Authors: Melissa Pearl
I bite my lip as I register what I just thought. Dale? Eye candy? Am I out of my mind?
Unable to take my eyes off him, I watch him reach for his PE shirt and notice the neat scar running across his right shoulder. He must have had surgery. I reach out to touch it. I don't know what's possessing me, but I can't stop myself.
I run my finger along the wound then down his bicep, giving it a gentle squeeze.
Dale jerks in surprise.
The guy next to him frowns. "You okay, man?"
"Cramp," Dale mumbles, rubbing his shoulder.
The guy nods
and turns away while Dale shoots me a dark look.
"Did you feel that?"
His eyes narrow further.
"I couldn't help it. You're really cut and I always thou
ght you were this weedy, skinny—"
"You don't have to keep talking."
"What?" A different guy turns to see what Dale said.
"Nothin'." Dale shoots him a closed mouth grin
, which turns to a frown in my direction.
Various lockers slam shut as the guys around us disperse. I watch them saunter towards the sports field exit and
see a familiar figure walking towards us.
My mouth goes dry as he approaches. What's Dale going to say to him? Trent can be pretty mean. Fear for Dale swirls in my belly as I watch him approach.
It's like dwarf verses giant as Dale stands behind him and clears his throat.
Trent turns around and peers down at my helper.
"What the hell do you want, Scarface?"
Dale stands as tall as his five
foot... I don't know, eight inches... will allow him to. "Did you take Nicole home last night?"
Trent rolls his eyes and turns back to his locker. "And why would that be your business?"
"I'm just wondering where she is."
"Isn't everybody?" Trent rips off his shirt. I stare at his long torso, a torso I had run my hands over. I remember lying on his bed with him one afternoon in the summer, running my fingers over his tight muscles and memorising every curve. It had seemed so romantic at the time, now the thought just makes me sick. A
nother memory flashes through my head and I shudder.
"I just want to know where she is."
"How the hell should I know?"
"Because you’re her boyfriend!"
Trent's shoulders bunch with tension. I see a muscle twitch in his neck as he pulls a PE shirt over his head. "Look, she plays hooky all the time, okay. Her parents don't care. She's probably at home."
"Nicole hates being at home. If she plays hooky she goes to L.A. and she always takes one of her friends."
How did he know that?
"Look man, I don't know... maybe she's flying solo on this one. Maybe she hitched a ride to L.A. and is blowing off steam with her Dad's credit card. She'll be back tonight and loving all the attention tomorrow."
"I would never hitch. I'm not that stupid."
Dale ignores my yelled response and continu
es with his calm interrogation. "What if she doesn't come back tomorrow?"
"Then maybe she's finally found the guts to run away."
My insides twist. Why does everyone assume I want to do that?
"Why don't you text her, find out if she's okay?"
"And why don't you mind your own business." Trent slams his locker and spins around.
Dale doesn't budge. Raising his chin, he gives a
small nod, but won't back down. "You were the last person to see her."
"What are you, a cop or something? Look she got out of my car and that's the last time I saw her!"
"Where'd she get out?"
Trent's fists bunch into tight knots.
"Dale, it doesn't matter. He's not gonna tell you anything. Let's just leave it." I try to pull his arm, but my fingers wisp straight through him this time.
He ignores me, bunching his own fists, unafraid of the
nostril snorting giant in front of him.
"Oi! You two! Get your butts out on my field. Now!!" Coach Yeller (it's actually Gellar, but everyone calls him Yeller... for obvious reasons) pulls the boys apart with a look of steel. Trent shoves Dale out of his way as he walks past.
Dale stares after him, unfazed by the roughness.
"Coming sir, I just have to use the bathroom." He puts on a grimace and holds his stomach.
Coach Yeller takes a disgusted step backwards. "Make it quick!" Spinning on his heel he marches outside.
Dale clears his throat and waits for the slam of the door before grabbing his bag and walking the other way. "You coming?"
"Ahhh, no thank you. I don't really need to see you poop."
"I'm not going to the bathroom." He pulls the door open. "I want to check out Trent's car."
Dale looks over his shoulder as we amble out into the parking lot. Ducking low, we skirt around the vehicles until we reach Trent's Jeep. Dale runs his fingers along the edge of the window. Dropping his bag, he unzips it and pulls out a long, flat piece of metal with a little hook on the end. Is that a slim jim?
"Why do you have that in your bag?"
Without saying a word, he inserts it down the edge of the window, jiggles it like a pro and pops the lock. "In case I ever lock my keys in the car." He shoots me a grin then opens the door.
"But, how'd you..." My voice dies away as I watch Dale
hunt around the passenger's seat. Opening the glove box, he rifles through it as I'm swamped by another memory.
"Trent, stop it." I pushed his fidgeting fingers away from the fly of my jeans, trying to keep my voice light.
"Come on," he murmured into my neck, his lips working over my collarbone and nuzzling beneath my shirt.
I was lying on the reclined passenger's seat, pinned beneath my muscular boyfriend. I ran my fingers through his hair as his hands moved beneath my shirt. I had to resist the urge to yank his locks. An odd fear coiled inside me as his hands roamed my breasts.
It didn't feel right. His lips weren't soft and
succulent, his hands weren't tender and smooth. As I lay beneath him in the car I felt smothered. I don't know why, but I wanted out.
"Trent, seriously, stop it." I pushed his hands out from beneath my shirt as they brushed my dog tags. I felt the cool metal on my flesh and Dale's eyes swam through my brain.
Trent gave me a wicked grin and returned to his original starting point. Running his hand up my thigh, he squeezed my butt then undid the button of my jeans.
I tried to catch his wrist, but he maneuvered out of my way.
"I mean it!" I squeezed my legs together and shoved at his chest. He lurched away from me and swore.
"What the hell is your problem tonight?"
I re-zipped my fly and wriggled away from him as he climbed back into the driver's seat.
"It's not like we haven't done this be
fore. Just last weekend we were—"
"Yeah, I know, but can't you just take me home and kiss me goodnight? Why do we always have to finish our dates with sex?" I adjusted my shirt.
Trent let out a frustrated sigh.
"I so don't get you. One minute you're begging for it. Look at the way you're dressed. And now you're playing cold fish."
I glared at him. Begging for it? Hardly!
He touched my face and kept his voice sweet and gentle.
"What do you want, Nicole?"
I recognized the tactic, but still felt softened by it.
"I don't know," I gave my standard reply, which he took as permission.
I was soon engulfed with kisses and roaming hands. The urge to just give in and get it over with was strong, but then I felt the dog tags again and my insides sparked with anger.
"Stop it! I said I didn't want to tonight. Why do you always have to keep pushing?"
I turned away from him and looked out the window... at the so
-called view. All I saw were dark, creepy trees.
Trent's fingers skirted my hair away from my neck and his lips soon followed. I rolled my eyes and unlatched the door, jumping into the cool night air.
"I said stop. I don't want to, just deal with it."
The dim car light illuminated his features as he glared at me. "Get in the car."
"No." I crossed my arms and glared back at him.
"Nicole. Get. In. The car," he repeated between clenched teeth.
I raised my chin. "No."
"Fine." He slammed the steering wheel. "You stubborn bitch." Grabbing my bag he chucked it at my feet. "You don't want to be with me, that's your loss."
Slamming the door closed, he started the car and revved the engine.
"Wait! Trent!" I reached for the door handle, but before I could grab it the back wheels spun and he screeched away from me.
"Look what I found?" Dale pulls me back to the present by waving my iPhone in front of his face. "Looks like you were in here last night, unless Trent has a thing for hot pink, jewel encrusted phone cases."
I force my lips to smile. I don't know why, it's not like her can see me.
"Yeah that's mine," I mumble, reaching for it then dropping my invisible hand as Dale turns back to look in the car again. "I remember being in here."
"You do?" Dale spins to face me, his direction is a little off, but I can't be bothered correcting him. "What happened?"
"I um. We parked. I just remember we were parked."
Dale's eyebrows bunch together, his mouth pinching into a tight line as he looks to the ground.
"Nothing happened." I don't know why I want him to know so badly.
He gives a nod and I sigh.
"That's why I got out of the car."
"What do you mean?"
Why am I telling him this?
"He wanted to... you know... and I didn't feel like it so..."
Dale's expression changes
to one of amusement as I stumble through my words and it pisses me off.
"Look this is all your fault!"
"My fault?" He points to himself.
"Yeah! If you hadn't been swimming around in the back of my brain with your
you should know better
look, I would have just done it and then he wouldn't have driven off without me."
Anger courses over Dale's face. I can sense his struggle to stay calm.
"Okay, so you're saying, that if you'd had sex with that jackass, everything would have been better?"
"At least I'd be alive."
"You're not dead yet." Dale slams the door, pockets my phone and starts marching back towards the change rooms. I run to catch up with him. Anger is still pulsing out of him, but his voice is calm when he asks me, "Do you remember where you were?"
"No." I shake my head. "It was really dark and there were a ton of trees. I'm not sure if I fell there or if I was walking home and maybe I slipped?
Breaths snort out of Dale's nose.
"I can't believe you date that jerk. He left you in the middle of nowhere!"
I have nothing to say. Dale's right. Trent is a jerk and I had been dating him for nearly five months. Shame washes over me as Dale continues his little rant.
"When I think about his hands all over you it makes me want to puke."
"Thank you, Mr. Pious, but I didn't ask for your opinion."
"It's not about being pious." Dale suddenly spins around. He's looking straight at me, not that he knows it. "The only person who should be touching you like that is someone who loves you and that dickhead doesn't."
His words hurt like hell and I can't help muttering, "If that's the criteria, no one would ever touch me."
I watch his gaze fill with sadness as he steps towards me.
"You know it's scum like Trent," he points back to the parking lot, "that make you believe that crap."
I'm left speechless as he turns and walks away.
It takes a few moments for my legs to get moving. I feel like someone is squeezing my heart to putty. What does he know anyway?
I decide to wait outside the change room this time. When Dale reappears he's scrolling through my phone and looking a little worried.
"What did you find?" I peer over his shoulder.
He flinches then let's out his breath. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. I just didn't feel like watching a bunch of sweaty guys get showered and dressed."
His face brightens with his little half smile.
I walk beside him as he weaves his way through the corridors.
"Looks like your mom's tried calling a few times this morning."
I want to say, "That'd be a first," but swallow the words back down. I had to give Mom some credit. She did look worried this morning... until she turned her car around and headed for a meeting. My insides simmer.
"Do you think I should call her back?"
"And say what? Yeah, hi, I'm the guy that lives just round the corner, you wave to me occasionally, but we never really talk. I happen to have your daughter's phone
... which I stole from Trent's car. Oh! And did I mention I can hear her voice in my head. She's a ghost by the way."
"Okay, okay, I get it." He slips the phone into his back pocket. "And for your information, reclaiming property is not stealing."
"It is when the property's not yours."
"Fine." Dale pulls out my phone and holds it in the air. "You hold it then."
I throw him a dark look and mutter, "Touché."
His smirk jumps into place as we bypass the cafeteria and head towards the opposite end of the school.
"Where are you going? Do you not eat?"
He stops outside one of the ICT suites and turns the latch.
"I have more important things to do today." He pushes the door with his shoulder and holds it open for me.
He lets the door go and walks to a computer at the back of the room.
"Are you allowed in here?"
Pulling out a chair, he plops onto it.
"Mr. Attley doesn't mind seniors in here at lunchtime. We're fine, Nicky. Don't worry about it."
I shuffle up beside him.
"My name's Nicole," I repeat with a sigh.
"I know." He brings the screen to life with a flick of the mouse. "I just like Nicky better."
"Well, I like Nicole and it's my name, so..."
A soft chuckle escapes his lips as he opens up Google.
"Whatever you say, Nicole."
I roll my eyes and perch on the seat beside him. "What are you looking for?"
"Well, we know Trent's lying. He didn't drop you home and I'm guessing if you guys were... you know... in his car then he probably drove to a
scenic overlook or someplace private."
Dale searches for maps of the area.
"So Matt lives... here?" He points to the screen. I lean over him and nod.
"Is that right?"
"Yes. I keep forgetting you can't see me."
He grins. "Okay, so I imagine Trent wouldn't drive for miles before stopping, so let's assume you're within a 15 mile radius of Matt's house." He leans closer to the screen and inspects the different routes leading away from Matt's house. "There are
vista points scattered all the way through the National Park. We could start there this afternoon, see if any of the settings stir some memories."
I clear my throat and dredge up the memory again. "It wasn't a
vista anything. It was dark and kinda creepy. I think it was off the road. Hidden."
His grin disappears and that hard look returns. Before I thought he was pissed at me, but now I'm wondering if this quiet rage is solely for Trent. For some weird reason I find it touching that he's annoyed about someone treating me like that.
I frown and clear my throat. "I must have started walking, right? I mean I wouldn't have just stood there in the dark. Logic says I would've tried to find a main road or something."
"If you were in a quiet spot, the chances of you slipping and falling are high. You could have tumbled down the bank pretty easily." His features are etched with worry. "You don't remember anything else?"
"No." I swallow down the lump in my throat and look back at the screen. San Bernardino National Park is huge. The road from Matt's house cuts through a portion of it. With little to go by this hunt could take months... and I don't have that long. "What if he drove south?"
Dale runs his fingers through his curls and flicks them out of his face.
"A human can survive for around four days without water and from what you've said, you're not pouring blood, so we have a little time."
Grabbing the mouse, he opens up a new screen and does a search on the weather. "Sunny and fine all this week. You've got a chance."
"Not a very big one," I scoff.
"It's better than nothing."
My phone chirps. Dale reaches for it and reads the screen with a frown. "According to the Where's Nicole Poll, 88% of voters think you've run away." He shakes his head and slides the phone away.
"I guess people think they have me all figured out."
He looks in my direction, his eyes searching for my sad expression. I'm intensely grateful he can't see me right now.
"I'm sorry if I crossed a line before. I shouldn't have been so rude about your boyfriend."
I look down at my nails and run my thumb over the smooth blue polish. "He's not my boyfriend anymore. If I make it out of this I will be dumping him, very publicly."
"I saw him trying to make out with Julie Peters this morning. I guess it's a good thing. If this hadn't happened I never would have known, just kept dating him like a clueless wonder."
"Even after what he did to you last night?" Dale's brow creases with a frown.
"I don't know." I shrug.
Dale leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees. Looking up with sincere eyes that are just an inch from my face, he whispers, "You deserve better."
I feel the sting of tears. If he knew the truth he wouldn't be saying stuff like this.
"You don't know what I deserve."
The door clicks and Dale bolts upright, turning back to the screen and studying it. I glance towards the door and notice a
round faced Asian girl with wide eyes and an innocent expression weaving through the tables towards us. Her smile is glowing.
I watch him with a grin as he pulls his eyes away from the screen and gives the girl a polite nod. "Hey Sophie, how's it going?"
"Good." Her face is beaming as she skips over and sits down next to him.
"Hey, hey, watch it." Her butt is about to land on me so I jump out of the way, but not before her shoe goes straight through my boot leather. "Okay, she just totally stood on my foot."
"Are you okay?" Sophie asks, her wide eyes looking worried.
"Yeah," Dale clears his throat. "Just a funny text."
He taps my phone and looks awkwardly at the screen.
Her adoring eyes study him in silence then she dips her head and tucks a strand of black hair behind her ear. Clearing her throat, she glances over at Dale and smiles again.
"So, are you going to youth group on Friday night?"
"Check out that face." I grin. "Is this your girlfriend or something?"
"No!" Dale snaps.
"Oh. Okay." Sophie's smile drops away and she begins fidgeting with the silver ring on her middle finger.
"Dude, she is so crushing on you."
Dale ignores my taunts and sends the girl an apologetic smile. "I mean, maybe, I'm not sure yet."
The room lights with her sunshine smile and I can't help laughing. "What is your problem, Dale? Look at those big brown eyes. She wants you. Go for it."
"Would you shut up," he mumbles.
"I'm sorry?" Sophie looks crushed. "Is it not okay that I'm here?"
"Yeah, of course. It's totally fine." Dale pats her hand and stands up. "I just have to go and I was wondering if you wanted to use my computer then shut it up for me."
"Smooth," I whisper.
Dale closes his eyes and clears his throat, forcing a smile. Sophie smiles back and nods, obviously disappointed
by his departure.
"Okay. Thanks, Dale." She slides into his chair and he reaches over her to hide the screen.
"I'll just log out."
She studies his face as he quickly shuts down his account. Giggles rumble in my belly, but I swallow them down. Dale looks so awkward right now. Bolting upright, he pats Sophie on the shoulder and says a quick goodbye.
"Bye." She gives him a little wave as he turns to walk out the door.
The corridor is empty as we make our way back towards the quad.
"What is wrong with you? That girl is on your doorstep, man. Let her in!"
"Maybe I don't want to let her in."
"What, you think you're gonna do better?"
Dale stops in his tracks and gives me a dark look.
I cover my mouth with my hand and wince. "I didn't mean to say it like that. What I mean is... she seems sweet."
He tips his head
to the side, his right eyebrow jumping north, adding extra power to his droll expression.
I stupidly keep talking. "Come on, she totally looks like your type."
"How would you know what my type is? You don't even know me." Dale turns and starts walking again.
I run to catch up with him.
"Is it because of the scar? Because there are some awesome plastic surgeons in L.A.. They could fix that up for you."
"No, it's not because of the scar and I don't need it fixed. I like it this way."
He closes his eyes and sighs. "It's a good reminder."
"Of what?" I look up at his pinched lips.
"Nothing." He shakes his head.
I fidget with my watch strap, unsure how to respond. My curiosity is definitely peaked. "I was just wondering if the scar made you feel—"
"Would you shut up about it? Jeez, Nicole! You've got the sensitivity of a shark."
My mouth drops open and I shoot him a scowl that I totally forget he can't see. "I was just trying to be helpful."
?!" He spins to face me. "How is your constant chirping in my ear helpful?"
"I... she's a girl who likes you!" I point back down the corridor.
"You don't have to play cupid, okay. I can look after my own love life."
"What love life? You barely have any friends, let alone a girlfriend."
He groans and looks to the ceiling.
"You want to help me out, Nicole?" Leaning towards me, he tries to get right in my face. His direction is scarily accurate as he yells, "Stop talking!"
Fine. I cross my arms and glare at him.
After an icy-
silence standoff, he eventually mutters, "Thank you," then turns and walks away.
I am so pissed right now I can hardly breathe. I watch him stomp away from me then scream a stream of curses in my head before following him. As he approaches the bathroom, my eyes narrow.
smile brushes over my lips as Dale flings back the bathroom door and I jump in behind him. Without saying a word, I watch him dump his bag then listen to him unzipping his fly as he steps up to the urinal.
I give him a second to get started, then walk up behind him and clear my throat.
His shoulder jerks then he huffs. "Are you watching me pee right now?"
"No. I'm s
taring at the back of your dumb-ass head!"
I can't be sure, but I think he just laughed, one of those short ones that kind of punches out of the chest. Zipping his fly, Dale flushes the urinal and heads to the hand basin. I think he assumes I'm still standing behind him, because he looks in the mirror as he's washing his hands. I gaze at the side of his face.
"You know, you should be nicer to me. I'm the only one willing to help you."
"You're the only one capable."
He jumps to the side and turns towards the sound of my voice. Shaking the droplets from his hands, he grabs a paper towel.
"And anyone else in my position would have run for their life." He wipes his hands dry and turns towards me. "But I stopped and listened."
"Oh, my hero," I can't keep the mockery from my voice, "the guy who tells me to shut my face. I'm so incredibly happy it’s you who can hear me."
"You know what..."
Dale steps towards me.
"The walls are moving."