I SHOT OUT OF MY BATHROOM AND SAT ON MY BED, my mouth dry and my hands trembling. I wanted to scream, but I closed my eyes and forced myself to breathe. Claire was dead. She was not in my bathroom, and there was nothing to be scared of. My mind was playing tricks on me. I was going to go to a party tonight, and I needed to get dressed. One thing at a time.
Makeup first. I made my way back to the mirror behind my bedroom door, but stopped. There was no one there. Just the PTSD.
But why risk it?
I padded down the hallway back to my parents’ bedroom. “Mom?” I asked, poking my head in the door. She sat in her bed, legs crossed, as she typed on her laptop. She looked up. “Will you do my makeup?” I asked her.
Her smile couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. She ushered me into her bathroom and sat me down on a chair in front of the vanity. I tilted away from the mirror, just in case.
I felt my mother line my eyes, but when she pulled out her lipstick, I stopped her. “Pass. It makes me feel like a clown.”
She nodded with mock seriousness and went back to work, twisting and pinning my hair behind my head so tightly that my face ached. When she was done, she told me to look in the mirror.
I smiled at her, the exact opposite of my internal reaction. “You know what? I trust you,” I said, and kissed her on the cheek before leaving the room.
“Wait a second,” my mother called after me. I stopped, and she opened her jewelry box. She withdrew a pair of earrings; a single emerald at the center of each stud, surrounded by diamonds.
“Oh my God,” I said, staring at them. They were incredible. “Mom, I can’t—”
“Just to borrow, not to keep,” she said with a smile. “Here, stand still.”
She fastened the studs to my ears. “There,” she said, her hands on my shoulders. “You look beautiful.”
I smiled. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. But don’t lose them, okay? They were my mother’s.”
I nodded, and went back to my room. It was time to deal with the dress. I withdrew it from its garment bag. Stepping into it would be safest—that way, I could stop if it threatened to tear. To my great surprise, it slid on easily. But it dipped dangerously low in front and dangerously low in back, exposing more skin than I was used to. Much more.
Too late now. A glance at the clock told me I had only five minutes before Daniel had to leave to meet his little nerdlet. I slipped on the shoes my mother had given me. They were slightly too tight but I ignored that and, balancing mostly on my toes, walked into the foyer. I met Joseph as he headed to his room.
“Ohmigod, DANIEL! You have to see Mara!”
Blushing furiously, I pushed past him and stood by the front door, itching to fling it open and wait in the car for my older brother. But he had the keys. Of course he did.
Daniel materialized from the hallway in a business suit with his hair slicked back and wet-looking, and my mother appeared shortly after. They stood there and stared for much longer than was necessary while I fidgeted, feigning boredom to hide my embarrassment.
Finally, Daniel spoke. “Wow, Mara. You look like … you look like …” His face scrunched as he searched for words.
A look passed over my mother’s face, but vanished before I could interpret it. “Like a model,” Mom said brightly.
“Uh, I was going to say a lady of ill repute.” I shot Daniel a look of pure poison. “But, sure.”
“She does not, Daniel. Stop it.” The golden boy was scolded. I smirked.
“You look beautiful, Mara. Older, too. Daniel,” my mother said, and turned to look him in the eye. “Watch her. Don’t let her out of your sight.”
He raised his hand in a salute. “Yes, ma’am.”
Once we were in the car, Daniel put on some Indian music. He knew I was not a fan.
“Can I change it?”
I glared at him, but he ignored me as he pulled out of the driveway. We didn’t talk until we reached the highway.
“So what are you supposed to be, anyway?” I asked him as we lined up behind the mass of cars, stalled and blinking in the traffic.
“I’m sorry, by the way.” He paused, still watching the road. “For not telling you about the case.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Mom asked me not to.”
I stared straight ahead. “So naturally, you listened.”
“She thought she was doing the right thing.”
“I wish she’d stop.”
Daniel shrugged, and we were silent for the rest of the drive. We crept along in traffic until we finally turned onto Lincoln Road. It really was captivating. Neon lights illuminated the buildings, some sleek and some gaudy. Drag queens glittered down the sidewalks next to scantily clad revelers. Parking was impossible, but we eventually found a space near the club and paid an obscene amount of money for the privilege. As I got out of the car, my feet crunched on the broken glass that dusted the pavement.
I walked behind Daniel slowly and carefully, knowing that one misstep would send me hurtling toward the glass-and-cigarette littered concrete, thereby ruining my normal teenager excursion. And the dress.
We stood in line and waited our turn. When we reached the stereotypically muscled bouncer, we handed over our cash for the cover charge and he stamped our hands without ceremony. Daniel and I walked past the rope into the pulsing club and I could tell his confidence had worn a bit thin. In our lack of partying experiences, at least, we were equals.
The room was a wall-to-wall, throbbing mass of bodies. They writhed synchronously around us as we pushed our way in shoulder-to-shoulder. The level of undress was truly impressive; a handful of whorish angels, devils, and fairies teetered toward the bar in stilettos, sucking in their torsos and puffing out their twinkling cleavage. Much to my dismay, I spotted Anna among them. She had shed her usually wholesome ensemble for a staggeringly sparse angel getup with the requisite halo and wings. She overdid it on the makeup, the push-up bra, and the heels, and looked well on her way to ending up as some accountant’s midlife crisis. I grabbed my brother by the arm and he steered us to the other side of the bar where we were supposed to meet his crush.
As we waited, I recognized the song being sampled in the remix that thrummed from the speakers and smiled to myself. Daniel tapped me on the shoulder a few minutes later, and I followed his eyes until he smiled at a petite blond girl dressed in overalls with fake greasepaint smudged on her face. She mouthed or screamed my brother’s name—it was impossible to tell. The music swallowed up every other sound in the space.
Her short hair bounced and swayed under her chin as she made her way over. When she reached us, Daniel leaned into her ear to introduce us.
“This is Sophie!” he shouted.
I nodded and smiled at her. She was cute. Daniel did nicely.
“Nice to meet you!” I screamed.
“What?” she screamed back.
“Nice to meet you!”
The look on her face revealed that she still couldn’t hear me. All righty then.
The music changed to a slower rhythmic beat and Sophie started to pull Daniel away from me and into the throng of people. He turned to me—for approval, I assumed—and I waved him on. When he was gone, though, I began to feel awkward. I pressed into the bar that wouldn’t serve me, with no discernible purpose or reason for being there. What did I expect? I came to dance, and I came with my brother who was meeting someone else. I should have asked Jamie. I was stupid. Now I had no choice but to just plunge into the crowd and start gyrating. Because that wouldn’t be weird.
I lolled my head back in hopelessness and leaned back into the dull edge of the metal bar. When I righted myself, two guys—one in a Miami Heat jersey and the other in what I hoped was an ironic portrayal of a perpetually shirtless, moronic reality TV person—made eye contact. Completely not interested. I looked away, but in my peripheral vision saw that they were edging themselves closer. I gracelessly darted into the crowd and only narrowly avoided being elbowed in the face by a girl attired in what could only be described as “slutty Gryffindor” apparel. So wrong.
When I finally reached the far wall, my eyes swept the crowd, absorbing the near-naked bodies and the costumes and trying to see if I recognized anyone not heinous from school.
Noah was fully clothed and, as far as I could tell, uncostumed. He wore dark jeans and a hoodie, apparently, despite the heat. And he was talking to a girl.
A stunningly beautiful slip of a girl, all legs crowned by a tiny, twinkling dress and fairy wings. She looked oddly familiar but I couldn’t place her; she probably went to our school. Noah listened raptly to whatever she was saying, and a semicircle of costumed girls surrounded her; a devil, a cat, an angel, and … a carrot? Huh. I liked vegetable girl, but the rest of them I hated.
At precisely that moment, Noah’s head lifted and he saw me staring. I couldn’t read his expression, even as he leaned over to the fairy and said something in her ear. She turned to look at me; Noah reached out to stop her but not before my eyes met hers. She giggled and covered her mouth before turning back around.
Noah was making fun of me. Humiliation spread from the pit of my stomach and lodged in my throat. I twisted around and pushed my way through the bodies that had encroached into my bubble of personal space. As badly as I had wanted to come tonight, I now wanted to leave.
I found Daniel and screamed in his ear that I wasn’t feeling well and asked Sophie if she could give him a ride back. Daniel was worried; he insisted on driving me home but I wasn’t having it. I told him I just needed to get some air, and eventually he handed me the keys and let me go.
I bit back my embarrassment and hurried toward the exit. As I pushed through the throng, I thought I heard my name shouted behind me. I stopped, swallowed, and against my better judgment, turned around.
No one was there.