Raine Czekalski slid off the cherry wood stool, landing silently in her scuffed combat boots. Holding the corner of the toast in her mouth, she scraped her plate off the marble breakfast bar. Moisture snaked down the dual-pane windows over the sink and lightning flashed in the distance. Halogen recessed lights brightened the lemon curtains and cherry cabinets. Her attention darted to the flat-screen television. “I really wish you’d wait, and we could all go see Grandma off together.”
The Highway Patrol assisted the SWAT teams in encouraging folks to quit rioting and return to the morning commute. A scarlet fire truck sprayed foam on the carbeque near an upside down van along the side of I-17. Blobs of white oozed down the curb, collecting in the gutter like second-hand toothpaste.
Her aunt, Grace Robleski, straightened the note she’d tacked to the stainless fridge with a ladybug magnet. “We’re heading north. Most of that,” she waved her hand at the television, “is in the city, and well south of us.”
Rinsing her plate, Raine set it in the dishwasher with the others. A lump formed in her throat. “Aunt Grace…”
She turned. Her shoulder-length white blond hair brushed her red tee-shirt. The silver squash blossom necklace shifted on her flat chest. Beads of turquoise and red coral winked in the claw design. “It’s you and your s— cousins I’m worried about. You have to stay in the valley for two more days.”
Raine picked at the white threads waving from the artful cuts in her new, black skinny jeans. Using the heel of her boot, she shut the dishwasher. The electronic photoframe on the counter wobbled. An image of her two cousins Ellen and Rosa appeared. They held a six-year old Raine between them in front of a Christmas tree. Guilt banded her chest and she labored for a breath. She’d lived with her Aunt and Uncle longer than she had with her parents. And because of her tantrum three years ago, Aunt Grace called Ellen and Rosa her cousins instead of the sisters they were.
Ducking her head, Raine used her bleached hair to shield her tears. How could she take back the words and fix it? “We’ll be fine. It’s you and Uncle Paul that will be traveling with the crazy circus.”
She jerked her chin toward the gridlock on Loop 101 behind the newscaster.
The hinges of the garage door creaked. Heavy footsteps echoed off the marble tile. “Did someone say my name?”
One word described her uncle—round. Fat and muscle puffed from his shoulders to his legs. Even his head was round with jug handle ears sticking out. His oversized nose connected the slash of his mouth and the ridge of white eyebrows. He was the dot beneath the straight line that formed her aunt’s willowy frame; together they made an exclamation mark.
Raine didn’t know what she’d do without them.
And she hoped never to find out.
“Raine is worried we’ll join the crazy circus once we hit the freeway.” Aunt Grace dumped the rest of the coffee into a thermos then switched off the maker.
Uncle Paul wiggled his unibrow. His rolls of excess skin undulated while he danced toward his wife. “I’m game as long as you wear one of those skimpy outfits with the fringes just about—”
Raine squeezed her eyes closed when her uncle drew a line across nipples. “Hello! Children present.”
He barked with laughter. “You’re not a child. You’re a teenager. One that wants to drive my favorite car.”
Ooh, that was unfair. Raine peeked at him between her lashes. “You hate the Civic. You said you would pay one of your seedier clients to steal it, if I wasn’t planning on driving it.”
“Who me?” He raised the pitch of his voice to a falsetto. “I would never say anything like that. That’s giving up my Fifth Amendment rights.”
Spaghetti arms wrapped around her. Aunt Grace’s thin shoulders shook with laughter. “Never mind him. He’s always been crazy, just not the circus crazy kind.”
Raine embraced her aunt, holding on a smidge longer than necessary and inhaled her Chanel perfume. “Call when you’re safely out of the valley, yeah?”
Tendons played over her aunt’s bones. Although she was as small as a bird, she was strong and tough. “You’ll be taking your final by then. I’ll text you.”
“Then you better start now.” Easing her embrace, Raine leaned back. She wouldn’t be stuck with just memories and photographs.
“Start now? Are you saying I’m slow?”
Fine wrinkles radiated from her aunt’s eyes. Laugh lines created shallow ridges by her high gloss lips. Aunt Grace swatted Raine’s butt. “You are not too big for a spanking young lady.”
Raine snorted. She’d never been spanked for punishment in her life; the time out chair was another matter. She brushed her lips across her aunt’s cheek and tasted the tang of her foundation and powder. Releasing her aunt, Raine landed against her uncle’s pillow-soft body. Please, please, God, watch over Aunt and Uncle during their trip north.
He squeezed her tight. Groaning, he reared back and lifted her until the tips of her boots skimmed the ground. “Oh, you’re getting so tall. Did you take the brick off your head again?”
“You know I hid that brick years ago.” Not that it did her any good. Thanks to her Cherokee and Mexican ancestry, she was destined to be short like the rest of the women in her mother and aunt’s family. She planted a loud kiss on his cheek.
“Sneaky. Very sneaky.” He patted her shoulder then released her. “You take after your cousins. Don’t pick up any more of their bad habits while we’re gone. You are supposed to be the nice one.”
Aunt Grace snorted. “No, dear, we didn’t want them to be nice. We wanted them to kick patootie then write the miscreant’s name in red lipstick for the police to arrest them.”
“That’s right.” Uncle’s blue eyes twinkled. “And if you have to kill them, drag their carcass back into the house so I can use the Castle Defense.”
“I remember.” Uncle Paul was always telling her how to defend her potential criminal activity. Did he want her to follow him into law, or become a world-class felon? She had to a year of high school left after she finished her finals. Grabbing her pencil and a purple gel pen off the counter, Raine followed them into the garage.
Uncle opened the passenger door of the Touring car for her aunt. “I picked up two gallons of Tin Roof Sundae at the store. Don’t tell Rosa. It’s not organic.”
Like that mattered. Ice cream had its own get out of GMO hell card. Even Rosa said so. Ellen said the calories didn’t count because it was a mental health food. The two gallons wouldn’t last the night, not with the Hallmark Channel marathon they planned. Maybe she should stash one for tomorrow.
A car horn honked as the garage door lifted. The foam anti-fatigue mats were spongy underfoot. Coffee cans and baby jars full of nails stood like chess pieces on the workbench. Shovels, hoes, and rake handles leaned against each other in the corner. Just as she ducked under the partially open door, Uncle started the engine.
A beater Chevy idled at the corner. Yellow paint marred the rear door and the chrome bumper was curled up at the end in a sarcastic smile. She’d helped Cheyenne Zindell put those dings on her red car. Then again, they’d shared a lot of things since their first meeting ten years ago. Raine’s attention skittered to the back seat.
Colton Talbot used the head rest and bucket seat as his drum set. Cheyenne nodded her head in time to the music.
The bass notes of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell rattled the loose gas cover. Raine’s last day as a Junior, and Colton’s last day at Beaver Creek High School. Only two Musketeers would return next fall. She sighed. What else would change after today?
Aunt Grace’s window zipped down as her uncle’s car coasted toward the street. “Be careful, and stay safe.”
It was high school, just a mile up the street. What could happen? “I’ll be sure to avoid getting a paper cut or writer’s cramp from my English essay.”
Raine raised her hand in farewell.
Uncle waggled his fingers at her then her friends. “And no wild sex parties!”
God! She planted her face in her palm. Could they embarrass her any more?
Leaning across the passenger seat, Cheyenne pushed open the passenger door. “Come on. I want to get to school and issue the sex party invitations before all the hot guys have plans.”
Laughing, her uncle tapped his horn then headed down the street.
“So who do you want to invite to the sex party?” Raine dropped onto the passenger seat. Off-white stuffing mushroomed above the slit in the upholstery. She hit the back button and restarted the AC/DC song.
“Michael Horizon.” Cheyenne tossed her bleached blond hair. Thick black eyeliner accentuated her hazel eyes and she puckered her scarlet lips. Powder hid the freckles and the jagged, pink scar near her jugular.
Her friend actually thought of having sex after her rape? Sure they’d been Freshmen then but… “He’s a football player.”
Just like her rapist, Billy McGuire. Guess having a social worker dad had helped her heal.
“He’s nice.” Cheyenne ran her finger along the scar then shrugged. “Besides, I’ve had three years of karate lessons. I can kick his ass.”
“Ooh.” Colton leaned against the backseat and clasped his hands behind his head. “She’s getting all ‘wax-on, wax-off’ on us.”
After flipping him off, Cheyenne glanced over her shoulder then pulled into the street.
“Who are you inviting?” Raine’s finger hovered over the push button preparing to raise the volume as soon as the riff changed.
A cloud scuttled in front of the sun, casting darkness over the cookie-cutter ranch homes lining the street. Only the height of the trees and the paint on the stucco had changed in the last decade. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Moisture appeared on the windshield almost as an afterthought.
“I’m not inviting anyone. I’m saving myself for a wicked college girl.” Crossing his legs at the ankles, he propped his feet onto the center console. A white sock popped out of the split in his sneaker. “I heard that’s the time to experiment.”
Raine pinched the white cotton and tugged. His sock snaked through the hole. “You wanna be forced to run through a maze and fed cheese?”
“Ha. Ha.” He slapped her hands away and stuffed his sock back inside his shoe. “What about you?”
She pushed the up button on the volume until her ears rang. “What? What did you say? I can’t hear you.”
Pen in one hand, pencil in the other, she drummed on the dashboard.
“Real mature.” Colton crossed his arms over his dress shirt for all of two seconds, then he started playing the seats, occasionally reaching over to thump her head.
Laughing, Cheyenne coasted through the left turn arrow and shifted into the right hand lane.
A horn honked. In the parking lot ahead, cliques formed according to a time honored social status—geeks, nerds, jocks, spirit line cheerleaders, addicts, and the invisibles. All vied for space between the white lines and viewed those beyond their boundaries with hostility and suspicion.
Cheyenne picked the spot nearest the road, away from the others in their usual place.
Stepping out of the car, Raine tucked her pen and pencil into her back jean pocket. Like a mirage of normalcy, two-story buildings rose from the scraggly desert vegetation ahead. Rain turned the gold and green strips into angel wings on the ghostly white buildings. Inside the linoleum hallowed halls of learning, the air conditioners would be laboring to eliminate the residual stink of gym clothes, wet bodies, and white board markers.
“Come over here and say that, junkie.” The half-back of the football team pumped his fist at the shivering crowd of addicts. The beaver logo on his letterman’s jacket bared its teeth on his back.
“Come on. Let’s get inside before the stupid spreads.” Walking half on the damp asphalt half on the gravel, Cheyenne took the long way to the campus.
Colton tromped on the parking lot. His fingers clenched and unclenched at his sides.
Was he remembering beating up a few of those football players after the rape? He wouldn’t face any of them alone under the bleachers this time. She didn’t know karate, but she’d taken a few self-defense classes. Raine took up her position on the street side of Cheyenne.
The klaxon rang when she set foot on the quad. Feet stomped. Laughter died. Everyone streamed toward the classrooms.
Cheyenne frowned. “Wish me luck. My first exam is Trig.”
“You’ll do great.” Raine flashed her a thumbs-up. “We’ve studied enough.”
All weekend and marathon sessions the last two evenings. She’d drunk enough Dr. Pepper to have graduated medical school already.
“Remember, you can forget everything as soon as you’re done.” Colton stuffed his hand into his pocket. His belt flashed under the oversized dress shirt. “I’ll meet you guys at the car as soon as I finish helping Mrs. Manlove with the hazardous waste.”
They stared at her.
Raine wrinkled her nose. “English. If you hear someone screaming, then you know there’s poetry on the test.”
“Good luck.” They chorused, then Cheyenne and Colton headed north toward the science building.
Raine trudged behind two sullen hipsters. Sipping their coffees, they debated the merits of which fad to follow. She bit her lip before she mentioned the Flintstones and their biodegradable automobile. What a bunch of phonies.
In the stairwell, perfume and cologne duked it out with prayers for a passing grade. Even the breeze couldn’t clear the desperation. A blast of cold air blew her hair back when she reached the threshold. Ahead, students scattered like billiard balls into the open classrooms.
Raine’s fingers bit into her pen and pencil. She’d just bullshoot her way through whatever essay she was assigned. And if she needed word count, she’d quote one or two sonnets she’d memorized. Bypassing the first door, she entered through the second and took her seat in the back.
The projector hummed near the computer at the front of the room. A blue rectangle filled most of the whiteboard directly ahead of it. Mr. Pittman tapped a blue marker against his open palm. “Take you’re seats. Some of you will need all the time you can get to pass this test.”
Dropping onto the molded plastic chair, she scooted closer to the desk. Please be about Shakespeare. Please be about Shakespeare.
The bell echoed down the hall.
Jason DeWitt shut the back door after he scuttled inside. Grinning, he slithered into the chair behind hers.
Suck up. The jerk didn’t even need the grades. He could fart and earn an A. Raine hunched in her seat and set her pen and pencil at the top of her desk. If she wanted to get into law school, she first needed to get into a good undergraduate school, which meant no more Bs for her.
Mr. Pittman finished passing out blue composition books.
The door squeaked open. Michael Horizon strutted inside. His letterman jacket hooked over his broad shoulders and his class ring winked gold in the fluorescent lights. He nodded his blond head to the two brunettes in the spirit line, then aimed his finger-gun at his fellow team mate.
“Nice of you to join us, Mr. Horizon.” Mr. Pittman furiously polished his glasses.
“Isn’t it?” Michael flashed his pearly white canines before sprawling in his chair in the front row.
Raine pinched the bridge of her nose. The jock must have been playing football without his helmet if he didn’t get that sarcasm.
“Moron.” Jason coughed behind her.
Giggles washed up against the whiteboard.
Mr. Pittman carefully shoved on his glasses. “Settle down.”
Raine accepted one blue notebook, then passed the last one behind her. Picking up her pen, she scratched her name across the cover.
“For your final, you’ll need to write a ten paragraph expository essay on this topic.” The teacher peered over the top of his glasses at them. “Yes, that does include the introduction and conclusion.”
He tapped a button on his laptop. The blue square faded from the whiteboard. Two words replaced it—Why bother?
“You may begin.” Mr. Pittman stared at the words on his laptop.
Why bother? Why bother what? Studying Shakespeare when your English teacher is in the throes of a mid-life crisis? She chewed on the end of her pen. She could use the quotes with such a topic. That was good for one, maybe two paragraphs. She opened her book.
“Why bother?” Michael straightened and turned in his seat. He scanned the class to make certain he was the center of attention.
Mr. Pittman grasped the projector with two hands.
“What kind of question is that?” Michael pointed at them to emphasize his point.
Mr. Pittman jerked the projector above his head. The cord twanged before yanking free of the wall.
Raine’s breath jammed her throat. Mr. Pittman wouldn’t hurt a student, would he?
“This test was supposed to be about Mark Twain. I studied him.” Michael pressed his hand to his chest. “We—”
Mr. Pittman hammered Michael’s head with the projector.
The pen slipped from Raine’s fingers.
Blinking rapidly, the jock swayed on his seat.
The teacher swung for home.