bed and nodded to something Akio said. He smiled. So did Akio, who seemed a hundred times better today.
"Thought you'd be here soon." Dr. Webster stood and frowned. "What happened to your hand?"
"Got my hand slammed in a locker today. It's all right." I wiggled my fingers.
"They did this because of me," Akio whispered, and her face clouded and her head bowed.
"No, actually: Missy Murphy is pissed because Gian kissed my hand today. I wonder if anyone's dared to tell her Gian and I are going to the prom together."
I had considered not telling her about the prom and Gian but I was glad I had. She seemed only marginally less happy about the news than I was.
"You and Gian?" She laughed and clapped her hands. "That is so great!"
I smiled. "Yeah, and we're both going to UCLA next year."
"Oh, how nice -- But Missy -- Missy Murphy thought she had a chance with Gian? Is she crazy? Oh, and I should be the one to ask such a thing?" But she laughed and appeared truly happy and amused.
Dr. Webster smiled and left me with Akio. We talked about a lot of stuff, none of which was important. The conversation helped her and helped me, too, because I had missed having a friend I could talk with. She seemed genuinely pleased at all the good news. She told me a few things about life in an English Boarding School where she had been the last few months, and we both giggled a couple times. She had dinner. I shared with her, nibbling on a few things. I began to wonder how long she'd be here and what she'd do when she got out.
I would have to leave for the library soon. I heard someone at the door and thought Dr. Webster was coming back in. I turned --
I found Gian. He held flowers and a teddy bear. I think I stopped breathing. I watched him with such shock and love and . . . I don't know. I didn't understand why he was here.
Dr. Webster stood behind him. I suspected they'd been discussing if he should come in or not.
I finally turned to Akio. She wept, silent and still, but the tears fell down her cheeks. I couldn't tell if I saw hope or fear in her eyes. Both. Gian rolled forward. He smiled and tossed the teddy bear. She caught the bear before he rolled off the bed.
"Gi-an," she whispered. Her hands gathered up the small, brown bear and she held it close. Her voice broke as she tried to speak. "I'm so-rry. I'm really real-ly sorr-y. How could you come here? How could you stand to be in the same room with me --?"
"Because I know the real you wasn't driving the car, Akio. I've come to accept the truth and to remember you as you should be. I think the time has come for you to accept, as well."
She wept all the more, burying her head in the teddy bear fur, her breath coming in short bursts, but even I could tell this was a good cry. Gian rolled beside me. I kissed his cheek and took the flowers, putting them in the same vase as mine. We quietly waited for Akio to look at us again.
"You two are too nice to me. I do not deserve this." She whispered something in Japanese. "I am not a good person."
"You are a good person who would never purposely hurt another." I put my hand on hers, and Gian reached awkwardly so his fingers touched her as well. She almost tried to pull away, shaking her head in denial.
"No, Akio," he said softly. "We aren't going to let you go."
Her eyes went wide. She held the teddy bear tight with one hand and suddenly caught hold of both our hands with the other, like the grasp of someone who had been a long time out in the sea, slowly drowning, and who suddenly found people on dry land, reaching for her; people who cared for her when everything else in the world was gone. We held on as she gradually calmed, though she looked bleak.
"I don't know what I should do." Akio's hand waved a little towards the wall. "I cannot see a future. All gone and lost. Only Nadine left and I have no ties to her. I want none."
I almost asked her about Nadine and the party, but I decided this wasn't the time. Let her get her balance first. Let both Akio and Gian recover. They were far more important than nailing Nadine to the wall.
But I wouldn't forget.
"Tell me about school," she said, leaning against the pillow and holding the teddy bear to her. "Are the Forest twins still goofy?"
"Worse." Gian laughed as he shook his head. "I think they've gone on to the next level of goofy. I almost dread to be in the same graduation pageant with them. Maybe we can turn them loose on Missy."
I liked the idea. They might even be able to keep her busy for a while, since obviously her parents weren't going to do anything.
"Dr. Webster says Missy Murphy tried to come and see me." Akio frowned. "I cannot imagine why she would do so."
"Missy is acting very weird," I warned. I saw Gian nod rather emphatically. "I'm not going to tell you not to see her or anyone else, but be careful with her."
"I don't want to see her. I know she wants to make me feel bad. She came to my house already."
"Did she?" Gian asked, plainly bothered.
"I startled her. She didn't know I sat in the garden," Akio said. I felt a little twinge of worry, thinking she confused Missy and me. "She came by later in the day when you were there, Mar. I saw her heading for the door and I asked what she wanted. She cursed and cursed. I never liked Missy much, but she seems changed for the worse."
I felt an odd relief, hearing those words from someone who hadn't been here for a while. I wasn't the only one who had noticed the changes, though the knowledge made me worry more. I didn't know what to expect from Missy, except I suspected nothing good.
In a few minutes Dr. Webster came to give Akio her sleeping pills. She seemed reluctant but he said sleep would help. I left, but Gian remained behind for a moment and I didn't try to listen in. I walked to the reception area, passing Sally and another nurse going over charts. I wondered if there was time to get food tonight before I went to work.
Gian didn't take too long before he followed behind me. I put my hand on his shoulder, feeling the sort of emotion which has no words because thank you could never cover how I felt. He smiled at me and we went out into the parking lot.
His father sat in the van, reading.
"I told him he could go home," Gian said, embarrassed. "I'm not helpless."
"I know it. He knows it, too. But everything is odd right now. I'm glad he's here." I started to push Gian towards the van. My hand hurt, though, and I stopped before he said anything. "After the other night, I appreciate having someone to keep watch."
Gian didn't seem as pleased, but, with his father there, we made a run to Taco Bell for food, which improved his mood.
I thought everything should be different once we left Deervale, as though we passed some barrier in the mile from our gas station to their mall. When I turned back towards Deervale, I wondered if the rising hills shielded us or hid us. Was I going to feel safe at all once I left the valley?
Could I hide behind those hills forever?
I tried not to feel relief when we rushed past the gas station and then the clinic and finally stopped at the pretty library. Gian and I went in and started right to work. We even had a calm night, with nothing more than a cranky five year old to deal with. The night went quickly and I rode home with the Calabrias again.
The contractors had already started rebuilding part of the garage by the time I got home. I could smell paint and wood: new, clean scents overpowering the smell of smoke I'd still noticed this morning. I saw a scattering of tools, wood and roofing stacked in the driveway. A brand new Lexus sat at the curb, and I admired the black, sleek car before I went inside. Dad had good taste, and he'd been saying we no longer needed another huge SUV with Ellen and David gone.
I hurried into the house, wishing I didn't feel like I needed to be in out of sight but grateful when the door closed behind me and I keyed the code in.
"Good!" Mom popped out of her chair, abandoning the television with such haste she startled me. "I had Ellen's gown cleaned today. Let's test the fit."
"Can I have a sandwich first?" I asked. "Or at least some bread and water?"
"Bread and water might not be a bad idea." She slapped my butt. "Are you sure you exercise in school?"
That was an old game we used to play, and I grinned, going along with her. I went to the kitchen and made a sandwich and stood at the counter munching and drinking some juice. I did forgo the chips, at least.
I found a paper on the counter. I realized this was a police report about the garage and the fire. I skimmed over the page, not seeing anything substantial until the end.
People had reported several outsiders in the area and the police had accounted for all except one male: 17-25 years of age, possibly with a southern accent --
I put the last of my sandwich on the plate and picked up the paper. Dad came into the room as I wondered how to handle this one.
"What's wrong?" he asked, settling on the stool across from me.
"I was out the night of the fire," I said, waving at the paper.
"We know. So do the police."
"I had headed back to the house when I saw . . . God, I hate this. I don't want any more trouble with her."
"No. Missy." He didn't seem at all surprised and I decided to rush on through the rest of the story. "I saw Missy out front of her house with a guy. And I heard him say something like 'you owe me for this one.' I didn't want to stick around and see -- I didn't want Missy to think I spied on her. He had a southern accent."
I did see some worry in Dad's face this time. "I'll talk to the police. Maybe we can keep your name out of the story."
"It's too late. I already let her know I had seen her. I wanted to shock her a bit so she would leave Gian and me alone. No wonder she got so upset."
"We've no proof the young man was involved in the fire." Dad frowned, but I could see he thought otherwise. "But at least we can help the police know where he had been. Now get upstairs. Your mother is anxious to start getting you ready for the prom."
"The prom isn't until Sunday!" I protested.
"You're lucky. She began working on your sister more than a month before her prom."
I laughed, drank the last of my juice, and went upstairs. I dismissed Missy from my mind for a while. I didn't think she could get any madder at me anyway.
Mom had the dress laid out in the guest room, which was Ellen's old room. I tried it on and felt very odd, staring at the young woman in the strapless midnight blue gown. The cloth glittered with golden threads and when I moved, the light caught everywhere, like stars trapped in the cloth. I remembered why I loved this dress so much.
"The dress fits well enough." Mom nodded and had me turn around again. "A shame we're too late to make one of your own."
"I love this dress! I always wanted to wear this one."
She smiled. "You are the most unselfish child I've ever known."
"Me? Are you joking?"
"No," she said and suddenly took me into her arms. "I am not."
I stayed close, measuring suddenly how rare such moments would become in the future. I didn't like to let go.
"Will you do my hair for the prom?" I asked. "I don't know what to do and I don't trust the stylists. They give me really odd looks whenever I walk by. I think they secretly want to dye my hair blond and give me Shirley Temple curls."
She laughed. "We'll manage something. You'll be fine."
"You know, I always thought I'd be worried about prom. But I'm not. I'm looking forward to it."
"Odd time for you to suddenly become a typical teen."
"Hey! Bite your tongue!"
We laughed. She talked about shoes and then we went downstairs and had nachos. Life didn't get much better than this!
I went to bed fairly early and I slept well. This was the first calm night I'd had in a week.
The calm before the storm. . . .