Connor picked out a seat near the door in the back corner of an anonymous classroom, nervously awaiting the start of his first class at Freedom High. He wasn’t happy.
He had asked his parents to put the move off for a year so he could finish high school with his life-long friends, but they wouldn’t listen. So there he was, forced to coast through his entire senior year with no friends at a new school in a town he didn’t even like. Connor had a hard enough time finding a niche at his old school, and didn’t have the time or inclination to go through all that social crap again. He hoped to just trudge through the year, get halfway decent grades, and get the hell back to civilization as soon as he possibly could.
He could hear his new classmates gathering in the hall, catching up with what happened over the summer and who was dating who now. The names were all foreign to Connor. Switching schools can be like switching countries—the authorities are different, the rules are different, and the people are different. Most of what he was overhearing was meaningless.
An awful buzzer sounded from a speaker over the wall clock. It was the bell. Connor glanced at his watch—8:27—then to his photocopy of the schedule. The first class started at 8:30. It must have been a warning that classes would start soon. A few students were beginning to gather in the room and put down their nearly-empty backpacks at their preferred seats, confirming among themselves that they were in the right place for Government 12.
One largish guy in blue jeans and a polo shirt sat in an empty chair immediately to Connor’s left. “You took my seat,” he said, setting down his bag.
“Excuse me?” Connor was used to this kind of trouble, and was preparing himself either to deflect a blow or to get up and move. Getting up and moving was usually easier.
“Nothing,” the guy in the polo shirt said as his face broke into a blubbery grin. “I’m just messing with you. I’m Jonah. You new here?”
Connor was ready for a fight, not for a conversation. He forced his mind to shift gears. “Uh, yeah, just moved from DC.”
“Are you insane!?”
Connor smiled. “Wasn’t my idea. I’m just along for the ride. Connor Shales, nice to meet you.” They shook hands.
“You too. I’m guessing you’re a senior, since you’re in government twelve. That’s gotta suck, moving for your senior year.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. I tried to talk my parents out of it.”
While they were talking, a girl had stepped into the room and, in her search for a seat, stood between them. The interruption would usually have bothered Connor, but this particular interruption’s ass was worth looking at.
The girl was five-foot-six, blonde, slim, and had curves in all the right places and proportions. She was the type who, simply by existing, made all the other girls at the school feel inadequate and spiteful. Part by nature and part by her own design, she made all the boys lust for her. She absolutely loved the attention from both sides.
After scoping out the remaining free desks, she decided to sit in the one right in front of Connor. Things were starting to look up for the new kid.
Connor didn’t learn much about government that day; he was too busy falling in love with the beautiful specimen of femininity that sat right in front of him. He pretended to be taking notes on the introductory lecture, instead scribbling his first poems about his new muse.
As the teacher wrapped up his forty-five minute lecture on the importance of understanding government, the students began to pile their books and pens into their backpacks.
“Hey, Connor,” Jonah said as he tossed the thick, new government textbook into his bag, “you should stop by my house after school. I can fill you in with all the small-town gossip and bulls###.”
“All right. Just give me the address.”
Jonah recommended that Connor follow him home after school. “You’d never find it on your own,” he said. His house was on the side of a mountain, 25 minutes away from Freedom High. The trip involved traversing a spider-web patchwork of single-lane roads and bizarre landmarks.
At one point in the journey, Connor was surprised to see two giant concrete rhinos on the side of the highway in front of a country store.
Jonah’s family lived in a double-wide trailer home at the end of a gravel driveway on a five-acre lot. It was clean and well-kept, but did not strike Connor as a ‘house.’ He’d grown up in the suburbs; houses there couldn’t be rolled to the other end of the lot.
“So what did you think of the bustling town of Thaxton?” Jonah asked as he clamored out of his white ’84 New Yorker.
“We passed through a town?”
“Yeah, back by the rhinos.”
“That was a town?”
Jonah shook his head. Connor locked the doors of his Plymouth Breeze and Jonah shook his head again.
“You’re a city boy in so many ways. You never know when a deer might want to take off in your Plymouth, eh?”
“Smart ass,” Connor grinned. “I grew up in DC, I’m allowed to be paranoid.”
“Fair enough. Come on in.”
The inside of Jonah’s family’s trailer was deceptively nice, and didn’t feel as cheap or decrepit as Connor had expected from the outside. The two boys went to Jonah’s room and sat at his computer. It was a sweet machine, by the standards of the day—a CD burner, four speakers and a subwoofer, a kick-ass video card, and so on. It was Jonah’s pride and joy.
“I’ve been serving s###ty customers at the Taco Bell in Freedomtown for three years,” he said, “and every last cent went into either my car or this machine. I call her Lana.”
“Why not? Anyway, what do you think of our little school?”
“Well . . . ” Connor searched momentarily for a good set of words to describe the day’s experience. He failed. “It’s little.”
Jonah chuckled. “Sure is. Meet anybody interesting?”
“Just you, really. Most of the rest didn’t seem very interested in talking to me.”
“Yeah, I figured. Small-town cliques. You’re the outsider now, but it’ll get better. I came here freshman year; it was the same way at the beginning.”
“Where’d you come from?”
“Charleston, South Carolina—so at least I’m a southerner. You’re a Yank, so it might take you longer.”
“Are you serious?”
“Oh, yeah. Half this town’s still fighting the ‘War of Northern Aggression.'”
“Great,” Connor said sarcastically.
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll find a place to fit in. Most of us hang out in Fultonsburg anyway—more to do, more people, more friendly. Freedomtown isn’t exactly a bustling southern metropolis.”
“You’d have to be blind not to. I advise against spending your weekends in town, or you’ll simply go insane.”
“Like you said, I’ll find people. Say, who’s that girl who sits in front of me in government?”
“That’s not somebody you want to get messed up with. Her name’s Agatha. Her friends call her Aggy; her enemies have much more creative names for her. She’s very powerful and used to getting what she wants—and destroying everything she doesn’t. She’s one of the two titular heads, if you’ll pardon the pun, of the school.”
“And the other one?”
“Kelsey Cassidy. You’ll hear about her over the next few days if you haven’t yet.”
“I heard the name.”
“I figured you had. Look, those two are one and the same; which is probably why they hate each other. They both exist to make life difficult for everybody else. They make women jealous of their bodies; they make men want them. It’s all just a game to them.”
“Looks like it might be a fun game to play.”
Jonah shook his head. “If she gets you in her sights, she’ll use you up for what you’re worth and then move on to somebody else—messing you up as best she can in the mean time. She’s a predator, born and bred to hunt and kill the emotionally vulnerable.” He stopped abruptly, like he had more to say but was afraid of going too far.
Connor sat back in the flimsy old office chair he’d been offered and stared out the window. He noticed an orange light deep out in the woods that seemed strangely out-of-place.
“Hey Jonah,” he asked, “what’s the light out there?”
Jonah leaned back in his own chair—a much nicer one—to see what Connor was looking at. “Oh. That light, my friend, is how we’ll know when the world is coming to an end.”
“It’s a standard light, like the ones they put outside of banks and stuff, but it’s on a pole in the middle of the woods.”
“So what’s it got to do with the end of the world?”
“The light,” Jonah said with grave seriousness, “never goes out. We lost power for five days in the blizzard two years ago; it stayed on the whole time. If it ever does go out, I’m convinced that it’s the end of the world.”
“Spooky,” Connor said with a shrug.
“Hey, man, I’m not making this up. This isn’t some s###ty middle-school ghost story. If that light goes out, we’re in trouble.”
It was first period government class on the second day of school and Connor was already bored with it. Thankfully, he had Agatha to fantasize about. She kept flipping her hair back out of her face, and didn’t seem to realize that it kept landing on the notebook on Connor’s desk.
Connor didn’t mind at all.
After thirty minutes of fantasy, he vowed to himself that he was going to strike up a conversation with this gorgeous blonde—regardless of what Jonah had to say about her. Intellectually, he knew it was a waste of time; she was unlikely to talk back—and even if she did, she was unlikely to say anything intelligent. But a teenager’s hormone-driven sexual desire naturally overrules intellectualism every time.
As it got toward the end of the class, Connor still hadn’t come up with any clever lines or interesting things to say to get a conversation going. His mind was a stubborn blank and he was about to give up and put it off until tomorrow. It was only the second day of class, after all. He had plenty of time to think this through.
With only six minutes remaining in the period, the classroom erupted spontaneously into a rustle of papers, notebooks, and backpack zippers as the students prepared to leave for their second period classes. Just then, Agatha turned around and said something to Connor.
Connor, however, was caught so off-guard that he hadn’t heard a word of it. He stared at her blankly, unsure if he’d imagined it, afraid to ask what she’d said for fear of finding out she hadn’t said anything at all.
Thankfully, Agatha noticed Connor’s empty-chalkboard stare and repeated herself. “I said hi, my name’s Agatha. What’s yours?”
“Uh . . . ” Connor’s brain wouldn’t put the words together. The sudden overture had thrown him off-balance. Think of something to say, Connor ordered himself, NOW!
“His name’s Connor,” Jonah interjected. “He’s new here, from DC.”
“Oh, okay,” Agatha said, as if being new were a perfectly acceptable reason for not being able to talk. She turned back toward Connor. “How are you?”
“Uh, I’m okay.” That was progress. “You?”
“Bored. Really bored.”
“Oh, um . . . “
“What are you doing tonight?”
“I don’t know.” Connor knew exactly what he was doing that night, but he wasn’t going to tell her that he was going to sit at home and surf the Internet. This gorgeous girl seemed to be hitting on him, strange as it was, and the last thing he needed to do was say something stupid, nerdy, or freaky.
“You want to go out?” Agatha asked.
“Uh, it’s Wednesday.”
“Well . . . ” Connor knew his parents wouldn’t approve. They wanted him home on school nights, and were still upset that he’d stayed out until ten at Jonah’s the evening before. Oh, hell, they’d deal. He wasn’t going to pass this up. “Okay, sure.”
“Great!” Agatha’s face erupted in a genuine smile. “Pick me up at six. I live in the big brick house on Sunrise.”
“Sure.” The buzzer went off, announcing the end of the class. “I’ll see you then.”
Agatha was somehow already packed and gracefully slipping out into the hall. “See you tonight!” she said from the doorway.
Connor waved back and hurriedly crammed his notebook into his backpack, then noticed Jonah looked like his best friend was about to jump off a cliff. He had obviously heard everything and, based on what he said the night before, Connor could imagine exactly what he thought of these new developments.
“Oh, come on man,” Connor said as he hoisted the pack onto his back. “Like you wouldn’t go out with her if you had the opportunity.”
Jonah thought a moment. “You’re damn right; I would. She’s hot, in a burn-down-your-house-and-you-don’t-care kind of way. She’s probably an animal in bed too. But think about this for a second—why would she ask you out? Isn’t that a little weird how she started talking to you like that?”
“Yes, but what does it matter? It’s not like we’re getting married or anything. I’m going out with her tonight; we’ll see what happens.”
“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“I won’t. Anyway, uh, where’s Sunrise?”
Jonah chuckled. “You’re hopeless, you know that? It’s over by the elementary school, the last street on the left off of Lake Drive.”
“Thanks, man. I’ll call you tonight and let you know how it goes.”
Connor drove his Plymouth slowly down Sunrise Avenue. The houses were set back from the road and obscured by trees. Connor had already passed at least three brick ones, but none of them struck him as ‘big.’
At the cul-de-sac ending of the street, there were four homes clustered around the turnaround circle. Two of them were brick, but the one on the left was by-far the largest of the five he had seen on the street. He parked behind a brand-new Lincoln in the gravel driveway and got out of the car.
“Howdy,” a woman called out from the porch. “You lookin’ for Agatha?”
She was probably forty-something years old, and had ruined her beauty with too many trips to the tanning salon and hair stylist. She was a frizzy, wrinkled mess and probably had no idea why. Connor knew her type, but in Washington they would have already resorted to facelifts, botox, and other cosmetic wastes of medical science. Connor thought she looked utterly grotesque, but at least she hadn’t spent a fortune making it worse by trying to fix it.
“Yeah, I’m Connor. She asked me to meet her here at six.”
“Oh, you must be that new boy in town,” she said. The gossip sure spread fast in Freedomtown. “I’m Agatha’s mom. Have a seat.”
Connor sat on a straw rocking chair identical to the one Agatha’s mom was sitting in. They both faced toward the driveway.
“Aggy’s at cheerleading practice. She usually gets home at quarter-’til. They must have kept her over today.”
“Do you expect her soon, then?”
“Should be here any time. So what brought you from DC down to little ol’ Freedomtown?” She even knew where he’d moved from. Connor wondered how much else the rumor mill had already said about him.
“My family, really. I wanted to finish up school before they moved, but they got tired of putting it off.”
“That’s a shame. Freedomtown’s a nice little place, though. It’s small, but nice. You’ll fit in fine. Anyway,” she said as she stood, “I’ve got to get supper going. That’s Aggy comin’ on down the road.”
“Well, it was nice to meet you.”
“You too. Ya’ll have fun now.”
Agatha pulled into the driveway and parked her Ford Tempo next to Connor’s car. She still wore her blue and white cheerleader’s outfit—a tank-top with ‘FHS Fighters’ emblazoned across the front and a skirt that was short enough to send Connor’s imagination running wild.
“Hey, you ready to go?” she asked as soon as she was out of her car.
“Uh, yeah. Didn’t you want to change first?”
“Don’t worry about that. You’re driving, so I’ll just do it in the car.”
Connor scratched his head nervously at the thought of her stripping while he tried to maintain control of a motor vehicle.
“Come on,” Agatha yelled. She had already jumped into the passenger seat of his Plymouth. Connor did as he was told.
“Where are we headed?” he asked.
“Just head toward Fultonsburg; we’ll figure it out on the way.”
Connor started driving while Agatha nonchalantly pulled a pair of black trousers up under her skirt, then slid the skirt off over the top of the pants. It was a quick maneuver that didn’t give Connor much of a show.
Then, without warning, she wriggled out of her tank top and for a full ten seconds wore nothing above the waist except her white sports bra. Connor almost rammed a mailbox in wide-eyed bliss. Agatha giggled seductively, as if she’d just given him a taste of something that he would get a lot more of later. “I hope I’m not distracting you,” she said, pulling on a white satin blouse.
“Uh, not at all,” Connor lied and cleared his throat.
It was about a half hour drive from Freedomtown to Fultonsburg; everything in southern Virginia is at least thirty minutes away from anything else. Connor nervously stumbled over his words every time he had the opportunity to speak, but thankfully that was not often. Agatha managed to have a fascinating one-sided conversation about which girl on the squad was dating which player on the team . . . and which other girls on the squad were sleeping with those same players ‘unofficially.’
They had driven for about twenty minutes when they passed a Freedom County sheriff’s deputy running radar in the center median of route 470. Connor was only going sixty miles per hour—five over the limit—and was surprised when the cop pulled into the highway behind him with lights and siren blaring.
“S###,” Agatha said, “how fast were you going?”
“Five over. Maybe I have a light out or something.” Connor obediently pulled over to the gravel shoulder of the highway and put the car in park. He watched the white police cruiser pull in behind him.
The deputy was young, only 22 or so, and wore a brown cowboy-style hat that matched his uniform. Connor had already lowered his electric window, but when the cop stepped out of the cruiser he walked up on the passenger side.
“Open up Aggy,” he said through the closed window. He jiggled the door handle; it was locked. “Boy,” he glared at Connor, “you unlock this door now or I’ll have to arrest you too.”
Agatha sighed, staring straight ahead. “Go ahead Connor, he’s not going to leave us alone.”
“What’s this all about?”
She didn’t answer.
Connor unlocked the door with the switch on his console, and the deputy wasted no time pulling it open. “Come on, Aggy. You’ve really done it this time.”
“You’re a real asshole, Tommy. A real asshole.”
“Damn it, I’m just doing my job. They had a call out on your friend’s car here. You shouldn’t’ve run.”
“That bitch deserved it!” Agatha shrieked.
“Shut up, Aggy. Get out of the car.”
Agatha, clearly reluctant, obeyed. “I’m sorry about this, Connor. I promise I’ll make up for it.”
“Uh, okay. Call me.”
The deputy closed the door and led Agatha back to his cruiser to be handcuffed and put in the back seat. The arresting officer walked back up—on the driver’s side this time—to Connor’s Plymouth.
“You’re new in town, right?” he asked.
“Well let me give you a little advice. Aggy there is a real firecracker. She’s real great to look at, but gettin’ caught up with her will land you in a load of trouble.” He leaned in, as if he were about to let Connor in on a secret. “Believe me, I know.”
The deputy stood back up and grinned, “You have a nice day now.”
“The irony is almost sickening,” Jonah said as he invited Connor into the house. They had spoken briefly on the phone earlier, but Jonah wanted Connor to come over and tell the whole story in person. “You’re telling me that Tom Overstreet arrested her?”
“Yeah. What’s that all about?”
“You mean her getting arrested, or the irony?”
“Well,” Jonah said, “she got arrested because she beat the s### out of Kelsey Cassidy at cheerleading practice. Kelsey started it, but Agatha sure finished it. Last I heard, Kelsey’s still in the hospital.”
“Agatha didn’t have a scratch on her.”
“Yeah. I’ve seen her fight; I would advise that you stay on her good side, if you like having all your extremities.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“As far as the Tom Overstreet part . . . well, she used to date him. It lasted about nine months, I guess, back when we were freshmen. Tom was a senior. It ended badly.”
“How so?” Connor asked.
“She cheated on him for about six of those nine months. Aggy kept swearing to the other guy that she was going to dump Tom, but she never did. Tom finally found out she’d been sneaking around and dumped her.”
“So she got with the other guy then?”
“No. He got tired of playing the number-two guy and ended the relationship almost a month before Tom figured it all out. Aggy managed to play two guys at once, and lost both of ‘em.”
“Why didn’t she just pick one earlier?”
“Hell, you’re asking me?” Jonah sighed. “I like to think I’ve got people pretty well figured out, but somebody like Agatha is almost beyond explanation. I don’t really think she likes to hurt people, but she does it anyway—all the time, too. She doesn’t get anything out of it. Sometimes I wonder if she even knows what she does to people.”
The phone next to the computer started to ring.
“Hang on a second,” Jonah said, lifting the receiver. “Hello? . . . Yeah, he’s here . . . Just a second.” Jonah handed the phone to Connor. “Speak of the devil,” he said quietly.
“Hi!” The voice sounded tinny and distorted over the phone line, but it was unmistakably Agatha. “Can you do me a big favor?”
“That depends on what it is,” Connor said.
“Come pick me up at the jail. They won’t give me a ride home and my mom’s not answering the phone.”
Despite everything that Jonah had told him and the ominous warning from Deputy Tom Overstreet, all Connor could think about was Agatha’s seductive come-hither giggle and her promise to make things up to him. “Okay, I can be there in about twenty minutes.”
“Great! I’ll see you soon.”
“Sure, see ya.” Connor hung up the phone.
Jonah gave him another train-wreck look. “Maybe she’s changed. If she has, then you’re a lucky bastard. But let me ask you something. When you first saw her, you thought she was out of your league, right?”
“And she noticed you. You thought that was a little weird, but it made you feel really great. You starting thinking, ‘maybe she’s not so much better than me. Maybe this could work out,’ right?”
“It’s a good feeling, but it’s short-term and artificial. She probably doesn’t even know your favorite book, or the type of music you listen to, or—hell—even your last name.” Jonah raised his voice to a near-yell. “She’s going to put you on top of the world and then tear you down just like the rest of us!” He slammed his hand down on the desk, unleashing a thunderclap of sound.
They sat quietly for a few tense seconds. Connor finally broke the silence.
“You were the guy, back in freshman year, right?”
Jonah nodded and took a few moments to collect his thoughts. His arm was still shuddering from his outburst. “It’s all a game to her, man. She might treat you like a king tonight. You’ll fall head-over-heels for her and think she’s doing the same with you, but soon enough you’ll be wishing you’d never met her.”
“That all happened three years ago, man. I think she’s changed since then.”
Jonah chuckled, but it wasn’t his usual light-hearted chuckle. “For God sakes man, you’re about to go pick her up from the county jail!”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Look, three years ago I said the same things you’re saying. Some things never change, my friend. Go pick her up; take what she’s willing to give and enjoy it while it lasts. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong—and you’re a lucky bastard. But don’t count on my being wrong.”
Connor Shales was just a regular guy. He had one or two girlfriends in Washington earlier in his high school career, but nothing ever got too serious. He’d been waiting for the right girl to get serious about.
When Agatha first stepped into Connor’s line of sight on that first day of class, something clicked. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. He thought she would be uninterested in talking to him, but then she initiated a conversation. He never thought she’d go out with him, but then she’d asked him out on her own.
He couldn’t help but take these events as a sign.
What did a bunch of small-town folk really know about Agatha anyway? Connor knew how small towns worked; they built up their little cliques and circles of gossip and launched themselves into a destructive circle of half-truths and dramatic hyperbole.
Perhaps Agatha had made some relationship mistakes in the past, but what sense did it make to hold those against her now? Why should a jaded city boy assume the worst of a personable, outgoing small-town girl? She had been so sweet and friendly toward him! How could he judge her based on the hurtful things that other people had to say about her?
Connor pulled into the visitors’ parking lot at the jail—a squat, brick building adjacent to the county court house. As he walked toward the entrance, Agatha came sprinting out the door and gave him an overpowering hug.
“It’s so great to see you,” she said. “Let’s get out of here.”
He drove her home to the big brick house on Sunrise. The lights were dark—nobody home. Agatha led Connor into the living room and they sat on a champaign-colored couch under a panoramic painting of the local Blue Ridge mountains.
The energy in the room was palpable. Connor wanted her, and he swore that he could tell that she wanted him too. It was too pure, too real to be some kind of sick joke. She couldn’t possibly be faking her attraction so perfectly.
Connor leaned over and kissed her gently on the lips. She didn’t resist; no, she actually leaned into it. This was no one-sided, false love in action . . . this was real.
There was a knock at the front door.
Agatha jumped up from the couch. “Oh! Tommy’s here!”
“Tommy? The cop?”
“Yeah, I invited him over when he got off-duty tonight.”
“Are you serious!?” Connor almost screamed.
“You’re not jealous, are you?” Agatha walked to the front door and let Tommy into the house. He still wore the cowboy hat and deputy’s uniform.
Tommy was obviously surprised to see Connor. “Oh, um, hi there,” he said.
Connor nodded a greeting.
“Hang out here for a minute, Connor,” Agatha said. “I’ve got to talk to Tommy upstairs.”
The two walked up the stairs, leaving Connor fuming in the living room. As if the evening hadn’t been strange enough, now she’d invited her ex—who was arresting her only a few hours earlier—over to interrupt the rest of their date?
Connor grew more suspicious with each passing minute. What was taking them so long? Surely Agatha wouldn’t be trying to get back with Tommy in the middle of her date with Connor, would she? What could they possibly need to talk about for this long?
The curiousity got to be to much. Connor crept stealthily up the stairs, hearing nothing but the distant hum of central air conditioning. The sun was setting outside and the house was growing darker by the minute.
At the top of the stairs, there was a dimly shimmering glint of metal laid up against the bannister—Tommy’s badge, still pinned to his crumpled uniform shirt. Connor stepped up another two steps and saw Agatha’s satin blouse lying haphazardly on the floor.
Through a closed bedroom door, Connor heard Agatha giggle.
It was getting late, and Connor had nowhere to go. At home, his parents were nervously wringing their hands and wondering why their son was toying with them by staying out so late on a school night. Jonah was wondering what luck his new friend was having with his past love. Agatha, however, was slightly preoccupied with Deputy Tom Overstreet.
Connor wasn’t in the mood to answer questions from anybody, so he just drove instead. He went toward Thaxton because it was rural and secluded, but he’d been there before and it was familiar. He didn’t want to add insult to injury by getting himself lost.
What did Agatha stand to gain from the evening’s exercises? Connor had nothing to offer her except genuine attraction. What could she possibly want from him? To what end did she play this game?
There had to be something real to it; there was no other explanation. For those few minutes on the champaign-colored couch, there was mutual desire in the air. He hadn’t imagined it.
As Connor drove down a narrow gravel road in the bowels of Thaxton, Virginia, he saw a pallid yellow light glowing steadily off in the woods. The world had not ended. It was only the second day of senior year, and he had plenty of time to change her mind.