Fuck. What the fuck had happened?
Ron tried to catch her breath, but there was so much dust in the air that she started coughing violently. Her chest hurt, and when she managed to stop coughing she threw up a little. It tasted like she had swallowed an ashtray. She waited until the coughing stopped, then she drew in a deep breath. She could breathe, at least, though she could barely move.
She'd read that in a book once, that you take a deep breath when you've been hurt, to see if your ribs are okay. Checking further, she found that her right arm was fine, but her left arm was numb and didn't move. Her legs seemed to be pinned under something.
She had an urge to scream for her father, but she used her good arm to punch herself in the shoulder. She could deal with this. She looked around, but she couldn't really see anything. She was lying down and she seemed to be in some sort of tunnel. No, it was... she reached across her body to feel the rough wood on her left. She nearly gave herself a splinter, but she thought she knew what it was. It was the huge wooden piling that blocked the bridge between the city and U-town. She sat on it every morning, waiting for the mail delivery, so she damn well should know what it was. She was lying on the road surface, which was gritty and also familiar. She reached up and felt the dark surface above her.
It was wood, but not like the barricade. This felt like planks. She pushed, but it didn't budge. She tried to move her left arm, so she could push with that as well, but she couldn't get it to budge. She felt tears welling up, but she punched herself again. There was just enough room for that.
Her father would come and find her. He knew where she was, and he would lift this thing off her, and she was not going to let him see her crying like a little baby...
Which was when she remembered that both of her parents were out of town. She tried to squirm her way up, but moving made her left ankle hurt so bad that she yelled, "motherfucking shit!"
She stopped trying to move and she yelled for help. If you yell loudly, because you really need help, not screaming like a girl and not crying, then it's okay.
Ron's father Marshall walked her to school almost every day. He didn't have to, of course, but they both enjoyed it. He was the assistant to Jan Sleet, the famous reporter and amateur detective. Jan and Marshall had adopted Ron, who had run away from her real parents months earlier (her "birth parents," as Marshall always called them). Ron had been twelve then, and she was now thirteen.
Sometimes Ron and Marshall talked while they walked, sometimes not. They enjoyed it either way. Today, he was talking about the book report she had written the night before, reminding her to bring it to her history teacher during the afternoon.
School was okay. They had just changed her schedule again, so now her history class was in the mornings. Ron didn't go to school on the mornings, because she needed to deliver the mail, so now she was excused from History and she had Civics instead. Marshall had made it clear that, even though she was no longer in Mr. Tremayne's History class, she still had to turn in this one final paper.
She had been to one Civics class so far, and it had been weird. It was also about history, but different history than the History class. It was all about the history of U-town itself and how it functioned. So, it was about the people who had founded U-town, and Vicki who ran it, and it was weird to have a class about people who she delivered mail to every day, especially when two of them were her parents.
After Civics, she had Gym. They were learning basketball, which Ron really enjoyed, though she hated changing in the locker room. Ron hated the locker room. Even the smell of it made her feel like throwing up. She hated to take off her clothes except when she was alone and the door was locked. And the shower, which she never used, was worse. How could you shower with other people?
When Gym was over and she was changed back to her regular clothes, she went to the school mail room and slipped her report into the slot for Mr. Tremayne. She preferred that to seeing him.
Mr. Tremayne had got the idea somehow that Ron's postal responsibilities were unfair and that she should be free to go to school full time. This was completely wrong, and Ron was tired of trying to convince him. He thought it was something her parents were forcing on her because it was good for them, and, like some of her other teachers, he didn't listen when she told him he was wrong.
And she knew there would be trouble at home if she kicked one of her teachers.
"Hello, Hazel," someone said behind her. She turned and saw Sharon Golden.
"Hi," Ron said.
Sharon took an envelope from her book bag and slipped it into one of the mail slots. "I'm taking Dr. Alexander's advanced literature class," she explained, "and this report is due today. Dr. Alexander is out sick, but I didn't want to miss the deadline."
Sharon and her brothers were the only students in the school who didn't try to take advantage when a teacher was out. They always turned in their work on time. Ron thought they were probably aliens, or maybe mutants. Why take Dr. Alexander's class in the first place? It was a difficult class, and it wasn't required, so why take it?
"Your father is outside," Sharon said as she turned to go.
"Oh, shit," Ron thought. She wondered what she'd done wrong now. Marshall walked her to school, but he never picked her up.
Marshall smiled when he saw her coming down the steps, but she could tell he was worried about something. He had been in a good mood in the morning. She wondered what he could be upset about now. She had punched a boy during the basketball practice when he'd called her a name, but there was no way her father could have heard about that already.
"What's up?" she asked as she walked over to him. She had made it clear in the past that he wasn't to hug her or anything like that when the other students could see them.
"I thought I'd walk you home, Ron," he said. "Your mother and I have to go out of town this afternoon, and I wanted to tell you about it before we leave."
"Okay," she said, and they set out. "Is Mom on a case?" she asked. Her mother's cases sometimes meant she had to travel, and she never traveled without Marshall.
"No," Marshall said, "this is family stuff. Unfortunately." He caught her alarmed look. "Nothing to do with your family. I mean your birth family. This is your mother's family."
Ron nodded. "Family" always sounded like trouble to her, because it was always in the back of her mind that her real family might appear and screw everything up. Her life with Jan and Marshall was far better than she had ever thought family life could be, but she knew how easily good things could get messed up.
"I thought we might have a sandwich," he said. "I didn't get any lunch, and as soon as we get back to the hotel your mother and I have to go. Do you want a piece of pie?"
Ron was pretty much always willing to have a piece of pie, so they stopped in a coffee shop that she liked and took a small table. It was the middle of the afternoon, so the place was mostly empty.
"Do you know anything about your mother's family?" he asked her once they were seated.
She shook her head. "She talked about her dad, Vinnie. Grandpa. He sends her mail sometimes, from Italy. And packages. That's all I know." Ron delivered the mail, so she always knew who got what, and mail from Italy was unusual.
"Well, this is to do with Jan's mother. Her name is Alex. Alexandra. Jan was raised by Vinnie, so she didn't know her mother. She's... troubled." Ron already knew that "troubled" meant "crazy." The waitress came over and asked if they needed menus. Marshall ordered a tuna sandwich and a salad, and Ron asked for a piece of apple pie a la mode. Warm, of course.
"Your mother always wanted to know Alex, though," he continued when the waitress had gone, "or at least to know where she was. Vinnie had no idea; he hadn't seen her for years. But you know your mother. If there's a mystery, she can solve it."
Ron nodded. Her belief in her mother's detective abilities was absolute.
"Well, Alex was difficult to find – she had changed her name at least once – but Jan got a line on her and eventually found her. And in the process we met Perry Nelson. He's the person we need to go talk to today."
Ron frowned. She had heard that name, but couldn't remember where.
"He's a famous writer," Marshall explained. "He's very young, but he's written three successful novels."
"I..." She was trying to remember, then it came to her. "A girl in my English class, she read a book of his, and she got all goopy when she talked about it. She asked Miss T. why don't we study his books instead of stupid Moby Dick, and Miss T. said Melville was a great author and Perry Nelson was very young. And something about June..."
She shrugged. "Something like that."
Marshall laughed. "Well, he is young, but he's a pretty good writer. We met him, and, well, the case got complex, but your mother solved it. And I think she and Alex have exchanged letters a few times, but they're not close." He hesitated. "Do you know anything about multiple personalities, Ron?"
She was working on a huge mouthful of pie, so he waited while she chewed and swallowed it. "Like when people are nice one day and mean the next? Miss T. is like that."
He shook his head, using his knife and fork to slice up the contents of his salad. "No, that's different. That's manic-depressive. Not that Miss Tumolo is manic-depressive," he added quickly. "After all, everybody is like that to some extent." He smiled. "You're in a better mood some days than others, after all. That's not a disorder, that's just normal. But, when it's extreme, when it's not because of things that happen, then it can be a disorder. Like an illness."
He poured dressing on his salad. Ron nodded. "I get it. Miss T. isn't crazy, she's just annoying."
He smiled. "Exactly. She's your teacher; it's part of her job to annoy you."
Ron closed her eyes and shook her head, restraining herself from saying how good she thought Miss Tumolo was at this part of her job.
"Anyway," Marshall said as he took a few pieces of red onion from his salad and slid them into his sandwich, "multiple personalities is different, and more serious. That's when you actually have different personalities, like you think you're different people on different days. So, say you were a girl named Susan. On Monday you might be yourself, Susan, and then on Tuesday you might be somebody named Fred, and you'd dress differently and talk differently, and you'd be mad if somebody called you Susan."
"So, Alex thought she was a guy?"
"No, though I understand that happens sometimes. Anyway, the main thing is that when we met Alex, she said she was going to write a book about what had happened to her, about the multiple personalities and so on."
Ron shrugged. Ron wasn't much for reading books, except what she had to read for school. She used a spoon to scoop up some of the melted ice cream from her plate. "This happened a while ago, right?" she asked. Marshall nodded, chewing on a bite of sandwich. "Then what's going on now?"
"We were never sure if Alex would really write the book she talked about – it takes a lot of discipline to write a book, and she's pretty unstable – but I saw an ad for it in the paper this morning. We have no idea what's in it, but some of the things she was doing when we met her were illegal. Does she talk about that, does she talk about Perry, or about us? We want to talk to Perry, to see if he knows more than we do." He chuckled. "Frankly, I'm sure he hasn't heard about it yet. He lives out in the woods with no television or telephone, and I don't know if he reads newspapers.
He hates publicity, and this is going to be a big story when the book comes out, because it's an unusual story and also because he's involved and he's famous, and your mother is famous. And there are potential legal ramifications, too, from what Alex was doing. I don't know what that will mean, but the first thing we want to do is talk to Perry."
Marshall was still working on his sandwich and salad, so Ron stood up and went to the counter, where the waitress was trying to tune in some music on the radio. "Excuse me," Ron said, "can I get a Coke?"
The waitress nodded and Ron went back to the table.
"There's more," Marshall said. "Vinnie and Alex had another child, and that's–"
"Vicki, right?" Ron asked.
Marshall stopped and regarded her. "How did you know that?" he asked.
Ron shrugged as the waitress brought her the tall glass of soda. "They look alike. Mom and Vicki. And they kind of talk the same way sometimes – not as much as you and Mom, but sometimes they do." She looked a bit uneasy as she sipped her soda through the straw. "I mean, their faces look alike, not the... everything else."
It was true that most people, meeting Jan Sleet and Vicki Wasserman, would not have immediately noted the similarities. Jan Sleet was six feet tall, thin to the point of emaciation, with a narrow face and lank brown hair to her shoulders. She always wore large, horn-rimmed glasses and impeccable, perfectly-tailored three-piece suits, and she walked with a cane. With all of this, though, she was the less unusual looking of the two women.
"I'm surprised you noticed," Marshall said. "Most people don't see it." He smiled. "You are your mother's daughter. You'll be a detective someday."
"Did she know?" Ron asked. "Vicki?" She took it for granted that her mother had known.
"No, she didn't. We had to tell her this morning, when we saw the ad in the paper." Ron waited, slurping the last of her soda. "She took it fairly well," he said.
"Is she going with you?" Ron asked.
He nodded. "For security."
"So, Alex is my grandmother?"
"Yes, as Vinnie is your grandfather."
"Does she know about me?"
"I don't think so." He looked uncomfortable "If you ever meet her, don't refer to her as Grandma or anything like that. Don't throw your arms around her." He laughed at Ron's expression. "I know you wouldn't do that. My point is this: when you meet Vinnie, you could do exactly that and he would love it. We've written him all about you and he's delighted to have a granddaughter. I think he was pretty sure he would never have grandchildren. Your mother being, as she would put, it, a career girl–"
"And because Vicki is a..."
Ron caught her father's expression and stopped before she uttered a word she knew her father didn't approve of.
"In any case," Marshall continued, "Alex is different. As I'm sure you'll see, sooner or later."
Ron's parents had gone, along with Vicki. She had said goodbye to them in their room, but they hadn't made too big a thing of it. They were planning to be back the next day after all. After they had gone, Ron wasn't sure what to do. She had homework, but she could do it later. She didn't feel like doing it in the room all by herself.
Then she thought of the Golden. She thought she'd go visit them, and she could do her homework with them. Sharon and her brothers always did their homework right after dinner.
She wondered what they were having for dinner tonight. The food at their house was always good. She liked eating with her parents, but they did drag her to some weird places for dinner. Indian food, Korean food, she never knew what they would end up eating. Some of it was pretty disgusting.
But the Golden didn't cook that kind of food. She smiled. They were trying so hard to be normal, they made only the most normal food. Maybe tonight would be meatloaf. She really liked their meatloaf.
She picked up her ancient Red Cross shoulder bag and went downstairs. She always had the bag with her. In the morning, she used it for the daily mail delivery. After the mail was delivered, she used it to carry her school books.
She ran into Pat downstairs in the lobby. Pat was in her twenties, with short hair. She usually wore jeans and a T-shirt, and almost always wore a baseball cap.
"Hi, Ron," she said. "Guess we're on our own tonight." She smiled. "Do you know where you're eating dinner?"
"I'm going to see friends," Ron said. "See you later."
She left, frowning. She didn't really like Pat. It sounded like Pat thought Ron couldn't get herself fed when her parents weren't there. Ron had taken care of herself just fine for a long time before she ever met Jan Sleet and Marshall O'Connor. She loved them, but she could still take care of herself. They knew it, so she didn't see why it was such a mystery to Pat.
She made a face as she crossed the street. She knew she wasn't supposed to feel this way, but Pat also made her uneasy because she knew Pat was Vicki's girlfriend. They shared a room together, even though Vicki was barely sixteen. First Ron had thought they were just friends, roommates, but then she saw them at a big party for Jack's birthday and they were holding hands and even kissing. In front of everybody.
It made Ron's stomach hurt. When Pat looked at Ron, was she thinking... Ron shook her head. It seemed crazy, but Vicki was only three years older than Ron. She felt queasy. No, it was crazy, but she tried to avoid Pat whenever she could.
She never mentioned this to her parents. They were willing to accept all sorts of people, so Ron did too. But she had her own opinions.
As she walked, she thought about the things Marshall had told her. She didn't think it had anything to do with her. Jan had parents, and she assumed Marshall had parents, but they weren't in U-town, so they didn't matter to her. And Vicki was now Jan's sister. She hoped that wouldn't get weird.
Ron was not large, but she had a very loud voice, and that's what saved her.
"We're coming!" a woman's voice called. "Try to stay calm."
Ron didn't dignify that with a reply. As she waited, she thought about the fact that her parents weren't going to rescue her from this. Well, she loved them, but she didn't really need them. She'd never needed anybody but herself, and you should never rely on other people.
Then she thought she heard her mother's voice.
–Ron? Ron, are you alright?
Ron looked around, as well as she could in the dark and smoke. "Where are you, Mom?" she demanded.
–I'm not there. I'm still away. Are you alright?
"Fuck no," Ron said. "I think my leg is busted. I'm stuck under something and I can't move, but somebody heard me yelling. I think they're going to try to get me out. But I don't know what's on top of me."
–We're coming, Jan Sleet said. As fast as we can.
Ron wanted to say something to indicate that of course it would be good to see them, but that she would cope and so on, but what she did say was, "Hurry."