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By Richie Tankersley Cusick
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Richie Tankersley Cusick
All rights reserved.
Three Weeks Later
There it was again—that feeling of being watched.
Ryan paused at the edge of the school parking lot, oblivious to the horde of students around her. As her heart raced uneasily, she glanced back at Fadiman High and squared her shoulders. "It's Christmastime," she mumbled to herself. "And no more bad things can happen, because it's my favorite time of year."
"There you go again," a familiar voice said with a sigh, so close behind her that she jumped.
"Oh, Phoebe, you scared me to death! I didn't hear you!"
"Didn't hear me?" Phoebe's mouth twitched, and she nodded at the jostling crowds around them. "You mean, standing here in the middle of a wild stampede, and you didn't hear me coming?" She smiled then, showing her dimples, but it quickly faded as she watched Ryan solemnly scanning the rows of cars, the laughing groups of kids. "Ryan ... did you hear me? Hey, are you—"
"Fine," the other girl finished mechanically. The lot held only the usual faces and voices, and she flashed Phoebe a look that was almost guilty. "For a minute—I don't know ..."
"Someone following you again?" Phoebe giggled. "I keep telling you, it's probably just some guy trying to get up his nerve to ask you to the New Year's dance!"
"No ... I don't think so. Oh, well, it's probably nothing. Just the season. You know how I get this time of year."
"Yeah, more like a little kid than usual," Phoebe responded fondly, falling into step beside her. "Believing in everything. Magic and wishes and Santa Claus and—"
"Well, why not? It's just as easy to believe as not to."
Phoebe studied her a moment, then added softly, "Even though this Christmas will be so ... different?"
Again Ryan studied the leaden sky, her heart feeling suddenly as heavy. "You can say her name, Phoebe. I'd rather you say her name than just act like she never existed or something." She saw the flush on her friend's face and immediately took Phoebe's hand. "I'm sorry. It's just that ... it still doesn't seem real that Marissa's dead. I keep thinking I see her every time I turn around.... I think I hear her calling me when I'm home. And people still stare at me—"
"You're imagining it," Phoebe broke in. "And even if they are looking, it's just because ... you know ... they're sorry."
"No. I know what they're thinking."
Phoebe took a deep breath and patted Ryan gently on the back. "Come on. You told me you weren't going to start all this again."
"I can't help it. I know when Mom looks at me, she's seeing Marissa and wishing things were all switched around—"
"Ryan ... please don't keep doing this to yourself. I can't stand to see you so unhappy." Phoebe stopped and stared earnestly into her friend's face. "You've got to stop feeling responsible for what happened. There wasn't anything you could do—it was just a freaky thing."
"But I didn't save her." Ryan's eyes teared up. "And we'd been fighting—"
"Sisters fight all the time, Ryan, please—and you couldn't have known there was water underneath that snow—"
"If only we hadn't gone up there ... if only she hadn't gone with me." Ryan closed her eyes, trying to shut out the regrets she'd gone over so many, many times before. She didn't feel Phoebe take her shoulders and give her a gentle shake.
"It wasn't anybody's fault," Phoebe insisted. "Think about it, Ryan, how many people you could blame for what happened that day. You told me yourself, Mr. Partini's still never gotten over it. And your mom's the one who made Marissa go with you. And poor Steve—he suggested you check out North Woods. And I had to help my mom, so I couldn't go with you. Maybe if I had, Marissa wouldn't have died. Maybe if I'd gone, we both could have saved her. Do you blame me for what happened?"
"Of course not," Ryan said in a tight voice. "But I'm the one who left her. And one second I had ahold of her—and—then—" She raised haunted brown eyes to Phoebe's clear blue ones. "She was gone, Phoebe. She was trying so hard—and then she was just gone."
"Oh, Ryan"—Phoebe looked like she was going to cry herself—"it was just a horrible accident. It's awful, and it's tragic, but it happened, and it wasn't your fault! "
"If only I hadn't gotten mad at her—I was so mean—"
"Ryan, you couldn't be mean to anybody." Phoebe thought a moment, then gave Ryan her let's-be-logical look. "Think about me and Jinx! We're always at each other's throats, and I really am mean to him because I like to be, and nothing bad ever happens to him! Am I making sense?"
"No." Ryan stared at her a long moment and, in spite of herself, had to smile. "It's not the same. You'd be glad if something awful happened to Jinx."
"You're right. I would." As Phoebe pretended to wistfully consider the possibility, Ryan gave her a shove.
"I know I am. That's why I have you—to balance me out." Phoebe nodded, and then her face went serious again. "Ryan, you've got to get on with your own life. I swear I'm not trying to minimize what's happened, but you're going to make yourself crazy if you keep on like this."
Ryan sighed. "Come on, you can walk me to work." She did smile then, much to Phoebe's relief, and they headed away from school and started through town. "Remember that red shirt I got Marissa last Christmas? You and I got it at that discount store and it was on sale, and we thought it was so glamorous?"
Phoebe tilted back her head and laughed out loud. "And she wore it out that night without a coat, and it rained—"
"And it was her first date with that weird guy she'd been drooling over for so long—"
"And the blouse got all wet—"
"And the color ran out all over everything—"
"The poor guy thought she was bleeding to death—"
"And she was so mad at us, she wouldn't talk to us for weeks!"
They were roaring with laughter now, and it felt so good, washing over the deep, deep pain, soothing it away. Phoebe linked her arm through Ryan's and tugged her down the sidewalk.
"You get a tree yet?"
"No. I keep bringing it up, and Mom keeps ignoring me. All she does is drag herself to work, come home, and sit in Marissa's room. She still keeps the door closed ... sometimes she even locks it. It's like a shrine or something."
"Tell Steve," Phoebe said helpfully.
"I guess I'll have to. He's the only one in her life these days."
"Ooh." Phoebe winced. "I know a nasty when I hear one."
"Well, it's true," Ryan said defensively. "And the thing about you is—"
"I'm so smart."
"You think you are," Ryan corrected, trying not to smile. "Just because you've known me since first grade—"
"And we were best friends from day one—"
"Doesn't give you the right—"
"To know you so well," Phoebe finished triumphantly. "Come on, Ryan, you might as well accept the fact that your mom's going to marry Steve someday—she's crazy about him! As a matter of fact,I'm crazy about him."
"You're crazy about every guy. In fact, you're just crazy."
Phoebe thought a moment, then nodded. "So I have a very healthy attitude about the opposite sex. Why couldn't Steve have just met me first?"
Ryan shook her head indulgently. "I thought you were all for him and Mom."
"I am! I think it's cute. And I think he's cute. That smile of his—and he's so funny—the way his hair's a little thin on top—and that mole on his—"
"God, Phoebe, what have you been doing, watching our house with binoculars?"
"I also like the fact that he has a sports car and a boat and likes to treat you and me to dinner a lot. Face it—not every widow gets a second chance at love—and it's a good idea for your mom to think of financial security."
Ryan couldn't help chuckling. "You sound like a commercial. And the money must be in his family because I know college professors don't make that much."
"A college professor," Phoebe said dreamily. "He's so intelligent, too."
"Forget it, Phoebe, you'd make a terrible professor's wife." Ryan ducked her head as a cold blast of wind rushed at them along the sidewalk. "And anyway, he's going to interview for a department chairman's position at another university, so he might be moving away."
"No! You didn't tell me! When?"
"In a few days. Mom's already starting to mope."
"So if they do get married, maybe your mom'll have a brand-new start in a brand-new place." Phoebe looked pleased. "That's good for her. Now we just have to worry about you."
Ryan sighed. "Don't worry about me."
"You need a boyfriend," Phoebe said stubbornly.
"I don't want one."
"Yes, you do, and especially now. Steve and your mom are a twosome. And ... well ... you're not."
Ryan felt arguments welling up inside her, but as Phoebe held her in a steady gaze, she sighed again and gave in.
"Why are you doing this to me?"
"Because you need a guy! Ryan, you are the most giving, the most caring person in the whole world! Except to me, that is. It's just that you and your mom both lost someone you love, and now your mom's got Steve and you don't have anyone. Life's not fair, but that's the way it is." She nodded for emphasis, then cast Ryan a sly look. "I'm still in love with Steve, you understand, but I don't think life's fair."
"Well, if life were fair, Marissa wouldn't have died." If life were fair, it would have been me who fell through the ice, not Marissa, and Mom would be happier and things would seem more normal and right. ...
"If life were fair, I wouldn't have Jinx. Little brothers would be against the law. Especially ones who are only a year younger." Phoebe rolled her eyes. "If life were fair, I'd be an only child. Or the trolls would have stolen him at birth."
"So what's Jinx done now?" Ryan asked, amused. Through all their growing-up years together, she couldn't remember a time when Jinx hadn't been a constant source of irritation to her friend.
"What's he done?" Phoebe echoed. "He hasn't done anything. He doesn't have to do anything except exist. He doesn't have to do anything except be his own obnoxious self. Isn't mat bad enough?" She looked slightly incredulous. "Can you believe girls actually call him? He gets phone calls all the time at home. Carla Smith called—and she's a senior! Girls think he's cute! And "—she paused for effect—"I have my suspicions that he's got his heart set on Tiffany Taylor! Seriously!"
Ryan chuckled. "You're kidding—that little sophomore cheerleader who walks like this and giggles all the time? I thought she was interested in what's-his-name—that nerdy guy in Jinx's class—"
"That's what I heard, too—the junior class vice president. Wow. Tiffany and Jinx—can you even imagine? Or that anyone in her right mind would think Jinx is cute!"
"Well ..." Ryan said generously, "he can be kind of cute when he wants to be. With that baby face of his."
"Yeah, when he thinks he's in trouble, or when he wants something. You can have him. I'll give him to you. For free! If life were really fair, you'd take him."
"And if I had a dollar for every single time you've threatened to give him to me—"
"See?" Phoebe shot her an accusing look. "You don't want him, either! If life were really fair, my parents would lock him up someplace and throw away the key. And ... I'd have naturally curly hair." She laughed, looking pleased with herself as Ryan regarded her in disbelief.
"You are so impossible! I'd give anything to have hair like yours. Look at this—brown hair, brown eyes—dull! If life were fair, I'd be blond. And I'd have a million dollars."
"Well ... you're rich in friendship. You have me!"
"Oooh ... bad."
Phoebe laughed and started to hug her, then suddenly shook her arm. "Look over there—on that corner by the bus stop—isn't that Winchester Stone?"
As Ryan followed Phoebe's stare, she felt a strange flutter go through her chest, and she quickly ducked her head. "Yes, that's him. Come on, don't look, let's just keep walking."
"He is the most gorgeous guy I have ever seen—"
"Come on, Phoebe, quit looking at him. Just hurry up—"
"I mean it, Ryan, he is so sexy. And to think your sister actually went out with him."
"You know she only did it so all her friends would be jealous. She used him. After a couple dates she lost interest."
"Oh," Phoebe moaned, "I wish he hadn't graduated last year—maybe I'd have had a chance, now that we're finally seniors."
"From what I hear, he doesn't have a girlfriend," Ryan said casually. "Why don't you get Jinx to fix you up? He's always down at the garage."
"Oh, him and his creepy little friends—and Winchester's teaching them all to work on cars—God!" Phoebe made a fist and beat on her forehead. "Working with Winchester practically every day! Can you imagine being that close to Winchester every day!"
Ryan toyed with the thought, then pushed it firmly away. "What does Jinx say about him?"
"Nothing. Nobody knows anything about Winchester. You never see him with friends ... you never see him with girls—not that every female I've ever talked to wouldn't sell her soul to go out with him! You have to admit he's gorgeous. You have to have noticed—"
"Well, of course I've noticed. He used to come by for Marissa—how could I help but notice?"
"Ha! And I bet you were hiding, I bet you never even came down to talk to him in person!"
"Well"—Ryan shrugged, her voice defensive—"he did come to see Marissa, after all. He didn't come to see me."
"Oh, Ryan, it's no wonder you never have a date. They're all afraid they'll give you a heart attack if they come near you!" Phoebe groaned in frustration. "Look at him. He has that shy look, but he's always in those tight jeans—"
"Phoebe, honestly!" Ryan shook her head, then shot a hasty glance back at the figure on the corner. "He's kind of a loner, I guess. Maybe he doesn't like having friends."
"Doesn't he ever come around to see you? To talk to your mom or anything?"
"No, why should he? I told you Marissa didn't care about him."
Phoebe couldn't resist looking back at the bus stop one more time. "Well, I still think it's strange, that a guy that great looking should be alone so much." She sighed, falling into step with Ryan once more. "I'd love to just talk to him. Just be alone with him and"—she shivered—"oh, I bet he's a great kisser. And other things—"
"Phoebe, will you quit looking at him!" Ryan tugged on the other girl's arm, and Phoebe immediately tripped over the curb. "You don't want him noticing us, but you keep looking back at him. Just stop it and try to walk like a normal person!"
At some unspoken signal, the girls began to run, not stopping again until they had turned a corner onto a dingy side street. As they slowed down and tried to catch their breath, Phoebe grinned and pointed to the brightly lit store window several feet ahead of them.
"Well, here we are! Cold weather and Christmas coming and this great job waiting for you! What more could you ask for?"
"A best friend with half a brain." Ryan grinned back. "An A on my history test tomorrow."
"Oh, darn, I forgot about that stupid test!"
"I have to make a good grade. I'm really doing awful in my classes."
Phoebe looked concerned. "But I thought the teachers were being really understanding."
"They are, but they can only be so understanding. I feel like I'm really losing it ... I can't concentrate ... I can't study ... I don't hear things in class ... sometimes I come to and realize time's passed, and it's like I've just blanked out."
"Give yourself time," Phoebe said. "It's only been a few weeks, and you've been through a lot. The teachers know that. Hey—I'll be by later to study, okay?"
"Okay. I'll make sure there's plenty of popcorn."
They paused on the sidewalk in front of a shabby brick building, smiling as they peered through the frost on the front window. Beyond a quaint sign reading PARTINI'S TOYSHOP, a Santa Claus doll supervised his workshop. In caps and aprons, amidst pots and wood shavings and sleepy-eyed reindeer, mechanical elves measured and cut, hammered and sawed, assembling toys while Christmas carols sang out from a hidden speaker. Ryan felt a rush of emotions go through her—an ache for her childhood, an emptiness for Marissa—and she gave Phoebe a playful shove to keep the tears from coming.
Excerpted from Fatal Secrets by Richie Tankersley Cusick. Copyright © 1992 Richie Tankersley Cusick. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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