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  “For what?” Austin asks.

  “Yeah, for what?” Taylor says.

  I throw up my hands. I don’t have time to explain it. I take a step away from the swings, back toward the monkey bars.

  “Are you certifiably insane?” Austin says.

  I don’t answer that.

  “You’re not going back there alone,” Taylor says. “We’ll go with you.”

  “We will?” Austin says.

  “Yeah,” says Taylor. “We will. C’mon.”

  Taylor keeps surprising me. But I lead the way, my phone out and ready to snap a picture. Soon we’re in the shadow of the castle, scoping out the seesaws.

  Jackson may have been kissing that girl earlier, but now he’s not doing anything of the sort. Now they’re just talking. Actually it’s more like arguing.

  “I don’t believe you!” Bella says. I can’t see her face, but her voice carries out over the playground like she doesn’t care who might hear. “If I find out you’re—” She has trouble getting it out. “I’ll, I’ll—” She mumbles something I don’t catch.

  “I’m not,” Jackson says. “I swear.”

  Bella doesn’t respond.

  “Do you believe me or not?” Jackson asks. He uses a little-boy voice, like he’s the innocent one here. I can’t imagine any girl believing anyone who uses that voice. Rita Hayworth would hear that voice and she’d cut him down to size before he got out his next breath.

  Bella turns around. She just looks at him. Thanks to the streetlight nearby, I’m able to see the quickest of glimpses of her face: her mouth, only that. Her lips are painted dark, like any femme fatale’s would be. I bet she’s deadly beautiful. I bet she’s unforgettable. She has to be, if she’s the one with Jackson.

  Her mouth stays closed, not uttering a word, the expression on her lips impossible to read.

  Jackson repeats his question: “I said, do you believe me?”

  She answers at last. “Yeah.” Disappointing me.

  I wonder what it was she was supposed to believe. Then I know. I figure it out. If she’s the femme fatale, the other woman, the cheat, then she knows all about Elissa and wants her out of the picture. She’s telling Jackson to break up with Elissa, and he’s saying he will.

  I must do what I came to do. I pull out my phone and get ready to take the photo.

  “She’s pretty,” Taylor whispers.

  “She’s evil,” I say.

  “I don’t know,” Austin butts in to say.

  “What, you don’t know if she’s evil or if she’s pretty?”

  “I mean… are you sure she’s evil?” Austin says. “Maybe she doesn’t know he already has a girlfriend.”

  Yeah. Right.

  I point my phone at the seesaws. It’s dark, so I’m going to have to use the flash. Once that goes off, they’ll notice. Once the photo is taken we’ll have to turn tail and run. But it’s worth it.

  I hold out the phone. I try to keep it steady, except my hand’s making it shake for some reason, my hand, or my arm, or my whole entire body is shaking so much that the picture shakes. It’s just normal stakeout jitters, I tell myself. I take a breath. I prop up the phone on the edge of the castle so it’ll stay still. I hold it tight and aim it at the seesaws. I wait for just the right moment, press the button, and—

  At the exact moment I snap the photo, a shriek of noise cuts through the playground. Someone is singing. It’s a girl, a girl standing really, really close to me, belting out a pop song.

  I don’t know if I got a good picture or not. I didn’t see the flash go off.

  I turn in horror to find Taylor holding her own cell phone, which is lit up and blasting her ringtone. Someone didn’t think to set her phone on silent.

  Taylor freaks and shuts the ringer off before it can do any more damage. As if. Jackson and Bella would have had to be on the other side of the river not to hear that.

  “Who’s there?” Jackson yells.

  In seconds, we hit the ground, crouching on the asphalt beneath the castle, breathing heavy. I look at Taylor. She looks at me. Austin looks at me. I look at Austin. We have no idea what to do.

  “We heard you,” Jackson yells. “We know you’re there.”

  Taylor whispers she’s sorry. She takes hold of the castle wall and pulls herself up. But I grab her shirt and pull her back down. I try to stand. It should be me who goes, not her.

  But before either Taylor or I can go, Austin does something strange. He stands. Then he turns and whispers something to us. Finally he steps out into the light. He wheels his bike over to the seesaws, calling out to his cousin. He takes the rap for us and he never looks back.

  Taylor and I sneak away as Jackson starts making fun of Austin about his girly ringtone. We slip out of the playground from the north side and head back to Taylor’s house without anyone spotting us.

  What did Austin tell us before he turned himself in? He said, “Just go. You guys were never here.”

  Caller ID shows that the call was from Taylor’s dad. We race back, flashlights in spasms all over the road like we’re trying to run on a trampoline. When we reach her house, we find her parents standing in the mudroom.

  There they are, waiting in the narrow entryway that’s crammed full of rain boots and umbrellas and way too many pairs of flip-flops for a family of four. It’s clear her parents want to stop us before we even remove our shoes. For a moment I wonder if they’re going to let us inside the house at all.

  “Where have you been?” Taylor’s dad says. “We called three times.”

  Sure enough, there are now two more missed calls flashing on Taylor’s phone. With her phone on silent, we didn’t hear them.

  “I drove down the cul-de-sac and back,” Taylor’s mom says. “You said you were taking a walk down the road. Where were you?”

  “We were, uh…” Taylor says, flailing for the words. And then, as if we’ve just come back from robbing the town bank and she wants it known it wasn’t her idea, she steals a glance right at me.

  “We took a detour,” I answer for her. “It wasn’t far.”

  “A detour to where?” Taylor’s dad says.

  I’m not sure what the right answer should be, so now I look at Taylor.

  “A detour to where, Taylor?” Taylor’s mom asks.

  “The playground,” Taylor admits. “To take pictures.”

  I can’t believe she said that! Now I have to step in to bend her truth more in the direction of a reasonable lie.

  “Of the slides,” I shoot out randomly. “For an art project.”

  “At night?” Taylor’s dad says.

  “Yes,” I say. “It’s an art project.”

  I realize that may have come out more sarcastic than it should have. Plus, it occurs to me that Taylor’s dad is not my dad, and Taylor’s mom is not my mom, and maybe they won’t put up with what my parents put up with.

  Taylor’s mom and dad are both appraising me at the same time. With two parents determining the depth and weight of your lies, it’s more than a little overwhelming. I feel sorry for Taylor then, with her two parents and her nice house with perfect cell-phone reception. I feel sorry that she breaks so easily, that she doesn’t know when to stay quiet, that she thought now, of all moments, was a time for the truth.

  “Go call your mother, Danielle,” Taylor’s mom says. “She might want to come pick you up.”

  “Now?” I ask, and then when I see they’re not letting up, I say, “Okay.”

  My mom answers after five long rings. “Wuh?” she mumbles.

  “Mom?” I’m in Taylor’s dark kitchen, where her family can’t hear.

  “Mmmmm, huh?”

  “Mom, are you sleeping?”

  “Yeah.” A pause as she sighs. Another pause as she fumbles with the phone. “What time is it?”

  “I don’t know, maybe ten. Where are you?”

  “On the couch,” she says.

  She sniffles then and this is when I wonder if she’s been crying. She w
as left alone in the house for a night and what she did is curl up on the couch and cry herself to sleep. I can’t leave her for one night.

  “Did you eat?” I ask softly.

  She sighs again. Sniffles again. Tells me to hang on, and I wait while she blows her nose. Then she comes back and says, “I had crackers. Is that why you’re calling, to make sure I ate? I’m fine, really. I want you to have fun at your sleepover. I’ll see you at the paper tomorrow, all right?”

  “Yeah, okay.”

  “Havin’ a good time with Taylor?”

  “Uh-huh.” And here is where I could slip in that I’m having such a good time with Taylor that I got her in trouble and her parents want someone to come pick me up, but I don’t say that. I don’t know how to, what with my mom the way she is right now. So I let her say good night, and I say good night, and she hangs up the phone, and I guess Taylor’s stuck with me for the rest of the night.

  I leave the kitchen and find Taylor and her parents in their den. “She can’t come get me now,” I say. “Sorry.”

  Sometimes I wonder if I carry my whole entire story written all across my face. If everyone can see it just by looking at me. Because Taylor’s parents don’t ask anything else of me. They say it’s fine if I stay the night after all, and with one last glance at each other they send us up to bed.

  “Why’d you do that?” Taylor asks once we’re up in her room. She sounds mad.

  “Do what?”

  “Go spy on Jackson…. What does it matter to you if he’s cheating or not?”

  “Because it’s Elissa,” I say. “Because,” I continue, sputtering. “Because he lies!”

  “But you just lied, downstairs, about the art project.”

  This quiets me a moment.

  “He’s way too old for you,” she says, wrinkling her nose.

  “What?” I say, too fast, too soon. “Don’t be disgusting.”

  “You know what?” she says. “You don’t have to explain. I get it.”

  “You do?”

  “Yeah.” I realize she’s not going to say it out loud—you’re mad at your dad, so you’re taking it out on Jackson—because she knows I’ll deny it to the moon if I have to.

  I make myself busy by digging around in my bag for my toothbrush.

  “So if you want to go home now you can, you know,” Taylor says. “My dad would drive you.”

  I find the toothbrush and pull it out. “I don’t want to go home,” I say.

  “Because now I know why you came, so… so you don’t have to stay, okay?”

  I look up at her. She’s standing rail straight in the middle of the room, but her nerves show through on her face like the palest skin on the underside of your arm can show all your blood vessels. She’s afraid of what I might say.

  “I don’t want to go home,” I tell her. “Really.”

  I want to say more. To tell her about the ring my dad gave Cheryl, about October, but I sort of can’t. The words to explain it aren’t here.

  “What happened?” she says.

  “He’s obviously seeing that girl behind Elissa’s back. But now I have a photo so—” I stop talking. I don’t think Taylor meant what happened with Jackson just now. I think she meant what happened between her and me.

  “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “So you’re staying?”

  I nod.

  There’s more that could happen here, confessions and apologies and never-agains that could keep us awake all night, till the sun comes up and it’s a new day. We could decide we’re friends again, officially—if we want to be. But there’s no movie script for this scene, so I’m not sure what should come next.

  “Can I use your toothpaste?” I ask.

  “You know where it is,” she says.

  And that’s enough until morning.



  I’ve been trapped in the newspaper office for hours already, and there are still hours more to go until lunch. Here I am, helping Taylor with this movie review, wasting away in my windowless cell while the rest of the world goes on without me.

  Okay, fine: The room does have windows. Only, I’m sitting at a desk so far away from them I can’t see even one tree. And I’m dying of thirst, and all my mom has here is water. And I want to confront Jackson. I want to check on Elissa. I want to do something. This internship is eating away at my life.

  This is when the escape plan comes to me. “I have low blood sugar,” I tell Taylor. “I need juice. I’m going down to the Corner Cupboard to get some.”

  “I’ll go with you,” she says.

  “It’ll only take a minute,” I lie. “I’ll be right back,” I add, lying again.

  She looks at me for a long moment—she knows—but all she says is “Okay.”

  My mom, for her part, just asks if I could grab her a cranberry.

  So this is how I end up out on the street, free at last. First stop: Taco Juan’s. But Elissa’s boss says she’s on break. So I set my sights on the Little Art. In the blink of an eye I’m inside the theater, crossing the velvet rope and stepping into Theater 1. It’s between shows, so the lights are on and the movie screen is blank—but the door to the projection booth is open and from in there I hear something.


  One belongs to Austin. “I swear, I won’t tell anyone, not anybody, I promise,” he whines. The door to the projection booth is open only a crack, so I can’t see for myself, but I’m willing to bet he is either crying, or thisclose to it, which is something I don’t want to see, not now and not ever.

  The other voice belongs to Jackson. “I can’t believe you followed me,” he says. “You little snitch. How am I supposed to believe you’ll keep your mouth shut?”

  “I swear,” Austin says. “I swear on Monster. I swear on Henry the Eighth.” (Monster is his cat. Henry the Eighth is the last of his cat’s kittens, the one they haven’t been successful in giving away yet.)

  “You swear you were there by yourself? No one else was with you?”

  “It was just me,” Austin says. “I was there alone.”

  “Okay,” Jackson says, “if you say so, okay.” I’m not sure if he’s trying to convince himself or if he really believes Austin.

  “Can I go now?” Austin squeaks.

  “One more thing,” Jackson says. “Swear to me you won’t tell Dani.”

  “Dani? Why would I tell her?”

  “If you tell her she’ll tell Elissa, you know it, so swear to me. Say you swear.”

  “I swear.”

  “You swear what?”

  “I swear I won’t tell Dani.”


  “Or what?”

  “Or I will,” Jackson says in this low, menacing voice.

  A cloud of silence descends and swallows up the projection booth. Nothing’s coming out, not a word, not a mutter, not one more squeak. It’s like the sound cut off at the high point of a movie. Something essential is about to be let loose and wham—Some slob trips over the cord and the speaker goes out.

  I hear nothing. With the door cracked like this, I see nothing.

  Wait. They don’t know I’m here, do they?

  Then Austin speaks up, so I guess not. “Okay,” he says at last. “I won’t tell her.”

  And then it hits me, how little sense that whole exchange just made. Jackson doesn’t want Austin to tell me, so if Austin does tell me then Jackson will tell me too?

  But I’ll already know. Austin would’ve told me.

  Hit pause and try to figure out that logic.

  “Can I go now?” Austin says.

  “Yeah, go,” Jackson says.

  And then, before I can get a handle on the situation—namely that Austin is now leaving the projection booth, and if he takes the door on the side where I’m standing, he’ll step down and turn and see (um, hi) me—I realize I’ve got to get out of here.

  The camera slips into slow motion, or time does, at least. My foot is lifting off the ground and then my kne
e is lifting and then my whole leg. My body pushes forward like trying to find footing in Marshmallow Fluff—and as this is happening time moves so slowly you could read a page in your social studies homework, go to the kitchen, make a Toaster Strudel, come back, eat it, realize you got crumbs all over your social studies homework, shake the homework over the garbage disposal to get the crumbs off, go back to the den, take a nap, finish your homework, paint your nails, and then at last my foot would have touched ground and I would have taken one step.

  That’s how slow of slow motion I mean.

  I’m one inch closer to the door when Austin emerges and sees me. With a flying leap—I didn’t know Austin had it in him—he grabs me and pushes me out through the exit into the lobby. We land, panting for breath, at the popcorn stand.

  “Quick! Get busy,” Austin hisses, and we launch into a serious operation involving one bag of day-old popcorn, three shakes of cinnamon, four of cayenne, a flurry of coconut flakes, and Parmesan galore, until Jackson comes out and sees us.

  “You’re here early again, Dani,” he says, looking at me sideways. By that I mean he’s looking at me and he’s also looking at me. He’s trying to see if I’ll stop shaking the Parmesan and break.

  “I wanted popcorn for breakfast,” I lie. “Austin just came out, and I was like, Austin, don’t you want popcorn for breakfast? And he was like, Totally. And I was like, So help me make it! So that’s what we’re doing now.”

  “Butter,” Austin says.

  “What?” I say, breaking out from my sea of lies.

  “We forgot the butter.” He gets out a gelatinous mound of something that may be butter—I’m not positive. He pours it with abandon over the concoction of popcorn, and it slides there, shifting around, until it settles, like liquid soap. The what-we-assume-is-butter sinks down into the lower reaches of the popcorn slowly, like ear wax coming alive and spreading down your body to your feet. I glance away, try not to gag.

  “So how is it?” Jackson asks. A look of amusement is perched on his face. Also a look of challenge.

  Austin peeks down at the waxy, spotty concoction with alarm. “I don’t know yet.”

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