Authors: Amanda Valentino
BY AMANDA VALENTINO
AND PETER SILSBEE
for cornelia and deirdre
whose patience and impatience
i hope are herewith rewarded
The look Amanda gave me was so intense, so searching, I almost couldn't hold her stare. “Because I trust you, Hal.”
She waited a beat, completely comfortable with our staring at each other. Then, the second before I had to look away, she took my hand gently in hers. “I trust you completely, Hal.”
“Well, thanks,” I said. “I appreciate your trusting me, Valentino.” I was half joking, half serious when I added, “But you should probably put me to the test, you know? See if I'm worthy.”
Amanda took off her glasses, leaned her head back against the seat, and smiled what I had come to think of as her Mona Lisa smile. “Oh, I will, Hal Bennett. I will.”
Vice Principal Thornhill's office didn't look like a crime scene. Of course, sitting in the outer office Monday morning and waiting to be questioned by the police, I could only see his door. Maybe inside everything was blood and broken glass and chalk outlines where his body had fallen after he'd been attacked sometime between six P.M. Friday (when his secretary, Mrs. Leong, the last person to speak to him, had said good night) and seven A.M. Saturday (when Mr. Richards had come in to ask him a question about football uniforms and found him lying on the floor of his office, unconscious and bleeding from a blow to the head).
The image of Thornhill lying there hemorrhaging made my stomach turn over, and I looked for something to distract me from whatever was behind his office door. My eyes wandered over to the poster I'd designed as a favor to my art teacher for the upcoming production of
As You Like It
, but as soon as they landed on it, I let them slide pastâI never like looking at my artwork when I'm finished. No matter how cool you are with something you create, the second it's done, all the flaws start rearing their ugly heads.
Seeing the poster reminded me of the day Amanda had dropped her little bomb that she was about to tell the director, Ms. Garner, she was very sorry but she just didn't have time to play Rosalind.
don't get itâwhy'd you try out if you didn't want to take the part?” I had my hands on my knees and was sucking air. Super-macho, I know.
It was early morning, just the slightest dusting of color in the sky, and I'd been for a run in the crisp winter solitude. As I was passing the turnoff to Crab Apple Hill, I came upon Amandaâin the months that we'd been friends I'd gotten used to her showing up where I least expected her to, and now I was only moderately surprised to run into her (sometimes literally) in the strangest places (i.e., in the woods at the crack of dawn in the middle of winter).
She was leaning up against a tree wearing a pale green dress with an honest-to-god daisy chain in her hair. I had just enough time to wonder where she'd gotten daisies in February before she reached up and placed an identical ring of daisies on my head.
“Here. We can pretend they're laurels.” She bit her lower lip and considered me for a long minute. “Though maybe daisies are acceptable given that you're an artist and not a poet.”
“Or given that I'm neither,” I corrected her. Amanda always insisted I was an artistâa great artist. Sometimes I accused her of getting me entered into that national art contest I'd won just so she could win our ongoing argument about whether I had any talent.
“âIf you hear a voice within you say, “You cannot paint,” then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.'”
It was impossible not to smile in the face of her confidence in me, but in our friendship we had a tradition of teasing each other, so I kept up my end of the banter. “Don't you try to impress me with your quotes, Amanda Valentino.”
“Don't you try to convince me with your insecurities, Hal Bennett.”
“Au contraire. CoulÃ©e.”
I shook my headâwe'd pretty much reached the limits of my French before touchÃ©. She smiled at me, her enormous gray-green eyes crinkling at the corners.
“You look like something out of Greek mythology in that.” I gestured to show I meant more than the dress, that I was including the daisy chain and the sandled feet, even the tree she was leaning against.
“I love the Greek gods. Don't you?”
“Umm . . .” It wasn't that I didn't love the Greek gods, I'd just never really thought about it. Zeus. Poseidon. They were cool for sure. But could you love them?
Amanda continued, swinging her arms around as we walked. “They're so human. Those jealous rages. Those desperate disguises.” Stopping, she placed her hands on the sides of her face. “Now you see them.” She covered her eyes with her long, tapered fingers. “Now you don't.”
“You'd better work on that disappearing act before you tell Ms. Garner you're not taking the part of Rosalind. She's going to lose it.”
We started walking again, the slight crunch of our feet on fallen leaves the only sound in the early morning quiet.
Amanda inhaled the cold, misty air, held her breath for a second, then exhaled. She finally shivered in the cold. “Don't you think that's exactly the problem with the Ms. Garners of the world? They are always looking for an excuse to go crazy.”
I knew what she meant. I hardly knew Ms. Garnerâour only exchange had been when I'd shown her some preliminary sketches for the As You Like It posters. But even that brief conversation had given me the heebie-jeebiesâthe way she placed her hand on my arm and thanked me so intensely you'd think I'd donated a kidney. Hal Bennett, she'd said, you are a lifesaver. Her eyes had literally welled up, and I found myself patting her shoulder gently, like my sketches were a piece of bad news I had to help her through.
Still, Ms. Garner wasn't any more or less crazy than she'd been when Amanda had auditioned and turned the school upside down by winning a role Heidi Bragg (star of stage, screenâwell, okay, just stageâand queen bee of the ninth grade at Endeavor High) had been guaranteed to land.
I stopped walking and turned to face her. “Why change your mind, Amanda? Why not star in the play?” The truth was I didn't give a rat's behind if Amanda starred in the play or told Ms. Garner to take the part of Rosalind andâwell, I just didn't care.
What I cared about was the feeling I was starting to have, even then, that there was something impermanent about Amanda's being in Orion. In my life. When she'd auditioned for the play, I'd taken it as a promise that she'd be at Endeavor through opening night at least. Her dropping out even before rehearsals began made me afraid the play wasn't the only thing she would be leaving soon. That our friendship had an expiration date.
“Why not star in the play?” she repeated. Then she lifted her chin so we were looking into each other's eyes. “I fear theater just is not my art form of choice, Hal.”
“What's your art form of choice, then?” I'd meant my question to be light, jokey, but it came out as serious as anything I'd ever asked her.
She kept her eyes locked on mine for another beat. “Life,” she answered. She stepped back, away from me. “All the world's a stage, Hal!” A second later, she gathered up the long skirt of her dress and took off, the wood nymph I'd said she looked like. “Race you,” she called over her shoulder.
And even though I was once the star sprinter on the Endeavor track team, she'd gotten enough of a head start that I couldn't catch her.
I shook my head, trying to clear Amanda from my thoughts. I needed to focus. I was about to be interrogated by the police, and given the Ã¼ber-questionable nature of my extra-curricular activities over the past couple of weeks, I'd better have my answers prepared.
It wasn't that there was
reason for me to be sitting here that made me so uneasy. It was that there were too many reasons. Like the fact that a week before Thornhill was found in his office, Callie Leary, Nia Rivera, and I had broken into his office while serving detention, looking for clues as to how he was so positive Amanda Valentino vandalized his car and framed us for it. Or how about our breaking into his car
he was found, when the three of us decided we absolutely had to know if Amanda had left him the note Callie and I thought we'd seen in his car. (She had.)
For the first time in my life, I understood why people said that something that was clearly really, really stupid in retrospect had seemed like a good idea at the time. Because what had felt logicalânecessary evenâjust two days ago, seemed pretty dimwitted now that I was sitting and waiting to be questioned by the law.
Just as I was reassuring myself that the fact that I'd been called to the office alone meant nobody on the Orion police force knew about the extra-legal activities Nia and Callie and I had been doing, the door to the main office flew open and Callie stepped in. My heart sank; there was no denying that her arrival was a bad sign. Had we left fingerprints in the car? Traces of our break-in to Thornhill's office?
Still I couldn't
be happy to see Callie. She smiled at me and made her way over to the empty chair next to mine. As she crossed the office, she pushed her red hair back from her face, and I noticed it was curly again, like it had been the summer before sixth grade, when we'd been friends and hung out fishing and rock climbing and discovering secret caves in the woods. All that was back before she'd become an I-Girlâone of the coven of girls, led by Heidi, that ran the ninth grade. I wondered if her having curly hair instead of blown- out perfection had something to do with her
being friends with Heidi Bragg and company anymore or if it was just a temporary change. Either way, there was no denying how pretty Callie looked.
“Hey,” I said as she slid into the seat next to mine.
“Hey,” she said. Our voices were low even though Mrs. Leong wasn't sitting at her nearby desk giving us her usual evil eye.
Letting her bag slide to the floor, Callie asked, “This is probably a bad sign, isn't it?”
“What, you mean our having committed a couple of break-ins together and now being hauled in by the police?” I bent down and pretended to tie my shoe in case the other secretary who sat across the office was watching us. “Please,” I whispered, my eyes on the shoelaces I had to untie to retie. “We're criminal masterminds. Look, they didn't even figure out Nia's with us.”
“Um, yeah, about that . . .” When Callie didn't finish her sentence, I sat up and looked at her, and she gestured with her eyes at the office door. I turned to see what she was looking at and found myself staring at Nia through the window, her hand about to open the door. When she saw me and Callie, her eyes widened, but she came over to us without saying anything.
If Callie looked pretty, Nia looked . . . Nia looked like a cutting-edge fashion model. She was wearing a short, tight black jacket that puffed out a little at the waist and these really rad cropped pants. The heels of her men's oxfords clicked on the linoleum floor as she crossed it. Her 1950s-style glasses set off her huge brown eyes. Like I said, I don't normally notice much about girls' wardrobes, but in the past few months, Nia had gone from super-baggy-jeans girl to super-hipster girl.
There was no way to
Nia sat down next to Callie, crossed her legs, and mimed taking a drag on an invisible cigarette. Then, cool as a cucumber, she declared, “Well, fancy meeting you here.”
The secretary across the room stood up and disappeared into a small alcove near her desk. A second later, we heard the sound of a fax machine being dialed.
“Um, is this the part where we get our stories straight?” asked Callie.
Nia arched her eyebrow. “Which story in particular? The one about why we broke into his car or the one about how we have a key to his office?”
I, for one, had forgotten about the key.
“You know,” Callie continued, undaunted. “Like, where were you on Friday night between the hours of six P.M. and seven A.M.?”
“âOut searching for Amanda Valentino' probably isn't the alibi that's going to make us sound especially innocent,” Nia answered.
“Or sane.” I remembered our fruitless search for Amanda, how we'd traveled from one end of Orion to the other without finding anything except for evidence that we weren't the only people searching for her and a trail of clues she'd left for us that seemed to say simply: Keep looking.
Just then a door opened to our right and, as if they were strung together, we swung our heads in unison toward the sound. But it wasn't the door to Thornhill's office that had opened; it was the door
to his office doorâa door I'd always just assumed led to a closet. As it swung shut, and Mrs. Leong exited, I got a glimpse of a table and a couple of chairs. I wondered if the room she'd been in had a door connecting it to Thornhill's office, and as I did, I was overwhelmed by a sudden thought so powerful it was almost a physical sensation:
I needed to get into Thornhill's office.
Every once in a while I get a feeling about somethingâa . . . well, a sense, I guess you could call it. And when I get that feeling, I'm never wrong. It's how I figured out that Amanda's graffiti on the car wasn't just graffiti, it was a message; how I knew the attack on Thornhill wasn't just a random irate parent, it was connected to Amanda.
I'm trying to avoid the word psychic here.
Mrs. Leong walked past us and out into the hallway, her face streaked with tears.
Should I tell Callie and Nia what I was thinking, ask them for help? Maybe it was better if they didn't know. Just as I decided to wait until one of the girls was pulled in for questioning, then dash into Thornhill's office without involving them at all, the fax-sending secretary came out of the alcove and crossed over to sit directly next to Thornhill's office door.
So much for Plan A.
As she picked up a ringing phone, I turned to face the girls, my voice low and urgent. “This might sound crazy, but I need to get into Thornhill's office.”
Nia raised her eyebrows. “And it's dÃ©jÃ vu all over again.”
“Hal . . .” Callie's face wrinkled with concern. “Don't you thinkâ”
My eyes were back on the door to the little room, and as I watched, the knob began to turn from the inside. There wasn't much time.
“I can't explain it,” I said quickly. “I just need a few minutes alone in there, okay? Can you create some kind ofâ” The door began to open.
“Henry Bennett?” An Orion cop who looked so much like a policeman it was as if he were auditioning for the pilot for
appeared in the open doorway. He was enormous, maybe six five or six six, his uniform crisp and tan, his hair clipped like he was about to ship out with the marines for points unknown.