Chapter 1

The alarm blared. Alex stumbled across the room, eyes closed. He found the clock by feel and switched it over to radio mode. He'd known it was a mistake to go out with the team after the game the night before, but Bobbi-Jo had gone and he couldn't resist the chance to be near her.

The radio blared as he went down the hall to the bathroom. The DJ said something about the rioters in New York or LA or some big city. From the way he laughed it must have been a joke. By the time Alex got back, dripping on the hardwood floor and drying himself with a towel, the station had switched over to music. He pulled on jeans, work boots and a t-shirt, then grabbed a black and gray flannel and headed downstairs. He stopped a moment at the open front door. It was still dark outside, but not so dark he couldn't see his dad's truck parked on the front lawn.

He shook his head and went into the kitchen. There was still some orange juice, that and generic pop-tarts ought to hold him until lunch. It would have to, there wasn't anything else in the house. Dad had promised to buy groceries after work yesterday, but there was nothing. He sighed and pulled on the flannel shirt.

As he suspected, his father was asleep on the couch. He reeked of stale beer and sweat. He'd been in a fight again, there were bloody tooth marks on his arm and his shirt was torn. Alex unfolded a blanket and spread it over him. It wouldn't do any good to wake him up, with luck he would recover before his next shift. If not there was always the settlement money. He didn't blame his father for crawling inside a bottle, not really. Alex didn't have nightmares any more, not very often anyway, but dad's had gotten worse, not better. It had been three years since the accident. He'd been thirteen, asleep in the backseat when it happened. The impact woke him, he was hanging upside down, watching the blood drip from his mothers hair onto the ceiling.

The phone rang, yanking him back to the present. He shook himself and went back to the kitchen. "Hello?"

"Hey Alex, it's me, Jenny. My mom's going to take us to school today, so you don't need to pick us up." He usually picked up Jenny and her little brother, Jeremy, on the way to school every day. They went early most days, the church had a scripture study program in the mornings. This year it was the New Testament. Sunday it had been canceled 'until further notice' and church members had been asked to stay home as much as possible. Alex thought it was probably because of the flu. The president had announced the same thing, but didn't close the schools, so it couldn't be too bad. "Anyways, you want to come over and ride in with us? Save some gas?"

"No, I'll need my truck after school. I'll see you guys there."

"Okay, see ya. Hey, you're going on that field trip, right?"

"Yeah, gets me out of class, and..." He hesitated, not wanting to come out and say it.

Jenny said it for him. "And Bobbi-Jo is going too. All right, I gotta go help with the littles, We'll meet you there."

He hung up the phone, he had an extra ten minutes before he had to leave. He looked around for something to take for lunch, checking all the cupboards. There wasn't anything edible. He'd have to go shopping after school, it wasn't a big deal, wouldn't be the first time he'd missed lunch.

A cold wind blew outside. It went right though the flannel and he shivered. He hurried past his father's truck and climbed in his own. Dad had hit something last night, one of his headlights was smashed. Hopefully nobody had been hurt. The engine started up with a roar, he needed to get a new muffler, the old one was rusted out. The radio blared the news. "Reported in New York, Los Angeles, Chica..." Alex popped in a tape, one that had belonged to his mother.

In the grove of Eglantine, far south of love's delight...

Listening brought back memories of her. On the way into school, he had to dodge some guy who walked right out in front of him. He saw him in the rear-view mirror. The guy staggered drunkenly and followed the truck for as long as Alex could see him.

There was never much traffic on the way to school, almost nobody drove through town as a morning commute, there were wider roads with higher speed limits connecting all the nearby towns to the freeway, but this morning he didn't see anybody until he hit the only stoplight in town, right before the school. A red Mustang whipped around the corner. It wasn't brand new but it was only a couple of years old. A blonde girl wearing a boy's letterman jacket rode in the passenger seat. Alex shook his head and swallowed. Bobbi-Jo. Bobbi-Jo in Chuck's car. Wearing his jacket. He felt sick inside. Chuck was boasting to his friends last night, could he have been telling the truth?

The light turned green. He ignored it until someone pulled up behind him and honked, then he gunned the truck through the intersection. A blue Beetle followed him into the parking lot. It was emptier than usual. He drove over the potholes and into his usual spot. The school parking lot was never more than half full. When he was a kid, the grade school had still been open, but when he was in fourth grade, both the elementary schools had closed and all the grades moved into the old high school. Built when the town was booming, during the height of the cold war, the school itself was likely to outlast all the other buildings in town.

The blue Beetle pulled into the teacher's section of the parking lot, and the driver got out. A woman, one of the teachers on the elementary side of the building, grabbed a bag out of the back and hurried up the steps into the building. Alex grabbed his bookbag and headed for the other door.

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