Every morning, we had to clean up the house. It was pretty easy with Momma and Hayley and me working together. Momma got off work at eight o'clock every morning, just like she always had. She helped us before she went to bed for the day. Great Aunt Georgia tried to make Sydney help with chores too, but Sydney always got distracted and left her chores half done. I emptied all the trash cans and wiped down the bathroom sink and toilet for Sydney. It was my job to dust all the shelves and tables and the TV with rags made from old T-shirts and then take all the trash out to the pile where the workers would burn it later. While we did all this work, Aunt Georgia sat at the table with her head on her fist and a cup of coffee in front of her. We didn't talk while we cleaned. Mama did the dishes and swept the floor without saying anything. Then she mopped. Hayley put in earphones carried laundry to the basement where the washing machine was, and then she vacuumed the living room, stairs, and even the bedrooms upstairs. I was thankful to her for that. Dusty floors made my nose tickle.
Hayley never once mentioned Sydney's wishing in front of the adults. Whenever we were alone, though, she asked Sydney to do tricks for her. Stuff like snitching cookies out of the cabinet downstairs without getting up from the mattress, or calling so many butterflies, they covered the walls and ceiling. The biggest wishes, like the room full of butterflies, seemed to wear Syd out a little. I guessed magic or whatever it was she did was pretty hard work.
As soon as chores were done, we could do whatever we wanted unless the book mobile was coming by that week. Hayley hated reading, but Aunt Georgia made her do it for a little while every day. I did the same so Aunt Georgia wouldn’t have any reason to yell at me. Living a quiet Clement life and all that. Mostly Hayley read websites about movie stars on the internet whenever she wasn’t messaging her friends. I read the butterfly books we had over and over. I couldn’t wait for the bookmobile to come by.
When it finally did, Hayley surprised me with a rusty old bike she had found in some barn or shed. "It was your mom's," she told me. "It's too far to walk to the bookmobile." We found a can of WD-40 under the kitchen sink and oiled up the chain so I could turn the pedals. The tires were in pretty good condition, so we pumped those up a little. Then we set off down a country road, leaving Sydney behind with a glass of juice and strict orders to hang out upstairs very quietly so she wouldn't bother Aunt Georgia or wake up Momma.
I had never ventured far away from home without my little sister, unless we were going to school. It took some time for me to get used to the rusty old bike, which was a red ten speed with narrow tires and a narrow seat. It was much harder to balance on than Hayley's mountain bike. I had no idea what to do with the gear switches. Hayley had to adjust those for me. I wobbled and nearly fell a few times as my front tire hit a dip in the gravel road. I had to put my feet down to catch myself. I kept at it, though, and before long, I was riding almost as fast as Hayley could, and almost as smoothly, too. I found that I liked the bumpy road, the wind that blew through my hair, the gold-brown fields that flew past me. Moving fast-- I guessed that this was what freedom felt like. For just a minute I understood why Momma might have liked moving around so much.
After Hayley helped me sign up for a library card and we had books in the backpacks we slung over our shoulders (I found two butterfly picture books for Sydney), we headed back to the old green and gray house.
While I was lying on my mattress, reading a nice, thick book about vampires later that day, I heard yelling from the first floor. Hayley stomped up the stairs and burst into the room.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I asked her to take us to Kirsten’s house tonight.”
“She doesn’t want you to go there?”
“No, she doesn't care what I do. She just doesn’t want to be bothered with having to take me places. We go to Wal-mart once a month, and she says that that’s more than enough. But I thought I’d try. You know, to introduce you to some people.” Hayley started combing her hair. I noticed she always did that when she was bothered about something.
“Oh,” I said. “Why‘d you ask her then? I mean, if you knew the answer already.”
“I was hoping things would be different with you here. Like she'd know things change and she can't keep me trapped here all the time. Besides, it isn’t healthy to hang out with no one but your ret―nobody but your sister. You need some friends.”
I couldn't deny that. The summer had gotten pretty old pretty fast. Not that my sister wasn't good company, but it sucked knowing that the world out there was pretty big, but now we were stuck in a house with a grumpy old woman while all of it passed us by.
“I guess so,” I said. "We could always ride our bikes."
"No way. You do not show up for a party on a bike," Hayley said, holding a pair of dangly earrings up to my ears. "It's like showing up for school in your Little Mermaid pajamas."
Unlike Aunt Georgia, Momma was more than happy to drive us the six miles down the road to a tiny town. “I think it’s a great idea for you to meet some new friends,” Momma said. “But who will take you home?”
"Oh, Kirsten's mom will bring us back," Hayley said really quickly. She was so excited, she ran up the stairs to get ready right away. Aunt Georgia just sat at the dinner table, glaring. Momma gave me a funny look. I shrugged and followed Hayley. It didn't take much to get ready. I already had on clean jeans and a shirt.
“No, no, no,” Hayley said to me when she saw me brushing my hair. “You need some makeup.”
“Because you’re not a baby anymore. And you need to make a good first impression. There’ll be boys there.”
She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Yes. And there won’t be any parents there, either.” She pointed a finger at Sydney, who had tagged along silently, and said, “Don’t you dare say a word.”
But Sydney was absorbed in playing with a teddy bear. A wave of something, maybe excitement, maybe nervousness, rushed from my stomach to my throat and back. Momma would probably not want me to go to a party with boys and no adults there. But I wasn’t for sure. Besides, if Momma ran around doing crazy things at night, she couldn’t say much if I wanted to go make new friends.
Hayley plopped me down on her bed and started putting stuff all over my face. I tried not to like it, but honestly, it looked pretty good by the time she got done. Sydney sat on the bed with us, grinning. “Pwetty,” she squealed from time to time.
Momma raised her eyebrows when she saw me coming down the stairs with all that makeup on. “That’s new,” she said.
“Hayley did it.”
“Nice,” she said. She looked like she was thinking about something else. “So, where to?”
Momma dropped off Hayley and me in front of a house that looked as old as Aunt Georgia's. It was in better condition, though, with yellow siding and flowers planted out front. The porch looked like it could hold more than one person at a time, too. As I was closing the car door, Momma gave me a worried look and said, "Don't let her get you into trouble, you hear me?"
I nodded quickly and climbed the steps to the front door to join Hayley. We waved at Momma, and she left. The door opened without us having to knock, and a tall, red-headed girl who looked like she was about twenty let us in.
"Hayley! Come on in. You'll never guess who's here!"
"Hey. This is my cousin, Cara. She's staying with me for a while."
The girl smiled at me. "Hey, Cara. I'm Kirsten."
I smiled at her. A big, beefy boy tapped Kirsten on the shoulder and she ran off with a wave, leaving Hayley and me standing in the front room. Kids came and went. Only they weren't kids. They looked like they were juniors or seniors in high school. Girls screeched and laughed. Guys chased them around or lounged against the walls in the den.
"Do you know all these people?" I asked.
"Most of them. Kirsten and a few of the others hang out at the stable with their horses in the afternoons. Before you came here, I spent all my time there, too. See that guy over there?" She pointed vaguely at the far corner of the room. "He rides in rodeos sometimes."
"Everyone's older than us," I said quietly.
"I'm almost fifteen. They're not that much older than me. Just act normal, okay? You'll fit in if you do," Hayley whispered back.
"Yeah. No problem," I said, though I wasn't so sure.
There was music playing on the stereo. Something loud with lots of guitars. Not the same stuff Hayley listened to in her room. Hayley led me from place to place as she stood up on her toes to look over people's heads. "She said he's here," she said.
"Ben Tilley." She kept searching as she spoke. "Oh! There he is! Yes!" Without a second look in my direction, she left me behind and made her way to the guy slouched in an armchair on the sun porch. He nodded at her with a half smile on his face.
I stood there with my thumbs hooked in my jeans pockets until I noticed plastic cups and two-liter bottles of soda on the counter. I figured I might as well get a drink. I leaned against the counter with my cup of Coke.
A shortish guy walked up, and I slid aside to let him get to the drinks. He smiled at me. I noticed he had pimples on his forehead, right between his brown eyes. He was kind of cute. Not gorgeous, but cute.
"How's it goin'," he asked with an upward nod.
"Fine," I said. I looked into my cup.
"Are you new?" He shook his shaggy surfer hair out of his face.
"Um, yeah. I'm Hayley's cousin."
"Oh, cool. Hayley's cool."
It sort of made me glad to hear that. If I acted like Hayley acted, this guy would probably think I'm cool too. I just needed to watch and take mental notes. If I could find her.
"So what's your name?" he continued.
"I'm Cara." I nodded awkwardly. "And you?"
"Nice to meet you, Dakota." I tried my best to look him in the eyes and not the pimples while I smiled.
"Wanna go sit somewhere and talk?"
Dakota led me to a long couch in the den. A couple was kissing at one end, but he ignored them and sat at the other end. I joined him, careful not to spill my Coke on the leather seat. I tried not to look at the people kissing, but I kept catching myself peeking in their direction. Their eyes were closed, and their mouths were definitely open.
"So, where ya from?" he asked.
I hesitated at first because I couldn't remember the name of the town I'd just left. "We move a lot," I explained.
"Yeah," he said. He leaned closer to me. I leaned back a little. He smelled like cologne and root beer. Those weren't bad smells, but I still felt sick to my stomach, sort of like the time Justin and his stupid friends got me drunk.
"So, like, do you have a boyfriend?"
"Good. I was hoping you'd say that." He leaned even closer, looking me in the eyes the whole time. I couldn't look away. I wanted to, but I couldn't. A weird shiver started at the bottom part of my back and went all the way up to my neck. I suddenly needed to pee. I had no idea where the bathroom was. I tore my eyes away to see if I could spot one. When I looked back at Dakota, he planted his lips on mine. I jumped a little and pulled my head away. He tried again and missed, landing on my cheek instead.
"Nothing. I'm fine. But--"
"But I don't even know you."
"Well, I'm Dakota, you're Cara. What else do we need to know?"
Dakota kissed me again. This time I let him. His lips were wet and hot against mine. He started to open his mouth. I pulled away again.
His eyebrows wrinkled up. "Haven't you ever kissed anyone before?"
"Um" was all I said.
"You haven't! How'd that happen?"
I shrugged. Man, I really needed to pee.
"Well, I could teach you," he said. He leaned in again with his eyes half closed. I backed up some more, bumping against the feet of the couple kissing at the other end of the couch. They ignored my mumbled apology. In fact, they ignored me altogether.
"Um, I need to go."
"Come on, babe. You're acting like you're twelve or something."
I cringed. "No, I'm not."
His eyes narrowed. "Wait, what grade are you in?"
"I'm, uh, home schooled. Like Hayley."
His eyes got wide, and his eyebrows shot up so high, I couldn't see them under his hair. "You are twelve, aren't you?"
"I'm thirteen," I whispered.
Dakota put his hand across his eyes for a second. When he looked up at me again, looked disgusted, like he might throw up or at the very least, start wiping his mouth like I'd given him kid germs.
"This is bogus!" He muttered as he stood up and huffed away from me, leaving me on the couch next to the couple who were still kissing.
My cheeks were burning so hot I thought they might burn right off my face. All I wanted to do was get out of there. It was a long walk home, but I'd probably still get home before Hayley did. It was a straight shot if I turned left at the edge of town. I wasn't sure whether to go find a bathroom or just leave right away. My bladder won the argument. I found the bathroom just off the kitchen and shut the door hard behind me. I leaned against the door for a few minutes while I tried to will my heartbeat to slow down. It didn't, so I did my business and washed my hands. I caught sight of my face in the mirror. I looked like someone else with all that makeup on. My eyeliner was a little smeared on one side. I tried to fix it, but it only smeared worse. I eventually gave up and washed my face with hand soap, getting rid of as much makeup as I could. Water got all over my shirt and the front of my hair, but I didn't care. I splashed more cold water on my face to try to cool off my cheeks. That did make me feel a little better. Finally, I opened the bathroom door a crack and checked to make sure Dakota couldn't see me. He wasn't in the kitchen, and nobody else seemed to notice me. I slipped out the front door as quickly as I could and started half-jogging for the end of the street.
I couldn't keep running for long in my flip-flops. Pieces of gravel kept poking the bottoms of my feet. I slowed down to a walk. It was a good thing I left when I did if I was going to be walking home. The sun was just starting to set, so I could easily see where I was going as I headed down the long road to my temporary home. I kept replaying the scene from the party in my mind, feeling a fresh pang of some emotion I couldn't really name every time. I was glad the whole thing was over. If that was what kissing was really like, I didn't want any part of it. I was also more than a little mad at Hayley for leaving me on my own like that. The more I walked, the more my feelings turned to anger. My eyes filled up with tears. I kept stomping my way back, one foot in front of the other, ignoring how rough the ground was and how cold it was getting now that the sun was going down.
I hadn't gone more than a mile or two before I heard a car come up behind me on the road. I stepped off onto the grass so the car could pass, but it slowed down instead.
"Hey, Cara! It's Cara, right?" a girl's voice called. I stopped and peeked into the open window to see Kirsten sitting in the driver's seat. Her red hair was blown all over her face, and she had sunglasses on her head, even though it was getting dark. I wasn't surprised she was old enough to drive. "Hop in. I'll take you the rest of the way."
My stomach seemed to drop all the way to my feet. I opened the passenger side door and climbed inside anyway.
"You okay?" Kirsten asked me.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I just wanted to go home." I hoped she couldn't tell that I had been crying.
"I don't blame you. Dakota can be a real jerk."
I shuddered. She smiled like Momma would when I was little. "So, are you really twelve?"
"No! I'm thirteen," I said, putting my chin up a little bit. "He just didn't believe me.
"Either way, he shouldn't kissed you. It's like he would do anything to get a girlfriend."
That didn't make me feel any better. I crossed my arms. The car sped faster and faster down the gravel road, and the air blowing in the windows gave me goosebumps.
I didn't offer anything else to the conversation, so Kirsten went on, "He didn't know you were so young, or he wouldn't have gone after you like that. But don't worry. He won't tell anyone what happened. At least, he won't if he doesn't want to get laughed right out of school."
With that, she laughed.
"Great," I said. Maybe it was a good thing I didn't go to school, after all.
"You know what, though," Kirsten said. "I think it's really cool that you didn't let him make out with you. Some girls would. Like your cousin."
"Really? Hayley would kiss him?"
"She already did. Last winter. She's nice and all, but she tries too hard to get people to like her. I feel sorry for her sometimes."
"Were you with someone there?" I asked.
"No. I'm not into make-out parties. It kinda makes a party lame when everyone starts drooling all over each other. I was upstairs watching movies with a couple of people in my room. That's how I could see you leaving."
"Well, thanks. For the ride, I mean," I said.
"Don't worry about it. I'll see you around the stable, okay? My horse is boarded at your grandma's, so I'm sure I'll see you there."
I didn't bother to tell her that Aunt Georgia was not my grandmother. I just said, "Yeah! See you around."
Aunt Georgia's house was quiet when I got back. The lights were off in the front room, so I carefully felt my way to the stairs, using what little light was coming from the kitchen.
"Hayley," Aunt Georgia called from the kitchen.
I froze, my hand on the bannister and one foot on the steps. I've never talked to Aunt Georgia one-on-one before, and I didn't want to face her now without Hayley to help me through the encounter.
"Come in here for a minute," Aunt Georgia said.
I slowly let go of the bannister and stepped toward the kitchen doorway.
"It's just me," I said, stepping fully into the dull, yellowish light.
"Huh," Aunt Georgia said thoughtfully. She sat at the table like she did in the mornings. She was sliding a coffee cup back and forth on the table between her hands. The kitchen looked as though Momma had cleaned it again before work. "Why didn't Hayley come home with you?"
My palms began to sweat like they always do when I'm lying. "I got a bad headache," I lied. I shifted my weight about three times before continuing. "So Kirsten's sister gave me a ride. Everyone else is watching a movie."
"Oh," Aunt Georgia said. She looked at me strangely with her forehead all wrinkled up.
"So, I'm just-- I'm just gonna go upstairs," I said.
Aunt Georgia nodded. I turned to leave. As I left the dim light and made for the safety of the stairs, I heard her say, "Be careful, kid. That girl is just like her mother."
I didn't go to my mattress when I got upstairs. Instead, I went to Momma and Sydney's room. The lights were off, but Momma must have found the old Sesame Street night light because it was plugged into the wall right by Sydney's mattress. I saw faint shadows of butterflies on the wall around the light and Sydney's sleeping lump on her mattress. Momma's bed was open since she was at work that night, but I didn't go to that one. I climbed onto Sydney's mattress carefully so I wouldn't wake her up.
I wanted to just go to sleep and forget the night. All those TV shows I had seen were lying. First kisses weren't magical or good. Music didn't play from some invisible band. Kisses didn't make you want to scream and hug your friends and stay up at night remembering them over and over. Sometimes they were things you'd rather forget. My eyes teared up again, so I turned to face the wall. The water ran down the side of my face and onto my arm, which I was using as a pillow. I felt Sydney shift beside me. She reached out her small hand and stroked my hair. That made me cry harder, but she didn't stop.
"No fun?" Sydney murmured.
"No," I whispered.
I couldn't help but smile just a little.