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As I was checking the list on Mr. Klunk's World History cla.s.s, someone shoved past, her purse jabbing me in the ribs. "Outta the way, s.k.a.n.k," snarled a girl whose earrings dangled to her clavicles.
That's a week's detention for you, young lady, I nearly snapped, but stopped myself in time. She'd taken me for another student! In these dimly lit, crowded corridors, I could pa.s.s as a kid! I'd always looked younger than my actual age. I'd been the last girl in my middle school cla.s.s to grow b.o.o.bs and get my period. My first year of teaching, I'd had to wear frumpy suits and high heels to get the kids to think of me as a teacher.
Where do you hide a marble? Inside a bag of marbles. But first I needed to look more like all the other marbles.
I time-traveled back to teenagerhood at the school store, where I bought a Zablocki Zebras sweatshirt-black and white and hideous all over-and a headband that swept my bangs off my forehead. Wearing Luella's eyegla.s.ses, I looked like Brainella, the Human Computer. Luckily the store was nearly deserted and I was able to pull off Charlene's sweater and pull on the Zablocki sweatshirt behind a rack of paperbacks without being seen. I bought a roomy black backpack and transferred the contents of Luella's tote bag into it. m.u.f.fin, overstimulated by all the teenage sweat fumes wafting about, wanted to run around snuffling. I pacified him with a granola bar and then stuffed him in the backpack.
When the bell rang, I moved out into the flow of traffic, just another trash-talking, hormonally overcharged teen traversing the perilous terrain of the high school hallway. Amazingly, all the insecurities of my teenaged years flooded back. Were those boys over there staring at me because they thought I was ugly or cute? Was that clique of Mean Girls snickering at my outfit? And why was I wearing these dorky, L.L. Frumpo shoes when all the other girls were wearing platform sandals?
The aroma of lima beans and Brussels sprouts drifted from somewhere close by, and I realized it was already lunchtime. Following my nose, I found the school cafeteria, jammed with early lunchers.
"Yo, Arguello, wait up!" I heard one boy call.
My head snapped around. I zeroed in on a boy of about sixteen who was pushing his tray along the a la carte cafeteria line. The first boy caught up with him. They paid for their food and went out into the courtyard adjoining the cafeteria, where picnic tables were scattered beneath a patch of ragged locust trees. It was a popular place; twenty or thirty kids were hanging out there, flinging their nutritionally balanced school lunches to the pigeons.
I followed the pair. I went up to the first boy, who was lounging atop one of the tables, eating French fries. "Excuse me," I said. "You wouldn't be Eduardo Arguello?"
"Jackpot," he said. "It's Eddie, okay?" He had a pleasant, husky voice and killer eyes-brown liquid with rims so black he could have been wearing eyeliner. He had bronze skin, a nose that was a hand-me-down from some Aztec ancestor, and short, dark hair zigzagged with bleached blond like a strip of over-fertilized lawn. He wore standard teenage guy getup: oversized T-shirt, shorts with the crotch starting at the knees, and clunky faux gold chains.
His friend was a tall kid with gra.s.shopper arms and legs, thick gla.s.ses, and a pony hawk like a woodp.e.c.k.e.r crest. He was checking out my b.o.o.bs with such single-minded focus that I actually blushed. Eddie Arguello scowled at him and said, "Rico-go get the pretty girl something to drink."
Rico shrugged and stalked off.
I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers, and asked. "Are you by chance related to a Luis?"
"Luis Ruiz? My cuz. But don't come around claiming you're carrying his baby, sweetheart, because he's muerto."
"When did he die? What happened?"
Eddie patted the tabletop and I hopped up beside him. "Why you want to know about Luis?"
"I have my reasons."
"No offense, girl, but I don't even know you, and I don't think the Arguellos have a light-skinned branch of the family. So why are you coming around asking about my cuz?"
I racked my brain for a convincing reason. My teacher a.s.signed a research paper on dead guys named Luis? The guy lent me bus fare and I wanted to pay him back?
Instinct belatedly kicked in. Eddie was street smart enough to be suspicious of nosy strangers, but he was still a teenaged guy running on surging hormones. So I turned my face up to the sun, arched my back, locked my hands behind my head, and stretched. Let the sweatshirt do the talkin'.
The sweatshirt talked. Eddie was definitely listenin'.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I guess you're a little too young and emotional for this kind of thing. Maybe that cute friend of yours would know something about Luis."
"Who, Rico? That dope don't know nada about nada. And I'm a month older than he is."
"Still, I think Rico is tough enough to handle-"
"Rico, tough? 'Scuse me while I laugh so hard I puke. He still sleeps with a teddy bear. You think I'm not tough?"
I put my hand on his arm. "Yeah, you're tough, Eddie. And you're cute. And you're built like The Rock. What do you press-two hundred? You're smart too, refusing to talk to me. I mean I could be anybody, right? An undercover cop or something. But obviously it's upsetting for you to talk about your cousin. I understand." I started to get up.
"Whoa-c'mon, not so fast. You want to know about my cuz, I'll tell you. I was just worried that you couldn't handle it, 'cause the Luis stuff is kind of sick."
I fluttered my lashes. "I think I can take it. If you hold my hand." I was utter slime. What next, getting preschoolers hooked on lollipops?
Looking pleased, Eddie took my hand. "See, Luis kicked it about three-wait-almost four years ago now. It was cruel, babes. They dumped his body down by the ca.n.a.l. He was all carved up. Cigarette burns, other stuff you don't want to know."
Black spots swarmed in front of my eyes. "Who's they?"
"The Posse probably."
"That's a gang?"
"Yeah. Or maybe the Cobras. Luis was mixed up in some serious s.h.i.t."
Eddie frowned. "He swore he wasn't. Not while he still lived with us anyhow. My mom is death on drugs. Makes me pee on a stick every night before I go to bed. I'm the baby of the family, stinking luck-the only one left at home for her to pick on. I never touch even a aspirin, but she don't trust me."
He moved closer and our thighs touched. I didn't move away. "Sounds like your mom is way too tough on you," I said, operating on the theory that teenagers love hearing how badly their parents treat them.
"Oh, man, you got that right. Anyhow, Luis comes to live with us a few years ago. He's illegal, but he knows he's safe with us. He's like way old, almost thirty, but Mama treats him like he's my age. Be in by ten. No hangin' with the bad ladies."
He shook his packet of French fries at me invitingly. I took one. m.u.f.fin suddenly lunged up out of the backpack like a trout jumping to catch a fly. Startled, Eddie lost his grip on the bag and the fries flew all over. m.u.f.fin began wolfing them down, a canine vacuum cleaner. Eddie laughed and reached to pet m.u.f.fin.
"He bites," I warned.
"I bite back," Eddie said.
I thought the fries might make m.u.f.fin sick and began sc.r.a.ping up the remnants. "You said Luis was your cousin?" I prompted Eddie.
He shrugged. "Some relation on my pop's side. My parents are divorced, but you still gotta take in family. So we give Luis the spare bedroom. What's your puppy's name?"
I hesitated, then chose something approximate-sounding. "Duffy."
"Boy or girl? You can't tell with the furry ones, covers up their cojones."
"He's a boy. You were saying, about Luis?" I prompted.
"Not to speak ill of the dead, but Luis-I hated him on first sight. Skinny little runt strutting around like his b.a.l.l.s clanked. He said why he came to Milwaukee was to kill this gabancho-bad man. Vengeance for something that happened years ago. And after he kills him, he says he'll be famous and on TV and get to talk to Diane Sawyer. He'll spill so much dirt on the gabancho the guy's name will be smeared for all time. At least I think that's what Luis said. Half the time I don't know what he's babbling about. My Spanish ain't too good and Luis's English was fer s.h.i.t."
Eddie's pal Rico reappeared, holding a Sprite out to me, his gaze migrating from my legs to hips to face. His eyes widened.
"Holy c.r.a.p! She's-" His voice rose to a squeak. "Hey, you guys! She's Mazie Maguire! She's here-the fugitive!"
For a big guy, Eddie could move like lightning. He slapped his hand over Rico's mouth. "Shut your face!"
I sprang off the table, poised to take off.
"You are her!" Eddie stared at me. "Whoa, Mazie, chill, okay? I won't snitch you out." He clapped a hand over his heart. "I'm the president of your fan club. You're like, my hero!" He a.s.sumed a Rambo stance, arms cradling an imaginary weapon. "You know when you took the prison warden hostage with your AK-47 and led a ma.s.s escape from your cellblock? That was totally hard-core!"
"That's ridiculous! Where did you hear that?"
"It's all over the Internet."
"Yeah, and that bit where you took out three rent-a-cops and used a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher to destroy a toilet factory," Rico cut in, "that was like whoa, you are totally the man!" He seized one of my wrists, turned it over and planted a kiss on my pulse point. "I'd take a bullet for you, beautiful!"
"Half the kids in this school would," Eddie said.
"Yeah, and the other half would sell her out for a quarter," Rico said.
"A toda madre! f.u.c.kin' awesome!" Eddie was grinning ear to ear.
"Uh-oh," Rico pointed toward the cafeteria. Through the windows we could see a tall woman talking to one of the lunch ladies. The woman wore a pinstriped suit and possessed the I-do-not-take-c.r.a.p air of a crack administrator. "It's the princ.i.p.al," Rico whispered. "Man, she's got a bug up her a.s.s about something."
The security guard with the mustache was at the princ.i.p.al's elbow. Bear's Janitors slunk behind him, scrutinizing the cafeteria and exuding a kind of Secret Service aura. I watched to see if they were going to talk into their lapels. In a few seconds they'd shift their focus to the courtyard, and my flimsy schoolgirl disguise was not going to survive their X-ray vision. Kim Jong was already turning, walking toward the door leading to the courtyard.
"Who're the whack jobs?" whispered Rico. "They after you, Mazie?" Suddenly he was darting back into the building. Planning to finger me for the reward, I thought, s.n.a.t.c.hing up m.u.f.fin, stuffing him in my backpack, and wheeling to run. Eddie grabbed my arm.
"Just walk," he whispered. "Those guys didn't see you yet. Put your arm around me. You're my hyna, my squeeze." His hand drifted south, cupping my rear.
"Stop that," I hissed.
"If you don't got your hand on your hyna's a.s.s, you're a p.u.s.s.y."
"You will be a p.u.s.s.y, because I'm going to rip your b.a.l.l.s off!"
An ear-splitting clangor suddenly shattered the air and I shrieked. Then I realized it was the school fire alarm. Rico shot out of the building, flashing us a thumbs-up as hordes of kids stampeded out of the school, delighted at this excuse to cut cla.s.ses.
"C'mon, girl-echa la cookie!" Rico whooped.
Three marbles among thousands of marbles, we made our getaway.
I hadn't been planning on it, but when I unlocked my car door, Eddie and Rico simply swarmed in with me, taking it for granted that they were invited, Eddie in the shotgun seat, Rico in the backseat with m.u.f.fin. I pulled out of the lot, carefully observing the speed limit, keeping a wary eye out for patrol cars and dark green Lincolns.
"Who were them guys?" Eddie asked.
"Bad guys," I said. "Janitors."
Cackles of laughter from the boys. When you're that age, everything's funny. You can't die. Major guilt pangs. I ought to pull over and kick them out of the car. If they hung around me, they could be charged with aiding and abetting a fugitive. Worse yet, Bear's creeps might come after them. The trouble was I needed Eddie. He was my only source of information on Luis the Mysterious.
"If the cops stop us, I took you hostage, got it?" I said, slowing as a light turned yellow.
"With what?" Rico puffed out his scrawny chest, offended at the thought of being taken hostage by a small female.
"My feminine wiles."
"Her femmy wiles," Eddie mocked in a high-pitched voice, turning around to high-five Rico. "Dude, we are so totally p.u.s.s.y-whipped!" They both laughed like lunatics.
Rico found an old pair of Labeck's sungla.s.ses in the back, reached over the seat and set them over my eyes. "So what's our plan?" he asked.
"No idea," I sighed. There was no safe place for someone who had the recognizability quotient of the Pillsbury Doughboy. We couldn't just keep on cruising; the car was running on fumes, gas stations had surveillance cameras inside and out, and some clerk was sure to spot me and call the cops.
Eddie banged out a hip-hop rhythm on the dashboard. "The beach, homeys."
"Forget it," Rico said. "We're gonna stick out like penguins in a desert."
"The rent-a-cops bust kids hangin' there during school hours."
We drove, the boys joking and horsing around, this whole thing a terrific adventure for them, while I prayed that the car wouldn't sputter to a halt in the middle of an intersection. Rico started whistling. It was annoying. It was oddly familiar. It was . . .
Eddie joined in, singing the lyrics.
. . . Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks, I don't care if I never get back . . .
Escape tip #23: When you're in a slump, the only thing to do is keep swinging.
-Hank Aaron The Brewers versus the Cubs at Miller Park. I paid for our tickets and we waltzed through the turnstiles without a snag. n.o.body paid us the slightest attention; we were just three shiftless kids ditching school for the ball game, an old, honored Milwaukee tradition. We stopped at a booth and I used the last of Luella Parkhurst's cash to pay for protective coloration: a Brewers jersey and cap.
It was the third inning and the Brewers were down 10 when we filed into the stands, found our nosebleed seats, and sat down. We had this section all to ourselves, so I took a chance on freeing m.u.f.fin from the backpack. Delighted to be out, Mr. Alpha Male strutted back and forth along the bleachers for a while, then came back, hopped into my lap, and settled down for a nap.
The stadium's enormous retractable roof was rolled back, revealing a blue sky studded with puffy clouds. I might have enjoyed the game if it hadn't been for the fact that any one of the thirty-five thousand spectators might recognize me any second. The stadium was unusually crowded for a weekday because whenever the Cubs played, hordes of Chicagoans drove up to Milwaukee, snagging all the good seats and clogging up the freeways.
"Miller time," Rico said. "Anybody want a beer?"
"You're what-fifteen?" I sputtered. "Don't they card?"
"Sixteen." Rico smiled smugly, patting his pocket. "I got ID that says I'm twenty-one. Bought it over the Internet."
"Your funeral, homey," said Eddie. "Princess Mazie?"
I shook my head. I didn't need a beer buzz to make me dumber.
When he'd left, Eddie turned to me and asked, "So now you're going to tell me what this Luis business is about, right?"
I hesitated, debating whether to tell him the truth. Stalling for time, I stripped off the Zablocki sweatshirt and reached for the Brewers jersey. Eddie leaned over to a.s.sist, his hands brushing against my b.o.o.bs as he helped me pull on the shirt.
"No bra, huh?" he commented, sounding very interested.
"Deal with it." I elbowed Eddie's groping hands away. I didn't need Corruption of a minor added to my list of crimes.
"How come you're changing?" Eddie asked.
"To fake out whoever's chasing me." I was taking my cue from Doctor Richard Kimble, who'd eluded his pursuers yet again by donning a green derby and joining Chicago's St. Patrick's Day parade. In my Brewers blue-and-white-striped jersey, I blended in with the baseball fans like a melting marshmallow in a cup of hot cocoa. I pulled the Luis snapshot out of my pants, wiped off the dirt smears, hand-ironed the creases, prayed it didn't smell like pee, and handed it to Eddie.
"Do you recognize the boy in this picture?"