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As townspeople walked briskly past the weird door she'd just come out of, Kim Howell twisted around behind her red Toyota's steering wheel and watched Mike stuff the huge TV-sized box into the back seat.
She studied his face. Curly dark brown hair, large brown eyes under bushy brows, a straight nose with a little bitty bump in the middle, full lips. Luscious lips. She'd felt them on hers the first time the previous fall, after the Ft. Branch basketball game. He'd come out of the locker room where she was talking with Ashley and Gina, and they looked at each other and--well, she hadn't been the same since.
Mike grunted and kneed the box up onto the seat. He looked real serious. That's probably what they meant when they said someone had "knitted brows," she figured. And boy, did he have the brows to knit. She leaned toward him and patted the box.
"Careful, there," she said. "You break this thing, my whole life's down the tubes."
His eyes rolled up. "Right, right. Jeez, you'd think I was some kind of dweeb."
"Not just 'some kind,' dahling," she said. "The very best kind."
He grinned and pushed the box farther in. "I'll ride back here with it," he said. He jumped in beside the box and slammed the door.
She glanced again at the strange shop doorway they'd just carried the box through. It was like a regular door up to waist high, then it got wider. The top part was shaped like a huge upside-down turnip pushed right into the brick wall. It looked like it was out of a mosque in the Far East or something, like she'd seen on the news. She shook her head and shifted into drive.
"I still don't remember that doorway," she said. "Eppe's drug store there onthe left, sure. The barber shop on the right, absolutely. They've probably been around ever since our Founding Fathers first camped here. But I sure don't remember that store. Do you?"
"Well, not really. But there it is."
"Well, duh, Mikey, of course there it is. It's just that--well, somebody would remember a door like that."
She shrugged and peeled out, then tapped the brakes to avoid a collision. She dramatically wiped her hand across her forehead, and said "whew" for effect. Downtown Bloomingdale was sure busy. Horns blasted, people shouted--you'd think you were in Chicago or something, not a little town in Indiana.
She stopped at another light, and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel as she watched people go in and out of offices and stores. She usually shopped at Cordova Mall, south of town. She'd never even considered shopping on Main Street until she saw this unbelievable, super-deal Bernina sewing machine newspaper ad.
The light changed and she floored it. Oops! Too late, she remembered the sewing machine. She stomped the brake. Mike bounced against the front seat.
"Sorry. The machine okay?"
"Let me move this broken leg out of the way and check it," he said.
She smiled. He was a funny guy, that Mikey. She turned right on Spring Avenue and slowed to make it through the timed lights. The traffic thinned and soon she was in the residential area, driving past dark green maples and an occasional red-splashed mimosa. Beech, Oak, Pine streets slipped by. She turned right at the next street, touched the brake, and glided to a stop in the driveway at 1410 Juniper. The two-story white frame house sat comfortably back on a trim lawn. She jumped out of the car and opened the back door.
"Careful, Mike. That's got to get me through three dresses in the next two weeks."
Mike backed out of the car, dragging the box onto the ground.
"They could've put handles on it," he said. "Here--grab the other end."
They picked up the box. She studied his face as he backed along the sidewalk toward the porch, looking over his shoulder. He glanced at the box to adjust his grip and--
"Watch out!" she said.
Too late. He missed the first porch step and the heavy load squished him against the railing. He landed on his rear end, and the box landed on him.
He grinned. "Saved the Machine," he said in his best science fiction voice. "A thousand died, but the Force lives on."
"A thousand and one, you keep that up. Hurry--we've got to get back to school."
They lugged the box up the stairs to her bedroom, and dumped it onto a card table. He glanced around.
"Ah, heaven," he said. "The royal dressing table, the royal bed. The royal chest of drawers, the royal bed. The royal mirror, the royal bed--"
"And you're a royal pain, Mike." But she smiled as she said it. He'd called her his Queen Bee ever since she designed the dress with the black and yellow horizontal stripes. After that, everything was royal. Okay, okay, it wasn't her best work. But she was still learning, right?
She glanced into the royal mirror. Nope. She didn't look like a bee, royal or otherwise. Bees didn't have black hair, black eyes, dark olive skin or dimpled chins. Or drop-dead figures, like Mike said she had. 'Nuff of that queen bee stuff, Mikey-boy, you got a real good deal here.
"Help me unwrap it," she said, with as much authority as she could muster. They tore at the Scotch tape and pulled the brown paper away, revealing a box covered with indecipherable foreign squiggles. She tore the box top open and Mike lifted the machine out. Its chrome trim sparkled.
"It says Berdina," he said, reading the one English word on the machine's side. He sounded disappointed. "Berdina with a "d." Sounds like Bernina, doesn't it?"
"That's what I thought it was," she said. "Bernina, not Berdina. I'm sure that's what the ad said. No wonder it was so cheap."
"I guess I still don't know what's wrong with your mom's sewing machine." He pointed to the scratched up thing on the floor. "Looks perfectly good to me."
"But all that one does is sew, Mike."
He stared at her.
"I mean--it doesn't do anything fancy. Like make buttonholes, things like that. It just sits there and sews straight lines. I need more than straight lines if I'm going to win that scholarship."
He picked up some plastic peanuts that had dropped on the floor, and she sighed. He loved her, she knew. But he could never in his whole life understand her devotion to designing dresses. She'd made clothes for her dolls, graduated to simple things for herself. Then she got into it real big. She took night sewing classes at Bloomingdale Community College, even though she was just a high school Junior. She subscribed to sewing magazines, and took out every library book that had anything at all to do with dress design.
And then the Albertson Fashion Design School in New York announced its scholarship contest. She'd read about it, and qualified to try for one of the five scholarships. Five in the whole nation! Mike said it was like his Bloomingdale Raiders making the state basketball finals.
Mike put the peanuts into the box and shoved it into the closet. "Take in a movie tonight?"
"Can't. Got to meet the girls at the fabric store. Two weeks, Mikey Sweetbuns. Sure your dad doesn't mind doing the pictures?"
"I blackmailed him," Mike said. "He's downright eager."
She hugged him and headed for the hall door. His father, a professional freelance photographer, did assignments for big-time ad agencies and magazines. Mike was learning the business, too.
She glanced back at the sewing machine, sitting there next to the prom dress sketches. She'd been so sure it was a Bernina. She shrugged and they went out to the car. Mike slid into the passenger seat and she backed out of the driveway.
Then she remembered the newspaper page she'd torn out, now laying crumpled in the back seat where Mike had sat on it. "Check the ad, Mike," she said. "I know it says Bernina."
He got the paper, and she squeezed his leg. He was a good guy. Now she could sew those dresses for Ashley, Gina, and Sharon. Mr. Thompson would take the pictures on prom day, the girls would go to the dance, and she'd send the pictures and sketches to the contest headquarters. It was a great plan, actually.
Mike frowned at the newspaper. "We got a little problem here," he said.
"What do you mean? It says Berdina?"
"Well? Well, what?"
He was quiet.
"It doesn't say anything."
She waited for the punch line. "What do you mean?" she said, finally.
"We both read the ad, right? Took it into the store with us, even. Right?"
"Well, it's--the ad's disappeared right out of the newspaper!"
There he goes. Teasing again.
She glanced at him, ready for a real zinger of a come-back.
But wait. He was serious. She'd seen that look before.
Something was going on.
No, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore. A shiver went all the way up and down her spine.