Read The Locker Online

Authors: Richie Tankersley Cusick

The Locker

The Locker

Richie Tankersley Cusick

for Libby …

still crazy

and oh so inspiring

after all these years

1

Y
ou're looking a little strange today, Marlee,” Aunt Celia said as she leaned across the front seat to shut my door. She was wearing her usual overalls with the faded red flannel shirt underneath, and her hands and cheeks were streaked with clay because she'd been up since the crack of dawn messing around with her sculptures. I'm really not sure how old Aunt Celia is—whenever I try to figure it out, I always end up somewhere between thirty and forty—but she could pass for twenty, or even nineteen, which is why everyone always wonders if she's my sister.

“What do you mean, I look strange?” I asked her, leaning back in through the open window of the van. She pursed her lips the way she always does when she's trying to avoid an issue, and then she drummed her fingers on the steering wheel.

“Your mother would—” she began, then broke off almost guiltily as I stared at her.

“My mother what?” I asked. My heart gave a painful tug, and I asked again, “Mother what?” But Aunt Celia only shook her head.

“Be careful.”

Those were the last words she said to me that morning, and if I hadn't been so nervous about starting a new school, maybe I would have listened a lot more closely to what she was trying to tell me. But instead I just stood there looking up at the huge brick building with Edison High School carved over its front door. I know I should be used to brand new situations by now with all the moving around we've done, but the truth is, I still get butterflies in my stomach and wish I could be invisible. Behind me the van was sputtering dangerously as it inched away from the curb, and on an impulse I thrust my head through the window one more time and smiled down at my little brother, who was munching on a cold waffle.

“I'll come by to get you after school,” I reminded him. “Be sure and tell your teacher who I am, so she won't think you're being kidnapped.”

“You have to know the password,” he said.

“I know it. It's Ralph.”

“If you forget it, they won't let him come home with you,” Aunt Celia teased. “Then he'll be stuck forever in Afternoon Adventures.”

Aunt Celia's always been big on afterschool programs that enhance creativity. The one at Dobkin's kindergarten was supposed to include painting, ceramics, and how to make balloon animals.

“Don't be nervous about your new school,” I added reassuringly, but Dobkin only gave me that solemn stare of his that borders on extreme annoyance.

“Are you serious?” he answered.

You have to understand about Dobkin. He doesn't have my mother's dark hair like I do, or my father's hazel eyes like I do, and the two of us aren't anything alike. When Dobkin was born, he looked so much like my maternal grandfather with his snow-white hair and huge sad eyes and really solemn face, that my parents decided to give him the honor of carrying on the family name. Unfortunately Dobkin never quite grew out of the resemblance, so even though he's all of six now, he looks like a wise old man in little kid's clothes. Even Dobkin's day-care teachers always said he had an ancient soul. But on this particular morning he was even more perceptive than usual.

“Hmmm,” he said, studying my face. “Better be careful.”

There it was again … that warning. I glanced at Aunt Celia but she only nodded, waved, and hotrodded off down the street to drop Dobkin off at his own school three blocks away.

For a long time I just stood there on the sidewalk facing Edison High and wishing I was back in Florida. Not that I'd particularly enjoyed anything there except getting a good tan … but at least we'd lived there long enough for it to seem familiar. See, that's where Dobkin and I are different. It takes me a long time to adjust to a new place, but Dobkin fits right in wherever he happens to be. And Aunt Celia never stays in one place very long.

“With a whole wonderful world out there, we have no excuse ever to be bored!” is what she's always telling us—which is why we're always packing up the very second that school lets out and moving off somewhere else. She's got it down to a system, really. She calls a family conference, and then she takes out a map of the United States, and then one of us gets to close our eyes and point our finger anywhere on the map while she moves it around to keep us from cheating. It was Aunt Celia's turn when we ended up in Florida with a cottage right on the beach. The time before that, Dobkin picked North Carolina, and we rented a real log cabin up in the mountains. So when my finger landed on Missouri this time, I knew Dobkin was disappointed because lately he's been obsessing about Texas and owning a cattle ranch.

“Why Missouri?” he'd asked me, narrowing his eyes, like I'd done it on purpose just to ruin his life.

“I don't know,” I told him. “My finger just wanted to go there.”

“Yeah, right,” Dobkin grumbled.

I couldn't really blame him for being grumpy—it couldn't have happened at a worse time. Weeks of rain in Florida had flooded the town, the school,
and
our house—so Aunt Celia had decided to make the move a little early and let us finish out the school year somewhere else.

“The Midwest is lovely!” Aunt Celia had tried to cheer Dobkin up. “A lovely place to be! We'll find one of those wonderful small towns where everyone knows everyone else, and life is simple and honest and sweet.”

Aunt Celia is one of those positive-thinking kinds of people. She's scatterbrained and creative and totally unpredictable, which makes life an exciting place to be as long as you're with her. I also think she must be very rich, since she never seems to sell any of her sculpture but can still afford to take us so many places—she's never talked about money, and I've never asked. She's taken care of us ever since our parents died in a car crash two years ago, and she's the only mother I've got, so I think she's pretty great in spite of all her weirdness.

But now here I was, glancing longingly over my shoulder, watching the van grow smaller and smaller as it went down the street and left me behind. And then I swallowed the lump in my throat and turned back to the ugly building.

“Come on,” I muttered to myself, squaring my shoulders and taking one step forward. It always makes me feel better when I talk out loud. “It's not like this is the first time you've ever had to do this.”

Yet how was I to know, standing there on the sidewalk of Edison High School, that this time was going to be different?

“Come on,” I said to myself again. “Get going.”

And I was so determined to be brave that I swung my shoulder purse out to my side and then behind me in a big wide arc without even looking first.

I felt the impact only a second before I heard the gasp.

Spinning around, I was horrified to see a guy right behind me, doubled over and holding his stomach. His books were scattered across the sidewalk, and his black hair hung down all around his face so that I couldn't actually see what he looked like. I was so shocked, all I could do was stand there and stare. After what seemed like forever, he finally straightened up and stared back at me, and when I saw the corners of his mouth twitch, I wasn't sure if he was getting ready to yell or just trying not to laugh.

“I hope you have that thing registered,” he said softly. He was wearing an overcoat way too big for him—a long flowing black thing buttoned right down over his black hightops. He was also wearing a black baseball cap, turned around backward.

“Wh-what?” I stammered.

“Lethal weapon.” He kept a straight face. “What do you have inside that thing? Rocks?”

“I'm so sorry.” Dropping my purse onto the side-walk, I went toward him, but he jumped back out of reach.

“Whoa!” He shook his head. “I can't take any more pain today, thanks very much.”

“I said I was sorry,” I babbled. “I didn't hear you coming.”

“I'm sneaky.”

He threw me a curious glance, as though he wanted to know about me but was too polite to ask, and then he shifted his attention to his books spread out all over the sidewalk. With one quick movement he squatted down and started gathering up his things.

“Here—let me help,” I offered, but he held out one hand to ward me off.

“No. That's okay. Stay where you are.”

Now that he wasn't watching me, I could see how really cute he was, how soft his hair looked as he shook it back from his wide dark eyes. He was slender and had sort of delicate features—small nose, narrow chin, and cheekbones and eyelashes I would have died for—and his body moved with this easy grace that was incredibly sexy. I wondered if he had any idea what kind of effect he must have on girls. He straightened back up and arched an eyebrow at me.

“I don't know you,” he said. His smile was kind of teasing but also kind of shy, so I smiled back.

“I'm new. This is my first day.”

He gave a slight nod. “And you live over on Walnut Street. And you just moved here.”

“How do you know where I live?” I asked, surprised.

He didn't say anything, only smiled again. Flustered, I looked away and tried to sound nonchalant.

“Well, you're right, we did just move. From Florida.”

“From Florida to
here?
” He looked from one end of the peaceful tree-lined street to the other. “Why?”

“My aunt's got a wandering spirit,” I said, trying to make a joke. “And when the mood strikes her …”

I left the sentence unfinished. His eyes were almost as black as his hair—now that I could see them in the light—and very wide set in the slender lines of his face. It made him look kind of whimsical and innocent—yet I couldn't help noticing how he never quite focused in on me when he talked.

“Look,” I said for the third time, “I'm really sorry about hitting you. I should have looked behind me.”

He didn't say a word. He lifted his hand slowly to my cheek and barely touched it with his fingertips. Startled, I felt shivers shoot straight down through my feet, rooting me to the sidewalk.

“I like your perfume,” he said as his fingers slid away from my face. “Come on. I'll show you where the office is.”

I felt like someone must feel when they've had a jolt of electricity go through them. My knees were so rubbery, I could hardly walk. I followed him up the steps and into the building, and thanked him as he dropped me off at the first door.

“It was right on my way.” He seemed embarrassed by my gratitude. “Oh … I'm Tyler.”

“Hi. Marlee Fleming.”

“See you in class, Marlee Fleming.”

He was walking backward, weaving through the flow of students hurrying off to their homerooms, yet somehow managing to avoid running into anyone. Waving, I started to turn away when suddenly he stopped and pointed a finger at me.

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