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Fade out, p.9

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  I look at her without a single thought in my head. Nothing’s coming. Really.

  She claps her hands, then announces, “You could both be interns!”

  Now I’m positive: My mom is not well. Mentally. She was haunted by water bottles and buried under boxes of tissues and now, when she’s finally gotten herself together out in public, she’s decided to force her only daughter to slave away making her photocopies and licking her stamps. I could get heatstroke, or glue poisoning.

  “What do you think?” says the crazy woman otherwise known as my mother.

  “You don’t mean…” I start and can’t finish. I point at myself. Or, more directly, I point at the velvety tiger head, stabbing my thumb into its left eye, where my heart is.

  She cannot seriously be saying I should spend the rest of my summer at the newspaper office. It’s not like I could possibly learn anything here. We’re not talking about a big-city paper. We’re talking about a paper for a town with nothing happening and no one in it. Shanosha, New York: Look for it on a map. You’ll find Albany, but it’s south of that. You’ll see Poughkeepsie, but it’s north of that. On your map will be Kingston and then Woodstock, but it’s west of them. Go too far west and you’ll hit the state of Pennsylvania. So where is it? you’ll ask. And to that I say: Exactly.

  That’s not to say my mom’s job isn’t important. It is. Even though The Shanosha Scoop reports on who’s having a yard sale and whose dog ran away and here’s her photo and Look! We dressed her up as a princess for Halloween, have you seen her? I’m proud of my mom for what she does. But that does not mean I want to do it.

  “Mom,” I say, “I’ve got better things to do.” I open the door and slip out.

  Taylor’s waiting at a desk. Her smile falters when she sees me.

  Mom follows me. “What things do you have to do?” she says.

  “There are things going on right now”—I give Taylor a once-over, decide she can’t be trusted—“things I can’t talk about here. Things about people we know.”

  “It could be fun,” Mom says, ignoring what I just said. “We could find something you’re interested in. For example, Taylor here wants to be a writer.”

  Taylor blushes, as if my mom said her dream in life was to be a rodeo clown or a gym teacher. Taylor used to be my best friend, sure, but I don’t think I ever knew she officially wanted to be something. I guess that happened this past year too.

  “So are you going to write stuff for the paper?” I ask Taylor.

  She nods. She looks nervous, like I’ll make fun of her. I have no idea where she’d get an idea like that.

  “And?” I say. “What are you going to write about?”

  So quietly I can barely hear she says, “Your mom said I could do a movie review.”

  “You’re kidding,” I say.

  “No,” she says, but it sounds like a question. Like she’s asking me for permission.

  As she should.

  I’ve never seen Taylor in the Little Art, not once. She doesn’t know the ins and outs of the self-serve popcorn machine. She doesn’t know what seats not to sit on in the theater—and there are many. She doesn’t know about Orson Welles or Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman or Rita Hayworth.

  “Who’s your favorite movie star?” I ask. It’s a test.

  Taylor blinks, considers. “I don’t know. I guess I don’t have one.”

  Test failed. I turn to my mom. “Mom, this is so not fair and you know it.”

  “Does this mean that you do want to be an intern?” my mom asks, a hint of a smile on her face, as if she planned it this way all along.

  “Yeah, so do you want to do the movie review with me?” Taylor asks. “I was thinking we could watch whatever’s playing at the Little Art and then write it at my house, you know, after. You could sleep over.”

  “I don’t know….” I say.

  “That’s a great idea!” my mom says.

  I consider. Taylor’s house is outside of town, up this winding dirt road back behind the elementary school. It’s even more secluded than my house, and going there was fun when I was a kid, and made for some scary sleepovers, but there’s something about staying at Taylor’s house that freaks me out. It’s her parents. Her perfectly nice, perfectly happy parents. All two of them.

  “Maybe,” I say, not meeting Taylor’s eyes. “But I have to go. The movie’s starting, and I told Jackson I’d be there.”

  “Okay,” Taylor says. “I don’t have to go tubing now. You’re right, anyway, I don’t even like tubing that much, I was just bored.” She gathers up her things. She’s going to follow me to the theater. “I think I want to watch the movie,” she says.

  “I guess I’ll see you there,” I say. And then I race out of the newspaper office, down the stairs, ditching her. There’s something I need to catch, and it’s not a movie. It’s the liar projecting the movie.

  I’m on to you, Jackson. Watch out.

  11

  Sorry, Wrong Number

  So, way back a long time ago, before phones came in pink and could fit in your pocket, they were fat and black and needed a whole table to stand on. I learned that this summer, from the movies.

  Back then, if you wanted to make a call, you called the operator and she’d connect you. In the movie Sorry, Wrong Number the femme fatale, Barbara Stanwyck, is sick and stuck in bed. She’s all alone, and has no one to talk to, so she keeps trying to reach someone, anyone, on the phone. But when the operator connects her, the lines cross and she overhears a whole other conversation instead. Two men are planning to kill someone that night. She just heard a big secret she wasn’t supposed to—and you can’t sit tight and do nothing after that, right?

  Right?

  I cross the street toward the Little Art. Unfortunately, Austin’s the one at the ticket booth, and when he sees me he starts waving. He’s not going to let me in without a ticket, I just know it. I sigh and skulk on over.

  “Don’t give me a hard time today,” I tell him. “I’m not in the mood. You won’t believe what my mom says I have to do.”

  “Fine,” he says from behind the glass, “I won’t give you a hard time.” Then he adds, “Wait, you’re not going away, right?” He looks a little freaked out.

  “Going away where?”

  “To your dad’s, for the rest of the summer…”

  The horror of these words cannot be measured. But what’s weird is Austin’s face as he waits for my response. It’s like he really wants me to stay in Shanosha. Like he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if I wasn’t here.

  “As if you’d miss me,” I say.

  For a second there, I see it clear: He would miss me.

  He chops that thought down fast. “No, it’d be great,” he says. “I wouldn’t have to police the theater looking for loiterers, which means I could actually do my job.”

  “One, you don’t really have a job. And two, that’s what you think I’m doing? Loitering?”

  “I don’t know, Dani, when’s the last time you actually paid for a ticket?” He searches my face. “Can’t remember, can you? I could report you to the authorities, you know. You could be banned from the premises if I said the word.”

  “Then say the word.”

  He does not say a word.

  “Anyway,” I continue, “you won’t believe what my mom said. She wants me to help at the paper for the rest of the summer. She wants me to be—get this—an intern.”

  “Cool,” he says.

  So not the right answer. Before I can blast him, we’re interrupted by the sharp squawk of his walkie-talkie. He jumps, like he does every time that thing goes off. You’d think he’d be used to it by now.

  “Hey, cuz. You there?” comes a staticky voice through the walkie. Jackson.

  I am not here, I mouth through the glass. Let’s hope Austin can read lips. I want to listen in without Jackson knowing.

  “Affirmative,” Austin says into the walkie.

  “Dude, are you there or not?” Jac
kson’s voice squawks.

  “That’s what I said, Jackson,” Austin says, rolling his eyes at me. But I won’t give him the satisfaction of responding because, hello? He said “affirmative” instead of just saying “yes.”

  “Hey, did anyone call me before?” Jackson asks.

  “No, why?” Austin says.

  “Some girl?”

  “I said no. Why?”

  Ask who, I mouth. Ask her name.

  Either Austin is deficient in all forms of lip-reading or he’s ignoring me on purpose, because he doesn’t ask.

  “No reason,” says Jackson. “Later.”

  Then there’s another high-pitched squeal, and I cover my ears. Austin fumbles for a long second that’s sure to cause me permanent hearing loss, then at last switches the walkie off.

  “He’s gone dark,” Austin says. “He keeps doing that. I’m glad he agreed to use the walkies, but he’s really supposed to say ‘over and out’ first. How many times do I have to tell him that?”

  “Whatever,” I say.

  I reach into my pocket, find some crumpled bills, and slide them in through the hole in the ticket window.

  Austin stares at my money. “What’s that?” he says.

  “What do you think it is? It’s money. For a ticket.”

  He stares at it for a beat too long, so I snatch it back. “I guess that means I get a freebie today. Thanks!” I push through the doors and take my place in Theater 1.

  The Big Sleep stars Lauren Bacall as the femme fatale. She’s not Rita Hayworth, but she’s pretty okay. This is the film where Bogie fell in love with her in real life, so I’m trying to see it. What made him pay attention. When it happened. How.

  Love and like and all the rest make no sense to me. Sometimes you like someone and they don’t like you back—does that make it any less real? Take Elissa and Jackson—they both like each other, so there shouldn’t be a problem. And don’t get me started on Mom and Dad.

  In The Big Sleep someone’s blackmailing Lauren Bacall’s sister. Slowly, as I watch, something dawns on me. The visit Jackson blamed on pizza delivery. The phone calls that got him so raging mad he punched a hole in the wall. Secrets kept, things not said. You know, if this were a noir movie, you’d think he was being blackmailed.

  Let’s say someone—some girl—has information on Jackson he doesn’t want to get out. She’s threatening him with it, and he’s trying to keep her quiet. What could it be?

  I turn in my seat to take a peek at the projection booth. There’s Jackson, all alone up there, as he should be.

  I also catch sight of Taylor sitting on the other side of the theater, in an aisle seat. I didn’t see her there until now.

  Back to the movie. Lauren Bacall’s telling the private eye played by Humphrey Bogart that he forgot one thing: “Me,” she says.

  “What’s wrong with you?” says Bogie.

  “Nothing you can’t fix,” says Lauren Bacall.

  Cue the romantic music. Go in tight for a soft-focus close-up. You know they’re about to kiss here, and even so I take the opportunity to turn around and check the projection booth once more. Now Jackson isn’t in there. No one is.

  Just then I catch sight of Jackson slipping out the lobby door and into the light. What’s up with that?

  I climb up the dark aisle and crack the door, peeking out into the bright lobby. I see the tail of Jackson’s jacket, just a flash of it as he turns the corner into the hallway. Then I watch his legs climb the stairs toward Ms. Greenway’s office. When he’s safely up there, and most definitely can’t see me, I follow.

  I tuck myself into a spot in the shadows. The passage here cuts to the left in a sharp, blind corner. If I stand with my back to the wall, I can hear him up in her office. Taking a seat on her wheelie chair. Picking up the phone on her desk. Dialing.

  And as he does, I realize something. I’m pretty sure that phone is on the same line as the phone in the hallway. The phone I happen to be standing next to.

  I pick up, all sneakylike, keeping the mouthpiece covered with my hand.

  I hear ringing. One ring, two rings, three. On the fourth she answers.

  “Finally,” she says. “Take your sweet time calling me back, why don’t you.”

  A few things about this girl’s voice: It’s deep for a girl—I bet she got stuck with the altos in chorus. There’s no foreign accent, so she’s definitely from around here. Oh, and she sounds mad. Very mad.

  “Well?” she says. “Aren’t you going to give me one of your patented excuses? Like your aunt made you paint the theater. Or she sent you out to restock the soda machine. Or you fell off your bike and forgot my phone number. So what is it this time?”

  Jackson answers her back all whiny: “My cell gets sucky reception in here. I’ve told you that…. And you can’t keep calling the theater. My aunt doesn’t like it, okay?”

  At this blatant lie some sound comes out of my mouth, like a click of my tongue, something involuntary. The next thing you know Jackson’s saying, “Did you hear that?” And the girl’s saying, “Hear what?” And Jackson says, “I don’t know, like a click or something.” And then they’re both dead silent, listening.

  I can’t hang up now—they’d hear. So I do the only thing I can: hold my breath and play statue. I’m standing here in the dark, my weight more on one foot than the other, anxious Jackson will come out to the stairwell and see me. I look down to make sure the shadows cover me. And they do—almost. All except for my big toe.

  If Jackson steps out of the office to look down the stairs, he will see, around the corner and in the light, the incriminating stub of my big toe. It’s sticking out of my flip-flop. I painted my toenails bright blue. There’s no way he could miss it.

  The girl starts talking again. “I don’t hear anything. So like I was saying, you could at least call me back, like on your break or something.”

  Jackson sighs.

  The girl sighs.

  I take it they have this conversation a lot.

  “Anyway,” the girl continues, “I don’t believe you’re really coming over tonight. If it’s anything like last time…”

  “I’ll catch the bus like I said, okay? It won’t be like last time.”

  I remember then that he told Elissa he was working tonight. He didn’t say anything about catching any bus.

  “Last time you never showed up.”

  “I’ll show up.”

  “I don’t believe you.”

  “Believe whatever you want, Bella. You’ll see, tonight.”

  Bella! Nichole was right. I hate that she was right.

  “Oh, I will see you tonight,” the girl—Bella—says. “I’ll make sure of it.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “That means I’m not counting on you to catch the bus like last time. I’m coming to Shanosha. I’ll borrow my brother’s car again. What time do you get off?”

  “Late.”

  “How late?”

  “Uh, seven thirty.”

  “That’s not late!”

  “I mean eight thirty. I forgot.”

  She lets out another sigh. “I’ll be there at nine.”

  “Listen,” Jackson says. His voice sharpens. “You can’t come here, not to the theater, not to the house.”

  “Why not?”

  “My aunt, I told you. She’s really strict.”

  Lie.

  “She won’t let me have a girlfriend while I’m living here.”

  Lie.

  “She makes me work all the time. It’s like I’m on call 24/7.”

  Lie.

  “So I have to meet you somewhere else,” he says. “Okay?”

  “Where, then?”

  “Remember that playground with the castle? There. I’ll meet you there.”

  “By the seesaws?” she asks.

  “Yeah,” he says.

  I hear Jackson hang up the phone, so I hang up the phone. I look with longing at the door to Theater 1. I’d have to cr
oss the hallway to get to it. I’d have to walk right in front of the stairway. There’s no way I’d make it in time, no way.

  So I shrink deeper into the shadows. I make myself as small as I can manage, sucking in my gut and all my toes.

  He bounds down the stairs and past the hallway where I’m standing without even a look in my direction. In seconds, he’s back inside Theater 1, the door swung shut behind him, like he’d never even come out.

  A whole entire minute passes, but I can’t move. I wonder if he’ll notice I’m not sitting in the audience like I was before. Why didn’t I think of that? Before I can figure out my next move, the phone on the wall rings.

  Recklessly, I shoot out my hand and answer it. “Little Art. Can I help you?”

  “Hi, uh, who’s this?” says a girl’s voice. Bella’s voice.

  “Who’s this?” I shoot back.

  “Sorry, I think I have the wrong number.” And she hangs up.

  Austin stomps out of the ticket booth to glare at me. “Who said you could answer the phone?” He glances up the stairway. Jackson left the light on. “Were you in my mom’s office? I promised her nothing would happen while she’s out. I promised.”

  “Nothing happened. I just came out for popcorn and the phone rang and I picked it up and it was that girl again, like you said.”

  “So now you admit I was right.”

  “Just go sell your tickets.”

  I head for the popcorn station and fill up a bag. This, I now realize, will be my alibi. If Jackson asks where I was, I’ll just say I wanted popcorn. What? I’ll say. You didn’t see me at the popcorn table? I was there the whole time.

  When I push through the doors of Theater 1, Jackson’s standing in the aisle, gazing up at the end credits.

  “Hey, D,” he says. “Where’d you go?”

  “Popcorn,” I say, shaking the bag. “I was sitting there watching the movie and I was thinking I really want popcorn, so that’s what I did. I was out there, I swear, getting popcorn.” I give the bag another shake.

  “You like popcorn,” he says. “I get it.”

  People are so much smoother with lies in noir movies. I’ve got to practice.

  “Popcorn is so great,” I say. And I smile. And I hold out the bag. And I actually say, “Want some?”

 
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