Always and forever, p.4
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       Always and Forever, p.4

           Lurlene McDaniel
 
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  Brad touched the nape of her neck and stroked her soft skin with his thumb. Melissa’s knees turned weak and she leaned against the bridge railing for support. “Maybe that will be a Brain Bowl question,” she said lamely, then told herself that it was a stupid thing to say.

  “If we’re on the team together, we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”

  His observation made blood pound in her temples. She didn’t want this to be happening to her. “The team! I’m aiming for the first cut right now. I can’t think beyond that.”

  “You’ll make the first cut.”

  “How do you know?”

  His smile was slow, confident. “Because I’m going to make the first cut. And I want you to come with me.”

  His sense of confidence momentarily overwhelmed her. He straightened and turned her to face him. “Melissa.” His voice went low and quiet. “Can I unbraid your hair?”

  Flustered by his request and change of subject she stammered. “Y-Yes. If you want.”

  He reached over her shoulder and pulled the tightly wound braid forward, unclasping the gold clip. She couldn’t tear her eyes from his face, couldn’t stop the emotions and sensations pouring through her body. Brad unwound the plait slowly, dragging his fingers through the thick, dark masses of her hair until the strands fell loose and free. He sifted it through his fingers like sand, gathering it into handfuls. A breeze spun wispy strands across her face. “God, you have beautiful hair.” His whisper sounded worshipful.

  Time stood still for her, in a rain forest of green and yellow, in eyes the color of the sky. Her breath pressed against her lungs, unable to escape. She managed to mumble, “Thank you.”

  Brad lifted a fistful of the dark tresses and let it fall, bit by bit, in a feathery cascade. When the last strands settled, he rested his hands on her shoulders. The thin, gauzy cloth of her shirt seemed nonexistent. He cleared his throat. “I’d like to get to know you better, Melissa. Maybe after the team’s chosen … ”

  “Yes. Maybe.”

  He looked at the water below and a gathering of orange-and-white flecked fish. As he rambled on about the carp, she noticed that his arm never left her shoulder. And his fingers, long and gentle, never stopped stroking the dark veil of her satin, waist-length hair.

  “You’re awfully quiet. Didn’t you have a good time?” Jory’s words intruded into Melissa’s brooding silence as they drove through the familiar streets of Melissa’s neighborhood in the dusk.

  “Of course I had a good time. The whirlpool and sauna were great.”

  Jory switched on her headlights. “But you’re not telling me what happened in that hour you disappeared into the gardens with Brad.”

  If Melissa hadn’t been so tired, she might have been irritated with Jory’s probing. “Nothing happened. We went for a walk. We looked at the fish.”

  “You rebraided your hair when you came back to the pool area.”

  Melissa was relieved that Jory couldn’t see the flush on her face because of the darkness. “It came undone.”

  Jory blew through her teeth skeptically, drove the car into Melissa’s driveway, and shut off the engine. “It’s okay to like Brad, you know,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with balancing a social life with your studies.”

  “It seems that I don’t have much choice,” she admitted grudgingly. “He’s very hard not to like.”

  Jory’s smile was so obvious, Melissa could feel it in the dark interior of the car. “It’s nice to know you’re still human and that blue eyes and blond hair can still affect you.”

  “I’d have to be a corpse not to be affected.”

  Jory chuckled. “Well, under the circumstances, I’d say you were in for a banner year, Melissa Austin.”

  “If I make Brain Bowl,” she cautioned. “I told you, studies come first with me this year.”

  “Okay. If you make Brain Bowl, and if you date Brad, will you confess that this could possibly be the best school year of your life?”

  Melissa released an exasperated sigh. “I confess, Your Honor.”

  “Good,” Jory said, opening the car door and jumping out. “Now let’s go inside, where I can catch a glimpse of your gorgeous brother and make a fool of myself over him.”

  “You’re impossible,” Melissa laughed, climbing out of the car and heading to the door.

  “True. But if I weren’t, what would you do for comic relief?”

  Melissa hugged her friend impetuously. “Study!” She entered the warm glow of her kitchen, where her mother had left a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies on the table with a note saying, “Ran to the store. Be back in an hour.”

  Jory eyed the plate longingly, and Melissa read her thoughts just as surely as if she’d spoken them aloud. There would be no one back at her house. Her parents were still on their cruise. Nothing but a dark, lonely house that people passed through but rarely lived in. “Why don’t you help me eat these?”

  “You wouldn’t mind? I mean, since there’s no one home at my house, I could stay for a little while … ”

  Melissa pulled out a chair and shoved her friend into it. “Sit and eat. What kind of a friend would leave me alone to devour an entire plate of cookies just when I’m being noticed by the best-looking guy at Lincoln High? Do you want me to have to waddle up to the Brain Bowl podium?”

  Jory reached for a cookie and munched it thoughtfully. “You are going to make the team, Melissa. I meant it when I said this is your year. Nothing can stand in your way.”

  Partly because of Jory’s and Brad’s enthusiasm, Melissa floated through the next several school days, and when Mr. Marshall told her of her selection to the initial group of twenty-five, she wasn’t surprised. Three afternoons of playing the game convinced her that she was a good contestant. Brad was sensational, and by the following Friday, when Mr. Marshall and Mrs. Watson chose the ten finalists, Melissa’s confidence buoyed her through morning until the list was posted on Mr. Marshall’s bulletin board at noon. Melissa’s name topped the list; Brad’s was second. She barely read the others.

  “I told you so,” Brad said after stopping her in the hall between classes.

  The fluttery sensation that she felt whenever she glimpsed him in the corridors churned in her stomach. “I never doubted it for a moment,” she said.

  His laugh was quick. It certainly is going to be a banner year, she reminded herself when he touched the heavy length of her hair with a casual, offhanded purpose. “I’ll see you later.”

  Melissa was still floating on a cloud of happiness when, during seventh-period study hall, she was summoned to the dean of women’s office. Curiosity dogged her down the hall to Mrs. Crane’s cubicle.

  The dean of women was friendly, blond, and stylishly dressed. “Have a seat, Melissa.” She motioned to the chair beside her neat and orderly desk. “Congratulations on your selection to the Brain Bowl team. It’s certainly the best one Lincoln’s had to date.”

  “Thank you, Mrs. Crane.” A slight case of jitters set in while the dean studied her for a few thoughtful moments, sweeping her with questioning, intelligent eyes.

  “Have I done something wrong, Mrs. Crane?”

  “Not at all.”

  Melissa began to grow wary, even apprehensive, as the dean focused her attention on Melissa’s long, graceful legs. Self-consciously, Melissa tucked one ankle behind the other and wished she’d worn jeans instead of a skirt. “I give up. What’s wrong?”

  “That’s what I want you to tell me, Melissa.”

  Confusion blanketed Melissa’s mind. “I don’t understand. What do you want me to say?”

  Mrs. Crane reached over and patted Melissa’s hand as one might stroke a frightened child. “My dear, there are laws protecting children from parental abuse.”

  Melissa was dumbfounded. “E-Excuse me … ?”

  The dean offered an indulgent, all-knowing half-smile. “The bruises on your legs have been reported, Melissa. You can tell me the truth. Is anyone hurting you at h
ome?”

  Chapter Six

  Horrified, Melissa stared openmouthed at Mrs. Crane.

  “Now, dear,” the dean said, with a patronizing pat. “Please understand me. As a minor, you are protected by certain laws, and we school personnel only want to make sure that no one harms you. It’s for your own good that I’m asking you to be honest with me.”

  Melissa’s thoughts whirled and tumbled. She thinks my mother beats me! The impact of the thought sent blind rage coursing through her. A mental picture of her mother—bent over the kitchen table writing checks to pay a mountain of bills—flashed through her mind. In an instant, Melissa was on her feet. “Are you asking me if my mother hits me? No one in my house has ever struck me! No one!”

  “Now, now, Melissa. Calm down. We can’t ignore those bruises on your legs.”

  “I don’t know how I got these stupid bruises. But they didn’t come from my mother.” Her anger was so intense that her teeth chattered. “There’s some other reason for them.”

  “What other reason?”

  Caught off guard, Melissa sputtered. “Maybe it’s gym class. I don’t know!”

  Mrs. Crane refused to abandon her tack. “I can’t let this go unreported, Melissa. I must call your mother in for a consultation. I would be negligent in my duties if I didn’t.”

  “Don’t you dare! My mother is wonderful. She’d never, never, strike me! You leave her alone.”

  “Melissa, please … ”

  Melissa didn’t wait to hear what else the dean had to say. She bolted from the office and ran outside into the bright morning light. She shut her eyes in pain and felt dizzy as she ran through the parking lot, clutching her purse tightly. At the city bus stop she leaned against the bench for support.

  Finally home, Melissa collapsed on her bed in tears and exhaustion. She knew she was skipping school and didn’t care. She was so angry, she swore she’d never set foot in that school again.

  Melissa snuggled into her covers, and when she woke the phone was ringing. Her mother’s voice was anxious. “Melissa. Honey, are you all right?”

  It took her a minute to clear her head and remember why she was home. “I’m all right, Mom.”

  “The school called. They said you ran away. I took the chance that you’d have the good sense to go home.”

  “I’m home. I’m okay … ”

  “Melissa, wait there for me. I’m leaving the office right now. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

  “But … You don’t have to leave. Everything’s all right.”

  “Twenty minutes,” her mother said urgently and hung up. Melissa washed her face, trying to pull herself together. She did feel lousy. What’s wrong with me? she asked herself. She touched the glands in her neck and realized they were swollen. She couldn’t get sick now—not with the start of school and Brain Bowl and …

  When her mother arrived, Melissa slipped quietly into her arms, deeply comforted by the familiar hug. “Mrs. Crane told me what happened. We’ll deal with her later. But now, let me see your legs.”

  Obediently, Melissa allowed her mother to examine her. “There really are a lot of bruises, honey. Are you sure you don’t know how you got them?”

  “No.” Her body felt heavy, and all she wanted to do was lie in her mother’s arms and go to sleep. “But let’s not get so worked up over this, Mom. I’ve probably got the flu.”

  “I think you have a fever too. I’m calling Dr. Pace. I want him to check you over.”

  “I don’t need to go see him, Mom. I’ll take some aspirin and go to bed, and by tomorrow I’ll be fine.”

  “This isn’t a voting issue, Melissa. We’re going to the doctor’s.” She smoothed Melissa’s hair and forced a small smile. “Besides, I need vindication for the school. I can’t let them think I beat my children into submission, now can I?”

  Melissa shrugged. “I guess not,” she said.

  Dr. Pace’s examination was routine. He checked Melissa with sure, confident fingers, feeling her swollen glands and bruises, then taking blood. She squeezed her eyes shut as the needle pricked her arm. “It’s just the flu, isn’t it, Dr. Pace?” she asked as he secured a bandage over the puncture in her vein. “I told Mom it’s nothing but some flu that’s going around.”

  His smile was professional, noncommittal. “It’s something. We’re just not sure what, yet.”

  “What do you think it is?” her mother asked uneasily. “I don’t like the looks of all those bruises.”

  Melissa rolled her eyes, wishing her mother would ease off and that Dr. Pace would just send her home. “It could be as simple as anemia—that’s common in girls Melissa’s age,” he said.

  “Then I’ll take iron pills,” Melissa said, relieved.

  “Or, it could be mononucleosis.” Dr. Pace peered at her over his glasses. “Which means you’ll have to give up kissing.”

  She smiled at his attempt to cheer her. “No problem there. I’ve dedicated myself to studying this year. Boys are out.”

  “Melissa made the Brain Bowl team,” her mother said, as if that might influence the doctor in some way.

  “I can go back to school, can’t I?”

  “I want to check a blood smear under my microscope. I’ll be right back.”

  Melissa turned to her mother, who was sitting stiffly in her chair. “It’s going to be all right, Mom,” she said. Frankly, she was glad her mother had insisted on the checkup. She had been feeling bad for a long time, and deep within she had been concerned about it. If she was going to give Brain Bowl, and Brad, her best shot, she’d have to get better.

  “Of course, you’re going to be all right, honey. But I wish you’d told me about the bruises when they first appeared.”

  Dr. Pace returned, his expression unreadable. He positioned himself in front of her. “Your red blood count is low … ”

  Her smile was quick with relief. “Then just write me a prescription for iron pills and I’ll take them faithfully. I promise.”

  He held up his hand. “Whoa. It’s not that simple, Melissa. Your white cell count, on the other hand, is rather high.”

  “So?”

  “So I’d like to check you into the hospital for a few days of testing.”

  Melissa’s heart almost stopped beating with the shock of his request. “The hospital!” Her mother echoed her words.

  “Just for testing,” he emphasized hastily.

  “Why? I have school. I can’t go to the hospital.”

  Dr. Pace took her hand. His was warm. Hers was cold. “Think of it as a vacation. You can bring your books. You’ll even have a phone and a TV in your room—first-class accommodations at Hotel Tampa General.”

  “Is this absolutely necessary, Dr. Pace?” Her mother’s voice sounded taut.

  “Yes. It’s important that we find out exactly what’s ailing Melissa.”

  Melissa wanted to ask him what he was testing for, but she sensed he would not say. “When do I have to go, Dr. Pace?”

  “The sooner the better. My receptionist will call and have your admitting papers prepared by this afternoon.”

  “So soon?”

  “The sooner we get started, the sooner we’ll know what we’re fighting.” Dr. Pace squeezed her hand. “Now, don’t look so frightened. It’s for your own good.” He helped her off the examining table. She wanted to run out of the room screaming, but instead she offered a brave smile that in no way reflected the terror she was really feeling.

  “Not bad, Melissa. Private room and everything.” Jory toured her hospital room with an appraising eye. From the bed, Melissa watched her step carefully around Michael, who was sitting in a chair near the window, a worried scowl on his face. Through the blinds, Tampa’s evening sky glowed with the aura of city lights.

  “Want to take my place? All you can eat for only a pint of blood a day.”

  Jory shivered at Melissa’s ghoulish humor. It comforted Melissa to have her friend pacing the room, for her visit lent a sort of normalcy to an oth
erwise terrible day. Ever since Melissa had phoned her and Jory had exploded with phrases such as “Nosy Mrs. Crane” and “Are you all right?” and “I’ll be there as soon as visiting hours start,” she had felt less alien in her antiseptic surroundings.

  Only Michael’s brooding countenance could penetrate the pretense of well-being Melissa had tried hard to create. He hadn’t been at all understanding about her admission to the hospital for tests. Was he just as afraid for her as Melissa was for herself?

  “Brad asked about you today,” Jory said. “I told him you’d gone home sick. He says he hopes you get well quick. The first full-fledged Brain Bowl drill starts next week.”

  “Oh, they said these tests won’t take more than a few days.” She propped herself against the pillow, allowing her dark hair to spread out in a fan on the crisp, white, starched linen. “Tomorrow they’re doing a bone marrow aspiration.”

  “Ugh!” Jory blurted. “Sounds yucky.”

  Melissa saw Jory’s face redden as Michael shot her a disgusted look. Instantly, Melissa felt sorry for her, knowing firsthand the feeling of saying something stupid in front of someone you want desperately to impress. “Dr Pace says it’s not so bad if I get a good technician.”

  “What are they going to do to you?” Michael asked.

  “They take a sample of my bone marrow from inside my hip with a special syringe.”

  “They stick a needle into your bone?” Jory turned pale as Michael asked the question.

  Melissa chewed her lip, anxious not to let on to Michael how scared she really felt. “It only takes a few seconds.”

  Through clenched teeth he said, “These guys had better not hurt you.”

  “Yeah, or I’ll have my uncle in New Jersey fly down and break their legs,” Jory announced.

  Melissa tried to calm them both with a smile. “Hey, come on. I’m a big girl—I can take whatever they dish out. Besides, I’m too old to cry.”

  When visiting hours were over and Melissa was left alone, she plucked at the bed sheets, her bravado drowned in the hospital’s night sounds that echoed around her. She was scared. And she did want to cry. Melissa felt overwhelmed with self-pity and helplessness. Why is this happening to me? Yesterday she’d been a normal sixteen-year-old girl on the verge of everything wonderful. Now she was hospitalized, and she was being poked and prodded, bled and taped.

 
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