.:VirtualSalt

The Million Dollar Girl
A Novel

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 11, 2008



Chapter 11

Tina still had not returned from her trip to the bookstore by lunch time, so Amy and Markayla left by themselves for the dining commons. When they returned to the room, there was a message on the answering machine.

“I wonder if it’s from Tina,” said Amy.

“I’ve seen her walking around the campus, but not going anywhere particular. Maybe she got lost.”

Markayla pushed the Play Messages button.

“Hey, it’s Ron. I’m looking for Matt, but he’s not in his room, either. I’m supposed to help him fix his car at one today. But I’m here in the health center with Shelley. She’s barfing and feeling bad. Maybe bad food or the flu. We don’t know. Anyway, I can’t make it to help Matt and wanted to tell him. If you see him, can you let him know for me? Thanks. Talk to you later.”

Amy looked at her desk clock. It was 1:33.

Women of leisure and prom-night high school girls may indeed require two or three hours to get dressed, but your typical college girl does not have the time to dilly dally over a few curls or just the right level of blush. These young women, when victimized by broken alarm clocks, have been known to arrive in class unshowered and wearing hooded sweatshirts to hide their dysfunctional hair. Even with the benefit of a working clock, the late hours and the pressure to sleep often restrict get-ready time to a minimal amount. Therefore, you should not be surprised to learn that Amy, upon realizing that Matt was working on his car alone, was skilled enough to change clothes in an instant. She threw off her sweater and black jeans, leaving them on the bed, and then jumped into some old jeans and a T-shirt. With a rubber band in one hand and a fistful of hair in the other, she put her hair up with magical dexterity. Somehow in the process her shoes got changed also, but this all took place so fast that it is hard to say exactly when it happened. If this scene is ever filmed, it will certainly require special effects and slow motion photography to make it comprehensible.

Somewhere during the flurry of change, there was a brief dialog.

“Why are you changing the clothes that you have just put on?” asked Markayla.

“I’m going to help Matt with his car.”

“Oh, Amy, be reasonable. You do not know anything about cars.”

“Maybe I can learn. It’ll be a good experience.”

By this time Amy’s feet were bouncing down the landing toward the stairwell. “Back later,” she called to Markayla, who once again sighed, shook her head just a little, and went back to her newspaper. “Advertisers find universality in emotional appeals,” she read.

Amy went to the area of the lot where Matt had parked after their outing to Half a Loaf a few days earlier. The car was still there. As she walked toward it, she heard music from a radio and some muffled talking. Her first thought was that either Ron had made it after all or that Matt had found another helper. Her heart sank a bit. Even though it might be great that another, more skilled person had volunteered to help, she had wanted to be the helper. She wondered if that was being selfish.

When she reached the car, she saw Matt alone. He was lying on his back in an odd contortion, his head under the dash near the pedals, his legs sticking out the door and his feet touching the parking lot. He was holding onto the steering wheel with one hand and working with the other hand where Amy could not see. The talking was the result of a conversation he was having with himself.

“How are you going to do that?” he asked.

“Boy, I don’t know,” he answered.

A hand reached out from under the dash and hunted around on the seat until it found a half-empty bag of cheese puffs. The hand fingered a couple and returned under the dash, where a munching sound was soon heard. After another few moments, the conversation continued.

“Can we push that in while we hold this?” There was a quiet grunt, then a soft, metallic klink.

“Ow, ow. Well, that was dumb.”

“Want to try it again?”

“Oh, sure, now that you’ve shredded my finger. Lousy pliers.”

Amy was not comfortable with the idea of people holding conversations with themselves, even though her experience with Matt had proven him to be a pretty normal guy.

“Hey, Matt,” she said.

“Hey, Aim-o,” Matt said, recognizing her voice. Soon he cranked his head so he could see her with one eye. “You haven’t seen Ron, have you? That guy seems to have left me to bale the hay by myself.”

“Ron can’t make it. He called and said Shelley got sick. They’re at the health center.”

“Bummer. Hope she’s okay. What’s she got?”

“Flu maybe. She’s throwing up.”

By this time, Amy had walked around the car, climbed into the passenger seat, and flipped herself over. Her head suddenly appeared near Matt’s under the dash. Her foot pushed against the car to move her a little closer. “Can I help?” she asked.

Even after a year of dating, or rather, hanging out together, Matt was still surprised by Amy. He had never known a girl willing quite literally to throw herself into a task the way Amy would. He knew she was not afraid of tools or getting dirty, because they had built many pieces of furniture together last year in a dusty warehouse. But diving upside down under an automobile’s dashboard was unexpected. Of course, he acted as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world.

“I need to detach this linkage from the pedal to the power steering unit under the hood. The linkage goes through the firewall here.” Then, perhaps not noticing, he changed from the singular to the plural: “We need to remove this retaining ring.” Amy caught the we and smiled inside. “Can you hold the pedal for me?”

“Sure. Got it,” she said with confidence. That seemed easy enough. She had been planning merely to offer to hold a flashlight while Matt worked, but now she was in on the repair itself. The time spent helping her father when she was too young to do more than hold a tool or bring the tape had taught her that moral support, simple companionship, was appreciated enough to make it worthwhile. But being able to help in a more direct way made Amy feel even more useful. She was part of the action. And it was fun to be up close and personal in such an awkward place.

While Amy held the pedal, Matt struggled with the retaining ring. He tried various angles, but his hands were in the way of his work. The small retaining ring was difficult to grab and rotate with one hand while his other hand held the linkage. He could not do it.

“Can you grab the ring?” Matt asked at last, giving her the pliers.

“I think so.” Amy’s hands were smaller and fit better. She wriggled in closer and grasped the ring with the pliers. Matt put his hand over hers to add strength and together they rotated the ring until it slipped out of the linkage.

“Yay,” Amy said.

They slid out. Amy felt something in her eye, so she wiped it, pulled the lid down, and cleared it. Matt smiled, noting a little mascara smear. He handed her a rag to wipe her fingers. Then he walked around to the front of the car and Amy followed.

Under the hood, Matt showed Amy the bolts that held the brake cylinder and the booster to the firewall. He began to detach the components and handed her the bolts as each one came out.

“I wanna do one,” Amy said.

“Okay,” said Matt, handing her the socket wrench.

“Which one? This one?”

“Sure.”

Amy unscrewed the bolt, at first tentatively, then with nonchalance.

“This is like building furniture,” she said. “Only greasier.” She grimaced briefly.

Matt pulled out the old booster drum, asked Amy to clean the mounting area, and then slid in the new drum. He started the first two bolts and then let Amy put in and tighten the others. While she worked, Matt stood back and watched, finishing off the bag of cheese puffs.

“Now this is living,” he said.

Amy turned her head and looked at him. “What, having someone do your work for you?”

“You got it. And by the cutest repairman I’ve ever seen.” Amy returned her attention to the task at hand. “I just wish I had me an 80-gallon air compressor and an air wrench. We’d tighten those puppies up in a second.”

A song on the radio ended, and Amy heard Matt say, “Well, that’s about the worst song you’ve every put on your show. Wonder how much they paid you to play that. Don’t do it again.”

“Matt,” Amy said. “The guy can’t hear you. You’re talking to plastic.”

“Of course they can. Don’t you know the CIA has microphones everywhere, to give sound to the satellite pictures. Even now, they’re probably focusing on you bent over under the hood.”

Amy stood up too fast and hit her head on the hood. Holding the back of her head, she looked at Matt, who was grinning, but trying to suppress it. His weakness was that he could not hold a blank expression very long, thus too quickly giving away his deadpan comedy. Seeing her expression of mild pain, he stopped smiling and became sympathetic.

“Are you okay?”

“I’ll live. And if I don’t, my blood is on your car.” Amy looked at her hand to see if there was blood on it. There was none.

“It wouldn’t be the blood on my car that would be the problem. It would be getting rid of your dead body that would be a lot of trouble.”

“Ooh, you!” Amy said, with an expression and tone of fake hatred.

“Here, let me see.” Matt hunted around in her hair, looking for a wound. “You’re not hurt. No blood. No bump. Oh, I get it. The old sympathy ploy. You’re just acting.” Then, looking up to the sky, as if looking into a satellite camera, “Good show, huh, boys?”

Amy held the socket wrench like a gun and made a girly imitation of a gunshot, as if shooting Matt. Then she went back under the hood. “You’d better just hope I don’t ‘fix’ your brakes,” she said without looking around.

“Don’t worry, Babe. You’re going on the test drive with me.”

“And don’t call me ‘Babe’ either.”

Under the dash again, Amy proved all the more helpful by holding the linkage while Matt pushed the pedal to it. Amy replaced the retaining ring. Matt grabbed a can of spray lube and oiled the linkage. He oiled the driver’s door hinges while he was at it.

“Every time I smell oil, I will always think of you,” Amy said.

“Like an exotic, alluring perfume, huh?”

“Something like that.”

Amy felt happy that she had been able to help out with a task she had never tried before. She liked the new experience. She had learned from the evidence games with her father that solving a challenging problem successfully gave her a feeling of self worth. Now as a late adolescent troubled by a common degree of self-doubt she continued to find that completing a difficult task was a source of emotional reward. She felt like doing a little dance. But, of course, we often disguise the way we feel. Embarrassment is the great evil of teenagers, and revealing the way they really feel would often embarrass them.

“Well,” said Matt, “that really turned out to be a two man job.”

“Anytime you have another two man job,” said Amy, in as deep a voice as she could manage, “remember, I’m your man.” She held up one hand as if volunteering. Matt noticed her hand was dirty. Grasping the hand, he looked down at her palm, which was a little greasy. Taking a rag not much cleaner than the hand, he rubbed her palm. Since his hands were greasy also, holding hers transferred the dirt from him to the back of her hand. The effect was like a magic trick. He rubbed her dirty palm. Most of the dirt magically left the palm and appeared on the back of her hand. Noting this, Amy gave Matt a look.

“Thanks,” she said.

“I was trying to help.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I clean up well.” Then, just as he smiled at her accommodating attitude, she added, “And being around you, it’s a good thing, too.”

“I’ve got some waterless hand cleaner in the trunk. It eats grease for lunch.”

Amy was skeptical, but was willing to give it a try. Matt got the can and told her to scoop out “a bunch” and rub it all over her hands. It felt like grease. Seeing Amy’s expression, Matt said, “Pretend it’s hand lotion. After all, it’s got lanolin in it.” Then he used his hands to rub it into each one of hers. “Mmm. Ahh. Ooh,” he said. “Doesn’t that feel great?” Amy was embarrassed by the sounds of pleasure Matt was making, phony though they were. She pulled her hands away.

“Has anyone ever told you you’re twisted?” she asked.

Amy looked at her hands. At least the cleaner did take off the grease. And she had not even broken a nail, largely because she kept her nails short for ease of typing. But her hands had a distinctive aroma.

“Now I smell like an auto mechanic.” She made a face.

“There are worse things to smell like. Besides, you’d make a cute auto mechanic.” Matt was the only guy who had ever used that word in reference to Amy. And now he had used it twice in an hour. Amy wondered whether he really thought she was cute.

“We need a test drive to be sure the new booster works,” Matt said. “And to make sure no one sabotaged the brakes,” he added looking darkly at Amy. “How about going to dinner tomorrow night and combine the test with some food?”

“Skip the cafeteria? I’m on that!”

“No, the correct answer is, ‘Why, Matt, I would so enjoy your company. What a pleasure. Yes, yes, I’d love to go.’”

“That must be another girl you’re thinking of.”

“Oh, you’re right,” Matt said, rolling his head up to one side as if in contemplation about whom exactly he was remembering.

“Come by my room at six.”

“Yes dear.”

“And bring lots of money. I plan to be very hungry for the most exotic food in town.”

“Chili again? Doesn’t Markayla complain about the midnight symphony?”

“You monster! You wicked, wicked man!” Amy gave Matt a shove.

+++

When she bounced back into the room, Amy did a little dance, with her own brief “doo-dee-doo-dee-doo” song. Markayla looked up from a complex graph in her textbook.

“Correction,” Amy said. “You said I don’t know anything about cars. I know how to put in a power steering thingie. Bolts, retaining rings, linkage alignment, the entire mechanical procedure. And I have the grease to prove it. You, my dear Markayla, are looking at Miss Handywrench!”

Markayla shook her head. “I seem to be smelling Miss Handywrench, too.”

“Oh, that’s just the aromatic hand cleaner.” Amy headed for the bathroom and began to wash her hands with the scented pump soap.

“You know,” Amy added, “I think I like Matt.”

Markayla gave a blowing tsk. “And have you also noticed that there is more light during the day than at night?” she asked.

Amy knitted her brows at the comment. However, she was washing her nose and cheek to clean off some smudges she had just noticed in the mirror, so Markayla did not know that the expression was for her. “You know, Markayla, sometimes you’re weird.”

“And thus does the murderer call the thief a bad man.”

“Huh?”

+++

Amy gave Ron a call to see how Shelley was doing. He was not in, so she called Shelley’s room. Shelley answered.

“You’re back?” Amy asked.

“I’m doing really good. I’m supposed to stay in bed for awhile until I feel perfect, so I’ll probably rest for a few hours. Ron thinks I’m doing well enough that he doesn’t have to keep me company. He’s off somewhere watching a game, I think. Wanna come over for awhile?”

“Sure.”

+++

Amy made the trek over to Hurlock Hall and up to Shelley’s room in just a few minutes. Shelley was alone in the room, the beneficiary of a new dorm with many single rooms. Her room reminded Amy of Matt’s apartment. Chaos. She was propped up in bed.

“How are you feeling?” Amy asked.

“Fair to middling. I think it was a bad piece of fish, not the flu. The nurse said I was probably pregnant. That’s what they always tell me. Same thing last year. Good old, dependable health center. Nausea? That’s morning sickness. You’re probably pregnant.”

Amy could discern that Shelley was not operating at a hundred percent, but the patient seemed to be doing very well, nevertheless.

“Can I get you anything?”

“Naw. Food is not on the horizon, and I’ve got some anti-barf stuff already. So how are you?”

“I helped Matt fix his car.”

“Miss Handywrench, huh?”

“Hey, that’s just the name I thought of.”

“And how’s Matt?”

“He’s taking me to dinner tomorrow night.”

“Some place fancy? Hot date?”

“Probably fast food.”

“Fast food and slow kisses. Mmm.”

“Shelley.”

Shelley’s mention of hot dates and slow kisses reminded Amy of Jeremy.

“By the way, do you know Jeremy Schneider by any chance?”

“Jeremy? Yeah, but only indirectly,” said Shelley. “Why?”

“He asked me out. I have no idea why.”

Shelley looked at Amy for a few moments, her face expressionless. “Well, I’d be really careful, if I were you,” she said at last, in a tone more serious than Amy had ever heard from her. “Jeremy is not known for being a nice guy. I’d call him pond scum, but then again, what has pond scum ever done to me?”

“So he’s one of those notch the bedpost types?”

“That’s not the half of it. Last year the girls next door noticed something strange going on and they thought Jeremy might have something to do with it.”

“What happened?”

“Well, Kristen has a Web cam on her PC so she and her buds can see each other when they do a live chat. Last year they began to notice that the camera kept getting angled over a little bit. Instead of pointing straight toward the person using the computer, it was angled over across the room. At first they thought someone had bumped it inadvertently or used it for something and not put it back right. But then they sort of connected the movement with visits by Jeremy. That made them a little suspicious.”

“Did they find out what was going on?”

“Sort of. Becky, that’s Kristen’s roommate, called David Simmons, the total computer nerd, and he came in and took a look. This is a secret, by the way, because David is a friend of Jeremy’s, since they’re both techno types, so you didn’t hear this anywhere. But after a little cutesying from Becky—that woman is shameless—David took a look and admitted that there was some kind of program sending the camera pictures to another computer, um ‘somewhere.’ We all think he knows where, namely to Jeremy, but he wouldn’t say. He said he took the program off, but now Kristen keeps her computer turned off when she’s not using it and puts a baseball cap over the camera when she’s not chatting to friends. You never can be too careful. They are watching you.”

“That sounds paranoid.”

“Maybe so, but as David says, ‘On the Internet only the paranoid are sane.’”

“So this is one of those cases where nothing can really be proved, but you think Jeremy may have been involved.”

“Jeremy is the kind of guy who makes me glad I have Ron. Matt seems like a nice guy, too.”

“Yeah. I like him. I might even keep him for awhile.”

+++

When Amy told Markayla about the suspected camera incident, Markayla said, “I am sure that is not legal, even in America.”

.



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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com