Alex Diaz yanked her best friend Morgan into her bedroom, then slammed the door. “Gotta keep the heat in,” she said, shivering dramatically as she turned up the room heater. “I will never adjust to living in the frozen North.”
Morgan refastened her hair with a silver clip. “It’s only Indiana, not Alaska.”
“Could fool me. This room is colder than any igloo. You know what January’s like back in Texas? No frostbite. No ice on windshields. No blue lips.”
“But no canceled school for snow days either!”
“Okay. That’s one good thing about it.” Alex wiggled the mouse by the computer, and her screen came to life. “Doesn’t matter anyway. I’ll be back home before you can say Rattlesnake Roundup.” Alex had already lived half her ninth-grade year with herr grandparents, but her dad had finally found another job before Christmas. “My folks’ll send for me any time now.”
Alex hiked up her jeans and pulled her corduroy jacket close around her. At five-two, her jeans dragged the ground and the sleeves of her jacket hung over her fingers. Her long curls were impossible to tame, and she didn’t try. Grandpa stared at her wild hair like she was an alien from another planet.
“Come on, come on,” Alex muttered as she logged on to the Internet. This computer had been the only thing keeping her from going stark-raving mad since being exiled to Siberia, but it was so slow.
“You’re lucky you have this computer to yourself.” Morgan dragged a vanity bench over beside Alex’s chair. “Maya and I had to share one for six years!”
“Grandma uses it, too, for stuff like this.”
Alex shoved aside a Neighborhood Watch notice scribbled in her grandmother’s spidery handwriting. Grandma McGee, a retired teacher, had volunteered at the middle school for years. When their library was upgraded, Grandma had bought a used computer cheap.
Alex’s password was verified, followed by what seemed like an endless spinning wheel. “Chill while I check my email, then we’ll get in the chat room.”
“There’s probably nobody there anyway.” Sighing, Morgan laid the back of her hand to her forehead. “Only us lowly freshmen sit home on Saturday night.”
Alex frowned as she read her only email, an ad from a sporting goods e-catalog. She’d only heard from her mom once that week, a short note written at work. Usually her mom emailed from work three or four times a week. Alex’s stomach churned. Was her dad drinking again? Was her mom missing work, like during his last drinking binge when her dad started throwing things?
Two nights earlier Alex had tried to call home, but the cell phone was disconnected again. It happened every time they got behind on their phone bill. Alex chewed a hangnail. Something was rotten in Texas . . .
Morgan huddled over the heater. Blinking, Alex leaned over and turned the heat up. “Don’t worry. It’ll feel like Miami Beach by bedtime.”
Turning back to the computer, Alex clicked on TodaysGirls.com in her bookmark file. The screen flickered as the girls’ private website loaded.
Long before Alex had moved to town the previous August, Morgan and her friends had been meeting online in other chat rooms. To avoid the weirdos that lurked everywhere, they’d usually created private rooms. Then Amber, a junior, and Morgan’s sister, Maya, had designed their own website.
At last the site appeared. “Welcome to TodaysGirls.com!” pulsated in silver and purple. Jamie’s cartoon in the Artist’s Corner showed a huge mouse sitting at a computer, a tiny man gripped in its paw.
At the top of the pink screen, Amber’s Thought for the Day announced a new weekly theme about not judging others.
“Amber should be a preacher,” Alex muttered, “one of those TV ladies with perfect hair and acrylic nails.” Alex curled under her own bitten nails, embarrassed by how stubby her brown hands looked.
“Amber’s cool once you get to know her,” Morgan said. “You guys just got off to a bad start.”
Alex shrugged. Blonde and beautiful, Miss Perfect Amber was everything Alex wasn’t: popular, preppy, and too nicey-nice to be believed. It had to be fake. Fuming, she waited while Morgan read the Thought for the Day aloud.
“‘Don’t judge other people, and you will not be judged. . . . Why do you notice the little piece of dust that is in your brother’s eye, but you don’t notice the big piece of wood that is in your own eye?’ Matthew 7:1–3.”
Whatever that means, Alex thought, clicking on the chat icon and typing in her password. Just then a curled Post-It note dropped from the side of her screen.
“Just an old reminder. When y’all invited me to join the chat, I couldn’t keep y’all straight.” She smoothed out the scribbled note:
Bren = chicChick
Amber = faithful1
Jamie = rembrandt
Maya = nycbutterfly
Morgan = jellybean
Beside Alex’s own name, she’d crossed out newkid, replacing it with TX2step. Rolling her eyes, she remembered how she’d had to explain what a Texas two-step was. Alex tossed the old note in the garbage.
The names faithful1, nycbutterfly, and rembrandt were listed in a column on the right-hand side of the screen. TX2step was highlighted in red.
nycbutterfly: ICU, TX2. LTNC. Where U B????????? : (
TX2step: With Morgan. we rented a movie
nycbutterfly: Don’t mean 2nite. U’ve been MIA 4 3 days. Splain.
Alex frowned. “MIA? Missing in action?”
“She means missing practice. Coach was really bugged that you skipped.”
Alex hunched her shoulders, feeling attacked. “If I want to skip swim practice, it’s none of their business.”
“No, but it’s hard practicing our relay without you.”
Like I need this hassle, Alex thought. Alex swam on the relay team with Morgan, Maya, and Amber. She’d held the freestyle title for two years in Texas. She hardly needed the practice. Besides, she’d been working on a plan this week to get back home soon. She had to find out what was wrong there. So why go to practice? Still, to keep her escape a secret, she couldn’t afford to make them suspicious.
TX2step: no sweat, Maya. B there Monday.
faithful1: we miss U, TX. I filled in 4 U, but we stunk. We need U!
TX2step: Morgan says get off my back.
Morgan poked Alex on the arm, then pushed her hands aside and typed “I did not!” and hit Send.
faithful1: peace, GFs, we’ve got other things 2 discuss. Alex & Morgan, we need UR help on something else.
rembrandt: we need UR talent & beautiful faces!
nycbutterfly: NW! we need UR elbow grease 2 earn big $$$
faithful1: TX, U can dance the 2 step. kick up UR
heels 4 a good cause?
“What’s she talking about?” Alex asked.
TX2step: no talent here. wuzzup?
rembrandt: we’re performing 4 old people @ a shelter. I paint scenery. Amber 2 sing. We need U. Wanna B in a skit?
nycbutterfly: Morgan and Alex can sing a duet.
TX2step: O no we can’t! I howl like a hound dog.
nycbutterfly: old people r deaf anyway. won’t matter. if U won’t perform, then U 2 can give $$$ 2 it.
TX2step: Sorry. I don’t have a job like Jamie.
And I wouldn’t work at the Gnosh Pit like Jamie if I was starving, Alex thought. It was just another sorry excuse for a restaurant, even if Morgan’s parents did own it.
Indiana was full of disgusting food. Alex hadn’t had a decent enchilada since being shipped north. Or chili or hash or hush puppies either. For Pete’s sake, they didn’t even know that “Coke” meant any kind of carbonated drink . . . they all drank pop. Salsa came in jars, and when you asked for guacamole, waitresses looked dumber than dirt.
Morgan cracked her knuckles, then her knee joints. “Dad wants me to work at the Gnosh, too.”
“I guess you kinda have to, but no way am I sucking up to customers all day. That ‘customer is always right’ junk is pure garbage.”
faithful1: No job? NBD. I have jobs lined up already thru the youth leader @ church. Come on, U 2, help us out.
Morgan raised an eyebrow in Alex’s direction. Alex shook her head, then chuckled as she typed.
TX2step: I’m fixin 2 run. Grandma’s calling. good luck with your little talent show. G2G SYS : )
“Whew! That was close.” Alex yawned. “If I wanted something pointless to do, I’d do my homework.”
“Me, too.” Morgan rolled up her sleeves and moved away from the heater to flop down on Alex’s bed. “How come you’re skipping practice? The big meet’s Tuesday, you know.”
Alex slumped over the keyboard, wishing Morgan would drop it. She could hardly explain that she was getting ready to run away. “I’ll be there Monday morning.”
Opening her bookmark file, she scanned her list of favorite sites. She found the Internet fascinating—worlds of escape no farther than the click of a mouse.
Turning suddenly, Alex knocked her math book off her desk. Half-finished worksheets fluttered out. “Why learn all this junk anyway? I’ll never use it.”
“Aren’t you going to college?”
“No way, Jose! I’ll start a business on the Internet. Then I’ll travel all over the world and take my job with me. I’ll never be out of work,” she said, recalling the painful months each time her dad was laid off.
“I love history. Maybe I’ll lead tour groups at famous historic places.”
“Ugh! You’d have to dress up. No way am I wearing panty-hose and shaving my legs all the time.”
Morgan hooted. “Most of us do shave for the swim team,” she pointed out.
Alex pulled up one pants leg to reveal dark stubbly hair. “Who invented that stupid rule? Girls in Europe don’t shave.”
“You’re casting heavy shadows there. Maybe you could curl it.”
“Suppose if I shaved every day I could swim faster?”
Just then a sharp rap sounded on the bedroom door. “Alexandra?” her grandfather called. “Are you still on the Internet?”
Alex heaved an exasperated sigh. “No, we’re off.”
Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Yesterday he called the Internet an ‘instrument of the devil.’ Talk about paranoid.”
“Don’t forget about church tomorrow,” he added.
Alex gritted her teeth till her jaw ached. Every time she turned around, they were dragging her to church or a potluck supper. She drew the line at midweek Bible studies. “No wonder my mom ran away when she was sixteen,” she whispered.
“Really?” Morgan sat up cross-legged on the bed. “Why?”
Alex immediately regretted her words. “I dunno really. Just all the hassles, I guess.” She grabbed her pajamas from under her pillow and headed to the bathroom. There she changed and scrubbed her face with Ivory soap. She knew, from being in the shower room after practice, that her friends used special facial cleansers and moisturizers. The day she could afford special cleansers pigs would fly.
On the other hand, maybe she could invent a low-cost fancy facial cleanser to sell over the Internet. Prickly Pear Cactus Scrub, anyone?
Turning, Alex stubbed her toe on the claw-foot bathtub, then limped down the hall to her bedroom. Her hand was on the doorknob when Grandma stepped out of her own room. Although Alex and her grandmother were both five-foot-two, Grandma outweighed her by several years’ worth of homemade cinnamon rolls and fried chicken.
Grandpa’s voice barked from their bedroom. “Emily! What did you do with my reading glasses?”
“I never had them.”
“I saw you take them. Something about wiping off the smudges.”
“I did?” Grandma blinked like an owl waking up. “I’ll look for them.” She winked at Alex, then padded down the hall.
When Alex opened the bedroom door, she was struck by a blast of hot, stuffy air. The heater was working overtime now. She closed the door for privacy, but crossed to the window and pushed it up two inches, sticking a book in it so it wouldn’t fall down.
Morgan was back in the chat room and didn’t glance up. “I just wanted to ask Maya something, then I’ll get off.”
“Don’t worry. Grandpa’s gone to bed.” Alex perched on the bench beside the desk, brought her knees up to her chest, rested her chin there, and read while Morgan chatted.
rembrandt: Did U C Shelly’s new haircut? What was she thinking????
nycbutterfly: She looks like her brother now. JK
aithful1: I think she looks kinda cute.
Morgan rolled her eyes. “Amber’s too good to be true. Shelly looks like an escapee from Alcatraz.”
nycbutterfly: Can U believe the English assignment? There’s no way I can write a 5 page report using poetic devices. ACK!
faithful1: What a drag. My favorite subject these days is BIOLOGY!!
rembrandt: I thought U couldn’t stand Kistler.
faithful1: Who’s talking about Kistler? Have U seen the nu student teacher?
nycbutterfly: Ooo, honey, I wouldn’t mind if he helped me dissect my pig lung.
jellybean: LOL Didn’t know U had any. Must B hard swimming w/pig lungs!
nycbutterfly: Ugh. Freshman humor. Morgan, Mom says 4 U 2 come home w/me after church tomorrow. I’m going w/Amber.
Alex rolled her eyes. Must be tough to have your biggest problem be poetic devices, whatever they were.
Ten minutes later Alex left to get a drink of water, and when she returned, Morgan was already in bed. Her black hair, fastened with a band on top of her head, resembled a waterspout.
“Lovely pajamas.” Giggling, Morgan leaned up on one elbow. “Where’d you get ’em?”
Alex glanced down at her ruffled flannel pajamas with big romping kittens splattered all over them. “Grandma remembered I love cats. She just forgot I’m not seven anymore.”
“Well, it’s the thought that counts.”
“Yup.” Actually, as retarded as they looked, Alex liked the idea that Grandma had noticed she needed pajamas. At home, she slept in sweats, then half the time wore them to school the next day. She kicked aside her flip-flops, then crawled under the covers.
Morgan rolled over on her stomach. “Did you see Sarah talking to Amber’s brother at lunch today?”
“The great Ryan Thomas was speaking to a little freshman?”
“Yeah, and now she’ll say he likes her ’cause they exchanged hellos.”
Alex snorted at that. “To him, we’re just Amber’s little girly friends.”
“Just wait till lunch Monday. Sarah will spend the whole lunch break trotting back and forth to the snack line, trying to run into him again.”
“And squealing. I hate when she squeals.”
Morgan squealed in imitation, which set them both off. For the next half-hour, they shared the horrors of being the only mature freshmen in a sea of immature children. Finally, Morgan sighed and rolled over toward the wall. “’Night,” she said, her voice already drowsy.
“’Night.” Alex turned off the bedside lamp.
The room was plunged into blackness. Alex threw off her blanket, irritated that she was now sweating when an hour ago she’d been freezing. Texas was never this irritating. It was warm and predictable. Grass stayed green, food was hot and spicy, and precipitation arrived in one form only: water. In Indiana you never knew if you’d get rain, sleet, snow, hail, or fog.
Without warning, lonely thoughts of Texas washed over her. Her home might be a thin-walled trailer in a run-down mobile home park, but it was still home. She’d give anything to be there right now. Her mom needed her—she knew it in her gut. Hang on, Mom,she thought, just a little longer.
Lying on her side, Alex noticed a light come on next door. Then a back door slammed, and Alex gritted her teeth. Couldn’t those new people show some common decency and be quiet? A car door then squeaked open and slammed shut. The back door slammed again.Good grief ! Alex fumed.
“Matthew! Come back here! You can’t drive alone!” yelled a deep voice.
Morgan rolled over, her voice groggy. “What’s going on?”
“I dunno.” Alex slipped out of bed and peered out her second-story window at the neighbors’ house below.
The boy in the junky car was Matthew. He sat next to Alex in computer class, when he bothered to show up. He and his dad had moved into the vacant rental just a few weeks ago. Grandma had taken “Hutch,” the older man, under her wing, but Alex had distrusted him from the first.
“Come back inside,” Hutch called.
“Think you can make me?” Matthew yelled back.
At that, Hutch threw himself off the porch steps and onto the hood of the car. The car engine roared to life and jerked into reverse. Alex gasped in horror as Hutch slid off the car and hit the frozen ground.