DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television, no infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Della Street
Another day, another twenty-six dollars. Unfastening her helmet, Jo strolled into the lounge where her two younger roommates were immersed in a card game. Were she less tired, Jo would have headed upstairs for a quick change and then invited herself into the game. Not after ten hours of taping and painting, though, interrupted only by attending to her Saturday lunch and dinner duties. With a groan of satisfaction for a hard day's work, she dropped down onto the couch and kicked off her tennies.
"Don't get too comfortable," Natalie said. She picked up a card and inserted it into her hand. "Blair wants you to pick her up at the art lab."
"Too bad," Jo replied. "I'm not Blair Warner's personal servant."
Natalie laid down a six of spades. "Mm hmm."
"I mean it this time," Jo insisted.
Tootie happily plucked the card from the discard pile and laid down a club. "Of course you do . . . ," she nodded.
Jo crossed her arms defiantly. "I am not going over there."
Frowning at her friend's unhelpful discard, Natalie muttered, "Gee, thanks, Tootie." To Jo, she said, "You don't have to. Blair said if you didn't want to, she can just drag that heavy backpack all the way home."
Triumphantly, Jo said, "Darn right she can." She tried to focus on something else, wondering briefly if there was anything good on TV tonight, but to her annoyance her mind kept returning to the original topic of conversation. In spite of herself, she finally asked, "Why is it heavy? She got her hair spray in there or something?"
Tootie shuffled her cards around, moving two or three at a time into different sections.
"If you're trying to psych me out, it won't work," Natalie warned her.
It probably would, Jo mused. Tootie was not a bluffer. If she was about to go gin, everyone in Peekskill knew it. "Would I do that?" Tootie replied. Remembering Jo's question, she said, "She's got a bunch of art books in there with her swatches."
Those damn swatches. Jo would be happy -- thrilled, ecstatic -- if she never heard the word swatch again or, for that matter, anything else relating to the impending Blair Library (as in the Honorable Carlton J., not his much less esteemed granddaughter) that would eventually loom over the Eastland horizon. But that swatch book was kinda thick, she allowed. And art books could be heavy. "Well, okay," she grumbled. "But this is the last time!"
"Right." The other girls nodded.
As Jo re-tied her shoelaces, Natalie studied her cards, finally drawing one from the middle of her hand and laying it on the pile. Tootie quickly snatched it up. "Gin!" she cried.
Jo was still grousing to herself about arrogant roommates taking her for granted when she draped her helmet across the handles of her bike outside the art building, where Blair was meeting with what's-his-face to go over selections for -- what else -- the damn Blair Library. If she thought about it objectively, which Jo made a point of not doing, Blair wasn't really all that over the top about this thing. Not more than anything else that caught her interest. Blair Warner never poured half of herself into anything. It was all or nothing for her. And this library was going to kick major ass, apparently, putting Eastland on the map even more than it already was. Mr. Parker was practically orgasmic over the thing. Jo wondered if he was going to raise tuition. That was a scary thought. She could be surrounded by brats even more spoiled than Her Highness.
It wasn't too late to make Blair walk home. Jo mulled that over. Or she could grab the backpack, and then Blair could freakin' hoof it across campus like one of the little people. Jo supposed she would get no end of grief from the princess if she did that, and maybe from Mrs. G, too. Some of Jo's best ideas tended to draw a frown from the school dietician.
She slowed her pace as she approached the lab and heard Blondie yapping away about something or other. Air brain. Normally, Jo would have announced her arrival with a rude and/or sarcastic remark -- that was the best part of running these errands for Blair -- but what she observed when she rounded the corner made her pause.
Mr. Gray, the new Art and Yearbook instructor who had Tootie and Nat and their little friends swooning, was standing next to Blair. Like right next to her. Like no space at all between them. What was the deal with that? Jo eyed the pair. Blair didn't seem to mind; she was just blabbin' on like always, going on about dear departed grandpa, probably.
Gray draped an arm casually around Blair's shoulder. Was he . . . ? He was, Jo decided. The instructor was definitely leaning against Blair, letting his hand dangle close to her breast. Well, maybe not all that close, but still, this whole thing was creeping Jo out.
Whatever he said next made Blair turn her head and beam up at him. Was she into this guy?
Jo backed up a few steps and yelled out, "Blair?"
As she expected, a foot of space had suddenly materialized between the other two people in the room by the time she walked in.
"Let's go, Blair," she said.
"And hello to you, too."
Jo ignored the reminder of her poor manners. She hadn't been in the best mood to begin with, and now she officially did not give a crap.
Blair proceeded with formal introductions. "Mr. Gray, this is my roommate, Jo Polniaczek," she said.
Like Eastland had a million people on campus. Jo might not have suffered through one of his macrame classes, but she had seen the guy around plenty of times. By Jo's reckoning, she didn't owe Gray anything. She had Basic Auto for her elective. She ignored him and instead twirled a finger in Blair's general direction. Let's go, she signaled.
"I've read some of your articles in the Eastlander," Gray said conversationally.
"Great," Jo replied. An idea for another article -- something along the lines of TEACHER SEX SCANDAL HITS EASTLAND -- was forming in her head at this very moment. "Come on, Warner, let's jet."
Forcing a smile, Blair said to Gray, "Jo reads a lot of Emily Post, as you can tell."
There was Blair's backpack over in the corner. Jo walked over to the flowery monstrosity that probably cost more than Jo's whole wardrobe and hoisted it over one shoulder with an audible "Oof." Scowling, she said, "What the hell's in here, a dead body?"
"Language, Jo!" Blair chided her.
"Whatever," Jo replied. "I got the backpack. You comin' or what?"
"If it's more convenient, I could give you a lift home," Gray offered.
Screw that. "Yeah, right," Jo said before her roommate had a chance to respond. "After I come all this way? Only if she never wants another ride."
Even Princess Di wasn't that dumb. "I'd better go with Jo," she said. "But thank you."
To speed the process along, Jo turned and headed for the door. Behind her, Blair quickly grabbed her purse and a pad of paper from one of the desk tops and hurried after her. "What's the rush?" she complained.
Jo did not bother to reply, but the instant that the double doors clanged shut behind them, she blurted, "He's freakin' married, Blair."
The comment, more abrupt than Jo had planned, seemed to startle her roommate. "What?"
When Blair did not reply, Jo turned back to see what was up. One of Blair's combs had fallen out of the purse in her haste, apparently, and was hanging precariously from the strap. The blonde's efforts to keep it from dropping to the pavement were hampered by the fact that both hands were otherwise occupied. Jo walked over and took the pad from her, freeing up a hand to address the immediate problem. When Blair's attention returned to the conversation, she asked, "What are you talking about?"
"Mr. Space Invader," Jo replied.
"Mr. Gray?" Blair said. "He's helping me pick out artwork for the Blair--"
"Do not mention that place again!" Jo warned her.
Acceding to her roommate's demand, Blair said, "Mr. Gray has very good taste."
"Yeah, I noticed," Jo muttered.
"And he totally appreciates my talent."
"Yeah?" Jo said nastily. "Which talent is that?"
Blair seemed shocked. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Geez, Blair, he was practically coppin' a feel when I got here."
"Copping a--? That's disgusting!" Blair exclaimed. "Mr. Gray has never behaved inappropriately!"
Jo walked toward her roommate until there was practically nothing between her face and Blair's. "Oh, yeah?" she asked. "Is this appropriate?"
Uncomfortable, Blair stepped back. "Quit that."
"He was standing this close to you."
"We were looking at prints." Irritated, Blair resumed her stride to Jo's bike. "It's hard to do from across the room."
Watching her roommate as she stowed the backpack, Jo said, "So you're not hot for him?"
"Mr. Gray?" Blair asked, incredulous. "He's my teacher!"
"You said you like older men," Jo reminded her.
"This is ridiculous," Blair declared. "You're just jealous."
Jealous? Talk about ridiculous! "Why would I care who you like?" Jo said defensively.
"You're jealous because someone sophisticated like Mr. Gray appreciates me for my mind," Blair said. "You like to think you're the only smart one."
Calmly, Jo explained, "I am not jealous." Some elaboration was called for here. "Look, I'm not saying that you're an air brain, although you are. I'm just saying that, no matter how smart you are, some guys are still gonna like you just 'cause you're pretty."
Twirling a finger in her blonde locks, Blair said, "So you admit that I'm pretty."
Trust Blair to pick up on that one word and go deaf on all the others. "Some guys might think so," Jo said. "Guys that need glasses . . . . guys in prison . . . ." She jerked a thumb toward the lab building. "Guys that teach at a girls' school and have a thing for seventeen-year-olds."
After a brief frown at the helmet that Jo handed her, no doubt for what it was about to do to her hair, Blair fastened the strap. "You just can't stand it, can you?" she said. "Because if Blair Warner isn't the air brain that you claim she is, then you have nothing to lord over her."
Jo straddled the bike and waited for her roommate to get on. "This is not a competition, Blair," she said.
With Blair's arms clasped tightly around her waist, Jo kick-started the bike and took off. Not for the first time, the temptation to zip off at light speed flitted through her brain, but once again the memory of Blair flying backward off the bike the first time they rode together acted as a natural governor. What Jo had initially thought would be funny had turned ugly when Blair landed on the raised curb, knocking the wind out of her and bringing tears to her eyes. Tracing a finger gently across the dark bruises that marred the otherwise flawless skin of Blair's back the next morning, Jo had been riddled with guilt for days.
Typical of their arguments, this one was forgotten shortly after they arrived home, or, more precisely, shoved aside for a new one. That splotch of blue on Blair's bedspread was not paint, Jo insisted. At least she prayed it wasn't. She could only imagine how much it would cost if she had to replace that thing. Blair had probably bought it in Paris or something. It would be lousy if all that extra money Jo was working her ass off to earn ended up covering Her Highness's bed.
"Well, that's funny," Blair said, "because I went by the administration building today, and this was exactly the same color that you were painting the wall."
There was some similarity, Jo had to concede. "I didn't see you over there," she said, stalling for time.
"You looked busy, so I found something better to do," Blair said. "Which wasn't difficult."
Time to switch to Plan B. "Eh, it's not that big a deal," Jo said, tugging the spread out a bit so that the stain wouldn't be right on top. She almost hated to do it, but this was an emergency. She needed a distraction or she was going to be out weeks of hard work. "Who's going to see it, anyway? Mr. Gray?"
The explosion arrived right on schedule. "I've had it with you!" Blair snapped. "I should tell him about your ridiculous accusations."
Come to think of it, that wasn't a bad idea. "Why don't you?" Jo challenged her.
"Because it would hurt his feelings," Blair said. "And we all know how easy it is to run a teacher out of town with unfounded rumors."
The remark took Jo's breath away. She hadn't seen it coming, and, for one of the few times in her life, she had no comeback. She still remembered the headline -- TEACHER BUSTED IN COCAINE RAID -- and the sight of Mr. Gideon packing even after everyone knew what a horrible mistake Jo had made.
Occasionally, their arguments reached a point at which both girls instinctively recognized that their relationship would be on the line if things went much further. This particular argument had just reached critical mass, they realized, and neither said anything more.
Jo didn't always fret about their fights. At first she had. For reasons that probably would have pissed Jo off had she known them, this rich girl had taken an interest in her, and Jo found her kind of interesting, too. But that could have changed at any moment. Blair went through boyfriends like tissue paper; she would have even less reason to stick with a girl from the wrong side of the tracks if things got ugly. And so, as they sniped and swatted at each other, Jo always figured this would be the time that Blair washed her hands of her and went back to the circle of adoring girls who still longed to be part of Blair's entourage.
Over time, she had gained more confidence in their relationship, friendship, whatever this was that they had. Blair could take it as well as she could dish it out. But this argument had been different and Jo found herself tossing and turning, unable to sleep as she went over the words in her mind again.
Having only drifted off a few hours before dawn, she was still sound asleep the next morning when a loud clanging awakened her. Grouchily, Jo opened her eyes to see two girls by the desk staring at her, wide-eyed with fear.
"Sorry!" Tootie grimaced. "I dropped it."
"No kidding." Mid-stretch, she glanced over at Blair's bed, which was not only neatly made but unoccupied. Just the way Jo liked it.
She decided to save oatmeal until tomorrow, since Blair seemed to like making it. Cold cereal was more Jo's style, anyway. As her jaw did battle with the Grape Nuts, she tried to hold back the question that kept running through her head. Finally, she couldn't take it any more.
"Where's the Princess?" she asked, keeping her tone casual to accurately reflect the fact that she didn't really care.
Between loud bites of Captain Crunch, Natalie replied, "Trenton."
"Some art exhibit," Tootie added as she poured sugar on her Cheerios.
The kids were a font of information. Jo supposed she would have known all this, too, if she and Blair had been speaking to each other. "She got up early on a Sunday morning to go to Jersey?" she asked. That didn't seem Blair's style.
Tootie shrugged. "They had to be there by noon," she said.
"Mr. Gray drove."
Jo stopped chewing. Blair was with Gray? Alone with him for hours? Dumping the remaining contents of her bowl in the sink, she rinsed it automatically while her mind raced.
Another round of cards was on the agenda for that evening, and this time Jo joined in, transforming it into a mini-poker party. It would keep her mind off other things, she figured, which proved only partially true.
Was that clock right? It was freaking eight thirty already?
"I'm out," Jo announced. She tossed down her cards and walked to the phone stand. From the lower shelf, she drew out the Eastland Staff Directory and, after a moment's hesitation, dialed the number for one Robert L. Gray.
"Mrs. Gray?" she said. "This is Jo Polniaczek." She should have thought out what to say, she realized too late. "I . . . uh, work on the Eastlander." It was as good as she could come up with. "Do you know when Mr. Gray will be home?"
"He's right here," the woman said cheerfully, calling out, "Bob . . . ."
Then, unexpectedly, the art teacher's voice greeted her. "Hello?"
Wait a minute. If Gray was home . . . "Where's Blair?" Jo demanded.
"This is Jo Polniaczek," she said. "Blair's roommate. Where is she?"
"She had some things to do."
"In New Jersey?" she retorted. "Without a car?"
"It's rather late to be calling on a Sunday, Ms. Polniaczek."
It was late, all right. "Blair usually eats with us Sunday nights," Jo said. And then they would all go upstairs and do homework, or read, or, in Blair's case, look at her wardrobe or pictures of herself, basically enjoying some quiet time with each other before another hectic week began.
"I believe she wanted to do some shopping," Gray said.
He was lying. Jo was sure of it, but she didn't know what to do about it. "Yeah, right," she said. Maybe she should go over there and make a scene. The scuz deserved it. "If she ain't home soon, I'm callin' Mr. Parker."
Warily, he replied, "I don't think that will be necessary."
I'll bet you don't. Jo slammed down the receiver.
The three roommates headed upstairs on schedule, but tonight's quiet time was a little too quiet, and Jo eventually wandered back downstairs to the lounge. A while later, cocoa in hand, Mrs. G stood in the doorway, raising an eyebrow at her inquiringly.
"I'm just . . . ." Jo picked up a magazine. "Been wanting to read this."
Mrs. Garrett eyed the two-month-old Vogue, nodding. "And you've been waiting until Blair went out of town to get your hands on it." Turning back toward the dining room, she added, "When she gets in, tell her that her mother called to ask if she wants to go to London for Labor Day."
"Okay," Jo said. "If I see her." She flipped through pages of hairdos and fluff.
It was another hour before she finally heard a taxi idling outside, and then the lounge door swung open. Blair paused when she saw Jo on the couch before walking quickly past her.
"Blair . . . ."
The other girl ignored her.
"I thought you'd be home earlier," Jo tried again.
"Well, I wasn't."
"Is everything okay?"
Stiffly, Blair replied, "Fine."
"Where have you been?"
Blair did not answer.
"Yeah, right," Jo said. "Where's the stuff if you've been shopping all day?" At an average of 2.4 departments per hour, Blair should have had bags hanging from every limb and around her neck.
"Leave me alone."
It was a request that Jo Polniaczek could not honor. She reached a hand out to her roommate's arm. "Blair . . . ."
Whirling around, Blair said, "You were right, all right? Is that what you want to hear?" She yanked her arm away. "You're smart and I'm not! Are you happy?"
That son of a bitch! Jo tried to control her temper. "What'd he do?" Blair did not reply, and this time Jo yelled it. "What did he do?"
Tootie appeared in the doorway, blinking at them.
"Get upstairs, Tootie," Jo ordered her.
Sleepily, the younger girl asked, "What are you guys fighting about now?"
"It's none of your damn business," Jo snapped at her. "Get the hell upstairs!"
Furiously, Blair shouted at Jo, "It's none of your business, either!"
"I'm making it my business!"
"Well, I'm not!" Blair said. "You're as bad as he is!"
That shocked Jo into silence, and then she said, "Look, either you tell me, or I'm going over there and"
"No you're not!" Blair yelled. "Just leave me alone!"
"Girls! Girls!" Mrs. Garrett stepped into the lounge. "What in the world is going on?"
Both women immediately clammed up.
"And what did you say to Tootie?" she asked them. "She was very upset."
Ah, hell. Jo accepted the blame. "My fault," she admitted, feeling guilty. "I yelled at her. I shouldn't have."
"No, you shouldn't." She looked from one young woman to the other. "Now, are you going to tell me what's going on between you two?" To Jo, she said, "You've been edgy all day--"
I wasn't even home all day, Jo almost pointed out, but that wouldn't be smart. And, to be honest, even during the hours she spent at the administration building with her paintbrush, she had been on edge, thinking about Blair and Gray the whole time.
"--and you were angry at Jo when you left," Mrs. Garrett went on, this time to Blair.
"Jo wasn't even awake when I left," Blair said.
"Exactly," Mrs. Garrett replied. "When have you ever gone out of town without saying goodbye to your roommates?"
Blair countered, "I said goodbye to Tootie and Nat. Why would I wake Jo up just to get my head bitten off?"
She wouldn't, Jo knew. Instead, her preparations for the road would grow progressively noisy until they eventually woke Jo up just in time to utter a "See ya" or, if she was in a really good mood, a "Don't break anything." Jo had done the same thing a time or two, only she really had to crank up the noise to wake up Sleeping Beauty.
"Jo doesn't care what I do," Blair rattled on. "She doesn't care if I live or die!"
That hurt, and Jo was too shocked to hide it.
Blair suddenly seemed to realize what she had said, and she turned to Jo. "I didn't mean that."
A lump had formed in Jo's throat at Blair's words, and she was desperately willing it to go away. "It's not true," she said.
Blair nodded apologetically. "I know. I'm sorry I said it."
"I was just tryin' to look out for you."
"I know." Blair laid a hand on Jo's shoulder. "I really am sorry."
Jo wasn't going to say anything more in front of Mrs. G, but as she glanced behind Blair, she realized that they were alone again. It was still awkward, though, and neither of them spoke for a long moment.
Should she let it go? Something had happened on that trip. Did Blair really not want to talk about it? Was that a good idea? Did she really think Jo would make fun of her or whatever other bullshit was going through her friend's head?
"I went by the library today," Jo finally said. "They laid the sheet rock."
Blair nodded her acknowledgment, not exactly the spark of interest that Jo had hoped for.
"It looks pretty cool," Jo said. Blair loved that place. It would make her friend happy to see it, she was sure. "You wanna walk over there?"
"It's pretty late."
"Yeah, it is." Jo tossed a thumb toward the door. "Come on."
As late as it was, it seemed natural to keep their voices down as they walked toward the partially built structure, even though the dormitory was on the other side of campus.
"Mrs. G put some pizza in aluminum foil for you."
"We saved you some pepperoni," Jo blabbed on. "I know you like that the best."
"He didn't do anything to me, if that's what you're worried about."
"Nothing at all?"
Blair was obviously wrestling with what to say. That bothered Jo. Good, bad, or indifferent, the two had always been brutally honest with each other.
"He . . . ."
Now Jo got it. Blair wanted to tell her, but didn't know how to say it. One disadvantage of being a nice girl. Jo didn't have that problem.
"Did he touch you?"
Blair hesitated again, and Jo realized she would have to change her question a bit.
"Did he touch you there?"
Thank God. "But he touched your . . . ." Jo made a point of looking at Blair's breasts.
Their shoes crunched in synch on the gravel path. This was such a weird conversation, Jo thought. Normally, she would have been boiling, steaming, planning to go kick Gray's ass, but here they were just chatting away, almost casually. Jo didn't mind the twenty questions routine. She didn't care if it took a thousand questions.
"Was it in the car?"
"Was it in the gallery?"
"Did he get you into some dark place?"
"Not dark, but isolated."
"And he wanted to . . . ."
"Yes." Blair took a deep breath. "He suggested that we stop at a motel on the way back. A motel!"
Trust Blair to be offended at the suggested locale as much as the suggested activity.
"He thought . . . ." Blair was getting angry. Good for her. "I told him I hadn't believed you. I told him we had a huge fight about it."
"You told him what I said?" Jo asked.
Good again. That opened up the field of possible responses. Because, although Jo was managing to keep herself calm, images of herself pummeling the bastard into a pile of guts were still flooding her brain.
With a sigh -- a real one, not one of her slow leaks -- Blair said, "I really thought he appreciated my mind. Why do people think I'm dumb?" She glanced at Jo. "I mean people other than you."
"They don't think you're dumb," Jo replied. I don't think it either. "It's just that you're so darn pretty."
That almost tugged a small smile out of Blair. "You're just saying that to make me feel better," she said. "I know how you really feel."
"I would never do anything to make you feel better," Jo pointed out.
That did earn a smile. "Not intentionally," Blair agreed.
"It just happens to be true this time." Jo struggled with how to explain this. "What I mean is, you're pretty and smart. But it's like . . . ." She tried to think of an example. "Like broccoli." Blair liked that yucky stuff. "You know it's got iron and all that stuff, but that's not why you eat it, right? You eat it 'cause you like it. You don't think about the fact that it's good for you, too."
Blair seemed to be listening. Or trying to figure out what the hell Jo was blathering on about, more likely. Jo plunged ahead. "People might go out with you 'cause you're beautiful, but they know that you're smart, too," she said.
They had reached the construction site, and Jo unlatched the wire gate.
Blair finished the thought. "But no one will ever go out with me because I'm smart," she said. "It'll always be because I'm gorgeous."
Crap; that wasn't what she meant. "No," Jo said. "Suppose you had a choice between broccoli and ice cream. Both of them taste good, but you'd pick broccoli 'cause it's better for you. Like if you've got two pretty girls, and one of them is smart, too, then she's the broccoli. You're broccoli, Blair."
Blair raised an eyebrow. "Actually, I'd pick the ice cream."
"Well, not all the time. Not for a real meal." This was hopeless. "I mean--okay, suppose you had broccoli and--"
"We don't have all night, Jo," Blair interrupted. "We're supposed to be looking at sheet rock." She crossed her arms. "In the dark, evidently."
The flashlight! Oh, crap. Lamely, Jo said, "Well, you can kinda feel it." She wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer to her next question, but she couldn't stand not knowing. "Did he kiss you?" she asked.
"He tried," Blair replied. "I pushed him away."
"All right!" Jo praised her. "Did you kick him in the nuts like I showed you?"
The entrance to the building itself was deadbolted after hours, but there was an open window area a few feet off the ground. Jo hopped up onto the frame and reached down a hand to pull Blair up.
"It--" Blair grunted as she landed off balance, stumbling into Jo. She wiped off her skirt. "--wasn't necessary."
"That's okay," Jo replied. "I got perfect aim." She let herself slip into a little fantasy.
Blair reached out and grabbed her arm. "No!" she said. "I don't want you to do anything."
"He was a creep to you, Blair," Jo said. "I can't let that go."
"Yes, you can."
"No," Jo said firmly, "I can't." She honestly couldn't.
"Oh, good grief." Blair was exasperated. "Why not?"
"Because . . . ." Because she couldn't. Jo took Blair's hand in her own and carefully walked her over to the wall, where she placed her palm against the sheet rock.
"It feels rough," Blair said.
"It's the mudding." Jo moved their hands over to another section. "It'll give the paint texture."
"Do you want some of that work?"
Jo thought about it for a moment, leery that the heiress was about to pull one of her high-and-mighty stunts.
Correctly surmising the reason for her hesitation, Blair said, "It's not charity. You've been doing a good job in the administration building. I've been by a few times."
"How come you never came in?"
"You were so focused." Blair smiled at some memory. "Such a perfectionist. Running your hand across the tape, making those delicate strokes along the base board. You seemed to be enjoying yourself."
"It's a living." Sort of.
"I have a say in who they hire on all phases of the Blair Library," Blair said. For once she wasn't bragging, Jo perceived. "Let me know if you want it." Suddenly, she turned around and slid down the wall until she was seated, hands draped across her knees, on the floor. "I'm tired," she said.
Jo joined her on the floor. "Long day, huh?"
"I want you to leave this alone, Jo."
"What if he hits on another girl?" That wasn't Jo's principal motive, but it was a legitimate point, she figured.
"No one at Eastland is as pretty as I am," Blair said.
"Yeah, but if he can't have you, he might decide to go for Number Two."
"What's so funny?"
"I just tricked you into saying that I'm the prettiest girl at Eastland."
She might not have done it if she could have seen Blair's face looking back at her, but there, in the dark, Jo didn't mind telling the truth for once. "You are the prettiest girl at Eastland." In all of Peekskill. In all the world.
Blair laid her head on Jo's shoulder. It was a little unusual, but all right. A moment later, she laid the palm of her left hand on Jo's knee. That was unusual, too, but also all right. More than all right, actually, if Jo were honest with herself. Blair's hand moved slightly and, to Jo's amazement, began a gentle caress of her thigh.
"You're so muscular," Blair murmured. "I'm kind of mushy."
"Mushy is nice," Jo replied. Nearly holding her breath in fear, she laid her own hand on Blair's knee. The material of Blair's fancy skirt was much softer than the denim that Blair was feeling, even as well-worn as it was. Jo wasn't sure what they were doing, but she was going with it. She wanted to mimic Blair's motions, but she was too paralyzed to move her hand off the relatively harmless knee area.
A sigh ruffled the loose strands of hair on her neck. "Have you ever imagined what it would be like for us if we didn't fight all the time?" Blair asked.
"Not really," Jo replied honestly. "I kinda like it."
Blair thought about it a moment before admitting, "It is sort of . . . I don't know . . . exciting sometimes."
No kidding. Jo had figured out long ago that she looked forward to their little tiffs more than she ought to. Occasionally, after a really good jab from Blair, she even experienced the bizarre sensation of wanting to grab the snob and lay a kiss across that smart mouth.
Blair's hand curved around her thigh. Holy shit. Jo was having a hard time sitting still. She squinted in the darkness at her own hand, fighting competing instincts: sliding it down Blair's thigh, maybe even under her skirt that thought sent her heart racing or leaving it where it was. Blair had always been touchy feely; this could all be innocent affection in her mind. The last thing she needed was to be groped by two perverts in one day.
To Jo's disappointment, Blair removed her hand, but then she ran her index finger up Jo's forearm. "Really exciting," Blair said. She laid her palm across the back of Jo's hand, linking their fingers together.
Oh, hallelujah. Jo closed her eyes in gratitude as Blair began to guide their joined hands down her thigh. There was no sound in the room except for the two women's breathing, which was becoming erratic for both of them.
The sudden rumbling of a truck outside brought them scrambling to their feet.
"Shit!" Jo exclaimed.
As the girls brushed construction dust off their clothes, Blair asked loudly, "How many layers will it have?"
From the entrance, a voice called out, "Miss Warner?"
Blair whirled around. "Eldon!" she greeted the security guard. "You scared the life out of me."
"I'm sorry, Miss Warner; just doing my rounds." He smiled at both girls. "Hi, Jo. What are you gals doing here?"
Changing my life, Jo thought.
"I heard the sheet rock was installed today while I was out of town," Blair said. "I wanted Jo to show me."
He laughed. "In the dark?"
"Yes, well, someone forgot the flashlight," Blair said haughtily. EPILOG
Five months later . . . .
Jo had recovered enough to play along with Blair's little charade. "You drag me half way across campus and I'm supposed to get the flashlight, too?" she groused.
"You're the mechanic."
"Mechanic?" Jo replied. "It doesn't take a freakin' mechanic to turn on a flashlight."
"It might need batteries."
"Oh, for crying out--"
Having experienced more than one Warner-Polniaczek go around in his eight months on the job, the guard quickly intervened. "Listen, girls, it's after midnight," he said. "You shouldn't be out by yourselves this late. Why don't I give you a ride back to the house?"
She was more than capable of taking care of Blair, Jo might have protested under other circumstances, but this wasn't the occasion. The two of them definitely had some unfinished business here, but it would just have to be finished some other time. At least she hoped it would be. "That'd be great," she said.
While Jo opted for the most efficient exit -- hopping out the window -- Blair took advantage of the now unlocked entrance. Hooking her arm through the guard's, she said, "I was so delighted when they hired you. It's nice to know there's someone looking out for us at night."
Jo rolled her eyes. Was flirting just an irresistible impulse to some people? Hi, my name is Blair, and I'm a flirt-a-holic. She frowned at the sight of their arms still linked together.
"So, do you do your rounds at the same time every night?"
"Yes, ma'am," he replied.
Hitting him with the wide-eyed ingenue routine that Jo knew well, Blair continued, "So you come by here at . . . ?"
"Eight and twelve," he replied. "Every four hours."
Ah, the method to Blair's madness . . . . No one was in this place between eight o'clock and midnight. Jo stored that information away for future use.
As she tried to sleep, Jo thought back to the experience of Blair's hand on her thigh and her own hand on Blair's thigh. She had been so turned on. Gradually, though, her musings shifted to other, less pleasant thoughts. Had anything really changed between them? Maybe it was just wishful thinking. Maybe Blair hadn't been thinking straight because of Gray. Maybe Jo had made a complete fool of herself. By the following morning, she had re-conceived every word that had been said, every movement that Blair had made, devising an alternative explanation that was totally innocent, that had nothing to do with liking each other in that way, that--
"Sorry," she said absently. She stepped away from the person whose chest she had accidentally bumped in the bathroom.
"That's all right," Blair replied. As she reached across to plug in her hair dryer, her breast rubbed against Jo's arm again. "It happens."
Jo froze. That wasn't an accident, was it? She couldn't actually tell from Blair's innocent expression, but then again, it almost seemed a little too innocent. Geez, she would go nuts wondering about this all day. She had to know.
She dragged Blair over to the door and closed it behind them, keeping out unwanted guests by leaning back against the wood. They had very little time before two other girls and maybe a house mother would demand entrance, so Jo simply grabbed Blair and kissed her, then pulled back to gauge the reaction.
Coyly, Blair whispered, "You brute . . . ."
Jo leaned in for another kiss. When Blair didn't resist and in fact parted her lips to let Jo explore more deeply she took another chance. Reaching out, she pressed both hands against Blair's breasts through the sheer pink robe. A gasp had barely escaped Blair's lips when the pounding started.
"Hey, come on!" Tootie complained.
She wished there was time to talk, but it would have to wait. As Blair stepped back and reached for her blow dryer, Jo opened the door with, "Sorry. Princess Grace knocked her makeup bottles off the counter and it took an hour to get 'em all picked up."
"So witty," Blair retorted. "Actually, I was hoping it would land on you. At least then you might have some chance at a date before you graduate."
"Oh, yeah? Well, at least I don't--"
"Time out!" Tootie interrupted. "Can you guys schedule this argument for when I'm not running late for Mr. Herrin's class?"
By then, Natalie had joined them. "Amen," she said.
Dragging a brush through her hair, Blair said, "I guess I can add it to the list," she said. "We can finish this evening when you pick me up at Mr. Parker's office."
"Pick you up?"
"I'm meeting with the designer."
"Parker's office isn't that far," Jo replied. Although she didn't mind doing it, she had a reputation to maintain. "You can walk."
"I'll be carrying carpet samples," Blair pointed out. "It won't kill you. It's for the"
"Don't say it. If I hear"
Natalie held up a hand. "Hold it!" she said. "Can we speed this up?" She turned to Tootie. "If Jo hears the word 'library' one more time, she's going to flush the next swatch she sees down the toilet."
"Well, of course," Tootie sniffed. "How dull it must be to hear about all these book things when you're still figuring out if Dick saw the red ball. Don't worry, Blair won't bore Jo with the details; she just needs to be there when her meeting gets out."
"Jo is not Blair's personal servant."
"Fine." Tootie sighed dramatically. "Then Blair will just have to walk alllll the way home with alllll those heavy carpet samples, and then tell us about her aching feet allllll night long . . . ."
"Okay, okay," Nat said. "Jo will do it. But this is the last time!"
"She means it this time!"
Turning to the older girls, they encountered twin glares aimed back at them.
"What time, Blair?" Natalie asked.
Not thrilled about being mocked but needing to convey the information, Blair gave in. "My meeting should be over by eight," she said. "After that, I thought we might stop by thethe location for some measurements."
"In the dark?" Tootie asked.
"I only have a week left to decide on the carpet!"
"Blair can't even decide what eye shadow to wear in a week," Jo said.
Smiling insincerely at the others, Blair said, "I don't think Jo will forget the flashlight again. Even monkeys learn."
"I'll remember the flashlight, all right," Jo said. "It'll end up where the sun ain't shining, and I don't mean the Blair Library."
Bending over the sink to run her toothbrush under the water, Jo grinned. Eight thirty at the empty construction site -- sounded good to her. Funny thing about measurements, she thought; sometimes they could take so darn long . . . .
Her last class ended at three o'clock, which gave Jo plenty of time to take care of business before the evening shift. First up was to gather a measuring tape and a flashlight, neither of which would come out of the backpack tonight, she hoped, and then to roll up a spare blanket, which she hoped would. She still had half an hour before dinner duties. Enough time to deal with one other matter.
He looked up when she entered the classroom. Noting who his visitor was, he preempted her first words with, "Blair isn't here. She wasn't in class today."
"I know," Jo said. "She's switching her sixth period to French lit."
Gray nodded as if he weren't all that surprised. "That's too bad," he said.
"Yeah, it is," Jo agreed. "She really likes art."
"Well, if that's all, Ms. Polniaczek, I'm rather busy."
"Actually, it isn't."
He reached down beside him and picked up his briefcase, then stood up and deposited it on his desk, stuffing papers into it. "Unfortunately, I was just about to head out."
Crossing her arms, she stood between the teacher's desk and the exit. "Eh, I think you got a couple minutes," she told him. "Or I can call Mr. Parker and tell him why Eastland's star is changing classes all of a sudden." She actually wouldn't, not unless she wanted Blair to feel totally betrayed. She didn't know why Blair found this so humiliating -- it wasn't like it was her fault -- but what the princess wanted, the princess got. Gray didn't know that, though.
"Blair's not really like the other rich britches around here," Jo said. "If it wasn't for her, I'd be back in the Bronx runnin' with the Young Diablos." Conversationally, she added, "Did you know I used to run with a gang?"
She didn't really expect him to reply, and he didn't.
"Yeah," Jo said, "used to get in all sorts of trouble. There was this one lawyer that Ma used to call for me." And her cousin, and her other cousin, and her Dad that first time, the one that was bogus. "He was really good. The last one I only got a month in Juvie. The other guys got six."
Gray shifted from one foot to the other. Losing patience, was he?
"I called him this morning to see how he was doin'," Jo continued. "He told me a couple of things that were really interesting. Like, did you know that driving a minor across state lines to have sex with her is a felony?" She nodded at that interesting fact. "Yeah. Even if she figures out you're a pig and you don't get any."
He pursed his lips.
"You know the great thing about being a seventeen-year-old girl?" Jo went on. She sneered at him. "I don't mean what you like." She uncrossed her arms. "Milt says they almost never charge girls as adults. He says I can do pretty much anything I want short of killin' a guy and still be out when I'm eighteen. Beatin' somebody with a ball bat, runnin' him over with my bike, doesn't matter. I'm only lookin' at a year. And I've been to Juvie it ain't that bad."
She needed to get back to the house before Blair wondered where she was. Time to wrap this up.
"Bates Academy has an opening," she said. "It might not be as much fun teaching a bunch of guys with guns instead of pretty blonde girls, but I thought you might be interested. Actually, let me put it this way: I strongly suggest that you be interested." She really hoped he would. Otherwise, she might be having to call Milt again to work his magic.
Having said her piece, Jo turned to leave. There wasn't much more she could do, and Blair was waiting for her. She smiled at that thought.
"And so, on behalf of the Blair family, I am proud to dedicate the largest private-school library in New England to the Eastland School for Girls. I'm sure this building will be home to many fond memories . . . ."
Heh, Jo smiled. It already was. Now that it was done, though, she and Blair would have to find another place for their "late-evening work sessions."
Her lover was already on the job, she realized when she approached the blonde at the end of her speech. Blair's arm was draped casually across the security guard's shoulder. "So, Eldon, Jo and I are thinking about starting a project over in the home ec room," she said. "What time do you do your rounds there . . . ?"
Five months later . . . .
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