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  Today she’s her usual self—super curly black hair held back so it doesn’t get in the hot fudge, a smear of pistachio on her cheek. And her smile, always with that sweet smile, like nothing could ever bring her down. She’s really killing my noir mood.

  “Dani!” she says, all bubbly. “Want a sundae? On the house!”

  Now that she’s seen me, I can’t just walk away. I give an imperceptible shake of my head, but I guess that isn’t enough because Elissa’s still talking out the window. “You’re not going to see another movie, are you?” she asks. “Wouldn’t you rather have some ice cream?”

  I stop beside the take-out window, keeping an eye out for any cars passing in the street. “I’m not here,” I hiss. “I’m not going to the movies.”

  She cocks her head, beyond confused. “Okay… Then where are you going?”

  “To the movies,” I explain in a whisper, “except not.”

  Her smile falters for a sec. She blinks. Then she brings out the smile again, even larger this time, and says, “Jimmies and hot fudge?”

  Any other day, I’d take the sundae, but this isn’t any other day. My world is crashing down around me. Not even ice cream will save me now. Do you hear me, people? This is serious.

  But I can’t stand here and explain this to Elissa. I put a finger to my lips in the universal symbol for “zip it” and just hope, if my mom or dad comes by, that Elissa doesn’t crack under the pressure.

  What I have to do is get across the street and into that theater before anyone else spots me. I have to—

  I turn and crash into a girl who’s carrying half the town’s public library in her arms. She fumbles but somehow manages to drop only one book. On my foot.

  “Sorry, Dani,” she says.

  I pick it up for her—it’s some sparkly-looking book about, wow, is that a unicorn? “What in the world are you reading?” I say.

  “Oh, nothing,” she says, turning it over so I can’t see the cover.

  The girl is Taylor. She’s in my grade at school. We used to be better friends than we are. If you go way back into the distant reaches of time you’d find Taylor and me, age five or six, getting busted for mixing our Play-Doh in kindergarten. (She had red, I had yellow, we made orange, and BFF from there.) Except, once you hit junior high, you tend to lose sight of Play-Doh.

  In junior high what happens is you make a new friend (Maya) and your old friend’s still hung up on immature things (like unicorns) and you have absolutely nothing in common anymore, so soon there’s no point in even saying hi in the halls.

  “So,” Taylor says now. “How’s your summer?” Her pale blond hair is up in little braided pigtails that are actually kinda cute. I could compliment her hair, but I don’t. Besides, she’s in my way.

  “My summer’s fine,” I say. “But if anyone asks, you didn’t see me here. Okay?”

  “I didn’t?”

  “Just pretend this whole conversation never happened,” I say, taking a step around her. The Little Art is just across the street—so close yet so far away.

  “Sorry about Maya,” Taylor blurts out.

  “Sorry about what about Maya?” I say. “She moved away. She didn’t get eaten by a bear.” Not a totally ridiculous concept: I once saw a black bear in our backyard. I guess it came down out of the mountains to snack on our garbage or something. This is what I’m dealing with in Shanosha—a town so insignificant the bears don’t even bother trying to eat you.

  “Uh, yeah, I know she moved away. That’s what I meant. But also…” She stops.

  “Also what?”

  “Also about your mom and dad. I wanted to call you, but…”

  But you didn’t.

  Taylor just stands there looking at me with this dumb expression, like I’m supposed to respond somehow. She’s so caught up in her own world, the one filled with books and whatever you find in them, that sometimes I wonder if she has any idea of what’s really happening. Like, in this world. Where we’re both standing.

  “Gotta go,” I say.

  I cross the street. Taylor takes the hint and doesn’t follow.

  But when I reach the Little Art, I’m not free and clear. Ms. Greenway, the theater’s owner, is waving at me through the ticket window. She points up to the marquee, raises her eyebrows. That means she thinks I’ll appreciate today’s movie.

  Up on the marquee I see NOTORIOS in giant letters (as in Notorious, directed by Hitchcock—I guess they lost a U). That’s the movie where Ingrid Bergman is a spy. I give Ms. Greenway the thumbs-up. She knows I like it when the girls get to be spies. I already saw the movie once this week, but I don’t mind watching it again. Hey, I’ll watch it ten more times if it means not having to go to Dad’s this weekend.

  I just wish Ms. Greenway never saw me. It’s hard to be on the lam from the law—and by that I mean avoiding your mom, who wants you home packing socks—in a small town where everybody and their dog knows who you are.

  Before Ms. Greenway can ask me any questions, she gets a phone call and turns her back to answer it. I take the opportunity to slip inside the theater. I doubt she’d make me pay anyway. We’ve got what’s called an understanding. She looks the other way when I come in flashing yesterday’s ticket, she lets me stay for a double feature whenever I want, and she never asks for a thing in return. Okay, so maybe it’s not an understanding—maybe she feels sorry for me. Either way, sometimes I think I spend more time at the Little Art than I do my own house.

  The lobby of the Little Art is one small room. The walls, floor, and ceiling are all painted black—so you can’t see where the walls begin and get tricked into thinking the room’s way bigger. There’s this velvet rope in front of the theater door even though no one’s lined up to wait for the next show. They always keep that velvet rope up—it makes the place seem like a real movie theater.

  Only thing is, if you want more toppings on your popcorn in the middle of a movie and you go out to get some, you could trip over the rope and spill popcorn all over the black floor. (In a movie, the camera would push in until all you saw was the dark floor, the pale popcorn. You’d see how spilled white popcorn on black-painted floorboards can sort of look like stars, if you’ve just fallen over and have the spins and you’re sitting there with the mess all around your head. Like a universe of stars. Except you can eat them.)

  Maya and I used to come to the Little Art all the time. It was our place. At first we only went to the Little Art because it’s across from Taco Juan’s, and, you know: free ice cream. Maya wasn’t so into the movies here, though. The thing about the Little Art is there’s only one movie showing at a time, and it’s not always in English. Lots of the movies are in black-and-white and the actors talk really loud and really slow, like they think you need a hearing aid. So I guess it takes some getting used to.

  Sometimes when you’re watching a movie the reel pops and the screen breaks out in little bubbles that look like boiling black lava’s erupting from the moldy ceiling, swallowing the actors’ heads. There’s dust on the picture, so even the most glamorous of movie stars look like they have dandruff. And sometimes the sound cuts out at the most major scene—like the big reveal when you find out who the masked killer is—so it helps if you can read lips.

  What Maya did like about the Little Art was the self-serve popcorn, how you’d scoop it out of the popper yourself and smother it with all different kinds of toppings: salt and butter, sure, but also hot-pepper flakes, cinnamon (my fave), brown sugar, and cocoa powder.

  Maya and I would invent new topping combos and snag seats in the second row, which was too close to make much sense of the movie anyway. We’d talk—until some film snob who traveled an hour to see Citizen Kane for the fifty-thousandth time told us to shut it. Then we’d whisper. About anything, about everything, about absolutely nothing. It was the best.

  Then Maya was gone. But the Little Art was still here.

  So I started sitting a little ways back in the theater. That way, my eyes could actually f
ocus on the screen. I started reading the subtitles. I started paying attention.

  This is how I first found Rita Hayworth. She was in an old movie called Gilda. The first part of the movie is a snore—just these guys in suits talking at each other and you’re like yeah-yeah-yeah let’s get to Gilda. And then you see her. You see her. And nothing is the same after that.

  Obviously, Rita Hayworth plays Gilda. There’s this part where she has a guitar and she sings in this big room where no one’s watching. She’s sad, but she’s not out-of-control sobbing. She’s not pawing through crate-loads of tissues whining, Why me?

  Then she stops being sad and gets mad. She stands up and throws the guitar and breaks a window. I love that part.

  I don’t like what comes later so much, when she ends up with the mean guy who used to be her boyfriend and all’s forgotten. I like it when she doesn’t care what anyone thinks, when she might walk out of the room and never come back, and you know you’d miss her forever. That’s the Rita Hayworth I like to remember.

  Gilda is what’s called a femme fatale. That means she’s dangerous. She draws men in, and then she pushes them away, because they can’t have her. No one is sure if they can trust her, probably because they can’t. The men love her, but they also despise her. They want to know her, and they never ever can. It’s complicated, people tell me, like I can’t understand the huge messes adults make of their relationships.

  But I do understand.

  I understand how—in the movies—you walk away at the end knowing who the bad guy is. It’s not like in real life when you walk around all confused, wondering if you’re the bad one for hating them.

  So here I am in the lobby of the Little Art about to sneak into Theater 1 (the only theater in the building, so it’s kind of funny they bothered with the number)—except someone stops me.

  Austin Greenway—Ms. Greenway’s son—won’t let me in. He holds the velvet rope so high I’d have to be a triathlete to jump over it. But I could just duck under it, and I do. Then he blocks the door. Austin is my age—he’ll be in my same eighth-grade class in September. That does not mean I have to be friends with him.

  He takes his so-called usher job really seriously—even though he’s too young to work legally in the state of New York, so it’s not like he’s getting paid.

  “My mom said if people miss the first fifteen minutes of a show they have to wait for the next one,” he says. “And it’s been way more than fifteen minutes.”

  “She doesn’t mean me, and you know it.” I try to stare him down, but he has this way of never meeting my eyes like he doesn’t want me to see him. Fine by me.

  I mean, he’s not beastly or anything—he looks like a normal guy my age. He’s normal height. Normal brown hair, normal amount of freckles. Has normal eyes, green I guess, I don’t really pay attention. Wears normal T-shirts, normal cargo shorts, normal shoes, if you count man-sandals as normal. Some guys go off for the summer and come back cute—I’ve seen it happen. And for a millisecond I think maybe he could be cute if you tilt your head sideways and squint, not that I’m going to try.

  “Also, you have to show me your ticket if you want to get in,” Austin says.

  Strike that. Austin could be cute—but only if he stopped bossing people around. Ever since his mom let him help out at the theater, he’s been on a power trip.

  “So if I show you my ticket you’ll let me in?” I say. “Even though it’s been more than fifteen minutes?”

  “Do you have a ticket or not, Dani?”

  “I have a ticket,” I say, seeing as I do—technically—have a ticket stub somewhere in my shorts pocket from earlier in the week. I dig in, find it (also an M&M, a blue one, which I count as good luck), and hand it over. Not the M&M, the ticket. The M&M I pop in my mouth and eat.

  Austin eyes the ticket up and down. Turns it over. Inspects it. Holds it to his nose like he’s sniffing it for clues. I wish that were a joke.

  In the movies there’d really be no place for Austin. He wouldn’t be the hero. He wouldn’t be the bad guy either. He wouldn’t even be the funny sidekick, because I’m looking at Austin right now and I’m so not laughing.

  I guess he could be a minor character—an extra. Sure, that’s what he’d be, an extra, like the guy who holds the door open for Rita Hayworth as she sweeps into the nightclub. If he’s lucky he has one line like, “Good evening,” or “May I take your coat?” He’s so insignificant, he doesn’t even get a name in the credits. His character is called Guy Who Took Rita Hayworth’s Coat. That’s the best I can do for Austin.

  Not that I’m Rita Hayworth in this scenario or anything. Still, would it kill him to open the door to Theater 1 and let me in?

  Guess so. Because here’s Austin, still eyeing my ticket.

  Maybe the Little Art should be better about their ticketing system, because the ink doesn’t always work on the machine and my old ticket looks like any other ticket—you can’t tell what show it’s for. My ticket is the color of a ticket. The shape of a ticket. For all intents and purposes, a ticket. And Austin knows it. Which makes me grin.

  “You saw this show already,” he says at last, “on Wednesday, the four fifteen, remember? Notorious? By Hitchcock? With Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman? I remember seeing you. I know you were there.”

  “So?”

  “You’re just here to bother Jackson, aren’t you?”

  Things about Austin:

  (1) He’s way annoying, can’t mention that enough.

  And (2) he’s obsessed with his cousin Jackson.

  Jackson works here for the summer as a projectionist. That’s the person who sits up in the booth at the far back of the theater. You know that little window up above the last row of seats? The window where the movie comes out of? At the Little Art, there’s an actual human someone in there, making it happen.

  Jackson’s seventeen—the same age as my old babysitter, Elissa. He’s in high school, and he says he’s working here only to save enough money for a car. He talks about the car a lot, but we also talk about movies sometimes, about Rita Hayworth. Austin hates it—Jackson never asks him who his favorite femme fatale is.

  When Jackson’s with me, it’s different. I can’t even talk about it with anyone. I mean, I know nothing could happen. I’m not dim. I know how far the divide is between high school and middle school, like between black-and-white and full-color, between silver screen and squeaky movie theater seat in the audience of real life.

  Besides, Jackson has a girlfriend. And not just any girlfriend: Elissa. And Elissa’s like family. When someone used to put you in pajamas and make you brush your teeth, you can’t help but have a deep, unspoken connection. That means any boyfriend of Elissa’s is automatically a friend of mine. That’s all.

  Anyway, what I like about Jackson is how he leaves me alone. He sees that I want to watch a movie and he just lets me watch. He doesn’t ask, How are you feeling about the divorce? He doesn’t say, Why do you spend so much time here? Don’t you have any friends? He’ll let me hide here as long as I want to. And that’s all I care about today.

  But back to Austin. Because he’s standing here, still blocking the door to Theater 1, like only over his dead body will I get in.

  “You are going in there to talk to my cousin, aren’t you?” he says. He tries to narrow his eyes into sharp points, but it just looks like he got soap in them. “What do you want to talk to him about anyway?”

  “None of your business,” I say.

  “Why won’t you admit you’re in love with him?”

  I did not just hear those words.

  Austin doesn’t actually think that. The kid has no idea. Which brings me to (3): Really, Austin just hates it that anyone would rather talk to me than to him. It’s like he can’t fathom that I could be more interesting than he is, like that’s more unbelievable than the existence of, I don’t know, aliens.

  (And by the way, I do believe in aliens, it’s completely egotistical not to, and I’d bet a tr
illion dollars that Austin doesn’t.)

  Austin’s still standing in front of the door when his mom calls for him on the walkie. Seriously. Austin’s brilliant idea this summer was to use walkie-talkies so his mom could reach him anywhere in the theater. Not that she simply couldn’t yell out Austin! and he’d hear her and answer—he just happens to be insane.

  He holds up a hand to me and says into the walkie, “Austin here.”

  Ms. Greenway’s staticky voice says, “Is Danielle there with you? Tell her that her mother’s on the phone.”

  “Ten-four,” Austin says. (It’s so much worse when he uses the technical language.) Then he turns to me, all smuglike. “Your mom’s on the phone.”

  “I’m standing right here, Austin. I heard.”

  He motions at the house phone in the hallway. “So go get the phone.”

  Which of course I am not about to do. So instead I lean in and I try to be as nice as possible to him, which is like eating ants, and I say, “You didn’t see me. I’m like Orson Welles in The Third Man. I’m not here.”

  That’s the movie where this guy, played by Orson Welles, spends the whole time sneaking around in dank, dark sewer tunnels under the city. People are looking for him, but he’s hiding, just out of sight, being the third man no one can find. That’s me—only I don’t reek like a sewer. Now, if only Austin will let me in…

  But he says, “You’re like who in what?”

  And this is the guy who works at the movie theater.

  “Just never mind, okay? If my mom asks, you didn’t see me. That’s all I meant.”

  No matter what complaints I’ve got about Austin, I guess there’s also (4) Austin’s not so strong. Physically, I mean. I’m able to shove him out of the way, open the door to Theater 1, and walk on in.

  3

  But Mom’s Not Exactly Ingrid Bergman

  Maybe this would be the part of the movie where we’d go back in time to see how it all happened. That’s called a flashback. Like, I open the door to Theater 1, take a step into the darkness, and my whole life spins out before my eyes: being born, first word, first step, that time with Taylor and the Play-Doh, that time on the jungle gym when I almost broke my arm, learning to snowboard up on Hunter Mountain, learning—fine, failing—to play bass guitar, first kiss (practice), first kiss (clumsy but real), that time I held Maya’s ankles when she did sit-ups, that time she held mine, that time I tripped over my shoelaces outside the school library the first week of seventh grade and fell flat on my face and everyone laughed and I wish I could forget it but I can’t, that time my best friend moved away, that time I found out someone was lying and that someone was my dad.

 
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