Chapter 31

The coach was rather dismayed when word about the melee broke out. Before the match, Coach Tompkins had one of her dreaded chats. Dreaded, because it meant the team was in serious trouble.

"We have had a good season. Look how far we have gone," she said, her eyes glancing over to Julia. Her protege on the court. The rest of the team would never amount to anything, but Tompkins was too kind of a soul to actually tell them. "Let's not ruin that."

She leaned against the wall and propped her clipboard. "Homophobia in any shape or form will not be tolerated on this team. Anyone who bends this rule will be booted off the team, whether they are a starter or not, no matter how late in the season it is. Am I understood?"

The team nodded. Truth be told, there were a few girls on the team whose parents had influence over her superiors, but she had to a take a stance.

Jessie's parents drove her by the church parking lot to pick up her Datsun after school. She was about to step in when she gasped and took a few panicked steps back.

"What is it?" Jessie asked, waiting to be let in on the other side.

"A decapitated mouse."

"What?" Jessie said, trying not to laugh. "Lemme see."

She circled to the other side. "Well, it is. Funny."

Kelsey looked at her gravely. "Not funny." She crinkled a paper between her thumb and forefinger. "Came along with this little note."

Jessie took it and read it. "Jesus Christ, he knew you were here last night."

"Yup. And if you read the back, it says it's a good thing I'm not at home anymore so I won't get in his way."

Jessie felt a shudder of fear and sickness course through her veins. "This is just terrible!" she shrieked.

"No shit." Kelsey sighed. "Well, let's go. I don't want to stare at that pitiful creature anymore."

Finally, the competition was getting to her level of play. Julia smirked, most everyone she faced was boring. What fun was tennis if you won three sets straight? Hence picking fights with Lindsay in practice all the time. It was entertaining for a bored, frustrated mind.

Her opponent faced her, a tall blonde with voluptuous curves accented by the skirt. Or should it be said, the way she wore her skirt. Julia could smell the sex she emanated and was disgusted yet curious. I did not just think that.

Whatever beauty she had was trashed by the demonic snarl on her face. She was only trouble. Not only could she wield a mean racket, she could wield a nasty temper. Like someone I know, and then Julia laughed to herself.

Second set. The first one was close, a little too close, but it was just a challenge. Something she hadn't tasted for a while. She paced to the right edge of the court to start the second set, hand grasped around the yellow neon tennis ball.

"Love-love." She tossed the ball, arched her back, and like a spring coil, sprung the ball with tremendous force over the net into her opponent's court.

Unlike most opponents, this girl knew how to return the nasty serve with a spin of her own. She pounced on her opponents return, playing the defensive, looking for a hole to exploit. After a few volleys, she found it and seized brutal control over the match. The girl was increasingly off balance with every return, running this way and that, and then she repeated the ball down one alley and it was curtains for her opponent.

"Fifteen love." The spring coiled, then sprung, her opponent by no means intimidated by the last round and even more pressed to beat Julia. She returned the serve with a speedy volley; instead of whipping it back and potentially losing control, Julia let the velocity of the ball do most of the work. Like a trained dog, it did its work, easily controlled as her flustered opponent grew red-faced with exertion. From the right corner her opponent slammed the volley, then ran left to reach center court. Julia ran forward, and let the racket act as a big pillow, softly depositing it in the right hand corner where her opponent could not hope to return it.

"Fuck!" she heard mumbled under her opponent's breath.

Kelsey warily looked at the dice, yawning. "Now I remember why I don't like Monopoly," she sighed. "You just go 'round and 'round and 'round and 'round and--"

"I get the point," Jessie said, her arm draped over her knee. "This game isn't going anywhere. Truce?"

"Truce." They began shoveling the pieces back in the box. "Did you know Monopoly was created in the 1930s as an investment game?"

Jessie looked at her. "Interesting."

"A manifestation of the American dream. In this itty bitty box."

A coy smile came to Jessie's face. "Except nowadays, we want instant results." She began sorting the bills out, tossing Kelsey the smaller bills to arrange. "The result of a consumer economy. We want it, NOW."

"Are you calling me a materialist?"

Jessie shrugged. "We're just products of our time, Kelsey. The Depression Era was taught to scrimp and save. We, on the other hand..."

"Are encouraged to blow it on the latest gadgets. Just look at the damn television."

"A viscous cycle. If people don't go out and frivol their money, they won't get their paycheck."

"One hell of a system, isn't it?" Kelsey sarcastically commented.

Jessie laughed. "I think I heard dinner being called." She got up and offered a hand to Kelsey. They meandered into the kitchen.

"Hmm...Rice-a-Roni!" Kelsey exclaimed. "I live off the stuff!"

"Last week you said it was ramen noodles."

"Hush, you!" Kelsey exclaimed. She eyed the meat dish. "And Chicken paprika..." she said, voice wavering.

"Family recipe," Mrs. Vilmos said.

"My mom makes that all the time," she sighed.

"That crap your mom makes is not chicken paprika, Kelsey."

"Watch your mouth," Mrs. Vilmos reminded her daughter.

"Sorry, Mom."

Kelsey shrugged. "I'll try it."

Jessie leaned over and whispered in her mom's ear, "Don't count on leftovers tonight."

She couldn't recall being this hungry for a long time, but the minute she walked in McDonalds and saw the Quarter Pounder Deal, she was determined to snarf it, king size. Everyone else on the team laughed at her that the team anorexic was going to eat that.

"I bet you she'll take two bites and be full!" Lindsay smirked. For nearly being annihilated earlier, she was back to her arrogant, cocky self.

With two french fries left and a wrapper bearing testimony to her appetite, Julia grinned back. "Didn't think I could eat that, did you, Lindsay?" she laughed.

"Well, I'm surprised, but--"

Oh shit! Julia thought as her dinner decided to take its own course. She ran to the bathroom, the last fry flying to the floor, the door clattering shut.

Lindsay finished her sentence. "But I bet you she couldn't keep it down." Then she laughed.

Coach Tompkins wasn't amused, and went after her. "Julia?" She saw the girl sitting on the floor beside the toilet. "You got to stop puking up your food, it's not good for you."

Julia was shaking. "I didn't mean to!" she cried. "It just did whatever the hell it wanted to!!!"

"Shh, shh, calm down, Julia," Coach Tompkins tried to console her. "It's just going to aggravate it."

Worried blue eyes glanced back at Coach.

"Breathe." It got a lopsided grin from the girl. "Considering you ate that much food, I'm not surprised you puked. You ate lunch?"


"What'd you have?"

"Fruit juice and a granola bar."

"It's a start, but your meals need to be more even. If there was a little more to your lunch, you wouldn't have been so hungry and therefore ordered so much greasy food that I don't think even I could handle without vomiting up."

Julia frowned. "Sorry, Coach."

"Don't apologize, just listen."

She came back home, with a twinge of sadness. She knew that Kelsey went to Jessie's house. "I don't want to be an imposition," were the words she recalled Kelsey said to her earlier. She missed the red-haired girl. Her company soothed her nerves and the ever-present frustration she felt at the world.

Most of all, she missed holding the girl. Um...okay. I did something immoral last night. One time thing. No more. I don't know Kelsey. Never met her. And say a prayer.

She felt tears sting at the thought of being callous towards the innocent redhead. What did Kelsey do to deserve this? She, Julia Williams, was the one with the problem about the entire thing, not her. The poor girl had enough on her plate without her acting like a total bitch.

It's immoral, Julia! Stop screwing with people's heads! She put her hands together in prayer, but no words came to mind. Well, she's at Jessie's, it's not like I have much to worry about anymore, with a sigh of defeat lingering around. Clear mind for prayer.

And she said a little prayer, praying that it wasn't God's plan that she'd be one of the damned homosexuals, as her church so nicely put it, and that God, worker of miracles, could convert Kelsey so she wouldn't face His wrath come Judgment Day.

"And so I was saying that--" Jessie said, returning to the living room, to see that Kelsey was asleep on the couch. "Nevermind," she whispered.

The redhead stirred. "Uh?"

"Sorry," Jessie said. "Didn't mean to wake you."

"Didn't mean to zonk out like that," Kelsey said, getting up and making room for Jessie to sit. "So what were you about to say?"

Jessie prattled about something, something she didn't remember as she recollected the brief dream that flashed through her mind. Maybe it happened. She dreamt that strong, secure arms were wrapped around from behind, a chin nestled against the top of her head, warm breath warming her face non-obtrusively. The warm feeling covered her head to toe, and she tried to keep the silly grin off her face.

"Did you hear a bloody thing I said?" Jessie asked. "Hello, earth to Kelsey!"

"Oh, sorry," Kelsey said, with an apologetic grin.

"You didn't hear a word I said, did you?" Jessie asked.

"Um...something about Thanksgiving?"

It was about that cute soccer guy. Nope, you're not paying attention. "Nevermind, I prattle too much."

Kelsey shrugged, a sad frown on her face. "Sorry, I wasn't."

"Lighten up, we're all entitled to our moments of grinning like an idiot over someone."


"What? Let me guess, Julia again."

Err. "Jessie, just drop the damn subject, okay? We're not an item, and never will be. The girl's straighter than a fucking arrow!"

"Easy does it, tiger," Jessie said, putting her hands up in defense. "Sorry."

"I didn't mean to snap."

"It's kind of obvious that talking about her hurts."

"Yes it does, so could you not do so?"




"Does she know about this?"

"Hell no, and no, I don't plan on ever telling her."

As soon as she hit the sheets, she realized to her horror the dream wasn't just a dream. She vaguely remembered the feeling from earlier in the morning, and groaned. Like the seven year itch, some things wouldn't go away. For instance, her crush on tall, dark, and beautiful.

"And so I asked Kevin what he was doing tomorrow night. He said nothing! And I asked him if he wanted to go to the movies with us! He said yes!" Jessie shrieked, over her newest boy crush. "He said yes!!!"

"Pin a rose on your nose," Kelsey said, rolling over and facing away.

"Don't be sour, Kelsey," Jessie pleaded. "You seem so down lately."

"No shit," Kelsey grumbled. "Just let me go to sleep, damn it."

You're hurting, sweetie. "Listen, Kelsey, you can't hide from your pain forever. You're going to have to face it."

"And just how do you suggest I go about this?"

"Kelsey," Jessie pleaded. "You sound absolutely miserable. And you're not acting yourself. Have you considered counseling?"

The redhead snorted. "Having to see a shrink because I have a crush? That's ludicrous!" She wrapped the blanket tighter around herself. "If you want to help me so badly, just drop the damn subject."

Jessie sighed.

Chapter 32

She stared outside her window, where the moonlight cast beams of light through the fingers of the leafless trees. A wind rustled a few more rare red brown specimens stubbornly clinging to the tree off into the night. Soon the snow would start, soon. The green fields would become a winter wonderland, where happy, oblivious youths would pummel each other with snowballs until they were soaking wet, then run inside and slurp soup up for lunch.

"Julia, you're soaking wet!" her mother scolded her, after she ran home from school, a happy satiated grin of a nine year old who just enjoyed a good snowball fight. "Get changed immediately. Don't you know how unladylike that is?"

She immediately turned away from the window, wincing at the memory. Innocence was precious as snowflakes, for soon it would melt when adulthood neared...

She was doing good so far in playoffs. Whether or not she would win against the voluptuous blonde towards the end was iffy, but infuriated she might lose against the second seed in the playoffs and be cast a fool, she let loose a rage that pummeled her opponent so badly that the end scores would never have hinted how close it had actually been.

A slight pitter patter pounded upon the roof. Drats...

Darkness. She wasn't sure what awakened her, but she glanced across the room to see Jessie asleep. She then glanced over to the red digits of the alarm clock. A smirk ran across her features. It's the wee hours of the morning. I can go check on Mom and get back before anyone notices.

She quietly padded out the door, her shoes in her hands. As soon as she got outside, she laced them up, and crept quietly into the night.

It took about fifteen minutes to get there. She peered into the windows, nothing was astray. Finally, she peeked into her mother's window, just as a last check. Not there. Whew. But when she look down, she stifled a gasp. Attached to the end of a broom handle was a condom.

She felt her hands shake. He was certainly here tonight...with an unwelcome message.

Curbing a curdling scream, she ran as fast as she could back to Jessie's, away from the horror no sixteen year old should have seen. A reminder of what a child of six had to witness. A childhood of knowing too much too soon.

Daylight. The alarm blared in Jessie's ear for about two minutes before she rolled over and smacked the snooze button. She let her eyes lazily focus across the room, where Kelsey was, asleep.

She looked worse than she did when she went to bed. There were dark spots under her eyes, her face sagging with tiredness. She had her arms tightly wrapped around her pillow, like a teddy bear, and couldn't stop shivering ever so slightly. It is a little nippy in here. Jessie turned off the alarm and tucked one of her blankets around Kelsey.

The redhead stirred slightly. Jessie sat beside her. "You feeling okay?"

Kelsey mumbled, "Yeah."

"You don't look or sound like it."

"Just nightmares," she sighed, shutting her eyes.

"You feel like staying home?"

"Nightmares is no excuse to ditch school," Kelsey grumbled, not bothering to open her eyes. "Plus you know they have that damn recording saying I missed class and my mother will flip."

"If that's your call, I'll abide by it, slugger," Jessie said. "I'll officially wake you up after I run through the shower."

"Don't slip," Kelsey said.

"Smart ass," Jessie replied before shutting the bathroom door.

Kelsey dialed home and was surprised to get the answering machine instead. Heart in her throat, she croaked, "Hi Mom, it's me," then waited for a response.

The phone was lifted off the receiver on the other end. "Hi dear," Mother said.

Kelsey was shaking badly. "Everything okay?"

"Calm down sweetie," Mother reassured her. "I just got out of the john when you called."

Jessie mouthed, "Everything okay?" Kelsey nodded.

"That's good," Kelsey replied to her mother. "Anything happen?"

"No," Mother replied. "But don't come home tonight."

"I won't," she said.

"Go to school before you're late."

"Yes mom." Pause. "I love you too." Pause. "Bye." Kelsey hung the telephone back on the hook.

"You look like you've seen a ghost," Jessie commented at her friend's ashen face. The redhead was still trembling.

"When I heard the answering machine kick in instead of her answering I thought he had killed her," Kelsey eeked, tears beginning to tumble down her fair face. Jessie was immediately over to her side, wrapping her friend in a big bear hug.

"It's okay, Kelsey, it's okay," she said, feeling her friend's violent sobs against her breast.

Jessie's long, big, strong arms wrapped around made Kelsey feel protected. The tall brunette felt her friend go limp in her arms. Kelsey backed away, a little composed.

"You sure you want to go to school today?" Jessie asked, concerned.

"I'm going to school," Kelsey said with determination.

They walked into Student Council, drinks at hand. Kelsey looked worn and tired, her eyes bloodshot and heavy lidded. Jessie didn't leave her side for a minute, Julia noted, like a mother protecting her young. What an admirable trait to have in a friend, she sighed to herself.

"Hey, Kelsey," she said, approaching the redhead. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah," Kelsey sighed wearily.

In a hushed tone, so the vultures couldn't hear, she said, "I know everything isn't, but I won't make you talk about it." She gave Kelsey a hug instead.

Kelsey wished that Julia didn't have to go, but mentally kicked herself. She has her own life, fuckface.

The vultures circled around. Luke sat in front of Kelsey. "What's wrong, sweetie?" he mocked. "Ran out of rugs to munch?"

Kelsey grabbed her hot chocolate and ran at him, the lid popping up and steam billowing out the top. Jessie jumped up to stop Kelsey, and grabbed the drink, which spilled on Jessie's pants leg and the floor. She bit her lip when the hot liquid seeped through her clothes.

Luke hid in the other corner of the room, snickering. "Too bad Cassie wasn't here to watch that one! That bull can buck!"

"I'm not your amusement, assface," Kelsey hissed, too mad to be her polite self.

"Kelsey, Kelsey," Jessie tried to soothe her friend. "He's not worth it," she cooed.

"Kelsey, Jessie, come over here," Mr. Eldon said.

"Shit," Kelsey grumbled, but said no more. I guess it's time to pay the piper. But he won't hear the end of this one.

Mr. Eldon scrawled a pass to the library. "Here," he said. They left the room.

Julia watched Luke snicker, proud of himself for being such a wiseacre. "Ha, ha, Julia, that was funny! You saw how defensive she got?! Ran out of rugs to munch! Aren't I clever?"

"Luke," she commanded. "What were you sniffing before you came to class?"

He quirked his blonde brows. "That was funny to watch her get in trouble!"

She wished right then and there she could slug him for being such an asshole, but thought better of it. "Lucas, get over here," Mr. Eldon demanded.

Unseen to him, she smiled. From the tone in his voice, YOU are the one in trouble, Luke. He X'd in the box to see the vice principal. Julia wished she had a camera to capture the look of shock on Luke's face when he realized he was getting the referral!

"But the bitch tried to throw scalding water on me!"

"Go," Mr. Eldon pointed.

"For a minute there I thought he was going to give me a referral," Kelsey recalled to Julia.

"He did end up giving a referral to Luke."

"You're kidding me? Giving All American there a referral? You're bullshitting me."

"Nope. Luke was quite mad, too."

"Well, that makes my bad day brighten a little," Kelsey said. "But a little."

"Anything in particular?" Julia asked, trying to indicate to her friend that she was an open ear without being nosy.

"Well, when I called her this morning, I got the answering machine. I thought something happened to her, but she grabbed the phone and explained she just got off the john."

"Poor Kelsey. I'm sorry about the rubbish Luke gave you."

"I suppose I could dress a little more conservative if I don't want to be called a rug muncher," Kelsey sighed, hanging her head in defeat.


She turned her head, and rested it on her knees.

Julia continued, "Don't change for anyone. I like the way you are. See everyone else? They're just cookie cutter clones. Too afraid to be themselves. Myself included."


"Don't argue, I envy your bravery."

Of all the things she was endowed with, she envies me???

She was glad that tomorrow was the end of playoffs. It meant she could finally start to catch up on her oodles of homework, and live a normal life again.

She bitterly recalled last year, when she faced the number four seed in the state. She had barely beaten number five and she was so close...but not close enough. The number four girl pounded her all over the court and she left not with a bang but a whimper.

Number four had graduated since, and there were only three to go this year, save any outstanding freshmen that could blitz through the ranks like she did.

Which was possible, considering there were private schools with rich preppy kids abound all over the state. Julia sighed. Money grows on trees for them. They were easily identified a mile away---extremely expensive and perfectly coordinated Nike everything, from shoes to socks, shorts, shirts, jackets, warmups, name it, it was Nike.

Julia looked at her own clothes. Just as guilty. She felt disgusting, and wished for once that money wasn't such a big deal. Although the Williams had plenty of dough to spare, Mother was never content.

She felt a raw Arctic wind sweep through her jacket, and she shivered, instinctively wrapping it around herself tighter. The break between storms was over, and a cold rain, perhaps even snow, was going to greet them soon.

She saw the bus amble down the stretch, and park to let the tennis team on. Shelter, she sighed, as she got on the bus, out of the nasty wind. She sunk into the seat, propping her knees against the seat in front of her, her bag sitting nearby. She shut her eyes and sighed. I will be the victor this year, I will the victor this year, she repeated in a mantra, trying to boost her confidence. Low self confidence on the court was a death sentence to playoff hopes.

She found her mind wandering to thoughts of Kelsey. I wonder what she's doing right now. Probably having fun with Jessie instead of crammed in this orange painted sardine can like I am. Kelsey's sadness during brunch totally unnerved her. I wish I could take your pain away. Society's prejudice, your father, a sweet soul like you shouldn't have to bear those awful things.

The bleak countryside passed her like a blur, a dead brown and gray streak that whizzed by as the bus ambled down the road. A depressing brown haze blanketed the horizon in all directions, the result of smog. Sighing, Julia rested her head on the cold window pane and tried to clear her mind so she could prepare herself for the game.

Kelsey leaned over the back of the couch, her chin resting on her crossed arms, staring out the window into Jessie's backyard. Jessie unlocked the bathroom door, walked into the living room, and joined her on the couch.

"What'cha thinking, slugger?" Jessie asked, looking Kelsey in the face, who didn't look back.

"Hmph," Kelsey mumbled, "nothing."

Jessie propped one elbow on the couch. "Whatever. You can't straightface a lie, bud."

Kelsey shrugged. "Who said I was lying?" She turned her head slightly to the side to face Jessie. "That was called evading, I really don't want to talk about it."

"Why do you bottle it up so much?"

"I'm not bottling it up, Jessie," Kelsey said defensively. "We've had this conversation before and there's no need to rehash it." The redhead continued to stare vacantly into the backyard.

Jessie frowned. It hurt to see her good friend hurt inside and be unable to deal with it.

She woke up, and rolled over to look at the red digits of the alarm clock. 2:48. I think I could sneak out and be back before anyone notices.

She put on a sweater, and slipped out. Fifteen minutes later, she snuck in back of her house. Unlike the previous nights, there didn't seem anything amiss, which alarmed Kelsey. What does this mean? she wondered. She peeked in the windows, trying to see if maybe he snuck in instead of leaving a little trail.

Doesn't seem to be any trace of him tonight, she pondered. Sensing there wasn't danger tonight, she left and snuck back into Jessie's house.

Chapter 33

Jessie decided that laying in bed wasn't going to relieve the pressure in her bladder, so she got up to use the restroom. 3:10. She had an eerie feeling, and looked around the room to see Kelsey missing. She hurried into the bathroom, regretting the fact that she lied in bed just a little too long.

She flushed the toilet, lathered her hands with soap, and rinsed them off, toweling them dry. I've had a feeling the little scamp has been sneaking off. Now I have proof.

She went back to bed, feigning sleep. She glanced at the alarm clock one last time when she saw Kelsey's silhouette creep back in bed. 3:32. Where the hell have you been? We're having a talk about this in the morning.

Tossing and turning, sleep continued to elude her. The dark haired beauty could not go back to sleep after the nightmare, and laid in bed, desperate for more shut-eye.

It was the familiar red cloud of blood again. Julia could taste the unwelcome coppery taste that seeped through her nostrils and filtered to the back of her tongue. She shut her eyes, envisioning herself sitting at the edge of the cliff which hung over the red sea of blood.

She tried so hard, but to no avail. The victim insisted on going overboard. Why? One moment she had her grasped firmly in her arms, the next, the victim wiggled out of her arms and plummeted far below, into the abyss of red, screaming.

She sat there, just staring, wondering where she might have landed, her mouth agape in disbelief. So close, yet so far from doing her duty to protect and serve.

She heard a low chuckle, and turned to face whatever menace decided to mock her failure. He was tall, with broad shoulders and muscular arms. Cloaked all in black, his trousers form fitting, his vest a little bit open to show off his broad, hairy chest, and gauntlets on both wrists, he appeared to be a formidable figure. She took a better look at his face: square and broad, long and slicked back, with sideburns and thick black goatee.

"About time I got rid of that damn annoying blonde," he laughed.

Rage flying through her veins like a falcon diving from above to swoop a fish, she lunged at him, a strong fist aimed for his face. He simply vanished, much to her anger.

She turned around, trying to figure out where he could have disappeared. Thin air? Impossible! But when she turned her shoulder, he looked at her, grinning.

"Are you being naughty or nice?" he said.

"Damn you," she growled, stalking him like a panther.

"There are greater things in the world for you than that little blonde."

"Like what?"


And there the dream ended, the dark, dangerous stranger did not give his reasons for destroying 'that annoying little blonde.' Julia had no clue who he was referring to, and reminded herself, it's only a dream.

She dialed home and the phone rang twice before Mother picked it up. "Mom?"

"Hi dear."

"Everything okay, I presume?"

"Yes, dear. You worry too much."

Worry?! Worry?! I can't even go home! Wait... "When can I go home?" she asked pleadingly.

"Not yet, my child, the coast isn't yet clear."

Damn. "Okay."

"Take care of yourself Kelsey."

"Will do."

Pause. "Love you too." Pause. "Bye." She hung the cordless white phone back in the carriage.

"Everything okay?" Jessie asked, toothbrush in hand.

"Shit, Jessie, you scared me, coming around the bend like that!"

"Aren't we a little skittish this morning?"

Kelsey gave her a dirty look. "I'm just being authentic."

Jessie laughed. "Authentic?"

"Yes. That's my new term for being crabby."

"You're funny."

Kelsey walked out of the kitchen and sat on the couch. "So what's the agenda today?"

"I didn't know we had an agenda," Jessie said, pouring herself a cup of water and put it in the microwave to boil. "Just as long as it doesn't involve snake handling or eating live chickens, I'm game."

"Drats! I was looking forward to that!" Kelsey kidded, her mood lightening.

"Guess I'll have to give you a rain check on that then," Jessie said. The microwave then chose to blare that time was up, prompting Jessie to go fetch the hot water. She took a packet of hot cocoa mix out of the cupboard, took a spoon out of the silverware drawer, opened the hot cocoa, and stirred it furiously until the mix dissolved, then licking the spoon of whatever hot cocoa mix was left on the spoon. "It's sure cold," she commented.

"Look, Jessie," Kelsey said, turned around and looking outside. "It's snowing."

"I guess that will be a snow check then!" Jessie said, laughing. She brought her hot cocoa out to the living room and sat beside her. "Boy, you weren't kidding when you said it's snowing!" she said.

"Must have snowed all night. There's about four inches on the ground right now."

"So much for doing anything, huh? Until they bring that dang snowplow down the street we're stuck here."

"Got a sled or toboggan?"

"It's been forever since we used that toboggan. I'm probably too tall to use it now!" Jessie said.

"Hmm..." Kelsey said.

"There's snowball fights though! You're never too old for those!"

"Weren't you just complaining a minute ago that you were cold?" Kelsey said, eyeing her friend hunched over a cup of hot cocoa.

" want some hot cocoa?" Jessie said.

Just then, the lights sputtered and flashed off. "Guess we'll have to do that the old fashioned way, then," Kelsey said.

"The fireplace?" Jessie said, eyeing the false greenery and petina garden animals sitting on the hearth. "That hasn't been used for ages."

"I meant the stove."

"It's electric, dear."


"My thoughts exactly," Jessie sighed. "Besides, what would we boil the water in if the fireplace was functional?"

"You have a point," Kelsey said.

"And the last time we used the fireplace I had to be rushed to the emergency room with an asthma attack."

"Ick!" Kelsey exclaimed.

Rhett got off the phone. "They cancelled today's match," he told Julia.

She sighed. She had her warm ups on and was mentally gearing herself up for finishing off the competition once and for all today. Now she was going to have to shift into reverse and tackle the homework pile that was accumulating at an alarming rate.

She was two hours into her homework when the lights sputtered off. "Damn!" she growled, the monitor screen black before her eyes. "At least I saved my work not too long ago."

She eyed the Algebra II book and groaned. She was purposely evading her math for as long as she could. Although she was a sharp tack at math, she loathed how boring it was. Reluctantly getting up and fetching the book, she sat in bed, where the light outside was strongest, and started working out the problems.

Five minutes later, she yelled in frustration, "I hate polynomials!"

"Gin," Kelsey said, spreading out the four, five, and six of diamonds, three kings, and four Aces.

"You caught me with a jack, three queens, three diamonds, and three twos."

Kelsey took the deck and shuffled, then dealt ten cards to each of them, setting the remaining deck on the table, and turned the last card up.

Jessie eyed the card. Did she want the ten? Yeah, I got one in my hand, she decided. She picked up the card and discarded a queen on the table.

Kelsey didn't want the queen either, so she drew and shoved it in her hand.

They volleyed for about ten minutes until Kelsey said the magic word "gin!"

Jessie threw her cards at Kelsey's hand. "You always win!" she groaned.

Kelsey grinned. "Want to switch games?"

"Sure," Jessie said. "I don't think I'm ever going to win at gin rummy."

"What will it be?"

"Old maid."

"That's a kid's game! But if you insist..."

"I was only pulling your leg, silly."

"When Shana was little, she'd always get the sayings 'pulling your leg' and 'getting your goat' mixed up."

"Good grief!" Jessie said. "The phrase pulling your goat seems a little risqué if you ask me!"

"She was only five at the time," Kelsey said.

"Oh." Pause. "Knowing Shana though..."

"Yeah," Kelsey said, chuckling. "It would mean something else today!" Then, like clockwork, her stomach growled. She rolled her wrist over to see the time. "Noon."

"Well, there's bread in the cupboard, I'm sure the lunchmeat in the fridge needs to be eaten..."

The lights sputtered back on, momentarily blinding both of them. Kelsey chimed, "Looks like we'll get something WARM to eat instead!"

"Sounds mighty tasty to me!"

They laid on the couch, asleep, after a hearty meal of cream of potato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. They had started to watch a movie, but when Jessie's mother saw them asleep on the couch, she stopped the movie and turned off the television.

When Jessie awoke an hour and a half later, she noticed the power had gone out again. The sky had darkened greatly and the wind howled like a lone wolf in the middle of the Arctic night. Jessie reluctantly left the warmth of the couch and padded down the hall, taking two blankets out and returning to the couch, tucking one blanket around Kelsey and another one around herself.

"Did the power go off again?" Kelsey mumbled, half asleep.

"Afraid so," Jessie replied.

"No wonder it's cold in here."

"Scoot over." Kelsey did so, and Jessie scooted next to her, sitting shoulder to shoulder with her friend.

"What's your mother doing in the kitchen?" Kelsey curiously asked.

"I dunno. Why is she in the kitchen?"

"It's not a joke."

Jessie heard her mother move the oven rack. "She's baking."

"Smart woman," Kelsey said. "Let's go see what she's cooking."

They stalked into the kitchen quietly, to see a package of Bisquick and a carton of milk sitting on the counter. "What'cha making, Mom?" Jessie asked.

"Don't sneak up on me like that!" Mrs. Vilmos said. "I'm making biscuits."

"Ah. Can I lick the bowl?" she asked, giving her mother a pitiful look.

"Sure. Kelsey can have the beaters if she wants."

"Yes!" Kelsey said, snatching the beaters while leaving Jessie to work on the bowl with a plastic scraper.

The power outages were beginning to aggravate Julia greatly. When the power came back on she hurried back to her computer to continue working on her English homework, but had gone a while without saving when the power shut off. She stormed down the hall cursing and swearing until she ran into Mother, who threatened to take her over her knee if she ever heard the word "butt" again.

With no light coming in except from the waning daylight filtering through the window beside her bed, she sat next to the cold window, huddled in blankets, shivering. She peered out the window, watching the winter wonderland unravel before her eyes. Told you the snows would start soon.

The power outage completely threw her focus on her homework off, so she continued to stare out into the white landscape, the dreary sky matching her mood.

She couldn't help but wonder what Kelsey was doing. It was getting aggravating, how at the drop of a hat she'd find herself thinking about the tomboyish redhead.

She has her own life and doesn't need baggage like you weighing her down, she scolded herself. She was always harsh on herself whenever she wished she was around Kelsey, craved to talk to her, even simply be in her presence. You failed her.

Where'd that come from? Julia wondered.

Attacking her for being gay, stupid, her conscience reminded her. She remembered yelling at Kelsey in the church parking lot, accusing her of trying to get her into bed and turn her into a whore. Things hadn't been the same since. I wish I could have been your friend, Kelsey. Leave it up to me to blow that up for good. She felt even more depressed after that thought.

The stern frau that mocked her conscience hadn't spoken to her for a while, much to Julia's relief. She had Julia trembling at every decision, in fear she'd pick the wrong one and be damned to burn in hell because of it. Like a schoolyard bully, once Julia stood up to her she backed off.

Kelsey hadn't totally severed their budding friendship though, Julia noted with relief. I suppose there's hope yet. She is very wary to trust anyone.

She had a glimpse of the nightmare she had the night she picketed the Methodist church, and recoiled. Her eyes were so hard--not a criminal hardness, but a wily, coyote hardness produced by having to live by your wits day in and day out, always having to watch your back lest friend or foe decide to turn on you.

Some friend I am, she thought, the memory of screaming at her in the church parking lot coming to haunt her even more. It was one of the best nights in my life and then I had to screw it all up! I had to hurt her when her guard was down! Remembering how Kelsey cringed, the fear in her beautiful green eyes, made Julia even madder at herself.

Beautiful green eyes? she asked herself. Where'd that come from? I don't know what color her eyes are.

She thought about it for a moment. I guess that goes along with same wild random thought like thinking her natural hair color was blonde.

She let her mind focus back on the winter landscape, when she saw a snowplow saunter by the house. She whirled around when she heard a knock. "Julia?" a male voice asked.

"Come in," she said. Rhett came in. "The roads just opened. I need to go to the store and get some stuff. Want to come?"

"Sure," she said, sick of being cooped up in the house.

[ Chapters 34-36 ]

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