Staying in the Game
See Part 1 for Disclaimers.
Sunday's extra batting practice for Shelley was perfectly timed. The balmy spring weather had held; the sky was azure and cloudless and it was a pleasure to be outside playing softball. An occasional stiff breeze blew dust devils across the scraped infield, momentarily halting practice as the girls turned their backs on the stinging mischief-makers. Squat and empty, the aluminum bleachers bore reminders of game days when cheers echoed from the team's ardent fans. The newly erected backstop gleamed in the sun and clinked satisfyingly when hit by a foul from Shelley's strong bat.
On first arriving at the field, the girls had dropped their sports bags and a cooler
next to the backstop and pulled out their gloves and sweatbands. Angela had borrowed an
equipment bag from Coach Palmer and she and Merrill gathered balls from it while Marva
pulled out catcher's paraphernalia. Shelley had brought her own bat that she usually kept
propped in a corner at her apartment.
While Angela pitched and Marva caught, Merrill and Kath volunteered to play the field. Marva was in full catcher's gear, having learned the hard way that when Angela pitched to any batter there were a lot of foul tips and the catcher better keep herself protected.
Shelley worked seriously on improving her batting and Angela was a patient teacher. For the first part of her lesson, Angela showed her that taking a shorter stride, opening her hips sooner and swinging the bat in a short, crisp swing with proper follow-through would add to her power. After practicing those three corrections for an hour, they took a break.
Angela laid her glove and ball at the mound and Merrill and Kath brought theirs with them. Marva pulled off her catcher's equipment, searched in her sports bag for a towel and wiped her face and hands. When the others hollered, she rummaged in their bags and threw their towels to them, grousing good-naturedly the whole time about not getting a maid's wages. They sat in the shade of one of the trees behind the backstop and had some bottled water and granola bars that they fished from the cooler, sharing them with Shelley.
The tall girl stretched out on the grass and put an arm over her eyes while the rest bantered back and forth for the balance of their break. Angela, sitting nearby, was disappointed that Shelley had covered her face. The girl was so beautiful that just looking at her was a pleasure that anyone would enjoy. At least that's what she told herself.
As they walked back out onto the field, Angela was trying to explain to Shelley how to make better pitch selection. "You are a sucker for a high pitch up around your shoulders," she explained. "What you need to understand is that you can't hit a pitch properly if it's so high that you can't keep your wrists higher than the ball."
"But that's one I can really drive," Shelley argued. "I get some of my best hits on that kind of pitch." Her sculptured lips slipped into a pout that captured Angela's gaze.
The redhead had to avert her eyes and get her thoughts in control before answering. "Yeah, but ninety percent of the time you'll drive it right into an outfielder's glove. It's hard to hit the ball on a level line, so you usually hit it too high into the air. That gives the outfielders time to get under it. Let me show you."
Marva leaned against the backstop with her mask and mitt in her hands, having donned the rest of her equipment. Merrill and Kath walked into the field while Angela and Shelley moved to home plate. "Stand at the plate like you're waiting for a pitch." Angela moved behind Shelley and reached around her to place her hands on top of Shelley's on the bat.
"When you swing up here..." she pushed against Shelley's hands and moved the bat forward, part way through a high swing, "your wrists can't get above the ball. See what I mean?"
"Uh... yeah... yeah," Shelley answered, squirming a bit in the circle of the
redhead's arms. Keep your mind on what she's telling you!
Marva watched the two, amusement crinkling the corners of her eyes and the edges of her lips. Yeah, like they really can't stand each other.
Angela moved the bat lower and swung it forward again. "But here," she waggled the bat then traced Shelley's wrists with a finger, "you can swing with your wrists up. And here," she lowered the bat even further and moved it forward, "if you must swing--for a hit and run, for instance--you can even hit line drives on a low pitch if you remember to keep your wrists up--just drop the bat head. Understand?"
"Yeah, I think I've got the idea." Shelley slanted a look back toward her.
Angela had felt the growing heat coming from Shelley's body once she moved up against her and it was causing a terribly distracting reaction from hers. Annoyed at her wayward flesh, she stepped back and took a deep breath. "Let's give it all a try now."
Walking back to the mound, Angela picked up her glove and stuck the ball in it. As she lifted her eyes, they met Merrill's frowning gaze. A crooked finger summoned her and she walked over to the second baseman. "What's wrong, Merry?"
"Go slow, Angie. I don't trust her." I don't want you hurt again.
"I'm not trying to seduce her, Merry. I'm only showing her how to bat," Angela replied acerbically.
Merrill looked up at her best friend's hazel eyes and her mouth curled into a dubious smile. She slapped Angela's stomach with her glove. "Just you remember that, okay?"
Angela laughed and shoved her shoulder. "Yes, Mom," she answered then turned back toward the mound as an uneasy expression flickered across Merrill's face.
Shelley had a rescheduled lab on Tuesday afternoon after softball practice, so she was unable to work with Angela on their joint softball improvement projects. It turned out to be a good thing that Shelley wasn't with them because Kath had some disturbing news. She waited until they came home from practice and showered, then urged Marva to go next door with her, right away.
Expecting them to come over as usual, Angela let them in and was turning away when Kath blurted. "I have some news you guys need to hear. It's important."
"Can it wait till I grab us some sodas?" Angela smiled at Kath's excited expression. She looked ready to burst with her news. When she nodded, Angela hurried into the kitchen and came back with a can for each of them.
The redhead sat on the chocolate-brown couch next to Merrill and made room for Marva to join them. They sat properly on the couch for a change, facing Kath who stood in front of them. "What's up, Kath?" Merrill prompted as she popped the top of her soda can. The others followed her lead except for Kath. Too anxious to spout her news, she set her unopened can on the lamp table.
"You know I help out in Dean Lohman's office on Monday and Tuesday, right?" They nodded. "Well, some lady came to see him. I think she was a judge--I thought I heard the dean call her that. She had a folder under her arm when she went into his office and she didn't have it when she came out. Dean Lohman came out with her and they walked away. I think he must have walked her clear out to her car or something, because he was gone for a long time." Kath paused for a minute to get her thoughts in order.
"Get to the point, Kath, will you?" Marva pleaded. She knew whatever the news was, Kath would probably start at square one and go step by step through whatever had happened. The girl's sense of logical precision was remarkable but to someone with Marva's lack of patience it sometimes was exasperating. Not that Marva's groans ever made Kath move her story along any faster; she just frowned in mock anger and kept putting one fact after another in perfect sequence.
"I went in to straighten up the office like I always do. The folder--I'm assuming it was the same one the judge had been carrying--was lying open on the desk. I glanced down and guess what I saw?" Kath's eyes were alight and for once she was too impatient to wait for any guesses. "A picture of Shelley!" Everyone's interest perked up.
"What about it? What was it?" Merrill asked.
"I know I shouldn't have read it, but I couldn't stop myself." Kath hesitated, feeling guilty all over again. Marva rolled her hand in a circle, urging her to keep talking. "Shelley was a juvenile delinquent when she was fourteen." Merrill and Marva glanced at Angela as they felt her body tense up.
Kath continued. "She got arrested for assault and battery! Seems she got in a fight with someone and almost killed him--or her--it didn't say which." The other three girls looked as shocked as she had been when the words had jumped out at her.
"Damn, I knew I didn't trust her," Merrill murmured. She took a swig of soda but it failed to wash the bad taste out of her mouth that Kath's news had lodged there.
Marva leaned forward, rested her arms on her thighs and voiced the question they all wondered about. "So what's she doing here?"
Kath was enjoying her moment of attention even while feeling bad that the news had to be disturbing Angela. "She wasn't convicted of the charge. Instead, she got put in some pilot program for serious offenders where she was in the hands of a court-appointed guardian. It gives her a chance to continue her education as high as she's able to go. She has to stay out of trouble, keep a job and keep her grades at C or better in order to stay in the program."
"She's a junior, same as we are, so she must have been in the program for six or seven years," Merrill reasoned. She took Angela's empty soda can from between her hands and set it, together with her own, on the lamp table. Marva handed hers over, too.
"Well, get this!" Kath said excitedly, knowing she had another piece of surprising news. "She's some kind of brain. She's been put ahead twice and is only eighteen!"
"Eighteen? She's three years younger than we are? Doesn't seem like she is," Marva said as she turned toward Angela who hadn't spoken at all. "But coming from a tough background can probably age you pretty quickly." Marva found Angela's silence unnerving. "What do you think, Ange?"
Angela twisted her fingers together and shrugged. "I think we should keep this confidential, like it was meant to be, and just judge Shelley on how she acts now, not something that happened four years ago. We don't know what extenuating circumstances there might have been."
Now that her news was delivered, Kath sank to the green carpet and sat cross-legged. "Assault and battery is a serious charge, Ange," she argued. "I think I'm going to feel pretty nervous around her. What if she loses her temper and goes berserk? She's pretty strong looking."
"It happened once in eighteen years and she's older now. It might never happen again," Angela pointed out. An edge was creeping into her voice, but Kath didn't look convinced.
"Wait a minute," Kath continued. "Aren't we all forgetting something?" Three sets of eyes turned again to her. "How about these murders? Two happened at Penlyville while she was there and the other two have been practically next door. What if Shelley's involved in them?"
Angela pursed her lips in disgust and shook her head. "Don't be silly, Kath. Let's not jump to conclusions. Do you think Shelley acts like a murderer?"
"Can't say that I do," Kath admitted, "but that doesn't keep me from being leery of her. Do any of us know how a murderer acts?"
Nobody answered. Then Merrill spoke up. "Maybe we'd better not get too friendly with her until the cops find the killer. That would be the safest thing. If she's not involved... great, full speed ahead. But if she is involved we'll have saved ourselves a lot of grief, not to mention possible danger."
Angela frowned. "You guys have her tried and convicted already with absolutely no proof."
"You know the saying as well as we do, Angie, 'It's better to be safe than sorry.' I'm not saying we should shun her altogether. Just, please, don't anyone go anywhere alone with her, okay?" Merrill asked, looking pointedly at her roommate.
Angela's smile was ironic. "Why are you all so worried about me? I told you I'm not looking for another relationship right now. Besides, with her looks Shelley could have anyone she wants; why would she be interested in me?"
"That is not a disinterested gaze she is throwing your way when you aren't looking, honey," Merrill said. And I'll cut her heart out if she's just playing with you.
"Yeah, and wait till she sees you in shorts and a tank top; I guarantee she'll get weak in the knees," Marva added with a chuckle. "I know I do." She ducked but the pillow hit her in the head anyway.
A message left on Shelley's answering machine had informed her that she was to attend a special lab session that could not be missed so she had rushed to the science building right from softball practice. Her sneakers made soft, squeaking noises against the hard tile surface as she hurried down a corridor toward the basement lab she had been directed to. It suddenly struck her as odd that she hadn't encountered anyone headed in the same direction.
Becoming suspicious, she halted in front of the closed door, weighing whether to enter or not. Suddenly, the decision was made for her. The door came open and a hand grabbed her arm and pulled her inside while the other hand closed the door and twisted the lock home. Then arms tightened around her body.
Shelley's eyes went wide and a huge grin plastered itself on her surprised face as her arms enveloped the smaller woman who was squeezing the breath out of her. She leaned down so they could kiss each other's cheek.
"Aunt Helen! What a terrific surprise! I thought you were still in Africa," she said.
Judge Helen Ostcott ended her embrace and stepped back from her favorite charge. Of average height and chunky build, the judge's bespectacled gray eyes and salt-and-pepper hair gave the impression of a sweetly amiable, motherly type. But if one looked closely, the set of her chin and her determined mouth warned that this woman was no pushover. Except for Shelley: she loved the girl like she would a daughter.
Tenderly, she reached up and smoothed Shelley's bangs back from her face. "You're always so nice to visit, darling. Too bad we don't get to see each other more often." As she spoke, she took Shelley's hand and led her to a couple of lab stools she had pulled up to a counter. They each picked one and sat down, facing each other.
"You're not that far away. We could see each other more often," Shelley said. "This separation is your rule, not mine." She hooked her feet onto the lower rung of the stool and twisted the revolving seat back and forth in a small arc, swiveling her hips.
"I know, but I think it's for the best. You need to develop your independence and that should be easier for you to do without me around." Helen gazed fondly at the young woman, mindful of how much she had changed in the four years since they had met. Shelley had been beautiful even then, but a tragic past had left her emotions in shreds and produced terrible bouts of rage. Months and then years of psychiatric and psychological help had worked their wondrous ways and at last an anger management program seemed to enable her to function normally. At least on the surface. Helen couldn't be sure that the violent streak had been totally conquered and she tried to watch for any signs of it.
Judge Ostcott's venue was criminal court, but Jeff Cruz, a close friend, had told her of Shelley's troubles. Jeff had approached her at her home, laying out all the details of Shelley's dismal past. He asked if Helen would be willing to take guardianship of the troubled child if they could get her into a new program for youths charged with serious offenses. Helen deferred judgment, but agreed to be in Children's Court as a spectator when Shelley's case would be heard.
When Shelley was brought into court, her striking blue eyes by chance swept to Helen. Helen felt like she was being granted a glimpse of Shelley's soul, and the childless judge lost her heart to the girl. The orphaned Shelley was eventually made a ward of the court, placed under Helen's willing guardianship and the judge accepted the girl and her problems into her home and her life.
"What happened at Penlyville? I got the message that you were desperate to change schools but I was on safari when it was relayed to me and I didn't get any details. I just got home."
"Did you get any good shots?" Shelley asked, delaying the requested answer. She twisted the seat more quickly.
"Loads of them," she replied. "I'll send you some when I get them developed." Helen's safari had been a picture-taking one, not a life-taking one. In spite of her somewhat aggressive nature, she would never knowingly harm anyone or anything without good cause.
Helen reached out and halted Shelley's swiveling. "Now how about answering my question. What happened at Penlyville?"
A rebellious expression flickered across her face and Shelley looked off into space without replying.
"Shelley, darling, you know I have to ask you these questions; it's part of my duty to know what you are doing and why. Please just tell me the story. Don't make me drag it out of you a question at a time."
Shelley swung around to the lab table and picked up an empty glass beaker, twisting it around and around. Helen waited patiently, knowing that to push her any harder for an answer could be self-defeating--Shelley might refuse to talk or just ignore her request and change the subject again.
"Aunt Helen..." Shelley set the beaker down, picked it back up, examined it closely, then set it back down. "You know I haven't dated much, right?"
"Yes, I know that. You were always so involved in your studies and sports that you never seemed much interested in dating. I figured when you were ready to, you would. Were you dating someone at Penlyville?"
The dark head dipped in a curt nod.
"And it didn't work out?" She is making me drag it out of her one question at a time. Helen sighed aloud.
Shelley's lips twisted and her eyes darted around but she said nothing.
Helen sifted reasons through her mind for Shelley's obvious discomfort then put a hand over the girl's fidgety one. "Good grief, Shelley, you're not pregnant, are you?" Surely she would use some precaution.
Shelley pushed her fingers through her hair, set her elbow on the table and propped up her head. Nervous blue eyes slanted toward Helen and an odd smile showed on her lips. "That couldn't happen in a zillion years," she rasped.
Helen frowned at her, trying to make sense of the statement. Suddenly her quick mind picked up on its implications. "You were dating a woman?"
Shelley's tongue wet her dry lips. "Yeah... I... I was." Lord, help me not to say the wrong thing and turn her against me. I couldn't stand that. She's all I have.
Helen squeezed and released the hand she touched then turned toward the table, clasping her fingers together in front of her and studying them. She hoped that Shelley would feel more comfortable without her guardian's gaze on her. "How serious did it get, Shelley?"
Shelley shifted her eyes to the tabletop and took two audible breaths before answering. "I was... we were... intimate."
"Did you think you were in love with her?" I'm no damn psychologist! Yet here I am questioning an emotionally fragile girl about her lesbian love life. Sweet Jesus!
"Not really," Shelley answered honestly, as her face flushed. "I was curious... and flattered. I had a few dates with guys who kept asking me out. Each time, we got into some heavy petting," she glanced toward Helen, who continued to study her hands, "but that seemed to turn me off instead of turning me on. I wouldn't go all the way... the idea didn't even appeal to me. I couldn't figure what all the fuss was about and I began to wonder if maybe I just didn't have much sex drive." Shelley tossed her head, but the bangs just fell further onto her face so she pushed them back with her fingers and glanced beseechingly at the judge.
Helen looked into the eyes she felt on her and nodded encouragement, then she looked away again. "Go on," she murmured, "I need to hear the whole story."
Shelley pursed her lips to blow out a puff of air then took a deep breath. "A teacher I admired invited me to her apartment for dinner. I thought other people were invited, too, but when I got there I discovered I was the only guest and I figured out in a hurry what that might mean. I was a little scared at first, but I was curious, too, and like I just said, I was flattered. She was an older, experienced woman..."
She started playing with the beaker again. "I guess I could claim that she seduced me, but actually that first night all she did was kiss me a few times. But that's all it took to awaken the sex drive I thought was missing." Shelley's voice slowed as her mind replayed the wonder of that unexpected discovery. "That was the start of our affair. It went on for about three months, then I realized that, for me, curiosity wasn't enough to sustain a relationship. I wanted love--I wanted to give love and I wanted to get love and neither was going to happen with her. She didn't love me, she just lusted after me. So I ended it; or tried to... but she wouldn't let me go. She kept harassing me over and over until I knew I could end it only by leaving the college."
Shelley set the beaker down once more and turned to Helen. "That's why I sent the message to you about changing schools."
Helen looked at her beautiful child, with concerned eyes and a sad smile. "Do you understand you've chosen a very difficult path?"
"I don't think I've chosen it at all, Aunt Helen; it seems to have chosen me. I think I've been on the wrong path up until now and just got on the right one, difficult or not."
Helen nodded solemnly. "With this new knowledge of yourself it must be tempting to find a meaningful relationship, Shelley, but you better keep a low profile for a while. Getting involved with anyone, male or female, might not be advisable. It could be dangerous for you." Or them.
Suddenly angry, Shelley jumped off of the stool and strode fiercely back and forth, gesticulating with her long arms. "First you tell me you want me to learn some independence, then you try to control every damn thing I do! Back off, Aunt Helen!"
"No, you listen "
"Shelley!" Helen's voice carried the full weight of her authority and Shelley gestured wildly with her hands but she stopped and stared down into her guardian's face.
"Shelley," Helen repeated more quietly, "are you still in your anger management program?"
"Yes," the dark-haired girl answered impatiently.
"Have you been continuing with your drama classes that your doctor recommended as part of the program?"
"You know I started them at Penlyville when he told me to and I'm taking them here now, one afternoon a week. And I'm on the softball team. He said that might help, too." Shelley blew air out through her lips, lifting the bangs on her forehead. "Aunt Helen," she asked exasperatedly, "don't you ever get angry?"
"Of course I do; everyone does sometimes. You've just needed some help learning to control your anger."
"Well this is one time I think my anger is perfectly justified." Shelley started pacing again, her arms waving. "Do you have any idea what it's like to be yanked back and forth, told what to do and what not to do, what to say and what not to say? I feel like a stupid puppet in an even stupider play." She stopped directly in front of Helen, the blaze rekindled in her eyes. "Well, no one's going to tell me who to see and who not to see not even you. I'll make that decision myself and whatever happens, happens."
Years of sitting on the bench, reading expressions and body language of all sorts of people from all walks of life made Helen astute at surmising the unspoken word. "You've met someone you care about?" she asked softly.
"No yes I'm not sure," the tall girl answered, her belligerence faltering.
"Does she care about you?"
Shelley's eyes dropped for a second, then came back to Helen. Her belligerence had completely faded, to be replaced by insecurity, and Helen's heart went out to her. "I don't know how anybody really feels about me. I know some people are drawn to me because of my looks but I don't know if anyone would find me lovable. I just think she's attractive. I don't really know her yet."
Helen sighed and smiled. "You are definitely lovable, Shelley, and perhaps this young woman is the right one for you. Anyhow, if nothing's even happened yet, I suppose it's useless for me to try to argue against it."
"Are you laughing at me, Aunt Helen?"
Helen reached out and patted Shelley's cheek. "Never, darling. And I don't want to interfere with your new friend or your dreams. I just want you to remember that you have to be consummately cautious... with everyone."
"I understand that," Shelley agreed earnestly. Then her lips twitched up on one side. "Consummately?"
Helen reddened as she laughed, recalling how good Shelley was at using alternate meanings of words or their roots to tweak the user. "Consummately, as in 'very,' no sexual innuendoes intended."
She slid from the stool and opened her arms. "Give me a kiss good-bye; I have to be going."
As Shelley enfolded the judge in her embrace, Helen murmured in her ear. "Please, please be careful."
"I'm always careful, Aunt Helen," she replied.
The girls decided to keep quiet about Shelley's past for the time being even though the knowledge weighed heavily on their minds. They felt a little awkward around the dark-haired girl at the next practice but if she noticed any change in their manner she didn't remark on it. The only notable occurrence was the adoption of the nickname "Star" for Shelley by most of her teammates. A couple of times her chin set and she looked as though she might argue, but she refrained and finally accepted the inevitable.
After practice, Angela, Merrill and Shelley stayed for the second session of work on Angela's throwing. Merrill stood on first base and Angela followed Shelley out to right field.
"Let me double check to make sure your arm is coming through at the right angle then we'll concentrate on your timing," Shelley said. Stepping behind the redhead, she again put her palm across Angela's shoulder while she threw the ball several times to Merrill. As soon as she entered Angela's personal space, Shelley's imagination soared and her body responded to their proximity. Shelley groaned inwardly, not understanding Angela's power over her emotions, but recognizing that it was growing in strength. Why does she already have to have a girl friend? She took a deep breath, delighting in the scent emanating from the auburn hair beneath her nose.
Loath to release the contact between them, Shelley kept her hand on the shoulder until Angela broke the silence between them. "What do you think?" she asked.
"Strawberries," Shelley murmured.
"What?" Angela turned her head to meet Shelley's eyes and saw a faint blush creep up her cheeks.
"Uh your hair smells like strawberries," came the slightly flustered explanation.
A smile tickled at the edges of Angela's mouth until she remembered her promise to be careful around Shelley and smothered the smile with a frown. "I was asking about my throws."
Interpreting the frown as a rebuff, Shelley tore her eyes from Angela's face, abruptly dropped her hand from her shoulder and sank to the ground, cross-legged.
Feeling a little guilty, Angela looked down at the dark-haired girl who sat at her feet, plucking at the grass. "Do you want me to throw some more to Merrill?"
Shelley didn't look up from her self-imposed chore of picking up grass and tossing it in the air. "Yep, throw ten or twelve times then we'll try some throws to third base."
While Angela fulfilled the recommended throws, Shelley looked back up at her, struggling to keep her mind on checking the redhead's timing. Angela had an athlete's strong, muscular frame fully rounded in just the right places, resulting in an enviable build that Shelley found was drawing her eyes like a magnet.
She jumped up and dusted off her sweats, using the action to bring some control to her emotions. Straightening up, she hollered to Merrill to move to third base then Angela shifted her throwing to there. Shelley made a few suggestions to improve the timing of her step relative to her throw and Angela suddenly felt it all coming together.
Shelley shifted Merrill to home plate to receive what would be the longest throws for a right fielder and it was soon obvious that Angela had perfected all the necessary moves. Her throw had developed into a stronger one than most outfielders had. After fifteen more minutes the raven-haired girl called a halt to the practice and they gathered their equipment.
Merrill phoned Marva while they walked to the street to await her. Shelley rubbed a towel into her hair then dried off her face and neck. "I think you're good to go now, Angela. Your throws are really strong."
Merrill, not to be outdone, added her agreement. "Yeah, Angie, you were hurting my hand with a couple of those throws. You look super!"
Angela toweled her face dry and looked up at Shelley. A sudden desire to run her fingers through the unkempt hair tormented her. "Thanks... Star," she said clumsily. "You've helped me to throw better than I ever did."
Shelley shrugged carelessly. "Whatever helps you helps the team. Now we need to work on my hitting. I'll check with you later to see when we can get together for that, okay?"
"Angela?" Shelley's eyes grew even bluer in intensity and her brows lowered.
"Yeah?" When their glances met, Angela felt a flash of heat. She couldn't deny her attraction in spite of the girl's cocky attitude.
"Knock off the 'Star' nickname."
Angela bristled as she quirked an eyebrow. "Okay, but I can't speak for the rest of the team."
"Win some; lose some," Shelley responded with another shrug.
"You want to go to the Steak House again? Is this getting to be a Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-night regular thing now? That could get pretty expensive. I'm holding the entertainment kitty this week and we're going to have to fatten it pretty soon if that's the case." Kath sat on the couch with one leg pulled up under her. She had been thumbing through a paperback book when Angela made the suggestion. Grimacing as she questioned Angela, she suspected that Shelley's presence at the place was drawing her there.
"You don't have to come, Kath, if you don't want to," Angela replied rather huffily. She had just finished the first draft of an Economics paper and felt she had earned a break. At least that was the excuse she had ready should anyone ask. The truth was she just wanted to feast her eyes on Shelley and she could do it there without drawing too much attention or warnings from her friends. She didn't delve too deeply into why she was so anxious to see Shelley. She didn't even like her all that much... except for that strawberries remark, she seemed kind of standoffish. But she always had enjoyed looking at beautiful faces, hadn't she?
In the kitchenette to get sodas, Marva and Merrill heard the conversation emanating from the living room. "What do you think, Merry?" Marva collected the sodas from the fridge and set them on the small counter. Her brow furrowed as she spoke quietly. "Shouldn't we keep Ange from going there while Shelley's working?"
"Huh!" Merrill grunted. "We would if I had my way, but I don't think we'll be able to. You know how hardheaded Angie can be sometimes. If we try to force her to stay away from Shelley, it might backfire on us. Besides, you heard her, she'd go without us. At least if we're there with her maybe we can keep track of what's going on." She was opening and closing cupboard doors, searching for some munchies. She and Angela had a regular spot to store them in, but when Marva and Kath helped clean up no one knew where they might be found.
Marva unconsciously rubbed her arm where the sodas had chilled her flesh. "We know what's keeping Angie away from her but why do you think Shelley has held back? She doesn't check out the other girls like she does Angie so there's obviously some interest there. And what the heck are you looking for? We're going to the Steak House, aren't we?"
Merrill halted her search and grinned. "Yeah, I guess we are so we don't need any munchies, right? I don't know what's holding Shelley back. She's only eighteen, remember? Maybe she's shy."
"Oh yeah," Marva agreed sarcastically. "No one who's been that beautiful for eighteen years should be shy. More likely worn out," she grinned wickedly. Picking up the sodas, she set them back in the fridge. "Guess we won't be needing these either."
Tearing a paper towel from its holder on the wall, Merrill wiped up the four wet rings from the sodas that had been sitting on the counter and tossed the towel toward the trash basket. It hit the edge and bounced to the floor. "Being beautiful doesn't mean she won't be shy, Marv. But maybe she doesn't have time to get involved with anyone. She seems to be pretty busy."
"Yeah, I've noticed she's always busy but busy doing what?" Marva asked.
Merrill bent down, picked up the discarded towel and placed it neatly into the trash basket. As she raised up, her eyes met Marva's and they just looked at each other for several seconds. Then Merrill shrugged. "I have absolutely no idea."
With a worried frown, Marva shook her head and sighed. "You know, we all wanted Angie to get over Vicki and come back to being her old self. Well, her interest in Shelley seems to have wakened her back up all right but the girl's past has us all concerned. Now we're worried whether Angie should even go near her. I sure hope everything turns out okay."
"We all do, Marv. But Angie's a big girl and she has to live her own life. We'll just have to do what we can to stand by her." Merrill laid a hand on her friend's shoulder. "Come on, let's take our lovelorn girl to the Steak House."
The Steak House was crowded, but not full, and the girls found a table for four in Shelley's serving area. They had placed their usual order for pizza and beer and chatted away about their latest classes. At least three of them chatted away. Angela seemed unable to keep up with the running conversation as her eyes followed the tall, dark-haired waitress who kept passing by with trays of food and beer. Her friends needed no further evidence that she was thoroughly captivated and they were worried about the possibility that Angela could be seriously hurt again. They were signaling their trepidation with their eyes when suddenly someone appeared next to Angela's chair and a rough voice drove the surrounding hubbub into silence.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't Angela Wedgeway, the world's best hitter," the voice grated. "Or should I say the coach's best brown-noser?" Liz Hurtz, the right fielder who was replaced by Angela, was several inches taller than she was, with about forty more pounds of solid muscle on her frame. Proud of her size and strength, Hurtz worked out everyday in the weight room.
Grabbing the back of Angela's chair, she attempted to dump her on the floor but Angela's agility enabled her to thrust herself to her feet and twist around to face her foe. Angela followed her first inclination to keep the peace, and smiled. "Sit down and have a beer with us, Liz. Let's talk."
"Talk, hell," the angry brunette blustered. "I'll teach you not to mess with me." With no further warning, she threw a punch at Angela's jaw. An arm came out of nowhere to shove a startled Angela aside while a hand grasped Hurtz's moving wrist and thrust it up in the air. Amazed onlookers winced at the sound of grinding bones.
If she touches Angela... The powerful rage that surged through Shelley shook her insides. I'll crush her. She twisted the wrist she held, forcing Hurtz to back against the table. Bringing her forearm up, she put pressure against her windpipe.
Growling, Hurtz gathered herself to fight back until her eyes met two slate-blue ones that burned with a cold fury. Nostrils flared above a full upper lip that was lifted in a feral snarl. Hurtz recognized that look. She had seen it on the face of a man who had killed a rabid dog that had attacked his child. With his bare hands he had broken the neck of an animal that no one else would even go near. The growl died in Hurtz's throat and fear slithered down her backbone, taking the fight out of her like air from a punctured balloon. Shelley released her and watched as she sidled away, holding the sore wrist and muttering.
Angela had lurched against Merrill who grabbed her and stabilized her balance so she could keep from falling. All four women had been in a position to see Shelley's face when she confronted Hurtz and all four of them felt a shiver of fear go through them.
Angela stepped forward and grabbed Shelley's arm. Shelley's body jerked back toward her and a fist sliced through the air, stopping a bare inch from Angela's wide eyes.
The dark-haired girl's face crumpled and she turned away but Angela pleaded, "Shelley, wait." She took hold of her arm more gently and turned the taller girl toward her, feeling the tension vibrating through her forearm. Angela looked into pain-filled eyes.
"I almost hit you." Shelley's words tore roughly from her throat.
"But you didn't," Angela said. "I shouldn't have grabbed you without warning and I apologize. Actually you saved me from getting my face rearranged by Hurtz. Thank you. I wasn't expecting her to do that."
Shelley's usually velvet voice was tight and hard and it jarred Angela. "Always expect an attack. If it comes, you're ready. If it doesn't come, you haven't lost anything."
"I'll try to remember that," she promised.
"I gotta get back to work," Shelley muttered.
"Thanks again," Angela called, watching as Shelley walked away. That's odd. She won that battle but she seems upset about it.
In spite of her puzzlement, Angela couldn't help grinning at her three friends as she sat back down at the table. "Looks like I have a defender," she drawled.
"Yeah, she sure saved your ass!" Marva exclaimed excitedly. "Did you see that look on her face? I would have backed down just like Hurtz did. She looked ready to kill." Marva caught her breath as she realized what she had just said and her words sobered them all.
"It does make what we've learned about her easier to believe, doesn't it?" Kath asked.
"She didn't even hit anyone," Angela protested.
"I'm just glad Hurtz did back down," Merrill said. "We could have had a damn bloodbath here."
The thought cast a pall over the group as they watched Shelley bring their beer and pizza. Nobody said anything as Kath pulled money from her pocket and handed it to Shelley. As she received her change she flashed a tentative smile at the taller woman. Shelley could feel the chill in their attitude and she barely nodded in return.
The foursome hurriedly ate their pizza and drank their beer, each mulling over her own interpretation of the night's events.
"You know, I don't think we're doing right by Shelley," the always fair-minded Merrill said into the silence. The others looked at her, waiting for an explanation. "We concentrated on how scary she looked--and I admit I was scared--but she saved Angie from getting punched in the face and she risked a lot by doing that. Not to mention that she put herself in the line of fire."
"I know I'm grateful," Angela declared emphatically, happy that Merrill had come to Shelley's defense. "We all know how strong Liz is; she would probably have broken my jaw." The thought brought a wince to her face and she lifted her hand and rubbed her cheek.
"Yeah," Kath reluctantly agreed. "And Merry has a point; Shelley could be kicked out of her program if she gets in a fight or loses her job. I guess we do owe her something for coming to Angie's rescue."
"Great!" Marva exclaimed. "Does this mean I'm allowed to like her again?"
"We all want to like her, Marv. We're just not sure whether we should or not," Merrill said with a wry grin.
"There's the understatement of the year," Angela muttered. She raised her mug of beer and took a long, long drink as the others cast concerned looks her way.
The girls continued to transport Shelley to practices with little further mention of Hurtz's attack. The one time Angela brought it up with the intention of thanking her again, Shelley grunted a request to forget about it. As nothing else untoward happened, the four women pushed the memory of Shelley's frightening expression into the backs of their minds and concentrated instead on the fact that she had defended Angela at risk of losing her job and jeopardizing the court-approved program she was in.
Shelley and Angela held their extra batting session accompanied by the other girls. The dark-haired beauty absorbed Angela's directions like a thirsty desert-dweller and soon was pounding the ball in regular practices. Ironically, Angela taught her to be such a good hitter that Shelley's position as first baseman was virtually guaranteed.
School was going well, practices were going well and the team was looking forward to the opening day of the season, only two weeks away.
Shelley stood on the forty-foot-wide stage, looking around. The college theater could hold about 400 people in vinyl-padded, folding seats separated by one middle aisle. Outside aisles ran against each wall and led directly to the exits. The stage was complete with footlights, klieg lights and single spots that hung above the first few rows of seats. Curtains and backdrops loomed overhead on rolls, their ropes dangling out of sight offstage. A huge lighting panel was mounted on its own console in the wings.
At the direction of the doctor in her anger management program, Shelley had chosen drama classes as an aid to learning to control her rages. She had started the classes at Penlyville and when she transferred to Spofford, she decided to continue them.
Though somewhat shy around others, Shelley found herself a natural at pretending to be someone else. At first that surprised her. Then today, standing on the stage, she realized that she shouldn't be surprised at all and her lip curled. Aren't I always pretending to be someone else?
"Shelley?" A tall, sandy-haired man disturbed her reverie. Edward Sindbourne, drama teacher, climbed the steps to the stage and joined her. "You are Shelley, right? From Monday's class?"
At Shelley's nod, he continued. "Are you trying to get a feel for our stage? Have you ever acted before?"
"Yes and no," Shelley answered. "I've usually worked more backstage. Behind the scenes. Oh I've done some prompting, too. Helping the actors with their lines."
Mr. Sindbourne had walked to the lighting panel as she spoke and he flipped the switch for an overhead spot that shone directly on her. He walked back toward her and circled her. "Pity," he said. "You have a marvelous voice, a natural presence and an unnatural beauty."
"Unnatural?" Shelley's hackles stirred.
"Sorry, poor choice of words. I meant out of the ordinary." He walked around her one more time, then tucked a finger under her chin and tilted her head up a trifle, disregarding her stiffening posture. "Regal."
He dropped his hand and stepped back. Folding his arms, he lifted a hand to tap his chin as he continued to study her. "Regal, but mysterious maybe dangerous." Shelley's eyes flashed and Ed Sindbourne smiled gleefully. "Definitely dangerous. I'm going to pull some scripts next class for you to take home with you and take a look at. I'd like to hear you read for a part."
Shelley looked doubtful and he hurried to explain. "Nothing major, just a one-act play that we'll work on in class. For experience. Interested?"
Why not? I might learn new ways to be the chameleon I need to be. "Sure, I'll give it a try."
"Super. See you in class Monday. Enjoy the stage." He turned off the spotlight, waved and left.
Her lips twisted wryly and she spread her arms, quoting Shakespeare to her ghostly audience, "'The stage where every man must play a part, and mine a sad one.'" She walked down the aisle to the exit and flipped the switch, bringing back the darkness.
A cone of pale yellow dropped from the solitary street light, encroaching upon the late night darkness. The park would have been deserted except for the tall, dark-haired woman dressed in black who sat on a bench with her legs thrust out in front of her and a long, shiny object in her hand.
She pushed the blade closed then touched the trigger, delighting in the snick it made as it popped open and the feel of its movement against her palm. Better than sex, she grinned malevolently. Or at least more dependable. I know the pleasure it brings me is always available and it never turns me down. She pushed it closed again and triggered it back open. And I'm always in control; it never argues with me.She closed it again and laid it on her palm, eyeing the intricate pattern that had been carved into its bone handle. Her fingertips caressed the design, moving lovingly across each stroke of the carving. The knife even had a name, but she had bastardized it to match its current occupation. The Star Maker. She smiled as pictures of the horrified faces of her victims came to mind.
Her smile broadened as she considered the latest woman she had chosen to act in her play. Tonight was the last in her audition of new talent; the choice was made and the props were in place. Soon the play would be ready to begin. She snicked the blade open one more time and slashed it through the air, watching the lamplight wink off of its shiny surface. She pondered whether she would start her carving on the left cheek or the right. Or maybe she would start on a breast this time. Her smile turned gleeful. I think I'll let my leading lady decide that. What fun it will be to discuss it with her.
She got up from the bench, kissed the knife and slipped it into her pocket. Grabbing the bike's handlebars, she hit the kickstand with her foot, threw her long leg over the bar and took off.
She wheeled down the street, the large, yellow eyes of an owl her only witness. As she disappeared into the darkness, she smirked at the relevance of its ancient question: "Whooooo?"
Merrill opened her eyes about three o'clock in the morning, wondering what had awakened her. She lay on her back, listening to the night sounds--the quiet whoosh of cars passing on a distant street, the chirping of crickets, the far off clanking of a train. Then she heard a distinct clink just outside the window. Curious, she slipped out of bed and looked out. The window opened onto the edge of the parking lot where the bike racks stood next to an area light. Shelley had just slid her bike into the rack and was closing the lock that connected the ends of the chain that she had threaded through the spokes. She straightened up and loped toward the entrance, moving out of Merrill's sight.
What the heck is she doing out at this hour? Nothing in a college town is open at this time of night. Merrill filed the question for later and returned to bed. Pulling her sheet up around her ears, she went back to sleep.
The practice had been an especially good one with Coach Palmer amazed at the change in two of her primary players. She knew Angela Wedgeway and Shelley Brinton had been working with each other but the results of their collaboration pleasantly astonished her. Angela had changed from an outstanding fielder with a weak arm to one with an outstanding arm to match. And Shelley's progress at the plate was nothing short of phenomenal. The harnessing of that raw power would make opposing pitchers cringe.
Coach Palmer called them together at the end of practice. "Maybe you girls should be helping to coach the team," she remarked.
"I'd be glad to," Angela offered. She looked at Shelley who had not answered. "What do you say, Shelley? We could work with the batters one night and the fielders another night."
Shelley locked eyes with Angela as she had on their first meeting but still did not answer.
Angela swallowed. "Together," she added.
"Excuse us a minute, Coach," Shelley said as she took hold of Angela's arm and drew her aside.
Shelley stood face to face with Angela and looked down at her tentatively. Her low voice throbbed through Angela's veins. "Is Merrill your girl friend?"
Angela's mouth dropped open. Had she had a thousand guesses at what Shelley was going to ask, that would not have been on the list. She picked her chin up off her chest and shook her head. "Merrill's my best friend. She's engaged to be married after she graduates. To Jim Dursik."
Angela couldn't put her finger on what happened in that instant, but her answer definitely triggered a reaction in Shelley. The dark-haired girl didn't say or do anything unusual but in some subtle way her whole demeanor changed. She took Angela's arm and guided her back to the coach. "Yeah, I'll help, too," she told Palmer.
"Wonderful. We don't have many practices left before the season starts, so how about if we split the next one and work on fielding the first half and batting the second half?"
"Sure," Shelley answered without hesitation, earning a raised eyebrow from Angela. Shelley grinned and shrugged. "When I make up my mind, I make up my mind."
"I'll hold you to that," Angela said then struggled to keep from blushing at the quirked-eyebrow look Shelley gave her.
As the girls sat around the apartment after practice, Merrill told them about Shelley's late night excursion the previous evening, adding to their suspicions of her behavior.
"Why don't we watch to see if she goes out again and follow her?" Kath suggested.
"You willing to go first, Kath?" Angela asked scathingly.
"Well, no, not really," Kath admitted. She realized Angela would champion Shelley's cause so she was not offended by the caustic question. "Not by myself, anyway. I thought we had agreed not to go anywhere alone."
"We could all follow her!" Angela said with mock excitement. "Just think, we could call ourselves the Night Crawlers and if Shelley asks why we are following her we can say we are looking for bait for fishing."
"Come on, Ange," Kath said, "we're not going to let her know we're following her."
"You bet we aren't because we're not going." Angela set her jaw and glared at each of her friends, daring them to contradict her. "Who the hell do you think we are, the campus police? It's none of our damn business where Shelley's going. Maybe she has a lover. You guys are letting your imaginations work overtime."
"Maybe we are, Angie, but I still don't trust her," Merrill admitted. "She never offers any information about herself. She plays softball and works at the Steak House. That's all we know about her. Oh, and she's got a nasty look that could freeze hell over. Usually someone who makes that kind of a look work has earned it somewhere."
"Well, I haven't exactly had to fight off her advances, Merr, so you can come down off Worry Mountain, okay?" Angela was out of sorts today and this conversation was just making her crankier.
A hard knock came on the apartment door accompanied by an excited voice. Marva, closest to the door, jumped up and answered it. A cute blond stood there and Marva gave her a big smile but what she said wiped the smile from her face in a hurry. "Another girl's been killed from Scatsboro! Last night!"
The news flew around the Brickhouse, generating spontaneous groups of students on each floor who were discussing the latest information. The newest victim had been found just after daybreak by a jogger out for a morning run along the bank of the Broderick River.
The four teammates were mingling with some other students in the first floor hallway, listening to the same bare details being talked about over and over. Looking out a window near her, Merrill happened to see Shelley coming up the walk toward the entrance with a newspaper stuck under her arm. She hurried to the door to meet her.
"Shelley, have you heard the news about another girl being killed?"
"Yeah, I have," Shelley moved to the side to try to get past Merrill but the shorter woman moved to block her. Merrill suddenly noticed that Shelley's face looked stiff and her eyes flat and shifty.
"Could we have your newspaper when you're finished with it?" Merrill nodded toward the paper under her arm. Surely the paper would have more details.
Shelley stopped still and looked agitated, then annoyed. "Why can't you just buy your own, Merrill? They sell them right outside the damn door." She shouldered Merrill aside and vaulted up the steps.
"Forget it!" Merrill shouted after her. Damn girl. Just about the time I think I should be nicer to her she pulls something like this.
Merrill swung around, her face stormy, and barged right into Angela. The redhead grabbed her shoulders and kept the smaller woman from falling. "Ange, I swear that girl gripes the hell out of me. Did you hear what she just said?"
Angela grimaced. "Not much worse than I might have said as grumpy as I feel today. The difference is I'm your friend and you think Shelley's your enemy. Maybe it's the wrong time of the month for her, too."
She slipped her arm through Merrill's and led her back into their apartment. Marva and Kath saw them and followed them in, leaving the door ajar. "Hey, Marv," Merrill said, "go get us a paper, will you? Use the entertainment kitty."
"I already tried to get one. They were sold out."
"Damn," Merrill sputtered. "I'm going to go upstairs and tear that one away from Shelley!"
'No, you're not." Angela laughed and pushed her friend down onto the couch. "Shelley probably eats shrimps like you for breakfast."
"See?" Merrill bounced on the couch cushion in her agitation. "Even you think she's dangerous."
Angela grinned and shook her head. It seemed funny to see Merrill so agitated; she usually was pretty cool. "Yeah, I think she's dangerous but not quite the same way you do."
Marva tittered then someone loudly cleared her throat and all eyes swept toward the doorway. Shelley stood there with the newspaper in question lying in her palm. No one spoke; they all just stared.
God, she looks so uncomfortable, Angela thought. And I feel like a jerk. I wonder if she knew we were talking about her? At last Angela found her tongue. "Come on in."
Shelley walked in and stopped in front of Merrill. She handed the paper toward her and Merrill took it from her. Then that low voice that seemed to caress its listeners said, "I'd like it back when you're finished."
"Sure, thanks," Merrill said through stiff lips. She moved over on the couch and tilted her head toward the cushion next to her. "Have a seat." Shelley sat down and leaned forward, resting her arms on her knees, her head lowered.
"How about some sodas?" Kath had ducked into the kitchenette and now appeared with a six-pack of cans that she handed to Angela to separate. She and Marva went back into the kitchenette and returned with pretzels and mixed nuts.
Angela pulled the cans from the plastic rings and set them on the lamp table. She walked over and handed the last two to Merrill and Shelley. Shelley's gaze started at Angela's feet and slowly moved up her body to her face. Angela became very conscious of having donned shorts and a tank top for the first time that day and she blushed as Marva's words came to mind, She'll get weak in the knees. When the crystal-blue eyes met hers, Angela was the one whose knees weakened.
Marva one-handed a couple of sodas from the table, stepped past Angela, then reached back and tugged her down to a seat on the floor, purposely breaking the eye contact between her and Shelley. "Merry, how about reading us what the newspaper has to say?" she asked.
Merrill had opened the paper and folded it lengthwise to make it easier to handle. She read the full description of the finding of the victim, including a detailed account of the cuts that had been used to torture the girl. "Apparently, just as in the previous cases, the wound to the stomach was the cause of death." Merrill read then jumped and squealed as Shelley's elbow hit her.
"Sorry," the dark-haired girl mumbled, drawing everyone's eyes away from Merrill. She had grabbed her stomach when Merrill read the words aloud, accidentally thrusting her elbow into Merrill's arm. "That stomach wound you know it takes a long time to die from a stomach wound," she barely whispered, her mouth turning up into a horrible smile. She sat there a moment before realizing that she was being stared at.
Abruptly standing up, Shelley reached out a hand to Merrill who quickly folded the paper back up and gave it to her. Without another word, Shelley turned and left.
Marva shivered. "That was damn creepy, guys." She glanced at Angela whose eyes had widened. The other two women looked back apprehensively.
Angela bit her lip so hard tears came to her eyes. "Did you see the same look I saw? Will someone please tell me I am dreaming?"
But no one could tell her what she wanted to hear.
"Listen, Ange," Merrill's usually soft voice sounded ragged, "you will stay away from her, you hear me? If not for your own sake, then for mine." She looked at the other girls. "And nobody goes anywhere by themselves, right?"
"Right," Marva and Kath agreed.
Merrill slid forward on the couch seat. Reaching down and grabbing Angela's arm, she jerked it hard. "Right?" she demanded.
Angela looked away, her face and mouth twisting. Merrill tugged again on her arm. "Don't do this to me, Angie," she rasped. "I'll go crazy if I think you're hanging around some demented killer."
Angela stood up then looked down at Merrill, her face hard. "I don't believe that Shelley is a demented killer. Every reason you have for thinking so is totally circumstantial. She's different and maybe difficult. That doesn't mean she's crazy."
Merrill's face got red and she jumped up, shouting. "Goddammit, Ange, you think because she has a beautiful face her soul can't be warped? Because she rattles your hormones that makes her okay? You want to bet your life on it? Jesus Christ! What makes you so sure you're right about Shelley? You sure as hell weren't right about Vicki." As soon as the words came out, Merrill wished she could bring them back.
Angela's face turned white, then red, then purple. Her instinct shouted for her to slap Merrill's brazen face but her love for her friend made her fight so hard to overcome the instinct that she started shaking. Twice she started to raise her hand and twice she fought it down. Finally, Marva, her eyes moist, threw her arms around her in a huge, restraining hug and just held on until Angela's body quieted down and the red head dropped onto Marva's shoulder.
"Ange," Merrill choked out her name, "I'm so sorry." She put her head against Angela's back and wrapped her arms over Marva's. "I had no right to say any of that and I'm truly sorry. I'm just really, really scared that something might happen to you and I'd never forgive myself if anything did. I love you."
The three women stood together for several minutes until Kath intervened. "Okay, you guys, togetherness time is over," she tried to joke, clapping her hands. It was a pitiful attempt, but it did bring a slight smile to each face as they pulled apart.
"Forgive me?" asked Merrill, her remorse plain on her face.
Angela sighed and nodded. She knew Merrill's concern for her had prompted the uncharacteristic outburst. She threw an arm over Merrill's shoulders and gave her a hug. "You know I will and I won't go anywhere by myself. You have my permission to follow me around like a damn puppy dog. Even to the bathroom."
"Now wait a minute; I never said I would go that far," Merrill protested and they all chuckled, wanting something, anything, to laugh at.
To be Continued in Part 3
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