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       Shortcut, p.1

           Nancy Werlin
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  a short story


  Nancy Werlin


  by Nancy Werlin

  Thursday afternoon. Last period. Eighth-grade science lab. Ms. Davies was supervising the cleaning of pipettes and beakers, but Lacey had already washed her stuff. She sat with her hands tightly entwined in her lap, her jacket on, her eye on the clock. She was silent; she had no one to talk to anyway.

  She was plotting her route out.

  She wouldn’t run; she never ran. It was undignified. And—conspicuous. She couldn’t afford that, especially not today.

  Lacey had to be at the shortcut in time to head off Catrine. She’d tell her to take the long way home. For today, at least, that ought to make her safe from Will Brennerman and his friends.

  Will Brennerman. Oh, God. How was it possible? And you couldn’t tell anyone, that would just make it worse—worse for Catrine, and probably for Lacey too. Nobody would believe anything bad of Will anyway. He’d smile, those white teeth would gleem . . . But how could Lacey warn Catrine without risking her own safety? She’d be seen! It was risky, it was impossible—

  Lacey suddenly saw that she’d picked up a pencil and was clutching it in her right fist. As if her hand belonged to a stranger, she stared at its white knuckles. Then, slowly, she forced her fingers open. The pencil dropped onto the lab table with a small clatter. It wasn’t even sharpened. It was harmless.


  After today Catrine would just have to look out for herself. This was all Lacey was going to do for her. A warning. And it was a lot too. Nobody could expect more.

  Two minutes, said the clock.

  Actually, Lacey didn’t have to warn Catrine. She could change her mind. She could linger late at school; avoid the whole thing. Pretend she didn’t know. Why not? Catrine and Lacey had never liked each other. Lacey didn’t owe Catrine Messer anything; really she didn’t. It had been many years since— And it had been Rhonda who’d started it, not Lacey. And it had been fourth grade, for God’s sake!

  Lacey’s stomach made an audible noise. The girl who sat next to her cast her a look of disdain. Lacey flinched.

  Already today, she’d missed one opportunity to warn Catrine. She’d tried to tell herself she didn’t believe it; that what she’d overheard Rhonda saying, insinuating, in the girls’ room couldn’t possibly be true.

  But she’d known better. True, Lacey didn’t know Catrine well, and couldn’t judge what she might or might not do. But she knew Rhonda. Oh, yes, Lacey knew Rhonda Harris.

  As if it were yesterday rather than more than four years ago, Lacey could see Rhonda tossing Catrine’s cupcake box on the sidewalk. Laughing. “Come on, Lacey, smash it!” she’d said, and jumped forward. And then Lacey could see her own small yellow-sneakered foot rising into the air. And then stomping downward on top of Catrine’s chocolate birthday cupcakes. Left, left. Right, right.

  Here, now, in science lab, Lacey felt her legs tremble. Involuntarily, she glanced down at her feet.

  Okay. Fine. Fine, then.

  When the bell rang, Lacey would run. She would intercept Catrine before Catrine started to take the shortcut home. She would warn her.

  This once.

  Lacey watched the clock. She swallowed the lump in her throat. Fifteen seconds. Fourteen. Thirteen . . .

  * * *

  In good weather Lacey always took the shortcut. Despite its steep downhill grade through the woods, despite the mud and rocks that made the descent into the ravine tricky, it was irresistible. Not only did it take a full seven minutes off her walk home, but it was safe—safe in the way that mattered. The fact was, the only other kids from Lacey’s large suburban neighborhood who used the shortcut were also . . . also . . .

  Also what? Like Lacey? Lacey hated that thought. She wasn’t like the other shortcutters. You only had to look at her—at them—to see that.

  It wasn’t only Catrine whom Lacey objected to. Catrine was the definition of unacceptable, of course, with her acne wasteland of a face. Her hunched shoulders. Her history of always being the one everybody laughed at, despised. But that fat nerd Quentin DeSantos wasn’t much better. Quentin thought he had to show how smart he was, all the time. So much for intelligence.

  Then there was stupid, hulking Saul Blum. Please. Saul had stayed back—was it twice? In another sense, though, he was lucky. At least people left him alone. On a few occasions, in the privacy of her heart, Lacey would have swapped anything for Saul’s size.

  And then, rounding out the Five Freaks, came Joey and Josie Umanita. The big joke about the Umanita twins was that you had to take their different sexes on faith. They were the same height and breadth, they had identical shoulder-length haircuts, their features were somehow both masculine and feminine, and both of them wore bib overalls, plaid shirts, and work boots every single day. “One of them’s a sex change operation waiting to happen—but which one?” Rhonda had quipped, early this year. Everyone had laughed. “Maybe both,” someone else had added snidely—wait, had it been Will Brennerman? Yes, Lacey thought it had. And then he’d gone on to say other things about the Umanitas. Things that made your skin crawl, even in remembering.

  At the time Lacey had smiled along with everyone else, even though no one was paying attention to her. Even though she was, by then, an invisible person at school. She’d smiled because she had to at least try. She’d thought things might change. She still thought so. Hoped so. Somebody might suddenly see that there was nothing weird about Lacey after all; that Rhonda had made a mistake at the beginning of the year, dumping Lacey the way she had, saying those things about her, freezing her out. Leaving her alone.

  Yes, Lacey might belong again, if she was careful. Belong somewhere. It was possible. And even if that didn’t happen . . . then at least, if Lacey was careful, nothing worse would happen to her.

  She could tolerate the ordinary daily stuff. The hard shoves in the back in the corridors, when she didn’t dare turn to see who’d hit her. Overhearing the endless invitations and plans in which she wasn’t included. The terrible loneliness of the lunchroom. Even the gum in her hair—after all, that had only happened once. She could tolerate all of it, she had decided, so long as she knew there would be nothing worse.

  Which there wouldn’t be. As long as she was careful.

  As long as she didn’t offend anyone.
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