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Lois Duncan


  Lois Duncan

  for Robin Dale


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  A Biography of Lois Duncan

  Chapter One


  “If it had been Friday,” Jesse said afterward, “I wouldn’t have taken the bus at all. I would have stayed in the library and read until Mother picked me up after her committee meeting.”

  There were a lot of ifs.

  “If my car had not been in the garage,” said Glenn.

  And Marianne Paget thought: If I had taken that ride with Rod when he offered it to me, when he drove all the way over to the high school just to pick me up.

  But, she had not. She had climbed onto the bus with the others, holding her slim shoulders defiantly straight beneath the blue suede jacket.

  I have hurt him, she thought, and the knowledge was strangely satisfying. I have hurt him, and by hurting him, I have shown Mother and all of them.

  When she took her seat, she leaned forward and looked out the window to where Rod was standing beside his car, staring in a defeated way at the door she had just entered.

  What can she see in him? Marianne asked herself bitterly. He is so dull, and his hair is going—it won’t be long now before he is completely bald. Imagine Mother having a bald husband! How can she like him—how can she even stand him—after living with Daddy?

  The man by the car was still standing there, still watching the bus door as though half hoping that she might change her mind and get off again.

  You would think he would begin to realize, thought Marianne, but no, he will go home and tell Mother, and he will be just as hurt and surprised as though it were the first time. And Mother will say, “Give it time, dear. It’s just a phase. She hasn’t adjusted yet. It will be all right in time.” But it will be one more thing, one more wedge between the two of them. And it will not be long before they will have to know that time will make no difference. Time will not change a thing.

  The bus filled quickly. From her seat near the back, Jesse French watched the other students pouring in, laughing, shoving, tossing their books about. They crowded into the double seats, and Jesse, sitting alone, felt the empty space beside her becoming more and more obvious as it was ignored by first one person and then another.

  There was a moment when she thought Glenn Kirtland was going to sit there. He seemed to hesitate for an instant, and then his eyes went ahead, and he moved forward and took the seat next to Marianne.

  I should have known, Jesse thought, that he wouldn’t sit here—and she let herself relax again, not certain whether the sudden caved-in feeling was relief or disappointment. If he had sat next to her, she would have had to talk to him, and what could one say to a boy like Glenn, the president of the student body and captain of the football team? Jesse, who could speak to adults with ease and graciousness, who could discuss art and history and politics with Frenchmen and Germans and Italians in their native tongues, found herself weak and tongue-tied at the idea of talking school and sports with Glenn Kirtland.

  If he weren’t so popular, she thought—but, of course, that was only an excuse, for popular people were popular because they were easy to talk to. There was Marianne now, chattering away to him already, turning in her seat to face him, letting her soft blond hair fall forward across her cheek. But then, Marianne was popular, too. She was pretty and pert and bubbly and had undoubtedly never had a moment’s self-consciousness in her life.

  “May I sit here?”

  Jesse glanced up and nodded, and Bruce Kirtland took the seat that his brother had not occupied. Bruce was only a freshman, a thin boy with glasses and a nervous, overeager, puppy-dog look. He sat down too quickly, and several of his books tumbled onto the floor.

  “I’m sorry. Dammit, there goes another!”

  “Here, let me hold those others. You’re going to lose them, too.”

  Jesse reached over and steadied the remaining two books, wondering, as she did so, how someone like Glenn could possibly have a brother as awkward as Bruce. At the same time she felt a wave of sympathy for this boy, who would have to live, always, in the shadow of Glenn.

  “Do you have them?” she asked kindly as he bobbed up from the floor, his face flushed with exertion.

  “Yes, I think so. I’m sorry.”

  “That’s all right.” She had her own books piled neatly on her lap—math, which she detested, and chemistry, and a French novel which she was reading for pleasure. Normally she would have opened it the moment she was settled, but now, because it was Bruce next to her and because he was so obviously embarrassed about his clumsiness, she felt duty-bound to make at least a few minutes of conversation.

  “It’s really turning cold,” she said. “Yes, it is.” Bruce leaned across her to gaze out the window. “It looks kind of like snow, doesn’t it? It’s coming late this year.” His voice was hopeful. “If Glenn gets his car out of the shop this afternoon, we may be able to go up to Taos.”

  “To ski?” Jesse asked politely. “That should be fun. Do you like skiing?”

  “I like it fine, but I haven’t gone too many times. Glenn’s usually got a bunch of his friends going. Boy, he’s good—my brother! You ought to see him come down Snake Dance!”

  He sat back in his seat, and Jesse, nodding, realized that her sympathy had been misplaced. There was no jealousy here, only a glow of pride in his brother’s accomplishments.

  “Glenn can even take jumps. You know the ski pro at Taos? He says Glenn is one of the best skiers who come up there.” He paused and then added politely, “Do you ski?” and Jesse answered, “I haven’t skied here in New Mexico. We’ve been here only since summer.”

  “You’ll learn,” Bruce told her consolingly. “There are lots of beginners,” and Jesse, who had been about to add the fact that the last time she had skied it had been in the Swiss Alps, left the words unspoken and smiled at him instead.

  “I’m sure I’ll like it,” she said.

  Dexter Barton was the last one to get on the bus. His sixth period was gym class, and it always made him late because he didn’t like using the community showers. He hung around the gym, bouncing balls and putting away the exercise mats until the first rush was over, and then went into the dressing room just as most of the other guys were leaving. If he was lucky and the shower was empty, he used it; otherwise he yanked his clothes on as quickly as possible, trusting to the general rush and confusion of late dressing to cover the omission of bathing. By the time he was clothed and had put away his gym clothes, it was a matter of luck whether or not he was able to make the bus before it pulled out of the lot. Sometimes he didn’t, and it meant hitchhiking, something he did not particularly mind when the weather was warm.

  Today, however, the wind had a nasty nip to it, and the idea of his standing for half an hour on a street corner, thumbing a ride, was a far from pleasant one. He put on a final burst of speed and jogged up to the bus just as the door was closing. He grabbed it with his good left hand and yanked it open and clambered up the steps, glancing about him for a seat. The only one left was near the back, by a window, and he had to climb over a giggly sophomore girl to reach it.

  “You might at least say excuse me,” she told him coyly, and her counterpart, in the seat directly across the aisle, giggled also.

  “Excuse me,” Dexter

  “Think nothing of it, I’m sure.” Her mock New York accent was a teasing duplication of his own, and she fluttered her eyelashes at him flirtatiously. “You wouldn’t by any chance be from the East, would you?”

  “Yes,” Dexter said coldly, not rising to the bait. He wedged himself into the corner and turned his face to the window, not so much to see out as to avoid contact with his seatmate.

  The bus had ground into motion now, moving out of the school driveway, slowly, slowly turning into the street. It lurched a little and swung wide to avoid the Drive Slowly—School Zone sign which marked the middle line, and it seemed to straighten with an effort. To Dexter, who was always conscious of mechanics, it was immediately apparent that something was not as usual. He turned his gaze from the window and straightened in his seat, trying to see to the front. Glenn Rutland’s head blocked him, and he pulled himself higher.

  “What are you looking at?” asked the girl next to him.

  “The driver,” Dexter told her shortly.

  “Is something the matter with him?”

  “He’s different. He’s not the guy who usually drives us.”

  “Oh? I hadn’t noticed.” Now she, too, rose, leaning out into the aisle to gain a better view. “You’re right, he is different. He’s totally cute. Look at those shoulders!”

  Ignoring the comment, Dexter sank back into his seat.

  “I wonder if he’s going to be our regular driver from now on or if he’s just a substitute.” The girl looked at Dexter inquiringly. (As though, he thought, I should know the answer. As though I give a damn whether the guy with the shoulders was going to drive every day or not.)

  When she received no answer, she flushed a little and looked ahead again.

  “He is cute,” she murmured, and her friend across the aisle giggled in agreement.

  “Those shoulders!”

  “All that red hair—”

  “A positive movie star, worth riding the old bus for.”

  Idiot girls, thought Dexter. The old, familiar hurt was in him, the aching, sick feeling which had been there so long now that it was almost a part of him. He should have grown used to it by this time, and yet something like this—a dumb comment from a couple of flutter-headed females—could bring it up, sharp, against his insides with a jab which was almost physical in its intensity.

  “Those shoulders—”

  He scowled out the window, forcing his eyes to the mountains, half hidden in clouds, to the bleak white sky, stretching on above them.

  It’s going to snow, he thought.

  He turned his thoughts to the snow, to the cold air against his face and the feel of skis beneath his feet, to the perfect moment of freedom as he stood at the top of a run, gazing out over the long white slope that stretched before him, like a bird at that last, crucial instant before taking flight.

  If I only had a car, he thought, I would take the whole weekend skiing. I’d go up to Santa Fe, maybe even to Taos. If Uncle Mark should fly to the Coast, if I could get the keys to the Jaguar—

  Of course, that would not happen. It never did happen at the right times. This was when it would have been good to be a friend of Glenn Kirtland, with his car with the ski rack on top—but no, it wouldn’t be worth it. Dexter couldn’t bring himself to be hypocritical enough to bootlick somebody like Kirtland just for the sake of a ski weekend.

  “What’s wrong with him?” the girl across the aisle whispered, and Dexter’s seatmate gave him a sideways glance and said, “Stuck-up.” She deliberately said it just loudly enough to carry, but he was scowling out the window, his dark brows drawn together, his eyes on the mountains.

  He did not hear her.

  “Hey,” one of the smaller boys near the front of the bus said suddenly. “Hey, mister, you missed our stop! That was it back there at the corner of Rosemont!”

  “Sorry, kid, I guess I overshot it. I’m new on this route.” The driver lowered the stop signal on the side of the bus and slowed it to a quivering halt in the middle of the block. “You’ll have to walk back to it.”

  For the first time since the bus had left the schoolyard, general attention was centered upon the driver.

  Marianne stared in surprise.

  “Don’t you have a list?” she asked. “Mr. Godfrey always gives his substitutes a list of the stops. Did he forget to this time?”

  “He didn’t have a chance,” said the driver. “It was real sudden, his getting sick. They just called me in about an hour ago.”

  “So he is a substitute,” the girl beside Dexter murmured to her friend, “and not a replacement,” and the other girl sighed regretfully and said, “Just our luck! Tomorrow we’ll go back to dear old gray-haired Mr. Godfrey.”

  “How about one of you kids sitting up front with me,” suggested the driver, “to tell me where the stops are? Somebody who lives at the end of the route and knows where everybody else gets off?”

  There was a moment’s silence, and then Bruce Kirtland said, “I will. I live at Valley Gardens. That’s the last stop.”

  “That’s fine then.” The driver had opened the door by now, and the first group of students descended, stretching and grumbling about the short walk back to the bus stop. Bruce got up from his seat beside Jesse and clambered his way down the aisle to the front of the bus.

  The door closed again, and with a grinding of gears, the bus lurched forward.

  “He doesn’t seem to know much about handling a bus,” Glenn remarked in a low voice, regarding the driver with curious eyes.

  “He’s just a substitute,” Marianne reminded him. “Perhaps he hasn’t had experience driving one.”

  “Even substitutes have to have special licenses. They pass tests. You can’t pull in just anybody to substitute driving a school bus.”

  This would be the day, Glenn thought ruefully, that my car would be out of commission. At this rate we’ll be lucky to get home in time for dinner. He regarded his brother, perched uncomfortably on the little seat next to the driver, patiently listing the stopping places on the route ahead. Good old Bruce, he thought—everybody’s little helper.

  He glanced sideways at Marianne and found her smiling.

  “Your brother’s a nice kid.”

  “Yeah, Bruce is all right. He’s a real eager beaver.” There was a note of condescension in Glenn’s voice, and he corrected it quickly. “You should see him at home. The original plate-carrier-outer and picker-upper-after people. He even replaces my broken shoelaces!”

  “If my little brothers ever did that, I’d faint.” Marianne hesitated. “Of course, there was a time …”

  “Yes?” Glenn did not like broken sentences.

  “Well, Jay and Jackie used to be pretty good kids. We were a pretty close family once. Things were different when Daddy was there.”

  “I know.” Glenn put the proper note of sympathy into his voice. He wished Marianne would not refer so often to her broken home. It did not make him uncomfortable; it simply bored him. So her parents were divorced. So her mother had remarried. What made that so terrible? It happened to people all the time.

  “It’s tough,” he said softly, “life’s tough sometimes,” and he was rewarded by the look of gratitude in Marianne’s eyes. They were lonely eyes, smoke-colored and large in the small, pert face. She had a good figure, too, small-boned and trim and at the same time curved in all the right places.

  “Things will be all right,” he said, “just wait and see.”

  “It makes me feel better,” Marianne said, “just talking to you.”

  “I’m glad.”

  Watching her reaction, Glenn felt pleased with himself. It was so easy, really, to say the right thing to people. You could do it without even thinking. You just looked at them as though they were special and said whatever the thing was that you thought they would most like to hear, and nine out of ten times you scored. It was so easy that he had no patience whatsoever with people like Bruce who were so eager, so pathetically hopeful ab
out having people like them that they always managed to bumble things.

  “It’s a bummer I didn’t have the car today,” Glenn said. “We could have made it home half an hour ago. It’s been in the shop since Tuesday getting a new paint job. I feel as though my wings have been cropped.”

  “Rod, my stepfather, came by school for me.” There was a hard note in Marianne’s voice. “He said he was going home early.”

  “Why didn’t you ride with him?” Glenn asked her.

  “I—I just didn’t want to.”

  “Well …” He smiled at her, the wide, open smile that crinkled his eyes and lit up his whole face. “If I have to take the misery of a school bus ride, I’m just as glad you’re here to share it with me.”

  Marianne found herself smiling back, despite herself. “I’m glad, too,” she said softly.

  The bus stopped again, and more students got out. The load was thinning now.

  Dexter Barton was relieved that he now had a seat completely to himself. He slouched sideways to take up as much room as possible, against the off chance that somebody might decide to change seats and sit there.

  Across the aisle, the girl with the straight dark hair was sitting alone, too, as she had been ever since Bruce Kirtland had moved to the front of the bus. She lifted her head, and their eyes met, but neither made a gesture, and an instant later the girl picked up a book that had been lying on the seat beside her and opened it and began to read. It was very definitely an invitation not to move over and start a conversation, and Dexter was amused by it.

  Another loner, he thought, and he would have liked her if she had not looked so much like another girl he had known. It was a type he was drawn to, tall and slender, not pretty exactly but smooth, with neat, shoulder-length hair which defied the current fashions, a cool, aloof, slightly superior lift of the head which made it seem as though there were more there than she would ever see fit to offer anybody.

  The girl back in New York a couple of years ago had had that same long-lined, fine-boned look to her, the same proud, little tilt of the head. He had dated her a few times. He might have kept on dating her if it had not been summer and if the crowd had not decided to go to Coney Island.