Auld_Lang_SyneOrder ebook:  Amazon for Kindle    Untreed Reads
No. 6 in the Kate Lawrence mystery series
ISBN 978-0-9895804-5-8 trade paperback

It’s almost New Year’s Eve, and Kate finds herself at her 35th high school reunion, where she is confronted by The Mean Girls, circa 1978. Worse yet, she’s put on a little weight, and her high school steady is expected to show. Strutter’s teenage son faces a personal dilemma, and one of Margo’s clients is in big trouble. Should auld acquaintance be forgot? If only that were possible.

One

Few things are as unnerving for a woman of middle years as revisiting the high school from which she graduated thirty-five years ago. It becomes especially surreal when, unlike her image in her mirror, the place seems virtually untouched by the passage of time. “It looks exactly the same,” I whispered to Armando, awed, as we stood in the doorway to the gymnasium of my alma mater, Brewster High. “I wish I could say the same about myself.” I struggled to peel the backing off the sticky name tag I’d been handed at the check-in table by Maryellyn Deschler so I could stick it to my shoulder. Her duties as chair of the reunion committee apparently continued to the bitter end.

My husband patted my arm comfortingly. “I am quite certain the changes have been good ones, Cara. How else would it have been possible for you to marry a man of such charm and distinction as myself?” he teased.

How like my handsome Latino spouse to congratulate himself while appearing to compliment me. “Good dancer, too,” I said wryly. I didn’t specify which of us I meant, but I knew how he would interpret the remark.

Despite the fact that it was December 29, 2012, the scene before us was eerily reminiscent of a May event more than three decades earlier when Brewster’s graduating class of ’78 had gathered in this very gym for our senior prom. Once again, paper roses cascaded over bowers positioned strategically around the big space in which tables and chairs had been grouped for conversation. An earnest DJ did his best to cajole the alums onto the dance floor with a barrage of hits of the era. I didn’t mind, really. I’d always harbored a fondness for disco music.

“I’m amazed at the turnout. The committee had to drag me here, kicking and screaming. They pestered me until I finally agreed to attend to stop their phone calls and e-mails, but it looks as if they had an easier time with most of the other grads.” I gazed around at the more than one hundred alumni who gave every appearance of enjoying themselves. “I wonder if most of these people still live around here? At least I can give out some business cards.” I patted the supply of Mack Realty cards in the pocket of my swishy tunic dress, chosen to conceal the eight pounds I’d been dismayed to discover I’d added to my frame in the last couple of years. My partners in our Wethersfield real estate firm would be happy to know I was doing my part to drum up business, though Brewster was located about thirty miles southeast of Wethersfield. I’d grown up there, and it felt strange to be back.

Armando looked thoughtful. “I would not think so. Because this is the weekend after Christmas, many may have combined attendance at this gathering with visits to their family members who still live in Connecticut.”

“Like you do when you travel back to South America on business.”

He smiled. “Exactly. What does this ‘auld lang syne’ expression mean, do you know?” He pointed to a banner suspended in front of the bleachers on which the theme of tonight’s event appeared in huge letters.

“Something about remembering old friends and good old times. It’s from that song they always sing on New Year’s Eve, ‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot’ and so on. Since New Year’s Eve is just two days from now, and we’re all supposed to be old friends here, I guess the reunion committee thought it would be a appropriate.”

We headed for the punch bowl, mostly to have something to do while I struggled to locate a familiar face. I hoped the punch wouldn’t be icky sweet with globs of sherbet floating on top. Even if it were, I was pretty sure from the rising volume of conversation that it was liberally spiked, as well.

“Supposed to be?” Armando queried as he ladled the brew, blessedly sherbet free, into two plastic cups. “Are the people here not old friends of yours?”

I sipped punch and looked around more carefully, spotting a few faces to which I could at least put names. Jean something, what was it? Wetherbee, that was it. And Joanne Salamenta, who’d made the only successful batch of cookies in home economics class, as we called it back in the day. “Some, maybe, but we didn’t keep in touch after graduation. I never understood all this fuss about reunions, especially high school. It wasn’t the highlight of my life, I’m happy to say. In fact, it was pretty awful. What’s so terrific about getting your heart broken and having a bad complexion? Most of us couldn’t wait to pick up our diplomas and get the heck out of here and on with our lives, which I’m happy to say I did without a backward glance.”

My gaze lingered on a little knot of women who stood a few yards from the punch table. I recognized Gail Doyle and Pam Rossi, two bright, acerbic types much like myself with whom I had endured three years of French class. The fact that they were standing together now made it easy to recall they had been great friends in high school. Two uncomfortable looking men, presumably their husbands, made awkward conversation behind them.

“Take those two,” I said to Armando, nodding discreetly at Gail and Pam. “I couldn’t have survived French without them. Pam did a wicked imitation of Monsieur LeBlanc, our foppish little teacher.” I smiled at the memory. “But hey, we were seventeen at the time. We’ve lived twice that number of years since then. They’re totally different people now. So am I, and thank goodness for that.”

“I wonder,” Armando mused aloud. “Is there not something of that innocent young woman remaining in you somewhere?” He winked at me over the rim of his punch cup.

“Not hardly, and it surely wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes after I met you,” I retorted. “I’ll bet you relieved more than a few girls of their, um, innocence, as you call it, back in the day.”

His eyes gleamed, but he remained prudently silent on that subject. “As did your steady boyfriend … Mitchell, was it? At any rate I am very sure he tried his best. Where is he, by the way? I would like to have you introduce me and have him know that it was I you chose to marry, not he.”

“Sorry, handsome, but I don’t think you’ll get the chance. I haven’t seen him.” I looked around again, but no Mitch. The likelihood of meeting up with my first real boyfriend after all these years had been a major factor in my decision whether to attend this reunion, but after all that dithering, Mitch hadn’t even turned up. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Disappointed? Relieved? A little of both, I decided.

“Well, then, let us go say hello to your French class ladies, and I will join their husbands. Perhaps they will turn out to be soccer fans.” He brightened at the possibility.

If it weren’t for sports, I thought as I caught Pam’s eye and waggled my fingers, men would have nothing to talk about on these occasions.

As we made the rounds over the next half hour or so, stopping to say hello to several more former classmates, the pace and volume of the party picked up, no doubt fueled by the unquestionably vodka-laced punch. Dozens of couples now gyrated to the DJ’s selections, and Armando and I couldn’t resist joining in. My extra pounds didn’t seem to hamper my moves on the dance floor, I was happy to note as I boogied sedately to the Bee Gees’ classic “Stayin’ Alive.”

The music triggered more memories, as music always does, and I found myself swapping stories easily with long-ago schoolmates who had lived them with me. To my amazement, I realized at some point that I was having a very good time.

Around ten o’clock I noticed a stutter in the cheerful conversation that surrounded us. Heads turned toward the entrance, and furtive murmurs replaced much of the excited babble. I stretched my neck to see what the problem was and spotted Mindy Marchelewski, Ariel MacAfee and Joanie Haines making a late entrance. How fitting for the Queen of Mean and her faithful handmaidens, I thought sourly. More than three decades had passed since I’d seen any of them, but I would have known that trio anywhere. Judging from the reactions around me, I wasn’t alone.

Armando raised a questioning eyebrow. “The mean girls, circa 1978, have arrived,” I explained. “Those three stinkers inflicted enough psychological damage in their four years at Brewster to keep every shrink in Connecticut in business ever since. I’m surprised they’d show their faces here.”

Mindy looked good, I had to give her that. Blondes often don’t age all that well, my friend and partner Margo being the exception; but since Mindy’s hair color had always come right out of a bottle, that didn’t seem to apply. Okay, meow. I looked for, and was disappointed not to find, the telltale scars of facial nip and tuck. Her shapely arms and taut abs spoke of regular workouts, but I grudgingly admitted that was to her credit. She’d probably never had any children, though, I speculated uncharitably. I sucked in my stomach and took a fortifying swig of punch.

Armando watched me in silence, his eyes amused. “What?” I snapped.

“There is something about this particular lady that interests you. I am wondering what it might be.”

“The spray-tanned blonde?” I stalled. “She interests me not at all, and believe me, she’s no lady.” I redirected my gaze to Ariel and Joanie. They turned away from the sign-in table, struggling to affix the sticky nametags to their chests, and caught me staring at them. I averted my eyes, but it was too late. Mindy just smirked at me and moved on to the punch table, but Ariel and Joanie closed in.

“Oh, my goodness, Joanie, can you believe it? Here’s Kate Lawrence, big as life. Maybe bigger,” Ariel giggled and clutched Joanie’s arm unsteadily. “Put on a little weight, have you, Katie?”

Armando turned just in time to hear Ariel’s snipe, and his eyes acquired a flat coldness on my behalf. Though clearly somewhat under the influence herself, Joanie hastened to cover her pal’s gaffe. “Your cocktails are showing, Ari. Hi, Kate, you’re looking very well, and who is this handsome fellow with you?” She extended her hand to Armando, who took it civilly enough. I took spiteful satisfaction in noting a smear of lipstick marring Joanie’s otherwise perfect make-up.

“Armando Velasquez, Kate’s husband. You are a friend from her high school class?”

Joanie cut her eyes at me and tittered uncomfortably. “Well, friend might not be entirely accurate, but yes, we were in the same class at good old BHS.”

“Good ol’ BHS,” Ariel echoed boozily and wobbled on her stilettos, the pointed toes of which looked lethal.

Joanie got a firmer grip on Ariel’s arm and smiled apologetically. “Too much wine with dinner. Guess we were a little nervous about the reunion. What are you doing these days, Kate?”

I extracted a business card from my pocket and handed it to her. “Mack Realty is my business … well, mine and my two partners. Things have been a little bumpy in the bad economy, but we’re back on track now and making up for lost time. How about you?” I pointedly directed my question at Joanie and ignored Ariel, who didn’t appear to be listening to our exchange anyway.

“I’m an aesthetician at Shear Heaven in West Hartford,” she said airily, then giggled. “Well, okay, I’m a hairdresser, but it’s a really chi-chi salon. Ariel is a style consultant at the same place.” She tipped her nose in the air and made a face before leaning in closer. “Make that a personal shopper, she whispered, but don’t tell Ari I said so.” She straightened up and yanked Ariel toward Mindy, who stood tapping a strappy sandal impatiently. “Catch you later.”

I was surprised by Joanie’s admission of pre-reunion nerves. Mindy, Ariel and Joanie had ruled the class of 1978 in true dominatrix fashion, not that the term would have occurred to me at the time. In the 1950s they would have been perky cheerleaders with football hero boyfriends, elected to the courts at both the junior and senior proms. In 1978 they had been the too-cool-for-school set, skipping classes and smoking weed in the parking lot, supremely disinterested in the rest of us except as potential victims. Tonight they were lean, stylishly dressed and fresh from the salon where Joanie and Ariel were apparently employed, ready to make the rest of us feel like frumps once again. What could possibly undermine such boundless self-esteem?

I stared after them curiously as Ariel and Joanie wobbled over to join Mindy. The three of them stood, surveying the crowd like a pack of she-wolves scouting a herd of antelope; but instead of cowering, as they surely would have thirty-five years ago, the majority of other alums gazed back unfazed. Standoff.

As if he sensed the sudden chill, the DJ redoubled his efforts to restore the upbeat mood he had worked so hard to create. Soon Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” blasted forth.

“What did these mean girls do to their, as you say, victims?” Armando wanted to know as several couples returned to the dance floor. I’d had enough discoing for the time being and led the way to an empty table.

“Oh, you know, harassment stuff, what they call bullying these days. Mostly they just picked on their victims verbally, found a weak spot and went for the jugular.” I nodded at Patricia Connelly, sitting with a friend I didn’t recognize at a table across from us. In high school Pat had been president of the Future Nurses of America Club, and from chatting with her earlier in the evening, I knew she had pursued her career goal successfully. She currently headed the cardiac care nursing unit at John Dempsey Hospital in Farmington. She was fit and trim these days, but in high school she had struggled with her weight.

“Patty was never more than pleasingly plump, but the three witches over there hung the nickname Fatty Patty on her and wouldn’t let up.” I grimaced in remembered sympathy. “The poor girl actually developed a stammer. That’s the kind of thing that can drive an insecure teenager off the rails, and let’s face it, most of us are pretty shaky esteem-wise at that age. Pat started seeing a therapist and turned out to be sturdy enough to get over it, but others weren’t as lucky, I’m afraid.”

“In that case, since there is no one here who is happy to see them, it is indeed surprising that they would choose to return. Why did they, do you suppose?” Armando wondered.

I thought about it, watching the three women scanning the crowd while exchanging tipsy snipes and giggles. At least, Ariel and Mindy did. Joanie seemed less into it, even a bit uncomfortable. For the most part the rest of the alums ignored them, but I noted a few stony faces and resentful glares. I could see that Harold King was among the less than charmed. Harold had been a gawky teenager, complete with thick spectacles and perpetually untied sneakers. He had spent most of his years at BHS trying to make himself invisible and usually succeeded. His shyness—and to be honest, our own self-involvement—had probably been why most of his classmates were unaware of his first class mind, not that we would have cared one way or the other. Years later we learned that he’d graduated at the top of his class from Stanford School of Business and proceeded to make a fortune in the dot-com boom of the ‘90s. Living well is the best revenge, I thought now, but in 1978 Harold had been the butt of one of Mindy’s particularly cruel jokes.

Well aware of Harold’s impossible crush on her, she had played up to him shamelessly for weeks while her cohorts watched and snickered. In a particularly sadistic move, she invited Harold to be her date for the Sadie Hawkins Day dance. Of course, she stood him up. When he arrived at this very gym, believing he must have misunderstood where he was supposed to meet her, he was greeted by the hoots and jeers of Mindy and about half of the student body who lay in wait for him.

To his credit Harold now eyed Mindy coolly for a few seconds, then turned his back on her to invite the lady next to him to dance. As they blended into the crowd and began moving to the music, I was tickled to note that while money might not buy everything, it had obviously allowed Harold to purchase the beautifully cut suit he was wearing and some very successful dance instruction. He could really bust a move. Mindy and Joanie noticed, too. Joanie, in particular, paid close attention.

“Perhaps they regret their former actions and have come here to speak with their victims and make amends,” Armando continued to speculate.

I rolled my eyes at my husband, whose ceaselessly charitable outlook on the human race could be exasperating. “From what they’ve had to say so far, I think we can toss out that theory,” I scoffed. “More likely, they showed up to make everybody uncomfortable, just like they did in their glory days, and to some extent, they seem to be doing it.”

Armando waved expansively at the tables filled with laughing classmates and the couples enjoying themselves on the dance floor. “For a moment or two, but not any longer,” he pointed out. “Life goes on, does it not?”