THE PUGS

In the Thomas Jefferson High School R & R (Rules and Regulations Handbook) , it says that any student caught smoking on school property is subject to three days’ suspension . (I know this by heart because all the smokers like to tear this page out of the handbook and burn it at the Lounge, sometimes crouching and sticking their cigarettes in the flames to catch a light, as the words on the page curl and blacken and smoke into nothing.)

But I get off with only a warning. I guess the administration makes exceptions for students who have dirt on a certain vice principal and a certain gym teacher/soccer coach/mustache fan. Ms. Winters looked like she was going to have a massive coronary when I’d started going off about role models and my poor impressionable mind —I love that expression, as though everyone under the age of twenty-one has all the brain power of dental plaster—and the administration’s responsibility to set an example , especially when I’d reminded her about page sixty-nine in the R & R : it is forbidden to engage in lewd or sexually inappropriate acts in or around school property . (That one I know because the page has been torn out and hung up about a thousand times in various bathrooms on campus, the margins decorated with drawings of a decidedly lewd and sexually inappropriate nature. The administration was totally asking for it, though. Who puts a rule like that on page sixty-nine?)

At least the hour and a half I spent with Ms. Winters has sobered me up. The last bell has just rung, and all around me students are sweeping out of classrooms, making way more noise than is necessary—shrieking, laughing, slamming lockers, dropping binders, shoving one another—a jittery, mindless, restless noise unique to Friday afternoons. I’m feeling good, and powerful, and I’m thinking, I have to find Lindsay . She won’t believe it. She’ll die laughing. Then she’ll put her arm around my shoulder and say, “You’re a rock star, Samantha Kingston,” and everything will be fine. I’m keeping an eye out for Anna Cartullo, too—while I was sitting in Ms. Winters’s office it occurred to me that we never switched shoes again. I’m still wearing her monster black boots.

I swing out of Main. The cold makes my eyes sting, and a sharp pain shoots up my chest. February really is the worst month. A half dozen buses are idling in a line next to the cafeteria, engines choking and coughing, letting up a thick black wall of exhaust. Through the dirt-filmed windows the pale faces of a handful of underclassmen—all slouched in their seats, hoping not to be seen—are featureless and interchangeable. I start cutting across the faculty lot toward Senior Alley, but I’m only halfway there when I see a big-ass silver Range Rover—its walls thudding with the bass of “No More Drama”—tear out of the alley and start gunning it toward Upper Lot. I stop, all of the good buzzy feeling draining out of me quickly and at once. Of course, I didn’t really expect Lindsay to be waiting for me, but deep down I guess I was hoping for it. Then it hits me: I have no ride, nowhere to go. The last place I want to be is at home. Even though I’m freezing, I feel prickles of heat rising up from my fingers, crawling up my spine.

It’s the weirdest thing. I’m popular—really popular—but I don’t have that many friends. What’s even weirder is that it’s the first time I’ve noticed.

“Sam!”

I turn around and see Tara Flute, Bethany Harps, and Courtney Walker coming toward me. They always travel in a pack, and even though we’re kinda-friends with all of them, Lindsay calls them the Pugs: pretty from far away, ugly up close.

“What are you doing?” Tara always has a perma-smile, like she’s constantly auditioning for an ad for Crest toothpaste, and she turns it on me now. “It’s, like, a thousand degrees below zero.”

I toss my hair over one shoulder, trying to look nonchalant. The last thing I need is for the Pugs to know I’ve been ditched. “I had to tell Lindsay something.” I gesture vaguely in the direction of Senior Alley. “She and the girls had to jet out without me—some community-service thing they do once a month. Lame.”

“So lame,” Bethany says, nodding vigorously. As far as I can tell, her only role in life is to agree with whatever has just been said.

“Come with us.” Tara slips her arm in mine and squeezes. “We’re headed to La Villa to shop. Then we thought we’d hit up Kent’s party. Sound good?”

I briefly run through my other options: home is obviously out. I won’t be welcome at Ally’s. Lindsay has made that clear. Then there’s Rob’s…sitting on the couch while he plays Guitar Hero, making out a little bit, pretending not to notice when he tears another bra because he can’t figure out the clasp. Making conversation and waving while his parents pack up the car for the weekend. Pizza and lukewarm beer from the garage stash as soon as they’re gone. Then more making out. No, thank you.

I scan the parking lot once more, looking for Anna. I feel kind of bad about taking off with her boots—but then again, it’s not exactly like she’s made an effort to find me . Besides, Lindsay always said a new pair of shoes could change your life. And if I was ever in need of a serious life change—or afterlife change, whatever—it’s now.

“Sounds perfect,” I say, and if possible Tara’s smile gets a little wider, teeth so white they look like bone.

As we leave school I tell the Pugs—I can’t help but think of them that way—about my trip to the office, and how Ms. Winters has been getting her freak on with Mr. Otto, and how I got off without a detention, because I promised her I would destroy a camera-phone pic of one of her love sessions in Otto’s office (fabricated, obviously—there’s no way I’d ever hang on to evidence of their coupling, much less in high-digital format). Tara is gasping she’s laughing so hard, and Courtney’s looking at me like I’ve just cured cancer or developed a pill that makes you grow a cup size, and Bethany covers her mouth and says, “Holy mother of Lord Cocoa Puffs.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it’s definitely the most original thing I’ve ever heard her say. It all makes me feel good and confident again, and I remind myself that this is my day: I can do whatever I want.

“Tara?” I squinch forward. Tara’s car is a tiny two-door Civic, and Bethany and I are crushed in the backseat. “Can we stop at my house for a second before we hit the mall?”

“Sure.” There’s her smile again, reflected in the rearview like a piece of sky. “Need to drop something?”

“Need to get something,” I correct her, shooting her my biggest smile back.

It’s almost three o’clock, so I figure my mom should be back from yoga, and sure enough her car is in the driveway when we pull up to the house. Tara starts to pull in behind the Accord, but I tap her shoulder and gesture for her to keep going. She inches her car along the road until we’re hidden behind a cluster of evergreens my mom had the landscaper plant years ago, after she discovered that our then-neighbor, Mr. Horferly, liked to take midnight strolls on his property totally in the buff. This is pretty much the answer to every problem you encounter in suburbia: plant a tree, and hope you don’t see anyone’s privates.

I hop out of the car and loop around the side of the house, praying my mom isn’t looking out one of the windows in the den or my dad’s study. I’m banking on the fact that she’s in the bathroom, taking one of her infamously long showers before going to pick up Izzy at gymnastics. Sure enough, when I slide my key in the back door and slip into the kitchen, I hear the patter of water upstairs and a few high, warbling notes: my mom is singing. I hesitate for a split second, long enough to place the tune—Frank Sinatra, “New York, New York”—and say a prayer of thanks that the Pugs aren’t witness to my mom’s impromptu performance. Then I tiptoe into the mudroom, where, as usual, my mom has deposited her enormous purse. It is sagging on its side. Several coins and a roll of breath mints have spilled out onto the washing machine, and a corner of her green Ralph Lauren wallet is just peeking out from under the thick leather loop of a shoulder strap. I remove the wallet carefully, listening, all the while, to the rhythm of the water upstairs, ready to cut and run if it stops flowing. My mom’s wallet is a mess, too, crammed with photos—Izzy, me, me and Izzy, Pickle wearing a Santa’s costume—receipts, business cards. And credit cards.

Especially credit cards.

I fish out the Amex carefully. My parents only use it for major purchases so there’s no way my mom will notice it’s missing. My palms are prickly with sweat and my heart is beating so hard it’s painful. I carefully close up the wallet and slip it back into the purse, making sure it’s in the exact same position as before.

Above me, there’s a final rush of water, a screeching sound as the pipes shudder dry, and then silence. My mom’s Sinatra rendition drops off. Shower over. For a second I’m so terrified I can’t get my feet to move. She’ll hear me. She’ll catch me. She’ll see me with the Amex in hand. Then the phone starts ringing, and I hear her footsteps heading out of the bathroom, crossing the hallway, hear her singsonging, “Coming, coming.”

In that second I’m gone, slipping out of the mudroom, crossing the kitchen, out the back door—and running, running, running around the side of the house, the frost-coated grass biting my calves, trying to keep from laughing, clutching the cold plastic Amex so hard that when I open my palm later, I see it’s left a mark.

Normally at the mall I have a very strict spending limit: twice a year my parents give me five hundred dollars for new clothes, and on top of that I can spend whatever I make babysitting for Izzy or doing other servant-type things my parents ask me to do, like wrap presents for our neighbors at Christmastime or rake the leaves in November or help my dad unclog the storm drains. I know five hundred dollars sounds like a lot, but you have to keep in mind that Ally’s Burberry galoshes cost almost that—and she wears those in the rain. On her feet. So I’ve never been that big into shopping. It’s just not that fun, particularly when you’re best friends with Ally Endless-Limit-Credit-Card Harris and Lindsay My-Stepdad-Tries-to-Buy-My-Affection Edgecombe.

Today, that problem is solved.

First stop is Bebe, where I pick up a gorgeous spaghetti-strap dress that’s so tight I have to suck all the way in just to squeeze into it. Even then Tara has to duck into the dressing room and help me zip up the last half inch. I kind of like how Anna’s boots look with the dress, actually, sexy and tough, like I’m a video-game assassin or an action hero. I make Charlie’s Angels poses at the mirror for a bit, shaping my fingers into a gun, pointing at my reflection, and mouthing, Sorry . Pulling the trigger, and imagining an explosion.

Courtney nearly loses it when I hand over my credit card without even looking at the total. Not that I don’t catch a glimpse. It’s pretty hard to miss the big green $302.10 flashing on the register, blinking up at me like it’s accusing me of something. My stomach gives a little hula performance as the saleswoman slides over the receipt for me to sign, but I guess all those years of forging my own doctor’s notes and tardy excuses pays off because I give a perfect, looping imitation of my mom’s script, and the saleswoman smiles and says, “Thank you, Ms. Kingston,” like I’ve just done her a favor. And just like that I walk out with the world’s most perfect black dress nestled in tissue paper at the bottom of a crisp white shopping bag. Now I understand why Ally and Lindsay love shopping. It’s much better when you can have whatever you want.

“You are so lucky your parents give you a credit card,” Courtney says, trotting after me as we leave the store. “I’ve been begging mine for years. They say I have to wait until I’m in college.”

“They didn’t exactly give it to me,” I say, raising one eyebrow at her. Her mouth falls open.

“No way.” Courtney shakes her head so fast her brown hair whips back and forth in a blur. “No way. You did not—are you saying you stole —?”

“Shhhh.” La Villa Mall is supposed to be Italian-themed, all big, marble fountains and flagstone walkways. The sound gets bounced and zipped and mixed around so it’s impossible to make out what people are saying unless they’re standing right next to you, but still. No point in pushing it now that I’m on a roll. “I prefer to think of it as borrowing, anyway.”

“My parents would strangle me.” Courtney’s eyes are so wide I’m worried her eyeballs will pop out. “They would kill me until I was dead.”

“Totally,” Bethany says.

We hit the MAC store next, and I get a full-on makeover from a guy named Stanley who’s skinnier than I am, while the Pugs try on different shades of eyeliner and get yelled at for breaking into the unopened lip glosses. I buy everything Stanley uses on me: foundation, concealer, bronzing powder, eye shadow prep, three shades of eye shadow, two shades of eyeliner (one white for under the eye), mascara, lip liner, lip gloss, four different brushes, one eyelash curler. It’s so worth it. I leave looking like I’m a famous model, and I can feel people staring at me as we walk through La Villa. We pass a group of guys who must be in college at least, and one of them mutters, “Hot.” Tara and Courtney are flanking me and Bethany trails behind. I think: This is how Lindsay must feel all the time.

Next is Neiman Marcus: a store I never go into unless Ally drags me, since everything costs a billion dollars. Courtney tries on weird old-lady hats, and Bethany takes pictures of her and threatens to post them online. I pick up this amazing forest green faux-fur shrug that makes me look like I should be partying on a private jet somewhere, and a pair of silver-and-garnet chandelier earrings.

The only snag comes when the woman at the cashier—Irma , according to her name tag—asks to see my ID.

“ID?” I blink at her innocently. “I so never keep it on me. Last year my identity was stolen.”

She stares at me for a long time like she’s thinking about letting it slide, then pops her gum and gives me a tight smile. She pushes the shrug and the earrings back across the counter. “Sorry, Ellen . ID required for all purchases over two hundred and fifty dollars.”

“I prefer Ms. Kingston, actually.” I give her a tight smile right back. Bitch. That gum-popping trick? Lindsay invented it.

Then again, I’d be a bitch too if my parents had named me Irma.

Suddenly inspired, I root around in my purse until I fish out my membership card to Hilldebridge Swim and Tennis, my mom’s gym. I swear, security there is tighter than an airport—like obesity in America is somehow a terrorist plot, and the next big thing to go will be the nation’s elliptical machines—and the card features a tiny picture of me, a membership ID number, and my last name and initials: KINGSTON, S. E.

Irma screws up her face. “What does the S stand for?”

My mind does that thing where it hiccups and then goes totally blank. “Um—Severus.”

She stares at me. “Like in Harry Potter ?”

“It’s German, actually.” I should never have offered to read those stupid books to Izzy. “You can see why I go by my middle name.”

Irma’s still hesitating, biting the corner of her lip. Tara’s standing right next to me, running her fingers over my Amex like some of the credit line will rub off on her. She leans forward and giggles.

“I’m sure you understand.” Tara squints a little, like she’s trying hard to make out the name tag from a distance of six inches. “It’s Irma, isn’t it?”

Courtney comes up behind us, wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a gigantic feathered robin sprouting out of its side. “Did people ever call you Worma when you were little? Or Squirma ?”

Irma folds her mouth into a thin white line, reaches for my card, and swipes.

“Guten Tag,” I say as we leave: the only German I know.

Tara and Co. are still laughing about Irma as we pull out of the parking lot of La Villa. “I can’t believe it,” Courtney keeps repeating, leaning forward to look at me, like I’m suddenly going to disappear. This time they’ve given me shotgun automatically. I didn’t even have to call it. “I can’t freaking believe it.”

I allow myself a small smile as I turn to the window, and am momentarily startled by the reflection I see there: huge dark eyes, smoke and shadow, full red lips. Then I remember the makeup. For a second I didn’t recognize myself.

“You’re so awesome,” Tara says, then palms the steering wheel and curses as we just miss the light.

“Please.” I wave the air vaguely. I’m feeling pretty good. I’m almost glad Lindsay and I got into a fight this morning.

“Oh, shit, no way.” Courtney beats on my shoulder as a huge Chevy Tahoe, vibrating with bass, pulls up next to us. Even though it’s freezing, all the windows are down: it’s the college guys from La Villa, the ones who checked us out earlier. Who checked me out. They’re laughing and fighting over something in the car—one of them yells, “Mike, you’re a pussy”—pretending not to see us, the way guys do when they’re just dying to look.

“They are so hot,” Tara says, leaning over me to get a clearer view, then ducking quickly back to the wheel.

“You should get their number.”

“Hello? There are four of them.”

“Their numbers , then.”

“Totally.”

“I’m gonna flash them,” I say, and am suddenly thrilled with the perfect, pure simplicity of it: I’m going to do it. So much easier and cleaner than Maybe I should or Won’t we get in trouble? or Oh my God, I could never . Yes. Three letters. I twist around to Courtney. “Do you dare me?”

Her eyes are doing that bug thing again. Tara and Bethany stare at me like I’ve sprouted tentacles.

“You wouldn’t,” Courtney says.

“You can’t,” Tara says.

“I can, I would, and I’m going to.” I roll down the window, and the cold slams me, blots out everything, numbs my whole body so I just feel myself in bits and pieces, an elbow bobbing here, a thigh cramping, fingers tingling. The music pumping from the boys’ car is so loud it makes my ears hurt, but I can’t hear any words or melody, just the rhythm, throbbing, throbbing—so loud it’s not even sound anymore, just vibration, feeling.

“Hey.” At first I can only croak the word out, so I clear my throat and try again. “Hey. Guys.”

The driver swivels his head in my direction. I can hardly focus I’m so keyed up, but in that second I see he’s not that cute, actually—he has kind of crooked teeth and a rhinestone stud in one ear, like he’s a rapper or something—but then he says, “Hey, cutie,” and I see his three friends lean over toward the window to look, one, two, three heads popping up like jacks-in-the-box, like the Whack-a-Mole game at Dave & Buster’s, one , two , three , and I’m lifting my shirt, and there’s a roar and a rushing, singing sound in my ears—laughter? screaming?—and Courtney’s yelling, “Go, go, go.” Then our tires screech, and the car lurches forward, sliding a bit, the wind biting my face, and the smell of scorched rubber and gasoline stinking up the air. My heart sinks slowly back from my throat to my chest, and the warmth and feeling comes back to my body. I roll up the window. I can’t explain the feelings going through me, a rush like you get from laughing too hard or spinning too long in a circle. It’s not exactly happiness, but I’ll take it.

“Priceless! Legendary! ” Courtney’s thumping the back of my seat, and Bethany’s just shaking her head and reaching forward to touch me, eyes wide, amazed, like I’m a saint and she’s trying to cure herself of a disease. Tara’s screaming with laughter. She can barely watch the road, her eyes are tearing up so badly. She chokes out, “Did you see their faces ? Did you see ?” and I realize I didn’t see. I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t feel anything but the roaring around me, heavy and loud, and it occurs to me that I’m not sure whether this is what it’s like to be really, truly alive or this is what it’s like to be dead, and it strikes me as hilarious. Courtney thumps me one more time, and I see her face rising behind me in the rearview mirror, red as a sun, and I start laughing too, and the four of us laugh all the way back to Ridgeview—over eighteen miles—while the world streaks past us in a smear of blacks and grays, like a bad painting of itself.

We stop at Tara’s house so everyone can change. Tara helps get me into my dress again, and after I slip on the fur shrug and the earrings and let my hair down—which is all wavy from being twisted up in a half-knot all day—I turn to the mirror and my heart actually reindeer-prances in my chest. I look at least twenty-five. I look like somebody else. I close my eyes, remember standing in the bathroom when I was little as the steam from my shower retreated from the mirrors, praying for a transformation. I remember the sick taste of disappointment every time my face reemerged, as plain as it ever was. But this time when I open my eyes it works. There I am: different and gorgeous and not myself.

Dinner’s on me, of course. We go to Le Jardin du Roi, this super expensive French restaurant where all the waiters are hot and French. We pick the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu, and nobody asks to see our IDs, so we order a round of champagne. It’s so good, we ask for another round even before the appetizers come. Bethany gets drunk right away and starts flirting with the waiters in bad French, just because last year she spent the summer in Provence. We must order half the menu: tiny melt-in-your-mouth cheese puffs, thick slabs of pâté that probably have more calories than you’re supposed to eat in a day, goat cheese salad and mussels in white wine and steak béarnaise and a whole sea bass with its head still attached and crème brûlée and mousse au chocolat. I think it’s the best food I’ve ever tasted, and I eat until I can hardly breathe, and if I take one more bite I really will bust my dress. Then, as I’m signing the check, one of the waiters (the cutest one) brings over four miniature glasses of sweet pink liquor for the digestion , except, of course, he says it for ze deejestee-on .

I don’t realize how much I’ve had to drink until I stand up and the world swings wildly for a second, like it’s struggling to find its balance, and I think maybe the world’s drunk, not me, and start to giggle. We step out into the freezing air and it helps sober me up a little.

I check my phone and see that I have a text from Rob. What’s up w u? We had a plan 4 2nite .

“Come on, Sam,” Courtney calls. She and Bethany have climbed into the backseat of the Civic. They’re waiting for me to take shotgun again. “Party time.”

I quickly write a text back to Rob. We’re on. C u soon .

Then I get in the car, and we head to the party.

The party’s just getting started when we arrive, and I beeline for the kitchen. Since it’s still early and pretty clear of people I notice a ton of details in the rooms I haven’t seen before. The place is so stocked with little carved wood statues and funky oil paintings and old books it could be a museum.

The kitchen is brightly lit and everything here looks sharp and separate. There are two kegs lined up directly inside the doorway, and most of the people are gathered here. It’s basically guys at this point, plus some sophomores. They’re huddled in clumps, gripping their plastic cups like they contain their whole life force, and their smiles are so forced I can tell their cheeks are hurting.

“Sam.” Rob sees me and does a double take as soon as I come in. He shoulders his way toward me, then backs me up against the wall, leaning a hand on either side of my head so I’m penned in. “I didn’t think you were gonna show.”

“I told you I was coming.” I put my hands on his chest, feeling his heartbeat skip under my fingers. It makes me sad for some reason. “Did you get my text?”

He shrugs. “You were acting weird all day. I thought maybe you didn’t like my rose.”

Luv ya. I’d forgotten about that; forgotten about how upset I was. None of that matters now. They’re just words, anyway. “The rose was fine.”

Rob smiles and puts one hand on my head, like I’m a pet. “You look hot, babe,” he says. “You want a beer?”

I nod. The wine I had at the restaurant is already wearing off. I feel way too sober, too aware of my whole body, my arms hanging there like dead weights. Rob has started to turn away when he suddenly stops, staring down at my shoes. He looks up at me, half amused, half puzzled. “What are those?” He points at Anna’s boots.

“Shoes.” I point one of my toes and the leather doesn’t even budge. This pleases me for some reason. “You like them?”

Rob makes a face. “They look like army boots or something.”

“Well, I like them.”

He shakes his head. “They don’t look like you, babe.”

I think of all the things I’ve done today that would shock Rob: cutting all my classes, kissing Mr. Daimler, smoking pot with Anna Cartullo, stealing my mom’s credit card. Things that aren’t like me . I’m not even sure what that means; I’m not sure how you know. I mentally try to add up all the things I’ve done in my life, but no clear picture emerges, nothing that will tell me what kind of person I am—just a lot of haziness and blurred edges, indistinct memories of laughing and driving around. I feel like I’m trying to take a picture into the sun: all of the people in my memories are coming back featureless and interchangeable.

“You don’t know everything about me,” I say.

He gives a half laugh. “I know you look cute when you’re mad.” He taps a finger between my eyes. “Don’t frown so much. You’ll get wrinkles.”

“How about that beer?” I say, grateful when Rob turns away. I was hoping that seeing him would relax me, but instead it’s making me jumpy.

When Rob comes back with my beer, I take my cup and go upstairs.

At the top of the stairs I almost collide with Kent. He takes a quick step backward when he sees me.

“Sorry,” we both say at the same time, and I can feel myself blushing.

“You came,” he says. His eyes look greener than ever. There’s a weird expression on his face—his mouth is all twisted like he’s chewing on something sour.

“Seems like it’s the place to be.” I look away, wishing he would stop staring at me. Somehow I know he’s going to say something awful. He’s going to say that he can see through me again. And I get this crazy urge to ask him what he sees—like he can help me figure out me . But I’m afraid of his answer.

He looks at his feet. “Sam, I wanted to say…”

“Don’t.” I hold up a hand. Then it hits me: he knows what happened with Mr. Daimler. He can tell. I know I’m being paranoid, but the certainty is so strong it makes my head spin, and I have to reach out and grab on to the banister. “If this is about what happened in math, I don’t want to hear it.”

He looks up at me again, his mouth set in a line. “What did happen?”

“Nothing.” Once again I feel Mr. Daimler’s weight pressing into me, the heat of his mouth clamped over mine. “It’s none of your business.”

“Daimler’s a dirtbag, you know. You should stay away from him.” He looks at me sideways. “You’re too good for that.”

I think of the note that sailed onto my desk earlier. I knew it was from him. The thought of Kent McFuller feeling sorry for me, looking down on me, makes something break inside.

My words come out in a rush. “I don’t have to explain anything to you. We’re not even friends. We’re—we’re nothing.”

Kent takes a step back, lets out a noise that’s halfway between a snort and a laugh. “You’re really unbelievable, you know that?” He shakes his head, looking disgusted or sad, or maybe both. “Maybe everyone’s right about you. Maybe you are just a shallow—” He stops.

“What? A shallow what ?” I feel like slapping him to get him to look at me, but he keeps his eyes turned toward the wall. “A shallow bitch, right? Is that what you think?”

His eyes click back on mine, clear and dull and hard, like rock. Now I wish he hadn’t looked at me at all. “Maybe. Maybe it’s like you said. We’re not friends. We’re not anything.”

“Yeah? Well, at least I don’t walk around pretending to be better than everybody else.” It explodes out of me before I can stop it. “You’re not perfect, you know. I’m sure you’ve done bad things. I’m sure you do bad things.” As soon as I say it, though, I get the feeling it’s not true. I just know it somehow. Kent McFuller doesn’t do bad things. At least, he doesn’t do bad things to other people.

Now Kent does laugh. “I’m the one who pretends to be better than everybody?” He narrows his eyes. “That’s really funny, Sam. Anyone ever tell you how funny you are?”

“I’m not kidding.” I’m balling my fists up against my thighs. I don’t know why I’m so angry at him, but I could shake him, or cry. He knows about Mr. Daimler. He knows all about me, and he hates me for it. “You shouldn’t make people feel bad just because they’re not, like, perfect or whatever.”

His mouth falls open. “I never said—”

“It’s not my fault I can’t be like you, okay? I don’t get up in the morning thinking the world is one big shiny, happy place, okay? That’s just not how I work. I don’t think I can be fixed.” I mean to say, I don’t think “it” can be fixed, but it comes out wrong, and suddenly I’m on the verge of crying. I have to take big gulping breaths to try to keep the tears down. I turn away from Kent so he won’t see.

There’s a moment of silence that seems to last forever. Then Kent rests his hand on my elbow just for a second, his touch like the wings of something brushing me. Just that one little touch gives me the chills.

“I was going to tell you that you look beautiful with your hair down. That’s all I was going to say.” Kent’s voice is steady and low. He moves around me to the head of the stairs, pausing just at the top. When he turns back to me he looks sad, even though he’s smiling the tiniest bit.

“You don’t need to be fixed, Sam.” He says the words, but it’s like I don’t even hear them; it’s like they go through my whole body at the same time, like I’m absorbing them from the air. He must know it’s untrue. I open my mouth to tell him so, but he’s already disappearing down the stairs, melting into the crowd of people flowing into the house. I’m a nonperson, a shadow, a ghost. Even before the accident I’m not sure that I was a whole person—that’s what I’m realizing now. And I’m not sure where the damage begins.

I take a big swig of beer, wishing I could just go blotto. I want the world to drop away. I take another big gulp. The beer is cold, at least, but tastes like moldy water.

“Sam!” Tara’s coming up the stairs, her smile like the beam of a flashlight. “We’ve been looking for you.” When she gets to the top she pants a little, putting her right hand on her stomach and bending over. In her left hand she’s holding a cigarette, half smoked. “Courtney did recon. She found the good stuff.”

“Good stuff?”

“Whiskey, vodka, gin, cassis, the works. Booze. The good stuff.”

She grabs my hand and we go back down the stairs, which are slowly getting clogged with people. Everyone’s moving in the same direction: from the entrance to the beer and then up the stairs. In the kitchen we push through the clot of people gathered by the keg. On the opposite side of the kitchen there’s a door with a handwritten sign on it. I recognize Kent’s handwriting.

It says: PLEASE DO NOT ENTER.

There’s a footnote written in tiny letters along the bottom of the page: SERIOUSLY, GUYS. I’M HOSTING THE PARTY AND IT’S THE ONE THING I ASK. LOOK! THERE’S A KEG BEHIND YOU!

“Maybe we shouldn’t—” I start to say, but Tara has already slipped through the door so I follow her.

It’s dark on the other side of the door, and cold. The only light comes from two enormous bay windows that face out onto the backyard.

I hear giggling from somewhere deeper in the house, then the sound of someone bumping into something. “Careful,” someone hisses, and then I hear Courtney say, “You try to pour in the dark.”

“This way,” Tara whispers. It’s weird how people’s voices get softer in the dark, like they can’t help it.

We’re in the dining room. There’s a chandelier drooping from the ceiling like an exotic flower, and heavy curtains pooling at either side of the windows. Tara and I skirt around the dining room table—my mom would have a coronary from excitement, it must seat at least twelve—and out into a kind of alcove. This is where the bar is. Beyond the alcove is another dark room: from the sofas and bookshelves I can just make out, it looks like a library or a living room. I wonder how many rooms there are. The house seems to extend forever. It’s even darker here, but Courtney and Bethany are rooting around in some cabinets.

“There must be fifty bottles in here,” Courtney says. It’s too dark to read labels, so she opens each bottle and sniffs it, guessing at the contents. “This is rum, I think.”

“Freaky house, huh?” Bethany says.

“I don’t mind it,” I say quickly, not sure why I feel defensive. I bet it’s beautiful during the day: room after room of light. I bet Kent’s house is always quiet, or there’s always classical music playing or something.

Glass shatters next to me and something wet splatters on my leg. I jump as Courtney whispers, “What did you do?”

“It’s not me,” I say as Tara says, “I didn’t mean to.”

“Was that a vase?”

“Ew. Some of it got on my shoe.”

“Let’s just take the bottle and get out of here.”

We slip back into the kitchen just as RJ Ravner yells, “Fire in the hole!” Matt Dorfman takes a cup of beer and starts chugging it. Everyone laughs and Abby McGail claps when he’s drained the cup. Someone turns up the music, and Dujeous comes on and everyone starts singing along. All MCs in the house tonight, if your lyrics sound tight then rock the mic….

I hear high-pitched laughter. Then a voice from the front hallway: “God, I guess we came at the right time.”

My stomach jumps into my throat. Lindsay’s here.

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