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DAY OF ATONEMENT

Title: Day of Atonement

Series: The Days of Ascension, 3

Author: Martin Berman-Gorvine

ISBN: 978-1-60975-215-6

Product Code: BK0147

Format: Trade Paperback

Pages: 324

Release Date: July 3, 2018

Cover Price: $20.95

Our Price: $20.95

 

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Book Jacket

 

When human rebels overthrow a god of human sacrifice, only to bring about the rise of a goddess even more cruel and perverse, is there any chance human dignity and freedom can survive?

 

High school sweethearts Amos and Suzie have been surviving in the woods with their two little children and a small band of the like-minded for seven years, ever since they destroyed the bloodthirsty god Moloch. Their friend Vickie is with them, but she lives under a curse because she fell under the spell of the goddess Asherah, murdered dozens of people in her name, and then turned against her. Can Vickie overcome her overwhelming guilt and the curse that exiles her from human society—and can she and her friends bring Asherah down? And if they do, what new bloodthirsty gods lie in waiting? Find out, in Day of Atonement!

 


 

Book Excerpt

 

Prologue

Suzie

 

 

 

Waking up to your best friend hanging herself from a tree is not the best way to start your day.

I sigh and put down the brimming water bucket I’m hauling up from the creek. “Vickie, again?” I call.

There’s no sound except for the wind in the treetops and the gentle creaking of the stout branch Vickie has tied the rope to. I’m not fooled. I hold my breath as I approach her swaying, barefooted body, ignoring it for the moment as I study the tree, looking for the easiest way to climb up. Inconsiderate as usual, she’s chosen an oak with no branches less than eight or ten feet above the ground. She must have flown up there, in fact, to have tied the rope around the limb supporting her weight.

Vickie’s charcoal-gray gown billows in the breeze as her body spins gently, winding the rope clockwise, then counterclockwise, reversing direction every thirty seconds or so. Her head is tilted to her right, as if she’s thinking over the answer to a question, and her red curly hair has flopped over to conceal most of her face. A stranger happening on the scene would immediately assume she’s dead.

I know better. Despite her stubborn silence, she’s as alive as me, and she’s only causing me major inconvenience. “This is never going to work. You know you can’t die,” I say as I eye a nearby birch tree, wondering whether I can shimmy up close enough to jump onto the branch she’s hanging from. I can’t touch her, of course, not unless I want a vivid vision of all the people she killed when she was a Priestess of Asherah. My only option is cutting the rope with my pocketknife and letting her loosen the Georgia necktie herself. But I have to remember not to breathe through my nose as I climb up to rescue her, because a stench of mingled sewage and fresh blood surrounds her for yards in every direction. A walking eau d’slaughterhouse, that’s my best friend. Being cursed by a god sucks.

The gap between the birch and oak branches is wider than it seemed from the ground. Cursing under my breath, I crouch and leap, barely managing to grab the oak branch with my right hand. I bring the other hand up with a grunt and swing my weight up. Back when I was in high school I never would have made it, despite the vicious cheerleader training the late unlamented Loretta Turner put us through, but years of living out here in the forest have toughened me up. No amount of skill can do anything about gravity, however, and the limb is creaking louder than ever now that it’s supporting two people’s weight. No time to lose. I whip out my knife, a trusty stainless steel blade manufactured more than thirty years ago, before the War of the Judgment, and saw through the rope. Vickie promptly falls and hits the ground with a thump.

“That was good rope, you know, Vickie,” I shout down to her, as I cling to the swaying branch. “Trade goods don’t grow on trees. So to speak.” She doesn’t say a word, not even a dry chuckle at my wit, just tosses aside the noose and slumps off toward her tent, kicking aside dry leaves as she goes.

I know better at this point than to scold her for not even saying thank you—from her perspective, I haven’t done her any favors. Still, I call after her, “It doesn’t do any good, you know, hurting yourself like that!” as I climb back down and reach for my bucket. It’s not like she can bring anybody she killed back to life, or do anything worse to herself than Asherah already has. As it is, she has to camp a good fifty yards away from the rest of us. More, if there’s a wind up.

By the time I bring the water into our camp the campfire is already blazing high in anticipation of breakfast. I’ve kept everyone waiting again, but my boyfriend Amos—I suppose I should really call him my husband, after all this time—only raises an eyebrow at me, though I can hear our two younger kids, the ones who are really ours, shrieking and giggling in our tent.

“It was Vickie. She hanged herself again,” I say, putting down the bucket with a grunt.

He shakes his head. “Want me to try to talk to her?”

“Won’t do any good. I don’t think she’s said a word to anybody in weeks.”

He shakes his head again and goes back to peeling some of the potatoes we bought from the Punk Band last week, in exchange for a basket Amos wove over the winter. It’s ironic, considering how many women are in this band, that he’s so good at a lot of the traditional “women’s work,” and doesn’t seem to mind doing it, while our other renegade Priestess of Asherah, Ginnie, is an excellent spotter, thanks to her flying abilities, when Deena and Cindy go out hunting. The Punks laugh their ugly heads off at us “she-men,” but they’re the right ones to talk—when was the last time their unofficial head-woman Alyssa washed a blanket, for Moloch’s sake?

Sorry, I mean “for God’s sake.” Amos keeps trying to get me to stop using Moloch’s name, at least around the kids. “If you’re going to take a god’s name in vain, at least let it be the real one,” he says. I try to do the right thing, I really do. My firstborn Kathy, little Sammy, and even our adopted kid Terri deserve a better childhood than mine, and I mean to give it to them. It’s not easy, since we have to live out here in the woods, without electricity or modern medicine, and with the ever-present threat of an attack by Asherah and her followers in the Forge, not to mention the Dagon worshippers in Quaker Mill and the Moat worshippers in Moatsville… no matter how far we move, there always seems to be a threat.

Amos puts the water I’ve hauled up from the stream in a kettle over the campfire. There’s an ominous thump from inside the tent, followed by an even more ominous silence before the inevitable wailing starts. Amos rolls his eyes and says it’s my turn.

Inside Sammy is holding his left eye and howling while Kathy arranges her cornsilk dolls in the little wooden “treasure box” Deena made for her, as if nothing has happened. I put my hands on my hips. “What is going on in here? Where’s Terri?”

Sammy rolls around on his back, sobbing, pointing right-handed at his sister as he gabbles out a complaint. When he gets this worked up he’s impossible to understand.

“He was touching my stuff! And Terri’s off in the woods somewhere picking flowers,” Kathy says, without turning around.

“Katherine Ross, you’re the big sister. You have to be the one to set a good example.” There, that sounds like the kind of thing a good mother says, right? Even if Terri’s the real big sister and ought to have been here to stop this before it started.

Kathy whips her head around to glare at me, her lower lip stuck way out. “You just favor Sammy ‘cause he’s LITTLE and he’s a BOY!” And because he’s the spitting image of me, she might have added, with his rosebud mouth, light brown hair, and green eyes. Of course the accusation is ridiculous. Sammy’s littler and he needs a bit of extra protection, that’s all.

“Put those down and go help your father with breakfast! Go on, out of the tent!” She flounces out tossing her long blonde hair back, for all the world as if she’s sixteen rather than six, leaving me alone to tend to Sammy’s dreadful wounds. “Come on, Sammy, stop carrying on like that and let me see your eye!” I pry his hand away, afraid big sis might actually have given him a shiner, but I don’t even see a bump.

“All right, Sammykins, you’ll live,” I sigh, but he just goes on blubbering and won’t move, so I end up having to pick him up. Moloch, but he’s heavy for a three-year-old, and it’d really make things a lot easier if he was more verbal. Ginnie keeps telling me not to worry, that a lot of kids start talking late, but I can see the doubt in her eyes. Being in her forties (although she looks barely any older than me) and our former English teacher besides, she’s what passes for the wise old woman of the Ross Band.

Just now she’s sitting on a rock with her plate, talking with Cindy and Deena, doubtless planning their next hunting expedition. Cindy has her latest boyfriend, Jason, a renegade Punk, draped over her shoulder, practically slobbering over her piebald head. The hair never grew back on certain patches of her scalp after Asherah’s Priestess Casey attacked her all those years ago, so she spends all her trade goods on colorful bandanas. The men she goes through like water don’t seem to mind a bit. Today she’s got her favorite scarlet headscarf on. It looks too warm for the early summer weather, but if it keeps the Blonde Bitch happy, who am I to complain? I just have to go on hoping against hope that she gets mauled by a bear or maybe trampled by a herd of those defenseless bunnies our big brave huntress is always bringing back for the stewpot. Moloch knows Amos is never going to see her for the heartless psycho she really is, but after all, a former Nerd is just as much a man as all the rest of them.

Deena’s another story, prickly as hell till you get to know her, but once she gives you her trust, you won’t find a better friend in all the world. If I’m honest with myself I’m closer to the forest-born girl now than I am to Vickie, even though Vickie and I go all the way back to kindergarten, because how can you have any kind of relationship with a girl who’s way more than half in love with easeful death? Which Deena isn’t, not a bit, that’s for sure. She catches my eye and gives me a sly half smile and a raised eyebrow, as much as to say, What can you do, just be grateful you’re not the one out hunting with the Blonde Bitch all the time. Deena was only about twelve when I met her just after the Fall of Moloch—the same age as Terri, come to think of it. Now she’s more than old enough to be married off, or considered an old spinster even, in the more patriarchal bands. She enjoys attention from boys well enough, and gets plenty of it thanks to her long sleek dark hair (done up in a bun now for the hunt) and her easy, confident manner. But she’s not going with anyone now, and I always tell her she should hold out for someone who’ll appreciate her quick intelligence, her woodcraft, and her healer skills, not to mention her loyal heart. Not that she needs me telling her these things.

As for Terri, she’d be swimming in boys too if she gave it half a try. Instead she lets her long blonde hair grow out in tangles and cultivates fingernails as long as switchblades, and if that’s not enough to send them a message, she clings to Amos like a second shadow, taking the daddy’s girl act to extremes. Of course, he’s not really her father, he’s just the guy who killed Bill Rockland, “Rock-Solid Bill,” the hero of Chatham High, when he was raping her during that slave raid they all went on that final summer of Moloch. But since the other members of her native Mastronio Band were all killed in that disaster, as was everybody in the Gerard Band who took her in afterwards when they tried to stone Ginnie and she fried ’em with her powers, I guess it’s not too surprising that she glommed onto Amos as a surrogate dad. That Amos killed Bill is just our secret, the three of us, since Bill was Cindy’s boyfriend. It’s a secret that draws us together as a family. Terri even calls me Mom sometimes, when we’re getting along. Which is not all that often.

I can’t run off looking for her now, not when there’s still Vickie to take care of. I pick up a plate of rabbit stew from Amos and set off into the trees, past the spot where I had such an unpleasant start to the day. I start calling her name but there’s no answer, and the bed of dried brown pine needles where she’s been sleeping (fragrant, sure, but I can’t imagine they’re very comfortable) is empty, with only a faint lingering whiff of her stench.

“Vickie! Breakfast is getting cold!” A dove cooing in a nearby copse is my only answer. That, and a little splashing from the nearby creek, as if frogs are mating there. But it’s too early in the season for that… Oh, no. No, no, no. Not again. Not twice in a single morning! I am NOT in the mood for this. I put the plate down in the pine needles and stomp toward the water, taking as direct a path as possible… straight through a patch of poison ivy, of course. Leaves of three, why does it have to be ME?

The creek flows here into a deep, still pool, good for catching fish. It’s what first drew us to this spot. But now it’s befouled by billows of black, like those rotting old garbage bags you used to see around Chatham’s Forge sometimes. I also catch glimpses of pale mushroom-white skin and floating strands of red hair (that all should cry, Beware! Beware!).

I can’t contain myself. “Moloch DAMN it, not this FUCKING Ophelia shit again!” Terri may be just as crazy as Vickie, but at least she doesn’t go around trying to snuff herself every day.

I know just how this is going to go, and reality fulfills every single one of my lousy expectations as I drag Vickie from the water, leaving us both covered in mud. I roll her onto her back and press down hard on her breastbone to expel the water from her lungs. It takes so much force that I can feel her ribs breaking under my hands, beneath the satiny cloth of her charcoal-colored gown (which can’t be removed without her skin coming with it). Dark, sludgy water burbles down her chin, and I’m coughing and gagging on the stench she gives off as I blow into her mouth, trying to get her breathing again.

And worst of all, just like every time I touch her, I’m about to get a new vision of the people she impaled for Asherah, forcing instantly growing cherry trees up their butts while they screamed and begged for mercy. Who’s it going to be this time, I wonder as I pinch her nose and put my open mouth over her gaping jaw?

MOLOCH, NO, I mean, in the name of ASHERAH please have mercy Priestess Victoria, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’M SORRY I know I was a Chatham Cheerleader like your friend Suzie but I swear I SWEAR I wasn’t even in school the day they Defrocked her, I was shocked when I heard how they beat her and Slut-shamed her and the rumors that she tried to kill herself afterward, I felt so bad about it, and about how I never talked to you in school, you have to understand I couldn’t they would’ve kicked me off the squad in a Moloch minute, but I always secretly admired how you did so well in class and wished we were friends NO IT’S REALLY TRUE HONEST… I’m sailing helplessly backwards through the air, kicking against nothing in the denim overalls and patched blouse that are all they’ve given me to wear since they sent me to work on that tomato farm with the other Chatham Cheetahs cheerleaders—and to think that less than a year ago, I expected that by now I’d be happily married to Eric Brantley, Second Grabber for the Cheetahs, with our own home and our own family. The vision is dissolving in the clear blue sky now. I land on all fours on a bare patch of ground and start to run, but I get no more than two steps when something hits me hard in the butt. I fall but my head never touches the ground because it’s INSIDE me, ripping tearing blood and shit everywhere, I let out a howl and green shoots unfurl from my open mouth, choking darkening agony everywhere, agony that goes on and on and—

I go reeling back from Vickie’s prone form, my arms flailing, losing my balance so I hit the back of my head and lay stunned for a long minute. Dammit, you’d think by now I’d have learned that if I have to touch Vickie, not to do it anywhere there are rocks around. I sit up, groaning, and see she has rolled over onto her side to cough out the last of the creek water.

I can’t even say I really saved her, in the end. Vickie can’t die. But what would it feel like to have a rope tight around your neck, or water filling your lungs, for hour after hour until someone happened along? I can’t let my oldest friend suffer. Not any more than she already is.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t be angry with her. I storm over to her, rubbing the back of my head, and it’s all I can do not to fetch her a kick in the broken ribs. “Dammit Vickie, why?”

“Stop helping me,” she coughs.

I shake my head, drops of muddy water flying everywhere off my wet and tangled hair. “You know I can’t do that!” On top of everything else, the person whose horrible death I saw this time was Colleen O’Bannon, golden Colleen of the Cheetahs Cheerleading squad, who was always plenty bitchy to me although it’s true, she wasn’t there the day I was Defrocked and nearly lynched by the rest of the team. And I would know, since I relive that event almost every night in my nightmares. Still, Vickie killed her for me, however misguided she was and however influenced by the demon Asherah. And that has to count for something, right?

I scoot back a few steps and squat in the mud. I can’t help myself, the stink is overwhelming and I don’t want to throw up my breakfast. “What are we going to do, Vickie? It’s been years of this now. You can’t keep punishing yourself more than Asherah already has!”

She says nothing, but fresh tears are pouring from her brown eyes. Do they stink, too, or are they as pure and salty as anyone else’s?

I shake my head, trying to clear it. I’ve got the beginnings of a powerful headache, but we have to save Deena’s willow-bark tea for really serious pains and for trade. “You know though, Vickie, that demon lied about something important when she laid that curse on you. She said no one would ever love you. But Amos and I still care for you, however hard you keep making it!”

She turns her head away, her body shaking with sobs that must hurt like hell, with broken ribs. She mumbles something, of which I catch only the word “deserve.”

“You’ve got to stop saying that, Vickie!” I wish I could touch her without it setting off another nightmare vision. “You’ve paid plenty for what you did! And for me and Amos, it’s not about what you ‘deserve’ anyway! We don’t love you for anything you did or didn’t do, we love you because of who you are!”

She turns back toward me, her face a blotchy mess. “I’ve paid, maybe. But how do I atone, Vickie? How do I atone for what I’ve done?”

  

 

1

Irene

 

 

 

The Intervarsity Poetry Slam is in less than four hours, and I’ve got nothing written. Which is kind of a problem, when you’re Strategos of the Chatham High School Cheetahs Poetry Squad. We’re the underdogs, but everyone expects me to lead the team to victory, finally, after six years in which the Linwood Lions have dominated the League.

There’s a lot less pressure if your sport is Math. My best friend Ryan would kill me if he knew I thought so, which is why I don’t tell him. But it’s true. All he has to do as Strategos of the Math Squad is help his buddies work out the solution to some nonsense called Fermat’s Last Theorem. Sounds pretty marginal to me. Even if they lose, so what? Chatham won the Math championships last year, Linwood won the year before that, and so on, a game of pass-the-trophy that’s gone on since the Revelation. Ryan’s not carrying the weight of expectations of the whole school—no, the whole town—on his broad shoulders, like I am, although there is pressure for him, being the first Drone allowed to lead a Squad since the Revelation.

Everyone thinks we’re fucking, Ryan and me, and I’m happy to let ’em think so. Really he’s gay and has this whole secret Romeo-and-Juliet thing going with Jake, a member of the most despised Caste of all, the Dumbjocks. It’s hard to know which is worse if they get caught, the homosexuality or the Intercaste Dating, though both are just as strictly forbidden now as they were before the Revelation, during the Reign of Moloch. So much for all the hypocrisy about how much better things are now than they were back then, in the Dark Ages of the Eighties! Me, I’m happy being secretly single. Despite being in the highest Creative subcaste of all, Nerdette-Poet, I’m in no rush to pass on my allegedly superior genes by getting knocked up before I even graduate high school, like you’re supposed to. Like Mom did, although that was long before the Revelation, and if people knew how it happened, how little Irene DeAngelo came into the world… Let’s just say we’d both have problems.

Well. My life is pretty complicated for a 17-year-old, Dear Diary. That’s why I need you to confide in. I tell everyone this composition book with its black-and-white gravel cover is where I compose my poems, and sometimes it’s even true. Keeps the curious at bay.

I really need some brainstorming time, but right now I’m stuck in Ms. Larssen’s last-period Religion class, and unlike all my other teachers she’s not very understanding about my extracurricular responsibilities. Asherah help you if she catches you not paying attention to every droning word. Just now she’s written “SACRIFICE” on the blackboard, in her crabbed block letters, and has turned around to face us with iron-gray eyebrows raised in her round pudding of a face. “Anyone care to explain this concept to the class? Ms. DeAngelo?”

Why’s she always picking on me? “Sacrifice means giving up something you care about to serve the Goddess,” I say.

“That’s a very basic definition. Plain vanilla. Not what I expect from a strategic Poet like yourself.”

“I’m Stra-tea-GOHS of the poetry squad,” I say, wishing I had some forbidden gum I could pop. “It’s an ancient Greek word meaning general.”

“I know what a Strategos is, young lady. I can do without your attitude.”

When she turns to call on someone else I mutter, “I can do without yours, bitch.” My redheaded friend, Shannon Collingswood, who sits in the desk to my left, dissolves in helpless giggles, causing the teacher to spin around, her compact body quivering with rage. It’s almost cute.

“What did you say, young lady?”

“Just a Hail Asherah, Ms. Larssen.” I offer her a bland smile, and she sends me to the principal’s office! This would be an ordeal for most people, but in my case it means I get what I wanted, a little quiet time to sit and think up a poem. I know, how about a villanelle, like Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”? The rigid form actually makes it pretty easy, what with all those repeated lines. I’ll make it even easier on myself, use words that are a cinch to rhyme:

A silhouette looms in memory’s haze

Shadowy and huge against the light…

“Ms. Ermelli will see you now,” the secretary, Mr. Celeste, says, poking his nervous thin face with its ginger toothbrush mustache through the door from the inner office.

“Thanks, Jim,” I say, relishing the way he stiffens as I march past him. He can’t do a thing to me and he knows it. Not with Donna Ermelli on my side.

As I stride into her office she’s writing something down in her planner. She looks up, drops her half-moon glasses on their gold chain into her ample cleavage and sighs. “Close the door behind you, would you, dear?” I’m glad to comply and leave Mr. Celeste fuming on the other side. “Now Irene honey,” Ms. Ermelli says, patting her piled-up black curls with her right hand, “what am I supposed to do with you?”

Today I am wearing my shiny black boots with the little mirrors, which are supposed to intimidate the Lions into thinking I’m tougher than I really am. I can get away with them, being poetry Strategos, because I do condescend to wear the green uniform blouse that shows off my proud membership in the club of those who have been Deflowered at Flourish Fest. I prop the heels on the principal’s desk, causing her to frown slightly, and say, “Now Donna honey, what am I supposed to do with Gudrun Larssen? Because, like, everybody knows, she taught the same religion class, during the same seventh period, under MOLOCH!”

Ms. Ermelli flinches at the profanity. “Irene, that’s not nice. Ms. Larssen has done a full, proper Atonement and conversion just like any other member of the staff.”

“I don’t understand how someone like her can stand being such a hypocrite. I mean, eight years ago she was standing there in the classroom telling everyone about the glorious martyrdom of the Virgin Sacrifices for Moloch—”

“Please don’t use that language, dear.”

“MOLOCH, MOLOCH, MOLOCH!”

“Don’t be childish,” Ms. Ermelli says, frowning slightly. “And try to avoid conflict with Ms. Larssen, please, for my sake? There’s less than a month left in the school year.”

And the vast wasteland of my senior year after that, during which I’ll have to restrain myself from strangling the droning phony. I dredge up a brave smile for the principal. “I’ll do my best, Ms. Ermeli.”

She actually claps her hands. “Great! That’s my girl. Now, are you going to be bringing home a trophy for Chatham tonight? Everyone’s counting on you.”

So there’s no pressure, then. “I can only do my best.”

“That’s all we ask, dear. Why don’t you take the rest of the period to work on your entry in the outer office?”

I’d like nothing better, of course. Especially since it means I get to rhyme aloud, in front of a progressively more annoyed Jim Celeste, and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. “Let’s see, what rhymes with ‘haze’?” I say, tapping my pen against my teeth. “Any ideas, Jim? No? Hmm, bays, cays, days, faze…” I trail off because I’ve got it, and it’s important to keep my work secret—I wouldn’t put it past the scowling secretary to be spying for the Lions. Just before the bell rings I complete the poem:

 

 

A silhouette looms in memory’s haze

Shadowy and huge against the light

I can’t see his eyes, but I feel his gaze

 

Such a long time gone, a lifetime of days

Since strong arms guarded me against the night

A silhouette looms in memory’s haze

 

His face has dissolved into a formless maze

The features blur though I make my mind’s eye bright

I can’t see his eyes, but I feel his gaze

 

Though I strain my thoughts, his voice can’t be raised

From the endless silence which none can fight

but his silhouette still looms in memory’s haze

 

Gone longer than I knew him, yet I yearn for his praise

A single kind word, a moment in his sight,

but I can’t see his eyes, though I feel his gaze

 

In my dreams, he’s there now and always

Just out of my reach, I can’t touch him, not quite

Only glimpsing his silhouette, looming in memory’s haze

A blink of hidden eyes, and I still feel his gaze

 

Not a bad period’s work, and at least I know I’m done, because the form is complete. That’s one big advantage of composing rigidly formal poetry. Whereas Jody Thompson, the captain of the Linwood Lions, is notorious for not only preferring free, blank verse herself, but for making her whole team work that way, too. That pretentious little bitch actually insists her team is more creative that way, writing as a team, which she goes so far as to call “the Linwood Movement.” All those trophies lining the glass display case in her school might seem to prove her case about the terrifying, unstoppable power of groupthink, but I think it’s a hollow sham that will collapse under its own weight starting tonight. We Cheetahs believe in the power of individual art, or at least that’s the message I keep trying to drill into Mikey, Sarah, Shannon, and baby-faced Lonnie with his macabre little limericks.

Of course, I can see the irony of drumming a message of individuality into a team. And it also might seem like a paradox that all of us except Shannon prefer the more formal types of poetry. Jody and her gang aren’t above taunting us for that, but we’re confident enough to take it. Or so I keep telling myself and the others.

Two-thirty and the bell goes off for the end of school—the famously inspiring tones of the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, played by our own pianist, the sophomore, Jessica Kline. It’s calling on the student body to go forth and do heroic works in the afternoon, an ideal most of my classmates just pay lip service to but one I have to take seriously as Strategos of the Cheetahs. We have a team meeting with Coach Hammond in ten minutes, and he doesn’t like anyone to be late, let alone the girl who’s supposed to be Setting an Example. I tip Jim Celeste a wink as I flounce out of the office, making as much of a production out of it as possible. But I do have to squeeze in a visit to the girls’ room. No matter what people may think, this bird’s nest ‘do I’ve got going takes a lot of work, teasing all those tangled jet-black curls into place. Shh, don’t tell anyone, I use extra dye to get that midnight shade just right over my chalky white face and big gray eyes. I’m not such a fool as to imagine that you get to be a poet thanks to your looks, but it doesn’t hurt either. And to think that other girls would kill to be a natural blonde like me! Of course, I have more than one reason to darken my hair…

I’m in such a rush I almost walk right past the confrontation going on in the first stall. Then I try to tell myself it’s none of my business, whatever those Choirgirls in their dirndl skirts are up to. (How all those people even squeezed into that tiny space is beyond me.) But then I hear the crying and the gurgling and I just can’t look away. I step up and tap the nearest choirgirl on the shoulder. “Mind telling me what you think you’re doing in here?”

She looks up, startled, and I see it’s the Choir Strategos and First Soprano Sherry Stoltzfus. “Oh, hi Irene,” she says with a big fake grin, brushing her straw-colored bangs out of her eyes, “we’re just having a little fun. Nothing for you to worry about, you must be so busy!”

Dammit, now I am involved, like it or not. I elbow her out of the way and see another choirgirl’s back, with a third girl from the singing team jammed in to the left and their victim between them. One of these idiots is Dorothy Lucas, known as “Do-Re-Mi,” and the other is Lauren Peabody, “La-Ti-Do,” but I can’t be bothered to remember which is which. At first all I can see of their victim is a great hank of her blonde curls clutched in the fists of the girl who’s got her back to me. But I hear her well enough, coughing and begging her tormentors to leave her alone, please, for the love of Asherah!

“Vamoose, unless you want me to get a teacher in here,” I snap, and everyone but the victim reluctantly clears out. She falls on her hands and knees and starts sobbing. A glance at the toilet and I spot blood on the white porcelain, blood in the water. Blood all over her mouth and her snow-white Virgin’s uniform blouse. “Let’s get you to the school nurse,” I say, helping her to her feet.

“Nuh-uh,” she snuffles, tears mingling with the blood on her cheeks. “She’ll ask me who did it, and if I tell they’ll kill me.”

She’s probably right. Sherry led the Hallelu-Rah Chorus before Asherah Herself at Saturnalia a few months ago, a sweet smile on her chubby angelic strawberries-and-cream face, but get on her bad side and you’ll wish you were impaled in the Cherry Orchard, or so I’ve heard. I walk the bleeding girl over to the sink and wet some paper towels for her. “What’s your name, honey?”

“M-molly,” she says, grimacing as she snuffles up her own blood. “I’m a Cheerleader.”

Anyone else would jerk her hand away in revulsion, so I’m proud of the way I keep dabbing at her face with the blood-soaked paper towel as if nothing’s the matter. I mean, not even the lowest of the low deserves to have her face rammed into a hard porcelain bowl. And everyone knows that Cheerleaders, like Dumbjocks, are the worst kind of Dolts, lower than dirt.

I have to empty out the dispenser to get Molly’s face halfway presentable, and there’s nothing I can do about the front two teeth that have been loosened, or the ruin of her shirt. But she says she’s got some gym clothes in her locker she can change into. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for her, with that too-perfect chin, eyes like giant blueberries, and curly blonde hair she must spend an hour each morning getting just right—an hour any normal girl would spend boning up on calculus or composing a Petrarchan sonnet. But when all you’ve got are your looks, I suppose it’s only natural to make the most of them.

“You must be a freshman,” I say, just trying to make polite conversation with the poor stupid thing. “I know all the faces on the team from last year.”

“I made the squad in January,” she confesses, only it’s not a confession—her eyes are glowing with pride. “Tonight’s my first game. I get to cheer for the Cheetahs—they say DeAngelo herself is gonna lead the team to victory!”

“Yeah, well, I’ll do my best not to disappoint you.”

Both her hands fly to her mouth. “Oh… my… ASHERAH! You’re Irene DeAngelo?” she squeaks.

“In the flesh.”

“I…I can’t believe it! Wait’ll I tell my friends the Angel herself stopped me from getting beaten up, they are gonna be so jealous!

Ryan’s been telling me for months people are calling me “the Angel,” but until now I thought he was pulling my leg. Molly must see something in my face, though, because she says, “Oh… oh, I’m sorry. I don’t want to, I mean, I would never embarrass you. Can I just give you a little kiss, though, to thank you?”

And before I can stop her she’s thrown her arms around my neck and planted one on my lips. Not a little peck, either.

My life just got even more complicated.

 


 

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