Will You Dance,
If I Ask You to Dance?
Ria walked into the main cafeteria in the student union and looked toward the upper deck in the rear. Sure enough, Preacher sat at their usual table. The two best friends ate lunch together nearly every day. Many different combinations of their friends joined them at various times, depending on their class, work, and study schedules, but Preacher always arrived first and grabbed their usual table.
Dropping her bag on the floor with a loud thud, Ria plopped down into the seat next to her friend. Preacher gave her a good once-over.
“You didn’t grab any lunch first, you have bags under your eyes, and you look worried. What the heck were you and Belden doing all weekend?”
“Running home to Sleepyside to find out his family’s falling apart,” Ria replied with a grimace.
Becoming serious, Preacher pushed his lunch tray out of the way and leaned forward on his arms. “Do tell.”
She gave him a brief synopsis of the events of the weekend. She had no desire to gossip, but she had found over the years that she could tell Preacher anything. He never betrayed a confidence, and he always found a way to help. He was the kind of listener that made you feel better for just having talked to him. She honestly and truly believed it was in both Brian’s and Jim’s best interests for Preacher to know what was going on, and she knew for fact it was in her own.
When she had finished, Preacher smirked in mild amusement. “Now little Miss Trixie even has you all tied up in knots.”
Shaking her head ruefully, Ria couldn’t help but agree. “They’re not exaggerating when they sing her praises, you know. She’s… well, she’s like no one else I’ve ever met. As soon as you meet her, you know your life will never be the same. Chelsea said the same thing. She’s amazing.”
Glancing up and seeing Jim enter the cafeteria, Preacher narrowed his eyes. “Jim looks like crap, too.” He slid his glance back to the girl by his side. “They both wish they were at home, don’t they?”
Clay appeared from nowhere behind Preacher and pulled out a chair for himself. “What’s up?”
“Operation Brotherhood,” Preacher responded with a nod in Jim’s direction.
Clay had witnessed the way Preacher shepherded younger students. He had also spent time working with him the previous summer at a camp for underprivileged youths. When Preacher spoke of “Operation Brotherhood”, Clay knew that meant that someone in their circle needed friends, comfort and understanding, without questions, explanations, or excuses. He followed Preacher’s gaze, spotting Jim headed their way just as Brian entered the room.
“Frayne, Belden, or both?” he asked.
Clay nodded acceptance. He’d corner John later, and Nathan if need be. Ria would take care of filling Chelsea in.
One for all and all for one.
Beth Fleming glided regally through the cafeteria, head held high. Behind her back she could hear the snickering. It emanated from every corner of the room, bombarding her like harmless sand flies against the windshield of a speeding vehicle. They were all making fun of her, she knew. Each and every one of them was laughing at the way the cheerleaders had cut her down with their little prank. Laughing about how they had shown their allegiance and chosen their side. About how all the cheerleaders were now part of Trixie the Twerp’s legions of followers.
Refusing to acknowledge the cacophony of mockery, Beth sat down at a table by herself and delicately dipped her spoon into her yogurt while she plotted her revenge.
On the other end of the room, Chris, Riss and Paul observed in silence. In one corner they could see Beth furiously stewing, while pretending the world was beneath her notice. In the other corner, the four Bob-Whites present sat together, tense and mournful, and oblivious to the rest of the world. And in between, the student body of Sleepyside Junior-Senior High School reveled in freedom.
The sense of accomplishment permeated the air. There was no meanness or mockery, just face-splitting grins and lighthearted laughter. The assemblage had gathered together and thumbed their noses at Her Royal Prissiness, and in so doing had thrown off her shackles. The freedom felt good, really good.
The different moods seemed contained in their own private bubbles, the atmospheres held separate as if to prevent contamination by each other. The three seniors observing this shared looks of apprehension.
Chris pushed away his untouched lunch tray. “I gotta get outa here. I’m gonna go find Tad.” He shoved his hands deep into his pockets as he walked away, shoulders slumped dejectedly.
Paul drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “This should have been our moment of triumph.”
Riss grimaced. “Except this was about defending Trix. She’s not here to see it, and Glory Girl is undoubtedly plotting her next bitchy move. I have this really bad feeling this is going to blow up in our faces.”
Just then a randomly launched tater tot flew across the cafeteria and landed with a splat in Paul’s chocolate pudding. Biting her lip against the giggles threatening to burst forth, Riss watched as her boyfriend wiped chocolate splotches from his favorite t-shirt, his eyebrows, and the tip of his nose. Finally meeting her gaze with a twinkle in his eye, Paul said, “God, I hate poetry in motion.”
Everyone was too absorbed in their own worlds to notice the couple double over, laughing like hyenas.
When Mr. Stratton returned to his office from the latest in the multitude of minor crises faced every day by the average school principal, he was just in time to greet Matthew and Madeleine Wheeler. As they had an appointment, he was not surprised to see them. However, he was shocked to see them walk in the door protectively flanking Trixie Belden.
Quickly recovering his composure, Mr. Stratton greeted his guests and ushered them into his office. Over his shoulder he shot his secretary a very clear “do not disturb” look. Then he closed the door behind him.
Twenty minutes later, he poked his head out of his office long enough to ask the secretary to call Mrs. Parkman to his office. Although she was dying of curiosity, his faithful assistant merely nodded her head and did his bidding.
After Nurse Parkman joined the group behind closed doors, another half-hour passed. The homecoming committee assembled in the outer office for the day’s closing announcements, preparing to share the results of the election for homecoming court. As dismissal time loomed near, the assemblage rew impatient.
Just in the nick of time, Principal Stratton emerged from his office, again closing the door behind him. He herded the homecoming group into the room where the microphone for the PA system was. Once this group had cleared the outer office, Mrs. Parkman quickly ushered the Wheelers and Trixie out of the inner sanctum and through the main office, stopping by the entrance to give Trixie a quick hug before shooing them on their way.
Only when he was sure that Trixie Belden had left the building did Mr. Stratton feel comfortable with beginning the election announcement.
After the committee broadcast the results, cheers could be heard echoing through the corridors. The dismissal bell rang and the committee fled the office, while the faculty advisors lingered.
Mr. Stratton waved Coach Epperly into his office. He closed the door again and indicated the coach should have a seat, before handing him a sheaf of papers.
John Epperly glanced down at the photocopies in his hand and did a double take as he read in earnest the order of temporary custody for Trixie Belden. Looking up at his boss and friend Coach asked, “What the hell is going on?”
Resting his elbows on the desk, the weary principal began to rub his temples. “Apparently, Helen Belden is having health problems, and Trixie is suffering from post-traumatic stress from the shooting last month. The Wheelers have taken Trixie in to help ease the burden all around.”
Mr. Epperly pursed his lips in a soft whistle. “Pete must be a wreck.”
“I’m sure he is,” Mr. Stratton agreed. “Personally, what concerns me is that the Wheelers have confirmed that Beth has been harassing Trixie.”
Startled, Coach said, “Uh oh.”
“Yeah,” was the grim reply.
Chewing on the inside of his cheek, the coach commented, “I don’t remember ever being frightened by homecoming week before.”
Mr. Stratton let his hand fall to the desk. “Tell me about it. Faith’s going to be keeping an eagle eye on Trixie all week. We’ve got to watch Beth like hawks. If things get too ugly, Mr. Wheeler wants Molinson called.”
Coach winced. “Can you see the tabloid headlines now? Westchester County cheerleader earns the wrath of state’s wealthiest family. Or better yet, Police harass teen for irritating tycoon Wheeler.”
Mr. Stratton groaned and hung his head. “Shut up, John. Just shut up.”
Chuckling half-heartedly at his friend’s discomfort, Coach Epperly stood. “I think I’ll go patrol the hallways and see how Beth is reacting to the news.” With that he hurried from the office so the long-suffering administrator could focus on finishing the rest of his tasks for the day.
Trixie stood at the door to the fitting rooms in Crimper’s Department Store, glaring at Maddie. “You can’t be serious!”
“They’ll fit, I promise,” Maddie assured her. “What’s more, you will look neither like skin and bones, nor like you’re wearing your brother’s things.”
After trying on nearly a dozen outfits, Trixie had to concede defeat. In fact, she admired Maddie’s fashion sense. Every outfit her guardian had selected looked wonderful on her, from jeans right on up to a Sunday dress.
Still frowning, Trixie grumbled, “You know I’m just going to spill something on them and ruin them.”
Maddie smiled conspiratorially. “That’s the real reason we have a laundress, dear. You have no idea how often I can identify what Matthew ate for lunch by the stains on his tie.”
Trixie stared in disbelief. “You’re kidding!”
“Matt might deny it, but Sarah will back me up completely. Somewhere she even keeps a chart for me to hold over his head when I need it,” Maddie replied with a mischievous grin. While Trixie chuckled, Maddie gave her a pat on the shoulder. “Come along now. You and Dan can spend the evening commiserating over how horrible it is to be the target of my latest shopping frenzy.”
Suddenly serious, Trixie threw her arms around the older woman in an impulsive hug. “Thank you, Mére,” she said earnestly.
Returning the embrace, Maddie stroked the golden curls. “You are most welcome, darling. Now let’s get you home so you can have a nap before dinner.”
Trixie agreed and gathered her things, but not before Maddie caught the wistful look that came and went in a flash. Maddie knew that referring to Manor House as “home” was a source of discomfort for her young charge, but she wanted Trixie to learn to think of it as such. Eventually she would be able to return to Crabapple Farm, but she would always have a home with the Wheelers.
Tad met Chris at his locker after school. “Did you see Trixie?”
Chris glanced quickly up from working his combination. “Did she come in?”
“Not to class,” Tad replied. “I happened to have a good view of the parking lot earlier. She arrived in a limo with Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler.”
“How did she look?” Chris inquired as he shoved books into the locker and took out others.
“Tired, stressed.” Tad shrugged. “I couldn’t see her face well, but she just didn’t… bounce, you know?”
A deep frown creased Chris’ face. Just then he saw Beth Fleming flounce by in a snit. Narrowing his eyes in Beth’s direction, he spat, “I’ll bet she looked better than that puss.”
Tad grinned. “Her dead, rotting corpse would look better than that.”
Deliberately changing the subject, Chris asked, “How are the rehearsals going?”
Tad pushed off the wall upon which he’d been lounging and fell into step with his friend as Chris slammed his locker and walked away. Shifting his bag from one shoulder to the other, Tad replied, “Sarah’s a grueling taskmaster, of course, but it’s fun.” With a wicked leer he added, “It’s cool to be singing something a little less wholesome than usual.”
Raising his hands in mock horror, Chris groaned. “Great! I can see the two of you bumping and grinding on stage just to get Mr. Stratton’s goat.”
They continued down the corridor until they came upon Merrissa Parkman, lost in a sea of well-wishers congratulating her on her nomination for homecoming queen. The crowd parted as Chris approached.
“So that’s how Moses felt,” Tad muttered under his breath, earning himself a swift elbow to the gut from Chris.
Reaching Riss, Chris asked, “So where is your personal knight in shining armor?”
Riss glared at him as she maneuvered herself between Chris and Tad. “He had to run an errand for his mom right after school. Would you just shut up and walk me to the Health Office?”
The two boys gallantly protected the lady from her adoring admirers until she had been delivered safely to her mother. Riss was immediately certain she’d made a big mistake as her mother gushed and grinned, congratulating her daughter on her unexpected honor.
Deciding discretion was the better part of valor, Chris and Tad beat a hasty retreat, tossing sympathetic looks over their shoulders as they fled.
Once they were alone, Faith Parkman wrapped her arms tightly around her daughter and held her for a long moment. “I love you, baby. I always will.”
Hearing the tremble in her mother’s voice, Riss stepped back and looked at her in concern. “What’s wrong, Mom?”
Faith shook her head and cleared her throat. “One of those things about my job that I can’t share with you. I just want to make sure you know I’ll always be here for you.”
“Of course I know that, Mom.” Riss frowned, watching her mother’s every move as she straightened her desk and packed her bag to go home. The last thing Faith did was to put away a student file on which she had been working. Riss’ eagle eyes managed to catch the name on the folder just before the drawer shut.
The sense of trouble that had hovered all day crashed over Riss again as she stared at the cabinet where her mother had just placed Trixie Belden’s file.
Faith grabbed her purse and shoulder bag. “Come on, Riss. Let’s get out of here,” she said with a weary sigh, and they headed for home.
Riss wondered if there was any way she could get her mother to share what she knew at the Parkman dinner table. Knowing Faith took her patient confidentiality seriously, she doubted it. But it couldn’t hurt to try, right?
It was a glum group of Bob-Whites who gathered in the rec room at Manor House.
“You know this is going to be our fault,” Mart grumbled resentfully.
Diana rolled her eyes. “Of course, it’s our fault. And honestly, if it weren’t for everything else going on, we’d all think this was just poetic justice.”
A smiled teasing the corner of her lip, Honey added, “And darned funny. It’s too bad Trixie won’t see the humor, because it’s really pretty funny.”
Dan chuckled. “I can’t wait until Friday night.”
The good humor that had started to permeate the room vanished the instant Trixie appeared in the doorway. With a sharp look directly at Dan, she asked, “Did you deliver my message?”
He nodded. “Yes, but Tad had to work extra hours tonight. He won’t be home until after eight.”
She glanced at her watch as she turned away with a frustrated sigh. The group held their collective breaths, waiting for her to leave. She sensed the tension and stopped, turning back to search the faces of her four friends. Pinning Honey with a piercing look, Trixie asked, “What did I miss?”
Honey squirmed uncomfortably and tried for a casual shrug. “Nothing much.”
Trixie stepped closer to her, eyes never wavering. It took barely a minute for Honey to cave. “Merrissa got nominated for homecoming queen,” Honey said so rapidly Trixie could barely understand her.
“Really?” Trixie’s eyes widened in surprise. “That’s great!”
She was smiling, genuinely happy for her friend, until she realized the other Bob-Whites still looked nervous. This time her eyes nailed Diana. “Who else got nominated?”
Violet eyes flickered around the room. “Um, Beth, of course. And, um, Ellen Morgan.”
Trixie waited for her to continue. When Di offered nothing further, Trixie prompted, “And…?”
Dan leapt to the rescue. “And that’s it. No one else. Just those three.”
Trixie’s confused stare lasted only the minute it took for the implication of Dan’s words to hit her. Then her eyes flashed angry blue fire. Dan imagined himself to be burning, while Trixie’s ice cold voice chilled him to the bone.
“This is your fault, Daniel.”
The echo of the door slamming behind her reverberated in the heavy silence left in her wake.
It was a good hour later when the group finally called for an armistice. They lay, sprawled, or squatted in their last positions, laughing and gasping for air.
Nathan looked out from his position underneath the coffee table and groaned. “Since I don’t technically live here, I think I should make my escape now.”
“Oh hell no!” Clay exclaimed from the entrance to the hallway, where he leaned heavily against the wall. “In for a penny, in for a pound, pal.”
“Now, now,” John admonished as he hoisted his bulk off the kitchen floor where he’d been entrenched behind the counter. “We haven’t gotten to the best part.”
Jim, sprawled in the armchair, covered his face with both hands in mock horror. “Now I’m really scared.”
John leaned on the counter and surveyed the damage. A vicious grin spread across his face as he took in the rainbow hues of foamy plastic string covering every surface, hanging from the lighting fixtures and curtain rods, and crushed into the carpet. An evil laugh rumbled deep in his barrel chest. “Do you remember that time I lost a bet with Cameron on the Notre Dame game, and I had to hand-wash and wax his car?”
Ria, splayed across Brian’s limp body on the couch, chuckled. “And he deliberately took his Porsche off-roading beforehand?”
“Exactly. Cam really shouldn’t have bet against the Miami Dolphins yesterday.” John rubbed his hands together in gleeful anticipation. “This is gonna be awesome.”
The entire room burst out laughing. Jim and Brian chorused, “Revenge is sweet – saccharine sweet!”
When the laughter died down, Preacher spoke up from behind the computer desk. “So, when is Cameron due to arrive?”
John looked at his watch. “About 20 minutes.”
“That means we’ve got 15 to clean ourselves up enough to escape,” Preacher said. “Onward, ho!”
The others stood and tried to brush the string off their clothes and hair, eager to make their escape before John delivered the bad news to his nemesis. Jim, Brian and Clay tossed their shirts into their rooms and grabbed clean ones, all the while anticipating the look on Cam’s face. All but John rushed out just before Cameron arrived, eager to find other fun elsewhere on campus.