“What kind do you want?” Aly asked. “You can get an all-inone copier, scanner, fax for about the same price. Right, Liam?”
He grunted. I watched him rekey a line of code in his game.
It made me wonder again if Liam paid Aly to be his business partner. Probably not. He was so cheap.
She wouldn’t care. She’d pretty much do whatever he asked.
“Just check off everything you want,” Alyson told the girl. “We’ll give you the best price.” She retrieved her Diet Coke off the top of the TV and went back to Liam. Plopping down beside him, she said, “One more game.” She handed him her soda and picked up her joystick. “Start at year one again, with us as babies. Except give me the pink Pampers this time. And let me rerecord my baby scream. It sounds too Rugrats.”
The lights flickered and Liam’s head swiveled automatically, his gaze leveling the stairs. A voice called down, “It’s the FBI. You’re busted.” Dad.
Liam relaxed and resumed loading the game, while I made a beeline for my bedroom. “Regan, Elise called and asked if you could come an hour early tonight,” Dad yelled. “She and David want to go out to dinner with friends. I told her you’d be there.”
I exhaled in disgust.
“I heard you.” It was fine, but I didn’t need Dad making my decisions for me.
He waited, for what I wasn’t sure. There was nothing else to say, was there? The basement door closed.
Alyson frantically punched at her joystick, then shrilled, “Dammit, Liam!”
Her baby scream rocked the speakers: “Waaah!”
Liam laughed: “Ha. Ha. Ha.”
I closed my bedroom door to shut out Planet Weird.
There was an hour before baby-sitting. I could do homework. Or not. I loaded Carmen and remoted to the “oiseau rebelle” track, then slid to the floor next to the bed and rested my head against the mattress.
Carmen. My best friend, Carmen.
“What time is everyone coming?” Carmen asks, dumping her overnight bag on my bedroom floor and squatting beside it.
“I told them seven.”
She smiles up at me. “Good. We’ll have time to listen to most of Tristan and Isolde.” She hands me the CD from her bag and I slip it into my player.
Carmen’s been my best friend for almost a year now, my whole sixth grade year. When she moved here everyone thought she’d crash-landed in a time machine. She wears these long flowered skirts and tie-dye shirts, right out of the sixties, with lots of jangly jewelry. Carmen’s mother is a contralto who sings opera in a professional company. She named Carmen after the feisty peasant girl in the opera Carmen. Carmen was raised around music, theater; they’re just a part of her life. She knows everything about opera, and she teaches me. She’s really turned me on to it.
It was friendship at first sight for Carmen and me. I don’t know why. Don’t know what she saw in boring old me. She is exotic and interesting and different from all the neighborhood girls I grew up with. What I like most about Carmen is that she doesn’t care what other people think of her. She’s true to herself.
Carmen punches up the volume and we sit on my floor against the bed, breathing in the “Prelude to Act I.” Glorious. This is a tragic opera, sort of like Romeo and Juliet, where lovers are betrayed and die in each other’s arms. Carmen and I both swoon along with Isolde.
People arrive for the slumber party at the worst possible moment — Isolde’s dramatic death scene. As Isolde sinks dying upon her lover Tristan’s already lifeless form, Carmen grabs the box of Kleenex and passes it to me. We quickly dry our eyes.
Why was I having a slumber party? It wasn’t my birthday. Couldn’t have been Christmas break because all the girls were wearing shorts. Maybe we were celebrating the end of sixth grade, our continuation. Yeah, that was it.
Shannon Eiber surveys the basement and directs where each girl in her entourage should roll out her sleeping bag. Carmen whispers to me, “Control freak.”
Really, I think. But I’m almost grateful Shannon’s taking over. I’ve never hosted a slumber party at my house before. Never had much to do with Shannon Eiber, either.
So why did I invite her to the party?
I didn’t, I remembered. She’d invited herself. She had the hots for Liam at the time. All the girls did. If they only knew . . .
Of course Shannon doesn’t go anywhere without her groupies. I’m not proud of it, but I long to be one Shannon’s chosen few. Just to know what it feels like to be popular. For one day.
“Hi, Re,” Shannon says, rolling her sleeping bag beside me. “Your house is really nice.”
“Thanks,” I reply. Compared to hers, our house is a dump.
She asks, “Where’s Liam?”
My eyes cut to Liam’s bedroom door, which is locked, of course. I breathe a little sigh of relief, knowing he’s been banished to the guest room upstairs for the night.
Before I can answer, the lights flicker. Footsteps creak on the basement stairs as Alyson calls, “Got room for one more?”
“Sure,” I sing, happy to hear her voice. I scoot my sleeping bag over so she can squeeze between me and Shannon. When Aly heard about the party, she asked if she could come. I was surprised. Aly’s two years older than us; I’m sure she thinks we’re babies. She’d never say it, though. Aly’s too good a friend.
“Where’s Liam?” she asks as she settles in. She removes her scrunchie and shakes out her ponytail.
“Didn’t you see him upstairs?” I answer. The lights flicker again and Dad bellows, “Man overboard. Take cover.”
A couple of girls squeal and burrow into their sleeping bags. Oh, brother. We haven’t even put on our pj’s yet. Dad makes a big production of covering his eyes and acting all embarrassed. He’s wearing his cutoff sweatpants, which reveal his white, hairy legs. I’m mortified. Go away.
“Who wants pizza?” he asks.
Hands shoot up. Dad takes our order and disappears. Thank God.
I’ve been to a couple of sleepovers at Carmen’s, but I’m not sure what to do next. If it was just us, we’d play an opera.
I don’t have to worry; Shannon’s a pro. “Let’s play Yes, No, Maybe,” she pipes up. “Everyone get in a circle.”
Carmen rolls her eyes at me. Really. I hate party games. I should’ve had a plan.
Shannon’s roving eyes take in the current company and zero in on a victim — me. “Regan,” she points a lethal-looking fingernail at me. “You’re in the hot seat.”
“Um, okay. How do you play this game again?” I ask.
Her finger directs me to the middle of the circle. Shannon explains, “Whatever question we ask, you have to answer honestly with yes, no, or maybe.”
Carmen huffs and says, “That isn’t how you play. You can’t answer with yes, no, or maybe.” She scorches Shannon with a look.
“Oh yeah, huh?” Shannon grins. “Get it, Regan?” She blinks innocently at me.
“Yes,” I say. How dumb.
“You’re out.” Shannon smirks.
“No fair,” Carmen jumps in. “We haven’t started yet.”
“Just kidding. God, Carmen. Chill.”
Carmen and Shannon are not compatible units. Oil and vinegar, as Mom would say. They do not mix. “I’ll start.” Aly raises her hand. She’s curled cross-legged on her sleeping bag. “Is your brother’s name Liam?”
I almost say, No, it’s Lia Marie, but catch myself. “Yes.”
“You’re out.” Shannon smiles.
“You said yes.”
I look at Aly. She shrugs and makes a sorry face. Shannon adds, “I didn’t think it was that hard a question.” Which cracks everyone up. Crap. I hate party games. As I slither back to my bag, Aly informs me, “You get to pick the next victim, Re.”
“Okay, you,” I tell Aly. I know she won’t embarrass me.
She curls a lip, but scrabbles into the middle.
“You get to ask the first question, too,” Carmen informs me.
I think. Not very hard. “Is your real name Alyson?”
“That’s original,” Shannon mutters behind her hand to her best-friend-of-the-week, Kylie.
“Mmm hmm,” Aly hums.
Shannon asks her, “Are you in love?”
Aly shoots her a dark look. “I might be. Why? Are you?”
Shannon blushes. “You can’t answer a question with a question. But since you asked, no. Are you?”
“None of your business.” Aly lifts her hair and lets it fall.
“No fair,” Shannon whines. “You have to answer. Regan, make her play the game.”
Shannon doesn’t know Alyson. You don’t make Alyson Walsh do anything.
“This is so juvenile.” Carmen clucks her tongue. She gets to her feet, adding, “I thought we were celebrating our coming-of-age, not our return to kindergarten. Could we just watch a movie or something, Regan?” She touches my shoulder.
“Yeah,” I say, feeling relieved. “That’s what I had planned.”
The circle unravels. I remote on the TV. While Shannon and Kylie paw through our videotapes and DVDs — which are mostly Liam’s classic movies that he records late at night — Alyson heads for the stairs.
“I’m going to check on the pizzas,” she says over her shoulder.
I realize suddenly why she’s here. To protect her property. Her footsteps creak and the lights flash.
Shannon rejects all the movies. Big surprise. I’m tempted to tell her these are all Liam’s favorites, but something stops me. Liam’s private world. I’m the only one who knows what goes on in it.
We channel-surf until we find a rerun of Angel. A few minutes into it, the pizzas arrive. Dad carts down the boxes, stacked across his outstretched arms, with exaggerated ceremony. Behind him, Liam and Aly carry plates and napkins and sodas. They set everything on the coffee table.
“Hi, Liam,” Shannon purrs. All the other girls greet him, too.
He says “Hi” and smiles at everyone.
Alyson sees this exchange and narrows her eyes. She rises to her tiptoes and whispers something in Liam’s ear. He doesn’t react.
Yes, he does. He lowers himself to the floor and opens the top box of pizza.
“Come on, Liam.” Dad motions him to the stairs. “This is a girls-only party.”
“I need to taste-test these,” he says. “Food safety saves lives.”
All the girls giggle.
It wasn’t that funny.
Dad scoops the air with a cupped hand. “Let’s go.”
Liam looks at Aly, then me. Questioning. Almost pleading.
“It’s okay, Mr. O’Neill,” Aly says. “He can stay and eat. Right, Re?”
I don’t want him to stay. I don’t know why.
“I don’t think so,” Dad replies. “You’ve heard of raging hormones?” He thumbs at Liam.
I want to die. So does Liam. I send him a mental message: Let’s murder our father in his sleep.
“Liam!” Dad barks.
Liam sighs and pushes to his feet. He trundles up the stairs after Dad.
We inhale the pizzas, then Shannon retrieves her backpack and upends it. Jars and containers and tubes of cosmetics tumble out and into a pile. The collection rivals Lia Marie’s stash. “Have you guys seen this nail polish that glows in the dark?” Shannon digs around for it. “My cousin brought it back from London when she went over on spring break.” She finds what she’s looking for — three bottles: pink, green, and yellow. She passes them around.
We remove our sandals and start painting our fingernails and toenails. The lights flicker again. Out of the shadowy stairwell, Liam appears. “Sorry,” he says. “I need to get a book.”
Every eye follows him across the room.
He hesitates at his bedroom door and turns around. I’m the only one not gawking. He’s behind me, but I can feel Liam taking in the scene. Aly swivels on her rear and sticks out her foot to show him her multicolored toenails.
“Cool,” he breathes.
“Come here.” She crooks her index finger at him. “Take off your shoes.”
I turn around then. Liam’s eyes fix on mine. I know how much he wants to.
What could it hurt? Ten minutes. I shrug okay.
Liam bends to unlace his high-tops and kicks them off. He kneels between me and Aly. Aly tells him, “Move around in front.”
She yanks his foot into her lap and begins to spread pink polish on his right toenail.
Liam goes, “Oh God, that tickles.” He giggles like a girl.
Aly giggles, too. Shannon glances up from painting Kylie’s toes. “Want your fingernails done too, Liam?”
“Sure,” he answers. It was a joke, I think. Shannon arches her eyebrows like, Is he serious? Joke or not, now she has to do it.
Alyson isn’t happy about Shannon scooting closer and taking Liam’s hand. He splays his fingers apart for her. I see Shannon examining his nails. They’re perfectly manicured, unlike mine which are all jagged-edged from chewing and picking.
Liam’s nails also bear traces of old polish in the cuticles. Please, I pray, don’t let Shannon notice.
Next to me, Carmen’s watching Liam, an odd expression on her face.
I want him to go — now. Just go.
Shannon finishes with Liam’s right hand. He blows on his fingernails like a girl. Like he’s done it a million times. God.