Chapter 13

Luke's white Beetle drove up to her driveway and honked. She glanced out the window, appalled at his manners. How dare you honk! she fumed silently.

She grabbed her backpack and walked out the door, her clothing simple and dark, opened the door, threw her backpack in the cramped backseat, then sat in the seat, a faded blue.

"Talking to me yet?" Luke asked, his face hopefully and childlike.

"I don't know," she said, peering out the window to watch the scenery pass on the ride to school. "I don't feel like talking to anyone right now."

"Hmm." He came to a rough stop, roared around the right hand curve, then slammed the brakes to left turn across the busy road. She hated the way he drove, like a total jerk. Show off. He tailgated, wove, and sped faster than fiends from hell. It was a miracle he hadn't gotten in an accident yet--serious that is; he did get into a fender bender right after he got his license.

Luke felt rather uncomfortable in the silence. Usually they would talk quietly about something, but she was still giving him the cold shoulder. Better than a tongue lashing, though. I don't know, this indifference is bad, it's like I'm not here, he thought as he right turned onto Mallard, and slammed on the brakes after a driver sauntered into traffic from the corner gas station. "YOU JACKASS!" he screamed, flipping off the other driver.

"Luke, calm down," Julia nagged. The rest of the trip was rather quiet, Luke turned into the student parking lot, taking the speed bumps too fast in a car with not much shock absorption. Good thing I didn't have to use the bathroom, I would have wet myself, she mused. He parked the car, applied the parking brake, and got out. She did likewise, grabbing her bag and flinging it out and over her shoulder, walking away to leave him to lock up the car. She missed the look of quiet despair on his face.

She set her backpack down on the group table, leaning off from the conversation to the opposite end, watching each of the groups with interest and feigning attention to Luke and Cassie's latest scheme. The cheerleaders and jocks flocked like vultures around each other, flirting and gossiping. The girls weren't afraid to hug each other. I wonder how it feels to have friends who truly give a damn. I've always felt like an outsider looking in. Even now. A boy came over and kissed his girl on the lips. How does it feel to be truly in love? I always tried to tell myself I was in love with Luke---but I don't think I am. What is love? I know not no longer. A feeling despair and hopelessness permeated the air she breathed. What if I never find out?

Her attention shifted to the small gathering of the nerds. It was only a designation---they were a motley group of representatives of every spectrum. Goths, skaters, nice boys, even a jock or two. Athletic jock is an oxymoron. Yeah right. The nerd group was the true melting pot. I wish the clique weren't so bad. To be free to associate with anyone regardless of tastes---oh, how I envy!

She let her eyes wander to the goths, donned predominately in black with other neutral colors. Some had black hair, others had it dyed red or other nontraditional color, and some didn't bother. Some of the girls wore their hair real short and some of the boys let their hair grow long and ratty. No one expressed their style the same. How would it feel to be free to express yourself? To be crazy like a 'normal' teenager, not constricted to 'family values' and 'tradition?' How would freedom taste?

She let her eyes wander to the skater group, where Jessie's trademark height stood out. Where Jessie is, Kelsey must be nearby. The skaters were more electic of a group than the goths. Dyed hair was certainly on the order; Julia concluded that Kelsey's hair color wasn't natural but had not a clue what its true shade was. Noisy t-shirts were a favorite, in bold hues and vibrant graphics, logos, and texts. Baggy jeans and cargo pants were all the rage, along with a rad pair of Vans, Airwalk or Sketchers' skate shoes. A good deal also wore baseball caps, either right side or backwards.

She saw the smaller girl at last, lurking on the fringes but happily laughing alongside Jessie. She felt a smile creep upon her face and didn't have the heart to wipe it off. She didn't know what is was about that girl, but she had a contagious charm.

"Julia, we need to talk," Luke growled, snapping her out of her haze.

"About what? I said I didn't feel like talking," she hissed at him, infuriated he brought her out of her dreamlike trance.

Luke's face grew angrier. "Then when the hell will you feel like talking?"

"Don't address me like that," Julia snarled back. "Didn't your mother teach you manners?"

"Get out the big guns, why don't you, Julia?" Cassie interjected.

"You're not in this fight, Cassie, so butt out," Julia hissed, teeth bared at Luke. "Well? Aren't you going to tell me or am I going to have to guess?"

"Why are you so mad at me?"

"I don't like you treating me like your property Luke."

"I don't treat you like property!" an outraged Luke screamed.

"You try to think for me, that's for certain. 'Oh, Sean's a harmless lad.' Yeah, a 'harmless' budding rapist! First it's this, then escalates to that, and I'm not going to tolerate it!"

Audrie put her tiny hands on Julia's shoulders. "Easy, tiger."

Luke knew it was time to admit he was wrong, even if he felt deep inside he wasn't. It was a futile fight, and the nerve-wracking silence between them this morning was too much for him to take. "Okay, I'm sorry." There, you emasculated me. Happy?

"Apology accepted." The bell rang, in time for her not to be around him, since technically, they "made up." Never mind sometime still stuck in the back of her mind, she was without excuse to be around him now.

The bell rang and it was time to walk to class. Jessie and Kelsey both had trigonometry first period, so they walked to class together. "You seem awfully quiet this morning," Jessie mentioned.

"Um?" Kelsey snapped out of her haze. "Yeah, I just don't feel like talking."

"Everything okay?"

Kelsey nodded. "Yeah. I'm just in a weird antisocial mood, don't mind me."

"I won't then," Jessie said, opening the door and letting her smaller companion in. Her eyes kept flickering over to the Fundamentalist Four's table. I have a terrible hunch she has a crush on Tall, Dark, and Beautiful over there. I also have a bad feeling she'd kill me if I knew. She walked in the door, then let the pneumatic spring shut it. It just kills me to see her live in constant fear of being found out.

They walked into American History, grabbing a book on the way to their desks. The tardy bell rang, and the teacher started class.

"Kelsey?" he asked minutes later.


"It's your turn to read."

She felt her face flush---damn those thoughts! All morning she had glanced at Julia when she didn't think she was looking and saw her fighting off both Luke and Cassie. You're around some piranha sharks, kiddo. Thanks to her hopeless crush, she had no clue where she was in the text. She turned to face Jessie, and gave her a pathetic look.

Jessie leaned over and pointed it out. "The Civil War was not about..." she began to recite.

Julia couldn't get her thoughts settled, which was not a good thing considering she had an English test to finish this period. Get your act in gear, she screamed at herself, trying to use willpower to drown out the thoughts. Thoughts of a certain red headed skater that she just couldn't shake. Good grief, you're turning into a stalker! Stop it! She stared at the ceiling for several minutes, letting the abstract nonsense pattern of the tiles lull her out of her thoughts. She lowered her head, put the pencil to the paper, and struggled to finish the math test undistracted.

"Julia, I need to talk to you," Cassie said as soon as the brunch bell rang.

"Um, okay," she replied. From the looks of earlier, this better be good or else.

"Why are you treating your boyfriend like shit?" Cassie said, injecting her nose into what was not her business.

"Because he's acting like a jerk," Julia hastily replied, immediately getting on the defensive.

Cassie crossed her arms. "Really?" she whined sarcastically. "Explain."

"He laughed at me the entire time his friend was stalking me."

"The 'Sean' ordeal?"

Julia nodded. "You missed it---Sean tried to rape me Sunday night."

"That's no excuse to treat Luke like shit because his friend is cross."

"He thinks it's no big deal when it is," Julia retorted.

Cassie gave her taller friend a dirty look. "What has gotten into you, Julia? You were such a sweet girl until we ran into that fag---"

She narrowed her eyes into catlike slits and purred, "Dylan."

Cassie's nose wrinkled. "You even know his name!"

"Yeah? And?" Julia snarled.

"Those heathens are a bad influence on you, Julia. You wouldn't have even dared defy Luke like that until you met them."

"Maybe it's called 'standing up for myself,' Cassie," Julia growled in an even deadlier tone. "I'm not the world's doormat any longer."

Cassie arched a brow. "I don't know what's gotten into you, girl," she said, shaking her head. "Next thing I know you'll go out and commit the seven deadly sins just to rebel."

"Don't say such idiotic things," Julia said in a ridiculing tone. "You know me better than that."

"I don't know," she said, hands on hips, "but you didn't used to address your friends by yelling and screaming at them. What's next, dating girls?"

Luke's ears perked. "Hell no! Cassie, what are you thinking?!" he shouted. "I can defend myself, for crying out loud!!!"

Julia was incensed. "I wouldn't lower myself to that," she growled, a furious passion in her voice. "I'll see you cannibals later," she said, grabbing her backpack as if a panther snagging its prey from the trees and hauling it off to class.

She sat in the back of the bus, quietly musing on the day, the rest of the tennis team asleep. She was their top singles player, with a nasty curving serve, a wicked forearm, and cutting backhand. She could snag the ball from anywhere on the court, scoop it up and smash it back in the opponent's court before they could blink.

Just because she outshined all the other girls on the team didn't mean anyone cared. No one recognized her because of her athletic prowess---no, she was only the handsome wide receiver's girl. That's all that mattered, nothing more. She leaned her head against the cold glass, her knees crammed into the seat ahead, a hand on her lap to make sure the tennis skirt didn't wander too much and prove immodest. Her wrist band was dripped in cold sweat, her visor similarly soaked with the spoils of hard work. She let her eyes unfocus on the landscape as she retreated into her thoughts.

She resented having to have lunch with her boyfriend. It was old, boring, and she secretly wanted to guzzle down the large soda, three tacos and two burritos he bought for lunch, but contented herself with a few bites of a chimichanga that she felt guilty about eating, but she didn't feel like executing her usual routine of atoning for her sin. He kept trying to prod her to talk, but she didn't feel like it and he couldn't make her talk. No one could, for that matter. Not even Kelsey in Student Council. Tomorrow will be more fun, she mused, recalling the fun fair at church that evening. Maybe Luke will go bother his basketball buddies and leave me alone.

It was a daze between the bus ride, waiting for her ride, going home, and crashing into bed. Reality had a tendency to blur like oil paint, until it all was one shade of icky-brown gray, the color of dusty nothingness.


Chapter 14

"Hello, Julia," Audrie greeted her friend at brunch.

"Hello Luke, Cassie, Audrie," the tall dark brunette greeted the group, setting her backpack on the table and perching on their lookout, the grated table towards the west end of the quad.

"Did you hear about Todd?" Luke asked.

"What about Todd?" Julia responded. Todd was the Student Body President of their high school. He was a clean cut senior, conservative in dress verging on prep. Not to say he was conservative--bleeding heart liberal was a better term. Luke didn't like his views and secretly blathered faggot behind his back.

Luke replied, "He came to school drunk as a skunk."

"You're kidding me!" Audrie cried out.

"Nope," Luke said. "He got suspended. And remember Mr. Eldon said our positions were forfeit if we got suspended."

"So who's now the Student Body President?" asked Julia.

"Isn't that the Vice President?" asked Cassie.

"Yeah, I believe so," replied Luke.

Cassie gave them a grave look. "That would be Jessie." She held up her hand, silencing potential interruptions. "And she's in the league of alliance with Natasha."

"Crap. We can't let that happen!" Luke growled. "What are we going to do?"

Cassie arched an eyebrow, a predatory grin crossing her visage. "She is powerless if no one supports her."

"And how would we go about doing that?" Audrie said in a disapproving tone.

"Ruin her reputation," she said, a malicious smile plastered upon her face. "We have nothing to lose in bringing the dynasty of Natasha down!"

Julia gasped in disbelief. "You can't just run around ruining people's reputations just because you have a bone to pick with one of their friends! That's just wicked, Cassie."


Julia crossed her arms, her usual friendly, reserved face downturning into a scowl. "I can't believe you're willing to go to such unethical, immoral, unchristian methods to preserve Christian tradition on this campus!"

Luke crossed his arms, and looked right past her, as if she was insignificant. "You don't know what you're talking about."

Julia's scowl turned feral. "That's right, sell your soul in the hopes that others won't. Something's just rotten with that logic."

Luke arched a blonde brow. "Really? You are right, that is very Machiavellian, which is our exact philosophy concerning this issue. The ends do justify the means."

"That's a load of rubbish," Julia fired off. "And what's this 'we' bit? You and Cassie already had this planned out!"

Audrie interjected, putting her hands on Julia's shoulders and trying to separate their distance. "Easy, tiger."

Julia was by no means finished. "You're conspiring how to screw them all over! Royally and then some! You should be ashamed! And here you are, trying to deride me for being a woman and then you appoint Cassie as your equal! What's up? Huh? Tell me!"

Luke's brows shot up in alarm. "I'd never do such a thing! Julia!" The brunch bell rang, diverting the tension. "Julia, what's gotten into you?"

"Don't you dare start on that," she snarled, shooting a dirty look at Cassie.

Only nine members of the student council were present, for the president had been ousted due to inappropriate behavior. Kelsey mentioned she had a hunch that he might have had a drinking problem prior, for he was always jovial, happy, and easy to get along with. That's how he became president in the first place. An utmost tragedy it was to see happy-go-lucky Todd gone; the revelation made Jessie wonder if they ever really knew the real Todd Wyatt. What drove him to drink? How was he usually like?

Mr. Eldon gravely stood at the podium, none too happy. Not that he could be blamed; he had terrible news to deliver and it pained him to take Todd's position away from him, but rules were rules and couldn't be bent. "Attention, class." The nine students turned to Mr. Eldon. "As some of you may have heard, Todd was suspended earlier today." A few gasps, but it was old news for most. "Taking his position is Vice President Jessica Vilmos. Jessie?" The vice president raised her hand; Mr. Eldon continued. "It is of the most unfortunate nature that this entire incident occurred, but we must move on."

Jessie read the agenda for the day. "This Friday is the first dance of the year after our first home football game. We need a theme for this dance. Suggestions?"

Luke raised his hand. "Hawaiian," he said. Jessie scrawled it in her steno notepad.

Another hand shot up. "Superhero," Natasha said. Jessie scrawled that alongside the Hawaiian them.

"That's lame!" Cassie fired nastily.

"Cassie, sit down and behave," Mr. Eldon growled, ducking back towards his recluse of the podium. He was more of a mediator in this class than actual teacher. Well seasoned, such violent personality conflicts between council members were routine sights to him.

Another hand raised, of one of the other students affiliated neither with the Fundamentalist Four or Rebel Three. "How about a nerd theme?"

Jessie wrote that down. "Any others?" she asked. No hands came up, so she progressed to the next item. "We'll have a vote. Hawaiian?" Three hands went up, and Jessie recorded it. She raised her head in time to see Cassie bare her teeth at Audrie, who just ignored her friend's childish behavior. "Superhero?" Four hands, one of them Audrie's. "Nerd?" The one who suggested the theme stood out for his choice. "Superhero shall be the theme."

"That's so fucking lame!" Cassie growled. "I demand another round of votes."

Jessie looked at Mr. Eldon, who took over. "Those in favor of Hawaiian theme, raise your hands." Only three came up.

Cassie stood up and screamed at everyone, "You can't just lurk, vote!"

"Who said we were lurking?" Kelsey fired back.

"I wasn't talking to you, b--" Audrie hushed her ill-tempered friend.

"Easy, a few words go a long way," Audrie whispered to Cassie.

"Out of my face, traitor!" Cassie fired back, in reference of Audrie's vote. "If you aren't with me, don't even talk to me!"

Mr. Eldon rolled his eyes. In years past he had some nasty disputes and rivalries between students, but this year's volatile mix was the worst he had ever seen. "Cassie, sit here," he said, pointing to the desk next to his podium. The ill-tempered girl sighed, walking to her spot with a pout and defiant walk. He continued his roll. "Superhero theme." Six hands went up. "By a two-to-one margin, it will be the superhero theme."

The bell rang; angry, infuriated eyes yearning for revenge followed Jessie out the door.

"Hey, Julia," her boyfriend greeted.

She set his food down on the table, dropped her backpack, and sat. "What's that?" she asked, pointing to the papers sitting in front of him.

"We're working on a flier," he replied, taking a big bite of his burrito.

"For what?" Julia asked. "Don't tell me this has anything to do with Jessie."

"Oh, no," he said, laughing. "Wanna see?"

She picked up the rough sketch. "Don't let the minority rule the majority. Contact your Student Council Representative today!" She set it down, furrowing her brows. "What's this about?"

"The Rebel Three are totally out of touch with reality," Cassie said. "We'll push the pressure on them to stop being such hard asses."

She fingered through the different sketches. "You better hope this won't backfire, Luke, Cassie," she said. "If you guess wrong we're going to look like the idiots, not them."

Luke, in customary arrogance, laughed. "That won't happen."

"And how do you know that?" Julia defied.

Cassie interjected, "The whole school won't see the fliers. We have some conservative cliques targeted for our campaign."

"Like whom?"

"The jocks, the cheerleaders, the preppies, the..."

"I get the point," Julia said.

"Isn't Cassie a genius?" Luke said, grinning. Julia felt a certain vibe to his words, a vibe that perhaps she was merely a trophy and the woman he truly adored was Cassie, not her. Not that she was jealous, but by Jove! As long as her and Luke were going out, he wasn't going place any other girl above her! Including Cassie!

"Yes, dear," Julia oozed with possessive sarcasm.

Cassie saw someone, for she jumped out, and called out, "Jeremy!" A tall handsome lad turned around. "Jeremy, over here!" she yelled, waving her arms. The tall, scrawny young man walked over to their table. "This is Jeremy Newhall."

The young man smiled at them, a bit embarrassed about being in the spotlight. He had the build of a basketball player: tall, skinny, and covered in sinewy muscle. "Hey, Cassie."

Cassie recognized the uneasiness, and introduced her friends. "This is Audrie, this is Luke and his girlfriend, Julia." The lad nodded at them. "I don't believe any of you are aware that Jeremy is Jessie's ex-boyfriend."

Luke raised an eyebrow. "I didn't." Julia and Audrie merely watched the scene unfold. "How long did you two go out?"

"Four months."

"When?" he asked.

"Last year."

"What caused you two to break up?" Luke asked, trying to find blood.

"We got bored of each other."

Luke raised a brow, then leaned over and whispered to Cassie, "We need to corner him without a questioning audience," he mentioned, implying that the lunchtime hour and the two tagalongs were going to limit the number of skeletons that would come out of the closet. Cassie nodded.

"Hey, Luke, I'll be right back," Cassie said.

Jeremy felt rather uncomfortable after Cassie left. "Um..."

"Hey, do you have to go anywhere after school?" Luke asked.

"No, why?"

"Could Cassie and I talk to you then?"

"Sure, why not?"

"See you then." He departed the table, as Cassie came back with a friend in tow.

"This is my friend Cindy. She lives in the same neighborhood as Jessie."

Luke grinned. Cindy Yates was the school gossip---she ought to know something incriminating about Jessie and her friends. And if not, she could help cook up something damning.

"So, what's up, guys?"

"Nothing much," Audrie said.

Cassie got straight to the point. "You know any dirt about Jessie?"

"Wasn't that her ex that left the table when I came?" Cindy asked.

"Yep," Cassie replied. "Know anything about their breakup?"

"I heard he dumped her because he wanted some and she wouldn't give it to him."

"Good for her," Audrie injected.

"That doesn't work as good slime," Cassie sighed. "But if we reverse the situation---he dumped her because she's too easy and we got gunpowder!"

Luke clapped his hands. "Ingenious!"

Julia watched them with hooded eyes. "Nothing is too low for you guys," she growled at them.

Cindy gave her a weird look. "I thought all of you were in this together."

Cassie rolled her eyes and played the drama queen. "We all were supposed to, but someone had to question the morality of it all," she sighed, inserting fake despair into her voice.

"Ah, I see. Aspiring politicians," Cindy said. "Well, if you play with fire, guys, prepare to be burned."

"Anything else, Cindy?" Cassie asked, annoyed by the reputation. She had a reputation to ruin and couldn't wait to see three years of earnest hard work shrivel under a sick lie.

"Her family is Jewish, but I've heard she's into paganism and black magic..."

Luke snapped his fingers. "Which would imply black masses!"

The shark smelled a kill. "And infant sacrifice---we can really run with this!"

Luke laughed. "I'm sure you could, Cassie, with that imagination of yours."

Cassie grinned. "Slut equals pregnancy. Add black mass and that equals abortion. That will rile the masses!!!!"

Julia placed her head in her hands. This whole conversation has felt like a big betrayal. Why? Why must they lower themselves to this? Jessie never did anything to them. Why the maliciousness? The bell rang; crowds dispersed, her friends left, leaving her sitting alone at the table when the tardy bell rang. Oh great. I'm late for class.

She stood up, alone in the quad save a few frantic kids rushing to class. She couldn't believe her ears. Who could conjure such evil spells? One would expect it to be the work of a wicked witch, but no, it was her "good" Christian friends. Never in her wildest mind could she foresee Cassie turn to such desperate measures, whether it be truly for what she preached, the defense of Christian morals, or if it was only an excuse to spice up a dull existence. Either way, Julia concluded, they were the wrong reasons for such unprovoked malice.

She turned to walk down the hall when she ran into Kelsey. "Oh, sorry," she said, trying to make up for nearly knocking the smaller girl down.

"I shouldn't have been in such a rush," Kelsey replied.

"Kelsey, you better.."

A teacher in the halls caught Julia and handed her detention. She turned around, needing to warn Kelsey, but the skater was nowhere to be seen.

"Darn." She slipped into class quietly, unnoticed. I have to warn them somehow before the dung hits the fan.

Chapter 15

She joined Luke in her compulsory walk to the field house, where he ran into Jeremy Newhall. "Hey, Jeremy, we need to talk."

"Where's Cassie?"

"She couldn't make it."

"Too bad."

Luke got to the point---football practice was going to start very soon. "Did you guys part on good terms?" He made a face that didn't indicate either answer, so Luke prodded further. "Did you break up with her for being frigid?"

He glanced about, then confessed, "Yes."

"Listen, dude---pretend that you broke up with her for being too easy."

"But that's not what happened," Jeremy protested.

You're too honest, boy. "Run with it. Leak it. You don't have to run in the quad screaming 'Jessie's a slut!' Just an offhand comment to a friend or two."

"You trying to stir some shit?"

Luke nodded. "Yeah."

"Go for it," he said, a slight grin coming to his face.

"Later," Luke said to Julia, going into the fieldhouse with Jeremy. She meandered back to the quad, dazed.

This is surreal. I got to find them, NOW.

She found them---she ran into a fuming Kelsey headfirst. "What's up with this Jessie the Slut rumor shit?" she hissed.

"I tried to warn you right after lunch."

"It smells like your posse," Kelsey snarled. "I thought your sense of morals was better than that."

"That's Luke and Cassie's bit," Julia said, her face apologetic. "I told them not to, but you think they listen?"

"They listen to no one," Kelsey replied.

"It's curtains for Luke," Julia said. "I'm going to break up with him."

"Really. All over defending some hell-bound sinner. Don't come crying to me afterwards," Kelsey said, preparing to leave.

"Kelsey." The shorter girl turned around.

"What? I have nothing else to say to you."

"Maybe I'm not finished."

"Well?" Kelsey snapped.

Now or never. "I'm not going to let Jessie's reputation wither without a damn good fight. She didn't do anything to deserve it."

Kelsey rolled her eyes. "Whatever. I'm not so sure I should take your word."

Julia flinched. "As you please," she sighed, turning around to leave, when she ran into Jessie. Instinctively, she backed up a few steps until she stumbled into a wall.

"Ah, I smell guilt," Jessie said. "At least someone in your posse has a little bit of a conscience," she snarled.

"It was not of my doing," Julia said, panicking. She didn't doubt the taller girl could cream her on the spot...

"How do I know that?"

Julia let out a pained gasp. "Well, I could at least give you the courtesy of what happened at lunch," she offered. "How much do you know?"

"The slut part. Who did you hear it from?" Jessie said, moving closer to Julia, who shrank where she stood.


"Cindy who?"


"That bitch was never going to amount to anything besides being an old biddy," Jessie hissed. "That family's more screwed up than the Mansons. What else happened?"

"They're going to try to accuse you of black magic and masses," Julia confessed.

"I haven't heard that one."

"Yet," Julia added. "And don't be surprised if Jeremy accuses you of aborting his baby."

"WHAT?!" Jessie cried out.

"I can't believe my ears!" Kelsey echoed.

"I knew he was pissed off because I didn't violate myself with him, but geez!" Jessie exclaimed. "I...I..."

Julia gave her a sympathetic smile. "I'm so sorry about all this, but if there was a way to have stopped them, I would have."

Jessie just shook her head. "I got to get to volleyball practice. Later."

"Me too." Kelsey left without further word. Julia stood there, speechless. I was only trying to fuck me!

"I feel like such an outsider," Kelsey complained to Jessie as they approached the youth center. They decided it wouldn't hurt to go have fun at a fair. Plus, Kelsey mused, she could humiliate Luke and Cassie and humble them before God for their atrocities. Not that they were perfect either, but someone's intervention was needed in this pissing match.

Pastor Mark greeted the newcomers. "Welcome to the First Baptist Church," he said, with a smile. "I haven't seen you here before."

"We're just visiting," Jessie said.

Pastor Mark smiled. "I hope you feel at home," then greeted the next newcomers. Jessie pointed out where the Fundamentalist Four was. "I wonder what they're cooking up right now."

Over in the Fundamentalist Four circle, things were getting tense. Julia had refused to talk to Luke the entire ride to church, and his patience with her moodiness had run short. Audrie was angry with Cassie for being cruel, and Cassie was angry with Audrie for not remaining loyal to the cause despite the fact that the plans in its achievement had taken an ugly turn.

"Julia, we need to talk," Luke growled again, taking her aside. "What the hell is your problem?"

"Don't address me as your property," Julia ferally snarled back. "It's over, Luke. You officially have no girlfriend."

"You can't...can't do that to me!" he cried out, as she turned to walk away. "Julia!"

She stopped, and looking over her shoulder, purred, "You bet I can," then turned around and kept walking, away from him.

"Julia! Julia, I'm sorry!" he shouted across the room. I'm making the world's biggest wuss but love is love and I can't lose her!

She turned around again. "I think you and Cassie would make the perfect couple." Turning around again, she ignored his pitiful pleas. She saw Jessie and Kelsey, and joined their group. "I didn't expect you guys here," she said. "What's the reason?"

"Bored," Kelsey replied. "Where's loverboy?"

"Off to lick his own wounds. When I said it was curtains for him, it was curtains," she said.

"You broke up with him?" Jessie said, surprised.


"I'm surprised," she mustered.

"I figured I've put up with enough from him and Cassie. They'd be the perfect couple, anyways," Julia said.

"That'd be dangerous."

"Why? They're practically a couple now," she said. "Maybe if they got a little preoccupied with a little smooching it'd slow their breeding of evil schemes."

Jessie shrugged. "Who knows."

Kelsey pointed out how Luke and Cassie were left alone. "Maybe you are right, Julia. There they are, alone."

"Cassie must have angered Audrie. That's been coming for a while," Julia mentioned.

Jessie turned to face Julia. "What's the beef between them?"

"Audrie doesn't approve of their methods either." Julia downcast her eyes. "I think their force has been halved as of tonight."

Kelsey pointed out another girl approaching them. "Who's that?" Jessie's face turned beat red. "Must not be good."

"It's Cindy Yates."

Julia's brow furrowed. "Oh yeah. Miss Mud Slinger. She'll have one heck of a story tonight!!!" Another boy joined their conversation. "Who's that tall guy?"

Jessie's face turned ashen. "Oh shit, it's my ex."

Kelsey heard Jessie's voice fade, and whipped her head around to see her face turn ashen. "Jessie, don't pass out on us!" Julia took a step closer, prepared to try to catch her if the girl fainted. "Jessie---"

"Need to sit," she said, pointing to a chair, her friends helping her to it.

"Hey, hey, easy," Kelsey said, helping her sit. "Julia, could you get some water?"

"Sure." She left.

Julia rounded the corner, almost knocking down a small blonde girl. "I'm sorry..." she blurted.

It was Kelsey's little sister Shana. "Hi Julia! What's the rush?"

"Getting some water."

"For what?" asked Shana, following her. She filled the Styrofoam with cold water, and walked back towards the group. "What's wrong with Jessie?"

"Bad encounter."

"What happened?" Shana prodded, as Julia handed the tall girl the glass of water, Kelsey next to her, muttering soft words to relax. "Are you going to tell me?"

"Bug off," Kelsey hissed, concerned that the color hadn't returned to Jessie's face yet.

"Fine then," Shana spat, slinking off into the crowd. She found Julia's friends, unaware of the rift, and started conversing with them.

"What's Jessie's problem? Anyone know?" Shana asked, blissfully unprepared for the venomous answer.

"I think her conscious came back," Luke growled. "You don't abort your baby and have no qualms."

"Jessie was never---she's a virgin!" Shana cried out.

Jeremy shook his head. "No, you are mistaken."

Shana recognized him. "You were her boyfriend."

"Were," he calmly said, betraying his nervousness.

"I didn't realize that."

"Well, you do now," Cassie said. "I have no idea why Julia is over there. You'd think she'd be horrified of the truth, but god damn, she's like a moth to a bug light. God's going to zap her sooner or later," she sighed.

Shana thought something was fishy, but they were Christians and Christians don't make up such nasty lies, right? Right? Right!

So painfully unaware that they were only human like the rest of mankind, prone to random acts of kindness and malevolence.

Jessie recovered from her panic attack; they were at the station firing nerf arrows at plastic bottles when Julia overheard the gossip propagate into another generation. Turning her head, she recognized the gossips; they respected her, so perhaps she could set the record straight with them. Kelsey and Jessie were too preoccupied firing the arrows to notice Julia disappear.

"Hey," she said, to a group of two girls and a boy. "How's this evening?"

"Why is that slut over there?" the boy asked, pointing to Jessie.

"What slut?" Julia asked, feigning being unknowledgeable about the latest rumor.

"Jessie Vilmos," he said. "She slept with Jeremy Newhall and aborted his baby at a black mass."

"And who told you?"

"Um....I forgot."

"Have you considered the fact that maybe it is just a rumor?"

"I dunno, I hear she's not Christian. What the hell is she doing here, anyways?"

"Is that necessarily why she's being slimed." She pointed to the girl. "How would you like being slimed that way?"

"I'd never get slimed like that!"

"I dunno---someone might not like you. Too honest, you never know."

"What would honesty have to do with that?"

Julia grinned ferally. "If they can't will you into a political scheme because your sense of integrity is too high, they'd be glad to slime you!"

The girl dropped her jaw. "That'd never happen!"

"It happened to Jessie."

"And why do you say that?"

"Her ex resents the fact she wouldn't sleep with her. Of course he had to feel he conquered, and since she didn't provide evidence of his conquest, she must have aborted the child!"

All three faces were thoroughly confused. Julia sensed it was time for the kill. "You can trust my word. Jessie never would consider such things." They nodded. "And since you three have integrity in your blood, perhaps it would only be fair to take it all with a grain of salt. Doesn't that sound a little too soap opera-ish?"

"Yeah, it does," the other girl confessed. "I see what you mean. The whole incident does sound like a tabloid headline."


She turned around, to see her companions perplexed at her absence. She turned back to them, and bid them farewell, joining Kelsey and Jessie.

"Where were you?" asked Kelsey.

"Talking to some friends."

"Ah." Kelsey made a blank face. Whatever that means.

That was awkward as hell, Julia sighed to herself. Hopefully I made my point. I vowed to set the record straight---I shall not renege on this promise.

She turned to watch the kids gleefully aim their water balloons at Pastor Mark. Every time they hit him he made the most exaggerated funny faces, eliciting giggles from those in line.

Shana had caught up to them after they finished the soda bottle station, hanging around her almost as if she was a barnacle to a dock. She initially thought the little girl was charming, but now her charms were getting rather grating. Anything to get the little urchin off her...

Jessie had noticed her discomfort, and managed to detract Shana from their group, leaving Julia and Kelsey alone.

"It's getting stuffy in here," Kelsey gripped. "Will opening this door set off any fire alarms?" she asked.

"Nope," Julia said, opening it. "Yeah, it is getting stuffy. Normally not this many kids show up on Wednesday nights."

She let the door shut, and they meandered a bit out into the ill-lit parking lot. Kelsey said dejectedly, "The rumor got around."

"I know. I tried to stop them---I feel so bad!" She looked into the sky, towards the faint stars in the sky. "I know in my heart that Jessie isn't that type of person. Just look at her face, that says all."

"I'm so scared they'll come after me next," Kelsey said. I wish I could simply tell you my awful secret, get it over with, but I couldn't bear for you to hate me. Julia was making her edgy, she was just too close---every inch meant she had to fight her impulse to put an arm around her friend much harder. To think and fight simultaneously was difficult. Fight it. Fight it.

"What do you think they'll come after you with?"

Being gay. "I'm sure they could cook up something terrible. They took Jessie's flawless record and made her into the Babylonian harlot."

"That's so disconcerting. I'm fair game too, you realize."

"The break-up with Luke. I bet you he'll blackmail you before he lets any shit go public," Kelsey said.

"Why do you say that?"

Kelsey took a deep breath and exhaled. So hard to say, but say it. "True, he does act like a jerk, Julia, but he truly adores you."

Julia laughed. "I wouldn't be so sure. He adores Cassie and I'm only his trophy girl."

Kelsey shook her head. "Where have you been when you missed his most tender looks? The most anguished face when he realized he could lose you?"

She chuckled. "Didn't change his behavior any."

Get to the point, and if she misses it, she misses it. "He doesn't know how to express his affection, but he truly loves you, Julia."

The only reaction to that was an arched eyebrow. Kelsey could feel Julia moving closer, and nearly jumped when she felt an arm around her shoulders. Platonic, platonic, platonic... Constantly hammering a mantra and subconscious tension drowned out any possible enjoyment from the human contact.

Julia didn't understand why she felt drawn to the shorter girl with the red hair and black shirt, but she made sure she was outside, away from view, before she let impulse take over. That way, if she misread the social cues and made a social arse out of herself, no one besides Kelsey would know. She felt the tension in Kelsey's shoulders. Okay, I was wrong. She hates this. Withdrawing the hand, she felt a vague sense of regret as she did so. Kelsey doesn't like it. Stop it.

She had tensed herself to hate it, but when she felt Julia's arm leave, it hurt worse. Damn, Julia, what's up with this 'torture' the gay girl' stuff? She gave up fighting it and put an arm around her waist. Julia didn't seem to flinch, so she left it there. I am a bad, bad girl.

Julia was surprised when Kelsey put an arm around her waist. One moment she hated it, next moment she seemed to crave the contact too. I guess I could try again. She gritted her teeth quietly and put her arm around Kelsey's shoulders again.

"There are some things I will never get," Julia confessed.

"Yeah? Like what?"

"Like everything's changed in the past two weeks," Julia said.

"Why do you say that?"

"Two weeks ago I would have been frightened to break up with Luke. He was my only venue to the outside world. Everything focused around him and/or his friends." She let her bodyweight rest a little more on Kelsey's shoulders. "That's no longer true. It feels like Fate intervened. Dylan, you, Jessie..."

Kelsey nodded. "Yeah. And I can't stereotype all fundamentalists, either."

"I wouldn't have dared befriended someone not from my church two weeks ago. But...but..."

Kelsey sensed an uneasiness in her voice. "Go on..."

"I'm probably committing a blatant sin..."

Kelsey's brows furrowed. "By associating with us?" The nod confirmed her suspicion. "It wasn't like Jesus boarded himself up in a commune, Julia. In fact, you know how he met his disciples."

"Matthew the tax collector."

"And they laughed and mocked Jesus for doing that. They mocked and laughed at him for daring to defy tradition, but yet he turned out to be greater than any of them. What do you think of that."

"But I'm not Jesus."

"If Jesus is your role model, then why act opposite?"

Julia shrugged. "Because that's the way we always did things."

Such unabashed truth. Truly a shame that it should be in the name of God that future generations have their hopes dashed "because that's the way we always do things." Beyond tragic, it was an atrocity. Men and women denied their true mission in life to fulfil tradition. Women caged at home as a domestic slave, like a parakeet, and beaten for squawking when it wants to fly free.

It wasn't just coincidence Fate threw them together, Kelsey realized. The girl would never blossom to be all she could be without outside intervention. She had a sharp wit (she had made them tremble in Student Council) and a determination she tried to hide, but when the feral look crept inside her eyes, it could be masked no more. Without intervention, she'd shrivel: she was already afraid to eat, and what other host of problems she had that had yet to come to light was yet to be seen. Her mission was to bring the true Julia Williams out of her shell.

Julia looked down on her smaller companion. She felt bolder around Kelsey's presence---she wasn't sure why the smaller girl brought out the outspoken, rough and tumble side that she didn't dare let surface. She couldn't remember a time when she let the inner tomboy take over, but she could remember the numerous times as a child that she was disciplined for verging on unfeminine.

She got into a fight at school with a boy on her first day in kindergarten. The punishment was horrible: she could still feel the furious paddle on her bare behind whacking welts upon her backside. "Don't you DARE pull that on me again. I'm ashamed of you, Julia! What fiend got into you? Girls do not fight!"

She was always so afraid of displeasing her mother. Mother Williams was a distant woman, always paying heed to her adult friends and Daniel and only paying attention to her when she got into trouble. She always craved positive attention, attention she still awaited. Perhaps her wedding day. Would her mother be proud of her then?

No, she sadly realized. Not at all. She'd find something wrong with her future husband; she found lots of little things wrong with Luke. Her father Rhett approved the young man; on his rare free moments he made sure to pay attention to his daughter.

Julia wondered if her mother would ever care. Was it pure malice? Or was she simply unable to express affection? Her parents were of the domineering type as well. She hated it when her maternal grandparents came for Thanksgiving dinner. Grandfather spoke whatever was on his mind, no matter how cruel it was, and Grandmother wasn't much better. It was like a disease in the family.

She subconsciously pulled Kelsey closer. She felt an odd fondness for the girl. She filled a void that she wasn't aware existed. But yet, she created a void, too. Why? She could not figure out, but being close to her helped fill it.

"What'cha thinking about?" Kelsey asked, the silence was awkward.

"Just the past two weeks."

"Still? I will admit, the past two weeks have been weird, too. I never thought I'd see the day that the Fundamentalist Four would be halved."

"Fundamentalist Four?" Julia asked. She had never heard of the nickname before.

"Yeah. You guys practically do everything together."

An arched brow. "Like a cult?"

"Bingo," Kelsey said, with a lopsided grin.

The concept made Julia quite uneasy. Cult? Yeah, but...I think I got duped, she dared to venture within. She felt her ribs constrict. How...

Kelsey turned around, to see her companion distressed. "Julia, you alright?"

She stared directly into Kelsey's eyes. God, they're a vibrant green.... she thought, feeling the magnetism and panicking. It subsided once the awkwardness dissipated; she was helpless to it. She wanted a closer look in those eyes, she could drown in them. How would it feel to be connected to another human in spirit? She longed to know so badly....

She pulled Kelsey to face her a little more, ducking her head, oblivious to the outside world. To be closer...

[ Chapters 16-18 ]

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