Authors: Heather Smith Meloche
I shake my head. My hands holding the baggie and the address shake just as hard.
Ty winks before he leaves.
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The hallways are clear when I walk out of the bathroom. I've tucked the drugs into my sweater pocket, and coupled with being late for class, my heart is racing so hard, it hurts. I'm never late for class. But I'll tell the teacher I feel nauseated, say I was in the bathroom. That's all truth.
Heading to my locker so I don't have to carry illegal substances to algebra, I hear Jack before I actually see him. I'm surprised he's still in school, that he didn't get suspended for what he, Sam, and Carver did at the football game.
“Wait until I go long!” His lean body whips around the corner and comes flying at me. “Okay. Throw it!”
I catch a glimpse of Sam chucking something brown just as Jack's body crashes against me like a cannonball. My butt hits the hard floor as Jack reaches for me. But he's moving too fast and falls onto me instead, his chest and legs pinning me to the ground.
“Shit,” I mutter, shocked. I open my eyes. Jack presses into me. His cedary-pine scent covers both of us like a tent. I expect him to move off me, but he's not moving, his warm breath tickling my nose. And I remember quickly that I've got drugs in my pocket, that I'm late for class, that this position we're in looks like dry humping in the middle of the school hallway.
“What the hell are you doing?” I ask.
He sucks in a breath, snaps out of whatever daze he's in, and pulls a pencil and pad of sticky notes from his back jeans pocket. His arms move past my head, his biceps peeking out from his T-shirt sleeves and flexing near my face as he writes something against the floor by my scalp. In this position, I can see the tattoo on his neck, an inch from my lips:
MUNDUS VULT DECIPI
“Um, Jack?” Sam walks toward us. He raises a light brown eyebrow when he sees Jack on top of me.
“Didn't work, Sammy.” Jack's deep voice vibrates through me. “Go on back and throw the next one.”
Sam nods, then gives us an amused look before walking away.
Jack peels the sticky note from the pad and presses it gently against my shoulder. I blink at him, confused. He flashes me that same smug, overly confident smile he had at the football game last Friday, then pulls all his warm heaviness off me and stands. He picks up what Sam threw, a paper bag bound at the top by a twist tie, and bolts down the hall.
“All right! Throw it!” he hollers to Sam at the end of the hall.
Sam whips a balloon filled with some kind of liquid. I get ready to move away, but the balloon sails just a few feet before bursting in the air, covering the area with a frothy blue foam.
Jack shakes his head. “Too heavy. Won't make the distance.” He jots something on his sticky-note pad.
I'm totally bewildered, so I just sit, watching.
Until Jack calls, “All right, do the last one! And make it work, Sammy!”
I scramble up as Sam chucks a ziplock bag filled with the same frothy fluid. But I'm sure I'm still in the blast zone at it comes closer.
I put my hands over my head. The ziplock detonates on impact. Foamy liquid splashes the lockers, the ceiling, the floor around me, and then I see the drug-filled baggie several feet away from me. It must have slipped from my pocket during the fall. I grab it, shoving it back into my sweater pocket, then look up to see who saw.
But Jack is giving a thumbs-up as Sam runs toward him. “Cheap
plastic bag wins,” Jack says to him. “If you ever choose to use it, any neighbor who complains about your loud music or your speeding will never know what hit them.”
Sam laughs while Jack makes more notes, smiling and satisfied.
I take in the pathetic, foamy mess before watching Jack and Sam skirt around the corner and out of sight. Alone again in the hall, I pull the sticky note from my shoulder.
I'm in the middle of an important experiment.
No time now.
One (1) Apology
And I actually laugh. I can't help it. It's the last thing I expected. All I can think is that one thing's for sureâJack S. Dalton's middle initial stands for anything but “sane.”
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Toward the end of my Wednesday-night shift at the family diner, my anxiety over my impending drug deal has skyrocketed. And I'm worried Ty will still break his promise and tell everyone about seeing me with another guy at Coffee Haven.
Monday's lunch with the principal and team didn't help my nerves any since
also meant cheerleaders and lots of nasty looks from Simone, who obviously thought I shouldn't have been invited. So it sucks when she and four of her friends show up at the restaurant, piling into a booth for some fries, gossiping, and, apparently, some swift verbal kicks at me.
“Nice outfit,” Meghan Vallertas says as I bring over menus. I try not to glance down at my faded burgundy dress with the
built-in white apron probably worn by five white-trash girls hired and fired before me. I hold a menu out to Simone, sitting in a chair at the head of the booth. She grabs it, her French manicure emphasizing the amazing light brown of her skin.
“Seriously,” Meghan says, “that uniform is very poverty-line chic.”
“Her grandmother owns Leighton Custom Homes,” Simone blurts, opening the menu without looking at me.
The table stills with surprise. But I might be more surprised than any of them. She could only know who my grandmother is because Seth told her, most likely during some private conversation on the team bus.
“Why the hell is she working here, then?” Meghan asks, their gossipy convo rolling as if I'm not even standing there.
Annoyed, I walk away and head to the drink station to get their waters, wishing I could run right the hell out of here. But Christos, my fifty-five-year-old Greek boss, stalks up, his big gut getting to me before the rest of him. He hands me my paycheck and some advice. “You're a good worker, Tessa. But you need to smile more.” He actually points over at Simone's table. I get a quick vision of her and all her friends as birds of prey, waiting for the right moment to eat me alive. “No one likes to eat without a smile,” Christos says.
“Yes, sir.” I force a smile, which quickly disappears as I look at what I've earned in the past weekâ$97.02. It's another reminder that I'll never be able to pay for college on my own. Not without my grandmother's help.
By the time I return to Simone's table, my foul mood is off the charts. I try not to slam the waters on the table as I set them down.
“Where did you say you got that sweater?” Meghan asks Simone, all loud and like she's reading from a cue card. I can feel the girls' eyes skirt to me. I pretend not to look at the oversized heather-gray sweater draping Simone's small body. Instead, I slip my serving tray under my arm and pull out an order pad and a pen.
A smile flits across Simone's face. “Seth gave it to me to wear on the last bus trip since I was cold.” She fingers the thick hem. “I'm sure his aunt bought it for him. She's so sweet. But since he was, like, five, wool like this has made him all red on his arms and chest if he wears it too long.”
I stand frozen for a second, feeling hit in the head and gut. Not because Seth gave Simone this sweater. Seth is so nice, he'd give it to anyone who's cold. But because Simone knows this little fact about him. It's nothing and huge at the same time. He might have told her while they were shopping together. Or peeling clothes off together. Or he mentioned it while they were staring eye to eye, talking. I mean,
I clear my throat, holding my pen over the order pad. “So, what would you all like to order?”
Simone glares at me. “Let me ask you a question first, Tessa,” she says, her tone like ice bullets. “Why you? Why, of all the girls Seth could have at Pineville High, did he choose you? I mean, did your grandma promise him a Ferrari if he dated you? Or maybe”âher head cocks on her long neckâ“you just put out really quick?”
I turn rigid. Almost drop my tray. Wonder if Ty told Simone, of all people, what he saw me doing. If he hasn't, then, really, what Seth and I do is none of her business. So I flip it around and challenge her. “The real question is why isn't he with
Simone picks up her water, splashing some against the table. “You'll have to ask
A wave of emotion rolls through her cheeks, her tiny nose, all the way up to her sleek black curls. She is Hollywood-beautiful and way popular. And clearly, after this exchange, I know she still likes Seth. A lot. So I should find out, the next time we're actually alone, away from his friends, why he'd walk away from her for someone like me.
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On Thursday morning, I'm a freaking wreck and wondering if maybe I should just turn myself in even before I actually commit a crime.
I'm heading to lunch to sit with Seth, hold his hand, pretend like everything is normal and I'm the best girlfriend on the planet, but just before I get to the lunchroom, Juliette comes rushing toward me.
“You know I love you, right?” She hooks her dark hair behind her ears the way someone rolls up their sleeves to prepare for a fight.
I give her a faux smile. “I do. What do you want?”
“Okay, so I'm a little overextended.”
“What's new?” Juliette is constantly volunteering for stuff. I even bought her a magnet for her locker that has this smiling lady from the 1950s on it with the caption “Stop me before I volunteer again.” I figured it would be a constant reminder that she should stop sticking her name on sign-up sheets. But Juliette is addicted to making herself useful.
“Well,” she says, “I need you to take my place showing a couple new kids around the school.”
My stomach flips when I think of the delivery I'm being forced to make this afternoon. I shake my head. “Don't think I can, Jules. I've got an errand to run. Besides, isn't the whole tour thing the
student council's job? And shouldn't you be doing this the first week of school instead of like a month in?”
“Like I said. I've been a little overextended. Besides, if you do this for me, you can say you worked with the student council in your app to U of M.”
I scowl, realizing she's right.
She flashes a smile, knowing she's won. “The tour won't take long, and you know the school just as well as anyone. Besides, the other council members and I have to be at the Halloween dance planning meeting.”
“It's only September,” I say.
“Halloween's a big deal. We have lots to prep for.”
I think about Ty and the drugs.
Deliver this here. Thursday night.
But, I guess, night has lots of hours in it. “Okay. Fine. I'll do your tour.”
She jumps up and down. “Thank you! And now it's
tour, Miss Student Council Inductee. Just go to the main office after school, and the secretary will have two new students waiting there for you.” She hugs me fast. “And I really do love you. Unconditionally.”
“I know.” But I'm only half certain of that unconditional part. Her love for me could turn conditional real quick if she knew all about the how, when, and why of the illegal activity I'll be doing directly after I complete her school tour.
In the cafeteria, I can't stop watching Bleacher Girlâor Tessa, as Sam and Carver told me today when I asked. When I fell into her in the hallway, I didn't want to move. She smelled like vanilla and berries. And she was so surprised, her lips turned into this adorable rosy-pink O. Seriously, I almost licked her and then had to get myself under control so she wouldn't get a feel for how much I wanted to lick her.
Several tables over, she leans into Pineville High's quarterback. He throws his arm over her small shoulders. His fingers sink into her long, silky blond hair.
“Dude, why you looking so pissed off?” Carver asks me, butter from the roll he's eating smeared on his chin. Unlike Sam, whose mayor of a mom has drilled into him which fork to use when, how to shake hands, and other endearing social graces, Carver has very little manners and is often a downright pig when it comes to food and girls.
Carver shoves a second whole roll into his mouth as I glance again at Tessa leaning against that football player. I decide I need to let off a little steam. I flash Carver and Sam a smile, then pick up
my hot lunch roll in one hand and a handful of limp spinach from my lunch tray in the other.
“Oh, shit.” Sam points a tiny pretzel stick at me. “This can only end badly, dude. Maybe you better rethink this one.”
I sit up straight and adjust my voice to Pre-Battle War General tone. “Listen, my friends. This right here”âI hold up the spinach ceremoniouslyâ“it's a social inevitability.” I beat my fistful of roll against my chest. “I am who I am.” I wave my fist at the lunchroom of students. “And they are who they are. We've all had our pasts, and every road has led to this point. I have no choice but to hurl this overcooked vegetation and gluten-filled roll at them, and their heads have no choice but to receive it.”
I stand to finish my speech.
“So in essence, this is the culmination of seventeen years of development, seventeen years in the making, and therefore, in the grand scheme of things, who are you or anyone to stand in my way?”
“That's pretty karmic, dude,” says Carver.
“Existential, actually,” I say.
“Can you at least aim away from my shirt?” Sam fingers his orange-and-yellow plaid button-up. “I don't feel like changing before next hour.” He crunches on the pretzel.
My fingers itching to hurl the spinach, I glance over at Tessa. Her gaze flits from my full hands to my face. She scowls. I give her a shrug, then throw in a smile and a wink. But she suddenly stills, looking toward the door.
I look behind me. In full police uniform, billy club, firearm, and all, Fogerty 2 stands at the cafeteria entrance. Principal Levy is with him. They scan the room, searching for someone. And I know, without a doubt, I'm the “someone” they want.
It doesn't take them long. I mean, I'm standing up, clutching food, and smiling wide. Fogerty 2 and Principal Levy stalk my way. The lunchroom quiets, all eyes watching. And I take in a breath, find that place of piercing clarity to determine how to get out of this with style.
I clear my throat theatrically. “Sam?” I project. “Did we forget about our lunch date with the authorities? Weren't you supposed to bring the baguettes and cheese?”
Sam sits frozen, eyebrows lifted so high, they're buried in his hairline. Carver chokes on his roll. They're not helping.
“Dalton,” Fogerty 2 says.
I give him a smile. “Officer Fogerty. You must have really missed me to come all this way to see me.”
“Hardly,” he grunts.
“Well, we seem to be missing the baguettes and cheese, but I can offer you some of our school's fine cuisine.” I open my palms, exposing the balled-up roll and spinach.
A couple of kids giggle. Fogerty 2 winces at the mess in my hands.
Principal Levy pipes up. “Mr. Kearns and Mr. Malowski, can you gentlemen please head down to the main office and wait for me there?”
Sam and Carver turn matching colors of pale, collect the remains of their lunch, and head out of the room.
“Let's go, Dalton,” Fogerty 2 says. “We've got a situation to discuss.”
I drop the food onto the table and wipe my hands with a stack of paper napkins. Principal Levy takes my elbow and leads me toward the cafeteria exit. I cast a quick look over my shoulder and
lock eyes with Tessa. She stares at me with the silent question
What did you do?
I give her another wink, like I'm not at all worried. But truthfully, Fogerty 2's brother never hauled me out of a lunchroom to bust me. This Fogerty sibling, on the other hand, is playing some hardball.
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We walk past Principal Levy's office, where Sam and Carver are sitting, legs bouncing, hands folded, and worry smeared all over their faces.
“Heads up, lads,” I shout, trying to sound motivational. “Bravery is a rampart of defense.”
“What the hell's a rampart?” Carver asks.
“Stop talking,” Principal Levy snaps as he and Fogerty 2 march me into VP Barnes's office.
“Thanks, Principal Levy. I'll handle it from here.” VP Barnes waves toward her office to guide me in. “Mr. Dalton, welcome.”
“The pleasure's all mine,” I say.
“I'm sure. Have a seat.” She points to the hard-backed chairs in front of her desk. They look like 1920s schoolhouse chairs.
Fogerty 2 holds his hand out. One of the black cutouts of male genitalia we'd stuck all over Pineville's deer signs dangles from his fingers.
Before I even think, I say, “There you go again, standing around with your dick in your hands.”
“Jack! Enough!” VP Barnes says.
“Sorry, Ms. Barnes.” My tone is sincere. “But I had to seize that one.”
She shakes her head. “Jack, hear Officer Fogerty out.” The skin
on her wide face is dry and reptilian. But her eyes, surrounded by wrinkles, hold less anger and more anxiety. So I shut up, nod, and give Fogerty 2 my attention.
He leans in, towering over me. “I know this is what you were up to when I caught you, Sam, and Carver out on State Street.”
“And they aren't sitting in this room with you and me becauseÂ .Â .Â .”
The Fogerty brothers don't have a vendetta against them.
“Because I saw you closest to that road sign when I got there, Dalton, which tells me you were the one putting these up.” He shakes his hand holding the dick.
Stick to the facts.
Being in the presence of a crime scene doesn't prove that I'm the criminal. I pinch my eyebrows together. “I have no idea what you're talking about.”
“Should I search your vehicle, Dalton?”
“Sure.” I'd cleared any trace of contact paper from Sam's car and mine and ditched it in a Dumpster as soon as we were done porno-graphing the town's deer signs. “But when you go into my car, could you dust a little in there? All this fall mold and pollen is killing my allergies.”
Fogerty 2's brown bushy eyebrows flatten. “What about your house? Should I go see what's going on inside your home?”
His words chill me instantly. He knows my brother died under Mom's drunken watch, but he doesn't know the crazy underneath that. The thought of him, or anyone, seeing Mom drunk, falling-down wasted makes my chest feel tight. But the thought of him seeing Mom ranting about her invisible friends freaks me out way more. He'd for sure call Child Protective Services. Or my dad. But not before he called the psych ward on Mom.
I force my voice to stay even. “I can assure you, Officer, you'd be wasting your time. There is no proof at my house.”
He gives a spastic wave of the deer genitals. “You want proof, Dalton. I'll give you proof. I can always dust this dick for fingerprints. Butâ” His right eye twitches and his breath comes out in a shallow burst. “Ms. Barnes here has talked me into letting
I look at VP Barnes, surprised. She nods, her thick helmet hair shifting as one solid piece. And I feel the upper hand returning. Ms. Barnes is bound to be easier to handle than the cops.
“So, Dalton,” Fogerty 2 continues, “if I walk out of here without you, you better do absolutely every single thing Vice Principal Barnes says.” He points his meaty finger at me. “One screwup, and I'm hauling you in for defacing public property and calling your parents. Get it?”
“Good,” he says.
“You're fun,” I say.
“And you're a menace to society.” Fogerty 2's cavernous nostrils flare.
“Well,” I say, “I'm sure whatever Pineville's much-loved and very compassionate vice principal here”âI give VP Barnes a nod; she doesn't nod backâ“has in store for me, it will keep me in line.”
“Let's hope so,” Fogerty 2 says, “because if you don't stay out of trouble and stick to Ms. Barnes's exact terms, all deals are off.” He waves his well-endowed hand and then walks out of the office, slamming the door behind him.
Ms. Barnes clasps her stubby-fingered hands on the desk in front of her. She gives me a leathery smile. “Ready to hear the deal I cut for you, Mr. Dalton?”
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It could be much worse.
“That's all you want?” I'm totally surprised. “Don't you want me to sit in detention every day for the rest of the year or pick boogers off desks? Scrub toilets? Kiss Principal Levy's butt more? Seriously, don't you think this punishment is a little weak?”
“No. It's a lot, I think.” She leans back in her chair. “Fifteen night-shift hours for hospital maintenance at Worton County Hospital and ten hours of math tutoring a week here at Pineville High seems like a heck of a lot of commitment to me.”
“But it's just work,” I tell her.
Her eyebrows fly up. She gives me an amused look. “Yes. Good, honest work.”
“I'm sorry, Ms. Barnes. I know you think I'm a screwup, but I know all about hard, honest work.”
“I know you do, Jack.” She nods. “I know a lot more about you than you think.”
“And I already have two jobs. I need that money.” How do I drop the flower shop I've been at since I was twelve? And I can't just up and ditch Tony and the car wash. And no way will I stop visiting Ben Croeden, Maria, and all those people who love listening to me play violin. I dig them too much.
“Your schedule's your problem, Jack.” I notice she's officially stopped calling me Mr. Dalton, like we've become closer or something. “This is the deal. Take it or leave it.”
I shake my head. “I just don't get what difference it makes if I do one job or the other.”
“First of all, I've made sure the shifts you'll get at the hospital will get you off the streets during prime troublemaking hours. And secondly, those hands of yours”âshe points at my fingersâ
“and that brain in your head”âher finger flits toward my faceâ“I know how good you are at fixing things. I know you fixed Hallend Music's indoor speaker system in less than an hour after they'd had two electricians come out to try. I'm in there a lot, since I play piano.”
I glance at her short, chunky fingers in disbelief.
“And I've seen your SAT scores,” she says. “You're gifted at math. You need to start applying that to something that helps people. Tutoring will look good on your college applications if you haven't already applied anywhere.”
I don't tell her I don't plan to go to college. I have a feeling it will just be another thing she pressures me to do.
“So”âshe rounds the desk to stand in front of meâ“choose, Jack. You can do the work I'm asking you to do. Or I can call Officer Fogerty right now and have him dust for prints.” Her thin lips tense. “No doubt he'll want to get your mom involved.”
The idea of Mom forced to have more interaction with him terrifies me.
“Fine,” I say, feeling backed into a corner. “I'll take your deal.”
“Good choice, Jack.” She shakes my hand. “Your first shift at the hospital starts Saturday night at eight. Your first tutoring session is tomorrow directly after school in the media center. If you don't show up to either, or show up inebriated, drugged, or otherwise incapacitated, someone will tell me, and you'll be in violation of our agreement. Officer Fogerty will be thrilled. Understand?”
“Clearly.” I give her a defeated look, then get up to head to my next class.
“Oh, and, Jack?” she says, stopping me. “Let's be very clear.” She swallows, pausing dramatically. “It took everything I had not to laugh watching Officer Fogerty with a penis stuck to his hand.”
The grooves in her face deepen as she smiles. She bows her head and busts out laughing.
I let loose, too, and for a long moment, we sit there and laugh at Fogerty 2's expense. And when I leave, Ms. Barnes somehow seems a little more like one of the good guys.