by Dan Swanson
Tammi Paige was sorry she’d come home after school. She had to be back at the gym at 5:30, and she hadn’t felt like hanging out at school the whole time, but now she wished she had. Harvey was back in town, and he must have been just waiting for her to get home. Almost before she’d closed the front door, his hot rod screeched to a halt out front of her aunt’s neatly kept Cape Cod-style cottage, and Harvey Taylor bounded up the walk to bang on the door.
“No, Harvey. I will not go to the sock hop with you tomorrow night,” Tammi insisted, exasperation in her voice. Harvey was standing on the porch; Tammi had opened only the top half of the Dutch door and deliberately not invited him in.
“OK, how ’bout we make the scene at the passion pit instead? They’re showing It Conquered the Earth.” Everyone knew Tammi loved sci-fi films.
“Hey, nosebleed, how many times do I have to tell you to leave me alone?”
“Aww, c’mon, Tam! I took the train from Chicago just to see you this weekend!” Harvey whined. He was attending Morris Robert College in Chicago. If someone picked him up at the train station, it was about two and a half hours from his school to Muskrat Creek. He must have skipped today’s classes as well as those tomorrow.
“Claire’s telling everyone you came to see her,” she offered, a chill in her voice, just to see how he would respond.
“I don’t know who even told Claire I was coming home; it wasn’t me. She and I broke up. I told you that when I took you out last month. I thought you and me were really cookin’, gettin’ really tight, baby. I know you liked it when we kissed!” He leered at her.
“You’re actually not a bad kisser — for a grub! I liked it just fine until the next day, when every boy in the school knew I was fast. Cut out, Harvey.” Her eyes flashed with anger, but Harvey ignored the warning signs.
“But I never told anybody!” he protested adamantly, for of course he had, several times, and embellished the story more with each telling.
“That’s close. Tommy Carey told me exactly what you told him — and it was gas. Maybe you thought that being captain of the football team made you a big shot, but I know you’re really just a big $#!*.”
“You can’t talk to me like that!” he roared. He was used to intimidating girls with his size and his anger, but Tammi wasn’t easy to intimidate.
“Beat it, or I’ll tell everyone about you dressing in your sister’s cheerleading uniform!” she threatened.
“That’s a lie!” he screamed, turning red. “You wouldn’t dare!”
“You didn’t have any problems telling lies about me. Besides,” she added sweetly, “I have Polaroids. So, go away.” She closed the top half of the door, and he heard her throw the lock.
“You’re gonna regret this!” he promised, then turned and stomped out to his car and slammed the door. The engine roared to life, and he peeled out — and almost got killed when he ran the stop sign at the corner and had to slam on his brakes, stalling the car, in order to avoid hitting a cement mixer on the cross street. Then he flooded it when he tried to start it again. He swore furiously, but rather unimaginatively, as he sat in the middle of the intersection, waiting for the engine to fire again. She was going to pay.
Tammi headed back to school and met up with the entire Milwaukee Academy of Gymnastics team when they showed up with several panel trucks full of equipment, and instead of practice, they spent several hours setting up the gym for tomorrow’s exhibition. In addition to the normal equipment, several trampolines were set up on the floor, and two trapezes were rigged from the ceiling. Tammi had convinced their instructors to let some of the students show off the aerialist routines she had taught them.
She had grown up in an aerialist family in a traveling circus, and she’d finally convinced her parents to let her take a shot at the Olympics by going to live with her aunt in Muskrat Creek and learning conventional gymnastics. But she hadn’t seen her parents for over a year now, and she missed them and the circus. She hoped that performing some of her family’s aerial routines in front of a cheering crowd would help her feel less homesick.
Once things were set up, the team headed for the local malt shop for a treat. Tammi realized she’d left her purse in her locker at the school. She wheedled the key from her coach and planned to make a quick stop on her walk home.
The door to the gym was around the back, and when she got there, it was already unlocked. She had double-checked it when the team left earlier, wanting to be sure that the special privileges she — and the Academy through her — had been granted for this event wouldn’t be abused. It could be that a custodian had left it open, but she had been told specifically that her group would be the last ones out of the building this evening. She slipped cautiously through the door into the small inner chamber and carefully opened the inner door.
The gym was still dark, but there were people inside — two, at least, carrying dim lights, which she guessed were probably flashlights with something like hankies covering the lenses. And from the noises they were making, she was sure they must be making a mess of the careful setup on which she and the team had worked so hard. She wished she had some way to call the police, and then she remembered that there was a fire alarm right next to this door.
But if she tripped the alarm, these creeps would get away.
So she’d have to keep them here somehow, even with the alarm blaring. Too bad the door couldn’t be locked to keep people inside. She thought fast. The gym was full of gymnastic gear; was there anything she could reach without turning the lights on that she could use to slow them down? Something she could use to trip them, or bar the door? It was lucky the vandals couldn’t see the evil smile that spread over her face.
She moved cautiously along the wall until she reached a talcum powder stand. She carried the box of powder out onto the floor and silently spread most of the talcum powder over a wide area in front of the door, then sneaked back and pulled the fire alarm.
“Crap! We gotta get out of here!” The voice sounded familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it with the blaring of the siren filling the gym. The dim lights started moving quickly toward the door. She waited just a second, then flipped on the lights – just in time to see two figures run onto a section of the waxed wooden floor that was now covered with talcum powder. It was sort of like watching someone run on wet ice — not an unusual sight in Wisconsin.
Their legs started to slip, and they threw their arms up in an attempt to keep their balance. The flashlights went flying to crash into the wall, then clattered to the floor. The smaller one bumped into the larger one and desperately wrapped his arms around his partner, and that ended the struggle to stay upright as the two crashed to the floor. The smaller one was partially underneath and had the wind knocked out of him; he continued to writhe aimlessly, trying to get his breath back as the larger one scrabbled on the dusty floor, trying to get to his knees.
Tammi burst out laughing. “I see Fall’s your favorite season, too, boys!”
“Paige!” the larger one roared, and she was pretty sure it was Harvey, even with the siren wailing in the background. “I’m gonna make you pay for this!”
“Sure, Harvey — that’s what you said earlier, too. You’ll have to catch me first, and how are you going to catch me…” She threw the last of the talcum powder into Harvey’s face. “…if you can’t see me!”
He roared in rage and managed to get to his hands and knees. Tammi ran two steps and took off in a long, low dive in his direction, placed her hands on his shoulders like he was a pommel horse, and pushed off into a flip with a half-twist. He fell heavily to the floor again, barely managing to protect his head with one of his arms as she landed on the other side of the dusted area facing the two boys.
“I have to admit, I like Spring a lot, too!” Tammi said brightly. “Don’t you?”
“Forget the midget, Tank!” Tank had been Harvey’s football nickname. Tammi recognized the voice of the smaller boy now, as well; it was Myron Parrish, a senior who also played football and was a good friend of Harvey’s. “The fire trucks are going to be here any second.” The firehouse was only about a half-mile from the school, and they could already hear truck sirens approaching. Myron had managed to roll out of the powder, and he extended a hand to Harvey.
Tammi rushed over to stop him, but Myron grabbed her arm, wrenched it around, and released. He was smaller than Harvey but much bigger than Tammi — almost everyone was — and she couldn’t resist; she skidded through the talcum powder and fell, then continued sliding for almost a dozen feet.
“A little of your own medicine, witch!” Myron snarled with satisfaction as he helped Harvey to his feet. Before Tammi could do anything more to stop them, they staggered to the door.
Before they left, Harvey turned back and did a little snarling himself. “Don’t dare tell anyone about this, or you’ll be sorry, Paige!” There was poison in his voice. He turned and pushed through the door. This door was on the back of the school, while the fire trucks and police were arriving at the front; the two boys would probably get away.
“That’s a mighty suspicious story, Miss Paige.” The chief of police was grumpy; he’d been watching Peter Diamond, P.I., and he hated being interrupted during his favorite TV show. “How do I know you didn’t do this all yourself?”
“Well, for one, I just spent hours setting up, and for two, I’m performing tomorrow,” Tammi said, anger in her voice.
“Maybe you’re scared of performing in front of so many people?” he theorized uncertainly. “Makes as much sense as two guys wearing masks.” Tammi had never seen the boys’ faces, so she hadn’t mentioned their names. The chief would never believe her, anyway; he was one of the football team’s biggest fans.
“Chief Smallbeck, she told me she was going to the school,” said her coach, Lori Amway. “She didn’t have a flashlight, and why would she need to? Why would she pull the fire alarm and then wait for you to arrive? Besides, just last week she performed in front of hundreds of people at regionals and won. I think there’s way too many holes in your theory.”
“Nobody asked you!” the chief barked at the coach. He turned to Tammi. “You can go now. But you’d better be careful — we’ll be watching you!”
“What’s with him?” Coach Amway asked as they walked away together.
“Somehow he found out I grew up in a traveling circus, and he thinks I’m a carny layabout or something,” she sniffed in response. “Not worth worrying about. Say, we need to take care of the mess those guys made.”
“Don’t worry about it now, Tammi. Go home and get a good night’s rest, and we’ll handle it tomorrow before the show.”
“Like I’m gonna be able to sleep after this!” Tammi sighed. “I guess I gotta try. See you tomorrow.”
Surprisingly, that night, she slept well.