XVI

Still a week until summer officially started, but the night warm and still. The newly mown grass had been trampled in neat lines where the graduates walked up their rows, but a summer of random use assured that it would grow back just as healthy as before if not healthier. The frequent spring rains had turned the hillsides and fields green, and a few purple summer flowers already popped up among the tangle of the thicker lawn.

The newly erected grandstands stood vacant now, the rows of parents gone. No lights shone from the four towers. It would be several years and numerous candy drives later before the stadium got its lights. Temporary light poles stood dark now. The permanent towers had already been installed, as well as the announcer's booth near the school side of the stadium. Men busy with chain link had put in fences and gates, the stadium finished right on schedule, even with the rain delays and investigations.

The FBI had called in expert assistance, not believing the findings of the local medical examiner. Their man, from Washington, concurred after a week, that the local findings had been accurate; unacceptable, but accurate. In the end the FBI allowed the local authorities to close the case pending further developments.

The clear night sky shone with stars, easy to see, the nearest streetlights far away. Vanessa Sperling gazed up at the sky, not breathing for a moment.

"What're you thinking?" Brian hummed from where he lay near her on a blanket he'd spread. He still wore his pale blue tuxedo, rented for the graduation dance on the other side of town near the freeway. He hadn't danced, but he and Vanessa had been the stars of the event, telling the incredible story over and over again. It all seemed like a bad dream now, except for his limp. He'd get better, the doctor said, and soon, though he'd boast a dozen scars or so.

Vanessa looked at him in the starlight and smiled, rubbing his neck with her hand. She picked up the cup of champagne that he'd given her a while before and sipped. Warm. Good, but warm.

"I was thinking about a song I learned when I was little about the stars."

"I know, 'twinkle, twinkle ...'"

"No, silly. It was about heaven, I guess." She looked upward towards the dark void above, trying to see some other place and time, everything perfect. "It said that there are a million stars, but God keeps track of every one, all the names and all the places. It said that God knows everything about everything, and never misplaces anyone or any-thing. It said that He knows you, too, and loves you."

"Third grade philosophy?" Brian drank more of his champagne, rubbing the soreness in his leg. He swallowed quietly and stared at Vanessa in the dim light. She looked beautiful in her lavender dress, her hair just recently done, her eyes sparkling and filled with life again. She gazed down at him, taking his hand in hers.

"I don't know. I think we all have a special place in the scheme of things. Everybody. You know."

"Maybe." He scanned the sky with new eyes, seeing a vast wilderness of empty space lit by cold stars. He felt happy just to be with her at that moment.


The shadow watched from near the new booth's base, trying to conceal its presence well. It moved with stealth, away from each pillar, steel and concrete wide enough to hide, along the chain link fence and on, stopping at the open gate without their having seen.


She shifted and rested her head on Brian's lap, sitting up momentarily.

"That doesn't hurt, does it?"

"No pain, no gain." His smile, a pale flash in the darkness, made her relax even more and she settled against him, sighing.

"B.C. has a good journalism department. Hope I'm good enough for 'em. I want to really make an impression there."

"You'll do okay." She stroked his cheek. "We'll do okay. I'm glad we can be together, Bri. I was sort of scared before; afraid to make that kind of commitment." She laughed guiltily. "And you thought you were the one afraid to make a commitment!"

He looked serious.

"I'll go wherever you are, Vanessa. Anyplace I can be with you. I think I finally found something that'll last forever."

"Okay, Brian." She swallowed and neither said anything for a moment. Brian lowered his head and gave her a long kiss, his awkwardness seemingly dissolved in masculine strength.

"Promise me one thing, Brian."

"Anything."

"That if we have kids, you won't ever hit them, even if they get you mad."

"If they're my kids and your kids, they'll be perfect. I won't need to hit 'em."

"With your luck they'll be just like you." She pinched his nose. "Then they'll hit each other."

"Kids? Wow ..." He looked up at the sky now, seeing what Vanessa meant suddenly about places in the scheme of things.


The shadow stood near the bottom of the grandstands now, still undetected, and watched the two in the center of the field. Slowly, carefully, it crept beyond the second gate, moving towards the pair, blending with the dark grass. Too distracted by the stars to notice anyway, he thought. Perfect.


"You still have that bag I gave you to hold?"

"The little bag? Yeah. Here." He reached into his inside breast pocket and pulled out the small white bag.

Vanessa took it from him.

"What time is it, Brian?"

"What? I don't know. You know this watch. About two, I guess. Why? Are you supposed to be back soon?"

"Hours ago. You'll ruin my parents' opinion of you."

"Gee, I'm sorry. I guess I'm just an irresponsible teenager after all. Shit, I hope I grow up soon."

"This'll help." She opened the bag and handed him a small box tied with ribbon. "Happy graduation, Brian."

He took the box and opened it, dropping the ribbon and paper aside. He held up his new digital watch and grinned.

"It lights, too. Push this thing here." She cupped his hands in hers.

He pushed a small button and saw the clock face light up.

"It's got timers, too! And an alarm! Wow! This must've cost you a fortune."

"You're worth it, love."

"Thanks." He kissed her again. "Now I'll have no excuse for being late all the time, except terminal tardiness."

"Or just a bad memory."

"Yeah. Bad memory." He smiled still, but his manner changed.

"What's wrong?"

"Just bad memories, that's all. Sometimes I get weird. You should know. You get weird, too."

"No more bad memories. That's all over. Let it go, okay?" She stroked the back of his hand and then rubbed her face on it. He felt solid and warm and vibrantly alive.

"Yeah. Okay."

"How's the puppy?" She grinned, thinking of the Dalmatian puppy Brian had presented to his father so he wouldn't be lonely. The puppy waited at home now, probably tearing up another of Brian's shoes.

"He's okay. My dad doesn't know he loves him yet. He'll learn."

"We all do eventually." She felt something strange. "Shh!"

"Huh?"

"Listen!" She sat bolt upright and swung her head around, seeing the intruder an instant before Brian did.

He jumped up, tottering on his good leg and holding the champagne bottle like a club.

"Who's that? You come over here and I'll brain you!"

The shadow moved closer and Brian dropped his hand, sighing with relief.

Just Res.

"Hi, guys," he said, waving, dressed totally in ninja black, the clothes too big for him.

"I almost knocked your head in, Res. Shit, you're lucky! What are you doing out this late anyway? If your dad finds out he's going to ground you for five years!"

"Brian!" Vanessa chided, rising.

Peter gave one of his smiles.

"You look really nice, Vanessa. Uh, you too, Brian."

Brian shook his head.

"I just wanted to see you tonight. They wouldn't let me into the graduation with-out a ticket, so I cheered from outside when they said your names, but you two took off afterwards before I could catch up with you."

"Okay, you caught us. What were you doing; watching, you little sleazebag?"

No. I wasn't watching ... exactly. I didn't figure you could be up to much in the middle of the gym field, even if it's dark."

"Well, you're right about that. How'd you find us?"

"Your car. I sneaked out and rode Lenny's bike here after the dance ended. I saw your new car and I figured you'd come out here. Pretty good reasoning, eh, Holmes?" His round face stretched with a smirk.

"Why did you want to find us, Peter?" Vanessa asked, putting her arms around Brian. He looped one arm around her waist.

"Well ..." Another sheepish grin and he looked at the ground. "I just wanted to wish you luck and say, uh ... I hope you guys have a good life, cuz you're pretty special. You're pretty special to me, anyway."

Brian said nothing, but his face betrayed the love he felt for the younger boy. He'd miss him terribly.

Peter looked from one to the other, solemn, looking older.

"I got to thinking that you guys almost got killed last month, right here. I thought that maybe you ... Maybe I could sort of keep a ... That I could kinda ..."

"Protect us?" Vanessa hugged him. "That's really sweet, Peter."

"You're okay, Res. You're ... okay." Brian breathed quietly.

Peter beamed and hugged Vanessa back, looking around her shoulder at Brian.

"So do I get any champagne, or what?"

#

Los Angeles, July 1981/July 1995/December 2005

THE END