all the animals in the zoo

nature never did betray/the heart that loved her.

-William Wordsworth

Part I

Helga Pataki climbed the empty football stadium bleachers – it was a cold night for April; spring hadn't come yet to the suburbs of New York. She could see her breath, and Arnold, waiting for her at the top.

            " There you are," he said as she approached. " What's all of this about, Helga? We're missing the crowning of the prom king and queen."

            " You came," she said, still a bit breathless from the climb. She straightened the folds of her fushia taffeta gown – a hand-me-down from Olga; when her sister was crowned prom queen in 1987 the standards of style were a bit different. Arnold looked handsome, if not a bit ruffled from the excitement of the evening, in his rented tux. He'd taken off his tie, and had it wound around his right hand. 

            " Yeah, Phoebe gave me your note," he told her, " Why did you want to meet me here?"

            Doi, Helga thought, but she only smiled.
            " Arnold," she began, taking a breath and looking to the sky – she had to imagine the sky full of stars that was hiding somewhere above the smog and light pollution. " When Lila broke up with you a week before the prom, I was so happy. I skipped all the way home – I couldn't stop laughing all night long!"

            " Gee, thanks," he muttered. Arnold didn't appear to be in the best of moods. He'd come to the prom with Sheena, who'd given him a last-minute pity date after the incident with Lila.

            " Not out of spite, exactly," Helga explained, " Though, in part, its always joyous to see your optimism slapped in the face. But – no! Arnold, this is what I brought you here to tell you –"

            She paused, and he raised an eyebrow.

            " Arnold," she said, " I love you."

            He looked confused at first, but the confusion quickly melted away into an expression of relief. To Helga's great surprise and delight, he stepped forward and took her in his arms.

            " Oh, Helga!" he exclaimed, and for a moment she wondered if she was dreaming. But no – he was unknowingly standing on her foot, and the lovely pain on her toes reinforced the reality of the situation.

            " What are you doing?" she asked, pushing him away, " You're happy?"

            " Yes!" he said, squeezing her shoulders, " Helga, all these years I've been too afraid to tell you but – I love you, too! I always have!"

            Helga's face glowed more brightly than the florescant stadium lights.

            " Arnold," she whimpered.

            " Helga," he whispered.

            " Arnold!"

            " Helga!"

            " Arnold!"

            " Helga!"

            " ARNOLD!!!!" Suddenly, they heard voices screaming and footsteps clattering up the stadium stairs. They turned to see Sid, Harold and Stinky – each in a tuxedo more goofy than the last – running up toward them.

            Helga uttered some choice words as Arnold dropped her arms, turned to the boys and frowned.

            " What's the matter, guys?" he asked as the three boys reached the top of the stairs, gasping for breath.

            " Its Curly!" Sid managed to get out. " He's back!"

            " What?" Arnold asked, trying not to notice Helga loudly tapping her foot. Curly Gamelthrope had finally been thrown out of school that January, after several more-rancorous-than-usual outbursts earlier in the year – screamed rantings at fundamentalists Lila and Stinky when they'd made their usual anti-evolution stink in Biology, loud disruptions during the pledge of alligance and a seven-day fast during his stint with Buddism, which got him sent to a therapist. But the pieste de resistance came in Arnold's economics class at the beginning of second term – their professor had just finished grading their first test, and had the stack of papers sitting on his desk.

            " Not until class lets out," he'd told them, in the, perhaps, sadistic manner that teachers with a bit of power sometimes have. This had been Curly's last straw. After five minutes of listening to the professor drone on about supply and demand as all of the students stared distractedly at the tests, he'd screamed:

            " Its not fair! To hell with authority! To hell with it!" and jumped from his desk. He had run frantically to the stack of papers, grabbed them and thrown them into the air in the direction of the other students' desks. When none had moved to search the mess for their tests – they were too shocked – Curly had begun railing against them, too.

" Why will you not defy him!?" he'd shouted, falling to his knees, " You look at me as if I'm mad – it is he who is mad!" He turned and attempted to point to the professor, but by this time he had already gone to fetch the school security guard.

Curly was promptly and permedently removed from the school system, and was sentanced to three months in a psychiatric ward. But in true Curly form, rather than comply, he skipped town. No one had really bothered to search for him – even his family breathed a sad sigh of relief. The ticking time bomb had moved on.

" So the nut job is back," Helga said, annoyed, " So what? He's harmless."

" Um, NOT," Harold said, still panting like he was going to suffer a massive coronary attack. " He's . . . taken . . . the –"

" He went and kidnapped the prom queen, Arnold," Stinky said, before Harold got the chance to.

" Lila?" Arnold asked, a pinch in his voice revealing his concern. " Oh my gosh – is she okay?"

Helga snarled.

" Not Lila," Sid said, " Rhonda got prom queen this year."

" Oh, that makes more sense," Aronld said, remembering Curly's boyhood crush on the school prima-donna. " I didn't realize Rhonda got the crown – we missed the ceremony."

" What'are ya'll doin' up here anyways?" Stinky asked.

" You know," Arnold said, flicking his thumb at Helga, " Confessing."

" Again?" Harold exclaimed, rolling his eyes.

" Aw, stuff it, Harold!" Helga said, stomping off down the stairs, " This was supposed to be a great, poignant moment in my life!" Arnold groaned.

" Don't worry about it, man," Sid said, " She'll hit you up again at the graduation party."

" True," Arnold said. " But what should we do about Rhonda?"

" Arnold, my boy," Stinky said, clamping a hand on his shoulder. " We know how much you like to help out and all – but I think this one is for the police to handle."

" I guess you're right," Arnold muttered. " I hope she's okay." Sid scoffed.

" Are you kidding?" he said, " After ten minutes of listening to Princess Wellington-Lloyd run her mouth and complain, he'll drive her right back!"

Meanwhile, in a rusty '78 Bonneville that was heading over the cross-town bridge, Rhonda Lloyd was re-applying her blush in the passenger-side mirror.

            " You have lovely cheekbones, darling, you always have," her driver commented.

            " Oh, shut up," she barked at him, " I hope you don't think I'm trying to look good for you." She gave him a look of disgust. " I'm just preparing for all the news crews that will want to interview me about my harrowing experience after they throw you back in the looney bin." She straightened her short, black hair and exaimed the psydueo-diamond tiara they'd given her at the prom. " Should I wear the crown?" she asked.

            " You look more beautiful than is humanly possible even without it, my swan."

            " Ah, you're right, that would be tacky," Rhonda decided, placing it back in her lap and sighing. " I hope you get life for this," she added, " You're making me miss Nadine's post-prom party."

            Thadeous Gamelthrope III sighed. " It pains me to have to cause you any measure of disconfort, Rhonda," he explained. " But I'm afraid to live without you is potentially damanging to my sanity. And I'm sure I can build a life for the two of us that will satisfy –"

            " A life?" she said, laughing, " Look, pal, you've got ten minutes, tops, before my father has every detective, policeman, bounty hunter and militia member in the tri-state area riding on your tail!"

            " There are risks," Curly admitted, " I understand your sentiment – we need to say what we can now. Who knows how this thing will play out . . . "

            " You didn't plan it very well," Rhonda said, rolling down her window and sticking her elbow out. " Everyone at the prom recognized you."

            " It doesn't matter," Curly assured her.

            " Why not?" Rhonda asked, pin-pricked with fear for the first time since plucky old Curly had apprehended her. " Because you're going to drive us off a cliff?"

            " Never!" Curly said, frowning. " It doesn't matter because, Rhonda, before the night is over, I won't be your kidnapper anymore."

            " What will you be – let me guess – my husband?" she scoffed.

            " I don't believe in the institution of marriage," Curly said, shaking his head, " I don't need a 'state' or an 'organized religion' telling me I have to be faithful to you. I will gladly keep that promise of fidelity on my own."

            " Like it would be that hard!" Rhonda said, laughing, " I'm sure you get tons of offers from other women, Curl." She rolled her eyes, " Man, this is so pathetic, it would almost be hilarious if I wasn't the one stuck in the car with you. If you want to call this thing a car."

            Curly sighed. " I know you're angry with me right now," he said, earnestly, " I hope you can forgive me someday for the measures I had to go through to reach you."

            Rhonda opened her mouth to unleash another insult, but her cell phone rang in her purse before she could.

            " You're not going to blow me away if I answer this, are you?" she asked, pulling the little red phone out of her bag.

            " Do whatever you want," Curly said, " The gun's not loaded," he told her, nodding down to the pistol in his lap.

            " Well, Jesus Christ!" she shouted, glaring, " What was the point of this whole thing, then? – Hello? Daddy? Yes, I'm fine, of course. I told you I can take care of myself. What? Oh – go ahead and throw that back in my face now. I wasn't the one who set fire to the boathouse. Well I can't be responsible for the actions of my every accquiantance!"

            " Rhonda," Curly muttered, " Hang up the phone for a second."

            " Ugh, gladly!" she sneered, throwing the cell phone to the floor of the car and stomping on it until it was in pieces. " The gaul of that man! He treats me like such a child. As if I can keep track of every lit cigarette in every ashtray all over the property! Taking away my Visa because of one measely boathouse and a small forest fire! They had it under control in under twelve hours!"

            " Dear," Curly said, " Listen to yourself."

            " Don't tell me I'm a brat," Rhonda said, " You're the one who threw a psychotic tantrum when your teacher wouldn't return your test until the end of class. God forbid the all-powerful Curly waits fourty-five minutes to see his score!"

            " So you heard about that," he said in a sigh, " I don't claim that all of my past actions were without fault. I feel that I've grown a lot since I've been out of school."

            " Yeah, you've moved on to kidnapping," Rhonda mumbled.

            " Yes, I have, dammit," Curly said, squeezing the wheel. " It may be unconventional, but I'm finally moving toward a life I can deal with. I'm taking what I want."

            " Why me?" Rhonda asked. " Why not some idol like Lila? Or Pataki – a fellow psychopath?"

            Curly smiled, " This is working out better than I thought it would," he said, " You're curious about me."

            " I'm just making conversation while we wait for the cops," Rhonda grumbled.

            " You know, you could have greatly expediated my arrest," he said, " I told you my gun wasn't loaded, and you had a phone. Why not call the police and tell them our location, and that I'm unarmed? You would still have time to go to your 'post-prom' party after your stint with the reporters."

            " What do you think, that makes me sweet on you?" she asked, laughing cruelly. " Mabye I just want to give my old man a hard time, did you ever think of that? Perhaps I'm a poor little attention starved rich girl who's surprised her father even knows her cell phone number?"

            " Perhaps," Curly conceded, but Rhonda could tell he still thought otherwise.

            " Delusional," she muttered, crossing her arms over her chest.

            " I can still stop at a phone booth and let you call the cops," he offered. Rhonda considered calling his bluff, but instead just stared out the window. Did she really want to go to Nadine's party? It would be the same old crowd – Nadine, her yes-woman drifting further and further from her as they grew older. Peapod Kid, whom she would underhandedly compete with as they traded stories of European summer homes:

            " Our villa in Rome has the most charming vineyard."

            " Oh, how colloquial! You're lucky – ours is almost an isor in its luxerience – marble everywhere, a home theater, the new golf course – I'm afraid the locals must think us garish! But I'm sure they'd feel right at home on a vineyard – ah, to fit in with the commoners is so underated, don't you think?"

            And what would happen after the party? Her date – that Doug, from the country club, his teeth were awful but his father owned Joyce Snack Foods and his mother was a progressive feminist sculptor – would bore her with attempts at seduction before she would finally be able to escape into her house, to find her parents still out at one of their 'benefit' dinners. Maybe she would sit in the dark kitchen and drink some of her mother's peach champagne, feel the talons of her future closing around her – get used to formal wear, she'd think, catching her reflection in the mirrored surface of the dish washer. Roget University – a private, all-girl's college in Paris, where her mother had 'pulled strings' to make up for her less than stellar grades and refusal to attend a private high school – would be a parade of evening gowns, candlelight, and tuxes on boys bussed in from the other prestigious schools. All just a fancy system of arranging marriages.

            " You'll never feel out of place,"  her mother had assured her, excited about her daughter's acceptance. " And don't forget our trick for avoiding the stench of old Pa-ree – just a dab of clear, strawberry flavored lip gloss under the nose."

            So I'll never experience anything, Rhonda thought, sourly.

            " Mabye I want to smell how bad Paris stinks," she muttered.

            " Hmm?"

            " Nothing," she said, " Once more around the block, good sir," she joked, " What would you say – every additional ten minutes you hold onto me adds a year to your sentence? Let's see how high we can get it, shall we?"

            " It doesn't matter," Curly said again. " But I do think I hear sirens." Rhonda listened and heard that familiar whine – but when were the streets of New York without sirens? They were getting farther and farther from the city, though.
            " I'm hungry," Rhonda said, spotting a diner up ahead. " Can we stop?"

            " As you wish," Curly said, pulling over and parking in front of the restaurant.

            " Maybe you should park in the back," Rhonda said quickly, embarrassed." You're no mastermind criminal," she added.

            Curly shrugged and climbed out of the car, ignoring her advice, " I'm not afraid of the cops," he said.

            " Why?" Rhonda asked, going for the door. Before she could grab the handle, Curly ran around and opened it for her. She gave him a look.

            " Nice touch," she said dryly, letting him help her step out. " I could get used to this psychotic Romeo routine." She rolled her eyes, and they headed for the diner.

            When they got to the door, Curly stepped ahead of her to hold it open for her. Rhonda snorted with laughter. As she walked inside, he leaned forward and stopped her, whispering in her ear:

            " I'm not afraid of the cops because I know that I'm stronger than they are."

            Rhonda laughed and looked at him like he was nuts, which, to be fair, he was.

            " Stronger?" she laughed, " With that puny little unloaded pistol you have tucked into your pants, you think you're stronger than the entire police force? Ha!" Curly smiled.

            " We shall see," he said, following her into the diner.

            They sat down at a booth and watched the cars drive by outside before their waitress came: though Rhonda didn't really know why, she found herself praying that the cops would not pull up outside. She started worrying that they had traced her phone call. She looked across the booth at Curly, the maniac who had scared the shit out of her earlier by walking onto the stage in the gymnasium after she was crowned and pointing a pistol at her.

            " I'm sorry," he had said, " But its time to go."

            She was annoyed with him, but more annoyed with the fact that she couldn't think of any place she'd rather be. Not that she championed a dirty booth in a diner and the company of a crazed teenage boy above all else – it was simply that her life hadn't provided her with the sort of things she had always thought it would. There was little excitement, there were no challenges. It had become a droning blur of drunken partying and shallow shopping excursions. She knew that most people hated her, and that they were only too afraid to show it. She knew that she won the election for prom queen only because she paid Sid $500 to stuff the ballot box.

            " What are you thinking?" Curly asked her. She looked at him and frowned.

            " None of your business," she answered promptly: her canned response to most inquires.

            " Fair enough," he said, looking out the window again. Rhonda didn't buy his bullshit bravado about not fearing the cops. She watched his gray eyes scan the road.

            " Glasses," she said, without thinking. He looked up at her.

            " What?"

            " Nothing," she said, embarrassed. " I just remembered that you used to wear glasses."

            " Yeah," he said, smiling slowly. " I got contacts in sixth grade. Wow! Thanks for noticing."

            " Yeah, yeah," Rhonda muttered, understanding his sarcasm.

            " No, I'm serious!" he assured her. " Its flattering, really."

            " Why would it be flattering that I took over ten years to notice the fact that you got rid of your glasses?" she snapped. " That it took you kidnapping me to make me even give you a second glance?"

            " Because," he answered, with that maniac grin, " You noticed me, Rhonda. I think its incredible that someone like you might notice someone like me in even a hundred years."

            " Why?" Rhonda said with a glare, bothered with his unshakable devotion. " What's so great about me, anyway? What makes me kidnappable? Why not Lila, some golden girl?"

            " Lila!" Curly said, nearly falling over in laughter at the very suggestion. " Give me a little credit, Rhonda. Girls like Lila are only a few inches deep. There is nothing there worth taking, nothing to conquer. But you!"

            " What makes you think I'm so deep?" Rhonda asked, " You don't even know me, you –" she stopped herself before insulting him again. She didn't want to completely smash his little nut-job heart.

            " Because you're in pain," Curly answered easily. " Like me."

            " What?" Rhonda forced a laugh. " What pain?"

            He only stared back at her, a piteous look on his face. Rhonda grew uncomfortable under his steady gaze, and was thankful when the waitress, a fat woman with gray-blonde hair, came to take their order. Rhonda ordered coffee and Curly asked for a plate of pancakes.

            " I thought you said you were hungry?" he said to her when the waitress had gone. Rhonda shrugged.

            " I lost my appetite," she muttered, wrapping her arms around her shoulders.

            " Are you cold?" Curly asked automatically, half-rising from his seat.

            " No, I'm fine!" Rhonda snapped. " Argh, what are we doing? This is insane. What do you think is going to happen, really? You think you're going to get away clean from the cops?"

            " I won't need to," Curly said happily. " This isn't a kidnapping, and you and everyone else will soon realize that, too. Its only the beginning of our lives together."

            Rhonda laughed. " God, you are barking mad!" she squealed with delight. Truthfully, she was beginning to enjoy the whole charade. It was the most interesting thing that had happened to her in years. Curly smiled.

            " I know I seem crazy," he said. " But its simply the fact that I'm in love with you, Rhonda – I've been blind to reason since the day I first laid eyes on you."

            " And when was that?" Rhonda asked, as the waitress set down her coffee on the table.

            " When I first moved here, in second grade," Curly said. " My Dad was working on fishing boats in Maine and had injured himself on the job. We were broke, so we had to move here to live with my aunt and uncle, and only under the condition that we helped them run their landromat. I was depressed – I hated moving away from my home, from my friends in Maine. But when I went to school that first day I saw you sitting in my classroom and it was like the world was alight again!"

            Rhonda groaned and sipped her coffee.

            " You were so strong, and seemed so angry," Curly continued. " I was fascinated. Everywhere you went, you commanded all of the attention. I had never been that way – if I want people to notice me I have to throw a tantrum and act like I'm nuts," he said. " Hence the incident earlier tonight."

            Rhonda shook her head. " So I was a bossy little brat," she said. " And maybe I still am. What the hell makes you think we're meant to be together?"

            The waitress arrived again before he could answer, this time setting down his pancakes. Curly started in on them immediately, and ate like he was starving.

            " I just know," he said with a mouthful. " We're practically the same person."

            Rhonda laughed so hard she nearly spilled her coffee. " Yeah, right!" she said.

            " What?" Curly said, looking up from his pancakes. " We'll both do anything to get what we want. We both crave attention – need it, even. We both want people to think we'll rip their hearts out if they look at us the wrong way, but deep down we're both caring and kind."

            " What makes you think I'm caring and kind?" Rhonda asked, scoffing. " You know that boathouse that burned down? Well, I saw the damn cigarette fall onto the floor, I saw the fire start. I led everyone out and pretended not to notice. I let my father's million dollar boathouse and half of our vacation home burn down, just because I was pissed at my parents for bailing on me that weekend when they promised they would take me to Spain. I'm a bitch, Curly. There is nothing redeeming about me so loose your damn delusions." 

            " It wasn't Spain," he said with another mouthful of pancakes.

            " Excuse me?" Rhonda snapped.

            " It wasn't Spain," Curly said again, after swallowing. " You were – are – mad at your parents because you feel like they don't love you."

            " Oh, please," Rhonda muttered, draining her coffee.

            " Its okay," Curly said. " I've felt the same way since my father killed himself." Rhonda looked up, taken aback by this.

            " I thought," Curly continued, " If he loved me, why would he leave me? Just because he felt that he failed as a provider? I was ten years old – didn't he know that I didn't care about that, that my mother didn't, either? That he meant more to us than any money he might have brought home would have?"

            Rhonda didn't know what to say. Surprising herself, she reached across the table and placed her hand over Curly's. He looked up at her.

            " My mother disappeared after it happened," Curly said.

            " Oh my God," Rhonda said, taking her hand away, uncomfortable. " She left you?"

            " Not physically," Curly said, " But she's been an empty shell since he died. She barely looks at me. I look almost exactly like him, and I think it bothers her. But why should her grief take precedence over her son, who's still alive?" He looked away. " I'm sorry," he said. " I didn't mean to – that is, I think we should know everything about each other, but tonight was supposed to be –"

            " No, its okay," Rhonda said, looking down at her lap. " I'm sorry about – your life."

            " Anyway," Curly said, clearing his throat and quickly changing the subject. " You asked what we had in common – there are plenty of things . . . we're both only children, for example."

            " I read once that only children aren't good for each other," Rhonda said. " Because they're so selfish. And . . . anyway," she said, " I'm not one, really."

            " You're not?" Curly said, frowning, with the look of a scientist who was sure he had done his calculations correctly and yet had come up with the wrong answer.

            Rhonda smiled sadly. " I guess you missed Rachel in your research," she said. " She was my twin sister. Identical and everything."

            " What happened to her?" Curly asked, instantly understanding that she was no longer alive.

            " She was stillborn," Rhonda explained. " But the kicker was, they knew about it before we were born. My mother knew that she was carrying a dead baby inside of her for the last three months of her pregnancy."

            " But," Curly said, " She was carrying a live baby, too."

            " That's right," Rhonda said. " They couldn't do anything but wait for me to be born along with my dead twin. My mother was – well, different after her pregnancy. She got her tubes tied as soon as she could after Rachel and I were born. I think sometimes – I mean, without knowing it . . . I think sometimes she blames me for Rachel's death. Like I stole her strength in the womb, or something."

            " That's crazy," Curly said.

            " Is it?" Rhonda asked with a glare. " How do you know? Maybe I did. I don't know why you want anything to do with me. I squeeze the life out of everyone I touch."

            " Well, maybe I'm the one who is strong enough to withstand it," Curly said, leaning forward and looking at her with an intensity that scared and excited her. She looked away, her heart beating faster, and saw the faint glow of blue and red in the distance.

            " Shit," she whispered under her breath. Curly was already putting his money on the table and standing, offering her his hand.

            " Let's go," he said. Rhonda looked up at him. He was insane. He was a loser with a gun. An unloaded gun – an unloaded gun up against a team of coppers that were racing down the road – she could hear their sirens now.

            But he was actually kind of beautiful. Suddenly, under the floresant floodlights of the diner, she couldn't believe she'd never noticed it. He was tall, with dark hair that fell almost evenly around his face, stopping at his ears. And something in his gray eyes – a promise there, a sincerity she had never been offered by anyone else – something there made her take his hand, made her run to the door clutching it in hers, climb into his car and hope to God that the horrible feeling she had – that all of this would end badly, and with bloodshed – was wrong.

            Curly started the car just as the cops pulled into the parking lot.

            " Go!" Rhonda screamed frantically. He seemed to be frozen – what she'd guessed about his fearlessness appeared to be true – it sounded alright when they were alone, but when the cops showed up, it was another story. A few officers behind them climbed out of their car, their guns raised.

            " Curly!" Rhonda screamed, but he seemed to be panicking – he was sitting completely still, his eyes wide open, a shaking hand unmoving on the steering wheel. Rhonda, deciding that he needed some inspriation, leaned over and gave him a wet kiss on the cheek. He instantly snapped back to life, grinning at her and pressing the gas pedal to the floor. Rhonda yelped with a relieved glee.

            They sped out of the parking lot, but the cops were close behind. Rhonda heard shots being fired.

            " Jesus!" she screamed. " Can they do that if you have a hostage?"

            Apparently, they could. One of their shots eventually hit its target – the back tire – and Curly and Rhonda could feel it blow out beneath them. The car jumped and wavered on the road, veering into the next lane.

            " Damn," Curly said, quietly and with a strange calm. He looked to Rhonda. " We're going to have to run," he said.

            " What if we surrender?" Rhonda begged. " I'll tell them not to press charges."

            " You're a minor," Curly reminded her. " Your parents will still have me put in jail."

            " You're right," Rhonda said, as Curly pulled the car over to the side of the road, the cops braking ten feet behind them. " Run!" Rhonda screamed.

            Curly threw open his door and grabbed Rhonda's hand, pulling her out along with him. They had driven so far from the city that there were woods surronding the small, upperstate highway, and they headed into them, both of their hearts pounding, still grasping each other's hands.

            This is insane, Rhonda thought. This boy is insane. But she kept hold of his hand as they ran. She could hear the cops close behind them in the woods, negotiating between the trees. They were no longer firing – the chance that they might hit Rhonda was too high. And Curly was right – he was stronger – or at least faster – than they were. He and Rhonda managed to duck behind a felled tree after about ten minutes of running, and they both sat still, listening to their persuers behind them in the woods.

            Neither of them dared to speak, but they looked at each other in the low light of the moon, both trying to quiet their heavy breathing. Curly gave Rhonda a look that said: See? I'd do anything for you. It was so painfuly obvious, suddenly, that Rhonda almost wanted to cry. Here was the unconditional love she had been missing all her life. Had it always been there, watching her from across the playground?

            When the cops' voices and footsteps grew more distant, branching off into other parts of the woods, Rhonda moved to him and put her arms around him. He fell easily against her, and Rhonda could feel him bury his face against her neck and breathe her in. She did the same to him – he smelled like the ocean, like tears – salty and beautiful, something Missing that was Found.

            " I'm going to love you for the rest of my life," he whispered against her skin.

Several hours later, after a long time spent kissing each other timidly, Curly stroking Rhonda's dark hair, and she gently rubbing the growing stubble on his cheeks, they stood to leave. The coast was clear, for now.

            " Where should we go?" Rhonda asked, looking above to the sky. The first, barely visible light of day was peeking over the distant horizon.

            " I don't know," Curly said. " I think we should walk back to the highway – we'll stay in the woods, but follow the road. I'm sure we'll come across someone or something that will help us." He smiled, and squeezed her hand. " Don't worry," he said. " Its all going to work out. I promise."

            Rhonda nodded and smiled weakly, though she couldn't help believing that this could never work out. She felt dizzy from the events of the past night – in moments, as they walked, she was sure she was dreaming.

            After an hour of walking and finding no magical person or thing to aid them in their escape, Rhonda was ready to drop.

            " I need a break," she told Curly.

            " No time for that," he said, " We need to get you some food, and a proper bed to rest in. Come here," he held out his arms.

            " What's this?" Rhonda said. " You can't carry me."

            " Why not?" he asked.

            " Its – its just," Rhonda stuttered, not sure what she was feeling. " Its just too much!" she finally shouted. " What's with you? Why are you so perfect? How can you love me so completely? Its all too much to believe."

            Curly only grinned, walked to her and picked her up, hoisting her comfortably in his arms.

            " Before this is over," he said, looking at her, " You'll believe."

            Giving in, Rhonda let him carry her. She rested her head against his chest and listened to his heart beat as they walked, drifting in and out of a shallow, exhasted sleep. At one point, even while listening to its comforting rhythum pressed against her ear, she dreamt that Curly had been shot through the heart, and woke with a start.

            " Its okay," Curly said when she looked up at him, sensing her sudden fright. " Look," he said, flicking his head forward. Rhonda looked to find a dumpy motel straight ahead – Curly had left the woods while she was sleeping, and they were standing in its gravel parking lot.

            " Will they recognize us when we check in?" she asked as he let her slide out of his arms.

            " I don't know," was his only answer. He headed for the office, and Rhonda followed.

            " Wait, Curly!" she said. " Maybe we shouldn't." He turned back to her.

            " It doesn't matter, Rhonda," he assured her. " We're going to be caught, eventually. Wouldn't you rather spend what time we have here, rather than tredging endlessly through the woods?"

            " But, but I thought you said," Rhonda stuttered, " That everything was going to be okay! Now you're sure we'll be caught?"

            He smiled. " Even if we're caught," he said. " Everything will be okay. Trust me." He walked into the office then, and Rhonda watched him talking to the clerk, a thin old man, who handed him a set of keys. When he walked out he held up the key and grinned.

            " Room number thirteen," he said, " How about that?" Rhonda's heart sank.

            " I don't want anything to happen to you," she said as they walked to the room.

            " I know that," he said. " Don't worry, I'll be fine." Rhonda wanted to ask him how he could be so sure. They reached room number thirteen and Curly unlocked the door, holding it open for her. " See? Our sanctuary," he said, smiling.

            Rhonda walked inside – the room was shabby and dark, with two low double beds and a small dresser with an old television set on it. There was a bathroom to the right of the second bed, and through the open door Rhonda could see a yellowed shower curtain. Curly shut the door behind them, locked it, and closed the blinds. He went to a small table that stood between the two beds and flicked on a lamp that was sitting on it. A dim light filled the room.

            Curly sat down on the bed closer to the door, and Rhonda fell onto the other, turning onto her side and looking at him. He smiled.

            " What?" she asked, putting a hand to her face.

            " Nothing," he said, " I'm just happy to be here with you."

            " Right," Rhonda said, her prejudices rising in her. " You're going to want more than that, aren't you?"

            He frowned. " What do you mean?" he asked. " You think I want to have sex with you?"

            " Of course you do," Rhonda said, flatly. " What's the one thing every guy I've ever dated really wanted – no, expected! – from me?"

            " Well, you're right," he said, the words a flattening blow to her heart. " I do want to make love to you, of course I do. You're beautiful Rhonda, its part of the reason I fell in love with you – I'm extremely attracted to you. But that's not what this was about. This thing I've set in motion – its only just begun. They'll be plenty of time, eventually, for that sort of thing. But not today, not until you want it, too."

            " What if I never want it?" she snapped in return, the words tasting cruel and unnatural on her tongue. Curly looked at her, and in his face she saw him seeing into her, seeing that she already ached for him a little bit.

            " Then we never will," was all he said. Something about this phrase made Rhonda want to make love to him instantly, but she stayed in her place on the bed.

            " You rest here," he said, standing. " I'm going to go find a vending machine and get you something to eat."

            Rhonda sat up. " Be careful," she pleaded. Curly nodded, and went out the door, shutting it behind him.

            Rhonda laid back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Her head was spinning, partly from not having had anything to eat for awhile, and partly from mental and emotional exhaustion. What had happened, in the space of six or seven hours? She had fallen in love with this crazy boy, this reject, this criminal? A meanness in her recoiled at the very idea, but something deeper wrapped itself around her heart, and she felt her body glow with this new knowledge – she loved him.

            She rolled onto her side and moaned. It was all too sudden, and all too doomed. She heard the door open and close behind her, and Curly walked over to the bed she was lying on and sat down beside her.

            " I got pretzels, a cinnamon bun, a candy bar and a soda," he said. " I wasn't sure what you'd want."

            " What?" Rhonda said coldly, not facing him. " You hadn't researched it?"

            When he nothing, she turned over and offered a silent apology, taking the small bag of pretzels and opening them. Curly watched her for a while, then opened the candy bar and ate half of it, placing the remains on the nightstand. He cracked open the soda and he and Rhonda traded sips.

            " What's going to happen to us?" Rhonda asked. " You seem to know that everything will be alright. Convince me, please."

            He leaned forward and kissed her. Rhonda sighed into his mouth, tasting the cheap chocolate as her tongue slid between his lips. She felt him shiver when it met his. Dropping the pretzels, she let him take her in his arms, and they fell back onto the bed.

            When he pulled back, he looked into her eyes as if to ask her if she was convinced. She wasn't. The sweet, refreshingly innocent pleasure they got from each other was too perfect – it had to be fleeting. It would be taken away from them, she was sure of it. Good things, perfect moments of pure insanity, didn't last, she knew.

            " You're making me crazy," she whispered as they laid there, her lips brushing his. " You've pulled me into your lunatic world, you know."

            " I know," he said, smiling slowly, kissing her cheeks. " Isn't it wonderful?" he asked with a grin. Rhonda giggled and pressed her face to his chest, holding him tight.

            " Where did you come from?" she asked, pinching her eyes shut against the cloth of his shirt. " You're some kind of angel, I know it. You couldn't have been there along."

            " I was," he said. " I was just waiting for the right time. But I was always there, always with you."

            " That's creepy," she said, laughing.

            " Love is an intrusion," Curly admitted. " Those who can't handle it don't get to experience it."

            Rhonda found tears pooling in her eyes when he said this. She was thinking of her mother. Love is an intrusion – the ultimate intrusion, the two babies growing inside her. The life and the death, the yin and the yang – it was too much for her. She couldn't handle it, she had let it go. She couldn't handle loving her daughter.

            " So, where were you?" Rhonda asked, changing the subject. She pulled herself up and propped her head up with her hand, looking down at Curly. " Where were you when they were looking for you – to put you – in that –"

            " Mental institution?" Curly finished for her. Rhonda baulked at the words: a mental hospital. If the schools' solution to a kid like Curly was a psycho ward, then the whole system, the whole world was insane.

            " Yes, that," Rhonda said quietly.

            " When I heard what they had planned for me," Curly said, " I ran. I hitched all the way back up to Maine, and went to see our old house there. It had been turned into a seafood restaurant," he said.

            He sighed and rolled onto his back. " I don't know what I was expecting to find," he said, " Maybe my parents' ghosts, as they had been when we lived there, still puttering around the house, asking where I'd been. You know, my mother is still my legal guardian, and she had to sign the papers to have me committed." He looked at Rhonda. " She did it without even looking at what she was signing," he said, " Just because my aunt told her to." He looked away.

            Rhonda put her arms around him and kissed his neck.

            " You're safe now," she promised, not believing her own words. " They can't try to take you away again . . ."

            " They can," he countered. " I don't turn eighteen for six months. I could spend half a year there, if they caught me, and by the time I got out – if they let me out - I would be ruined for life."

            " Stop it!" Rhonda said, sitting up and looking at him. " Everything will be okay . . . right?"

            " Right," he said, smiling at her. " No matter what happens, I won't let them catch me. I got away last time, right?" he said, reaching up and touching her cheek.

            " Why does everyone think you're crazy?" Rhonda mused. " I mean, I always did, and maybe I still do, a little bit – but don't they know you wouldn't hurt anyone? Why can't they tell that you're a good person?"

            " I don't know," Curly said quietly. " But I do have a history of mental illness in my family. Maybe they're afraid I'll kill myself, like my father."

            Rhonda shook her head. " We used to make fun of you, in school," she said. " You always – you always wanted to do something crazy, or did something crazy, if you could. Like the day you took over the principal's office and went nuts."

            " I'll do whatever I can to be heard," he said. " Its better than sitting in silence, accepting injustice like another mindless teenage drone."

            Rhonda grinned. " I remember you once saying that you wanted to free all of the animals in the zoo," she said. " It was completely insane, but I was about to chime in – I had visions of peacocks running free into the night." She laughed. " But then – I guess everyone else immediately rolled their eyes and dismissed you." She looked at him. " So I did, too."

            Curly stared up at her. " I've always had a soft spot for beauty behind bars," he said. " I always wanted to pull open the gates."

            " What was it like to be on your own?" she asked. " When you went to Maine – was it wonderful, to be so free?"

            " I wasn't free," Curly said. " I was chained to you, even then. I missed you, I wondered if I would ever see you again."

            " Missed me!" Rhonda said. " But when you were here, we didn't even speak to each other! I had forgotten you were alive until showed up and aimed a gun at me last night."        

            " Rhonda," Curly said with a smile. " Do you really think that matters? Do you think my life would be empty if we had never fallen together, if you had rejected me for the rest of your life? No! It would be sad, lonely, but never empty as long as you were alive, as long as you were happy. But, for as long as I watched you, you were never happy. That was why I did this. Not for my happiness, though it's a nice perk. For yours."

            Rhonda's instinct was to automatically tell them that of course his little scheme wasn't making her happy, but before she could, she realized: it was. Despite her growing fear that things would go wrong, despite her certainty that the whole thing was madness, she was happier than she had been in a long time. Just lying on a crummy hotel bed talking to this boy had lifted her spirits more than anything money could buy.

            She opened her mouth to tell him so, but before she could, they both heard them.


            " No," Rhonda said, pulling herself off the bed. " No, no! What do we do? The motel clerk must have seen a news cast and called the cops –"

            Curly stood, looking toward the locked door and the closed blinds.

            " We've got to run," he said.

            " Is there a back door or a window?" Rhonda asked, frantic.

            " No," Curly said, his eyes still trained on the front of the room. " We'll have to run out and face them."

            " What?" Rhonda shrieked. " We can't! They'll shoot you, or at least take you away." She ran to him and threw her arms around him, and he squeezed her to him, kissing her forehead.

            " I love you," he reminded her. " We have to go now." He went for the door.

            " Don't!" Rhonda screamed, but he was already opening it. He bolted out, and she followed him, running as fast as she could. The parking lot was filled with cops, one who was just clicking on his bullhorn.

            " Freeze!" he screamed. " Drop your weapon! We will shoot! We will shoot!"

            They shot. But Curly was fast – he was rounding the building, which the police had not surrounded yet. Rhonda followed close behind, trying to keep as near to him as she could, so that they wouldn't risk shooting.

            " Freeze!" the police continued to shout, and Rhonda could hear the officers following them into the woods on foot.

            " Stop shooting!" Rhonda screamed, turning back to them as she ran. " I'm not pressing charges! He's my friend, he's my friend!"

            They didn't listen, and up ahead Rhonda heard Curly yelp in surprise. She turned just in time see him go reeling – at first she was afraid he had been shot, but then she realized he had only tripped over a tree root. He landed on his back on the ground.

            Her relief didn't last long – a tall cop suddenly rushed up from behind her, his gun trained on Curly, who was struggling to stand.

            " Freeze!" he screamed.

            Rhonda knew he wouldn't. She knew what being caught would mean for Curly, and she knew that he would rather die.

            He took a step back, and Rhonda didn't even have time to scream when she saw the cop fire at Curly. But once the bullet left his gun, it was like time slowed down. Something in her cracked open, and she knew what she had to do.

            She knew why Curly made her so happy, what he had given her that she had always been missing. Love without condition. Love without resentment, love without obligation. Blind, crazy, passionate love.

            Love that took a bullet.

            She wanted to know that kind of love, not from him but for him. And she did, in that moment – it was so clear that it almost made her smile. Unconditional. She would do anything, and it would set her free.

She stepped in front of him.

            Things went black for a moment. She felt like she had been punched very hard in the back, and she heard shouts, but felt that she was hearing them from underwater. She looked up – a blurred vision of Curly's face loomed above her. He was wearing the most pained expression she had ever seen.

            Why? Rhonda wanted to say. She wanted to explain to him that he had given her life back to her in only a few hours time. She was happy to give it for his – it meant everything to her that she could.

            Rhonda wanted to say all of this, but she didn't have time, and she couldn't find her voice. When she opened her mouth something thick and warm spilled out it.

            The last thing she heard before she died was Curly, crying. The last thing she saw was the tops of the trees in the forest, the early morning sky peeking through. The last thing she felt was a dropping down through her middle, a sliding away.

            The last thing she thought was: Did I do the right thing?

To be continued in Part II

A/N: DON'T WORRY, the second half is already written. So its impossible for me to bail. :) I'll post it in a few days or so.