Things were much simpler when she was fixing things, especially old, vintage materials that most people ignored. Those had a history of tender hands adjusting the delicate instruments and loving minds researching how to improve this piece of machinery. Technology had always appealed to her because of the promise they held, the constant improvement, the progress one could make with a single piece of metal.
Chiara gently pressed the rotator back into place, closing the lid again.
“Try it now.”
Mister Freeman smiled doubtfully, leaning an elbow on the worn wooden counter of the record shop.
“Cheech, that record player hasn’t worked since I bought the place. I know you’re good with machines, but I doubt a twist there and a touch there is going to fix years of damage.”
Chiara smiled, raising her eyebrows and gesturing to the ancient machine. “Well, we won’t know till we try, will we?”
Mister Freeman chuckled, raising his hands helplessly. “All right, all right!” He flamboyantly reached for the button and froze as the scratchy thrums of a saxophone emanated from the speaker. Chiara thrust a fist into the air.
“Bada bing bada boom!” She winked at the stunned shop owner. “See you next week, Mister Freeman. Say hi to Miriam for me!”
He nodded listlessly, slowly reaching up to scratch his head. Holly giggled softly as Chiara bent to pick up her backpack again, throwing it over her shoulder.
“You just can’t help it, can you?”
“Help what?” Chiara inquired, raising her eyebrows. Holly scoffed, rolling her eyes.
“Don’t you go for the perfect picture of innocence, please! You’re such a show-off!”
“I never denied it.” Chiara winked. “It’s Saturday. We should do something fun.”
“You don’t have homework?”
“I always have homework. Come on, let’s go laugh at the fancy people in the Ups.”
“Wait, speaking of,”
Chiara froze. She had slipped. Going a whole Saturday avoiding the topic had been too much to hope for, she supposed. Holly rose an eyebrow, crossing her arms and leaning back against a wall packed full of ancient records.
“How long have you been buddy-buddy with the Collective? Last I heard, they were the stuck-up jerks you always expected them to be.”
Chiara sighed, shrugging helplessly. “Well, they were, when you last heard. But then things changed.”
“Brody. Brody reached out to me and then talked to Jay. Jay pulled off the card and freed me. I sat down with Dante and Oliver and had a good talk about everybody.” She smiled incredulously. “I don’t know; they don’t seem so bad anymore.”
Holly frowned, lowering her eyes. “So…are you lowering your guard now? Are you letting them in?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why were they at your house?”
“Alan almost killed Jay.”
Chiara released a sharp breath, crossing her arms and shaking her head sharply. “I don’t know what’s getting into him, but he’s going crazy! If mugging Jay in an alley last night didn’t prove it, then Leann coming to us begging for help to get out of town does. He’s taking a dark turn and Jay suffered for it.” She shrugged again, sucking in a long breath. “I couldn’t just leave him.”
Holly shook her head slowly. “So does this put you in their favor or something? Does this make you their best friend? You going to get all the benefits of being Jay Newhall’s bestie?”
Chiara laughed sharply, spreading her hands quizzically. “Holly, come on! It’s still me! Nothing’s changing. I just couldn’t leave someone out there to the mercies of someone I used to know so well. And Brody had been so nice to me; it felt wrong to…not.”
Holly rose her eyebrows a little, smiling sadly. “Okay. I just…really want you to be careful. I know it’s hard being the only Down girl at school, but getting involved with the Collective might be a little more dangerous than we can picture.”
Slowly, Chiara nodded. “There’s no one more careful than me.”
“Good. They probably shouldn’t come back to the Downs. Not often, anyway.”
“I haven’t invited them.”
“Maybe you should even tell them to stay away.”
Chiara sighed silently. She had thought about breakfast, even as she passed on the coveted bus transfer ticket to Leann, Alan’s unfortunate girlfriend. It had been beautiful, having the guys over. It was easy. Her mom loved Brody from the start and the Up had started to grow on Grant by the time Chiara and Holly had left. She wondered how her dad took to having strange guys in his home. She could not imagine it being bad. Generally, her dad was pleasantly laid back.
It was not as bad to have the boys over as her nightmares had depicted not too long ago.
She would not have minded having them back.
She smiled a little. “Good idea. Come on, let’s go do something.”
“You name it, I’ll do it.”
“I know, I regret it already.”
Chiara missed her outings with Holly. For as long as she could remember, Holly had practically lived at the Dalton apartment and the girls had never been apart. They had enjoyed many exploits in their younger years, including their first days on the ice. Holly had dared her to join the figure skating team the day after Chiara had learned to ice skate. Never one to turn down a dare, Chiara had accepted and excelled. Holly had cheered her on.
She had been there when Chiara had fallen.
“Hey,” Holly muttered, sipping from the straw in her soda from the side of her mouth as she studied the newspaper in the dispenser by the drugstore. “There’s an art show on Fifth at the Contemporary Expo. That sounds interesting.”
Chiara rose an eyebrow. “Snooze fest. Of course, this is being the uncultured Downs girl that I am.”
“Come on,” Holly sighed, slapping Chiara’s arm. “It’ll be fun! At least the way I look at art.” She winked. Chiara straightened, letting her licorice stick dangle from her lips.
“I am intrigued. Let’s go!” She thrust herself from the graffitied stucco she leaned against and strolled up the cracked sidewalk again, letting her legs swing with the old bounce she once had in her step. The last weekend, when she had first started school at the Globe, she had been utterly exhausted and slept through most of the break. This Saturday was different for some reason. She felt rejuvenated, alive again. “I think I know a shortcut to Fifth.”
“Of course you do. You’re Chiara Dalton, after all.”
“I’m starting to feel more like her. It’s weird. I could even imagine skating again.”
Holly glanced sidelong at her, her lips pursing sharply. “Cheech, I know you want to, but-“
“Holly,” Chiara chuckled ruefully, shaking her head and biting another section off of her licorice. “You don’t have to worry about me, okay? I know. I wouldn’t do something so stupid as to go skating again.”
Her friend was quiet for a long second and Chiara threw a glance back. Holly’s lips were tightly pursed as she walked stiffly, her gloved hands stiff at her sides. Chiara sighed, rolling her eyes.
“It kills me that you can’t skate, Cheech! You loved it so much and that was how you really expressed yourself! Ever since your accident, your life has seemed to go in all sorts of weird directions. Suddenly, you’re not top dog on the streets, Alan is going crazy, you’re going to an Up school…” She shuddered. “Everything about your life is kind of weirding me out. Is that bad?”
Chiara smirked, thrusting her hands into her jeans pockets. “You think about my life a lot.”
“Well, you’re my best friend, Chiara. I think about my friends a lot.”
“I do, too, Holly,” Chiara sighed, shaking her head emphatically. “But you don’t have to worry about me, okay? Especially not when it comes to skating and the school. I’m fine. It’ll all be fine.”
Holly giggled softly. “Oh, don’t I know that much! Come on, the art expo closes in half an hour.”
“Time to run!”
The glass doors of the glowing white Contemporary Expo were shutting as Holly skidded to a sliding stop in front of the dramatically constructed building. She moaned, thudding her fists against the perfectly transparent door.
“No! We were so close!”
“Okay, why were you so anxious to see this?” Chiara interrogated, spinning to press her back to the door, crossing her arms over her chest. “You’ve never been interested in art, as far as I can remember.”
Holly threw her arms open incredulously. “Not the old art, but this is the weird contemporary stuff with all the weird shapes and colors! I want to see how much those plain blocks of red are selling for; I might be able to help my parents retire off of that!”
Chiara laughed, throwing her chin down to her chest so her hair draped over her face.
“Ah, should’ve known. My little Holly hasn’t changed a bit, has she?”
She frowned, throwing her head up again to eye the door as it swung open. A familiar face, smiling quizzically above an impeccable navy blue suit. Oliver Truitt opened an incredulous hand, releasing a soft chuckle.
“What are you doing in this part of town?”
Chiara released a quick breath, glancing sidelong at Holly. She rose her eyebrows. Chiara shrugged and pushed herself from the wall, crossing over to him with a little smile.
“Just wanted to catch the tail end of the show here. I know you’re into art, but what are the odds of us both being here today?”
Oliver laughed, rolling outside and strolling closer to her. “Pretty good, actually! This show is mine.”
Chiara’s eyebrows shot up as Holly choked on something. “It’s what? Oliver -”
He grinned, sliding his hands into his slacks pockets. “Yeah, I put on this show! My work and a collection of small, starter artists. Most of them are in a charity circle, so the Ups haven’t taken much notice of them.”
Chiara cocked her head with a quizzical smile. “You threw an art show for a group of charity artists?”
Oliver shrugged, his boyish glowing in genuine pleasure. “Well, I’m a big advocate of amateur artistry.” He nodded meaningfully over Chiara’s shoulder. “Who’s this?”
“Oliver, this is my best friend, Holly,” She turned to Holly. Her friend stood with her weight shifted to one side, her arms crossed over her chest. Chiara swallowed heavily, biting her lip through her smile. This Saturday had started out so well. “And, Holly, this is Oliver Truitt, one of my school…uh…”
“Friends.” Oliver reached out a hand with the enigmatic, boyish grin that captured the hearts of all the female Ups who read the magazines religiously. “A pleasure to meet you, Holly.”
“Likewise,” she replied shortly, shaking his hand and thrusting it back into her pocket. She nodded up at the building. “I didn’t know you were…well, a big league artist.”
“Ah,” he sighed, humoring her as he threw up his own modest glance of the place. “I dabble, you could say. It’s amazing what sort of titles money can buy you, world-renowned artist being one of them.”
“You’re being way too modest, Oliver,” Chiara mumbled, brushing the sole of her shoe across the sidewalk. Oliver winked at her and she rolled her eyes. “I hate false modesty! It’s the closest thing people get to lying without the label!”
“You’ve seen, what, four of my pieces?”
“More like four million. Your lounge at school is covered with them.”
“Those are the rejects that I was disappointed with but Jay wouldn’t let me throw away. He’s such a hoarder for some reason.” He frowned suddenly, turning to face Chiara again. “Brody told me what happened last night with Jay. You’re okay?”
Chiara nodded slightly, lowering her eyes. She had grown accustomed to Brody’s gentle smiles and concerned glances, but it was still weird for the rest of the Collective to acknowledge her with so much familiarity.
“I’m fine; there wasn’t even a fight. Jay got to a doctor?”
“Yeah, Brody took him home. We’re all going over after we clean up here to spend the night.”
“Well, we should let you go,” Holly hurriedly interjected, grabbing Chiara’s arm and dragging her backwards. “Sounds like you guys are pretty busy here. Come on, Chiara, we missed it anyway.”
“Wait a minute,” Oliver called, spreading his hands stallingly. “I can get you both behind the caution lines. Why don’t you let me show you around since you wanted to see it so badly?”
“No, thanks, we’re good!”
“Chiara,” Oliver sighed, sticking his lower lip out in a convincing mope. “Make her stay. There’s one piece in particular I want to show you two.”
Chiara looked back at Holly. Her friend shook her head violently. Instantly, Chiara felt a heavy pit in her stomach, but, strangely, it was focused towards Oliver. In the Downs, girls and boys had their fair share of good friends and whatever good times their budget allowed. Oliver Truitt, on the other hand, along with the Collective, had a truly horrible childhood. If it had not been for the other boys, the four would have grown up alone and depressed with their lives. Oliver looked truly anxious, longing to show someone new his art, wanting nothing more than to share something of which he was proud with a friend. Chiara wrapped her hand around Holly’s and dragged her forward a step.
“She’s coming, Oliver.”
He beamed. “Great! Come on in.”
Chiara pulled Holly behind her as Oliver led them into the enormous, sleekly designed building. Instantly, she felt her friend’s resistance fade as Holly’s eyes were drawn up into the soaring steel rafters that dripped down into immaculate white walls, all covered with exotic paintings, charcoals, sketches, and pastels. Scattered across the floor in the ordered chaos that only a true artist can understand were sculptures of every kind, of animals, people, with clay, marble, porcelain, every material imaginable. Chiara dropped Holly’s hand and her friend drifted away, eyes wide and jaw slack. Oliver chuckled, throwing another wink at Chiara as he moved to follow her, his hands tucked behind his back.
She glanced up and smiled as Dante trotted down the glass bannister staircase, stunning in a shiny black suit accented by a neon orange scarf at his neck. He grinned in welcome, sliding beside her at the base of the stairs.
“I didn’t know you’d be coming!”
“Me neither,” Chiara chuckled good-naturedly, gesturing back to Holly and Oliver. “My friend Holly wanted to see the art expo, and neither of us knew that this was Oliver’s show.”
“Well, what a coincidence!” He cleared his throat, looking down at his shoes and sliding his hands into his slacks pockets. “Chiara, Brody told us what happened last night.”
She shook her hand in a stalling gesture. “We’re both fine, there wasn’t a fight, and no problem.”
“It would have been a problem if you hadn’t been there.” Dante met her eyes urgently. “My dad…” He smiled sadly, incredulously. “He’s present everywhere, as I’m sure you know. He’s got eyes and ears everywhere and Alan Armister is on his watch list. He’s dangerous, but he has never gone so far as to attack an Up.”
“I know.” Chiara pursed her lips thoughtfully, watching her friend and the Up walk around the displays, Oliver pointing out certain aspects of everything and Holly gradually getting more excited. It was a strange sight, the pretty girl in the men’s clothes slowly opening to the young man in the impeccable suit and confident smile. It had not taken as long as Chiara had anticipated. “I don’t know what’s going on with him. He didn’t used to be like this.”
“Has anything…happened recently that could have had any impact on his behavior?”
Chiara shrugged, meeting Dante’s level gaze fleetingly. “I started school at the Globe. I’ve been thinking about this since he started getting aggressive. The only thing that’s been different enough recently is the fact that I’m going to the Globe. If you think about it enough, though, it could be reason enough.”
Dante nodded thoughtfully, stroking his chiseled chin with strong fingers. “Yeah, the Ups and the Downs have never been so incorporated into each other and their business as now. Your attendance at the Globe is blurring the border, and it hasn’t even been a month. This actually explains other things, too.”
Chiara drew in a slow breath. “Jay’s mom. And the Collective Card.”
The son of the mafia leader sighed softly, nodding a little. “It’s been hard on all of us, but Jay most of all. He hates all of this.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“So, in short,” He smiled gently, bumping Chiara’s shoulder with his own. “Thanks for being there for Jay last night. He doesn’t ask for help, but I know he appreciates it, too.”
Chiara stared at him for a long second before turning to face him squarely, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Why don’t you act like this with everyone else at school? Why do you keep letting everyone think you’re jerks, even in the Ups?”
Dante chuckled sadly, shrugging. “Do you see a difference in how people treat us whether or not we’re jerks? We just do what Mrs. Newhall tells us to.”
“Well,” Chiara muttered, rolling her eyes to glance back at Oliver and Holly. She was laughing reluctantly at something he said. “I’m pretty determined to stop that before long.”
“Yeah?” The Up rose his eyebrows in an expression that read halfway between amusement and curiosity. “How are you planning on doing that?”
“I don’t know.” Chiara turned to walk past him, eyeing the paintings on the walls. Dante turned to follow her. “But I’m a fighter. Always have been. I don’t like to let injustices go, and this school is just a prison. It could be better.”
“I agree. The whole Collective agrees.”
“Than do you guys have my back?”
“As much as we can without Mrs. Newhall knowing.”
“I can work with that.”
“Chiara,” Oliver called from the other side of the floor, waving invitingly. “I had that piece I wanted to show you. Photograph.”
“Ooh, photography.” Chiara raised her eyebrows to Dante and he chuckled. “Impressive.”
Oliver frowned as the two crossed to join him and Holly. “Is that sarcasm I hear?”
Holly laughed and followed Oliver with Chiara and Dante. “Cheech is the master of sarcasm!”
“We had picked up on that much,” Dante chuckled. Oliver stopped in front of a large canvas hanging on the wall in the hall dedicated to starting photographers. He gestured to it, smiling contentedly.
“This one is my favorite.”
Holly looked up at him and gasped, clapping her hand over her mouth and throwing a glance at Chiara. She stood stock still, her arms still crossed over her chest, her eyes narrow as she studied the picture.
It was a beautiful black and white capture of a young teenager in leggings, leg warmers, a sweatshirt that was far too big for her small body, and ice skates. Her ponytail of pale, curling hair whipped around her head as she executed a perfect spin, completely elevated off of the shredding ice with her slender arms perfectly formed in graceful arcs. Her face was set in focused lines, bright eyes wide open and waiting for the correct moment to transition to the rest of her set.
The photo was titled ‘Fighter’.
Chiara drew in a long breath, nodding a little and directing a slight smile to Oliver.
Oliver’s jaw dropped and he threw an incredulous arm up. “That’s all? Chiara, this is you! The photographer was so excited to donate this piece to the expo and, when I saw it, I had to have it. How can your only reaction be ‘it’s nice’?”
Chiara drew in a slow breath, nodding to the picture and backing towards the door.
“I just…haven’t skated in a long time. It’s okay, though. It’s a nice picture. Thanks for showing me.” She smiled at the artist’s confused expression, craning her neck to look up the stairs. “Is there a second level of art?”
“Uh…yeah. Can you girls stay longer? There’s still a bunch of food from the expo and Dante and I haven’t eaten yet. We could do a casual dinner.”
“What about Jay and Brody?”
“We’re spending the night,” Dante responded. “They’ll be fine until we get there.”
“Okay. We’d love to see more. Lead the way, Oliver.”