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  I can’t let it happen. Not to Elissa, no matter that she’s mad at me and got me in trouble with my mom. “I’m going to tell her,” I say. I climb over Taylor so I can slip out into the aisle.

  Only, someone’s holding me back. Literally. Taylor has a good grip on my sleeve and is tugging at me to keep me from escaping into the aisle. She pulls me down into a seat. “You can’t just go down there and tell Elissa,” she says.

  “Why not?”

  “In front of her friends? In the middle of the movie? It’ll just make things worse.”

  “Wouldn’t you want someone to tell you?”

  “I don’t know,” she says, after thinking about it. “Maybe I’d be too embarrassed.”

  “But—” I stop talking when someone in the next row shushes me. Maybe Taylor’s right. Maybe I should wait for the right moment. Whenever that is.

  On screen, Rita Hayworth is being her usual incredible self, except the movie’s making it seem like we’re not supposed to trust her. Come to think of it, I’m beginning to wonder about this movie, about why Jackson chose it.

  The music is filled with loud horns and wicked violins. We focus on a room surrounded on all sides by mirrors, a carnival fun house. Then the music cuts out and Rita Hayworth’s standing in the dark with a white-hot flashlight in her hand. In the mirror maze there are now four Rita Hayworths, the blaze of her eyes multiplied out into forever. She steps closer, and in all the many mirrors she takes one step closer more times than you can count.

  “We could have run off together,” Rita Hayworth says to her secret boyfriend. Her voice is flat. Her eyes betray nothing. She loves no one, not even herself.

  Then some other guy steps onto the screen—her husband. The mirrors show three of him, six, eight, more. She looks scared now, caught.

  He tells her she’d better not fire that gun she’s holding. “With all these mirrors, it’s difficult to tell,” he says. “You are aiming at me, aren’t you?”

  Shots ring out, and glass shatters and is reflected shattering and shattering.

  That’s the movie.

  But then I lose sight of the movie because right here in the theater someone stands up. A girl. Light bounces off the screen and makes her glow around the edges like an approaching eclipse. I can’t make out her face, but I don’t need to see the face to know who it is. She’s Bella, the girl who thinks she’s Jackson’s girlfriend. And she’s heading for the projection booth.

  Elissa—who also thinks she’s Jackson’s girlfriend—is now coming up the other aisle, the aisle on my side. Which means she’s close enough for me to do something. Distract her. Warn her, even. I reach out my arm as she passes and my fingertips graze something—her elbow, I think. But whatever it was I’ll never know because what my fingers catch is air.

  Elissa goes to the door on her side of the projection booth and knocks. In the other aisle, Bella walks to the door on her side. But she doesn’t knock, she just goes on in.

  “It’s happening,” Taylor whispers to me like I can’t see with my own two eyes.

  Sitting on the other side of Taylor, Austin actually has his hands over his eyes like we’re watching a horror movie.

  And what do I feel, while Elissa knocks again on the door and is about to go in, while Bella’s in there already, while the movie rolls and the audience takes it in, while on-screen Rita Hayworth isn’t the Rita Hayworth I thought I knew?

  I feel nothing at first. Like I’m separate from all of it. Like it’s nothing to do with me—Jackson and Bella and Elissa—it’s to do with them.

  Then again, it’s because of me that Bella knows about the Midnight Movie. So I’m not as separate as I’d like to think.

  Elissa stops knocking but doesn’t go away. She opens the door and walks in.

  Voices can be heard, voices that have nothing to do with the movie. I can’t even pay attention to Rita Hayworth. I turn around.

  It’s hard to make out what they’re saying. I want to follow Austin’s lead and cover my ears. I want to crawl under the seat and disappear.

  Suddenly the picture freezes. The speakers squeak to a halt. There are protests from the audience, people turning around in their seats to see what’s up.

  Now would be a good time to slip out of the theater and go back home before my mom knows I snuck out.

  Taylor and I meet eyes. Before this week, I would have said we’re definitely not friends anymore, definitely. I would have said we’re practically strangers. A whole school year has gone by, which is like fifty years when you’re in junior high. Only thing is, I’m looking into her eyes and I know exactly what she’s thinking. Just as you would if you were looking at your best friend.

  She’s thinking we need to get out of here. Like, now.

  And I bet she knows what I’m thinking too. She knows how awful I feel. She knows I think this is my fault.

  She looks at me and her eyes say it’s not my fault, not entirely. But, either way, her eyes say, We really need to go.

  My eyes say, Okay.

  Her eyes say, Then move!

  I’m the one closest to an aisle, and the exit. I head for the door, but just before I reach it the house lights come on. Austin’s at the switch, turning on the lights so everyone can see. Next I hear someone yelling. At me.

  “You!” I hear. She’s all up in my face before I even get out into the lobby.

  Hey, everyone, meet Nichole. My dad’s marrying her mom, so we’re almost related.

  “You little brat,” she says.

  I don’t say anything back. There’s something about Nichole that makes my tongue go limp, makes me forget I even have one and wonder if I’ve gone and swallowed it. She just brings out the tongue-swallowing tendencies in me.

  Nichole has her hands on her hips, elbows up and out. Her straightened blond hair whips all around her like a sharp, pointed sandstorm.

  “You think this is funny, don’t you?” she blasts at me. She means the big scene in the projection booth. The one everyone in the theater couldn’t help but witness.

  “No,” I squeak in protest.

  “You told us to come here,” Nichole says. “You totally set this up.”

  “No,” I protest again—though I did, didn’t I? I set this all up.

  “Oh and, by the way, I told my mom what you said about her. Your dad freaked.” She gives an evil grin.

  Elissa peeks out of the projection booth. I’m standing just beside it, inches away. She’s heard everything. “You set this up?” she asks me quietly.

  My eyes say all.

  “You knew and you didn’t tell me?” she says, her voice cracking.

  Someone could come to my defense here. Someone like Taylor, though she’s still down in the aisle, and I guess it’s not exactly fair of me to expect her to speak up for me. To use her only when I need her, like I guess I’ve done before.

  “I tried,” I tell Elissa. “Remember?”

  “Oh,” she says, remembering when I chased her in the rain, “that.” She looks horribly sad. Or embarrassed. I can’t tell the difference.

  It’s okay—Elissa knows I had her back, she’s got to—but then someone has to ruin it. “She really was going to tell you,” Austin says. Now he’s standing up near the projection booth too. “She was going to show you the picture.”

  I widen my eyes like stop signs: Shut it! Do not mention the picture!

  “There really is a picture?” Elissa says in a low voice.

  “You took a picture?” Bella says. I guess she’s here to confront me too.

  Nichole just says, “You little brat.” It’s become, like, her nickname for me.

  Jackson has no words—he’s just standing in the booth staring me down.

  Actually everyone’s staring me down—I can see the audience looking up the aisle at me, like I’m the movie people came out to see.

  Finally Jackson speaks. “D,” he says, “I knew you were at the playground that night, no matter what Austin said. So you got a picture. Let
’s see it.”

  “I want to see it,” Elissa says, not too convincingly, and then Bella adds, “Yeah, show it,” and even Nichole, who has nothing whatsoever to do with this and should really just stay out of it, adds, “Yeah.”

  So I reach into my pocket to dig out my cell phone and show them the incriminating picture at the seesaws. My phone isn’t there, so I try the pocket on the other side of my pants. I try my back pocket. I stop trying—I’ve run out of pockets.

  Then, of course, I remember. “I don’t have my phone,” I say. “I’m grounded and my mom took it.”

  “Then what are you doing here,” Nichole says, “if you’re grounded?”

  She has no right to act like a big sister, and I’m about to call her on it, except she sort of has a point. “I guess I can’t show anyone the picture,” I say.

  Jackson doesn’t respond.

  “Never mind,” Elissa says. “It doesn’t matter. I think we should break up.” She’s looking down at the floor when she says it, but we all know who she’s talking to.

  “Yeah, Jackson, we’re done,” Bella shoots out. With all the panic going on, all the stopping of movies and ruining Rita Hayworth’s big scene, I hadn’t even really thought of the fact that the lights are now on, and I can see Bella. The femme fatale is standing right here in front of me. In full color. For the first time.

  The only images I had of her before were pieces:

  A pair of legs in polka-dot tights.

  A silhouette on the seesaws.

  Two feet in a photo online.

  The outline of her face in the dark.

  An eclipse sneaking up the aisle.

  Now that I can see her, she’s pretty, sure. What did you expect? And yet… if she’s supposed to be the femme fatale, I don’t see it. She looks like some girl in high school. Some girl who seems really upset.

  So if Bella’s not the femme fatale in this situation, and Elissa’s not the femme fatale, then I guess one doesn’t exist. I hadn’t considered that before. Unless it’s supposed to be me, because of how I’ve acted and what I’ve done?

  While I’m trying to make sense of this, Jackson has been trying to do something of his own: make excuses. I take it he’s waiting to see which one will stick.

  “It’s just, you know, we never said exclusive,” he’s telling Elissa. Or is it Bella. It doesn’t matter, because neither of them seems interested.

  “Save it,” Elissa says. She starts for the exit.

  I guess the night’s drama is about over. But then the door to the lobby comes open and a whole new round of drama storms in. My mom.

  “Danielle,” is all she says. That’s all she has to say.

  Ms. Greenway is right behind her. “I called her,” she says. “I happen to know you’re grounded, Danielle.”

  The moment is beyond awkward for me, but then I see the look on my mom’s face as she notices the girl standing near me, Nichole. By the way she’s staring at her, I know she knows who Nichole is. Nichole also studies her but without the usual smirk.

  Suddenly, thankfully, something catches my mom’s attention. It’s Austin—only, I don’t think he means to be the diversion. He’s cradling his wrist, groaning under his breath.

  “Austin,” my mom says, “what’s wrong with your arm?”

  His mom, Ms. Greenway, reaches out to check it and before her finger even grazes his skin he yelps in pain. It can’t be that bad… can it?

  “What happened?” his mom asks.

  “I fell on it,” he says.

  “How?” his mom says. “When?”

  “On the stairs?” he lies. “Before?” Vague is good, Austin, very good. Though I can’t help wondering why he doesn’t just out me as the person who stomped on his hand and knocked him off the roof….

  Taylor doesn’t open her mouth to dispute any of this.

  Everyone’s like, Oh, poor Austin, you tripped and fell on your own wrist.

  All eyes are on Austin now. Everyone surrounds him. Even Nichole.

  I hear a chorus of “Austin, are you okay?” “Wow, it’s really swelling up.” “Do you think it’s broken?” And I catch Austin’s eye and hold it for one long second. You could say he broke his wrist for me.

  You could.

  “Maybe we should go to the ER?” he says to his mom.

  It’s at this point that I notice Jackson looking at me, like he wants a defender or something. An apologist. Like he thinks I’ll still hang around and make up excuses to ask him about his favorite femme fatale after what he’s done.

  Rita Hayworth wouldn’t care for a guy like Jackson. No girl who knows what she’s worth ever would.

  I turn away from him, to the dark movie screen. I don’t need to see Rita Hayworth up there to know what to do.

  “Can you start the movie up again or what?” someone in the audience shouts.

  We look at him in shock like we’d forgotten we’re standing in a theater, where people go, you know, to see movies. Jackson leaps to start up the projector, before anyone can ask for their money back. He may have been betrayed by me, and lost both his girlfriends, but he’s still betting on that car. No one here is getting a refund.

  20

  Not You Too, Rita Hayworth

  Days have passed, days and nights, and I still don’t know how The Lady from Shanghai ends. I’m not allowed out to the movies, and I don’t see anyone airlifting the movie screen over here to me. So I’m out on my rooftop as usual. Only, I’m not pretending to get a tan or waiting for a phone call. I’m doing what any grounded almost-fourteen-year-old would do if forced to stay home during summer vacation.

  Sulking.

  Sulking is an art. I learned it from my brother, Casey, who didn’t need words—he could do it just by the way he breathed. He’d be sitting at dinner and let out this sigh of air—a drawn-out, discontented hiss. He’d act like the whole world was against him, even that night’s leftover spaghetti.

  And once my dad said he was moving out, Casey took it to the next level. When Mom told him to go help Dad move the tools out of the garage, Casey let everyone know what he thought of the tools—and Dad for taking them—and Mom for letting Dad take them—by dropping them in the geraniums so Dad would have to lug them to his new house all covered in dirt. Come to think of it, how I’m the one home grounded and Casey’s away at camp is beyond me.

  So I’m sulking up on the roof, but there’s no point sighing my discontent or dropping anything in the geraniums because, for one, Mom hasn’t really been keeping up with the gardening, but also because no one would see. Mom is still at work.

  Just when I set my sulk out on the horizon—aiming it at the Catskill Mountains, the blue lumps poking up through the trees—a car pulls into the driveway. Elissa’s at the wheel. She steps out and calls, “Can I come up?”

  I’m glad she’s here—though I haven’t seen her since the Midnight Movie and I’m nervous about it. Still, when you’re sulking, it’s best to keep a face of stone. So I tell her, “If you want to,” and I point her to the ladder of lattice that’s a straight climb up from the lawn. Elissa shakes her head and goes inside the house so she can climb out through my bedroom window instead. Maybe she heard how Austin really got that sprained wrist.

  She says, “Your mom told me you’d probably be up here.”

  “My mom? Why, did you call her again or something?”

  She keeps her eyes trained on the faraway mountains. “Actually… this time, she, uh, called me and asked me to come over tonight.”

  I take a turn staring at the faraway mountains. It’s funny how the mountains can seem so distant when you’re actually sitting in them. That’s when it hits me. My mom asked her to come over.

  “Is my mom paying you to be here?” I blurt out.

  The mountains are the most fascinating things Elissa has ever seen—at least, that’s what you’d think by the way she’s staring at them.

  “Like a babysitter?” I say.

  Elissa breaks her gaze, finall
y. “Yeah.”

  A babysitter. At my age. Imagine the injustice.

  “But I wanted to come,” Elissa’s quick to say. “And your mom’s working late tonight to get the paper out, and—”

  “And she doesn’t trust me to stay home at night by myself.”

  Elissa shrugs. “That’s what you get when you sneak out.”

  “Karma,” I say in agreement. I can’t be mad at Mom—no matter how lame it makes me feel knowing she had to pay someone to hang out with me. The night I got in trouble, the night she met Nichole, she said she thought Nichole seemed sweet. How nice I’ll have a sister soon, she said. (Yes, she uttered the S-word, she really and truly did.)

  She said it in this weird way, all cheerful and fake like there were other unspoken words beneath the words on top, and I’d have to dig under them to hear what she really meant. It felt like a sundae covered in chocolate coating that reveals, when poked with a spoon, something only a stodgy old person would eat, like butter pecan. So I knew that by saying Nichole seemed sweet my mom was really saying Cheryl was sweet, and by that she was saying if I loved Cheryl so much why didn’t I just move in?

  I could see the butter pecan and I wasn’t having it. “She’s not sweet,” I told my mom. “She’s awful.” And, that same night, I made a symbolic gesture. I deleted Nichole from my friends online—that one’s for you, Mom. (Not that I didn’t have a huge smile on my face during the process, though.)

  Elissa’s back to staring out at the mountains, and even though she’s getting paid to do it, I guess I should say something. Like, I’m sorry.… Is that enough?

  She surprises me by speaking first. “So I saw it. I thought you’d want to know.”

  She saw it… wait, she saw it? It, as in the photo? “When?” I say.

  “The other night,” she says vaguely.

  “Who showed you?” Someone must have got on my phone to copy the photo. Someone stole it. Some nosy person thought they’d—

 
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