Little Monsters – Kara Thomas

They fire off a round of texts at me five minutes after midnight: We’re coming. Get ready. They’re not threats, but my friends have a way of making even the simplest demands feel like ultimatums. Sneak out. I don’t have a choice: if I say no, they’ll make sure I’m fully aware of how much fun they had without me. But then again, it’s cold, and not the normal kind of cold. It’s Broken Falls, Wisconsin, Dead of Winter cold. No one warned me about the winters before I moved here. The books and movies are right that Christmas in Wisconsin is magical, with the barns glowing under white string lights, fresh-cut Christmas trees visible through scalloped windows. But everything that comes after is just cruel. Wind-whipped sheets of snow so thick you can’t move through them. Mornings where above freezing is the best thing you’ll hear all day. Layers of ice on your windshield that take ages to chip off. And February. February is just the biggest asshole.

February makes you feel like you’ll never see the sun again. My plan was to go to bed early and avoid the inevitable texts from Bailey and Jade. Are you up? You better be up! My friends’ restlessness is in direct proportion to how miserable and gray it is outside. Tonight, though: tonight is so clear you can count the stars like they’re diamonds. I text back: guys I’m so tired Bailey: Stoooooop. Bailey: We’re doing the thing tonight. The skin on the back of my neck pricks. The thing. The thing was Bailey’s idea; almost everything is Bailey’s idea. I take a deep breath to slow my suddenly skittish heart.

I could call them, tell them I’m not coming, but they’ll just make fun of me for being scared. There’s shuffling outside my bedroom door. The lamp on my nightstand is on. My stepmom, probably, coming to scold me for being up so late. “Kacey?” A tiny voice. Definitely not Ashley, whose voice carries over hill and sea. My stepmom’s constantly talking, sucking up all the air so my half sister can barely get a word in. I fire off another text to Bailey: I can’t come. Sorry. “You can come in,” I say.

Lauren pokes her head inside the room. She reminds me of a doll: Dark, blunt bangs. Porcelain skin. Round head, a little too big for her body. We have the same eyes—wide hazel ones that prompted a particularly nasty freshman at my old high school to call me that freaky Bambi bitch. I fluff out the comforter to make room for Lauren to crawl underneath with me. “You okay?” Lauren hugs her knees. She’s wearing fleece sock-monkey pajamas. There’s something about my sister that makes her seem younger than most kids her age; she still cries when she falls off her bike and bleeds. Tonight there’s a raw pink strip over her upper lip from the cold.

“Keelie is texting me pictures from Emma’s party,” she whispers. I want to fold my sister into a hug. Squeeze the sad out of her. Emma Michaels lives down the road—she’s been Lauren’s best friend since preschool. But Lauren isn’t at Emma’s thirteenth birthday sleepover right now, because Keelie March told Emma not to invite her. Keelie is thirteen, like Lauren, but she fills out her leotards in a way that makes the dance dads want to wait in the car. I saw Keelie in the parking lot over the summer, when I went with my stepbrother, Andrew, to pick Lauren up from her Saturday-morning class. Noticed the way Keelie watched Andrew from the corner of her eye as she lifted her leg onto the ramp railing in a perfect stretch. Sweat glistening between cleavage that even I didn’t have. It was sweltering out; Keelie was twelve going on twenty, staring at a seventeen-year-old boy like he was a Popsicle.

“They’re drinking wine coolers,” Lauren says. “That’s why I wasn’t invited.” I think of the American Girl dolls still set up in Lauren’s room, arranged around a tea set like they’re waiting for a party that’s never going to happen. I know she won’t play with them because the girls at school have already packed theirs up and put them in the attic. Those girls are thirteen and drinking. I should call Emma’s house and tell her mother what’s going on in that bedroom. Then I remember the things that went on in my house when I was thirteen. “Do you want me to block Keelie’s number from your phone?” I ask Lauren. She shakes her head, sending a tear down her cheek. “I just really wish I was there.

” I’m about to tell her fuck Keelie March and those other dumb girls, you have me, when headlights flash through my bedroom window. My room faces Sparrow Road, the outer edge of our cul-de-sac. It’s what Bailey and Jade branded the perfect loading spot for a sneak-out. And it seems that despite my texts, they came anyway. Bailey flashes her high beams; then there’s darkness. Lauren frowns. “Who’s that?” “Just Bailey and Jade,” I answer, fumbling for my phone. I’ll tell them Lauren is awake. I definitely can’t come out now. “Are you guys going somewhere?” I hear the hopeful lilt in her voice.

“No—we were just—” Snow crunching outside my window. Bailey’s face, illuminated by the light from the phone under her chin. She makes a ghostlike bwahahaha noise and I jump, even though I’m looking right at her. Jade appears next to her. Adjusts the messy bun sitting atop her head and taps on my window with one finger. I dart over and raise the glass. Bailey mashes her face against the screen, makes a pig nose. “Ready to go?” she whispers. I cringe. Even when Bailey whispers, she’s loud.

I think of nosy Mrs. Lao next door, probably perched in the armchair by her living room window with a Sudoku book. A small wooded clearing separates us from the Laos, but in the winter, when the trees are bare, the slightest noise from our house is enough to send Mrs. Lao’s Yorkie, Jerome, into a barking fit. Jade notices Lauren sitting on my bed before Bailey does. She nudges Bailey and flicks her eyes to me, as if to say, What the hell is she doing here? “She came down here because she was upset and couldn’t sleep.” I steal a glance back at Lauren. She’s picking at the pills on her fleece pants, but beneath her bangs, her eyes are on us. “Can we just go another night?” I whisper. “No,” Jade says.

“Put your pants on. Live a little.” She wiggles her eyebrows at me and grins. But when I look at Bailey, she’s not smiling. I could swear that there’s a hint of fear in her face, and for a second, I think I’m off the hook. Then: “I have all the stuff. Don’t wimp out, Kacey.” Wimp out? I never agreed to this thing in the first place. Bailey’s eyes are focused on me. Daring me to say no.

Her message is clear: if I come out tonight, I’m forgiven for all those times I stayed home. Across the street, there’s faint yelping. Jerome. Mrs. Lao must have let him out to pee. I turn to Lauren. “We’re just going out for a bit, okay? Please don’t tell your mom. You can stay in here, okay?” She looks down at her toes. “I won’t.” A bubble of relief.

I exhale. Pull jeans on over my fleece PJ pants and throw on the jacket I left draped over my desk chair. The relief doesn’t last long when I see Lauren’s face. Crushed. She gives me a halfhearted wave as I pop out my screen and climb up on my windowsill and awkwardly out the other side into the cold night air. I pull the window down behind me feeling like the shittiest person ever, but I have to get rid of my friends before they wake my stepmom up and everything goes to hell. When I’m tucked in the back of Bailey’s Honda Civic, balled-up Taco Bell wrappers under my butt as I fumble for the seat belt, Jade says, “Is she gonna rat us out?” “She won’t,” I say. Bailey looks over her shoulder as she pulls away from the curb. Turns front and slams on the brakes, letting out a little yelp. Lauren is standing in front of the car, her body illuminated by Bailey’s headlights.

I nearly slide off my seat. She’s wearing her purple down jacket and she’s waving for us to stop. Bailey and I both lower our windows. “Can I come?” Lauren wraps her arms around her waist. “I won’t say anything. I promise.” My heart twists. Lauren coming along tonight is a bad idea in a million different ways. “You can come next time.” Jerome starts to bark again, obviously forgotten in the backyard.

A light flips on from Mrs. Lao’s back porch. “Shit,” Bailey says. My stomach twists. If Mrs. Lao sees us—“Just get in the car.” Lauren looks at the house, then back at me. “Really?” Bailey flips her headlights off, chanting shit, shit, shit under her breath. I lean over and throw open the back door for Lauren. “Yes! Just get in.

” Lauren ducks and climbs into the backseat next to me. “Ride it like you stole it!” Jade hollers. Bailey accelerates, hitting the curve at the end of the cul-de-sac. My head knocks against the back window. Lauren’s breathless, like we’ve completed a heist. Jade lowers her mirror. Warm brown eyes winged with black liner meet mine; she’s pissed, but what am I supposed to do? They’re the ones who decided to drag me out. I feel the cold in my hands. The vents are pointed away from Lauren and me, concentrating all the heat in the front of the car. Bailey’s eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror.

I hope she can read what I’m trying to communicate: It’s not too late. We can go back. But she grips the steering wheel and looks straight ahead at the road. It’s covered in packed snow, the bare trees on each side bending eerily toward the center. Lauren pales when she sees where we are. “Where are we going?” I hesitate. “Up to the barn. You still want to come?” Lauren picks at the pills of fleece on her pants again. Lifts her head and nods. Bailey stops at the foot of Sparrow Hill and cuts the engine.

“Let’s do this.” Lauren has my hand in a vise grip. We’re climbing Sparrow Hill, picking our way around the barren white spruces and trying not to slip on the icy patches of snow. There was a time when my brand-new half sister was terrified of me. She’d sense me coming into a room and skitter out of it like a cat. Now I’m her sister. She won’t let anyone forget that, especially my stepbrother, Andrew. Her half brother. Now she trusts me enough to bring her to the creepiest place in Broken Falls—Sparrow Kill. That’s what everyone calls it, because of what happened in the Leeds House before it burned down.

Jade, already several paces ahead, looks back at us, a pinch of concern on her forehead when she sees Lauren’s face. “If you’re scared, you can go back and wait in the car.” “So she can get snatched by some creep?” Bailey says. Something rustles past our feet. “Shit! Something touched me.” I feel Lauren’s hand tense in mine. “It was probably just a chipmunk,” I say. I look down at my sister, drop my voice to a whisper. “You really don’t have to do this. We can walk home.

” She nods. I can see the wheels turning in her head. Keelie March wouldn’t be brave enough to climb Sparrow Kill. “I want to.” My foot catches a slippery spot and the ground disappears from underneath me. I fall, taking Lauren down with me. Pain shoots up my tailbone. Bailey and Jade whip their heads around. See us on our butts. Bailey starts to laugh—a full-on belly laugh that rises into the night, skimming the tops of the trees.

I start to laugh too, and then so do Jade and Lauren. We laugh as loud as we want; the nearest house, the Strausses’, is more than half a mile away. It’s okay, I tell myself. We’re laughing. Everything will be okay. Jade extends a mittened hand and helps me up. Snow seeps into my socks, through the tops of my boots. Without the moon to guide us, it’s too dark to spot the barn. Bailey reaches into her bag and digs out a flashlight—one of those small ones with the name of her dad’s plumbing company on it—and illuminates a shallow path for us. “I think it’s to the right.

” We move together, the crunch of our footsteps in sync. When Bailey stops short in front of me, I know she’s spotted it. The barn has a face. They took the door off its hinges years ago, leaving a gaping hole for a mouth. Two windows, high up, form the eyes. Those are broken, too. I know it’s probably because of some kids who came up here to dick around, throw some rocks, but it’s still creepy. The house is gone, but I’ve seen it in pictures. A red-and-white Scandinavian-style house set behind wrought-iron gates. The scalloped windows reminded me of the dollhouse in my mother’s baby pictures, the one my grandfather built her.

I never found out what happened to the dollhouse. Everyone knows what happened to the Leeds House, though: it burned down. What no one knows for sure is who set the fire. By the time the fire marshal arrived on Sparrow Hill, there was nothing left of the house but ash and the gnarled bodies of the five children who lived there. Outside, sitting upright on a bench, was Hugh Leeds, the children’s father. There was a rifle next to his body and a single gunshot wound to his head. His wife, Josephine, was never seen again. The town fought for years to tear the barn down, clear the property and sell it, but without Josephine’s body, they couldn’t prove she was dead. So the barn stayed, belonging to the Leedses by law. They cleared the wreckage of the house and planted trees around the scorched earth.

Depending on who you ask, Josephine Leeds is still here, walking up and down Sparrow Kill, her white nightdress bloody and filthy at the hem. People call her the Red Woman, and they say she can only be spotted at night. That’s why we’re here. To see for ourselves. To scare the shit out of ourselves. Because what else is there to do during a Broken Falls winter? “You first.” Bailey jabs me between my shoulder blades. Jade snorts. “Are you actually scared?” Bailey ignores her and steps up to the entrance. Holds up her phone, casting a pale glow on the barn floor.

“This is maaaaaad creepy.” It comes out as if the breath has been sucked out of her. I walk through the mouth of the barn, feeling Lauren’s sharp inhale as I step away from her. Bailey, never one to be outdone, snaps out of her fear and follows me. There’s hay scattered over the ground, accompanied by the occasional glint of a condom wrapper or beer can. A loft looms on the other end of the barn, its floor beveling under the weight of its age and neglect. The scraping of feet, and then Lauren and Jade come up behind us. “So now what?” Bailey sits. Removes the tea light candles from her bag and arranges them in a neat row. Jade tosses Bailey her lighter and smirks.

“Do we cut our palms and make a blood oath?” “If you don’t take it seriously, it’s not going to work,” Bailey scolds. She flicks the lighter and lets the flame hover over the wick on the first candle. I sit next to Bailey. Next to me, Lauren dutifully lowers herself to the ground, eyes wide, and I lean over and whisper in her ear: “Nothing is actually going to happen. It’s not real.” But when Jade sits, I see her shiver. Bailey catches it and raises an eyebrow as if to say, See? Jade wraps her arms around her middle. “It’s freezing. Can we just do this and go home?” Outside, the wind picks up. A draft flows through the door; the flame gutters out.

Bailey frowns, tries again. We fall silent, watching her finger skate across the trigger of the lighter. Finally, a flame. Bailey’s eyes are fixed on the candles as she lights them, but I see the quaver in her hand. The last candle flickers; the flame jumps to life. Bailey sits back. A satisfied look comes over her face. She slips something out of her back pocket: a silver pendulum, a daggerlike blue crystal at the end. Bailey’d found it in her attic while putting away the Christmas ornaments in January. She’d opened a box of her mom’s old things by mistake.

Now, Bailey inhales and holds the pendulum over the circle formed by the candles. A gust of wind passes through the barn, causing the chain to sway. “How are we supposed to know if it’s working?” I ask. “The wind is so strong.” Bailey looks at me and holds her free finger to her lips. The chain goes still; the crystal at the end of the pendulum stops swinging. Bailey’s voice comes out in a hush: “Is there anyone here?” Our eyes on the crystal, we’re silent, until: “I farted,” Jade says. Bailey leans across the circle and slaps Jade’s thigh, hard. Lauren erupts into giggles. Bailey actually sounds angry as she glares at Jade.

“You killed the energy, jerk.” “Oh, whatever.” Jade rolls her eyes. “You’re the only one who believes this garbage.” Next to me, Lauren hugs her knees to her chest. She’s still in those sock-monkey pajamas. Her eyes are on the candles. I won’t betray her, reveal that Bailey isn’t the only one who believes this garbage. Andrew, my stepbrother, told me that Lauren couldn’t sleep for days when her friend Chloe said she spotted a strange ball of light on Sparrow Road. A gust of wind picks up.

Something slams against the outside of the barn, drawing a yelp out of Bailey. Jade sits up straight, turns to the noise. The thrumming in my body zips up to my brain. Just adrenaline. “It was only the wind.” Then: the crunch of snow. The wind rises again, howling, taking footsteps outside with it. Running. Someone—something—running away from the barn. Bailey jumps.

“What the hell was that?” Lauren’s arms shoot around my middle. Jade stands. “I’m going to check.” I roll onto my knees. Jade shouldn’t go alone. “I’m coming.” “Don’t,” Lauren cries out. “What if someone’s out there?” “There’s more of us,” Jade says. “It was probably an animal, anyway.” I don’t ask what kind of animal other than a human would be spying on four girls performing a séance in the middle of the night.

Bailey sits back on her heels, frozen. I look from Bailey to Lauren. “Stay with her, please?” I don’t know which one of them I’m talking to. Jade is already out the door; I’m at her heels. “This was a stupid idea,” she mutters, picking her way through the dark. Her own feet barely make a sound on the snow. She shouts into the trees: “Hey, dickhead! We’re going.” I pull my scarf over my face, leaving Jade to shout into the wind, and make my way around the barn to the wall where we heard the slamming. The snow is packed solid. No footprints.

No animal, no human. I make my way back to Jade. “There’s no one out here. You can stop yelling.” The wind picks up again, nearly knocking us backward. That’s when the groaning starts. I whip around just in time to see the snow on the roof of the Leeds Barn sinking. Lauren. I take off running, shouting: Get out get out get out. A body collides with mine: Bailey.

She’s got Lauren by the hand. I steady myself, grab on to both Bailey’s and Lauren’s arms as a crack splits the silence. We watch as one half of the Leeds Barn roof falls, hitting the ground with a thud. That’s when Lauren starts screaming. Bailey’s voice is breathless: “We need to get the hell out of here.” I grab hold of Lauren. “Hey. It’s okay. It was just the wind.” Lauren’s eyes are on the barn.

The sound coming out of her is shrill enough to carry over half a mile. Jade is at our side in an instant. “Shut her up. Seriously. Or we’re all screwed.” “Come on.” Bailey grabs Lauren. “Let’s just get her in the car.” Before I turn to follow them, I poke my head inside the barn. It’s dead still, a gaping hole in the roof letting in the light of the moon.

On the floor, all five candles are out. CHAPTER TWO When we’re shut inside Bailey’s car, Lauren stops screaming and starts to whimper. I take her ice-cold hand in mine. “You didn’t get hurt, did you?” “She’s fine,” Bailey says, starting the engine and peeling away from Sparrow Hill. “I wasn’t talking to you,” I say, irritated enough to raise my voice. “That roof could have squashed you both.” Jade glares at me. “Brilliant idea. Letting her come.” “What was I supposed to do? You shouldn’t have decided we should go to that decrepit old barn in the first place.

” Lauren’s whimpers give way to short, shallow breaths. She’s hyperventilating. My stomach turns as Bailey swerves over to the side of the road and throws the car into park. Bailey twists around as far as her seat will let her. “Hey. Look at me,” she says. She reaches back and gives Lauren’s knee a shake. Her voice is gentle. “You have to stop crying. If you go home hysterical, you’re going to get us in trouble.

” Lauren wipes her face with the sleeve of her jacket. “I know. I’m sorry. I just want to go home.” Bailey sighs, turns forward. Puts the car in drive and pulls away from the shoulder. Lauren hiccups. “I can’t take her home like this,” I say. “She’s too upset.” Jade reclines her seat into my knees.

Props her feet up on the dash. “She’s okay. She just needs a minute. Right?” Jade turns to Lauren for affirmation. My sister nods but won’t make eye contact. She has always found my friends ridiculously cool: especially Jade, with her oversized vintage sweaters and armfuls of bangles and impeccably drawn winged eyeliner. Jade smiles at Lauren. When she turns back around, Lauren lowers her head onto my lap, crying silently. This is just the culmination of her being stressed out—she’s still upset about Emma’s party, and now she’s spooked from the roof collapse. And embarrassed about losing it in front of my friends.

That’s what I try to tell myself. But I can’t tear my eyes away from Bailey’s knuckles, wrapped around her steering wheel, white as the snow on the hill. — I don’t bother falling asleep once I’m back in my room, because I have to be up for work at six. Milk & Sugar, Ashley’s café, opens at seven on the weekends. Ashley doesn’t look at me funny when she comes to wake me up. Doesn’t say anything about my midnight jaunt. Relief and guilt needle me as I help her chip the ice off the windshield of her SUV and let her prattle on about the storm that’s supposed to hit us tomorrow morning. My nerves are still frazzled from last night, from not sleeping, which leaves me with little patience for the way Ashley and another car at the end of our road sit deadlocked at a stop sign because they can’t agree who should go first. Because people around here are polite. Like, the type of polite where if there’s one piece of pie left at dessert, the person next to you will give a twenty-minute dissertation on why you should have it.

Just last week, Tom Cornwell, an elderly man who always orders one poached egg over toast, slipped on ice outside Milk & Sugar. I’ve seen people in New York threaten to sue for less, but Tom actually apologized to Ashley and refused the free breakfast she tried to force on him. According to the radio, it’s a record low of five degrees today, windchill minus twentyfive. I feel it in the joints of my fingers once we get to the café as I get the coffeepots going, in the ice-cold of the toilet seat when I pee quickly before we open. The energy is off in the café when the regulars start straggling in. We’re not as busy as we usually are on Saturdays, probably because of the weather. The people who do come in grumble over their coffee not being quite right, the heat not coming on fast enough as they wait for their breakfast. Even old Tom Cornwell is pissy. He must have developed an allergy to gluten in the past few days, because he spends five minutes scolding me for bringing him regular toast. He stops just short of accusing me of trying to kill him and doesn’t drop his change in the tip jar like he always does.

Rob, the cook, screws up whatever orders I manage to get right. Maybe it’s me. I’m exhausted. The energy I do have leaches out of me; by ten a.m. I’m a puddle on the stool in the kitchen while I work on the plate of scrambled eggs Rob made me for breakfast. I can’t eat without hearing the crack of the barn roof. Without hearing Lauren’s earsplitting scream. If anyone finds out we were trespassing—that we were there when the roof collapsed— we’re going to be in such deep shit. At a quarter after, Bailey strides through the front door. I should be relieved, based on how we left things last night, but the sight of her makes me stumble and overcharge the man I’m ringing up. I feel her eyes on me as I void out what’s on the register and re-ring the order. I hand the man a number to put on his table so I can bring him his omelet when it’s ready. Bailey inches up to the counter as he walks away. Yawns, drags her fingers through the strawberry-blond hair that falls to the middle of her back. Her peacoat is unbuttoned, exposing her work polo. Friendly Drugs is embroidered on the pocket. “Can Rob make me an egg white and spinach omelet?” she asks around another yawn. I shoot a glance at the clock. “Yeah, but you might be late for work.” “It’s fine. I’m only going in so Bridget can leave early again.” Bailey stretches her arms behind her. “She can wait.” Bridget Gibson is on our Do Not Like list. It’s not because she’s dance team captain and salutatorian and universally feared; it’s because of Cliff Grosso. Cliff Grosso is a year older than us. Future poster child for brain damage in the NFL. He had a full ride to Ohio State, until he rear-ended an off-duty sheriff’s deputy last spring after he’d been drinking. Bailey was in the passenger seat. Now, Bridget Gibson is dating Cliff, and whenever his name comes up in the halls of Broken Falls High, she’s quick to point out that Cliff wouldn’t have even been in that car if he hadn’t been about to hook up with Bailey Hammond. Somehow because of this it’s become Bailey’s fault that Cliff was drunk and behind the wheel of a car. I shout for Rob to make Bailey’s usual and pour her a to-go cup of coffee, black. When she hears the ding of the bell in the kitchen, confirmation that Rob heard me, Bailey jolts a little. My fingers find the buttons on the sleeve of my shirt and fiddle with them nervously. “Are we okay?” Bailey lifts her gaze to mine. Her blush is slightly lopsided, like she was in a rush getting ready. “Why wouldn’t we be?” “I just—Lauren could have gotten us busted, with the screaming—” Bailey cuts me off. “It’s fine. Stop talking about it.” The bell over the front door tinkles. Bailey jumps again and turns to see who’s come through the door: a woman pushing a stroller carrying a sleeping newborn, a toddler tugging on her other hand. I lower my voice. “What’s up? You’re so jumpy.” “It’s called caffeine, Kace. I’ve had like three cups of coffee already.” Bailey steps aside while I help the woman with the kids, who doesn’t know what she wants and nearly bursts into tears because of it. I want to tell her that Bailey babysits, but Bailey isn’t looking at me. The harried woman decides on a strong cup of coffee, and the bell dings in the kitchen. Rob passes a take-out container through the kitchen window and grins. “For Bailey Bear.” She wiggles her fingers at him and flashes him a smile. None of us actually knows how old Rob is, but he’s got five years on us, easily. He grins at Bailey, adjusting the red bandana we all have to wear to hold back our hair. “Bailey!” Ashley’s voice appears before she does. She emerges from the back room, where her office is, the notebook she uses to make the weekly schedule tucked in the crook of her arm. “I thought I heard a familiar voice.” “Hey, Mrs. M.” Bailey stands up straighter and brightens, like a switch has been turned on. She’s all apple cheeks and smiles as my stepmother comes over and gives her a hug. “Come over more, will you?” she says. “I’d love to see you around the house. You girls are always out and about.” You have no idea, I think as Bailey’s eyes flick to me. “I’d love that,” she says. Ashley beams a motherly smile, then flounces off to fix the crooked chalkboard in the front window. I wonder if maybe I imagined Bailey being weird. She seems perfectly normal now. Then I remember the schedule she made Jade and me for the weekend and realize there’s a party tonight. “Hey,” I say quietly, still holding her food. “Isn’t Sully’s party tonight?” Bailey’s upper lip twitches and her happy face folds into a frown. “You actually want to go to that?” Of course I don’t; I would rather be in bed or playing Mario Kart with Lauren and Andrew than drinking piss-warm beer in the freezing basement of Kevin Sullivan’s McMansion, but I nod, because I know Bailey wants to go. She and Jade make it a point to avoid high school parties. They always say they’re stupid, but really everyone knows that’s because Bailey doesn’t want to run into Cliff—or Bridget, who is bold enough to hiss go home, skank at Bailey’s back after a few sips of peach schnapps. Rumor has it tonight is going to be a rager, though; Kevin’s older brother is home from college for the weekend and allegedly bringing a bunch of hot Canadian college guys with him. Everyone except the losers and mouth-breathers will be there. I hand Bailey the food and meet her eyes. “Okay,” she says, almost looking amused. “We’ll text you when we’re on our way to pick you up.” — I steal a glance at my phone the second Ashley starts cashing out the register for the day. Normally at the end of my workday, my screen is bloated with group messages from Bailey and Jade. When are you getting out of work/what are we doing tonight? But there’s nothing. No mention of the party Bailey said we would go to. Silence is never golden with Bailey and Jade. I wonder if I’m being punished. If being ignored is my penance for letting Lauren come last night, for almost getting us caught. On the ride home, I rest my cheek on the seat belt, pulled taut, as Ashley prattles on about dinner plans. “I was thinking maybe Chinese, since your father’s working.” There’s a silent again at the end of her sentence. My dad works night shifts in a pharmacy at a hospital in the city, forty-five minutes away. At a red light, Ashley examines her part in the mirror. Moves a piece of bottle-brown hair until she finds a pesky gray strand and yanks at it. She’s five years older than my father and has a serious complex about it. But when I saw her for the first time, I thought, Now, she looks like a mom. Here’s the truth: my actual mom sucks. She’s always sucked. Even when I was little, like really little, I could tell that she sucked at being a mom. I remember sitting at my best friend’s kitchen table for dinner, because my mother was late picking me up again, mouth watering at the buttery rolls and Tater Tots, and thinking, This is what a real dinner looks like. This is what a real mom looks like. When I think of my mother I think of Happy Meals for dinner, paid for by the change scrounged up in her car, the one that smelled like cigarettes because she let her boyfriends drive it and smoke inside. I think of the surprise on my teachers’ faces when they saw how young my mom was, the hot shame in my cheeks at always being the last kid to get picked up from the after-school program. It wasn’t all bad—especially when it was just the two of us, and we did things like drive to get Carvel at midnight in our pajamas, or sit on the living room floor and cut out all the supermodels from her magazines, turning them into paper dolls. I wish I could say it was my mom who ruined everything, but I was the one who changed. I grew up and couldn’t stand the boyfriends anymore—the way they smelled, the way they talked to her, the way they all seemed to use my mom up and leave her in pieces. I got angry, and I took it out on her. I was thirteen the first time I said I fucking hate you and she said she fucking hated me too. The fights always ended with something in the house broken and both of us in tears, with her telling me she loved me and she promised to do better. The thing is, I love my mom. But I’m starting to think it’s possible to love someone and hate them at the same time. Anyway, how I wound up in Broken Falls with the father I’d never met and the stepfamily I didn’t know I had: my mom’s latest boyfriend, the one I called Tattooed Douche, was so bad that I decided I would rather live in a friend’s basement than my own apartment any longer. A social worker got involved, phrases like no possibility of reconciliation were uttered, and phone calls were made to Russ Markham, the man I only knew by the signature on the checks he sent every year on my birthday. Ashley welcomed me with a special dinner and a brand-new comforter set from Target; Andrew talked my ear off about my school schedule and promised to introduce me to all his friends—cross-country runners, soccer players, future Ivy League graduates, and girls who wore pearl earrings. But I chose Bailey and Jade. Or rather, they chose me, drew me into their satellite, which seemed to orbit outside all the usual high school drama. Who was hooking up with whom, who was lobbying to win best smile. None of that mattered to them. They seemed to have their own private world where the only things that mattered were each other. I really thought that I could be a part of it, the day Bailey pulled up to the curb where I was waiting for Andrew after school and said, We’re going to my house. I knew that it was an invitation to something much bigger. Two becoming three. But three is an uneven number. When there are three, someone always winds up out in the cold.

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