I don't generally hang out at the mall. It's full of biting shoes, shrinking clothes, and useless knickknacks. It's also crawling with poseur kids who think it's their private stage for rehearsing public coolness. Please. I get enough of that in junior high.
But the Santa Martina mall also has a video arcade, and if you know anything about my best friend, Marissa, you know that video games are the only thing that'll make her quit talking about softball. And since we're in the middle of gearing up for the Junior Sluggers' Cup tournament, softball is all Marissa's had on her mind. For weeks. She's working up plays, she's practicing after practice, she's even talked Coach Rothhammer out of her home phone number so she can run ideas by her in the middle of the night. You have to know Ms. Rothhammer to understand the significance of this--nobody's got her number, and I mean nobody. She teaches P.E. and eighth-grade science, and she's got a reputation for being really strict and really private. Like, is she married? We don't know. Does she have kids? Dogs? Horses? Flower beds? Nobody knows. I'll bet Vice Principal Caan doesn't even know, that's how good she is at being private.
What I do know about Ms. Rothhammer is that she's the one person who wants to bring home the Junior Sluggers' Cup as much as Marissa does. Probably for different reasons--like, I know Ms. Rothhammer couldn't care less about us winning the school a party day. More likely it has to do with showing up Mr. Vince, who told her she'd never get her hands on the cup. Of course, that was last November, after our team beat his team in our school's playoffs, so maybe she's forgotten all about that.
Then again, maybe not.
Anyway, the point is, Marissa McKenze has been the Softball Czar for weeks, and the past few days it's been driving me batty. And maybe I should've just said, "Marissa, enough! There's life beyond softball!" but I do live in Santa Martina, a town where everyone from Heather Acosta, Princess Prevaricator, to Mayor Hibbs, Sultan of City Hall, is into the game. So much so that people play year-round. Rain or shine, mud or flood, people play.
So instead of telling Marissa something she'd never buy into anyhow, what I said was "Hey, you want to go to the mall and play some video games?" And since I'm never the one to suggest it, she said, "Are you kidding?" and off we went.
Now, I'm not big on playing myself. I don't have the quarters to spare. So while Marissa's seriously invested in the skill of electro-badguy annihilation, I'm more an observer than anything else. Sure, I'll play a few games just to keep her happy, but pretty much I'm a peanut gallery of one.
Good as she is, though, I get bored and wind up looking around at other stuff. People, mostly. And let me tell you, there are some pretty strange people in the arcade. I'm not talking about the kids, either. They just strut around, cussing and stuff, acting like they'll take you down if you look at them wrong. Like they could actually catch you with the way they wear their pants halfway down their butts.
No, the adults are strange. It's men, mostly, and mostly they look the same--scraggly hair, faded band T-shirts, dirty jeans, and work boots. They come in alone, park themselves at the gun games, and shoot. They don't look at anyone or anything else, they just shoot. And good luck cutting in if you want a turn. I've seen kids try it, and let me tell you, it's dangerous.
Anyway, there I was, at four in the afternoon, surrounded by the noise of electro-fire, checking out the arcade clientele, when this girl with a big red-and-white Sears bag backs right into me. Hard.
Does she say, Sorry? Or, Excuse me? Or even turn around and look at me?
She whimpers, "Jesus! Oh, Jesus!" and drags that bag in close, between her feet. Her eyes are glued to the arcade entrance, and she's shaking. First it's just sort of a shiver, then a rumble; then she starts having her very own internal earthquake.
"What's the matter?" I ask her, but she still doesn't turn around to look at me. She just paws through her Sears bag and rearranges a yellow towel that's on top, then weaves the bag's cord handles together, shaking the whole time.
I look between the two video games we're standing in front of so I can get a clear shot of the entrance, but all I see is a bunch of people milling around outside.
This girl is melting down about something, though, so I say to her, "Are you all right?"
"No! Oh Jesus, no!" She turns to me, her eyes full of terror. "What am I going to do? He'll kill me! He'll kill us both!"
"Who?" And I'm thinking, Whoa, now! Why would he want to kill me?
She doesn't answer. She just stays behind cover while she checks out the entrance.
"Do you want me to call the police?"
"No!" She turns back to me, looking even more scared than she had before. "No!"
"Whatever you do..." Her shaking goes up a notch. "Oh Jesus, there he is!"
"Right over there!" she says, looking out into the halls of the mall. Only there are about thirty people roaming around out there. "Oh Jesus, what am I going to do? What am I going to do?"
"If you're that scared, why don't you let me call the police?"
She whirls around and says, "No! You hear me! They mess everything up. They put him away and now he's out! He's gonna kill me!"
"But if he's going to kill you..."
"Oh Jesus, here he comes." She looks around frantically. "Is there a back door to this place?"
I shake my head.
"How am I going to get out of here?" She goes back to looking outside, practically shaking herself to death.
Then I see him. I can just tell. It's the way he's walking. Slow, but, I don't know...tight. Like every step is for a reason and nothing better get in his way.
Copyright © 2002 by Wendelin Van Draanen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.