Clockwise, p.17
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       Clockwise, p.17

           Lee Strauss
 
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“WE’RE BACK,” I SAID. We both had dark rings around our eyes, a pair of raccoons. The birthday gift bag still sat on the table, empty hot fudge containers beside it. Tyson and Josh still ate burgers, oblivious to us. And Lucinda sat wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Probably because my hair was a wild mess when just seconds ago, her seconds, it'd been pulled back nicely in a ponytail; and also because Nate still had his arm around me.

  Oh, yeah, and Jessica was still coming up the escalator, in full view of her boyfriend apparently snuggling with her nemesis. Me. First, she screamed. Not a “there’s a hair in my soup” scream, but a “Freddy Krueger is coming after me with his claws” scream. Everyone—the cashier at the Chubby Chicken outlet, the geek teens in line at New York fries, a couple of senior citizens ordering Big Macs—stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. The only sound in the food court besides the piped in Christmas music was the wail of a toddler who just dropped her ice cream cone when her startled mother flinched.

  “Oh boy,” Nate said.

  “Nate! What are you doing?!” Her strawberry blond hair flung out of place with the whipping of her head as she stormed over to our table. By then Nate had removed the offending arm and scuttled a few inches away from me.

  “Hi, Jessica,” he said. She dismissed his greeting.

  “Why are you sitting with her? Why did you have your arm around her?”

  Nate stood and rubbed his eyes. I rubbed mine too, just because. Kind of like contagious yawning.

  “Jessica,” he said wearily, “don’t make a big deal of it. I was just wishing Casey a happy birthday.”

  “So? Why would you care? She’s so, so…”

  So, what? So beneath him?

  “Jess, please, just drop it.” She softened, smart enough (barely) to see that her tantrum wasn’t working. She reached her hand out to him. He seemed reluctant to take it, but did. She pulled him along, pressing up close to him. She said loud enough for everyone to hear, “Babe, please promise me you will never go near her again.”

  Nate glanced at me, his expression tight, then back to Jessica. “No, I won’t promise that.” Yeah! My heart skipped around like a little kid in the playground. He had stood up to his evil girlfriend.

  “Why not? What’s she to you?”

  Nate hunched over and hushed her. “Leave it alone, okay? We can talk about it later.”

  “Why can’t we talk about it now? You don’t like her, do you?”I felt embarrassed for him. It was like trying to reason with a drunk. And I was interested in his answer.

  “Baby?” she persisted. Then, as if she actually saw him now, instead of the drama. “You look awful, Nate. What’s wrong with you?”

  “Jessica, I didn’t want to do this here, but I can’t take it anymore. I want out.”

  “What?”

  “It’s not working.”

  “What’s not working?”

  “Us.”

  “Us?”

  Nate nodded.

  “You’re breaking up with me?”

  “Yes.”

  Wow. Double wow.

  By now, Tyson and Josh had strolled over. Tyson sipped soda from a straw, which couldn’t have been easy since he had a big grin on his face. I would guess that Tyson didn’t like Jessica that much either. Jessica pushed Nate away with two hands against his chest. Then she shook her long fake fingernail at me.

  “You! I don’t know how you did this, you frizzy-haired, plain-faced freak, but I will not forget it.”

  Okay, I could have lived without the body image slams in front of Nate, and well, in front of the whole food court. Nate walked away with his friends, catching my eye first and offering me a soft salute as he left. I could hear Tyson saying, “Dude! What was that all about?”

  Lucinda leaned in close. “He just tripped with you? Again?”

  I nodded and sighed. “Why do you keep doing that?” The way her lips tightened in a line I could tell she was mad. I didn’t get that.

  “I didn’t do it. He touched me.”

  She leaned back and crossed her arms. “You need to be more careful. Wear gloves.”

  Wear gloves? Twenty-four seven?

  She persisted. “So, what happened this time? Why did he have his arm around you?”

  I didn’t like her tone. “What is this, the inquisition?”

  “Casey, it’s just that it’s what, twice, in how many weeks? You need to be more responsible. What if something happened to him?”

  Fatigue weighed on me and I really just wanted to go home to bed. “Can we have this conversation later?”

  “Okay, fine.” She picked up her coat and purse. “But, tomorrow after you’ve slept this off, you are telling me ev-er-ree-thing.”

  “Deal.” I leaned against her as we rode the elevator down, exhausted.

  Someone shook my shoulder. “Sweetheart? You’ve been sleeping for a long time. Are you feeling okay?”

  “Mom?” Waking up in a new time era was always a bit discombobulating. I was used to waking at the crack of dawn in the freezing cold, watching Nate struggle to make the fire. Now I snuggled underneath my steel blue bedspread, spacing out.

  “What day is it?” I asked.

  “It’s Sunday, just after three o’clock. You’ve been sleeping for almost twenty-four hours.”

  “Oh,” I rubbed my dry, gritty eyes. “Well, you know how teenagers can sleep.”

  Mom sat on the side of my bed and studied me. “You’d win a gold medal in the sleep event, honey.” My mother had soft wrinkles around her eyes and mouth that I thought only added to her prettiness. I reached for her arm and surprised myself with an unfamiliar wave of affection. I realized that I’d missed her.

  I’d been tempted to tell her about my other life many times. But really, what would a parent do if their kid told them a wild story like that? Spend tons of money on a shrink for kids, that’s what. I’d have to take her back to prove it, and after what I just went through with Nate, well, I was convinced that would be a bad idea. What if something happened to her there? This knowledge and her helplessness to protect me would just send her over a cliff with worry.

  She let go of my hand and stood. “You should get up now. You have school tomorrow and you won’t be able to sleep tonight at this rate.”

  “I’ll be right down. I’m starving.” I settled for a quick bowl of cereal to tide me over to dinner and snuggled into my usual spot on the sofa in the living room. Mom was there, watching one of her home makeover shows. “Where’s Tim?” I said, wiping milk off my chin.

  Mom breathed in deeply, “In his room.”

  Oh, right. Tim’s police escort and etc.

  “And Dad?” I added hopefully.

  “He’s gone.” She said this without the usual heaviness attached to her voice. In fact, I’d swear I’d seen a slight, though brief, grin.

  “How are things going, you know, with you and Dad?” I ventured. Then I realized my birthday here was only yesterday.

  “Oh, Casey,” Mom shrugged, answering anyway. “I don’t know. It’s complicated.” Complicated isn’t the same as over. I had hope.

  “When’s he coming again?”

  “He’s coming back in a few days to talk to Tim. Tim just won’t listen to me. Part of his grounding is no computer video games, just homework, but I know he’s upstairs playing that stupid war game.” At least Tim’s antics were bringing Dad home more often.

  We had one week of school before the Christmas break. I couldn’t remember if I had homework, so I went back upstairs to check my bag, stopping at Tim’s room on my way. Even though he’d just seen me yesterday morning, it'd been over two weeks since I’d seen him. In a weird way I'd missed him, too.

  “Hey,” I said.

  “What d’ you want?”

  “Nothing. Just dropped in to say ‘hi’.”

  He looked at me with suspicion.

  “Did Mom send you to check on me? Tell her I’m doing my homework.” Except that he wasn’t. He was playing the war ga
me.

  “You’re stressing Mom out.”

  “I’m not doing anything to her.” Tim’s eyes stayed glued to his monitor screen.

  “You’re not doing what she said.”

  “So. Who are you, the parental police?”

  “It’s hard for her with Dad gone.”

  “Their problems are not my problems. Now, do you mind?” Tim swiveled in his chair impatiently.

  “Okay, fine.”

  “Whatever.” What an immature little twit! If he wasn’t bigger than me, I’d smack him. I returned to my room and dragged my backpack onto my bed. I dug out my planner and reviewed my homework. Algebra and Biology. Better get this done and out of the way. Who knew what tomorrow would bring.

  My locker Monday morning had been tagged. In lipstick. A loopy, greasy red smudge said, Loser. I scrubbed it with a tissue. It must have been a cheap brand (or maybe an expensive brand—I wasn’t a lipstick girl), because the waxy lip color refused to come off.

  The tag stubbornly stuck. I just about had the faint shadow of the big flouncy “L” erased when someone eased up to the locker next to me.

  I couldn’t contain my surprise. Nate had his shoulder pressed against the locker, his arms confidently crossed. I opened my locker door wide. I didn’t want him to know Jessica had left her mark.

  “What are you doing here?” I'd fully expected a return to the let’s pretend we don’t know each other game we usually played. It looked like Nate was prepared to bend the rules.

  “Is that how you say ‘hello’, these days?”

  He cleaned up nice; smelled so musky good. I grabbed a textbook.

  “Hello.” I noted he kept a safe distance. I should wear a neon T-shirt that says, Careful, Don’t Touch.

  He looked directly at me, staring again. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

  What did he mean? Okay, because I'd nearly been engaged to an abuser, or okay that I'd witnessed his breakup with Evil Girlfriend, or okay that I'd gotten a good sleep?

  “I’m fine. And you?”

  He smiled, “Yeah, I’m cool.”

  “Good.”

  “Well, I just thought I’d say ‘hello’, so see you around.”

  No sense in overdoing it. I nodded my head as he left. “Yeah, see you.”

  After spending the last two days looking like a fashion wreck in need of a shower, I’d spent a little more effort than usual on my appearance. Yes, Jessica’s words had stung, and yes, I did care what Nate thought, but it was also time for me to care about myself. I’d washed my hair with strawberry shampoo and conditioner, and plastered in lots of mousse and gel so my curls were tamer than usual; I wore a bit of mascara and lip-gloss, added a touch of color to my pale cheeks. I wore my best jeans and the graphic long sleeve T-shirt Lucinda had bought me. Maybe that was why Nate had stopped to stare? Lucinda noticed, too.

  “Wow, you look great, Case. I knew that shirt would look terrific on you. A good night’s sleep totally did wonders.” Then she furrowed her brow. “This metamorphosis wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain athlete in the school?”

  “Metamorphosis? Was I that bad?”

  “No, you’re fine. So, tell me about your little vacation.”

  She was acting so strange and pushy about this; I found I didn’t want to tell her.

  “Nothing really. You’ve been there. Boring, actually.”

  “So, no romance this time around?”

  I stabbed her with a glare. “Believe me, if Nate and I'd hooked up, you’d be the first to know.”

  We ate lunch in the cafeteria in our usual places with an easy view of the jock table. I tried really hard not to look at Nate because every time I did, Lucinda would stare at me suspiciously, like she’d caught me in a lie.

  Nate didn’t seem to have the same problem. He openly looked my way and smiled.

  “He seems to like you,” Lucinda commented loudly. “He can’t seem to keep his eyes away.”

  “Keep your voice down, Luce. What’s the matter with you?”

  “Hey, you know everything about me. I’m not the one keeping secrets here.”

  She stood up. “Look, I got to go. I’ll see you after last class.”

  So, I was dismissed. My best friend had just dismissed me. I scraped my tray, sneaking glimpses Nate’s way. A new girl was sitting at his table on the opposite side of Nate, beside Tyson. I recognized her from my Algebra class; the teacher had called her Kelly. She was pale and petite and blond, a stark contrast to Tyson’s height and athleticism and dark skin. I was kind of jealous that she sat at the same table as Nate, but by the way she was flirting with Tyson, I didn’t think I had to worry.

  My next class was English. Last time we'd returned from tripping, Nate had thoroughly ignored me. His friendliness earlier today led me to believe he would be less frosty than before.

  “Okay, class, listen up,” Mr. Turner said. “Your assignment for this week is to write a Shakespearean type play of your own.” A loud groan went up from the class.

  “Just three acts, a minimum of twelve pages. And, you can do it with a partner if you want.” Really? A partner? I couldn’t help but look to Nate. As usual, my view was the back of his head. So maybe I was wrong? Then he swiveled around, caught my eyes and mouthed, “You and me?”

  Yes! In more ways than one. Shock muted me, so I just nodded. We rearranged our desks so that we sat beside each other. Nate smiled, still keeping a safe distance.

  “So, what should we write about?” I said, working hard at controlling the quiver in my voice. “Any ideas?”

  He put his finger to his nose, feigning deep thought. “Well, we could write about a girl who travels spontaneously to the past and gets into all kinds of trouble there.” The corner of his lips tugged upwards. “I don’t think that’s been done.”

  “Hmm, it could work. Mystery, intrigue, a villain.” I thought of Robert dressed in tights and a jester's hat.

  “Don’t forget the dashing love interest.”

  Gulp.

  How could I forget that? The question was, do they get together in the end?

  After school, I met up with Lucinda at the gym. The senior varsity boys’ basketball team was already hard at practicing lay-ups and foul shots, and the echoes of a dozen balls reverberated through the gym. Lucinda popped a stick of gum in her mouth and offered me some.

  “Thanks,” I said. As I chewed, my eyes scanned the team for Nate. He saw me walk in and nodded in acknowledgment. Nate glistened with sweat, his muscles flexing as he made another shot. He was so hot! Oh, help me. Being friends with Nate might prove to be harder than being ignored by him. Lucinda witnessed our interaction.

  “I really do think he’s into you,” she said, sounding baffled. Did she have to seem so surprised by the possibility? Geez.

  “Okay, hypothetically, what if he was?”

  “It’s just that no one has ever seen the two of you together. Ever. Well, outside of your English class, which doesn’t really count. I mean, you guys travel in different universes.”

  “We’re not different species.”

  “No.” Lucinda stared at the cheerleaders—led by Jessica—all high fashion, faces perfectly and heavily made up, hair iron-straightened, not a curl in sight. “But almost. Casey, it’s not like you’re ugly or anything.”

  “Thanks, Lucinda.”

  “Don’t take it the wrong way. Anyone with eyes can see you were born beautiful. You are really defensive today, though.”

  The new girl, Kelly, tentatively peeked in through the gym doors. We’d had Algebra together earlier. I waved her over.

  “Hey,” she said, and then I introduced her to Lucinda. Kelly seemed comfortable with us. I saw her eye the cheerleaders, but she didn’t seem inclined to join them. For that reason, I liked her. Nate passed the ball to Tyson, who made an easy basket.

  “He’s good,” I said. It was a test to see how she’d respond.

  “I know,” Kelly swooned.
<
br />   “You’re so gone for him!”

  “Can you tell?” She looked sincerely concerned.

  Lucinda piped up. “Well, yeah.”

  “How do you know him?” I asked.

  “Our dads went to college together. When my father was transferred to New England his company let him choose where he wanted to live. He chose Cambridge so he ‘could go for a beer’ with Tyson’s dad,” she said using finger quotes.

  “Does Tyson know how you feel?”

  “I don’t know. He probably just sees us as friends. You can’t say anything, okay?” Kelly’s face pinched with worry.

  “It’s okay,” I assured her. “Your secret is safe with us. But you might not want to keep it a secret from him.”

  Tyson glanced our way. I was certain his eyes remained on Kelly a second longer than they would have for just a friend. “I think he likes you, too.”

  “Really?” Kelly said, nervously pulling at her short pixie-like golden hair.

  “Yes, really.”I had to leave without saying good-bye to Nate, which shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did. Maybe I was making too much of his friendliness today. Just because he was nice today didn’t mean he wanted more than friendship from me. He’s a nice guy. He was just being nice. Nice, nice, nice.

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 
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