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Seventeen: "It ain't cheating if you shoulda won in the first place."

Angela picked at her grilled cheese sandwich. It tasted a little like whatever her mother had last soldered to the pan. Maybe tuna. Old tuna and motor oil.

Stone Child had invited himself over yesterday, after a three-hour phone call. He'd said he had a plan. The plan was about Pleasantview Prep.

Talking to Stony was a lot like an impossibly pleasant interrogation at the hands of world's friendliest homicide detective. He wanted to know everything, and preferably as quickly as possible. So spill it. Now. Please.

And she'd told him everything, too. About her parents' "break" from one another. About Mom. About Lil. Even about... uh... Swami Dad, and the disastrous interview for Pleasantview Prep. That was what he'd lept on.

"I can fix that," he'd said. Just like that. As if the shuddering death rattle of Angie's ivy league dreams had ranked somewhere between a clogged toilet and the hiccups on the grand cosmic scale of life's little inconveniences.

The house, he was saying now. That was the problem, right? Angie's grades were perfect, so it had to be the house. The headmaster had hated the house. And he was right to hate the house. It was terrible. It was where dignity went to lie down and die, mummified in the crawlspace like a trapped house cat. The trailer could have worked with the right angle, Stony admitted, but Mary Sue wasn't quite Appalachian enough to impart a sense of pride to dirt farmer squalor.


But Stony? Stony had a nice house.

It was a compact and tidy brick box, almost too good for the neighborhood, but not quite. It was smaller than the old Pleasant estate, but most places were, and it was better than the trailer. Much better. It was well-furnished. It had a brand new swimming pool. In a word, it was impressive. And that was sort of the point.

Mom endured Stony's hard sell with the same glazed look in her eyes that Dustin got whenever he was called up to the chalkboard in Geometry class. The teacher would be talking, but the words would come so fast and long that Dustin would lose track. The lecture would degrade into a low, rumbling hiss in the background while he enjoyed his third no-reason boner of the morning and copied manga characters onto his book covers... And then he'd get called on, and his head would snap up like an antelope catching wind of way too many lions pissing themselves with excitement. And he'd have that look.

Then, without warning, Stony stopped talking.

Seconds passed, and the silence endured. Seasons changed. Gardens bloomed. Civilizations rose and fell. The Earth tilted ever so slightly further on an already skewed axis, and a glacier receded three inches in Greenland, startling a fur seal.

Stone Child's left eyebrow began to cock.


Mary Sue panicked, suddenly pitched face-first back into a conversation she was utterly unqualified for, a dialectal carnival attraction she was several inches too short to ride. "Okay," she squeaked. "Sounds great."

Stony brightened, rubbing his palms together. "Glad you see the sense in it," He grinned. "I'll help Angie pack."


Packing took twelve minutes, including bathroom breaks. Angie didn't have much to take, or much she wanted to take. The trailer was permeated with a odor of failure and disgrace she was better off without, sort of a combination of bruised fruit, cut-price disinfectant, and the kind of perfume you bought in gallon jugs from shifty guys on Chinatown sidewalks. The smell got into everything, and she was afraid the headmaster might catch another whiff.


But he didn't. Not at all.

His approval was violent enough to be alarming. He loved the house. He loved Angela. He loved "Uncle Stony." He begged to be adopted.


Angie showed off the living room while Stone Child brined a turkey with kosher salt and apple vinegar. She didn't know much about all the paintings and sculptures and stuff Stony had around, but the headmaster was incandescent with awe and admiration. "Fantastic reproductions!" he gushed. "Down to the brush strokes! Down to the hairline fissures in the artificially aged paint!"Angela smiled, and pretended to shared his slack-jawed reverence. Big deal. Drawings. So what, as long as they were worth a lotta money.


When he and Stony talked after dinner, the headmaster practically demanded the names of the artists Stone Child had commissioned the facsimiles from. He had work for them, he said, mostly some Picassos for his smoking room and a scaled-down Madonna of the Long Neck. Stony smiled, but shook his head. No, he was afraid that wasn't possible. But if the headmaster ever wanted anything else commissioned, something he didn't already see on the walls? Drop by. They could work something out.


Angie held in her squeal of triumph until the headmaster was well down the block. There wasn't any relief or disbelief in it, because this was something she'd earned. They had both earned it. It was as timely and expected as the afternoon mail drop. Or maybe Meadow Thayer.


The celebration was cut short by the crash of a trash can outside on the curb. Stony rolled his eyes.

Angie knew Meadow. Or rather, she knew OF Meadow. Kind of.


Meadow was the sort of girl Angie took pains not to associate with, in case imbecility could be absorbed through osmosis. Meadow thought microwaves gave people cancer, and genuinely believed everything she saw on television. She felt music and movies had freshness dates, like mass-produced beer, and considered it unseemly to consume either after expiration. And she pursued "older boys" with the feverish, single-minded vigor of a thoroughbred with a wet, meaty hole worn in its ass cheek from the riding crop.

She reminded Angela of somebody, but she couldn't figure out who.

Stony said something about daring to spurn Meadow's clumsy advances. "No," he'd told her. "It's not right, Meadow. It is the wrong thing to do. You are not mature enough, like most girls your age, and your poor grades in Introduction to English Literature prove that you are not ready for a relationship. The meaningless, animalistic sex you are offering me does not appeal to me, because I desire not the supple, writhing body of a teenage nymph, but the love of a more clever, considerate girl, who is way smarter than her sister and maybe doesn't dress like a colorblind prostitute."

And Meadow had kicked over Stone's garbage can every night ever since. He was starting to get roaches.

Angie's heart bloomed. What a prince. The good ones always had to suffer.


Angela slept late, the next morning. And that was probably for the best. Stony was just seeing off the cops when she finally slipped out of bed.


Meadow Thayer was such a total and complete BITCH that she'd gone and drowned in Stone Child's swimming pool last night. She was seriously that desperate to get him into trouble. I mean, obviously. That was just so like her. Angela had always suspected she was a selfish little cow from the way she ducked into the secretary's office every day before school for two handfuls of Hershey's Kisses out of the waiting room candy dish. There really were no depths some people wouldn't sink to.

Meadow had sunk about nine feet.

Well, the joke was was on her, because Stone Child had an alibi so solid you could use it to pound nails.


He'd spent that evening painting, he told the cops. If the officers wanted proof, they could come and see the canvas, it was still wet. And his little friend Angela could swear to that, too, she'd been there all night. And she was still there now.

Angela hadn't exactly SEEN Stone much that evening, to be honest. Not.. really in person seen him. Not... you know.. afterwards. She'd been sleeping. But the story sounded about right. It would have had to have been right. So she nodded when the cops questioned her, smiling her brightest, whitest, Appeasement of Authority smile, until she remembered somebody was dead and reduced the wattage accordingly. It worked, because it always worked. And the local bodysnatchers fished Meadow out of the deep end and tossed her into the back of the big white coroner's van before lunch. Angie hoped they burned her up instead of burying her, because she was already such a total waste of space when she was alive.

Stone Child thanked her. He said it was good to have somebody he could finally trust, a person he knew would watch his back. A partner, if you will. Trust, he said, was the most important part of any relationship. It was almost as important as slicing up the fucking squealers who tried to rat you out when the pigs started gettin' uppity.

Angela blinked. Something was just out of reach, floating contentedly in the soft, gray haze that marked the border of her deductive capacity. It seemed important. She tried to make out the shape of it, just get the general idea, but it flickered and sank away into the mist when Stone suddenly kissed her.


"C'mon," he said. "Let's buy you somethin' stupid and expensive you don't even fuckin' like."

Angela giggled, and allowed herself to be dragged out the door. So she'd miss her first day at Pleasantview Prep.

It wasn't gonna kill her.

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