©2005 The Angst Guy (email@example.com)
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Synopsis: Imagine “Daria” with a Y chromosome. What might have happened if the eldest child of Jake and Helen Morgendorffer had been born a boy? Here is an alternate-history might-have-been, or a parallel-universe might-yet-be, with all the fallout.
Author’s Notes: This story merits an R rating for strong language (f-word, etc.), intense family conflict, sexual situations, and abuse issues.
This alternate-universe tale parallels events in the first two episodes of the first season of “Daria” (“Esteemsters” and “The Invitation”) under the assumption that Daria was born a boy instead of a girl. No other initial changes were used, though chains of predictable consequences have been worked into the story so that it has a flavor entirely different from the known series. Cadet Michael Ellenbogen and Colonel Armstrong of Buxton Ridge Military Academy (and the plot thread connecting them) are my own inventions, but they elaborate on established themes from the original “Daria” series.
This idea bounced around inside my head for many months, and the chance to explore the effects of a single gender change could not be missed. The story forced me to think a lot about what it means to be a certain gender, and what it means in particular to be a man—a good man.
While writing chapter three, it suddenly struck me that I was listening to music that perfectly fit Darius and Jane as a couple: “Rachel’s Song,” from the Vangelis soundtrack for the movie, Blade Runner. If you have a chance to listen to this music, at least you will hear what I hear when I think of the two of them. For Darius himself, a theme song is more difficult to come by. The best fit, perhaps, is “Movement I,” from Vangelis’s El Greco. I also listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” about a million times to get into a really angsty mood for writing, but that’s another story. “Going Under,” by Evanescence, also helped.
Acknowledgements: This story was originally
posted as two serial tales to the Sh33p’s
I wish to thank the following beta-readers, in no particular order: Brandon League, Kristen Bealer, Thea Zara, Renfield, MMan, Ray, James “CINCGREEN” Bowman, Renfield, Steven Galloway, Brother Grimace, TerraEsperZ, Galen “Lawndale Stalker” Hardesty, Beth Ann, and Ranger Thorne. They made the story much better than it was, and I am in their debt.
Thanks specifically to Thea Zara for the “frog thing” with Brittany, to Brother Grimace for suggesting the gazebo scenario in another story he wrote (the idea for which I stole without shame), to Renfield for his invaluable suggestions on the Grand Canyon back story, and Galen Hardesty for his epilogue ideas. Thanks, too, to everyone who asked for more. It kept me going when things got hard, as they often did in writing this very long tale.
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
to mould me man? Did I solicit thee
from darkness to promote me?—
quoted by Mary Shelly at the beginning of
her novel, Frankenstein
“Now, listen,” said the businessman as he drove his blue Lexus through morning suburban traffic, “I want you to know your mother and I realize it’s not easy moving to a whole new town—especially since we’re also adjusting to being a family again, right?”
The youth slouching in the back seat of the Lexus knew his father was talking directly to him. The brown-haired teenager wore black, from his short-sleeved shirt to his trousers to his dull leather boots. He adjusted his glasses and continued to look out the window, saying nothing.
“Darius?” said his father, glancing in the rear-view mirror.
“Weren’t we always a family?” asked the teenager, still looking out the window. “In theory, I mean.”
His father glared in the mirror, but the boy missed it. “That’s not what I meant!” he snapped. “Listen up! What I’m saying is, we’re going to give this togetherness thing another try. Darius, I’m counting on you to show some respect and—Quinn, damn it, turn the radio down!”
“Please, let’s don’t talk! Okay, Daddy?” said the red-haired girl in the front passenger seat. “Let’s not fight right before school.” She looked back to include her older brother in her plea. Darius glanced at her and shrugged agreement.
“We’re not going to fight!” said her father angrily. “I’m not, anyway! Any fighting that happens is up to him!” He nodded toward the back seat. “I’m being reasonable. But we need to talk a little, honey. It’s the first day of school for the two of you, together, in almost three years. And we want to make it a great day, don’t we?”
Darius looked out the window with an impassive face. Quinn gripped the book bag between her knees, her face tight. She crossed her arms over her stomach and hunched forward as if holding it in.
“Darius?” said their father in a loud voice, looking in the rear-view mirror.
“Sure,” said the brown-haired boy.
The boy sighed. “Sure, it’ll be a great day.”
His father nodded in dark
satisfaction. “Damn right it will,” he said. “Don’t screw it up for everyone
this time, okay?” He turned the car into the broad half-circle leading to
Darius opened the side door and got out, taking his time. He slung his backpack over one shoulder, shut the door, and walked into the school without a word.
The day went quickly.
“Public school might take some getting used to,” his mother had warned the night before. “You’re in with every kind of student there is.” She was dead on about that. When he could, Darius sat in the back of each class so he could see what sort of students he’d be with for the next three years. He watched the girls in particular. Years had passed since he’d been to a school with girls around. It surprised him to find that he liked it. It was hard to concentrate on class work, having girls around, but that was okay. He was smart enough to get by. The guys at Buxton Ridge military school had talked about nothing else but girls when they had the time. You want a wild time, said the guys, find yourself a wild chick. Party girls were the best, the girls who drank a lot. They’d do anything and never remember it. Some of the guys at the academy knew that for a fact.
Darius shook his head when he thought of that. He was of a better cut than his former classmates. He didn’t know if he had any appeal to the girls here, but if not, it wasn’t the end of the world. Public school was different, but it wasn’t bad. It beat the hell out of Buxton Ridge, also his dad’s alma mater. Darius could live out three more years at Lawndale High easy. He’d have to watch himself, though; he didn’t want to be jerked out of Lawndale High the same way he was jerked out of Highland Middle School, back in Texas, and sent out of state to a military academy. It was his only real fear.
Darius went home after his first day
of school thinking it would be far better than livable. Home early from his
consulting business, his father tried to pick a fight with him over finishing
his homework, but Darius wasn’t in the mood to yell back the way he once did. Maybe
that was why I was packed off to Buxton Ridge, he thought, because of
all the yelling. Dad couldn’t handle it and he flipped out big time. Who knows?
He’s always flipping out. After a moment, though, he remembered what had
happened at the
He shrugged and went to his room like his father told him, did his homework, and then checked out the local television channels while his parents screamed at each other downstairs. Unlike his sister, he kept the door to his room open, so he could hear the goings-on. It was important to know his parents were suffering. He didn’t want to miss it.
On the second day of school, a girl caught his eye in history class—a slim, leggy chick dressed in black, with a red jacket, old Army boots, and a vague air of hostility. She sat near the middle of the room and drew in a sketchpad during every class in which he saw her. Her short black bangs covered her face as she worked on her drawings with single-minded intensity. Darius got the impression she was just making time, waiting for graduation like he was. He liked that. He wondered what her name was.
The girl glanced back at him once or twice. Her eyes were the deepest blue Darius had ever seen. The second time she looked back, he smiled at her. She smiled back but turned away and kept drawing. He wondered if she was interested in him. He was certainly getting interested in her. She wasn’t beautiful like so many other girls were, but she had character and attitude, and it grabbed him. She was an undiscovered continent, a whole world on two long legs. Darius wondered how it would feel to run his hands through her jet-black bangs, whether that fire-engine red lipstick would come off if he kissed her hard.
It wasn’t likely that he would find out, he knew. She was a cool chick and undoubtedly seeing someone else.
During Phys Ed, Darius asked the football coach if he could run a few laps around the track after school. The coach didn’t mind. When the last bell rang, he waded through the flood of students fleeing the campus, changed into his running clothes in the boys’ locker room, and carried his belongings out to the track. The air was warm as he jogged. He was sweating in moments, but it felt good. He was not a fast runner; endurance interested him most. Running gave him time to be alone. Buxton Ridge had taught him that, among other things. He had no homework today and didn’t have to be home with his parents again until five. His sister would manage without him for a little while.
He began thinking about the leggy
chick. He’d never dated before, but he wanted to try it. The bad thing was, he
did not think he could stand the embarrassment if anything went wrong. It was
safer to keep people away and stay alone. His feet thumped against the track in
rhythm as he thought about it. He was safe—but missing out on life. Was that
what he wanted? He didn’t know. He didn’t know anything anymore, except for one
But he couldn’t go back there. Not after everything that had happened. And he had Quinn to think of, too.
On his twelfth pass around the long track, Darius saw the leggy chick in the red jacket walk out of a side door of the school building. She glanced back and saw him. She stopped. He looked at her, and she looked at him, and he knew it was time.
Breaking his jog, he walked off the track in the leggy girl’s direction, picking up his backpack on the way. He had no plan, no clear idea what he was doing. It didn’t matter. Meeting the girl in the red jacket was all that counted.
“Hey,” Darius said as he walked up to the leggy chick. He was soaked with sweat and knew he smelled of it.
She didn’t seem to care. “Yo,” she said. “Did you mind if I watched?”
“Huh? Oh, it wasn’t that. I was done, that’s all.” He gave her a nervous smile. “I’m Darius Morgendorffer. Weird name, I know. I’m new here.” He glanced behind him. “Just running a few laps.”
“Darius,” said the girl, trying out the name. “Sounds Roman.”
“It’s Greek,” he said. “My parents liked history at one time, I think. Maybe they named me after Darius the Great of Persia. I never thought to ask.”
What the girl did next—rather, what
she didn’t do—was important. She didn’t say, “Darius who?” or “Where’s
“Nah. Just like to run. Helps me think, clears my head out.”
“I run for the same reasons,” said Jane, “but I tell myself it makes me more creative, too. Don’t know if it works, but it gets me out of the house.”
“You like being creative?” said Darius.
“Yeah. I paint, sculpt, stuff like that.”
“You’re an artist.”
“Or a bum. Hard to tell some days.”
“That’s cool.” Darius looked around. They were alone. “Where you heading?”
“Home.” Jane waited.
“Mind some company?”
Jane smiled broadly, her wait over. “If you don’t mind my company, sure.”
Darius looked into her blue eyes. It was hard to think. “I’m all sweaty,” he said.
“I don’t mind,” she said. “I get sweaty, too. We have something in common.”
They set off together at an unhurried pace. “You live close by?” asked Darius.
“A few blocks that-a-way, on Howard,” said Jane. “I don’t have my license yet, and walking’s nice. Also, my brother’s car tends to catch fire now and then. When it does, he borrows a van from a friend of his and drives it a couple blocks until it breaks down.”
“Not much use for seat belts, I see.” He pointed. “We moved in a few days ago over on Glen Oaks. Red brick house.”
“Hmm, then we’ll pass your place on the way to mine.”
Darius looked up at the blue sky, then back at Jane. “Good day for a walk. Mind if I see you all the way to your place?”
“You can come in if you want,” she said, looking at the sidewalk instead of at him. “My brother’s home, but he’s probably sleeping.”
“He’s twenty-one. Plays in a local rock band, Mystik Spiral.”
“Haven’t heard of it.”
“Join the club.”
“I’m a big brother, too. My sister’s Quinn. She’s fourteen. Long red hair, sorta cute. You may have seen her.”
“Yeah, in fact I think I did. She had quite an entourage following her around.”
She said “entourage,” he thought. A smart one. Smart girls turned him on. “That’s Quinn, the popularity queen.”
“Sorry to hear it.”
Darius shrugged. “Eh, it’s okay. Whatever floats her boat.”
Jane nodded. “So, what floats your boat?”
He adjusted his glasses. “I goof off. I read, run a little, watch TV, write.”
“Poems, novels, short stories, plays?”
“Stories. I gave up on poetry. Don’t have any ideas for a novel or a play yet.”
“You watch TV a lot?”
“No. Just ‘Sick, Sad World.’ I think it’s on here—”
Jane caught his arm and pulled him close as they walked. “I love that show,” she said in a deeper voice. “I never thought I’d meet someone who liked it as much as I do.”
Her touch was electric. He could smell her, too. She had a sweet flowery scent he couldn’t identify. A woman’s soap, he guessed. His brain began to shut down.
With the few neurons he had left, he checked his watch. “The show’ll be on in twenty minutes,” he said, and he almost added, You want to come over to my house to watch it? He remembered just in time that his father and mother might be home together this afternoon. That would be bad.
“Come over and watch it with me?”
asked Jane. She still had a grip on his upper arm, just above the elbow. “
“Yeah. I’m the youngest of five. The others grew up and ran off. Just me and Trent now, and sometimes Mom and Dad. You wanna come over?”
“Sure,” he said, unsure if this was a good idea. “That would be great.”
“Don’t eat anything out of the refrigerator unless I clear it first,” Jane added. “Some of the food’s gone bad, and some of it’s not really food.” She squeezed his bicep. “You work out, right?”
“A little. Got in the habit at my last school.”
“Where was that?”
He grimaced. “
“So you kind of dig the Army life, is that it?”
“No,” he said. He forced the pain down. “I was sent there.” He shrugged, uneasy now. “Tell me about yourself.”
“Don’t want me to ask about it, right?”
He nodded. “Maybe another time.”
“Okay.” Jane’s hand squeezed the muscles of his arm again. “Military school. I can’t complain about the results.”
“Were you helping some teachers after school?” he asked.
“Me? Oh, no. I’m in a special class to build up self-esteem. I have to go for a few weeks.”
Darius almost stopped. “That ‘Self-Esteem for Teens’ workshop they were telling me about?” he said. “You’re in that class?”
“What, are you teaching it?”
Jane laughed. It was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. “Oh, no! I’m in it. I don’t pay enough attention in class, so the school shrink thought I had problems.”
Darius gave Jane a long look. “The school’s got its problems,” he said at last, “but you don’t.”
“Mmm,” said Jane, pulling him even closer. “I can feel my self-esteem rising already. There it goes! Off like a balloon!”
He smiled. They weren’t talking about anything important, but every word she said was changing the world. “You like to draw?” he said.
“I said I’m an artist. Wanna come up and see my etchings?”
Darius felt a hot prickling on the back of his neck. There were several ways to interpret her offer. “Sure,” he said. “Catch some ‘Sick, Sad’ and check you out. Your drawings, I mean,” he added quickly, turning red. “I can check out your drawings.”
Jane smiled as she walked, humming a familiar tune.
He thought quickly. “That’s from that movie about the ship, um, The Poseidon Adventure, isn’t it?”
“Yup. My favorite song.”
“I like it.” If she had hummed the “Barney” song, he would have liked it.
He told her a little about his
family, Buxton Ridge, and his former home in
Darius heard the fighting half a block away. He stopped to listen. Jane stopped as well. “Is that your folks?” she asked softly.
“I’d better go,” he said, his face lined with anxiety. “I should check on Quinn. She doesn’t handle this real well.”
“I’ll wait for you.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be back out for a while,” he said. “See you.” He hurried into the house and shut the door behind him to keep the neighbors from hearing.
“What you think about it just isn’t that Gah-damn important!” he heard his father shout as he came in the living room.
“Where’s Quinn?” Darius called. “Is Quinn here?”
His parents paused in their argument to look guiltily at him. They had been fighting about him. He could tell.
“She’s gone over to a friend’s house, Sandi someone,” said his mother. “She’s in some kind of fashion club. She’ll be back at six. Why don’t you go out for a while, okay? Come back for supper.”
“I’ll be back at six,” he said.
“You’ll be back when I tell you to come back!” roared his father. “Gah damn it, you’ll show me a little respect, or else!”
Darius fell silent and waited. He wanted so much to give his father a taste of what he’d been dishing out for nearly sixteen years—but I can’t be sent to Buxton Ridge again, Darius thought, forcing himself to do nothing, I just can’t. Hold it in, hold it in just a little while longer—
His father wiped his face with a red hand. “Come back at five-thirty, and not a second later,” he said at last.
“Okay,” said Darius. “I will.” He waved and left at a careful walk. He could hear his parents start up on each other a moment before the front door closed behind him.
He walked back to Jane as if nothing had happened, except that he couldn’t look her in the eyes. They walked in silence until Jane began to tell a story about a local house where no kid ever passed a test to graduate from high school and escape Lawndale, because of a ghost that lived there. Her voice quavered, but it was a good story, and he was grateful.
“You should be the writer, not me,” he told her. She smiled and colored a bit. She bumped into him as they walked. He put his arm around her waist to steady her. Violets, he thought—she smells like violets. They walked like that all the way to her place.
Jane’s home was a pale yellow
two-story, obviously one of the older houses in the subdivision, with a
scraggly, overgrown lawn and a large, weird metal sculpture near the front
door. The mailbox said LAZE, the N having fallen over on its side. The front
door was slightly ajar. Random guitar chords drifted out. Jane went inside
“Kitchen, Janey,” came a deep, slow voice. Jane motioned for Darius to follow her in. He shut the door behind him. The house was moderately unkempt. The living room was dusty; pizza crusts and used tissues littered the floor. The unplugged TV set was being used as an extra table to hold a collection of small kiln-fired pots. All the furniture fabric was threadbare, and the couch had holes in two cushions. A burnt spot on the living room carpet showed where someone had tried to build a campfire years earlier. A child had drawn on all the walls with crayons. The brilliant drawings were still intact, though the wall paint was cracked and yellowed.
The kitchen wasn’t much better. It had an off-white and stainless-steel décor popular in the 1960s and was more littered than the living room. Flies buzzed around the dish-filled sink. At the kitchen table sat a tall, lanky man in his early twenties, with calm dark eyes, uncombed black hair, and a goatee. He stopped playing his guitar when Jane came in, but his noncommittal gaze jumped to Darius.
“Darius. I’m her new parole officer,” said Darius with a straight face.
“Didn’t know she had an old one,”
“That was two weeks ago,” said Jane. She opened the refrigerator, took out the carton of Chinese food, and put it on top of an overflowing garbage can. After pushing some of the refrigerator’s contents aside, she took out a fast-food box of fried chicken and set it on the table. “We can eat this while we watch the show,” she said.
“Dead on,” Darius said as he looked around the room. “Cold fried chicken, the food of the gods.” The kitchen was filled with homemade crafts—pots, wall hangings, painted pictures, landscape and animal photographs, and small clay sculptures of monsters. The curtains appeared to be handmade, too.
“Came in the mail,” said Trent, who was playing his guitar again. “Forget when. Found it when I woke up a while ago, and I didn’t know if it was impor—”
“Oh, bloody hell!” Jane
thrust the letter at
Jane threw the letter down. “They sent this letter two weeks ago!” she shouted. “Didn’t you call Mom or Dad?”
“I don’t know where they are,”
“Lock up the house,” said Darius in a flat voice. He was already on his way out of the kitchen, heading for the front door. He checked the locks and found that only the knob lock worked—but the knob was loose. He looked around as Jane came into the living room. “Grab that wooden chair,” he said, pointing. “I can jam it under the knob and brace the door shut.”
Jane did as he asked. “I can lock the windows,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Lock everything and pull the shades and blinds down, too.” He remembered entombing himself in utility closets and his barracks room at Buxton Ridge, avoiding late-night raids by drunken older cadets bent on tormenting the underclassmen. “They can’t foreclose in this state if there’s no one here they can serve papers on. Weird loophole. They have to go back and mail a certified letter, and if no one answers in five business days, the foreclosure goes through. My mom’s a corporate lawyer. She yells about this stuff all the time.” He laughed. “Usually, she’s on the side of the people trying to foreclose.”
In minutes, Darius and Jane had
barricaded the entire first story of the house, even the kitchen and garage.
“That’s just what the bank people will need,” she said firmly. “The house looks like no one’s home, but someone’s upstairs playing ‘Come As You Are’ with the windows open. It gives the whole thing away, all right?”
“Oh, man,” said
“Come watch TV with us in my room,” said Jane. “We’ll keep the volume down.”
“Sure,” said Darius, waving. “We’ll let you know if there’s been a hull breech and we have to send out a distress beacon.”
Jane’s bedroom was that of a tireless and devoted artist—not a dabbler, but the real thing. Paintings hung from every wall, and an easel with a half-finished abstract work in oils was set up next to her queen-size bed across the room. Dark blankets hung on nails covered the far windows in place of shades. Sculptures in every medium lined the shelves. Jane turned on the TV set at the foot of her bed as Darius walked around, taking in the room and its myriad artistic contents.
He bent down and studied a sheet-metal sculpture of a human reaching upward, jumping from a mountaintop. “Damn,” he said, “this is really good.”
“You can stop working on my self-esteem now,” she said, punching the channel-changing button. “School’s out for the day.”
“I’m not kidding,” he said. He crouched to look at the sculpture more closely. “I can’t believe this. Did you weld this yourself?”
“Yeah.” Jane sat on the edge of her bed, watching the tube. “You’re not saying that to get into my pants, are you? ‘Cause it’s working.”
He turned to her and waited until she looked at him. “No,” he said. “I mean it. This is brilliant.”
She was the one who looked away first. “Just a joke,” she said in a low voice. “I don’t go that fast, anyway.”
He looked at the sculpture, aching to touch it. “It looks like this guy’s jumping, hands out, reaching for something maybe he can’t see. I can feel the jump, the effort to get that invisible thing.” He stood. “I wish I could do things like this.”
Jane swallowed. “Thank you,” she said.
Someone knocked on the front door downstairs. The sound echoed up from the staircase. Darius and Jane both froze. After a moment, Darius glanced at his watch. It was four o’clock.
Jane got up from the bed and turned
the television set off. The knocking came again, much louder this time. Darius
went to Jane’s door and peeked out to make sure that
When Darius came back in the room, Jane was near the door. They looked at each other and waited.
A minute passed. The knocking came from the kitchen door next. Jane moved next to Darius. He put his arm around her and pulled her close. Her head pressed against his shoulder, her mouth next to his neck. “Don’t get in,” she whispered. “Don’t get in.”
The knocking came once more from the front door, then did not return. Ten minutes had passed since the knocking had started. It felt like hours had gone by.
“They’re gone,” said Darius softly. “They can’t do anything for a week. Can you get your parents to get the mortgage in?”
“I can forge a check,” Jane whispered. “I’ll have it in the mail tomorrow.”
“That’ll do it. We won.”
“You won,” she said. “Thank you.” And she kissed his neck.
He turned his head so his mouth met hers.
Her hair was fine black silk and smelled of violets. Her fire-engine red lipstick came off everywhere.
Quinn got home at five-forty that evening. Darius heard her open the front door quietly, shut it almost as quietly, then run upstairs. He sighed and turned off his computer monitor to hide what he’d been writing. Sure enough, she opened his door and peeked into his bedroom before going to her room. She wore her pink, midriff-revealing butterfly tee, too-tight jeans, and sandals.
“Hi,” said Quinn. She looked pale. “How did—oh!”
“What?” said Darius, frowning at her.
All business, Quinn walked in and took Darius’s chin in one hand, turning his face from left to right.
“Looking for my good side?” he asked in annoyance.
“Yeah, but it’s not good enough,” said Quinn. She rubbed her thumb over a spot on his cheek. “Did Mom or Dad see that?”
“What?” Darius moved her hand away and got up, heading out into the hall for the bathroom they shared. “It’s nothing.”
“Oh, yeah, right,” said Quinn under her breath. She followed Darius into the bathroom and closed the door behind them, snapping on the lights. She pointed to a lipstick mark on his cheek. Darius could see Jane’s mouth perfectly. He groaned aloud. He knew better than to hide anything from Quinn, but it still drove him crazy. She had a sixth sense about him that he could not fathom. It wasn’t fair.
“You’ve got to be more careful,” said Quinn. She got a washcloth and wet it under the faucet. “Dad would blow a fuse if he saw that. Mom might blow one, too.”
“I can do this,” Darius grumbled, reaching for the washcloth.
“Shut up,” said Quinn, pushing his hand away. “Hold still.” As she wiped off his cheek, she said, “Who is she, Dari?” Her childhood nickname for him was pronounced like “dairy.”
He looked angry and didn’t answer.
“Well, whoever she is, watch yourself,” said Quinn. “You can’t go off and jump the first girl who looks at you. Use your head, okay? You think everything else out. You’d darn better think this stuff out, too.”
“Christ, don’t lecture me! I don’t tell you who you go out with.”
“That’s because you don’t need to,” said Quinn softly. “Turn around. Come on, turn around! I can’t believe you actually got a girlfriend on your second day in school. I’m going to have to change my opinion of you.” She squinted at his face and neck, then nodded. “Okay, you’re good. Make her clean you up next time. Or tell her to wipe the lipstick off her mouth beforehand.”
“Cut it out.”
“Look, I know you don’t want to hear me say it, but you’ve really got to watch it, you know?”
Darius swallowed back his anger. She was absolutely right, which infuriated him all the more. Why was she always right? Why was he always so clueless? “Whatever,” he said in defeat.
“I’d like to meet her,” said Quinn. “Not here, though.”
“What? Oh, jeez, Quinn!” Darius rolled his eyes and opened the bathroom door, walking back to his room. Quinn followed him. He sighed and sat down at his desk as his sister closed the door behind him. She wouldn’t leave until she’d had her say. “What is it?” he said in surrender.
“Dari,” said Quinn, “I can’t take the fighting anymore. This afternoon I went over to the house of a girl I just met yesterday, and I got so scared thinking about coming home late, I threw up in her bathroom. I don’t know if she’ll ever have me over again. It’s too much, Dari, and I can’t take it. Please, if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for me. Don’t fight with Dad anymore, okay?”
“I didn’t start a fight!” he hissed. “I didn’t even have a fight with him, remember?”
“Well, don’t do anything to start one! I can’t take it!” Her voice cracked.
This was the worst. He couldn’t stand to see her cry. “Shhh! All right!” he said, angrier with himself than with her. “I won’t start anything, I promise!”
“Good,” said Quinn, wiping her eyes. “Just be careful, okay? I know how Dad gets when he thinks you’re challenging him, but just let it go. It isn’t worth it.”
“All right, already!”
“Okay.” Quinn became more composed. “Oh,” she added in her normal tone, “I meant it when I said I want to meet her. If she means something to you, and I’d guess she does, then let’s get together.”
“Sure, whatever,” he mumbled, not sure if he meant what he said. “Sometime, yeah.” He hesitated. “She’s all right. She’s cool.”
“Of course she is,” said Quinn. Footsteps sounded from downstairs. Quinn turned, startled, and vanished from his room in a second. Darius heard her door shut and the lock click only one second later.
“Quinn?” called their mother from the bottom of the stairs.
“She’s in her room,” Darius called back. He raised a finger and held it by the computer’s power button in case his mother came upstairs. Better to make the system reboot than to let anyone read a story he was working on. He hated that.
“When did she get home?” his mother called. “I was in the bathroom.”
Darius glanced at his desktop clock, did some quick math, and lied. “She got in early, fifteen or twenty minutes ago. She said she had a good time.”
“I have to go back to the office for an hour or two to clear up some paperwork about a case,” said his mother. “Your father’s meeting with a client downtown. He won’t be back until late. I want the two of you to stay home and be in bed by ten. There’s some frozen lasagna in the refrigerator, or you can order pizza out. You hear me?”
Heavy sigh. “Sure, Mom.” He wanted to give a biting, sarcastic answer, but any smart remark could set his parents off.
“Don’t call me unless it’s important. And call me, not your father. He’s very busy.” His mother hesitated as if there were something more she wanted to say, but she then opened the front door. It thumped shut behind her a second later.
Darius waited a few moments longer, listening to the silence that filled the house. He then got up and went across the hall to knock on Quinn’s door.
“What?” she called after a pause.
“Mom and Dad are both gone,” he said. “Don’t call them.”
“Oh, right, as if. Can we have pizza?”
“I’ll call in the usual at seven.”
“Okay. Can you get me the cordless phone?”
Darius started to say no, but then thought of Jane. He had her number now. “Can I call out for a few minutes first?” he said. “You can have it after that.”
“Okay,” she said. “Don’t . . . oh, are you calling her?”
Darius went downstairs without a reply. Duh, he thought, like that was a real brain-strainer. He got the portable phone in the kitchen and brought it upstairs to his room. Quinn’s door was open. As he walked into his room, she left her room and went into his again.
Darius looked at her in agonized frustration. “Quinn, can I have a little privacy here?”
She seemed undecided. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll go do my homework, but see if I can meet her at school tomorrow.”
“Why? Why in the hell do you need to meet her?”
Quinn stared at him and didn’t look away. The irresistible force.
“Fine!” he said, giving up. “Whatever! Just give me a few minutes, then you can have the phone.”
“Okay,” she said. She walked slowly back to her room, leaving her door open. Darius shut the door to his room and took the phone to his bed. He dialed the number he had memorized and waited.
The phone rang seven times before someone answered it. “Yo,” said a low, feminine voice.
“Oh, hey. Darius?”
“Yeah. How are you doing?”
She laughed. “Fine since you left here an hour ago. Are you home?”
“Yeah. The two wardens are out for the evening, and I’m watching Quinn.”
“She needs a sitter?”
“It’s not that. I’m just here with her. It’s not like I’m really babysitting or anything.”
“Do you and your sister get along? I wasn’t sure from what you said about her.”
He sighed. “We don’t hit each other with bats most days. We’re doing okay. Probably nothing worth writing about in a tell-all book later.”
Jane’s slow breathing rose and fell on the other end of the phone. “I’m really glad you came over today,” she said. “I think you saved our house. I don’t know what I’d have done if we’d had to move out.”
He was pleased and relieved to hear this, but he shrugged it off. “No problem. It was nothing. Hey, if you did get thrown out, you could move in with us and share Quinn’s room. You’re an artist. You could do her makeup.”
“On the other hand,” he said, his sense of humor fading, “I doubt you’d like it.” He was instantly sorry he’d said that, but there was no going back.
“What do you mean?” said Jane. “What’s it like there?”
He hadn’t expected she would ask, though in a way he had hoped she would. He thought over his answer. “Sort of like one of those bad disaster movies,” he said at last. “My parents fight a lot. We try to stay out of the radioactive areas.”
“Oh.” A silence followed. “Can you get out much?”
“Oh, yeah. They usually want us back about six, but after we’ve been in town a while, they might stretch that limit. Mom got Dad to—well, anyway, I can go places after school, as long as they’re still in town. Quinn wants to stay out after nine when dating, but she has to get past Dad on that first. He’s been pretty strict—wait a minute.” He took the phone from his ear, positive he’d heard a floorboard creak outside his door. “What is it, Quinn?”
The door to his room opened and his sister came right in. “Is she on the phone?” Quinn whispered, pointing to the handset as she walked over. “Can I talk to her?”
“Wha—no!” Before he could say or do more, Quinn wrestled the phone from him. “Hello?” she said into the receiver, walking away. “This is Quinn, Darius’s sister.”
“Hey!” He jumped off the bed, but Quinn bolted into her room with a giggle and threw the deadbolt when she shut her door. Popping the doorknob lock with a paperclip would be useless. He pounded on her door. “Quinn! Damn it, give me the phone! Quinn!”
It was hopeless, and he knew it. “Shit,” he said, and he pressed his forehead against the door, feeling stupid. This was worse than simple defeat—this was complete personal ruination. God only knew what she would tell Jane. Since he’d gotten back from Buxton Ridge, Quinn had twisted him around her little finger. It would be a miracle if he didn’t go insane in a few more weeks. He pitied any guys she got for boyfriends. Those poor bastards would be quivering jelly when she got her brightly colored fingernails into them. Being her brother, he should be above all that.
But he wasn’t. He cared about her, which made him vulnerable, and thus he was doomed.
He walked away and sat down at the top of the stairs. Trying to listen in on the conversation in Quinn’s room proved impossible. He felt more like Quinn’s slave than her brother. It wasn’t her abundant natural cuteness, to which Darius thought he was immune. It was like she had some kind of mind control over him. She knew he looked out for her and would never hurt her, and she walked all over him as a result.
Well, he admitted, she didn’t really walk all over him most of the time. Maybe. She just knew when to insert herself into Darius’s life to make sure she wasn’t forgotten. He remembered how excited she had been to see him when he got out of Buxton Ridge in June. She had been practically glued to him for weeks after that. Things had settled down over the summer, but today, she was just . . . since she’d seen that lipstick on his cheek, she was . . . what was it with her? Was it the lipstick? Was it Jane?
Darius covered his face. He could just imagine Quinn sabotaging things with Jane so she could make sure Big Brother would always be there to serve her needs. Or, more likely, to make sure Big Brother didn’t get into trouble and screw up things in the family. Didn’t she trust him? It wasn’t fair. Nothing in life anymore was fair.
Quinn had changed a lot since he had been sent away to Buxton Ridge. When he was shipped off, she was eleven and collecting Barbies and accessories. When he got back, she was a taller, thinner Quinn with a fashion model look but a shockingly fragile personality. Life must have been hell for her without him around to run interference between her and the ‘rents. If she was throwing up just worrying about getting home late, things were still pretty bad inside her. Worse, he had no idea what to do about it. It didn’t excuse her screwing up things with Jane, but if she didn’t get herself straightened out, this would never stop.
Quinn’s bedroom door opened. She came out with the phone in her hand. “Here,” she said without apology. “You’re right, she is cool. She has to go, but she wants to talk to you for a moment first.” Quinn went back in her room, leaving the door ajar.
Darius put the phone to his ear. “Jane?”
“Hey.” Jane’s voice was light and easy. “I had a great talk with your sister.”
“Yes, she is quite the evil gremlin, isn’t she?”
“Nah. You know, she’s not at all what I thought she’d be like. We’re going to meet tomorrow at school at lunch, about twelve-fifteen, you and me and her. If you don’t mind, I mean.”
“Oh, come on, it’ll be fun. I really want to meet her.” Jane laughed. “She’s really lucky to have you around, you know.”
He wasn’t sure if he was angry to hear that or, secretly, a little pleased. “I can’t imagine why. Look, I just wanted to talk to you for a little while. Do you have to go?”
“Unfortunately, I do,” said Jane. “
“Fine,” he said in a sullen tone. “Don’t call after . . . ten thirty. My parents might be home. Best not to get them started.”
“No problemo. And I promised Quinn I’d wipe you off next time.” She snickered.
Darius reddened. “Jane,” he said, and he paused to think of the one thing he really wanted to say to her. “I want to see you again. Before the next Ice Age. After school tomorrow, if you have time.”
“Hey, you can walk me home from school anytime you want,” she said. “And maybe next time, we’ll actually watch ‘Sick, Sad World.’ If we can manage that. We missed their special on UFOs today.”
“UFOs,” he said. “I remember the one that brought Quinn. I didn’t think she’d be staying for this long.”
“Oh, you like her, and you know it.”
“I like you, Jane.”
There was a pause. “And I like you, too,” she said at last. “I like you a lot. I don’t know how you learned to kiss, being in an all-male military school, but you kiss damn good. I hope it’s because you practiced on your pillow. Look, I’ll call you back, okay? After Romeo here finishes making up with Juliet, I mean.”
“Okay,” he said. “Listen, have a good night.”
“I already am,” said Jane. “Bye, Darius.”
“Bye, Jane.” The phone clicked, and the dial tone came on. Darius turned off the phone and continued sitting on the top step, arms resting on his knees, looking down the stairs and wondering what Jane and Quinn had been talking about. Women—he would never figure them out. He got up and went into Quinn’s room to give her the phone.
“What did you and Jane talk about?” he asked.
“Stuff,” said Quinn. She lay on her stomach on her bed, reading a girls’ fashion magazine. “Now, shoo. I have to make a lot of calls.”
Darius went back to his room and shut the door. He locked it this time and went back to his computer, turning on the monitor. The short story he’d been working on swam into view, and he read the last few lines. They sucked. The whole story sucked.
In disgust, he saved the document and shut down the computer. He wasn’t up to finishing and editing the tale, which was about an intelligent flesh-eating bacteria. The chaos over Quinn and Jane had ruined his mood. Darius shook his head and thanked God he had not been born a girl. Who knew what he’d be doing right now if he had been? He went to his bed, picked up a book entitled, When Bad Things Happen to People Who Deserve It, and began to read. It never failed to cheer him up.
This time, however, he couldn’t follow a single word. All he saw in his mind was Jane’s face close to his. He remembered the soft touch of her lips against his mouth, how the scent of her filled his head with nothing else but the moment she was in his arms, when she was his.
After many long minutes, he put the book away and lay back on his bed, looking at an interesting crack in the ceiling, and waited for Jane’s call.
“I’ll bet you didn’t know,” said
Jane, pointing a chicken finger at Quinn, “that it’s not just Lawndale High
that does it. Every single high school in
“Does that have anything to do with pesticides in the drinking water?” asked Darius. No one paid any attention to him. He sat beside Jane at the cafeteria table, facing Quinn, but for all that he might as well have been invisible.
“No way!” said Quinn to Jane. His sister beamed like the morning sun. “Don’t they do anything else besides football?”
“Oh, sure, lots of stuff,” said Jane, “but football is played in yearly quarters. Lawndale High even has a football team to play the other schools during the summer. It’s like a religion, only the football fans are more fanatical.”
“That should be on ‘Sick, Sad World,’” said Darius. “‘Football addiction: Can it strike your—”
Quinn cut in. “You know, I was thinking about becoming a cheerleader, but they have only that one outfit, you know? How fashionable is that?”
Jane waved away the idea. “You wouldn’t like it anyway. I hear that cheerleaders are required to date only football players.”
“And fail a reality test,” mumbled Darius.
“Oh, no way!” cried Quinn, laughing. “That’s so, like, restrictive! What it I wanted to date, like, some rich kid who didn’t play—”
Jane drew a finger across her throat and made the sound of someone’s head being cut off. “Off the team,” she said. “They don’t allow it. They’ll repossess your pom-pom.”
Quinn laughed hysterically.
Darius sighed and checked his watch. Twelve thirty-two. His new girlfriend and his sister were hitting it off like gangbusters. What was next on the agenda—giving each other makeovers and going shoe shopping together at the mall? He felt so far out of the loop, he didn’t even know where the loop was.
Quinn wiped her eyes. “Oh, my God, you are so funny! This has been great!”
“You have class in eight minutes,” said Darius blandly.
“Oh, I know. I’m just having so much fun. Whew!” She reluctantly got up from her seat. “I’d better get to my locker and get ready for math.”
“Hey, quick question,” said Jane. She pointed at Quinn’s face. “What color do you call that, your eye shadow?”
“What?” Quinn stopped laughing and leaned close to Jane, her eyes wide. “Is it smeared? Is it running?”
“No, no, no!” Jane said quickly. “I just like that color and wanted to know what it is. I’d like to use something like that in a painting I’m doing, a portrait.”
“Oh, sure! Um, this part—” Quinn pointed to the area below her eyes “—is your basic Perfect Peach, and the eyelids are Desert Rose, with a dusting of Gold Starburst. I sometimes use two colors together on the same spot to get a different effect, and maybe smear them together, but these are pretty much right out of the box.”
“Desert Rose with gold,” said Jane. “Thanks!”
“Oh, you’re welcome!” said Quinn. “Dari, would you take my tray back? Thanks! Bye!” She waved as she hurried off.
Jane waved back, but Darius merely lifted a finger and wagged it. He turned to Jane. “So, feeling enlightened after your talk with the Zen master?”
“She’s got a fantastic color sense,” said Jane with clear admiration. “It’s amazing. No wonder she looks so good.”
“Jane, we’re talking about makeup here, not Rembrandt.”
“Color is color. Hey, are you going to eat those fries?”
“All yours,” said Darius, pushing his tray over. “I’m taking a five-minute break from fat.”
“You look glum.”
He shrugged. “I’m not glum,” he said. “I’m . . . I’m . . .”
“Bull,” said Jane, her mouth full of fries. “You’re pouting because Quinn and I are buds now and we don’t need you anymore.”
“Except to carry your trays back.”
“Oh, get over your damn cheap self,” Jane said cheerfully. “She worships you, you know?”
Darius looked Jane in the eye. “The acoustics in here are bad. I thought you said—”
“She does. That’s why she wanted to meet me. She needed reassurance that evil slut Jane wasn’t stealing away her dependable but naïve big bro. That’s all that was up.”
“Excuse me? Naïve?”
“As far as women are concerned, yeah.” Jane said it as a statement of fact, but without a trace of insult.
He looked away, mortified. Did both
Jane and Quinn know more about him than he did? Was there any justice in the
universe at all? Why was he even bothering to ask? “I wasn’t always that
dependable,” he muttered, changing the subject. “She and I used to fight a lot,
years ago when we were little kids back in
“That was before your dad sent you off to that army school because he was fighting with you so much, right?”
“Yeah.” He then frowned and turned his head to Jane, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t recall mentioning why I was sent there.”
“Oh, Quinn told me all about it last night. I’d sort of figured it out for myself, but she put the final pieces in place.”
“What, did you tell you what kind of underwear I wear, too?”
“No, but she did tell me she used to make you carry her piggyback so she could pretend she had a pony. She said she used to call you Tornado.”
Darius dropped his head in mock shame. “I’m going to burn all of her scrunchies.”
“Dari,” said Jane, lowering her voice, “Quinn is hungry for your acceptance. Maybe ‘desperate’ is a better word. I think more than anything she wants to be sure you don’t forget her. I can’t be more analytical than that, or I’ll lose my armchair psychologist’s license.”
“How could I forget her?” said Darius, looking at the table. “I mean, every time I turn around, there she is, poking around in my life.” He sighed. “It’s not so bad, really, I guess. I missed her a lot when I was at Buxton Ridge. I did a lot of thinking then about her and me. A lot went on in her life while I was gone, and I think a lot of it was bad. It really bothers me.” He looked off into space. “I can’t believe how much she’s changed. She’s like a whole different person. The little Quinn who wanted me to play pony is gone.” He broke off and swallowed.
“She is something, isn’t she?”
Darius nodded as he picked at the remains of his food. “I don’t see why she needs my acceptance, though. She’s friends with half the planet, and the other half just hasn’t met her yet. She doesn’t have to do anything to be a boy magnet. Being popular is part of her genetic code. I’m surprised the Fashion Club didn’t make her president for life.”
“All that’s surface stuff,” said Jane softly. “Surface stuff is easy. I’m guessing now, and maybe I’m poking my nose into a place it doesn’t belong, but you’re probably the only person who really knows her who doesn’t yell at her all the time.”
Darius stared at the tabletop and said nothing. He had not thought of that. A pang of guilt shot through him for all the times he had yelled at his sister. After a long moment, he grimaced and checked his watch. “We’d better go,” he said, pushing back from the table. “Mr. O’Neill’s probably dying to tell us about Hamlet’s self-esteem problems.”
They stood and collected their trays. Darius stacked Quinn’s on top of his own.
“Speaking of self-esteem,” said Jane, “I’m getting out of that after-school class. O’Neill teaches it, by the way.”
“How are you getting out?”
“Oh, I have all the answers to the release test. I can take it at any time and drop the class.”
Darius stopped, almost spilling the contents of both trays he carried. “You what?”
“Sure! I’ve taken this self-esteem class six times before, mostly in my freshman year. It hasn’t changed a bit.”
Darius stared at her. “If you could’ve gotten out,” he said, “why didn’t you?”
“Because having low self-esteem makes me feel special.”
“I think that’s the heroin talking, not you. No, seriously. Why didn’t you?”
Jane shrugged. “I didn’t have
anything else to do after school. No one’s at home most days except
“So, what are you going to do with all your new-found free time?”
Jane smiled, not looking at him. “Well, I thought I’d ask you for ideas. Got any?”
The rest of the week passed without serious disruption, other than flare-ups between Darius’s parents. Friday afternoon found Darius and Jane walking into Pizza King, reputedly a better-than-average restaurant near the high school where many of the students congregated.
“Great self-esteem speech at the assembly,” said Darius to Jane, waiting for her to take a seat at the booth he’d found for the two of them. “I liked the part at the end where you ran off crying. That was Oscar material. It got my vote.”
“It’s what Mr. O’Neill gets for making me get up in front of everyone and talk about how I beat negative self-esteem,” said Jane. She picked up a menu, glanced at it, and threw it down again. “I’m bloody starved.”
“Tut, tut, language.” Darius picked
up the menu and squinted at it. “You learn that in
“I learned it from my dad,” said Jane. “He went to Wales for four months when I was a kid, and when he came back he kept saying ‘bloody this’ and ‘bloody that’ when he was developing his film.”
“You know, about the assembly speech, you could have just faked laryngitis and gotten out of it.”
“Nah. I’ve got theater in my veins. If it’s art, we Lanes do it.”
“Is sleeping an art? Say yes.”
“Some people think so.
“Hmmm. You wanna split a giant pizza?”
“Sure. Let’s get the garlic bread, too. They make fantastic garlic bread here. We’ll need extra napkins.”
“Okay,” said Darius, still reading the menu. “My treat.”
“Let me split the bill with you.”
“Nah. Isn’t done.”
“Isn’t done by whom? I’ve got money.”
Darius winced. “It . . . just let me pay for it. I’m good.”
“Good you are, but is this guy-always-pays thing something they drilled into you at the academy?”
Darius didn’t answer. A muscle tightened in his cheek. He suddenly thought about things he had hoped he never would again.
He sighed and put down the menu. Easy way out, he decided. “I just don’t think about it when I can. I’m not like Dad, going on and on about it. Mostly he tells me how it made him a man and all that, but he complains about it at other times. His own dad forced him to go there all through junior high and high school. Dad got to go home only on short breaks.” Darius shifted in his seat, looking uncomfortable. “My dad really hates his own dad. He gets so angry when he talks about Grandpa Morgendorffer, who’s dead now. I think Dad feeds me this line about how Buxton Ridge was good for him just for my benefit, not that he really means it. It had a bad reputation in the sixties and seventies. It was cleaned up after that, but it was kind of a snake pit before then.”
“Ah,” said Jane. “Then—”
“Hey, I’m Artie,” said a voice beside them. Darius and Jane looked up. A freckled, bucktoothed young man with a weak chin and unkempt hair stood by the table in a Pizza King waiter’s outfit. “Can I take your order?”
“Hi, Artie,” said Jane in a tone of familiarity. “We’ll take an order of garlic bread and a giant . . . what sort of pizza?” she added in Darius’s direction.
“I dunno,” he said. “This Meat-Monster Special looks—”
“Do you know anything about UFOs?” asked Artie out of the blue.
Darius looked up in confusion. “What?”
“Artie—” Jane began in a warning tone.
“You know, flying saucers, the
messengers from those in the Great Beyond,” Artie said with great earnestness.
“Back in 1947 in
“The Meat-Monster Special!” Jane interrupted. “Definitely, the Meat-Monster Special! And two large Ultra-Colas!”
“Oh,” said Artie, writing this down. “Okay. I’ll be right back unless I have to take out the garbage or something.”
As Artie walked away, Darius gave him the eye. “He looks familiar.”
“He was interviewed on that ‘Sick,
Sad World’ episode on UFOs we missed on Monday,” Jane said. “I saw him in the
commercial bits. You probably saw him there, too. He works around
“What’s your Mom like?”
“Mom?” Darius looked at Jane. “I
dunno. I don’t feel like I know her really well. She’s driven, a workaholic.
Not real friendly, probably from fighting with Dad. She isn’t home much. She
used to get frozen lasagna in bulk and microwave it for dinner, but since we
“Sure. I run the microwave and call for carryout. I’m experienced at dialing for pizza and Chinese.”
Jane looked thoughtful. “I imagine that would get expensive.”
“Mom gives me extra money to take care of Quinn when everyone else is out.” He played with the menu on the table. “They don’t . . . never mind.”
“What?” said Jane in a low tone.
Darius looked around. “Oh, Mom and
Dad don’t like each other much anymore. Sort of like Hitler and Stalin didn’t
like each other much. They started off with this fake alliance, and then
everything unraveled and there was that long party at
“Are you talking about Hitler and Stalin, or your parents?”
“Hmmm.” Jane scratched her left ear around the three silver-wire pierced earrings she wore there. “My folks aren’t around enough for me to figure out what historical figures they’re like. I’d have to say Dad’s like the Invisible Man, and Mom’s like one of those grown-up hippies in the movies, the kind that can’t focus on the present, so I’d have to go more with fictional models than historical ones.”
“With a little help from everyone else. I wonder sometimes if I was the one who raised him.”
“Couldn’t have been too hard caring for a guy who sleeps all day.”
“Exactly,” said Jane. “Exactly.” She looked to one side. “Here comes our garlic bread. Oh, and there’s your sis and the Fashion Banditos.”
Darius looked over as Artie delivered their order. Quinn and three other girls her age were coming into Pizza King. Quinn spotted Darius and Jane and waved, grinning. An attractive brown-haired girl with a superior look glanced at the couple and scowled before turning away. A thin Asian girl in a blue dress looked blankly at them before following her friends to a table, and a brown-haired girl in pigtails waved at Darius and Jane for a half-second, then looked embarrassed and ran to catch up with the others.
“How special,” said Darius. “I bet she raises their collective IQ by thirty points when they get together.”
“I bet that . . .” Jane began, then shook her head.
“Oh, forget it. I doubt they’ll ask you for a date. They only go out with popular people.”
“Thank God,” said Darius, who wasn’t in the least offended. “That’s all I need to do is date my sister’s friends.”
Jane cleared her throat.
“I didn’t mean you,” Darius said with a wounded look.
“Heads up,” said Jane, looking over Darius’s shoulder.
He turned to see Quinn walking over. “Hey!” she said to Darius. “Listen, I have to ask you a favor—oh, don’t look at me like that! I haven’t even told you what it is yet!”
“He’s crabby today,” said Jane. “That time of the month.”
“It’s always that time of the month with him,” said Quinn, playfully punching Darius in the shoulder. “Look, word got out that one of the cheerleaders is having a big party at her house a week from this Saturday. Can you talk to Mom or something and see if I can go over and maybe stay out past nine? I need you to go to base for me.”
“To bat for you, you mean.”
“No, to ask Mom if I can stay out till maybe eleven for once. Get with it, Dari.”
Darius sighed. “Were you invited over?”
“Not really, but yes. See, cheerleaders have to invite the whole football team when they have parties, and so she had to invite these three guys on the team who keep asking me for dates, so they asked me to go with them, but then they got into a fight over who was going to—”
“Okay, okay! Stop! I’ll ask!” said Darius. “I can’t promise anything, though. I’ll ask tonight.”
“Thanks!” said Quinn. “Isn’t he great?” she said to Jane. Quinn punched him in the shoulder again before walking off to her friends.
“She’s getting stronger,” Darius mumbled, rubbing his arm. “I’ll have to cut back on her vitamins.” He looked back at Jane. “I’ll bet I have to go along and chaperone her. Mom’s mentioned that to me before. She wants to keep a close eye on where Quinn goes and who she’s with. Probably afraid of a lawsuit.”
“You know, most parents around here
don’t mind if their kids are out for a bit. Take me, for instance. My parents
“Beats me. Anyway, Mom and Dad have a major ongoing discussion, to use the term loosely, about whether Quinn and I are living up to their standards. Dad usually starts the discussion by yelling about my—” He broke off suddenly. “Wait, sorry. Starting to channel Dad there. Pick a topic for me, any topic.”
Jane sipped at her Ultra-Cola and reached for a piece of garlic bread. “The topic is food,” she said. “Eat.”
Halfway through the pizza, Jane raised a finger as she swallowed a bite of the Meat-Monster Special. “If you have to chaperone Quinn,” she said, “would you like someone to chaperone you?”
“Who?” he said, confused.
Jane kicked him under the table and stared at him with too-large eyes.
“Oh!” he said. “Uh, definitely! Absolutely! And I can chaperone you, too.”
“We just have to get me invited first.”
“Well, Quinn can’t go unless I go, and I can’t go unless you go, so you have to go, right?”
“I hate to say this,” said Jane,
“but that kind of logic might actually work on a
Darius looked pained. “I hate meeting people.”
“I can’t blame you,” said Jane, “but this is for your sister. Go over there and beat your chest and throw things. It works for chimpanzees.”
Rolling his eyes, Darius wiped his hands and got up. “If I’m not back in five minutes—”
“—I’ll finish the pizza by myself,” said Jane.
He walked over, looking as dull as possible. “Excuse me,” he said to the blonde, big-breasted girl in the cheerleader outfit and double ponytails, and the muscular, dark-haired guy sitting across from her wearing a Lawndale Lions football uniform. “I—”
“Hey!” said the guy. “I’m the QB, and this is my girl!”
“No doubt,” said Darius. “I wanted to ask—”
“She’s taken, okay?” said the football player. “Beat it.”
“Kevvy, wait!” squealed the cheerleader. “Let him finish! He’s that new guy, okay? He doesn’t know how things are done here!”
“Oh,” said the football player. He motioned to Darius. “Go ahead and ask her out, and then I’ll tell you why you can’t go out with her.”
“My sister said she was invited over
to a cheerleader’s party next weekend,” he said to
“Oh, that’s my party!”
“She’s the girl with the red hair, sitting over there,” Darius said, pointing across the dining room. “She says some football players asked her to the party, and—”
“Whoa, babe!” protested “Kevvy.” “It wasn’t me! I’d never ask out a girl who was cuter than you!”
Her boyfriend wasted no time in running after her. “Wait! Babe!” he shouted. “Let me explain! It’s not what I said it sounded like!”
Darius stood by their table, watching them run out of sight past the pizzeria window. He turned around, saw everyone looking at him, and walked back to the booth with Jane. “That went well,” he said as he sat down again. He noticed Jane was counting out some bills in her hand. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Paying for the meal,” she said. “That was the best floor show I’ve ever seen. It was worth every penny.”
“Shush,” she said, dropping the bills on the edge of the table on top of the check. “Now, tell me your secret for sowing discord.”
He thought carefully. “I try to be myself,” he said.
“Crap. That sure won’t work for me.”
Quinn reappeared at their side. “Wow!” she said to Darius. “What did you say to them?”
“He asked Kevin out for Saturday
night, but he wouldn’t let
“Ewww!” said Quinn. “Dari, we have to work on your people skills.”
“Oh, that’s fine.” Quinn turned to Jane. “Don’t be jealous of him and Kevin,” she added. “It won’t last. It’s all the fault of that military school, you know.”
“I’ll keep a stiff upper lip,” said Jane.
“Goodbye, Quinn,” said Darius loudly. “Sorry you had to run off so soon. See you next week during visiting hours, and tell the staff hello from me.”
“Bye,” said Quinn. She started off, then dodged back and punched Darius in the arm again before she left, snickering.
Darius drummed his fingers on the table, looking after her. “Tell me again how much I like my sister,” he said.
“Mmmgg,” said Jane, chewing a mouthful of pizza. “Mgl bg mg zg’mtz zb’btz.”
He nodded and picked up a slice himself. He wondered how he was going to present the party story to his mother for maximum beneficial effect for Quinn—and, of course, for an evening out for himself and Jane. The arguing might go on all weekend, but he couldn’t let it get out of hand. It would have been a better weekend if he’d had his driver’s license by now, so he could have driven Jane to Middleton for that UFO convention on Saturday. He wouldn’t be sixteen until mid-November, though. Maybe next year, if they were still together. He hoped they would be. Jane was one of a kind. He’d never find her like again.
When Darius got home that evening, his father was in the kitchen, mixing a pitcher of margaritas. The kitchen smelled of tequila and limejuice. Darius walked in and knew it would be a difficult night when he spotted the empty tequila bottle. His plans to talk about Quinn and the party went up in smoke.
“It’s almost six,” said his father, looking up. “When I was your age, my father made me get home every night at five thirty, so I’d never miss getting home by six. Old Mad Dog, that’s what he did.”
Darius nodded carefully and went to the refrigerator.
“That it?” asked his father. “Nothing for the old man?”
“Hi,” Darius said, looking his father in the eye with one hand on the refrigerator handle. “Good to see you.”
His father grunted and returned to stirring the margaritas. “Old Mad Dog would’ve beaten me good if I’d come home and not been respectful to him.”
Darius took his hand off the refrigerator. “How was your day?” he asked. It was a gamble, but an open-ended question had a chance to derail an outburst—or trigger one.
“How was my day,” said his father. “I’ll tell you how it was. I had two clients who didn’t show, one client who showed and said no to my proposals, and one client who took my proposals home to think about it. Didn’t call me back. That’s how my day went. Big waste of time.”
A possible path appeared before Darius. He took it. “You’re doing better than your father did, aren’t you?”
His father looked up. “Doing better?
I’m doing better than old Mad Dog Morgendorffer?” He grunted and looked into
the pitcher. “That could be. He was dead by my age now. Heart attack killed
him. I was already in
Darius opened the refrigerator and looked inside. He took out a gallon jug of milk and shut the refrigerator, walking over to the cabinets to get himself a glass.
“It did make a man out of you, didn’t it?” said his father, looking at him.
Darius looked back when his father spoke. The margarita glass his father held was now empty. Darius nodded. “Yes,” he said.
“Yes, sir! You should say, yes, sir, to me, like you did in school to those jackals running around in their holier-than-thou drill uniforms! God, I hated them.” His father refilled his glass. “Damned if I know where the salt is around here.”
Nothing remained to do but wait and see where this went. Darius leaned against the countertop and ignored the milk and glass behind him.
“What did you think about them?” his father asked.
His son licked his lips. “The drill sergeants and officers?”
“Of course!” yelled his father. “Who the hell do you think I’m talking about? JFK and Camelot?”
Darius stared at his father for a few moments. “They were just doing their job,” he said. They weren’t that bad, he thought. It was the other students who sucked, but the staff was mostly tolerable.
“Doing their job,” said his father. “Doing their job, hell. They were jackals.” He pointed at Darius. “You know what jackals are, don’t you? They’re these little doglike things that live in the desert. They come out at night and attack wounded beasts, biting them and running off until the prey can’t fight back anymore. They wait until it’s almost bled to death, and then they close in for the kill. That’s what jackals are.”
His father drained his margarita glass and nodded sagely to Darius. “Don’t let that fool you, though. It made a real man out of me. I’m proud of that school, proud my rotten old man sent me there. He knew it would take a lot to make me a man, and he was right. I hated him, hated him more than death, but he was right. I still hate him, but it was the right thing to do. I know it now. And I was right to send you there, too.”
Darius heard a noise from the living room. It was the front door opening, very slowly and quietly. Quinn. He glanced at the clock in the kitchen. It was 6:04 p.m. She was late.
“You were right,” said Darius loudly. “You were right, too . . . sir.”
His father looked at him in confusion and a little anger. “What was that?”
“I said,” said Darius just as loudly, hearing soft footsteps run upstairs, “you were right to send me there. It did the right thing for me. I can go on with my life and . . . do the right things now. It did make a man out of me.”
His father stared at him for a long moment, then looked down at the pitcher of margaritas.
“Want me to help you find the salt, sir?” Darius asked.
His father snorted. “It’s around here somewhere,” he said. “Your mother hid it. She hides everything around here. I can’t find anything. If I wanted to cook something, I couldn’t do it. Just let her cook, then. See if I care.” He shook his head and looked around the kitchen. “Bitch,” he muttered.
Darius opened a few cabinets, then opened the one in which he knew the saltshaker was kept. He took it out and put it on the counter in front of his father. “There you go, sir.”
His father stared at the shaker and did nothing.
Darius turned and picked up the milk. He took it back to the refrigerator and put it away. His hunger was gone. “I have homework to do, sir,” he said. “Have a good night.”
His father nodded, still staring down at the saltshaker.
Halfway across the living room, heading for the stairs, Darius heard his father call for him. He sighed and walked back, stopping in the kitchen doorway.
“I want you to know who gave you your name,” said his father, pouring another glass from the pitcher. “That was me.”
Darius waited. After a moment, he realized a response was called for. “Thank you,” he said.
His father raised the glass. “It was my idea. I wanted you to have a great name, so I named you after an ancient king. I think he was Roman. I liked his name. Darius the Great. Your mother said I could do it only if we could call you Daria if you came out a girl. Good thing that didn’t happen.” His father chuckled. “Glad that didn’t happen. God only knows how things would have gone then.”
“I like the name,” said Darius. “Thanks.”
His father nodded. Darius turned to go.
His father threw the glass at him.
It smashed into the wall by Darius’s face and exploded into a hundred shards
that sprayed across the room.
“Call me sir, God damn you!” roared his father. “You call me sir! SIR!”
Shocked, Darius didn’t react right away. He then slowly straightened and faced his father. How curious, he thought, that he felt no fear at all—just an infinite tiredness and a vague disappointment.
I can’t go back to Buxton Ridge and leave Quinn here alone again.
“Thank you, sir, for giving me my name,” he said.
His father stared at the huge splash that ran down the wall by Darius, at the sparkling glass flung over the floor in every direction. His face colored, possibly with shame, possibly because he was angry and wished he had the drink back.
“Clean it up,” said his father, looking away. “I’m going out somewhere where people respect me.” He walked out of the kitchen through the laundry room, heading into the garage. The laundry room door slammed shut behind him. After a moment, Darius heard the garage door open, then his father slam the door on his Lexus and start it up.
He waited until he was sure his father was out of the driveway before walking to the laundry room where the vacuum sweepers were stored. He checked the garage and closed the garage door, then grabbed a push sweeper and headed back into the kitchen with it. A shower would have to wait until—
Darius shoved the sweeper aside and ran for the living room. Dressed in shorts and a long tee, Quinn was crying her head off on the sofa, grasping one of her bare feet. Blood ran down her foot and dripped on the carpeting.
“God!” said Darius. He started to grab her foot, then realized he still had glass splinters on his hands and arms. “Wait! Stay there!” He ran back in the kitchen, washed his hands off, and ran back with the first aid kit and a dishtowel.
“Hold still!” he told her. He dabbed at her foot, then grabbed it to keep her from jerking it away. “Hold still! Just hold still! I know it hurts! Let me fix it!” He quickly picked out all the shards of glass he could see, then wiped her foot with alcohol swabs and threw them aside on the carpet. Quinn alternately shrieked and choked on her sobs, her face bright red and streaked with tears. It took three large bandages to stop the bleeding in different places on her right foot. He taped over the bandages to make sure they wouldn’t come off.
Darius took his wet, splinter-covered shirt off, then wiped his face and arms with the towel. “Come on,” he said, putting his arms under Quinn’s thighs and across her back. “Let me get you out of here,” he said. “There’s glass all over. I was getting the vacuum to clean it up.”
Quinn nodded and put her arms around him. She buried her face in his chest. He stood up with her and slowly took her out of the living room, mounting the stairs with care. At the top, he carried her to her room and then to her canopied bed. He checked her bandages. The bleeding had stopped. He’d have to wash her foot later to make sure all the glass was out of it, then put on some antiseptic. Her left foot seemed fine.
“I have to go downstairs and clean up, okay?” he told her. “Before Mom gets home. You stay up here until I’m done, all right?”
Quinn nodded. He reached over and grabbed her princess phone and put it on her bed beside her, stretching the cord out. “Here. Call one of your friends for a little, when you can. I can’t get the cordless phone right now. I’ll be right back.”
He went downstairs and vacuumed the living room and the kitchen, wiped off the kitchen wall, and checked for any remaining glass. It took a half hour to finish. He put everything away, then went back upstairs and checked on Quinn again. She lay back on her bed, an arm over her face. She took her arm away to look at him. Her injured foot projected over the edge of the bed.
“How’re you doing?” he asked.
“My foot hurts a lot,” she whispered.
“I have to shower off real fast. I’ve got stuff all over me. You stay here. I’ll get you some painkillers.”
“Lock me in,” said Quinn. She didn’t have to say why.
“Sure.” He punched in the knob lock, then pulled her door shut until the lock clicked. He went down the hall to their common bathroom. Twenty minutes later, he walked out with a towel around his waist and his clothes wadded into a bundle inside a beach towel. He went to his room and changed into a plain gray sweat suit he had used at the academy for exercising. Sneakers on his feet, he went downstairs. No one was home. On impulse, he vacuumed the kitchen and living room a second time, then checked the refrigerator.
He realized then that he still wasn’t hungry. Why he’d even bothered to look was a mystery. Habit, perhaps. He picked out a container of fat-free fruit-filled yogurt for Quinn, got a spoon and a bottle of ibuprofen, and went back upstairs. He popped Quinn’s doorknob lock with a paperclip after telling her who it was.
They ordered Chinese. As she ate her yogurt, Quinn rang up all her girlfriends in the Fashion Club using conference calling, but she said nothing about the incident to any of them. Her voice was as cheery as it ever was, talking about sweaters for the fall and clever things to do with scarves. Darius locked her in her room again, then went back to his own bedroom. He left the door open to hear the Good Times Chinese Restaurant deliveryman knock downstairs.
As he sat down at his computer, he realized he wanted to call Jane. It was Friday night. Other guys were out with their girlfriends. He was home guarding his sister from his parents. He’d call Jane when the food arrived, while Quinn was eating. If Jane was home, they could talk. She’d said something about working tonight on a painting that was bothering her. Maybe she wouldn’t want to talk. Sometimes she didn’t, and he could handle that—but maybe she would want to talk.
What would he say? What would he tell her about the evening? He shook his head. He’d say nothing, of course. It was just another Friday night—better than some, worse than most because Quinn got hurt. It was just another day.
“This is messed up,” he whispered. “God damn it. This is just so messed up.”
He turned on his computer, let it warm up, then stared at the screen—and turned it off again. Nothing was on that he cared about. Over six billion channels, but nothing was on. The books on the shelves, the CDs by his bed, the backpack with his homework—none of it mattered. Nothing was on.
“This is so messed up,” he said. He put his face in his hands, elbows on his knees, and waited for the deliveryman.
Awakened by his alarm, Darius showered and made his way downstairs the next morning at seven o’clock. The early start became a reluctant habit in military school, but getting out of the house was a priority now. On this Saturday, his outfit consisted of a black-and-white Nirvana T-shirt, black shorts, and worn but comfortable track shoes.
As he descended the stairs, he heard rustling noises from the kitchen and the chirp of the microwave signaling it had stopped. His father would not be up until at least ten on weekends, so there was nothing to worry about on that count. The problem now was entirely different.
His mother was reading papers from her open briefcase and drinking a cup of coffee when he walked into the kitchen. “Good morning,” he said.
“Just a minute.” His mother frowned at the papers to keep her concentration.
Darius went to the refrigerator and got the milk, then picked out a box of cereal, a bowl, and a large spoon and carried the whole lot over to the table. He glanced at his mother several times, but she was focused on the paperwork. He was most of the way through his first bowl of cereal when her cell phone went off.
“Helen,” she absently said into the phone. “Hi, Eric.” She paused. “I’m looking at them now. I’ll be there in about thirty minutes. It looks fine to me so far.” Pause. “Let me deal with that when I get in. That shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve already talked with the witnesses. Okay.” She pushed a button to break the connection and lay the phone beside her papers. Not once did she look away from her reading.
“I have to ask something,” said Darius, putting down his spoon. “It can’t wait.”
His mother lowered her papers and frowned at him. “What?”
“Quinn wants to know if she can go to a party a week from today. I can go along to keep an eye on her.”
“Fine.” His mother lifted the paperwork again.
“She wants to stay out past nine, if that’s possible.”
“Darius,” said his mother, “I’m trying to get through the paperwork for this case before I go in today, and—”
“I’ll stay with her,” Darius interrupted. “We’ll be back before eleven.”
“Fine, fine,” she said, looking at her papers with an annoyed expression.
“We’ll be out today, but not—”
She abruptly dropped her papers and hammered the tabletop with her fist. “Darius, please! If I don’t get this deposition right, I’m out of a job, okay? Can I have some time to myself now? The money I make is practically all we’re living on! It’s for your own good!”
He nodded and finished his cereal. His mother gulped down her coffee, then grabbed her papers and stuffed them into her briefcase.
“Tell Dad when you see him,” Darius added as she got up from the table.
“Why can’t you tell him?” she snapped.
“He doesn’t want to hear about parenting issues from me.”
His mother looked furious, but she bit back a reply. It wasn’t hard to imagine what it was. If you wouldn’t fight with him so much, maybe he would listen to you, she might have said. Or, I don’t have time to listen to all of this. You deal with it and let me get this done, okay? This is more important than Quinn going to a damn party.
In any event, she said nothing and strode out of the kitchen and into the laundry room, then opened the garage door and slammed it behind her. A few moments later, Darius heard a car door bang shut, the engine of the SUV start up, and the garage door open and close. She wouldn’t be back until late. He knew the routine.
After finishing a second bowl of cereal and two Pop-Tarts, Darius cleaned up the kitchen and went upstairs to his room. He listened at Quinn’s door first and heard gentle snoring. She usually got up at nine, but she rarely came out unless she was sure she wouldn’t meet anyone. He thought about her injured foot and felt a rush of guilt. If he’d been quicker with the vacuum or had thought to warn her, she wouldn’t have walked right into the broken glass. Nothing he could do about it now. She was able to get around before she went to bed, anyway. In a subdued mood, he went to his room and began stretching for his morning run. It would empty his mind and get the day going.
And today there would be a bonus. He checked his watch to be sure he was on time. Whether his running partner would make it out was another question. She wasn’t a morning person.
Ten minutes later, he walked out the front door and set off. He picked up a steady pace heading west down Glen Oaks. Few people were out this morning. It was one of those late summer days when autumn makes its presence felt with a cool breeze and yellowing leaves. The prediction was for rain that evening, but few clouds drifted overhead. The air smelled of cut grass. A neighbor mowed her yard, a small dog yapped at a window, and children called to each other on a nearby street. What the hell are they doing up at this hour? he wondered.
Darius turned north on another street, looking ahead for the turn left onto Howard Drive, Jane’s street.
Jane jogged slowly east on Howard toward the intersection. Her hair was pulled back in a stubby ponytail, and she wore a red T-shirt, red running sneakers, and gray running shorts with the words LAWNDALE HS on one side. She turned and saw him, immediately breaking her stride to walk. She covered her mouth and yawned, but grinned at him after that. Darius crossed the street, trying to hide his smile.
“Why the hell are you making me go running at this ungodly hour?” said Jane as he walked up. “I told you last night I was going to sleep late.”
“Hey, you told me you’d try anything once.”
“Don’t play your sick, twisted mind games on me, Morgen—” Their lips met for a long kiss “—dorffer.”
His left arm went around her slim waist. His right hand played with her silver earrings and stroked her left cheek. “You’re beautiful,” he whispered. “The sun comes up every morning just to see you.”
“You’re blind even with those glasses on,” Jane whispered back.
“I’ll use Braille, then,” said Darius, and his mouth covered hers again.
She broke away after the third long kiss. “We’d better run before I fall asleep standing here,” she said, yawning again. “No offense. Where to?”
“You pick the path,” he said. “Show me your usual route.”
“Hokay. Lezgo,” said Jane, and she took off at a respectable jog heading back the way she’d come. Darius caught up to her and they ran together.
A third of the way back up Howard,
Jane indicated a left turn, and they ran northward on
“How did your painting go last night?”
“Ah, not so good. I’m working on something new. It’s . . . I don’t know how to explain it. It’s sort of a self-portrait series, I guess.” She ran a block before adding, “I don’t know what else to say about it.”
“It’s a nonverbal thing.”
“Yeah, actually, it is. I can’t talk about some things I’m doing, not because I don’t want to, but I can’t . . . I can’t think of the words for it. I can see it in my head, but I can’t say it.” She shrugged. “It’s art.”
“Oh, I got the go-ahead for Quinn to go to that cheerleader’s party next week.”
“Was it a problem?”
“Getting permission? Nah, not this time. It went fine.”
Jane nodded. They ran in silence until they got to the tree line, then Darius followed Jane into the woods along a yard-wide dirt path that appeared to be well used. The forest was quiet and appeared to extend to the north for some distance. The path curved off to the west before long and began a series of gentle ups and downs as it curved around low rolling hills.
Thanks to his position behind Jane, Darius soon became intrigued with her gray running shorts and the way her butt jogged beneath the loose material. After he almost stumbled the third time from not watching the path, he forced himself to look away.
“This is beautiful!” he called ahead, catching a quick look at her rear end again.
“Isn’t it great?” she called back. “I don’t really come out here that often by myself. My regular route is through the subdivision, really. Didn’t mean to lead you astray. Much.”
“Do you get other people out here to run with you?”
“Uh . . . not for running, no.”
Jane didn’t answer. After a moment,
she pointed to her right. Darius saw a large pond through the trees.
They jogged at a good clip for ten minutes before coming to a fork in the trail. The right branch ran off to an area where the trees grew sparse. Darius thought he saw a parking lot beyond the tree line. Jane ran to the left, on into the trees. Darius looked back at the parking lot and figured they would be curving around the entire lot instead of running through it. That made sense. He hated running long distances on blacktop and concrete. It killed his feet.
Gradually, Darius let his mind go. The air was cool and the earthy smells refreshed his mind. He stopped glancing at Jane’s athletic behind and instead watched the way the sunlight flickered down through the thick leaves. He listened to blue jays screech and thrushes whistle, and he was startled to see a deer bound across the path ahead of them, disappearing moments later into the woods. Jane slowed to look back at Darius with a broad grin, then forged ahead. Both were perspiring, but Darius felt better than he had in weeks.
Rounding a low hill, Jane slowed and pointed ahead. Darius looked. The path became arrow-straight for perhaps a tenth of a mile ahead.
“Bye,” said Jane, and she was off like a gunshot, legs flashing down the path. Stunned, Darius kicked it into high gear behind her, but she was clearly in her element. Jesus Christ, he thought, she’s a damn track star! He clenched his teeth and sprinted after her with all he had.
It was hopeless. Jane could run like a Greek goddess. She slowed and stopped at the end of the straightaway, where the path took a curve to the right, and she waited for him with the smirkiest smirk he had ever seen on another human being.
He staggered up a handful of seconds later and threw himself down on a grassy patch by the path, flopping on his back with arms and legs spread out. It was impossible not to pant.
Jane pretended to check a nonexistent watch on her left wrist, making tisking noises. “Gosh, I’m sorry,” she said, looking down at him, “but I have sex only with men who can catch me.”
Darius put a hand over his face and groaned. “You are sick and evil,” he said, “and those are your good points. You are the most wicked of all sick and evil dominatrixes.” He paused. “Wait, what’s the correct plural of that? Let’s see. Um, dominatrices? Domina—damn you! You’ve given me writer’s block!”
“And you call yourself a real author.” Jane kicked him in the foot with a red sneaker. “Recite poetry for me, weakling slave.”
“What? Oh, okay. Uh . . . ‘The sun was shining on the sea, / Shining with all his might: / He did his very best to make / The billows smooth and bright— / And this was odd because it was / The middle of the night.’”
“That’s from that
“You’re the dominatrix. You’re supposed to know.”
“Insolent. I should whip you, but you’d probably like it.”
“Promises, promis—” Darius lunged up from the ground and grabbed Jane by one leg, pulling her down on him as she shrieked.
“You bastard!” she yelled, wrestling with him. “You touched the royal me! I really am going to—” She burst into peals of laughter and jerked violently. “Augh! Stop! No! Don’t tickle me there! Augh! No, stop! No! Nottherenottherenot—no! No! Stopstopstop—AAAAHHHH!” She became incoherent, wiggling on the ground as his fingers worked into her sides and lower back.
“Stop fighting it!” he said, letting go of her. “You’re getting all dirty!”
“You!” she gasped. “You got me all dirty! I’m going to kick your ass! Who do you think you are? Who do—mmph!”
It was difficult to talk with their mouths pressed so tightly together. They slowly rearranged themselves to lie side by side on the ground, their legs interlaced. Darius rolled Jane so she was slightly under him, encircled by his arms as they kissed.
After an eternity, they broke apart for air. Darius kissed her face and hair, and smelled the way her body scent changed from moment to moment. She was getting turned on. He knew he was, too, but he was in no hurry. He wanted this moment of paradise to last forever.
“Cheater,” Jane gasped. “Go slower.”
“I don’t—” She took a deep breath. “I don’t—mmm, wait a minute. Wait.” He pulled back until their faces were a hand span apart. They were breathing like steam engines.
Jane swallowed and buried her face in his soiled shirt. “Let’s not go too far,” she mumbled. “I’m sorry. I know I’m really awful to bring this up right at this extra-special moment when we’re practically—”
“Yeah, and you’re drunk or stoned or both. Maybe you really are blind.” She spit out a piece of grass, stuck out her tongue to peer at the tip, and sighed, looking into his eyes. “What’s your vision again?”
He took his glasses off and laid them aside with care. “You look great,” he said, deliberately looking at a spot in the forest away from her face.
“Oh, you ass.” She tried to push him away.
“Slower,” he said. His fingers ran through her silken black bangs and brushed out a leaf and a twig. The band holding her hair in its ponytail had fallen out. He massaged the back of her head. This seemed to calm her. Her blue eyes started to close.
“Slower, yes,” she whispered, “and not . . . too . . . whatever.”
He bent his head and kissed her neck and shoulder. The taste of her skin filled his mouth.
“I don’t care if you are blind,” she said, eyes closed. “You’re a dynamite kisser—but I’m still faster than you. Don’t forget it.”
He didn’t answer.
She stopped talking.
Darius came home alone just before ten that morning. He ruffled his hair again to get more leaf fragments out of it, then took off his muddy sneakers and went in the front door. The house was quiet. He went upstairs and headed for the bathroom.
Quinn was already in there. Fully dressed, she sat on the toilet with the lid down. She had taken the water-soaked bandages off her foot and was inspecting the cuts on her heel and arch. Her hair was still wet from the shower.
“Hey,” he said, stopping in the doorway. “Can I see?”
“Yeah,” she said, then got a good look at him. “Ewww! What did you do, roll in the dirt? Look at you!”
“I fell down a couple of hills,” he said, kneeling and inspecting her foot. The cuts did not appear infected, but he didn’t want to take chances. “Let me get cleaned up, and then I’ll put more antiseptic on that. Or you can put it on if you want.”
“No, you,” she said quickly. “I can’t stand it. It stings too much.”
“Okay. Let me shower first.”
Quinn got up and limped to the door, but as she glanced at him something caught her attention. “Tell me one thing, okay?” she said from the doorway.
“Tell me the two of you are using protection.”
Darius flinched and looked his sister in the eyes—but only for a second. He looked away and peeled off his T-shirt, throwing it on the tile floor. “Cut it out, sis.”
“You’ve got lipstick on your—”
He exhaled heavily, feeling his self-control slip. “What we’re doing is no damn business of yours!” he hissed. He still couldn’t look at her. He ran a hand over his face and felt like a heel. What did Jane say about him being the only person who didn’t yell at his sister?
“I’m sorry,” he said in a low voice. “I’m just tired.”
Quinn tried to speak, but it didn’t come. “Forget it,” she said. She turned to go.
“Quinn.” She stopped but did not look back. “Quinn,” he said, “we’re not . . . we’re not doing it. I mean, we’re not doing anything that would be a problem. We’re not. Man, I can’t even believe I’m saying this to you.”
She nodded, then went on to her room.
“I’ll be there in a little,” he said, looking at the floor.
“Okay.” She left her door open.
He showered and was back in his room in fifteen minutes. He’d forgotten to leave his own bathrobe in the bathroom closet, so he had to borrow Quinn’s, which was mildly embarrassing but would send Quinn up the wall if she found out. He hurriedly changed into a green Army T-shirt, black jeans, and tall black-leather boots—his favorite hang-around outfit—then returned both bathrobes to the bathroom, got the antiseptic bottle and a bandage box and tape, and went into Quinn’s room.
“Wait,” she said, lying on her back on her canopy bed. She grabbed a pillow and pressed it over her face with both arms, then stuck her injured foot in his direction. He held her foot steady as he put the medicine on. She jerked and screamed into her pillow each time he touched her, even if it wasn’t with antiseptic.
“Quinn,” he said, putting down the bottle, “as much as the idea of torturing you appeals to me, I can’t do this with all the sound effects. Does it really hurt that badly?”
“Sort of,” she said, her voice muffled under the pillow. “Not really, I guess. I thought if I just screamed, it wouldn’t hurt so much. You know, like if you overreact to something, it isn’t as bad?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that,” he said. “Did someone in the Fashion Club tell you this? Is this how they handle morning bed hair?”
“No, dummy. It was in last month’s issue of Waif. They were talking about stress or something, like if you scream into your pillow when you’re totally freaked out, how that’s supposed to—”
“Okay, enough. I get the idea. I don’t think it works in this case, though.”
“How would you know? I’m not putting that stinging stuff on your foot!”
He finished the task to the accompaniment of several more low-volume shrieks, then wrapped up her foot again. “Can you get around on it?” he said, getting up.
Quinn sat up and looked her bandaged foot over. “Oh, shoot,” she said. “I can’t wear my sandals with that thing on. I look like the Mummy.” She got up experimentally, steadying herself with one hand on a bedpost and one on Darius’s arm. Any pressure on her foot caused her to wince. She didn’t appear to be overreacting.
“Too bad we don’t have crutches,” Darius said. “If we could get them in pink, they’d go with your shirt.”
Quinn took her hand away and punched him solidly on the arm. “Yeah, that would look really super with my outfit, though it is true that a good pair of crutches can jack up the sympathy response in most guys. It’s a last-ditch thing, though.” She looked at her injured foot. “This sucks. I wanted to go over to Sandi’s this afternoon and try some of my blush on her, and I also wanted to show her that I don’t throw up every time I go outside my own home. I’m on probation with the Fashion Club until Sandi decides I’m mentally stable enough to join.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“She says they have standards, and what good are standards if you don’t use them on people?”
“You can’t imagine the level of irony in what you said,” said Darius, shaking his head in disgust. “Those twits have more air in their heads than the Hindenburg, and they have the gall to say you’re not mentally fit to join their ranks? You’re the only one of them who has an IQ in the three-digit range.”
“Oh, you don’t understand,” said Quinn.
“Yeah, I think you said something about me not understanding—oh.” He winced. “Forget it.”
“Oh, you mean what Jane told you the other day about you being sort of naïve about women?”
He did a double take and stepped back from her in shock. “Jane told you that?”
“Last night, yeah. She was right, but I already knew it.”
“But you didn’t talk—” He blinked. “You called her?”
“I can call her if I want!” Quinn swung a fist at his arm, but he sidestepped and she missed. Off-balance, she grabbed the bedpost, standing on one foot. “It’s not like you’ve got a lock on her time, you dork! She’s my friend, too!”
“What the hell did you tell her?”
“Nothing about you,” she sneered. “Not a lot about you, anyway. God, I don’t know what she sees in you. She thinks you need a sense of humor, or more of one, but she says you have potential.”
Darius stared at Quinn, aghast.
“Dari,” Quinn said in a different tone, and she hopped close enough to him to grab him by the arm. She raised a finger and poked him hard in the chest, looking him in the face as she spoke. “When the two of you start doing it, you’d better get your butt to a drugstore and get some protection. I got your little joke about falling down a couple of hills this morning—real cute, like you must think I’m in kindergarten or something. I know Jane will be smart about this stuff, but you’d better be, too. I swear to God, if I find out you and she are doing it and you’re not being careful, I’m going to kick you right where guys don’t like to be kicked, I swear I will. You—Dari! Hey! Come back here! Dari! This is important! Damn it, I can’t chase you like this! Hey, open your door! Don’t lock it! Dari!” She hopped up to his bedroom door in the hallway and grabbed the knob, but she was too late.
Darius walked over to his bed as his sister pounded on his bedroom door. He sat down on the edge and took off his glasses to rub his eyes. It was bad enough that his sister and girlfriend were spilling all of his innermost secrets to each other, but to have his fourteen-year-old sister lecture him on birth control was just too much.
That she was right made it intolerable. That wasn’t the point, though.
We didn’t do anything she should be worried about, he thought. You can’t get a girl pregnant by feeling her up her shirt. He fell backward on the bed and put the pillow over his head to block out the sound of Quinn lightly hammering on the door with a nonstop rhythm. And I wouldn’t do anything stupid to hurt Jane anyway. I couldn’t do that. It would be totally insane to hurt her. She’s everything to me. She doesn’t even want to go that fast when we make out, although what we’ve starting doing is already making my head spin. All I know about what people do when they love each other comes from reading sex manuals in bookstores or watching those weekend movies at the academy theater. I don’t have any real experience at love, and I’m sure not getting anything from my parents. I’m just making it up as I go along, copying whatever I see that looks good. I don’t know what people really do when they’re in love. I don’t even—
That was when a new thought entered his head and erased everything else.
I love her. I love Jane. I really do. Oh, shit.
He took the pillow off his head to stop thinking about it. His head felt light and his ears rang, though it was quiet except for Quinn’s drumming on the door. She stopped when he opened it.
“Can I come in?” she said.
He stood there for a moment, then shrugged and walked over to his bed. She hopped in, closed the door behind her, then sat down at his desk and wheeled his chair over to the bed near him.
“You’re worse than the Furies,” he said without looking at her.
“Was that some kind of car or something in a movie, or what?”
“Nothing. Just say what you’re going to say and get it over with.”
“Hey.” She reached over and poked his knee. “Listen. Mom and Aunt Rita and Aunt Amy have been talking to me about sex since I was eleven. When you went off to military school, I—”
“I didn’t go there of my own free will,” he growled, his face tight.
Quinn hesitated. “I know.” She started to say something, then shook her head and went on. “When you were sent away, Mom had Aunt Rita come over and take care of me for a couple weeks while she and Dad went on this retreat and tried to straighten things out between them. Aunt Amy took me for a while after that on weekends. Things were all screwed up at home and—never mind. Anyway, what my point was, was that everyone’s talked to me about sex since I can remember, but I don’t think anyone’s talked about it with you, unless they had classes at—”
“Christ,” said Darius. He quickly got up from the bed. Quinn grabbed his arms and pulled him back.
“Wait!” she said. “Just hear me out, Dari! One minute, okay? That’s all!”
He sat down again and covered his reddened face with his hands, elbows on his knees.
Quinn leaned down so her head was close to his. “I know Dad’s not going to say it, and I’ll bet Mom won’t, either. I care about you, Dari. All I want is for you and Jane to be careful. I don’t care what you do. All I know is that I want us to stay together as a family, and I don’t want anything to blow up that might cause—that might—you know. I want Dad to get over his control thing, whatever’s making him do it, and I want Mom to pretend like we’re really here, and that’s all I want. That’s it, everything. If anything happened to tear us up as a family, I don’t think I could handle it. Aunt Rita wanted to call child welfare about Dad, because of that stuff that happened between you and him and—and everything when we were at the Grand Canyon, and I had such a fight with her over it, you wouldn’t believe. I’d never have seen you again if she’d done that. I want us to be a family, do you understand? Do you get it? That’s—”
“I get it, I get it,” Darius said, not looking up. “I know.”
“Look, I don’t even know how much longer Mom and Dad are going to be together, you know? It scares the hell out—”
Darius looked up, startled. “What was that?”
“Mom and Dad,” she said. “I don’t
even know if they’re going to stay together. They don’t even sleep together
much, you know? Dad was sleeping on the sofa half the time back in
Darius frowned. Her news disturbed
him profoundly. “He hasn’t been down there that much,” he said, his voice low.
“Dad only does that if he and Mom have had a fight. Jeez, Quinn, we just moved
“You haven’t been home with us that long, just since the end of June. They weren’t together all that much before we got here, and I’m afraid it’s getting worse. I keep telling Mom to—oh, skip it, forget it. We’re way off topic. All I started out to tell you is that . . . I don’t want to lose you again. That’s all.”
He sighed, all the air running out of his lungs, and lowered his head.
Quinn reached over and took his hand. He let her do it. He gave her fingers a gentle squeeze.
“I don’t want to lose you, either,” he whispered. He choked when he said it. His eyes burned.
They sat in silence and listened to the autumn wind outside the house.
“Don’t ask Jane about this morning,” he added, wanting to change the subject. “Just don’t.”
A faint smile curved Quinn’s lips. “Hmmm,” she said. “Okay.”
“I’m serious. Please stay out of it.”
Quinn was silent.
“And for God’s sake,” Darius added, “don’t tell me about your sex life, or I’ll go in the garage and drink battery acid.”
Quinn giggled. “I don’t have a sex life yet, so that’s easy to do. God, after Rita told me about her life, I thought I’d join a convent and be a nunnery or something. Amy said Rita was a one-woman traveling porn circus.” She shut her eyes and shuddered. “You can’t even imagine what she’s been up to. You just can’t imagine.”
“I can’t, and I don’t want to hear about it,” said Darius. “And you mean nun, not nunnery.”
“None of what?”
He squeezed her hand again and let
go. Though comforted by the contact, Darius’s mind reeled. What was all this
about Mom and Dad? How could they even be thinking about divorce? We just moved
Except that Quinn is usually right about people-related things.
Well, she isn’t right about this, Darius decided. She couldn’t be.
“I’m going to check my e-mail,” he said in a sullen voice.
“You okay with this?”
“I’m okay.” He reddened again. Anything, he’d do anything to get away from this conversation. He thought of Jane.
Does Jane love me, too?
He flinched and stood up. “I need some alone time,” he said. “Need help back to your room?”
“Sure.” She got up and held onto his shoulder as he led her out. “I’ll call Sandi and see if she can get her mom to come by and pick me up. I hate doing that, but what can you do?”
“I’ll be in my room the rest of the day.”
“As usual. Why don’t you go see Jane or something?”
“She’s asleep by now.” Is she thinking of me? “She doesn’t get up until noon or one on weekends. Today was just something different.”
“I didn’t say anything!”
“Give it a rest.” He pulled her door almost shut, leaving her to reach for her princess phone and make her cycle of phone calls.
Do I really love Jane? Do I have any idea what love is? How could I? What if she doesn’t want to see me again? What if she doesn’t love me, and she wants to see someone else? How many other guys has she taken into the woods with her to make out? Is she still seeing them? What if she wants to break up? How could I handle being alone again after I’ve finally found someone in my life I really care about? Does she even want to share her life with me? Why can’t I figure all of this out? I should go out somewhere and just get away. I have nowhere to go. Does Jane love me, too?
For a moment, lying there in the woods, she had seemed so small in his arms. It was miraculous that so much life could exist inside someone he could hold in his own hands. He had kissed her forehead and her face and her hair and given thanks that she existed, that he had found her, and that the world was forever changed.
He loved her. He knew it. But nothing except the thought of losing Quinn could have frightened him more.
He shut the door to his room and found his CD player. Putting on a particularly loud alternative rock band, he lay down on his bed, put on the earphones and set the CD player to maximum volume, and closed his eyes.
Monday morning found Darius walking up to the door of the Lane home forty-five minutes before school began. The weather was threatening rain, so he had a collapsible umbrella tucked under his arm, the largest one he could find at home. The temperature was on the cool side. He knocked on the door and waited.
“Just a minute!” came Jane’s voice
from inside. “
Darius looked around the neighborhood. The sun was barely up, and most cars had their headlights on as they passed by on Howard Drive.
The door opened. “Come on in,” said
Jane. She ran up the stairs and disappeared. “
“Need help?” Darius called.
“Can you go out in the garage and
see if my backpack is in
“On the way.” Darius left. He came back a minute later. “Got it! It was in the back seat under a pizza box!”
“Great!” Jane’s feet pounded down the stairs. She bounced up to Darius and gave him a heartfelt kiss. “Lifesaver,” she said. “Are we late?”
“We’re fine,” said Darius, “but I wouldn’t take the scenic route. It’s going to rain.” He held up his umbrella. “Built for two,” he said.
“You think of everything,” said Jane, who then leaned back and shouted upstairs, “unlike some people!”
They left, shutting the front door behind them. It had not yet started raining. They held hands and felt the cool wind on their faces.
“Sorry about the weekend,” said Darius. “The part after Saturday morning, I mean. We couldn’t get out.”
“It wasn’t a total loss for me, anyway.” Jane kicked at a pile of leaves. “My Muse decided to speak to me again Sunday morning, and my painting is coming along. Um, I’m sorry if I made anything worse when I called Saturday afternoon after I woke up. Your dad didn’t sound too happy to talk to me.”
Darius grimaced. “It was a bad weekend. Dad got up and interrupted Mom at the office, and it spilled over into Sunday. The short form of it is, Dad’s angry with Quinn for wanting to stay out late at that party next Saturday, Mom’s angry with Dad for being angry about it and calling her at work over nothing, and then Quinn got dumped from the Fashion Nazis Club for being unstable and unreliable, on account of having an injured foot and throwing up once, and so on and so forth. On the good side, I guess, Dad and I settled everything out yesterday afternoon. Quinn can stay out to eleven at the party, but I have to be there with her. I also can’t have a date with me, because then I won’t be able to keep an eye on Quinn. Quinn can have a date, though. I think she has about twelve of them to that one party.”
“You can’t have a date? Where does that leave me?”
Darius gave a dry laugh. “My parents haven’t met you. We’ll go there together anyway.”
“Won’t that cause a problem?”
He shrugged. “My parents aren’t going to the party. They won’t even be around. Dad will be at an out-of-town seminar that weekend. Mom’s tied up in some big corporate lawsuit, and she doesn’t care where we go or what we do, as long as no police, fire trucks, or ambulances are involved.”
“Sounds like it’s party time, then.”
“Hope so. Dad thought you were one of Quinn’s friends when you called, by the way—and not a friend of mine. I don’t think he or Mom know about us. I thought about keeping it like that as long as I can, but if the news gets out, it gets out. Whatever. Maybe it won’t be a problem.”
Jane nodded. “How did Quinn take getting dumped from the club?”
Darius hesitated. “Eh,” he said at last. “She didn’t say anything right off. The club president called her and gave her the official dump. I thought she was okay with that at first, but she stayed in her room the rest of Saturday and didn’t eat dinner. I think it really got to her. She couldn’t get around with her foot all bandaged up, and it drove her crazy.” It was my fault she got hurt, too. I could have prevented it. He tried to shake the thought away, but it wouldn’t leave.
“She hurt her foot from stepping on a broken glass?”
Darius glanced at Jane, then nodded in weary acceptance. “She told you about it?”
“She said it had something to do with a fight between you and your dad and a broken glass, and she walked into it at the wrong time, but you fixed her up.” Jane paused. “Dari, are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine,” he said. “The other good news is that Sunday, some guys came by the house and took Quinn out for a drive. It was sort of funny. There are these three football players whose names begin with J, and they’re all in love with her. I think they want to start a new religion with Quinn as the high priestess. They found another football player who drives, and they all took her to the mall and bought her a lot of stuff. She looked loads better when she got home. She’s talking about joining the pep club now.”
Darius and Jane walked in silence for a few moments.
“Jane,” said Darius, “what the hell’s a pep club?”
“It’s got cheerleaders,” said Jane, “but they’ve got other people in it and they do something else. It’s real important, big stuff. I forget what it is, though. They fluff the pompoms, maybe.”
A pained look crossed Darius’s face. “So, my sister might become a cheerleader?”
“No, I think the pep club is in charge of doing anything that perks up the sporting events. That means pretty much anything you can think of, and I mean anything. Around here, football is a god, so your comment about Quinn as a high priestess was on target.”
“Do I have to sacrifice a goat to her, or what?”
“I’m sure she’d take monetary donations.”
Darius rolled his eyes. “You have no idea,” he said. “Or maybe you do, if she’s told you about her shoe and purse collections.”
“You didn’t answer my other question.”
After a long pause, Darius rubbed his nose. “Quinn can walk this morning,” he said. “She kind of walks on the ball of her right foot, but she can get around. The three J-guys are her escorts for the week.”
Jane frowned. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” said Darius, looking at the sidewalk, “but I am wondering what joys the day will bring.”
“Quinn said that Friday night—”
“Hey! She said you had bits of glass all over you when you were trying to get her foot—”
“It was nothing. Just let it go, okay? I’m fine.”
Jane’s red lips became a long, flattened line. “That’s not right. You should call someone.”
“You should—” he snapped, but he bit off the rest of the sentence and jerked his face away from Jane. He took a deep breath, feeling his face flush from the rush of anger. “I’m sorry.”
“No,” said Jane quietly. “I’m the one who’s sorry. My fault for pushing it.”
They reached a corner and crossed the street to another sidewalk. Rain began to splatter the concrete. Darius stopped to put the umbrella up. He put one arm around Jane’s waist and held the umbrella between them with the other.
“That was stupid of me,” he said. “It was a long weekend.”
“I missed you.”
“I missed both of you, too.”
She rammed her knee into his butt as she walked. “Oops,” she said.
“That’s not fair,” he said in a wounded tone. “I read in Waif magazine that girls like to hear romantic stuff like that from guys.”
“Hey, what did I do?”
“Everything,” she said, but she didn’t seem angry about it.
They approached the Morgendorffer house on Glen Oaks Lane. Darius fell silent, but he kept his arm around Jane. The rain increased.
“We dissect frogs today in science,” he said when they were well past the house.
“Put some cotton in your ears before you go into class,” Jane advised.
They waited at the corner of Glen Oaks and Nicoll Street for traffic to lighten so they could cross. Darius turned his head and gave Jane a lingering kiss on the temple. “You smell good,” he said.
“Really? What do I smell like?” she asked, her voice deepening.
She turned to look at him. Her eyes closed as her head tilted back. They missed two opportunities to cross the street, and the rain blew under the umbrella over their legs, but they never noticed.
Science class was all that Jane had warned about. Janet Barch, an angry forty-something teacher, rapped on her desk with a ruler for attention. “Class!” she screeched in a voice worse than dragging a knife blade across sheet metal. “Today we’re going to study the internal anatomy of the frog. We’re going to use male frogs of course, because the female frogs have enough trouble with reproducing and carrying the entire fate of amphibians everywhere on their shoulders, while the damn male frogs are jumping around the pond humping anything that moves like so many worthless little ex-husbands, may his miserable soul rot in Hell!”
Darius blinked and glanced around the classroom, but no one else appeared disturbed by this rant. Indeed, most of the class appeared bored. Several students yawned. Jane, who shared a lab table with him, was sketching a picture her notebook of Barch chasing a panicked frog with an axe.
Ms. Barch had several male students hand out the trays with the dead frogs on them. Squeals of horror and despair rose across the room—not all of them from feminine throats.
“Now, stop that!” Barch cried, rapping the desk again. She pointed to a huge wall chart showing a frog with its abdomen split open from throat to tail, displaying all of its internal organs. “This is what I want you to have in your trays by the end of class today—one slashed-open, stone-dead, nicely cut-to-pieces male frog. Are there any questions? Good,” she said, ignoring the forest of hands across the class. You have your scalpels on your table—and you over-muscled, testosterone-addled androids of the masculine gender are not to use them for anything except—”
The intercom crackled. “Ms. Barch, please come to my office,” said Ms. Li, the principal. “We have a budgetary problem we need to resolve.”
“We’re about to dissect frogs!” she cried. “Can’t it wait?”
“It’s your budget. If you want to use those same frogs again next year, go right ahead and stay in class.”
“Oh, fiddle,” Ms. Barch grumbled. “I’ll be over. Very well, class, you’re all on the honor system while I’m gone—and I want the girls to report to me if any of the boys fool around with those scalpels! I can have you sent to prison for anything you try, you little hooligans! Now, get to work! I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Ms. Barch left. The door slammed shut behind her.
Low-order chaos took over in the room. Some of the students gamely went ahead and began dissecting. Several football players tried using their scalpels to play mumbly-peg on their frogs, drawing cheers and shrieks from everyone around them. Everyone talked.
Darius and Jane looked at each other and shrugged. They leaned forward and prepared to cut into their specimens.
Someone tugged Darius’s sleeve on the side opposite Jane. He looked up.
“You’re a guy. Can you help me?” said Brittany Taylor, the cheerleader he’d seen at Pizza King. She was as buxom now as she was then, but her face was pale and her lower lip trembled. “I can’t do this! Upchuck was supposed to be here to work on my frog for me, but he’s late.”
“Where’s your boyfriend?” Darius asked. Don’t look at her boobs! shouted a panicked voice in his brain. Don’t look at her boobs! Don’t look at her boobs!
“Football practice,” she said, and then she glared. “Or at least he’d better be if he knows what’s good for him, and not under the bleachers making out with another cheerleader.”
Darius looked at Jane. She gazed
down at her frog, trying to hide a smile. He sighed and looked back at
“So,” murmured Jane, making her first incision, “you like the big jiggly ones.”
“Cut it out,” he whispered back.
“Guess I’d better go in for implants if I want to stay competitive.”
“That’s not it at all. Stop it.”
“Just remember,” she said, pulling open the incision in the frog with her tongs, “anything more than a mouthful is wasted.”
His face got hot. “Jane, damn it—”
“Here it is!” said
“Okay,” he said, holding his scalpel over his frog. “Just do what I do. First—”
“But maybe it doesn’t know that!” she said, on the verge of tears.
Darius put down his scalpel. Next to him, Jane hummed an old country music song that he recognized: “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
“No,” she said, a little less pale. “I want to be like my mom—my birth mom, not my stepmom—and be a movie star!”
“Your mom is an actress?”
“Okay, hold that thought. Now, if you want to be an actress like your mom, you’ll have to work with special effects, right?”
“Okay,” he said, “suppose you were in this movie in which you were a doctor or something, and it’s one of those animal movies, like, um—”
Jane suddenly coughed to prevent herself from laughing.
“No,” said Darius, “I was thinking of a movie about a veterinarian.”
“Oh, I don’t watch war movies. Kevvy likes them, though.”
Darius looked blankly at her for a moment. “Oh,” he said, “not veteran. I meant veterinarian—an animal doctor.”
“Oh, like Doctor Doolittle! I love him! He saves kittens!”
“Right,” he said, pointing at her frog. “So, let’s say this is not really a frog, but special-effects model in a movie. You’re the heroic doctor who must operate on the world’s only talking frog, only you’ll be working on this fake frog made of plastic. You pretend to operate on the frog—” He pointed to the frog anatomy chart at the front of the room “—by doing just what’s shown up there, and the camera people will take great pictures of how intensely you’re working. This is your big moment.”
“One other thing we’ll do, though,” Darius went on, “is what real doctors do in operating rooms. They talk about stuff while they’re working, but they sometimes don’t talk much about what they’re really doing.”
“You ever watch ‘M.A.S.H.’ on TV?”
“A little. Is that the one about the Vietnam War?”
“What I’m trying to say is that the surgeons on that show talk all the time while they’re operating on people, right? They do that because it takes their minds off what they’re doing. Lots of doctors do it in real life.”
“Like this,” said Darius, picking up his scalpel. “You remember my sister, Quinn?”
Darius cleared his throat, interrupting her. “Anyway, Quinn tried to join the Fashion Club here, and you know what happened?”
“They dumped her.” Darius gently poked at his frog with the scalpel. “They let her join, and then they dumped her. You know why?”
“She cut her foot on a piece of glass last week, and they decided that wearing a bandage was unfashionable, so they threw her out of the club. She was depressed about it all weekend. Her foot hurt so much she could barely walk, and for that they screwed her over good.”
Darius pointed to her frog.
“They did,” said Darius blandly. “And they told her she was mental, because she had a virus for a couple of days and got sick. It wasn’t her fault, but they humiliated her, and all she really wanted to do was contribute something good to the school, because she really likes Lawndale High.”
“She was really upset,” Darius went on in a deadpan tone. “Luckily for her, the same football players who invited her to your party—their names all start with J—”
“Jeffy, Joey, and Jeremy—I know them.” She gasped. “They were the ones who asked Quinn over, and not my Kevvy? Oh, no! I have to apologize to him for kicking him in the—”
“Finish your frog first,” said Darius.
“Before you go,” said Darius, “my sister was thinking of joining the pep club.”
“She wants to be a cheerleader?”
“No, no. She knows she can’t quite reach your level there, but she has loads of school spirit, you know? She really wants to help you and the other cheerleaders any way she can, and—”
“I’ll take care of it!” she said. “The pep club would just die to get her to join up! They might even make her president! No problem!”
“And can I bring someone with me to the party?”
Darius subtly pointed to Jane. Jane looked up, sensing the topic had shifted to her.
The look of astonishment on
Darius nodded. “Uh, yeah, I do.”
The chatter in the science lab
dropped to nothing. Everyone turned and looked at
“Can she come with me?” Darius whispered, feeling his face burn.
“You bet! Come on over!”
“You haff done a goot chob, Zigmund,” whispered Jane in a fake German accent. She went on in a normal voice. “I’ll make you your own armchair psychiatrist’s license when I get home.”
Darius looked down at his pristine, undissected dead frog. He lifted his scalpel with a sigh. “I guess I’d better get going before—”
“What have we here?”
screeched Ms. Barch, right behind Darius. He jumped and dropped his scalpel on
the floor. Ms. Barch took
“Ms. Barch,” said Darius in desperation, “I swear that I wasn’t—”
“Were you dissecting
“No, ma’am! She knew how to do it! We were just—”
“You were just trying to get into her panties, is that it?” She pointed to the front of the room. “Go to the board and write, ‘I will keep my degenerate animal lust to myself,’ fifty times—or else you can go to the office, and I’ll call your parents!”
“Wait, Ms. Barch!” said Jane earnestly. “Really, he wasn’t—”
“I’m not talking to you,
“Ms. Barch, no!” cried
“Quiet!” yelled the teacher. “I’m talking to this hoodlum who wants to act like he’s just had a midlife crisis and dumped his faithful wife so he can sew his wild oats as if he were a teenager again! Go to the board, Mister Morgendorffer!”
Totally shamed, Darius picked up his scalpel and put it on the lab table. I can’t be sent to Buxton Ridge again. I can’t be sent away from Quinn, not ever. After a moment, he walked to the front of the room and looked for a piece of chalk, then began to write.
When he got back to his lab table at the end of class to get his backpack and books, he found two folded notes. Everyone else had left the room for the next class. He opened the first note.
HOW COULD YOU BE SO NOBLE? it read in Jane’s trademark all-capitals printing.
“Tom Sawyer,” he mumbled. He put it away and opened the second note, written in a florid script with a purple felt pen.
Did I save the talking frog? it read.
“That was a tesseract you were drawing, wasn’t it?” Darius asked Jane at her locker after art class that Wednesday. “I couldn’t see from where I was. There were too many people around me.”
“You shouldn’t have started telling people about one-point perspective,” said Jane. “It’s like leaving milk out for kittens. Pretty soon, you’re up to your butt in furry little monsters that pee on your carpet and try to smother you when you sleep.”
Darius snorted with amusement. His gaze wandered down Jane’s slim body.
She noticed that and smiled. “What happened, anyway?” she asked. “I missed how that whole thing got started.”
He lost his smile. “My fault,” he said irritably. “Brittany brought some other cheerleaders over to ask how to draw Defoe’s cube model, then the football players came over, and it was downhill from there. I couldn’t get anything done on my drawing with everyone bugging me to help them on theirs. Then Ms. Defoe told me I could skip my own drawing if I’d go around and talk about that perspective thing. I thought it was the easy way out, but it just went on and on and on.”
“And you had explain it twice to Kevin, you lucky dog.”
Darius rolled his eyes. “He still
thinks I’m trying to make it with
“Oh?” Jane looked at him with concern. “And you still helped him?”
He shrugged it off. “It worked out
okay. He liked my help so much, he said he wouldn’t crush my head until after
the party this weekend. It was sort of weird. He even blames me for the news of
“Just what is it with you, anyway, Morgendorffer?” said Jane. “Haven’t people suffered enough?”
Darius softly bumped his head against a nearby locker door. “I feel like I’m doing everything half right and half wrong all the time. I don’t mind helping a little, but when everyone wants you to do their homework for them . . . well, I guess I could charge for it. Ten bucks a page . . . no, forget it. I have to draw the line somewhere. Everything after school is my own time.”
“Word gets around, you know,” said Jane, closing her locker. “Everyone wants a helpful big brother, especially one who works for free.”
“I should have stuck to my 1984-model Big Brother personality.”
“I don’t think you have one,” said Jane, setting off with him to American History. “You might be in danger of becoming popular. Kinda scary, don’t you think?”
An attractive brown-haired girl passed by them both in the hallway. Darius remembered that she was Sandi Griffin, the president of the Fashion Club. She shot Darius a venomous look that should have crippled him for life, then walked past without a word.
Startled, Darius turned to watch her go. “Touchy, isn’t she?” he said.
“I take back that part about you becoming popular,” Jane said, looking ahead as if nothing had happened. “Did any of the cheerleaders ask you out after you helped them?”
“What? Jeez, no, of course not. They ran off as soon as they could.”
“No problem, then. You’re just as popular as the teachers are.”
He gave a single dry laugh. “So much for my self-esteem. You didn’t answer my question about the tesseract. Where did you pick up that stuff about hypercubes?”
“Oh, I saw a painting by Salvador Dali in a book once, and he used an unfolded tesseract in it as the cross in a Crucifixion scene. It caught my attention, so I looked tesseracts up on the Internet and some other books. Kinda cool. I think I can make it work in my head, folding it up in four dimensions, but that last fold is a bitch.”
“Are you planning to turn out any four-dee sculptures?” He heard some students hurrying up the hall behind him, a familiar sound at Lawndale High. He did not turn around.
Before Jane could answer, someone jumped on Darius’s back. He stumbled forward, the wind knocked out of him.
Quinn’s laughter rang loud in his ears. “Thanks!” she yelled, and she let go of him and jumped off. She skipped down the hall ahead of him with a slight limp. Her long orange-red hair waved like a battle pennant behind her.
“Thanks, dude!” said an excited male voice behind him, and a hand slammed him in the middle of his back as Jeffy hurried by.
The blow almost sent Darius stumbling. “Ow!” he howled, a second before Jamie and Joey also happily punched or smacked him as they ran past, following Quinn.
“You rule!” Joey called back, waving.
“Word!” said Jamie, and the Three J-Guys went around the corner Quinn had taken and were gone.
Darius stared after them. “What was that all about?” he said, grimacing as he flexed his back.
“Beats me,” Jane said in surprise. “They don’t count for popularity purposes, however.”
They reached the door to Mr. DeMartino’s classroom, but Jane stopped before going in. “Oh, there’s something I wanted to let you know,” she said, catching Darius by the arm. “Wait up.”
Jane appeared anxious as she went on. “Ms. Defoe asked me when I was leaving if I’d help out with her advanced art class. It meets when Barch’s science class is going on. She talked about it with Barch, who gave her go-ahead.” Jane coughed. “I, um—it’s not that I don’t want to be with you twenty-four seven, okay? It’s just that this is a really cool opportunity to—”
“I know,” said Darius. He felt his stomach drop out, but he went on. “I understand. She must have gotten the idea from me helping out in art today.”
“Um, no. Actually, she’d mentioned something like this to me a week ago, but there wasn’t anything definite about it until now.”
Darius nodded agreeably, though he wished he’d heard about this earlier. He knew Jane was Defoe’s favorite student and for good reason. “So, do you get credit for this? Is this like a teacher’s aide position?”
“Yeah,” said Jane. “Extra grade credits that should keep me at a C average when I get those math classes later. Barch said I didn’t need this year’s science class to graduate, but I can’t flunk any of the later science courses, or I’ll be in trouble in my senior year. The changeover is just for this school year.”
Darius struggled for the right words. “You don’t need me to okay it,” he finally said. He smiled, though he didn’t feel it. “Go for all the gusto you can.”
Jane beamed in relief. “Thanks. I’d kiss you, but DeMartino’s watching us.”
“I can wait.”
“Great!” Jane’s hand gripped his bicep, and he followed her into class. I’m not losing her, he told himself, but the fear remained. My whole family was taken away from me once, or rather me from it, so anything could happen. I could lose it all at any moment. It’s happened to others, it could happen to me.
He shook himself as he took his seat next to Jane. Relax, said a voice in his mind. Fear no evil. You let her be free to do what she wants. She won’t love you if she’s kept in a cage. She’s an artist, for God’s sake—you knew artists were on the fringe, didn’t you? Let her do her thing. You did right. Keep it going.
Darius swallowed, feeling hollow inside. I hope I did the right thing, anyway. Please, let that have been the right thing for us both.
He shoved his gloomy thoughts aside. Mr. DeMartino was walking around his desk to face the class, a sure sign the lesson had begun.
“Great EVENTS,” said Mr. DeMartino in a voice that carried above the noise of papers rustling and whispers exchanged, “sometimes turn on comparatively SMALL affairs.” His bad eye enlarged notably when he emphasized words, which Darius found disturbing at the same time it impressed him. The background noise in the room settled down to nothing.
“We are at
Darius glanced to his right, where an African-American student named Jodie Landon sat. Darius knew she was brilliant, probably smarter than he was, though he suspected he was one of the smartest kids currently at Lawndale High School. Jodie had straight As and was active in more clubs and organizations than Darius could possibly remember. She was every parent and teacher’s dream. The implications of DeMartino’s words were brought home at once. Jodie sat and watched DeMartino’s every move.
DeMartino swung around, pointing to
a large, detailed map of a small town and the rolling countryside around it.
The map was labeled “
“Great EVENTS,” he repeated, “sometimes turn on comparatively small affairs.” Silence restored, he began pacing again.
“We’ll skip the details of the
battle itself to look at a pivotal MOMENT, one bloody fight among many on July
THIRD. We are at a hill called Little ROUND Top. All day, fifteen THOUSAND
Confederates attack Union positions on the hill. If the Southerners take the
HILL, they can drive into the Union army itself, winning the hill and the
Mr. DeMartino held himself
straighter. “The Union officer on the hill is a COLLEGE professor from
In the silence in the room, Mr. DeMartino looked slowly about. “One moment in which one man must ACT, and all the FUTURE lies in his hands! This is HISTORY. When some brain-dead imbecile tells YOU that history is boring, that history is DEAD, you remember Joshua CHAMBERLAIN, the college professor who caused a BATTLE to turn, and in so doing SAVED the—”
The intercom squawked. “Damn it!” muttered Mr. DeMartino, shaking his head. The class snickered in nervous relief, the spell broken.
“Mr. DeMartino?” said one of the officer staff. “Can you send Darius Morgendorffer up to see Ms. Li?”
“As you WISH!” he called, and he nodded to Darius. Darius glanced at Jane, who shrugged and whispered, “Have fun!” He got up, collected his backpack, and left the room. At the door he glanced back and caught Jane’s smile, and then he walked into the empty corridor to the office. It was useless to imagine what this was all about, so he softly hummed a Springsteen tune, “Streets of Philadelphia,” and listened to the echo of his boots on the linoleum.
He opened the office door and walked in, his gaze crossing the room to rest on the tall man in the dark-green military-style uniform on the other side by Ms. Li’s office. The officer’s black nameplate said “ARMSTRONG,” and on his shoulders were silver eagles. Ms. Li stood at the officer’s side, looking self-important. Darius came to a stop, his hand still on the doorknob, mouth open and eyes wide.
Darius knew right then what it was all about. His heart stopped.
“Mister Morgendorffer,” said the uniformed man. His tone was steady but friendly.
“Yes, sir,” Darius whispered. After
a moment, he regained a little of his composure. “Welcome to
“Thank you,” said the man. He indicated the door to Ms. Li’s office. “I’d like to speak with you for a few moments. Your principal will be with us.”
“Sure,” said Darius, dazed. He knew exactly what this was about. He couldn’t believe it. Swallowing, he walked forward around the main office desk, aware that all the office workers and students present were watching him. He waited for Ms. Li and Colonel Armstrong to enter the office, then he walked in himself. Putting his backpack by the door, he went to stand by a chair across from Ms. Li’s desk.
“Have a seat,” said the colonel. Darius did, but he sat on the edge of the chair.
“I’m afraid I’m, uh, not aware of the reason for your visit, Mister Armstrong,” said Ms. Li, seating herself at her desk.
“Colonel Armstrong,” corrected Darius automatically. He flinched. “I’m sorry, I spoke out of turn.”
“Young man!” began Ms. Li angrily.
The colonel’s chuckle cut her off. “Old habits die hard, don’t they, Mister Morgendorffer?” he said with a soft smile. The colonel’s gray eyes glittered.
“Yes, sir,” Darius said.
“I am a retired Army colonel, but
the title’s an honorific only, except to our students,” the colonel said to Ms.
Li. “My apologies for not calling ahead.” He ran a hand through his short gray
hair. “I’m making a swing through the area on a recruiting drive for our
“We’ve had our eye on Mister Morgendorffer since he got here,” said Ms. Li quickly. “He knows better than to start any kind of . . . I’m sorry, what was that you said about, uh, distinguished?”
“Darius Morgendorffer,” said the colonel, looking Darius over, “was two years in a row the winner of our school prize in academics, the Laurel of Archimedes. His scores in mathematics are still unequalled, though we might get lucky with someone in our current fall class. I was fortunate enough to hear his report on the Mirror of Archimedes and see the demonstration. That was the most impressive thing I believe I’ve ever seen from a student in all my years.”
“He—oh,” said Ms. Li, backpedaling. “When I spoke with his mother a couple of weeks ago, I rather, um, got the impression that Darius was sent to Buxton Ridge because of certain behavior and disciplinary—”
“I don’t give a goddamn why our kids come to us,” said the colonel tightly. “All I care about is who they become once they reach us. Mister Morgendorffer is one of our best.” Looking Darius in the eyes, he said, “You are much missed, son, even if you don’t happen to miss us.”
Darius felt like he was in a dream. “Thank you, sir,” he said, and he left it at that.
“For what it’s worth,” the colonel went on, “we cleaned the place up over the summer. Some of the out-of-control students were expelled or put under restrictions. You’d find the place to be rather different if you were to go back.”
“That’s good to know, sir.”
The colonel grinned. “You like it on the outside, I can tell. Don’t worry about it.”
Darius took a deep breath and nodded. And waited.
The colonel leaned forward and looked at Ms. Li. “I’d appreciate it if nothing I said here today went beyond this office, ma’am. There are strong legal reasons for my asking this.”
“Oh!” said Ms. Li. “Of course! We’re nothing if not discrete!”
“Good,” said Colonel Armstrong. He looked back at Darius. “There’s another inquest beginning into the death of Cadet Michael Ellenbogen,” he said. “It’s a civil matter. I am allowed by our legal counsel to inform you that you will likely be deposed on the issue within the next month or two. I’ve already been in contact with your parents about it. I called them this morning and talked with them individually for about a half-hour each. There’s nothing you have to worry about. Just do whatever you’re doing, and when the time comes, someone will call your parents or their attorney and arrange the particulars for the deposition.”
Darius felt himself deflate. He had been right. It was about Mike. “Who’s conducting the deposition?” he whispered.
“An attorney for Ellenbogen’s parents,” said the colonel. “We don’t know anything more about it than that, and if we did, I doubt we could say anything about it.”
“Darius was involved in another student’s death?” asked Ms. Li in horror. She pressed herself back in her chair.
“No, ma’am,” said the colonel testily. “Cadet Ellenbogen committed suicide. He was Mister Morgendorffer’s roommate at the academy. He died this spring.”
Ms. Li stared at Darius. Darius felt he’d become unreal, an imaginary thing floating through the room and watching people interact around him without seeing him.
“You don’t know how sorry I am to bring you the news,” said the colonel to Darius. “It can’t do anything but bring terrible pain for you to even hear what I’ve said, but I want you to put it aside as much as you can. It won’t take long, God willing, and then you can put it behind you. I have every faith in you that you will do your duty and do it well.”
“Thank you, sir.” Darius’s voice was barely audible.
The colonel nodded and stood. He reached into a pocket and produced a card, handing it to Darius. “This is my number at the academy and for my personal cell phone. You call me at once if you have any questions about anything. Would you do that?”
Darius nodded dumbly and got up from his seat, taking the card. He glanced at it, then stuffed it in his pants pocket. After a moment, he put out his hand. “It was good to see you again, sir,” he said.
The colonel shook hands solemnly. “And good to see you, too,” he said. “I am sorry it wasn’t under better circumstances.” He turned to Ms. Li, who was also on her feet. “I’d best be going,” he said. “I have a meeting in Oakwood in a couple hours, and I can’t afford to miss it.”
“Certainly,” said Ms. Li, still staring at Darius.
Darius didn’t look at her. He looked down at the carpeted floor, then inhaled and looked at the school principal and the commandant of Buxton Ridge. “Is that all?” he asked.
“That’s it,” said the colonel. He looked at Ms. Li. “He’s a good young man,” he said. “He can’t be questioned by anyone about this matter except the proper legal authorities, you understand.”
“Of course,” she said.
“And, again, no one is to know the details of this meeting. If word gets out, it could cause considerable trouble for everyone involved in the case, and it will drag the high school into it as well.”
Ms. Li bristled at that. “I assure you, Colonel Armstrong, that will never happen. Whatever secrets we have here, we keep.”
The colonel gave Ms. Li a twisted smile. “Of that, I have no doubt,” he said. He nodded to Darius. “Good day to you, Mister Morgendorffer,” he said with warmth, and he left the room.
Darius looked back at Ms. Li. Profoundly distracted, she waved at the door to dismiss him. He left but almost forgot his backpack, picking it up at the last moment. The office staff peered at him secretly as he left. No one dared look directly at him.
He found himself in the hallway, walking back to class, but the corridor looked unfamiliar. Hardly aware of what he was doing, Darius slowed to a stop and leaned against a row of lockers by a window. He looked out at the trees and passing cars for a while, then closed his eyes. Just like that the months fell away, and again he was walking into his room at the academy on a cold, cloudy day in March, and what he saw as he came in was as real to him now at Lawndale High School as it was when he saw it, and it hung above his world like a dead sun, damned and eternal.
He heard his name called. Turning, he saw he was in a hallway, like in a school. It was not the dormitory-like barracks of Buxton Ridge. He felt disoriented. Where was he? What was he doing here?
A girl with long orange-red hair ran up to him, crying his name. She flung herself at him, almost knocking him down. Her arms clamped around his neck, her feet hanging above the floor.
What? he said. He could barely hear his voice.
They can’t take you, they can’t take you back there, the girl cried into his neck. They can’t take you away from me ever.
Confused, he clutched her to him. Aching sadness filled his heart. Where am I going? he asked. Where—
He jerked, back in reality. Quinn clutched him, bawling her eyes out.
“I’m okay!” he said loudly, but without shouting. “It’s okay! Calm down!”
“They can’t take you!” Quinn shouted in hysteria. “They can’t! They can’t!”
He tried to put a hand over her mouth, fearful someone would hear. “Shhh! No one’s taking me anywhere! Nothing’s happening! Calm down!”
“That army guy! He can’t take you away!”
“Oh—no, he won’t do that! He came by for a visit! It’s all right! He’s not taking me anywhere. Calm down! Please, calm down, for the love of—”
“Don’t let them do it, Dari!”
“It’s okay,” he said in a lower voice. “I love you. It’s all okay.”
“I love you, too,” she said, coughing. “Please don’t leave me.”
“I’m staying, Quinn. He just came for a visit. Don’t worry about it, all right? It’s okay now.”
Quinn sobbed into his shirt.
“I’m not leaving you,” he said to her. “I’ll never leave you.” He still felt dizzy. “Let’s go sit down somewhere.”
They went to the cafeteria. Lunch
was just starting. Darius explained that his old academy commandant was in the
area on business, but he came to
“He can’t take you back,” said Quinn, her voice too high.
“Right, and he knows that,” said Darius. He kept his voice slow and steady. “He’s okay, Quinn. I got along with him pretty well. He’s a good guy. Don’t worry about him.”
“I was so scared. God, I was so damn scared when I heard about it.”
He held her hand until her breathing slowed and she sniffled less.
“So,” said Darius, “I guess someone saw the colonel and said something, right?”
“Stacy Rowe,” said Quinn. Her voice was hoarse. “She’s in the Fashion Club. She saw you in the office with that army guy and she told me.”
Darius groaned. “Great, so the Fashion Club’s screwing things up again.”
“No, she wasn’t doing anything wrong,” said Quinn in a low voice. “She’s okay. I think she wants to be friends with me.”
“Hell of a way to do it. Where were you?”
“The girls’ room.” She sighed and wiped her eyes with a tissue. “I was fixing my makeup. God, just look at me.”
“Where are you supposed to be now?”
Quinn checked her watch and exhaled. “I’m almost late to a pep club meeting.” She turned to Darius quickly. “Oh, I was going to tell you earlier, but I was in sort of a hurry. I’m the president.”
Darius blinked. “President of the pep club?”
“The Lawndale Pride Pep Club,” she said. “Student President Quinn Anne Morgendorffer.”
“No fuh—uh, I mean, no way!”
Quinn gave a half laugh. “Yeah, way. And watch your mouth.”
“Are those three J-guys in the club, too?”
“No, dummy. They’re on the football team. They’re sort of like my personal cheerleaders, you know? They’ve really helped me out when I was down. They dragged my butt right up. I’m thinking of giving them an official title, but we’ll see how it goes.” She blew her nose in the tissue, then stuck it in a pants pocket. “I’d better go. Club’s waiting. I look like crap, but a good smile covers almost everything.” She got up from the table, as did he. “Thanks, by the way,” she said, sniffing.
“Brittany Taylor told everyone to have emergency elections and vote me in as president. She said she heard about my situation from you. The old president was sort of overwhelmed. I’m going to put him in charge of fluffing the pompoms. He can handle that, I think.”
Darius smiled in relief. “So, you’re better off now than with the Fashion Club?”
Quinn snorted and laughed. “You could say that. I’ve got a twelve thousand dollar budget and fifty-six people under me. Sandi Griffin can kiss my ass. Before the year’s out, she probably will, too. That’ll be a Kodak moment.”
When her words registered, Darius’s mind froze. “Good God!” he said in a strangled voice. “You’re kidding me!”
“I owe it all to you, but don’t ask me for a handout,” she said. “The money’s going for decorations, food, uniforms, transportation, and parties, and I know you hate sports. I’d better get Mom’s permission to stay out late for the away events.” Quinn started to go, then came back and gave Darius another hug. “I’m sorry I flipped out,” she said. “I just lost it.”
“It happens,” he said. He kissed her on the forehead. “Go knock ‘em out, okay?”
She pulled away and lightly punched his shoulder. “I will,” she said.
After she left, Darius looked at his watch and realized he was supposed to have gone back to American History. It would let out in five minutes, so it didn’t matter now. He elected to wait for Jane in the cafeteria. Exhausted, he dropped into a chair and rubbed cold sweat from his face with his hands. When he lowered his hands, he noticed that they shook. He put his arms on the table in front of him, fingers interlaced to hold them still, and watched the lunchroom doors for Jane.
Jane came in a few minutes later. He got up and waved to her, but she saw him at almost the same moment and waved back with a grin. Her grin faded the closer she got to him. He stood as she approached, and they walked together to the lunch line.
“Hey,” Jane said softly, looking him over. “What happened?”
“Oh,” he said, “my old commandant came by from Buxton Ridge, Colonel Armstrong. He was in the neighborhood and wanted to say hi. It was nothing.”
Jane didn’t respond. He looked up into her blue eyes and instantly knew from her expression that she wasn’t buying it.
He looked away. “Later, okay?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said. She moved closer to him. Her body pressed lightly against him from behind. They pretended nothing was happening. He closed his eyes and felt his self-control slip away.
“I’m not hungry,” Darius said. “Sort of lost my appetite in the office.” He stepped away from her. “I’m sorry. Too much going on.”
“Let me grab an apple,” she said. “We’ll go for walkies. I hear they’re repainting the bleachers at the football field. Let’s check it out.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
Two minutes later, they were walking together across the high-school campus. A scrimmage game was being held on the athletic field. Darius and Jane chose a section of bleachers not yet being repainted and settled back in a spot upwind of the paint fumes, watching the Lawndale Lions in action. Darius told her about Quinn’s new job.
“You’d think she could at least buy you a new car,” said Jane, tossing her apple core into a trashcan. “I love Trent, don’t get me wrong, and he’s been there for me lots of times, but sometimes I wish he was a little more proactive, like with paying bills and making sure the house doesn’t get repossessed. Quinn’s lucky as hell to have you around.”
“I wonder about that sometimes,” he said. He pointed to the field. “One thing I’ll say about Kevin—he ain’t bright, but man, he sure can throw that ball.”
“Idiot savant. Amazing what they can do.” Jane tapped her boot against Darius’s boot. “So, you were telling me about the colonel.”
“Yeah.” He was silent for a bit. “You’re going to want a new boyfriend soon.”
“Let me be the judge of that.”
“Well, screw it, then.” He rubbed
his mouth, watching the coach give orders to the football players. “My dad sent
me off to Buxton Ridge just before I started seventh grade. He and I were
arguing a lot, about every day. I couldn’t do anything to make him happy. A lot
of stuff got said that shouldn’t have been said. He whipped me sometimes. His
dad whipped him, so it was good enough for me, too. It all sucked.” He exhaled.
“One day when we went on this family trip to the
They sat in silence. Kevin threw another pass on the field and did a victory dance.
“Mom took Quinn and ran off to her sister Rita’s. Dad took me home and signed me up for Buxton Ridge right away. I left on a bus two days later. They put me to work at the academy until the fall semester started. The first year I was there was hell for everyone. I was sort of crazy, fighting everybody. I didn’t care anymore. I gave up.”
Darius stared at his knees as he slouched back on the bleachers. “Colonel Armstrong and some of the staff there, though, they didn’t give up on me. I fought them, but they got me straightened out. When I was in eighth grade, I started doing pretty well again. I used to like math and science and history and all that stuff, and they got me back into it. I won some stuff. I missed Quinn a lot, but it was okay otherwise.”
He brushed off his knees and was silent again for a minute. Jane waited.
“Ninth grade,” he said, watching the field, “I got a new roommate, a kid named Michael Ellenbogen. Talk about irony. His dad and my dad were at Buxton Ridge together, back in the sixties. They hated each other. Michael told me his dad always thought my dad was a screw-up, always complaining about everything and not listening to anyone. He wasn’t a team player at all, had some kind of big stick up his ass about authority and life and everything.” Darius gave a tight smile. “That’s my dad.”
The smile faded away. “Mike said his own dad wasn’t any better. Drank a lot, beat up his wife and kids. Mike was all messed up. He was doing drugs and everything. His dad sent him to Buxton Ridge to straighten him out.”
“How old was he?”
“Thirteen. What was funny about it was that he and I got along okay. You couldn’t really get to know him, but he was okay. I liked him. He was smart.”
The silence drew out. Jane cleared her throat. “What happened?”
Darius took a deep breath and let it out. “He killed himself.”
Jane turned to him, her face draining of color. Time passed.
“He hung himself in our room,” said Darius. “I found him. Couldn’t do anything for him.” He leaned forward, hunched up to rest his arms on his knees.
“When did this happen?” Jane whispered.
“March. Middle of the month.”
“March of this year?”
“Yeah.” He thought. “Just over six months ago.” He stared at the players, who were leaving the field. “I came back from class and he was hanging there from the ceiling light. He’d taken off the plastic dome and wound some neckties around the light bulb fixture. I held him up until I could cut him down with a pair of scissors, but he was dead. You could tell. That’s all.”
Darius exhaled, then slowly stood up and stretched. “So, now there’s another investigation into it, and they’re going to call me in for a deposition, ask me questions about it, and then his parents are probably going to sue the living shit out of me and my parents and the school and everyone else in the universe, just for the hell of it. The colonel called Mom and Dad this morning, so I know they’re probably nuts by this time and waiting to get hold of me when I get home, and I don’t feel like doing anything anymore. I don’t know what’s going to happen or anything. You should find another boyfriend.”
He looked down.
Jane was wiping her eyes and breathing very hard.
He swallowed and reached down for her. She sniffed and took his hand, then stood up. Her arms went around him and his arms around her, and they pressed together as if they were one person.
“I love you,” he said, which wasn’t at all what he had wanted to say.
“I love you, too,” she said, choking back tears. “I don’t want anyone else.”
She smelled faintly of some kind of flower, he noticed. Not violets or roses. He couldn’t place it.
“It’s not going to be any fun,” he whispered. “Being with me.”
“Oh, shut the hell up,” she said. She hugged him tightly. “We’d better go. I think we’re late for class.”
“Okay. Don’t tell Quinn any of this, okay?”
“Doesn’t she know?”
“I don’t want her to know any more than she might already,” he said, “though Mom or Dad will probably spill it all anyway. Quinn’s scared to death I’ll be sent away somewhere again, and I don’t want to get her any more wound up about it than she already is.”
They walked back to the main school building. No one was about. They were obviously late.
“What perfume are you wearing?”
“Something I borrowed long ago from one of my sisters. It’s supposed to smell like crocus.”
“Crocus. Those little colorful flowers that come up under the snow in the spring.”
“I like it.”
“I’ll wear it more often.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
They got to their English literature class ten minutes late. Mr. O’Neill sighed when they walked in, interrupted in the middle of reading Hamlet’s soliloquy aloud to the sleepy, post-lunch classroom. He reached for the tardy slips on his desk.
“Sorry we’re late,” said Darius, eyeing the tardy slips in O’Neill’s hand. “I was walking around thinking about entropy when I realized that the negative, which is the nothingness of being and the annihilating power both together, was itself nothingness, and I just lost track of the time.”
Stunned, Mr. O’Neill dropped the tardy slips. “Good Lord!” he gasped. “I imagine you would, thinking about such weighty matters!” He looked at Jane. “Were you thinking about the nothingness of being, too?”
“I’m painting a picture of it,” Jane said. “It’s mostly black, but in different shades.”
“Goodness! Please, just take your seats!”
“Thanks,” said Darius. “It’s so depressing to deal with it all, you know.”
“I should think so! A little Hamlet should cheer you up,” said Mr. O’Neill. He frowned at his book. “I’ll start over again at the beginning.”
Several students groaned aloud. “Mercy!” one of them cried. “Have mercy!”
Darius sat and listened to the “To be or not to be” speech. None of it registered. He played with his pencil on his desktop instead of taking notes, and he listened to Jane breathe beside him.
Next to him, Jane sat with her sketchpad open before her to a blank page. A pencil was poised over it in her hand. She drew nothing.
Mr. O’Neill had just gotten to the part about “the dread of something after death, / That undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns,” when someone knocked on the door. He sighed and set the book down, mumbling, “Excuse me!” to the class, then went to find out who was there.
At the door were Darius’s parents, Quinn, and the principal, Ms. Li. His mother spotting him right off and motioned for him to come with them.
Darius looked at Jane, then slowly got up and collected his things. She touched his arm before he went.
He went to the door and faced his parents. “Let’s go,” he said.
“What’s going on?” asked Quinn once they were out of the school building.
Darius made a shushing noise to her under his breath. Before he could say more, their mother interrupted. “We’ve got an appointment to see an attorney, dear.”
“What?” Quinn’s voice rose. “What about?”
“Quinn,” said Darius in a low voice, “it’s just—”
“Darius,” said his mother, “I want you to shut up and stop upsetting your sister.”
“Mom, what’s going on?” Quinn’s voice quavered. “Mom, talk to me!”
Darius glanced at his father, who looked different for some reason. After a moment, he realized that his father did not seem upset. In fact, the old man looked . . . pleased.
The four of them reached the family’s blue Lexus, parking near the school entrance.
“Mom!” Quinn cried. “Tell me what’s going on?”
“Damn it, Quinn!” shouted their mother, spinning around, pointing at the Lexus. “Just shut up and get in the car!”
Quinn’s face slowly scrunched up. Tears streaked down both her cheeks.
Darius’s father unlocked the car. After putting their backpacks in the trunk, Darius and Quinn got in the back seat and buckled in. Darius reached over and took Quinn’s hand in his. She bowed her head, biting her lips. Their mother got in the passenger seat and almost immediately opened her briefcase and began rummaging through it. As their father started the car, Darius saw his mother pull out a cell phone and punch in a number. She put the phone to her ear and waited.
The sound of humming was in the car: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Darius realized after a moment that it was coming from his father.
“Jake, please,” said his mother. “I’m—hi, this is Helen Morgendorffer. We have an appointment at two. Right. We’re on our way.”
Darius looked at his sister and tugged on her hand. She didn’t look up. He leaned over to her. “We’ll be okay,” he whispered. She made no sign that she had heard.
“Darius,” said his mother, snapping the cell phone shut. “I warned you. Don’t make me have to say it again.”
He subsided and sat back, still holding Quinn’s hand. His mother looked back and noticed. “Darius, let go of her,” she said.
“Mom, I’m just holding her—”
“Let go of her, damn you!” his mother yelled. “Keep your hands to yourself!”
“Helen,” said his father mildly.
Stung, Darius pulled his hand back. Quinn immediately reached for his hand again.
“Quinn, stop it!” His mother turned to her husband. “Jake, pull over. I want Darius to ride in front.”
“We’re in traffic, Helen,” said his father. “Nowhere to pull over.”
His mother swore and gave Darius a smoldering glare. “Just keep your hands to yourself! And stop that, young lady! You keep your hands to yourself, too. We should have brought the SUV.”
“We’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” said his father in a relaxed tone.
Darius’s mother turned around and looked out the front window again, but she glanced back several times to check on her children—always glaring at Darius.
What the hell is going on?
Darius wondered. Mom hasn’t gotten upset about anything like this in years.
He then remembered that his mother didn’t want Darius to touch his sister after
the big fight at
The rest of the ride passed in
silence. They drove through
“That one,” said Darius’s mother, pointing. “DeMarcus and Rawlings.”
“I see it,” said his father, turning the car.
Darius looked at Quinn’s white face. She had shut her eyes. Her hands rested in her lap, clasped together with her fingers interlaced. Only her lips moved. After a moment, Darius realized his sister was whispering the Lord’s Prayer to herself. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. . . .
When the car was parked, everyone got out. Darius’s mother took Quinn and maneuvered her away from Darius as they walked toward the building entrance.
“Mom?” said Darius, “what’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on,” said his father, both hands in his pockets. He looked as if the family were out for a stroll. “Everything’s peachy-keen.”
“Jake,” growled his mother. She grabbed the door into the law office and jerked it open, walking through with Quinn but letting the door fall shut behind her. It would have nailed her husband in the shoulder, but he was quick and grabbed it in time.
“Damn it, Helen!” he said in a loud voice. He was pissed, but still not up to his usual level of spite.
She ignored him and walked up to the receptionist’s desk. Darius grabbed the door after his father walked through. He noticed an elderly woman behind him, and he held the door open for her. She murmured her thanks and walked on through the waiting room toward a back office.
Darius listened as his mother argued with the receptionist about the appointment time. They were twenty minutes early, and she wanted to be seen as soon as possible. “I’ve got to get back to my own office,” she told the receptionist. “I’m sure you can appreciate just how important that is. Just buzz him and let him know we’re here!”
“He’s not to be disturbed,” said the middle-aged woman in a level, well-practiced tone. “He’s still with his one o’clock client. Please have a seat, and he’ll be out as soon as he can.”
“I’ll have a talk with him about this.” Darius’s mother walked across the empty waiting room to where her husband and children were sitting in a row: Jake, Darius, Quinn. “Darius,” said his mother, “go sit over on the other side of your father. I’ll sit next to Quinn.”
Darius got up. A fight in a legal office would a very bad thing, especially with both his parents acting so weird. He wondered again what was really going on.
“Mom,” said Quinn firmly, “sit next to me here. Darius can sit where he is.”
“Quinn, stay out of this,” said their mother. “Move, Darius.”
Quinn reached out and grabbed her brother by a pants leg with one hand. She patted the empty seat by her with the other. “No,” she said. “Let him stay. You sit here.”
“Young lady,” hissed her mother, leaning in close, “you are right on the verge of making serious trouble for yourself! Now stop it! ”
“I don’t care anymore!” said Quinn, glaring back. “What are you gonna do about it, huh?”
“Hey!” said Darius, feeling the cold touch of fear. “It’s okay, Quinn! Look, I’m just moving over—”
“Don’t you talk back to me!” said his mother to Quinn. “Don’t you dare talk back to me when I’m looking out for your welfare!”
“You’re not looking out for anyone’s welfare!” Quinn said in a loud voice, and she got up and walked toward the seats on the other side of the waiting room, where Darius was just sitting down.
Her mother grabbed Quinn by the arm and jerked her to a stop. Quinn spun around and slapped her mother’s arm away. “Don’t touch me!” she shouted.
“Jesus!” said Darius, leaping from his seat. “Stop! Please stop it!” He heard a beeping noise from the receptionist’s desk. He realized she had triggered a hidden alarm. Holy shit!
Quinn dodged to avoid being grabbed by her mother again. Darius stepped between them, hands up. Furious, his mother struck him open-handed across the face, knocking his glasses off. “Get back in your seat!” she shouted. “Sit down! Quinn, you get back here!”
Darius staggered backward, his face on fire. He hit a row of empty chairs and sat down abruptly, holding his face and staring at his mother in shock. Quinn grabbed his glasses from the floor and ran over to give them back to Darius.
“Quinn!” shouted their mother.
“Excuse me!” said a tall, portly man in a business suit, walking into the waiting room. “Is there a problem here?” Two other tall men in suits came behind him. They all looked like lawyers, but without his glasses Darius found it impossible to tell. He blinked up at them through tears in his eyes, but he stayed in his seat and carefully put his glasses back on. Quinn sat down next to him and checked his face.
“I’m having difficulty with my children,” said Mrs. Morgendorffer quickly. “Do you have a room where I can put my son?”
“Certainly,” said the portly man. “Right down the hall here. Which one of you wants to stay with him?” he added, looking from Darius’s mother to his father.
To his astonishment, Darius realized that his father had been completely uninvolved in the entire altercation. When the portly man turned to him, his father made a wide-eyed, open-handed gesture that clearly said, I have no idea what’s happening here, and I have no control over it.
“Me,” said Quinn. “I’ll stay with him.”
“My daughter will stay with me,” said their mother, looking daggers at Quinn. “Jake, you stay with Darius.”
“Sure,” her husband said sourly. He got up, making a face, and motioned for Darius to follow him.
Darius got up. Quinn got up beside him. Darius noticed and turned to her. “Wait for me,” he said in what he hoped was a quiet, confident voice. He wanted her to listen. This entire episode was scaring the daylights out of him. “I promise I’ll be right back. Everything will be fine.”
Quinn stared at him, then nodded. “Okay,” she said. She gave him an impulsive hug, then sat down as Darius followed his father out of the waiting room.
They were escorted down the hall to a small storage room filled with shelves, each jammed with banker’s boxes full of legal documents. Darius took a seat in a folding chair. His father sat in a chair by the open door. “Any chance of getting a drink?” his dad asked the lawyer who escorted them there.
“We have Cola Blast, regular and diet, and Ultra-Cola, plus canned ice tea, fruit juices, or just plain old coffee,” said the lawyer.
“Oh, coffee for me, then,” said Mr. Morgendorffer.
“And you?” said the lawyer to Darius.
Darius shook his head. “No, thanks,” he said. He was thirsty, but too shaken to deal with it just yet. His fingers were trembling and his face still ached from where his mother had struck him. He leaned forward and put his head in his hands, elbows on his knees. Too much had happened. It was time to regroup, but he just couldn’t do it.
What the hell just happened? he thought. Quinn went off just like I used to do, when Dad was riding me really bad years ago. And Dad just sat there! Why didn’t he do anything? Why didn’t he try to stop Mom from freaking out? And what the hell is eating Mom, anyway? She acts like I’m beating up Quinn or something! What’s happened? Is something else going on here besides the deposition? Mom acted like I was poisonous. Does she really believe that? Did the deposition do something to her, or what? Is she snapping from stress? Are we all going crazy? What the hell is going on?
A few feet away, his father sighed. Darius looked up. His father was savoring a hot cup of coffee.
“Dad?” he asked.
“Hmmm?” said his father, lowering the cup.
“Why are we here?”
“Legal stuff,” said his father.
“Is this about the deposition? About my roommate at Buxton Ridge?”
His father shrugged.
“Come on, Dad! Don’t you know?”
“Just relax,” said his father, and took a sip of his coffee again.
Darius’s head fell. He put his head in his hands again, his palms mashing into his eyes. They sat in the room for what seemed like an hour.
“Mister Morgendorffer?” said a woman’s voice. “Mister Rawlings will see you now. Your wife’s already in the room.”
His father got up and turned to Darius. “Just wait here for now,” he said. “Amy should be by in a few minutes.”
“Aunt Amy?” Darius shook his head
slowly. “What’s she doing here?” Darius hadn’t seen his mother’s youngest
sister since he was in elementary school, back in
“She’s going to look after Quinn for a little, till things calm down. I think she’s got a hotel room in town. Helen’s paying for it.”
“Is something going on, Dad?”
His father shrugged. “Just stay here and keep out of trouble,” he said. “We’ll call you.” He walked off with the coffee cup.
Darius got up and looked down the hallway. Seeing no one around after his father went into an office, he went back to his chair and sat down again. He tried to get comfortable so he could fall asleep, but it was impossible. The chair dug into his back. He finally put his head in his hands again and just waited, thinking gloomy thoughts.
An age later, he heard a door open in the waiting room and someone walk in with quick steps. He wondered if the visitor was his Aunt Amy, or if he’d recognize her after all this time. Did she still wear those big round-lens glasses and baggy sweaters?
“Hi,” he heard the visitor say—a woman. “My sister asked me to meet her here, Helen Morgendorffer. Is she here yet?”
“She’s with her attorney,” said the receptionist. “Do you want me to call her out?”
“Could you, for just a minute?”
“Sure. Who should I say is here?”
“Okay. Just a moment.”
Darius almost got up and went out in the hallway, but decided not to. If his mother was the one who had gotten in touch with Amy, who knew what Amy thought of him now?
A door opened. “Oh, Amy, I’m glad you’re here,” Darius heard his mother say. “I need to talk to you.” A door shut.
“What’s going on?” Amy asked.
“Wait,” said his mother. Footsteps came down the hall, sounding louder. They stopped abruptly not far from the door to Darius’s room. A door opened. “Let’s go in here for some privacy. It’s a conference room.”
It occurred to Darius that the conference room might be adjacent to the storage room. He stood up and looked at the wall that he guessed connected the two areas. Should he listen in?
The choice was a no-brainer, really. He walked across the room and nervously stood by the wall, waiting.
A door shut on the other side. “Helen,” said Amy, “what’s going on?”
“Darius is in trouble again,” said his mother. “He’s going to be deposed next month about his roommate at that military academy Jake had him sent to.”
“His roommate?” said Amy. “The one who killed himself?”
“They’re still sorting that out.”
“Wait, what are you saying? You think Darius had something to do with that?”
“I don’t know, damn it! I don’t know what the hell’s going on! I’m about to go crazy and I don’t know what the hell is going on anymore with him!”
“Well, don’t yell at me about it! Don’t you believe Darius about this? I mean, the academy investigated the whole thing and cleared Darius, right? Didn’t they? How could he have done anything?”
“Trouble’s been following him around since day one. He’s taken after Jake in every way possible, and I’m at my wit’s end. I don’t even know if I want him around anymore. Quinn’s starting to turn out just like him, mouthing off at me and threatening me and just behaving like a little monster!”
“We’re going to be sued, Amy! That boy’s parents are going to find some way to claim that Darius either caused their son’s death or contributed to it, and we’re going to be soaked for millions! Millions, do you hear me? Can you possibly see what the problem is now? What do I have to do to spell it out for you?”
“Do you know that you’re going to be sued?”
“Why the hell else are they deposing Darius? They’re going to sue the academy for sure, but they’ll go after us, more than likely. They all do, everyone in that position would do it. They don’t care.”
“Then, from what you’re saying, this isn’t Darius’s fault.”
“He’s tearing us apart, and Quinn’s suffering from it! Jake told me Darius broke a glass in the kitchen the other day and didn’t clean it up, and Quinn stepped on it and cut her foot! He’s totally irresponsible, and now he’s getting Quinn to be just like him, fighting us at every step of the way! I will be damned in Hell if I’m going to have her put us through all the trouble he’s put us through!”
“What are you planning to do about Darius?”
“In the long run or short run?”
“He’s going to talk to the attorney about the deposition, but not in any depth in this meeting. This is just an introductory thing, a hand-shaker. We’ll set up another appointment for him to come back and talk about what’s involved in a deposition, how he should answer the questions and all that. It scares me to death to think of what he might say, but we can’t get out of it.”
“What could he say? I mean—”
“He could say he and his roommate didn’t get along, they were enemies, he told his roommate to kill himself—come on, Amy, can you possibly be any thicker?”
“I don’t have to take this. You can fix your own damn problems.”
“Amy, wait! Amy! I need your help with Quinn!”
A door opened, then there was a pause. “What about Quinn?”
“Amy, shut the door.”
The door softly thumped shut. “What?”
“Amy, Quinn listens to you. She looks up to you in a way she doesn’t to me, thanks to Darius. Can you—I’m trying to think of what you could do—can you talk to her? Can you see her on weekends, just for a few hours for a while? Maybe take her out for ice cream tonight or something.”
“How is she doing?”
“She was fighting me in the waiting room here not half an hour ago, actually hitting me. I think Darius put her up to it.”
“Look, I have to be honest with you. Darius has never been a favorite of mine, but I can’t see him doing what you’re saying he’s doing.”
“The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree.”
“What? What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“He’s Jake’s son.”
“Helen, for the love of God, he’s your son, too!”
A short silence followed. “I wish I’d never had him, after all the hell he’s put us through. I wish he’d . . . I don’t know, died, or I’d given him up for adoption or something. I’m worn out worrying from all the shit we’ve been through over him.”
Darius stepped back from the wall. He stared at it with vague astonishment, as if someone had just cut him in half, but he had not yet felt the pain from the blow.
“My God, Helen, I can’t believe you said that.”
“What, you want him? You can have him. I’m sick of all this.”
“Have you talked to him yet about the deposition?”
“No. We just got here. Jake and I are talking with the attorney about our liability in case we get sued with the school. It doesn’t look good. I guess if worse comes to worse, we can declare bankruptcy. It depends a lot on what Darius says in the deposition, though if that boy’s family wants to sue us, they’ll do it no matter what.”
“You’re supposed to just tell the truth in a deposition, right?”
“There’s more to it than that, but it’s the truth that scares me to death. I don’t know what Darius did to that boy. He says they were friends, but who knows what the truth is?” A pause. “I’m sorry, Amy. I’m just about to go insane. I have to get back in there with Jake and go over a few more issues.”
“In the room across the hall. Darius is down the hall that way somewhere.”
“Okay. I’ll drop in on both of them and see how they’re doing.”
“Just look after Quinn for me, if you would. Someone else is supposed to be looking after Darius. And don’t put them in the same room together. I don’t even want him home with us tonight, but the attorney says we have to go on like nothing’s wrong, for the sake of the deposition. If we do anything like put Darius out of the house, it makes it look like he might be out of control, and it gives weight to the other side’s claims against him. We have to go on right now like nothing’s wrong.”
“So, he’s going to be with you anyway, right? Until the deposition, at least?”
A long sigh. “Yes. I don’t know about afterward. Jake’s just about beside himself with glee right now. He’s had it in for Darius for years, and he’s screwed that boy up to the point that I don’t think we can save him. You should have seen Quinn’s foot after she cut herself.”
“I don’t get it. Why’s Jake so happy, then?”
“Jake knew that boy Ellenbogen’s father at the academy, and he hated him. I think he’s tickled to death that the boy killed himself. He keeps saying, ‘Well, my boy’s still alive! Guess I showed him who was the better father!’ I could puke.”
“God, Helen, are you serious? You can’t be—”
“I’m divorcing him as soon as all of
this is over. I’m staying in
A long pause. “Well, it’s about time. I think Jake’s the only thing that you, me, and Rita agree on.”
“Probably. I’m sorry I let it go this long.”
“And Darius? What’ll happen—”
“Look, I have to go. We’ll talk later. Just check on Quinn.” A door opened.
Darius turned like a robot and walked back to his seat. He had a distinct memory at that moment of reading an adventure book about a robot when he was a little boy, and how he had walked around the house stiff-legged for days pretending to be a robot just like the one in the book. Now he was a real robot, one without a heart or soul, and he walked stiff-legged back to his chair and sat down. It was purely mechanical. He felt nothing inside him.
Footsteps clicked down the hallway and stopped at the door to the storage room. “Oh,” said his Aunt Amy.
Darius looked up. His aunt was there, long wavy brown hair and all. Amy was looking into the room and staring at the wall where Darius had listened in on the conversation. It was obvious at that moment that his aunt knew the whole conversation with her sister had been overheard. Behind her big, round-lens glasses, her brown eyes were enormous with shock.
“Hi, Aunt Amy,” he said. He remembered from his courtesy classes at Buxton Ridge that he was supposed to stand when a woman came into a room, so he stood. “It’s good to see you.”
“Um,” said Amy, looking from him to the wall and back, “good to see you, too.” She pulled down the hem of her baggy beige-and-maroon sweater over the top of her jeans. “So, how have you been, Darius?”
“Okay,” he said. “Did Quinn tell you her good news?”
Amy looked blank, still reeling from her discovery. “What good news?”
“She’s the president of the
Something slowly changed in Amy’s brown eyes as she looked at Darius. “I’ll do that,” she said. “Are you okay?”
He opened his mouth but hesitated, wanting to say so much. In the end, he said only what was important. “Please take good care of Quinn for me, whatever happens.”
Amy blinked. “Uh, of course. I will.”
He nodded. “Okay. Thank you.” After a moment, he swallowed. “It was good to see you again.”
Amy stared at him, then pulled back from the door. “It was good to see you, too, Darius,” she said.
He nodded once more, then sat down and looked at the floor. The robot was finished with its work and was shutting down for the evening.
Someone slowly left the doorway and walked back up the hall. Darius took off his glasses in a mechanical way and put them in his shirt pocket, then leaned forward and covered his face with his hands.
A door opened up the hallway. “Well, hi!” said Aunt Amy, her voice echoing in the corridor. “How’s my favorite niece?”
The previous owner of the Morgendorffers’ house had remodeled one of the upstairs bedrooms to house her schizophrenic mother (paranoid type: visual and auditory hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, delusions of persecution—in short, the works). The room had a light gray ceiling, medium-gray reinforced padded walls, and a wooden floor painted brick red that smelled faintly of urine. Bars ran across the windows to prevent the owner’s mother from trying to jump from the second floor naked during the full moon to get the attention of God. A long metal support bar ran across one wall near the door, allowing the mother in her last two years of life to get out of her wheelchair and be walked down the hall to the bathroom that Darius and Quinn now used. The owner had no money with which to remodel the room after her mother’s death, so she sold the house as it was to a family that needed to move in immediately. The schizophrenic’s bedroom was morbid and depressing, an atrocity of interior design that would have been greatly improved by blowing it up with dynamite.
Darius took it because he saw his sister’s look of horror when she first peered into that room, and he feared one of his parents might stick Quinn with it. Personally, he also thought it was sort of cool to have a room once occupied by a psychotic. Being a guy, he had not decorated much—a poster of William Shakespeare over his desk by the door, a very nice edge-on color shot of spiral galaxy NGC 4565 (courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope) over the head of his bed, a blueprint of the B-2 stealth bomber on the wall over the support bar, a large oval rug from their Highland home that didn’t fit anywhere else in the house, his bed, and three small bookcases overstuffed with new and used paperbacks and hardbounds picked up from a variety of sources. A telescope, a boom box, a CD player with earphones, and a computer were scattered around the room among articles of used clothing and bathroom towels. More books were stored under the bed with the dust bunnies. After checking with an electronics supply store, Darius was able to locate a remote that worked for the color television set mounted on wall brackets in a ceiling corner, and he watched “Sick, Sad World” lying on his bed in the afternoons after school when he wasn’t with Jane. A good ammonia-and-water mopping and a box of baking soda scattered over the floor eliminated the urine smell almost entirely.
On the first day he moved his things into his new room, Darius mused for half a minute over how a girl would have decorated the place. Certainly, after she finished screaming, she would have torn out the wall padding, put real curtains over the windows instead of beach towels, carpeted the entire floor to hide that awful maroon color, and repainted everything else. The wall bar would go, flower vases and mirrors and fashionable dressers would come in, and the walls would be covered with Guys2Guys posters. The violent rambling poetry carved into the closet walls by the psychotic mother would have been covered over with wallpaper, and the sawn-off bars in the windows—well, no more need be said.
This line of thought led Darius to wonder for a few seconds more how the rest of his life would have changed if he had been born a girl. Though he liked alternate histories, he did not waste much time thinking about this as the very idea overwhelmed him, but he supposed as a girl he would have gotten along better with Quinn—doing the sisterly thing, as he thought of it. It was hard to imagine being friends with Jane, as they really had so little in common—Jane being an artist, and Darius being a writer—so they’d have ignored each other in school. Being so different, at least they’d never have had to worry about dating the same guy. Darius’s parents would probably not have wanted two girls, so life, as difficult as it was, would surely have been even worse than now. As a girl, he would have dressed better than he did as a guy, as women invariably dressed better than any guys that Darius knew, and he (she) would be dating all the time and shopping for wonder bras and planning her future wedding and standing at the bathroom mirror every morning before school with Quinn, applying eyeliner and blush.
Only in this time-space continuum, he knew, would anyone in his place have kept a padded room like this. His room was more than his castle—it was his safe and secure refuge from the world, at least until Quinn banged on the door needing something.
Tonight, he lay on the floor looking up at a long, interesting crack in the light-gray ceiling. He had lost the will to get to his bed halfway across the room from the door. The faceless things reaching for him could not be kept away by the padded walls or nauseating décor. Quinn was still out with Aunt Amy, so she could not distract the demons’ attention, and neither could his parents, who had left the house for their respective workplaces to either catch up on missed projects in the evening hours (in his mother’s case) or sample a bottle of whiskey in a desk drawer and stare at the walls (in his father’s).
After half an hour lying on the floor, Darius stirred and got to his feet. He moved in a daze, as if he’d just received the walloping dose of Thorazine that the room’s former occupant regularly got. His feet shuffled over the floor to one of his ramshackle bookcases. At random, he picked a book off the shelf—Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris , one of his favorite science-fiction novels. He flipped the book open to the final page and read the first passage that met his eyes.
The age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger than death, that finis vitae sed non amoris, is a lie, useless and not even funny.
His gaze ran down the page to the last words in the book.
I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.
The book flipped shut in his hands, and he tossed it back on the shelf on top of the rest. He stared at the book for a long while, then put on a light jacket and walked out of his room and out of the house. It was about half past six.
When he left he did not have a clear
idea of where he was going. Sundown was over an hour away, and traffic was moderate.
He walked west along Glen Oaks in the direction of Jane’s house, but he did not
want to see Jane. When he reached
No one was on the path in the woods when he reached it. It was still light enough to see. He was overdressed for a long jog, but it was not important.
He saw a long, gnarled branch that had fallen from an oak. When he reached it, he broke stride, picked it up, and smashed it into rotting splinters against the nearest tree. He picked up the largest of the pieces and smashed that to nothing as well, then walked on. He seized a large rock from the ground and flung it as far as he could, then picked up another branch and beat it on a sapling until both the sapling and the branch were shattered.
He continued moving like this through the woods, destroying anything he could get hold of with his hands. Before long his palms were bleeding, but this was good. The pain took his mind off everything he had heard in the law office a few hours earlier. Images from across his life floated through his mind, and he gazed at them and tossed them aside as he did the broken limbs and rocks he encountered on his way.
When he reached the long straightaway where Jane had beaten him in their run, he ran again as hard as he could to the end. He slowed down and walked the last few steps until he reached the place on the ground where he had held Jane in his arms and realized the miracle of her, and here he knelt and put down his head and cried.
Ages later, when his weeping had subsided and he was merely kneeling and staring at the ground, he heard a noise behind him. He knew it was some jogger who had happened upon him, and he got up to walk off the path and be alone again.
He turned. Jane stood there on the path, about twenty feet away. He looked at her for a long moment, then wiped his face with a bloodied hand and looked away. He had no energy left to run from her, not that it would have mattered.
She took a step toward him.
“Don’t touch me,” he said, turning toward her but not looking into her face.
He shook his head. She started to take another step toward him, but he backed up. “Don’t touch me,” he repeated.
“Just don’t.” He ran his fingers through his hair. He was filthy, but he didn’t mind. It was as it should be.
“Quinn called and said you weren’t
home when she stopped by.
He shrugged, not looking at her.
“Please tell me what happened.”
“Call my Aunt Amy. She knows everything. Ask Quinn. Ask someone, anyone, but just go away.”
She didn’t go away. Darius looked down. He was still standing by the spot where he had held Jane.
“Quinn said she was staying the night with her aunt,” said Jane. “They’re in a hotel somewhere around here.”
“What about you?”
“Go to hell.”
“Nothing,” he said. He exhaled heavily, and his strength left him. He sank to his knees again by the place he thought of as sacred. “It doesn’t matter,” he repeated. “My parents are getting divorced, and Mom’s throwing me out after she throws out Dad. It just doesn’t fucking matter. Just go away.”
Jane walked closer. He shook his head and raised a warning hand. “Don’t,” he said. “I can’t take it.”
She knelt on the ground next to him.
He felt tears start to run down his face. He wiped them off on his sleeve. Crying in front of Jane was the worst thing imaginable. It was just wrong.
“I don’t want to be like my dad,” he said. He felt very tired. “I can’t deal with it. I can’t deal with anything anymore.” He wiped his face again. “If you loved me, you’d kill me. I wish to God you would.”
A few moments later, he lay on the ground, his head in Jane’s lap.
He told her everything.
“Don’t tell Quinn,” he said. It was dark now. The woods sang, the crickets and night birds and cicadas in chorus. “Don’t tell any of this to Quinn.”
Jane stroked his hair. “She already knows,” she said. “Your mom’s voice carries, and the walls were like tissue paper.”
He got home an hour later. As he walked in the door, he heard someone in the kitchen. It was after nine.
He walked into the kitchen. His father was pouring a glass of whiskey at the long center counter.
“You’re late,” said his father, looking at the clock.
Darius walked around the counter until he stood within two feet of his father. His bloodied, filthy fists balled up, and he felt every muscle he had knot into readiness.
“Do your worst,” he said softly.
His father stared back at him, whiskey glass in hand. Seconds passed.
His father started to raise the hand with the glass.
Darius drew back his right fist and waited. He was almost eye-to-eye with his old man now, and he could see how the years had eaten his father away inside until nothing was left but the shell.
His father took a step back. The amber liquid in the glass swished and spilled over his shirt front. He put the glass down on the counter, his hand shaking.
They held their positions for a few moments longer, then Darius lowered his fist. “All right then,” he said, and he turned to go. He stopped, however, and he turned and walked back to his father. The old man backed up another step. Darius picked up the whiskey glass and emptied what was left of its contents into the sink, then put the glass in the dishwasher. He took the whiskey bottle and emptied it out as well, throwing it in the garbage under the sink.
“You throw something at me again,” he said, turning back to his father, “and I’ll break your arm off at the shoulder. And you ever hurt Quinn, I swear to God, you’d better run and never stop.”
He waited until he saw understanding in his father’s eyes, and then he left and went to his room to sit on the edge of his bed and stare at the floor. He left the door open.
It was very quiet in the house that night.
When his mother came down for a quick cup of coffee the following morning, Darius was waiting for her at the kitchen table, showered and dressed. His mother was startled because it was 5:31 a.m., and Darius did not normally get up for another half hour. The coffeemaker was already turned on, filling the air with its aroma, and a pot was full and ready.
Darius rose to his feet. He was bleary from lack of sleep and truly dreaded starting this fight, but he remembered what she had said about him and what she’d put him through.
“Good morning,” he said. “I need to talk to you while Dad’s out cold in the guest bedroom.”
“I have to go to work now,” said his mother in a tight voice. “I’ve got a ton of things to do today.” She had trouble looking him in the eyes.
“It can wait,” he said steadily. “We need to talk first.”
“Darius, for Christ’s sake, I don’t have time to listen to this stupid—”
“When you divorce Dad, I want to stay here with you and Quinn—until I graduate high school, that is. After that, I’ll be out of your hair for good, if you want it that way.”
His mother stood stock-still, her mouth falling open.
“You should also get a new attorney,” he added, “one with thicker office walls.”
She closed her mouth, but her eyes burned. “You want to stay here, is that it?”
He took a breath and nodded once.
“You can get out now,” she said, her face hardening. “Get your things, get out, and stay out. You can go live with your father. He can get out today, too.”
Hearing this from his mother frightened him, but it was now or never. “When is the deposition?” he asked in a loud voice. His throat was dry with fear, but he drove on. “Just a month from now? What do you think they’ll ask me when I’m in there? What’ll I tell them? Think about it, Mom! Think hard!”
Her expression changed from anger to shock, and then to white-hot rage. She walked slowly over to her briefcase on the kitchen table beside Darius and played with the locks. “That’s extortion,” she said.
“I’m talking about me killing Mike!” he said angrily, knowing he was now being recorded. “I’m talking about the kind of family life I’ve had with you and Dad that’s screwed me up so much that—”
His mother made a sudden motion with her hands on the briefcase locks halfway through his speech, gazing at him in a fury. “Stop it!” she shouted. “Just stop it!”
Darius put out his right hand. A taped-down bandage covered his palm. “Give me that cassette,” he said.
His mother stared at his hand, but she remained motionless.
“Give me the cassette,” he repeated. “I’m not kidding. Give it to me.”
A muscle twitched in her cheek. She snapped open the briefcase, reached in, popped open the miniature tape recorder inside, and threw the tiny cassette tape on the tabletop so hard it bounced into the air. He barely managed to catch it with his injured hands, and then he stuck it in his pants pocket, grimacing from the pain radiating from his palms.
“Do you want me to put you through college and graduate school, too?” his mother asked through clenched teeth.
“That’s up to you,” he said. “I can get jobs and put myself through if I have to, but Quinn—yeah. You’re going to put her through the best schools on the planet, and screw the cost.”
Her glare deepened. “You have a lot of nerve telling me that.”
“Well, you and I have something in common there,” said Darius. “You have a lot of nerve saying what you did about me yesterday. At least we both love Quinn, too. I want the best for her in everything there is, and trust me, I’ll see that she gets it, any way I can. Just like you would.”
“You care only about yourself. You don’t care about anyone else but you.”
He glared, his self-control wearing thin from exhaustion. “Dad broke that glass that Quinn cut herself on. I was getting the vacuum to clean it up when she stepped in it. Ask Quinn.” He paused and went on in a quieter tone. “I should have warned her about the glass first, though. I’ll know better next time.”
“Jake said it was you.”
He snorted. “Did the whole kitchen stink like tequila when you got home that night? Get with the program, okay? You’ve trusted me to take care of her since I got back from Buxton Ridge, and I have!”
His mother’s eyes flashed. “You’re doing a rotten job of it. Your sister’s turning into a rebellious little—”
“You were driving her nuts last night, not telling her what was going on with the lawyers!” Darius interrupted, his patience near its end. “She was scared to death, and you wouldn’t talk to her! She was fighting you, not me!”
“She doesn’t need to know everything that’s going on!”
“She needs to know something! You have to talk with her so she has something to hang on to! It’s not that hard!” He forced himself again to lower his voice. “You spend literally all day at the office, and I’m not going to roast you for it, but if that’s how you want it, then I’m the one who has to look out for her, and I do! Amy and Rita can’t ride in like the cavalry every single day. I helped get her that job as president of the pep club at school. Did she tell you about that?”
For the first time that morning, his mother looked confused. “You helped her do what?”
He slowly let out his breath. “Talk to Quinn tonight. She’s got something she really wants to tell you. If you want only the best for her, believe me, she just got it.”
His mother looked at him reflectively, though her eyes still burned. “President of the pep club.”
“I swear,” he said, his voice calmer. “Ask her when she gets home. I assume she’s coming home tonight, isn’t she? Or is Amy keeping her for a few more days?”
“I haven’t decided.” She stared at him coldly. “I’m really pissed about you holding the deposition over my head for this.”
Just like that, he lost it. He suddenly leaned close to her face as she recoiled. “My roommate killed himself!” he shouted in a fury. “I had to cut down his body from where he hanged himself in our room, and all you’re crying about is getting sued! The nerve of you! Then you told Amy last night you wished I was dead, and then you went and hit me in front of Dad, Quinn, and that office receptionist! They might even have it on a security tape! I could go downtown to Carter County Child Protective Services today and nail you to a fucking wall! I’d hammer you out with the CPS in a heartbeat, except we need your goddamn paycheck! ”
His mother stepped back, a trace of fear in her eyes. There was a long silence.
“You try hitting me again if you feel really lucky,” he said. “That one yesterday was your freebie. Next time, Quinn and I will take our chances with child welfare. Maybe Amy or Rita will get us, but that’s a gamble. How lucky are you? You wanna find out?” Just barely, he pulled back and stopped himself from ranting on.
She gave him another long, stony look, then swallowed. “I’m sorry for what I said about you. I was at the end of my rope with everything. I shouldn’t have said it, but I did, and I don’t know what else to tell you except I’m sorry.” She sighed and looked away, shaking her head. “It probably won’t matter what you say at the deposition, anyway,” she said quietly. “I’m sure they’ll sue.”
“I’m almost sure they will, too, but I can probably make the final judgment a lot better or a lot worse, depending on what I say.” He gritted his teeth. “God, I hate doing this, I really do. I feel like a total shit. Mike was a good guy. I liked him, and using him like this is just—all I can say is, you earned it! Don’t you ever screw me over again!”
She looked him in the eyes for a long time. Neither flinched. “I don’t see how we’re going to make it work,” she said at last. “I just don’t see it, you staying here after we’ve gotten off on this foot.”
“You lived with Dad for years,” Darius said, his voice lowering. “I’m a lot more reasonable than he ever was, and you know it. I’m not dictating how to run the house. You’re in charge—but you’re not throwing me out. Not yet. And I do care about Quinn. She’s my sister, and I love her. You’ve got sisters, you know what it’s like.”
His mother snorted softly. “You are your father’s son,” she said.
“Wrong,” he said softly. He pointed at her, his eyes boring into hers. “I’m your son, through and through. Congratulations, Mom.”
A moment passed. His mother’s mouth twitched. She almost smiled. Almost. “Perhaps you are,” she said.
He grinned without humor. “This is what family is all about: looking out for each other.” He stepped back and rubbed his face. The grin vanished, replaced by exhaustion. “That’s all I’ve got.” He dropped his hand. “Have a good day at work.”
She stared at him a moment longer, then turned to leave.
“Don’t forget your briefcase,” he said.
After she drove away, Darius turned
off the coffeemaker, emptied out the unused pot, and got a box of Pop-Tarts to
eat on the way to school. He checked on his father in the spare bedroom—still
snoring and likely to be massively hung over when he got up—then put on his
jacket and left the house. It was still dark out, the night sky over
He walked to Jane’s home in a cool, light wind and sat on her front step, an hour early. After he took out the Pop-Tarts, he found he couldn’t eat them. His stomach was cramped all to hell. He put the box in his backpack again, then huddled down on the step and lay his head on his crossed arms, resting on his knees.
Terrors assailed him. What if his mother threw him out anyway? Would he really screw up the deposition just to get her back? He thought he would at first, but now he didn’t know. It would be an evil thing to do, without a doubt. Would that make him like his dad after all? And what if he did have to go live with his dad? Was she really going to throw his father out today? It made sense, now that she knew her plan was discovered. What would his dad do? And what if his dad decided to take a punch at him? Darius would have to turn his dad in to the CPS, and what would happen then?
Darius was furious with his father, but the thought of tearing up the family, even to save it, made him sick to his stomach. He took off his glasses and tried to think everything out clearly.
Jane found him asleep like that on the porch when she came outside an hour later. He woke up hearing someone singing the opening lyrics to “There’s Got to Be a Morning After.”
“I’m hallucinating,” he muttered, peering at Jane’s face and wondering why it wasn’t in focus.
“Let’s find out,” she said. “How many fingers am I holding in front of your face?”
“You’re very funny,” he said in a deadpan, staring at her upright middle finger. He remembered his glasses, put them on, and stood up to stretch.
Jane kissed him when he was done. “How long have you been out here?”
“I dunno,” Darius mumbled. “What day is it?”
“Stupid watch,” he said, frowning at his bare right wrist.
“Your watch is on your left hand. Are you okay? You look like the bad side of one of those ‘This Is Your Brain on Drugs’ posters.”
“It was a long night. I feel lousy. What time is it, really?”
“Same time I usually come out here looking for you.”
“Oh. I got here an hour ago.”
“You’re going to tell me why, right?”
“No. Forget it. I don’t even want to think about it.”
Feeling lightheaded and not in the best of judgment, he told her anyway as they walked to school. “I hardly think anything’s really settled,” he said, “so don’t tell Quinn any of this—although she probably already knows thanks to that telepathic link the two of you share.”
“I think I’d better keep this stuff to myself,” Jane said. “I don’t think even I believe it. And like you said, it’s probably not over yet anyway. Sort of like that movie, Hell House, where the ghost comes back after everyone thought it was dead and it starts killing all those—”
“Oh, shut up. ” He yawned and squinted at the passing traffic. “I should have drunk the damn coffee myself instead of throwing it out. I just want to go back to sleep.”
“Let’s go in this gas station and you can get an Ultra-Cola or something. And one for me. And a doughnut—no, two doughnuts, a cruller and one of those glazed ones with sprinkles. Oh, look, they have those gummy things!”
They had to hurry to make it to the school before the first bell rang. They got to the door with three minutes to spare. Before they went in, however, Jane grabbed Darius and pulled him back into a corner near the entrance.
“What?” he said. “Okay, here, take the bag of gummy things. I don’t like them anyway. They stick to my teeth.”
“Idiot,” she said, and she pulled his face to hers.
“I love you,” she said when they came up for air.
He put down the food sacks and held her to him. He buried his face in her silky black hair.
“Crocus,” he whispered. “You are the flower that ends the winter, the color that breathes, the sunlight on the face of the world.”
“You are the blind one,” she said. “And I’d better wipe you off, or Quinn will kick my butt.”
They went into the school together, and the closing of the doors turned the cool autumn wind away.
Among other articles on the floor of Jane’s bedroom closet that Thursday afternoon was a battered blue sneaker with no mate. Darius stuck the shoe’s toe under the bedroom door, wedged it solidly into place, and checked the doorknob once more. The doorknob lock was broken and likely had been for years.
“I’ll go to a hardware store for a new one,” he said, straightening again and tapping the knob with a finger. “Get you a deadbolt, too, like Quinn’s.”
“Get me a what?” said Jane. She banged on her television set with a fist, then pushed the channel button again.
“Door lock,” he said, walking over to her bed. He had to step through a maze of oil-based paint tubes, scattered on newspapers spread out over the hardwood floor. No painting was visible, but he figured Jane either didn’t want it to be seen or it was drying somewhere else in the house.
Jane banged on the television set
again as he sat beside her. “Why do I need a door lock?” she asked, frowning at
the TV picture. “
“Having no lock might be inconvenient.”
“He knows to stay out of my room.”
“How about your mom and dad? Your sibs? The meter reader?”
“Mom and Dad are still in
“Watch us or the TV?”
“Whatever.” She sat back on the bed, her eyes on the TV. “Perfect. Don’t touch it. It’s been acting up lately.”
“Like its owner? Ouch!”
“Sorry. My elbow slipped.”
Their T-shirts and shorts were still damp, and they both reeked of sweat from their after-school run. Jane pulled the hair tie from her stubby ponytail, letting her shoulder-length black bangs swing free, and tossed the tie into a corner of the room. Darius pushed his running shoes off with his feet and scooted back on the bed to the pile of pillows they’d built. Jane kicked off her shoes and climbed over beside him. She nested against his chest, his arm around her shoulders, and they looked at the foot of the bed where the TV showed the barf-green “Sick, Sad World” show’s logo between their sock feet.
“He made the world’s largest origami alligator out of hotel bed linens—but now the Hilton wants them back!” cried the TV. “One big croc of sheet, coming up next on ‘Sick, Sad World’!”
“You doing okay?” Jane asked softly.
“I’m okay. Just tired.”
“It’s been a long week. I’m sorry it was so hard for you.”
“It’s okay.” The scent of her hair was distracting him from the TV. “I love you.”
She nestled closer to him. “I love you,” she whispered. “The show’s starting.”
He kissed her hair. She looked up at him with eyes of the bluest blue.
Five minutes later, Jane gasped and licked her red lips. “I don’t know why we bother,” she mumbled.
“Having the TV on at all. We’re never going to watch this show.”
“Next time I’m out, maybe I’ll get a T-shirt with a fur-lined bottom to keep my neck warm.”
“Not that I’m complaining or anything.”
“I’m sorry I talk so much. I thought you’d be the talker since you’re the writer. Everything in my head’s coming right out my mouth. La la LA la la!”
“Yes, keep doing that. Just like that. Keep going! Don’t stop!”
His fingers circled the smooth skin of her stomach and toyed with her belly button before slipping southward under the elastic waistbands of her running shorts and white cotton underwear. Her thighs parted as she inhaled sharply.
The doorknob rattled and turned. The
door was then shoved opened an inch before the blue sneaker stopped it.
“What?” Jane shouted at her older brother as she kicked her bra under her bed.
Jane groaned. “Crap, I forgot that I turned the ringer off. No wonder we didn’t hear it.” She walked over and reached for the white cordless phone at the head of her bed by the stereo system.
“It’s Quinn,” said Darius, looking at the floor. “I just know it.”
“Yo,” said Jane to the phone. “Hi. Yeah, he’s here.” She handed the phone to Darius, then walked through the oil-paint minefield to her closet by the bedroom door.
“What were you guys doing?”
“Watching TV!” Jane snapped. “What did it look like?”
“It kinda looked like you were just standing around,” said her brother.
Jane grabbed some clothes and
stalked out of the room past
While this was going on, Darius sat down on the bed with the cordless phone. “What’s up?”
“Dari?” came his younger sister’s voice over the line. “Did I interrupt anything?”
“We were watching TV,” he said,
scratching the back of his head. He heard
“Were you watching the tube in her living room or her bedroom? Did you have the door open?”
“Quinn,” he said tiredly, “just tell me why you called.”
“Well, Mom called a few minutes ago and told me not to go home for the rest of the week.” Quinn’s voice rose with anxiety. “I think something’s going on, Dari. She talked to Amy for a while and Amy made me go out in the hall, so I know something’s happening. Do you know anything about this?”
Darius groaned and closed his eyes. He could easily guess. The previous night, he had overheard his mother tell her sister Amy that that she planned to divorce his father as soon as possible. Now that she knew Darius had overheard the conversation, it was entirely likely his mother had advanced the timetable and had already served his father with divorce papers and some kind of legal eviction notice from the house, which was in her name. Darius wondered how long it took to get a restraining order, which she would undoubtedly toss onto the bonfire as well.
“Dari? Answer me!”
“Quinn,” he began, struggling for the right words. “I’m not positive about this, but I think Mom started divorce proceedings against Dad today. I’m sorry, I know—”
“Oh, shit!” Quinn yelled. He heard her sobbing a moment later. His heart sank.
“Quinn,” said Darius, keeping his voice calm. “Quinn, listen to me. Are you listening?”
She continued crying, but in a more subdued tone. He took that as a yes. “Quinn, we both knew this was coming. I know you knew it, okay? All I can tell you is that I love you, and I’ll do anything I can to help you through this if that’s what’s really going on. You got that?”
“Okay,” she squeaked, still sobbing.
“You mean everything to me, Quinn. You’re the best sister in the world. We’ll get through this, I promise you we will.”
“Okay.” She coughed and sniffed, the outburst largely passed.
“Are you with Aunt Amy? Is she there? Put her on, would you?”
“Okay.” Bumping noises came through the phone. A moment later, someone else picked up.
“Well,” said Darius’s aunt in disgust, “whatever it was you told her, it seems to have done a good job of screwing everything to hell and gone. Thanks loads.”
He held back his temper, but only just. “Amy, did you talk to her about Mom getting a divorce from Dad?”
“Of course not! Who the hell gave you the right to talk about it and upset your sister, anyway?”
“She already knew!” Darius said back in a louder tone. “She heard everything that went on between you and Mom at the law office yesterday, just like I did!” After a few seconds of silence passed, he went on. “I talked to Mom this morning and told her I’d heard the whole thing at the lawyer’s. From what she told me, she was going to start the divorce today. Is that what’s going on?”
“You don’t need to know about anything yet,” Amy snapped. “Just do what—”
“Damn it!” Darius got to his feet and began pacing around Jane’s bedroom. “You and Mom are treating Quinn like a little mushroom, keeping her in the dark and feeding her shit all the time! Tell her the truth, would you? She can handle it!”
“You’re not her father!”
“And isn’t that a damn good thing, now? Amy, do you really love Quinn? Tell me the truth! Do you care about her?”
“Of course I do! What the hell kind of question is that?”
“Then trust her! She can handle it! You don’t have to dump everything on her at once, but just trust her!”
He heard Amy exhale heavily. “Look,” she said, “Helen asked me to tell you and Quinn not go back to the house today. Quinn’s going to be with me for a while. I think Rita’s coming down for the weekend, too.”
“Well, that tears it,” said Darius in resignation. “She really is dumping him. She wouldn’t get all three of the Fates together for anything else.” He wanted to say “Gorgons” instead of “Fates,” but Amy would probably hang up on him. She read a lot, he recalled, and she almost certainly knew Greek mythology.
“Stay out of it, would you?” his aunt said in irritation. “Let us handle this!”
“Stay out of it?” He tried not to shout, but he was furious. “My parents are getting divorced, we have to abandon our house barely two weeks after we move into it, and you want me to stay out of it? Am I in this family or not? What is it with you? Quinn’s my sister and I’m trying to help her like you’re helping Mom! Stop trying to shut me out!”
“Okay,” said Amy, still steamed, “let’s drop it. Do you have somewhere to stay? I can’t take you in, we don’t have the room here.”
Darius burst into sarcastic laughter. “Of course there’s no room for me at the inn! Fine, look, all I care about is that you take care of my sister. Where are you two staying, anyway?”
“I’m not going to pass that information along, if you don’t mind,” Amy growled.
“Oh, what, so I can’t tell Dad where she’s at? Amy, I’m not the Antichrist. Give me a break! Can’t I get a phone number for your room or your cell phone or something, so I can call you if I need to?”
After a moment, Amy came on again in a calmer tone. “I’ll think about it. Just tell me where you’re staying.”
“Where I’m staying?” Darius looked around and realized Jane was standing in the doorway fully dressed, listening and watching. “I don’t have any idea where I’m staying. I can’t go back to the house until when?”
“Probably until after the weekend.” A pause. “Quinn’s in the bathroom. Okay, listen to me. You spill this to Quinn, and you’re toast, you got it?”
He shut his eyes and silently counted to three. His mother’s two sisters had never been particularly friendly with him before now. They both apparently thought he was too much like his dad, whom they hated with a passion. “What?” he said through his teeth.
“Helen served your father with divorce papers at his office this afternoon, and he apparently went ballistic and pushed the server around, and now he’s downtown at the police station. She’s having him thrown out of the house. He won’t even be able to collect his things until after a cooling-off period this weekend. I think she’ll probably get a restraining order, too.”
Darius let out his breath and sat down on Jane’s bed again. “Is Dad under arrest? Is he in jail?”
“I don’t know. Helen took the day off from work for this. She was going to do it later, but when she found out you knew about it, she was afraid . . . she just thought it would be better not to wait.”
“Well, I didn’t tell Dad,” Darius said in a flat voice. “He obviously didn’t know it was coming, so there’s your proof. I don’t happen like him very much, if you didn’t already know.”
“Okay, okay, already! Look, you need to avoid him for a while if you can, particularly if he tries to see you at the high school. Helen thinks he might try to get one or both of you to stay with him as a bargaining chip or something.”
Darius gave a dry, mirthless chuckle. “Like that would ever happen.”
“Quinn doesn’t want Helen and Jake to break up. I don’t really know what she’d do if Jake tried to talk to her. We have to be careful.”
“I know.” Darius felt the bed shift. Jane sat close and gently put an arm around him. “Amy,” he went on, lowering his voice, “I’m sorry I got all hot about this stuff, but I’m worried for Quinn and I want her to get through this. I really appreciate you being there with her. You’ll do a better job of getting her around than I could.”
A pause. “Thank you,” she said. After a moment, she cleared her throat. “Quinn’s told me a lot about you, about what you’ve done for her since you got out of military school. Look, Darius, I think maybe you and I are getting off on the wrong foot. I didn’t like it that you told her about the divorce coming, but you’re right, it’s all underway. Given what Quinn’s told me about you helping her out with everything, though, I—”
“Forget it,” said Darius. He didn’t want to hear an apology, if she was leading up to one. “Just take care of her. I don’t care about anything else. Mom wants to throw Dad out, fine, whatever. I don’t have any more clothes, though. All the rest are in my room.”
“Well, you can’t go home. Stay away from it completely. Helen’s there right now with . . . with some other people.”
He exhaled and stared at the floor. His mother probably had rent-a-cops with her. It figured. His dad had a lousy temper and was prone to stew about things forever and a day, particularly if he’d been drinking. It was hard to say what he’d do.
“You can stay here,” Jane whispered.
Darius turned to her. “What? Amy, hold on for a moment.” He covered the phone’s mouthpiece.
“You can stay here,” said Jane. “We
have lots of space. You can use my sister Penny’s room, down the hall. I think
Wind’s got some old clothes here, or
Darius stared at Jane. She tilted her head and stared back, widening her eyes and looking innocent. “You have to fix the lock on my door, after all,” she added.
After a long moment, Darius raised the phone to his mouth again. He continued to look at Jane. “Amy, I can stay with the Lanes. Did Quinn give you the number here?”
“Yes, I’ve got it. Um—” Amy cleared her throat again “—Quinn said you have a girlfriend. Does she live there?”
Darius gave in to the inevitable. He
handed the phone to Jane. “My Aunt Amy,” he said. “May as well join the
“You can change in here,” said Jane, her hand over the mouthpiece. She smiled.
He gave her a tired smile in return but shook his head no. “Way too weird now,” he said, and he left the room. Halfway down the hall, he noticed he was tracking brown spots from one sock. He’d stepped in a puddle of burnt umber oil paint on his way out of Jane’s room.
When he returned fifteen minutes later after dressing and cleaning the hall, Jane was still on the phone. “Oh, here he comes,” she said. “Yeah, good to talk to you, too, Amy.” She handed the phone to Darius.
“I’m back,” he said, sitting down again. “Sorry to break up the coffee klatch.”
“I’ll go ahead and give you my cell phone number,” said Amy. “Got a pencil?”
Darius looked around but saw nothing. “Pencil?” he whispered to Jane. She jumped from the bed and grabbed one from a desk drawer with a scrap of paper, and Darius wrote down the number Amy gave him.
“I was thinking,” Darius said as he wrote, “that it’s probably better after all if you don’t tell me where you’re at. I’d hate to say something out in public and have Dad overhear it. This will be fine, as long as you’ve got your phone on all the time.”
“I always do.” A pause, then she sighed and spoke in a low voice. “Darius, I was sorry to hear about your roommate at the academy. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you to—”
“Drop it,” he interrupted quickly. He fell silent, remembering, then shook it off. “I don’t want to talk about it, but thanks anyway.”
“If Quinn’s got some things she has
to do for the pep club, help her out with that, would you? If she’s busy, she
won’t have time to think about all this.
“Yeah, she was telling me about it. She’s in charge of a pep rally tomorrow afternoon or something. I’ve never been the school-spirit sort, and pep rallies gave me hives, but maybe I’ll do that. And . . . and thanks for helping her get that job. She really likes being the president, and I think the pep club likes it, too.”
“That’s our Quinn. Just get her working on something. It’ll perk her up. She can handle things. Just let her prove it.”
“Okay,” said Amy in a subdued tone. “I’ll check in with you later. Hi to Jane for me. She sounds special. I hope to meet her soon.”
He nodded. “We’ll save a seat for you at the wedding on Sunday, no problem. If it’s a girl, can we name her after you?”
“What?” Jane shouted. She grabbed for the phone, but Darius kept it from her.
Amy laughed. “You almost got me with that one,” she said. “Goodbye, Darius. I hope Jane lets you live.”
“Bye, Amy.” He pushed the button to hang up the phone while Jane tried to wrestle him down. “We may as well get up,” he said, resisting her efforts without a lot of trouble. He pulled up her T-shirt as they wrestled and kissed her bare stomach, then relaxed. “I’m not in the mood after all that.”
“Damn it,” said Jane. She let go of
him and flopped on her back on the bed. “You were really getting somewhere,
“Good to know it.” He took her hand and kissed it. “Hungry?”
Jane growled like a great cat, her eyes locked on him.
“Pizza, I meant.”
She subsided and got off the bed. “Pizza will have to do,” she grumbled, then groaned aloud when she looked at the TV. The end credits to “Sick, Sad World” were scrolling by. “Oh, damn it!” she said, pointing. “We missed the second half of the show, about the psychic lady with the huge boobs! It was perfect for you, too.”
Jane showed Darius the spare bedroom that had once belonged to her sister Penny, and he put his backpack there, dropping his running clothes in a pile beside it.
“Right next to my room,” said Jane. “How convenient.”
“Not without a lock.” He stopped and looked at Penny’s door. “This one’s got . . . three locks?”
“She sold pot in high school.
“Oh.” He flipped one of the two deadbolts back and forth. “Problem solved. Maybe.”
On the way out of the house, Darius gave Jane the gist of the conversation he’d had with Quinn and Amy. “Knowing Amy and Rita,” he said, “they’ll take Quinn out to every five-star restaurant and spa within fifty miles. Her weekend’s all cut out for her. She could probably use the break.”
“I thought she was going to
“Well, you and I can, but I don’t know if Quinn will make it. Maybe it’s better if she didn’t.” He pulled the front door closed as they left the house. “I don’t know what’ll happen. I don’t trust my dad to do anything smart. If you happen to see a dark blue, late-model Lexus driving around, tell me right away—and don’t get near him. I don’t want you involved in this.”
“You think he’d start a fight?”
Darius grimaced. “We’ve had enough of them. Amy said he roughed up the guy who served the divorce papers on him, so I dunno. You haven’t even seen him yet, which is worse. I wish you knew what he looked like so you could avoid him.”
They walked a block, hand in hand, before he spoke again. “How do your parents do it?” he asked.
“Stay together without killing each other.”
“Hmmm. Part of the secret is that they don’t stay together. They usually run off to opposite ends of the earth for weeks or months at a time. This thing to the A-name country is sort of an exception, though I’d bet only one of them will come home, and the other will stay a while longer or run off again.”
They walked another block before Jane kicked at a pebble and said, “You or Quinn have told me practically every awful secret you have, I think, so I guess it’s my turn. My parents aren’t married. I mean, it’s a common-law marriage now, but they never made it official. They’ve been together thirty-odd years, and every now and then they pop out a new kid out of the kiln, between running off to the ends of the earth on those artistic missions from God.”
“So, not getting married and not seeing each other are the secrets to making a marriage work.”
“I don’t know. They smoke pot, too, so maybe that helps.” After a pause, she added, “I don’t, in case you were about to ask.”
Darius looked at her, but she was looking at the ground. He put his arm around her waist and pulled her close as they walked.
Jane shook her head, then spoke. “My
oldest sister, Summer, she’s been married twice, but I think one of her kids
was with some guy she had a one-nighter with. Wind, my oldest brother, he gets
married now and then, but he always gets dumped. He’s one of those
hypersensitive guys who’s like a big soggy noodle of ‘feelings, nothing more
than feelings.’” She sang the last few words in an off-key voice, then went on
in a normal tone. “Penny, the one whose room you’ve got, she’ll never get
married. I wonder sometimes if she’s gay. She’s in
“Funny. Same with me, I guess.”
“I never knew how the Cosbys did it. I used to think they were really married and that was their real family, and I thought that was so cool. Then Penny told me they were just TV actors and they were married to other people. Boy, was I bummed. I never believed in Santa Claus, but I believed in the Cosbys.”
Half a block went by in silence. Rush hour traffic continued to build on the streets.
“So,” said Jane, “you want to marry me, or was that a joke, what you said on the phone?”
Darius gave a faint smile. “I’m trying to remember the age of consent in this state. I think it’s seventeen. Ask me next year on November eleventh.”
“Okay.” She sighed. “I guess we have all those wild oats we have to sow first, though.”
“If you like wild oats,” said Darius, “you can have mine. I’m not much for nature food.”
“Penny used to give me oatmeal for breakfast before she drove me and Trent to school. I wouldn’t eat it until she put food dye in it. I liked green oatmeal best.”
“You’re my green oatmeal, Jane.”
Jane leaned her head against his shoulder as they walked. “That was almost romantic,” she said. “Better than anything I’ve ever heard from anyone else. You know, I have to tell you something. Almost every other guy your age, we’ll say sixteen since you’re almost there anyway, none of them are like you. Or you’re not like them, whatever. I don’t get it. You’re sort of like . . . older.”
“Mature. It’s kind of weird. Good weird, not run-away-screaming weird.”
“Oh.” He thought a while. “Probably from military school. I always looked up to the commandant, Colonel Armstrong. I wanted to be like him. He had it all together. And the staff really put the screws to you. You had to make choices all the time and live with what you picked, and if you picked badly, you knew it. A lot of the other guys were jerks, too, and you had to deal with them all the time. It was hard. I guess I grew up some while I was there.”
“I don’t think I could do that, go to military school. I’d run off in the first five minutes.”
“I tried that three times the first month. It didn’t work. I’m glad it didn’t, now.”
Jane laughed. “We’re a weird couple, you know?”
Darius grinned. “You’ve got a nice couple. Nothing weird about them, though.”
Darius expected Jane would kick him for that, but she didn’t. She looked away and didn’t speak for a few seconds. “I was with this guy once,” she said, her voice low, but she stopped there.
He glanced at her. From her tone, he guessed this part would not be good. “Go ahead,” he said after waiting a while.
“Some guys don’t like hearing stuff about me being with other guys. Fooling around.”
He shrugged. “It’s up to you. If it’s important, just tell me.”
“It’s not that important.” A muscle twitched in her cheek. “I was with this guy last year. We were out in the woods, sort of checking each other out.” She was silent a few steps more. “He laughed when he saw my boobs. He said they weren’t worth the trouble of looking at them.”
Darius took a slow, deep breath and made mental notes about what he would do if he ever met this particular guy. “I hope you kicked him where it hurt,” he said.
“No,” said Jane in a sullen tone. “I ran off. It doesn’t matter.”
“Anyone I would know?” Darius asked. His mouth was dry. He was thinking of breaking someone’s fingers, one by one, with his bare hands. It would be fun.
“Forget it,” she said. “It was all a big mistake.”
He filed away his revenge fantasy. It could wait. He remembered something his literature instructor had said about Shakespeare. “There’s so little beauty in the world,” he said, quoting, “and so few who appreciate what beauty there is.”
“I think I look good, but I’m not beautiful.”
“There is no beauty anywhere without you.” It slipped out of his mouth, made up on the spot.
Jane slowed and stopped, so he did, too. They stood by a small park with a lot of trees and grass; people walked by on the sidewalk without looking at them.
His arms encircled her waist, and he touched his forehead to hers. “You have your head together about everything,” he said softly. “You’re smart, you’re funny, you do your own thing, and you don’t care what anyone else thinks about it. You are the coolest person in the whole world.”
“I know,” she whispered. When she raised her head, his mouth found hers. She tasted like gummy bears. She’d eaten a handful before they’d left her house.
He pulled away, about to say something else or maybe kiss her again.
“Uh-oh,” she said. He opened his eyes. She was looking to his right as if she’d seen something bad.
He turned and saw the dark blue Lexus pulling up by the sidewalk right behind him. His dad was inside, glaring at him as he opened the door, the car still running.
“Oh, fuck.” Darius caught Jane by the shoulders and tried to direct her away. “Get out of here now. I’ll see what he wants.” Jane didn’t move, staring at the Lexus with wide eyes. “I’m not kidding!” Darius half-shouted at her. “Go!”
Startled, Jane took off, but she didn’t run. She jogged away, then turned around and stopped when she was forty feet into the park, looking back through the row of trees.
Darius took a deep breath as he faced his father. The old man was livid. It was just like the old days, when his dad came home from work, boiling for a fight.
“Do you know what your mother did?” his father shouted as he rounded the car. “Do you know?”
Darius didn’t answer. He felt his hands balling up into fists again, arms pulling up slightly to strike out.
“I asked you a question, goddammit!” his father shouted, stopping on the sidewalk about eight feet away. Pedestrians immediately turned away, walking into the street or through the park to avoid getting between the two of them.
“I haven’t been home today,” said Darius in a level voice.
“You don’t about any of this? She’s pulled the most goddamn stupid stunt of her fucking life! She got me served with divorce papers and almost got me arrested! She’s trying to break up the family! Didn’t you know she was doing this? You didn’t know anything about this?”
Darius just waited and watched. He knew everyone was staring at them, but that didn’t matter.
“Answer me! Are you covering up for her? Are you a part of this shit, too, or are you just plain fucking stupid?”
“Take your pick,” said Darius, his patience eroding swiftly.
His father’s look changed to pure rage. He started forward with his right hand out like a claw, ready to grab his son by the left arm.
“Don’t,” said Darius, half turning without thinking about it. Presenting his left side to his father, he measured out a haymaker with his right fist that would take his father down if it connected at all.
His father stopped short, perhaps sensing what would happen if he took another step. “Think you can take me on?” the old man snarled. “I’ll beat you like you’ve never been beat.” He pointed, his finger jabbing toward Darius’s chest. “I’ll teach you to laugh at me, you cowardly little turd!”
Darius waited. It wasn’t worth talking back. It would only distract him from laying the old man out if he took one more step and tried to grab him.
“You ungrateful shit!” his father hissed, finger still jabbing at Darius. “I did everything I could to make a real man out of you, and you treat me like this. I hope you rot in hell! I should call that school and make them take you away for the rest of your life! I should call the police, better yet, and have you thrown in jail and let them beat the shit out of you, the other convicts. I think I will, in fact. How do you like that, boy? How dare you do this to me! Do you hear me? You’re not my son anymore! You’re nothing! You’re nothing to me, period, forever! Do you hear me?”
Seconds passed after the last outburst. Darius’s father dropped his hand. “You’re a coward,” he said. “I knew it. You’re just like your mother, doing everything you can to ruin me. Well, I won’t be ruined by you or her! She’s destroying the family, not me! But she won’t get me, no sir! And neither will you! You’re going to regret that I ever let you live, you—”
Flashing blue-and-red lights
suddenly distracted both Darius and his father. A white
“Hey!” he heard his father shout. “Come back here, you fucking little shit! Hey! He’s getting away! God fucking damn it, he’s—” His dad’s voice was suddenly cut off, and onlookers began shouting and cheering with excitement. It was clear that a fight had broken out.
“Keep moving,” said Darius in a low voice to Jane. “Don’t look back. Just walk.” He stiffly put his arm around Jane’s waist, and they left the area as if they were any other teenage couple taking a shortcut through the park.
They walked down a residential street that Darius did not recognize. He dropped his arm from around Jane’s waist, but she caught his arm and pulled him close.
“Well,” said Darius in a strained voice, “that was Dad. That wasn’t too bad, I guess. We’ve had worse.” He tried to swallow. Only now did he realize how afraid he’d been. His hands trembled as he dug into his pockets and pulled out his wallet, glanced inside it, and put it back. “Can you tell me where Pizza King is from here? I’m lost.”
“I never heard a guy ask directions before,” said Jane, sounding equally strained.
“Yeah, we had a class on it at the academy,” said Darius, his tension easing. “It was a last resort after you’ve used your compass and the stars and moss on trees to figure out where you were. The last resort after your primal male gut instincts, I mean. Once you know you’re really lost, it’s okay to ask, but not before.”
“Spoken like a real guy,” said Jane. “Go that way, to your left and around the old church. It’s not a church anymore, it’s the town hall, but everyone still calls it the old church.”
Darius rubbed his mouth. “Sorry about all that, back there.”
Jane’s fingers squeezed his arm for a moment. “You’ve nothing to be sorry for.”
He started to say something, but he stopped himself and just walked. He put his arm around Jane again.
“We need to see a bad movie tonight,” he finally said. “Something really awful. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.”
“Hmmm,” said Jane. “Night of the Lepus.”
“Plan Nine from Outer Space.”
Darius snorted in amusement. “Why is it that all the really bad movies are science fiction?”
Both of them winced.
“Battle Beyond the Stars,” said Darius.
“How about Destroy All Monsters?”
Jane thought. “Flash Gordon was pretty bad, in a good way.”
“Actually, every movie we just named was pretty good.”
“Yeah.” Pause. “Except Xanadu.”
“Jesus.” Darius shivered and crossed himself. “Let’s get that one. My treat.”
“You really are the original incurable romantic, aren’t you?”
“I had a class on it at the academy, right after Machine Guns 101. You have a VHS player at home?”
“Yeah, but sometimes it eats the
tapes. I think
Pizza King came into view around the next corner. “I guess asking directions works sometimes,” said Darius. “If I’d had my compass with me, though, things would have been a lot different.”
A police car drove by on the street. Darius looked after it for a moment, then forced himself to look away. “My treat for pizza tonight, too,” he said. “No good reason.”
“That’s the best reason of all,” Jane said. He noticed she was watching the police car, too. It turned a corner around a building and was gone. Darius exhaled, feeling light on his feet. Luckily, they had reached the restaurant by this point. He held the door open for Jane as they went inside.
Darius blinked as his eyes adjusted to the interior of Pizza King. Standing right in front of them was Jane’s brother—now dressed in an old T-shirt and jeans, with an arm around an attractive twenty-something brunette with a nose ring and a bare midriff. The four of them looked at one another in surprise.
“We took her car,” said
Jane nodded and sighed. “Hi, Monique,” she said with a certain lack of enthusiasm.
“Good to see you, too, Jane,” said the brunette. She gave Darius a quizzical look, then shrugged. “You guys up for a double date?”
After hearing Monique’s offer,
Darius glanced at
“Jane and I wanted to talk about stuff,” he said. “We were—”
“Oh, come on!” said Monique. She
Jane’s face colored. “I don’t think—” she began.
“Jane, come on. It’ll be fun!” Monique motioned to Darius. “You can tell me about your friend, too. Is he from around here?”
“Oh . . .” Jane visibly gave in and gestured at Darius. “This is Darius. He just moved here. He’s—” She appeared to reconsider what she was about to say “—he’s in a lot of my classes at Lawndale High, and we run together.”
“Is he an artist?” Monique asked,
leading the way to one of the side booths with teal-green seats.
“I can paint walls and ceilings,” Darius said, remembering spring fix-up days at Buxton Ridge. “That’s about the limit of my artistic ability.”
“You write,” Jane reminded him.
“Oh. Yeah, a little.”
“I haven’t seen it yet,” said Jane. “He just got here.”
“I’d rather be unrecognized and bitter,” said Darius. “I’m a lot more fun at parties that way.”
“Oh, it’s a line,” said Monique, winking at Darius. “Guys used to tell me stuff like that all the time when they found out I was in a band and they wanted to go out with me. Make him show you his stuff so you’re sure he’s not pulling your leg.”
The wink made Darius uncomfortable, though he didn’t really believe Monique was interested in him. He turned to Jane. “What kind of pizza do you want?”
“Anything,” said Jane, scratching glumly at the edge of the tabletop with a fingernail. “You pick.”
“They have that Southern Barbecue Bonanza Special,” he said. “We can have them take off the peanuts this time.”
“Whatever,” she said. Darius began to wonder if she was worried about Monique making a play for him—or, worse, worried that he would make his own play. His discomfort grew, but he wanted to make the best of it.
“That sounds good to me,” said
Monique. “We can get the super-giant size. Thin crust okay? What do you say,
“Mmm . . . whatever.”
“Split the check?” asked Darius,
looking from Monique to
“Sure,” Monique said. “I was buying
Lipstick, Darius realized, and he groaned. I’ve got Jane’s lipstick on my face.
“He knows his bad movies,” Jane said, becoming animated. “We’re going to rent Xanadu for tonight, assuming we can keep the VCR from eating it like it did Duel.”
Darius looked at Jane and raised an eyebrow. “Duel? You didn’t tell me that you liked good movies.”
Jane drew herself up. “You never asked,” she said primly.
“You were both probably busy with
other things,” Monique said with another glance at Darius’s mouth. “So,
Darius—is that like a Roman name or something? What do you think of
He stole a glance at Jane. “Beautiful,” he said. “Full of surprises.”
“I was talking about
The waiter arrived, the meal was
ordered, and the talk turned to Monique’s band, the Harpies. It turned out she
had once played bass guitar for
When the pizza and bread sticks were demolished and the bill taken care of by Darius and Monique, the foursome wandered outside and stood near the door. It was early evening, and rush hour was well underway.
“Maybe we should head back,” said Darius, glancing at Jane. “We have homework to do.”
“Mmm-hmmm,” said Monique, looking them over. “I’ll bet. Wanna walk back or ride with Trent and me?”
“S’okay, we’ll walk,” said Jane. “We’ll stop by the video store on the way.”
“Not a prob.”
“Oh.” Jane caught
“You like her?” Monique said. Darius turned, then nodded. “She’s something,” she went on. “She’s her own quirky little world. I mean that in a good way. You two go running a lot?”
“Two or three days a week,” he said. “She should run track. She’s fast as hell.”
“Ah. Has she taken you running through those woods south of Cranberry Commons Mall?”
Darius sensed the conversation had taken an unwanted turn. “We go running a lot of places,” he said carefully. “Just around.”
“Well,” said Monique with a grin, “if she really likes you, she might take you for a nature tour. I think she’s kind of a tease, though. She might run off and leave you there in the trees.”
Darius scratched his nose. Suddenly it all fell into place. “That guy Jesse’s little brother said so?”
Monique laughed. “Oops, didn’t mean to give that away! She doesn’t hang around him anymore. Don’t tell Jane I said anything. She’d be really pissed.”
“I won’t,” said Darius with a little smile. Time to change the subject. “It’s her business, not mine.”
“Well, you’ll probably meet him
anyway. Danny goes to
Danny Moreno, moron. Darius filed it away just as he noticed Jane and Trent returning. “Good to talk with you,” he said to Monique. “And you were right. Jane really is something.”
Monique gave him the first genuine smile he’d seen on her all evening. “I’m glad she finally found someone who thinks so.”
“Have a nice chat?” Jane asked, walking up.
“We were comparing sex-change operations,” said Darius. “I think hers came out better than mine.”
Monique shrieked with laughter. Trent looked pained. “Too much information,” he muttered.
“I dunno,” said Jane, smiling at Darius. “At least he kept his sensitive side. Tell them about your pink flamethrower.”
Monique and Trent waved as they walked off toward a white Sunbird parked on the street nearby. Darius and Jane watched them go.
“Is she staying over, too?” Darius asked. “I was thinking this could get sort of crowded.”
“Sometimes she does, but if you turn up the stereo, you won’t notice anything. And Penny’s room has locks,” Jane reminded him. They set out, talking about their schoolwork, and with Jane’s navigational directions found themselves at the video store fifteen minutes later.
“Xanadu is in,” said Jane. She picked a video box off the shelf and handed it to Darius.
“No surprise there,” he said, reading the back of the video. “I just know that song is going to stick in my head for weeks, though.” He looked around the store, his thoughts adrift. “I should call Amy and tell her what happened. I probably should have called about it earlier.”
“What happened with your dad, you mean?”
“Yeah.” The memory of the fight came back to him, and he stood in the aisle with the video in hand, not noticing anything going on around him.
Jane gently bumped against him and broke the reverie. “You okay?”
“Oh. Yeah.” He went to the counter and paid for the video, signing up for a teenage membership card as well, then he and Jane walked out into the evening air. It was still warm from the day.
“Twenty-two years,” he said after they crossed the street and were heading for Jane’s home.
“How long my parents were married.”
Jane took his hand as they walked.
“I’m still sorry you saw that,” he said. “Dad doing his rant thing out in the street. He just loses it and doesn’t care where he is or who’s watching.”
“Was he always like that?”
“Yeah. He gets clueless when he gets mad. I wonder what happened after we left.” Darius tried to push the issue out of his head. He noticed a drugstore on the next block. “Want some more gummy bears?”
“Oh. I guess I could use another bag. We’re low on movie snacks at home, too, so maybe we could get some microwave popcorn. My treat.”
They separated as they went inside. Darius cruised down the candy aisle and picked up a few things, including Jane’s gummy bears. He continued down the aisle, searching for Jane, then took another aisle and walked down that to the back of the store. In moments he found himself looking at a display for feminine hygiene products. Looking around, he spotted a nearby rack with condoms and pregnancy tests.
Jane wanted to go slowly in the lovemaking department, but Darius wasn’t stupid. The last few times they’d been alone together, things had moved quickly into make-out sessions of increasing intensity. Good intentions were drowning in hormones. It was only a matter of time.
He peeked around the corner of the aisle and spotted Jane with an armload of chips and microwave popcorn boxes at the pharmacy counter. He quickly walked back up the aisle, picked up a small box of three condoms (in assorted neon colors—he hoped it would make her laugh), and went to the checkout counter at the front of the store. The cashier rang up his purchases without comment. Seeing no one else around but the cashier, he took the condoms out of the box and stuffed them in a back pocket. The box itself went in a trashcan. When Jane walked to the front of the store again, Darius had only the bag with the candy inside. He took the snack bag from her and carried it as they went outside, hand in hand. Neither said anything as they walked to Jane’s house together until they were just a couple of street away.
“So, what do you want to do when you get out of high school?” Darius asked.
“Be rich and famous and live in
“Don’t want to travel the world like your folks?”
“Only if I’m paid to. What do you want to do?”
“Write. Be a famous author. I don’t know if that will work, though, because I’ll have to drink a lot to be a famous author, and I don’t drink. I’ll have to get a day job, then. Janitor, maybe a fry chef.” He chewed his lip for a moment. “Come to think of it, with everything else going on, I’ll probably have to get a job anyway pretty soon. I don’t think I’m going to get the same allowance I used to get.”
“If you get a job, I can go back to my art again while you’re working,” said Jane. “Frankly, I haven’t had much time for it lately, what with having my clothes pulled off every five minutes—well, my shirt pulled off, anyway. I’m not saying we should stop, you understand, but—”
“You gotta do what you gotta do,” said Darius.
“Yeah.” Jane reached around and stuck a hand in one of Darius’s back pants pockets. Plastic crinkled when she did.
A moment later, she pulled out the packet of three condoms and held it up in front of her face.
Darius felt his heart stop. “Uh—” he said.
Clutching the condoms, Jane turned to Darius, but she began laughing so hard it was impossible for her to speak. She pointed to the condoms, then doubled over on the sidewalk and howled.
“There something wrong with neon?” he asked, his face burning.
Laughing even harder, Jane fell over on her side onto a freshly mown lawn. She pounded her thighs and rolled away from him in hysteria.
“Does this run in your family?” he asked. Unable to stop laughing, Jane tried to crawl away, then lay on her stomach and beat the grass with her fists.
Darius sighed and looked in the snack bag. “You want some chips while you’re down there?” he said, but Jane was coughing now and paid no attention. He lowered the bag and looked in: corn chips, popcorn, cheese puffs, a jar of hot salsa, the Xanadu video in its plastic bag—and, at the bottom, a small box.
He reached into the bag and took out the box. Three condoms—prelubricated, ribbed “for extra pleasure,” and in patriotic designs of red, white, and blue.
“You bought your own,” he said in astonishment.
Jane had almost gotten control of herself, but when she saw Darius holding the box, she shrieked and fell over on her back, laughing uncontrollably once more.
It took twenty minutes more for them to negotiate the ten-minute walk to Jane’s house. They arrived during early twilight with their arms around each other, still chuckling and wiping their eyes. Grass was stuck to Jane’s red jacket and the knees of Darius’s black jeans, where he had tried to pick her up while she was rolling around for the second time.
The chuckling ended when they heard Monique’s high-pitched voice from somewhere on the second floor. Darius and Jane stopped at the end of the driveway beside Monique’s white Sunbird. They let go of each other as they listened.
“What’s wrong with you?” Monique shouted. “Why can’t you get up just a scrap of ambition and set up regular practice for the band? You’re never going to get anywhere if you don’t set yourself some goals so you can take Spiral to the next level!”
“You are just so completely full of
bullshit, it’s a miracle your eyes aren’t brown instead of gray!” Monique
yelled back. “If you tell them to do it, the guys will do it! Jesse, Max, and
Nick look up to you! They’ll whine, but they’ll do it! Just do it,
Jane sighed. “There goes the mood,” she said, scratching her stomach under her black V-neck shirt.
“Can’t go to my place,” said Darius. “Can’t stay here, until they leave.”
“Speaking of here, have I ever shown you our most excellent gazebo?” asked Jane. “It is a treasure without peer anywhere on this block, or so the sages tell us.”
“I don’t believe you have,” said Darius, trying to ignore Monique’s next profane outburst. “Lead on, milady.”
They walked around the side of the house. The Lanes’ backyard was fenced in with a solid-board wall eight feet high. In the middle of the yard was a white wooden gazebo, ten feet across and perhaps fifteen feet high, with a unicorn weathervane on top. Darius looked around and noted the old tractor parked by the back fence in a flower bed, the curious sculpture of an artist’s palette supported by what appeared to be the titan Atlas on the other side, and a mirror ball on a pedestal nearby. The yard was overgrown but not horribly so. The sky was still illuminated, though the sun was down behind the fence and surrounding houses.
Darius put the grocery bag on the gazebo steps, and he and Jane sat down on the bench on the gazebo’s far side. The air was a little cool. The windows of the house facing the backyard were all dark except for those to the kitchen, but the shades were drawn. Crickets chirped and a few evening birds sang. They could hear truck engines grind, a horn beep, tires screech as someone braked at a stop sign.
“I hope we don’t turn out like that,” said Jane. “Like Trent and Monique. Or our parents.”
“We’ll be much worse, I’m sure.” Darius turned his head and kissed Jane’s hair.
“I hope so.” She was quiet for a minute. “Can you buy a flamethrower, a real working one? For artistic purposes, I mean.”
“Probably not on the open market. Damn gun-control laws.”
“I was thinking how that would look as part of a sculpture—you know, like a big fiery fountain on top of a waterfall of fire in a burning lake. It would be really cool for evening parties.”
“Yeah, but it would stink to high heaven. Flamethrowers use jellied gasoline. It smells awful, sort of like napalm.”
“Oh. Hmmm. I could make everyone put clothespins on their noses.”
The front door of the Lane home slammed. After a few moments, a car started up and backed out of the driveway. Tires squealing, it raced down the darkening street and was gone.
“Farewell, Monique,” said Jane, “until next week. Or month.” The sounds of the suburb at dusk returned.
“I love you,” said Darius.
Jane covered her mouth, pretending to yawn. “Tell me a poem, slave,” she said.
He thought. “Okay.” Remembering his favorite sonnet of Shakespeare from his literature classes at Buxton Ridge, he began speaking in a normal tone, as if he were not quoting but was instead saying what he really thought.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
“Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
“And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
“Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
“And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
“And every fair from fair sometime declines,
“By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
“But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
“Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
“Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
“When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
“So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
By the time he finished, it was dark outside, only a faint illumination left in the sky. Jane leaned against him, her face turned away, her breathing so low he could barely feel her move.
After a long silence, Jane pulled away and turned around. Her face seemed to glow in the night. “Thank you,” she said.
His fingers touched her cheek, bumped against her silver hoop earrings. The distance between them closed to nothing, and their lips met.
It was hard to do more than that on the narrow bench. Jane broke away after a few moments and stood up. She took off her jacket and tossed it over a railing, then pulled her shirt over her head. Darius got up and kissed her shoulders and chest as she unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off him, then reached down to unbutton his pants as he undid her bra in back. They moved slowly but deliberately, mouths kissing and fingers exploring bodies as their clothing dropped away. No one was looking for them. They were alone.
They were down to their socks, both packs of condoms on the bench and ready to be opened, when Jane leaned against one of the six support pillars of the gazebo. Darius pressed against her. His hands slid down her smooth back and cupped her firm buttocks, lifting them. On impulse, she jumped and wrapped her legs around his waist, arms tight around his neck. Their mouths locked together, condoms forgotten, seconds from fitting themselves together as one. They fell against the rounded pillar with their full weight.
The top of the pillar broke free of the rotting roof supports, and the poorly fitted railing and bench connections lower down snapped off. The falling pillar took Jane and Darius with it, limbs flailing in fright, and dumped them safely on the long thick grass with the wind knocked out of them. Wooden beams squealed as two more pillars broke free, and the high pointed rooftop of the gazebo tilted and collapsed upon the elevated floor and shattered pillar stumps, smashing everything beneath it flat.
Jane and Darius lay naked on the ground clutching each other and gasping for air. They stared at the ruins of the gazebo.
“Are you okay?” Darius whispered.
“I think so,” said Jane. “You?”
“What the hell.”
The sounds of the night returned as if nothing had happened. When they got to their sock feet, they were able to find their clothing and pull it free, with the exception of their boots, which had been dropped in the middle of the gazebo floor. They got dressed, retrieved the condoms and the undamaged sack of snacks, and stood back.
“It’s a sign from the gods,” said Jane.
“Fuck, man,” said Darius. “Can’t they just send an e-mail?”
“Maybe this was their e-mail.”
Darius nodded. It made sense. “I owe you a gazebo,” he said, wondering how he would pay for it.
She waved it off. “Worry about it later. It was falling apart anyway.”
He sighed. “Guess this means we have to watch a movie after all.”
“I guess so.”
“And maybe I’d better sleep in Penny’s room by myself.”
“Yeah, I think that was what the e-mail said.”
“Damn.” He put an arm around her and they kissed. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he whispered.
“Thank you again for the poem.”
“You’re worth it.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
They went inside the house and made popcorn. The movie was worse than they’d thought, even with their animated running commentary, and the theme song became stuck in their heads. Olivia Newton John’s voice ran over and over again between their ears until they thought they would go mad.
And when they went to bed in their separate rooms, each lay awake for an age, looking at the wall that separated them, the air between them heating up until everything between should by rights have caught fire and burned to ash. The e-mail from the gods was understood and followed, however—at least for now.
And Trent, of course, slept through it all and knew nothing.
The following morning found Darius
and Jane outside, again inspecting the jumbled pile of broken timber and
shingles with a unicorn weathervane on top that had once been the Lane family
gazebo. In addition to their usual school clothing—Darius looking grubbier than
usual in his wrinkled black shirt and stained pants from the previous day—they
wore sneakers, Jane her running shoes and Darius an old pair that Jane found in
“So,” said Jane, looking over the ruins, “did the earth move for you, too?”
“Ha, ha. Do you see our boots anywhere?”
“We left them in the middle of the floor, right about there.” She pointed to the thickest mass of debris in the pile, then shook her head and exhaled. “Thank God it’s Friday.”
Darius looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She shrugged. “I dunno. Just thought I’d say it.”
“Hmmm.” He toed a broken two-by-four, then stepped over it and pointed at the rim of the collapsed roof. “I’ll try to lift it right here,” he said. “See if you can find something to use as a brace to hold it up so we can get our boots.”
“Assuming you don’t throw out your
back doing it.” Jane frowned and looked back at the house. “Shouldn’t we get
“Sure, but do you want to explain to him why our boots were inside the gazebo when it fell?”
Rolling her eyes, Jane looked around and picked up a four-foot piece of railing. “Go for it,” she said.
Darius braced himself, then caught the bottom of the roof’s support beam at his knees and slowly heaved upward. It was lighter than he’d feared it would be, but still very heavy. They were able to hold up the roof with the broken railing and then use thinner boards to snag and retrieve the flattened but otherwise undamaged boots. They ditched the sneakers, put on their boots, and walked out of the yard for school.
“He won’t get up until we get home from class,” said Jane. “He probably won’t even look outside until tomorrow. Not to change the subject, but I wanted to ask what your mom said when you called her this morning.”
“She’s screening her calls, so I haven’t talked to her directly. I left her a message last night with the whole story about Dad’s little public disturbance, and I suggested she call the police to see what was up. I gave her more of the same this morning and asked if I could get some of my clothes, or if she could drop them off at your place. I’d stop at the house myself, but she’s probably not there. She might have a private detective watching the place, too, so let’s detour around it, if we could.”
“No problemo. Did you call your aunt?”
“Same thing. She was supposed to have her phone on, but I just left messages. I don’t know if Quinn will be in school today.”
Jane began to hum the theme song from Xanadu as they walked.
“Don’t do that,” said Darius. “Shoot me, push me in front of a bus, but don’t hum that song.”
“Philistine,” said Jane. They walked in silence until they were halfway down Howard Drive.
“Okay,” said Jane, “I’m going to be my usual blunt self. I know your dad’s completely psycho, I saw that in person, but I don’t get it about your mom and Amy and whoever. Amy sounded pretty reasonable to me when I talked to her last night. She’s kinda cool, actually. What do they have against you? What’s up with that?”
A pained expression crossed Darius’s
face. “I dunno. Mom’s always been pissed at me about fighting with Dad, but she
was pissed at him, too, for starting a lot of it. She wasn’t around much,
anyway, because of her work. Dad got home from work before she did, back in
Jane nodded. “Sorry.”
When they got to the end of Howard, they stopped to wait for traffic to break so they could cross the street.
He stopped and took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. The muscles in the back of his neck were a single tight knot, and his head hurt.
“You know what?” he said, putting his glasses on again. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all anymore. I don’t care.”
They crossed the street and began the detour to avoid Glen Oaks and Darius’s home. The traffic was lighter in this part of the subdivision.
“Are they hiring at Pizza King?” he asked suddenly. “I should start looking for a job around here. You need a break to do your art, I need the money to fix your gazebo and just have some money, so I should get off my ass and start looking for something.”
Jane seemed relieved at the change in subject. “Pizza King might, but the mall definitely hires students. I don’t know what kind of hours you’d have, and you’d probably get minimum wage, but it’s a shot. And forget about the gazebo.”
I can’t forget about the gazebo, he thought. “The mall’s not that far,” he said, thinking aloud. “I could cut through the woods on the path you showed me, get my jogging time in on the way. Couldn’t hurt. I should go over after school or this weekend.”
“Maybe you could get free food, too. You know, bring back all the broken corn chips and soft pretzels. For scientific purposes, I mean.”
“Yeah. We could do the research in your kitchen. We—oh, man.” Darius stopped and clapped a hand to his forehead, grimacing. “Oh, man.”
“Barch assigned a two-page research paper for today on reptile anatomy. I forgot all about it when I did the rest of my homework. I was going to look up some stuff on the Internet, and then everything else got in the way and I totally lost it. I’m cooked. You are so lucky you got out of that class.”
“Can you do it during homeroom?”
“It’s supposed to be typed, but I can write out part of it there. If we get to school fast, I can get some books from the library. Maybe I can talk one of the teachers into letting me out of class. Oh, man.”
“Let’s move a little faster, then,” said Jane, and broke into a light, steady jog. Darius kept pace with her, and they arrived a few minutes early, though they were sweating when they did. “Good luck with your paper!” she told him.
The next time Darius saw Jane was in Mr. DeMartino’s American history class, which followed Barch’s science period. Darius knocked on the door halfway through the class, and DeMartino let him in with a snide remark about tardiness not being next to godliness. After a mumbled apology, Darius took his seat with a glum look. He felt something poke his elbow a moment later. Jane was passing him a note.
THERE’S GOT TO BE A MORNING AFTER, the note read in Jane’s all-caps printing.
She really does like that song, he thought, and he found himself smiling even though he didn’t feel like it.
“What happened to you in Medusa’s lair last period?” Jane asked as soon as class was over.
His glum look deepened. “I had to write a ten-page paper for Barch before I could leave the room, telling her why I didn’t get my two-page paper done and relating my incompetence to being a guy.”
“Just ten pages? She let you off with only that?”
“And a zero for the day, yeah, because Upchuck messed up, too, and that got her attention away from me. I used to get straight As in science, and now I’m flunking it. It’s like I’m trapped in Bizarro World.”
They reached Jane’s locker. “At least Quinn’s here,” he said as Jane spun her combination. “I didn’t get to talk to her much, but she looked happy. She’s in charge of that mandatory pep rally at one o’clock. At least we don’t have to listen to O’Neill read weepy British poetry, but a pep rally, jeez.”
“Is she okay? I mean, with the divorce and your dad going nuts and whatnot.”
“I don’t know. She just looked happy. I think she puts on a smiley face some days just for show, and this is probably one of them. She didn’t know anything about what happened to Dad, and I didn’t press it. Oh—she did ask me to come to the pep rally and not cut school or fake sick.” He shook his head, lips pressed together. “The things I do.”
“Mmm, I understand that attending pep rallies might be carrying the brotherly love thing too far,” Jane said, shutting her locker. “On the other hand, she might be counting on you for moral support. I think you’re screwed.”
They walked to Darius’s locker next. “Yeah,” said Darius, “I can either do what she wants and suffer, or I can do what I want but regret it until I die. What to do, what to do. . . . How’s the teacher’s aide thing going in that advanced art class?”
“Pretty well. I’m working with seniors who want to get into different kinds of design work, decorating or graphic design or whatever. An eclectic bunch.” She scratched her nose. “A couple of them are pretty good.”
“Anywhere near your level?”
“They could teach me a thing or two, but mostly about how to bullshit other people into making them think you’re a good artist.”
They reached Darius’s locker. “So, are you coming?” he asked as he opened it.
Jane didn’t answer right away. He looked up to see her smiling at him with mischievous blue eyes. “Apparently not,” she said.
It took a moment, but he got it and groaned. “I meant to the pep rally,” he said, “with me.”
“Oooh, the pep rally. I guess I won’t hide in the art supplies closet this once. Misery loves company so it can spread more misery around.”
“Thanks for being so understanding,” he said. He finished putting away his unneeded books and shut his locker.
“You’re such a good big brother,” said Jane with a smile.
He rolled his eyes as they headed for lunch. “I feel like that Cabbage Patch Kid she dragged around everywhere until the arms fell off.”
Jane pinched his shoulder. “Yours are still attached. They probably won’t be after the pep rally. Hey, I have to ask something, if you don’t mind my getting personal.”
“You, get personal? Get out of here.”
“What was the worst fight you ever had with Quinn?”
Darius made a face and didn’t answer right away. “The worst as in greatest number of civilian casualties from fallout, or what?”
“Just the worst, in your opinion.”
He hesitated before he spoke, looking unhappy. “It would have to be when she was putting these heart stickers on her math papers in fifth grade, covering up all the zeros, and I told her it looked stupid and she’d flunk.”
“She yelled that I was stupid and then went to her room and cried. She didn’t talk to me for days after that.”
“Oh.” Jane looked surprised. “I was expecting a little more bloodshed. Anyway, most brothers would love a little peace and quiet like that.”
Darius looked down at the floor
while he walked. “It was just before school let out for summer vacation, before
we went to the
“So, no knock-down drag-outs?”
Darius stared at Jane in an odd way. “No,” he said. “Did she tell you I hit her?”
“No, never.” Jane looked uncomfortable. “Forget it.”
“God, I could never do that.” He looked away, upset. “I don’t ever remember hitting her. I couldn’t do it. We yelled at each other, yeah, but—”
He stopped, distracted. One of the girls from the Fashion Club, Stacy somebody, was sticking a page-sized flier to a wall. It was her manner of doing it that attracted his attention: she had her shoulders hunched up as if trying to hide her face, and she kept looking around with an anxious expression. Stacy looked up in time to lock eyes with Darius. She gasped and dropped the flier she was trying to tape to the wall, then in reaching for it she dropped all the rest of the fliers. One slid across the floor to Darius’s feet. He stopped as it did, looking down.
“Oh, no! Oh, no!” Stacy cried, grabbing at fliers left and right.
Darius stood, flier in hand. Jane read it at the same time he did.
DON’T BE UNFASHIONABLE! proclaimed the flier’s bold header. Below it was a hand-drawn color picture of a fanged, horned girl with long orange-red hair, looking more than a little like Quinn, with a red interdiction symbol drawn over it. On the right was a picture of Sandi Griffin with a halo over her head, smiling at the camera. SHOW YOUR PEP BY SUPPORTING THE FASHION CLUB! read the bottom line.
“What the hell is this?” Darius hissed. He glared down at Stacy and held the paper out at her. “Did you do this?”
“No!” shrieked Stacy, near tears. She swept up the rest of the fliers in a messy pile and stood up, on the verge of fleeing for her life. “Sandi told me to do it! I didn’t make these up! Honest!”
“So, you’re just following orders, is that it?” Darius said. The flier crumpled up in his grip. “My sister wants to do good things for people, she never does you any harm, but you go around assassinating her because she’s not good enough for you?”
“Darius,” said Jane in a warning tone.
He ignored her and stared at Stacy in a fury. Tears ran down Stacy’s white face.
“I hope you’re proud of yourself,” he said quietly. He handed Stacy the crumpled flier. She slowly took it and stared at it. “I hope you feel good about hurting her. You must feel really special.”
“I’m so sorry,” Stacy gasped, her voice breaking. Her face then fell apart and she began to sob, her eyes shut and her face lowered to the mass of fliers she held.
Darius stared at her. “Liar,” he said at last, and he walked off. The world around him was a haze of red. He found himself in the cafeteria line with a tray in his hand—but Jane wasn’t there with him. His rage was a living thing, consuming him, pulling him to do terrible things. He took off his glasses and rubbed his face, then put his tray back and walked out of the cafeteria, appetite gone.
The walk to the football field seemed to take no time at all. He climbed to the top of the bleachers and sat hunched over on one end by himself. No one was on the field. It was sunny with occasional clouds passing by overhead, but the wind was cool. No one came to get him.
Finally, when his anger had subsided, he checked his watch. He had fifteen minutes to get back before the pep rally started. Wishing he’d worn a jacket, he stood, walked down the steps with his hands in his pockets, and headed back to the school. Jane was nowhere around. Though he felt a stab of shame for chewing out Stacy, it could have been worse. He’d had a terrible urge to throttle her right there in the hallway. What the Fashion Club had been plotting infuriated him. Perhaps only Jane’s presence had kept him from doing worse than he’d done. It was a sobering thought for him.
He went back to the cafeteria, but the lunch line had already closed. Someone cleared her throat behind him as he stood at the cafeteria doorway.
“Welcome back,” said Jane.
He turned but could not meet her gaze. “I’m sorry,” he said, feeling his face burn. He wondered what she thought of him, having seen his dad blow up, too. “I just—it just got to me. I can’t believe she was doing that. It just—”
“It’s okay. She deserved it,” said Jane. Her face seemed paler than usual. “You kind of scared me for a moment, you looked so angry, but—” She took a breath “—but I guess you’re not like your father, are you?”
He looked down and said nothing.
“Okay,” she said. “I had to run a little errand while you were gone anyway. Let’s go get a seat in the gym. Quinn might be looking for you already.”
“Sure.” He followed as she started off down the corridor. As he walked, he wondered what he would have done if he had lost control of his temper with Stacy. He wondered if a time would come when he would, what he would do if he did, and who would be there in front of him when it happened.
Arriving late, Darius and Jane found
no seats visible in the overcrowded, riotous gymnasium of
“Students, faculty, and staff of Laaawndale High!” cried Ms. Li into the podium microphone. “Please be seated so we can get this exciting pep rally underway and I can get back to finishing my budget reports! We have only six more hours until kickoff! Go, Laaawndale Lions!”
A riot of cheers broke out, mixed with rude catcalls aimed at Ms. Li and the teachers. Darius and Jane were herded into the stands to take narrow seats among a horde of other students. Darius caught a glimpse of two of the Fashion Club members, Sandi and Tiffany, wandering the floor with scowls on their faces. They seemed to be looking for someone. They didn’t notice him, so he stopped wondering if he should give them the finger if they made eye contact.
More students crowded into the stands. Darius and Jane were squashed against each other by now. “I’m glad I didn’t eat lunch,” said Darius, trying to shout over the chaos, “or I’d never have fit in here!”
“What?” said Jane, cupping her ear only a few inches away from him.
“I said, I’m glad I didn’t eat lunch!”
“You read a bad what?”
He shook his head and waved it off, wishing he’d brought a pen and paper. Next time, for sure.
“Greetings, all you who make Laaawndale High the finest and most secure learning institution in the free world!” began Ms. Li at the microphone. A feedback howl cut her off, but it quickly died and she went on. “We have a great program with the peppiest of pep in store for you, so I encourage you to relax and enjoy the next forty-five minutes of mandatory fun and excitement! Remember, our hidden cameras will find out if anyone’s playing hooky! Don’t be a party pooper, or we’ll have to get out the pooper scooper!” She laughed at her own joke, joined by only four other people in the gymnasium. “Okay, maestro!” she shouted to the band director. “As Elvis would say, let’s rock this educational institution!”
The Lawndale High marching band
played the national anthem, the state song, the
“And now,” said the coach once the theme from “Hawaii Five-O” was finished, “I want to introduce the power behind the Lawndale Pride Pep Club and this pep rally, one of our newest, most popular, and, frankly, most incredible students—the Pep Club’s Student President, Miss Quinn Anne Morgendorffer!”
Darius blinked in surprise. He hadn’t thought that his sister would actually be introduced on stage. Her orange-red hair gleaming like the sun, Quinn came out from behind the curtain and walked up the steps to the podium, dressed in the blue T-shirt, yellow skirt, and white sneakers that the cheerleaders typically wore. She grinned and waved both hands at the audience. Immediately, the football team and cheerleading squads jumped up from their seats and roared, “Quinn! Quinn! Quinn! Quinn!” stamping their feet and clapping their hands. They were swiftly joined by every student and teacher in the school, to Darius’s complete astonishment. The stands rumbled as if gripped by a major earthquake, and dust drifted down from the ceiling tiles.
“Good Lord!” said Darius to Jane. “What’s happening?”
“What?” she yelled back.
“What?” he yelled at her, cupping his hands over his ears.
“What?” she yelled again, pointing at her ears and shaking her head.
Quinn placed an index card on the podium, but she did not read it closely as she spoke, instead looking directly at the students before her. “Fellow classmates!” Quinn began as the racket faded. “Almost two weeks ago, my family moved to Lawndale from far away, farther away than even Oakwood, which I’ve never been to and probably never ever will, because they have such badly decorated shopping malls, and I hear they don’t even let you hang around in groups of more than three—I mean, what is that all about?”
A clamor of laughter, cheers, and applause burst through the gymnasium. Darius watched with open mouth and wide eyes.
“I was so super-glad to come to Lawndale, which is a really incredible school, the best school in the whole universe and for sure the best in this state,” Quinn went on, waiting until the applause died again, “but I was really nervous because I wanted to do my best and be at my best, because this school is the best and deserves it and I think I deserve to be at a school that deserves it, and you deserve it, too, and you know it!” More applause and cheers rang out. “But even if we all deserve it, and we do, it was really hard for me. No one can battle a terrible problem like fitting into a new school on their own. It takes a special kind of help, the kind of support you only get from special people, most of all your family. And the one special person I’d like to thank more than any other for helping me get to where I am is my very own big brother, Darius Morgendorffer!” She scanned the crowd, shading her eyes with a hand. “Are you out there, Dari? Stand up and let me thank you!”
Stunned, Darius muttered a bad word that no one heard over the staggering outburst of foot stamping and cheering. Jane immediately grabbed him by the arm and forced him to stand up, and she waved crazily and yelled “Here he is! Here he is!” until she caught Quinn’s attention at the podium.
“There you are!” Quinn shouted in relief, pointing at Darius. “Everyone, please give my big brother a big hand!” And she clapped her hands over her head and shrieked, “Yay, Dari!”
Darius went temporarily deaf from the screaming around him. Hundreds of hands slapped him on the back, punched him in the arms, and smacked him on the head. He nearly lost his glasses twice. When he was finally allowed to take his seat, he felt as if he had been thrown down a mineshaft onto a pile of rocks, then stuck repeatedly with sledgehammers—in addition to being mortally embarrassed in front of the entire world. Why couldn’t I have just been her cousin or something? he wondered, though he didn’t think he really meant it.
Battered and shaken, Darius missed most of the rest of Quinn’s speech. He had the impression she talked at one point about the students as hamsters running all week on exercise wheels of homework and class time, until the yearned-for food pellet of Friday night football arrived at last. As peculiar and disjointed as some of her analogies were, the student body ate it up. Darius was forced to admit Quinn had a flair for picking the weirdest phrases and making them work perfectly with her delivery, timing, body language, and energy—and her unstoppably cheery charisma.
“So I say to you, we are all a part of that great Disney movie in which those gigantic lions rule the animal kingdom with fierce and perfectly combed hair, and every other lowly beast knows our name!” she concluded. “Go, Lawndale Lions, into the circle of life—to victory!” Everyone in the gymnasium rose to their feet in an instant and let go with such a thunder of cheering and clapping and stamping that half a dozen ceiling tiles fell in one corner of the huge room, sparking an even greater outpouring of approval and even more ceiling tiles falling to smash to pieces on the gym floor. Teachers ran about in panic, trying futilely to calm the students, and finally began forcing everyone to leave the gym, dismissing them from the school grounds in case there was a major structural failure in the building.
Ten minutes later, Darius and Jane found themselves deposited outside the building by the flood of students rushing to the parking lot to the waiting buses and cars, eager to get home as soon as possible. Everyone seemed wildly excited and happy.
“I can’t hear anything!” yelled Darius, his ears ringing.
“What?” Jane yelled back.
“Where’s Quinn?” he yelled.
“What?” she yelled again.
Darius caught Jane by the hand and pulled her along until they got back inside the gymnasium. Hundreds of students continued to pour out, but they managed to get past them and make their way to the podium. Darius held out little hope of seeing his sister, but to his surprise she was still on the stage, shaking hands with an army of well wishers. Quinn had brought as many of the cheerleaders and football players on the stage with her as possible, and the noise from the goings-on made it almost impossible to hear anything below a scream.
“You must LEAVE the GYM!” shouted Mr. DeMartino at the heedless mass around the podium, waving his arms. His bad eye was almost popping out. “This is an EMERGENCY! Get OUT or let the FOSSIL HUNTERS dig you out in the next MILLENNIUM!”
Quinn spotted Darius and Jane and waved at them, jumping up and down. Everyone else turned and saw them, too, and countless hands dragged the couple to the podium, where Quinn hugged them both. Darius found it impossible to say anything and be heard, so he tugged on Quinn’s sleeve and pointed outside. After a few dozen more handshakes, she got off the stage and the threesome walked out, the rest of the students and faculty trailing behind them. Another loose ceiling tile smashed into the wooden floor as they left.
Ms. Li met them at the doors out. “Miss Morgendorffer!” she said in a stentorian voice, “that was the greatest speech ever given at this school! Come to my office on Monday so I can find out how you did it. I need to make speeches like that myself, especially when I announce the next series of budget cuts.”
“Thanks!” Quinn said. “I’ll be the best hamster I can be!”
“And I’ll be the wheel you run on!” said Ms. Li with enthusiasm. “Have a great weekend!”
Darius shook his head as he went out. His hearing was beginning to clear. “Quinn,” he said, but he ran out of things to say. What was left after that? He felt spent and exhausted, and his bruised arms and back hurt like hell from the well-meaning drubbing he’d taken.
“Oh, Dari, wasn’t that wonderful?” Quinn cried, hugging him again even as he yelped in pain. “They’re talking about increasing the pep club budget so we can do pep rallies for the other sports, like girls’ field hockey and basketball and even the chess club and debate teams! Can you believe it? We’ll have nonstop rallies every day of the week! And I can wear uniforms of my own design, as long as the office approves them!”
Jane poked her little finger in her ear and twisted it around. “Testing, one two three,” she said aloud. “Ah, finally. Dari, did you say something to me earlier?”
“What?” said Darius, leaning toward her.
“Oh!” cried Quinn, jumping up and down again. “Look! There’s her car!” Darius followed her gaze to the parking lot, where a bright red sports car pulled in. It was a classic-model Triumph Spitfire with the top down. At the steering wheel with her long wavy hair flying was Amy Barksdale, wearing round-lens sunglasses and a forest green sweater.
“Amy’s taking me out for dinner before the game!” Quinn continued. “Aunt Rita’s coming over, too, and she and Amy and Mom are going to the game tonight to watch me do my thing with the pep club! Are you and Jane coming, too? It’s okay if you don’t, ‘cause I know how you are about football, but you can come along with us and get good seats!”
Darius looked uneasily at Amy’s little red car as it pulled into a nearby parking space in the rapidly emptying lot. “Well,” he said at last, “let’s see how it goes. Maybe Mom and Amy and Rita have other plans.”
“Okay!” Quinn headed off to the parking lot to meet Amy. Darius slowly walked behind her, Jane at his side.
“Oh, cheer up,” said Jane, still
pressing fingertips to her ears and shaking her head. “I think Amy will see
daylight about you before long. I’ll talk to her, too. Everything will be fine,
as much as anything around here can be.”
He exhaled heavily and did not reply. Amy was delighted to see Quinn and gave her a long hug. When she let go of her niece, she looked up and gave Darius and Jane a game smile.
“Had enough pep for the day?” Amy asked as Darius walked up.
“Enough pep to poop me out,” said
Darius. He motioned to Jane. “This is
“The cynical voice on the phone has a face now,” said Jane with a grin.
“You won’t get to my age without a little cynicism to keep you warm,” said Amy, shaking Jane’s hand. “You’re taller than you sounded over the phone. I knew all that growth hormone in the drinking water was going to have consequences somewhere. So, Quinn tells me you like to push the paint around.”
“Just starting out,” said Jane. “I have a lot of paint left to push.”
“A lot more than I do,” said Amy. “I had some artistic pretensions in my youth until I realized I liked sitting on the beach in a deck chair a lot more than trying to draw apples on a table. I own a little art gallery a few hours from here. If you have any work, I wouldn’t mind seeing it—out of curiosity, of course, but one never knows.”
“Oh!” Jane looked happily embarrassed. “Thank you! I’m sure it’s junk—really great junk—but hey, I’m always up for an audience!”
Darius noticed that Quinn was sitting in the driver’s seat of Amy’s Triumph, contentedly playing with the controls as if really driving. “Aunt Amy?” he said in a low voice, not wanting to be overheard by his sister. “Any news about Dad and Mom?”
“Oh, I’m—” She turned and glanced back at Quinn before continuing “—I’m afraid so. Jake’s in jail. He was picked up last evening for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. I don’t know if he has an attorney yet, but it’s likely. Helen thinks his mother Ruth will come down to bail him out, if he can’t do it himself.” She bit her lower lip, looking Darius over. “He’s apparently overwrought with the divorce, and he seems to be rather angry at you, too, for some reason.”
Darius nodded grimly, not in the mood to discuss it further. “Mom okay?”
Amy rolled her eyes. “She’s at work, as usual. You can go home now, but just be aware that your father might get out of jail at any minute. Helen has a security company keeping an eye on the house, so don’t bother anyone you see sitting alone in a car along the street.”
“Gotcha.” He pointed to Jane. “You know, she made her own earrings.”
“Really?” Amy motioned Jane closer. “You young people are so talented,” she said. “I thought you just took drugs and danced at raves with pacifiers in your mouths. Let me see those.”
Jane pulled back her bangs on both sides. “The earrings are silver,” she said. “My sister Penny had some wire left over from her attempt at silversmithing, and I used it. It’s not perfect, but hey, nothing is—except me, I meant.”
Darius saw Amy frown as she peered at Jane’s earrings. Amy carefully reached out and touched Jane’s right cheek with her fingers. When she did, Jane flinched and said, “Ow!”
“Does that hurt, dear?” said Amy softly.
“A little,” said Jane. “My jaw was aching today. Not sure why.”
“You’ve got a big . . .” Amy stopped and shot a glance at Darius, then looked back at Jane. “Did you bump into anything? Or anything bump into you?”
“Oh. Um—” Jane glanced in Darius’s direction, then back at Amy. “I fell off the gazebo in my backyard,” she said with a straight face. “It was an accident. Clumsy teenager bodies, you know the story.”
“I see,” said Amy. She glanced at Darius again, then dropped her hand and smiled at Jane. It was a sad smile. “Why don’t you join Quinn in my faster-than-light cruiser, okay? We’ll take a little trip.”
“Sure.” Jane turned and motioned for Darius to follow.
“Wait,” said Amy, holding up a hand to stop Darius. “I want to talk to my nephew a moment. Jane, you go on, okay?”
“Um, sure.” Jane waved to Darius and walked off to Amy’s Spitfire. Amy watched her go, then looked back at Darius with a strange expression. He thought she looked both angry and sad at the same time as she walked over to him.
“Well,” said Amy in a voice that almost seemed friendly, “you’ve found a very special young woman.”
Darius nodded. “I think so, too.”
Amy regarded him with an increasingly stony face. “You think so, too,” she repeated, making it a statement, and she slowly shook her head. “You haven’t changed at all, have you?”
He blinked, becoming confused. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” he said.
“Of course,” said Amy. Her tone became lighter as she jerked a thumb toward Jane and Quinn, behind her at the car. “Do you mind terribly if I take Jane and Quinn for a little spin? Just us girls? I hate to do this, but there’s not much room in the car, and I’d like to get to know Jane a little better. I wish I’d had a friend like her when I was growing up. Sarcasm loves company.”
“Um,” said Darius, even more confused. He knew something was happening, and he wasn’t in on it. A sense of dread crept into him. “Uh, sure. Okay. I can walk home and get some things. I need to change clothes, if nothing else. Uh, did you and the others want to go to the game afterward?”
“We’ll see,” said Amy. “We’ll see. If you go home, then we’ll call you there. I think your mother’s at her office tonight until late.”
“Figures. Um . . . okay, then. Thanks for looking after Quinn.”
Amy said nothing in response, regarding Darius with narrow eyes. She then turned and, without a goodbye, walked back to the car. “Okay, girls,” she said. “We’re taking a little ride. Darius said he’d walk home.”
“What?” said Jane. She looked back at Darius.
He waved her on. “Go have some fun!” he said. “I’ll catch you later!”
Jane nodded uncertainly but got into the Triumph’s back seat in the middle. Quinn took shotgun, and Amy opened the driver’s door and got in. Quinn and Jane waved goodbye as the car roared to life and wound its way out of the parking lot to the highway. Amy did not wave.
Frowning, Darius lowered his hand. Something had definitely happened, and it wasn’t good—but what was it? Why did Amy get all weird when she was looking at Jane’s earrings?
He sighed and checked his wallet for cash. Forty-seven dollars remained of the money his mother had given him earlier in the week to take care of dinner for himself and Quinn. He’d wanted to check out a place he’d seen in town, Mr. Fun’s World of Games, but getting home and into new clothes seemed like a better idea. If Jane wanted to see the football game—thought he could not imagine she would—he’d go, too. Maybe he could take a book.
The walk home was unremarkable except for the sense of loneliness he felt without Jane at his side. He spotted two cars on Glen Oaks with people sitting inside them, but he did his best to ignore them as he walked to the front door, unlocked it with the key he carried in his wallet, and went inside.
Twenty minutes later, he was dressed in fresh clothing and felt loads better. He checked the time and saw that it was almost three o’clock. No messages were on the phone, “Sick, Sad World” wouldn’t be on until four, and there was nothing to do.
He was reading Kafka’s The Trial when he heard a knock on the front door. It was three-thirty by his watch. He went downstairs, book in hand, wondering who it was. His mother or Quinn would have come in by now. Jane, maybe. He hoped he’d finally get the chance to show her around the house. No fooling around this time, though.
When he pulled the front door open,
Darius looked into the faces of two
Dad, he thought with a sinking heart. It’s about Dad. He cleared his throat. “Can I help you?” he said.
“Darius Morgendorffer?” asked the officer on the right.
“Y-yes, sir,” he said. “Is this about my dad?”
“No,” said the officer. “I’m afraid you’ll have to come with us, Mister Morgendorffer. You’re under arrest.”
Darius blinked, positive he had not heard that correctly. “What?” he said.
Fingerprint ink does not easily come out of one’s fingertips. Darius rubbed his purple-stained fingers together over and over as he sat on the edge of his bed, not wanting to look up and see the rest of his cell. After a few moments he looked up anyway. He’d tried off and on for hours to get the ink stain off, but it wasn’t happening, he was too restless to sleep, and there was nothing else to do.
The police at the Carter County Juvenile Detention Facility had taken his watch as well as the contents of his pockets and his belt and boots, but he still wore his street clothes and a pair of slippers. Good thing I put on a fresh shirt and underwear at home, he thought for the eighth time. I got dressed for jail and never knew it, all dressed up to face a battery charge. Who did I beat up? Amy turned me in. I know she did. She must have thought I hit Jane. That’s the only thing it could possibly be, but it doesn’t make any sense. Didn’t Jane tell her I didn’t hit her? What did Amy think was going on? And here I thought the police came to see me about Dad. This is almost funny.
He got to his feet, grimacing from the bruises he’d sustained at the pep rally, then began walking around the cell in a circle. The cell had no windows, only the barred wall and door for an external view, with a toilet, a bed, a Bible, and nothing else. He stopped and stared at a corner of the cell where paint was chipped off the wall, apparently because someone had kicked it repeatedly. Being here alone with nothing to do, no sense of time, and no idea of his future was worse than any torment Dante had envisioned in his Inferno. Only an occasional CCJDF officer on guard duty came by to check on him and, once, bring him a bland supper on a tray. Darius had tried sleeping on the bunk several times, but his rest was fitful and riddled with thoughts that made his gut hurt.
Why did Amy turn me in? Did she really believe I beat up Jane? She must have, but why didn’t Jane stop her? Jane had a bruise on her right cheek, yeah, I could see that ugly yellow-green color coming out from behind her bangs, but she got that when we fell out of the gazebo and hit the pillar when we landed. She even told Amy that. No, wait—she said she fell out of the gazebo by herself. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. God, I’m sorry we even did that now. Why didn’t Amy believe her? What the fuck is going on?
He shook his head and began walking around in a circle again. His fresh clothing wasn’t fresh anymore. The black shirt stank of old perspiration, and his dark jeans itched.
Amy said I hadn’t changed after she looked at Jane’s bruise. What was she talking about? What is it with her and Mom about me? Is Aunt Rita in on this, too? It’s like a conspiracy, some nutty paranoid thing that’s true—they really want to get me. It’s gotta be that, but I can’t figure out why. And Mom was trying to keep me away from Quinn the other day like I was dangerous, but how could she think that? Do I remind them too much of Dad? Do they hate me that much? What is it?
Arriving back at his bed, he sat down again and tried again to rub the ink from his fingertips, without success.
Maybe the police are going to stick me with more charges because of Dad, saying I was threatening him last night. I wonder if Dad’s still in jail. Is the jail anywhere near here? I’m not getting anywhere. I tried to call Mom, but no one picked up and all I could do was leave a message. I haven’t even been questioned yet. They read me my rights, put me in handcuffs, drove me here, booked me for simple battery of a minor, told me I might be charged as an adult, told me more charges might be pending, fingerprinted me, took my picture with me holding a number tray in front of me, and led me down a hall to this cell and locked me in and now everyone’s gone off somewhere and it’s all over and they’ve forgotten about me. What happened? God, please, tell me what happened! Give me a sign like with the gazebo, anything! Just tell me!
He lowered his head and buried his face in his purple-stained hands. Hanging himself like Mike Ellenbogen had done was beginning to look mildly attractive. I could stick my head in the toilet and drown myself, he thought, but that would be stupid. I could jump off my bed onto my head, but that’s just as stupid. I’ll just stay alive for a while longer and see what else is in store for me. Maybe something really bad will happen that will make this look pretty good. I could get downright nostalgic about this cell. Or maybe it won’t get any worse than this. Oh, that’s right—I have the deposition to go through yet. Mike’s family is going to sue me when this is over because Mike hanged himself in our barracks and I was his roommate. Forgot about that. Sure, why not more trouble? The more, the merrier.
He lay down on the bed, his arms at his sides and his feet out straight like a robot’s, and stared at the ceiling.
Are they going to play that
football game tonight with Oakwood? Of course they will. Why wouldn’t they? I’m
not important to it. Mom, Amy, and Rita will drag Quinn out there, she’ll get
everyone cheering, and
A door opened, and footsteps echoed from up the hall. Darius looked up. One of the CCJDF officers was making the rounds again. Darius figured he was the only person in this corridor of cells, given that he could hear no one else around and the officer merely glanced in before turning to go.
“Sir?” said Darius. He slowly stood up from his bunk.
“What?” said the officer, pausing to look back.
What is there I can possibly ask that will make any difference now? If I had a visitor, he’d tell me. I don’t. If I was going to be let out, he’d tell me. I’m not. What’s left to ask about?
“What?” the officer repeated.
“The football game,” said Darius. “Who won?”
“Oh,” said the officer. His
expression softened. “
Then it’s after ten at night, maybe eleven. No one came to get me. Darius sat down again, and the energy ran out of him. No one came to get me. “Okay,” he said. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” said the officer, and he left on his rounds. Darius lay down again. At least we won, he thought. Quinn will be happy about that. He stared at the ceiling for a long time, then fell asleep. They woke him when they brought in some drunk, noisy teenagers, then again for breakfast.
Darius woke up with a start, not realizing he’d fallen asleep yet again. Someone rattled his cell door while someone else snored loudly in the next cell. He sat up on his bed and rubbed his face, trying not to get too excited about anything. It could be another long day. What time was it?
“Morgendorffer,” said the CCJDF officer. “Come on out. You’re free to go.”
He stayed on the bed, not daring to believe it. “Go?” he said.
“That’s right. Let’s go, unless you want to stay here another night with a bunch of drunk kids.”
He nodded dumbly, got up, and shuffled out of the cell. The officer led him back through the station to an office where his boots, belt, and other belongings were returned.
“I can just go?” he asked the officer for the fourth time. “I don’t have to do anything?”
“That’s right,” said the officer. “Now, the DA’s office is going to review the charges, but at this point it’s not likely to go forward to trial. The charges were dropped on review of evidence and at the request of the people pressing them to begin with. They signed off on the paperwork and left. You’re lucky, ‘cause this happens only once every blue moon. And you have a ride waiting for you up front. We’re releasing you to your mother. Desk sergeant just called back about it.”
“Oh,” said Darius. He felt dirty and worn out, which struck him as semi-funny because he hadn’t really done anything to feel dirty and worn out about. He followed the officer to the entrance to the detention facility.
Darius’s mother was at the front desk when he arrived, wearing a brown leather coat. She walked outside when she spotted him and did not look back. A leggy chick waited for him by the front desk, dressed in black with a bright red jacket. Her blue eyes were sunken and haunted. She walked forward and threw her arms around him. They hugged for a long minute. He buried his face in her jet-black hair and smelled the crocus in winter.
“Trent’s in the car,” she finally said. “Your mom said we could drive you back.”
He pulled away, wiping his eyes. “Excuse me,” he said, fighting a need to cry.
“It’s okay,” said Jane. She managed a smile, her face wet with tears. “Let’s go.”
Darius followed her through the revolving doors into the sunlight. It was late Saturday morning, almost eleven o’clock by his watch.
“What happened?” he asked. “How did—why’d it happen?”
“We’re going to your mom’s,” Jane said.
“Did . . . did they think I hit you?” he asked. “I don’t get what—”
“Your mom’s going to explain it, or
else,” she said, as if that was all she had to say. They reached
“Thanks,” said Darius. He fumbled with his seat belt, then snapped it shut and leaned back in the seat, too tired to move. “The gazebo,” he said in a low voice. “I broke it. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll buy you a new one.”
“Glen Oaks,” Jane said, leaning forward. “Eleven eleven Glen Oaks, red brick house. Darius’s place.”
The car suddenly stalled, and smoke
came out from under the hood. “Not again,” grumbled
They abandoned the car in the lot.
The CCJDF staff put out the fire with an extinguisher. Darius called a cab for
himself and Jane, while
When they got out of the cab on Glen Oaks, Darius stretched his legs, then looked at Jane. He reached up and pushed aside the bangs on the right side of her face. A large yellow-green bruise ran from her lower cheek to her temple. It looked awful. He stared at it, then leaned close and kissed her cheek. Letting her hair fall back into place, he took her hand and walked up the sidewalk to his mother’s house.
Halfway there, the front door opened and Quinn ran out in jeans and a white tee, red hair flapping behind her. She crashed into him, grabbing him around the chest with both arms to bury her face in his wrinkled black shirt. He hurt all over from being pounded at the pep rally the day before, but he let her hug him, and he kissed her on the top of her head, one arm around her. Like Jane, she did not seem to have slept in ages.
“Come on,” he whispered. “Let’s go in.”
His mother and aunts were also at the door, but they did not run out to him. They looked at him in a strange way and stepped back as he entered the house. He had the curious feeling that they feared him.
Quinn and Jane escorted Darius into the living room. Quinn clung to his right arm with both hands and refused to let go even after they sat down on the sofa. Darius’s mother and her two sisters slowly took their own seats around the room, facing Darius at a distance. His mother sat like a person broken, covering her eyes with a hand, elbows on her knees.
“Okay,” said Jane, looking around the room. “Somebody better spill what’s going on. You screwed Darius over good and got me jammed into this mess, too, so talk, or else I will.”
Wearing a faded beige sweater, Amy coughed. She leaned forward from her seat on an ottoman, hands clasped together before her as she spoke. “I should start,” she said. “I owe you an apology, Darius. I thought—I thought you had done something to your—to Jane, I mean, and I—”
“You drove us to Helen’s law office when we left the school,” Jane interrupted, pointing from one sister to the other, “where Rita took Quinn, and then you and Helen tried to get me to confess that Darius was abusing me no matter how many times I—”
“Jane, I didn’t know!” said Amy angrily. “I saw those pictures, and I thought he’d gone and—”
“What pictures?” said Darius in a strained voice.
A little silence fell. His mother finally dropped her hand and got up. A mixture of agony and terror was on her face. She walked into the kitchen and came back with a manila folder.
“It started at the
“He was hitting me,” said Darius. He reached up and touched his lips, unaware he was doing so.
“I don’t care who was hitting who!” said his mother in sudden irritation. “The whole thing had totally gotten out of control, and I couldn’t—”
“Dari was bleeding!” interrupted Quinn in a rising voice. “Didn’t you see it? Dad punched him in the mouth!”
Jane, Rita, and Amy looked at Darius’s mother, who sighed and covered her face again. “I took that iron poker away from Darius, and I tried to finish up my call in the bedroom, when I heard Quinn crying. I came out, and she—” His mother stopped and shuddered.
“Show him,” said his blonde Aunt Rita, pointing to the folder with a manicured, red-nailed hand. “The pictures I took.”
His mother started to say something, but she bit it back. Without looking at Darius, she got up from her seat and gave the folder to him. He took it and opened it.
Inside were three color Polaroid photographs. Each picture showed the face of a young girl with long orange-red hair—Quinn at age eleven.
Darius picked up the photos with his purple-stained fingers and held them up to his face. Jane saw them and cried, “Oh, my God!” in a strangled voice.
In each photo, the left side of Quinn’s face was black from her lower jaw to her eyebrow. Her swollen left eye was bright red from bleeding in the cornea. A bandage was taped over her puffy left eyebrow. Blood was smeared around the left side of her mouth. The three photos showed different views of her, her hair pulled back to show the full extent of the damage.
After a long moment, Darius looked up. Jane had turned away and covered her eyes so she couldn’t see the pictures. Quinn stared at the photos for a few moments, then buried her face in the sleeve of his shirt.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Darius asked, looking at his mother. “No one ever told me this.”
A long moment passed.
“We all thought you knew,” she said. “Jake said that you did it to her. He said you hit her with the poker.”
“But I didn’t,” said Darius. “I was in my room on the bed, and then you just came in and you slapped the hell out of me for what I thought was no reason, and then you shut the door and drove off with Quinn. The last I knew, she’d locked herself in her bedroom. I didn’t see her for three years.”
“Look, I just told you, I thought you’d hit Quinn with the poker!”
“Dad said I did this?” This is a really bad dream, and I have to wake up right now. “He told you I did it, and you believed him?”
“Damn it, I just took a poker away from you after hearing you say you were going to kill your father!” she snapped. “I think you can understand what kind of frame of mind I was in, okay?”
Darius looked down at the photos again. The eleven-year-old girl looked at the camera with an expressionless face. “When did this happen?” he asked.
“Apparently while you were in your room!” shouted his mother. “Jake told me you beat Quinn, and he sent you to your room! Didn’t you hear the racket going on, with Quinn screaming her head off? Even I could hear that!”
“I was listening to my tape player,” he said, looking up from the photos. “I had the earphones on full blast and a wet washcloth over my mouth to stop the bleeding from where Dad split my lip.” He held up the photos, showing them to his mother. “You actually believed him when he said I did this?”
“Oh, stop acting like such a martyr!” said his mother, looking at the floor. “You would have believed him, too, if you’d seen yourself with that damn poker!”
“But I was in my room. How could—”
“I don’t care where the hell you were!” she shouted. “Stop getting on my back about it!”
“Helen!” said Rita and Amy at the same time. Amy’s face was white. Quinn’s fingernails dug into Darius’s arm, and she would not look up. Jane looked from one speaker to the other in empty-faced shock.
Rita put a hand to her white blouse and cleared her throat. “When Helen brought Quinn to my place,” she began, “I thought she’d been abused by Jake, so I—”
“You did not!” shouted Darius’s mother. “How could you have possibly known anything?”
“Because she told me,” said Rita softly. She pointed to Quinn. “She told me when you brought her over that Jake grabbed her by the hair and punched her in the face when she came out of her room and told him to stop hitting Darius. I was going to call child protection, but Quinn threw such a fit, I didn’t know what to do! Then she told me she’d fallen down the stairs and Jake hadn’t done anything to her at all! She told me she lied about him hitting her just because she was mad at him! She said it was just an accident!”
“You knew?” said Amy, her eyes wide as she looked from her sister to Quinn. “Rita, you knew?”
“I didn’t know, God damn it!” Rita shouted, half rising from the loveseat. “Quinn said—”
“Daddy told me to never tell on him!” Quinn shouted, looking up. “He said he’d never bring Dari back if I told anyone he hit me! He was going to send Dari away forever! He made me swear I’d never tell anyone what happened if I wanted to see my big brother again ever!”
Rita sank back on the loveseat and stared at Quinn, hands pressed to her chest.
Quinn clamped her hands to the sides of her head, fingers digging into her scalp. “I wanted my big brother back!” she shrieked. “I wanted Dari home again with me! Daddy said—” She bent over and her tears fell on the carpet, her face red and twisted.
Darius put a hand on Quinn’s shoulder, then pulled her to him and put his arms around her. She howled and shook. He bent his head over her as he pulled her close and said nothing.
“I should have called child protection,” said Rita dully as Quinn’s howls faded into weeping. “I didn’t know what to do. I went ahead and took her to the hospital and gave them the story she gave me, about falling down the stairs. Most of the hospital staff knew me socially, and I guess they didn’t check it out like they were supposed to. They fixed her up and we went home and . . . that was it.”
“So, let me get this straight,” Jane said, looking at Darius’s mother. “Your husband treated Quinn like a punching bag and got away with it? He told you Darius did it, and he had him sent away to military school and told Quinn she’d never see her brother again, and you believed him and he got away with it?”
Darius’s mother was on her feet before the end of Jane’s questions. She stamped out of the living room to the stairway and ran up without looking back. Moments later a door slammed. No other sounds came down.
Rita fell back against the loveseat and stared at the ceiling, arms limp at her sides and palms up. “Shit,” she whispered. She covered her face with her hands. “I can’t fucking believe this.”
“Darius,” said Amy with a haggard look, “I was wrong, but I honestly thought you had hit Jane. I saw the photos years ago and I was sure you had done it. I don’t know what else to tell you. I’m sorry for it, I’m sorrier than I’ve ever been in my life, but I know that doesn’t do anything to help you. Jane and Helen and I got into such a fight at the law office last evening after Rita took Quinn shopping and then to the football game, and then Jane made us drive her to her house, and she showed us the gazebo.” Amy tried to laugh, but it didn’t work. “She told us what really happened, with you and her in the gazebo, and I knew she was telling the truth. I never knew a teenager who would admit to fooling around unless things were really desperate. I knew something was really wrong, then, but I swear to God, I had no idea it was this.”
Darius looked up from Quinn and licked his lips. “Why didn’t you or Mom call child protection if Rita didn’t?”
Amy looked at the carpet. “I thought Helen took care of it. I guess she thought sending you away to military school would solve everything and straighten you out. Maybe she thought having her kids get into legal trouble was going to hurt her career, I don’t know. You ask her.”
Darius nodded, then looked down at Quinn again. “I guess Dad won,” he said.
“No, he didn’t,” said Rita. She got up from the loveseat, looking around the room for something. “I’m going to fucking call the police and turn him in. I’m going to see that son of a bitch burn for this.”
“Helen said he’s gone,” said Amy. “His mother, Ruth, came down this morning and paid his bail. He skipped out right after.”
“I don’t care!” said Rita, her face filling with rage. She stalked around the room, looking at tabletops and shelves without seeing anything. “I’m going to burn that motherfucker! I don’t give a damn anymore what anyone else does! He hurt my niece and he’s going to burn in hell for it, but he’s going to fucking burn here on earth first, and I’m going to see it happen! Where’s the phone? Is it in the kitchen?” She stamped out of the room, her heels clicking across the kitchen’s tile floor.
“What about you, Darius?” asked Amy. “Your mother and Rita and I had the charges dropped this morning. What is there we can possibly do to make up even a part of what’s happened—”
“Nothing,” said Darius. He looked up and focused on Amy. “Don’t do anything for me.”
“You can’t help me,” he said in a tired voice. “Just look out for Quinn.”
“Look, I swear to God, I didn’t know what—”
“I don’t care,” he said. He looked down at Quinn, who was silent in his arms. “Just help Quinn. You and Rita, that’s all I want you to do.”
“Darius,” said Amy, “I’m practically on my knees, begging your forgiveness for—”
“Go to hell,” he said.
Jane lowered her head and bit her lip.
Darius stared at Amy until she looked away. After a moment, she slowly got up and went into the kitchen with Rita, who was leafing through a phone book and swearing under her breath.
Darius looked down at his sister. “Quinn?”
She made a small noise.
“Let’s go upstairs. I want you to lie down and take a nap.”
Quinn stirred in his arms. “Dari?”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her voice barely audible. “Please don’t hate me. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
He bent his head over her as he held her. “You did nothing wrong,” he whispered back. “It doesn’t matter. I love you, but I want you to go take a nap. I’ll walk you upstairs.” He looked at Jane. “Would you help us?”
Jane nodded, and the three of them got to their feet and shuffled out, arms around each other. At the top of the stairs, Darius noted that his mother’s bedroom door was shut. No sound came from behind it.
Darius and Jane got Quinn’s shoes off, pulled down her blanket, and tucked her into her canopy bed. Darius sat on the bed by his sister as Jane knelt near her face, holding her hands.
“I was so scared you’d never come home,” whispered Quinn. “I was so scared.”
“Shhh.” Darius stroked her cheek with his purple fingers, touching the peach skin where she had been beaten at age eleven until the side of her face turned black. On the surface, now, she looked fine.
“I love you,” he said. “I’ll always love you. You’re my only little sister.”
His little sister looked up at him. “We won last night,” she said. “Football.”
“I heard. Congratulations.”
“Thanks. Wish you’d seen it.” Quinn closed her eyes. The three of them sat together like that for a long time.
“Dari,” whispered Quinn at last. She opened her eyes to look at him. “What was Amy saying about a gazebo?”
Darius and Jane looked at each other. He sighed in resignation and got up from the bed, patting his sister on the arm. “Jane will tell you all about it,” he said. “I’m going to take a shower.”
When the police left the Morgendorffers’ home just after three o’clock that Saturday afternoon, Darius’s mother and his aunt Rita accompanied the officers to the station to complete the paperwork and meet with a new attorney immediately afterward. Quinn asked Jane to stay with her while she was being questioned, so Darius, Jane, and Quinn were left sitting at the kitchen table when everyone else left.
“Where’s Amy?” asked Quinn, playing with her fingers.
“Upstairs,” said Jane. She glanced across the table at Darius, saw no reaction, and looked down to pick at a scratch in the tabletop again. “She’s staying here while your mom and Rita are gone. She’s going back to her hotel tonight, though. I think she’s leaving tomorrow.”
“Rita, too,” said Quinn. She glanced at Darius, then went back to playing with her fingers.
“You okay after . . . everything?” Jane asked Quinn with some concern.
Quinn shrugged. “I’m okay,” she said, then looked at Darius again. He sat with his hands clasped on the table before him, looking into space. “You okay, Dari?”
“Hmm?” He looked up, distracted. “M’okay.”
“Are you two going to the party
Darius looked at Jane, who shook her head no. “I’m not up to it,” Jane said, “and someone’s bound to ask how I got my bruise. I don’t want to go through that again.” She touched her right cheek under her bangs and winced. “I’ll lay low for the rest of the weekend. Maybe tomorrow I’ll paint. I feel the need to throw something on a canvas. Better yet, maybe I’ll throw up on a canvas.”
Quinn frowned. “Eww, thanks.”
“I’d rather people didn’t ask me about this, either,” said Darius, holding up his purple, ink-stained fingertips. “It’ll be a crazy night anyway after that game. Probably a lot of drinking.”
“Someone told me
“It figures,” said Quinn. “The
football players and cheerleaders like to party hard. I called
Darius snorted softly. “Your knights in shining armor,” he said.
“Yeah, they are. They look out for me.” Quinn studied her fingernails, then lowered her hands and fixed her gaze on her older brother. “You know,” she said, “Amy and Rita have looked out for me a lot, too.”
Darius frowned and stared at his clasped hands. Jane looked at him with a pained expression, then rubbed her mouth and looked out the sliding glass doors into the yard.
Quinn kept her gaze on her brother. “Dari,” she said, “I know you don’t like them very much, and I guess I can’t blame you, but—”
“You want to keep seeing them, I know,” he interrupted in a dull voice. “Fine. Go ahead.”
“Well, yeah, but that wasn’t what I was going to say,” she said.
Darius took a deep breath and looked away, scratching the back of his head.
“Dari,” Quinn pressed, “is there any way at all you think that maybe you—”
“No,” he said.
His sister fell silent. She leaned back in her chair and looked at her fingers again, her lips a thin line.
Jane fidgeted and seemed on the verge of saying something, but after a moment she sighed and looked out the window again. A minute passed.
“So,” Quinn said at last, “anyone up for cards?”
“I could do that,” said Jane slowly, “as long as it isn’t Old Maid or Fish. Mom tried to get us to play those for years, and we hated it. My older sibs always got into a fight about that Old Maid thing. Dari?”
“Hmm?” He shrugged. “Okay. Whatever.”
“Did you play cards at the academy?” asked Quinn.
“Yeah. Poker, mostly. Everyone played poker.”
A flicker of interest stirred in Quinn’s eyes. “You win anything?”
“We weren’t allowed to gamble for money,” he said. “We played for chips. I was okay at it, not great.”
“You know how to play Doubt It?”
“Oh, I do!” said Jane with rising enthusiasm. “I liked that one. Learned it in Girl Scouts.”
Quinn and Darius looked at Jane in amazement. “You’re kidding me,” said Darius. “Girl Scouts?”
“That’s where I learned to be prepared,” said Jane, grinning at him.
“Are you serious?” said Quinn. “When was this?”
“Mom made me join when I was nine. I was a junior scout. It didn’t last too long. I kept going off on my own on hikes. My nickname was Lois. They said I was off looking for Superman.” Jane gave Darius a seductive smirk. “Remind me sometime to show you what I know about tying knots.”
“Show me, too!” said Quinn.
“Sure,” said Jane, “but not while I’m showing Dari.”
Darius cleared his throat with a mock glare at Jane, and he got up from the table. “Are the cards in that game cabinet in the living room?” he asked. “Or did we even unpack them yet?”
“In the living room,” said Quinn. “Oh, and Dari?”
“What?” He turned, halfway across the kitchen to the doorway.
Quinn gave him a meaningful look. “We need four players,” she said.
The room grew quiet.
“Four,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Quinn.
Jane’s expression turned glum. “I guess we could play something else for only three—” She stopped when Quinn put a gentle hand on her arm.
“We need four, Dari,” Quinn said to her brother. “Please?”
He gave her a tense look, then turned and left the room. He knew what she wanted. It had been on his mind as well all afternoon, while the police questioning was going on. It was impossible to miss his Aunt Amy’s depressed expression and lethargy, the way she avoided eye contact with him and stayed out of his way—and the way Quinn and Jane hovered around her, wanting to get closer but, seeing Darius nearby, did not.
Darius found a pack of playing cards with a rubber band around them in the game cabinet. Turning the deck over in his hands, he stood in the empty living room and mulled over what was right and what was wrong, and what he should do about it.
This isn’t fair, he thought. I don’t owe Amy anything for what she did to me. I’d still be in juvenile detention if everyone hadn’t figured out the truth and dropped the charges. The state might prosecute me anyway if the DA’s office thinks it’s worth it. Amy nailed me up because, like her rotten sisters, she believed Dad over me. Now she knows what really happened, and if there’s any justice in the universe, that knowledge is eating her alive. I hope she’s suffering, but she’ll never suffer the way I did—getting beaten up by Dad all the time, getting sent away and never seeing Quinn for three years, getting a roommate who killed himself, just everything—she’ll never suffer like that. I wish she would suffer more—and I almost wish I was the one to make her suffer, too.
His rage, however, was drowning in a sea of other thoughts. He looked down at the cards in his hand and struggled to find the way through. Amy had him sent to jail, wrongly believing he had beaten up Jane, and God knew what else she’d thought about him all these years—but that doesn’t excuse what you do in return, his ethics teacher at the academy would have said. Other people do not control you. You control you. Only you are in charge of you, and only you have the responsibility for what you say and do. You do not make a right by doing another wrong.
And telling his aunt to go to hell, when she was desperately trying to apologize for what she’d done to him, wasn’t going to make anything right. She wasn’t wicked. She’d tried to do the right and good thing, in fact.
Bullshit! She deserved worse! he thought savagely. I could have knocked her head off for what she did to me! I still could. His hands knotted into fists at his side, and blood pounded in his ears. Amy was physically smaller than he was. Beating the crap out of her would be no trouble. It might even feel good to hurt her, to make her feel the pain he had felt so much of his life. Hurting her would be easy.
Almost as easy as when his dad beat up Quinn.
Darius’s rage immediately dissolved and left him tired and depressed. A lot of bad things had been done to him, but spreading the evil around would not get rid of it. It would only grow inside him, a psychic cancer, and soon he’d been as hollow and worthless as his father was—but likely more dangerous. His father rarely used his head, but Darius usually did, and a planned, thought-out evil was the worst kind.
Amy didn’t deserve her suffering. Maybe other people did—one in particular—but Amy did not.
And what good was it to be a man and have a man’s strength if you did not use your gift for good ends?
Alone in the silence, he finally realized that if he was supposed to go upstairs to get Amy just for Quinn or Jane’s sake, he would never do it.
But he wouldn’t do it for their sake. He’d do it for his own sake—and for Amy’s.
“Shit,” he said in defeat. He saw no way out of it. Tossing the cards onto the sofa by the morning newspaper, he headed upstairs.
He went up the stairway as quietly as he could, though some of the steps still creaked. Somewhere he’d read that if you walked on your toes while wearing shoes, you moved quieter that way, and it seemed to work. He reached the top and looked at his mother’s bedroom door, took a breath, then walked over to it. The door was open a crack. He raised a hand and rapped lightly with his knuckles.
“Yes?” he heard Amy say.
He pushed the door halfway open. Amy sat across the bedroom by the window with a book in her lap. She stared at him through her large round-lens glasses with an uncertain expression. She wore a beige sweater with a pair of eggshell pants and white bedroom slippers she had taken from her sister’s bedroom closet. Her face was weary and drawn.
It was strange, but in that moment Darius noticed that his aunt had the same physical coloration he did. Her hair was the same dark brown as his, though hers was wavier and long, and they both had the same earth-brown eyes. He’d heard other people say that they even had similar faces, though he couldn’t see it himself, even in photos. He wondered what life would have been like if the two of them had gotten along, but it was too late for that now.
Or maybe not.
“May I come in for a moment?” he said.
Amy blinked, then closed her book, leaving a finger in to mark her place. “Sure,” she said. She shifted in her seat, looking nervous. No, he realized, she isn’t nervous. She’s frightened.
“I’ll leave the door open,” he said. “It’s okay.”
“Um, sure. It’s . . . whatever.” She shifted again in her seat, then carefully laid the book aside on a dresser, tucking a hair beret in as a bookmarker. “What . . . what’s up?”
Darius pushed the door fully open, then walked over and sat on the end of his mother’s bed, facing his aunt. At first he looked at the floor, then he made himself look up and face Amy. It was hard to do.
“I want to apologize,” he said stiffly, “for what I said earlier. I’m sorry I said it.”
His aunt blinked, taken aback. She started to say something, but she stopped when he went on.
“You were doing what you thought was right,” said Darius. He wanted to look Amy in the eyes, but he kept looking away. “You were just trying to help Jane and Quinn. I understand that. You’ve taken care of Quinn a lot of times when she really needed it. She thinks a lot of you and Rita.” He looked down at his hands, wringing them together in front of him as he sat. “Jane thinks a lot of you, too. It occurred to me that—that if you and Jane knew each other better, it, um, it would be a good thing. She . . . she’s pretty good at that art stuff. You and . . . well, anyway.”
He exhaled heavily and swallowed. “You didn’t deserve what I said to you. It’s been a bad day, but that doesn’t excuse it. You said the other day that you and I, we keep getting off on the wrong foot. We . . . we can’t do anything about the past. It’s all done and gone. You and I . . . we’re probably never going to be . . . you know, like, close or anything, but . . . I don’t know how to say this.”
He looked up. Amy looked back with large eyes, waiting.
“I wish we’d gotten off on the right foot a long time ago,” he said. “I just want to call a truce between us. You’re too important to all of us, and I can’t . . . I can’t go on being mad about this stuff, even the jail thing. I have too much other crap going on in my life. It’s just too much. I don’t want to be mad at you anymore for anything.”
Looking down at his hands again, he suddenly laughed for a moment. “It’s funny, you know, being in jay-dee wasn’t so bad. The food sucks, and there’s nothing to do, but, you know, it wasn’t so bad.” He smiled a little. “And all they gave me to read was a Bible. I’d rather I’d had Shakespeare, but, hey, whatever. I read the Book of Job again and had a good laugh.” He spread his hands, his smile gone. “You didn’t know. You did what you thought was right, to help Jane. I can’t keep riding you about it. I have to get over it.”
He stopped there. After a pause, Amy sat forward on her chair. Oddly, she held her hands out in front of her in the same way he did, wringing them together
“I don’t know what to say to you,” she said. “I feel like what Jane said, that I’ve screwed you over for so long now, thinking you were something other than what I realize now you are, and I don’t know what to do. All I ever heard about you came from Jake or Helen, and I think a lot of that was colored by things going on with Jake. I think it all was, now.”
She paused, looking at her hands. “I was thinking this afternoon that I never really knew you, who you really were. I never got to know you at all. After this morning, it came to me that I would never have the chance to know you. I had the chance, and I blew it, and I deserved what you said.”
“No, you didn’t,” he said. “And I’m not dead yet.”
A faint smile crossed Amy’s face. “Monty Python,” she said. “I loved that movie.” Her smile faded. “I can’t even imagine now what you’ve been through all these years, you and Quinn. I thought I knew her, too, but after what she said this morning about what . . . really happened, I realized I didn’t know her, either. That . . . that frightened me. I felt it slip though my fingers, my last chance to know you both. Everything I thought I knew about either of you was wrong. Everything.”
She grimaced. “And then I made it worse, thinking you were the problem, when all along it was . . . it wasn’t you.” Her gaze drifted from her hands to across the room at a random spot. “I’ve done you a great injustice, not just once but many times.” Her face colored. “I’ve said things about you, thought things about you, and acted . . . even if I meant well, my intentions were wrongly directed. I’ve done you more harm than I think I could ever fix, Darius. If you knew what I’ve said and done, thinking what I thought about you, thinking you had . . . done that thing to Quinn, you’d tell me to get out of here and never come back. And I’d do it, I’d leave. I can’t fix it now, none of it.”
“I forgive you.” It came out of his mouth before he thought about it.
Amy started to shake her head. “I can’t imagine how,” she said, and her reddening face began to work. She swallowed and took a ragged breath. Her hands twisted against each other as her face wrinkled up. “I can’t imagine how you could ever—”
He stood up then, feeling that he should, and she got up from her chair and walked over to him and hugged him, her face pressed to his shoulder. After a moment, she drew back and took off her glasses, stuffed them in a pants pocket, and hugged him again. He saw tears run down her face when she took off her glasses. Her hair smelled like his mother’s herbal shampoo. He hugged Amy to him, but he made sure she was a little off to one side so she wasn’t up against his crotch. That would be too weird.
“I’m sorry for what I said,” he whispered.
“You don’t have anything to be sorry about,” Amy mumbled, her voice shaking. “I’ve really screwed everything up. I’ll never fix it.” She sobbed briefly into his shirt. He waited until she could take a breath.
“Well,” he said, “Quinn and Jane and I need a fourth for a card game down in the kitchen. That’s really why I’m here.”
Amy sniffed into his shirt, which was soaked at the level of her eyes. “I knew there was an ulterior motive at work,” she said, sounding better.
“There’s always an ulterior motive in this house,” he said. He wondered if that was the right thing to say, but it didn’t seem completely wrong, either.
Amy let go of him and stepped back. She wiped her red face with her hands and put her glasses back on, then groaned and took them off again. “Smudged,” she said, looking around the room.
“I’d loan you my handkerchief, but it’s used.” He wiped his eyes under his glasses.
“A true gentleman,” she said. She opened a drawer and cleaned her glasses on a pair of her sister’s white cotton underwear, then threw the underwear back in the drawer and shut it. “Let’s go.”
“After you,” he said, gesturing at the door. “Sorry about all that emotional junk.”
“S’okay,” she said, walking downstairs. “I’m a woman. I’m supposed to be good at that stuff.”
Amy and Darius appeared in the kitchen and found Jane and Quinn with a carton of chocolate-chip cookie dough ice cream between them, the top peeled off. Each had a spoon in her mouth and looked at the new arrivals with astonishment—and hope.
“You’d better get out two more spoons,” said Amy to the girls, walking over. “And Darius will need one, too.”
“I’ll get ‘em,” said Darius. He found spoons in a drawer and brought them over. He gave his aunt a large serving spoon. “To make up for things,” he told her.
“You didn’t have a bigger one?” said Amy, taking the spoon and reaching for the ice cream.
“That’s what I said in the gazebo,” said Jane by reflex. Her hands shot to her mouth when she realized what she’d done. “Oh, no!” she gasped.
“Jane, you didn’t just say that!” Quinn shrieked, her hands on her cheeks. “Oh, my ears! Tell me you didn’t!” Aunt Amy burst into nervous laughter, rocking back in her chair as she looked at Darius.
Frozen in the act of taking his seat, Darius gave a self-conscious smile and slowly sat down beside Jane. Jane dropped her spoon on the table and covered her face with her hands.
“Have you met Jane?” Darius said to Amy, putting his arm around Jane’s shoulders. “She’s taking classes at the Henny Youngman School of Charm. Got all As this semester, too.”
Jane lowered her hands. She was trying to keep a straight face, but instead she was laughing so hard it was making her cry. She hid her face in her arms on the tabletop, her shoulders quaking. Rubbing her back, Darius sighed and pretended to be interested in the scenery through the sliding doors.
Her shock past, Quinn shook her head and again began digging into the ice cream. “Gazebo,” she grumbled. “And after I talked to you about that, too. Is that true, you really knocked it down?”
“I’m afraid so,” said Amy, wiping her eyes. “All those hormones turned it into kindling.” She scooted closer and got a spoonful of chocolate-chip cookie dough. “I’ll drive you by the ruins this evening and let you see.”
“You should charge admission,” said Darius in a deadpan voice. “It’d pay for Quinn’s college in a few weeks.”
“Jane should charge,” said Quinn, licking her spoon. “It’ll pay for diapers.”
“Oh, no,” said Jane, raising her head and sniffing. “We—” She started to laugh again but managed to stop. “We were going to be careful. Prepared, I mean, we were prepared.”
“Jane,” said Darius. “please don’t—”
“Oh, c’mon, Quinn knows what a condom is.”
“I know what they are, but I haven’t seen one,” said Quinn, trying to get another spoonful of ice cream at the same time her aunt did. They clacked spoons together like swords for a few seconds, then dug into opposite ends of the ice-cream carton.
“Seriously,” said Jane. “Never?”
“I had couple in my purse I’d show you, but I threw them out,” said Amy after she took the spoon out of her mouth. “They went past their expiration dates.”
“So, you don’t meet guys that often?” said Quinn.
“No,” said Amy, smirking. “I started out with two dozen.”
Darius shut his eyes and looked pained. “I did not need to know—”
“Why did you put them in your purse?” Quinn asked.
“She wants to be prepared,” said Jane, getting a spoonful of ice cream. “Like the Girl Scouts teach you.”
“But—” said Quinn.
“I’m going to get the cards,” said Darius, getting up from the table with a red face. “I left them in the living room.”
“He’s such a prude,” he heard Jane say as he walked out.
“Could have fooled me with the gazebo thing,” said Amy. “Outdoors in front of everybody. Kids these days. When I was a teen, we did things differently.”
“Hmm,” said Jane. “That’s not what I
saw in that
“So what do they look like?” Quinn asked. “Condoms, I mean.”
Darius had the playing cards by this time and was about to walk back into the kitchen when he heard the crinkle of plastic. Oh, shit, he thought.
Sure enough, Jane’s voice was next. “They look like these,” she said.
Quinn gasped aloud. “Oh, you’re kidding!” she said. “You just carry them around in your pocket?”
“Neon?” said Amy. “And what are these for, the Fourth of July? Did you buy these, or did he?”
Darius turned around without entering the kitchen and went back into the living room to the sofa. He tossed the cards aside and picked up the newspaper, then sat down.
“He bought these,” said Jane. “These were mine. I thought he was the patriotic one, but noooo.”
“Sick and twisted,” said Amy. “My kind of people. I thought you said he was a prude.”
“He is, but he’s a guy,” said Jane. “We decided to wait anyway after the gazebo disaster, so we don’t need these anymore.”
“That’s what you think now,” said Amy.
“Let me see one,” said Quinn. The sound of tearing plastic made its way into the living room. Darius blushed furiously as he tried to read the newspaper. A headline at the bottom of the front page caught his gaze: ARSONIST STRIKES NEAR HALCYON HILLS EXECUTIVE PARK.
“Eww!” Quinn said. “What’s on this?”
“Lubricant,” said Amy.
“But why do they need—oh, eww!”
Desperately trying to shut out the
conversation without going upstairs and locking himself in his room, Darius
made himself focus on the arsonist article. He glanced at the accompanying map
of the corporate park on the north side of
“See,” said Jane, “it goes on like this. See my two fingers? You put it on top and do this.”
“Oh, I couldn’t!”
“May as well get used to it, even if you don’t use one for a few years more,” said Amy. “Here. Take that one. Let’s see you use it.”
Darius gave up. He got up and walked
out of the living room, and he was on his way to the stairs when he took a
second look at the map of the corporate park and nearby woods. Something looked
odd about one of the structures, the
“My hands are shaking!”
“It won’t bite you,” said Amy. “Jane, help the newbie.”
“Oh, gross! I can’t do this!”
“Roll it down,” said Jane.
“There you go,” said Jane. “You did it. Just like a professional.”
“Oh, that icky stuff is getting all over everything!”
“Boy, that takes me back,” said Amy with a sigh. “Those wild, wacky days of high-school romance. Do they still separate the girls and boys when they teach sex ed, or whatever they call it now?”
“Yup,” said Jane. “At
“Nocturnal emissions!” said Amy and Jane at the same time.
“Oh, I am like so not hearing this!” shrieked Quinn.
Darius, at the foot of the stairs
with the newspaper held up to his face, missed it all. Hurrying upstairs, he
went into his room, booted up his computer, and logged into his Internet
account, the newspaper on his desk by his keyboard. He couldn’t hear the women
in the kitchen now, but even if he could, it wouldn’t matter. Once online, he
clicked down his list of favorite websites until he found the folder labeled
ARCHIMEDES. He clicked the folder open, went down the sublist, and clicked on
the third hyperlink. A few moments later, a webpage appeared and he studied it
closely, scrolling down. He looked at the map in the newspaper at the curiously
And he knew who the arsonist was. No question about it.
He flipped open the newspaper and checked the weather at the bottom of the front page. Cloudy tonight, possible rain Sunday afternoon continuing through Tuesday night. The arsonist would not likely return until Wednesday at the earliest.
Should I say something? he wondered. Should I call the fire department or the city government about it? People could get killed, for sure. I’d better make some calls.
Well, no, maybe I’d better document it first. No one would believe me otherwise. I should take some time and do it right, research it in depth, visit the site, take pictures, write up a full report. Maybe Barch will give me extra credit for science if I turn it in—and maybe pigs will build rockets and colonize Mars next month, too. The newspaper might use it, though. This will be quite a scoop if I handle it right. I shouldn’t tell anyone just yet. It will be my secret for now. Just mine.
This was not all he was thinking, however. Another thought had come up, a possibility, and he was skating around it without considering it too deeply at first. It was a tiny thought, like a tiny crack in a lake of ice, but it had an unseen influence on him, luring him closer. As he sat before his computer, he found himself circling the thought with a bit of fear, knowing the crack was lethal and could drag him under forever.
Approaching the crack in the ice by degrees, however, accustomed him to its dangers, allowing him to close in a little more, grow used to that, then draw closer yet again, and so on, until—
He stared at his computer screen,
and the webpage it displayed on the
And the byline: FRESHMAN CADET DARIUS MORGENDORFFER.
Was it possible, ran his thoughts, that this phenomenon could serve another purpose?
If so, he would have to keep his discovery a secret for sure.
If he spoke even a word about what he was considering, it would be murder.
Darius Morgendorffer knew a great
deal about the nearly mythical Mirror of Archimedes, which the history books
also called the Burning Mirror or Burning Glass. He’d won the Laurel of
The tale of the Mirror is quickly told, but a quickly told tale is no fun at all. Understanding and a minute of patience are required.
In 215 B.C.,
The one card
Hieron II, the wise old tyrant of
The seafaring forces faced engines
of death just as terrible. Cranes swung out from the walls of
And then there was the Burning Mirror.
Archimedes almost certainly knew of
mirrors, as he studied at the Library of Alexandria in his youth and the famed
lighthouse of that city used mirrors in the daytime to catch the attention of
distant ships and guide them to the harbor. Archimedes wrote a book about
mirrors that has unfortunately been lost, but some of the mathematics behind
the Mirror appeared in other books he did. He figured out that a parabolic
mirror could focus the sun’s rays at a single point, producing enormous amounts
of light and heat there. He could not build a parabolic mirror big enough to
The Mirror of Archimedes consisted of a large number of city soldiers who stood atop the seaward city wall carrying highly polished flat shields. At a command, the soldiers raised their shields and reflected the sun’s rays toward a common target—say, a Roman galley pulled up close to the walls with a siege tower or archers all over its decks. The soldiers on the wall used the same principle that an annoying kid brother uses when he flashes sunlight into the eyes of an older sibling using a pocket mirror—but when done in massive numbers, the energy so concentrated becomes staggering. Temperatures on any ship at the focal point of the Mirror soared into many hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit in seconds. Wood blackened and smoldered, cloth and hay burned, eyes were blinded, flesh was seared, and entire ships burst into flame and burned down to their waterlines in minutes. With no possible defense against such a superweapon, the Roman navy pulled back and gladly let the land-based soldiers handle things from there on.
Modern scientists refused to credit
the Mirror with such power until a reenactment performed by the Greek navy in
1973 proved it not only possible but likely. Sailors using 70 highly polished
bronze mirrors focused them on a tar-covered rowboat at a distance of 165 feet,
and they quickly set it ablaze. The number of soldiers participating in
Archimedes’ decentralized Mirror is unknown, but with the unlimited budget
given him by the old tyrant of
All these wonders came to naught in
The story of the Mirror, however,
survived. Rumors have it that certain papers about the device surfaced in
Darius understood from his
examination of the map of the
The icing on the cake was Darius’s discovery that the nearest structure to the hill, the Halcyon Hills Executive Building, had a titanic, ten-story-high, slightly concave disk of gold color as its corporate symbol, behind which were more offices and satellite communications equipment. The disk had recently been given a chemical treatment to remove dirt, bird droppings, and weathering that had dulled its reflective surface from the day of its construction, and the treatment had been completed the day before the fires in the woods began. Thursday evening had been cloudy, so the full force of this modern Mirror of Archimedes was reserved for Friday night. Darius could only pity the wildlife that found itself at the focal point of such a huge amount of solar energy pouring in at once from the afternoon sun. It was a wonder that the entire hill hadn’t been scorched bare. Very likely, it soon would be.
And when that happened, Darius
planned for someone he knew to be at the focal point. Whereas the army of
In a short time, he was able to
locate public-domain aerial photos of
You ever hurt Quinn, I swear to God, you’d better run and never stop, he had told his father.
It was too late for running now. It was far too late. An eleven-year-old girl with a battered face looked up at Darius from three old photos, and the pitiless urge to repay blood with blood caught him by the heart and dragged him under. It did not matter that he was planning to murder his father. Nothing mattered now but vengeance for a lifetime of abuse that he now knew had touched someone other than himself. He would see to it that it would never happen again.
And Darius knew he could do it. It would not even be that difficult to arrange.
Jake Morgendorffer was a creature of stupid rage, a half-blind bull easily led by the flapping of a red cape. Darius merely had to offer himself up, saying he had discovered that his mother was planning a special legal offensive and he wanted to sell the news to dear old Dad for a significant amount of hard cash. His father would dive at the chance to hurt his soon-to-be ex, and if the means of her destruction came through Darius, all the better, as the news could later be thrown in Helen Morgendorffer’s face. The old man would show up, no question about it—and contacting him would be simple, as Darius was certain his father was hiding at or somewhere near his mother’s house. Grandma Ruth had backed up her son through thick and thin, trying to relieve her guilt over her husband’s abuse of Jake as a child. Darius had only to call Grandma Ruth with a message for his father to contact him by Internet, and the deed would be done.
In his mind’s eye, Darius could
already see the parked Lexus on the hill above the
Aunt Rita had wanted to see Jake burn. Darius alone would have that honor.
I warned you, he thought as
he checked a list of sunrise and sunset times for
Footsteps thumping softly up the stairs interrupted Darius in the midst of his reverie. Startled, he turned off his monitor and quickly gathered the scattered printouts on his desk into a small stack. When someone knocked on the door to his bedroom, he shoved all the papers under a large book and got up from his desk.
When he opened the door, he found Jane on the other side.
“Yo,” she said. She looked past him into his room. “So, this is your secret lair.”
“Yeah. Come on in.” He pushed the door fully open and stood aside. His heart raced. He realized he was sweating heavily.
“Were you exercising?” Jane asked, looking at him. “You’re breathing hard.”
“Uh, no. Just . . . sitting around. Thinking. I guess it’s all sort of getting to me, you know, everything, and I just wanted to be alone for a while.”
“Am I interrupting?”
“Um, no. It’s okay. Uh . . . this is my room.”
“So I guessed. Hey, cool. What’s with the bars on the windows? Do you turn into a werewolf every full moon?”
Darius laughed nervously and told Jane about the previous owner’s schizophrenic mother, who had lived in the room. “The lady who sold us the house was supposed to have had the bars cut off the windows, but Mom was in such a hurry to get moved in, we sort of skipped that part. I think it adds a nice, homey touch now that I’m away from the detention center.”
“The new Martha Stewart,” said Jane with a smile. “Actually, I was kind of hoping you did turn into a werewolf, but I can’t have everything. Does the TV work?”
“Yeah, but only with that remote. I got our old VCR hooked up to it, too.”
“Do you think I can visit you here now that—” Jane stopped and waited, looking uncomfortable.
“You know, you probably can,” said Darius quickly. “I didn’t want you to come over when we got here, with Dad being the way he was, so . . . yeah, if Mom doesn’t mind, sure. We can watch the tube, do homework.”
“If you do it in the home, then it must be homework.” Jane had that trademark smirk again. “Hey, the reason I came up, we sort of dropped the card game idea when you didn’t come back, and now Amy wants to take us over to my place in her car, look at the gazebo, and look at some of my stuff. Then we’ll head out for dinner. Her treat.”
“Um . . .” Darius looked around, gazing briefly at his still-active computer. “You know, I was thinking I might just crash for a while or something. Maybe you and Amy and Quinn should go have a night out, as long as you don’t have me arrested again or anything. You haven’t really gotten out with her, and I know she wanted to talk with you about your stuff. Your art stuff, I mean. I’ll stay here and check in with Mom and Rita.”
Jane looked him over. “Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked with concern. “You don’t look right.”
“Just tired,” he said. “Not very sociable. It’s nothing about Amy or anything like that. I’m just burnt out after—everything. I could use a rest.”
Jane nodded, and her expression softened. “Amy said that you forgave her. She got a little emotional about it when she told me. It meant a lot to her. Quinn was happy about it, too.” She looked at him with shining eyes. “That was a great thing you did.”
Darius shrugged and stared at the floor, unable to look Jane in the eyes. What I am about to do will more than make up for that. “It was nothing,” he said. “She’s okay.”
Jane came closer. She reached up and pulled his face down to hers. Her mouth was warm and her lips soft. “I won the lottery when I met you,” she whispered when the kiss ended.
I’m going to kill my father. I’ll going to murder him for what he did to Quinn, even if I burn in Hell for it to eternity. I would give myself over to Satan to do this. You did not win any lottery at all when you met me.
“You’ll be okay while we’re gone?” she asked.
He nodded, fearful she would see through him. “I was the one who got lucky,” he whispered.
“Hardly,” murmured Jane. “The gazebo fell apart before you could get lucky. Amy agreed that it was a sign from the gods and we should wait, though.”
“That wasn’t what I meant.”
She smiled. He smelled crocus in the air around her. “Amy, Quinn, and I are going to call ourselves the Bad Aunts,” she said. “We’re going to devote ourselves to corrupting other people’s kids. Quinn wants to fill them with obnoxious school spirit while Amy and I make them sarcastic and cynical.”
Darius frowned. “Quinn’s not an aunt.”
Jane tried unsuccessfully to hide a smirk. “Not yet,” she said. “She’s in training.”
He raised an eyebrow at her—and realized he’d been tricked into having a good mood. A small good mood, but a good one nevertheless. It wasn’t at all what he’d wanted, but she did it.
“Hey, you two!” came Amy’s voice from downstairs. “Get off the bed and let’s go for a drive! I’ll leave Helen and Rita a note with my cell phone number.”
Darius forced a smile. “Just a moment!” he called, then he looked into Jane’s infinite blue eyes. He reached up and touched her face and her fire-engine red lips.
Can I hurt her? Can I hurt Quinn? Would doing such evil to someone who deserves it destroy their faith in me? Would it hurt them more completely than if I had slapped them in the face? Can I destroy a miracle like this?
“You changed me,” he said. He had not wanted to say this at all—he hadn’t really meant to say anything. “I’m not who I used to be. Knowing you makes me want to be a better man.” Liar! LIAR! You’re as evil as your father always said you were! LIAR!
Jane smiled in a way she had not before, as if her smile went all the way through her. “No one ever said that to me,” she whispered. She stared at him and he knew at that moment that if he asked her, she would do anything for him.
He swallowed with a dry mouth. “Go have fun,” he said, and he took his hand from her face. “I’ll be okay. I just need to rest.”
After a moment, she whispered, “Okay.” She left the room, looking back once before she went downstairs. He walked over and shut the door to his room without a sound, then realized he had not said “I love you,” as he always did. Should he have said it? Or was it his way of saying goodbye?
Or had he said it after all, without saying it?
He stood for a long time by the door
until he heard the front door shut and the house fall silent. A minute later,
the Triumph’s sporty little engine roared, and the Bad Aunts were loose on
Empty inside, he walked to his bed and sat down on it.
He had failed. He knew he wasn’t going to tempt his father to that hillside. He would instead call the police about the problem in the next few days, turning over diagrams and paperwork, and be proven right by mid-week. Another feather in his cap.
And his father would go free to do more evil. Quinn would not be avenged. Nothing more would happen.
“I’m worthless,” he whispered to the rug that didn’t fit anywhere else in the house. Even as he said it, however, he did not know if it was true. He knew only that he was lost and had no idea what path to take, where he would be when he was no longer lost, or even if he would know the difference. Everything hinged on it.
It was time to consult with the only person who had ever understood him. It did not matter that she had been dead for almost a hundred and fifty years.
The little paperback was worn and dog-eared, the pages coming loose and many falling out. He found it in a used bookstore ages ago and bought it on the spot. He hadn’t liked it when he first read it. Only after the third time he read it through did he realize that parts of it spoke to him as nothing else could.
You can blast my other possessions; but revenge remains—revenge, henceforth dearer than light or food! I may die; but first you, my tyrant and tormentor, shall curse the sun that gazes on your misery.
So close, he thought, looking down at the page. So close I came to seeing him burn, and so ironic. He riffled the pages and scanned down until he found another spot he’d long ago marked with a blue ballpoint pen.
I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death. . . .
Jane—this is Jane if I ever give in to the darkest side of me. I have no bright side, only different shades of darkness like the painting she once joked she’d do. If my darkest side should touch her, this would be her.
The book was not his favorite; it was merely the one to which he turned most often when troubled. To say that gave the book no honor. It simply called out what was inside him, the rage he carried, the awful things he had wished to say but never had. It was the only book that ever reached into the places Darius hid from everyone else. It was as if the author had known him intimately and then written about his entire life.
“Devil,” I exclaimed, “do you dare approach me? and do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! or rather, stay that I may trample you to dust!”
“All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spur me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissolute by the annihilation of one of us.”
“Abhorred monster! fiend that thou art! the tortures of hell are too mild a vengeance for thy crimes.”
Creator and monster, father and son. It was his life, indeed. What disturbed Darius of late, however, was that it was difficult to say which role in the book spoke the most directly to him. Was he the monster, as he had always felt, or the monster’s creator? He had always believed his father was the creator, but now—now it was impossible to say.
Anguish and despair had penetrated into the core of my heart; I bore a hell within me, which nothing could extinguish.
That was the creator, not the monster speaking. Why did the words mean so much to him, then? If he was the creator, what exactly had he created?
I had been the author of unalterable evils; and I lived in daily fear, lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness.
Again, the creator—but why did the words make him nervous for the future? Was it speaking of him, or of the darkness inside him that might one day break out and destroy all, as his father had destroyed? Or did it speak of the far future, if one day he had a child of his own to torture and torment? Jane’s comment about Quinn as an aunt-in-training was not forgotten, nor were its implications.
How could Jane dare think of such a thing? he marveled. How could she? Can’t she see what I really am? Doesn’t she know the danger of what she’s hinting at? Did I even know? I am a monster with a plain human face. I plan the murder of my own father, and I fail to stop the suicide of my only friend at the academy—my roommate, whom I could have saved in some way, there must have been some way, I know it. The beast inside me is chained, but for how long? What other evil will I do? Who else will I hurt? Who else will slip through my hands and be destroyed?
Or am I really the destroyer? What am I? Who am I?
I had resolved in my own mind, that to create another like the fiend I had first made would be an act of the basest and most atrocious selfishness; and I banished from my mind every thought that could lead to a different conclusion.
Another thought of the creator, pointed at days to come. Darius cursed himself for a fool. I want to have sex with Jane so badly, I would risk getting her pregnant and create a new me. How stupid am I? How could I not have seen this? Will I ever hurt her—or hurt Quinn, as Dad did? Do I really know better, even with all my insight?
How much more a murderer, that could destroy such radiant innocence?
My father made me a monster, and now I find that I can repeat the mistake and create yet another me if I am not careful. When will the chain break? Will it stop with me, or go on forever? When will it end?
I shall collect my funeral pile and consume to ashes this miserable frame, that its remains may afford no light to any curious and unhallowed wretch who would create another such as I have been. I shall die. . . . I shall no longer see the sun or stars, or feel the winds play on my cheeks. Light, feeling, and sense will pass away; and in this condition must I find my happiness.
Darius lingered a long while over this part, the monster’s farewell, which had held his attention since the day he bought the book. He was not blind to its possibilities.
Did Michael Ellenbogen actually know what was the right thing to do? I thought no, that he did wrong to take his life, but perhaps that is the way I should have gone—not he, even as sad and miserable as he was. I remember how heavy he was when I cut him down, how I almost fell as I held him up, how I laid him on the bed and looked for life in his blackened, hideous face—but he was dead. I could see it. I stayed with him, thinking he might still be in the room with me as a spirit, and I asked that he come back to his body and live—but he left, he left his body cold, and I sat with it and cried, and nothing I said or did brought him back. I said goodbye, and then called for help on the phone, but I did not leave him alone in the room until the teachers and medics and police arrived. I stayed with him, because he was my friend.
And now I wonder if he knew the right path after all. If I live, will I make the same mistakes my father did? Will I do more evil, or at least a little good? Every day I force down my evil, lock it in the deepest prison and hide the key. Jane and Quinn need all the good I can give them, what little is left in me. They depend on me and look to me. What am I to do? How can I go on with my life?
When I found so astonishing a power place within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it.
Oh, the Mirror, and the hillside that will burn come Wednesday night. Should I be there waiting instead of my father, then? Would that be my funeral pyre, as the monster set his on the ice at the North Pole? Should I be there to greet the setting sun, and be done with my life?
I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. . . .
It seems right, in a way. No one knows of the Mirror yet but me. Should I finish my life there, and set Jane and Quinn free to find better lives? Would it hurt them so much for me to be gone?
Something whispers to me not to depend too much on the prospect that is opened before us; but I will not listen to such a sinister voice.
So speaks Elizabeth, the creator’s bride to be. How wrong she was, but how strongly she wanted the triumph of goodness and mercy. Will Jane and Quinn learn the awful lesson that she did—but learn it from me, the monster? Can I prevent that, ever?
Darius sighed. The book’s pages riffled through his fingers.
Is there anything in here about any small chance for good to come of this? I have the miracle of two people in my life who count on me and say they love me, even if their love and trust are misplaced. Is there any chance that we will all be happy?
He shut the book, the opened it at random and read what met his eyes.
It was a strong effort of the spirit of good; but it was ineffectual. Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.
He smiled without humor, and the book closed in his hands: Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
“It figures,” he said aloud, “that even a woman who never knew me would know me better than I do. It figures.”
What am I to do?
He held the book for a minute longer, then stood up. For some reason, he felt that he had held on to this book for too long. It was a ruin, and he was sick of it, and if it meant so much to him, he should get a new copy.
And he did something he had never done before in his life. Frankenstein went into the trashcan under his computer desk. He walked downstairs and into the kitchen, aware that he had never before thrown out a book. He found a box of frosted cherry Pop-Tarts in the cabinet, got a glass of milk, and sat down at the table.
I can’t kill myself, he thought as he ate. Maybe I’m a coward, like Dad said I was, or maybe I’m being smart. I don’t know, but I will go on living, even suffering like this. I don’t deserve what death would give me—an end to my pain, the freedom and release from a rotten life. Jane and Quinn don’t deserve to suffer over my death, but they also don’t deserve whatever evil I might do them in life, so I will do them none. The evil in me will stay chained and hidden. No one will know. I will do Good, all the rest of my life, because there is nothing left for me to do.
He left the last two Pop-Tarts, threw the trash away, put his glass in the sink, and was heading back upstairs when he heard the garage door rumble open. He lingered in the living room, pretending to look for a book on a shelf.
The laundry room door between the garage and kitchen opened.
“Rita,” came his mother’s exasperated voice as she stamped inside, “don’t you have the slightest idea of what racketeering is?”
“Um,” said Rita, coming in next. “No, not—”
“It means your boyfriend is being charged with running an illegal operation, like drugs or prostitution or illegal gambling! For God’s sake, didn’t you even look it up when they arrested him?”
“You know, Helen, you’re so judgmental! I get a great boyfriend, and all you can do is say, ‘Oh, he’s not perfect, you know!’ At least he’s not Jake!”
“Bruno is up for ten to fifteen years, Rita! He could be in a federal correctional facility until you turn fifty!”
“He’s a nice guy!” Rita shouted. “He’s nice to me, he’s funny, he takes me places, and he’s a great dancer! What about that?”
“Christ on a goddamn Christmas tree!” Darius heard his mother open a cabinet. A bottle thumped onto the island, and glasses clinked.
“Could you pour me one, too?” Rita asked.
“You can have the damn bottle,” said Helen. The refrigerator door opened and shut. “I don’t know how the hell you meet such trash.”
“Bruno’s good to me, okay? Look, I told him I was thinking about getting breast enhancement surgery, and you know—”
“What? You what?”
“Don’t yell at me!”
“You’re getting your boobs fixed for this creep? Augh! Rita!”
“No! He said I was perfect the way I was! Ha!” Rita settled down, looking smug. “Even if he’s going to prison, Bruno’s better than a man who’d beat his own daughter.”
The sound of liquid pouring into a glass came from the kitchen. A soda can popped and fizzed, then it poured, too. “I can’t argue with that,” said his mother in a dark tone. “I wish I’d . . . screw it.”
“I don’t hear anyone around.” High heels clicked through the kitchen. Darius turned and saw his Aunt Rita walk into the living room—and stop dead when she saw Darius across the room at the bookshelves. “Oh!” she gasped, stepping back. “Um—is everyone else upstairs?”
“No,” he said. “They went out with Amy. She took them on a drive. I think they’re going to dinner somewhere.”
“Just like her not to think of the rest of us,” said his mother, still in the kitchen. “Here’s your drink.”
Rita looked at Darius a moment longer, then shrugged and looked back in the kitchen. “Darius is here,” she said. “You want to talk with him?”
“Later,” said his mother, pouring again.
“Are you going home tomorrow?” Darius asked his aunt.
Rita crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t know. It depends. We had a long meeting with your mom’s new attorney, and he wanted us to look over some papers this weekend before she went back to see him Tuesday.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked.
Rita snorted and looked back into the kitchen with a weary, unfelt grin. “Tell us where Jake is. That would help a lot.”
“He’s probably at his mother’s house.”
“Yeah, we figured he might be. Ruth would do that, hide him in her basement or something. You haven’t heard from him?”
He shook his head. “I’d tell you if I did. Is there anything you can tell me about what’s going on?”
Rita shook her head, still with that tired grin. “No, we’re just moving ahead with everything.” She looked back into the kitchen. “Helen, you shouldn’t have too many of those if you’re going out again tonight.”
“I’m not,” his mother said. Another set of heels clicked over the floor, and his mother appeared in the doorway. Her face was lined and lifeless. She held a glass of amber liquor in her hand and looked Darius over with dull eyes. It seemed for a moment she was going to say something, but she turned away and looked aimlessly around the living room instead.
“What are you planning to do with Dad’s things?” Darius asked. “The stuff he left here?”
“Keep it,” said his mother. “Burn it, throw it out, sell it, whatever. It’s mine, now. He wants it, he can come get whatever’s left if he’s got the balls.”
“Are the police going to prosecute him?”
Darius thought his mother might explode over that, but she didn’t. She stood there in the doorway, looking at the big-screen color TV, and swished the drink in her hand. “Yes.” She took a small drink from her glass and swallowed, making a bitter face. “The statute of limitations for child abuse won’t expire for a long time. They’ll find him. Or I will, one or the other.”
“Good,” he said.
His mother looked back at him a moment, then gazed at the TV again.
Rita looked from her sister to her nephew, then sighed. “I need to visit the girls’ room before I get my drink,” she said, walking for the stairway up. “Be right back.”
Once her feet stopped bumping up the stairs, Darius put his hands in his back pants pockets and faced his mother. “Is there anything I can do?” he asked.
She looked at him and shook her head, then looked at the floor by his feet. “It’s all done,” she said. “Everything but finding Jake.”
Silence fell and drew out. Darius expected his mother would walk back into the kitchen or even go upstairs, but she didn’t. She remained there across the room from him, holding her glass, looking at his feet. Her face changed at times, as if she meant to say or do something, but nothing happened.
“How long will Amy be out?” his mother finally asked. “Did she say?”
“No. They were going over to Jane’s, then to dinner. You can call her on her cell phone.”
“Why didn’t you go?”
“I didn’t . . . I was just tired.”
She looked him over, then leaned back against the wall behind her and looked into her glass.
“He screwed us,” she said. “Your father screwed us.” She took a drink and glanced up at Darius. “I thought it was you. All this time, I thought it was you that—” She waved a hand “—did that to your sister. I thought it was you.” She raised her glass and gulped down her drink, then turned and walked back into the kitchen. He heard her kick off her shoes and pad softly to the island again. Pouring sounds drifted out.
After a moment, he walked into the kitchen behind her and leaned against the doorway, watching her fix another bourbon and Coke. She noticed him after a moment, then shrugged again and took a drink from her refreshed glass. When she put it down, she stared out the window at the overcast scene outside.
“It’s going to rain,” he said. “Might last for a few days.”
His mother sniffed and looked down at her glass. Another long silence drew out.
“He’s probably at Ruth’s now,” she said, running her thumb through a puddle of alcohol on the countertop. “He’s probably there eating chili and tacos and God knows what else she makes for him, all that fatty food she makes for him. He’ll probably have a heart attack and die there one day. That’s probably what’ll happen. We’ll never find him.” She sniffed and looked outside, then back at him. “So, are you going to that party tonight, or not?”
“Not,” he said. “I’m staying home.”
She exhaled. “So, what do you want me to do?” she said. “You want me to apologize? You want money to make it all up to you?”
He thought about it. “An apology wouldn’t do me any good. Doesn’t matter.”
“So, you want money, or what?”
“I’m going to look for a job,” he said. “I figured with just one income, money would be tight for a while. I’ll find something after school or on weekends. Don’t know where yet. It’d give me some spending cash, if nothing else.”
She looked at him with suspicious surprise. “I thought you’d want to stick it to me,” she said. “You’ve got the abuse thing hanging over my head, and the deposition, too, which we’ve had to put off, by the way, until the new attorney looks the case over. He thinks we’ll get through. I don’t know how, but he said we might. You’ll have to see him.” She coughed, looking at her drink again. “So, you’re not going to ask me for a few thousand bucks because I thought you beat up—”
“Drop it,” he said, his voice growing tight. “This is pissing me off.”
She stopped, glancing up at him before looking back at her drink.
“So, am I like Dad?” he asked.
Her hazel eyes came up and took him in. “Like your father?” she said. “Are you like your father?” She looked down and shook her head no. She picked up her drink. “So, am I a good mother?”
He didn’t answer right away.
She took a long swallow from the glass and turned away.
“You’re here,” he said at last. “You care.”
The words stopped her. “You can’t mean that,” she said.
“I do.” He took a deep breath. “You want to find Dad?”
She turned and eyed him. “That was a stupid question. You know where he is?”
“No, but I know how to get him.” He remembered the first part of his plan to kill his father—how he would entice the old man into meeting him at a given location to sell information on his mother’s alleged legal plans. He described the plot in detail to his mother, omitting any mention of the Mirror. She listened without moving, except to set her glass on the countertop again. “You think it might work?” he said.
She nodded. “It could. He’d go for it. Were you thinking about this a lot?”
“Yeah. In my room.”
She licked her lips, looking across the kitchen. “It couldn’t hurt. He has to come back for a court date next week because he assaulted that officer. If he skips, we can try it. What kind of things were you going to tell him about me?”
“Any kind of bullshit he might believe. Nothing that he could use later. Does it matter?”
“No, I guess not.” She sighed. “We’ll work it out tomorrow. I’m off for the rest of the night. Too much.”
She picked up her drink and walked for the doorway, brushing past him as she headed into the living room and around to the stairway.
She turned around, glass in hand.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “We’re still a family.” It was impossible for him to say he loved her. This was the best he could do.
“Right,” she said, her face cold. “You’re keeping me around for my paycheck, like you told me. We’re three people living in a house, Darius. We’re not a family.”
“I want us to start over.” Darius took a step toward her. “I’m not messing with you. You and me and Quinn, I want us to make it through this.”
His mother swallowed, swishing around the contents of her glass. After a moment, she turned without a word and walked through the family room to the stairs. As she went up, footsteps met hers coming down.
Moments later, Rita appeared. She glanced at Darius and went into the kitchen to pick up her bourbon and Coke. “You’re alive,” she said, sipping her drink. “I thought you and your mom . . . never mind.”
“We’re a family,” he said.
Rita put down her drink and looked speculatively at Darius, her hands on the countertop. “I suppose we are,” she said. “I always knew you didn’t hit Quinn. She told me who did. I knew it wasn’t you.”
“Thank you. It’s over with, anyway. Doesn’t matter now.”
“You know,” said Rita, “I kind of expected you to be different. Don’t get mad at me, but I thought maybe you’d be more like Jake. You’re not, though. I don’t know what you’re like, but you’re not a bad person, far as I can tell. Mind if I say that?”
He shrugged. “No. Say what you want.”
She nodded, eyes narrowing. “I wish
Darius smiled. “I don’t think I should marry my first cousin. I’m underage, too.”
Rita laughed. “I didn’t mean you, just someone like you. Someone reliable. I think you’ll be okay. I like your girlfriend. She’s your girlfriend, right? Jane?”
“She’s different, but I see the chemistry. You’ve got it. Take good care of her.”
“I think you will, too. By the way, there was a weird call on the answering machine at Helen’s office. A Mrs. Griffin or Griffith called, something about her daughter’s club at school getting its charter suspended come Monday because of you. She was really mad about it and was yelling like mad. You know anything about this?”
Darius shook his head, then froze. He suddenly realized what Jane’s little mission had been on Friday—a visit to the office with a copy of the flyers that Stacy Rowe was putting up in the halls. Principal Li was probably a ferocious fan of Quinn Morgendorffer after the support Quinn had given the football team in its lopsided victory over Oakwood. The Fashion Club and Sandi Griffin were toast.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Rita. “She sounded like a big asshole anyway. God, I can’t believe—”
The phone rang. Rita turned and picked up the cordless phone behind her. “Morgendorffers,” she said. “Hi, Amy. Oh, okay, I guess. I’ll tell you about it later. Are you coming back? No, he’s here. Not me, thanks. I’ll stay with Helen. She’s crashing. Wait.” She put the receiver to her chest and looked at Darius. “Amy wants to know if you want to go out to dinner, pizza or something. They’re done at Jane’s place.”
He hadn’t expected they would call, but he was glad now they had. “Sure,” he said. “That’s great.”
“He said come on by,” said Rita to the phone. “No, he looks fine to me. Tired, maybe, like the rest of us. You did? Well, that was nice. Good to hear it. See you in five, then.” She clicked off and hung up. “They’ll be by in five minutes. Amy said she bought something from Jane, a sculpture I think.”
“Great.” It surprised him a little. He wondered if it was the sculpture of the leaping figure he’d seen in her room when he’d visited there the first time. He looked down, checked his clothes, and decided he was presentable. “I’ll wait for them outside.”
“Have fun,” said Rita, picking up her drink and waving.
He walked outside and shut the door behind him. It was cloudy and cool, promising rain. At the end of the sidewalk, he stopped and waited for the little red sports car and the Bad Aunts. His thoughts rambled, and he remembered Mike and wondered where he was now, if his spirit was still around or free to pass on, or if it existed at all. He hoped his friend was at peace. He hoped that one day he would be at peace, too. There was promise in the air, and the battered copy of Frankenstein was in the garbage can where it belonged.
I have a chance, he thought. I have a chance to be someone new. We all have a chance, now.
Will Quinn be an aunt one day? Will she and Jane call each other sister?
It would be nice if it happened. A throaty engine roared in the distance. The wind blew the dead leaves past, and he waited for the scent of the bright flowers that would end the winter.
The best part of the mid-October open-air ceremony in front of the Lawndale city hall building, Darius had to admit, was the part right after. The weather had held up, though rain was coming, and the leaf-filled wind was merely cool.
“That was magnificent,” said Colonel Armstrong. His handshake was the kind that men who admire each other will give, restrained but powerful. “I knew a day like this would come. I’m glad I was able to get away to see this. You’ve made everyone at Buxton Ridge very proud.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Darius with an embarrassed grin. He held the award to his chest with his left hand. Flash cameras went off around them. Lawndale’s mayor and several of his teachers from the high school hovered in the background. It pleased Darius that Mr. DeMartino was there, one of the few teachers whom he respected. It also pleased him that Ms. Barch was there to eat her share of crow with the school principal, Ms. Li. Giving him low grades in science on a whim, just because he was a he, would be nearly impossible for Barch after this.
“Are your parents here?” the colonel asked, looking around. “I’d like to meet them.”
“My mother, sir,” said Darius, spying her close by. “Mom? Mom, this is Colonel Armstrong. He’s the commandant at Buxton Ridge.”
“Helen Barksdale,” said his mother, shaking the colonel’s hand. “My son has told me good things about you. I, uh, hope he wasn’t a problem at school.”
Darius shifted, uncomfortable. He didn’t think he would ever get used to hearing his mother use her maiden name. The divorce wouldn’t be final until the following year, but she was getting a head start.
The colonel laughed. “If he had been, we might not have had a school left,” he said. “He was one of the best we’ve ever had. You must be very proud.”
His mother nodded with a vague smile. Darius knew that the family thing was still new to her and hard to deal with. Fighting she knew and was comfortable with, but not fighting was nerve-wracking. Things were improving, if slowly. He didn’t think the family therapy was doing much good. It was better than nothing, though. At least it had been her idea to set it up. That alone was worth something.
“And my sister, Quinn,” said Darius, spotting more figures nearby. “And my aunts, Rita and Amy. Hmmm, looks like they’re going to ignore us. They must be bored with me already.”
“Are any of your teachers from Lawndale High School here? I’d like to meet them, too.”
“Certainly. They’re over there, sir, the group by the mailbox. I’ll introduce you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said the colonel. “You look like you want to move around. I’ll go introduce myself. Can’t wait to hear their stories about you.”
Darius winced, wondering what Ms. Barch would say, but nodded agreement. “Thank you, sir. I hope to see you again before you go.”
“You will, son.” The colonel waved and wandered off toward the cluster of teachers standing by a memorial tree.
“A pleasant man,” said his mother. “Not quite what I had expected.”
“Not like Dad,” said Darius. He wondered where his father was. He’d missed his court date and was a fugitive now. The plan to flush him out through contact with his mother Ruth had not worked, but there were other ways of finding him. Darius was patient. It wasn’t that important anymore. Life was moving on, for better or for worse.
Still, he wondered if he would ever forgive his father. He suspected not. He wondered what he would do about it. One day, he’d know.
“Not like your father, that was what I meant.” His mother checked her watch. “I should get back to the office soon.”
“Thank you for being here for this,” said Darius. “It meant a lot to me that you came.”
His mother looked both pleased and annoyed. “I had to miss a meeting for this,” she said. She exhaled, looking uncomfortable herself. “I guess it was worth it.”
He would have to be content with that. She had few maternal instincts left to her. “What’s on the agenda for your afternoon?” he asked.
She wrinkled her nose. “I have a meeting about the deposition. They’re setting it for next month.” Her dark eyes looked at his. “Feel like you’re up to it?”
He nodded. Michael Ellenbogen’s ghost was at rest. “I’m ready.”
“Okay.” She looked around. “Well, looks like the party’s over. Back to work.”
“Can I walk you to your car?”
She shook her head. “I’d better run.” After saying that, though, she stood by him as if uncertain of what to do. He waited, assuming she would go. Instead, she looked at him again and softly said, “I’m proud of you, Darius.” She swallowed. “My best to Jane.”
Before he could recover sufficiently to respond, she walked away, heading down the street to the law office where she worked. He finally remembered to close his mouth.
“What?” He turned as his sister approached with a group of friends.
“What was Mom saying?” Quinn asked. “Is everything okay?”
“Oh, uh, yeah, everything’s fine. It was nothing. Are you all going back to class?”
Quinn laughed. With her were the three J-guys and, standing well behind the others, a nervous Stacy Rowe.
“That answered my question,” he said.
“Going back to school, as if,” his sister said. “I told Ms. Li I had to have a quick pep club meeting, and she gave us the afternoon off. We’re going out for lunch and talk pep about the homecoming game. Wanna come with?”
“Uh—” He scanned the crowd. “I’m looking for Jane. Have you seen where—”
“Oh, she’s over there with Trent, taking pictures. You have fun. I bet Ms. Li won’t care if you get the afternoon off from classes, either. Bye!”
“I’d better ask,” he said, but Quinn and her group had already left. Stacy Rowe waved at him with a frightened if hopeful smile. He gave her a half-hearted wave in return. She had repented of her misdeeds with the anti-Quinn posters and had become Quinn’s best friend and most vocal supporter. Darius thought Stacy was both shallow and an unvarnished sycophant, but who his sister picked for company was her own business. He forgave Stacy her sins, even if it rankled a bit to see her around.
Darius shook a few more hands of well-wishers and city councilmen, spoke to two more news reporters, then begged off and headed down the street in the direction Quinn had said Jane was taking pictures. He looked down at the plaque that Lawndale’s mayor had given him only twenty minutes earlier. It didn’t seem real.
“Hold that pose!” called a familiar voice. Darius looked up.
“Damn!” he said, trying too late to shield his eyes. “Watch where you’re pointing that thing!”
Jane smirked, lowering her camera. “Hmmm, now that sounds like something I’ve said before. Where was it? The new gazebo? The woods? My room? Your room?”
“Maybe you could say that a little louder so the gods can hear it and send us another e-mail.”
“A little fooling around is good for your health. Even the gods know that. Oh, is that your award? Let me see it.”
He handed the plaque over. “You can tell it’s a quality product,” he said. “They got twelve of the thirteen letters of my last name correct.”
“You didn’t need the extra ‘F’ anyway.” Jane shook her head. “You go and save Lawndale, and they give you a wood-and-brass drink coaster with almost all of your name on it. I would have held out for a T-shirt, myself.”
He snorted, smiling. “I didn’t save Lawndale. It’s beyond saving.”
“Oh, right. All you did was warn them that the bonehead architects who built the Halcyon Hills Corporate Park accidentally built a giant solar barbecue pit to go with it, then you proved it, saved some afternoon backpackers and campers from turning into crispy critters, got interviewed by the local newspapers and TV, and now they’re probably running movie clips of you getting your little wooden coaster on the Headline Channel as I speak. You’re right about Lawndale, though. It’s beyond help. Sort of like Trent, wherever he went.”
“Quinn said he was with you.”
“He and Monique are off making up or fighting or making up songs or fighting about songs.” She handed the plaque back. “Guess what? We have something to celebrate tonight. Other than you getting a drink coaster, I mean.”
“Hmmm. The school’s going to let you paint that scene of lions eating an Oakwood quarterback on the cafeteria wall?”
“The jury’s out on that one, yet.”
“Uh, you sold Aunt Rita another garden gnome statue?”
“She reached her limit with five.”
“You built that flamethrower fountain you’ve always wanted?”
“That’s going to be my senior-year project.”
“I’ll buy pizza tonight if you tell me.”
“I made the track team this morning. Fastest time in school history.”
Darius broke into a grin. They reached for each other.
“Teachers and cameramen are watching,” Jane whispered in his ear, “so let’s make this one good.”
Arms held. Eyes closed. Mouths met.
And the winter that had been on its way was suddenly gone.
Original: 11/18/03 (combined “Darius” and “Darius II: Going Under”), modified 01/05/05