WE’RE AT ELLEN’S. She’s flattening her brown hair, slicking it back into one long ponytail.
“It’s too early to leave,” she’s saying. “Things won’t get going until at least twelve.”
“Well, it’s twelve now,” I tell her. “And we’re still not ready.”
“You want to call Lisa and them, and see where they are?”
I dial, and some guy answers. “What’s up?” There’s giggling in the background.
“Seth!” the giggler goes. I think it might be Lisa. “Give it back!”
“Is Lisa there?” I ask.
Ellen and I are sort of between groups right now. Last year we hung out a lot with this other Anna, and Katy and Slater and Kevin and Trace. But the other Anna switched schools, and Katy and Slater started wearing black lipstick and shaving their heads and telling us we were conformists, and Kevin and Trace started dating each other and never hanging out with anybody else, and things just sort of dissolved from there.
“Give it!” I hear Lisa shouting over her own giggles.
“What’s going on?” Ellen asks.
“I think it’s Seth. That guy who wears the sleeve,” I say. A sleeve is this thing that looks sort of like a combination of a glove with no finger coverage and a sock that fits all the way up to your elbow. Other than the sleeve, Seth’s pretty cute.
“Oh,” Ellen goes. “Sleev-eth.”
“Listen,” I tell the phone. “Could you put Lisa on?” I try to sound sarcastic and bossy, but I’m not so good at that. Ellen is slightly better at it than I am. Neither of us is nearly as masterful as the Ashleys. Which is fine, because we have no desire to be complete bitches. Just to know how when necessary.
“Who’s this?” Seth asks.
“Who is it?” I hear Lisa say.
“Give her the phone, man,” some other guy complains.
“This is Anna,” I say. “Ask Lisa if she’s going to the party at Wayne’s.”
“Yeah.” It’s still Seth. “We’re going. Is this Anna Lawson?”
I cover the phone with my hand. “Ellen,” I whisper. “Sleev-eth knows who I am.”
“Good,” she goes.
“How do you know who I am?” I ask into the cell.
“It’s me,” Lisa says. I guess Sleev-eth gave hers back. “We’re leaving in fifteen minutes.”
“Us too,” I say. “Ellen’s taking forever to do her hair.”
“I am not,” Ellen goes. “Ask if they have beer.” Ellen’s developed a taste for alcohol lately. I haven’t. I don’t like beer, for one thing. For another, I do like knowing what’s going on.
“Do you guys have beer?” I ask.
“Yeah, plus Jack Daniel’s.”
“They’ve got Jack Daniel’s,” I tell Ellen.
“Where did they get that?”
“Anna?” It’s Sleev-eth again.
“Seth!” I hear Lisa scream. Then the signal goes dead.
I flip down my phone. Ellen tugs at her ponytail and then turns from her mirror to look at me.
“You don’t want to go, do you,” she says.
“Yeah I do.”
“You wanted to bitch some more about your father and then see Rocky Horror.”
“Maybe. But it’s too late.” Rocky Horror always starts at midnight.
“I kind of like parties now,” Ellen tells me. Neither of us used to. Last year we would go to the mall instead. Or to Top Hats, our favorite diner. We thought parties were stupid up until about a month ago.
“I like parties too,” I lie.
“No you don’t. You always nurse a beer and stay in one place the whole time.”
I don’t know what to say to that. Ellen’s been my best friend since we were nine. She knows me better than anybody. Really, anybody.
“You don’t like me anymore,” I sulk. “You’re going to get in with the Ashleys and break them up and be one of their best friends and dump me.” I’m only half kidding.
“Don’t be stupid,” she goes. “I just want to have some fun.”
“Well, I do too,” I say.
“Oh, yeah?” she asks. “Do I have your dad to thank for that?”
“Whoever you want to thank,” I tell her. “But I’m going to have fun flirting with Sleev-eth. And I’m going to have fun drinking.”
She’s always said I’m more of a stoner than a drinker, if I ever had the guts to do either. I’ve always said it’s not about guts. It’s just that I don’t want to do drugs because if I got caught or something bad happened, my father would kill me. That’s where Ellen usually rolls her eyes, and I wonder if she actually knows me better than I know me, and then I get nervous if I don’t switch the subject in my head.
“Well, don’t have too much fun,” Ellen’s warning me now, “because one of us has to be able to drive.”
“Okay,” I say. “Then, I’ll just flirt.”
“Good,” Ellen goes. “Let’s leaf now.”
“Ha,” I tell her.
Wayne’s house is sort of like mine. Old and big with a huge front and back lawn. Which makes me think about my father and the fight we had before I left.
“You will not leave this house until that grass is taken care of,” my dad said. He isn’t used to me not doing what he asks. I’m not used to it either. But whatever it was that made me dump out those leaves earlier wouldn’t let me give in.
“No,” I argued. I was already late. I’d told Ellen I’d be there ten minutes ago. I was working hard to keep my head from going fuzzy, the way it gets when my father has me trapped somehow. Because even though I’m usually sure that it’s something the matter with him that starts it all, I always end up feeling like there’s something worse the matter with me for not seeing things his way.
So I tried to sound reasonable. My dad likes reasonable. “I’m sorry I didn’t do it already,” I said, as calm as I could. “But it’s dark out now. Plus, it doesn’t make sense to hand pick up leaves. I’ll rake tomorrow, but tonight I’m going to Ellen’s.” Then I held my breath and started walking through the kitchen, Jack was at the table, waiting for his girlfriend to come over and typing some new movie review, probably, onto his Web site. Or maybe checking his UCLA admissions status.
“Stop,” my father ordered. I didn’t stop. “You stop right there.” The fuzz went black while he moved in front of me to block the mudroom door. Jack didn’t even look up. He can get so absorbed in whatever he’s doing that he wouldn’t notice if a hurricane hit.
“Dad!” I said.
I heard my mother’s hard-soled shoes clack on the stairs. My father was standing so close I could feel the heat of him on me. “Give me the keys,” he ordered.
“No. You’re being totally unfair!” The black was getting worse, the way it does when he won’t back off, which is all the time, and you can’t do anything, you’re just stuck, and everything turns into a massive knot of confusion. Jack glanced up at both of us right then, but only for a second.
“Harvey,” my mother said, clacking into the kitchen. “What’s going on?”
“She didn’t pick up the leaves.” The vein over his left eye was popped out. His face was shiny.
“I saw her pick up the leaves,” my mother told him in that ultrapatient tone of voice she gets when he’s like this. His jaw muscles started jumping.
“So did I.” Jack snapped closed his laptop, scraped back his chair, and walked out.
I tried to clear the messiness in my head. It works better if you stay calm. Even though my father never does. His face was turning purple. I looked at my mom. “I told him already,” I said evenly. “I’ll rake tomorrow.”
“Not rake!” my father exploded. He was frothing at the mouth. Seriously. Spit was gathering at the corners like he had rabies or something. “Not tomorrow. Pick. Up. Now!”
My mother was just standing there, lips in a tight, straight line. That This is not right, but there’s nothing I can do look. I couldn’t take it. I wasn’t going to let him ruin my whole night. Make me get on my knees under the spotlights out front, as if I were some kind of psych patient, when he was the insane one.
I stepped around my father and through the mudroom, into the garage.
“If you leave this house, you will be extremely sorry!” he shouted right as I was yanking open the car door.
I jumped into the Honda. “If I come back to this house,” I shouted back through the open window, “you will be extremely lucky!” And then I cried the whole way to Ellen’s.
* * *
Wayne’s got two sound systems going: one on the third floor and one on the first. Outside you can hear them both. House from the top. Disco from the bottom. They don’t mix too well.
“See anybody we know?” I ask Ellen. We’re trying to make our way inside. Ellen’s always cold, so unless it’s seriously summer, we never stay outdoors.
“No.” She weaves through the crowd. Then when we walk in through the garage, she points. “There’s Jason.” I don’t really know Jason. He’s this guy in her history class Ellen has a crush on. He sees us and waves us over.
“Lisa and her friend were looking for you,” he tells Ellen. “They went up to the third floor.”
“Come with us,” Ellen invites him. “This is Anna. Anna, this is Jason.”
“Hi,” we both say, and then we all start trooping upward.
On the stairs someone has taped signs that read, PLEASE DO NOT PARTY ON THE SECOND FLOOR. They’re written in red marker on graph paper.
“There they are,” Lisa says when she sees us. We’re in a bedroom. Wayne’s probably. It’s got posters of bands and supermodels all over the place and beer-can pyramids everywhere. Lisa and Seth and a couple of other people are sitting on the bed. The house music is pounding. You can feel it buzz in your chest. Thrum, thrum. “You want some?” Seth offers us a bottle of Jack Daniel’s with his right hand. With his left he’s eating a peppermint patty.
“You guys know Jason?” Ellen asks, taking the whiskey. Everybody nods. My whole body keeps thrumming with the beat of the music. Thrum, thrum. “Where did you guys get it?”
“Bought it,” Lisa goes. “Seth’s got a fake ID.” He does look sort of old. Not twenty-one, exactly. But with a fake ID I guess he can pass.
“You’re Jack’s little sister, right?” Seth asks me. This never used to happen.
“Where’s your sleeve?” I ask him back.
“We convinced him to lose it,” Lisa says.
“How do you know my brother?” I ask, even though I know how. But Seth’s popped the rest of the peppermint patty into his mouth, so he can’t answer.
“Ohhh,” Jason goes instead. He takes a drink of Jack Daniel’s. “Jack Lawson? You’re Jack Lawson’s little sister?” I still can’t get used to having a brother who, practically overnight, has become a household name.
“Everybody knows your brother this year,” Ellen tells me, like she’s reading my mind. Which she kind of does a lot of the time.
“Cameron,” I guess. Seth sighs. Jason and Lisa nod.
“Cameron Polk,” they all say at once. Thrum, thrum.
Cameron Polk is Jack’s girlfriend. His first girlfriend ever. They’ve been dating since the second week of school.
* * *
“Late,” I said to Jack from his bedroom door, on the night I found out. He was sitting on that ergonomic chair in front of his laptop with the phone in his hand. He looked a little out of it. “Dinner,” I said. “It’s three minutes past.” My parents had sent me to get him. My father wouldn’t let me yell up the stairs. I had to walk up.
“Cameron Polk just agreed to go out with me Saturday night,” Jack said.
He nodded. As far as I knew, he hadn’t asked anyone out since he was in the eighth grade, when Trisha Todd told him no because he was too short. He’d grown more than a foot since then, and mostly I thought of him as this annoying, gawky guy who lived in my house. Nobody ever messed with him exactly, and he and his best friend, Rob, weren’t total outcasts or anything. But it wasn’t like people loved Jack either. Then again, when I thought about it, looking at him with the phone in his hand. I realized that a lot of kids had started talking to him at the end of last year. Had he been getting cool, and I hadn’t noticed it?
“The Cameron Polk?” I asked him.
She moved here the last month of school last year. She’s one of these girls that you sort of can’t believe. Nobody could stop looking at her. She’s got smoky skin and shiny blond hair and this square jaw, with a little bit of slant to her eyes. She transferred into all the honors classes, and she seemed actually nice. No attitude. It took only three days before the Ashleys asked her to sit with them at lunch. She did a few times. But she sat with other people too. You can’t get much classier than that.
“We’re in French Five together,” Jack told me.
I noticed that his shaggy hair and something about his jeans and T-shirt looked like this ad I’d seen in some magazine lately. Those ads where the guys never seem as if they care what they look like, but they look good anyway. Weird.
“Saturday’s my night for the car,” I reminded him.
“I know.” He looked at the phone in his hand. “But.”
“Anna!” we heard my dad yell up the stairs. “Jack!” He had that edge to his voice. It meant he’d be screaming for five minutes once we got down to the dinner table.
I stood there trying to think over the noise of my dad. I should let Jack have the car. It was a date. It was Cameron Polk. Obviously I should. It was just that I’d promised to drive to Jake Lowell’s party so that Ellen could drink, and I didn’t want Ellen to be mad. . . .
“Forget it,” Jack said, and he had that expression I hate. That one where it’s obvious he thinks I’m a disgusting human being. “Get out of my room.”
“Anna!” my father shouted. “Jack!”
“Get. Out.” When I didn’t move, he stabbed a key on his keyboard, stood up, and brushed by me into the hallway.
“All right,” I said to his back. “Fine. You can have the car on Saturday.”
“You know what?” my brother said, stopping at the top of the stairs. “Sometimes you are so small.”
* * *
So now I get it. “Is that how you know who I am?” I ask Sleev-eth. He’s holding out the whiskey, and I take it.
“Are you really going to drink tonight?” Ellen asks me.
I ignore her and keep talking to Seth. “Because you know who Jack is because everyone knows who Cameron is?” Then I take a huge, and I mean huge, swallow. And nearly choke to death. Jason kindly pounds me on the back for a while.
Ellen says, “Take a smaller swallow and go slower.”
While I do, Seth goes, “No. I’m always seeing your hair in the hall.” Thrum, thrum.
I have copper-colored corkscrew hair. No joke. Coils and coils of the stuff. It would be bad enough to have just the color. And bad enough to have the corkscrews. Having both is the worst. Ellen and my mother say it’s “adorable” and “striking.” Right. Try freakish.
“I’ve been dying to pull it all year,” Seth says. Then he reaches out, grabs a curl, stretches it down straight, lets it go, and watches it bounce right back.
“Supreme,” he says.
“If we were in third grade,” I inform him. “you’d so be in the corner right now.”
“If we were in the third grade,” Seth informs me, “I’d so be kicked out of school right now.” He reaches out and pulls another curl.
“I hated that in the third grade,” I warn him.
“She loves it now,” Lisa says with a smirk. As if she even knows me.
I hold out the bottle to Ellen. She takes it and drinks.
“We’re co-opting your liquor,” I tell Sleev-eth. I’m having fun.
* * *
Here’s when I first noticed Jack trying with me, after a lot of years of not. It was this past summer, the first Friday of our annual two-week beach vacation at Commons End. We’d just arrived at that year’s rental house after a five-hour drive. Which should have been three hours, but the shortcut my father thought would shave off ten minutes ended up getting us lost. So whatever.
“Anna,” Jack called up to me. I was on the elevated deck, hauling my suitcase and my mother’s. It was dusk but still hot from the sun of the day. I could feel my skin prickle from sweat and aggravation.
“What?” I asked him.
“You want me to unpack so you can go check out the water?”
It’s always Jack and me who have to take everything out of the car and indoors. My father usually insists on packing the trunk before we leave, which involves a lot of impatience and yelling because he’s sure that not everything will fit. Then, on the arrival end, he never helps unload. And with her bad back, my mom can’t do much either.
“I’ll unpack,” Jack said. “You want to go see the ocean before it’s dark, right?”
It was something we usually raced each other for. Who would get their half finished the quickest, jog the two blocks, scramble up the narrow dune path, and reach the peak first. Who would get to throw off shoes, slip-slide down, pad across the warm sand, and wade into the undertow looking out onto the choppy green water, before the other one even showed up. It was usually too late to actually swim. But most years getting that first piece of the beach on the day we arrived was a part of starting things off.
“You mean, you’ll unpack the whole car?” I asked Jack.
“Yeah.” I watched his face, trying to figure out the trick.
“Okay,” I said finally.
When I got back, we ate dinner, and after that Jack wandered through my door, listening to his iPod. My room had twin beds with ugly flowered curtains that matched the bedspreads, and a fake bamboo chair. I was on my cell phone, lying on the floor with my feet up on one bed. Jack did the same next to me. Not knowing what else to do, I said to Ellen, who was planning to come down three days later, “So, this is weird. Jack just came into my room and, like, made himself comfortable. He doesn’t even have his laptop with him or anything.”
He didn’t so much as blink, and with his music on I couldn’t even be sure he’d heard me. When I hung up with Ellen a few minutes later, Jack said, “Do you like Straw Man Proposal?”
I rolled my eyes. “You know I’ve never heard of them.”
“Listen to this,” he said instead of telling me what a moron I was. And he leaned over to plug his earphones into my ears.
I listened. It wasn’t bad.