Every detail of the October afternoon Sandy met Stephen X remained sharp. It was three days before Halloween, although that hadn't seemed so significant to her at the time.
The maples carved fiery shapes in the sky. Sandy feared she might damage the tender corners of her lungs if she breathed in too much of the cool, pure air. Seven high school kids in a convertible cruised past her on Main, blowing a trumpet because the big game was at hand. Someone's sticky shoe had stretched pink threads of bubblegum along the sidewalk.
Sandy wore her blue windbreaker over a thin, white sweater and jeans. Linda zipped her yellow windbreaker to the neck. They stopped at Burger Castle for fries and a Coke on their way home from classes.
They didn't have any reason to notice Stephen X pushing aside his onion rings when they walked in. He was just another upperclassman in a plaid shirt. "Too old for acne," Linda always said. "Too young to die."
They sipped their Cokes and marveled at how different their professors were from their old high school teachers. They seemed to be wiser, timeless versions of the students. A lot of them even dressed nicely.
"What would Dalton of Prunes say to someone like Chappel Crownfield?" Linda spread her fingers wide, as if trying to hold the table down with both hands. "Like, `where do I get a lime cardigan around here?'"
They both laughed so Sandy didn't know how long Stephen X had been twisted their way in his booth. Then she heard his deep, even voice for the first time.
"You've got Crownfield?" he said, like a tourist who'd caught a snatch of English in a crowded, foreign market. "Isn't he great?"
Sandy nodded, brushing her hand against her mouth to make sure no Coke spotted her lips.
"We thought history was going to be a big, fat nothing," Linda blurted, then blushed ever so slightly at her enthusiasm. Sandy wanted to say something to smooth over her friend's embarrassment, but her mind went blank.
The young man wasn't interested in Linda anyway. He fixed his serious, brown eyes on Sandy. "He's the best," he said. "Only thing I could never figure is why he's teaching here when he could be pulling down the big bucks in the Ivy League."
That question never would have occurred to Sandy. She let the talk drift past her while she wondered what kind of a person would say such a thing. Certainly not anybody she'd ever known, and that lent an aura of mystery to this self-assured man.
"I started as a history major under Chappel," he was saying. "But I switched to business last year. There's no career path in history—unless you're like Chappel.
"I may not be too bright." He pressed his thumb to his forehead. "But give me credit for knowing I'd never be that good."
He wasn't that much older than the boys her age, yet he held nothing in common with them. His unblinking gaze, his confidence, his strange blend of self-effacement and megalomania caught Sandy off guard. She didn't know whether to laugh or accept him at face value or send him on his way.
She was so intrigued by the way he talked that she didn't realize he was asking her to go to a masquerade party Saturday night.
"Some friends of mine," he was saying. "You wouldn't even need a costume." He paused for just an instant then pulled a business card from his pocket. "Of course, it's such short notice," he went on, shrugging. "But here's my number if it turns out you can get away. It'll be a lot of fun."
The card had thick, blue ink on gray stock. "Stephen X Skinner," it said, "Uncommon Accounting."
He slid a couple of coins next to his untouched onion rings, turned and walked away. Sandy and Linda stared at each other with their jaws hanging.
"I think he likes you," Linda dead-panned.
"He doesn't even know me."
"Maybe that's why he likes you."
Sandy rolled her eyes and punched Linda's shoulder. "Well, I hope he has a brother who doesn't know you."
Sandy had been too young to understand her grandmother's warning to be careful in all decisions. Even the tiniest things sometimes brought mammoth consequences.
They sat in the shade of the Airstream's awning. Sandy cradled baby Jennifer in her arms while Mama Gore braided Sandy's hair with sure, quick movements.
"I had a brother and four sisters, all younger than me," she said in a voice so strange and distant that Sandy twisted around to look at her face. "I helped my mother all day and worked in the rail yards all night. I was young and impatient. I was tired of waiting for my own life, so I married your grandfather."
She spread a lock of Sandy's hair in her palm and stroked the wave. "He wasn't a good man. He had no warmth," she went on. "He had so many strange ideas and he lived so many years."
"What kind of ideas, grandma?" Sandy held Jennifer a little more tightly.
"About the world." She began twining Sandy's hair again. "About women and men.
"The trains that came into the yard weighed hundreds and hundreds of tons and I weighed a hundred pounds," she laughed. "I was never a big woman—"
"Yes, you are, grandma. You're the biggest woman in the world!"
"Now, listen a bit. Just a hundred pounds and I could make hundred-ton trains go this way and that. It wasn't even hard unless they let the switch run out of grease. But do you know what, Sandy?"
"Once I threw the switch, there was no way I could bring that train back, not if I weighed a thousand pounds, a million pounds."
The moral was too abstract for Sandy at that time, but not many years passed before she recognized her father in Mama Gore's image of the runaway train. Whatever track he happened to be on was all that mattered—not where the track led, or who might be crushed along the way.
The Gores entertained small parties of business associates or neighbors on weekends. Jack Gore always banished the girls, which was no hardship to them. They talked about serious or silly or interesting things, until one of them drifted off to sleep. Sometimes loud voices and laughter woke them in the middle of the night. Then they stared into the darkness beneath the ceiling, straining to hear what was going on, but the words they could pick out never made any sense.
Grownups were so weird.
One night, a few minutes after the voices woke them, their father swung open the door, letting in the hall light.
"Sandy, come on down and meet the Wootens," he said.
"I'm asleep, daddy." She thought that was her best shot. Then she added, "I'm not dressed."
"It's alright. They have a girl just like you."
"No, of course not here." His tone changed ever so slightly, ever so significantly. "Get up, Sandy. I've told them all about you."
Sandy clutched her robe tightly to her throat. She found herself blinking at her parents and two strangers in the living room. The woman smiled, but the bright red lipstick she'd slathered across her face mocked the expression. The man had no expression at all.
"What's seven times nine, Sandy?" Her father hadn't taken his seat yet. He studied her closely.
Sandy's teacher had sent the Gores a note a few days earlier. It told how Sandy had mastered her multiplication tables more quickly than any of her present or past students.
Sandy didn't want her expression to show that her father was a moron, but she was tired and it may have slipped across her face, goading him.
"Sixty-three," she said.
"Isn't she precious?" Mrs. Wooten asked, and Sandy thought the woman's lipstick had hardened, freezing her mouth in that unnatural shape.
"She gets it all from Jack," Mrs. Gore said. "Lord knows I've got no head for numbers."
Gore locked his eyes on his daughter. "Seventeen times twelve," he said.
"Two hundred and four," Sandy answered, glancing at the stairway back to her room.
"Nine times thirteen."
"One hundred and seventeen."
Mrs. Wooten laughed and clapped.
"We're so proud of her," Mrs. Gore lied.
"Twenty-nine times thirty-three." Gore raised his voice over his wife's.
"Nine hundred and fifty-seven."
The numbers rushed higher and wider, like a flock of birds after a gunshot. Mr. Gore clipped the spare syllables. Sandy answered calmly, but never pausing for air. The women stopped chattering.
"Two hundred thirty-seven times three hundred nineteen."
"Seventy-five thousand, six hundred and three."
He broke his rhythm as if he suddenly realized he had no idea whether she'd been giving the correct answers.
"Go back to bed, Sandy," he said, boring into her with cold, steely eyes. "Now."
As she rushed up the stairs, she heard Mr. Wooten say, "Looks like she's got your number, Jack."
"What are you having, Ed? Honey, get Ed another Seven and Seven."
As much as practical, Sandy tried to conceal her interests and achievements—anything that mattered—from her father so he couldn't turn them against her. It wasn't difficult since he was so self-absorbed. But now and then he'd find out about something in Sandy's life, usually by accident, and seize it as a tool of misery.
So when Jack Gore answered the phone at nine-thirty the night before Halloween during Sandy's freshman year in college, she knew there would be trouble.
"Sandy, it's for you," he said, holding the receiver as if it were a rotting fish, "It's a boy."
He stood eighteen inches from her, staring, as she answered.
"Hello, Sandy," the calm, deep voice on the line said. "Was that your father? Sounds like a nice guy.
"But this is Stephen X Skinner. You met me at Burger Castle on Wednesday."
She hadn't given him any thought since that afternoon, and it took a moment to place him. She turned her back to her father and hunched her shoulders to hide her confusion. She felt his gaze like a spider scrabbling over the back of her head.
"Oh, yes, hello." She tried to replay the Burger Castle scene in her mind, but everything was jumbled. "How did you get my number?"
"You'll see that I have my ways, Sandy," he laughed. "Look, I just wanted to check about the party tomorrow night. You're coming, aren't you?"
She couldn't put down the phone until she got her thoughts together. She asked him for details about the party, but she was already hearing what her father would say as soon as she hung up.
"Who was that?" he would demand. "What does he want? Do you know what he wants? I'll tell you what he wants. You've got no business with boys like that."
The voice in her head and the one on the line canceled each other out.
"Sure," she said, turning back to face her father with composure and resolve. "I'll go with you."
Go back to Chapter 1 of Stress Test.
Read the next chapter.
Complete novel is available on amazon.com.