(...and boots and cats and...)

(...and boots and cats and...)

A Story by -holden-

"Born-Late" punk, Vera McAlister, has just discovered the cure for her Santa Cruz, summertime blues. The risk and the price tag are high. The rewards could be even higher.




   - Part One -


       “You can want what you want, but you can only have what you can get.”                      

























This June 16th was as "June-a-16th" as any June 16th in Vera McAlister's recent reckoning. The only major differences were to be found within the jagged shards of window pane, crunching and cracking indifferently, under the heavy soles of her battle scarred boots. The snapping and scraping sounds had the unexpected effect of soothing her very raw nerves, graciously taking her mind off the smarting lip she had sported for the last twenty minutes. With an OCD edge on, Vera continued to work the pile under foot, breaking larger pieces into smaller bits.

"When did all this happen?" she asked herself, wondering whether the old man had discovered the damage yet.

The "House of the Broken Window" belonged to Abraham Jorrisch a.k.a. "Old Man Jorrisch." The entire neighborhood was well aware of the property, with its unwieldy, and overgrown, weeds and shrubs that were matched only by its sole occupant’s thick, snowy eyebrows.

Vera did not regularly concern herself with thoughts of the old man. This was not because she was an inconsiderate young person, but more accurately because the serious consideration of the righteously rebellious nature of modern teen living, took a hugenormous amount of her free time. Being, as it seemed to her, the only person at her school who truly understood the struggle, Vera couldn't spare an instant.

Vera wasn’t sure she possessed a legitimate memory of ever being face to face with the old man, or his wife, before she passed. She supposed that her impressions of the man may have been fueled by his urban legend status, in and around the neighborhood.

Truthfully, it had been six months, or more, since her last memorable nightmare about the old man, or the eyesore he called "Home." Most of these featured a toddler version of herself being pushed passed the house in a stroller, usually by her mother, as the leathery skinned senior citizen shook his cane at the younger Vera. Sometimes the scenario included the old man asking Vera’s mom for advice about his begonias. Weird. 

So today, it wasn’t curiosity, or some morbid fascination about the venerable hermit, that caused Vera to walk down Blister Avenue, skirting past the ancient tumbledown two-story. In fact, the monstrosity was two blocks out of Vera’s way, coming home from the community pool at Mertenz Park. It would have been quicker, and easier, to have exited the park, heading east for the three and a half, arrow-straight, blocks it took to reached "1493 E. Pritchett Lane, Santa Cruz, Ca. United States of America," where Vera had lived, or maybe  survived would be more accurate, for all of her sixteen-plus years. Today, however, Rooney Wilkes, teen "Stoner" in residence, had made the regrettable decision to swipe Vera's Doctor Marten's, as she sunned herself, on the cement deck surrounding the pool. The self-same boots she now used to grind glass back into sand. The boots which Vera removed only when engaging in the three "S's": Showering, Swimming and Sleeping.

As suggested by every decent story of time-travel, the smallest of events can generate ever-widening ripples of change into the future. Within this act of "Brutal Unawareness," Rooney's petty-theft prank had provided the required splash, which would alter the natural order of things.







Lying on her stomach, Vera could feel the deep warmth of the early, summer sun. School had been out for three and a half weeks, and per her immutable summer vacation ritual, she had reached the pool at 2:30 sharp. Upon arrival, she found that the last spot on the deck (Her spot) located at the far end, was pleasantly and predictably vacant. It was as though the posted "Pool Rules" somehow contained a seventh, unwritten rule, declaring the space at the end to be reserved for Vera McAlister. To date, she'd never had occasion to punitively enforce the mythical statute.

Today, like every other "Pool" day, Vera's perfected routine was simple; A quick rinse off at the outdoor shower station, followed by a generous application of "Body Love", the premier suntan lotion in the Surf City area, found only in a few of the best, most authentic, non-touristy surf shops in town. Vera was not (For God’s sake) a surfer. She was simply one of the genetically fortunate few, who needed no special gimmicks to achieve a very natural, healthy looking tan, so the lotion, with its appetizing blend of coconut, mango, pineapple, and papaya, acted primarily as aroma therapy.  Once she had achieved the appropriate level of deliciousness, Vera implemented the finally steps; twenty minutes on each side, face-up, face-down,  a dip in the deep end, and repeat as desired.

Vera was in the middle of her third rotation, with thirteen minutes to go, according to the timer on her phone. She fixed her thoughts on the gentle, cooling breezes working their way across her moist shoulders, back, and legs. The California air had already dried the six week old, fire engine tips of her spikey, jet-black hair. Up against a deep, native tan, the saturated red was impressive.

Vera had momentarily drifted off into early-afternoon slumbers, being lulled by the sun, the breeze, and the tinny sounds of A.M. radio. As always, an old-school boom box, situated under the lifeguard stand, was begrudgingly tuned to A.M. 690, "The Golden Past" featuring "The Biggest Smash Hits of the 60's, 70's, & the 80's." The marimba solo, from the middle of "Moonlight Feels Right", was in its 4th measure as Vera withdrew deeper into her dreamscape. Her tiny, ruby nose stud pulsed up and down each time she exhaled.

Because Vera had never seen an actual marimba, the setting of her dreams consisted merely of a Caribbean beach; waves and sand, and a guy hammering away at a broken-down xylophone. She was lying on her stomach, staring into the dreamy eyes of Jimmy Tadesky, second year senior, who had sat next to Vera in Spanish last year, and was now returning her gaze.

All was tranquility. All was bliss.


Fantasy ended.

And so, with a sound reminiscent of a phonograph needle being dragged across sacred vinyl, Vera was un-righteously jerked back to the here and now. The droning mockery of Rooney Wilkes had derailed her beautiful vision.

Rising onto her elbows, Vera craned her head around for a better view in the direction of the disturbance. The sun's brilliance creased her youthful face as she squinted.

"Too bright," she grumbled in disgust.

Vera's down-side cheek suddenly felt wet. Not certain whether it was drool or pool water, she smudged it off with her shoulder, then lowered her leopard print, cat's eye sunglasses into place, from their perch on the top of her head.

Rooney, the self-inaugurated funny man of the hour, was "On point" at the business end of the diving board. Above his head, he swung Vera's sanctified footwear, by their heavy-duty laces. Second by second, he extended his reach out over the water.

Vera's reaction, to all that she witnessed, was just as Rooney had predicted it would be, when he had outlined the prank to the mob of teenaged "Pot" boys who huddled around the bottom of the board, forming a cigarette-paper-thin hedge of protection for their king, and court jester .

In a second, Vera was on her feet, en route to the scene of the massacre she was presently planning.

"ROONEY, GIVE EM BACK NOW!" she screamed, without tolerance, as she conducted her thin, shimmering, five-foot-five, one-hundred and seven pound frame onward. The thud of her bare heels striking the hot, cement pool deck, as she approached the board, was easily heard by the assortment of bystanders and onlookers.

Rooney hopped sluggishly from one foot to the other, like an overly medicated kindergartner; leading the laughter for the gaggle of spectators, while his free hand was occupied with the awkward task of pulling up his sagging swim trunks.

"GIVE EM BACK, YOU B*****D!" Vera shouted.

All eyes were now trained on the diving area, as the "Hunter" prepared to engage the "Hunted." Without a full understanding of just how, or why, he had done it, Rooney now reckoned that he'd pushed the wrong buttons in Vera McAlister. It was coming clear to him, that Vera’s capacity to see the humor in the situation was utterly exhausted, if, in fact, it had ever existed at all.

Dean Temple, the sole lifeguard on duty, was suddenly reanimated. His eyes flashed, behind his mirrored shades, at the sound of Vera's vocal violation of the "Pool Rules” (No.2, to be precise. *Use of Inappropriate or Abusive Language.)

"VERA!" Dean shouted, with irritation that was measurable on the Richter scale. "VERA, COME HERE!"

It was too late. Tunnel vision had set in. Vera had a "Target Lock" on Rooney. His face quickly drained of color, seeing just how close she now was. There was nothing left for Rooney to do but run, and yet Vera had already covered too much ground while he carelessly continued to work the crowd. The sum of Rooney Wilkes’ list of intoxicated blunders was his failure to provide himself an escape route. Swimmers were now disbursing wildly in all directions as Vera reached the base of the diving board's ladder. Witnessing Vera’s ire, at close range, caused Rooney’s lieutenants to hastily abandon their post.

With only the deep end of the pool available to him, Rooney tossed the clunky boots at Vera as she reached the top step. Scrambling inelegantly over the end of the board, Rooney Wilkes resembled an Olympic long jumper who had woefully gotten off on the wrong foot.

Witnesses erupted in communal groans as Rooney’s right side flatly broke the water's surface, and the sound barrier.

Vera rushed down the ladder, clutching her boots tightly, as more grade school, witnesses scuttled aside. Keeping her eye on Rooney's movements, she tried to suss-out which side of the pool he would head for.

"VERA, GET OVER HERE NOW!" Dean shouted again.

Seeing her chance, Vera dropped the boots on the deck, near the water’s edge. She executed a stealthy dive, cutting across the pool’s width, as Rooney reached for the ladder on the opposite side. His upper-half had already cleared the water’s surface when he felt the waistband of his O.P.'s coming down hard. There was another feeling as well.


Vera's mad grab at his swim trunks resulted in four, multi-inch-long, claw marks that trailing down Rooney's lower back, as her nails tried catching hold of fabric.


The trunks had already come down far enough to expose the only un-tanned part of his body, as Rooney extended his knee, standing up, one-legged on the ladder's bottom rung. Her grip was not loosening in the least. With his other leg, he kicked at Vera. The poolside entertainment was now, way past funny to Rooney, who felt both pain, and humiliation because of a "Skeez" who couldn't take a joke.

"LET GO OF ME SKEEZ!" His voice was pitched several octaves higher than he had realized it could go. The pain rose again. Another aimless stab with his kicking foot met with something solid, and Vera's hold was relinquished as she pulled her hand quickly to her face. He got her all right. He got her good, right in the mouth.

Vera made a slow, side-crawl back to the ladder on the pool's opposite side, keeping pressure against her mouth with her free hand. After making several tries, in vain, Vera recognized it was just too hard to climb the ladder one-handed. Her mouth ached, her nose stung, and her eyes watered. She removed her left hand from her face and grabbed the ladder rail. It slipped down the brushed, aluminum pole with a smear of dark red.

Tanya and Terrie (Varsity Co-cheer Captains at Costa Del Mar High School) watched from their deck chairs as Vera ascended the ladder. They were the first to see the bulging lip, at the right corner of her mouth, and the water-diluted stream of blood working its way down her chin and throat.

"Nasty!" said Terrie, sitting up and pointing.

"You look like hell Girl," Tanya laughed, through her imported, Texas drawl.

Having finally achieved a firm enough hold on the rail with her right hand, Vera extended a non-verbal finger in reply to her detractors. Terrie, who had already resumed her horizontal position, hadn't witnessed Vera's suggestion. Tanya had seen it and faithfully returned the salute.

As soon as she was on solid footing, Vera looked around for the boots she had hastily discarded in the micro-seconds before her plunge. She soon discovered that they had tumbled under the lifeguard stand and were laying on their sides in a puddle of splash water.

"Vera, get your stuff and get out! You're banished for the rest of the week." Dean decreed, without disrupting the text conversation he was having with his boyfriend.

"Stupd skool kdz." - Send.

Vera quietly grabbed the end of the ultra-white, Polo beach towel draped off the back of the raised chair where Dean's paid, neglect of duty had fully resumed. For openers: a bloody hand print. Next: a "Smiley face" finger-painted in crimson. Finally: Vera delicately patted and dabbed the corner of her mouth several times.

Returning to her launching pad, she reached for her "Vargas Girl" towel. Vera’s vision was a bit hazy, owing to the chlorine and the kick. She groped around a while before angrily snatching it off of the wooden deck; the deck where she had peacefully worked on her tan, mere moments before. It all seemed so long ago now.

Vera wrapped the towel around her lower half like a long, island skirt, covering her black, faux-snakeskin bikini bottoms. She grabbed her black leather mini-pack, slinging it over one shoulder, then picked up the Doc's and headed for the gate. The regular pool kids were already getting back to their regular pool activities.

As the final puffs of steam left her ears, Vera could hear the mixture of splashing, the almost cartoonish, "Spring!" of the diving board, and shouts of "Marco" and "Polo.” Vera saw "Rooney and the Pot-boys" clustering around the volleyball net. The usual skate/surf groupies swooped in to admire Rooney’s war wounds.  Vera imagined Rooney plotting his payback as Alice Cooper wailed the chorus of, "No More Mr. Nice-Guy."

For anyone else who had just been ejected from the pool, this would have felt like the "Walk of Shame." For Vera, it was a painful badge of honor and a confirmation that she lived amongst a rather foolish aggregate. She had won a small victory against all the irrelevant people who enjoyed making her life difficult. And what for? They all seemed to have chosen who they wanted to be, so why should they waste their time, and hers, making judgements about her choices?

Outside the gate, Vera grabbed a spot on a bench by the swings and slides. She shook her head violently, sending water flying in all directions, then, pulling a silver rat-tail comb (her Mother’s) from her mini pack, she back-combed her wet, mop-head. She could still hear the voices of Rooney's entourage' mocking her as she leaned over to pull her boots on. The sudden, severe pain in her face funneled-down, concentrating into the corner of her mouth. Her lips throbbed.

"Hhhmmmm!" she grunted lightly.







A block down Pritchett Lane, Vera detoured right, onto Open Oak. She did not fancy the feel of mocking eyes on her back, all the way home.

It was just after four, so the working inhabitants of the neighborhood hadn’t started their various migrations, back home, for the evening. Vera, in an act of growing stubbornness, chose to walk down the middle of the street. A piece of chipped curb concrete was up ahead in the road. It lay just to the right, about 20 feet distant. She lifted up the long hem of her beach towel/skirt to allow her lower legs the freedom required for a really first-rate kick. She adjusted her stride, almost instinctively, to kick the targeted object on the "Forward Step" of her left boot. Her strides were perfectly measured. Upon making contact, Vera sent the asymmetrical chunk tumbling and hopping about thirty feet down Open Oak. It came to rest, four feet right of center, on the vacant street.

"This time with the right," she said out loud for no one in particular to hear. With half the distance to the piece still ahead, Vera had a strong, gut feeling that she was currently out-of-sync for a right-footed kick. She quickly added a hitch in between normal steps, knowing, at an almost cellular level, that her alignment was corrected. Another perfect kick.

Her preoccupation with the cement wedge had caused her to miss her left turn at Martindale Terrace. Seeing Blister fast approaching, Vera reluctantly gave up on the game, with the same, mixed feelings she got when debating whether to spit out, or swallow, a wad of gum she had chewed a really long time. There was always that physical longing to perpetuate the repetitive movements, but alas... she wanted to get home quickly. Breaking left, over to Blister, she considered calling someone with the Santa Cruz Parks Department, to discuss the drug-addled riff-raff who frequented her local swimming hole. She might even have a few anti-superlatives for their choice of lifeguards.

Completing the turn onto Blister Avenue, Vera had a near-déjà vu moment. No one on Blister Avenue seemed to give-a-damn about their properties anymore. Vera noted this each and every time she traveled this street and she quickly grew annoyed that things had only changed for the worse since her last visit. Two blocks to the south, Paramour Court was a showplace, but these Blister-heads had conceded defeat long ago. Vera’s thoughts turned instinctively to the upcoming Jorrisch place. She had decided the property was a cancer cell, like she had studied in biology the past school year. The malady grew slowly at first, but then, Whammo! Following the path of least resistance, the lawns, the paint, the roofs, all looked atrocious.

This is what happens, she thought, when the "Caring" muscle atrophies.

Stepping over to the north side of the street, onto the cracked sidewalk (which also happened to be in perfect shape over on Paramour Court) Vera focused on the 10 foot high hedge, at the far, western side of 1435 East Blister Avenue. The vegetation stretched ominously from the back yard, and terminated at the sidewalk. It seemed to Vera, like a giant curtain being slowly pulled open, to her left, revealing the Jorrisch property as the mouth of a polluted river (Geography, sophomore year) This was the unquestionable source of shame within the community.

Clearing the great wall of shrubbery, she saw the legendary knee-high grass and weeds, covering the front yard in wide, random patches. She saw, at a distance, the chipped, white paint, the sagging roof, and the crooked and/or missing shutters that made up the façade of Casa Del Jorrisch. In vivid contrast to  the structure’s low-key, hue of depression, there were the half-dozen, or so, bright pink notices, afixed to the front door, courtesy of the City of Santa Cruz. They were placed there to inform Mr. Abraham Jorrisch that he had two weeks to effect the legally required health improvements to his property; pursuant to article... blah, blah... or further action will be... blah, blah, blah. Vera recognized those notices. The city had placed identical ones on the front door of her house within a few weeks after her father's death. Judy, Vera’s stepmother, was in a deep depression for months. Groceries, and other civilized necessities such as lawn-care, were getting neglected. One day, Vera sold the family mower, and trimmer, to some boys from the pool, who were trying to start their own lawn service. Sadly she had neglected to negotiate a free yard mowing into the selling price. She used the cash to buy flour tortillas, frozen fish sticks, toilet paper and a tiny, travel-sized bottle of shampoo. Later, she told Judy that the items must have been stolen. Vera didn't hang around the house much during those dark days. She found it easier, and far more desirable, to glom on to Sam and Jen. One day, while Judy was at work and Vera was at Jen's place, Mr. Sanders, from next door, snuck over and mowed, and edged, both front and back yards. Vera's stepmother had voiced her opinion, more than once, that it was Mrs. Sanders who had called the city on them; maintaining it was a spiteful effort, by Mrs. Sanders, to repay Judy McAlister for allegedly "Flirting" with Mr. Sanders, months before Mr. McAlister’s death. Perhaps Mr. Sander's good deed was an attempt at an apology. Perhaps.

In the heat of the day, Vera stood there, surveying the old two-story house, which sat back about sixty feet, or so, from the street. Over the years, she had memorized the outside of the house in every gruesome detail, but since she hadn't planned to be home for another hour, she stood there silently, taking it all in once more. Up, on the second floor, on the east side of the house, Vera repeatedly caught flickering glimpses of unidentified black and white objects, floating in and out of an open window. Her first impression was of sheers and curtains blowing out, but then again, the movements Vera witnessed were far too choppy, and random, to be the result of any light breezes.


She stepped from the broken sidewalk to an even more fragmented driveway that ran all the way up the east side of the property, to a detached, and slanted, one-car garage that the neighborhood kids, decades ago, had named "The Leaning Tower of Piece-O-Crap." As always, the door was up, and the dirty, tan, Pontiac Executive sat resting/rusting uncomfortably. In Vera's periphery, the flashes of black and white continued.

She advanced slowly up the drive. A little more than halfway up, she surmised that the white thing in the window was the pull cord on the bottom of an old, roll-up black-out shade. Then suddenly, the black rod was there again, extending through the opening. It repeatedly struck the cord, making it jump and sway in and out. Keeping an eye on the swinging cord, Vera finally reached "Ground Zero", beneath the window. She was momentarily startled by a snapping, crunching sound that came from beneath each footstep. She now understood the window to be broken, not open. Looking down at the broken glass on the ground it seemed likely to her, that the window had been broken outward, from the inside. Focusing solely on the jagged edges of the hole, she was amused to see the head of a small black cat, a kitten actually, that playfully chewed the plastic ring at the bottom of the cord.

Shifting her weight from foot to foot, brought more snapping and crunching. The kitten stopped it's chewing, to listen, and to check Vera out. Then, the furry, black head, with big golden eyes, darted back inside the fractured opening. Vera wanted to laugh but it hurt too much to even smile. Could the cat have broken the window? Doubt it. "Cord Batting Practice" resumed as the cat's claws clicked against the plastic ring.

Standing closer now to the back door, than to the front, Vera finished off the largest pieces of glass beneath her feet, then stepped around the northeast corner of the home for a first-timers look at the back yard. It seemed to be nothing more than a smaller continuation of the front. No more, or less, unkempt.

Having decided, right there on the spot, to ask Mr. Jorrisch about the window, she climbed the short set of pre-formed, concrete steps that were shoved up to the fifth step of some rickety, wooden, back porch stairs. At the summit, Vera found the top three wooden steps to be cracked and wobbly, requiring nimble navigation. From the porch, Vera leaned out, across the iron rail, to get a look through a dust covered window, to the left of the back door. No luck, too dirty. The screen door was no longer attached to the house, and now stood, ineffectually propped against the railing on the opposite side of the meager platform. Even without being able to see more deeply into the house she could tell by the partially visible, red, gingham curtains, she was standing at the kitchen door.

The door knob spun around endlessly as Vera tried opening the door. Putting a shoulder into the door didn't help either. Must be bolted, she thought. Guess I should try knocking. “Duh?”

"Knock, Knock, Knock.

"Knock, Knock, Knock.

Nobody came to the door. No person came to the door.


From the muffled sounds of it, Vera figured there was more than one cat inside, and they were possibly very lonely, very hungry, very scared or all of the above.

Vera knocked louder this time.


Momentarily frightened by the pounding, the cats ceased their crying.



"That's a lot of cats."

Vera had not had a cat of her own since "Paris" got sent down when Mr. McAlister remarried.

"I'm Sorry Vera but Judy is highly allergic," her Father had said.

"But Daddy..." she protested.

"Maybe we can get you another cat SOMEDAY," he offered, as a dodge.


"I'm not sure right now, but...SOMEDAY."

"When Judy dies?"


Paris now resided, if in fact he was still alive, somewhere in the Mount Hermon area, with an older lady who was one of her father's insurance customers. He had sold her a Five-hundred-thousand dollar life insurance policy, and threw in the cat for free.

Stepping back from the door, Vera felt, and heard, cracking from the dry porch planks.

"Yikes!" she exclaimed.

Anxiously descending from the tiny porch, Vera hopped over the safety-challenged, wooden steps, and onto the solid, cement formation below.

So..., she thought, Jorrisch is a "Crazy Cat-Lady".

On her way to the front of the house once more, she was inspired to take a few giant strides, then jumping hard, with both boots, onto the window glass she worked the pile enthusiastically, like a kid with bubble-wrap.

Now staring at the front door, she wondered, for the first time, if she had, perhaps, lost her mind. What would she say if someone actually answered? Especially if it was "Him."

Cupping her hands around her eyes, Vera stood on tip-toes to peer through the little, square window in the door. The creaking timbers of the front porch brought streams of cats, from several different rooms, stampeding up to the front of the house.

"God,” she said, “how many are in there?"

Another round of knocking but nobody came. In the windows, on both sides of the door, cats were crowding onto the sills, pressing their skeletal bodies into the shredded sheers.


Vera shuddered and covered her ears. She took a seat on the top step to clear her head and try to figure things out. Call the Police? Call Animal Rescue? There were too many questions to sort out through the pain of a busted lip. Vera hated questions. But... Vera hated unanswered questions even more.

An anonymous call, perhaps?

To risky.

 If she had been seen traipsing around the property by any of the nosey housewives on the street, she'd have already been "Made." Because of her very intentional appearance, and the visual impressions she left, the cops might already be on the way.

She got up and attempted the door knob... Locked. Broken window, locked house, no answer, a million cats.

"Cats!" she gasped.

“My glasses!” she exclaimed. She felt around on the top of her head but came up empty. They must have come off in the pool, she thought. Damn you Rooney Wilkes.

If she waited until next week, at the end of her expulsion sentence, they’d be gone forever. Vera was well aware of her standing amongst the regulars at the pool. She was little more than someone to be tolerated.

I've gotta go back and get em, she convinced herself. And then I'll try to come up with a plan for this freak show.

When she reached the bottom of the steps she turned back and saw an orange, tiger-stripe howling in the window.

"I won't forget about you guys. I'll be back," she said sadly, sticking out a bruised, pouty lip.


It was a mild eighty-eight degrees and Vera's swimsuit was finally dry enough. She unwrapped herself from the towel/skirt,  dropping it on the ground, then pulled her olive drab cargos and a black "STIV LIVES" tank from her mini-pack, and unceremoniously dressed herself in the middle of Blister Avenue.

With her gear in place, she picked up the towel, shook it out, and was hanging it around her neck when a white, Dodge Challenger made a tire squealing swerve to avoid hitting her.


Better stick to the sidewalks from here on out, she decided.






By the time she reached Pritchett Lane again, Vera was fully convinced of her need for help with her forming animal rescue plan. She even more convinced that help would be scarce. This wasn't the sort of job to tap Sam for. Samantha was a confirmed "Dog Lover." Jen loved cats almost as much as Vera, but there was the small matter of legalities. Even if the house was unlocked and abandon, Jen would never trespass.

Vera walked openly, but cautiously through the pool parking lot. She gripped the chain-link fence that surrounded the pool and she reconnoitered the scene.

"It's back," Vera heard Terrie saying to Tanya. She ignored it.

"You lookin for these, Skeez?"

The question had come from the volleyball pit, unofficial meeting place of the neighborhood's skaters, surfers, V-ballers, and those who chose their smoking products off the controlled substance menu.

Vera spotted a back-lit and cocky, Rooney Wilkes, standing by the net; his ultra-white grin still visible from thirty yards away.

Idiot, she thought. And... he's wearing the sunglasses. With teeth gritted, Vera inhaled deeply through her nose.

“Be cool,” she told herself.

Rooney Wilkes, flanked by his bowank posse, wobbled over and stopped short of the fence by a good twenty feet.

"Can I have my glasses back?" Vera said calmly.

"I don't know, he chuckled sloppily, I think I look pretty good. Whataya think Scabbie?" Rooney inquired of his friend, with an air vanity.

"SKEEBOP!" Scabbie suddenly blurted.

The veteran surf-skater, who never had very much to say, was employing his well-worn catchphrase, as a compliment to his friends choice of eyewear.

"See. Scabbie thinks I should keep em."

"Rooney, can we talk... alone?" Her steadiness amazed her.

"Ooooh's" and "Aaahhhs" came from Rooney’s swarm of flies. Using a lazy finger, Rooney dragged the leopard shades down, to the tip of his nose. His attention was fading. Vera could see in his fried eyes, that he had nursed his wounds, in her absence, with a few hits of the Cheeba.

Rooney’s demeanor was shifting to one of suspicion. Was this a trap? She came back too soon. He hadn't had enough time, between joints, to plan his revenge yet. Knowing he couldn't think straight enough to improvise anything worthwhile, he opted to switch to "Tough Guy" mode. His herbal paranoia was in full bloom.

"We got nuthin to talk about," he declared, puffing up his tanned chest.

"Lookit Rooney, keep the glasses if you want, but I seriously need to talk to you."  Vera's plea was particularly impassioned.

If she really didn't want the glasses back what good were they to him? He snatched them off of his face with lightning speed (as far as his intoxicated mind could perceive speed) and tossed them, fairly accurately, over the fence. Vera shot an arm up into the air, faster than Rooney's eyes could currently track, and caught them. Rooney was getting nervous, but his curiosity restrained the fear.

"So what is this thing we gotta talk about?" he demanded.

Vera sighed. I can't believe I'm asking "Ganja Boy" for help, she thought.

"Come out here and we can talk," Vera said impatiently.

“What for?” Rooney was unwilling to suffer, twice in one day, at the hands of this "Whatevershewas."

It's not worth all of this, Vera decided. He's too stoned to help anyway.

"Just forget it," she shot back, turning to go. If nothing else, she had gotten her shades back.

"Well hang on!" Rooney replied impatiently, "How do I know this isn't some scam?"

"I said forget it," she repeated, working the lure more deeply into the mouth of her potentially prize-winning catch.

"Time-out now!" Rooney shouted. He actually tried to perform the "Time-Out" gesture, but his hands couldn't quite hit their marks.

Vera stopped in her tracks. Her shoulders dropped, and shuddered with a frustrated shrug. After a 3 beat pause, she looked over her shoulder, across the top of her leopard-spotted frames. She smiled a thin, crooked smile.

"C'mon then."

Rooney was hooked. Vera had played him well and now she would reel him in. This was almost too easy.

Looks were being passed amongst Rooney's "People" and for probably the first time ever, Rooney, and perhaps, even some of the other guys, began to consider just how cute Vera actually was under all that punk crap; nasty fat lip notwithstanding.

Rooney jerked the gray-white, sleeveless t-shirt from the waistband of his trunks and pulled it over his head, yanking his long tresses out the back of the collar. Peter Tosh smiled a sunny smile across Rooney's chest. He threw his yellow, green, and black striped flip-flops down on the walkway in front of him. Slipping them on, almost losing his balance in the process, Rooney Wilkes moved cautiously up the fence line, towards the pool gate.

The dudes were in disbelief. Was their general really going out to meet with the enemy?

Shouts of "Whoohoo!" and "Dude?" followed him on his way.

“Rooney’s gotta new girl!” Bonnie Tillock shouted, in between the sloppy kisses she applied to Phil Harper’s slack mouth, as he lounged next to Scabbie.

"SHUT UP!" Rooney yelled, shooting them a look of embarrassed, warning. The shouts became faint snickers.

"I'm here. Now what?" he asked standing a safe, yet defiantly close distance from the Mistress of Pain. He had positioned himself on the far side of Vera, giving his pals a ringside seat in case he spotted the opportunity to avenge himself. He worked hard to appear as a man in charge of his own destiny, or perhaps the fog was lifting just a little.

"I found something I want to show you," Vera began.

"Where is it?" he asked suspiciously.

"You know the trashy old house on Blister?"

"Old Man Jewish?"

"Jorrisch," Vera corrected, subtly annoyed by the epithet. "Yeah, that’s the one."

"What about it?"

"Something's going on over there."

"Whaddu I care?"

"I want to get inside but it's all locked up. I was thinking you could ..."

"Who ya been talkin to?" He cut her off, lashing out defensively.

"You broke into the REC Center and busted the change box off of the Coke machine," she stated as a known fact.

"Says who? I didn't do it. Why does everyone think it was me?"

"They don't THINK it was you. They KNOW it was you."

"Okay. So what if it was?"

"So I need your help to get inside the house."

"Whadduya think's in there?" he asked very suspiciously. "This is a setup cause you're still pissed about that thing, right there," Rooney said, pointing to her lip.

She self-consciously raises a hand to cover her mouth.

"It's not about this," she answered, removing her hand and renewing her cool.


Rooney, thinking that he had seen through her poorly veiled scheme, suddenly felt he had acquired the upper hand in their exchange.

"Rooney, there might be something wrong in there," she appealed, with a voice that softened, in widening ripples.

"Call the Cops then. Whadda you care?" he laughed, still unmoved.

"I don't wanna talk to the police. Please, Rooney?"

Rooney realized he suddenly enjoyed the way Vera said his name; especially when she wasn't cursing him.

"So you JUST want me to get you inside so you can JUST look around. That's it? That's all?" he asked incredulously.

She sensed his resistance was beginning to wane, but she couldn't let up just yet.

"That's it exactly. If it looks bad, we leave and I'll call it in tomorrow."

Rooney looked past Vera's shoulder, at the guys aping behind the fence. He laughed to himself as Scabbie ran his upturned thumb under his chin, from ear to ear. Vaguely aware of what went on behind her back, Vera maintained critical focus and made the final push.

"Please, Rooney.'

"When?" Rooney asks flatly.

"After dark."



"What's the rush?"

"Lives could be at stake," Vera emoted, full of pathos.

"Really?" he says in solemn disbelief, crossing his arms over Peter Tosh's forehead.

"I'm serious."

Rooney thought about it. He appeared to be intensely studying something on the ground as he combed his fingers through chlorine dried, sun-bleached bangs. He thought about it some more. He thought about how cute she looked standing there. He looked her from head to toe. When he got to the boots he cursed.


"Will you do it?" she asks, closing the deal.

"What time?"

Vera's crooked smile returned.
















By 5:30 Vera was home, and shivering. Judy liked it cold in the house; some kind of hormonal thing, Vera reckoned, and Judy paid the bills. Vera's stepmother was not home from work yet to enjoy the arctic blast. It wasn't six yet. She never made it home till after six.

Vera hurried to the linen closet, grabbing a blanket that had been sewn by her Grandmother. Vera never met Grandma Phyllis. Grandma Phyllis always looked unhappy in photographs. She was a 7th-grade teacher for 32 years which, no doubt, explained the look. Vera's Dad had always spoken in a formal, respectful, and rather reserved tone about his Mother-in-Law. Grandma Phyllis died in a car accident, returning to her home in Bakersfield, after receiving the joyous news of her only child's pregnancy.

Along with Grandma Phyllis' blanket, Vera grabbed an old yellow bath towel with fraying, unstitched ends.

Going through the kitchen, Vera pulled two old butter tubs from the "Odds and Ends" cabinet, above the sink. One "Country Crock", the other "Parkay." Stepping out from the kitchen, into the back yard, Vera heard Mr. Sanders, next door, talking to Roberto, the pool guy; something about “pH levels” and “less soda ash.” The stepping stone path over to the garage was badly overgrown. I'll mow it tomorrow, she thought.

Over the years, the garage had become Vera's hiding place of record and preference. Upon hearing the news of her Mother's illness, Vera bolted from her bedroom. Her Mother found her there, nestled behind large, dusty piles of National Geographic. On the day of her Mother's funeral, it was her Father's turn to discover her whereabouts in the small, cramped storage loft, which ran two-thirds of the length of the garage. On that occasion, it was her sobbing that gave her away.

The garage itself, was detached from the rest of the house and had become filled, nearly floor to ceiling, with "Stuff", including its largest, single occupant; a black, 1980 M.G. Midget ("One of the last 500 ever made," her Father repeated proudly on numerous occasions) which hadn't been driven, in the last two years. On the day of its last outing, Vera's Father arrived home from work, parked it for the night, went inside, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. It was Vera's Father and Mother's first car. There were pictures, in an old album, of her parents bringing a two-day-old, decidedly unattractive, baby Vera home from the hospital in that same car. Thinking of those photos now, Vera realizes there was no infant seat in the tiny car. Her mother had cradled the bundled prune, in her arms, all the way home. Judy never liked the car because the wind messed up her hair when Mr. McAlister insisted on riding with the top down, which was always. Duh! It's California. Judy would have sold it for junk, but she knew how much Vera wanted to keep it. Sometimes Judy could act right. Judy never came out to the garage now.

Just inside the side door, Vera found the old Cutty Sark box full of "Ancient" issues of The Reader's Digest from the 90's. She knew it would be there, having tripped over it in the dark dozens of times. She emptied the box out by flinging the dust encrusted magazines over a high stack of boxes, containing her Mother's Christmas ornaments (which Judy never liked to use) and into the farthest, unseen corner of the junk depot. Vera sat the empty carton on the hood of the Midget and placed the folded towel in the bottom, for cushioning. She doubled the blanket and worked it over the top and then down, into the box. When she finished Vera gently placed it in the passenger seat.

Even in the musty, dusty, garage Vera could smell herself. She was a potpourri of dried blood, chlorine, tropical tanning oil, and B.O. The trapped heat of the closed-up room ignited each of the individual odors and mixed them into something really potent.

It was "Shower time", she thought. Right Now! She imagined that the ultimate purpose for showers, or bathing in general, was to restore humanity.

Towel-dried, and reapplied with "Thorn!" spiking gel, her hair was once again to her liking. She wrapped the towel around her chest and took a Q-tip, and a bottle of camphor oil, from the medicine cabinet, to softly paint the now, deeply bruised area of her lips. With a few more timid drags on the straw, in her bottle of chocolate milk, it was nap time.

Vera's room was Vera's room. No one else would have claimed it. Judy didn't trouble herself about the look of it. Why bother, she told herself? There were already plenty enough other areas of friction, where she and her Stepdaughter could butt heads.

Vera's space contained the same children's bedroom suit that Vera had received at age six. Its original antique white-wash finish had been augmented over the years by crayons, stickers, and markers which then evolved into lipstick, eyeliner, and an artist’s palette of outrageous nail varnishes. The walls of the room (nearly every inch of them) were covered with concert flyers and band posters of the Punk (first wave) New Wave, and Alternative varieties. Above her bed, Robert Smith stood guard to the doorway to her dreams, holding his Jazzmaster at the ready. Here and there, between the wall hangings, small patches of dingy, pastel yellow nursery paint could be seen.

Vera set her alarm to 7:45pm. Lying flat-out across her unmade bed, she closed tired eyes.







Turning the buzzer off, Vera paused hazily to decide if it was the same evening, or perhaps, the next morning.


The name, and the smug, drugged face, exploded into her consciousness.

She pulled a pair of I.C.P. boxers (Hate the band, love the clowns) a gray sports bra, and a pair of no-show footies from her top dresser drawer, then, hopped into the black cargo shorts from the bottom drawer. Finally, as a cover for her chilly shoulders, an age-faded, maroon USC hoodie, extricated from the floor of her closet after a short tug-of-war. Fully dressed in under a minute, Vera sat on the edge of her bed, looking down at her boots.

Too many, over the last few years, had written Vera off as another young, punk poseur, as her look had naturally devolved and revolved. The case could be made that her outer crust, which was constantly heating and cooling, was the outward expression of a "Two-a-Penny" teen rebellion; no more, no less. The teachers in her schools, who themselves were fully-vested, witnesses to the teenage quest for individuality (within their cliquish groups) could see that the uniform of Vera's emotional campaign, was no clown-like cover, designed simply to shield the wearer from their societal fears and inadequacies. It was rather, an adhesive of Vera’s own devising, which held the fractured bits of a small, but sturdy personage, together. A lot of young people walked around, kidding themselves that they couldn't give a crap what anyone else thought about them. For Vera, it was more, or less, true.


Why did he have to be such a jerk, she silently speculated? Soon, Vera remembered a parental talk her mother had given her, around age eight, about "not giving in to peer-pressure", or was it the one about "not judging people without getting to know them first". It may have even been the one concerning "not holding possessions too dear to your heart." Did any of it apply at this point? Who knew? Maybe.

And why did she love the boots so, so much anyway? That was easy. She had wanted the Doc Martens since she was thirteen, when she saw them on one of the Halo Friendlies (the drummer maybe?) She didn't have the money at that moment, and she figured she'd have some more growing to do regardless, so she went to work. She mowed lawns. She babysat. She washed cars. Vera knew, after turning fourteen, that the growth spurt she had endured over that summer would be her biggest and her last. Late in September she'd grown enough and earned enough.

She had given the money (a collection of wadded bills and coins) to Judy, in the morning, along with explicit instructions for her Father, who was still in the shower when Vera ran out the door, nearly missing her bus.

STYLE: 1460, COLOUR: Black, SIZE: U.K.6 (a little roomy if needed.) Being held for Vera McAlister.

Her Father, having carried out the explicit orders, had picked the boots up from "Polly's Shoe Horse" on his way home from work. When he pulled the M.G. into the garage he thought he felt a migraine coming on. His vision became smoky around the edges. When he came through the back door, into the kitchen, Vera was waiting. His hands were empty except for his car keys. Vera's expression quickly morphed from a daughter who was thrilled to see her returning Father, to that of a disappointed, semi-brat.

Mr. McAlister's expression had changed also. He looked very lost. His eyes rolled up. He fell to his knees. He was gone. Vera does not remember screaming "Daddy" over, and over, but it was those screams that brought Judy running in from their bedroom.

The next day, Judy found the boots in the passenger seat as she frantically looked for her husband's briefcase. She brought them to Vera's room and left them outside the door. About a week after the funeral, Vera finally tried them on. They were a little roomy.

Vera checked the clock again. 7:53. She had told Rooney to meet her at 9:00 pm, by the large hedges, on the west side of Mr. Jorrisch's house, because it would be dark enough by then, but not late enough for neighbors to be trying to sleep. She pulled open the drawer of her nightstand to look for her flashlight. She knew it was there because she always heard it rolling around in the back, whenever she opened the drawer quickly. Her fingers brushed across what she recognized as her copy of the Midget's keys. There was her unread copy of "The Grapes of Wrath", from Freshman Lit, blocking the flashlight. Got it! She flipped it on and shined it into her face as she looked at herself in the mirror. Bright enough.

In the kitchen, she made a wrap from a whole wheat tortilla, stuffed with the fish sticks, tartar sauce, and shredded cheddar cheese, which Judy had left out for her. The house was empty and Vera knew exactly where Judy would be found. Grabbing a bottled-water to stuff in her mini-pack, she stepped into the backyard. Vera heard Judy's booming laughter coming from Mr. Sanders' poolside patio.

Mrs. Sanders had left Mr. Sanders five months earlier; due, no doubt, to the alleged flirting. Now, he was lonely. Judy was lonely since Vera's Father died. Her Father had become lonely after Vera’s Mother had finally "Succumbed", as the obituary had put it, to Leukemia. How could she blame anyone who was acting out of loneliness?

She walked over to the fence and cleared her throat, hoping not to catch them with exposed, or touching, body parts. Judy was collapsed in the over-stuffed, orange cushion of a pricey (Judy's words) teak wood, deck chair, while Mr. Sanders stood nearby, lighting citronella torches.

"Vera, you're awake," Judy said, with a hint of tequila.


Mr. Sanders was first to notice.

"Whoa! Hold on there. What happened young lady?"

"It's nothing," Vera replied matter-of-factly. An involuntary hand moved to her mouth, for cover.

"What is it Hon?" asked Judy, her Arkansas accent now really shining through. She put her hands behind her, working her fists clumsily up and down, to move her body's center of gravity forward enough for her feet to touch the ground. As Judy stood, letting her legs support her weight, she stumbled slightly.

"Watch it there Graceful," scolded Mr. Sanders, with a chuckle.

Judy snorted a giggle.

"David?" Judy replied feigning resentment.

When the parental figure got a good look at Vera's mouth, her jaw dropped.

"Are you okay Vera?!"

"I'm fine. Just banged it at the pool."

Vera knew all too well, what sometimes followed in moments like these. Judy would do her best to be the sympathetic step-mom. This behavior would inevitably transition into the "I never had any kids of my own but if I had..." rant. Vera saw it building in Judy's misty, bloodshot eyes.

"I'm just going to go hang out for a while," Vera successfully segued.

"Who will you be with?" Judy asked, delivering some more of that fine, upstanding "Legal Guardian" talk.

"Jen, and Sam, and those guys."

"When will you be Home?" Judy drilled gently.

That word, Home, now felt so alien to Vera. Since both of her parents were gone, was it really her home, or, did the house belong to Judy, as the surviving spouse. Vera had to consider that Judy was only, legally responsible for her for the next year or so. The only will her father had ever drawn up, pre-dated Judy being in the picture. On the plus side, it didn't appear that Judy had married Vera's Father for his money. What money?

"Probably around eleven," Vera answered.

"Oh. Well, I'm sure I'll be out by then," Judy commented.

"Stay outta any more scrapes." David Sanders interjected, with a smile.

"Have fun," Judy said lyrically.

"You too," Vera said. She was taken over, at once, by the foolish feeling she got if she absently replied "You Too" to a waiter or waitress when they told her to enjoy the meal they had just served her. Vera inwardly cringed at the idea of what "FUN" might look like to these two.

The "Jen and Sam" lie didn't register, with Vera, as being seriously wrong. She had used it before and probably would again. This time, the alibi was dodgier than usual because Jen was out of town with her Mom, and Sam was hiding some big secret that Jen had speculated, must be a crush on some senior football player. If not that, then it was anybody's guess since Sam never came to the pool, due to some of the "Inferior Types", (her Mother's words) who hung out there. Vera felt secure that her misrepresentation of tonight's outing, would provide the required cover if needed.

The teen girl began milling around on the corner of Blister and Portman, as soon as the street light came on. When the sun was really gone, at 8:59, she walked up Blister, this time using the sidewalk. She kept her hood up, banking on the degree of anonymity it would provide. As she passed Mr. Jorrisch's house, she stepped off into the yard, pressing her shadowy form tightly into the hedges, working her way deeper into the back of the property. About half way down the hedge, Vera found a depression in the foliage and pressed herself into it to wait. At 9:07 her patience was rewarded.

"Hey," rolled a whispered voice from the darkness.


"Back here," his lowered voice instructed.

Vera moved toward the sound. With no prior experience at breaking and entering under her belt, she still knew enough to avoid shining her flashlight around in the front yard. Gradually, Vera began to differentiate Rooney's shape from the surrounding plant life. In seconds she had merged with the darkness.

"We need to get around to the back porch," she advised, stepping up to take ownership of their looming trespass.

"Lead on," Rooney said, keeping his hands buried in the front pocket of his (dark green?) hoodie.

Vera’s imagination forced her to believe that Rooney was probably concealing a professional-grade lock picking kit in that pocket. This thought led to the idea that her chosen accomplice would, most likely, need to keep his finger warm, shielded from the cooler, night breezes, until called upon to perform their nibble task.

When they had taken their position at the bottom of the back steps, Vera paused. She took out her light, aimed it at the ground, and turned it on. Pointing the beam cautiously upwards, she educated Rooney as to the fragile nature of the wood, on the steps near the top. She led the way up the cement steps. As she chanced an exploratory footfall on the tentative wooden planks, the strained groaning and squeaking began. Rooney paused, pulling out an old pair of slide gloves from a side pocket of his shorts (No Prints.) Resting most of his weight on the iron, plumbing pipe banister, he dragged himself to the top.

"What's this really about?" Rooney asked, finally feeling secure in his footing.

Vera took the flashlight and leaning out over the rail, tapping the glass of the kitchen window a few times with the lens. With a sudden rush of tiny paws, the cries of an unknown number of feline hostages erupted.

Rooney jumped back, scraping Vera's deep claw marks, from earlier in the day, against the porch railing. He winced.

"What the hell is that?" he said too loudly.

"Shhhhhh!" she whispered. "They're cats."

"How many?"

"Who knows?"

"Well... the old man, hopefully."

"That's the problem. I found a broken window today so I knocked on both front and back doors. Nobody answered. There are notices from the city pasted all over the front. I don't think there's anybody in there."

"So why do you want inside so bad?" he asked. The idea of something valuable like hidden treasure actually crossed Rooney's mind in that moment.

She didn't feel like answering Rooney's questions, but, he had come this far...

"I want to see if the cats are alright."

A light came on in Rooney's barely open eyes, as the dawning occurred.

"Those are the "LIVES" that are at stake aren't they?" he asked, sounding sarcastic, and pissed-off.


Rooney had been had. It was as simple as that. Was there no other reason that he now stood on the borderlands of self-incrimination? Certainly, none that he could see.

"So call the Cops and the animal people," he said with muffled exasperation.

"I don't want to."

"Well then, what the...," he started angrily. "What do you want?"

Vera could tell that Rooney was about to walk. The time for full disclosure had arrived.

"A cat," she answered timidly. It disgusted Vera to think she was on the verge of breaking into some kind of "Poor Little Orphan Girl" routine just to get what she wanted, unless it became unavoidable.

A lot of thoughts swam around in Rooney’s head at this point. He struggled for adequate words that he could get comfortable with. Rooney hated the word “Vulnerable.” He even hated to think it. It always felt, to him, like a word that Dudes should never use. It was even weirder now, to think of Vera as being vulnerable while he could still feel twinges of the pain she had so wantonly inflicted on him a few, short hours ago. He tried to set the recent past aside, moving on to the practical considerations at hand. A Cat, he reasoned. Really?

"Just one?" he finally articulated, in genuine confusion.

"There's a little black one I saw through the broken window today. That's the one I want."

"And the rest can just die?"

"Like I told you, I go in, look around, find the kitten, and we leave. Tomorrow I call whoever, to take care of the rest of them."

The dampened sounds of yowling cats began to subside, as Vera finished defining the goals and strategies for the evening's exercise.

Why am I here, Rooney thought? He began to trace the domino falls that lead him to this moment. He was self-aware enough to admit that he had always, sort of, entertained thoughts of Vera. Undefinable, yet pleasant thoughts. Not earlier in the day, of course, but... surely that was at the root of why he bothered to tease her. Still... was this girl, or any girl, worth a run-in with the cops? There was a sudden pang of remorse for the fat lip he had pinned on Vera. The concept of "Certainty" had dematerialized. Was Vera working him? He had no idea. He had asked himself again, on the way to the Old Man's house, if this could be an elaborate payback she was staging. With such a ridiculous request, what else could it be? And yet, as dumb as the situation felt, it also seemed somewhat plausible, and maybe even a bit noble.

"A Cat?" he asked, emphasizing the word “A” for clarity. Rooney Wilkes, for one, couldn't care less about a bunch of stupid cats. Oh well.

"Yes. A cat."

"Ya know I'm not going in there, right?" he said sternly, looking towards the house.

"Just get the door open, and help me make sure that none of em get out. Okay?"

"Okay Cat-Burglar," he replied with a deep sigh, colored by a new, milder brand of sarcasm.

Rooney grabbed the door knob with a gloved hand and feeling its complete lack of resistance, he gave it a good spin. The old, dented knob turned, on its own for about one and a half revolutions, reminding him of a skateboard wheel with jacked-up bearings.

"It's Jank," he advised authoritatively.

"So...you can't open it?" Vera replied disappointedly.

"I didn't say that."

He shoved a gloved hand into his hip pocket. Out came a worn, black, red, yellow, and green striped wallet, fashioned out of duct tape. Flipped open, Vera could see that Rooney managed to get a Driver's License. Poking a finger under a secret flap, he dragged out a plastic gift card. A little something extra was dislodged simultaneously, and fell at Vera's feet, after bouncing off the toe of her boot. She recognized the flat packaging being that of the prophylactic variety.

"Oooh! Grotty!" she managed quietly, kicking the package away.

Rooney hastily snatched it off the ground, and shoved both "It", and his wallet, back into his pocket.

"Sorry, Sorry," he said with face flushing. He could feel the heat rising in his neck and ears.

Did guys carry that kind of thing around with them all the time, Vera wondered? Was sex that likely to happen on the spur of the moment for a Rooney Wilkes type of guy?

Settling back once more, Vera recognized the Tiki logo on the gift card in Rooney's hand. He's gonna try to slip the lock, she thought. How low-tech can you get?

Rooney firmly, but quietly, grasped the knob and pulled it up and towards himself. Wedging the card between the door and the frame, just below the latch, he looked for just the right placement. As Vera observed his technique, she strained to read the bright blue writing on the backside of the gift card. On the "TO:" line she saw Rooney's name written in a very feminine cursive hand. The "FROM:" line was a lot harder to make out in the shade of the night. Finally, she decided that it read: "Aunt Lynn." Without fanfare, Rooney made a quick, upward jerking motion.  In the next second, the door was open.

Using every vertical, square inch of her presence, Vera created a nearly occlusive barrier, as she squeezed through the doorway.









It would have been impossible for Vera to prepare herself adequately for the sensory chaos that ensnared her within this "House of Horrors."

First: The Smell. The mixture of cat urine, feces and decay swirling in the atmosphere of this stagnant container was completely foreign to Vera. She was quite simply bathed, clothed, mummified, and buried in FUNK!

Second: The Flavor. Taste being so closely related to smell, Vera was now eating the aroma. She made herself produce as much spit as possible. She swished it around her mouth, and over the surface of her tongue, before forcing herself to swallow. She briefly considered spitting it out, however, all the forensic, crime scene shows on T.V. would have advised against it.

Third: The Sounds: Vera made a decision to close her eyes tightly as she first shuffled into the kitchen from outside. She wanted to let her eyes get adjusted to the utter blackness of the space and avoid the irritating, chemical burning from the cat wiz vapor. Shut up in the house, with eyes closed, the soundscape was enormous. The cries, moans, growls, and hisses overtook her and surrounded her, on all sides, and in every tone, key, and volume her ears could process.

Fourth: The Feeling. From the second she pushed a foot through the slit in the blackened doorway, she could feel them. The matted fur from wildly whipping tails, as well as heads bowing down to rub against her bare shins, and snagging on her, two-day-old shaving stubble, disgusted her. It was like synthetic pajamas catching on calloused palms and fingertips.

Fifth: The Vision. When Vera knew she could no longer just stand in the middle of the kitchen with her eyes closed, she pointed her flashlight at the ground, shielding the lens so no direct light could be seen from the street. Flipping it on, the light, reflecting off of the filthy urine stained linoleum floor. She found herself confronting an endless sea of glowing eyes, which stretching out in front of her. Vera had not anticipated this. It was too much. The light brought more of them her way. Screaming and crowding, the sick and dying advanced toward her. Vera clicked the light off. She had seen a doorway into the dining room about ten feet in front of her. She told herself that she could make it there without the light. Taking a first, shortened step, brought the sound of crunching paws beneath her heavy boot soles.


Vera tried to adjust her weight so as not to crush any tiny paws, but the floor was slick. She heaved to the left and reached out her arms to catch herself on anything solid that might be out there in space. Her left forearm and elbow struck the plane of a countertop, sliding through layers of fur, dander, pee, whatever, which now coated the sleeve of her hoodie.

Clicking the flashlight on again, she pointed it towards the ceiling to focus her attention on the rooms crown molding, using it as a guide, and away from predatory eyes that surrounded her. After deciding on a direction of travel, Vera started shuffling her boots, like a novice ice skater, in the direction of the dining room.

For a second she considered hollering "Hello, Hello!" Forget that. Who could hear anything in this Cat-Hive? Anyone who chose to stay in this house for very long would be deaf by now anyway.

She was surprisingly calm now as she scooted from room to room, claustrophobically accompanied by the school of nasty, cat-fish. Her olfactory apparatus was so saturated that the smell was now only moderately hellish.

In the absence of other human beings, there was little in the house to suggest that a person would be living there. A small dining table with one chair. A coffee table in the living room but nothing to sit on, unless you counted the cats. Old, empty bookshelves in the study, and a busted-up orange crate, standing on end in the corner, rounded out the downstairs decor. In each room, an empty pot, bowl, or pie pan could be found along with several absolutely demolished bags of "Meow Mix."

And... there were carcasses.

Carefully shining her light around she had seen some black cats, of different sizes, mixed in with hordes. But like all the rest, they were in sad shape. Vera realized that most, if not all of them, would probably have to be put to sleep. Still...she had to try. She had to know.

Checking out the staircase, to the left, she was relieved to discover that it wasn't jam-packed with cats. Choosing her footing carefully, she started her ascent without touching the banister. The boards of individual steps creaked and cracked under her 102 +2.4* pounds (* The boots.)

At the top of the flight was a closed door, shutting the upper floor off from the rest of the house. She boot-nudged three or four death-cats from in front of the doorway; sending them hustling down the stairs. Drawing her right arm and hand up into the sleeve of the hoodie, Vera used the thicker fabric, at the cuff, as a makeshift mitten to attempt the door knob.


When Vera had secured the door behind herself, she was treated to a dramatic reduction in the volume of "Cat Noise." No creatures ran screeching to bristle up against her. There are no cats up here, she thought. There better be at least one.

Resuming the mission, Vera searched room by room. Knowing that the soles of her boots must be coated with Cat-Sick from downstairs, she decided to resume the foot-shuffling to reduce identifiable prints.

First door on the right: A closet. First on the left: A silent furnace. Second on the left: A "Bed-only" bedroom with no curtains on the windows. Second on the right: a bathroom that smelled surprisingly clean. At the back, on the right, the final door would have to be the room with the broken window.

Again, using the sleeve mitt, she held her breath and opened the final door a crack. Shining the light in and across the floor, its beam illuminated the corner of a bed, covered with an ecru lace spread that dusted the hardwoods. Further up; the sole of a man's shoe. The shoe was on a foot, attached to a leg covered in gray polyester pants.

Vera froze. What am I doing here, her brain screamed?

She let her breath out in a long, slow, controlled release, as she opened the door a stingy amount further, allowing her previously tainted nostrils to encounter a new, but all-too familiar odor.

In what turned out to be the final days of her mother's life, Vera noticed several changes rapidly taking place. During the painful, miserable Chemo treatments, Ellie McAlister developed a rapidly spreading infection which invaded, and decimated her liver. Due to her age, Vera was not permitted to spend much time in the room with her mom. On the day before she died, her mother had taken on a new scent, which was, quite simply, the promise of death to come. It was as if she had been strolling through the cosmetics department in Nordstrom's when suddenly the Grim Reaper, on temporary assignment as a fragrance rep, approached her and asked, "Would you care to try a new perfume today?"

The new smell, from which Vera attempted to suppress her gag reflex, was the fulfillment of that promise; the reality of death.

The door opened wider, the beam traveled farther.

"Mr. Jorrisch?" she inquired softly, in case the smell was a red herring. No answer, no movement. She stepped inside the tomb and moved the light's beam up and down the length of the prone body. There was no rising or falling of the back, to indicate breathing. She stopped the beam on the upturned side of the face. It was him. Willowy eyebrows and all. Thank God his eye was closed, she thought. Moving her flashlight to the right side of the bed she saw the broken window. There was an antique nightstand positioned symmetrically beneath it, with an electrical cord draped down the front and leading to the pieces of an ivory ceramic table lamp, scattered on the floor below.

Vera, without realizing it, was creeping quietly around the room to the other side of the bed. When her light fell across the back of Mr. Jorrisch's stringy, white hair she detected movement. Before she could process the info, a little black, furry head, with pointed ears, popped up and spun around till its eyes ignited in the flashlight's beam.


Vera smiled.

"There you are."

Not wanting to over-expose any of her memory-making apparatus to the deceased, she kept her light trained directly on the kitten.

"I got ya. I got ya," she comforted, as she reached, with her free hand, and picked up the small fuzz ball from its nest in the curve of the dead man's neck and shoulder.

"Meow, meow."

Paws and claws extended in every direction, as Vera pulled the kitten to her chest, reassuring herself that hers was a just and noble cause.

Next, she held the cat out, and away from her, shining her light at the boney puff, as she turned it about, in her hand, for inspection. She guessed it to be a two-month-old, undernourished female. It was by no means clean but compared to her relatives downstairs, she was quite nice. Tucking the flashlight under her arm, Vera unzipped the front of her hoodie and stuffed the kitten inside. She allowed herself one last look at the room. Vera did not want to be here anymore.

Upon reaching the downstairs door, Vera was presented with a new problem. It was obvious from the sounds on the other side of the door, that there were a lot more cats on the staircase, then when she'd come up. Also, the door opened inwardly toward her making it tough to stop a quick rush of desperate and determined animals.

I'll give it a kick first, she thought. That'll scare them away. She prepared her sleeve-glove once more, then gripped the knob, and kicked hard.


The thundering strike of her heavy boot against the door caused the kitten in her hoodie, to tense-up and dig its sharp, needle-like claws into Vera's chest and abdomen. Vera sucked in hard through clenched teeth. The pain was real, but the clock was ticking. She had to get through the door without letting any strays get by her. She kicked it more lightly a second time, as she quickly opened the door, edging through the exposure, and pulling it shut behind her, in one stealthy movement.

"Made it." She sighed.

Although she had been successful at keeping the crazed animals away from Mr. Jorrisch's body, she now found them rapidly advancing toward her, leaving her no place to safely step. The sounds again swelled around her, as the terrified kitten dug in deeper. Vera continued booting beasts out of the way, with each scooting, step downward. She thought she could see bare, "Cat-less" wood, just three steps below. Risky, she thought.

Vera stepped awkwardly over a half-dozen cats, to plant her right boot in the open space on the plank below.



The hooded, right side of her head slammed against the wall of the staircase, causing Vera to see stars in the darkness, as her weight shifted hard to the right, and momentum took her down. Vera's right leg was now buried, past the knee, in a jagged, splintered hole in the rotted step. She was wretchedly splayed on the steps, straddling a group of screaming, hissing, scrambling cats.


Vera couldn't see the damage but she knew there was blood. She could feel it running down her calf and shin.

The kitten worked its way to the top of Vera's chest like a mountain climber making for the opening of the hoodies zipper. The frightened feline wanted out NOW! Vera used a free hand to zip the jacket all the way up to her chin then reached underneath it to pluck the thorny kitten off of her collarbone. Vera positioned the furry, muscle mass back down closer to her stomach, which was now engulfed in nausea, brought on by the pain in her leg.

She really wanted to scream for Rooney to come and get her but she remembered their deal. "You get me in and I'll do the rest." She wasn't even sure if he was still out there. What if he had decided to bail in the ultimate payback smack-down? Vera shook it off to address first-crisis-first.

Thankfully most of the cats had fled during the crash. Vera slung her left leg out in front of her, stabilizing it two steps below where she now sank. With her left hand on the banister pulling, and her right hand on the wall, pushing, Vera slowly lifted herself, extracting her bloody, lower leg. She leaned one-legged against the railing and shined her beam on the carnage. The first thing to repulse her was the enormous amount of cat hair matting to the blood on her leg. Next, she noted, through misting eyes, at least three, rather large hunks of splintered wood, protruding from the flesh of her leg, at different angles. As she leaned there, one of the pieces snapped off, under its own weight; falling onto the stairs and leaving an unknown portion buried in her calf.

Maxi-Lash tears dropped off her chin onto the front of her jacket. Vera had taken to panting very hard now.

"C'mon...get going," she said to herself, daring the pain to stop her.

The banister rail would have to support her weight, the rest of the way to the floor. Her knee wasn't yet throbbing, when she reached the ground, so she tried putting some weight on the leg. It would mean limping but...

Cats immediately began crowding her again. Whipping tails and fur were snagging on the bloody splinters. She paused to rest her weight against the dining room doorway. Thirsty, sandpaper tongues scraped the wet gouges on her shin.

"NO!" she yelled, shaking them off.

Rest break was over. Time to move. Vera flicked the flashlight's beam at the gingham, back door window, hoping Rooney had not deserted her. There was a faint silhouette of movement outside.

He’s still there.

The din of the beasts seemed to increase as she slinked through the kitchen, and over to the door. Did they somehow know? Could they tell that she was concealing one of the "Family" on her person? Wouldn't they have wanted a better life for themselves, had they been chosen? How could they feel any differently for their little sister? Vera felt a stab of regret upon leaving the rest of the cats to their individual, or collective, fates. The licking started once more. The period of mourning was now over.

"I'm coming out," Vera called.

"Okay," Rooney replied, in a loud whisper.

Gift card in hand, Rooney deftly performed the escape maneuver.

"Shooo! Hsssss!" Vera hissed, at the perpetually-advancing clowder.

She squeezed out, through the narrow slit, protecting her cargo and her leg. Once her stomach, chest, and rear end had pushed through, Rooney pulled the door shut.

"Mission accomplished?" Rooney asked quietly.

"Wanna see her?"

Rooney's expression suddenly changed as though he'd been hit in the face with a frying pan.

"You reek. Damn!" he exclaimed covering his nose with the back of his gloved hand.

"Okay. So you don't wanna see her."

"Woa! It's bad," he said, as his eyes began to water.

"Try to imagine being closed up in there with it," she said. Vera began to wheeze, as her lungs worked to get a purchase on the thinner, fresher air of the outside world.

"You're crazy," he replied, shaking his head.

"I know, right?"

"Okay, let's see it."


"Let's see HER then."

Vera propped herself on the porch rail to take pressure off the leg. Rooney recognized Vera’s body language. He'd seen his share of wipe-outs while surfing and skating, and he recognized the stiff posturing of dudes who tried to soldier through the pain, in order to fool their friends.

"You alright there?" he said looking down at the leg.

With all the colors and varieties of cat hair that clinged onto her crimson-dampened leg, Vera was relieved to see that she hadn't left a trail of blood, out the back door.

"I'm fine," she answered. All that feigned vulnerability she had plied on Rooney, persuading him to become her accomplice, back at the pool, was now long forgotten. Her upper lip was now securely stiffened.

Vera unzipped the hoodie and reached inside taking hold of the shaking creature around its abdomen. Vera sucked in hard as she plucked away tiny, individual paws from her sore, tired skin.

Rooney didn't want to say "Aww!" when he saw the cute, yet still very frightened little face, but he was certainly thinking it.

"Cute," he said.

"She's sweet," Vera added.

"If you say so. Can we get out of here now?"

"Yeah," she said, "I'm right behind you."

"Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine," she said quickly, trying to convince them both.

Rooney tried to retrace his steps as he climbed off the porch. When he hit the ground he looked back. Vera wasn't even half way down yet. He saw her favoring the leg, and tip-toeing to avoid leaving tracks. As she reached the cement steps she appeared to be more stable.

"Hold on. Can I see your flashlight?" he asked.

Even before she had given him the light she could read, from his new authoritative tone, that he was aware of her problem.

Vera stood clutching the kitten, in the back yard of a dead man, as Rooney Wilkes circled her with the flashlight, eyeballing her leg from all sides, like a news helicopter viewing the burning landscape of a raging wildfire.

"How are you even able to stand?" he asked in disbelief.

"It's okay," she answered, with some quake in her voice.

"I don't know," Rooney said shaking his head slowly, "We gotta get you cleaned up."

Vera was too drained to argue. She imagined that being in that house was something like the stress training that Marines are put through. She was proud to have survived it with minimal negative effect. (I came, I saw, I conquered, Meow.)

"Alright," she replied, quake free.

Rooney switched off the flashlight, took Vera by the elbow, and lead her gently back into the cover of the tall hedge.

Suddenly, and without filtration, Rooney's inner teen-boy erupted, "Man...you stink!"





























Vera sat patiently on the curb, in front of the "You Do It!" car wash, resting against the free-standing, coin-changing machine. The kitten bathed itself on Vera's lap as the exhausted teen scratched behind little, black ears. Vera's left boot was already off. The removal of the boot at the end of Vera's stiffening, right leg, would require Rooney's return from Farrell's Donuts, down the street.

What did I get myself into, Vera thought. The kitten's purr motor was cutting in and out.

The wretched hoodie now lay discarded in a nearby trash can (and good riddance.) Vera had begun the dig through her mini pack, searching for dollar bills and change, as Rooney returned with drinks and donut holes.

"Coffee, black," he said, repeating her completed order.

She stopped digging and took the Styrofoam cup from him.


"I go a dozen donut holes. Want some?"

Under the flinching fluorescent lighting, the dried blood on Vera's leg looked almost black to Rooney.

"No thanks," she answered. "I haven't even washed my hands yet."

Looking into the empty car wash bay, Rooney sucked down half of his Mountain Dew then turned back to Vera.

"Are you sure this is how you wanna do it?"

She took a long, slow drink of the strong, warm coffee, all the while nodding her intentions to Rooney.

Vera’s eyes popped open. There was no time to waste, let’s just get this over with, she thought.

"Help me pull my boot off, will ya?"

Rooney had helped his share of busted-up skaters, cradling broken arms, sprained wrist, and applying pressure to open wounds. He sighed deeply, not wanting to be present for whatever was happening next. He moved into position, squatting in front of the boot. Rooney gently cupped its heel with one hand. Wrapping Vera's bloody ankle with a Ferrell’s napkin, he gripped her lower leg. There was virtually no way to avoid the cat hair attached, Velcro-fashion, to Vera's leg. She tried awkwardly to brace herself by wrapping her arm around the iron post that held the coin-changer, while simultaneously cradling the kitten. Any movement, no matter how subtle, brought waves of pain.

"We'll go slow... okay?" Rooney said, "Are you ready?"

Vera, with a lemon-puckered face, nodded hastily, every muscle tensed to a near spasm.

As Rooney began to pull, the removal process produced a moist sucking sound that turned both of their stomachs.

"Sick!" Rooney blurted as he dropped the bloody boot on the pavement.

A new wave of pain swept over Vera as she started to relax. It sent a shiver through her arms, shoulder, chest, neck and face, ending with a short involuntary burst of teeth chattering. She nearly dropped the frightened kitten during the unexpected tremor. A blood-soaked footie would have to be thrown away as well.

Vera handed Rooney the two, mangled dollar bills she had been crushing in her fist throughout the foot extraction procedure. Flattening them, as best he could, Rooney fed them both into the bill changer. The sudden, dropping of coins into the machine’s collection cup, made the kitten jerk again, digging its claws into Vera's thighs.

Vera held out her free hand for an assist in standing up. In the short amount of time she had been sitting, the leg's soreness had increased and she was now fearful about trying to bend her knee. Rooney took her hand and pulled her up, onto her good foot.

"Here," she said handing off the kitten.

Together, they hobbled into the unoccupied wash stall, stopping at the coin-op, control box.

"Grab my boots please."

Leaving Vera stationed at the wall, Rooney returned shortly with the beloved boots. Touching them again brought vivid memories to his mind. These boots were at the center of a lot of pain and suffering in the last few hours. In their hours apart, during the early evening, Rooney was already beginning to own his share of the conflict at the pool. This moment seemed as good a time as any, to let Vera know.

"I'm sorry about "Jacking" your boots today McAlister." There. It was said.

Vera's eyes widened and her jaw went slack.

"What?" Rooney said, shaking his head, and feeling very exposed.

"I didn't know you knew my last name," she said with exhausted surprise.

"Oh... Uh, I got it out of the yearbook," he replied dismissively.

"Today?" she asked.

"Uh... No... Not today," he answered

Vera grew slightly amused at the vision before her weary eyes. She found Rooney to be kind of cute standing there, in his flip-flops, long, stringy, sun-bleached hair, holding her Docs and a kitten. What a picture this would make. But, who would she ever show it to?  He sat Vera's boots down on the floor drain.

Before heading to the donut shop, Rooney had tried to help Vera remove the splinter pieces, which reminded him of dinosaur teeth, from her wounded calf. Some pieces came easily. Some; the opposite of easy. Others broke apart, leaving bits inside deep lacerations. In this immediate moment, Vera just wanted the coating of "Cat Mess" cleaned off of her body before mummification began to set in. No regular shower could possibly accomplish this disgusting task.

Rooney, holding the nervous kitten tightly, withdrew the long sprayer nozzle from its holster, on the stall wall. Pumping the eight quarters into the box, he put three minutes on the timer, then, set the wash control nob to "Power Wash." Hopping to the opposite wall of the stall, Vera turned, and catching sight of Rooney, decided that he now resembled some inconceivable pest control man, and she was the bug.

"If it's too hot or painful let me know, okay?" he advised.

"Go ahead," she nodded.

He squeezed the trigger and aimed the foaming spray at Vera's bare feet. She didn't scream.

"Start at the top and work down," she managed to holler over the sound of rushing spray foam.

Rooney nodded.

Vera, deciding to take it full-face, shut her eyes tightly and extended her arms wide, across the wall. He proceeded down the length of her. When the pressurized spray hit the side of her bad shin, Vera dug her nails into the mortared spaces between the cinderblocks behind her. Her gnashing teeth showed, as lips pulled back in spasms of pain. But still… she didn't ask him to stop. He could not believe what he saw himself doing, nor could he believe that she was letting him.

When he reached her feet again with the foam, she made a limping turn to face the wall. Once more Rooney started at the top and spent extra time on the seat of Vera's cargo shorts since she had spent some time stranded on the filth covered stairs. This time, when the jets of water hit her wounds, Vera didn't hold back.

"Owwwwwww! Ouuch!"

Rooney released the trigger.

"Do you need me to stop?"

Vera saw through the suds in her eyes that there was only 1:45 left on the timer.

"Hit my leg again then give it to me and I'll do my boots."

As the water hit her, she braced herself, biting the unbruised side of her lip, while a million liquid needles stabbed her over, and over.

"Okay, okay. Give it here!"

She wobbled her way to the middle of the stall and power scrubbed her precious Doc Martens inside and out. There were only forty-three seconds left on the clock when she handed the sprayer back to Rooney and set the dial to "Rinse." This was a less painful ordeal but not by much.

Rooney shoved the tip of the nozzle down deep into the bloody boot. An overflowing head of pink lather crowned and spilled out of the top. The water began to clear as the timer wound down.

Turning her back to Rooney, Vera slipped out of her cargos to ring them out. She was too tired to be bashful about her soaking-wet sports bra and boxers. Keeping her weight balanced delicately on the good leg, she swung the damp shorts round and round, over her head, then, slapped them against the wall. She repeated the ritual several times until she could no longer stand. Back to the curb. As wet and miserable as she was, at least the cat stench was finally dissipating.

"Damn," she whispered, seeing that her lower leg was freshly bloodied again.

Rooney handed her several donut napkins, from the wad in his pocket, to help mop up the mess.

"How ya doin?" he asked her, as he scratched the kitten's chin.

She took a big drink, finishing off the warm coffee, and said, "It hurtssss!" with a full-body shake.

She reached both hands out, wiggling her fingers, to show Rooney that she wanted to hold her filthy prize.

"She's not that clean and you're all wet," he said.

Vera frowned, "Okay."

The night breezes gave Vera another stirring chill. She wanted to hold her new pet. She wanted to be at home. She wanted the breeze to stop blowing the napkins off of her open wounds. She was achieving a level of frustration equal, in intensity, only to the bout of shivers she now hopelessly tried to suppress.

"I need some tape to wrap around my leg."

"I've got something that oughta work better than tape but... I don't think you'll want it," Rooney said with a smirk.


She was approaching his offer with all the caution due their tentatively formed alliance.

"Remember that thing that fell out of my wallet?"

"Am I supposed to make a tourniquet out of it?" she replied distastefully.

"If we can poke a hole in the tip of it, then you can slip your foot through and I can help you roll it over your shin and calf, up to the knee."

"Rooney Wilkes! That is some stupid crap!"

When the purple, prophylactic, napkin/bandage holder was finally in place, Vera asked for her boots. She pulled herself to her feet using the dumpster beside her for support, and slipped into the straps of her mini-pack, positioning it between her shoulder blades. Rooney busied himself with sopping up the pooling moisture from the toe-boxes of the boots. Using her partner in crime as a human crutch, Vera steadied and gently slid pruning feet into the footwear. Like a modern-day Cinderella, she found them to be a perfect fit.

"I gotta get home," Vera said, "It must be eleven-ten by now."

Rooney pulled the cell phone from his pocket and checked. It showed "11:12."

"Wow! You were really close," he said with amazement.

Vera smiled.

"I'll walk ya," he said.

As they headed out, Rooney felt a mild nag of curiosity. He wondered why Vera hadn't asked him to tell her the actual time after he checked it. Too wiped out to hang on to the question, he let it drop.

Vera road piggy-back, for the last two blocks of Pritchett Lane. Her leg throbbed as it dangled at Rooney's side.

 Beats limping, she thought.

She suffered a mild twinge of guilt, realizing how wet she had gotten the back of Rooney’s hoodie.

At her instruction, Rooney carried Vera straight back to the side, garage door, where he lowered her gently onto the green, wrought-iron, garden bench. Pulling her mini-pack off her back, she grabbed her trusty flashlight, and traded it with Rooney, for the sleeping kitten, which he had also carried home. Further following Vera's directions, he entered the garage; then came out seconds later, holding the empty "Parkay" tub. After more stage direction, Rooney moved quietly to the patio.

Vera used the moments alone to reflect. If Judy married Mr. Sanders and moved in next door... this could all be mine, she thought. Her fantasy bubble was popped, upon Rooney's return. He stood before her with a margarine tub of fresh water from the outside spigot, and patiently awaited Vera's further bidding.

"I'm sorry I called you a B*****d, at the pool today," she said, speaking with the deepest contrition.

Rooney shrugged it off.

"Hey, I saw what you did to Dean's towel," he said, "When Dean saw it later, he for sure broke rule no.2."

Vera smiled, with her eyes closed, and rocked the kitten like a baby.

"Can you put her in the box now?" she asked.


When he came out again Rooney was sure Vera had fallen asleep.

"You can call me if you want," she said dreamily, out of the blue.

"Okay," he answered, sounding taken aback. "You rest up."

She watched him till he moved out of sight, around the front corner of the house, then she closed her eyes and concentrated on the sound his flip flops, as they popped up on his heels with each step. Going... going... gone.

Vera locked the kitchen door behind her and was certain she could hear Judy's distinctive, "Just one or two Margaritas" snore, as she turned on the hot water to wash the last traces of filth-kitten from her hands.

The leg was throbbing and Vera coveted sleep. After perusing the cabinet, above the sink, where all of the non-prescription medicines and first aid items were kept, she dropped four, 200mg Ibuprofen capsules, onto her palm, immediately catapulting them in between her pulsating, and barely open lips. She deftly flushed them down her gullet with a huge swallow of water from her favorite coffee mug. The cup, which featured the hat, eyes, and nose of the classic radio crime fighter "The Shadow", had been her Father's. With only the stove light to see by, she read the words on the back, hearing her Father's voice.

"Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men? The Shadow Knows" (followed by the laugh.)

Reaching her room quietly, in the dark, and in her physically impaired state, was difficult at best. Finding her bed, Vera laboriously slipped out of her boots, bra, and boxers, discarding the items in every corner of the room, then threw on her over-sized, thrift shop, "Smokey the Bear" t-shirt.

Carefully dragging her damaged appendage onto the mattress, Vera very carelessly left her other leg hanging off the edge of the bed; foot flat on the floor.

Eyes closed.

It was 10:47 a.m. on Thursday; The next day. Judy must be at work, Vera pieced together through her present mental fog.

The word "Kitten", flashed into Vera's mind like a neon beer sign.

She sat up in small increments, because of the sore mouth and throbbing leg. Five minutes passed, nearly frozen in the same position. Propped on an elbow, she considered the night before as she inspected the puffy, purple, rubber-wrapped, lower leg, on displayed, in front of her. It seemed, to her woozy, sleep-addled mind, as though she now sat at the head of a banquet table, trying to fathom the origin of the horrific mystery roast on display, before her disbelieving eyes.

When Vera was eventually able to reach a standing position, balanced on the good foot, she used every available surface; vertical, horizontal, and diagonal, to propel herself on, toward Judy's bathroom. Standing half-bent, over the sink, she sifted through the medicine cabinet which she had dubbed, "Judy’s treasure chest". She knew that Judy rarely finished a bottle of any of the numerous prescriptions she had undertaken. This morning-after situation called for something special to relieve pain and swelling.

"Col… chi… cine," she read.

This one was for Judy's Gout.

Oughta work, Vera thought.

After taking two tablets with a dripping handful of water from the tap, Vera made her way to the kitchen for milk and leftover fish sticks. Cats like fish, right? Vera's scalp itched from the un-rinsed car wash soap. Her leg pulsed, no... wait... it was definitely a throb.

On the arduous trek across the back yard, Vera began to hear "her" kitten while she was still a few yards from the garage door. It was her kitten... now. After all, she had engineered, and executed, a rescue worthy of something featured on Animal Planet.

"Mew, mew, meow."

"I'm here, I'm here," she answered.

She opened the door just enough to see the dusty black nose and whiskers poking through. She dropped half of a fish stick on the ground by the opening and nudged it over with a sore, bare toe. No boots today.

The cat latched on to the morsel and dragged it back into the garage. Vera was able to force her way in, while her pet was occupied with gorging on the first decent meal in who knew how long.

It had taken the kitten only these few over-night hours to completely taint the cramped garage. As she dropped more fish on the floor, the smells from Mr. Jorrisch's house brought an uncontrolled collision of memories, from the previous night's adventure, back into focus. Vera distracted herself by locating the empty Country Crock bowl on the floor. She bent carefully at the waist, pouring milk from a half gallon jug she had brought from the kitchen, along with the fish sticks. The splashing, sloshing sounds caught the ear of the kitten, which instantly stopped chewing and skipped over to the bowl for a drink before the pouring was complete. A white stream trickled between pointy, black ears. A quick shake, and... good as new. Well, certainly as good as a smelly, "Death kitten" could be without a proper bath.

As Vera backed away from the milk bowl, a nail head, protruding from the leg of her Father's work bench, managed to hook itself on the top of her condom compress, just below the knee. Long before she realized she was snagged, the jagged metal silently slicing through the latex sheath, and Vera's damaged leg was free again. The sudden release of pressure on her calf added a new experience in sickening pain to her recent repertoire. Her light grip loosened, and the rest of the fish sticks drop to the floor startling the cat. Waves of nausea shot across her face and eyes. She fell back, against the door, thinking to herself, I'm blacking out. She grabbed for the knob and slid through the narrow opening, pulling the door closed, harder than she had intended to. Hopping with a stagger, her right leg dragging behind, Vera hurried for the house. Goodbye, Kitty.

Sitting on the edge of the tub, in the guest bathroom, Vera forced herself to bend the puffy knee upwards, for a better perspective on the punctures in her calf. There's still junk in there, she thought. She winced while daring to run fingers over the wounds.

"God!" she shivered, reacting to the smell.

Finding no rubbing alcohol under the sink, she pulled out an old, half-empty bottle of fingernail polish remover, quickly scanning the back label for health hazard warnings. Not finding 'Skull and Cross-Bone" symbols, Vera drew a deep breath, and poured out every drop, saturating each of the injuries. She expelled the stinging pain by panting heavily, then, set about mopping up the trickles with wads of toilet paper.

More Colchicine was called for. She added two PM-strength acetaminophen, for the fever that had recently arrived, then Vera took a long, last look at herself in the mirror. Her face and hair were covered in sweat. Seeing the wetness in the armpits of her "Smokey the Bear" shirt, she reckoned they might be damp enough to prevent a forest fire. She was so wiped out that her mind switched off while she contemplated finding something clean to change into.

Switches back on. Does Rooney know my number?

Off and out.

At 6:22 p.m., Judy McAlister unlocked the front door, at 1493 East Pritchett Lane. During her evening commute, her mouth began to water for one of Señor Sanders special Margaritas. She was very glad to be home.

Walking down the hall, to the Master Bedroom, she was shocked to find the door to Vera's room partially open. It had always been understood, and accepted by Judy, that when she married Jim McAlister, his daughter's room was generally off limits without an engraved invitation from the princess herself. Judy was thirsty and anxious to get changed and get next door, but the situation, as it now presented itself, was a golden opportunity to gain valuable insights into Vera's soul. It simply could not be passed up.

The lights were off, making it too dark to really see anything. She reached through the opening and felt around on the wall for the switch.


The posters, the clothes, the mess. She wasn't really very surprised. What did strike her was the odor.


Judy made a mental note to have a talk with Vera about hygiene, feminine and otherwise. A sudden movement on the bed caused Judy to jump with a start. Oh... It's just her, Judy thought, calming herself. Vera was mostly covered by the top sheet of her "Felix the Cat" set but Judy could still make out the darkened, damp armpits of her night shirt. She reached over to flip the ceiling fan switch on.

 Hygiene, and staying up too late, Judy thought. We'll have to have that talk very soon. Judy shut off the light and closed the door.

On her way out the kitchen door, Judy noticed the half gallon jug of milk, warming itself on the countertop. Judy sensed her blood pressure rising. There wasn't much left in the jug, but that wasn't the point.

"For Better, For Worse," she mumbled, and then: "Add it to the list of topics for our little talk.”







The first thing Vera noticed, on her return to the waking world, was the tightness and soreness in the toes of her right foot. Without thinking about it, she tried to curl them. She couldn't. Next, she realized that she was drenched in sweat and smelled atrocious. The fever had returned.

"I need a shower," she complained aloud.

Looking at her clock, she saw that it was now 9:14 a.m. What day was it? Friday? The kitten. She couldn't walk. Think... fuzzy. Think... solution.

Vera remembered that the center slat on the underside of her double bed had fallen and had been laying under there for a month or so, corralling other mislaid items. The piece of sanded wood caught on way more things than she had expected, as she struggled to bring it into the light. Once it was covered, at one end, with several layers of sock and stockings, it transformed into a handy crutch. Holding the homemade implement out in front of her like the staff of Moses, Vera struggled to achieve verticality.

The off-kilter girl plotted the shortest possible course to Judy's walk-in shower. The leg hurt. It all hurt. Everything; walking, standing, sitting, laying. Remembering that a very small someone was now depending on her, Vera proceeded with all haste.

The shower felt great and she purposely balanced the temperature to the cold side to help lift the fog, and counteract her lingering fever. This was the best she had felt since the accident. The kitten could wait a bit longer.

Standing in front of Judy's vanity, after her shower, Vera saw the tiny, nearly-healed scratches, where the kitten had bunkered into her chest and shoulders, during the "Emancipation."

When she had finished the slow, uncomfortable task of drying herself, Vera managed to scrounge the last of the large Telfa pads, as well as an assortment of adhesive bandages, to cover the major cosmetic issues on her leg. Three-quarter-length cut-off, sweat pants, and an orange tank-top would serve as today's uniform of the house, while her boots remained a definite no-go. Too much swelling. Bath sandals would have to do.

Checking out the fridge, Vera wondered where the rest of the milk had gone to. Judy hates milk, she thought. The doorbell rang and Vera's appetite was immediately set aside. Relying on her crutch, she moved so slowly that the bell rang a second time before she reached the door.

"Who there?" she called, unable to tip-toe high enough, on her good foot, to reach the peephole. Vera no longer had a memory of whether, or not, her Mom was tall enough for the peephole. Judy was definitely too short.

"It's Rooney!" a friendly voice replied through the barrier of the solid, wooden, front door.

Even through the pain, Vera was all smiles. She wasn't sure that she wanted Rooney to witness such an animated face, so she pulled out the dead-pan. She opened the door mindfully keeping the crutch, and the right side of her body, out of sight. Vera had grown pale. Too pale, Rooney thought, for a girl who spends six hours a day at the pool.

"How's the cat?" he asks.

Through the cover of her drooping bangs, Vera studied Rooney's being. He didn't seem "high."

"I was just getting something for her to eat," she answered, bending her head and shoulders around the door.

"Do you think she'd eat this?" Rooney held up a five-pound bag of "Health Blend Kitten Bites."

Vera immediately dropped all pretense of hiding her approval from Rooney, and her bruised smile blossomed for Rooney to see.

"Thanks," she says.

Vera had neither taken the cat food bag from him nor had she invited him in, so... he nervously set the bag on the ground, preparing to leave. This was not going as Vera might have imagined a visit from Rooney should go. That is if she had imagined such a visit taking place, which of course, she had.

"She still needs a bath," she blurted out stiffly.

Rooney was not really sure whether or not Vera’s words were just small talk, or if they might be some kind of inducement.

"Oh yeah?" he asked, keeping it light.

"Could you get her from the garage and meet me at the back door?"


Rooney hoisted the bag of Kitten Bites up under his arm and disappeared.

There was no time to affect a disguise for her swollen leg so she limped on through to the kitchen, and hoped that he simply wouldn't ask. Vera unlocked the back door and began filling the dish sink with warm dish-soapy water. Through the window, she saw them coming. More smiling.

"Come in," she yelled. Even yelling was painful. Can't let it show.

Rooney brought the hungry visitor inside, holding the stanky mess at arms-length.

"Meeeeeeew, Rowww, Reeeooww!"

"She was almost outta water," he said, feeling sorry for the kitten.

Vera shut the hot water off and let the cold water run into the "Shadow" mug, which she found, where she had left it two days ago. Rooney set the kitten down on the countertop, in front of the mug. She buried her fuzzy muzzle, up to the ears, and greedily lapped up the contents.

Rooney realized Vera's movements were being confined to pivoting on the ball of her left foot while the right, which she kept hanging behind its partner, barely touched the floor.

"How's your leg?" Rooney asked, sounding mildly curious.

As soon as the words escape his lips, we worried that they might have been perceived as a topic of great privacy to a girl. Perhaps, he thought, this was one of those topics that guys shouldn't try to broach with a girl; like their age, or "When’s the baby due?"

"It's a little sore," she lied, keeping a muted version of her smile pinned in place.

"Can you jog yet?" he joked with a grin.

"I didn't jog before." She answered. It wasn't a funny joke but at least he was trying.

Rooney expression suddenly changed with some severity.

"Is it okay for me to be in your house? Some girl's parents really lose it if there's a dude inside, ya know, while they're gone."

"I'm not really supposed to have guys in the house while my Step-Mom is at work but..."

"Where's your Dad?" Another prying question, he told himself.

"Palm Ridge Cemetery."

It took a moment to register.

"Sorry," he managed, sounding mortified.

Rooney suddenly, secretly hoped her father was a groundskeeper or a gravedigger. He sensed, by Vera's lack of further explanation, that her father was, in fact, a permanent resident.

"I didn't..."

"No problem," she said reassuringly.

As she heard herself saying the words Vera had to accept that, with time, she had grown into sounding more well-adjusted than she really felt about the loss of her father, and her present pseudo-orphaned status.

A new and delicate question formed on Rooney's face. Vera could see it coming and she was prepared for it.

"Where's you real Mom?"

"Right next to my Dad."

"Damn! Sorry... Sorry. I'll shut up now," he said with a blossom of red bursting through his deeply tanned face.

The kittens face dripped with cool, refreshing water. Vera pivoted again to snag a washcloth and a dish towel from a drawer by the sink. The dish towel had three little kittens, which had lost their mittens, embroidered on it. She wet the rag, wrung it out, and began the long overdue task of wiping the cat's head and ears. The small creature didn't try to get away but instead leaned into the gentle pressure of Vera's cleansing strokes.

Rooney, needing desperately to prove himself useful, tore open the bag of Kitten Bites. This was apparently a sound the kitten was well conditioned to, or perhaps it was the smell. The feline began struggling to get at the food. Rooney held out seven pieces, in the palm of his hand, and offered it to the starving kitten. While the cat was preoccupied with self-preservation, Vera wiped the washcloth down the kittens back and tail. More food, more scrubbing.

"Oh my gosh," Vera blurted. "I never called the Cops or the animal people."

"I did it this morning," Rooney said, "from the phone by the pool.

"What did you say?"

"Just that I thought some animals might be trapped in the house. About 30 minutes later I saw two cop cars go past the pool and turn on Open Oak. Later I saw the death wagon."

The cat got squirrely when Vera tried washing its paws so Rooney had to join in the effort. He felt like a veterinarian's assistant, which was not a career path he had ever given any thought to. Any thoughts of a self-sustaining career were a, pretty much outlandish concept to Rooney.

Vera decided to try dipping the cat's legs, all at one time, into the soapy sink water. The kitten morphed into a spring-loaded gyro-cat, which required the semi-coordinated efforts, of the two of them, to maintain control over the wild thing. Together, they submerged her up to the neck, then lifted her above the surface, to let the filthy water run off of her. As the torture session drew to a close, Vera wrapped the dish towel around the clean, but miserable, creature.

"Your leg's pretty swollen," Rooney said, trying to slip it in with as little conflict as possible.

"It's fine."

Was it false bravery that Vera was broadcasting, or a need to keep Rooney from feeling sorry for her, or worse yet, feeling responsible for the injury? You decide.

A rigid silence fell on the scene.

"I'm headed to the beach... Surf's up so... "Rooney advised, changing the subject.

"Okay," she replied. "Hey, would you mind putting some food down for her in the garage. And some fresh water too. I'm kind of tired." There. She said it. Now he had no reason to feel awkward about leaving her.

"Oh. No prob. So you wouldn't wanna...?" he started.

He's asking me to the beach, Vera realized. I'm an idiot. She then recalled who she was talking to. The idea that any of his buddies might be there promptly killed the novelty of the invite.

"Maybe another time." She answered.

"I could come back later and tell you about the waves," he said, now fishing for an invite of his own. He hadn’t failed to notice the tiny beads of sweat that dotted her upper lip.

"Yeah. Sure."

Rooney scooped the kitten up with one hand and the bag of cat food with the other. He paused at the back door.

"What're ya gonna call her?" he asked, with real interest.

Vera calmly fought back the surging pain brought on by the extended period of not having the leg elevated. A pounding ache metronomically drummed her calf and shin, as more blood settled into the wound sites.

"Ginsu," she replied without detectable hesitation.

"Are you serious? Like the T.V. knives?"

"Why not?" She seemed sincere.

Rooney looked down at the kitten.

"C'mon Ginsu," he said with a manufactured sigh.


"See ya," he answered, closing the door haphazardly, with hands full.

Alone, once more, Vera thought she felt a ticklish sensation hurrying down her shin. The nausea was returning and Vera just needed to sit down, right now, and right there on the kitchen floor. With her back pressed tightly against the cabinets she let herself sink to the cool tiles below, pushing her legs out in front.

The right leg was wet. Running from under the large bandage, down her shin, was a line of thickening, yellow fluid which had already traveled down to her ankle. The viscous substance was marbled with thin, red streaks. Though she still felt limber enough to touch her toes, Vera had no intentions of touching this stuff. Besides, she could smell it from where she sat. Sweat drops now popped onto her forehead.

She wanted to take another shower and get back into bed. Clean up and cool down. She just needed to rest there a bit longer. She leaned over and laid her cheek on the smooth blue and white checked tiles.

This is nice, she thought, closing her eyes.































6:33 pm.

Judy stepped into the entry hall, hot and perspiring. The A/C in her Neon was fritzing again. The lady of the house knew better than to expect Vera to come running to greet her; to ask about her day at work, or inquire about her plans for the weekend. She just knew better. When it came to Vera, all of Judy's expectations had already died on the vine.

Unfortunately for Judy, she had no means of anticipating the stench of a "Sick House" that accosted her senses. The scent was of the same malodorous origins as that, which she had experienced during her brief expeditions into Vera's room. This time, however, it was enhanced by vivid, aromatic dislocations, like a few of the "Bum Trips" Judy had taken in her wilder, teen years. Frustrated by the drive home, Judy was at her breaking point.


Judy stormed down the hallway, pushing her sweaty, stringy, blond bangs out of her face. Vera's door was closed. Judy knocked while opening the door, not formally waiting for the "OK" before entering.


She wasn't there. Back up the hall, and through the living room. Nothing.

"Vera?" she called out, fastening a note of concern to the last syllable.

On to the kitchen!

To the right, just through the doorway, was the black side-by-side fridge Judy had picked out the week before marrying Jim McAlister. Standing suspiciously against it was a long piece of wood with, "What are those... ? ... socks... Why are there socks on the end of this board?"

Two more steps in and ...


Judy saw the bandages first. Beneath them she saw the bluish, ventricose leg from mid-thigh, down to its puffy toes. She saw and smelled the draining pus/blood mixture. The rest of the visible Vera was very washed-out. Judy dropped to the tile beside her step-daughter and placed her ear next to Vera's mouth. With her hand she grabbed Vera's wrist and located its distant pulse.

Not Vera, too, she thought.

Judy reached up beside the refrigerator and snatched the wall phone from its cradle by the long, yellow cord. She stabbed "911" into the handset and mashed it into her ear. After a long moment a hollow, female voice came across the wires to meet her.

"911. What's your emergency?"







It had been 6:48 when Rooney last had his phone out to check the time, and any missed calls. He fiddled with the ringer for the third time. It was definitely on, just like the last two times. Reaching into his side pocket, pot and nicotine stained fingertips made contact with the velveteen surface of a recently purchased, "Belated" baby shower gift.

Forgoing the time check for the moment, Rooney brought a small, cushy, toy mouse out of concealment. The body of the stuffed rodent was light gray while its felt tail and ears were black. There were four, droopy, black nylon filament whiskers protruding from the nose end of its catnip filled, wedge-shaped, cartoon carcass. Rooney's decision to make the purchase was clenched as he remembered a conversation he had once had with Scabbie, back in 7th grade, about the possible recreational effects of smoking the favored herb of the feline. Even if Ginsu didn't take a shine to the thing it might not be a total financial bust.

He had decided to skip the beach, his buddies, and the "Bud." There was something extraordinary that had taken up residence in the forefront of his mind. There was a mystery blossoming in his life. He wasn't particularly fond of mysteries, or anything else that challenged his simple, cloudy existence. Wake up, smoke, surf, smoke, skate, smoke, eat, smoke, sleep, smoke... He had a schedule to maintain as well as a reputation. There was something else about Rooney that was equally hard for him to deviate away from; whatever it was that he was feeling for, or about, this pain-in-the-a*s girl... He had to see it through.

A few more paces down the sidewalk, when Rooney saw the flashing red and blue lights in Vera's driveway, his gut screamed at him to spin around and jet out of the area, avoiding anything, and everything unpleasant. Rooney's brain wasn't hearing the warnings. There must have been a bad connection.

Reaching the western edge of 1489 East, Rooney could see that the "Hoopla" contained to an ambulance only; no cops. Unfortunately, the thought brought no actual relief. Paramedics were dragging a stretcher around from the back of the house, on the garage side. Moving his vantage point a bit further, up the walkway, an awful tasting question materialized in his throat which was answered when he saw what he had feared most.

It was Vera.

They had her on oxygen so her face was partially covered but he couldn't miss the spikey red tips of her hair contrasting against the white sheet that was pulled over most of her.

It was Vera.

They already had her hooked up to an I.V. drip which hung from a vertical, silver pole at the head end of the stretcher. Following close behind the preoccupied paramedics was a worried looking lady. Her overly-tanned body, deep crows-feet, and long hair, which was blonder than could legitimately be found in nature, caused Rooney to guess her age to be in the late thirties. Maybe early forties. He made her as the "Stepmother."

A middle-aged man, with silver hair, hurried alongside of the blond lady. Rooney thought he overheard the man say something about, “meeting you at the hospital.” Or something like it, as the man pealed-off, heading to the house on the far side of Vera’s place.

The stretcher, paramedics, and Vera's guardian were all swept up into the ambulance so quickly that Rooney had no time to say anything to anyone. They were there one moment and gone the next.

Lost in the whirlwind, he was clueless as to where they would be taking Vera. In the last forty-eight hours, life had changed and then changed again. He could do nothing more than stand there numbly, recalling each hour that led to this conclusion. It was all too much; too fast.

A synopsis of events, rather tragic in nature, eventually materialized for him. He was alone, on the sidewalk, in front of the house of a girl who had just left in an ambulance, with sirens blaring. This was the same girl who had a fierce reputation for disliking him, and who had cussed, and attacked him, in public, only two days before; a girl who had convinced him to break into a house to save a cat; a cat which was now being abandoned for a second time; a cat whose play toy he currently held in his hand.

He looked around, carefully scanning the street, east to west. No nosy neighbors.

Alles Klar.

Skulking up the drive, to the back yard, he carefully opened the side garage door and slipped inside. Ginsu was asleep in her box. How was that possible, he wondered, with the racket that had just cleared the scene, moments before? He noticed that her food dish was empty. He poured out the rest of her water and stacked the two fake-butter tubs, gently depositing them next to the cat. Lifting the box slowly off the floor, he rested it on the corner of the workbench. The mostly-full bag of cat food was also on the table. Grabbing the bag and the makeshift carrier Rooney posed the universal question; "What now?"

"I'll bet it the leg," he said, as he exited the garage, with his precious cargo.





Rooney knew how to feel guilty. His parents had trained him well. His Mom and Dad had openly smoked grass, and partied around the house almost nightly, with friends and neighbors, up until he was in the 5th grade. He remembered seeing his mom puking in the toilet so frequently that a casual observer might have thought she had perpetual morning sickness. Then, during the only parent/teacher conference Rooney could ever remember his parents attending, something happened. He suspected that DHS must have been at the meeting, which resulted in an immediate and dramatic change. Within a matter of weeks, or even days, his parents had accepted the tenants of B'hai, and it was suddenly wrong to hit the booze and the bong. The old crowd systematically dried up and stopped dropping by to party. It was suddenly un-cool that he wanted to get buzzed after school, with his buddies, as a means of coping with the polar shift at home. Bad Karma. Even his surf gear, became the topic of a holier-than-thou sermon on Rooney's all-too-prevalent, negative, materialistic existence.

What a bunch of hypocritical crap!

But, once again the old feelings were being activated, and now, the very life of the sleeping cat-in-the-box he was schlepping around, somehow became his sacred responsibility. If he failed, a multitude of angels would weep. Vera had guilted him into helping her and now she was hurt. He wished he had just told her to piss-off. Rooney hated felling guilty.







Monday morning, at 5:36, Vera's 103.7 degree fever broke. And now, after a long night of groans, and jostling about, she was incrementally waking from her most recent twelve hour siesta. Judy was lightly napping, curled up uncomfortably in the chair by the bed, as the I.V. drip machine dispensed its minute dosages of antibiotics, anti-inflammatory meds, and some serious pain relievers.

Vera lay on her right side, facing the door, in the bed of deep slumbers.

"Ohayou, Gozaimasu," Vera whispered in a crackling, unused voice.

"Vera?" Judy answered, lifting her head.

"Present," Vera whispered colorlessly.

'Vera, how're ya feelin Hon?"

Before Vera could form a thought in reply, the door to the room swung open with a sweeping "Whoosh!" and a figure entered. From the sound of the foot falls, Vera surmised it to be a single individual. There may have been more than one person though, as some part of her mind was becoming alert enough to question its own judgments.

"Vera?" asked the pedestrian voice of a man who obviously knew her secret identity.

Had someone really called her name just then? One crusty eye popped open, staring straight ahead into an oddish image, or symbol, floating before her. The vision swayed slowly, back and forth, making it harder to pull it into focus. If asked, Vera would have reported that the shape resembled a circle formed by a snake biting the tip of its own tail. It appeared to be made out of bronze and hung upon a background of deep, black fabric. Vera's open eye swiveled as it adjusted to the light of the room.

Now, Vera could tell there was something else of great interest to see, just below the hoop-snake. She was able to make out two columns of stacked, brass rectangles; very small rectangles, which were separating a fold in the black fabric background. She strained to make out the lightly striped pattern beyond the opening in the folds. Her eye stopped moving. Blinking suddenly seemed an impossible task.

"Hoop-snake, your pants are unzipped," she said in a somewhat irreverent, and husky, morning voice.

"Oh! Gee. Excuse me."

Dr. Mital Mendachan, hands buried deeply into the pocket of his chalk- white lab coat, spun around to privately correct his wardrobe malfunction.

"Sorry about that," he said matter-of-factly, turning back to face his patient.

The physician had migrated from India to the U.S. back in the 90's and by now any trace of his former "Old World" accent and manners had abdicated to a more "West Coast" state of being. Judy had already speculated that his tan might have been that dark already when he arrived twenty years ago, but who could say. His professionally whitened teeth proved rather contrasty and flashy against his complexion.

"Ginsu! Leg....... Ginsu." Vera mumbled.

The physician looked over at Judy, who was arranging her bangs to cover the creases in her cheek, made by the vinyl cushions of the chair, where she had spent the night.

"She's still pretty out of it," he stated. "It's the pain relievers."

Closing her eye, Vera sensed the pull of the I.V. tube, in the back of her hand, as she slothed on the bed. Dr. Mendachan resumed his review of her vitals and current meds, making notations on the iPad he carried. He turned to Judy.

"Mrs. McAlister, I would like to have explained things to Vera before taking "Next Steps" but we've truthfully run out of time. I'm going to schedule immediate follow-up surgery."

Judy looked at Vera inanimate body, piled on the bed, to see if there had been a reactions to the doctor's words.

"She just got out of recover yesterday," Judy sighed.

"Unfortunately, her post-op levels show a more wide-spread infection of the tissue which will also have to be removed. With almost 72 hours of incubation before she was brought to us, the tissue destruction is simply more profound than we had first believed. Although Necrotizing Fasciitis is fairly rare, the extent we are seeing in the leg is pretty typical for wounds left untreated that long."

Vera's eye again popped open, undetected by her guests. She was familiar with the words "Necrotizing Fasciitis" and knew precisely what they meant.

"Flesh Eating Bacteria," she whispered ominously.

Vera had chosen the disease for her 9th grade, speech class presentation, complete with disgusting photos, not properly vetted by her teacher prior to her talk. At the time, to the collective Ninth-Grade mind, it was cool. In the here and now, it most certainly was not.

My leg, she thought, it feels weird. Both of them feel weird. She sensed that her perceptions were being influenced by drugs. She still couldn't recognize the man doing the talking, but she was pretty sure that the lady was Judy.

"Legs... Judy?" she managed.

Dr. Mendachan's reaction time, with the benefit of a sound night's sleep, was quicker than Judy's.

"Vera? I'm Dr. Mendachan. Do you remember speaking with me?"

"No," she slurred, sucking spit back in from the corner of her mouth.

"That's okay. You're at Oceanside Surgical Hospital and I've been treating you."

"Where are my legs?" she struggled to ask.

Judy shot Dr. Mendachan a concerned look, through mascara stained eyes.

"You've just come through a surgery and the anesthetic hasn't completely worn off yet. Your left leg is fine... but we need to talk about your right leg."

Vera had developed an ear for "Bedside Manner" during her Mother's protracted bout with leukemia. She could discern, through the fog of painkillers, that very bad news was about to be seated at her table, and that Dr. Mintyfresh..... whatever, had not dropped in for a social call.

Judy anticipated what was to come. She hopped out of her chair and hurried to the side of the bed. She took Vera's hand and unconsciously began to squeeze it. Vera felt no pain, just steady pressure from Judy's fierce grip. It told her that Judy was already in-the-know, and the situation was serious. Vera was thankful for the pain meds and hoped they might prevent her from crying.

"What about my right leg?" she asked in a slightly more controlled tone.

"When you were brought in,” Dr. Mendachan began, “there were multiple wounds in your shin and calf. We even found large splintered pieces of wood deep inside the affected areas. Do you remember what happened to you?"

Vera's open, squinty, eye looked lazily off to the right as she labored to think of how to keep Rooney out of trouble.

"No," she replied.

"Okay... well, we ran tests on the material which showed that the splinters were saturated with feline urine and fecal matter. Do you understand?"

Vera nodded slowly hoping to maintain the appearance of full sedation.

"The various bacteria throughout included..."

"Flesh eating bacteria," Vera broke in.

"The Strep that causes Necrotizing Fasciitis... yes."

Judy's grip intensified.

"My leg is gone," Vera said dispassionately.

"Part of it ... yes."

"How much?"

"I've scheduled another surgery to ensure that we can save and protect the maximum amount of tissue possible," he said.

This was the part of Dr. Mendachan's chosen profession that he truly hated; telling people, young people, that a piece, or fraction, or percentage of themselves, was no longer a part of their whole being. He spoke with a heavily practiced tone of assurance. He had been told by his colleagues that he had a natural gift for imparting the worst kinds of news, as his job sometimes required him to do. The compliments didn't help much. He had to refocus so that his personal feeling wouldn't degenerate the situation into a session of self-pity on his part.

"How much are you getting rid of?"

"In total about sixty percent."

"What... What does that include?" Vera asked cautiously.

"From just above the knee, down."

Vera slid her head over onto Judy's squeezing hand, returning the squeeze, and closing her eye.








Nights alone in the recovery unit were deadly dull. There were no windows on Vera's wing so the passing of time was measured out in the meals she received and the eventual removal of the tray and the dishes. Breakfasts were a bland collection of colorless, tasteless, barely edible shapes, displayed on colorless, tasteless, inedible shapes. Lunches and Dinners were modest variations on the theme.

There was always television, Vera thought. Sadly, sedatives and pain meds made it hard to concentrate on plotlines, even for game shows. In the end, it was the nurses' aides who seemed to enjoy T.V. the most.

On her third day; Post-Op, Vera waited expectantly for her first visit from Jen and Sam, who, not being immediate family, had been disavowed by the hospital staff. Vera silently suspected Judy's direct involvement, or at least her peripheral approval of the visitor moratorium.

No one would blame Vera, or anyone in her position, for the apprehension she was feeling, as she waited to read the reactions on the faces of her BFFs. Faith was always a bit hard to come by, in times of crisis, especially when the anchors of Vera's kept disappearing on her.

"They won't let me down," she told herself, while she waited.

"Mrs. McAlister?" Rooney softly called from the side of the hedge.

It was late afternoon and Judy was loading Vera's clothes and things, into the Neon. She had included a change of comfortable clothing for herself in preparation for another overnight stay.

"Yes?" she replied, looking around in confusion, and wondering where the voice had come from.

Rooney stepped forward. He had been hanging around in shifts, for a week now, hoping for a chance meeting.

"My name is Rooney. I'm kind of a friend of Vera. How is she? Is she gonna be okay?"

Throwing the over-stuffed Hello Kitty beach bag into the passenger seat, Judy's eyes met Rooney's for the first time. Judy knew Vera's friends Sam and Jen. Probably better than she wanted to. They were Vera's best and only friends as far as Judy had ever discovered. She had never heard the name "Rooney" before. A boy, friend, she wondered? A "Boyfriend", she wondered? Their Step-mother/ Step-daughter relationship being as it was, for so long, Judy had begun to wonder if Vera actually liked boys as a long-term relational option. After all, Vera's appearance was not calculated to attract the opposite sex, in Judy's jaded opinion.

"Do you know what happened to her?" There were traces of tension in Judy's voice as she posed the question.

Rooney could see that Mrs. McAlister wouldn't answer any of his questions until he had answered hers. His limited wisdom and worldliness told him that "Ya gotta give if ya wanna get." The problem, as Rooney had assessed it, came down to the tentative bond he had formed with Vera in the course of a few, sparse hours. How much should he say? How much had Vera already told her Step-mother? On the other hand, was Vera even conscious? Could she speak? He had to know.

"I was around when it happened," he offered.

"When what happened?" Judy pleaded, raising her voice slightly.

"When she hurt her leg."

Judy walked around to the driver's side and climbed beneath the wheel. She was really no good at talking to young people and she knew it. Even when she was a young person herself, she had always gravitated to her elders, whether it was partying or just hanging-out. Judy always had her sights set higher that the other girls of her age. And now, at this moment, she wanted to scream at this kid and make him tell her everything that had happened to Vera. Perceiving the genuine concern in his questions, Judy let the anger drain off.

Sitting behind the wheel, ready to go, Judy looked at Rooney for an extended moment. He likes Vera, she thought. It's good for Vera to have real friends. All that aside, it was now Judy's turn to get to the bottom of things.

"Her leg got infected from the splinters. Any ideas where the splinters came from Rooney?" she asked in a softened tone.

"She was in an old house... the boards on the stairs broke."

"Her doctor said that the splinters were covered in cat crap and pee. You said you were around when it happened... so can you tell me where she got..."

"It was old man Jorrisch's house."

Judy turned her head and stared out, through the windshield, to the side yard. She had heard from Dave Sanders, how the police had found Mr. Jorrisch's body amongst a plethora of sick, dying, and dead cats. Judy suddenly grew wary that her Step-daughter, and this young man standing by her car, might have had something to do with Mr. Jorrisch's death.

"This was before they found him dead, right?" she asked dreading Rooney's reply.

Rooney had already said enough to land him back in "Juvie", or worse yet prison, if the courts decided to consider him an adult. None of it mattered. He had to know about Vera.

"Before... right before. I mean she's the one who found him," he answered hoping desperately that she understood what he was trying to say, as well as what he tried hard not to say.

Judy checked her watch; 5:42 p.m. She needed to get back to Vera, her Step-daughter; her responsibility. The second surgery had gone well but the final, post-op results weren't in yet. There was still one question remaining to be answered to her satisfaction, however.

She pulled her legs out from under the steering wheel, swiveling around in the bucket seat to plant both of her feet firmly on the driveway. For a flashing second the thought of Vera never being able to perform the simple movement she had just completed, invaded Judy's mind, and she fought internally to conceal her frustration.

"Why was Vera in Mr. Jorrisch's house?" she asked, staring right into Rooney's nervous eyes.

Vera had told Rooney about Judy's allergy to cats that night, at the car wash, and now he was unsure how to proceed. He certainly didn't want to give the woman, who still might turn him in to the authorities, a reason to dislike him. Staring down the barrel of a direct question, Rooney knew himself to be inadequate at impromptu lies. Any of his more successful deceptions, from the past, had required a ton of time and planning.

"She wanted to get the cat Mrs. McAlister," he blurted out in a rush.

The dam had cracked. Now, under extreme pressure, a stream of facts was spraying out. Finally; the truth.

"Cat? What cat?"

"I met Rooney today."

Vera dropped her copy of Richie Rich, "Zillions" that she'd propped up to conceal her face from the endless parade of nurses, and nurse techs who had come and gone throughout the days of her convalescence/confinement. She had recognized the voice but the words seemed to be a dreadfully imperfect fit. It was Judy standing at the end of her hospital bed, all right.

Vera rolled Judy's words across her mind a second time, trying to discern the intended attitude behind them. She lay there stone faced (the pain meds alibi was still holding up as a dodge for unwanted interrogations.) Vera needed to hear any news about Rooney but she also needed to control the dialog to convince her Stepmother that all attempts to gain an upper hand over her stepdaughter would prove futile. Vera still maintained that theirs was a relationship built on a set of unwritten rules which only she could amend at will.

"Who?" Vera asked, forcing a factitious yawn out the side of her mouth, for effect.

"He told me about Ginsu," Judy replied, not wavering at all.

The young girl's eyes narrowed, but not without letting a twinkle escaped which satisfied Judy's belief that Vera was very much aware of everything going on around her, meds or no meds.

Vera remembered that her Father, who was a very honest man by nature, had once advised her, half joking, never to admit anything if she was ever in a traffic accident. It was the insurance man within him talking. Vera thought the advice applied nicely to the present situation. She looked into Judy's eyes and intentionally un-focused her own eyes to hold the gaze without fear of intimidation. Should Judy intensify her stare, Vera would not notice and would therefore remain uneffected.

You weren't with Jen and Sam, "Judy stated with the authority of one who had discovered a hidden truth. "You broke into a house for a cat Vera."


"Why didn't you just tell me you wanted a cat?" Judy asked in a near-exhausted tone.

Four beats later...

"Paris," Vera answered quietly.

"What?" was Judy's clueless response.

"Paris. My cat when I was twelve... when you married my Dad. He got rid of Paris because of you... because of your allergies."

Every little bit of everything that was wound up ever so tightly inside of Judy suddenly burst and drained gracefully out and away. Her shoulders dropped; her eyes dimmed. She had to innocently wonder if this was how the Step-mother/Step-daughter dynamic was destined to play out. Was it really any different for blood relatives, Judy wondered?

If the child of the man I loved has lost her leg because I'm allergic to cats then... then..., she couldn't finish the thought for fear of where it was leading.

Judy's lower lids filled and overflowed onto her cheeks.

"Vera, I'm sorry." Judy heard herself say. How worthless it sounded to her, and yet she knew she really did feel it, and meant it.

Vera quickly grew to hate the uneasiness of the moment, so she sliced cleanly through it.

"How is she?" Vera asked softly, conceding nothing.

Judy was grateful for the implied mercy in Vera's change of subject.

"Rooney told me she is doing fine," Judy answered. "Where did the name "Ginsu" come from?" Judy asked, with a look that acknowledged the quirkiness of Vera's choice of pet names.

Side-stepping Judy's question, Vera felt that a preemptive strike was called for, in order to avoid the development of a larger argument.

"I'll keep her in the garage. She'll be out of your way in there."

Judy caught the tinge of defiant concession in Vera remark. She felt that Vera had just jerked them two steps back from the progress they'd been making seconds before, and it hurt her. Judy choked the urge to play the "Concerned Parent" and instead she decided that the time had come to redefine the terms of their kinship.

"She stays in the house and that's final," Judy insisted. "It gets too hot in that garage. I'll take pills or get shots or whatever they do these days but you've got to promise me you'll keep her clean. Neither one of us wants to live in a house that smells like a litter box."

"I've smelled worse but... alright."

It actually occurred to Judy for the first time, in the midst of whatever all this was, that Vera had experienced an unexpected encounter with a dead body. Judy was not yet ready to hear that story, and she swallowed hard enough to be heard. She looked and saw Vera's faint smile. It hadn't been seen in a while and Judy noted it as strange, with all Vera had been through, how it chose this moment to reappear. Judy was amazed that having just come through two surgeries, the loss of her foot, and part of her leg, Vera was most concerned about the cat she had rescued. Judy was also amazed at herself. It was no secret to Judy that she had, at an early age, cultivated a self-serving sensibility. It wasn't that she couldn't look after herself but rather that she never wanted, or intended to. Judy liked being taken care of. If she were being completely truthful, that was probably what her friendship with Dave Sanders was all about. Now, all those feelings had evaporated. It wasn't exactly maternal, what she felt, but it seemed to be honestly unselfish. And it seemed good.

Judy began unpacking the beach bag, setting various items on the window ledge while other things were put away in the drawers of the nightstand, by the bed. Vera picked up the comic once more as Irona was forcefully giving Reggie Van Dough's mean, old cat a bath. She paused and lowered the comic again.

"She has sharp little claws," Vera stated, with gentle certainty.

"What was that Hon?" Judy asked, searching for relevance.

Her claws are really sharp. That's why I named her Ginsu."

Day 10 and counting. Vera was now certain that she understood how prisoners must feel. She contemplated the ironic humor of contracting cabin fever while in the hospital. It wasn't that funny.

The night before had brought Vera, the first of the often discussed "Phantom" sensations, from the general area recently occupied by her right lower leg and foot. Lying out across a pile of sheets and blankets, she moved in and out of sleep. The feelings didn't manifest themselves as pain but instead as an itch on the knuckle of her bygone "Big" toe. She had moved her left foot over, unconsciously, to scratch the top of the digit with her rough, summer-callused heal. Vera couldn't manage to hit her target. When the reality, of her loss, finally scraped against her waking mind she started to cry. It turned into a good, hard, shaking weep that was long overdue. She wanted her Dad. She wanted her cat. She would have settled for Judy.

It was early morning and with the sound of each set of footsteps, passing the door to her room, she wished Rooney would decide that he cared about her. She imagined that something, in its formative stages, had materialized between them. She wouldn't have wished for it, and she hadn't been looking for it, at least she didn't think so, however, the fog of medication left many of her daily conclusions untethered in certainty. Strictly speaking, she wasn't certain of much. The word most likely to serve as a motto, for her life of loss, would have been "UNCERTAINTY."






























At nine in the morning, on Day 12, Judy sat flipping channels, looking for a good, old movie to watch. They were waiting for a physical therapist, or someone like that, to come for a discussion of Vera's future mobility. Judy had not watched so much mindless, morning television in years. Nothing to see here, she thought to herself, like the cops on T.V. who try to disburse the crowds at crime scenes. She clicked it off. Judy had already used up the rest of her vacation, and sick leave, since the operation. Now she found herself in an ongoing negotiation with the Human Resource manager, at work, about the ramifications of FMLA. She waited.

Vera knew that Rooney, during his first meeting with Judy, had been advised about the infection in her leg, without going into the lurid details of amputation. Now Judy had seen him again, two days ago, in front of the house. They made small talk, and he asked how Vera was doing. Judy thought it wise, at this juncture, to tell the young man about Vera's surgeries on the chance that he may decide to visit Vera. Vera harbored a smattering of bitterness towards her Step-Mom for casting her in the role of "Helpless Crippled Girl."

Judy had asked Rooney to continue taking care of Ginsu till Vera could come home, to which he happily agreed. It had been Judy's belief that Vera's imaginings always gravitated toward the negative end of the spectrum, and therefore, she relayed the info to Vera in sparse detail, making it difficult for the teen to piece together a true picture of Rooney's state of mind.

What Vera really wanted to know was "how did he look and sound?" What was the tone of voice like, as he spoke to Judy? Despite her yearning, Vera was not in the least interested in discussing her possible feelings for a "Guy" with her Step-mother.

Judy could see that Vera was down this morning; Women's intuition or something like that.

"I told Rooney he could come up here and I would get him in to see you," Judy offered, emphasizing her lack of understanding at why the boy had remained elusive.

"You told me," Vera answered lifelessly.

Of course, Rooney's forgotten about me, she thought. He's probably out getting wasted with his friends right now, she fantasized. At sixteen she had instincts but had not given herself over to trusting them completely. Had she read "That night" all wrong?

There has to be a reason, Vera thought. She looked down at her bandaged stump. There's the reason, she sighed. A sour collection of thoughts began to swirl in Vera's head, that seemed to add up to a simple case of guilt on Rooney's part. Could that be why he was watching Ginsu? Not because he actually cared about her, or the helpless, hopeless cat, but because he was working on a twist of guilt that he needed to extinguish. Was Rooney just trying to fill his school-required, community service hours by helping the poor, little, crippled girl? Not knowing the answer for sure really sucked.

Opening the bottom drawer of the nightstand beside her, Vera pulled out a blue permanent marker. It had been in her pocket when they brought her in but now she couldn't remember why. She stuck the cap end into the previously bruised side of her mouth, and lightly bit down with her molars. A gentle tug and the tip freed itself. She stretched downward and started doodling a cartoon kitten on the surgical dressings that covered the forty percent balance of her right leg.

"You know what I like most about Rooney? Judy said. It's those long sun-bleached bangs and eyelashes of his. I like the way they stand out against his tan."

Vera had no interested in hearing her Step-mom rave about the looks of a guy almost young enough to be her son, and most especially not this guy.

"You wanna sign my stump?" she interjected to deflect Judy's last statement. Vera held the marker out for Judy to take. "Go ahead. It's okay."

"Vera!" Judy replied, with an apparent distaste.

"Knock, Knock?" came a deep melodic voice, as the door to the room swung open wide. In stepped a large, Africa-American man, in scrubs, who might easily have been mistaken for an NBA Star Forward. His actual specialty: Assisting amputees with their prosthetic appliances and the physical rehab they required.

"Vera?" he inquired in a deep brown voice. "I'm Andromeda, Andromeda Wallace. I'll be directing your P.T."

"Hi," was her emotionless response.

Vera never seemed to have predictable, commonplace reactions to meeting people, who were so obviously different from herself. It was one of the things about Vera that annoyed Judy the most.

Andromeda was reaching out his over-sized hand to shake Vera's when her cat drawing caught his eye.

"Cool Cat. Can I sign your bandage?"

In lieu of a handshake, she dropped the marker in his open hand.

"Sure," Vera said, smirking at Judy.

Very gently, and with the utmost respect for his patient, he made his mark.




Vera smiled at her first autograph, and its author.

"Are you ready to talk about getting mobile again?" he asked sincerely, handing her the marker.

"The sooner, the better," she replied.

By any unit of measure, Jen and Sam were Vera's most intimate friends. She had bonded with Jennifer Marie Del Gado in the sandbox days of Pre-K. Their mothers were also tight, and it was now difficult for Jen's Mom to see Vera without a serious stab of grief. Regina Del Gado couldn't help but recognize the withering beauty of her friend, Ellie McAlister, in Vera's young face.

Jennifer was taller and thinner than Vera and was crowned with fine, straight, dishwater hair. She possessed the same gangly, asymmetrical gracelessness seen in newborn giraffes. The weakest of her features, by far, were her "20/150" eyes, which required the use of glasses. Budgetary constraints, within the Del Gado household, necessitated that Jen should wear the same frames, through high school, that she had picked out in 5th grade. In the course of time, Jen had grown adept at hiding her entire being behind those frames, for her day had not yet come.

Samantha "Sam" Pritzer was, by far, the prettiest girl in ninth grade. Petite, and well curved at the age of fourteen, with a head full of long, honey-blond locks, Sam had the "Cali Girl" thing going on, and in full bloom. When Samantha's family moved to town, from San Jose, Tanya and Terrie snatched her up right away for the cheerleading squad. She had the looks and the skills. Furthermore, the girls, realizing the potential threat she posed, wanted to control her movements within the male population of the school. Sam fell in with Vera and Jen during an oddish turn of events.

Sam was not particularly pretentious and enjoyed talking with Vera and Jen during computer lab, where together, they each mocked teachers and fellow students alike. Sam envied Vera's independence and Jen's loyalty.

On Homecoming Friday, in the halls before the pep rally, Tanya gave Sam a very public, and poorly veiled, warning to avoid riff-raff and peons. Vera and Jen, standing nearby, heard it all. They sadly, half-expected Sam to renounce them both right then and there, in the court of teen opinion. On this day, however, Sam showed a level of maturity beyond her years as she performed an equally public demonstration of support, for her far-from-popular friends. In one deft movement, she hoicked off her "Cheer" sweater, wadding it up and throwing it at Tanya. The flying wardrobe malfunction hit Tanya in the back of the head as she walked away. Turning to confront whoever or whatever had messed with her hair, she received a shock. At Tanya's feet lay a squad sweater, before stood Sam, in her sports bra and pleated skirt, flatly refusing to join the rest of the squad, as they headed for center-court, to perform a now "Minus one" rendition of the much-practiced routine, before the entire student body.

"You really blew it Pritzer!" Tanya spat out venomously.

Jen took off her pastel pink, jean jacket, and handed it to Sam for covering. From that day on the three of them were seldom apart. Why they were actually friends, none of them knew definitively.

Vera, having been shaped by the losses she had sustained, was still a very private young person. Accepting her inability to control information outside the hospital walls, she very intentionally hadn't mentioned Rooney, in connection with the accident, to either Sam or Jen, instead concocting a tale about falling off the Water Street bridge and making Judy promise not to bring the issue up in front of them. This deliberate omission would cost her the luxury of any sympathetic shoulders to cry on due to Rooney's abrupt disappearance from her life. She had arrived at the conclusion, as conflicted and hormonal as she presently was, that life in the future would simply consist of her and Ginsu; Together forever. If Rooney was disgusted by her, then she would simply have to forget it and move on.

This forlorn stream of consciousness led Vera to momentarily consider changing schools for her "Senior" year. Or perhaps, she might be quitting school altogether, to become a drifter; traveling from town to town, seeking out the lowly and misfortunate, to render assistance with the aid of her faithful, four-legged sidekick. She could dole out justice, to any evildoers, with a swift kick in the pants from her nuclear-powered, bionic leg which would naturally come equipped with a generous compliment of Swiss Army attachments. She caught a back-lit vision of the super-silhouetted duo, capes billowing in the breeze. The days of institutional isolation were obviously getting harder and harder to bear.

Teenagers are so unpredictable, thought Judy, as she sat in her "Judy" chair. Sam and Jen had just left the hospital, being chased out at the end of visiting hours, but not before they had completed an "All Access" fashion photo shoot of Vera's leg, which they had covered in exotic makeup, temp tattoos, and for the pièce de résistance; an assortment of colorful scarves and bandanas. No matter, Judy thought, as long as it kept Vera in good spirits.

Judy couldn't remember when she had ever seen such devoted friends in her life. She wondered how she would have coped with a life similar to Vera's when she was sixteen.

Then there was Andromeda. He had already made a casting of Vera's right thigh for the appliance socket, and now had Judy's high-spirited step-daughter on a regular, therapeutic workout regimen which pulled double-duty, both strengthening her core and keeping her attention focused on the future, rather than her current state of teenage tragedy. Andromeda understood the workings of the adolescent mind. Structure was called for, structure and vision. These were his to provide. Judy was grateful for the support system that had formed seamlessly around Vera. It took a lot of pressure off of her proverbial, parental plate.

At the other end of the cosmos sat this kid named Rooney, who had still not made an attempt to contact Vera since learning of her surgeries. Cute bangs notwithstanding, Judy wanted, like hell, to think the best of this kid, if only for Vera's sake, but her faith in teenagers, based mainly on her experiences with her legal ward, was far from awe-inspiring. Where was he? It was going on three weeks now. Vera would be home soon.

Rooney found himself walking through the entry gate, at the pool, for the first time since "That Day." It looked totally alien to him somehow. Why should it? He had grown up here. It was his hangout, his home from home. When life with his "Family-of-origin" got too distorted, he would grab his board and roll on back to his people. There was always someone there with a little ganja to puff, and reality could take a backseat for a while.

Today, all he saw was the "Difference", the "Change." It looked smaller, and harder, and hotter than before. All the regulars were still stationed as before. Dean still sat On-high, contemptuously oblivious to his duties. Tanya, Terrie, along with some of the others cheerleaders, rubbed each other down with sun tan lotion. Kids played and laughed. Rooney's mind had a hard time processing the scene when his head was this clear.

On the upper deck, by the sand volleyball pits, sat Scabbie and the guys. It was the first time he had seen his "friends" the way everyone else must have been seeing them, and him, for years now. He realized that he wasn't currently slouching around as he usually would have. No foot shuffling. He felt weird in his own skin. He felt "Clear." His hair was pulled back into a short, nicely combed tail with the bangs tucked up under a dark green "Wailers" ball cap.

Finishing the survey of his old stomping grounds, Rooney felt a deep sense of loss in the absence of the one person who he wanted/needed to see. Didn't anyone here feel the incongruity? Would she ever return to the pool? Did anyone even realize she never come back? How would people react to a one-legged, Vera McAlister? Nobody better say S**t, Rooney thought to himself.

Did she blame him? After all, he could have said no easily enough. Why didn't he say no? What made him want to say yes?

"Skeebop!" Scabbie called.

Rooney turned his way, and threw his head back, in acknowledgment. Rooney ventured anxiously towards a group of people who, in the past, had never judged him. He needed that feeling of acceptance right now. He even let himself imagine that a drag or two on some good reefer might just take the awkward edge he was experiencing, down to a manageable level.

Reaching the cluster of his former associates, Rooney saw Charlie King. That guy could seemingly smoke as much as he wanted and never appear to be buzzed. Morgan "Flipper" Van Tieghem, the half-pipe demon, was surrounded by a flock of younger girls, all wanting to get buzzed no matter who they had to be seen with. As good as Flipper was as a skater, his face-full-o-freckles, and long, wavy, red hair, which left him looking more like Carrot Top than Shaun White, helped him draw the wrong sort of attention. Then there was Phil. The dude was actually allergic to pot and only smoked on special occasions. Today there was one more face in the crowd; a new face, within the mix, but one that was well known to Rooney just the same.

Eddie Steele sat within the ranks of assorted skaters and stoners. Rooney had never known Eddie to indulge in either past time which suddenly piqued his curiosity. Eddie didn't look like, or dress like anyone gathered here. His clothing (Crisp, white baggy shorts, and a silk, salmon t-shirt) carried the curse of designer labels. His family had money. That's was the common assumption. Rooney knew, from a historical perspective, that the Steele family had at least enough money to lawyer-up and keep their son out of some legal hassles a few school years back. Eddie's rap-sheet included shoplifting, breaking and entering, vandalism. Rooney knew other things as well, and he always figured that Eddie knew that he knew them. Looking back at the black and white squares of Eddie's chequered past could be overlaid, almost precisely, onto Rooney's. Apparently when you're stoned most of the time your sense of outrage, and desire to see the guilty punished, gets a little retarded, so, it had been Rooney's policy to avoid Eddie Steele like the bad news he was.

"Rooney? How ya been?" Eddie said wryly

"Great," was Rooney's short, simple answer.

Rooney neither liked nor trusted Eddie. Scabbie, as well as most of the rest in this gathering, knew it all too well. What is Eddie Steele doing here with my people, Rooney wondered? What's the scam.

"Eddie!" shouted the voice of a young woman from the parking lot.

Everyone in the group turned, looking to see who might be calling for their solicitous, new friend. Rooney thought he recognized the cute blonde from school as being Samantha Pritzer. She sat, waiting impatiently, behind the wheel of Eddie's red, convertible Mustang.

Tanya and Terrie popped up at the sound of Sam's voice. A cheerleader's memory isn't as long as an elephant's, but long enough to illicit "The Finger." Sam didn't react.

"Eddie!" she yelled with a heavy spot of annoyance.

"Gotta go, boys," Eddie said as he pulled himself lazily out of his lounge chair.

Blowing past Rooney, Eddie left him with a pat on the shoulder.

"See you later."

Rooney had nothing to say. Not to anyone. He was out of place on his own sacred turf. Dope wasn't going to be of any help to Rooney if he had to share the experience with this pack of fools. He walked instead.

"Where ya going, dude? Hey, Rooney!" yelled Charlie King.

Rooney walked.


The physical rehab center, on the ground floor, resembled both a gym and a danced studio. It came equipped with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and built"in ballet bars, as well as, standard universal equipment stations and free weights.

Having quickly mastered walking with a crutch, Vera was most interested in any exercises that would help her lose the little pooch in her stomach and the extra layer of blubber she had picked up on her hips from her mostly bed-ridden lifestyle, as well as all the hospital food she had been consuming out of boredom, or, as Judy feared; Depression.

The teenager stretched out on a yoga matt, about to begin her fourth rep of crunches, wearing pink jogging shorts and her Jetsons cut-off tee. Amy, her therapy tech, was on the floor sitting on Vera's foot with her eight and a half months of gestation pressing into Vera's shin, Amy's arms wrapped tightly around Vera's fully bent knee, and thighs, to supply resistance.

Abdominal muscles fully engaged, Vera mechanically pulled her torso up, (Six... Seven... Eight) pushing out her breath through semi-puckered lips. On "Nine", her attention was drawn to the reflection in the mirror to her right. There, behind the glass doors of the rehab center, stood a figure in day-glow red shorts. Vera wanted to pause for a better look. Down again, up again. (Ten.)

"He" was still there. Amy released Vera's leg and slid back off of her foot. Once she had planted the bare sole of her foot, Vera held her hands out to Amy; a sign that she wanted help getting up. Amy quickly clasped Vera's sweaty palms holding tightly as she leaned back. Vera kept her eyes on the figure's reflection. In a second Vera was up and executing a one-eighty, on the ball of her foot.

Gone. The figure was just gone. But it was him. She knew it was.

"What's wrong?" Amy asked, looking up at Vera.

Vera pulled the towel, from around her neck, and mopped sweat off her face, while the palm of her free hand pressed down on the top of Amy's head, for stability.

"I thought I saw somebody."

Nights were some of the hardest times Vera faced during her stay at Oceanside Surgical. She spent the shank of each night either immersed in T.V. or reflecting on the fruitlessness of the day-gone-bye, and the formless promise of another serving of the same awaiting her when she woke the next morning.

Tonight, Vera fell asleep with the light from the television flickering across her slightly puffy, slightly dampened eyelids. She had involuntarily surrendered her waking life.

Next: Dreams.

In a setting that was as familiar as a hundred movie scenes, Mr. Sanders was pulling "Father-of-the-Bride" duty, walking Vera slowly, down the golden, liquid aisle. She had both legs again, somehow, and she could actually feel the alternating rhythm as she approached the distant and unknown altar. Ahead, on the right edge of the aisle, she could faintly see through her veil, a small, dark commotion. Completing a few more steps, Vera worked out that the dark form was none other than Ginsu, busily batting at a collection of vivid red rose petals. Vera understood that the petals formed a trail, ambitiously stretching out in front of her, to their point of origin; an unrecognized little flower- girl of four, or five, dressed in a gauzy, gray dress and gloves. Vera was fixed by the child, who mechanically plunged her right hand into a basket of petals, like a coin-operated prize claw; over and over, again and again, and again.

Vera watched cautiously from behind, as she and "Father" Sanders continued up the endless, golden runner. With the next handful, the child produced something odd. It possessed enough weight for Vera to feel its vibration as it slipped from the child's hand, striking the carpeted floor with a heavy thud. As the bride-to-be advanced, she unconsciously measured the distance of her strides and calculated that within three more steps she would uncover the secret of the mysterious object.

She arrived to find that it was her own right leg, swollen, scratched, and purple. Mr. Sanders was gone now, and hounded by the knowledge that she stood there, one-legged, Vera's left foot became hopelessly entangled in the bridal finery beneath the wedding dress. She began to fall.

Like as it was with most of the falling dreams she had ever had, Vera was shaken into wakefulness, but only just. In the waking world the thud she heard had come as her old, worn-out copy of "Heidi" slid from its resting place, on her chest, hitting the floor. Sleep was not lost. Not really.

She and Ginsu entered a dark and rain-soaked alley at mid-day. Both sides were lined, very neatly, with trash dumpsters, each of them painted in shades of green. They were connected together like the cars of a long train, which prepared for departure from the station. Vera now walked with an aluminum crutch under her left arm, while Ginsu, keeping pace at her feet, was in the process of sprouting and spreading a pair of fully expected black wings from between her shoulder blades. The Kitten flitted upwards just high enough to lite on Vera's shoulder.

Farther down the alley on the left, at the end of the train of green dumpsters, sat a rusty, red dumpster. The Dreamer knew this to be the caboose, yet the roof was flipped open like a dumpster lid. From inside, poking out the top, there were dozens of amputated legs, all standing erect like autumn, ash trees, stripped of all their leaves. She immediately identified her own lost limb. The cat scratches and bites gave it away but never the less she took hold of the tag, tied to the big toe, and read, "Vera Jane McAlister." She was confused. Vera's middle name was not "Jane."

Maybe the leg's not mine, she thought. Hearing the sounds of trash trucks rumbling, from the far end of the alley, the duo left the leg behind and turned the corner, exiting the alley.

Rounding the marbled edge of a mausoleum, Vera suddenly found herself in the "Haven of Rest Cemetery" though it bore no resemblance at all to the actual graveyard. Ahead, at the rise of a small hill, Vera witnessed the beautifully back-lit, headstones that marked her parent's graves. On top, balanced between the stones, was a shiny, sterile, titanium prosthetic leg.

Andromeda's muffled, and unintelligible, voice came from behind Vera so she turned around to find that Ginsu, giving herself a bath on top of an adjacent tombstone, now spoke with an amazingly similar voice to that of Vera's prosthetist.

"I do other impersonations as well," the cat said, in a more mature, self-satisfied tone that was squarely anchored in its androgyny.

Vera looked curiously upon the cat for a time. Closing her eyelids, the orbs beneath flashed rapidly back and forth a while longer, as her vision evolved into something she would never properly recall.

The end of Rooney's "Endless Summer" was rolling up fast. The idea of a final year of classes starting again, in a few weeks, just couldn't mentally be worked into his schedule right now. All of his new found cerebral lucency was tied up in emotional murkiness. The responsibility of coherent and independent thought exhausted him.

About not going to see Vera in the hospital, he felt a hundred different ways, all of them bad. The longer he put it off the harder it became, the angrier Vera would become, the harder it might be for her overall recovery.

He lounged in the bench swing, on the side porch of his parent's house, watching the working world returning to suburbia, at day's end. He had successfully managed to avoid his Mother and Father since before "That Night." In reality, this was no great feat, as their spiritual self-absorption had eliminated all desire to keep tabs on their one and only child anyway.

Ginsu rode high on the cushion behind Rooney, fixated on chewing the ponytail of bangs that were pulled over the top of Rooney's head. The tail was held together by a rubber band he found on the driveway that morning. The afternoon was warm, and they both exhibited a posture that demonstrated the need for a nap. Rooney, ever vigilant, decided to forego a respite in favor of his current assignment as an unpaid cat-sitter.

His thoughts turned to girls, generally. He thought about the ones he had been with and the ones he had, at one time or other, wished he could have been with. The second list had undergone various additions and subtractions over the years. He remembered the times in middle school, when he, and his buddies, would wander through the halls of the, now closed Beach Comber Hotel, sneaking into its indoor, heated pool, and swiping toilet paper and soaps from the maid's cleaning cart. One day, heading down the long, east wing hallway, towards the pool, they nearly crashed into a gaggle of girls, in bikinis, returning to their rooms, after a swim. The opposing forces eyeballed each other as they scraped past. Someone within his number, Rooney couldn't remember who articulated the stellar idea of circling back around, for a second look. During the exercise, Scabbie was elected, not for his skills as a master articulator as much as his general lack of inhibition, to be the official representative of the gang. He found out which rooms the girls were in, (after knocking on several random doors) and discovered that the young ladies were a softball team. He made arrangements that they should all meet in the parking lot, once showers were taken. Before the date could be kept, the guys were spotted by the house detective.

"We don't allow Locals in here," the flabby official had warned them, as he followed them out of the building, and off of the property.

Rooney, feeling cheated, returned after the other guys had split. In a stroke of poetic synchronicity, only one of the girls showed up. Rooney learned that the team had traveled from Akron, Ohio to Surf City, for a team trip which included an exhibition game against a state champion team from San Jose. The lone, tourist/ ball player's name was Rene Walker. She accused Rooney of fabricating his name because their initials were the same. Rooney thought she was cute and he wished he could somehow be smuggled into their group and make the return flight, to Ohio, surrounded by girls, from a fly over state. After a hormonally charged forty-five minute talk, they exchanged addresses using the complimentary stationary Rooney had swiped from a maid's cart. When Rene Walker got home to Ohio, there was a letter on her dresser. Sitting on the warm porch now, thinking back, Rooney couldn't imagine what he would have written in a letter under those circumstances. He was, however, fairly sure he had included a tiny zip bag full of sand, from the beach, inside the envelope. When asked, his mother made mention of a letter addressed to him from Ohio, but it had been mislaid before he ever got to read it. End of story.

All this nostalgia made Rooney long to see Vera even more. The problem was, he just wasn't convinced that Vera McAlister could ever dig him. Not after the fat lip, and failing to protect her. He considered that even if it were to mean being relegated to the inferior status of "Just Good Friends", he would be better off with at least one, non-toking, solid citizen for a friend, to help ease the pain of the looming "Senior Year."

Ginsu smallish body began heaving, and she made hacking, gagging, kitten noises. Rooney reached up above his head and snatched her down to his stomach. Several of his long, sun-bleached hairs were poking out of the cat's mouth. After a few tedious attempts, and several claw punctures in his lap, he had cleared the victim's airway of obstructions. "

"Psycho-hairball," Rooney said to himself.

He wondered if the cat hadn't, perhaps, been in even greater danger since its extrication. He remembered Vera's garage as being dark, hot, and crowded, especially with the MG just sitting there, undisturbed, for years.

Word got around in Santa Cruz. Throughout the sea-side community, popular speculations suggested that Mr. Jorrisch's death might not have been due to natural causes, but rather homicide. Certain facts, originally withheld from the media, had now percolated to the top, for those paying attention.

P.D. spokesperson, Layla Parsons advised, at the hastily prepared press conference, how detectives of the Santa Cruz Homicide Bureau, were working on solid leads which indicating that the decedent may have been killed by a blow to the temple during a botched burglary attempt. It was also believed that this robbery was most like connected to four others that had been perpetrated in the area. This crime, if connected to the others, was the only one that included the element of violence

"The assailants might have been looking for cash. Or small items that could be easily sold to purchase drugs," Parsons advised local T.V. and paper reporters.

Vera shut off the local news, which she had always viewed as a waste of her time. She was looking for "I Love Lucy" but had tuned in too late because of the extra-long shower she took (she was getting good at keeping the bandages dry) to relieve the soreness in her left leg, which now ached from carrying the full weight of her.

Laid-out, wet hair and all, on her fully flattened hospital bed, Vera walked P.D. spokesperson, Layla Parsons' words around the track in her mind. "The assailants might have been looking for cash with which to purchase drugs."

Vera combed through scenes, of that night, in her mind. She was cognizant of the fact that her recollections were a more, or less, movie-like series of images instead of the actual first person events she had gone through. Time and prescription meds had worked her memory over a little.

Trying to push her consciousness and concentration back into that bedroom, with the body, made it an unsettling episode to re-tell, even if she was only telling herself. When she closed her eyes, to form the light and shapes from the blackness before her, she would shudder, and open her eyes to take in the daylight as a reassuring sign that she was not really there in that house again.

Had she missed something that night? She had to know. She could see the broken ceramic pieces from the busted lamp, by the bed. Had there been a struggle? She imagined the kitten, her kitten. There was its head popping up, as she skimmed the flashlight's piercing beam across the soulless body of Ginsu's former owner. Was there something else to see there? She just didn't know.

For money? For drugs? Not cool.

When the dinner cart stopped outside her door, she started counting. "One... Two... Three..." What else was there to do all day? She knew that the orderly always delivered to the room across the hall first.

"Twenty-three... Twenty-four... Twenty-five..."

She could hear complaints being raised about the meatloaf. Something about, "I should give the cooking staff my recipe. No meatloaf of mine has ever come out dry," Or some such nonsense, from the legless old lady with Diabetes.

"Fifty-eight... Fifty-nine... Sixty... Sixty-one."

The double-tap knock arrived as she counted "Sixty-six." In stepped Pepe, carrying the tray. His English was so thin that he never wasted it on the patients. Vera had noticed that whenever he entered her room, Pepe avoided eye contact with her to the point of being obvious. She originally put it down to a quirk in Pepe's personality. Later she imagined it might be a misinterpretation of the hospital's rules of employee conduct. Then, two days ago, when Pepe returned to duty from his days off, something new was mysteriously added. Once he had placed the tray on the over-bed table, he quickly diverted his eyes towards the floor, and backed his way out of the room; gesticulating the "Sign of the cross" repeatedly. He repeated the same bizarre behavior the next night as well. This evening Vera could even see his lips moving with lightly whispered phrases, sounding to her, like Latin. By this point, Vera felt confirmed in her belief that it must be something personal to do with her. She unwrapped the package of plastic-ware, on her tray, then, started the timer on her phone.

No longer distracted by Pepe's Santeria/Voodoo sideshow, she was now immersed in the aroma that dripped down from Meatloaf Heaven. She was totally used to eating alone and never really thought about it till just this second.

"Alone," she said

And again.


And once more.





The moment, and the word itself, degenerated down to one of those times where a run-of-the-mill, familiar word felt foreign in her mouth and queer to her ear. She had to remind herself of its definition. She used herself as the example.

"Vera is all ALONE," she stated, as though she were describing the plight of a character from a first-grade reader.

"Riiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnggg!" rang the phone on the nightstand, beside her.

With a mouthful of explicitly moist meatloaf, she answered the call.

"Hellowww," she tried articulating.

"Vera?" It was Judy.


"Are you okay?" Judy asked.

"Mmm Hmm," she hummed before swallowing.

Look, Hon... will it be alright if I don't make it by to sit with you tonight?" Her voice was plastered with supplication.

"Sure," she replied.

"It's just that Mr. Sanders asked... We haven't seen each other for a while and ..."

"It's fine. Really," Vera interrupted.

Strictly speaking, Vera was momentarily disappointed that Judy wouldn't be coming, but she found it easy enough to shift back into her former state of ambivalence, simply as a matter of emotional self-preservation. Her relationship with Judy was not about to dip into jealousy. Not now, not yet.

"Are you sure Hon? I mean if you need me..."

"I'm fine. I need more sleep anyway," she answered quickly, not affording Judy the chance to drive the nail, and hang the guilt trip on her head.

"Okay then. Well, I'll see you in the morning, alright?"

"Alright. See ya."

Before the handset was back on its perch Vera's mouth was stuffed with a buttered roll.





























Exactly thirty-five minutes after dinner was delivered, Vera came out of the bathroom. She was running a scientific experiment and so far the results were fairly conclusive. Each night, after eating, Vera went to the bathroom to wash her hands and brush her teeth. It had become traditional that all evidence of her meal would be removed while she was out of the room. Tonight was no different. She found the dinner dishes gone, as expected. Pepe strikes again, she thought.

With her trusty crutch in-place, she glided back to the bed, stopping the timer on her phone at thirty-five minutes, and twelve seconds.

Prepping for a trip to the outside world while she was in the bathroom, Vera had pulled on her pink and black striped gym shorts and a surgical scrub shirt she had snatched from a laundry cart the day before, as she rolled past in a wheelchair, on her way to the physical therapy center.

She wanted to walk off her dinner and watch the sun go down, from the patient's sun deck. She grabbed her mini pack, from the end of the bed, mounted it on her back, (It felt good to resume that old habit) and stepped out into the corridor.

As she turned back, to shut the door, the bottom tip of her aluminum crutch struck something metal, with a "Clank!"

"Watch it there Road Runner." The voice was feminine to the extent that it's "Smoker's rasp" had not yet sanded it completely genderless.

Looking back, over her shoulder, she found the legless woman, from across the corridor, seated in her wheelchair, directly behind her. Vera realized that she had unintentionally speared the spokes of the wheelchair's large, back wheel with the tip of her crutch.

"I'm sorry," Vera said, trying hard not to lose her balance, as she struggled to extract her walking aid.

The woman held her hand out, to Vera, for support and Vera took it, without a thought. The arm felt frail under its wrinkled, leathery skin. Vera continued trying to free her support from the chair, with a minimum of banging and clanging. In short order it was free.

"Where're ya headed Road Runner?"

"Just out for a walk," Vera replied, feeling flushed with embarrassment.

Looking Vera up and down the no-leg lady asked, "You goin out to the sun deck Long John Silver?" A sly grin formed on the lady's mouth, and in her eyes. Vera stifled a chuckle with a competitively sly smile.

"Thinking about it," she answered reservedly.

"I'll keep ya company," the lady advised. "What's your name, Sweetie?"

"Vera," she answered, with her usual, guarded brevity.

"I'm Wanda; Queen of the Luau."

This was Vera's first good look at the legless lady from across the hall; The "Queen of the Luau." Her silver, shoulder-length hair consisted of nearly matted, frizzy, tight curls. No doubt she was in need of a semi-annual perm. There was a good amount of yellow staining on the hair that crowded in on her face; another sure sign that she smoked heavily.

Vera fixed Wanda, if that was really her name, as being in her late fifties, but with smokers, it was always hard to tell. Something Vera noticed right off was how over-weight Wanda was. Was it due to inactivity after losing the legs at mid-thigh, or was it the Diabetes. Who knows, she thought, maybe she was always big. Although Vera would have preferred Judy's companionship over Wanda's, she was pleased not to be alone.

They made slow progress, down the hallway, towards the sun deck. Keeping pace with "Her Wheeled Majesty", Vera looked down at the watch, on her right wrist, which had been her Father's. Archie, Betty, and Veronica symbiotically shared a malted beneath the watch's hands, which showed the time to be 8:15 p.m.

"You takin medicine?" Wanda asked sharply.

"Not at the moment."

"Why you lookin at yer watch?" she asked earnestly.

"I lose track of time easily," was her honest-sounding lie.

A few feet further down the hall Wanda asked, "You a South Paw?"

"No," Vera answered. "Why? Are you superstitious?"

Wanda cut her eyes at Vera, "Don't you mess with Wanda now Sweetie." She said it in a way that left Vera unsure if she had just had her remaining leg pulled or whether she had just been given a warning to remember for later.

"Why you wearin the watch on yer right, then?"

Vera could see that Wanda didn't miss much.

"I like to wear lots of bracelets on my left wrist so I wear the watch over here," she said, holding out her arm and shaking the ill-fitting watch around.

Wanda looked over at the hospital bracelet on Vera's left wrist.

"Bet you can't wait to get that piece of jewelry off, huh?"

"Yes Ma'am," Vera replied, attempting manners in the presence of a legitimate "Elder."

Wanda rolled ahead of Vera tripping the motion detector on the automatic, double doors. When the warm ocean breeze hit Vera, she was overwhelmed. She couldn't quite catch a breath. This wasn't her first time outside, since her arrival, but it was her first real sunset.

Wanda kept rolling till she reached the railing on the ocean side of the deck, while Vera, eyes closed, stood there like a preposterous statue that had been carelessly left in the doorway. Eyes closed and warm wind surrounding her, life, for Vera, felt pre-amputational.

"Vera, what're ya doin standin there?" Wanda growled at the top of her diminutive voice. It left her winded.

Vera's disgruntled eyes popped open.

"I'm coming, I'm coming," she called, with mock annoyance.

She planted her foot and swung the crutch forward, like a member of a sculling crew moving in reverse. At the end, she took three small hops, letting her body's momentum pendulum her towards the hand rail.

With no one else on the deck, they were able to achieve a glorious silence between themselves. Vera took in the city sounds that flowed into her ears. It was all sadly, if not predictably, cut short when Wanda's painful voice slapped the surface of Vera's contentment, sending ripples and vibrations to every corner of her meditation.

"Did ya have the meatloaf tonight?"

Drawing a silent sigh she replied, "Uh huh," while holding her gaze upon the sinking, red orb, on the rim of the Earth.

"What?" Wanda shot back, with a hand cupping one ear.

The moment now ruined, Vera re-phrased her reply.

"Yes. I had the meatloaf."

She looked down at Wanda's sun-painted face for a hint as to where the question might have been leading. The deep lines of Wanda's face looked like the microscopic photos Vera had seen of the grooves of an LP record.

"Wasn't that the driest thing you ever ate?" Wanda stated, her expression twisted up painfully as if she had just swallowed another arid mouthful.

Vera wanted, very much, to salvage her sunset, so she chose not to rock the meatloaf boat, even though she had enjoyed every bite.

"A little bit," Vera answered.

"A Little bit?! It was like clods of baked dirt," Wanda said with contradictive certainty.

"It's a good thing that we're at the hospital then, Huh?" Vera added.

Wanda's look of painful puzzlement accelerated. "Wadda ya mean?" she asked.

"There would always be somebody around to perform the "Heimlich Maneuver" if we all started choking on the dry meatloaf," Vera answered with the same grin she had shared earlier, with Wanda.

"I guess they got a whole hospital full of lucky people tonight," Wanda offered with exasperated acceptance.

With the Meatloaf issue now put to bed, Vera could peruse the Sun's few remaining rays in relative peace. At the end, both Vera and Wanda clapped as with the finale' of a particularly stirring fireworks display. Breaking the stillness of the scene Wanda pulled her pack of Pall Mall cigarettes from the frayed pocket of her faded and sloppily worn bathrobe.

"Wanna smoke?"

"No thanks."

"You're too young anyway." Wanda scolded herself for offering it.

The light from the lighter's flame filled in some of the deeper canyons of Wanda's face. Vera could now see that Wanda had been rather pretty in her younger days. Before the smags had done their work on her. She smiled.

A few rushed drags, and a hacking fit later, Wanda asked, "What happened to the leg Sweetie?"

Vera wanted to paint a lyrical portrait of a rescue at sea or a shark attack but she couldn't get sufficiently enthused.

"Cat rescue, gone bad," she said.

"What?" Wanda blurted out in perplexity.

Vera realized she was pitching too high for Wanda's strike zone and decided to simplify the tale.

"I saved a kitten and it cost me the leg," she said flatly.

"I have Type II Diabetes. Poor blood flow, gangrene. Two legs... gone. I Have cats. You ever get tired of the kitten you can give it to me."

Talk of the rescue filled Vera with images from inside Mr. Jorrisch's place. Only this time she saw Wanda rolling her wheelchair over the mangy tails of yowling cats, as she spread Kitten Bites around the rooms, from the pocket of her bath robe, like a Farm Wife feeding chickens.

Wanda took a long, last drag off her smoke; dropped the burning butt behind the big right wheel, then gently rolled back and forth to crush-out its fires. Satisfied that the butt was safely extinguished, Wanda looked back at Vera to resume the "Cat talk" when she abruptly caught a flash in her side vision.

Wanda's doctors had told her that Diabetic Retinopathy would continue to slowly destroy her vision and so she was not at all certain that the shape she saw looming, just beyond Vera, was really growing larger. No matter. Her Fight/Flight mechanism had already engaged.

"What the Hell!?" she shouted breathlessly. Wanda instinctively grabbed the outer rings on the wheels of her chair, shoving them backward, with all her adrenaline-aided strength. She took off, in reverse, and into a potted palm.

Not seeing what her acquaintance had seen, Vera experienced all the activity as it spread across Wanda's face. For a second, Vera imagined that a hot cigarette cinder, breaking lose as Wanda Smoked, might have burned down to the skin, in her lap. But Wanda wasn't looking down, searching herself, or brushing herself off. She instead, looked fearfully towards Vera. In the half-light Vera perceived that Wanda's distressed expression was focused on something just over Vera's own left shoulder. It was then that the un-spiked hairs, on the back of Vera's neck, spiked themselves. As she braced, to face her growing fear, a whispered sound struck her ear from behind.


The sound of her own name caused a shudder to charge through her neck, and back. She knew the voice. She had waited, and now the wait was over. She stopped herself turning by gripping the deck rail fiercely, with both hands. She needed to know the score now; unclouded by crushing schoolgirl desire. She had aged too greatly in the last few weeks to fall for sentimentality. She wanted the truth, no matter what it might turn out to be. With breath locked deeply in her chest, she revolved to face her truth.

Rooney stood there smiling a timid, apologetic smile. She sensed that he stood taller now than she had ever known him in the past.

"Is it okay for me to be here?" he asked, looking into the prettiest eyes he had ever seen.

"You scared the crap outta me, Kid!" Wanda said, undercutting any response that Vera might have offered.

Rooney, for the first time, noticed the older woman in the wheelchair. He had scaled a tree, whose top extended far above the decks railing. When He recognized Vera, he dropped down to the concrete several yards behind her.

I'm sorry Ma'am," he said courteously, "Are you alright?"

Noticing her missing limbs he sprang into chivalrous action.

"Can I help you there?"

"I'll be fine," she wheezed, "Just don't sneak up on people like that."

Vera smiled at the scolding Rooney was enduring. She smiled also because Rooney was wearing the same outfit that he wore on the night of Ginsu's liberation.

"Vera, are you ready to go in?" Wanda asked, regaining full command of her limited vocal chords.

"In a minute Wanda," Vera said softly as she recaptured Rooney's eyes.

"Huh?" was once again Wanda's response.

Recalling Wanda's touch of deafness, Vera turned towards her older companion to deliver a more readable message.

"In a minute."

"It's getting cold out here. We better get inside."

Rooney's look of disappointment was matched only by Vera's as he asked, "I guess you have to go in now, right?"

Vera took a side step placing herself directly in between Wanda and Rooney. She looked Him square in the eye to secure his fullest attentions. With widened eyes and exaggerated lips, she mouthed the words, "COME INSIDE WITH ME."

"Are you sure?" Rooney whispered covertly.

"Offer to push Wanda's chair and come in with us," Vera answered, in a low voice.

Rooney finally tumbled to Vera's suggestion and flashed a much less timid smile.

"Hi, I'm Rooney. May I escort you ladies inside?" he said, looking past Vera, and directly at Wanda.

"What do ya think Wanda? Can we trust him?" Vera said sarcastically.

With and without the wheelchair, Wanda had been around the block a few times in her smoke-filled life. She knew that Vera was requesting her help as a co-conspirator. She smiled.

"Sure kid. You can have the honor of pushing the royal chariot for Wanda; Queen of the Luau!"

A look passed between them all. Each side of the triangle etched with its own meaning. A bargain had been stuck.

Rooney grabbed the handles of Wanda's chair straightaway and lead the procession inside.

His lawless, juvenile past had cultivated within him a sense for knowing when he was in violation of "The Rules." He knew that visiting time was over. It had expired as he had paced up and down the sidewalk, in front of the hospital for a half an hour, trying to build up the courage to come in. He could never work out what he would say to the nurses if they should interrogate him about his relationship to Vera.

"I'd like to be her boyfriend," he thought of saying. Bad idea.

Throughout the pacing, he would randomly look towards the deck railing. Nothing to see there. He paced some more. After stumbling twice, over the same square of slightly raised sidewalk, he looked around to check for witnesses to his absurd behavior. Looking up at the deck again, he was floored to see Vera standing peacefully at the rail. His heart thumped wildly. In fear of losing this monumental opportunity, he climbed through the branches of a Bronze Loquat, using the waning twilight as cover; then dropped to the deck below.

Vera moved to the front of the convoy, leading the way back to Wanda's room. She opened the door by leaning in, with her shoulder, and held it open as Rooney pulled the well-used chair up next to the bed, dropping it into "Park."

"It was an honor to drive your royal chariot Your Highness," he said, as formally as any So-Cal, teenaged skater ever could.

With her well-aged smile running ear-to-ear, Wanda offered Rooney a word of advice, "Next time you come to visit this young lady, use the front entrance like a normal human being."

"For sure," he said, stepping outside her royal chambers.

Wanda looked to Vera. It would almost be worth losing the legs, the older woman thought, to be that young again.

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do Sweetie," Wanda said too loudly for Vera's liking.

Vera held her index finger to her lips, "Shhhhhhh! Good night Wanda."

Stepping back, she let the door close on its own.

Standing in the corridor, outside Vera's room, they were now alone, (together with a hospital full of patients and staff) but still, she thought, returning to her mantra; "Alone."

Carefully surveying the topography of her impromptu house-guest face, Vera eventually whispered, "You came."

There was so much, too much, to talk about; standing there, in the cold, sterile, hospital hallway. Vera, in her unspoken desperation, wanted Rooney to come inside her room for a while, but she stopped herself short of an invitation as she pictured her mother, and reflected on how the late, Ellie McAlister would have felt having her only child, and daughter, entertaining a teenage boy unchaperoned.

She had long understood that her choices of appearance, (hair, makeup, nose stud) had made her the target of a lot of murmurs, whisperings, and rumors about the type of person she must be. She could put up with labels, like "Punk" or "Emo", no matter how ill-fitting they were. A reputation, however, was not a thing she was in the market to pick up. Would Rooney talk? She didn't think so. Well... she didn't want to think so.

They stood silently for a time, both coming aware of a specific type, and quantity of tension building up, in their silence.

"How's my baby?" Vera finally asked.

"You have a baby?" Rooney gaped, in shocked rejection of the possibility.

"Ginsu?" she replied with a silent, but implied, "Duh?"

"Oh yeah. Well... she's good," Rooney answered, as if he had been suddenly awakened from a daydream, "She's really good."

How are you?" she asked, peering up into his eyes from under her innocent eyebrows.

He felt that she was checking his eyes for something specific. He was reliving the feelings of paranoia from his early days of blowing pot. He believed he had successfully moved past all that but, with Vera looking in so deeply, just now, his apprehensions were returning. It was uncomfortable, and for a moment he felt angry. He reckoned he should choke-out any suspicions Vera might be having, as rapidly as possible.

"I haven't smoked at all since that night," he pronounced quickly, wanting her to be instantly convinced.

"I did smoke with Scabbie right before I met you at Old Man Jorrisch's place."

"I know.


"I could smell it on you."

"Really?" he asked nervously.

"Yeah," she said plainly. "Why are you telling me all this?" she asked.

Rooney's attack of nerves worsened. There were things he wanted to say, unaware of how Vera was likely to receive them. He couldn't read girls at all. This one was a million times worse, by comparison, because her opinion of him mattered.

"This all started back when I was..." he found himself saying, not sure why or where it was headed. Rooney slammed on the brakes.This is not going the way I wanted, he thought to himself. "I just thought you might not like people who smoke and..." he continued, "We've never been friends... but I want to be."

Vera, on tip toe, stretched up, using the crutch for the final push, to place a small kiss on Rooney's cheek. It wasn't all that Rooney had hoped for, and at the same time, so much more than he expected.

"I have to go," Vera said.

"Oh, okay." Rooney said vaguely; his head swimming with emotion.

"Will you come back tomorrow?" she asked.

"When?" he asked.

"I have to work out in the therapy center at nine."

"I can be here at nine," he offered eagerly.

"Can you come after lunch like say... One o'clock? I don't want to be sweaty."

"For sure."

He pushed her door open and took a quick look inside. It looked like a hospital room that a teenaged girl had spent too much time in. Vera had done more leaning on the crutch than she was used to, so the turn into her room was slow and awkward.

"Good night Wilkes," she said.

Rooney's smile was tinted with newly restored confidence.

"Good night McAlister."

























Rooney was wired.

Traversing the darkened avenues of Santa Cruz after sundown, his levels of testosterone, and adrenaline had him running through the streets. Six blocks later he found himself at the car wash, their car wash. A Mexican dude stood proudly in shorts, a paint-splattered, wife-beater, white gym socks, and huaraches, washing and waxing his gleaming, golden, low rider bicycle in the exact same stall where Rooney had "Washed & Waxed" Vera. Being so high on life, and full of good cheer at the moment, Rooney called out, "Nice bike Dude!"

"You know it Gringo!" the dude shouted, over the roar of high pressure, spray foam.

Rooney was reflecting on the best moments, from a night of romantic tragedy, or was it tragic romance. He checked his pocket for cash. Deep in a back pocket he found a two dollar bill he had received from Judy McAlister for cat food. It would be enough. He stopped in at Ferrell's for a large Mountain Dew to aid in perpetuating the rush of life, he was living.

Approaching the "Order" line, Rooney spotted Samantha Pritzer, sitting in the farthest, back booth, alone.

In the eyes of the average High School Dude, Samantha would clearly rate "Knockout" status. Beyond the purely physical, she continued to score high; Ex-cheerleader, expensive clothes, parents with money, and well-liked by teachers. In another life, she might have been worth pursuing. This being the second time he had seen her lately, he wondered what Samantha might know, or think she knew about him. Then he remembered that the last time he saw her, she was rolling with Eddie Steele. The question of what she thought she knew about him took a depressing turn. Strike One!

Standing at the "Pickup" counter, waiting for his drink, Rooney caught Samantha's eye, as she chanced to look up. He nodded and smiled; finger-combing sweaty bangs behind his ears. She returned a smile that he interpreted as being for someone you recognized as an unacquainted classmate.

Still verging on the ecstatic, he had almost definitely decided to consider thinking about going over to speak with her. That was until the door to the "Men's" room swung open and Eddie Steele stepped out.

"Let's go already," Eddie said, to Samantha, with great impatience.

Samantha hurried out of the booth and trailed along behind Eddie. As they passed Rooney it was Samantha who spoke up while Eddie remained engrossed in aggressively replying to a text message.

"Hello," she said to Rooney.

"Hi," he answered with minimal eye contact.

At the sound of Rooney's response, Eddie broke off communication with his messaging partner. When he recognized Rooney, the "Eddie" smile spread across the room.

"Rooney!" he shouted, "Where ya been Old Man? We haven't seen ya much."

The kid behind the counter called out, "Here's your drink, man."

Rooney took the Styrofoam cup and jammed a straw, nervously into the top. Eddie shot the counter-guy a "Go-to-hell" for his impertinent interruption.

"I'm around," Rooney answered, after attempting a leisurely sip of his drink.

"I'll just bet you are," Eddie said, dripping sarcasm on Rooney's shoes.

As though he had adopted it as a new habit, Eddie again patted Rooney's shoulder, before walking out of the donut shop with Samantha.

Rooney stayed put, cup in hand, letting the final sensations of physical contact with Eddie Steele fade out, the very last of which was a distinct feeling of sleazy insincerity. He took another long sip of cold liquid but it failed to wash away the bad taste Eddie had left him with.

In the Mustang, outside, Eddie chuckled and shook his head.

"Poor Rooney," he said.

"Why, Poor Rooney," Samantha asked. She had no idea that Eddie was that familiar with him. "That was the best I've ever seen him look. Way better than at school, last year," she said.

Eddie wouldn't have known about all that. His family lived in the same school district as Samantha, Vera, and Rooney but he had elected to finish up the previous year at Elmhurst Military Camp, as part of a plea-bargain, to avoid possible incarceration. In the process, he managed to graduate a year ahead of his peers.

At his parent's urging, these events were all to be kept "Under Wraps." Their request had fallen on deaf ears. Within the last twenty-four hours, Eddie had bragged to the stoners and skaters, that the diploma he received from the "Academy for Public School Losers and Rejects" was his "Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card."

Eddie had also learned, from Charlie King, that Rooney had mysteriously walked away from his duties as de facto ringleader.

"Yeah," Scabbie had articulated in agreement.

"What do think he's been up to then?" Eddie inquired of the scholarly group.

"Who knows? Maybe he joined that cult, with his folks. Or maybe it's a girl," Charlie King had replied with an air of dramatic irony.

Eddie Steele didn't like not knowing one bit. He had to admit, though, that Rooney was looking, and acting, pretty self-righteous in comparison to their last series of run-ins at the police station, a few years ago.

"How well do you know Him anyway?" Samantha asked, dislodging Eddie from his recollections.

"We go back a ways. I could tell you some stories," he answered, painting his reply with a heavy hit of the cryptic. Leaving the parking lot, Eddie over-accelerated for effect.

Samantha was not a stupid girl. Vera had always believed it to be true, and Jen always believed Vera. Samantha knew that Eddie was a "Bad boy." She had been, from the very first, operating under the assumption that being with Eddie was simply a means to an end. After all, he dressed well, he had the red convertible, and mucho cash. Was there really anything wrong with having a bit of fun with him? It was even possible Samantha knew that she was "in-service" to Eddie as his eye-candy, cover girl, but hey, if it drove her former cheerleading associates crazy, then why not.

Still, no matter which way she sliced it, Sam was torn. Vera really needed her. Vera and Jen had been there for her when she felt betrayed and cast aside. What's more, they instantly provided a judgment-free alternative to the politics of popularity. Samantha never once had to look back and wonder if it was worth it. Now, here was Vera, in serious need though she would never let on, and it was Sam who was in a position to return the love and acceptance.

This wasn't just any old ugly duckling girl who couldn't get a date for the prom, Sam thought, this was serious. I'm really needed now, she told herself, and yet... there stood Eddie, dangling a kind of a glittering prize of adventure before her eyes. It was far more exotic than anything teen life had been offering lately. Eddie and Samantha drove through the streets of Santa Cruz in silence, both of them having much to consider.

Rooney's "All is right with the world" frame of mind, was now shredded and scattered on the floor of the donut shop. Back on the streets, he was on auto pilot. He remembered nothing specific of his walk home. He was suddenly, carelessly standing at his front door, fumbling for the key, in his pocket.

His body cruised straight to his room at the back of the house. Even with the overhead light switched on, the room was darkened by walls covered, floor to ceiling, with surfing and skating posters and random reggae entries. Hawkes and Kahanamoku shared space comfortably with Marley and Tosh.

In front of his closet, Rooney dropped to his knees, burying his right arm, up to the shoulder, in the piles of clutter on the closet floor. A few second later he produced a black and red, child's cowboy boot; a childhood gift from his aunt back east. He crammed his hand inside, fingers straining towards the toe box. Bingo, he thought, pulling a tightly rolled, plastic bag from the boot.

This emergency reserve stash had been all but forgotten. That was until he saw Eddie again. Rooney's clarity, and resolve, to be a better person, was spinning in a cloudy, confused swirl.

He shoved the wadded, plastic bag into his pants pocket and moved quietly to the hall bathroom. With the door securely locked from prying eyes and condemnatory souls, he spread the bag's contents out onto the countertop. For five minutes or more, he stood there taking a repeated inventory of supplies: 1 package of Joker rolling papers, half empty; 1 book of Beach Comber Motel matches, with only six matches left; and about 1/32 of an ounce of "Trainwreck." Rooney tried to recall when he had last examined this package. The weed had to be a couple of months stale by now.

He caught sight of himself in the mirror. The only word for what he saw was "Shameful." He was standing on the outside of a new, and probably better, life. All he had to do was open the door and step in. Vera, who had gone through things that his numbed mind couldn't even sketch out with stick figures, for some reason, actually wanted him around. A real damsel in distress, he thought. A tear had taken to forming at the corner of his eye. He smashed it and swiped it away viciously. I'm doing better, the told himself. I don't need this crap anymore.

He stuffed the matches in his pocket and dumped the pot down the toilet. Three full, flush cycles later he was convinced that the evidence was gone. In a lapse of nostalgia, he paused to deliberate keeping the cigarette paper package because he had always liked the illustration on the cover. A surge of confidence overtook the issue and the cardboard envelope was crushed in his hand and dropped into the waste basket. He didn't even care if his parents saw it there.

After back to back episodes of Dragnet, Vera was still not earnestly sleepy. At one minute before midnight, she turned out the room lights and dragged the chair, Judy's chair, to the window. She sat for a long time, looking out, into the night sky. She replayed, in her head, every word they had spoken, except for most of the Wanda stuff. He had come to see her and he never stared at her lop-sidedness or mentioned the three-legged elephant in the room. He was really trying, she thought. She had forgotten to question Rooney as to whether it was him that she had spotted by the physical rehab center (Of course it was.)

An uncountable interval passed in meditation, before sleep dampened her thoughts, turning them into fears.

In dreams, she crawled down the hall, into her bathroom at home. The bathtub, now filled with old newspapers and unwashed gym towels, would make a suitable place to curl up and rest, so she climbed inside it. She was played out.

Ginsu lay purring on the countertop, by the sink. Rooney sat on the toilet lid smoking from a bong. Scabbie sat on the nearby clothes hamper, waiting his turn with the appliance. Both boys would periodically glance her way and then bust up laughing their "Wasted" laughs.

There was pain. The leg was attached again. In hideous shades of green and brown, the leg lay there, twisted backward at the knee. It wasn't any soured gym towel that Vera smelled. It was rot. She knew the leg needed to come off so she took the bloated limb in both hands. It wiggled like a tooth, the same as in those "Loose tooth" dreams she'd had as a kid. Freaky.

"This is a dream," the dream told her, "but the pain is real." Vera woke up from the sound of her own moaning, along with stabbing pains that precipitated her anguish. Her face was wet with tears. It was still nighttime and dark in the room. She couldn't fix herself to the time and place of it all. She was lost and disoriented. Finally, she screamed.

Helen, the night duty nurse heard Vera's wailing and came running. She flicked on the light, and instinctively looked toward the bed. It was empty. Next, she moved to bathroom. Again, empty. Vera, who had been between sobs when Helen first arrived, abruptly let out a string of wails.

"OHhhhhh! Ouwwww! OHhhhhhhhhhhh!"

Helen zeroed in on the tortured cries and raced to the window side of the bed. She found Vera seated in the chair with her right hand squeezing the end of her stump, while her outstretched left arm flailed about for assistance.

"I'm here Vera, I'm here!" Helen said, in an attempt to calm her patient.

Vera wrapped her left arm around the nurse's neck as she searched for a comforting embrace. Helen did not refuse it. Naturally, the caregiver wondered why Vera was not in bed at this lonely hour, but she wasted no time with that line of inquiry.

"Where is your pain level; One to Ten?"

Vera wanted to Scream "TWENTY!" but she had managed to regain enough composure to let out a breathless, "Nine."

Helen lifted Vera off the chair and carefully turned to deposit her on the bed.

"I'll get you something. I'll be right back."

Vera squashed the end of her leg with both hands now and proceeded with her low-toned weeping and sobbing. Time extended into an endless string of pulsing throbs. Vera's eyes were closed so tightly that she was unaware of Helen's returned till she felt the hasty swabbing of an antiseptic wipe on her leg, followed by the reassuring puncture of a hypo full of whatever was called for.

Just knowing that "Mystery Medicine" was making its way through her body brought a wave of relative calm to Vera's being. She loosened, and removed, the "Death Grip" from her leg and tried relaxing across the bed.

She hated feeling weak, or at the mercy of heavy drugs to fix her problems. With the death of each of her parents, she had been forced into a posture of self-reliance. She was comfortable with that. Now, in this moment of affliction, she was grateful for the relief that the injection was bringing her.

As the nurse left, Vera took a quick reality check on her lot in life. First, she lost her Mom. Next, her father passed away. It presently occurred to Vera that she was next, but in her case, it was going to take a good deal longer as she would be dying one piece at a time.

She remembered the nightmare. Wasn't it true that Rooney was using drugs to relieve the pains of his life, she thought. She now worried that she had been dismissive with him earlier. She hoped he would come back. Her patterns of thought, being scrambled by the painkillers, settled back in on the "Dream Leg." If she had pulled it off like a loose tooth, what would the Leg Fairy have left under her pillow in exchange?

Next stop... Dreamless sleep.




















At 8:13, in the morning, Jen and Sam invaded the space of Vera's hospital room bearing edible gifts, as usual. Vera didn't mind the interruption in the least. Breakfast had been a big, steaming bowl of dull and pointless porridge something and a package of out-of-date and underdone toast. The "Meal" was rounded off with a dish of apple sauce so cold that it hurt Vera's teeth, prompting her to improvise a heat tray by placing the dish into the morning light, which streamed onto the window ledge. In seconds, the apple sauce was forgotten.

Vera had resigned to be truly thankful for whatever her friends had brought. Today's treasure materialized as bite-sized, teddy bear shaped, animal crackers, in a variety of flavors. Vera's eyes grew large as Jen dumped the carton onto the bed, in front of her. This was a classic snack choice for the gang of three.

Each girl had her favorite flavor and ritualistic method for eating the small, preservative laden creatures. Vera was simple and straight to the point; bite the cinnamon/sugar coated head off, then eat the body. Sam liked to take her time, working slowly from the top down. After nipping off each chocolatey ear, she held the minutely mutilated bear up, for the other to inspect. Her pals responded with satisfying laughter. It was now Jen's turn. She had cultivated a ground-up approach and started working her plain, vanilla bear over from the opposite end. As the opening movement in her tragic cookie opera, she surgically bit off the right leg, then, held it up. In sudden realization of what she had just done, Jen's nose began to sting and her lower lip started quivering. Her bear was just like Vera.

Jen, who had remained strong throughout the whole hospitalization, for Vera's sake, immediately fell apart. She felt guilt, shame, and embarrassment in various and variable amounts. She climbed off the corner of the bed and ran to the bathroom to throw the abomination into the trash can. When she didn't return right away, Vera gave Sam a look to indicate that she should go after their companion. Sam moved out on her search and rescue mission. The bathroom door closed behind her, leaving Vera all alone. This was not a fun visit anymore.

"Jenny the Cat, you get in here right now!" Vera ordered playfully.

A minute or so later, Jen walked out of the bathroom, being guided along from the rear by Sam. Her body was convulsing with deeply drawn tears and sobs.

"I'm sorry. Vera, I'm so sorry," she said between shakes. Jen looked down for fear of seeing pain or anger in Vera's eyes.

Vera's outstretched arms called more loudly than her voice as she beckoned Jen to her side.

"Cat-girl, get over here!"

Sam pushed Jen in the general direction to get her started. Jen closed her eyes tight as Vera's arms closed in around her. Vera squeezed large teardrops from Jen's eyes onto her own shoulder. Jen collapsed, like a ragdoll, in Vera's embrace.

"It's all right Jen," Vera said firmly, "I've always thought it was funny and I always will."

Jen looked into a face full of love and friendship and new that Vera's words of comfort were honest.

Sam started feeling a self-conscious desire to leave the room as Vera rocked Jen, like a mother with child. Sam thought to herself, Well... they've been friends with each other, a lot longer than with me. Before Sam's decision to move was fully conceived, Vera spoke, "Sam."

Sam found the opportunity to help her friend, which she had been hoping for. A sisterly mass of tears and heavy breathing erupted. The hospital bed creaked and crying gave way to snickers and laughter.

“I need to tell you guys something," Vera said.

Heads popped up. Jen's face was sullen, with fears of a bad medical report, while Sam looked simply curious.

"What is it?' Sam asked.

"I'm not sure you guys are gonna believe this cause I'm not even sure if I do," Vera began.

That remark produced some looks from Vera's friends, with raised eyebrows and worry lines arriving right on schedule. Vera drew an extra deep breath before continuing, an obvious indicator that her tale would be monumental.

"What!" Jen pleaded.

"I lied to you about how I lost the leg!" she blurted in a rush of breath.


"You didn't fall off the Water Street Bridge?" Sam asked, with a disappointed look.


Questions and answers followed for a solid half-hour, laying the entire story bare. Vera held very little back, as long as the girls were asking. She didn't, however, offer any extraneous details that would kill the mystery of her adventure.

Jen ate it up, once she got past the idea that a stoner, whom Vera had publically treated with disgust, turned out to be a nice guy. Sam's reserve of skepticism never diminished as she listened politely.

"Are you sure the kitten is safe with him?" Sam finally asked sarcastically. "I mean, what if he gets high then has a bad case of the munchies and eats the cat by mistake?"

"She'll be okay," Vera said confidently.

"It's weird V," Sam said. "I've never pictured you with a real guy before." Frowning with embarrassment she continued, "I usually just imagine some kind of guy-shaped, cardboard cutout standing near you."

"Harsh Sam. Very harsh," Jen said, not sure if Sam was intending to cross lines of propriety.

Vera laughed it off. She was glad that she told her best friends the whole truth. When Judy had confronted her, in the beginning, she was more relieved than scared but now, with the addition of Jen and Sam, her "Secret Circle" flaunted an elegant sense of closure.

"He's coming by later today," Vera said

More silence.

"Really?" Jen asked excitedly.

"After my P.T. session," Vera answered, with a smile.

Jen didn't see how it was possible to maintain Vera's levels of perpetual joy, under the circumstances. If it were me, she thought, I would still be in shock and mourning over the lost leg at this point. Vera has simply had way more experience with loss, Jen decided. How sad.

"So do you want us to leave or something?" Sam asked, looking for a clear signal.

"No. I don't," Vera answered a second later. Her vibe detector was humming now with a new signal coming from Sam's general direction. Is this jealousy? Is she mad at me? Vera wondered.

"How are the senior guys looking, on the field, at the two-a-days?" Vera asked, making small talk that was aimed more towards Sam than Jen.

"Who cares?" Jen replied, with surprise in her voice.

Sam's lack of response gave Vera a sense of confirmation. Could it really be true that her old buddy, Sambo, was seeing one of the players, Vera wondered?

"Help me eat these bears," Vera said to break the stalemate. "I don't want to get fat."

At the moment, Jen still couldn't stand to look at them.

"They were for you," Sam said.

"Okay," Vera said, accepting the challenge.

It was drawing close to Vera's therapy appointment so the girls readied themselves to leave, in spite of Vera's open invitation to stay and meet Rooney. There was still a tension tugging at Vera. Sam was not sharing in Vera's joy.

"So you guys are really leaving me?" Vera asked.

"I've got an appointment," Sam answered absently.

"She's my ride," Jen said, indicating Sam with a gesture.

"Okay... well maybe next time then," Vera replied.

"I can't wait to see the cat," Jen said with excitement.

"Neither can I," Vera replied, as she checked Sam's face for a reaction. Sam was thumbing through one of Judy's magazines. She appeared not to be listening at all. She was just sort of patiently waiting for the visit to conclude, as though she were an outsider.

Jen slipped off the corner of the bed, gave Vera a hug, and started for the door. Sam rolled up the magazine and stuffed it into her bag, for later. Vera sensed the seconds slipping past like an adhesive seal being peeled back; the bond between the parts was breaking down leaving the edges damaged. Vera reckoned she was one part of the bandage, and Sam the other, but what, or who was it that tore them apart?

"Sam?" Vera said quietly.

"Yeah?" Sam answered vacantly.

".... Nothing."

Rooney had a new-found grasp on the concept of "Punctuality." He had seen it lurking around, in the past, whenever he'd had a semi-serious goal in sight. Somehow, his recently adopted behavior of doing "Right Things" the "Right Way," seemed more natural than it had in the past. It was Twelve-fifty-six p.m. when he walked through the front entrance of the surgical hospital. At Twelve-fifty-eight he was stepping off the elevator, on Vera's floor, making his way through the winding corridors, to her room. At One p.m. he raised a bare-knuckled hand to knock on the door.

Too late. Hearing his flip-flops coming a mile away, Vera flung the door open.

To Rooney's delight, Vera looked so good. Her make-up, for the day, was simplistic without forsaking her truer wildlife image. She had a dash of freckles crossing the bridge of her nose that terminated under each eye. That's new, he thought. Then, confronting the fact that freckles don't just happen overnight, he accepted the idea that he simply had not really taken a good, long look at Vera McAlister. She wore no eye shadow but her mascara was crafted into oriental, cat-tips. Rooney quickly grabbed the door frame so he wouldn't accidentally fall into her smile. Was this really happening to him?

Her still-damp hair was combed straight back giving Rooney his first look at her forehead, and hairline, which were quite different than he would have envisioned them to be. Under the institutional lighting of the room, Rooney got a close-up look at Vera's natural hair color, which turned out to be, from weeks of root growth in the hospital, a nice, medium brown tone. She wore an over-sized, light pink, v-neck tee, and her characteristic olive drab cargo shorts. Her rationale was that the pant-legs would cover the end of her leg inconspicuously.

Vera's instant assessment of Rooney was less acute. He was there, and that was all she needed. There was something, though. They must have hit upon it at about the same time. They both looked weakened. They couldn't have known of each other's "Night of struggles and confusion" but there it was , easily read on each other's countenance.

Rooney followed her inside the room and shoved the door closed. Despite the mostly sanitary and institutional aroma, the room had the distinct smell of youth. Panning his head around, to take it all in, his sights landed on her freckles again.

"You're very pretty" he announced. He had said it and he had meant it, but he hadn't meant to say it. Just the same he was apparently unaware, or unconcerned with how the declaration might be received.

Vera McAlister, as she was viewed by the world, was hard, opinionated, and even obnoxious. "Blush" was a muscle that had seemingly atrophied within her, years before, and yet here it was in a burning flash. She covered her face with her hands but the tops of her ears still glowed.

"Don't...please don't," Rooney begged, as he gently grabbed her wrists to uncover the eyes he was aching for.

Vera caught the scent of petroleum products. His hands smelled like a gas pump. It took her so off-guard that she dropped her hands without any assistance from Rooney. Looking him over a second time, she still agreed that he cleaned up nicely, but what was up with the "Ethanol" body wash?

Rooney, seeing the subtle flare of her nostrils, understood that he was being sampled, and started into his spiel.

"Sorry about the smell. I've been helping my Uncle Tommy, at his garage."

"Oh?" she answered, with surprise.

The speed of events had prevented her from considering the possibilities of a fully realized life attached to this boy, with whom she was, only now, becoming familiar. What she had seen of Rooney Wilkes, before, had only frustrated or angered her. She wondered how she could have let it all drop so easily. Didn't matter now. This was this and not that. Vera was liking this and growing impatient to learn more about it.

"What do you do there?" she asked.

"Pretty much anything he asks me to do. Coffee, toilets, stock parts. Sometimes I even work on the customer's cars."

"How long have you been there?"

"This was my second full week," he said, with a manufactured tone of great accomplishment. Secretly he was hoping for a soon end to the small talk about his current career path. If two people know where they want to be, he thought, and then find themselves there, why does there need to be a lot of useless talking?

Call it women's intuition perhaps, but, Vera had divined not to ask another single question. Instead, she pulled herself up to sit on the edge of the bed, setting the crutch aside. Rooney grabbed Judy's chair by the arm, and dragged it over, in front of the bed, seating himself in front of the one-legged girl.

Soon, Vera opened her mouth in a declaration of things that could and wouldn't or might and could not, come to pass.

"I like you now Rooney," she started confidently, "I didn't want to... then I did. And now I do."

Rooney smiled in a knowing way that gave Vera the sense that he hadn't misinterpreted her words as a backhanded compliment.

"If you like me back, and by that I mean, if you're not freaked out by me as a person or disgusted by this," she said, poking at the end of her shortened appendage, "then I suggest that we view these last few weeks, together and apart, as a sign pointing to the future." Her face turned softly solemn as she continued. "It gonna be a difficult and uncertain future and we'll both have to be tuned-in and patient with each other. It'll require us to let go of our individual perceptions of self-need and diservitude. I will imperfectly be here for you and you for me with forgiveness up-front, down the middle, and washing over both sides. No handicaps. No false recovery schemes. Obligated only to God, and one another."

Rooney almost imagined he heard an "Amen" at the end. His eyes were wide with amazement, as he let her pronouncement run down into the folds of his mind. Who talks like that, he wondered. Certainly none of the girls he had ever wasted his time with, in the past, ever acted this way.

Rooney gently rolled the leg of Vera's shorts back to reveal her reality. Bending over, his eyes rolled almost into his head as they maintained constant contact with Vera's solemn gaze until the last moment. When his lips touched the bandaging, which covered the end of Vera's right thigh, it's rough texture reminded him of all she had concealed and revealed. Through the sterile smell of the wrapped fabric, he picked up her perfumed scent and deposited a kiss upon the site.

A speedy pair of knocks and the whoosh of the door signaled an abrupt end to the tender moment. Andromeda Wallace blushed undetectably as he stepped in carrying a blue duffle, with the hospital logo printed on the sides. The giantish man deduced that he'd busted-up something, and considering Vera's age it was probably for the best, no matter how awkward it might feel.

"I hope I am interrupting something," he said with a raised eyebrow and a grin.

Rooney popped up from the chair fully engaged in a blush of his own. Vera didn't move. She was, by this time, so acclimated to people walking into the room virtually unannounced, that she rarely departed from her dependably stoic self. If something had chanced to flash through her expression, it would have been little more than absent, clumsy annoyance at the dissolution of a legitimately romantic interlude.

"We weren't... uhh...," Rooney tried to offer, feebly.

Andromeda's resting eyebrow joined its partner in saluting his disbelief. Rooney's attempt to disavow the situation was classic television slapstick. The large, black gentleman stepped up to the bed and sat the bag next to Vera.

"Is this the guy?" Andromeda asked Vera authoritatively.

Rooney looked to Vera for some reassurance that he hadn't already been thrown under the bus. She nodded slowly to Andromeda.

"The Guy?" Rooney thought to himself. Has Vera been talking about me with all of the hospital staff?

"So you showed up, huh?" Andromeda rattled off in an improvised "homey" patois, "Well looky here white boy... You better be serious with this girl. Or I'm onnahaffta git serious wichyou. "

Vera was first to crack. When Rooney saw her smile, he wanted desperately to believe that it signaled a "Put-on." The big guy surely wasn't serious. I'm just being played, he thought. When Andromeda broke character, with a hearty laugh, Rooney finally exhaled; his red face draining to lighter shade of "White boy."

"Rooney, right?" Andromeda asked with amusement.


"Your face was beautiful, man."

Rooney was not accustomed to caring about how people regarded him or whether they actually did, so he wasn't really offended by the teasing, but all the same he did re-laps, by degrees, into uncertainty about himself.

"This is Andromeda," Vera said, "He's my prosthetist. He's gonna get me fixed up with a new gadget."

"Cool," Rooney replied coolly.

Andromeda sat down in the chair, and set about his work, unwrapping the end of Vera's residual limb, while she kept an eye on Rooney. She tried to gauge his level of discomfort. He seemed alright up until the bare end was exposed.

He knew that a wince had crossed his face as he saw the suture scar that worked its way across the tip of Vera's leg, like a purple centipede. He recovered fast and looked at Vera to see if she had caught the look. She had, of course. But she never the less remained graceful and smiled. It caused him to wonder what was in back of it. He imagined she might view the war wound as the price of redemption for Ginsu. He joined his smile to hers.

Andromeda tore open a clear bag containing a thin, purple, insulated liner. AAfter shaking it out, he rolled it up Vera's leg, to the top of her thigh. Looking at each other, Rooney and Vera cracked apart with snickering laughs as they simultaneously recalled the impromptu, contraceptive tourniquet they had applied to her leg at the car wash.

"What's up?" Andromeda Wallace asked as he continued with his work.

"A wicked case of Deja' Vu," Vera replied guiltily.

"Kids these days," he said with the shake of his head.

He grabbed the duffle bag and sat it on his lap. Unzipping it he pulled out the temporary socket piece. He moved the open end over the top of Vera's stump.

"Brace yourself so I don't knock you over," Andromeda warned, as he grabbed the underside of her leg in one hand, and the formed, plastic socket in the other.

Vera, doing as she was asked, grabbed the edge of the hospital mattress for support. Two quick shoves and a twist, and the appliance was snuggly in place.

"How's that feel?" Andromeda asked.

"Pretty good." She answered, not really know how to gauge the situation.

"Pretty good?" he said, "I know we can do better than that."

He gave the cup another twist, straightening it up.

"What about now?"

"Better. Much better," was her immediate response.

"The Master has done it again," Andromeda pronounced, "No need for applause, really."

Looking first to Vera, then to Rooney, he quietly raised his hands and beckoned wildly for his audience to "Give it up" for his genius. Vera and Rooney fell in line, like a classic two-man crowd, with clapping, mock cheers, and whistles. After the point was adequately made, Andromeda modestly waived it off, adding, "You're too kind," and "It was nothing."

"What do you think?" she asked looking at Rooney.

"Looks good. Will the rest be attached to that?" he asked Andromeda.

"Yeah. They're making the knee joint right now." Looking back to Vera he added, "I'm going to need you to wear this for the next couple of hours. "I'll come back and check you for swelling. Okay?"

Andromeda stood up and put his hand out to Rooney, who received it with a perspiring palm.

"It's was good to meet you," Andromeda said.

"Me too... I mean it was good to meet you too," he fumbled, hoping Vera was not as disappointed in his performance as he was.

Turning back to Vera, Andromeda reminded her, "Remember, keep the socket on for two hours. Alright?"

"No problem."

"Do I need to call a chaperone for you two?" he asked, employing the eyebrow once more.

"SHUT UP!" Vera shouted, pointing towards the door.

"Heh, Heh, Heh," he chuckled as he closed the door behind himself.

When it was completely shut Vera heard Rooney releasing his pent-up breath.

"Are you okay?" she asked with concern.

Inadequacy welled up in him. How was it that a girl, who recently lost her leg, was comforting his emotionally sorry a*s?

"I'm not really good with older people," he said

"Well... you're good with me," she replied absolutely, with a nod of punctuation.

He knew she intended the words to be reassuring, but any strength he could pull from them was diluted by feelings of powerlessness. He threw a hasty smile onto his face, as a cover for the doubt and fear, and hoped she wouldn't notice the difference.

Before Andromeda's arrival, Rooney thought he knew just the words he wanted to say. They were BIG and Bold and heartfelt. That was all gone now. The quill was dry and the inkwell empty.

"Do you want to go outside?" Vera asked mercifully.

"Yes," was his grateful reply.

"Will you hand me the crutch?" she asked, wiggling her foot into the left flip-flop (Judy had ditched the right one) and waited for her prop. The new, plastic, socket piece was secure, but not painful.

"What time is it?" Vera asked, thinking about lunch, and sizing up her hunger.

Rooney dug around in all the pockets of his green fatigue cut-offs until he found his phone. Vera caught the look of shock, or was it disgust after he lit up the display.

"What's wrong?"

"Eleven-eleven," he replied, navigating past her question with the verbal economy of a post office worker.

As Vera slipped off the edge of the bed and steadied herself, Rooney stared at the "Missed Call" alert. The name "Eddie Steele" glared back at him from the past.

Samantha Pritzer's survival instincts had yet to let her down. Unfortunately, because everything came so easily for her, laziness always had a head-start on good sense. There was a track record on this subject that could be consulted if one wished it.

Because she could effortlessly perform the required cheer squad routines, she had let her guard down and ignored the screaming inner-voice that advised her to watch out for Tanya and Terrie.

It had been the same at the "Sno-Cone Shack." It was her first job and she had shouted down her parent's objections to the working conditions. One: The hours would be long, Two: The roadside stand measured only seven feet by five feet inside, Three: The required business attire for girls was a tie-dye bikini and Four: That their daughter Samantha would be the only employee working under Ted, the twenty-six-year-old supervisor.

Prior to the "Row" with her folks, Sam had been visited by her own inner voice which warned, in like manner, that the position was less than ideal. Finally, after three long, hot, shifts of Ted regularly pressing his body against hers, as he slid past her in the narrow shanty, she conceded defeat.

Now the voice was returning in full-throated protest.

She remembered that on first encountering Vera and Jen, as teams were chosen for volleyball in gym class, her gut told her they were okay and would accept her non-prejudicially. Other than hormonally driven squabbles, now and then, she had never had occasion to doubt, or regret, her leap of faith.

Now, suddenly, there were these two guys spinning into Sam's life:

Eddie " Holding keys to a convertible Mustang; Cash and credit available (courtesy of his parents) for movies, restaurants, assorted gifts, and good times. In spite of what she'd heard about his past, she'd never seen evidence that he was involved in that sort of stuff now. Somehow the expression "Too good to be true" kept coming to mind. She pushed it down.

Then there was Rooney Wilkes " Everyone knew what Rooney was about. Every school had its "Stoners" and he figured prominently in that demographic. Was there ever a school day, she wondered, that he didn't show up wasted?

It was universally accepted that any drug-related graffiti, on the school grounds, would have originated with Rooney Wilkes, or one of his followers. Sam, like everyone else, had picked up on the stories of Breaking & Entering, and now... Mr. Jorrisch. And now Vera was right there in the middle of it with him. What could she possibly see in a Dead-ender like him?

Noble feelings engulfed Sam. She had to find out all that Eddie knew about Rooney so she could enlighten Vera before it was too late. She owed it to her friend.

Facing herself in the wall-to-wall mirror, above the vanity, in her bathroom, Sam pulled her long, blond hair into a tight ponytail and started to work on her makeup. The phone rang once and stopped. She recognized the signal. Six-thirty already, she thought? She grabbed the cordless handset out of the sink and speed-dialed "*7."

A leisurely voice came across the speaker.

"Hey Baby," Eddie said.

"Hi. What was it that you were going to tell me about Rooney Wilkes?" she asked, get down to the business of her investigation.

"Where do you wanna eat tonight?" he asked, effortlessly side-stepping Samantha's question.

"I don't care," she said, understanding that Eddie couldn't be rushed.

"Let's eat Italian."

"We had Italian last night."

"Yeah but I want it again."

"Fine," she said in defeat. It was his money. Well... sort of.

"I'll pick you up in about an hour."

"Why so long?" she asked impatiently.

"You're friends with that freaky, punk chick Vera, aren't you?" Eddie asked, working the dodge again.

Without asking first, why it was that Eddie would want to know about Vera, she answered, "We're sorta friends." She knew, in an instant, that her answer was neither satisfying nor completely truthful. It registered, within her, as a betrayal of almost biblical proportions.

"Why are you asking about her?"

"I guess it's time I tell you about what's been going on around town."















Jen was standing outside of Vera's room when visiting hours began on Tuesday: Day fourteen. She employed the secret knock they had concocted in grade school to check for the presence of "Friends or Foes" in the Girls Room stalls. "Knock... Knock, Knock... Knock."

"Come in," Vera hollered, over "The Price is Right."

Jen poked her head in first and called back, "Is everybody decent?" not knowing whether Rooney might be paying an unauthorized visit. She hadn't definitively decided yet, if Rooney's presence, in Vera's life, was a ray of sunshine or a cloud of doom.

"I'm all alone in this world Doll-head, and you're just a figment of my imagination, but come on in any way."

Jen walked in and closed the door behind her as Vera muted the preliminary bidding.

Something (?) was obviously missing. Vera looked past Jen. Her thought processes took an extra beat to catch up to her vision. Then it struck her; Sam was not there. This was highly irregular. Vera pondered the arithmetic,

"Jen + Sam = Asymmetrical, but reliable."

"Jen alone = An individual human to be dealt with much like a member of a people group who was encountering missionaries for the first time."

"Where's Sambo?" Vera asked.

"Um... She couldn't come down," was Jen's careful reply. The "Um..." was noted, and filed for future reference.

Knowing that Jen was prone to exhibit nervous behaviors, Vera moved past the topic of absent friends, for the present, and went back to spiking her hair. During her stay in the hospital Vera hadn't bothered much with her hair or any other part of her normally theatrical appearance. She had sent it all on sabbatical, letting hair and makeup become "Bottom Drawer" items. Her clean face, and un-splinted follicles had enjoyed the respite. But, now that she was sure Rooney hadn't ditched her in her hour of (need?), or whatever; it was time to take her public persona seriously, once more.

"Your hair has gotten so long V," Jen said with amazement.

"I know, right?" Vera answered, combing through the tangles with freshly painted black nails, except for the pinkies which were, of course, pink.

Her dark brown roots bled into the black dye which then slammed softly into fading red tips. Coloring was out of the question at the moment so Vera worked with what she had.

"When are you going to water therapy? Jen inquired.

"Not going today," Vera said, trying hard to stabilize the table mirror, which she pinched between her thighs, in a sincere effort to perfect her coif. Jen's brow furrowed but Vera didn't catch it.

"Why not?" Jen asked, almost disappointed.

"Amy, my therapy tech, went into labor yesterday. They couldn't find a sub so it's off until tomorrow."

It sometimes frustrated Jen that Vera never asked "Why" to any of her questions. Wasn't she even curious about the water therapy question? Jen had readily accepted Vera's lead position in the hierarchy of their clique but, her lack of interest in secrets had always pinged Jen none the less. Jen was forced to accept the vexation as another demonstrable facet of her own, possibly genetic, inferiority complex. There was no surprising Vera. She never took the bait. Vera always already knew.

"You wanna go out to the sun deck?" Jen asked.

"Not right now," Vera answered.

Had Vera look away from her own reflection, she would have notice the growing irk in Jen's weary being; the sagging posture, the frowning eyes.

Failing to devise an on-the-spot pretext for coaxing Vera outside, Jen blurted out, "Ginsu's outside, in my Mom's car!"

The mirror swiveled and dropped on to the bed as Vera's head jerked up. Her smile proved Jen wrong about the relationship between Vera and surprise.

"I was gonna sneak her to ya out by the therapy pool, but..."

"Go ask Gina, at the desk, for a wheelchair. We can roll down to the gardens," Vera commanded forcefully.

As Jen scuttled out of the room, Vera thought how funny it seemed that she'd worked so hard on her hair, to receive a visit from her cat.

She had not, however, forgotten about the "Um."

Vera's heart was pounding wildly. She wanted to hold her "Baby" as much as any new "Mother" ever had. After all, hadn't she gone through extreme pain and suffering delivering that cat from its captivity? She felt entitled to the title.

Worry started settling in behind her moment of elation. What if Ginsu doesn't remember me or doesn't want me to hold her, she silently agonized?

J           en put her back against the door, pushing it open, and pulled the extra-large, black and chrome wheelchair into the room.

"Hop in!" Jen said, like a Cabbie rolling up to the bedside.

Vera set her bare foot on the ground and with a quarter turn, she fell back into the oversized, soft, vinyl seat.

"Are you buckled in?" Jen asked, from her driest sense of humor.

You'll have to back me out," Vera said, as she plopped her left foot onto the footrest.

Seeing Vera's naked toes she halted the procession.

“You're gonna need something on that foot," Jen said, sounding too much like her own Mother.

"I'm fine. Let's go."

"The nurses will be mad. Where's a footy or a sock, or something; Anything."

With a growing glower, Vera replied, "Check the bed. I think I lost a sock, in there, while I was asleep."

Jen mined the wasteland of bedclothes turning up a very worn and discolored ankle sock, which depicted the epic struggle between Snoopy and the Red Baron.

"I remember this. This is mine," Jen said, tossing it at her friend, in the chair.

"You want it back when I'm done with it?" a wide-eyed Vera replied, pulling her foot up to her, for the dressing.

Sternly shaking her head, Jen threw the door open, dragging the chair out into the traffic of the hallway. She understood about the reunion in the making she was helping to facilitate.

Outside, on the sun deck, it was gloriously warm. The yellow morning sun spilled onto Vera's arms as it had that day at the pool; the day everything changed. She gladly received the Sun's rays as if she were laying-out at Mertenz Park. Would she ever go back there again? Maybe. Who knew?

Jen pushed the chair to the far side of the deck, stopping at the gate to the second level of the hospital's parking garage. Vera set the wheel locks. She appreciated the feeling of security it gave her in this moment of uncertainty.

Leaving Vera to moments of anticipation, Jen hurried through the gate and was gone for what Vera calculated to be about five, long minutes (actual time: two minutes and thirteen seconds.) The cargo Jen carried, on her return, was bundled up in an old, sun-faded "Rip Curl" beach towel.

Vera's heart resumed pounding out its tribal rhythm when she saw the tiny black points of two furry ears. She quickly pulled her left leg up into the seat and arranged her limbs, in an altered "tailor fashion", to receive her prize.

Once nestled securely in Vera's lap, Ginsu began to purr steadily. With only the kitten's head showing it was difficult, for Vera, to judge just how much her cat had grown in their weeks of separation but, for sure, something was funky. She could feel something hard, and un-kitten-like, that was also concealed by the towel. Unfolding layers of aged, color-drained terrycloth, Vera was careful not to disturb the bonding processes in progress.

Jen held her breath and carefully watched Vera's eyes for the trigger of recognition. When the hammer fell, both girls erupted with laughter, sending panic through the tentatively contained kitten. Quieting herself first, Vera laid hands on Ginsu's head; stroking it to sooth her. When the purring renewed, Vera finished the job of un-swaddling the cat, and her container.

Smiling ear to ear, she lifted out a battered Doc Marten boot; the left one, which housed the snuggly baby. She hugged them both tightly. Ginsu twitched and flicked her ears as heavy drops fell from Vera's chin.

"It was all His idea," Jen said, beaming quietly with satisfaction.

Vera looked into the cat's soft, dark eyes for a time, then asked, "Why didn't Sam come today?"

It was the "Um..." Jen was busted and she knew it. There would be no use in fabricating something for Vera. Vera always knew.

"She called me last night... Vera, I'm not sure I believe any of it." Jen's voice took on a frail, vibrato texture.

"Any of what?" Vera questioned, as the tracks of salt dried to her cheeks, in the warm summer sun.

"About Rooney," Jen replied.

"What? Sam doesn't like him?"

Vera remained outwardly calm. She softly stroked Ginsu's fur and kept her voice low. Inside she was a maelstrom. She was Krakatoa on the verge.

"Did you know Rooney had been caught breaking into houses before?" Jen asked exploratorily.

"Everyone at school knows that Jen. Why do you think I asked the very guy, who just gave me a fat lip, to help me get into a locked house, to fwee dis widdle baby?" Vera asked, scratching the space between Ginsu's ears. Vera read Jen's trepidations like a billboard.

Jen was hating every minute of the present conversation. The feelings of treachery and betrayal were sounding-off in her head like a siren. She hated asking Vera such obviously pointed questions. She hated doubting Vera. Personally she hadn't developed a solid opinion of Rooney since Vera had confessed illegally entering the "Late" Mr. Jorrisch's home, though she had been relying heavily on the school rumors up to that point. Now Sam's information was muddling up Jen's image of Rooney before it had a fair chance to form.

"What do you think about the other home burglaries around town?" Jen asked

Vera disregarded the question in favor of scratching under Ginsu's chin.

"They say it's someone stealing for drug money," Jen added.

"So what else did Sam say about Rooney?" Vera asked, moving the ball quickly down the court.

"She said that she heard that he might have been in Mr. Jorrisch's house before that night." The shake in Jen's voice came across as a shiver.

"Where is she getting this stuff from?" Vera asked in frustration.

At this point, Jen shut down. Her debilitated look registered successfully with Vera.

"I know you're upset V and I just don't want to be the cause of it. I can't talk about Sam behind her back. She's our friend," Jen said, sounding beat up.

"How did you feel when Sam unloaded all this junk on you when I wasn't around?" Vera asked, noticeably perturbed.

"It made sense at first. She said that as your friends it was important for us, her and I, to decide how to deal with the situation before you got hurt. And you said yourself that everyone knows about Rooney. Anyway... I finally told her that I couldn't hear any more till we spoke to you."


"That's when she said she wasn't coming here today."

Jen was keeping strong emotions at bay but her resolve was ebbing. She looked to Vera for a sign that things could be as they were before.

Looking at the peaceful, sleeping feline brought an un-anticipated smile to Vera's lips. Raising the kitten up, she gave her a night-night kiss, the replaced her into the beach towel wrappings.

Vera loved her oldest friend dearly so it was with great personal pain that she next spoke.

"Jen... you know all about me. You know what I've been through, and you know what I've lost. Can you imagine how used to disappointment someone like me can become? I could be wrong about everything here. I could be wrong about Rooney, Sam, or even you. But why would I waste my time on someone if I thought they were a total loser?"

"Because you're a rescuer of lost souls, and a friend to the friendless," Jen said. "It's the biggest and the least obvious way that you rebel against the crappy world around you. You know what I'm talking about. You're holding the proof in your hands."

Vera was invariably amazed by Jennifer Del Gado. This same girl had been written off as a four-eyed, brace-face, in the fifth grade, by the "Kool Kids." She was the chick who regularly sacrificed knees, elbows, and ribs to the hard wood gymnasium floors, digging for a save shot, so Sam could spike the volleyball back into Sara Blue's face. Jen, the typically quiet and reserved recording secretary and faithful historian of their little trio, had done it again.

"I can't make Sam change her mind, Jen," Vera finally said.

"I know."

"I can't change your mind either."

"You don't have to."

Finishing up in the bathroom, Vera recognized, through the closed door, the breathy, Hispanic prayers of Pepe, as he made his evening Dinner deliveries. Coming out to the room she saw that he had, again, slipped away unseen.

She resumed cogitating, over her Salisbury steak, on the dwindling state of relations with Sam Pritzer. Vera was certainly conscious that Sam's parents, her Mother in particular, didn't really appreciate their friendship. The Pritzers traveled in far different circles than that of the McAlister's or Del Gado's. While Sam's parents weren't exactly the "Beautiful People" they were, with Mrs. Pritzers careful oversight, making a number of connections about town.

When Sam flushed her spot on the Junior Varsity "A" squad, freshman year, in favor of cultivating a friendship with quiet Jennifer, and quirky Vera, her Mother put it down to Samantha's ever-present desire to behave in the most unpredictable ways. Samantha's just testing my patience, Her Mother often thought. Experience had taught Mrs. Pritzer that her daughter's penchant for rapid-fire boredom would ultimately sweep these unseemly acquaintances under the rug, sooner, rather than later. When she eventually realized that it wouldn't be sooner, and might not even be later... well, Mrs. Pritzer decided to patiently tolerate the vagabond alliance, crediting her daughter with altruistic intentions. Her beautiful child was simply making charitable choices in her public school acquaintances. That's the way Sam had once described her Mother's rationale to the girls. At the time, it handed them all a huge laugh.

The sound of Mrs. Pritzer's voice, on the answering machine, annoyed Vera, so, after three calls, she broke-off her attempts at reaching Sam through such archaic methods and decided to stick with calling, and texting Sam's cell. With all she was going through, Vera grew tired of trying to reconnect with her pal. Her self-righteous indignation would rise, as she looked down at the remainder of her right leg, feeling put upon for her efforts at re-cooping on the emotional investment. Then, she would imagine standing in line for a movie, or queuing at the lunch counter in school, mocking the inedible offerings on the steamer table. Sam was always there right alongside of Jen. It was a much-needed, universal constant. Accepting the fact that she couldn't give up on Sam without knowing where the wedge between them had actually come from, Vera dialed the home number again, and left another message.

"Sam, I need to talk to you. Please call me. Anytime is fine."








On Monday, August 17th, at four-thirty pm, Detective's Bob Fontaine and Cindy Kulp arrived at 1757 E. Golden Way; the home of Carl and Suzy Wilkes.

Fontaine was fifty-something and gray at the temples. As a twenty-five year veteran of the force, he had moved from Robbery/Homicide to Juvenile division six and a half years before, attempting to regain perspective on the roots of criminal activity in his town. To date, he had not yet acquired that perspective.

Cindy Kulp, divorced mother of two (both boys) made detective at age thirty-four and always knew she would work in juvenile crime. Six months ago, on her thirty-sixth birthday, she joined Bob Fontaine. She stood two heads shorter than her partner. If there was any gray hair, she was successfully covering it up.

About twenty seconds after Fontaine rang the bell, the door opened to reveal the "Lady of the House."

Suzy Wilkes, standing in front of the two police detectives, would later be described, by Fontaine, as an ex-hippie wannabe who eventually found herself to be all grown up. She was a, still very pretty, thirty-nine year old woman who now carried a bit more weight than in previous decades. Her brown hair was straight and slightly past the shoulder. No "Mom" jeans for her. She concealed her muffin-top with a form-fitting navy, V-necked tee. Tourists, passing her in the streets, would not have tagged her as either a deeply committed adherent to Baha' 'u' llah, or as a mother, who in previous seasons of life, could be so far gone on acid that she couldn't remember who her young son was, or where he might have gotten off to, at any moment.

"Hello," she said apprehensively, fearing she had just opened her door to a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses canvassing her neighborhood.

"Are you Mrs.Wilkes?" Detective Kulp asked.

"I'm Suzy Wilkes. What's this about?" she proceeded nervously.

"We're Detectives Kulp and Fontaine from the Santa Cruz P.D., Juvenile division," the female detective replied.

"We need to speak to your son Rooney. Is he in?" Detective Fontaine spoke up.

Looking past them both, Suzy Wilkes was relieved to see that the detective had arrived in an unmarked vehicle. Neighbors can be so nosey.

"He's not here," she said. "What's this about? What's he done now?"

"Can we come in?" Kulp asked.

Guiding the team, with an audible sigh, to the small sitting room, Suzy waved her hand in front of the couch like a model on a game-show, inviting them to sample its rich, luxurious comforts. The detectives had been seated across from a large, bay window, cover in heavy, white sheers. The mid-afternoon sun, being brilliantly diffused through the light fabric, temporarily blinded the partners. Suzy Wilkes seated herself to one of the window, effectively casting her in the shadows. The arrangement of bodies was a less than ideal for a productive Q & A session. Overcoming the visual handicap, Detective Kulp, straight out of the chute, laid bare the reasons for their visit.

"We've received information that your son might be able to shed some light on the recent string of residential break-ins," Kulp said, as both she and Fontaine trotted-out their trusty notebooks and pens.

Mrs. Wilkes eyes widened at first, then, closed tightly. "Not again," she responded, with profound distaste.

"Do you expect him back, soon?" Fontaine asked.

"I really have no idea," Suzy Wilkes answered. "It's hard to keep tabs on teenagers these days. What's his involvement in the burglaries?"

"We don't know, for sure, that he is involved," Detective Kulp interjected.

"Then what's all THIS about?" she asked, searching their official game faces, for answers.

"It's our opinion, based on the crime scene and information that's been coming in, that these burglaries have been committed to convert stolen property into cash, and then, to buy drugs. Do you know if your son is still using drugs?" Fontaine asked, playing the part of the heavy.

"Probably," Mrs. Wilkes replied, irritated by the game she was being forced, unwillingly, to play.

"We know your son has a sealed juvenile file from two years ago; sources tell us it includes past arrests for breaking and entering and the possession of marijuana and paraphernalia," Kulp stated sympathetically, "We need to know if he has escalated since that time?"

"It wouldn't surprise me one bit," Mrs. Wilkes said.

"What do you mean?" the female detective asked.

"The other day; maybe a week or so ago, some kid called our home number. I guess he thought Rooney had answered the phone, anyway, he asked, "What did you do with the stuff?" I asked what "Stuff" he was talking about, and he suddenly hung-up.

"Did you recognize who it was that called?" asked Kulp.

"It sounded familiar but I can't say for sure," she replied.

The detective passed looks amongst themselves as the continued to jot down notes with pen and paper.

"Do you have caller i.d. on your phone?" Fontaine asked.


I guess we'll be checking your phone records then, Detective Fontaine thought to himself.

"So, what now?" Mrs. Wilkes asked the pair.

"Mrs. Wilkes, forgive me for saying so but you don't seem shocked or all that concerned that your teenaged son might have information, or worse yet some sort of involvement in some very serious felonies," Detective Fontaine remarked, with curiosity.

Folding her arms in front of her, Suzy Wilkes began:

"My husband and I have both indulged in recreational drugs and alcohol, experimented with communal living and an open marriage. We have never tried to hide that. We have, however, managed to transcend beyond the phyusical restrictions of our former existence," she explained, reaching to turn on the chrome, floor lamp beside her. With the other hand, she indicated a large portrait resting on an easel, in the previously darkened corner of the small room. As the light came on, the detectives were assailed with the piercing eyes, and heavily bearded face, of "Baha' 'u' lla'h.

"We are now practitioners of Baha'i," she said humbly, in a proud sort of way. "We have tried numerous times to help our son to move beyond his destructively selfish behaviors. He has rejected all our efforts, and so, if this is how he chooses to repay us, then he must reap his own consequences," Suzy Wilkes declared forcefully from her cushioned soapbox.

The detectives took a moment to recompose themselves after Mrs. Wilkes apparent disavowal of her son.

"Do you wanna search his room, cause it's all right with me?"

"Mrs. Wilkes we are just beginning our investigation. We don't have a warrant to search your home," Detective Kulp replied.

"That's okay. I give you my permission," Suzy Wilkes said with an air of authority.

"You obviously want to cooperate Mrs. Wilkes, and we appreciate it very much. If necessary we'll come back with the proper warrants. In the meantime, I must ask you not to mention our visit to your son?" Fontaine asked.

"Of course, I'll have to speak with my husband about it," she asserted.


The detectives stood up and closed the covers to their notepads in unison. As she ushered the police from her home, Suzy Wilkes' mind was feverishly mulling over the information she had discerned. If her son is behind it all, she thought, it would be better to handle it quickly and quietly. She stepped back into the sitting room, looking around for any evidence of the official visit that might have been left behind. Convinced that the room was clean, she moved toward the easel to receive the gaze of her "Master." Like a flash of lightning it struck Mrs. Wilkes that should her fellow practitioners learn of her personal anguish, at the loss of her only son to the state penal system, the outlay of sympathetic attentions could be massive. Surely they would view her strength, in the hour of crisis, as a marvelous display of piety. She shut her eyes and basked in the glory of possibility.

Rooney was up to his elbows in grease and oil, when he finally decided to rolled himself from under the front end of a lime-green Spitfire. A few remaining drops of dirty oil fell from the crank case as he moved, landing on his mechanics shirt, right above the patch embroidered with the name "Rex." Rex Hallett had worked for Rooney's Uncle Tommy for exactly one day and seventeen minutes before being picked up, at the garage, by a bounty hunter. The charge: Skipping bail on an armed robbery rap in Long Beach. The uniform company had a "No Return" policy on personalized items. Rooney found the situation to be ironic, if that was the right word for it.

Rooney was so preoccupied with the oil change that he hadn't thought, for several hours now, about the missed call from Eddie Steele. The major component occupying Rooney's time, at the moment, was the expanding clarity of his thought processes, since stepping out of the unremitting fog of intoxication. The challenges of machinery, such as cars and engines, appealed to his newly reestablished learning facility. He thought about thinking; thinking about anything at all; cars, people, whatever. He gradually had begun to see that if he knew enough about these things, and really understood them, he might be able to fix their problems.

"Rooney, can you give me a hand over here?" Tommy called from under the hood of a golden Sunbeam Tiger.

Rooney grabbed a clean shop towel, from the work bench, to slough-off most of the lubricants from his hands. Two months ago it would never have occurred to him to wipe his hands first. The world he had once retreated from was now becoming clearer and clearer to him, day by day.

"Can you hold the alternator in place while I bolt it in?" his Uncle asked, as Rooney leaned in from the opposite side of the car.

Rooney was happy to be working for, and with, Tommy. He wished, for a moment, that Tommy was his Father, and not just his Dad's older brother. Guilt snatched at the thought instantly and made him sorry for wishing it. He did still love his parents even though there seemed to be no understanding them, and the choices they had made; choices that had kept his life in chaos for years.

"You got it in place?" his Uncle asked.

"Yep," Rooney said, cradling the alternator in another clean rag.

As Tommy Wilkes secured the first bolt, the heavy device dropped out of alignment on the opposite side. Rooney dug down deep, with his hands, to lift it back up in time for the second bolt to find its proper threading.

"That's got it I think. I can get the rest from here," his uncle said with a grunt, as he straightened his stiff upper body, allowing his over-sized shop coveralls to slide back in place. Tommy took note, with envy, that his Nephew stood upright without any of the extraneous, age-related, noise-making he, himself, was frequently guilty of.

"Oh to be young and in love," he sighed with a feigned jealousy.

Rooney had divulged enough of the Vera McAlister/Cat/Amputated Leg saga, when he asked his Uncle for the job at the garage, for Tommy to finish filling in the "details" and "motivations" without much help. The work light, hanging from the tip of the Tiger's golden hood, revealed to Tommy, a line of red mixing with the dark smudged oil that ran across the back of Rooney's left wrist and knuckles.

"You got some blood there, Roon," he said, pointing toward the injury with a permanently stained hand of his own.

Looking down at his hand, and the blood, Rooney began to see it as a colorfully textured, abstract shape. It did not seem a part of him anymore. Automatically switching gears, Rooney's mind saw Vera's infected lower leg before him. A cold shudder failed to break his concentration as it ran through him.

"Rooney?" Tommy hollered, with an arched brow. "Go wash that and get a Band-Aid on it."

Rooney's hand faded back into conscious view to coincide with arriving pain in his knuckles. Watching his nephew carefully, Tommy saw the same sorrowful expression in Rooney's eyes that he had witnessed, when Rooney was five or six, after having knocked over and destroying his Dad's imported glass hookah.

"Go on now," Tommy said, with a touch of kind concern in his voice.

Rooney held his hand out and away from his body and walked to the work sink in the back of the garage. He turned the "HOT" faucet wide open then liberally sprinkled the back of his hand with white powder from the Boraxo hand cleaner box, as he waited for the water to warm up.

He scrubbed like a surgeon, for several minutes, and thought about Vera. He wanted to see her tonight but there was still the Spitfire's oil change to finish, and the garage needed its every-other-day sweeping and mopping, he argued with himself. Letting his soap-free hands continue to drip into the sink, Rooney fixed his gaze on the dusty, tarp-covered mound in the corner. I'll see Vera tomorrow for sure.









Tuesday morning, during his weekly rounds, Dr. Mendachan entered Vera's room. In the weeks of their association, the physician's hair, like Vera's, had grown out quickly and he swept a piece out of his eyes, as he closed the door. He found Judy sitting in the room's single chair, as usual, reading a celebrity-filled magazine, as usual. He found Vera balanced on the large windowsill, looking very intently at nothing in particular.

"How are you ladies this morning?" he asked cheerfully.

Judy, silently looking at the doctor, motioned towards Vera with her head. Dr. Mendachan approached his patient with care.

"How are you feeling Vera?" he asked, noting from her profile that she sported at least one puffy, red eye.

Vera sighed and shrugged. This was the kind of answer he might have accepted from a four-year-old but not from Vera McAlister.

"Are you experiencing any pains right now?" he asked clinically.

The word "PAIN" stayed with Vera for a time.

"Wanda's dead," she said finally.

"Wanda?" Dr. Mendachan asked in confusion.

"The Queen of the Luau," Vera clarified.

The physician took a pause to let her words seep through. Nothing.

"I don't know who you're speaking about,' he eventually confessed, with embarrassment.

"The older lady, in the wheelchair, across the hall," Judy added.

"Ohhhh! Mrs. Ellenshaw?" he said, reaching a feeble understanding.

Dr. Mendachan's uncertainty about the identity of the deceased ruffled Vera somewhat. Picking up the conversational lapse Dr. Mendachan asked, "Did you know her well?"

In reaction to the doctor's question, Vera quickly replied, "No. Did you?"

"Not very well. She wasn't actually my patient."

This answer wasn't working well for Vera either. She knew how the rotation of "Doctor's Rounds" worked; she had been seen, poked, and prodded by lots of male and female doctors, in their turn. How could Mendachan not know Wanda; Queen of the Luau?

Judy's first-hand knowledge of stepdaughter certainly included the topics of body language and sarcasm. She could tell that Vera was growing annoyed at the physician's gross lack of genuine concern for Wanda, or Mrs. Ellen-something or whoever.

"Vera only met her a few nights ago," Judy offered, to diffuse the approaching stalemate.

"Oh, I see," he said. "I never actually got to visit with her on my rounds because of some surgeries I was required to assist with.

Just what did he see, Vera wondered, in solitary vexation? Part of her could make sense of his non-committal grief because she knew that doctors see death all the time. They would have to keep the tragedy at arm's length, or crack-up. Vera knew this first- hand. It was something that she and the Doctor shared. At the same time, she was mortified at the idea that anyone could view the passing of a fellow human, into the "Forever" unknown, as a run of the mill experience.

Accurately interpreting the sounds and shapes coming from the windowsill, Judy added, "Vera wasn't prepared for the shock of it. We had just gotten off the elevator, down the hall, as they pulled the gurney out of Wanda's room. They had the sheet over... ya know... her face."

The problem had become clearer to the Doctor but he was still just as uncertain on how to proceed. He recognized similarities between Vera's behavior and that of other amputees he had treated. It occurred to him that, until now, Vera consistently displayed an upbeat, non-self-piteous attitude concerning the loss of her leg. It bordered on the unnatural, he decided.

Dr. Mendachan knew that at some point, and it was different for each patient, the amputee needed to grieve the loss of their individual body part. The poker face could not go on indefinitely. Vera had lulled him to sleep, so to speak. He hadn't seen any of the "Signs" indicating a need for therapeutic emotional support. It now seemed patently obvious that Vera's current personality glitch, though understandable, might have more to do with her own physical loss, than with the passing of Mrs. Ellenshaw. Perhaps, he hypothesized; Vera was conveniently using the occasion of Wanda's death as an emotional springboard to initiate the necessary grieving/healing process.

Dr. Mendachan had observed how acutely aware of her surroundings, Vera always seemed to be. Speaking candidly with her Mother, while she was within earshot, would not be cool. Not in this present volatile state.

"Mrs. McAlister I have some physical therapy release forms, at the nurse's station, that we need to ... go over," he said, as he motioned to the door with his eyes.

Judy's eyes lit-up with understanding compliance.

"Um... sure," she answered. Judy wasn't at all certain that she had pulled off the chicanery but... she was locked in, to see it through, just the same.

"Vera, I'll be right back. Okay, Hon?"

With her back to the room, Vera kissed the window and, with her index finger, used the smudge of lip-gloss as a painter's palette to write the words, "R.I.P. Wanda: Q.O.T.L."

Judy and Dr. Mendachan exited the room quietly.

"I wanted to speak with you about Vera's current funk," he stated plainly, once the door was closed.

"Is that an actual medical condition?" Judy asked, attempting humor.

"I think we would both agree that Vera's current frame of mind is somewhat counterproductive, especially for a young woman on the mend from this type surgery. I'd be happy to suggest some emotionally therapeutic resources, for the both of you, if you like?"

When Judy failed to acknowledge an understanding of the doctor's suggestion, Mendachan moved quickly to elaborate.

"There are individual therapists Vera could see, as well as, support groups with other young people around her age. Some of the groups allow family participation for parents, like yourself," he offered.

Replaying , in her head, the sparse number of conversations she'd had with Dr. Mendachan, it dawned on Judy that she had never actually explained Vera's unusual pedigree to the physician.

"I'm not really Vera's Mother. Just her Stepmom. Her mother passed away from leukemia several years ago and my husband, Vera's Dad, died of a cerebral hemorrhage two years ago. I'm her legal guardian."

The doctor caught himself staring at Mrs. McAlister, with unfocused eyes, and trying to put all the pieces of his forming prognosis into a meaningful, useful, framework. Hearing the sound of a sigh leaving him own body, he drew his thoughts together.

"I'm sure you'd be welcome to take part if you wished."

Skipping ahead, Judy asked, "Do you think the therapy will really be beneficial? I mean... Vera has a very prominent independent streak. I've experienced it both with, and without the presence of a man in the house."

"The loss of her leg is as real and tangible a loss as any she's experienced before, including her parent's deaths, but I'm sensing some well-developed "Coping" skills in Vera. The therapy would give her a platform for using those skills.

"Dr. Mendachan...?" Judy began slowly. She was on the brink of breaching a confidence. Her face twisted up, distastefully, at the idea of spilling the origin of Vera's injuries, but quickly reasoned that it might prove relevant to her Stepdaughter's emotional and physical healing processes.

"You might need to know something..."

The Doctor quickly dismissed Judy's reticence, "What is it, Mrs. McAlister?"

"Well... relating to Mrs. Ellenshaw, and Vera's leg, and grieving, and all... I know about Vera's accident. Where and how it happened, I mean."

If physicians have a sixth sense, it was now advising Dr. Mendachan to prepare himself for a "WOW'" of a tale.

"Maybe we should go to the cafeteria, he said, I think I'd like to get some coffee before you start."

Vera, continued with her window pane, finger painting, as she stood, balancing on her foot. She had reapplied her dark red lip gloss and refreshed the palette with more kisses. She had drawn the shape of a headstone around her previous writing, which now served as an inscription, as well as several hearts of various sizes. They all floated about, on the glass, encircling the grave marker.

Inside the largest of the hearts, swipes of lip gloss filled-in the shape. Originally, the smeared filling had been the letters "R. W. + V.M." When Jenkins, the nurse on duty (and Vera's person favorite) had come in to check her patient's blood pressure, Vera quickly rubbed the letters out. She was genuinely embarrassed for having created such an infantile display of infatuation.

Continuing to stand there, her leg was growing as tired as her will to continue on with this "Therapy through Art" project. Vera lazily climbed backwards, onto the bed, and rested her head on the foot bar. She stared at, and through, the window, admiring her sticky masterpiece. At other moments she looked past the hearts, to watch the leaves on the trees, blowing to one side, in the warm breeze that worked its way up the California coastline. She lay silently, listening to the hum of medical equipment, and occasional P.A. messages that paged Mr. So-and-So, or Dr. Such-and Such, as well as an announcement that a white, Ford Explorer, license number 6DZH364, had its light left on in the parking garage.

By now, Vera had wept enough to ensure that falling asleep again would require little encouragement. The room was warm, but not too warm. Still, it wasn't sleep that Vera wanted. Despite all her Step-mother's recent, thoughtful efforts, it certainly wasn't Judy that Vera wanted. Even Dr. Ultra-Brite couldn't pierce the dark fog today.

She wanted GINSU! She wanted to see Rooney __?__ Wilkes. What was his middle name anyway? Most of all she wanted a leg to stand on and the return of her freedom. She had already missed so much of her summer, cooped up in this room, on this bed.

Her ability to feel sorry for herself was very much intact. She'd been in that state many times before and she could see it coming up around the bend. She had to fight that tide. To be this young, she thought, and to be crippled... not by a missing leg, or missing parents, but by self-pity. There was just no way she could allow it.

An unknown rush of energy coursed through Vera inducing her to sit up on the bed just as Nurse Jenkins stepped up.

"What now Jenkins?" Vera asked, only half sarcastically.

Having younger teen-aged daughters of her own, the caregiver had quickly acclimated herself to Vera's barbs and slams. They didn't bother her, really. She simply invested herself, for the length of her shifts, in this unusual young woman then went home, hugged her own daughters, and thanked God that they were safe and whole.

"Is your Mother going to be back soon?" Jenkins asked her patient.

"Stepmother Jenkins! STEPMOTHER!" Vera replied with affected aggravation.

"So sorry Miss McAlister," she apologized thoughtlessly. "Will your Stepmother be back soon?"

"She and Dr. M. took off. I don't know where they went. There was something they didn't want me to hear, I guess. Why? What's up?"

Vera finally realized that Jenkins was carrying some non-medical looking thing in her hand as she made her way toward the bed. Crudely covered in print-out paper the wrapping was held together with a red rubber band. Vera could decipher her own name sloppily scribbled on the outside of the package.

"I suppose it'll be all right," Jenkins said dubiously, handing the item over to Vera.

"For me?" Vera asked, not knowing, in the least, what she should expect to be receiving.

Jenkins was not responding and anyway... the curiosity was too great. She hurriedly jerked the rubber band off, and snapping it in the process.

"Ow!" she cried, not stopping in her quest for discovery; the stinging pain wasn't even enough to slow her down.

Unrolling the mystery object like the end of a toilet paper roll, Vera was soon staring down at a... vintage, dashboard hula girl? Not exactly? Vera looked to the wrinkled wrapping for a clue. It read, in very shaky handwriting, "To Sweet Vera from Wanda across the hall."

A gush of tears made it difficult to see the figurine clearly, at first. Jenkins grabbed the box of tissues from Vera's nightstand, snatching two for herself, then handed the carton to Vera. The systematic blotting of eyes and wiping of noses commenced.

On closer, dry-eyed, inspection Vera found that it was not the common tchotchke she had first imagined. The thing was actually a trophy. The inscription plate, loosely attached at the bottom of the stand, stated, "2nd Place " Waikiki Hula Competition " Winter 79." Paint was missing, the hip wiggle action was no longer smooth and rhythmic, and it looked all of its 30 + years of age.

As Vera looked the whole thing over, she was distracted by the figure's right leg. She could make out horizontal scratches and grooves that were not a part of the original mold casting, and looked only days old. The carvings on the knee region made it look as though there was a hinged knee joint, which gave the impression that the lower leg was prosthetic.

She studied the peculiar bequest from her former "Friend" for a while then looked desperately to Jenkins for answers.

"Other than an empty wallet, and the clothes she came in with, this is all she had," Jenkins explained. "Mrs. Ellenshaw was homeless. She had no family."

"Nobody?" Vera asked, pushing past the lump in her throat.

"She mentioned spending a lot of time at the V.A. hospital in Eureka, but I think she had been on the streets for years."

Vera suddenly felt sick.

"She came here to die Vera. She just wanted to have people around at the end and she wanted you to have this."

The room suddenly got very cold so Vera leaned over and grabbed Jenkins, wrapping her arms around the nurse for warmth, and a little aid and comfort. Jenkins patted her patient's back solidly, letting Vera heave and sob as the geyser of emotion overtook her. Vera extricated herself from the clinch a moment later.

"Thanks," she said.

"That's okay," the nurse answered thoughtfully.

Feeling more moist in the eyes than she was comfortable with, Vera prioritized "Not looking weepy for Rooney" at the top of her "to do" list. She thought better of exposing him to an awkward show of sentimentality. When Jenkins had left the room, Vera folded Wanda's brief note and placed it, and the trophy, under a pile of comics in the bottom drawer of the nightstand. She did not feel like reliving the emotion of the gift again, and again, if Judy, or Jen saw it, and questioned its origin.

Hopping to her bathroom, Vera switched on the light and greeted a pair of swollen lids, blotched with runny mascara. Several splashes of warm water loosened the bulk of the makeup, so she settled on mildly blackened, eye sockets, reminiscent of a raccoon, rather than investing more time, and elbow grease, on a thorough scrubbing.

A shocked giggle escaped her. Keeping one eye in the mirror she lifted her nose up in the air and took several quick sniffs around the forest, ending in harder laughter. When the laughter failed to subside, and instead grew uncontrollable, Vera braced herself against the wall and held tightly to the wash basin.

Eyes once more pooling with tears, Vera couldn't stay focused on her reflection. A large dark blue mass moved behind her, in the mirror, causing an unexpected twist and jerk, from the surprise of it. Vera was quite suddenly going down, her foot slipping out from underneath her. Her head fell back against something, not nearly so solid as a bathroom wall. All downward movement was halted unceremoniously, and she felt cradled and secure, once more.

Who had her? She drew her leg up under her center of gravity and pressed the ball of her foot down hard on the beige tiled floor. Upward she sprang, like a jack-in-the-box, spinning around during her ascent. The arms that had provided a sense of security only moments before now gave her almost total freedom.

Vera's vision was not fully restored, so her ears filled in the blanks as a voice, flowing in softly, began to state its case.

(In Spanish with a very heavy accent.)

"Pardon me Senorita McAlister. I came only to remove your breakfast dishes. I heard the unusual laughter coming from your bathroom. I did not wish to intrude on your privacy but I thought you might be in danger. You fell on me as I entered the room."

The voice came in a lightning-fast, high pitched outburst, filled with tension and stress.

Vera could, at last, make out the features of Pepe's face, in profile, as he continued to hold on to her elbow. He did not look at her directly. His head was turned away, eyes tightly closed while he spoke. She thought he looked as if he were stiffening up for a punch in the face.

Staying awake in Spanish class might have paid off just now, she thought. About the only word she recognized was her own name which was dropped at the start of the orderly's verbal eruption.

"It's okay. Gracias Pepe, gracias!" she exclaimed. She was hoping to calm him down, which might have worked had she not inadvertently matched Pepe's frenetic tone.

With a snap of his head in the direction of her room, Pepe's eyes opened. He let go of Vera's arm, leaving her balanced in the bathroom, then flew past Judy and Nurse Jenkins on his way out of the hospital room. In his haste to go, the breakfast tray had been forgotten.

Jenkins, at almost all times the professional, was so surprised by the streak of dark blue scrubs that she neglected any attempt to detain the unknown runner. Her mind and body were wending their way toward her young charge.

"Vera?" the nurse called out.

Making entry to the bathroom, Jenkins found Vera seated on the toilet, her eyes mired in rings of darkness. The nurse instinctively grabbed her patient's wrist while searching over every inch of the girl.

"Vera?" Judy hollered, following behind the nurse.

"It was Pepe..." Vera began.

Jenkins did not possess a suspicious mind but rather a particular one. A disabled teenaged girl, alone in her room, was certainly a probable target for a predator, she imagined.

"I'm fine. I'm fine." Vera added.

Jenkins was not yet convinced.

"Did he touch you?" she asked sternly

"Not in a bad way," was the first thing Vera could think to say. Big mistake.

The entire exchange with Pepe, like every other nebulous encounter with him, was becoming undefinable.

"What does that mean," Judy probed wildly.

"I slipped and he caught me. That's all," Vera explained, working doubly hard to assure her Stepmother, that nothing untoward had occurred.

Still unappeased, Jenkins asked, "Why was he in the bathroom with you in the first place?"

























Rooney's pulses quickened as the elevator doors opened on Vera's floor. He had worked hard the night before and was ready to recharge his soul-cells, basking in the dauntless optimism of this girl, who he could actually admire, as well as desire. That was a first. Admiration was not, of course, the only note of his emotional range that he longed to exercise. He wanted to be trusted, and, and... Well, it might just be too soon for that yet.

Half way out of the elevator he was forced to contort himself, sucking in his stomach, to avoid a collision with the impatient, Hispanic orderly who refused to let Rooney disembark first.

"Dude!" Rooney groused, stepping aside. The doors closed. Not gonna ruin my day, he told himself.

As he strolled down the corridor, Rooney spotted a bright, yellow book or box, leaned against the wall, outside of Vera's room.

"Is that what I think it is?"

Reaching the object, Rooney discovered it to be an unopened box of "Kitten Bites" carefully positioned by the door, out of the way of foot traffic. He wondered who, among the few who had knowledge of Ginsu's recent impromptu adoption, would leave a box of cat food outside the room? He concluded that it couldn't have been there for long or one of the staff would have picked it up by now.

Rooney noticed that the "Gifter" had used a black marker to decorate the front of the carton. Picking it up, he was taken aback by the large "Star of David" superimposed over the head of the yellow tiger-striped kitten pictured on the front. The message at the bottom read, "Are you enjoying your stolen goods?" He absentmindedly pushed open the door, entering the private room as he continued his examination of the box, for further messaging. In a longer-than-normal instant, he snapped to the potent meaning of the Jewish symbol. Old man Jorrisch " Old man "Jewish." It had to be.

Hearing three distinct female voices coming from the open bathroom, Rooney suddenly felt distressed for having forgotten to knock before stepping in.

"Are you sure he wasn't trying to "Cop a Feel" Vera?" Judy McAlister asked, in a rather suspicious tone.

What's going on here, he wondered? Was Mrs. McAlister talking about me, he wondered?

Next, he heard the unfamiliar voice of Nurse Jenkins.

"One of our male orderlies, who speaks no English, holding onto a young, female patient in her private bathroom is not a normal part of the services this hospital provides, I can assure you."

Orderly, he thought? The Dude from the elevator!

Tossing the cat food box on the bed, Rooney moved quickly out the door and down the hall to the elevators, cruising on "Auto-Pilot." Did the guy go "Up" or "Down?" Rooney pushed himself to remember.

The elevator doors opened on their own, before Rooney's hand reached the "Down" button, so he darted for the opening but stopped short, with another last-second contortion, as he saw the man and woman who were attempting to exit. An odd moment of standoff occurred for the three of them. The lady gave the man a look which Rooney interpreted to mean, "Young people, these days, are so rude!" He tossed out a hurried "Excuse me." With synchronized expressions, the man and woman looked at each other again, before awkwardly slipping past Rooney.

"You know what?" the gentleman said. "Why don't you go on ahead and I'll catch up with you in a bit."

He backed into the elevator and held the "Door Open" button till Rooney had entered safely.

"Okay," she agreed, as the doors closed between them.

Rooney jabbed repeatedly at the "Lobby" button till it lit up, then tried to ignore the feeling of embarrassment that he felt at being so unskilled in the operation of a simple elevator. He stood statuesque, sensing the man's eyes on the back of his neck. For some reason even drawing a breath seemed a risky endeavor, so he locked his lungs down for the remainder of the ride.

When the doors open again Rooney shot out of the car, took a few steps, then, planted himself to scan the lobby for the Orderly.

"Rooney Wilkes?" came a voice, from behind.

He chose not to turn himself completely around, but instead, twisted his head back in the direction of the speaker. A Santa Cruz police badge and I.D. was being shoved up in his face. The man from the elevator was displaying them.

In the seconds that passed, Rooney was locked in a struggle between acknowledging his identity and/or ignoring the summons altogether. When "not choosing" finally became unbearable, Rooney spoke up with the voice of a weary fugitive; all thoughts of pursuing his manhunt for the orderly had dissolved away.

"Ya?" he managed, in a deflated voice.

"I'm Detective Fontaine from Robbery/Homicide, I mean Juvenile Division. Can I talk to you for a second?" the officer asked with dismay at his own mistake, as he put the badge away.

What in the world could this be about, Rooney wondered. Next, his mind skipped to his home, his parents. The relationship with his folks was bad, no doubt about it, but still, he wouldn't wish them any harm. Had something happened to them, he wondered. No, wait. The detective had said "Juvenile Division.

"Has something happened with my parents?" he asked with real concern, still considering the possibility.


"My Uncle Tommy?" he asked. "Has somebody robbed the garage?"


The detective wasn't giving anything away, which was all part of his game. The situation was boosting Rooney's adrenaline levels. His mind raced around but couldn't find a reasonable place to land. It had been two years since he had been in any real trouble with the law and Patricia Collins, his juvie probation officer, had stopped coming around for in-home visits back in February when she retired. No one else ever showed up to replace her so he figured that he was no longer a blip on Cop radar.

"What do you want?" he asked. The harshness of his tone crept up on him and he wished he could restate the question.

Fontaine motioned that they should step away from the bank of elevators and Rooney followed the officer's lead. Looking Rooney squarely in the eye, the detective asked, "You know about the string home break-ins happening in this part of town?"

Rooney's involuntary blush response blew his complexion apart and his tan melded into a swirl like the peel of a blood orange. He was literally becoming hot under the collar of his faded slate blue t-shirt.

What do I have to do with any of those burglaries, he thought to himself? Better yet, what do they think I have to do with them?

He offered the add-lib reply, "I've seen it on T.V." How could an utterly innocent person feel so cornered and helpless?

"What have you seen on T.V.?" Fontaine asked sharply.

Rooney began to recognize this line of questioning from before, when he really had been the one the Police were looking for, back in tenth grade. In those days he knew all the lies he needed to tell and the denials he needed to sell. But back then the game was some much easier, and also fun to play, in an immature way, when you already knew all the facts. He found it torturous, being abandon, with only the limited knowledge of your innocence to cling to.

"Some houses got robbed. That's it," he answered, no frills.

With his new, improved, drug-free mind, he could remember intricate details of the last few days and weeks. If, however, the Cops were looking to know his whereabouts, back when the break-ins started, he was sunk. Sweat was collecting in his armpits and running down the sides of his ribs, under his shirt. He knew he couldn't coherently or convincingly account for his time before "That" night. Anyway, who could he go to for an alibi, Scabbie, or Charlie King? Anytime he would have been with those guys, they would have all been stoned to the bejesus.

"Do you know the house on Blister Avenue?" the Detective asked.

Rooney caught himself tensing up and took a shallow, steadying his breathing, and hoping he hadn't given anything away. For an instant his mouth wanted to open and confess all by blurting out, "You mean Old Man Jorrisch's place?" but he tamed it by chewing on a piece of skin he'd been working at, on his lower lip. Not the smoothest move he could have chosen, but it would have to do.

"Which house?" he asked, projecting confusion.

A look of irritation washed over Detective Fontaine's face as he replied, "C'mon, you know the one. It's the old two-story place with the overgrown yard. It looks abandon."

It abruptly followed that Rooney recalled the woman who had been with the officer, as they exited the elevator. They spoke to each other about meeting up later. She got off on Vera's floor. She had to be his partner. Good Cop/Bad Cop. Who had ratted them out, Rooney wondered?

Rooney shook his head. It was all coming back clearly now; the questions, the techniques. Good Cop tries to gain your trust while Bad Cop smashes you like a bug. He recalled that someone, back in his desperado days, had told him (Eddie Steele) that when confronted by the cops, he should just keep it cool and deny everything. The advice hadn't really served him very well at the time and resulted in a folder, with his name at the top, being created and filed away in a cabinet at Juvenile Hall, along with one-hundred hours of community service, picking up trash on the beaches, in a ridiculous day-glow vest.

The persistent gaze of the detective continued to chip away at Rooney's resolve. Of course, he knew the house. Anyone who lived near the park, or swam at the pool, knew the house. Everyone knew the ugly-assed thing.

Knock, Knock, Knock, Knock!

From inside, the door opened, revealing the beleaguered face of Judy McAlister.


"I'm Detective Kulp; Santa Cruz Police Department. Is this Vera McAlister's room?" She asked, with badge held out for inspection.

Judy's lightly furrowed brow produced several new creases as she digested the officer's introduction.

"Who? ... What is this?" she replied distractedly.

"Is this Vera McAlister's room?" Kulp repeated.

"Yes it is, but what do you want?" Judy asked, obviously caught unaware by the visitation.

"Are you her Mother?" the lady detective asked unflappably.

"Stepmother," Judy corrected, "But I don't understand why you're here."

"May I come in and explain?"

Judy condescendingly pulled the door open fully and stepped to the side, permitting the policewoman to enter. Vera was, at that moment, hopping back into the main room with Jenkins at her side, for the assist. When the Kulp saw Vera, and her missing leg, an inadvertent expression of disbelief worked itself out on her face. She wondered, for a minute, if she should really be here at all.

"Is this a bad time?" she asked with unease.

Pleading to the point of a simmer Judy asked, "Could you please just tell me what this is about?"

Jenkins deposited Vera along the long edge of her bed and stood silently observing Judy's irritation.

"Who's that?" Vera whispered to her nurse, from the now completely healed"up corner of her mouth.

Jenkins shrugged.

The bright, yellow box, on the bed beside her, drew Vera's attention. She couldn't believe what she was seeing. Where had it come from?

Overhearing her Stepdaughter, Judy replied, "This is Detective Kulp from the Police department and she was just about to finally explain, I hope, what she wants." The incident with Pepe had expended Judy's stores of tolerance.

The detective, having sussed the mood of the room, could tell that this was not going to go easy. "I have some questions for Vera about a number of break-ins that have occurred around the city," she stated for openers.

Judy shot back with rolling eyes. "Have you looked at her? Does she look like she could have robbed anyone? She's been in here for weeks for Christ sakes." Her tone was teetering on the fence between frustration and outrage.

At this point, Jenkins moved to exit the room. Vera, using Jenkin's exit as cover, pulled the pile of sheets and blankets over the top of the cat food carton.

"She's got to be in physical therapy in twenty-five minutes," the nurse interjected, cautioning the officer to keep it brief.

"The burglaries I was referring to started occurring in late May, just after school let out for summer break," Kulp stated flatly, in an attempt to regain her leverage for the remainder of the questioning. "No one is accusing Your Stepdaughter of anything. We simply have a few inquiries to make and some questions to ask."

"What do you want to know?" Vera asked, taking the initiative to break-up the deadlocked atmosphere threatening to smother the room.

Remembering the explanation that both Rooney, and Vera had given her regarding the "Cat Rescue" operation, Judy, tossed around, in her mind, the idea of forbidding Vera from answering any of the detective's questions, at least until a lawyer could be consulted. Seeing that Vera had thrown the door wide open, Judy kept her better judgments to herself for the moment.

"What do you know about the old, rundown, house on Blister Avenue?" Kulp asked, getting right to the point. This shook Vera lightly, helping her to remember that she was not dealing with one of her pain-in-the-butt teachers at school. This was an officer of the law. She wondered if Sam had squealed to the Police. Did she hate Rooney that much?

Being completely without knowledge as to what the Police had learned from their snitch source, Vera made the executive decision to expunge Rooney completely. She grabbed a breath and pushed on ahead.

"Do you mean Mr. Jorrisch's place?" she asked, doing some mild probing of her own, and trying to buy time, to sum up just what, and how much, to say.

"Yes. That's the house I mean."

Judy's discomfort, at the thought of Vera continuing the discussion without the benefit of legal counsel, was reaching its redline. Be careful Vera, she thought.

The detective had pulled a pad and pen from the same jacket pocket in which she had buried her badge, and was now flipping pages for a blank spot to take notes.

"Have you ever been in Mr. Jorrisch's house?" She looked up at Vera and waited for the reply.

What have you done to me Sam, Vera thought? It was clear she was being painted into a corner but she still refused to lose her genetically inherited "Cool."

Inspiration isn't passed out on every corner, to just anyone walking by. Vera understood this. She could see that most people lead with their emotions and feelings as they told their stories, for all the good that would do them. But now, somehow, it had sparked within Vera, that the nearly unvarnished truth would be such an outrageous tale, it just might catch this policewoman completely off her guard. Another deep breath for courage and she began.

"Where do you think this all happened?" Vera said, lightly slapping the protruding remains of her right leg. She looked the detective directly in the eyes, daring her to ask for elucidation.

Kulp was a professional, and not easily shaken by young people trotting out their bravado in a feeble effort to impress, or frighten, a female officer. She had seen it all in her Black and White days, or so she imagined. Vera McAlister, however, seemed so comfortable, in her reply, that the officer wasn't at all prepared with a solid follow-up question. She flipped through several pages of her pad, finally settling on one, then, kept her head down as she busily scribbled "What now?" repeatedly, on the paper. It was her turn to take a deeper breath.

"How did it happen?" Kulp asked, exhaling slowly.


"Blister Avenue goes on for miles," Rooney stated, shooting Fontaine a look, and falling back into his former "Give-a-Crap" posture from the days when he really was the person the cops needed to be looking for. "There're lots of houses like that."

Rooney's own obstinacy was unsettling to him. Why didn't he just say, "I heard about the break-in but I had nothing to do with it?" He was unsure of what Vera might be spilling to the lady cop, upstairs. The pressure was intensifying moment by moment.

"Hey, let's not play games here," Fontaine barked. "I know what's in your file. There's a history of this sort of thing. Break-ins I mean."

Rooney was now growing embarrassed at the public spectacle that was blossoming in the lobby of the hospital. He looked around to see who might be tuning in on his "Interview." As far as he could tell, there was only one older lady, sitting on a nearby sofa, who briefly looked their way while working on a crossword in the TV Guide.

The idea closed in on him again. What was Vera saying? Was she scared? Was she scared enough to sell me out, he wondered?

Still, no matter what was happening up there, he felt deep down, in his freshly minted conscience, that a strict policy of denial would be his best course of action.

"That was years ago. I'm not like that anymore," he said, pleading his case sincerely.

"Not like what?"

Rooney could sense the ensnaring nature of the Cop's questions. Where was his probation officer when he needed her?

"You said you know what's in my file. Well, I've changed since then."

"So what does that mean? Somebody else did the breaking-in while you beat the old guy to death?" the detective countered.

"I didn't say that. You know I didn't say that," Rooney said, with voice purposely lowered to avoid taking the bait that the policeman was busily throwing before him.

"Look, we know these burglaries were committed by someone looking to sell the stuff cheap for some quick drug money, and we know that you like to smoke grass. Now, sources claim you're the brains behind it all. That is if there's anything left up in that head of yours," Fontaine said sarcastically.

"I don't smoke anymore Man, so I wouldn't have a need for drug money," Rooney replied, wishing right then that he had left out the word "Man."

"That's not what I heard, little man," Fontaine responded, with a sneer.

"I don't care what you heard," Rooney Wilkes involuntarily muttered.

"What was that?" the detective snapped, getting louder again.

"I said, I don't care what people are saying about me. I don't do drugs anymore."

The Officer allowed his bowed-up shoulders and back to relax for the moment. "Okay, for now, but don't try to leave town," the policeman added after a long pause, in an attempt to intimidate his prime suspect.

Rooney was caught in a whirlwind of idea and emotion. He needed to run upstairs to check on Vera. It was out of the question while Fontaine's partner was up there, putting the screws to Vera. None of this bore any resemblance to how he envisioned his visit to the hospital going. Finally, Fontaine made his move towards the entrance doors, on the far side of the lobby.

"You're not going up to see Vera McAlister are you?" the detective asked with a sly grin, stopping and turning around about ten paces from where he'd left Rooney standing. "I'm not sure she'll be too happy to see you."

Rather than answer, Rooney just stared at the officer, as the hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention. He was thinking about pressing the "Up" button, to call the elevator, but stopped short. What if the Lady Cop is there when the door opened, he thought. He hastily decided that the stairwell would be the best place to wait them out. Remembering from his last visit, that the stairwells on each landing had windows that looked out on the parking lot, he threw the heavy, metal door open. Once it shut tightly behind him, Rooney walked the tree flights, to Vera's floor. Finding the best better vantage point, he began to search the lot for any sedan that looked like a possible unmarked, cop car. The search was concluded as Detective Fontaine came into view, climbing into a light blue, 2012, Crown Vic, parked on the back row. Leaning into the outside wall, Rooney continued his stakeout.

"... So I bundled the cat up in my jacket and limped out of the house," Vera proclaimed, as if she had just finished delivering a major epic, around the fire, following the ancient oral tradition.

"And you say Mr. Jorrisch was already dead when you got in the house?" Kulp asked, to test the consistency of Vera's account.

"I didn't check his pulse or anything, but he was face-down? And anyway, I recognized the smell," Vera replied affirmatively

"Animal Control received an anonymous tip about the cats. That's when the body was discovered. Did you make the call?"

Vera knew enough about caller i.e., and phone tracing, to see through this query. She understood also that phone records would show the anonymous call coming from the pay-phone at the pool, and there might even be a recording of the call Rooney made. Weighing her options, she decided to answer as simply, and directly, as she had done from the start of the interrogation.

"I wasn't able to go anywhere, after the accident, so I had a friend make the call," she answered.

"You also said that you used your student I.D. card to slip the lock on the back porch. Is that correct?" Kulp asked.

"That's right. It was really easy," Vera advised. "Look it, with all of the City notices on the front door, I figured the place was deserted, and the cats were abandon."

It occurred to Judy, who had seated herself on the chair, that Vera's story, even with the exclusion of Rooney's involvement, was reasonably compelling. She only wished that Vera had toned down the elements of personal pride as she detailed her trespasses. With a touch of reserve, she reminded the room, "Physical Therapy in five minutes."

"And you're certain that you acted completely alone. Is that accurate?" Kulp asked, as she finished jotting down Vera's statement in her pad.


"You understand that in the absence of any corroborating witnesses that can place you at the scene, alone, we have to keep investigating?" the officer said, half asking, half telling. The police woman paused to study Vera's face. There was no discernable reaction.

"By the way... we have concluded that Mr. Jorrisch's death was a homicide."

Both Vera and Judy silently took the officer's remark to mean that Vera was still the prime suspect in the old man's death unless Vera was willing to provide contradictory evidence.

"I told you when, and how, I got into the house, and I'm sure you guys have already determined the time of death to be before I ever got there." Vera stated authoritatively.

"You've watched too much CSI," The detective said, with a hint of annoyance.

"Quincy M E," Vera corrected, full of youthful self-assurance. "Obviously I couldn't have been involved in any of the burglaries that happened after I landed in here, right?"

Detective Kulp said nothing. She closed the pad and shoved it, and the pen, into her jacket pocket.

"I'll come back when you have more time."

Turning for the door, Kulp stopped for a final question, "The friend who called Animal Control for you... Was that Rooney Wilkes?"

The sound of a catch in Judy's breathing caused Vera to hesitate in answering, as she looked to her Stepmother.

"I'd rather not involve anyone else in this," she declared, looking back to the detective and trying to recapture her previous state of confidence.

"I see."

Still on-guard at his stairwell window, Rooney had begun to daydream all the possible solutions to the question, "Whose setting me up?" Judy was first to pop forward in his mind. Had someone threatened to implicate Vera in the recent rash of break-ins? Perhaps this is how a truly caring parent behaves on behalf of their child. The notion was utterly alien to his life experience.

If it wasn't Judy, then perhaps, it could be someone whom Vera had foolishly confided in, under heavy medication, like Jennifer. She had really given him the silent treatment the other day, when he got Ginsu ready for the hospital visitation. Or what about that other girl Vera talked about; Sam something.

Not being well versed in the workings of feminine logic, Rooney could only guess that when two, or more, girls put their heads together, the potential for trouble could increase a thousand-fold.

Finally, he was force to accept the possibility that someone actually saw and recognized them that night, moving around on the Jorrisch property. He had, after all, gotten stoned with Scabbie before meeting up with Vera in the hedges. The "New" Rooney was compelled to concede that his former self was, by no means, a careful, methodical person. And what about Scabbie? No, never mind that, he thought.

He was on the cusp of a chuckle, from that last thought, when the lady cop appeared and quickly climbed into the passenger's side of the blue Ford. As they pulled out into traffic seconds later, Rooney searched himself. What do I do now? I can't just go up there and start questioning Vera about the whole thing, he thought. What if she's pissed?

The stairwell felt overly air-conditioned, or perhaps Rooney's body shudders were the after effects of Detective Fontaine's grilling. What he needed, at this very moment, was the sun's warmth to counteract the "Chill" effect. Hospitals were always too cold, he rationalized. Anyway, he didn't want to risk running into Judy McAlister just now.

He raced down each flight of stairs, sometimes bypassing five or six steps as he leapt down to the next landing. When he reached the lobby he slowed down, crossing it somewhat nervously. He looked around for anyone who may have witnessed his earlier ordeal, then stepped up to the automatic main doors. When he hit the sidewalk and had cleared the shade of the circle drive's bright blue awning, he took off at a dead run. The beach was only five blocks away and he had to get his head cleared. The beach was the only place, other than at Vera's side, which had ever given him a tangible sense of peace and well-being.

The sun was now penetrating the outer layers and beginning to warm his bones. As the soles of his green All-Stars slapped the pavement, he questioned everything that had occurred, throughout this strangest of all possible summer vacations. He now remembered the "Concept" he had been exposed to, over and over, by all the zoned-out adults who, in his formative years, had frequented his home, attending his parent's countless drug orgies.


He truly was paying the price for his once, careless life. His new-found clarity was needs-be dragging a slew of consequences into the picture, till all the bad by-products of his karmic down-payment began manifesting like the plagues of Egypt.

Did Vera McAlister use me then throw me to the wolves, just to secure the cat, he wondered? He believed that he and Vera had achieved something of an understanding, or arrangement, during their last visit. Until he heard otherwise, he would cling tightly to that agreement, no matter what.

The winds coming off the Pacific started to hinder his forward progress a little but he remained committed to his sandy destination. Stepping across Cliff Drive, onto the hot sands, all of the suffocating pressures of modern, American teen life fell away like the shedding skin of a snake.

He was finally warm.

"How did the Police know about Rooney, Vera?" Judy demanded, in a low voice, hoping not to attract unwanted attention, as she guided her stepdaughter's wheelchair down the corridor, to the elevators. Vera rode in silence till they were safely inside the "Down" car.

"I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know? Do you think he's dumb enough to have bragged to his friends about that night?" Judy hounded, as she pushed the button for the "Basement." "Did something else happen with you two, that night?"

"He's not dumb Judy," Vera fired back, bypassing Judy's final question.

"Then what about Sam and Jen?" Judy persisted angrily.

Vera liked neither Judy's tone, nor the questions she was asking, yet she silently yielded to the undeniable probability that Samantha had decided to spill the beans; since their relationship had gone south.

"There is no way Jen said anything." Vera replied confidently.

The doors opened to the basement and Judy gave the chair an extra hard shove to get it over the uneven threshold. "I know you told me that nobody saw you that night but how do you know that for sure? Wait a minute... you said Jen wouldn't talk... but what about Sam?" Judy asked as they reached the therapy area.

Inside the physical therapy suite, they were greeted by Marta, Vera's Teutonic, substitute therapy tech, who was joined by a grinning Andromeda Wallace. Vera grabbed the wheel rails, to take control, causing Judy to quickly release the chair's handle, and just as quickly, ending her line of questions.

Judy bent down close to Vera's ear so that others, in the room, might think she was placing a loving kiss on her Stepdaughters temple. She whispered, "This conversation is not over by a long shot Vera McAlister." Judy had a way of making Vera despise the sound of the name they shared. "I'm going out, right now, to find a lawyer." She politely waved good-bye to the others, as she left.

"Hey Ver-Ra!" Andromeda shouted, giving Marta an unexpected jolt.

Vera broke-up at the grimacing face Marta made, at the booming sound of Andromeda's super-sonic greeting. Then, with a speedy, flourishing movement, Andromeda pulled his left hand from behind his back to reveal...

"Ta-da!" he exclaimed.

"It's here."

At first, Vera's eyes only saw the extreme, warmly polished, metallic glow, as the object reflected the institutional, fluorescent lighting. Then, it all began to take shape. The socket, the shank, the foot.

"It's here Girlfriend," Andromeda squealed in a feminine falsetto, which included the obligatory, cheesy, smile."

"We wanted you to use it for today's session," Marta added with a huge, Germanic grin.

Wheeling slowly, over to the couple, Vera dared to imagine how much it would weigh, what sounds it would make, even, what the polyurethane coated foot would smell like. Coasting the final yard, she reached out to take it in her arms.

She was completely startled by the legs overall lightness, while, at the same time, being such a solid structure. She stroked the smooth surface of the instep and tapped the phony nail beds with the tip of her fingernails.

"Can the nails be varnished?" Vera asked, looking directly into Andromeda's beaming face.

"Naturally," He replied.
































Rooney, after tying his shoes together by the laces and slinging them over his shoulder, walked barefooted through the mid-day surf. There were lots of local kids, and tourists, enjoying the beach, besides him, but it didn't relieve the feelings of isolation one iota. The sun was high as he walked south, with his shadow trailing behind him, moving away from the larger congregations of humanity. When waves finally became the dominant sound in his ears, he stopped and faced the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. His eyes remained closed for a time, while he attempted the stupid centering exercises the yoga lady had tried, and failed, to teach in his eighth grade, co-ed gym class. He fondly recalled that the mayhem reached its climax when he and the other guys in his group jumped up and started tipping everyone over as they breathed deeply.

A distant car horn shattered the modicum of concentration he had achieved. This special place was not exclusively his own today and he suddenly couldn't cope with the openness of the space.

Clawing for the laces, he dragged the All-Stars off his shoulder and began swinging them wildly around. He imagined that he looked much the same as the young, shepherd David had when he slayed Goliath. As the shoe swinging grew more wild, and uncontrolled, he was consumed by the image of himself, savagely whirling Vera's Docs over his head at the pool. Having been wasted at the time, he was not recalling a memory, but rather a "Vera's-eye-view" interpretation of how he must have appeared that day, from her perspective. The shock of this vision caused his fingers to lose their hold on the laces, sending his shoes cartwheeling through space, and into the surf.

"Crap," he whispered to himself, at first. "CRAP!"

A small rusty-brown streak wizzed past him on the right, tearing up the sand as it galloped and bounced into the retreating surf. The visual disruption was the work of a pit bull puppy who had accepted the challenge of retrieving the tangled mess of shoes from the waves, in an improbable game of fetch.

"Hey! Wait a minute," Rooney shouted, as the dog splashed about the surf; thrashing the shoes rapidly, back and forth, in its jaws.

"Don't worry Dude. It's cool!" said a young man's voice from behind. "Get over here Hammerhead!"

"Crap," Rooney whispered again. It was becoming a real habit for Eddie Steele to come along just as Rooney was hitting emotional bedrock, and knock him down inconceivably lower. Was this guy stalking him, or something?

Eddie and Samantha Pritzer walked past Rooney. Samantha took off giggling after the now racing puppy, in a game of fetch-turned-tag. Eddie stayed behind.

"She's something isn't she?" Eddie said. "The dog I mean; the four-legged one, I mean."

He turned around to give Rooney a big, innocent grin but the arched eyebrow told the tale. Add "Pig" to Eddie's list of winning personality traits. The old Rooney would have probably laughed at the crack. New Rooney was abjectly repulsed.

Question: How does a punk like Eddie Steele get a girl like that?

Answer: Daddy's money!

"Whatcha been up to lately Rooney," Eddie asked as though he was really hoping to learn something new.


"Oh yeah? Whatcha workin on? A Lid, or a Girl?" he asked, with an encore of the previous grin.

"Cars," he answered, never taking his eyes off of the dog, and its chew toys.

"Really?" Eddie replied with sardonic surprise. After a short pause he repeated, "Really?" curiously, sensing that Rooney was not attempting to pull his leg.


Motioning, with his head, to the parking area, and hoping for more than a one-word answer, Eddie asked, "How do you like my car?"

Rooney knew he was talking about the Mustang convertible but all the same, he took a quick, glance in that direction. "Your old man buy that for you, for being a good boy?" Rooney asked, trying to make the best of this bad situation.

"No," Eddie said slowly, tasting Rooney's sarcasm. "No... I'm working too."

"I can't catch... that idiot dog... of yours," Samantha protested between gasps, as she trotted up, kicking sand on their conversation. Looking at Rooney for the first time she offered a polite, "Hi."

"Whadya expect... with that big butt of yours?" Eddie retorted sharply.

Samantha immediately lowered her eyes, mortified at the delivery of Eddie's brand of "Teasing" in the presence of a virtual stranger. Rooney's teenaged, male eyes landed instantly on Samantha's rear end, covered in bright white, cotton shorts. What the heck was he doing? He joined Samantha in looking down, but couldn't help thinking that Eddie assertion was needlessly cruel, not to mention ridiculously inaccurate.

"HAMMERHEAD! Get your a*s over here NOW!" Eddie shouted, for all to hear, as he walked off, after the errant puppy.

Painfully silent moments filed past.

"Have you seen Vera lately?" Sam asked, tossing the question at Rooney's feet like a live grenade.

He looked up to find that she had regained her composure and, once again, seemed, to him, like the person he had always imagined her to be; a very pretty, and largely unapproachable high school girl. There was some difference though. In contrast to the solitary "Hello" she had given him at the donut shop, she was now, initiating small talk and had even asked him a direct, specific question. It was all very civilized, but there was an absolute sense, buried within her manner, that she was fishing for information. How does she know that I know Vera?

"How long have you and Eddie been going out?" Rooney asked, without warning.

The question took Sam so much by surprise, that Rooney actually saw her blink repeatedly as she considered it.

"Just a few weeks," she answered cautiously. "Why do you ask?"

"No reason," he said, shaking it off.

Sam's posture changed. Her shoulders dropped and she crossed her arms in front of her chest as if she were standing topless in front of a crowd. More silence.

"Not gonna answer my question?" she asked, feeling slighted, once more, by another member of the "Male of the Species" club.

Noticing that Eddie was slowly headed back in their direction, Rooney decided to bend their session at an uncomfortable angle. "I saw her, a couple of days ago. Have you seen Vera lately?" he asked, wondering why Samantha Pritzer should be concerned about how Vera McAlister was doing.

"Here," Eddie said, handing Rooney the soggy, tangled mess of shoes and laces. The wet puppy was tucked tightly under one arm as he stormed past them, and off, toward the car.

Not knowing where to go from here, Sam and Rooney studied each other for long moment, sizing one another up.

"HEY! If you're coming with me then you better move that fat a*s." Eddie shouted angrily, over the shoulder.

More painful embarrassment. In the end it was Sam who was first to blink. She turned from Rooney, walking away very slowly, as a concession to her withering pride.

Eddie burned-up tread and gasoline, peeling out, as they left the lot, heading south, around the bend, and out of sight.

Rooney was, as ever, perplexed at how Samantha Pritzer could stand the company of an a*s-bib like Eddie Steele. He felt that, deep down, he had scored the most total points during this current round of sparring with Eddie. It was an almost satisfying feeling. There was only one thing that would make it better.

"I gotta see her."

Samantha and Eddie had ridden in utter silence since their hasty exit from the beach parking lot, save for the torrents of profanity Eddie sporadically unleashed on his fellow motorists. Her tight-lipped behavior was obviously having the effect on Eddie that Samantha desired. She sat motionless, except for her wildly flying hair, staring straight ahead through black, polarized shades.

Hammerhead the puppy pressed her trembling body more tightly against Sam's ankles with each and every expletive Eddie fired-off. The pitiful creature had been reduced to cowering on the floor of the car. In short order, the untrained animal's fear took on a new, and unpleasant, smell. Looking down, Sam fought off the urge to laugh as she recognized the brown "Special FX" the puppy had produced, and deposited on the sand-covered floor mat. The unqualified synchronicity of events made it possible for Sam to sit there, shoes practically awash in puppy poop, without getting too grossed-out. When Eddie detected the aroma, their tame carnival ride took an intense turn as he wove in and out of traffic, searching for another parking lot to pull into.

When Eddie could no longer stand Sam's silence, he erupted.

"WHAT?" he shouted, darting his eyes Sam's way. Her flinch was imperceptible. This was not the first occasion where she had witnessed one of Eddie Steele's tantrums. She now strongly considered whether today should be the last date, the last drive, the last time.

At the next traffic light, Eddie fiercely, and unexpectedly, elbow-jabbed Samantha's left deltoid.

"Owww!" she cried out.

She grabbed the handle of her door and popped the seatbelt buckle to "Exit the Ride" at the intersection. Hearing the scrape of the loose buckle, Eddie turned to witness Samantha leaning into the door to thrust it open. With the door half open, and her right, lower-leg already stepping out, the light turned green. His driving reflexes were tight and seeing a chance to put the fear of "Eddie" into Samantha, he stomped the gas pedal forcing the lower edge of her door to fall hard upon her bare shin. The acceleration was strong enough to pin her exposed leg for several blocks of travel, until Eddie began to brake for an upcoming turn.

"Wheredaya think yer goin?" he shouted mockingly over squalling tires.

He completed the dangerous right turn into another beachfront lot, and sped to the corner farthest from the main street. Still unbuckled, Samantha had to brace herself between her seatback and the dashboard, as Eddie stood on the brake pedal, upending Hammerhead, and sending the convertible to a lurching stop.

Sam wasted no time shoving her door again. While Eddie seated the gear-shift lever in "PARK", Sam rolled out, onto her feet, and beyond his grasp.

"You better not walk away!" he warned her deridingly.

Her shin throbbed as she gimped north, onto the sands that separated the lot from the street, but it was no use; Eddie closed the gap between them and applied a grip on her arm, just below where his elbow had drilled her. She was caught.

Pride wasn't serving her well these days, but she couldn't simply give in without a struggle.

Gaging her resistance, a fully enraged Eddie Steele spun his "Girlfriend" around to deliver a backhanded slap across Samantha's mouth and nose that stung deeply enough to flood her eyes with tears in an instant.

"I told you," he reprimanded, with calm, self-satisfaction.

Samantha covered her aching face with her hands, and prayed that her sobs remained inaudible to the monster before her. Soon enough, he was once more tugging at her arm in frustration, unveiling the bloody nose and swelling lips.

"C'mon!" he yelled furiously. "We gotta clean up the car!"

Samantha hopped up in front of Eddie spinning inwards to face him as though this were all part of some grand ballroom dance routine. Growling madly, she lifted her leg and deposited a too, too solid knee into the groin of his architecture, then shoved his collapsing mass away from her. The heals of his Sperry's caught on the top of the curb, landing him awkwardly on the hot asphalt.

With globe-like tears still clinging to her lashes, Sam kicked at his now fetal body, trying to reconnect with the animal's soft spots, only managing to bury the toe of her sneaker into the kidneys of her writhing target.

Stumbling back to the car, in shock, Sam reached down, and around the steering wheel, from the driver's side, jerking Eddie's forsaken keys from the ignition. Her first thought was to throw the keys as far out onto the beach as she could but... That would be tres' cliché. Hammerhead was now up on all-fours, standing in the middle of the driver's seat, smeared with her own puppy mess, and ready to play more "Fetch" with Samantha. Looking to Eddie, who oscillated around on the ground between two parking stripes, Sam realized what a theft of valuable time she had allowed Eddie to perpetrate in her life.

Sam Pritzer pulled her over-sized Fiorucci bag from behind the front seat, then, very thoughtfully placed the vintage, Ford Mustang keychain on top of a particularly soft mound of poo, as though she were decorating a cupcake for a birthday celebration.

She paused a moment, to smile upon all she had accomplished, then, took off at a steady limp towards the east, and home.

Most of the sand was off of Rooney's feet by the time he reached Oceanside Surgical Hospital. He came in through a side entrance, which allowed him to bypass the lobby, then popped in near his favorite stairwell. It was even colder now, than before. He had yet to make a serious attempt at unknotting the laces. He was saving that for later.

He remembered to knock this time, as he reached Vera's door.

No answer.

He opened the door a crack and placed only half his face through the opening, noting the darkness of the room.

"Vera? Are you in there?" he whispered loudly.

It was decision time. Should I stay or should I go now? When would Vera return, he wondered? Looking back, he saw the lightly sanded, footprint trail he had left down the hall. Emboldened by his minor victory over Eddie Steele, and the idea that he was practically "Public Enemy No. 1,"Rooney decided to hideout in Vera's room, to wait for her.

Once inside, Rooney's eyes slowly grew accustomed to the darkness. All the room lights were out and the heavy curtains were drawn so that the only illumination came from around the edges of the draperies, and from the small night-light, built in to the bathroom's power outlet.

It was a strange idea that formed in Rooney's head. He was feeling a sort of confidence, which rose to the proportions of cockiness, so he made his way through the darkness, avoiding furniture and hospital machinery, towards the light of the restroom.

Running his hand along the bathroom wall, just inside the door, he found the light switch and lit up the small, institutionally designed room. There were clean folded towels on the wire shelf, by the shower, so he pulled the top one down, setting it on the basin.

It took another moment or so to adjust the hot and cold shower handles to a comfortable temperature, but soon enough, he was standing in the shower stall, rinsing the rest of the beach off his legs and feet. The idea took on a more complete strangeness as he contrived a mental mash-up from the idea of himself standing in Vera McAlister's hospital room shower, and the notion that she had recently lost a leg. Also, that they had both just as recently acquired a taste for each other's company.

He dried himself quickly and folded the towel neatly, leaving it hanging over the top of the shower curtain rod, then went out into the room, and took a seat in Judy's chair. After a minute of relaxing, he realized how freaky it would be to him, and Vera, if she were to returned and find him sitting in the darkened room, so he got up and turned the room lights on. He had not quite reached the chair again, as the door swung open behind him.

"Hey!" a bright voice called out.

He turned round and was greeted by a new, and improved, Vera. As she sat before him in her wheelchair, her smile was bigger and more joyful than any she had previously afforded him. He hoped that the smile was being smiled for him, or because of him.

"Hey," he replied tentatively, continuing to enjoy that smile. Her eyes were locked on his and he couldn't look away from them, or perhaps he didn't want to. Either way, he hadn't noticed yet.

Her smile supernaturally enlarged itself. Finally, when she was about to laugh out loud, she lifted her right knee, with a muffled giggle, attracting Rooney's attention. She felt like a ten year old, inflated with some huge secret.

Wide-eyed, he exclaimed, "You got it. That's it, isn't it?"

She nodded exuberantly.

He wanted, badly, to approach her, to check out her new leg and share in her excitement, to touch her, to hold her, but he was, as yet, still unsure about how things were left with the police. All of those emotions must have been sitting right up on top of his countenance; easily read, and understood by anyone with an ounce of perception.

She nodded gently.

Taking his cue, he began to move forward.

"Hold on," Vera said curiously, as she quickly set the wheel locks.

Rooney froze to the spot.

With the toes of her left foot, she flipped up the left foot rest, and then lifted her right leg to set her new, replacement foot, down on the floor. She steadied herself, gripping the arm rests, and lifting her small mass upright. She stood there, looking down at mismatched feet, and trying to maintain counterpoise with her arms straight out, like a tight-rope walker. Rooney wanted to hold his arms out to catch her, if she started tipping over, but coaxed himself into restraint, remembering that Vera was "Independence" personified.

Five seconds past into eternity, then Vera, leaning on her left foot, swung her right leg forward. It bent at the knee, in mid-air, but snapped back in line before its synthetic sole softly touched down on the tile floor in front of her. Quickly shifting her center of gravity above the appliance, she next, threw her left foot forward. When she was settled, she lifted her head gingerly, staring into Rooney's amazed eyes. Her ultra-smile had returned.

Rooney could not stand still any longer. He raised his hands to provide reinforcement under her outstretched arms, and took a step in her direction. Carrying all of her weight on the left leg again, she bent the knee, and then propelled herself up and onto Rooney's chest wrapping arms and legs, both real and mechanical, around him. He was taken completely by surprise, but managed to contain her in his own arms, rocking back to balance out the load.

She held tightly to his frame like a spider monkey clinging to a large tree branch, and he met the embrace with an approximation of her intensity, fearing he might go too far, but wanting to unleash all that stockpiled emotional energy, merging it with hers.

They held on to each other, for a long, long time, as hugs go. When she finally released his torso and settled again, onto her feet, she looked back at the wheelchair, which elicited a major frown. Grabbing ahold of Rooney's shoulders, she steadied-up on the new leg. Then, with her free foot, she kicked the armrest of the chair, sending it spinning, and rolling into the door with a loud bang. They both recoiled at the unexpected volume of the noise, which served to renew their embrace to its former strength. As Vera tip-toed up, to give Rooney the first of a series of kisses, her substitute limb was lifted completely off the floor.

An unintended giggle escaped from Vera, ending the inaugural kiss awkwardly. She pictured herself, during future snogging sessions, standing on the prosthetic leg, so that she could lift her real foot up, like in the movies. The balance of their exchange of affections was transacted flawlessly.

Resurfacing, to catch a breath, Vera studied Rooney's face. This made him feel a trifle self-conscious so he closed his eyes and held her all the more tightly around the lower waist.

"The Police came to see me today," Vera divulged after a moment.

Rooney's eyes bounced open and he pulled his head back enough to see that she was still studying him. While his natural first instincts were to pull away from this beautiful girl, he chose rather to stay put, and engage.

"I talked to one of them too," he replied.

"One of them?" she inquired.

"A man and a lady were getting off the elevator, on this floor, while I was getting on, but they split up when they recognized me."

"You were already on this floor?" she asked.

"Yeah. I came into your room and everybody was in the bathroom yelling and, oh yeah, what's the story on this guy who grabbed you in there. I think I ran into the dude when I got off the elevator so I was headed after him when the cops cut me off," Rooney stated, full of intensity.

"He didn't grab me. He caught me when I was falling. It was Pepe. I think I kinda scared him when I was laughing." Vera could read on Rooney's face that this was making no sense so she doubled-back and took the other fork. "He didn't do anything wrong, but he got scared, and ran, when Judy and Jenkins... Have you met Jenkins yet? ... Never mind. Anyway, he ran off when they showed up. Everything's fine. I'm fine. Don't worry," Vera explained reassuringly.

"Okay, well anyway, the Dude cop rode back downstairs with me, and then started with the interrogation, once we hit the lobby." Rooney continued.

"What about," she interjected.

"My juvie file, and the break-ins going on around town," he said

"Do you think that's how they recognized you? From your "Mug Shot," I mean?" Vera asked with an ambiguous smile.

"I guess so, but don't you think they were coming here specifically to talk to you?" Rooney asked. "They wouldn't have expected to find me here. I was just bonus material," he said. "Did they ask about me, or anything?"

"It started with the break-ins that have been happening, including the ones while I've been in here. Then my "Lady Cop" switched specifically to Mr. Jorrisch's place. I was just there to save Ginsu and so that's what I explained to her," Vera recounted faithfully.

It may have been a subtle change in Rooney's body language, or perhaps Vera had already planned to mention it next, but she then added, "I didn't tell them about you at all."

Only then did Rooney tumble to the fact that he had been holding his breath throughout her explanation, and had exhaled only after she added the last bit.

"So the Cop never mentioned me?" he asked.

"Oh no, she mentioned you at the end all right. I had told her how I had a friend call the Animal rescue place, to report all the cats. When she was about to leave she asked if it was you."

Vera knew she ought to follow through and tell Rooney of how she refused to mention the caller's name, but a nagging remnant of curiosity forced her to hold back.

"And what did you say?" he asked solemnly.

"I just told her that I didn't want to say."

Rooney paused a moment, unconsciously looking past Vera. In another moment he seemed satisfied with her response, but decided to explore another aspect of the incident, as if he were on a fact-finding expedition.

"How do you think the police connected you and me?" he asked too cleverly.

She immediately picked up on his telegraphing technique, and asked, in a somewhat demanding tone, "Did your cop ask about me?"

Now Rooney felt foolish in ways that could only be produced in the presence of Vera McAlister. He suddenly felt awful for not taking full credit for the break-in, and the cat recovery. He should have guarded Vera from suspicion, he thought.

"At the end he asked if I was coming to see you," he said sheepishly. "I shoulda told em it was me," he sighed, looking down at the ground.

Vera was again grateful to Rooney. His heart was in the right place even if his head was still, sometimes, lagging behind a bit.

"Hey," she said softly, looking past his embarrassment, "I'm gonna need you, ya know? What good would it be, if you got locked up in a detention center?" she said. "The police don't need to know that you were there, okay?"

Her investment of confidence in him, drove Rooney to stand a little taller until he eventually asked, "Who do ya think the fink is?"

Vera inhaled deeply through her nose, to speak, which caused a flaring of her nostrils that Rooney hadn't seen before.

"I hope I'm wrong but... either Sam talked to the Cops, or she told someone else who did," Vera said.

Vera watched Rooney's posture decay again and presently she knew that she would need to justify, or at least explain, her decision to share the story with her friends.

"Sam?" Rooney asked quizzically.

"Yeah. I told her and Jen all about it."

"Who's Sam?" he asked, wanting once, and for all, to know.

"Sam Pritzer!"

"You mean Samantha Pritzer?" he asked, as if he had lost his way in the conversation.

"Yes," she replied, as patiently as possible, recognizing Rooney's indigestion of this fact.

In his formerly "wasted" world, Rooney was never aware that two girls so contrarily positioned on the social scale could have ever become buddies. Samantha Pritzer, the cheerleader, is close friends with Vera McAlister?? Samantha, who just left him on the beach, he thought to himself? That's why she asked if I had seen Vera lately. I'm an idiot, he repeated over and over, in his head.

"I was just with her," Rooney said, in a state of bewilderment."


"Samantha Pritzer."


"Before I came here."

"I thought you were with the police," Vera said quizzically.

"It was after the cops," Rooney replied.


"I was at the beach. I needed to clear some things up in my head."

Suddenly the wheels turned faster and faster, as his thoughts picked up speed, rolling uncontrollably downhill. He was able to see the solution far off in the distance of his mind, but still... it was still completely out of reach.

Vera stood there bearing witness to the internal struggle that had Rooney in its grasp. She felt a bit sorry for him.

"I don't think she likes you much," Vera said, breaking Rooney's concentration.


Vera had no interest in perpetuating the slapstick nature of their discourse. "Sam!" Vera replied tersely. "Lookit, I'm gonna need you to keep up with me here Wilkes."


"That's okay," she answered, quickly showering Rooney with the smile that belonged only to him now.

He pulled her into his chest and dropped a quick peck on the top of her head. She closed her eyes and listened to sounds of his heart; beating for her.

"Did she say she didn't like me?" he asked suddenly. Rooney wasn't truly insulted by the notion because, in these last few weeks of sobriety, he had developed a reasonable picture of how he had appeared to all the "Normals" at school, for all those years. If the cops hadn't been breathing down his neck, he might have even taken the time to think about how surprised all his fellow students were going to be when school resumed.

"I think it's just because she doesn't really know you" Vera replied.

"Or maybe it's because she really does know me," Rooney answered enigmatically. He imagined the sort of negative and faux- fact-filled portrait Eddie Steele would fashioned about him.

"Why were you with her at the beach?" Vera asked, wanting very much to know.

"She was there with someone. Someone I know," he finished reluctantly.

Vera felt as though she was been reduced to the role of the suspicious wife, who feared, but required, all the details.

"Who was Sam with?"

"A guy named Eddie Steele," Rooney answered.

"I've heard the name before."

"Yeah, well... I've seen them around town together a few times before today," Rooney replied, trying (and failing) to sound neutral about Samantha Pritzer's taste in playmates. "He's a real Punk-A*s," he added.

"How do you know him so well?" she asked.

Rooney was resigned not to keep secrets, about his past, from Vera. It was simple matter of finding the right words. "We did some drugs and some crimes together, back in the day."

They studied each other's faces for a moment, absorbing the thoughts and conjectures that oozed out.

"You think Samantha's the one who talked right?" he said.


"Well then it was definitely Eddie who she talked to." Oh, how Rooney hated that guy.

"You guys aren't friends anymore?" Vera asked, semi-sarcastically.

"We never really were friends," Rooney explained. "He could always manage to find trouble for us without looking very hard. I guess I was to mellow for all that. Last I heard his parents had shipped him off to a platinum academy for kids in trouble."

Vera sensed the urgent need to interject a positive plug for her old friend Sam at that moment.

"I'm not trying to make an excuse for Sam but... being that pretty can often attract the wrong kind of people. I don't want you to hate her before get a chance to know the real "Sam."

"For sure," Rooney assented, mostly to stay on Vera's good side.

"Sam still thinks of you the way we all did," Vera said. She knew how uncompassionate her last remark must have sounded, coming right out of the chute as it had. "You've changed," she said triumphantly, lifting her head up again to meet Rooney's eyes. "I'm proud of you."

His cheeks filled with warm blood instantly. The remaining debris that cluttered his stream of consciousness had diverted him once more on to a tangent. He then requested a piece of information that had intrigued him for weeks.

"What's your middle name McAlister?" he inquired in an official sounding voice.

"Lynn?" she answered with the inquisitional raising of one eyebrow.

"Is it a family name or something?" he asked. Then, suddenly remembering her parental mortality statistics, he wished he could retract the question. What if that's her Mom's name, he thought to himself, feeling idiotic all over again.

"You know Pink Floyd, right?" she asked, rife of assumption.

"I've smoked to much weed not to know the "Floyd". Why?"

"It's a song from "The Wall," she said. "You do know "The Wall" don't you?" Her look was playfully smug.

"Oh sure. That kind of music was always playing around the house when I was a kid. I just never bothered to learn the names of the songs. Vera... Lynn... McAlister," he recited precisely, trying the full name out for the first time.

"Well anyway, they were my Dad's favorite band. He saw them in concert like a million times, or something," she expounded. So that's where my name comes from," she concluded simply.

"I'm sure I've heard the song before. I'm gonna go check it out," he said, "I have an aunt named Lynn," he added.

"I know," she replied with an overweening layer of authority.

Rooney was served another embarrassing reminder of his years of self-inflicted brain cell damaging to his memory banks. He had obviously spoken with Vera about his Aunt before, but he couldn't, for the life of him, remember the time, place or circumstances.

"How do you know?" he ventured.

"It's in your wallet."

Still clueless, but eager to take the bait, he pulled the homemade wallet from his hip pocket, flipped it open, and handed it to her.

"Where?" he said.

Locating the surf shop, gift card Rooney had used as a pass key on the night of their "Big Crime Spree", Vera turned it over and pointed to the bottom.

"FROM: Aunt Lynn," he read with amazement. How? How does she do it, he wondered?

"And yours Wilkes?" she gently demanded.

"My what?" he asked innocently.

"What's your middle name Rooney?" she said, with an implied "Duh?"

"Oh. Sorry. It's "James" after my Mom's Dad. My Grandpa."

"Rooney... James... Wilkes," she said, imitating Rooney's cadence. All the while she was thinking, "Mr. and Mrs. Rooney James Wilkes," and or, "Vera Lynn Wilkes."

In the absence of anymore small talk, Vera experienced the proverbial "Butterflies in the Stomach." Rooney was sensing it, and for his own part, feeling stiff and stilted.

"I want to kiss some more," he blurted out, in another graceless moment. She gonna think I'm a jerk, he imagined. "Can I kiss you," he corrected, seconds later.

Her lids slowly shut, but this time, Vera did not stretch up to meet him. Rooney could tell what she was thinking. After all, wasn't it fair that he should do the bending this time, especially if he expected to receive the requested prize?

He did move, and from the very beginning this kiss was startlingly different. Like all the guys in his skating/surfing circle, Rooney had made-out with plenty of girls at parties, and in darkened bedrooms, or garages, where no one bothers to remember anyone else's names so long as there's beer, or pot, within reach. Vera's lips were not the sun-chapped lips of some "Surfer girl or Skate groupie" hustling whichever dude caught the biggest air or pulled the highest "Ollie" of the day. These were, Rooney realized, the soft, inexperienced lips of "a fearless girl worth changing his entire life for.




























At 10:00 pm Vera was stretched out on the bed, in her darkened hospital room, her new leg propped up on the nightstand beside her, getting lost in a serious review of the day's events. The T.V. was on, and the end credits, theme  for "Route 66" was just beginning, although Vera couldn't have heard it with her ear buds deeply installed and blasting "Helium Bar" from the MP3 player resting beside her.

She considered anew, her decision to leave Rooney out of her detailed discussion with Detective Kulp. She'd convinced herself, at the time of the interview, that she could survive any backlash to the unlawful entry of the late Mr. Jorrisch's home. After all, if the police were to arrest her, she would, no doubt, walk away with a warning, when they considered the fact that she had asked a "friend" to call Animal Control, which led to the discovery of the deceased.

With eyes closed she recalled the way the old man looked, laying without movement, on top of the bed. She could remember, in fragments, the pieces of a broken table lamp (?) scattered across the dusty, hardwood floor as the flashlight skimmed across them. Vera imagined that she could recognize the long, straight, bottom end of a black, wooden cane protruding from under the bed, amongst the shattered chunks of ceramic, and the busted electrical lamp parts. Had she really seen a cane that night? Who could say?

Bright, rapidly changing scenes on television, splashed harshly upon her closed lids, derailing her memory-jogging session. She raised a hand out in front of her face to block out the flickering barrage that is the "Magnum P.I." intro.

All, the assorted stimulus was burning up the last of Vera's waking attention, yet, she still managed to perceive, on the right edge of her peripheral panorama, a small, red light pulsating every few seconds. It blipped in synchronization with Budgie's snapping snare, at the start of "Christine."

Diverting her attentions from the direct line of fire spilling off the T.V. set, Vera waited for eyes to adjust to the small, red point of focus. Calling on her mental reserves, Vera came to see that it was the voicemail indicator light on the phone. She had missed a call, or calls, while her playlist pounded away in her tired head. Pulling the plug on the tunes, Vera picked up the phone's receiver and dialed her room number to access the messages. The automated female voice advised her to "Press the Pound Button to hear two new messages." Vera did as she was told.

"Message One... Beep!"

"Vera, I am so sorry I never made it back tonight." Judy's sweetest southern lilt filled the earpiece with contrite apologies. "But let me tell you. I've had quite an eventful day, Girlfriend."

(Cringe #1)

"I'm sure you could tell I was more than a little upset this morning. Anyway, I spoke to a lawyer that I met through work, and he thinks you probably won't really get into any kind of serious trouble. Don't worry; I didn't mention Rooney to him. Then, after I got done with him, I spent an enlightening half hour talking to Mrs. Wilkes. Ya know; Rooney's Mother.

(Cringe #2)

"I feel sorry for that Boyfriend of yours."

(Cringe #3)

"That lady is nuts. I'll see you tomorrow. Good night Hon."

At the end, Vera pressed "*D", per the VMX auto-instructions, to happily delete Judy's message. Vera, in her currently hazy frame of mind, didn't much care for the lady's pre-recorded voice. It sounded too much like Julia Roberts with tonsillitis which was exactly how Julia Roberts sounded to Vera all the time. In that moment, Vera believed, that upon reaching full, vocal maturity, she could easily secure a job recording automated scripts for various company's "push-button" phone menus.

"Message Two... Beep!"

"Vera?" the weepy young lady's voice began. "I'm sorry. I'm ... so, so... sorry." Sobs punctuated every other word. "Please... forgive me," the caller whined. "I... miss... you," could be heard through the receiver, followed by the sounds of a sniffling nose, and then, the click of disconnection.

Vera didn't have to waste much thought deciphering who the caller was. There was, however, something rather Un-Sam-like in the way that some of the words were pronounced; a sort of speech impediment caused by something other than stuffy sinuses. Then there was the crying. Vera had never heard Sam cry. No one ever had.

Vera wanted to call back, right then and there, to tell Sam that everything was cool and that she loved her very much, but it was late and Vera needed to sleep on it. She dropped the handset, turned off the television, and focused on the long, linear shadows cast by the window's mini-blinds, as they swept across the ceiling, painted+ to the street lights outside. As she counted the contrasting stripes (who needs sheep?) top to bottom, and bottom to top, she fell out of consciousness.


In the morning, as she opened her sleepy eyes to dawn's early light, she found Robert Smith, guitar in hand, standing guard across the ceiling. Who snuck in while I was asleep and hung up my poster, she mused?

Looking over the side of the bed, at her new, stainless extremity, she noted that it stood more erect now than when she had seen it the night before, and what's more, it was standing not on the hospital's nightstand, but rather, on her own nightstand from home. "Who's the wiseguy?" she asked herself out loud. The bedclothes, as she now realized, were also from her bedroom. She let her gaze travel down the length of the comforter, to the foot of the bed, where a fully grown black leopard lay curled and purring deeply with a bass rattle like the temperamental tailpipes of an old muscle car.

"Ginsu," Vera called out with a smile of recognition.

The jungle cat raised its bowling ball-sized head and emitted a tiny and familiar cry from the partially opened mouth.


It sounded to Vera as though the cry had come from the very depths of the beast's core and picked up a strange resonance as it swirled around the throat cavity.

"Are you inside there?" she asked, straining hard to see past the leopard's saliva moistened fangs.

"Do you like my costume?" the tiny female voice inquired, with an echoey buzz like a child speaking through a cardboard, paper towel tube.

"I worked all summer long, saving up for it."

"It looks so real," Vera told the hidden kitten.

"It's just as real as your leg."

Vera laughed and puzzled over which leg of hers, Ginsu was speaking about. She found herself mesmerized by the costume's sparkling glass eyeballs.

"What do you think of my boots?" the cat asked.

Vera watched as the curled-up, costumed cat extended all of its legs in a yawning stretch. At the end of each leg was a paw, encased in a child-sized Doc Marten boot.

"You know I love them," Vera replied cheerfully.

Pulling her living leg from beneath the sheets and blankets, Vera revealed to her pet, that she also now wore an identical boot. She reached over for the artificial limb and saw that its false toenails were now freshly painted a vivid, unearthly red and that the foot was now outfitted with a light blue, disposable, pedicure flip-flop.

"It's time to go now Vera," the cat informed her.

Once she had slipped the leg on, Vera stood up and was immediately thrown off balance by the uneven soles of her asymmetrical footwear. The oversized, costumed kitten suddenly leaped onto the seat of the waiting wheelchair, parked at the end of the bed. Vera fell in laboriously behind the chair, hobbling it across the room, and out the door.

Outside, they stood in the blinding light of noonday. Before them lay the stalls, and wet pavement, of the "You Do It" car wash. The eyes of both Vera, and her Jungle companion were now inexplicably shaded by black Ray-Ban Wayfarers, though neither of them acknowledged the sudden accessory addition.

Vera leaned over and solemnly whispered into Ginsu's phony, but lifelike, ear, "Do you remember this place?"

The great, fury skull moved up and down in affirmation.

A white, Lexus sedan, which pulsated with a deep, thumping, bass booster, was parked inside the center washing bay. When both driver and passenger doors opened simultaneously, the previously muffled sound materialized audibly as the Costa Del Mar High School fight song. Presently, emerging from each side of the vehicle, cheerleaders Tanya, and Terrie popped out in full "Pom Squad" regalia. Their statuesque forms stood silent and motionless until the "downbeat." Then, in unison...


A fair amount of eye rolling went on behind Vera's shades. If it wasn't so childish it might have passed for "silly", she thought. She tapped Ginsu on the shoulder signaling the cat to issue a "Cease and Desist" order to the school spirited Fembots. Four sets of un-shoed pads soundlessly hit the damp concrete, as the costumed beast dropped from the wheelchair. Following a rather animatronic-looking opening of the leopard's jaws, a roar was released from hidden speakers inside the mouth area, which sent blue and white tassels blowing from Tanya's and Terrie's pom-poms, like a child blowing parachute seeds from a Dandelion. In the end, the girls were left holding only the plastic handles. Then, the deafening strains of martial music abruptly ended. Being quite pleased, Vera patted the soft, black feline head.

"Well done," she declared, with a punitive grin.

The new silence was broken by the "Clank!" of metal striking the pavement by Vera's pseudo-foot. Looking down to investigate the noise, she was startled to discover that a large bearing casing, from her prosthetic knee joint, had broken loose and fallen out onto the asphalt. Vera could no longer bend the knee of her brand new leg.

Ginsu, now focusing on the broken piece from Vera's knee joint, nudged the liberated part with her masquerade nose. That first surprise was quickly bested, a second later, when Vera's freshly painted, synthetic toes began to wiggle and stretch. There was nothing for Vera to do but stand there, speechlessly gawking at the involuntary movements of her self-directed digits. In that moment, Vera was convinced that the malfunction of the limb was most likely due to the harsh treatment she had dealt her antagonists, and she was sorrowfully swamped with shame.

"There's always an adjustment period," the tiny, kitten voice counseled reassuringly, from inside its fury facade.

At 2:30 am, Rooney was still working away at the cleaning and rebuilding of a Zenith-Stromberg carburetor, illuminated only by a single tube, fluorescent lamp, clamped to the end of the bench. An old mix CD, featuring songs by various Reggae and House Music groups echoed off the darkened, cinder block walls of his Uncle Tommy's import repair shop.

Burdened with the knowledge that the start of school was only about a week away, Rooney worked feverishly to complete the task he had set out for himself. Tommy had all of the required tools and manuals and had donated about twenty-five percent of the required parts. The rest Rooney acquired through barter, by working, during the day, for his Uncle. Rooney kept any tips he might periodically receive, in a special pocket of his wallet that he dubbed the "Ginsu Feeding Fund."

As he sat hunched over the carburetor housing, buffing off the last remaining bit of an old gasket with an emery cloth, Peter Tosh's "Bush Doctor" began to play. When the lyrics "Legalize Marijuana Right Here in Jamaica" bounced their way around the room, Rooney wrestled internally with whether or not he should get up from his stool, cross the shop, and advance the disc to the next song. He really had changed. The question of legalizing his previously favorite smoking material had never been of paramount concern to Rooney simply because it was so easy to obtain, despite its lowly status in the "Halls of Justice." Now that he had become a self-described ex-smoker, the issue, for him, took on a whole new "Moral" complexion. His final answer: Let the song play because it had always been a good "Jam." It played and he worked.

By 3:15 his eyelids needed prop stands and his attention span was shorter than his drooping lashes. Rooney Wilkes lethargically pried his fingers from around the carb housing and let go of the emery cloth. Then, turning the bench lamp off, he felt his way over to the stereo to turn the volume down to an acceptable level for sleeping. Finally, it was onward to the old, "cracked and taped" green, Naugahyde sofa in Tommy's office. Rooney reckoned he needed just two, or three hours of shut-eye before the shop opened for the day. Making it to horizontal, he realized he should have washed up, before laying down, but... oh well.

Sprawled out on the marginally supportive surface, with exposed springs mercilessly poking his hips and back, Rooney wondered, for the first time in years, whether his parents had any actual concerns regarding his whereabouts at this time of night. He reckoned just how sad it was to have to wonder about it, but he couldn't make the breakthrough toward grieving the loss of a close, familial relationship that he had never actually had.

Bright and early, the next morning, Judy arrived at the hospital bearing gifts. She was all smiles and good cheer upon entering Vera's room, armed with a drink carrier in her right hand, which held three Grande Cappuccinos (one for Jenkins) and a bag with two chocolate covered, Bavarian Cream-filled Bismarcks, in her left.

Vera was up and moving spryly around the room, practicing her smoothest gait, with the help of her new leg. Judy was halted, in her tracks, at the sight of Vera's shiny, new appliance, in-play.

Seeing her Step-Mom, Vera paused, and pivoted her new foot to point the toes in Judy's direction.

"The toes don't actually move," she said, remembering the dream, "But, I can paint the nails any color I want."

"Super," Judy replied, setting the snacks down on the bed tray.

Snatching the bag, Vera wasted no time in filling her gob with sweet treats.

"Mmmmmm," she moaned with epicurean ecstasy. "Want the other one?" she said, after squirreling away the huge bite, into her cheek, to enunciate more clearly.

"No thank you," Judy answered from her chair. "I can't believe how well you can already get around on that thing."

Vera smacked and smiled.

"Oh, did you get my message?" Judy asked.

A solemn frown instantaneously, wet-blanketed Vera's face, in reaction to the question. She swallowed hard to force the oversized bite of Bismarck, downward.

"He's not my BOYFRIEND," Vera stated emphatically.

"Well, what would you call him then?"

"I don't know yet, but you're not allowed to call him anything but Rooney," Vera retorted, with mild annoyance.

Judy mugged an angry pout and stuck her tongue out at her sulking Step-child.

"Oh... so let me tell you about Rooney's Mother," Judy said, quickly regrouping.

Vera preempted Judy's tale with a question, "Why did you want to talk to his parents?"

"After our visit from the Police, I just needed to get a little parental perspective on the situation. I thought they might know something that would be useful. And also," she said, "I didn't want them to get the wrong impression about our little family."

Vera was not certain that she could stomach Judy's anecdote, but finally, she leaned against the bed, took another gooey bite, and nodded, giving Judy the "Green Light" to continue.

"Well, when I got there I had no idea what to expect, as you can imagine. When Suzy, Mrs. Wilkes, opened the door..."

"Wait... how did you know where they live?" Vera interrupted.

"I called Jennifer of course. I think she looked it up on the computer or something. I don't know. Anyway, I could hear some kind of sitar music playing in the background. It was weird. So I introduced myself as the mother of her son's friend and started telling her about your accident. Now I didn't tell her that Rooney was there that night so don't worry. I just mentioned that he helped take care of the cat, and how grateful we both were. Well, about that time I brought up our Police visitation yesterday morning and she kind of perked up. That's when she invited me in."

Vera would have to admit that, at this point, she had been drawn into the saga, but still wondered if mentioning the police to Rooney's Mother was a wise decision.

"The place was nice enough. Smaller than our place though. It was clean, but I had to catch myself when I almost started to gag on that God-awful incense she was burning."

Vera's brows furrowed at the thought of it.

"She takes me into the sitting room and there's this big painting on an easel,' Judy laughs. "It's this guy in a turban and robes. So I guess she sees me looking at it and decides to tell me all about how he's some kind of great spiritual leader and guide."

"What did you say?" Vera asked.

"Nothing. I just sat there nodding a lot. Ten minutes later I had heard all about the drug parties, and orgies, and her many suicide attempts. All of it, until she, and her husband, finally reached out and made contact with "The Master."

Vera appeared to be stunned, which Judy understood to be quite an achievement. Vera couldn't fathom what it must have been like, for Rooney, living through such a "Jekyll and Hyde" adolescence. She was even momentarily concerned about the extent to which Rooney's total, life reversal could be tied into his Mom and Dad's kooky spiritual exploits.

"So she wants me to tell her every detail about Detective Kulp's visit," Judy continued, "so I told her how Kulp had asked you about Rooney, and Girl... you should have seen her face light up. She actually looked pleased that the Cops might suspect her son of burglary and murder."

"What did she say?" Vera asked eagerly, now that the suspense was cresting.

"Surprisingly, she started out telling me about Rooney's drug use and then moved on over to his juvenile record. Did you know about his using drugs?" Judy inquired gravely. Suddenly the humor of her story was curtailed.

"As far as I know it was just pot and everybody at school knew about it," Vera answered definitively.

"And I guess you also knew about his arrests for breaking and entering a few years back, huh?"

"I told you. We'd all heard about Rooney Wilkes. Why do you think I picked him to help me get into the house to save Ginsu?" Vera replied a little too smugly.

"Don't get sassy Vera," Judy warned. "You could still be in some serious trouble over this. Now, how do you feel about Rooney and the grass?"

"That's his business," she replied, sensing instantly that it was the wrong answer.

"Have you smoked it with him?" Judy asked in a more demanding tone.

It was all starting to sound too much like a "Just Say No to Drugs" assembly at school, and Vera wanted the questions to end, so Judy could finish her story. But, she sensed that her legal guardian felt the need to take a position on the exposed situation.

"I don't take drugs. Well, I took your pain pills for my leg, but, I don't "DO" drugs," Vera stated firmly, throwing her hands in the air, and clawing at the empty space with index and middle fingers, in a symbolic quotation.

Judy nodded and seemed to accept Vera's profession as "Truth", but, then turned on a dime and asked, "So why did you think it was okay to ask some poor, stoner kid to help you break the law? I mean what if you'd gotten caught? With his record... what did you think was going to happen to him, or didn't you care? After all, everybody knows he's just a loser anyway?"

Vera did not want her Step-Mom to witness a breakdown, but Judy was laying it out in exactly the same way Vera's own Mother had done after catching Vera setting fire to assorted finger paintings that she had tacked up on the stockade fence separating the McAlister's back yard from Mr. and Mrs. Rand's back yard.

Guilt and consequence can be powerful motivators, and Vera had no argument to combat the simple, irrefutable logic of it. Judy had just graduated her "crash-course" in parenting.

"You're right," Vera finally admitted, softly. "I didn't want to think of him as a person. I just needed him to be a tool that I could borrow to complete my mission," she said. But afterward, when I was hurt and needed help with Ginsu, he kinda morphed into this actual person that I never knew existed," Vera said hopefully.

She prepared herself for "And what do you think your Dad would have had to say about all this?" but thankfully, that never surfaced, and the tensions within the room receded.

Judy nodded slowly, and in time gave Vera an encouraging, little smile.

"Did Rooney's Mom say anything else that I should know about?" Vera asked, cautiously.

"Oh yeah... I forgot. She told me that she'd be praying for us both , but specifically that you'd get away from her son before you got into serious trouble, and then she invited me to one of their B'hai meetings," Judy answered with a snicker.

A tide had turned inside that small hospital room, which swept away, in its wake, the brick and mortar barrier that had separated two women. Now they had to face each other without fearing the exchange.

"I like him a whole lot Judy," Vera suddenly confessed.

Judy couldn't help but be pleased with Vera's frankness at this threshold moment, and was careful not to trample Vera's newly invested confidence, under foot. After reviewing several possible responses Judy McAlister decided that simplicity was often best received.

"I like him too," Judy said, stepping over and placing an arm around Vera's shoulders. "I need to tell you something that I wish my mama had told me at your age."

Judy began cautiously. She felt a genuine concern that she might be placing too great an emotional weight on the tentative "Rope Bridge" that was strung up between herself and her "Daughter." Deciding that the time was "Now", Judy proceeded.

"Before your Dad and I met, I had a long, unbroken string of boyfriends, trailing all the way back to the third grade."

Vera's eyes widened.

"When I got tired of a boy I was with, I simply traded-up. Whoever seemed most interesting at the moment; that's who I "needed" to be with. I can say honestly, that I have gathered some very fond memories along the way, but mostly... it's just a lot of shallow, self-centered behavior on my part. I had myself convinced that I needed to have someone in my life, at all times, to admire me"

Noting the shake of emotion in Judy's voice, Vera returned Judy's hug.

"Ya know... I still have a keepsake box full of all the I.D. bracelets, necklaces, and rings that I collected over the years. There's even varsity letter jacket I got from some guy. I have no idea who," Judy proceeded. "I can't remember half of the boy's names anymore, and I doubt that they have any especially fond memories of me."

She paused and cupped Vera's face in to her hands. "What I need you to hear is that it's okay for you to like Rooney, but remember that your life goes on way longer than the few years you're in High School. Next, there'll be college and a career. So don't fall into the trap of believing that your life's value comes from being with somebody all the time. I," She paused again.

"Your Dad... and Mom, and I... We all only want what's best for you." A tear drop, holding on to the end of Judy's nose for as long as it could, finally released itself, and disappeared.
















  - Two -



         "While true beauty reads between the lines, glamour remains illiterate."


























It had become the "End-of-Summer" tradition, with Rooney and the "High Guys, to show up on "Schedule pick-up day", fashionably late, and "Turnt Up." The reverie always started with everyone meeting at Charlie King's place (sometime around noon) after his old lady had gone to work. Their drink of choice; "Busted Screw Drivers," made from his Mother's "Jug-O-Smirnoff", direct from the freezer, and poorly hidden behind an old bag of Potatoes O'Brien. The 80 proof liquid was added liberally to the ubiquitous supply of Sunny D, found in the fridge. Since none of the guys were true alcohol connoisseurs, they each chugged the mixture hastily, often sucking it through straws, to achieve the quickest buzz effect. If Naomi, Charlie King's sister, had any weed left in her Bandolino shoe box stash, the boys would roll the odd spliff to share as they shuffled off to the school.

By the time they made it to the school grounds their mouths were crammed with breath mints, or cinnamon gum, to camouflage the smell of under-age drinking and whatever. Rather than immediately merging with the masses, who stood in line for class schedules, or I.D. pictures, Rooney's conclave preferred to keep its distance and simply lean against the wall in "The Round", which would become the central meeting place for all students, once classes had resumed.

They stood and watched humanity on parade. If they saw a fellow student, who was recognized from the "Smoke Hole", they would ascend from their cloud for a casual salutation. Beyond that, there was nothing more than a bunch of stoned snickering. By the end of the day, there would be no real memories of the events that transpired.

This year was different. Surprisingly, Rooney felt no particle of disloyalty in what he was about to do, once he finished brushing his teeth at the sink, in the Men's Room of Tommy's garage. His decision to abandon the rites and rituals of his past-life seemed ever so reasonable as he put his faith in a bright, new future.

This summer had obviously changed so much for so many. In keeping with the change, Rooney asked his Uncle for the morning off, to travel to his local institution of public learning, and perform his due diligence. He wanted, very badly, to attend in the company of Vera Lynn McAlister, but, since that was not an available option, Rooney reckoned instead, to go early and alone, avoiding a ton of questions.

On the way, Rooney stopped off at "Scalps", the small barber shop across the street from Tommy's garage, to indulge in a boyhood custom. Taking his place in Gus Large-Oak's vacant chair, Rooney swallowed hard, as he began to instruct the Barber in the removal of approximately seven inches of his sun-bleached mane, to be taken off the back and sides.

"You sure about this?" the Philosopher-Barber asked, in a tone of greater wisdom. The veteran stylist had learned to anticipate the onset of "Barber's Remorse" once the haircut had crossed the Rubicon.

Gus worked him over with electric clippers; using a comb for flipping the shag up so the trimmers could slice, from underneath, as it fell. Rooney kept his eyes closed throughout. He wanted to experience the same surprise that Vera would be receiving.

At the end came Rooney's favorite bit. While a hot, moist towel lay around the back of Rooney's neck, he was treated to the memorably mechanical rhythm of Gus dragging "Old No.2" (No.1 was reserved for beards) up and down the tanned leather strop. When Gus was satisfied with the straight razor's edge, he drew off a white, billowy mound of heated shaving cream, from the dispenser, into his palm. Next, the towel on Rooney's neck was discarded, into a bucket on the floor, and with the lightest of touches, Gus applied the foam to the back of Rooney's neck and behind the ears. Rooney enjoyed the paradox of the cooling menthol bursting forth from within the heated cream.

Soon, Gus was at work once more, surgically peeling the fuzz from the peach, and eliminating any strays along the way. When it was finished, and Gus had wiped away all remnants of the operation, he spun the chair to face the large mirror, on the wall, behind the chair. This was Rooney's cue to open his eyes. In a summer full of changes this was without a doubt the perfect haircut. After a dusting of sweet talc, and the removal of the cape, Rooney, as he had seen his Uncle do many times before, tipped the artisan handsomely.

Stepping through the doors of Costa Del Mar High, under the influence of sobriety, was a "Sensory Overload." So this is what the place was like outside of his usual marijuana and alcohol induced fog. Rooney was forced to consider the damage he had done to his GPA over the last three years. From a conversation about the classes, they each hated the most (which was honestly more of a "monologue" on Vera's part since Rooney hated all of his classes) Rooney knew that Vera was sitting comfortably at a 3.7 average. Rooney wasn't completely confident that he understood the specific math skills needed to figure out a grade-point average.

All he knew for sure was that the Gods of Reasonable Learning must have been smiling favorably upon him, because, despite his slew of "Ds", he had never been forced into any summer classes. In his heart he had accepted that the "Ds" represented a conspiratorial attempt, by the faculty, to ensure that he would not remain at Costa Del Mar High one minute longer than the law legally required. The one and only class he was really hoping to get into, this term, was Auto Shop. All else would simply be part of the necessary evils, which American teens were required to suffer through, in pursuit of a diploma.

For a moment, as he crossed the threshold, Rooney entertained the notion of dropping by, unannounced, into his counselor, Mrs. Orleans's office. He wondered whether a preemptive strike, for the purposes of discussing options and strategies, might be received as a sign of good-faith, on his part. Seeing the name plate on her door prompted a change of heart, and he decided that baby steps were called for at the moment. Just get in and get out, he thought.

Drifting away from the administration offices, he approached the table marked "Senior N-Z", and joined the queue. His spirit was filled with trepidation till he noticed Mrs. Pinkerton, the Art instructor, and arguably his favorite person on the entire campus, seated on the far side of the table, checking off the names of those who had already picked up their schedules and locker assignments.

He caught the teacher's eye, by chance, as she looked up from her clipboard, and past the Sommers twins, Tara and Tim, who were in line just ahead of him. Miraculously recognizing him through his "average teenager" disguise, she gave him a subtle smile of approval. Having such a new and limited ability to anticipate the actions of others, he wasn't really certain that her smile was for him. He turned around to see if there might be anyone, about his height, who Mrs. Pinkerton could have been signaling. There was only one other person in line behind him, however, Samantha Pritzer was not nearly tall enough. His lower jaw drawing up tight with tension, Rooney was now bookended by dilemma.

The Sommers siblings had entered into a debate, with the art teacher, on the pros and cons of "Second lunch period" and its detrimentally influential effects on Swim Team practice during seventh hour, so... Rooney opted to break the ice and get apologies out of the way.

"Hey," he said cordially, after turning again to face Sam.

"Hi," she replied quietly, and even more unusually, from just one corner of her mouth.

Rooney could see that the unused side of her mouth was puffed up and covered liberally with makeup. What happened since I saw her yesterday, he wondered? That is none of your business, his inner voice advised him.

"I wasn't very nice the other day. I'm sorry," Rooney said, trying not to get caught looking at her mouth.

"Forget it," she answered shortly, but surprisingly sweet.

It was one of those uncomfortable moments when two people, standing by each other, spend all their time wondering what the person beside them thinks of them, rather than talking it out. While he hoped that his presence wasn't making her uncomfortable, because of the fat lip, Rooney couldn't help but imagine Samantha's dread of the class I.D. photo that would soon be taken. Maybe she'll get a retake later, he thought.

As the twins continued to probe Mrs. Pinkerton on all the down-line, domino effects of rearranging their entire schedules to get first lunch, the name "McAlister" pricked Rooney's ears. It came from the line, formed in front of the "A-M" table.

"Can you believe she was breaking into houses for drug money? That's when it happened. She was trapped in the house with the dead body and like a thousand cats. Whoever her accomplice is, killed the old guy and left McAlister in there, all busted up," Arthur Garcia said, in an overly loud whisper, to his orchestra mate, Patrice Garrett.

"I heard they went ahead and replaced both of her legs with robotic ones," Patrice said.

"Vera McAlister: Bionic Freak," Arthur stated, engaging a lame version of a T.V. announcer's voice.

"HEY!" Rooney hollered sharply at the offenders.

Samantha had heard them as well and fell right in behind Rooney. "Don't say another word about her," she added, with blood in her eyes.

"Rooney?" Mrs. Pinkerton called. "Rooney?" she repeated, adding a bit of volume the second time.

The Twins had moved on to the Photo I.D. table without Rooney's realizing it. He stepped up as Samantha was nailing down final dirty looks in the direction of the idle gossip mongers.

"Where's your usual Entourage?" asked the Art teacher.

Smiling an embarrassed smile, he replied, "It's been a weird summer, Mrs. Pinkerton."

"Well I'm sure it will all turn out according to God's purposes," she said confidently.

Rooney was totally unsure "What" and "How Much" Mrs. Pinkerton knew but she always seemed to know and understand everything. He and everyone else at school knew she was a Christian, but nobody ever seemed offended when she made those kinds of comments, which for California, was almost unthinkably weird.

"Here's your schedule Rooney, and I'm going to need last year's I.D. badge," Mrs. Pinkerton advised.

Rooney pulled out the skillfully crafted, duct tape wallet, from his hip pocket, and fished around for the expired I.D. Sam, having dropped her guard after teaming-up in defense Vera's, was standing practically at Rooney's side, overseeing the hunting process. He pulled out everything that was stuffed in the left, inside pouch, and flipped through a variety of photos, his driver's license, and the gift card from his Aunt Lynn (like Vera Lynn) which was right on top, with her upside-down name facing forward.

No luck. He shoved the lot back into the pouch with the words "To: Rooney" peeking out, over the top. In the right slip, his out-of-date photo card was the first item in the pile. Rooney winced at the greasy, stringy, hair and the Chinese eyes.

Sam, who was now taking an inordinate interest in the I.D. photo, asked, "Has Vera seen the "New" you yet?"

"No," Rooney answered, nervously running his fingers through is bangs. "I got it done before I came here."

Rooney handed the badge to Mrs. Pinkerton, then, set his wallet on the edge of the table to begin folding the three-paged, orange schedule. He quickly grew frustrated with trying to manipulate the pages in front an audience, and ended up with a non-uniform, loosely creased mess that he shoved into his left front pocket, while the junior class, volunteer photo dude yelled out, "Next!" for the third time.

"I'm coming!" Rooney called back. "Thanks, Mrs. Pinkerton," he said, returning her smile.

Walking over, he dropped the student information card off with the picture guy. He seated himself in front of the light blue beach towel, which acted as the photo backdrop, then looked back at Samantha.

"Look straight ahead!" the photo dude warned.

"Hang on," Rooney replied, in frustration. "Samantha I need to talk to you when you're done."

"Look straight into the lens," the kid instructed gruffly, pointing to the tiny camera mounted on the upper edge of the laptop being used to create the badges.

"Okay," trickled from Sam's handicapped mouth.

"Look up here!" the kid demanded.

Rooney turned back toward the "photographer", his face full of angst, just in time for the "Click."


"Is everything alright Samantha?" Mrs. Pinkerton asked with concern, as she got her first real look at Sam's misshapen mouth. The teacher knew Samantha Pritzer to be a solid student, and not at all prone to dubious associations (if you didn't count Vera) so despite her soft-spot for Rooney Wilkes, she found herself momentarily questioning Sam's acquaintance with a known drug user.

"I'm fine, thank you," Sam answered, as she nervously rolled her orange schedule into a tight tube. "I'm just..."

"Okay," Mrs. Pinkerton said, acknowledging Sam's reticence. "Well, I'll see you around school then. Come by my room to say hello anytime. God bless you."

Ela Penfield was already pressing her way, from behind, and up to the table, so Sam improvised a crooked smile for the teacher, then made her way to where Rooney waited for his new "Senior Year" identification badge.


"I'll be back in a second," Sam advised, as she moved towards the stool, in front of the beach towel. It would have been easy for anyone to detect Samantha's rigid posture, once she had seated herself. Rooney was struck by the idea that any pictures of Samantha that he might have seen in the past, like in the yearbook, for instance, would have shown a very relaxed, happy, and naturally photogenic girl. Where was that girl now, he wondered?

"Look into the lens," the disgruntled image technician sighed.

Impulsively Rooney called out, "Smile Sam!" with a big fake grin on his face. It worked. Rooney's winsome expression made its way across Sam's face. At least now she wouldn't look like some random victim of domestic violence.


"Well, how bad was it?" she asked, reaching Rooney's side once more.

"I think it'll be good," he replied, feigning reassurance.

"Here you go," said the nondescript, female, badge printing specialist from the budding sophomore class, as she handed Rooney the "freshly minted" portrait of his inner soul.

Peeking around his elbow, Sam let out a hysterical blast, "Ha!"

"Great," Rooney sighed. His flash-blasted face showed, in some detail, his recent state of perturbation.

"It's still better than the one you just turned in," Sam offered honestly.

"Vera's gonna love this," he said, with full knowledge of the teasing he was in for when she saw it.

At the mention of Vera's name, Sam grew noticeably sullen. Rooney suddenly remembered why he wanted to talk with Sam in the first place, and he was grateful that they were sharing a laugh together. It had become mysteriously easy to talk to Sam, especially since Eddie Steele wasn't present to throw a wrench in the works. What does she see in that "A*s Bib", he wondered?

"Here's yours," the sophomore said, trying to gain the attention of her upperclassmen.

Sam gasped! She smashed the picture up against her chest, convincing Rooney that her photo had to be as potentially "Wack" as his own.

"Come on," he prodded. "Let me see it."

Relenting with a deep huff, Sam turned the shot around, revealing her humiliation. Rooney's immediate grin told her that her initial assessment was accurate.

"I look like I'm in pain. Why did you make me smile?" Sam protested.

"Oh, it's not all that bad," Rooney joked. "You know what? We need to go show these to Vera, right now."

Sam understood what Rooney was attempting, and she appreciated it immensely, but Vera had never replied to her "weepy" voicemail so... Sam was trapped.

"You're not at all how I imagined you. You've really changed. You're not just full of crap," she said, temporarily changing the subject.

"Is that cool?" he asked, knowing that it was.

Sam looked down at ten brightly painted toenails poking out the end of her sandals and felt ashamed. Her heart hurt.

"Vera needs you to go see her Sam."

Neither of them moved for another minute.

"I want to see her. I want to tell her... Well, I have to explain some things," she said.

"Then let's go right now, together, before I head back to work," Rooney suggested, encouraging her.

"I can't go right now," Sam informed him, "but if you give me your I.D. I promise I'll stop by the hospital later."

"Why do you want my School I.D.?" he questioned.

She could see that Rooney was not certain she could be trusted. This added to her overall feelings of melancholy.

"It'll be easier for me to talk to her if I have like... a special reason for going. When I show her our pictures, and she laughs, it will be easier for her to forgive me."

Sam looked up into eyes that reflected sympathy and understanding. She wondered why she couldn't find a guy like Rooney Wilkes with, perhaps, a little less baggage. "I messed-up "Ginormously" Rooney," she confessed, sounding slightly desperate.

"I'm sure that won't matter to Vera."

"Does it matter to you?" she asked guiltily.

"I'm, for sure, disappointed that you hurt our friend, but you're gonna make it right. Right?"

"I'm talking about you. What I did... I did it to help my friend, even though it meant trashing a total stranger who's really pretty nice," she said.

"In the last few weeks, I have finally gotten to see what everyone else has put up with all these years. I can't really get too mad about it. I’m a mess." He said with a sincere smile. Now, you're gonna go see her today, right?" Rooney asked carefully.

"Of course. And I'll leave your I.D. with her when I go."

He reluctantly handed Sam the spanking-new badge.

"I'm trusting you, Sam," he reminded her.

Under standard High School social circumstances, she would have received his words as condescension, and would have put him in his place as only a pretty girl can, but these circumstances were anything but standard. And as for him calling her "Sam"... No guys ever got to call her "Sam." But, this was a guy whom Vera trusted and he was now placing his trust in her. Her resistance was simply too low to be fussed.

"Do you forgive me?" Sam asked, needing to hear the words, but tensing up as she prepped for the response.

"Done," he answered without hesitation. This seemed the golden moment to inquire about Samantha's bruises (even if it was none of his business) so Rooney decided to press on. "What happened to your lip?" he asked, showing a sincere interest.

Like a lot of women, who feel ashamed of the violence they have been victim to, Sam opted to employ deception.

"I uh... ran into my... bathroom door last night."

It sounded plausible enough, and yet... If this was Eddie's doing would she feel comfortable telling me, he wondered? He had no idea.

Rooney looked up at the school clock, in "The Round." It read "quarter till eleven." It occurred to him that he had only ever consulted the school clocks to see how soon he could get out of the building. For the first time in ages, he was actually looking forward to the huge scholastic challenges waiting for him in a few short days. "I better get to work," he observed. "Will you tell Vera that I'll try to get by to see her around six-thirty?' he asked. "She's going home today."

"You're kidding," Sam said. How could I not know this already, she thought to herself? Sam had to work hard to disguise her frustration in the face of such wonderful news.

"That's great," she replied. "Sure, I'll let her know."

"See ya."

Sam watched Rooney Wilkes walk out the west doors, and across the teacher's parking lot. When he was out of sight, she turned her attentions on the growing throng of fellow students, lining up to buy everything from lunch passes to spirit shirts. The first of the notables to land in her sights were Tanya and Terrie. She shrugged them off and kept looking. Sam reckoned she had some unfinished business with Arthur and Patrice.

She found them, in line, at the Year Book ordering table, and made a beeline to take up the cause once more. Walking behind Mrs. Pinkerton's table, a flash of familiar island colors took her by surprise. Rooney's wallet sat in plain sight, still balanced on the corner of the table, where he left it. Sam made an immediate course correction to retrieve it. She flipped it open to confirm its ownership, and there, front and center, on the left, she mouthed the words, "To: Rooney," off the back of the all-purpose, gift card/burglary tool.

Mrs. Pinkerton's highly refined; teacher-vision spotted Samantha about to drop the home-made accessory into her handbag.

"Samantha? Doesn't that belong to Rooney Wilkes?" she asked, in an uncharacteristically dour manner.

"Yes." Sam blurted instantly, forgetting her school etiquette. "Yes, Ma'am," she recovered.

"What exactly, were you planning on doing with it?" the teacher's line of inquiry proceeded.

"I'm going to see him later," Sam announced. "I can to give it to him then."

"Hey, that's Rooney's wallet," came an unrecognized male voice, from over Sam's left shoulder.

She turned around to find Flipper staring at the wallet. She knew who he was but couldn't recollect having ever heard him speak before. He was flanked by Charlie King, Phil, and Scabbie, who was currently parading, shorter-than-average, olive-drab dreadlocks as a re-imagining of the hair standards in the school's dress code. Not surprisingly, there wasn't a pair of un-bloodshot eyes in the group. Even Phil had decided to risk the effects of his allergy for this special, traditional occasion. His eyes were a puffy, watery mess.

"For sure that's Rooney's," Phil chimed in. "Isn't it Scabbie?"

Despite the scars and sores, despite his operating a human body under the influence of whatever, Scabbie was swift enough to snatch the wallet from Sam's hand. He instantly flipped it open and saw Rooney's name printed on the Gift card from his Aunt.

"Hey!" Sam protested as she was pushed out of the way.

Scabbie held the wallet open and waved it around to show, any and all concerned parties, the evidence he was presenting. "SKEEBOP!" he blared in confirmation. The "High Guys" began to cheer their colleague on.

"Michael?" Mrs. Pinkerton called, interrupting the celebration.

The guys were stopped cold. Phil's expression, as he pointed at Scabbie, betrayed his shock. "Dude, your name is Michael?"

Scabbie shrugged.

"Michael Jones," the teacher asserted calmly, "Bring me the wallet."

"Haven't got it," Scabbie responded, shaking his head sincerely.

"Who does?" Mrs. Pinkerton asked narrowly, attempting to pin down his sluggishly darting pupils.

Scabbie took a quick look around at all his compadres and shook his head some more. "Couldn't say."

The school official had reached her limit. She scooted her chair away from the table and abruptly stood to formally address the soon-to-be-student body.

"Whoever has the wallet, I need you to bring it to me now."

"I have it here Mrs. Pinkerton," Charlie King spoke up affecting accommodation.

He stepped through the ranks of his friends, passing Sam, to present the A.W.O.L. item to the teacher.

"I'd be happy to return it to Rooney if you'd like Mrs. Pinkerton?" he offered smoothly.

"No thank you, Charlie," she replied definitively.

Sam really wanted to regain possession of that wallet, and with good reason. First, she wanted to show the "F.O.E.S." (Friends of Eddie Steele) what big fools they were. Second, and more importantly, she wanted to gain every scrap of goodwill she could drag along with her, for her visit with Vera. The wallet was critical.

"Mrs. Pinkerton?" she spoke up politely. "I really will be seeing Rooney tonight. He's going to need his driver's license this weekend if he's out driving." She gave a look of concern and added, "Couldn't I please take it to him? You can confirm that I gave it to him when you see us next week."

Mrs. Pinkerton held it out to Sam, who knew better than to gloat about it in front of the teacher. Mrs. Pinkerton's look assured Sam that she would be checking with Rooney next week. Sam slipped it back into her bag.

"Thank you," she said turning to leave.

Phil, Scabbie, and Flipper gave out with "Boos" of disappointment that the teacher had given in to Samantha's "Flimsy" request, but silenced themselves quickly when they heard the teacher's warning.


Sam walked out the north doors and onto the Student Parking Area. She was no more than ten steps past the flag pole when she heard her name.

"Hey, Pritzer?"

Charlie King had broken away from the pack inside and trotted out into the mid-morning sun to have speaks with Samantha.

Sam stopped. "What?" she asks, with a shoulder-dropping sigh of annoyance.

"Easy there," Charlie King replied affably.

"I'm in a hurry. What do you want?" she asked with a bite.

"So you're meeting up with Rooney later huh?"

"So what?"

"We don't see much of Rooney anymore. He kinda ditched his friends." Charlie King said with mock sadness.

"Some people do grow up," Sam offered smugly.

Charlie King internally conceded that this approach was going nowhere, so he branched out. "You should really call Eddie. He's been worried about you."

"You must be joking," she spouted, with an angry and surprised laugh. "I don't ever want to see or hear from that jerk again as long as I live."

"C'mon Pritzer, he was the wounded party after all." Charlie King said, trying to raise the "Guilt" flag for the vicious, and undeserved, blows Sam had inflicted on his friend.

"Really?" she said fin disbelief, pointing at the makeup covered bruise on her face.

Looking at her swollen lip he replied, "I'm sure that was just an accident." The dismissive smile on his face prompted Sam to imagine giving Charlie King five across the eyes, but she kept it together.

"And I'm sure you weren't there!" she spat out through gritted teeth.

"Well, I still think you should forget about Rooney and call Eddie," he said calmly.

"Go to Hell," she said, as she turned and walked on.







Leaving the school grounds Sam was in a "Force 5 Funk." The negatives of her day, so far, seemed to overshadow the positive vibes she had picked up during her talk with Rooney. Charlie King's "Suggestion" that she should call Eddie felt more like a warning, or even a threat, and she was still uneasy about visiting Vera; the one girl who never had, but potentially could intimidate her. To top it all off, she never finished busting Arthur and Patrice for "dissing" one of her Besties.

When she had meandered through the lot and found her orange "Bug", she let go a huge sigh in anticipatory dread of its hot, black interior. Immediately the windows had to come down to let the heat out. Sam hated to drag out the over-sized windshield shade for such a short trip into the school. Now, in the driver's seat, she was reaping the torturous consequences as she tried to turn on some tunes, and simultaneously navigating onto Brecker Avenue, loosely holding the hot, black steering wheel. How many times had she contemplated buying a white, padded steering wheel cover? Life was all about choices. Perhaps for Christmas.

Even if the A/C was shot she could still be thankful that the CD player worked. Using alternating palms and knees Sam navigated, successfully, to the first stop sign, then stayed put until she located "I, My, Me, Mine", on Disc 2, in the changer. Seeing the white "Beemer" rolling up behind her, in the rearview, she stretched her arm out the open window to flag them on around. The precise, European vehicle followed her instructions. Not surprised, she thought, with a dose of sarcasm; people were always doing what I tell them to.

She was still psyching herself up as the female, Japanese singer began to perform her vocal recitation. Sam looked furtively left and right squeezed the molten, black wheel tightly, and hit the gas.

Playing "Chicken" with the heat, she was determined not to let go, at least until reached the next cross street. As the intensity swelled, Sam gripped more fiercely into the pliable, vinyl, in subconscious penance for her recent transgressions. With the surgical hospital only three miles away, she wondered if there would be enough time.

After three intersections the wheel had cooled down till the practice no longer provided the results Sam was hoping for. She hurriedly sussed-out another source of contritional remuneration. At the corner of "Something & Something Else," she checked the mirror to see if anyone was waiting behind her. Sam stood on the brake pedal and stretched her head and neck to get a look at "The Lip." Yes, it was swollen. Yes, there was a bluegreenyellow bruise, and yes, it still hurt like hell.

Sam squeezed her eyes shut, sucked the puffy upper lip into her mouth, and bit down hard. She told herself, through the agony, that it couldn't possibly be as bad as losing a leg, and therefore increased the psi of her bite till she felt the onset of a blackout, from the pain. She shook so hard that her hands came off the wheel and dropped into her lap. Now the taste of blood flowed over her tongue, and there was just enough time for her to throw the door open before she blew the fluid, in a mixture of sprays and streams.

Sam coughed, and spat the remnants onto the pavement in several loud reports. Feeling a bloody stream of saliva dangling off of her chin, she clumsily smeared it off with the back of her hand, and then wiped the glob on the hard plastic floor step. Maybe this was what it was like.

Tear-filled eyes couldn't exactly make out the size and shape of the red object that was two, or maybe three, blocks behind her on the street, as her pitiful face turned to look back. Most of the strength had left her arms but she dug deep into the reserves to yank her bobbling head, and shoulders, back inside the car, closing the door after she had fully cleared the frame.

In her exhaustion, she slumped over and rested her head on the black leather, Coach, handbag, which rested in the passenger seat. It was a comfort; such as it was.

In that moment of release, her foot slipped off the brake pedal, freeing the Bug to roll forward. As she lay solemnly contemplating the nature of suffering, and her self-styled "Mortification of the Flesh", Sam tumbled to the fact that she had forgotten to throw it in "Park." Popping up with damp, unfocused lenses, she stomped the brake, throwing herself violently forward, as the red object roared on by. The sound of laughter, from many voices, blended with the growling engine, and squealing tires, of the passing car, as it blasted through the intersection.

Sam reached up with a weak arm, its bicep quivering, and tilted the mirror to reflect her distorted features. Her bite had left red tooth indentations on her upper lip.

"That was a stupid idea," she said out loud, from the unaffected side of her mouth. And so is feeling sorry for myself, her mind added. She couldn't put it off any longer. Looking left; right; left, Sam slowly accelerated away from the scene of her tantrum, and onward to a meeting with an old friend.





























By 11:42 in the morning, Vera had moved a months-worth of stuff (hair and nail products, comics, a journal, candy wrappers, etc..) from the drawers of her nightstand, into several plastic shopping bags that she'd spread, display-style, across the bed. Her clothes and hi-tops were mashed down in the pink and orange beach bag that Judy had given her, after a recent Gift-with-Purchase, cosmetics shopping spree. There was nothing left to do now but wait for Judy to come fetch her. Vera was really going home today.

She now sat quite still, on the wide ledge of her window, legs bent up to her chest, scrutinizing the sophisticated design of her stainless knee joint (which was in no way similar to the one her dream) and fighting off boredom.

A short series of feeble thumps fell upon the door, breaking the silence that Vera had kept for nearly ten minutes.

"Come in," she said, grateful for the interruption, no matter how mundane, or clinical, it might turn out to be.

The door cracked slightly to expose Sam's light blonde hair. Vera hastily swung her legs off of the extemporary window seat, and onto the floor. There was still a minor hitch in Vera's gait, which her few sessions of physical therapy had yet to erase, but Sam was boggled never-the-less.

Vera threw her arms out wide, as she rapidly closed the distance between them. She was so worried about controlling her tone of voice, withholding any strains of bitterness, condescension, or Pollyannic optimism, that she kept her mouth shut tight and raced to take hold of her rediscovered friend.

Sam's head dropped onto Vera's shoulder, allowing herself to be infused with loving forgiveness. In a moment, Vera Lifted Sam's head up, cradling her face, and taking inventory of the severe alterations in Sam's landscape; like "The Lip" that jutted out peninsula style. Vera seemed sure that she had intercepted a passing thought, but couldn't be sure if it originated with Sam or herself.

"Jen should be here," Vera spoke, softly giving voice to the notion, and looking into Sam's soggy eyeballs.

"That's what I was just thinking," Sam sniffled with surprise.

Vera stretched out the neck of her "Jetson's" t-shirt, reaching up to dry Sam's tears. It was "Q&A" time.

"What happened Sam?" Vera asked in her most non-accusatory tone.

"Oh, I bumped it," Sam said forcing a brittle smile. Her answer failed to mask the truth and Vera cut through it right away.

"Sam..." Vera politely pleaded. "The TRUTH."

Sam buried her shame in her hands. "I'm so stupid Vera," Sam cried, beginning her confession.

"Tell me," Vera said, pulling Sam's hands from in front of her face.

"Do you know Eddie Steele?" Sam sobbed, hating the sound of his name as it proceeded from her lips. This had to be the most embarrassing moment of Sam's life but she was, at least, grateful that she wasn't trying to explain it to her parents.

"I know who he is."

"Well, I met him this summer."


"When Jen was away at her Grandma's and you were hanging out at the pool all the time." Vera's look of disbelief moved Sam to elaborate. "His Dad is one of my Dad's clients. Dad invited Eddie's parents to our house because he's trying to sell Mr. Steele a huge warehouse to expand his "Whatever" business. Eddie got invited along because Dad thought he was still in school with us."

Vera nodded an acknowledgment.

"He was really uber-polite to my parents, like that kid on "Leave it to Beaver." When I think about it now, it was sick how my Mom and Dad ate it up ya know? I think my Dad could smell the commission and my Mom already had it spent on a "B**b Job" or something." Sam was starting to relax now, and the sniffling ceased as she continued to pour it all out.

"Finally, Mr. Steele suggested that Eddie should take me outside to see the new toy he had just bought his son. It's a red, convertible Mustang. He told me he had driven over separately in case he got bored and wanted to cut out. We ended up going for a ride and he called me the next day, to ask me out."

Vera chewed on the story for a time then asked, "Do you like him?" She hoped for an immediate and resounding "No!"

"I liked the car... and he always had money so we ate some really poppin' meals. Sam paused for a moment then continued, "No, I suppose I knew pretty quickly that he was using me to impress these people he was always hanging around."

"You mean Rooney's old friends?" Vera asked, believing it must be a mistake.

"Well, he would stop by the pool sometimes, to see those guys too, but... No, these other guys were older. It felt kinda shady. I guess I was supposed to be his hood ornament.

"That you are, Sambo," Vera said with a grin that got Sam smiling her "painful-to-look-at" smile.

"I sorta knew that Tanya and Terrie always thought Eddie was something "Major" so I guess that was part of it too. It made him semi-attractive anyway," Sam admitted, only half seriously. "I don't know. I guess I was bored. Jen was gone, and you know how much I hate the pool at the park so... I had myself a little adventure and got a little bruised."

Touching her thumb lightly to the corner of Sam's mouth, near the point of impact, Vera asked, "So, how did this happen?"

"It was Rooney," Sam said, staring blankly into Vera's face as if she'd only just made the connection herself.

"Rooney hit you?"

"It was because of Rooney," Sam answered, doubting that she had truly made herself clear.

Vera unconsciously shook her head, signaling a failure to follow her friend's logic. "I don't understand," Vera said. "How was it because of Rooney?"

"Eddie doesn't like him," Sam said officially. "I didn't like him either."

"I could tell that the last time you were here."

Collecting herself, Sam tried to set the scene. "We saw Rooney at the beach and Eddie was being his usual Smart-assed self. I was chasing his stupid dog down the beach. When I made it back to them, I could tell Eddie was mad, like Rooney had dissed him or something. Eddie stormed off to pout over it. Once we left the beach ... I don't remember exactly what I said to him, but... come to think of it, I didn't say anything to him."

"And he just hit you?" Vera asked in astonishment.

Sam's eyes lit up with a twinkle. "I hit him back," she said, smiling a smile that didn't seem the least bit painful.

Vera thought carefully for a moment and then asked, "You said you didn't like Rooney. Has that changed?"

"Absolutely" she replied with unshakable conviction. Sam wiped her nose with the back of her hand, announcing excitedly, "Speaking of ... I have his wallet.

Vera rocked back to digest the statement.

"Why do you have Rooney's wallet?" Vera asked.

"He left it on the table, at school, when we were picking up our schedules and getting our new school I.Ds." Sam explained, as she successfully executed "The Lucky Dip", into her bag, liberating the item under discussion.

"Here we go."

When it was fully exhumed, Sam held the home-made creation out for Vera to collect.

Seeing Rooney's personal effect again, Vera smiled, recalling the first time. She pictured Rooney standing on Mr. Jorrisch's back porch, jerking the wallet from his pocket, and dropping his handy-dandy condom package at her "Feet." (Plural of "Foot") She swiftly rummaged through the billfold to see if it might still be opportunistically lying-in-wait somewhere with the wallet's folds and secret pouches.


Vera smiled broadly at its absence, then suddenly remembered the, oh- so useful repurposing of that particular "Suit of armor." Only then did she realize that the condom's packaging was of the exact same variety (Brand and Style) that were handed out in Miss Ganeth's Health class, during the "Sex Ed" block. She recollected the worn appearance of the foil packet, as Rooney enlisted the aid of his latex, Health-Care policy to stem the flow of blood issuing from her former extremity. She wondered how long he'd been carting it around.

A phantom twitch of pain shot through the absent section of Vera's leg, inciting a shiver. Then, feeling momentarily flattered that Rooney hadn't made it a priority to replenish his birth control supplies, she smiled another smile.

"Are you okay?" Sam asked, with a final, post-nasal sniff.

"Uh huh," Vera answered nonchalantly. As she continued sifting through the rather boring contents of the wallet, Vera sensed a vacancy. It was like seeing something unusual, in a common place, but feeling that it was familiar. Or, maybe knowing that something familiar was missing from its usual place, but forgetting what the obvious object was. That was it. Something is missing, Vera thought. Her mind raced itself to the finish line. Wallet, duct tape, condom, cash...Pink Floyd... Vera Lynn... Lynn... Lynn... Rooney... To: Rooney... From:

"Aunt Lynn!" she exclaimed, rifling, one last time, through the wallet's meager contents. "It's not here now," she stated with great disappointment.

"If you are looking for his new school I.D. badge, I have it with mine. I asked him for it so I could show you both of them at the same time," Sam offered, as an end to Vera's self-inquisition.

Shaking off Sam's sidebar Vera replied, "There used to be a "Bongo's" gift card in here, from his Aunt Lynn. I saw it again yesterday."

“It's there," Sam said reassuringly. "I just saw it this morning."

"It's not here now," Vera answered. "Could it have fallen out in your bag?"

"Must have," Sam answered confidently, beginning a full-scale search of her tote, in earnest. A frantic thirty seconds later she conceded defeat. "It's not in there but I know exactly what you're talking about because I saw it in the wallet just before..." Sam paused to finalize all the connections in her head. "Before Scabbie grabbed it out of my hand."

Vera's utter confusion was stapled hastily across her face like a concert poster on a telephone pole. Sam moved over to the window, pulling herself up and onto the ledge, and worked out a simplified explanation, with some assembly required.

"After Rooney convinced me to swallow my pride and come see you, I got him to loan me his new I.D.," Sam stated. "After he left school, I found his wallet on the table. Mrs. Pinkerton saw me with it, and knew it belonged to Rooney, so I had to convince her that I would get it back to him. That's when Scabbie snatched out of my hand and passed it around to his idiot friends. One of them must have taken the gift card."

"I'm glad Rooney is done with those jerks," Vera said, as she moved up next to Sam, by the window.

It was an idyllic summer's day, in Santa Cruz, and now, with her hospitalization in its final hours, Vera was more keenly aware of all that she'd missed during her summer vacation.

"Wasn't Eddie also involved in some break-ins, and vandalism, a couple of years ago?" Vera asked.

"I think I had heard something about that back in the day, yeah," Sam answered in as non-committal a tone as she could assemble on short notice.

"Can we pick em or what?" Vera said. She then started laughing hard, as she considered all that her statement implied.

This was the first time, in a while, that Sam had heard Vera's hearty laughter and she felt honored to have been present for its appearance.

"At least your guy is a reformed criminal," Sam added. "Eddie always seemed to be up to something." Sam paused for a thought, then asked, "I wonder who we could set Jen up with?"

"No kidding."

The girls looked out at the light, early-afternoon traffic, down below, as they fell effortlessly into synchronized sessions of California Dreaming.

"I love you V."

"Love ya back."

"Oh... oh, oh, oh!" Sam exclaimed, without apparent cause. "You gotta see our I.Ds. They're a gas." Sam reached into her pocket and pulled them out. She paused for another glance at the photos, to refresh her memory of just how egregious they actually were, before handing them over to the innocent bystander beside her.

"Oh... ow," Vera said, in reaction to her virgin glimpse of the "Laminated" Rooney James Wilkes.

"OH MY GOSH! He cut his hair!" Vera McAlister screamed. "What's with the face?" she asked, contorting her own face to match his image.

"He was a little annoyed with the Junior kid taking the pictures."

Laughter rolled forth, first from Vera, then Sam. When Vera shuffled the deck, uncovering Sam's "Glamour Shot", Vera stuck out a pouty lip and patted Sam gently on the head.

"Sorry Sambo."

Vera held them up, side-by-side, and closed her left eye, for an artist's comparison. "No retakes I guess, huh?"

"We were both so bent we didn't even ask. Oh well, good scrapbook material, right?"

"That's the spirit," Vera offered. "Who knows what mine's gonna look like when I finally get around to it."

"You can keep his I.D. if you want to. He said he's coming by at about six-thirty," Sam offered.


Refocused on the world outside, Sam was simply loving her reconciliation with Vera, while alternately, hating every minute of the hospital visit; a distaste she had acquired while witnessing her Grandma Betty's passing, in the state-run nursing facility, down in Bakersfield, last fall. Sam had to distract herself from that mental slideshow. "What're you doing later, after you get home?" she asked.

"Laundry," Vera answered, with a sigh.

"You want me to get Jen, and come by?"

"Sure. We've needed to have one of our All Girl, All Nighters, all summer long."

Sam's head filled with instant replays of excessive soft-drinking, chips, guacamole, chocolate, and let us not forget the dancing and Vera's legendarily bad-lounge karaoke (Featuring the hits of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck) It was exactly what any sensible doctor would order as a therapeutic vaccine before immersion in a final, apocalyptic year of public education.

"I'm not sure what Judy might have planned, though, so we'll..."

"You've gotta be joking!" Sam blurted, sharply cutting her pal off. "Look!" she instructed, pointing down at the street below.

Following the tip of Sam's index finger, Vera spotted a suspiciously shabby character popping out from behind one of the ancient, transplanted palms that lined the sidewalks, in front of the hospital. The overly slouching posture and long, bagging shorts seemed vaguely familiar to Vera, but the green "Gorgon" head was completely foreign to her.

"Who is that?" Vera asked innocently.

"Scabbie!" Sam replied with contempt.

"Scabbie?" she questioned. "What's wrong with his head?"

"He's got these stupid dreads now," Sam answered in disgust. "Eddie told me Scabbie wants to move to Jamaica if  he graduates this year."

"So, what's he doing hanging around out there?" Vera asked, with heightening suspicions.

Sam wanted to quickly allay any worries that Vera might be having, though the idea of Vera actually being worried seemed practically inconceivable to Sam.

"I think the "Jack-A*s" (Mr. Pritzer's favorite word for teenage boys) followed me here.

"Why would he do that?"

"Oh, something Charlie King said when I was leaving school to come here. He kept hinting that I should call Eddie. That whole group acts like Eddie's little minion mafia."

"Are you thinking about calling him?" Vera asked.

"Hel... Heck no!" Sam answered, toning down her gut reaction, and shaking her head.

Watching Scabbie truck down the walkway, all hunched over, as he ducked in behind the next palm tree, struck Vera as an extreme oddity. She couldn't produce a single memory of Scabbie that didn't feature him on a skateboard, or lazily lounging, or leaning on, or against something. At this precise moment, he engendered the image of a Rasta punk, aboriginal missing link, stalker dude.

Based on any "Reasonable Person" standards of guilt by association, Vera had always assumed, in the past, that Rooney was the self-appointed, low impact Alpha Male, and that Scabbie served as his lieutenant, and closest chum. Charlie King managed a distant third or fourth, as a charter member and recurring bit-player. The other's fell into the voids left behind by no one in particular. Visualizing all the pieces, that now dropped into place, Vera deduced that since Rooney had hitched his wagon to her star, leaving the old gang behind, Eddie Steele had insinuated himself into the lofty position of "Shot Caller" for the "Sedated Set."

"Does Eddie smoke pot?" Vera asked Sam, bluntly.

It now struck Sam that Vera's question was pitched with a pointed, interrogative curve. It wasn't a question she felt she needed to answer, and had it been put by anyone other than Vera McAlister, she would have challenged its necessity, but, things were going too well to get hung up on squabbling details.

"Not that I've ever noticed, but he does smoke these stupid little cigars sometimes, and there's a cooler in his trunk, full of iced-down beers. If we were ever stopped someplace he would pop the trunk and grab one." Sam replied , as a matter of fact.

"You let him "Buzz Drive" you around Sam?" Vera chided.

"I know," Sam sighed. "Why did you want to know if he "Lights-up"?" Sam asked.

Just when broken bones seemed to be knitting themselves right along, Sam was sensing hypocrisy plying itself.

"I was just curious about why he started up with those guys, like, right after Rooney walked away." Vera's expression took on an aspect of sober concentration, as she spoke. "Rooney really dislikes the guy," she said.

"It's mutual," Sam added, keeping an eye on "Scabbie the Spy."

"The police came here, to see me, a few days ago," Vera asserted, turning to face Sam's profile. "They also ran into Rooney, downstairs, and questioned him too. Somehow, I guess, they just recognized him."

There was definite "Intent" behind Vera's words, and Sam felt compelled to pick up the bread crumbs from Vera's trail.

"What did they want?" she asked, meeting Vera's solemn gaze.

“Well, they talked about Mr. Jorrisch's death, and I told them all about being there to grab the cat, and seeing the body," Vera explained.

“You told the cops about Rooney helping you break in?" Sam asked with surprise.

“No. I never mentioned Rooney at all, but they asked about him by name."

A smothering silence fell on the room like a great, collapsing circus tent.

"You and Judy and Jen were the only ones I told, about that night," Vera stated, with a well-defined, yet nonjudgmental, probe attached.

"Vera... I told..." Sam couldn't finish the thought.


Sam's lower lids gushed, and the excess tears crowned and rolled over the twin spillways, and on to genetically well-bred cheekbones. She sighed mournfully and nodded, assuring Vera that it was true.

"Sam, listen. I'm not mad at you. Do you hear me? I'm not mad." Vera was treading very deliberately to evade any exposed feelings. "It's all starting to make sense now, though."

"You think Eddie told the cops about Mr. Jorrisch's place?" Of course, she does, Sam thought to herself. And of course, he did, Sam surmised, as she continued to track the idea to its logical end. "But why would he?" Sam asked, "Just because they don't like each other?"

When Vera thought it over, it seemed more the sort of petty thing that Rooney's mother might concoct, based on Judy's description.

"I don't know. Maybe," Vera answered, in an unpersuaded tone. She looked down at the duct tape wallet that she was still carrying. The words: "From: Aunt Lynn" zoomed up in her mind's eye like the opening credits of an action movie. "The gift card," she said, in a barely audible voice.

"What?" Sam replied, in head-shaking confusion.

"Why did they take the "Bongo's" gift card from his wallet?" Vera pondered.

"I don't know. Maybe someone wanted to go shopping," Sam countered sarcastically.

"What if they were planning to leave the card, as a clue, at the sight of some future burglary that they are planning to commit?" Vera's suggested, demonstrating that her keen attention to detail had not been dulled by the protracted hospital stay.

"You really think that Charlie King, or Scabbie, or any of those other guys, are competent enough for organized crimes?"

Vera looked down at Scabbie. He was edging his way around the gnarled trunk of the palm next to the crosswalk. "Well not by themselves, of course, but with the help of someone a bit more clever, and insidious, to help plan it out... maybe. Yeah, sure," Vera reasoned.

"Insidious? Is that supposed to describe Eddie?" Sam asked, know just how apt a superlative it was.

"You tell me?" Vera said. "Besides that, the cops have been all over T.V. saying the suspects are just grabbing things they can sell quickly for drug money. It's possible, right?"

Sam couldn't help but agree that Vera's suggestions were possible, even if their plausibility was still grossly tentative. Vera was certainly the most street smart person, of her age, that Sam knew. Her natural insights into people's motivations, both adults, and teens had scarcely proved-out wrong. Sadly, this made the "Wrong Turn" onto Eddie Steele Avenue an even more bitter pill for Sam to swallow. By now, her attempt to maintain the role "Devil's Advocate" had shown itself to be a colossal waste of Sam's time.

"Now I have to know if I'm right," Vera stated. The question was too firmly cemented in the forefront of her ambi-lobal mind.

"What time is it Sam?"

"Twelve-twenty-eight," Sam reported, consulting her phone. "What going on in that head of yours, Vera?" she asked, with cautious reserve.

"Help me get dressed," Vera commanded. She pulled wadded sweatpants from the tote on the bed and pushed the prosthetic foot through the puckering, gathered end at the bottom of the right leg. "Can you grab my hi-tops, out of the bag?" she asked, changing up her request to something somewhat more polite. She would naturally have preferred the Doc's but the right one was still at home. Oh, well, she thought, that reunion will have to wait a while longer.

Witnessing the return of the "Old" Vera, Sam hastened her movements in anticipation of the coming adventure her one-legged buddy would soon unveil.

"What's our first move?" Sam asked anxiously.

"Well first, I have to perfect my disguise." Another scouring of the tote availed Vera's black "Eraserhead" t-shirt. It was even more wadded, if possible, than the sweat pants. She pulled the shirt over her entire head; collar first, then pulled the knit opening to fit around her hairline, positioning it like a headband. She then flipped the bodice of the shirt over the top of her head, draping it down the back liked some cockamamie, makeshift wimple. Well, at least her distinctive black locks and red tips were out of sight. Vera next convinced Sam to swap shades with her and... voila', the guise was complete.

Circumstances being different, Sam would have declined Vera's leopard print sunglasses, but she had reckoned that it was a small fashion setback to suffer for the opportunity of taking part in the emerging charade.

"We're sending you out as the bait," Vera advised, with a sly grin.

"Say What?" Sam replied, sporting her patented ethnic dialect, with matching hand gestures.

"You told Mrs. Pinkerton, in front of all those guys, that you would be seeing Rooney later, and giving him his wallet back, right?" Vera asked, with a non-directional smugness.

"Oh yeah," Sam said slowly, as she finally stumbled onto Vera's point.

"Well then, that's just what you're going to do. Right now. You'll leave your car in the lot and walk over to the garage were Rooney's working. If Scabbie IS following you he Will follow you there."

"So what are you all dressed up for then?" Sam inquired sarcastically.

"He follows you; I follow him."

Sisterly concern washed over Sam suddenly. "Hey Vera, are you sure you should be out doing this?"

"I've been dying to get out for weeks, and this is just the kind of excursion I've needed to give the leg a "Real World" road test."

Sam knew better than to challenge her friend, or make any attempt to discourage her. "So I just give Rooney his wallet and walk back to my car?"

"Just come back to this room as though you left me for a while, and returned. We just need to be back here by Five o'clock, alright?"


By the time the girls hit the lobby, Sam had already consulted her phone's "Street Map App" for exact directions to Majestic Import Auto Repairs. Her course was set. Next, she worked out her poker face just in time to step into the outside world.

Scabbie was staring down at the ground when Sam left the building. He had become fixated on the goofy shadow his dreadlocks cast on the sidewalk, as the sun reached its apex. Sam had a half-a-blocks lead when Scabbie finally noticed her. In his perpetual stupor, he looked back the parking lot to see if her Bug was still there. It was.

Somehow managing to remember the pre-arranged plan, Scabbie took out his cell phone, placing a call as he took up the pursuit. Apparently walking and talking was more than his compromised condition could allow for, so he stopped frequently to provide details to his silent partner.

Vera, who was currently three-quarters of a block behind her quarry, and making good progress with her rhythmic limp, decided to check-in with Sam.

The buzzing of Sam's silenced phone, stopped the teen dead in her tracks.

Feeling over-exposed with Sam just standing there, Scabbie searched frenetically for cover. Vera tried valiantly to contain her laughter as Scabbie lost his balance, crouching behind a city mailbox. The slapstick ended in a hard landing, into the street, and onto his non-existent butt.

"Hello?" Sam said into her phone, as she fiddled the ringer switch into the "ON" position.

"Get going and don't turn around," Vera's tittering voice instructed. "He fell down and I'm gonna hang back for a second," she advised, stepping off the sidewalk, behind a parked floral delivery van. "I'm hanging up now."

Vera could resist no longer, and pressed "Record", on her phone's video camera, just in time to catch everyone's favorite stalker stumbling onto his flip-flop shod feet. I can't wait to show this to everyone, Vera thought. Secretly, in her innermost heart, she was including Rooney in the collective "Everyone", believing, as she now did, that he would be accepted into, at least, the outer circle of their all-girl council. Or perhaps he could be granted a guest pass.

The chemically debilitated Scabbie, risking exposure, decided to simply stand still, and hope for the best. Following Vera's advice, Sam resumed her trek down the street without looking back. At first, she was striding way too fast for her tail to keep up.

"Easy on the gas Sam, or you're gonna ditch him," Vera said to herself.

Sam made the necessary adjustment, as though she had picked up her friend's request via satellite, and soon, the disjointed trio proceeded on with their journey.

A block further down the street, Vera was overtaken by that "What if someone is following me too" feeling. It unconsciously broke the rhythm of her mechanically assisted stride. Now her clumsy gate was all her mind could concentrate on. Do I look like an idiot with this thing, she wondered? Pausing, for a moment, in the doorway of "Robespierre's Café & Croissants"; the shop where Judy sometimes grabbed coffee for Jenkins and herself, Vera tried to shake the notion of complete, physical incompetence.

"This is the bunk," she muttered, under her breath. "I know how to walk, for Pete’s sake."

She poked her head out, past the picture window of the shop, to reacquire her target. Sighted: fifty yards, dead ahead. Pulling back out into the sparse foot traffic, Vera chanced a look through the shop window and freaked. Inside, just now turning from the counter area, Nurse Jenkins, coffee cup in hand, was heading for the door. No doubt headed for the hospital to start her usual Friday mid-shift. In her haste, Vera bounded ahead with such force that she felt the socket's suction seal on her thigh had separated, or vented. There was no time to stop and check it just now, she decided, hurrying on her way, even more, self-conscious than before, of her visually awkward method of locomotion.

After another few yards, Vera came aware that the video camera on her phone, was still rolling, and now contained a stomach-jolting string of unwatchable footage. She paused the recording and went back to seriously tracking her prey.

After traveling for several, uncounted and uneventful blocks on River Street, Sam took the requisite right on Encinal, as guided by her phone. It's GPS had never failed her, up to this point, but this mission was too importante' to rely solely on technology, so Sam kept a watchful eye open for "126 Encinal St." Looking diligently for a sign, or some other marking, on the front of a building that read, "Majestic Import Auto Repairs" contributed, momentarily, to Sam's forgetting about the tag-a-long passenger she carried. Turning to re-check an address, above the door of a small warehouse she had walked past, Sam stopped short of a full rotation, vividly remembering the Gorgon in her wake.

Scabbie casually turned the corner to find Samantha Pritzer engrossed in surveying the landscape. He plastered his body hard (too hard) against the wrong side of a street light pole, knocking the wind from himself, in an effort to conceal his presence from Sam's view. With a whimper that was certainly audible to Sam, Scabbie grabbed his throbbing, left elbow. Despite his diminished reaction time, he changed course as he was an average pedestrian (with green dreadlocks) about to cross the street, in the opposite direction.

Sam's posture stiffened at the pitiful noise behind her but swiftly played it off. Resuming her search, she spotted the fading business sign, fastened above the opened garage door, signaling Rooney's workplace. She followed the sounds of a pneumatic impact wrench into the garage proper. The smells of petroleum products hung heavy in the surrounding atmosphere, even with the assistance of open doors, and sea breezes. Stepping out of the gorgeous California sunshine, with shaded eyes, the cinderblock room seemed cave-like. Sam observed the space for a time, eventually zeroing in on the auto-mechanical work being performed in the south-most corner of the shop.

Sam wisely chose to remove Vera's shades after stumbling into the big , gray, mechanic thingy (mobile diagnostics cart) and skinning the knuckles of her right hand on its rough, dented, outer casing. "Ow!" she cried out. Her agony was muffled by "Hot Child in the City" which blared from the battered boom box in echoed chorus, off the masonry walls.

Sam spotted the floppy blonde bangs, hanging down, obscuring Rooney's face, as he stretched across the engine compartment of the white, TR7 Drophead Coupe. He was working patiently to loosening the head bolts when Sam inserted herself into a sudden break in the hammering of the air ratchet.

"Rooney!" she shouted. The call to attention startled him, precipitating a nasty head-to-steel collision with the underside of the hood, as he rose up in surprise.

"Hhhmmmmmlll!" he groaned in pain, grabbing the top of his head with a greasy hand.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, in an unbelievably polite tone, while fighting back tears of pain, and the urge to fire off a string of softcore profanities.

"Sorry," Sam offered sincerely.

During their covert move down to the hospital lobby, it had been decided, mostly by Vera, that Sam should not reveal the master plan to Rooney. The less anyone knew about what they were up to, the better. If things went well, it could be a nice, little surprise, and if things went south, Rooney still had his job as an alibi.

"Are you alright?" she asked in a motherly tone.

"Fine," he said dismissively, rubbing his head, as he paused to wait for an answer to his original question.

"I brought your wallet back," Sam said cheerfully. She handed him the billfold, which she produced from the bag on her shoulder. "You were right... about seeing Vera I mean. Thanks."

Rooney tucked the wallet away in his hip pocket, smiling through the ebbing throb on his scalp.

"Did I leave it at School?" he asked, trying to imagine when he might have had it out last.

"Yep," she answered, deciding, on the spur of the moment, that any talk of her altercation with Charlie King, and the rest of Rooney's old buddies, fell within the boundaries of a "No-Go" topic.

"How was she?" he asked, eager to hear any news about Vera.

"Ready to get home, I think," Sam offered, still feeling unsettled in the presence of the first guy who had no ulterior motives, in the works, for her. When Rooney put away his wallet, without carefully inspecting its contents first, Sam fell silent. She was frankly awe-struck by his preternatural level of trust.

"Your I.D. is inside," she offered, out of some quirky sense of obligation.

"Cool," he said, as he continued his work, lifting the Triumph's head cover off and setting it on workbench behind him.

There was another separate and distinct feeling Sam was suddenly experiencing, while in Rooney's sphere of influence. She forced a distracting image of Vera, standing on the street outside, into the forefront of her attentions.

"Oh, Girls just wanna have Fu-un. Oh, girls just wanna have fuuuuuunnnnnnn!"

Saved by the bell, Sam thought, pulling her cell from the hip pocket of her pink Daisy Dukes. Would Rooney suspect that the musical ringtone was specially chosen for Vera's number, Sam wondered. Why would he, she concluded.

"Hang on," Sam suggested to Rooney, as she pressed "Talk" to accept the incoming call. "Yeah?" Sam began.



"I'm sitting in the bus shelter, across the street," Vera said in a low whisper. "A red mustang pulled up a second ago and Charlie King got out," she continued. "He's talking to Scabbie on the sidewalk right behind me. I'm pretty sure Eddie Steele is behind the wheel. He pulled the car down the block, to the corner."

"Really? Okay." Sam response was nonchalant though her personal physiology was hard at work dumping anxiety-producing chemicals on a variety of organs, causing her growing discomfort, which she exhibited as a nervous, fidgety, foot tap.

"Don't come out right now," Vera warned. "I'll call you when it's safe. (End of call)

Vera pressed herself tightly against the shelter's scratch-covered, Plexiglas, back wall, and she listened. She did not dare to turn around for a look at the suspects, but simply chose to stare straight ahead, into the streets of the light-industrial, neighborhood she had willed herself to.

"She walked all the way here from the hospital?" Charlie King asked Scabbie, in mock disbelief. "I guess she couldn't wait to see old Rooney again, eh?"

Vera construed the silence that followed to be Scabbie, nonverbally confirming the accuracy of Charlie King's words. She moved slowly, down the bench, till her right ear was nearest to the opening between the back, and side panels of the bus stop structure, attempting to filter out all competing sounds coming from nature, and civilization. A little technology is called for, she thought. Once more she tapped the record button on the phone's video app. She watched the recording counter as hundredths of seconds became seconds, then turned the microphone towards the open gap in the back of the shelter. She needed to capture every word.
























"That was my Mom," Sam answered, in full awareness that the question had never actually been put forward.

"Oh," Rooney responded, not knowing what the proper response should have been, but intuitively believing that something was required of him just then.

"Are you still coming over to V's house later?" Sam asked. (...as the band played "Ball of Confusion.")

"If it's not... um too late when I... uh... get out of here," Rooney answered, surging with a new brand of awkwardness.

Looking casually around the crowded garage, Sam spotted a dusty, black convertible sports car in the front corner. She made a feeble stab at keeping their dialog rolling forward by asking, "What kind of car is that?"

"It's an M.G.," he answered efficiently.

"It's neat," Sam's stated in a lukewarm volley. "Well, I'll... see you later, I guess." She stumbled over the words, and once they left her, she was dubious that they had been ordered intelligently. Since Rooney showed no obvious signs of bewilderment, she let it stand.

"Yeah, well... thanks, for the wallet," he replied.

"What kind of car do you drive?" She asked, mining the limited depths of her 7th grade, drama class skills to portray sincere interest, and buy time till Vera's call came in.

"I... uh... borrow from my parents sometimes. My Mom's got a Volvo."

"Oooh," Sam answered, with delight, "That's a Swedish car right?"

Rooney was mildly intrigued at Sam's cursory automotive knowledge and asked, "How did you know that?"

"It was an answer on "Jeopardy!" last week," she replied, with some measure of pride. "It's a pretty cool car, though, right?" She asked, hoping for a truthful reply.

"It might be if it wasn't a station wagon," Rooney answered, giving her a truthful reply. Unintentional sarcasm dripped over the Triumph's fenders and puddled up on the floor.

Vera kept her head low, hanging on every word that she could make out.

"Flipper's gonna come down and watch this place," Charlie King informed his unkempt associate. "If Rooney leaves, Flipper will tail him, and call us."

"Where is our next appointment?" Scabbie euphemized, to Charlie King's mild surprise.

"We've got to wait until dark to find out. I'll call ya when I know. The main thing is that Rooney can't be running all over the place where people can see him, and identify him." Charlie King explained.

"The place is gonna be empty, though, right? I mean nobody'll be home when we get there, true? " Scabbie inquired, with notable concern.

"It'll be as vacant as you my friend?"


Charlie King was almost relieved to see that Scabbie's flirtations with intellect had subsided

"Don't worry. I'm sure the place will be empty. I doubt that mistake will be repeated," Charlie King assured his reliably imperceptive accomplice.

Vera's head was now leaned fully, and pressed firmly, into the open corner of the shelter. Charlie King, who had been almost obsessively sneaking peeks at Vera, was struck by the utter lack of movement coming from the dormant figure he observed through the Plexiglas. Looking at Scabbie, he held his index finger to his lips.

"Shhhh," he whispered, trying to enforce a cogent eye contact on his friend. He pointed at Vera, then cupped his ear to indicate the possibility that she might be listening in on their conversation.

In reaction the sudden halt in detectable speech, Vera instinctively fell into opossum mode, closing her eyes. Soon after, sensing that they were watching her, she employed her patented "fake" snore. It was a technique she had perfected on Judy throughout the early years of distrust and disregard. Subtlety was the order of the day, and her masterfully controlled rhythm was such that Charlie King. He had sidled up to the opening at the end of the shelter by Vera's head, and was soon, thoroughly convinced that the small, inconsequential woman inside was sawing logs. He stepped back onto the sidewalk, shaking his head, with a smile. "She's zzz-boppin."

"If you could drive anything what would you want?" Sam asked sincerely enough.

"I don't know," Rooney answered casually, in a voice that displayed his comfort for the subject of Sam's query. He did, in fact, know exactly what he hoped to drive someday. Knowing how smothered in cliché his answer would seem, he pitched it out for Sam's critique, just the same.

"I guess I'd like a restored VW bus with a surf rack on top." He said, smiling ear-to-ear.

Just then, in the presence of his sun-lightened hair and gorgeous, natural tan, Sam hoped that she would get the chance to see Rooney surf someday: When all this was over.

Those uncomfortable back-stabbing feelings were re-emerging again. She looked down at her phone once more and tried to psychically will the device  to ring, as a means to distract her from such treasonous thoughts.

"I like my bug," she blurted out, feeling relieved to have interjected an "Embarrassment Bypass" into the situation.

"I like em too," Rooney started. "My cousin Lydia's got one the same color as yours."

"You've seen my car?" she asked, too enthusiastically.

"Uh... I mean... I've seen you driving it to school," he replied, feeling as though he was being grilled by the cops again. This was worse though because it caused him to doubt himself, and his relationship with Vera, for reasons other than his chequered past.

Sam also perceived what a terrible, technical mistake she had just made. She sounded as though she were fishing for a compliment during a fact-finding mission into Rooney's feelings for her. "Back off girl," said the smallish angel on her right shoulder. "You just made up with your best friend. Do you wanna flush it all down the sewer?

"Put this in your pocket and don't lose it, whatever you do," Charlie King advised, as he handed Scabbie the, thin, plastic gift card, lifted from Rooney's wallet. Scabbie looked the item over, critically. "No wonder the dude carried it around for years," he said, "The place is strictly tourista."

"Hey, put it away!" Charlie King barked, dropping his ubiquitously mellow demeanor. Looking properly scolded, Scabbie quietly slipped the card into the right, front pocket of his sky-blue baggies.

"You're not gonna lose that are you?" Charlie King asked, displaying little faith in Scabbie's mental faculties.

"I'm not gonna lose it Dude." Scabbie replied, vaguely aware of his "Dummy" status within the peer group.

Vera soaked it all in, with eyes closed. The sun was warming her upper legs, through the sweat pants. She felt a trickle of perspiration rolling off the top of her right thigh. If the socket gets wet, she wondered, would it lose its hold on the stump? This was no time to start doubting the miracles of modern, medical mechanics.

"Be sure to leave it on the ground, by the door, once you and Phil are inside the place tonight, okay?"


"Get on outa here now, and wait for the call. Dig?"

Vera never heard a verbal response, but the sound of flip-flops popping on pavement dopplered-off down the walkway. Within about twenty seconds the Mustang had busted a "U-ey" and sat idling directly across the street from the bus shelter. Believing that Charlie King could not possibly resist the chance to check-out any girl, at any time, Vera bent over, and simulated the re-tying of her right shoe, in an attempt to avoid his shrewd appraisal, and/or accidentally giving away her shrouded identity.

"Did you see that chick?" Charlie King asked Eddie, sliding into the passenger seat.

"Total Slag," Eddie sneered.

Vera smiled as she covertly filmed the car "laying rubber" up River Street.

"Pause Recording."

Sam was both frightened and relieved (in that order) when the cell phone buzzed in her hand, and Cyndi Lauper returned for an encore. "Oh, girls just wanna have "" Sam quickly pressed "Talk" and slammed the phone to the side of her face. "Yeah?"

"They're gone now, and I recorded the whole thing," Vera stated, in vibrantly gloating tones. "I can't wait to play it for you."

"Really," Sam answered ambiguously.

"You can come out any time now."


Sam pocketed the phone as she searched for a pleasant and oh-so-appropriate concluding statement, to wrap-up her Rooney rap session.

"I have to go," she announced concisely, yet largely lacking profundity.

"Oh... okay." was Rooney's sheepish reply.

Sam unceremoniously turned and exited the garage. Rooney's instinctual imperative directed his eyes towards Samantha Pritzer's bottom again. The more chivalrous aspect of his conscience soon arrived to slap his face and divert his gaze back to his automotive concerns. "Ball of Confusion. That's what the world is today. Hey, Hey," he sang, picking the song up in mid-chorus.

Looking down Encinal, to the south, Sam spotted her pal, bouncing unevenly, up and down, and trotted off to join her. She feared the walk had been too grueling an expedition for Vera's first outing.

"How are you feeling," Sam asked. As truly concerned as she was, she also knew that the question was prompted, in part, by a nagging guilt. She had just "Flirted with Flirting", in a hands-off situation, while her "friend" sat outside playing detective, completely oblivious to the shameful/shameless exploits going on inside. Sam Pritzer had always been notoriously self-critical.

"It's getting a little sore, but it's fine."

"V, I..." Sam paused, leaving the syllables smothered in regret.

"I know Sam. Don't worry about it. Anyway, he is very cute.

“How? How did she always know? "I need a guy," Sam sighed.

"Not "A" guy," Vera said. "You need "the" guy. Don't worry though. You won't have any serious trouble finding him if you'll let Jen and I help with the screening process."

"I wish I had my car here so y... we... didn't have to walk all the way back to the hospital."

"It's okay. Why don't you call Jenny-Cat and see if she can meet us at the hospital," Vera suggested. She waved a beckoning hand to invite Sam over to her favorite bus stop bench, for a replay of the unauthorized recording, while Sam placed a call to their missing "Third."

Detectives Fontaine and Kulp arranged themselves once again on the small, cement front porch of the Wilkes residence, leaving Uniformed Officer, Pat Barnsley behind them on the sidewalk, somewhat out of view. Kulp had, in her hand, the requisite search warrant to keep matters tidy and above board. It took one ring of the doorbell and two knocks, spaced out, a minute later, to pull Suzy Wilkes out of her lotus position with a groan.

Squinting out into the mid-afternoon sunshine, as she opened the door to her darken temple of meditation, gave her an expression of unamiable annoyance, and causing a look to pass between the partners. With another moment to acclimate, Suzy lit up, eager to welcome the agents of the law into her home, and add another thrilling chapter to tales of woe she was spinning for her spiritual friends.

"Mrs. Wilkes, we have the warrant to search the premises," Detective Kulp spoke up.

"Sure, sure. Come on in," Suzy advised, stepping behind the open door to herd them in. Not noticing Officer Barnsley, she inadvertently shut the uniformed officer out.

Before either detective had registered the absence of their associate, a solid, mechanical double-knock struck the outside of the door. Suzy Wilkes looked at her "Guests" and tried to imagine why they failed to be intrigued by the arrival of additional visitors.

"We brought an officer along with us Mrs. Wilkes," Detective Fontaine informed her, pointing to the door.

"Oh! My goodness," she gasped.

She opened the door so quickly, and with such force, that Officer Barnsley took a half-step back and placed a cautious hand on his sidearm.

There was still something lurking in the recesses of Suzy Wilkes' past that still regarded anyone wearing a police uniform as a "Pig." She skillfully willed away the impulse to verbalize any such thoughts. "I'm sorry. I didn't see you there. Come in."

Getting down to business, behind closed doors, Kulp asked, "Is your son here now?"

"No," was Suzy's sole, listless syllable.

"Where is your son's room?"

With a flutter in her thrilled heart, she led the trio to the back of the house, were the Wilkes had deposited their son over a decade ago, keeping him out of their way and, in turn, making it easier for them to find themselves.

Suzy was shocked to find the door ajar. As she knew, or perhaps only imagined, teen boys coveted their privacy jealously. She began to wonder, as they entered if her "Son" might actually be there, after all. A look of shock showed quite plainly across her face as if she were once again twelve years old and witnessing her Father, standing before the full-length mirror, in his bedroom, wearing her Mother's wedding dress.

"What is it Mrs. Wilkes," Fontaine inquired.

"It's clean," she uttered, in a stilted and stultified tone. Having not entered the room since the time of the last visit from the police, its present state of organizational harmony was painful to her psyche, like someone flashing their "Brights" at her, on the road at night.

"I don't understand," she whispered.

"I'd give anything if my boys were even half this neat," the female detective remarked.

"Roger that," Officer Barnsley (Father of a tween son) seconded.

As Suzy Wilkes continued to drink in the unfamiliar surroundings, it felt as though the very architecture of the space had been altered to allow more natural light in. Almost every poster, both reggae and or marijuana related, had been removed and replaced with imagery depicting a variety of classic, sporty convertibles from Europe and Japan. Taped to the mirror, above the bureau, were two poorly printed photos that appeared to have been shot with someone's phone camera. The top one showed a small black kitten, looking up from its encampment within the confines of a cardboard box. Its eyes glowed golden from the on-camera flash. The bottom picture was a girl with bushy, black hair (with red tips), dark eyes, and a ruby nose stud. In the unfocused background, lights from hospital machinery could almost be recognized.

"That must be her," Suzy Wilkes said, responding to the discovery.

"What's that Mrs. Wilkes?" Kulp asked.

Rooney's Mother plucked the print from the mirror, unremorsefully tearing the corner that had been taped down. "The McAlister girl," Suzy replied, triumphantly.

"Do you know Vera McAlister?" Detective Kulp asked as Mrs. Wilkes continued to study the girl's visage for even the faintest signs of criminal inclination.

"I've never met her in person. I guess you've spoken to her and her Mother, right?"

No one from the police delegation felt led, or obliged, to answer.

"Well, anyway, her Mother showed up here, asking me questions and looking for answers, Poor woman. I mean, just look what she's got to deal with as a widow and Stepmother," Mrs. Wilkes said holding up Vera's image for inspection.

Fontaine cleared his throat signifying that his female partner should forthwith escort the lady of the house into the other room, allowing Officer Barnsley, and himself, to commence the legal search of Rooney's room.

























The emotional healing process was so much simpler for Jen. The less she was told, the less she would have to forgive or excuse. She quietly exuded low-level satisfaction that her hierarchy of needs had not been permanently dismantled. Friendship, and goodwill had been restored, and she could now be "At Peace."

Arriving at Vera's hospital room, by way of the extensive bank of vending machines, just off the "Waiting" area, Jen was laden with bottles of apple juice, packages of crumb cakes, and bags of "Salt & Vinegar" potato chips, paid for from her minuscule earnings as a companion to the elderly Mrs. Whitehouse, who lived in the house next door. As she pushed the door open with her flat backside, she found Vera, seated on the bed, busily accessing the video footage on her phone, while Sam sprawled out across the "Judy" chair, with feet propped, appropriately, on the bed's foot rail.

"You didn't start without me did you?" Jen asked, in her standard monotone.

"We wouldn't do you like that," Sam answered, with a wink in Jen's direction.

When Jennifer caught the full exposure of Sam's bruised mouth, she nearly dropped the snack assortment and was forced to take up juggling, on the spot, to maintain control.

"Sam, my god, what happened?" Jen asked.

"I ran into some "Bad News" but I'm better now," Sam answered.

Jen, whose eyes could grow very large when surprised, was not able to stem her fixation. After spreading the bounty out, across the bed, she resumed her discreet observation. "Was it "HIM?" she asked, shooting a quick look over to Vera.

"Yeah, but...we think we may have a final solution to that problem," Vera stated positively.

Bottles and bags flew open as the impromptu "war room" luncheon got underway. When the playback began, Sam and Jen focused intently on the dodgy audio, asking Vera to "pause" and "rewind" for clarification and context. Sam's eyes rolled heavenward upon hearing the Mustang's pained tires squalling.

"End of recording."

"Well... what do you guys think?" Vera asked.

Sam was first to speak, in accordance with the unwritten pecking order of their klatch. "I say you call those cops who interrogated you guys and let them listen to it."

"What have we really got at this point?" Jen asked rhetorically, as the analytical one of the group. "The only thing we might be able to prove, just now, is that Charlie King and Scabbie swiped Rooney's gift cards."

"Well, I think you better, at least, call Rooney," Sam suggested, "So he can come over and establish an alibi."

Both Sam and Jen turn the floor over to Vera, eager for her input. Vera looked each of them directly in the eyes, pausing briefly, for effect.

"I want this to be over with," Vera began. "You know that these guys are the ones doing all of the break-ins around town, right?" she asked. "What do you think Sam? Is it possible that Eddie could be the "Brains" of the group?

"I guess I wouldn't really be shocked to find out that it was true," she conceded.

"From the conversation I taped, it sounds like, what they're planning for tonight, is probably another break-in. We just don't know where its going take place, right?" After receiving obligatory nods from the quorum, Vera

Vera continued. "We could call the police now, tell them all we know, and hope that they believe us. Then they would have to locate Charlie King and Scabbie, and the rest, but even if they could do all that, then what? I doubt that the cops are gonna sit on those guys to make sure they don't commit any crimes? No. Here's what'll happen," Vera detailed. "The cops will, maybe, open up a file on those guys like they did with Rooney and I. Meanwhile, Scabbie's gonna doctor the crime scene, with their "Shamski" evidence, pinning even more on Rooney." Vera paused to sigh and catch a breath. It had been a nearly exhausting day, so far. "If we could follow Scabbie, or Charlie King, or even Eddie, we might be able to find out where the next home invasion will occur."

"I'd rather not go anywhere near that jack-a*s, thank you," Sam interjected, speaking of her recently discarded male escort.

Vera smiled sympathetically at her injured mate. It was clear to Vera that she was asking for a tremendous show of faith from her, as yet, uninvolved friends and she didn't want them to think she took their allegiance for granted. Senior year would commence in mere hours; and with it would come plans for college, and the "Real World." Why should Sam and Jen jeopardize their futures over all this?

"I have an idea," Jen inserted, lifting the pause.

Sam looked at Jen and then over to Vera, for an explanation. There was real bafflement on Sam's face. From the very start of their days as a trio, Jen's role had never been one of leadership or planning, but rather soberly providing the necessary voice of reason, or the lone dissenting opinion, before they carelessly rushed off into the "combat de la journée."

After the solid counsel Vera had received from Jen, during Sam's Eddie Steele exile, she knew something interesting was about to be proposed.

Seeing that she had claimed their undivided attentions, Jen held forth.

"What if I could replace the gift card, in Scabbie's pocket, with a slightly amended version?"

Sam was still cogitating on Jen's newfound moxie and chose to remain silent.

"And just how would you do that Cat-girl?" Vera asked, with intrigue in her eyes.

"I would call him and tell him that I wanted to see him again," Jen explained in deadpan.

Sam's eyebrows were now raised beyond their usual limits due to Jen's use of the word "AGAIN." She simply couldn't let it go unchallenged.

"Again?" Sam remarked. "You said "see him again" didn't you?"

Vera grabbed her bag of chips, and her juice, then nestled back into the stack of pillows, propped against the headboard, like she was settling into the couch, at the start of some movie mystery she had been longing to see.

"What did you mean "AGAIN"," Sam badgered.

“Go ahead Jen," Vera encouraged gently.

"Do you remember where you were during Spring Break, last year," Jen pitched, with a coy curve.

After a moment's introspection, Sam spoke up. "You know my folks took me to Cancun," she said, pulling a sour face that reminded her friends about the "Heat Rash" incident. Vera, adding her remembrances to the collective pile, answered, "That's when Judy made me go to Arkansas to visit her parents, I think. Why?"

"Do either of you remember where I was during that week?" The request carried with it, the sting of bitterness. Both Sam, and Vera, instinctively perceived Jen's, often expressed, feelings of inadequacy, but neither could remember if they had ever known what Jennifer Del Gado had done during that week; a year and a half ago.

"I'm sorry Jen," Sam offered.

"No... I'm sorry," Jen said. "That was very self-piteous of me. I hate when people act that way. Sorry."

"Go on now and tell us about it," Sam directed, feeling unburdened.

"I was tired... tired of being alone... and I don't mean about being without you guys. I mean... being without someone... ya know?"

The friends quietly nodded their understanding in unison.

"So the week before, during algebra, I heard about a garage party at Goldie Pippins, happening on the first weekend of the break. I knew you would both be gone by then.

"Goldie Pippin's Famous garage parties," Sam mumbled as if it were an advertising slogan. Goldie was known for social skills that triumphantly hurdled all of the normal barriers to teen popularity. It didn't seem to hurt Goldie's reputation any, that her mother was an exotic dancer and part-time "Actress", who often furnished alcohol for these little soirees. In some sad ways, it undoubtedly served to enhance her daughter's effectiveness in mixing throughout the various High School social strata. Jocks and Cheerleaders; Goths and Thespians; Brains, Geeks, and even a few Mice, like Jen, would appear from time to time. So long as you were open to the possibilities awaiting you, you were welcome. Like junior varsity Las Vegas, a boy, or girl could come and party like a rock star, then return to school the next week, to resume their banal existence. And naturally enough, the High Guys could be counted on for the procurement of minor league recreational drugs.

Vera silently postulated the probability that Rooney had attended a Goldie Pippin party, or two, in his past, and for a second, she considered asking Jen if she remembered seeing him, at the party, that night.

"I told Mom I was going to your house for the evening," Jen said, addressing Vera. "I got there and hung out by her pool for a while. I thought about leaving."

"Why didn't you?" Sam asked fearfully. She was totally apprehensive about hearing the rest of this story.

Turning to Sam, Jen replied, "That's not what I went there for."

"Go on," Vera said reservedly.

"The three-car garage had been converted into a kind of party room with like six, or seven big couches lining the walls and a bunch of beanbags on the floor, in the middle of the room. There was a bar, in one corner, and some of the cheerleaders were huddled around it, sampling from every bottle they could get their hands on."

Jen started to feel her heart pounding in her ears, which suddenly registered as heat. She paused again, reflecting on all she had divulged thus far, and wondering if this version of "TMI" was permanently altering her relationships with Sam and Vera, for the worse. Done is done, she thought. Can't go back now, she thought.

"Charlie King was sitting at one end of a long couch, in the darkest part of the room, with Sundae Archer hanging all over him. I think she was attempting a "Lap Dance" but she was pretty out-of-it. At the other end Phil what's-his-name..."

"Harper?" Vera took a stab at filling in the blank.

"Yeah, Phil Harper," Jen repeated. "Well, he was passed out, still clutching one of those small, flat bottles of Bacardi. Scabbie was sitting right next to him, and he seemed pretty high too, but he was still awake. At least his eyes were kind of open, and looking around."

Sam and Vera were getting more, and more wound up from Jen's story. It was blatantly obvious that Jen had a point to make and the ladies had to see it through no matter where they were led.

"I walked up and stood in front of him. I think I must have stood there for a minute, or so, before Charlie King finally yelled something like, "Dude, someone's trying to get your attention." Scabbie stopped looking around and tried to focus on me. I was having trouble focusing, by this point, from all the secondhand dope-smoke. Then he smiled at me and said, "Come here." Jen now told the story as though she were a disinterested observer to the events of that night.

"Jen, you didn't?" Sam asked, with a gasp.

Vera chose to remain silent, maintaining a more cautious approach to Jen story, holding on to her objectivity for as long as she could.

Turning to Vera, Jen continued. "I sat sideways on his lap and he put his arms around me. He wreaked." Jen couldn't make out whether or not Vera was put off by her story. "Then he turned me around to look at him... and... I kissed him."

"Jennifer Del Gado!" Sam snapped.

"He wanted me, didn't he? You know what that's like don't you Sam?" Jen asked, almost accusatorily. There was a tear swelling at the edge of Jen's right socket, showing beneath the bottom of her eye-glass frames. "You know right Vera?" The microscopic pause, that followed, left Jen praying for mercy from her pals, as she began to shrink.

"Yeah, Jen. We all know." Vera gave Sam the nod and they both stood, circling arms around their shivering companion. Though Jen was noticeably taller than either of her friends, her fractured stature became diminutive in their soothing embrace.

"I'm glad you told us, Jen," Sam said, stroking Jen's fine hair.

"Did he try anything?" Vera inquired.

"His hands fumbled around, for a while, till he passed out," Jen answered, without a trace of sobbing. "After that, I went home, and took a shower to wash the "Sick" off."

"Yeeeeshhhhhh!" Sam shuddered.

Suddenly remembering the reason for the telling of Jen's story, Vera asked, "Do you think Charlie King knew who you were? I mean... do you think he would have connected you with Sam and me back then?"

"I'm not on anyone's radar. Then or now," Jennifer answered, joylessly.

"So you're thinking of calling Scabbie up and telling him that you just had to see him right away? Is that the idea?" Vera asked.

"I'll tell him that I haven't stopped thinking about him since "The Last Time." Then, when I'm with him and we're doing whatever we're doing, I can swap the gift card," Jen explained.

Sam and Vera exchanged hopeful/doubtful glances, then returned to Jen for any further clarification she was able to provide.

"We could buy a gift card just like the one they took from Rooney's wallet; you can put a special "To: and From:" message on it, and when I have Scabbie distracted I'll get in his pants," Jen announced matter-of-factly.

Instantaneous and explosive, laughter flew from Sam's, and Vera's mouths in a spray of apple juice, and the odd particle of crumb cake and chips. Jen made a vain effort to shield herself from the barrage of foodstuffs. She apparently hadn't heard herself.

"What?!" she demanded defensively.

"You don't know what you said, do you?" Sam asked

"Whatdaya mean?"

“You said you were gonna distract him then get in his pants," Vera answered, with cocked eye, and raised brow.

"Ooooh. That was bad," Jen confessed. "But you guys know what I meant."

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We know what you meant alright," Sam chuckled sarcastically.

"You guys suck," Jen said, brushing away a bit of chewed chip from her yellow spaghetti strap top.

Pulling a straight face, Vera spoke up, "I can't ask you to do this Jen."

"I'm volunteering my services," she replied, formally addressing her friend with a make-believe curtsy, as though Vera was royalty.

"Jenny-Cat, are you sure about this?" Vera asked, looking for the definitive answer.

"I'm sure V," was Jen's confident response.

"Great! Now I feel like a jerk," Sam announced, with a pout on.

"Whoa. Where'd that come from," Vera asked, not following Sam's outburst.

"Well Jen's willing to seduce a Scumbag to help you out and here I am complaining about seeing Eddie Steele again," she explained, amidst a heap of self-loathing.

"I don't want you to see him again Sam," Jen declared, fearing that her friend could fall victim to an attempt at retaliation.

"She's right, Vera chimed in. "It might be best if you were the "Runner" and transportation captain during this mission."

"What does that mean?" She asked, with a dubious scowl.

"You can take Jen to Scabbie's, and pick her up when she's done. And maybe swing by the garage to make certain Rooney stays out of trouble," Vera said, massaging her fatigued, right thigh.

"Aye, Aye Captain!" Sam sounded off, gesturing her obedience with a loose salute.

The plans, as fluid as they seemed, were now complete. Vera turned to Sam and asked, "Could you guys pick up the duplicate gift card? I'll pay you back tonight."

"Don't worry about it. I gotcha covered," Sam affirmed.

"Let's synchronize our watches," Jen requested, as she checked the time on her delicate, Cinderella-faced watch; a left-over from grade school that still fit her skinny wrists.

"Cell phones!" Sam responded. Appreciating deeply the importance of a nice tan, sans extraneous lines, Sam never wore any of she or her Mother's extensive collection of costume watches during daylight hours.

"2:42, check," said Jen

A quick glance at the Riverdale constituents and Vera asked, "Two-forty-five. Am I fast or is Jen slow?

With her phone at the ready, Sam punched the "Home" button to illuminate her favorite photo of Audrey Hepburn, from "Roman Holiday", as well as the current, Pacific time.

"I've got 2:43," Sam verified. "Jen wins."

"I'm not sure how long it will take to get discharged, once Judy gets here, so let's say we meet at my place between seven-thirty and eight. Okay?"

"Check!" "Check," the girls answered asymmetrically.

"The timing is going to be critical on this thing because we have no idea exactly when they plan to start robbing the next target. We'll all have to be flexible," Vera instructed the crew.

Vera's level of confidence was so pronounced that her friends wouldn't have dared disappoint her.

Detective Fontaine led the uniformed officer to the front of the dwelling, where Detective Kulp and Mrs. Wilkes sat conversing about Rooney and his unseemly girlfriend. A solid half-hour search of the room turned up no evidence linking the delinquent of record, to any of the break-ins, or the suspected homicide of Abraham Jorrisch. No stolen loot, no drugs or paraphernalia, no cash. Nothing.

Kulp's eyes met Fontaine's as he entered the room. A quick, frustrated shake of his head told her the results of the search were negative. Hearing the men entering the sitting room, Suzy Wilkes jerked around quickly, expecting to see armloads of ill-gotten gains neatly sealed into "Crime Scene Evidence" bags. She was left crestfallen.

"Did you find anything?" she questioned the lawmen.

"It's inconclusive at this point," Fontaine answered, as he had done, so many times before, to victims, reporters, and Assistant District Attorneys.

"So that's it? You're just gonna check his room and leave?" Suzy demanded in a clearly disgruntled fashion.

"Was there someplace else, within the home, you think we should be checking? Kulp asked.

"Well, I don't know."

"You have no garage or storage buildings on this property, so if there's someplace else...?" Fontaine prompted.

Shaking her head in disappointed disgust, Suzy Wilkes held the front door open as the crime-fighting trio filed out of her home. She watched them slip down the walkway silently and wished she could be a fly-in-the-car to hear what they would say to each other once they were away from her.

"I still think Rooney's behind it all," Fontaine announced defiantly when they were back in the seclusion of their car.

"Based on what Bob?" Cindy Kulp asked.

'I'm telling you the kid is bad," Fontaine bellowed.

"Well, at least you and his Mother think so. I think we can get a conviction based on that alone," Detective Kulp replied, sarcastically.

"What about his history of b/e?" Fontaine countered. "I think he's up to his old tricks again."

Never having seen Rooney's sealed juvie records, she resorted to quoting her source from Juvenal Hall, "Sure there's the B&E, and vandalism, and possession of pot, but there's nothing in there about an assault, and certainly not murder," Kulp reminded her fuming partner.

"So what do you suggest now Kulp, since you're flushing our prime suspect?"

"I'm just saying that all we have right now is a small pile of circumstantial "nothing" based on an anonymous tip," Kulp parried.

The "Awkward", in the car, factored up to a "+10" for Officer Barnsley, who was obligated (trapped) to drive the contentious detectives back to the station. The associates resigned themselves to a silent ride.

Fontaine kept himself quietly busy, in the passenger seat, texting Captain Pope. The gist of his message was an impassioned plea for a stakeout. Twelve blocks later, when the affirmative came in, Detective Fontaine grew noticeably larger in his seat, puffed up with self-satisfied vindication. He was, however, sly enough to keep his cards covered, just in case.

He settled in for the rest of the ride and grinned a grin too sinister for an officer of the law.

By quickly resuming her job of packing, after her cohorts had vacated the room, Vera had finally finished, and now stretched out on the bed, playing a waiting game. Waiting for Judy; waiting for the plans of the night to unfold, and basically waiting for her new life to begin in earnest. This swirling, bubbling amalgam of thought set off a buzz in Vera's head. In reality, she was obviously more spent, from the late morning's events, than she realized. If there was time to wait, then there was certainly time to reflect. She closed her eyes and started counting backward from a million.

"One Million. Nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine. Nine-hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-eight. Nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-seven. Nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred... and... ninety-... six."

Vera continued counting as she stood in line for food stamps. "Forty-seven thousand, two-hundred and three." Her arms were getting tired from holding her swaddled child. Seeing that the baby's face was covered by the receiving blanket, Vera pulled the top fold aside, revealing an elderly and obese Ginsu.

"Momma loves her baby. Daddy loves ya too," she sang, as she waited. She felt all the weight of her small frame as it balanced over the crutch that was jammed up into her armpit. She had, for a moment, forgotten about selling her solid copper leg down at the auto salvage and scrap metal yard. Vera had been determined to maintain Ginsu's platinum-plated standard of living, which regularly included lobster and caviar, but with Rooney's third strike for armed robbery, landing him in stir once more, health maintenance was winning out over feline, personal preference.

"How long have we been in this line anyway?" she asked the cat. His purr had become laborsome and erratic but caused Vera no particular concern.

Without any prior notification, or a significant sense of movement, Vera found herself to be the next in line, and face to face with Miss Townsley, her Ogre of a middle school, Social Studies teacher, who now served (in this alternate reality) as the only clerk on duty. When Vera looked back, the line behind her stretched on into an eventual and eternal blackness.

"I.D.!" Miss Townsley barked. Each deeply carved line in her brow was exactly were Vera remembered them to be, and they all bent grudgingly as her face took on its most hateful aspects. Her penetrating breath strongly indicated advanced, dental decay.

Vera used her free, right hand to pat-down each of her reachable pockets, both front and rear, with no joy.

"I.D. Vera McAlister!" Townsley shouted, sending a fetid spray from her crusted orifice.

Vera turned quickly to the side, covering her precious bundle's face with the blanket that had morphed into a swath of heavy, red, crushed velvet.

"I can't find my license," Vera whined. "Miss Townsley you know it's me. Please," she pleaded.

"I know you alright," Townsley cackled knowingly. "How are your parents Vera?"

Vera suppressed the impulse to call down curses on her antagonist; deciding that her immediate need for sustenance outweighed any scrap of dignity that she might still defend.

Coming from behind her, a familiar voice called out her name. "Vera?" Turning to face the crowd again, she noted that their numbers were composed of every homeless person she had ever encountered, and included several fellow students who she had already unconsciously assigned to the ranks of the future under-resourced. No one, in particular, caught her eye as she scanned the mob for the individual who called for her.

"Vera?" The voice called louder this time and seemed to swoop at her from all directions.

"Hey Road Runner, that is one fat cat ya got there." Spinning back, towards the counter, Vera found that Miss Townsley had been reincarnated as Wanda Ellenshaw.

"Hey Sweetie, I got something special for the baby," Wanda proclaimed. From under the countertop that separated them, Wanda pulled two large, paper shopping bags full of dead fish, resembling beached, surf-side road kill.

Looking alternately bewildered and grateful, Vera scooped the bags off of the counter, by their paper handles. She wanted to linger, and bring her old hospital buddy up to speed on all that had transpired since their final face to face, but with the masses pressing in on her, from the rear, Vera stepped aside, having acquired her necessaries. "I'll see you next time Wanda," she said sorrowfully.

Wanda opened her creased lips, to return the salutation, but the voice that came out was not her own. "Vera?"

The women locked eyes on each other. "Vera?" the much younger and smoother voice called.

The edges of Vera's vision darkened rapidly around the face of Wanda Ellenshaw, while the voice, (a man's voice) grew louder. "Vera? Wake up girl."

When she eventually emerged from her afternoon R.E.M. state, Vera was greeted by the omnipresent cheer of Andromeda Wallace.

She lifted her face from the wadded bed cover and pushed herself upright to sit on the bed's edge. "Whoa! That was one weird dream," she confided.

"I could tell," he said, tempering the smile with concern. "You were squirming around quite a bit. Are you okay?"

As she considered his question, Vera employed the tip of her tongue to dislodge a nugget of crushed potato chip from a back molar, and quipped, "Must have been something I ate."

"Hospital food right?" he responded, with a smirk.

Vera continued to adjust to her sudden resurfacing to consciousness, while Andromeda stepped up to her side.

"Can I get one last look at the scar tissue?" He asked.

"Hang on," she requested, as though she was experiencing a bout of discomfort.


Looking into her physical therapist's face, Vera asked, "Is Wanda still dead?"

"Wanda... You mean the older lady that was across the hall from you?" he asked, cocking his head skyward with surprise.

Vera nodded.

Andromeda's experience told him that Vera was not fully present, or "In the moment," and he knew better than to shock her into wakefulness.

"In spite of this being a place of healing," he explained in his most reassuring tone, "when they pass away here, they usually stay gone."

"I guess so," Vera agreed, groggily.

"Can I check your leg now?"


Vera automatonically scrunched back the cuff and leg of her shorts, exposing the end of her abbreviated thigh to Andromeda. He noted the reduction in swelling, and the shrinkage, in the scar tissue's over-all length. Gently pressing in, at different points on her leg, he attempted to discover any residual sensitivity and pain that Vera might still be experiencing.

"Where'd you go today?" he asked, without looking up from his examination.

Vera was startled at the thought of being caught playing hooky from the hospital. Now, of course, she was fully awake. How did he know, she wondered?

She proceeded to fabricate a flimsy half-truth about hanging out on the sundeck all morning, with her friends, when a splinter of guilt pricked her conscience, stopping her short of delivering the tale to Andromeda.

"I left the hospital for a while, with a friend," she admitted.

"Go anyplace cool?"

"Well... I did learn a few things."

"Are you okay?"

Vera paused for consideration. She knew Andromeda Wallace well enough, by now, to receive his query with all the concern that was attached to it. This concern extended far beyond an interest in her physical health, and instead, encompassed her life, as a whole.

He must know about the burglaries, and about the police questioning Rooney and me, she realized. If Andromeda knew about it, then so could everyone else around the hospital, she reasoned.

"I'll be fine," she finally answered.

"It's good to learn things," Andromeda said, Making the eye-to-eye link with his client.

Vera nodded.

"Well... I'm off to Big Sur for the weekend so I guess this it Lady," he said, with a smile. He reached out his hand for the customary, formal shake but Vera brushed it aside, hopping from the bed, onto her foot, and wrapping her arms around him.

"Bye," she said, in a muffled voice; her face buried in his chest. Tears were coming incredibly easily for Vera these days, but with all the goodbyes ahead of her, she made a monumental effort to ward off all blubbering... at least for the present.

"If you ever need anything, you know where to find me." Andromeda could feel the young girl nodding her acknowledgment, as her skull moved up and down; grinding into his ribs.

After another prolonged moment, she relinquished her grip and dragged herself back onto the bed. "Thanks for everything," she said, in her best everyday teen manner.

"Don't mention it, kid," Andromeda replied, riffing an impressive Italian Mobster; his larger-than-life smile, now bigger than ever.

"I'll be referring all of my one-legged friends to you, from now on," she joked.

"Hey, if they mention Vera McAlister, I'll take half off each leg."

"Ooooooo, bad one," she scolded playfully.

"Remind me never to use that line at work again."

It was one more hug; then he turned for the door. "See you later McAlister," he said. "You take care of the man of yours, you hear?"


He was gone, and she missed him already.

Vera's stomach churned and growled, and she immediately checked her watch; 5:02. It started her thinking about Pepe, and whether he would be bringing her dinner today. Without a knock the door was then thrown open and there stood Vera's favorite uber-religious, uber-superstitious orderly, equipped with a hot meal.

He had been coached, by his floor Supervisor, not to upset any of the patients. He was certainly aware that the warning would have applied to young, Vera McAlister, and yet he entered her room with a modest, but sincere expression of friendship. Placing the tray of Chicken-fried Steak and mashed potatoes on her rolling table, he politely wished Vera bon appetit. "I hope you are enjoy your food."

The last thing Vera wanted, at this point, would be to frighten the timid woodland creature, so she resigned herself to making no sudden moves that could be misinterpreted. She nodded slowly, and deliberately, then spoke softly saying, "Gracias."

Pepe's eyes lit-up. "De nada, de nada!" he exclaimed as he back out of the room. "You welcome."

Vera lifted the plastic cover on her plate to release the wonderful scent of peppered, cream gravy. This steak was her favorite item on the revolving hospital menu, so she chose it each time it became available. Unwrapping the plastic-ware, and paper napkin, Vera began to salivate, as she was greeted by the next guests, on her farewell tour.

"Did he behave himself?" Jenkins asked, stepping into the room.

"He was fine. No problems, really," Vera answered.


Vera couldn't help but notice the older woman, wearing a navy skirt and blazer, who now stood behind her nurse. In the woman's hands, she carried an official-looking folder that Vera reckoned to be her discharge papers. "Are those for me to sign?"

"Not unless you want me to get us fired?" Jenkins stated, with a note of mock-disapproval. "You're not an adult yet Missy-thing. This is Mrs. Bellar, from "Administration." Judy's got to sign this junk. When is she picking you up?" the nurse asked.

"Any time now," Vera answered, after another anxious glance at her timepiece. Her heart and mind were divided between spending a last few quality moments with her primary caretaker, and actualizing the mission that would vindicate Rooney, in the eyes of the law.

"I'll come back in about twenty minutes. I've got other patients to discharge," Mrs. Bellar advised.

Once the administrator had left the room, Jenkins instinctively went through the motions of her work, checking Vera's temperature and blood pressure in between bites, and charting her patient's fluid intake and current medication regimen.

Vera watched the nurse flit from station to station, around the room, as she devoured her dinner. Vera imagined that, like herself, Jenkins must certainly harden her heart, a bit, as she gets acquainted with each of her new charges. She would have to grow a little calloused when dealing with the carousel of pain, depression, and death that accompany the smorgasbord of humanity passing through these halls. Vera, herself, had made peace with the transient nature of relationships after the loss of her second parent. She was now prepared for the professional "Brush-off", and besides... She deplored the idea of appearing needy before her nurse.

"Vera, I have a favor to ask," Jenkins said, stopping in front of her.

Vera was caught off-guard by the announcement but at the same time, altogether intrigued by the possibilities.

"You've heard me talk about Sophie and Talia."

"Your girls." Vera acknowledged.

"Well I hope this doesn't offend you..." she said, "...but I've told them all about you, and the cat, and your friends."

Vera's mild apprehension unfolded across her face, as she imagined being cast as a tragic Pinocchio; receiving just recompense for her misdeeds, in some twisted parental object lesson, or else, perhaps, being hoisted onto an undeserved pedestal, as a paragon of adolescent virtues. Either way, she was coming unsettled, not knowing which way the worm was about to turn.

"It's hard to be a single parent, so don't you ever take Judy for granted," Jenkins admonished. "Anyway... minus the accident and maybe the nose stud," she joked, "I hope my girls turn out as well as you have."

That was it. Over and done with. Vera crumbled. She reached out to the nurse, in a flourish of tears, and held on tight. Vera wasn't the only one weeping. Jenkins, ever the professional, let her "Mom tears" drop quietly and thanked God.

"Can I get a picture of you to show the girls?" Jenkins asked.

"With, or without?" Vera asked, wiping her nose on the back of her forearm, and pointing down to her right leg.

"I was thinking a head-shot might be nice." The nurse answered, shaking her head with parental exhaustion, in the presence of "Teen Wit."

"Of course," Vera answered, without a moment's hesitation.

It was to be a "Selfie", using the nurse's phone camera. Vera insisted that they should appear together, and soon, with a bit of grumbling and a quick touch-up to Jenkins' hair, the ladies were positioned, with an arm around each other. Jenkins stretched the phone out, and away, as far as she could. "We'll go on three," she advised. "One... Two... Three." SNAP!

Jenkins smiled, with satisfaction, at the results.

"Let me see," Vera asked. She offered no comment or critique, either good or bad, about the image. "You've got to give me a copy," she insisted.

"I'll text it to Judy."

Vera snatched the sharpie from the top drawer of the nightstand and scribbled Judy's number across an unused napkin from her last supper.

"I'll send it on my break," the nurse said, "I've got to get out to the rest of the floor. Buzz me when Judy gets here."

One more hug.













Vera couldn't recall the experience of her last ride in a motorized transport. Of course, she knew it had occurred when the ambulance brought her to Oceanside Surgical Hospital weeks ago, but having been unconscious at the time, Vera was really wracking her brain to remember a specific. The warm evening wind blew through the open windows of Judy's Neon. Having gone cold turkey on the spiking and styling gels for the last few days, Vera's mop blew violently like a flag planted on a conquered hilltop, as the car took her past all the local landmarks Vera had previously taken for granted.

Judy was worn out from her day of work, as well as her final homecoming preparations, but she managed to keep up her end of a "Smalltalk" conversation about the imminent resumption of school on Monday.

As a natural lull in the dialogue rolled in, Vera spoke up, pushing triviality aside for the time being.

"Thanks," she said.

"What for," Judy asked, searching for context.

"For putting up with me."

"Yeah... well that is something isn't it?" Judy said.

Looking down the straight stretch of street ahead, the car radio quietly supplied "Alone Again (Naturally)," as a punctuating soundtrack to their exchange.

Letting the car take them the rest of the way home, Judy quietly constructed the following equation in her mind:

Marry a Widower

+ One Stepdaughter

- The Widower

= One Widowed Stepmother

Despite the repetition of themes from some of Judy's favorite childhood fairytales, the sum of this equation was not the sort of romantic fantasy, she had pictured for herself, as a younger woman. She cranked the volume nob and joined Gilbert O'Sullivan, on stage for a duet. By the start of the last verse, Vera jumped onboard for a splendid three-part harmony.

The house smelled different. That was the first, striking observation Vera made, upon entering her house again. It was a clean smell to be sure, but perhaps a little too clean. The scent had a taste. It tasted like the smell of the cherry incense sticks Vera had received in her stocking, at Christmas, when she was ten. She had made a habit of begging, both her Mother and Father, for the illicit room fresheners every time she discovered them for sale in whatever shop or stores, they might happen to be found in. As her Mother tried to explain, on several occasions, the sticks had to be ignited, like a firecracker punks. Since Vera was not allowed to play with matches and lighters, (especially after the finger-paint burning session in the back yard) the incense sticks would be off limits. Her Father, always knowing how to make his daughter smile, made the undebated, executive decision to take a chance on Vera sense of responsibility. "After all, hasn't she done well with taking care of Paris, the cat?" he'd argued.

The house also carried with it, an under-smell, or after-taste. This fragrance was rising from the wide varieties of flower arrangements that were decoratively strewn around the living room. That wasn't all there was to it. There was definitely another odor that Vera picked out from potpourri. This was, unmistakably, the smell of fresh paint.

The living room had, for as long as Vera could recall, been a boring shade of beige. It was the color her parents had regrettably arrived at as they reached a frustrated impasse, and ultimately, a compromised, when painting their new home, shortly after the move-in. Now the room was a lighter, brighter, sea-foam green. So this is what Judy was up to while I've been away, Vera told herself.

The swarming, unblended fragrances were producing a sharp pain in Vera's head, but she was determined to soldier on. She was home and that was all that mattered.

Hoping that her room had remained unscathed by the end of Judy's Extreme Home Makeover, Vera moved stealthily through the central hallway's maze, dropping her bags, like breadcrumbs, along the path, behind her. In keeping with normal house rules, Judy had left Vera's room closed; dosing Vera with a smidge of satisfaction.

Suspense loomed large for Vera, as she gripped the knob and threw the door open. Something was different. What was it? The bedroom suit was still the same, with the foot of each piece snugged-down comfortably into its correct, well-worn, carpet indention. The carpet seemed more visible now, or maybe it was just more prominent since Judy had obviously picked up around the room. No. That wasn't it.

The carpet's coloring certainly seemed more saturated and vivid. It's been shampooed, Vera realized. That was a first. What about the walls, she wondered? All of the posters were still hanging askew, at their proper, deviant angles, but blasting out of the few, and far between, blank spot, was more of that Sea-Foam green, from the living room. An upshot glance revealed that Robert smith was still on duty, above the bed, but was now anchored to a brighter, cleaner, "Ceiling White" ceiling.

"We can change any of the paint, in here, if you want," Judy said, coming up from the rear.

"It looks great," Vera answered, advancing gratitude.

"Look in the corner, by the closet," Judy directed, with brimming anticipation.

Vera could make out the dark, cylindrical shape behind her camo-cushioned Papasan chair. It looked to be covered in a soft, blurry material, and there was a large, pink bow on top. Moving around the chair, Vera discovered that the barrel-shaped object, which stood about four feet tall, was cover in dark gray shag carpet, and had two large holes (about nine inches in diameter) cut into the side revealing that the cylinder item was hollow inside. A tiny pink triangle, surrounded by black whiskers, popped out of the top hole causing Vera to shriek, and jump back, stumbling as she sat down hard on her freshly cleaned floor.

Vera had never tried walking on her knees with the new appliance but now seemed as good a time as any. She was up in an instant, scooting towards the "Kitty Condo." Her artificial knee joint snagged for a second on the deep-pile, taupe shag. A quick adjustment and she became free again; plunging her hands in, to claim the reward of her recent suffering.

"Ginsu!" she whispered excitedly, as she jammed the cat's head up-close to her lips and bestowed a volley of kisses. Smelling the remnants of this evening's meal, at the corners of Vera's mouth, Ginsu returned the PDA.

She was really home.

When Sam pulled into the driveway, at 1493 E. Pritchett Lane, the clock on the CD player read "7:43 p.m."

"You need a new flower," Jen commented. The corroded, white daisy, in Sam's dashboard vase, was several days past needing to be replaced. Woefully, that duty had been assigned to Eddie Steele in recent days.

"If you pick me up for school Monday morning I'll have a fresh one for you," Jen announced, prepared to haggle if needed.

"Deal," Sam replied.

Once inside the security of Vera's room; and after the collective shock from its cleanliness had subsided, Jen insisted on checking the synchronization of their individual time pieces.

"I've got Seven-forty-six and nineteen seconds."

"Seven-forty-six," Vera answered, after consulting her watch.

"Same here," Sam acknowledge, holding out her phone out, for inspection.

Jen's R.S.V.P. for overnight festivities at Vera's place had already been confirmed so Vera turned to Sam for a likewise validation. "You spending the night here Sambo?"

"Is it okay with Judy?" she asked hopefully. "My parents have this business party over at the Hilton, in Scotts Valley. They're just gonna get a room there for the night."

"Cool," Vera said. "I heard that it's really nice there."

Vera already knew about Sam's wariness, and how it derived mainly from her phobia of being left alone, after dark, in her family's huge house. Vera, who lived closer to Sam than Jenifer did, had been called upon several times to stay with Sam till her parents made it in for the night. This fact was not known to Jen since Sam made Vera swear not to divulge it. Even more humiliating for Sam was the fact that Eddie knew of her fear. He had even helped her "pass the time" once or twice, when her parents were out with his, after the teen couple's relationship had finally reached the physical stage, in its first, and more pleasant iteration.

"And get this. Guess who they'll be partying with?" Sam added dramatically.

Jen's well-exercised imagination made her want to believe it must be someone famous, like a movie, or a T.V. star, but she refrained from answering. Vera just shook her head, too preoccupied at the moment, to offer a guess.

"Mr. and Mrs. Steele. Eddie's parents!" Sam exclaimed, with wide-eyed irony.

"You're kidding," was Jen's dropped-jaw response.

"Did you ever tell them about what that as..." Vera trailed off, indicating Sam's bruised lip by vaguely gesturing towards her own mouth.

"Uh, no," Sam sharply replied. "My Dad would have killed Eddie."

"That could have saved us some time," Jen joked, dryly.

Smalltalk had hit an inevitable lull (even for teen girls) and the room got quiet. Sam decided it was time to ask the question that had come into her mind several times, in the last month or so.

"V... ?"


"What's it like...," Sam began heedfully, "without the leg?"

Jen's ears pricked up at once. She thought that had an adult been in the room they might have given Sam a dirty look for asking such a personal, and painful, question, but all the same she was eager to hear Vera's answer.

"Remember at the hospital today, when you were talking about your trip to Cancun?" Vera asked.

"Sure," Sam answered, unsure where Vera was leading her.

"A few days after you got back from that trip, you came over here to give Jen and I our Señor Frog's t-shirts."

"Mom wouldn't set foot in the place. I had to beg my Dad to go in to buy them." Sam said dejectedly.

"You never had to beg your dad for anything in your whole life," Jen added sarcastically.

"Anyway," Vera continued, "When you got here you told us how you could still, even at that moment, feel what it was like to be on those beaches, or to wake up in that hotel room. Do you remember telling us that?"

"Sure," Sam answered, still looking for clues.

"What about now? Can you still feel your presence in that other place?" Vera asked, hoping she was making herself understood.

"Not really. Well... sometimes. But it's different now."

"It is different now. It's only a memory and you've been away from it for quite a while now. That's what it's like for me. Sometimes the leg and foot are there, but not really. They're only a memory now, and it gets harder to remember each day. It's like that with my Mom and Dad."

Soaking in the heaviness of the room, Vera artfully switched gears.

"Who's hungry?"

The taquitos in the oven smelled exceptionally delicious. Each of the girls had taken multiple turns gaming Ginsu with the laces from Vera's discarded hi-tops, and discussions about "first-day-of-school" apparel had commenced. The elephant in the room had yet to be properly introduced, and so, with a subdued version of interest, Vera finally asked, "Did you guys get the gift card?"

"Check," Jen answered, pulling the card from the front pocket of her cut-off shorts. Vera frankly had yet to scope-out Jen's attire for desirability, as if she knew what teenaged stoners looked for when it came to easy sex. So, it was to be shorts and a tank-top then, Vera thought, checking out the proposed "Decoy", from to bottom. There was no time for a heavy critique of Jen's ensemble, as the plan was now about to kick-off. They would have to leave the matter of Scabbie's taste in women entirely in Jennifer's hands. To Vera, the shorts seemed dreadfully tight, and short. Maybe that made them just perfect?

The gift card, as requested, was identical to the one kiped from Rooney's billfold. Vera made a sincere offer to repay Jen for the "Dirty Dish," but was promptly turned away. Immediately after wearing Ginsu out, when she arrived back home, Vera looked for, and found, an old, permanent Marker in the top drawer of her very own nightstand. She sat on the bed, using her stump/thigh as a desktop, and began crafting the artifact. She spent an extra bit of time trying to make the capital "E," in Eddie, vaguely resemble a capital "R", and she purposely kept the stems on the lower "case "d's" shorter than normal, to appear more like "o's."

Vera knew that the police would question the evidence's authenticity if she wrote, "Aunt Lynn" on the "From:" line, so it was agreed upon, by all, that the gift should have come from Eddie's girlfriend. Sam took the card and the marker, and wrote: "Sammy, with Love."

When the ink was dry, Vera carefully wiped the card down, for fingerprints, wrapped it in toilet paper and slipped it firmly into Jen's hip pocket.

A streak of concern brushed her face. "Did they "Swipe" or "Scan" the card, at the register, to activate it?" Vera asked.

Sam Smiled at Jen. "She knew you would think of that," Sam said, pointing at Jen with her thumb. "She asked the dude where the ten dollar gift cards were and he told her that they had to keep them under lock and key because they were already "Live." The guy had his boss pulled it from a locked drawer, and then the guy scanned a barcode taped on the side of the register. Nobody can prove when this card was purchased."


Sam went to the kitchen to get a bottle of tea, which Judy never failed to keep in-stock. While she was gone Vera asked once again, "Are sure you wanna do this Cat-Girl?"

"Nobody else can do it," Jen stated, as absolute fact.

"Nobody has to do it at all," Vera replied.

"It's no biggie, she answered casually. "It's about time I called him," Jen said, after checking her watch.

"What are you gonna say?" Vera asked seriously. "I mean... are you gonna use your real name?"

"I kind of have to" Jen started. "I was going to remind him about the time we were together at Goldie's party. If by some miracle he remembers me, I can't go changing my name all of a sudden."

"Are you gonna ask for "Scabbie" when he answers?" Vera laughed.

A look of distaste molded its contours to the corners of Jen's mouth. She hadn't considered how to address the weed infested, teen-criminal, up till now.

"Michael Jones," Sam threw down, between swigs of tea, as she re-entered the room. "Ask for Michael Jones."

After his uncle's garage closed, promptly at six, Rooney set his broom and dustpan aside, returning to the reason he had asked Tommy for a job in the first place. He was honestly conflicted. He wanted, on the one hand, to wash-up and burn off all his pent up nervous energy, running (not walking) to Vera's house. The temptation, (and that's what it was now, in more ways than one) to split was so strong at that precise moment; he considered forgetting it all, for the time being. But how could he forget it?

The way Rooney saw it, he had a debt to repay. Maybe because of the way he had treated Vera at the pool, or the fact that he hadn't accompanied her inside Mr. Jorrisch's house, where he might have warned her about the deteriorated planking on the staircase. It could even be because of the personal metamorphosis he had realized, under her inspiration. All this energy inside could certainly be channeled towards a greater purpose than the simple fulfillment of his hormonal directives, though he was becoming uncomfortably aware of the persistence of those yearnings.

"I've gotta finish this thing," he said to himself.

All of the garage's overhead lighting had been extinguished to lend credible effect to the idea that shop was now closed to the public and everyone but Rooney had gone home for the evening. There was only a single, clamp-on work light illuminated to assist in his labor of (love?) now. With "Classic Rock" playing to keep him company, he resumed the final act of his "Swan Song."

He was preoccupied enough not to have noticed the face and hands that pressed against the window, of the side door. In turn, the owner of the face was too preoccupied to notice the unmarked cop car watching him, and the shop, from the darkened, opposite side of the street.

Sitting on the floor, wedged between Vera's bed and nightstand for a sense of security, Jen made certain to set the "Caller I.D." block on her Mother's old "Pay-for-minutes-as-you-go" flip phone, before dialing the number from the school directory. Next, for an added layer of protection, she unconsciously drew her knees up to her chest, as the number began to ring.

"Michael?" Jen inquired sheepishly, into the phone, after receiving Scabbie's standard phone greeting of "Yo!"

Who's calling me Michael, Scabbie wondered? He reckoned it must be some female member of his family, but the sound of the voice was unfamiliar.

"You got him," he answered, at his characteristically, slower-than-life tempo.

It had been conceded by Sam and Vera that they should leave the room to gather more "Welcome Home" snacks, and let Jen make the critical call without undue scrutiny from a pair of teens who were predisposed to dishing out mockery, at the drop of a hat. Left to herself, Jen proceeded to pedal her wares in her famous monotone, softened ever so slightly by the presence of a live male on the line.

"I don't know if you'll remember me, but I've never been able to forget you," she began. Whoa, that was good, she congratulated herself mentally. I should be a writer. "This is Jennifer, from school."


"I was with you... we were together at................. We met at Goldie's party last year." She stammered. This call was going to be a lot tougher than she had first told herself.

"Which one?" He asked sloppily, sounding like he had just been roused from sleep.

"Spring break," Jen answered, realizing that, for Scabbie, all those parties must be difficult to distinguish between.

"No..." he grunted.

Jen suddenly found herself dropped off at an unknown intersection, in an unknown town, with no sense of where to turn in this convoluted conversation. "No?" she asked, hoping for a sign.

"No," he snickered. "Which Jennifer?" he asked drolly, to clarify the point.

I sure can pick them, Jen thought to herself. She felt a trifle self-piteous, at first, that her feminine charms hadn't etched themselves into his soggy, gray matter, and then, alternately overjoyed that a jerk like Scabbie Jones was not abusing her memory in some sick, drugged-out, teen boy fantasy.

"This isn't "The Incubator", is it?" he demanded.

That one stung a little and sent moisture to collected at the corner of Jen's eye. She knew exactly who Scabbie was referring to. In Creative Writing, last year, Jen sat behind a large girl named Jennifer Melkonis. It was widely held, throughout the whole of school, that, sexually speaking, the "Path of Least Resistance" led directly to her. No speed bumps to negotiate. Just a straight shot at a "Sure-Thing." It had been the cruel "Cool Kids", who had dubbed her "The Incubator." After her second abortion, her parents pulled her out of public school, opting for a spiritually remedial, "All-Girl" Catholic school. Jen wished Vera and Sam were with her at that moment, for moral support.

"I'm Jennifer Del Gado," she spoke low, hoping that no one, perhaps even Michael Jones, could hear her.

"Oh... Okay," he answered, sounding reassured.

Jen summoned her will, pushing ahead, coming to the reason for her untimely re-introduction to Scum-boy. "What are you doing tonight?" she asked.

"Goin out later. Why?" he replied. He liked the sound of this Jennifer Del Taco's voice. It sounded real innocent, but with a subtle hint of desperation. In the entirety of his chemically treated existence, it never occurred to Scabbie to wonder why every girl who called on him sounded that way.

"What are you doing right now?" Jen pressed on.

"Just laying around, framing-up." He replied, in mellow tones.

Jen prided herself on being "In the know", but somehow "Framing up" had managed to get by her. "What does that mean?" she asked, out of actual curiosity.


"What does "Framing Up" mean?"

"My mind. I'm trying to get it in the right frame for later," he elucidated, as best he could.

Enough with the chit-chat. It was time, and Jen knew it. The girls might walk in on her at any moment, so, she had to put herself out there, and hope that Scabbie was "In the Mood for Love." Gross!

"If you let me come over right now I could help "Frame You Up."

Whoa, did I just say that really? That was a bit obvious, she thought. I hope he doesn't catch the irony of that one. What am I thinking? Of course, he doesn't get it. This guy is working with half his brain in a sleeper hold. Anyway, Jen thought, I've said it, and now the balls' in his court.

"So what ya gonna do for me?" he asked, with an obtuse sense of curiosity.

"Well... do you have any smoke?" she wondered aloud.

There it is, he thought slowly. There's the guarantee of success.

"You know it," he said. "I've been killing a bag since this afternoon, but there's enough here for the right girl." His leering was loud and clear.

"I'll be over in fifteen minutes," she said with promise.

"You know where I live?" he asked, in resounding disbelief.

"Of course."

"What'dya say your last name was?" he slurred.

Jen knew he was still in the dark as to her identity. She imagined him running to his annual, if he even bothered with such things, to locate her picture as a point of reference.

"Del Gado," she sighed.

"Right. So I'll see y-"

Hearing the voices of her friends, just outside, Jen hung up on the Scabster in mid-sentence. Vera cracked the door quietly and poked her mop of a head in, hunting for a sign that it was safe to re-enter.

"Well," Jen spoke up, waving them into the room, "It's done. I'm in." Her enthusiasm seemed to be appropriately pitched for the task at hand.

"He wants you to come over?" Sam asked, somewhat amazed by Jen's efficiency, and work ethic.

"Check!" She replied, giving the "Thumbs-up!"

"When?" Vera asked.

"I told him I could I could be there in fifteen minutes."

Vera was compelled, once more, to ask, "Is that your final answer?" employing her mocking, game-show host voice.

"I'm going."

Vera hugged Jen, knowing that her friend was growing tired of the repeated inquiries about her level of commitment to the operation. Vera gave her lanky girlfriend a squeeze. Jen felt weightless, and even hollow, in Vera's embrace. Vera resigned herself to silence, and gratitude, and released Jennifer to her own conscience.

Sam grabbed her keys, her bag, and her tea, heading out into the hall, and over to the front door.

"See you when you get back," Vera said.

"Check," Sam reported back, over her shoulder, imitating Jen.

Jen managed to maintain a convincing portrayal of confidence until she was seated beside Sam, in the bug. Pulling out of the drive, the seatbelt warning chime overpowered the sounds of a "Used-Car Salesman" extolling the absolute need for all who could hear his voice to pay him heed, and come in for the "Back-to-School" deals he was hawking.

"Hey," Sam said.

There was no response. Aided by the light from the dashboard, Sam saw that Jen's normally pale complexion had gone ashen. Jen sat motionless beside her chauffeur, gazing out the windshield.

"Hey! Seatbelt."


"JEN!" Sam was shouting now.

Jen, her concentration broken, turned slowly toward Sam, saying nothing. Sam whipped the bug on to the remaining rubble of a driveway, for the vacant lot at 1423 Pritchett Lane. The small car stopped so suddenly that Jens was forced to raise her arms to brace against the backlash.

"Are you okay?" Sam asked, with deepening concern.

"I'm alright," Jen willed herself to respond.

Sam could see that Jennifer's eyes were closed. She could only imagine the unsettling thoughts tromping around in Jen's head. "You don't have to do this ya know. We can go back to Vera's right now," Sam advised patiently.

Jen was not the bravest of their trio. She left bravery to her more experienced, and out-going sisters-in-arms. Loyalty, however, was her thing. And how!

Jen smacked her palms down onto her bare, upper-thighs. Her eyes popped open as she gripped her legs tightly. "It'll be fine. How much further do we have to go?"

"We'll be there in about five minutes," Sam replied, noncommittally, betraying her inner desire to never reach the appointment.

Once they were back on the street, Jen quietly said, "One of these days we'll look back on this night and laugh." She remembered hearing her Father say those exact words to her Mother, as they broke for tears ad sobs, in the middle of one of their more graphic arguments. She had sensed that the end of their yelling coincided with her arrival just outside their bedroom door. This was not remarkable to a six-year-old Jennifer Del Gado, who had dragged her "slippered" feet noisily over the hardwoods, to ensure that her parents would know she was there. Within the month, her Father would be gone for good, and all.

"One of these days we'll look back on this night and laugh." Oh, how she hated that expression; but tonight, she somehow hoped that it could be true.

In another few moments Sam was once more consulting the "Map" app on her phone, and found its directions to be adequate; based on the destination address she had pulled from last year's student directory. Scabbie's house was completely dark. Even the yard light was out, much the same as most of the houses on the Bricker Place.

Sam pulled to the curb, on the right, dimming the lights, as she rolled the Bug to a stop, two houses past "Ground Zero."

"I'll be waiting right here for you," Sam advised her flustered friend. "How long do you think this will take?"

"I have no idea," was Jen's solemn response.

"That's not good enough. We have to have a plan," Sam demanded. "I mean... what if he tries to "Date Rape" you or something?" Sam asked, almost desperately.

"I pretty sure he doesn't think he'll have to," Jen replied, now surging to life in the reality of the moment. "That was kind of the point of me coming over."

Now it was Sam's face that was drained of color. "You're not going to... to...?" she stammered.

"I haven't decided yet," Jen answered. The calm resolve in Jen's answer shook Sam down to her core.

Thinking back to all she knew about Jennifer Del Gado, Sam considered her next move, on the path of "Truth and Justice for All", very carefully.

"You've never done "It" before, right?" Sam asked, once she was more in control of her faculties. She knew that on a good day, she could reliably wield a countermanding influence over Jen. She had asserted that power often enough in the selection of movies their covey would watch, or in casting the tie-breaking vote on where they should go for lunch. This, though... This would be a challenge. She could see that Jen was fully invested in her "Whatever it takes" frame of mind. It was like Jen thought she had to re-enlist her unparalleled devotion to her friends, one more time.

"Not yet," Jen answered, addressing Sam's solemn query. There was something else clinging to Jen's reply. It sounded to Sam as though Jen was saying "Not yet, but..." But what?

"Have you ever done it?" Jen shot back in anger, resenting the question.

Sam was getting antsy now. Everything seemed to be flowing out beyond her control as if "High Tide" was sweeping all her friendships out to sea; first Vera, now Jen. Sam threw out the only lifeline she had available.

"Vera would be so hurt if you did it... you know... under these circumstances... for her," Sam said as a sort of mini-warning.

"Then she doesn't need to know about it," came Jen's defiant response.

Sam grabbed Jen's hands, which were folded in her lap, in a last-ditch effort to make a viable connection with the lost soul seated beside her. The sudden, unexpected physical contact deflated Jen's swelling ego, and she immediately became fragile again.

"Jenny, it would hurt me if you threw away your virginity like this," Sam said sternly. Her eyes were misting over as she clasped Jen's hands tightly in her own. "This is all getting so outta hand," Sam said, shaking her head.

Sam could recognize, through her own blurred vision, that Jen had launched a few tears as well. The pouty effect might be just what was called for if Jen was going to properly affect the "Girl in Need" scenario with Scabbie, but Sam was no longer in favor of continuing the dangerous exercise.

"You didn't answer me before," Jen spoke up, in her smallest voice.

"About what?" Sam asked, pretending to have forgotten.

"Have you ever...you know?"

Sam knew it was a fair question. As the newest member of the group, she was never put through any sort of initiation, or forced to recount every moment of her existence up to their introduction in gym class. Being teen-aged girls the subject of sex had come up enough times that it was no longer taboo, and yet it was nobody's favorite topic to be sure. It had always been accepted as an unspoken reality that each girl was saving themselves for "The" guy, and marriage, or whatever.

Feeling the anticipatory squeeze that Jen was now giving her hands, Sam sighed long and hard.


Sam looked down at the darkened floorboards of the car, where her shin bones trailed-off, out of sight. She was almost afraid to meet Jen's gaze, though she could feel it burning into the side of her head, making the tips of her ears, hot. The sounds of cicadas faded into oblivion in that rush of blood.

The pressure of Jen's grip stayed firm. Sam interpreted this as a sign that she would find no figure, filled with anger or "Shock and Awe", poised to call down curses or pronounce judgments on her. When she braved a glance at Jen's face, she was met with much love, and grace. Then, in a gesture that was one hundred and eighty degrees out of phase, Jen leaned over to bestow hugs and pats of acceptance upon Samantha, who was noticeably moved by the gesture. Wow. Twice in one day, she thought. That's gotta be some kind of a record for me.

Jen looked back to the darkened porch of her "Mystery Date", and sized-up the situation.

"You've got my number on speed dial, right?" Sam asked, with familial authority.


Jen looked back to Sam for a second, then popped the car door open, and stepped to the sidewalk. Poking her head back in she said, "I'll be back in fifteen minutes. Twenty tops."














"Where'd the girls go?" Judy asked, standing in the open doorway to Vera's room.

"I'm not sure," The teen answered, from her Papasan, looking mildly on-edge as she thumbed quickly through her copy of last year's school directory.

"You mean they just left you?" Judy asked, with an air of indignance. "I thought they were spending the night?"

"Jen said there was something she had to do, and she asked Sam to give her a ride," Vera replied, trying to avoid piquing Judy's curiosity.

"Probably some surprise they've cooked up for your homecoming, ya think?" Judy asked.

"Sure. Probably," Vera answered, a little too quickly. Her response felt contrived and she knew that it showed on her face. She went back to pouring over the directory. All she could hope for now was that Judy was exhausted from her long day and that this fact would provide a speedy conclusion to their conversation.

"So they're coming back, right?" Judy felt compelled to ask, amazed once more by Vera's skillful subterfuge.

"Yep." Vera found herself actually regretting her dismissive reply.

"Okay then. I'm going next door for a while then if that's alright?" Judy said, testing the waters with her Stepdaughter. If there was any resistance, at all, she was prepared to recant, and stay home."

Vera unconsciously looked to her bedside alarm clock. It read "9:13." Dismissive or not, she was glad of the opportunity to have Judy out of the way, as the anti-caper progressed. With a gnawing feeling about their crusade developing in her stomach, Vera was busily concocting "Variation A." on the fly, in her head. Judy caught Vera's "Tell", and quickly added, "I could stay home tonight if you like."

"No, GO! Go," Vera responded, like a trigger happy soldier, trying to maintain his cool in the face of the enemy.

"Alright," Judy said, as she turned to go. "I'll be back later."


Vera listened intently till she heard the "CHINK" of the kitchen door's latch, then slid her cell phone out from its resting place, under her right thigh, and pressed "Sambo" from her contacts list, before getting to her feet.

She charged unevenly into Judy's bedroom, finding Judy's purse, as expected, on the floor by her nightstand. Even though Judy was no longer within earshot, Vera naturally clasped the set of car keys tightly in her fist, to muffle the tinkling sounds they would make.

"Yo!" Sam's voice echoed, from the speaker setting of Vera's phone.

"How are things, your end?" Vera inquired expectantly.

There was a pause. "They're okay now, I guess," Sam reported in a tone calculated to convey her heartfelt doubts about events, so far.

It did not sound reassuring. "What's up?" Vera inquired, with apprehension in her voice.

"We had a little breakdown, and a little girl-talk," Sam advised. "We'll tell you about it later."

"Is she inside?" Vera asked, closing the front door quietly behind her.


Vera slipped silently behind the wheel of the Neon, and pulled the driver's side door closed to the point of a gentle, misaligned "Click."

"Hold on," Vera instructed. She covered the mouthpiece with her left thumb and took a deep breath as she turned the ignition over. There wasn't enough power in the car's smallish engine to generate much noise.

Vera propped the toe-end of her Converse-clad, fake foot upon the brake pedal. Sensitivity was minimal. She had to push from mid-thigh down, to make the brake lights come on. This was nothing like Driver's Ed. Vera deftly rehearsed planting the rubber heel of the sneaker while pivoting the toes onto the accelerator. The Neon's over-revved engine pleaded for mercy. Way Too Much, she thought to herself in a panic, swinging the toe cluster back to the brake pedal.

"What was that?" Sam asked.

Without answering, Vera slipped the shift lever into "Reverse" and rode the brake until she had successfully backed Judy's car into the street.

"Where are you V?" Sam wondered with mounting interest.

"Toilet," she replied flatly, knowing that it would quickly put the line of questioning to rest.


Michael "Scabbie" Jones had lived with his Grandmother since he was ten, so allowances had to be made in the décor of this "Bachelor Pad." Through insincere smiles, and Chinese eyes, he had wasted no time in spiriting the marginally familiar, Jennifer Del Gado, through the "Old Lady" sitting room, and into his "Den of Love." Jen was greeted by four walls, plastered with posters and photos floor-to-ceiling, declaring his two, true loves; Skateboarding and Ganja. His new long board rested in a far corner, while a fancy glass bong sat in the corner by the window, sporting a fringed lampshade on top, as a pseudo-disguise. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the room was permanently scented with the medicinal herb, as well as Lysol, and teen B.O. Upon entering the room, Jen remembered Vera's vivid recounting of her minutes in the Jorrisch "Death House", and resigned herself, unhappily, to withstand the funk.

Scabbie was pleased, and relieved, to see that Jen was, in fact, not Jennifer "The Incubator" Melkonis. Jen was equally pleased to see that he was still wearing the light blue shorts Vera had described, during the strategy session. He had answered the door in bare feet, and his tanned, scarred, and scabbed-over, upper body was loosely covered in a sleeveless, collarless, t-shirt covered in small horizontal stripes, of navy and white. His green dreadlocks clashed in perfect dissonance.

"So," he said, picking up a small, electric blue pipe from his dresser, "You ready to party?"

Scabbie was about four inches shorter than Jen. She had a year's, unstinted, growth on him. When you added in his knuckle-dragging posture, the difference between them rounded-up to about six inches.

He was rather lean, and might have been athletic, had his fragged-out mind been so disposed when he was younger. Still, Jen was thoroughly convinced that if push literally came to shove, and he was to attempt any moves of the underhand variety, she would probably be able to outmaneuver the poor, stoned fool.

Jen noted that Scabbie had locked the door behind them. While he taxed his mental capacities, searching for the small, plastic bag of pot (which he had possession of, less than ten minutes before) Jen quietly unlocked the dungeon door.

"You said we hooked-up at a Goldie party, right?" he slurred, in her direction.

Her pale skin crawled, involuntarily, across her arms and shoulders as she caught him looking her over. "Well... not exactly "Hooked-Up", but..." Jen answered coyly, suppressing her revulsion. Her mouth registered a facsimile of a smile. It was all the encouragement he needed.

He moved her way, pipe, and stash in hand, sending Jen a few defensive step backward.

"You want some of this?" Scabbie asked, holding out the baggie of illegal vegetation.

Jen smiled, raising her eyebrows in a modest show of mock interest. "I figured you had a head start on me already, so I swiped a few Ludes off my Ol' Lady to catch up," she improvised. Inwardly she was rather pleased with the ad-lib, as well as her command of the lingo. She prayed that it might keep Scabbie from trying to force anything on her. "You go ahead, though," she suggested. "Maybe later."

He packed the bowl of the pipe tightly with chopped leaf and buds, ignited his lighter, and pulled a hard drag on the stem to draw the fire to the bottom. Jen wanted to laugh as she noticed how chimp-like Scabbie looked, with his protruding lips puckered and wrapped around the bit and lip of the pipe, as if it were a banana. This was not, at all, how Jen had envisioned Huck Finn, back in English Lit.

Scabbie held the smoke in his lungs for what seemed, to Jen, to be an outrageously long time. When he exhaled, he purposely blew the smoke into Jen's face, as she leaned against his bookcase, in some sort of ill-conceived, "Turn-on" technique. She wanted to gag and die, but not in that order. Jen shut her eyes tight to keep out as much of the crap as she could. When she opened them again, she witnessed the "Mark" walking around the room, swaying ever so gently, back and forth. His eyes were nothing more than two, thin slits.

Scabbie's look of somnambulant displacement, not to mention the sickening smell of smoldering weed, prompted Jen to remember her purpose for being in this bad place. She evaluated her possible "Next" move, while the Scabmeister took another drag.

Jen was the first to notice Scabbie's cell phone ringing, deep down in his front pocket. The flashing light from the home screen glowed through the worn fabric of the light blue shorts. Scabbie's reaction time was, by now, noticeably impaired, causing Jen to momentarily considered reaching into his pocket as a helpful, albeit, provocative gesture, which would, in turn, justify her visit. Never mind, she decided, as her host fumbled the phone out of his pants, and up to his ear.

"Skeebop!" he shouted, at about half his normal volume.

Jen concluded that the time was at hand to play the part she had come to play. She stepped up behind Scabbie for a better eavesdrop on his conversation. To seal the deal she wrapped her arms around his waist, then, stooped over awkwardly to rest her head on his shoulder. His hair smelled as bad as it looked. What if the green color isn't from a dye, she wondered? SICK!

"What time?" Scabbie asked the mystery caller.

Jen thought she could make out, "Eleven", coming through, from the other end of the call.

"Where at?" Scabbie asked, flinching as Jen's breath tickling his neck. He not-so-subtly rolled from her embrace, and out of ear-shot. "Why can't you just tell me now?"

As Scabbie continued on with a private conversation, which was obviously more important than his current guest, Jen was left with a stupid feeling of rejection. She stood there abandon, arms hanging pointlessly at her side, trying to pick up any useful tidbits. And then...

"Yeah I've still got it. It's right here in my pocket," he said to the caller while patting the top of his right thigh.

To Jen, Scabbie sounded exasperated, and she could somehow sympathize. She understood that even amongst his friends, Scabbie was probably considered a lesser personality of lower perception. She had often felt the same, within her microcosmic peer group. Thankfully, Scabbie had just provided Jen with the information she needed to complete the mission.

With her adversary's back turned; Jen reached into her hip pocket and pulled out the replacement gift card, toilet paper and all, and kept it concealed behind her.

"Yeah, I GOT IT!" Scabbie uttered in a frustrated closing, before mashing the "End Call" button.

Jen moved swiftly to press home her advantage by stepping up to Scabbie's back once more, and playfully snatching the phone from his hand, then, asking innocently, "Can I see it?"

Scabbie continued looking down at his now-empty hand for another beat, or so, while Jen used her free arm to hug him around the chest. Fortunately for Jen, his phone was identical to Sam's, so she proceeded straight to the "Recent Calls" page, discovering the mystery caller's identity before her host had time to react. The log showed Charlie King's number to be the last incoming call.

"Hey!" Scabbie protested dispassionately, holding up his hand to retrieve his property, as she hugged him all the more tightly.

Again, moving more swiftly than the walking, teenage lobotomy could detect, Jen shoved the phone, along with the doctored evidence, softly, back down, into Scabbie's front pocket.

"Here you go," Jen said, almost purring.

Her hand lingered there, in his pocket, as she attempted the necessary prestidigitation. As an unfortunate byproduct of her gesture, she unintentionally activated a festering gaggle of adolescent, male hormones.

The signal had been given, all barricades had been removed. Spinning out again, to face his guest, and yet still awkwardly tethered to her, the Fake-Rasta-Romeo made his move, which manifested itself as a stolen second base, at a ballpark, somewhere in the Northern hemisphere. Jen's reaction was sudden and violent. She pushed her antagonist back by planting the heel of her free, left hand into the middle of his chest. The result was nothing more than a childish giggle from Scabbie.

Now she was a mad young woman. Correction: A mad young woman with only one free hand, who was still tangled up in the process of switching out the gift cards. She wanted to jerk the hand free of its broadcloth constraint; unleashing it in the form of a flying fist, to wail on her assailant. Instead, she chose the Magician's tried and tested technique of "Misdirection." Wrapping her free arm around Scabbie's neck, she planted a surprisingly passionate kiss on his blistered, and sun-baked lips.

If there were any rumors, about Scabbie, floating throughout the female population of  the school, they certainly didn't paint a flattering portrait of a vital, romantic young man. He was far too coarse and bestial for such subtleties. This display of affection, on Jen's part, spelled nothing but "Green Lights" in his limited, interpersonal vocabulary.

And then... there was tongue.

Jen wished, in that toxic moment, to be suffering from a horrible head cold, and be spared the smells and tastes of the experience. As she fought for a gasp of oxygen, she remembered reading a quote about how creative types like painters, writers, and actors must, necessarily, suffer for their art. For the first time, she understood the true meaning of that sentiment.

She continued to manipulate the contents of his pants pocket until she was sure her task was complete; then extricated her rope-burned wrist and hand from the Forbidden Zone.

When Scabbie momentarily switched his oral fixation to the area of Jen's earlobe, she shot a peek at her watch. It was 10:10.

"Oh, my gosh!" Jen shouted excitedly. The hint was not taken. "OH MY GOSH!" she re-issued.

Scabbie's hands dropped off the radar, only to reappear seconds later, when they crash landed, below the equator, on the dark side of the moon. Still no acknowledgment.

"Is it really Ten-eleven?" she said, in a gasp, without a drop of over-acting.

The seal of suction on her earlobe was broken with a "POP" that was loud enough to hurt, deep down, to her drum.

"Huh? Whadya say?" he asked, numbly relinquishing his death grip on her backside.

"It's Ten-eleven. Well, actually Ten-twelve," Jen repeated, with even greater excitement.

The nature of this particular bit of news was, somehow, able to penetrate the thick fog surrounding Scabbie's consciousness.

"Whoa!" he exclaimed, setting Jen free from is sloppy octopus embrace.

Jen was thankful for restored mobility and surreptitiously deposited the original gift card into her hip pocket. Now what, she thought? She stood there stuck, like an actor unable to remember her next line in the play she was performing.

"I have a curfew!" she blurted, with a hint of embarrassment, and a shrug of the shoulders.

The already sedated libido of Michael Jones was faltering under circumstance. He was, by now, as worked up as he could ever physically get, with that much weed in him. The thought of a willing nubile walking out on him, at this stage, would normally have been a real cause for anger and frustration. And what was with this curfew crap? Why had she even bothered to come over? All the same... since he really had somewhere else to be, Scabbie was persuaded to shut it all down prematurely.

"Yeah, I gotta get outa here too," he muttered. He was pacing around the room now, and Jen began contemplating an exit strategy.

She toyed with the idea that she should promise to come back tomorrow, but since she had already acquired the incriminating item, why waste the effort?

"Well, I'll see you later then," she said.

"Yeah. Later," Scabbie answered, too distracted, by his disorganized rushing to notice Jen slipping away.

As Vera's distinctive, "House-Cat" ringtone screeched-out over the top of the shop's boom-box, Rooney frantically searched his immediate line of site for a shop rag, to wipe away the rubbing compound that coated his aching palms and fingertips. He did not want to miss this call. With the hand wiping job only half-done, he grabbed his cell and pressed "TALK" with a stiff, slick index digit.

"Hello," he said, imitating a prerecorded robocall.

"Rooney?" Vera inquired, having fallen for his ruse.

Maintaining the disguise, he answered, "Yes. This is he. Who is speaking, please?" It might have been the inadequate ventilation of shop fumes, or perhaps that he'd worked eleven hours straight without a break, but he was having too much fun to quit joshing just now.

"I must have dialed a wrong number," Vera said, confidently calling his bluff. "Sorry."

"It's me!" he shouted. "Don't hang up!" He knew that she knew that he knew that she... whatever.

Vera stayed playfully silent on her end of the line for a long ten seconds. Rooney could see the call had never disconnected so he decided to indulge his recently released... girlfriend? When she could finally, obviously hear him breathing on the other end, she broke the gridlock.

"I can hear you panting," she said, nonchalantly.

"I'm not panting. I'm just happy to hear your voice," He replied, audibly grinning.

That one struck her directly in the heart and made her feel warm all over. She didn't imagine herself the type of girl who would allow conversations with a guy to run randomly into schmaltzy sentimentality. In this case, however, if it kept their dialog away from any hint of the master plan she was currently spearheading, then... so be it.

"Are you coming over tonight?" she asked, with conflicted anticipations.

"I want to see you..." he said quickly enough.

Vera heard the unspoken "But" in his reply and decided to let him off the hook quickly, before he started back-pedaling to accommodate her, out of a sense honor or obligation.

"No problem. Us girls are having a sleepover tonight, anyway, so you'll just have to wait until tomorrow to bask in my presence," she said, with a tease. Without warning, the phone slipped from her hand and hit the floor of the now-parked Neon, bouncing around between the pedals and her feet.

"Hello... Hello? Vera? Can you hear me?" Rooney called out.

Vera heard it all, through the phone's tiny speak, as she groped blindly around her feet, (both real and artificial) trying frantically to lay hold of her life-line to Rooney, without accidentally punching the "End" button. Finding it after a moment, she tossed it onto her shoulder and bent her head downward to pinch it in place.

"Sorry, sorry. I dropped you."

"Where are you?" he asked curiously.

"Whadya mean? I'm..." she began in wary disbelief. Do I really have to answer this question again? She knew that the old "Toilet" ploy was way out of bounds at this stage in their relationship.

"Are you at home?" he next asked.

"Um... ya...I mean... yes I'm at home. Why?" Vera replied tensely.

"I thought I heard a car accelerating,"

"Oh...it's on T.V."

"It also sounded like someone's foot slipping off the gas pedal."

"Really? Wow! Specific much?" She answered, with an unintentionally sharp edge.

That last bit went right by Rooney, but he didn't dare ask what it meant. It had been such a long day, after all. He was probably just not thinking clearly at this late hour, or maybe it was just that he was spending so much time around cars these days.

"I have something for you," he announced gleefully.

"What is it?" Vera asked, pleased that the tide had turned on the previous topic.

"You'll see." Now it was his turn to tease, and he was doubly happy.

"Not fair Rooney," she overreacted, in a mocking, childish pout. Vera now found that foolish flirting was not nearly as distasteful or undignified as she had always let herself suppose. "When?" she asked.

"Tomorrow," he insisted.

"How bout a hint?" she haggled.

"It's bigger than a bread box," he offered. "And that's all I'm gonna say."

"Okay, okay."

An immobilizing silence fell over them both, as though their vocal chords were paralyzed. They each had something they wanted to say, and both had something they wanted to hear. Vera imagined that if she could see Rooney, right now, he would instinctively know what she was feeling and could satisfy her craving for affirmation. Rooney was imagining a similar scenario as he pictured her face in his weary mind. Maybe the near exhaustion he felt was working to topple the barrier, or maybe he was now able to draw from some previously untapped well of gallantry. Regardless, he spoke.

"I love you."

Vera was left mute. She was captured by Rooney's style and delivery. This was no spewed-out bundle of nervous speech or an obligatory response. Rooney had actually said it first. Her throat knotted up with a lump, as the familiar sting pulsed deeply in her nose.

Vera covered the phone's mic and took a hard swallow.

"I love you," she responded softly.

More silence.

"No, I love you," he declared contradictorily.

She appreciated his desire to take the edge off the heavy emotional burden, which the moment had ladled upon them, so, she willingly joined in the game.

"NO...I LOVE YOU!" she shouted while suppressing the snort from a giggle that rose up within her. "Good night Wilkes."

"Good night McAlister."

Seeing her friend running down the sidewalk, in the side mirror, Sam started the car. As Jen, now rushing with adrenaline, reached the Beetle, she felt as though she might be able to rip its door off at the hinges. She half-dived into its highly charged interior, becoming a mass of arms and legs, all frenetically working to: sit up straight, buckle seat belts, and lock doors.

"Go! DRIVE!" Jen hollered, not caring who in the world might hear her.

"Are you okay?" Sam asked, looking carefully down the darkened street for collision traps.


"Are you sure?" Sam pressed.

"Just a little "Lite Groping," Jen joked.

"You're too much Jenny-Cat," Sam laughed, through her sore and broken smile. Then, abruptly, Sam caught the scent. The scent of weed. It was all over her partner.

"You reek!" Sam announced candidly.

"Sorry! Hey, can I have a sip of your tea?" Jen asked, brimming with confidence in a job well done.

"It's almost gone, but go ahead if you want."

Sounding a mite deflated Jen said, "That's okay," She sat motionless again, staring out her side window.

Sam felt all of Jen's original energy and enthusiasm falling away. She could tell Jen was suffering the after effects of the intensely personal, and emotionally committed service she had just performed, in the name of friendship.

"I'm thirsty again myself," Sam stated, trying to snap her buddy out of the crash she was going through. "Let's grab a drink and then we can report back to the boss."

"You can if you want," Jen said, without emotion.

Had this been any other night from any of her past summers with Jennifer Del Gado, Sam would have been annoyed by this martyresque behavior. Jen, as both Sam and Vera knew well, was the product of a badly broken home. Money was always tight for Jen and her mom, so the girls went out of their way to keep Jen from feeling too self-conscious about it. Occasionally Sam would grow tired of constantly compromising in favor of free, or low-cost, activities on their "Girl's Nights Out." When Sam had enough sitting around Vera's house, on a Saturday afternoon, a quick call to her Father usually ended in a "One-Time" permission to use the VISA card, which Sam carried at all times "for emergencies only." Sam and Mr. Pritzer would simply treat everyone.

Sam knew that Jen's blues were partially the result of her perpetual, economic disadvantage.

"I'm buying so we're both drinking, and I don't want to hear another word about it," Sam insisted, loudly and aggressively, re-opening the puffy mouth wound. Wincing at the tearing pain, she re-focused her attention on her night-driving duties.

"Thanks," Jen articulated gratefully, understanding Sam's message as received.

Moving around to the south side of "Majestic Import Automotive Repairs", Flipper tried, diligently, to maintain his cover, as well as an unobstructed view of the front and side doors. The mostly-empty lot to the south was occupied with the remains of a structure that had, for years, housed the defunct "AAA VCR/T.V. Repair Service." The roofless shell was constructed of solid cinderblock and its interior boasted an assortment tall weeds and brush, which threatened to tower over the ever-crumbling walls.

Flipper perched himself on the ledge of the glassless, front, display window, drawing his bare, spindly legs up to his chest, obscuring his t-shirt's screen-printed face Mr. Magoo, as he sat, keeping tabs on his subject. There was still a faint glow pushing through the dusty panes of the overhead door, and from time to time, Flipper witnessed shadowy motions coming from within.

This is boring, the skater thought to himself.

Periodically he looked away from his responsibilities, to scan his phone's music playlist, in search of something interesting to listen to. He had grown intent upon finding the perfect slice of a "soundtrack" to his life at this unorthodox moment. The phrase "Apropos" came into his mind. He somehow felt he had grasped its meaning well enough to apply it to his current quest for a song that would be fitting for spying on an ex-friend. The obvious choice, he concluded, would have to be something from "Pantera."

"Don't ask," Flipper explained, out loud, to his imaginary biographer who, just then, was engaged in the taking of copious interview notes for the fictitious, and never to be published, work.

He maxed out the phone's volume as "Walk" began to play. In the absents of headphones, Flipper was obligated to keep the tiny, yet efficient, speakers jammed tightly to the side of his head; a few millimeters below the right ear. His neck muscles worked overtime slamming his head up and down to the visceral beat. Wavy, red hair whipped across closed eyes and gritted teeth, as he became the singer and the song.

Twenty yards away, the overhead door rose slowly upwards, assisted by an electric opener. Within seconds, a compact, white, wedge-shaped convertible quietly nosed its way out, into the parking lot, under human locomotion, as Rooney pushed, and steered it, silently to a stop. The tanned, apprentice mechanic then ran back into the shop, and a moment later, the large, metal and glass door began its descent. At the last possible fraction of a second, Rooney dashed through the steadily shrinking opening, stylishly hurdling the invisible electric-eye, safety beam.

It was the roar of the finely-tuned engine igniting that inevitably interrupted Flipper's jam session. His bobble head eyes required a short interval to reestablish effective vision. Was that Rooney behind the wheel, he debated, as the bright shape darted nimbly onto Encinal, headed east?

"Oh, Crap!" Flipper exclaimed, as his sleeping, right leg buckled beneath him, in a physiologically aborted attempt to reach his feet. His arms went out, into darkness, with the intention of breaking the harsh fall he was in the midst off. His right hand, the one that housed his phone, smashed, screen first, into a pile of rubble and rebar. Next, his bare, left elbow found its jagged resting place, with a sudden, scraping stop. After tears were brushed aside, Flipper inspected the collection of pieces that had formerly represented his phone; the only working lifeline between himself, and his partners in crime.

A few blocks away, warm sea breezes washed Rooney's blonde bangs back, like they were trapped in an unrelenting undertow.

"Driving GOOOOD," he said to himself, in primal, caveman fashion.

Across the street, an unmarked sedan picked up Rooney's trail.


























Approximately ten minutes after Jennifer Del Gado's Houdini-like escape from the "Den of Iniquity", Scabbie rode on the passenger side of the primer-gray, 71, Datsun pickup that Charlie King had "borrowed" earlier that evening, from the secluded, back row of the low-rent apartments on Kepler Drive. Scabbie sat quietly fidgeting; listening to a strategic overview of their greatest heist to date.

"Show me the card," Charlie King requested, in his charmingly smug tone.

Angrily, Scabbie dug into his pocket, pulled out the card, and promptly dropped it into the darkened abyss that was the messy floor of the truck. A solid thud could easily be heard as Scabbie bent over to collect the artifact, striking his forehead on the sun-hardened dash in the attempt. The impact was sufficient enough to pop the glove box lid open, and temporarily fix the short in the glove box light, which now illuminated Scabbie's grimacing face.

"DAMN!" he wailed.

"Did you find it?" Charlie King demanded in a less-than-sympathetic manner.

"Dude, I'm hurtin. Gimme a sec," Scabbie answered back, with an almost defiant edge. His hand swished around the floor batting aside crumpled Ferrell's coffee cups, fast food receipts, and wadded-up straw wrappers, until...

"Got it."

Sitting back, he resumed his trademarked poor posture, which featured slumped shoulders, and a head that balanced on the end of a bent neck, resembling a bumbling, cartoon vulture, as his old friend Rooney Wilkes had pointed out on several occasions through the years.

"Here!" he half-shouted, as he shoved the "Bongo's" logo ineptly in the direction of Charlie King's face. The intruding hand was immediately and decisively slapped away.

"Hey... HEY! You don't wanna go there Scabs," Charlie King advised coldly.

"I'm not an idiot Dude," Scabbie advised cautiously, pulling his stinging hand back.

"Put the card back in your pocket."

Compliance and silence followed for another mile, or so.

"You got any smoke?" Charlie King asked as he proceeded, en route, to Phil Harper's place.

"Uh... Yeah," Scabbie mocked, contorting his face into that of an exaggerated Valley Girl. It was the only impersonation he could do, and it told Charlie King that all was now forgiven.

"Well break it out and let's have some while we still can. Once we pick up Phil that stuff has to be out of sight or he'll bust out in a rash or something."

"Like how is it even possible to be allergic to the sublime?" Scabbie asked sincerely. "I pity da fool," he added, shaking his head. Digging into the pocket of his "Reggae Boys" football hoodie, Scabbie struggled to liberate a rolled-up baggie. Inside it were three, smartly constructed joints nestling into the chopped-up remains of his stash.

With his trusty "Bruce Lee" Zippo ignited, he dragged hard on the burning flora, while Charlie King centered his attention on the street ahead. Holding the smoke down in his lungs till it burned, Scabbie nudged Charlie King's arm to offer up the intoxicant. With a darting glance, Charlie King retrieved the marijuana cigarette; quickly took his hit, and returned it to its bewildered point of origin, while steering them into the deepening darkness.

After another toke/choke Scabbie quietly spoke.


"Will you come in with me while I grab some money?" Sam asked as they sat idling in the darkened "Pritzer" driveway, on Escalon Drive.

This was precisely the seventh time Jen had been invited into Sam's house in the three-plus years of their acquaintance. This was more than likely due to the undeniable fact that Vera was the well-established lead for the play they were all performing in. Nevertheless, Jen had always secretly believed it might be more at the request of Sam's Mother, who probably feared, or distrusted the girls. Either way, she would not pass up an opportunity to enter the home.

Once inside, Sam immediately began flipping on every light switch, providing herself with an illuminating trail of bread crumbs, as she led Jen towards her room.

When the light popped on in Sam's bedroom, Jen noted that all of Sam's bedding and curtains were new, or newer, since the time of her last visit. Next, Jen's sensitive nose detected the aroma of stinky feet; Sam's least endearing, and most dichotomous quality.

Sam bellied-up to her dresser, opening the top-most drawer. She dug up her lucky gym sock, filled with assorted bills, and peeled off a "Ten."

"Okay," Sam said.

Jen took upon herself, the task of shutting off the successive chain of lights as she followed the "Fraidy Cat" out of her home.

"Thanks," Sam confided, as she re-locked the front door. Soon they were on their way over to Seabright Avenue, and Bessie Burgers, for drinks and an order of sweet potato fries to share.

"I can hardly wait to see V's face when you tell her how it went with Scab-boy," Sam intoned, with a mouthful of the sweet, rust-colored fries.

Sitting in the car, devouring her share of the late-night snack, Jen smiled. She was enjoying the bonding time with Sam, which, as far as she was concerned, was long over-due. She replayed Sam's advice, and confession and the memories warmed her stomach till a randomly injected thought of Scabbie's amateurish hands, moving rough, and desultory, across her body, crushed her pleasure with a shudder.

Was there something else though? Had she derived even the smallest particle of pleasure from the interlude? It had all been for Vera, she told herself fiercely. In no time Sam's words returned to the forefront of Jen's brain smothering all false perceptions of desire for the enemy, and prying her from the hurtful clutches of impure thought.

"Jenny, it would hurt me if you threw away your virginity like this."

Jen's smile blossomed again, this time to down-right goofy proportions. Sam snickered seeing her compañera's mug, sending fried bits of starch, out in an explosion rivaling the most professional fireworks displays of Independence Day.

At that moment, Sam could just as easily have puked on the girl, and Jen's reaction would have probably been the same. Jen loved her friend, Samantha Pritzer.

"I love you, Sam."

The laughter abruptly subsided. Sam could tell that Jennifer needed to be taken seriously. With sweet potato parts still dropping from the corners of her mouth, Sam replied, "I love you Jenny-Cat."

Well, Sam thought, this was a Summer full of "Firsts." She and Jen had never, in the past, had occasion to wax quite so sentimental with each other. It was groundbreaking for sure. What might happen in days to come, she wondered?

“Thanks," Jen added, remembering her manners.

"You're welcome," Sam answered flippantly.

"No really... Thanks. For everything." Jen persisted, with mildly glistening eyes.

Sam nodded and quickly sipped her root beer to wash down the lump of "Sweet Potato Fries" building in her throat.

Technically not a legally licensed driver, Rooney wisely chose not to "Showboat" publicly, in the borrowed TR7. It was his goal simply to take "The Wedge" around the block a few times, to listen to its idle and timing. The freedom of the open road was intoxicating enough to wage an inner struggle between; One: Taking off for the great unknown, Two: Swinging by to grab Vera and then heading out. It was Option three: Taking the customer's car back to the shop, and applying the finishing touches on his pet project, that had to win out.

Driving the dark sedan, Officer Dan Barnsley followed from a block behind. He had been tapped, last minute, for the assignment of maintaining a discreet surveillance on Rooney Wilkes. Detective Bob Fontaine's instructions had been very plain: Follow and report anything suspicious directly to his superior.

Following his instincts and training, Barnsley ran the license plate number of Rooney's joy ride. The officer was almost relieved when the car showed up "Clean." After finishing the search of Rooney's room, the patrolman was leaning towards siding with Detective Cindy Kulp, as to the teen's probable innocence, and yet, orders were orders.

Once River Street officially turned into Highway 9, Rooney figured he had exceeded his guest worker visa, and gave up by turning the Triumph around at the entrance to the "Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park." Removing his right hand from the Two-thirty position on the wheel, Rooney switched the AM/FM radio on and dialed to "The Hippo" at 104.3, where the Talking Heads were "Burning Down the House."

"That'll work."

Not trusting the clock on the dashboard, Rooney consulted his phone, which he had thrown on the seat beside him. It read, "11:04." Whoa, he thought, I've gotta get back.

He thoughtlessly thumb-drummed the song's beat on the steering wheel, while inaccurately counting the seconds between streetlights he drove passed, until his gut unleashed a growl of anguished hunger. Passing up Encinal, Rooney laid in a new course. Reckoning it to be a little out-of-the-way, yet well worth the detour, Rooney cruised on, making way to his favorite late-night eatery, to take advantage of its extended, summertime hours.

Eleven blocks, to the southeast of the garage, and with thirteen more to go, Flipper cradled his bloodied elbow, and slogged onward, looking forward to being home, and in bed. By now he had convinced himself that no bag of pot, being dangled before him, was worth all this aggravation.

The tightness of the sports car's suspension had rattled Rooney's bladder mercilessly. By the time he reached Bessie Burgers, his lower extremities were near the point of bursting. Parker's luck smiled favorably upon him so that he was able to grab a space by the door. Jumping out, he moved quickly, but cautiously, to the "Men's" room inside. The trailing, dark sedan grabbed an empty slot, two spaces to the right, remaining unnoticed by his quarry.

It was now Jen's turn to expel refreshments. Catching sight of "Rooney's Run for the Restroom" Jen reflexively shot cold, stinging, root beer from her nostrils, followed up by gagging and choking.

"OH MY GOSH!" Sam shouted, as she sat her drink down and began leveling a series of sharp smacks on Jen's upper back. "Did a fry go down the wrong way?" she asked.

"Roon..." Jen gasped.

"Roo...ney... just ... went inside." Jen breathlessly worked hard to get it all out.

"Where?" Sam asked, in disbelief.

Jen sputtered a few more times and raised a weak arm to point towards the entrance.

"How could he even get here?" Sam asked rhetorically. Within a few more seconds, she spotted, and recognized, the convertible Rooney had been working on, earlier in the day. "What's he doing here," she asked, reminding herself to stop whacking Jen.

"Do you see Flipper anywhere around here?" Jen asked hoarsely, between throat clearings.

Both girls scanned the parking lot for likely suspects. No sign of Bozo the Clown. It amused Sam thoroughly, just how easy it had been for Rooney to slip the noose prepared for him, by the Great Eddie Steele.

It was Jen who recalled the dark car pulling up and parking mere seconds after Rooney's arrival. She couldn't remember seeing anyone getting out, but noted the crew-cut stylings of the man behind the wheel.

"Look at the dark blue car over there," she said, pointing out the unmarked, city vehicle. "Check out the guy. Well... he looks pretty old, though. Like "Thirties" or something," Jen said, ultimately ruling him out as a member of Eddie Steele's Crime Incorporated.

Sam was not so quick to dismiss him as a potential threat. Although she was seeing him under parking lot lighting, which tended to hood the eyes, she knew the face and the burr-cut.

"That guy's a cop," she insisted.

"How do you know?" Jen asked, not truly expecting a credible answer.

"Cause he's the cop who gave my Mom a ticket when she ran the red light two weeks ago, coming out of the mall. She's gotta go to Traffic Court on Monday."

"What should we do?" Jen panicked

"I don't know," Sam retorted, sounding more like "Don't ask me!"

"None of this was part of the plan," she added.

A heartbeat later Cyndi Lauper thoughtfully cracked the shell of tension that enveloped the interior of Sam's car. "The Phone Rings... in the Middle of the Night. My Father Yel..."

"Hello, V?" Sam answered with relief, impressed, as always, by Vera's impeccable timing.

"Where are you guys?" Vera asked, feeling out of the loop and abandoned.

"We're at Bessie Burger. Guess who else is here?"

Vera picked up on the tension in Sam's reply. For a girl who prided herself on maintaining control; Sam had now reached "DEFCON 2."

"Who's there," Vera replied, like the straight man in a Knock, Knock joke.


Charlie King cut off the headlights of the truck before turning into the drive at 742 Escalona Drive. The full moon was bright enough to provide serviceable illumination, while the darkened, east side of the home, under the carport, provided a shady cover against the odd passer-by.

Phil occupied the coveted, "Shot Gun" position, replacing Scabbie, who hadn't finished his roach by the time they reached Phil's apartment house. The Scab Master opted for a contained sprawl within the bed of the small truck, completing the trip, and the toke, under the starry sky.

When the parking brake was set, and the old truck had wound-down its pendulum-like sway; courtesy of its worn-out suspension, Scabbie grabbed for the side of the truck bed to steady himself. With his free hand, he reached under the small of his back, dislodging the crowbar he'd been laying on top of for the entire ride. This was the self-same tool that had seen the apprentice thieves through most of their previous break-ins. He handed it out to Phil, who received it gently, into his upturned palms, like a Japanese warrior receiving his katana, during the commencement proceedings at a Samurai graduation.

Scabbie rolled slowly out of the truck bed and tottered over to the others. As usual, Charlie King would act as lookout and wheelman, and therefore would not be entering the location. This fact always rubbed Scabbie the wrong way, but, he never remembered to vent his frustration later on. Scabbie and Phil moved in close to Charlie King's open window, to receive their final briefing.

"We got a special request tonight Boys. This one's personal."

The break-in artists nodded their acknowledgment not really understanding, at all, what Charlie King had meant.

"Now, as quietly as possible, I need you guys to toss the place. You can take anything that you can carry in your pockets, but nothing big. Got it?" Charlie King instructed his playmates.

More nodding.

"Scabbie... You got that card ready?"

Scabbie angrily stabbed his hand into his pocket, intending to produce the stupid thing, finally silencing Charlie King once and for all. He felt around, for a time, but the pocket was completely empty. He glanced painfully towards the bed of the truck, before he began, in desperation, to pat himself down, from top to bottom. His breathing transformed itself into frightened hyperventilation, as wild hands grasped at the loose fabric of his clothing.

"Check the other pocket numb nut," Charlie King warned; his patience now fully expended.

Slowly releasing his wrinkled self, Scabbie reached into his right pocket discovering the "Holy Grail."

"Got it," He answered sheepishly.

Reaching under his seat, Charlie King produced the plastic, shopping bag that held the uniform of the day. He quickly passed out a one-size-fits-all, white paper, painter's coverall and a pair of latex gloves, to the others.

Predictably, Scabbie struggled with dressing himself, particularly with the jumpsuit's elastic gathers around the wrists and ankles. Charlie King, who showed great wisdom, and restraint, when picking his battles with Scabbie, decided against any further chastisement.

As Phil and The Scab presented themselves for final inspection, Charlie King spoke up again, with a final word, "You got about five minutes. Make it count."

"I think Rooney's got a policeman trailing him" Sam stated into the phone. "A cop pulled up in a plain, black car, right after Rooney got here," Sam was gracefully testing the waters of Vera's composure on her first night of freedom.

"That figures," Vera replied, with a throw-away lilt. "It's good that Rooney is being seen out in public. And if the police want to follow him around till he goes to bed, then at least they'll know he wasn't burglarizing some house."

Doesn't anything bother this girl, Sam wondered? I'm worried, Jen's worried. Why isn't Vera worried? Why doesn't she wanna know how I know the guy's a cop? I give up, she thought to herself. "What do you want me to do?" Sam asked, with a sigh.

"Ask him if he wants to come over with you guys."

"Rooney or the Cop?" Sam answered sarcastically.

"Rooney, of course, you wicked child," Vera answered, adopting the persona of a British, "All Girl" school teacher.

"He jumped out of a car and ran inside," Sam explained.


"We don't know. We haven't talked to him."

"Does he know you're there?"


"Do you think he knows the Cops are following him?

"No idea."

"Any idea whose car he's driving?"


"Where's Jen now?"

"Sitting right here. You want me to put her on?"


Sam handed the sleek, white phone to Jen, and turned her attentions back to the entrance of the restaurant.

"Hello?" Jen said.

"I can hardly wait to hear all about your adventures in "Sleazeland," but right now I need you to do something else for me," Vera said, buttering up her friend before throwing out the next assignment.

"Shoot," was Jen's carelessly concise reply.

"Take the phone inside, then find Rooney and let me talk to him. Be discreet Jenny-Cat. I mean about the cops. Don't let the Police see you and Rooney together if can help it, okay? Oh, and one more thing... Have some fun."

A grinning Jen exuberantly answered, "Roger Dodger!"

Without a word to Sam, Jen popped the lock and hopped out of the beetle-bug, skipping her way across the lot, towards Bessie Burgers. Witnessing the spectacle, unfolding before her, Sam stayed put, knowing instinctively that this newly improvised maneuver must be exactly what "H.Q." had requested. Overtaken by uncontrollable laughter; Sam appreciated being cocooned up in her VW, sparing the world outside.

She observed the officer shaking his head, in disbelief, as a very child-like Jennifer Del Gado skipped up the sidewalk, on a direct course to his car. Sam's laughter re-enlisted as Jen, veered sharply for the entrance at the last possible second, deftly avoiding a collision with an ancient, leathery-tanned surfer couple, who exited the joint.

Inside Bessie Burger, Jen surveyed the lobby. No Rooney. Next, she eyeballed the dining room. No Rooney. Finally, on to a serious study of the front counter area. Strike Three! No Rooney. She drew the phone up near her ear. "I don't see him," she reported.

Without any advanced notice, the door to the "Men's Room" sprang open violently, revealing a frustrated, and somewhat damp, Rooney Wilkes. He marched into the lobby, aimlessly slinging water droplets from his hands, and halting a mere six feet from where Jen currently stood frozen.

Her smile re-bloomed at the sight of Rooney, and she immediately started his way until...

"Ya got no paper towels in the bathroom!" He shouted, catching the eye of the Goth chick behind the register. A simple shrug was the only thing she had to offer by way of explanation or apology.

Rooney's voluminous vocalization had stopped Jen cold; dead in front of her target. With eyes big enough to suggest an escaped convict caught in a search light, Jen reflexively raised her arm and extended the cell phone towards Rooney, just barely holding it by her fingertips.

There they stood, Rooney, panting angrily, with his sopping digits poised like a Grizzly on the attack, and Jen, still as a statue, praying not to be mauled by the unruly beast before her. It took a moment, or so, for Rooney to recognize his confronter.

"Hey," he tendered as a greeting, taking deep breathes to reclaim his cool. His eyes shifted down to the item Jennifer Del Gado presented as... a peace offering?

Following his eyes down to the tips of her finger, and back again, Jen whispered, "It's Vera."

As before, the quandary of the wet hands took "First Chair" on Rooney's list of "Things to get done in the next five seconds." The front of his work shirt was far too greasy to act as an effective stand-in for the truant paper towels. Rooney was glued to the spot; hands hanging as limp as a leper and preparing to cry "Unclean" if Jen should happen to burst his personal space bubble to force the phone on him before he was ready.

Quick-thinking Jen reached over and grabbed a too-huge wad of napkins from the chromed holder on the table next to her, freaking out the "First Date" occupants of the booth, in the process.

Rooney unsystematically wiped, smeared, dabbed, and blotted his hands, dropping used napkins on the floor along the way. "Thanks," he told her, finally achieving a look, and a sound, that was a tad less anxiety-ridden. Just then, it struck him; Vera had to have heard the ruckus. Well... let's find out, he decided. Even as he raised Sam's phone to his head, he could hear Vera chuckling from the other end.

"Hello," trickled out of Rooney, as a tsunami of foolish feelings consumed him.

An everlasting period of girly giggles followed. Hearing Vera over the high-quality speakers induced a stuttering snicker that percolated up, and out of Jen, in a series of bizarre, nasally sounds. She quickly wrapped her arms around her bare shoulders to reduce the physical effects.

"Is this... a bad time?" Vera asked.

"What's going on?" He asked, in a state of bafflement. "I thought Jennifer was going to be with you tonight?"

Speaking off-handedly, Vera replied, "Oh, well she and Sam had some errand to run or something, but they'll be coming back soon."

"Samantha's here too?"

"Outside in her car," Vera verified. "They saw you run into the restaurant, so I asked Jen to bring you the phone." Vera was still actively deliberating whether to tell Rooney about his official, police escort. At last, she understood it would be in his best interest to be armed with the knowledge.

"Sam says there's a cop outside. She thinks he might be following you." Vera advised.

Rooney's mind raced, ricocheting off of angles and arguments. Had he broken some traffic law? Did they suspect the vehicle he was driving to be stolen? This was, no doubt, a continuation of the hassles he'd gone through with Detective What's-his-name? Rooney forgot himself and his surroundings until Vera cut in with a question.

"What are you gonna do now Wilkes?"

Rooney had grown to adore having Vera called him "Wilkes." He understood just what she meant when she said it, and it felt good to finally be certain of something involving a girl.

Back to the question, as posed; Rooney knew what he was going to do all right. He also figured that Vera would likely try to talk him out of it, if she knew, so...

"I'm going to take the car back to the shop and then go home. I'm pretty beat." That sounded good, he thought. Very convincing.

"Tomorrow then," Vera said, as she motored cautiously through suburban Santa Cruz.

"I know you can't say anything with Jen right there," Vera whispered, "but... I love you. Good night."

There was a two-second pause followed by a stuttered, "Goo... Good Night." He jabbed his thumb onto the red, "Call End" button and thrust his arm out, practically smashing the phone in Jen's face.

He just couldn't say it. Not with Jennifer Del Gado standing there. He knew that, because Vera had let him off the hook, he wouldn't have to take a beating, but still... Why? The moment's reflection loosed another unpleasant thought. I not only didn't tell her I love her but also, I lied to her.

With a stealthy dodge of the oncoming communication device, Jen inquired, "Is everything okay?"

"Yep," was his miserly response.

They stood awhile, taking turns examining the floor tiles and the promotional window clings, as etiquette and protocol exited the dining establishment without fanfare.

"Could you and Samantha do me a favor?" Rooney asked the suspicion prone young woman.

"For instance?" Jen probed, with a critically furrowed brow.

"Where's this cop parked?"

"Two spaces to the north of you."

From a vantage point that was still out of the officer's line of sight, Rooney scoped the parking lot till he spotted Sam's bug. "Have Samantha pull around to the west side of the building, near the pick-up window, and I'll meet you guys outside," he said, suggesting the hint of an intriguing plan of his own.

"Alright," Jen replied with blatant uncertainty. She curiously stayed put. Her convincing still needed some convincing.

"What's the problem?" Rooney asked.

It wasn't exactly that Jen didn't trust Rooney. After all, if Vera had a super-sun- shiny feeling about him then he must be okay. And yet... For the time being, she chose to remain immovable.

"I only want you guys to pick me up, drive around the block, and park so we can watch the cops for a while," he explained, hoping for a more pliable Jennifer Del Gado in the end.

"Okay," Jen answered, suddenly. "We'll see you on the other side.

Rooney was, at once, dumb-struck, and unsure that he could accept the ease of her persuasion.

"Really?" he asked. "You'll do it?"

"I said okay," Jen announced, over her shoulder, as she reprised her skipping for the return voyage. In her head, she was thoroughly enjoying the thought that she presently held all the cards in a game to which Rooney was utterly oblivious. Can't get too cocky, she silently informed herself. Moving out, into the warm, night air, Jen refrained from looking directly towards the officially "unmarked" vehicle but was still aware of the officer's presence behind the wheel.

Sam was in her third, or fourth, minute of intense deliberation about galloping in to retrieve her playmate, when she caught sight of Jen's choreographical rendition of "We're Off to See the Wizard." Samantha released a stampede of guffaws.

"Oh...My...GOD!" she managed to choke out, through her laughter.

Sam found herself looking from one occupied car to the next, throughout the capacity-filled lot. She soon realized that it might be appropriate to feel embarrassment, as a result of the unfolding pageantry, should anyone incidentally connect her to the star of the show. No way, Sam thought. This was just too good. Sam noted the undercover officer's professional disregard for the artistry, and wholesome, family value of the entertainment on public display. Soon, Jen popped the passenger-side handle and slid in beside Sam.

She was seated, and buckled-in, in no time, while Sam breathlessly waited to receive the word.

"Drive around the building to the far side."

The crowbar, as it had done throughout many of their previous outings, was proving a handy tool for prying the side door from its frame, and Phil worked it with confidence. Charlie King's insider "Intel" had assured the semi-pro crooks that there would be no alarm system to contend with.

Coming in the side kitchen door Phil saw, and grabbed, a banana out of a bowl of fruit sitting on the countertop between the stove and the fridge. Saving it for later, he shoved it passed the fully zipped collar of his coveralls and let it drop the full-length of the coveralls, into a pant-leg, as he led Scabbie into the main body of the residence. The home's large south-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows, and ultra-white interiors eliminated the need for flashlights once their eyes had become acclimated to the darkness. Phil pointed out a large flat-screen T.V. above the fireplace, sending Scabbie, and the crowbar, on a collision course, poised for destruction.

"Dude!" Phil shouted, at one-third his normal volume, as he witnessed Scabbie about to bash in the infinitely dark screen. Registering Phil's warning, Scabbie withheld the full force of his wild swing, resulting in only a glancing blow to the flat void.

"What?" Scabbie hollered, full blast.

"SSSSSShhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Phil, the disciplinarian, scolded. "Take it off the wall first. Then you can gouge its eyes out. And try to be quieter," he commanded, once more, in his hushed voice.

“Oh. Okay," Scabbie muttered with characteristic compliance.

Phil unzipped the front of his jumpsuit, exhuming a box knife from the front pocket of his shorts beneath. Flipping the blade out switchblade style, he grinned as he prepared to render his masterpiece on the living room upholstery. Moving with movie ninja stealth, from chair to loveseat, to sofa, he carved out brutal "X's" on each cushion.

After a winning bout with the television, Scabbie next entertained himself by roughly dragging the hooked end of the crowbar, across the drywall of the home's main artery until he discovered the master suite. The room décor was darkly different from the rest of the home but once again large windows provided a copious allowance of moonlight.

As had so often been his experience, Scabbie easily located a jewelry box, belonging to the Lady-of-the-house, resting prominently in plain sight, on the cherry wood dresser. Tossing his iron implement roughly onto the dresser, Scabbie snatched up the box of booty. Then, turning his attentions to the California King behind him, he grabbed the first pillow, from a three-deep row, and shook the pillowcase frantically till the pillow was successfully dislodged. With a not-too-shabby soccer kick, he sent the, already air-born, pillow off into a darkened corner of the room.

"He Scores!" Scabbie silently screamed, pumping his fist for a stadium full of crazed fans. As the moment of imaginary adulation passed, he was forced to look down at the items in his hands, for contextual clues, to remind him of his present purpose. After the fog lifted on a moment of sincere, identity crisis, he shoved the jewel box into the empty case and shook it wildly to loosen its hidden treasures.

From the living room, Phil called, "Time." And though there was so much being left behind, Scabbie retrieved his tool, shouldered his loot sack, and soldiered out to rejoin the lost patrol.

"Let's go," Phil ordered, standing by the side door where they had entered.

As Scabbie brushed passed him in the doorway, Phil grabbed the Scabster's upper arm and pulled him gently back in.

"Did you leave the card?" Phil asked, without really needing to.


It took a few seconds for Phil's question to reach Scabbie's receiver, due to the satellite delay. Ultimately, his face became so flushed that it could have served as an independent light source of its own. He tore at the zipper of his coveralls, and performed an ad hoc "Strip Search." When, at last, the gift card was uncovered, Scabbie looked to his accomplice, praying for a show of mercy on Phil's shadowy face.

"Dude," Phil said, frowning, and shaking his head in mock disbelief.

"Man... don't tell him. Please?" Scabbie groveled.

"Just drop the stupid thing and let's go," Phil replied; his irk rising be degrees.

Scabbie wanted simply to be rid of the card once and for all. He paused briefly to look at the back side, then gently pitched the flattened rectangle, horseshoe style, towards an open spot of the carpet that he reckoned to be a main traffic area for the room. It landed with the "To: and From:" side facing upwards. Scabbie observed it there on the ground, framed as it now was by tufts of white cushion stuffing. "To: Eddie," it read. He smiled at a job well done.

As had become the pattern of this band of merry thieves, Charlie King sat behind the wheel, a few houses down the street, with lights off and motor running. When Phil and Scabbie stepped out onto the shadowed driveway, they both searched up and down the street to locate the Datsun.

"There he is," Phil whispered, pointing to the west and unzipping his coveralls. Taking the cue from his cohort, Scabbie tore off the painter's gear and stuffed it into the pillow case.

"I'll go first," Phil said. "Give me about thirty seconds."

"Skeebop," Scabbie agreed.

Stepping out into a pool of moonlight, Phil strolled casually towards the small pickup, without a care in the world. Once the requested thirty seconds had elapsed, Scabbie engaged his Neanderthal trudge and made tracks towards the getaway vehicle. Fancying himself as a modern-day Robin Hood, he proudly swung the pillowcase of booty onto his shoulder once more.

A few dozen yards to the east shrouded in the shadow of a cluster of palm trees, Vera's watchful eye kept careful account of the current happenings on Escalona Drive.

How did she know? How did she always know?





























On the far side of Bessie Burger, Jen spontaneously hopped out of the car, abdicating the front to Rooney, and squeezing her thin frame into the tiny back seat.

"Hello again," Sam offered as a greeting.

"Hi," Rooney answered apprehensively. "Why are you guys here?"

"The same reason you are," Sam answered as a matter-of-fact.

"You both needed to use the bathroom really bad?" was his confused response.

"No," Jen shot off, from the rear of the car.

We're here for the Sweet Potato fries, of course," Sam said.


"Where to?" Sam asked, gleefully anticipating the fun ahead.

"Pull out to the left, here," Rooney answered, pointing to the exit on the right. "Then go down a couple of blocks and take another left." Feeding off the energy of his female co-conspirators, Rooney felt less ashamed of his earlier phone faux pas, and was now able to join in with the spirit of the thing, and yet there was still something... not right. Were these girls following him? Had Vera sent them out to check on him?

When Sam spotted a sufficient break in the stream, she moved out into the late-night, summer traffic, following Rooney's directions as received.

Hermetically enclosed in the Bug's interior, Rooney nostrils filled with the potpourri of fried foods, salon-grade hair conditioners, and... smelly feet? There was something else in the mix, though; subtle but unmistakable to his palate. Rooney smelled ganja.

"Here?" Sam asked, nearing the two block mark.

"Huh?" Rooney asked; his nasal reminiscing having been interrupted.

"Do I turn here?" Sam asked frantically.

"Just turn Sam," Jen barked from the backseat.

Having completed the slapdash turn, Sam was anxious for more specific info. Checking Rooney out, Sam accurately read the trouble on his face.

"Now what?" Sam inquired delicately.

Rooney broke away from weighing all the options for the origin of the odor long enough to advise, "Loop around and take us back to the parking lot."

Jen rested a hand peacefully upon his shoulder, startling him in the process. He flinched. Perhaps the news of his recent police tail had made him edgy, or he might simply be tired from the very long day he was having. Either way, Jen was not offended nor did she remove the hand that now patted him softly.

"Take the next left then, pull back into the rear of Bessie's lot," Rooney instructed, as he scanned the streets for anyone else who might be following him. He recalled the paranoia he had felt during his early pot smoking days. It had never occurred to him that those feeling somehow magically left him over time. Now that grip of apprehension, mistrust, and fear, was all over him again. His stomach panged him hard and his palms felt moist. This is not good, he thought.

Sam dropped quietly into the rear entrance of the Bessie Burger parking lot as agreed. The trio was just in time to witness Officer Barnsley entering the restaurant.

"He's looking for you Rooney," Sam stated, in astonishment.

"Pull up to my car," Rooney ordered.

Sam swerved gracefully through the labyrinth of lanes, stopping abruptly behind the pointy, white convertible. Rooney tried not to swing the car door to wide, but he sensed that time was not currently his ally.

"Where are you going?" Jen called from the back.

"I got to get the car back to the shop," he answered fearfully.

"We'll follow you there," Jen offered.

Sam, knowing that Jen's suggestion would most probably be in accord with Vera's wishes, nodded her agreement to Rooney, through her closed window.

"Sure," he said, keeping his head low as he slipped quickly over the door of the open-top car, and behind its wheel.

Sam rolled the bug forward two slips and threw it into "Park" directly behind the policeman's stakeout vehicle, as Rooney cautiously ignited the Triumph's eager engine.

Officer Pat Barnsley was dumbstruck, seconds later, to discovered the empty parking space as he hit the sidewalk outside. Scanning the lot unsuccessfully for Rooney Wilkes, his countenance slumped into a heap of disappointment, right there on the pavement. Breaking into a stunted sprint, he slid into the dark sedan and began to pat himself down for the keys. Wrestling them from his front pocket while seat-belted in, proved a difficult task for the man who was already constructing his explanation/apology for Detective Fontaine. When he finally got the car started, he instinctively dropped the shift lever into "Reverse", then wrenched his neck, shoulder, and arm, looking for a clear path to back out. Seeing the perpendicular, black Beetle Bug in the nick of time, he jammed his twitchy foot on the brake, rocking himself violently. Officer Barnsley leaned hard on the horn.


"Move out of the way!" Barnsley bellowed out his window.

Sam crept forward just enough for the policeman's car to clear the space, provided he didn't intend turning his vehicle to either the left or right.


"Come On!"

Sam snickered as she let off the brake and rolled slowly towards the exit. She rewarded herself for providing the necessary cover for Rooney's getaway by shoveling cold, sweet potato fries into her mouth.

"Hey? Save some for me," Jen protested, from the rear.

As Scabbie piled into the cramped cab of the small pickup, the first words out of Charlie King's mouth where predictable.

"Did you leave the gift card?"

Hurt and tired, Scabbie opted to answer without protest.


Charlie King looked to Phil for confirmation and received it in the form of a quick nod.

"Well then we're outa here," Charlie King advised, as his slowly pressed the gas pedal to climb the gentle incline of the street ahead.

A few blocks down Escalona, Phil asked, "What did you mean about this being a special request?"

Charlie King drove on, all the time deliberating the notion of letting his buddies in on the little joke Eddie had cooked up. Several silent seconds later, he spilled.

"That was Samantha Pritzer's house."

"Eddie's girl?" Phil asked in wide-eyed awe.

"Ex-girl I should think," Charlie King added, with a wink in Phil's direction.

Running several beats behind the melody, Scabbie joined the chorus with a harmonized touch of the obvious, "You mean that was Eddie's girlfriend's house?"

Both Phil and Charlie King's faces collapsed under the exasperating weight of Scabbie's words. Their heads dropped in unison.

"Yes, Scabs. Could you pick up the pace a little?" Charlie King cautioned scornfully.

The sarcasm (once it was recognized) sent Scabbie straight into a pout. He inclined his weary head against his window and closed his dry, heavy eyes.

Kiss my a*s, he imagined himself saying to Charlie King, in front of the rest of their group, at some opportune, future, moment. He could visualize them all laughing at Charlie King, though he could not hold the image for any enjoyable length of time. The grind of the forsaken engine, along with the road's vibrations had done their job of lulling Scabbie almost totally to sleep when...


"Hey, Eddieeee! Ya man it's me," Charlie King shouted, rhapsodically, into his phone, trying to outdo the motor's noise. "She's a done-deal man."

Charlie King's overweening voice had commenced picking at Scabbie's soft center again. Scabbie locked his lids down tight and tried hard to form images of tossing the gift card onto the floor, just to reassure himself that he wasn't the total screw up he was frequently made out to be. The vision had nearly, fully materialized as he caught the sound of his name being taken in vain.

"That's right. Sir Scabbious left the card behind, as planned," Charlie King informed their absent leader.

A muffled, "Skeebop!" shot out from under sagging green locks of filth and frizz, in a sudden burst of pride in a job well done.

"Sure. Okay. Ya, we'll meet you there in fifteen," Charlie King affirmed.

"What's our payoff for this job?" Phil asked casually.

"You do it for love, my Brother," Charlie King said, straight-faced. He held the note as long as he could, without laughing, until Phil's unrelenting glare inevitably burned into the side of his temple. "Kidding, kidding. I don't know. You can ask Eddie when we get there."

There was a portion of Scabbie's soul, which lay openly on the surface, feeling a perverse pleasure, having violated the home of stuck-up "Samantha Whatever." On the other hand, there was a sense, lurking just below sea-level, that, despite their tremendous larcenous successes so far, their luck had to be wearing slick. The normally "Invincible" skater was now having doubts but dared not give it another thought. Instead, he returned, in his mind, to the scene of his most recent criminal triumph.

He knew he would, once more, be relying on Eddie's connections with a local "Fence" if he hoped to see any sort of cash back from the trinkets he had bagged at Samantha's place. Scabbie also knew that, as usual, Eddie would be skimming fifty percent off the top before he would ever see one thin dime. He suddenly felt the full weight of his limited mental capacities.

With eyes still tightly closed, Scabbie envisioned the moonlit house as he stepped outside, into the warm night air. He framed, in his mind's eye, the generally aesthetic posture the gift card had taken on as it came to rest on the immaculate carpeting. He detected the obviously feminine hand behind the scripting of the name "Eddie" at the top.

"Eddie," he murmured dreamily.


His dry, red, crackling eyes popped open so widely that he felt the tissue, at the corners, tearing. Sitting straight up, he slammed Phil into Charlie King.

"Watch it you As..." Charlie King started to say before Scabbie cut him short.

"We gotta go back," Scabbie announced solemnly.

They were only a mile into their getaway as Charlie King, with fiercely clenched jaws, stomped the brakes and steered sharply to the curb, violently throwing his passengers forward.

"I thought you said Dumb-a*s left the card there?" Charlie King snapped angrily, as he pinned Phil sharply against the seat, with his elbow.

"Owww!" Phil howled, catching the sharp jab, full-force, on his collarbone. "I told you... I saw him leave it. Jerk!"

Forgoing any apologies, Charlie King turned his substantial wrath on Scabbie, who sat in a lump, nearly melting into the space between the edge of the heavily duct-taped, bench seat and the exposed sheet metal of the passenger door.

"Hey!" Charlie King yelled, dismissing his normally tranquil persona, in favor of the rarely seen, and incredibly vindictive, hard-a*s.

"What did you do?" he demanded, reaching over Phil, who had flattened himself against the back of the seat to minimize the threat of receiving any crossfire blows. Hooking Scabbie's shirt with his clawing fingers, Charlie King yanked at the source of his present irritation. "Why would we go back?"

Scabbie searched hard for something, like the right kind of words, to explain his current line of reasoning. As Charlie King waited impatiently for an answer, and Phil saw flashes of himself in handcuffs, Scabbie opened his mouth and showered his accomplices with his fears.

"I don't think Rooney's name was on the back of that card."

Phil and Charlie King both executed flawless double-takes at the sound of Scabbie's drug-addled, gibberish.

Phil was the first to come forward. "Damn Scabbie!" he spat angrily, with a shake of his head.

"We all saw the card Idiot Boy," Charlie King announced. "It said "To: Rooney", plain as day, at the top."

Looking for the answer somewhere, outside in the darkness, beyond the claustrophobic cab of the tiny truck, Scabbie held forth once more.

"It's like somehow the names... on the card... changed?" Scabbie struggled to explain.

"What are you talking about Dude?" Phil asked as he did some elbowing of his own.

"Like... it changed from Rooney... to Eddie."

Scabbie's twin odors, of fear and B O, descended heavily on the truck's interior, forcing Charlie King to crack his window for a cleansing breath of fresh air.

Had he actually heard the moron correctly, he wondered? Eddie's name on the gift card? Am I a fool, he wondered, for entertaining the idea that Scabbie could be right? Anyway, how could it be possible?

Charlie King drew Scabbie nearer, forcing him to lean, uncomfortably, across Phil's lap. Bringing his grimacing snarl, which consisted of perfectly straight, white teeth, closer to Scabbie's ashen face Charlie King hissed, "Start talking."

In the Northbound lane of River Street, Rooney was watching his speed, and exercising a measure of paranoia that was complete childlike in its simplicity. He wasn't really guilty of anything and he knew it but, he wanted to avoid any hassles with the police. With only a few, gently arcing miles left to go, Rooney's attention was focused several blocks down the road, on a small, decrepit figure, faintly illuminated by the Triumph's head lamps. There was a definite limp going on with this character.

Rapidly closing the gap on the Mystery Person, Rooney fixated on the mop of reddish hair, and swatches of darker red, brushed randomly upon one bare shin, and the white, skin-tight t-shirt worn by the unknown soldier of the night.

As He closed on the figure, Rooney noted the disturbing absence of swinging arms and speculated that the red hue might be blood staining the tragic figure. Had the guy or girl, (Rooney was still not certain) been in a car wreck or fallen victim to some gang violence? He, She, or It seemed to be slogging down the road with arms folded across its midsection.

A few yards closer and Rooney's jaw dropped quite unconsciously.

"Flipper," he heard himself saying as though the notification had come from someone else.

Rooney hadn't spoken the Flipper in weeks and more than likely, had this been a normal encounter, would have opted to drive-on past, pretending not to have seen his old skating buddy. Somehow, a sense of decency and the current conditions of this wayward traveler dictated that the new Rooney should play the role of "Good Samaritan."

Rooney switched the headlamps off, leaving only the parking light on; then allowed the wedge to glide smoothly over as near to the curb as possible. Judging by Flipper's sudden stiffening of stature, Rooney understood that his brusk stop had been interpreted as provocative.

"Flipper, are you okay?" Rooney called out, in his most non-threatening manner.

Flipper stared at the darken shapes, which were unfocused by the pain and fear he presently dealt with. The Triumph... the voice.

"Rooney?" Flipper inquired.

"Yeah, it's me," Rooney assured him. "What happened dude?"

Suddenly snapping to the idea that he was now confronted by the "Enemy", Flipper went into defense mode.

"Nothing," he answered, turning away and resuming his trek down River Street.

"Flipper?" Rooney tried again.

Flipper came to a rocking stop, standing wearily at the side of the road, hanging his head in exhaustion. He made no effort to address his former friend, but instead, tried to suss out whether Rooney had knowledge of the stakeout snafu.

Disregarding Flipper's body English, Rooney assessed the damage and exclaimed, "Dude, you're slammed!"

"For sure," was Flipper's unthinking reply.

"Where's yer board Flip?"

"At home," Flipper answered.

"Where are you headed?" Rooney asked, growing more, and more concerned. "Let me give you a ride." The sight of the blood took Rooney back to "That Night" and reminded him of when he fell out of favor Flipper and the others. He didn't really miss it much, although there were some good skate sessions that he could almost clearly remember. Just now it was all about helping someone in need. Vera would understand. More than that; she would approve.

Pulling the brake lever, Rooney parked and hopped out. He was feeling every bit of his twelve hour day at the garage. Moving around to the passenger side, he opened the door for Flipper. After several moments' hesitation, and a lot of deep groans and heavy sighs, the injured party was seated.

Rooney presently pulled the small vehicle into a tight U-turn, plotting a course to Flipper's crash pad, which happened to be situated in the opposite direction of the garage. Rooney had completely forgotten about Sam and Jen

"So how did all this happen, Flip?" Rooney asked, picking up speed.

"I've been watching you all evening, at the garage," Flipper volunteered spontaneously. He was enjoying the way the night air forced his hair straight back, behind him. It yanked at the roots, causing a soreness that actually felt wonderful, while temporarily taking his mind off his numerous injuries.

"Why?" Rooney inquired innocently, looking from the road and into the eyes of a guy he had "hung-with" since kindergarten.

"To make sure you weren't seen running all over the place."

"Seen by who?" Rooney asked. His curiosity was, by now, totally stoked.

"Anyone who could give you an alibi," Flipper advised. He was so worn out that his words rolled out effortlessly, in a matter-of-fact manner. "Anyway, I tripped in the dark and did a "Header" while I was over in that lot next door to the garage. FAIL."

They had not yet reached the posted speed limit when Rooney saw Samantha's Bug approaching and was reminded of where he was originally headed. He had not yet gotten to the bottom of Flipper's story and was eager to hear the entire tale, so he flashed his head-lamps and waved an arm, signaling for the girls to come alongside of him; then he rolled to a stop at the curb.

" Go past him and turn around," Jen advised.

"OMG. Is that who I think it is? Sam asked cynically, as she slowed down, passing the wedge.

"I couldn't tell who it was," Jen replied.

"It looked like Flipper."

"Morgan Van Tieghem?" Jen responded, showing a hint of distress in her tone. She was starting to feel as though the entire evening's plans were collapsing around her. As the designated worrier, Jen's mind scanned through each of a half-dozen, horrible scenarios that might probably befall her, and her friends, because of... well... Vera's leg. She shooed the ideas away. This was not Vera's fault. This was Eddie's fault.

As she edged up beside the "Borrowed" sports car, Sam caught the look of concern in Jen's eyes.

"It's gonna be alright Jenny Cat." She advised protectively, as she set the hand break.

"Do you girls know Flipper?" Rooney asked as though he were making introductions in a formal, adult setting.

Jen wanted, very badly to warn Rooney that he was consorting with the enemy but resorted, instead, to quite literally biting her lip as she felt the sudden pressure of Sam's hand around her wrist.

"I don't think we've ever had the pleasure, have we, Jen?" Sam offered politely.

Jen couldn't contain herself and snapped her head around towards Sam pleading for guidance, or perhaps for reassurance. Sitting this close to Sam, and with Sam's head silhouetted by the streetlight behind her, Jen was the only one able to read the look of confidence in her friend's darkened face. It was all she needed.

"I'm driving him home cause he was a little too "banged-up" when I found him wandering the streets," Rooney began. "And he was about to tell me who sent him to watch me all evening long."

Sam retightened her machine-like grasp of Jen's wrist as a warning not to react. Jen distracted herself by pretending to search purposefully through Sam's glove box.

"Charlie King set the whole thing up," Flipper explained. "They figure the Cops think you're the one doing all the break-ins around town and so they need me to sit on you, at the shop, and call em if you were about to go anywhere, and maybe head you off or something. I don't know" At this late hour Flipper's voice had become hoarse and remorseless.

"Who's this "They"?" Rooney demanded gently.


"Come on! Charlie King and who else?" Rooney persisted.

By now, Flipper was disgusted enough not to give a damn who knew what, and wanted simply to have his version of the truth to come out. After a dramatic, and effective moments' pause, he answered.


Using the flashlight app on her phone, Vera, operating in full detective mode, noted the pry marks on the side door of Sam's place. She wasn't about to touch a thing, let alone entering the abused premise. Knowing well the plush, white shag carpeting inside, Vera could easily imagine the joy of the forensic team, as they made a positive I.D. on an impression from a pair of youth, size twelve, Converse All-Stars. The CSI agent would, no doubt, make a plaster cast of the footprint, ruining Mrs. Pritzer's wall-to-wall flooring. Back at the crime lab, once the results were in, Vera imagined Detective Kulp's feelings of elation upon learning that: "Based on the uneven wear of the treads, and unbalanced distribution of weight within the shoe, the footprint was most likely created by a young girl with an artificial right leg." No way was she going inside.

Curiosity was killing her inner cat with the burning desire to know if the "New and Improved" evidence had been planted. Vera stretched to look over the beige, linen curtain that covered the lower two-thirds of the side door's window. Pressing her phone's light against the glass, and remaining ever vigilant not to leave prints behind, she strained to see inside. No luck. The light could not travel that far.

"Well... Scabbie says he's sure. Yeah, he showed me the card but I never saw the back of the thing. Well lookit Man... this vendetta thing was all your idea so... So I'm not tied to anything going on here. If Brain-boy is right about that gift card then it's your "Street cred" and your a*s on the line, not mine. Well... what I'm saying is, Eddie, if you want something done about this, then you come right on over and make it happen."

Scabbie paced feverishly out on the sidewalk, only a few block to the west of the Pritzer's vandalized home, while Phil listened intently to the shade Charlie King was throwing Eddie's way. It had always been Charlie King's policy to simply "Not care" about anything, and he had successfully give off that impression, to all of those around him, for years. To Phil, as a witness to the previous phone call, things seemed very different now. It now felt apparent, that not everyone considered Eddie Steele to be the undisputed leader of the organization, and Phil, for one, was somewhat impressed by the new, and improved size of Charlie King's testicles, based on his handling of Eddie "Friggin" Steele." If sides were suddenly being chosen-up, Phil was ready to stand by his man, Charlie King. What Phil couldn't have guessed at were all the many contingencies being rehearsed in Charlie King's shrewd, methodical, mind.

From the curb, snatching sound bites and pieces of the exchange, Scabbie quietly questioned Charlie King's sanity in challenging Eddie, especially after all that had happened at Old Man Jorrisch's place.

"Get in the truck!" Charlie King quietly commanded, disturbing Scabbie's musings.

Even with dulled reflexes, Scabbie was wound pretty tightly and came to land quickly, on the bench seat beside Phil.

"Eddie?" Rooney repeated incredulously. "Eddie Steele?"

"You know any other Eddie's?" Flipper asked, amidst grunts and groans, as he shifted positions in the black bucket seat, attempting to reach a happy medium on the sliding scale of discomfort.

"What's he got to do with me?" Rooney demanded; his disgruntle now fully exposed.

Both Sam and Jen were set to explode, wishing, and wanting, and waiting to disclose to Rooney, all that they knew. Perhaps it was their code of obedience to Vera, and each other, that stilled their tongues, or maybe they still needed to see if Flipper would be willing to rat out his fellow rodents, and their ambitious criminal enterprise.

There was a pause in the conversation while Flipper's wearied and washed-out mind weighed his words out judgmatically. He closed his eyes slowly (in case something like a fist, which he would rather not see coming, was about to hit him.) "The chick behind the wheel, over there... She used to be Eddie's... well... whatever. Ya know?"

"So?" Rooney responded.

"Never mind."

The "Post Pot" Rooney Wilkes found that more and more things were getting under his skin these days. The name "Eddie Steele" was at the top of that list. "Don't clam up now Flipper," he warned.

"Alright, alright. All this crap's bumming me out anyhow. Look," he said, drawing in a few deep breathes, "Eddies' got this little business going, right? So he hears something about you, and that Vera chick, sneakin into that old dude's place. You see where this is going?"

It was Jen's turn to grasp Sam's wrist, as she sensed Sam's countenance falling under the weight of her lingering shame. She leaned her head in sharply, toward Sam, as a returning of the favor from the evening's earlier adventures.

"So, Eddie gets all excited," Flipper continues, "That guy really hates you, dude," he said, turning towards Rooney and shading his eyes from the streetlight's glare.

Shrugging it off Rooney asks, "Why would Eddie care about me going into some old man's house?"

"Cause maybe Eddie's business associates had been their first and there were like... complications don'tcha know."

Flipper's revelations were pregnant with possibilities and it was Jen, as usual, who first saw the dawning light of reality bleeding out of this new knowledge.

"They killed Mr. Jorrisch!" Jen blurted out as though she was revealing that it had been "Colonel Mustard, with the lead pipe, in the Conservatory."

"Eddie was there?" Sam spoke up suddenly. She needed to know, right there and then, if she had been intimated with a murderer.

"He never partakes of the actual scores. He's sorta like the group's business manager," Flipper elucidated.

Morgan Van Tieghem's words were of little comfort to Sam, who fought off the overwhelming urge to puke. She calmed herself down by remembering that Vera had already pronounced forgiveness upon her.

"That Bast..." Rooney started in, then stopped suddenly, embarrassed by what he had almost said in front of Samantha and Jennifer. "So he put the cops onto me."

Leaning in closer to Rooney, Flipper whispered, "Just so ya know Bra, Eddie got his intel about you from that one over there."

"We've already worked that out. That's in the past now," Rooney was quick to state.

Sam felt some of the weight lifting off her shoulders with the expressing of Rooney's sentiments, and she realized absolutely, that it was time for getting it all out in the open. "Everything." She knew in her inmost heart that Vera would forgive her and perhaps even approve of her next move.

"Tell Rooney why you were supposed to be watching him tonight, in particular, Flipper," Sam interrupted, "Tell him what Eddie was planning for him."

Rooney turned to face Sam. It was coming clear to him that she knew more than he had been lead to believe. He could read the determination on her face. Sam, however, did not return his look and kept her gaze fixed on Flipper.

"Tell him Flipper or I will," Sam warned.

Jen peered over at the fallen foe, seated next to Rooney, to see if he was cracking yet. Inside her head she chanted, "Tell him, Flipper, tell him. Tell him, Flipper, tell him."

"Tell me what?"

A long sigh and some squirming later, Flipper assented to the request for full disclosure. "They set you up tonight Bra."

"Who?" Rooney demanded to know.

"Your friend," Flipper answered, with a sad irony in his voice.

Rooney recalled, well enough, how Eddie had been skulking around Scabbie and Phil, and the others, the moment he changed his focus to Vera. Rooney's heart actually hurt at the thought that he had abandoned his band of brothers to an a*s like Eddie. They don't know him like I do, he thought to himself. Sam's voice suddenly pulled him back into the treacherous present.

"They were going to plant some evidence, at tonight's burglary scene, to make it look like you were there." she elaborated.

Now all eyes were on Sam. Even Flipper sat up and took notice as the ex-cheerleader laid her cards on the table. Jen gave her friend's hand a quick squeeze, as a show of solidarity, and prepared to give any fill-in testimony that the situation might call for.

"They stole the gift card out of your wallet; the one from your Aunt Lynn. Scabbie was supposed to leave it behind at whatever home they were breaking into tonight." Sam revealed.

"There ain't no "supposed to" about it Pritzer. They're probably done by now. Eddie's got his system all squared away."

A smile that only Jen was privy to, curled across Sam's shadowed face. Jennifer planted her feet in the carpeted floor mat and lifted her pelvis upward to facilitate a reach into her hip pocket. Once the gift card was free again, Jen drew her legs up under her, into the car seat, and reached out across the open space, between the two convertibles.

"Here you go," Jen said, stretching way out, to return the original card to its rightful owner.

When the card was back in Rooney's hands, Flipper leaned in to examine the item for authenticity. He had never actually seen it while it was in Scabbie's possession, but he still felt the need to check it out. How was it possible, Flipper wondered, for these girls to be handing this critical and damning bit of evidence back to Rooney? How? Rooney pondered the same thing, at that moment.

Girls are, without a doubt, strange creatures, Rooney told himself. These are Vera's best friends, after all, so I shouldn't really be surprised. He hoped they'd be willing to provide, each and every detail in the plot against him, as he was now more eager than ever to understand it all.

"How did you get this?" Rooney asked Jen directly.

"I... uh... swapped it for something better," Jen said, retaining her naturally unassuming demeanor.

The look of sterile oblivion, on Rooney's face, told Sam that she should work to fill in some blanks for the poor boy. Where to start?

"Vera and I followed Scabbie to...  let me just start at the beginning."















When Eddie Steele walked up, out of the shadows, Scabbie nearly wet himself.

"Damn!" he exclaimed, looking authentically frightened.

"Shut it!" Charlie King demanded, in a low growl.

"So guys," Eddie began calmly, "How'd you manage to screw-up tonight's little outing?"

The chain of recriminating looks predictably passed its way down to Scabbie. He sensed he was being held responsible for the whole snag. Having no time to "invent" a tale of plausible deniability, he would make do with the truth.

"A girl musta switched the cards in my pants." He offered, with a face much straighter than he was, at the moment.

A four-count of well-weighed disbelief passed through the others before they quietly erupted into a rain of chuckles and snickering, there, on the sidewalk of the darkened street.

"A girl?" Eddie asked, showing great concern for his employee, "Really? A girl? You think a girl switched out the cards. In your pants?"

Phil continued to cackle till he was struck dumb by a malevolent look, tossed over Eddie's shoulder.

Eddie approached Scabbie, with a disarming manner, and placed a comforting arm around his shoulder. The residual soreness in his kidneys ensured that Eddie would be moving more slowly than normal.

"You've been smoking tonight, right?" Eddie asked.

Scabbie squirmed under Eddie's accusation. He wanted to escape the current spot he was in but his resistance was rapidly squelched by the application of a congenial head-lock. They walked and talked.

"Why do you think Rooney's name is not on the gift card?" Eddie asked, already anticipating the most asinine of responses.

"I'm telling you guys... a chick came by my place before we came out here. We were fooling around, ya know? She musta changed the words on the card or somethin." The seriousness of the predicament had sobered Scabbie markedly.

"And so you're now saying that it's my name that you saw on the card. Is that about right?" Eddie pressed.

"Swear to God Dude." Scabbie nervously replied.

Eddie relinquished his stranglehold and, once again, let Scabbie walk as upright as someone, at his stage of evolution, is able. Smiling sincerely at the Scab, Eddie Steele pronounced his final, Solomon-like judgment.

"You're going back to get the card Scabbie."

The connective tissues of Scabbie's face seemed to have quite suddenly evaporated, leaving his lower jaw ajar.

"What?" he rasped out.

"You have to go back inside," Eddie repeated, in an unmistakable tone.

"Make him go," Scabbie answered, indicating Charlie King, through a series of erratic gesticulations.

"Guess again," Charlie King replied in a bold stroke of condescension.

Changing gears, in the moment, Eddie interceded as the arbiter of the dispute, to caution his errant errand boy.

"Slow down Scabs. The way I see it, tonight was strike two for you. After your little mishap with the old Jew guy a few weeks ago, you can't really refuse. I'm giving you this last chance," Eddie advised, making his most solid, humanitarian appeal.

Again, Scabbie fell mute. What little mishap with an old Jewish man, he asked himself? Surely Eddie's forgetting what happened. He's remembering it all wrong, Scabbie thought. Charlie King should be the one getting the freakin card since he's the one who hit the freakin Jew guy. Scabbie shuffled some words together and rolled them out like a handful of dice.

"Hey Dude, now... that old guy... Now, you know..."

"I know," Eddie assured him, "The old guy came at you... You were scared... you shut him up... permanently. We all know what went down that night. Charlie King explained it all."

"Wait... wait now. That's not... No way. That's not what happened. Tell em how it was," Scabbie pleaded. He searched Charlie King's triumphant eyes and came up empty and lost.

"Look, we're just wasting time. You're going back into the house, and bring me that card, or I'll have Charlie King call the Cops again. Only this time, you'll be their "person of interest" instead of Rooney.

What had gone wrong? What had Charlie King told everyone? Scabbie closed his eyes and heard the screeching of cats working overtime to drown-out the old man's crazy "Jew" language. He heard the smashing of the lamp, and the sound of shattering window pane, as the old guy swung his cane wildly around like some "Wet-back" kid trying to smack a piñata at a "W*****k" birthday party. In the faint glow of the flashlight, held by his shaking hands, Scabbie saw Charlie King grabbing the old guy's wrist, redirecting the solid wooden stick until it connected soundly, against the man's head. Michael Jones watched with bewilderment, as the frail, old man collapsed at the end of Charlie King's grip. Standing on the sidewalk, in the warm night air, Scabbie realized that he, himself, was holding on to the short end of that stick right now. Charlie King sold him out.

He mustered the necessary guts to turn, and head back up the street towards Sam's home, ambling like a civilian prisoner making his way to the richly deserved gallows.

Eddie, now grinning at his masterful command over "Scabbie the Conquered", next shot Phil a look that slapped him like the back of a hand, and punctuated the notion that, "to cross Eddie Steele was tantamount to suicide." Eddie did not bother aiming any threats in Charlie King's direction. They would have proved pointless, as they each had enough crap on one another to bring their little thug arrangement to a fiery conclusion.

"I can't believe you let Vera truck all over town like that," Rooney complained.

"What do you mean LET?" Sam countered. "Who was gonna stop her?"

"I know. You're right," Rooney relented.

An exhausted Flipper sighed as a means of reminding the others that he was still there, and wanting to get home to begin the process of forgetting his involvement in the "Summer of Bad Choices."

"What?" Rooney snapped, acknowledging Flipper's non-verbals.

"Sorry Dude... Sorry," Flipper sighed once more.

"For what?" Rooney pressed. "For stabbing me in the back, or for getting caught by these girls?"

Flipper shook his head pitifully, as he addressed Sam directly.

"You're tellin me that this Vera chick is just going through his wallet," Flipper begins, indicating Rooney with a pointed thumb, "and she realizes that the gift card is gone, and then you see Scabbie loitering around outside... and she's like, 'let's follow him', and now I'm all beat to hell? Seriously?" The irony of his words was hard to step around.

"You better believe it," Jennifer informed the informant, sounding very proud of her sisters.

When the bit about "Jen maneuvering Scabbie" finally reoccurred to Rooney, he was ashamed that he had not asked sooner, whether she was alright, or not.

"He didn't hurt you did he?" he asked, with genuine, fraternal concern.

"I'm fine," Jen answered. In her mind, Rooney's approval numbers kept going through the roof.

"I can't believe you let the old Scabbster touch you at all," Flipper said, eyeing Jennifer. "Is there somethin wrong with ya?" he chuckled.

"You need to shut up Morgan!" Sam shouted, as a warning.

Rooney turned to size-up his passenger. He had never seriously considered being involved in a fight before, (if you didn't count Eddie of course) especially with someone whom he had previously considered to be a friend. On the other hand, Flipper suddenly seemed like a prime candidate for a punch in the head. Rooney reckoned that in Flipper's current state, little effort would be required.

"You want a ride home, or not?" Rooney inquired, in a slightly raised voice.

"Chill... okay?" Flipper answered his detractors. "Don't get all butt-hurt," he added, looking over at Jen. "I was only..."

"Shut it, Man!" Rooney broke in, authoritatively.

That was a whole new tone for Rooney, Flipper realized. Where had the mellow surfer, and wicked skater disappeared to? It was kinda scary, and he knew at once this was no idle threat, so he decided to button-it-up for the time being. Sinking back down into the bucket seat again, he shut his lids tightly again.

Jen now grew impatient to get back to Vera's place, and decided to do the next best thing. Pulling Sam's phone from the Bug's shift console, she stealthily worked the combination lock code, which she had figured out as being 7991; Sam's birth year in reverse. Vera's number popped to the front, as the login screen slid out of sight. Three seconds after pressing the number, Jen could hear it ringing. She turned the ringer all the way to "MAX" as she tried to filter-out the ensuing, background conversation.

"So how did you decide who to rob?"

Drawing a deep breath, Flipper responded, "Eddie and Charlie King had it all worked out. They hit people who could afford a little trim."

"What about the old man... Mr. Jorrisch?" Sam wondered aloud.

"They thought that old Jew had hella gold, or jewels, or something," Flipper answered, now taking a keener interest in the conversation.

"So was there any gold or jewels?" Sam inquired.

"Hell no!" Flipper concluded disappointingly.

The call to Vera's phone ended with Jen leaving a voicemail for Vera to call her back ASAP. She disconnected the call in time to catch Rooney's next question.

"Besides me, who else was supposed to get victimized tonight?" His sardonic tone was undisguised.

"I don't know. It was supposed to be somewhere on Escalona Drive."

Silence took over. Even the summer song of the cicadas was momentarily muted.

"What did you say?" Sam asked Flipper, seeking clarification.

"Escalona Drive," Jen exhaled, in a bloodless deadpan. "He said Ecsalona Drive."

Leaning against the Pritzer's fifty-gallon recycling bin, at the far back end of the side drive, Vera finalized a re-seating adjustment to her stainless steel limb; the night's coolness had left her with the feeling that it was now less well-anchored, than at earlier times throughout this über-busy day. She twisted and wiggled her stump downward, into the socket, and relived the phantom impressions of pointing the toes of her late, lamented right foot into the depths of a gym sock.

"Shake it off stupid," she muttered angrily to herself.

She seized her new moment of freedom to listen to Jen's voicemail, having initially decided against holding a conversation from the side of the house, at the scene of the crime.

"V...? Where are you? Why aren't you picking up?"

Vera silently acknowledged the anxiety in Jen's voice and words.

"Calm down," she pointlessly advised her absent friend.

"Anyway... call back ASAP," Jen said in a hushed voice. "We're with Rooney again. We found Flipper walking down River Street, all banged-up, and he decided to spill. And there's something else V ... Rooney knows the whole story now. Bye."

The end of the message coincided with the almost rhythmic sounds of sand paper scuffing its way up the driveway. There was another sound keeping time with the scratching noise, which seemed to pop, right behind the scratch. It was all too familiar. She had heard these sounds summer after summer, hanging out at the Mertenz Park pool.


Oh, My God, Vera thought to herself, It's Scabbie! They must be coming back.

She swiftly tucked the phone, screen-side down, into the waistband of her underwear, dousing the light glaring off its screen, then, pasted her thin frame to the side of the house; melting into its shadows. She felt the phone's electric warmth against the bare skin of her tummy, and might have enjoyed the sensation if she weren't preoccupied with holding her breath, and remaining perfectly motionless.

Sam had already turned right on Pacific Avenue, and had the Bug wound up to about sixty before Rooney was even out of "Park." Jen was digging her claws into the handle of her door while trying to find the "Call" menu to redial Vera. She alternated her view between the phone's controls and the rapidly passing street light poles that blurred by. Neither she nor Sam happened to notice the dark sedan, as it blew past them.

"Sam, slow down," Jen yelled over the wind noise, as the Beetle made the sharp right turn onto Mission Street.

Sam collected herself enough to comply with her frightened friend's request and dropped down to fifty miles per hour. Looking in her rear view for the first time since she bolted, Sam caught the easily distinguishable nose shape of the Triumph closing in on her. Just as quickly as it appeared, it was hidden again, as Sam's Bug traversed the winding grades that led to her neighborhood. She felt better now, knowing that Rooney was behind them, and "On-Board" with the operation. The fact that "Crippled Flipper" was along for the ride gave her some small aid and comfort as well.

Jen finally found, and mashed, the "Redial" button, and smashed the speaker to her ear, cupping the entire apparatus with her palm and long fingers, to reduce wind noise. As the Beetle regained its former velocity, Jen bravely released the door handle, to cover her other ear.

"Come on... RING!"

With the shuffling sounds of footwear fast approaching, Vera prayed that she could hold it together just a little longer. Maybe, just maybe, she could remain unseen by the makeshift mobsters. That bubble of hope was burst immediately as the concealed communication device proceeded to signal the arrival of another incoming call, with song and ticklish vibrations.

Vera stabbed both hands down her pants, running her fingertips intensely over the edges of the phone, in a feverish attempt to silence the tattletale device. With a blind stab of a digit, Vera unknowingly accepted the call from Jen. She sucked back a huge sigh of relief before it could escape her lips, thankful that the musical ringtone had been squelched.

Rounding the front corner of the house, Scabbie paused, a moment, to let his eyes re-adjust to his shaded surroundings, while he skittishly un-wadded the balled-up painter's jumpsuit. Vera watched in breathless awe as the teenaged marvel struggled like a three-year-old, to clothe himself in his "Burglar" costume.

Finally zipped-up and situated, Scabbie moved reluctantly to the disabled side door, and laid his shoulder against it, for another crack at the Pritzer home. The doorknob was already firmly encased in his ungloved palm and fingers before he could stop himself from making his rookie mistake.


He was easily placated after promising himself to wipe-down anything he had to touch before he made his retreat. He hadn't completely crossed the threshold when his dysfunctional ears pricked up to the sound of a tiny, somewhat distant voice.

"Can you hear me?"

He whipped his head to the right so quickly that his neck cracked painfully, and audibly, over the rustling sounds of his paper garment.

"Owwww!" he wailed, forgetting his tenuous surroundings. When his wincing eyes re-opened, he caught a snatch of movement by the recycling can, to his right.

"Vera... Are you there?" the ethereal discourse continued from somewhere within the shadowed patch ahead. This time, it was both clearer, and louder.

Scabbie was painfully aware that he sometimes imagined things, or heard things in ways other people around him did not. This never really troubled him, and he usually considered it to be a fun little bonus feature of the outrageous life he chose to live. What he was hearing just now, in the darkness of the covered driveway... Well... This was real. He was almost sure it was.

"Who said that?" he asked shakily, in a tone that failed to pass for aggressiveness.

Vera, of course, immediately recognized the uneasy strains of her colleague Jen, but could not risk lifting a single buried finger, to mute the phone's "Speaker" mode, without exposing her prevailing position to her current challenger.

As it had so often occurred this summer, it seemed that only "Blind" inspiration could provide the answer to the stalemate before her, and so it was on that leap of faith, that Vera vibrantly addressed the delinquent confronting her.

"Michael Jones?" Vera demanded, like an angry neighbor, who only just discovered the baseball sized hole in their broken window.

Scabbie was stricken, and his present stance solidified, in a frantic effort to channel all his mental resources into the discovery of the "One" who had called him by name. His mouth opened but no words came.

Embracing the present opportunity as the gift that it must have been, Vera proceeded apace with her interrogation.

"What are you doing, going into Samantha Pritzer's house Michael Jones?" she probed like some hell-bent accuser at the witch trials.

On the other end of this unorthodox party line, a disheartened Jennifer Del Gado was now certain she had, in fact, made contact with some unacquainted version of her dear friend, Vera McAlister. She continued listening intently for any further context clues that could help unravel the mystery, but, so far, only the names "Michael Jones" and "Samantha Pritzer" had been clearly understood.

Scabbie apparently could not rouse himself to action, either to attack or flee, so he labored at focusing his eyes for a better look at the female antagonist. It was too dark, and his eyes were not cooperating.

"Who... Who are you?" he eventually managed to ask, in a feeble tongue.

Sensing that she had the upper hand, Vera ventured out into a pale slip of light that was cast on the ground by the neighbor's yard lamp. With the white siding of the adjacent house as a backdrop, Vera was neatly silhouette, which produced an expansion of Scabbie's already overblown angst.

Vera paused for effect, letting the backlit spikes of her hair add an air of intrigue to moment. She then mysteriously, and deftly, bent over at the waist for another moment.

And finally... "SSHHWWOOOOOSH!"

A tremendous sucking sound bounced off every nearby surface, sending a chill up Scabbie's spine.

"WWWhat was that?" Scabbie demanded pitifully.

Returning to her original, vertical orientation, Vera regained her balance by leaning on her left elbow, using the lid of Mr. Pritzer's rolling gas grill as a prop stand. When she felt appropriately centered, Vera raised her secret weapon into combat position, anchoring it against her shoulder like the butt of a hunting rifle. She then took careful aim.

"She's at your house... with Scabbie," Jen fearfully blurted out, careful to cover the phone's mouthpiece first.

"Who?" Sam asked, looking totally oblivious.


Without understanding why, Sam dropped her foot completely off the accelerator pedal, and coasted for forty, or fifty feet, landing several yards short of the stop sign at the corner of King Street.

Rooney's reflexes were tight enough to brake smoothly, without the benefit of Sam's brake lights, as he saw the distance, between their two cars, shrinking quickly. His preoccupation with protecting the "Borrowed" car had prevented him from noticing the tail he'd picked up, a half-mile back.

Maintaining his mobile stakeout at the discreet distance, his police training required, a more diligent Officer Barnsley, kept Rooney Wilkes in his sights, at all costs.

"We've got to stop this!" Sam shouted, stabbing the gas pedal down hard.

Not wanting to be left behind, Rooney wound up the Wedge to keep pace with the Bug.

Jen strained to hear the goings-on between Vera and Suspect Number One, but, the ubiquitous motor sounds and wind noise made it quite impossible.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" Scabbie pleaded plangently; throwing caution to the wind. His frightened shouts echoed off the shadowy suburban structures, making their way down the street to the waiting "Thug" trio.

"Holy Crap!" Eddie muttered, looking to the ever-stoic Charlie King for answers.

"What now?" Phil asked, with a concern that was boiling up into a blister.

"Maybe we should just cut our losses and put the Cops onto Scabbie ourselves," Charlie King answered, with his usual cool.

Eddie's thoughts immediately turned to the men, in the adult world, who he had promised to impress with his cool crime skills. These men would be unforgiving if this little sidebar revenge venture brought any unwanted attention their way. There had been warnings from these men when the old Jew guy died. Eddie couldn't, or wouldn't, allow a repeat of that conversation. This was getting real, and it was really bad.

"Go get him Flipper" Eddie commanded.

"WHAT!?" Phil answered. "You gotta be freakin kiddin me dude."

"GO GET HIM NOW!" Eddie jabbed.

Staring up, into the business-end of the phantasmagorical, alien blunderbuss, Scabbie took a kneeling position on the smooth cement parking pad. Eventually, incidental, reflected light, bouncing off the machined, stainless, barrel shaft of the offensive weapon erased any traces of reticence about coming clean for recent trespasses.

"It isn't... This wasn't my idea," he groveled in a softened tone. "It was Eddie Steele. This is his thing." Scabbie took a chance that closing his eyes would make it all just go away.

By now, Vera was wondering just how long her "bluffed" hand could keep Scabbie at bay, and how much longer it might be before his accomplices would come to claim their trembling MVP. She decided to chance it, extracting her phone from its exotic concealment to check-in with her teammates. Her stream of consciousness meandered through a forest of fears. Most of it centered on Rooney being ultra-upset with her; for the risks she had taken, and the dangers she and her friends had endured for his sake. The idea made her waver for a second, or two.

"Hello... Jenny-Cat?" Vera inquired, like a seasoned and battle-scarred warrior about to call in an air strike on a nearby enemy position.

Jen's terrified voice sounded so incredibly wonderful to Vera, as she answered the standard greeting.

“Oh... Vera... Are you okay?"


"We'll be right there!"

"Ten-Four," Vera replied, switching off the phone and, this time, dropping it into the pocket of her sweats.

"They'll be here any second Michael Jones," Vera chided mockingly, holding her offensive implement at the ready.

"Get your cowardly A*S up there, and get idiot boy, before somebody else gets killed." Eddie roared, at Phil.

Phil held his ground. The whole idea of "Eddie Steele: Kingpin" had somehow soured in his psyche. In the grand scheme of things, standing up to Eddie Steele suddenly seemed a much less costly action than continuing to boost Eddie's gangster ego, cheering him on as he made big talk about Big Scores and Big Money.

Seeing an opening in Eddie's short-circuiting mind, Phil answered back defiantly, "You want him down here? You go up and get him."

The "patented" Eddie Steele persona simply could not process the gauntlet of rejection that had been thrown down before him. He turned to the shadows, looking to Charlie King for some backup. He was gone.

Phil Harper hastily reassessed his standing. "We'll both go," he found himself saying, as a conciliatory gesture.

"Alright... Let's go." Eddie grumbled.

The clear sounds of approaching footsteps assured Vera that the "Big Show" was soon to reach its inevitable conclusion. She was preparing to lower her weapon when it struck her that neither of the darkened, male forms drawing nearer to her from the driveway, resembled Rooney in the slightest. Both of the, apparently, young men were shorter than Rooney. The one on the left was much closer to her height, while the one on the right sported a more athletic build.

When the young men were no more than fifteen feet away, the taller, stocky one, lit a small-beam flashlight that Vera reckoned was dangling from a keychain, if her hearing served her properly. The thin beam swept the area, settling on the glowing, white, puffy profile of a kneeling, shaking, Scabbie Jones.

He did not dare turn his head to investigate the source of the light, but instead, remained largely motionless. Maintaining a cautious curiosity, the "Keeper of the Flame" aiming its light to the right till he was drilled in the eyes by a bright, stainless reflection. After a painful blink, the light was redirected to illuminate the previously camouflaged character and her weapon. In an instant Vera panned to the left, getting the drop on the newest arrivals.

"GET DOWN!" she shouted.

In an instant, Eddie jerked the light off the surface of his attacker and dropped to one knee. Phil assumed a likewise posture.

Uncomfortable moments passed for Vera. Uncomfortable partly because