Sneak Preview: “The Man in Black” (3)

“Taylor?” Danny Underhill whispered. Danny was about Taylor’s height, his nose was a bit large, and currently there was a pimple on the inside thatch of his bushy eyebrow that was threatening to erupt. Taylor had been worried since February that Danny had a crush on her.

She glanced in his direction.“Is this right?” He scooted a piece of paper her way. Taylor gave it a cursory glance and scooted it back to him with a nod.

Five minutes until the bell.

Jill always asked Taylor to look over their homework. As much as Taylor loved her, the girl couldn’t do math to save her life. Taylor never minded helping out her few friends, but it was just fine with her that nobody else seemed to notice how smart she was.

Nobody except for Danny Underhill.

Danny was a transfer student from some place up north. His family moved to Macon shortly after her birthday in February—which seemed weird, but whatever. She didn’t know much about him except that he seemed like a nice enough kid in a geeky, no-social-skills sort of way. But he was always looking for an excuse to start up a conversation with her. Taylor had spent the last two months trying not to encourage him.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Don’t mention it.”

“Mr. Underhill? Miss Smart? Do you need my help?” Mr. Barfield said.

“N-no, Mr. Barfield,” Danny said. “I think I’ve got it now.”

“Losers,” Shelby muttered.

“I’ll have none of that!” Mr. Barfield said. He had pretty good hearing for an old guy.

Taylor noticed Jared McCaughey glancing at her from across the room. He smiled at her, and she immediately plunged her nose into her homework. Her face turned red, but she couldn’t help but smile. If only he would ask her for help with his schoolwork!

The bell rang as Mr. Barfield reminded them about the test coming up tomorrow. If anybody heard him, they didn’t let on. Rather, everybody bolted for the door like horses at the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby.

In a matter of minutes, she was at her locker. Directly across the hall, Danny fumbled with his combination.

“So, Taylor,” a voice behind her called. It was Shelby again. Of course. “Do you have plans this weekend with your boyfriend?”

“Who—?” Taylor began, but Shelby’s giggles signaled that something was up. Danny, still trying to get his locker open, turned several shades of pink all at once.

“I’d take him if I were you,” Shelby said. “I mean, it’s not like you can afford to be choosy! And is it just me, or have your ears gotten bigger since last year?”

Shelby was joined by her best friend, Jasmine Brown.

“What do you think, Dannyboy?” Jasmine said. “You want to ask her out?”

If anything, Danny turned ever redder. He finally got his locker open, but that only made things worse. Danny had one of the messiest lockers in school. As soon as the door flung open, a stack of textbooks and loose papers plopped to the floor.

“Cut it out, Shelby,” Taylor said through gritted teeth.

“Hey, we’re just trying to help,” Shelby teased. “We know it’s hard for some girls to get a boyfriend. If we can nudge things along…”

Taylor rounded on Shelby, and there was something different in her voice, an unexpected power or confidence. “I said, Cut it out.”

Her blue eyes turned icy cold. Shelby and Jasmine turned suddenly pale. Jasmine leaned on Shelby for support, as if her legs had turned to jelly. Both girls’ mouths dropped open.

“C-come on, Jasmine.”

They silently slinked away without another word.

Taylor stood there, dumbfounded. “That was interesting,” she said to herself.

“Whoa,” Danny sighed. “That’s some kind of death-glare you’ve got. Think you could teach me?”

“I…uh…No.”

She grabbed what she needed from her locker and joined the small clutch of kids streaming out the main entrance.

This wasn’t the first time Taylor had been able to scare off somebody who was bothering her. Last winter, she did the same thing to Cassie White. Cassie was giving her a hard time in the girl’s locker room after gym class. Taylor had a note from her doctor that excused her from activities whenever her asthma was acting up, and Cassie was teasing her about not being any good at sports. Taylor got so frustrated she felt like she could shoot laser beams out of her eyes. One look and Cassie choked up. She just walked away on the verge of tears.

And then there was the time she was home alone with her mom one afternoon and a vacuum-cleaner salesman showed up at their door. Mom was busy cooking supper, and Taylor learned the hard way that vacuum-cleaner salesmen didn’t like to take “no” for an answer. Then she looked him square in the eye and said, “I told you, We’re not interested.” The poor man dropped his clipboard as he retreated across the lawn.

“Death-glare,” Danny called it.

Most kids had to wait for the bus or for their parents to pick them up in the carpool line. Taylor lived less than a mile from school, so she walked home. Usually, it was just her and Jill.

The quickest way home was through the park three or four blocks from the schoolhouse. On a nice day like today, she and Jill loved to watch the birds and the squirrels, maybe sit and talk on the swings.

Today, there were just a couple of moms with preschoolers.

Something distracted her, a movement in the trees. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something was wrong. She suddenly had goosebumps all over her arms despite the warm afternoon sun. She took in her surroundings, and though nothing seemed out of the ordinary, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched.

Taylor pressed on. She made a point to steer as clear of the trees as she could. Whatever it was, it was hiding in those trees. Another hundred feet and she would be past the park and only a block from her house.

Then the stranger came into view from the other direction. He was tall, pale, with a sour expression on his face.

It was Uncle Waldo.

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