Chapter Three

We don't get the chance to talk later. The entire period is taken up by the teacher's yakking and when the bell rings, Neo isn't even there at his seat anymore. "Weird," I mumble to myself. "When did he leave? I never saw him go…"

Christian appears before me the moment I walk out the door. "May I give you a ride home?" he asks cheerily, his face practically glowing.

I'm about to say no, thank you, I don't get rides home from boys I don't even know—when I remember the awful bus. So instead, I say, "That would be fantastic," and he looks just like a kid on Christmas.

"Better hurry, though, or we'll be spending a good twenty minutes in traffic." He grabs my hand and leads me through the throngs of people down a flight of stairs and out into the parking lot. He lets me go and hurries to his car. I slide into the front seat and set my bag down at my feet while he throws his in the back and turns the key. Instantly we are bombarded by loud rap music, which Christian promptly turns off. He laughs nervously and backs out of the spot.

"So how you likin' Washington?" he asks.

"It's so cold," I complain, eliciting a laugh from him.

"It's not cold," he says. "Believe me, this is warm. And it was like ninety last week. You're gonna die this winter. It's supposed to be a nasty one."

"Great," I grumble, burying my nose in my sweatshirt. "Can't wait."

It's quiet for a minute, and then, clearly feeling bold, he asks me, "You doing anything this weekend? Friday night's the first game of the season, and it's at home. You like football, right? Texans are big into their football, I hear."

I smile a little. "Yeah, I like football. Not as much as my little sister, Silver, though. She goes freakin' nuts. I think we'd get kicked out for her profanity."

"Oh yeah? Sounds like a fun kid. How old is she?"

"Thirteen."

"Man… that's cool. Guys are gonna really like that when she's older. We dudes love a cute chick who's into sports." He glances at me. "She a redhead, too?"

I pull a strand in front of me and examine my split ends with distaste. "Yeah," I reply. "Hers is real long. Goes to her waist. And it's more auburnish than mine. Mine's kinda mixed with some blonde or whatever."

"Well, it's very pretty," he confesses, smiling genuinely.

I blush. "Why, thank you," I say, somewhat flustered. "That's… very kind. But I'd have to disagree with you. I really hate this color."

"Pfft." He shakes his head. "Don't hate. It's a gorgeous color."

He flashes me a smile so brilliant and sincere that my initial shock at his compliment turns into a violent jerking of my stomach as it did a somersault. My pale freckled face burns crimson and I look away.

My house, coincidentally, is on the way to his, and he asks if I would like to carpool with him. A very enthusiastic part of me wants to accept instantly, but the sensible part of me tells him I would have to ask my mom and I would call him later to confirm or deny. He seems pleased that I'll call either way, and waits until I'm safely inside the house before driving away. I watch him go and then, when he's no longer in sight, I sink against the door and sigh dreamily.

"Chevy?" Mama comes out from the kitchen, her strawberry blonde hair held back with a bandana and her arms, apron, and face covered in flour. "You're home early," she points out.

I look at her and smile, standing upright. "Yeah, I got a ride home," I answer.

"From who?" She leans forward, squinting knowingly. "Was it a boy?"

"Why, yes, Mama," I say happily, "it was a boy. His name's Christian Russell; he lives just down the way there."

"Well, baby, didn't I tell ya you'd like it up here?" She smiles. "A boyfriend will do just the trick. You won't even remember Texas. Just don't marry him."

I roll my eyes and move for the stairs. "I doubt he'll become my boyfriend, Mama," I lie. I've never had trouble getting boyfriends. "And anyway, I just met him today. Don't be ringing any wedding bells too soon."

She grunts in acknowledgement, then as I'm walking upstairs, she calls, "Baby girl, when you put your stuff in your room will you come on down and help your sweet little mama out in the kitchen? I'm making cookies."

"Sure, I'll be right down."

I dump my bag on the floor of my new bedroom and shiver. It's freezing cold. Scowling, I look out and notice the window is wide open. "Stupid Aunt Emma," I grumble, walking over to close it. My window faces the backyard. Just as I'm about to close it, I notice, in the neighbor's yard, a redheaded boy, covered in mud and dirt and grass, staggering across suspiciously, watching the house to make sure nobody saw him. Frowning, I lean out the window and watch as the boy limps through the yard and pushes a loose bit of fence out of the way to sidle through it and tumble into the next person's yard. I can see his face briefly as he's closing the fence back in place, and I notice with a start that it's Neo.

Without thinking, I thunder down the stairs and out the front door, my Mama calling after me in confusion. I run into the next-door neighbor's yard—they aren't home right now—and slip the latch into their backyard. Neo should be on the other side of the fence between this house and the one across from it. Slowing to a quick jog, I make my way over to the fence and carefully try each board to see if any will move. They all seem to be stuck when I notice one moving at the end. Catching my breath, I rush to the porch and dive behind a potted plant. Sure enough, the dollmaker himself comes through the moved bit of fence, and when he turns his back to fix it I stand and move toward him.

"Hey," I say, not too loudly, but enough to scare him so bad he jumps, letting go of the fence, which slams noisily into place, and begins to sweat in fear. He looks at me, eyes wide, as if he's been caught in the middle of some horrible crime.

"What the hell are you doing?" I demand. "Slinking around in other people's yards… didn't your mother raise you better than that?"

"Look," he says, and his voice is so timid and scared I actually falter in my anger. "I honestly didn't do any harm. I just need to get home. Okay? Will you let me go home?"

The boy is trembling so awfully, I switch into caretaker mode. He is absolutely filthy, as if he's been through the rainforest. But how could he even be here? He disappeared from English class and managed to get home, filthy, and hurt his leg in the same amount of time it took me to just get home?

Oh, yeah—his leg! "Are you hurt?" I ask, my voice gentle and motherly. "You were limping."

He's stunned by my concern, but manages to nod, averting his eyes. "My ankle," he murmurs quietly. "It's just my ankle. It's nothing. Please, let me just get home. Before we both get in trouble."

I bite my lip, my mind torn between helping him and saving my own skin from a good reprimand about breaking into neighbor's yards. Years of sacrificial servitute for my dad help sway me toward the former, and I tell him, "All right, but I'm going to help you get there."

He seems reluctant to accept my help, but acquiesces anyway, and lets me hoist his arm over my shoulder and lead him out of the yard.

When we're in front, I look around warily; no one's in sight. "Hurry, please," he says, and there's a sort of pleading in his voice that spurs me to get him across the street and down to his house as quickly as I can.

"Will you be all right here," I ask, "or do you want me to come inside?"

His eyes widen and he shakes his head. "Oh, no. Please, just leave me here. My mom will help me."

My curiosity getting the best of me, I blurt out, "There's no way this happened to you!"

"What?" He blinks, startled at my outburt. "Wha… what do you mean?"

"This!" I move my hand around to indicate all of him. "I never saw you leave class! But somehow you got home with enough time to spare to get all grubby and injured? No way; I don't believe it. Explain it to me!"

He blinks again, and then actually scowls at me. "No," he says firmly. "Absolutely not. I have no idea what you're talking about. I don't have to explain anything to you."

I balk, completely livid that he's refused to explain himself. "But," I sputter, my temper overriding my ability to think properly, "but—I helped you!"

"You did, and I thank you for that—but it's none of your business. I'll see you at school." He turns and puts his hand on the doorknob, key in hand, clearly dismissing me.

"I'll tell someone," I say suddenly, a thought hitting me. He freezes. "Oh, yeah," I sneer. "I'll tell all sorts of people. In fact, I'll go tell the Michaels and the Jacobsens that you were fucking around in their yards. So you better talk, or I will!"

He turns his head and glares at me with utter contempt and disgust. Finally he retorts, "Who's gonna believe you? Really? You even admitted you don't believe your story. What makes you think anybody else will?"

I'm silent. He's got me there.

"Besides," he adds ominously, his words like venom as he unlocks the door, "I doubt you'll even remember it long enough to open that big Texan mouth of yours. I'll see you at school." With that, he enters his house and slams the door shut. I hear about six locks click shut before it's silent. Overwhelmed with an exceedingly eerie feeling of dread, I back away and hurry home as fast as I can, not once looking back at the house, though I felt eyes boring into my back.

I burst in through the front door, my mind whirling with terror, and I shut it and lock it tight. The one measly lock feels horribly inadequate, and I shudder with fear.

"Chevrolet?"

My Mama hurries in, and I have never been so glad to see her. "Oh, Mama!" I cry, flinging myself into her arms and trembling.

"Chevy? My baby, what's happened? You're as frightened as a little bird! Baby doll? Talk to Mama."

Baby doll. Doll. The word sticks in my mind and fills me with mental images of mangled and disfigured creations, sickly little cloth creatures, so full of evil, woven by their twisted puppet master…

I somehow end up on the sofa with smelling salts shoved under my nose. I sneeze violently, sending them flying in a flurried array, and someone helps me sit up. I shake my head as voices become coherent and the figures before me clear.

"Oh, she's awake!" It's Mama. She collects me in her arms and sobs heavily. I look around, confused. Aunt Emma and Silvey are standing nearby, looking at me with concern.

"What happened?" I ask carefully.

"You fainted," answers Silvey, her face pale with fright. "And we've been trying to wake you up for half an hour now."

"Chevy, what happened?" asks Aunt Emma. "What scared you so badly?"

"I…" I think back, or at least I try to. What happened before I fainted? Clear as day, I remember riding home with Christian in his car, and the exact conversation we had as he dropped me off, and I can remember going upstairs to drop off my bag…

"I don't know," I say honestly, yet something doesn't seem right. "Where did I faint? Upstairs? I know I went up and Mama asked me to come help her with the cookies."

"Oh, the cookies!" Mama cries, throwing her hands up and dashing into the kitchen, wailing loudly as she, I knew, begins to distract herself with her cooking like any good Texan woman.

Aunt Emma leans close and frowns. "Can't you remember anything?" she questions. "Anything at all?"

I scowl, frustrated by the questioning but mostly by the fact that no, sorry, I can't remember anything. "No," I tell her, "not a thing," and excuse myself and head to my room, where I stare at the open window with a hideous sense of déjà vu. I shiver, and something fleeting flashes through my mind; but like that, it's gone, like a dream you've woken up from.

I look at the window with disgust. "It's so fucking freezing in here," I grumble bitterly, and I instantly shut it and close the blinds.