Authors: Carrie S. Masek
Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy
Hard Shell Word Factory
Copyright ©1999 Carrie S. Masek
May 1999 Hard Shell Word Factory
To Cynthia and Nanette, the best critique partners around, everyone in Nancy Grossman's writers group, and Ted, who read an early draft of the book and ran it by his students, Chi-hunt Wong and Chris Cruz: Thank you for getting me out of the yard and into the alley.
To my children: Thank you for your patience and laughter. A special thanks to Catie for reminding me what it's like to grow from a girl into a young woman.
To my parents: Thank you for reading all my stories and liking them—even when they take too long to get started.
And especially to Paul: Thank you for everything.
HE HAD TO find her.
Stepping out of the alley, he lifted his head and sniffed the breeze. Her fragrance stroked the back of his mind, sweet and elusive, the scent he'd waited a lifetime for. It beckoned from the other side of the University of Chicago's Midway Plaisance, from near his new home.
His heart started to pound. The breeze could shift. She could disappear into a house or car. He could lose her among the million aromas filling the night.
He leapt across the moonlit street and past the oaks lining the boulevard's parkway. She was close; he could feel it. He could taste her scent on his tongue now, almost hear her voice, almost picture her in his mind.
Galloping across the broad lawn that had once been a waterway, he ran down its moon-streaked slope and across the flat, grassy bottom. Up the other side, toward the second line of trees. The stone towers of the University of Chicago rose above the leafy branches, and their chimes drifted over the campus, ringing the half hour.
A quarter mile, no more, separated them.
The chimes faded. The buildings vanished. There was only her scent, the ground beneath his feet, and the shrinking distance between them. He raced beneath the trees, blind and deaf to his surroundings, until a blow knocked him to the ground.
Pain ripped his shoulder. A dog. He felt his lips draw back from his teeth, felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. He rolled over, trying to free himself. The dog growled and bit deeper. Reaching around to tear the creature away, he felt its teeth scrape bone, its jaws lock. The corner of his mind that could still think realized the dog must be a pit bull. Nothing else clung so stubbornly.
Rolling to his feet, he threw himself against a tree, hoping to crush the dog between his back and the rough bark. Agony blazed through him; the grip on his shoulder loosened. He slammed into the trunk again and again until his attacker dropped, broken, to the ground.
Ignoring his throbbing shoulder, he rolled the dog to the curb. Let cars be blamed for its injuries.
The scent! He raised his head and desperately searched the night air. She was gone. He chased the breeze that had carried her fragrance, but he couldn't find her.
Disconsolate, he headed home. Grief filled his throat and weighted his steps. In less than an hour, he'd found the love of his life. And lost her.
Startled, Lynda Malone missed a simple rebound. Panting in the late August heat, she scooped up the basketball before it rolled into the nearby playground and looked up to see a tall young man trotting down Kenwood Avenue toward her.
He wore a tan polo shirt, faded cutoffs, and enormous high-topped sneakers. Bowed legs made him look like he was shuffling, but the clumsy gait ate up the yards. Before Lynda had a chance to wonder if he'd been calling to her or to one of the elementary school kids, he ran onto the basketball court.
She quickly changed her mind about his size. This guy wasn't just tall, he was huge. At nearly six feet tall, Lynda was used to looking boys straight in the face, but she realized she'd have to crane her neck to meet this one's gaze. She tucked a damp lock behind her ear and studied him warily. He had a broad, suntanned face, thin nose, and thick, wire-rimmed glasses. Behind the lenses, blue eyes glowed with obvious recognition. He skidded to a stop in front of her.
The hair on the back of Lynda's neck quivered at the waves of animal energy that lapped around him. He'd stopped so close she could smell the afternoon sun in his hair and the sharp scent of deodorant soap. She stepped back without thinking. “Do I know you?”
A shy smile tipped the corners of his mouth. “No, I'm new here. My name's Greg Ursek.” His voice was soft and deep, like a tiger's purr.
Lynda felt herself relax. He might be big, but he was just another kid, probably starting school tomorrow, like her. Greg seemed a little old to be in high school, though. A junior at sixteen, Lynda guessed he was a couple of years older than she was.
Maybe he was a college student who'd seen her practicing and wanted to join in. She held out the basketball. “I'm Lynda Malone. Want to shoot?”
The smile exploded across his face. He had a gorgeous smile. It lit his face and made his eyes blaze like gas flames.
She was so engrossed by the transformation, she al-most didn't hear his response. “Lynda,” he whispered, as if tasting her name. He dropped his gaze to the ball in her hands. “No thanks. I'm not much for sports.”
“Too bad,” Lynda said, noting the way his shirt strained across his chest. She bounced the ball once against the newly resurfaced court, “What's up?”
“I'm looking for the admissions office for the University of Chicago Laboratory High School—I'm supposed to pick up my schedule today. On the map, the school looks like it's on Kenwood Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets. I thought that was here, but—” He shrugged and pointed at the little kids running around the playground. “—I don't think I'd fit in their desks.”
Lynda giggled. “You've got the right place. The high school entrance is around on 59th Street.” She studied his eyes while she gave directions to the office. The smile had warmed them, but something—loneliness? longing?—floated like an iceberg just below the surface. She wondered what it would take to melt it.
When she finished giving directions, he smiled again. “Thanks.”
Lynda just stared—he really did have a remarkable smile. Greg stared back.
They stood that way, not moving, not speaking, until the chimes from Rockefeller Chapel rang the quarter hour. Lynda blinked and took a step back. “You should probably hurry,” she said, strangely breathless. “The office closes at 3:30.”
Lynda whirled at the sound of her name. Her best friend, Ellen, stood near the corner of the ivy-clad building. Looking cool as always, she wore white shorts and a yellow midriff top that echoed the color of her hair. Sticking a manila envelope under one arm, she trotted toward them.
Lynda watched her approach with affectionate envy. Although agile enough on the basketball court, Lynda always felt clumsy around her friend. Maybe it was the difference in their heights; the top of Ellen's head barely reached Lynda's shoulder. Or maybe it was her grace. Ellen was the star ballerina in Ms. Cavelini's dance class and her dancer's training showed with every step she took.
Lynda blotted her forehead with one of her terry wristbands. “Waited until the last minute to pick up your schedule again, didn't you?”
Ellen patted the envelope under her arm and grinned. Then she looked past Lynda and her grin turned into a full-fledged leer. “Hello,” she said, stretching out the word.
The boy with the smile blinked and glanced over his shoulder as if looking for the person she was talking to.
Mark down another conquest for Ellen. Lynda some-times felt like the invisible girl next to her best friend. She thought about the faded T-shirt and baggy gym shorts she wore and sighed. With her dark, stringy hair and complete lack of fashion sense, she knew she couldn't compete with Ellen. Good thing she didn't want to. Just thinking about the time Ellen wasted on boys made Lynda glad she didn't have to mess with them.
Greg said, “Hi,” to the top of Ellen's head and went back to staring at Lynda.
What was going on here? Lynda wondered. Ellen usually commanded a boy's full attention.
Maybe he liked baggy gym shorts. The idea made a tingle deep in her stomach that spread into a grin.
Ellen slapped Lynda's arm with her class schedule. “Come on, already, introduce us.”
Lynda stepped from between them. “Ellen, I'd like you to meet, Greg Ursek.”
He didn't even glance at Ellen.
The hot, sticky air caught in her throat, and Lynda had to swallow before she said, “Greg, this is my best friend, Ellen Lukowski.”
Ellen glided past Lynda, into the line of his gaze, and Lynda caught a whiff of her perfume, vanilla and rose. Ellen even smelled cool. “I haven't seen you around here before. Where you from?”
Greg looked over her head and addressed his answer to Lynda. “California. My dad's here on a year's sabbatical.”
A trickle of sweat caught in Lynda's bra, and she wished he'd look away for a second so she could loosen her sticky T-shirt. Ellen stepped closer to him and craned her neck as if she was trying to catch his gaze. “I've always wanted to go to California.”
Lynda wondered if Ellen batted her eyes at him. She had large, solemn eyes, the kind poster children are famous for. Gray and expressive, they were much more affecting than Lynda's plain blue ones.
Greg shrugged. When he didn't say anything else, Ellen sighed and turned to Lynda. “Are you the one who called the Animal Protection Society about that dog?”
For the first time since she glided up, Ellen had Greg's attention. “Dog? What dog?”
Lynda would have wondered at the tremor in his voice if she hadn't been so eager to hear the answer, and if the mention of her favorite obsession hadn't already driven every other thought from her mind. “Yeah, what dog?”
Ellen pushed her hair off her face and preened a bit, like she always did when she was the center of attention. “I saw it on the Midway. Mom dropped me off here on the way to work and didn't have time to stop, but I saw the APS van loading a dog into the back while we drove past. I thought you might have called them—the dog looked pretty banged up.”
A surge of anger and pity swept over Lynda. Many of her fellow volunteers worked at the Animal Protection Society's shelter because it would look good on their application for veterinary school. Lynda wanted to be a vet, too, but she'd started helping out at the shelter when she was too young to think about vet school, too young do much more than play with the abandoned puppies. She thought about the injured animals she'd seen in the clinic and felt her hands close into fists. She'd never understand how people could be so careless with another creature's life. Taking a deep breath, she forced her hands open. “I didn't walk by the Midway today, but I think I'll head over to the shelter and see what happened. Want to come?”
“No, thanks,” Ellen said. “I've got to get ready for school tomorrow.”
Lynda turned to Greg. The warmth had fled his eyes, and his expression seemed wooden, shuttered. He swallowed and shook his head. “I better pick up my schedule. See you around.” Before Lynda could say good-bye, he ran past the two girls and disappeared around the corner of the school building.
THE CHICAGO Animal Protection Society chose the corner of 50th Street and Ellis for its south-side facility over twenty years ago because buildings were cheap and the neighborhood improving. After decades of urban renewal, the buildings around the large, modern facility were still cheap, but the neighborhood had a long way to go.
Uncomfortable with the idea of Lynda walking alone in that part of town, her parents had asked her to drive whenever possible. After saying good-bye to Ellen, Lynda ran home, showered and changed. Her mother's Audi was in the garage, so Lynda borrowed the keys and drove it to the animal shelter.
It was nearly 5:30 P.M. by the time she parked in the adjoining lot. She strode through the automated double doors into a wall of over-chilled air and the thick odor of cat urine, dogs, and antiseptic. Lynda smiled. Most of the volunteers complained about the smell, but she kind of liked it.
Turning right, away from the public area, she pushed through a door labeled, “Staff Only,” and followed the linoleum hallway to the veterinarians’ offices. She knocked at the first door, then opened it and peeked in.
Carlotta Lopez routinely arrived at the shelter early and left late. Lynda often caught her napping at her desk. Today, however, the room was empty.
Lynda closed the door and continued down the hall to the laboratory. She found Dr. Lopez perched on a stool, eye pressed against a microscope.
The veterinarian looked up. “Lynda, I wasn't expecting you until Friday.” Traces of her native Spanish softened her words.