Authors: Carrie S. Masek
Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy
“Looking like an overage tomboy instead of the lovely girl you really are. You haven't even combed your hair.”
“I forgot,” she admitted. Her watch beeped, announcing it was time to leave. Eyeing the last piece of bacon, Lynda shoved the toast into her mouth and stood. “I'll brush my hair real fast, then I have to go.”
“Don't forget your lunch; I left it on the mail table. And brush your teeth!” her mother called after her.
A moment later, Lynda ran back in, hair brushed into a ponytail, backpack thrown over her shoulder.
“Good-bye, Lynda. I might not be home until late. Please clean up the breakfast things when you get home and put the casserole in the oven at six.”
Lynda gave her mother a perfunctory hug before running out the door.
AFTER RUNNING late the whole day, Lynda finally dumped her backpack in her locker and ran across the courtyard to the school auditorium. As she ran up the stairs, a mob of children burst out of the auditorium's double doors. They looked about eight years old, and Lynda guessed that Mrs. Morrison's third grade class had been rehearsing its Columbus Day presentation.
She waited for the stragglers to leave before walking in.
“Lynda,” a voice rumbled behind her.
Her stomach fluttered; she'd hoped Greg had forgotten about the audition. Cursing the impulse that had led Ellen to tell him about it in the first place, Lynda turned and forced a smile. “Hi.”
“Have you met Matt Hughes?” He indicated the boy beside him.
Lynda's smile brightened. “No. Hi, I'm Lynda Ma-lone.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said, staring at the floor. Matt was shorter than Lynda and about ten pounds heavier. His hair hovered between blond and brown; his blue eyes looked bleached. He had a nice mouth, though pudginess softened his jaw.
“Matt's in my Civics class,” Greg said. “He's new here, too.”
“Really? Where you from?”
He broke into a shy smile. “Boston. Can't you tell? I announce my hometown every time I open my mouth.”
“Matt's a little self-conscious about his accent,” Greg added.
“Why? I think it's cute.”
Matt's face turned a mottled red.
After a prolonged silence, Lynda asked Matt, “Are you here for the audition?”
He shrugged. “I guess so. When is it?”
“Right now.” Wondering if he'd have the nerve to get on stage, Lynda pushed the door open and strode through the lobby into the dimly lit hall. Greg and Matt followed.
The house lights were on, but the cavernous auditorium absorbed their radiance before it reached the red velvet seats. The air smelled thick with dust and age. Just before Lynda reached the front row, a wedge of light brightened the carpet in front of the stage and a short, gray-haired woman entered from the side along with several students.
“Miss Mendelson.” Lynda waved and broke into a trot.
“What? Oh Lynda, I'm glad you're here; we're doing a mystery this fall. Where'd I put that script? Never mind, here it is. You should try reading for the best friend, Mavis McNalley. It'll give you a chance to do a Scottish accent.” The drama coach's voice was deep and gravely, the result of decades of cigarette smoke. She squinted and stared over Lynda's shoulder. “Who's that?”
Lynda turned and saw Greg and Matt walk up behind her. “Greg Ursek and Matt Hughes. They're both new this year. Guys, this is Miss Mendelson.”
Lynda could almost see the casting possibilities flash through Miss Mendelson's mind. “Here for the audition?”
“I am,” Matt said.
Greg shrugged. “Dad's nervous about living in a big city and doesn't want me out after dark. I can only be in the show if the rehearsals and performances are during the day.”
Miss Mendelson frowned. “Most rehearsals are after school, but the dress rehearsals and two of the three performances are in the evening.”
She turned to the waiting students, and the auditorium filled with her rough voice. “Okay people! You're here to audition, not flirt with each other. Excerpts from the script are on stage. Take one and sign the sheet beside them. I'll call you up in groups, and we'll run through the scene a few times.”
The would-be actors filed to the front of the auditorium and collected their scripts. Greg took a seat and watched.
“WHAT DID you think?” Ellen asked Greg when she and Lynda joined him after the audition. Ellen had read for the lead, a woman who fears her boyfriend is trying to kill her. Tears still glistened in the corners of her eyes.
“You were great.” Greg stared at Lynda while he held the door open and they filed out of the auditorium. “I wish I could be in the show.”
“It's too bad about your dad,” Lynda began.
“Oh, You can still help with the sets and stuff. There's always a million things to do.” Ellen looked around. “Where's that guy you were with?”
“Matt cut out a few minutes ago. Said something about having to get his homework done.”
Ellen scuffed the ground with her platform heels. “Nuts. I was hoping you'd introduce us.”
“Introduce you to who?”
Lynda turned and saw Richard Hammer saunter toward them. Nearly as tall as Greg, but slender and more supple in his movements, Richard was a senior and resident heart-throb of the drama club.
Lynda glanced at Ellen and saw her friend's smile stiffen. Last year, Richard and Ellen had been an item when they starred together in the Spring musical. The relationship had lasted until the closing night party. The following Monday, Ellen had startled her friends by announcing she was tired of Richard and wasn't seeing him anymore.
Even before Richard put his arm around Ellen, it occurred to Lynda that he didn't seem tired of her. Ellen jerked away from him and stepped closer to Greg.
“Should be a good show,” Richard continued, ignoring her reaction. “You'll make a lovely damsel in distress. Lynda will be reliable as always as your best friend, and I'll make a charmingly nasty villain.”
Ellen pretended to gag.
“What makes you think you'll get the part of Nigel?” Lynda asked.
Richard grinned. “I know Mendelson. She'll hold auditions tomorrow, but she's already cast the main parts. She won't be able to resist casting me against type.” His killer smile bounced off Ellen's scowl. Eyes narrowed, Richard glanced from Ellen to Greg and back again. “Who's your friend?”
“He's my lab partner.” Lynda stressed the last two words, not wanting anyone to misunderstand their relation-ship. “Greg Ursek. Greg, this is Richard Hammer.”
The two boys nodded to each other.
“Greg's going to help with technical stuff and maybe tryout for a part next semester,” Ellen added.
“So he's not in the play.” The smug tone in Richard's voice made Lynda want to kick him. Not that she cared about Greg, she assured herself, she just couldn't stand Richard's superior attitude.
“I'll be around for the rehearsals, though,” Greg said, his smile just missing his eyes.
Greg's voice sounded calm, almost friendly, and Lynda wondered if she only imagined the warning in it.
THE WAXING moon silvered the rooftops and drew inky shadows behind the trash cans and dumpsters of the ghetto alleyways.
Ambling along the broken pavement, he basked in the scents that lingered there. The acrid tang of a tom cat. The rancid scent of rodents in the garbage. The noisy reek of the automobile. He lifted his face and searched the humid breeze. Spices. Perfumes. The aroma of deep fat and baby back ribs mixed with the stench of poverty and hopelessness.
A string of open garbage cans beckoned him, and he rose and peered into the closest one. The remains of a Labor Day barbecue lay strewn over black plastic bags and cardboard cartons. His stomach rumbled, and he leaned closer, resting his weight against the thin, metal edge. The garbage can tipped, and crashed on its side.
A second floor porch light flared. A door creaked. White hair, rough as steel wool, caught the moonlight above a small, dark face. A high, quavery voice rang across the alley. “Zachary!”
Heart racing, he drew back toward the shadow of a nearby stairwell. The old woman squinted and leaned forward. “Blasted dogs got the garbage again.”
The face disappeared. Snorting with relief, he spun and raced home.
THE TUESDAY after Labor Day, Greg gathered his biology notes and stuffed them into his backpack. He lifted Lynda's bag along with his own and headed out of the classroom.
She jumped off her stool and ran after him. “Hey, give that back!”
Stopping by the outside door, he held it open for her. His eyes crinkled hopefully. “How about lunch together? It gets lonely eating alone.”
Lynda sighed. When Greg looked at her like that, he reminded her of a lost puppy. Telling herself it wouldn't hurt to get to know him, she looked out at the early September sunshine. Her gaze lingered over the students lounging on the grass and littering the steps. “In the back. It's too crowded out here.”
She led Greg around the building to a group of benches near the cafeteria. Someone had propped the kitchen door open, and the smell of hot grease and onions hung in the air.
“Where is everyone?” he asked, setting the backpacks down on the nearest bench.
“Out front.” Lynda grinned and pointed to the oak branches overhead. “Most people want to sit in the sun. They come back here in the spring, when the leaves are small.”
Lynda and Greg sat on the bench. He unwrapped a sandwich, and she took out an apple. She'd taken her first bite when a high-pitched cry caught her attention. It sound-ed like a baby, but when she turned, Lynda saw a thin, tabby-striped cat slink around the kitchen door.
Lynda stood and eased toward the building. The cat froze. Crouching ten feet away, Lynda extended her hand. “Here kitty, kitty.”
The cat's ears flattened; its tail flicked. Lynda watched its shoulders bunch as it prepared to run. She started to back away when the cat's tail suddenly stilled and its ears rotated forward. Lynda glanced up and saw Greg crouched beside her.
He held out a corner of his sandwich, tuna fish by the smell. “Crrouw,” he said, his voice rising to a surprisingly high note.
The cat took a timid step forward. Lynda held her breath while it paused, then ran up to Greg and nibbled the crust.
“There's a good puss.” Greg took a finger and stroked the cat between its ears. Without stopping its meal, the cat closed its eyes and started to purr.
“That's amazing,” Lynda said. “Most of the feral cats around here won't let anyone near them.” Extending her hand, she slowly ran it over the cat's back. She ached at how thin the coat felt, how every vertebra jutted like a knob under the fur.
Greg tore off another piece of sandwich and handed it to the cat. She accepted the tidbit daintily, then let him scoop her into his lap. “Momma Cat's hungry.”
Lynda took a closer look and saw the swollen teats on the cat's abdomen. Clearly, the cat had recently had kittens. Impressed that Greg had noticed, she watched him give the cat another bite. “Think she'd like some yogurt?” she asked, glancing at her backpack.
“Sure, but she'll run if you get up.”
Lynda looked at the cat draped over Greg's thigh, and wondered how he knew. She didn't get up, though. Instead, she ran her finger along the cat's scabby jaw. “She's got fleas.”
“Yeah, and worms, too. You're in bad shape, aren't you, Momma Cat.”
Lynda glanced at Greg. The sadness in his voice surprised her. “I thought you didn't like animals.”
He blinked and met her gaze. “Why?”
The cat butted his hand, demanding his attention. Greg smiled and handed her the rest of his sandwich.
“When I talked to you last week about the dog, you seemed ... I don't know, almost hostile.”
Greg sighed. “I explained that.” He lifted the cat gently off his lap, and she trotted off, holding the last bite of sandwich in her mouth. “I was running late and didn't have time to talk. I'm sorry I sounded angry. I wasn't—at least not at you.”
Lynda sat back on her heels. “But you were angry.”
Greg watched the cat disappear around the corner of the building. “At the fools who let their dogs run loose, who throw little cats out on the street and expect them to take care of themselves.” He turned back to Lynda and added, “Sometimes I think it's the owners who should be licensed, not the animals.”
“Me, too,” Lynda said, stunned to hear him spout one of her pet peeves.
They stood and walked back to the bench. Lynda had nearly finished her lunch when the bell rang. She scooped her remaining yogurt onto the grass for the cats, threw the container away, and ran with Greg to the cafeteria door. He held it for her, and Lynda jogged past him into the cafeteria.
In contrast to the rest of the school, the cafeteria was a study in modern sterility. White plastic tables surrounded by folding chairs dotted the room. The floor was beige linoleum, the walls laboratory green. Greasy steam wafted in from the open kitchen doors. Between the clank of dishes and the shrieks of the younger students, the noise was deafening.
Without slowing, she turned her head to ask Greg what he was doing after school and barreled into Richard Hammer.
“Lynda,” Richard said, taking a step back.
Richard shrugged. “Do you know if Mendelson has posted the cast list yet?”
“It's on the auditorium bulletin board. I'm Mavis, and you got the part of Nigel.”
Richard flashed his smile. “All right! Ellen and I will be great together.”
Lynda shook her head. “Ellen's not in the cast. She's going to be Assistant Director. Miss Mendelson cast some-one named Keisha Jones.” At Richard's puzzled look, she added, “I haven't met her yet.”
Greg walked up behind them. “I have. She's in my creative writing class. You saw her at the auditions, Lynda, a tall black girl with corn-rowed hair.”
A deep line formed between Richard's eyebrows. “Black? Isn't she supposed to be Nigel's girlfriend?”
Startled by the outrage in his voice, Lynda said, “I think so. Why?”
Richard shook his head. “Nothing. See you later.” Without apparently noticing Greg, he left.