Reunion (The Mediator #3)(9) by Meg Cabot

I don’t get it. I really don’t. I mean, I know I probably come off as insensitive and maybe even a little weird, what with the mediator thing, but deep down, I really am a caring person. I am very fair-minded and intelligent, and sometimes I’m even funny. And I know I’m not a dog. I mean, I fully blow-dry my hair every morning, and I have been told on more than one occasion (okay, by my mom, but it still counts) that my eyes are like emeralds. So what gives? How come Gina has two guys vying for her attention, while I can’t even get one? I mean, even dead guys don’t seem to like me so much, and I don’t think they have a whole lot of options.

I was still mulling over this in the bookstore as I stood in line for the cashier, the book for CeeCee’s mother in my hands. That was when something brushed my shoulder. I turned around and found myself staring at Michael Meducci.

“Um,” he said. He was holding a book on computer programming. He looked, in the fluorescent lights of the bookstore, pastier than ever. “Hi.” He touched his glasses nervously, as if to assure himself they were still there. “I thought that was you.”

I said, “Hi, Michael,” and moved up a space in the line.

Michael moved up with me. “Oh,” he said. “You know my name.” He sounded pleased.

I didn’t point out that up until that day, I hadn’t. I just said, “Yeah,” and smiled.

Maybe the smile was a mistake. Because Michael stepped a little closer, and gushed, “I just wanted to say thanks. You know. For what you did to your, um, stepbrother today. You know. To make him let me go.”

“Yeah,” I said again. “Well, don’t worry about it.”

“No, I mean it. Nobody has ever done anything like that for me—I mean, before you came to school at the Mission, no one ever stood up to Brad Ackerman. He got away with everything. With murder, practically.”

“Well,” I said. “Not anymore.”

“No,” Michael said with a nervous laugh. “No, not anymore.”

The person ahead of me stepped up to the cashier, and I moved into her place. Michael moved, too, only he went a little too far, and ended up colliding with me. He said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and backed up.

“That’s okay,” I said. I began to wish, even if it had meant risking a brain hemorrhage, that I’d stayed with Gina.

“Your hair,” Michael said in a soft voice, “smells really good.”

Oh my God. I thought I was going to have an aneurysm right there in line. Your hair smells really good? Your hair smells really good? Who did he think he was? James Bond? You don’t tell someone their hair smells good. Not in a mall.

Fortunately, the cashier yelled, “Next,” and I hurried up to pay for my purchase, thinking that by the time I turned around again, Michael would be gone.

Wrong. So wrong.

Not only was he still there, but it turned out he already owned the book on computer programming—he was just carrying it around—so he didn’t even have to make a stop at the cashier’s counter…which was where I’d planned on ditching him.

No. Oh, no. Instead, he followed me right out of the store.

Okay, I told myself. The guy’s sister is in a coma. She went to a pool party, and ended up on life support. That’s gotta screw a person up. And what about the car accident? The guy was just in a horrifying car accident. It’s entirely possible that he may have killed four people. Four people! Not on purpose, of course. But four people, dead, while you yourself escaped perfectly unscathed. That and the comatose sister…well, that’s gotta give a guy issues, right?

So cut him a little slack. Be a little nice to him.

The trouble was that I had already been a little nice to him, and look what had happened: he was practically stalking me.

Michael followed me right into Victoria’s Secret, where I’d instinctively headed, thinking no boy would follow a girl into a place where bras were on such prominent display. Boy, was I ever wrong.

“So, what’d you think,” Michael wanted to know as I stood there fingering a cheetah-print number in rayon, “about our group report? Do you agree with your, uh, friend that Kelly’s argument was fatuous?”

Fatuous? What sort of word was that?

A saleslady came up to us before I had a chance to reply. “Hello,” she said, brightly. “Have you noticed our sale table? Buy three pairs of panties, get a fourth pair free.”

I couldn’t believe she’d said the word panties in front of Michael. And I couldn’t believe that Michael just kept standing there smiling! I couldn’t even say the word panties in front of my mother! I whirled around and headed out of the store.

“I don’t normally come to the mall,” Michael was saying. He was sticking to me like a leech. “But when I heard you were going to be here, well, I thought I’d come over and see what it’s all about. Do you come here a lot?”

I was trying to head in the general direction of the food court, in the vague hope that I might be able to ditch Michael in the throng in front of Chick-fil-A. It was tough going, though. For one thing, it looked as if just about every kid in the peninsula had decided to go to the mall after school. And for another, the mall had had one of those events, you know, that malls are always having. This one had been some kind of screwed-up mardi gras, with floats and gold masks and necklaces and all. I guess it had been a success, since they’d left a lot of the stuff up, like these big shiny purple and gold puppets. Bigger than life-size, the puppets were suspended from the mall’s glass atrium ceiling. Some of them were fifteen or twenty feet long. Their appendages dangled down in what I suppose was intended to be a whimsical manner, but in some cases made it hard to maneuver through the crowds.

“No,” I said in reply to Michael’s question. “I try never to come here. I hate it.”

Michael brightened. “Really?” he gushed, as a wave of middle schoolers poured around him. “Me, too! Wow, that’s really a coincidence. You know, there aren’t a whole lot of people our age who dislike places like this. Man is a social animal, you know, and as such is usually drawn toward areas of congregation. It’s really an indication of some biological dysfunction that you and I aren’t enjoying ourselves.”

It occurred to me that my youngest stepbrother, Doc, and Michael Meducci had a lot in common.

It also occurred to me that pointing out to a girl that she might be suffering from a biological dysfunction was not exactly the way to win her heart.

“Maybe,” Michael said, as we dodged a large puppet hand dangling down from an insanely grinning puppet head some fifteen feet above us, “you and I could go somewhere a bit quieter. I have my mom’s car. We could go get coffee or something, in town, if you want—”

That’s when I heard it. A familiar giggle.

Don’t ask me how I could have heard it over the chatter of the people all around us, and the piped-in mall Muzak, and the screaming of some kid whose mother wouldn’t let him have any ice cream. I just heard it, is all.

Laughter. The same laughter I’d heard the day before at Jimmy’s, right before I’d spotted the ghosts of those four dead kids.

And then the next thing I knew, there was a loud snap—the kind of sound a rubber band that’s been stretched too tightly makes when it breaks. I yelled, “Look out!” and tackled Michael Meducci, knocking him to the ground.

Good thing I did, too. Because a second later, exactly where we’d been standing, down crashed a giant grinning puppet head.

When the dust settled, I lifted my face from Michael Meducci’s shirt front and stared at the thing. It wasn’t made of papier-mâché, like I’d thought. It was made of plaster. Bits of plaster were everywhere; clouds of it were still floating around, making me cough. Chunks of it had been wrenched from the puppet’s face, so that, while it was still leering at me, it was doing so with only one eye and a toothless smile.

For half a beat, there was no sound whatsoever, except for my coughing and Michael’s unsteady breathing.

Then a woman screamed.

All hell broke loose after that. People fell over themselves in an effort to get out from under the puppets overhead, as if all of them were going to come crashing down at once.

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