The twisted window, p.1
The Twisted Window
For my son-in-law Kenneth David Mahrer
A Biography of Lois Duncan
FOR OVER TEN MINUTES now, Tracy Lloyd had been watching the boy with the curly hair watching her.
At first she had told herself that she was imagining it. He was not really looking at her, he was looking past her, gazing over her shoulder at someone seated at the table behind her. Or perhaps he was looking at Gina. That would not have been surprising. When Gina went braless under one of her collection of tight-fitting mesh tops, male eyes did usually turn in her direction.
But Gina was sitting with her back to the boy. Noteworthy as she might be when viewed straight on, there was nothing so remarkable about Gina’s back that a stranger would want to spend his entire lunch period inspecting her shoulder blades.
No, it wasn’t Gina who had attracted his attention.
Tracy lowered her eyes to her plate as though concentrating on her half eaten sandwich.
“The new guy,” she said, “you know, the one we were talking about earlier? The one who was standing by the water fountain when we were getting our books this morning. He’s sitting two tables over, and he keeps staring at us.”
“Mr. Gorgeous?” Gina enjoyed pegging people with private nicknames. “Don’t you wish he really were. Don’t I wish it! He looks like that guy who had a ‘face that launched a thousand ships.’ ”
“That wasn’t a guy,” said Tracy. “It was Helen of Troy. And I mean it. He really does seem to be looking us over.”
“And here I sit, facing the wrong way. Mr. Gorgeous has his eyes glued to this table, and I’m missing this incredible chance to chalk up Brownie points. Life can be so cruel!” Gina paused, considered a moment, and then said, “I’m going to drop my fork, okay? Then I’m going to bend down and get it and straighten up slowly. Very slowly. And then I’ll raise my eyes—also very slowly—and let our gazes meet. Sparks will fly, I guarantee it. Is he still looking over here?”
“Yes,” Tracy told her. “In fact, now he’s getting up from his seat. He’s picking up his plate.”
The boy was moving with obvious deliberation. There was no doubt at all about what he was planning to do.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Tracy said quietly to Gina, “but your Mr. Gorgeous is on his way over to sit with us.”
That was the one, Brad told himself. That was the girl. She looked just as right to him now as she had that morning. She had the look he was after—attractive, but not a bit flashy—a look that made him feel comfortable and at ease. She was dressed in a tailored blouse with a high collar, and her dark hair was pulled back from her face in a clean and simple style that contrasted sharply with the wild blond mane of the girl she was sitting with.
He had spotted her yesterday afternoon, just after the last bell had rung, but at that time the main thrust of his attention had been directed toward somebody else. The girl he had been considering then had been on the plump side, and the excess weight had made it hard to determine her age. As he had been preparing to go over and strike up a conversation, however, a boy had materialized out of nowhere, thrown an arm around the girl’s shoulders, and whisked her away.
That, of course, had been the end of that. The girl was out of the running. He needed a loner, not somebody equipped with a boyfriend.
A slender dark-haired girl had been standing three lockers down from the plump one, and with the loss of the one, Brad’s eyes had been drawn to the other. He had been struck by an immediate feeling of recognition, as though he already knew her from somewhere else. Although she looked nothing like the girl he had previously been considering, she might be equally good for the purpose he had in mind. She was tall and pretty, with an air of subtle aloofness that made her appear more mature than the average high school student. If the quality of her voice was in keeping with her appearance, she might easily be able to pass herself off as old enough to have her own apartment.
The girl had finished stuffing her books into her locker, shoved the door shut, and clicked the padlock into place. Then she had turned and made her way down the crowded hallway. At one point, a boy in a plaid shirt and cowboy boots had attempted to intercept her, but she had put him off with a polite nod and impersonal smile. At the end of the hallway she had exited the building, still alone and apparently intending to continue that way.
That had been the last that Brad had seen of her yesterday, but he had thought about her a lot and had even awakened once in the night with a picture in his mind of the girl and Mindy together. Drugged with sleep, he had not been sure if he was experiencing a dream or a vision, but he had been pleased to see that the girl’s hand had been resting protectively on Mindy’s shoulder.
This morning he had gotten to school early and had entered the building as soon as the janitor had unlocked the doors. Once inside, he had stationed himself by the watercooler across from the girl’s locker. Soon after the first bell rang, a busty girl with hair too blond to be natural had rushed up to the locker and started twirling the combination lock. Several minutes later the girl for whom he had been waiting had joined her there, and the two of them stood together, chatting casually, as they hauled books and gym clothes out of the locker and sorted through them.
The blonde was a nonstop talker. Her mouth was in constant motion, and she kept tossing her head, to cause the bleached hair to swirl around her shoulders, and glancing about her to see if she was being noticed.
At one point her eyes had zeroed in on Brad, and she had thrown him a cute, come-on smile.
He had stepped away from the fountain, hurriedly averting his eyes.
Sorry, blondie, he had told her silently. I bet you’re one hot little number, but you are definitely not what I’m shopping for.
When the second bell rang he had gone to the library and waited out the morning there, and then at noon he went to the cafeteria and bought himself lunch. It had been a wasted half hour, for the girl had not put in an appearance. In order to avoid having to socialize with the students seated around him, Brad read while he ate. He had no interest in striking up a conversation with anyone other than the girl, and he knew that the fewer people he talked to, the safer he would be.
When the cafeteria began to empty out, Brad scraped what was left on his plate into the garbage bin, placed his tray on the pile by the door to the kitchen, and drifted back out into the hall. He killed some time washing and rewashing his hands in the boys’ room, and then, when the bell rang to signal the start of B lunch, he reentered the cafeteria as part of a new stream of hungry students. He went through the line again and paid for the second tray of food, hoping that the woman at the cash register would not recognize him. To his relief, she showed no sign of it, plucking the money from his hand and dropping it into the drawer of the register without glancing at his face.
He chose a table by the wall where he could sit and have a full view of the room. The problem was that students were entering through two different doors, and it was difficult to keep watch on both simultaneously. He loaded his fork with spaghetti and took a token bite, trying to fake an appetite. It would be just his luck, he thought, for the girl to be schedul
B lunch was nearly over when he suddenly saw her sitting at a table only two away from his own. He could only imagine that he had been looking at the wrong door when she had made her entrance, for she had evidently already been through the line. She was seated on the far side of the table, facing in his direction, while her companion, the sexy blonde with whom she shared a locker, was seated opposite, with her back to him.
Brad laid down his fork and cemented his eyes on the dark-haired girl’s face. Once again, he was struck by how familiar she looked. Several moments passed without her appearing to notice that he was watching her. Then the force of his concentration seemed to penetrate her consciousness. Her own eyes lifted to meet his, held his gaze a moment, and then flickered nervously away. Her friend was jabbering, jabbering, jabbering, and she was pretending to be absorbed in the chatter, but he could tell by the self-conscious way she was nibbling at her sandwich that she was only half listening. She sneaked another quick glance in his direction and looked hurriedly away again.
Brad got to his feet, picked up his tray, and walked over to the table where the two girls sat. His girl—he was already identifying her in his mind as “his girl”—spoke hastily to alert her companion, who swiveled around in her seat to watch him approach.
“Hi,” Brad said. “I’m new at this school, but I’ve already gotten the word that this is the table where all the action takes place. Is it just a rumor, or did I get the right story?”
“Don’t we wish!” the blond girl said pertly. “Don’t we really wish! If there’s any action in Winfield, it’s a well-kept secret.”
“Then maybe we need to stir some up,” Brad told her, flashing the smile that his best friend, Jamie, had always jokingly referred to as “the golden grin that can charm birds out of the trees.”
“Do you mind if I sit down?” Brad asked. “It’s hard to generate action when you’re holding a tray that’s dripping spaghetti sauce.”
“Be our guest,” the blonde said with a giggle. “We could use some company. I’m Gina Scarpelli, and this is Tracy Lloyd.”
“Nice to meet you both. I’m Brad Johnson.” Brad set his tray down on the table next to Gina’s and swung his legs over the bench so he could take his seat beside her, diagonally across from Tracy.
“I’ve got this talent for reading the vibes people throw off,” he said. “The ones coming off you girls are really strong. I’m getting the message—it’s sort of a tingling sensation when I do this trick—that you’re the type who might share a locker across from a watercooler.”
“Boy, what a talent! How ever do you do it?” Gina gave her head a provocative toss that sent her long hair swinging. “The vibes I get about you are that you like to hang around water fountains. I saw you there this morning looking us over.”
“You did, huh?” Brad said. “Well, it’s possible you might be right. When you start a new school, you do have to case things out. It’s been my experience that the VIP lockers are usually right across from drinking fountains. That’s like a universal law.”
“Well, it’s a law that doesn’t apply in our case,” said Tracy. “Gina and I are lowly juniors.” Her voice was low pitched and mature-sounding, exactly as he had hoped it would be.
“Where do you come from, Brad?” asked Gina.
“Albuquerque,” Brad told her. “My dad’s a geologist. He got offered a job here with an oil company. How about the two of you? I bet you’re not native Texans. Everybody here seems to come from someplace else.”
“Not me,” said Gina. “I’ve never lived anywhere but Winfield. Tracy’s a newcomer though. She’s from New York City.”
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Brad exclaimed with mock astonishment. “I always thought New York was a place people went to, not a place they came from. He directed the “golden grin” at Tracy. “What brought you here? Did your dad get a too-good-to-turn-down job offer, too?”
“My mother died last summer,” Tracy told him. “I moved here to live with my aunt and uncle.”
“I’m sorry,” Brad said. It was not an answer he had anticipated. “I guess I really put my foot in it that time.”
“There was no way you could have known.” Tracy picked up her sandwich, bit off a corner, and set it back down on her plate.
“It must be hard changing schools so close to the end of the school year,” said Gina in an obvious attempt to switch the conversation to a less awkward subject. “What’s your schedule, Brad? Maybe we have some of the same classes.”
“I don’t think so,” Brad said. “Most of my classes are—”
The final portion of his statement was drowned out by the sound of the bell signaling the end of B period lunch. There was an immediate rush of activity at adjoining tables as those students who had been engrossed in conversation or trying to beat the clock by bolting down second helpings were jolted to attention.
Tracy and Gina got quickly to their feet, and Brad followed suit, picking up his tray for his second trip to the garbage bin.
“Do you really think the food’s that awful?” Tracy asked him, nodding at his plate, which was still piled high with mounds of untouched spaghetti. “Next time, you ought to try a sandwich.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Gina. “I remember one time when there was a flub-up in the kitchen, and they mixed the tuna with mustard instead of mayo. That was pretty gross.” She turned back to Brad. “What class are you headed for now?”
“It’s … it’s …” He groped hastily for a subject that was required by high schools everywhere. “It’s English literature.”
“I have English next period too!” Gina exclaimed. “Do you need to stop at your locker, or shall we head straight over?”
“I may not be taking the same course as you,” Brad said. “Are you taking Shakespeare?” When Gina shook her head, it was all he could do to suppress a sigh of relief. “I was taking Shakespeare back in Albuquerque, so they put me in that class here too. It’s going to be tough though, because we’re not studying the same plays.”
“Well, so much for that.” Gina made no attempt to conceal her disappointment. “Being new in town and all, if you find yourself getting desperate for human companionship, I’m always good for some friendly conversation. We’re the only Scarpellis in the phone book.”
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind,” Brad said. He turned to Tracy. “How about you? Are you the only Lloyds in the phone book?”
“My uncle’s name isn’t Lloyd,” said Tracy.
The tone of her voice had changed in some subtle manner, and Brad experienced a chill of sudden apprehension. Had he made some stupid blunder that had given him away? He hurriedly reviewed their conversation but could come up with nothing that should have aroused suspicion. Except for her own disclosure that she had lost her mother, there had been nothing said by any one of them that had been anything other than casual and impersonal.
It was obvious, though, that she was not encouraging him to phone her. Was it possible that she already had a steady boyfriend? In the short time Brad had been observing her, there had been no such indication. On several occasions, in fact, he had seen her cold-shoulder boys who were obviously trying to strike up a conversation with her. Perhaps she was going with somebody who attended another high school or was away at college.
By now the cafeteria had almost emptied out. Both Tracy and Gina had already deposited their plates and trays in the appropriate receptacles and were headed for the door.
Struggling to hide his disappointment, Brad added his own tray to the pile by the entrance to the kitchen and followed the girls out of the cafeteria into the hall. The corridor was filled with students involved in an attempt to get from one class to another within a five-minute time span
With a parting nod and smile, Gina plunged into the river of moving bodies and was promptly swept off in one direction, while Tracy disappeared in another. A wave of students who were headed for C lunch almost bowled Brad over as he fought his way against the current to the center of the hallway.
I’ll have to find somebody else, that’s all, he told himself. There are plenty of girls at this school who can do the job for me.
But Tracy had seemed so right, so exactly what he needed. Time was racing by so quickly. It was Tuesday already. There were only five days left before spring break would be over back in Albuquerque, five days before his mother would report him missing. The prospect of starting over at this point, of finding another appropriate girl, of getting to know her well enough to talk her into helping him, seemed overwhelming.
Then, just as he was trying to psych himself up to plunge back into the search, miraculously there was Tracy, standing in front of him.
“It’s Stevenson,” she told him, raising her voice so that it would carry over the noise in the hallway. “My uncle and aunt are named Cory and Irene Stevenson.”
“They’re in the phone book?”
“Yes—it’s Stevenson, spelled with a V. ”
“I’ll call you tonight,” Brad said. “Will that be okay?” She hesitated and then nodded, and he was filled with a sudden rush of euphoria.
It was an omen! His plan was destined to work!
FROM THE FIRST DAY she had registered at Winfield High School, Tracy had taken the same route home every afternoon—two blocks east along Third Street, one block south on Rosemont, and a diagonal cut across Lamar Park to Cotton Road. Her aunt and uncle’s home, at which she still felt more like a visitor than a resident, was located on South Cotton, in a neighborhood of manicured lawns and neatly shaped shrubbery. It was populated primarily by middle-aged working couples, and on weekday afternoons there was an air of emptiness about it, like a movie set on a day when there was no filming.