Tuesday, May 22, 2012

This Second Novel by David Callinan Left Me Breathless! Here's An Excerpt...


KNIFE EDGE

a sensual psycho thriller

by
                                    
David Callinan
           

CHAPTER ONE


She just had to look.
She had no choice. The compulsion to examine and criticise her appearance had long been a form of addiction, a ceremonial ritual she went through every morning. So were the familiar feelings of loathing and depression that welled up inside her as she stared back at the image in the mirror. Starting as a cold lump in her stomach they gradually insinuated themselves into her mind until they were displayed almost as graphically and painfully as the face in the reflection.
Ella Fallon was no beauty that was for sure. If brains, intellect and intelligence could be captured in a face then she could have been a glamorous centrefold, a rarer beauty even.  There was no doubt about that. As it was, she was convinced that she was ugly. She hated the word yet she forced herself to confront it every morning. She needed to generate the necessary emotional charge before making the big wish. The fact was, most people would have simply called her plain and that was because her slightly oversized, bulbous nose, distorted top lip and mousy, straggly hair gave her the appearance of a rejected rag doll.
In truth, it was not a particularly ugly face; in fact the bone structure was fine and delicate with good cheekbones and a strong chin. 
Still, as far as Ella was concerned, she was ugly and that was that. Her mind was razor sharp, however. She was a straight A student and more. She also had a streak of basic grit and determination, which had seen her win a scholarship to Winfield, one of California’s most exclusive colleges. But ugly just wasn’t good enough in the post millennium world, with its frantic desire for immortality at all costs and its pathological fear of ageing.
Not that Winfield was much different. The beautiful elite could not tolerate a cuckoo in its comfortable, all expenses paid, nest.
Which is why Ella still carried out the ritual. One day, she knew, the little prayer would come true. Something would happen.  She would wake up transformed. She would fall in love.
With a self deprecating snort, Ella turned from the intense contemplation of her features, gazed around her tidy and understated room, picked up a white candle and inserted it into a silver holder. This she placed reverently on a small lace handkerchief that lay on her bedside table, in front of the mirror. Then she took a small packet of salt which she kept just for this purpose and sprinkled a handful around the base of the candle. She knelt, lit the candle, and felt a charge of electricity run through her as the big wish began to build.
Ella stared at her reflection, which wavered in the flickering light of the candle. In her eyes an aura had appeared around her, an angelic halo of beauty through which the vision of an enchanting and haunting face stared back. Deep within her, she focused upon the wish, with intensity born of long practice. She summoned the very essence of her being to the forefront of her mind, her thoughts burning like living embryos in the purified candle flame.
‘Make me beautiful,’ she muttered. ‘Make me beautiful...make me beautiful...’ Ella intoned the mantra till it reverberated through her soul. She was shaking with emotion at the end, when she could chant no longer.
Slowly she gathered her thoughts together, carefully blew out the candle and noticed with the usual sinking feeling that she looked exactly the same as before. She sighed. She realised no amount of chanting or salt sprinkling or candle flickering was going to alter her physiognomy. She just hoped and prayed for some kind of miracle or for someone who would think she was beautiful as she was.
Sadly she moved to the window and looked out over Winfield’s manicured lawns, etched like a watercolor in the morning sun. People were moving lazily in the mellow light. In the distance she could hear the football team practising some bone crunching tackles. She could just make out coach Jackson’s voice screaming, ‘Come on, I want war!’
Soon it would be graduation and the long days of academia would be over. Ella knew she was destined to do well. She had a natural aptitude for computer science, in particular the technology of neural networks, but she was just as certain she would never grace the school’s hallowed hall of fame. No, that was reserved for the sons and daughters of senators and used car moguls and film celebrities who contributed conspicuously to the fortunes of the school. Most prominent of these, of course, was Marshall Stockton. He now, virtually, owned the school. As for Marshall’s son, Scott, he would certainly figure prominently in the list of glorious Winfield names. And he would go on to become a successful something or other. After all, he stood to inherit Stockton Industries, one the biggest conglomerates in the US.
If the beautiful elite had a leader, then Scott Stockton was its handsome champion and hero and he played the role to the hilt. With an ego the size of the Chrysler Building and an allowance to match, Scott had it made. The fact that he was an obnoxious son-of-a-bitch who enjoyed humiliating people at every opportunity only burned inside Ella like a flame of vengeful desire.
Ella leaned forward and smiled at the sudden appearance of Ed Leeming. She watched him as he shambled across the grass like a tired horse, a stack of books under one arm, head bent and shoulders hunched in a gesture of self-defence. Another scholarship kid, she thought. In fact, he was the only scholarship student at Winfield other than Ella. This set them apart from the rest. Remarkably, Leeming was another ugly duckling, complete with squint; beetroot mark on his cheek and slightly buck teeth.  The beautiful elite, of course, had another target in Ed Leeming.
He was painfully shy, almost withdrawn, although, by some arcane twist of bewitching speed, in a certain light he bore a marked resemblance to the handsome Scott Stockton. But only in a certain light and that didn’t shine too often. Maybe it was just Ella’s imagination.  She liked Ed. And she was pretty sure he liked her. Maybe it was just the common ground they occupied that caused her to feel this way.
To Ella, he was simply not ugly. Sure, she recognised the facial disfigurement. She knew all about that after all. No, it was strange. She could see through the surface features, deep into a tortured, introverted but incredibly interesting soul.
She stepped back from the window but kept her gaze fixed on the green expanse of lawn with the fringe of acacia trees and the school gates in the distance and then beyond at the grey and brown hills beginning to smoulder in the dry heat.
She ran her hands over her body, slowly over her breasts and buttocks finally pausing at her groin. She pressed her fingertips harder between her legs experiencing the familiar arousal, which had only once ever been allowed to burst into an all-consuming flame. It had not been the experience she had expected after her consummate reading of the teen magazines she used to scour secretly for tips on lovemaking, or locating erogenous zones, or simply getting a boy to like you. No, it had been a hasty rumble with a local farmer’s son in a stable at home in Virginia.
The memories of her deflowering consisted of a clear picture of a leering, sweating and bug-eyed face staring at her triumphantly through gritted, uneven and tobacco stained teeth; a stab of pain and a momentary spasm of what she later realised must have been pleasure. She could remember wiping droplets of manure-tainted sweat from her face as they cascaded from the farm boy’s forehead. To her eternal shame, he later branded her as an easy lay. It seemed that opening her legs was the only way she was going to get a boy, any kind of boy.
At least, that was the story she was told by every nerd in the neighbourhood. When it became clear that she was attracting only the rejects and that she was not going to play ball, or any other kind of game, with them their interest waned and finally dried up altogether.
Ella was jarred from her reverie by the sounds of the football team grunting in unison outside. The explosions of distant breath sounded almost orgasmic to her ears. She shook herself, took a deep breath and began to collect her books and papers for the first class of the day.
••••
Ed Leeming turned and looked out across the lawns. In the distance he could make out the shifting mass of players moving, their shapes distorted in the haze until they resembled figures in a mirage. Ed could hear coach Jackson’s voice from here, echoing across the green sward until it was swallowed up by the soft chatter of students rushing into the elegant colonial-style building and the crunch of feet on expensive gravel.
Ed was not a great athlete although he had always wanted to be. He had idolised sporting stars like most young boys but a combination of his slight disfigurement and a gammy foot had caused him to be ostracised from serious sport. He smiled to himself as a brief wash of despair overcame him. He could have been a contender, huh! That was his trouble.
He kept telling himself what he could have been. His mother, to whom a place like Winfield and all it stood for was anathema, was always telling him he had his whole life in front of him. It didn’t feel like that to him. Maybe he should never have accepted the scholarship place here. He was a fish out of water, a joke; a freak.
The taunts, jibes and smart remarks still hurt. He was close to genius level in mathematics. He loved numbers. He understood them. They spoke to him. They were his friends. He could see how they worked together, related, and synchronised. It was people he had trouble with.
If only he could have made quarterback instead of understanding transfinite cardinals. Then people would take notice of Ed Leeming; the right kind of notice. One day they would do just that. They would know all about Ed Leeming.
For the moment he hunched his shoulders in his familiar fashion and happened to glance at his reflection in a nearby window just as the sun peeped over the top of the roof. For a second his profile was etched to perfection, caught in a time frame.
The inflamed mark on his cheek was hidden, his squint appeared natural in the sunlight and shadow buried his projecting teeth till they looked just normal. For that brief second he was looking at someone else’s face; someone he knew very well indeed; someone he hated with a fierce passion. Scott Stockton and Ed Leeming were opposites, yet in that brief moment in the spotlight they could have changed places. For that brief moment too Ed imagined just what it would be like to be Scott Stockton, who was a shallow and rampant Adonis figure, totally hedonistic and devoted to his own pleasure, yet with something of his father’s natural acumen and sense of destiny. He was everything that Ed was not. At that brief and fiery instant, with sunlight drawing a bead along his profile, Ed Leeming fantasised that he was Scott Stockton, and yet himself. In other words, he had what Stockton possessed and more.
The sun moved over the edge of the roof drowning the gravelled pathway with light, drenching Ed with the full power of its illumination and dispelling the short lived illusion. A couple of girls strolled by, glanced at Ed staring into the window and giggled. Startled, Ed hunched protectively and shuffled off.
••••
Coach John Jackson bellowed his instructions at the towering hulks sweating in the early morning team practice session. Where the hell was his star player, Mr God Almighty, my father owns the school Scott Stockton?  He looked off for a moment over towards the school gate as if expecting to see the insolent and jaunty figure ambling across as if he owned the place. He does, near as be damned, Jackson growled to himself. And he had to admit he was a good football player. He had good hands and split second timing and could weight a pass with a delicacy, which seemed incongruous. Trouble was, the boy was quite simply in love with himself. That was his big problem.
‘He should’ve been born poor,’ Jackson muttered under his breath. ‘Just wait till I get my hands on that arrogant asshole.’
••••
At that moment Scott Stockton was indeed working out.  He was also heavily stoned, spaced way out on pure Jamaican weed. He was kneeling on a large bed with an ornate headboard depicting a condor with outstretched wings.
He was naked and sweat was slipping down his body and trickling across his waist and down along his thighs as he ground his hips in regular thrusts.
Before him knelt a woman, buttocks raised like sand dunes. She was moaning quietly, deep in her throat. Scott could not remember her name at that moment but it didn’t really matter. He sucked hard, drawing the smoke down into his lungs. He stared straight ahead, moving his pelvis as though he was on automatic pilot.
Scott’s eyes dilated. He felt his own orgasm rising. When his seminal explosion erupted, he almost swallowed his joint. He just managed to spit it out at the crucial moment.
Later, Scott staggered around the room, picking up items of discarded clothing, chuckling to himself then humming a tune. He dressed himself, watched by the woman on the bed who was now lying with her feet tucked up sucking her thumb.
‘That was great, really was,’ Scott giggled. ‘How was it for...’ He broke off in a fit of giggles. The woman stared, saying nothing. Scott, now dressed, ambled to the door, turned and saluted her, searching for an appropriate exit line. His mind pictured the scene at the football training session he should have been attending, in particular the scowling face of coach Jackson.
‘I’ll be in touch, okay!’ The remark amused him. He turned, walked into the door, swore, opened it and left with a theatrical wave.
Outside it was a high pollen count day. Scott slipped on a pair of shades and vaulted in and slid down onto the red leather upholstery of his lithium supercharged Cobra convertible. He snapped an Eagles micro CD into place and slammed the car into gear. It hummed reassuringly as the first bars of ‘Hotel California’ jingled from the quad speakers. Scott turned up the volume and pushed his foot on the accelerator. The morning sun hung like a giant orange watermelon as the Cobra shot away from the secluded art-deco house, along a private drive and out onto an empty highway.
Up ahead, two roads joined, about three miles outside the small town of Floraville, from where a private road ran on to Winfield College.
Scott glanced over to his right as he came up to the intersection. A black Porsche suddenly appeared out of nowhere, ignored the stop sign, and raced in to run side by side with the Cobra.
The Porsche had its hood down. The driver was about eighteen and swarthy. He grinned over at Scott.
‘Been working overtime have you, Scott?’ he yelled.
‘Dedication, Wayne,’ Scott screamed back and his voice blasted off behind him.
Neck and neck the two cars hit a hundred and twenty, then a hundred and thirty. Both drivers were yelling and screaming and whooping with exhilaration. Up ahead, just before the Winfield junction, a battered green truck wheezed along at around forty. The driver saw the twin pillars of dust in his mirror. He saw two pairs of headlights flashing. He started to move into the centre of the road, hesitated, trying to make up his mind.
Slowing to ninety, the Cobra and the Porsche swerved in a figure of eight around the truck and out on in front, missing each other by a fender width. The truck driver slammed on the brakes, swerved and lost control. The old truck toppled on its side and screeched along the heat soaked road in a scream of ripping metal before coming to rest.
By this time the two cars were a memory. All that could be seen ahead was a flicker of tail-lights as they turned off onto the road to Winfield.
Scott Stockton and Wayne Krantz glanced at each other as their cars screamed through the college gates together, scattering gravel like shrapnel and screeching to a halt outside the main college building. Nearby the football team was trooping off wearily, being encouraged by an over anxious John Jackson. They chanted desultorily.
‘Winfield Rockets go to war. We know what we’re fighting for.’
Scott and Wayne jumped out of their cars. Jackson noticed Scott arrive, and was pointedly writing something in a notebook. Angrily he stomped over. Wayne winked at Scott.
‘Looks like you’re in his bad books, old buddy,’ he whispered.
Jackson moved in on Scott, taking his arm forcefully and marching him several yards away from the others. The coach’s lips were quivering as he fought to keep his cool.
‘You mess with me again, Stockton...’ Jackson left the rest of the threat unsaid. Scott stared bleakly back.
‘Sorry, coach. Did you miss me? I sure as hell didn’t miss you.’
‘Don’t be smart. You could be good, even though you’re an egotistical little shit. You won’t miss training again, will you boy? You’ll do it for the team, Stockton, or if you don’t give a damn about the team, you’ll do it for the school. You know how much your father loves this school. You know how much pride he has in the football team.’
Scott looked suitably abashed.
‘Sure, coach. I know how much he loves the team. I know how much he expects from the coach too: all that motivation and stuff. Can’t be easy. A lot of coaches have been and gone, all because they couldn’t motivate the team. Don’t worry, coach, when the chips are down you can rely on me.’
Jackson snarled with contempt, released Scott and strode off. Scott raised one finger at his departing back and returned to Wayne and to the hovering group of girls. Wayne nodded in Jackson’s direction.
‘Don’t worry about him, Scott. Come the fall you’ll be playing the markets.’
One of the girls, Troy, shimmied over to the two boys. She was blonde and pretty.  ‘Without your daddy’s money you’d be sucking on air, Scott,’ she said provocatively.
Wayne put his arm around Scott’s shoulders as the two other girls, Casey and Ramona, joined Troy. ‘Weren’t sucking on air this morning, were we, old buddy? Maybe you should give us a try.’
‘Good work out, Scott?  We didn’t see you at training,’ Casey smiled.
‘Didn’t even break sweat,’ he replied casually.
‘Give you two a try,’ laughed Ramona. ‘Dream on, boys. Come on, Troy, Casey, we’ll be late.’
The girls moved off whispering to each other, turning back to smile at Scott and Wayne who, with a quick glance at each other, followed the three sets of swinging hips through the main doors and into the building.
Scott glanced over to the right at one of the colonnaded walkways. Bright sunlight and deep shadow combined to produce a monochrome flickering effect, like in those early movies. The throng of students, teachers and staff milling around appeared to Scott’s suddenly addled mind to be dappled by a fierce strobe. A memory of smoke itched inside his lungs. He was disoriented by a brief drugged relapse. The hallucination was riveting. They were all dead. They were all moving on a strip of celluloid, replaying their lives in thirty-five millimetres. But they were going nowhere.  They were all just images on some movie reel.
A shiver speared him along his spine, turning his bowels to water. He saw himself in the crowd, not striding with his shoulders back, not stepping out with his usual arrogant poise, but hunched like a dwarf recoiling from a blow. It was him and yet it was not him. For the briefest of instances, Scott Stockton tasted his own death.

    CHAPTER TWO

‘God, is she ugly or what?’
Casey, Troy and Ramona were standing just in front of Scott and Wayne amid the clamour of clanging lockers. It was five minutes till the first class. Ella carried an armful of books. Her cheap spectacles had slid part way down her nose. She glanced over with a sneer.
Ramona turned to Casey with a snigger.
‘Forget God, kid and just give grateful thanks to your genes.’
‘You’d think she could do something about her appearance,’ said Troy. ‘I don’t think she’s even combed her hair. I think she just lets the whole side down looking like that.’
Wayne whispered something in Scott’s ear. They both sniggered.
As Ella hurried by, Scott stepped out in front of her bringing her up short.
‘How’s your love life, Ella? Are you getting any these days?’ he demanded.  Ella stood stock-still, aware that a small and curious crowd was forming, as it always did at the slightest hint of any kind of confrontation.
She was breathing hard. She had to in order to stem the rising pulse of panic she was experiencing. She hated this. She hated being the centre of attention. It was always for the wrong reason. Her natural defence mechanism came into play. She stared blankly back at Stockton, took a deep breath, pursed her lips, which caused her mouth to distort into a twisted sneer and waited.
Scott had to go on. Unlike Ella he relished wallowing in the spotlight of attention. They always used to say about Scott Stockton that you only had to shine a flashlight anywhere and he’d stand in front of it. He looked at Ella as if she was a pathetic worm, not worthy of serious consideration, belonging to a different planet, a different species. He grinned at her mockingly.
‘Ella, baby,’ he mumbled theatrically, ‘I could do things for you. I could, believe me; if the price was right, of course. We’d have to, you know, negotiate.’ He paused as she locked her jaw and an involuntary rush of blood made her blush.
‘Hey, sorry, I forgot,’ he continued glancing at the others.’ You’re a scholarship girl, aren't you? No problem. It can be on account. Pleasure now pay later. How about it?’
‘Your mind never rises higher than your groin, does it, Stockton?' Ella snapped. 'Which is not surprising seeing as that’s where you keep your one and only brain cell.’
‘Oh! – Oh, the bitch bites back,’ hissed Scott angrily, stung for a reason which wasn’t clear to him. ‘You really think I’m stupid, don’t you?’
‘Intelligence and taste can’t be bought, Stockton,’ Ella retorted. ‘Now are you going to get out of my way or do I have to report you for harassment?’
'His old man owns the school, you clunk,’ Ramona interjected.  ‘No one’s going to take any notice of any report. You ought to take it when it’s offered kid. They say it's supercharged.’
A chorus of cheers and hollers erupted as Wayne started to pull Scott away. Scott shook his hand off roughly and turned back to Ella.
‘No seriously, I’m interested in this. I want to know what makes you so brainy. Did they feed you on some special diet when you were a kid? Of course, you couldn’t afford real food, right? So what is it? What’s the secret formula? Is it some kind of plant food that makes your brain grow but turns you into some kind of creeper?’ Scott burst out into raucous laughter.
‘Time to go, Scott,’ said Wayne. ‘This is getting a little out of hand.’
‘You don’t have to hang around, Wayne,’ Scott said.
At that moment Ed Leeming turned the corner and saw the group surrounding Ella. He stood uncertainly, watching the tail end of the confrontation. His first instinct was to shuffle past around the outside of the group but there were too many people in the way. He would be noticed. They would focus attention on him. But he liked Ella. They had a lot in common but it wasn’t just that. They had played a kind of cat and mouse game for most of the semester. Neither was prepared to let down their defences till they were really sure they weren’t going to get hurt.
Now Ed was watching somebody else getting the Stockton treatment. For once he wasn’t in the centre of the ring, warding off the blows, blanking out his mind against the taunts, reciting his own personal mantra to block out the world. He heard Ella say ‘Let me pass.’ He heard the fear in her voice. And it made him angry.
His anger rose like a supercharged steam jet. And it surprised him by its intensity. He stood, just on the fringe of the group, unnoticed. He stared at Stockton’s face and he remembered the earlier illusion. He also rekindled his intense dislike for this arrogant rich bully who had everything. Scott Stockton was easy to dislike.
Ed opened his mouth. It was dry. His tongue had stuck to the roof. He cleared his throat. Not this time Stockton, he told himself. No, not this time. Ed did not know where the courage came from. It frightened him. It was like another person had been hiding inside him all along.
‘Leave her alone,’ he croaked.
For a moment stillness descended that almost made time stop. Then it did stop. Ed saw things in slow motion, the turning faces, the surprise, the shock. He saw Stockton’s face contort briefly in anger then in scornful disbelief.
Scott stared at Ed.
'Are you talking to me, Leeming?’ he snarled.
‘I said leave her alone,’ Ed repeated, more strongly this time.
Ella turned to Ed.
‘Stay out of this, Ed,’ she said.
‘Your girlfriend’s giving you some good advice, Leeming,’ Scott turned to his audience. ‘Get Leeming, another brain box on legs. The worm is turning, or is it just running away.  Maybe someone should just stomp on that worm and put it out of its misery.’
Scott moved around Ella quickly and in two strides was face to face with Ed. He spoke quietly, just restraining the angry tremor, which threatened to make his voice shake.
‘I’d move on if I were you, Leeming. Go hide somewhere. Go look for a rock and crawl under it. That’s about your style.’
Ed took a step backwards and then held his hand out to Ella.
‘Come on, Ella, let’s get out of here.’
Just as Ed was about to take Ella’s arm, Scott began to poke him in the chest, pushing him back towards the wall in between two sets of lockers.
Scott’s voice was now venomous. When Ella started towards the two of them, the others just stood in her way, shaking their heads as if to say, leave it, Scott Stockton does exactly as he wants, when he wants and to whomever he wants.
Scott rammed Ed against the wall. Ed was now trapped by lockers on both sides and by Scott in front.
‘Kneel, Leeming, kneel, come on, kneel. You must have licked someone’s boots to get in here. I just need one excuse to talk to my father about you. If you don’t want to be thrown out of here on your skinny ass then you’d better do as I say. And I say kneel, come on kneel!’
Ed found a reserve of courage he never knew he had. Nevertheless he was shaking.
‘I won’t kneel. You can’t make me kneel.’
Scott punched Ed in the guts, a quick but accurate jab. Ed gasped and began to slide down the wall. Then he tried to get up. He could hear Ella struggling to get to him in the background.
‘Leave him alone,’ she was shouting, ‘leave him alone...’
Scott punched Ed again. ‘Come on, Leeming, you’re almost there. See how easy it is. Come on now kneel, kneel.’
Suddenly a strong black hand grabbed Scott by the collar and yanked him back and away from Ed. Scott spun round to confront the angry face of John Jackson, the football coach. He was tight lipped and hostile. Jackson slammed a wristlock on Scott, out of sight of the others. His other fist twisted his grip into Scott’s neck. Scott was sweating, trying not to show pain.
‘What’s the matter, Stockton? Don’t like having a taste of your own medicine?’ Jackson’s hissed threat was barely audible. Through gritted teeth Scott fumed.
‘You are history, Jackson. You are dead meat. When my father hears about this you’ll be lucky to get a job as a caddy.’
‘Lucky I like golf, Mister Stockton. What I suggest we all do right now is keep our cool. I know just how far I can go, boy, you better believe that. Father or no father, you don’t run this school. Believe me, boy, you would not like to have to answer to me if anything comes of all this. I believe your father might just be persuaded to make an example of you if it came to his attention that his precious blue-eyed son was seen victimising other students. If he didn’t and it went your way, well, you would just have to watch your ass, twenty-four hours a day.’
Jackson released Scott and had a good look at Ed. Scott stormed off with Wayne Krantz, but not before shooting a black look at Ella. The group broke up, with only Ramona lingering until Ella stared her down.
‘You better go and see Doc Dewey. Then I guess I’d better submit a full report,’ Jackson said to Ed.
‘No, I’ll be okay. No need to make a report. Let’s forget the whole thing,’ said Ed.
‘That’s how he gets away with behaving like he runs the place. It’s because no one stands up to him. You can be proud of what you did. But I need ammunition if I’m to go all the way with this.’
‘No, thanks anyway. His time will come, I know it.’
Jackson looked disappointed. He turned to Ella.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Sure,’ she replied. ‘I’m fine. Thanks for stepping in when you did.’
The bell rang announcing the first session of the day. Jackson shrugged.
‘If you change your mind about making an official complaint, let me know.’ He half smiled at the two of them before walking off.
Ella turned to Ed and then they both started to talk at once. They laughed, a warm friendly laugh.
‘Why don’t we meet later? We could, you know, talk and things,’ Ed ventured.
Ella was pleased. She wanted to see him again. She knew just how much courage it had taken for him to do what he had done. 
‘Okay, during lunch break,’ she told him.
Neither of them wanted to break up this moment of rare intimacy but the urgency of the bell snapped them into action and they both moved off laughing.
Later, under a sky laced with high blown clouds, Ella and Ed strolled across the Winfield lawns looking over at the white buildings and the slow moving figures criss-crossing the paths and squares in between the shadowed colonnades.
Ella was experiencing a rare sense of peace and happiness. It was as if the incident with Scott Stockton had broken through a layer of her emotional guard. She sensed a kindred spirit in Ed, but it was not just the fact that they had one or two things in common that was responsible for her feeling of euphoria. He was easy to talk to and he listened to what she was saying. She sensed that he, too, was thawing emotionally in her company and that gave her a wonderful sense of fulfilment and pleasure. Whether it was love, she didn’t know. She knew one thing for certain. She didn’t want it to stop.
••••
Ed was feeling more uninhibited than he had ever believed possible. When he looked at Ella he saw someone with an inner beauty. The imperfections of her face were minor as far he was concerned. When you looked hard at her and refused to notice those imperfections she was really very good looking. How she could bear looking at him he did not know. But she did, all the time.
‘So what are you going to do when you graduate?’ he asked her.
‘I don’t know. Some kind of multimedia work I guess. How about you?’
‘It’s going have to be something to do with mathematics: maybe something in insurance or statistics. Trouble is, it all sounds so safe and predictable. A bit like me I suppose.’
‘You think of yourself as safe?’ she smiled.
‘Want to know the truth?’
‘Of course.’
‘I’ve always wanted to do something dangerous. I don’t know what exactly, just something like climbing a mountain, taking a ride in the space shuttle, that kind of thing. But it’s just never going to be possible.’
‘We could do something dangerous together. With our brains we could, I don’t know, we could rob a bank and live forever on a tropical island on the proceeds.’
They both laughed. As they approached the entrance their laughing stopped abruptly. Lounging against the steps that led to the doorway were Scott Stockton and Wayne Krantz. Scott watched them approaching through impenetrable reflective sunglasses. Idly he chewed a blade of grass.
Ed instinctively took Ella’s arm as they walked by. Scott and Wayne made no attempt to move. Then Scott said. ‘You were lucky, Leeming. You’re a marked man, did you know that?’
‘Come on, Ed,’ urged Ella, ‘don’t listen to him.’
‘Hey, Leeming,’ Scott said loudly so that passers-by would hear, ‘how come I don’t see your name down for the graduation cross-country? It’s one of Winfield’s great traditions. Maybe you’re not man enough?’
Despite himself, Ed slowed down. Ella was urging him to keep walking, not to let Stockton get to him.
‘How about it, superman? Or can you only run behind your girlfriend’s apron strings?’ Scott spat the chewed grass onto the white gravel.
Ed looked over at Scott.
‘I’ll run,’ he mumbled.
‘What did you say, Leeming?’ Scott cupped his hand over his ear.
‘I said I’ll run,’ Ed almost shouted.
‘Wow! Did you hear that, Wayne? Leeming’s going to run. That should be something to watch; only we’ll be too far in front to notice. You’d better get in shape, Leeming, human shape.’
Wayne snorted.
‘It’s five miles Leeming, baby,’ he turned to Scott. ‘Fifty says he won’t get half a mile.’
‘You’re on. He won’t make a quarter.’ Scott pushed himself off the steps without taking his hands from his pockets and indicated Wayne should follow him. The only real country the runners would pound through was on the very perimeter of the college grounds, where the circular path wound behind trees and rough scrub by the edge of an old disused mine working out of sight of the college buildings. The race was all part of the Winfield ethos of heart, mind and body, an all round education.
The favourite was John McIntyre, a wiry, red-haired boy from Boston. Scott Stockton was also in with a chance although Wayne Krantz was probably the quicker over the distance. They both trained with a bunch of guys, not including McIntyre, and pushed themselves to the limit. 
Ed Leeming had not run for years. Ella encouraged him, watching him from a grassy knoll as he jogged around the grounds, careful to stay clear of other runners.
At first it was so tough he wanted to give up there and then. He bitterly regretted his rash acceptance of Stockton’s challenge, but he just could not back down, not in front of Ella. Stockton had got the psychology right and Ed hated him for it. But he paced himself, building up the laps day by day.  The strain of pounding out the yards and miles was causing him to limp despite heavy padding. He knew now just how unfit he really was. He was going to do well just to finish the race but he was determined not to finish last. Any thoughts he might have had of beating Scott Stockton, he knew now were fanciful daydreams.
Ella waved to Ed as he shuffled by, sweating.
‘I’m going take a shower,’ she called to him, ‘I’ll see you in half-an-hour.’
He smiled at her and she could see the pain on his face. It was at that very moment as she shouldered her straw bag and made her way across to the female locker rooms that she knew she loved him.
Ella guessed that the showers would likely be empty at this time of day. It was an hour till her next class. She showered quickly then wrapped herself in a towel and sat on the bench by her locker drying. She pulled a book out from her capacious bag just as the locker room doors banged open and four or five laughing, chattering girls entered, ignoring Ella, pulling off clothes and slamming locker doors. Minutes later they were all in the shower together. Steam swirled out from their bodies forming a gauze-like screen. Ella knew the girls but not well. She watched as their bodies moved inside the curtain of steam.
‘He’s off this planet,’ shouted one. ‘I’d walk through a desert storm on Mars to get him alone.’
A redhead called Roxy smoothed her hands over her shapely buttocks, lathering soap sensuously.
‘By the time you caught him he’d be jerking himself off in some hot steamy jungle,’ she laughed.
‘As long as it was my hot steamy jungle,’ her friend retorted.
The girls burst out laughing, whispering to each other. Cissy, a southern girl, declared huskily. ‘You’ve no idea what it can be like till you’ve had a southern boy.’
‘All we get are corporate morons with big briefcases and little dicks,’ said Roxy. ‘All the last guy I went out with showed me was his pension plan.’
Roxy stepped out of the shower and reached for her robe, wrapping it around her body. Then she saw Ella.
'Hi, Ella, what’s that you’re reading?’
Ella looked up. Roxy was okay, a little brighter than the usual bimbettes that passed through Winfield.
‘Oh,’ Ella replied. ‘It’s called "The Ontological Thoughts of Hegel". You can borrow it if you like.’
‘Are you kidding? The title is enough to give me a migraine. Let me give you some advice kid. Dump those books of yours. Forget Einstein or Hegel or whatever his name is. Read about a real genius.’
The other girls had left the shower and were drying off as Roxy delved into her holdall and took out a magazine. She winked at the others and went back to stand in front of Ella. She handed the magazine to Ella.
‘Before you read the front page article, take a look at these,’ Roxy smiled.
Roxy let her robe slip down revealing her firm, well rounded breasts. She took one in each hand and squeezed them gently.
‘Look what daddy bought me for my birthday. You want to wise up, Ella. It doesn’t matter how brainy you are, honey, it’s how you look that counts. How you look is what you are. So do yourself a favour, read that piece and weep.’
Laughing, the girls left Ella staring at the cover of New Life magazine. On the front cover was a photograph of a good looking, middle aged man. He looked mid-European. Holding his arm as they left a glamorous nightspot was a woman with a face known the length and breadth of America. Former super model Holly Startz, now said to be planning a career in movies, smiled expansively into the camera lens. Ella sniffed at the headline and lead paragraph.
“Super siblings Thomas and Holly Startz. He’s the man who makes the stars, she’s a movie star in the making. The world’s leading plastic surgeon Thomas Startz escorts beautiful sister Holly to this year’s Oscar bash. Story goes that former top model Holly was created by her genius brother. They say they’re so close they’re almost twins, despite the age difference. They also say that Startz has rebuilt the faces and the bodies of half Hollywood.”
Ella strolled thoughtfully towards a bench overlooking the jogging circuit. Ed was already there, sprawled and sweating. He noticed her solemn expression.
‘What’s up?’ he asked.
‘Oh, nothing,’ she replied airily. She paused and sighed deeply. ‘Oh, what’s the use. I always used to kid myself that I didn’t care about the way I looked. I believed my mind was beautiful. What a load of crap! Of course I want to be beautiful. I dream about nothing else. I wish for nothing else. I think I’d swap all my brain cells for a face like that.’
She tossed the magazine to Ed who studied it for a moment of two. Without thinking he pushed his running shoes off his feet, stretching them on the grass.
‘You don’t have to go through with this, you know? The race I mean,’ she said to him quietly.
‘We both know I do,’ he said turning to the inside pages. ‘Listen to this. The man who has re-invented beauty. Thomas Startz, genius plastic surgeon has given new hope to those who desire to be beautiful. At his state-of-the-art Los Angeles surgery, Heaven’s Gate, Startz transforms ugliness into splendour like a sculptor turns clay into a work of art.
‘He calls it total body remodelling. Startz gets the credit for creating one of America’s most glamorous models, kid sister Holly, reborn in more ways than one following her well publicised retirement.
‘Listen to this bit. The super siblings appear to be inseparable, more like man and wife than brother and sister. Startz, who has never married and who is considerably older than Holly, is a man with a mysterious past. Little is known about him before he burst onto the surgery circuit a decade ago with technology way ahead of its time. Now his clientele is international and they are fighting to get under the knife, or is it under the fiber-optic laser. For those nervous about putting themselves in his hands he has these words of comfort - the first cut is the deepest.’
‘Now I know what I want for my birthday,’ Ella said wildly.
‘I think beauty comes from inside, you know. To me you’re beautiful. I just wanted you to know that.’ 
Ella glanced down, not wanting to meet his eyes. She knew he was doing this for her. She looked up then leaned across and kissed him gently on the mouth.
‘I’ve never felt like this before,’ she told him softly.
‘Me neither.’
‘Two square pegs.’
‘Ella!’
‘Yes!’
‘Nothing...I...’
They were in each other’s arms and then all the years of pent up emotions burst like a dam erupting. They held each other tightly until the distant bell rang, summoning them back to reality.