‘Mckqueque Apthenau Tchchuk–Urgh?’ Candy swept out a mouthful of dirt and scrambled to her feet. Agatha had interrupted her crazy-speak with a shoulder to the solar plexus.
‘What the eff was that?’ Amber whispered to Missy. Missy shrugged.
Candy brushed off her jeans. ‘Sorry. I had a monkey in my throat.’
‘Frog,’ said Jessica.
‘It’s ‘frog’, dipshit,’ Agatha said with a half-gestured backhand.
‘Where?’ Candy inspected the grass.
‘Alright, looks like I’m taking the lead.’ Candy rolled her eyes and stuck out a hip. ‘The head cheerleader at our last school ran initiation every fall. She mostly had us make prank calls, run extra miles, streak the girls’ basketball games…’
The pillars looked at one another. Seriously?
‘It ended right before Homecoming, when we took our Cheer Oath at The Ridges Asylum.’
Agatha looked hard at Jessica. ‘What’s that?’
‘The Ridges in Ohio. It’s had a lot of names. Athens Lunatic Asylum, Athens State Hospital, Athens Mental Help Center….what?’
Everyone was silent. ‘Remind me not to put your name in for Pregame Host,’ said Missy.
‘I did a paper on it!’
‘I second that. I don’t want to get skinned and cured, ‘ Amber agreed. The others nodded.
‘Assholes,’ Jess muttered.
Missy put her hands on her hips and, for the first time, really looked at Agatha. The billion-watt lamplights painted a moody backdrop, against which Agatha looked strangely well cast. Her dusty-blonde curls were loose and steady–it was windless in their thorn-matrix–her skin was smooth, cheeks blushed. Her very long eyelashes were executing slow, seductive blinks. Like those vintage dolls that close their eyes when you lie them down. Missy had a disturbing image of Agatha in a frilly nightgown, coasting in a dream beam over the thicket and into the sky. She glanced at Candy, her face identical and curls black.
‘Um, Agatha. Didn’t you guys move from Canada?’ Missy asked, feeling a wicked pang of forshadowing.
‘Yes,’ Candy answered. Agatha was still looking at Jess. Jess swatted at a fly on her wrist.
‘But you moved here two years ago.’
‘So?’ asked Agatha. She licked her lips again.
‘You guys are juniors?’ Amber helped.
It wasn’t working. And that star was getting closer.
‘What are you two getting at?’ Missy asked, taking a step back. She telepathed to the others to follow suit. The pillars were the first to respond. ‘You know I really like you guys, but things are unquestionably bizarre in Marystown these days. The McGilicuddy farm, Hornswallow cattle–‘
‘Invisible Mrs. Peterson,’ Amber said, always the spotter.
‘Invisible Mrs. Peterson,’ Missy agreed. Mrs. Peterson was the upper-level Classics teacher. She was a Wolverine favorite; even the druggies did well in her class. Last month she was absent for two days, and then came back a totally different person. She hadn’t smiled yet and her eyes were…strange. People were saying it was a brain tumor. ‘And tonight you guys are acting really weird. What exactly are we doing out here?’
Agatha and Candy were quiet. They shifted gazes to sync up, and it looked like they were engaged in a little telepathy themselves. The wind above their heads was disturbed by something unseen and Candy’s black curls lifted like a cloak. She cracked her neck and met Missy with squared shoulders.
‘You’re right, Agatha,’ she said aloud. ‘We’re going to have to do this the hard way.’
Missy winced when Agatha kicked up a beetle with the toe of her boot and caught it on her tongue.
She made a face over the roof of her car. “That bad?”
“I don’t know. He’s just…” I turned the A/C knob on all the way and positioned the vents at my face. “He asked me out.”
“He did, did he.”
“Don’t get excited. He’s weird.”
“I’ve never seen him before. Is he new?”
I gripped the safety handle as she swung onto the main road. “Yeah. He just moved here. Sarah says he’s really religious, but he just told me he’s not a Youth Grouper.”
I pulled my seatbelt tighter when a frightened woman honked at us from the next lane. “Mom, really? You see those yellow lines, right? A Youth Grouper. A pot-smoking bible thumper.”
“What do you know about pot?”
“Not a thing.”
“Why would he tell you that, anyway? Did you ask him?”
“Of course not. I told you, he’s weird. A might-break-into-song-and-dance, or sacrifices-chickens-in-his-spare-time kind of weird.”
The tires squealed as we turned left at the last streetlight and started over the island bridge. “I’d rather you stick with the surfers, anyway. At least they know Cass.”
“That’s a good thing?”
She laughed and opened the windows. “At least I can rest assured they won’t touch you. Not if Cass has anything to do with it.”
“Mom, you and I don’t ever ever ever talk about touching.” I covered the A/C knob to block her from turning it off. “Where are you going?” I asked when she pulled into the gas station to U-turn back off the island.
“Jesse’s mom asked if Destin could spend the night, so it’s you and me for dinner. I just now thought we could drive out to the docks and catch the sunset at Kino’s. What do you say? Half a dozen raw? Virgin daiquiri?”
“You know it.” I turned off the vents, kicked my bare feet onto the dashboard and stuck my hand out the window. The sun was hot, but the air that broke against my fingertips was cool as it reached into the car to knot our hair. Before I could help it, my head was bobbing to a radio song I only slightly recognized. A phantom third quarter moon was sneaking into the sky, promising yet another bright night to come.
I sat next to him on the intensely manicured lawn. St. Seraphina grass was so unlike native crabgrass; it was short and soft, and seemed just as purposefully decorative as the between-walkway hibiscus. I rolled up my pant legs to feel the sun on my skin, and then rested my head on Cass’s lean shoulder.
‘Hey, Lou,’ he said softly. He bent his arm so that my chin was in the crook of his elbow, and then palmed my head with one tan hand.
Cass smelled and looked as though he were born on a surfboard. And he had a way of existing on his own plane of fashionable relevancy. His wardrobe consisted of nothing but faded tee-shirts and jeans, though he was rarely caught wearing both at the same time.
Cass’s hands were calloused but soft, from years of board waxing. His hair, having been dreaded several times over, was now a little longer than the last time I saw him. I scanned his jawline, thinking that he was almost as handsome as Dad was. He had the same broad shoulders, the same muscular ropes on his forearms. But he’d also inherited Mom’s cheekbones and long legs. And so, Cass had been Water’s Edge’s resident heartthrob every year in high school.
For that, and for hanging out with surfer degenerates, he’d caught some serious flack from teachers and parents, but he was, simply, the best older brother I could’ve asked for.
The train lurched forward. Jack gripped the safety handle and Redell howled as the Wanderide sped out of the station. The back cars bounced as they flew across pastures and flower-speckled hills without slowing, sending the unbelted students into a yelping frenzy.
Clouds whipped by the open windows, covering them in a dewy blanket. Most of the shouting died down when the students became busy swatting pieces of insect from their open mouths.
At the last and tallest hill, Redell raised his arms and hooted at the Dream Gardens beyond. Some of the braver students raised their hands halfway with him, but grabbed their safety handles again as the Wanderide made its final swing into the Garden station.
“Have a good time, kids!” Adelio laughed while they tumbled off of the train and stood shakily on the station platform.
“Here we are, class. If you’ll remember from your reading, this is where Dreams are grown and cultivated for star travel.” Redell motioned for Jack to gather some color-drained students that were teetering near the platform edge. “Every day new Dreams sprout from their seeds and are cared for by the good Farmers, who prepare them for the arduous undertaking of realm possession. Be very thankful for the Farmers. They care for the most precious children of the Kingdom. Without these Dreams, none of us would exist.”
They followed him onto the well-worn visitor’s path that would lead them through the fields. White peri stems floated in the low lying clouds; some students tried to grab them as they walked closely behind the instructor.
“To your right you’ll see the irrigation system. It supplies the new buds with necessary refreshment. See how small they are?”
They craned their necks to get a glimpse of the buds through the water sprays. A green tube system that was suspended over the field was emitting spurts of bluish water through small punctures. The tiny growths were knocking gently back and forth.
“The blue comes from the serenitum extract that the Farmers add to the water,” Redell continued. “It enhances image definition once the Dream is full-grown and ready to shapeshift.”