I hated Michael Vallant for nine years before I finally met him.
I had always thought I would recognize him instantly, but I didn't. I was too involved with my own schemes that afternoon down by the river.
It had been my idea to come down to the river in the first place, to beat the muggy August heat by splashing around, but three hours had passed, and the heat had pulled ahead by five points and was winding up for another shot on goal.
Just the way I'd planned it.
When the moment was right, I stood. "I have an idea. Let's play War."
Maryanne laughed. She thought I was kidding.
Wendy knew better. She grinned evilly. "I'm game. What are the rules, Angel?" Wendy was always up for anything a bit reckless.
The other sunbathing teenagers sat up, looking interested. I was their Idea Girl, the one who could always think of something to do.
"We divide into two teams, the Pirates and the Landlubbers, on either side of the river," I said. "The Pirates try to keep the Landlubbers from reaching the Pirate side of the river with a flag." I looked around for a second, then snatched up the extra T-shirt I’d brought. "This is the flag. Pirates can't come onto the Landlubber side of the river. If a Pirate tags a Landlubber before she crosses the river, the Landlubber becomes a Pirate and tells all the secrets she knows. Everybody got it?"
"Who carries the flag?" Wendy's boyfriend, Carl, asked. A husky, blond boy, who moved with the slightly stiff movements of a wind-up toy, his square face held its customary stoic expression. I knew I could count on him to keep things from getting too rowdy.
"That's the secret," I told him.
Nobody else had any questions so we separated into two teams of five people each. "Five minutes to plan strategy and then the War starts," I said.
The Pirates, Carl in the lead, waded across the sluggish brown river. It was quite shallow, thigh-deep in one hollow and knee-deep everywhere else, and was dotted with sandbars.
Maryanne, Wendy and two other girls were on my team. We formed a huddle.
"Who gets the flag? I don't want it." Maryanne nervously tucked a strand of chin-length brown hair back behind her ear.
"Angel," Wendy said. "She's the best runner."
I shook my head. "They'll expect me to have it. You take it. Toss it to someone else if you think they're going to catch you."
We spent another minute discussing strategy before deciding to split up. Maryanne would go downriver and I would go upriver to draw off the Pirate forces while Wendy zigzagged across and the two other girls tried to protect her.
While Maryanne was doing the countdown Wendy surreptitiously handed me back the flag. She winked at me, and I winked back. Now if the other three were captured and turned into Pirates they would give false information.
"On your mark, get set, go!"
Singing, "Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum," Carl's Pirate team splashed into the water, eager to head us off. The current got stronger out towards the middle, and one of the boys was knocked off his feet for a moment. I saw Wendy swerve left around him and heard one of the other girls shout and turn Pirate, but noticed little after that.
I turned and ran upriver. One of the boys, Jimmy, ran parallel to me, ready to cut me off when I tried to cross the river. Carl had obviously assigned each Pirate one Landlubber to watch.
I let Jimmy keep pace close to the Landlubber side of the river until the bridge loomed ahead. The river wasn't very wide, but from the sandy bottom the bridge looked like the feat of engineering it was: three Y-shaped towers cradling a concrete road.
I put on a sudden burst of speed and headed up the steep grassy bank on my side of the river. Jimmy swore as he realized my intention, and I grinned. I hadn't said you necessarily had to go through the river to get to the other side. Since he was so close to the Landlubber bank he would have to race to beat me back across the river in time to cut me off. Better yet, he would be slowed by having to check constantly and make sure I didn't double back and trick him. I loved games like this.
A shout from downriver told me Wendy had finally been captured and now everyone knew I had the flag.
Jimmy would assume that I would cross the bridge using the regular pedestrian sidewalks along the bridge’s roadway, but instead I gasped in a lungful of air and headed for the single-lane walk-way used by maintenance workers that ran under the bridge.
Halfway to my goal I was forced to break step to avoid colliding with a dark-haired boy. He was a stranger, not part of the game.
He spun around. "What's the rush? Is something on fire?"
"I'm being chased by Pirates," I called back between strides.
"Pirates?" Intrigued, he ran after me, legs flying in time with mine.
"Bloodthirsty Pirates after treasure," I told him.
He drew even. "In that case would you mind if I joined you?" He didn't even sound out-of-breath.
I slashed him a grin. "If you can keep up." I poured on the speed. I'd just spent two weeks at a summer volleyball camp with a sadistic coach who made us run five sets of lines a day, and I was in great shape. The wind tore through my short blonde hair, and my thigh muscles burned pleasantly.
The boy lengthened his stride, turning the run into a real race. I beat him onto the one-lane hidden walkway by half a step. My footsteps echoed loudly on the planking, but it seemed quite sturdy, and there were handrails on both sides. I kept to the middle and let fly with my elbows to keep him from passing.
I snuck a glance down the river--the view was quite good from this height and not blocked by trees as it was from above--and saw everyone was now running toward the Pirate end of the bridge to cut me off except for Maryanne, who seemed to be just sitting on the riverbank, held at bay by one Pirate. Of course, she was also keeping Sean out of the race so that was okay.
When I was two-thirds of the way across, Wendy gained the bridge. "Avast, me hearties!" she yelled. When Wendy switched loyalties she did it whole-heartedly.
I stopped dead. "Oops."
"Turn around. I'll cover your retreat," the dark-haired boy offered.
"Nah. Jimmy will have cut off the other side." I was trapped. The Landlubbers had lost.
Funny thing, but I had never liked losing. Something reckless surged inside of me.
"There's something I forgot to tell you," I said, looking over the railing as Wendy pounded closer. It really was quite a distance down. Death to fall. The brown water moved hypnotically below, drawing the eye so one unconsciously leaned forward...
"What?" the boy asked.
"We're playing boys versus girls. You're a Pirate." I seized the railing with both hands and flipped over, headfirst.
I'd practiced the same move over and over on the uneven bars in gymnastics, so it wasn't quite as dangerous as it looked, but I must admit the kaleidoscope of sky and water did look a little scary before my feet landed neatly on the girder I'd spied earlier. Wendy yelled, and guilt pricked my smugness. She and the boy probably thought I'd committed suicide--
He swung his leg over the side and started to follow me. He didn't yell, although he did look a little pale underneath his tan. "Show-off."
I went sideways towards the last Y-support holding up the bridge. Each Y-support had two legs rising out of a concrete base and crossbeams X-ing the two together every three feet. They looked like giant ladders, and I quickly started down. The boy followed.
Hand-over-hand, strut by strut, he chased me down the giant steps.
"Exactly what is the treasure?" he asked.
My arms and legs moved rhythmically. "A flag."
I hooked my ankles around a horizontal crossbar, let go with my hands, and dropped upside-down. I took the T-shirt/flag out from under my shirt and threw it in the river, just as the boy slid down a big X and tagged me.
"Too late!" I swung myself up again, untangled my legs, and seated myself comfortably on the bar. Together we watched the current grab the T-shirt and unsnag it from a rock. It had just brushed against the Pirate shore when Wendy's head popped into view above us.
She was gasping for breath. "Angel, you're crazy!" She seemed to notice the boy with me for the first time. "And you're just as nuts as she is."
"Hi," the boy said back.
"Nice of you to drop by," I added.
She glared, but was too busy sucking in air to say anything.
I used the time to take a closer look at my companion. He was around the same age I was, seventeen, maybe a year older, and, in addition to being very fit and tanned, he was extremely good-looking. Thick black hair, straight black brows, a strong jaw and blue eyes. His nose had a small bump on it, but other than that he was to-die-for. Very sweaty, but then so was I. I grinned at him like an idiot. There weren't very many people who could keep up with me.
"Are you going to introduce us?" Wendy demanded as Carl pulled even with her. He looked unruffled, as if he could have single-handedly stopped the Iran-Iraq war and finished in time for supper.
"Nope," I said cheerfully. I relented under her stare. "I can't. I don't know his name."
"Ah." Wendy nodded wisely. "You just happened to run into each other three-quarters of the way up a bridge." Her voice rose at the end.
I tried to be helpful. "On the riverbank, actually."
Carl saved Wendy from more teeth-gnashing. "I'm Carl Whittier. This is Wendy Lindstrom."
I smiled at the boy. "And I'm Angel Eastland."
"An angel? Now why didn't I guess that?" His smile was warm and amused and very interested in me. I didn't mind. I was interested right back.
Wendy interrupted our eye-lock. "That's your cue. Now you say, 'My name is...'"
"Mike. Michael Vallant."
It was five in the afternoon, and the sun was shining hard enough to require sun block, glinting off the water, but I felt as if I'd been plunged into an ice bath.
My face stiffened, my smile ironing out. "Vallant? V-A-L-L-A-N-T? Valiant with an extra L instead of an I?" I looked more closely at his eyes. They were violet, not blue, a dead giveaway if I'd been paying attention.
Wendy looked merely curious, Carl calm as always, but something shifted beneath Mike's lazy smile. "Why yes. Have we met before?"
"Then how come you know how to spell my name? It's rather unusual." He was still smiling pleasantly, but the light flirtation had evaporated.
"I saw it on a trophy."
Before anyone could say another word I descended rapidly, practically running away when I never ran from anything.
I was so agitated that I almost forgot the whole purpose of the game I had instigated: to check out the view of the river that was normally hidden by the next curve in the riverbank.
As I had expected the river was another dead end.
The name kept whispering through my mind that night, throwing me into turmoil.
Michael Vallant was here. In town.
I punched my pillow and remembered the first time I'd ever heard his name.
I was in grade one at the time, a student of the terrible Miss Dotson. She and I had become enemies on the first day of school when she called me Angela instead of Angel. When I corrected her she huffed and said she hoped I lived up to my name.
I set out to be a little devil instead. I pretended to snore when she lectured us. I waved my hand wildly in the air, begging to be called on to give the answer--and then said, "Can I go to the washroom?" I brought frogs to school and shot rubber bands at the ceiling.
On this particular afternoon Miss Dotson had handed around a worksheet with the words, "When I grow up I want to be a ____________." There were pictures of a policewoman, a firefighter, a doctor, a carpenter, a teacher, and then space for us to draw our own if it wasn't on the list.
She went around the classroom, stopping at each desk, complimenting Ashley on her colouring, correcting Peter's spelling of movie star, telling Jamie she would have to study hard to become an astronaut... until she got to my desk.
"And what do you want to be, Angel?"
"A tree." I showed her the picture I'd drawn.
She laughed. "You can't be a tree. You were supposed to draw what you want to be when you grow up."
"I want to be a tree," I said stubbornly. The tree had been a trick, but I didn't like being laughed at.
"Well, you can't be one," she said crossly.
"You're a person, not a tree."
"So you can't turn into a tree." She was tiring of the game.
"But you told us we could be anything we wanted if we worked hard enough."
She didn't like that reminder. "Don't be difficult. Pick something else." She moved on to examine Davy's scribble.
But I didn't pick something else. I sat there and remembered everything I could about trees. While everyone else opened their math workbooks, I cut out paper leaves inside my desk and put them in my hair. When I stood up I shed them like the fall trees outside.
Miss Dotson took the leaves away from me, but the minute her back was turned I coloured my arms and face green with a marker. Bright green. Frog green. When she tried to make me go to the washroom to wash it off I clung to my desk with both hands, screaming, "Stop! You'll tear up my roots and kill me! Help!"
For the rest of the day I wilted as if I hadn't been watered and refused to answer questions. "Trees don't know math."
At the end of the day, worn to a frazzle, Miss Dotson 'transplanted' me to the Quiet Corner. "I swear, Angel, you're almost as bad as Michael Vallant."
If she had meant to cow me, she failed. I immediately aspired to behave worse than Michael Vallant. Fortunately for Miss Dotson, my father got transferred to another town, and we moved halfway through the school year.
We moved frequently--five times in the next ten years--and in every town I ever lived in there were signs of Michael Vallant's presence.
Michael Vallant had won every contest I entered and every trophy I ever won, the year before.
"It's a good idea, Angel," my teachers would say, "but Michael Vallant had the same idea, and we did it last year."
"The volleyball team won Zones last year--of course, we had Michael Vallant on our team then," the coaches would say.
"...and the winner for the most boxes of chocolate sold is Angel Eastland. Congratulations, Angel. I didn't think anyone would ever touch Michael Vallant's record, but you've come very close..."
"I wish Mike hadn't moved away," my girlfriends would sigh. "He was the greatest."
I came to almost hate him.
When I moved to Chinchaga last fall, virtually the first thing I had done was examine all the trophies at school for the telltale brass nameplate. I had been amazed and then overjoyed not to find even one. No 'Most Valuable Player 1986', no 'Curling Championships', no 'Intramurals'. For once I would put my name on the trophies first. 'Angel Eastland 1987'. When he moved to town after I left people would say, "Too bad Angel moved. She could always come up with great ideas."
It had never occurred to me we would be in the same town at the same time.
Because of the eerie way he had always moved one town ahead of me I had assumed his dad must have the same kind of job mine did and that their employers were rotating them on purpose.
I shivered in my bedroom, under the covers. It would be all right even if he had moved here, I assured myself. He was a grade ahead of me. We would avoid one another.
I got my first inkling things might not be so simple the next evening at Wendy's.
Her pregnant stepmother was having a baby-shower, and Wendy claimed she would go nuts alone listening to a bunch of women ooh and ahh over fuzzy sleepwear with fuzzy feet. "And Raven will be so careful not to tear the wrapping paper; she'll fold it all up to reuse it. What's she going to use it for, I ask you? None of her friends are pregnant, they've all had their kids." Resentment shaded Wendy's voice as I followed her down into the basement den.
Wendy didn't get along with either her stepmother or her father.
Witness our first meeting back in January when I'd persuaded the entire Social Studies class to lie about their names to our new teacher. "Then tomorrow, answer to your real name, then the next day switch again. By Friday we should have him totally confused, all right?"
"One small problem," Wendy had said, looking cool and tough in a black long-sleeved shirt and acid-wash jeans, her long brown hair stiff with hairspray. "Mr. Lindstrom knows me, so I'll have to go by my real name."
I didn't find out Mr. Lindstrom was her father until two days later, and she never told him about our joke. Her dad still sometimes called me Harriet.
I expected Wendy to ask me why I'd run off the day before, but she only referred to it obliquely. "You should have stayed longer yesterday. We had a Marshmallow Cookoff to see who could get the best golden tan. Then we did polka dots and stripes. We had a blast."
My stomach tightened. "Whose idea was that?" As if I couldn't guess.
"Mike's. He's cool. Carl asked him to play volleyball with us on Saturday. We're always short a player." Wendy looked at me sideways, but I didn't object.
Inside my heart sank. In one short evening he'd managed to get in tight with all my friends.
I changed the subject, and we talked about movies and clothes while listening to rock music. Loud rock music. Def Leppard and Bon Jovi. Whitesnake.
"This is the only way to listen to music," Wendy said. "So loud you can hear it vibrate in your chest."
Just before eight, when the guests were scheduled to arrive, Mr. Lindstrom came downstairs and asked Wendy to turn it down.
"What?" Wendy pretended not to hear.
"Turn it down!"
She turned it down one notch.
He winced. "More."
She turned it down two more notches. "How's that?"
"All right," he said grudgingly and started back up the stairs.
"Wouldn't want to disturb the unborn child," Wendy said softly.
He paused at the top, a slim, neatly dressed man with thinning hair. He looked oddly helpless. "I don't understand how you can listen to this stuff. You used to love classical music. How come you never play the piano anymore?"
"I have a tin ear," Wendy said.
"You were so good at it."
"Sometimes we outgrow things," she said between clenched teeth.
He just shook his head and left.
Wendy hugged her elbows, staring straight ahead. "He doesn't listen. I've told him a hundred times I'll never play piano again."
For the first time I noticed the piano in the corner of the room. Wendy had done her best to bury it under a stack of papers and some clothes.
I risked a question. "Were you a child prodigy or something?"
"You'd think so, but no. I just had some lessons as a kid." Wendy clearly didn't want to talk about it. "Which movie do you want to watch first? Police Academy 3 or Top Gun?" She held up the two tapes.
I voted for Top Gun even though we'd already seen it once before, and we drooled over Tom Cruise. Wendy had provisioned the den with pop and chips so we didn't poke our heads upstairs all evening.
Raven called down for us to go to sleep at one o'clock. We broke out the sleeping bags, but continued to talk for an hour.
Just before we dropped off to sleep, Wendy brought Mike up again. "He was asking about you. Did you know him Before?" She laughed. "Or should I say After? Get it?"
I didn't get it, and my heart began to pound against my ribcage. "What do you mean?"
But Wendy was through being indiscreet. She looked at me in admiration. "You never slip, do you? I catch myself half a dozen times a day about to say the wrong thing, but you never slip. It's disgusting. I better go to sleep before I cost Dad a thousand bucks. Goodnight." She turned over and slid straight into dreamland.
I lay awake half the night, staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out what she had meant. I felt chilled, as if I had touched the tip of an iceberg but had not yet begun to comprehend the vast, dim shape below.