The last two weeks of school is class project presentations. Dusty and I spend one entire Saturday printing and folding our brochures, making six piles of five each.
“This is printed crooked,” Dusty tosses it aside, making a tick mark on a sheet of paper. “We’ll have to run off four more.”
I laugh at her. “You really think anyone is going to notice?”
“Well, I will.”
I carefully fold another into thirds. “I am so amazed! Look!” I jab a finger at the majestic picture of the Coliseum. “Do you think the Romans appreciated their own fine architecture?”
“Makes you wonder if we miss something in our times, huh?”
“Or hysterical perception!”
Dusty swoops up the piles, recounts every one, as I muse aloud. “We could make togas for ourselves and really look the part.”
Dusty stops what she is doing and gapes at me. “Brilliant!”
My Mom has good, but thread worn golden-striped sheets for us to cut up. We don’t have a pattern to work from so Dusty and I scroll through websites looking at pictures until we agree we can do this. Mrs. Connor offers to put zippers in, so our costumes go from being frumpy to tailored. We stand before a full length mirror, turning this way and that.
“Wow! Is this not awesome!” Dusty screams in delight. “I mean, look at us! We are Romanesque!” Dusty holds up her toga to show me her knee-hi gladiator sandals.
“Way cool sandals! I’ve got some leather ones, not as cool, but it’ll be the ‘look’!”
My Mom calls my celly. “I found some fake laurel wreaths for you two. I’ll bring them over with your shoes.”
She and Mrs. Connor help us to put the wreaths on, adjusting our hair, straightening here and there. My Mom takes out her celly and snaps a picture. “For my wall paper.”
I find this hilarious, so does Dusty. My Mom looks confused, Mrs. Connor bemused.
I stop laughing. “How are we going to get dressed before our presentation? I don’t see how this is going to work.”
“No, I guess we can’t walk to school dressed like this.” Dusty removes her wreath and stands there twirling it. “It was almost a good idea.”
Well, I do have a talent for throwing a monkey wrench into the works. Everyone is quiet, considering.
My Mom has a funny way of pursing her lips when she’s scheming. “Why don’t you ask Mrs. Hammershaw if you can be the first? I’ll take you two to school and you can make a grand entrance. I’ll have your uniforms with me and you can change after the assembly is over. It wouldn’t take all that much time.”
Dusty does her happy dance. “That’ll work! That’ll work!”
And it did, wonderfully well if I say so myself. Even Marcy, Sue and Ursala were impressed. I could tell by what they didn’t say.
The day was full of surprises. Brian, Justin, Collin and Timothy sang Bohemian Rhapsody a cappella, and they were sublime. Everyone was spellbound throughout their performance, especially me. How can someone like Brian who sings like that be so insensitive, so mean?
Marcy, Ursala and Annie did a rap about ancient Rome that had everyone in stitches, especially Ursala miming Nero fiddling. Steve and Dean did a powerpoint on ancient Roman culture, with music and roaring lions.
But no one looked as good as Dusty and I did, and our brochures were a big hit with everyone, too. Except Brian.
After our last class, while I was at my locker, Brian slithered beside me and with a whoosh! threw confettied brochures all over me.
“Look! It’s raining Romans!”
Dusty and Dean came running down the hall. “Back off, Brian!” Dusty shouted.
“Ohhh, you are so scary, Dust-up! Oh, and look! Dean, too!” Brian made an ‘L’ with his left thumb and index finger and smacked his forehead. Then he closed his index and thumb, making an ‘o’, stuck them onto his right index to form a small ‘d’, “Losers-d! Isn’t that fitting?”
I could hear snickers all around us. Brian reached over and snapped my bra strap. “You fit in with ‘em, F-F-Frannie.”
I so wanted to slap him. Instead I whirled around and spat out, “Go away, you singing pig!”
Now everyone laughed at him. Even his friends. Just then, the janitor appeared at the end of the hall.
“Oh, Fran! What a mess you made! Clean it up, now, before Mr. Schuster sees it!” Brian turned to his buddies and waved for them to follow.
Mr. Schuster leaned on his mop and watched for a few minutes before he offered a trash bag. Dean and Dusty helped me scoop up the scraps of our brochures.
“Who did this?” Mr. Schuster asked. “I’ll report whoever did this.”
“No, it was just a joke,” I swept the last of the shreds into my hands and dusted them off into the bag. “No big deal, anyway.”
Mr. Schuster took the bag and left. Dean and Dusty were silent until he was out of sight. Then Dusty turned to me.
She glared at me. “You should say something, Fran! Don’t let Brian get away with that!”
“Yeah, and then what? It’ll only make him mad and he’ll find meaner things to do. We know that, don’t we?” I looked pointedly at Dean. “I wish I could keep the Three Musketeers with me all the time.”
Dean held my books and trumpet as I put on my sweater. He handed them back to me, touching his hands to mine for a minute longer than he had to.
“We’ll stay together, walk home together, eat lunch together. At l-l-least,” he stuttered with conviction, “we’ll be three against them.”
We all agreed. Tacitly, we all said nothing to our parents, either.
Annie, constantly texting me, sent me an ‘urgent’ message Friday night. Tired, I called her instead of texting.
“I want you to come over tomorrow! Just a little get-together.” She said breathlessly. Annie has been practicing her sexy repertoire. “And,” she paused, I could see her in my mind’s eye with a pouty purse of her lips, “Justin will be here.”
Oh, boy! This is not going to be easy! “I thought you were on restriction?”
“Neah, my parents forgot all about that! Besides, they won’t be here. They’re gone all day at a convention.”
“I…I don’t think I can,” I hesitate long enough for her to interject.
“Oh, come on, Fran! My sister’s home from college, she’ll be here. Tell your mother that.”
So Annie figured it out. “I’ll ask. But no promises.”
“Well, I guess you don’t need my friendship, anymore?”
I wanted to point out to her that she had Marcy, Sue and Ursala at school and excluded me from that group—although, to be fair, Annie had tried to get me and Marcy to make nice and be friends. Which isn’t going to happen. Not in my lifetime.
“I said I’d ask. Annie, one thing. Leave off the matchmaking, okay?”
“Oh, silly, okay. Bye.”
I could tell my Mom was not pleased when I asked her if I could go over to Annie’s house. “Elizabeth is home from college and she’ll be there, Mom. I haven’t seen Annie, except at school, for three weeks. Just for a little while?”
“You have your cell phone with you and have it on at all times.” She looked at me like a prison guard might look at a parolee. “And you call me if there is anything amiss, promise?”
“I promise! I promise!” I held up celly. “I’ll charge it up right now.”
I emailed Annie that I would be over after I walked the dogs. My hair looked especially good and I liked what the mascara did to make my eyes look bigger. I just hoped that my jeans and tee shirt were acceptable. I patted the pocket with my celly as I waved good-bye to my Mother.
Justin answered the door, which totally surprised me. “Come in, m’lady. Join the par-tay.”
I should have turned around and walked away. The house was packed with Elizabeth’s friends and Annie’s. Empty little bottles, the kind the airlines sell, littered the carpeted living room. Trails of crushed chips led from the kitchen to the bathroom, where Annie was throwing up.
“Annie, are you all right?” I knelt down beside her and the toilet. “You look awful.” Raccoon eyes and pale skin and she smelled of vomit.
She smiled a crooked smile. “Ugh, booze and diet pills don’t mix.”
I helped her to her feet and steered her to her bedroom. I got a wet wash rag and put it on her forehead. “Annie, you’ve got to stop this. You’re going to kill yourself.”
She swiped at me, missing. “Oh, Fran-the worrier. I’ll be all right in a few. Go downstairs and talk with Justin. Go. I’ll be fine in a few minutes.”
Justin met me with a drink. I pushed it away. “No, thanks.” I looked around for Elizabeth. “Where’s Annie’s sister?”
“Somewhere.” Justin shrugged. “Why?”
You might be good looking, dude, but you aren’t very bright. “Justin, this place is trashed. Annie’s parents will be coming home, you know.”
“Who made you the party police?” sneered a tall, older guy, obviously one Elizabeth’s friends. He pushed away from the wall and wobbled over to the couch to grab a cigarette from a pack on the coffee table.
Justin downed his drink and threw the plastic cup into a big, black trash bag. “We’ll start with the kitchen,” he indicated with a nod of his head for me to go to the sink. I started the hot water and pumped soap into bubbles. Justin started collecting the throw away bottles.
“Where are you going to throw that out? You don’t think that Annie’s parents will see that?” I nodded to the full bag in Justin’s hands.
“Oh, right, Fran, I’ll get someone with a car to take it home with them, okay?”
“Franny! What are you doing?” sang out Elizabeth. “Come here and give me a hug!!”
She planted a wet, smelly kiss on my cheek. She reeked of alcohol and cigarettes. “How’s my favorite sister’s fittle, ohh, ha, ha! lit-tle, friend, huh? You two have changed sooooooo much! I am so jealous of you!”
Elizabeth draped her arm around my shoulders and dragged me along with her into the living room. “Everyone! I want you to meet Fran! She’s Annie’s best-est friend!”
A cacophony of “Hi!”, “Hey!”, “Yeah!”, rose and died as quickly. I pulled on Elizabeth’s arm, tugging her into the kitchen again.
“Liz, listen. Annie’s been drinking and taking diet pills. Talk to her. Tell to her to stop it. It’s dangerous.”
Elizabeth tsked. “She won’t do that again, I promise. I told her how stupid it was to do that.”
But who got her the pills? You’re letting her drink! But I say instead, “Liz, we should get this place cleaned up before your parents get back. Maybe you should tell everyone to go home.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “You and Annie are such little mother hens.” She glanced at her watch. “Oh, my god! You’re right!”
She dashed out of the room waving her arms, proclaiming, “Party’s over! Clean Up!”
In a whir of activity that impressed me, everyone pitched in to tidy, vacuum and throw out the evidence. The place looked good after all the “trash” had left.
Justin was the last out the door, but not before he pulled me to him and planted a smacker on my lips. Just in time for Annie to emerge from her bedroom, looking wonderfully refreshed.
She ran over to me as I closed the door, grabbed me in a hug. “Isn’t he cute? You make a good couple!”
I dislodged from her and stared at her. Two hours ago she had looked like death itself, but now she bubbled like Mentos™ in soda.
Before I could answer, the door swung open and Annie’s parents came in. Elizabeth came downstairs, showered, and with a towel in hand, drying her hair. A deathly silence hung in the air as everyone followed Mr. Trevor’s line of eyesight to the liquor cabinet. The door was not fully shut.
Mr. Trevor, in two steps, stood before Elizabeth and with a crack! that sounded like a broken tree branch, hit her across her mouth. Blood gushed.
He turned around and focused on me. “Go home, Fran.”
I backed into the wall. Annie caught my hand and led me out the front door.
“An-annie, are you going to be all right? Is he going to hurt you, too?” I was shaking so hard my teeth hurt.
“No, don’t get so emotional about it. It’s no big deal. He’ll lighten up after a few hours, apologize to Liz, and probably give her a couple of hundred dollars to buy something pretty. He never means it.”
I can’t believe what I’ve just heard, it makes no sense at all to me.
“Go!” She waves me away, then motions me back. “Don’t tell anyone about this, okay?”
Oh, Annie! Annie! But I nod and on my way home I think about what Mrs. Aster said: ‘guilt by association’.
But I’m not sure what I’m guilty of; so many thoughts swim around in my addled brain, I feel like I’m car sick. I’d like to lay my head on my mother’s shoulder and cry, cry and cry. I don’t want to betray Annie’s trust. I don’t want Annie to do something stupid and die. I don’t want to be around Annie or Elizabeth or Justin or anyone of the others.
When I come through the door, my mother calls out to me.
“Fran! You have a message from Dusty!”
I go into the computer room. Just as my mom stands and hands me a slip in her neat penmanship detailing “Good news!” I lean into the crook of her neck and sob.
She rubs my back as I sputtered out bits and pieces of the story. “He hit Liz so hard, he split her lip.” I drew a breath and shuttered. “There was so much blood!”
“I’ll call over there. This isn’t right.”
“No! Mom, please! I promised Annie I wouldn’t say anything! Please! Hasn’t enough gone wrong for me? And you’d get Annie in trouble. Please!”
I pat the splotchy place left on her blouse by my mascara. She takes my hand.
“It’ll come out in the wash. Most things do.”
Well, as it would happen, my mom didn’t have to make the call. Annie’s mom called to apologize for me having to witness that scene. She assured my mother that everything was all right, it was just an unfortunate moment when Annie’s father lost his temper. It would never happen again.
My mother hung up, came into my room and sat heavily down on the bed beside me.
After a long silence, she spoke softly. “This explains a lot. I just never could connect all the dots. It’s not the first time he has hit one of them, and it won’t be the last.”
She sighed. I sighed. “You can’t go to Annie’s house. Ever again, Fran. But she can come here, anytime. I’ll try to do something for Annie’s mother, but I doubt that she’ll leave. But you understand, you are not ever to go into that house again?”
“Yes,” I whisper fiercely, relieved. I never want to go back there.
She pats my knee, then gets up and leaves me alone. After a while, after I unscramble my thoughts, I’ll call Dusty and find out what the good news is.