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Hush, Hush (Page 3)

I took inventory of the feelings playing out inside me. I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t even all that lonely. But I was a little bit restless about my biology assignment. I’d told Patch I wouldn’t call, and six hours ago I’d meant it. All I could think now was that I didn’t want to fail. Biology was my toughest subject. My grade tottered problematically between A and B. In my mind, that was the difference between a full and half scholarship in my future.

I went to the kitchen and picked up the phone. I looked at what was left of the seven numbers still tattooed on my hand. Secretly I hoped Patch didn’t answer my call. If he was unavailable or uncooperative on assignments, it was evidence I could use against him to convince Coach to undo the seating chart. Feeling hopeful, I keyed in his number.

Patch answered on the third ring. “What’s up?”

In a matter­of­fact tone I said, “I’m calling to see if we can meet tonight. I know you said you’re busy, but—”

“Nora.” Patch said my name like it was the punch line to a joke. “Thought you weren’t going to call.

Ever.”

I hated that I was eating my words. I hated Patch for rubbing it in. I hated Coach and his deranged assignments. I opened my mouth, hoping something smart would come out. “Well? Can we meet or not?”

“As it turns out, I can’t.”

“Can’t, or won’t?”

“I’m in the middle of a pool game.” I heard the smile in his voice. “An important pool game.”

From the background noise I heard on his end, I believed he was telling the truth—about the pool game. Whether it was more important than my assignment was up for debate.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“Bo’s Arcade. It’s not your kind of hangout.”

“Then let’s do the interview over the phone. I’ve got a list of questions right—”

He hung up on me.

I stared at the phone in disbelief, then ripped a clean sheet of paper from my notebook. I scribbled Jerk on the first line. On the line beneath it I added, Smokes cigars. Will die of lung cancer. Hopefully soon.

Excellent physical shape.

I immediately scribbled over the last observation until it was illegible.

The microwave clock blinked to 9:05. As I saw it, I had two choices. Either I fabricated my interview with Patch, or I drove to Bo’s Arcade. The first option might have been tempting, if I could just block out Coach’s voice warning that he’d check all answers for authenticity. I didn’t know enough about Patch to bluff my way through a whole interview. And the second option? Not even remotely tempting.

I delayed making a decision long enough to call my mom. Part of our agreement for her working and traveling so much was that I act responsibly and not be the kind of daughter who required constant supervision. I liked my freedom, and I didn’t want to do anything to give my mom a reason to take a pay cut and get a local job to keep an eye on me.

On the fourth ring her voice mail picked up.

“It’s me,” I said. “Just checking in. I’ve got some biology homework to finish up, then I’m going to bed.

Call me at lunch tomorrow, if you want. Love you.”

After I hung up, I found a quarter in the kitchen drawer. Best to leave complicated decisions to fate.

“Heads I go,” I told George Washington’s profile, “tails I stay.” I flipped the quarter in the air, flattened it to the back of my palm, and dared a peek. My heart squeezed out an extra beat, and I told myself I wasn’t sure what it meant.

“It’s out of my hands now,” I said.

Determined to get this over with as quickly as possible, I grabbed a map off the fridge, snagged my keys, and backed my Fiat Spider down the driveway. The car had probably been cute in 1979, but I wasn’t wild about the chocolate brown paint, the rust spreading unchecked across the back fender, or the cracked white leather seats.

Bo’s Arcade turned out to be farther away than I would have liked, nestled close to the coast, a thirtyminute drive. With the map flattened to the steering wheel, I pulled the Fiat into a parking lot behind a large cinder­block building with an electric sign flashing BO’S ARCADE, MAD BLACK PAINTBALL

& OZZ’S POOL HALL. Graffiti splashed the walls, and cigarette butts dotted the foundation. Clearly Bo’s would be filled with future Ivy Leaguers and model citizens. I tried to keep my thoughts lofty and nonchalant, but my stomach felt a little uneasy. Double­checking that I’d locked all the doors, I headed inside.

I stood in line, waiting to get past the ropes. As the group ahead of me paid, I squeezed past, walking toward the maze of blaring sirens and blinking lights.

“Think you deserve a free ride?” hollered a smoke­roughened voice.

I swung around and blinked at the heavily tattooed cashier. I said, “I’m not here to play. I’m looking for someone.”

He grunted. “You want past me, you pay.” He put his palms on the counter, where a price chart had been duct­taped, showing I owed fifteen dollars. Cash only.

I didn’t have cash. And if I had, I wouldn’t have wasted it to spend a few minutes interrogating Patch about his personal life. I felt a flush of anger at the seating chart and at having to be here in the first place. I only needed to find Patch, then we could hold the interview outside. I was not going to drive all this way and leave empty­handed.

“If I’m not back in two minutes, I’ll pay the fifteen dollars,” I said. Before I could exercise better judgment or muster up a tad more patience, I did something completely out of character and ducked under the ropes. I didn’t stop there. I hurried through the arcade, keeping my eyes open for Patch. I told myself I couldn’t believe I was doing this, but I was like a rolling snowball, gaining speed and momentum. At this point I just wanted to find Patch and get out.

The cashier followed after me, shouting, “Hey!”

Certain Patch was not on the main level, I jogged downstairs, following signs to Ozz’s Pool Hall. At the bottom of the stairs, dim track lighting illuminated several poker tables, all in use. Cigar smoke almost as thick as the fog enveloping my house clouded the low ceiling. Nestled between the poker tables and the bar was a row of pool tables. Patch was stretched across the one farthest from me, attempting a difficult bank shot.

“Patch!” I called out.

Just as I spoke, he shot his pool stick, driving it into the table­top. His head whipped up. He stared at me with a mixture of surprise and curiosity.

The cashier clomped down the steps behind me, vising my shoulder with his hand. “Upstairs. Now.”

Patch’s mouth moved into another barely­there smile. Hard to say if it was mocking or friendly. “She’s with me.”

This seemed to hold some sway with the cashier, who loosened his grip. Before he could change his mind, I shook off his hand and weaved through the tables toward Patch. I took the first several steps in stride, but found my confidence slipping the closer I got to him.

I was immediately aware of something different about him. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I could feel it like electricity. More animosity?

More confidence.

More freedom to be himself. And those black eyes were getting to me. They were like magnets clinging to my every move. I swallowed discreetly and tried to ignore the queasy tap dance in my stomach. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but something about Patch wasn’t right. Something about him wasn’t normal. Something wasn’t … safe.

“Sorry about the hang­up,” Patch said, coming beside me. “The reception’s not great down here.”

Yeah, right.

With a tilt of his head, Patch motioned the others to leave. There was an uneasy silence before anybody moved. The first guy to leave bumped into my shoulder as he walked past. I took a step back to balance myself and looked up just in time to receive cold eyes from the other two players as they departed.

Great. It wasn’t my fault Patch was my partner.

“Eight ball?” I asked him, raising my eyebrows and trying to sound completely sure of myself, of my surroundings. Maybe he was right and Bo’s wasn’t my kind of place. That didn’t mean I was going to bolt for the doors. “How high are the stakes?”

His smile widened. This time I was pretty sure he was mocking me. “We don’t play for money.”

I set my handbag on the edge of the table. “Too bad. I was going to bet everything I have against you.” I held up my assignment, two lines already filled. “A few quick questions and I’m out of here.”

“Jerk?” Patch read out loud, leaning on his pool stick. “Lung cancer? Is that supposed to be prophetic?”

I fanned the assignment through the air. “I’m assuming you contribute to the atmosphere. How many cigars a night? One? Two?”

“I don’t smoke.” He sounded sincere, but I didn’t buy it.

“Mm­hmm,” I said, setting the paper down between the eight ball and the solid purple. I accidentally nudged the solid purple while writing Definitely cigars on line three.

“You’re messing up the game,” Patch said, still smiling.

I caught his eye and couldn’t help but match his smile—briefly. “Hopefully not in your favor. Biggest dream?” I was proud of this one because I knew it would stump him. It required forethought.

“Kiss you.”

“That’s not funny,” I said, holding his eyes, grateful I didn’t stutter.

“No, but it made you blush.”

I boosted myself onto the side of the table, trying to look impassive. I crossed my legs, using my knee as a writing board. “Do you work?”

“I bus tables at the Borderline. Best Mexican in town.”

“Religion?”

He didn’t seem surprised by the question, but he didn’t seem overjoyed by it either. “I thought you said a few quick questions. You’re already at number four.”

“Religion?” I asked more firmly.

Patch dragged a hand thoughtfully along the line of his jaw. “Not religion … cult.”

“You belong to a cult?” I realized too late that while I sounded surprised, I shouldn’t have.

“As it turns out, I’m in need of a healthy female sacrifice. I’d planned on luring her into trusting me first, but if you’re ready now …”

Any smile left on my face slid away. “You’re not impressing me.”

“I haven’t started trying yet.”

I edged off the table and stood up to him. He was a full head taller. “Vee told me you’re a senior. How many times have you failed tenth­grade biology? Once? Twice?”

“Vee isn’t my spokesperson.”

“Are you denying failing?”

“I’m telling you I didn’t go to school last year.” His eyes taunted me. It only made me more determined.

“You were truant?”

Patch laid his pool stick across the tabletop and crooked a finger for me to come closer. I didn’t. “A secret?” he said in confidential tones. “I’ve never gone to school before. Another secret? It’s not as dull as I expected.”

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