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Authors: Laura McNeal

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BOOK: Crushed
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Chapter 15

A Vow

When his alarm clock sounded the next morning, Clyde Mumsford woke up happy.

He'd been dreaming of Audrey Reed. This wasn't the first time he'd dreamed of her, but this one had been the most pleasant. He'd been riding a bicycle along a sunny country road and was weirdly, almost weightlessly happy, but didn't know why until in his dream he turned around and saw Audrey Reed on her own bike, pedaling behind him. She was wearing shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, and her long sandy hair streamed back from her face.
I'm gaining on you,
she said, grinning.

For a few minutes, while he slept, he'd known what it was like to be Audrey Reed's boyfriend.

“Clyde? You up?” His father, from the front room.

“Getting there,” Clyde called back.

There was a freestanding Everlast punching bag in the middle of the room. Clyde got up and gave it a couple of sharp jabs. So what was he going to do about Audrey Reed? Wait around for the next good dream? Nobody said he had to be rich just to talk to her. Who said he couldn't just ask her to study with him the next time he ran into her?
Say, hey, I'm
having some trouble with this whole sub-Saharan culture deal and
you seem to have it down pat. Would you mind going over it
with me?

He could do that. Maybe he could do that. He could tell Audrey Reed was nice, and once he'd been around her awhile, his words wouldn't come out like croaks anymore. Diminished croakiness would evolve.

After he'd showered and dressed, Clyde went to the living room, where his father was standing at the big window, staring out. His mother was still sleeping. The TV was tuned to a cooking show, but the sound was off. A tray with yogurt and Cream of Wheat sat next to his mother, untouched.

“Going now, Dad,” he said on his way out.

His father turned and nodded. In the five years of his mother's sickness, his father's hair had started graying. This morning his skin seemed gray, too.

From behind them, in a dazed, soft voice, his mother said, “Going where, without . . . ?”

Clyde turned. “To school, Mom.”

“Without . . . ?”

Without kissing me,
Clyde knew, was the whole question.

He walked over, kissed her on the forehead, and patted her nose. She closed her eyes again and seemed to relax.

“Love you,” she whispered—it was what she always whispered—and he headed for the door.

Today,
he vowed, and took a deep breath before stepping into the elevator.
Today The Mummy talks to Audrey Reed.

Chapter 16

Another Candidate

“Morbidly shy.”

That was the term his doctor had used when talking to Clyde's mother about Clyde's ingrown nature. Clyde was nine or ten at the time. “He's morbidly shy,” the doctor had said, “but I wouldn't worry about it too much. Many children go through it, and most outgrow it.”

But Clyde hadn't outgrown it. His father had tried to give Clyde's nature a positive spin (“Clyde understands that it's what people do that counts, not what they say”), but his mother worried about the social consequences of Clyde's silence (“It makes you seem so
solemn,
” she said), and she'd suggested speech class or Junior Toastmasters or even at-home charades, all without success, and then she'd become sick and more important worries had supplanted this one.

Clyde had read books on the subject
(Start by looking the
stranger in the eye and saying, “Hello, I'm Patrick [or, as the case
may be, Patricia]”),
but couldn't take them seriously. (In the bathroom mirror, Clyde had looked himself in the eye and said, “Hello, I'm Patrick, or, as the case may be, Patricia.”) He'd locked himself in the bathroom and pretended to conduct lighthearted conversations with a stranger, but the slight resulting confidence vanished the moment he stepped out of the bathroom.

Audrey, hi. I don't know if you know me, but I'm Clyde
Mumsford, and I was wondering . . .

Clyde practiced these words in his mind again and again this morning as he rode to school, as he locked his Vespa, as he took the steps up into the west wing.
Audrey, hi. I don't
know if you know me, but I'm Clyde Mumsford, and I was
wondering . . .

He had a plan. He'd wait until Audrey broke away from her girlfriends after Patrice's class, and then he'd take three deep breaths and walk up to her and start talking.
Audrey, hi. I
don't know if you know me, but I'm Clyde Mumsford . . .

That was his plan.

But then he saw her. As he made his way through the crowded hallway, he saw her up ahead, coming straight toward him.

Alone. She was alone.

Clyde tried to take deep breaths.

He tried to think.

Hi. I don't know if you know . . .

She was closer, and seemed to look at him and then smile the exact same radiant smile he'd seen in his dream and, to his complete and pleasant surprise, something within Clyde relaxed, and he felt his friendly normal self beginning to take over.

He smiled a calm smile and had begun to open his mouth to speak when, just ahead of him, a tall boy he didn't know said, “Well, well, Audrey Reed.” Her face brightened further, and the boy in his smooth, slow drawl added, “My long-stemmed study partner,” which made her smile even more.

She stopped to talk to the boy, and as Clyde slipped silently past, face burning, she seemed not even to see him.

A kind of blindness came over Clyde. Students and lockers passed in a blur, and when he saw a doorway, he escaped the building and kept walking.

The new kid, that's who it was. The new kid. Who was a face man. And who also looked like money.

Of course that's who Audrey Reed would hang out with. Somebody handsome and smooth-talking and rich.

Clyde turned down a row between temporary classrooms, and was so lost in his thoughts that when he passed the corner of one of the classrooms, he didn't notice the group of boys huddled there. But they saw him.

“Hey, there goes The Mummy.”

Clyde turned. It was Theo Driggs's drones, six or seven of them, with Theo himself slouched in their midst. One of the boys said, “How do de mummy do?”

Clyde glanced quickly away and kept walking.

“He can't talk. Mummies can't talk.”

Keep walking,
Clyde thought.
Just keep walking.
But Theo and his group were moving now, too, following behind.

“The Mummy still scootering to and fro?”

One of Theo's friends made sputtering putt-putt sounds, which at once grew into a chorus of putt-putting, soon mixed with laughter. What felt like a tightening cable ran from Clyde's neck down his arms to his hands, which formed into fists.

He kept walking, but Theo's group followed, continuing their putt-putt sounds. Finally Clyde stopped and turned.

Everything became quiet.

For a muscular boy, Theo Driggs had a surprisingly fleshy face. His plump lips showed a trace of a smile. “I see the scooterist has balled his little hands into little fists. That for a reason?”

Clyde didn't know what to do or say. So he said something he was actually wondering. “What did I ever do to you?”

It came out croakish, and Theo appeared genuinely confused. “Try it again in English,” he said.

“What did I ever do to you?” Clyde said, trying to talk slowly.

Recognition spread over Theo's face, and the smile on his plump lips widened. He said, “You entered my field of vision. You uglified the view.”

Snickers among Theo's friends.

Theo, still smiling, drew closer. “Why? Does that bother The Mummy?”

Clyde said nothing. He simply glared at Theo.

“Does it?” Theo said, a hardness lining his voice now. “Does that bother The Mummy?” His hand jabbed at Clyde's chest. “Does it? Yes or no?”

There was a long moment of absolute silence. Then Clyde unfolded his fists and, in a low, croaky voice, said, “No.”

Theo's whole body relaxed, and his smile returned. “Good. Now why don't you just haul your mummified pansy ass out of my field of vision so I can regain my accustomed serenity.”

Clyde turned. From behind, as he walked away, he heard their sputtering putt-putt imitation of his Vespa, followed by derisive laughter.

God. Theo Driggs. Theo Brain-Dead Driggs, who just came sliming out from under a rock. Talk about a candidate for “Outed.”

Clyde somehow got through his first class, and then the next, and the next, hour upon hour, but when last period finally came, he just couldn't bring himself to walk into World Cultures and see Audrey Reed smiling at Patrice and passing notes to her friends and just generally floating along in her happiness, so he slipped out to his Vespa and rode out to the river, where he sat freezing until he was sure his father would have left for work. Then he went home.

“Hello, Clydefellow,” his mother said. She'd been asleep, and now barely opened her eyes. Her face looked almost skeletal. “Good day?” she said.

He nodded.

“On a one-to-ten?” Her voice was slightly slurred from medication.

“An eight,” he said. “Maybe an eight and a half.”

His mother nodded and closed her eyes, and was soon asleep. Clyde went over to the desk and turned on the computer.

Chapter 17

Excellent

A few hours earlier, as Audrey was taking her physics quiz in the quiet of Mrs. Leacock's room, she did something she'd never done before and had never imagined she would ever do. She moved her test paper slightly to the right and then shifted her shoulders slightly to the left, so that her answers might be seen from behind.

The night before, when Wickham had suggested that she might move to the right or left when she was taking her test, the words that formed in her mind were,
That's cheating.
But she didn't say them—she was afraid they would sound nerdy or schoolgirlish—and he'd made his suggestion so casually that it was clear he didn't see it as an ethical issue. But Audrey did. She'd been taught not to cheat, and not to respect those who did. She knew what she needed to say:
I
can't do that. I'm sorry, I just can't. It wouldn't be right.

But she hadn't said anything at all, had pretended in fact not to hear, and when she'd seen him in the hall before school, she felt such a sense of buoyant well-being that she knew there was no point in bringing the matter up, because it was simple—it was something he wanted her to do, and she would do it. And she did—casually, subtly, as if she were merely shifting in her seat as anyone in the world might do.

“Time!” Mrs. Leacock said, and gave Audrey a start.

She didn't look at Wickham as he handed his paper forward; she put hers on top of his and handed the tests to the boy in front of her. As the papers reached the first desk of each row, Mrs. Leacock moved across the front of the room, collecting them and assigning the class some pages to read while she corrected the quizzes.

For the next twenty-five minutes, it was quiet in the classroom except for the turning of pages, the click of the wall clock, and an occasional sniffle or cough. Audrey tried to read, but couldn't concentrate. Her stomach hurt. Her pulse seemed lightning fast. She was certain she would be caught; that she and Wickham would miss the same questions; that somebody had noticed their cheating and penciled a note on his or her test. Audrey watched Mrs. Leacock as she quickly ran her red marker down test after test, checking off incorrect answers, counting them up, scribbling a score. Once Mrs. Leacock raised her head and looked directly at Audrey, who quickly lowered her eyes.

On quiz days, Mrs. Leacock always dismissed the class by calling out names and returning the corrected quizzes.

“Audrey Reed,” Mrs. Leacock said first. Audrey gathered her books and walked toward the front of the room even as Mrs. Leacock called the next few names, none of which were Wickham Hill's.

“Well done,” Mrs. Leacock said in a low voice as she handed Audrey her quiz—which, Audrey noted quickly, was marked “100.” Next to the score, in red pencil, was written
Excellent!

As she crossed the room toward the door, Audrey knew that what she should have felt was humiliation and shame. But she didn't.

What she felt was relief.

Chapter 18

Three Girls in a Car

It was too cold for the knoll that day, so the Tate girls were sitting in Audrey's old Lincoln eating lunch, Audrey and C.C. in the front seat, Lea in the back. The heater was on, and all the windows were cracked open an inch or two to keep them from fogging.

While they ate, C.C. talked about Brian's bearded dragon. “The thing just lies on its rock and basks under its heat bulb,” C.C. said. “I don't know when it moves.”

“At night,” Lea said in her soft voice. “When it goes looking for warm flesh.”

C.C. laughed. Audrey laughed, too, but not much. The relief she'd felt when she received her quiz back from Mrs. Leacock had quickly dissolved, and a bad feeling had taken hold of her and not let go. She thought that if she could just see Wickham Hill and talk to him, the feeling would release her. But now they'd moved from the knoll, where she'd told Wickham she'd be, to her car, where he would never find her.

A sudden wind broadsided the Lincoln, and seemed actually to shake it.

“You okay, Audrey?”

Audrey, brought back to the present, nodded.

Lea said, “She's probably thinking about Wickie-poo.”

C.C., going for a mock-sleazy tone, added, “Audrey's personal quantum mechanic.”

Audrey blushed only slightly. The girls had already gone over all the details of the study date, or at least most of them. Audrey hadn't mentioned Wickham's suggestion that she move a little to the left or right.

There was a silence, and then C.C. said to Audrey, “This reminds me. My mom said her mechanic—her real mechanic—bought your dad's Jaguar. Supposedly your dad made him an offer he couldn't refuse. What's the deal on that?”

Audrey had no idea. The Exorbitance, as her father called it, was the car he “saved for sunny days.” He hadn't mentioned selling it, and she hadn't noticed it was gone because he kept it in the garage most of the time, protecting the paint from all forms of life. She said, “I guess we don't have enough sunny days.” Then: “I know he said the repair bills were pricey.”

C.C. said, “I think my mom was miffed he didn't offer it to her first.”

Audrey closed her eyes, not so much because she was tired as because she wanted to close this line of conversation. Lately, whenever Audrey thought of her father and money, a strange tightness clamped over her—it was as if something were wrong but she didn't know what, and didn't really want to know.

Except for the engine and heater fan, it was quiet in the car. In slow succession Audrey's thoughts drifted to Wickham Hill, to their sitting at her kitchen table, to him smiling his easy smile and suggesting . . .

Tap-tap-tap.

Audrey's eyes flicked open and turned to her window, where—it seemed almost like magic—Wickham Hill was grinning down at her.

“Phys whiz one minute,” he drawled, “Sleeping Beauty the next.”

He had a red scarf wrapped around the collar of his coat, and you could see his breath in the air.

Audrey push-buttoned her window down and realized that she'd been right—all it took was seeing Wickham's face to make everything feel okay again.

“How'd you find us?” she said.

“I've got my wily ways,” he said.

After Audrey had introduced Lea and C.C. to Wickham (they both smiled beamingly up at him), she suggested he get into the car, out of the cold.

He shook his head amiably. “Can't. I've got a doctor's appointment.”

From behind Audrey, C.C. said, “So did Audrey get you a passing grade in physics?”

Audrey flinched at the question, but Wickham's genial expression didn't change as he moved his eyes calmly from C.C. to Audrey. “She did,” he said.

Audrey said in a soft voice, “What did you get?”

“A seventy-two.” He blinked and smiled. “Didn't want to overdo it.”

There was an awkward silence; then Wickham said, “Anyhow, I just wanted to make sure we're on for tonight.”

Audrey nodded.

He smiled down at her. “How 'bout if I meet you at Little Dragon around six-thirty?”

Audrey realized that what she wanted to do more than anything in the world was to take hold of Wickham Hill's scarf, pull him gently forward, and kiss him. Instead, she nodded and said, “Sure.”

After he'd left, the girls sat silent for a while. Then Lea said quietly, “I feel like Mark Strauss just dropped by to check on my tennis elbow.” C.C. said, “I'm thinking Aud's made some kind of deal with the Devil,” and Lea added, “I'm thinking maybe we should sign up, too.”

C.C. was grinning at Audrey. “Wednesday-night study date. Thursday-night dinner date. You getting married on the weekend?”

Audrey felt her cheeks pinkening. “It's not a dinner date, C.C. We're just going to Little Dragon.”

But the truth was, she was already trying to figure out what she should wear.

BOOK: Crushed
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