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Mark awoke Saturday to the sound of rain pounding on the roof. He glanced at his clock: eight thirty. If he hurried, he had enough time to warm up, eat something light and shower. The thought of being with Melina propelled him out of bed. He stretched, donned his sweats, and padded down to the basement to begin his day with a little tai chi.
He found Mary already there, intent upon the exercise. Without a word, Mark took his place beside her. Opting for the abbreviated version, he quickly settled into the discipline.
“How come you’re skipping some of the postures?” Mary asked.
“I have to be somewhere at nine thirty,” he replied.
“Friend’s house. Her dad wants me to show her a couple of self-defense moves.”
“You’re going to a girl’s house?”
“If you don’t concentrate on what you’re doing, you’ll get it wrong, and that won’t do you any good.”
Both fell silent for a few minutes as they went through flowing postures.
“Is she cute?”
In spite of himself, Mark grinned.
“Do you want her to be your girlfriend?”
“Quit acting like such a kid, Mary.”
“That’s not a kid question,” Mary protested. “A kid would accuse you of having a girlfriend.”
Unable to frame a good response, Mark concentrated on the postures. He eyed the wall clock, and wound down his workout.
“You’re looking good,” he said to his sister as he made for the stairs. “Your wrist bothering you any?”
“It’s still stiff,” she said with a grimace. “But the stretching seems to help.”
“Keep it up,” Mark said, his foot at the bottom stair.
“Don’t worry about that,” Mary said, her voice grim. “I will never let those bastards push me around again.”
Mark gawped at his normally gentle sister. Had she really said what he thought she had said?
“Don’t look at me like that,” Mary commanded. “I’m not a little girl any more, and I keep my eyes open. If I don’t learn how to handle bullies now, I’ll be pushed around for the rest of my life, like Luke.”
Mark continued to stare at his sister as she assumed another posture.
“Get lost,” she said. “Go over to your not-girlfriend’s house.”
He turned and walked up the stairs, lost in thought. He had thought that he knew Mary. How weird to find out she wasn’t at all who he thought she was.
Promptly at nine thirty, Mark pressed the Taylors’ doorbell. He heard the faint sound of feet pounding, then the click of the deadbolt. He inhaled, dropped his shoulders and stood as tall as he could. The door opened to reveal a smiling Melina clad in gray sweatpants and a green T-shirt. To Mark’s eyes, she looked fabulous.
“Hi,” she said, and opened the door wider. “Come on in.”
“Hi,” he said, giving her his best smile as he crossed the threshold.
“Mom and Dad are in the living room,” she said, trotting up the stairs. “Dad said it’s the only room big enough for this.”
At the top of the stairs, she made a sharp left and led him into large room with the furniture pushed to the walls.
“Wow!” he said, looking around. The ceiling was at least twelve feet high, and the room itself was large enough to house an entire martial arts class. “This is great!”
Mrs. Taylor smiled with satisfaction.
“This room sold us on the house,” she said. “Isn’t it grand?”
“My mom would love this,” he said. “She’s into old houses from the early part of the twentieth century, and that’s what this is, isn’t it?”
“Built in nineteen-ten,” Joe Taylor said, hoping his wife wouldn’t inflict one of her prolonged discussions of architecture on the poor kid. “But you didn’t come over to talk about old houses, and you’ve got a game later, if the rain lets up. So let’s get started.”
“Sure, Colonel,” Mark said, his eyes twinkling as if he knew exactly what the man was thinking and agreed with the sentiment.
Joe Taylor smiled. He liked this kid. Unlike Pete, Mark had a quiet sense of humor that sneaked up on a person. Ultimately, that could prove funnier than Pete’s more overt style.
The three Taylors trooped to the middle of the living room floor.
“You’re joining us?” Mark said to Mrs. Taylor.
“Sure,” she said. “In my line of work, people can sometimes go crazy and violent all at once. It’s always helpful to know a few tricks to deal with that sort of patient.”
“You mean like drug users?”
“Mostly substance abusers, but sometimes even diabetics can get a little wacky. I remember one fellow we were trying to transport who suddenly jumped up and ran off down the street wearing only his bikini briefs.”
“Oh, yes. Fortunately for him, it was about six a.m., so none of his neighbors got an eyeful. He was absolutely mortified later.”
“Honey, we can tell war stories some other time,” Joe said. “Let Mark begin.”
She rolled her eyes, then cocked an eyebrow at him. Mark cleared his throat.
“Well, the first thing you need to know about self defense is that most of it happens in your head. If you have the right attitude bonus veren siteler and focus, you’re ninety percent there. But if you give in to fear, or let yourself be distracted, the bad guy almost always wins.”
Joe nodded approvingly.
“So when you find yourself in a scary situation, the first thing you may do is panic. But what you have to do is not panic. So if you can think of your brain as a tape player, when you feel fear, push your brain’s pause button. Then focus on what’s happening and what you need to do to survive and escape.”
“But if I’m already afraid, how can I not be afraid?” Melina asked, frowning.
“Oh, you can’t, at least not at first. But you can put your fear to one side and deal with it later. It’s like when someone says or does something that makes you mad. Maybe you can’t say and do anything right then, so you deal with the problem and put your feelings aside for later. You’re still mad, but you’re not acting on it.”
Her face cleared and she nodded.
Joe Taylor nodded approvingly. Good solid kid.
“So you’re all with me?” Mark asked.
The three nodded.
“Good. Let’s try something before we start the elementary moves, though. Melina?”
He gestured her forward. She eyed him and stepped forward.
“All right. I want you to stand there. I’m going to do something, and I want you to say what you’re thinking and feeling.”
He walked to the door, waited a few seconds, then charged, screaming and raising a fist. He stopped just inches from her face. Involuntarily, she shrank from him and stiffened, her green eyes huge in her pale face.
“Quick. What are you feeling?”
“I feel trapped.”
“What were you thinking when I came at you?”
“Nothing. I couldn’t think, I was so scared.”
“When you let fear take over your mind, you can’t think. That’s why you have to hit your pause button. So let’s try it again.”
This time, he walked behind her.
“Uh, yeah. I guess.”
He waited a few seconds, then sprang at her back, wrapping an arm around her neck. He could feel her heart pounding.
“What are you thinking?”
“You’re really strong, and how am I going to get out of this?”
He let go of her and turned her around to face him.
“Excellent! Were you afraid?”
“A little. But I know you won’t hurt me. I’d be scared if a stranger did it.”
“Well, that’s natural. But what I like is that you were thinking of how to escape. That’s how you need to think to defend yourself successfully. Very good, Melina.”
She straightened her back.
“Okay, then. What next?”
“I’m going to pick on your father for a while. Is that all right with you, Colonel?”
Joe Taylor grinned.
“You bet. What makes you think you’re going to pick on me, though? I might just pick on you.”
Mark grinned back.
“Go ahead, sir. If you can teach me something new, I want to learn it.”
“Good man! Now, what do you want me to do?”
The rain had tapered to a drizzle by the time Mark returned to Melina’s house so they could walk to the game together.
“My dad really likes you,” Melina remarked as they plodded up the wet street.
“I like him,” Mark replied. “He’s pretty cool guy.”
“Dad?” Melina considered this. Dependable, smart, kind of goofy — that was her dad. He was definitely not cool, but if Mark thought so, she wouldn’t argue.
“Sure. He really cares about you, for one thing. I could tell that right away.”
“Well, don’t all parents? Isn’t that their job?”
“Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they all do. You’re really lucky to have two great parents who love you and love each other.”
“Maybe. But they’re not the way they were when I was little.”
“How were they then?”
“Oh, I don’t know. They laughed a lot, and kissed, and told us they loved us, and went to church and we all had breakfast together every day. It was different then.”
“When did they change?”
“After my brother died.”
Melina didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing. They walked in silence for a block or so.
“I think when John died, something else died too. After he died, my dad started spending a lot more time at his restaurant, left even more of the parenting to my mom. And she was so sad at first, and then angry, and then cold. She started picking on Luke, and he let her. And I let him down, because I didn’t say anything, either.”
“But you were just a kid. What could you have done?”
“I don’t know. But I should have done something.”
“But isn’t that just hindsight? I mean, if it happened now, you would probably do something else, but back then, didn’t you do the best you could?”
“Easy for you to say.”
“Oh, shut up!” Melina flared. “You’re great for talking about pause buttons and
everything, but when it comes to you, it doesn’t apply. That’s just stupid. Who put you on a pedestal and made you better than the rest bedava bahis of us?”
Mark stared at her. “Why’re you mad at me?”
“I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at your attitude,” Melina said. “You were just a kid, and now you’re ashamed because you didn’t have the power to do anything. For crying out loud, accept it and move on. And tell me something: do you stick up for Luke now?”
“Then you’re doing the right thing now, and that’s what matters. Capisce?”
“Si. Capisce, capa.”
She smiled, and his day brightened. They crossed the street to the high school grounds.
“All right then.”
Once in the instrument closet, the two split up. Melina grabbed her trumpet case and headed into the band room to assemble it. She had no sooner walked into the room than she felt an arm go around her shoulders and pull her into a hug.
“Hi, dollface,” Pete said, kissing her.
She pushed him away.
“Please don’t do that,” she said in a low, but furious, voice.
“Why not?” he said, sounding hurt.
“Because it’ll make people talk, and I don’t like to be talked about.”
“Are you ashamed to be going out with me?”
“No, that’s not it. I just like my privacy, that’s all. And you know how bands are. Everyone gossips about everyone else. I just hate the idea of people talking about me behind my back.”
“And believe me, everyone is,” a smooth, cold voice said from behind Melina. Both turned to see Tracy regarding them with disfavor.
“Why don’t you mind your own business, you bitch?” Pete asked.
“Temper, temper, sweetheart,” Tracy said sarcastically. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you catch more flies with honey than vinegar?”
“You’re one fly that makes me wish I had a fly swatter,” Pete said. “Why can’t you leave me alone?”
Glancing about her, Melina noticed the interested gazes of several band mates. She wished desperately that she could be anywhere else.
“I just hate to see you preying on yet another unsuspecting girl,” Tracy said.
“I don’t prey on anyone,” Pete said, his face reddening. “Unlike some stalkers I could name.”
“The hell you don’t,” Tracy said, ignoring the insult. “You make your girlfriends feel like they’re the only girl in the world, then you dump them or trade them in on new models every couple of months at least.”
“That’s a lie,” Pete said, his voice uneasy.
“It’s the truth, and you know it,” Tracy said grimly. “And so does everybody else in this band.”
Pete glanced around at the crowd of intent faces. His temper flared.
“What the hell are you all looking at?”
A murmur arose as most of the group dispersed. Pete turned back to Tracy.
“I don’t know what your problem is, but if you don’t knock it off, I personally will make you regret it,” Pete said.
“Knock what off?” Tracy asked, all innocence.
“Quit bothering me and quit bothering my friends,” he said.
“I don’t bother your friends,” Tracy said. “I simply warn people about you. It’s a service from one girl to another.”
“Well, knock it the hell off!”
Pete turned to Melina.
“Let’s get away from this bitch.”
“You go ahead,” Melina said. “I have something to say to Tracy. Privately.”
“Say it in front of me,” Pete said. “I have a right to hear it.”
“No. This is not for you to hear.”
Pete set his trumpet case down and folded his arms across his chest.
“I’m not leaving until you say whatever it is you want to say.”
Melina regarded him with growing anger. Tracy watched them both intently.
“It’s none of your business. Please leave.”
“All right. Then I’ll leave.”
She stomped away to her seat.
“You damn bitch,” Pete hissed to Tracy. “If I lose her because of you, I will make sure you regret it.”
“How noble of you,” Tracy replied, her voice equally low. “What a shame you didn’t develop that trait sooner. I could have used some nobility from you when I had to go to the clinic alone. I’ll never forgive you for that.”
She walked away, and he stared after her. What was the big deal? Why couldn’t she just forget it?
Lost in thought, he didn’t see Mark edge past him. He had heard every word.
As Ms. Shaffer tuned the band, Melina sat in stony silence, a muscle in her jaw twitching. Inwardly, Pete groaned. Surely she wasn’t mad at him, too?
After the pre-game show, it somehow happened that Mark sat between Pete and Melina. Pete glowered at him, but Mark seemed oblivious. He barely looked at Pete, instead chatting with Melina. During the game, her gaze flicked several times from Mark to the sullen blond, wondering if perhaps she had the wrong date for the dance.
After the game, though, Pete became his old charming self and apologized. Melina put her misgivings aside and agreed their date was still on for the night.
As twilight fell, the doorbell rang. Melina walked slowly down the stairs to greet Pete, regretting her decision to keep the date. All day, Tracy’s words had echoed in her head. Even if Tracy was lying, she seemed to bear a huge deneme bonus grudge against Pete, and that made Melina wonder what had really happened between them. The incident had given her a bad feeling about him. She did not look forward to this evening.
She opened the door to find him holding a bouquet of carnations and mums.
“Hi, sweetie,” he said, handing her the gift. “I hope you like flowers.”
Taking them, she forced herself to smile.
“They’re beautiful,” she said, opening the door wider so he could enter. “Thanks very much.”
They trotted up the stairs and into the kitchen, where her father stood assembling a salad. Beside the sink lay a few new potatoes, a pile of green beans and a limp trout.
“Dinner?” Pete asked, shaking the colonel’s damp hand.
“Yep,” the man replied. “My women have all deserted me tonight. Katie’s working on the ambulance and you’re stealing my daughter. Life is so unfair.”
“You have my sympathies,” Pete said.
“Thanks a lot. So where are you two headed tonight?”
“We’re going for pizza at Vitale’s and then bowling. We’ll probably hook up with some other friends there.”
“Sounds like a good program. What time should I expect Melina home?”
“When’s her curfew?”
“Before midnight, then,” Pete said with a smile.
Col. Taylor regarded the boy with a mixture of amusement and suspicion. He knew Pete’s type pretty well. His roommate at West Point had been a cut from the same bolt: talked a good game and very careful to stay on the right side of a girl’s father. But he trusted Melina. She had good judgment and besides, given the events of that morning, he had a feeling Pete wouldn’t remain on her dance card for long.
“All right, then,” Col. Taylor said. “Have fun!”
“Absolutely,” Pete said, taking Melina’s hand. “Ready?”
“Yeah,” she said, her mood continuing to plummet. She felt exactly like someone about to take an animal to the vet for euthanasia.
“Then let’s go.”
About halfway through dinner, Pete stopped eating and looked at her.
“All right,” Pete said. “Out with it. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she said glumly.
“You’re still thinking about what Tracy said, aren’t you?”
Her eyes widened.
“Yes,” she said. “Was she telling the truth? Do you really dump everyone you date after a month or two?”
“Of course not!”
“Well, what’s the longest you’ve gone out with someone?”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything!” he said hotly.
“No. Anyway, my past is my business, not yours.”
“Oh, really? Isn’t it my business if I’m the one who’s going to get the ax in a couple of weeks?”
“Don’t be silly. I wouldn’t do that.”
“How do I know that?”
“I guess you have to trust me, don’t you?”
“I guess so.”
“You do trust me, don’t you?” he asked.
She looked at him for several long seconds.
“I don’t know.”
“What’s gotten into you?” he asked, his voice rising. “I bought you flowers and this is how you repay me?”
Melina felt the blood rush to her face. Abruptly, she stood.
“Please excuse me for a minute,” she said. “I need to use the restroom.”
She strode away without waiting for an answer. En route, she asked a waiter if the restaurant had a pay phone.
“Sure,” he said, pointing toward the rear of the building. “Beside the restrooms.”
Before she picked up the receiver, she glanced around carefully to see if Pete was watching her. She could see him smiling and chatting with their waitress. She dug into her pocket for some change and pushed a few coins into the slot. She punched in a number and heard the line ring twice.
“Daddy?” she said when her father answered. “I’m sorry to bother you, but, um, could you come get me?”
“Where are you?” he asked without hesitation.
“Vitale’s,” she said. “On South Queen, I think.”
“Five minutes,” her father said. “Wait for me out front.”
“It’s what they pay me for,” he said. “See you soon.”
She wove through the tables to find Pete pocketing a slip of paper. She could see their waitress round the corner at the end of the aisle.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“A phone number,” Pete said coldly. “If you’re going to act like a bitch, I’ll find someone who appreciates me.”
Melina stood, her fists clenched.
“Well, I think I know where we stand now. You can forget about homecoming. Maybe what’s her name can go with you. Goodbye, and good riddance.”
“Enjoy your walk home,” Pete said.
“I have arranged for another ride,” Melina said with dignity. With that, she turned and walked away, her back straight and head high.
Outside, she saw her father pull into the parking lot. He drove up to where she waited, and leaned over to unlock the passenger door. She climbed in, and they drove away.
“Wanna talk about it?” he finally asked.
“Not really. He’s a jerk, that’s all.”
“Did he try something with you?” her father asked, sounding very military.
Melina gave him a small smile.
“No, nothing like that. We just had a stupid fight and then before I knew it, we were breaking up.”
“Hmm. Sounds ugly.”
“Honey, I know you’re not in a good mood right now, but I was wondering if you could do me a favor?”
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