Authors: Laura McNeal
Little Dragon was low-keyâAudrey had been there a dozen times with her father or Oggyâbut tonight she almost made herself sick trying to decide what to wear. She tried on what seemed like everything in her closet before she finally decided on a slouchy, proletarian lookâcargo pants and a spaghetti-strap tank top with a cardigan.
Wickham Hill was sitting at a corner table when she walked into Little Dragon ten minutes late. He smiled, stood, and waved her over.
“Sorry I'm late,” she said, peeling off her coat, mittens, and scarf.
“Just got here myself,” he said, which was clearly not true. He had a drink in front of him that was already half gone.
“What is that?” she said, nodding at his glass.
“Chinese beer. Want to try it?”
She did, and gave him a look of surprise. “How'd you manage to order beer?”
Wickham gave her his easy grin. “Mr. Wong somehow has the impression that I'm twenty-one.” He nudged the glass toward her. “Second sip is always better.”
It was true, it did seem better. Sweet, even. She said, “I didn't think I liked beer.”
“You learn something new every day.”
“Really?” she said. “What did you learn new today?”
He leaned forward. “Couple of things. How good a girl can look in cargo pants is one.”
Audrey blushed slightly. “And the other?”
“That my long-stemmed study partner is carrying a 4.3 GPA.” He waited a second and said, “You're not denying it.”
When, soon after enrollment, the three Tate girls had recognized themselves as Jemison misfits, they'd taken as their defense solidarity and achievement. “We'll fly under the radar,” C.C. had said. “We'll be studying fools, and then, when we graduate, one of us is going to give the commencement speech.” She'd turned to Lea and Audrey. “Deal?” she'd said, and both the other girls had solemnly nodded. So that's what they'd done through the first two months of the school year. They'd stuck together, lain low, and studied hard.
To Wickham, Audrey said, “It'll probably sound nerdy, or presumptuous, or something, but Lea and C.C. and I are hoping that one of us can wind up with the top GPA and . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“And be valedictorian,” he said.
She nodded but couldn't look him in the eye, it sounded so far-fetched.
But he said, “I don't think it's nerdy. I think it's kind of spunky, actually.” When she looked up, he smiled and said, “And you won't get any serious grade-point competition from me.”
It was while they were eating that Audrey again began to think of the physics test. She fell silent. After a while, Wickham, who'd been working hard with his chopsticks, said, “Small thoughts, big thoughts, or no thoughts at all?”
“Oh,” Audrey said. “Sorry. I was thinking about the physics quiz.”
Wickham kept chewing and gave her a quizzical look.
“It's just that my letting you . . . It made me feel . . . funny. Bad funny.”
“Ah,” Wickham said. “You're a believer. You believe if the rules get written, they ought to get followed.” He chewed some more and smiled. “It's one of the things about you I find endearing.”
Audrey said, “And you don't think the rules got written for a reason?”
Wickham swallowed, took a deep breath, and laid down his chopsticks. “Look, the other night I was talking to this taxi driver, a middle-aged guy named John Mokumbu or something like thatâhe was from Nigeria or Rwanda or someplace, a nice guy with this great cackling laughâand we were just talking and I said, âWhat's the worst thing that's ever happened to you?' and he got quiet and said, âSomething that happened to my son.' His son was a paperboy, and one morning a white kid threw a snowball at him from a passing car and hit this guy's kid in the eye. They did three operations, but he's still blind in that eye.”
Wickham sipped from his glass, and Audrey said, “That's horrible.”
He gave a somber nod. “It gets worse. The bills were astronomical, but the newspaper that employed the kid didn't pay a penny. Why? Because under the law, that twelve-year-old boy was categorized as âa little merchant'ânot an employee.” He stared at Audrey. “That boy had delivered papers for that company for three yearsânever late, never missed a dayâ and because of what you might call âthe rules,' he could be labeled an independent contractor and the newspaper company didn't have to pay a penny.”
Audrey saw where this was going. “Look,” she said, “there are good laws and there are bad laws. That law seems really unfair, but the no-cheating rule is pretty straightforward.” She said now what she'd already formulated in her mind. “It's what protects those who do the work from being equaled or exceeded by those who don't.”
Wickham picked up a single chopstick, and for a few seconds used it to draw furrows through his rice. “Here are the facts of the matter,” he said, with his eyes lowered. “My dad's back in South Carolina, and my mom and I are here wondering whether we'll ever hear from him again.” Wickham looked up. “No, I haven't lost my sight in one eye or anything, but, you know, metaphorically, we've all been hit by icy snowballs.” He paused and let his gaze settle on Audrey. “You say the rule keeps those who do the work from getting hurt, but you tell me, who exactly does it hurt that you let me sneak by with a C minus on a physics quiz?”
Audrey studied Wickham's hands. His fingers were flattipped, and strangely intimate to her at that moment, as if she had been used to seeing them covered by gloves. “Nobody,” she said, somewhat startled by the sound of her voice. Then, with more resolve: “Nobody at all.”
He reached across the table and lifted her handâthe very thing, she realized, that she'd been willing him to do. “You have the slenderest fingers,” he said, and his touch, combined with these words, seemed to awaken every part of Audrey's body. For just an instant, she thought her eyelids might actually have fluttered.
Mrs. Wong came to the table to ask how everything was. Wickham sat back and, releasing Audrey's hand, introduced Audrey and then added, “Audrey's shooting for valedictorianism.”
Mrs. Wong nodded and smiled demurely.
Wickham smiled up at the woman and asked, “When did you know Mr. Wong was Mr. Right?”
Calmly Mrs. Wong said, “First time I see him.”
“I'm not the first one to ask that question, am I?”
Mrs. Wong smiled and blinked slowly. “No,” she replied, and discreetly left them the bill, which Wickham took care of merely by signing his name. (This was just one more of his mysteries, as far as Audrey was concerned, right along with his serious talks with African cabdrivers. Normally these things would have bothered Audrey, but she felt so overcome by Wickham's handsome face, body, and wry, easy manner that every time her instincts flared up and warned her that she didn't know him very well, she casually snuffed them out.)
Wickham had gotten a ride to the restaurant, so after he signed the check, they drove around in Audrey's Lincoln, which Wickham found amusing. (“My dorm room at Leighton Hall was smaller than this,” he said.) They stopped by the Old Town Pharmacy to pick up a prescription his doctor had called in for him (“Imitrex,” he told Audrey, “for migraines”), and then they drove along River Road, talking and listening to
which for a month now had been stuck in Audrey's cassette player.
“So let me get this straight,” Wickham said. “The girl is named Yum-Yum, and the guy is Nanki-Poo?”
“Right,” Audrey said.
“And they live in Titipu?”
“Right,” Audrey said, laughing.
“Well,” Wickham drawled, “I just hope I don't have dreams about this.”
Two hours streamed past. When Audrey finally pulled up in front of Wickham's house, a trim, two-story brick house in one of Jemison's old, upscale sections, she turned to look at him. Without any hesitation or awkwardness whatsoever, he leaned close and kissed her. His lips were soft and moist and smelled sweetly of sugar, and when he pulled away, she wished he hadn't. It was her first kiss, it was a perfect kiss, and she didn't want it to be over.
He got out of the car and came around to her window. “You know what this is, don't you?” he said.
He gave her his easy grin. “The beginning.”
And then Wickham Hill walked into the house.
Audrey couldn't sleep that night. Every time she closed her eyes, thoughts of Wickham Hill came swimming into her mind and could only be stopped by opening her eyes. She got up, did some homework, wrote
This is the beginning
in her green notebook, stared out the window, went back to bed, and still couldn't sleep.
At 1:15, she heard her father come home, but instead of him tramping slowly upstairs, the way he usually did, Audrey heard the refrigerator door open and close, then the scraping of a chair, then silence. When Audrey put on her robe and went down, no lights were on, and it took her a moment or two to spot her father sitting motionless in the dark dining room.
“You okay, Dad?” Audrey said.
She could make out his dark profile shifting, his face turning toward her. “Oh, hi, Polliwog. Did I wake you? I was trying to be quiet.”
“I was already awake,” Audrey said.
“Yeah,” Audrey said. It seemed simpler than the truth.
“Worrying?” her father said.
This was a surprising question, not the kind of question her father ever asked. “No,” she said, “not really.”
“Because you shouldn't worry,” her father said, in a voice so low it was almost as if he were speaking to himself. “You'll get plenty of chances for that later on.”
A few seconds passed; then Audrey said, “Dad?”
She wasn't sure what she wanted to say, but she didn't like this, standing here in the dark hearing her father ask strange questions and say gloomy things in a quiet voice. “Why can't we turn on the lights?” she said.
This brought her father to life. “What do you mean?” he said. “Has the electricity been turned off?”
This was weirder than anything preceding it. “No,” Audrey said, “I meant, do we have to talk in the dark?”
“Oh,” her father said, sitting back. “Sure. A little light would be fine.”
But when Audrey flipped on the lights, her father visored his hand over his eyes, as if shielding himself from harsh sun. The skin under his eyes sagged in heavy, waxy folds. Beside him on the table was a can of Milwaukee's Best. He was wearing the same worn suit he'd been wearing the last time she saw him.
She said, “So you sold your good car. The one you said was for sunny days.”
He nodded, and didn't even ask her how she knew. “Now what will you do on sunny days?”
He'd turned away from her now. “Walk,” he said.
Audrey thought he might explain why he'd sold the car, but he said nothing, and the silence had a heaviness to it.
“Is everything okay, Dad?”
“Everything's fine,” he said quickly, and made a grimacing kind of smile. “Just a long day at the office.” Another second or two passed, and then he slowly stood up. “Let's hit the hay and dream sweet dreams,” he said.
Audrey did finally sleep, but she didn't dream at all that she could remember, and when she awoke early and glanced out the window, her father's everyday car was already goneâ which would have depressed her more if she hadn't at that moment remembered that the night before, Wickham Hill had leaned across the broad front seat of the Lincoln and closed his eyes and kissed her.
“He did?” Lea said in a voice soft with wonderment, and Audrey nodded.
“Nuptials on Sunday,” C.C. said.
The girls were back on the knoll today, eating with their collars turned up. Lea and C.C. peppered Audrey with questions, which she answered discreetly, trying not to indicate how completely she was smitten. Finally C.C. summed it up: “Well. Your first kiss, and it came from wickedly handsome Wickham Hill.” She beamed a smile at Audrey. “Not bad.”
Lea frowned. “I'll tell you what bad is. Bad is getting your first kiss from Artie Hall on the squash court.”
Audrey laughed and separated a cluster of currants in her hand. Artie Hall was a math genius who'd gone to the Tate School for a while. At the time of the squash-court kissing, Audrey had actually been envious. At least someone had a crush on Lea, even if he looked like a baffled giraffe.
“What does Wickham Hill drive?” C.C. asked.
Audrey shrugged. “He got a ride to the restaurant, and I drove him home.”
“He got a ride?” C.C. asked. “Like with his mom?”
“I don't know who gave him a ride,” Audrey said. “And I'm not sure I care.”
“He seems like the sort of guy who would have a car,” Lea mused. “Not the sort of guy who gets rides.”
“What difference does it make?” Audrey said.
Lea didn't seem to notice the hint of peevishness in Audrey's voice. “Maybe he left his car behind when he and his mom left South Carolina,” she said.
Audrey thought about this briefly. It didn't make sense to leave a car behind when you moved to a new state, but the truth was, she didn't care if Wickham rode to dates in a bus. She just wanted to look at him, and sit beside him in her car, and have him lean forward to kiss her. This morning, before school, he'd sent an e-mail saying,
Problem. Now I can't eat
you. Pick you up at seven?
Audrey counted the separated currants in her palmâseven.
Seven, seven, seven.
Lea was saying, “I saw that Clyde Mumsford guy in Mrs. Arboneaux's room a little while ago. He was at one of the potter's wheels, making a pot. Or trying to.”
“Really?” C.C. said. “At lunch? Was anyone else in there?”
Lea shook her head. “Just Mrs. Arboneaux.”
Audrey stared off into the distance and tried to imagine Clyde Mumsford throwing pots, but it wasn't easy. Pot-throwing didn't seem like the kind of thing vaguely creepy Clyde Mumsford types did.
“Check it out,” C.C. said, nodding toward the quad, where Theo and his goons swept through like prison guards. Even from here, Audrey could see kids averting their eyes, looking up again only when Theo's group had safely passed.
“Miscreants,” C.C. said. Lea added, “Muckers.” Audrey thought,
and didn't say anything at all.
They put their lunch gear away and collected their books. From the knoll, they all went their separate ways, and when Audrey found herself cutting through the art wing, she slowed to peer into Mrs. Arboneaux's room.
Mrs. Arboneaux wasn't at her desk, but, toward the back of the room, Clyde Mumsford's tall body could be seen bent over the potter's wheel, both hands on a wet clay vase, which, as it twirled, grew taller and taller and thinner and thinner until, finally, it collapsed.
Clyde Mumsford's eyes closed, his head dropped, and the wheel began to coast to a stop. For perhaps three seconds he sat, head down, shoulders slumped, perfectly still. Then he suddenly and roughly scraped the clay together and slammed it to the floor. He stared at the flattened mass for a moment. Just as he began to lift his head, Audrey stepped back from the doorway.