Jun 15 2010
Rosemound, Michigan, Present Day
Raising a daughter must be a tricky business nowadays. Much more of an issue than, say, six hundred years ago, when a family could, for instance, ship their young female off spring to a convent. There, behind sturdy walls and under the watchful eye of black-robed crones, the girl’s chastity was, at least in theory, totally safe. But that was then; one sexual revolution, and one Internet explosion, later brings us to what is now. People’s interests have moved on. The issue of anyone’s chastity is so passé! Our century is big on keeping things casual when it comes to relationships — or the ozone layer, or adding chemicals to our food supply, but that’s another story — and banishing girls to convents has long fallen out of fashion. Then again, there’s always boot camp.
I wouldn’t know about any of that, though. My parents never worried about my teen hormones getting the best of me, and with good reason. Getting touchy-feely with anyone has always been a big no-no for me on account of that pesky habit I have of keeling over after as little as a few seconds of physical contact. Zap! I’m out cold. Live like that for seventeen years and you either start seeing boys as chocolate-covered French éclairs on legs, the kind packing a thousand calories apiece, strictly hands-off, or you stop seeing them at all. As it happens, no forbidden-fruit complex or the related gross amounts of drooling occurred in my case; instead, I kind of stopped noticing boys.
Funny how I always thought the world would dilate and then snap back with a loud bang the day a boy happened to me. But there was no explosion, no fireworks, no sudden shift in the tectonic plates of the earth. It was more of a Zen moment. Quiet. Everything was instantly quiet. The world, my mind, the flux of time — all still. And in the middle of it was him. Golden. Tousled inky hair. At the very center he stood, a leather-clad god looking upon his subjects with indifference. It could’ve been the curve of his lips or the way his hair whipped around his face, blown by wind as if in a sharp Spanish dance. But somewhere inside me something tensed and shattered.
I watched him and ached. Blown away. Wanting. Wanting him.
Of course, as soon as my mind processed that, I quit staring with the rest of the school. Slamming my shields in place, I crawled back into my shell faster than you could say “tortoise.” Naïvely hoping it wasn’t too late. But, of course, it was. There was no going back for me, not anymore, not ever. After all, ignoring a guy is kind of hard to do when you’re convinced he wants to kill you.
But I’m skipping ahead.
Let me go back to one deceptively typical April morning circa one year after my Zen moment. It started off like any other day, with me sleeping like a rock through the numerous efforts of my cauldron-shaped alarm clock to wake me. Since I was running late, I had to skip breakfast, which left me hungry and very much inclined to take my frustration out on the car. Still, none of this was new. In fact, there were no hints that my day was going to be anything but ordinary until after I made it to school.
The first weird fact had to do with the school’s parking lot, which looked markedly deserted. Rosemound High was closed, I ventured a guess, already scrolling down a list of potential reasons in my head. A pandemic. Terrorist attack. Low attendance. Or did I maybe forget it was Saturday? None seemed likely, I concluded with a frown, moving on to checking the time again. My trusty Juicy Couture horologe shocked me fully awake by revealing that, in fact, there was nothing wrong with the world, or my school, for that matter. I was just way too early! But … how? Even if every clock in my house had magically become faster overnight, the fact remained that I’d never woken up in time to be early for anything in my life.
I was considering a range of far-fetched scenarios when I was confronted by the weird fact number two. Someone was hanging around in the parking lot, as usual making a show of seeming as cool and unapproachable as ever. Ryder Kingscott, aka Zen-moment guy. What was so strange about him hanging out there? Hmm, how should I put this? Well, Ryder didn’t hang. He didn’t talk to anyone, didn’t look at anyone except maybe to make the person feel small and irrelevant, and he definitely didn’t kill time in the parking lot. Ryder just was. A mystery man. Much like the original rebel-without-a-cause, only with better hair. Rumor had it that he lived alone, that he was one of those emancipated minors. What I knew for sure was that he had a job at Dave’s Garage; I’d seen him there a couple of months back when we’d dropped off Mom’s car. Oh, and he rode a bike! Uh-huh, a sleek black thing that seemed to be the object of every male student’s desire. Personally, I viewed it as a death trap, but since I’d often been called a party-pooper, I may have been narrow-minded. But probably not.
I was staring, but didn’t feel bad about it because everyone with a double X chromosome stared at Ryder. In fact, I was willing to bet that even a few dudes sneaked a peek at him every now and then when they thought no one was watching. Because he was just that hot. Picture the body of a model, tall, long-limbed, and conspicuous in all the right places, paired with a face of absolute sin, should the concept of sin ever take on a physical form. I had it on good authority that his lips alone provoked and inflamed a whole lot of naughty fantasies all over town.
So imagine my surprise at seeing this ravishing specimen suddenly deciding to mosey on up to … me. No way, I thought, already considering having my eyesight checked pronto. Except that I was parked in the corner with all the other spaces next to me still empty, so the logical conclusion seemed to lean heavily toward yes, way. There was no mistake; he was coming right at me.
“Oh dear God,” I whimpered. “Please don’t let me throw up.”
Staring at him while he stared right back wasn’t as much fun as before, but quitting now would have been too spineless, even for me. In the meantime, sporting one of his signature outfits made up of worn-out jeans, a black leather jacket, biker boots, plus a pair of aviator sunglasses, he approached my car very relaxed, as if he’d done it a million times before.
I basically flatlined in reaction to the show-stopping smile he dazed me with. A lazy, lip-quirking smirk that flashed only an impression of extra-white teeth and bordered on arrogance. Right there and then, I knew it: I was toast!
To avoid gaping any longer, I rushed to roll down the window.
“Hi,” I said, with an uncertain smile.
Taking off his sunglasses, he proceeded to unleash the full mojo of those silver eyes on me. “Hi, Lily.”
Just like that, with one snakelike flick of the tongue across the upper lip, he made the sound of my name into everything he was about, sexy and dangerous.
“I was wondering, is someone taking you to prom?”
My jaw dropped. But at the same time, a little warning light started blipping somewhere in the back of my stunned head. Why would he want to take me, of all people, to prom? Did he even care about prom?
“If you don’t stop looking at me like that, I’ll blush for sure,” he said, and his mouth did that quirking-thing again.
He was being dismissive and teasing all at once and I was hypnotized, which, I would guess, made me look a lot like a tongue-tied idiot.
“So, prom? Date?” he insisted, sizing me up as if attempting to establish if indeed I possessed a brain.
I shrugged, trying for cool and only mildly interested. “What are you expecting me to say?”
“Yes would do nicely.”
“But, uh, we don’t know each other. At all. I think people should know a little bit about each other if they’re going to prom together.”
I stopped, happy that the words coming out of my mouth reflected nothing of what was really going on inside me. My instincts shouted: Run! But I didn’t. If I’d learned anything this past year, since Ryder had moved to Rosemound, it was that no matter how far I ran, no matter how well I hid, his ghost always stayed with me. Haunting me. Toying with me.
“Define ‘know each other,’” he demanded.
“I don’t know. People date and stuff.”
“So, you want us to date?”
“What? Date? No, I didn’t say —”
“You don’t want us to date.”
“No! I mean, yes … I mean … hold it! How did we get from you asking me to prom to us dating?”
He tilted his head, sunshine bouncing off his hair to show all the tones I never knew black could range across. Sleek obsidian, glossy onyx, thick ink, his tousled hair fell around his face like shreds of living darkness. I was deeply in awe.
“We could date, if that’s what you want,” he went on.
I shook my head unconvincingly. “That’s not wh —”
“But you’re wrong.”
“About what now?” I asked, exasperation seeping into my tone. This was, without a doubt, the strangest conversation I’d ever had in my life.
“I do know you,” he said calmly.
“You do?” My reply sounded like Yeah, right! but he didn’t seem to care.
“You’re smart, outspoken to a fault, consistent. Some might even argue that you take yourself too seriously,” he added with a grin.
“What are you —”
“You’re not really a loner, but you’re lonely. Missing your dad and all. And you’re special, in more than one way, not that you don’t do a bang-up job of hiding it. That part of yourself you put in your candles. The reason you go out to gather plants in the woods, at midnight, when there’s a full moon.”
“So, I’m thinking, horticulture degree. Cornell or Ohio State. Cornell is more prestigious, but Ohio State puts you closer to your father, so I guess that comes out on top.” Another moment’s breather. “And you have a cat. Raisin, is it?”
I had the uncontrollable urge to just repeat “huh?” and “what?” over and over, but my jaw seemed to have other plans, which didn’t include unclenching in the near future. I couldn’t move! Just like one of those creepy French mimes impersonating a statue, I took my time and observed Ryder Kingscott — the legend, the most envied, desired, talked about, etc., guy in school — mutating before my eyes into Ryder Kingscott, the … possible stalker? But how? And when? And where the heck was I when this happened? Also, could my guy- radar be any more defective? Never mind answering that.
He took one last step, trespassing on the remaining inches of space between him and the car door, and his fingers latched on to the side of my open window. Holy cow, he was suddenly standing so close! Smelling sooo good, like leather, pine trees, and something else, a faint trace of … gas?
“I scared you, didn’t I?” he asked, with eyes foraging for the truth in places no one should’ve been able to reach inside me. “I’m sorry.”
Get it together, Lily! a voice thundered in the back of my head. Apparently, Lily McGutsy, my alter ego, wasn’t spooked by Ryder, the friendly neighborhood stalker. Caught between the two versions of myself, I couldn’t decide if I should hit the gas or initiate a ferocious attack aimed at putting him out cold.
In the end, I did neither, opting instead for brain rather than brawn usage, mostly because there was no other way to get to the bottom of this. Plus, alarm and trepidation aside, I couldn’t honestly say that the notion of the hottest guy in school following me around didn’t do anything for me. Sure, kind of insane, but not entirely off-putting. He was my Zen-moment guy! Curiosity may have killed the cat, but not figuring out his reasons would kill me just the same.
“You’ve been following me around.”
“No,” he denied, without flinching.
“Gosh,” I scoffed, “I had no idea the woods were rigged with TV cameras. My bad.”
One of the corners of his mouth twitched.
“I live in the old McArthur cabin. Do you know where it is?”
The dwelling he referred to was an old hunting shack in the woods, about a mile from my own house, which marked the edge of the forest. The log cabin, supposedly his, was located right next to one of my favorite trails so, yeah, I knew the place. In fact, I knew it well enough to call his bluff.
“You do not live there,” I said with supreme certainty.
“Yeah, I do.”
“No, you don’t.”
“How long are we going to argue about it?” He was amused. “Tell you what. Why don’t I cook dinner for you, at my place, for our first date? So you can see for yourself?”
Hmm, tempting. Sure, why don’t I willingly agree to meet the potential stalker alone, in the woods, after sundown?
“I don’t think so.”
“Lily, Lily, Lily,” he chanted my name, shaking his head. “If I wanted to hurt you, believe me, I could’ve done it many times by now.”
Reassuring, that was not.
“Rosemound High is an incredibly boring place,” he continued. “Don’t you know how you stand out? Don’t you know that, other than you, there’s nothing to make coming to school bearable?”
Asking the question in a voice that somehow felt like warm liquid skimming over my skin, he reached out to touch my face. Fortunately alert enough to see it coming in time, I moved away from the window, all the while giving him one of my back-off-now-or-prepare-to-meet-your-Maker looks. Being called “special” wasn’t exactly a turn-on for me.
The softness in his face melted away. I was reluctantly congratulating myself on a job well done, expecting him to turn angry and show his true, stalker-like colors, only he didn’t. He looked sad. And, my oh my, how that hit me! Smashed into me, more like. There he was, the most gorgeous creature I’d ever laid eyes on, still as awesome and dreamy as ever, but oh-so-sad. And for all my flippant bravado, there was no pretending that watching him and knowing that I somehow caused this sadness, that I had that kind of power over him, didn’t affect me. What female gifted by God with eyes and a heartbeat wouldn’t react to those lavender-flecked silver eyes drowning in misery? To that bitter set of his — sigh — kissable mouth? That heavy fall of those ordinarily straight, proudly planted shoulders of his?
“Look, Ryder, I’m going to assume that you’re quick and able to understand that I’m a little freaked out by this. You get that, right?”
And … we were back to being contemptuous again, I gathered, from the way his face realigned itself into a plain mocking expression. That was good, I figured, because I could deal with arrogant-Ryder. It was sad-Ryder I had no idea how to handle.
Sarcastically, he said, “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“Mock if you must, but this just goes to prove me right. We really don’t know anything about each other, so all I can do now is assume. That you’re smart, hopefully not dangerous, and also that you’re telling the truth.”
“Elementary, my dear Watson.”
“That’s a misquotation, by the way,” I countered without thinking. Which might’ve made more of an impact if I’d stopped grinning like a cretin.
“See? Ten minutes and you already know that I read Sherlock Holmes. Just imagine what you could discover if we went out on a real date.”
“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes is just a character.”
The effort of holding back a snicker was working his lower lip into the yummiest shape. Naturally, me being me, it gave me flashes of biting into it.
“Should I take your attempt at educating me as a sign that you’ll go out with me?” he asked. “I promise to provide you with ample opportunity to correct me and prove your intellectual superiority. If nothing else, any time we’ll spend together should be a great confidence-booster for you.” He winked, using three fingers to salute. “Scout’s honor.”
Toast, toast, toast. I was so toast.
“Before I agree,” I said, “exactly how do you know the name of my cat?”
He chuckled softly. “There’s nothing you can’t learn at Rosemound High if you pay enough attention.”
“You mean, if you eavesdrop,” I decoded. “Raisin?” I asked again.
Lips pursed, he returned, “That’s one way to look at it. You and J,” — that would be my best friend, Jane Archer — “discuss all kinds of things. But there are snoopers, and then there are snoopers. I mean, Casanova himself spent a few years spying for the Inquisition,” he added whimsically.
With a frown, I asked, “Your point being?”
“Mysteries are made to be solved. And it’s no accident that I should be the one solving yours. And vice versa.”
“Some prediction. Should I just call you Nostradamus from now on?”
Ignoring the mockery, he insisted softly, “Just say yes, Lily. Why try avoiding the unavoidable?”
Ah, why indeed!