Stanford. Three thousand miles away from here, almost a direct shot across the country. An incredible school, my top choice, and I’d been accepted by five out of the six others I’d chosen to apply to. All my hard work, AP classes, honors seminars. Finally it meant something.
Freshman year, when such decisions are made, my teachers had me pegged for the state party school, if I was lucky-someplace where I could do an easy major, like psych, with a minor in frat parties and makeup. As if just because I was, okay, blond and somewhat attractive with an active social life (and, okay, not the best of reputations) and didn’t do the student council/debate team/cheerleader thing, I was destined for the sub-par. Grouped with the burnouts and the barely graduating, where just making it down from the parking lot after lunch was far exceeding expectations.
But I’d proved them wrong. I used my own money to pay for a tutor in physics, the class that almost killed me, as well as a prep class for the SAT, which I took three times. I was the only one of my friends in AP classes except for Lissa, who as the daughter of two Ph.D.’s had always been expected to be brilliant. But I always worked harder when I was up against something, or when someone assumed I couldn’t succeed. That’s what drove me, all those nights studying. The fact that so many figured I couldn’t do it.
I was the only one from our graduating class going to Stanford. Which meant I could begin my life again, fresh and new, so far from home. All the money I had left from my salon paycheck after my car payment I’d stuck in my savings account, to cover the dorm fees and books and living expenses. The tuition I’d gotten out of my part of the trust left to me and Chris in our father’s estate. It had been set aside, by some lawyer who I wished I could thank personally, until we were twenty-five or for school, which meant that even during the lean times my mother couldn’t touch it. It also meant that no matter how she burned through her own money, my four years in college were safe. And all because each time “This Lullaby” (written by Thomas Custer, all rights reserved) played in the background of a commercial, or on lite radio, or was performed by some lounge singer in Vegas, it bought me another day of my future.
The chimes over the door sounded and the UPS man came in, carrying a box, which he put down on the desk in front of me. “Package for you, Remy,” he said, whipping out his clipboard.
I signed on the screen, then took the box. “Thanks, Jacob.”
“Oh, and this too,” he said, handing me an envelope. “See you tomorrow.”
“Okay,” I said. The envelope wasn’t stamped-weird-or sealed. I opened the flap and reached in, pulling out a stack of three pictures. They were all of the same couple, both in their seventies, probably, posing in some seaside setting. The man had on a baseball hat and a T-shirt that read WILL GOLF FOR FOOD. The woman had a camera strapped to her belt and was wearing sensible shoes. They had their arms around each other and looked wildly happy: in the first picture they were smiling, the next laughing, the third kissing, sweetly, their lips barely touching. Like any couple you’d see on vacation who would ask you to take a picture, please, of the two of us.
Which was all fine and dandy, except who the hell were they? And what was this supposed to mean, anyway? I stood up, looking outside for the UPS truck, but it was already gone. Was I supposed to know these people, or something? I glanced back at the pictures, but the couple just grinned back at me, caught in their tropical moment, offering no explanation.
“Remy, honey, get me some cold water, would you?” Lola yelled from the other room, and I could tell by her voice-cheerful but loud -she meant do it now, stat. “And some of that Neosporin from the cabinet beneath the cash drawer?”
“Sure thing!” I yelled back just as cheerfully, shoving the pictures into my purse.
I yanked the Neosporin out of the cabinet, adding some gauze and a few bandages, which from previous experiences, I thought we might need. Hair emergencies happened all the time, and the truth was, you just knew to be prepared.
Three hours later, when the drama had finally subsided and Lola’s customer had left with a bandaged scalp, a hefty gift certificate, and a written promise of eyebrow waxing for life, I finally got to lock the cash drawer, get my purse, and walk outside.
It finally felt like summer. Heavy heat, totally humid, and everything just smelled kind of smoky and thick, as if close to boiling. Lola kept the salon ice cold, so walking outside was like leaving an arctic freeze. I always got goose bumps as I walked to my car.
I got in, cranked the engine, and turned the AC on full blast to get it going. Then I picked up my cell phone and checked my messages. One from Chloe, asking what we were doing tonight. One from Lissa saying she was fine, just fine, but sounding all sniffly, which she knew I was getting sick of by now. And lastly my brother, Chris, reminding me that Jennifer Anne was cooking us dinner tonight, six sharp, don’t be late.
I deleted this last message with an angry jab of my finger. I was never late. And he knew it. Further evidence of brainwash ing by Jennifer Anne, who, unlike my brother, knew me not at all. I mean, I was the one who got him up each morning when he started for that Jiffy Lube job, otherwise, he would have slept through all three of his alarms, which he had set in various positions around the room, all requiring him to get up out of the bed to hit the snooze button. I made sure he wasn’t late, didn’t get fired, was out the door by 8:35 at the latest, in case he hit traffic down main street, which he always-
I was interrupted, suddenly, by a thwacking sound as something hit my windshield. Not hard: more like a slap. I looked up, heart jumping, and saw yet another snapshot of the old vacationing couple. Same WILL GOLF FOR FOOD T-shirt, same crinkly smiles. Now staring down at me, pressed against the glass, held there by someone’s hand.
And I knew. It was ridiculous I hadn’t figured it out earlier.
I hit the button for my window and it went down. Standing there, right by my side mirror, was Dexter. He took his hand off the windshield and the picture slid down the glass, lodging itself under one of my wipers.
“Hi there,” he said. He was wearing a white T-shirt under a uniform I recognized: polyester shirt, green with black piping. Right over the front pocket was neatly stitched FLASH CAMERA, the name of the one-hour photo place directly across the street from the salon.
“You’re stalking me,” I told him.
“What?” he said. “You didn’t like the pictures?”
“Will Golf for Food? How stupid is that?” I said, putting my car in reverse. “Is it supposed to mean something?”