Original series Suitable for all readersSexual innuendo

 

Passages - A Before Spectrum Story by Caroline Smith

 

 

October 2047

 

         Twelve-year-old Richard ‘Rick’ Fraser hauled his trusty ten-speed pedal bike from the side-yard of his house, hopped onto the saddle, raced down the driveway onto the street, and nearly collided with a pick-up truck coming up fast behind him. The driver honked and Rick waved an apology, and then tore after the truck in attempt to match its haste. He loved speed in all things, and his burning desire was to own a motorbike, preferably a Harley Davidson, as soon as he was legal. But that was a long way off, so for now he had to be content with pedalling his push-bike as fast as he could, enjoying the feeling of the breeze whipping through his hair as his legs pumped faster and faster through the suburban Detroit neighbourhood of Midvale; its streets filled with rows of aspiring middle class houses, with their neatly trimmed yards and the occasional flag fluttering in the breeze above the porch.

The sign for Northwood Middle School signalled his arrival and he braked slowly on his approach to the school gates. A frown creased his face when he saw the familiar figure of fourteen-year-old Jimmy Oswald, the resident school bully. As a short, skinny kid, and the new face in school, Rick had the dubious honour of being a primary target for Oswald and his two cohorts. He sighed as he dismounted and wheeled the bike into the school yard.

“Hey, Fraser, anything in that rucksack worth having today?” Jimmy said with his usual whining sneer. He was a tall boy with flaming red hair and a scrawny face peppered with freckles.

“Yeah, c’mon let’s see if his mom baked cookies today,” added Bart Reynolds, Jimmy’s dark-haired sidekick.  

Just keep walking, ignore them. Rick gritted his teeth and muttered his usual mantra silently in his head, but another step and he and the bike almost went flying, as Bart kicked out with one foot. Somehow, Rick succeeded in keeping his balance, but his rucksack dropped out of his grasp, and Jimmy was quick to scoop it up, immediately delving inside it.

“Sandwiches, boring.” He tossed the packet on the ground.

“Tortilla chips, that’s more like it.” Jimmy threw the packet to Randy Ackerman who stuffed them in the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt. Jimmy continued to poke around the rucksack. “Oh, lookee here, there are some cookies. My fave’s too, choc chip and raisin.”

Rick tried to grab it, but Jimmy was a good head taller than him, and he shoved him away. Rick decided discretion was the better part of valour, and turned away to walk his bike across the school yard, trying to ignore the sounds of jeering laughter floating after him.

He’d had to put up with hassle from the Oswald gang in the last few weeks since his arrival at school; the jostling in the corridors, bits of his gym kit going mysteriously missing, threats in the bath-rooms. Rick had joined his class midway through the semester, which meant that most of the other kids had already formed their little cliques. His chances of joining them seemed remote since being selected by Oswald and his gang for ‘special treatment’ was like wearing a big sign around his neck saying ‘Avoid Me’. 

Rick had a stubborn pride running through him like a coal seam through rock, and wasn’t willing to admit to his parents that he wasn’t able to stand up for himself, so he just kept on gritting his teeth, and dreamed of a day when he could get his own back on Oswald and his crew, just as soon as he could think up a suitable revenge. He loved practical jokes, and usually saved his best ones for his older brother, a habit which didn’t exactly foster good brotherly relations. Mitch was fifteen and attended Midvale High, about five miles away.

Midvale had good schools, and that was one of the reasons, or so Rick’s parents kept telling him, that they had moved twenty miles west and paying a God-awful mortgage on their house. It wasn’t exactly Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills, but the area had its fair share of wealthy kids. They were easy to spot, the ones sporting the latest designer fashion, or being picked up in a high-end automobile fresh off the Rouge works. There were lots of girls in his year, and some pretty ones, although at his tender age, he regarded the female sex with some suspicion. They seemed to spend an awful lot of time gossiping about trivia, and eyeing up the male of the species, sizing them up, then scoring and categorising. From the disdainful looks some of them sent his way, he felt pretty sure he had been dumped in the in the basket labelled:  ‘Not Popular-Enough-to Bother-With’.

Another school day passed in its typical mind-numbing fashion, and when the bell sounded for lessons’ end, he carefully wheeled his bike out of the school-yard, keeping his eyes peeled for his tormentors. They must have been hassling another kid, as the coast seemed to be clear. He gave an imperceptible sigh of relief and got onto the bike to pedal home. He popped into the grocery store on the way past to get some potato chips and then jumped the kerb to cycle into his street - Maple Drive. Curtains fluttered at the window of the house four doors along from his, and he gave a cheery wave, knowing it would annoy the occupant inside.

Old Mrs Cass had more wrinkles than an elephant’s backside, with the disposition of an ornery crocodile, always cursing any kid stupid enough to wander over her pristine front yard.  Rick doubted he’d seen her smile once since they’d moved in, and his mother’s offer of his favourite pecan pie as a neighbourly gesture had met with a grunt. Rick was just itching to play a practical joke on the old crone as soon as he could think up something worthy of her cantankerousness.

 

 

His mom’s voice floated out from the kitchen as he threw his jacket up onto the rack in the hall.

“Is that you, Rick?”

She came out from the big kitchen-diner, wiping her hands on her apron so she could enfold him in hug. A homely smell of fried onions and gravy wafted around her.

Alicia Fraser, nee Meyer, was the descendant of German Jews who had emigrated to the United States to escape the Nazi war machine. Her grandfather had married an Italian from Rome, and young Richard had inherited that beautiful woman’s genes in his bone structure and liquid brown eyes. Alicia hadn’t kept the faith and certainly didn’t demand it of her husband and kids, but her Jewish roots revealed themselves in her love of cooking and the relentless smothering of her two boys. She had recently been made redundant from her job as a medical secretary in the local hospital just before they moved to Midvale, and so finally decided to pursue her dream of starting up her own catering business. It was a risky undertaking, but now the time seemed right.

“So, how was school today?”  she asked finally, sensing he was in no mood to tell her without prompting. 

“It was okay,” he mumbled in reply.

She held him at arms length, not quite letting go, and gave him a probing look which made him regret his less than enthusiastic reply.

“Just okay?”

“Yeah, how else should it be?”

Her eyes slowly filled with concern. “You don’t tell me much about what’s going on, that’s all.”

“There isn’t a lot to talk about.”

“Haven’t you made any friends yet?”

He shrugged.

“But you made lots of friends at your old school.”

His face darkened and he pulled her hands away from his shoulders. “Yeah, well, if we hadn’t had to ‘up sticks’ I’d still be there with them!”

“Rick, I know it’s difficult…”

“No, you don’t. You have no idea.”

“Listen to me, young man, your father works hard for all of us, and getting this promotion is the break we’ve been looking for. Now we can do up the house without worrying about every last quarter, and you don’t have to wear Mitch’s hand me downs any more.”

“Money, that’s all you and Dad care about!” He turned on his heel and fled upstairs to the sanctuary of his bedroom.

“Don’t you speak to me like that!” her voice echoed after him. “Richard!”

 

He slammed the door of the bedroom and threw himself backwards onto the bed, shutting her out. He knew deep-down that she was right, but she just didn’t understand what he had to put up with. He’d always hated school, didn’t see the point of learning stuff. In his old neighbourhood he’d had a few good buddies he’d known since elementary, and they’d spent all their time dashing around the park on their pedal-bikes and playing sim-games.  He missed them real bad.

It didn’t help that Mitch was the smart one, always getting good grades, and making his younger brother look bad in comparison. He’d settled in just fine to his new high school, impressing the teachers.  Sucking up to them more like, Rick thought savagely.

He waited for his mom to come knocking at the door, but he heard no footsteps on the landing, so after a few minutes he rolled off his bed, plonked himself on the chair at the desk at the window and absently stared through the mesh of the bug-screen to the street below.  

It wasn’t the first time he wished he had his own room. He’d hoped for one when they’d planned the move to a new house. But ever since he’d lost his Grandpa Meyer to a sudden heart attack two years ago, Grandma Meyer had been living with them, and she had to have a room of her own. Extra bedrooms came at a price, and his mom hadn’t been prepared to swap that for a poorer neighbourhood, so Rick still had to share with Mitch and his collection of guitars and baseball paraphernalia.

Where the hell was he supposed to put all his models?

Rick loved anything to do with aircraft and could name every plane the World Air Force had ever flown, and describe it down to the insignia on the tail-fin and the colour of the seating in the cockpit. He spent hours researching, and sketching them, then recreating them in three-dimensions with whatever stuff he could beg, steal or borrow.  He might have been too young to fly, but his dream was borne aloft every time he took one of his models outside for its maiden voyage in the back yard.

His older brother teased him mercilessly about it, which resulted in scuffles when Rick’s temper got the better of him. “Only geeks make models,” Mitch would sneer. “You ain’t gonna get any girls that way.”

“Girls?” Rick would make a face. “Girls are another planet. I don’t want anything to do with them.”

He picked up his knife and trimmed a small piece of wood with all the delicacy of a doctor performing keyhole surgery, then he added a miserly dab of astringent glue and placed it carefully onto the unfinished delta wing of an early 21st century space shuttle that he was in the process of creating. Pre-cut kits didn’t come cheap, and up to now his mom hadn’t felt comfortable with spending money on something so ‘frivolous’, as she called it.

Undaunted, Rick raided the local library for aircraft magazines and developed designs for himself.  Then he’d beg and borrow whatever bits and pieces he needed: wood, plastic, metal to make them come to life.  One of these days he’d maybe do it for real. His mother shook her head and said he had the ‘tinkering’ gene, much like his dad.

He cut out and fitted another piece before Mitch returned and took over the bedroom.  A few strands of hair fell in front of his face and he pushed them absently away with glue-stained fingers. Before long, he was zoned out – lost in his place of refuge in an adolescent’s uncertain world.  

 

“I’m worried about him,” Alicia said later on that evening, as she stacked the dishes into her brand new dishwasher. Rick’s father, Jack Fraser, was poring over a set of blueprints he was working on. The new job paid well, but he brought home as much homework as Mitch did at times. 

Her husband barely raised his head. “Who you talking about, Mitch?”

“No, silly, he’s his usual level-headed self. I meant Rick. He’s been looking like a boy who lost his puppy ever since we moved here.”

“Don’t know what he has to be unhappy about. He gets his belly filled three times a day, and gets to watch TV when he wants; some kids have a lot less.”

 “Children don’t look at it that way.”

“They get it too cushy by far. Anyway, what makes you think he’s unhappy, has he said anything to you?”

“Well, no…”

“Then what’s there to worry about?”

She gave an exasperated sigh. “Jack Fraser, you have all the sensitivity of a lump of wood sometimes. Haven’t you noticed how his whole manner has changed since we moved to Midvale? He’s just so moody these days, not the same sunny-natured boy he used to be. I’m sure it’s got something to do with school.”

“Hell, Alicia, school isn’t for fun, it’s for learning, so he can get good grades and go to college so he can end up with a decent job, instead of having to grind at it for years the way I have.”

“He’s just a boy…”

“Time goes fast; he’ll be a man soon.”

“I know, but I hate to see him like this, locking himself away in his room, making models for hours on end.”

“Well, at least we know where he is at night.”

“You know, I sometimes wonder if he’s being bullied…”

This time Jack looked up. “What makes you think that?”

“It happens, a lot more than people realise.”

“Has he said anything?”

“No, but I can tell.”

“How can you tell?”

“I’m his mother. Every time I ask him how things are there, he just says everything is fine, but I know it isn’t. His shoulders slump, he talks in monosyllabic sentences….”

“It’s called puberty, Alicia.”

She regarded him with wide-eyed surprise.

Jack continued. “You still think he’s your baby. But he’s growing up, for sure.”

“In that case, maybe you ought to speak to him. He might open up to you…after all, you’re a man.”

Jack looked uncomfortable, “I don’t know…I’m not much good with all that touchy-feely stuff, and the kid might not like it either. Sometimes it’s for the best if they figure things out for themselves.”

“Like you had to?”

“I didn’t do so badly.”

“No, I guess you didn’t, at that.  But we don’t have to make our kids follow all the same old scripts we did. It’s been tough losing all his friends, and he is still only a child, whatever you might think.” She leaned over the table and kissed his cheek. “Please, for me, have a talk with him.”

He grunted and patted her hand. “Maybe, but right now I’ve got to get these blueprints sorted, or we’ll have more to worry about than the boy’s moods.”

Jack Fraser was an orphan, raised by a succession of foster-parents. It could have turned into the usual bad-boy-makes-bad story, but he had a core of integrity and the steely determination to make something of himself.

A self-taught engineer, he’d worked his way up from the shop floor to the design lab in the new River Rouge Works, near the Detroit River. In the early to mid 21st Century, the city of Detroit had been a car-wreck, it’s once proud automobile industry in tatters due to a combination of world recession and the climate crisis blamed on the use of fossil fuels. For decades it slowly spiralled into dereliction, along with other cities dependant on the auto-industry, such as Pontiac, Plymouth and Flint.

 The once proud Motown became more famous for crack-houses, drive-by shootings and houses that cost less than one of the cars that used to roll off the production lines. But the city’s death knell had been sounded prematurely. The new rise in atomic-fusion technology was transferred to automobiles, and by the year 2028 River Rouge once again became one of the world’s biggest car-making plants, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the old industry.

Jack had only recently got a good promotion, which meant a lot more money than he’d been earning previously. But the work was competitive, and there were a lot of other folks with a lot more paper qualifications than he had, even though there wasn’t much he didn’t know about machinery and making cars. Fear of losing out to some of those young brash know-it alls made Jack work every hour God sent, so he could buy into the dreams that he felt he’d been denied as a youth.

He really had meant to have that chat with his boy, but it somehow never materialised.  

 

***

 

Rick was bright, and was able to make sense of math and science without straining his brain too much, but he turned off completely when faced with lessons that he felt were pointless, like history and English. He could read just fine, which in his estimation, was about all that was required to enjoy sci-fi or adventure stories or play vid-games. He saw no advantage to being able to précis a piece of prose, dissect and interpret poetry, or analyse the ‘great novels’ of the 20th Century.

As usual in English class he was dreaming, his fingers doodling a design for a model aircraft he planned to make. The teacher, Mr Delray, had a soporific baritone voice that had the tendency to make him want to go to sleep, never mind the subject matter. Rick scribbled on, oblivious to the sudden quiet hush that descended upon the room.

“Mr Fraser!”

Rick jumped in his seat, and looked up at the tall man who loomed over his desk, a disparaging look on his long, dark-skinned face.

“Perhaps you can enlighten the rest of the class and tell us what insights you’ve gleaned into the human psyche from our study of Mark Twain this morning?”

Without thinking, Rick fired back a quick-witted reply, which sent a ripple of laughter around the classroom.  He felt a surge of glee at the fact they were laughing with him, but the feeling was short-lived when he saw the expression on Delray’s face.

“Very amusing, and if you were as smart on paper I’d be inclined to give you an A plus, but that wasn’t exactly the answer I was looking for, so I expect you to write me a five hundred word report on the subject by tomorrow.

Rick uttered a low groan, and slumped back in his chair, but when Delray had his back to the class, one of the other students, fair-haired Aaron Jacobson, who sat immediately behind Rick in the next row, leant over and murmured:   ‘Nice one.”

A silly grin worked its way onto Rick’s face.

 

***

 

Several days later Rick was on his way to a class when he saw Jimmy and Bart slouching against the wall of one of the corridors. They were both sneering as they watched one of the other students in Rick’s year stowing some of her things away in her locker. Vicky Lee was Korean-American, a quiet studious girl, who, like him, didn’t appear to belong to any of the popular cliques.

The Asian Federation, dominated by China and Korea, had steadfastly refused to join the World Government formed at the end of the European Atomic War. Together with the rogue military state of Bereznik, they helped bring about a new cold war that kept the unified nations of the World Government in a state of high alert. As the situation continued to deteriorate in recent years, those of Chinese and Korean descent living within the United States and Europe were now regarded with growing suspicion and intolerance.

Rick was vaguely aware of the political state of the world, but he had an adolescent’s live-for-today mind-set. He was more concerned about his own well-being and safety in the here-and-now, not for some nebulous doomsday that might never happen in the future.

He was all ready to turn on his heel and walk away from the situation - he hadn’t been bothered much by Oswald during that last couple of days, and he had a strong preference for things remaining that way - but he couldn’t help overhearing their conversation. He frowned when Oswald spat out a vicious ethnic slur at the girl. He saw her raise her chin defiantly; pretending to ignore them, and Rick turned to go. This wasn’t his problem; he had enough of his own.

“Hey, slant-eyes, we were talking to you, so you better listen.” Jimmy crossed over and grabbed her wrist, pulling him around to face him. The girl tried to pull away, so he let go, giving her a shove for good measure. She stumbled backwards into the open locker door, and her sudden cry of pain made Rick’s heart thud in his chest and anger fizz in his veins.

Picking on a girl, how low could they get?

All at once, before his rational brain could tell him to turn right on round and walk on – the smart course of action - he did the opposite, striding towards the threesome as if his brain was on fire.

“Leave her alone,” he demanded.

Oswald stared at him, his mouth falling open, as if Rick had suddenly sprouted a second head. The expression on his face said it all. No one told him what to do, that just wasn’t the way things were done in Northfield. The older boy glanced sideways, checking for teachers in the vicinity, and then grabbed the front of Rick’s jacket with both hands, dragging him up so that his feet barely touched the floor and they were nose to nose.

“What the fuck are you going to do about it, Fraser, you pipsqueak?”

Sensible thought vanished as a red fog bloomed in Rick’s head. All the weeks of psychological and physical abuse that he’d suffered at the hands of Oswald and his gang crystallised into a singularity of pure emotion. Like magma erupting from a volcano, he vented his fury, with spectacular results.

One second Jimmy was taunting him, the next, the older boy was hollering with pain as Rick put every ounce of force behind a head-butt - right between the eyes.  Jimmy let Rick go, his hands flying to his face to staunch the sudden flow of blood from his nose. Bart, who up to this point had been smirking as he looked on, stood like a statue with his mouth hanging open at this astonishing turn of events.

“Get him!” Jimmy called out in an enraged, if muffled, voice.

Only now, Rick realised just what he’d got himself into, as a small crowd began to gather around the scene. He glanced at Vicky, who was staring at him with shock. There was a trickle of blood along the side of her face where the sharp edge of the locker door had pierced the skin.

Rick glanced all around him, searching for an exit between the circle of bodies, the students’ faces expectant with the primeval lust of spectators at a gladiatorial contest.  Then, he felt an explosion of pain as a fist connected with his face, and all at once he was on the floor with Bart on top of him. Rick punched and kicked with all of his pent-up anger, some innate sense of self-preservation taking over. The red fog clouded his mind, telling him to hit and hit before Bart could respond in kind. He heard another yelp of pain as he lashed out with one foot, connecting with the older boy’s groin. 

 “What is going on here?” 

The sound of the adult voice made everyone freeze. Oswald was savvy enough to use the diversion to haul his accomplice off and drag him to his feet. Rick watched, dazed, as the two older boys forced their way through the huddle of students, leaving him to suffer the consequences.

Vicky rushed across to help him up off the floor, just as Mrs Goldman, the principal, appeared. Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses when she surveyed the state of the two youngsters.  The collar of Rick’s shirt was ripped, and he had a rapidly blooming bruise on his left cheek.  Blood trickled down Vicky’s temple.

“Would someone like to tell me what is going on here?” Mrs Goldman demanded to the crowd of students.

Rick stayed silent, rubbing his sore cheek. He hated Jimmy and Bart, but his figured that if he snitched on either of them, he’d be a dead man.

“Anyone?” She sent her withering stare across the milling body of students, and they all murmured and avoided her gaze. She shook her head, the expression on her face suggested this wasn’t the first time she had encountered such a situation, and wouldn’t be the last.

“All right, off you go, I’m sure you all have classes to go to.”

They drifted off, leaving Vicky and Rick alone with her. “Well, young lady,” Mrs Goldman said, looking closely at Vicky’s bleeding temple, “You need to see the nurse and get that patched up.”

“It wasn’t Rick’s fault,” Vicky said emphatically, speaking up at last.

“Well, I’m very glad to hear that, are you going to tell me what happened?”

“One of the older boys pushed me into the lockers, and Rick came to my defence, and well, there was a bit of a fight, that’s where you came in.”

Mrs Goldman’s eyes narrowed. “I see, and you wouldn’t like to tell me this boy’s name, the one that pushed you?”

Rick made shaking motions with his head, a gesture which the sharp-eyed teacher caught. “Much as I admire your misplaced loyalty, Mr Fraser, we do not tolerate fighting in the school premises.”

“Yes, ma’am, I know.”

“Then you’ll report after school for an hour’s detention.”

He let out a groan.

“That isn’t fair,” Vicky said, a mutinous look replacing the usual placid one she habitually wore.

“Names or detention, the choice is yours.” Mrs Goldman was adamant.

 

Rick wandered along the corridor beside Vicky to the school nurse.  His jaw hurt, and now that the adrenaline had dissipated it left a strange mixture of elation and dread.  Would Mrs Goldman tell his folks? Mitch had never been in a detention in his life, and he could just imagine the look of horror on his mom’s face when she found out Rick was barely in his new school before being pulled up before the principal.

“Thanks for coming to my rescue,” Vicky said, breaking his reverie. She gave him a shy toothpaste-white smile, marred only by the metal arc of the braces on her top teeth.

“Hey, anyone else would have done the same.”

“No they wouldn’t, the whole school is scared of those two. I’ve seen it. It took guts to stand up to them the way you did.”

“Stupidity, more like.” Rick rubbed his aching jaw. “Anyway, I saw the way they were treating you, and, well, I just sort of lost it.”

She shrugged. “I know, but it isn’t the first time I’ve been called names. It seems that if you look Asian, then you’re a target. It’s worse for my dad; he’s had graffiti sprayed across his drugstore walls twelve times in the last six months.”

“That’s awful, has he gone to the police?”

She shook her head. “They say unless they catch them in the act, they can’t do anything about it.”

“That isn’t right.”

“Maybe not, but that’s the way it is.”

They had arrived at the first aid room, and Rick knocked loudly on the door. There was no opportunity for further chat as the nurse sorted out their injuries, but as they were leaving, Vicky turned to him shyly.

“Would you like to come around to my house this evening? I’ll have to ask my dad, but I’m sure he won’t mind, especially when I tell him how you stuck up for me, and got beaten up in the process.”

“Uh, I don’t know…I’m kind of busy.”

Her face dropped. “Sure, I understand.”

“Look, maybe I can come around Friday night? I’m not doing anything then.”

She brightened instantly. “That would be brilliant. I’ve got an amazing vid-game we can play.”

“Really?” That did surprise him. He figured girls were only interested in clothes and texting one another endlessly about the latest pop-star or boy-band.

“Sure, and I’ll make shredded duck with pancakes.”

He grinned. “I’ll be there.”

 

***

 

The news of the head-butting incident travelled around the school grapevine, and to his astonishment, Rick found that he was the centre of attention from several of his fellow students.  

“Nice one, Rick, Oswald’s had that coming to him for like, forever.”

“Yeah man, you gotta lot of stuff, taking him on, I never would have dared do what you did.”

He gave them a nonchalant shrug, but inwardly he felt as if someone had just given him a ride on a cloud.

“Hey, Rick.” Frizz-haired, lanky-jointed and coffee-skinned, Corbin Owens was one of the cool kids, but he was nice with it, and friends with Aaron Jacobson.  “A few of us are throwing some hoops round my place tomorrow after school. You wanna join us?”

Rick grinned.  Basking in the glow of peer acceptance, he completely forgot about his promise to Vicky Lee.

“Sure, I’d love to.”

 

***

 

Munching his way through a chilli-dog in the back-yard at Corbin’s house, Rick felt happier than a tornado in a trailer park. He was having a great time, even though it was nothing fancy, just a few games of one on one, which he mostly lost, but his self-deprecating comments made them chuckle, and he felt a warm feeling spiral up inside him at being included in the company of friends again.

Corbin’s mother, a tall, willowy woman, plied the boys with huge pitchers of freshly-made lemonade and made sure there was enough to eat, not a mean feat for a bunch of ravenous twelve-year olds. She’d welcomed Rick straightaway, and complimented him on his good manners, which made Corbin and the others hoot, and Rick blush to the roots of his hair.

The lemonade was sweet-tart and made his cheeks contract. Corbin shrieked as he slam-dunked the ball into the hoop. At five foot ten, he already had the height and build of a basketball athlete.

“You gonna play pro?” Rick asked him. “You’re really good.”

The taller boy downed a big plastic tumbler of juice. “Thanks, man, I’m thinking about it, that’s if my mom doesn’t have other ideas. She thinks I should use my brain, you know?”

Rick rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I have the same problem. They always think they know what’s best for you.”

“What about you, what you wanna be?”

“Uh, not sure, maybe an aircraft designer, or even a pilot.”

“Pilot. Cool. I hate flying, my dad’s always travelling and gets jet-lag, he’s one mean bear when he gets back, and my mom keeps telling him that the next time he’s gonna stay in a motel till he becomes human again.”

Rick laughed, although he had a twinge of envy at the implication that Corbin had been in a plane and he hadn’t. Rick didn’t have any relatives that lived far enough away to warrant flying there, and they always took vacations within the state.

There was another shriek as one of Corbin’s numerous sisters came running out of the house and knocked the ball from Aaron’s hands as he was about to shoot. After a while they all clattered upstairs and lay about on bean bags in Corbin’s untidy bedroom and he found himself the centre of attention once again as he regaled them with stories of the pranks he played on Mitch.

Corbin howled with laughter. “You are so lucky, man, wish I had a brother, this entire house stinks of perfume and make-up.”

         “Yeah, girls, scary creatures,” Aaron agreed.

         “Aliens, from another planet,” another boy said, with a laugh.

         Rick joined in the laughter: his sentiments exactly.

 

 

         When he returned home he could hear Mitch twanging on his guitar upstairs and saw his dad poring over the family terminal.

“Did you have a good time, hon?” Alicia asked, as he threw his rucksack on a kitchen chair and went to the fridge for a drink. The brisk walk home from the Owens’ house had given him another thirst.

“Yeah, great, mom.”

“See, I said you’d make some friends soon enough, didn’t I?”

“Guess so.”

“You hungry?”

“Nah, we had loads at Corbin’s house. I think I’ll just head upstairs and do my homework.”

She gave him a mock frown. “You make sure it’s homework and not models you’re making.”

He rolled his eyes and headed for the stairs. “Promise.”

“Oh, Rick, I almost forgot…someone called the house, said her name was…Vicky Lee.  I think.”

He stopped dead halfway up. “Did she leave a message?” he said, keeping his voice neutral.

“Well she asked if you were here, and I said you were round at a friend’s and she said she’d just catch you at school.” She was looking at him curiously. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

“Mom, she’s just a girl from class; we’ve spoken a couple of times, that’s all.”

She nodded, although he wasn’t entirely sure she believed him. “Okay, well, you make sure you do your homework.”

“Sure.”

 

He shut the bedroom door and leaned against it, blowing out a long breath. Mitch, on the other bed, gave him a second’s questioning glance, and then returned to strumming ‘Smoke on the Water’ on his Gibson.

Strangling it, more like, Rick thought.

He sat down at the window desk and riffled through his homework, but found it hard to concentrate. He didn’t want to feel guilty, but a promise was a promise, and he remembered the look of happiness on the girl’s face when he’d given it. He came to the unsavoury conclusion that his actions made him every bit as bad as Oswald and his gang.

“Shut up, Mitch!” he yelled, finally.

His brother ignored him and continued to strangle his guitar.

 

***

 

Rick felt a lurch in his stomach as he cycled up to the school gates on a drizzly Monday morning and saw Jimmy Oswald and his cronies lurking at the main entrance to the building. He slowed, and glanced around to see salvation in the shape of his new buddies, Aaron and Corbin, who cycled towards him from the opposite direction.

With an overwhelming sense of relief, he dismounted and all three of them walked their bikes into the school-yard, chatting about what they’d been up to at the weekend. Rick feigned nonchalance as he passed Oswald, who still sported an ugly purple bruise on his nose where Rick had head-butted him.

Heart beating loud enough for everyone to hear, Rick walked past the older boys. He still half-expected a confrontation, but neither one said a word, simply glared at him as he went past with Corbin and Aaron flanking him like a couple of bodyguards.

Inside the school, he inevitably bumped into Vicky Lee on the way to science class, and the flash of hurt in her eyes before she turned away brought back his feeling of guilt. He continued chatting to Corbin and Aaron as if nothing untoward had happened, but decided at that moment to try and patch things up with the girl. He knew that he wouldn’t have peace of mind otherwise.

 

 

After school, he headed to the address she’d given him the previous week, first stopping at a florist on the way to buy some flowers. His dad always bought his mom flowers when they’d argued so he figured it would work for any female.

He found the house on Cherry Tree Lane without problems, and parked his bike against the side of the large porch. Vicky answered the doorbell and for an instant, her almond eyes widened in surprise, and then her lips set in a hard line, and she pushed the door forward to slam in his face.

“Vicky, wait!” He threw out a hand to stop it, but she continued to glare at him.

“I was really hurt when you didn’t come around…” she said.

“I know, I’m sorry, but I didn’t do it on purpose, honest. I only just remembered when my mom told me you’d called our house.”

“I guess you found a better deal, huh? Did you have fun round with the boys?’”

“No, it’s not like that.”

He swallowed, knowing that was exactly how it looked. He decided to drop the excuses, just come clean and take his medicine.  “Please, I’d like another chance; I’m not the slime-ball you might think I am, please?”

He tried his best puppy-dog look, but the Korean girl seemed to be resistant to such wiles, and she let him stand there and stew for a few more agonising seconds. Finally she took pity on him, took the proffered bouquet of apology, and pulled the door wide to let him enter.

Rick followed her through the hallway into their sitting room. It was sparsely furnished in mono-chrome colours, with simple mats on the floor and a couple of black-framed oriental pictures on one wall.  

“How’s the head?” he asked her, indicating the sticker over her temple. “It’s okay. And I’m sorry.”

“Huh?”

“For doubting you. I do believe you forgot; you just didn’t seem like the sort of guy who would deliberately be mean, not after what you did with Bart and Jimmy. It just didn’t make sense to me.”

He smiled. “Maybe we really ought to start again.” He held out his hand. “I’m Rick.”

She giggled and shook it.

“Is your mom at home, or does she work?”

Vicky put the flowers in some water. “My mom died a few years ago, it’s been quite hard for my dad, trying to bring me up on his own.” She gave a wistful little smile that made Rick’s heart twist and wish he’d kept his mouth shut.

“She’d probably be horrified to see what I get up to. I wouldn’t exactly fit her idea of a demure little Korean girl.”

Rick wasn’t sure what she meant until she’d showed him her bedroom, which was stacked to the ceiling with collections of rare comic books, and in one corner, a sim-terminal that took his breath away.  

“Oh my God, Corbin and the guys would kill to get their hands on this.”

Vicky grinned. “Dad doesn’t really like it; he thinks gaming’s for boys. He also thinks I should spend all my time doing homework.”

“Boring,” Rick said.

“Too right, I’d much rather play this...” She fired up the terminal and handed him a headset, as Rick watched the familiar logo of the game flare onto the screen.

“Wow, that’s the newest version of Counter Strike!” Rick said, impressed. “It’s always been one of my favourites, and I know Aaron’s really into it too.”

“Want to play?” Vicky’s smile was sweet. “It’s more fun with a partner.”

He grabbed the headset. He was brilliant at Counter Strike, but he’d be nice to her, since he was a guest and she was a girl.

After she’d beaten him nine times out of ten he admitted defeat.  He didn’t know anyone who could play sim-games like this, and it blew all his preconceptions completely out of the water.

“I’m glad I came around, you’re a lot of fun,” he said.

She smiled shyly. “Most of the other girls think I’m just a geek.”

“They call you that?”

“Not in so many words, but girls don’t have to, do they?”

“I don’t know, I get ignored by most of them.”

She gave a long sigh. “I suppose I can’t really blame you for going to Corbin’s yesterday, I know what’s it’s like to feel the odd-one out at school.”

He blushed then, being reminded of his earlier rudeness towards her. “In a way, it’s because of you that they even bothered to speak to me, Vicky, I want to make it up to you.”

“Really?”

“I promise.”

 

 

It took a little while; his friends balked at the idea of a girl joining their ranks, but Rick persisted, and once they saw past their prejudices, Vicky was treated like one of the boys, to the despair of her father, Mr Lee, who occasionally found himself playing host to a bunch of twelve-year-old males. 

 

 

September 2048

 

In fall of 2048 Rick’s class went up by one: a new kid by the name of John Wardynski. A couple of inches taller than him, with shaggy dirt-blond hair, he had the insouciant  air of a beach-boy, but it transpired he was from no nearer the west-coast than the majority of his classmates, in fact he hailed from just a few miles away, in Hamtramck.

Rick remembered his first few miserable months at Northwood, and was determined that this kid wouldn’t have the same rite of passage as he did.  His overture of friendship was met with a grateful smile and soon the two boys were telling one another about themselves.  To his delight, he found out that Johnny and his dad, who had recently joined the Midvale Police Department in downtown, also happened to be their new neighbours.

“My mom was wondering about that U-Haul truck at the end of the street,” Rick said. “You just wait; she’ll be around with pie before the week is out.”

“Sounds good to me. My mom never did bake pies, even when she was around.”

Johnny’s dad was divorced, but that didn’t bother Rick. Instead, the two boys shared their love for practical jokes, and almost immediately they were comparing their favourites: salt on the toothbrushes, Saran wrap on the toilet bowls and more. Rick couldn’t explain it, but there was something about Johnny that really clicked. It was as if they’d known one another all their lives. It was an instant friendship, like Abbot and Costello, or Fred and Barney.

The two fathers, Jack Fraser and Ted Wardynski, soon forged a friendship in parallel with their sons. Ted was a friendly, solid man who had been born to be a policeman. This obsession, he later confessed to the Frasers, during one of many suppers that he attended at their house, and after he had had one too many beers, hadn’t done his marriage any favours. His wife had filed for divorce and then married a realtor, taking Johnny with them. When they had a kid together, Johnny felt pushed out, and insisted on returning to live with his dad.

After a short but nasty battle over custody, father and son finally moved to Midvale, where the crime was low compared to central Detroit, allowing them to spend more time together. Ted was real happy with the neighbourhood, and even happier that Johnny had made friends with Rick. In Ted’s opinion, his son was a bit of a tearaway, and he felt hopeful that Rick’s sensible demeanour would rub off on him.

However, that turned out to be misplaced optimism. Formerly, Rick had restricted his pranks to his immediate family, but Johnny soon persuaded him to think bigger. With his brains and Wardysnki’s bravado, they soon dared to alleviate the boredom of their final year at Northwood with a series of practical jokes.  

For each one, they left a calling card:  ‘You’ve been pranked by the ‘Dynamic Duo’, and a small bat logo.   The cliché of two heads being better that one was certainly true in this case. They started out small: switching the signs for the boys and girls bathrooms, or putting colourless dye in the soap, but it wasn’t too long before they graduated to stunts so daring the whole school talked about them for days afterwards, and at assembly one morning Mrs Goldman swore retribution and expulsion if the perpetrators were caught.

The neighbourhood was also a prime source of opportunities for the pair. Who could resist sneaking out at night and filling up bunches of balloons with water and hanging them off the trees in the neighbours’ gardens? Any removable lettering on signs outside local businesses soon mysteriously mutated into something crude and rude after they had been at work.

Rick discovered cunning he didn’t know he possessed, and he covered his tracks like a devious criminal. Neither boy craved the spotlight, preferring to bask in the results of their ingenious originality, so their identities remained a closely guarded secret. If either of them had applied as much diligence to their schoolwork as they did in executing their pranks and avoiding detection, they would have made valedictorian in senior year.

 

***

 

It wasn’t their first, or even their best prank, but it was, in Rick’s opinion, the most personally satisfying. For it to work they needed some phenolphthalein, but the chemistry store at school was locked and out of bounds, and even Johnny didn’t dare try to break in. Rick realised there was only one option. He asked Vicky if she could slip some from her father’s pharmacy.

Vicky was smarter than even Rick sometimes gave her credit for. In an instant, realisation dawned in her eyes, mixed with annoyance.

You’re the Dynamic Duo!”

Rick clamped a hand over her mouth, thankful the corridor was practically empty.

“And we won’t be for much longer if you don’t keep a lid on it.”

“Sorry,” she added in a quieter but still sullen voice when he let her go, to the passing curious glances of a couple of younger kids who were walking by.

Rick grinned at them, flipped a hand carelessly. “It’s okay; she’s just feeling ill, nothing to worry about.”

The kids looked at one another, shaking their heads at the older generation, and continued along the corridor.

“Get off me, you loon!” she muttered. “Thanks for letting me in on the secret.”

“Hey, no one’s in the secret. Just Wardynski and me.”

“I might have guessed it would be him.”

Rick waggled his eyebrows. “What, you jealous?”

She stamped on his foot so hard he yowled and hobbled on the spot for a few seconds.

“I wouldn’t be jealous if you were the last ass-hole standing.”

Rick grinned wickedly in spite of the tingling in his toes. “Bet your dad would just love to hear his lil’ daughter sweet-talking like that.”

 “Shove it where the moon shines, Fraser. I’ll just tell him you’re the bad influence in my life.”

Rick made an ‘I’m scared’ face. He suspected she would forgive him – again. “So, you gonna get me this stuff?”

“I might, but you’re going to have to pay.”

“Don’t I always?”

 

Vicky was as good as her word, and Rick again persuaded her, against her better judgement, to cause a diversion in order for Johnny to spike Jimmy Oswald’s can of Coke the following afternoon. Rick assured himself it was nothing more than poetic justice, since Vicky had been one of Oswald’s principal targets.   

The resultant effect was as spectacular as it was hilarious. One minute Jimmy was perfectly fine, the next he was mewling and dashing for the bathrooms as if his backside was on fire. To the catcalls and raucous laughter of the other students, Rick and Johnny gave one another a silent high-five. Revenge might have taken awhile, Rick thought, but it was certainly sweet and worth it to witness his former enemy continually having to leave class for the next three days due to his screwed-up waterworks.

 

***

 

The rest of the term passed in a haze, between school and slumming around one another’s houses, punctuated with the odd practical joke from the Dynamic Duo.

As far as Rick was concerned, life was good, and would continue in that vein for ever. He had a group of great buddies, including a girl, who was more than a guy than some guys, and the idea of high school didn’t fill him with the dread that it once did. He could imagine life continuing in this way forever.

Therefore Vicky’s announcement came as a shock as they sat gathered around a table in their favourite haunt, Maroni’s Pizzeria, on an afternoon close to the end of term. Rick had noticed her dejected look the instant she’d arrived, and wanted to ask, but the server came straight to their table to take orders. As soon as the girl had gone off to get their drinks, she took a large breath.

“Guys, I’m not going to Midvale High in the fall.”

There was a stunned silence.

You’re kidding,” Rick said, at last.

“Dad wants me to go to Rydale.  It’s a girl’s school in New York.”

“New York, that’s like another country!” Corbin said.

“He says  – and I quote:  ‘I have let you act like a boy for too long, your poor mother would be spinning in her grave if she could see the way you are behaving.’ He feels that he’s let her down, by allowing me to be with you guys.”

 “Crap, your mom would be proud,” Rick said, filled with a strange feeling of impending loss.

She gave a wan smile. “Thanks, but he doesn’t see it that way. He thinks I need more of a feminine influence, so he’s asked my aunt, my mum’s sister, to chaperone me when I’m out there.”

“Chaperone? You sound like one of those God-awful English-lit books we had to read last semester.”

“That stinks; no one should do anything they don’t want to,” Aaron said, “I mean, you don’t want to go there, do you?”

“Of course I don’t want to, but I love my dad, and he’s really worried about the situation out here in the Midwest.  He thinks that the east coast is more tolerant and liberal and that I’ll be safer. What worries me is how safe he’s going to be.”

 

 

September 2049

 

“Hi, short-stuff, ready for the big day?” Mitch ruffled Rick’s hair as he sailed past to sit at the breakfast table.

Rick grunted. He was well past fourteen and didn’t need a daily reminder that he wasn’t exactly going to make the basketball team any time soon. 

“Quit calling me that,” he retorted, and chucked a bagel in Mitch’s direction, but his older brother batted it back in a very un-senior-like manner. Rick retaliated and it ended up in the sugar bowl.

“Oh, for goodness sake,” Alicia said in an exasperated voice, as she set down a pot of hot coffee. “Mitch, you are old enough to know better.”

“Sorry, mom, but he started it,” Mitch wagged his spoon.  “Don’t expect any favours from me in high school, kiddo, just because I’m your big brother.”

“Yeah, right, as if I would,” Rick snapped back.

“No practical jokes, either, or I’ll have you in front of the principal in three seconds flat. I still haven’t forgiven you for the birthday stunt you and Wardynski played on me last month”

Rick grinned at the memory. “You have to admit, it was a beaut.”

Mitch flicked another bagel at him in response.

Alicia sighed. Living with three men in the house tried her patience to the limits on occasions. Most days Mitch and Rick would hose the house down with testosterone, like two male stags rutting for attention, half the time they didn’t even realise what they were doing. Much as she adored Jack and the boys, she sporadically wondered if perhaps she and her husband should have tried harder for that little girl she’d dreamed of. 

 

***

 

Rick stepped off the school bus, and squinted in the warm September sunshine at the enormous building that would be his place of learning, or torture, for the next four years. Behind him, Johnny whistled. Midvale High was probably about ten times the size of Northwood, and there were hundreds of kids milling around, screeching and waving, dashing around the taller, more sedate seniors in their midst. Northwood wasn’t a small school, but here they felt like minnows in a huge lake.

They started to wander across to the large, open area towards the main entrance when a stately powder-blue Cadillac came rolling up to the edge of sidewalk behind the parked school bus. They stopped, curious to see who was inside.

Two passengers got out, an older woman, tall, slim and blonde, and a girl, around their age, presumably her daughter. The latter was a clone of her mother, with peach-perfect skin, and long shining hair that made gold dull by comparison. Rick felt a strange sensation in his belly as he watched the two of them air-kiss their goodbyes.

He was at that awkward time in a teenager’s life, caught halfway between being a kid and adulthood. His voice was baritone one minute and squeaky the next, he had hair sprouting in his armpits and groin, and things were happening to him nocturnally that he would have been mortified to discuss with anyone, even Johnny.

“She probably gets that hair out of a bottle,” Johnny muttered from the corner of his mouth, as the Buick drove off and the girl, after waving goodbye, wandered across in their direction.   

“Yeah,” Rick replied, unable to wrest his eyes off the vision of loveliness.

The girl gave them the briefest of imperious glances, before sailing past, and Rick caught the faint scent of perfume – flowery sweet. He found he had to extricate his tongue from the roof of his mouth.

 “Stuck-up cow,” Johnny muttered, as his eyes followed her up the steps.

“Yeah, gorgeous cow though, you have to admit.”

“You’d be better off dating a rattlesnake.”

“Like I’d ever get a date with her.”

“Good thing too.  Girls like her are looking for Mr Big, someone like Daddy. Someone who’s gonna support them in the style to which they have become accustomed. Haircuts at a hundred dollars a pop, and clothes that cost the earth. Guys like you and me, Rick, we figure exactly - nowhere. She’s way out of our league.”

“Since when did you get all knowledgeable about it?” Rick shook his head as they joined the milling throng making their way into the cavernous school.

 

***

 

Rick wasn’t yet wise enough to know that that high school society was like the Indian caste system. There existed invisible strata that the unwary student crossed at their peril. Status was all, and retaining the status quo even more so.

There were the jocks, the science nerds and the drama queens; the music buffs, the bad, skanky girls, the Goths, the grungy dudes with skateboards or roller-blades, and at the top of the pyramid, the popular students, usually, but not always, the most well off, but certainly, always the prettiest or handsomest, however that was defined in some unspoken but unanimous way by the student body. Emma Bishop, and it didn’t take Rick long to find out the name of the girl from the Caddie, slotted right into that top niche, along with several other girls, all blonde.   Rick named that group the Midvale Cuckoos, after a science-fiction book they’d read at Northwood.

What is it about blondes, of either the female or male variety, thought Rick sullenly, that seems to give them the expectation that the world exists only to serve them? In his sage opinion, most blonds had about as much grey matter between their ears as the average jock, and although he would never dump his best friend into that category, he couldn’t help the feeling that his own pedestrian brown hair and eyes, paled by comparison with Johnny’s fair locks and air of surfer-boy glamour.

 

***

 

Midvale High prided itself on a rich array of intra and extra-curricular activities, and all students were encouraged to join.  Amongst the tightly knit little group that had moved from Northwood to Midvale, Corbin was first to capitulate,  joining the basketball team, a move that gradually, without any intention, resulted in him spending less and less time with Rick and Johnny, although they still remained close friends. Aaron was next, joining the drama group.  Rick and Johnny privately agreed that his interest probably had more to do with the large proportion of girls in the group, rather than a true love of all things thespian.

“He’ll come back when he has to dress up as a woman,” Rick said.

“What about you, Rick, you gonna join anything?”

“Haven’t given it any thought“

“They have a modellers club.”

“Yeah, and I’ve seen some of the kids that hang out there. I’ve no intention of joining nerd-central.”  Rick’s memories of his first months as an outsider at Northwood still stung, and he had no wish to be put in any box and labelled as such in Midvale.

“Yeah, I forgot, you’re a serious aircraft designer,” Johnny replied, with a sly grin.

“Eat dirt, Wardynski.”

In the end, Rick and Johnny stuck together like glue, in a sort of no-man’s land, not really fitting in anywhere. Johnny lacked the ‘academic’ gene, too, and without Vicky Lee as a stabilising influence on the homework front, the two teenagers bumped along doing barely enough to scrape their end of term grades and avoid bad reports.

 

***

 

The girls in Rick’s year liked to pretend they were sophisticated and worldly-wise, but the truth was they were just as horrified by the gory details of sex as their male counterparts. They squirmed with embarrassment  in socio-biology classes, as they watched holo-vids of mothers in labour and the effects of unsafe-sex, which was enough to make any kid choose celibacy if it weren’t for their swinging hormones telling them otherwise. See-sawing moods, bodily changes, the Slot A into Slot B mechanics of sex were discussed, accompanied by lots of sniggering and flushed faces from both sexes in the room. 

His mom would have blown a gasket if she thought he’d even entertained the idea of messing with a girl that way at his age. He and Mitch got regular lectures about ‘being responsible’. They weren’t exactly going-to-church-or synagogue-every-Sunday folks, but Alicia Fraser had her own ideas about what constituted morality, and getting a girl pregnant and ruining their futures too early was at the top of the list, and she made sure both of her boys knew it.  Not that Rick was at risk of doing any such thing, he hardly had a queue of girls swooning at his feet or asking him for a date.

        

***

 

Vickylee:     Long time no see, just wanted to try this thing out and see if your e-mail worked.

Flyboy:        J Looks like it does, great to hear from you! How’s things out east?

Vickylee:     L My aunt’s SO strict! I have to wear a dress and skirts all the time, she wont let me play any sim-games and I have to read the classics every night. She evens quizzes me on them! I really miss you and the guys…

Flyboy:        Miss you too, it ain’t the same at Midvale without you around. I can beat Aaron and Johnny at Counter Strike way too easy.

Vickylee:     I’m banned from sim-games, and all the other girls in my years are so – girly.

Flyboy:        J That’s a bummer…still it must be great being able to visit the Big Apple.

Vickylee:     Are you kidding? I’ve only been once, mind you it was to the Met, and that was AMAZING. They have an entire Egyptian temple in one room – can you believe that?

Flyboy:        Sounds cool.

Vickylee:     Aunt Grace promises me we can go more often if I get good grades, it’s my incentive, and I need something to take me through this year, its SO boring.

Flyboy:        I hear ya. Any chance of coming over to Midvale for a visit? We could all go to Maroni’s and catch up.

Vickylee:     I don’t think so, my school schedule is tight, not to mention tough. What with music, and dance classes after school I don’t have a moment to myself. I guess it ought to be for all my dad is forking out for this place. I just hope it’s worth what he thinks it is. What about you and Johnny, are the Dynamic Duo still in business?

Flyboy:        Oh yeah, now and then, we don’t want to overstretch ourselves.

Vickylee:     Get caught, you mean.

Flyboy:        Nah, we’re the best, we’ll never get caught.

Vickylee:     I gotta go, Aunt Grace is calling me for supper, we’re having some relatives over.

Flyboy.        Have fun keep in touch

Vickylee:     Sure will.

Flyboy:        J

 

 

October 2049

 

Fall was Rick’s favourite season of the year and of all of its ninety-one days, Halloween was the best of all. He loved the crisp night air, the tang of wood-smoke, the glow of the hanging pumpkin lanterns, and the aroma of freshly baked pies from the kitchens of every second house on the block.

Above all, it was a prime opportunity for playing really good practical jokes on the neighbours. With hordes of kids running riot in the neighbourhood, dressed up as anything from Robin Hood to Freddie Kreuger in their quest for as much candy as possible, who would be able to prove exactly who tricked who?

Old Mrs Cass had been particularly ‘witchy’ in the past week, really having a go at a any kid who came within ten yards of her ‘spotless’ front yard. She hated Halloween, or, it seemed to the youngsters, anything that smacked remotely of fun. After watching her reduce six-year-old Billy Evans to tears for accidentally bouncing his ball onto her pristine lawn, Rick and Johnny agreed that pay-back time had finally arrived.  

They left their planned escapade until the dead of night. At five minutes past two in the morning, Rick crept out of the back door to the garage, dressed all in black. There was no moon, and the street lighting was, at best, sporadic in the neighbourhood, so it took him a few minutes to see the other figure dressed in dark clothes walking along the street.

The two boys crept through the back yards of the neighbours, since there were no fences other than the odd line of evergreens to mark the boundary lines.  They sidled out to the front when they arrived at Mrs Cass’s and then got to work. As well as the moonless sky, there was no street lamp directly outside her house, which made their job a little harder, but pretty much guaranteed no one would be able to see them.

In silence, they took it in turns to pour a stream of powder from a tin over the meticulously groomed grass, working up and down and around. After the tin was almost emptied, they gave one another a silent ‘high-five’ and went their separate ways back to their respective homes.

 

***

 

The following Sunday morning, the two of them cycled past Mrs Cass’s house, to see the results of their handiwork.  A bunch of local kids had gathered, and there were hoots of laughter as they surveyed the rude message scrawled in big, bold white letters on Mrs Cass’s verdant lawn. There was a shriek from the doorway, and she ran out, a broom brandished in one hand, bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West, minus the green skin.

Kids scattered right and left, yelping and hollering, and her long strident wail pierced the Sunday morning calm. Rick and Johnny wobbled on their bikes, trying not to choke with laughter as Mrs Cass dropped the broom and grabbed the hose at the side of the house, dragged it, , and opened it full blast on the offending lettering, mouthing off all manner of dire warnings to anyone in earshot.

If she thought that was the end of things, however, she hadn’t counted on the two boys’ true deviousness. The powder they’d used was a super-grow lawn feeder, and all that watering had simply activated the chemical process. Come spring, after the winter snows had melted, that graffiti was still there, written in every lush, dark-green stalk of grass, standing out from the paler background of the non-fertilised lawn.  There was little that the old witch could do about it, short of paving the whole lot over.  Her front yard even made the local news, and Rick nearly doubled-up with laughter from his bedroom window one evening when he saw the news-van stop outside the house and take pictures. Mrs Cass ran out, waving a bony fist and threatened she’d sue them all the way to Unity if they published anything.

 

 

May 2050

 

The adverts for the World Air Force open day on the Chicago waterfront caught Rick’s eye the moment they appeared, and it was all he could think about for days. There would be aerobatic displays and all manner of aircraft on show, and the possibility that he could get up close and personal to some of the most beautiful fighter jets in the world was almost too exciting for words. The military was miserly with its open-days for the public, generally putting on no more than a couple of shows per year, and with all the world’s great cities to choose from it had been some time since its last visit to the contiguous United States.

And Chicago is practically next door, Rick thought. Only a three-hour trip by road, or forty-five minutes on the mono-rail shuttle that linked the two great mid-western cities.

When he quizzed his parents about giving him a ride to Chicago, however, they were less than enthusiastic.  

“Sorry, Rick, your Dad’s working that weekend and I have a wedding to cater for.”

On hearing this news Rick gave a snort of disgust and headed upstairs, but Mitch only shrugged and said he had an important class assignment to finish for Monday and there was no way he’d be driving him across.

“I’ll take the shuttle then, I still have some of my birthday money left,” he said to Alicia.

“There is no way you are going to Chicago on your own, young man.”

“I could drive him, I still have my licence,” Grandma Meyer piped up. “And I’d like a look at those fancy planes myself.”

Alicia rolled her eyes, “Mom, are you kidding? You can barely drive to the mall these days. At least that’s what you tell me.”

The old lady shrugged, and Rick saw a wicked twinkle in her brown eyes. “Well, I’ve gotten to enjoy you chauffeuring me around.”

Alicia gave her a long-suffering look and Rick chuckled. He liked his grandma, but didn’t exactly want her trailing along behind him, needing the bathroom every five minutes. That’s what happened when you were old.

“Mom,” he pleaded, “The shuttle’s totally safe, and there will be loads of people my age at the air show.”

“Forget it. You can go with friends, or not at all.”

He glowered. “Fine.”  

Alicia sighed, and returned to decorating her wedding cake.

 

***

 

For all Rick and Johnny were best friends, the joys of flying and aircraft were the one thing they didn’t see eye to eye about.

“It’s the only way my mom is going to let me go, you’ve gotta help me out, man.”

“Getting up close and personal with girls is what floats my boat, not big metal birds that go way too fast.” 

“You lost a chromosome somewhere, Wardynski. You’re a guy for Pete’s sake, how the heck can you not be into stuff that goes fast? And as for girls, in real-life, they’re a bunch of hard work. Now, these females,” he pointed at the ad for the air-show which featured several sleek fighter jets. “They’ve got curves in all the right places, but they only talk back when you want them too. Speed and power, that’s my sort of language.”

“Like someone’s gonna let you in the hot seat of one these babies, you’re only fifteen, man.”

Rick shrugged and played his trump card. “I hear Miss America is going to open the show and cut a ribbon, or something, and I know there’s always a bunch of pretty women at these things.”

“You serious?”

“Totally.”

Johnny sat thinking for a moment. “You’re gonna be like a wolverine with a sore head about this if you don’t get to go, aren’t you?”

Rick grinned, sensing he was almost there. “If you come with me, I’ll do your math assignments for the next three weeks.”

That nailed it.

 

***

 

Rick never would forget that first glimpse of Chicago as the mono-rail shuttle drew close to the station. By far the mid-west’s biggest metropolis, nothing he’d ever seen in Detroit could possibly match the sheer scale and bravado of the City on the Lake. He stared, mesmerised, as they whisked along the elevated track, past long lines of skyscrapers that stretched as far as his eyes could see. They soared upwards, black and white and silver ribbons of concrete and glass into a cloudless spring-blue sky. Topmost windows of each monolithic edifice refracted the sun into diamond shards of light, making Rick squint against the glare.

         “Awesome,” he murmured, craning his head upwards at one gigantic structure, criss-crossed with massive steel beams. It seemed to go on up into the sky forever. “I wonder what it would be like to live at the top of one of these.”

Johnny made a face. “You’d get vertigo, that’s what.”

A fellow passenger on the shuttle, obviously a native Chicagoan, gave an amused smile.  “On a grey day you can’t see a thing. It’s a bit like being in the clouds, literally.”

Rick grinned. “Living above the clouds, or flying above them. My idea of heaven.”

Johnny snorted. Rick ignored him.

The shuttle stopped, conveniently, at North Shore Beach airfield, where they alighted. They had to walk a couple of hundred yards to get to the main event, and join the throng of couples and families to get their free passes validated.

Johnny wiped a hand over his brow. The brief Midwestern spring had mutated rapidly into something more akin to mid-summer, and the blasts of humid air that wafted in from the lake made them feel sticky.

“By the time we’ve got through this lot it’ll be time to go home again,” he muttered darkly.

Rick’s head was bobbing up and down, as the sound of rotors in the sky caught his immediate attention. “Oh, can it, Wardynski, where’s your sense of adventure. Look up there: it’s a Seabird helicopter, used in air-sea rescues.”

Finally, they had their tickets stamped, and were able to wander amongst the crowds.   Everyone it seemed, apart from Johnny, was taking an avid interest in the display of air-ware around them. There were trade stands, and recruitment booths, rides and simulators, and a huge array of aircraft and military vehicles, both present and historic. Bleachers had been set up all along the waterfront, so guests could sit and enjoy the upcoming aerial events.  Fast food franchises were doing a roaring trade, and the smell of frying burgers, hot dogs and warm popcorn assailed their nostrils.

“Oh my God, there’s an old Stealth aircraft!” Rick piped up, tugging Johnny’s shirt to make him look. “And to the right, I can see a vintage F-22!”

“Yeah, yeah. And over there,” Johnny replied, “I see pretty ladies serving ice-cold coke and burgers.”

Rick felt a rumble in his stomach, he hadn’t eaten since breakfast and that was hours ago. He reluctantly nodded, wouldn’t be good to faint just as the big guns were being rolled out. “Okay, let’s grab something before the main show starts.”

They filled up with burgers and fries, then Rick wandered the aircraft displays, and rattled off statistics to a bored Johnny, and all the while, the skies over Lake Michigan were filled with a roaring and a buzzing, as the jets, helicopters, bombers and trainer aircraft of the World Air Force entertained the crowds below.

“Oh, my God, look, that’s it –” Rick could barely contain his excitement.  He grabbed Johnny’s arm and pointed to a silver and black machine standing head and shoulders above a crowd of onlookers. The World Air Force’s F-40 Viper, its finest attack aircraft, was a major draw for many of the more statistic-savvy visitors to the show, and Rick recognised its sleek, deadly outline in an instant, and, with the enthusiast’s obsession, rattled off a list of the plane’s technical attributes. 

“She’s got the lowest observable stealth capabilities of anything ever made, multifunction radars and high speed data-transmission links for the avionics. The heads up display has total situational awareness, and she can even hover.”

Johnny looked as if he might pass out with boredom, until the tannoys crackled into life, announcing the arrival of Miss America, who was going to give renditions of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ followed by ‘United Are We’, the World Government’s latest attempt at fostering a sense of patriotism for the combined sovereign nations in the Federation.  

Johnny’s mood instantly lifted on hearing this news, and he dragged Rick off to the main podium, where a huge crowd had assembled. Several medium ranking officials from the World Air Force, the Mayor of Chicago and the organisers all sat facing front, while the lovely Miss America stepped up to the microphone to begin her set. The Hispanic beauty’s voice didn’t quite match her looks, but she sang gamely. Her second song finished to polite applause and then the organiser announced the air displays were about to commence.

Rick craned his head, along with the thousands of other onlookers, as the World Air Force’s elite aerobatic team, the White Knights, streaked across the sky within view of the beach. There were screams and hoots from the crowds as they flew overhead, trailing rainbow-coloured smoke from their exhaust fins, which, as the announcer explained to those ignorant of the subtlety, was meant to signify the nations of the world, united.

Rick wasn’t interested in the political claptrap; his eyes were fixed on the sky above him. And what a show it was. In near-perfect visibility, the team performed a myriad of manoeuvres: barrel rolls, dives and loops, all the while maintaining heart-stopping distances between each aircraft of less than several meters. The crowd went wild, and even Johnny was cheering and whistling.

“See, I told you!” Rick’s eyes were shining. “These guys are amazing.”

He didn’t think anything could top that, but when a mighty thrumming sound signalled the main event of the show was about to commence, his felt a strange tingling go all the way down his spine. The F-40 Viper rose off the ground, its VTOL engines humming with suppressed power. Higher and higher, it rose, until the pilot was well above the throng of spectators below.  Almost instantaneously, the jet climbed vertically, and Rick saw the flaring glow from the afterburners, like twin suns.  A thunderous roar cleaved the thick air in two and the ground shook under his feet as the mighty deltoid craft slammed across the sky above him, accompanied by screams and shouts and applause from the crowds. The Viper arced around over the lake, and the pilot performed a series of stunning dives, turns and rolls that sent the crowds into a frenzy of enthusiasm at such a masterly display of aerial skill.

Rick felt his heart thumping in his chest. What must it feel like to be up there, soaring through the sky in that mighty beast? He would have given anything to know.

Most of the main events had finished for the day, and people were starting to drift off. Johnny was all for heading back to the mono-rail station, but Rick insisted they stayed.

“I wanna get a last look at the Viper, maybe I’ll get a chance to see inside it now a lot of the crowds have gone.”

Johnny sighed, but trudged behind his friend, muttering, “The things I do for you, Flyboy.”

There were still enough people around the jet to constitute a crowd, and the two guards stationed either side of the delta wings ensured that no one got too close to the WAF’s most precious hardware. ‘Look, but don’t touch’ was the idea.

Rick cast his eyes across the aircraft, wondering what it would be like to be crammed into the bubble-shaped cockpit. He knew all the dry statistics, the g-forces, the thrust, like being strapped to the nose cone of a rocket. But what did that really feel like?

He was so absorbed in his reverie he barely heard the enormous bang going off several hundred yards away.

“Jeez, something’s happened!” Johnny shouted, and he snapped his head around to see a plume of smoke rise into the air. By now, everyone was looking, including the two guards, who hurriedly spoke into their two-way mikes, obviously trying to find out what was going on.

“Don’t panic!” One guard took control and shouted at the milling throng, “Just make your way in an orderly fashion to the main gates, there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Are you kidding us? That sounded like an explosion to me!” A heavy-set man in the crowd replied, a worried look wreathing his face.

“What if there’s another one?” A woman with a child in a buggy seemed to agree. “Who says we’ll be safer if we go that way?”

“She’s right,” someone else piped up. Everyone started shouting and jostling, and with a look of exasperation, the two guards moved forward, away from their posts, and towards the crowd to instil some calm.

Rick, on the fringe of the milling group, realised that with the guards preoccupied, this might be his one and only chance to get close to the aircraft. He wasn’t thinking about the consequences, that he might get into serious trouble if he was caught, his only thought was to see that Viper up close.

“Rick, where you going?” Johnny hissed, as he saw him slink towards the aircraft.

“Just stay there, I’m just going to be a minute.”  

“They’ll kill you, man!”

Rick ignored Johnny’s insistent whispers. He was almost at the edge of one sweeping delta wing when he froze at the sight of a man in a WAF flight suit crept up behind the Viper.

Where the hell had he come from? Rick thought, as he ducked down out of sight. Thankfully, the swarthy-faced pilot hadn’t noticed him, as he began to slink around the fuselage towards the cockpit of the Viper.

 There was something about his furtive movements that disturbed the watching teenager, and alarm bells started to sound in his head as the man, totally unnoticed by the guards who were now some distance away dealing with the anxious civilians, pressed a gadget in his hand.  The cockpit swung noiselessly open and the man hauled himself up onto one sweeping delta wing…

Something was definitely not kosher, and although he paid scant notice to the news, Rick was vaguely aware of the terrorist threat posed by rogue states who refused to join the World Government. He also possessed a teenager’s highly active imagination. Suddenly he was wondering about the explosion, was it a diversion of some sort?

Don’t be nuts. 

But what if…

Rick knew that the Viper didn’t need a runway, it could take off vertically, and once in the air, there was nothing that could catch it.

Decision made, he popped up again. The pilot didn’t see him, too busy with entering the cockpit. So Rick raised his voice:

“Sir, are you allowed to get into that aircraft?”

The swarthy-faced ‘pilot’ turned then, and stared at the floppy-haired teenager in surprise. But it was only a momentary hesitation. The hooded eyes narrowed, and he swiftly thrust one hand into his flight suit. The following second, Rick was staring into the muzzle of a black pistol. Heart hammering, he ducked under the wing, as the air popped and there was a loud metallic ping as the bullet ricocheted off the fuselage of the sleek aircraft.

The two WAF guards finally whirled around at that unmistakable sound, their mouths falling open as they saw Rick running towards them with no regard for his own safety, shouting a warning: “There’s a guy up there trying to steal the Viper!”

Guard Number One raised his weapon and screamed over Rick’s head: “Get down from the aircraft, now!”

The rogue pilot swore in some unrecognisable tongue and aimed his weapon. Once again there were several ‘pops’ and Rick threw himself to the ground, adrenaline coursing through every fibre of his body.  There were screams from the small group of onlookers and they surged away from the drama being played out in front of them.

The answering report from the second guard’s gun found its target. There was a strangled cry, and Rick, face down in the dirt, turned his head just in time to see the swarthy man topple sideways, out of the cockpit and onto the ground. 

Things seemed to go crazy after that.

The guards moved fast, jabbering into their head-sets for back up. One kept his weapon trained on the unconscious, (or dead, Rick didn’t know which), mystery man, the other confiscated his weapon, and then took control of the crowd again, urging them to stay back and assuring them that everything would be fine.

Johnny didn’t listen, instead he ran forward to drop to his knees beside Rick.

“Are you okay?” he urged, hauling him up to a sitting position.

Rick ran nervous eyes across his body. No sign of any blood. He felt a wave of relief sweep over him. 

“Was that gunfire we heard?” Johnny asked. “What the hell just happened here?”

Rick tried to speak. Now that it was over he felt the urge to throw up. He gamely resisted, not wanting to look like a kid. 

But, before he could say anything, WAF personnel arrived on the scene like flies on a carcass. They had paramedics in tow, and they swiftly ran a cordon around the area where the Viper stood, keeping the onlookers away as they tended to the injured man and attempted to assess exactly what had just happened. By this time, several members of the press had shown up, and Rick saw more WAF personnel making their way across the field to assert their authority and minimise damage control.

Another two WAF personnel escorted Rick and Johnny to a military tent not far from the Viper. Once seated and given a glass of water, Rick was asked to recount his version of events to a beribboned colonel who stared at him with hawk-like features. Rick gulped down the water, feeling a lot more nervous that he’d been when he’d attempted to distract the mystery foreigner.

“I’m not sure whether we ought to take you into custody or give you a medal,” the colonel, whose name was Pettigrew, said finally, after Rick completed his tale.  

“Yeah, but if he hadn’t,” Johnny pointed out. “You would’ve been minus one big war-plane!”

Colonel Pettigrew pursed his lips.

“After that explosion,” Rick blurted out. “I just…well…shit, I wasn’t thinking. I just had to see the Viper.” He flushed quickly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to swear, sir.”

The colonel’s moustachioed mouth twitched at the corners. “Don’t worry, I’ve heard worse. But, talking about that little stunt of yours, don’t you realise that you could have been killed?”

Just then, a tall, dark-haired, well-built man, dressed in a WAF flight suit came through the flap in the tent and interrupted them.

“If this kid hadn’t been so nosy we might have lost my girl,” The pilot said in an assertive voice. He strode across to where Rick sat, and pumped his hand vigorously.

“I’m Captain Gene Carlin,” he said, introducing himself.

Rick felt a stupid grin plaster itself onto his face as the pilot let go of his hand and turned to the colonel. “That guy the guards shot, he must have hit my co-pilot, I went to take a leak and found him propped up against the back of a stall, tied-up and unconscious. Someone had stripped him and taken his flight suit.”

“Maybe that explosion was a diversion,” Johnny suggested. “I sure hope no one got hurt.”

“We think it was some kind of car-bomb,” Carlin said, nodding. “And you’re right, kid, it was definitely to cause a diversion to steal the Viper. Luckily I don’t think any civilians have been badly hurt, but –”

“I don’t think these teenagers need to know all the details, Captain,” Colonel Pettigrew interrupted sharply. “Perhaps you ought to see how your co-pilot is doing.”

“He’s fine, just a egg-shaped lump on his thick skull. What I want to know is how we’re going to thank this kid for saving our asses?”

“We’ll talk about that later, Captain, but right now we have a lot of confused civilians to deal with. We need to clear the area, and then ensure maximum security is established.”

Carlin nodded, and Pettigrew turned to the boys, his face stern.  “There will be publicity in the newspapers and TV about this incident because, unfortunately, the press have already got wind of it.  I am telling you now, that it comes under the jurisdiction of the World Government Security Forces and, as such, you are sworn to secrecy.  Whatever comes out in the media, you are not at liberty to discuss with your friends, your teachers and – most importantly – the press. Do you understand?”

“We wouldn’t dream of it, sir,” Rick said quickly and Johnny nodded fervently.   He felt an odd sense of relief: if they couldn’t discuss it with anyone he wouldn’t have to tell his parents.  He knew exactly how his mother would react if he told her that some foreign spy-guy had been taking pot-shots at him: he’d be permanently grounded until he was thirty-five – or for even longer.

“Good.  Primarily, my insistence on this is for your own safety and that of your families.  The man who shot at you and my men and who attempted to steal our aircraft, is an enemy of the World Government. I can assure you he will have accomplices that would not hesitate to – well, let’s just say they aren’t very nice people, and your kinfolk wouldn’t really want them to come calling at your homes anytime soon.”

“Sure we understand,” the boys assured him.

“My staff will tell the press all they need to know, and your names will be kept out of any reports and, just to make sure of that, I’m going to ask you both to remain here until the area has been cleared. Then we’ll escort you back to Detroit.  We have a helicopter that’ll take you across to nearest WAF HQ in Michigan, then someone will come with you to your house and brief your parents on what’s happened.  It is the least we can do for – allowing you to become mixed up in this.”

“Our parents?” Rick’s heart sank.  “They have to know?  I thought you said don’t tell anyone, sir?”

“But, naturally, that did not include your parents.  You’re both minors and the World Air Force has a duty to let them know what happened.”  As the expression on both boys’ faces turned panic-stricken, his mouth twitched again at the corners. “Don’t worry, nothing will be said about the fact that you shouldn’t have been there to begin with.  Your secret is as safe with us and we’re sure ours is with you.”

Rick and Johnny exchanged glances. “Sure, sir – as the grave,” Johnny said.

“Yeah,” Rick agreed.  He dreaded his parents’ hearing about their adventure, but even that was tempered by the thought of the helicopter ride home.  And, just maybe, they’d be proud of his quick-thinking and courage, and consider that he was as good as Mitch for once – for awhile anyway.   A beatific smile curled on his lips as he daydreamed into a rosy future. 

Captain Carlin grinned. “Guess you haven’t scared them that much, Colonel.”

“This isn’t something to joke about, Captain,” the colonel replied crisply, “and you know I don’t approve of gung-ho heroics, especially from civilians.”

He turned smartly on one heel and strode out of the tent. Captain Carlin followed him, but just before he disappeared through the flap, he turned to give both of them a cheerful wink.

 

They were confined to the tent, and there was a WAF guard at the flap-door, so they felt a bit like prisoners. Well-fed prisoners, at least, and they had both demolished the burgers, fries and cinnamon rolls that had appeared with a tray-carrying airman shortly after Colonel Pettigrew and Captain Carlin left to supervise the closing of the air-show.

“It’s like something out of a TV show,” Johnny mumbled, through a mouth full of sweet-roll. “Imagine us, heroes!”

“Yeah,” Rick replied. “I’d just love to be able to brag about this.  I bet there would be girls falling at for the feet of a spy-foiling guy like me.” His face turned glum. “But one word, and we’ll probably be locked up in a cell in Guantanamo Bay. Still, at least I won’t be the one to tell my mom as to why we’re back so late.  And she’ll have to agree that I was  being patriotic.”

It was late in the afternoon when Captain Carlin finally pushed his way into the tent. The pilot had a smile hovering around the corners of his mouth, as if he was holding onto some big secret.

“Well, boys, it’s almost time to get going.  But just before you do, I managed to persuade Colonel Pettigrew to give you a little thank-you present. I know you were pretty keen to see the interior of the Viper, is that right?”

“Yeah, you could say sneaking past a couple of WAF guards was taking keen to the next level,” Rick replied, with a wry grin, a faint hope stirring in his chest at the pilot’s words.

“What would you say to a little spin in my girl?”

Rick’s jaw fell open and it took a few seconds for it to get working again, surely he couldn’t be meaning. “The Viper…you’re kidding me…”

Carlin grinned. “Straight up, and I mean, straight up!”

 

Rick followed Captain Carlin’s instructions to harness up as he sat in the rear seat of the Viper’s cockpit. His fingers trembled as he fiddled with the straps over the baggy flight suit that was intended to be worn by a bulkier adult. Carlin double-checked his efforts, and made sure Rick’s pressure helmet was tight before climbing into his own seat in front.

“Wouldn’t want you banging your head on the cockpit when we go upside down,” he joked.

Rick gulped and then listened avidly as Carlin relayed instructions to the tower at the nearest airport, and requested permission to take off.

“It’s gonna be a short flight, but we still have to make sure we have clearance,” he explained. “Can’t take the risk we’ll meet a big civilian airliner coming in across the lake just as we’re taking off. Wouldn’t do our credibility any good, huh?”

“Sure wouldn’t, sir!” Rick answered through his headset.

 The curved one-hundred-and-eighty-degree Heads Up Display exploded into life, surrounding him with neon colour. He felt his stomach churn with anticipation, and waved at Johnny, standing below some distance away with a WAF guard nearby.

“You’ll be thrown about a bit, Rick,” Carlin said. “We’ll take some gees, when we go supersonic, you okay with that?”

“Absolutely, sir.”

“Okay, we got a window clearance, hang on.”

Instantly, the Viper’s massive engines fired up, filling the cramped cockpit with a roaring noise, and there was a vibration and shaking, for all the world as if the fighter jet was straining at the leash, like a dragon tethered to the ground. Rick could feel a throbbing from his head to his toes, and the noise was so loud it made his teeth ache.

“Okay, here goes…” Carlin said.

Rick felt himself being lifted, surrounded by sound, and yet, miraculously, the vibrations levelled out as the aircraft slipped its chains and lifted effortlessly into the air. Johnny and his WAF minder turned ant-sized as the ground fell away beneath him. Then, as the Viper turned in the air, he could see the entire airfield spread out along the coast, and now - the vista of downtown Chicago filled his vision, dazzling him.

Carlin did something with the throttles on the Viper, and the jet shot across the sky, gaining speed with every second.

“You okay, kid?” he heard Carlin’s voice in his ears.

“I’m…great…”

“No sick feeling?”

“Nope, I love speed. This is just…awesome…out of this world.”

“We’ll go up to 40,000 feet and then do some moves, okay?”

“Oh, yeah!

Carlin punched the controls and some immense power slammed Rick into the back of his seat as the Viper went vertical. His stomach was left somewhere over the lake as the g-forces kicked in. When he let out a noise that was somewhere between a whoop and a cough, Carlin’s suddenly anxious voice sounded in his ears.

“Everything okay back there?”

He laughed raucously. “Oh, I’m more than fine….”

“We just made Mach 1,” Carlin informed him, and Rick was astonished that it was so quiet. I’m supersonic!

The memory of those brief moments of pure uninhibited joy would remain with him forever, but all too soon, it was over, and when he climbed down from the cockpit once the Viper had made its landing, he found that his legs had turned to jelly. He shook Carlin’s hand and thanked him for making a dream come true. 

“You ought to think about flying lessons,” the pilot replied.

“I could only dream about flying something like that,” Rick replied wistfully, looking at the Viper for the last time.

"I had the same dream once,” Carlin assured him, with an expansive wave at the fighter jet. “I didn’t start out in this girl, though. I had to work my way up. No reason you couldn’t do the same.”

Rick’s answering grin was wider than Lake Michigan. “You betcha, sir!”

 

***

 

It was late when the un-marked WAF people carrier drew up outside Johnny’s house and the Welfare Officer, a friendly young woman called Grace Cavanaugh went to collect Mr Wardynski for the short ride to the Fraser’s home a couple of hundred yards away.  

Rick had texted his mother on his cell-phone, saying he and Johnny had gone for pizza after getting back, which was partly true. Ms Cavanaugh had ordered the driver to stop at a drive-in and ordered two enormous pepperonis and chilli to go. She had politely declined their offer of a slice, watching with amazement at the apparently bottomless capacity of the digestion of a teenage male as they demolished the food.

Alicia had sent Rick a terse reply, and he figured she must have had her hands full with the wedding.  She answered the door and stared with some surprise at the small crowd on the step. 

“What’ve they done this time?” she asked in concern, looking from the WAF officer to Ted Wardynski.

“Nothing, Mrs Fraser, they’ve been very helpful.  If Mr Wardynski and I could come and speak to you and your husband, I’ll explain it all?” Cavanaugh said. 

The next hour went passed in a blur, as their parents listened in astonished silence to the official version of the events at the air show.  Alicia gasped in fear when she heard about the shooting and hugged Rick to her as if she was shielding him from any more potential assassins.  Ted Wardynski clamped his hand on Johnny shoulder and left it there, while Jack looked from boy to boy as if he felt he didn’t know them at all. 

“So you see, Mrs and Mrs Fraser, Mr Wardynski, your sons acted bravely and promptly to prevent what could have been a most serious theft.  The WAF owes them both a great deal of thanks.  However, it was decided to keep their names out of the papers to protect them from any harassment by reporters or – anyone else – and I must ask you swear to keep the information I’ve given you secret.  Rick and Johnny have already promised.”

“Sure, ma’am,” Jack said, almost growling, and Ted Wardynski nodded.  “We won’t say a word to any one.”

Grace Cavanaugh thanked them and smiled, getting to her feet to leave.  “Goodbye, Rick, Johnny.  You take care now, you hear?”

As the door closed behind her and the car drove away, Jack looked at his son and started to ask a question, but Alicia stopped him.

“Oh no; they’ve had enough for one day.  They’re going to bed.  Ted, you want Johnny to stay here tonight?”

“No, we’ll go home.  Come on, son.”

Rick was still running on adrenalin, but as Johnny left the tiredness washed over him and he yawned.

“Bed,” Alicia said.  “We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

Rick walked up the stairs, hands in pockets, his mind buzzing as if he had a million hornets banging around inside it.  Imagine, actually being in a fighter-jet! And Captain Carlin was right. He wanted to fly.

No, he needed to fly.

That jaunt to 40,000 feet had insinuated itself into his soul, and there was no way the genie could be put back into the bottle.

 

***

 

There was a special breakfast for him when he surfaced late the next morning, although – as if they had discussed it and decided not to probe too carefully into what had happened – his parents’ conversation was entirely neutral.

I guess they won’t talk about it while Mitch is here. Rick reasoned.

  Nevertheless, he announced, “I want to learn to fly, Dad,” after he had politely asked about their day, and his mom’s wedding.  It was taking every ounce of willpower he possessed not to gabble about his amazing adventures in Chicago.

Jack looked up, a piece of toast mid-way to his mouth. “Look, Lord knows you had more than your fair share of fun yesterday, and got a kick out of being let loose in a fancy jet. But flying a plane for real, come on son, you need to think about what you’re saying.”

 “I’ve never wanted anything more in my life.”

“Sure. And that’s what you said about the motorcycle you’re been hankering after, or the car you want to drive as soon as you are legal. Maybe you need to prioritise, son. ”

“Why can’t I do both?”

“Are you serious? Do you know how much flying lessons cost?”

“I’ll find out.”

Jack snorted. “Oh, you’ll find out all right. You’ll learn that flying is a hobby for rich kids. We don’t have that sort of money to throw around.”

Rick’s face set. “I’ll pay for it myself, you’ll see.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Mitch piped up, “The Principal thinks my grades are gonna be good enough to get a scholarship for one of the big five law schools.”

Rick wrinkled his nose and made a face. “Big five?”

“Yeah, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, NYU…”
         “Harvard?” Alicia shrieked out the word, now completely focused on Mitch.  “Are you saying you’re good enough to go to Harvard?”

“If I have the choice, I’ll be going to Yale, Mom, their Law School has come top in the last fifteen years, and I like the fact it’s smaller than some of the others.”

“Oh my God…are you serious?” she echoed Jack’s words.

“Well, I haven’t been offered a place yet, so don’t get too excited. The competition is crazy. I’ll have to sit the Law School Admissions Test to maximise my chances.”

“Going to college out of state, it’ll cost a lot more,” Jack said.

“I know, but if I get the scholarship it’ll pay for nearly half the tuition fees.”

“Sounds like you have it figured out.” Jack sounded impressed.

“Oh, yeah, great,” Rick interrupted hotly. “And what about the other half, and what’s he gonna live on, thin air?”

“What’s it to you, short-stuff?” Mitch said, frowning.  

“I ask for flying lessons, and I get turned down flat. Mitch flaps his lips about going to some university and you’re falling over yourselves to throw money at him.”

“That’s enough, Rick,” Alicia warned.

“Hey, I’m going to study for a career,” Mitch retorted. “Something you might try doing once in a while.”

“Oh please, save it for someone who cares.” Rick pushed his plate away and kicked his chair back.  

“Where are you going?” Alicia demanded, as he headed out of the door. “You haven’t finished your breakfast.”

“Anywhere but here.”

 “Don’t be rude to your mother.” Jack shot him a warning look. “And don’t be juvenile about Mitch. If he gets a scholarship to an Ivy League school, we’ll be supporting him. You don’t turn that sort of thing down. If that means we can’t help you with your flying right now, then I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

Rick scowled. So much for being a hero, that didn’t last long..

He reflected sourly that it was back to business as usual in the Fraser household, where saving national security took second place to the merest hint of academic excellence. 

“Yeah, that’s always the way it is,” he said sullenly. “Well, as I said before Mitch made his great announcement, I’ll do it without your help.”

 

 

 

Vickylee:     Been a while, sorry, I have just been SO busy, you won’t believe it. I have so much homework, and if that isn’t enough, I have to work three nights a week and Saturdays in my uncle’s company.

Flyboy:        That’s tough.

Vickylee:     Yeah, but it was part of my dad’s deal with Aunt Grace and the family. They look after me out here, and in return I help out with the business. My cousins all work too, and they’re fun, so it isn’t so bad.

Flyboy:        I don’t know, sounds like you would have been better staying here in Midvale.

Vickylee:     It’s hard sometimes. But my dad’s happy, so I guess I’ll deal with it. Anyway, that’s enough about me, what have you been up to?

Flyboy:        Went to the WAF show in Chicago with Wardynski, it was awesome, and I really, really want to learn to fly - but it’s crazy expensive. I called several schools in Wayne County and they all come back with the same thing – around 200 dollars a lesson, that’s for one frigging hour! To get my private pilot’s licence I need a minimum of forty-five hours flying time.”

Vickylee:     Ouch!

Flyboy:        L No kidding. I’ll need to win the lottery. But I made a promise in front of my dad that I was gonna learn to fly, I can’t back out of it.

Vickylee:     He won’t care if you do or don’t, surely.

Flyboy:        Yeah, but I will. And I need to fly, Vic, its like I got a flame burning all the way inside of me and won’t go out.

Vickylee:     You’ll need wheels to get out to the airport.

Flyboy:        Jeez, just pile on the agony, willya? Guess I gotta get myself a job.

Vickylee:     doing what?

Flyboy:        I don’t care, long as it pays me money. I’m gonna scour all the ads and locals, and I’ll find the cash, someway, somehow, don’t care how long it takes.

Vickylee:     That’s what I’ve always admired about you, Rick, when you want something, you really go for it.

Flyboy:        J really?

Vickylee:     Sure, really, and I hope it all works out. (kiss)

Flyboy:        I’ll keep you posted!

 

 

Summer 2050

 

Delancy’s Hardware Store was a throwback to some former era, a place that by rights really shouldn’t have existed in the mid-21st century. Tucked into a corner of Huron Plaza in downtown Midvale, its groaning racks were piled high from floor to ceiling with just about anything the DIY enthusiast needed. The prices were about ten percent higher than in the mall, but old man Delancy also had a thriving joinery business at the back of the store, and the people who knew about it kept coming back to get bespoke furniture made at prices a fraction of what they would spend at a top store in Troy or Rochester Hills.  

The grizzled proprietor knew Rick well, since he was a regular customer, popping in on a regular basis for modelling items, and he agreed to take him on if he got a signed permission from his folks, since he was a minor. The pay wasn’t great, but he could bike there, and it was way better than waiting tables.

However, his mother was less that enthusiastic when he told her. “Why do you want a job? You already get a weekly allowance from us.”

“He wants those flying lessons,” Jack said, without glancing up from the set of blueprints strewn across the kitchen table.

 Alicia’s eyebrows rose, and a familiar look of consternation was beginning to appear on her face. Grandma Meyer stopped clicking her knitting needles, listening in.

“Listen, mom,” Rick interjected quickly, before she could get a chance to protest. “I really want to learn to fly, more than anything,”

“I thought all you could think about was getting a car, or a motorcycle?”

“Yeah, I still do, I’m going to have to get some wheels so I can get to the airfield for lessons, so if I don’t start getting some extra cash I haven’t a hope in hell of getting anything.”

“We don’t use language like that in this house.” Grandma’s lips twitched, although he was sure she was smiling inside.

“Sorry, ma’am.” Rick tried to sound contrite, before giving his mom his ‘earnest’ expression. “Look, if I work at Delancy’s, I get twenty percent off as an employee in the store, so maybe you can afford that nice bookcase for your bedroom that you want.”

“Richard Fraser, don’t you dare try sweet-talking me into this.”

“But the boy’s right,” Jack interrupted. “I told him if he wanted lessons he had to pay for them himself, so I guess if he’s man enough to find a job we ought to let him take it.”

’I don’t know, he has his schoolwork to think of…he’s got end of term exams in June.”

“It’s only Saturdays, mom. I don’t do homework then anyways.”

She gave him a pointed look. “No, you do your chores.”

 “Mom, please, I promise I’ll work hard at my studies.”

“Well, you’d better, young man, you are never going to be an aero-engineer if you don’t get good grades.”

Rick rolled his eyes. “I’m fifteen, it’s ages till graduation, and I want to fly now.”

“It’s time that does the flying, if you don’t put the work in now for your studies, you may never see graduation.”

“Alicia, give the boy a break. Maybe I was too hard on him yesterday. If he really wants a flying lesson, then maybe we should let him.”

“Thanks, Dad.” Rick’s grin was wide.

“Maybe I ought to take up flying lessons,” Grandma Meyer piped up. “I’m getting fed up with knitting. I could do with a bit more excitement in my life these days.”

This time it was Alicia who rolled her eyes.

 

***

 

Rick started that very week in the back-store, sorting out supplies and orders and packing shelves and helping out customers on Saturdays. He felt real proud of himself when he picked his first three hundred dollar pay-check a month later, enough for him to pay for one and a half precious hours of flying lessons. Not only that, but Delancy had offered him more days when his summer vacation started, so with any luck, he would be able to save up for some wheels as well. Beyond that, he wasn’t thinking too much about how he would finance his pilot’s certificate. Something would turn up.

Johnny thought the whole idea was nuts. “Too much sim-flying has addled your brain, Flyboy,” he said. “You gonna work the whole summer when you could be enjoying yourself?”

“Ha, I’ll be the one laughing when I’m waving at you from the clouds, Wardynski.”

 

***

        

Sitting in the passenger seat of Alicia’s blue runabout, Rick stared out of the window at the passing scenery. The suburbs of Midvale had petered out into tree-lined expanses of straggling corn fields hugging the highway, punctuated here and there by huge glass and concrete business units, making anything from truck parts to cosmetics. Above, the early summer sky was a clear blue, unsullied by clouds.

A perfect day for it, he thought, as the excitement bubbled up within him, his gaze avidly scanning the horizon for the tell-tale signs of an airfield.

“I still can’t believe I let you talk me into doing this,” Alicia said, glancing at her sat-nav to see if she was heading in the right direction for Westland Airport. “With everything I’ve got to do this week…”

“I know, and I really appreciate it,” he replied, refusing to drag his gaze from the window, in case he missed the turn-off. After all, he didn’t trust his mom’s directional abilities and the sat-nav often had a mind of its own, he couldn’t risk anything that would make him late. He could hear the strain in his mom’s voice, but he chose to shut his mind to the reasons why. He’d worked his butt off to get enough money for this first all-important lesson, and nothing was going to make him feel guilty about it. Not now, not when he was this close he could almost taste it.  

He’d deliberated on his choices – buy a set of wheels or buy his first set of lessons. It wasn’t much of a contest in the end and flying won – hands down. He wouldn’t legally be able to drive alone to the airfield anyway, so what was the point of buying a car? This way worked, at least in his youthful logic.

The criss-cross tracks in the sky above him told him they were almost at their destination, even before the sat-nav imperiously told them to take the next left. A few seconds later, he caught a glimpse of a small private jet hurtling down a runway hidden behind the trees to his left. He saw it lift gracefully into the sky and then Alicia was turning into airfield and he kept his eyes peeled for the sign for ‘Intrepid Aviation’. It wasn’t the cheapest flying school in the area, but it was the closest, and without a set of wheels, he’d still have to beg, steal or borrow a ride out here.

Alicia turned left through the main terminal into the airfield, and drove around the perimeter road. They passed a hangar full of ancient old planes, stacked in stately rows within its confines, and Rick must have let out a long sigh as Alicia’s voice punctured his musings.

“Oh, no, you’re here to get that lesson, not drool over a pile of rusting metal,” Alicia said. “If you think that afterwards you’re going to…

Rick’s hands climbed, protesting his innocence. “Hey, not fair, did I say a word?”

“You didn’t have to; I saw your tongue hanging out.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Mom, some other day, yeah.  Anyway, look, there it is, Intrepid Aviation!”

“Those planes look awfully small,” Alicia said, her voice laden with uncertainty, as they both got out and walked passed several aircraft on the tarmac, towards the small building adjacent to the hangar.   The sign proclaimed the reception area for the flying school above the door.

“What’d you expect mom, a jumbo? It’s just me and the instructor, and he’s got dual pedals, just like you get in driving school cars. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

 “I wish you’d just stuck with making models of planes, rather than trying to fly them.”

Her words hit thin air, as Rick was already in the office, ready for his first lesson, and unable to wait another minute.

 

The pre-flight checks seemed to take forever, although Rick knew enough of the theory to know they were absolutely necessary. However, some of his impatience for taking to the air must have been evident to the gruff-voiced Max Kinsey, his assigned instructor. The man was in his forties, with greying-brown hair and a no-nonsense manner.

 “You wanna fly, son, you learn to do your pre-flights properly. No one goes up in an aircraft without making sure that it’s fit to be in the atmosphere, y’hear?”

“Loud and clear, sir,” Rick replied chastened, and made sure he looked totally attentive as Kinsey talked him through everything on the outside of the Cessna before they climbed into the cockpit for more of the same. Rick glanced once, briefly, at Alicia, watching and waiting for him in the car. He hoped she was reading that book she’d brought to pass the time and had quit worrying about him.

Pushing thoughts of her from his mind, Rick sat down almost gingerly in the co-pilot’s seat, with a full set of controls in front of him.

 “Okay, Rick, how much do you know about flying a plane?”

“It’s the opposite of a car; you steer with your feet on the rudder pedals and control the speed with your hands on the throttle.”

“That’s a pretty good start. Some kids I get in here get totally confused with that one. So how d’you take off?”

“First, you gotta set the flaps up,”

“Yeah…”

“Then you need to apply full throttle when you take it down the runway.”

“And..?”

“You gotta increase the back elevator pressure to lift the nose, but not too much…too much pitch makes the aircraft difficult to control.”

Kinsey smiled. “I’m impressed, kid. You know your stuff.”

“I studied a lot, and I’ve done loads of sim-flying.”

Kinsey nodded, and switched on the engine. In seconds the propeller turned into a blur in front of the nosecone. “Okay, why don’t you taxi her down to the take-off point?”

Rick’s eyes went wide and Kinsey noticed. He grinned.

“Heck, there isn’t much point in me doing it; I know how to fly already.” He flicked switches on the radio to set the proper frequency and informed the controller that they were making their approach. “Okay, off you go, kid.”

Taking a long swallow, Rick let off the air-brake and wrapped his fingers around his throttle, pushing gently. It wasn’t quite the smooth start he’d envisioned in his dreams, and for the first hundred yards the little plane wobbled drunkenly until he got the feel of the controls under his feet and hands.

“Flap ups, you’re doing great, just keep her nose pointed thataway,” Kinsey said in encouragement.

Rick gritted his teeth. This was nothing like sim-flying.

“Always be looking for traffic on the ground, and check the direction of the windsock, you wanna take off into the wind. Keep her nose down the centreline, that’s it, and we’re nearly at the hold short line, so stop on the brakes.”

Rick stepped on the tips of the rudder pedals and the plane halted just a little too harshly before the turn to the runway proper.

A last check with the radio at their intention to take-off and Kinsey said: “Okay, take off position.”

Rick eased the throttle, he had a better feel for it now, and the Cessna turned to fully face the runway.

“You want to take her up?”

Rick stared ahead at the long grey ribbon of concrete stretching out in front of him, the gateway to his dream – that expanse of endless, blue sky. The moment was now – his to take – or to refuse.

“It’s your choice, kid. I wouldn’t normally suggest a student takes off on the first lesson, but you seem to have a good idea of what’s going on. I can understand if you don’t want to fly it straight away, I know it’s pretty daunting when your actually sitting in the –.”

“No, I can do it.”

“Sure you can, and remember, if you aren’t happy, I can take the controls any time, and just a word of advice, don’t put the pedal to the metal first off, she ain’t a car. You need to get from idle to full power in about three to four seconds. Also, don’t over control the rudder pedals, as you gain speed, you’ll need smaller adjustments to keep tracking the centreline on the runway. Got all of that?”

 Rick nodded and lips pressed firmly together, he gripped the throttle tightly.

“Well,” Kinsey said, “She’s all yours.”

Slowly Rick pushed the throttle forward, the little plane moved off under him, and he eased it forward, his eyes flicking from his air speed gauge to the position of the nose ahead. He knew in his head that he had to get enough speed on the ground before he could apply rotation….

Steady…steady.

The scenery outside the cockpit became a blur, and even his instructor, sitting right next to him, fell out of focus as Rick channelled every ounce of concentration he possessed into getting the little plane off the ground in a straight line. He imagined he was in the arcade, sitting in that booth with the screen in front of him and his hands and feet just where they should be….

His stomach knew he’d taken off before his mind did, and in a second of mindless panic, he realised that there was no going back now, no way of preventing this course he’d embarked upon. As the ground fell away and the Cessna soared upwards into that welcoming sky, he felt utterly light-headed.

“That’s not bad, kid, not bad at all,” Kinsey broke into his thoughts. “How do you feel?”

For a few seconds, still lost in the wonder of having the aircraft totally under his control, Rick was unable to speak. He didn’t know how to convey what he felt. This was a totally different experience from sitting behind Captain Gene Carlin in the Viper, being thrown around the sky. Despite the eye-watering, heart-thumping thrills of that ride, he had been a mere passenger. The feeling of taking an aircraft into the sky, however small, however slowly, made it pale in comparison.

For once in his life, Rick wished he had the power of the poets, of those weird authors in English lessons that he had to endure for endless hours. Only now did he realise why they would wax lyrical about what seemed to him the most commonplace things. How could he express in words this blinding euphoria that seemed to fill him and burst out of every pore of his skin?

 Kinsey must have read some of the emotion on his face, because he smiled with a knowing look in his eyes. “I know how you feel, same as I did, first time I took a plane up here.”

After the initial elation of his take-off, however, it became all business as Kinsey pushed him further. He made him do a series of turns: right, left, ascending, descending. He made him practice the landing sequence with flaps, throttle control and everything else in-between. Rick did all the flying with a constant stream of instruction from Kinsey and frequent adjustment of the controls.

“Okay, kid, how do you feel about landing this kite?”

“Sure, I’ll try.”

“Uh-oh, there’s no try, you do it, or you don’t do it.”

“You sound like Yoda.”

Kinsey grinned. “Star Wars was my kid’s fave movie, must have watched that archive about fifty times or more when he was eight.”

Rick nodded. “Then I’m gonna do it.”

“That’s the spirit.”

His first landing was a little shaky, but nothing could stop Rick from feeling like he owned the sky when he climbed out of the cockpit after the post-flight discussion with Kinsey.  He was absolutely exhausted after the forty-five minute flight, but it didn’t stop him jabbering non-stop to Alicia on the journey home about how amazing it was.

“I’ve booked a second flight next week, Mom.  Can you take me?”

“You know I have a wedding to cater for, you’ll have to ask your dad.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I will.”

Alicia rolled her eyes, and Rick had a sneaking suspicion that she’d hoped that once he’d gone up in the plane, he’d be satisfied with it.

Wasn’t gonna happen.

 

***

 

Jack dropped him off at Westland the following Wednesday afternoon for his second lesson. Only problem was, he couldn’t stay, as he had to get back for an impromptu meeting at the plant. Luckily, Rick’s lesson was the last one of the day, so Kinsey offered to drop him back the mall, where he could pick up a shuttle for home.

“Sure, that’s great, thanks.” Jack shook the instructor’s hand and left Rick to it. “Just don’t tell your mom.” He winked conspiratorially at him.

Unlike his first flight, the breeze was stiff this afternoon, cutting across the runway, and Rick suspected things might not be quite as simple this time around. He was right and his take off was cranky.   Kinsey had to take over half-way through the lift. It really shook his confidence, but Max warned him that things like this would happen all the time if he was really serious about learning to fly.

“You gotta just learn from it and move on,” he said.

Once they were doing a few turns however, Rick felt better, and he continued to practice his flying patterns and setting up approach landings. There was still so much going on, trying to coordinate hands, feet, eyes and nothing was automatic yet, so after three touch-and-go landings he was once again wiped out.

Max drove him back to Midvale and asked him about school and stuff. When Rick expressed his hatred for all things academic, he gave a chuckle.

“Well, if you want to get your certificate, it ain’t all about the flying, kid, you’re gonna have to put him some study hours.”

Rick wrinkled his nose.

“Yeah, I’m afraid so. You can’t get the certificate without passing the written exam.”

 

***

 

Vicky Lee returned to Midvale for a surprise visit to spend some time with her father, and in response, Rick got the gang together at Maroni’s.

She’d grown during her absence and was practically eye-to-eye with him in heels, a blunt reminder that his body was stubbornly refusing to cooperate, leaving him convinced that he was going to be stuck at five-foot-six inches for the rest of his life.

The Asian girl enthused about New York: the view from the top of the Empire State building, cucumber sandwiches and scones with strawberries at Macy’s, the wonders of the Metropolitan, riding the ferry to Staten Island, the lights and bustle of Broadway. In turn Rick tried to impress her with stories of his first two flying lessons, the intimate details of which had already been shared ad nauseam with the male contingent at the table.

“Enough already!” Johnny and Aaron called out at last.

“They’re just jealous,” Vicky said, and smiled at him. She patted his hand with hers, and he felt a curious prickling sensation make its way along his spine. He dismissed it immediately, unsure of what it might mean, and none too eager to find out.

Talk moved onto what everyone was doing for the rest of the summer. Corbin was heading to Lansing for basketball camp.  Johnny was – under protest – going to Wisconsin to spend some time with his mom and her boring realtor husband and new kid. He wasn’t looking forward to helping to change diapers.  Aaron, like Rick, was going to be working, at his father’s accountancy office.  

“At least you get paid for it,” Aaron muttered to Rick. “My dad thinks I actually enjoy working for nothing just so I can get some ‘experience’, as he calls it.”

Vicky said mournfully. “I wish I didn’t have to go back. I’d forgotten how much fun I had with you guys.”

“Well, you’ve still got a week here in Midvale,” Rick answered her, with a lopsided smile. “And when I’m not flying, or working, we can hang out at the mall, or in the sim arcade, be like old times.”

She grinned. “Sounds like fun, just don’t tell my Aunt Grace.”

“Why you’d want to hang around in Midvale anyway is beyond me, anyway.  I’d swap my right arm to get to see the Empire State, or the Statue of Liberty.”

“You need both arms to fly that plane, Rick. I’m so glad you’re living your dream.”

“Yeah, I am, aren’t I?”

 

***

 

Living his dream was all very well, but it was hard work, not to mention downright expensive. As the blooms faded from the trees and June slipped into July, Rick paid money for two more lessons and learnt all about slips; how to make a plane descend faster without gaining air-speed, and how to deal with stalls in the air.

“There are two types of stall,” Kinsey told him, after Rick had taxied across to the runway. “Power on and power off. The first’s done with full power to simulate a stall when you climb too quickly at take-off. The second, we do in the landing configuration when you’re too slow on approach.”

“In both simulations we’re going to try you’re not going to use the ailerons to right the plane. If a wing drops, it’s because its lost lift and applying down pressure to the wing will only make the stall worse. Instead, you have to apply rudder pressure to keep the nose straight. You got that?”

Rick nodded.

“Since this is a really risky manoeuvre, I’m going to do the first couple, just so you can see and hear and feel what’s going on. Okay?”

“Sure.”

Kinsey demonstrated several stalls, and on the last, Rick felt like he was being pressed into the back of his seat. Mouth dry, he glanced at Kinsey, who seemed totally blasé about the whole thing, despite the fact that one wing had dropped so far Rick’s window was filled with the yellow of the corn fields below.

When Rick took over the controls, on his first power-on stall the Cessna’s was pointing up nearly fifty degrees before the stall horn blared. He’d heard it several times before, during Kinsey’s demos, but it still made him start as Kinsey barked instructions to counter the stall.

At the end of his hour, he felt somewhat subdued, realising that he had a long way to go before his reflexes were as fast and un-thinking as his instructor’s. It was like driving, there often wasn’t enough time to think, and the body had to just do the right thing. Flying a plane was much harder, which meant he was going to have to get in lots more practice.

 

***

 

The mild July slid into a blistering August heatwave, and the moist, heavy air from the lakes settled over the Detroit area like a blanket. The supermarkets and malls were busier than usual with shoppers, looking for a place to keep cool. Summers in Michigan rarely topped the nineties for more than a few weeks a year so many folks didn’t bother to pay the higher cost of air-conditioning their homes and businesses for such a short duration.

Old Delancy was one of them and Rick wiped sweat off his forehead as he moved heavy boxes and equipment, telling himself it was worth it so he could play for more lessons with Max Kinsey.

That happy thought kept him going during the long humid hours he spent in the back-store. He eyed his burgeoning bank balance with the avarice of a miser, and tried to avoid Mitch, who, when he wasn’t working tables at Chiquita’s Tacos, prowled the house like a caged tiger, waiting for the letter that would change his and probably all of their lives.  

 

 

At the height of the intense heat wave, Grandma Meyer had been out all afternoon, pottering about in the back-yard. She finally wandered into the kitchen, looking glassy-eyed.

“I feel a bit strange,” she announced.

“I did warn you,” Alicia said, with a frown. “It’ll be the heat. Go and lie down for a bit.”

For once, she obeyed without an argument and stayed there until supper, when Alicia, busy with a catering order for a bar mitzvah, asked Rick to check on her. He found her lying on her bed, eyes shut, one side of her face strangely lop-sided, a slime trail of saliva glistening from the corner of her slack-lips, and he knew that something was horribly wrong.

They called 911 and the paramedics arrived to whisk Grandma off. A distraught and tearful Alicia followed, berating herself for not seeing the signs.  Rick and Mitch looked on from the front porch, stunned at this rapid turn of events. Alicia leant out of the wide doors of the ambulance, and her eyes were wet around the edges. Rick had never seen her cry before.

“Call your dad,” were her parting words to them. “Get over to the medical centre as soon as you can.”

 

Jack had driven them to the hospital and Rick had waited with Mitch in the corridor while his parents talked with the doctor inside the ward. Finally, he could stand it no more and crossed the corridor to peer through the small square of glass. His grandmother lay in the bed, eyes closed, her face and arms looking oddly grey, like the clay he sometimes used for modelling.

Everything was white – the walls, the sheets, the cabinet beside the bed and the curtains. Alicia was in talking to the doctor, her eyes red-rimmed, her face pale. For a moment everything seemed unreal, and he fought back the urge to scream. Instead he turned around and sat back down again beside his silent brother.

Jack finally came out to join them.  “You okay?” he asked Rick.

“Yeah, just a bad headache.” That was an understatement; he felt as if someone had stuck a jackhammer into the centre of his skull and turned it onto maximum. “How’s Grandma?”

“She’s – had a massive haemorrhage to the left side of the brain, she isn’t doing too good. They say the next forty-eight hours are critical.”

“You mean – like she might die?”

His father nodded gravely.

 

***

 

Two days later, Grandma Meyer had stabilised, and was off the critical list, but the stroke had robbed her of speech and most of her mobility. She was essentially helpless, and would be unable to return home.  The day after that, the letter Mitch had been waiting all summer for arrived in the mail. An array of expressions flitted across his face as he read the contents.

“What does it say, son?” Jack demanded. “Don’t keep us in suspense. Is it from Yale?”

Mitch shook his head slightly, his eyes unfocused. “Yeah, they say….they say I’ve got the scholarship.”

Alicia’s hand flew to her mouth.

“That’s great,” Jack said, gripping his shoulder. “You worked hard for it.”

“Yeah, but with things….I mean….the way they are…”

There was a few seconds silence while everyone digested the implications of the announcement.  Scholarship or not, Mitch would still have to be funded to the tune of a lot of money, and with Grandma’s hospital bills swallowing up God-knew how much money at the moment, things would be tough.

Alicia threw her arms around her eldest son and hugged him tightly.

“Don’t you worry your smart head about it, sweetheart. You’re going to Yale if I have to work every minute of my life for the next four years.”

“Mom, I can’t, it’s not fair on you…”

She shushed him, cupped his face in her hands, with an earnest gaze. “You’ll never get this chance again; I won’t even consider you not going.”

Rick felt ashamed at the way his jealousy burned like acid in his stomach, but the look of distress on his mom’s face kept his mouth shut.

Mitch did at least have the decency to look guilty about what he was putting them through. “I’ll find a job out there, I’ll help out,” he said.

“Don’t you dare, you have to spend all your time studying.” She shook her head. “Yale, I can’t believe it, my son is going to be a lawyer at Yale.” Her face crumpled. “Your grandma would have been so proud of you.”

She put her hand to her face again and ran out of the room, leaving the two teenagers standing around uncomfortably with Jack.

Their father cleared his throat. “She’ll be okay. I’ll go see to her.” He clapped Mitch on the shoulder. “Funny how things happen all at once, eh? The good and the bad together, that’s the way life goes sometimes.”

 

***

 

Grandma Meyer remained in the Memorial Hospital for the remainder of August, and the continuous juggling between work and visits was taking its toll on relationships within the family.  Mitch was working full time in preparation for going to Yale, and since Rick was working only three days a week at Delancy’s, Alicia cajoled him into helping her out with her fledgling business.  She couldn’t afford to lose clients she’d carefully nurtured over the last twelve months or so.

However, as far as Rick was concerned, food was of interest only when it was being consumed – by him - and he had to be dragged into the kitchen to help prepare the trays of food for weddings, bar mitzvahs, baby and bridal showers. It wasn’t his fault he didn’t appreciate how frazzled his mother was. A typical self-centred youth, all of his mind was filled with doing the things he wanted to do, like taking his driving lessons, flying and having a good time with his friends.  

“Oh, for goodness, sake, I sometimes wish I’d had girls,” Alicia snapped one afternoon, after Rick had ended up dropping a tray of delicate canapés destined for a fiftieth wedding anniversary, at a house five streets away.

Rick snapped right back. “I’m doing my best, but that obviously ain’t good enough.   In fact, nothing seems to be good enough for you these days, you and Dad are cranky all the time. You said when we moved here things were gonna get better, and we’d all be happy, but that’s a bunch of crap!   All that’s happened is you’re both just working as hard and now you expect us to do the same. I’m fifteen, Mom, and I wanna have fun this summer, like most of the other guys in my class are doing.   I don’t see Johnny working his backside off or having to go and visit a hospital every five minutes.”

“Every five minutes!” Alicia shouted. “I can barely get you to go once a week.   All you can think of is yourself, Richard. You can be so selfish at times; I think you care more about your blessed flying lessons than you do about your poor grandmother. I’m sorry to say, I’m ashamed of you.”

Rick’s lips set together, his face burning at her unkind words as he cleaned up the mess on the kitchen floor and she harangued him all the more.   He just let the words flow over him.  He didn’t see any point in arguing any further, she couldn’t possibly understand how he felt every time he had to drag himself out to the Memorial hospital.

He did love his grandmother, or at least, the person she had been before the stroke, but the frail, broken body lying in that bed wasn’t her any more. Someone had stolen that impish smile and the twinkle in her eyes, and replaced it with someone who was forever fidgeting, with a gaze of uncomprehending anger in the staring eyes. Whatever might be going on in her head, if there was anything at all, couldn’t be communicated by speech or touch. The catastrophic explosion in her brain had seen to that.

His stomach would tense up every time they had to enter the ward, passing all the beds filled with the patients until he reached the one where his grandmother lay. Every time he and Mitch peered behind that white and blue striped curtain he’d hope and pray she’d be sitting up, cured.  But each time he was disappointed.

He hated the smell, a mixture of antiseptic and the pervasive taint of urine. He hated the sounds, of beeping alarms and the distracted, longing cries of the patients. Most of all he hated the sharp pang of guilt that accompanied his passing from the claustrophobic interior of the hospital into the relatively fresh, open space of the outside world, as if he was suddenly free from a smothering blanket of despair and hopelessness.

The only thing that kept him sane was the thought of his flying lessons with Max Kinsey. As soon as he’d been paid enough, he booked more lessons and took to the skies to forget about his mom’s pinched face, and Mitch’s gloating smirk, and his grandma’s angry eyes.

Up there, he could forget about everything except flying. Of course, it wasn’t as if it was easy or simple, Far from it – it required all the concentration and energy he possessed to deal with everything he had thrown at him during that precious hour in the sky.  Between working at Delancy’s, attending driver’s education classes, and flying, the end of summer loomed far too quickly.

 

 

September 2050

 

The Frasers drove across to Detroit International to see Mitch off on the flight to New Haven, but Rick only went under protest, and because he was more interested in hanging around an airport than in any real desire to say goodbye to his brother, who at the moment, was most definitely the enemy.

“I hate leaving you with Grandma still in hospital,” Mitch said for what seemed like the umpteenth time, as they approached the security area ahead of the departure gates. With tensions between the United Asian Republic and the World Government at an all time high, all airports had been forced to consider tougher security restrictions, and armed personnel were in evidence everywhere.  Alicia was oblivious to most of it, her concerns elsewhere, with her sick mother and the loss of her eldest boy. Rick could see her eyes shining with some bright emotion as she hugged Mitch yet again.

“Don’t be silly, there isn’t anything you can do. We’ll let you know if anything changes.”

“But what if…”

Jack laid a hand on Mitch’s shoulder. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Right now you need to think about what’s right in front of you, son. Give them hell; we know you can do it.”

No one ever says that to me. Rick thought sullenly. Well except maybe Max Kinsey.

“Sure will, Dad,” Mitch replied, and Alicia let him go at last. He turned to Rick and the two teenagers stood looking at one another, awkward. Mitch was the first to move and grabbed Rick in a bear-like hug.

“Short-stuff,” he muttered his voice rough-edged, “You look after Mom and Dad, and Grandma too, y’hear? ”

Rick struggled out of his embrace, self-conscious at Mitch’s sudden turn of mawkishness. “Looks like I don’t have much choice, do I?”

Mitch frowned. “Always the smart-ass. Look, I never wanted things to happen this way, and I don’t blame you for being mad and feeling left out, But some day it’ll be your turn, then maybe you’ll know how I’m feeling now.”

“Yeah, right, I don’t see me going to Yale.”

“Maybe not, but you’ll go somewhere. You’re a bright kid, Rick, don’t waste it, huh?”

“Jeez, who turned you into a shrink?”

Mitch shook his head. “You’re a hopeless case, I give up. Just don’t get into too much trouble. And look on the bright side, when I’m gone, you have the room to yourself, there’ll be no more squabbling about who’s first into the bathroom, or who pinched whose toothpaste.”

“I guess.”

Alicia sighed. “You could be a bit nicer to your brother, Rick. You aren’t going to see him for a long while.”

Rick shrugged. “Sure, have a great time out in New England. Don’t get too distracted by girls.”

Mitch let out a guffaw. “I’ll try, short-stuff, and the same goes for you.”

“Yeah, I should be so lucky.”

Mitch punched his shoulder, then hugged Alicia for the last time. He heaved his rucksack over one shoulder and lifted the case with his battered Gibson with his free hand. His parents waved until he’d disappeared from view through the sliding doors, while Rick stood struggling with his thoughts.

 

***

 

There were some new faces in their sophomore year at Midvale. One in particular would change Rick and Johnny’s relationship for good.

The two teenagers were hanging around their lockers, getting ready for class, when Johnny gave a low whistle.   “God, who is that vision of loveliness?” he said, with a note of awe in his voice.

Curious, Rick turned, and followed Johnny’s stare towards the group of Midvale Cuckoos milling about ten feet away. Emma Bishop was amongst them, and he felt that familiar swooping feeling in his stomach whenever he caught sight of the girl. This was a crush that steadfastly refused to go away, much to his irritation and confusion. Emma barely acknowledged his existence, and yet, perversely, that made her seem all the more alluring. It was she who almost exclusively featured in his hormonal night-time fantasies, usually ending in the same half-sated, sticky outcome. He consoled himself that she was useful for something at least.

“Hey, are you listening to a word I said?” Johnny sounded peevish.

“Huh – sorry, who you talking about?” he mumbled.

“The new girl, Flyboy, are you blind?”

Rick followed Johnny’s jerking head movements to where a slender olive-skinned girl with an impossible tumble of melted-chocolate-coloured curls on her head chatted animatedly with the Cuckoos.

Johnny sighed. “I think I’m I love.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Isn’t she gorgeous?”

“Sure, I’ll admit that,” Rick replied. “But she’s talking to the Cuckoos, and what’s more, they’re listening. This probably means that she’s one of them, and that means she’s way out of your league. I thought you wanted to stay a million miles away from those types of girls?”

“She doesn’t look anything like the Cuckoos, she looks foreign for a start.”

“Look at the way she’s dressed.”

“It ain’t her clothes I’m looking at…I’m thinking more about what’s underneath the clothes.”

“Get a grip, Wardynski, you think someone who looks and dresses like her is gonna go all gooey-eyed at the thought of a milk shake at the mall? She’s probably more used to eating in a fancy restaurant where you pay fifty bucks for a bread roll.”

The expression on Johnny’s face remained undaunted. “Hey, if someone told Cinderella to stay away from the ball, she’d still be sitting around in the ashes.”

“Cinders is a she, you’re the wrong sex, man.”

“Don’t mention sex.  It’s making me feel giddy just thinking about it and – her in the same sentence.”

“Listen, we had a pact, remember? Stick together, no girls, they’re just trouble with a capital T. We’re safer sticking with those magazines in the bathroom if we need uh - relief.”

“I guess…” Johnny’s gaze remained dream-like as he stared in the new student’s direction. “I’m going to have eat my words, Flyboy, that girl is worth ripping up all my previous resolutions about females and their place in our world.”

Rick frowned. He didn’t like the idea of Johnny going dewy-eyed over a real-live girl, however stunning she was. In Rick’s opinion, the whole idea of dating was a complete waste of time. Girls spent far too much time being obsessed about fashion and make up, and he had no desire to become more acquainted with the subject at close quarters.  His idea of fashion was putting on clean underwear, and he couldn’t have spent more than five minutes debating the subject. Sure, he’d love a little necking time - what guys his age wouldn’t? - but unfortunately, such physical delights seemed to come at a price.  Dates had a habit of costing the male participant money, even if it was only taking a girl to the movies or for pizza, usually their choice, and Rick, for one, was totally reluctant to spend any of that cash he was saving for flying and learning to drive just so he could say he’d had ‘dating experience’. 

Johnny however, seemed to have done a three-sixty on the idea. “You just gotta pick the right girl, Rick,” he announced in a superior tone one afternoon, as he ogled the lovely Stella Martinez standing in the lunch-line.

“Oh, yeah, and here speaks the voice of experience.”

“I bet I get Stella before you get a date.”

“Is that a challenge?”

“You bet, Flyboy.”

 

 

Vickylee:     How’s things? haven’t heard from you in a while. Can’t believe it’s November already.

Flyboy:        I’m sorry, things been happening, you know?

Vickylee:     I wish you’d told me about your grandma, I only found out about it when I e-mailed Corbin. Have you been hiding from me?

Vickylee:     Rick, are you still with me?

Flyboy:        You know, I just didn’t know what to say, and I’ve been busy, working hard, gotta save for more flying lessons, not to mention paying for driver’s education.  There’s too much homework I can’t be bothered to do, and I guess I still like to hang out with the guys when I can…

Vickylee:     I thought maybe, after we met at Maroni’s….

Flyboy:        Not sure what you mean…

Vickylee:     Me, my big mouth, blowing off about how great the Big Apple. I was just so pleased to see you guys, and share everything I’d done, I’m sorry if I upset you, or got you mad at me.

Flyboy:        I couldn’t be mad at you, we’re buddies.

Vickylee.      Sure. Always. How is your grandma, anyway?

Flyboy:        L  Still the same, she just lies there, can’t speak, can’t do anything for herself. She’s got tubes running everywhere, nose, mouth, and she looks like a goddamn pincushion with all the needles. I just want someone to out a pillow over my face if it happens to me.

Vickylee:     Rick, that’s a horrible thing to say, and you don’t know you’d feel that way anyway, I mean, if it actually happened to you.

Flyboy:        Yes I do.

Vickylee:     I wish I could be there with you. I mean it.  

Flyboy:        I really want her to be alive, but then the doctor says that she ain’t gonna get any better and I see that look in her eyes, that crazy look, like she’s so MAD with the world and what it did to her and she can’t do anything about it. She’s not the same, she’s changed and I hate it. She was so frigging alive, and now, it’s like she’s dead, a living death, that’s what it is, and Mom’s always running around crazy and it’s like she’s angry all the time, snapping at everything…

Vickylee:     She’s probably just worried, it’s her mom, after all.

Flyboy:        Yeah, I know, but it’s hard. With Mitch gone she’s taking it all out on me.

Vickylee:     How’s Mitch taking it?

Flyboy:        Hell, how do I know? I hardly hear from him, mom gets an e-mail once in a while, saying he’s doing ok. I just bet he is, probably in town every chance he gets trying to pick up girls.

Vickylee:     I doubt that, Rick. He’ll have a lot of work. My cousin is doing politics at Yale and he’s totally swamped and that’s just the first term.

Flyboy:        Well that just confirms that the academic life is not for me. I’m definitely going to be a pilot.

Vickylee:     You need qualifications to do anything these days.

Flyboy:        For flying a plane? I don’t think so.

Vickylee:     I’m sure you do.

Flyboy:        Let’s change the subject.

Vickylee:     Okay, how’s Johnny?

Flyboy:        He’s in love with a prom queen.

Vickylee:     Johnny, our Johnny? Tell me you’re kidding.

Flyboy:        Wish I was, he’s gone all goo-eyed and dopey

Vickylee:     Are you upset about it?

Flyboy:        Why would I be upset?

Vickylee:     He’s your best friend?

Flyboy:        Well, I got other friends. Anyway, enough about me, what about you, have you anyone special out there…uh…another guy maybe?

Vickylee:     J Would you be jealous if I did?

Flyboy:        Shit, no, I didn’t mean it like that, I’m just making conversation.

Vickylee:     J Of course you are…but no, I don’t happen to be dating anyone. Like I would even have the chance. I’m in an all-girls school and boys are verboten, and my dad would go ballistic,  All he wants me to do is study, study, study, and my Aunt Grace has her beady eye on me all the time I don’t go anywhere without her looking over my shoulder.

Flyboy:        L All work and no play, and all that jazz, you’re a long time dead, kiddo.

Vickylee:     Maybe, how are you and Johnny managing without me keeping an eye on you?

Flyboy:        Stop changing the subject.

Vickylee:     Aha, so you’re flunking everything in sight?

Flyboy:        No, just doing enough to keep my head above water. But God, it’s so boring.

Vickylee:     It isn’t forever.

Flyboy:        Just feels like it.

Vickylee :    I got to go, Aunt Grace is taking me to see Phantom of the Opera and she goes jelly-beans if I’m late.  Say hi to Johnny for me. Speak soon.

 

 

 

Rick knew he had more important things in life to consider than winning a bet by dating a girl, but Johnny’s challenge had rankled and he figured his friend would be totally unbearable if he succeeded with the delectable Stella Martinez.

A few days later, Corbin and Aaron and Rick were chatting together by the locker area as three members of the girl’s scholastic team made their way along the corridor. Jodie Somerfield gave Aaron a shy smile, and pig-tailed Lucy Travis caught Rick’s eye. She was like a timid mouse, hardly promising date material, but to be sociable he smiled back. He certainly didn’t expect her reaction – eyes widening like a deer caught in the headlights of a car, and then flushing crimson to the roots of her red hair. The pile of books in her arms seemed to have developed a life of their own, and several tumbled to the floor of the corridor. Without thinking, Rick dropped to one knee and scooped them up, handing them back to Lucy. She mumbled her thanks, and the look of adoration in her eyes was plain for all to see.

Corbin sniggered when the girls were out of earshot. “Oh, you’re gonna pay for that, man.”

“Stow it,” Rick muttered, with a dark scowl, to hide his embarrassment.

 

 

Corbin was right.  Rick found that his apparent interest in Lucy had spawned a monster and he couldn’t go anywhere with her dogging his footsteps at school. She tailed him: at the lockers, the lunch-queue, in the school-yard. One day, she brought him cookies that she said she’d baked herself, and when he mumbled his thanks, she sat behind him in English class and sighed – all through the lesson.  She was like a frantic puppy waiting for a treat from its master, and the other guys thought it was hilarious.

“That girl has a crush the size of Lake Superior on you,” Aaron said to him one afternoon, as they sat down together for lunch in the cafeteria. As usual, Lucy was at the next table, trying to catch their attention so she could give one of the little girlish waves that Rick was beginning to find intensely annoying.

”You gotta put her out of her misery, you know that, don’t you?”

Rick grunted. Lucy Travis wasn’t exactly the great first date he’d all planned out in his head, and just to confirm that fact, there went the jolt in his belly again when he saw Emma Bishop cross the room with a tray in hand to talk to Jake Sanders and his jock buddies holding court at the tables lined up by the wall-length windows. Sanders was a junior, several inches taller than Rick, with an athlete’s build and a smile as fake as his tan. Unfortunately, Emma wasn’t immune to his blonde-haired, blue-eyed charm.

As usual, she looked good enough to eat, like a long lemon popsicle. Rick turned away, quickly, only for his gaze to rest upon Stella Martinez chatting to Johnny in the lunch queue. Jeez, she looked good enough to eat too, with those jeans sprayed on and clinging to her ass like….Rick felt hot all over and grabbed Aaron’s glass of water, downing it in several gulps.

“Are you okay?” Aaron peered at him.

“Yeah, fine.” 

Rick glanced again at Johnny, who had now moved to the end of the line. He and Stella seemed far too cosy together, and Rick could see the other Cuckoos sitting at a table, trading looks that clearly suggested that Stella was committing social suicide by mixing with the lower pecking orders. The girl seemed clearly not to care, however, and Rick was conscious that time was running out if he wanted to win that bet.

 

***

 

The little Cessna headed northwest to Highland State Recreation Area with Rick at the controls. Max Kinsey was going to make him practice flying manoeuvres which were intended to test his ability to control the airplanes’ elevation, speed and heading, dividing attention between instruments, landmarks and other traffic.

Kinsey had him fly at one thousand feet above ground level and pointed at the long straight strip of road that lay just ahead of the plane. Further up towards the horizon, Rick could see two small blue expanses of water reflecting the clear-blue autumn sky.

“That’s Duck Lane Road, you’re gonna fly alongside it, then make a clearing turn, they always have to be clearing turns, in between the lakes up and back here to Cooley Lake road, then we’ll do the same thing twice over. After that, we’ll fly in a fixed radius about White Lake up there, okay? That one’s designed to see how tight you can make the circle around a fixed point, okay?”

Rick nodded.  “Sure.”

“You need to keep your eyes constantly peeled for other traffic, do a three-sixty degree, that’s a medium bank around the top end of the lake, and scan above and below, to make sure there isn’t anyone else in your vicinity. You need to look at the instruments, sure, to check elevation and air-speed, but don’t be fixated on them during manoeuvring. If you see anyone, you must keep them in your sights. Even with radar; it’s easy to ‘lose’ them when you’re thinking about something else. A mid-air collision isn’t on the ticket today.”

“I got it.”

He did fairly well on both trials, although he was acutely aware that he still had to consciously think about everything. As he banked around White Lake, shimmering in the mid-fall sunshine, he had to pull his eyes away from the scene, remembering Max’s warning. With a rueful smile, he realised he had registered very little about the scenery he’d flown over during his previous flights, since all his attention had been focused on the mechanics of flying the plane.

At Westland he did several touch-and-go landings and on the final one he dropped it a little hard. Max grimaced and took over to show how it was done.

“Darn, I really thought I had my landings nailed,” Rick complained.

“Well, you mostly have, but for a perfect landing you need a combination of judgment, elegance and finesse.”

 Rick made a face. “Huh? I’m trying to land a plane, not ballroom dance.”

“Same thing, kid, this baby is your dancing partner; you gotta feel her in your arms and hands and legs and take her where you want her to go. That’s how the best pilots are made.”

 

***

 

Rick was feeling more and more comfortable about his flying and driving skills, but less so about his love-life, or to be more precise, his lack of one.  Confidence in the air and behind the wheel of a car did not necessarily translate into confidence with women. He decided he’d have to aim low and work his way up.

After some digging he discovered Lucy Travis didn’t take the bus on a Thursday, and instead, walked to a relative’s house close to the school. This was ideal, Rick thought. If things didn’t pan out, no one would be any the wiser.

He biked back from Midvale High on a crisp clear afternoon in mid-October. The air was chilly but free from the snow showers that sometimes announced an early winter. Red and gold leaves decked the trees; almost at their zenith before they would create the crunchy piles along the sidewalks that kids loved to run and jump in. Rick followed Lucy surreptitiously until they were both away from the school and the other students, and then, slowly pedalled up parallel to her on the sidewalk.

“Hi there,” he said, in a casual tone.

She whirled, pig-tails flying, and nearly dropped the armful of books - again. Lucy always had more books than anyone else, probably the reason why she was the leader of the scholastic team.  

“Oh my God,” she mumbled, and her face flushed, and Rick felt a sinful feeling of control at the way he made her react, just the way Emma Bishop occasionally controlled his emotions.  It felt to him like some sort of peculiar payback.

“Hey, sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” he said.

She smiled, tentatively, so he could see the gap in her front teeth, which evidently no one had bothered to correct with dental work.

“It’s okay,” she said, hugging the books as if for support.

“I just wanted to talk to you, if that’s okay?”

Her eyes went wide, and her voice was almost a squeak when she spoke again. “Really, what about? You need help with your homework? I’m really good at helping people with their homework, loads of people ask me, and I don’t mind, really…”

Rick stopped her in her tracks, literally, by putting one hand on her forearm. He licked dry lips. “Lucy, I was wondered if you wanted to go to see a movie or something….if you want to, I mean.”

He knew the movie idea was lame, but at least it meant he didn’t have to do a lot of talking to the girl. Her mouth opened and closed a couple of times like a fish attempting to breathe, and he thought she looked as if she was about to faint on the sidewalk.

“Are you okay?” he asked quickly. “Did you hear what I said?”

“I thought I might have been dreaming. You just asked me out…”

“Yes, I just asked you out.”

“Is this like, a real date?” 

“Uh, I guess….”

She squealed then, and threw her arms around his neck, and books went flying everywhere this time.

“Jeez, Lucy, let go!”

She had him in a stranglehold for someone so skinny, and he felt the bike wobbling dangerously underneath him.

She dropped her arms, and the colour rose in her face. He kicked the stand to the bike on and got down to help her retrieve the books.

“Sorry, I get a bit carried away,” she stammered. “Just can’t believe you just asked me out…”

“For crying out loud, I’m not exactly a movie star.”

She took a few long breaths, getting her self under control. “No, of course not,” she said at last, sounding much calmer.

“How about Friday night? About seven? I can bike to your place and then we can get the shuttle to the Showtime Theater.”

She flashed him an uncertain look. “I have a scholastic meeting.”

Rick shrugged. “That’s the only night I can make.” It wasn’t, but he wasn’t going to tell her that.  He felt an urgent need to get this date off the ground, before Johnny hit first base with Stella Martinez. He felt a momentary buzz of irritation as he compared his prospective companion with the image he retained from the lunch queue of the lissom Greek girl.

But a bet was a bet.

It seemed that Lucy shared his urgency, because she nodded furiously.   

 

***

 

“Well, Wardynski, you can kiss goodbye to your money,” he announced breezily, the following morning at school. “I have a date with a girl.”

“Oh yeah, and who is the lucky dame?”

“Does it matter?”

Aaron sneaked up behind them, and gave a chuckle. “Take a guess. Red hair, pigtails, squeals every time he looks at her.”

Johnny gave a look of mock horror. “Oh, the lengths you’ll go to get one over on me, Flyboy.”

“A date’s a date, pay up, Wardynski.”

A withering stare followed his demand. “Uh-uh, I’m not parting with anything until I see proof.”

“Proof?”

“Yeah, as in, you say you have a date, but how do I know you’re actually going to carry it through? I’m not going to believe it until I see it with my own eyes.”

“You’re kidding me…”

Aaron nodded, and there was a wicked twinkle in his eyes.  “Yeah, he’s got a point.”

“Gee, Aaron, you’re a real pal.” Rick scowled. He’d fully intended to go on the date with Lucy and was hurt that Johnny felt the need to keep tabs on him. What the hell had happened to trust?

“That’s the deal, Rick,” Johnny insisted, with a devilish smile on his face.

“You’re a first-class bastard, Wardynski, I won’t forget this. You can be sure I’ll be tailing you when you ever – and I mean ever - manage to get a date with Stella Martinez.”

“Oh, I’ll get that date, don’t you worry. I’m just playing it cool right now, but I can feel her get hotter and hotter every time we talk. And I’ll be more than happy to show you how a master does it when we ‘re together for that first time.”

Rick rolled his eyes in disbelief. “Yeah, right.

 

***

 

Friday loomed, and Rick got ready for his ‘date’ with Lucy Travis.

“Are you going out with Johnny?” Alicia asked; tired and distracted though she was, old habits died hard. She was just about to head over to the hospital to see Grandma Meyer.

“Sure,” he replied, which in a way, was no lie, since Johnny was no doubt going to hang around the theatre like a bad smell, making sure Rick kept to his side of the bargain.

“Well, I’ve left cold cuts in the fridge so you can make a sandwich, I don’t want you just filling up with coke and popcorn.”

“Sure, mom, thanks, I promise I won’t.”

“And don’t be back too late.”

“Mom, it’s Friday; like there’s no school tomorrow?”

She sighed. “No, but you have work, if you care to remember anything. Now, I really must not forget to take the cake over to the Hanrahan’s for their silver wedding celebration tomorrow evening. I could sure use your help after you finish at the hardware store.”

“Yeah, sure, Mom, whatever.”

She ruffled his hair, giving him a wan smile. “You’re a good boy, Rick.”

He shrugged and felt a little uncomfortable about keeping secrets about his impending ‘date’ from her. But he really didn’t know what she’d make of it, she might be upset, or worse, excited.  He started down the road of imagination: Alicia inviting Lucy around for dinner on Sunday, and then Lord knows what else that might lead to. Rick’s future suddenly swam before his eyes, the visions too horrifying to contemplate.  

Shit, Fraser, get a grip, it’s not even a proper date, for crying out loud, its called winning a bet.

“Are you all right, sweetie?” Alicia was looking at him with sudden concern, and he realised he might have been having palpitations.

“Uh, yeah, sure I’m okay. Perfect, just fine.”

Later on, in his room, he dithered about what to wear. Lucy wasn’t exactly a snappy dresser, and he hated the idea of wearing anything formal.  He finally chose a clean yellow tee and his black jeans. There was a spot of grease on the top from last night’s beef stew, but he figured they were only going to be sitting in the dark, so it wasn’t like anyone would notice.  

Rick wanted to watch the latest sequel in the re-booted Terminator franchise, but Lucy, surprisingly forthright now she seemed to have got her man, insisted, with the simper that was rapidly becoming cloying, that they watch a romantic comedy called Time After Time.

The movie was awful, and from the moment they sat down with their king-sized boxes of popcorn, Lucy started chattering. And boy, could she chatter, in a high-pitched spill of words. Lucy launched into a diatribe about her dysfunctional family, and how her uncle kept molesting her when she went around there, and how the other girls were really mean to her even though she’d helped them win the scholastic challenge three times in a row. Several times, the adult couple two rows in front down turned around to glare at them.

Rick gave a glance backwards. There they were, his group of chaperones sitting right in the corner, staying hidden within the gloom of the cinema. Lucy had been too self-absorbed to notice the guys passing them on the stairs, and Rick made sure she didn’t. Now, he could just about make out Johnny making annoying smooching gestures at him, with Corbin and Aaron following suit.

Rick sighed and checked out his date. She was shovelling popcorn into her mouth and her cheeks billowed out like a hamster’s.  He glanced again at his friends, and knew he wouldn’t get a moment’s peace if he didn’t get on with it.

Dammit, he’d show the lot of them. Rick Fraser would be the first among them to kiss a girl. Didn’t matter who, she was a member of the opposite sex. Bet won.

Cautiously, he slid his right arm along the back of the cinema seat, and draped it casually across Lucy’s shoulders. He felt her start at the movement, stuffing another handful of popcorn into her mouth as she continued to face the screen, but he could feel the sudden tensing of her whole body. She stayed that way, for a few long minutes, waiting for his next move. Rick glanced to his left, where the guys were urging him on with lewd signals.

They’d come to an opportune moment in the movie, when the heroine was just about to kiss the hero, and almost in unison, Rick and Lucy turned away from the on-screen action to stare at one another for a few seconds, total uncertainty hanging like a curtain between them. Lucy’s eyes were like saucers.

Rick smiled gamely, telling himself he meant every second of his interest in her. Lucy swallowed hard, kernels bumping along the line of her throat, and he could feel the heat of her body as he moved closer - not too fast, not too obvious – any serious necking amongst minors in the cinema was treated with short shrift by the management.

Rick took the plunge and leant over, planting his lips on hers, harder than he’d meant in his rush to seal the deal.

It was nothing like he expected from his first kiss. There was no rush of blood to the head, no quickening in his nether regions. Nothing, save the sensation of dry lips mashing against his, and a sudden desire to break away as fast as possible now that he’d won his bet in front of his audience.

The girl had other ideas however, and surprisingly strong fingers locked around his chin. Her thin lips worked against his, and Rick kept his own mouth clamped shut. No way was he going to French kiss Lucy Travis. He stuck it out until she seemed to sense his lack of enthusiasm, and reluctantly, she let him go, continuing to gaze with an adoring look in her eyes. 

“That was real nice, Rick,” she murmured.

“Uh – thanks,” he mumbled. 

Somehow he got through the movie without any further intimacy, although Lucy kept prattling on about where they ought to go for their next date, while Rick was wildly inventing up ever more bizarre excuses in his head to put her off. The idea that he might be stuck with her forever filled him with horror, and it was all he could do to stop from high-tailing it from the cinema before the movie finished. They were wandering to the exit with all the other movie-goers, when Johnny and the others ‘just’ happened to meet them in the foyer. Rick’s heart sank in dread. This hadn’t been in the plan.

“Hey, Rick, my man,” Corbin announced, with a baritone chuckle, “I heard you had a hot date tonight.”

“Eat dirt, Owens,” Rick replied with a scowl. They’d seen the show, had their fun, why couldn’t he now be left in peace?

“Hello guys,” Lucy simpered. She still held onto his arm like a limpet.

Johnny slapped Rick on the shoulder. “You win, Flyboy, I’ll pay up.”

A small V of a frown set between Lucy’s eyebrows. “Pay up? What’s going on?”

“Not a thing,” Rick said through gritted teeth, and sent a murderous stare at his friends.

         “Was this date some sort of bet?” she insisted. “Were you watching me- us?” her voice had raised a notch higher, and several people in the foyer turned to stare at them.

“Lucy, don’t listen to these guys…”

“It’s true, isn’t it?” She pulled her arm away, glaring at him. “I should have guessed from the start, but I guess I was too stupid to believe that you were actually serious about asking me out on a date. This was all just a set-up so you could come along and have a good laugh. I just knew something was wrong when you kissed me – like I was something - icky.

“Uh, it wasn’t like that,” Rick started.

“Really?”

He glanced down at his feet, then back to her, searching for something to say that didn’t involve a direct lie. 

Lucy’s face crumpled.

“Oh, of course it was, you – all of you - just wanted to get some cheap fun at the nerdy girl’s expense. Well, you’ve had your fun so you can all fuck off.”

Corbin whistled and Rick found himself growing red-faced as the loud exchange made more people turn and stare in his direction.

“Just leave me alone, all of you just leave me alone!” Lucy screamed at them, and flounced off in the direction of the shuttle station.

Rick took a step forward to follow her, but Johnny grabbed his arm.

“You’re better off just letting her go, Flyboy. If she thinks you care, you’ll never get rid of her.”

Rick knew he was right. He didn’t want a relationship with Lucy and to pretend otherwise would just make matters worse. That reasoning salved what little guilt he felt and feeling happier, he left the cinema in the company of his buddies, as they headed in the direction of Maroni’s for a late night pizza.

 

 

December 2050

 

 Grandma Meyer finally gave up her tenuous hold on life in the first week of December. Rick wondered if everyone felt the same as he did - a strange mixture of relief that her suffering and railing against her body’s prison had finally ended, and guilt that part of that relief included not having to trek to the hospital for the endless visits.

The funeral was delayed a few days so Mitch could get back from New Haven, but when his parents asked Rick if they could use the money he’d saved up for his car to fund Mitch’s trip back home, he was less than enthusiastic.

“I’ve worked my butt off for that money. I can’t believe it you’re actually asking me to give it up!”

“Rick, I’m sorry,” Alicia said. “But we’re struggling at the moment, you have to understand, the hospital bills have been crippling, and we have to pay for the funeral.  Mitch’s flight back is the last straw.”

“Well, he can stay out in New Haven; it isn’t as if he’s been the one going to see her every day in the hospital. What difference does it make now she’s dead?”

 “Just stop right there,” Jack interrupted. “Don’t you dare speak to your mom like that, have you no respect? Mitch has to come home sometime; we can’t afford to have him stay out there over Christmas.”

Rick opened his mouth to argue, but one look at his mother’s pinched white face and his anger sagged like a pricked balloon.

“Take the money, I don’t care.”

“Sure you do, and you’ll get it back, son,” Jack replied. He looked drawn as well, new lines of weariness etched into the angular planes of his face. “As soon as I get this project done in the New Year, I’m expecting a bonus and we can clear some of the debts.”

“Sure, whatever…” Rick muttered and slunk off to the den to curl up in an armchair. He flicked through the TV channels, feeling in turns anger and remorse at his behaviour when his grandma was waiting in a room at the funeral home for her burial.  

Why was life so unfair?

 

***

 

The funeral was short and Alicia bore it with stoicism, wearing the one and only formal black dress she possessed, hidden under a heavy coat. But later, at the small reception for the friends and neighbours back at the house, Rick heard her crying in the upstairs bathroom. Mitch, dressed in a new black sports jacket, bought in a sale at a store in downtown New Haven just before he left, looked every part the grieving older brother, passing amongst family and guests handing out glasses of sherry and soft drinks, chatting with new-found ease to old and young, and generally being a real schmuck. Only a few months had passed since he’d left, yet already he seemed more self-assured and composed. Genuinely shocked at his mother’s appearance, he immediately set about being solicitous to her needs in a way that made her smile and grasp his arm and look at him in a way she never did to her youngest.   

Oh, he’s so goddamed perfect, Rick thought savagely, just sails back to take centre stage. Even though she’s hurting like crazy, Mom just can’t resist telling everyone how brilliant Mitch is.Yeah, he’s doing so well at law school.   Sure, of course I’m proud of him’. It makes me want to throw up.  

Unable to stay in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the house, Rick slipped out and flopped onto the front porch. Snowflakes were starting to drift down from a leaden sky, but he was oblivious to them, and to the cold as the long line of memories of his grandmother came unbidden into his head.  He felt utterly numb, realising that she was never going be around to tease him again. He sat there and let the wet flakes fall on him, thankful that no one was here to see the warm moisture that slipped from his eyes.

A few moments later, the door opened and he heard footsteps behind him. He briskly wiped his face just as Johnny appeared by his side, sitting down beside him on the step. He put one brotherly arm around Rick’s shoulder. “Pop noticed you’d gone outside,” he said, “he told me to come and check how you were doing,”

”I’m fine.”

“Yeah, and I’m Albert Einstein. What do you say we blow this joint afterwards and go play some pool?”

Rick sniffed. “Yeah, you’re on.”

 

 

Winter/Spring 2051

 

Christmas was a sombre affair, with little of the joy and laughter that had been present in past celebrations.  Even the weather seemed to collude in the Frasers’ misery, turning unseasonably mild, and instead of crisp blue skies and the crunch of snow underfoot, everything was a dismal grey, from the overcast sky to the melting slush on the sidewalks and pavements.

New Year came and went. Mitch returned to Yale, and Alicia coped with the sudden hole in her life by throwing herself into work, which suited Rick just fine. No one was telling him what to do every five minutes, so he could work on his models, and study for his flying exams.

A succession of storms blowing down from Canada meant snow was almost a permanent occurrence during the first half of the month, which in turn, meant flying lessons were out of the question, but, undaunted, Rick pestered Jack to take him out in the family truck so he could practice his road-skills, as soon as the pavements were cleared. He was determined he’d get his graduate driver’s licence as soon as possible after he turned sixteen, and then, he could drive himself to Westland Airport.

The weather finally settled down at the beginning of February under clear cold skies, so Rick spent what money he had left from his summer work to get a few more lessons under his belt. Up to now, all takeoffs and landings had been made solely from Westland, and any radio communication had been light and sporadic due to the airport’s low-density traffic.

“You need to be able to talk to Air Traffic Control so you can take-off and land at any airport, so we’re gonna practice doing some of that today. Take her up and we’ll head for Ann Arbor. It’s got a tower but there isn’t anything like as much traffic as Detroit, so it’s ideal for first-time ATC work.”

Rick was secretly relieved Max hadn’t suggested flying straight into Detroit International. He’d never admit it to his instructor but he wasn’t quite ready to deal with being sandwiched between a stack of big airliners coming in from long flights from all points.

Although he’d covered ATC chat during sim-flying, the real thing was a whole lot more nerve-wracking. Trying to fly the plane into Ann Arbor at the same time as wracking his brain for the right expression without sounding like a complete jackass, was the most challenging thing he’d done up to now. He knew that most of the ‘talk’ used standard phrases, pilot’s jargon, but on his approach to the runway his mind suddenly went blank during a short ATC transmission, and Max had to quickly fill in for him.

Max told him to head off to the area reserved for the training schools at the airport and clapped his shoulder.

“Happens to every student, don’t dwell on it, Next time, you’ll be snapping back those replies without even thinking. Now come on, I’ll buy you a coffee, my treat.”

 

***

 

Rick’s eyelids fluttered open as the pale winter light filtered through the slats of the blind. He mumbled, caught in that nether-land of half-sleep and wakefulness, and turned over, willing his mind to return to the particularly erotic dream he’d been having. But it slipped away, as all good dreams have a habit of doing, and he turned back again to face the window, eyes now fully open.

Then it hit him.

He sat up quickly, ran a hand through his tousled mop of hair and a smile slowly worked its way onto his face.

Today was his birthday.  

He was sixteen.

Today, he could apply for his driving licence and leave his learner permit behind at long last; he could also, theoretically, get into the cockpit of a plane, take the controls and fly solo. Everything he’d ever wanted to do was now within his grasp. For a passing moment, it also dawned on him that he could legally get married too, but decided he’d settle for getting laid, if the chance ever presented itself. He was getting fed up with being the oldest virgin in Midvale.

He flopped back onto the bed, staring at the ceiling of his room, allowing the thoughts to wallow around in his head.

Despite her feelings of loss, Alicia hadn’t seen the point in keeping her mother’s room as a shrine, and suggested that since Mitch was at law school, Rick could move his brother’s stuff into his grandma’s smaller room, and he could have the larger bedroom. He’d moved into it about three weeks ago, and occasionally, he’d wake up and feel a stab of remorse that his new-found luxury of space had come at a price.

But not this morning.

With a sigh, he finally bounced out of bed, and almost tripped and went flying as his feet wrapped around the clothes he’d left strewn on the floor. He extricated them, and sniffed at his yellow tee, figured it could do another day. After all, it wasn’t as if he had a hot date today. He pulled it over his head, and followed with clean underwear and yesterday’s jeans.

On a whim, he switched on his terminal and checked his e-messages, feeling a momentary flush of pleasure when he saw the birthday card from Vicky Lee at the top of the list. She hadn’t forgotten, even though it had been ages since they’d last chatted on the cyber-net. Perhaps it was the physical distance, perhaps he’d just got used to her not being there. He felt a small stab of guilt, before shrugging and heading downstairs. He took the steps two at the time, and heard his mother’s anxious voice floating upstairs from the kitchen: “Rick, be careful!” as she heard his clatter on the steps.

His hormones were finally starting to kick into high gear, and he’d put on three inches in height in the last month, much to his elation. He didn’t even mind so much when he stared in the mirror these days. His hair was noticeably less lank, and he could even see signs of stubble in the mornings. The only downside of his rapid height gain was that his limbs hadn’t quite gotten used to the change yet, and he was all arms and legs in the mornings sometimes, hence his mother’s early warning.

He sauntered into the kitchen, and Alicia came over and hugged him, giving his tousled hair an affectionate rub.

“Happy birthday, sweetheart. My gosh,  I still can’t believe how fast you’ve grown, or how handsome you are. You’re not my little boy any more.”

Jack snorted, “He’d look even better if he combed his hair once in a while.”

Rick flushed, and batted her hand away. ”Aww, mom, cut it out.” He sat down on a chair and was about to help himself to an enormous bowl of Wheaty Flakes and milk when Alicia pulled the box away.

“That’s not fare for a birthday boy.” She laid a stack of pancakes piled with crisp slices of bacon, and a small jug of real maple syrup, not the synthetic kind they usually had. “It isn’t every day you’re sixteen, after all.”

Rick grinned and started to dig in straight away with a teenager’s ravenous appetite.  Jack sat back, arms folded as he studied him eat, with a secretive smile playing around his lips. 

“Well,” he said finally, after Rick had demolished the stack in record time.  “You ready for your birthday surprise?”

Rick felt his pulse start to race. “You have a present for me?”

“Sure we do. Your mom and I really appreciated you being adult about the situation at Christmas, and we know how eager you are to get your licence, so…” Jack paused and then placed a set of keys on the table. “Happy Birthday, son.”

Rick was out of the kitchen and into the front yard like his ass was on fire. Parked at the bottom of the drive was a dark-blue ’42 Futura, and for a sudden moment, disappointment flooded over him. The Futura was solid, dependable, with good fuel economy, the exact opposite of a babe-magnet, and everything a sixteen-year-old wouldn’t choose in a car.  He suspected his mom had had a big hand in choosing his present.  

However, as he slid into the driver’s seat, and placed his hands on the steering wheel, he felt that disappointment dissolve into a grudging sense of exhilaration. Finally, he had his own set of wheels! He was free, well, as soon as he passed his test, which he planned to do at the earliest opportunity.

Jack and Alicia had followed him out through the front porch, albeit with rather less haste. Jack was the first to arrive, and he leaned across the car as Rick slid the window down.

“I know it isn’t a Harley, son,” he said, with a conspiratorial wink, “But your mom doesn’t want you plastered all across the pavement just as soon as you pass your test. Maybe in another year, huh?”

Rick returned a rueful smile. “I guess.”

“Do you like it?” Alicia looked so excited that Rick didn’t have the heart not to show as much enthusiasm as he could muster.

“Sure I like it, Mom.”

“We got such a good deal, and it’s a real safe car.”

“Sure, can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be.”

“And the insurance is low, but we paid that for you already, and the tax and licence plate…”

“You thought of everything, mom.”

She bent down and kissed his cheek through the open window. “Happy birthday, sweetie.”

 

***

 

The next few weeks passed in a blur, and Rick was in danger of becoming a recluse in his pursuit of all things motorised. He was the first in his year to complete his driver’s education program and at every opportunity he logged as many driving hours as he could so he could get a pass rate on his first attempt. Naturally, he had to endure his mother’s wheedling that he was spending too much time on non-academic pursuits, but he was becoming practised at ignoring her.

He succeeded in getting his full driver’s licence at the end of March, the same month that Johnny finally got his first date with Stella Martinez.  The doe-eyed beauty had tired of waiting for him to pluck up the courage to ask her out, and took matters into her own hands in her own inimitable style. The two friends celebrated their achievements with coke and pizza at Maroni’s, while the rain fell in a steady drizzle outside the restaurant.

“Jeez, she had me up against a cabinet in the male bathrooms,” Johnny said, with an avid gleam in his eye as he remembered the encounter. “I mean, anyone could have come in…what could I do but say yes?”

“I hate it when you’re smug, Wardynski,”

“What can I say; I guess I’ve just got it.”

“You’ve got it all right, in shovelfuls, and it stinks.”

“You, Flyboy, are just jealous.”

Rick took a long swallow of coke, and a mouthful of pepperoni. “Not in a million years, I just can’t believe that someone as pretty and sassy and smart as her would go for a lunk like you. On second thoughts, scratch the smart – its obvious she’s just a Cuckoo after all.”

“Cuckoo to you, too.  I’ll say it again, you’re green with envy ‘cos I gotta dream-girl like her.”

“Any more of that and you’ll be walking home, Wardynski,”

“Yeah, yeah, rub it in, so I don’t have my licence as fast as you, it’ll come, and a lot faster than you’ll get a date with Emma.”

“Now, you’re really gonna be walking home…”

Rick dropped Johnny off at his house and then drove across by himself – and he still couldn’t get used to the feeling – to the Great Lakes Mall. There, he bought a couple of new pairs of black jeans, since he’d yet again grown out of his old ones. Usually, Alicia had to force him out of his tattered clothes, but recently, he felt a growing desire to smarten himself up.

He left the store, wearing one of the pairs of jeans, plus a checked shirt that had caught his eye as he’d roamed the aisles. The seventy-percent-off tag made him even more tempted to overcome his habitual miserliness about fashion. He caught his reflection as he passed one large store window, and ran a hand through his newly-trimmed mop of brown hair.

You are the man, he assured himself smugly.

The collision took him wholly by surprise, and in the first few seconds of awareness he could see store bags littering the floor of the mall in a multicoloured array. He quickly bent down to grab them, muttering apologies.

“Idiot! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” 

His stomach dropped as he instantly recognised the owner of that voice. He raised his head, to see Emma Bishop standing over him, hands on hips, peering at him.

“Oh, it’s you,” she said with a sniff.

Something snapped then – a flare of mutinous anger that warred with the usual feeling of dopey adulation that her presence provoked. It wasn’t as if he’d deliberately knocked into her - and he’d apologised profusely. With a dark frown, he straightened, swiftly gathered the bags together and brusquely shoved them into her hands.  

“Yeah, it’s me. Sorry that’s such a disappointment. Have a nice day.”

Emma’s mouth opened, and then closed again, like a fish. She clung to the bags wordlessly, and looked at him in a new and peculiar way. While his heart raced, Rick waited exactly three seconds, then turned on his heel and willed himself to walk away. Keep walking, keep walking he muttered to himself, so he wouldn’t blow it and turn around and apologise to her all over again like a complete loser. 

  

 

April 2051

 

Mitch spent his Easter break out in New Haven, where he’d got a job working in a local bakery. He also had several assignments to complete before the start of his new term, which meant he was sometimes putting in eighteen hour days. Rick didn’t waste too much time feeling sorry for his older brother, if he was crazy enough to want to be a lawyer, with all the hard work that entailed, then that was his problem. Rick had more than enough to occupy himself, what with working part-time in Delancy’s and helping his mom with her catering business, under duress. All he could think about was escaping the drudgery to get up in the air with Max Kinsey and the Cessna.

Once there, he covered more aspects of flying: landing an aircraft in any type of situation, in cross-winds, with engine failure in the pattern, and what he’d have to do to in order to make a safe landing in an emergency.

“Think about it all as an acronym: ABCD,” Kinsey suggested, after they had laboured with all the parameters, and Rick felt his head spin with everything he was trying to take in.

“ABCD, that’s airspeed, best landing site, checklists, and dialogue; talking to your tower controllers during the emergency. Remember that, and you won’t go far wrong.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Rick said, with an unaccustomed whine in his voice. “When I’m at ten thousand feet and my engine blows, I’m not sure I’ll be able to think of all that in any sort of order. What if I’m heading over a wood or a forest or something when the engine cuts out?”

Kinsey leaned over and cut the engine. The plane lurched drunkenly sideways and started to lose height almost immediately. His grin would have made a wolf proud as Rick’s face went white.

“No time like the present, kid!”

Rick grabbed the controls, and somehow got the Cessna back from its dive earthwards, but the shocking suddenness of the whole thing had scared him more that he was prepared to admit. Still, better doing something like that under ‘controlled conditions’ when he had all the time in the world and a seasoned pilot sitting next to him. He tried not to strangle Max after he climbed out of the cockpit, with legs like jelly.

“See you next week?”

“Just keep me away.”

“That’s good, because I think you’re ready to go to the next level. How would you be up for a cross country flight? I was thinking maybe going all the way to Holland and back. It’ll probably be a five hour trip taking into account take-off and landing times.”

“Are you kidding me?”  So far during his last twelve lessons, Rick hadn’t flown any further west than Ann Arbor and further north than Pontiac. Holland was almost all the way across the state.

“Nope. You’re more than ready, and you need to get the flying time in if you’re still serious about getting your licence.”

“Of course I’m serious!” Rick retorted, his dark brows descending.

Kinsey chuckled, “Okay, don’t lose your pants; I know how much you wanna fly.”

“So when can we go?”

“We’ll need to get a decent weather report, but apart from that, any time you’re ready.”

Rick was ecstatic, and his grin said it all. “I’m ready now, I can’t wait.”

 

***

 

But to his utter dismay, he realised that this vital stage in his flight training was going to have to be put on hold. The extra hours for the cross country flight had to be paid for up front, and he realised that he’d been paying scant attention to his bank balance. Between the last batch of lessons, his driver’s education, and some new aircraft models that he just had to have, his supply had dwindled to almost nothing.

Distraught, he called Max Kinsey. The instructor was sympathetic, but told him that the company’s policy couldn’t offer credit. If Rick couldn’t find the money to pay for his lessons, he’d have to wait.

He wanted to ask his parents for the money, but he was savvy enough to know that he’d be wasting his breath. All he would get was the usual lecture about flying being a waste of time and money, and they needed every cent to pay for the mortgage/household/Mitch’s fees/Alicia’s business, blah, blah.

Thoughts of computer scams and drug-pushing fleetingly crossed his fevered mind before being just as swiftly discarded as non-starters, even if he’d had the first idea about how to go about them.  He’d also stayed awake long enough in stats class to know that winning the Lotto jackpot was about as likely as being picked as quarterback for the football team.

Desolate, he went back to sim-flying at the arcade, plugging in the coordinates from Westland to Holland, fixing the trip in his mind, the fields and lakes and mobile masts and the landing strips of the airports, every time he took the simulator across the imaginary landscape. But it wasn’t enough, not anywhere near enough. Once you had experienced the real thing, a sim, no matter how good, was like jacking off with mitts on.

 

***

 

The answer to his woes remained painfully out of Rick’s reach until one spring evening, when he and Johnny were lounging around in the Fraser house, on the flimsy pretext of doing homework. The weather was drizzly and dull, like Rick’s mood, and a book report on ‘The Crucible’ lay unfinished on his data-pad at the end of the desk. He had managed two paragraphs before his brain went into meltdown and he went seeking solace in a plate of nachos and a pitcher of soda.  

Johnny lay sprawled across Rick’s bed watching him surf on the desk terminal. “You know, we’d have a lot more fun with the ‘Playboy’ site, Flyboy.”

“Stow it, Wardynski, what are you complaining about, you have all the candy you need.”

“Yeah, isn’t much use to me, when I can’t eat all of it…”

Rick snickered. “Guess you didn’t realise she was still jail-bait, man.”

“Damn women, they’re always foolin’ you with their make-up and clothes and everything.  Do you realise how hard it is to stop short of – shit, you know what I mean – she’s one hot tamale – and always wants her own way. I guess kissing and a bit of messing around is okay, but I’m always getting the feeling she wants way more. Hell, I’d like more, but have you seen her old man?  He ain’t tall, but he’s built like a fridge, and I guess he could get real mean if he wanted to – he’s got scary eyes, a bit like that guy in the Godfather, and I ain’t gonna risk getting my balls broken, never mind my ass being hauled down to the precinct for under-age sex.”

Johnny took a breath long enough to take a swig from his tumbler, realising Rick was barely listening to his woes. “What are you looking for anyway?” he asked.

“Something, anything, hell, I don’t know, I gotta get some money somehow, thought there might be – yes!

“What, what you got?”

“The answer to my prayers.”

“Sex with no strings attached?”

“Next best thing. I’ve just come across something in one of the webzines, ‘21st Century Aero-Design’, they’re running a competition to design a working model of a glider, and there’s a cash prize for the winner – jeez, it’s a thousand dollars.”

He whirled to face Johnny, his voice bright with excitement. “You know what that means?”

“You buy all the cokes and burritos for the next three years?”

“Huh, you wish, delusion-brains. No, this,” - he stabbed at the screen to illustrate. “ – means I have a chance to get some money to pay for my flying time.”

“I thought you had the job in Delancy’s?”

“Are you kidding me? What I get isn’t nearly enough, not if I want to keep flying at least once a week, at this rate I’ll get my pilot’s licence in about ten years. My cash-flow is no-flow at the moment.”

He squinted back to the screen. “Oh, man, the closing date is three weeks away, that doesn’t give me much time.”

“Yeah, and remember, we have exams too.”

“You’re a real beacon of hope, Wardynski, you know that?  I sometimes wonder why I put up with you.”

“Cos you like to hang with a popular, good-looking dude?”

Rick gave him a finger-salute and turned back to the terminal, already his mind was thinking about how he was going to win this competition and get back into the air as soon as possible.

        

For the next two weeks Rick used up every waking minute, (and a considerable number of them that he should have spent sleeping) putting together a design for the competition.   He would doodle in class when he should have been listening to the lectures; the teachers’ voices like buzzing flies in the background, almost, but not quite, distracting him. With the misplaced confidence of youth, he was blithely convinced he could cram for his exams and run all the software simulations he needed to submit his competition design. The end result was one very tired teenager.

 

***

 

“You know, you could lose friends like this, Flyboy,” Johnny said, as they sat together in the cafeteria at Midvale. Rick was ignoring both him and Aaron, with the competition deadline looming he was becoming anxious and frustrated, with no design that he felt was anywhere good enough to send in. His lunch of chilli bean stew sat slowly congealing on the plate in front of him.

“Hey guys, what’s up?” Corbin Owens stopped by their table, tray in hand. He’d shot up in height again in the last few weeks, six-foot-two inches, hair not included, and he was a dead cert to make the school basketball team in junior year.

Rick stopped doodling for a few seconds to acknowledge him as he sat down. Corbin might generally hang around with the sports crowd, but he never forgot his old Northwood buddies and would sometimes join them for lunch.

“What you up to, Rick?  I see you working that thing in class all the time, always been meaning to ask. It must be something good to make you forget about food.” 

“He’s trying to make some money by designing a plane for some webzine,” Johnny said.

 “Cool, good luck with that, man,” Corbin sounded impressed.

“Course, he doesn’t realise that there’s about a thousand other guys out there, all trying to do the same thing,” Johnny said.

Rick looked up, annoyed at his concentration being broken again. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just ‘cos you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they aren’t out there, designing away in cyberspace, just like you. But you’re so frigging sure you’re gonna walk away with the top prize, you haven’t thought about what might happen if you don’t.”

Rick’s eyes narrowed, hating Johnny in that very instant.  Of course he hadn’t given a thought to all the other invisible opponents out there. As far as he was concerned, once he had his design, it was going to win.

“I just don’t want you setting yourself up for a fall, you’re my buddy after all.” Johnny added. “Stella was saying –”

“Oh, great, now you’re mouthing off about my personal stuff to your blabber-mouth girlfriend. Maybe I don’t want everyone around here knowing what I’m doing – least of all the frigging Cuckoos –”

“Quit bad-mouthing Stella, Flyboy, she wouldn’t do that –”

“How the hell do you know? You’ve only been dating her a few weeks and from what you told me you ain’t spending your time comparing psychological profiles.”

“Yeah, well dating a real live girl is sure as hell a lot more fun than this stuff you’re obsessed with.” He stabbed a finger towards Rick’s data-pad. “Maybe you’d have better luck with women if you just chilled a bit.”

Corbin glanced across at Aaron, who rolled his eyes and gave him a ‘haven’t-a-clue-just-like-you’ sort of look.  

“Come on, Rick,” Corbin said, “It’s no big deal, man, whatever it is you two are actually arguing about, it ain’t worth a friendship.”

Rick picked up his data-pad and stood up, the chair squeaking backwards on the polymer floor of the cafeteria.

“No offence, Corbin, but I think I’ll just find a quiet spot where I can deal with my obsession in peace.” 

He stomped off, leaving Corbin to shake his head in bemusement at the other two.

 

***

 

Vickylee:     Amazing - the first night I logon to e-chat for absolutely forever, and here you are – I hope you haven’t been trying to reach me cos I’ve been so busy. I was on a skiing trip in upstate New York in Feb with school, and then Dad just closed the shop and came over for a couple of weeks at Easter and we did some fun things, going to the Lincoln, and the Met and just sightseeing.

Flyboy:        Nice when you can live the high life.  I did go online a couple of times but it’s no big deal. I’ve been busy too.

Vickylee:     Funny that, isn’t it? I just have no idea where the time’s going. Did you have a nice birthday? I hope you got my card, sorry I didn’t send a real one, hope that’s ok.

Flyboy:        Yeah, it was great, thanks, to both questions.

Vickylee:     Well, spill everything, what’s been going on with you?

 Flyboy:       I passed my driving test, and mom bought me a car.

Vickylee:     Congratulations! Dad promised he’d get me one for my birthday next month if I pass all my exams. How’s your flying going?

Flyboy:        It’s not at the moment, I’ve run out of money just now but I’m working on it

Vickylee:     You aren’t planning on robbing a bank with Johnny?

Flyboy:        Doubt it, he’s too busy with his new date.

Vickylee:     He got the Prom Queen?????

Flyboy:        Yeah, and now I hardly ever see him.

Vickylee:     That’s a shame. L Remember we all promised one another that we’d stick together no matter what, even if we started dating?

Flyboy:        Yeah, well, I guess things don’t always turn out the way you plan them. You didn’t stay in Midvale for a start.

Vickylee:     L no, I didn’t. You still mad at me for leaving?

Flyboy:        Course not, we don’t have a choice when our folks think they know what’s good for us, do we?

Vickylee:     I certainly thought that at first, but you know, it isn’t so bad out here, the facilities in the school are awesome, and although it took me a while, I’ve made a couple of friends, one’s even interested in gaming!!!

Flyboy:        That’s great, really.

Vickylee:     I know we don’t chat much but just because I’m so far away doesn’t mean we can’t still keep in touch, no?

Flyboy:        I’d really like that.

Vickylee:     You know if you need to talk about anything, you just let me know, okay?

Flyboy:        Yeah

Vickylee:     So, did you and Johnny argue about something?

Flyboy:        J hah, so you just want to dig up some dirt.

Vickylee:     Sure, I need Midvale gossip.

Flyboy:        The whole thing seems dumb now that I mentioned it.

Vickylee:     Can’t be that dumb if you aren’t talking. Come on, the Dynamic Duo, best pals for life?

Flyboy:        Feels like they hung up their capes and japes a long time agoL.

Vickylee:     So, are you going to tell me or not?

Flyboy:        I just flew off the handle when he said he was telling the Cuckoos about the design competition I entered to win some money so I could keep flying. He called me obsessed, like he isn’t obsessed with trying to get in Stella Martinez’s knickers??? 

Vickylee:     So why didn’t you just apologise?

Flyboy:        I don’t know. I – tried, but somehow, I felt like I was the one backing down, and then, it just seems to get harder and I keep getting madder.

Vickylee:     And he probably feels the same.

Flyboy:        Maybe, I don’t know, we’ve been avoiding one another, which ain’t easy, but somehow we’ve managed it.  The other guys are just leaving us to it, they don’t want to get involved.

Vickylee:     Can’t say I blame them. But this is just silly, you can’t go on like this forever.

Flyboy:        Who says I can’t? Come on, I’ve realised we don’t even like the same things any more, Vic, maybe its time to move on.

Vicklee:       Okay, time to change the subject – this competition you entered, when do you find out about it?

Flyboy:        Three weeks time, I’ll be chewing my nails till then. They post the results on the website, so I’ll be looking every day. Shit – I just looked at the time. I have a math exam tomorrow, and I’d better do some last minute cramming.

Vickylee:     You don’t change, do you? J

Flyboy:        Hope not. See you soon?

Vickylee:     Sure, just take it easy, huh?

Flyboy:        Willdo.

 

        

May 2051

 

Alicia was in the middle of icing a batch of fifty cup cakes when Rick trudged through into the kitchen after school. Some banshee was singing in Italian from the radio, and thankfully she turned the volume down when she saw him come in.

“Hi, hon,” she greeted him. “How did your English exam go?”

“Uh, okay.” He stretched out for a cake and got a sharp smack on the wrist.

“Go get something from the fridge,” she said, “These are for Mary-Lou Schaeffer’s birthday party tomorrow, and if I don’t get a move on, I’m going to miss my evening class tonight. Can you fix something for yourself, sweetheart? Your dad’s working late so I’m afraid you’ll be on your own.”

“Yeah,” Rick mumbled, secretly delighted to have the house to himself, and relieved that his mom was too busy thinking about her own stuff to bother interrogating him about his disastrous day. Thirsty, he pulled a carton of orange juice from the fridge and gulped it down, while Alicia made a clucking sound with her tongue.

“Honestly, must you do that when there’s a perfectly decent glass in the cupboard?”

He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, then noticed her squinting at him, as if she’d only suddenly noticed something. “What?” he said.

“You look tired. I noticed those dark circles under your eyes this morning, but they haven’t gone yet. You aren’t coming down with something?”

“I’m fine,” he assured her, sounding more confident than he felt. He did in fact, feel like he’d been mauled by a grizzly and kicked by several mules, and the only thing he was coming down with was terminal exhaustion, but the reasons for that weren’t something he was about to share with her.  

While his folks slept, he’d been awake, fuelled with caffeine to keep his eyelids open in the wee small hours, in a frantic attempt to condense the subject matter of two months into a week. His head throbbed, he had a stiff neck from being hunched over his desk for too many hours in succession, and his eyes were blurry and hollow with the combination of information overload and lack of sleep. “Maybe I’ll go head up to my room for a bit,” he said.  “I am a bit tired.”

“Sure, hon, exams are stressful, I know, it must have been a tough week. I’ll see you later maybe?”

“Sure, maybe.”

He trudged upstairs, and the first thing he did was boot up his terminal to check if the results of the competition had been posted on the website. He bit his bottom lip as he waited for the screen to post. Nothing.

He threw himself onto the bed and tried to close his eyes, but his brain was still ticking over too fast to relax. With a grunt, he got up to the desk and pulled out a model he’d been working on before he had to abandon it for the competition.

He tinkered with the aircraft for a few moments, but there was no satisfaction in it. An overwhelming sense of frustration hit him. He should be out, celebrating the end of exams with the guys, not sitting holed up in his room feeling sorry for himself. He was turning into a dammed recluse, just like Johnny said.

Damn you, Wardynski, he thought savagely. Their pathetic (it seemed to him now) argument still festered like a pus-filled sore, even when he wasn’t consciously aware of it.

Best pals for life. Until some girl flaps her eyelashes.

A little voice of reason whispered that he might be the one acting like a prize jerk. What if their positions were reversed, and it had been Emma Bishop who was doing the running after him?

Despite that scenario being about as far-fetched as him winning the Nobel Prize for literature, for one moment, Rick had a moment of empathy with his former best buddy, knowing that he might well have done the same in similar circumstances. So what was his problem? Was it possible that he was just plain jealous?

 He swore then, under his breath, and in a fit of pique, threw the model onto the desk, then immediately regretted it as the force shattered the wing tip.  He spent the next half-hour carefully gluing it back together, wishing it was as easy to repair a broken friendship.

The moment Rick saw the e-mail he had been waiting for flash up on his screen, he felt his heart skip several beats.

For a few seconds he was gripped by a terror of indecision, knowing that what lay behind the message would either mean the continuance of his dream, or the abandonment of it, and he sat staring at the screen.

Finally, with a nervous sigh he highlighted the message and pressed enter.

 

         Johnny raised a curious eyebrow when he opened the door of the Wardynski residence. Rick stood in the porch, his hands were tucked into the pockets of his jeans, and he was wearing a nervous smile.

“Is this a good time?” he asked.

“Well, Stella isn’t here, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Johnny replied, a little sharply.

“That wasn’t what I meant,” Rick replied, equally taut. Then he took a breath. “Look, I’ve been a complete jackass, just things have been crazy with me recently.  I wasn’t myself, but it’s over now.”

“Over?”

“Yeah, you know, the competition…”

Comprehension dawned on Johnny’s face. “Oh, man, you didn’t win it, did you? All that work…” He grabbed Rick in a brotherly hug, all argument and hostility forgotten in an instant.  “Hey, forget everything, Flyboy, huh? Nothing’s that important, and I’m real glad you came around, I’ve wanted to say something – but you know – I just couldn’t find the words - ”

Rick’s shoulders shook with laughter and Johnny let him go and regarded him with narrowed eyes. “What’s so funny?”

“I didn’t come around to tell you I’d lost; I’m here because I won!”

Johnny punched him, hard.

“Ow, that hurt!”

“You deserved it, you scuzz-ball, you just ignore me for weeks then expect to come around here and everything’s gonna be hunky-dory, huh?”

Rick shifted his stance and dropped his gaze to the porch floor. “Shit, I know. But who else am I gonna share the best piece of news I’ve had in months with?”

“Uh, your folks?”

“They don’t count, they don’t even know yet. Never really thought about that, come to think of it…”

“Oh boy, are you in for it.” Johnny’s smile was evil.

“Look, that isn’t the only reason I came around. Things just aren’t the same without you, buddy. We’ve been through so much together, back in Northwood, and now here in Midvale, and I really don’t want to flush all those good years down the toilet. What do you say we call it quits? Let’s go down to Maroni’s and celebrate with the biggest pizza in the house. I’m buying, and you can bring Stella if you like.”

Johnny squinted at Rick, thought about it, then sniffed. “Nah, it’s okay, not tonight. It’s just you and me at Maroni’s. There’s no way I’m giving up my girl, but nothing comes close to having a best buddy. I was dumb too, Rick, I had no idea how much all this really meant to you, how badly you felt about it. I’m sorry.”

“Best pals for life, eh?”

Johnny grinned. “You bet.”

 

***

 

 

Rick became something of a minor celebrity when he appeared in the local newspaper several days later. How they’d got hold of the information that he’d won the competition was anyone’s guess, but Rick knew his secret was out when a reporter from the Midvale Daily News (or the Daily Snooze as some residents called it) came around to the Fraser house the following afternoon,

They reporter snapped pictures and scribbled notes, interviewing a bemused Alicia and Jack, who only now knew what their son had been up to. Rick could tell Alicia was annoyed as hell, in the way her hands kept fidgeting, and she stayed mostly quiet during the interview, while Jack fielded most of the questions aimed at his parents.

 “Yeah, Rick’s a smart kid, all right. We just never knew by how much. He’s always been crazy about anything that flies, and he was taking lessons for a while, even though we couldn’t afford it, but he didn’t let that stop him. We’re proud to have a kid who has the spunk to just get on and do something like this off his own back.”

He knew he’d be in for another lecture after the reporters had gone, but he figured his dad would be in his corner. It was a good thing he’d just gone ahead, his mom would never have let him do it in the first place. Much better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.

Further fame followed a call from local radio WOMJ who invited him around to the station for a live five minute interview with DJ Art Simpson. Stella whipped round interest via the school blogging sites to listen in, and it wasn’t very long before quite a number of students and teachers in Midvale High were aware of Rick’s achievement.

The principal was enthusiastic, certainly good publicity for the school was always desirable, but some, especially his history and English teachers, were less so, citing yet another reason why his grades continued to be so below par.

 

***

 

Max Kinsey greeted him like a long lost son when he returned to Intrepid Aviation the following Sunday, accompanied by a large cheque for his lessons. The day was clear and calm, with only a few cirrus clouds to mar the sky.  Kinsey had good news to give him.

“The boss was so pleased about the publicity you gave us on WOMJ that he wants to throw in a couple of free lessons.”

Rick’s answering grin was as wide as Lake Huron.  “For real?”

“Sure for real. I just had a feeling you’d be back soon, kid. I don’t think I’ve ever taught anyone who has your chutzpah. Your folks must be real proud of you, I reckon, so today we’re gonna do something real special.”

Before they commenced, Max went over everything; the weather at all locations, the route and contingency options.

“We’ll fly across to Lansing, make a touchdown at Capital City Airport, then on again to Holland for a lunch stop, then back again then on the return, we’ll stop at Jackson County Airport. Think you can do it?”

Rick did all his pre-flight checks, while Max nodded approvingly, and then they climbed into the Cessna. His take-off was a little shaky, but he let out a thrilled whoop at being back in the sky. It wasn’t long before he got the feel for the Cessna again, and he took her up to two thousand feet, heading north-west to fly roughly parallel with the I-96 interstate. He fiddled with the radio to tune it into the tower at Lansing. The state capital’s airport was busy and Rick would need to keep all his wits about him during entry into its airspace.

But for the first leg of his cross-country jaunt, Rick simply luxuriated in being able to take the controls of a plane again. Below him, the conurbations of metropolitan Detroit and its suburbs slowly gave way to a patchwork arable landscape of yellows, browns and greens, a sign that farming was still firmly entrenched in the Michigan psyche. The land was flat with few landmarks, save the concrete ribbon of the interstate, with its cars and trucks left trailing in his wake.

He watched the skies and the land below, his head moving from side to side as Max had taught him, so that his knowledge of what was going on around him was as complete as it could be. Relying totally on radar and not watching what was happening outside, was as unforgivable as not filling up with enough fuel in Kinsey’s book.

Rick handled the controls while Max stayed quiet, letting him do as he pleased while he watched for mistakes.  So far, Rick hadn’t seen any disapproving frowns, or pursed lips, so he assumed he was doing okay.

Lake Lansing appeared in the distance at two o’clock, so he made preparations for flying the long way around the state capital. As he skirted the city, he could pick out landmarks: the gleaming white dome of the State Capitol building, rivalling that of Washington DC, and the lazy meander of the Grand River, bisecting the city in two.

He approached the airport with caution, and requested ATC clearance from the tower, somehow answering the controller’s questions without preamble or hesitation. He felt, rather than saw, Max nod in approval as he was directed to runway zero-six. He blew air from his cheeks as he concentrated on the most hazardous element of any flight, landing at a busy airport.

Scanning the sky, he worked his way into the busy traffic pattern, hands working the throttle and feet on pedals. With other aircraft on the ground and in the air, a pilot had to choose the correct speed and elevation to maintain their proper position in the sky whilst waiting for permission to land.

Ahead, Rick could see the runway, one of two that ran parallel to one another. A speck of red and white hurtled on it, half-way along, aiming for the sky, while another taxied around to take its place at the start. Glancing right, he could see another plane coming in parallel to him, heading for the sister runway, a big commuter jet that dwarfed the little Cessna.

He swallowed, always a little spooked when he got too close to the heavy iron, but he quickly recovered, with the knowledge that he had as much right to the skies as the bigger aircraft. He flicked his gaze away and concentrated on his own approach, listening to the chatter from the tower through the radio.

Before he knew it, he was down, the runway was rushing up to meet him, and his stomach swooped as he throttled back a little too fast. Max made a sound in his throat as they bounced a couple of times on the tarmac before a complete touchdown. Rick swore inwardly but put it to the back of his mind so he could make a smooth and rapid exit from the runway to the holding area. Although they had no plans to stop in Lansing, he needed to stay there until he received clearance for the next leg of his journey.

The rest of the trip went like clockwork. His take off was text-book from Capital, and he headed due west for Holland. Again, he enjoyed the landscape unfolding below him, on a scale he had never before appreciated. He was truly lord of all he surveyed up in his flying throne, never before this acutely aware of how rural his home state actually was. Acre upon acre of corn, soya and bio-fuel fields passed beneath his wings, punctuated here and there by farms with their great long barns and gleaming grain silos, and the massive water towers on the outskirts of tiny town-ships, the houses huddled together against the elements of the harsh mid-western winter.

Below, he could see the distinctive landmarks of the city of Holland, and in case it wasn’t obvious from the name, the giant windmill plonked on an island to the north of the city, and the endless rows of tulips on the sidewalks and parks which seemed to paint the entire city pink and red, signified its Dutch origins.

Then, a ribbon of blue began to appear on the horizon, a wide band that grew, ever wider as he flew closer. Rationally, he knew that from the flight plan, he would see the Lake, but emotionally, nothing had prepared him for flying towards that endless immensity of shimmering cobalt-blue.  He knew it wasn’t infinity, it was only another hundred or so miles to Wisconsin on the other side, but there was something mesmerising about that vast body of restless water below him that made him feel as if he was about to cross an ocean.

He glanced below as the little plane left the safe confines of land and soared over the glassy turquoise waves beneath his wing, lapping at the long ribbon of white sands that flowed along the infinite edges of the shoreline, and his stomach dipped, as if instead, he’d flown over the edge of a mountain into a valley of blue. On and on he flew, enchanted, magnetized, following a small flotilla of boats that chased the sun across to the horizon and urging the Cessna on to catch them.

“Next stop, Milwaukee?”

Rick’s mouth fell open as the spell was broken.

“I..uh…jeez..I’m sorry,” he mumbled, looking around and immediately making course corrections to bank around. Flustered, he realised he’d completely ignored the flight plan, which meant landing at Park Township airport, a couple of miles inland from Lake Michigan. But he’d totally lost his head, unforgivable really, and he wouldn’t have been at all surprised if Max took over the controls right now.

“Relax, kid, I let you do it, just this once. You aren’t the first rookie to lose his head when he sees a big body of water like this. I remember the first time I flew over the Pacific; I was about thirty miles out when my instructor asked me if I was planning to go all the way to Hawaii.”

Rick grinned. “Thanks Max.”

He concentrated fully now on his approach to the small airport. There was no tower, and he relied on visuals alone to land.

“We’ll stop for a bit,” Kinsey suggested, indicating the large hangar to the left of the aircraft parking area. “You’ve been flying non-stop for a while, and you need a break.”

The remainder of the journey was almost an anti-climax, as he mechanically checked and re-checked his course on the return to Westland. There wasn’t enough time for a full-stop landing at Jackson County Airport, so Kinsey had him do a touch-and-go. His final touchdown at Westland was so perfect he knew it in his bones even before Kinsey praised him for it. The sun was low in the sky and he felt completely and utterly drained, yet strangely ecstatic, so the last thing he expected was for Max to pour rain on his parade.

“This is just the start, kid. So far you’ve only flown in decent weather, and it’s a totally different ball-game flying in cloud or rain, or in the black of night, or you get a wind shear across the runway when you’re about to land. You’ve still got a long way to go before you can fly solo – you think you’re really up for it?”

Rick scowled. “Of course I’m up for it.” He stomped away to his car filled with indignation at the idea that his instructor could ever have doubted his intent. He didn’t see his Kinsey looking after him, with a secret, almost sly smile on his face.

 

 

June 2051

 

With the lighter evenings, Rick was able to get in a few extra after school lessons, as well as his usual Sunday afternoon flight, as Kinsey wanted him to get in as much landing practice as possible. On his first outing the wind was blowing hard and the ride was anything but smooth, on the second he managed several take-offs and touch-and-go landings under low cloud without any problems. On the third evening he had to get permission to stay out late, since Kinsey wanted him to do a night flight.  Alicia wasn’t happy, but Jack had a quiet word with her, away from Rick, and that was the end of that.

Kinsey told Rick to arrive by seven, and he discovered that they weren’t going up in the Cessna this time, but in a four-seater aircraft. Max had to take up another student, a guy in his twenties who’d had to switch lessons at the last minute.

“It’ll be good practice to tryout a different machine anyhow,” he explained to Rick, as he peered at the aircraft. “Don’t worry, you do all the same things.”

For the first hour, Rick sat behind in the passenger seat, an unusual experience, and one he didn’t like at all, since for the first time he seemed to experience a little motion nausea, especially during manoeuvres, something he’d never had as a pilot. He did enjoy being able to look out of the window at the passing scenery without always having to be aware of what he was doing, although this was marred in the main by the fact he didn’t feel at all safe with someone else doing the flying, even if in the end, it was Max who had final control.

By the time the older student had finished, dusk was settling over the airfield, and Rick got strapped in for his own lesson. He took the Cessna up for five circuits and landings and realised that Max was right, about the only thing you did differently between night and day landings was not to get distracted by the lights.  Rick discovered his night vision was pretty good and his landings got progressively better as the lesson wore on. He was finally beginning to feel as though he didn’t have to think about the mechanics of flying any more, that it was becoming more intuitive.

 

***

 

A week later they did a second cross country, this time north from Westland to Bay City. Although shorter than their east-west flight, the weather wasn’t as good, with cloud ceilings between three thousand to five thousand feet, and a little rain, however, Kinsey thought it would be ideal to see what Rick could do in marginal conditions. There was a far bit of turbulence heading north from Westland due to some strong south winds, but Rick handled it well, and he didn’t even break sweat when Kinsey threw in a simulated flap-failure landing at Bay City.

They stopped at the municipal airport café and drank coffee and ate two slices of pie, and Rick stared out of the panoramic window and watched a small Lear jet take off, thinking about the journey back home, while Kinsey checked his e-mails. There was something about any airport, Rick thought, something expectant, filled with promise of new exciting places to see, to go. He would never be able to resist the lure of them. He knew that now, for certain.

“Since we’re ahead of schedule,” Kinsey said nonchalantly, without taking his eyes off his data-pad, “I thought maybe you could take the kite up and circle the field three times before landing.  It should only take about twenty minutes and there’s nothing due to leave here for another hour. I’ve cleared things already with airfield control, so any time you’re ready.”

For an instant Rick sat motionless. He couldn’t have heard what he thought he heard, surely?

His instructor looked round and fixed him with that raptor stare.  “You’ve come a long way kid, and I think you’ve earned it today. But don’t do it if you’re nervous, there’s no room for lack of confidence if you’re up there on your own. This is a quiet airfield, you won’t find one better for your first time, but I’ll understand if you don’t feel ready.”

Rick swallowed as Kinsey went back to his data-pad. He hadn’t expected this at all, and yet, wasn’t this the moment that every student dreamed of – to fly solo? He stared at the Cessna parked outside.

“Clock’s ticking.” Kinsey’s voice broke into his thoughts.

Rick headed for the door.

 

***

 

Glasses clunked, spilling coke and threatening breakages, and Stella Martinez gave Rick a resounding kiss on his cheek, to the accompaniment of hoots and cheering from the guys.

Maroni’s was full to bursting point that evening, but the proprietor knew his best customers, and on hearing of the reason for the celebration had seated them at their favourite corner banquette, where they could see everything that was going on. Not that Rick cared too much about the other diners in the room, not when Stella was sandwiched between him and Johnny. She was undeniably gorgeous tonight, and he was having trouble trying to stop his eyes straying from his chilli-pizza to the tiny sliver of midriff between her top and the stretch leopard-skin pants. Her small, perfectly formed navel winked at him like some devilish third eye, taunting him, and he tried to think sexy thoughts about Emma in order to dispel the other more treacherous ones that kept intruding.

His stomach dropped as their eyes met, hers narrowing, cat-like, and he felt sure there was some unspoken challenge written behind that gaze.  Was she trying to come on to him? No, he had to be imagining things. Sure, she was delicious enough to displace Emma in his nocturnal fantasies, but that was about as far as he’d ever be prepared to go - unfortunately.

“Your first solo, man, that’s a big deal, right?” Corbin said.

“Yeah, now I’m on the ground, it is,” Rick replied, thankful for the distraction. “But to be honest, I didn’t really have a chance to think about it at the time, I mean, no way was I expecting it, so I wasn’t all psyched up for it.”

“Maybe that was his plan, your instructor I mean, so you’d be more relaxed, like it was just another thing to do.”

Rick looked thoughtful. “You’ve got a point. I guess it’s all I’ve ever thought about, going solo, and then, there I was, sitting in front of the controls, alone, and I felt, well, weird. No butterflies, no shaking legs, I just went through all the motions for take off, although I did get a bit of a surprise when the plane climbed like some homesick angel, it sure was a whole lot lighter with just me in the cockpit.”

They all laughed, and he continued. “Apart from that, I just started doing the usual things, like I was a robot or something. Before I knew it, I’d made three circuits and was back on the ground.”

“Yeah, but what if you’d done something wrong?” Corbin said, with a shake of his frizzy curls.

“Maybe that was what Max was trying to tell me, that at some point you have to believe in yourself enough to know when the mistakes you make won’t be fatal. I know I’ve got a lot of work to do to get my licence, but something changed today. I can fly. I can go up there and get safely back down again.”

 “Oh God, Rickee, you are so brave…” Stella cooed.

“Nah, I threw up as soon as I got back to the hanger.”

Corbin and Johnny burst out laughing, and Stella looked at them with annoyance in her almond eyes.  

“He’s teasing you, Stella,” Johnny said, with a snigger.

“No, I really did throw up,” Rick insisted. “Delayed reaction or something, I guess. That had been real nice pie, too.”

Stella pouted. “That is a leetle too much information for me, Rickee.” She shifted along the seat, and he immediately regretted his smart-mouthed comments.

 

***

 

Why was it, Rick, thought, that when you thought the whole world was at your feet something just had to come along a spoil it?

 “That lot will give you indigestion,” Johnny said, as he bumped Rick’s tray across the table to get his own in place. He indicated the tray, piled high with chilli-dogs, coleslaw, fries and cinnamon rolls.

“Since when did you care about healthy eating, Wardynski?”

“Stella thinks we should watch what we eat.”

“Huh, you’re like a corn-stalk anyway? Why would you wanna do a thing like that for?”

“That Mediterranean diet, it’s cool. I ate round her folks’ place for supper the other night; we had all this amazing food, meze and tapas and stuff, never thought I’d like vegetables so much.”

Rick made a face. “Yeah, me neither. Just don’t include me in your new keep fit strategy any time soon, huh?”

“Suit yourself, Flyboy, but you can eat loads and feel great, no bloating or stuff like that”

 “Bloating? Jeez, she really has you wrapped around her little finger, huh?”

Johnny smirked and waggled his eyebrows. “I’m working on getting a whole lot more of her round me too…”

“Oh, stow it, I do not need to know the sordid details of your love-life when I’m trying to eat.”

“Suit yourself.” Johnny settled himself down and started to eat while Rick once again attempted to re-read the same paragraph on flight navigation for the fourth time. The words seemed to swim before his eyes, almost in the same way it did when he read Shakespeare or Milton. It wasn’t as if he didn’t want to know this stuff, he did, more than anything, but reading just seemed to have the effect of making him want to nod off. He was beginning to realise that he wasn’t stupid after all, just that the way his brain worked was different from other folks, while some people could learn by sitting down and taking in the subject matter with their ears and eyes, he learned by doing it.

“You wanna hear what Stella found out this morning?”

Rick looked up, annoyed at being interrupted again. “You really think I care about chicks’ gossip?”

 “Okay, forget I asked, but it’s about Emma…”

“Why should I care?”

“Don’t kid me; you’ve been carrying a torch for that dame ever since we clapped eyes on her in freshman year.”

Rick ignored him and looked back to his data-pad.

“I thought you might want to hear it from me, before you see them together.”

“See who together?”

“Nancy Culligan told Stella: Jake Sanders asked Emma out at the weekend. They went to a movie together.”

 “I wouldn’t believe Nancy Culligan if she was the last female on the planet.”

“Yeah, well that’s what she said.”

“Make’s no difference to me, one way or the other.”

“Sure, guess not, but I thought I’d let you know, in case.”

“In case what?  That I’d cry in my soda? I don’t think so. Why should I worry, when I have the perfect female already? I can take her up in the air every night, or weekend, when I want, she doesn’t answer back or tell me what to wear or what to eat, you got that?”

Johnny pouted. “Don’t lose your pants; I’m only trying to help.”

“Yeah, well I don’t need your help, I don’t need anyone’s help, Let me put it to you straight, if I want a girlfriend, I’ll get one myself, okay?”

 

Ever since it had lodged in his mind, nothing would shift him from the idea of getting his pilot’s licence before the end of the summer.  They didn’t call pilot’s wings ‘leg spreaders’ for nothing. Now wouldn’t that be one helluva first date? One no girl could possibly refuse.

“You’re a natural, kid,” Kinsey said. “And I’ll be prouder than a parent if you pull it off, but we’re talking a lot of money here to get the requisite number of flying hours in, not to mention taking all your flight exams.”

“Yeah, I know, it’s always about the money, but I’m planning to get a summer job, and with what I have left from the competition, that’ll pay for it.”

“Oh, I believe you, kid. I’ve seen your determination and commitment. But what’s the big rush?”

“I just want to do it. Surely you must have felt the same way.”

Max’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Probably. I think I was trying to impress the girls at the time. Not that I’m thinking that’s your reason, kid.”

Rick flushed. “No, no way. This is just something I’ve got to do, for me.”

“Sure it is.”

 

***

 

Joe Delancy knew of his Rick’s passion, since he talked about little else at work. Not that he minded, His own kids were grown up and flown the nest, and he had become very fond of his young employee, since the boy was hard-working and never complained.

“I could get you a few more hours, and you deserve a pay rise for all the hard work you’ve been doing.”

 “I appreciate that, sir,” Rick said, as he shifted a pile of boxes onto the racks at the back of the store. “And please don’t take offence, but I’m talking a lot of money.”

“How much exactly?”

“I need about five thousand dollars.”

Delancy scratched his head. “Sure, that is a hefty sum.”

Rick pushed a box to the back of the rack. “Yeah, you can say that again.”

“Well, you know, my brother runs a yard and garden business and it just so happens one of his employees is going off on medical leave for a couple of months right now. Maybe you could help him out and help yourself too.”

“Well, sure, how much money are we talking?”

“Fifteen dollars an hour. But you’ll be full time.”

Rick did some swift mental calculations. “Do I have to work weekends?”

“Not unless you want to.”

“No, I’ll need it to fly.”

“You’re going to be one tired boy,” Delancy replied, with a gruff chuckle. “Don’t you think it would be better to take your time about this? Say, maybe wait and get your flying licence next year. It wouldn’t involve all this running about.”

“No sir, I couldn’t do that. I made a deal with myself.”

“Ah, of course.” Delancy gave a serious nod, as if he understood such things.

 

***

 

The last couple of weeks of Rick’s sophomore year seemed to fly past. End of term grade reports were issued, and Lucy Travis, naturally, gave a whoop when she set eyes on hers, so there was no prize for guessing where she was in the pecking order. Mrs Marchiniak, their year teacher, handed Rick his next, and he was unable to stop the groan that escaped his lips when he glanced over it.

“Yes, I imagine you might feel that way, Mr Fraser. I really don’t know what happened to you, young man. I remember your brother’s grades with a feeling akin to joy. Mitch usually had nothing less than a 3.9 GPA every term.  Your grades leave a lot to be desired, apart from math, and how you got a 90% on that I have no earthly idea. I simply can’t imagine what your parents will think of the rest of it. You cannot graduate on one subject alone, however important that subject might be, do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He tried to sound contrite, and knew that when his mom saw this he would probably be grounded for the summer.

That can’t happen, no way.

 He sat staring at the flimsy before realising Mrs Marchiniak was still peering at him over the rims of her pince-nez glasses.

“Perhaps more time studying and less time designing airplanes when you’re in junior year, don’t you think?”

He sighed. “Yes, Ma’am.”

 

“Haven’t you had your report yet, hon?”  Alicia asked him at breakfast. “It came out a week earlier last year.”

“Uh…” he mumbled, as the dreaded moment was finally upon him. She’d been very busy in the last week, and he’d sort of hoped she might just forget all about it.

Fat chance.

He glanced at Jack, who returned a ‘you’d-better-come-clean’ expression.

“You don’t really want to see it, do you?”  

She looked at him with narrowed eyes. “Richard…”

He retrieved it from under his bed and trudged back down to hand it to her. “It’s not as bad as it looks…honest.”

As the disappointment flooded her eyes, he felt his cheeks warm. She continued to read and then, in silence, she handed the flimsy to Jack and then went back to eating her breakfast. Jack gave a slight shrug as he scanned it, and again, silence reigned in the Fraser kitchen.

Rick didn’t expect this reaction from her. Shouting, yelling, yes, he could have handled that, but not this pained, expressive silence.

“So, get it over with, then,” he said at last, his voice rising for the fight. “Tell me I’m grounded, or whatever.”

“You’re sixteen, almost an adult,” Alicia replied crisply. “I can’t make you study, if you don’t want to. I just hope you know what you’re doing with your life.”

“There you go again; I’m just a big disappointment to you.”

“Is that what you think? That all I care about is how you make me feel? I am more concerned that you don’t disappoint yourself, Rick.   I’m not saying you can’t catch up on your studies after you leave school, you know my belief in long time learning, but it’s not so easy then. This is the best chance you’ll ever have and I just don’t want you to throw it away.”

 

 

Summer 2051

 

Rick started working with Mike Delancy, Joe’s younger brother, in his yard maintenance business as soon as school broke up for the summer vacation. He was set to moving slabs, digging dirt, planting trees and shrubs, grunt work mostly. After a week the sun turned his face and arms dark brown, and picked out red highlights in his hair. The regular, hard physical exercise began to develop muscles and tone on a body that he’d always felt was on the skinny side.  

Three days a week after work he would race home for a shower, grab a sandwich and shovel it down before driving across to Westland for his flying lessons. The other two evenings he spent cramming for his theoretical exams. His schedule didn’t leave a lot of time for socialising, so it was just as well most of his friends had other plans for the summer. Johnny had lost his girlfriend to her annual family pilgrimage to Greece, and he was again visiting his mother and stepfather.  Aaron was working in his father’s office, and Corbin was, naturally, in basketball camp.  He felt his friends’ loss keenly, but consoled himself with the thought that he wouldn’t need to feel guilty when he spent all his spare time flying.

By the end of the second week, after a grilling from Max on flight theory, he pronounced Rick ready to take his first cross-country solo, and since the latter had thought about nothing else at work, when he’d been digging soil, and hammering nails into fencing, he knew exactly what flight plan he was going to submit. Max had already quizzed him about Air Law, and given him a pass, thankfully, since that knowledge was mandatory before any student could go up alone.

Rick prayed for good weather, although it had been hot and sunny in the past couple of weeks there was a lot of haze, and visibility had been quite poor around the Detroit Metro area. The weather improved, a little, and Sunday arrived. He was barely able to eat breakfast that morning, brimful with a mixture of excitement and nerves. Alicia fussed over him, clearly nervous herself.

“I’ll get something on my first landing,” he assured her.

“Well, drink something then.”

“Mom, I don’t want to have to go to the bathroom when I’m at five thousand feet, gonna be a touch difficult.”

“For heavens’ sake, Alicia,” Jack said, with an exasperated sigh. “Leave him be. If he wants to eat, he’ll eat. He doesn’t need you –“

“Oh, it’s all right for you, sitting there without a care in the world, reading the news, as if he was just off for a drive down the road. He’s going up in a plane – alone...”

Rick rolled his eyes. “Mom, that’s the whole point of a solo,”

“I just don’t see the point, period,” she said, thumping the dish on the countertop.  “Why couldn’t you just have stuck with building aircraft, rather than this unhealthy obsession with wanting to fly them?”

“I bet Wilbur and Orville didn’t get this grief from their mom,” Rick said, and wondered why he hadn’t just snuck out the door without even telling her where he was headed. “What did you expect I’d be doing? Flying around with Max babysitting me for the rest of my life?”

“I suppose not…”

“So, be happy for me, and stop trying to run every little detail of my life!”

“So, you got everything you need?” Jack cut in.

Rick took a breath, settled himself. Getting aggravated would do him no good. “Sure, Dad, I think it’s time I got started.”

“Good luck, son.”

 

***

 

Max met him at the airfield, and they quickly went over the flight plan. Rick made all his pre-flight checks, the engine, electrical systems, controls. Finally, he climbed into the cockpit. 

“Nervous?” Max called to him from the ground.  

“Maybe a little, but I’m ready for this.”

“I know, and you’ll be fine, just remember everything you’ve learnt up to now, and take it easy when you go into the pattern, there’s no rush. And don’t forget, when you’re on the radio, let everyone know that you’re a student pilot, they’ll make allowances.”

“Sure. Are you going to be here when I get back? ”

“I’ve got a few lessons piling up today, but I’ll do my best.”

“I understand.”

“Okay, off you go, and don’t forget to pay any landing fees and get signed off at the airfield.”

“I won’t.”

Max turned and walked away, and Rick watched him go, suddenly filled with more nervous fluttering in the pit of his stomach.

Don’t be stupid, he told himself. I know how to fly this plane, I’ve flown it so much it’s practically part of me, so why all the hesitation?

He took a few heavy breaths and stared out the front window.

Come on Fraser, you can do this.  Time to leave.

He let out a last loud breath, and then switched on the engine. The propeller turned into a blur, and as he taxied off his excitement began to build with every yard of tarmac he covered. Now he was focused, mentally running through his checklist, his pre-flight nerves forgotten. The sectional map was open at the right place, his compass heading and the first checkpoint of the flight was firmly imprinted on his brain, and his planning sheet was on the passenger seat where he could easily glance at it during the flight. His trusty flight computer, or the ‘whizz wheel’ as it was more commonly nicknamed, was also close at hand if he needed to recalculate his fuel burn, wind correction, or time en-route to the various checkpoints along his defined flight plan. 

Now, he was aligned with Westland’s runway, and had been given the all-clear for take-off. This was the moment of truth. No going back. He applied full power and the Cessna surged forward, gaining speed with every second. Rick felt every bump along the ground, every muscle in his body unconsciously tensing. In an instant, the earth dropped away, and a feeling of total exhilaration flooded over him as the aircraft climbed into the sky. He was airborne – on the way to his first true solo cross country flight! No one to tell him what to do, everything was under his control, for good or ill. It was a feeling like no other he had ever experienced in his young life up to this moment.

But he came back to ‘earth’ quick enough, for there were a multitude of things a solo pilot needed to think about in those first few minutes: establishing the correct climb altitude, exiting the traffic pattern, and always, always, looking out for other planes in the vicinity. Once clear of the airport he checked his compass heading and the first checkpoint, opened his flight plan, and set his two radios to the ATC airport frequencies. His eyes flicked from his map, to the cockpit dials, and to the ground below.  It was too easy to become disoriented, and the last thing he wanted was to be heading in totally the wrong direction from his planned route, and two to three millimetres on the map translated to a lot more on the ground.

 The first couple of checkpoints passed smoothly, and before he knew it, he was approaching the single asphalt runway of Livingston County airport at the end of his first leg.  He entered the pattern, and repeated his call sign to ATC and they gave him clearance. When he was on his final approach he could hear Max’s voice in his head saying don’t pull up, and resisted his usual tendency to creep the yoke back, causing his airspeed to decay too quickly.

He stayed calm, adjusted for the slight crosswind, and made a decent touchdown, calling in to say he was leaving the runway and parking for sign-off. He rolled to a stop near the small terminal building and found someone from the airport to sign off his sheet.

“This your first solo? That was a pretty good landing out there,” the woman controller said, as she stamped the document.

“Pretty much,” Rick replied. He had a stupid grin plastered over his face, which stayed there while he made a quick pit stop and got back into the Cessna for the next leg. As an afterthought he checked his cell-phone and discovered several messages from his mom asking how he was. Sighing, he texted her back, assuring her that he was still in one piece and he would call her when he next landed.

Things didn’t go quite as smooth on the way south to Lenawee County Airport, and it got a little bumpy in the thermals above five thousand feet, and when he realised his actual flying time between checkpoints was slower than that proscribed by his planning he had to do some quick thinking. As he soared over the blue patchwork of lakes to his right, some rapid calculations on his flight computer indicated to him that his ground speed was slower than his theoretical. He checked, and when he discovered he would still have more than enough fuel to get him through the trip, he quit worrying.  

His approach to Westland was steady, and when he heard the comforting chirp of the tyres as they hit the runway he felt all the tension seep out of him. Only now did he realise that there was a line of fire running all the way from neck to shoulders, and that his head felt like a lump of wood perched on top. As he wandered into Intrepid’s office to drop off his paperwork he hoped that this wasn’t going to happen every time he soloed cross-country, or he wouldn’t make much of a pilot.

 

***

 

Mitch had been fortunate to get onto a summer internship at Yale and had been working out in New Haven since mid-May; however, Alicia wanted him to return to Midvale for a family celebration for the fourth of July. Ted Wardynski was on leave for the holiday, and Alicia wouldn’t hear of him spending the holiday alone without any family, since Johnny was still in Wisconsin.  

Mitch arrived the day before Independence Day, and it wasn’t long before he and Rick were at it like a couple of coyotes.

“Guess I’ll have to find another nickname for you, short-stuff,” Mitch said slyly.

“Yeah, lookin’ you in the eye, hot-shot,” Rick said with a smirk.

“Hot-shot?”

“Maybe you prefer ambulance chaser instead?”

Mitch rolled his eyes, “Is that the best you can do?”

“If the shoe fits…”

“Speaking of which, how about you started acting your age, rather than the proverbial footwear?”

“Is that the best you can do? I’d thought that with all the money mom and dad were forking out on your fees and spending day and night with your head stuck in a book you’d come up with something better than a tired old cliché.”

“Oh, you can’t let it go, can you?”

“What?” Rick said in an innocent voice.

Mitch shook his head. “Listen short-stuff, I might spend most of my waking hours in the law library, but I bet I can still knock you into next week.”

“Oh, yeah, let’s see you try, I didn’t get the muscles on these arms from yakking.”

“You could have fooled me; you’d talk the hind legs off a mule,”

Rick wagged a finger. “More clichés… not doing so good…”

Several more insults were exchanged, followed by an inevitable skirmish in which Mitch, to his surprise, ended up being pinned to the floor with his younger brother sitting astride his chest.

“Call ‘uncle’,” Rick insisted.

“No way, short-stuff…” Mitch wheezed, but equally intransigent.

“Okay, you can stay here all afternoon…”

“I thought we’d got over this by middle school,” Alicia said with a weary tone of resignation, as she popped her head in to see what all the noise was.

“Boys will be boys,” Jack hollered back from the study.

“Oh, thank you for your support,” she fired back. She threw her hands up in resignation before heading back to the kitchen to finish preparing lunch.

Ted Wardynski arrived shortly after the skirmish ended and Alicia ordered everyone to the table so everything wouldn’t get cold.  After the food was eaten and the washing-up sorted, they all slouched on armchairs to watch the big football game on TV. Ten minutes into the action, however, Ted’s cell-phone beeped. His face grew grim as he listened to the caller, and the others looked on with curious and troubled glances. Ted flipped his phone off, and got up from the chair.

“Sorry, folks, that was a call from the station, there’s been some trouble at the pharmacy on Jefferson, it seems someone has thrown a few Molotovs at the building. I’ve got to get over there right away.”

Rick felt his blood run cold. “Jefferson – that’s Vicky’s dad’s place.”

Ted nodded soberly.

Alicia gasped.  “Is Mr Lee all right?” she demanded.  

“I don’t know,” Ted replied. “But I’ll let you know, when I can.”

He left hurriedly, and a distinct feeling of disquiet settled in his place. Rick voiced his thoughts aloud on whether he ought to call Vicky in New York.

“Better not, son,” Jack said. “You don’t know what’s happened and it might make things worse. Ted will sort things out, I’m sure.”

 

Ted finally returned to the house and told them what had happened. Fortunately, Vicky’s father had been in the back-room of the pharmacy filling out prescriptions, as usual working the holiday, and thankfully the door to the main store had been closed.  However, Mr Lee had suffered smoke inhalation, and had been taken into the hospital for treatment and observation.

It could have turned out so much worse.

“Does Vic know?” Rick asked with a tight look on his face as Ted recounted his news.   

“Yeah,” the policeman replied. “I called her and she’s going to get on the first plane out tomorrow with her Aunt Grace.”

“Any idea what exactly happened?” Jack said. They were all still in shock at the incident. This sort of thing happened to other people, in the centre of the big cities, not in quiet, boring Midvale.

“Not yet,” Ted replied. “But we suspect it’s politically motivated. We found fresh graffiti daubed on the tarmac of the parking lot, and it wasn’t pretty.”

“Imbeciles.”  Jack almost spat the word out. Rick had never seen him so angry. “What did Hwan Lee do to anyone in this town apart from be a good businessman and pay his taxes? These people have a screw loose somewhere.”

“Vicky once told me the police didn’t want to do anything about it,” Rick said. “They didn’t seem to care.”

Ted gave him a probing look. “Well, I care and I’m going to make sure we find the small-minded morons who did this. This is racial hatred in my book, and it’s got to stop here.”

 

***

 

Rick was glad of Vicky’s presence back in Midvale, even if it was due to such unhappy circumstances. Despite their best efforts, however, they failed to actually meet up in person, with him working and she having to go to the hospital every day, and help her Aunt Grace in the house.  Even the first weekend was out, since he’d already arranged another seventy mile cross-country solo in order to bring his flight hours up to the pre-requisites.

The following weekend however, things settled down. Her father had returned home to recuperate, and Aunt Grace seemed to have things in order. Rick called at home for her on the Sunday morning.   He’d planned a picnic at the River Rouge recreation area a few miles from Midvale, and Alicia had made up a hamper of food for the two of them.

Vicky answered the door and when he saw how pale and tired she looked, he felt guilty at his own selfishness. But her eyes lit up on seeing him, and if their embrace was a little awkward, he put it down the hovering figure who had appeared in the hallway to see who the visitor was.

“Aunt Grace, this is Rick, the friend I’ve been telling you about.”

“Hello Ma’am,” he said in greeting.

Aunt Grace was diminutive but formidable, and her scrutinising gaze made him feel uncomfortable. No wonder Vicky toed the line when she was back east, he thought. This woman would scare crabs out of their shells.

Mr Lee was sitting quietly in an armchair in their sitting-room, and his fragility was a shock to Rick. He had never been a heavy-set man at the best of times, but now his spirit seemed as shrunken as his frame.

Rick chatted for a while, as courtesy dictated, and handed over the gifts of home-made pastries and cakes from his mom, and assurances that they would visit as soon as he felt able to entertain visitors. Mr Lee smiled with genuine pleasure, and this neighbourly spirit of generosity obviously sat well with Aunt Grace, as her disposition towards him improved markedly.

Still, he was relieved when they finally left the house, and he and Vicky could be alone to chat.

 “Boy, she’s a dragon in a skirt,” he said, as they drove off. Then realising how rude that sounded, he reddened. “Sorry, Vic, I didn’t mean …”

She laughed. “No, you’re right, she really is a dragon. But sometimes that’s what you need at times. She sorted everything out with the hospital, and organising stuff for him coming home. I couldn’t have coped.”

“Yeah. I’ll bet. It must be so hard for you to see him this way.”

“Yes, it is…” her voice trailed away, and he realised his mistake.

“Vic, I’m sorry, it was dumb of me to ask you out when you want to be with your dad, I was just being selfish, I just wanted to see you so much. We can go back if you want.”

“No, don’t do that. Let’s do what we planned.  I – think it would be good for me to have a break.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, Rick, I’m sure.”

 

They found a quiet grassy spot in the park, in the shade of an arbour of yellow birch trees and a view of the river. His mom had filled the hamper with all sorts of goodies, although Vicky’s appetite seemed to have deserted her and she only nibbled half at one of his mom’s delicious pasties.

The sun hiked across the sky and the shadows moved and lengthened as they sat watching the folks walking their dogs and the kids playing Frisbee. They didn’t talk much, and there was a strained quality to their chat, as if neither one wanted to discuss things that really mattered to both of them and preferred to dwell on the inconsequential instead.

After another particularly long lull, Vicky gave a little sigh, and drew her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them, staring out towards the snake-bend of the Rouge river. 

“I’m sorry I’m not very good company,” she said finally.

“Hey -”

“It’s just – this horrible thing that’s happened. It’s really shaken Dad, the graffiti we could handle, but Rick – he might have died in there. I just can’t bear the thought I could have lost both my parents.”

He put an arm around her shoulders, in place of the comforting words he couldn’t express. She turned to look at him, and her gaze was direct.

“I’m surprised you even want to be seen talking to me. It’s got so bad. In this climate, you’re asking for trouble.”

“Don’t even say that, Vic, it isn’t even funny. You know I would never do anything that low, ever.”

She patted his cheek gently, and her fingers were cool against his skin.

“No, you never would. You’ve stood up for me from the start. Always my knight in shining armour.”

He felt his cheeks warm. “Hardly.”

“It’s true.” She smiled at him, luminescent, and for a second, his heart bumped. Vicky wasn’t beautiful in the way that either Emma or Stella were, but she had glossy black hair, and a pretty smile without the brace, and there was something about her, if you cared to really look.  And he was looking right now – in fact - how come he’d never noticed how dark and liquid her eyes were before?

Something fluttered in his chest like wings and he found he was holding his breath and his mouth had all dried up.

“Rick, are you okay?” She was looking at him with a mixture of curiosity and concern.

He didn’t answer right away, wasn’t thinking straight, a combination of tenderness and lust had taken over his rational mind. Before he could stop himself, he leant in, gaze fixed on her lips.

She pulled her head back, and it was automatic, not in disgust, but total surprise, and she stared at him for a few, blank, uncomfortable seconds while his mind chased its own tail, trying to figure out how to cover up his monumental blunder. He opened his mouth, and nothing came, and he shut it again while he wished he could rewind time.

Seconds.

That was all it took to screw up a friendship. Now she would hate him for being a sex-crazed jerk.

Only then did he realise he still had his arm around her, and he dropped it, as if he was holding burnt coals.

“You hate me,” he said.

She made an exasperated clucking sound. “Don’t be stupid.”

“I don’t know what made me do that – I thought –“

She put a finger over his lips, silencing him. “I don’t hate you, let’s get that straight. And I do love you, but as a friend. I just don’t think we should get involved, in that way, it complicates things…”

“You got that right.”

“Anyway, what would be the point? I practically live out in New York now, at the moment, and after what’s happened here, Aunt Grace is trying to persuade Dad to shut up shop, and come back to the family. She says things are more tolerant out East.”

“You’re leaving Midvale – for good?” He felt his stomach sink.

“I’m not sure, but it’s possible.”

“And you want to?”

“Sometimes you don’t have a choice, Rick.”

 

***

 

She’d forgiven him, but he wasn’t so lenient with himself, and found himself avoiding her for a while. He couldn’t even rationalise why he’d tried to kiss her in the park, and a tiny, stupid selfish part of him was irked by her refusal. Was he that repulsive? 

He threw himself into flying again, his one bulwark in the confusion of his teenage angst. In the sky, there was no uncertainty, he knew what was expected of him, and he could answer with confidence.  Max approved, that was all he needed right now.

More cross-wind landings, in soft fields, a couple more night flights, another cross-country solo, his skills in handling became more competent with each sojourn in the air. With every flight he was edging ever closer to the day of reckoning, the check ride with the examiner.

Johnny finally returned from Wisconsin, and the two teenagers spent a day and evening catching up on one another’s news. Johnny’s hair was shaggier than usual, and he looked like he hadn’t washed it for weeks, indication of a complete lack of Stella-influence. Rick was no saint when it came to personal hygiene, but even he was beginning to draw the line at Johnny’s rather less than fragrant aroma. His best buddy was definitely moping, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Still, it was worth it to be able to break wind and spit cherry pips without being shouted at. Stella was returning from Greece in a few days time, so Johnny’s days as a free man were numbered.

 

***

 

It seemed as if it had taken a lifetime, but Rick was finally within reach of his long-sought after goal – his flying certificate. Only a couple of hurdles – apart from the final check-ride itself - stood in his way, his theory exams. They were another convenient excuse to put off seeing Vicky too, although he felt a complete asshole when he did for the third time, two weeks before she was due to return to New York for her new term-class.   

 As usual, the very idea of sitting down in a walled room with a set of exam questions brought him out in a cold sweat, and he’d been putting it off for longer than he ought to.

“There’s no earthly reason why you should be worried about it, kid,” Max had tried to reassure him. “I know you know most of this stuff, otherwise I wouldn’t be allowing you up there solo in the first place.”

 “I guess.   I know I can answer anything you throw at me, so why does my brain go into meltdown when I’m sitting at a desk in a room faced with a flimsy with fifty multiple choice questions?”

“Just forget about the fact it’s an exam, just imagine I’m asking you the questions, ok? You’ll be fine.”

Rick grimaced. The end of summer vacation was looming, He knew he’d been putting it off as long as possible, but if he wanted to get his licence, he couldn’t delay things any further.  There wasn’t an approved FAA test centre at Westland, so he had to fly across to Ann Arbor, and he was so nervous he almost missed the exit off the runway to the parking area. He was put in a room with two other student pilots, two guys, one in his forties, and the other a few years older than him. When the examiner placed the flimsy on Air Law and ATC procedures on the desk in front of him, he imagined Max’s voice in his head, confident, insistent.

He scanned the list first, mentally checking off the ones he was sure of. Before long, he was gaining confidence and ticking in boxes with certainty. Principles of Flight, no problem. Meteorology – he’d bored the other guys senseless on the subject, like some cloud guru. Flight planning – well he could do that in his sleep, and often did. Before he knew it, he was immersed in the questions, barely raising his dark head from the desk as he ticked boxes furiously. The time actually whizzed by, and when the examiner called ‘time’, he sat back, feeling a rush of satisfaction.

 

***

 

On August fifteenth it came down to this - his final check ride.

It was scheduled for nine-thirty am on the Wednesday at Westland, and he arrived and hour and a half early so he could run things past Max and get all his paperwork together, including all his weather reports for the cross-country portion of the flight.  The day was hot and humid, and expected to get more so, and when he delved into the weather reports he began to feel nervous that he might not actually get into the plane today, there was an expectation of thunderstorm activity.

The designated examiner arrived ten minutes before they were due to start. She was a woman in her early thirties, which threw Rick a little, since he’d been expecting a man, but he made damn sure any surprise didn’t make its way onto his face, ruining his chances of passing his test. The woman launched straight into the oral portion of the check ride, and he was quizzed on general aircraft controls, airspace, right of way rules, then she reviewed his proposed flight plans before checking his logbook to verify he had completed the requisite number of hours flying time.

He fretted, during her questioning, as he could see from the conference room that the skies above were darkening with the tell-tale signs of inclement weather. When they had finished talking, the weather had worsened, and although he got the Cessna checked and ready to go, they had to abandon the flight and reschedule for the following day. Although disappointed that he wouldn’t be driving home with his licence, he was also relieved, since the oral had used up a lot of mental and physical energy. Better to fly next day when he was rested.

However, the weather was jinxed, and they couldn’t go up the next day, or the one after that. Rick chewed his nails as the end of the summer holidays loomed closer. The examiner seemed to take pity on him and she told him that although the weather was unsettled and storms were predicted for the afternoon, she was going to try to make sure he had a chance to fly for his certificate.

Rick might have balked at flying under such conditions, but he wasn’t about to tell her that, not when she was being so accommodating, so he arrived early at the airfield, and went right out to pre-flight.  Within the next hour his examiner had arrived and they were airborne on the first leg of the cross-country portion of the check-ride. Above, the skies were getting sombre, a bad omen, but he made a beautiful take-off in the slightly blustery cross-wind. However, ahead he could see an almost indigo sky filled with bruise-coloured cumulonimbus billowing upwards from the storm front. He kept the pattern, even as the rain began to lightly hit the windshield, but it was obvious that they weren’t going to be doing anything useful that afternoon.  His examiner confirmed it, and with a faint sigh and heavy heart he turned slowly around to make his return approach to the runaway. He made a good landing, and the examiner smiled at his obvious annoyance at being thwarted once again. They ended up joking about the challenges, and before she got out the plane she told him they would get this done if it meant doing it one manoeuvre at a time.

Finally, the hot stormy weather cleared and calm skies were predicted for the next few days.

This was it.

He almost felt as if he knew the examiner well now, and his nerves had settled down compared to the first abandoned outing. The next few hours literally ‘flew’ by as he automatically executed all the elements. The cross-country portion went well, as did his soft-field landing. Slow flight, power on stalls, steep turns, emergency procedures, turns about a point. He didn’t even blow his final no-flaps landing.

As he taxied back towards the terminal building, he barely heard the examiner talking, he was so full of adrenaline.

“Let’s head to parking,” she was saying, “and if you don’t mess up in the process, I think you’ll be pretty pleased with the outcome.”

She went inside to sort out the paperwork while Rick put away the plane, and only then it began to sink in that she was about to pass him, and he was going to be a licensed private pilot. After nearly thirteen months and over nine thousand dollars in cash, his hard work and dedication had finally earned him his dream of flight. 

 The rush of exhilaration stayed with him all the way home, and it was only when he turned into his street that he became aware that he’d registered not a single moment of his journey from Westland airfield to his house.

Shaking his head, he brought the Futura to a full stop half-way down the drive, and remained there for a few moments with the engine off, his hands planted on the steering wheel and his gaze absently tracking the walls of the house as he contemplated his achievement with a strange sense of anti-climax. He’d achieved his burning ambition so now what?  He knew there was no way on earth he could possibly afford to buy a plane right now, even a second hand two-seater was way beyond his current means.

He’d been so preoccupied it was only now that he realised there were several cars parked outside the house. Johnny’s truck, Corbin’s Aero. With a mixture of anticipation and dread, he got out of the Futura and slammed the door shut, then strode the few yards to the house.

The noise hit him as he entered the kitchen.

“SURPRISE!!!”

Blinking, he barely registered his friends crowding around him, showering him with congratulations. There was a large home-made banner hung from the ceiling: ‘CONGRATULATIONS – NOW OFFICIOUSLY A FLYBOY’, which he knew Johnny must have had a hand in making. His spelling was even worse than his own.

“How on earth…?” he began, shaking his head in bemusement.

Jack pumped his hand and slapped him on the back. “We called Max and he told us the good news. Your mom’s had this planned for days.”

“But what if I’d failed my test?”

“Heck, we would have done it anyway, you’ve worked so damned hard for this. We’re proud of you, son.”

Rick felt a hard lump in his throat. A few feet away, Alicia was lifting a knife to cut a cake – in the shape of a little Cessna. It even had the propeller stuck on – in black icing. He shook his head in bemusement and went up to hug her despite his friends all watching.  

“You are wonderful, mom, you know that?”  he murmured.

“So are you.”

Rick looked around the kitchen. Somehow, in all the excitement, he’d missed her, standing quietly at the edge of the room. He swallowed, and picked up a plate with some cake.

“Thanks for coming, Vic.” He offered her the plate. “I’m sorry I’ve not been around so close to you leaving, but you know I’ve only ever dreamed of this day.”

She nodded, and if there was a touch of wariness in her eyes, the fact she was here to wish him well, meant a lot to him. She was heading back to the east coast tomorrow and he figured that maybe a little distance would be good for both of them.

 

  

September 2051

 

Labor Day heralded the end of summer and Rick, Corbin, Aaron, Johnny and Stella commiserated by spending the day at the new amusement park on the shores of Lake Huron, hoarding the last few precious hours before the return to Midvale and the start of their junior year.

Rick and Johnny took the majority of the same classes, mainly because they wanted to stick together. World Government and Politics and English Language were mandatory, and they loved the practical, messy side of science so they both took chemistry, if only to make stink bombs in their lab sessions. Johnny was hopeless at math, but Rick found the subject less formidable, mainly because it cropped up in a lot of his flying theory, so he opted to take algebra, trigonometry and calculus in order to make up his credits and avoid having to study a foreign language.

The first major event of the school year was the football game on the second Saturday of October. This Fall the game was touted as being especially tense, since the Midvale Pioneers were running neck and neck with the Edsel Ford Thunderbirds, their bitter rivals. It seemed like the entire student body, plus parents and staff of the two schools, had turned out to pack the stands and the bleachers to cheer on their respective teams.

Rick wasn’t a big football fan, he’d watch the Lions when they got close to making a Superbowl, but that was the extent of his interest. Jack, on the other hand loved the sport, and had found a soul-mate in Ted Wardynski. The two of them were whooping and cheering, while Johnny and Rick rolled their eyes, and paid more attention to the cheerleading section, who were keeping the audience entertained with their high-kicking routines to the backing of the school’s marching band. It was just about worth standing around, freezing his butt, for the chance to ogle the girls bending and stretching like a bunch of elastic Barbies, trying as much to outdo one another as the opposing team.  

Rick stamped his feet on the ground and blew into his hands against the chill, his eyes straying to one particular dancing girl in particular. If he was honest, not seeing Emma Bishop for a whole seven weeks had sort of dimmed his feelings and at times, when he’d thought of her, he’d thought it faintly ludicrous that he’d actually been determined to get his licence in order to impress her.

Now though, he felt that same old damn fascination return – watching her lithe body twisting and turning, her smile dazzling as she played to the home crowd like a seasoned trouper, and he hated the feeling.  

The marching band sounded a loud fanfare, the pom-poms waved as the girls’ routine came to a crescendo, and everyone whistled and cheered as the two teams ran onto the field for the start of the game. Jake Sanders was playing quarterback, and Jack Fraser yelled out his support along with all the other Midvale football-fanatic fathers, much to Rick and Johnny’s disgust.

The game was bad-tempered and very close-played, with a lot of time-outs, but in the end the Pioneers snatched the game with a last minute touchdown. The Midvale support went wild, and Jack Fraser and Ted Wardynski grabbed one another, hugging and yelling like a couple of kindergartners.  

Rick pretended not to care as he watched Jake Sanders and Emma Bishop embrace, before the former was pulled away by his gleeful team-mates and lifted on their shoulders, chaired off to the sound of ringing cheers and applause from the sidelines.

“He’s a jerk,” Johnny said, nudging Rick, knowingly.

“Yeah, a popular jerk.”

 

***

 

Halloween came around again, but there would be no tricks played on old Mrs Cass this year. The old witch had ridden her broomstick off for the last time just a few days before the celebration. His mom had to drag him along to the short service in the Lutheran church three blocks away, out of a sense of neighbourly respect. He figured his mom would probably be the sort to offer supper to a burglar if he came to rob them.

 

 

November 2051

 

The annual Winter-Fest Dance at Midvale was traditionally the juniors’ equivalent of the senior prom, and for several weeks prior to the event, there was an undercurrent of excitement and apprehension. The dance was formal, and everyone was expected to come with a partner for the evening. Those with current boyfriends or girlfriends did not, naturally, have to worry unduly, however, in the complicated rituals of high school popularity contests there was always the possibility of a steady date being ditched in order to attend such an important ceremony with a more impressive partner, at least in the eyes of the student body.

Most of Rick’s close circle of friends already had partners, even quiet Aaron, who’d plucked up the courage to ask brainy Jodie Somerfield. Corbin was going with Clarice Stephens, a dusky six-footer who played for the girl’s basketball team. The two had become pretty inseparable from the start of junior year, and it looked to Rick as if most of his close friends were getting caught up in the whole romance thing. It didn’t help matters that Johnny continually bent his ear about Stella every chance he got. Like the majority of the female students, she was totally strung out about the impending event.

 “I think she’s tried on every dress in the entire Great Lakes Mall and she still says she can’t find something she likes,” Johnny moaned at lunch one day. “Now her mom’s got in the act and they’re going to head up to some fancy store in Bloomfield Hills. Thank God we just have to wear a tux.”

That’s bad enough,” Rick said, with a grimace. He’d only worn a tie once, borrowed from his dad and worn in protest for his grandmother’s funeral. His idea of formal was black jeans and an ironed white tee-shirt. “Have you seen some of those penguin suits? Not to mention the shirts you have to wear with them? I saw some in one store that had frills down the front, for crying out loud.”

“Yeah, I know,” Johnny agreed gloomily. “My mom’s already got one picked out for me.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Do I look like I’m kidding?”

“Guess not.” He smirked.

“You won’t be laughing when your mom gets on your case, Flyboy.”

Rick shook his head. “I’m not going.”

“You have to go, it’s tradition.”

“Stuff tradition.” 

“Who am I gonna jaw with at the punch-bowl? Not to mention when they all disappear into the rest-rooms to compare notes on whatever it is that they compare notes on at these things? You can’t do this to me buddy, I thought we were friends?”

“We are. But there are limits.”

“Like you haven’t got a date, you mean.”

“I couldn’t care less.”

“Come on, what’s the big deal? You could go ask any one of the girls in our year and they’d say yes. Haven’t you noticed the way Jane Marshall’s been giving you that little wave in class?”

         Rick grimaced. “Yeah, and there is no way I’m going to listen to that donkey laugh all evening.”

         “Okay.   Amanda Weaver, she’s okay-looking, and she’s always trying to sit next to you in math class.  And then there’s Jennifer McKenzie, she has that cute gap in her front teeth.”

         “Yeah, but have you seen the size of her feet?”

         “There’s no pleasing you, Flyboy.”

 

***

 

Rick considered his options and realised he didn’t have any if he wasn’t going to join the nerd-herd at the punch-table.  The whole thing was a pointless travesty. Maybe it was fine for his friends, who seemed all blissed out on puppy-love at the moment. Each one of them had their dream-dates, and would be happy to fork out the extortionate amount for a couple of hours to slaver over them on the dance-floor, money that he knew would be far better spent keeping his flying current.  

Alicia had mentioned the dance several times, asking him if he was planning on taking a girl, to which he’d usually mumble something incoherent and vanish from the supper table.

Rick knew the only person he was fooling was himself. He knew that if he’d had the guts, he would have no hesitation in dressing up like a window mannequin and rushing off to hire an expensive limo to squire the most beautiful girl in school to the dance. Like that was going to happen. Emma Bishop was besotted with the senior who had taken the Pioneers to their first ever win over the Thunderbirds, and he seemed pretty keen on her too. Being able to fly a plane couldn’t compete with that.

 

***

 

Two weeks before the Big Night, the whispers were floating around Midvale High.

“Emma and Jake have had a bust-up!”

“Someone saw Jake necking Holly Vance at Chico’s in the mall”

Rick dismissed it as gossip, but something was going on, for sure. Emma was pointedly missing from school both Monday and Tuesday, and Jake looked petulant sitting with the football team at their usual window table in the cafeteria on Tuesday lunchtime.

Holly Vance was the kind of girl that Rick’s mother labelled a ‘vamp’. She had long raven-black hair, and knowing green eyes, and at this moment in time, was being given the evil-eye by several of the Midvale Cuckoos, stares which she blithely ignored.  Instead, she made a big show of getting up from her seat and walking across to the seniors table, to sidle in and take a seat between Jake and another of his football cronies. She leaned over and whispered something in Jake’s ear that brought a faint blush to his face.  

“The girl has no shame,” Stella announced.  “To do something like that to Emma right before the dance!” She stabbed her chicken fillet and muttered a string of unintelligible Greek to illustrate her feelings. 

“She learnt some new swear words on vacation,” Johnny said brightly.

“You don’t say,” Rick replied, thinking that he might have taken Stella more seriously if she hadn’t tried to flirt with him a few months ago. “So it’d be okay to do it any other time then?”

“Don’t be silly, Rickee,” she said, and stuck her tongue out at him.

 “I knew Sanders wouldn’t be able to keep it in his pants after scoring that touchdown.” Johnny added, with a touch of spite. “Now’s your chance, Rick, go ask Emma to the dance.  Now that she’s on the boards, she’ll be willing to take any offer.”

Rick sent him a dagger look. “Gee, thanks for nothing, Wardynski, another crack like that and I’ll stick your smug mug in your ‘slaw.”

Emma returned to classes the following day looking glacially calm and flanked by the Cuckoos, who closed ranks around her in the yard and corridors, as if protecting her from harm. That afternoon, Rick snuck glances at her during their politics class.   She was sitting next to him in the adjacent row, staring ahead at Mr Torres, as if she didn’t have a care in the world.

But Rick wasn’t fooled.   It was being blogged and talked and whispered about – her downfall as the one-time half of the Golden Couple of Midvale. The latest rumour was that Holly Vance had been putting out for Jake when Emma had refused.  Whatever the truth was – and Rick was never one to take rumours at face value – one thing seemed certain. Holly was taking Emma’s place as Jake’s date to the dance.

His latest scrutiny was overlong, and she sensed it, her head turned, slightly, just enough that it wasn’t obvious. Their gazes locked, and he gave her his best smile, no teeth, just lips, putting all the warmth and feeling that he could into it.  A smile that conveyed: “I know you’re hurting and I want to help, if you’ll let me.”

For a second, surprise etched her face, and then her lips quavered, formed themselves into a tremulous smile. He looked away, his heart thumping in his chest, so loud he was sure the whole darn class could hear it. Emma Bishop had given him an honest-to-goodness genuine smile for the first time since he’d clapped eyes on her.

Damn.

 

The message was waiting for him when he checked his cell-phone in his locker after lunch. He ran a hand through his hair and his heart skipped several beats as he feigned nonchalance when several of his classmates passed by. An hour later his cynical mind turned to thinking that the message might be an exercise in chain yanking.

He spent most of the science-lab experiment trying to figure out if the expression on Johnny’s face was a clue that he’d been pranked by his best friend. But there was nothing to suggest it. After lab, he sat impatiently and unable to concentrate through algebra and world history before, thankfully, the bell rang for the end of the school day. If Johnny was indeed the culprit, his face showed not a shred of guile or satisfaction when Rick announced that he was staying behind to discuss his science project with Mr Bernstein. 

“Sure, see you later, Flyboy.”

 

The auditorium was in semi-darkness when he slipped in, save for a small area on the stage highlighted by the spotlights. This was a place he’d barely visited. Not for him the orchestral recitals or the fall plays and spring musicals beloved and enjoyed by many parents, and since Mitch hadn’t been that way inclined either during his time at Midvale, his mother had long resigned herself to face the fact she would never set foot in the place in her life.

It was no prank. The message had been for real. She sat, straight in the front row, her unmistakable blonde hair glinting in the low light, and, as he picked up his pace, all sorts of thoughts whirled around his brain. She must have heard his footsteps on the aisle floor because she turned her head, and then stood up, but waited for him to reach her, lifting her chin in that unconscious way that he was sure she wasn’t even aware of, like a queen waiting for her lowly subject to approach.

“Thanks for coming, Rick.” Her tone was businesslike.

“Sure, anytime. What’s on your mind?” He gave her the smile, but this time, she didn’t return it, just fiddled with the cat-brooch on her sweater as the seconds ticked out uncomfortably.

His brain worked overtime in the lull. He was thinking maybe he should say that he was sorry that she and Jake had broken up, except he wasn’t, and then maybe she’d feel patronised in any case. So why the hell couldn’t he say the one thing he really wanted to say? Why did asking her if she wanted to go to the dance with him hold the kind of dread that had never gripped him when he had faced an enemy terrorist, or sat alone at the controls of an aircraft for the first time?

Well, it was simple. She might laugh in his face and he hated feeling foolish.

So he waited.

“You’ve heard the rumours, I imagine?” she said at last.

He shrugged. “I’m not much for gossip, but yeah, I’ve heard things.”

“No one does that to me and gets away with it. I’ll show Jake Sanders I’m not willing to take this lying down.”

“Is that why you texted me? So I could help you get even with your boyfriend?”

“Remember those mysterious students, the Dynamic Duo, the ones that used to play those stupid pranks in ninth grade?”

He blinked. “Yeah….what about them?”

“I’d like you contact them, see if they would be willing to create a little surprise for the night of the dance that he and that bitch Holly won’t forget in a hurry.”

An idea immediately sprang to mind, involving a large bucket of red gloop and ropes, and just thinking about how that practical joke would wipe the smirk off Mr Popular’s face made the corners of his mouth twitch. But almost immediately alarm bells went off in his head.

Why would Emma think he knew the Dynamic Duo? Did she suspect he was involved? He wouldn’t have given her credit for being that astute, but maybe he’d got a lot of things wrong. Like thinking she’d texted him so she could ask him to go to the dance with him. How completely dumb was that?

But then he began thinking that it was even dumber not to grab this chance he was being given. How often did he get Emma Bishop on her own, talking just to him, without her entourage? Okay she wanted something from him, but just maybe he could turn this around to his own advantage.

“Well, what do you say?” she tapped her foot on the floor. Once, twice.

“Okay, I’ll ask around, see what I can do.”

She flashed him a stunning smile that made his knees go weak. “Thanks, Rick, I appreciate your help, I really do.”

Go for it.

“I can help some more.” He blurted it out before he had time to change his mind. 

“Excuse me?”

“You haven’t got a partner for the dance, have you?”

Her eyes narrowed. “You surely don’t expect me to go after what’s just happened – are you insane?”

“Maybe, and then again, maybe not. Why give Jake, or anyone else, the satisfaction of knowing he’s hurt you?”

“I’m not hurting, I’m angry, and anyway, how could I possibly go now? It’s way too late, everyone’s paired up – or if they aren’t, I wouldn’t even consider going with….”

“What about me? I’d like to take you to the dance, Emma.”

There. He’d said it, and not in a dumb way either – he was confident and firm, as if he had every right to ask her out, and she wouldn’t regret going with him.

“You?”

“Why not? I clean up pretty well, when I want to; I promise I wouldn’t disgrace you. What better way to stick the finger up at Jake?  So he’s taking Holly - so what? - you can show him, and her, that you couldn’t care less. Anyway, what’s the point of getting a prank played on them if you don’t have the satisfaction of seeing it play out first hand?”

 “You do have a point, I never really thought about that. That’s pretty clever.”

He grinned. “I do my best.”

She cocked her head, pursed her lips, sizing him up.

 “You know, you’re not actually bad looking, Rick. Not bad at all. Get you in a nice tux, comb that mop of hair, you might actually give Jake a run for his money…funny, I never really saw that before.”

Her last sentence was practically an inaudible afterthought, but his ears didn’t miss it – or the implications. He felt a rush of adrenaline. Was he really going to pull this off?

“So, what do you say?” he asked.

She didn’t reply for a few seconds, and his heart beat double time in the lull.

“Let me think about it, all right?”  She twirled a strand of her hair around one perfectly manicured finger. “I’ll text you tomorrow with my answer.”

“Sure, ok.”

         So it wasn’t a yes, but it wasn’t a blank refusal either. He felt buoyed up with hope.

 

***

 

Alicia couldn’t stop fussing, and Rick was beginning to regret ever telling her. His euphoria following Emma’s acceptance of his offer to escort her to the dance was short-lived, when she subsequently informed him that he was expected to come to dinner at her parent’s house on the Friday before the event.

The idea terrified him. He had no idea what to wear, but had the nagging suspicion that the wrong clothes would reflect badly upon him in both Emma and her parents’ eyes. Only after he had tried on and discarded every item of clothing in his closet did he admit defeat and ask his mother for help.

“Well, you’re right about one thing,” she said, after she scolded him for keeping the news a secret. “You don’t have anything suitable to wear.”

 “I was hoping I could borrow Dad’s sports jacket.”

“It’s way too old for you.”

“Hey, I resent that,” Jack piped up from a score of blueprints splayed all over the kitchen table.

Rick sniggered. 

“You may laugh, young man,” Alicia continued, “But this is serious. I’m not having you go on such an important first date looking like a scarecrow.”

“It’s not a date exactly; I’m just going for dinner.”

“Are you kidding me? It isn’t every day you get invited to dinner in the smart part of Midvale. I’ve catered for some of those people; you could hold conventions in what they call a sitting room. We’re going out tonight to the mall and find you some decent clothes.”

“But I’ll already be paying a fortune to hire a tux, how am I going to afford spending money on more stuff?”

“If we find something you like, I’ll buy it as an advance Christmas present if you like.”

Rick brightened. “Okay, sure, that would be great. But are you sure you really want to come?”

“Of course I do, we hardly ever spend time with one another these days, and that’s as much my fault as anyone’s, Goodness, if I don’t watch out, before I know it, you’ll be all grown up and leaving me to get married.”

“Aww, Mom, lay off, willlya?”

“Yeah, Alicia, you’re scaring the kid. It’s a prom, not a lifetime commitment.”

She laughed, clearly enjoying herself. “Let’s get your tux at the same time. If we don’t do it now you’ll never get one, do you realise how many school dances there are going on right now?”

Rick protested, but it didn’t do him any good. Once his mom put her mind to things, there was no stopping her. However, when he tried on a cream button collar shirt and a dark sports jacket, he had to admit that he cleaned up far better than even he’d realised.

 

***

 

As bad luck would have it, it snowed the following Wednesday morning, and by five pm there was a good six inches on the streets and sidewalks.

“Better take the truck, Rick, it’s got four-wheel drive,” Jack suggested. “Or I’ll drive you across, I’m free tonight, the big game doesn’t start until seven.”

“I’ll take the truck, thanks, Dad, but I’ll drive.”

“If you’re sure?”

Rick nodded, preferring to have his own wheels for some unknown reason. Emma had texted him not to have something beforehand as they would

Be having three courses – three courses – for dinner. He thought you only had that sort of thing in a fancy restaurant – but hunger pangs made him bolt down a tuna sandwich, and then he realised what he’d done, and flossed and brushed until his gums and tongue were raw, avoiding fish-breath. Not that he was expecting to be kissing Emma, but it was always good to be prepared, after all, who knew what might come of the evening?

He showered and dressed in his new threads, giving himself a final review in the mirror. The collar was exactly the right size, but for some reason it felt tight, as if it was strangling him.

“You look great, hon, all grown up at last,” Alicia said, and her eyes looked misty as she contemplated him. “Don’t be late now, and make sure to drive carefully.”

He rolled his eyes. “Sure.”

 

It wasn’t the first time Rick had ventured into the wealthy enclaves of Midvale, after all, Stella’s folks had a house in the area. But the Bishop’s white stucco mansion just oozed money and ostentation in way that theirs didn’t, from the wrought-iron gates surrounding the property to the marble statuary dotted around the landscaped front lawns, covered now in a blanket of sparkling soft snow.  He leaned out and pressed the button on the panel to the right of the entrance gate and in a few seconds there was a low buzz and the gates started to swing open.

Rick entered and swung the truck into the driveway, staring. His mouth was suddenly dry and he hoped his deodorant would stand up to the job for this evening. He put the truck into park, killed the engine, and picked up the hand-tied bouquet of flowers and the box of chocolates that were lying on the passenger seat. He’d spent what seemed to be a small fortune on the items, and fervently hoped that they would be deemed appropriate by his hosts.

         The path was cleared of snow to the elaborate portico doorway, and he pressed the large buzzer, then waited, tugging his collar and licking his lips nervously. After what seemed an age, the door opened to reveal Emma Bishop. He swallowed - she looked like some ethereal angel in white, with her long wavy gold hair glowing in the light from the hallway.

Dazzled, he couldn’t think of anything to say, other than, “Hi, these are for you.” His nervousness made him thrust the box of chocolates into one of her manicured hands.

She gave them a cursory glance. “Thanks. Come in, we’re all in the sitting room.”

         He followed her inside, somewhat deflated by her dismissive response to her gift, and found himself in an enormous circular hallway, with rooms radiating off. Large gilt-framed paintings were placed within a series of alcoves, lights above them picking out detail, making him feel he’d wandered into an art museum by mistake. His eyes were drawn to one painting of a semi-nude young woman, lying enticingly on a couch, one arm outstretched coquettishly. She looked remarkably like Emma.

         He blinked as he realised she was talking to him. 

 “Well, are you coming?”

         He nodded, trying to stop the sudden flush to his face, but his embarrassment was swiftly replaced by apprehension as he followed Emma into an enormous room. His mom was right; you could hold a convention in here.

“Mom, Dad, this is Rick,” she announced.

A big-boned man, with hair turning to silver, got up from one tall-backed wing chair to scrutinize him. Light from the ceiling chandeliers flashed off the chunky watch on his wrist. Mrs Bishop - he recognised her instantly -did the same. She looked supremely elegant in a close-fitting black dress with a heavy pearl necklace.

As they approached, Rick felt a sudden flood of awe in the surroundings of this grand room, and of these patrician people who seemed to exist in another stratum.  He swallowed, unsure of taking another step on the cream, thick-pile carpet under his feet, and a ridiculous thought flashed through his mind that only rich folks were lucky or stupid enough to put down something so impractical.

“I’m John Bishop,” the tall man said brusquely, not offering a hand to shake, and there was a flinty expression in his grey eyes. With a sinking stomach, Rick instantly realised that he was here under sufferance. Whatever tale Emma had given her parents about her break-up with Jake Sanders, he was evidently not the substitution they would have wished for. 

“I’m Nancy.”  In contrast, to her husband, she held a hand for Rick to shake. Confused by the conflicting messages from the couple, Rick handed her the bouquet of flowers.

“For you, ma’am.”

“Why, thank you,” she replied, and Rick had no idea what to make of the speculative look in her eyes. He did feel a tickle of shame, however, as he mentally compared his mother’s customary look with that of the blonde-haired Mrs Bishop. Even done up in her all her finery, Alicia couldn’t look as effortlessly glamorous as this woman did. Up this close, she was probably the same age as his own mother, but with fewer lines on her face. Rick wondered if that was what having real money did for people.

At that moment, another youngish woman, dressed in a starched white blouse and black skirt to match her hair, entered the sitting room.

Mrs Bishop waved her across, “Juanita, please put these in some water for me.”

She nodded politely and took the bouquet in her arms. “Dinner will be ready in twenty minutes, Mrs Bishop.”

“Well, I’m having a drink first,” John Bishop rumbled, “It’s been a frigging hard day.”

“What will you have, Rick?” Nancy asked.

“A coke, please.”

“I’ll have a mineral water and ice, mom.”

“Do you want ice, Rick?” Nancy Bishop asked him. She had the same cat-like smile as her daughter.

“Yeah, thanks,” he mumbled.

Juanita disappeared and there was a sudden pregnant pause while Rick resisted the temptation to tug on his collar again. Thankfully, the young woman returned almost immediately with a large tray of drinks and Rick grasped his ice-cold coke, as he watched Nancy Bishop pick up the long flute, which was filled with something pale gold and sparkling, obviously not water. John Bishop took the heavy cut-glass tumbler filled halfway with whisky and almost drained it at once. He demanded another from Juanita, who was waiting patiently.

“So, Rick, do you have your clothes all sorted for the ball?” Nancy Bishop asked him. “If not, I know a wonderful boutique in Royal Oak that does fabulous evening-wear.”

“Oh, Mommy, Rick’s already hired something.”

“Really? Well, I’m sure it will be fine.”

Bishop turned his attention to Rick again; the grey eyes boring into him. “So, I hope you understand that I don’t just let anyone take my princess to the ball?”

 A smile died halfway, as Rick realised Bishop was being perfectly serious.

“Uh, no sir, I can understand that,” he said.

“So, tell me something about yourself.”

“Like what, sir?”

“For instance: what your parents do, how you’re getting on at school, what extra-curricular activates you follow, just the usual stuff. Emma hasn’t been terribly forthcoming with that information.”

Because Emma never bothered to ask.

He glanced her way, but she was preening in her chair, basking in her father’s adulation. Rick unconsciously jutted his chin out, refusing to be cowed, no matter how many expensive watches the guy had. He served up some details of his background, and he could tell that Bishop wasn’t overly impressed.

“So, what are you planning to do after you graduate?”

“Uh, sir, I haven’t honestly thought about it, my passion is flying, and I’m bent on joining the World Air Force when I graduate.”

“Rick already has his licence,” Emma interjected, in a smug voice, making Rick blink with surprise, since he’d never actually bragged about it to her directly. This went a long way to making up for her lack of enthusiasm with his gift.

“That’s very impressive,” Nancy replied, crossing her long legs on the damask couch. “Considering how…young you are.”

“It costs a lot of money to fly, how can your parents afford it?” Bishop said, and his insinuation brought a blush to Rick’s cheeks.

“I paid for it myself, every cent,” he said firmly. “I work weekends in a hardware store and I had a full-time all summer I did enough yard-work to pay for all the cockpit time I needed to get my certificate.”

“Well, hard work and determination count for something, certainly.”

Gee, that’s big of you, Rick thought.

Thankfully, further interrogation was put on pause by the sight of Juanita at the door calling them into dinner. She indicated a seat for Rick at the huge walnut dining table, and he panicked when he saw all the glassware and cutlery gleaming on the white-napped table. There were three sets of everything.

He sat, hands in lap, afraid to make a move, while Juanita brought in a tureen and ladled out a red lumpy soup into gold-rimmed porcelain bowls.  Rick hesitated, waiting until Emma had picked up the appropriate spoon, and only then followed suit. He took a mouthful of liquid, and then froze in surprise. It was stone cold. It took all his willpower not to spit it out.

“What’s the matter, Rick?” Nancy Bishop was looking at him quizzically. “Don’t you like it?”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I wasn’t expecting it to taste cold.”

Emma’s piercing laugh nearly made him drop his spoon. “It’s gazpacho, it’s meant to be served chilled. Don’t you know anything?”

Rick flushed.  

“There’s no need for that, darling,” Nancy Bishop piped up, and Emma cast her eyes downwards, giggling.

Soup was followed by some sort of fish pate, which Rick hadn’t realised was supposed to be spooned onto small pieces of strange looking toast provided, and he got his cutlery mixed up, precipitating more giggles from Emma and another admonishment from her mother.

Rick was astonished at the amount of alcohol being served up by Juanita to the adults: white wine with the soup, red with the pate and the main course. His folks rarely drank alcohol; maybe a beer or two for his dad at weekends and the odd bottle of wine on special occasions.

As the dinner proceeded, Rick hated every minute that he had to endure sitting at the table. He’d looked forward to this evening with a nameless trepidation, not knowing what to expect from this wealthy family, and now his dread took on real meaning, filling him with despondency at his lack of social skills and graces. Every move and word he uttered seemed to be subject to their intense scrutiny, Bishop Senior was no doubt looking for any excuse to refuse him the privilege of taking their daughter to the dance.

He began to wonder dismally why he’d ever thought that he could fit into this sort of world. Maybe he should have asked Jennifer or Amanda to the dance after all, like Johnny had sensibly suggested – and he most likely wouldn’t have been subjected to this ridiculous third degree by their parents.  But no, he had to go for the stars, because he couldn’t get rid of his stupid fixation, and, he had to admit, he just couldn’t resist putting Jake Sanders nose out of joint by the idea of going with his former girl-friend.

John Bishop was still droning on about money and banking and how the Democrats were ruining the economy, again.

“What colours do you nail to the mast, blue or red?” Bishop at last turned a piercing eye onto Rick.

“My dad always told me it’s better to stay away from politics or religion in polite company, sir,” Rick replied. 

That was met by a snort from Bishop, although his wife gave a tinkling laugh.

“Oh, John, the boy’s a born diplomat. And I’m sure he’s bored by all this talk. Frankly, I could care less. I’m much more interested in how you learnt to fly.”

 Rick shot her a grateful look, pleased to be asked an opinion on a subject he knew intimately.

“Wouldn’t it just be easier just to fly coach, not to mention cheaper?” Bishop said dryly, after listening to Rick wax lyrical about the joys of piloting.

“John, you haven’t got a romantic bone in your body, it sounds absolutely thrilling, not to mention very complicated.”

“Thank-you ma’am,” Rick replied. He was beginning to feel that Emma’s mother was on his side at least. It made him eager to return the compliment. “I appreciate the great meal, ma’am. We usually don’t have anything fancy like this every day for supper around our house.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she dismissed him with an airy wave of her hand.

Was it?

Or was this just a show to see if they could wrong-foot him, the kid from the other side of town who had the temerity to ask for a date with their princess? He mentally shook his head, knowing that trying to second guess these people made no sense. They played by their own rules, and he didn’t know what they were.

Thankfully, his ordeal was finally over, and Emma escorted him to the door at the end of the evening. Alone together, she announced, “That went well.”

“You think?” Rick tried and failed to keep the tone of sarcasm from his voice.

“Daddy can eat grown men for dinner, you held up pretty good.”

“I don’t think he likes me.”

“He’s not going to the dance with you, I am.”

He grinned. “So, you still want to go with me, even after my messing up with that soup thing, what did you call it – gaz something…”

Gazpacho. And yes, you can take me to the dance, as long as you can dance. You can dance, I hope.”

“Uh, yeah, sure I can.”

“Good.” She gave him a coy look and took a step closer.

 Rick felt his breath hitch, and wondered of he was reading the signals right. You couldn’t always tell with Emma. He sure as hell had a craving to kiss those soft cherry lips, slightly parted, so soft and inviting, tempting him…

“Now, you won’t forget to do that little thing I asked, will you?”

The spell was suddenly broken. “Huh, what thing?”

“Making sure Jake and Holly get what’s coming to them.” Her voice had lowered to a conspiratorial whisper.

He swallowed. Truth was, he’d completely forgotten about his promise. It took even more of the shine off the evening. But he’d do just about anything to take Emma to the dance, so he nodded.

Nancy Bishop appeared in the hallway. “Emma darling, you might want to say goodnight to your friend for now.”

“Sure, mommy, we were just discussing when and how Rick was going to pick me up.”

“Yeah,” Rick added, “we were talking about that.”

“Well, goodnight, Rick,” Mrs Bishop said. “We’ll see you on Friday night.”

“Thanks again for your hospitality, and the meal and everything.”

Nancy smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners.  “You are most welcome.”

Emma turned to Rick after the older woman had left. “I think Mom likes you.”

“Great.”

“I’ll maybe see you tomorrow at school, but don’t tell anyone about us going together, I want it to be a surprise on the night.”

“Sure, if you like.”

The door finally closed behind him and he walked to the truck, taking a last look at the enormous house, wondering what it would be like to live in a place like that. He could park a plane on the lawn – now how cool would that be?

 

If he was hoping to sneak upstairs without any fuss, he was mistaken. The moment he put the keys into the lock, Alicia materialised in the hallway and  dragged him into the sitting room, demanding to know how the evening went; what was the house like, what did he have to eat, what was Emma’s mom wearing, how many bathrooms did the house have, and did they have gold taps.

“Mom, enough already about the house, there’s something I gotta do, right now.

She lapsed into an injured silence.

“I didn’t go to the bathroom, I’m busting.”

She rolled her eyes, and looked at Jack, who was absorbed with some blueprints as Rick fled into the downstairs toilet.

“He gets a chance to stay in a mansion and he doesn’t check out the bathrooms, I ask you…”

“Yeah, ought to be a criminal offence,” Jack muttered.

She sighed. “Men!”

 

*** 

 

The black sports-car rolled along the driveway of the Bishop residence, its large tyres crunching on the snow under-wheel. Emma had agreed to go to the dance with him on one condition, namely that he drove her to the function in something decent.

“I’m not arriving at the dance in that rust bucket you call a car. Jake will no doubt be taking Holly Vance in his BMW, and I am not going to be upstaged by that bitch.”

Rick had sulked for a while, the Futura wasn’t exactly a rust bucket, but it had developed a battery problem in the cold weather, and all his tinkering hadn’t sorted the problem. He could just imagine Emma’s face if it conked out halfway to the school on the night. So he splurged out on hiring a Camaro for the evening, black and sexy, and definitely a babe magnet.   He had to confess that maybe it was worth the money he spent after all.

On the way there he tugged at the collar of his dress shirt, trying not to mess up the bow tie that his mom had carefully tied. Her eyes had gone all misty during the process.

“My baby’s going to his first prom with a girl, I’m so happy for you.”

“Mom, cut it out, you’re making me sweat.”

He had glanced in the mirror on the way out. God, what a palaver for one night, but if this was what it took to finally get a date with Emma then he was willing to endure it.

 

Rick couldn’t have imagined that it was possible for her to look any lovelier than she usually did, but he’d got that completely wrong. Tonight she looked simply stunning in a long shimmering silver-white dress, her sleek hair glowing like molten gold. Rick felt himself gape and hurriedly closed his mouth before she noticed. He handed her the corsage he had bought for her and this time, she nodded with a smile and took it graciously.

“Have a lovely time, darling,” Nancy Bishop said, kissing her on the cheek, and placing a fur wrap around her daughter’s shoulders. “Drive carefully,” she said to Rick.

“I promise, ma’am.”

“You do clean up good,” Emma noted, as he gallantly helped her into the passenger seat. The seat was low, and her dress was tight, so there was lots of ‘tutting’ until he’d got her settled in.

“You look fabulous,” he said. “I mean, you always look great, but tonight, wow, you look amazing.”

She gave him a genuine smile. “Thank-you, now let’s show Jake what he’s missing, shall we?”

The mention of his older rival took some of the shine of her earlier compliment, but he let her chatter on about the evening, and what the other girls might be wearing and so on, every now and then sneaking glances at her. Emma looked every inch a fairy-tale princess, and he felt a shiver run along his spine as he realised he was going with one of the prettiest and most popular girls in Midvale to the most important event of junior year.

“Don’t drive too fast, we’ll get there too soon,” she said.

Confused, his foot hit the brake sharply, earning a honk from the driver behind him.

“Huh, I don’t get it.”

“No, I imagine you wouldn’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Emma gave a theatrical sigh. “Rick, the point is to be noticed. If we arrive while everyone is milling around trying to get into the hall, no one is going to pay any attention to us, and I certainly did not spend a fortune on this dress so I could just blend in with the crowd.”

“You have to be kidding me?  I don’t know any guy that could fail to notice you in that dress. If you walked across the road you’d stop traffic dead.”

She gave him a coy look, and he felt his stomach turn to water.

“Well, you’re quite the flatterer, I’m impressed.”

“I meant it.”

“And I also meant what I said, tonight is very important to me. Now, can you please drive a little slower?”

Snow was falling lightly as they pulled into the school parking lot.  It was already full of empty cars, and Rick breathed out a sigh of relief when he saw Emma regard this with satisfaction. He opened the passenger door of the Camaro and helped her out.   With her spiky heels she almost lost her footing on the slippery surface.

“Here, take my arm,” he offered.

Much to his delight, she clung to him as they made their careful way across to car park to the main entrance. From within the school, he could hear music playing, something quiet and unobtrusive. The doors to the gym were wide open, and several of the teachers were there, waiting to take their tickets.

“Why, Richard,” Mrs Marchiniak said with evident surprise. “You’re looking very dashing tonight. I never imagined you’d look quite so good in a tuxedo, you ought to dress up more often.”

Rick felt his face turn red. “Thanks ma’am,” he mumbled.

“And Emma, what a gorgeous gown, I hope you both have a wonderful evening.   Lots of students are here already and you’ll find punch being served at the table set-up at one end of the hall.”

Rick thanked them while Emma discreetly pulled out a mirror from her bag and checked her face. What for, he had no idea, she already looked like the winner of a beauty pageant. He waited patiently until she was happy, and then offered his arm again.

“Do you think the Dynamic Duo are in there already?” she whispered.

His heart sank.   She’d never mentioned the whole idea once during their drive, and he’d fervently hoped she’d forgotten about it in the excitement of making her big appearance at the dance. He hadn’t the nerve to go through with anything, especially without Johnny’s help. It was just too risky, and he wanted to enjoy himself.

“You did say they were going to carry it out, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but I still can’t promise you that they’ll actually do anything.”

“Oh, they’d better.”

“Come on, Emma, this is our big night.   Why spoil it by wanting to get even in that way? You can do so much better by just being you. Heck, you look like a Hollywood starlet, every eye’s gonna be on you when you walk through those doors, I guarantee it, so why not just enjoy it?”

She studied the pleading look on his face, mollified by his comments. “I do look wonderful, don’t I?”

He nodded gravely, and she smiled. 

“All right, maybe I was being silly about the whole thing. Maybe it’s enough that they see that I don’t care a fig about them. You’re right, I have dignity, and it’s time to show it.”

“That’s more like it,” Rick replied, absolute relief washing over him.

“Right, here we go, then,” she said, and while his heart thumped in his chest, they walked slowly through the doors into the cavernous hall.

It had been imaginatively done out in a winter wonderland theme, with huge glittering silver snowflakes hanging from the ceiling and white-paper covered walls. A huge revolving silver disco ball sent glittering sparkles around the room. Circular tables lined the edges, with flickering lantern centrepieces.

Scores of eyes raised and swivelled to see the newcomers, and Rick swallowed at the intense scrutiny, finding it made him suddenly uncomfortable. He immediately spotted Jake Sanders, standing directly across the hall with a group of seniors, the homecoming queen attached to one arm. Jake’s gaze settled on him and Emma as they sauntered in.  Holly pouted and Emma feigned profound ignorance in Jake’s interest, and proceeded to work the room. Holly was certainly beautiful, with her long dark hair styled in waves, but her blue dress looked too fussy so that even Rick, with his total lack of interest of female fashion, knew that Emma had won this round, hands down.

“Oh, Emma, you look absolutely fabulous.”

“Gorgeous dress, Emma.”

“Oh, that’s to die for, where did you get it?”

Rick nodded at the girls and their escorts as they passed, like some royal couple amongst their subjects, the girls like a collection of brightly-coloured birds in greens, pinks, blues, all trying to out-do one another. The guy’s outfits were afterthoughts, black or dark grey and white so that they didn’t outshine their partners.  But Emma surpassed them all, and the majority of the guys present either nodded or watched him with barely disguised envy. He only now began to understand why so many kids had this craving to be seen as one of the popular clique - it would be so easy to get used to this fawning adulation.

“Hey, Rick! Over here!”

He swivelled at the sound of the familiar voice, and he looked over the heads of a few couples who had wandered onto the area of the floor reserved for dancing, to see Johnny grinning and waving across to him from one of the long tables where punch was being served. Corbin stood next to him, his arm linked into Clarice Stephens, whose stacked heels made her tower over most of the other women in the room. Rick winked back, and mouthed assurances he’d be over in a few moments. He was enjoying this way too much.

“Hi guys, how’s it going?” Rick gave his friends a high-five salute as the two of them finally reached the punch table. He handed Emma a glass which she sipped daintily.

“The punch could do with some alcohol,” Corbin said, “But otherwise, we’re just waiting for them to bring on the food,”

“Does he always think with his stomach?” Clarice said, shaking her head.

“No, sometimes he thinks with his –”

Rick jabbed Johnny in the ribs just in time. Now wasn’t the time for crude jokes in front of Corbin’s date.

Johnny rubbed the sore spot, grinning. “Emma, you look nice.”

She sniffed and regarded Johnny as if he was a piece of chewing gun she’d found underneath her shoe.

“Where’s Stella?” Rick looked around the room.

“In the bathroom, fixing her face, like she needs it, but you know her.”

 As if on cue, the diminutive girl appeared, her sassy walk tempered by the tight fuchsia satin gown, which contrasted vibrantly with her olive skin. She too had done something exotic with her hair, making her look several years older, and this vision had an unexpected effect on Rick. He fairly gaped until Emma frowned and Johnny punched him on one arm for ogling his date.

“You look wonderful, too, Rickee,” Stella simpered, quite happy to accept his non-verbal compliment. She turned to Emma. “I’m glad to see you have improved your taste in men.”

“Shame that I can’t say the same thing about yours,” Emma retorted icily.

Fortuitously, a cat-fight was headed off when the band upped the tempo.

“Come on.” Clarice grabbed Corbin’s hand and pulled him away. “I love this one.”

“Oh, me too!” Stella agreed, and dragged a reluctant Johnny in hot pursuit onto a floor which was suddenly filled with bopping couples.

Rick hesitated. This was one of the many moments he’d been dreading about tonight. What if he made a complete ass of himself?

“Well, I’m not sitting here like a wallflower,” Emma hissed sideways at him, so he took her hand and they joined the fray on the floor. The band knew their stuff, and just what to play to get a bunch of sixteen to eighteen year olds to lose their self-consciousness in front of a date. After a couple of songs, Rick was even beginning to enjoy himself. 

 

“So how’s it going with the Ice Princess?” Johnny asked, a little while later, when the dance was in full swing. Quite a few of the girls sported flushed faces and a substantial number of guys had loosened up, bow ties undone and tuxedos draped over chair-backs.

“It’s going okay.”

“So you don’t mind her complaining about the tasteless punch and the food?”

Rick grimaced. He’d heard it, certainly, but wasn’t about to be disloyal to his date.

“You just want to get in her knickers, dontcha? You’d do just about anything…”

Rick brushed a damp lock of hair across his forehead and snorted. “Her old man would have my balls for breakfast.”

“Good point. She’s really not worth it, man; those rich girls are a pain. They wouldn’t know a good time if it came up and bit them on the ass.”

“Hey, you can talk. What about Stella, she’s worth a few bucks.”

A dreamy look appeared on Johnny’s face. “Yeah, she is, but that’s not what drives my truck.”

“No, I can well guess. You kissed her yet, Wardynski?”

“Is the Pope Catholic? But a quick kiss and a grope during ‘Heaven’ is about all I’ve managed so far with the beady eyes of our good ol’ chaperones keeping tabs on us. I know Stella feels the same, she’s begging for me to….I just know it, man.”

“Well, you’re the expert,” Rick replied, with a snort. 

 

It was that time in the evening: the slow dance, the moment that most couples had been anticipating all night. Rick offered a hand to Emma and she rose from her seat, moving rather awkwardly into his arms.

“Just don’t stamp on me, these shoes cost a fortune.”

“I promise,” he replied.

He took a firm grip of her waist, and they joined the slow shuffle on the floor. He saw Stella clinging to Johnny like a limpet to rock, and his best friend winked and gave him thumbs up with the hand which wasn’t entwined around his date’s waist. 

Rick had no idea what the ballad was, but the lead singer sounded as if he’d just had surgery on his privates. At any rate, the music was working some kind of magic on Emma, and she nestled in a little closer to him, tucking her chin onto his shoulder, and his face tickled as her hair brushed against it. He breathed in her flowery perfume and somehow succeeded in making a complete circuit of the room without him stumbling or treading on her feet once.

At one point they passed within a foot of Jake and Holly, and Rick couldn’t resist an impudent smirk, and felt a glow of intense satisfaction when Jake countered with a scowl.  Far too soon, his few moments of bliss ended, as the band started playing another up-beat song, just in case the couples were becoming too comfortable.  Rick sighed, he could have mooned around the room with Emma in his arms all night. 

He was on a high, as if he was flying, just everything seemed perfect.

Finally, the band launched into a wild rendition of ‘Mama, We’re All Crazy Now’ and the lights came on signalling the end of the evening. Sweaty flushed faces, the odd ripped gown and punch-stained shirt stood testament to a fun evening.   Emma remained cool, however, not a hair out of place, not a damp patch in sight. 

“Did I tell you that you still look absolutely incredible?” he said. 

“Only for the fifth time this evening, but I can understand you saying it again.  I do look good, don’t I?”

He cleared his throat. She seemed to have mellowed as the evening wore on, actually laughing at some of his jokes, and not being quite so snooty with Stella and Johnny and the others. He realised that the term end was only a week or so away.

“We could do it again,” he blurted out, before his brain would let him change his mind.  “Go out, together, I mean.”

She stared at him. “Like on a date?”

“Uh, yeah, if you like.”

She shrugged her pretty shoulders. “We’re heading off skiing in Colorado as soon as term ends, and I have mountains of shopping do beforehand.”

“I could drive you to the mall, help you out maybe.”

“Are you kidding, what do you know about choosing women’s clothes?”

Rick flushed. “Nothing, I guess, I mean, I wouldn’t dare, but I could carry your bags, and we could go for something to eat in the food court after, if you like.”

A small frown creased her perfect brow. “I don’t know…”

Holly and Jake sidled up to them, in a clinch. Holly’s smile was pure evil. “Enjoy your dance with the Prince of Dorkness?’ she asked.

Emma lifted her chin and gave them a haughty look. “I did, thanks. We’ve had such a good time we’re going shopping on Sunday.”

Rick blinked, and Holly let out a piercing laugh.

“Oh, good luck with that! I can’t see him doing much advising since he’s the one who needs a makeover.”

Jake sniggered and Rick had the overwhelming sensation to punch him between the eyes, but knew that wasn’t going to happen.  Despite Rick working over the summer and developing his physique, Sanders still had the height and muscle to stomp on his head, no problem.

Damn Populars, who were they that they felt the need to run the little people down at every opportunity? Rick simply couldn’t understand their motivations.

The two seniors sailed off for another dance, and Rick tried to calm himself down.

Emma gently patted him on the cheek. “That Holly is a witch. Just ignore what she said, Rick, you look fine tonight.”

He brightened. “Really?”

“Yes, really, although I hate to say it…” she pulled back for a moment, and peered at him from beneath her long lashes. “Maybe she does have a point, this dance apart, you do tend to dress a little dorky. A little of my fashion expertise wouldn’t go amiss. I think there’s good raw material here, but I can give you that extra edge. You do want that edge, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess, doesn’t everyone?”

“I knew you’d see it my way.”

 “Then, did you mean what you said to them, about going to the mall with me, that wasn’t just a joke?”

“Of course, a Bishop never goes back on a promise.”

 

The teachers and parent helpers went around the room like cattle ranchers rounding up the herd, discreetly checking for the signs of alcohol as students left the gymnasium - wouldn’t do the school’s reputation any good if some kid crashed their car on the way home from the event and found to be drunk.

 Rick waved goodbye to his friends, and Stella kissed him on the cheek, no doubt a friendly gesture, but her scent, something rawer and bolder than Emma’s flowery one, sent signals to parts of him that should definitely have not been interested in that way. He shook his head, what was up with him? He had a date with the girl he’d been crushing on since forever and here he was suddenly and inexplicably horny with his best pal’s dame.

You’re sick, Fraser.

“You okay, Flyboy?” Johnny squinted at him.

“Yeah, the best.   Drive carefully, don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”

Stella laughed, and her eyes crinkled in a knowing way that made him feel hot all over. She ought to keep those eyes to herself.

 

Rick dropped Emma off at the gates. She unbuckled her seat belt, and Rick grasped the wheel, unsure what his next move would be. Just as he had convinced himself that she was about to get out of the car, she leaned across the seat and kissed him on the cheek, her lips lingering for a fraction of a second longer than that required for courtesy.

“Thanks for taking me to the dance,” she said, when she pulled away, “It would have been a shame to miss it, like you said.”

“Really?”

“Sure.”

He grinned. “I’ll see you on Sunday, then, what time do you want me to come around and pick you up?”

She hesitated, and he realised she probably didn’t want to be seen dead at the mall in his junk-heap, probably terrified that some of her friends would see her. She might be thawing, but there was still a ways to go.

 “Look, I’ll pick you up in mine,” she said, confirming his theory. “I want to go to the Millenia Pavilions.”

“I thought we were going to the mall in Midvale.”

She gave him a disparaging look. “The Great Lakes Mall is for Mrs & Mrs Average. I don’t want to look like everyone else on the slopes at Aspen, do I?”

“Guess not.”

“Good, that’s settled then.”

For a moment they sat there in what, to him, felt like a companionable silence, and then Emma broke it. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Aren’t you going to get the door for me?”

“Uhh…” He mentally slapped his forehead and hurtled out of the car to the passenger side. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking…” he mumbled, suddenly flustered. Emma Bishop still had the power to render him totally dumb, even when she was being nice to him.

He helped her out and as she stood up, her dress shimmered in the light from the driveway lamps. She even out-sparkles the snow, he thought, as his gaze followed her as she tottered all the way to the front door. She gave him a small wave and he waited, gallantly, until he was sure she was safe indoors. Only then did he drive off home, replaying the events of the night over and over in his head.

His folks were inconveniently waiting for up him again and he subjected himself gamely to his mom’s third degree, balking at her question of whether there had been any kissing involved. Jack rolled his eyes.

“So, are you two going out again?”“Uh, yeah, Sunday morning, I’m helping her shopping for her skiing trip to Colorado.”

Alicia’s eyes grew round, and she almost fell off the sofa. “Shopping, you?”

“Hey, it’s not so bad.”

“This must be serious, Jack.”

Rick blushed. “Aww, Mom, cut it out.”

He fled from the interrogation to his room, but found he couldn’t sleep. He was as horny as hell, all the emotion and excitement of the night had built to a point where his hormones were revving beyond the red zone. Emma and Stella swapped around in his half-lidded fantasy, and it didn’t take long. Sated, that finally got him off to sleep.

Soon, he thought, as he drifted off, I won’t be just dreaming about it.

 

***

 

On Sunday morning he was bounding out of bed at seven, careful not to wake anyone, and hogging the shower until the steam fogged every mirror and window in the room. He sprayed deodorant until his eyes stung, and he had a coughing fit, and then hopped into his best pair of jeans. Shirts were more difficult, what would she roll her eyes less at? He finally pulled on a dark-grey shirt, fervently thanking his mom that she’d remembered to wash and iron it.  

When Emma honked outside the drive he pelted out of the house before Alicia even had a chance to get a look. He saw her shaking her head at the window and he gave her a quick wave. He knew he’d pay for his cheek later.

        

Midvale was awakening to its Sunday rituals – with the strains of ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ emanating from the Baptist church on the corner of Wheeler Avenue.  The sun and sky were crystal-sharp, blinding him, and he pulled the visor down. A few walkers were out, mitts and ear-muffs against the cold, as they strode along the sidewalks banked with snow.  It was a day that matched his mood, bright and full of hope.

Rick wasn’t used to being a passenger, and he had to keep holding his tongue, and resisting the temptation to stamp on imaginary brakes on the journey. She obviously knew the route, so he settled down in the plush leather seats, the epitome of vehicular comfort, and took solace in the fact he was actually going out with Emma Bishop, despite the fact he wasn’t sure he could call it a date. Movie and a meal was a date, but shopping?

He’d never been to the Millennia Pavilions, but he’d heard Stella rave about it. The structure seemed to soar out of the ground like a glass and silver maze, glinting and winking in the intense winter light.  Emma drove directly to the valet parking, handed over the keys and then pulled him into a glass elevator.   

Rick’s mouth hung open as they rose into the tiered interior, filled with illumination from thousands of glittering bulbs. Combined with the sunlight streaming in through the glass domes above, it gave the impression he’d just entered some gigantic cathedral, only here, the worshippers paid obeisance to Mammon.  

He dutifully followed Emma’s clip-clopping boots across the spacious interior courtyard and figured that an entire mountainside must have been carved out to furnish this place with marble. Everywhere there were fountains, and water displays, and enormous granite sculptures: balls, towers and columns. Art and consumerism combined. He glanced in at the stores they passed, the price-tags on the items made his eyes water.

Twenty dollars for a candle – are they serious?

Finally, Emma found the store she was seeking, an upmarket ski-shop, its windows filled with mannequins sporting padded jackets and trousers in every fluorescent colour under the sun.

No wonder you have to wear sunglasses on the slopes.

Thankfully the marble hadn’t followed them inside, and he felt a little more relaxed within the shop’s warm beech interior. The female sales-assistant gave him a curious look as he sloped in behind Emma, and showed him to a chair close to the changing rooms at the back of the store, leaving him there without a word.

Emma disappeared into one of the booths, and kept the sales-woman busy going to and fro with an endless supply of ski-wear. He kept himself amused by thumbing through some magazines, filled with classy people and even classier resorts.

How the other half live, he thought mournfully.

At one point Emma appeared holding a blue outfit and a pink one with white fur on the hood. “I’ve whittled it down to these two, but which one do you think suits me better?”

“Uh, the pink one looks good with your hair, but the blue one matches your eyes…”

She smiled effervescently. “Really? In that case, I’ll take them both.”

The sales assistant gave Rick a big smile when they went to the till to pay. He smiled back. Spending other people’s money sure made everyone happy.

Emma handed him the bags to carry and proceeded to trash her credit- card in several other stores, and Rick began to sag under the weight of all the shopping.

“Uh, Emma, you don’t think we couldn’t grab something to eat, maybe?” He hadn’t eaten since seven and his stomach felt hollow and was making small gurgling noises.

She dragged her eyes away from a store selling three hundred dollar handbags and glanced at her watch. “Good gravy, is that the time? All right, we can leave my purchases with the mall concierge “

“Sure, and it’s my treat, okay?”

“Okay.”

Rick felt like punching the air, if he hadn’t have his hands full with the bags.  Lunch was a date, no one could deny that,

He was a little less enthusiastic when she dismissed the enticing (to him) food court and suggested a restaurant called Bellagio, on the third floor of the mall, where the fettuccine was to ‘die for.’ The prices were as sky-high as the setting, and Rick groaned inwardly. He’d had great ideas about taking Emma for dinner to a fancy restaurant after she returned from Aspen, but if this was the sort of price one paid for lunch, he quickly calculated that a meal for two with soft drinks wouldn’t leave him much change from a hundred dollars, then he didn’t dare think about what he might have to shell out for a more formal setting.

But Emma looked in her element as she settled into the intimate booth, and smiled generously at him, and he hadn’t the heart, or frankly, the nerve, to suggest a cheaper place, although he seriously doubted that there were any cheap places in this mall.

He let her chatter through the food, which was okay, but overpriced in his opinion, he’d tasted better Italian in Maroni’s or at his mom’s, but maybe rich folks had enough money that they didn’t care if they spent it on something mediocre.

“Daddy’s booked this amazing chalet in Aspen, it has an amazing view of the mountains, and the town on the doorstep, I just can’t wait.”

He let her prattle on, content just to watch her mouth move. He was fascinated by her mouth, mostly because he wanted to kiss it. He wondered what she’d taste like – strawberries or cherries, maybe – and wondered if there was any chance he’d get anywhere near first base with this girl.

Don’t rush things, Fraser, you just got started, why spoil things?  Just enjoy the moment.

She graciously thanked him for lunch, then afterwards, they did some more shopping. Some après-ski wear, and then onto the shoe shop. Rick seriously wondered if she might have to hire a truck to get them all back to Midvale.

Emma idly flicked through a line of stacked heels “Got them, and them, and those too, and these are gross, and got them…oh and these are to die for.” She picked up several pairs of shoes and boots and smiled winsomely at him.

He felt his mouth fall open. “How many pairs of shoes do you need?”

“One for every day of the year, oh, and a few extras. Why, how many do you have?”

Rick looked down askance at his sneakers. “Uh, you’re looking at them.”

She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Shame.” She dumped the footwear in his arms. “I think I’m done, let’s go pay.”

He thought that would be it, but she wasn’t finished yet. She stopped in front of a store whose windows were full of menswear.

“This is for guys,” he stated the obvious.

“Sure and you’re a guy, so let’s go in. I told you I was going to help you with a makeover. If I’m going to have to hang out with you then you have to look the part.”

He liked the sound of the first part of her last sentence, wasn’t so hot on the second, but he followed her in, with some trepidation.

Now it was his turn to be a fashion victim, as she sat, twirling a strand of her blonde hair in one finger, orchestrating his parade in a succession of clothing until his head reeled. 

“That is the perfect look for spring,” she said finally, with a smug and satisfied look on her face. “See, you look really good, don’t you think?”

She dragged him to a full-length mirror, and he stared at his reflection, astonished. The hip-length, zip-up, leather jacket in dark-chocolate-brown, and the slate-grey skinny jeans made him look taller, more sophisticated, and it was a whole lot more comfortable than the penguin suit he’d been wearing two evenings ago.

He shook his head, “Yeah, I have to admit, it looks fantastic.”

“So, you’ll buy it?”

Up to this point, he’d gone along with the fun, but surely she hadn’t seriously expected that he was going to actually purchase anything? He flipped the jacket and spied the price tag, and succeeded in swallowing the expletive. Four hundred dollars? That was his clothes budget for the entire year.

“It really looks good.” He absently stroked the front of the jacket, it felt like doeskin. “But it’s way too much money for me to spend.”

“Rick, the right clothes maketh the man, you look older, more confident in that outfit, isn’t that worth the price of a couple of flying lessons?”

“I guess…”

She pouted. “Well, then what’s all the hesitation? I think the new-look Richard Fraser looks so much better, don’t you?”

“I’m not sure I can afford the new look…”

“Oh, for goodness, sake, then I’ll buy it for you, my treat, since you bought lunch.”

His eyebrows climbed. “No way!”  he blurted, thinking: Treat? A four hundred dollar jacket?

His pride wouldn’t allow it, he couldn’t take money from anyone, especially a girl, even if she could afford it. But before he could do anything, she had already handed over her card, and the assistant swiped it on the cash-terminal.

He sighed as they left the shop, wondering how he was going to pay her back. On the way to the valet parking he struggled with the mountain of bags, eliciting a few amused smiles from the other shoppers.

The light was beginning to wane when Emma stopped at the bottom of the Frasers’ driveway. Rick sat for a few moments, trying to grope for words as a coquettish smile played around her lips.

“You can kiss me if you like. You do want to, don’t you?” she said, as if reading his mind.

His heartbeat spiked.  “Yes, I do, very much.”

He didn’t add that he’d been dreaming about kissing her for the last two years, he just leaned over, and she did too, meeting him half-way, and he thanked some God that they didn’t have the awkward bumping of noses, or thumping some part of their upper anatomy into the gearstick. His lips grazed hers, so gently, as if she was fine china, and she didn’t taste of strawberries, or cherries, just of the pancetta from the fettuccine from lunch, but he didn’t care. He was kissing Emma Bishop and she was letting him –

– and then he heard a faint rap at the window. Startled, they broke apart, and his stomach sank when he saw Alicia outside on the driveway, and he could see the gleam of excitement in her eyes even in the gloaming.

Emma rolled the window down, and Alicia smiled, her breath condensing in the cold.

“You’ll catch your death, Mom,” Rick said evenly.

She ignored him. “You must be Emma; it’s lovely to meet you.”

“Yes, I am, Mrs Fraser.  It’s very nice to meet you.”

“I didn’t get a chance to say hello this morning, you both raced away so fast. I hope you both had a good time?”

“Oh, yes.” Emma smiled sweetly. “We did some clothes shopping.”

Alicia’s eyebrows raised in an expression of pleasant surprise. “Well, you obviously have powers of persuasion that I don’t possess. I’m rarely able to get him to buy new clothes at the best of times.”

“Mom…”

“Would you like to come in for a coffee or something?” she insisted. “I’ve just made a lemon drizzle cake.”

Emma shook her head politely. “No, I really need to be getting back home. Maybe some other time?”

“Of course, anytime.”

“Bye for now.”

Alicia took the dismissal in good grace, smiled and headed off back up the driveway.  

Emma started up the engine and Rick realised that it was his turn. He opened the door and got out. “See you at school?” 

Her mouth curved in a smile, and it made his knees turn to water. “Probably. And remember, wear the jacket.”

“I will.”

The car roared off down the street, and he watched until it became a spec, only then realising that he’d completely forgotten to ask her out again.

Damn, damn, damn.

 

***

 

The following morning, he drove to school in his new clothes. Like the previous day, the sun shone, echoing his mood. He parked the Futura in the busy lot, and headed indoors, but as he turned into the main hallway towards the locker areas to stow his stuff, nervousness kicked in. A promise was a promise, so he took several gulps of air and stepped into the melee of the main hallway. He started walking casually, and it wasn’t long before he was aware that his presence was generating rather more interest than usual. Several of the girls in his year looked wide-eyed, and waved girlishly at him, and one senior’s expression suggested it was as if she’d clapped eyes on him for the first time.

“Rick, isn’t it?” she said, with an interested look that made his spine tingle.

He nodded, nonchalantly, and kept walking, enjoying every footstep along the corridor he took.

“See you in math class, Rick.”

“See you in science lab.”

Holly Vance leant next to one of the big picture windows, as usual, surrounded by her football entourage, Jake amongst them, although his back was to Rick as he walked past. Holly practically stared open-mouthed at him, and he casually smiled, buoyed up inside by a silent, delicious feeling that made him feel like he was walking on a cloud that took him higher and higher.

He thought about Emma’s cliché. Clothes maketh the man.

Could it really be that simple?

Johnny and Stella were chatting together when he finally arrived at the lockers.   

“Jeez, Emma’s been at work, Flyboy’s got new threads.”

“So I see,” Stella said, with narrowed eyes, and she wandered up to Rick and he felt the indentations of her long fingers as they cat-walked across the shoulders of the jacket. She was practically purring. “You look like a bad boy, Rickee, that is a good look on you.”

Rick gently shrugged her off when he saw a faint scowl appear on Johnny’s face. Wearing Wardynski’s fist in his mouth wouldn’t be a good look on him, he suspected.

 

Emma sent him an approving smile at English class, but, impatient as he was to chat to her and ask her out, he didn’t seem to get a chance to be with her alone. There was no way, new threads or not, that he’d say anything in earshot of the Cuckoos. His new-found confidence wasn’t quite enough to make him step within that feminine circle just yet. Sure, he had taken her to the prom, and she had allowed him to kiss her, but she wasn’t exactly fawning over him this week.   If anything, she seemed to be keeping him at arms’ length. It made him hesitant, nervous, and finally plunged him into a gloom that was the antithesis of the bubbling elation that he’d felt at the start.

Finally, he could stand it no longer, and caught her on the way to a science lab session.

“Emma, you got a moment?”

The Cuckoos exchanged knowing grins and he wondered if he’d been the subject of their gossip. He ran a nervous hand through his hair.

“See you later, Emma,” they chorused.

“So, you got me, what’s up?” she said coyly.

He swallowed.  “Look, I forgot to ask, and it’s nearly the holidays, would you like to go out again, after you get back from your skiing trip?”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Stella’s folks are having a New Year’s Eve party at their house, and a whole bunch of us are invited, I thought maybe you’d like to come along too?”

She considered it for a moment. “It sounds like it could be fun.”

“So you’ll come?”

“Sure, that would be nice, my folks have a big do but I can stay at that for a while then come over to Stella’s before the countdown. Is that ok?”

“Yeah, that’s great.”

“Okay, well, I’ll see you then.
“Have a great trip, in Aspen, and Happy Christmas.”

She smiled. “Happy Christmas, Rick.”

He mentally punched the air as relief and jubilation surged through him.

 

 

Christmas 2051

 

It was the first time that the holidays had seemed to drag, and Rick found himself in an unusual position of counting down the days to New Year.  He wasn’t going to admit it, even to himself, but he was pining, and slouched around the house in sweats, barely interested in what was going on around him.

 His mother, on the other hand was a whirlwind of activity, with a mountain of catering orders to fulfil before she could even think about feeding her own brood. Whether she suspected his motives, she kept quiet and left him to his own devices, only insisting that he and Jack went out to buy the tree, and retrieve the decorations from the loft where they had languished for two years. When they were finished, the house twinkled and sparkled like a bauble factory.

Mitch returned home a few days before the big day and Alicia fussed over him like a hen over a clutch of chicks. The subdued glow of happiness, they all found out a little later, was due as much to his new girl-friend of the past couple few months, as to him passing all his exams and course-work with straight A grades.

“I wanted to bring Melanie home to meet you,” he said, proudly handing around the holo-pic of a pretty, brown-haired girl with serious eyes. “But she had to head back to North Carolina for Christmas.”

“Never mind; next time, son,” Alicia, said, briefly hugging him. She regarded the photo. “My boys certainly know how to pick them.”

“Boys?” Mitch piped up with a querying look. “You mean Rick -”

“Oh, yes,” Alicia said, with a smile. “You little brother squired one of the prettiest, not to mention wealthiest, girls in the school to the Winter-fest dance.”

Mitch whistled, then mussed Rick’s hair. “So, you finally got around to getting yourself a girl. I didn’t think you’d stop messing about with model planes long enough to notice them.”

“Oh, he notices, all right,” Alicia said, “I caught them necking at the end of the driveway.” 

Mitch sniggered and Rick scowled beneath his blush.

 

***

 

The doorbell rang two days before Christmas, and Rick’s heart skipped a beat when he saw Vicky Lee standing on the porch, her breath condensing in the frigid air.  

“Hi there.”

“Vicky, what the hell…why didn’t you tell me you were in town?”

She hugged him and he wished he’d cleaned up a little this morning, but she didn’t seem to care. “I just wanted to well – surprise you, I hope this isn’t a bad time?”

“Heck, no, come on in,” he mumbled, trying to gather his thoughts, feeling an unaccountable guilt stealing over him in her presence. Lately, ever since he’d got all crazy over Emma again, he’d barely been in contact with Vicky.    A couple of e-mails and one phone call: that had been the extent of it. She’d once asked him once if he was going to the Winter-fest dance, and for some peculiar reason unbeknown even to him, he’d flunked out of telling her.

They both wandered through to the kitchen where Alicia was pulling another batch of mini stollen cakes from the oven.

“Oh, Mrs Fraser, that smells divine!” she said, breathing in the heady aromas that wafted around the kitchen. More cakes covered the worktops and table.

“Vicky, how lovely to see you.  Rick, as usual, didn’t bother to tell me you were coming,” she said, with a roll of her eyes.

“That’s because I didn’t know!” he retorted.

“Sorry, Mrs Fraser, I’m afraid I just turned up unannounced.  My Aunt Grace would kill me for my deplorable lack of manners.”

“Oh, well, never mind,” Alicia said, smiling, “It’s lovely to see you, again, sit down and have some coffee and tell me everything you’ve been up to while I finish off my baking.”

An hour, and several cupcakes later, most of the news had been relayed on both sides. After an enormous battle with the insurance company – and Rick had no doubt that Aunt Grace had her stamp all over that – they had finally paid out enough money to allow Mr Lee to move to New York to be with his daughter and her cousins.

“So you’re really leaving?” Rick said. He felt a hollow spot in his stomach.

“Yes, there’s still a lot to sort out, but he’ll probably head out in the New Year.”

“I’m sure it’s for the best, dear,” Alicia said. “Family is so important.”

“Yes, but you have been such good neighbours.” She glanced shyly at Rick. “And such good friends.”

He mumbled some sort of thanks, and couldn’t meet her eyes.

“What are you doing for Christmas day?” Alicia asked.

“Oh, nothing, it’ll just be the two of us, we’ll mostly be organising packing up the contents of the house.”

“That isn’t any way to spend a holiday. You must come round for lunch.”

“Oh no, we couldn’t possibly…”

“I won’t take a refusal, the two of you rattling around in a house full of boxes, it’s unthinkable. In any case, Ted Wardynski and his son are already coming, two more won’t make any difference. There’s more than enough food for everyone, and it will be my pleasure.”

Alicia could be as tenacious as Aunt Grace when she put her mind to it, and before Vicky left, she had capitulated. Rick wasn’t so sure, but wisely kept silent.

 

***

 

Mr Lee was finally persuaded to the idea, and arrived with his daughter at one pm sharp on Christmas Day with an enormous bouquet of flowers for Alicia. He seemed to have recovered from his ordeal, and both he and Vicky were laden with presents, which Alicia chastened them for.

But Mr Lee stood his ground. “It’s the least we can do for your kindness,” he replied solemnly.

Under the red mistletoe cloth, the dinner table groaned under the weight of food: turkey, roast beef, roasted squash, three types of potato, and for dessert, a choice of cherry pie and double chocolate cheesecake.

Mr Lee was most grateful to Ted Wardynski, and throughout the meal offered his effusive thanks for helping to bring to justice the three men who had nearly taken his life and livelihood.

“I wish I could say that was the end of it,” Ted replied soberly, “But we think this is just the thin edge of the wedge. These guys wouldn’t admit to it, but we believe they’re linked to a larger paramilitary splinter group operating out of the northern Midwest. We’re working with the World Government Police Corps on the issue.”

“I fear for my compatriots, Officer Wardysnki, I hope the police succeed in tracking these people down before someone dies because of their hatred.”

 Later on, Alicia asked if Rick would clear up while the adults watched the news, so grudgingly, he assented, his stomach dropping when Vicky brightly offered to help instead of Mitch.

“You’re a guest,” Alicia countered.

“And I’ve eaten so much I need some exercise!” she flashed back undaunted. “And, it’ll give me a chance for Rick and I to chat.”

Alicia smiled in understanding. Rick just felt a sense of dread fill his already distended stomach.

They moved around each other in the kitchen, filling the dishwasher and soaking pans and ovenware in the sink.

“Rick, there’s something wrong, isn’t there?” She broke the uncomfortable silence. “You’ve barely said a word to me at lunch. I’m not a fool you know.” She took the dish from his hands and put it on the countertop, then shook him gently. “Things have never been the same between us since – that picnic. Are you mad at me about that?”

“No! Of course not.”

“Then why do I feel like I’m being punished for something I didn’t do?”

His face flamed. “You didn’t do anything, Vic, it’s me. I – just- oh damn – I took Emma Bishop to the Winter-fest, and now we’re going to Stella’s New Year’s Eve party together.  I didn’t know what to do, whether to tell you about it. I didn’t want you to feel…”

Her eyes widened, and she laughed. “Is that it? Is that the real reason why you’ve been keeping me at a distance these last few weeks?”

 “Yes, no, I mean, oh jeez, I don’t know.” His shoulders slumped and he threw the dishtowel onto the counter.

She turned solemn, and took both of his empty hands in his. “I’m sorry for laughing. You have every right to date whoever you want. I’m just really happy for you that’s it’s Emma, I know you’ve always – liked her.”

“I don’t know why I didn’t tell you, I had this dumb idea, like I was being disloyal to you.”

“Don’t be silly, I’m the one who turned you down, remember?”

“Uh, yeah. You made that real plain.”

“Oh, I see what’s going on now. I’m beginning to think that little episode was more a case of your male ego being bruised by my rebuff than any real romantic feelings you might have had for me.”

“Crap.” But he felt his face go red all the same.   Damn her for always seeing right through me.

“I’m right, aren’t I?” she said, an impish expression on her face. She was enjoying his discomfiture way too much.

“Don’t push your luck.”

They both laughed then and she held his gaze, but this time, there were no false misunderstandings between them.

“Don’t ever lie to me again, Fraser, or I’ll kill you,” she said cheerfully, hugging him with genuine warmth.

He hugged her back, his world back on its proper axis again. “That’s a promise I’ll keep.”

 

***

 

Vicky headed back East two days later, and she and Rick promised one another they would keep in touch. Mitch returned to Yale, and Rick, his guilt absolved, counted the days to New Year. At the appointed hour he dithered on what to wear, finally settling on the silver-grey shirt that Mr Lee had given him for Christmas, and his new black jeans. He brushed his teeth several times and headed out, waving goodbye to his folks. They were having Ted Wardynski over for a low-key supper while the kids were out enjoying themselves.

“Don’t be back too late,” Alicia called to his departing back

Rick drove to the Bishops’ to pick up Emma, and found the enormous driveway crowded with Cadillac’s and Town Cars. The mansion was ablaze with light, and he could make out music - jazz he thought - emanating from the area of their enormous drawing room.

He looked at his watch, nine-thirty, and then, almost when he was on the point of realising he might just have to get out of the car and go to the front door and face John Bishop again, a side door opened and Emma stepped out into the crisp night air. He let out a sigh of relief, as he watched her weaving between the cars wearing a pale coat that was as long as the dress underneath it was short,  and he tried to resist staring at her legs as she approached, running a hand through his hair to steady his nerves. They’d agreed he would drive her there, but she seemed to have second thoughts as she regarded the Futura at close quarters.

 “Maybe we should have taken my car,” she said.

“It’s a bit late now, no way you’re going to get it past this lot.”

He regretted the note of truculence in his voice – it rang a sour note where a moment ago he’d been feeling nothing but breathless anticipation - but he was momentarily upset that she felt the need to deride his transport, albeit subtly.

But, as he gallantly opened the passenger door for her and she gave him an eyeful of leg, he forgot all about his car. Emma Bishop was his for tonight, and he was going to make the most of it.

 

         It was a fun evening. Stella was a popular girl in Midvale High, and there weren’t many teenagers who would turn down an invitation to the Martinez house for a party. When they arrived, Emma squealed with delight on seeing a couple of her Cuckoos, who were chatting with a bevy of seniors from the basketball squad. Corbin was there, with Clarice naturally, and Rick high-fived him and kissed his girlfriend on one cheek, although he had to stretch an inch to do it.

Stella’s folks were mostly very discreet, leaving the youngsters to enjoy themselves, although they popped in every now on the pretext of making sure the food and beverages hadn’t run out. For the most part, everyone behaved responsibly. No one had smuggled in alcohol or drugs, or disgraced themselves in the hot tub. Once again Emma seemed the prettiest girl in the room by far, although Stella was giving her a good run for the money, wearing a tiny skirt made of some shimmering stuff, and a top that was barely decent.  

“Who would have thought, eh, Flyboy, that a couple of gawky teenagers would snag the two most gorgeous dames in high school?” Johnny gloated, as he stood alongside Rick, watching as Emma and Stella danced duo to the grinding beat of ‘Stuck on You’. The basketball team stood around in a circle and cheered appreciatively.

“Yeah, really,” Rick replied, with an inane grin plastered over his face.

As the midnight hour beckoned, everyone congregated in front of the Martinezs’ giant plasma tele-viewer to watch the famous Times Square Ball drop its seventy-two feet to set off the flashing countdown. Rick shouted out the numbers along with everyone else in the room, and thought back to all the good things that had happened to him this year. His friendships, getting his licence, winning the design competition, finally getting together with the girl of his dreams.

What could stop him now? 2052 could only get better.

“Four, three,  two – ONE! Woo-hoo!  Happy New Year! Happy New Year!”

Rick turned to Emma, and saw that her eyes were shining, caught up in the moment. “Happy New Year,” he whispered. A little disappointingly, she planted a celebratory kiss on his cheek rather than his mouth, but he assured himself that she was simply put off by all his friends jumping up and down around them, so he modestly returned the compliment.

Onscreen, they watched as streamers and fireworks erupted skywards, along with the fireworks and the cheers of the thousands packing the streets of a freezing Times Square. The rather warmer occupants at the party cheered in unison as they set off balloons and confetti, and Rick had to shout to Emma in order to be heard.

“You want to go flying with me sometime?”

“You mean, in a plane?”

“Sure, in a plane, with me at the controls.”

“You sure that’s legal?”

“Course it’s legal, I have my licence.” He couldn’t help his hand straying to her hair, picking out bits of confetti.

She smiled coyly at him.   “Okay, it sounds like fun.”

He felt a ripple of pleasure go through him. “Oh, it will be, I can promise you that.”

“Call me then, when you decide.”

“Don’t worry, I will.”

 

 

January 2052

 

The weather did not cooperate. It was snowing, cold and icy, no conditions to take up a plane, and while he may have been infatuated, he wasn’t stupid. The spring term of junior year also brought heavy class workloads, with a lot more in the way of assignments and homework, and Rick was kept busy during the week juggling them and helping his mom with her catering and the chores.

It didn’t help that Emma seemed to have family commitments of her own. He hoped that wasn’t a brush-off, but she didn’t seem to be interested in any other guys, simply hanging out with her Cuckoos, and Jake and Holly were still an item, so he had to be content with snatching odd bits of conversation at school, and dreaming of possibilities.

Was she playing hard to get? He didn’t have enough experience with girls to know. He could have asked for advice, but Johnny was way too smug already, and he didn’t want to give Mitch the satisfaction of knowing he was floundering.

 

***

 

The bleak January shivered into February and it was only when Valentine’s Day was practically upon him that the weather took a rapid turn for the better. He wasn’t sure he believed in Fate, but he knew he was a fool if he didn’t grab this golden opportunity. He called Emma, telling her not to plan anything for the upcoming Sunday – they were going flying. She texted back a yes, and delirious, he was unable to concentrate on anything for the next three days. He checked the weather forecast about fifty times a day, but the temperature stayed well above freezing, and the Sunday forecast was for clear and sunny skies. They were good to go.

         He and Jack had finally replaced the Futura’s battery and a full set of starter plugs, so he felt a whole lot more comfortable setting out for the Bishop mansion that morning. Westland airport was busy, nice weather brought aviators out like flies, especially in winter when the clear, pollution free air resulted in uninterrupted visibility for miles.

The little plane he’d hired for the morning was waiting for him over at one of the hangars, all fuelled up and ready to go. Emma clapped her hands girlishly when she saw it. He quickly dropped into Intrepid Aviation, on the pretext of saying hello to his old instructor, but he really wanted to show Emma off. Max grinned knowingly, pulled his ex-pupil aside for a few moments, and gave him a brief lecture about keeping his eyes and hands on the controls and the sky while he was in the air. Rick reddened with embarrassment and assured him that there would be no funny business until they were both safely on the ground.

He was so excited his fingers fumbled as he checked her safety harness, and he had to will himself to take it easy.  Max was right; taking off on a flight with a passenger was no time to lose his head.

However, all his training and skills took over, and as they lifted off from the tarmac he was all business, flicking switches on the controls and the radio, keeping his gaze on the sky around him as the little plane rose higher into the sky. They hit an updraft and Cessna juddered a little, making Emma give a little cry of surprise and grab the sides of her seat.

“You’re sure you know how to fly one of these?” Her eyes betrayed a sudden fear.

He couldn’t help the smug tone in his reply. “Oh, yeah, blindfold.”

The first leg of the trip would take him below Detroit International’s Class B airspace on the way down to Grosse Isle, so he radioed his position and intentions to ATC at the big airport so they would know he was there, and follow them on radar. Now that he’d done everything by the book, he could revel in having Emma all to himself up here, where he was most at peace, the sky.

“Have you ever taken another girl up in a plane?” she asked a little while later.

“No, you’re the first.”

That brought a smile to her face.  Emma liked to be first in everything.

Very soon, they approached the small island of Grosse Ile, their first stop, a small brown and green jewel in the bosom of the Detroit River. They only had a short hop over water, but he had life-vests stowed under the seats, just in case.

On their approach Detroit handed them over to the local frequency for Grosse Ile, and he used the radio to announce his intentions to land at the airport at the southernmost tip of the small islet. He made it text –book and he taxied the Cessna to the parking bay so they could stop and refuel in the tiny terminal building and the Barnstormer’s Café. 

 “Mmm, these are heavenly,” Emma announced, after the waitress delivered her plate of fluffy pancakes drizzled with maple syrup and berries.

“This place is the best kept secret in Michigan,” Rick said, with a grin.

The café was a meeting spot for local aviators, and they were always interested in talking shop. Emma sat listening politely as an older pilot leant over and started chatting to Rick, impressed that he seemed to be treated as an equal. After a while the conversation turned technical so she wandered around the café, looking at the historical photographs of pioneering airmen and women.

The pilot Rick was talking to noticed before he did. He nudged him. “Hey, kid, it’s been great, but I think you’d better look after your girl, I see the signs, she’s looking antsy, you wouldn’t want to spoil your date, would you?”

Rick stopped in mid-flow, only now realising that Emma had wandered off, he’d been that engrossed. He grinned sheepishly. “Thanks, it was great talking to you.”

They climbed back into the Cessna, and he flew north, following the bend of the Detroit River, a wide turquoise ribbon that would eventually head out into Lake St Clair. The city spread out below their wings like a vast chequerboard, cross-crossing lines of mauve and indigo where the streets lay in the shadow of the tall buildings, glowing pale gold in the late winter sunlight. From this height, safe in their metal cocoon, the skyscrapers looked like children’s toy blocks.

Emma fell quiet for a few moments as she drank in the scene below her, and then she began to chatter, pointing out all the landmarks she could recognise. 

“There’s the Renaissance Center, and Millennium Plaza, oh, and I can see Comerica Park, and there’s the Ambassador Bridge!”

“You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.”

She squinted at him. “Did you just make that up? It sounds so poetic.”

 “I wish. Amelia Earhart got there before me.”

By the time they touched back down at Westland, and stepped off the little plane, the shadows had foreshortened and the sun spilled warmth onto their shoulders. Emma tucked one arm into his and kissed him on the cheek.

“That was fun, so what’s next?”

“Next, how about going skating?”

“I didn’t bring my boots.”

”Me neither, but you can hire them at the rink.”

She hesitated and made a face. “I’m not sure I want to put my feet into some smelly old pair of boots someone else has been wearing,”

Rick cursed his stupidity. Why on earth didn’t he think of warning her? His buoyant smile sagged a little, and she must have noticed.

“Oh, go on, then,” she said, accompanied by a theatrical sigh, “It couldn’t hurt, I suppose, just for an hour.”

Delighted, he grabbed her hand to propel her to the car.  

 

The outdoor rink was filled with couples and families, all enjoying the crisp weather. Rick could have gone to the indoor Midvale Silverdome, but he didn’t want to take the chance they’d run into anyone either of them knew. Today was their day – alone – he was being totally selfish and didn’t want to share her with anyone.  

They picked up boots at the booth, and strapped them on. Rick hadn’t skated for a while, but he’d been a regular at the rink in their old locale. Alicia used to take him and Mitch every Saturday without fail when they were kids, and he’d got most of his grades.

When Emma took to the ice, it was obvious that she wasn’t a novice, and that surprised him, realising that the way she moved spoke of years of diligent training and hard work. And she did look stunning, he noted with a smug satisfaction – that cool Nordic beauty turning every male head on the rink. Grinning stupidly to himself, he followed her onto the ice, hoping the old motor reflexes would cut in quickly. Emma stopped and turned, waiting patiently for him, and he wobbled for a bit as she began to cut long circles around him, teasing as she did so.

“Come on, give me a break,” he said. “I haven’t been on the ice for a couple of years.”

“So why did you suggest this as a date?” she retorted.

“I’m a born romantic.”

“You’re a born clown.”

“That too.” He gave her a lop-sided smile.

He experimented a bit more, body-memory kicking in, gliding on both feet, then lifting one, then the other in ‘stroking’ steps, keeping his stomach tucked in and his arms at the right height, not too high, not too low, for balance. Emma nodded, approval in her eyes, and that made him bolder, so he struck out a little more, as she continued to make ever larger circles around him, like a beautiful, sleek swan.

 “Catch me if you can,” she said, challenge in her eyes as she headed down the ice.

Oho, so that’s her game.

He was only too happy to play the hunter to her swan, so he skated right after her. But she was much better than him, and he found himself admiring her effortless execution of one-and two-footed glides, arabesques, and spirals.

He’d almost caught up with her, she was weaving between a group of older adult skaters, and she glanced back, sticking her tongue out at him in flirtatious gesture. He speeded up as she slowed, and he was almost able to reach out and grab one arm, when she wrong-footed him completely by making a sudden spin to the left. He fingers plucked at thin air, and he lost his balance, his forward momentum making him sail to the edge of the rink. Finally he ran out of ice and ended up on his butt.

Emma raced up to him, giggling at his misfortune.

“Seems I keep falling for you,” he said, with a rueful grin, making light of it, as she helped him to his feet. Somehow, she ended up in his arms, and he felt his stomach do a double lutz all of its own.

She whispered finally. “People are looking at us.”

It broke the spell in an instant, and he dragged his avaricious gaze away from her lips.

“Sorry.”

When they left the rink, he was conscious of the change in her body language. She leaned into him, one of her arms tucked comfortably into his as they walked slowly across the car park. When they arrived at his Futura, she didn’t make any of her usual disparaging comments, just turned to look at him with a soft, dreamy expression on her face, her gaze fixated on his mouth.

A pulse went crazy in Rick’s temple, and he thought he might be about to pass out; the flight and the flirting on the ice had slowly but surely wound him up to snapping point. Hands clasped, they leant forwards almost at the same time, and lips met, mouths open slightly, the quickness of tongues behind that sent a hot flash running straight through him. He held her tight and surrendered totally to the moment, forgetting that they were in a public place. Right then he found himself wishing they could both be transported to someplace where they could both be horizontal, preferably without clothes.

Way too quickly for his liking, he felt her lips pull away from his, and for a second he was sucking air. Up to now he didn’t have a yardstick to judge how he was doing, and, like flying a plane, he was going with gut feeling.

“I – think maybe you’d better drive me home, Rick, It’s getting late, and it’s school tomorrow,” she said quietly, but firmly, her face flushed in the sunlight. Her breathing was heavy, and he wondered if that kiss had shaken her up as much as it had him.

“Sure,” he tried to cover his frustrated ardour with a lop-sided smile.  “I hope uh – you didn’t mind, I mean, me kissing you like that. I hope it was okay.”

She tilted her head. “Mmm, not bad. Better than I thought it might be.” He wasn’t quite sure how to answer that, but it felt like someone had just picked him up and plugged him into the mains.

 

***

 

Rick had been dating Emma for a month and he still hadn’t got past first base.  Sometimes, when she dropped the ice-princess façade long enough to actually allow him to kiss her thoroughly in the back row of the holo-theatre, or during a snatched moments of privacy in the car before dropping one another home after a date, he wondered if she felt the same; that pounding of blood through the head and parts south when their mouths met, tongue over tongue, around and around, sliding on her teeth as if he wanted to suck the life out of her.

She was driving him crazy with her teasing yet virginal manner and more often, to his considerable surprise, he found himself beginning to empathise with Jake Sanders.

 

***

 

“Woo-hoo! Here’s to the birthday kid!”

“Many happy returns, Flyboy!”

“Congratulations!”

Corbin and Aaron and Johnny and their respective girlfriends all crowded around him, and when he sat down at the table, with Emma by his side, he figured that only two more things were required to make it perfection. Emma letting him past first base tonight, or finding a Harley Davidson parked in front on the drive when he got home. 

The food arrived, and Emma wrinkled her nose at her enormous dish of deep-pan pizza, but conscious of Rick’s earnest gaze, began to cut it into pieces.

Corbin snorted, and picked up a large slice of provolone and pepper with one big hand. ”You don’t need a fork for pizza!”

Clarice gave a throaty giggle.

Emma sniffed and raised her chin. “Some of us, were raised to eat properly,”

“Oh, and we ain’t?” Clarice retorted, with a dark frown.

“Hey, guys, come on, don’t argue, it’s my birthday,” Rick said, and Clarice shrugged, her braids bobbing.

The rest of the evening passed mostly without incident, Emma and Stella compared shopping and fashion notes, while Clarice and Jodie launched into a discussion about which sci-fi heroine was the most kick-ass, an argument which got more heated as it wore on with Aaron and Johnny soon joining in the fray.

“Oh for goodness sake, keep your nerdy discussion a little quieter, please, could you?” Emma finally said in exasperation.  “I mean, really, who cares?”

 Even Stella looked uncomfortable. Emma palmed her hands outward, soliciting agreement from the others.  “Well? Am I the only one who finds it boring?”

“And talking about make-up isn’t?” Clarice said with a dangerous edge to her voice, which made Corbin and Rick glance involuntarily at one another. Clarice was usually a sweet-tempered girl, but she was six-foot of pure tigress when roused on the basketball court. Emma wouldn’t stand a chance in a cat-fight if it came down to it.  

“Who’s for dessert?” Corbin announced, just a little too loudly.

 

The argument had left a distinct chill around the table, and Rick wasn’t alone in being relieved when they could call for the check and they could go their own separate ways.

“I don’t know what you see in her, man,” Corbin said quietly in his ear, as he leaned over to give Rick a brotherly bear-hug in farewell. “Well, apart from the obvious…”

Rick tried to give him a careless smile. “Hey, I know Emma seemed a bit prickly this evening..”

“Prickly? She’s downright rude, not to mention being a snob, and I bet if you scratch that sophisticated veneer there’ll be a faint trace of ‘racist’ underneath.”

Rick reddened.  “Now wait a minute, Corbin, you’ve got her wrong; she’s different when I’m with her, there’s a whole other side to her, she’s…”

“Yeah, yeah, maybe you’re so besotted you can’t see straight, man.”

Corbin’s voice trailed to a hiss as Emma sidled up to the two of them, and she pointedly ignored the taller boy and asked Rick if he was ready to go home, as she had a headache.

“Yeah, I guess.”

They were both subdued on the return home, and he fiddled with the radio for something to occupy his head while he drove. When he stopped a little way from her house, he attempted to kiss her, but she slid her lips away so he ended up with his lips on her cheek instead.

“Hey, no birthday kiss?” he said in a light tone, hoping to raise a smile from her.

“I’m not sure you deserve one.”

His hands climbed. “Look, I’m sorry about all the arguments, I don’t know what came over Corbin.”

“He doesn’t like me, none of your friends do.”

“Emma, that’s crazy.”

“I don’t expect to be treated the way I was, so maybe you ought to think about where your loyalties lie, with your nerdy friends or with me and the popular crowd, you can’t have a foot in both camps, you’ll have to choose.”

Irritation dispelled his discomfort, and he almost found himself regretting sticking up for her outside Maroni’s. “That isn’t fair,” he said sullenly.

“Is it fair that I have to slum around with your friends all the time? You never agree to spend time with mine.”

Rick kept silent, now was hardly the time to point out that he found her friends vacuous and boring as hell. The simple fact was that he only wanted to spend time with Emma, not them.

As she drove off in her Mustang, he trudged up the drive to the darkened, and empty, house. He flipped the note on the fridge: ‘We’ve gone out for Mexican with Ted. Hope you had a great birthday.’

 

 

March 2052

 

On the day when two-thirds of the world swore in a President for his third and final term of office in Unity City, Bermuda, Rick was worrying about which shirt he ought to wear to Emma’s seventeenth birthday bash. As he dried from the shower upstairs, he caught snatches of the running commentary on the sitting-room televiewer.

“…and Nikita Bandranaik turns to the crowds gathered outside the Senate Building and waves. The ceremony was marred by several protest marches in cities around the world, citing the President’s failure to negotiate with the Asian Federation and the continuing inability of the World Government security forces to combat the threat of terrorism from the rogue state of Bereznik. This small nation state continues to threaten world peace; its authoritarian regime has continually been cited responsible for proliferating weapons of mass destruction banned under the peace treaty of 2040, to terrorist cells around the world, and to threaten its neighbours with incursions beyond its borders. The President promised that the government will seek greater powers to curb terrorism by Bereznik by any means, so that the citizens of our united world can continue to exist in peaceful harmony.”

Rick heard his father’s snort of derision, even from upstairs, followed by his voice. Peaceful harmony? United? What planet is this guy living on, Mars?  Doesn’t matter where they come from, politicians will promise the Earth if they think it’ll keep them in power.”

Rick bounded downstairs to the lounge, with a shirt over each arm. He didn’t normally ask for his mom’s advice, but today was too important to be left to chance. 

“He’s starting to look a bit frail,” Alicia said, as a camera homed in on the tall, ascetic figure of the World President.

 “Yeah, well he should have been made to stand down,” Jack said, “Three terms are way too much for anyone.”

“But he was fairly elected…”

“Yeah, by a bunch of sycophants in Unity. I didn’t see a voting card come through our door, did you? Sometimes I have some sympathy with those right-wing fundamentalists who say Bandy’s the closest thing to the Anti-Christ since Axel Rosen.”

“Jack…”

“Mom, you got a moment?” Rick interrupted them. “I need some advice on a shirt choice…”

“Sure.”

“Power corrupts absolutely, and all that.” Jack was still on his soap-box.  “Our president spends more time schmoozing with Unity officials than he spends in his own back yard. Once upon a time it meant something to be the chief of the US, now it’s just a stepping stone on the way to the big job. Like it isn’t a big job sorting out all the bad stuff in our own country.”

 “I’m sure you’ll have a great time, sweetheart,” Alicia said to Rick, ignoring her husbands rants. “And be sure to check out the canapés. I could do with some new ideas.”

Jack snorted again. “He’ll be too busy eating them to notice, I know I would.”

Before Rick left, Alicia saw him to the door and straightened the lapels of his jacket, a habit of a lifetime around so many men. 

“This girl’s been good for you, made you smarten up a little. I approve.”

He gave her a lop-sided smile. “Well, that’s all right then, as long as you approve.”

She tapped his cheek sharply. “There you go, being a smart-mouth again. But you don’t fool me one bit, Richard.” She dropped her voice a little, so that Jack couldn’t hear. “Are you serious about her?”

“Uh, like you mean like marry serious?”

“No. Serious as in a – physical way.”

Rick felt his face grow hot with mortification. “We haven’t done anything beyond kissing – she’s not that sort of girl.”

“But you want to.”

“Mom, do we really have to talk about this now?”

“I just want to make sure you don’t get yourself, or her, into trouble.”

“Nothing’s happening, honest.”

“Why have you never brought her around to see us?” Alicia pressed him. “I only met her just the once, and she seemed nice enough.”

The sound of a car horn rescued him.

“Gotta go. See you later.”

“If I didn’t know you better I’d say you were ashamed of us,” she called out at his departing figure.

He turned back, blew her a kiss. “Enjoy your political discussion with Pop.”

She shook her head with a wry smile.

Rick tried hard not to ogle Stella’s legs as he opened the door of Johnny’s car, but she made things difficult for any guy with a normal healthy libido. The emerald dress barely made it past her thighs, and seemed to be sprayed onto the rest of her. She gave him a smile and crinkled her eyes at him as he climbed in and then went back to checking her face in a compact mirror in readiness for the party. As Johnny drove, and Stella chattered, Rick remained silent, filled with an unaccountable sense of foreboding that he couldn’t shake off.  

 

The Bishops’ mansion was decorated lavishly with flowers, rather than the typical party balloons. They decorated the statues, and the topiary, and the front porch.

“Tasteful,” Stella said, with an approving nod as the car swung in past the electronic gates.

“They even have valet parking, is that over the top, or what?” Johnny said, as youngish man dressed like a bellhop waved them into a vacant slot between a red Mustang and a gold Cadillac.

They entered the vast hall, and waved their invitations to another short-jacketed attendant, who nodded, and then politely offered them a glass of tropical fruit punch served in long glasses. They were directed straight through the hall towards the exterior of the house, where a gigantic white open-ended marquee, decorated with multicoloured lights and balloons and flowers, dominated the vast lawn. Scores of teenagers bopped up and down to the music that came from a live four-piece rock group, who sounded like the real thing, because in fact, that is exactly what they were.

“My God, that’s ‘Alchemy’! They’re one of my all-time faves!” Stella shrieked. She spotted a couple of girls she knew waving in front of the lead singer and tottered across the grass to join them in a groupie hug.

“How much money her old man must have parted with to hire them?” Johnny shook his head in wonder.

“More money than sense, I guess,” Rick replied.

The sky above was electric blue, and the temperature was a balmy fifty Fahrenheit when the sun really got going, but just to ensure that it felt more like Malibu than the Midwest, the Bishops had hired huge suspension heaters that sent warm air currents over the lawn so that the female guests could wear skimpy party frocks without freezing their assets.

 “You can’t get much better than this,” Johnny said, as a couple of pretty girls from senior year passed them and waved. “We have truly arrived.”

“Yeah, but I feel bad being here when she snubbed the others, we’ll be lucky if Corbin and Aaron speak to us again if they find out we’re here.”

 “Who’s gonna tell them? Not me.”

Rick nodded, still trying to spot Emma. He finally saw her standing on the grass, just beyond the marquee, in the centre of a small crowd of teenagers.  She was wearing a long multi-coloured dress that clung to her slender body, and oozed sophistication. Her hair had been brushed and styled until it glowed like molten gold, and rippled in the balmy breeze from one of the giant heaters. At one point she giggled uproariously at something some guy in the group said, and Rick felt a sudden spear of jealousy. He had an invitation to the party, but not as a consort. That said something, and he wasn’t sure he liked the implication.

“Well, aren’t you going to go up and say hello?” Johnny nudged him after he’d stood there for a few more moments. Despite willing her to look across and see him, she had resolutely kept her gaze fixed on the admiring group of friends around her.  

“Why spoil things, she’s enjoying herself, maybe later. Let’s go see if we can find some food in this place.”

“Now you’re talking, Flyboy.”

 

“You ought to have got them to hire your mom to do the food,” Johnny said, as he loaded a selection of fancy canapés onto his plate. Following their noses, they had discovered several long tables set up at the back of the marquee. “This sort of do is right up her alley, isn’t it.?”

“Yeah, but there’s no way I’m associating myself with the hired help at this party.”

“You’re real balanced, you know that, Flyboy?”

Rick took a bite of one of the morsels, felt a dash of fire hit the back of his throat. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve got a chip on both shoulders.”

“Eat dirt, Wardynski.”

“Uh-oh, take a look at who just wandered in.”

Rick clenched his tumbler tight enough to shatter when he saw Jake Sanders elbowing his way through the dancing teenagers, dressed to impress in a sharp-cut dark-blue preppy blazer and white jeans. He looked relaxed, a big smile plastered on his face, as if he had every right to turn up at his ex-girlfriend’s birthday after treating her like dirt.  He took a couple of steps in Sanders’ direction and Johnny stayed his arm.

“You’re not gonna do something stupid, are you, Flyboy?”

“So there you are! I might have guessed I’d find you wolfing down the food. Just like boys.”

“Emma!” Rick almost spilt his drink over himself.

“Who did you expect, the birthday fairy?” She twirled for him. “How do I look?”

“Amazing?”

“I should think so, this dress cost a fortune. So, where’s Stella? Didn’t she come with you guys?”

“She’s dancing to Alchemy,” Johnny said.

“Aren’t they great?” 

“Did you know that Jake’s here?” Rick asked her, and his voice came out harsher than he’d intended.

For a second, her face went blank as she searched the crowd, finally alighting on the blond quarterback. He was turned away from her, so she had the element of surprise.

“I didn’t invite him,” she said.

“So who did?”

“Maybe my parents.”

“Your parents? Don’t you have a say in your guest list?”

“Of course, but my father and Jake’s father are friends.”

“Friends?”

“You sound like an echo. Yes, they’re business associates, and friends, it isn’t that hard to believe, is it?”

Rick grimaced. “What I do find hard to believe it that your folks would allow the guy who nearly broke their daughter’s heart to come to her party and gloat.”

Emma rolled her eyes. “Oh, Rick, don’t be so melodramatic. My heart was hardly broken.”

“That isn’t how I saw it. You were hurting, don’t deny it.”

She patted his arm. “You are so sweet, and I really do appreciate you looking out for me, but it’s fine, really.”

“If you want me to talk to him, I will.”

She looked horrified. “Good gravy, I don’t want a scene. Just leave it to me, I’ll sort it out.”

That didn’t comfort him at all. He disliked the idea of Jake and Emma becoming friendly again, it suited him just fine the way things were.

“You haven’t danced with me yet,” he said, changing the subject. He hated the whine in his voice, but was powerless to stop it.

 

He had to be satisfied with a single dance and then he spent the next forty-five minutes hanging around at the edges of the party, watching her as she flitted like a gilded butterfly, from one group of revellers to the next, laughing, teasing, flirting.  She was in full party-mode, high on adrenaline, and on being the total centre of attention. He pretended not to care, and made small-talk with Stella, and a couple of other girls who came up to chat, but inside he was falling apart.

It bothered him that no one, other than Johnny, seemed overly surprised or shocked that Jake had the nerve to show his face after treating the hostess so shamefully and Rick wondered if he was missing something.  Perhaps there were unwritten rules here that he was too stupid to understand? He looked around, there wasn’t any sign of Holly Vance, and he began to wonder if she knew that her so-called boy-friend had snuck off to his ex-girlfriends party.

“You okay, Rick?” Johnny asked him, with a concerned look in his eyes.  “You’ve been kinda subdued ever since you clapped eyes on Sanders.”

“Yeah, I’m fine, but I might just head off early, I’ve got a stomach-ache. Think I had some bad shrimp.”

 

***

 

Subconsciously, he knew things had changed between him and Emma that afternoon of her party, but blind optimism and hope held the truth at bay for a while, even when she kept ‘forgetting’ to return his calls, or when she did return them, somehow found excuses for not being able to see him.  Predictably, he became moody, anxious, and lost his appetite.

Alicia saw the signs, and suspected the cause, although he tightened up like a clam when she broached the subject. She tried to tell him that things would be fine, that he’d get over her, that there would be other girls, who cared from him in the same way he cared for them, all those damn fine clichés that people trot out in an attempt to salve the pain.  But it was little comfort to a young man whose heart was breaking. Like most teenagers in the throes of that chemical imbalance of the brain called unrequited love, he refused to believe her.

Jack cautioned his wife to stay out of it but, like all mothers, she felt a fierce protectiveness. Any secret wishes that she’d harboured about the two of them vanished in a natural antipathy for the pretty originator of his distress who was stamping all over her youngest boy’s heart with her four-inch stilettos.

 

***

 

The text message hit Rick’s cell-phone just as he pulled into the driveway of their house one dull April evening. The weather had turned wintry again, and a few snowflakes had started drifting down from the sky as he’d driven home from school.  He sat, with the engine off, reading the words with a sick feeling in his stomach.

Rick, I really had a fun time with you, but I don’t think we’re going anywhere. Sorry, I think we should call it a day. Emma x

So that was it, dumped by three lines of text; all that time wasted chasing someone he’d put on a pedestal, and who, in the end, couldn’t care less about him.

Stupid rich bitch, he thought savagely, She was just having a fling, having some fun at the dorky guy’s expense, her pet project, until she got bored.  

He started to text back, his words as chaotic as his thoughts, but something made him stop before sending the message, and when he read through the text with blurred eyes, he realised how lame, how pathetic it sounded. Oh, she would just love to hear him beg, but somehow he knew that it wouldn’t make any difference. She’d made her decision to drop him from her life, and no amount of crying and imploring would make her change her mind. He’d only look like a bigger fool in her eyes.

So he pressed cancel, and in that instant, he had a flashback to the night in the cinema where he’d tried to win the bet with Johnny by kissing Lucy Travis.  He was struck by an uncomfortable stab of empathy, his own mind playing back the distress and anger on the girl’s face, and only now, in the midst of his own misery did he see his behaviour then for what it was, callous and indifferent.

He was Lucy now; the joke on him, everyone laughing behind their backs.

Rick put his face into his hands, trying to staunch the dark waves of pain that kept rolling over him, threatening to choke him, blind him. It was some time before he realised that the light outside had faded and the windshield was completely covered with snow.

 

***

 

Emma hadn’t told him the whole truth, of course, although he found out anyway, courtesy of the cauldron of gossip called the Midvale High School corridors. She’d barely let the embers of their romance cool before she started dating Jake again. They weren’t even discrete about it, which pretty much summed it up for him. Totally self-absorbed, they could care less if they left a trail of broken hearts in their wake.

He almost felt sorry for Holly, almost, but not quite. She’d brought it on herself in part, with her behaviour. God listen to me, I sound like a sanctimonious jerk. When did I become Mr Morality all of a sudden?

With a dim sense of astonishment, he began to realise that this burgeoning lack of respect for Emma was the beginnings of a cure for his hormone-induced madness. In the cold light of day, with the blindfold off, he could see his relationship with Emma for what it was – totally one-sided, with him doing all the adoring and giving. She and Jake were perfect for one another; both so totally wrapped up in themselves they formed the perfect mutual admiration society.

 

***

 

“Yeah, well, I was going to dump her anyway, honestly, guys,” he told the others at lunch one afternoon in the school cafeteria. One upside of his break-up with Emma was that Corbin was speaking to him again. “Things are way better without her, she was starting to be a real pain, and what an air-head, the word was invented for that girl.”

“And you don’t miss the…you know…sex?” Aaron asked.

Rick made a sound somewhere between a snort and a laugh. “Give me a break.” He lowered his voice conspiratorially, “Trying to make out with Emma was like trying to make love to an ice-berg. She’s like Niagara in the dead of winter.”

“You’re kidding..”

 “Nope. Take it from me, that girl’s taken the pledge, Sanders is going to be royally disappointed - again.”

They hooted with complicit laughter until the bell rang for next class. Rick wasn’t cured of Emma-sickness just yet, but it did his ego good to let others think that he didn’t care one jot about her.

 

 

Summer 2052

 

Winter refused to lessen its grip on the Midwest, and the Detroit area saw a few snow showers in early April and a couple of below zero days, while the Eastern seaboard was basking in temperatures in the 70s. Mitch send back holo-vids of him and Melanie basking in the sunshine on the Yale courtyards, and posing underneath the cherry blossom in Washington DC where the two of them spent Spring Break.

A few weeks later, as the mid-May temperatures soared in a freak heat-wave from Maine to Milwaukee, Mitch and Melanie were caught in the middle of a shocking outburst of violent rioting on those very same calm, verdant lawns at Yale. 

Rick was the first in the household to see the news, on an otherwise quiet late Sunday morning in Midvale. Jack was in the garage, and Alicia was delivering one of her catering orders in town. He’d slept late, and was now slumped into a chair, still in his sleep-shorts and tee, and was flicking through the channels, when he saw a news item that immediately caught his eye.  A reporter was describing the scenes behind him, of smoke-blackened sandstone buildings, and frightened students milling around.  He read the moving banner across the bottom of the screen as a cold chill skittered along his spine:

BREAKING NEWS – RIOTS IN YALE – MANY INJURED    

His eyes were riveted to the screen for more minutes, as if he half-expected to see Mitch suddenly pop up behind the reporter.

“ - I’m standing on the Old Campus, the famous centre of Yale, and behind me you see the results of this morning’s unprecedented rioting at the heart of this venerable institution. It’s not yet clear how the violence escalated, but eyewitnesses have said that it started with a protest this morning on the lawns by an extremist body of students who call themselves Group 22. They have been demanding action of President Bandranaik’s government to put pressure on the Bereznik regime for the release of twenty-two political prisoners, including their charismatic leader, Anton Javorsky, who have been held in a Bereznian gulag for the past ten years. Riot police were called in by the university to break up the demonstration, and that’s when things turned violent.   We have reports that several incendiary devices went off at various buildings around the campus, which have resulted in injuries to many students as well as property damage. As well as the members of Group 22 it seems there were a number of other students at Yale involved, and they too have been arrested in connection with the unrest today-”

         Rick hadn’t a clue who Anton Javorsky was, and frankly, didn’t care, but he did feel an abrupt and overwhelming concern for his older brother. He dashed upstairs for his cell-phone, leaving the TV to drone to itself, and dialled Mitch.

No answer.

His heart thumped as he texted his brother, telling him to get in touch if he was okay. Then he ran out into the yard to find his father and tell him the news. By the time an anxious Alicia screeched into the driveway, Mitch had texted back. Don’t worry, I’m okay. Couldn’t call you back, in hospital with Melanie, She was injured in the rioting and needed some stitches, but she’s fine. Will call you later. Mitch.

Mitch did call later as he’d promised, and told them that Melanie sustained a bad gash in her arm when glass blew out of one of Berkeley College’s stained glass windows as she was passing the ancient building on her way back from the library.

“She was damn lucky she wasn’t blinded.” Mitch said and his voice still shook with fury and shock. “Okay, the aims of those idiots in Group 22 might have been noble, but violence doesn’t solve anything. Now they’re probably going to be expelled from Yale and most likely serve a prison term too. How’s that going to help anyone?”

“Guess it won’t, son,” Jack agreed. “But we’re all just glad that the two of you are okay.”

“Thanks, and Rick, I appreciate your concern, and I’ll pass on your regards to Mel.”

“Yeah, well, sure,” Rick mumbled. He didn’t want Mitch to get the idea he was going soft on him.

 

***

 

There was no more violent rioting at Yale, and Mitch and Melanie seemed to recover quickly from their ordeal, so life went on.  May tumbled into a bright June, and then, just like that, Rick’s junior year was consigned to memory. Two and a half months of summer vacation began, hot, sultry and seemingly endless.

This meant he had to work, naturally, neither he nor Mitch could afford to spend their vacations lying on a beach, so he returned to work for Delancy’s Landscaping and Pool Maintenance, and for the first few weeks he settled into a routine of back-breaking work. Most days he would came home exhausted, ready to do nothing more than shovel down his supper and fall into bed with a dreamless sleep.

Every other week he’d book a little two-seater aircraft at Westland, so he could soar, unfettered in the wide blue sky. For those few hours of untrammelled freedom, he thought of little else but the joy of flying, and began to long for the time when he could leave school and fly for real, as a paid job. He knew he didn’t want to fly civilian aircraft, he desired the fast jets, and he’d never forgotten Captain Carlin. The WAF pilot remained his cherished hero, and he was determined to follow in the man’s footsteps. It didn’t occur to him to wonder if his desire was even feasible: air force numbers had fallen in the swingeing cuts following the recent decision by the World President and the military to amalgamate the Air Force with the World Army, but that didn’t concern Rick at the moment, living in his dream of flying above the clouds at Mach 3 in a Viper.

He finally succeeded in dragging Johnny into the cockpit for a flight, anything to take away that pathetic look on his face as he pined for Stella, who was away in Greece visiting her relatives. Rick felt smug in his new-found celibacy, finally glad to be freed of that need to impress a girl, of the agony of wondering whether he was good enough. But after ten minutes heading west across state his best friend turned pale and threw up all over the dash-board, necessitating a swift return to Westland. Johnny was sheepish and helped clean up the cockpit, but said he’d stick with bigger jets in future.

 

***

 

Rick’s expertise with anything mechanical hadn’t gone unnoticed and when his boss asked him if he’d like to learn about the water-side of the job, Rick jumped at the chance. He eagerly took on board all there was to know about the various ways to treat water to keep it free from algae and bacteria, and how to use and maintain the pool-cleaning robots, and by the second week of July he was tagging along with Mike Delancy’s pool-maintenance man.   

His favourite house was one in Royal Oak.   The owner, a Mrs Danielle Grayson, was a thirty-something housewife who made sure there were plenty of drinks and cookies on hand while they worked, and she always thanked them real nice when they finished. She wore a tee-shirt and shorts that emphasized her tanned legs, and when she smiled at Rick he couldn’t help the flutter in his belly, a sensation that sometimes made its way down to his groin.

He’d thought about sex since Emma, what teenager didn’t? But he couldn’t face getting romantically involved with another girl his age so soon after she’d driven all over his heart. Getting horny over Mrs Grayson was safe, if a little weird; she was old enough to be his mother, although she certainly didn’t look it.

So he’d thank her nicely for the refreshments, and lower his eyes when she was in the vicinity, as he worked hard, cleaning and doing the odd jobs, and occasionally fantasising about making out with her on one of the long cream couches that surrounded her pool.

 It certainly made the job go a lot faster.  

 

Years later, Rick would remember the summer of 2052 as a golden time of youthful innocence before his notions of immortality were ripped away. No young man ever believes he’ll die. Death and old age were simply words that didn’t apply. Life would continue to stretch out to some hazy horizon, filled with hope and the belief that somehow, things would only get better.

 

 

 

Fall 2052

 

Finally, his senior year in Midvale, and if he hadn’t quite made it to the cafeteria window table that Jake Sanders had vacated for the University of Michigan, he wasn’t far away. The latter was going to study business and politics, no doubt being groomed as the prince-in-waiting for the Midvale Country Club.  Emma Bishop and her Cuckoos, had already launched into a campaign to vote her Queen of the Prom, and when he occasionally lapsed into a sense of despondency about his perceived loss, he only had to watch all the pointless preparations to have it supplanted by a sense of relief that he didn’t have to endure any of it.

He settled into the term, bumping along with his course work, knowing that after this year was over he wouldn’t have to suffer any more. He would have the freedom to choose what he wanted to do, and his mind was already made up. He was going to join the WAAF. Alicia kept reminding him that in order to do any of that, he’d have to graduate first, and the way he was going, that wasn’t going to happen.

 

***

 

Fall term ticked away, through a warm mellow September, and a blustery October, and Johnny suggested they spend their favourite celebration, Halloween, in a place called Shifting Sands, on the north shores of Lake Michigan. Stella invited herself along for the ride, much to Rick’s chagrin. Lately she’d become a little hard-edged, and seemed to take relish in flirting with him when Johnny wasn’t looking, which bothered him – a lot. Of course he was attracted to her – any man would have had to be dead from the neck down not to ignore her charms. But he refused to betray his best friend, and tried to make it clear to her that he wasn’t interested.

Things might have turned out differently had she continued to yank his chain, but fate had its own ideas. Against the advice of the town’s deputy sheriff, the three of them had climbed the tall dunes that gave the town its name and gone wandering across them. A silly argument between him and Johnny left Rick in a foul mood, exacerbated by Stella’s blatant attempts at making him jealous by openly seducing Johnny in front of him. He left them cavorting on the sand as he trudged away. Moments later, he heard them screaming for their lives, amongst a cacophony of awful sound, and he frantically tried to clamber back up the slope, but he kept slipping on the dry sand. By the time he finally crawled over to where they had lain, silence reigned once again. It was as if the two teenagers had simply vanished.

 

 

***

 

Panicked and distraught, Rick stumbled into town to get help from the deputy sheriff.  He knew that he’d wasted precious time trying to dig for them, and his fingers were scraped raw raking out the sand in an attempt to reach his buried friends.

As he gabbled to Deputy Sawyer, almost incoherent with distress, the older man listened intently, with a grave expression on his craggy face. Afterwards, he forced Rick to drink a cup of strong coffee while he made a series of rapid-fire phone calls. Within thirty minutes the deputy’s assistants arrived, together with the local fire-crew, who carried yards of heavy nylon ropes and large shovels. As a group, with Rick leading, they tramped up to the dune-bowl, and he pointed out the last place he’d seen the two teenagers. The dust bowl was calm, and eerie in the harsh moonlight, but the men set to their task with brisk assurance, tying one end of the rope fast to several nearby cottonwood trees before lowering themselves into the dust bowl. 

They fanned out, digging in different areas, as briskly as they could, but it was difficult work, and they slipped and slid in the fine grains of sand. One fireman stepped across a patch of sand and fell up to his waist as if he’d dropped through a hidden trapdoor. If it hadn’t been for the rope holding him, he would have gone under.

All the while, Rick’s heart was beating like a drum in his chest. Part of him willed any one of the men to discover an arm, a leg, to pull them free, another part of him was terrified at the prospect, at what he might see uncovered from within these silvery depths.

After several more agonizing minutes, a shout came from one of the diggers, as he bent down to retrieve an object that had been exposed by his shovel. It was passed back to Sawyer, and he showed it to Rick.

“It’s Stella’s,” he affirmed with a stricken look on his face. The deputy bagged the stiletto shoe, and the fire-crew resumed their dig, but the sand kept tumbling back as fast as they could dig it out, and after two hours, the fire-chief had to call a halt, admitting defeat.

“We’ll have to get some specialised digging equipment from Traverse City; it should get here in the hour.” He turned to Rick, who was now shivering in the chill. “What’s happened, some sort of landslide?”

“Yes. No, I’m not sure…”

As if to spare him the anguish of telling, Sawyer cut in. “Sounds like that’s what happened. Everything points to it.”

Rick stayed silent, even though he’d wanted to blurt out what he thought, but maybe he’d just sound crazy, like Sawyer already thought he was. Instead he asked the question that kept hammering around his head, giving him no peace.

“Is there any chance they might still be alive?”

The deputy and the chief exchanged a glance, then the latter spoke, his face bleak.

“If they’re buried that far down…I doubt it, son. I’m sorry.”

 

Finally, the specialist equipment arrived, and as Rick watched them set it up, he wondered what was the point, if there was little hope of finding them alive. The machine began to tunnel into the dune-bowl, spraying fine sand in an arc, like a snow-blower. An hour later a trench ten yards deep had been dug out. The fire-crew followed in behind it, searching.

It took them another ten minutes to find the two buried teenagers, lying a few yards apart from one another. There were gasps as they saw the state of the bodies. After bringing them up to the ridge, they were laid out gently, side by side, and the deputy and the fire-chief double-checked for signs of life. There were none.

Rick looked at their corpses for a few seconds. He’d never seen a dead body in his life and now he was staring at two. He felt the bile rise and choke him, and for the second time that night, he doubled up and retched onto the sand.

“Look at the bite marks, those gashes,” one fireman noted. “Like they’ve been mauled by some wild animal.”

“Never saw a bear take chunks out of someone like that.”

“Had to be a bear though. They must have disturbed one when they were tramping around the dunes.”

The deputy held up one hand as he leant over to see how Rick was doing. “A little less of the theories, guys, can’t you see the kid is upset?”

They murmured apologies, as Sawyer gently squeezed Rick’s shoulder with a big hand, and the teenager nodded his thanks as he wiped his chin on the back of one hand. He couldn’t bear to see his friends like this, drained of life, the end of all their hopes and dreams.  In a daze, he only half-realised the deputy was still talking to him.

“…I’m going to have to send the bodies to the coroner’s office for a post-mortem, and there will probably have to be an inquest, but the first thing I have to do is contact those poor kid’s relatives, can you help me? I need phone numbers.”

Rick nodded weakly.

 

***

 

The families of the three teenagers arrived in Shifting Sands, just before dawn broke. Up to that point, Rick had remained in the relative calm of Sawyer’s office. No one involved in the search on the dunes had slept much for the remainder of that long and dreadful night. Someone in town had tipped off the local northern Michigan news crews however, and for a while Sawyer had to field several excited reporters’ questions. He asked for privacy for the grieving relatives and gave no more than they were entitled to, which was next to nothing.

The Frasers and Ted Wardynski arrived together in Jack’s truck, and the moment Alicia set eyes on her son she enveloped him a fierce embrace, gabbling at him.

“How could you all even think of…in the middle of the night…oh, my God… I can’t believe it…thank heaven you’re all right.”

Rick submitted to her tearful admonishments, partly because he was too exhausted to fend her off, and partly because he didn’t have to try to explain to Officer Wardynski just how he happened to be alive when his son and his girl-friend were headed for a cold slab in the county mortuary.

What the hell could he say to the man that would even come close to making a dime worth of difference?

Why couldn’t I have stopped them? Things might have been so different.

 

***

 

The post-mortems were completed as swiftly as possible, so that the bodies could be returned to Midvale and to allow the grieving parents to arrange the funerals. The county coroner set a date for an inquest into their deaths to be held in three weeks time in the Leelanau County Court.  

Johnny’s funeral was distressing. His mother had driven across from Wisconsin with her husband and son, and the looks of pure hatred that she shot her former spouse at the start of the service made Rick feel for the policeman. It was obvious she blamed him totally for what happened, pretty much ignoring Rick, as if he was beneath her contempt. He found himself hating this woman, who, in all the years he’d known Johnny, had never once visited him in Midvale.  If she had been so damn concerned for her son, why did she run off and leave his father for another guy?

He was grateful to his parents, who stood by Ted, quietly and firmly, without ever obviously taking sides, instead projecting a comforting solidarity with the policeman, ensuring he was never alone at what had to be the most harrowing time of his life.

For Rick, the return to school was a stark reminder of just how much his life had changed. No joshing with Johnny at the lockers or chat with over lunch in the cafeteria, no Stella to feign disinterest over.

The principal called the entire school to a special assembly, and Rick sat numbly, as the former read out a eulogy for both students. Afterwards, Emma Bishop came up to him, almost shy and ill-at-ease as she offered condolences, but at least she had the guts to face him. He still couldn’t go around to the Wardysnki house, although his parents did, Alicia wanted to make sure that Ted didn’t do ‘anything crazy’.

So what sort of coward did that make him?

 

***

 

For the next few days Rick existed in a dream-state, as if his mind had shut itself down from conscious thought to protect him from the stresses on the horizon. Jack and Alicia cut him a fair bit of slack, letting him off chores, not even complaining when he left clothes strewn all over the house. Alicia also gave him what she thought was a feel-good pep-talk a couple of days later.

“It’s natural to feel shock; Johnny was your best friend, so it’s okay to be upset, for you to cry even, you don’t feel you have to be a man, at least not at home with us. If you need to talk about, it, you will, wont you?”

“Sure.”

But Rick found he was unable to shed any tears, not since that terrible night. Not even at the funeral. If Officer Wardynski could stand at the graveside and listen to the pastor say a last farewell to his boy with a stoic look on his face, then it wasn’t for Rick to show any less composure.

He might have drifted on in this catatonic state for months, except for an incident at work. On Saturday, as usual, he was back in the hardware store, and once he’d got past the commiserations, he got down to business, unloading supplies for the shelves. He happened to look out the large front window at the same time a figure walked past. Long tousled dirt-blond hair, the same careless slouch.

Rick felt his heart hammer in his chest, and he dropped the box, with little thought, and chased after the departing passerby.

Sweat broke out as he chased the guy in front, rational thought nowhere. When he caught up with him at the dry cleaners, he grabbed the guy’s shoulder, whirling him around.

“Hey, dude, what do you think you’re doing?”

Rick let go, as if touching fire, realising his mistake. This wasn’t Johnny. The man was years older. How could he have been so stupid, so pathetic as to think Johnny was suddenly miraculously back from the dead?

“You don’t look too good, dude, are you okay?” The man was now looking at him with concern.

Rick shook his head, feeling a mixture of foolishness and sundered hope.  

“No, I’m sorry, my fault, I thought you were someone else…”

“Sure, it’s okay.” The man gave a slight smile and walked on.

Rick trudged back to Delancy’s, and then it hit him, with all the pent up force of a tsunami breaking onto shore, filling him up with cold, black shock.

He leant against the wall for support, as he felt his knees give way.  A woman passer-by glanced at him, obviously noticing his distress, but chose to hurry along. He was glad about that, for his teeth were chattering and he couldn’t talk even if he’d wanted to.  He practically crawled along the length of the wall back to Delancy’s. The store owner took one look at him and made him firmly sit down in the back office and drink strong coffee until his sinuses hurt. When he insisted that perhaps it might be a good idea if he just headed home for the day, Rick didn’t even bother to contradict him.

 

***

 

         Vicky was his saviour in the weeks heading up to the inquest. The episode outside Delancy’s seemed to have pierced the wall that Rick had built up around him to restrain his grief, but now, with the fences down, he needed an outlet for his despair. Perhaps it was the sense of distance that allowed him to pour out his heart to her, and she listened, as always, and told him it wasn’t his fault, that he was a good friend – a good person – and that she would never think badly of him.

 

***

 

Rick sat motionless in the spare surroundings of the room in the district court of Leelanau County. The cramped place felt airless despite the air-conditioning and he felt cold sweat dampening his armpits. The room was full to bursting with people, locals mainly and some local press, and he dreaded standing up to speak in front of these strangers. He distractedly wiped his clammy hands on the legs of his pants.

Ted Wardynski sat with the Frasers, and they were on the opposite bench from the Martinez family next to the judge’s desk, a fact Rick was relieved about. Mr Martinez looked straight ahead, at the coroner, his black eyes glittering.

Rick kept replaying the argument of a short while ago in his head as he waited. This had been the first time he’d seen Stella’s folks since her death, and when they saw one another, Mrs Martinez barrelled towards them, her dark eyes flashing with a mixture of grief and rage. She accused Johnny and Rick of causing their daughter’s death, and the latter paled under her savage attack.

Ted Wardynski instinctively turned cop, and attempted to defuse the situation. “Look, I understand how you feel; God help me, I’ve lost my boy too. But it was a tragic accident. No one’s to blame, least of all Rick. He’s a good kid, whatever he could have done, he would have done it, I know that. We’re here to understand what happened out there, and to make sure no one else suffers the same fate.”

His pragmatic manner took the edge off her rage. Alicia, distraught herself, tried to console her, but the Greek woman pushed her away, shaking her head, tears replacing the anger. She allowed her husband to lead her away towards the court-room designated for the inquest, while Alicia gratefully squeezed Ted’s arm. The policeman turned to look at Rick.

“You okay? It wasn’t fair of her to go at you like that.”

Alicia gave him a grateful smile, but Rick couldn’t meet his eyes, suddenly consumed by a sense of guilt. Children were not meant to die before their parents, it was wrong, unnatural. That bright future – a future that any mother and father deserved when they had kids – to see them married,  dote on the grandkids – it was all gone, taken by cruel Fate.

He still couldn’t help feeling he ought to have done more.

Am I to blame? Maybe. Perhaps I should have tried harder to stop them going on that insane wild goose chase after ghosts that night.

Now they were ghosts too.

 

***

 

The inquest opened and the coroner stated the results of the post-mortem, attempting to keep the graphic details to a minimum, in order not to cause distress to the relatives, but due to the nature of their deaths, this wasn’t easy to achieve. He told the court that the primary cause of fatality was undoubtedly caused by the massive amounts of sand that had been ingested into the oral and nasal passages. Both teenagers had a double pneumothorax – collapsed lungs - due to the crushing weight of the tons of sand they were buried under. In addition, the coroner noted multiple injuries on both bodies, indicative of a vicious animal attack.

A movement from the opposite bench gave him pause, as Mrs Martinez bent her head and sobbed softly. He gave her a moment and then continued.

“These are the medical facts pertaining to their deaths,” he said to the jury and the court, “and now, it’s our job to determine what happened to cause the untimely demise of these two young people.”

 

Rick was the first to take the stand, as the primary witness, and the last person to see them alive. Alicia squeezed his arm for encouragement, but when he walked up to the stand there was a brief moment when his vision blurred, and it was as if he stared down a long black tunnel. He told himself that he wasn’t a suspect, there was nothing he had to fear. They wanted the truth, they would have the truth.

“Are you all right, Mr Fraser?” He heard the coroner’s voice breaking into his thoughts.

“Yes, sir, I’m fine.”

“Very well, then, perhaps you can start by telling us what happened that evening of October thirty-first.” 

Rick swallowed, then took a breath, and tried to recount everything he remembered about that awful night. There was mostly silence as he talked, punctuated only by the soft sniffs from Mrs Martinez.

“And you think you saw something in the sand-bowl?” the coroner asked him.

“Yes, but I can’t explain what it was. It sounded like a wild animal, but no wild animal I’ve ever heard in my life.  And the sand was flying everywhere, like it was alive.”

There were mutterings from the listeners in the court.

The coroner looked at his notes. “Deputy Sawyer stated in his report that you had been drinking that night.”

Rick blinked, but answered clearly. “Yes sir. Just a little, not enough to make me see things that weren’t there.”

 He could feel his mother’s eyes boring into him, knew just what she’d be thinking. Mitch wouldn’t have been drinking, it’s so like you, always a disappointment. .

Finally the questions ceased, and Rick was allowed to take his seat while they called for Deputy Sawyer, relieved that his mother couldn’t make a fuss right now. But he was pretty sure he wouldn’t escape her admonishments forever.  

“Have there been any other incidents of fatalities on the dunes, Deputy Sawyer?” 

The man cleared his throat. “Yes, sir, about twenty years ago, although it was my father who was deputy then. The deceased were a local couple, and the circumstances were familiar – they’d gone onto the dunes and it collapsed in on them, burying them alive. After that, signs have always been posted on the dunes to deter people from going up there. That’s why I warned those kids, including Mr Fraser here, but they didn’t listen.”

He glanced at Rick, just for a second, his eyes bleak, and Rick dropped his gaze. Yeah, he was right, they shouldn’t have gone up there, but what had anyone really done to make sure those dunes were safe? Nothing, that’s what. He felt a wave of anger roll over him, at himself, at the deputy, at Stella and Johnny for getting themselves killed.

         “What do you make of Mr Fraser’s assertion that there was some kind of wild animal up there?”

The deputy looked uncomfortable. “It’s possible, the county has a pretty sizable black bear population, and it isn’t unknown for them to wander onto the dunes, another reason why the area is dangerous. I guess it’s possible that the kids disturbed a bear and it attacked them. That’s the only explanation.”

 

The inquest was adjourned for the afternoon, and the Frasers and Ted Wardynski wearily headed off back to their hotel. The inquest was expected to last several days, so they had all decided to stay close-by rather than travel up from Midvale every day. Jack and Ted had secured some compassionate leave from their respective employers.

Thankfully, as far as Rick was concerned, Stella’s parents were staying at a plush hotel on the other side of town. He couldn’t face that sad, accusing look in Mamma Martinez’s eyes, as if she blamed him for all that had happened. It was enough that he blamed himself.

 

The following day a federal land management agent was called to the stand. She discussed her findings, and stated that for the teenagers to have been buried to such a depth there must have been a major subsidence.

“Yes, I did see evidence of a large dislocation in the dune-bowl,” she explained. “The deceased may have encountered an area of dry quicksand. This isn’t a common phenomenon, but we have seen instances of people going missing on dunes for which there is simply no other explanation. This type of sand is friable, and when it’s stepped on, well, let’s say, it would be like dropping through a hole.”

Just like the fireman on the dune, Rick thought.

“Also,” the woman continued, “the displacement of sand possibly triggered a further avalanche, with disastrous consequences. We see a few tragic fatalities in dunes every year. Children love to play in them, they seem innocuous, but sometimes they can be deadly.”

As Rick listened to her talking, he thought how plausible and rational it all seemed, how normal, and how so far removed from the nightmare he had been reliving. A bear had mauled Stella and Johnny, and then the dune had collapsed, burying them. He was beginning to doubt all that he’d imagined he’d seen and heard. Listening to that old crazy lady’s talk in the restaurant in Shifting Sands had made him unsure what was fact and fiction.

 

As the inquest continued the court listened to statements from the fire-crew, the desk-clerk and various local residents of Shifting Sands. The desk-clerk confirmed that the kids seemed real interested in the story of the old woman whose husband died on the dunes, but he didn’t think they would actually group there or he would have discouraged them. Rick tried unsuccessfully to restrain his snort of derision at the man’s blatant lie.

The final witness was Betty Strauss, the old woman whose husband had died twenty years earlier in a similar accident. She shuffled into the court, aided by Deputy Sawyer, who looked as if this was the last person he wanted to give evidence.

Mamma Martinez wrinkled her nose as the frail woman passed their bench to take the stand. Even at this early hour the smell of alcohol wafted in her wake. She answered the coroner’s initial questions calmly enough, however, when he went on to ask her about the events surrounding the death of her husband, she quickly lost her composure and started ranting about bad spirits until Mrs Martinez lost her own self-control and screamed at her to shut-up.

The crowd murmured, the small bevy of journalists muttered furiously into their data-clips and Deputy Sawyer’s expression turned grim.

 Finally the judge ordered that the witness had been through a terrible trauma and could be excused from further questioning. As she was led from the court she stared at Rick, a knowing look that chilled him to the very bones. We both know the truth, her stare implied.

Finally, when the coroner was satisfied that all the possible witnesses had made statements, and that all the evidence had been gathered, he asked the jury to deliver their verdict.

After four hours they had reached their decision and the inquest reconvened.  The judge asked them to state their decision and they unequivocally delivered a verdict of accidental death.

Rick listened, dazed, unable to express his feelings. On one hand he was relieved that he was completely exonerated of any wrong-doing, on the second, he felt a sense of betrayal, that truth and justice hadn’t been served. He had tried his best, but no one had believed him.

Ted stepped across to the other bench and attempted to shake the Martinez’ hands, but they brushed off his kindly gesture and swiftly left the courtroom. Rick wondered if he’d ever have the nerve to face them again. Wardysnki shrugged and came over to where the Fraser’s sat, and clapped a hand on Rick’s shoulder, “You okay?”

He nodded, unable to speak, the emotion clogging him up inside. All he wanted at this moment was to get right out of the place, with its painful, insane memories.

 

***

 

A few days before Christmas, a storm had hit the southern Michigan area, so when Rick awoke his room was filled with that soft bright glow – snow light, he used to call it when he was a kid. He blinked, still dopey from sleep, and then, painful reality checked in again, reminding him of his loss. He dragged himself out of bed. Wash, get dressed, go downstairs for breakfast - so much easier to just do than to think. Thinking hurt.

It didn’t help that Mitch returned home for the celebration, bringing Melanie to Midvale for the first time. Alicia was ecstatic and rushed around the house like a tornado, cleaning, cooking, baking. Rick’s own troubles were forgotten as she prepared for – Rick figured – her future daughter-in-law’s arrival. When the two love-birds arrived, Rick watched from the sidelines as everyone hugged and kissed and got acquainted with one another. Melanie was an attractive girl, if not as stunning as Emma, he thought with sour one-upmanship.   She had a soft Southern drawl, and a warm manner, and it wasn’t long before she had charmed the entire Fraser household, not only the first-born son. Mitch seemed to – the only word Rick could think of was glow – as if someone had lit a candle inside his body. Alicia was delighted, and couldn’t help talking about her the first moment she had a chance out of the couple’s earshot.

“They’re so much in love,” she said dreamily to Jack. “I can see why Mitch is so smitten with her. She seems a lovely girl, good background, steady, so down-to Earth. She’s definitely the one, don’t you think?”

Jack snorted quietly. “Don’t you go playing matchmaker. You’re the one who keeps banging on about how they have to get their studies finished before they get hitched.”

 “Well, he’s older now, and he’ll be graduating in May, that’s only a few months away.”

“Sure, but then he’ll have to get a job where he’ll be working all hours, and still studying for his bar exam at the same time. It ain’t over for him by a long shot, and money will be tight, he won’t be able to afford a wife just yet.”

Alicia sighed. “I know, money’s always tight, but we’ll help.”

Rick, listlessly surfing through the TV channels, couldn’t listen any longer, he knew anything he said would fall on deaf ears, so he got up and left the room without a word and trudged upstairs to bed to lie there on his back, hands behind his head.

He didn’t really hate Mitch, but it was hard not to feel a big ball of envy settle in his stomach. His brother had always been his mother’s favourite, could do no wrong in her eyes. Everything he touched turned to the proverbial gold – school, college, women. Everything Rick touched, apart from his beloved flying, had the uncanny habit of turning into a spectacular mess.

The knock on the door made him jump.

“Rick, it’s me, can I come in?”

He hesitated, then realised that he could hardly refuse, after all, Mitch was back in the other bed, while Melanie took the spare room. Whatever sexual and sleeping arrangements they had back in Yale, they respected being under Alicia’s roof and pretended otherwise.

“Yeah,” he muttered, almost under his breath, “the door’s open.”

“Mom’s taken Mel to the mall,” Mitch said, and sat down in the chair by the desk, rather than his bed.  “She says they’re going to buy some clothes, but I think she just wants to get her alone and grill her. You know what she’s like.”

Rick shrugged. What did he want, a fanfare?

 “Look, Rick, I know we haven’t had a chance to talk, what with Mom getting all antsy about Mel’s visit and everything, but – I’m real sorry about your friends, and I feel rotten that we couldn’t make the funeral for Johnny. We sent flowers.”

“I guess you were just too busy.”

Mitch’s cheeks reddened, ever so slightly. “I just wanted to chat, make sure you were okay.”

“Great. So, I’m okay.”

“I don’t think you are.”

“And how would you know?”

“I can just tell, it isn’t that hard.”

“You don’t care about me. You’re never here, how would you even know how I feel?”

“Look, I don’t want an argument, and I know – I know we’ve never really been close, I guess Johnny was more like a brother to you than I’ve been, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. I just want to know if I can help.”

“You can’t, so run off back to your girl-friend and leave me in peace.”

“Why are you behaving like this?”

Rick sat up, eyes flashing, anger filling him up, wanting to lash out, at anyone, especially his brother, hating the look of pity in his eyes.

“Why? Because my life is dog-shit and you come here with your perfect life and your perfect girlfriend and make me look and feel even worse. I got drunk on the night my best friend died and I couldn’t even save them. I’m a failure – okay?  The last thing I need is for you to swan in here and gloat!”

The room seemed to shrink after the outburst, and drained, he sank back on his pillow. It was a while before either of them spoke, and it was Mitch who was the first to break the silence.

“Rick, I’m sorry, I really didn’t know any of the details. Mom and Dad were tight-lipped about it.”

“Yeah, I bet, they wouldn’t want the disgrace of everyone knowing.”

 “I’m not sitting here blaming you, God knows it sounds like you’re doing that fine all by yourself.”

 “Like you care.”

“What is it that I have to say to prove it to you?”

Rick looked up, his face hard. “Tell me how to stop the pain.”

Mitch’s gaze dropped. “I don’t know how.  I wish I did - for your sake. All I know is that your friends have gone, but you’re still here, alive, and for that I’m truly grateful. I want you to know that.”

“Alive. Yeah, it feels just great to be alive.”

Mitch stood up and ran one hand through his hair in frustration.  “It’s better than the alternative. Just think about it, huh, for your sake, if no one else’s?”

 

 

Winter/Spring 2053

 

The house felt empty after Mitch and Melanie had departed for New Haven in January, and Rick couldn’t stop mulling over his brothers parting words. After the abrupt shock of Johnny and Stella’s deaths, he realised he had been haunted by the deep-seated dread that he was every bit as vulnerable.  Mitch’s pep-talk had finally shocked him into full awareness – and it was gripping him with a sense of blind panic - that he might die without ever having truly lived. If death could strike so suddenly, one had to grab life while one could, living every day as if it was his last.

He took this perverse notion to heart.

On his eighteenth birthday, he sold his ageing Futura, cashed in the remainder of his savings, and bought a new set of bike leathers and a silver Harley Davidson with ten thousand miles on the clock.  There was a hint of envy in Jack’s eyes as he throttled the monster motorcycle up onto the driveway and a look of horror in his mother’s. Contrary to her warnings, he drove it too fast, roaring along the open roads or the freeways as if intent on leaving his inner demons behind. At home and school he became even more rebellious and wasted days doing little; or would leave the house for hours without saying where he was going or what he was doing.

He became as reckless with his love-life as he did with the bike.  A chance encounter with Danielle Grayson, the thirty-something housewife he’d pool-serviced for the previous summer, turned into an explosive affair. He finally lost his virginity at Easter Break in her pool house. The intense physical and emotional feelings she stirred up in him left him in turns, euphoric and bewildered. She ended their torrid entanglement almost as quickly as she’d started it; whatever she’d said she felt for him obviously wasn’t quite enough to risk her wealthy lifestyle and boring husband. Her rejection churned up all his old feelings of abandonment, only many times worse, and plunged him into an abyss of anger and desolation, fuelling the notion that the entire female sex was untrustworthy and undeserving of any feelings he invested in them.

However, there was no escaping the fact that he was still a hormonal eighteen-year-old, whose sexual appetites had been unleashed by the more experienced woman. Rick didn’t bother to fight the physical cravings that a hand-job simply couldn’t satisfy, and soon discovered that he didn’t have to stray too far to find willing partners.

He wasn’t consciously aware of it, but the trials of the previous months had left their mark, chiselling the softness from his jaw-line and placing a brooding expression in his eyes; coupled with the leathers and the Harley, it was his ticket to free, uncomplicated sex. Pretty girls, plain girls; he didn’t care much either way, he’d take whatever he was offered, although he made damn sure he used protection, and he always kept his feelings well and truly locked-down. 

It was quite simple, really, he thought, after he’d screwed Holly Vance and himself to oblivion in the back seat of her car as the rain streamed down the windows one late March evening; all that it took to get girls to flock to you like birds to cornmeal was to give the impression that you didn’t give a shit. Women didn’t want a guy who treated them with respect; they liked jerks, like Jake Sanders. Nice guys were boring and predictable, and girls wanted someone with an edge, someone who kept them guessing, someone who dumped them.

 

Alicia watched the changes in her younger son, bemused, as if she was watching a car crash in slow motion. Of course he was hurting inside, and every kid dealt with bereavement in their own way, but to see him behave like this was more than she could bear, especially since she felt powerless to deal with it. Most of their conversations, what few there were, ended in an argument. She could feel him slipping away with every week that passed, as she had seen his old friends drift away.

“You need to speak to him, you’re his father,” she castigated Jack.

“What do you want me to do? He’s not a kid anymore.”

“I met Sophie Thompson’s mother in the grocery store yesterday.  She was really angry, seems like Rick and Sophie had one date, and then he dropped her without a word.”

“So, he’s dating girls, I thought that’s what you wanted?”

“He’s not dating them, he’s – Oh God, I can’t even say it.”

“Sowing his oats, you mean?” Jack didn’t seem quite as upset about it as she was. “About time, I reckon.”

“Mary Thompson told me Sophie was almost suicidal about the whole thing!”

Jack rolled his eyes. “Girls are always suicidal when a boy dumps them.”

She glared at him. “This isn’t funny, Jack.”

“Was he careful?”

“I don’t know! I hope for both their sakes he was. But that isn’t the whole point, he hurt the girl.”

“Happens all the time.”

“This wasn’t how we brought them up – look at Mitch.”

“That’s half the trouble, maybe.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“We’re always looking out for Mitch.”

“We look out for Rick too.”

“Not in the same way, and if I think that, then I figure he does too. Can’t say I would blame him, really.”

“Are you saying what he’s doing is acceptable?”

“He hasn’t broken any laws, Alicia. The girl is over consent age and his peer.”

“Well, maybe he hasn’t yet, but if someone doesn’t rein him in, he will, mark my words. The way he drives that bike, it’s a wonder he hasn’t killed himself, or someone else.”

“I think you’re over-reacting, you never wanted him to fly, or to have that motorbike, the fact he just went ahead and did it anyway has always bothered you, hasn’t it?”

“Mitch was never like this.”

“No, he takes after you.”

“And Rick takes after you. Stubborn, pig-headed and a thrill seeker.”

Jack took her hand, rubbed over the knuckle, against the well-worn gold of the ring on her third finger. He gave her a crooked smile, and she realised how much Rick looked like him too.  

“There was a time when you liked that,” he said quietly, and his eyes held hers, fast.

A faint blush tinged her cheeks. “Well, maybe, but that was a long time ago.” She pulled her fingers away, and he gave a short sigh.

“Okay, I’ll talk to him,” he said.

“Thanks, Jack, that’s all I ask.”

 

His father found him in the garage, polishing the Harley like she was a lover. When the door closed Rick looked up, momentarily, then resumed his furious rubbing, like he resented the intrusion.

 “Reminds me of the one I used to own.” Jack said. “She was the sweetest little V-Rod you ever did see. We spent some very happy times together.”

Rick stopped polishing, his interest finally piqued. “You had a Harley? But I thought Mom hated motorcycles.”

“Yeah, but that was before I met her. I was in my mid-twenties and me and some of my buddies took a little road trip along Route 66 one summer. We only got as far as Gallup, New Mexico, but it sure was a lot of fun, stopping where the mood took us. All those little diners and gas stations, preserved just like they were about a hundred years ago. We fell for the tourist stuff, I know, but it was still amazing.”

Fun wasn’t a word Rick normally associated with his hard-working father, and he had difficulty getting a mental picture of a young and care-free Jack Fraser revving a Harley Davidson across the wide open spaces of the prairies and deserts. He’d expected a lecture, and instead was getting a biography.

“You never told me you did anything like that.”

Jack gave a wry chuckle. “Every generation thinks they are the only ones to have discovered the art of having fun when they’re young. But let me tell you, son, it isn’t so. I had my share of the mad, bad, good times when I was your age.”

Rick ran a hand over the tank, and then slung one leg over the seat, sitting down fully on the bike. “I guess.”

“But you know,” Jack continued, “One day I rode my girl a little too fast, and I paid the price. Bust my leg in three places and lost her to the scrap yard.”

Uh – here it was – the lecture, made sense now why his father was being unusually garrulous. “No kidding.”

Jack pulled up the left leg of his jeans. “Yep. I still got the scars. Don’t mind them, but it could have been a lot worse.”

Rick looked at the puckered marks, still pale against the darker skin and shrugged.

“I’m not giving you a sermon, son. I told you, I still remember what it was like to be young and feel immortal…“

Rick interrupted his flow with a slap on the tank of the Harley. “That’s just the whole point! I know I’m not gonna live forever, so I just wanna live now.  Can’t anyone see? What is so wrong with that?”

Jack gave him a sober stare. “Nothing at all. It’s only wrong if you hurt other people while you’re having fun.”

He turned and left the garage, leaving Rick to sit in silence on his motorcycle, chewing over their conversation.

 

***

 

Two weeks later Rick was stopped for speeding just inside the city limits, and the cop who flashed his lights and insisted he pull over was none other than Officer Ted Wardynski. Rick was abruptly mortified at the expression on the policeman’s face when he got out of the car – a fusion of dismay and disgust.

“What in the name of all that’s holy do you think your doing?” he barked.

Rick shifted uneasily on the Harley, refusing to meet Ted’s gaze.

“Yeah, you ought to look ashamed. Someone up there must have decided to give you a break, because anyone else would have busted your ass for a stunt like that.”

“You’re not booking me?”

“I sure as hell ought to…”

“I don’t expect special treatment,” Rick replied sullenly.

“The hell you don’t. You look like shit, and I ought to know. But this ‘big-man’ show isn’t going to solve anything, take it from me.”

“Let me guess, my folks have been blabbing to you again.”

“They’re worried, kid, it’s only natural.”

Rick raised his chin defiantly.  “I’m not a kid. I’m eighteen, I can die for my country; that makes me an adult, and gives me the right to live my life how I please.”

“Not if your actions mean someone else suffers,” Wardynski’s voice was harsh now. “Breaking girls’ hearts is one thing, Rick, but driving recklessly is a whole other ball game. This bike weighs over five hundred pounds, it’s a potential killing machine; what if some kid was to dash out in front of you and you couldn’t stop in time because you were going too fast? What then? You gonna be able to face the mother and tell her how you took her hopes and dreams away? Is that what you’re prepared to live with for the rest of your life?  Because that’s what you’ll have to do if you keep riding like an asshole.”

Ted’s words were sledge-hammer brutal.  Rick’s face turned ashen. The older man must have realised it because he continued on in a softer tone.

“You’re no bad-boy, Rick, and I realise that you think living fast and going for broke is going to help you deal with the pain, but all it’s going to do is postpone it. You can’t drive away or around grief; you have to let it settle and flow through you.”

“Maybe I can’t.”

“You’re not letting anyone in to try and help. Your pop says you don’t hang around with any of your old friends any more, and you don’t make it easy for your folks. It isn’t a cliché that sharing the hurts halves it.”

Rick shook his head. “Talking won’t bring… them back.”

“No, but it helps me to cope. I miss you coming around to the house since – since Johnny died.”

“Really? But I thought – I thought that you’d hate me, after everything…” Rick couldn’t finish his sentence, just hung his head so he didn’t have to face Ted’s accusing eyes.

The older man grabbed his shoulders. 

“Will you get it into your thick skull that I don’t blame you for Johnny’s death? It was an accident, period. You’ve been a part of my life for a long time; you’re like another son to me. I’ve seen too many kids throw their lives away, and it scares me that you’ll do the same. I don’t want your folks to lose you like I lost him, you hear me? I forgive you for whatever blame you think you deserve, but that’s not enough, I know that. First, you’ve got to forgive yourself.”

A baseball had lodged itself in Rick’s throat. His breath was constricted and his eyes were blurry. Angrily, he blinked back moisture.

“I - Oh, God – I’m so sorry…I’m so sorry…” The words came out ragged, dredged from within.     

Ted pulled him into an embrace, crushing him against his chest, not caring who witnessed it. “It’s okay, Rick,” he murmured. “Everything’s gonna be okay.”

And, finally, the tears came.

 

***

 

His encounter with Officer Wardynski was the wake-up call Rick needed before he self-destructed. It wasn’t easy to admit he had been totally self-absorbed and completely selfish, but that was the truth of it. He knew it was going to be even tougher and humiliating to admit this publicly to his family, his friends, and the girls he’d treated with contempt. It required a different sort of bravery than the stuff required to fly in a thunderstorm or save a Viper, but to his credit, he was willing to dig down and find it.

It took some time, but Rick finally repaired some of the damage he’d wrought.

 

 

May 2053

 

Flyboy:        Hiya, how’s things?

Vickylee:     I’m good, how about you? It’s been a while, sorry, I have just had so much work.  I can’t believe I’m going to graduate at the end of the month.

Flyboy:        Yeah, me too, I’ve really been knuckling down, you know? Just gotta get enough marks to get my diploma, then it’s bye-bye boring academia for me and hello to the wide blue yonder.

Vickylee:     J That’s the Rick I know and love. How are the gang?

Flyboy:        Same as me, only too glad to finally get out of school and do something we really want to do. Do you know Corbin’s got three basketball scholarship offers from colleges out west?

Vickylee:     Three, wow.

Flyboy:        Yeah, Arizona Tech, California and Nevada are all after him.

Vickylee:     What about Clarice, they’re still together, aren’t they?

Flyboy:        That pair are joined at the hip, it’s enough to make you sick. Looks like she might be trying to go out west too, so they can be close.  They’re worse than my brother and his girl-friend.

Vickylee:     You sure you aren’t just a little bit jealous?  J

Flyboy:        Get real. I don’t need women messing up my life. Had enough of that thanks very much, done the deal, got the t-shirt.

Vickylee:     Well, thanks very much. Next time you need a shrink for free just go bother some other fool.

Flyboy:        Hey, Vic, sorry, I didn’t mean you. You know that’s not what I mean. You and me – well, we’re special, right? You’re a buddy, and I’m really glad you stopped me – us – from doing something crazy that time we were by the lake. I’m glad we just agreed to stay – what’s that word weird word again? Something Greek or whatever -

Vickylee:     Platonic?

Flyboy:        Probably. We’ll be friends for ever, and we won’t give one another all that bullshit and end up best of enemies.

Vickylee:     J J J  I think I’d like that. XXXX

Flyboy:        Hey, I’m hogging the chat again. What about you, have you heard anything back from the medical schools?

Vickylee:     Yes I got offers from Columbia and Cornell, can you believe it?

Flyboy:        Which one are you going for?

Vickylee:     Probably Columbia, they’re really at the forefront of robotic medicine, and that’s something I’d really like to research.

Flyboy:        You really sound like you’ve got things mapped out.

Vickylee:     Well, so have you.

Flyboy:        Sure have. I just can’t wait. Imagine, getting paid for doing the one thing I’ve wanted to do since I got out of diapers. My sure-fire ticket to heaven.

Vickylee:     So you definitely don’t want to join a civil airline, then?

Flyboy:        L That’s just like being a highly paid babysitter in the sky! Airline piloting is boring, you could just switch off and let the computer fly the plane, what sort of challenge is that? I want some action! I just love the thrill of speed, you know?

Vickylee:     You’re crazy.

Flyboy:        Guess I’ve always been.  Johnny’s dad cooled my heels a little after I – well lost it for a while, but I can get my thrills legally if I join the WAF. No one to tell you what to do when you’re at sixty-thousand feet facing an enemy.

Vickylee:     Hmm, and here was me thinking that the military was just school for grown-ups, all that discipline and boot polishing.

Flyboy:        That’s the army division, and that’s not for me. Flyboys have more freedom, not to mention more fun.

Vickylee:     J I’ll take your word for it.  I’ll just stick with my thrills in the virtual world, I’m not sure I have the nerve to do it on real life.

Flyboy:        If you come up with me I’ll change your mind.

Vickylee:     Ha! More like you’ll scare me witless and I wet my pants.

 

 

Although several of the girls in his year made it plain they wanted to be his date for the evening, Rick went to the senior prom at the end of May without a partner. He wasn’t sure he even wanted to go, still embarrassed about his appalling behaviour of the past few months. He was also convinced that the evening would only dredge up bittersweet memories of another prom – one that seemed to belong to another time, another life. But Corbin and Aaron insisted, and Clarice and Jodie backed them up. This was possibly the last time they would spend time together as a group in Midvale, and it wouldn’t be the same if Rick wasn’t there to make that last hurrah.

“No way are we letting you stay at home while we have to dress up in monkey suits,” Corbin joked.

So he allowed them to cajole him into going, and he was happy to stay out of the limelight, accepting a few dances along the way, but sitting out most of the slow ones, although both Clarice and Jodie insisted he dance with them, so he didn’t feel left out, and later the five of them made an quiet, emotional toast to their absent friends. At the climax of the evening, he even found himself clapping along with the rest of the prom-goers as Emma Bishop tottered up to the stage to be crowned Queen of the Prom.  

 

 

***

 

Commencement, as the graduation ceremony at Yale was called, was a lengthy and serious affair, taking place over two days during the weekend before Memorial Day.

Rick agreed to tag along to this, Mitch’s big show, much to Alicia’s surprise, who was expecting him to dig his heels in. What she didn’t know, and what he did, after a little research, was that the celebrity keynote speaker was one of the world’s foremost astronauts. He also relished a change of scenery; after all, the closest he’d been to getting out of Michigan was his almost flight across the lake back in the spring of 2051.   

The weather was overcast when they left Detroit early Sunday morning, and Alicia had packed rain-gear, but sunny skies welcomed them when they landed in the airport at New Haven. A transit shuttle and a short cab ride took them to Yale, and on the way, Alicia made cooing sounds.

“New Haven is amazing. I don’t even feel like I’m in the United States. This must be what those old cities in England and France look like, with those ancient and beautiful buildings. Oh for goodness sake, that one over there, do you see it, it even has a gargoyle above the door!”

Jack and Rick exchanged amused glances as she prattled on.

Mitch had given them instructions to meet him at the entrance to the Old Campus, so the cab driver dropped them off in front of a large wrought-iron gate, beyond which they could glimpse yet more opulent buildings surrounding an expanse of green lawns. There was little evidence of the fires and destruction that had followed the rioting of the previous year.

Jack paid the driver while Alicia’s attention was riveted by the building on the opposite side of the street. In this town where the magnificent and opulent were commonplace, the soaring Gothic bell-tower was as fanciful and vigorous as anything pulled from a Victor Hugo novel. 

Rick’s thoughts however, were less concerned with the over-blown architecture and more with finding a place that served a decent burger, since they’d had to leave so early from Detroit in order to save having to pay for an extra night’s accommodation. All he’d had since breakfast was a packet of peanuts on the flight and his stomach was complaining.

“You’re looking at Harkness Tower,” a familiar voice said from behind them. “Amazing, isn’t it?”

“Mitch!”  Alicia threw her arms around her first-born, as the cab drove off. Jack pumped his son’s hand, and Rick loitered at the periphery until they’d got over all the hugging and kissing.

“Yes, it is impressive,” Alicia said, with an indulgent smile, “Although not quite as extraordinary as my son getting an honours law degree from an Ivy League college.”

Rick sniggered. “Yeah, whoever would have thought someone with so few brains could have ended up here?”

Mitch snorted and grabbed Rick, mussing his hair. “And a big hello to you too, bro.”

“Any chance of food around this stately home?”

Mitch grinned. “You - are always thinking of food.”

“What can I say? I’m still a growing guy.”

“Come on, let’s get you settled in at the dorm. I got you two rooms on the upper floor. Then, we’ll eat.”

Mitch picked up Alicia’s overnight bag, and directed them to cross the street and enter the bell-towered building of Branford College, where Mitch had eaten, slept, and studied during his last three years at Yale.

Students and families were milling around the grassy quadrangle on this pleasant day, and Alicia continued to gawp. Bags deposited, they walked down a stone-flagged staircase into the dining hall, which took baronial to new heights. The enormous vaulted room contained dark wood trestle tables and chairs, and at its focus, a fifteenth century Burgundian fireplace.  The food was definitely twenty-first century however, and was enough to satisfy even the most critical teenage burger aficionado.

Afterwards, Mitch played tour guide, taking them through the busy streets of the campus. Rick couldn’t get over how many pedestrians there were. Back in Midvale almost no one walked to get anywhere, even in downtown. You took the car to the grocery store, or the library, or school and if you weren’t wearing joggers and trainers and power-walking, the police might just get interested.

They trailed up and down streets filled with scurrying students and tall intricate buildings until they reached Mitch’s own particular place of learning – the Sterling Law Building - a collegiate-Gothic structure that was, he told them, modelled on the English ‘Inns of Court’.

“We occupy a block, almost backing onto the cemetery. And over there,” he pointed to yet another stately structure, “is the Beineck library, which contains one of the last few remaining original Gutenberg bibles.”

Rick rolled his eyes as if to say ‘big deal.” Jack intercepted the look and winked. Finally, just as Rick was unable to take any more old stones, stained glass and exotic carvings, they ran out of time. They separated to freshen up and then agreed to meet at the Law Building Courtyard for five p.m. Alicia was nervous, and fretted about her clothes. They were going to meet Melanie’s parents at the reception – the first time for both families.

“You look fine,” Rick said in exasperation.  

“That’s easy for you to say, you aren’t about to meet the mother of your future daughter-in-law.”

“Mom, for crying out loud, they aren’t even engaged yet.”

“But they will be, I’m sure of it.”

Jack gave Rick a ‘I-wouldn’t-waste-your-breath’ look.

They met Mitch at Branford’s entranceway, and the four of them walked back to the law building. Other families had already gathered, and were taking their places on the seats set out on the grassy courtyard, waiting for the reception to begin. Mitch spotted Melanie and waved, making towards the threesome.  

“Hello, you must be Alicia,” Mrs Danvers said, holding out a hand. “We’ve heard so much about you.”

Rick almost groaned at the clichéd intro, but succeeded in keeping a straight face. The two fathers then shook hands, and there were lots of smiles and camaraderie while the two love-birds preened at the way everyone seemed to get on so well. Melanie looked radiant and, as chirpy as always, including Rick in her effusive greetings, with hugs all around. He was finding it harder and harder to dislike her.

After the speech by the dean of the faculty, there was a buffet, and after they had filled their plates and glasses, they sat down together at the same table. Mitch took the opportunity to tell them that he’d been awarded a fellowship to spend a year working on a public interest project.

“Mitch is one of nine candidates out of two hundred,” Melanie added effusively, determined that everyone should know of her boy-friend’s achievement, even if he wasn’t going to blow his own trumpet. Rick sat back and listened to all the praise and congratulations, and couldn’t help feeling a little despondent. However, a little later, Melanie somehow managed to get him alone, and confessed know how grateful she was that he’d made the trip.  

“I know Mitch is so pleased that you’re here, supporting him. It means a lot to him, and therefore to me. I wanted to thank you for that.”

Rick found himself captivated by the older girl’s earnest expression. Melanie wasn’t cheer-leader pretty, but she had the sort of smile that drew you in, made you feel warm, like sitting around a roaring log fire in the depths of winter. He looked away quickly, unaccountably embarrassed and with another twinge of envy for his older brother.

“Hey, he’s my bro, you know?” was all he could manage to say.

 

The next day the skies were slate and the lack of sun made the air cool, but mercifully, the rain stayed away for the ceremony.  The Frasers sat together, surrounded by hundreds of other families on Yale’s Old Campus Courtyard, as they watched their sons and daughters make their traditional procession into the courtyard.

“Oh, look, at last, there’s Mitch!” Alicia said.

Rick glanced along her pointing finger to see his brother striding along at the head of the throng of Law candidates, in their grey gowns and caps with purple hoods. In keeping with the gravity of the occasion there were no waves to family, but smiles wreathed every face.  They lined up next to their Divinity fellows, almost directly in front of the covered podium where the Dean and his guests waited.

Finally, everyone was assembled and the proceedings could begin. Rick found most of it mind-numbingly boring, until the keynote speaker stood up to begin his talk. This was what Rick had been waiting for, and he listened, captivated as the legendary astronaut gave an inspirational speech that had the students and audience alike cheering and clapping.  Rick sailed off into a pleasant day-dream where he imagined himself standing in front of someone like this man, with his newly pinned ‘wings’ on his chest, a graduate of the WAAF. This fantasy sustained him through the final droning speech by the Dean of the university.

Afterwards, the actual diploma award ceremony and the buffet lunch was an anti-climax as far as Rick was concerned, and he couldn’t wait to get on the plane and head back to Detroit.

 

 

June 2053

 

Under clear azure skies, the seniors of Midvale High, clad in their gold gowns and caps, filed out onto the edge of the football field to take their seats in front of the makeshift stage where the principal and teachers waited. The proud relatives sat down on the three rows of plastic chairs to the right of the students, and there was a buzz of chatter while everyone waited for the principal to speak. It was a worthy speech, and Rick barely heard a word of it, too preoccupied with bittersweet thoughts of his own.

He’d actually made it to graduation, by the skin of his teeth certainly, but that was all that mattered.  Any joy he felt was tempered by the sober awareness that this assemblage was missing two of its students on this special day.

Ted Wardynski should have been here, sitting beside his dad, laughing and joking like they used to. The policeman had dropped by the house the day before, to congratulate Rick and wish him well on his ‘big day’.

That must have been so hard.  Rick found himself filled with respect for the older man.

“Richard Fraser.”

The sound of his name being called shouldn’t have been a surprise, and yet he sat there for a second, dopey, before Aaron, who was sitting next to him, hissed, “That’s you.”

Three steps, and he was there, on the stage, shaking hands with the principal, and receiving the scroll of white paper with its red ribbon, the passport to his future. He turned to acknowledge the applause and cheers, and searched out his parents, his heart swelling with pride as he saw them smiling, obviously delighted.

Okay, it isn’t Yale, but it feels good anyway.

Aaron followed him for his diploma, and then, at intervals, the rest of the gang: Corbin, Clarice, Jodie. With a dawning sense of melancholy he realised that once today was over, they would all be going their separate ways, possibly for ever.

The ceremony closed with the customary Valedictorian speech. This year, it was awarded jointly, to Lucy Travis and Jodie Somerfield. The former looked nervous, as usual, but delivered her lines with more poise that he would have ever expected from the gawky girl whom he had treated so badly a few years ago when he was a callow youth.  In keeping with tradition, their talk was, in equal measure, inspiring, poignant and fun, as they looked back on four years of high school and delivered, on behalf of the Class of 2053, a farewell to Midvale.

Rick found himself smiling as he clapped enthusiastically with everyone else, students, parents, teachers. He blinked to chase away the moisture in his eyes. He was damned if he was going to start bawling now, after all he’d been through.

 

 

August  2053

 

Rick started at the sound of mail hitting the floor with a loud thunk. He’d been listening for that sound like clockwork – every day of the entire vacation – ever since he’d posted off his application for a cadetship at the WAAF, air force division.

He was out of bed and tumbling down the stairs, scrabbling into the hall just as his mother was picking up several envelopes. One large off-white one caught both their attention, and she thrust the others under her arm to take a good look at it.

“It has the WAAF frank on it,” she said quietly.

For a few seconds he stood motionless, his heart thumping wildly against his rib-cage, his mouth going dry. The contents of that envelope held the key to his future, a future that as far as he’d always imagined was filled with flying and aircraft and speed.

She pushed it into his hand, her expression grave.  “Go on and finish your breakfast if you like, you can open it later.”

He shook his head, and grasping it against his chest, he pounded upstairs to his room. He tore the envelope open, as he kicked the door shut with his foot. Hands shaking, his eyes raked across the text. It seemed wrong somehow, too short; the sentences crisp, almost terse, and he had to read it twice before the dreadful realisation dawned on him.

No. No. No.

This wasn’t possible. Just couldn’t be possible.

Every word was a pick-axe, gouging into his heart, shattering his hopes, his dreams. His vision blurred as he read over the words again.

 

Dear Mr Fraser,

We acknowledge your application to join the World Army Air Force, and note your possession of a civilian pilot’s licence. Unfortunately, we do not take this into account, as all Cadets commence military flying training from the same basis, regardless of prior ability.

More significantly, your cumulative graduation point scores do not meet the minimum selection criteria for entry to the Air Division Officer Corps, and therefore it is with regret that we have to inform you that we are unable to offer you a Cadetship.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish you good luck for any endeavour you undertake in your future..

Signed:

Colonel William l Rogers

 

Rick lay on his bed for a long time afterwards, staring at the ceiling. The shock had settled into him, and he felt dull, filled with despair. All those years spent nursing his dream, so sure of it – of himself, that the WAAF would welcome him with open arms when the time came because he was already a certified pilot.

His mother had been right all along, and boy, did that grate.

“Rick, is there anything wrong?”

Hearing no answer, she knocked again and repeated her question, worry colouring her words.

“I’m okay,” he finally managed to say, “I…just need some time to myself.”

“Are you sure?”

“Please, Mom, just go away.”

 

The street lights were on outside when he finally hauled himself to a sitting position. He couldn’t stay in his room forever, and knew that he had to face them at some point. He trudged downstairs, and found both his parents at the kitchen table, food remains still on the plates. They were in muted conversation, and he had little doubt as to the content of it. The concern in their eyes was evident.

“We missed you at supper,” Jack said.

 “I know, I’m sorry, I wasn’t hungry.”

He threw the fateful sheet of paper onto the table, and they both stared at it as if it was a snake that might be about to bite them. Alice motioned to Jack for him to pick it up.

“They don’t want me,” Rick said in a flat tone, as his father read it, his brow furrowing.

“I didn’t get their damn grades,” he went on, “and before you say anything, I know it’s my fault, nobody else’s. You both warned me, and I was too dumb and sure of myself to listen. I’m…” he stopped, as a lump congealed in his throat, threatening to choke him.

Alicia rose and moved towards him, arms out in a fledgling embrace, but he stepped back, out of her reach, too close to losing it in front of them. He quickly turned, running a hand through his hair, and Alicia’s arms dropped limply back to her sides.

“I’ll make you some supper,” she said briskly, to cover up her own emotion.

“I couldn’t eat anything.”

“Coffee then, and don’t argue.” She headed to the countertop.

“Sit down, son,” Jack said gruffly. “I guess this a real shock to you, and if it’s worth anything, I’m real sorry.”

Rick slid onto the empty chair, staring at the letter of rejection. “I’m the one who should be sorry. I’ve screwed up, big-time.”

Alicia returned with a mug of hot coffee, placed it beside him, and he took several long sips while they both quietly watched him.

Finally he snapped under the intensity of their scrutiny. “Well, when are you going to say: ‘I told you so?”

Alicia sighed. “Rick, what makes you think that either of us get the slightest sense of satisfaction at being right? Yes, I nagged you till I was sick of listening to the sound of my own voice, wanting, praying that you would see sense, because I love you, and I wanted you to be happy. But I don’t get any pleasure in seeing you like this. You’re hurting, and it makes me sad.”

“So, you’re not mad at me?”

She reached out across the table to grasp hold of his hand, and this time, he didn’t pull away.

“I’ve never truly realised how much flying means to you, and if getting into the WAAF is really what you want to do, then maybe you can retake classes at college so you can get the grades you need. Then you can apply next year.”

“You’d let me do that?”

“If it’s really what you want to do.”

He blinked back tears, barely able to mumble his grateful thanks.

 

***

 

He did give the idea a lot of thought, but desperate as he was to join the WAAF, he couldn’t face returning to school and the academic environment. Procrastination took over, and he ended up missing the fall application deadline for college.

 

 

Fall 2053

 

A balmy September edged into a stormy October. He had been taken on at Delancy’s full time, so he was earning money and hardly slacking, but although he knew this wasn’t what he wanted to do with rest of his life, he just didn’t know how to move forward.

Every one of his friends seemed to know exactly what they wanted to do. There was Vicky, following her father’s footsteps into medical school, Corbin was making big jumps and hoops in the basketball world out in Arizona, and Aaron seemed destined to be a comfortably well-off accountant in his father’s firm.

Rick thought hard about being a commercial pilot, but how could flying planeloads of passengers from one airport to another compete with the visceral excitement of flying a military jet?

He couldn’t help thinking about the WAAF air show, and how much of life-changing experience that had been. Richard Fraser, hero for a day, if an unsung one, and it had filled him with the passion and determination to achieve his dream. The fateful letter had turned the glorious dream to ashes. Was that to have been his one shining moment of glory? He refused to believe it. He was meant to do something with his life, something important. If only he could figure out what it was.

It took a simple question from an unexpected quarter to change everything.

 

***

 

Rick and Ted Wardynski had become close during the last few months, despite the difference in their ages – or perhaps, because of it.  The cop had a dry sense of humour, like his dead son, and that mutual loss was the glue that bound the man and the teenager together. Rick felt more comfortable talking to Ted about personal stuff, more so than his dad, especially when it came to angst about his future.

“Have you ever thought about joining the police?”

Rick took a moment to digest Ted’s question. The two of them were playing bowls at the Midvale Lanes with a few of the latter’s officer buddies from the station. After Rick’s friends had moved away, he’d been at a loose end socially, and Ted sometimes asked him along, although Rick had a sneaking suspicion that his folks had conned him into keeping a beady eye on their offspring in case he started to slide off the rails again. Rick didn’t mind, he liked being included in the cops’ adult banter and camaraderie, as if he was one of them, and not a kid wet around the ears. The guys generally tended not to talk shop, but occasionally they’d discuss their work, and Rick found it fascinating.

         “You look like I just asked you to swim naked in the fountain at the mall, that bad an idea, huh?”

 “No, no, it’s just I – wouldn’t ever have thought of it. Who’d take me anyway? I nearly got a criminal record, remember?”

“Best keep that under wraps in present company, eh?” Ted gave a half-smile.

“You bet.”

“You’re a bright kid, Rick, more than you think. I know that because you’re just like Johnny, and he – well, he was like me. We’re not cut out for the academic life; we need to be a part of the action, yeah?”

Rick nodded. “Yeah, that’s exactly it.”  Ted always seemed to see to the heart of him.

“You’ve got willpower and determination, look at the way you got your pilot’s licence all by yourself. That counts for a lot, and you could do worse than be a cop – and the sky’s the limit, literally.  You don’t have to settle for a ground job, you could get into traffic, even be chasing the bad guys in helicopters. You wouldn’t have to give up your flying, not by a long shot, and you’d be in training, and getting paid for it.”

“You sound like a commercial, is the Chief paying you for this pep-talk?”

Ted grinned. “I do a bit, and no, he isn’t.” For a moment, the grin faded and a serious look clouded his eyes. Suddenly the spirit of Johnny was there between them. “I don’t want to see you just drifting, not achieving your potential.”

“I guess…”

 “So, you gonna think about it?”

“Yeah, I might.”

Ted punched him on the arm, the momentary sadness forgotten. “That’s the spirit, kid. Now, let’s see if we can get a few more strikes, I want to wipe that smug look off Espinoza’s face.”

 

 

Vickylee:     You’re going to try for the World Police Corps?

Flyboy:        Yeah, I’ve been thinking about Ted’s suggestion, but I don’t want to stay in Midvale, the place just has too many memories…not all good.

Vicky:          (hug) I understand.

Flyboy:        Anyway,  I think its time to move on, just like you and Corbin and the others. Don’t get me wrong, Ted’s a great policeman,  and a really cool guy, but I want to aim higher, and if I get through the Corps I was even thinking it might even be a back door way into the WAAF. 

Vickylee:     There’s nothing wrong with aiming high. What do your folks think about the idea?

Flyboy:        I haven’t mentioned it yet, there isn’t any point until I find out if I’ve got a chance at it. I’ve sworn Ted to secrecy, no way I want to go through the embarrassment of not making the grade a second time.

Vickylee:     Sure, that makes perfect sense.

Flyboy:        I’ll keep you posted!

Vickylee:     Go for it! J

 

 

 

February 2054

 

Three days after his nineteenth birthday, Rick succeeded in getting a video-interview with the chief admissions officer of the World Government Police Corps Academy in Washington DC. He was at his terminal in plenty of time, and when he activated the connection he saw a woman in dark uniform with the insignia of the WGPC, staring out from the other side of the screen. She looked about the same age as his mother, but that was where any similarity ended.

He gave his name and date of birth.

“So, you want to apply to the World Police Cadet Corps,” she said.

“Yes ma’am.”

She regarded him shrewdly. “So would a lot of other kids your age. What makes you think you’ll make a good cadet?”

Rick floundered for a second. “Uh, I –”

The woman didn’t allow him to continue. “Are you aware that over fifty percent of applicants are not accepted? Or that even if you get into the academy that there’s a thirty percent dropout rate?”

He shook his head briefly; a little stunned by the way she was trying to blow him off before he even got past first base

 The policewoman’s face had relaxed slightly, and there was a hint of a smile at the edges of her mouth, no doubt reading the surprise on his face.

“It’s important you understand what it means to apply to the academy,” she continued.  “It takes serious government money to train cadets for the Police Corps, and my job is to ensure that any applicants understand what it involved to ensure this is the right career choice for them. You’re need to have the commitment, not to mention having a whole lot of internal fortitude to get through the academy, so you can investigate terrorists, spies, and a whole raft of dangerous criminals. This is no easy ride.”

Rick kept his face impassive with difficulty, for that was exactly what he had been thinking. A second best option, after his dream had been shattered by that letter from the WAAF. But here he was, facing the possibility that he wouldn’t even get past the doors of the police cadets. The very idea made the bile rise in his throat.

“Ma’am, I can assure you that when I want to do something, I do it,” he said firmly, unaware that his chin jutted out as he spoke. “I passed my flying certificate when I was sixteen, and I paid for every lesson myself with my own blood, sweat and tears. Hard work doesn’t scare me.”

“Well, that’s certainly very impressive.  Self-determination and tenacity are two important traits of a good police officer. But the WGPC isn’t only about brawn, we need brains too.”

“I know my grades haven’t been great, but I know I can work, when I put my mind to it.”

“Well, your logic and reasoning score pretty highly, you show promise, Mr Fraser.”

“Thank-you, ma’am.”

He relaxed his shoulders’ slightly, sensing he was past the first hurdle. The woman transcribed his social security number and peered at the unseen details on her terminal while Rick waited in nervous anticipation. The events of Shifting Sands still lurked in the back of his mind, and although he had been totally vindicated of any culpability during the inquest, he somehow feared that the whole incident would come to light and ruin his chances for the future.

“No criminal record, that’s a plus,” she said at last, “And everything else checks out okay.”

Rick let out an almost imperceptible sigh of relief.

The admissions officer logged in more of his personal details and then looked up with a genuine smile. “I’ll process your application and submit it today, you will have to obtain a full medical to ensure you’re fit enough, and once that’s sorted, which I’m sure there will be no problems. You should get a letter shortly, if you’re accepted.”

A few more pleasantries were exchanged, and then she suspended the uplink, and the screen went blank. Rick sat staring at it for a few more moments, wondering if he’d just made the dumbest decision of his life.

 

 

May 2054

 

“Cadets, welcome to the World Government Police Cadet Academy.”

The authoritative voice of Supreme Commander James Adams echoed around the walls of the huge hall of the Academy in Washington DC, and one hundred and fifty young men and women in their new uniforms immediately stood to attention.

Richard Fraser was one of them, and yet, even now, as he listened to the welcome speech, he was still wondering if he’d done the right thing. 

Supreme Commander Adams was six-four, with a shock of greying hair topping a craggy face with a scar over one eyebrow. He commanded instant respect as he stood surveying the new intake of students, and complete silence reigned in the hall as he spoke.

“Now that you’re all here, you’ll be put through some of the most gruelling training of your lives, starting today. Make no mistake, it will be tough, but the rewards will be worth it. Each and every one of you have all been selected from hundreds of other like-minded applicants across this continent, and it’s the Academy’s job to get you all ready to serve skilfully and faithfully, and when necessary,” he paused, his face turning momentarily stern, to allow his listeners to take note of his next words. “To send some of you back home again if you aren’t fit to be WGPC officers.”

There was some slight coughing and shuffling of feet at this unpalatable thought, and Adams paused for another few seconds to let the idea sink in. Then a slight smile lifted the corners of his thin lips.

“It is a tough regimen, but you won’t be going through it alone,” he continued. “You’ll be supported by your instructors, and counsellors, who will encourage and challenge you, and also your classmates, who, over time, will become your friends, confidantes and partners. Over the course of this year, you’ll be getting nearly two thousand hours of instruction in five major areas: academics, case exercises, firearms training, operational skills, and intelligence gathering.” 

Rick automatically glanced to his right, at a black teenager who looked about his age. The young man, caught his gaze, showed an array of dazzling white teeth in a conspiratorial smile.

“Maybe one day one of us might be standing up there, huh?” he whispered out of the corner of his mouth to Rick.

Rick gave a lame smile in response, unable to imagine such a lofty aim. At the moment he’d just be more than happy not to get kicked out the door in the first few months. Although he was willing to make something of himself here, he had the usual sinking feeling in his stomach when Adams mentioned the word ‘academics’. He still had his long-term anathema of studying, although he liked the sound of the other training that had been discussed.  

Supreme Commander Adams continued in a similar vein, and then he saluted them briskly, wished them all the best of luck, and strode briskly off the platform. There was a general exhalation of relief as the recruits relaxed a little out of the presence of the great man, but the sudden bubble of conversation was rudely punctured as Academy Chief Brendan O’Rielly snapped them all back to attention with his equally loud voice. O’Rielly was second generation Irish, barely regulation height, and a walking cliché. What was it that continued to attract the natives of the emerald isle to police work? If Rick was any way inclined towards the art of writing it might make an interesting thesis.

“You’ll be getting your matriculation cards in the next few hours,” O’Rielly began, “and you’d better not lose them, because you won’t be able to eat, sleep or shit without them.”

Nervous laughter rippled around the gathering.

“The rest of today is free while you pick up your training schedules and find your dormitories, for those of you lucky enough to be staying in this fine establishment. Enjoy your free time, make some friends, and chill. Starting tomorrow, we’re going to bust your asses so hard you wont know which way is up.”

 

Rick wandered along to the dormitory wings, holding his matriculation flimsy, which had his bunk assignment. Dorms were shared, co-ed but with the women on opposite corridors, and separate shower areas. It wasn’t exactly going to be private, but it was a whole lot cheaper than finding a room in the city.

When Rick found his numbered bunk, and threw his hold-all onto the floor beside it, he was a little surprised to see the young black man who had been standing next to him in the hall already lounging on the one above.

“Looks like we’re gonna be cell-mates.” A long arm reached down towards Rick. “Jeremiah Baines Alden, but don’t sweat the name, everyone calls me J.B. I’m from Chicago.”

Rick shook his hand. The young man looked nothing like Corbin; he was shorter and stockier, with close cropped hair. But there was a sparkle in the brown eyes and an easy grin that reminded him of his old high-school friend.

“Richard Fraser, from Detroit. You can call me Rick.”

J.B’s grin got wider. “I’ll try not to hold it against you, coming from Detroit, that is, not your name.”

 

 

Later that afternoon, the newbie cadets were taken a quick tour of the campus so they could get their bearings.  As well as the dorm wings and refectory, there were several lecture theatres, a gymnasium and pool, and most interestingly, an area called the ‘Backlot’; a series of cityscape mock-ups where the cadets would work with actors and real policemen and women to gain practical experience of typical policing situations before dealing with the real thing.

“Can’t wait to get stuck into some real police work,” a slender brunette with a Brooklyn twang commented, as they gawped at one particularly grimy looking street-scape.

“Oh, you’ll get stuck in all right.” That was the voice of their first instructor, a petite Navajo woman called Janet Tsosie. “And there will be plenty of homework, so you’d better not be thinking you can just party all night and weekends.”

Rick felt a groan escape his lips. “I left school to get away from homework,” he hissed quietly to J.B on his left.

“Did you have something you wanted to share, Cadet Fraser?” Janet Tsosie said, with a sharp glance in his direction.

Man, she’s got good ears, Rick thought. “No, ma’am!” he said aloud, unconsciously standing to attention.

 

***

 

Almost immediately, it was heads down and into study, but this time, there was no doodling or day-dreaming. Gone was the sullen reluctance to get his head into a data-pad or plug himself into a tutor-terminal. He would, instead, devote his whole mind and soul into this new path.

They were taught the history of the WGPC, its formation from the assimilation of the original international police force, Interpol, with many of the nation-states own federal bodies, such as the FBI in the US and the Special Branch in the UK. The world headquarters were situated in Paris, France, where the Supreme Commander was stationed, and there were many satellite departments spread around the world.

Academics, as a module, turned out, in fact, not to be as dry as Rick had dreaded. The subject matter was interesting to the point of fascinating, and as he studied the fundamentals of law, ethics, behavioural science, interrogation and forensic science he realised that there was a practical point to theory.  Even the scourge of his high-school years, English, took on a new meaning in the light of police procedurals. At first glance, constructing grammatically correct sentences and being able to comprehend passages of information and précis details succinctly seemed to have little, in Rick’s opinion, to do with police work. However, Janet Tsosie, put him firmly in his place on that score.

“Well, let’s say you have taken down some facts and figures at the scene of a crime,” she lectured. “That report will be used as evidence in a court of law, perhaps it will become the key that turns a case around.”

 “If you are unable to communicate with efficacy and effectiveness in speech and writing, you will most likely be shredded on a witness stand in a court of law by some unscrupulous defence lawyer trying to get their scumbag of a client off the hook. You wouldn’t want that, now would you, Cadet Fraser?”

Rick felt a blush stealing across his cheeks as the Navajo woman waited for an answer. “No ma’am,” he replied.

“Good,” she said. “So why don’t you take another look at what you wrote for that last interview with a witness, and see if you can improve on it.”

He did, and after a while, it became easier, automatic, even. Rick was a pragmatist at heart, and began to exhibit a hidden flair for getting to the heart of a situation and describing it in detail as succinctly as possible. He soon started getting A’s and B’s in his intelligence gathering and report writing, grades unheard of back in Midvale.

He still had that old resistance to history though, and ‘Policing Methods in the Early Twenty-First century’, and “Politics for a Multicultural Society” were as effective at keeping him awake as a sleeping pill. However, he stuck at it doggedly, remembering the promise he made to himself, and, much to his astonishment, his essay on how the Police Corps might have dealt more effectively with the riots in Yale was rewarded with an alpha minus.

“Some useful insights, there, Cadet Fraser,” Janet Tsosie remarked, a little while afterwards, when they met in the cafeteria the following afternoon. Rick grinned in response. He’d been unable to believe it himself.

 

***

 

Rick continued to keep his nose to the grindstone, impressing his other instructors, many of them grizzled former cops from the streets who had been chosen to knock sense into, and the stars out of, their charges’ eyes. The Corps was the elite, but trainees weren’t allowed to forget that the heart and soul of any police force was its uniformed officers – like Ted Wardynski - patrolling and protecting the streets amongst the citizens of a city. They would all start at the bottom, learn what it was to be a cop, and understand the way the streets worked, before they climbed back into their ivory towers and forgot just who it was they served.

Information ordering, memory testing, inductive reasoning, every day there was more and more to take in, until Rick’s head spun, and all he could do was flop onto his bunk in the shared dormitory every night. O’Reilly had been right; there was little time for anything else during the busy week, other than a few cokes with his fellow trainees on a Friday night.

Weekends, thankfully, were free, apart from tutorials on a Saturday morning, and as soon as he took care of his laundry, he’d explore the city, occasionally with J.B or some of the other cadets, but sometimes, just on his own. Washington DC was cosmopolitan, stylish, sophisticated, and pulsed with the palpable undercurrent of excitement that stemmed from the knowledge that it was one of the most powerful and influential places in the world. In the first few weeks he would simply wander the central streets of the capital, gaping at all the iconic buildings and historic monuments like some dazzled tourist, although he very rarely visited their interiors. The one exception to that rule was the National Air and Space Museum, and he purchased a season ticket so he could pop in whenever he had a spare hour or two to himself. It was as close to airplanes as he could get on those first few hectic weeks of settling in to the Academy.  After a while, he started feeling more like a native, and blasé with it, and started hanging out locally in the confines of Georgetown, where the campus was situated.

Meals were always available at the refectory, plentiful if not exactly inspiring, but he hankered after something that came close to his mom’s cooking, which he missed more than he cared to admit. With luck, he stumbled upon a tiny trattoria tucked into a small street down a row of brick townhouses in Georgetown, and one meal later, Alberto’s became his new haunt. He dragged J.B and some of his fellow cadets into the secret, and very soon, Washington was starting to feel like home.

 

***

 

“These are the weapons we’ll be working with,” Arms-Master Lieutenant Birgitta Andersen announced on their first ballistics session. She held each one out in turn for their inspection. “Here we have simple silencer pistols, projectile rifles, body-stunners and concussion grenades.”  

She paused, and Rick tried not to let out a ‘yippee’ as his eyes travelled over the array of the weaponry. He felt like a kid in a candy store, and for the first time, didn’t feel like a second class citizen at not being allowed into the WAAF.

Andersen continued. ”These weapons are available to the police, and to the criminal fraternity. You need to understand their modes of operation, and be able to use them effectively, and perhaps more importantly, when not to use them.”

A hand shot up, from another female cadet who resided in the next dorm to him and J.B. “What do you mean by that, ma’am?”

When Rick and JB clapped eyes on her on the first day, they had jokingly dismissed her as a future police officer almost immediately. With her long blonde hair and fragile features, she was practically a Midvale Cuckoo clone. But the girl proved their misogynous tendencies to be wildly out of kilter, and Rick realised that you could not rely on outward appearances and first impressions when it came to summing up a person’s character.

“As police officers,” Andersen replied, “We have a duty to protect the public, and you should always attempt to resolve a situation without the use of excessive force. That’s why your psychology and politico-human behavioural classes are so important.”

She hefted one of the dull-metal pistols in her hand, regarding them with eyes like lead bullets.  “Remember, when you’re having fun blasting kingdom come into the bulls-eyes in the target practice areas, that these are lethal weapons. They maim and kill. Policing situations are not all neat and tightly controlled. Sometimes you have the public involved, with innocent bystanders. If you are unable to analyse a situation correctly, then one of those innocents may be harmed by your actions, perhaps by your weapon, or the weapons of the other officers under your command.”

Rick’s youthful excitement was tempered by her sobering words; however, it didn’t stop him getting upper quartile scores during the ensuing week of training.

“Your hand-eye coordination is very good,” Andersen said, with an approving nod, as she passed him during a set of practice rounds with one of the automatics. “I think we will make something of you yet, Cadet Fraser.”

“Thank-you ma’am”, he replied, secretly pleased at J.B.’s rueful grin.

The feeling of satisfaction crystallised when he saw his final scores on the info-board in the main auditorium. He was top of the class, for once in his life, and it felt good.

  

***

 

After several months, it became obvious that some of the recruits weren’t cut out for their chosen career.  Some of those who were academically superior in mathematics, for example, completely flunked out in their spatial orientation classes, when they had to do some old fashioned map-reading in the ‘Backlot’ and the suburbs around the campus.

Any sort of police work required stamina too. Chasing after fleeing suspects, working outdoors in every type of weather, driving and sitting in a stake-out while remaining alert, carrying injured adults, engaging in hand to hand combat, or dealing with individuals who were emotionally disturbed, or were under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Some of the less able students began to toil under both the physical and mental pressure.

“Man, I ain’t sure I can take much more of this,” J.B moaned, after one particularly gruelling afternoon in the ‘backlot’. He stared at one of his many bruises, dealt out during the ‘hostage’ scenario they had been playing. “But you…man, you were as cool as ice. I was freaking out inside, but you just held it together, I’m impressed.”

Rick shrugged, unable to answer. He hadn’t consciously thought about his actions when embroiled in the pressure-cooker scenario. He’d just acted, on impulse, and it seemed to work. Afterwards, in his bunk, he reflected on the day, compared the person who – theoretically at least – had ‘saved’ the hostages today, with the callow youth in North Michigan, unable to save his friends. There wasn’t a day went by when he didn’t think about Johnny and Stella in some way, and, although the pain was less raw now, their loss still struck melancholy notes, taking the edge off his triumphs.

As he lay there on his bunk, in the dark, listening to the soft snores of his fellow cadets, his thoughts turned to Deputy Sawyer, the man who had been unable, or unwilling, to lay his credentials as a law enforcement agent on the line, for the truth and for justice. And that thing that killed his friends – it was still out there, somewhere – a danger to others. He shifted, turned over. Maybe that’s why I’m here, he thought, with a blinding insight that shocked him. Maybe I want to make up for his failure by becoming the man he wasn’t. A man who isn’t afraid to go after the truth.

But can I really be that person?

He was still wrestling with the idea as he drifted off to sleep.

 

***

 

The oppressive summer months in DC didn’t bother Rick, unlike some of his fellow trainees from dry desert climates like Arizona or California. As soon as they were all granted their statuary two week’s vacation however, he also left the city for Midvale so that he could log some flying time out of Westland. The summer merged into a cool fall, and he returned to the Academy to continue his training. The cadets learned all about wire tapping, bomb disposal, and the mind-blowing array of poisons, chemical and biological agents available to the terrorist fraternity of the world. Forensics was probably the one module that separated the squeamish from the others, and it wasn’t always the women who fainted at their first sight of a scalpel being wielded on a naked cadaver on a table.

“We see blood every month,” one of the female cadets joked, raising a guffaw of laughter that broke the tension during the trainees’ first post-mortem. Rick was just relieved he kept his dinner down when the pathologist instructor took them on a journey through the inner body.

 

***

 

Before he knew it, he was back in Midvale for the Christmas celebration with his family, which was notable for two things: Mitch and Melanie announcing their engagement, and officer Ted Wardynski getting his long overdue promotion to sergeant in the Midvale Police Department.

Glasses of champagne were poured for everyone but Rick, who was still officially under drinking age, but Ted must have noticed the dejected look on his face for he grabbed the bottle and poured a little of the fizzy liquid into his glass.

“What the heck, I’m off duty, and I probably shouldn’t even say this, but it’s an illogical law anyway. You can get legally get hitched, but you can’t drink wine in your own home. I don’t condone drinking and driving, you know that, but there’s gotta be some sort of common sense with it. Maybe when you’re Supreme Commander you can persuade the politicians to get around to changing things, huh?”

Rick grinned. “Yeah, it’ll be the first thing I do.”

“To Melanie and Mitch,” Ted said, raising his glass to the happy pair.

Rick toasted his brother and his fiancée, and if he still felt a trace of that familiar envy for his sibling’s good fortune, he reminded himself that he was doing pretty okay too. Sure, his love life was nothing to write home about. He was far too overloaded with work and study to go looking for casual sex.

One day, he thought, he might find someone who would look at him in the same dopey adoring way that Melanie looked at Mitch, and if that never happened… …well, there was always his first love….flying.

 

 

March 2055

 

It was customary, just before graduation from Cadet to Officer, for Academy Cadets to spend several months working with the officers in the DC Metropolitan Police department, to get a real feel for things at the coal-face. Rick was assigned to the homicide unit at Metro, working with the chief of detectives, Lieutenant Ray Costanza. He wondered why this announcement triggered a few sniggers from some of his fellow trainees and instructors who hailed from the city.

This became plain when he made his way across the slush-covered streets of downtown to the third floor of the building where Costanza worked. The detective’s office was part of a larger open-plan room, partitioned off with glass doors. Rick knocked and Costanza looked up. The detective’s eyes matched the grey carpet, and his thick dark greying hair was short.  The cramped office held a large desk with papers strewn across the keyboard of a rather battered terminal, and several metal cabinets lined one wall. The waste-basket on the floor beside the desk was filled to overflowing with used Styrofoam cups and scrunched up paper and the room was redolent with the odour of onions and coffee.

Costanza waved him in, halfway through wolfing down a hamburger.

“So you’re the rookie kid I’ve been asked to babysit?”

“I’m Cadet Fraser sir, and I don’t expect any special treatment, or to tell you how to do your job. I’m just here to learn, that’s all, nothing else.”

Costanza scratched the back of his ear with one hand, and chewed thoughtfully.

“Okay, kid, it’s a deal. You just watch and stay out of my hair at the same time, and we’ll get along fine.” He swallowed the remainder of his burger and tossed the wrapper in the basket, then rummaged around his desk and came up with a heaving folder which he handed to Rick.

“This is a case I’m working on. I want you to read the witness statements, check out the evidence, tell me if there’s anything suspicious, or anything missing, and summarise what we’ve got so far in a report.” He winked at Rick as he grabbed the well-worn sports coat from the back of his chair.  He stood up, slid into it. 

“I’ve gotta go, another case.”

Rick fumed inwardly. This wasn’t what he expected. “I’m a cadet, sir, not a secretary, and I’m supposed to be here to understand how things work on the streets.”

Costanza spread his hands. “So am I, sonny, and I can’t do it with some snot-nosed kid on hanging on my coat-tails.”

“I’m not a kid.”

“What are you, eighteen, nineteen?”

“I’m twenty, sir.”

“Okay, well, compared to me, you’re still wet behind the ears. Might be different if I was going out to do traffic duty, but I ain’t. There’s some serious shit where I’m headed and I’m going to catch me some real bad sons of bitches. I can’t afford to have any distractions while I’m doing it.”

“I’m a trained Cadet, I’ve done plenty of stakeouts, and I can handle a gun.”

Costanza rolled his eyes. “Sure you have. Nice cosy little simulations, not in real life.”

“It’s just like real life,” Rick stood his ground.

“Blank ammunition,” Costanza countered, and then glanced at his watch. “I have to go.” He pointed a finger at Rick, as if he was cocking a gun, grinned. “See ya.”

Rick plopped onto the still-warm chair in front of the messy desk and pulled the folder across. Papers spilled out and he grunted in frustration, but he settled down to work his way through the files, there was little else he could do for the moment.

A sound made him turn, and he saw an attractive black woman come into the office. She held a cup of steaming coffee in her right hand, which she placed on the desk next to Rick.

“Dee Holloway,” she said, introducing herself.  “I sit over there.” She pointed to a cubicle outside the office. “I thought you might like something to drink, seeing that Ray isn’t exactly the motherly type.”

 Rick took the coffee gratefully, and studied the woman, noting the badge that she wore low slung on her hip. Detective second class. Now that he had the time to study her, he saw that she was trim and muscular, not an ounce of spare flesh. Long straight black hair and a distinct air of professionalism. He pegged her age at around late twenties or early thirties, it was hard to say exactly.

“Thanks,” he replied, with a smile.

“Course. don’t go thinking that I’m the motherly type either. The coffee room’s down the corridor on the left and next time you can get it for yourself.”

“Sure, no problem.”

Dee leaned her bottom of the edge of the desk and folded her arms. “I see Ray’s got you working his files.”

“Does he do this to all the Cadets?”

She smiled, white teeth against dark skin, and he felt an unbidden flicker of interest buzz through his veins.

“Just the ones he likes,” she said.

“Lucky me.”

“Don’t worry, his bark’s worse than his bite. He’s a brilliant cop. And don’t believe all that shit about him not writing reports, he’s the best in the business. Filing and reporting are a big part of the job. It’s not all glamour like they make out on TV and in the movies. We get a lot of information about cases we work on from all sorts of sources, we have to verify them, gotta sift through it all and make sure nothing gets past us.”

“The smallest detail, huh? I know, makes the difference between sending the perpetrator to jail – or not.”

“That’s it, so they do teach you that stuff in the Police Corps?”

“Of course they do, what do you expect?”

She shook her head, “I’m not sure, but we’ve all seen enough of the Academy cadets swan in and out of here, so full of themselves, know everything, try to tell us how to do our jobs.”

Rick flushed. “I’m not like that.”

“You know, maybe you’re not. But I guess we’ll have to see, huh?”

She winked at him again and got up from the desk. “I gotta get back to my reports. See you around, rookie.”

Rick’s smile stayed there, watching the lithe movement of her hips as she walked purposely back to her cubicle. He might have given up on sex for the foreseeable future, but he wasn’t dead below the belt.

 

The sound of door slamming made him start and he glanced blearily at the wall clock, realising it was 10:30 pm. He had a Lake-Huron-sized hole in his stomach and wished he’d gone out for take-away.

“Jeez, kid, haven’t you gone home yet?” Costanza said, with an expression that suggested he was a touch surprised at the ‘rookie’s’ work ethic.

“I just wanted to finish this report.” Rick handed him the flimsy which he’d printed out from the terminal about an hour ago. “Just needs your signature, and you’re done.”

Costanza flicked his eyes down the text, scratched behind his left ear. “You left out a semi-colon, look here.”

Rick frowned and the lieutenant chuckled. “I’m just kidding you, rookie. I wouldn’t know a semi-colon from a semi-quaver. I gotta admit, I didn’t think you’d stick with it. Pretty much figured I’d come back to an empty office and get a note from Chief O’Reilly saying he found you another department.”

“Not gonna happen.”

“That’s good. So, wanna go to work?”

“What, now?”

“Listen rookie, when you’re a cop, the time is always now. You’re on the job twenty-four seven. You think you can hack that?”

Rick felt the thrill of excitement subdue the rumbling in his belly

“Sure, I can hack it.”

 

***

 

Rick sat in the passenger seat of Costanza’s battered unmarked Ford Aries. When he’d seen Rick’s look, just before he got in, he’d shrugged, and said there was no point in driving anything smart when you were on the streets.

“You’ll only get some young turk from the ‘hood taking the hubcaps off or running a key-fob down the paintwork.”

Inside, however, behind the tinted windows, the car was all high tech, with a dashboard computer that linked them instantly to police headquarters. Rick shifted in the seat, still trying to get used to the bulk of the concealed weapon against his ribs. He’d been issued with the semi-automatic pistol on the third day of his arrival, and Costanza, with a straight face, told him he had to wear it at all times, except for showering and sex, or maybe even then.   

The wipers swished across the windshield as the lieutenant drove into the neighbourhood where they were investigating a robbery and homicide. They’d crossed the Potomac, and were about as far from the leafy suburbs of Georgetown as you could get.

Rick had read the reports. There had been a spate of thefts from medical dispensary vans carrying drugs, notably morphine. This was the second homicide in two weeks. In both cases the drivers had resisted and been shot point-blank range through the head.

“This area’s always had a drug problem,” Costanza told him. “But up to now it’s been ten-cent stuff, and, as bad as this sounds, we just don’t have the man-power to deal with it. Kids want to sniff or inject their way to hell, they’re gonna do it, with or without our say-so, and the way I see it, it’s one less crack-head for us to deal with any-how.”

“That’s a pretty brutal way of looking at it.”

The detective stared out of the water-washed window.  “It’s a brutal world out here, rookie, you get that into your head you might live to see you get your next set of fancy stripes.”

Rick stayed silent, only now beginning to realise that the textbook stuff and scenarios he’d enjoyed in the Backlot took on a more sinister aspect when you were actually out here in the real world. It wasn’t some video game they were playing now.

“Anyway,” Costanza continued, unaware of the younger man’s reveries, “When the guns come out and someone dies, someone perceived to be innocent, then that’s when the voters get all antsy and want the streets cleaned up. So the Chief chews my ass and so here we are.”

“So, what now?” Rick asked.

“Now? We get out of this nice warm car and go ask some questions.”

Rick’s eyebrows lifted before he could stop them. These streets looked mean with a capital M, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to talk to the sort of people that lived behind the derelict fronts of the houses, despite the comfort of his weapon. Costanza noticed his hesitation – there wasn’t much that escaped the older detective – and his stare was wolfish.

“You don’t solve cases sitting behind a desk. You have to knock on doors, talk to people. That’s how you find your leads, your contacts on the streets, where the real information lies to help solve a case. You might even get a feel for what’s going on, what fits, what doesn’t. And when you actually rub shoulder with real criminals, that’s when you get an insight into their minds and attitudes, not from reading textbooks on the subject.”

So they knocked on doors, and got wet in the drizzle, and Costanza let Rick take the lead, most of the time, unless he thought he was making a hash of the interview. Some people were willing to talk, but mostly the doors were slammed in his face soon as they saw him standing there, even in the first few seconds before he got his identification out, as if he was wearing a giant glow sign around his neck with the word ‘cop’.

“Don’t worry, you get used to it,” Costanza said, once they were back in the warm, dry interior of the Aries.  “The important thing is, did we get anything useful?”

Rick studied his data-pad, “Not much, but we’ve had two independent sightings of a red Cherokee about the same time as both murders took place; one at East Street and the other at Park Drive. If we triangulate that puts the vehicle in the right place at the right time.”

“Good, that’s our lead, we’ll give it to traffic and see if they can come up with some names.”

 

***

 

The DC homicide unit had cases enough to keep a young Academy trainee going for years. Just as Rick was just getting to grips with the Dispensary Van Murders, Costanza threw him another case to work with. Someone was killing prostitutes in the city. So far it was a count of three and although there was a little press interest – a footnote in the papers, a mention in the TV news, it hadn’t made the main news. Dead whores, according to Costanza, rated less coverage than the antics of the President’s dog, or who won the latest reincarnation of ‘America’s Got Talent’.

Of course, details of the murders had been kept vague from the media, although enough got out to have it discussed on a late night talk show that was popular with the extreme right wing factions of the populace. Rick didn’t see it, but Costanza played it back to him the following morning.

“So, Senator Johnson, you’re saying that these women deserve what’s happening to them?”

“The Bible’s clear, prostitution’s a sin, and these women – God rest their souls, need to wake up to the fact that sooner or later, they will reap what they sow…evil attracts its own kind and…,”

“Yeah, being beaten up, raped or murdered, just your average job hazard when you’re a ‘ho,” Costanza said, with a grimace, as the speaker droned on. “And it’s guys like him who go looking for sex, getting the sort of thing their wives wouldn’t dream of doing, and because they feel all guilty they take it out on the poor fifteen year old kid who just needs the money for drugs to forget the fact her step-father beats the shit out of her.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Wish I was. But unfortunately I’ve seen enough to know it happens. Welcome to the real world of police work, rookie, where the good and bad aren’t always who they seem.” He drained his coffee. “Anyway, I take it you’ve read what we have on the case so far?”

“Yeah, I did. And I was surprised.”

“Why?” Costanza looked interested.

“Because all the women were killed in the same manner, despite the victims being found dead in different parts of the city, but I didn’t get any indication in the reports that anyone else came to the same conclusion. There’s a pattern here, it’s obvious. I think it’s the same person doing the murders.”

“Maybe, but we don’t have any evidence to point to who that might be, and just the mere mention of the phrase ‘serial killer’ starts a citywide panic – especially amongst the women.”

“But it’s only prostitutes the killer’s is targeting so far.”

“You start talking about this kind of thing; everyone gets to hear about it”

“Shouldn’t they have the right to know if there’s a guy –“

“Why be sexist?” Costanza interrupted. “Could be a woman, men don’t have the monopoly on murder.”

“No, but percentage-wise men do far more of the killing, and they’re more brutal with it.”

“Yeah, you’re right, percentage-wise, but every case is unique, and I’m pretty sure you’ve been trained to keep an open mind, about any crime.”

Rick nodded. “But I still say the women need to be warned.”

“I agree with you, and also about the killer being one and the same. But we don’t have any evidence yet to point to anyone. That’s going to be your job, twenty-four seven, you got it?”

“I know, I need to knock on some doors.”

 

***

 

Rick found himself knocking on the door of a small but well-kept apartment belonging to a young woman named Kitty Brown.  She was the sister of Shanelle Brown, the first murdered prostitute. Costanza had sent Dee Holloway with him for company, saying that the interviewee might feel more comfortable if there was another female around. Rick figured Costanza just didn’t trust him yet and he squirmed with annoyance. Still, Dee was funny and sharp, regaling him with stories of her time in the department working for Ray as she drove them in an unmarked car to the north-east of the city.  For a moment he wondered if she and Costanza had a thing going. He had to admit she was certainly much better to look at than her boss as they drove to the north-east of the city.

“And that was the last time you spoke to your sister?” Rick asked Kitty.  She was black, like Dee, but with a lot less life in her eyes. It was obvious she’d taken her sister’s death hard. He empathised and it must have come over in his voice, because she gave him a faltering smile when she answered.

“Yeah, on Saturday night, about seven, just before she was about to go to work. I hated the fact she worked the streets, kerb crawlers, you know, it could have been anyone.”

“Did she happen to tell you any clients’ names, the night of her murder?”

“Are you kidding? No one ever gives their real names, but her regulars, she often gave them nicknames, you know?”

“Nicknames?” Rick said, looking blank, and Dee Holloway tried hard to keep her face straight as the young woman explained and his face flamed in response.

“Yeah, we used to laugh about it,” Kitty said, “Although it wasn’t really funny. Shanelle was so clever, she had an IQ of 300, but nobody would know it, she acted all dumb and cute, she’d say no guy wants a girl that’s smarter than him.”

“Why did she become a prostitute?”

“She wanted to go to college, be a doctor, said it was easy money, better than waiting tables. And it was at first, but after a while, her minder just took more of her cash, and then he got her taking drugs, and she got addicted, and then she needed more money to pay from them and to him, and God, it just became a vicious spiral.  I tried to get her out of it, I really tried, but she kept saying he would kill her if she tried to leave. After a while I stopped trying, but I always called her, just to make sure she was still okay, you know?”

For a moment Kitty Brown stopped speaking, and she put her face in her hands, her shoulders heaving as she let go of the grief.

“I’m sorry, I still can’t believe she’s gone.”

Rick nodded, feeling suddenly helpless in the face of such abject pain. Shanelle Brown had been just a name on a file, and yet now, through the words and sorrow of her sister, she became alive, someone who had harboured dreams and hopes just like him, and just like in Johnny and Stella’s case, they had been ripped away.

 “I’m sorry,” he said finally, “We need to try and find out who the last person was that saw her alive. Can you remember if she mentioned any of those names the night she – was killed.”

Kitty shook her dark head of curls. “No, she didn’t. Most times she wouldn’t know in advance who the johns were, often she picked them up kerbside, although she sure preferred motels. It isn’t real comfortable being screwed up against a cold brick wall in some dingy alleyway.”

The image she described made Rick feel, in rapid succession, turned on and then disgusted by the fact. He swallowed quickly.

“Did she go to a motel that night?”

“I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure. She wouldn’t tell me even if she knew, she’d be scared I’d go along and try to convince her to come home – again.”

Rick nodded and looked at Dee, who nodded in sympathy.

“Well,” he continued. “Maybe you could give us a list of those ‘nicknames’, anyway. Maybe we can use them to help us out in the case.”

“Sure. There was one guy she called Bananaman, on account of the shape of his anatomy, you know?” Rick managed not to blush this time and scribbled it in his data-pad. “And then there was a guy called the Cowboy, and another called the Wolfman, because he was the hairiest guy she’d ever seen, said he’d make these animal noises during sex.”

Kitty rattled off a few more, while Rick wondered what made someone like Shanelle, who obviously came from a decent background, and a loving family, could possibly want to go into a sleazy game like this.

“We’ll find her killer, I promise,” he said to Kitty, with such a hard conviction in his voice, his mother would never have recognised him.

 

“You sounded pretty confident back there,” Dee commented, as they headed back to central Washington. “It isn’t going to be easy, you know, these cases never are.”

“Well, I meant what I said, and I’ll work twenty-four hours a day if I have to get an answer.”

She flashed that smile at him again, but there was a matching respect in her eyes that he hadn’t seen before.   “I just bet that you will.”

 

***

 

The Vehicle Records department had sent the list of all known red Cherokees in the metropolitan area, a number that totalled four hundred and fifty nine.

“That’s like looking for a needle on a haystack,” Rick admitted to Dee Holloway, with a despondent look on his face.

“Well, what did you expect? It’s a popular car. You think the list was just going to appear with a big arrow saying – here I am?”

“No, of course I didn’t,” he said, with a scowl.

“So, what should you do next?”

He thought for a few seconds, when the idea hit him.  “What’s the likelihood that the car these suspects use has been stolen?”

Dee smiled. “I like your thought process, and yes, it’s highly likely. Criminals do it all the time to annoy the hell out of us cops. It’s a good place to start.”

He bounced off the edge of her desk. “I’m on it.”

“What about the dead ‘ho?” she called to his departing figure.

“I’m on that too,” he hollered back.

 

 

Despite Rick’s theory that the murders of the prostitutes were committed by the same guy, they couldn’t rule out that the pimps could at least been responsible for one or any of the deaths. It transpired that the guy who had drugged and beaten up the first girl, had inconveniently left town, putting him immediately under suspicion, and an APB was put out for his arrest.

He looked over the evidence that the CSIs had found at the first murder. The only fibre evidence were some skin cells and miniscule traces of dried blood that had been found underneath the fingernails of the first dead girl, and a DNA analysis confirmed that it wasn’t hers. Cross- matching the DNA with that of known offenders in the database turned up no matches. They were at a dead end with that avenue for now.

 

***

 

Rick and Dee went to where the second woman had been found dead, behind a dumpster in a dank alleyway which ran parallel to the massage parlour where she worked. According to the initial police and CSI reports, she had left the parlour around two am, presumably for her home, but had never reached it. The body was found a day later by a hobo searching through the dumpster. CSI combed the area, but found no prints, only the faint outline of a boot-print left in the muddy remains of a puddle next to fence at the end of the alleyway. It was a man’s size ten, and suggested that the killer may have climbed the fence to make his getaway.

The massage parlour was located in another of the less than fashionable areas of Washington DC. Here, there were no fancy boutiques, or cappuccino bars, nor were the streets populated by power-suits making calls on their cell-phones. Instead there were adult video stores, pawn shops and liquor stores, and the pedestrians wandering the tired streets, or hunched down at a street corner, looked like they had been sleeping off drink, drugs or just sheer desperation.

“Can you handle yourself if things get violent?” she asked him. “These guys aren’t the nicest of people around here.”

He nodded. He’d put a lot more muscle on his six-foot frame in the last six months, and it was toned hard and solid with all the physical training he’d undergone at the academy: running, gymnastics, and martial arts.

“Yeah, I can handle it.”

They showed their badges to the young woman at the reception desk, a space that was filled with worn synthetic chairs and grimy psychedelic walls. Rick tried not to stare at her. It wasn’t so much the orange frizz of hair scraped back high onto the top of her head, or the clashing animal prints of her top and leggings, but the length of her nails. They were fully two inches long and painted in black and gold – like great curved talons. She looked like some exotic zoo exhibit. Rick wondered if she gave massages too.

“I’ll see if the boss is in,” she told them, getting out of the black synthetic chair like a sinuous cat. She rapped on the door and a gravel voice issued from within the room beyond.

“What is it?”

“Cops, here to see you, about Jayney.”

There was the sound of someone cursing, and then the door opened and the manager came out into the reception area. Rick’s skin crawled when he took one look at the bull-necked man, his face scarred from some long-time-ago knife wound. He immediately went on the offensive.

“Look, I spoke to the police a week ago, when they found Jayney dead, they’ve got my side of the story.”

“Sure,” Dee said in a soothing tone that ought to have placated a charging rhino, “But we’d just like to ask some more, since we’re new on the case.”

“I pay my taxes, lady, and I run a clean shop. I’m real sorry that the girl got cut-up, but it had nothing to do with me. Business has been real bad since this shit happened.”

“My heart bleeds for you,” Dee drawled.

“Where were you on the night she was killed?” Rick asked.

“At a buddy’s house, drinking beers, playing poker, there’s four people can vouch for it.”

“We need their names, and phone numbers, we’ll be checking.”

The man shrugged, seemingly unfazed, and Rick felt anger coil in his belly. Maybe he really hadn’t killed the girl with his bare hands, but her blood was on them, just the same.

“Can we speak to the other girls here? Maybe one of them saw something that might help us catch her killer.”

He shrugged.

“We’ll take that as a yes,” Dee said. “Can we use your office?”

“I’m busy, you can use reception, you want coffee, Darla will get you some.”

Rick shook his head, and Lee did the same. “We’ll just speak to the girls, okay?” she added.

Darla disappeared and returned with a young woman who obviously went to the same fashion store. Her eyes were kohl-lined and she looked about twenty-five. She glanced at the owner, and Rick caught something in that glance, a warning? Thankfully he disappeared into his office, leaving the two women alone with them. 

“Darla, can you give us a minute?” Dee said to the receptionist, “We’d like to speak to you one at a time, if that’s okay.”

“Sure.” Darla sashayed into the gloomy depths of the parlour, and Rick flicked on his standard issue data-clip to record the conversation.

The woman, who returned with Darla, gave her name as Frankie, and tried to remember everything that she’d told the police on the day Jayney was murdered. No, she hadn’t seen anything suspicious on the night of the murder; yes, Jayney was the first to leave; no, she didn’t hear any noises that night, they always had music playing in the rooms. Yes, she was afraid to go home past the alleyway, she took the long way around now. During the interview Rick couldn’t help noticing her eyes, which were unfocused and had a milky sheen, and put her down as a Shine user. He’d read about the chemical’s effects during his narcotics module in the academy. However, this wasn’t a drugs raid, so he reminded himself to focus on the job at hand.

Rick exhausted his list of questions, and then repeated them with the other three girls who worked in the parlour. After that they walked around to look at the murder scene on daylight. It was partly in shadow from the high-rise next door, and the dumpster was filled to overflowing with trash.  There were no streetlights opposite or on the side of the alleyway, so it would have been quite dark, except for the blue and red neon glow from the massage parlour frontage next door.

“The killer must have been waiting here, in the shadows,” he said, voicing his thoughts. “When Jayney walked past, he dragged her in here, and slit her throat. No one hears anything, no shouts, no screams, which suggests a couple of things – that this guy must be pretty strong, and he killed her damn quick so she didn’t even get a chance to scream or fight back. He knows how to handle a knife.”

Dee listened and nodded and he took her silence as agreement with his reasoning.

They walked the length of the alley to the eight-foot mesh fence, and Rick tried not to breathe too hard, since the place stank of stale food and urine.

“What a God-awful place to die,” he muttered under his breath.

Dee heard and nodded. “Yeah, it is.”

Beyond the fence was another narrow lane, with a garage and lock-ups. The garage was fairly busy now, and when they went the long way around the corner to talk to the owner and two of his mechanics, they told them they would always shut-up shop at five pm, and then the street became pretty much deserted. There wouldn’t be many witnesses to a killer clambering over the fence at two a.m.

There were still a few businesses that Rick wanted to check, but by now it was past one, so Dee suggested having a late lunch. The available options weren’t exactly haute cuisine, but a quick search found a franchise two blocks down, and they sat down to plates of southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and watery corn on the cob. The place was quiet, but Rick kept his voice low, all the same, while they ate.

“That alley,” he said, “It was obviously perfect for – what he did. And it had access both sides, in case he was seen, or caught. That took planning and local knowledge. I think our guy is from around this area.”

“You could be I right; it narrows it down some, but not much.”

“I know,” he said wryly. “Records check of all criminals from this area who have knives and wear size ten boots?”

Dee smiled. “It’s a start.”

 

***

 

The vehicle search turned up six Red Cherokees that has been stolen within the last six months in the metropolitan area. One address stood out like a sore thumb, three blocks away from a medical dispensary in SE Washington DC, situated within the very area where he and Costanza had knocked on doors a week ago. Coincidence? He didn’t think so.

“I’ve also got something,” Dee Holloway replied, when he gave her the news. “My informant texted me an hour ago, says he thinks there might be some more action in the next few days.”

“You mean another van hijack?”

She nodded. “I think we need to keep our eyes on that dispensary down in Anacostia, don’t you think?”

“A stakeout?”

“Better than. We substitute ourselves for one of the van drivers, and go out on delivery runs in the area. Hopefully, the thieves will follow us, try to steal the medicines, and we catch them in the act.”

Rick felt a thrill run through him. “Two of the drivers have a bullet through their brains, isn’t that kind of risky, putting ourselves out as bait?”

“Yeah, but we have a few things on our side that those poor guys didn’t. We are expecting something to happen, we have weapons to fight back, and we’ll have plenty of back-up.”

“When you put it like that…”

“Look, I can understand if you don’t want to do it, it is dangerous, but it’s a sure-fire way of getting these guys on our terms. Catching them red-handed, they won’t weasel their way out of it. I can get Costanza or one of the other guys to ride shotgun with me.”

Rick flushed. “No way. Count me in.”

She winked at him, and another shiver trailed along his spine. It took a few moments for him to realise that it wasn’t only the threat of danger that made him feel that way.

 

It was all arranged. The dispensary manager was brought into the sting operation, and understandably, he was nervous about the whole idea, but finally agreed to go along with it. He’d already lost a couple of drivers - in addition to the dead ones - too scared to make the runs in case they were next, so he knew that something had to be done. One of Costanza’s other detectives would drive the van, and Rick and Dee would be in the back with the medicines. All of them would be wearing wires, so that information could be relayed from either the detective driving the van, or any of the other unmarked cars tailing them.

         “How good is your informant’s information?” Rick asked Dee, as they got ready in the back of the dispensary, lined with racks of bottles and boxes of pills and drugs. This was it, their first ride in the van to catch some bad guys.

She shrugged. “As good as it can be. We might be doing this for days, you up for it?”

He nodded. “Well, I haven’t got anything else planned.”

“No hot dates, huh?”

Rick felt his face heat, and turned away quickly to make a fuss of checking his wire, making sure it was set up correctly.

“That’s okay, I don’t have any either,” she added, as she checked her body-stun gun. 

The bass voice of Wayne Durant, who would be acting the part of van driver, and putting himself in the main line of fire, sounded over their ear-pieces.

“I’m all set- you guys ready?”

They nodded to one another, and then opened the back door of the dispensary. It opened up into a yard which was not overlooked, mercifully. They didn’t want nosy neighbours gossiping and giving the game away to the van hijackers.  In these neighbourhoods, money talked and talk made money.

The two of them climbed into the back, and settled down behind a false wall of empty boxes. Beyond that, to the doors, there were boxes of real medicines to be delivered to several pharmacies in the area, so that the operation would seem real to any onlookers.

The van set off, and headed on route for the first pharmacy, and for the first few miles, neither Rick nor Dee said a word. He was wound up tighter than a spring, and whether the older woman felt the same he didn’t know. He couldn’t imagine her being scared, she seemed so damn cool and confident.  

The van stopped. The first delivery was due. The back doors opened and they crouched down into their hiding place as Durant picked up several boxes, not saying a word. The doors closed again and they knew he would be going into the pharmacy on Church Street where one of the robberies had taken place.   

“What if they hit us now?” Rick whispered.

“The last five robberies took place while the van was in motion; they might just stick to what’s worked for them in the past.”

Another voice sounded in their ear, from the detectives in the unmarked car that was following the dispensary van, and that had halted on the other side of the street.

“It’s all clear so far, no signs of a red Cherokee in the vicinity.”

Then, they heard the front door of the van open, and Durant got in. “Next stop on the way,” he told them.

More stops, and at three p.m. their journey was complete. Rick got out of the van into the back of the dispensary with a sense of anti-climax.

“As I said, this could go on for days,” Dee said, obviously intercepting his feelings, but his time, she didn’t embellish it with any snide comments.

 

***

 

The following day, and the one after that, the van followed the same routine, going to the same pharmacies, and Dee and Rick crouched in their spot at the rear of the vehicle.  A sense of familiarity with the process made them a little more talkative, as the van trundled along the streets of the neighbourhood. They kept it neutral, since Durant could probably pick up every word they said, and the topics ranged from movies, what food and ball sports they were into, and amusing anecdotes from their training.  

Sitting this close, he could smell the vanilla in her hair, probably from the shampoo she used, and then that got his mind on a decidedly dodgy track, like imagining her in the shower, and then maybe what she might look like naked, and…

He had to stop that right away because it was as hot and airless as hell in the back of the van.

“You okay?” Dee whispered, in the sudden silence that had followed in the wake of his erotic thoughts.

“Yeah, fine. I just got cramp.”

“Me too,” he felt her thigh brush against his as she stretched a leg, and thought that despite the discomfort, he was still glad that he hadn’t changed places with Durant.

 

***

 

They were halfway along their usual route on the third day. It was raining and they could hear the ping of the raindrops as they hit the metal roof of the van, their voices low in conversation.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, Rick heard the unmistakable sound of the high-pitched squeal of tyres, and then a sickening crunching sound as something hit the side of the van. The impact threw Dee sideways into him.

Shit,” she muttered raggedly, and scrabbled up from him, reaching for her body-stun gun.

“Bad guys in a red Cherokee, they’re getting out, one’s got a gun, he’s coming for me. Get ready, the other’s going around the back.” Durant’s voice was a tense hiss in their ears.

“Don’t move, stick to the plan,” Dee whispered to him, as Rick drew his own pistol.

His heart started thumping as the adrenaline pumped around his system. He got snatches of conversation from Durant, who was playing his part, stepping out of the van, and jabbering in a mock-frightened voice, don’t shoot me, don’t shoot me!

The back doors flew open, and daylight flooded the interior, making a silhouette of the robber who reached out for the boxes of drugs.

Blindingly fast, Dee launched herself from her crouching position across the empty boxes, pointing her stunner at him.

“Police, stop and hands up!” she shouted.

The man yelled an obscenity, flung the box to the ground, and turned to run. But Dee was fast. She fired the stunner, and the robber shrieked once, limbs flailing, then fell to the pavement, his body still writhing for a few seconds before going still.

Rick them heard a gunshot, just as another squeal of tyres from the other side of the road signalled their own back-up arriving at last.

Durant!

The two of them shot out of the van, hitting the ground running, boxes flying everywhere. As Rick rounded the van he glimpsed Durant lying on the deck, blood flowing from his shoulder. He was groaning but didn’t appear to be gravely injured. The other black robber was standing just a few feet away from the fallen detective, legs akimbo, both hands on his gun, rage and fear blazing in his eyes. He was about Rick’s age.

“Don’t come near me, filth, you’ll get one too!”

Rick hesitated, his heart jack-hammering against his ribs, as he was flashed back to that moment when he faced the saboteur trying to steal the Viper.

“Put the gun down and you won’t get hurt,” he said, in an even voice, all the hours of training coalescing. His own pistol was locked onto his opponent’s chest. 

The young man’s gun wavered, his eyes flicking around in a new fear as he realised there were two more cops advancing on him. He had nowhere to go.

So he started shooting.

How the bullet missed Rick, he never knew, but he felt the air of its passage. Without conscious thought, he threw himself forward, rolling on the ground to make himself a moving target, as he heard several more shots ring out.

In minutes, it was all over.

Dee and Rick tended to Durant as the other detectives called for a squad car and an ambulance. When the last siren’s wail grew weaker in the distance it was time for them to head back to the downtown office to compile all the evidence to charge the suspects with attempted murder of a law enforcement agent and a whole other slew of things besides.

“God knows when this will all come to trial, but at least the families of those guys will see the department’s done something about it,” Dee said. “You did a good job out there, Fraser, I guess now it’s about time we stopped calling you ‘rookie’.

Now that was something worth celebrating, he thought.

 

 

***

 

Rick received another pleasant surprise the following morning – Vicky Lee was coming to Washington DC.  She planned to writer her dissertation on new robotic advances in medicine, and was attending a big medical conference on the subject.

“I only have one free night,” she said over the phone. “But I’d love to see you, if it’s possible.”

“Me too. My boss is a workaholic, and half the time he expects me to be the same, but I think I can swing it.”

Costanza took pity on him and told him he could finish early, and as he headed out of the office he bumped into Dee Holloway, literally.

“Whoa,” she said, “You’re in some hurry. You got a hot date or something?”

He blushed at her question, although he wasn’t sure why. “I’m just meeting a friend for supper, that’s all.”

“A friend, that’s nice. I was beginning to think you had no social life to speak of.” 

“I could say the same thing about you, Detective Holloway,” he flashed back quickly.

“Ouch.” She grinned, and he found that he liked the way her eyes scrunched up at the corners. “You’ve got a point, serves me right for being nosy.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to –“

She waved his apology away, as if it didn’t matter. “Have a great time with your friend.”

“Thanks, I will.”

Vicky gave Rick directions to her hotel but he left his Harley at the Academy. He didn’t think she’d appreciate her hair being stuffed under a helmet, so he took the metro and walked to meet her there. She was waiting in the lobby, dressed simply in a dark-red silk blouse and black slacks. That familiar elfin face was wreathed in a smile when she saw him enter, and they embraced one another warmly.

“It’s so wonderful to see you,” she whispered.  

“And you…” He felt a lump form in his throat as she hugged him tight, realising that she was all that remained of his youth, his former life. She was his one constant in a sea of change.

“You look so different, so – you’re a man, Rick.”

He grinned. “Well, last time I looked I was… ”

She punched him. “You know what I mean; you look so mature, so comfortable with yourself.”

“Really? Wish I felt that way inside. You’re about the only one who thinks so. Most people I deal with still think of me as a kid.” He told her about his first few days with Costanza, as they took a cab to Alberto’s and she listened avidly, laughing in all the right places. Once at the trattoria, they began to chat about everything under the sun, totally at ease with one another.

“You’re really into being a doctor, aren’t you?” he said, after they had polished off a huge helping of double chocolate cheesecake.

“Yes, I am, even though I know it’s going to be really tough. I still have another year, and then I have to do my residency and finish my dissertation. God, it’s going to be a grind, but it’s really what I want to do. I’ve never felt something so right. And look at you, I think you really like this police work, don’t you?”

“Yeah, it’s – what’s the word I’m looking for – engrossing – that’s it. Like a big puzzle that you just have to solve. I never would have believed it, but my instructors at the Academy say I have very logical thought patterns. Funny, isn’t it? Me, Rick Fraser, grade point average of three point eight, with a rational head on his shoulders.”

“I always knew you were clever, you just needed to find the one thing that suited your personality and the unique way your mind works. It very much looks like to me that being a detective is your true calling after all.”

He sat back and thought about it. “You know, Vic, you might have something there. Who would have figured it, huh?”

 

 

 

***

 

The excitement of the dispensary stake-out and the enjoyable evening spent with Vicky had ebbed away, and Rick was back to the relatively mundane job of poring and sifting through all the evidence gleaned so far in the prostitute killer’s case.

A loud knock on the glass partition separating Costanza’s office from the main office area made him look up. The Inspector waved at him to come in, and his face was grim.

“I just got a call from the precinct,” he said to Rick when he stuck his head around the door. “There’s been another murder.”

“Another hooker?”

“Looks like it. A maid found her this morning, when she went in to do the room, she called 911, and we’ve sent in a crime scene investigation unit, they’re working on it now.”

Rick felt a prickle along his spine. “Did she die in the same way as the other women?”

Costanza nodded grimly. “Yeah, her throat slit, and the same facial mutilations. So, you ready to look at a dead body?”

“It won’t be the first one I’ve seen.”

“Yeah, but that’s in a lab, this is different.”

Rick didn’t bother to correct him.

They took Costanza’s Aries and headed north-east to a non-descript motel just off highway 50. Its rooftop neon sign was barely visible in the morning sunlight, and they could see the police squad car parked around the back next to the white Crime Scene Investigation van.

The interior lobby was as characterless as the exterior. A row of plastic palms loomed over a row of burgundy couches, all of them empty.  The only sign of a police investigation was the uniformed officer stationed at the entrance of the corridor leading to the downstairs bedrooms.

The manager, who was muttering to the desk-clerk, looked up when Rick and Costanza went over to speak to them. He was a pudgy, balding man who kept mopping his forehead with a handkerchief.

“As I told the officers here,” he said, “If I’d known she was a hooker, we never would have given her the room. This is a respectable motel; we don’t allow that sort of thing here.”

“I’m sure,” Costanza said. “You’ll both need to stay here until we return; we’ll need to ask some questions.”

“Okay.”

Rick followed Costanza down the corridor, past the uniformed cop. It was easy to find room 125 because of swirl of activity outside. It was right at the end of the corridor, next to the external fire exit. There was another uniform at the door, and several CSI personnel wearing white gloves, hair nets and booties. One was putting away a camera and the other was putting something in a sealed plastic bag.  A maid’s cart was parked against one wall, filled with brushes and plastic bottles and piles of folded clean bedding. 

The lead CSI nodded at them both, giving Rick a quick smile when Costanza introduced him.

“We’ve done all the photos and sketches and our first sweep for latent prints for the lab,” she said. “The girl’s body is still exactly where we found it.  Dane is on his way to do a prelim cause of death and identification. She didn’t have any on her. No driver’s licence, or social security number.”

“That’s odd.”

“Sure is.” She handed out gloves and booties, and they slipped them on before entering the bedroom. Remembering his CSI and forensic modules, Rick knew how easy it was to contaminate a crime scene, and there were procedures and practices that had to be followed rigorously by the law enforcement agencies to ensure that any evidence found at the scene was not compromised in any way and would be admissible in court.

“Was the door forced in?” Costanza asked the CSI.

“No.”

“Windows?”

“They’re sealed units, you can’t get out that way unless you break the glass, and the doors are self locking.”

         “What does that suggest?” Costanza asked Rick.

“That her killer was someone she knew?”

“File that thought away.”

Rick followed Costanza into the room, and his gaze immediately went to the king-size bed where the victim lay. Blood soaked the coverlet underneath the body.

She lay face-down, spread-eagled, dressed on nothing but a black and red basque and lacy suspenders – classic hooker’s attire.

Her face and shoulders were hidden by the fan of pale gold hair that caught the light and broke it into a collection of glimmering highlights that even death seemed unable to diminish. That precise colour was so familiar that it sent Rick’s memory into overdrive and a sharp prickle of horror down his spine.

It was like he was looking at the dead body of Emma Bishop on the bed.

“Hey, Fraser, come over here and take a look, you won’t learn anything standing over there.”

Rick swallowed down the knot in his throat, and stepped across the carpet towards the bed, steeling himself.

Costanza gently turned the girl’s face around with a gloved hand, and when Rick saw the damage, black spots danced in front of his eyes, blurring his vision. His gorge rose and he fought back the urge to vomit. He should have been prepared for this, after all, he’d been there when Johnny and Stella died, he’d seen a cadaver split open on a slab. But this was different –somehow. Looking at this young woman – who reminded him of his first crush – at the pointless destruction of her face, it hit him bad. He forced himself to pull together with force of will. No way was he going to lose it in front of Ray Costanza.

But the older man just looked sympathetic. “First time – it’s always the worst.”

“Does it get easier?”

“I wish I could tell you it does. But no, it doesn’t. You just learn to hide it better.”

A few minutes later, the Metro’s medical examiner, George Dane, arrived, and Costanza left him and the CSIs to their work, while he and Rick started interviewing all the possible witnesses, starting with the manager and the duty clerk. They discovered that the girl had checked in around seven the previous night, and had asked for a ground floor room near the fire exit.

“That’s odd,” Costanza said.

“Yeah, I thought so too, but she said she had this crazy fear of being trapped in a burning building, liked to be close to the exits when she stayed anywhere.”

“Do you know if she had any visitors?”

“No idea. We don’t have CCTV in the corridors, it isn’t a prison.”

“She didn’t look come in looking like a hooker, you know,” the desk clerk said. “She just seemed like a perfectly normal young woman dressed in a trench-coat. It was raining, you know? We asked for driver’s id, but she said she got dropped off by taxi.”

Costanza looked at Rick, who had already made a note of it, since they already knew the licence was missing.

“What was she carrying?”

“A tote bag, and she had a big holdall, brown, I think it was. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”

“There was no holdall in the room, are you sure about that?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure.”

They followed up with the maid who had discovered the body, but she couldn’t tell them any more than she’d told the uniformed officers. The motel had been quiet that night, only a few guests, and none staying in the room next door or above. Only a couple of guests were still checked in at the motel, and they wore anxious faces when they discovered someone had been murdered only yards away from where they were sleeping peacefully.  One of the guests had heard someone walking along the corridor about two am but had thought nothing of it.

“Did you hear anything else, shouting, a cry or a scream maybe?” Rick asked the man, who was in his late seventies.

“I thought I heard something, but then I figured it was someone watching the horror channel on TV too loud.”

Costanza and Rick glanced at one another, as if to say: someone must have heard something, surely?

“Who else was working at the hotel during the evening?” Costanza asked the manager.

“The barman, Vincent Green, and another maid. Dolores Santiago. But she went off-duty before the girl checked in.”

“Still, we might have to question her. When will she be back in work?”

“She’s got a couple of days off, her mother’s in hospital with cancer.”

Costanza frowned, and then was distracted when Dane came striding up to the desk and motioned him and Rick aside, out of earshot of the two hotel staff. His face was stressed and drawn.

“You’re not going to like this,” he said quietly.

“Do I ever?” Costanza replied.

“You’ll like this even less. I just ran a photo-scan of the girl’s face through the central records system, and it threw up a seventy percent ID match. I’ll have to confirm with DNA analysis, but it looks awfully like this dead girl might be Nicole Johnson.”

Rick had no idea who that was, and Costanza looked blank.  

Dane continued. “She’s the daughter of Senator William Johnston, the big shot politician on Capitol Hill, the one who was on TV the other day saying how all hookers deserve what they get.”

Costanza swore. “You have to be kidding me.”

“Wish I was. If it is this girl, then good luck with keeping a lid on this one, the press will have a field day.”

 

***

 

This was going to be tough, Rick thought, as he and Costanza drove to the Johnson house. It was the first time he’d seen the lieutenant in the last twenty-four hours, since the latter had been ensconced in Metro central in a long meeting with the Chief of Police and the Mayor. Dane’s analyses had come up correct; the girl was no hooker, but the daughter of one of the most outspoken and hard-line politicians in Washington. There would no doubt be self-righteous cries of hypocrisy and double-standards flying around from the Senator’s opponents, and the man would be in shock, they would need to tread carefully.

 As they idled up to the front of the palatial family home in Chevy Chase, one of Washington DC’s most prestigious suburbs, Rick couldn’t help feeling an unsettling sense of deja-vu. He’d slept badly the previous night, the first in a long time since Stella and Johnny’s deaths. It wasn’t just the image of Nicole Johnson’s ruined face, but the whole idea that someone who, on the surface, seemed to have it all, the pretty face, the rich parents, should want to engage in something so squalid as selling her body for sex. It made him question everything about the cosy, comfortable world of the wealthy.

A maid brought them through to the drawing room, filled with enormous damask couches and Chinese vases. A perfect room, not a thing out of place.

Senator Johnson and his wife were waiting for them. Mrs Johnson looked like someone in the first stages of grief, pale of complexion, with dark circles under her grey eyes that looked out on the world with an uncomprehending stare.

Senator Johnson was belligerent.

“So, what are you doing about finding my daughter’s murderer?”

“We’re doing everything we can, Senator,” Costanza said.

“What the hell was she doing in a sleazy motel on the East side?” 

“I was hoping you could tell us, sir.”

Johnson stared at them, and then seemed to register Rick’s presence for the first time. “You seem a little young to be handling a murder case,” he said, addressing him brusquely. Rick was caught out for the moment, there was way too much in the Senator’s manner that reminded him of John Bishop, Emma’s father, and that similarity unsettled him once again.  But he jutted his chin out, unconsciously daring the man to challenge him. He’d come a long way from that kid.

“This is World Government Police Cadet Richard Fraser, sir,” Costanza cut in. “He’s on loan from the Academy, and he’s highly trained, he’ll be a big asset in helping to solve this crime.”

Johnson made a harrumphing sound, while Rick kept his face impassive at Costanza’s praise.

“You’ll have to forgive, me, Lieutenant,” Johnson said, in a slightly mollified tone.  “This has been a total shock to me and Carol.”

“Of course, it’s completely understandable.”

“You think it’s him, the one that’s been killing all those other women?”

“We don’t want to speculate just yet, sir. We’d like to explore any and every possibility. When was the last time you saw her, before she died?”

“She was off seeing friends,” Carol said. Her face crumpled. “At least, that’s what we thought.”

“A boyfriend?”

“No, she was dating someone, we really hoped they would get married, you know, but she broke it off a few months ago. Dexter was really upset.”

Costanza glanced at Rick and Johnson intercepted it.

“Don’t tell me you are seriously thinking that Dexter would have anything to do with her murder…”

“Of course not, Senator, but we may just need to follow up with all the people who knew her, to try and get a picture of her state of mind just prior to her death. She went to that motel for some reason, and we need to know what that was.”

“We understand – that her throat was slit and her face mutilated, in the same way as those other – poor women. Surely you should be looking for this guy?”

“We are, sir.” Costanza glanced at Rick, and his expression suggested he take over some of the questioning.

So he did. “You mentioned she was supposed to be with a friend just before she died, could you give us their name?” 

“A girl called Mindy Martin, she lives not far from here, in Chevy Chase,” Johnson replied.

“Thanks, we’ll need to speak to her.  Going back to the Lieutenant’s query about her state of mind, did your daughter seem to be acting any differently over the last couple of weeks? Were there any signs that something was wrong? Change of routine, eating habits, new friends?”

“Not that we were aware of,” Carol Johnson answered.

“The motel desk-clerk said that she arrived by taxi, with a couple of bags, any idea why she would do that, so close to home?”

“I have no idea.” She dabbed at her eyelids, close to tears again.

Rick felt as if he was sticking knives in the poor woman, but knew all the same that they had to keep asking the difficult questions. They were now on a count of four dead women, and this might not be the killer’s final victim. They had to catch him, and fast. He heard Costanza’s sharp intake of breath, became aware that the Lieutenant was about to ask something tough.

“Did you have any idea that Nicole was into drugs?” 

The shock in both pairs of eyes signalled a negative.

“I’m afraid the post mortem turned up evidence of them in her system.”

“I don’t believe it,” Carol Johnson said vehemently. “Nicole was such a beautiful girl, it’s impossible to think that she might have been into that filthy stuff, whoever killed her made her use it.”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you, I realise it’s hard.”

“Do you have children, Lieutenant?” Johnson said, and his voice was flinty again.

“No, sir, I don’t.”

“Then you have no idea how hard it is.”

 

“Well, that went well,” Costanza said, with a grimace as they left the mansion. “There goes my chance of promotion for the next ten years.”

“I guess they just don’t want to believe their daughter was turning tricks and using drugs. I thought we were going to take a look at her room?”

“I didn’t want to push it – yet.” He glanced at his watch. “When you get back I want you and Dee to follow up with the girl-friend, I have a meeting with the Chief. We’re going to see if we can get the papers to keep a low profile on this. Those news guys only make things difficult for us half the time anyway, warning suspects so they do a moonlight flit and we can’t subpoena them…”

Rick just listened, now used to Costanza’s almost daily rants about the city institutions that seemingly did all they could do muddy and obstruct the course of his investigations.

“Welcome to the real world of police work, Fraser, a little bit of truth and a whole lot of lying and smoke and mirrors…”

 

Costanza dropped Rick off at a coffee shop close to the address they’d been given, and he bought himself a macchiato and a chicken Panini while he waited for Dee. He’d just finished the last crumbs of his sandwich when the black woman’s car drew up to the kerbside. He got in and handed her a coffee to go.

She smiled. “Thanks, you’re a real knight in shining armour.”

“So I’ve been told.”

They drove to the address while Rick filled her in on the meeting with the Johnsons.

“Yeah,” she said. “No one ever wants to believe that their sweet little princess could do anything wrong.”

Mindy Martin lived in yet another palatial address in Chevy Chase, just on the border between DC and Maryland.  The young woman who answered the door was in her early twenties, petite, with spiky raven hair and a small ring through her nose. She looked curiously at the two of them, dismissed Dee and gave Rick a coy smile.

“Metro police, we’re here to speak to Mindy Martin?” Dee flashed her badge.

The coy look vanished. “Police? I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“We’re just here to ask you a few questions about your friend, Nicole Johnson.”

“What’s she done now?”

“I’m afraid that she’s – dead.”

The girl went pale, and swayed, holding onto the door frame for support.

“Can we come in?” Dee said.

She seemed to rally. “I don’t know, do I need a lawyer or something?”

“You are not a suspect, Ms Martin,” Rick said. “We only want to ask you about Nicole, when you last saw her, what she was doing in the last few days. We just spoke with her parents, they told us that she was with you the night before she died.”

“You’d better come in.” She motioned them to a sitting room just off the main hallway. “Do you want anything to drink?” she asked, as they sank into a dark-brown leather couch.

“No, we’re okay,” Rick said, and added a smile for good measure. The young woman returned it tentatively, and sat down too on an armchair opposite them.

“What happened to her?” she asked quickly, as if she needed to know straightaway.

So they told her, and her face became pinched and drawn.

“When did you last see her?” Rick asked.

“Thursday about two o’ clock; we went for a late lunch.”

“That was before she was seen checking into the motel. Looks like she wasn’t with you at all, like her parents thought.”

Again, that troubled look. “Doesn’t look like it.”

“How did she seem them, when you saw her?”

“Okay. She seemed a little high, maybe.”

“High, as in drugs?”

The girl fidgeted. “Maybe, but mostly agitated, excited. Like she was planning something. I didn’t want to ask, knew she might get mad.”

“Did she often get mad at you?”

“Not before, we’ve been friends for a while, on and off, never really that close, you know, not in one another’s pockets, but she did seem to get a little more flaky in the last few months.”

“We understand she was dating someone, and it didn’t work out.”

“Yeah, she dumped Dex not long after we went to that club in downtown.”

 “What club?” 

“Some Cuban place, we went there a couple of times, she got friendly with a guy there, we saw him a couple of times, they danced, flirted, you know?”

“Was she dating him?”

“I don’t think so, she didn’t say that she was, but now, after hearing this, her being murdered, I don’t know. Looks like I didn’t know her at all.”

“Did this guy know who she was? That she was Senator Johnson’s daughter?”

“Maybe, I don’t know, she didn’t like to brag about her folks, thought they were total assholes, especially her dad.”

“Do you think you might be able to come down to the office and give us a description of this man, we’ll get one of the forensic artist’s to make up a facial composite.”

“You think this guy in the bar she met killed her?”

“At this moment, we don’t think anything, but we do need to speak to everyone who was in contact with her.”

She looked apprehensive at the idea. “I don’t know, it was ages ago, and that place was dark, I really can’t remember enough…”

“It’s really important,” Rick said, with an earnest tone in his voice. “You do want to help solve her murder, yeah?”

She bit her bottom lip. “Sure, of course I do.”

         They were driving back to the office with Mindy Martin when Rick got a beep on his cell-phone. He flicked it open. “Fraser.”

         It was Costanza. “Get over here right away, we have some more news.”

 

         As soon as they settled Mindy down with the forensic artist at his terminal, they headed straight for Costanza’s office.

         “I just got a call from Senator Johnson,” he told them. “Seems there’s money gone missing from one of his bank accounts, but he only discovered it  ten minutes ago. I guess a guy that rich doesn’t miss a couple of hundred thousand dollars here or there.”

Dee rolled her eyes. Rick said: “Does he know how it went missing?”

“It was an online account, encrypted password, he doesn’t have a clue.”

“The deck-clerk said Nicole was carrying a holdall when she checked in,” Rick said, a sudden notion flashing through his mind. “If it was full of clothes, why would it have gone missing at the motel? There had to be something worth taking – like money.”

“You’re saying Nicole stole the money from her father?”

“It’s possible isn’t it?  Dee, you heard what Mindy said, she hated her parents, she was acting weird, she’d met some guy downtown, What if Nicole stole the money?  She would have the best opportunity to access his account, maybe steal his password. Maybe she wired the amount to her own account, if she had one, then took the money in cash, and put it in that holdall. I’m just flying here, but, if there was money, did the killer just get lucky, and find it after he murdered her, or did he already know she had it on her?”

“I like your reasoning, Fraser,” Costanza said, with a nod of approval.

 “There are more questions than answers here,” Dee said.

“There always are,” Costanza said, “So let’s work on finding some of the second. First thing is to check Senator Johnson’s and Nicole’s bank account trails, to see if your theory flies, Fraser.  I’ll get the district attorney to get warrants, and in the meantime, see what forensics have come up with.”

 

Before going to forensics, Rick stopped to check on Mindy Martin, and found that the technician had almost completed a facial composite of the man Nicole had talked to in the bar.

“Trouble is,” Mindy said to him, “I’ve got a terrible memory for faces. As soon as I see someone, I forget what they look like.  In this guy’s case, all I can remember is that he looked sort of Hispanic, and very good looking…but as I said, it was dark and…” she spread her hands in apology. “I just hope you don’t arrest the wrong guy, I’d hate for that to happen.”

“If he’s the wrong guy, we’ll let him go,” Rick said.

She smiled, a little sadly. “You’re cute.”

“Cute wise-guy, or cute-cute?”

“Both.”

At the point, Rick realised that the two of them were practically the same age, and yet, he felt a whole lot older, like maybe ten years worth. Costanza’s world-weary demeanour made more sense to him now. He realised he’d barely thought about his other friends, once so close, Corbin, Aaron, Clarice. They would all be fairly close to finishing their college studies, ready to go out into the world. They’d probably been living the lives of carefree students, oblivious to the darker side of life that Rick was becoming intimately familiar with.  He realised that Mindy Martin was studying him curiously, and it pulled him out of his reverie.

“Sorry, I was going to ask,” he said, “Any idea what the guy’s name was?”

“Absolutely none, I’m sorry.”

“Well, it’s okay, you’ve been really helpful, thanks. I’ll get a squad car to drop you home if that’s okay.”

She smiled sadly at him. “Sure. I hope you catch him, Nicole was okay, you know? I miss her already.”

 

 

For the next thirteen hours Rick barely paused for breath. He paid a visit to the forensics lab and discussed the physical and visual evidence that the CSI’s had catalogued from their sweep of the murder room at the motel. There was very little. The killer had been cautious, no fingerprint evidence, either on the body or anywhere in the room. There was the usual array of blood samples, but so far it all belonged to the girl. No skin traces, and no semen found in the body; whoever killed her hadn’t had intercourse with her first. There were several sets of fingerprints on the door, from Nicole and most likely from the maid who found her. They were smaller than those belonging to a man. Presuming it was a man who killed her.

Rick helped himself to coffee and sat down at his terminal to review the evidence from the other murder scenes in this case. He keyed in some data and the image of the boot-print from the alleyway beside the massage parlour flicked onto the screen. The print was partial, but the toe outline was there, tapering to a point. Just like – a tingle of premonition run through him as he stared at the print, remembering what Kitty Brown had mentioned during that their interview with her, about one of the nicknames of her ‘johns’.

 Just then, Costanza called him into the office, and told him that they had their warrant, so, leaving the boot-print image up on another screen to follow up later, Rick proceeded to trawl through the electronic bank accounts of the Johnson family.

Bingo.

A couple of hours after the money had been transferred from the senator’s account an identical amount appeared in Nicole’s personal bank balance. A visit to the private bank confirmed that she taken