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  “I know this is the first time you’ve met Cheryl, but you’ll like her, you’ll see. I wanted you two to get to know each other before she became your stepmother.”

  Did you hear that? He said “stepmother.”

  Besides, it’s not really the first time I met Cheryl—he just may not remember it. I saw her once, before Dad left Mom. I saw her, and it meant nothing then, but it means everything now. That’s why I can’t let go of the girl in the polka-dot tights. Because I know what happens when you do nothing. Someone gets hurt.

  “Does Mom know?” I ask him. “About October?”

  “Yes,” he says softly. “She knows.”

  I see Cheryl’s dog coming back up the riverbank. I take a short stick and with all my might shoot it out as far as I can manage, maybe into the water, maybe all the way across to the other side. The dog looks at me with contempt and then runs off after it.

  Dad says, “Tell me what you want from me, Danielle.”

  You know this scene in the movie. Things will be said, but, don’t worry, all will be tied up in a bow in five minutes, tops. Tears will evaporate like they’d never been shed, the dad will say Forgive me and the daughter will say I do, the sun will shine, the dog will retrieve the stick, the music will play, the credits will roll. The end.

  But I’m shutting down the projector and starting my own movie. Here goes.

  “I’m not going,” I say.

  “You’re not what?”

  “I’m not going. In October. You can’t make me.”

  “Of course you’re going,” he insists.

  “I’m not!” I shriek. Then I get serious and say, quieter, “I’m not.”

  I’ve said it, and he looks shocked, so I decide to say some more. I see big trouble in my future, grounding by water torture, grounding by fire, but I have to add one last bit, the cherry on top of my angry sundae, and say I hate him for what he did and I’ll never forgive him, never.

  He has a dazed, empty look in his eyes. I’ve stunned him to silence. There’s nothing more to be said after what I confessed—or wait, no. Now he’s talking.

  “Have you seen the dog?” he says.

  “She went off that way.” I point to where I pitched the stick.

  “She should be back by now,” he says. And he calls her name, “Gloria! Gloria!”—a ridiculous name for a dog—and goes down the riverbank to search for her.

  Gloria’s not barking. I can’t see her anywhere. The stick I threw may have landed in the river. I may have just drowned my soon-to-be stepmother’s dog.

  I start down the riverbank looking for her. I’m walking past the parking lot when I spot Gloria. There she is, beside my dad’s car, stick in mouth, waiting for us. I don’t know what happened to my dad, so I just go to Gloria and plop down on the curb beside her.

  “What should I do?” I say, not caring that I’m talking to a dog.

  Gloria opens her mouth to drop the stick. She doesn’t want me to throw it again—she wants to show me her jaws.

  “I don’t really hate him,” I tell her. “I’m just feeling all weird. And sometimes you say things you don’t mean when you’re feeling weird.”

  Gloria snorts. She stares me down with her cold canine eyes.

  “I don’t have to go in October, do I?”

  She snorts again, softer this time.

  “He never should have lied,” I say. “This is what you get when you lie.”

  Gloria slumps down to sniff the concrete. She may not care what I have to say—she may be a dog and technically not even able to understand what I have to say—but I need at least one living thing to tell it to.

  My dad comes up then and I could repeat it all back to him, but I don’t. In the movies, people talk to each other because otherwise you’d have nothing to watch. But here, on this side of the river, we don’t talk about anything.

  The big nothing between us is carried to the car. It travels with us down the road and back to the house, and once there it squeezes itself onto the love seat in the den while I watch TV.

  Some movies I could be watching on the classic movie station this Sunday afternoon: Detour. D.O.A. The Stranger. The Maltese Falcon. The Man Who Cheated Himself. The Woman in the Window. The Man Who Made Up a Big Fat Lie. (I invented that last one.)

  It could be any of those, I’m not sure what. Nichole just walked in front of the TV.

  “You can’t seriously be watching this,” she says. “Where’s the remote?”

  Now, normally, I would never give up the remote control. When my brother and I had a war over the remote, I once chucked it down the garbage disposal before letting him have it. (Mom rescued it before it got ground to bits.) I also shoved it so far down into the cushions of the pull-out couch that it wasn’t found until weeks later when my uncle Lou came to stay for Thanksgiving.

  But Nichole sets me on edge. Tonight she has her long hair down, knife-straight. And worse, she’s brought a friend. The friend has honey-colored hair, a faint smirk, and stands there feverishly sending text messages instead of acknowledging that I’m here in the room.

  The remote is in my lap. Nichole sees it there and opens her hand, palm up and fingers fluttering, like, Give it here. And I do give it, like I’ve got no spine. I’ve barely let go and the picture on the TV goes from beautiful black-and-white to hyper color, like a demented carnival has overrun the room. In other words, Nichole switched the channel to a romantic comedy.

  I get up off the couch. My mom will be here soon anyway.

  “Where’re you going, Dani?” Nichole says. “I want you to meet my friend.”

  I stop in the middle of the room. Some actress incomparable to Rita Hayworth pretends to cry on-screen. She needs some help—I don’t see a single tear. Word of advice: Try sticking your face in an onion.

  “This is Kelsey,” Nichole says.

  Kelsey sniffs and looks up from her phone for the first time. I like her shirt—it’s white and has these great huge sleeves you could hide a ham in—but I don’t have to tell her that so I just sniff back. Kelsey’s sniff was half disinterest, half disdain. Mine sounded like I caught a cold.

  “Kelsey, this is Dani,” Nichole continues. “You know who she’s friends with? Jackson.”

  “No way,” says Kelsey.

  “Way,” says Nichole.

  This is totally rehearsed. Why should Nichole care who I’m friends with?

  “So do you know Jackson or what?” I say.

  “We know him,” Nichole says.

  “We know his girlfriend,” adds Kelsey.

  “So do I,” I say.

  “How do you know Bella?” Kelsey asks.

  “Who?” I say. “Jackson’s girlfriend is Elissa.”

  “She doesn’t even know his girlfriend’s name,” Nichole tells Kelsey. “She’s making it all up.”

  “She’s weird,” says Kelsey. “Who is she again, your stepsister?”

  “Ugh, not yet,” Nichole says. Then she turns back to me. “If you really do know Jackson, where’s he been? He never comes around anymore.”

  “He’s working,” I say. Even as I make an excuse for Jackson, I wonder if I should. Am I giving him an alibi? If so, for what?

  “Working all the time, yeah, right,” Kelsey says. “That’s what he tells Bella.”

  “He’s saving for a car,” I put in. “You know, one of those really old ones with the wings.” This shuts Kelsey up—if she knows Jackson, she knows that’s true. “I mean fins,” I add. Then, “Who’s Bella?”

  “C’mon, Kelsey,” Nichole says, and they flounce out. It takes me a few moments to figure out that they took the remote with them.

  I’m a little afraid all of a sudden. Not just because I’m stuck in a room with a cheesy romantic comedy and I don’t have the remote to shut it off. And not just because that rude girl with the bad taste in movies is about to become my stepsister. But also because of what they just said. I’m afraid I might know who Bella is. Might she, sometimes, walk around in the mid
dle of the summer wearing a pair of polka-dot tights?

  I can’t think straight. The romantic comedy is so loud it’s rotting my brain. I go up to the TV to change the channel manually. I get so close to the screen I see spots.

  My mom rescues me within the hour. As soon as I see her hatchback pull into the driveway I leap off the front porch and go sailing straight for it.

  My dad stands in the driveway to see us off. The distance between him and my mom is the length of a mountain bike. They won’t get any closer than that.

  I wait for my dad to tell my mom all the awful things I said to him—it’ll give them something to talk about, selecting my punishment. But he doesn’t, maybe because he knows my mom might agree. He just says bye and waves us out of the driveway like it never happened.

  “How’d it go?” Mom asks once we reach the highway. She’s trying so hard not to show any emotion, she’s barely moving her mouth when she speaks.

  I want to tell her that I know—about the ring, about October. But instead, I say, “They locked me in a closet, I drowned Cheryl’s dog, and I told Dad I hate him.” That’ll keep her updated.

  She laughs for the first time—she thinks I’m joking.

  And then, to cheer her up even more, I list all the ugly things I spotted in Cheryl’s house. I’ve had the whole weekend to catalog, so the list is long. I’m still in the middle of it when we reach the Rhinecliff Bridge: ugly vase, ugly table napkins, ugly mailbox, ugly light switches, ugly garden hose, ugly…

  I could keep going, but it occurs to me that my mom is either enthralled by her rival’s ugliness or else she’s not listening. I peek over at Mom as we reach the middle of the bridge. She looks pained.

  I could recite a few hundred more ugly things, but I keep them to myself and roll down the window instead. The scent of mud carries in off the Hudson and I breathe it in, deeply. The bridge ends, and we’re back on our side of the river. We’re home.

  7

  The Pie in the Sky

  Here I am, unpacking in my actual bedroom in the actual house where I actually live, when the scariest thing happens.

  It’s so scary I drop my suitcase, so scary I almost scream. I feel like I’m in one of those dreams where you’re stuck in slow motion and you see this horrible creature coming at you (a giant spider with scissors for fangs, but everything’s blurry so it might just be a big dog). And you know you’re sleeping, but you can’t make yourself wake up. And your shoes are untied (that happens a lot in my dreams) and you can’t get your feet to move and— You get the picture.

  What could possibly be that scary, you ask?

  I look up and Austin Greenway is standing in my room.

  “How did you get in here?” I shriek. Technically he’s not inside the room—he’s standing just outside of it in the hallway. But still.

  “Your mom said I could come up,” he says, voice all shaky. “I brought your phone.” Now he’s acting like I’m the one who scared him.

  “Don’t you ever do anything like that again.”

  “What? Bring you your phone that you left at my house?”

  “I left it in the theater, not at your house.”

  “Same difference. It’s the same building.”

  I roll my eyes. I try to think back to what I was doing before I saw him. I’d dumped out my suitcase. I was biting off a fingernail. I was probably thinking about something serious, like stepmothers or pizza. So was he just standing here the whole time, watching me think?

  “Do you want the phone back or not?” he says. He’s still in the hallway as if he assumes I’m going to hit him if he steps inside the room. And you know what? I might.

  “Just leave the phone and go,” I say.

  I expect a lecture. Something like how I can’t assume he’ll be my own personal messenger service. That next time I leave something I’ll have to go get it myself.

  But he doesn’t say any of that. He just crouches down and places my pink cell phone on the floor about an inch inside my doorway. Then he turns to go back downstairs.

  I wonder if I made him feel the way Nichole made me feel. I’m no Nichole. Anyway, I don’t want to be.

  “Austin,” I say. With great effort, I spit out, “That was really nice of you to come all the way out here to bring me my phone. Thank you.”

  He turns back. He picks up the phone and carries it into the room. Not only that, he takes this as permission to start talking.

  “It’s really only five point four minutes on a bike,” he says. “I clocked it. I took a shortcut through Upper Canyon and down Ridge. Ever try that way?”

  “Of course,” I say automatically. “I live here.”

  Uh-oh. Shouldn’t have answered. Now he thinks I’ve invited him to stay. He’s taken a seat on my chair. Next thing you know he’ll want me to fetch him an iced tea.

  “So when does Casey get back?” he asks. Casey’s been gone for a month and won’t be back for weeks and thank you very much, Austin, for bringing him up.

  “The week before school starts,” I say.

  “Does he call a lot?” he asks. I realize he’s still holding my phone. He came by to return it, but he can’t keep his grimy mitts off of it. “Because he didn’t call all weekend. Neither did Maya…. I kept it charged—my phone uses the same kind of charger—and I checked, in case you called me to ask.”

  “Let me see,” I say. I grab the phone and wave it out the window so it picks up two bars of reception. He’s right: no missed calls, no voice mails, not even a text.

  “I guess Casey’s real busy, huh?” Austin says. “He’s so lucky. I wish I could’ve gone to soccer camp.”

  “You do? In gym class you got hit in the face with the ball that time you were supposed to be goalie.”

  “You saw that?” he mumbles.

  I shrug.

  “What I mean is I wish I could play soccer so I could go to soccer camp. Staying in town all summer… it stinks.”

  This is the first time it occurs to me that Austin might be bored too. I guess I figured he was having a blast this summer, counting tickets and playing walkie-talkie.

  So I give him one thing. One tiny thing I hope he doesn’t hold over me later. Once said out loud, he’ll know how much it means to me. But I say it anyway. “At least we’ll always have the Little Art.”

  “Yeah,” he says, looking at me, “at least.”

  He tries to meet my eyes, but I won’t let it happen.

  “I’m not just here to return the phone, you know,” he says. “I actually came by to tell you something else. There’ve been these weird calls to the Little Art…. Some girl. She calls asking for Jackson, but she never gives her name.”

  “Oh?” I say lightly.

  “Um, yeah. So, like I said, she won’t give her name. If Jackson’s not around, if he’s busy working or something, she’ll just go ‘sorry, wrong number,’ and hang up.”

  “And you’re sure it’s not Elissa?”

  “I know Elissa’s voice!” Austin says, then softens. “I thought it was Elissa at first too, but then the girl called when I was talking to Elissa and that would have been scientifically impossible so I’ve ruled out Elissa. It has to be someone else.”

  I know something. The name of the girl. But I’m not yet ready to reveal that to Austin. I’d like to get all the information I can out of him first.

  “How long has she been calling?” I ask.

  “Weeks.”

  “Weeks! This has been going on for weeks and you didn’t tell me?”

  “I don’t have to tell you everything,” he says, all defensive. He picks up a book from off my floor and flips through it. It’s not like he wants to read it—he’s just doing it to bother me. “I thought you’d be interested because of that girl you said you saw. In the projection booth. Do you think it was her, the one who’s calling?”

  Yes, of course that’s what I think. But I tell him what Jackson told me. “I asked him about that. He said it was just some delivery girl. He ordere
d pizza.” I shrug. “I guess that could be true,” I add. “I guess he could have ordered a pizza….”

  I don’t say that I want it to be true. I want there to be some reasonable explanation for the visit, for the phone calls, for everything. Once one person you trust up and lies, you don’t want to have to go through it again with someone else. Once you see one person hurt, you wouldn’t wish it on anyone—especially not someone as sweet as Elissa.

  But Austin’s not buying it. “Pizza? That’s impossible,” he says.

  “You can’t say that. It’s possible. Who’s to say he didn’t want a pizza? You said yourself you left the lobby to go to the bathroom. So the pizza-delivery girl could have slipped by when you weren’t looking….”

  Austin shakes his head. “I’m telling you, Dani, there is no way Jackson ordered a pizza.”

  “How can you be so sure?”

  “Because,” he says. “Because Jackson doesn’t eat pizza.”

  “Who doesn’t eat pizza?” I burst out.

  “People who are seriously lactose intolerant,” he shoots back. “It runs in the family.” Then he coughs, as if for effect.

  I don’t know what to say to that.

  “Anyway,” Austin says, “so the girl called this weekend. I told Jackson to come get the phone. He was really annoyed and said why can’t people call his cell phone. So I said, I don’t know maybe because your cell phone doesn’t work in the theater and that’s why you have to use the walkie-talkies like I’ve been telling you and…”

  He sees the look on my face and gets on with it.

  “So I gave him the phone and left him alone. Then I heard him yelling. When I came back he’d punched a hole in the wall.”

  “No,” I say. “He wouldn’t do that. I don’t believe it.”

  Austin says, like it doesn’t matter if I believe it or not, “Then go see for yourself.” He starts picking through the stuff I dropped on my floor: a tube of lip gloss, a comb, my broken iPod headphones.

  I don’t say anything at first. I’m thinking. I’m thinking how, if this were a movie, Jackson would be in deep trouble right about now.

  In the movie, the detective and her irritating sidekick would be talking in their dark office. “We’ve got him,” they’d say, gathering up enough evidence to break the case wide open.

 
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