Hormones. It’s just... teenage hormones, Tabitha fought to school her face into proper composure. She hadn’t felt so completely betrayed by her own body since first transmigrating back into the past. He’s just a kid. A cute kid, sure. But he’s young. Waaay too young. Focus.
“Hi,” Matthew directed a potent smile her way, and Tabitha’s wits seemed to scatter in every direction like they were scurrying away from a sudden spotlight. “Tabitha? I think you met my dad a couple days ago—Officer Williams? He was asking me about you.”
“Yeah. Uh, whuh-what did you tell him?” Tabitha blurted out anxiously... completely embarrassing herself. Alicia and Elena both turned heads to look at her with interest, and she felt her cheeks go completely red. No, no no no no this isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.
“Hah,” Matthew let out a good-natured laugh. “I said you had all kinds of rumors goin’ around, but I didn’t know what to believe since I hadn’t met you myself. My name’s Matt—but, everyone calls me Matthew, for some stupid reason.”
“There’s already too many Matts,” Casey chuckled, not looking up as she flipped through Alicia’s second sketchbook in awe. “If we get another one after you, we’re just gonna call him ‘Phew.’”
“I’ll call you Matthew, then,” Tabitha decided, just barely stopping herself from rising out of her seat to shake his hand. High-schoolers don’t do that! “Mrs. Macintire said she might call your dad, um, about driving me out to Louisville this Sunday…?”
“Yeah!” Matthew nodded. “She did, my dad works a shift Sunday, though.”
“You could take her, Matthew,” Elena chimed in helpfully. “You just got your license, and everything...”
“Sorry, no way,” Matthew gave them a sheepish smile. “I’ve had it for like, just a couple weeks. Not super comfortable driving I-65 on my own, yet.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” Tabitha blushed. “I don’t want to impose, or anything.”
Inwardly, she was impressed at his candor—he was uncharacteristically up front about his shortcomings, for a high-schooler. Wouldn’t most boys fresh into their license be eager to show off? Matthew seemed laid-back and mature in a way that had her start going moon-eyed all over again. It doesn’t help that he’s a little, um. Easy on the eyes, either…
“Hah, impose?” Matthew shook his head. “Naw, Mr. Macintire’s practically family—he used to go with us on our hunting trips, back when I was, oh… twelve? Thirteen? So, after what you did—”
“I didn’t do much at all,” Tabitha admitted, embarrassed. “Alicia was there, too. All we did was try to stop the bleeding.”
“She’s lying. She did everything,” Alicia sold her out without compunction, grinning widely. “She called it in, and was putting pressure on it like, right away, while I was just standing there bawling like an idiot.”
“Y-you were not!” Tabitha argued, giving Alicia an incredulous look. Alicia!
“Well, thank you,” Matthew said, letting out a slow breath. “Seriously. You’re some kind of hero, you did a great thing. Don’t know if you knew, but Mr. Macintire has a daughter—Hannah—she’s just seven years old. We’ve been looking after her while they’re both up in Louisville, and I’m really, really glad I didn’t have to give her any bad news.”
“...Oh,” Tabitha replied dumbly, feeling her eyes water.
“If it’s cool with you, my Mom’ll swing by your neighborhood this Sunday, take both you and Hannah up to Louisville to visit,” Matthew explained. “You’re living right there in Sunset Estates?”
“Yeah! It’s, uh. Yeah,” Tabitha nodded, fighting back tears as she found herself flooded with emotion. “Sorry, I—sorry.”
“Uhh—you okay?” Casey was the only one that seemed surprised.
“Just give her a minute,” Elena scolded the art club girl. “Are you okay, Tabby?”
Tabitha nodded quickly while hiding her face behind her hands, not trusting herself to give an answer without choking up.
She’d never heard a thing about Officer Macintire having a daughter. Somehow, if felt like that changed everything. An unknown crisis, averted by bare inches—this little girl Hannah’s entire world must have come crashing down in that last life, without Tabitha ever being any the wiser. She felt the knife of guilt in her heart lingering more closely now than ever. Hannah. Her name’s Hannah.
“Sorry, I should probably leave you girls be,” Matthew said, obviously discomforted by Tabitha’s sudden tears. “Just wanted to let you know. You should swing by the Quad some lunch and sit with us sometime, at least put all the rumors to rest. Everyone’s dyin’ to meet you.”
“Thanks,” Elena spoke up on Tabitha’s behalf. “We’ll do that.”
“Nice to meet you,” Alicia added.
“Yeah,” Matthew nodded. “Alicia, right? Saw you on the news, too.”
“Did you see her freaking art?” Casey exclaimed, holding up one of Alicia’s portfolios. “She’s like, half pro.”
“Cool, cool,” Matthew paused. “Join us in art club, we meet on Fridays. You do any photography?”
“I—uh, oh, wow!” Alicia’s eyes went wide, and she slapped her forehead. “I don’t. Normally. But, on the day of the shooting, I had a camera with me. I completely forgot about it with all the… Tabby stuff going on.”
“Were you taking pictures?” Elena pressed.
“I was,” Alicia revealed. “I did. Took two right at the crime scene, like, literally just moments after it happened. Shot of Tabby running towards the officer. The one’s probably blurry, but the other one should be… decent? Maybe?”
“How do you forget something like that?” Elena asked in disbelief.
“This has all been a lot to deal with, okay?” Alicia shot a scowl at Elena. “I haven’t been sleeping at all.”
“Where’s the camera now?” Casey clapped the sketchbook closed and jolted up to her feet. “If we tell Mr. Peterson, he can develop it right in the art room right away. You said the crime scene? Like right there at the parking lot shooting? This is big.”
“Um. Still in my bag, I think,” Alicia answered. “I left it in class. Tabby and I were there when the first officer got shot, not the big parking lot shooting.”
“The first officer?” Casey didn’t quite seem to be following.
“With your and Tabby’s permission,” Elena jumped in, “the Channel Seven people’ll probably pay big bucks for that. I can have my Mom get in touch with them.”
“First thing’s first—as acting treasurer, I hereby induct thee into the hallowed ranks of the Springton High Art Club,” Casey said solemnly, making the motions of knighting Alicia shoulder and shoulder with the girl’s own sketchbook before passing it back to her. “Ten bucks if you want an art club shirt. C’mon, let’s go see if we can grab your bag and get to Mr. Peterson before lunch is over.”
“O-okay,” Alicia agreed, rising out of her seat.
“Guys, guys,” Matthew chided them, watching as Tabitha blearily wiped her eyes. “Slow down, give her a moment.”
“It’s fine, I’m fine,” Tabitha sniffed and gave Matthew an appreciative smile. “Sorry. Go for it, yeah. I’m just gonna sit here for a bit. Do your thing, Alicia—I didn’t even realize you took a picture.”
“I forgot,” Alicia admitted, wincing. “Sorry.”
Casey pulled Alicia along with her out of the library with Matthew in tow, who waved a casual goodbye, finally leaving a flustered Tabitha sitting alone together with Elena at the library table.
“Well.” Elena crossed her arms in front of herself, looking a little too pleased at Tabitha’s guilty expression. “You’re definitely not gay. What are you doing this Saturday?”
“I have to say, I love your outfit, Tabitha!” Mrs. Seelbaugh praised, turning from where she sat in the driver’s seat for a moment to give the redhead a once-over. Elena’s mother was steering their silvery-white family minivan across town towards the apartment where Tabitha’s grandmother lived; Elena and Tabby would be looking after Tabitha’s cousins for the day. “Where did you find that top?!”
“My grandma helps me put them together,” Tabitha answered respectfully. “From thrift store dresses.”
“You’re kidding!” Mrs. Seelbaugh exclaimed, chancing another quick glance away from the road back towards Tabitha’s attire. “From the thrift store right here in town?”
“I’m a Mom, not a Ma’am,” Mrs. Seelbaugh chided playfully.
“Wait—Tabitha, even the one you’re wearing right now?” Elena couldn’t help but twist from the passenger’s seat to scrutinize her pretty new friend.
“This was originally a prom dress,” Tabitha explained. “We just removed the cups, stitched it overtop a plain white shirt, and then hemmed them together at the waist.
Blinking in disbelief at the ensemble for a moment, Elena could actually see it. What looked at first glance to be an extraordinarily well fitted vest and shirt combination... was actually just the upper portion of a black A-line prom dress—one with an extraordinarily plunging neckline—on top of a long-sleeved white shirt. Once the secret was revealed, she couldn’t unsee it.
“That’s amazing,” Elena found herself blurting out. “Are you planning on selling them?”
“Selling them?” Tabitha shook her head. “Maybe someday, I know we’ll need the money. For now, it’s just something I love doing with my Grandma Laurie.”
“That’s so sweet!” Mrs. Seelbaugh said with a smile, sparing Elena a meaningful look.
Yeah... I want in on that, Elena thought with a small grin. What teenage girl DOESN’T dream of launching their own fashion line? Even the business model is perfect! The thrift store material costs are negligible in the face of the price tags we can put on these.
For an awkward moment, she’d already begun to mentally exclude her new friend Tabitha from her new plan to model her own business out of these blouses. With a pang of guilt, she murdered those ambitions while they were still in the cradle—she actually liked Tabitha. The girl was different, interesting. She was transparent emotionally in a manner no teen should be, and yet in other ways completely, utterly unfathomable. She was, to coin one of her mother’s favorite phrases, a riddle, wrapped up in a mystery, inside an enigma.
“I want to try making one,” Elena decided to admit. “I really love your tops.”
Besides, that’s not that kind of friend I want to be. If she continued to foster another such mercenary mindset—one based loosely on coinciding mutual interest alone—it would be her situation with Carrie all over again. Elena wanted beautiful friendships built on love and trust, ones that she’d be able to look back on fondly for the rest of her life. But, at the same time, it was difficult for her personally to set aside her competitive nature and pragmatic cynicism to make those happen properly.
When she’d talked it over with her Mom, she’d been blanketed with assurances that she was perfectly normal, that friendships weren’t picture-perfect in the way television made them out to be, and that in no time at all she’d find close friends and confidants again to replace the middle school ones she’d grown away from. She knew her mother was right—her Mom was always right—but at the same time... something about the answer didn’t completely satisfy.
“We can show you how we do it, if you’d like—the next time we visit,” Tabitha offered. “I was hoping we could spend most of this time with my cousins. I’m really worried about them.”
“How old are your cousins?” Elena asked. Her growing anticipation for the afternoon fell a good deal at being reminded about the cousins. Next time, I suppose. “Grade school, or middle school?”
“Grade school,” Tabitha answered. “Sam’s the oldest, he’s in fourth grade.”
So, it’s babysitting little kids, Elena tried to swallow down her disappointment.
Their budding friendship was going swimmingly, however, and Elena at least felt relieved to finally be on an organized outing with someone again. She hadn’t done anything important with a friend since the Six Flags trip with Carrie in the middle of summer—now, it felt like she had to blot out those mistakes by making as many new, better memories as she could.
This is okay. It doesn’t have to be anything huge right at first, Elena thought, striving to focus on the positive. Babysitting’s a perfectly normal thing for girls our age to do—maybe we’ll talk, find something cool to bond over. That’s what matters—even if it’s not big and exciting.
Elena smiled faintly to herself as she watched the scenery pass by her window, mercifully oblivious to what she was about to experience.
“This is it up ahead,” Tabitha called softly. “Those are my cousins playing there.”
The silvery-white minivan performed her indicated turn onto the upcoming side street, and then pulled up several lots to where a group of young boys appeared to be taking turns running and crashing into a large pile of autumn leaves. They looked rowdy, the kind of boys Elena had avoided like the plague when she’d been at that age. Each of Tabitha’s cousins had the same closely cropped haircut, making it difficult to tell them apart. Leaves and twigs stuck to their clothes, and dirty brownish grass stains were apparent on the knees of their pants from slides into the leaf pile.
“Give me a ring whenever you two’re ready to be picked up,” Mrs. Seelbaugh smiled. “Love you, Elena. Have fun, girls!”
“Yeah. Love you, Mom.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Seelbaugh.”
“Hey, Tabby’s here!” A boy cried out, and all at once they were scrambling out of the leaves with crunching footsteps and running towards them. Elena grimaced, mentally bracing herself for an entire afternoon corralling rambunctious little hooligans.
“Boys, come over here,” Tabitha instructed, gesturing them forward.
At a closer look—Elena confirmed they were all completely filthy. Each boy appeared to be emulating the character Pigpen from the Peanuts comic strip, liberally covered with dirt and dead plant errata from playing outside. It was an amusing contrast, seeing Tabitha in her lovely fashion-wear gently scolding this line-up of little rascals, dusting them off in frustration and picking bits of leaves off of their heads.
What Elena hadn’t prepared herself to see was Tabby drop down to her knees and pull all four boys at once into a giant hug, disregarding her own custom designed attire and the mess they might make of it. Even more surprising—the cousins weren’t resisting. There was no aggravated struggle free from her arms, no exasperated laughter or groaning; the oldest-looking one spared Elena an embarrassed glance, but they all dutifully returned Tabitha’s embrace.
“Boys… I’m so sorry about your parents,” Tabitha said in a quiet voice. “I wish I’d done something. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” one of the boys spoke up. “Mom said she’s coming back.”
“Yeah,” another one agreed. “She’s coming back soon. She said just a few days.”
“No,” Tabitha shook her head slowly, locking eyes with each of them and giving them a firm look. “I’m sorry. She’s not coming back. But, Grandma Laurie and I are going to do our best to take care of all of you.”
...What? Elena awkwardly stood by, dumbfounded by the unexpected heavy atmosphere. She said they were going through a rough time or something, but I never really thought… oh my God, what happened—did their parents just pass away? Or worse, divorce?
“Mom said she was coming back,” the smallest one pulled back from Tabitha with a cross look. “In a few days.”
“I know she did, Joshua,” Tabitha replied gravely. “But, she’s not. She’s not coming back.”
“I don’t care,” the oldest one scoffed. “We don’t even need her anyways.”
When the quartet of young cousins were awkwardly released from Tabitha’s hold, they exchanged looks with each other and stole glances back at Tabitha. Their initial childlike demeanor had clouded over, and they were all quiet, solemn. The littlest boy Tabitha had called Joshua looked sullen, while two of the other brothers had their brows furrowed in thought at receiving the horrible news, and then the oldest of them just looked disappointed and angry.
Should... I even be here? Elena forced herself not to fidget.
“This is my friend Elena—I want you to treat her with the same respect you treat me,” Tabitha told them, rising back to her feet and patting the leaves off her knees. “We’re taking you to the playground to play.”
“Has everyone been doing their stretches?” Tabitha asked, lining up the boys in a row along the dead grass beside the playground. “Who can get down the farthest?”
The four cousins slowly shimmied down, legs spreading apart in an attempt at a split. Joshua had the most success, nearly reaching the ground, while the other three struggled, their legs forming different degrees of obtuse angles. She’s going to run them through… gymnastics?
The playground itself was a small chainlink-fence enclosed affair attached to the nearby neighborhood, with several wooden risers and staircases constructed into a covered central fort. An enclosed hard plastic spiral slide featured on one end of the fort and an open slide on the other, separated by the wobbling clatter bridge. Radiating away from the structure were the expected allotment of swingsets, animal-shaped rocker seats situated on thick springs, and benches for parents to sit. On an October Saturday the area was nearly deserted, entirely empty save for a pair of very young girls attempting to climb up the plastic spiral slide from within, watched over in the distance by a sitting mother.
The boys were unexpectedly obedient, Elena had discovered on the short walk over. Not quite docile—as they were quick to pick fights with each other and bicker pointlessly over the tiniest things—but, she was fascinated to see that at a stern word from Tabitha they immediately bowed to her apparent authority. At school Tabitha was something of a withdrawn, shy-seeming girl who sequestered herself in the library of all places, so this contrasting, commanding presence was incredibly interesting.
“Why’re you having them stretch?” Elena leaned in and asked. I thought they were just going to play tag, or hide-and-seek or something.
“Stretches help keep them limber, and give them higher kicks,” Tabitha explained, turning to Elena with a smile. “I promised them last time that I’d teach them a few moves.”
The redhead demonstrated, tilting her upper body to one side and drawing one knee up into the air all the way to the level of her chest. There was something smooth and powerful in the unhurried ease with which she seemed to ready her kick that was startling, the young woman’s balance not wavering in the slightest.
She snapped out a kick impossibly high in the air, quick and crisp, before immediately returning her foot to its tucked position up in the air—poised to strike. Two more kicks flashed out, each faster than the last, and then Tabitha relaxed, returning her foot to where it belonged on the ground.
Whoa, whoa, Elena blinked, struggling to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about Tabitha. She’s like, a martial artist?
“Show her the thing with the pop can!” One of the boys suggested.
“Yeah, show her, show her!” Another one quickly joined in.
“We don’t have one,” Tabitha looked around helplessly. “Sorry, boys.”
Not ones to be dissuaded, all four of Tabitha’s cousins quickly abandoned stretching practice to dash every which way across the playground, canvassing the area in search of an empty soda can. When they finally discovered one—a discarded Pepsi can sporting that dramatic new blue look Elena had yet to grow accustomed to—the boys immediately fought over it as they all ran back over.
No way, Elena grew a little alarmed. If she didn’t know any better, their struggle appeared to be a contest of which of the two taller boys would be balancing the empty can on his head. What, she’s been playing karate-kick William Tell with them? That can’t be safe. What if one of them nails the other one right in the head?
“Behave yourselves,” Tabitha laughed, striding amidst the cousins to pluck the can away from the boys. “Elena’s here with us, today.” Before Elena caught on to her meaning, Tabitha had already stepped up right in front of her and was gingerly attempting to balance the empty Pepsi can on top of Elena’s blonde head.
“You can’t be serious,” Elena laughed nervously, not even bothering to keep still enough for Tabby to balance the can. “I’m a lot taller than you.”
“That’s what makes it good exercise,” Tabitha countered with a grin, steadying Elena’s shoulders so that she could perfectly place the pop can atop her head. “And, for you—you can think of it as a trust exercise.”
“No way,” Elena froze, uneasy at the way the boys were gathering around them in anticipation. “Tabitha, no way—what if you kick me in the face? I’m way taller than you anyways, you can’t even reach.”
“Do you trust me?” Tabitha challenged her. “I can reach.”
No—obviously no, please don’t even think about it! Elena bit back her response with a terrified look. The situation was deteriorating at incredible speed, and all of her previous efforts to befriend this girl weren’t going to count for anything at all if she got kicked in the face right now. Friends didn’t kick each other in the face, not even by accident. Elena drew the line there, and it was not something she was willing to compromise on.
But, wait, no. She said it’s a trust EXERCISE—this is just a test. She was never ACTUALLY going to— Before the girl could even finish her own relieved thought, Tabitha leapt up into the air, leg suddenly exploding forward in an unbelievable flash of force just inches above Elena. The tiny weight perched atop the crown of Elena’s head disappeared with a hollow clenk as the can was sent flying, and then Tabitha calmly landed back on her feet.
Oh my fuck. Fucking fuck. Fuck, Elena was still completely tense and frozen in place as her mind caught up with what happened.
Somewhere behind her, she could hear the empty can clattering across the pavement in the distance—it had crossed the entire stretch of lawn and landed in the parking spaces in front of the playground. The sound of the four cousins cheering and jumping up and down in excitement was muted to nothing but distracting noise as she struggled to collect herself.
That would have taken my head clean off—I felt the wind of it move my fucking hair! Elena stared at Tabitha with wide eyes. Oh my God. Oh my God, I can’t breathe.
“Thank you for trusting me,” Tabitha said, offering her a shy smile. “It’s really not as scary as it seems—my control’s pretty good, now.”
Still standing, she neatly brought her foot up into the air again and perfectly traced the outline of Elena’s shoulder, and then overtop her head—Tabitha straining on her tiptoes to reach—without the edge of the girl’s shoe ever actually touching her. There was a steely gracefulness to the motion, and Tabby finished drawing the silhouette of Elena’s opposite shoulder before casually bringing her leg back to the ground.
“Okay,” Elena swallowed slowly. “Okay, how do you do that?”
“I’ve been kinda-sorta teaching myself Taekwondo,” Tabitha revealed. “Over the summer.”
“Teaching… yourself?” Elena raised an eyebrow. “From what? How?”
“You really wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Tabitha gave her a sheepish smile. “Seriously. I was actually just about to show Alicia my butterfly kicks last week, when all of that business with the police officer went down. Like, right in front of us.”
“Show her your flips!” One of the cousins called out.
“She can do backflips, and walk on walls,” another boasted.
What is she supposed to be, a Power Ranger? Elena wanted to laugh at how ridiculous all of this was getting. Spiderman? Human beings don’t walk on walls.
“Get back to your stretches, or none of you little heathens are ever doing any of this,” Tabitha chuckled, giving the boys a stern look. “We’re playing tag in a bit, and I want you all warmed up. No sissy excuses later on!”
The four children reluctantly returned to stretching their legs and grudgingly twisting their bodies through warm-up movements.
“Can you really do a backflip?” Elena asked. Her mind sprinting through the possibilities of what they could do with all of these emerging new factors. But, what is Tabitha really capable of?
“Don’t listen to them, I’m really not great at it,” Tabitha admitted. “I don’t like doing backflips unless I’m starting on top of something that’s up off the ground a bit. To give me that extra room, that clearance space. Oh—I can do back hand-springs easy, though.”
With that, Tabitha leaned back, arching her body, and reached backwards for the ground behind her. Before her hand was even planted, her legs rose up in the air, and with baffling ease her body simply flipped through the air to land rightside-up again.
“But yeah, that’s kind of cheating,” Tabitha said. “Even the boys can already do cartwheels just fine.”
“...Do you want to try out for the cheerleading team together?” Elena blurted out.
“I don’t… think so?” Tabitha shook her head. “I’m sorry, I never had much enthusiasm for sports. Were you going to try out?”
“No, I’m just thinking out loud—you’re really amazing,” Elena laughed, shaking her head. Does Springton High have a gymnastics team, or something like that? “I was planning on going for girl’s varsity basketball… right until I saw this. Now, I don’t know what I want to do. What are you going to do?”
“Do you like to run?” Tabitha asked. “I run a lot, but, just on my own. For a while now I’ve been thinking I should try doing it with other people, be more... uh—get more involved?”
“I can run!” Elena’s eyes lit up. “My Mom runs—I’ve run a 5k with her before. Were you looking into joining the track team?”
“I hadn’t thought about it, really,” Tabitha shrugged. “Should I? I was just wishing I had someone to jog with me in the early mornings... but I don’t think anyone who lives near me is the slightest bit interested, hah ha.”
She didn’t get liposuction over the summer, Elena realized, wanting to slap herself for ever believing that rumor. She’s obviously been at this for a while—there’d have been like, some sort of RECOVERY period, where you can’t be jumping and running around after a surgery. She actually lost all of the weight for real, just doing this—exercising, and running, and stuff.
Her new understanding of Tabitha felt like a long-missing puzzle piece was falling into place for Elena, personally. One of the hallmark traits Elena had always looked for in her peers—up until now—was a certain sense of ambition. Now, it felt like she’d been just slightly off the mark all along—what she really desired was a best friend that was driven, motivated towards her pursuits in the same dogged way that she was. The same way Mom always has been.
In way of contrast, Carrie’s ideology had always been to just leverage every possible advantage she could squeeze out of any given situation. While Elena still largely agreed with that line of thought... in hindsight, that wasn’t exactly who she wanted to be, and certainly not what she wanted in a best friend, anymore.
“I don’t know how yet, but I am absolutely going to be your jogging partner,” Elena decided with a grin. “You run every morning? Should I be doing stretches? Can you teach me how to do karate?”