Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal
Tags: #cozy mystery
“I did it,” he blurted.
“You killed Summer?” she said, thoroughly confused.
“No, the penguin prank. I did it.”
“No, I’m pretty sure I did it. I have the tape to prove it.”
He whipped off his helmet and tossed it aside, caught her clarinet and placed it gently inside. Until then, she had no idea she had brought it with her. He clasped her shoulders and pressed his forehead to hers. “Listen to what I’m saying, woman, and understand the words coming out of my mouth. I planned the penguin prank. It was my idea.”
“You?” she said.
He nodded. He looked miserable. There were telltale bags under his eyes that she hadn’t seen since he switched his schedule from midnight to day shift. “I told you I ate lunch with that group every day. Sometimes between sports, I connected with them and hung out. Sophomore year, we were brainstorming prank ideas. I came up with that one. They wrote it down word for word. The part about making your own costume and putting something of yourself in the routine? That was all me. Then baseball started, and I didn’t give it another thought until yesterday when you told me it happened to you. All this time, I’ve been saying that the stuff from our past didn’t matter, but I was secretly proud of the fact that I had never personally done anything to hurt you. And then it turns out that I’m responsible for your most embarrassing memory. Lacy, I’m so, so sorry. Can you ever forgive me?”
Lacy blinked up at him a few times, turning it over in her head as she digested the new information. Then she launched herself at him. He caught her, and she kissed him. She needed to say a lot with the kiss, to convey all the things bottled inside that were so hard to express. It was a testament to Jason’s athleticism that he caught her, held her, and didn’t falter, even when it became necessary to lean against a pole and slide to the ground.
Finally, it was over. “Geez,” Jason breathed. “I thought it was the girl who was supposed to get all weak-kneed.”
“I did,” Lacy said. She sat in his lap, drained and shaky.
“That wasn’t exactly the response I expected, but it was better than I could have hoped for,” Jason said. “Not that I’m complaining, but would you like to explain? I thought you would jab me in the solar plexus, at the very least.”
“Jason, I know you. You are good and kind and you stand up for the little guy. If you had stuck it out while they followed through, then I know you would have intervened and saved me.”
“I don’t know, Lacy. I was a stupid kid.”
“Who wasn’t? But you’ve always had a good heart, and you would have done the right thing. I have confidence in that, even if you don’t. I could never hold a grudge against you for something you didn’t mean to do. The reason I was so angry at them wasn’t because of that one event; it was for day after day after day of harassment and teasing.”
“I guess you really do trust me, huh?” he said.
“With all my heart,” she said.
“Enough to go for a run later?”
“Don’t push it, Cantor.”
He smiled. “Maybe we could skip the game and stay down here. I always dreamed of spending some time under the bleachers with a hot cheerl…band kid.”
“Me, too,” she said, and he poked her.
“Do you want me to retrieve Chester Campbell for you? I could probably fit him in my pocket.”
“I think I’m content with what I’ve got.”
“Me, too,” he said. He picked up her hand and kissed her palm. “Lacy, this thing we have going is so much more than I could have ever guessed. I’m so…”
His eyes brimmed with a range of unexpressed thoughts and emotions, but they were taking it slow. Better to leave them unexpressed for now. “Me, too,” she agreed.
“I should probably go before Coach Wilson has a boondoggle heart attack because I skipped the flapjacking game,” he said.
“I should get back to the band.”
“If we were still in high school, I would give you my letterman’s jacket.”
“And I would wear it proudly,” she said. She picked up her clarinet and handed him his helmet. He took it and they looked at each other.
“This feels a little surreal, doesn’t it?” he said.
“Like we’re getting a high school do-over,” she said.
“Yes! I feel like I’m going to have to leave here and have to put my parents to bed after another night of boozing.”
“And I feel like I’m going to go home and get so involved in a book that I think it’s the seventeenth century for a while again.”
“But it’s not high school,” he assured her. “We’re not kids anymore. High school is over. We can be whoever we want to be, do whatever we want to do. The future is wide open.”
“It just keeps getting better and better,” Lacy said. They paused at the edge of the bleachers. He gave her one final kiss, put on his helmet, and jogged onto the field. Lacy climbed the bleachers, sat, and draped her clarinet over her lap.
“Where have you been?” Jody asked.
“The past,” Lacy said. “But I’m back now, and I intend to stay.”
“You’re really weird, Lacy.”
“Yeah, I am,” Lacy agreed.
“So am I,” Jody said. “Weird is much more interesting than normal.”
“Is anyone normal?” Lacy asked.
“I suppose it depends on the definition.”
“I think you should get back together with Carter.”
“Wow, what a rapid and personal change of topic.”
“The weekend is almost over and it needs to be fixed. You guys should be together. You love each other; you’re perfect for each other. Everything is wrong if you’re apart.”
“Sometimes things don’t work out. Not everyone gets the fairytale.”
“In my world, they do,” Lacy said. Thoughts of happy couples reminded her of Tosh and Riley. She scanned the cheerleaders until she saw her sister, and she was heartened by her appearance. She looked beautiful and perfect, just like usual. She waved a pom-pom in the stands with a wickedly flirtatious smile. Lacy turned to see that Tosh was the recipient and he looked properly smitten. Maybe they would work themselves out.
The centennial ceremony dragged. The governor’s speech was long and generic. Lacy thought Ben had more personality and pizzazz than his boss. She glanced at him and caught him stifling a yawn. He winked at her and she faced forward with a blush. The man was disconcerting.
The governor finished and the school district’s superintendent stood. He presented a special award to the band director, Mr. Mertz, whose vacant smile clearly said he had no idea why he was there or what was going on. Strangely, he had done a perfect job directing the band during practice that morning. Perhaps music did more than soothe the savage beast.
There was also an award for Coach Wilson. Not only had he served as gym teacher for almost as long as Mr. Mertz had been the band director, but he had also recently survived lung cancer. Lacy supposed that explained his wife’s hovering, over-protective attitude.
After the awards, the superintendent gave a long winded speech, and then it was finally time for the game. This was perhaps the first time Lacy had ever really watched a game, but now she had a vested interest.
“Jason Cantor never gets any less spectacular,” Jody said as Jason threw a long pass. Lacy knew nothing about the game, but people cheered, so she thought it had been a good thing.
“He’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen,” Lacy agreed.
Jody elbowed her. “Sounds like someone has a little crush.”
“Oh, it’s not little. It’s one of those forest fire, mudslide, all-consuming inferno kind of things.”
“You should call him up sometime. Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Jody said, but her dubious tone told Lacy it was a long shot. “Or maybe I’ll call him.”
“I’ll cut you good, Jody,” Lacy said. “I’ve got dibs.”
Jody laughed and Lacy saw Carter glance their way. “You know what? This is ridiculous. Why do I keep waiting for someone else to do something instead of doing it myself?” Lacy said. She stood and began scrambling toward the percussion section. Jody guessed the direction of her thoughts and tried to pull her back to no avail. “Excuse me, sorry, coming through,” she tossed out as she made her way up the bleachers and over her fellow band members.
She landed in front of Carter and had to pause to recover her breath. “Hey, Lacy. There’s not a problem with the
gig, is there?” he asked.
“No. I was coming to talk to you about Jody. Why aren’t you guys together? I mean, really, I see the way you look at her, and I know you still love her.”
“Uncomplicate it for me,” she said.
“I’m the building and supplies manager of a Home Depot and I build robots on the side.”
“So she’s a professional. She’s a forensic pathologist. I’m not even very good at my job. I got it because my cousin works there. I’m twenty six, and I still have no idea what to do with my life. She has a solid career and life plan. How can I compete with that?”
“Why would you want to compete with it? Being in a relationship with someone isn’t about being perfect; it’s about supporting each other even when you’re not.”
He shook his head.
“So, that’s it. You’re okay with Jody moving on to date someone else.”
His eyes snapped back into focus. “Is she dating someone? Did she say that?”
“She just now expressed interest in someone,” Lacy said. “And I think it’s highly likely that she could end up with someone this weekend.”
“Who?” Carter said.
“You don’t know him,” Lacy said.
“What’s his name?
“Michael. His name is Michael, he’s a musician, and I can almost guarantee that they’ll go on a date by the time she leaves tomorrow.”
“I can’t believe she’s dating again,” Carter said.
“Hasn’t it been years since you broke up?”
“Yeah, but it’s Jody. She doesn’t move on. I thought she would never move on.”
“Well, Carter, people change. You have to seize the day. What would Han Solo do? No, wait, he was the one who went for Leia, right? And that’s me. No, be the guy who got back together with Natalie Portman after so much time apart. What was his name?”
“No, the cute little Jedi boy.”
“No, the one that Liam Neeson picked out because the force was so strong.”
“Lacy, that’s Darth Vader.”
“Are you sure?”
“You’re talking to a guy who has written forty fan fiction stories when I’m not building robots that look like C3PO. I’m pretty sure it’s Darth Vader.”
“Okay, fine. Look what happened to that cute little boy when he lost Natalie Portman. He turned into Darth Vader. Don’t be Darth, Carter.”
“Why is this so important to you?” he asked.
“Because you guys were the one good thing about high school. You two had so much fun with each other. You were this awesome love story in the midst of pubescent angst. You made me believe in happily ever after. You’ve loved her since you were fourteen years old. If you can’t make it, who can?”
He sank to the bench, defeated. “I’ve asked myself that same question. But I just…can’t. Too much time, too much water under the bridge.”
Lacy had pushed him as far as she could. The decision was his from here on out. “Think about it, okay?”
He nodded. “Chester Campbell is trying to get your attention,” he said.
She spun to find Chester waving frantically in her direction. “Lacy,” he called.
“What?” she said.
“Get in your seat and stay there,” he said.
“Was he always such a weasel?” Lacy asked.
“Pretty much,” Carter said.
Lacy turned and made her way back to her seat. As she went, she pulled out her phone and dialed. Michael answered on the first ring.
“Will you go out with one of my friends tonight?” Lacy asked.
“Sure,” he said.
“I’m basically using you in a shallow and immature attempt to make her ex jealous.”
“I already said yes; you don’t have to keep trying to sell me on it,” Michael said.
“You didn’t ask the typical male ‘what does she look like’ question.”
“Why should I care? I’m spending one evening of my life with her, not having her face tattooed on my arm.”
“You’re really starting to grow on me, Michael,” Lacy said.
“Like algae on a sloth,” he said and hung up without saying goodbye.
“You have a date tonight,” Lacy informed Jody as she reclaimed her spot.
“What? With Carter?”
“No, with Michael.”
“A friend from work. You don’t know him.”
“Then why am I going out with him?”
“To try and motivate Carter to get his act together,” Lacy said.
“That will never work. Carter is solid, not the type to be jealous.”
“Then do it because it’s time to move on. Michael’s a good rebound date; he’ll help get you back in the game.”
“I’m not sure I want to be back in the game.”
“That’s what Carter said you would say. He said you would never move on after him.”
“Oh, he did, did he?” Jody’s eyes shot flames in Carter’s direction. “We’ll see about that.” She paused. “What’s Michael like?”
“Sort of indescribable.”
“Why don’t you go out with him?”
“I’m seeing someone,” Lacy said. “Even if I weren’t, I’m not sure the sparks would be there. He pushes my buttons, and not in a good way. He thinks I’m stuffy and too set in my ways. He’s always pushing me out of my comfort zone, trying to get to me to dream bigger, to try new things.”
“He sounds amazing,” Jody said.
“Yeah, he sort of is. Don’t tell him I said so.”
“And the guy you’re seeing is somehow better,” Jody said.
“Well, yeah, he is, for me, anyway. We have a good thing going. I had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming. I had no idea a relationship could be so healthy and fulfilling, no idea it would be so all consuming. I was engaged once, and it was nothing like this.”
“Sounds like true love. PS, Tony Rico is staring at you from under the bleachers again.”
Lacy forced herself not to look. With sudden clarity she recalled the flash of Tony’s hair and eyes the last time he had watched her under the bleachers. They were the same hair and eyes that had watched her through the door of the fitness room. “Don’t look at him,” Lacy said. “I’m going to ease in that direction and try to catch him.”