“Lucy, truth or dare,” said Haden.
He walked around the table and held out his hand.
“What’s the dare?” she said, smirking. He didn’t respond but grabbed her hand off the table and pulled her up.
“See you in a bit folks,” he said. Lucy didn’t turn to look at us as she stumbled up the stairs.
“God, it’s always the same,” Beth said. “He comes and Lucy’s out.”
“Chill out, Beth,” I said, snapping open a beer. “You know my sister used to come here. It belonged to her boyfriend’s family. Maybe still does.”
“No way,” Soren said. My guy friends had only seen my sister once, when they picked me up and she was smoking outside our house. Later that day I’d heard them talking about older women.
“You talk to her recently, Maria?” Beth asked gently.
“Sure.” I’d asked my mom if I should call her for college advice, and she’s said, “Why? Your sister hated college.” So I didn’t.
“Soren, truth or dare?” Beth said. Soren burped.
“Uh, I don’t know, dare I guess?”
“I dare you to go see what they’re up to,” Beth said, glancing at the stairs and raising her eyebrows. Soren made a face.
“Uh no way, you go, you perv,” he said.
Beth shook her head and giggled. “No way.”
“I’ll go,” I said. “It’s OK, Soren. I haven’t forgotten about The Ring.”
He shook his head and looked into his beer. When we’d watched that movie together a couple years back he’d ended up hiding behind a couch cushion.
I took a long drink of vodka and my eyes filled with tears. “Ugh, why did we not bring juice?”
“’Cause Lucy’s a cheap-ass,” Soren said.
I stood up and brushed off my shorts. “Be right back.” I started up the stairs.
“Don’t die!” Beth called behind me. I kept my phone out in front of me and followed the little tunnel of light up to the second floor. The room where we’d crawled in was to my right, a corridor with two more bedrooms to the left. There was a another bedroom further down the hall with its door shut. I tiptoed over to it and put my ear to the door. I heard a low pant and growl and backed away. I wondered if I had to worry about Lucy, but decided it wouldn’t make a difference if I did. She knew what she wanted. Across from that bedroom was a thin staircase I hadn’t noticed at first. It looked like a small door had once hidden it.
The way up was steep and spindly, more like climbing another ladder. At the top there was what seemed to be an attic. More construction equipment lay around, heavy pieces of slate probably meant for the roof. I found another extension cord and, next to it, a cable that I hope would be attached to a floodlight. I plugged it in and saw flickers of colored light above my head.
There was a hole in the roof and through it I could see branches and leaves, black against the sky. The roof beams were hung with Christmas lights. Maybe a third of them were working, but now I could see the contours of the room, the crushed beer cans lying in the sawdust at my feet. The tiny bulbs blinked red and orange and I felt like I was at some abandoned fairground.
There was a mattress by the window facing the street. No sheet, just a water-stained misshapen lump on the unfinished floor. I sat on it and looked out the window. From this height I could see the houses across the street, with their nightlights on, dogs tucked into their doggie beds, children giving over to sleep. On the window’s lower pane there was a faint pink smudge shaped like lips. I touched it. Was this her lipstick kiss? That night we came here to pick her up, we found her sitting in the driveway, squinting in the car’s headlights. My mom had to sling her half over her shoulder to get her into the car. I got to sit in the front so she could lie down. She smelled like the nurse’s office, a combination of alcohol and puke. “You aren’t going anywhere until vacation,” my mom told my sister’s reflection in the rearview mirror. There was no response. No punishment ever seemed to perturb my sister. I realize now that her unhappiness was not the kind that could be cured by vacation.
That night nine years ago was the end of our art projects. The next morning I woke up to find that big orange canvas slashed through with an X. The boyfriend came to see her but she wouldn’t come out of her room. My mother stayed home from work and offered to make me an omelet, but I wanted a boiled hot dog, slit longways. My sister spent the rest of the summer sitting in front of the air conditioner. She would never babysit me again. In the fall my she went to art school in California and sent me origami animals in the mail, signing her brief notes with an A.
A faint sound like the moan of a wounded animal snapped me out of my reverie. It sounded like it came from the second floor. I stood up from the filthy mattress and went down there to investigate.
There was a loud snuffling coming from behind the closed door of the bedroom. I opened it and Lucy was sitting on the floor by herself, her shirt off, crying. I hadn’t realized how drunk she was.
“Luc?” She looked up but didn’t try to cover herself. “Hey, Luc?”
“We got in a fight.”
“I don’t want to keep”—she motioned around her—“doing this. There’s not even a couch in here.” She let out a bitter little laugh. I had heard Haden say things like Lucy was the girl he was going to marry, but those were just words he said to other boys while drinking beer. I sat down next to her and put my arm around her. Her back was cold.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“There’s nothing to be sorry about. It just sucks. It’s all fine until I think about it too much, and then it sucks,” she slurred.
“Hey, guys?” Beth poked her head into the room, took in the scene—me looking worried, Lucy topless and teary-eyed—and looked like she might immediately turn back around and leave. Instead she walked in, picked Lucy’s tank top off the floor, and came over to us.
“Hold up your arms,” she said, and Lucy did and Beth put the shirt on her like she was a mom. Lucy tried to stop crying. She would never admit her feelings to us, but we knew she loved Haden the way Beth loved Josh.
“Are they still here?” I said. Beth nodded. “Tell them we’re gonna walk home. I’m going to look for some paper towels or something.” I went into the bathroom at the end of the hall and I turned both knobs on the sink, but nothing happened. I pulled my shorts down and sat down on the toilet anyway. On my right there was only one wall panel left. On it, written in blunt black letters with something that looked like charcoal, were the words “Think of me each time you pee. Your’s forever. From A, with love to B.”
I almost stood up without wiping. Then I realized there was nothing to wipe with, so I wiggled around a little bit to shake off what I could and pulled my shorts back up. I squinted at the letters hard and they remained unchanged, revealing nothing.
I looked up and saw Lucy leaning on the bathroom doorframe. “I might puke,” she said.
Beth’s head popped up behind her. “Let’s go, guys,” she said. She pulled Lucy’s arm over her shoulder.
We shoved open a window on the first floor and scooted out. Haden and Soren were waiting outside in the driveway. Haden avoided looking at Lucy. He had our bottle in his hand and when he saw me see it he handed it to me.
“We’re gonna go to Narberth,” Haden said, “maybe smoke by the creek and shit.”
“Cool,” Beth and I said simultaneously, but five seconds later no one had moved, we just stared at the ground.
“All right, peace then,” Soren said, and he and Haden started walking down the dark driveway. Lucy, Beth, and I sat down on the driveway and I waited until we couldn’t see the guys anymore before breaking the silence.
“It’s too late to go home now,” I said.
Lucy had started sniffling again. “I’m not going back inside that house,” he said. The three of us went around to the backyard and lay down in the long grass.
“There are bugs!” Beth suddenly cried.
“Shhh,” Lucy said. Her eyes were closed, and I thought about what a mystery she was to me, even as one of my very best friends. Same with Beth, who never wanted to talk about her diet or anything else even though she was probably ruining grapefruit and cantaloupe and honeydew for herself forever. Same with my sister.
During that vacation in Cape Cod I held my pretzel sticks like cigarettes and blew out grains of salt and crumbs like smoke. I swam in the waves and ate shit. She disappeared into the floral bedspread at the Dolphin Inn and never came back. ♦