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Pretty little things, p.4
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       Pretty Little Things, p.4

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  For him.

  His mouth suddenly felt as though he’d swallowed a jar full of cotton balls and he rubbed his hands together to stop them from shaking. It was a bad habit – a quirk was what his mother called it. His hands would shake whenever he got too excited. His quirk always made meeting new people quite difficult. Especially pretty girls.

  He looked down at the photo on his lap one last time. Then he slipped it into the glove compartment and started up the engine. The sun had just dipped under the horizon and night was officially here. He looked at the clock. 5:29. Right on time.

  So nice, he thought as he pulled out of the parking lot. So very, very nice.

  He liked a girl who was punctual.

  7

  The bus pulled away from the curb, leaving Lainey behind in a noxious cloud of diesel fumes. Across the street, Coral Springs High loomed imposingly under the umbrella of an enormous ficus tree. She checked her cell. 5:23.

  No time to think. No time to dawdle. No turning back.

  The football field looked like it was over to the left, so she figured the baseball field was probably in the back of the school. She hurried across the street and cut through the empty parking lot. It looked like no one stuck around here on Friday afternoons, either. Shadows sliced through the trees and across the broken asphalt. In a few minutes the sun would be down. Lainey loved the fall and Halloween and Thanksgiving, but she hated the shorter days. By the time December got here, you were down to what? An hour of daylight after school? She followed the chain-link fence to the back of the school, and there it was. The baseball field. No cars in this parking lot, either. No players on the field. It was as deserted as Sawgrass, which was good. Seeing other teenagers eye her like she was an imposter would drive her nerves completely over the edge.

  She sat down on the curb and changed into Liza’s boots, throwing her sneakers into her book bag. Damn! Time to panic. Why’d she bring her stupid Twilight bag? She’d meant to switch to Liza’s old silver knapsack. She put a hand over Robert Pattinson’s handsome face. This could ruin everything. She’d have to keep that covered up or out of sight somehow – if Zach saw it she’d be so embarrassed. He’d definitely know then that she wasn’t sixteen. Maybe she should say her book bag broke this morning and she’d had to borrow her little sister’s from last year? Another couple of lies, including a sibling she didn’t have. A pang of guilt hit her. She’d told so many the last couple of days. It was getting real hard to keep track of them all …

  She stood up and walked around the parking lot, trying to force her conscience on to another subject and adjust to Liza’s heels. If the Twilight bag wasn’t a dead giveaway she was a fraud, kissing the movie theater steps sure would do it. She popped a piece of gum in her mouth and put on another coat of berry-flavored lip-gloss, shaking her hands out to stop them from sweating. The very real thought occurred to her then that Zach might try to kiss her tonight.

  Her first kiss …

  That was it. She flipped open her cell and speed-dialed Molly. Pacing the parking lot, she spun her book-bag strap around and around, until it was all twisted.

  It went straight to voicemail.

  ‘Hey, M, it’s me,’ Lainey began excitedly. ‘You’re probably at piano, but I wished you’d picked up! I have something so – you’ll never freakin’ guess where I am! Never!’

  The car had pulled up behind her so quietly, the loose gravel on the asphalt had not even crunched. It was his voice she heard first.

  ‘Lainey?’

  She literally jumped in her sister’s boots. There was no time to finish. No time left to think. The moment was finally right here, right now.

  ‘I gotta go,’ she whispered quickly into the phone. ‘Look, don’t call me back. I don’t want the phone to ring. I’ll call you in a couple of hours.’

  Then she licked her lips to make them shiny, snuck a deep breath and spun around to meet the totally awesome guy she’d literally been dreaming about these past few weeks.

  Cindy was finally going to meet her prince. Let the ball begin.

  8

  ‘Hey!’ she said into the half-open car window, trying to nonchalantly unspin the tangled book bag. It was almost dark and the windows were tinted black, like a limo. It was hard to see inside. ‘I didn’t hear you drive up.’

  ‘S’up?’ he replied softly. His face was obscured in part by the baseball cap on his head and dark sunglasses, but she caught the flash of his mega-watt smile, and her knees shook just a little. His light blond hair spilled out from under the cap, barely touching his shoulders. Dressed in a tight long-sleeved black T-shirt, and dark jeans, the rest of his body blended like a chameleon with the all-black interior. He waved a hand toward the door. ‘Hop in.’

  And so she did.

  She slid into the passenger seat, which was buttery soft and smooth, but ice cold. The car smelled like new leather and old smoke. And Paco Rabanne, Todd’s favorite cologne. She pushed that thought right out of her head. Her stepdad was the last person she wanted to be thinking about.

  ‘Nice car,’ she said with a smile as she closed the door. She bent over and casually tried to rearrange the book bag at her feet so that Robert Pattinson was flipped face-down on the floor. She could shoot herself for forgetting to switch it out.

  ‘Thanks,’ he replied.

  The window slid back up, and he turned up the radio. Lainey recognized the song from the movie Thirteen Going on Thirty. It was Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.

  That’s a weird song, she thought. Who the hell listens to Michael Jackson that wasn’t, like, her parents’ age? She would have expected maybe Linkin Park or The Fray, Zach’s two favorite bands. Maybe he was playing it in the spirit of Halloween – as a build-up to the movie. God, she thought, please, please don’t let him be a geek. Or a weirdo. ‘Zombieland’s playing at a couple of places,’ Lainey said. ‘The next showing is six-ten at Magnolia, which is just up the road. Or we could go to the seven-fifteen at the mall.’ There were a couple of other theaters within driving distance, but those were the two she knew didn’t care if a kindergartner walked by himself into an R movie, as long as he bought himself a ticket.

  ‘OK.’

  … You start to scream, but terror takes the sound before you make it …

  Michael Jackson crooned and squealed on the radio. ‘You want to go to the seven-fifteen? Then, um, make a left out of the parking lot. I can take you the way I always go, but I have to be on Atlantic Boulevard to get there.’ She giggled and looked around the dashboard. ‘I hope you have a navigation system on this thing. My friends always say I’m geographically challenged. I have a hard time finding my way back to my locker after lunch.’

  Embossed in metal on the steering wheel was a raised, scripted L. Lainey recognized it from Molly’s dad’s car. He had a Lexus.

  … Cause this is thriller, Thriller Night! And no one’s gonna save you from the beast about to strike …

  She wanted to ask him why he wasn’t driving the BMW, but that sounded shallow. And it was shallow. A Lexus was just as nice. Nicer, maybe. She fidgeted with the mood ring on her finger. She hoped making conversation wasn’t gonna be this hard all night. Molly was the conversationalist, not her.

  ‘Are you hungry?’ she asked as they pulled out of the lot and made a right on to Rock Island. ‘We can go to the food court at the mall, if you want.’ That would be perfect, she thought. There was a really big chance that she’d see someone from Ramblewood there. Maybe even Melissa or Erica.

  ‘Sounds good,’ he said softly.

  The creepy-sounding old guy started to rap on the radio. Vincent Price, the horror movie king from, like, a thousand years ago.

  Darkness falls across the land. The midnight hour is close at hand …

  ‘I really liked your picture,’ Zach said, but he didn’t look at her. She watched as a single drop of sweat trickled down the side of his neck, disappearing into his shirt.

  His arm was on the armrest, his hand dangling
casually off the edge. Rough fingers tapped the gear shift. Wiry black hairs sprouted from the flesh above his knuckles. Lainey’s eyes slowly moved up his arm. Coarse black hairs stuck out of his cuff, like spindly spider legs.

  She suddenly felt incredibly cold. Prickly goosebumps raced across her flesh. It was as if all the air had been sucked out of the car.

  Zach was blond.

  … And though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver …

  He turned into an empty lot where a bunch of power station lines were. Across the street was a park. Molly’s mom had taken her and Molly there once before. It had a nature reserve running through it. The mall was in the other direction.

  For no mere mortal can resist the evil of the thriller …

  She reached for the door handle, but it wouldn’t budge. The king of horror broke out into maniacal laughter. The song was over.

  The cloth came across her face with lightning speed even as the car was still moving. The wicked taste burned her eyes and closed her throat. It was hard to breathe. Then he punched her hard in the head. She felt her face smash against the glass. She felt the warm blood trickle from her forehead, running past her eye and down her cheek. She felt her hands fall to the floor, her legs twitch and just stop working, as everything went to black.

  The horror king just kept on laughing.

  9

  The hall clock started to chime. Debbie LaManna could hear it, even over the blare of the television. Even two rooms away. It chimed every quarter-hour, then dang in the number of hours at the top of every hour. It took five fucking minutes just to get through midnight. She cracked off a smoke ring. The ornate grandfather clock and a bank account with $3,714.22 in it was what her mother had left her nine years ago when she’d died of lung cancer, an oxygen tube strapped to her nose and a pack of Newports in hand. Of course the money was long gone, but damn it if that hideous Mack the Knife moon-face clock was still here – dragged along behind her from husband to husband, apartment to apartment, rental to rental. Toasting each lost hour of her life with a loud, distracting clang. One of these days she was gonna call the Salvation Army to come haul it away.

  Debbie counted as the dings hit eleven. Just to be sure, she looked at her watch. She was gonna kill Elaine. Really kill her. Who the hell did she think she was, staying out till eleven at night? She crushed out her cigarette. This was how it all started with Liza. Breaking curfew, coming home stoned. Smelling like a fucking bottle of Bud. If that kid thought for one second that she was gonna get away with half the shit her older sister had pulled, she had a cold, hard reality check coming. What was that saying her own mother used to love to say? Fool me once, shame on you, Debra. Fool me twice, shame on me. And Debbie was no fool. Not any more. Elaine Louise was so gonna have her ass handed to her when she walked through that door. That was for certain. She swallowed a big chug of her Mich Ultra and tried to concentrate on the news.

  ‘Is she home yet?’ Bradley called out from his bedroom down the hall. His voice had the twisted smirk of a kid who was happy that his sibling was gonna be in a shitload of trouble.

  ‘Brad, if you don’t close that damn door and go to sleep in the next five minutes, there is no Laser Tag tomorrow with Lyle. I can promise you that!’

  The door closed with a thud and Debbie tried to focus once again on the news. Listening to everyone else’s tragedies seemed to help for a little bit. A local fire. A bank robbery. Nine dead in an Iraq suicide bomb. Then her thoughts came around again. This time they landed on Todd, who was also not home yet. He was the real reason Debbie was so pissed off. Where the hell was he?

  An after-work beer with the boys, honey. Just unwinding from a long, hard day of making money to feed your kids.

  My ass, Debbie thought, bitterly. She knew he was probably drunk and fucking that new girl from the office in some sleazy Lauderhill motel or on a beach towel in the backseat of his car. The receptionist named Michelle that he swore up and down didn’t work at his office, even though that’s who’d answered the phone yesterday when Debbie had called to check.

  Debbie rubbed her throbbing temples and lit another cigarette. She looked around the family room, littered with crap the kids hadn’t cleaned up, including petrified cereal bowls leftover from breakfast, video games, clothes and stacks of crumpled school papers pulled out of book bags and thrown wherever. When Liza did feel like coming home, she loved to dump whatever she didn’t want to wear or carry anywhere she felt like it. And then there was the other prince in the house, Bradley. Thanks to his dad’s testosterone-fueled edict that housework was a woman’s job, he didn’t lift a finger to pick up his shit, either. After working another nine-hour shift, this is what Debbie got to come home to – a messy house, a rat-bastard husband, kids who drained every last bit of energy from her body. And of course, no respect. Now, after she’d just gotten through what she hoped was the worst with the oldest, Elaine was gonna try and give her patience a run for the money. She shook her head and slapped the newspaper off the couch. This was not how life was supposed to have turned out. On cue, her mother chimed in down the hall.

  Rosey, the kids’ Golden Retriever, walked in with a big bear stuffed in her mouth, and nuzzled her head on Debbie’s lap. Rosey stole every loose sock and stuffed animal in the house. This time it was Elaine’s ratty, old, teddy bear, Claude. She must have pulled it off Elaine’s bed. Lainey never went to sleep without him. She was thirteen going on thirty, maybe, but she still needed her teddy to go to sleep. Debbie pushed back the bad thoughts that kept trying to force their way into her head. She fingered the numbers on the cordless beside her, wondering if maybe she should call the police. But then she remembered from her escapades with Liza what life was like once you got the cops involved. Once they were in your fucking business, they never got out. Never. Instead, she tried Todd’s cell again. ‘Where the fuck are you?’ she barked when her husband told her to leave a message at the tone and he would get back to her as soon as he was able.

  As soon as I’ve dismounted my invisible receptionist with the great boob job whose name is not Michelle, I’ll be sure to call you back. Beeeeeep.

  She probably slept over that new friend’s house, Debbie told herself. What was her name? The one Lainey went to the movies with? Carly? Karen? That was probably it. Maybe she’d even told her she was gonna be sleeping over. It was so crazy this morning, trying to get them all out of the house and herself off to work, she probably just didn’t remember Elaine telling her, is all. And the reason she’s not answering her cell? That one’s easy. Because she never fucking charges it, that’s why. No surprise there.

  Debbie pulled Claude from Rosey’s mouth and wiped the dog spit off on the cuff of her robe. She finished off the last of her beer with a single swallow and cracked open another from the portable cooler next to the couch. Then she turned up the volume on the TV, absently rocking the mangy teddy in her arms just as Conan O’Brien started his monologue and the clock began to count down yet another half-hour of her life.

  This is the way nightmares begin. Or perhaps, end.

  Rod Sterling, The Twilight Zone

  10

  The rumble of a lawn mower going right past his bedroom window was what woke Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Special Agent Supervisor Bobby Dees from the weird dream he’d finally slipped into. For a few seconds his exhausted brain scrambled to reconcile the sound with the strange golf game he’d been playing with his dead dad. A groundskeeper mowing distant swales on the eighteenth, perhaps? A low-flying jet? The rumble slowly faded off, a hush grew over the excited crowd, his dad lined up the putt …

  Then his neighbor turned the John Deere back around.

  It was no use. Bobby lifted a lid. The sun streaks that squeezed through the drawn blinds were tinged a soft pink. He looked over at the nightstand clock: 9:03 a.m. That was when he remembered it was Sunday.

  He rolled over with a grunt and the new John Grisham he’d fallen asleep reading slipped off his ch
est, hitting the floor with a thump. His wife’s side of the bed was warm, but empty. He heard the door to the bathroom shut softly with a click. The shower turned on a few seconds later. LuAnn’s shift at the hospital didn’t start till ten, but especially on weekends she liked to get in a little early, have a cup of coffee and read the paper in the cafeteria before taking on an ER still chock-full of Saturday-night drunks and car-crash victims.

  Bobby pulled a pillow over his head and lay there with his eyes closed for a few minutes, reluctant to accept the fact that he was now awake. The last time he remembered looking over at the clock it had read 5:49 a.m. The rumble of the mower slowly faded away like the ending of a song on the radio, the crowd on the green quieted once again and he started to drift back off …

  Then his Nextel rang.

  Ugh. He grabbed the cell off the nightstand and pulled it under the pillow with him. ‘Dees,’ he grumbled.

  ‘Man, you sound like shit,’ replied the familiar voice on the other end with a chuckle. ‘What’s up there, brother? Somebody piss in your cornflakes?’

 
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