Seventeen

Before she entered high school Rebecca liked to pretend she would one day find in herself some untapped innate talent, the way the heroines in her favorite books did, but most times nature left her feeling cheated. She would have liked to be a fantastic painter, if she knew where to draw inspiration. She would have liked to be a sensational dancer, if she knew how to feel music.

She would have liked to be a phenominal runner, but she had a sprinter's stocky lines and none of the speed. She hated the two-mile, the knowing that she seemed least fleet of feet at the waterfall start line because she lacked the wiry builds and stork-like legs typical of her competitors. She loved the two mile, loved overtaking her competitors, loved racing varsity as an upperclassman, as the third best girl in her event on her team.

If her coach allowed it.

"I don't know, Rebecca." Coach Van Doren toyed with the end of her French braid, one hand at her hip. "You've missed three weeks of the regular season. An attendance record like that gets any runner cut."

"But I've been really sick!" Rebecca protested. She had repeated the lie Phelan assigned to her enough times to feel indignant when others doubted her.

"Which sounds to me like you should take the rest of this season off."

A group of her teammates ran past them, a rainbow flurry of bright t-shirts and short shorts on the orange track. The breezeless air captured and suspended the round sweetness of deodorant and the spiky tanginess of sweat. "I'm nine seconds away from qualifying for states in the two mile. I'll... I'll train by myself on weekends to get back in shape."

Van Doren had one eyebrow raised and Rebecca watched the other twitch up to join the first. The frown lines on her forehead deepened.

Rebecca bit the inside of her cheek. Sometimes she would have liked to be an exceptional beggar.

"Alright," Van Doren sighed."I want you to run six miles every day from now until Thursday. Today at recovery pace, tomorrow at nine and a half minutes per mile, Wednesday at nine, and Thursday at eight and a half. I'm not putting you in the meet on Friday, but if you keep this up, you're back as a regular starting next week, okay?"

"Do you want me to run on the track?" Six miles meant twenty-four laps around the track, a dizzying prospect.

Her coach tilted her head, thinking. Probably, Van Doren had expected complaint before she needed to work out the minutiae in her punishment. "No, go on your usual six mile recovery run route. I'm not watching, so it's scout's honor on your part."

At the gate, the assistant coach, Sarago—wonderful, beautiful Sarago whose eyes were oh so green from receiving and reflecting looks of envy from a sea of men—jogged up to her. "Hey Rebecca. It's good to see you back."

"Thanks." Rebecca beamed.

"Listen," said Sarago—Magister Sarago, the clueless Latin teacher; Sare-Bear, the love of every underwear clad track girl in the locker room. He scratched his head, "Van Doren likes to play bad cop with her athletes. So, you know, if you want to take some time to readjust, you can. We'll both, you know, look the other way if you do a shorter route slower."

Rebecca made an O with her mouth like she hadn't known. "Oh."

Sarago reddened and chuckled to hide his embarrassment.

"I think I'll stick with six miles, being a varsity athlete and all," she said, copying his laugh. She lifted her shoulders in squeezed shrug but opted to not scuff her shoes in case she overdid it.

"Right. Uh, that's the spirit."

She grinned brightly and ran off. Tuesday, when her calves would actually burn, she'd use Sarago's idea.

Her coach said the best runners were light on their feet, efficient with their strides. Rebecca had never felt a runner's high, and too often, she pounded her feelings into the pavement and felt the ground pound back at all the wrong joints and muscles. She wasn't born into a runner's body, but maybe that was talent, Rebecca mused as she turned onto the main road. She did what she naturally couldn't, took what she normally shouldn't, and she made it work.

She could be fine with that. She wasn't a natural, but she ran varsity, and the difference was a secret concealed by the dust trailing behind her strides. The pastel colonials with front yards and lawnmower lines looked half as monotonous and twice as pretty.

Half a mile into her route, she hit a red light at the intersection of Tower Street and Prospect Avenue. As she waited, she saw out of the corner of her eye a royal blue sedan a couple of cars behind her.

Rebecca had seen before the way the car reflected light like satin, electric under a certain kind of sun. Prospect Ave led straight from the school to Phelan's neighborhood. Wrapping a hand around the light post, she squeezed the metal pole and the tips of her fingers whitened. She glanced back again, helpless. One of the windows had rolled down and out came a hand that waved.

When the walk sign came on, Rebecca crossed the street, turned the corner, and bolted.

.~.*.~.

The yellow Mustang occupying his usual spot when he pulled into the parking lot Tuesday morning left Dan more than a little annoyed.

For one, he disliked the color yellow. It was the hue of urine, stale sweat, and cowardice. Yellow shaded infamy to workers' contracts, tinged journalism with lies.

The black racing stripes down the middle, he thought, were unnecessarily ostentatious.

He parked in the open spot to the left of the Mustang. Two things caught his attention when he reached over to the passenger seat to grab his work bag: a long strand of dark hair clinging on the leatherette surface of his car seat; the door of the other car opening to reveal the man sitting in the driver's seat of the Mustang, newspaper in hand. Dan picked up the strand of hair and let it float down to the asphalt as he got out. He waited.

"Dan, my man." The sound of a shut door and the unmistakable and sure voice of Roger Phelan greeted him. He opened his arms. "You're cruel, old chap. Making me wait by your usual parking spot to get a hold of you."

Once, Dan might have apologized. "In my usual parking spot, Roger." He reminded himself they were on school grounds and how much he liked his job. "New car?"

"James—my partner— lent me his. She's a 2006 Roush Mustang. Not bad, eh? Getting on in the years, though. Some people like vintage; I like to think there's a reason old cars, old beliefs are replaced by new ones." Phelan patted the waxed yellow shell like it was a puppy. "But she holds sentimental significance for the both of us." He tapped once on his car key remote and the car beeped, locking.

"It's nice, the car." Dan started towards the school.

"Thank you," came Phelan's cheerful response from behind, "I thought so too when I donated her to a charity benefit for Hurricane Katrina as a raffle prize."

"So it was your car?" Dan found himself in the uncomfortable position where, if he walked any faster, he would be running. Forcibly, he slowed his pace.

Being his same height, Phelan caught up easily. "James had won, and we met and chatted at the event. The rest is the present. Beautiful things happen by chance." Phelan strode ahead of him. He opened and held the front door for Dan. "For instance, if my friend Jake Bradford hadn't brought you to Rebecca, I might very well be out of a job by now."

Indoors in the vestibule before the main lobby of the school was a worse place for confrontations than the parking lot. He had not expected Phelan to be quite so forward. "Excuse me?"

Phelan checked his wristwatch. Dan reached for the inner doors. "I remember that your wife, that one time we'd met, had been radiant. But Rebecca acts very sweetly, doesn't she?"

Twisting around, Dan shoved Phelan against the wall, one fist clenching the other man's collar. "Listen Roger," Dan growled, "My conscience is clean. Don't you fucking dare compare my student to my wife." He tightened his grip to rein in anger that balled up in his other fist.

Blue eyes locked on blue eyes. But Phelan corrupted one of the few true things left within him, and Dan no longer cared.

"Careful Dan." Phelan's gaze traveled to Dan's fist, to the hair's width distance between them, to his face. Tension deepened the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, but the smile, thin and sharp, remained. "Don't make this bad idea worse."

They both breathed hard.

"I know what you did to Elise and what you're doing to Rebecca," said Dan, voice low. He unclenched his fingers and took a step back.

"If you could arrest me, I'd be the last to know." Phelan straightened his sport coat and fixed his tie, sight never leaving Dan. "Elise, you said? I've known a couple of Elises. But I think, one of us has no idea who he's talking about."

The inner doors of the vestibule opened and one of the school secretaries ambled out, a vanilla folder tucked under one arm. "Morning, Roger, Dan," she said airily, shoes a click-clack on the tiles. Deciding to wave with the arm carrying the folder, she gasped, "Oh my!" before the contents slipped out in a messy heap on the floor.

"Let me help you with that, Rosanne," said Phelan. Smile lines retraced around his mouth as he bent down to gather the papers. Out of politeness, Dan joined in. "As I was about to say, Dan, I felt I had been insensitive. I know how it is to lose your first partner, or wife. You find others but they never occupy the same niche as the first." His mouth was a thin line. "I know, old friend."

There was something restless, like most truths, ringing in his words. Dan knew too. But if he agreed, he would insult Rebecca. If he challenged Phelan's position, he'd betray Sophie. Phelan's voice was genial but hard.

The secretary, Rosanne, let out a little laugh. "Look at you literary men," she clucked, like she caught something endearing, "talking about love." Her bracelets clanged when she put everything back between her folder.

"Do you by chance know if Paul Sarago is in, Rosanne?" Phelan asked, naming a world language teacher who had once been Dan's student in his earliest teaching years. "I have something to ask him."

"I believe he is."

"Thank you, Rosanne. Well, have a good morning," He nodded to both of them and went into the school.

"The English department sure lucked out with someone so on top of things," Rosanne informed Dan, bracelets jingling.

.~.*.~.

Abduction vehicles were supposed to be black. Rebecca tore down the street. The school bus yellow car behind her was someone's bad joke.

Her feet pounded the pavement. Her calves cried from Monday and from adrenaline sloshing in her blood. The car's dark tinted windows and twin black stripes down the middle reminded her of a bizarre, mutated beetle. That made her prey.

The air, warm, soupy, and still, clung to her skin as plastic wrap to Tupperware. Without a single cloud speckling the sky, the sun's rays stung her cheek and forehead without relent.

If the car tailing her was butterfly blue, at least she'd understand.

She had been two miles into her run when the low rumbling of the motor and crunching of gravel sounded behind, then beside her. She slowed down for the car to pass her, picked up her pace when it didn't. The beetle followed. Always behind her. Always driving at three or six or nine miles per hour. Always Rebecca's pace.

When she sprinted, she heard the engine go vroom.

Each jagged breath she took prickled her dry throat. Thick spittle coated the insides of her cheeks. She hurtled across someone's two car driveway, and the yellow car came up the curbless part like it was about to nip her heels.

Rebecca yelped. Blood pounded in her ears. In the peripherals the green of leaves blurred.

This wasn't happening. Couldn't happen in daylight in suburbia. "Stop it!" she tried to shriek at the driver. Throat parched. She stumbled and fell forward on a tree root that pushed and broke through tiles of cement.

The yellow beetle was on the street again. Rebecca forced herself to draw one last deep breath. She scrambled up and sprinted towards the car. Past it. Away.

Now it had to make a U turn around the raised grassy median strip between the two lanes of the road to keep on following her.

She glanced back once and saw the car moving. She hoped the driver was bored and driving away. Thinking she put a good fifty to a hundred feet between her and the car, Rebecca slowed down and looked behind her.

The yellow car headed towards her. In reverse.

Shit. Rebecca turned the corner at the nearest residential street. She saw a yard surrounded by tall poplar trees and tried to squeeze in. The snarl of a dog within stopped her.

She wouldn't freeze. She wouldn't become a victim of abduction. Not here. Not now. The last of adrenaline left her body but she willed her legs to push on.

No.

.~.*.~.

He was toying with the idea of not stopping for a stop sign when she dashed across the street in front of him. He slammed on his brakes and almost hit the steering wheel when his car halted, wheels screeching.

Dan edged forward and saw Rebecca looking over her shoulder. Not at him, but the yellow Mustang backing up at the other end of the street.

He tried to imagine alternatives to the desperation twisting Rebecca's face, alternatives to Phelan's car tailing her. But racing made an unconvincing explanation.

If he continued his way home, he had time enough to catch a film on Netflix and then get a head start on grading.

Tightening his grip on the steering wheel, Dan grappled with the two choices. He could give Rebecca a ride regardless and risk exposing her to his depraved soul. Or he could go home, heat something up in his microwave, and continue with his night. The former was irrational, the latter impossible.

One more glance at the diverging roads and Dan stepped on his gas pedal.

.~.*.~.

Rebecca heard gritty sound of rubber on asphalt. Her strength couldn't carry her one stride. She clenched her eyes shut.

"Need a ride?"

She opened her eyes to see a car that was not yellow. She saw Waters and not… "There's a—" she gasped. She swung her head around the corner but found the street empty. She glanced at him, open mouthed.

"I saw," he said. "Phelan drove that car this morning."

She wanted to demand how he just happened to end up in front of her but her knees threatened to buckle. And guilt and suspicion were better substitutes for dying of fatigue or getting run over. Rebecca clambered into his car.

"There're tissues in the glove compartment." He kept his attention on the road.

Sweat beaded on the bridge of her nose. It rolled down her temples, tears down her cheeks. She saw in the side mirror that her face was blotchy and red. He wasn't in league with the other car, she told herself. He wasn't. She'd kissed him but he couldn't have arranged all this. He couldn't. "I want to apologize," she mumbled. "For what happened last week. It was completely inappropriate for me to… do that. I'm really sorry."

"Me too," he said. They exchanged a glance through rear view mirror. Then he fixed his attention back on the road. His foot was still on the brake.

Rebecca wished she'd paid attention earlier to how long he waited at intersections. "I know you're angry at me—"

"I'm not angry. At you," he said.

"And I— Oh. Okay," she said. She thought of asking him why the hell not but she was afraid.

"You need to report this."

Just drive, she checked the back window. Phelan, if it was him, hadn't arrived yet. "I'll think about it after the June SATs."

"That's not funny."

"I wasn't meaning to be."

He pushed the gear stick to Parking and the engine stopped humming and Rebecca wondered if he was going to kick her out unless she agreed to call the police. She hoped not because her legs were dead. "The SATs will be there for you next fall. After what I've seen today, you might not be there for the SATs."

"You think I didn't think about it?" Now his eyes were on hers so she dropped her gaze to her lap. "Phelan told me," she muttered, "he has 'charity records, not criminal ones.' How am I supposed to find and pay for a lawyer to sort out all the money stuff? And this isn't—I don't want to be… known for this." Her palms smarted, scabs opened and raw and bloody when she broke her fall. She wiped them on her lap and left thin trails of scarlet on each thigh. She wished he had antibiotic, even if it didn't help.

"You're a minor, so chances are, you'll get extra privacy protection in court. I can find a lawyer for you."

The wail of distant sirens penetrated through the windows. "And how do you expect me to pay you?"

"It'd be a favor."

"Not when that much money is involved." Human decency existed in the form of Alex offering to photocopy his history notes for her. It existed in Hannah letting Rebecca stay in her house for a week and a half, few questions asked. Maybe he meant to play noble. Except she wasn't a damsel. There was nothing romantic about being distressed. He wasn't her knight in shining armor. She was sweaty and gross and probably leaving bits of bloody skin on his passenger seat. He was a middle aged middle class teacher who could in no way afford a lawyer good enough to build up a case against Phelan when she went to live with him on her own accord, wasn't technically sexually assaulted, and was chased by a car that wasn't Phelan's, whose driver she couldn't see, who never actually moved to abduct her.

Oh fuck.

Rebecca checked the back window again and the road was empty like she expected. She stiffened because realization hit her like a rotten egg sliding down her spine. "That's what he wanted, isn't it?" she said, unbuckling her seatbelt. "He wasn't trying to run me over or kidnap me." He wanted her to break or find her teacher. She began walking and every muscle fiber in her leg flared up in pain. They were tired of lengthening and contracting.

She heard the other car door open and she did not turn back.

"If anything," he called, and she did not turn back. "He's doing this because I nearly slugged him this morning and he thinks—he knows—it hurts me to hurt you."

Rebecca stopped, turned around to see she hadn't walked far, and stared up at him. "You nearly…" she tried to repeat, "what?"

"He— well, it's not interesting."

It sounded interesting. "Why?"

He was looking at her. Expression odd but she couldn't tell with what because she was so far away. "Sometimes, I think I care about you so much that day in day out, I do things that I shouldn't."

"You care about me enough to hit him? After what I…" she trailed off. She thought she'd vomited out the bugs aflutter in her stomach. "You 'care' about me," she said, "enough that you weren't mad about the... the… about what happened."

"I'm sorry."

"No," she said. She advanced towards him and he stepped back.

He looked at the patch of dark gray asphalt between them. An adult—a teacher—had never dodged her eyes before. "What I did was what any decent human being would have done. What I felt, what I wanted…"

She clung on to his confession like a lifeline. The butterflies flitted about, wings beating, beating. "Well, what if, maybe, that made two of us," she said, because she wanted badly to share something with him. "Maybe." She added, because she thought he might want little from her compared to all she wanted of him.

He did not react; rather, he froze. Seconds flitted by on fragile wings.

"No, Rebecca," he groaned. "You can't."

"I know." Most girls she knew spent hours shedding tears over paranormal romance or denouncing them as crimes against humanity, made and held signs for their favorite school athletes or bet on which dumb jock would get the most impressive beer gut in twenty years, posted daily pictures of themselves on social media sites to announce to the world of their existence, or called others camera whores. She copied. She tried to find something to love or hate passionately but the butterflies aflutter in her stomach had wings in a myriad hues of gray and she liked it. She liked it. "I know I can't. I know it's wrong and ridiculous and outright stupid."

"No, it's…" He stopped. He couldn't make it better. It wasn't all right. It wasn't fine. "It's my fault," he sighed, "I shouldn't have said that to you. I've been around you too often and I'm taking advantage of how—"

"You're not taking advantage of me. I mean, I don't think so," Rebecca protested. She wanted to tell him she didn't let people take advantage of her.

He pressed a palm to his forehead. "I can't know what I feel and know what you feel and accept it," he said.

So this knowing wasn't acceptable. But knowing the just the two of them knew something made her feel better than anything else in a long time.

She leaned against a wooden wire post and tried not to give in to gravity; she felt low enough without sinking down. Checking the crossroads so that she didn't have to see her own desperation reflected and augmented in the twin mirrors of his eyes, she said, "So where does that leave us?"

He'd paused so long she thought he took her question rhetorically before saying, "How would you feel about a transfer out of my class?"

Rebecca swung her head around to face him. "Is that what you want?"

She didn't realize she was trembling until he clasped her hand in both of his own, squeezing gently. "The best I can hope for, right now, is to see you safe and that scumbag out of the school."

He didn't answer her question, so she took that for a no.

"Lately," he continued, "I've been hurting instead of helping you. I could try and get you into Ms. Moran's junior class—you'd be better off with her. And I, I'll be there for you, believe me. But this…"

This couldn't be. He knew. She knew.

"Right," she said. "Sure."

"Do you want to go back to the school?"

"Yes please." The digital clock in the car displayed 4:32. More than an hour had passed since she'd left the track. She was slow, late, cut. The three changed to a four and Rebecca closed her eyes. She tried. Tried her damnedest. Yet sweat and blood and tears soaked but did not turn back even a grain of time.


This is my longest chapter so far and I have mixed feelings about it. It's car themed, 'cause get who got her license twenty-six days after sitting in the driver's seat the first time? This girl (which means you probably don't want me as your driver).

This is my first real "action" chapter so please let me know what you think and how I can improve.

Copyright Whirlymerle (FictionPress id. 752037) under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.