The downtown gazebo was the center of Gabby’s universe. Located on Main Street, catty-corner from her father’s hardware store, the old, wooden structure with a circular roof looked like something out of a Mark Twain novel. Gabby and her friends, self-dubbed The Gang, considered it their home away from home.
The Gang started when she and Emma met in preschool. Hamilton and his geeky persona joined them a few years later in second grade. In an environment where most boys ate paste, Hamilton wore rectangular glasses, matching clothes, and always carried a book in his hand. He was a dorkish man among boys. Meeting him was quite a shock for Gabby. She was at the age where she had just started becoming aware of the differences in people. Confused by Hamilton’s darker skin, she stopped by the hardware store and asked her dad, “Why can’t I have a tan like Hamilton?”
“He’s black. You’re white.”
“His ancestors come from Africa. Yours come from Europe. Different climates, different skin color. That’s the way God made us.”
“Oh. He’s nice. And smart.”
“But I’ll never be able to tan like him?”
“That’s not fair.”
Her father smiled. “No, it isn’t.”
After that, she never thought about it again and had zero tolerance for those who did. One of the things she envied about Hamilton was how comfortable he was in his own nerdy skin. She marveled at his lack of interest in what other people thought of him, even if that made him an outcast.
And then there was Scott. His family moved into town at the start of middle school, and that was when Gabby let him into the fold. Back then, he wasn’t the tall, handsome, athletic star he was today. He was awkward, a little shy, and one of the most sincere people she had ever met. His inclusion into her extended family gave it a depth and humanity it didn’t have before. As Scott started to grow into a man, so did his stature in The Gang. The rest of the group, including Gabby, were happy to follow his lead, knowing it would usually point them in the right direction.
This, the last day of school, was to be a joyous event. Instead of being with The Gang and relishing in the months of freedom that lay ahead, the events at the train tracks changed all that. Her meeting with Father Peters extended into the evening. By the time she pedaled up the sidewalk and to the stairs of the gazebo, everyone else had already arrived.
Hamilton stood in the middle of the raised, wooden floor, rambling on about some life-altering book he had recently read, which was a common occurrence. Hamilton loved to read and felt every book changed his life even when that seemed impossible. Gabby couldn’t understand how a book about snowflakes could come in handy in the hot and humid Florida weather. Or how a story about Asian trade routes in the second century would affect his life as a freshman.
Scott and Emma sat on the floor like kids around a campfire, listening to Hamilton’s excited views about horned frogs. Gabby lumbered up the stairs around the point Hamilton was exalting the benefits of the frogs’ third eye.
“I’m sorry, a third eye?” Gabby asked.
“Hey Gabs,” Hamilton said. “Well, it’s not really a third eye. It’s a gland on the top of their head that looks like one. But, what’s cool is when the horned frogs get angry, they can squirt a four-foot stream of blood from their eyes!”
“Eww,” Emma said.
“Sounds like something out of a horror movie,” Scott said.
“I know, cool, right?” Hamilton asked. “Even today, in parts of Mexico, the folklore insists that the creatures that weep tears of blood are sacred!”
Gabby sat on the floor next to Scott, resting her head on his shoulder. “So that’s your book of the week, Ham?” she asked. “Horned Frogs?”
“Sacred Frogs of the Desert by Philmore Sandusteen, Ph.D.,” Hamilton said.
“Well, if a doctor said it, it must be true,” Gabby said. “Are you going to take a break from reading over the summer, Ham?”
“No. Just the opposite. I got a part-time job at the library! I start tomorrow.”
“That’s perfect. How’d you score that?” she asked.
“Funny story. They have these things called employment applications. If you fill them out and they like you, sometimes they offer you the job.”
“Fascinating!” She smirked. “Has anyone else filled out any of these application doohickies?”
Scott raised his hand like an excited toddler. “Ooo! I have!”
Gabby sat up and slid back against the railing. Playing along, she asked, “Yes, Mr. Summers. Do you have something you would like to share with the class?”
“Yes, Ms. Wells. I am happy to announce that I’m going to be a lifeguard over the summer. At the pool at the spa.”
“Perfect,” Hamilton mumbled. “You’ll get to flex your muscles in front of all the girls.”
“Don’t be jealous, Ham,” Emma said. “We each have our gifts. But I will say this… if I didn’t think of Scott like a brother, I’d be all over him.”
“Eww!” Gabby said.
“You know what I mean.”
“I know. That’s the problem.” Gabby patted Scott on his shoulder. “No offense, but thinking of you that way gives me the willies.”
“It should,” he said. “We’re like family. Family doesn’t sleep together. Well, except maybe Hamilton’s.”
Hamilton jumped on Scott, and they began to wrestle. Emma slid over to Gabby as the boys tumbled across the gazebo floor, Hamilton’s black skin and Scott’s tanned hue spinning around like a pinwheel.
“How long before Scott pins him?” Emma asked.
“As long as he wants,” Gabby laughed.
“I heard that!” Hamilton said, caught in a headlock while Scott gave him a noogie.
Emma leaned forward and whispered, “Are you okay, Gabs?”
“Yeah,” she said, removing her hat and running her hand through her hair. “How about you?” Gabby asked.
“Unfortunately, I hear stories like Regina’s all the time at home. Murder, suicide, domestic violence… comes with being the daughter of the sheriff.”
“Must make for interesting dinner conversation.”
“Let’s just say my dad has a unique way of killing my appetite. He usually reels it in when you’re around.”
“I just… I know what Stacy is going to go through. It’s going to be hard. At least I had my dad. He’s been great. Stacy, she has no one.”
“She’ll have you,” Emma said.
Gabby smiled. “Yes, she will.” She looked past Emma and noticed a figure standing across the street, watching them.
Emma turned and peered through the railing bars. “That looks like that girl from history. Oh, what’s her name? Melody? Monica? Mitzy?”
“Mitzy?” Gabby placed her hat onto her head. “Remind me to never let you suggest names for my children.”
“I know it begins with an M.”
“Maureen,” Gabby said.
“That’s it. Maureen something or other. She always sat in the back row. Quiet. Weird.”
“I wonder what she wants?”
“To creep me out.”
“I doubt she wants that,” Gabby said.
“Well, she’s doing it. Want me to go say something to her?” Emma pulled a pair of handcuffs out of her purse. “I could scare her.”
Gabby laughed. “Why do you carry those things around?”
“Because she’s kinky,” Hamilton said, his face pressed against the floor, Scott sitting on his chest. Hamilton flailed for three seconds, but Scott didn’t budge.
“Okay, Scott, I think you won,” Gabby said.
“No. I can take him,” Hamilton said. “I’ll out-think him. Use my intellect to overcome his brawn.”
“That hasn’t worked yet,” she said.
“Then I’m due.” Hamilton raised his free hand up to Scott’s head and pressed his temple.
“Ow!” Scott yelled, slapping Hamilton’s hand away. “That hurt.”
“Okay,” Hamilton said. “Now I’m out of ideas.”
“That was it?” Gabby asked. “That was your grand intellectual move?”
“My next book will definitely be on self-defense.” He held out his hand to Emma. “Can I borrow those cuffs?”
Scott turned Hamilton around and pinned him. “Too late!” he said, rising victoriously.
Hamilton stumbled to his feet, brushing off his clothes. “Next time, Summers, you will feel my wrath.” Hamilton smiled.
“I can’t wait,” Scott said, giving him one more playful noogie. “You’re getting better though.”
Hamilton laughed and punched him in the arm. “Just wait. Soon, I won’t need to compete with the likes of you.”
“Why not?” Gabby asked.
“Because, I’m creating my own signature look. It will impress the men and dazzle the ladies.”
“This I have to see,” Emma said. “Do you need my help?”
“But I’ve dated a lot of guys.”
“A lot of guys!” Gabby said.
“And, I could give you some tips,” Emma said.
“No thanks, Em,” Hamilton said. “This is going to be all Hamilton. No one else on the planet will look like me.”
“You’ve already got that nailed down,” Gabby joked.
“Just wait, Gabs. Next year, no one, not even you, will be able to keep your eyes off the Hamilton.”
“The Hamilton? You’re not going to start referring to yourself in the third person, are you?”
“I haven’t decided.”
“I have!” Emma said. “No. Never. Ever.”
“Fine,” Hamilton said. “I’ll let my fashion do my talking for me.”
“Good. Because, right now, it’s not speaking too highly of you.”
They all laughed again, and Gabby allowed the levity to sink into her pores. She needed The Gang as much as she needed oxygen. They kept her from fixating on the parts of her life she couldn’t change and allowed her to indulge in a smidge of optimism.
As the jokes and laughter continued, Gabby glanced across the street where Maureen remained standing, staring at them. She stood and walked to the edge of the gazebo, transfixed by Maureen’s anxious gaze penetrating the darkening sky. To Gabby, Maureen was one of the high school enigmas, much like herself. Even though she sat in her history class every day for a year, Maureen was forgettable. It may have been by choice or because the gods of Safety Harbor High deemed her insignificant.
She thought Maureen had a brother. A senior. Also forgettable. His name began with a P. Or a D. Why was she standing there? Did she need to talk to them?
“Do the thing!” Hamilton said to Gabby.
She spun back to The Gang. “The what?”
Emma held up her handcuffs with a growing grin.
“Seriously? Again?” Gabby asked. “When is this going to get old?”
“When you can’t do it,” Scott said.
Gabby took the handcuffs and slid her fingers across the circumference of each metal cuff. “This is the last time,” Gabby said.
“You said that before,” Hamilton said.
“I mean it this time.”
“You said that before too,” Scott said.
She slapped the first cuff around her wrist and clicked it tight. Placing her hands behind her, she turned her back to Emma. “If you would do the honors, Em.”
Emma closed the dangling cuff around her other wrist and pressed it closed, pinching Gabby’s skin.
“Ow,” Gabby said.
“Sorry. I just want to make sure it’s secure this time,” Emma said.
Gabby turned to face The Gang, hiding her hands behind her. “Ready?” she asked.
“Do you want me to time you?” Hamilton asked, his retro watch at the ready.
Gabby pulled her hands out from behind her back and tossed the cuffs to Emma, who stared at them with an opened jaw.
“How do you do that?” Scott yelled.
Emma shook the cuffs in Gabby’s face. “These were my dad’s handcuffs! He used them every day for years. Really bad criminals couldn’t escape them!”
“She must have a key or pick or something,” Hamilton said.
“I don’t have a key, and I didn’t use anything to pick the locks. I swear,” Gabby said.
“Then how?” Emma asked.
Gabby smiled, “You’ll have to figure it out.”
“Okay, Ms. Show Off. Challenge accepted.” Emma spun around and stepped backward toward Hamilton. “Put the cuffs on me, Ham,” she said. “If Gabs can do it, so can I.”
“You said that last time,” Hamilton said.
“This time will be different.”
“You said that last time too,” Scott said.
“Just put them on!” Emma said, holding her hands out behind her back.
Hamilton shrugged and placed them on each of her wrists. “How tight?”
“As tight as you want.” A few clicks later, she said, “Don’t go crazy, though.”
Hamilton shook the cuffs, making sure they were secure, and stepped away.
“Time me,” Emma said.
“My watch doesn’t go to infinity,” he replied.
“Just free yourself, and we’ll call it a win,” Scott said.
“Okay, you of little faith,” Emma said. “Watch and be amazed.”
“I’ll be amazed if you’re not crying like a little girl in five minutes,” Hamilton said.
“When I get out of these cuffs, I’m gonna hit you.”
“Color me scared.”
Emma looked into Gabby’s eyes, a confident smile forming on her lips. Behind her, the cuffs clanged against each other and her arms moved with an intense fury.
“I think I got it,” Emma said. “Just one more second and…” Click. “I think I just made them tighter. Okay. Scratch that approach off my list. No problem. I got this. I grew up with handcuffs in my house. They’re as common to me as a hair straightener.”
“You ever get locked to one of those?” Scott smirked.
“Shut it, smart mouth. I’m close. Just one more second and…” Emma pulled, her elbows bowing out from her sides. Nothing. She pulled again. Nothing. She thrashed and flapped, exerting an immense amount of effort, resulting in a series of tightening clicks.
“Okay, I think I made it worse,” she said. “Yes. Definitely worse. They’re too tight. I’m losing feeling in my fingers.” She twisted to turn the cuffs toward Gabby. “Okay, Gabby. Get me out?”
“Yes, you can!”
“No, seriously. I can’t open them for other people. It doesn’t work that way. Don’t you have a key?”
“Yes. At home. On my dresser.”
“That’s problematic,” Hamilton said.
“Thanks, Mr. Obvious. If my dad has to uncuff me one more time, he’s gonna be pissed. Pick them, Gabs. If you can pick Thompson’s classroom door, you can save me from being grounded on the first day of summer.”
Gabby chuckled. “I’ll give it a shot.” She knelt down and pulled the bobby pins from under her hat, wedging them into the small handcuff keyhole. As she maneuvered the pins inside the lock, she looked back across the street.
Maureen was gone.
Monday – Chapter Five