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  I speed over and pull my mom out of the intersection. The Pine Hill Trailways bus trundles past without running her over. I have to get her out of here. I need to get out of here myself. So I wave thanks to Elissa and lead my mom to our hatchback. It’s when we reach the curb that my mom notices the keys in the ignition, windows down. Her face pales, finally. She shrinks back to normal size. “They were here the whole time,” she says. “I can’t believe they were here the whole time.”

  As we get in the car, she’s having trouble looking at me. “I’m sorry,” she says, staring out through a windshield that desperately needs washing. “This is a hard day.”

  Sarcastic snaps fill my head. They stomp around like elephants, wanting out. But I keep them down and all I say is, “I know.”

  “And you’re not making it any easier,” she adds.

  Again I say, “I know.” I say it, but I guess I don’t know-know. I have no idea what it feels like to be her right now. She’s sitting here next to me, not talking and not driving, and I wish she’d just start the engine and go.

  She glances across the street, up toward the offices of The Shanosha Scoop, the newspaper where she works. It’s one block down from the Little Art, just across from Taco Juan’s. “Dani, I just remembered that I need to run in and get some work to take home for the weekend,” she says. “Can I trust you to stay in this car?”

  “Yes,” I assure her.

  She touches my arm, holds my eyes in hers. “I’m trusting you. I’ll be back in a minute.”

  “You can trust me,” I say as she leaves the car. She can trust me, I think to myself as I watch her cross the street. I will stay in this car. I will go to my dad’s for the weekend. I will not cause my mom any more trouble.

  And I am trustworthy, I am as good as my word… until I catch a glimpse of something strange. Something I don’t want to see.

  The fire door at the side of the Little Art just opened—the emergency exit leading out of the theater and into the parking lot, the one door no one ever uses. Well, someone just came out of that door. A girl.

  The fence and parked cars block my view, so at first I think my eyes are playing tricks on me, that I’m seeing spots. But then I realize the girl’s just wearing polka dots.

  Someone else would go, Huh. There’s some girl slipping out the fire door. Maybe she was in the projection booth making out with Jackson…. Oh, well, I’ll just sit here fiddling with the radio until my mom comes back since it’s none of my business, because it’s not like he’s my boyfriend, and it’s not like I care who he kisses in the dark with the door closed.

  I am not that someone.

  I’m the kind of someone who unsnaps her seat belt and opens the door, even though she promised to stay put. I’m a nosy someone. A determined someone.

  I’m the someone who would never forgive herself if she didn’t get out of that car and follow the girl.

  4

  The Femme Fatale, Take One

  I sneak down the sidewalk and across to the parking lot behind the Little Art. I follow the girl.

  All I can see is her back: She has hair to her shoulders—bright burgundy when it catches the sun. She wears a skirt, black. A tank top, black. And oddest of all, footless tights with spots all over them, dark pink and stark white, like she broke out in some sort of heinous rash just on her legs. I figure she’s in high school. But I’m guessing—because I can’t see her face. Even so, I am positive I have never seen this girl in my life.

  She walks across the parking lot and I follow the path of her polka dots. I duck down behind a car as she checks for a rock in her shoe. Then she steps out of the parking lot onto Upper Canyon Road. I wait a few seconds before I go after her. She sticks to the side of the road even though there’s no sidewalk. I stay put behind a tree.

  I’m thinking about movies again. About one very specific movie, the one playing in my head.

  Because if this were a scene in a movie, it would be full of suspense and dodges and near-escapes and your heart would thump in your chest as you watched it, your heart up in your throat as the detective—you know that’s me—sneaks down the alley. But the femme fatale keeps turning the corner before you can see who she is.

  It would be deep night, the only light from a few sparse streetlamps.

  There’d be a whole sea of shadows.

  It would start to rain and she’d pull out a black umbrella, pop it open. As she does you’d catch a flash of her hair. A quick shot of her cheek. Then the umbrella would cover her up, making it impossible now to find her face.

  You’d hear the sound of her shoes even through the rain. Clack, clack. Clack, clack. Clack, clack.

  And my shoes too, fainter but still there—if this were a movie I would not be wearing sneakers.

  We’d be in a big city nowhere near Shanosha. We’d be where all the movies take place, where things actually happen.

  The streets would be cobblestone, not cracked asphalt with weeds bursting through. The buildings would be way taller than two stories. Up in the sky would be the lights of a city, not the lumpy old mountains that don’t light up in the night at all.

  But, soon enough, the femme fatale would realize she’s being followed. She’d lift the umbrella to peek over her shoulder and you’d catch a glimpse of her eyes—dark-painted, narrowed with suspicion, but still calling you closer, drawing you in.

  She’d duck down a side passage, and you’d follow. Only, it’s a trick, a dead end. You’d find a wall, bricked up, no exits. Somewhere deep in those shadows she’d have to be hiding, but as you stand there in the dark, straining to hear through the rain, you’d swear she got away.

  This may not be a movie, but the girl in the polka-dot tights does take a turn somewhere because, peeking out from my spot behind the tree, it looks like I lost her.

  Or maybe she got into that car parked all the way up the street—I can’t see from here. I have to get closer. I step out from behind the tree and stay low, letting the Fosters’ unruly hedge be my cover (I happen to be standing on their lawn). I’m getting ready to make a run for it when my mom finds me.

  She’s pulled up in the hatchback. “Danielle,” she says, “what in the world are you doing? I told you to stay in the car.”

  “I thought I saw—” I start, then think better of it. Austin might know about the girl, but I shouldn’t tell anyone else, not till I’m sure.

  “You thought you saw what?” My mom’s not going to let me get away with this.

  “A kitten,” I say. “A little baby kitten.”

  “Where?” my mom says, looking around wildly. Good choice, Dani. Mom loves kittens.

  It seems like she may actually get out of the car to search. Then she remembers we have somewhere to be—that my dad will be at the house any minute, if he’s not there already—and she makes me get in and put on my seat belt.

  “The kitten must belong to someone,” she says as we pull off Upper Canyon and back to the main road. “Don’t worry,” she says as we take the turn to our house, “the kitten will be just fine.”

  But you and I know there’s no kitten. This is all one huge diversion, see, this part of the movie. Because what’s really happening is someone’s been lying and breaking hearts, and that’s not fiction, that’s not a picture on screen. That’s real life.

  Someone is being a big fatheaded liar like my dad.

  And it all has something to do with a girl in polka-dot tights.

  5

  A Little White Lie

  Hey, you.

  Yeah, you. You in the car with your face smushed against the glass. The one sulking. The one who forgot to pack socks. How’s it feel to lose?

  I won’t dignify my own self with an answer.

  My whole rebellion thing went nowhere and fast, there’s no denying it. I mean, if I look out the car window I see the tollbooth, which is how I know we’re coming up to the Rhinecliff Bridge. Once we cross that, we’ll be on the other side of the Hudson River. In Dad’s territory. Wh
ere I said I wouldn’t go.

  Dad reaches out an arm to pay the toll. With the window rolled down, the air-conditioning leaks out and the scent of the river seeps in. If you’ve never crossed the hideous Rhinecliff Bridge heading east on a summer’s night when you’d rather be anywhere else, I’ll tell you what it smells like:

  Mud.

  Dad’s paid the toll and we’re moving again. Soon we’ll be on the bridge, and we can’t turn around once we’re on a bridge, I think that’s illegal. I haven’t spoken a word to him since we left Shanosha.

  I’m sitting in the passenger seat in such a way that I’d have to physically crank my neck all the way around to look at him, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see him with the eyes in the back of my head. That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of every single thing he does as he pulls the car onto the bridge. Like how he puts a little weight on the brake now, like how he keeps glancing at me when he really should be keeping his eyes on the road.

  I can’t help but notice that he looks the same. Only a couple months have passed, and I guess I figured he’d have changed. Like he’d come pick me up with a beard or something and I’d be like Who’s that dude? That dude’s not my dad. But no. He’s here and he sure looks like my dad. He has the short dark hair that sticks up on top, always, no matter if you smooth it down with gel or spit. The same brown glasses, and behind them the same pair of gray-green eyes. Somehow it feels so much worse that he looks exactly like my dad.

  I aim my eyes out the window where I can see the edge of the bridge and, below and beyond that, the water. I can see the mountains—the same ones I have by my house—and up above them in the sky, all pretty just to be annoying, the orange-pinkish glow of the setting sun.

  Hey, you.

  Yeah, you. The one who was in the dark theater getting played. The one dragged out by her mommy. Some Rita Hayworth you turned out to be.

  “Did you say something?” Dad says. We’re coasting over the bridge now.

  I make a great show of adjusting the shoulder strap of my seat belt so I don’t die of suffocation. But I don’t answer.

  “So it’s the silent treatment all weekend, then,” Dad says. “I thought you were more mature than that, Danielle.”

  Mature. He’s talking to me about being mature. I let go of the shoulder strap so it cuts into my throat, constricting my air passage, making it impossible for me to speak even if I wanted to. Below us is the water of the Hudson, dull and gray.

  Dad says, “Fine. You don’t have to talk. I’ll do all the talking. This has been… difficult, for all of us. And I take the blame for this, Danielle, I want you to know that.”

  I’ve been trying to keep absolutely silent, but I lose control for one second and let out a sound: a cross between a snort and ha! Like pfffftcha, which needs no translation.

  Dad keeps talking, being all You have every right to be mad at me. Saying I did some things I’m not proud of and I hope you can forgive me. Adding Blah-blah I’m your dad and I’ll always love you, blah.

  If this were a movie and the heroine’s dad was being a major liar like mine, we’d throw in a car chase to get rid of him. Like maybe I’d get so mad, I’d run out to escape him and he’d go after me, do an illegal U-turn on the bridge, speed away from the cops, cause a traffic jam, run over some poor kid’s dog, and land in prison.

  In real life, what I want to do is tell my dad I’m not dumb. I pay attention. If there’s anything I’ve learned from noir movies it’s that everyone lies about something. And if you lie about one thing, what’s to say you didn’t lie about it all? I’d like to hear his answer to that.

  Of course, I don’t say any of this because I can’t: I’m still not talking to him. But I think it. I think it really, really hard and hope he hears me.

  When we reach the end of the bridge, the car in front of us turns right and we keep on going straight. I don’t know where my dad lives now—except that it’s somewhere on this side of the river. I decide to close my eyes so I can’t find it, even if I was forced to.

  I let the noise of this side of the river wash over me. Car noise, air-conditioner noise, radio noise, all noises we have on my side of the river.

  Eventually, the car slows. I feel it turn. A touch of brakes as we come to a stop. We have arrived, I take it. We’re at his house. My eyes stay sealed.

  “Danielle,” I hear him say.

  I hear a loud sigh. Then the key being pulled from the ignition, the driver’s side door opening.

  “Dani, do you want anything or what?”

  He’s asking if I… want anything? I want more things than I can name. I want this drive never to have happened, this bridge never crossed. I want Cheryl to stay on her side of the river, and my dad on mine. I want my mom and dad back together, but that goes without saying. I even want Casey home from soccer camp, if that’ll help return things to normal. I want a life nothing like a noir movie. I want to find out Jackson had no strange girl in the projection booth with him. That he’s in Shanosha right now eating ice cream with his girlfriend, Elissa, and that doesn’t bother me in the slightest because if he’s going to be with anyone, it should be Elissa. I want to be assured that everything’s as it should be, that everything’s fine. I want no lies and all truth, all the time. That’s what I want.

  So I let my eyes come open. First one, then the other. The sight is blinding. What an ugly house Cheryl has, with sickly green floodlights, and concrete instead of grass on the lawn, and flat, smeary windows decorated with… boxes of cereal?

  Oh, this isn’t the house. It’s a convenience store.

  “We need eggs,” Dad says. He has his car door open, waiting for my answer. “Do you want anything from in there or not?”

  Rita Hayworth would not want a thing. She’d stay strong and wouldn’t be lured by the bright lights and shelves of convenience. But Rita Hayworth was a movie star—she never got thirsty like regular people. She wouldn’t cave.

  I, on the other hand…

  “Chocolate milk,” I burst out. “I really want some chocolate milk.” These are the first words I’ve spoken in close to an hour.

  “Then come on in,” Dad says.

  And I unbuckle my seat belt, and, with the last ounce of pride I have left, I open my car door and lead the way in.

  Cheryl’s actual house—the house Dad now lives in—is not as ugly as a convenience store, but I take the time to notice as many questionable things as I can. It’s only fair to my mom, even if she did have a hand in sending me here for the weekend.

  Ugly things spotted: ugly gold vase holding ugly bigheaded flowers, ugly brown carpet leading up the stairs, ugly picture of a horse in the hallway, ugly refrigerator magnets, ugly curtains, ugly deformed-looking knobs on all the doors.

  I’d like to say Cheryl is as ugly as her house, but that would be a lie. She’s okay, I guess. She is blond and pointy, with long arms and long fingers, and she obviously straightens her hair because I notice a frizzy curl she missed at the back.

  She has a blond and pointy sixteen-year-old daughter named Nichole. I haven’t met her yet, but I know what she looks like from the pictures in the stairwell. Her name’s not Nicole but Nic-hole—I see the nameplate on her bedroom door.

  “Is she in there?” I say as we stand outside her closed door.

  Cheryl looks anxiously at the door, but she doesn’t knock on it. “You’ll meet her later,” she says, avoiding the question. Then she sweeps me down the hall toward another door, which she opens with a flourish. “This,” Cheryl says, “is your room.”

  She points to it, her smile eating up a full half of her face, as if she expects me to leap inside and lick the walls.

  “I already have a room,” I say. I don’t budge from my spot in the hallway. Cheryl’s just my dad’s girlfriend—I don’t understand why she’s acting like this has to be my house too.

  “I know you have a room at home,” Cheryl says. “But this is your room here.”

  She switches on the light to reveal
four walls, one tiny window, and a prison mattress. (Fine, a canopy bed, but I decide that if and when I recount this later I will tell everyone about the prison mattress.) The room is so small it fits just the bed and a dresser. You’d have to walk sideways to reach the window. You’d have to hold your breath if you wanted to do anything more.

  “I don’t need two rooms,” I say.

  “You can decorate it any way you like,” she says, her voice getting higher and louder with each word. “Right, honey?”

  I flinch.

  My dad, aka “honey,” has been hovering during this conversation. He holds my little suitcase. “It’s your room,” he says. “I want you to feel at home here.”

  If I puked, it would fade in to match the blech color of the hall carpet, I realize. If I puked here and now at what my dad just said, you could walk this hall for years and never know it.

  I take one step into the room. “It’s huge!” I say.

  “Danielle,” my dad admonishes me. I guess he still knows me well enough to detect my sarcasm.

  I sit on the bed and give it a good bounce. “Wow,” I say. “What was this room before, a shoe closet?”

  Cheryl looks aghast. That’s when I realize it probably was her closet. I bet she had to move all her stuff to the basement so I could have a room to sleep in. Her winter clothes and shoes are gathering mold in the basement, all for me!

  “Thanks for letting me use your closet, Cheryl,” I say with the utmost politeness. “I really appreciate it.”

  “Danielle, please,” my dad says. He makes me feel bad. Almost.

  “You have your own bathroom,” Cheryl says out of the blue. She’s quite possibly deranged. She opens a door to reveal the bathroom and then smiles, all her teeth showing.

  “Actually…” she adds. “You share the bathroom with Nichole.” She motions toward a closed door at the opposite end of the bathroom, just beside the toilet. “It connects to her room too.” Then she turns to my dad. “I’ll leave you two to get settled in.”

 
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