Authors: Diane Hoh
ANDERS WOULD ALWAYS
remember exactly where she was and what she was doing when The Devil’s Elbow roller coaster went flying off its track, shooting straight out into the air and hanging there for a few seconds, before giving in to gravity and plummeting straight to the ground. The crash killed Dade Lewis, destroyed Sheree Buchanan’s face, and separated Joey Furman forever from his left leg. And it sent a dozen other roller-coaster riders and ten passersby on the ground to the Santa Luisa Medical Center in screaming ambulances.
Before the crash, Tess was buying a hot dog. With everything. And fries and a large Coke, at a stand not far from where the multicolored cars were making their labored, rattle-clackety climb up the last and most treacherous leg of their journey. The rattle-clatter didn’t bother Tess. She had lived in Santa Luisa all of her life and she was used to the sounds of The Boardwalk, the amusement park lining the oceanfront of the Southern California community. Thanks to a mild climate, The Boardwalk was open year-round. Good thing, too, Tess often thought, since without The Boardwalk half the population of their little town would be unemployed. And closing the park, even briefly, would drive most of Santa Luisa’s teenagers stark, raving mad. Some worked there, in the shops and arcades and restaurants and booths. Most just played there. What else was there to do in town?
She would always remember what she’d been wearing that night, too. Jeans, boots, and a heavy, white hooded sweater. She’d been waiting patiently for Gina Giambone, her best friend. Gina was always late. Their history teacher, Mr. Dart, teased her nearly every morning. “Hey, Jam-boney, heavy date last night? Looks like you overslept!”
Usually, he was right. Gina dated a lot. Because everyone, girls
guys, liked to be around her. She was fun and cute. As short and round as Tess was tall and skinny, with short, dark, curly hair framing her olive-skinned face. Her dark brown eyes were her most outstanding feature. Gina was part of a large Italian family of six kids. Her parents had been married practically forever and seemed very happy, unlike Tess’s parents who had recently separated.
Of course Shelley wasn’t her real mother. The first Mrs. Landers had died when Tess was nine years old. When she was thirteen, Guy Joe Landers, Sr., had married Shelley, fifteen years his junior. Their marriage had lasted until six weeks earlier, when Shelley had packed her things and left, taking Tess with her. Now Shelley was about to go gallivanting off to Europe for two weeks with her best friend, Madolyn.
“You can go stay with your father and brother,” Shelley had said blithely as she packed. “Or you can hang out here by yourself. Whatever. Lord knows you’re old enough at seventeen to take care of yourself.”
Well, maybe the Lord knew it and maybe Shelley knew it, but Tess wasn’t so sure. The exclusive condominium complex called The Shadows was set deep in the woods, on a hill above town. It was beautiful during the day, but it could be cold and lonely when darkness fell.
But Tess didn’t want to go stay with her father and her brother, Guy Joe, Jr. No friend of Shelley’s was a friend of her father’s now. And Tess couldn’t forgive Guy Joe for choosing to live with their father.
“But why?” she had asked him tearfully. “You don’t even
him!” The two of them, father and son, had never been close. The father had been too busy for the son.
“At least he’s my
parent,” Guy Joe had answered.
Okay, so Shelley was their stepmother, and not such a hot one at that. But at least she could be fun. She talked to Tess as if Tess were actually a real human being, something Tess’s father hardly ever did. So when Shelley had offered Tess a bedroom in her new home, and Tess’s father hadn’t said, “Please don’t go,” she’d gone. Thank goodness the condo was large enough that she and Shelley weren’t tripping over each other.
Lost in thought, Tess jumped at Gina’s sudden greeting. A blob of yellow mustard squirted from her hot dog, landing smack in the middle of Gina’s navy blue wool blazer.
“Oh, darn, I’m sorry!” Tess grabbed a paper napkin and dabbed frantically at the greasy mess. Straight, fair hair flew around her thin face. “You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that! You scared me half to death. My hair probably turned white!”
Gina laughed and brushed away the napkin. “Your hair is still the same mousy shade it always was. Anyway, forget about the jacket, okay? It needed a trip to the cleaners before you did your dirty work.”
“Well, you’re in a pretty good mood tonight,” Tess said crankily, because she herself was not. She straightened up, tossing the crumpled napkin into a nearby trash can. “How come?”
Gina grinned. “Because I see Doss Beecham over there, working in the ring toss booth. I think I’m making some progress with him. He’s stopped calling me Jam-boney. He actually said, ‘Hey, you!’ yesterday. Don’t you think that’s a good sign?”
Tess frowned. “What do you see in that guy, anyway? He looks totally Neanderthal to me. You could have any guy in Santa Luisa and you set your big brown eyes on a bruiser in a white T-shirt who spends more time combing that mess of black hair than he does anything else. I just don’t get it!”
Gina shrugged. “I think he’s cute. Besides, I feel sorry for him. In case you’ve forgotten, he used to be one of us. Just because his father lost all their money, everyone looks down on Doss now. Well, I don’t. He’s the same person he always was.” She grinned impishly. “And I intend to make my presence known to him.”
“People look down on him,” Tess pointed out irritably, “because he’s a grouch who walks around looking like the world owes him a living and isn’t providing it.” Maybe Gina just felt sorry for Doss. Although it wasn’t as if the Beecham family were starving to death. They’d managed to hang onto that big brick house of theirs up on the hill. Someone had told her that the Beechams had paid cash for the house, years ago, and all they had to do now was pay the taxes on it. Doss probably paid those. Which meant, Tess guessed, that Doss was no bum. He hadn’t let his family get tossed out on the street. That was something in his favor.
“Where’s Beak tonight?” Tess asked pointedly.
Another shrug. “Oh, he’s around somewhere. Probably playing Skee-Ball.” She glared at Tess. “And you’re about as subtle as a jackhammer. I like Beak, you know that. But Doss is … well, he’s different. I’m ready for different. Besides,” she added, grinning, “how would
like to date a guy named Beak?”
The nickname no longer suited Robert Rapp. At eighteen, his features were perfectly proportioned, which hadn’t been the case when he was younger and his nose had been the most prominent feature on his thin, bony face. But the nickname stuck. Tess liked Beak. Except for a penchant for pulling practical jokes, he was nice. She’d always thought he was good for Gina. Apparently, Gina didn’t share the thought.
“Maybe Doss will buy me a hot dog,” Gina said.
mustard. So, where’s Sam?”
Sam. Pain sliced through Tess’s chest. Where was he tonight? And who was he with? “How should I know?” she snapped, turning back to the counter to discard her Coke cup. “I don’t own Sam Oliver!”
“Wow!” Doss Beecham commented as he joined them, “who rattled your cage? What’d you do, overdose on sourballs?”
“Never mind,” Tess said, embarrassed. She didn’t know Doss well enough to behave like a shrew in front of him. “The smell of hot dogs brings out the beast in me.”
Doss nodded. “I saw Sam back there. He was alone. You two split?”
She didn’t know him well enough to confide in him, either. “Forget it,” she said airily. “You guys order your food while I check out the girls’ room, okay? Be right back.” She didn’t feel like hanging around while Gina “got to know” someone who was probably all wrong for her.
But then, who was right for anybody? And how did you know? Her father hadn’t been right for Shelley. Just when Tess had thought they were going to have a nice, normal family at last, the marriage had fallen apart. And not too long ago, she had thought Sam Oliver was perfect for her. Wrong, wrong, wrong! The support system her school counselor had said she needed to help her cope with her anxieties was rapidly dwindling. Maybe even disappearing forever.
She pushed open the creaky old metal door to the rest room opposite The Devil’s Elbow. Rattle-clatter, clackety-clack. It screeched and groaned its way up the rails over her head. She had ridden it once, when she was nine years old. Never again. She didn’t mind some of the other scary rides of The Boardwalk, but the roller coaster had taken her breath away, left her knees feeling like pudding, and kept her heart thudding for hours after the wicked ride was over and she was safely on firm ground.
She washed her hands with cold water and ran a comb through her straight, shoulder-length hair. The face in the mirror was a sober one. Maybe
was a better word. Well, why not? Feeling almost totally alone didn’t exactly bring a smile to a person’s face, did it?
She came out of the girls’ room just as The Devil’s Elbow reached the pinnacle of its last and highest climb. Reluctant to rejoin Gina and Doss, she leaned against the wall and, tilting her head upward, watched as the roller coaster began its last thundering descent.
She could feel the ride as if she were actually sitting in one of the cars: The wind slapping her face with such brutal force it stole her breath away, the air heavy with screams and shouts, the sheer terror of the rush downward. The last plunge would seem to take forever, although actually it took only a second, so fast was the speed of the roller coaster. There would be just time enough to appreciate the gentleness of that last curve before coasting into the departure gate.
That was the way it was supposed to happen. That was the way it always happened.
But not this time. This time was horribly, shockingly different.
Because as Tess stood against the wall, the lead car, a brilliant orange trimmed in bright yellow, reached the bottom. But instead of following the track and taking that last gentle curve toward home, it sailed out into the air. The car hung there for a second or two, then plunged downward to The Boardwalk below. It took the remaining eleven cars, some occupied, some empty, with it. The cars hit the ground in rapid sequence. The crash of each one seemed, to Tess’s disbelieving ears, louder than the one before it. The screaming that accompanied the fall wasn’t the playful kind from moments earlier. These were the screams of terror, and Tess didn’t even realize that her own voice was among them.
There was screaming on The Boardwalk, as well. People passing by were struck with large and small chunks of falling metal. Some were hit so hard they were tossed like dolls into nearby booths. A mother ran to snatch her small child from the path of a falling car and both were buried beneath the bright blue metal.
Tess, not breathing, huddled against the wall outside the girls’ room, unable to believe what she was seeing and hearing. When the last car had fallen and crashed into bits, a brief, shocked silence filled The Boardwalk.
Some distance away, under the last, gentle curve in The Devil’s Elbow, a figure slipped out from underneath the tracks. In black slacks, black turtle-neck sweater, and black ski mask, the figure blended into the darkness. But even without darkness, total chaos on The Boardwalk would have made it difficult for anyone to notice the figure, or the long, thick, steel pipe in its hands.