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Fade out, p.5

Fade Out, page 5

 

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  When she steps out, it’s just me and Dad, Dad and me, chillin’ in a closet. I’d say it’s just like old times, but it’s not. Not at all.

  “Is this how it’s going to be all weekend?” Dad says.

  “Like what?” I say innocently.

  “When your brother comes to visit I hope he’s on better behavior.”

  “Casey will love it here. Does he get his own closet too?”

  Dad lets out a long, low sigh. I’m his test case, I see now. I’m the first piece from his old life that’s come spilling into his new. Maybe he should have thought some on this before carting me over. Or at least waited before buying the canopy bed.

  “Go ahead and unpack,” he says at last. “Come down when you’re ready.” Then he leaves, just like that. He doesn’t yell at me for being so awful. He doesn’t tell me to appreciate my closet because some kids in the world have no food and nowhere to live and they don’t even have closets. He’s just gone, like he’s flat-out given up on me.

  This is all his fault. Could someone tell me why I feel bad?

  I’m alone not two seconds when the door beside the toilet flips open and a girl shoves through the bathroom to gawk at me. Nichole is a younger version of her mom, her hair long, her jeans low on her hips the way my mom would never let me wear them. Her eyes are like the sharp little stones you step on when you’re running down the driveway to get the mail and you thought you didn’t need your shoes but you so totally regret it.

  She speaks first. “That’s my bed.” She shoots her gaze at the canopy. “I didn’t want it anymore so they stuck it in here.”

  “Okay,” I say. What, am I supposed to be grateful?

  She continues. “So you’re not going to be my sister. Got it?”

  “Got it,” I say, like it’s her choice what we are and we aren’t. Like I would ever think that sleeping on her hand-me-down bed makes us sisters somehow. For some reason, my mouth won’t open to say that.

  There’s something about Nichole that makes me nervous. Maybe because she’s older and has on those great jeans. Or maybe it’s because this is her house and not mine.

  So I add, “I never thought we would be sisters.”

  She takes me in for a beat. “Huh,” she says. “You haven’t seen the ring.”

  “What ring?”

  “What?” she says.

  “What?” I say.

  “Whatever,” she says. She’s toying with me. “So how old are you again, twelve?”

  “Thirteen,” I say, mortally offended. “I’m going into eighth grade.”

  She doesn’t seem too impressed. “Where?”

  “Shanosha.” The name of my public school is the same as the name of my town, fashioned after some Native American word I’m not even sure is for real. It’s a school in the middle of nowhere full of middle-of-nowhere kids. I wonder if she knows that.

  She sniffs. I guess she does.

  She doesn’t tell me what grade she’s in or where she goes to school. She just says, “If this door is closed”—she indicates the door from my room into the bathroom—“you don’t open it. I’ll let you know when and if you’re allowed in. You use that sink and don’t touch my sink. You’d better have brought your own toothpaste, I swear. If you have to take a shower do it before nine, so you’re not in my way. And no baths. Not ever. The only person who takes a bath in that tub is me.”

  She’s acting like I’m going to spend all my time here, in this bathroom.

  “Okay?” she says.

  “Yeah, okay, no problem.”

  I can’t figure out how I can snap out whatever thing I want when it’s to my mom or my dad or even my dad’s girlfriend, Cheryl, but just being around Nichole turns me meek. No problem? I don’t even know who I am anymore.

  She heads back into the bathroom.

  “Hey, Nichole?” I say, my voice all squeaky.

  “Yeah?”

  “What ring?”

  She takes one last look at me and slams the door in my face.

  Fine. If this were a movie, I guess I wouldn’t even be in it.

  I sit beneath the pink prison canopy, alone. I have a bad feeling. I can barely breathe. I grab my bag and dig through it for my phone. This house may be on the other side of the river, which is so far from home it feels like the other side of the world, but at least it’s down out of the mountains, in civilization. I bet it gets perfect cell-phone reception.

  Only—I can’t find my phone.

  I dump the contents of my bag out on the bed. Lots of old ticket stubs plus a few bits of stale popcorn. The broken headphones that go with my iPod but not the iPod itself. Wintergreen gum. Spearmint gum. A blue pencil swiped from my mom’s office, eraserless. My house key. A plastic spoon from Taco Juan’s, licked clean.

  But nothing even remotely pink. Which means no phone.

  Then I picture it, exactly where I left it. Theater 1, right side, second row, up close and personal to the screen. My cell phone is sitting on the arm of that seat just where I left it. It couldn’t be anywhere else.

  I retrace my steps to be sure. Touch of Evil started playing, I looked back at the projection booth, I saw—I don’t know what I saw—and I must have lost my head and run out of the theater before grabbing the phone.

  I’ve got to call the Little Art to see if my cell is still there. If I do, there are three things that could happen. One, Ms. Greenway picks up. She says she has my phone and to cheer me up she promises to hold all Rita Hayworth movies until I’m back home.

  Two, Austin picks up. He’s his usual obnoxious self and we fight for hours and I run screaming from the conversation before even finding out if he has my phone.

  Then there’s three: Jackson picks up. I could ask about my phone, but shouldn’t I ask about something—someone—else? I don’t know if I’d have the guts to do it.

  I’m searching out a landline when I’m caught red-handed in my dad’s bedroom. I’ve just touched my fingers to the phone on the bedside table when my dad’s voice comes at me from the doorway. “What are you doing in here?” he says.

  “Just using the phone,” I say. But he pulls me out of the room, and I realize he thinks I was in there snooping. He thinks I’m paying attention to the fact that Cheryl’s got an ugly orange-yellow blanket on the bed, like I’ll go reporting that little detail back to Mom.

  I have to ask him. “Nichole said something about a ring—” I start.

  “Nichole told you that?” he cuts in.

  “Yeah.”

  “I wanted to be the one to tell you that. On the drive here I thought we’d come to a place where we could—”

  Now I’m the one to interrupt. “What ring?” I ask. “Like, a ring for Cheryl? An engagement ring?”

  Instead of answering, his eyes skitter back into the bedroom. To the dresser. To a box on top of the dresser. A small black velvet box. Inside is probably some sparkly thing, barely even ugly at all, and I don’t want to set my eyes on it, not ever.

  “Yes,” he says at last. “That’s what it is.”

  “Why isn’t she wearing it?” I ask. “Did she say she has to think about it?”

  I hope that’s what she said. Here’s to hoping she wanted to meet me first before deciding to marry my dad. And now that she has, and sees how difficult I am, she’ll say it’s off and we’ll go back to our side of the river and never come here again.

  “In fact,” he says, “she said yes.” His face is all red. Flushed with shame, maybe, flushed with happiness. Probably both. “She just thought I should talk to you first before she wore the ring in front of you.”

  I turn away. I will never look at Cheryl’s fingers again.

  “What do you think about this, Dani? Tell me what you’re thinking.”

  Dad so does not want to know what I’m thinking.

  Out of all the vicious things that could come spilling out of my mouth at this moment in time—a moment I’m sure I’ll remember always, my heart sunk as low as my feet into the hideous
depths of the hall carpet—what I say is, “I just need to use a phone.”

  “What happened to the cell phone I bought you? Did you lose it?”

  “I forgot to charge the battery,” I say quickly. “And I didn’t pack the adapter.”

  He accepts this as fact and leads me down to the cordless phone in the kitchen. I grab it and retreat back upstairs to the room they call my room. Once I’m in there, door closed, phone in hand, losing oxygen in that tight, sealed space, I realize how easy it had been.

  To lie.

  I keep doing it. These lies—kittens and cell phones—they just slip out. I could have told the truth, but I didn’t. I let that little white lie escape my lips and, without a beat, Dad believed me. Lying is far easier than I realized. Maybe once you become a teenager you get a knack for lying. You become more skilled in lies the older you get, so by the time you’re grown up with kids and a house and a marriage, it’s all you know how to do about anything: lie and lie and lie some more. I guess I’ll be an expert by then.

  I push all thoughts of the engagement away and call the Little Art. Austin picks up. I’m relieved that it’s not Jackson until he starts talking.

  “I heard you’re in big trouble,” Austin says. “Are you grounded?”

  “I’m at my dad’s house. That’s worse than being grounded.”

  “Oh,” he says, and pauses like he wants to say something else. Austin has a dad too. He must have one—how else could he exist to annoy me? But I realize I’ve never asked him where his dad is. I could. I could go ahead and ask. Maybe Austin wants me to. Maybe his dad did what mine’s doing now. Out of all the people I know, Austin might be the one to understand….

  “My dad—” I say. I fumble over how to put it. “My dad, he—”

  I can’t, though. There really is no way to put it.

  “What?” Austin says.

  “My dad made me call. You know that cell phone he got me? I left it in the theater. Could you go get it?”

  “Are you sure you left it here? Did you check your bag?”

  “It’s there. Second row, on the right side. Just go get it.”

  “Are you sure? I don’t want to go all the way down there if you’re not sure.”

  I let out a sigh, can’t help it. Austin. He drives me insane. Why would I ever think of confiding anything in him?

  “Yes. I am sure. Go get it, Austin. I’ll wait.”

  “You’re always telling me what to do,” he says. I expect more of an argument, but there’s only the clatter of the phone as he drops it and stomps away.

  I wait. I wait and wait and wait. Austin sure is taking his time. He probably found the phone right away but decided to stretch out on a seat, kick back, watch a bit of the movie. Then he probably decided to get himself some popcorn. Then do some jumping jacks. I don’t know—what’s taking him so long?

  The line crackles as he picks up at last. “Hey, who’s this?” he mumbles.

  “It’s me, Dani. So did you find it or what?”

  But I spoke too soon. Though the idea of Austin conking his head in the dark theater and stumbling away with amnesia so he forgot who he was talking to is funny, it’s not what’s happening. This isn’t Austin.

  “Oh, hey, D,” the voice on the other end of the line says. “What’s up?”

  It’s Jackson, the big liar himself.

  6

  What’s in Black-and-White

  So you think you lost your phone, huh?” Jackson says.

  “I don’t think I lost it, I know I lost it,” I say. Here’s my chance. “Jackson… You know in the theater before? I thought I saw—”

  “The car blew up,” he says. “Was that sweet or what?”

  I step up to the window, part the ugly curtains, look out at the backyard. All I see are trees—just like at my house. It’s freaky how the trees here are exactly like my trees, how for one second I can look out this window and think I’m home.

  “Not the movie,” I tell Jackson—though I’m glad he cleared up the mystery of what that fuzzy thing on screen was supposed to be. “I mean in real life.”

  “What’re you talking about?” There’s a faint shift in his voice. I hear it, just like a noir detective might hear it. This is how I know Jackson knows I know, you know?

  “I thought I saw someone,” I say carefully. “In the projection booth with you.”

  “Nah,” Jackson says. “That was me.”

  So we’re going to play it that way, are we?

  In my memory the picture is clear: two silhouettes, two heads, which adds up to—you guessed it—two separate people. Unless Jackson grew a second head, someone was there was him.

  “I thought I saw a girl,” I say.

  “What girl?”

  “I saw her. She had on pink tights, with polka dots.” And though it’s true I saw a girl—on the street, not in the projection booth—he doesn’t need to know that little detail. “Not Elissa,” I say, so he doesn’t try that on me. “A girl who wasn’t Elissa.”

  “Oh, yeah! I forgot. I ordered pizza and some girl came by to deliver it.”

  “What kind of pizza?” I ask suspiciously.

  “Pepperoni and peppers, what else?” he says, as if I should know.

  And just like that, I begin to doubt myself. Maybe I want to doubt myself because it’s Jackson, of all people. So I come up with different scenarios where Austin was distracted—he did admit he went to the bathroom—and the girl with the pizza slipped through. And then, of course, I ask myself, Shouldn’t a pizza-delivery girl wear some kind of uniform, and not funny tights? And isn’t it odd that the pizza-delivery girl left out the fire door and not the front? And that she took off in the exact opposite direction of Pie-in-the-Sky, the only pizza joint in town? So now I’m doubting my doubts about myself, and I’m back to doubting Jackson.

  “By the way,” Jackson says, “don’t worry about your cell phone. I was kidding before. I found it on the seat. We’ll hang on to it for you.”

  “Thanks,” I say, “but Jackson—”

  Before I can finish he mumbles, “Austin wants to talk to you.” Even though I shout, “Jackson!” he’s no longer listening. He’s handed the phone over to his cousin.

  “Why’d you have me look all over the theater if Jackson had your phone the whole time?” Austin asks, sounding seriously fed up.

  I’m about to respond, but I’m distracted by the sense that I’m not alone. I turn to find the bathroom door wide open. Nichole’s in the doorway, wielding a flatiron in one hand. She does her hair and stares at me. I wonder how long she’s been here.

  “I have to go,” I tell Austin.

  “Fine,” he says, “but you really need to be more careful with your—” I hang up.

  “I heard you yelling,” Nichole says. “Jackson who? Jackson who moved to Shanosha for the summer?” She’s really staring at me now, like she can see straight through my clothes.

  “Jackson Greenway. He’s my… friend. Do you know him?”

  “Really” is all she says, the smallest of smiles on her lips. She presses the flatiron down a length of hair and there’s a hot hiss, a sizzle.

  “So my dad told me,” I say, “about th—” I start, but she’s already stepped back inside the bathroom and slammed the door.

  “—ring,” I finish.

  To survive the weekend, I will need TV. But there’s no TV in my closet, so I’m watching the classic movie station in the den. In Laura everyone loves Laura, and I mean everyone. She has two guys who love her, not to mention her own maid, who loves every crumb she picks up. Even the cop investigating Laura’s murder loves her, and that’s before he discovers she might not be dead. I can’t imagine being someone who’s loved that much.

  In Laura, there’s a painted portrait of Laura on the wall that everyone stares at after she’s gone. I just want to say that I’ve noticed—from a quick sweep of Cheryl’s house—that nowhere on the walls is there a photo of me.

  I’m in the middle of Laura
when my dad takes a seat on the couch beside me.

  “You’re not watching this, are you?” he says. He grabs the remote and starts flipping through channels.

  I sigh. “I was.”

  “I didn’t know you liked those old movies.” Didn’t know, or didn’t care? “I was thinking we could go out,” he says. To talk, I’m thinking, he wants to talk. But he says, “Do something fun.” He shuts off the TV.

  I’m used to this kind of treatment. Grown-ups think that what they want is way more important than what you want. I’m almost fourteen, but to him I’m a kid. And when you’re considered a kid, this is how it is. You could be totally engrossed in a movie—like, is that Laura who just came in; wait, is she still alive?—but who cares, the news is on. Let’s just say if a grownup wants to watch the news, you’ll watch the news. If a grown-up wants chicken for dinner, grab your fork because you’ll be eating chicken. You can’t make your own choices, watch your own TV channels, or eat your own food until the world freezes over or, I don’t know, college.

  So my dad wanted to bond this weekend. Which is how we end up, just the two of us, on the muddy shore of the Hudson throwing sticks for Cheryl’s dog.

  The dog is a golden retriever but not a very nice one. It doesn’t like me. Every time I send a stick sailing, it gives me a look like, Please tell me you’re joking.

  From this side of the river, I can see the other shore, my shore. The divide feels greater than ever.

  Dad comes up behind me. It’s like he expects something, some make-up moment I’m to remember for the rest of my life. Either that or he wants me to throw him a stick.

  “This wasn’t what I thought it would be,” he says.

  “The river does smell something awful,” I agree.

  “Not the river. This. The weekend.”

  Oh, I get it. He’s playing the kid and I’m playing the adult. Now I’m supposed to say something to make him feel better. I don’t, though. I don’t say a thing.

  “The wedding’s in October,” he says.

  The wedding. There’s this quick flash of a poufy white dress and a flying bouquet, a sharp knife slicing a big fat cake. Scenes from a horror movie. I shut my eyes tight.

 
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