“Connor! Andy! You guys stay. Everybody else can go on home!” Coach Peggy waved her arm to dismiss the teens from the track.
“Hey, ” Andy objected. “That’s not fair, how come they get to go home?”
The dismissed teens laughed as they jogged passed Andy towards the gym showers. “It’s lonely at the top… ain’t it Andrew-square-pants?”
“Shut-up Jason!” Andy stuck his foot out, trying to trip him, but Jason jumped over it and kept on jogging.
Jeremiah deliberately bumped Connor. “Sorry, I can’t hang around with you boring dudes.” He put his hand to his ear. “But I hear the sweet sound of the weight bench a-call ‘in me. It’s singing, bring your bad self over here and play with me a while!”
Connor pushed him back. “Get out-a-here, man. That’s the history teacher call ‘in you. She’s singing, sign up for summer school cause you’re fail ‘in my class!”
Jeremiah laughed. “Naw, that’s the weight bench call ‘in me. Besides, I made a C- on that test.”
“How would you know?! We just took it!”
“Cause I cleaned her white board at lunch time and watched her grade it.” He grinned a triumphant grin for Connor’s benefit then jogged off to catch up with the others. “Hey wait up!”
Connor wagged his head in disbelief. “I don’t get it, man. That guy never…” Coach Peggy interrupted his thoughts.
“Okay you guys. This is championship month.” She poked Connor and Andy with her finger to redirect their attention. “We can’t afford to play around.”
“We weren’t playing around, Coach,” Andy defended. “We did the workout just like you told us.”
“Andrew Victor, you guys can’t just assume you’re gonna win! You’ve got to practice! Now, do ten yards of butt kicks, ten yards backward running and rotate ’em with forward running for another four laps.” She slapped her hand against her clipboard. “Let’s go hotshots!”
Andy and Connor hopped to it and took off.
Coach Peggy was pushing them a little harder than usual. It was their last year at Maxwell High School. She did not want to see them lose the very last race of the year. “Don’t you dare stop to talk to those girls either! Run boys, run!” she hollered after them when she noticed Daisy and Maria loitering along the sidelines of the track to talk to them.
The boys looked apologetically at the girls as they ran passed them. “Wait for us!” they hollered.
Daisy turned to Maria with a shrug. “I guess I can do my Algebra.”
Maria smelled her shirt. “Jeez, I stink. Let’s get a shower first.”
“Kay.” The girls left the boys to sweat alone and walked off to the gym for a shower.
Once showers were done, they returned to the bleachers. Daisy opened her Algebra book, hoping she could get through her math problems without Connor’s help. By the time she hit the fifth equation she realized, that hope was in vain. “Maria, can you help me?”
Daisy showed her the problem that she was working on.
“These top ones look right but not this one.” Maria erased what Daisy had written. “Do that one again.” Maria sat patiently waiting for Daisy to redo the problem. Her eyes wandered the field where the boys were exercising. Through the trees along the perimeter of the field she suddenly took a second glance. Was something moving in the trees over there? She stared quizzically into the trees across the football field. “Yea, there’s definitely a white shirt walking around back there,” Maria thought silently while Daisy trudged through her math.
“Here, I did it again. Is this right?” Daisy asked.
Maria looked over her homework again. “Yea, that looks right.” She passed Daisy’s notebook back to her. “Look,” Maria pointed towards the trees, “Do you see someone walking around back there?”
Daisy focused her eyes on the spot Maria was pointing at. “Yea, I see something moving back there, so what?”
“Let’s go check it out.”
“Not me. Connor would flip out if he saw me disappearing into the bushes!” She shook her head with a definite no way.
Maria shot her a disappointed look. “Jeez Day, sometimes you can be such a baby.”
“You can call me names all day long. I don’t care. I’m not going into the bushes.” Daisy looked back down at her homework, unconcerned.
Maria kept looking at the moving white shirt in the trees. Finally her curiosity got the better of her. “I’ll go by myself.” She marched down the bleacher steps and aimed for the trees.
Daisy watched her cross the field. Then she looked at the other end of the field where Connor was working his tail off with Andy and Coach Peggy. They had quit running. Coach Peggy was now teaching the guys some new stretches. “Must be some kind of cool down, maybe they’re almost done.” She mused as she looked up to the sky. “Oh God… what should I do?”
Anxiety crept into Daisy’s heart as she watched Maria disappear into the bushes. Memories of Mr. Adams grabbing her in Coach Peggy’s office flashed through her mind. She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head trying to make the scary thoughts leave her mind. Tapping her pencil against her notebook, anxiety mounted. “Oh bird turds,” she mumbled as she hopped down the bleacher steps two by two and jogged over to Connor.
Andy and Connor were still on the ground stretching. She knelt down between them. “Umm Connor, I don’t want to bother you but Maria and I saw somebody in the trees over there.” Daisy pointed in the direction she was meaning then looked back at him. “Maria went into the trees to see who it was.”
Connor looked across the field. “Alone?”
“Yea, she wanted me to go with her. Should I?” She was worried now. Maybe she had made the wrong choice.
“I’ll go with you.” Connor got to his feet and repeated Daisy’s story for Andy and Coach Peggy to hear.
“8… 9… 10.” Coach Peggy finished her last rep. “Well, we’re about done here anyway.” She got up from the ground and brushed herself off. “I wouldn’t be too worried about who’s in the bushes. We can practice some more tomorrow.”
Andy gave each leg a little shake which caused him to wince when he spoke. “Thanks Coach, ouch, I’ll be feeling this workout, ow, crap, for a few days.”
“Yea, my legs feel like rubber.” Connor tried walking.
“Good.” Coach Peggy smiled. “Rubber legs, that’s what I wanna hear. See you tomorrow boys.” She was going to leave but when she turned in the direction of the football field she halted. “Would you look at that!”
Andy, Connor and Daisy’s eyes searched the field, trying to figure out what Coach Peggy was referring to. All they saw was a lady walking three poodles in the center of the field.
Irritation rose in Coach Peggy’s voice, “I told that lady yesterday to take those dogs somewhere else to do their business!” She marched off in a huff to repeat her command to the lady.
“I do not want to be that lady right now.” Daisy giggled as she took off for the trees.
“Me either,” Connor and Andy chimed in as they jogged behind her. When they came to the border of the forest they slowed down to a walking pace.
“Probably just some kid wanting a smoke,” Andy mumbled unconcerned.
“Maybe.” Connor took hold of Daisy’s hand. “I’m still glad you didn’t go, Day. I would have been stressed if I couldn’t find you.” He gave her an appreciative glance.
Once they entered the forest, they could no longer see the mysterious white shirt. Maria was also nowhere to be seen. Only thick shrubbery, pine trees and a scraggly outline of a path through the jumbled brush lay before them.
“Shhh.” Andy held up his hand and they all halted. “I hear something.” After a moment he waved them forward. They followed the muffled sounds as quietly as they could. When they came to an opening in the bushes, they spied Maria talking to Alison.
“What’s she doing here?” Connor huffed. He pulled Daisy up closer to his side. Some squirrels scampered up a tree trunk, catching his eye. He peered intently into the bushes surrounding them to see who else might be lurking in the bushes.
“Just squirrels, man,” Andy whispered. They proceeded cautiously.
When Alison saw them, she froze. “Uh, I’m not here to bother Daisy. Don’t tell on me.”
“You aren’t supposed to be here,” Connor challenged.
“Oh calm down Connor. She’s been to my house twice and talked to my Dad. He thinks she’s okay, so do I,” Maria scolded.
“I don’t care if she freak ’in moves in with your family, she’s not supposed to be around Daisy. I’ll decide if she’s ‘okay’ or not,” Connor fired back.
“I just need to pass you a message then I’ll leave.” Alison’s pleading eyes had no effect on the boys.
Connor crossed his arms and stared at her. “I’m listening.”
“I’m listening,” Andy echoed.
“Well…. I’ve been trying to go through Mr. Langley to talk to you but that doesn’t seem to be working. I can’t say what I know to Mr. Langley. I’ll get in big trouble,” Alison spit out quickly.
“What’s the message?” Andy studied her carefully. The wind blew. Birds fluttered from one tree to the next overhead. He watched her jump at the sound and look up nervously. Then after a moment, she mustered her strength, refocused and spoke.
“I saw Mr. Adams, and he’s like super ticked off about everything. He knows you guys run at the boardwalk.” She rushed through her words as quick as wind.
Connor cocked his head sideways. “Soooo… you’re still seeing Mr. Adams then.” He already knew Mr. Adams was around but the fact that Alison knew it, just made him trust her even less.
“Look Connor, I’m sorry for all this trouble, really I am. But I don’t have all these good friends that you have. I don’t have a big family that loves me and watches out for me like you do. My parents do whatever Mr. Adams says without question. All I had was Gary and he’s gone now. I’m on my own here. Mr. Adams is a very scary man.”
“What about that officer. The one assigned to you. Can’t she help?” Connor queried.
“I visit her once a week. I am supposed to tell her everything, but I can’t.”
“Because, oh crap Connor don’t you understand anything! If I tell her I saw Mr. Adams, she’ll ask me where. I can see it all now,” Alison waved her hand in front of her, displaying an imaginary TV screen. “Picture it, I’m sit ‘in in her stupid little office. She asks me how my day went, and I say great and by the way I saw a fugitive criminal at a drug dealers house while I was buy ‘in refer this afternoon. How was your day?” She paused to let the sarcastic truth sink in then dropped her eyes in an effort to humble herself. “Please don’t tell.”
“I won’t tell.”
“How does he know we run at the boardwalk?” Andy asked.
“Like I said, I ran into him at a drug dealer’s house. He saw me and drilled me about where to find you guys. I insisted I didn’t know where you lived. I only knew what school you went to and that you run at the boardwalk. You guys running at the boardwalk is sort of common knowledge anyway, isn’t it?” She decided she needed to defend her actions so she continued, “I’m sorry, but you guys have to understand, that guy…” She pointed out to the wind and shook her finger. “That guy will kill me and nobody ‘ll find my body when he’s done do ‘in it either.” She stared back seriously. The whole group knew she was right.
“You have a point.” Connor had a slightly more sympathetic tone now. “But we already knew he was around.”
“Connor, I got an idea.” Andy tipped his head to the side, signaling that he wanted to talk to him alone. The two of them stepped to the side and whispered for a moment. Then they returned to the group.
“Is Mr. Adams around here anywhere?” Connor’s eyes roamed the bramble brush again.
“If Daisy runs across the field to get something for me, is she in any danger that you know of?” he asked again.
“Not that I know of.” Alison gave him a puzzled look.
“Day, do me a favor. I want you to run over to the weight room. Jeremiah and Jason are in there. Bring ’em here.” He pointed to the path, “Run girl!”
Daisy took off down the scraggly path.
Connor turned back to Alison and continued. “There’s still a restraining order in place. I don’t want you around Daisy. If you break it, I’m gonna be super ticked off.” He sighed and relaxed a bit. “But it’s obvious that you have a bigger problem than I do. When Jeremiah and Jason get here we’ll see if they can help you out.”
An uncomfortable silence fell on the group while they waited for Daisy to return.
Relief came, when they heard Jeremiah and Jason traipsing noisily through the trees with Daisy at their side.
“Hey man, are we have ‘in a party back here?” Jeremiah grinned as he knocked knuckles with Connor and Andy.
“If you wanna party, you have to go farther back in the woods, man. You can be seen from here,” Jason explained with a touch of experience.
“Jeremiah, Jason, this here is Alison McNeil,” Connor introduced them.
“Yea, we know her. She’s the girl who kicks butt for a price.” Jeremiah and Jason roared laughing at their little comment, but no one else laughed, so they calmed down and tried to be serious. “Okay, okay, what’s up? We know her, yea.”
“We want you to start hanging out with her.”
Their eyes got big. “Come again?”
“Well, Mr. Adams is bullying her and she can’t hang with Daisy and me. Maybe she could hang with you guys. And uh, if she gets into any trouble, you know, help her out,” Connor explained.
They looked Alison over curiously. “Will you hang out with us?”
“Could I?” she responded with a glimmer of hope.
Huge grins appeared on the boys faces. “Sure! We like girls hanging out with us.”
Connor and Andy tried their best not to laugh at the two desperadoes, but it was difficult.
“Listen, she just needs somebody to hang out with so she’s not alone. That’s all.” Andy threw into the conversation with a chuckle.
“Yea but she can’t go to any of her usual hangout spots. She needs to stay with you guys and go where you go. Know what I mean?” Connor advised.
The boys nodded.
“Alison, if you need something, ask these guys,” Andy added.
“Ooookay.” She looked Jeremiah and Jason over with new found hope.
Jason and Jeremiah felt her eyes on them so they made humorous body building poses for her. With big happy grins, they displayed their muscles as attractively as possible. “We work out every afternoon in the weight room. You can come along and watch us,” they announced proudly.
“Oh brother,” Andy mumbled quietly to Connor.
Alison laughed with all her might at the goofy nature of the desperadoes. Her laughter encouraged the two to continue.
Jeremiah and Jason became so outrageously silly with all their many muscle poses that the whole group burst into wild laughter. Their silliness brought a lot of relief to the stressed bunch of teens.
When the laughter died down Connor said, “Well then, I think we can go.”
“Before we go, I want to give Daisy something.” Alison held out a small gift. “I’m sorry you got hurt, happy late-Birthday. It’s for both of you.” Alison looked at her feet. It was obviously very hard for her to eat humble pie but she appeared genuine enough, so Daisy cautiously took the gift and opened it. Inside was a silver heart shaped picture frame.
“It’s uh, it’s beautiful.” She looked up shyly, puzzled by what the gift might mean.
“You can put a picture of the both of you in it, I mean, if you want.”
“Yea, I’ll do that.” With a bit of effort, Daisy managed to crack a smile in Alison’s direction.
“Thanks for introducing me to these guys.” Alison pointed towards Jeremiah and Jason.
The two boys, loving the lime light, repeated their favorite monster pose for the group and everyone laughed all over again.
“You guys are hopeless, man.” Connor chuckled at his goofy buddies. “Daisy and I have to get to work. We’re already late.” He took Daisy’s hand and they returned to the path.
“Come on Care-bears.” Andy took Maria’s hand and followed Daisy and Connor down the scraggly pine brush path.
“Thanks Andy, for giving Connor that great idea.” Maria had wanted to help Alison but did not know how. Andy’s inspirational burst was the perfect thing in her opinion.
He smiled. Kudo points with Maria were hard to come by. He always felt like a million bucks when he got them. “It’s only a good idea, if it works.”
“It’ll work, it’ll work.” She squeezed his hand and smiled at him.
“I’m glad you think so.” He squeezed her hand back.
Jeremiah and Jason positioned themselves on either side of Alison like two soldiers as they tromped through the woods behind the others. “Where would our queen like to go this evening?”
At first, Alison laughed at the comment but then sudden unwanted tears came. Frustrated, she picked up her pace. She pushed brush aside roughly, letting it swing backwards into the pair. With good natures however, the soldiers caught the brush that she let fly without any trouble.
“It’s gonna be okay. You just stick with us. If that guy Mr. Adams comes around, we will punch his lights out!” Jeremiah swung a few wild punches into the air for emphasis.
“Yea, we will punch his lights O-U-T!” Jason also swung some mighty punches through the air, adding a little demonstration of his own to the conversation.
Alison slowed down. “Okay. I can do better. I’ll try, really I will. Just go wherever you normally go, and I won’t give you a problem.” She put on her best smile for her new companions.
“We’re go ‘in back to my house to swim in the pool,” Jeremiah announced. “Does that idea worked for you?”
She looked at them quizzically, half-way not believing their kindness. “Oh, well, can you take me by my house to get my suit?”
“Hey, do you have a sister or somethin’ so we can be a fabulous four instead of a lame three?” Jason beamed a hopeful smile.
“Amy is the only sister I got. She’s a super-shy, bookworm. If she comes with us, it would be a miracle if you could get two words out of her.” Alison rolled her eyes as she described her unsocial sister.
“Don’t worry, I will do aaaaaaaaall the talking,” Jason responded cheerfully.
“Yea, Jason always talks to himself.” Jeremiah burst forth with an annoying amount of laughter.
Jason’s pride rose up. “Shut up man!” He punched Jeremiah in the arm.
Alison pulled out her cell phone and called her sister. “Amy, do you want to go swimming in my friend’s pool?… We’re coming by the house to get my suit… okay… I’ll see you in a few minutes. Bye.” Alison shot Jason a sympathetic look. “Good luck trying to get her to talk.”
Connor was carefully listening to all this conversation. “I hope this works out,” he mumbled to Andy.
“She’s used to hanging out with Gary and Glenn for crying out loud. Anybody, is a step up after those two creeps,” Andy pointed out.
“I was thinking more of Jeremiah and Jason.” Connor sighed. “I wasn’t expecting them to get so excited. I hope Alison and this sister of hers aren’t pull ‘in some kinda trick.”
“Hey, the two J’s are pretty sharp, man,” Andy pointed out with confidence. “They’ll catch it for sure, if something is not right.” Andy blew it off unconcerned. “Now let’s go hang out at the boardwalk and see if we spot Mr. Adams.”
“Not now. Day and I have to go to work.” Connor sighed again. “Did you get your research paper finished?”
“Just the draft, I still got to type it up.” Andy echoed Connor’s sigh.
“Come to my house, I’ll help you type it,” Maria offered when they reached her car in the parking lot.
“Great!” Andy perked up when he saw his newly made kudo points kicking in.
“Check ya later, man.” After proper goodbyes were said everyone got in their perspective vehicles and left.
Inside Connor and Daisy’s car, Daisy could see that Connor was tired. “Coach Peggy was really pushing you guys today, wasn’t she?” She pulled out of the parking lot and drove in the direction of their work place.
“Actually, I was enjoying Coach Peggy’s workout. Her ideas really do help me run better. I’m looking forward to the Championship too. It’s not that, it’s everything else. I have a research paper in English due. We have Alison sneaking around in the bushes, a mysterious sister and to top it all off Mr. Adams is running around free as a bird.” Connor laid his head back against his seat. “Dear God, help the cops catch Mr. Adams.”
Noticing his stress, Daisy popped a worship CD in. Connor shut his eyes to listen. In the quietness of worship, Daisy drove to the Palmer Company.
Palmer was empty by the time they got there. Connor unlocked the front door of the office building and stepped inside to look around. He was now in the habit of checking all the rooms before he left Daisy alone to vacuum.
“Well, everything looks clear. We better get to work.”
“It’s gonna be okay, right?” Daisy sought encouragement just as much as she wanted to give it to her tired best friend.
He picked up on her insecure mood, but knowing what to say was difficult for him. “Got your cell phone?”
She pulled her phone from her pocket and showed it to him. “Yep.”
He took it and checked the battery. Then he playfully held it over her head knowing full well she could not reach it. She giggled and jumped for it. Quick as a wink he moved it behind his back and she lunged towards him hoping to catch it. He grabbed her and kissed her head. Holding her there he whispered, “Day I really have no idea what’s gonna happen, but with God’s help me and you are gonna always be okay.”
She smiled. “Yea with God’s help we’re gonna be okay.”
By the end of three hours, the cleaning was done and they were on their way home for dinner and homework.