Read an Excerpt
By Richie Tankersley Cusick
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Richie Tankersley Cusick
All rights reserved.
This is going to be a very weird day." Faye sighed. "I can feel it in the air."
Robin Bailey pushed her tousled brown hair back from her forehead and shifted her books to her other arm. Shivering, she paused at the corner, frowning back at her friend.
"Just ..." Faye shrugged. "I don't know. Weird. Strange things are going to happen. I mean, like this weather. Doesn't it make you feel creepy?"
Robin peered into the drizzly autumn sky. Wet leaves swirled through the air on a gust of cold wind, and the heavy gray clouds threatened more rain.
"It's always like this in October. What's so strange about it?"
"It's this feeling I get—like my skin goes all prickly and my heart beats fast." Faye paused dramatically and put one hand to her chest. "I got this very same feeling right before Zak broke up with Gina Carmichael and asked me to the dance instead of her."
"So that makes you a prophetess?" Robin hid a smile. "And speaking of the dance, don't forget we're supposed to go look for your dress today and—"
"Oh, Robin, I can't!" Faye stopped in her tracks and looked beseechingly at her friend. "Zak asked me out after school! I have to go!"
"Faye, you don't have to do anything except die. You don't even have to pay taxes yet." Robin bit her lip and struggled for patience. "You know the dance will be here before you know it, and then you're going to panic because you don't have anything to wear. You can see Zak another time."
"But that's just it, I can't!" Faye's whole body sagged, as if the very thought of being separated from her new boyfriend was more than she could bear. "This is the one day he doesn't have football practice! You don't want me to go back on my promise, do you?"
Robin stared at the other girl. She and Faye had been friends for so long, she could predict every dramatic gesture and exaggerated emotion that Faye could ever think to come up with. She knew a lot of kids found Faye's poise and perfect looks intimidating—that a lot of them wondered why she and Faye were so close—but Robin was the only one who ever stood up to Faye, the only one who could be totally honest and get away with it. Now, as she regarded her friend in tolerant amusement, Robin blinked her blue eyes and tried to keep her voice calm.
"Faye. Ever since you started seeing Zak, you've backed out on a lot of promises. All of them to me."
"Well, can I help it if you don't have a boyfriend?" Faye shot back, then immediately looked contrite. "I'm sorry, Robin, I know it's different for you 'Cause there's no special guy in your life. But you're my best friend. You're supposed to understand these things. Zak is really important to me!"
Robin opened her mouth, then shut it again. She knew it was no use arguing—when Faye had a new love in her life, the rest of the world conveniently ceased to exist.
"Come on," she said, squeezing Faye's elbow. "We're going to be late."
Faye nodded in relief as they hurried across the street and rounded another corner. The bus stop was still four blocks away, and they were already breathless from the raw October chill.
"Still no luck with the Florida trip, huh?" Faye ventured cautiously.
Robin barely glanced at her. "With Brad's college expenses—and Mom going back to school, too—there's just no way she can come up with money for me. Even if it is for the trip of a lifetime."
"But did you tell her Vicki's parents are letting us have the condo for free? For the whole Thanksgiving vacation? All we have to do is buy food—"
"And plane tickets. Of course I told her that. And she really wants me to go, but I have to pay for it myself."
"What about all that money you get from tutoring? And baby-sitting? And helping out in the school office?"
"All that money?" Robin couldn't help laughing. "Yeah, like I get paid for helping people with their homework! And I do have to buy clothes, you know, and—oh, Faye, there goes the bus!"
Both girls stopped and watched helplessly as the taillights of their school bus faded into the mist far up the street. Faye threw her books down onto the sidewalk and swore loudly.
"Why does this always happen! Every time I spend the night at your house to study, we oversleep and miss the bus, and now we'll get points taken off that stupid math test just because we're late—" She broke off abruptly and gave Robin an accusing look. "See? I told you it was going to be a weird day!"
"Faye, every day with you is a weird day. Hurry up—let's cut through Manorwood. It'll be quicker."
Faye had leaned over to retrieve her books and now paused in midstretch to stare at her friend.
"With someone living there now? You really are demented."
"No, I'm not. I'm being very sensible, as usual. The hole's still there in the fence—no one's gotten around to fixing it yet. We might as well use it as long as we can."
"Robin, are you out of your mind? The Swansons live there now. Parker Swanson lives there now. Or have you somehow failed to notice who Parker Swanson is?"
"The new god at Lewis High," Robin said dryly. "How could I miss that?"
He'd been at school nearly two weeks now—and all of Robin's friends could recall the exact moment Parker Swanson had made his grand entrance into their lives. To hear them talk, he was a walking miracle: sun-bleached hair, sea-green eyes, disarming grin, confident walk. The first day he'd breezed into study hall, all the girls had immediately passed around a secret ballot, making bets on who he'd ask out first. It had been a tie between Vicki and Faye, naturally, because they were both beautiful and popular and had that rare and enviable talent for making guys fall head over heels in love with them. Robin's name had been last on the list.
"You're too ... well, you know ... serious," Faye had scolded her when the final results were in. "Guys don't like it when you come off like you're judging them."
"I'm not judging them," Robin had argued. "I just think most of them are stupid."
"They are. But you can't let them know you think so."
"How can I not let them know? I do homework for half of them now."
Robin would never have admitted it to Faye, but there'd actually been one split second in the beginning when she'd wondered if Parker Swanson might come to her and beg her to help him through English lit. But after just a few days it was clear he'd never be seeking out her tutoring skills. Not only was he always ready with an answer when called upon in class, his answer was always right, and that smile of his never failed to totally charm the teachers.
"If they catch us sneaking around on their property, do you think they'll call the police?" Faye's voice brought Robin back to the present. "I'd hate to miss the math test and get expelled all in the same day."
"We're not sneaking—we're just borrowing one little corner. And people this rich wouldn't bother with the police anyway," Robin said, starting off again. "They'd just have their caretaker shoot us."
Faye burst out laughing and fell into step beside her.
"You mean Skaggs? He couldn't handle anything but a beer can and a liquor bottle. Why in the world do you think he's still working here at Manorwood when he's got a job helping the janitor out at school now?"
"Because he needs lots of jobs for his drinking money. Plus the fact that he's worked here at Manorwood for years, through all the different owners, and in spite of his sleaziness, he still knows the grounds better than anyone else. And he works cheap."
"Gosh"—Faye rolled her eyes—"I'd even consider being their groundskeeper if it meant being close to Parker Swanson. I'd give anything to see the inside of the house, wouldn't you? I mean—think about it. Whoever ends up with Parker Swanson gets everything—him, his car, his house, his money—"
"His arrogance," Robin cut in. Before Faye could answer, she hurried across another street to where a high iron fence bordered the sidewalk.
Manorwood still stood at the edge of one of the oldest neighborhoods, a venerable and stately reminder of long-ago days when the original estate had included acres of surrounding countryside and town was miles away. The old mansion was perched high on its rocky crag, hidden away behind its fences and private forest, along with a varying succession of reclusive owners. It had been a surprise for everyone, then, when the Swansons moved in, with a son enrolled in the local high school and a maid who actually spoke to people when she did the grocery shopping. Robin supposed she should feel the tiniest bit guilty about trespassing on the new owners, but she and Faye had been taking this shortcut for so many years now, they'd come to consider this corner of Manorwood their own personal thoroughfare.
"Were you really serious about Skaggs shooting us?" Faye whispered.
"Faye," Robin moaned.
"Well, he probably would shoot us if he had half a chance. At school he's always scowling at everyone like he hates the human race."
"That's because he's never been a member of the human race. He hates anyone who messes things up so he has to work. And anyway, why are you worrying? Skaggs wouldn't be out here now—he'd be at school. He only works here after school and on weekends."
Faye made a face. "What a sleaze. I still think the Swansons could have found someone much more—you know—distinguished—to work for them."
"And you don't think Skaggs is distinguished?" Robin faked surprise. "That classical face—all those pockmarks and scars—his broken nose—the bristles on his chin—"
"Stop! Stop! I'm going to throw up!"
Robin chuckled but couldn't suppress a shudder. "But I agree—he makes my skin crawl. His eyes look right through you. He reminds me of a snake that can't find a rock to crawl under." She gave Faye an impatient push toward the fence. "See anyone around?"
Faye's eyes quickly swept the deserted street and sidewalks. "All clear."
"Great. After you."
Faye worked her way in under a tangled mass of shrubbery and promptly disappeared through a concealed opening near the bottom of the fence.
"Still all clear. Hand me your stuff."
As Robin shoved her books underneath the bushes and prepared to follow, the sudden blare of a car horn made her straighten up again and turn. A second later a sleek red sports car squealed up onto the curb, promptly spraying her with mud before she could get out of the way.
"Hey!" a voice called smoothly. "Need a ride?"
To Robin's utter dismay, a young man leaned out the window and gave her an easy grin, crossing his tanned arms and sweeping her casually with a pair of startling green eyes.
"You—you—" Robin stared down at her clothes, at the huge globs of mud splattered there. "Look what you've done to my sweater!"
"You do go to Lewis High, right?" His voice sounded amused, and as his eyes raked her again from head to foot, Robin felt herself blush furiously. "Fourth period English. You sit in the third row. Right beside that airhead who thinks everything's funny."
This time the blush turned from fury to indignation.
"Her name is Faye, and she happens to be the smartest girl in the whole senior class."
"Next to you, you mean," he corrected with a chuckle. "Come on, get in."
Robin drew herself up stiffly. "No, thank you."
"You're gonna be late."
He watched her a moment, his grin widening slowly.
"Suit yourself," he said, and as he roared off again, Robin just managed to avoid being drenched a second time. She was so angry she hardly noticed when the bushes rattled beside her and Faye's head thrust out beneath the dead leaves.
"Robin!" she shrieked. "Do you realize what you've done!"
"Yes. Turned down a ride with a total jerk."
"Parker Swanson! That was Parker Swanson! In his expensive car!"
"Faye"—Robin gave her a withering look—"the guy called you an airhead."
"So it means he noticed me!" Faye wriggled out onto the sidewalk and stood up, brushing herself off excitedly. "He knows who I am! He knows who you are! I don't believe this—we could have ridden to school with Parker Swanson! Everyone would have been so jealous. He might even have asked me out—before Vicki! I could have touched him!"
"Don't be ridiculous. Come on, I can feel more and more points slipping away on that math test—"
"Well, it's your fault!" Faye still looked slightly stunned. "It's your fault if I don't get asked out before Vicki does, and it's your fault if I flunk that stupid test 'Cause I'm late! You should have thought about that, Robin! There are other feelings to consider here besides yours, you know."
Robin sighed, giving Faye a shove toward the shrubbery once more. "Trust me. You're better off without this guy. And what about poor Zak, the love of your life?"
"Just because I'm going with Zak doesn't mean I'm dead," Faye grumbled, but she squeezed back through the fence and pulled Robin in after her. "And by the way, when you tell the girls about this, they're gonna think you made the whole thing up."
"I wasn't planning on telling them."
"Of course we have to tell them! Are you kidding?" Faye shot her an incredulous look as Robin grabbed her arm and gave her a push.
"Faye, come on—if we're late now, it's your fault!"
The girls began to run, dodging trees and low-hanging limbs and drifts of dead, soggy leaves. Mist hung in the air like a thin, pale curtain, distorting objects that lay beyond, indistinct, shapeless things crouching in damp shadows. As Robin stumbled over a fallen branch and dropped her books, Faye went on ahead, laughing back at Robin's clumsiness.
"Maybe Parker Swanson was right about you after all," Robin called after her friend.
"What's that?" Faye retorted, still not bothering to stop.
Robin gritted her teeth and pulled one of her notebooks from the mud. She reached for her pen and saw that it was lying in a deep, smudged footprint half filled with water.
Maybe someone else has been using our shortcut.
The thought made Robin uneasy, and she glanced quickly over her shoulder, half expecting someone to jump out at her from the fog.
"I said," Faye's voice called back, startling her, "how was Parker Swanson right about me after all?"
Robin shrugged and wiped her pen off on one leg of her jeans. "About you being an airhead who thinks everything's—"
And then she stopped, her eyes widening, one hand frozen only inches above the ground.
For an endless moment she stared down at her fingertips, and then, slowly, she raised her hand toward her face and gazed at the thick streaks of red running down her fingers and along her open palm.
"Faye!" she cried.
"What is it?" Faye's voice sounded impatient and very faraway.
Robin's gaze dropped once more to the ground. She saw the wide rut worn through the leaves—as though something heavy had been dragged there—and the dark red swashes, thick and jellylike swirled in the mud ...
And as she reached out, trembling, to brush some leaves away, she saw the splintered twigs and bits of broken pinecones, all tangled together with clumps of dark hair.
Excerpted from Help Wanted by Richie Tankersley Cusick. Copyright © 1993 Richie Tankersley Cusick. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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