In the official “What Makes America The Greatest Nation On Earth” essay contest rulebook, a copy of which was provided to Robbie by Principal Carmichael, a state contest winner could be accompanied to Washington, D.C. by his or her legal guardians and any minor siblings in the household, with all travel and lodging expenses paid. Robbie asked his parents if Stacey could accompany them to Washington. He didn’t have any brothers or sisters so, he reasoned, it was only fair that Stacey come along as a surrogate. After much hemming and hawing, Catherine said that Stacey could come if her mother agreed to let her.
Geena McIntire, when first presented with the idea, resisted. Washington was a long way away, and Stacey was still little more than a child, and she barely knew the Banks family, really. Once Robbie badgered Catherine into offering to pay for Stacey’s meals, however, Geena became much more comfortable with the trip.
Robbie and Stacey rejoiced. They were going to Washington, D.C. And getting a week away from school, no less.
The next few months passed slowly for Middleton. For spring break, the Banks family went to visit Robbie’s maternal grandparents in the North, while Stacey visited her uncle and aunt out in California. Nick Carmichael went golfing with Duke Maddox, and Gerald Klein spent his break with his brother, trying to gently explain that suing the hospital would not bring back Nathan.
The week after spring break was Stacey’s thirteenth birthday. For the first year since she turned five, she decided to have a birthday party. Robbie was invited, as were the Weaver boys. Stacey’s older brother agreed to attend and chaperone. It was, he told Stacey, his birthday present to her for that year. Aisha Richardson came to the party and—a bit more controversially—Cyndi Pinkerton.
“Cyndi?” said Robbie in horror as the girl walked through the front door of the McIntires’ house, holding a gift neatly wrapped in neon pink paper. “You invited Cyndi Pinkerton?”
Cyndi nodded politely to Aisha, who nodded in return. She crossed the small living room and headed for the dining room, where she placed the present she’d brought. Chris Weaver, who was hovering around the snacks table, immediately sidled over to Cyndi.
“Yes, I invited Cyndi Pinkerton,” Stacey replied. “So what? This is my birthday and my party. I can invite anybody I want.”
Robbie stared at his friend as though she was speaking a strange foreign language. “But why would you want to invite Cyndi?”
“Look, not everyone hates her with a vengeance, like you do.” Stacey archly lifted her chin. “Cyndi’s in my gym class. Her locker’s right next to mine in the locker room. We talk and stuff. And … and I like her. So there.”
Robbie simply stood there, speechless.
By then, Cyndi had escaped the rather ivy-like Chris, and she walked up to Stacey and Robbie with a smile. “Hi, you two! How’s it going?”
“Hi,” said Stacey and Robbie.
Cyndi turned her smile toward Stacey, in particular. “Thanks for inviting me to your party.”
Stacey smiled back. “Oh, of course! Thanks for coming!”
Then, with another little nod, Cyndi continued on her way, sitting down on the couch opposite Aisha Richardson. Once she’d left, Robbie and Stacey stared each other down.
“Just be nice to her while she’s here, okay?”
“I’ll be nice as long as she’s nice.”
“Oh, God. Fine! I promise!”
The rest of Stacey’s thirteenth birthday party went without a hitch. Robbie and Cyndi maintained an uneasy truce for the duration of the party, Bill and Chris managed to avoid destroying anything or hurting anyone, and everyone pretended not to mind that the ice cream Ms. McIntire had bought the day before had completely melted.
When it was time to open presents, Robbie gave her one of the pictures taken by his mother the night of the school formal, of Robbie and Stacey decked out in their finest, and had it put in a fancy metal frame that Catherine had selected and bought. The Weavers gave her a gift from the both of them, a “L’il Miss” beginners’ make-up set, which was their best guess at what a thirteen-year-old girl might want, and Aisha gave her an iTunes gift card worth ten dollars. Going last, Cyndi presented Stacey with a blank diary with colorful geometric designs on the outside cover.
“It’s for writing,” said Cyndi, very seriously, very sincerely. “Since you liked helping Robbie with his essay.”
Robbie rolled his eyes.
That night, long after the cake had been eaten and her guests had left, Stacey put the framed photo of her and Robbie on the nightstand next to her bed. The iTunes card went into a desk drawer, never to be seen again. The make-up set was stashed under the bed, and the diary went under the pillows atop the bed.
And then, finally, the day came at last where the Banks family woke up early, tossed their luggage in the car, picked up Stacey, and drove the hour it took to get to the nearest airport to Middleton. At the airport, once they’d all made it through the security lines, Stacey wandered around inspecting the vending machines and gifts hops with interest, while Robbie worried about the flight. He’d never flown on an airplane before in his entire life. Stomach churning, he sat wedged between his mother and father in the airline lobby. His knee bounced compulsively.
“It won’t be that bad,” Catherine told him, not looking up from her novel.
“We’re going to be on a big, big plane, Robbie. It’s going to be a smooth ride, I promise.”
Robbie gave a tight nod. “Sure.”
Alan patted his son on the shoulder. “I bet they have ginger ale on the plane. It’ll help settle your stomach. Always did when I was a kid and had a tummy ache.”
But he did not at all sound sure.
They first flew to Atlanta, where they had a brief layover, before continuing on to Washington, D.C. Despite his parents assurances, as well as copious prayers to any sympathetic higher powers that might exist in the universe, Robbie became ill on the plane. He spent most of the trip to Georgia with his eyes closed and and his hand firmly gripping Stacey’s.
The flight to Washington, however, went smoother. Robbie’s stomach settled slightly, and Stacey helped distract him from his troubles by flipping through a magazine found in the pocket of the seat in front and commenting aloud on all the advertisements. After landing and picking up their luggage, they crossed the Potomac River into the actual district proper , checked into their hotel, unpacked their bags, and ventured out into the nation’s capital.
With Catherine armed with a camera and oversized tote bag, the four tourists ambled up and down the National Mall. They paused for Catherine to shoot pictures of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Capitol building. By the time they’d finished their walking tour, it was too late—and they were too tired—for any further sightseeing.
Then came the heated discussion as to what should be done about dinner. Catherine wanted to go to a nice restaurant, Alan wanted a simple bar and grill, and both Robbie and Stacey wanted to order in room service back at the hotel. In the end, Alan’s suggestion of a bar and grill was the only option that everyone could live with, and so a bar and grill it was.
The El Presidente Bar and Grill, which proudly boasted of half-price margaritas on Tuesdays and live music on Fridays, stood within walking distance of the hotel. Stacey and Robbie gorged themselves on short ribs, licking the barbecue sauce from their fingers, while Catherine and Alan both chose steak. Back at the hotel, Stacey and Robbie sat around on one of the beds, watching cable and tossing back shots of Pepto-Bismol. Reclining on the other bed, Catherine continued reading the novel she’d brought along. Alan hadn’t made it all the way up to the room, staying behind in the lobby to chat with the tired but friendly young man standing behind the reception desk.
When it was time to retire for the night, Catherine took Stacey down the hall to the room next door as Robbie and Alan showered, changed into pajamas, and got into bed in their own room. Robbie felt this was ridiculous and did not look forward to trying to fall asleep to Alan’s jackhammer snoring, but his arguments that he and Stacey should share a room instead had fallen on deaf ears.
“I think I’ve already been more than accommodating,” Catherine had said, a touch stiffly and with a dangerous look in her eye, “just to allow Stacey on this trip at all.”
Robbie hadn’t protested further.
And so he waited there in the dark, lying in a bed that smelled faintly of disinfectant and staring up at the blinking red light of the room’s smoke detector. The seconds ticked by with excruciating slowness, as time seemed to stand still within the hotel room, but finally he heard his father begin to snore. He waited until minute or two, then quietly crept out of bed.
Stacey was waiting for him in the hallway, clad in pink pajamas covered in little red hearts, and he raised an eyebrow at her. But she simply rolled her eyes and headed for the stairs. They sat down in the stairwell, with their backs against the cool cinder block of the walls, and turned to grin at one another.
“I’m sorry my parents are being dumb,” said Robbie.
“It’s okay. My mom probably wouldn’t want me to stay in the same room with you, anyway.”
Robbie wasn’t sure Geena McIntire would really care all that much, but he decided not to mention that. “So, what do you want to do? We could go watch t.v. in the lobby, or we could buy all the Cheetos in the vending machines, or—”
“Robert, those are children’s games.” Stacey practically spit the words. “This is our first sleepover—sort of a sleepover—and there’s only one thing to do at a sleepover.”
“Truth or dare.”
Robbie stared at Stacey for a moment or two, trying to gauge her seriousness as well as figure out just how much he wanted to object. Her eyes glinted under the harsh yellow lights of the stairway, and he decided that she was very, very serious.
“Okay,” he heard himself say. He gave a little nod. “Okay, you go first. Truth ... or dare?”
Stacey lifted her chin. “Dare.”
“Are you sure? You’re really sure you want to take the dare?”
“Yes. Give me a dare.”
Robbie’s brows furrowed as he struggled to think of a suitable dare. Then, his dark eyes lit up when he came up with something. “Okay! I’ve got your dare. Go down to the lobby in your pajamas and sing the national anthem.”
“But I don’t even know the whole national anthem.”
“You can just sing the first few bits, then.”
“Also, that’s a dumb dare.”
“You chose dare, Stacey. You have to do it.”
Stacey pouted. Robbie waited. Stacey sighed. Robbie waited. Stacey got up, stepped back into the hallway, and marched to the elevators. Robbie waited a moment and then followed after.
The hotel lobby stood mostly empty and quiet, with the exception of the night receptionist and a young man and woman checking in. In a corner of the small lobby, a television, set to CNN, droned at a volume just barely inaudible. Robbie and Stacey went over to a misshapen loveseat located near the television, and Stacey climbed atop it, resting her right foot on the arm of the loveseat like a pajama-clad pirate.
The receptionist and young couple turned around when she began belting out, loud enough that it echoed off the ceilings, “Oh, say, can you see … by the dawn’s early light … oh, so proudly we hailed … the, um, twilight’s last gleaming? And, uh, that’s all I know.”
Primly she hopped off the benches, bowed, and walked back to the elevators. The woman in the couple clapped, a bit uncertainly. Robbie blushed and hightailed it back to the elevators, as well.
“Now it’s your turn,” Stacey said, as they leaned against the elevator’s railing. “Pick one—truth or dare.”
“God, Robert, you never take a chance on anything.”
“Shut up and ask me a question already.”
“Okay, okay. Don’t have a heart attack. Here’s your question ... if you were stranded on a deserted island, which would you rather have, a can opener but no cans of food or a can of food but no can opener?”
Robbie shot her a withering look. “That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard.”
“You chose truth, you gotta answer the question. Besides, it’s not as stupid as daring me to sing the national anthem.”
“I’m gonna answer the question. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a stupid question.” Robbie’s answer was unhesitating: “I’d rather have the cans without the can opener.”
“Okay,” said Stacey, seemingly pleased with his answer. “Now you have to say why you chose that one.”
“Well, maybe I can open the cans of food with a rock or something I find on the island, but the can opener won’t do me any good if there’s no cans to open. Like I said, it was a stupid question.”
Stacey crossed her arms over her chest but didn’t dignify the comment with a reply. The elevator stopped with a loud ding, and they got out at their floor. On the way back to their stairwell, Robbie prompted, “Anyway, it’s back to you—truth or dare? I’ve got plenty more ideas for dares you can do, by the way. At least three or four really good, really embarrassing ones.”
“Yeah, well, you’ll have to save them. This time, I pick truth.”
“Really?” Robbie blinked in surprise. “All right, just gimme a minute. I didn’t have a question ready.”
Stacey made a “go ahead” gesture and waited patiently for Robbie’s question.
Several seconds of silence passed between the two of them before Robbie gave a small, thoughtful nod. “Here’s a question. What’s the one single thing you’ve been most afraid to admit to another living soul?”
“That’s not fair! I asked you a desert island question!”
“Is it my fault that you can’t ask good questions?”
By now, they were back in the relative safety and privacy of the stairwell. Stacey down on the hard concrete stairs with her back turned to Robbie. He stood for a moment and looked at her, at the tenseness in her shoulders, the anxious way her fingers played with her hair. He sat down beside her and gently nudged her knee with his own. She ignored him. But when he put his head on her shoulder and started nuzzling against her like a puppy would, complete with quiet little puppy yips, Stacey broke down and giggled. He giggled too.
“You don’t have to answer the question if you don’t want to,” he told her.
Stacey shrugged. It was a little cold in the stairwell, probably due to the concrete, and for warmth they moved closer together. Robbie wished he’d chosen to take dare. He decided that, if the game continued, he’d do that for the next round.
Absentmindedly, Stacey began petting Robbie’s head, which was still resting on her shoulder. “Have you ever done anything weird but you didn’t know why you did it? Like, really weird?”
Robbie hesitated slightly before answering, “Yeah. Sometimes, yeah.”
“My weird thing is that, once in a while—not every day, you know, not all the time—once in a while, I like to look at Cyndi Pinkerton in the locker room.”
“I’m not a stalker or anything. I just glance at her, I mean. It’s the only time we’re ever really near each another. She’s really pretty. Her hands are so graceful when she’s tying her shoelaces, and you should see the way her hair falls across her shoulders … ”
“I can’t really even explain. But I can’t stop wanting to watch her and be around her.” Stacey tucked her chin against her chest and closed her eyes. “So, there. Now you know. The thing I’m scared of most.”
Robbie closed his eyes too and concentrated on the comfortable warmth of her body next to his. “It’s not so bad.”
He could feel her shrug her shoulders.
“I’ll admit,” he said, “that I don’t get why it’s Cyndi. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. In general, that is. And you know something else?”
She shook her head. “No. What?”
“I’m always going to be your friend. No matter what you tell me. No matter what happens.”
“Robert?” She reached out and gave his hand a squeeze. “That’s really fucking cheesey.”
“Shut up, asshole.”
They laughed. It felt good to laugh.