~ Spin the Bottle ~
by C. E. Gray


Standard Disclaimer: The characters mentioned in this story are mine, though they might remind you of some very talented ladies. Spin the Bottle is copyrighted C. E. Gray 2001 Also, though my dad was a mechanic, I don't know much about cars myself; if there are any mistakes in here, they're purely my own. <g> Any help would be greatly appreciated - thanks to those of you who pointed some errors in my previous stories. Constructive criticism is well received.

Violence Disclaimer: Yeah, some of that in here. Nothing real graphic, I don't think, but it does involve some not-so-nice high school kids.

Language Disclaimer: Okay, so she really tries not to curse, but it just slips out! Definitely some language in here, especially when one of the main characters gets ticked off.

Sex Disclaimer: This is alternative fiction, meaning it involves the idea of two women in love - with each other! If this bothers you, this story may not be for you, although there is absolutely nothing graphic.

Thanks: Thanks to my friends Charlene, Tina, AJ, and Amanda for the support and encouragement. You guys are great. More thanks and love to my best friend and beta, Amber, who puts up (not so patiently! <grin>) with my cliffhangers. Love you all.

Author's Note: For those of you who have noticed that I've been posting a lot of stories lately, this may be my last year to post anything for a while. If my plans for the future go through, I'll be off to college, and probably won't have a chance to post or write much. You can email me at Y02Mustang@AOL.com if you feel the need for the whole story, but I will do my best to complete the works I have in progress before that point. There are a lot of them, so be prepared! Thank you all for your support and feedback.

A clay pot sitting in the sun will always be a clay pot. It has to go through the white heat of the furnace to become porcelain.

- Mildred White Stouven


Part 1

CHAPTER ONE

This isn't the first time I've been in a situation like this - not at all. I always seem to be getting into trouble? but, it's not as if I can do anything about it! Things just happen to me, that's all. Like yesterday, when I accidentally tripped over our neighbor's cat, Mrs. Stevenson's tabby, and she got all mad at me; like it was my fault her stupid cat was under my feet in the first place!

And then there was last weekend, when I was working on the car with my dad, and he asked me to get the wrench. Well, he didn't tell me which size, so I brought over a handful of crescent wrenches, and one slipped. Luckily, it only hit my toe instead of falling on my dad's head, but he still got upset at me for being so clumsy.

But the worst yet was this morning. First, I got up late, and had to rush to get to school on time, and I was in such a hurry I forgot my history book. Then, my English teacher marked my grade down because he said I was disrupting class, but I was only trying to sharpen my pencil when I tripped! After that, my pen broke in History class, and I got ink all over my desk, and had to spend the rest of the period cleaning it up.

That's not even the half of it. During Calculus, my class right before lunch, the teacher caught me sneaking a drink of water. I was thirsty! So, after trying to defend my right to get something to drink during class before I caused a disturbance by coughing, he claimed I was being disrespectful, and sent me down to the office.

So, here I am, sitting here outside the principal's office, while all my classmates are eating lunch and having a good time. The stupid secretary wouldn't even let me up to go buy something to eat, so now I'm hungry. Plus, she said she was calling my parents, and I know that means my dad's going to be sore at me for getting in trouble?

I chuckled as my blue eyes scanned what I just wrote. Being in the principal's office, I had nothing to do, so I grabbed my pen and notebook and started writing. I always end up writing when I get restless, which is rather often. Although I normally don't write about myself, there was nothing else going on in my head.

Re-reading my lamenting, I was forced to laugh at how totally ridiculous it all sounded. Getting sent to the principal's office for coughing? Maybe my dad would see it the same way, and not get too mad at me? Well, I could hope.

"Hi," came a soft voice, and I glanced up from my notebook into the green eyes of Mary Jane Wilcox. I'd seen her in one of my classes and a few times during passing period, but never really talked to her, simply because not a lot of people had anything nice to say to me. I got picked on a lot, despite my height advantage over many of my tormentors, not to mention the fact that I was a lot stronger, even if I was a girl. I just chose not to fight back, as far as words go, and they knew it. But if one of them were to take a swing at me, I'd finish it in a heartbeat.

"Hey," I responded. When she made a glance at the chair beside me, I instantly removed my book bag from the seat, and nodded for her to sit down.

She did, and gave me a sad smile. "I think it's really awful what Mr. Newton did," she said, and I raised an eyebrow at her.

"You do?"

Mary Jane nodded, her short blonde hair bobbing with the movement of her head. "Sure. I mean, it's not like you could help it if you needed something to drink, and he doesn't let us out of class to go to the drinking fountain! I think it's a stupid rule, anyhow," she stated, and I grinned.

"Thanks," was my reply, and there was silence for a while. "How come you're not at lunch?" I asked, finally.

"I don't eat much," she answered, and I could whatever I'd done had made her a little uncomfortable, so I eased up, and didn't question her anymore. "I'm Mary Jane, by the way," she introduced, and I nodded.

"I know," I smiled. "I've seen you in class. I'm?"

"Bailey. I've seen you, too," Mary Jane laughed, apparently amused by my startled expression. Peeking over at my notebook, she glanced up at me when I unconsciously moved it out of her view.

I looked away. "I was just writing while I wait to see Mr. Heath," I shrugged.

The girl beside me smirked. "You're always writing, aren't you, Bailey?" At my surprised look, she added, "Mr. Newton always busts you for writing in your notebook when you're supposed to be taking notes in class."

"But, I do take notes!" I protested. "Good ones, too! I just write fast, and get done before a lot of other people, so I decide to write on my own until he shows the next slide. I'm paying attention," I pouted, and Mary Jane smiled, erasing my tension and hurt feelings immediately.

"Well, I've got to get to class," she said, as the bell rang, and I was sorry to see her go. She was the one person I'd talked to in a long time that hadn't mentioned anything about my being a klutz or teasing me about getting in trouble. It felt nice to have an almost-friend.

"I hope everything works out okay for you, Bailey. See you later!" Mary Jane called, as she walked down the hallway and out of my sight.

A sudden voice startled me out of my thoughts some time later. "Mr. Heath will see you, now," said the secretary, and I rose to my feet, grabbing my stuff as I entered the office. The man with a balding spot in the back of his head and a gut worthy of Santa Claus turned a grim set of gray eyes on me, silently asking me to sit in the seat in front of his desk, facing the small placard that read: Gerald Heath. I sat down, and prepared myself for whatever sentence was to come.

"Well, Miss Smith, it seems like I've been seeing a lot of you lately, doesn't it?"

I hated it when he called me 'Miss Smith', and I think he knew it. It made me think of the mother I only remembered in my dreams; she died when I was only three-years-old. It was really hard on my dad, and he raised me the best he could on his own, but I still believe that finding so many things out on my own helped me more than anything else could have.

With a heavy sigh, I responded, "Yes, sir."

"It's your junior year, Miss Smith. Let's hope you can improve by next year."

"Yes, sir." I didn't like our principal, no one did, but unlike most of my school, I was still respectful.

"Your father will be here in just a few minutes, and we can all discuss this then," he decided, and I ran my hands through my long black hair as I agreed. Checking my watch, I realized that even if my dad weren't upset with me for getting sent to the principal's office, he'd be mad for being pulled out of work. We needed the money, not that we were exactly poor, but my after-school job at the local Wal-Mart was necessary, so having to spend an hour or more with my principal discussing how I'd gotten in trouble again instead of working for pay wasn't going to make my dad very happy.

"All right, what's going on?" demanded my father, storming into the room, still wearing his gray mechanic's suit from work, his six-foot-three, 220-pound-former-high-school-football-star frame seeming to make the small office even smaller.

"Darryl, please sit down," urged Mr. Heath, and I raised an eyebrow at him, as did my dad.

"I wasn't aware that we were on a first name basis, Mr. Heath." I hid my grin when my dad took his seat beside me; he didn't like Mr. Heath any better than I did.

The principal blinked, startled, and replied, "I'm sorry, Mr. Smith, I meant no offense. I just thought that we'd been in this office often enough to?"

"Are you implying that my daughter is a troublemaker, Mr. Heath?" he growled, and I grinned as the man tried to hide behind his desk to escape my father's anger. In all actuality, I couldn't blame him, but it still struck me as funny.

"No, of course not. Now, about what happened today? Bailey deliberately disobeyed our school-wide rule of no drinks in class," he accused, and my jaw dropped.

"It was water!" I cried. "My throat was dry, and I needed a drink. When I tried to explain that to Mr. Newton, he said I was being disrespectful and talking back to him, and he sent me down here. I didn't do anything wrong, he just doesn't like me!"

"Now, Miss Smith, I'm sure Mr. Newton wouldn't arbitrarily get you in trouble."

That was all the 'Miss Smith' I could take. "Oh, what do you know?" I snarled, stood, and left the room, slamming the door behind me. Once out in the hallway, I silently waited for my dad, my arms crossed angrily across my chest.

"In trouble again, Bailey?" sneered a passing boy, and I simply glared at him.

"Screw off, Andrew," I replied, and he promptly looked in the other direction. It was passing period, so with all the people walking around, I began to feel uncomfortable; like an animal in the zoo or something. I saw Mary Jane enter her sixth period class, computers if I wasn't mistaken, and she gave me a quick smile before hurrying inside, making it just before the tardy bell rang.

"Come on, Bailey," said my dad, putting his hand on my shoulder as he urged me into my Spanish class. "You'll finish up your day here, and tomorrow you won't have Mr. Newton. Sound good?"

I nodded. "Sure, Dad, thanks. Sorry you had to leave work," I added.

He just grinned. "Don't worry about it, sweetheart. I'll be home late tonight, so go ahead and eat without me. Drive safe," he murmured, leaning down and placing a gentle kiss on my cheek, his beard scratching my chin, leaving me with a faint hint of grease and cologne as he walked down the hall. I was surprised that he wasn't upset, but assumed he must have taken all his anger out on Mr. Heath, which slightly brightened my day.

I saw Mary Jane only once more that day, and I couldn't help but notice she was crying. I frowned, and made my way to her locker, concerned. She apparently didn't know I was nearby, because she grabbed her books and hurried out the door, running down the stairs while wiping tears from her eyes. I considered calling out to her, but decided against it - I didn't really know her that well, anyhow, although I felt like I did.

"I'll just talk to her tomorrow," I sighed, climbing into my 1990 Ford Explorer. I loved the way in looked new, after the fresh coat of red paint my dad had just finished for me, and it ran well for being eleven years old.

Of course, my dad being a mechanic and having taught me everything he knew was a big help. Growing up around my father had made me able to detect many problems before most paid professionals. I think he wanted me to be a mechanic like him, but my dream was to become a writer.

Big surprise there, huh?

Pulling into my driveway, I grinned when the curtain adorning the window in our living room shifted, and a small muzzle could be seen. It belonged to our Australian Shepherd puppy; well, I guess he wasn't a quite a pup anymore - he'd just turned two years old the week before.

Pocketing my car keys, I found my house key and unlocked the front door, greeting the flying bundle of energy with a hug and a hearty scratch behind the ears. It had taken me three years of begging and pleading my case to my dad before he finally gave in, and I'd had Sodapop since he was only a month old.

"Hiya, Soda; hi, sweetheart. How was your day, big guy?" I asked, and he happily told me all about it between yips and growls of joy. He was my dog, no doubt about it. Dad like him too, of course, but didn't have the kind of relationship with him that Soda and I shared.

Sodapop was named after one of my favorite characters from S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, the first book I remembered doing a book report on in second grade. My copy of the book was in one of the three bookcases in my room, dog-eared and worn, but well loved.

Grabbing an apple from the kitchen counter, I did a quick check for messages, both of which were from people looking for money, and then sprawled out on the couch with the remote control, kicking off my shoes. Flipping past Japanese animation, three channels with commercials, and two more with lame talk shows, I finally turned on our satellite, landing on Looney Tunes. After a long day, the best way for me to relax and unwind was reclining on the sofa with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

It became a habit of mine, and had been for many years, until my dad gave me the nickname "Doc", after Bugs Bunny's infamous line. For my thirteenth birthday, he gave me a small pose-able figurine of the character, which now rode around on the rearview mirror of my car, doing very well for being four years in my clumsy possession.

Surprisingly enough, my tendency to be a klutz, or for having bad luck I suppose, did not carry over into my driving or my job. I was a very cautious and courteous driver, and standing behind a counter ringing up sales or giving change didn't allow me much room to screw up. I used to stock the shelves, but my boss very wisely decided to move me up front after about two weeks. I did fine on the cash register, and liked making small talk with the customers in my line.

Realizing it was Thursday, I settled down for about an hour of television before beginning my homework, since I only worked at Wal-Mart on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings, and most of the day every Saturday. It was scarcely three in the afternoon, and I didn't plan on having to do any more than two hours of homework, so, thankfully, I had some free time to just hang out and kick back with my dog.

Once the Acme Hour was over, I happened to glance out the window, and sighed. The sun was already beginning its descent, and with my luck, I wouldn't have time to finish my homework and still head outside for my daily jog. I tried to stay in shape, jogging and exercising often, even participating in Karate once a week, but my schoolwork was also a priority.

Finally deciding to just jog around the block a few times with Soda, and then do my homework when I got back, I grabbed Soda's leash, and he danced around expectantly. He knew what it meant when I picked up his leash.

"Come here, buddy," I urged, fastening the clip onto his collar, which also held his identification tags, the information engraved on a piece of metal in the shape of a bone. It was scratched and a little worn, but the words were readable, and he'd had it ever since he stepped foot in the house - I made sure of it. After all the work it took for me to get Soda in my life, I wasn't about to risk losing him because no one knew whom he belonged to.

"Ready to go for a run?" I asked with a grin, and he yipped his consent. Making sure I had my house key, since I'd locked myself out more than once, I locked the door behind us, and soon Soda and I were jogging down the street. I waved to a few people that I saw outside, either just arriving home from work, or busy working in the yard. Mrs. Stevenson was outside, and she gave me a hard look, not returning my wave.

It's not as if I hurt her cat, anyhow. But she still refuses to speak to me. I don't know what it is about being a klutz, but not even the adults will let me live it down. I just have bad luck, I think, and my dad says I'm too tall for the rest of my body to keep up with. That's why I keep tripping over my own feet, and he has no clue how I can manage to stay upright whenever I run or do my workout.

Some help he is.

Sweating despite the setting sun, neither Soda nor I returned until well after five, having run down to the park and back. I guessed the distance from my house to the park to be about four miles, so we'd jogged a little less than eight miles. Accounting for a potty break for Sodapop, we made good time, and I enjoyed the feeling of my blood pumping through my veins; it was invigorating.

Now that I was ready for a more intensive workout, I was forced to settle down and do my homework. All I had was a little Calculus and some English, having finished my Spanish and History during class time; it wasn't unusual for me to get done with the daily class work early, and then take that opportunity to finish the night's homework until the end of the period. It worked out well, and gave me a chance to relax a little more at home, instead of stressing out and spending the entire evening doing homework.

I was right; it didn't quite take me two hours to complete everything. I was polishing off a small pizza I'd stuck in the oven, listening to my music at a comfortable level as I wrote in my notebook, when my dad walked in the door. I glanced up to tell him there was some left over pizza still in the oven if he was hungry, and that was when I noticed the blood.

CHAPTER TWO

I was on my feet in an instant, tossing my headphones on the couch, much more concerned about my father than any song playing on the CD at the moment.

"Shit, dad, what the hell happened to you?" I cried, going to his side, prying his arm away from his shirt, which was nearly saturated with blood. I didn't curse very often, at least not around my dad, but if I was angry or worried the words tended to slip out a little easier.

"Bailey Joanne Smith! Watch your mouth, and I'm fine, just a little scratch," he lied, and I looked him over carefully, finding the cause of all the mess - a four-inch long gash along the inside of his right forearm.

I gave him "The Look", a glare I'd worked on perfecting for years; it was pretty damn intimidating if I say so myself. "Dad, that is not just a scratch. Come on; let's clean it up and then I'll see how bad it is. Now, what happened?" I asked, taking charge of the situation, as my father looked on with an approving glance in my direction.

He shrugged with his good arm as I ran water over the cut, and then gently wiped away the excess blood so I could see what I was getting myself in to, responding, "Nothing, really. Jim was handing Terry a greasy saw blade, and it slipped. I was working on the ground, and had just rolled out from under a nice '67 Mustang, when the blade fell on my arm.

"The guys wanted to take me to the hospital, but I didn't see a need, and they were already white as a sheet as it was; I figured they'd pass out if they sat in the truck with me. I took out the blade, and drove home. It didn't really start hurting until I was a few blocks away," he confessed, and winced as I held pressure on the still bleeding wound.

"Well, come on, I'm driving you to the hospital, and that's all there is to it." He looked as though he were going to protest, so I cut him off with, "Don't argue with me, dad, you need stitches and you know it. Now, let's go."

I waited anxiously in the waiting room as the doctor at the Community Hospital sewed up my dad's arm. I knew he'd be okay, but I couldn't help but feel my heart race against my ribcage, worried. I didn't have a problem with helping my dad, or seeing blood, or even sewing up wounds? I'd done it to myself often enough not to be bothered by it. But when someone you care about is in a hospital, no matter the reason, it just makes you a little shaky, you know?

"Come back in a few weeks to have them taken out, Mr. Smith," I heard the doctor instruct, and my dad lightly shook his hand, thanking him as he walked out of Room Number Two, and over to where I sat.

I stood to meet him. "I already paid, so let's go home," I urged, and he grinned, shaking his head and putting his left arm around my shoulders as we walked out the door.

"What would I do without you, Bailey?" he chuckled.

"You'll never have to know," I replied, honestly. It had been just my dad and I for as long as I could remember, and I couldn't see my life any other way. Sure, I knew I'd have to grow up and leave home sooner or later, but I always saw my dad with me in my future.

"Thank you for taking such good care of me, sweetheart," he said, quietly, when we were nearly home, after spending the earlier driving time in a comfortable silence. I knew he really appreciated that I'd taken care of things, but it was just who I was - I'd been raised in such a way that taking care of others was in my nature. It kind of startled me that he seemed surprised by my behavior.

It was my turn to grin. "Anytime, Dad. That's what I'm here for," I reminded him, reaching over to quickly pat his hand before I turned onto our street. I yawned as I pulled into the driveway, the digital clock in my Explorer displaying a quarter-past midnight. We'd had to wait a long time for anyone to see my dad, as the more serious patients were seen to first, and even after he was admitted into the room, he said it took about thirty minutes for the doctor to enter.

"Did you finish your homework?"

"Of course," I answered, laughing. "Now, what I was going to tell you when you first came home, there's pizza in the oven if you'd like some. It might be cold by now, but I'll reheat if you're hungry," I offered, but he shook his head as I unlocked the door.

"Hey, Soda," he greeted, continuing with, "No, thanks, Doc. You need to get to bed, and I'm tired. I'll see you in the morning, all right?" I nodded, and kissed his cheek before calling to my dog, changing into my boxers and a T-shirt before crawling into bed, Soda asleep at my feet.

* * * * *

I actually woke up on time the next morning, had breakfast, took Soda out for a walk, and got to school before the tardy bell rang, all without having to rush. I was stepping out of my car just as Mary Jane was entering the building, trying hard to ignore some rather nasty kids who, I could tell, were bothering her.

Jogging up beside her, I snarled at the freshmen, all of whom suddenly found their feet very intriguing as they left their former prey alone.

"You all right?" I asked, and she glanced up at me, as if noticing me there for the first time.

"Bailey! Yeah, I'm fine. Thank you, for getting rid of them," she smiled, and I just chuckled.

"Not a problem," I assured her, and walked her to her first class. "Well, I'd better run, or I'm going to be late to English. I'll see you later, okay? Maybe at lunch?"

Her green eyes suddenly seemed frightened. "Uh, no, not at lunch. Maybe during Mr. Newton's class," she corrected, and hurried inside before I had a chance to respond and tell her I wasn't expecting to be in his class today.

"Strange," I muttered, continuing on my way down the hall.

"I know you are, Bailey." A voice interrupted my thoughts, and I looked around to see Andrew Turnkey. He'd had a grudge against me ever since I beat him at basketball in front of his friends my sophomore year.

I sighed when he stepped in my way. "What do you want, Andrew?"

He grinned evilly. "Simple, Bailey. I want you to set me up with your little friend," he said, and my jaw about hit the ground. I couldn't believe my ears!

"Mary Jane? You want me to set you up on a date with Mary Jane?" I clarified, dumbfounded, and he nodded. "I am not doing you any favors, Andrew. Now, just get out of my way, before you make me late to class."

Suddenly his hands were on my shoulders, slamming me into the row of lockers behind us. "You'll do it or I'll make you sorry," he growled, and I glared at him, my eyes boring right into his heartless soul.

"Get your hands off me, Turnkey," I stated, dangerously. "Do it right now, or I'll remove them myself." I was ready to knee him in the groin when Mr. Heath happened to walk past.

"What's going on here? Miss Smith, Mr. Turnkey, what are you doing?" he demanded, and Andrew immediately backed off - one more suspension and he'd have to go before the board to explain why he shouldn't be expelled. He didn't need that, so he decided to play it safe.

"Nothing, Mr. Heath. Bailey and I were just talking, isn't that right?"

I sighed, and cut him some slack. "Yeah, just talking."

"Well, you both need to get to class instead of talk. Now, get a move on!" he ordered, and Andrew scrambled to his class as I walked slowly down the hall, the bell already ringing in my ears, Mrs. Linden hounding me for being late as soon as I walked through the door. I said nothing, and simply sat in my seat, determined not to let the past events ruin the rest of my day.

Stopping by the counseling office during our ten-minute passing period, I discovered that I was still scheduled to be in Mr. Newton's class for Calculus. Trying to talk to the secretary was no use, and my counselor had his door closed, so I was stuck.

"Damn it," I cursed, breezing past lip-locked couples and bald-headed students as I made my way to my History class. The day always seemed to go by slowly, but this day, it went by quickly until I hit Mr. Newton's class? then time decided to crawl. Any slower and I swear it'd been going backwards.

Mr. Newton didn't seem too surprised to see me, so I assumed he hadn't been informed that I was no longer supposed to be in his class. Perhaps Mr. Heath had just said it to pacify my dad, I didn't know for sure; all I knew at that moment was that I was not happy to be back in that class.

It must have shown on my face, because I caught Mary Jane giving me a curious look. She sat one row over and two seats up from me, so I quickly scribbled her a note, explaining that I was supposed to have been transferred, and handed it to her before the teacher noticed. He did not allow notes to be passed in class, and while I wasn't one to usually defy the rules, I wasn't real happy with Mr. Newton as it was, and he had his back turned to the class as he wrote on the white board, anyhow.

Reading the note quietly, Mary Jane wrote a response, and returned it to me. When I read what she had put, my day brightened immediately. I'm glad you didn't change classes, Bailey. That one little sentence totally changed my outlook. Suddenly, I didn't care if I never got switched out of Mr. Newton's Calculus class; I had a friend. A real, honest-to-goodness, true friend, who didn't want me to leave.

If I hadn't been in class, I believe I would have done a little dance on my desk. Instead, I simply smiled, an expression that grew even wider when Mary Jane returned my grin.

"Is there something you would like to share with the rest of the class, Bailey?" came the booming voice of Mr. Newton, and I shook my head.

"Not really, no," I replied, evenly.

"Then I suggest you pay attention up here." Nodding my assent, the man turned back to the board, intent on whatever example he was working? I had my homework done ahead of time, so I didn't need to worry about the class work.

Glancing over at Mary Jane, I figured she must have also been done, as she was drawing on a blank sheet of notebook paper. What it was, I couldn't quite make out, but she was cautiously watching Mr. Newton to make sure he didn't jump on her for not doing the work.

As I watched, two boys to my left snickered and pointed, subtly crumpling a piece of paper into a ball. Grinning, they threw the projectile towards the front of the room, where it bounced off Mr. Newton's bald head, causing the man to spin around. The immature seniors quickly turned angelic, oozing innocence. Mary Jane, having paid no attention whatsoever to their antics, apparently became frustrated with her picture and crumpled it up into a ball.

Mr. Newton saw this, and walked briskly over to her desk.

"I would not recommend that you throw that one, Miss Wilcox," hissed the teacher, and startled green eyes glanced up at him.

"What?" she asked, confused. "I didn't throw?"

"No one else in this room is making paper balls, Mary Jane; I am very disappointed," Mr. Newton scolded, and I watched my friend frantically try to discern what had happened. "This is not something I would have expected from you."

"That's because she didn't do it," I spoke up, and the man gave me a sidelong glance that encouraged me to continue. I knew of the seniors who had been the culprits, and also knew that if I ratted on them, I may as well prepare myself for a thirty-to-one all out brawl after school. Those kids had friends, and those friends had weapons.

Deciding I was too young to end up in the hospital, like the last guy they'd beat up, I lied, "It was me. I was trying to make it in the wastebasket, and I missed."

Yeah, nice cover up, I snorted. The wastebasket is a whole five feet away. Like he'll believe I'm that bad of a shot! Actually, I played basketball very well; I just hoped Mr. Newton didn't know that.

For a heartbeat, I didn't think he was going to buy it. His expression didn't change, and I was waiting for him to challenge the truth of my statement, when he cautioned, "I suggest you get up out of your seat and walk it to the trash can next time, Miss Smith, unless you want to see me during lunch for detention."

"Okay," I agreed, getting up and throwing the paper away, giving two chuckling seniors the evil eye as I walked back to my seat. Mary Jane mouthed a "Thank you" in my direction, and I shrugged. I wasn't about to let her take the blame for something she didn't do.

I managed to catch her when the bell rang, taking her arm gently before she could run out of class, and waited until almost everyone had gone before I spoke.

"I was, uh, just wondering if you had anything planned for lunch," I said, awkwardly. When she said she didn't, I offered, "Want to kick it with me? I mean, it'd be my treat, and we could go wherever you want."

She glanced up at me. "You have a car?" We were allowed to go off campus for our forty-minute lunch, but there wasn't anything of much substance within walking distance.

I nodded. "Yep, and I'm at your service," I grinned, doing a mock bow. "What do you say?"

"But? I?"

I tried not to show how disappointed I was; she didn't want to go, and just couldn't figure out how to tell me. "It's all right, you don't have to. I understand," I said, with a small smile, and turned to walk away, but Mary Jane stopped me.

"No, Bailey, wait!" I faced her again. "I want to go, it's just? I? I don't have any money to pay," she admitted, and looked down at the ground, ashamed.

"Mary Jane," I said softly, gently lifting her chin with my finger until our eyes met, "I said it was my treat, remember? I don't want you to pay anything. I wouldn't let you, anyway. Now, how's about we bust out of this joint?" I questioned, and she nodded, smiling as I led the way to the parking lot.

I let her choose, and she decided on a nice little Mexican restaurant not too far away, which I knew served good food at a decent price.

As we were waiting for our food to be brought to our table, I decided to strike up some small talk. At my prompting, she told me all about the other classes she had, and I found her schedule to be very similar to mine, just different class periods and one different teacher. I discovered she liked to draw and planned to go to an art school after she graduated.

"Can I see some of your work?" I asked, just as the man brought our order, and when I looked back to the young woman, she seemed to have shrunk back into her chair.

"No, I don't? they're not very good, really," she swallowed, and I immediately let it drop, sensing it was a touchy subject, for whatever reason.

Handing her the food she'd ordered, consisting of two tacos and a tostado, I soothed, "Hey, it's all right, you don't have to show me if you're not comfortable. I'm sorry I asked, if it upset you."

Mary Jane just smiled a little, becoming a bit more talkative as I mentioned Soda. It turned out she loved dogs, but couldn't have one because her dad was allergic. I invited her over to see Soda anytime she wanted, and she had politely accepted my offer, with dancing emerald eyes that told me she really appreciated it.

"Do you mind if I ask you something?" I asked, as we drove back to the school. We'd been chatting easily since our meal, and I found she was very nice to talk to, but I was still concerned about the tears I had observed the day before.

"Go ahead."

"Well, yesterday I saw you after school, and I couldn't help but notice that you were crying? I was just wondering if everything was all right, now," I said, in a voice that said she didn't have to answer if she didn't feel like it. I had learned very quickly that Mary Jane was not one to talk about her personal life, and it often frightened her when someone asked her a direct question, so I was sure to give her a way out if she felt trapped or scared.

There was no response for a while. And then: "Yeah, everything's fine. I was just upset over a stupid little grade. But, thank you." I had my doubts, but kept them to myself, and replied that I was glad to hear that.

"Thank you, Bailey, lunch was fun," she smiled, as I slipped my keys into my pocket, walking back inside the school with her.

I had to agree. "Yeah, it was. Thanks for going with me, Mary Jane. We can do it again anytime you're up to it, okay? Just let me know."

She seemed like she had something else she wanted to say, so I leaned against the wall outside the door of her computer class, waiting patiently. "I? I wanted to thank you for what you did in Mr. Newton's class. That was really nice of you, Bailey. No one's ever done something like that for me, and I?

"Well, thank you," she concluded, smiling shyly.

I shrugged, as I had done earlier. "I couldn't let Mr. Newton blame you for something you didn't do, it's not right." Glancing at my watch, I saw I had thirty seconds to get to class before the bell rang. "Look, I've got to go, but I'll see you later, okay? After school, maybe? I can give you a ride, if you'd like," but she shook her head.

"See you tomorrow, Bailey." Watching her walk away, I wondered if it was just in my head or if a look of panic had really crossed her face at my mention of seeing her after school.

Maybe she has a boyfriend, and he doesn't want her to have any friends or something, I thought, vaguely, but something told me that wasn't right. Maybe she just doesn't want to be seen with me. No, that wasn't it, either; I could feel it.

Slipping in the door just before the bell rang, all thoughts of Mary Jane unfortunately left my head as Mrs. Garcia began spouting rapid Spanish at us, trying to see what we knew and how well we were paying attention in class the day before. Luckily, I had been paying close attention, and was able to respond to most of what she said, unlike the rest of my class, who just stared dumbly at the teacher.

Breezing through that class, I walked down the halls to my last class, which happened to be an English 2 class, which I T.A.'d, meaning I was a Teacher's Aide. I'd had Mr. Renky the year before, and he was a great teacher and a funny man with lots of stories, so I offered to help him out with some of his grading and the like. I got to sit through his class and hear more stories, and he had less work to do when the day ended; it was a win-win situation.

My favorite kind.

It figures that the best class would go by the quickest, and before I knew it, the bell was ringing and sophomores were running out the door. I didn't understand why they'd be so happy to leave Mr. Renky's class, but shrugged it off to "underclassmen".

"See you Monday, Mr. Renky," I smiled, on my way out the door. He waved to me as I left, and as I walked to the student parking lot where I parked my car, I saw Mary Jane approach a guy in an old blue Honda Civic, an '87, if I wasn't mistaken. I assumed it was her ride, but seeing her duck her head when she got in, and noticing the gestures that told me the guy was yelling at her, I had to wonder who he was.

I went home for a quick bite to eat, checked on my dad (who was staying home from work, and I happened to catch him flipping through soap operas), and then got ready to go to work - it was Friday, so I had to work until ten at night. Changing into black jeans and a white T-shirt, I slipped my blue Wal-Mart vest over my head, and drove the six miles to the store.

"Hey, Jerry," I greeted the manager, my boss, as I relieved my friend Tina of her post. She got off just as I got on, and usually had a fairly upbeat attitude, so it was with surprise that I found her shoving the keys to the cash register in my hand.

"Take it, please, just take it," she whined, and I raised an eyebrow at her. She was seventeen, like me, but only had one class in the morning, since she'd tested out of any other classes the high school offered. She was my height, although a little heavier-set, with shoulder-length brown hair and hazel eyes. We'd been friends for as long as I could remember, meeting when she first moved into the neighborhood and my parents went to welcome hers to the block. Tina was one of the few people I could really call a true friend, and it wasn't unusual for us to hang out after work or on the weekend. We always did things together, and when we were little, our parents called us the "Gruesome Twosome", as we were constantly getting into trouble.

"Hard day, Tina?" I asked, and she rolled her eyes at me.

"You can say that again."

"Hard day, Tina?" I got a slap on my arm.

"Smart Alec," she accused. There was no one in line yet, so we had a few minutes to relax before the customers started coming in. For a Friday afternoon, I was surprised that it wasn't jam-packed with anxious people. Relieved, but surprised, nonetheless.

"I have never been so glad to see you," she continued, and I smiled, resting my forearm on her shoulder.

"Aw, I missed you, too," I grinned, laughing. "Really, though, what happened?"

She shrugged. "Just some people who decided it would be fun to annoy the cashier," she explained. "I had somebody accuse me of trying to cheat them out of money today! They made such a scene, Jerry had to come straighten it out, and it turned out he gave them a free bag of cookies just so they'd shut up and leave," she sighed.

I sympathized. "Sounds like a rough time," I agreed, patting her back as I saw some people coming. "I'm probably going to be busy with my dad this weekend, but give me a call if you can, all right?" She nodded, bid me good luck, and happily walked out the door.

Tina was right - people had to be out to get the cashiers. Luckily, a few people I knew also came through my line, so I was able to chat nicely with them, and that kind of balanced out my day.

"Have a nice night, Mrs. Stevenson!" I called, glad to have solved the little crisis over her precious tabby. We'd talked as I'd rung up her purchases, and she finally understood that I didn't intentionally hurt her cat, so we were on much better terms.

Jumping when I felt a hand on my shoulder, I turned to see Jerry standing behind me, a smile on his face.

"Damn, Jerry, give a girl a heart attack, why don't you?" I scolded, and he laughed good-naturedly.

"Sorry, Bailey," he said, gray eyes twinkling. "It's ten, why don't you head on home? I'll take over until Patrick comes in. I'll see you tomorrow at eight, okay?"

I grinned. "Thanks, Jer. See you later," I called, my vest off before I was even in the parking lot. As I walked through the dimly lit lot, I wondered, not for the first time, why I chose to park all the way at the other end. I told myself when I did it that it was for the exercise, but it seemed I always forgot just how dark it got, so that when it came time for me to go home, I wished my car were closer.

"Oh, well," I sighed, glancing upwards as one of the street lamps flickered and went out. "Damn." Not that I was afraid of the dark, mind you, I just kept up on the news, and there had been stories of a guy lurking in local department store parking lots after dark, waiting for female customers or employees to walk out alone. Then, he'd attack them, rape them, and then leave their dead body in a ditch somewhere. Call me crazy, but I didn't feel like being number seven on his count.

So, when I felt someone grab my shoulder, I immediately spun around and kicked them in the side, ready to fight for my life.

To my horror it was not the guy from the news, it was my boss.

"Just wanted to tell you left your house keys on the counter," he coughed out, and I felt horrible as I waited for him to regain his breath.

"Christ, Jerry, I'm sorry," I said, honestly. "I thought you were that stalker guy from the news that everyone's been talking about. You scared the living crap out of me!"

He smiled. "I was just checking your reflexes. Good girl," he praised, chuckling as he told me to have a good night, and then walked back inside the store. Shaking my head at my overreaction, I unlocked my car and drove home, still unable to get the thought of the stalker out of my head.

CHAPTER THREE

My work on Saturday went surprisingly fast, and before I knew it, it was three in the afternoon. Almost time for me to go home! Plus, I was supposed to get paid after my shift, so that was an added bonus. I had worked about three hours overtime during the week, and was looking forward to a small increase in my pay.

All thoughts of money, however, immediately left my head as I saw the next customer in my line.

"Mary Jane?" I exclaimed, as I scanned the packages she'd lain on the belt. "Hey, how are you doing?"

She seemed reluctant to meet my eyes. "Good, thank you," she said, quietly.

Deciding that the middle of a crowded store was not the time to push, although I really felt something was very wrong, I smiled instead and said, "Your total comes to $8.76."

Startled, she glanced up at me, and I noticed a nice shiner on her right eye, which she had apparently tried to cover up with make-up. Pretending not to notice for the time, I swallowed my anger, and listened to what she was saying.

"I? I only have seven dollars," she admitted, and then glanced at her meager purchases, trying to decide what to take back so she'd be able to afford it. She'd only bought three items: a package of drawing paper, some art pens, and one charcoal pencil.

I grinned, and winked at her, pulling a few dollars out of my pocket, placing them in the drawer along with her money. "Well, what do you know? Out of nine dollars, that's twenty-four cents change," I declared, handing her the change, and she stared at me for a moment, before smiling a little. She may not have shown it very much on the outside, but her emerald eyes held all the joy in the world.

"Thank you," she whispered, stuffing the coins in her pocket and hurrying out the door. Unable to dwell on the incident any longer, I was forced to turn to my other customers, who gave me strange looks, after realizing what I'd done.

I said nothing to them, but wondered if they knew that I would have done that for anyone. A difference of less than two dollars was no reason to tell someone they couldn't buy something, so I saw no reason to make Mary Jane return an item just because she didn't have the exact amount. Remember what I said about giving and kindness being in my genes? I really meant it; it was almost natural for me to help someone out, if it was in my power.

And, really, I'm not being conceited, here. Just honest.

Driving home after work, paycheck on the seat beside me, the only thing I could think about was Mary Jane. More specifically, who did I get to beat the crap out of for giving her that black eye? I had no idea where the protective urge came from, but I wasn't about to try to stop it - it felt too right, almost like I was supposed to watch over the young woman.

Yeah, yeah, I still don't understand it. Don't ask.

Anyhow, I think my dad must have noticed my sullen mood, because he commented on it at dinner that night.

"Bailey, are you okay?" he asked, and I glanced up from my plate.

"Huh?"

"Come on, Doc, you've been acting strangely ever since you got home," he explained, and I had to admit that I hadn't even realized it. "Did something happen at work?"

I sighed. "Kind of," I confessed, never being one to hold anything back from my dad if he asked. "I saw a friend of mine there, and she had a black eye. I haven't known her that long, but I guess I'm just upset that somebody hit her." I took a deep breath, and continued, lowly, "And I wasn't there to stop it."

My dad gave me a hard look. "Bailey, I'm sure if she needs your help, she'll come to you. Everything will work out," he said, trying to make me feel better. It didn't work, but I smiled a little anyway.

"Thanks, dad," I said, and finished my meal, helping him clean the table before insisting that he sit on the couch so I could check his arm. It seemed to be healing well, and I was pleased, telling him to make sure he didn't go back into work until the stitches were out and to keep it clean at all times.

He chuckled. "Yes, doctor," he smirked, and I gave him a mock glare.

"That's Doc, to you," I informed him, kissing his cheek before relaxing on the couch, patting Soda gently on the head. I wasn't even watching the TV, I was too absorbed in my own thoughts, and the stroking of my dog's fur was obviously done in a distracted manner, since I didn't even notice when he got up to get something to eat and I was left petting thin air.

My dad got up and put his hand on my shoulder, startling me. "Bailey, it's ten o'clock. We both need to get to bed," he urged, and I agreed, stretching as my back bluntly told me I'd been lying in an uncomfortable position for longer than I thought.

"Okay. Good night, dad," I said, stumbling to my bedroom, falling onto my bed, still fully clothed, asleep in minutes. My dreams were riddled with images of a faceless stalker and Mary Jane being beaten by the unknown man in the blue Honda? needless to say, I did not have a very good night's sleep.

* * * * *

Tina called around nine the next morning, and wanted to see if I could go to the movies with her. Checking in with my dad, he said he'd need my help in the garage, since I wasn't allowing him to use his injured arm.

"Sorry, Tina," I sighed, and my friend shrugged.

"That's all right, Bailey. I'll catch you at work tomorrow, yeah?"

"Yeah. Later," I said, and we both hung up. Telling Soda to stay in the house, since Dad didn't like it when he messed around with the grease in the garage, I started in that direction wearing an old pair of jeans and a T-shirt already stained with oil. My black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, to keep it out of my face, and I had a red mechanic's rag stuffed in my back pocket. I knew I'd be getting dirty, and dressed accordingly.

"When does the guy want this back?" I asked, glancing at the second car in our garage; I parked mine in the driveway most of the time.

The first one was my dad's, a 1993 Toyota Tundra pickup truck, silver with a blue patch on the side that advertised his business - he didn't own his own repair shop, but often did jobs on the side for extra income. The second one was the one we were working on, an old '67 Pontiac Firebird, bright red with black leather interior and a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror? never question the taste of a paying customer, no matter how strange or eccentric.

"I told him I'd have it done by Monday, since he dropped it off on Friday," he explained, going through his toolbox to find what we'd need. Handing the tools to me as he pulled them out, I set them on the ground by the Pontiac, which was up on jacks. Apparently, the owner wanted the brakes replaced and the transmission checked. My dad had flushed out the tranny while I was at work yesterday, managing to do it successfully with little use of his right hand, so that left me to replace the brakes.

What fun.

"Great," I sighed, kneeling down to remove the tires, and then slithering under the vehicle to get a better look at everything. It wasn't entirely necessary that I be on my back, but since our jacks didn't go as high as the ones in professional shops, I couldn't exactly stay on my knees and have a good view of the underneath of the car.

"My God, no wonder he's been complaining!" I exclaimed, taking a good look at the cables and pads that made up the brake system. "I don't think these brakes have been seen since this car first came off the lot. The pads are worn down to nothing; I'd be surprised if the bearings aren't in the same condition."

It took me most of the day to get the car fully operational again, and I did pretty well in the safety department. I only gave my dad a heart attack once, when my arm hit the jack, and it rocked back and forth for a few seconds, the car threatening to come down on top of me... luckily, the jack held, and I was safe. I think that was the only time my clumsiness showed up that day, which was good, considering the amount of work I ended up doing. I not only had to replace the brakes, but I took the liberty of rotating the guys' tires and making sure the bearings were tight. Having to replace a couple of the said parts, I was shocked that the friction of a loose bearing hadn't caused a fire - I'd seen it happen before. The owner of the Pontiac was a very lucky idiot.

"Children and fools, I tell you," I muttered, wiping off my hands with the rag once I was done. My dad came in, carrying a glass of ice water. "Thanks," I said, wiping the sweat from my eyes with the back of my hand, smearing grease across my forehead, judging by the laugh that my dad failed to hold back.

"Quiet, you," I scowled, downing my drink in four swallows. I was hot, sweaty, tired, and my back was killing me. "We have got to get a cart before I lay down and can't get up again," I noted, and my dad agreed - having to get down on the concrete was hard on him, too.

Walking in the house, I dropped to my knees in the living room, holding my arms open and throwing my head back. "I worship the air conditioning God," I proclaimed, as my dad laughed at my antics. Feeling the cool air for a few minutes, I struggled to my feet, and announced that I was going to take a shower.

"I was going to suggest that," Darryl called, waving his hand in front of his nose. "It was either you take a shower or I move out."

"Very funny, dad. Laugh it up," I said, chuckling as I walked into the bathroom and closed the door behind me. As soon as I saw my reflection, I burst out laughing. I had grease on my forehead, my chin, and even in my hair! Not to mention my arms and clothes, which were completely black? the only thing that allowed me to recognize myself were my blue eyes. My dad always said they stood out, and were one of my best features. It was a good thing I wasn't too attached to the clothes I was wearing, since the idea of having to burn them had passed through my mind more than once.

Stepping into the shower once I'd thrown my dirty clothes in the laundry hamper, I rinsed off quickly, scrubbing the grease out of my hair. Despite the warm weather, the hot water felt good on my sore back, and I was tempted to just fall asleep in there, until my nose told me that my dad was making spaghetti, as well as his infamous homemade spaghetti sauce from scratch.

The water was off in a heartbeat, and I dried off as quickly as I could, wrapping the towel around my body as I made my way into my bedroom. I threw on a pair of boxers and a T-shirt, my sleepwear, enveloped my hair up into the towel so it could dry naturally as I ate, and headed for the kitchen.

"Smells good," I praised, peeking in the pot to see homemade sauce simmering. "Mm?" Deciding it smelled good enough to taste, I went to dip a finger in the thick red sauce, which had tomatoes and mushrooms in it, but never got the chance.

My hand was slapped away before I could sneak a taste. "Bailey! Why don't you go set the table instead of bothering your old man?" my dad suggested, and I raised an eyebrow at his description of himself as I reached for the plates.

"Old man? Does that mean I can call you that?" I questioned, interested.

"Not on your life, young lady," was the expected reply, and I laughed. "The day you call me old man is the day I hit sixty."

"Oh, so not too far away, huh?" I joked, earning a fierce slap on my rear end, the thin material of my shorts doing absolutely nothing to protect the said area. "Hey!" I exclaimed, rubbing my now sore posterior. "Cheap shot!" In reality, my dad was not very old, having just celebrated his fortieth birthday a few months before; or, as he liked to call it, "the twentieth anniversary of his twentieth birthday".

I wasn't buying the innocent look he was now trying to pass off as genuine.

"Just be lucky you're injured," I growled, retrieving the forks in cautious silence, keeping a close eye on my dad. With no more attacks on my behind, it was a very pleasant evening, and an excellent meal. My dad was a great cook, and while I was almost as good as he, I didn't do it very often. Oh, sure, every once in a while I'd surprise him by preparing a meal worthy of some fancy restaurant, but that was usually only on special occasions, like his birthday or Father's Day. Other than that, I pretty much stuck to pizza or take-out, rather than using my culinary skills for everyday meals.

He didn't seem to mind doing most of the cooking, so it worked out well.

I stayed up for a while afterwards, watching some movie on TV, which turned out to be a mini-series. I still firmly believe that the worst three words in the entire world have to be "To Be Continued". Snarling in frustration at the screen, I changed channels, before my dad spoke up.

"Bailey, it's late, and you've got school tomorrow," he reminded, and I sighed, giving him the remote in case he decided to watch TV after I left.

"I know. Good night," I said, kissing his cheek before calling to Soda and heading to bed. I had a relatively peaceful sleep, for once looking forward to school, and even Mr. Newton's class, because it meant I had a chance to talk to Mary Jane. And maybe even find out who hit her? whoever it was, they were in big trouble when I found them.

That much was a given.

* * * * *

I managed to make it to school on time the next morning, but my classes were taking forever! It felt as though Mr. Timmens, my History teacher, had been at the board for hours, lecturing to us about one thing or another that I had tuned out long ago. He was always throwing in stories that I swear had no correlation whatsoever to the lesson, so I'd learned to avoid paying attention during those parts. The textbook taught me everything I needed to know to get an A, and that was all that mattered.

Once I walked into Calculus, however, and saw Mary Jane sitting in her seat, very focused on whatever drawing she was working on, time seemed to fly. Figures, the one class that I'd want to last all day went by the quickest. Due to Mr. Newton's annoying habit of glancing over his shoulder to my desk, a habit that he had apparently just picked up over the weekend, I was unable to pass any notes to Mary Jane.

Waiting outside of class after the bell rang, as I had on Friday, I once again offered to take Mary Jane out to lunch.

This time, she refused, staring at the ground as she said, "I'm sorry, Bailey, but I? I can't go with you anymore."

I frowned. "What do you mean, you can't?" I questioned, firmly. Her only response was to hang her head even further. "Mary Jane, if you don't want to go, please just say so. I'll understand, but I don't like being lied to."

"I? I'm sorry, I really am, but I can't. I should go? he'll be looking." She muttered the last part under her breath, and it was not meant for me to hear I'm sure, but I caught it.

I took her arm before she could leave. "Who? Who, Mary Jane? Who will be looking for you?" I asked, and then took a guess. "That guy that was in the car with you after school on Friday?"

She glanced up at me, her startled look telling me I'd guessed correctly. Her black eye was still visible, but it seemed to be fading a little, though that didn't mean a thing to me or my anger.

"How did??"

"I guessed," I stated. "Now, please, Mary Jane, tell me what's going on. Why is that guy looking for you? Who is he? Who hit you?" I fired out my questions in rapid succession, stupidly forgetting what I had discovered on Friday - Mary Jane didn't like to feel trapped. It scared her, and judging by the look in her emerald eyes, she was scared now. Terrified, even.

Damn it. Smooth, Bailey, real smooth, I kicked myself. Time to fix it.

"Look, I'm sorry, Mary Jane," I said, gently. "You don't have to answer if you're not comfortable. I'm just worried, okay? If there's anyway I can do anything to help, please let me know."

There was silence for a while, and then I heard Mary Jane whisper, "My brother."

"What?" I asked, not sure I'd heard correctly, nor what she was referring to.

"My brother on all accounts," she clarified, clearing her throat, still not meeting my gaze. "He drives me home, and? and he wants to make sure that he knows where I am, so he wants to be able to see me outside when he drives by. When I'm not he? he gets upset," my friend finished, but I wasn't stupid - I read between the lines with ease.

"Did you get in trouble on Friday, for going out to lunch with me?" I asked, and she took a deep breath, before nodding. I ran my hand through my hair, and sighed heavily. "Christ, I'm sorry, Mary Jane. I'm really sorry," I repeated, and I was. I felt terrible that the small blonde before me had been beaten because I'd asked her to share a meal with me. It was a very troubling thought.

She looked at her watch. "I? I should go," she said, again. "He'll be by soon."

"Would it be okay if I joined you? Do you think you'd get in trouble if I sat beside you?" I questioned, and she considered my request for a moment.

"I don't know? no one's ever really sat beside me before," she admitted, and I smiled a little as I walked with her down the hall, managing to bump into the door that led to the lunch area as I passed through, my clumsiness rearing its ugly head at the most inopportune of times.

"Well, I'd like to give it a shot, if you're all right with it," I said, trying to recover from my bruised ego. I was pleasantly surprised when Mary Jane didn't laugh - I know she noticed, but she didn't make any attempt at poking fun at me. I appreciated it.

The blonde nodded. "I'd like to have someone to talk to," she confessed, a small smile on her face. I let her lead the way, and she walked directly to a tree at the far end of the outside lunch tables, sitting beneath it as, I assumed, she did everyday. There weren't many other people around, but I took a seat next to her, and watched as she pulled an apple out of her backpack.

"Want half?" she offered, seeing my look of desire as I stared at the fruit, realizing I hadn't brought anything to eat. I'd been hoping to go out for food again and so only had my water bottle in my bag, but my stomach was grumbling loud enough to make me wonder if she could hear it.

I nodded, amending my response with, "But, how?"

She grinned a little, and gripped the red apple with both hands, the fingers of her left hand touching the stem and the fingers of her right touching the bottom. Twisting her wrists, I watched in amazement as the apple split into two near-equal halves from the core.

"Wow." Mary Jane blushed a little, and handed me the bigger half, already munching away on her portion. The apple was ripe and juicy, and very delicious, but I kept expecting to see her pull out a sandwich or something else for her to eat. That was when I remembered she'd told me on Friday she didn't eat much, and that she had just shared half of her only food with me. I felt honored and selfish at the same time.

"Thank you," I said, sincerely. There was silence for a few minutes, and I was at a loss for what to say. I wanted to ask her more about her brother, like when I could meet him to beat the tar out of him, but didn't want to upset her by bringing up the topic. I didn't want to push any more than I already had - at least, not until we were much better friends. And I so very hoped that day would come, and that our friendship would get the chance to grow.

I decided to play it safe for the time being. "So, what did you think of Mr. Newton's little speech today?" I asked, referring to the ten minutes our teacher had taken to tell us more than we ever wanted to know about how calculus is related to the radio.

Mary Jane laughed. "I couldn't tell you if I tried - I was too focused on my drawing," she admitted, and I chuckled.

"Yeah, I noticed." I froze at my slip. "I was rather involved in my notebook, though, and didn't pay a whole lot of attention to much of anything he was saying," I continued, a lame attempt at a cover. If she noticed, she didn't mention it, and I let out the gulp of air I'd taken when my tongue had managed to say something before my brain could stop it.

"Hey, how would you like to come over Thursday to see Soda? I'd invite you before then, but I've got to work today and Wednesday, and Tuesday I have Karate practice for a few hours after school," I explained, having absolutely no clue why I was talking so much. "You could catch a ride with me, and I'd drive you home whenever you wanted. What do you think?"

There was no answer, as the small blonde suddenly became rigid and swallowed hard as she tried to be interested in her hands, which were twirling idly in her lap. Glancing around, I observed an old blue Honda driving around the block, circling twice before speeding down the road, her brother apparently satisfied by what he'd seen.

"Mary Jane? Are you all right?" I asked, concerned, and she blinked, coming back from wherever her mind had taken her.

"What? Oh, yes, sorry," she rambled. "I? I guess it just scares me when he drives by," the young woman admitted, quietly, almost as if she was ashamed to tell me she was frightened.

"I understand," I said, gently, and gave her a moment to collect herself. "What do you think about Thursday? Would you be able to make it?"

She thought it over for a minute, before nodding. "I think I might be able to find some way to go," she replied, and I smiled until I thought my face would break.

"Great!" The bell rang, signaling the end of lunch, and I growled. Had forty minutes really gone by so quickly? It was unbelievable. "Well, I guess we'd better get to class. Thanks for letting me eat lunch with you today, Mary Jane," I said, and she looked surprised that I was thanking her.

"Thank you for joining me," she countered, with a smile, and I walked her to her next class: computers. She waved slightly as I walked down the hall to my Spanish class and I glanced back to give her a small grin before I turned the corner. Sinking into my desk, I just knew that the class was going to take forever. After all, now I had something to look forward to.

But, good things come to those who wait, right?

CHAPTER FOUR

I was right. It seemed like three weeks until Thursday finally arrived instead of three days, and even then, the day dragged by slowly. Seconds seemed like minutes, minutes like hours, hours like? well, you get the idea.

To say the least, I couldn't have been happier when the bell rang at the end of the day. For once in my life, I was glad to leave Mr. Renky's class - not because of Mr. Renky, of course, but because I was expecting to find a small blonde waiting for me outside the building.

Mary Jane and I had spent every lunch together from Monday on, sitting beneath the oak tree. I had showed a little bit of intelligence, and began bringing my own lunch, as well as a sandwich or apple for Mary Jane. All she ever brought was one apple, and I made sure she knew it was just fine for her to take half of my sandwich or all of my apple, because I didn't eat it anyway, and it wasn't good for it to go to waste.

Okay, so I could have eaten it if I had to. But that's not the point. The point is that I had realized that my friend rarely brought enough food for herself, and from the small clues I'd been able to put together, she didn't have a lot of food at home, either. Well, I wasn't about to let her go hungry, so I offered her some of what I had, and I usually just happened to bring two sandwiches.

If she was wise to my little scheme, she didn't say anything.

I was glad to find that by Thursday's lunch she seemed to have loosened up a little, and was taking a step forward in the social department, occasionally initiating a topic of discussion between us. I had to watch my often short-fuse temper around her, as well as the level of my voice, because whenever I raised my voice she took two steps back and retreated back into that shell of hers. By that reaction, I deduced that she got yelled at a lot at home, as well as her brother's abuse, and was extra careful to convey the message that she was safe with me, and that I would never hurt her.

Pleased to see her standing at the base of the steps, I grinned, and gestured for her to walk beside me as we wandered out to the student parking lot.

"You can put your stuff in the back seat, if you'd like," I said, folding the passenger seat down so she could do just that. Climbing into the driver's seat, I buckled my seat belt, and waited until she'd also fastened hers before pulling out of the parking space.

"I never go anywhere unless everyone in the car is buckled up," I explained, and she nodded.

"That's good," she agreed, lightly. "Although you're a safe driver."

I grinned. "Thanks, but it's not me I have to worry about, it's all the other crazy people out there on the road," I said, earning another nod from my passenger, this one accompanied by a slight smile.

"Well, this is it," I said, as we rounded the corner to my house. It wasn't really much, being a one-story house with only two bedrooms and one bath, but the yard was kept clean and neat, and the large tree out front helped differentiate it from the others on the block. The house was about twenty years old, my parents having bought it just after they got married, but my dad and I had spent a weekend two years ago repainting it, so it looked a lot newer. I liked the beige color with forest green trim, myself.

"It looks very nice," the blonde commented, as I pulled into the drive.

"Come on in, and I'll give you a tour of the inside," I offered, and she agreed, opting to leave her stuff in the back of my car. Whether or not that meant she was planning on staying for a while I couldn't tell, but I hoped she'd take the chance to relax for a while, away from her brother's strict surveillance.

Unlocking the front door, I was about to warn her about Soda, who had a tendency to jump all over when he was excited, but also to growl at strangers, but it was too late. Soda had already spotted us, and I inwardly cringed as I expected him to bare his teeth and scare Mary Jane.

I was floored. Instead of acting all wound up, or extremely cautious, he immediately went up to her, sniffed her hand, and licked her fingers, whining softly. When the small blonde smiled and patted his head, kneeling down to scratch his ears and under his chin, I figured he'd bowl her over in a heartbeat, like he did me. But, I was wrong again. Soda gently nudged her arm, in appreciation of all the attention he was receiving, but was sure to be very careful around my friend.

Who are you and what have you done with my dog? I thought, incredulously. This was not like Soda at all. Granted, I was tickled pink that the two got along, but I couldn't figure out what had caused the sudden change. Perhaps Soda sensed something about Mary Jane, and realized she seemed to be easily frightened, or maybe he knew she liked dogs? whatever it was, I wasn't about to dispute it.

"This must be Soda," drifted to my ears, and I was pulled out of my thoughts.

I nodded. "Yep, that's my guy. How was your day, Soda?" I questioned, and he bounded over to me, instantly jumping up like he normally did. I was still confused by his behavior, but let it go without too much thought; he liked Mary Jane, and that's all that really mattered.

"Okay, time for the nickel tour," I announced. "This is the living room, the hall, my dad's bedroom is the first door on the left, mine is the second. The bathroom is the only door on the right," I explained, and we headed back down the hall towards the living room again. "This is the kitchen and dining room, past that door is the garage."

Since we were standing in the kitchen, I asked Mary Jane, "Would you like something to drink? We've got milk, juice, and water. I'm afraid we don't drink soda very often."

"Water would be fine," she replied, and I handed her a glass of ice water a few moments later, happening to glance down and see a note from my dad. He'd left about thirty minutes ago, judging by the time, and said he wouldn't be back for a couple hours - he had to get some parts for his work, and then stop and pick up some groceries.

"Well, looks like you won't be able to meet my dad," I sighed, and tapped the paper. "He had to go pick up some supplies. You'll have to come back over again sometime, I'm sure he'd like to meet you," I smiled, and the blonde nodded, sipping her drink as I shuffled my feet, wishing I had something entertaining we could do.

Her green eyes landed on our computer in the living room. "You have a computer?" she asked, and I nodded.

"Yeah, but it's busted right now," I explained. "I usually only use it for the word processing program or Quicken, and my dad doesn't even touch it at all."

She glanced up at me, hopeful. "Mind if I take a look at it?"

I shook my head. "Knock yourself out," I encouraged, and walked with her to the computer desk, watching as she booted it up, pulling a chair up beside her. My friend seemed extremely at ease in front of the screen and keyboard, her emerald orbs taking in all the information that was displayed.

"Oh, it's not busted," she grinned. "The startup commands were edited somehow. See?" she said, trying to point out to me what the problem was, but I was lost. "I can fix it, if you'd like."

"Really? Sure!" Going back to what I recognized as the DOS screen, her fingers flew across the keyboard, and soon she was hitting enter as she went through the startup process step-be-step.

"Here's the problem? now we just? there we go!" she exclaimed, restarting the computer when she was finished. I watched in awe as it loaded flawlessly, no longer giving me the error message.

"Wow. Maybe I should take the computer class," I noted, and she shook her head.

"You'd only learn how to type, really," she cautioned. "I more or less TA that class, and help fix the computers when they're down. I'm in the middle of rebuilding one of the systems right now, actually."

I was very impressed. "That's amazing," I sighed. "How'd you learn how to do all this stuff, if not in class?"

She fell silent for a moment, as if trying to figure out how to respond, and I was afraid I had somehow asked the wrong question and pushed too far. "We have one at home, and I'm always the one who fixes it? there's not much else for me to do, so I'm working on it all the time," she replied, at last, and I decided it would be best to get away from the topic of 'home' for a while.

"Want to come see what I do for fun?" I requested, and she nodded, getting to her feet and following me to the garage. Flipping the light on, I showed her the single vehicle - my dad's was out, of course, but the customer's 1973 Jeep Wrangler was up on blocks, waiting to be returned to its owner on Saturday. There was grease and tools everywhere, and it smelled of oil, but it was a garage, after all.

"This is what I usually end up doing on the weekends," I explained, making a sweeping motion with my arm, as if to encompass the entire room. "I help my dad with the cars; he's a mechanic."

She looked at the tools and parts with wide eyes. "Seems like a lot of work," she commented, and I nodded.

"Yeah, but I actually enjoy it." I really did; if I was having a rough day, often the best thing I could do was either go for a run with my dog or climb underneath an old car and tinker around for a bit. I had to concentrate solely on what I was seeing, and what needed to be repaired, so in a way, it was relaxing.

"How do you know what to do?"

I shrugged. "My dad taught me? it's just a matter of knowing the basics, and then applying it to whatever year and make each car is, since each is a little different. Then you just have to know what each part does and how it should sound, so when something goes wrong, it's pretty simple to just listen to it and figure out what it could be," I explained, lightly. It really sounded easy to me, but the looks Mary Jane was giving me told me she didn't find it as effortless. She knew the computer and I knew cars - to each their own, I figure.

"Hey, you stick to computers and I'll stick with cars. Sound like a deal?"

Mary Jane smiled. "Sure," she agreed, and I turned off the light, closing the door behind us as we headed into the living room.

Mary Jane ended up staying about two hours, and we had fun just kicking back on the couch, watching a movie that she'd picked out. The small blonde had a silly grin plastered on her face the entire time, brought on by the dog that refused to remove his head from her lap.

"You're welcome to come over anytime," I said, as we climbed back into my car. "Just say the word, and you've got a ride, okay?"

She smiled warmly. "Thanks, Bailey. Today was fun." That little statement made me happy - I was glad I'd been able to give her a place where she could relax and have a good time, without having to worry about whatever went on at her home.

"I'll walk you to the door," I offered, already out before she could protest. Helping her carry her bags, I waited patiently as seemed to be gathering her courage to open the door.

Suddenly, before she could reach for the knob, the door was opened from the inside, and a large man in his mid-twenties stood before us, greasy black hair and all. He was probably three inches shorter than me, with hard eyes of steel and a sneer permanently etched on his face, I'd bet.

"Where the hell have you been?" he demanded, speaking to Mary Jane.

The girl blushed a little, and tried to make herself smaller, apparently embarrassed that this was happening in front of me. I wasn't too thrilled about it either, trust me.

"I told you I was going over to a friend's house today," she reminded, her voice so quiet I almost couldn't tell she'd said anything.

"Dinner was an hour ago. When you didn't show, I gave what was left to the dog," he spat, and I saw Mary Jane nod, accepting this as if it was normal.

Wait a minute; didn't Mary Jane say her dad was allergic? I asked myself, confused. I suddenly realized there were probably a lot of things that Mary Jane hadn't been exactly truthful to me about, but with a brother like this, I really couldn't blame her. I'd make up something, too, if this was what telling the truth meant.

"Get your ass in here and clean up this mess," he growled, grabbing her by the back of the neck and dragging her in the house, her green eyes locking with mine and pleading for me not to make anything of what was going on.

"Mary Jane!" I called, quickly. "Here's your stuff," I said, waiting for her to take her backpack and books. She just swallowed hard and bowed her head, refusing to move towards the door. Instead, the guy I assumed was her brother took them from me, grabbing them from my hands, slamming the door in my face.

"Well, that was interesting," I muttered under my breath, heading back to my Explorer after a minute. All I wanted to do was bust down the door and beat the living crap out of the little prick that had hurt Mary Jane, but then I recalled the look in her eyes when she'd met my gaze - something in those emerald orbs told me that wasn't the time.

I only hoped Mary Jane would come to me when it was time.

* * * * *

Friday had never sucked so bad. Usually, it's a pretty good day, what with it being the end of the week and all, but this time, I hated it. Mary Jane wasn't in school, so I didn't see her all day, and all I could think was that her brother had beaten her so badly she couldn't come. That wasn't a pleasant thought, and I spent the entire day worrying about her, which meant I was distracted and my clumsiness showed up ten-fold. I don't know how many times my teachers or my boss told me to "get on the ball" or something like that.

By the time I stumbled home at ten-fifteen, I felt horrible. What if inviting Mary Jane over had gotten her into trouble? That would mean I was responsible for her getting hurt, and I didn't like that idea at all. In fact, it made me feel bad enough to call in sick to work on Saturday - I hated doing it, because I liked my job, but I just couldn't concentrate. I was literally worried sick about my friend, and fretting that I had been the cause of any further injury.

If my dad picked up on my mood, he didn't say anything; he just made sure I stayed in bed most of the day, since I said I didn't feel well. I spent a few minutes on the phone with Tina, and explained the situation to her.

"What are you going to do?" she asked, and I sighed.

"I don't know. I'd like to go over there and check on her, but I have a feeling that would only make things worse for her. I don't want to wait until Monday either, damn it!" I added, sternly.

"Do you have her number? Maybe you could call her," my friend suggested.

I frowned. "No," I replied, sullenly. "Listen, I've got to go. My dad's making some soup for me, and he should be bringing it in pretty soon."

"You're really worried about her, aren't you?"

"Yeah, I really am," I confirmed, and heard my dad knock on my bedroom door. "Well, there's the room service. I'll talk to you at work on Monday, Tina," I said, and hung up, calling my dad into the room.

Seeing him walk in, balancing a bowl of soup in his hand, I grinned. "Okay, where's the hunk I ordered for my massage? And waiter, there's a fly in my soup. When you come back, could you bring??"

My dad glowered at me, setting the bowl carefully on my lap. "He's not coming, that's too damn bad, and no," he responded, breaking into a smirk as I waited for my meal to cool off. "How are you feeling, Doc?"

I shrugged. "All right, I guess. Just a little hungry."

"You finish that, and I'll bring you some toast if you're still hungry, okay?" he offered, and I nodded, smiling a little as he kissed my forehead and left the room. Left alone once more, I sipped at the warm tomato soup, unable to keep my mind from drifting to Mary Jane, my writer's imagination taking over as I thought of the numerous things she could be doing at that very moment?

She could be working on the computer, or drawing in her art book. There was a possibility she was even playing with whatever dog they owned, or that her brother was beating her up for staying at my house?

My stomach turned again and I couldn't finish my soup. I prayed for Monday to come quickly, so I could put an end to my suffering and find out what happened to Mary Jane. I slept for the rest of the day, hoping to make the weekend go by faster. My dad encouraged me to relax on Sunday, too, and before I knew it, my alarm was going off on Monday morning.

I hurried to school, anxious to find Mary Jane. Rushing to Mr. Newton's class, I frowned when Mary Jane's seat was empty. The tardy bell rang, and still no Mary Jane - my heart raced as I wondered where she was and what had happened over the weekend.

CHAPTER FIVE

About ten minutes later, I glanced up when the door opened, only to see Mary Jane walk in the classroom. My heart jumped into my throat when I watched her hand the pass to Mr. Newton and find her seat, sure something was wrong? I didn't really see any marks, but something told me she was hurt. I could feel it, like I was hurt, too. It was strange, but I wasn't going to question it.

I couldn't wait for class to be over. I told myself I wasn't going to freak out; I wouldn't corner her, because it would only scare her. I would just ask her quietly if she was okay, and then see if she wanted to tell me what happened.

That all went to Hell in a hand-basket when I saw Mary Jane's swollen lip.

Gently taking her by the arm, I pulled her aside, and ducked my head down to meet her gaze. "What happened? Did he hit you? What? Christ, Mary Jane, what did he do to you?"

She looked down. "Nothing, I just wasn't looking where I was going and ran into the corner of the cabinet door," she replied, as though she had rehearsed the line. I wouldn't doubt it if she had.

My stare softened. "Mary Jane, this is me, remember? You can tell me," I insisted, quietly, and I watched as she seemed to argue with herself.

"Bailey, no, I don't want you to get involved," she said, at last. "Please, don't get involved. Don't worry about me."

"I can't help it." It was out before I could stop it. Damn loose tongue? I quickly tried to cover myself with, "I mean, you're my friend, and I have to worry about you."

The small blonde was silent. "You really mean that?" she asked, hopeful, and I nodded, no hesitation.

"Yes," I confirmed, evenly.

She finally looked up at me. "Thank you." That was all she said, and I realized it would take time for her to fully open up to me. But, hey, we were at a starting point, that was for sure! I was surprised she'd even told me about her brother the week before; I took that as a good sign, that maybe she trusted me.

I was about to ask if I could eat lunch with her again, when Mr. Heath happened to walk by. "Miss Smith, I want to see you in my office. Now," he added, sternly, and I glared at him.

"What is his problem?" I growled. Turning back to my friend, I softly squeezed her shoulder, and encouraged, "Why don't you go ahead and eat? If I get done in time, I'll join you. If not, I'll see you tomorrow, okay?" She nodded, wished me good luck with a small smile, and headed down the hallway as I started for the principal's office.

I didn't have to wait as the secretary waved me right in, and I sat in the chair by his desk, wondering what I'd done now.

"Miss Smith, it seems that Mr. Newton has been having some more complaints about your behavior in class," he stated, and I rolled my eyes. "Due to this, I'm removing you from his class."

My head snapped up and I locked eyes with him. "What?" I exclaimed. He couldn't take me out; it was the only class I had with Mary Jane, goddamn it! "You can't do that! I haven't done anything wrong!"

"Passing notes and then lying, Miss Smith? That's hardly nothing."

I glared at him. "I want to talk to my counselor," I ordered, and he smirked.

Jesus, it sounds like I'm asking for my lawyer before any further questioning, I thought, on edge. Maybe I need one? I really don't like this ass hole.

"I'm afraid that's not possible, Miss Smith. This was a direct request from Mr. Newton, and I will handle it myself. Your counselor has no place in these proceedings," he replied, evenly, and I felt my blood boil.

Have I mentioned yet that it wasn't a good idea to piss me off? It takes a lot to get me really mad, but when it happens, it's not a pretty sight, I guarantee it. I was fantasizing about ripping the man's head off and using it as a paperweight at the moment, and that was beginning to sound like a great option; even better than taking the yardstick by his desk and sticking it?

Instead, I knew I had to get out of there before I really carried through, and did something I was sure I'd only regret?. much, much later. Getting to my feet, I went for the door, only to be stopped by Mr. Heath calling my name.

"And Miss Smith?" I paused, but refused to face him. "Your schedule change will be in effect tomorrow." Grabbing the doorknob, I opened the door, and slammed it with all my might as I walked out, praying I broke at least one picture frame on his wall.

Son of a bitch! I swore to myself, angrily, stalking out to the lunch area. Goddamn cock sucking? In my anger, I punched the tree Mary Jane was leaning against, hard enough to make me wince.

"Bailey?" came a quiet voice, and my ire drained away as I heard the tears in her voice. Glancing down, I saw the fear in her eyes, and prayed I hadn't been the cause as I sat beside her.

"Sorry. Damn, that hurt," I muttered. "It's just that Mr. Heath has had it out for me since my freshman year. I don't know what stick he's got up his ass, but?" The young blonde gently took my hand, and examined it with a rather expert eye, apologizing softly when I flinched as she found a particularly sore spot, my voice trailing off under her amazingly tender touch.

"Well, nothing's broken," she deduced, and I was a little relieved to hear that. "What did he say that made you so upset, Bailey?"

I sighed. I really didn't want to tell her, but I had to. I didn't like to lie, plain and simple as that. Not to say that I didn't lie, I just didn't like doing it. But, if someone asked me a question, I answered it flat out.

"He said he's removing me from Mr. Newton's class as of tomorrow," I told her, and her startled green eyes looked up at me.

"But, why?" she cried, and I shrugged.

"He says it's because I've been causing trouble, but I honestly believe he just doesn't like me. Mary Jane, were you crying before I walked out here?" I asked, after a pause, and she nodded. I hooked her chin with my good hand to make her look at me. "Can you tell me why?"

She sniffled again. "I came out here just in time to see my brother drive away," she explained. "He didn't see me? he doesn't know I was out here."

I cursed under my breath. "That means he's going to be upset, doesn't it?" She nodded, slowly, and I felt my heart break as I saw the tears return. The blonde was genuinely frightened at the prospect of angering her brother, and I couldn't blame her, but I still didn't like seeing her cry, so I did the only thing that came to my mind. I put my arm around her shoulders and gave her a strong hug, letting her cry on my shoulder all she needed, which ended up being until lunch was over and the bell rang.

"You all right?" I asked, gently, pulling back a little bit to get a good look at her face. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying, and tears stained her cheeks, so I pulled the water bottle out of my backpack, giving her a chance to wash her face.

"Thanks," she said, quietly, handing it back to me when she was done. She looked a little better, but I could tell she was still upset.

"Hey, will you be okay?" I questioned, getting to my feet as I offered her a hand up. We were the last ones walking in, but I didn't care. All that mattered to me at the moment was making Mary Jane feel better.

She nodded. "I think so." Watching her take a shuddering breath, I got an idea, and quickly pulled a pen from my pocket. Writing my phone number on a small piece of paper, I handed it to her, making sure she knew I meant for her to have it.

"Anytime you need to talk, you call me, okay? I mean it, Mary Jane. If you ever need somebody to talk to, just pick up the phone and dial that number. I'll always be there, all right?" Seeing her agree, and stuff the number in her pocket, I grinned, gave her one last swift hug, and was on my way down the hall to my Spanish class, not caring in the slightest that I was late.

Apparently, Mrs. Garcia minded, because I was told the next time I was late I'd be holding a detention slip in my hand. Damn, I was having a bad day. Besides getting to hug Mary Jane, my Monday had been horrible, and I'd never been so glad to be home.

"I don't want you to go to work today, Bailey," said my dad, as soon as I walked through the door.

What was that I said about being glad to be home?

"What? Why?" I asked, startled.

"I was watching the news today, and the Parking Lot Stalker, as they've started calling him, is getting a lot bolder. He struck in broad daylight today, and it was just a few blocks from where you work," he explained, evenly. "He's all over the news, now; he's even bigger than all the money the town's been losing. I don't want you going to work with him so close."

I smiled, gently. "Dad? you and I both know that we need the money, and you and I both know that I can take care of myself," I reminded. "I'll be fine."

"But, I don't want you walking out there all alone after dark," he protested.

I sighed. "Look, I'll have Jerry walk out with me, if it'll make you feel better, okay?" I offered, knowing my father's concern was well meant.

I could tell he was hesitant to let me go, but he finally accepted, and wished me a good night as I walked out the door.

"Bailey! Come straight home!" he called, and I nodded, before climbing in my car and driving to work, just wanting the day to be over already.

Did I mention that people suck? The people in line at Wal-Mart were being true annoying customers, and I use that term loosely. Everyone thought I charged them too much, be it tax or otherwise, and my cheery little "Have a nice day" just got me evil looks. I guess it only works if you smile and look like you mean it.

I couldn't help it if I wanted everyone to go to Hell. I did, too. I would be very happy if the only people left on Earth were me, my dad, Mary Jane, and Tina. That would suit me just fine. The devil could roast Mr. Heath on a rusty pitchfork, for all I cared. And Mr. Newton right alongside him, too?

"Hey, Earth to Bailey? come in, Bailey." Jerry was waving his hand in front of my face, a rather bemused expression portraying itself in a half-cocked eyebrow? he'd been working on the technique ever since he saw me do it, but just didn't cut it.

"Huh? Oh, what's up, Jer?" I questioned, and he smirked.

"It's time to go home, Bailey? I don't know what planet you were on, but it's ten-fifteen, and I think Patrick would kind of like to start work, now," he explained, chuckling.

"Sorry, Jer, I guess I zoned out there for a minute," I apologized. "It's been a long day. I'll see you Wednesday, all right?" My boss nodded, and told me to take care of myself, so I didn't get sick again, remembering my call on Saturday. I said I'd try, and walked out the automatic doors, beginning to untie my vest as I went.

I was halfway to my car, which I'd managed to park at the end of the parking lot again, before I reached in my pocket and realized my keys were in on the counter. I'd forgotten them, again.

I swear, I'd forget my head if it wasn't screwed on tight. I am not a klutz; I just have bad luck, I told myself, as I ran my hands through my hair, frustrated.

"Damn it, what else could go wrong?" I muttered, heading back towards the store. "Forgot my keys," I told Jerry, grabbing them from beside the cash register where Patrick was now working. "Have a good night, Patrick. Good night, Jerry."

With that said, I was walking back to my car, intent on going home and collapsing into bed. The next time I opened my eyes, I wanted it to not be Monday anymore. I considered writing to Congress and asking them to change the name of the day? maybe that would help?

Suddenly, there was a hand over my mouth and I was pulled to the ground. Struggling, I bit down hard on the hand that was covering my mouth, and the guy howled in pain, but didn't release me, so I jabbed my left elbow back into his gut. That loosened his hold, and I jumped to my feet, spinning around to face him. He was already standing, and I noticed the gleam of the knife in his hands.

Taking a defensive position, I barely missed being cut as he swiped at my stomach, and I stepped back a little. When he came at me again, I turned to protect my middle, and he sliced my left arm. Seeing the blood and feeling the pain, I growled at him. With a roundhouse kick, his weapon went flying, and I followed through with a sidekick to his chest.

He ran at me, and drew his left hand back as if to punch me, but I caught his arm and pulled him closer, hitting him with a punch of my own, cursing to myself when the memory of hitting the tree earlier in the day was apparent. I'd already hurt my hand before, but I was right-handed, so I instinctively punched first with that hand.

Bad idea. It hurt like the dickens, but it still did some damage, because the man staggered backwards, and I kicked him in the side. The pain in my arm was beginning to get to me, but I couldn't lose my concentration. This guy was strong, I knew, but I had the edge, for the moment. One slight mistake and he could gain the upper hand.

With a swift kick to the jaw, he was out like a light, and I paused as I wondered what to do with him. Noticing that he wasn't wearing a ski mask, I realized it couldn't have been the stalker from the news - I must have stumbled upon a copycat.

Great. Now there's more than one freaking stalker in this town, I sighed.

I didn't want to just walk off and leave him, because I was afraid he'd come to and run off, so at the top of my lungs, I began calling for Jerry.

"Bailey! Bailey, what's wrong?" he shouted, running out into the parking lot. Seeing the man at my feet, he let loose with a long line of curse words I didn't even think he knew. "Stay here with him, I'll call the police."

"Hey, Jerry, do me a favor and call my dad, too, okay? He was worried about me anyway, and I'd like to let him know I'm all right. He'll be freaking out since I'm not home by now," I said, and the man nodded, pausing when he saw me holding the upper part of my left arm.

"He had a knife?"

I nodded. "It's not that bad, Jer. Just call the cops, all right? I'll make sure he doesn't go anywhere," I urged, and my boss agreed, hurrying back into the store while I drug the unconscious man over by a lamppost. He was pretty heavy; 6 foot, maybe 150 pounds? pretty good-sized guy, but he wasn't the stalker. Too amateur. I'd be willing to bet the guy my dad heard about earlier was a copycat, too. No criminal who's escaped the cops a half-dozen times would be stupid enough to strike in the middle of the day.

The sirens drew me from my thoughts, and I sighed as I let the paramedics stitch the gash on my arm. They said I was very lucky it didn't go any deeper, and hit a nerve.

Jerry was sitting right beside me, so I asked, "Did you call my dad?"

He nodded. "He should be here soon."

"What the fuck did you tell him?" I cursed. "I didn't mean for you to have him drive all the way over here! Jesus Christ, Jerry!"

"I just told him you were in the parking lot with the stalker, but he hung up before I could finish."

"You don't have kids, do you, Jer?" He shook his head. "You may have just given my dad a heart attack; if you had kids, you would know that hearing they're in trouble without knowing if they're okay is the worst thing that can happen. Shit. He'll flip his lid when he drives up and sees the cops and the ambulance?"

No sooner were the words out of my mouth than a silver Toyota Tundra came barreling up to the scene. The cops tried to hold him back, but when he explained who he was, an officer led him over to where I sitting, waiting patiently for the EMT to finish bandaging my wound.

"Bailey, are you okay?" he demanded, enveloping me in a fierce embrace as soon as he was close enough. I saw the unshed tears in his eyes, and pulled him to me with my good arm.

"I'm fine, dad. I'm sorry Jerry gave you the wrong idea? I really wasn't in trouble, I just ran into that guy over there who decided it'd be fun to pick on me," I explained. "Which wasn't a good idea, considering I wasn't having a good day in the first place. He'll have a headache for a few weeks."

"And a broken hand," added one of the officers, who then proceeded to question me on all that had happened. "You did a nice job out there." By the time we were done, I'd been praised on my martial arts, my arm had been sewn, and before I knew it, it was midnight.

The only thing that passed through my mind was: Thank God Monday is over.

CHAPTER SIX

I didn't sleep real well that night, my arm kept throbbing and waking me up, but I somehow managed to get to school on time. Everyone stared at the bandage on my arm, but no one asked me about it? I assumed they didn't have to, since it was on every radio station and every news channel that Bailey Smith had managed to foil a copycat stalker. I should have been something like a hero, I guess, and I got a few nods of appreciation, but no more attention than normal.

Until Mary Jane. I didn't see her, because I didn't have Mr. Newton's class, but I was walking towards the tree where we ate lunch, when she caught up with me.

"Bailey!" she cried, and I turned at her voice.

I couldn't help it; I smiled. "Hey," I greeted, and walked the rest of the way with her by my side.

She immediately pulled me down beside her, and gasped when she saw my arm. "What happened? Are you okay?" she asked, and the concern in her green eyes was so deep I had to remind myself to breathe.

"You didn't hear?" She shook her head, still looking upset. "I had a little run-in with a copycat stalker at work last night. Nothing major, he just decided I'd be an easy target."

"Did he hurt you?"

I shrugged. "He got his knife in once, but now he's sitting behind bars nursing a broken hand and one hell of a headache," I assured her, trying to ignore the feeling that arose from having her hands on my arm. The pain I'd been feeling all day went away almost instantly; it was amazing.

For the first time, I noticed the dark bruise just above her left temple, and the fact that she was wearing a light jacket in the middle of March in Southern California.

My arm was completely forgotten, as I asked, "What did he do to you, Mary Jane? Was he angry because he didn't see you at lunch yesterday?" She nodded, hesitantly, and I took her face in my hands, silently asking to take a better look at the bruise on her head.

It wasn't just a bruise; the dark purple spot was surrounding a small cut just below her hairline. The little shit had given her a concussion.

"How did this happen?"

Mary Jane looked away. "He pushed me and I hit the corner of the coffee table," she whispered. I took it as a good sign that she didn't try to pass off another excuse, but I still didn't like hearing the truth.

"Can I see your arm?" I asked, quietly. I figured if she was wearing a jacket, she must have been hiding something. Looking around to make sure no one was watching, she slowly rolled up the sleeve on her right arm, and showed me the angry red handprint just below her elbow.

"Does it hurt?"

"A little," she shrugged, and I had to resist the Herculean urge to kiss it and make it better? it may sound a little immature, but I really wanted to do that. Anything to take her pain away.

As she put her sleeve back down, she looked right at me and asked one question that I will never forget, for as long as I live: "Why do you care so much?"

That startled me, and I wasn't sure how to answer it. I blinked a few times, thinking quickly, but apparently, not quick enough. She took my silence as a sign that she had upset me, and set about fixing it.

"I? I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked," she said, hanging her head and refusing to look me in the eye. "I didn't mean to speak without permission? I'm sorry."

Without permission? Dear God, what did she go through at home?

"What are you talking about? Mary Jane, please, look at me. Please," I requested, and she slowly met my gaze. "Mary Jane, I am not angry with you. You did nothing wrong, your question only surprised me a little, that's all. You have nothing to apologize for.

"To answer your question, though, I care because you're my friend. I trust you and I want to keep you safe," I explained, gently. "When you get hurt, it hurts me, too. I don't like seeing you in pain, can you understand that? You are my friend, Mary Jane, and to me that means I will do everything in my power to take care of you."

She stared at me, as though no one had ever said such a thing to her. If I had to describe her expression in one word, I think it would be awestruck.

"I? Bailey? Thank you," she decided on, finally, and I just grinned at her.

"You can ask me anything you want, okay? I never want you to feel afraid to talk to me," I said, and she nodded.

"I'll try."

I smiled, and brushed a lock of hair away from her face before I could stop myself. "That's all I can ask," I murmured, pulling my hand back, more than a little surprised by my own actions. She smiled shyly, and eagerly accepted the sandwich I presented, having learned by now that I wouldn't take no for an answer.

As we sat there eating, I noticed her brother drive by, and saw her tense. Tense? Hell, she nearly dropped her food. Reaching over, I lightly squeezed her shoulder, giving her a small nod of encouragement when she looked up at me. She smiled a little, and took a deep breath, but wasn't able to fully recover until the Honda was out of sight.

"Are you okay?" I asked, and she nodded. There was silence between us for a while, but it was a comfortable silence; you know, one where nothing needed to be said.

But, just before the bell rang, I looked over at Mary Jane and asked, "Do you think you'd be able to come over again on Thursday?" I wanted to do anything I could to get her out of her house for as long as possible.

She shook her head. "My brother wants me to go to a party with him on Thursday," she explained, quietly, and I raised an eyebrow at this, but said nothing. When the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch, I helped my friend to her feet, and walked her to class.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Bailey," Mary Jane said, and I nodded.

"Same time, same place," I winked, and she smiled, waving as we parted. I hated not having class with her, because that meant my time with her was so short, but I was thankful that I still had the same lunch. If anyone even tried changing my lunch, since our school was big enough to eat in two shifts, it'd probably take ten guys to pull me off the idiot.

Once I got home, I took a run with Soda for a little bit, and then checked up on my dad, both of us more worried about the other's wound. We were both healing well, so I grabbed my gym bag that I took with me to the dojo where I had my Karate lessons, and headed out the door.

Arriving at 5:45, I changed into my gi with ease. My gi, or uniform, consisted of white pants, a white undershirt, a white top with the logo of my dojo imprinted on the back, and, in my case, a brown belt with two black stripes. I was on my way to receiving my black belt, and figured I'd be able to pass the test in July, when our next promotion was scheduled. Tying my hair back into a ponytail, I stepped out onto the floor, barefoot.

The class began at six o'clock, and our sensei, Nancy Moorland, called us into position. Lining up in a straight line, we dropped to our knees when we were told, and began the lesson with a ritual, of which I've forgotten the name. We put our hands up so they formed a triangle with our thumb and forefingers, placed them on the floor, and then bowed our heads so they touched our hands. Rising, we clapped two times, and then bowed once more.

When that was done, we sat back on our heels, waiting for Sensei Moorland to begin. First, she turned to face us, and addressed the entire class, although she was speaking about me.

"Last night, one of our own students was put in a situation where she was forced to use the defensive, and offensive tactics she has learned," she began. She had a kind face, with round brown eyes that seemed to encompass everything in a glance, and blonde hair that went to her shoulders. I'd been a student for quite a few years, and she had always been my teacher; I'd grown to like her very much, despite the fact that she often teased me about being a giant, since she was barely five-foot tall.

"Bailey, would you mind demonstrating for us what you did?" she asked, and I realized I had tuned her out for a little bit. Oops.

"Hai, sensei," I agreed, telling her yes, teacher in Japanese. All twelve of us in the class knew a little bit, and were asked to use it while in the dojo. Sensei Moorland would often go off on a tangent in Japanese, because her grandfather was from Okinawa and had taught her the language when she was very young, but she didn't expect us to learn it fluently.

Glancing up at her, I asked who was going to be my partner. With a small grin, the tiny woman replied, "You'll have the honor of sparring with me, Bailey."

"Oh, goody," I grinned under my breath, and got to my feet to stand before her, in front of the class. Bowing to my opponent, I described to her, in detail, each move the stalker and I had made. We acted them out slowly at first, and then she went a bit faster, so the class could see exactly how quick an attack like that could occur.

About the fifth time we were going through it, Sensei Moorland adlibbed the scene a bit, and wrapped her arm around my neck instead of covering my mouth.

"What would you have done, had he done this?" she asked.

"This." Turning my head towards her elbow, so I could breathe, although the pressure on my windpipe was not much, I lightly elbowed her in the stomach. When she pretended to be hurt, as a real attacker would be, I reached up and grabbed her wrist, quickly spinning out of her grasp and pulling her arm out to the side, twisting it until I was a good two feet away, and she was unable to do anything. I had learned that move long ago, and with a little more strength, I could break a person's arm.

"Very good," she said, and I released my hold, stepping back to bow to her again. "You may be seated." Nodding my head, I returned to my place, kneeling on the floor as she stood over us and spoke.

Class was over at eight, and we'd done quite a bit of sparring with partners and practicing how to roll without hitting your head? basics we'd done quite a few times, but it was always good to brush up on them. I also managed to receive my third black stripe, since Sensei Moorland was proud of the way I'd handled the stalker the night before. Often it was the strangest things that could get us a stripe? but whatever it was had to show we were thinking and paying attention.

While everyone was heading to the locker room to change, I hung back, and my teacher glanced up at me.

"Did you need something, Bailey?" she asked, kindly.

I sighed, and asked to sit beside her. When she nodded, I joined her at the long table on which she was filling out some paperwork, and said, "Sensei Moorland, I need to talk to you." Throughout the entire time we were practicing, I couldn't get Mary Jane out of my head. All the sparring made me think of her and her brother, and I wondered if the class wouldn't be good for her.

"A friend of mine from school? I think she may be in an abusive household, and unable to get out," I explained, lowly. "I was wondering if I would be able to bring her in for a class or two, just to see what we do, and maybe find out if she could join. I think it would do her some good."

Nancy smiled at me. "Bailey, if what you say is true, then there's a good chance that your friend won't be able to be free for many classes, or pay for the gi or the promotion. I doubt the environment she's living in would be very receptive to finding out she's trying to learn how to defend herself," she guessed, and I nodded. She was probably right. "However, with the skill level that you have, I see no reason why you yourself couldn't help her out with some of the basic defense techniques.

"You are, of course, more than welcome to bring her in to observe, but it sounds like it might be difficult for her to get away. And, as always, if you need any help, I'm here. Sound like a plan?" she asked, and I grinned, surprising her by standing up, bowing, and then enveloping her in a strong hug.

"Domo arigato, Sensei," I said. Thank you very much. She just chuckled, and waved me off to change. I entered the locker room feeling a little better about Mary Jane? if I could teach her some blocking techniques, maybe it would help defend her from her brother.

I could only hope.

* * * * *

Thursday came quickly, and I found myself feeling quite lonely as I drove home by myself. I felt bad that I couldn't take Mary Jane away from her brother for at least a little while, but she'd insisted that she had to go with him to this party, over on the far end of town. She wouldn't tell me why he wanted her to go so badly, and even though it made me more than a little uneasy, I didn't pressure her to say anything more.

After my afternoon cartoons and run with Soda, I resigned myself to studying for my Calculus test, which was scheduled for the next day. I was in a different class, so I wanted to be sure I knew as much as I could, just in case my new teacher tested differently.

My dad had turned in early, claiming that he hadn't felt real good all day and I hoped he wasn't getting the flu. It'd been going around school, I knew, and assumed that meant it was all over town, as well.

So, when the phone rang at nine-thirty, I hurried to pick it up before it woke my dad.

"Hello?" I asked, propping it on my shoulder as I stretched out on the couch, my textbook on my lap with my notebook and pencil right beside it. I always did my homework where I was most comfortable.

"Hello?" I repeated, when there was no answer, beginning to fiddle with my pencil, twirling it in my hands.

I was about ready to start cussing out whoever it was that decided to make a prank call, when I heard a soft voice come over the line, "Bailey?"

I froze, my pencil falling to the floor. "Mary Jane? Is that you?" I asked, my heart beating hard when I realized she was actually calling me. That made me think something was wrong.

"Yes," she confirmed, "it's me. I? I'm sorry to bother you, I know it's late, but I'm at the party with my brother," I could hear tears in her voice now and I knew for certain that something was wrong, "and he was my ride? but there's alcohol and drugs and he's too high to drive. He? he told me to walk, but it's dark, and?"

Suddenly she was whispering. "No one knows I'm using the phone," she said, lowly, so she wouldn't be discovered, I guessed. "I understand if you're busy?"

I interrupted her. "Give me the address, Mary Jane," I requested, gently. When she told me the street name, I knew exactly where she was at - and it wasn't a good part of town. "Okay. Go out on the front steps and wait for me, all right? Try to stay near the house, if you can, in a lighted area.

"I'll be there in fifteen minutes to pick you up," I promised, and hung up quickly when she said someone was coming to check on her.

Scribbling a note to my dad in case he wondered where I was, I told him I had to go pick up a friend, and rushed out the door. Driving as fast as I dared, my pounding heart doing nothing to lessen the worry I was feeling, I arrived at the party in just over ten minutes. Mary Jane was sitting on the steps like I'd told her, her form illuminated by the glow of the porch light, and she watched me as I got out of my car.

The first thing I noticed was the red mark on the side of her face, and then the blood trailing down her chin from a split lip. It took all the self-control and discipline I'd learned in Karate to keep myself from marching into that party and beating the living crap out of her brother? and anyone who tried to get in my way, while I was at it.

When I was standing beside her, and she still hadn't gotten to her feet, I opened my arms. That was all the invitation she needed as she stood and wrapped her arms around my waist, crying into my shirt as I held her tightly. Stroking her hair, I kissed the top of her head, and began leading her down the walk to my car.

A slurred voice made her stop in her tracks. "Where the hell do you think you're going with my sister?" he demanded, and I swallowed hard, anger coursing through my veins at an alarming rate.

Before I had a chance to respond, he continued, "Bitch, get your ass back in here. I didn't say you could leave."

Seeing Mary Jane turn around, I grabbed her arm, and shook my head. I wasn't going to let her go back in there with him? not for anything in God's great universe. Motioning for Mary Jane to stay by the Explorer, I approached her brother, who looked even stingier than the first time I'd seen him. Trust me, it was bad. His hair was still greasy, and I doubted he'd taken a shower in a week, he wasn't wearing a shirt, and? well, I'll stop there, in case anyone with a sensitive stomach might be reading.

"I'm taking her wherever she wants to go, do you have a problem with that?" I asked, smoothly.

Make a move on me, I begged, silently. Please, just give me a reason.

"Yeah, I do," he spat, and raised his arm, as if to hit me over the head with his beer bottle. I was ready for him, standing in a semi-squat, also known as a hachi-dachi, my hands open, should I need to block or strike. Just as he was about to follow through, Mary Jane grabbed my arm, and pulled me back, out of his range.

I kept an eye on her brother as she spoke, Mary Jane whispering urgently into my ear, "Please, Bailey, don't hit him. Don't get involved. You'll only make things worse when I go back." Turning to her when her brother decided he needed more beer, I saw the tears in her emerald eyes. "Please, just let him go."

I sighed. "Look, I don't want to get you in trouble," I said, gently. "But I hate knowing what he's doing, and not being able to help!"

"You are helping, Bailey, can't you see that?" she asked, softly. "Just by being here, by being my friend? you are helping." I shrugged; it still didn't feel like enough. I had a feeling nothing would be enough until I was dancing on the little bastard's grave.

I helped her into the car, and then pulled out my first aid kit, turning on the overhead light so I could see what I was doing. Gently taking her chin in my left hand, I began tending to her lip with my right, being as careful as I could not to hurt her.

"Sorry," I grimaced, when she winced. I knew the antiseptic would sting, but I had to make sure it wouldn't get infected.

"He usually doesn't hit me where it shows," she informed me, suddenly. "Only when he's drunk or high does he hit me where other people can see."

"How often is that?" I questioned, not really wanting an answer.

She shrugged, and looked away. "He drinks a lot," was all she'd say.

When I was finished cleaning the cut on her lip, I asked, "Well, where do you want to go? You can crash at my place, if you'd like, or I can take you home. It's up to you, MJ."

The blonde glanced up at me, catching on to the nickname that I'd barely noticed myself, and smiling. "I? I don't know for sure," my friend admitted.

"Do you think you'd get in trouble if you weren't home in the morning?" With a sigh, she nodded. "Well, I don't like either suggestion, then. You're welcome to stay with me, but I don't want you to get in trouble because of it. And yet, I don't like the idea of taking you back home with your brother."

"I took his keys."

I looked at her, startled. "You did what?"

"I? I took his keys, so he can't drive. He's? he's just not sober enough to drive," she explained, and I took a slow, deep breath to keep from screaming out loud. It was all so frustrating! I knew she was doing what she thought was best and taking care of her brother, but I also knew that move would probably get her on his bad side when he was straight enough to realize what happened.

"Does he have the keys to get into the house, at least?" I asked, and she nodded.

"Oh, my parents will be there, if he needs," she assured me, and I thought about that for a moment.

"Could you call your parents, tell them what happened, and then let them know that you're staying over at my house?" I suggested.

My friend looked down. "I could, but they would only be upset at me for bothering them. That's why I didn't call them to come get me," she explained, quietly. "My parents don't take much of an interest in anything I do, just so long as it doesn't interfere with their plans."

Nice family, I retorted, silently. A brother who beats her and parents who couldn't care less what happens to her. Perfect.

"I'm sorry to hear that," I said, honestly. "Look, how about this - I'll take you back to my house, you can call your parents from there in the morning and tell them you thought it was too late to call them tonight, and explain that you didn't feel safe going home with your brother. At least you'll be safe for one night," I pleaded. I really wanted her to come home with me; I hated the idea of the beautiful and intelligent young woman beside me being trapped in an environment like that.

"It is Friday tomorrow?" she mused, aloud. "My brother usually goes to his friend's house on Friday, so maybe he won't even be there when I get home tomorrow. Thank you, Bailey," she smiled, and I winked at her.

"Not a problem, MJ, not a problem." That was when it hit me that I hadn't talked to her about practicing Karate with me yet. It had been on my mind, but I didn't want to discuss it at school, should someone overhear us, since I got the idea that Mary Jane didn't want people to know about her home situation.

"What would you say to learning Karate?" I asked, as I got on the freeway to take her back to my house.

She glanced up at me. "Karate? Why?"

"So you could defend yourself from your brother."

Green eyes widened. "Oh, no, Bailey, I couldn't! Fighting back only makes it worse," she said, speaking quickly. "Please, I couldn't learn? he wouldn't like that!"

My heart dropped at the fear in her voice, and I reached over to squeeze her hand. "All right, all right," I soothed, softly. "It's okay; it was only a suggestion, MJ. You don't have to if you don't want. But, if you change your mind, feel free to ask me anytime, okay?"

"You? you would teach me?" she questioned, after a period of silence.

I nodded. "That way you wouldn't have to worry about paying for the gi or attending class," I said. "We could practice whenever you were able."

"Thank you for the offer," she said, but still didn't accept.

"My dad's already in bed," I began, as we pulled into the driveway, and she immediately started apologizing.

"Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to be an inconvenience! You can take me home, if it's too much trouble?"

I cut her off before she could go any further. "Mary Jane, stop that," I said, gently. "You are not an inconvenience; I invited you, remember? And there's no way I'm taking you home, not if I have the chance to give you one night away from there. Okay?"

She nodded. "Thank you."

I just shrugged, and gave her a half-grin as I unlocked the door. "You can put your stuff in my room," I told her. "It's kind of a mess right now, but my bed's clean. Here, let me see?"

As I was glancing through my closet for a long T-shirt or something that she could use as a nightshirt, I was surprised to hear her gentle voice drift to my ears, "I can't take your bed."

"Well, I don't want you to take it, per say, but you can sleep in it tonight," I teased, lightly.

Mary Jane shook her head without smiling; I guess the idea of putting me out was too serious for her. "No, I mean, I can't make you sleep somewhere else. This is your house and your bed!"

"If you put it that way, then that's also my tile you're standing on and my air you're breathing," I said, evenly. "Mary Jane, please understand that I'm doing this because I want to. I don't expect you to sleep on the couch; you're the guest. It's no trouble at all, I promise.

"Here we go!" I exclaimed, finding the shirt I was looking for. It went down to about my knees, so I expected it would be plenty long on my smaller friend. "You can go change in the bathroom, if you'd like." Taking the shirt from me, she did as I asked, and soon emerged, joining me back in my room.

For a moment, I think my brain forgot how to tell my lungs to breathe. She looked so cute standing there in my old Bugs Bunny T-shirt, with her short blonde hair a little mussed, barefoot on the tile with the biggest smile on her face.

"You like Bugs Bunny, I would guess?"

"Well, if you couldn't tell from the figurine in my car?" I chuckled, and reached out to ruffle her hair a bit, drawing back quickly when she flinched, expecting to be hit. My laughter immediately stopped at that reaction.

"Mary Jane, I want you to listen to me very carefully," I said, my voice low and serious. Looking her right in the eye, I swore, "As long as you're in this house, and as long as I'm with you, you never have to worry about being hit, okay? You are safe here, and I will do my best to keep you safe no matter where we are. Can you do that for me? Can you trust me, MJ?"

Whether it was the promise shining in my eyes, or the nickname, a small smile graced her lips and she nodded. "I do trust you, Bailey," she confirmed.

I smiled, and gave her a strong hug. "Good. I'll see you in the morning, then. If you need anything, anything at all, I'll be out on the couch, all right? Don't hesitate to wake me? even if you just need to talk," I added, making sure she knew that I was there for her, no matter what.

"Thank you, Bailey. Good night," she sighed, and I waited to make sure that she was comfortable before turning off the light.

"Sleep well," I murmured, more to myself, as I walked down the hallway. Grabbing a pillow off the back of the couch, I fluffed it up, and drew a light blanket over my body. I'd changed into my boxers and shirt as Mary Jane was changing in the bathroom, so I wouldn't be too warm.

Hoping that I'd done the right thing, and that my friend would finally have a peaceful night for once, I fell into a dreamless sleep.

* * * * *

I was awakened the next morning by my dad shaking my shoulder.

"What?" I groaned.

"Why are you sleeping on the couch, Bailey?" he asked.

I cracked an eye open and looked at him as if it was obvious. "Because my friend is sleeping in my bed," I stated, and was ready to go back to sleep, noting that it was only four in the morning.

"No, I just came from your room, to check on you. Your bed is made, Bailey? there's no one in your room."

I was off the couch and on my feet in a fraction of a second, racing down the hallway to my room. "Mary Jane!" I called, but my dad was right? if I wouldn't have seen my Bugs Bunny T-shirt draped over the foot of my bed, I never would have believed I'd have had a guest over.

My only question was: Where was she now?

Continued in Part 2.



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