I have to hide the weekly newspaper from my family. If they saw the front page of the sports’ section, they would’ve seen a snapshot of me sprinting down the field, football in hand, ponytail trailing behind me, waving like a standard in the wind.
Week after week, I make the sports page, and the paranoia starts mounting that I’ll slip up and they’ll see the headlines. I dream about men at Zennen’s work saying to him, “That’s some girl you got there. I didn’t know she could play.” And he’ll say, “What the hell are you talkin’ about?” To which someone will reply, “Your step-daughter. On the football team. Man, she’s sure kickin’ ass this year. Wish I had a daughter like her.” Cue laugh-turned-smoker’s cough.
But Zennen and I have different last names, I reassure myself. And he doesn’t really talk about me or my brothers to anyone. No one will put it together. I am safe.
I have to hide my laundry, too. Otherwise Mom would notice all the dirty practice clothes and my muddy, putrid-smelling uniform. I suddenly take an interest in doing my own laundry, which piques her suspicion not at all. She’s so preoccupied that she didn’t notice the jersey I accidentally left to hang-dry in the basement laundry room. I almost had a heart attack when I went down there to put a load in the washer, saw Mom unloading from the dryer, and realized my jersey was right behind her, hanging on the clothesline.
Thankfully, she proceeded to chit-chat with me, and she never even turned around. I quickly lied to her that Zennen was upstairs calling for her, and she left the room. I snatched up the jersey, shoved it under my shirt, and snuck it back into my bedroom.
Whew, I sighed once the door was closed. That was a close one. Too close.
It’s an October Saturday, late afternoon, and I arrive home, skateboard in hand, from an exhausting shift at Skinny’s. Lunch rushes are the worst.
I clomp up the stairs, feet heavy from running around the restaurant. I have just enough time to take a nap before I have to get ready for open mic night at Vinyls & Joe. It’s definitely the coolest place in town - it’s a music store/coffee shop crossover. The perfect place to host live performances from local artists. Plus Cal, Josh, Gunner and I have been psyching people up for it. I think there’s gonna be a major turnout.
I drop my board and open my bedroom door. I dive into bed face-down when Mom says from the bathroom, “Stevie, you’re babysitting tonight.”
I pick my head up. Um, hell no I ain’t!
“What?” I call, acting like I didn’t hear her.
“Zennen and I are going out tonight. You’re staying home with the boys.”
“I have plans,” I call.
“Well, cancel them,” she replies, her tone dripping with duh.
“The twins are twelve,” I argue. “They’re totally old enough to stay home alone.”
“They need supervision,” Mom says. “You’ll have to cook dinner for them.”
“Why can’t they use this as an opportunity to learn how to make their own food?”
“Sorry, but you’re babysitting. There’s no getting out of it.”
I drop my head and groan into the mattress. Meanwhile, the manic pinging of the boys’ video game acts as background music.
I get up and walk into the living room. There they are, the two of them sitting on the rug, eyes glued to the TV screen, thumbs punching buttons and knocking nobs on their controllers.
I stand over them, hands on my hips.
“See?” I say, looking at Mom. She’s leaning over the sink, applying lipstick in front of the bathroom mirror. “You stick ’em in front of the screen, and they’re good for hours. No one needs to be here. Right, boys?”
They say nothing.
“My point exactly.”
Mom puts earrings in.
“Sorry, but I’m the parent. Overruled.”
I throw my hands up in frustration. What the hell am I supposed to do? I’ve got my first live gig tonight. I can’t not go.
I slink into my room to start getting ready anyway. I’m going. I don’t care what she says. As soon as she leaves, I’m outta here.
I pop Foreigner’s “4” album cassette into my shelved stereo and turn up the volume. “Jukebox Hero” comes on. The perfect song before showtime.
I slide on a pair of jeans - shredded up the knee from wearing them while practicing skateboard tricks - and a large crew-neck sweatshirt from the men’s section at Goodwill. It’s a well-worn, faded hunter green. I tie a plaid button-down around my waist, slip on my Chucks, and pull on a knit beanie. My crimpy hair flows out from under the hat like water rushing from a faucet. I re-paint my chipped nails dark purple - so dark they’re nearly black.
“I’m leaving,” I hear Mom call, muffled by the sounds of Foreigner. “Bye, have a good night!”
“Bye,” I shout. I listen in wait for her to walk down the stairs. As soon as I hear the door close at the bottom of the stairwell, I know I’m free.
I put my makeup on in the bathroom, adjust my hair and cap a dozen times, and finally feel satisfied.
“Lookin’ fly,” I tell my reflection, shooting it two thumbs up and winking. But it feels false. I don’t speak that way normally. That’s not me. I’ve been being disingenuous lately. I can’t seem to stop.
I walk out of the bathroom. My brothers are still sitting on the floor, playing video games. It’s the same position I’m sure they’ve been in all afternoon. I roll my eyes.
Axel and Bowie are fraternal twins. Axel is slightly taller and leaner than Bowie, who is more on the short and chunky side. Bowie wears glasses, has short-cropped darker brown hair, and eyes the same gray shade as mine. Axel’s hair is a lighter brown, almost a toasted gold, and longer, covering the tops of his ears and the nape of his neck. His eyes are dark brown, like my Italian grandfather’s.
“Alright, twerps,” I say, stepping in front of the screen with hands on my hips. They look up at me, eyes glazed like zombies. I blanch. This isn’t healthy. I was gonna let them stay home by themselves and play video games all night, but not anymore. “I’ve got a performance booked for tonight, and Calvin should be here in the next twenty minutes to pick me up for it. You’re coming with us. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.”
They say nothing. They just continue to stare blankly back at me, as if I wasn’t even really there. As if they were staring off into open space.
“Alright,” I huff. I shut off the TV. I yank the controllers from their hands. “That’s enough for tonight. You’ve been in your pajamas all day. Go get dressed.” I sniff the air and gag. “And for God’s sake, put on some deodorant.” They don’t move. “Come ON,” I grunt. I slide my hands under their armpits and attempt to hoist them to their feet. I push them towards their bedroom. “Let’s GO,” I huff. “Move!”
They crack smiles. They’re doing this on purpose. They think it’s funny, me struggling to force them to act.
“I cover your asses every time you take money from Mom! This is the least you could do for me.”
“Uh, actually,” Axel snarks, “We haven’t taken Mom’s money in a month.” He smiles, proud of himself.
I finally get them into their room. I close the door and snap at them to hurry up.
“Also, if you haven’t been stealing from her, where have you been getting all these new video games?” I interrogate through the door.
Silence. I rap the door lightly.
“Don’t hate us,” Bowie says. I chuckle.
“I could never hate you,” I say.
“We’ve been burning CDs and selling them at school.”
“We may have...taken some of your CDs and replicated them...” Axel trails off.
“We may have also used Napster,” Bowie adds.
My jaw hangs agape. I lean against the door, my ear pressed to it.
“You do know that’s illegal, right?” I say.
“It was his idea!” the boys say at the same time. I laugh.
“Tell you what. You come with me tonight, and I won’t squeal on ya to the cops,” I say, stifling a smile.
“Deal!” they say.
The door opens, and the boys are dressed. Smelly still, but at least dressed. They’re both in jeans, ripped at the knees and frayed at the cuffs; T-shirts that hang to just above their knees; and button-down checkered shirts. Their hair hasn’t been brushed in ages - oily and sticking up everywhere. I sigh. I can’t take them anywhere.
A horn honks outside.
“That’s Cal. Let’s dip.”
I grab my guitar case and tramp down the stairs. They follow. The air outside is cold. It’s already pretty dark. The sun has almost disappeared, and the western sky is streaked in deep orange, pink, and purple. The glow sets the autumn leaves on fire.
I climb in the cab of Cal’s truck, and the boys hop in the backseat. Calvin looks back at them, then at me, surprised.
“The fart-knockers are coming along,” I say. I pass back my guitar case. Cal’s is already in the back seat. Between the two instruments and the twins, it’s pretty cramped.
“Uh...can we sit up front?” Bowie asks.
“No,” I say. Cal backs down the driveway. The radio is playing. I turn it down and turn to look at the twins. “Ground rules tonight: you’re not allowed to be nerds tonight. Okay? Embarrass me, and you’re toast.”
They stare at me, expressionless.
Cal glances at me. “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being nerds. I’m one,” he says, smiling. He looks in the rearview mirror at them. “But guys, this is your sister’s big night. So let’s try not to outshine her, alright?” He winks.
I put a hand on his shoulder and squeeze lightly. Thank you. He looks at me. I don’t know what it is, but in that instant, the look he gives me makes my stomach drop. I pull my hand away and shift closer to the window.
“Man, it’s really hot in here,” I say. I roll down the window partially. “Hey Cal, can you turn the heat down?” I’m feverish all of a sudden. I can feel the sweat forming under my arms, on my back.
“It’s not on,” he says, sounding confused. He glances back at the boys. They shake their heads and shrug. I can see them in the reflection of the window. “Do you want me to turn on the fan?”
I clear my throat. It’s suddenly thick with phlegm.
“If you could, please,” I croak.
“Sure,” he nods. His eyes keep drifting from the road back to me. His hand reaches over and turns the fan dial. “Is everything okay?”
I clear my throat again. My heart is racing.
“It’s all good,” I fake-smile. “Just nervous, that’s all.” I rest my head on the window. My beanie acts as a cushion.
“Hey.” He reaches one arm across the top of the bench, his hand inches from my shoulder. “You’re gonna kill it. Don’t sweat it.”
I continue to fake smile, but the proximity of his hand and the stomach-dropping feeling have me wigg’n out. What the hell is wrong with me? What’s going on?
It’s just nerves, I tell myself. You’re just freaking out because you’re about to perform live in front of dozens of kids from school. Just chill, Stevie. Chill.
I gulp the cold night air and hold it, trying to slow my heart rate. I close my eyes and think only about my song. The chords and transitions. The strumming pattern. The lyrics. The rhythm and tempo. My hands unconsciously play the song on air guitar. I’m ready.
A gentle hand lands on my shoulder. I open my eyes.
“We’re here,” Calvin says. It’s that expression again. His eyes and his dimples. He’s looking right at me and it’s like he can see right into me and I feel naked and my stomach is doing flips and it’s broiling in here and I need to get out.
I pull away and jump out of the cab. The boys clamber out, too, and, guitars in hand, we march into Vinyls & Joe.
The place is hipster paradise. The front half is a coffee shop with Christmas lights hanging everywhere, lots of cushy beanbag chairs, and a collage of Polaroid pictures with no particular theme other than they look cool. Some have people eating ice cream cones; some are of plants; some feature dogs or cats; some are of musicians performing. The air always smells like freshly ground coffee beans. There’s a tiny wooden platform against one wall, which acts as a stage. It has a stool and a microphone set up already.
The back half of the shop is a music store. Stacks of vinyls, cassettes, and CDs are rimmed by band poster-clad walls. There’s usually some sort of classic rock ballad playing over the store speakers. Typically Beatles, but once in a while you’ll get a little Pink Floyd or Rolling Stones.
As soon as we walk in, I’m greeted by a crowd - no shit, a crowd - of kids from my high school. They’re crammed into the chairs, along the walls, all sipping coffee and chattering loudly. I’ve never seen the place so packed.
“Hey, Stephanie!” someone says. I don’t know who they are, but I wave anyway.
“Hey,” I say, forcing a smile. I push through the crowd, trying to find a place to set my stuff down and pull myself together. Cal and the twins are right behind me. I’m starting to panic, and I know it. What if I screw up? What if I’m a disaster, and everyone hates me? What if they all make fun of me? I’ll never be able to live it down!
The proprietor - Joe, an old rocker with long nappy hair, a mustache-beard combo, and a chill California dude voice - takes the stage and announces the next act into the microphone. It’s not us. We have some time.
We get to an unoccupied corner, and I’m about to lose it. I hate this - this - irrational panic that I deal with. I’ve been dealing with it ever since the Justin Incident. I feel like I’m going to explode. Like I need to run out of there and hide under my bed. My heart starts to race again, and I struggle to catch my breath. I put my hands on my knees, lean over, and take deep breaths.
“Hey,” Cal says, seeing what I’m doing. He knows where this is going. “Hey,” he says again. My brothers exchange looks, like their older sister’s going postal.
Maybe I am.
Maybe I am irreparably insane.
He shifts in front of me and puts his hands on my upper arms - not gripping them, just holding them, holding me up.
“Look at me,” he murmurs. “Look at me.”
“I can’t,” I pant. I’m going to vomit.
“You can do this. Back yourself off the cliff, remember? Climb down off the ledge. You got this. C’mon now.”
Eyes shut, mouth pressed firmly closed, I force myself to inhale ’til my lungs feel like they’ll explode. I let it out slowly, like a leaking balloon. I block out everything but the sensation of breathing. I hear my pounding heart-rate decreasing.
Slowly I emerge from the panic, like surfacing from the depths after scuba diving. I open my eyes, and there are Calvin’s eyes looking right into mine. He’s got his hands on his knees and is crouched over, same position as me.
“You good?” he whispers.
“Yeah,” I say. The terror isn’t completely gone, but I’ve got a grip on it now.
“Good. Cuz we’re up next.”