new adult romance Termination Dust

New Adult Romance

A Northern Lights, Northern Hearts Novel

Copyright 2015 Tori Minard

Cover by Tori Minard from photos by © Aleksander Bolbot | Dreamstime.com and © Yuri_arcurs | Dreamstime.com

This story is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents are invented by the author or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental. All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author.

Enchanted Lyre Books

 

 

Chapter 1

Violation

 Anchorage, Alaska. October, 1972

Cass:

I opened the front door of West High and walked into a curtain of snow. Flakes whirled happily out of the sky in a bewildering rush of movement, filling the air with the smell of fresh winter. It was only October, but this was Alaska and snow in October isn’t unusual.

Cold air nipped at my legs beneath my long, plaid skirt, somehow finding its way over the tops of my high winter boots. Thank goodness I’d thought to put on the boots this morning, because I’d had no idea it would snow. I was prepared for the weather in spite of myself.

Hat. I needed my hat. I dug around in my book bag and found it, jamming it on my head over the thin layer of snow that had already accumulated there.

To my right, a girl I didn’t know tipped her dark head back and stuck out her tongue, capturing flakes that melted as soon as they touched her flesh. She glanced at me and grinned in a surprisingly friendly way. I gave her an answering smile.

Most kids who didn’t already know me didn’t smile at me. It was an odd sensation.

School buses hunkered down in the snow, a long double line of giant, bright yellow vehicles made hazy by the falling snow. Mine was right in the front. Easy to find, hard to ignore. I trudged toward it, wishing for the umpteenth time that I’d learned to drive over the summer. Now it was snowing and my overprotective parents would never agree to let me learn when there was ice on the roads. I’d have to wait for May.

The metal walls of the school bus bounced the sound of the student riders’ voices around in a bewildering roar. The sound made my head hurt. I fought down the urge to turn around and walk back down the bus steps. It was snowing too hard to walk home, considering I lived several miles from school.

The interior smelled like diesel fumes and new snow and, as I moved farther inside, the cheap aftershave of some guy who didn’t know when to stop. Apparently, he thought that if a little was good then bathing in it was even better. My nose wanted to wrinkle from the overwhelming stench of it.

It was crowded this afternoon. We must have extra riders, because usually there were more empty seats. Most kids old enough to drive were too cool to ride the bus the way dorky social outcasts like me did.

I hitched my book bag high on my shoulder and made my way carefully down the aisle, avoiding the gazes of the other kids on board. Everyone seemed to be shouting and laughing at the same time, making the vehicle so loud that I couldn’t follow any one conversation.

Not that I wanted to.

Riding the bus was something I had to do, not something I enjoyed. I was here because I lacked a car. Only one of my tiny handful of friends rode my route, and she was home sick, so I had to go it alone today. It was something to endure.

I found an empty seat and slid onto the old, brown, fake leather, tucking my ankle-length skirt around me and settling my book bag at my feet. Outside the windows, kids played tag through the gray and white falling snow and tossed snow balls at each other with wild whoops of laughter. I saw a girl get hit in the face. Snow burst all over her features and she lunged at the boy who’d thrown the ball, shrieking. I couldn’t tell if her anger was real or just a show.

My parents probably could have afforded a car for me, and I was old enough to drive, but I rode the bus every day anyway. The truth was that I didn’t know how to drive and I had no desire to learn. I was content to walk, ride my bike, ride the bus. If I needed to go somewhere far, I hitched a ride with my mom.

That was just one of the oddities that set me apart from all the other kids at school, made me a weirdo and an outcast. I really didn’t even know what all the factors were so I couldn’t have listed them even if I’d wanted to. But I felt them hanging over my head like a lit-up neon sign as I waited for the driver to start the bus.

Leon Schmidt was sitting directly across the aisle from me, his Three Dog Night concert T-shirt peeking out from under his open navy ski jacket. He was staring at me. I fidgeted nervously.

What was his problem? He was looking at me like he wanted to start something, which was bizarre. I didn’t even know the guy. The only reason I was aware of him or knew his name was that my little sister was in his class.

I turned my head to look out the window again. The snowball fights had petered out and most of the kids seemed to either be on buses or in their cars. There wasn’t much to look at except the grayish-brown slush of dirty snow covering the parking lot, a thin white frosting of new snow partially hiding the mess, and the impersonal beige bulk of the school building.

In the failing gray light of an Anchorage afternoon, it was a depressing sight.

“Hey,” Leon said.

I didn’t know who he was talking to and I didn’t care. That creepy stare of his was all I needed to know about him.

“Hey,” he said again. “Hey, you.”

I’d gone to school with this guy for years and never known anything about him except his name. I’d never suspected he was a rude jerk, but he sure was making a bad impression on me today. The person whose attention he was so obnoxiously trying to get clearly didn’t want to talk to him.

“Hey, you,” he said with more belligerence. “Bag girl. What’s your name?”

Oh, God, he was talking to me.

Slowly, reluctantly, I turned my head to look at him. “What?”

He smirked. “You’re not very nice, you know that?”

He didn’t even know me. Maybe he saw me as an easy target for bullying. Well, I wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d hoped.

I just blinked at him, refusing to give him the reaction he wanted. “Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. I’m trying to say hi and all you do is ignore me.”

“I didn’t know you were talking to me,” I said, hoping he’d drop it.

“Well, I was.” His smirk deepened.

He was one of those boy-next-door types, at least in looks, with a roundish face, dark hair, and freckles across his nose. I’d always thought he was kind of cute—not sexy or anything, just nice looking. Until now.

People were starting to notice our conversation, if you could call it that. The girl sitting behind me was listening with eager ears; in my peripheral vision, I could see her intent posture and the way she was staring openly. The guy in front of Leon was listening, too, and that made me want to curl up in a ball and hide.

Dex Morgan, the baddest of the bad boys at West Anchorage High. He had a dark reputation for drug dealing, hard drinking, and God only knew what else. I didn’t follow the details, but I definitely knew his rep. According to rumor, he’d even been held back a year at some point and supposedly there was some kind of terrible violence in his past.

What was he even doing on the school bus? Guys like him didn’t ride the bus. They drove themselves, or maybe hitched a ride with a friend in an emergency, but they certainly didn’t hang out with the lower class-men and the dorks like me who didn’t have enough cool to drive ourselves.

His shaggy, dark-blond hair hung over his eyes, but I could tell he was watching me. I hoped he was enjoying the show. Maybe I should stand up on the bench and do a little dance.

Leon was still staring at me, apparently expecting a response.

“Um, okay,” I said, feeling my skin start to heat in embarrassment.

“Yeah, whatever,” he said. “I heard you were stuck up and it seems like it’s true.”

I rolled my eyes. “Go bother someone else.”

“Your name is Cass, right?” he continued, as if I hadn’t spoken. “Weird name. Did they call you after Mama Cass? Hey, I heard you’re a virgin. Is that true?”

This information brought a rush of burning heat to my face. “That’s none of your business.”

He grinned. “I can tell it is. You’re a virgin.”

At West, it seemed the only virgins were the ones nobody else wanted. At least, the only ones who’d admit to their sexual status. It was the ultimate mark of the outsider, the one no-one desired, the one too weird or ugly to get laid when everyone else seemed to brag about a new sexual conquest or adventure every week.

He was right, of course. I was a virgin. What I couldn’t understand was why he’d care or why he’d choose to use that information against me.

I fought the urge to shrink back into the seat and try to disappear. Was Dex listening to this? Of course he was. I didn’t look at him because I didn’t want him to know how aware I was of his presence, but I could tell he was paying attention.

Unfortunately, I had no witty comeback for Leon. Maybe it was Dex making me so awkward and stupid, or maybe it was just one of those days. Either way, I had nothing. I just stared back at him, my mind blank of everything except the rank embarrassment of being harassed in front of everyone.

“I was told,” Leon said, continuing to stare at me, “that you’re a virgin island.”

Virgin island? Seriously?

“Leave me alone,” I said, using my most bored tone, a voice I’d perfected over the years for defense against bullies just like Leon. Pretend you don’t care at all what they think and maybe they’ll leave you alone. Sometimes it worked well; other times it just seemed to spur them on.

Leon chuckled. “Yeah, you’re a virgin. Aren’t you?”

“Like I said, none of your business.”

Apparently, Leon was the type who couldn’t be discouraged with a chilly look. I was starting to feel a tremble in my hands, something I hoped no-one else could see. How far was Leon going to take this? What could I do to shut him up?

“Must be lonely, being so virginal and all,” he said.

I’d turned my gaze to the front of the bus, avoiding his, but I could hear the grin in his voice. What an asshole.

“A virgin island. No wonder you’re so bitchy. You need to get laid.”

“Leave me alone,” I said.

“You need to do something about that,” he said.

I could feel tears prickling at the backs of my eyelids. Damn it. I wasn’t going to cry. I refused to let him make me cry.

“Come on, Cass,” he crooned in a sing-song. “Come on, virgin island.”

“Leon, back off,” Dex said.

“What?” Leon said. “I’m not hurting anything.”

“She asked you to leave her alone.” Dex’s voice was calm, deep, and absolutely authoritative.

I glanced over at him in amazement that he would stand up for someone like me. Or anyone, really. He gazed back at me out of unusual, emerald-green eyes. Beautiful eyes, large and lined with thick, dark lashes. I’d never really noticed Dex Morgan’s eyes before, or how good looking he was.

Not like some kind of teen idol, like Peter Frampton or something. Not pretty. Just an angular jaw, full lips that made me feel funny and tingly when I looked at them, stark cheekbones, rough dark-blond hair. And those eyes.

Okay, maybe he did bear a slight resemblance to Frampton. Except his face wasn’t as long and it was harsher. Stronger, even though he couldn’t be much older than me.

As we stared at each other, a hot bolt of some kind of energy shot through me and settled low in my body. I suppressed a shiver. I’d never felt anything like that before, no matter how good-looking a guy happened to be.

He gave me no real acknowledgment and no sign of his reason for defending me. No smile, no nod, nothing. Just that flat, green-eyed stare.

I dropped my gaze and looked at my lap. The bus pulled out of its spot in the line-up. Leon was talking to Dex now, in apparent good humor. Neither of them seemed angry with the other.

God, boys were so confusing. I could hardly wait to get off this stupid bus and get away from them. Unfortunately, it was Tuesday, so there was a chance I could run into either or both of them tomorrow at school.

As the bus rumbled its way through the subdivision surrounding West, I dared a peek at Dex. He was looking over the back of his bench at Leon, smiling at something the jerk was saying. There was faint stubble on his jaw and chin, making him look a lot older than the other kids in our grade.

Dex’s gaze slid to me and his smile disappeared.

I flushed. Looked away. Pretended to be fascinated with the zipper of my jacket. Why oh why had I looked at him?

No-one else spoke to me during the ride, and when we reached my friend Jenny’s stop I was happy to get off. I shuffled down the cramped aisle without meeting Dex’s eyes or even acknowledging his presence.

The snow still fell, even harder now. Stomping feet behind me let me know that other kids were getting off at this stop too. I faced forward and headed for Jenny’s house. I wanted to stop by and see if she was okay and drop off the homework I’d collected for her; that’s why I’d gotten off at her stop and not mine.

Then I recognized Leon and Dex’s voices in the cluster of kids behind me. Great. Just great.

I knew both of them lived in the neighborhood. I even knew where Dex’s house was—Jenny had pointed it out to me once—so it wasn’t all that shocking that they’d get off at the same stop. Maybe they were going to Leon’s house to hang out. Not that it mattered to me. I didn’t really care what they were doing as long as they did it without involving me.

I picked up speed, my boots crunching through the fluffy, white snow. Jenny’s house was right down the block, just a few houses away. I could make it in about three minutes, even in the snow, if I hurried. I could even see its low, yellow walls through the snow and trees.

“Hey, Cass!” Leon called out.

I ignored him and kept walking.

“Love you, baby!” He followed this with loud smooching noises. Then “Ow! What the fuck was that for?”

“I told you to back off,” Dex said.

Almost to Jenny’s house. Almost there.

Dex and Leon’s voices grew slightly fainter, making me think they were moving in the opposite direction from me. No way was I turning around to check, though. Nuh uh.

I made it to her steeply sloped driveway before I chanced a peek over my shoulder. The guys had taken the first left turn instead of heading on straight like I had. They were gone now, out of sight.

Chapter 2

 

Cock-block

 Dex:

I settled onto the fake leather of the bus seat and set my back against the window wall. Then I stretched my feet out in front of me along the length of the seat. The metal wall felt icy against my back, even though I had a winter jacket on. A crappy jacket, but still.

The falling snow made the light weak and gray. Everything seemed dimmer than usual and a little chillier, the colors cooler. Even my red jacket looked dull in that light.

About eight million fucking people were on the bus today, and more kept getting on, each one of them reminding me why I never rode the bus. Yelling, pushing, laughing kids everywhere, most of them freshmen and sophomores. Cause juniors and seniors had their own rides, like I normally did. Only the nerdiest of nerds rode the bus after turning old enough for a driver’s license.

Then she got on. She wore a long skirt that brushed against the sides of the aisle as she shuffled along looking for a seat. A blue knit hat with a huge blue and white pompom sat on her head. Lots of people wore hats like that and normally I ignored the effect. It was a hat. So what? But on her it looked cute.

My heart started thumping like an idiot as she got closer. We’d never spoken. She probably had no idea I was alive.

I could have moved my feet. I could have offered to let her sit with me, but she would have said no. Maybe she wouldn’t have even acknowledged my voice, so I left my feet where they were.

She sat down across from me except one row down. Technically she was across from Leon.

The bus reeked of Leon’s aftershave. Damn. I’d told him just the other day to tone it down, but he still kept sloshing the stuff all over himself like he bathed in it. Didn’t he have a sense of smell?

With the doors shut, the odor of that dime store garbage was overwhelming. It reminded me of my dad and not in a good way. I couldn’t understand why Leon doused his entire body in it. The bus driver should have left the doors open so we could get some fresh air. It was cold, but at least it smelled clean, like snow.

We were finally getting a major snowfall. So far this year we’d only had a few little dustings of the stuff. The jocks were probably stoked. Finally, powder! They could run off to Alyeska, the local ski resort, and ski their little hearts out.

I didn’t ski. None of my friends skied.

The gray sky reminded me of the way my parents’ faces looked when they were coming off a bender. Old, tired, and sick, with nothing to give you but cold, blank, couldn’t-give-a-shit. Typical Anchorage winter weather.

It was gonna be colder than shit at my house, too. Mom had forgotten to pay the gas bill again, so no heat unless I could scratch together enough money to get it turned back on. The pipes would freeze unless I did.

The bus lumbered through the falling snow. I stared out the windows at kids walking home, throwing snowballs at each other, laughing. Having fun. They didn’t seem to notice the gray.

Leon started in on the girl in the pompom hat. I might have let it go, but she looked so damn miserable I had to shut him down. Then I turned and stared out the window again, because if I didn’t, I’d stare at her.

An older guy wearing an orange down parka shoveled the snow off his driveway. It fell down faster than he could get rid of it. Why didn’t he wait until it was done snowing before getting out there with the shovel?

Inside the bus, some people talked in hushed voices. Leon, sitting next to me—behind, actually, if we’d been facing forward according to the rules—was quiet. He kept shooting me glares out of the corners of his eyes. If he kept it up, I was gonna have to clobber him.

Nobody would respect me if I let a younger guy like Leon give me shit, even if he was my friend, and I couldn’t afford to lose respect. My business depended on it.

I ignored him. My gaze kept wandering stupidly to the girl across the aisle from me. Okay, across the aisle from Leon. Whatever.

I’d seen her around school plenty of times. In fact, she was in my biology class and we’d had history together freshman year. In biology, she sat near me, but in front with her back to me. I don’t think she’d ever looked my way once. I looked at her, though. Every chance I got. She never seemed to notice.

Her name was Cass Maslanka. She was one of those good girls, the kind who never smoke or drank or stayed out late at night. The kind who never spoke to me or even looked straight at me.

Like right now, for example. Her eyes remained locked on the book bag at her feet, or else they fixed on the back of the girl in front of her. They never strayed across the aisle to me, no matter how much I stared at her.

Stared at her? Fuck. I was staring.

I tore my gaze away and forced it to my shoes, which stuck out in front of me. I was taking up the whole bench seat, so no-one could sit there but me. If I’d known she was going to get on this bus, I’d have put my feet down so she could sit next to me.

Except she wouldn’t have. She would have walked right by me like I was invisible and taken the exact same place she was in now. And wouldn’t that suck the big one? We’d both have to acknowledge she was too good for me.

She had dark hair, like the color of chocolate chips. And light blue eyes. I had a thing for girls with light blue eyes and dark hair, especially when they had thick, dark eyelashes like she did. She was a real fox.

The funny thing was, it seemed like she didn’t know how pretty she was. She never wore make-up—not that she needed it— and she dressed like she didn’t care much how she looked. Maybe her parents wouldn’t let her wear make-up or short skirts. Right now she had on a plaid skirt that came down almost to her ankles. Under her parka, she had a sweater with a prim neckline that showed nothing.

She was pretty much the opposite of all the girls I normally hung out with. But for some reason, I kept stealing glances at her.

Leon liked her. I could tell. He was an idiot with girls. If he liked one, he’d harass her until she cried or kicked him or her big brother intervened.

Normally, I let him carry on. I figured he wasn’t really hurting anyone but himself. This time, though, he’d gone way over the line with that virginity shit. Way over the line.

We were gonna have a talk when we got to his place.

The only reason I was riding the bus today was my ‘65 Plymouth Barracuda broke down—the starter was dead— and I didn’t have the dough to replace the part. If the gas didn’t get turned back on, the pipes would freeze and so would all the people in the house. Maybe I wouldn’t care about my folks, but my little brother, Joe, was another matter. He needed heat to stay safe.

My car versus the gas bill. Guess who won?

Plus, I had some weed to sell and Leon was in the market. We planned to go to his house, smoke a doobie together and then make the exchange. This little deal would give me just enough to cover that bill and get the heat turned back on. So everybody won.

The bus stopped. Some of the kids stood up, including Leon and me. His house was a block away, mine two blocks. We’d go to his place, get something to eat, hang out. After a while, he’d give me the money and I’d give him the weed.

I’ll say one thing for Leon— he was generous. He always fed me when I showed up at his place, which was cool since there wasn’t much food at mine.

I’d known the kid since he was five and I was seven. I was the same age as his big brother, Gary, but it was Leon and me who hit it off.

I watched Cass get off the bus ahead of me. She was right in front of me, the huge blue and white pompom on her hat bobbing gently with her movements. My hand itched with the weird urge to reach out and touch her on her shoulder. But no. Not a good idea—too revealing.

We filed off the bus and into the falling snow. The hems of my wide-leg jeans dragged in the stuff. Pretty soon they were gonna be soaked and flapping icy water around my ankles.

I glanced at her again. My heart raced a little and my stomach did this pathetic little flop when she glanced my way. Jesus, what was wrong with me? Maybe I was coming down with something.

Leon bent and scooped up a handful of snow and lobbed it at me. He laughed when it hit my back.

“Fuck you,” I said.

“Aren’t you gonna fight back?” He bent to get another one.

“Nope.” I just walked on, in the direction of his house. He’d get the hint eventually.

Except he didn’t. Maybe he was trying to get me back for the shit on the bus, I don’t know. He threw one snowball after another at me as I slogged through the white stuff. I just pretended I didn’t see him.

The cold bit right through the crappy old coat I wore. It was a hand-me-down from my dad, and he’d gotten it used, so half the stuffing had fallen out of it. I left it unzipped and made like the cold didn’t bother me, like I didn’t feel it. Like I couldn’t feel the snow drift forming on my bare head.

That’s right, baby. I’m that tough.

Fuck. She probably wasn’t even looking at me.

I was definitely coming down with something. Chicks never affected me this way. Illness was the only reasonable explanation.

With my back turned to him, Leon started hollering at her again. Making kissy noises and telling her he was in love. I rolled my eyes. The second I turned around, he was back at it, making an ass of himself. He never learned.

I swung around and smacked him in the side of the head. “Knock it off.”

“Ow!” He ducked like he thought I was going to whale on him a second time. “What the fuck was that for?”

“I told you to back off.”

“What the fuck, man?” Leon said, straightening.

I shot him a sideways glance. “What?”

“You shot me down with Cass. Why’d you do that?”

“You were being a dick,” I said, giving her a sneaky glance out of the corner of my eye. She was standing on the front stoop of a neat, pale yellow ranch house, her back to us. Like we didn’t exist. See what I mean?

“She liked it,” my dumbass friend said.

I laughed. “No, Leon, she didn’t. You were embarrassing the shit out of her.”

“Whatever. She’s a bitch anyway.”

I blew a lock of hair out of my eyes and carefully did not look at her again. “Is she?”

“Everybody says so.” He shrugged. “I thought you knew.”

“I wasn’t paying attention. She’s not my type,” I said.

Liar. Big, fucking liar.

“Well, she’s mine.”

I raised a single eyebrow, a move I’d perfected one summer when I was bored and too young for a job to take up my time. “You like bitches?”

“What do you care anyway? You never cock-blocked me before.”

I stopped and stared at him, snow falling into my open mouth. “Cock-blocked you?”

He shrugged. “Yeah, man. What would you call it?”

How do you answer a question like that? If he thought me standing up for a girl amounted to cock-blocking him, he needed to learn a few things about the female sex.

“You gotta learn how to talk to girls,” I said, starting to walk again.

“I know how to talk to girls.”

I just grinned and shook my head.

Maybe Cass was a bitch. I didn’t know. I’d heard the rumors about her standoffishness and that she was stuck up, plus the odd passing comment about her looks, and once something about her being a brain. But rumors aren’t necessarily true, and even if she was a bitch, it wouldn’t have made a difference to me.

The truth was that I’d wanted to strangle Leon when he went after her. The look on her face—frozen, shocked, afraid. Like he’d pulled back a curtain on her when she was naked and let the whole world see. I’d wanted to protect her.

So what the fuck was that about? I didn’t protect anybody but myself.

“You like her, don’t you?” Leon said.

“Nope.”

“Yeah, you do. You wouldn’t have jumped in like that if you didn’t.”

“Fuck off, Leon.”

“Ha!” he crowed. “I knew it! You like her!”

The idiot started dancing around in the snow, whooping and shouting that I liked Cass. Fucking God. Could she hear that?

The only way to find out was to look around and see if she was listening. But if I did that, I’d let her know I cared what she thought. So I just kept walking, head high, like nothing mattered.

Then Leon hit a patch of ice and his feet slipped out from under him. He slammed down on his ass.

I laughed.

He sat in the snow, in the middle of the road, and groaned. “Oh, man, I think I broke my tailbone.”

“Serve you right.” I stood there and watched him as he struggled to get to his feet.

“Not cool,” he said. “I could end up in the hospital.”

“Like I said—”

“Anyway, you should just admit that you like her. I saw the way you were looking at her.” He clambered awkwardly to his feet.

“I wasn’t looking at her.” I started walking again.

“Yeah, you were.”

“Are we in first grade now? I said I wasn’t looking at her.”

“Okay, man, whatever.” He shook his head, grinning, and I knew I hadn’t changed his mind a bit.

Chapter 3

Earth To Cass

 

Cass:

With a sigh of relief, I dashed up Jenny’s drive to the front door of her little yellow ranch house and rang the bell. Even Leon Schmidt wouldn’t have the gall to follow me up someone’s driveway, and besides they weren’t following me. They’d gone the other way.

Jenny’s mom opened the door. She had her brown hair in a ponytail. Flared polyester pants and a polyester blouse in an earth-toned avocado green, rust, and cream print completed her outfit. She always looked perfectly turned out even if she was staying home all day.

“Hi, Mrs. June. I’m here to see Jenny.”

“Come in, Cass. She’s in the living room watching TV.”

She must have been feeling awful, like one step away from death’s door, then, because there was nothing but soap operas and game shows on TV at this hour. Jenny and I hated soap operas and game shows.

“You might want to go home, though, honey,” Mrs. June continued. “I’d hate to see you catch this thing too. It’s miserable.”

That gave me the bright idea of catching Jenny’s virus and any other disease I could snatch out of the air. If I got really, really sick, I could stay out of school for a while. Maybe I could even stretch it to two whole weeks if I worked it hard enough.

I could get my schoolwork from my teachers, via my brother, so I wouldn’t fall behind in my classes. And by the time I came back, Leon would have forgotten all about the “virgin island” he’d been harassing.

“I don’t mind,” I said with a brave smile. “I’ve got a pretty good immune system.”

“Okay. It’s your call.” She closed the door and led the way through the arctic entry into the main foyer of the house.

Our house didn’t have an arctic entry, maybe because it was a split level—or raised ranch, as my cousins in Chicago called it. The June household’s entry was small, like the whole house, just a tiny roomlet or portion of the front hall blocked off from the rest of the house by a second exterior door. It supposedly stopped the really cold air from getting in the house, although you could hardly tell since they kept their heat so low all the time. I swear, when Jenny and I used to have winter sleepovers, I would wonder if I’d need to crack the ice in the toilet when I got up in the morning.

They had a sculpted carpet, like we did, only theirs was dark gold instead of green like ours. Their walls were paneled with old-fashioned knotty pine, probably from when the house was built ten or fifteen years earlier. Metal butterflies in a bronze finish flittered across one wall of the entry.

“Would you like a Tab or a Fresca?” Mrs. June said as she turned into their country pine galley kitchen.

“A Fresca, thanks.”

I wandered from their entry into the living room. They had a huge picture window that looked out on their back yard. The dark gold carpet almost matched the paneling, and their furniture was all in a burnt orange color, with sixties style angled legs. Gold pinch-pleat drapes framed the window.

I found Jenny stretched out on the couch, still in her flannel nightgown, a brown and gold afghan pulled up to her armpits. The Price Is Right was on the TV. She lay there staring blearily at the screen as audience members screamed hysterically and the announcer called for some chick with bouffant blond hair to “come on down!”

It wasn’t even the current episode— not really. In Alaska, we got all our TV shows at least two weeks late, since they had to be shipped up via the AlCan Highway, which apparently took at least two weeks for the trucks, even though everyone else could do it in one.

“You’re that desperate, huh?” I said.

She gave a little start, as if she hadn’t realized I was in the room. Which I guess she hadn’t. Then a big grin broke over her face. “Cass!”

“Hey, there. I was wondering if you were still alive.”

She looked horrible, her skin pasty, blond hair stringy and lifeless, blue eyes puffy and red behind her owl-like glasses, nose even redder. I hoped I got whatever she had.

“I tried to read, but I couldn’t concentrate. I feel like shit,” Jenny croaked.

“Jenny June!” her mom said from behind me.

“Sorry!” Jenny kept grinning at me.

I turned to her mom and accepted the Fresca with thanks. The citrus-flavored soda fizzed under my nose. Turning back to Jenny, I said “You do look pretty bad. Do you think you’ll be out tomorrow?”

“Probably.” She waved vaguely at the TV, where a model was currently ensconced on an antique gold colored sofa— excuse me, a “sofette”—and fondling it like it was her lover while the contestants tried to figure out how much the thing cost. “I’m going crazy with boredom already, though. I don’t know if I can take another day of this.”

“What’s worse, going to school sick or watching soap operas and game shows all day?” I said.

“I’m not sure. I’ll have to get back to you on that.” She coughed, her eyes watering. “So what’d I miss?”

I collapsed on the floor in front of the couch. “Nothing. Except Dex Morgan was on the bus today.”

Jenny’s nose wrinkled. “Dex Morgan?”

“Yeah. Leon Schmidt started harassing me and Dex made him shut up.”

“Really?” She sat up a little straighter and pushed her glasses up. “With his reputation, I would’ve thought he would join right in.”

“I know,” I said, picking at the gold carpet. “It was weird.”

“Are you sure it was Dex?”

I rolled my eyes at her. “Yeah, I’m sure. It’s not like I could confuse him with anyone else.”

“What did he say?”

“Just to back off.”

She poked me in my upper arm. “Not to Leon. To you.”

“Nothing. He didn’t say anything to me. He just looked at me.”

“Weird.” She blew her nose noisily. “I didn’t know he was even aware we were alive.”

I shrugged. “I think he was just irritated with Leon for making such a big deal. Everybody was looking at us.”

“What did he say to you?”

I picked at the carpet again. “Oh, you know. Stuff.”

“Like what kind of stuff?” She pulled another tissue out of the box on her lap.

“Just—” I shrugged, trying to be nonchalant and probably failing miserably. “He teased me about being a virgin.”

“No way.”

“Yes way.”

Her mouth turned down at the corners and her eyes drooped. “What a jerk. What’s wrong with him anyway?”

“I have no idea.” I recounted the conversation for her. “He was acting like I’d insulted him or something. Like he knew me and had a reason to be mad at me. But I’ve never talked to him before.”

“Wow. I’m sorry that happened to you.” She blew her nose again.

“I’m just glad it’s over.” I elbowed her. “And I’m hoping I get your disease so I can stay home the rest of the week.”

She laughed and shook her head. “No, you don’t want this. Besides, you’ve gotta face them or they’ll think they can push you around.”

She was right of course. If I stayed home, I’d look like I was afraid of Leon. That is, if they even noticed my absence. Part of me thought the incident was just a random bullying thing. You know the kind—hey, there’s a weak-looking dork we can pick on. They don’t know you and don’t really care, but it seems like a fun opportunity.

Another part of me thought Leon might be targeting me personally. I had no real reason for thinking this. It was just my natural paranoia coming to the fore. What I still couldn’t figure out was why Dex had intervened. Why he’d stared at me the way he had.

I got a sick, fluttery, completely baffled sensation in the pit of my stomach whenever I pictured those odd green eyes of his fixed on mine. Had he wanted something from me? Should I have thanked him?

“I should have thanked him,” I muttered.

“You didn’t say thank you?” Jenny said reprovingly.

“No. I was too shocked. I just stared at him and he stared back at me.”

She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “I bet he likes you.”

“He does not. He’s never even noticed me before.”

She snorted, and it was not attractive. “How would you know, Miss Oblivious? Guys look at you all the time and you never notice. You never notice anything unless they come right up to you and even then half the time you don’t see it.”

I rolled my eyes. “Guys don’t look at me.”

“What we need is something like Candid Camera. They could follow you around and film you on the sly, then show you the footage later. You’d be shocked.” She sat up straighter as if galvanized by the idea. “That’s a great plan. I think I’ll call them.”

“Candid Camera is for practical jokes, young lady, and if you ever did something like that to me I’d have to kill you,” I said with my best stern-mom voice.

She stuck out her tongue at me. “Anyway, you’re trying to change the subject. Dex Morgan likes you.”

“Trust me, I’m not his type.”

“How would you know what his type is?”

“I’d say his type wears fake eyelashes and miniskirts and go-go boots,” I said. “And smokes and drinks every weekend, and maybe on Wednesdays too.”

“God, you’re so square,” she said, laughing hoarsely. “Besides, nobody wears go-go boots anymore. Do they?”

“They do on TV. And you’re just as square as I am.”

Fashion was even more behind in Alaska than the TV shows, although we did have access to magazines. But when you have to order all your clothes from the Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs, it’s hard to stay at the forefront of fashion. At least, that’s what my mom liked to complain about and the way she justified the expense of a couple of shopping trips down to Seattle every year to my dad.

I wasn’t especially concerned with high style. Mainly I wanted to keep my butt from freezing off in our long, dark winters without looking too much like the Abominable Snowman. For someone born and raised in this place, I was a complete wimp about the weather and always had been.

“So what’re you gonna do about Dex?” Jenny said.

“Do? Nothing.” Obviously. By now, he’d forgotten all about the incident, so there was nothing that needed doing.

“Cass, you can’t do nothing. You need to have a strategy.”

“Why?” I got up and turned down the sound on the TV before returning to my seat on the floor.

“Because,” she said in a do I really have to explain this tone. “You need to know how to respond. What do you want out of the situation?”

“There is no situation, Jen,” I said.

“He likes you. There’s a situation. For example, you need to know whether or not you like him back and what you want to do about that.”

I took a swallow of the Fresca. Its carbonation made my throat burn pleasantly. “He doesn’t like me. I don’t like him. There’s nothing to decide.”

Inside my head, a tiny voice whispered liar. Those compelling green eyes, the shaggy blond hair, the deep voice, the long legs…

Stop.

The authoritative way he spoke to Leon and the way Leon instantly obeyed…

Knock it off, Cass.

“Cass?” Jen said. “Earth to Cass. Come in, Cass.”

“Huh?”

She laughed. “You were daydreaming about him, weren’t you?”

“No,” I said, my face heating.

“Yeah, you were. I don’t blame you. He’s a fox. But, Cass, he’s Dex Morgan. You can’t really date him, know what I mean?”

“Could if I wanted to,” I said with automatic contrariness.

“Could not.”

“Could too.”

“Could not!” She stuck out her tongue again.

“Wow, I think we’ve regressed to the second grade.” I grinned. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Really, I’m sure I’m not his type.”

“But is he yours?” she said slyly.

“No.” My face heated again.

Her living room had plenty of light coming in through the giant picture window that looked out on her chain-link enclosed back yard. Even on a gray and gloomy afternoon like today, a lot of light bounced off the snow, so I was sure she could see just how red my face was getting.

“You really shouldn’t lie to me,” she said.

“I’m not lying.”

“It’s not nice to lie to Mother Nature!” She waved her arms dramatically.

“Ugh. I hate that ad.” I opened my book bag, more to change the subject than anything else. “I brought some homework for you.”

“Thanks. I was hoping you’d say that.” She pushed herself upright on the couch.

“You were not.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I wasn’t. If I make you sick, though, we can both stay home and then neither of us will have anyone to bring homework for us to do.”

“Sorry to burst your bubble, but my brother would do it for me,” I said, opening my geometry book.

“Then we’ll have to make him sick too.”

I thought for a minute. “How many people would we have to sicken before we could be absolutely sure no-one would bring us any homework?”

“That sounds like an interesting math problem, Miss Maslanka. Let’s get to work.”

Chapter 4

Meatlocker

 

Dex:

Leon’s house was dark and warm. It smelled clean. We knocked the snow off our shoes and hung our coats up on the hooks in the entry hall.

“You want something to eat?” Leon said.

“Yeah. What you got?”

“Come on and we’ll check out the fridge.”

I followed him into the kitchen, marveling at how quiet it was here. Nobody yelling. No TV blaring in the living room. Just the soft tick-tick of the wind-up clock they had on the wall of their dining room.

What kind of place did Cass have? Was it quiet like this? Was it warm?

I dug my nails into the palm of my hand. I needed to quit thinking about her. She wasn’t for me, wasn’t my type, and as I’d mentioned earlier, she’d never even give me a second glance. No sense wasting my time and energy on her, even in my head.

But the image of her long, dark hair hanging out from under her hat, framing her pale face, kept following me around no matter where we went or what we did. Even getting high couldn’t erase her from my mind.

I left Leon’s place—his bedroom window wide open to get rid of the smoke smell—before his mom came home from work. She taught third grade at Turnagain Elementary, where I’d gone to school. She’d never been my teacher, though.

I wasn’t real clear on how much Mrs. Schmidt knew about the things Leon and I did when we hung out. She sure didn’t know he smoked pot, or she’d have had him on lock-down. She was a good mom as far as I could tell.

They always had plenty of food in their house. The heat and lights always worked and everybody had decent clothes to wear. And Leon never came to school black and blue, either.

My jeans were still wet when I trudged out into the still-falling snow. My shoes, too. By now, the snow had accumulated to at least half a foot, so it came right over the tops of my shoes and caked on my socks. Colder than fuck-all.

I stuck my hands in my coat pockets to keep them from freezing and bent my head a little to keep the snow out of my eyes. It seemed unnaturally quiet out here, with the snow still falling and muffling the usual town noises. The only thing I could really hear was the scrush-scrush of my shoes in the snow.

I turned onto Susitna and started my trudging journey past split-levels and little ranch houses, all of them dating from the fifties or later. Some had lights on inside, making them look like glowing havens of safety. Up ahead, I saw a slim figure struggling through the snow like me. Only this one wore a long skirt and a knit hat with a big, blue and white pompom on the top.

Could it be Cass? That looked like her hat. I remembered it because it matched the color of her eyes. My stomach did one of those dumbass flip-flops again.

Either she didn’t know I was out here or she was ignoring me. I couldn’t tell which. She just kept walking, looking ahead, like I didn’t exist. And for her, I probably didn’t.

Sometimes I thought it would be better for the world if I didn’t exist. But then who would take care of my little brother? Nobody, that’s who. It was up to me to pull through for him, so I had to keep pushing ahead no matter how bad it hurt.

My house was one of the tiny ones built when the neighborhood was new. In other words, it was old and tired and pathetic. Just one cramped bathroom and two bedrooms. There wasn’t enough room in it for two supposed grown-ups, my older brother Sin, plus Joe and me.

The siding needed paint and the roof leaked. The front yard was full of weeds, although right now they were hidden under a nice, clean blanket of snow. I wondered stupidly what Cass would think of it and cringed inside at the obvious answer.

There was no light on at our place, except for the blue flicker of the TV. I could see it through a gap in the ratty old curtains hanging at the window.

Sure as shit, the place felt like a meatlocker when I got there. It smelled like a pile of ground beef left out in the summer sun too long, too. If it hadn’t been so cold, the stench would have been unbearable. My nose must have gotten numbed to it during the night, because I hadn’t noticed it when I got up. I fucking noticed it now.

Keeping my coat on was a no-brainer. It was too cold to throw it on the pile on the worn-through entryway linoleum with everyone else’s shit.

The TV screamed from the living room, like usual, so I went there to see if anyone knew where my little brother was. The picture window that looked out on the front yard was so filthy you could hardly see through it, like it was tinted or something. Cobwebs clung to the corners of the window frame. The brownish carpet—I wasn’t sure what its original color had been—was worn through in spots and you could see the subfloor.

Most of our furniture had come from various thrift stores and garage sales over the years, and it was as worn out as the carpet. There was a brown couch, one of those fifties things with the slanted skinny metal legs, its upholstery stained dark in some places, torn, the stuffing poking through. A blue recliner squatted in the corner, facing the TV. That was my dad’s chair, and if he was home and one of us sat in it, we caught hell.

The coffee table was a relic from the fifties, too. Its slanting legs matched the ones on the couch, at least in shape. The rectangular top of it had so many dings, scratches, and gouges it looked like it had been through a war. Come to think of it, I guess it had been through a war—the one waged every day in our house.

A picture of a brown horse hung askew on the wall. The paint looked blotchy and the colors were dull. In fact, it reminded me of a paint-by-numbers picture. I never knew what had motivated my mom to hang that thing on our living room wall, but I was pretty sure she’d picked it up for a few pennies at a garage sale. Where else could you get something so ugly?

Discarded food wrappers littered the carpet and the coffee table. I tried to keep the place picked up, but with my parents and Sin determined to make as much of a mess as possible without ever cleaning anything, it was a losing battle.

My mom sprawled all over the ratty brown couch in her green nylon nightgown, a half-empty bottle of cheap whiskey in her hand. She looked up at me blearily as I came in and glared.

“Where you been?” she slurred.

“Out.”

“I can see that. Where?”

“A friend’s.” She didn’t need to know I had money. “Where’s Joe?”

“How would I know?”

Nice. Real motherly. Some people just shouldn’t breed.

I headed down the short hallway, so narrow my shoulders almost touched the walls, toward our shared bedroom. First priority was to stash my cash until I could make it to the gas company to pay the bill. That would be tomorrow, if I could get a ride from somebody.

Some cities had buses. I’d heard this, seen it on TV, read about it. But Anchorage didn’t have a public transit system, which meant losers like me had to beg friends for rides or else hoof it everywhere when our cars were on the fritz. I’d find somebody at school who’d be willing to do it.

The reek of pot smoke met my nose before I opened the door to the bedroom. Even wasted as I was, I could smell it; that’s how thick it was. Creedence Clearwater Revival pounded away on the record player. Sin must be in there toking up.

I opened the door to a thick haze of smoke. The one dresser we had between us, which looked like it matched the couch and coffee table, and the bunk bed Joe and I shared were almost obscured by the smog. The banged-up pale blue walls were almost invisible. My older brother’s lanky frame lay sprawled right in the middle of the smoky cloud, looking passed out on his narrow bed.

Fuck. No sense in hiding the money in here, because if Sin saw where I put it, he’d snag it the minute I turned my back.

He looked out of it, but you never know with junkies. I’d have to use my hidden compartment in the Barracuda.

Ever since he’d come back from ‘Nam, Sin did nothing but smoke weed and listen to music. Except when he was out locating more weed, not to mention the smack he shot up his veins, and doing whatever it was he did so he could buy the shit. He never even played his own guitar anymore.

I didn’t sell him my stuff and I didn’t ask how he acquired his own stash. I didn’t want to know.

He looked up from his mattress on the floor, his almost-black hair all tangled and falling in his eyes, much of his face obscured by a bushy black beard. “Dex.”

“Hey, Sin. How’s it going?”

“It’s going.” He lifted his joint to his lips and took a long hit.

I could use some myself. The stuff I’d smoked at Leon’s was starting to wear off. But I was gonna get a huge contact high just from being in the room with Sin, so I’d save it for another time.

“Where’s Joe?” I said.

He blew out the smoke in a long, slow stream. “Fuck if I know.”

Nice way to keep track of your little brother.

Sin was twenty-three. Six years older than me and completely, irredeemably fucked up. Sometimes it hurt me to look at him.

We never asked what had happened in the war. My parents didn’t give a shit. Joe and I were afraid to know, afraid to push him. All I knew was it had to be bad.

Really bad. Unspeakably bad.

He had tracks on his arms. I never saw him shoot the smack, but I knew he was doing it. Sometimes I’d come home and he’d just be staring at the ceiling with this dreamy smile on his face and I’d know he was gone.

Heroin dreams. They had to be better than the war shit he dreamed about at night.

He’d been so different when he left. Smiling, laughing, carefree. A normal guy, the brother I looked up to, the one who looked out for Joe and me when my folks were too fucked up to do their jobs. Which was most of the time.

Then the war.

He’d come home silent. Angry. He didn’t care about Joe and me anymore. Far as I could tell, he didn’t care about anything.

So it was up to me to make sure Joe ate every day and did his homework. It was up to me to make sure the bills got paid, the heat stayed on in the winter, and the trash got taken out.

Speaking of trash…I turned on my heel and went back into the kitchen where that unbelievable stench filled the air. Good thing my dad was still gone. Everything was better when he wasn’t here.

The trash can overflowed with crap. Crumpled paper towels and napkins, paper plates, a frozen pizza box, tin soup cans. The garbage spilled out of the can and all over the ancient speckled linoleum floor around it, like someone had been too lazy to even bother trying to get the stuff in the bag when they went to throw it away. How had I failed to see this earlier?

“Jesus.” I hauled the bag out of the can to give myself some extra space inside it, then bent over and snagged one piece of garbage after another, breathing through my mouth so I wouldn’t have to smell it.

I should have done this last night, instead of watching TV. My dad had been out, so we had a rare chance to watch what we wanted instead of what he did. Normally he watched the news and shouted at the screen, then shouted some more at The Streets Of San Francisco or Hawaii Five-O until he blacked out to some old cowboy flick on the local late night movie program.

That was when he was in a good mood. When he was pissed off, he didn’t bother shouting at the TV. He went after my mom or me instead.

Sin was too big for him and besides he was meaner than shit when he wasn’t blissed out on heroin and my dad knew it. Nobody messed with Sin unless they wanted to come away missing a limb. Joe, well, my dad would have killed him if he’d beaten him the way he did me. That was why I always got in between the two of them.

Better me than a ten-year-old kid.

The front door opened. I straightened, hoping it wasn’t my old man sent home from work early. He worked long hours normally, as some kind of manager in a bank. Made decent money, I think, but we sure didn’t see much of it.

I was never sure where that money went, either. Into alcohol, partly, but that didn’t seem to explain it all. I suspected the explanation was a woman, or maybe more than one. If he was trying to support two families, that would go a long way toward explaining why ours always suffered.

Joe stomped into the entryway, snow falling off his shoulders and the soles of his shoes. He had dark hair, like Sin, and the same green eyes as everyone else in our family.

He grinned at me as he dropped his bag by the door. “Hi, Dex.”

“Where’ve you been?” I said.

“Frankie’s. What about you?”

“I was at Leon’s. How come nobody here knew where you were?” I said, frowning, the bag of trash dangling from my hand.

Joe shrugged. “I dunno.” He wrinkled his nose. “God, it stinks in here.”

“You didn’t tell anyone where you were going.” I tied the bag.

“I told Mom.”

Ah. Well, that explained that. “Next time, leave a note.”

“Okay, Dad,” he said with heavy sarcasm.

I ruffled his hair. “Someone’s gotta keep you on the straight and narrow.”

He ducked his head, trying to avoid me. “It’s freezing in here.” Then he tilted it in the direction of the narrow hallway that led to the bedrooms and bathroom. “Is Sin home?”

“Yeah. It’s real smoky in there.”

He looked disappointed. He’d probably hoped to have a few minutes to himself.

Ten-year-olds were supposed to be innocent, but nobody could spend half an hour in this household and come away clean. Joe knew the score. He knew Sin was into some heavy illegal shit. He knew I was a dealer too.

I should have a real job. A legal one. But a stint in juvie when I was thirteen had made the local business owners wary of hiring me. I couldn’t find a job, so I turned to the only thing available to me. Selling pot.

The hard stuff wasn’t part of my business, though. Even I wasn’t prepared to go that far. The people who moved that kind of shit were seriously dangerous bastards who wouldn’t think twice about breaking my arms and legs if I crossed them, even accidentally. I couldn’t afford to take that risk. Not with my little brother needing someone to look out for him.

“You got homework tonight?” I said, pointing at Joe’s bag.

“Nah. Just a coloring thing. I can do it by myself.”

“You’d better.”

“Hey.” He gave me a mock-serious glare. “You’d better do your homework too, mister. I don’t want to see anything lower than a C on your next report card.”

I laughed at him. “Sure, kid.”

Chapter 5

Thank You

 

Cass:

Snow blotted out the whole world and I liked it that way. I loved the way it fell in a still, silent curtain—perfectly still yet always in motion, each individual flake swirling independently of all the others. Soft, white, and cold as death.

When I left Jenny’s house at four o’clock in the afternoon, the sun had already gone down. The sky, if I’d been able to see it, would have been black. But the ever-falling snow concealed that blackness from me, the flakes appearing like magic from out of the void over my head.

I was the only person in sight. Flakes accumulated on the shoulders of my red down parka and the ends of my dark-brown hair. It scrunched softly beneath my feet and silenced all other sounds with a million, tiny hushing voices.

On either side of me rose trees even more silent, bearing accumulated snow along every branch like puffy white outlines. They made beautiful, half-realized shapes in the gloom. As unemotional as trees always are, though, I sometimes imagined them watching me with friendly eyes.

It was blissfully quiet out here. Although a busy street lay just a few blocks away, I couldn’t hear any traffic noise. Just the crunching of my own footsteps, the soft puffs of my breath, the low whisper of the snow. Soon, the rush-hour traffic would bring noise and cars sliding on the new snow, but for now I had the peace I craved.

The air smelled clean, sweet, and cold. That smell, the scent of snow, along with the crisp fleeting taste of it melting on my tongue, was buried firmly in my earliest memories. When you’re born and raised in Alaska, snow feels like more than part of your life. It’s part of you, a frigid and highly inconvenient beauty that is never far away even at the height of summer.

Not that we got a real summer in Anchorage. We were lucky if we got two weeks’ worth of over-seventy-degree days in the whole season.

I trudged up Susitna, heading for my house. Golden light glowed from windows half obscured by the curtain of snow. Most of the people in these houses, in this neighborhood where I’d lived for ten years, were strangers to me. They lived mysterious lives behind those glowing windows, a fact that gave me a weird kind of thrill as I walked alone along the street.

Out here, alone, I was safe. I was outside the zone of other people’s scorn. Out here, nobody ignored me or taunted me. Nobody called me a virgin island.

I passed the house where Jenny claimed Dex lived. It was even smaller than hers, with faded gray paint and an empty yard. No trees, no bushes, just a flat expanse between the house and the street. It looked sad. Lonely. Even the lights glowing through the living room windows seemed dimmer than those in all the other houses.

Was that really his place? Was he there now? If he was, he gave no sign.

My street was one block over from his, with a mix of older houses like Dex’s and newer ones. Our house was newly built earlier that year. We’d moved from a small ranch similar to Jenny’s into this much bigger house where each of us kids could have our own room.

When I opened the door, the smell of my mom’s pot roast hit me. Mom didn’t make pot roast very often, but when she did it was so good I tended to eat too much of it. Our little ground level foyer smelled richly of slow-cooked beef, onions, celery, and carrots, and my mouth instantly began to water.

My stomach growled loudly, almost painfully.

The foyer was lit up with golden light coming off the huge amber pendant lamp hanging above my head like some kind of Moorish fantasy. It gave the white walls a kind of warm glow that always made me feel good to come home, even when I dreaded an encounter with my dad. Voices and the sounds of dishes clattering came from somewhere upstairs, where the kitchen and dining room were.

I stomped the snow off my boots on the front stoop before coming inside, so as not to get the floor wet. Then I shucked off all my outdoor clothes and jammed them haphazardly in the closet so I could get upstairs to the food. Running in stocking feet up the avocado-carpeted stairs, I almost ran into my brother coming down.

He grabbed me by my elbows. “Hey, Sis. Where were you? I was going out to find you.”

I snorted. “Yeah, right. You were mounting a search party.”

“I was. Mom was about to blow a gasket cause you’re so late. Where were you?”

I peered into his guileless blue eyes, but could see no deception there. “Tell you in a sec.”

He released me so we could go back up the stairs.

We had an open plan living room that sort of melded into the dining room, which was really just a space between living room and kitchen. The same green sculpted carpet covered all of it, except for the green vinyl in the kitchen. My mom loved green.

We had a big, rust-colored sectional couch and two matching rust-colored easy chairs. The coffee table was some kind of dark stained wood with elaborately turned legs that was supposed to look Colonial or something. I hated it and the fancy pleated lampshades on all the lamps, but at least my mom didn’t keep the plastic covers on like some people I knew.

My dad sat in the open plan living room with the news on, his attention fixed on the screen. It looked like it needed to have the color adjusted—everything was skewed toward the green end of the spectrum and the anchors were looking seasick.

He glanced up at Adam and me as we tried to tip-toe past him. “Young lady,” he said with a frown. “You’re late to dinner.”

“I know. Sorry. I stayed a little late at Jenny’s,” I said.

“You worried your mother. You know better than that,” he said over the top of Walter Cronkite.

“Like I said, I’m sorry. I guess I should’ve called.”

“Yes, you should have. Go in the kitchen and apologize.”

Sheesh, he was laying it on even thicker than usual. I glanced over at Adam, but he only shrugged and grinned. No help from that quarter, although they wouldn’t have listened to him anyway. After all, I was the oldest. I was supposed to set an example for the other two.

Sometimes being a good girl was really tiresome.

My mom, her lips tight and compressed with irritation, looked up from a saucepan full of mashed potatoes as we came into the kitchen. “Cass, you’re late.”

“Yeah. I know.” Maybe I should make a sign. I know I’m late and I’m deeply sorry. I could carry it around with me for the rest of the evening.

“I was worried about you. You’re usually home by now.”

“I am home by now,” I said, going to the cabinet for a glass of water.

“You know what I mean. You’re setting a bad example for Adam and Beth.”

Yes. Yes, I was. “Why didn’t you call Jenny’s? You know I’m usually over there.”

She sighed. “I’m a little busy here.”

“Well, I’m sorry I’m late. Jenny was sick today and I wanted to make sure she was okay and bring her the homework and stuff.”

“Oh.” Her angry-mom expression instantly shifted to concern. “Is she okay? I hope it’s not anything serious.”

“It’s just a bad cold.”

“You shouldn’t have gone over there. You’ll get sick too.”

I should only be so lucky. “I’ll be fine.”

“Wash your hands before you touch anything else. I don’t want our family coming down with anything.”

Yeah, my mom was maybe a little overly concerned about germs. I washed my hands dutifully at the kitchen sink before pouring myself a glass of water. My siblings and I almost never got to stay home from school despite my mom’s worries. She was highly focused on prevention, but she never seemed to really believe us when we said we didn’t feel well. So even if I did manage to catch Jenny’s cold, I’d have a fight on my hands to win the right to stay home. But it was a fight I planned to win, if I were lucky enough to get sick so I could avoid Dex and Leon.

Why was I so spooked about the encounter with Dex? It hadn’t even lasted more than a couple of minutes at the most. By now, he’d probably forgotten all about it. He was deep in some kind of drug deal or a bout of partying with Leon and whoever else he spent his time with. Yet here I was, fretting myself over it like the hopeless dork I was.

Girls with backbone didn’t spend their evenings worrying over whether a guy who was all wrong for them might be thinking about them.

I counted out five plates and five saucers and carried them to the dining room table, setting them out for my mom. Usually my little sister did this job. “Where’s Beth?”

“She’s in her room studying for an important math test tomorrow. Adam, go tell her dinner’s ready.”

Adam sauntered off, whistling tunelessly. It drove me nuts when he did that, but all the nagging in the world couldn’t get him to stop. Maybe he did it on purpose to annoy me. Yeah, he probably did.

Little brothers, I tell you. Born to annoy.

“Did you get all your homework done at Jenny’s?” my mom said as she brought the pan of potatoes to the table.

“Yeah.”

“Good. Maybe you can help Beth with her math later.”

***

Apparently, sixteen hours isn’t enough time for the common cold to incubate, which makes it a bad option as a stay-home sick excuse. On Wednesday morning, I was perfectly healthy. I should have faked it.

The front lobby of the school wasn’t any more or less packed than usual. It was always noisy and full of kids, mostly walking from the doors toward the interior of the school. The brutal noise bounced off the green wall tiles and terrazzo floor with its usual intensity. I found the impersonal quality of the roar strangely comforting. It had nothing to do with me, and that was a good thing.

All those kids, all moving in the same direction, made it kind of like a wide river. You either went with the current or you got trampled. Since I didn’t like getting trampled, I followed the current toward Junior Hall.

Nobody looked at me. Nobody seemed to know or care what had happened on Tuesday afternoon. At least, not so far.

Leon hadn’t been on the bus this morning and neither had Dex. Not that I’d expected Dex and not that I’d have known what to do if he did show up. Die of embarrassment?

Give me a break. He wouldn’t notice you if he were here.

He’d certainly never noticed me before yesterday, and the only reason I’d come to his attention was because of the stupid behavior of his buddy. Nope, I was in the clear.

A peculiar settling sensation weighted my stomach. It felt like disappointment, although that couldn’t be right. I hated being harassed. I didn’t want all of Leon and Dex’s friends targeting me for their own amusement while I cringed and tried to become invisible.

More invisible than I already was.

So why was I feeling sorry for myself because the incident had passed unremarked? I didn’t want to examine that too closely, so I tucked the thought away in a dark corner of my mind where I could forget about it.

As a junior, I had a locker all to myself. I slipped off my parka and hung it on the hook inside while the girl next to me locked lips with her boyfriend and I pretended not to notice. They were going at it so hot and fast I half expected the clothes to start coming off.

Someone down the hall wolf-whistled, but they didn’t seem to hear.

I pulled out my algebra book and shut my locker. When I turned toward the hall, he was there. Dex.

He looked right at me as he walked by in a throng of other people. His green eyes were just as cool and impersonal, just as distant, as they’d been the day before on the bus. Had he known my locker was in this hall?

Of course he hadn’t and even if he had, it wouldn’t have mattered to him. His heart wasn’t jumping around like a crazed rabbit just at the sight of me. He couldn’t have cared less.

Now his back was to me and I could see just how broad his shoulders were, how narrow his waist. He wore a simple blue chamois shirt over a gray T-shirt and wide blue jeans. His shaggy hair hung well over his collar.

I still hadn’t thanked him.

A guy like Dex Morgan did things for his own reasons that probably had nothing to do with me. He probably wouldn’t care if I thanked him or not. But what if he thought I was ignoring him because I looked down on him? What if he felt insulted because I hadn’t said anything?

It seemed unlikely, almost impossible, that someone like him would give a damn about the opinion of someone like me. But if he did, then I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He’d really helped me yesterday when he didn’t have to. It had meant something to me, although I wasn’t sure what.

I started after him, plunging into the roiling current of kids rushing to class. His tall, blond frame stood out above the heads of pretty much everyone else in the hall, so he was easy to track even though he was at least a hundred feet ahead of me by now.

“Cass!”

I turned reluctantly toward the person calling me. It was Mary Agibinik, waving at me, her long black braid swinging back over her shoulder. With a reluctant sigh, I paused to talk to her.

“What’s up, Mary?”

“Did you finish reading Wuthering Heights yet?” she said, chewing on her upper lip.

“Yeah. I finished it the same night Mr. Brown assigned it,” I said, firmly mastering my urge to look back over my shoulder at Dex.

“Really?” Mary’s dark eyes widened. “Wow. Everybody else I talked to can’t even get past Chapter Three.”

“I loved it. Didn’t you?”

She shrugged. “I think it’s kind of boring, actually. I can’t figure out what’s going on.”

We fell in together as we made our way toward Trigonometry, another class we shared. Maybe I’d have another chance to thank Dex. I was pretty sure he wasn’t torn up about it, so it could wait.

***

It wasn’t until Thursday afternoon that I saw Dex again. I was in the art studio talking to Miss Thornhill, Jenny’s ceramics teacher, about how she could make up her work.

The studio smelled like raw clay. Rows of work tables took up most of the space, one row next to the big metal-frame windows looking out on the back lawn and one against the wall opposite. They all had smears of clay on their surfaces from students doing whatever it is you do to clay. I wasn’t much of an artist. The last time I’d made anything from clay had been in third grade.

Dex sauntered in, hands in his jeans pockets. I looked up and froze, blushing horribly as I realized who it was.

His gaze just flicked over me and slid away to one of his friends, who was taking his seat for the class about to start. I guessed that meant Dex was taking ceramics. Why hadn’t Jenny told me she had a class with him?

Idiot. Because she hadn’t known I cared. Heck, I hadn’t known I cared.

“Did you hear me, Cass?” Miss Thornhill said.

“Huh?” I blushed all over again as my inattention became obvious to everyone within hearing distance.

“Tell Jenny she can come in after school for some make-up sessions,” Miss Thornhill said.

“Oh. Okay, I’ll do that. Thank you. I know she loves this class and hates that she’s had to miss it this week.”

Miss Thornhill beamed. “I’m glad to hear she’s enjoying it.”

Behind us, the guys were shoving each other and laughing about some guy joke. I could hear the commotion, even though I couldn’t see exactly what they were doing.

Was this my best chance to say thank you to Dex? I didn’t relish the idea of doing it in front of his friends. But what if I never got another opportunity?

My stomach fluttered wildly. Oh, God. Was I really going to march myself over there and force a conversation?

Yeah, I was. My mom had raised me to be polite.

I swallowed hard and turned around. He was stretched out in his chair, his long legs extended far into the aisle between work tables, his arm casually slung over the chair back. The other two guys with him were the ones in the shoving match. Dex just looked on, evidently amused at their antics but way too cool to join in.

Holy cow. Was I really going to talk to him?

Yeah, I was. Like I said, my mom raised me to be polite.

I forced my feet to march the several yards between Miss Thornhill’s desk and the table where Dex sat. His gaze flicked to me again, the way it had when he’d come in, then slid away. Obviously, he didn’t expect me to talk to him.

That green gaze shot up to mine when I stopped right in front of him. His buddies quit shoving and laughing as Dex stared warily into my face.

“Hi,” I said, feeling like a fool.

“Hi.” His voice, deep and slightly rough, had a faint question at the end.

“I—um—I just wanted to say—um—thank you,” I stammered, blushing again. “You know. For Monday, on the bus. I—um—I really appreciated what you did.”

His lashes lowered over his eyes. They were as thick and dark as I remembered them. He licked his lower lip and the sight made my heart pound and my belly clench.

“You’re welcome.” He sounded even huskier than before.

“Yeah, I— um—I just—” My weight shifted from one side to the other as my whole body seemed to catch on fire from embarrassment.

His friends snickered.

“Anyway, thanks,” I blurted. “Just thanks. That’s all I had to say.”

I spun on my heel and made for the door before I could humiliate myself any further. Behind me, more shoving and laughter ensued. I wondered if Dex were taking part in it this time. Did he think my apology was funny?

Just as I reached the classroom door, I risked a glance over my shoulder at him. He wasn’t shoving and he wasn’t laughing. He was staring after me, his face unreadable under the thick, surrounding shag of his hair.

Holy cow. Dex Morgan was staring at me.

***

At Jenny’s house, an articulated poster-board witch with green skin and a purple and black hat met me at the door. Well, actually she was pinned or taped to the door, but let’s not quibble. She looked very festive there. Jenny’s family hung that witch somewhere on or in their house every Halloween and I looked forward to seeing her.

“Are you going to the dance on Friday?” Jenny said the minute I walked into her living room. She’d gotten her color back, and her blond hair looked clean and shiny again. She was even dressed in jeans and a sweater instead of pajamas.

“Uh…what?” I set my book bag on the floor of her foyer. “You look a lot better, by the way.”

She waved an impatient hand. “The dance. On Friday. You know. The Halloween dance?”

“I wasn’t planning on it.”

“Well, I am. And if I’m going, that means you have to go.”

I unzipped my parka. “You’re still too sick to go and I don’t have to. So there.”

“I’m not too sick.” She bounced on her toes. “I’m feeling better.”

“Does your mom know you’re planning to go?”

“She will. She’s been bugging me to go back to school.”

“Hmm.” I pretended thoughtfulness as I toed off my snowy boots before going any farther into her house. “I’ll think about it.”

“That means no.” She pouted. “It always means no when you say you’ll think about it.”

“I don’t want to go. I always feel weird at those things.”

“So do I. What’s your point?”

“My point is that I don’t want to go.” I picked up my bag again and walked past her into her living room.

“But you can wear a costume. You can be anything you want to be.”

“Can I be the Jolly Green Giant?”

She paused. “Sure. Why not? Or maybe you’d be more believable as his little sister, since you’re kinda short.”

“Costumes are your thing, Jenny, not mine,” I said over my shoulder. “Plus I never get asked to dance.”

“Wear your tightest jeans and lowest cut T-shirt or unbutton your blouse an extra button. I hear that’s the secret to getting dances.”

I made a face. “Ew.”

“I’m just passing along a tip,” she said airily. “Hey, you could dress up as something sexy, like a can-can dancer.”

“A can-can dancer?” Good grief. I could just imagine Dex’s face if he saw me in a get-up like that.

Wait a minute. Was I really making plans based on what Dex might think?

“I’m losing my mind,” I muttered as I sank to Jenny’s couch.

“What’s that?”

I glanced at her. As my best friend, she wasn’t supposed to judge me. At least, not too harshly. But I sensed she wouldn’t approve of me approaching Dex the way I had, given his reputation, so I didn’t want to report it to her. On the other hand, if I didn’t tell her and she found out from someone else, her trust in me would be compromised. Best friends were supposed to tell each other everything.

“I saw Dex today,” I said, looking at my lap. “I thanked him.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah,” I said to my thighs.

“Wow. So you actually talked to him?”

“Uh huh.” I flashed her a grin. “Kind of hard to say thank you without talking, right?”

“I thought you might have passed him a note.”

Jeez, I hadn’t even thought of that. But it would have been cowardly and kind of cheap, like I wasn’t willing to be seen speaking to him.

“Nope. I saw him in Miss Thornhill’s class when I went to talk to her for you. He was there, so I just went up and said thanks.”

“Holy cow.” She gaped at me, her eyes wide. “What did he say?”

“He said you’re welcome.”

Jenny frowned. “Is that all?”

“What should he have said?”

“I don’t know.” She flounced onto the couch next to me. “Something more, since he likes you.”

“He does not.”

“Does too. And don’t argue with me.”

“He doesn’t like me, Jen. He looks at me like I’m not really there.” Frankly, I wasn’t sure why he bothered putting out the energy to direct his gaze toward me if he was so uninterested in the view.

“Well, maybe he doesn’t want his friends to know how he feels.”

“Why?” I frowned at her. “Because I’m so un-cool?”

“You know how guys are. Especially tough guys like him.”

“No. I have no idea how tough guys are, and I don’t think you do, either.” Jenny didn’t have any siblings.

She made a rude noise. “I’ve known Adam since I was four. Or was it five? Anyway, he’s like my own brother, so don’t tell me I don’t know anything about guys.”

“Well, Adam isn’t much like Dex.” My brother was sweet. A good kid. He wasn’t a drug-dealing lowlife like Dex.

I rubbed my forehead. I was seriously confused where Dex was concerned, not sure if I saw him as a dangerously sexy tough guy or just a messed-up kid with a criminal record and a nasty attitude.

“I dare you,” Jenny said.

I lifted my head and gave her a questioning look.

“To wear something sexy to the Halloween dance,” she said. “Then see how Dex likes it. I bet you’ll be surprised.”

“He won’t be at a stupid high school dance.”

She grinned. “Then there’s no problem, right?”

“Jen—”

“Oh, come on. We’ll both dress up as can-can dancers. You’ll see. It’ll be fun.” She clung to my arm. “You have to do this for me. I could be dying. It’s my last wish.”

I groaned. “I know I’m going to regret this.”

Chapter 6

Costumes

 

Cass:

The school always seemed kind of weird to me when I came there after hours. Although there were plenty of other people in the lobby and milling around the doors to the gym, it still felt odd to be here so late in the day, especially with dance music blasting away from the gym.

The overhead lights in the lobby glared down at us, the bright illumination contrasting harshly with the darkness I could see in the gym. Clumps of kids stood around, laughing and talking. Some of them gave us curious looks as we approached in our costumes.

Why, oh why had I let Jenny talk me into going to the dance dressed as can-can dancers? I didn’t feel sexy. I felt ridiculous.

She’d chosen a bright blue dress for me, to bring out the color of my eyes. Good grief. It had a tight, short-sleeved bodice with low-cut neckline, a full skirt with ruffle, and a frilly petticoat that made the skirt stand out from my legs, plus fishnet stockings. And not one but two feathers. I kid you not, I had two big old ostrich feathers sticking out of my hair. One was blue to match the dress and the other was white.

I even had my hair curled and pinned back with ringlets hanging down the back of my neck. And I was wearing make-up, the whole nine yards. Not just blush and mascara, but heavy black eyeliner and red lipstick. We’d had to put on our outfits in one of the school bathrooms, because both her parents and mine would have had fits if they’d seen the way we looked.

Good Catholic girls didn’t go to school dances dressed like saloon girls, or can-can girls either. Sometimes I thought good Catholic girls didn’t go to dances at all. Of course, my parents were pretty permissive compared to my aunts and uncles back in Chicago, who forbid my cousins such pagan delights as rock music and dancing, so I guessed I should feel lucky.

Jenny wore a red dress. I wondered who she was trying to impress. Her glasses didn’t exactly go with the outfit, but I wasn’t going to tell her that.

Something by The Jackson Five was blaring from the speakers as we got our hands stamped. Inside the gym, colored lights flashed and people in all kinds of costumes swayed to the music. I saw someone dressed like a bottle of beer and another as a pregnant nun. Tasteless, sure, maybe even offensive if you were sensitive to that kind of stuff, but not trampy. I felt like a slut with my low-cut bodice showing more cleavage than I’d ever bared in my life.

The air smelled like popcorn and the perfume of the girl standing in line behind us.

I glanced at Jenny. She was going up on her tip-toes like she was looking for someone.

“What are you doing?” I shouted over the music.

“Huh?”

“What are you doing? Are you looking for someone?”

She widened her eyes, the picture of innocence. “No. Just looking around.”

Yeah, right. She was up to something. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what it was.

She grabbed my hand. “Come on.”

Yeah, she was up to something. She hauled me into the gym like she was on a mission. Had she planned to meet a guy here? I couldn’t think of another reason to be so excited about a dance. Usually we spent them standing on the sidelines, being ignored, which eternally raised the question why we bothered going in the first place.

Tonight, she stuck with me for about ten minutes or so. Just enough for that Jackson Five song to end and another two to follow. The last one was “Venus,” by Shocking Blue.

I watched a girl in a mini-skirt and halter top—in October in Alaska?—writhe as the singer belted out that she’s got it and wondered why I felt so slutty in my saloon-girl get-up. I was modesty personified compared to that chick.

I turned to Jenny to ask her what she thought, but she wasn’t there. She’d disappeared on me. That was not her usual behavior; normally she would have let me know if she were leaving.

I scanned the crowd of dancers. There was a guy in a toga made hilariously of flowered sheets, a green-skinned witch, another pregnant nun, and the beer-bottle guy again. A girl floated past in an enormous hoop skirt that took up enough space for three people. But no Jenny.

“You wanna dance?” said a male voice in my ear.

I turned, my heart jumping around like that crazed rabbit again. But it wasn’t Dex. Of course it wasn’t Dex. It was some guy I didn’t know, although he looked vaguely familiar. He was average height, brown-haired and kind of skinny, wearing a polyester paisley shirt unbuttoned to halfway down his flat, pale chest. I suspected he was one of the guys sitting by Dex the day I’d thanked him.

“Uh…okay,” I said.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked to dance, but the experience was unusual enough that I felt weird about it, like everyone was looking at me. The rational part of me knew they weren’t, that they were too busy doing their own thing to take notice of me, but the irrational part suspected everyone was making a note. A lot of notes could hide in some of those costumes.

Look at that! Cass Maslanka is dancing! With a boy! Maybe it would make the school newspaper, hah hah.

The kid didn’t seem to know what to do with himself on the dance floor, not that I did. He merely swayed from side to side while stepping back and forth. His arms sort of dangled limply next to him. Of course, most of the people dancing looked pretty much the same, so I guessed it was okay. We fit in.

I glanced around and there was Jenny, dancing with a guy dressed as Zorro. He was tall and dark haired, and looked vaguely familiar, but with the black half-mask and cape, I couldn’t tell who he was. She grinned and gave me a thumbs-up. We’d both gotten dances within fifteen minutes of arrival. Hmm. Maybe her can-can costume plan was working after all.

My partner’s eyes kept traveling over my body, from my neckline down to my waist and then farther down to my thighs. Then back up, over my waist to linger at my chest. Luckily, I was wearing a bra, unlike some of the other girls. Unluckily, I was pretty curvaceous and all that dancing made me bounce around in a way he apparently found interesting.

The can-can dress was working too well. I didn’t like the way he kept ogling my breasts.

Five songs later, I was ready to sit down and take a break, not to mention keen to lose my partner. Mr. Polyester Shirt didn’t seem to want to let me go, but a slow song was starting and there was no way I was cuddling up to him.

I didn’t know him. I didn’t want to know him, as his interest in me seemed to begin and end with my chest. So as Roberta Flack started singing, I turned around and walked off the floor.

“Hey.” He caught my wrist. “Where are you going?”

“I’m worn out. I need to sit down,” I said, wiping my forehead dramatically.

“Let’s get something to drink.” He nodded toward the exit.

“Isn’t there anything in here?” I looked around for the refreshment tables.

“They’re out. We can get some water at the drinking fountain, though.” He grinned suggestively. “Or I’ve got some beer in my car.”

“No, thanks. I’ll stick with water.”

“Okay. That’s cool.”

He still hadn’t let go of my wrist. I wasn’t sure if I should try to pull away. Would that be rude? He wasn’t holding my hand. His fingers were clamped around me right above my watch.

I let it go in the interest of politeness. He was the first guy to take any notice of me in a long time, like since the tenth grade, and while I wasn’t attracted to him, I didn’t want to be mean to him either.

The hallways, even the lobby, were eerily quiet with almost everyone in the gym. The lighting, lower than normal in these back hallways because it was after hours, made the blue-green wall tiles and floor seem even more watery and swimming-pool-like than usual. We ghosted past the cafeteria and the lobby. He turned right, toward the office.

I tugged at his grip. “Why not use the one in the lobby?”

He nodded in the direction of the office. “The one down here’s better.”

“Really? Why?”

“It’s cleaner, for one thing. Someone spit some gum in the lobby one, and I don’t think anyone’s cleaned it up yet.”

“Ick.” Okay, that was a good reason to choose another.

I could hear low, male voices as we got closer to the office area, but I couldn’t tell where they were coming from. Maybe one of the classrooms had been left unlocked, or maybe whoever it was had taken over the bathrooms. I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was get my drink of water and return to the gym.

The fountain next to the office wasn’t especially clean either. It looked like someone had dumped coffee grounds into it earlier in the day. Black specks covered the basin and clogged the drain.

I held my breath and took a sip anyway. What can I say. I was desperate.

My escort bent down after me and slurped up a big mouthful. Great manners.

“What’s your name?” I said as he straightened. “I’m Cass.”

“I know who you are.” He gave me a sly look that made me uncomfortable, although I couldn’t say why. “I’m Kurt.”

“Hi, Kurt. Are you friends with Dex?”

“We know each other.” He slipped his hand from my wrist to my hand, lacing his fingers with mine.

It was not a welcome gesture, but I couldn’t quite see how to free myself. Not without openly defying him, at least.

“How do you know who I am?” I said.

“Everyone knows you.” He smirked. “You’re Cass Maslanka, the untouchable.”

“The what?” I said, dumbfounded. Nobody had called me untouchable before.

“The untouchable. The ice queen.”

“I’m not an ice queen.” Now I was getting irritated. I yanked my hand against his grip, but he didn’t let go.

“I know you’re not, but lots of people think you are,” he said, eyeing me.

We were standing right next to the darkened office. There was a little cubby or niche formed by the doorway. The door was locked, but it was inset a bit, creating this small space and he drew me into it, out of the dim light of the hallway.

I tried to push past him. “I want to go back to the dance now.”

“In a minute.” He had me up against the door.

The wood felt cold and hard and unforgiving against my back. He was hot and sweaty in front of me, his shirt clammy against the exposed skin of my arms where he boxed me in. He smelled of sweat and cologne.

“What are you trying to do?” I said.

“I want a kiss before we go back.” He bent toward me, his breath heavy with the sour smell of beer.

“No.” Yuck. He was one of the last guys I’d want to kiss. I regretted dancing with him at all.

“I know you want it, dressed like that.” He chuckled and dragged his fingertip along the edge of my neckline. His touch on such an intimate part of me made me shiver with revulsion.

“Let me go.” I shoved at him.

He was a lot stronger than he looked. Maybe he had a skinny, flat chest, but I couldn’t budge him half an inch.

“Show me you’re not an ice queen, Cass,” he said, shoving his mouth against mine.

His lips were hard and unyielding. Bruising. I’d only been kissed once, and that had been gentle and hesitant, on both my part and the guy’s. This was completely different, an assault, a painful insult.

I could feel his teeth through his lips. Then his tongue. He was trying to force his tongue into my mouth. Well, if he managed to do it, he was going to get a surprise. I’d bite the hell out of him.

Thrashing in his arms, I kicked him. He gave up on the tongue, but kept mashing his lips against mine. It must have been harder to manage the tongue than I thought. I pounded on his back with my fists until he grabbed my hands and forced them over my head. His body shoved against mine, taking all the space away and making it impossible for me to fight back anymore.

For an instant, I thought he was going to do it. Whatever “it” was. I didn’t want to think about that.

Then something yanked him off me. Kurt went staggering across the hall to slam into a bank of lockers. Panting, I shoved the hair from my eyes.

Dex stood between me and him, glaring at his friend. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he growled.

Kurt shoved off the lockers. “Stay out of it, Morgan.”

“She doesn’t want whatever it was you were trying to do,” Dex said, holding a hand out in a stop gesture. “I suggest you leave. Go back to the dance.”

“Maybe I don’t want to dance anymore,” Kurt said. “Maybe I want to get it on.”

“She said no. Now get out of here.”

“You’re not gonna get any further with her,” Kurt said with a sneer. “She’s like a glacier.”

“Don’t make me fight you,” Dex said. “You don’t want that.”

Kurt paled. His cocky attitude fled as he took a step backward. “No, man, I don’t wanna fight you.”

“Get lost.”

“Okay. Yeah. Sorry, Dex.” Kurt turned on his heel and dashed back toward the dance.

My whole body shook now that Kurt wasn’t pushing himself against me anymore. I didn’t know if he would have raped me or if that nasty kiss would have satisfied him. I only knew it was over.

My hands shook as I tried to fix my hair, but the elaborate curled style Jenny had created was ruined. One of the feathers hung on my shoulder, broken, and the other sagged over my ear.

Dex turned to me. “You all right?”

“Y-yeah. I think so.” I plucked the remaining feather out of my hair.

“Holy shit. It’s you.”

I peered up at him. He seemed genuinely astonished, looking down at me with his mouth open, his eyes unusually wide for him. His normal cool was temporarily gone.

“Um. Yeah?” I said.

“Cass, right?”

“Uh huh.” I crossed my arms over my chest, wondering if he’d give me the eyeball the way Kurt had. My heart was pounding and jumping around, and it wasn’t all fear and adrenaline from the Kurt encounter. Some of it was for Dex.

“I’m Dex Morgan,” he said, his gaze remaining on my face. No ogling here.

“Yeah, I know,” I said.

He lifted one eyebrow. “You do, huh?”

“Everyone knows who you are.”

Dex snorted. “Yeah. I’m notorious.”

I couldn’t argue with that, so I didn’t say anything. We just stood there and looked at each other for a long, awkward moment.

He wasn’t wearing a costume. In fact, his chamois shirt looked like the same blue one I’d seen on him the other day. He was probably way too cool to get dressed up for Halloween.

“I almost didn’t recognize you,” he said with a swift glance over my form. “You look really different.”

“Yeah.” I fidgeted nervously, shifting my weight around and playing with a lock of my hair. “My friend did my hair and make-up for me.”

“You look really pretty.”

I blushed. “Thanks. Um, what are you doing here?”

He gave me a lop-sided smile. “Saving you, apparently.”

“No, I meant what are you doing at the dance? It doesn’t seem like your thing.”

His smile disappeared. “It isn’t. I had some business to take care of.”

Business? Like a drug deal or something?

I swallowed. “Oh. Well, I don’t want to keep you if you’ve got stuff to do.”

“Nah,” he said easily. “I’m already done. Why don’t I walk you back to the dance?”

I rubbed my arms. “I’m not sure I want to go back just yet. I feel kind of weird.” Like all my nerve endings were exposed. I wasn’t sure I could face a crowd of people just yet.

On the other hand, I probably wasn’t really any safer with Dex than I’d been with Kurt. My intellect knew that, but my heart—or maybe it was my body—disagreed.

He glanced at me. “Are you afraid of Kurt? He won’t bother you again.”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “I just feel weird.” I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not your problem. Thank you for helping me again, though. I really do appreciate it.”

“You shouldn’t be alone right now,” he said, his voice low and thoughtful. “You look pretty shaken up.”

“I do?”

He nodded, his eyes serious. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”

“Do you want to go home?”

I shrugged again. “I came with my friend Jenny, so I’ll have to see if she wants to go.”

Her dad had driven us and was going to pick us up at ten o’clock. I touched my fingertip to my lip. It felt swollen and sore. If Jenny or her dad saw me like this, it would get back to my parents. And then there’d be hell to pay for sure.

“I can take you. If you’d like.”

I stared at him, surprised at the offer. It was kind. Unless he planned to take advantage of my vulnerability while I was trapped in a car with him.

“That’s a very nice offer,” I said politely. “But I don’t think I know you well enough.”

“Suit yourself. But I think I’ll stick around for a while, just to make sure he doesn’t come back.”

I frowned. “I thought you said he wouldn’t bother me.”

“He probably won’t. But if I’m around, I know he won’t.”

“Aren’t you guys friends?” I said suspiciously. Maybe the whole thing had been a set-up.

“Me and Kurt Wilson? No. I barely know the guy.”

“But you were sitting next to him in Miss Thornhill’s class. I thought you were acting like buddies.”

He shook his head. “They’re just acquaintances. Sometimes I do some business with them is all.”

Business. Was he talking about drugs?

“Oh,” I said faintly, wondering how I could get rid of him. My dad would kill me if he found out I’d hung around with a known drug dealer, even for a few minutes.

The problem was that I didn’t want to get rid of him. Shameful, I know, but I wanted to find out more about him. I wanted to stand next to him so I could sense the heat of his body near me.

God, I was such a dork. If he knew what I was thinking about him, he’d probably laugh.

“Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll stick around for a while and we can hang out in the hallway or one of the rooms until you feel better. When you’re ready, we’ll go back to the dance, I’ll disappear, and you can go home with your friend.”

I gazed at him dubiously. “You’d do that for me?”

“Sure.”

“Why?”

He shrugged. A look of embarrassment flashed over his face, so quickly I wasn’t sure if I’d really seen it. “Just ‘cause. I don’t want Wilson coming back and thinking he can start something with you again.”

So he felt responsible for me? That was strange. I told myself this was not, and could never be, because he liked me. Dex Morgan didn’t like girls like me. He liked the trashy, easy kind who skipped class to smoke and drink and get laid.

“You know, um…” I paused, biting my lip. “I don’t want to be rude or anything, but I’m not like some of the girls I’ve seen you with. I’m—”

“I know,” he interrupted. “You’re a good girl and you’re not supposed to be seen with someone like me. That’s why I’ll disappear. I won’t embarrass you.”

Now my mouth was the one hanging open. “Huh? No, that’s not what I meant at all.”

“It isn’t?” he said, with another skeptical lift of his brow.

“No. I just meant that I’m not—you know—a party girl. I don’t drink or anything like that. I’m—” I looked down at the blue satin skirt of my costume dress. “I’m really boring, actually.”

“I don’t think you’re boring.”

That brought my head up again. He was looking at me with a slight smile on his full lips, but there wasn’t anything mocking about it. I couldn’t put my finger on what sort of expression it was, just that he didn’t seem to be making fun of me.

“Oh,” I said.

“Come on,” he said, tilting his head toward the far end of the hallway. The movement made his hair fall to the side. “Let’s find a spot to hang out. I promise I won’t hurt you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Chapter 7

Slow Dance

 

Cass:

The dim overhead lights of the school hallway cast odd shadows on Dex’s face as he gazed soberly down at me. Behind him, the principal’s office and administrative areas were dark, mysterious caves. A cool draft teased the skin exposed by my low neckline. I shivered and crossed my arms over my chest.

I could hear the sound of music and voices coming from the gym, and I caught a whiff of popcorn, yet they seemed far away and unimportant. Even Kurt Wilson didn’t seem important anymore.

The only significant thing in my world at that moment was Dex.

He didn’t seem to want anything from me. Although he said he wanted to make sure I was safe, I didn’t get the feeling that he expected anything from me in return. Was I kidding myself?

Maybe it was stupid to trust him, but I did it anyway. He felt safe, oddly enough. This big, rough drug dealer somehow felt safe to me.

Crazy, I know. I should have turned around and run back to the gym as fast as I could. Instead, I let him lead me deeper into the school, past the offices and the cove, down the hall that connected the high school to Romig Junior High and the library they shared. It was just as closed up and locked as the offices.

The atrium-like common area in front of the library, with its stacked carpet-covered cubes for climbing and sitting, seemed lonely without any students. The noises from the dance had faded. It almost seemed too quiet back here.

“It’s locked,” I said, pointing at the closed doors and the darkened rooms beyond.

Dex reached into his pocket and pulled out a key.

“You have a key to the library?” I said, puzzled.

He glanced at me with a wry smile. “Yep. It comes in handy sometimes.”

“Weird.”

“It’s a skeleton key to the whole school. I can get in any room I want.” He unlocked the door. “After you.”

“Why would you have a key to the whole school?” I whispered.

“In case I need to rescue a girl and take her somewhere private to recover.” He grinned at me, his eyes twinkling with humor I would never have expected to see on his face.

I smiled. “Right.”

“Let’s go sit in the back where no-one will see us.”

Most of the tables were in the center of the room. It was so dark I could hardly see where to put my feet. There were a few tables tucked behind the stacks, and that was where we went. Dex sat on the top of one of them, looping his arm around his bent knee. In the moonlight shining through the windows, his eyes looked dark and mysterious and as remote as ever.

I perched on the wooden seat of one of the chairs, my hands clasped in my lap. Now that we were really, truly alone, I had no idea what to say. Even though I had a brother, my experience with boys was limited. I’d always been either one of the gang or the big sister. Never the girlfriend. Never the date.

Not that this was a date. God, no. I needed to get that idea out of my head immediately.

“So, Cass, what’s your costume supposed to be?” he said, watching me with those inscrutable eyes.

“A can-can dancer.” Did he even know what that was? A lot of the kids in our school had less than no interest in history.

“Oh, right,” he said. “Do you know how to do the dance?”

“No.” I was blushing, but in the darkness he surely couldn’t see it. “And even if I did, I wouldn’t do it.”

“How come? It’s pretty tame if you ask me.”

“Well, yeah. But you’re supposed to do those high kicks. My mom and dad would have a cow if they saw me doing something like that.”

“They would, huh?”

“Yeah. Like I told you, I’m really boring.”

“You need to quit saying that.” He reached out and pushed lightly against my upper arm. “You’re not boring, Cass Maslanka.”

“You know my whole name?”

“Yep.”

Huh. What did that mean?

“A lot of people don’t know what a can-can dancer is,” I said, in an awkward attempt at normal, light conversation.

“That’s true.” He glanced sidelong at me. “And you’re wondering how a low-life like me knows something like that.”

“No.” Yes.

He laughed softly. “It’s okay, Cass. I know who I am. But it might surprise you to know that I like to read.”

I attempted to hide my surprise. “Me too. What do you read about?”

“This and that. History. Science fiction. Mechanical stuff.”

“Are you a mechanic?”

“I work on cars, yeah.” He tilted his head slightly. “Is that a bad thing?”

Wow. He was unsure about himself. I never would have guessed that, never would have imagined any kind of insecurity lay beneath his cool exterior.

“Of course not.”

“You sure?”

I thought I could see a dimple in his cheek, but it was hard to tell in the low light.

“Yeah, I’m sure. My grandpa was a mechanic for a while.”

“Just for a while?” he said, turning slightly toward me.

“Yeah. He became a carpenter.”

“Somehow, I figured you’d come from a family of professionals. Doctors or something.”

I shook my head with a little laugh. “Not at all. My dad is from a family of Polish boot and shoemakers in Chicago. My mom’s folks are German-American farmers from Wisconsin. No professionals anywhere in my family tree as far as I know.”

“But you’re a good girl,” he said. “A nice girl, and I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

“Then don’t.”

He seemed to be studying me through the gloom of the library. Could he see me any better than I could see him? I wondered what he saw in me. There had to be something, or he wouldn’t be sitting here with me, and it must be something I’d never noticed in myself. Because I really couldn’t understand what it could be.

“You’re not afraid to be seen with me?” he said.

“Not if you don’t mind being seen with me.”

Where was this conversation going? Was he trying to ask me out? Maybe Jenny was right and he really did like me, as unbelievable as that seemed.

“Why would I mind?” he said. “This is all in my favor.”

“I figured your reputation might be ruined if you’re seen with someone as uncool as I am.”

He snorted. “I don’t give a shit about that.”

“You don’t?”

“No. Besides, what makes you think you’re uncool?”

I pulled my chin back. “The fact that all the cool people totally ignore me, for one thing. When they’re not picking on me.”

Dex leaned forward. “Who picks on you?” he said tensely.

“Just people. It’s kind of random, actually. My point is that I know I’m not cool and if you’re seen with me then you’ll be un-cool too.”

I could sense his grin even through the darkness. “Baby, my cool will rub off on you, so don’t worry about it.”

He’d called me baby. The endearment stunned me so much I couldn’t answer.

It didn’t mean anything. He probably called all the girls that. I told my heart to stop fluttering and be sensible, but it wouldn’t listen.

I cleared my throat. “Um, okay. I’ll try to remember that.”

We sat there smiling at each other for a moment. No amount of darkness could have hidden it. Then I realized what I was doing—making goo-goo eyes at Dex Morgan—and I blushed and looked away.

“Cass?”

“Yeah?” I looked up again.

“Wilson didn’t hurt you, did he?” Dex said in a low voice.

“No. Well, my lip is a little sore, but he didn’t really do anything too bad.”

“You sure? You’re not holding out on me?”

“I’m sure. Why?”

He shook his head. “Just wondering. Making sure you’re really okay.”

If I’d had the nerve, I would have reached out and taken his hand. But I didn’t have the nerve. I was a wimp, so my hand stayed in my lap.

“Dex, why did you stand up for me on the bus?” I blurted.

He shifted his weight. The wide leg of his jeans made a sliding sound against the table top. “Leon was embarrassing you.”

“So? I mean, you didn’t even know me. Why did you care?”

He looked down. “I don’t know. Did it bother you?”

“No. I told you. I was—am—grateful. It was just really unexpected. I mean, isn’t he one of your friends? You took my side over his.”

“Leon is a friend, but I didn’t like what he was doing.” He sounded self-conscious and his head remained lowered, so I couldn’t see his face.

“So my reputation as an ice queen didn’t bother you?”

“What are you trying to say?” There was a faint note of something hostile in his voice. Defiance, maybe, or anger.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Nobody’s ever stuck up for me before, that’s all.”

“Nobody?”

Now he sounded disbelieving. I wished we could turn on the lights so I could see his expression. But then he’d be able to see mine, and maybe the strange sense of intimacy we had here in the dark would be lost.

“Nobody,” I said.

He reached across the table and took my hand. It was such an unexpected gesture that I gave a start of surprise, but I didn’t pull away. His hand felt strong and gentle around mine, warm and dry and comforting.

“They should have,” he said. “You don’t deserve that kind of bullshit.”

“Thanks.” I couldn’t look at him. It was too intense.

Instead, I let him continue holding my hand. My fingers slowly curled around his, so I was holding him back. There in the dark, in the quiet of the library, I felt as if I were dreaming. Nothing seemed quite real. The situation was so improbable that it was easy to tell myself it was outside of ordinary reality, a place and time where Dex Morgan could hold hands with Cass Maslanka, and therefore anything could happen.

Well, not anything. There were certain things I wouldn’t do, not with anyone. Not even Dex.

“I like science fiction too.” My non-sequitur broke the silence awkwardly.

“You do?” He sounded amused. “Who are your favorites?”

“What? You think a girl can’t like science fiction?”

“I never said that. What authors do you like?”

“Andre Norton. Ursula K. LeGuin. Robert Silverberg. Isaac Asimov. And Edgar Rice Burroughs.”

“Oh, yeah? Are you into Tarzan the ape man?” He gave my hand a teasing little squeeze. “Should I call you Jane?”

My God, was he flirting with me? I blushed and laughed.

“No, don’t call me Jane. I like the Tarzan stuff all right, but I was thinking of the Pellucidar books, actually.”

“I read one of those. It was pretty good. Although the idea of a whole world in the center of the earth seems kind of silly nowadays.” His thumb made a gentle stroking motion across the back of my hand. The touch made little tingles of awareness travel up my arm and all the way through my body to settle deep in my belly.

“Yeah,” I said breathlessly. “I know what you mean.”

He was not at all what I’d expected. I never thought he’d be the kind of guy to pick up a book at all, let alone the same kind I liked to read. That fact made me wonder if he really was a drug dealer, and if so why. Asking would be rude, though. I mean, I barely knew him and it was none of my business.

Maybe it wasn’t true. Maybe it was one of those vicious rumors people liked to spread just for the meanness of it. I wanted to believe that, because the Dex I was getting to know didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would sell drugs.

On the other hand, he did have an illicit key to the school.

“Are you feeling better?” he said, continuing to stroke my hand.

I thought about it for a moment. “Yeah, I am. Thanks. This has really helped.”

“Good. I’d better get you back to the dance now before your friend notices you’re missing.”

Oh, yeah. Jenny. I’d been so wrapped up in Dex that I’d completely forgotten about her.

“Okay,” I said, reluctant to give up the little bubble of intimacy we’d established.

He kept my hand in his as we left the library. I’d never held hands so long with a guy before, and the prolonged contact made me tingle all over. It made me ache in a way I’d never felt before, made my stomach—and other, less well-known parts of me—flutter with excitement. Which just goes to show you what a terribly dull and safe life I’d led up to that point.

When we reached the lobby, people were wandering in and out of the gym and hanging around in little clusters, talking. Some of them looked over at us, but no-one seemed to make much of the fact that Dex was holding hands with me. Maybe they didn’t recognize me.

“Well,” he said. “We’re here and you’re safe enough. Don’t go off alone with any more guys.”

I looked up at him and smiled. “I went off with you.”

“That’s different.” He smiled back.

He did have a dimple, and when he smiled, his whole face lit up. Those cool green eyes turned warm and even more mesmerizing than ever, making it impossible for me to look away.

I wanted to dance with him. Just one dance. He’d never ask me, though. He had the idea that it would embarrass or compromise me in some way, even though that was ridiculous.

Or maybe he simply didn’t want to dance with me. Maybe all that stuff he’d said in the library was him shining me on. Sweet-talking me.

“Dance with me,” Dex said.

“What?” I stared up at him stupidly.

He gave our still-connected hands a little tug. “Just one dance. Will you?”

I caught my breath. “Yeah. Of course.”

We walked into the gym still holding hands. Miraculously, no-one seemed to notice us together. I suppose they were all too busy doing their own thing to pay any attention to us. This event was probably only momentous in my head.

Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” was playing as he led me onto the dance floor. We started moving to the beat. Dex wasn’t much better at dancing than Kurt Wilson, but I didn’t care. That wasn’t the point. Besides, he kept hold of my hand the whole time, and that gave me the most indescribable feeling.

Why was I so over the moon because Dex Morgan was holding my hand? I’d barely paid any attention to his existence before that afternoon on the bus, and I was pretty sure he hadn’t noticed mine either. Until he’d intervened between me and Leon, I’d never imagined myself with a guy like him. His type were so foreign to me they might as well have been from another planet…or so I’d thought.

The song ended. I smiled and turned to leave the floor, but he held me back. The song that started to play was a slow one, the kind where you put your arms around your partner.

Dex bent down and put his lips next to my ear. “One more?”

His breath blew gently through my hair and onto my skin. It tickled. I shivered and nodded.

“Okay.”

What was I saying? Holding hands was one thing, but now I’d have to press my body up against his. But it was too late to say no, and the truth was that I didn’t want to.

He put his hands at my waist. I did the same to him. Holy cow, I had my hands on a guy’s waist. And not just any guy. Dex Morgan.

We started shuffling back and forth, slowly turning in a circle, the same way all the other couples on the floor were doing. My heart was racing now. I didn’t know whether to look up, into his face, or keep my eyes on his chest. I kept them down.

Slowly, gradually, he drew me in closer until we were pressed together from chest to hips. He felt hot, and as hard as a wooden statue. Except he was unmistakably alive beneath my hands.

His arms tightened around me. I let my head rest against his chest. This was the closest I’d ever been to a boy, even closer than the couple of times I’d been kissed. His body smelled musky, earthy, without a hint of cologne, although I detected a hint of cigarette smoke. I could hear his heart pounding even over the sound of the music.

I let my arms wrap around him. His hand began stroking my back, slowly, up under my hair and then down, all the way to the small of my back. I liked it. I wanted more, but the song seemed to be ending.

Damn.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder and yelled at me over the fading notes of the music. “Cass!”

I turned within Dex’s embrace. Jenny was staring at us, her blue eyes wide. Our coats hung over her arm.

She held up her wrist and pointed at her watch. “My dad is here!”

“Okay.” I looked up at Dex. “I have to go.”

He released me gradually, as if he didn’t want to let go. “Okay. Good night, Jane.”

I laughed. “Good night, Dex. And thanks again.”

“Don’t mention it. I’ll see you around, Cass.”

“Yeah. See you around.”

I held his gaze for another moment before turning and following Jenny off the dance floor. My body still tingled and fluttered, and I imagined I could feel his eyes on me as I left.

If Jenny hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have gone. I would have stayed with him as long as he wanted me.

This was so unlike me. What happened to sensible Cass, the girl who set a good example for her two younger siblings? She seemed to be on vacation.

Jenny bumped shoulders with me when we got into the lobby. “What the heck was that back there?” she said in a stage whisper.

“A dance.”

She gave me wide eyes. “That was more than a dance.”

“Not really.”

“Why did he call you Jane? Doesn’t he know your name?”

“He knows it. That was just a private joke.”

“A private joke? Come on, Cass, you have to tell me. You danced with Dex Morgan and he called you Jane. What happened?”

The front doors of the school were only a few yards away. Her dad was waiting in his car outside and I didn’t want to have this discussion within his hearing distance.

“He asked me to dance so I said yes,” I said lightly, pretending my stomach didn’t flutter wildly at the thought of his hands on me.

“And that’s it?”

“Yep.” I glanced at her chidingly. “It was only a dance, Jen. Really.”

“I told you he likes you.” Then her eyes narrowed as she stared at my face. “Oh, my God. He kissed you!”

“Jeez, will you keep your voice down? He didn’t kiss me.”

“Then what happened to your lipstick? It’s gone.”

“I’ll tell you some other time, okay?”

“No. Not okay.” She pushed the doors open, letting in a blast of icy winter air.

“I can’t talk about it in front of your dad. Just give it a rest.”

She looked like she was going to open her mouth and pester me again.

“Who were you dancing with, anyway?” I said, partly out of real curiosity and partly to forestall any more questions on her part.

“That was Bob Rogers. Didn’t you recognize him?”

“Not dressed as Zorro.” I gave her a closer inspection, noting the blush on her cheeks. “You like him, don’t you?”

“Maybe.” She giggled. “Yes.”

“Tell me all about it.”

Bob Rogers was a football player, one of the popular crowd. I never would have put him and Jenny together, any more than I would have done with me and Dex. He seemed nice enough, though, and I was happy for her.

We picked our way carefully down the icy steps. Jenny’s dad had pulled up their Chevrolet station wagon right in front, so we didn’t have to go far. The running engine sent a cloud of exhaust fumes into the air.

I tapped Jenny on the wrist. “Don’t say anything about Dex, okay?”

“Yeah, okay.” She grinned at me. “I’ll be too busy talking about Bob.”

Chapter 8

Reality

 

Dex:

The gym felt hotter than hell all of a sudden. The air seemed to press in on me. The strobe lights flashed in my eyes—red, blue, red, blue, like the lights on a cop car.

Although the air felt hot, my body was cold without Cass in my arms. I wanted her sweet little body against me again, just to hold.

The DJ was playing another fast song—“Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. Not one of my favorites, and besides I’d lost my partner. But I stood there anyway and stared after her like an idiot while around me couples started dancing to the new tune.

The noise of the music and the crowd of dancers seemed to fade away as I watched Cass leave, her blond friend by her side. I should never have asked her to dance.

Hell, I should never have touched her at all, let alone held her hand. All that had done was made me want her even more, and I couldn’t have her. She was so far out of my league I’d get a nosebleed if I tried to date her.

Date her?

I didn’t date. I fucked. Sometimes I hung out with a chick if I liked her well enough. Dating was not a part of my life.

Cass wasn’t the kind of girl I would merely fuck. It would be more than enjoyable, maybe even addictive, but I wouldn’t get involved with her on that level. She was the kind of girl who would expect a whole lot more than I was willing to give.

I stuck my hands in my jeans pockets and made my way off the dance floor. I still had a few baggies of weed to sell, so I made my way around the edges of the room, looking for prospects.

I’d paid the gas bill just in time to prevent them from shutting off our heat, and I’d bought the part I needed and fixed my car, but I still needed money. I always needed money.

By the time I headed home, I was significantly richer. I turned into my neighborhood, remembering Cass walking home alone through the snow. Which house belonged to her family? I didn’t even know which street was hers.

She probably had one of the nicer houses. Maybe one with a fence around the yard. Flowers in the front in summer, a sprinkler running on the sunny days. Did she have brothers and sisters? Did they run through the sprinkler when it was hot? I’d seen little kids doing that and wondered what it was like.

I shook myself. Who the fuck cared? She wasn’t for me, any more than a cute little house with a cute little fence and a sprinkler in the front yard. End of story.

I could see the light from our TV flashing blue through the living room window when I pulled into our driveway. I opened the car door. Sound blared out at me, almost as loud as the school dance had been, tinny gunshots and one of those cheesy, old-fashioned soundtracks. Probably one of my dad’s old Westerns again.

Sonofabitch. I had a lot of money in my pocket, and I sure as fuck didn’t want it going to my dad. He’d spend it on booze.

I bent down and lifted the lid on the secret compartment I’d put in the floorboards on the passenger side. Stuffing the cash inside, I muttered a short and probably sacrilegious prayer that my dad and Sin wouldn’t guess it was there. No way did I want my money going to buy them dope and booze and whores. Yeah, I was pretty sure my dad was screwing around on my mom.

I got up to the door of the house and I could hear the shouting. My mom’s voice screeching that she didn’t know and my dad should go fuck himself. My dad’s answering bellow.

Great. Just great.

My hand hesitated on the tarnished brass of the doorknob. If I went in, I had to face the shitstorm they’d created together. But if I didn’t, I’d be leaving Joe to deal with it alone. He was probably hiding under the bottom bunk at the moment. Or maybe in the closet.

Sin sure wouldn’t be any help. If he was home at all, he was probably wasted. As always, I was the only one willing and able to do the job.

Fuck me.

I opened the door and strode into the living room without bothering to knock the snow off my shoes. Nobody around here gave a damn anyway.

Mom and Dad didn’t seem to notice I’d come in. They stood in the middle of the living room glaring at each other. He was wearing his work clothes—a cheap brown men’s suit minus the jacket, his tie loosened and turned half-way across his chest. His comb-over was flopping over the side of his head, too, in a ridiculous black fringe.

Mom wasn’t in any better shape. In fact, she was worse. She hadn’t even bothered putting on regular clothes. She wore a red velour robe so old the cuffs were falling apart and the zipper seemed permanently stuck at half-mast. Her blond hair, the same color as mine, looked dark and stringy with dirt and oil.

With another shrill scream, she lobbed a dirty plate covered with the smeared remains of a frozen pizza at him. It sailed over his head and crashed against the wall behind him, breaking with a loud shatter. Sauce and globs of melted cheese splattered across the plaster.

He rushed her and grabbed her by the hair. She screeched again and he slapped her.

“Hey,” I said, a sick feeling settling into my stomach. “Hey! Knock it off!”

My dad paused with his hand in the air, poised for another slap. “Mind your own business, Dex.”

“Do I need to call the cops?”

He laughed. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Unfortunately, he was right. The cops might search the place and discover my stash and Sin’s, and we’d both end up in jail. And Sin was too old for juvie, so he’d be in with the hard adult cases.

I glared at my old man. “Quit hitting her.”

“You want me to go after you next?” he said.

“Dex, it’s all right,” my mom said. “I don’t need your help.”

She had a red mark on her face where he’d smacked her the first time. Both of them reeked of alcohol. If I left them alone together, God only knew what they’d do to each other.

Maybe they’ll kill each other and we’ll finally be free of them.

I shut down that nasty little voice. Even I wasn’t so low I’d wish my own parents dead.

“Suit yourself,” I said.

“Hey,” my dad said in a hard tone. “Where’d you get the money to pay the gas bill?”

I gave him one of my coldest stares. “Where do you think?”

He sneered. “My son the drug dealer.”

“At least I pay the bills.”

“Where’s the rest of it?” he said, advancing on me.

“There isn’t any. I spent it all.” That was true, as far as it went. He didn’t need to know I’d gone out and earned more.

“You’re lying,” he growled, his whiskey breath gusting over me in disgusting waves. “I know you’ve got more around here somewhere.”

“Sorry. I don’t. What do you need it for, anyway? The bill’s been paid and we’ve got groceries for the week.” Kind of.

“Don’t you talk back to me, you sorry little shit. What I need it for is none of your business.”

“Well,” I said. “I’d like to help you out, but I can’t. I’m broke.” I shrugged and left them in the living room and tromped down the threadbare carpet of the hallway. Thank God he didn’t follow me.

Sin wasn’t in the bedroom. I flicked on the light. His comforter and sheets lay in a greasy tangle on his mattress, but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen. I wondered if he’d left our brother before or after our crazy parents had started in on each other.

Joe huddled on the top bunk, his arms wrapped around his middle, a haunted look on his face. The air stank of pot smoke.

“Dex!” he whispered. “I’m glad you’re back.”

I climbed up into the bunk with him. “You okay?”

“Yeah. I’m all right.” He shook his head as if to contradict himself. “I hate it when they fight like that.”

“Me, too, buddy.” I settled in with my back against the wall next to him.

He leaned against me, just lightly. “Did you go to the dance?”

“Yep. Did you do your homework?”

Joe hung his head, shaking it no. “I couldn’t. They’ve been arguing all night long.”

Parents sucked. Couldn’t they see they were hurting Joe? He was only ten. He shouldn’t have to listen to their crap or be afraid one of them would decide to come in here and pick on someone a lot smaller and less able to fight back.

I nudged his shoulder. “That’s all right. We’ll get it done over the weekend.” Maybe our folks would be comatose with drink by then and we’d have some peace for a while.

“Okay.” He gave me a strained smile. “I’m supposed to write a story.”

“Oh, yeah? What about?”

“The teacher didn’t say except it has to have snow in it.”

“I bet you can come up with some great ideas,” I said.

“Maybe.” He looked doubtful.

I wondered if Cass liked telling stories as much as she seemed to enjoy reading them. The time I’d spent with her in the library took on this completely unreal tone, almost like I’d dreamed it. It was a sweet little bubble outside my ordinary life, a place where we could hold hands and talk about stories and…shit. I should’ve kissed her when I had the chance. I might not get another one.

This…screaming parents, an absent and drug-addicted older brother, no money…this was reality. At least for me.

Chapter 9

Halloween

 

Cass:

Miss Martha’s Stock Pot was especially busy on Sunday. The chatter of voices and clink of tableware against thick, white china almost drowned out the classical music they always played. The air smelled deliciously of the daily special, savory sausage potato soup, and the freshly baked bread and cakes that filled the tempting pastry case near the register.

Our family of five crowded into our unadorned booth, our plates bumping against each other on the heavy, natural wood table top. I’d gotten the daily special plus a cinnamon roll. The Stock Pot had some of the best soup in town, all handmade, nothing out of a can. They baked their own bread and rolls, too.

Hanging spider plants and macramé wall hangings underscored the groovy, hippie vibe of the place. It was almost always bustling with people, full of good cheer, a place where you could either eat a full lunch or just hang out with a coffee and friends if that was what you wanted to do.

On Sunday, my family always went out to lunch after Mass. Sometimes we went to fancier places, sometimes we had pizza, and sometimes we came to Miss Martha’s.

“How is school this year, Cass?” my mom said, just as I stuck a bite of soup in my mouth.

I rolled my eyes and pointed to my lips. She had a strict rule that we weren’t to talk with our mouths full.

A couple passed by our table. The guy had long, blond hair—really long, past his shoulders—and the girl was wearing a snug T-shirt with no bra underneath. You could tell by the way her breasts hung, lower than they would have with a bra, and the way they jiggled as she moved, and the way her nipples poked at the fabric of her shirt. Her boyfriend had his arm around her shoulder and they were staring at each other in unabashed adoration. Why couldn’t someone look at me that way?

“No shame,” my mom said, her lips thinning so much they almost disappeared.

“Who?” Adam said around a mouthful of sandwich.

“Adam, don’t talk with your mouth full,” she said. “I was talking about that girl with no bra. Doesn’t she realize everyone can see what she’s got?”

“I don’t think she cares,” Beth remarked.

“Well, she should care. She ought to have some pride in herself, some respect. That boy she’s with won’t respect her if she doesn’t respect herself.”

I wasn’t sure the girl’s choice to go braless was due to a lack of self-respect. It was probably more of a political statement.

“She’s a bra-burner, Lucille,” my dad said.

My mom gave an unladylike snort. “I’m sure. My mother would have tanned my hide before she’d have allowed me out of the house looking like that.”

“I think she’s over eighteen,” I said.

“Still. It isn’t appropriate.”

Privately, I agreed that going braless was unattractive. But it was the girl’s choice, and I didn’t know why my mom always got so worked up about it. Every time she spied a woman without her bra, she had something to say about it, as if her complaining would change anything.

Adam winked at me. “I like it.”

“Adam Maslanka!” My mom gave him her most potent Mom-glower.

He grinned. “I can’t help it. I’m a man.”

“You don’t even shave yet,” Beth said.

“So?” Adam put on his own glower. “I could if I wanted to.”

“Yeah, all three hairs,” Beth said, grinning.

“Kids, don’t argue,” my dad said.

“But it’s fun,” Beth told him.

Adam subsided and returned to stuffing his ham sandwich into his face. For a few minutes, we had enough peace to get some eating accomplished. I was hungry because I’d skipped breakfast before church, so that was good with me.

Then Beth nudged me with her elbow. “I heard you danced with Dex on Friday.”

I widened my eyes at her and gave my head a subtle shake. “Not really.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Are you sure? I heard you did.”

“Well, yeah, but it was just one silly dance.”

Please, please let her drop the subject. I didn’t want my parents inquiring into Dex’s background, which was exactly what they’d do if they even suspected I was seeing someone. I was reasonably sure they wouldn’t like the results, and neither would I.

Adam swallowed his food. “Dex Morgan?”

“It wasn’t a big deal,” I said, taking an ever-so-casual sip of my water. “Just a dance.”

“Wow,” he said. “I heard he only—“

I shook my head at him.

“Dates girls with curly hair,” he finished lamely.

“Girls with curly hair?” my dad said, frowning in obvious bafflement. “Why would he do that?”

“Who knows, Dad?” I said. “The male mind is a complete mystery to me.”

“Me too,” Beth said with feeling.

“You’re only thirteen,” I told her. “You’re not supposed to understand boys yet.”

“And you are? You’re only sixteen,” she said, as if that proved something significant.

“The male mind is very simple,” Adam said. “Girls.”

“Huh?” Beth gave him a dubious sideways glance.

“Girls. That’s it. That’s what we think about. Girls, girls, girls. And that’s all you need to know.”

“I take it you’re speaking for yourself,” I said dryly.

“And every other male on the planet.” He lifted his water glass to me in a mock toast.

“Dad, is that true?” Beth said plaintively.

“No, honey, it isn’t.”

“He’s just trying to protect your delicate female sensibilities,” Adam told her. “The only time we’re not thinking about girls is when we’re thinking about older women.”

My mom shook her head as if she were losing all hope for humanity. “I can’t take you kids anywhere.”

“So who’s this Dex person?” my dad said.

Damn. I was hoping he’d forgotten about that.

“Just a guy at school,” I said nonchalantly. “I barely even know him.”

“Are you dating?”

“No! Jeez, Dad, it was just a dance, honestly.”

“Okay. But if it goes any further, you need to let me and your mom know. We’ll want to meet him.”

“Sure. Of course.” On the same day that hell froze over.

***

It was one of the coldest Halloweens I could remember. We’d gotten so much snow the afternoon of the Leon and Dex Incident that we now had almost a foot accumulated. Normally at this time of year, there was maybe an inch or two.

I sat dressed in regular jeans and a wool sweater in our foyer, the only part of our house on ground level, and read a novel while I waited for trick-or-treaters to show up. The sweet smell of the treats we’d prepared filled the air. It was a Tuesday night and most of the parties were already over. People had done their celebrating over the weekend. The kids, though, wanted to do Halloween on the actual day, and I didn’t blame them.

Every time I opened the door to hand out treats, I got frozen all over again. Thick rimes of ice coated our driveway. Cars drove slowly, occasionally sliding sideways toward one side or the other of our street. Clusters of chubby ghosts and bats and witches flitted along in the frozen dark, clutching their plastic jack-o’-lantern treat bags, their costumes made pudgy by all the winter clothes they wore beneath them.

Mom, Beth, and I had made tray after tray of caramel apples, plus we had parceled out the wrapped candy into plastic baggies. Each trick-or-treater got one apple and one bag of candy. The apples—Golden Delicious—were pretty good this year, which was lucky because sometimes all we got in the stores were these tasteless, mealy fruit-shaped objects that only pretended to be apples.

The bell rang again. I opened it to see a little boy dressed as a pirate, with a patch over one eye and a bandanna tied over his head, blousy black sweatpants tucked into his puffy winter boots. Dex Morgan stood next to him. My mouth went dry and my heart and stomach instantly jumped into a contest to see which could flutter the fastest.

He stared at me for an instant, his cool slightly askew. Then a lazy smile spread across his face. “Hi, there, Jane.”

I blushed. “Hi, Dex.”

The little boy looked up at him. “You know her?”

“Yeah, I do.” Dex patted the kid on the shoulder. “This is Cass. Cass, this is my little brother, Joe.”

So Dex had a brother. And he was obviously affectionate and protective toward him, which made me like him way more than I should. That thought wasn’t helping my nerves any.

“Hi, Joe,” I managed to say.

“How come you called her Jane if her name is Cass?” Joe said.

Dex laughed. “I’ll explain later.” He met my gaze again. “I didn’t know this was your house.”

“Yeah. Uh, it is.” Brilliant conversation there.

“You’re not in costume tonight,” he observed.

“No. Neither are you.”

“Yeah. I don’t do costumes.”

Joe elbowed him. “I wanted him to be a pirate, too, but he said fuck no.”

“Joe! Jesus, watch your language,” Dex said with an uncomfortable glance at me.

I laughed. “It’s okay.”

“So what kind of treats have you got?” Joe extended the tattered pillowcase he held.

“I’ve got some good stuff.” I turned back to my tray of apples and bags of candy. “You can have one each.”

“Wow. Caramel apples.” Joe grabbed an apple and a baggie and tossed them in his sack. “Thanks, Jane. I mean Cass.”

“You’re welcome, Captain.”

Dex grinned at me. “Thank you.”

“Here.” I held out the tray. “You get some too.”

“Nah. I don’t need any.”

“Sure you do. Come on. You’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t take any.”

He gave me a surprisingly bashful smile. “Okay. Thanks.”

I watched him select an apple. His fingers were long and narrow. Graceful. I’d never thought of a guy’s fingers as graceful before. Dex tucked the apple into the pocket of his coat.

“Thanks, Cass.”

“Take some candy, too.”

He shook his head and laughed a little, but he consented to take a baggie, which he put in his other pocket. I wondered if he’d eat it or give it to Joe.

Now what did I do? Should I ask them to come in? I’d already exhausted my meager store of nerve just by talking to him and boldly urging candy on him. Normally, I would have stood there tongue-tied and stupid, so I wasn’t sure what had gotten into me tonight.

Dex had stuffed his hands in his jeans pockets and was kind of rocking back and forth as if nervous. Maybe he needed an excuse to leave. Or maybe he was hoping I’d invite him inside. I opened my mouth.

Joe yanked on Dex’s coat sleeve. “Come on. There are still a lot of houses to visit.”

“Okay, buddy.” Dex lifted his hand. “See ya, Cass.”

“’Bye.”

If I watched them walk back down the driveway, it would be the most uncool thing ever. Plus, I’d probably turn into solid ice. Reluctantly, I shut the door, wishing I’d asked them in.

But Adam and Beth were upstairs carving pumpkins, and Adam was well aware of Dex’s reputation. If the guys had come in, Adam would know Dex and I were acquainted by more than a simple dance.

Would he tell on me? He might. More likely, he’d give me a lecture at some later time and I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to keep my inappropriate attraction to Dex a secret for a little while longer.

***

Dex:

Cass’s front door was the flat kind, white, like most of the other doors in the neighborhood. Her house had only a small stoop in a little niche-like arrangement between the south wall of the house and the garage, the green walls rising high and faceless over our heads.

It was a typical entry to a typical split-level house. Nothing special. That ordinariness didn’t stop me from feeling like crap when she shut the door on me, though.

Joe danced around as we left Cass’s driveway. My feet were starting to go numb from the cold, but I’d promised him we could hit as many houses as he wanted tonight and I wasn’t going to break my word. His treat bag, which was really the only clean pillowcase I’d been able to find in our house, flopped around, hitting his legs as he hopped on the ice.

“You’re gonna fall and break your neck,” I said.

“You sound like Frankie’s mom.”

Jesus. Was I turning into an old lady? Apparently, I was. That’s what being responsible for a ten-year-old can do to you.

“She’s nice,” Joe said. “And really pretty.”

“Who, Frankie’s mom?” I said, even though I knew he meant Cass.

“No, dummy. Jane. Cass. Whatever her name is.” Joe stopped hopping long enough to peer into my face. “Do you like her?”

More than I should. I shrugged. “She’s okay.”

“I like her. When I get older, I’m gonna ask her out.”

I liked her too, more each time I talked to her. She wasn’t the bitchy ice-queen rumor made her out to be. In fact, I wasn’t sure how that rumor had gotten started.

“Maybe I’ll marry her,” Joe said.

I laughed. “Yesterday you thought girls were gross. Now you want to get married?”

“They are gross. But Cass is different.” He pointed at the next house on the block, another split-level, this one with gold siding instead of green like Cass’s. “Let’s go there.”

“You can tell she’s different after talking to her for less than five minutes?”

“Yeah. Can’t you?” He started swinging the bag again.

He was right about one thing. Cass was different.

I’d been stupidly hoping she would ask us inside, even though it would have been awkward and weird if she had. She lived in one of the nice houses, just like I’d thought. Nothing fancy, just clean and well-kept, at least from the outside, and only about six months old.

When the building companies had put up the houses on this block over the spring and summer, I’d come and hang out in the foundations with some buddies of mine, smoking and drinking. Even after the walls had gone up, we’d sneak in to party. They were huge compared to my place, with two whole stories. It was a drag when they put the doors on and we couldn’t get inside so easy anymore.

Now Cass lived in one of them.

This part of town was kind of a jumble of older, crappier houses like mine and newer, nicer places like hers. All in all, it was a pretty decent neighborhood, but there were a few dumps like the one I lived in.

Of course, our house hadn’t been so crappy when we’d moved into it. We’d made it that way. Or maybe that was just my faulty memory; I’d only been Joe’s age when we’d taken the place.

“Are you gonna date her while I grow up?” Joe said. “You can if you want, as long as I get her back when I’m ready.”

I glanced at him, trying not to laugh. He was kicking some clods of snow, not looking at me. “No, man, I’m not.”

“How come? She’s cool.”

How did I explain to Joe that girls like Cass didn’t go out with guys like me? “I don’t think she feels that way about me.”

“Yeah, she does.” He kicked another clump of snow and ice. “I could tell by the way she was looking at you.”

My stomach flip-flopped in nervous excitement, but I ignored it. “Oh?” I said, all cool detachment. “Are you an expert now?”

“Yes, I am.” He grinned. “Maybe you should marry her instead of me.”

“I’m not gonna marry anyone,” I said.

“You’re not?”

“Nope.”

Marriage was not for me. Look how my mom and dad had turned out. They’d married right out of high school, had my older brother, and immediately descended into the hell that was our family life. I had no reason to believe it would work any better for me, and I sure as hell didn’t want to end up tied to someone who made me miserable for the rest of my life.

Didn’t want kids, either. I didn’t want to do anything the same way my folks had.

Chapter 10

Fireweed

 

Dex:

The hall where I had my locker smelled like puke. Some kid had tossed his cookies all over the floor just a few yards from my spot. Jesus, it was making me feel like hurling myself.

The kid was at the nurse’s office, getting his temperature taken or whatever it was they did there. I had no idea, since I’d never visited the school nurse. If I wanted to get out of school, I left. I didn’t ask for permission.

Unfortunately, the janitor hadn’t shown up yet to clean up the disgusting mess. People were skirting it, looks of revulsion on their faces. I rummaged through the crap in my locker as fast as I could, trying to get out of there and away from the stink.

There it was. My biology textbook. I grabbed it and my binder. Slammed the locker door.

Most of the guys I hung out with cut class on a regular basis and failed to do their homework. They took the easy classes, too, hoping to slide by with C grades in exchange for little or no work. I was an anomaly—a juvenile delinquent who took his classes seriously.

Mostly, it was because I liked learning. I got bored pretty easily, and I liked a challenge. Studying was something to do, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt me any. Studying at home sucked, though, because of all the noise and chaos, so I did as much as possible somewhere else.

“Hey, Dex, what’s up?”

It was Jake Barrows, a guy I hung with and who occasionally bought some weed from me. He had his arm around Misty Lockhart, a girl I’d screwed a few times. For a while there, I’d suspected she was hoping to be my girlfriend, but like I said before, I don’t do girlfriends.

Jake leaned against the locker two doors down from mine, his arm still clamped around Misty. She was giving me the eye and batting her fake lashes at me, even though Jake had his hands on her. She wore no bra, her dark nipples showing right through her thin, white blouse. I also knew for a fact that her poufy, teased platinum-blond hair did not match the rest of her.

“How’s it going, Jake?” I said. “Misty.”

“It’s all right,” Jake said.

“I saw you at the dance.” Misty licked her shiny lips. “But you didn’t say anything.”

“Sorry. I was kind of busy.”

She pouted. Jake either didn’t notice her behavior or didn’t care. I wasn’t sure which.

“You wanna smoke with us?” Jake said, leaning his head in the direction of the front doors of the school.

“Nah. I got biology.”

He lifted his brows. He’d known me for a few years now, ever since seventh grade, and he was still surprised that I took school seriously.

“You sure?” he said. “Biology’s boring.”

“Yeah, Dex,” Misty said, licking her lips again. “You should come.”

“Maybe some other time.”

I spun the numbers on my padlock, glancing casually toward the middle of the hallway. Cass was standing there against the far wall, looking right at me. She wore jeans today, not the really wide kind most kids wore but the old-fashioned narrow ones. And a high-necked blue sweater with some kind of white design around the top of it. Her dark hair hung loose around her face in soft, natural-looking waves.

Did I acknowledge her? Would it embarrass her if I did? More importantly, would Jake and Misty jump all over her if I did?

Her gaze wavered and fell away, and I had the distinct impression I’d already hurt her feelings by hesitating.

Normally, I wouldn’t care whether I hurt the feelings of some random chick I barely knew. But Cass was different. The hurt look on her face made my insides tighten up and ache.

“I see someone I’ve gotta talk to,” I said, leaving Jake and Misty by the lockers.

As I strode toward her, Cass looked up again. I caught her eyes and nodded.

She broke into a huge smile that lit up her face. Damn, she was beautiful. I’d thought she was pretty before, but when she smiled like that, she took my breath.

“You know that chick?” Jake said in apparent disbelief. “She’s super square.”

Shit. I hadn’t realized he and Misty were following.

“Yeah. She’s a friend.” I hoped.

“Cass Maslanka is a friend of yours?” Misty said with a distinct sneer in her voice. “She’s so square and uptight she doesn’t talk to anyone. And she’s a prude, and probably a nark too.”

By this time, we were close enough for Cass to hear what she said. Her blue eyes narrowed on Misty and her back straightened as she gave her a look of cool contempt. She didn’t bother answering Misty’s claim, though. I admired her self-control.

“Hi, Cass,” I said, letting the other kids flow around us.

“Hi.” She smiled at me again, but in a more muted way.

Misty leaned all over me like she was marking territory. “I’m Misty.”

“I’m Cass.”

“I know who you are.” Misty stared at Cass as she spoke, and put her arm around my waist.

Cass flushed. Her smile vanished. Her gaze wavered again, and fell.

Jake stuck his hand out toward her. “Hi, Cass. I’m Jake.”

He sounded like he was trying not to laugh, and I wasn’t sure if he was making fun of her or being genuinely friendly. I tensed, waiting to see if he’d do something obnoxious.

She shook hands with him, a bemused expression on her face. “Hi. It’s nice to meet you.”

“You wanna go and have a smoke with us?” he said, the grin still in his voice.

Misty glared at him.

“Oh.” Cass gave me a startled glance. “Um, no, thank you. It’s nice of you to ask, but I have to get to class.”

“Told you she’s a square,” Misty said. “Don’t tell her anything or she’ll go to the teachers and report us.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” Cass said.

“C’mon.” Jake tugged at Misty’s free hand, the one not clinging to me. “Let’s go before it’s too late.”

“Come with us, Dex,” she said.

“No, thanks.” I peeled her arm off me. “Have fun, you two.”

Misty pouted, wobbling on her gigantic platform shoes as Jake led her away down the hall.

“Sorry about that,” I said to Cass. “Misty can be a bitch when she’s jealous.”

Cass’s dark brows pinched together. “You think she’s jealous of me?”

“I know she is.” And for good reason. Cass was twice as pretty and at least twice as smart.

Her little nose wrinkled. “Why does it smell so bad in here?”

“Some guy threw up.” I took her by the elbow. Her sweater felt soft and warm under my hand, yet slightly prickly. “Let’s go somewhere else.”

She let me touch her. That fact amazed me too. She didn’t seem at all embarrassed to be seen in the middle of the hall with me, like I’d half expected her to.

“What class do you have?” she said.

I gave her a quizzical smile. “Biology. Same as you.”

“How do you know that? Wait a minute. You’re in my class?”

“You didn’t notice?” I felt stupidly disappointed. The teacher called our names at the beginning of every class period, yet Cass had never noticed me.

“No. I guess I—Jeez, I’m sorry.” She looked honestly dismayed. “I keep my head down a lot.”

“It’s okay. You’ve got other things to think about in there.”

“Still—”

“It’s okay. Honest.” I smiled at her to show how okay it was.

We couldn’t talk during class. Our seat assignments were good for the whole semester, and we already had lab partners. But I watched her, the back of her head as she bent over studiously taking notes.

That was nothing new. I realized I’d been watching her ever since the first day of school that year.

It wasn’t a welcome observation. When I watched girls, it was to admire tits and ass. Not that Cass didn’t have those qualities. She did, and it was clear she had a great body even though she never showed it off. But T and A wasn’t why I looked at her. I didn’t know why I did it.

There was something about her that drew my attention, my eyes. Something that made me want to get close to her, and maybe even break my rule about no dating.

***

When the class bell rang, half the students leaped out of their seats and bolted for the door. The sound level went from practically non-existent to a deafening roar. People pushed and shoved as they all flocked to the single entry and exit point simultaneously.

Outside, in the hallway, there was an answering roar. I could see a couple of guys out there horsing around, pretending to wrestle each other against the lockers as others sped past them.

It was lunch time and everybody was in a rush to grab whatever good time they could before they had to be back for afternoon classes.

“I’m going to The Fireweed Diner for lunch,” I said to Cass as we left the biology classroom. “Want to come with?”

Her eyes widened. I couldn’t tell if she was happy I’d asked, or nervous to tell me no. “I brought my lunch today,” she said.

“So? That doesn’t mean you can’t eat out, does it?”

“Well, I didn’t bring any money.”

“It’s on me,” I said before I could think better of it.

Damn. This was sounding more and more like a date.

“I can’t let you pay for me,” she said. “It wouldn’t be fair.”

“Sure it is. Think of it as a loan.”

She bit her lip, looking torn, so I stuck my hands in my pockets and slouched a bit, just to show how unconcerned I was. Honestly, it didn’t matter whether she said yes or not. I usually ate alone, and that was fine.

She gave a decisive nod. “Okay.”

“Okay?” I grinned like an idiot. “You’ll come?”

“Yeah.” Then she frowned. “How far is it?”

“I have my car. Don’t worry about it.”

“Oh.” Another lip-biting worried look.

“It’s not stolen,” I said.

She blinked in obvious surprise. “I never thought it was.”

“You looked like you were afraid to get in it with me.”

Cass blushed. Her pale skin showed every emotion with a flush of color. “Are you a wild driver?”

“Probably.” I grinned again. “But I’ll take it easy on you.”

“Okay. Just let me get my coat.”

The howl of an earthquake siren started up, so loud it easily penetrated the walls of the school. Those things had been going off as long as I could remember, and mostly we ignored them. They were like fire drills without the drill, since we never did anything in response to the noise. I guess they were supposed to warn of an impending earthquake, although what we were supposed to do if the earth did start to shake I had no idea. It’s not exactly something you can prepare for.

Cass raised her dark eyebrows at me. “Why do they still do those? They don’t really think the Russians are going to attack us, do they?”

I gave her a quizzical look. “Russians? It’s an earthquake siren.”

“Oh.” She frowned up at me. “Are you sure? I always thought it was an air-raid siren.”

“Maybe I’m wrong.” I shrugged. “Either way, they’re annoying.”

“Why do they do it? If there was an earthquake, it’s not like we could escape it.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it’s just habit.”

She laughed. “Like they turned them on years ago and now no-one can find the off switch?”

“Yeah.” I grinned. “Something like that.”

Misty never would have joked like that with me. None of the girls I normally hung out with would have even understood what I was trying to say. Why did I spend all my time with people like that?

I wasn’t sure I really wanted the answer to that question.

By the time we got outside, it had started to snow again. My Barracuda was at the far end of the huge parking lot, where I put it to make getting out easier. I hated being trapped behind a backlog of cars when I wanted to leave.

Now, though, I worried about Cass slipping on the ice as we made our way across the lot. Jesus. Maybe I really was turning into an old lady. Since when did I worry about a girl falling down?

Cass was fine anyhow. She had good boots on, not crazy platforms like Misty, and she walked confidently.

Don’t get me wrong. I like sexy shoes. But it does make things easier when a girl can take care of herself.

When she saw my car, she frowned, her eyes widening at the same time. Her steps slowed as she took in the dented black body and the mismatched side panel in rusted green.

“She looks rough, but she handles beautifully,” I said.

“Okay.”

“I’m fixing her up.”

She glanced at me with a dubious expression. “Are you?”

“Yeah. Get in. You’ll see.”

I came around to the passenger side and unlocked the door for her, holding it as she climbed in. She sat gingerly in the bucket seat, as if she thought the car might rear up and bite her. I tried not to laugh as I shut the door for her.

“It was nice of you to take Joe trick or treating,” she said as I got into the driver’s side. “Do you go every year?”

“Usually he goes with Frankie Jones, but this year Frankie was sick. He pestered me until I gave in.” I started the ignition. The engine gave the same throaty rumble that filled me with satisfaction every time I drove her.

“Riders On The Storm” by The Doors roared out of the speakers. I turned down the sound so we could hear each other talk.

“Well, I think it was great. You looked cute together.” She licked her lips. “This car is really loud, isn’t it?”

She thought I was cute? That wasn’t a good sign. Cute never got the girl.

I slanted a glance at her and pulled the car out of its spot. “I’m a guy. I’m not cute.”

She laughed. “Okay. Sorry.”

We were alone in the car together. This was the most privacy we’d had since the dance, and though it wasn’t a real date it was feeling an awful lot like one. Not that I’d know. I’d never taken a girl out.

I chanced another look at Cass. Did she think of this as a date? It wasn’t in the same league as dinner and a movie, but I was paying for her meal and doing the driving. That made it kind of a date.

My hands felt slippery on the wheel. I was nervous, for chrissake. The last time I’d been nervous with a girl was in the sixth grade. The first time I’d kissed someone.

“So Misty is a friend of yours?” Cass said.

“Sort of.”

“Oh? What does that mean?”

I hesitated. No way was I gonna tell her everything Misty and I had done. “We’ve spent some time together.”

She twisted her hands together in her lap. She was wearing red knit gloves with pompoms on the wrists. “She doesn’t like me.”

“Like I said, she’s jealous.”

“I don’t see why. She’s really pretty.”

“She’s all right.” I glanced at her to see her chewing her lower lip. “Don’t worry about it. She hates most of the other girls. It’s just how she is.”

“Oh.” She leaned her head against the window glass and stared out at the gray and white day. “Okay.”

Now what did we talk about? Usually when I was with a girl, we were partying. Drinking, smoking, screwing. Without those crutches, I wasn’t sure what to say.

“Read any good books lately?” she said.

“No.” Christ. I sucked at this dating thing.

“Not even a Tarzan?”

I laughed. “Nope. You?”

“Just my math book.”

“You like math?” I wasn’t fond of it myself.

“It’s my favorite subject.”

“I thought girls weren’t any good at math.”

She snorted. “We can be good at math. Girls are just as smart as boys, you know.”

“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just all the girls I know hate it. Except for you.” I pulled into the parking lot of the Fireweed Diner.

“Jenny June likes it,” she said.

“Is that the blond you were with at the dance?” I shut off the ignition.

“Yeah.”

“So you like math and you hate stereotypes about girls,” I said.

She lifted her chin. “That’s right.”

“Are you in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment?” I tried to picture her carrying a sign in a street protest. It didn’t seem like something she’d be comfortable with.

“Yeah, I am.” She gave me a sly smile. “Do you have a problem with that?”

“Not as long as women are available for the draft,” I said.

She nodded seriously, even though I’d been kidding. “I agree.”

“You do?” I stared at her in amazement.

“Yeah. Equal rights should mean equal responsibilities.”

Wow. “You are not like the other girls.”

She bit her lip, a smile fighting to escape. I could tell by the dimple forming in her cheek. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Good. Definitely.”

God, that dimple was cute. I had the bizarre urge to touch it.

“Let’s get some food,” I said instead.

***

Cass:

I couldn’t tell if the Fireweed Diner was named for the magenta-flowered weed that grows so prolifically every Alaskan summer or the street where the diner was located. Fireweed Lane is a busy street not far from the school, with movie theater, restaurants, pawn shops, and all kinds of other businesses along its dusty length. It isn’t very pretty, but then most of Anchorage is rough and raw like that, our streets edged with gravel, the medians landscaped only with the weeds and wild trees that volunteer to grow there.

We have a really short growing season, but it’s intense while it lasts because of the long days. In November, of course, it’s mostly dark and cold.

On this day, the sky was a thin, hard, pale gray. The snow on the roads was a darker gray, brownish from all the grit the city put down for traction. The branches of the naked birches, aspens, and cottonwoods were an even darker gray. In the natural world, only the deeply green, almost black spruces had real color.

The cars and the brightly painted signs on the businesses looked garish against the dreary gray background. I wanted to get out of this ugly town and into the country. Maybe I could convince my family to drive out to the Matanuska Valley or to Alyeska on the weekend. A little escape from the gloom.

The Fireweed Diner was housed in a small, cinder block building near the Fireweed Theater. When we pulled in, the small parking lot, made smaller by the encroaching berms of plowed up snow, was already crowded with several cars.

Inside, it seemed larger than I’d expected. Bright white walls, red upholstery on the banquettes, large windows, and lots of electric light made the place cheerful. I glanced around and saw a table of kids from school, but otherwise the patrons looked like business men on their lunch breaks.

“Do we have enough time to eat here?” I asked Dex as the hostess seated us.

“Sure. They’re really fast. Especially if you already know what you want.”

I opened the laminated menu. “I have no idea what I want.”

“The burgers are good and so is the fried chicken,” he said.

I glanced at the items on the menu. Burgers and fried chicken comprised most of it. I decided to get a cheeseburger. It was relatively inexpensive, so I wouldn’t put too much of a burden on Dex and besides it would be quick to eat.

With the menu held in front of me, I sent a surreptitious glance in Dex’s direction. Were we on a date? He was paying, and usually when a guy paid for a girl’s meal, it was a date. Yet it was only our school lunch hour, and that didn’t feel especially romantic.

He looked at me from across the table. “Have you decided?”

“Yeah. A cheeseburger.”

“We think alike. That’s what I’m getting.”

I smiled at him. I’d run out of things to say for the moment, or rather I’d run out of nerve to ask the questions I wanted him to answer.

“How do you like biology?” he said.

“It’s okay. Look, I’m sorry I didn’t realize you were in the same class.”

He waved that off. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Sure it does.” I stared down at the folded paper napkin in front of me. “The truth is I assumed guys like you wouldn’t be in a class like that.”

“Guys like me?” he said, sounding amused.

I was really messing this up. My face flushed. “I mean—you know—”

“Stoners,” he finished for me.

“Yeah. I assumed you were in that crowd.”

“I am, basically. And most of us aren’t in the harder classes.”

My gaze lifted back to his. “But you are.”

He shrugged. “It’s something to do.”

“So…do you…you know. Smoke pot?”

The dimple reappeared in his cheek. “Sometimes. Do you?”

I flushed again, even harder. “No.”

Dex laughed. “I guessed you didn’t. Don’t look so torn up about it, Cass. It doesn’t matter.”

“You don’t think I’m going to nark on you?”

“Nah. You could have already if you’d wanted to.” He leaned back in the red leatherette seat, watching me, a faint smile curling his lips. “I trust you.”

“Oh. Wow.” I fidgeted with the napkin. “Thanks. That’s pretty big.”

“Yeah, it is. I don’t do that with everyone.” His smile deepened. “I don’t know what it is about you.”

“The fact that I forced a caramel apple and a bag of candy on you at Halloween?”

He laughed again. “That must be it.”

“Did you eat it or give it to Joe?”

“I ate the apple and gave the rest to him. It was a good apple, by the way.”

“I’m glad you liked it.” Now I wished I’d given him two. “I wanted to invite you in but Joe seemed so excited to visit more houses.”

“He was. I think Halloween is his favorite holiday.”

“Mine is Christmas,” I said.

He nodded and smiled. “I can see that.”

The waitress brought our food just as a group of boisterous teens crowded through the door. Among them were some of the popular crowd, the jocks, student government, and honors class kids I rubbed shoulders with during school hours. None of them ever paid me any more attention than Dex’s stoner crowd did, but I saw some of them eyeing me with him.

“Kurt Wilson called me untouchable,” I blurted.

Dex raised dark-gold brows. “He did? What an ass.”

I smiled at him. “Yeah. But apparently he didn’t make up that name. People call me that behind my back according to him.”

“Don’t pay any attention to those assholes. They don’t know you.” He popped a French fry in his mouth.

“You don’t think I’m untouchable?”

Dex shook his head, his eyes smiling at me as he chewed his fry. “I know you’re not.”

“I knew people didn’t like me, but I didn’t realize they think I’m an ice queen.” And now I sounded like I was whining about it.

“They don’t know what to think of you because you don’t fit in. You’re not like all the other girls and that probably makes them uncomfortable.”

“I don’t know how to fit in.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’re great the way you are.” He took a bite of his burger as if he hadn’t just given me the best compliment of my life.

Chapter 11

A Good Girl

 

Cass:

Junior Hall, where I had my locker, was between the offices and Senior Hall, and it always seemed to be packed with people. Most likely it wasn’t any more crowded than any of the other hallways, but it felt that way to me. Especially since my next-door-neighbor was caught in another lip-lock with her boyfriend.

The noises of their kissing irritated the heck out of me. Couldn’t they control that? They were in public. They were inches away from me, and I felt like an unwilling participant in their love-fest.

“There should be a warning sign right here,” Jenny said at my elbow, joining me for lunch.

I glanced at her with a grin. “I agree. Or maybe flashing lights.”

“Like a railroad crossing!” She snickered.

“Exactly like that.”

On my other side, the lovers continued groping each other, oblivious to me and Jenny. The guy had his hands all over the girl’s butt. I had to look away.

“The benches again?” Jenny said.

“Maybe. But I was thinking somewhere different. Maybe the lobby.”

“Okay.” She held up her bag. “I brought enough chocolate cake for both of us.”

“Ooh, chocolate cake.” My mouth watered. Her mom baked the best cakes.

“Yeah. She did butter pecan frosting on this…” Her voice faded away as her blue eyes widened.

“What?” I turned in the direction of her gaze and almost ran up against Dex’s chest. We were so close together that I caught a whiff of his scent, a mixture of male sweat, cigarette smoke, and whatever laundry detergent his family used. It was a very good smell.

Where had he come from, though? The lovers must have run off while my back was turned, because they were nowhere in sight.

Dex leaned his shoulder ever so casually against the lockers, his hands in his jeans pockets. He wore heavy brown boots, the kind with the thick heel like bikers wear, and a worn-looking red down jacket.

“Hi, Dex.” My voice sounded humiliatingly breathy.

He grinned and a dimple appeared in his cheek. “Hi. Going to lunch?”

“Yeah. Jenny and I were going to sit in the lobby. You want to come with us?”

He glanced over my head. “I don’t know.”

Was he looking at Jenny? Was she glaring at him? I looked back over my shoulder at her, took in her tight lips and tense arms.

“Jenny won’t mind, will you?” I said, lifting my brows at her.

She took a visible breath. “I guess not.”

Boy, that was enthusiastic.

“See?” I said brightly to Dex. “You should come.”

“Okay.” He studied my face, his gaze lingering on my mouth. The look in his eyes made my heart race.

“Did you bring something?” I said, sounding even breathier. “I know you usually go out.”

“Yeah.” He held up a brown paper grocery bag.

Had he brought that just so he could sit with me over lunch? Nah, probably not. Maybe he’d run out of money for restaurant lunches or something.

“Great,” I said. “Let’s go.”

I widened my eyes at Jenny, who only pursed her lips and shrugged. At least she didn’t refuse to let Dex join us. For a second there, I’d been afraid she would say no outright.

People thought he was the toughest guy in school, and maybe he was, but he still had feelings. I didn’t want her to hurt them. Besides, I really wanted to spend another lunch break with him.

We found a spot in the lobby, right next to the theater doors. West had a huge theater, which doubled as a community performing arts venue in addition to the school productions it hosted, and there was plenty of space around the doors.

I slid down to the floor and opened my lunch bag. I had a roast beef sandwich and an apple—Golden Delicious. Dex sat down beside me and Jenny chose my other side.

“You’re in my ceramics class,” he said, leaning across me toward Jenny.

“Yeah,” she said, not looking at him. “I guess so.”

Wow. That was pretty rude.

“How do you like it?” I said to him.

“A lot more than I thought I would. I took it for the easy A, but it’s more interesting than I expected.”

Jenny snorted softly as she drew out her food.

He ignored her to talk to me. “I usually draw, so ceramics is pretty different for me. Are you taking any art classes?”

“No, I’m not much of an artist.”

“You’re a lady mathematician,” he said with a teasing sparkle in his eyes.

“Just a mathematician,” I said, rising knowingly to the bait. “The lady part is irrelevant.”

“Not to me.” He bumped his shoulder against mine. “It’s highly relevant to me.”

Was he flirting again? I was so square I wasn’t even sure. It flustered me. I blushed and bent my head to take a bite of my sandwich.

Dex smiled. He reached into his enormous bag and pulled out peanut butter on white bread. Two sandwiches, plus a bag of what looked like breakfast cereal.

“Is that Cap’n Crunch?” I said.

“Yep.”

“I’ve never eaten that for lunch before.”

“It was all we had. I gave the cookies to Joe.”

That was nice of him. And he packed his brother’s lunch. Wasn’t that his mom’s job? I wondered what that was all about, but I didn’t want to embarrass him so I said nothing. Maybe his mom had to go to work really early in the morning and didn’t have time to pack lunches for Joe.

“Are you ready for the trig test tomorrow?” Jenny said to me.

“I’ve got to study some more tonight,” I said.

“You’re taking trigonometry?” Dex said, looking impressed.

“Yeah,” Jenny said. “We’re lady mathematicians.”

He gave her a measured look, as if contemplating a come-back. The cool, couldn’t give a damn expression in his green eyes brought back everything I’d ever heard about him. The tough, cold, drug dealing low-life who’d scared me had replaced the kind, soft-spoken Dex I’d met at the Halloween dance.

Then his dimple flashed. “Yes, you are. You’re probably smarter than me.”

“Probably,” Jenny snipped.

Dex laughed and shook his head, making his gold hair fall in his eyes. “You don’t like me much, do you?”

“I don’t know you,” she said. “But I know of you. I know your reputation.”

“I see.” He settled with his back against the tile wall behind us. “And you think I’ll get Cass in trouble?”

“Yes.”

“She’s very protective of you,” he said to me.

“I know, and I appreciate her concern, but it isn’t necessary.” I frowned at her.

“I agree,” he said. “It isn’t necessary, because I would never do anything to get Cass in trouble.”

Jenny rolled her eyes.

“I saw that,” he said. “Believe it or not, I don’t go around trying to get my friends in trouble. I try to stay out of it myself.”

“You do?” she said in obvious disbelief. “That’s not what I heard.”

“Just because people say it doesn’t make it true,” he said. “You shouldn’t believe everything you hear.”

“Yeah, Jenny,” I said, nudging her with my elbow. “Give Dex a chance.”

“I am. I’m here, aren’t I?”

I half expected him to tell her where she could shove her attitude, half expected him to jump to his feet and leave. But he didn’t. He just gave me a sidelong glance and a shrug, and took another bite of his peanut butter.

That was when I noticed the mold on his bread. It was a small, green spot on the bottom corner closest to me. He’d already eaten half the sandwich.

I tapped him on his thigh. “I think there’s something wrong with your bread.”

“Huh?” He examined it. “Shit. You’re right.”

I watched him pick off the moldy spot and throw it into the plastic bag with the other sandwich. Then he took another bite.

“You’re really going to eat that?” I said. “It’s gross.”

“It’s all I’ve got,” he said.

“Here. Have mine.” I extended the remainder of my roast beef toward him.

“No. It’s yours. You need it.”

“I’m full. Besides, I still have an apple.” I shook the sandwich at him. “Go on. Take it.”

“I’m fine. I’m not very hungry and I have the cereal.” His stomach gave a ferociously loud growl.

“You’re not hungry?” I said, pulling back my chin in doubt. “It sounds like you’re starving.”

“Cass—”

“I want you to have my sandwich. Really. You’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t take it.”

He pursed his lips. “You said the same thing on Halloween.”

“Halloween?” Jenny said. “What about Halloween?”

For reasons I didn’t fully understand, it had become very important to me that he accept my gift. I wasn’t in the habit of feeding other people my lunch, but I hated the thought of him going hungry for the rest of the afternoon because his family had no fresh bread at home. I leaned over and placed my food in his lap. “Take it.”

“Jesus,” he muttered, picking it up. “Fine.”

He took a bite. His eyes went round and he looked at me over the bread.

“You like?” I said.

He nodded enthusiastically. I never would have described Dex as cute until that moment, but that move was cute.

“For crying out loud,” Jenny grumbled. “I guess I’ll have to give him some cake too.”

“Let’s split each piece three ways,” I said. “That way we’ll each have the same amount.”

***

Dex:

Cigarette smoke filled the air around the back doors of the school. It mixed with the fog from our breath until it was impossible to tell the difference. The gray and white clouds looked hazy in the artificial light from the lamps mounted next to the doors, giving the whole scene a weird, dream-like feel.

Above us, the sky looked as black as ink, the stars invisible through Anchorage’s standard cloud layer. At nine-thirty in the morning, the sun hadn’t come up yet, so we smoked outside in the dark. We weren’t supposed to be smoking on school property at all, but nobody paid any attention to that rule unless a teacher came out and yelled at us. The only precaution we took was to keep the weed well out of sight during school hours.

Behind us, the long low stretch of West glowed, all the classrooms brightly lit. The school had once possessed two stories, but in the ‘64 quake, the top floor had mostly disintegrated. All that was left of it was some band and choir rooms next to the auditorium. I’d never been up there, since I didn’t have band or choir.

The smokers, most of whom were stoners too, gathered outside between every class to get a ciggy in before the next round of passing notes and ignoring the teachers’ lectures. The air quickly filled with the smell of cigarette smoke—or I assumed it did, since once I lit up, I couldn’t smell anything myself. The damned ciggies caused cancer but everyone in my circle smoked them anyway. I don’t think any of us planned to live much after thirty and maybe not even that long.

The cold bit right through my chamois shirt and the T-shirt I wore underneath it, but I ignored that. My breath froze in tiny white crystals along my eyebrows, but I ignored that too. I’d chosen to wear my sneaks instead of the biker boots, so my feet were turning into blocks of ice to match the ice under my shoes. We were all out here freezing our asses off in pursuit of a little nicotine.

Jake Barrows sidled up to me, without Misty this time. “Hey, Morgan, got any Maryjane?” he said in a low voice.

“Not on me. How much you need?”

“I was thinking an ounce.” He took a long draw on his cigarette and blew out a stream of smoke.

“I can get it to you tomorrow or this afternoon if you want to meet somewhere,” I said.

I never invited these guys to my house. This shit needed to stay far away from Joe, so when I needed to make an exchange I made arrangements to meet somewhere.

“This afternoon,” Jake said.

He must be getting desperate.

“Smoked your whole stash, huh?” I said with a grin.

“Someone got into it,” he said, glowering.

“Oh, yeah? Who?”

“Misty. Who do you think? That chick is a pain in my ass sometimes.”

“Better you than me, man.”

He gave me a speculative look. “You were with her for a while, weren’t you?”

“Define with,” I said. “We spent a little time together, but it wasn’t anything serious.”

“So you don’t have any suggestions for me?”

“Nope. Unless you’re willing to turn around and run in the opposite direction.”

He laughed, his breath puffing out in a thick, white cloud. “You have that much of a hate for her?”

“I don’t hate her. I just don’t want to have anything to do with her.”

He leered. “That’s right. You’re busy getting it on with Marcia Brady.”

“Excuse me?”

My whole body tensed as I waited for Jake to explain himself. Marcia Brady was a pretty girl, but she was totally girl next door and in our circle that wasn’t exactly a compliment.

“Your girl,” he said obliviously. “She’s the goody-two-shoes type, isn’t she? A good girl. I still can’t figure out what you’re doing with her.”

It was none of his business what I did with Cass. “She’s not my girl. She’s nice.”

“That’s what I mean. She’s a nice girl. The kind who goes to church on Sunday and does all her homework.”

“So?”

“So do you see any girls like that out here? No. It’s weird, man.” He took another puff on his cigarette. “Everybody’s talking about it.”

“If people have something to say, they can say it to my face.” I took a drag on my own cigarette. The smoke calmed me down, brought me back to earth.

“Don’t get yourself all worked up,” he said. “It’s cool. I don’t care who you date.”

“We’re not dating.”

He looked at me with a skeptical lift of his brows. “You’re with her all the time.”

“I don’t date, Barrows.”

“Okay.”

He took a puff of his ciggy and I took a drag on mine. We were going to have to go back inside in a minute or two, although if I knew Jake, he’d linger here as long as possible. Hell, he’d spend the whole day out here if he could get away with it and wouldn’t freeze to death. I, on the other hand, had classes.

“So, if you’re not dating her do you mind if I ask her out?” he said, smoke drifting from his mouth.

“Yes, I do fucking mind,” I growled, getting in his face. “Stay away from her.”

Jake Barrows would not be good for Cass. He’d screw her and leave her.

“Why?” he said, grinning. “What do you care? She’s not your girlfriend.”

“And she’s not gonna be yours,” I said. “Don’t make me come after you.”

“That intimidation shit might work on Kurt Wilson, but it don’t work on me,” Jake said.

“When I beat you to a pulp, you’ll learn.”

He grinned even more widely. “Okay. She’s not your girlfriend and no-one else can have her.”

“Exactly,” I said.

***

Cass:

West High was built around two small courtyards. One of the hallways and several classrooms looked out on them. They weren’t much to look at; dull, institutional tan walls, weedy dirt, and not much else. There wasn’t any seating, and as far as I could tell, no way to get into them. Of course, there had to be doors for the maintenance guys to get out there and trim back the weeds once in a while, but I’d never been able to figure out where they were.

At this time of year, the courtyards were knee-deep in unbroken snow. The whiteness of the snow reflected a lot of light into Junior Hall, which had windows overlooking both of the enclosed not-quite gardens. For about half the school day, it was dark outside, but by lunch the sun had come up.

Jenny and I liked to sit on the concrete indoor benches that flanked the window walls and eat. We usually brought our lunches. It was a lot cheaper than going out. Besides, neither of us had cars, so going out was kind of a pain.

Today, she seemed a little annoyed with me. She wasn’t talking much and just picked at her cheese sandwich. Normally she had a huge appetite for such a small girl.

“Okay,” I said. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Why?”

“Don’t give me that. I can tell you’re mad at me.”

She lifted her shoulders and picked another crumb of bread off her sandwich. “I’m not mad.”

The crumb landed on her lap, a white speck on the red corduroy of her miniskirt. I wanted to brush it off for her.

“Then what’s wrong?” I asked instead.

Jenny gave another shrug and pushed her glasses up her nose. “I hardly ever see you anymore, that’s all.”

“You see me every day.”

“Only for a few minutes. We haven’t eaten lunch together in I don’t know how long.” She glanced sideways at me. “You’re always with Dex.”

“I—I don’t think that’s true.”

“Oh, come on, Cass.” She rolled her eyes with a tilt of her head. “You go everywhere with him.”

“I’m not with him now.” And I felt it. I wanted to see him, but he’d said he had something to do today.

“Yeah, and why is that? Because he’s too busy?”

I flushed and looked down at my jeans-clad legs. “Yeah.”

“See what I mean?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, meeting her eyes. “I haven’t meant to neglect you.”

“You know you can’t date him, Cass.” Her eyes were so sincere that I really didn’t think she was speaking out of jealousy.

“We’re not officially dating.”

“You can’t be his girlfriend.”

I sighed. “He hasn’t asked me that.” And I didn’t think he would.

“Good.”

That really irked me. I frowned at her. “Why is it good? You might like him if you gave him a chance.”

“He’s not like us,” Jenny said, leaning forward. “He doesn’t respect the rules or the law. He doesn’t have a future. He deals drugs. You know this. I don’t understand why you’re spending time with him. Is it just because he stuck up for you on the bus?”

“It’s because I like him. I enjoy being with him. And he doesn’t deal drugs.”

Her blond brows climbed. “Did he tell you that?”

“Not in so many words, no. But I know he doesn’t.”

“You know he doesn’t?” She rolled her eyes in a downright insulting manner. “Well, you have to admit he smokes the stuff.”

“Lots of people smoke pot. That doesn’t make them drug dealers.”

“Oh, Cass.” She shook her head. “You’re fooling yourself.”

“God, you sound just like my mom.”

Her eyes widened. “Did you tell her about him?”

“No, that’s not what I meant. You just sound like a grown-up, that’s all. I like him. I don’t care if he has a future or not, and besides, who are you to say something like that? You sound like you don’t even see him as a person. He’s just the school bad boy to you.”

Now it was her turn to flush. “That’s not true.”

“It sounds true to me.”

“I’m worried about you. I don’t think he’s the kind of boy you should be spending time with.”

“Well, it’s not your place to tell me that.”

Her chin trembled a little. “I’m your best friend. At least, I thought I was.”

I bit my lip. She looked truly hurt, and I hadn’t meant to do that. But it hurt me to hear her say such mean things about a guy I liked so much, especially since she seemed to have no interest in my side of things.

“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” I said. “And we’re still best friends. Aren’t we?”

Jenny nodded slowly. “I hope so.”

“Dex isn’t going to take me away from you.”

Would she have been as jealous if the guy I liked had been one of our crowd? One of the nerds? Maybe, but Dex was probably extra threatening because he didn’t fit in with our group, such as it was. And I didn’t fit in with his.

Maybe Jenny was right. Maybe he would hurt me. But I didn’t believe for a second that he wasn’t good enough for me. The guy who’d stuck up for me on the bus and saved me from Kurt Wilson and who gave up a good chunk of his Halloween to take his little brother trick or treating was good enough for anyone.

Chapter 12

Everything About You

 

Dex:

On the Friday before Thanksgiving, we got another major snowstorm. Our house smelled clean enough, since I’d taken out the trash and scrubbed the toilets. It was dark inside the house, with only a couple of table lamps on in the living room. Nobody talked because I was the only one here who was awake.

Sin had made himself scarce again. My mom was passed out on the couch, Joe had gone to Frankie’s for dinner, and my dad was working late.

The place felt like a tomb. We still had our gas, since I’d nagged my mom into paying the bill on time, but we kept the heat really low so we didn’t “waste” money. Cold, dark, and silent, like a tomb.

I hated it here.

I put on an extra pair of socks and stuck my feet into the motorcycle boots I’d picked up at the Salvation Army. They were pretty beat up, but they kept my feet drier than sneakers could.

My mom didn’t even notice when I left. I shut the door behind myself and waded into the snow drift that had already accumulated around our front step. The air outside smelled almost painfully clean, and was cold enough to make my lungs hurt when I took a too-deep breath.

Cass was a dream I’d continually revisited over the last week or two. I saw her in school, mostly in biology. We even went out to the Fireweed Diner again together once. She paid her own way that time.

And I found all kinds of lame excuses to take walks in the neighborhood after school, something I didn’t normally do. Oddly, my route almost always took me past her house.

It was always dark when I took these walks and the houses glowed with lights from inside as moms cooked dinner and kids did their homework. At least, that’s what I figured must be going on in those places. It’s not like I had any personal experience with them.

They looked safe, like refuges. Places you could go where you wouldn’t be hit or kicked, or called names, where people rarely or never got drunk and the heat was always on and there was enough food in the fridge and none of it was rotten. But maybe that was just my stupid pipe dream. Maybe the lives lived in those houses were no better than mine.

I set off toward Cass’s. She wouldn’t be there. I knew that. But it made me feel strange, both good and bad, to walk past her house and imagine her inside, doing whatever it was she did, and that feeling kept drawing me back.

I’d found out she had a brother and a sister, both younger. Maybe she hung out with them after school, or maybe she was with Jenny June at the moment. Those two sometimes seemed to be joined at the hip.

I was going to have to stop this. Stop walking past her house, stop imagining her with her family and friends, stop thinking about her. She wasn’t for me, and I sure as hell wasn’t for her. This thing I was doing—I didn’t have a name for it, but I knew it was dangerous and I had to stop.

Maybe tomorrow.

I rounded the corner to her street. Someone was shoveling her driveway. My heart gave a little jump and started running, like it could dash out ahead of the rest of me and greet her. But it wasn’t her, couldn’t be her. That would be too easy.

I stuck my hands in my coat pockets and pretended to saunter casually, like I was just happening by at random. The deep snow made this difficult. I kept slipping and stumbling through drifts that came up to my knees.

Then I got close enough to see her face as she looked up and I realized it was Cass after all. She wore her usual parka, with that light-blue hat on her head. Her hands were encased in thick ski gloves. A red muffler covered the lower part of her face. She looked adorably silly all bundled up like that.

“Hi, Dex,” she said as I drew nearer.

“Hi. What are you doing?”

“Shoveling the driveway.” She grinned and pulled her muffler down to expose her mouth. “Can’t you tell?”

“I can barely tell it’s you under all those clothes.”

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Taking a walk.” I gestured toward her shovel. “You want me to do that for you?”

“You don’t have to do that. Besides, I’m almost done.”

“You know it’s only going to snow again and cover up all your hard work,” I said.

“Yeah, but at least it’ll be smooth and not so icy. Besides, I like shoveling snow.”

“You are a very strange girl.”

She laughed. “Thank you.”

A dog barked inside a nearby house. It sounded like a big one.

“Would you like to take a walk with me?” I said, still all casual-like. Don’t let her know you’re nervous or that you even care. Keep it cool; keep it easy.

“Sure. Just let me tell my mom.”

I lifted my brows. “You have to tell her you’re going on a walk?”

“Just in case she needs me for something. I’ll be back in a sec.” She dashed up her driveway.

Her parents cared where she went and with whom. My parents didn’t give a shit whether we were alive or dead.

Cass came running back, her muffler flying out behind her. “Okay. Let’s go.”

“Did you tell her you were going with me?”

She shrugged. “I just said I was going.”

Well, that sort of answered my unspoken question—her parents wouldn’t like it if they knew she was with me. Not that I cared. She was sixteen and I figured she was old enough to choose who she wanted to hang out with.

“Want to go down to the bluff?” I said.

“In the winter?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never done it, that’s all.”

“Then it’ll be something new.”

The bluff was a part of our neighborhood that had once extended a lot farther out toward the Cook Inlet. In the big earthquake of 1964, the front section of the land there had crumbled and slid into the inlet, carrying all the houses with it. Nobody had done anything with the land since, and you could still find remnants of the houses—chunks of broken concrete, twisted pieces of rebar sticking out of the sand on the narrow beach. It was a little spooky sometimes.

I liked it because it was usually deserted. It was a place where a guy like me could get some privacy, a place where I could think. Also, we sometimes partied there.

I turned to go back the way I’d come. The way I normally took down to the bluff was at a park called Lynn Ary. There was a tennis court, flooded and frozen for ice skating in the winter, and down the hill a baseball diamond. The gravel road sloped down past the baseball field and petered out unfinished, swallowed up by the gray clay hillocks and hollows left after the quake.

Cass grabbed my coat sleeve. “Where are you going?” she said.

“To the bluff.”

“There’s access at the end of my street.”

I stopped and looked at her. “There is?”

“Yeah. Come on. I’ll show you.”

Huh. There was something about this neighborhood I didn’t already know, and Cass Maslanka was showing it to me. I never would have predicted that.

We walked silently past two blocks of houses until we came to a spot where the blacktop fell away, revealing a sharp slope down toward the inlet. Everything was covered in almost two feet of snow, but I could see the abrupt drop. The street must have broken there when the quake hit.

I’d only been a little kid when it happened, and I still remember how the ground rocked underneath us. The earth isn’t supposed to move and when it does, it freaks you out, especially when it shakes so bad you can hear everything rattling and creaking around you.

We’d just been sitting down to a dinner of canned ravioli heated up on the stove top. My mom had been pregnant with Joe and she’d panicked, screeching her head off as pans and pictures fell off the kitchen walls.

I think that screaming had scared me as much as the quake itself.

Sin grabbed me and hauled me under the table with him and put his arms around me. I hadn’t been so scared then, but I had nightmares for years afterward anyhow. The ‘64 quake was the biggest recorded quake in North America. If it had happened down in California, lots of people probably would have died, but up here in Alaska there just weren’t that many people. Besides, we had a lot fewer buildings to collapse and crush people, and the ones we had were mostly one story, so not many died.

In spite of that, the quake had shaped our town, both physically and mentally.

We waded through the thick snow. Alder and willow twigs poked up from the whiteness and caught at our coats and her muffler. The ground continued to drop, causing the houses to seem as if they were rising around us. Snow caked my jeans and crept up underneath them, but my boots kept my feet relatively warm and dry.

Then we were free of the housing development and into the raw land left after the quake. Alders had quickly taken over down here, covering the land in scrubby tree-bushes. They only got about fifteen feet high, but they grew so thickly that, even leafless in winter, they blocked out everything more than a few feet away.

The light from the street lamps faded away, leaving us in a much darker place. Above, the moon shone down and reflected off the whiteness of the snow, so we could easily see where we were going, but it was still pretty dark. The cold moonlight made everything look bluish and strange.

The snow ahead of us was unbroken except for a few lacy little bird tracks. I reached out and grabbed Cass’s hand. She smiled at me.

Again, I felt the danger of what I was doing. I’d already done more hanging out with Cass than with any other girl I could remember, just in the few weeks I’d known her. I liked being with her, even though we hadn’t kissed yet and rarely touched. I craved her company.

This could not be good. I was in danger of breaking my no-dating rule, if I hadn’t done so already. But I couldn’t seem to stop myself. I kept taking those boneheaded walks down her street, for example.

“It’s so beautiful down here with all the snow,” she said, taking a long look around us.

“Yeah, it is.”

“I wish I’d come here sooner.”

In the moonlight, her eyes looked silver, her hair black beneath her knit hat. She wore no visible make-up, and she was so beautiful I couldn’t think straight. The only thing on my mind was how to get closer to her.

“Are you getting ready for Thanksgiving?” she said, her fingers clasping mine.

I shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable. “Nah.”

“You’re not?” She looked at me, a troubled frown between her pretty brows. “How come?”

“We don’t make a big deal out of holidays.”

In fact, we didn’t really do holidays at all. The closest I’d get to a Thanksgiving meal was a couple of TV dinners—turkey, of course—heated up in the oven for me and Joe. My parents would drink themselves sick and pass out, and Sin probably wouldn’t bother to show up. If he was at home at all, he’d be in our room getting high.

“That’s too bad,” Cass said. “Thanksgiving is always such a big deal at our house. My sister and my mom and I spend the whole day cooking.”

“Sounds like a lot of work.”

“It is.” She smiled, her eyes sparkling like she was thinking of something really good. “But it’s fun work.”

I couldn’t imagine a day spent with either of my parents being fun. More like torture, actually.

“Hey, maybe we could invite your family over,” she said, her eyes sparkling even more intensely.

“No.”

Cass seemed to shrink in on herself. “Oh. Okay.”

I hadn’t meant to snap. It just came out that way because all I could think of was the utter disaster a holiday with both our families would be.

“Listen, it’s not that I don’t want to be with you,” I said. “But my folks aren’t really friendly. They don’t do social events.”

“Okay,” she said in a small voice.

God, now I felt like shit. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay. Really.” She gave me a smile so bright I knew it was fake.

“Besides, I doubt your parents would think much of me,” I added.

“That’s not true,” she said quickly.

“Cass—”

“If they got to know you, they’d like you. I know they would.”

“Yeah, but they wouldn’t get to know me. They’d see this.” I gestured at my ratty coat and beat-up, second-hand motorcycle boots. “And make up their minds in a second that I’m not good enough for you.”

Jesus. I was talking like we were dating. Really dating. Like boyfriend and girlfriend. How the hell had that happened? How had I let that slip?

We hadn’t even kissed yet.

“If that were true—and I’m not saying it is—then they’d be wrong,” she said. “And besides, I like the way you look.”

I snorted. “You do not.”

“Yes, I do,” she said quietly. “I like everything about you.”

I paused, my feet halting in a shallow spot in the snow. Our breath puffed out in little white clouds. She wasn’t looking at me. I think she’d embarrassed herself a little. Maybe she thought I didn’t feel the same way about her. But I did, and I wanted to show her how much.

I was nervous as hell. My hands felt slippery and my throat was tight and my stomach kept doing these nauseating little flip-flops. What was wrong with me? I was being a major pussy. This was the first time I’d ever gotten choked up about a girl.

“Cass,” I said, my heart racing even faster.

“Yeah?” She still wouldn’t look at me.

“I’d really like to kiss you now.”

That brought her head up. She stared at me wide-eyed, her lips parted. “You would?”

My free hand came up, all on its own, to palm the side of her face. Her skin felt chilly. “Yeah.”

She licked her lower lip. “Okay.”

Okay. This was it. She was going to let me do it.

Jesus Christ, you’d think I’d never kissed anyone before.

I leaned in, bending my head nice and slow in case she changed her mind. Her lips were as pretty as the rest of her, kind of delicate and finely shaped and pink. I pressed mine to them briefly, experimentally, and felt her press back. A pause, and I kissed her again, lingering a bit.

She reached up to hold onto my upper arm. I stroked the side of her face with my thumb as I came in again for another kiss.

This time, I used a little tongue, just to see what she would do. She opened for me, right away. We moved toward each other until our bodies pressed against each other. I let go of her hand and put my arm around her, clasping her to me more tightly.

The movements of her lips and tongue felt endearingly awkward, like she’d never done this before. Maybe she hadn’t. Maybe Wilson had been her first kiss. That would be shitty if it were true. What a way to start.

I wanted to show her how good kissing could be, to make her forget about that idiot Wilson. So I used my lips and tongue as skillfully as I could, every trick I knew, stroking and licking, giving her little nips with my teeth.

She sighed. Her other arm grabbed me around my waist and held on. I cupped the back of her head, plunging my tongue in deep, tasting her, and she moaned. God, that sound. It drove me nuts, made my cock hard as steel, made me wish we weren’t standing in the snow because I couldn’t do anything more than kiss her here.

Her other hand, the one on my arm, crept upward until she got to my neck. She stroked the skin on the back of my neck. I’d never thought of that touch as erotic until now. Her fingers moved into my hair, while her body arched into mine. We had two coats and who knew how many other layers of clothing between us, but I could feel every inch of her.

I found myself moaning too. A first kiss had never affected me this way. Hell, no kiss had. Kissing was usually just a prelude to other, more exciting things, but I wasn’t going to be getting under Cass’s clothes today. For one thing, it was too cold. For another, she wasn’t ready for that.

I pulled back, trembling, before I came in my jeans. What had just happened? Nothing had ever felt that good, that necessary. My breath was all rough and unsteady, and so was hers. We stared at each other, right into each other’s eyes like a couple of lovers in some sappy movie.

“Wow,” she said, gazing at me as if I’d just showed her the universe.

“Yeah.” My voice sounded funny, rough and shook up.

“That was—I didn’t know it could feel like that.”

Neither did I.

“So you liked it?” I grinned.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, laughing.

“Good, because I plan on doing it again.”

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