“Right, right,” he said quickly, holding his hands up in surrender. “I just came down to tell you I’m going over to Tony’s to watch the game. I don’t suppose you want to join us?”
She rolled her eyes. “No.”
“That’s a shame, it should be a good one. Well, anyway—your sister going out?”
“Why don’t you ask her yourself?” Julie hadn’t meant to snarl, but irritation seeped into her voice.
But her father had long since become immune to the aggravated pitch and whine of teenage girls’ voices, and he only gestured helplessly toward the pop music pounding through Andrea’s closed door. “Didn’t think it was worth risking my ears.”
Crossing her legs on the bed, she found a milder teasing tone. “Oh, that’s right, you have to save them for the stadium.”
“Exactly. Well, if ‘Drea goes out, tell her she has to be back by eleven, no excuses. I’ve got Kyle’s number now, I will call him to find out where they are.”
“Okay, Dad.” Julie didn’t bother telling him that Kyle was smart enough to recognize his girlfriend’s father’s name and number and not answer it.
“Have a good night – hope your princess doesn’t look too tasty to the vampires.” He vanished down the hall before she could throw back a retort.
Julie leaned back against her window, watching her father get into his truck and pull out of the driveway. She marked her place with a bookmark before crossing the hall to knock loudly on her sister’s door.
“Come in!” Andrea finally shouted, and Julie’s first move was to turn the volume knob down to what she thought a reasonable level before sitting on her bed.
Andrea was tussling with her straightening iron, half her long blonde hair clipped to the top of her head. “What’s up?”
“Dad left for Tony’s. He says you’re to be back by eleven.”
Andrea swung her back to Julie, yelling, “I have no idea what you just said, the music is way too loud. I just told you I’m spending the night at Kelly’s, and you’re so happy for me you’ll only realize later you forgot to pass along any messages.”
Julie rolled her eyes but made no protests. “What’ve you got planned tonight?”
“Meeting Kyle at the movies, then I’m going to Kelly’s. It isn’t a lie, no need to burden your saintly conscience.”
Julie’s mouth twisted. Andrea turned the music back up, though not quite as loud as before. Julie remained where she was, watching her sister critically appraise her hair before unrolling another layer to attack.
Andrea broke the silence. “What do you want for your birthday, huh?”
Julie shook her head. “You don’t have to do anything for me.”
“Don’t be stupid.” Andrea turned back around, frowning as her eyes flickered over her. “What do you like? And please don’t tell me any of that Japanese crap. You need something a little more adult for your sixteenth birthday.” She moved to her cabinet, examining the make-up spread across it. “Just let me take you to Danielle’s sister to give you a makeover. She’s a professional. I promise you’ll be so surprised. It’ll change your world.”
“Do I embarrass you?” Julie asked acidly.
Andrea let out a short laugh, keeping her back to her. “Please. No one at school associates us, don’t you worry about that.”
Riled, Julie stood to leave, though she stopped at the door to advise, “Go eat a sandwich.”
Julie kept her door shut, and Andrea did not stop to say goodbye before leaving. Through her window, Julie watched her friends stop before the house so Andrea could climb in, and she settled down with a sigh as she opened her book again.
Not five minutes later, her phone interrupted her with a trill announcing a text message. Groaning, she snagged it off the desk behind her, fully expecting it to be Andrea demanding Julie find her sunglasses and bring them outside when they drove back a minute later – but it wasn’t from Andrea.
Julie stared at the message for a moment, then replied with a brief affirmative. It chimed again a moment later, and the new text made her grimace and push the phone away from her.
She looked at the cover of Vampire Knight, then pushed it into a drawer. Some of her friends papered their bedroom walls with anime posters and lined every shelf with figurines, but she collected nothing but the books. Those shelves were nearly inconspicuous with the rest of her room’s ordinary—boring, Andrea called it—décor. But it suited her well enough.
When she heard a vehicle roll up the driveway and the motor cease, she didn’t look to see who it was before getting up to open the front door.
Kyle stood on the porch, his hand just raised to knock, and his startled grin made her repress her own in response. Highlights streaked his brown hair, to better effect than Andrea’s, and his skin was surprisingly smooth and free of blemishes for a high school boy. He was the star of the soccer team, and his athletic body was generously on display with a thin sleeveless undershirt and a low-riding pair of gym shorts.
She moved aside, and he stepped in and closed the door behind him. She was just about to ask him what he had told Andrea when he pushed her—not roughly, but relentlessly—to the wall and kissed her.
They had never talked much.
Julie wasn’t entirely certain when Kyle had learned her name—or if he had ever learned it, though she supposed he must have her listed under something in his phone. Before he dated Andrea, she had never once seen him look at her—in the hallways his eyes moved past her, like nearly everyone’s did. She had noticed him plenty, though. He was a senior, like Andrea, and definitely one of the most attractive boys in the school. She had watched through the weeks as he and Andrea, each surrounded by their respective entourage, performed the less-than-complex adolescent courting dance.
Andrea had come home riotously happy at the triumph, alarming their father, who insisted Kyle present himself for inspection. Andrea had thrown a fit over what she termed his disgustingly old-fashioned worldview, but Kyle had acquiesced graciously enough to come over that weekend for dinner and to watch a basketball game. Though Andrea had been absent that night for a cheerleading competition, Dad discovered enough favorite sports teams in common with Kyle to declare him a boy of sound mind and upstanding character, and they sat down in the best of rapports to urge on the Lakers. Then, during a commercial break, Kyle wandered into the kitchen where Julie was washing dishes.
He had touched her arms.
That was a simple fact, but Julie still remembered, and believed she always would remember, every sensation from those moments. Kyle had come up behind her – that was how she first became aware of him, of his body brushing against her back, much closer than it should have been. He placed his hands lightly on her shoulders, running them down her arms, and just like that she couldn’t breathe. Just like that her hands were paralyzed, unable to let go of the sponge and cup. Her hands were wet and covered in suds, and it felt just like handcuffs, leaving her unable to react, unable to move at all as Kyle pressed closer to full body contact. He trailed his fingertips up the inside of her arms, and then he lowered his mouth to her ear and neck.
“I know you want me,” he whispered, grazing his lips against her ear.
He was her first kiss.
She had had a boyfriend before, in junior high. His name was Miles, and he had been even geekier and more awkward than she. Their mutual shyness had prevented them from going any further than holding hands, though he had shown up faithfully after every class to carry her bag to the next. Some weeks into it, Julie had become aware that all the other girls were laughing at them. It hadn’t taken her long after that to figure out the rest: they had been set up, mutually nudged together by outside forces—forces amused by the pairing of outcasts who, they thought, deserved each other. She had dropped Miles at once, in an inadvertently cruel way that made her wince a few years later, recalling his bewildered and pimpled face. She had not explained the situation to him, as at the time she had despised him as much as everyone else did; she despised him for his social incompetence and gullibility, for existing as an invitation for everyone to equate them, to bring her down to his level.
But the worst moment of the ordeal was when she had come home and told her sister, who had insisted on detailed reports every day of the entire relationship and kept, Julie realized later, a remarkably straight face through it all. When Julie went to her sister and announced simply they had broken up, Andrea had whirled to her and exclaimed without an ounce of irony, “Oh, but you were perfect for each other!”
Julie had hated her ever since.
Sometimes it ebbed, but Andrea always said something reminding her of that moment and the divide between them. So when Kyle kissed Julie in the kitchen, she had felt a roar of exhilaration, blood rushing through her head, hormones unleashed in a tidal wave, and not a drop of guilt. Once alone in her room that night, Julie had leaned against her door and laughed, and not entirely due to the same giddiness Andrea had shown the night she claimed Kyle.
Kyle had spoken no other words to her that night, but she quickly grasped she should give no sign of what had taken place. She did her best not to look at him in school nor expect anything, so he delighted her whenever he caught her by surprise and pulled her in an empty room or corner. They were frustrating moments too, never as long as that first kiss, but she still treasured them with a certain amount of glee. Briefly she had worried about Andrea suspecting something, but soon realized there was no need; her sister never looked at her that closely and would never suspect something like that, anyway. Another girl with Kyle, perhaps; but Julie wasn’t competition.
Nearly a week passed before she regained most of her senses and began to wonder about Kyle’s motivation. She had no illusions about how much more attractive her sister was compared to her, and he gained nothing from their snatched illicit moments when he could do quite a bit more, publicly, with Andrea. Evidently, then, he was just like many other boys, only more degenerate than most. He wanted the thrill of chasing multiple girls at once, and it was an even bigger thrill when it was his girlfriend’s sister. Never mind how pretty she was; the conquest was the important thing.
Well, the conquest tasted awfully delicious to Julie, too. A long time passed before she could think of anything besides how thrilling it was to be desired—who cared about the motivation? Kyle was a long shot from Miles, and he wanted to kiss her and touch her and have her touch him—she wasn’t about to question or get tired of that.
Tonight, in the hallway, he picked her up to pin her against the wall, bringing them to a more equal height. Thrilled at the opportunity to enact one of the favorite manga poses for couples, Julie wrapped her legs over his hips as she kissed him deeper. He tugged off her shirt, which she allowed, but when they broke apart to pull it over her head, she leaned away and squirmed for him to let her down.
“Not here—come on.” She took his hand to lead him to her bedroom, where she dropped her shirt by the bed and turned to take off his. “What did you tell Andrea?”
He laughed, showing his white teeth. “That I was having car trouble. I think I’ll meet up with them later, after the movie.” He pulled her in close to his chest, his fingers moved remorselessly down her back, toying with her bra clasp.
Of course, Julie thought. That way he can have both in one night. She reached back to help him unclasp it.
Perhaps she had shown from the start a little too much eagerness and enthusiasm, for one day, close to two months after he and Andrea began dating, Kyle had pulled Julie to his car while the rest of the school was occupied with a basketball game. Inside his Nissan, he had hardly kissed her before moving his hands to work intently at her jeans, and for the first time Julie had reacted with alarm and pulled away. To his credit, and some surprise on her part, Kyle had backed off at once, though he had looked disappointed, waiting for a reason. Julie had only been able to say, “Not now.”
Once away, she had forced herself to take a mental step back and look again at what she was doing and how far she was willing to take this. Kissing her sister’s boyfriend and letting him feel up her shirt was one thing; fucking him was another. It had occurred to Julie also this was not entirely about Andrea, either.
She had considered again—not about who Kyle was (the answer was simple: a teenage boy, and one with fewer qualms than most) or who Andrea was, but about who she was. Would she give her virginity to a morally worthless boy who she not only knew did not love her, but whom she did not in the least respect?
But for all her love of that genre of manga with its sappy, quixotic love stories, Julie was not a romantic. Her obsession with manga had grown as she realized how unrealistic those tales and characters were, and she no more expected to encounter them in real life than she expected to see someone with eyes taking up two-thirds of their face. She had long ago stopped entertaining fantasies of a beautiful, sweet boy who would sweep her off her feet and never desire anyone else. What had happened instead was not romantic, not a fairy tale, but Julie had come to find over these few months that the affair had a breathless excitement, an enchantment to it all the same. Their brief, irregular encounters of nothing but hormones and betrayal had a sick kind of glamour, but it was still glamour.
With that glamour in mind, her thoughts had turned again to Andrea, wondering how far she had gone with Kyle. She wouldn’t have—but maybe she had. Since Julie’s own secret and double-life began, she had learned not to underestimate anyone else.
One afternoon, she had prodded Andrea about it, carefully phrasing her words to sound like an idle and curious question from someone who couldn’t dream of the possibility of sex anytime soon.
Andrea had looked at her blankly, then reached over to smack her shoulder. “No! Do you think I’m that easy? We’ve only been going out for a couple months.”
The answer had startled her, and Julie wondered if she would be easy if she slept with Kyle. But it hadn’t seemed the same since they weren’t dating—it would be a different category of labels entirely. Julie would be called many things for sleeping with her sister’s boyfriend, no matter when it took place.
And in the end, she had decided that didn’t matter to her. All those labels seemed preferable to the ones she carried now: dull, childish, innocent, inconsequential. She wanted to be the sort of unpredictable, unexpected person who would do this, proving to everyone she was not boring and unable to inflict damage. She wanted to show Andrea how wrong she was, but more than anything, she wanted to change who she was.
When she next saw Kyle alone by his locker, she had stopped by—speaking to him in public for the first time—looked into his eyes, and said, “Not in your car.”
He had picked her up, a couple blocks away from school, and taken her to his house. But though she had thought herself already disillusioned about sex, it had still not been what she had expected, and she had time to question if she had made a mistake and gotten in over her head. Kyle, at least, was not a complete asshole; he had put his arm around her afterwards and did not hurry her to get up so he could take her home. Of course, she had reasoned, he knew how to touch girls. She wondered how many he had slept with, and never asked. They didn’t speak much, after all.
Tonight was the first time in her own bed, however. She had hoped that, with the luxury of privacy and time, they could have more fun and enjoy themselves, but Kyle proved more self-occupied than usual, and Julie ended up watching the sun sink through the trees out her window, waiting for him to finish. When he did, he collapsed next to her with a grunt, mouth open and arm crossing his forehead and eyes like a swooned Victorian lady’s.
After a moment, she sat up, pulling the sheet up around her shoulders as she looked down at him. He had performed very disappointingly, and whatever scarce feelings of affection she had carried for him had fled, prompting her to rethink the situation.
Her self-esteem had improved considerably since Kyle first kissed her; she had begun thinking of herself as potentially desirable, as sexually experienced, as possessing something to offer the opposite sex. Now she wondered if she could do better. Kyle was handsome, to be sure, but he was also a douchebag, and she didn’t fool herself to think that he cared for her. But perhaps it wouldn’t be so impossible now to find someone who did like her for her. She still had the rest of her life ahead of her, after all, far beyond high school. Julie began to feel they were no longer equally benefiting from this relationship.
So how would it end? Kyle wasn’t smart enough to keep this up forever. It seemed remarkable he had carried on for this long. It was only a matter of time before he tripped up and Andrea discovered—Julie imagined her sister appearing in the doorway now, glossy-pink lips aghast. She felt positive all of Andrea’s fury, outrage, and hurt would be directed toward Kyle—he was the bigger emotional investment. Julie might as well have been any girl. Only afterward might Andrea turn to her and consider her anew. Then there wouldn’t be so much hurt in her face as incredulity. You? she would say. I never expected that from you. How did you get him to sleep with you?
A buzzing interrupted her daydream, and Julie looked down at Kyle’s pants on the floor. He had put his phone on vibrate. Maybe it was a message from Andrea, dropping into his inbox right above the last one he had received from Julie.
That phone was awfully incriminating, now that she thought about it. She wondered if Kyle were smart enough to clear it out regularly—that would be such a classic way to get caught. Careful not to rock the bed, Julie leaned over, tugged over Kyle’s pants, and fished his phone out.
The new message was not from Andrea. The sender was an Ashley, and she had written: baby when are you coming back to GR? I miss u :(
Intrigued, Julie explored the rest of his inbox and then his sent messages, and through them she discovered no less than three other girls besides Andrea and herself with whom Kyle was dallying. It shouldn’t have surprised her, but she was a little impressed—she wouldn’t have thought him capable of that much cunning. Dumb bitches, she thought, amazed at how they had all fallen for him and never thought to question his fidelity.
But—what made her different? She knew what he was, but still gave him everything he wanted. Not only sex, but silence. He had never asked her not to tell. He just assumed—assumed like everyone that she would never surprise him. He took it for granted she would let him have everything just like he wanted.
A coil of resentment manifested in her stomach, and she glared down at him. She had proven everyone wrong in the last four months—everyone except him. He was the source of her empowerment, yes, but he had never been concerned about or even aware of that. He had chosen her from the beginning out of his own arrogance—I know you want me—and his assumption that she would be safe. Passive. She had always been safe, never a threat to anyone.
Well, he had taken her this far, so he might as well finish the job. He was the last person she would prove wrong, though the first who would become aware of it. He had provided her, ever so kindly, with the final motivation and means to become active and do something for her sister—whether in hidden remorse or revenge.
Julie scrolled through the folders, deleting everything with her own number on it, and then crawled carefully out of bed. Kyle slept on. She dressed, found a pair of flip-flops, and dropped Kyle’s phone with her own into her bag. At the doorway she stopped, turning to study him stretched out in her bed. She could still feel admiration for his beauty, but not a glimmer of desire or sympathy. After a few moments of considering what she was about to do, she walked softly back to him, reached over, and set her alarm to ring in ten minutes’ time.
Once outside, she called her sister on her own phone. “Hey, Andrea? I have something to show you.”
“What is it?” Andrea sounded annoyed, which reminded Julie of something.
“Aren’t you in the movie theater?”
“No, we went back to Kelly’s house since Kyle didn’t show up. Has he called the house? I can’t reach him.”
Julie tapped her fingers against Kyle’s phone in her palm. “He came by, left again, but I have his phone. I need to show you something.”
“No.” Julie’s voice was sharp. “It’s important, Andrea. I need to see you.”
There was a pause. Finally Andrea said, “Okay. Come on by. You know where Kelly’s house is?”
Julie had received her learner’s permit only a few months ago, but their dad already trusted her driving ability over Andrea’s. “Yeah. I’ll be there in a bit.”
Hanging up, Julie looked back at her house. She could see her bedroom window and imagine Kyle still sleeping unaware in her bed. Smiling to herself, she got into Andrea’s Honda, shutting the door quietly.
Kelly lived in a neighborhood on the other side of their high school. Several other cars were parked outside, and Julie guessed Kelly had a party. So much the better, she thought, but for the first time she felt a niggling of uncertainty.
When Kelly opened the door, she did not look pleased to see Julie. “Oh,” she said, and turned her head to yell, “‘Drea, your sister’s here!”
No boys were present, Julie noted with relief. A half-empty bottle of vodka and a two-liter of Sprite stood on the kitchen counter, but it appeared the girls had been diluting their drinks well so far. They certainly needed to; these were all Andrea’s cheerleader friends who, from their looks, intended careers as runway models after high school. They usually made Julie feel inadequate, but lately she had been smugly buoyed by her secret. Tonight, though, she found herself unable to compare herself with them at all. They were inconsequential as spectators watching the stage.
Andrea emerged from the living room, looking cross. Her night had not gone as planned. “What’s the big deal?”
Julie had Kyle’s phone concealed in her hand. This was it, the moment she had fantasized about in different ways for months. Yet now that she was here, she felt the same instinctive dread and recoil as she had last summer’s vacation to the Grand Canyon, when she had stood near the edge of a precipice on a self-dare. This isn’t about me, she told herself, Kyle’s the one who’s been cheating on her. She should know.
“Kyle left his phone at our house.” Julie held out her hand palm down, the phone pressed to it.
All the girls in the kitchen had grown still, watching her. They knew by now, she thought, though it was hard to accurately judge in her own state of trepidation. Andrea raised her open hand to Julie’s, fingers extended, though her face was closed—closed with a hint of danger, though Julie couldn’t tell who it threatened.
“Give me it.”
Still Julie gripped the phone compulsively, unable to let go. “I’m sorry,” she managed, looking away, and Andrea wrenched it from her, scratching her palm as she did.
Julie examined her hand wordlessly as the other girls huddled around Andrea. Quiet for a long time, and the first vehement exclamation was not from Andrea. Julie looked up as Danielle slammed her hand on the counter. “That cheating son of a bitch!”
Andrea remained still, face closed, as her friends rose in outrage around her, swearing to cut his throat and spread rumors about his laughably small genitals. They were all cut off, however, as Andrea gave a short but earsplitting scream and hurtled the phone to the floor. It broke into a dozen pieces, and Jackie cried out as she dropped to pick them up.
“No, you ruined the evidence!”
But Andrea did not seem to hear her. Her face had grown red, and she was breathing hard. At last she said, “I need to go home. My dad—set a curfew.”
Her friends objected, begging her to stay so they could comfort her and plot revenge together, but Andrea refused. “No, I have to go. Let’s go, Julie.” She never looked at her.
Outside, Andrea stumbled down the driveway, and Julie wondered how much she had drunk. “Do you want me to drive?”
Andrea said nothing else as they got into the car, but as soon as they turned out of Kelly’s block, she started to sob.
Julie said nothing, clenching her hands on the wheel and keeping her head rigidly forward. Occasionally she had imagined her sister’s tears, but they had never sounded like this.
And when Andrea spoke, it was not what she had expected to hear.
“I worked—so hard to get him, I lost fifteen pounds and everyone said I looked great – but it’s never good enough, nothing I do is ever—it never makes anyone happy. They always need more than me.”
Unable to speak to either console or confess, Julie kept her eyes on the road. The steering wheel was suddenly slippery in her grip, threatening to slip and bring them into the oncoming lane of traffic as they went around a curve. She took a few deep steady breaths, trying to block out Andrea’s crying as she brought her home to where Julie’s bed might still be warm.