Read Ripple Online

Authors: Heather Smith Meloche

Ripple (9 page)

So I head for the door. It's time I found out Bleacher Girl's real name.


Jack S. Dalton materializes out of the darkness like some insane murderer on a made-for-TV movie. He hangs with rich kids; he doesn't belong on my dirty street.

He stops a couple feet away, looking at me like I'm a pathetic stray dog. Definitely not the look of an insane murderer. His white T-shirt with Popeye on the front—
—glows in the moonlight. His head cocks, exposing the dark tattoo on his neck.

I don't say anything. Neither does he. I stare at him. He stares at me. Until I wonder if I'm hallucinating. Maybe what I've done tonight is making me insane. Kicking me into the mental deep end after putting myself in a position to let Ty Blevens catch me cheating on Seth.

The panic hits me again. And without being able to stop them, tears escape.

My hallucination moves, sitting next to me on the sidewalk.

“Tough night, huh?” he says. The heat from his body pushes through the chilled autumn air around us.

I open my mouth to tell him,
A crappy night times a thousand.
But then I remember who I'm talking to. The poster child for juvenile delinquency. He's probably here to punk me.

“What are you doing here?” I try to muster annoyance, but my words come out weak, close to whiny. My emotions are frayed.

The corners of his lips perk up. “I saw you. Thought I'd say hi.”

I look around for a vehicle besides mine parked in the road. There isn't one. I cast him a suspicious look. “You came to say hi? Here? Are you playing one of your annoying jokes on me?”

“No.” He shakes his head.

I'm confused. “Are you slumming it? Taking a super-late stroll among the down-and-out? Or maybe you're stalking me.” I look at him seriously. “Are you stalking me?”

I hold my breath, wait for his answer. The last thing I need is someone following me around, figuring out what I do when I'm not supposed to be doing it. For all I know, he could have witnessed the entire mess I got myself into just a half hour ago.

Jack laughs, a genuine sound. “I'm not stalking you.” His eyes flash. “Do you want me to?”

I wipe my face, erasing my tears. “I'd rather not be stalked. But thanks for asking.”

“Are you sure?” One eyebrow shoots up. “Because
, my middle initial, stands for—”

“Positive,” I interrupt, holding back a smile.

Jack lets out a theatric sigh of relief. “Good. Because stalking requires way too much effort.”

“Oh, that's right,” I say. “You're probably more into letting the air out of tires and tripping unsuspecting passersby.”

He looks at me, offended. “I would
trip an

This time I can't stop from smiling. “Whatever.”

“So,” Jack says, “we sort of got off to a bad start at the football game.”

“Did we have a start?”

“Well, not until a formal introduction.” He holds his hand out, his expression filled with interest. “Hi there. I'm Jack S. Dalton.”

This time I complete the handshake. His palm slides against mine. Instant heat and an unexpected jolt shoot through me, leaving me staring at his eyes, sliding to his lips. I release his hand and clear my throat. “So, Jack S. Dalton, do you always wander around looking for girls in the dark?”

He shakes his head, giving a coy smile. “Only the prettiest ones.”

My breath hitches.

“But honestly,” he says, his face falling to serious, “you looked like you might need someone to talk to.”

I drop my gaze. I don't know him well enough to tell him anything. And he appeared out of thin air. And the thoughts in my head right now are ugly, toxic, and combustible.

“Hey, did you draw that?” He's pointing to the ground, to the place where I had drawn a falcon in flight in the dust. Maybe because I wish I could fly away. But mostly because, in this private moment, with no one to judge me, my art feels less like a waste of everyone's time. But now I have a potential critic here.

I swipe away my drawing, then glance at my house. All the lights are out. My stepdad's truck is gone. Probably went out for more beer. He could come back any second, revved-up drunk, and decide it's a great time to cut me up loudly in front of Jack.

I stand quickly and scan the road for headlights. Jack gets up, too, towers a good eight inches taller.

“Are you leaving?” he asks. “Are you okay?”

“Fine.” I keep my eyes alert, my ears tuned to any crunch of tires on the gravel road. The effort exhausts me. I look at Jack, exasperated. “Seriously, why
you here?”

Jack steps closer, his expression etched with concern. He's left very little space between us and looks at me with something past sympathy, weirdly making me want to collapse into him. Let someone hold me up for just a little while.

He leans in farther, his face close to mine. His scent of woods, of cedar and pine, hits me. His gaze pierces. “Well, I'm not stalking, so I guess I'm slumming it.”

His words sting. I take a giant step back, my cheeks and expression fiery. Behind him, my road stretches like a dirty mark on the ground. All around us, houses crumble. The poorly mowed golf course across the street hasn't seen good business since I was twelve. If he's come here to make me feel even more like shit, he's done it.

I jab a finger at him. “Whatever, Jack. Go back to whatever ultra-landscaped neighborhood you live in. Leave the
to those of us who're used to them.”

Jack's expression turns confused, then, un-fucking-believably, his lips curl up in amusement.
What an asshole.

I whirl in the direction of my front door, to get away from him. But his fingers wrap around my arm. “Let me go,” I growl.

“Wait. You don't understand,” he says through his half smile. “And I still don't know your name.”

“No.” I wrench my arm free. “You don't.”

In the distance, headlights flash.
I take off running, knowing if I don't get inside before my stepdad gets home, tonight will end much worse than it already has.

•   •   •

Monday morning, I wake thinking for the hundredth time how Jack was like a whacked-out dream. It's totally strange that he showed up in the middle of the night. In my yard. Next to me. Then he pretends to be all sweet and gentle before he morphs into a dick again.

I'll just need to stay away from him and remember he's a walking mug shot. Destined for ten to life in some maximum security prison. And since I have a crap-load to deal with today, and every day, future convicts can't be on my to-do list.

My stomach churns fiercely. It hasn't stopped hurting since Saturday night. Sunday was a total wash. I woke up not wanting to deal with anything. Somehow, I hauled myself to work the Sunday brunch shift at the diner and then came home, not getting out of bed for the rest of the day.

I want to hide away today, too, but skipping school is not an option. I'd just get behind on my classwork. So I shower, put on makeup, blow-dry my hair as fast as I can. I want to get to school way early so I won't have to see anyone—not my parents, not Seth, definitely not Ty Blevens, not even Juliette—before I absolutely have to.

I head to my Civic, keys jangling in my fingers, but stop cold in the driveway. My stepdad is already in his gray work van, his driver-side door open, classic rock belting from the radio. Across his mud-stained jeans rests a dirty metal file box filled with today's schedule and invoices—a lawn sprinkler installer's briefcase.

He looks up. Dark circles sit below his eyes. His face sags. “Feeling better?” he asks.

“Yep,” I lie.

He nods. “Busy day for you today?” With all the alcohol out of his system, he's back to being kinder.

“I've been invited to lunch with the principal.” I don't tell him I'm lunching by proxy with Seth and his teammates.

The trace of a smile flits across his weathered features. “That's good,” he says. “If he likes you and all, you should let that principal know who your mom is.”

“He knows.”

“Right.” He nods. Sits silent. Classic rock on the radio hovers between us. “So where did you go Saturday night?” He doesn't sound angry. Just exhausted.

“To visit a friend,” I say.

He casts dark eyes down at his dirty pants. “I yelled after you while you were leaving to find out where you were headed. And then your mom woke up and got worried that you'd left.” He doesn't look up. “I called your cell, but you didn't answer, so I went to look for you. Drove around for a long while but couldn't find you.” He looks up at me.

Is he trying to make me feel guilty? Because it works.

“I'm sorry,” I tell him.

“Me too.” And his tone is so sincere that I stare hard at him, to confirm I'm hearing him right. “I mean it, Tessa.” Beneath the wild beard and mustache, the gruffness of his face softens. And all I want to do is hug him. Or better yet, have him hug me.

Instead, he opens his mouth like he's going to say more, but just sighs. “We're out of milk, Tess. Will you get more on your way home from school? I'll pay you back.”

I nod.

“Thanks.” And he closes the car door between us.

•   •   •

I'm hypercautious as I walk through school. Avoid the hallways that I know Seth strides through, the ones Juliette takes to class. My eyes dart around.

I don't know what Ty has told people. If he's shared my secrets through school. I watch every muscle in every face, try to read lips, wonder what's been said, who knows what. I try to determine if people are sickened, disgusted, amused, suspicious. It's hard to tell. All the looks blur together.

But as I walk to third hour, social science, I still haven't been teased, spit at, or called a whore. The miracle of Ty keeping silent might actually have happened.

At the classroom door, Seth startles me, slipping his hand around my hip and pressing me to the wall with a solid kiss. So he can't possibly know I've cheated.

“I missed you this weekend,” he says with a lusty smile.

I take shallow breaths, marvel at how he's made of handsomeness, strong muscle, and goodness.

“Ready for the team lunch with the principal today?”

“Should be fun.”

“I'll come get you and walk you to the lounge where we're eating.” Before I can respond, he kisses me again, then disappears into the sea of people rushing to class.

My third hour is full of popular kids, including Seth's ex, Simone. From her seat across the room, she gives me a stony look as I sit down. When Ty walks into class, I avoid eye contact. He takes his usual seat behind me. I don't turn around, don't talk to him. All hour, his stare pierces my back like a long, hot needle. I should talk to him, beg him not to say anything. But my shame
is too big. The fear of him making a scene and shouting what he knows is crippling.

When the bell rings, I am up and out, shooting into the hallway, heading to my locker. Until Ty's massive hand clamps over my wrist.

“I need to talk to you.” His breath is sauna-like against my ear.

He drags me through a stream of students. Eyes look. Feet falter as we pass. He turns us down a dead-end hallway, pulls me into the boys' bathroom. It's empty, the door shutting us in.

I hate being dragged, but Ty Blevens is to the Pineville basketball team what Seth is to the football team. Popular. Powerful. I wait for him to speak. Take in his small, sunken eyes, his gelled hair cut short on the sides but with scraggled curls dangling against his forehead. He produces a wicked smile, his rubbery-looking lips pushing toward his high cheekbones. He's thin, athletically gangly, but his front teeth are huge. Like his hands. And feet. And reputation.

“Here's the deal, Tessa,” he says, all calm. “I don't think you want people to know what I know about you. Right?”

I nod, tongue frozen, heart slowed to almost stopping.

“Right,” he says. “So I won't say a thing. But only if you do something very important for me.” He scrounges in his messenger bag. I almost expect him to whip out a condom, and the thought of being forced to have sex with him is sickening. But when he pulls his hand from the bag, he's holding a plastic baggie.

“I do a little business to make some extra income.” He licks his lips. “But with basketball practice and the part-time job my dad made me get—which, by the way, pays for jack shit—I can't service my clients as often as I want.”

He grabs my hand, shoves the baggie into my palm. It's a hodgepodge of drugs—small green pills, weed, jagged white balls. I stare at it like I'm holding a coiled rattlesnake. I've never held drugs, never taken them. I'm sure there's been weed in my house. I've smelled it seeping like a clear mist from the garage. But that's my stepdad. If the cops ever come, they'll come for him. Not me. But now the drugs are in my hand.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” My voice is shallow and thin.

He points at the bag. “It's a good amount of Oxycontin. A couple of crack balls, and I've slipped in enough weed for a weekend.” He pulls out a pen and a ripped piece of paper from his bag, writes on it against the white tiled wall, then hands me the paper. “Deliver it here. Thursday night.”

I swallow hard. The address is in Hallend, about twenty minutes away, where many of my other secrets lie. It's not in the worst suburb, but I imagine some window-cracked drug house like the ones in Detroit, the druggies melted into grimy corners and sleeping on trash.

I can't do this.

I glance at Ty's face, too close to mine. I consider the alternative. Have to decide which is worse. Ty blabbing about me to everyone or becoming a criminal.

The warning bell for class rings. “Make sure you get an envelope of cash from them. They know how much. Any questions before you head out?” Ty asks with a slight smile. He knows my choice even before I do.

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