By Reid M. Haynes
The Main Characters
Ricochet McKnight: A sixteen-year-old Chicago kickboxer whose real name is Richard McKnight. Ricochet climbs the ranks of the teen kickboxing circuits, and also dabbles in bad creative writing.
Keisha Branford: The younger sister of Ricochet's best friend, Nathan. Smart and energetic, she plays the electric violin, and is in love with Ricochet.
Camille St. Claire: Ricochet's beautiful, deadpan ex-girlfriend. Though cool-headed, Camille also likes to unwind to 1980s hard rock.
Nathan Branford: Ricochet's best friend, and an amateur chef. He is a particular person, and enjoys bundt cake and Japanese cuisine.
Nora Queens: Ricochet's trainer, and owner of the Bloody Queen boxing gym. Tough as nails, and a reliable mentor inside and outside the ring.
The snowy mountains of Illinois towered above the travelers like an ice-cream sundae before ants. A sizable number of people were braving the peaks this morning, equipped with sled dogs, skiing equipment, and a few RVs driven by the flabby vacationers. An additional treat for tourists was the lodge cabin at the base of the mountain, where they served hot chocolate and warm welcomes. For the most hardened of hikers, however, a test of courage would always come first.
Ricochet McKnight, top teen kickboxer, struggled up the mountain like a Siberian Husky, blinded by the sun reflecting off the twinkling snow. Bundled up in a snow jacket, scarf, and knit cap, he nearly suffocated under the mixture of blistering winds and claustrophobic clothes. Yet under his flaxen locks, his eyes were locked steadily on the prize: the cozy cabin at the top of the hill, and the end of a long hike. He would not stop until he reached his goal, his destiny...
A hard fist cuffed him on the noggin, knocking his cap off. "Ow!" Ricochet cried, rubbing his head and staring angrily at his assailant. "Hey, what was that for, Boss?!"
Nora Queens replaced the glove on her hand, having taken it off to add more sting to her strike. "McKnight, what do you think you're doing?" she snapped, motioning to the sled he was harnessed to. "What part of this is boxing training?"
Ricochet attempted to raise himself up from all fours, but fell back into the snow with a splat. "Um...it builds endurance?" he tried, favoring his trainer with a sheepish grin. "Yeah, fortitude 'n' stuff!"
The heavyset woman gave him a cool look. "And this has nothing to with the training montage in Rocky IV where he pulls the sled?" she asked, her eyebrows furrowing. "We came up here to get you away from that crap."
Ricochet rubbed the back of his head, his grin weakening. "Y-you don't trust me?"
Nora reached around for the sports bag slung across her back, and pulled out a plastic case festooned with images of Sylvester Stallone. "Then I guess it's an accident we have this here," she said, regarding her discovery with a lazy eye.
"Ah!" Ricochet reached futilely for Nora's new find, straining against the ropes binding him to the sled. "The Rocky IV Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack!"
Nora's mouth curved into a grin as she opened the case. "Gonna watch it back at the cabin, huh?" she crooned, looming over him like a statue of Pallas Athena. "How about I stick 'em somewhere safe?" With that, she flung the two discs in turn towards a large pine tree off the side of the main trail. The makeshift frisbees got caught in the pine needles on the high branches and disappeared under a cloud of snow, forever lost.
"Nooooooooo!" Ricochet bemoaned his ruined Rocky collection with frozen tears shining in the corners of his eyes. He jerked his head towards Nora, seething. "You're evil...!"
The former champion just shook her head, clearly unaffected by her star pupil's fury. "Kid, you're here to train for the Eastender match, not to play movie star," she said, mounting her hands on her hips. "And I'm going to keep you here for the full week. No ifs, ands, or buts."
"Hafta get back to Chicago on Saturday, Boss." Ricochet untied himself from the sled, using dexterity that would shock even Gumby. "I got an appointment."
"What's that?" Nora smirked. "The American Ninja marathon?"
"I promised my pal I'd be there for this thing he's doin'," he explained, shucking the ropes off his shoulders and standing up. "Can't let 'im down, yeah?"
The woman sighed, a puff of warm breath spreading out into the chilled wind. "Well, you better work your butt off 'til then," Nora told him, leaving the sports bag behind for him and meandering over to the lodge. "Get back inside and let's hit the bags. You know, real boxing equipment? Remember that stuff?"
The flamboyant fighter didn't immediately follow, but instead looked off through the rough winds at the city below. The Chicago skyscrapers could be seen just under the horizon; they looked small, like a model play-set. The distance from his hometown gave him an isolated, lonely feeling, stuck on Mount Olympus with a war god for a trainer. As an extrovert, Ricochet needed the touch of humanity to keep from going crazy inside, not to mention the comfort of close friends.
"I wonder how everybody's doin' down there?" he pondered, running his hand through his flopping bangs. "Is Keisha gettin' along with Nathan finally? And what about Cammy? She dumped me and started dating Nathan, and now Keisha's p-oed at both of 'em!"
He looked back down at his knit cap, now covered with a thin layer of ice. "'Guess it can't hurt to take a breather," Ricochet decided, walking through the tundra to pick it up. "Maybe Ricochet McKnight can sit this round out for once."
BOMP! BOMP! BOMP! Camille St. Claire pounded away on a drumset in the hollow acoustics of her basement. Her eyes were glazed, and her glasses were drifting off her nose as she kept to the beat purely from muscle memory. She stared through the smudged windowpane in front of her, the morning sun a kaleidoscope of color slicing through her heavy lashes. Then SNAP! the drumstick split in two, with the broken bit spinning away to clatter against the vibraphone tucked away in the back of the room.
Camille appraised her shattered stick with a grimace, then sighed and tossed it away. She had thought the practice session would help calm her nerves, but obviously she had too much on her mind to put one-hundred percent into her music. The slender teen pulled back her long, blond hair, frazzled this morning due to using the wrong shampoo, and then stood up to pace about the basement, mouthing a rock rhythm under her breath. The rock staples of the 80s usually helped get her thoughts in order, especially Queen.
It had been just over a week since the disastrous discourse at Nathan's house. Ricochet got caught with Nathan's younger sister Keisha, while simultaneously finding out that Nathan had started dating his ex-girlfriend; namely, her. Ricochet and Nathan's friendship was on the fritz, and Nathan and Keisha weren't talking much either. As for Ricochet and herself...
Camille picked up a photograph of the two of them that she hadn't put away yet, frowning at the smiling faces and Ricochet's hand on her shoulder. The picture had been taken shortly after her sixteenth birthday, happier times when their relationship was just starting to heat up. It hadn't been so horrible, had it? Too bad things ended up going sour, with Ricochet and his exasperating flights of fancy, and her own weariness with a boyfriend that seemed to go through life on a permanent sugar high.
From outside the basement, she could hear a halting rumbling sound like a frog choking to death. Guessing she hadn't noticed it earlier due to the drums, the girl walked across the basement towards the noise, plucking out her earplugs as she went. Opening the door to the rear driveway, Camille observed a black, lanky teen with short hair kicking a old car. The guy was nice enough to look at, but his ride was unfortunately a beat up Ford that was on its last legs.
Camille smiled and shook her head. "Still can't get it started, huh Nathan?" she quipped, leaning her hand against the dented metal of the car.
"The stupid hunk o' junk poops out on me every week!" Nathan neglected to look at her, instead diving under the hood with a wrench that had somehow materialized in his grip. "Urg...man, stupid thing!"
"Maybe you should get it looked at more often?" Camille folded her arms behind her back, watching her boyfriend's trials with mild interest.
"I just had it fixed three days ago!" he shouted from inside the car, clumsily clanking his wrench around the engine. "That guy jipped me three-hundred dollars! I even gave him one of my complimentary cupcakes! My best recipe, too!"
The girl peered under the hood, looking at the maze of metal in its shadowy bowels. "Maybe it's that thing over there," she wondered, pointing out a do-dad that was honestly indistinguishable from the rest of the engine parts.
"Nah, it's the fuel injection." Nathan struggled with an exposed wire behind some rusted rods. "If I can just get my wrench over here..."
"But if you'd just turn it to the left..."
"Camille, it's the fuel injection! C'mon!"
Camille reached out and twisted the gizmo counter-clockwise. With a jolt, the engine broke out of its stalled stuttering and, just like The King's Speech, started piping up with cool confidence. Nathan looked wide-eyed at Camille, while her own gaze remained cool and frosty. "Like I said, to the left," she finished, allowing a light smirk to slip onto her lips as she crossed her arms easily.
"Hmph!" Nathan pocketed his wrench in defeat and walked over to a folding chair in the backyard, slumping down in it with a huff. "So I'm not the mechanical type. I'm a chef, not a grease monkey!"
Camille slipped behind him and began massaging his shoulders. "You guys are such babies," she said, making circular 'wax on, wax off' motions with her hands. "Go berserk at every little hiccup."
"Mmmmm..." The boy seemed to be falling asleep under the cool caress of Camille's deft digits. "You're pretty good at this, Camille."
"You're sort of tense around the shoulder blades," she mentioned, moving over to the aforementioned area. "Let me guess: grief over Ricochet?"
"Rrrph, Ricochet...!" At the utterance of the 'R word', Nathan's tendons tightened up, forcing Camille to work double-time to ease out the tension. "Can't believe that guy, messin' around with Keisha!"
"We screwed him over too when we started dating," she reminded him, tapping her finger on his collar bone. "'Maybe we could've waited a few more weeks after I broke up with him."
"But we were partners in lab all through 10th Grade, and study buddies even earlier," Nathan argued, tossing a look behind him. "This is my sister we're talkin' about, and Ricochet just horns in with no shame at all!"
"Hmmmm...." Camille didn't respond, but continued to give Nathan the rub-down, waiting for him to continue.
"Ffft, I bet he was hangin' around all this time to snag Keisha the moment my back was turned!" The boy baker glanced angrily over to the side. "I shoulda figured that out from that lock of hair he keeps coloring, and that goofy way he smiles..."
Keisha Branford innocently walked down the sidewalk, heedless of any dangers lurking in the Chicago night. Little did she know that there was a conniving pimp by the name of Ricochet McKnight, cruising the streets for easily corrupted young lasses. As Keisha turned the corner, she was greeted by none other than the slick operator himself, driving a black Sedan that was bouncing up and down on hydraulics for the sake of this fantasy. A wide-rimmed hat adorned his slicked-back hair, and a set of gold chains dangled from his neck.
"Hey well, I'm a friendly stranger in a black Sedan," Ricochet sang, propping his forearm on the window. "Won't you hop inside my car?"
Keisha was all smiles and eagerness as she slipped into the passenger seat. And a mere five minutes later, she had totally become a slut and was wearing all sorts of inappropriate outfits, beating out Lindsey Lohan for the October cover of Star magazine.
"See?" Nathan pointed at the above paragraph. "Just like that!"
Camille rolled her eyes. "Vehicle, Nathan?" she groaned.
"What?" He looked back at his girlfriend with an open, innocent face. "I love The Ides of March."
She slapped Nathan on the back soundly. "Ricochet is harmless," Camille told him, abandoning the massage to walk over to the side of the car. "The only way he'll hurt your sister is by talking her to death."
"Maybe," he relented, pulling out the keys to the Ford and unlocking it. "But he really is a weird piece of work, and it's hard to just deal. I mean, he's still seeing her, and Keisha and me are still fighting! We practically divided the house into an east and west wing, a Nathan and Keisha wing!"
"Maybe everyone needs to just deal sometimes," Camille murmured half to herself, climbing into the rickety old roadster with Nathan. "And deal in the right way."
And so it went as Camille and Nathan began their morning rounds in downtown Chicago. Camille soon figured out that transitioning from Ricochet McKnight to Nathan Branford meant trading trips to the sporting goods store for two-hour excursions at the local bakery. Nathan was particularly manic about the differences between store bought icing and homemade. A point he insisted on making with the store clerk, for about five minutes straight.
"I can't believe they kicked me out for making a scene!" Nathan complained as he stalked out of the store. "Anybody could see that icing was two days past its expiration date!"
"What I can't believe is how I always choose such weird boyfriends..." Camille muttered, shoving her hands in her pockets.
"Gimme a break, Camille." The boy started thumbing through his wallet, as the stereotypical fly buzzed out from between its leather folds. "I need the best ingredients for the Chicago Under-18 Bake-Off this week, and since I'm low on dough, I have to get it on the cheap. I'm not rich like your last boyfriend, who shall remain nameless."
"Everybody loves your stuff, Nathan." Camille peered sideways at him. "You're making a mountain out of a molehill."
"Just promise me you'll be there on Saturday," Nathan pleaded, grabbing her by the shoulders. "I'm a nervous wreck. Ricochet's out of the question, and Keisha's obviously doesn't care, so I just want someone on my side at this thing."
"You really need to square things with your sister," Camille reprimanded him with a grimace. She then sighed. "Yeah, I'll be there."
"Thanks, Camille." Nathan graced her with a quick kiss on the cheek, which brought a small smile unbidden to her face. He then walked over to his car sitting on the side of the street, with two minutes left on the parking meter. "We're gonna hit the bagel shop over on Eastside," he said, sliding into the seat and starting up the engine. "It's the only other place that's got the icing I need."
"Gonna bail on you this time, Nathan," she told him, slinging her pocketbook over her shoulder. "Unless you're picking up burger buns, I gotta be at the malt shop in thirty."
"You need a ride?" Nathan poked his head and elbow out of the car.
"It's just a few blocks from here." Camille shrugged simply, and whipped out her iPod. "In any case, I got this for the road."
Nathan grinned toothily. "That's thing's gonna fry your eardrums, the way you use it," he commented as he started to pull into the street.
"Just pick me up around seven," she told him, ignoring the dig as she fiddled with the device. "We'll hit the bookstore for that Thomas Jefferson dragon-slaying book."
The chef pulled his head back inside the car and tossed a wave out the window. "Hey, I'm your vehicle, baby!"
Nathan's Ford put-putted down the road, leaving a smokescreen of black, noxious fumes in its wake. It disappeared around a barber shop, and soon Camille was alone, surrounded by loose trash and pedestrians floating around her. With iPod in hand, she began the two block trek to the malt shop, fitting her earbuds in their designated spots. She fired up Bohemian Rhapsody and was awash in a torrent of piano and synchronized vocals, losing touch with the world around her, but still in tune with her inner voice, and the events of this past week.
Nathan had been on edge for the last three days, ever since the big names on the amateur chef circuit announced their entry for the Chicago Under-18 Bake-Off. At least two of the competitors had her boyfriend pretty spooked, and the running feud he had with both his sister and best friend didn't help matters either. The official story was that Nathan refused to be in the house at all when Ricochet picked up Keisha for their dates, like they were from opposing countries, or at least opposing football teams. Compounding this was the Branford siblings' reputed refusal to share a bathroom, a TV, and even a toaster if they could help it.
Who buys two toasters in a nuclear family? Camille groused, her fingers stroking the smooth surface of her iPod. I wonder how long they're going to keep this up?
Because of the music and her musings, she didn't notice the smaller girl in her path until she had slammed right into her. "Ooof!" Struggling to hold onto her iPod, Camille took a step back and prepared to apologize, but was instead struck by how familiar the girl looked, especially the twin ponytails.
Speak of the devil. It was Keisha Branford, wearing a jacket and jeans in lieu of her school uniform. She was hauling around a medium-sized duffel bag, so Camille guessed she was headed to the dance class she remembered Nathan mentioning a few times. She thought she could see a headband drifting out of an unzipped side pocket.
This was the first time Camille had seen her since the blowup at Nathan's house, and she tried to make nice, even taking the headphones out of her ears. "Hey, Keisha..." she started, going for a smile that was maybe a little warmer than her usual smirk.
Keisha pulled a baton out of nowhere and made as if to bludgeon Camille over the head with it.
"Whoa, kid!" Camille cried, backing up and presenting her hands palms-down in a gesture of surrender. "Peace, okay?"
"I'm not a kid," Keisha snapped, the whites of her eyes shining like pearls. "I'm only two years younger than you."
"Closer to three, actually," Camille rejoined, holding up the appropriate amount of fingers.
"Huh?" This seemed to catch the shorter girl off guard, and she lowered her baton a fraction.
"One year older than Ricochet." The blond rocker smiled more naturally this time; that is, she smirked.
"Yeah, but I don't wanna talk to you." Keisha tried to maneuver around Camille, and ended up shoving her way past in a temperamental huff. "I gotta get to dance class."
v"Running away from the big, bad ex-girlfriend?" Camille taunted, fiddling with her headphones like a cat batting on a string. "Not much of a rival, are you?"
"I got him away from you fair and square!" Keisha whirled around on Camille, her fingers rolling into fists. "And you dumped him for my brother anyway!"
"So that means there's no reason we can't be friends, right?" Camille cocked an eyebrow, folding her arms confidently. Keisha remained suspicious, however, and cocked an eyebrow right back.
Camille wasn't deterred, and walked right up to Keisha, moving around the party of four headed into the restaurant beside them. By coincidence, the two girls were right in front of the malt shop where Camille worked, and where Ricochet and Keisha had their first date. "Hey, Keisha, come in for a sec and get a burger," Camille offered, gesturing at the open door. "It's ten minutes 'til my shift, and I have enough money on me for two singles."
Keisha's eyes widened in surprise, struck speechless by the invitation.
Camille smiled. "I promise I won't get you the kiddie meal," she said.
The two young ladies ended up occupying a booth next to the window overlooking the street corner. The view outside wasn't much more than slow-moving traffic, but the air conditioning was refreshing, and the lunchtime rush was still thirty minutes away, so the place wasn't crowded. A speckle-faced girl with brown hair arrived with a sandwich for Camille and a burger for Keisha, along with two chocolate shakes. Her eyes were bleary and unfocused, like she had been on the job for ten hours.
"You wanna be wastin' time again, Cammy?" the girl warned, shucking the empty tray under her arm. "The boss'll have kittens if you're caught loafin'."
"It's just for fifteen minutes, Margaret." Camille picked up her sandwich and analyzed it for sufficient pickle-age. "I've been working overtime the past five days, anyway."
The brunette just shook her head, and walked off towards the counter to await the next order. Keisha looked up from her shake briefly to watch her go. "Wow, they really don't trust you much, do they?" she observed, glancing back down at the burger on her plate.
"The guys here knew me back in my rougher days," Camille explained, resting her arm on the edge of the booth. "I used to scrap in this place two times a month. Your boyfriend, too."
"Ricochet's too cool to go around beatin' people up," Keisha insisted, taking a long slurp from her shake.
Camille smiled and leaned forward. "He and I were a lot alike back then," she told the younger girl. "You wouldn't know this, but three years ago, we were pretty much bored, rich snobs, and we thought we could get away with anything. Ricochet was a rockin' good brawler, and pretty hot too, compared to all the other losers in junior high. Time passed, and I grew up, and Ricochet grew...into whatever he is now, I guess."
"So you don't like him anymore because he got cool?" Keisha glared at her, squeezing the burger in her grip. "That's lame, Camille!"
"Did I say I didn't like him anymore?" Camille replied, inwardly grinning at the confusion this brought to Keisha's face. She brushed a stray lock of hair our of her eyes. "The truth is, I love him. He's a great guy, and he really cares about his friends. Ricochet's just hard to deal with nowadays, and after ten months of him talking about that crossover story of his with Rocky and Once Upon a Time in China, it got a little tiring."
"I'd never let 'im go," Keisha stated, looking away. "You don't know what's it's like being the baby in your family. I get a lot of attention, but Mom, Dad, and Nathan kinda treat me like a kid, no matter how good I do in my classes or how responsible I am. Then Ricochet gave me a chance, and I don't have to sit on the side when he and Nathan go to the gym, doin' all the cool stuff." She put down her burger and clutched her hands to her chest. "I like him so much..."
"Then why don't you take care of him for me?" Camille interjected, making an open-palm gesture like she was presenting the the girl with a gift. "That goofball needs a ringmaster for his circus act."
"Hey, don't patronize me!" Keisha was all huffy again, pushing her shake to the side. "And Ricochet is not a goof!"
The willowy blonde chuckled. "I'm not patronizing you," she clarified, setting the sandwich back on her plate. "If you got something to prove, and if you don't mind his mood swings, then you're just the girl Ricochet needs."
Camille looked her straight in the eye. "What do you say, Keisha?" she challenged. "Are you woman enough to take my place?"
"I will!" Keisha met her gaze fiercely. "Don't worry, I will."
As if to accentuate this, she took a monster bite of her burger and washed it down with a big gulp of milkshake. Camille couldn't help but grin when Keisha wiped the milk mustache off her face like blood from a busted lip.
Looking back at her lunch, the older girl saw that her milkshake was critically low. A case of the munchies attacked her, and she decided to head back to the counter for a refill. She had almost scooted to the edge of the booth when another chocolate shake miraculously appeared on the table, placed by a large, meaty hand that could've belonged to a god. Camille looked up to examine her mysterious benefactor, but was hit with disappointment as she locked eyes with the very un-godly Jarrod, together with two of his teammates from P.S. 114.
"I caught up with you little girls just in time!" he crowed, the milk mustache on his lip recalling Dirk Dastardly from Wacky Races. "And now you're trapped until we figure out what to do with ya!"
Camille took a moment to appraise the small group, then slumped her face in her hand. "Seriously, Jarrod?" she moaned, holding back the reflexive yawn. "You're really gonna pull this now?"
"Yeah, what's up with you guys?" Keisha added, glaring at them. "Cut it out!"
"You're the one that rejected my rugged good looks!" Jarrod snapped, addressing the ponytailed girl whom he had hit on the previous week. "And your stupid boyfriend McKnight keeps on kicking my ass whenever I made the moves on either of you!"
"'Cause you keep bothering people," Camille reminded him with a frown. "I'm with Ricochet on this one."
"Yeah, but me and my mates are proud members of the Male Beneficiary League of P.S. 114!" he barked, motioning to his two fellow players. "And as members, we're entitled to no-questions-asked hotness from all babes in the Chicago area!"
"Do you have a blog or somethin'?" Keisha intoned, punctuating her speech with a wave of her finger. "You gotta have a blog if you wanna start an activist group!"
"What...no, I hate computers!" The jock waved his hands about as if in a panic. "Look, you girls aren't leaving until we get one date from each of you! Football practice was cancelled, so we can wait here all day!"
"You do know that Ricochet taught me pretty much everything I know about fighting. right?" she said, drawing her hand off her cheek to place it on the table.
"Huh?" Jarrod's eyebrow twitched.
Camille stuck out a leg and whipped it around in a sweep that knocked the large jock clear off his feet. Before the surprise attack could completely register with the group, the blonde was already out of the booth with her dukes up; a close approximation of Ricochet McKnight's ready stance. On her left, one of the other jocks had recovered enough to attempt a clumsy punch, which Camille swooped under as she prepared one of her own. With her hair trailing behind her like a torrent, she sent her opponent a right-cross that left him sprawled on his back and out of commission, leaving her just enough time to spin around with a kick to the still stumbling Jarrod, ending the redhead's attempt to get back on his feet.
Still locked in combat mode, Camille whirled to her right to observe the last goon advancing on Keisha, a splotchy-faced boy with about seventy pounds on the smaller girl. "I'll teach out a lesson, then you'll go out with me!" he babbled through broken teeth, backing her up across the length of the restaurant.
"Um, lessee!" Keisha stammered, as her assailant bore down on her with a fist the size of a small gourd "You're supposed to keep the guy from hitting ya like this..."
She watched until the punch came, then ducked under it. Her eyes flashed.
"And then you hit back REALLY HARD!" she yelled, coming back up with a arcing, roundhouse punch. The jock's head turned a full ninety-degrees, and a glob of spit shot out of his mouth as he groaned and tried to regain balance. It didn't work, as his legs soon buckled beneath him and left the boy in a crumpled heap at Keisha's feet. "Gurk!" he choked out, raising his head briefly to deliver this quick message, then slumped back down to the floor in blissful slumber.
Keisha turned back to Camille and flashed the 'peace' sign. "Ricochet taught me that one, too!" she told the other girl, adding a grin and wink for good measure.
Camille smiled in kind, putting her hand on her hip. "You're learning."
The two observed their handiwork as Margaret arrived with a broom to sweep the unfortunate refuse away. "So, Keisha," Camille started, guiding the girl with a hand on her back as they walked towards the counter to get another shake. "About your brother's Bake-Off..."
On Saturday night, a snaking series of cars was moving up the road to P.S. 114's gymnasium, along with an equally impressive amount of people clamoring outside for a ticket. It was time for the Chicago Under-18 Bake-Off, which was being held at Ricochet and Nathan's school due to so many competitors coming from the cooking classes. Actually, there were chefs competing from all over Chicago, ranging from ages fifteen to eighteen, and including a Swedish exchange student and a sixteen-year-old college student. And of course, P.S. 114's own Nathan Branford was ready to take the world by storm, together with fellow chef Redd Blair, who was set to arrive any minute.
"Where is that jerk?" Nathan harrumphed, looking around in an attempt to pick out the missing Redd from the crowd. "He's late again?"
"Don't you usually have trouble like this with Blair?" Camille queried, hugging her jacket closer to her chest. "I don't think he's ever been on time for anything in his life."
"He's the only amateur cook that matches up with what I've got in mind," he explained. "And it's usually easy to get him to work with me by letting him have a little of my Danish Dervish."
"Kinda a pig, isn't he?" Camille commented, remembering Blair's appetite for foreign cuisine.
The premise of the Chicago Bake-Off was that it was a paired affair. Five teams of two people each would have forty-five minutes to prepare a bundt cake on the ovens set out across the floor of the gym. Since time was so short, both participants would have to divide the duties between themselves and synchronize their preparations perfectly. With bundt being Nathan's specialty, he had an edge, but still needed the right partner in order to pull it off without a hitch.
Three minutes passed, and Nathan was getting more antsy. "It's almost tiiiiime..." he hissed, wobbling about on his heels in a matter Camille had learned was a nervous tic of his.
"We still have forty-three minutes," she said, checking the time on her iPod.
"Yeah, but we need at least fifteen to prep and plan," Nathan huffed, leaning against the side of the gymnasium. "I got all the ingredients together, but I can't do this team thing all by myself."
"That sucks," Camille agreed, pushing her glasses up her nose. "I'd help you if I could, but I only made that one cake with you."
"Yeah, we burned it." Nathan kicked at the ground, pouting.
Camille reached out to comfort him, but hesitated when she heard a light pattering sound like an Olympic track runner. Huffing and puffing in the cool night air, Keisha ran into the yellow glow of the streetlamp, skidding to a stop behind them. "I just got my ticket," she huffed, smoothing out the sleeves of her jacket. "You guys ready yet?"
"What're you doing here?" Nathan walked up to the younger Branford, casting a dark shadow over her. "Since when do you care about my cooking?"
"Can't a nice sister support her brother?" Keisha replied, in a tone that wasn't all that supportive. "Besides, Mom still makes you go to my dance recitals."
"Yeah, all ten thousand of them," Nathan grumbled, turning his back on the girl.
Camille swallowed a curse as she stood back and watched the battling Branfords. She didn't know what she was doing asking Keisha to go Nathan's competition, but it looked like they were going to go back to the same squabbling that characterized the entire week. Nathan was already juiced up with nervous energy thanks to the absent Redd Blair, but Keisha's arrival was pouring salt on his wounds rather than salve. Last time I try and play mediator.
"Look, let's just get out of the cold and find a seat," she interrupted finally, making as if to head into the gym. "Blair will probably head straight to your table, and we'll be able to see him from the bleachers."
Camille was relieved when Nathan and Keisha reluctantly followed, though they still refused to look at each other, fixing their eyes straight ahead like automatons. Together, the three stepped through the double doors of the gym, and quickly got lost within the crowd. Hopefully, the bad blood between the Branford siblings would get lost as well.
Camille was wrong again.
"And if you would just take your head outta the clouds, you'd see you're too much of a spaz for Ricochet!" Nathan was hollering, going straight for his sister's jugular.
"Says you!" Keisha shot back, stiffening up in a refusal to be cowed. "You're the one that secretly watches Muppet Babies when you think no one's lookin'!"
"That was six years ago!" he hissed, while looking around to see if anybody had heard about his hidden Muppet shame. "And that's only because you kept playing it over and over until you wore out the VHS tape!"
"You just watch 'cause you're a big nerd!" Keisha was leaning almost completely over Camille as she yelled at her brother. "You're like the Scooter to my Skeeter!"
"Skeeter's not even a real Muppet!" The young chef threw his hands in the air. "She's a tacked-on tumor, just like you!"
Camille, for her part, just slumped her head in her hand, caught between the two siblings as they threw insults over her like she was the border between warring countries. It only took five minutes for Nathan and Keisha to break out into a Ricochet-related argument; she lost track of the dialogue when it shifted to Muppet Babies. Her headphones were of little use, as the Branfords' private discussion was loud enough to completely drown out AC/DC. Judging by the angry looks coming from the other spectators in the bleachers, the trio was quickly becoming the center of attention.
As the bickering continued, Keisha reached into her box of Raisinets. "Nathan, you're just a shriveled up spoilsport!" she declared, tossing a Raisinet at him to punctuate the point.
Not to be outdone, Nathan reached for a bag of malted milk balls. "Better than being a saccharine little shrimp!" he retorted, bouncing a milk ball off her forehead.
The two continued like this for several moments as they threw candy at each other, much of it landing on Camille and the other members of the audience. At this point, Camille felt it was time to step in. "Hey guys, I thought of something to help fix all this," she suggested, causing the siblings to cease fire for the moment. As Camille crooked her fingers, Nathan and Keisha leaned forward, with their heads almost touching. Then, their heads were touching, as Camille grabbed them and knocked them together.
"OW!!!" Nathan and Keisha wailed, cringing in pain. From three seats up in the bleachers, someone started clapping.
"Now shut up, both of you!" she snapped, glaring at the two of them as they rubbed their noggins. "I came here to cheer for Nathan, but all you two want to do is fight about my ex-boyfriend! If I started this little war by breaking up with Ricochet, than I'm sorry, alright? But I'm sick of hearing about him, and I'll call this whole relationship off if you two can't settle this!"
"Camille, I can't do anything else!" Nathan cried, letting the malted milk balls drift off his lap onto the bleachers below. "She's just throwing herself out there like a big target!"
"Ricochet hasn't taken advantage of me!" Keisha shouted, almost near tears. "He's been a complete gentleman the entire time we've dated, and for the last three years too! And I like that! Why can't you just be happy for me?"
"Because I'm your big brother!" Nathan exclaimed, grabbing her shoulder tightly. "I still have to look out for you!'"
"I know that!" Keisha yelled back, her eyes alight with frustration. "Just trust me a little more, okay? I'm not gonna do something dumb with Ricochet, like get pregnant or whatever you're thinking about. I learned everything about taking care of myself from you."
The air between the Branfords suddenly grew still. Nathan and Keisha's expressions were raw with emotion, their lips quivering like helium balloons. Nathan let go of the girl's shoulder, and the two broke their locked gazes to stare at their shoes like naughty children. Camille kept silent, feeling somehow reverent of the scene unfolding before her.
A few seconds later, one of the judges for the Bake-Off approached them from the lower bleachers. Camille recognized him as the man who sometimes subbed for cooking class. "Excuse me, but I'm going to have to ask you all to leave if you will not stay quiet," he told them, addressing them with a fierce scowl. "You three are bothering everyone here. And you, Branford, are needed on the floor in five minutes."
"It's okay, we're done." Nathan sighed, looking with apology at the man. "I think I'm gonna have to pass on the Bake-Off this year, sir."
"What?" Camille's jaw slackened, and she fidgeted with her glasses reflexively. "Nathan, you've been looking forward to this thing the entire month."
"It's no use." Nathan's head drooped down into his chest, and his fingers streaked across his face. "Redd hasn't shown up, and he's probably not gonna show up. There's no one here that can replace him, no one that's not already a competitor anyway." He let out a low, dejected sigh, "Camille, I'm so sorry for wasting your time."
Keisha looked down for a moment, her white eyes flashing with emotion. Then, she raised her head. "I'll do it," she said, her jaw firmly set. "I'll be your partner."
"What?" Nathan whirled around to look at Keisha. "You can't..."
"I've seen you practice for the Bake-Off about a hundred times at home." Keisha cut him off, jabbing a finger for emphasis. "I know the recipe almost as well as you do, even all the small stuff, like that pinch of brown sugar you add right before cooking." Her expression was strong and unblinking. "I wanna help, Nathan."
"But Sis..." The cook was at a loss for words, his face screwing up with hesitation. Camille, too, didn't know what to make of this turn of events.
"You're not wimpin' out, are you Nathan?" a piercing voice broke in from above the small group. Camille, Nathan, and Keisha all looked up to find a blond teen easing his way down the bleachers, wearing a bright blue jacket and a black hat. The pair of half-glasses on his nose were unmistakeable, and the blue streak in his hair stuck out from his head like an icicle. His grin was wide and open, showing off a set of gleaming, white teeth that seemed to reflect the overhead lights.
"Ricochet..." Nathan blinked at the sight of his erstwhile best friend.
"Ricochet, it's you!" Keisha cried, her face bursting out in a dynamite smile.
The blond boy struck a cocky pose, his hand on his hip. "C'mon!" he urged, favoring the group with a sly wink. "I'm skippin' out on training for this!"
Nathan stared transfixed at Ricochet, as if he were some unearthly messenger from a sci-fi B movie. Then, the boy stood up and turned back to the judge, who seemed to be just as surprised by this eccentric newcomer. "Sir, would it be alright if my sister took Redd Blair's place in the Bake-Off?" he asked, keeping his voice even and non-demanding. "It's almost time, and my partner's obviously not here tonight."
"I have no problem with it, provided you get down there where you're supposed to be," the judge answered, folding his brawny arms. "But are you sure the lil' miss is cut out for this?"
"She can do it," the young chef assured him, looking the man full on in the face. "She's the only chance we have now."
"Nathan?" Keisha piped up, rising from her seat and walking over to Nathan.
Nathan turned toward her and extended a hand. "If Ricochet's giving you a shot, than I can't do any less, now can I?" he said, a smile suddenly piercing his previous facade of frustration. "Let's see how cool 'n' collected you really are...and get ourselves a trophy!"
"Big brother..." the girl whispered, her eyes twinkling in the bright lights of the gymnasium. At last, she beamed, and seized Nathan's hand tightly. "Right, let go for it!" Keisha cried, squeezing his fingers with surprising strength.
Nathan grinned, and pulled Keisha into a quick, one-armed hug. Keisha threw her arms around her brother, her cherubic face glowing with relief. Then, at the urgent snapping of the judge, the brother and sister climbed down the bleachers towards the floor, just as the M.C. was about to step on the podium and announce the start of the Bake-Off. Camille and Ricochet were left behind to stare after them, along with the malted milk balls and Raisinets.
"Wonder if they can really pull it off?" Camille wondered, coasting her hand across her chin.
"They've got it locked, Cammy!" Ricochet sat down beside his ex, popping a few of the loose Raisinets in his mouth.
For the next forty-five minutes, Nathan and Keisha Branford were a cyclone of culinary creation. They cracked eggs, measured milk, and poured out batter as evenly as a placid lake. The bundt was toasted to a healthy tan, but their tempers remained cool, and the two siblings seemed to communicate solely by motions and quick glances. Their eyes sparkled with excitement as they spread the frosting finisher over the completed cake, delectable to every member of the audience.
And the judges, too.
The audience exploded into applause as the judges presented the Branfords with the 1st Place trophy, as golden as the cake they baked together. Among the cornucopia of cheering, Ricochet was rushing through the crowd to greet them. Camille watched as both Ricochet and Nathan gave Keisha a huge hug, the past week of strife completely forgotten. The blond girl hung back for a moment near the bleachers, a rare bout of shyness overtaking her as she watched the happy threesome.
"This is the first time Nathan and I have won anything together!" Keisha cheered, her arms around both Nathan and Ricochet as they strode across the gym floor. "Our trophy cases are separate, ya know!"
"Don't care whose name I'm sharing this with." Nathan clutched the trophy under his arm like a teddy bear. "As long as my name's on it too!"
"Yeah, well I've never won anything!" Ricochet complained, flicking up his hat. "Whether it's boxing or writing, they always say 'hit the showers, McKnight!'"
"Well, your stories could use a little cleaning up," the champion chef commented, peeking at him through one eye.
"Yeah, they still stink!" Keisha giggled. Both brother and sister started laughing as the maligned McKnight rubbed the back of his head, blushing bright red.
As they left the gym, Nathan separated from Keisha and Ricochet to look more closely at his friend. "Here's something I don't get," he said, readjusting his trophy. "Why'd you come out here for the Bake-Off anyway? We're still fighting, right?"
"Aw, that?" Ricochet grinned like the village idiot. "I wasn't gonna miss your big thing! We can kiss 'n' make up anytime, but the Bake-Off happens just once a year."
Nathan blinked at the boy's straight-forward attitude, but soon smiled in kind. "Yeah, well, I think I'll letcha date Keisha after all," he said, throwing an arm around Ricochet. "You keep showin' up at my house anyway, so we might as well hang out like we used to."
"Hey, that's awesome!" Ricochet grinned, scratching his temple with a finger. "Glad you trust me again."
"'Course, if you hurt her in any way, I'll have to take it back, and gut you open with a pancake turner," Nathan continued, the grin straining to show he was only half-joking.
"Uh, yeah!" The blond battler chuckled nervously, trying to loosen the choke-hold his friend had on him. "No worries, man!"
After Nathan finally let him go, Camille walked over to the group of friends. "Nathan, you better get back over there," she told him, pointing to a mass of reporters still inside the gym. "They want a few comments for the local papers."
"I'll stay with Ricochet," Keisha bubbled, taking the opportunity to sidle up to her boyfriend again. "This is more Nathan's thing, anyway."
"We'll meet you at the malt shop at 9:40 for a victory bite." The young kickboxer nodded his agreement with Keisha. "Nothing beats a double chocolate shake after a fight...or competition, anyway."
Camille nodded at the both of them, then stepped closer to Ricochet. To everyone's surprise, she gave him a quick, close hug. "Take care of yourself, alright Ricochet?" she told him, her hair falling across her eye like a sheet.
"S-sure Cammy," Ricochet burbled, awkwardly patting her on the back. "Be cool."
"Hey!" Keisha's cheeks puffed up. "Your boyfriend's over there, Camille!"
The blond girl shrugged easily, releasing Ricochet and heading over to Nathan. As Keisha reestablished her hold on her boyfriend, Camille and Nathan left them behind and walked back inside the gym. All around them, there were fellow students clamoring to congratulate the winner of the Bake-Off. Camille remained silent for the most part, letting him bask in his glory while she took a moment to think about the long night.
She must have been a little too quiet, because Nathan was tapping her on the shoulder a moment later. "Hey, you alright?" he asked her, his face flush with concern.
Camille sighed softly. "I guess it's hard to let go sometimes," she admitted, her eyes growing misty in spite of herself. "Ricochet stuck around for three years, and even though I tried to cut and run, I couldn't forget that. Funny, Keisha thought you were clinging too much, but I was the same deep down. Maybe we all needed to chill and talk it out."
Nathan wrapped his arm more securely around Camille. "Well, how 'bout I whip up my Eskimo Eclairs, and we chill some more?" he said, massaging her shoulder with quick rotations. "Double frosting, naturally. And no Rocky quotes."
Camille smiled, leaning against him.
Nathan's eyes soon wandered up to the rafters, looking pensive. "Anyway, Ricochet's not out of the hot pot yet," he told Camille as they closed in on the cluster of reporters. "He's got one more guy to tackle for Keisha."
"Who's that?" she asked, looking up from her spot against his side.
Nathan blanched. "My dad."
"You will have my daughter home at 10:00 on the dot," Mr. Branford rumbled, staring down the thirteen inch height difference between Ricochet and himself. "Or I will finish you."
"Y-yes, sir," Ricochet stammered, Keisha's grip on his arm the only thing keeping him from bolting out the door.
"You will not bring my daughter into any danger or debauchery," Mr. Branford continued. "Or I will finish you."
"Yes, sir." Ricochet nodded in appeasement of the demon god.
"You will respect her personal boundaries at all times." The man's eyes narrowed until they were two white slits in an otherwise impenetrable face. "Or I will finish you."
Ricochet gulped, fully believing that Keisha's father would make good on his threats. Mr. Branford, with his slick, maroon suit and chiseled facial features, cut a figure easily as intimidating as the boxers he had faced in the ring. What was stunning was that Mr. Branford actually liked him, according to Keisha and Nathan. Clearly, his days were numbered, should he ever get on the wrong side of this monster of a man.
He turned to his girlfriend for help, only to have his breath catch in his throat as he took a closer look at her. For their date tonight, Keisha had pulled out all the stops, sporting a brand new dress with a long sash. She was wearing earrings too, and had done up her ponytails with bright blue baubles that seemed almost liquid smooth. Best of all, her dimples were perked in that exuberant smile of hers, and she had a sparkle in her eyes reserved just for him.
"I'll take care of her, Mr. Branford," he said, meeting the man's gaze. He grinned over at Keisha, and laid his hand atop hers. 'Cause this girl's worth it!