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Pretty little things, p.3
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       Pretty Little Things, p.3

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  It felt like someone had popped her new balloon. Lainey had completely forgotten about the Wuthering Heights assignment. That now all-too familiar icky-loser feeling enveloped her once again. It didn’t take a genius in Algebra to average out her grades in English – one more D for the mailman to deliver. Her mom was gonna totally freak.

  She slid into her seat and slunk down low to avoid Ms Finn’s steely, missile-guided eyes. Next up was probably a pop-quiz. Oh joy. She rubbed her finger across Zach’s smiling face on her notebook. It was all gonna be OK, she told herself. Everything was gonna be OK. Screw this stupid school and the nasty teachers who delighted in giving tests and extra homework. It was only a dumb grade in a dumb class about a dumb old book, right? In the grand scheme of life it all meant nothing. What was really important was staring her right in the face with his sweet smile, and she knew he didn’t care if she got a D. Zach had already told her he was flunking Spanish. Everything was gonna be OK because she had a boyfriend now. Someone who cared about her. She smiled to herself as Ms Finn slammed the door closed and the next fifty minutes of hell started up.

  Everything was gonna be better in her life. Prince Charming had finally arrived.

  And she couldn’t wait to get back to her computer to talk to him.

  3

  Florida weather could be so freaky, Lainey thought as she watched the blob of black to the west slowly make its way over the Everglades and toward Coral Springs. Just twenty minutes ago there wasn’t even a cloud in the sky. She hurried across the patch of brown grass that led to the duplex where Mrs Ross, Bradley’s after-school sitter, lived. The warm afternoon breeze had degenerated into cool gusts that made the palm trees rustle and bow. Thunder rumbled in the not-so-far-off distance. The storm was getting closer. She wondered what the weather in Columbus, Ohio was like. If it ever rained on only one side of the street, or poured when the sun was shining. She wondered what it felt like to play in snow …

  A zimmer frame with two tennis balls stuck on its front legs sat just outside the screen door on the cement step-up. Taped above the doorbell was a tiny piece of paper with the number 1106 scribbled in old lady chicken scratch. Hopefully Bradley had his stuff ready to go, Lainey thought as she rang the bell and looked at her cell. If he didn’t have practice, Zach was home by five. ‘Hi, Mrs Ross,’ she said sweetly when the door opened. A cat ran out between the old woman’s legs and scurried into the bushes.

  ‘Sinbad, you get back here, now!’ Mrs Ross scolded in her soft, shaky Southern twang.

  Bradley’s elementary school got out an hour and a half before Lainey’s middle school, so Mrs Ross served as the afternoon pit stop until Lainey could come get him. Her mom used to let Bradley just go home alone, but one of the new neighbors threatened to call the Department of Children and Families and report her, so now she had Mrs Ross watch him. In Lainey’s opinion, Bradley would have been better off on his own. Mrs Ross was nearing what looked to be a hundred and couldn’t see, hear, or remember very well. And her house always smelled like pee and boiled eggs. ‘Hello there, Elaine,’ she said. ‘Come on in, now.’

  ‘Do you want me to get him for you, ma’am?’ Lainey asked.

  ‘Who?’

  ‘Sinbad.’

  There was a pause. ‘The cat,’ Lainey added.

  Mrs Ross looked around. Then the light snapped on. ‘Oh, no, no. Just let him be. He’ll come on home, I suppose. That’s where the food is.’

  Bradley popped out from behind the door that led to the living room. His face was pale. ‘A severe storm warning’s been issued. They’re saying tornados are possible.’

  Uh-oh. Her brother could watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Saw IV back to back, but ever since Hurricane Wilma had taken out his bedroom window a couple of years ago, five minutes with the Weather Channel sent Bradley into a complete tailspin. The weather alert must’ve broken into his cartoons.

  ‘Maybe we should wait it out,’ he said, his eyes wide with fear. Mrs Ross gummed her lip and looked back and forth at the two of them. Obviously she wasn’t too worried about tornados. She wanted her TV back. Oprah beckoned.

  ‘Don’t freak. It’s not even raining yet,’ Lainey replied calmly.

  ‘I don’t know … They say tornadoes sound like a train.’

  ‘We have to go Brad. Come on.’ She looked over at Mrs Ross. ‘We can’t stay here.’

  Mrs Ross shrugged.

  ‘Don’t know …’ he muttered again.

  ‘Look, we’ll run home together before the rain starts. I’ll race you.’

  Bradley looked past her. Another rumble of thunder sounded and his lip began to tremble.

  Lainey sighed. The sight of her normally totally obnoxious brother melting into a pile of tears should make her smile, but it did just the opposite. She actually felt bad for the kid. He looked terrified. ‘You can hold my hand, Brad,’ she said quietly, crouching down on her knees to look him in the eye. ‘It’ll be OK. I promise. But we gotta go, like, now.’

  Just as they rounded the corner of 43rd Street on to 114th Terrace, hand in hand and at full speed, God turned on the faucet. And the thunder. A huge boom that sounded as if it was right above their heads set off three car alarms. By the time they made it inside the house three blocks later, they were both soaked right down to their underwear, which made a now completely freaked-out Bradley chuckle for a split second.

  She stood right outside the door and waited while he changed into dry clothes, then she led him back into the family room, closed the blinds and popped Resident Evil into his PlayStation. A video game meant no more weather alerts, and the screaming zombie victims took care of the thunder. She watched him from the kitchen until the rain band had passed over and it was clear Bradley was more concerned with a cannibal finding him in a closet than he was about a twister taking out the family abode. In twenty minutes the storm would be over, he’d be back to his old self and she wouldn’t feel bad any more. There wasn’t much time.

  While he jumped on the couch in his Spiderman jammies, killing zombies left and right, she quietly slipped out of the room and headed down the hall into her bedroom.

  Then she locked the door behind her and turned on the computer.

  4

  Before the screen had even warmed up, the computer blurped. An IM. While she changed out of her wet clothes, she clicked on the flashing orange tab.

  ElCapitan says: r u online?

  It was like he knew she was there. Like he sensed her presence. That was so cool!

  LainBrain says: hi! was just guna rite u

  ElCapitan says: sup?

  LainBrain says: tried to beat the rain & lost

  LainBrain says: I love storms, but its nasty out

  ElCapitan says: does that mean you’re soaking wet?

  LainBrain says: pretty much

  ElCapitan says: ooohhh. I like

  LainBrain says: drying my hair

  ElCapitan says: What happ on math?

  LainBrain says: don’t ask

  ElCapitan says: u wont be 1st to fail algebra

  LainBrain says: didnt fail. D

  ElCapitan says: (::[]::)

  Lainey smiled.

  LainBrain says: thanks 4 the pity

  ElCapitan says: been there. HATED trig. Got a C.

  LainBrain says: moms gonna scalp me. prob grounded 4 life

  ElCapitan says: 2 bad. I like ur hair

  ElCapitan says: & ur pretty head

  She blushed, absently stroking a damp piece of hair that had escaped her towel turban. He was so easy to talk to.

  ElCapitan says: have to meet u

  Lainey stared at the screen. She totally wasn’t expecting that.

  ElCapitan says: what about Friday nite? Wanna c Zombieland?

  ElCapitan says: we can grab sum food 2

  Oh my God. He was asking her out. Wait – was this a date? She looked around the room, as if hoping to see an audience there who could corroborate what she’d just read and interpret exactly what it meant.
Where the heck was Molly when you needed her? Of course it was a date … Movies meant date. Food meant date. Movies and food definitely meant date. A real date. She was just asked out! Then the complete joy that had her jumping up and down in her room, squealing like a piglet, stopped as quickly as it had come on, replaced by icy, realistic panic. What was she doing? There was no way her mom was gonna let her go. No freakin’ way. Especially if she knew Zach was seventeen. She nibbled on a nail. Shit. She didn’t want to tell him no. What if he didn’t ask again?

  ElCapitan says: hello?

  LainBrain says: Hmmm … I definitely want 2 see that.

  ElCapitan says: will ur mom b cool?

  LainBrain says: dont know. specially after today

  ElCapitan says: then dont tell her

  Lainey stared at the computer as if it were alive, watching her carefully through its blinking curser. Her stomach twisted with both unease and excitement.

  ElCapitan says: what she dont know cant hurt her

  She looked around the empty room. A strange tickle itched the back of her throat, as if something had gotten stuck halfway down and wasn’t budging any more. That could work. She could tell her mom she was going to the movies with that new girl, Carrie. It’s not like she’d ever check, anyway. Liza was the problem child, not her. And short of, ‘Did you have a good time?’ she knew there’d be no questions asked. There never were.

  LainBrain says: I cant b home 2 late though

  ElCapitan says: ull b home by 10. I have practice @ 8

  ElCapitan says: thats AM!!!

  Lainey chewed on her lip. Her brain was a mush of thoughts. What should she do?

  ElCapitan says: u still there?

  LainBrain says: ummm … thinking

  ElCapitan says: I’ll pick u up at school. weve played CS High b4. Stay late and meet me @ 5:30 in the parking lot in back by the baseball field. Ill b in a black BMW

  LainBrain says: 5:30?

  ElCapitan says: cant get the car till Dad gets home. CS is a hoof

  That’s right. Zach lived in Jupiter, which, according to MapQuest was, like, an hour away. He was gonna drive an hour just to see her … Lainey took a deep breath. Her heart was pounding. She’d never done anything wrong before. Besides the picture, she’d never gone against the rules. But her mom would just say no for the sake of saying no, and because she had these dumb, arbitrary rules about how old you had to be to do certain things. Twelve for make-up, thirteen for group dates, fifteen for car dates. A knee-jerk reaction to Liza’s screwed-up adolescence. If she didn’t go on Friday, when would she ever meet Zach? Never, that’s when.

  LainBrain says: k. sounds like fun

  ElCapitan says: cool. keep it low. I don’t want ur mom or step to trip. Find a theater near u where its playin

  LainBrain says: k

  ElCapitan says: cant wait to finally meet u

  LainBrain says: me 2

  She leaned back in the chair. Her brain was spinning. She not only had to figure out how she was gonna get herself across town on Friday afternoon to Coral Springs High – which she’d never even been to before – she also had to figure out how that self was gonna look like the girl he thought she was when she got there. Then an icy thought gripped her, causing a race of goosebumps to ripple across the back of her neck.

  What if it didn’t work? What if he saw right through her and knew she was thirteen? What would he do then?

  The computer blurped.

  ElCapitan says: dont worry. ull b safe w/me

  She smiled. It was as if he’d just read her mind. Again.

  ElCapitan says: im no psycho

  5

  When the last bell rang on Friday afternoon, Sawgrass Middle exploded like an overfilled cake pan in a hot oven. A thousand bodies simultaneously poured out every door, scrambling for a school bus or the car rider pick-up line, hurrying to unlock bikes or meet up with friends for the walk home. Homework, tests and projects were three long days off. For a half-hour, deafening chaos ruled the crowded schoolyard.

  And then it was over.

  Perched on her tippy toes atop the hand dryer in the girls’ bathroom, Lainey watched out the tiny crank window as the last of the packed yellow buses pulled out of the roundabout, and the crazed chatter of fifty or so screaming voices slowly faded away. Crumpled pieces of paper and empty snack bags dotted the deserted schoolyard, rolling like tumbleweeds across the parking lot and football field. There were no after-school activities, club meets or conferences on Fridays at Sawgrass – even the teachers left when the last bell sounded. By now, the halls were as lifeless as the parking lot.

  Lainey exhaled the breath she’d seemingly been holding all day – all week actually – and climbed down from the dryer, grabbing her book bag from the handicap stall, where she’d hidden out since the bell rang. With her bus long gone, she was now one step closer to going through with this. She checked her cell – it was 4:10. She had time, but not too much, considering she still had to put on make-up, get dressed and catch the 5:10 bus up on Sample Road that would take her over to Coral Springs High. Then she had to find the baseball field parking lot. Not too much time was good, she told herself, as her stomach started to flip-flop again. She didn’t want any downtime to think about what she was doing or why she shouldn’t be doing it, because she knew that she’d probably chicken out. That was one reason why she hadn’t told a soul about meeting Zach tonight. Not even Molly. Because she didn’t want anyone talking her out of it. The other was more of a personal safety net. If, God forbid, Zach didn’t show up – if, say, he stood her up – well, then no one would ever have to know about that either and she wouldn’t have to feel like such a total loser for the rest of her life every time she got with her friends. ‘Remember Lainey’s first date? Not!’

  She shook the voices out of her head. She’d come this far and she wasn’t turning back. Just wait till she told everyone about her date with her football player boyfriend. That he took her to the movies. And dinner! And he didn’t just have a car – he had a BMW! Jeesh! She’d have to figure out a way to get him to take a picture with her with the car on her cell just so she could show everyone, she thought, as she changed into Liza’s prized jeans and a cute Abercrombie T-shirt. She’d wear her sneakers for the walk to the bus stop, then change into Liza’s BCBG booties when she finally got to the high school. She dumped the plastic sandwich bag full of makeup that she’d pilfered from Liza’s dresser into the sink next to hers. If her sister knew she’d raided both her closet and her drawers she’d go postal, so everything had to be back in its proper place by midnight, which was when Liza got off work at the bowling alley. She picked through the pile of compacts and lipsticks, before settling on a brown and green eye-shadow palette. She hesitated for a moment, swirling a finger over the shimmery powders. Besides Halloween and the occasional lip-gloss, Lainey had never really put on makeup before. She hoped she could remember what stuff Molly had used on her face last weekend and in what order she’d used it. She didn’t want to look like a clown.

  A half-hour later she stepped out of the bathroom and smack into the janitor, almost landing face first in the oversized yellow mop-bucket he was pushing. They both gasped. Then the janitor looked around frantically, like he’d recognized Lainey from an FBI wanted poster, yelling something that she didn’t need to speak Spanish to understand.

  Time to go. She walked as fast as she could without running for the main doors, praying that the rule of no one sticking around the school on Friday afternoons applied to those warm bodies in Administration as well.

  It was a good thing she’d worn her sneakers. By the time she made it to Sample, she was completely out of breath and had to run to catch the bus. She settled into a front seat, all the while avoiding the stare of the disheveled old man across from her who was slurping an orange and eyeing her carefully. She wiped her hands on her jeans and quietly asked the driver to let her know when her stop was, then watched out the window as the string of stores, banks and restau
rants slipped past in a blur. Places she’d eaten at or shopped at dozens of times, but today, she thought, trying to restrain the smile that threatened to commandeer her whole face, it was like she was seeing them all for the very first time.

  6

  From his parking spot in front of the two-storied Allstate office building, he watched as the slight figure with the long chestnut hair stepped off the bus and looked around, like a tourist taking in New York’s Empire State Building for the very first time might – with awe, wonder, and excitement.

  No doubt. It was definitely her.

  She was pretty, in her tight blue jeans and cute, funky T-shirt, a book bag slung clumsily over her shoulder. She had a really nice figure – not too curvy, not too straight. He didn’t like the Kate Moss waif look, but he also didn’t like a voluptuous hourglass figure, either. Too many girls tried too hard to look like something they were not. First came the padded bras and shaping underwear, then the breast implants, liposuction, nose jobs, botox. What you saw was not necessarily what you got. It was nice to see someone as yet unaffected by the Barbie bullshit spouted in fashion magazines and paraded about on MTV. Someone whose beautiful body was still … pure. He watched anxiously as she stopped in front of the main double doors of the school and hesitated, looking around. He feared for a moment that she might try and go in. Although he didn’t think anyone was still around, he didn’t want to find out he was wrong. That would ruin everything. He felt his heart beat a bit faster. But after a few seconds, she turned and trotted through the deserted parking lot, heading over to the baseball field in the far back of the school to wait.

 
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