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Lulu swatted her way through the unfamiliar coat closet. After tearing down several of what felt like rather expensive fur coats and a couple of potentially cashmere jackets off their hooks, she managed to hit her head against a dangling light switch chain. She swore. Not that there was anyone left to hear her. She pulled the switch, located the closet door, and made her swift exit. She looked left, then she looked right. The coast was clear. She took a deep, relieved breath. What a night it had already been.
Of course, that’s when she heard the tutting. Across the hall, Dane Anderson perked up from his lean against the wall. He was the sort of boy who was extensively practiced at leaning against things—walls, lockers, overly large trucks. He was an expert leaner. The only light in the hallway was that streaming out of the closet, and as Dane moved toward her, his face shifted from the shadows to the light.
Lulu stopped straightening out her clothing. She was acutely aware of every tousled hair on her head. She could feel the back zipper of her skirt disobediently tickling her hip. She assumed her shirt was buttoned back up incorrectly, because that was the sort of luck she had. But she’d be damned if she let her nerves show. Not to him.
Because nature had already given Dane Anderson plenty. His sandy brown hair waved beautifully, effortlessly. His warm, friendly eyes were heavy-lidded and half-open. Whether that was from alcohol or the sudden light, it was difficult to say. The sleeves to his oxford shirt were rolled lazily up to reveal his suntanned, muscular forearms. The top of the shirt was unbuttoned so as to display his crisp white undershirt. His throat bobbed. “Qu’est-ce qui se passe avec toi?”
Lulu blinked. What was going on with her? Nothing. Nothing at all. The hallway filled with her silence. She stole a glance at the stairway. She could hear the muffled din of the party below.
Before she could move, Dane took a step forward and put his hand on the wall, his arm blocking her path to escape. “You gonna answer the question, honey, or do you need it in English?”
Lulu’s heart hammered so hard that her pulse rang in her own ears. Retreating back into the closet wasn’t an option. Not with Dane. Not when they were so alone. But he wasn’t one to fight fair, either.
“Nothing’s up with me,” she said.
“I can see that.” Dane eyed her from head to toe, back to head again. His gaze lingered in the middle.
Lulu took a shallow breath. Then another as her stomach clenched. She had to find some scrap of truth to throw his way. “I fell.”
“Fall in all by yourself, did you?” A grin pulled at Dane’s mouth. It was a Clark Gable kind of grin—all charm and menace. Another gift of his birth and breeding.
“Maybe. Why do you care?” Lulu looked him dead in the eye. That was her first mistake. Dane had beautiful eyes. They were brown with flecks of green in them, dusted with thick lashes. Lulu gripped the wall behind her, a spin overtaking her head. It was all the alcohol she had drunk. Alcohol spins. Not beautiful, terrible boy spins.
Dane closed the gap between their bodies to next to nothing. Lulu—God help her—flattened her back against the wall. Dane had never been unaware of the effect he had on women. Lulu had never been unaware of the effect Dane had on her. In that, at least, they were equals.
“Why don’t you like me, Lulu?” Even slurring slightly, he sounded like he had a thousand years of good ol’ boys behind him, like he could carry a thousand more after him. There had been four generations in his line—he, after all, was only Daniel Dodge Anderson IV. But his voice bore the weight of a never-ending, never-broken string of gentlemen. A voice of infinity. “Why can’t we be friendly?”
“You know why.” Lulu gritted her teeth.
Dane’s expression stretched into a full-blown, Cheshire cat grin. The world tilted on its axis slightly. Lulu could have had a crush on him for three weeks straight if she’d wanted, at the mere flash of this smile. In fact, at some point in her freshman year, she had. And that was two years ago. Lulu willed her breath even and buried that feeling away as deeply as she could. Lulu didn’t think about freshman year, if she could help it.
“Explain it again.” His breath fanned across her cheek as he leaned in.
Lulu’s mouth fell open, ever so slightly. Why couldn’t nice boys smell like peppermint and gin?
Lulu offered up a silent prayer to whoever watched over the dignity of girls like her. Soft, cold lips whispered against hers when a series of repetitive thunks echoed up the stairs. Dane looked up—toward the sound. Lulu didn’t think; she simply took advantage and ducked under his arm. She fled toward the stairs.
Unfortunately, Lulu hardly looked up as she ran away from Dane. She smacked right into a tall, lanky boy—more limbs than anything else. Limbs she fell into, like some horrible moment in a rom-com. She disentangled herself with much more effort than it should have taken.
Lulu clenched her hand into a fist. The boy raised his arms as if to say, “Whoa, lady. Not my fault.” Fine. Not his fault. Nobody’s fault but her own. She relaxed her hand; the boy nodded like he appreciated the restraint.
Lulu leaped down the steps—two at a time—toward the safety of the ground floor. Toward people. Toward Audrey and whatever lecture was in store from that quarter. From above, Lulu heard the boys’ subdued voices. She didn’t stop moving until the sound was a distant memory. Until the cacophony of the kitchen swallowed her up.
* * *
In hindsight, Lulu ought to have fixed her shirt before looking for Audrey.
Audrey Bachmann took in Lulu’s state of undress and in less than half a second had pulled Lulu out of the kitchen and into a quieter, less populated room. Audrey might have been holding a red Solo cup, but her white and pink floral sundress was still spotless and unrumpled. Her face was flush—she must have only been half a drink into her evening—but her fair hair was still smooth and neat.
“Hold this.” Audrey handed Lulu her drink cup. She pinched a lock of Lulu’s hair between her fingers, then dropped it with a sigh. Audrey fussed over the buttons on Lulu’s shirt—unbuttoning then smoothing as she rebuttoned.
Lulu swatted away Audrey’s hands. One mother was enough.
“Aren’t you going to let me lend a hand at all?” Audrey’s voice was more of a screech and less of a question.
The wild hammering in Lulu’s heart had faded to nothing. Her head swam. Relief hollowed Lulu out, leaving her dizzy. Behind her was an inevitability she’d avoided for now. Ahead were only consequences and a lecture. A desire to lash out tore through her, obstructing any number of reasonable thoughts in her head. “No.”
Audrey jerked so hard on Lulu’s shirt that the drink in Lulu’s hand jostled. Sticky pink liquid splashed across both of their clothes. Because of course it would.
“Fantastic,” muttered Audrey. “Now we’ll for sure smell like liquor when we get back to my house. You better pray my mother isn’t awake.”
“You could’ve set your drink down.”
Audrey’s lips pressed into a firm line. She snatched the cup from Lulu’s hands and threw back the rest of her drink in one swallow. “Fine. I’m getting a refill. Deal with your boy drama all by yourself.”
Lulu winced as she watched Audrey turn on her heels. That wobbly, hollowing nothing surged again. Lulu didn’t want to be responsible for Audrey spiraling tonight, too. “Wait,” she called.
Audrey whipped back around.
“I got stuck in a hall closet with Brian,” said Lulu.
As anticipated, Audrey wiped her hand down her face in pure exasperation. “How stuck?”
Lulu ran through any number of explanations she could have given. Entangled in his arms and mouth. Pressed up against coat hangers and a wooden closet rod. Pinned by her own curiosity but not by any real interest. She settled on, “Very.”
Audrey reached out and smoothed the front of Lulu’s shirt, then tugged the bottom hem. This time, Lulu let her.
“What the fuck, Lulu?” said Audrey, nearly at a whisper. Audrey didn’t say curse words at full volume if she could help it.
“I was promised a telescope.”
“Naturally.” Audrey tried to take a drink out of her cup, then scowled. She must have forgotten she’d finished it. She set the empty cup onto a sideboard with one of the provided coasters there. She turned her glare onto Lulu. “They’re not all your big brothers. You have to be careful.”
Lulu giggled, as though she were teetering off the edge of a cliff and laughter would steer her away from a plunge. Her brothers weren’t here right now, thank God. They were away at school. “It was only Brian.”
Audrey arched a perfectly manicured eyebrow. “Did anyone see you?”
Audrey pinched the bridge of her nose. “Thank goodness.”
The sting of Audrey’s judgment lit a fire in Lulu’s temper again, at least keeping her away from that awful, flooding nothing. “Well, screw you, too.”
Audrey closed her eyes for a moment. She took a deep breath before she reopened them. “I’m looking out for you, you know. Keeping your reputation intact.”
“Joke’s on you, ’cause I don’t have a tactful reputation.” Lulu forced out a single laugh.
Audrey raised her eyebrow again. “As soon as you’re finished throwing your little theatrics, I’m going to get another drink.” That was pure Mrs. Bachmann, Audrey’s mother. Audrey looked down her straight, aquiline nose and everything.
“I’m only getting started.” Lulu put a hand on her hip. She had never been cowed by that look when Mrs. Bachmann gave it, and she wouldn’t quaver before it now. Except as she jutted her hip, Lulu’s jelly legs finally gave out. She wobbled once, then simply toppled to the ground. She landed with her legs splayed and her tailbone potentially bruised. She could already tell she was going to feel wonderful tomorrow, even if the liquor was taking the edge off tonight.
Audrey sighed. She bent over, holding out her hands. Lulu pushed herself up halfway, then accepted the offering. Audrey yanked Lulu to her feet.
“I need a fresh drink,” said Audrey at the same time as Lulu said, “I need some air.”
The two stared at each other for a long, silent moment.
“I just need to breathe, Audrey Louise,” said Lulu. “I’m not sick or anything. Closets aren’t as roomy as they look. Swear.” Lulu held out her pinkie.
Audrey groaned but locked it with her own. They touched thumbs and twisted their hooked pinkies apart. That was still sacrosanct between them.
“Be good,” Audrey said, her tone still sharp. Judgment came so easily to her.
“I always am.” Lulu was sure of her success. It’s not like she could get into much trouble outside.
* * *
The back corner of the large, rectangular pool was banked by reclining chairs—not the blue kind you’d find at a community pool. These were impossibly white and elegantly shaped. Still, they were slatted, and Lulu anticipated the wide, cherry-red stripes that they would imprint onto the backs of her thighs. She sloshed her foot through the pool briefly before she flopped onto one of them. She sprawled out, trying to relax. A littering of plastic cups indicated that whatever crowd had been out here had already migrated back in again, deterred by the wet, heavy air of Southeast Texas.
Wet, heavy air that was becoming a problem.
Though the season was technically fall, summer lingered. The humidity that stifled her breath also pushed her previously tamed mane outward into puffy spirals. She was not Lo—and everyone called Dolores Campo Lo—who never let humidity alter her appearance. No, Lulu’s hair would be ruined. A necessary casualty of the evening, along with her tailbone and her pride. Lulu closed her eyes; she was going to ride the melt. At least until the spinning stopped.
A scraping noise sounded—metal on concrete. Lulu’s eyes flew open. Around the corner of the pool and three chairs over from her, the boy she’d run into upstairs was adjusting the back of one of the recliners to a more upward position.
Or, he was trying to. The metal must have been stuck in its hinges, rusted over from the humidity. Lulu watched as he dragged the chair back and forth, trying to jiggle the joint free. But the chair would not come unstuck from its current position. That piercing, grating noise continued.
Lulu coughed. The boy’s head snapped up. His eyes widened momentarily with recognition. He must have thought she’d been passed out. He must have wanted to avoid any interaction. Lulu swiped her teeth with her tongue, waiting. He eyed her, then the chair in his hands, seemingly unsure of what he should do next.
Lulu pointed two chairs over from herself. “That one’s already in the upright-and-locked position.”
The boy stood frozen like a deer in the headlights. Or a cartoon rabbit caught in the gaze of a hypnotizing snake. Lulu didn’t look away. She bit the inside of her mouth to prevent a smile from creeping across her face. Finally, she raised her eyebrows. That broke the spell. He moved to the chair she’d indicated. Lulu turned back to face the pool.
Out of the corner of her eye, she continued to watch him. He stretched his body out along the lounge chair, crossing his long legs, one over the other, and resting his hands behind his head. There was no fluidity in his movements. His height must have been newly acquired. He wore a short-sleeved undershirt as a shirt. A patch of skin flashed for a moment above his jeans—soft and pale. A curious impulse flashed: to reach out and touch him there. Who knows what would happen if she did. Lulu rolled her hands under her. She could still hear Audrey’s piercing shrill ringing through her head. No need for another lecture tonight.
“Good call.” His deep, gravelly baritone had no slur whatsoever. “On the chair.”
“Yes,” Lulu deadpanned as she recovered her wits. The tone of his voice had hummed through her. Keep it together for five minutes, Saad. “They tell me that all the time. So many good calls.”
“Full of wisdom?”
A low laugh built in Lulu’s throat. “A font of it. They will remember me as Lulu the Wise.”
“Lulu,” he said. “That’s got to be short for something.”
Lulu sighed. “Leila. It’s short for Leila.”
And, right on cue, the boy began to wail, “Layyyylaaaaa,” like he was Eric Fucking Clapton. He looked over, a grin spreading across his face until it crinkled into the corners of his eyes. He caught Lulu’s eye. The singing immediately stopped. “Bad call?”
“Horrendous? Why horrendous?” But there was no demand in his tone. “Please.”
Lulu turned over onto her side to face him fully. He just looked at her, his face wide and open. Her pretty smile fell. Raw honesty wasn’t something Lulu got much of in her neck of the woods. She stared, waiting for the sarcastic bite, the playful joke to his words. The light from the pool glimmered across his face. And his round, unflinching eyes just kept on staring. As if the rabbit could transfix the snake.
“I’ve never wanted any man on his knees, not really. Or worrying some kind of ease, or whatever the lyric is. I dunno. I don’t wanna be Leila, or Carmen, or Belle de Jour. I just want to be me. Without some dude strumming a guitar or writing an opera or filming a movie trying to tell me how to do that. The singing reminds me that no matter what I go by somebody is gonna step in and remind me what some obsessed asshole thinks of my name. Reminds me that Clapton’s Layla is cruel and Bizet’s Carmen dies. So Lulu. That’s me. It’s mine. And it’s just as real as any other fiction. No serenade required.” Lulu took a deep breath. She’d managed to run out of air by the end of her confession. She didn’t expect him to understand, because the only person who really got it was Lo.
“Okay, Lulu,” he said. “I’m James.”
Lulu held out her arm and gave a pretend handshake in the air. “Why don’t I know you?”
“Just moved back from Florida.”
“I’d never have pegged you for a Florida type.”
His mouth twitched upward. “And I’d never have pegged you for a Buñuel type.”
“What’s a bunwell?”
“Luis Buñuel? You know, the director of Belle de Jour, the movie you were just complaining about?”
Recognition flitted through Lulu’s mind. Damn. “Not a fan. Or a type. I’ve just been taking French forever. And you know how French teachers are: they don’t want you only to speak French, they want you to know what it is to be French. Hence the French opera and the French cinema. And sometimes French rap.” Lulu nodded seriously and furrowed her brow with exaggerated severity.
“Guess it worked, though. I mean, you made an artsy film reference at a house party.”
“God, you’re depressing,” said Lulu, but without any real conviction. “I hated the movie, but sometimes things you hate stick with you, you know?”
Lulu waited for an answer. Frogs hidden in the grass around the pool croaked in a vibrating, syncopated rhythm. A slow, heavy breeze blew through humid air. Better than nothing, but still sticky and frizz-inducing. A whispering, slithering sensation crawled up Lulu’s spine. She ought not to have confessed to him. She ought to have stayed hidden. She stared at the pool until her gaze went fuzzy and wide. Her vision transformed into a blur of blue and white light.
The pool snapped into focus. She turned to James. Keen, wide eyes watched her.
Lulu took a deep breath, because Emma would have told her to take a deep breath. Emma Walker was always reminding Lulu to take deep breaths. But the deep breaths weren’t helping, and she wasn’t going to play this game and lose in public. She stood up, gripping the back of the nearest chair to steady herself. “Oh, what. Am I not like the other girls?”
“That’s not what I said.” James frowned.
Good. Lulu was snatching the conversation out from under him. He didn’t know it yet, but from watching his face, he sensed it. Lulu backed away from him. “Isn’t it?”
James stood. He stared for a long moment. “You’re twisting my words.”
He didn’t know the half of what she was capable of twisting. Lulu took one more step back. She could picture Emma’s disappointment, Audrey’s judgment, and Lo’s joy at the plan forming in her mind. “You said I was different. Not like the other girls. Not like everyone else you saw in there, including my best friends. Different. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes. No.” James took a step toward her, between her and the edge of the deep end. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Explain it to me, then. Since I’m too stupid to understand.” Lulu smiled so she could bare her teeth.
James crossed his arms. “You know? I don’t think I will.”
And that was it—Lulu’s cue.
Lulu took two steps forward and she shoved James hard. Somehow he didn’t expect it. And then everything happened in slow motion. Lulu watched as he lost his balance and flailed once—no, twice—then splashed into the pool behind him. She smirked.
Lulu watched for James to come up for air, but she didn’t see him. It was the deep end, after all. Maybe he had to swim to the surface. But she didn’t see any bubbles anymore. Lulu waited a beat. And another. He couldn’t have hit his head. The pool was too deep here, at least eight feet. She’d only been trying to push him away. Not harm him. She couldn’t kill a boy. Not tonight. And not this one.
He still hadn’t come up for air, though.
Lulu swallowed. She hadn’t marked the time when she’d pushed him in. Not that she remembered the difference between a normal amount of time or a not-normal amount of time to be submerged in a pool. That slithering down her spine made a tight grip on her breath, made her fingers tingle, made her head spin. There was only one thing left to do.
Lulu dove in.
She saw James at the bottom of the pool—his limbs sprawled out and his head down. Lulu grabbed for him and swam to the surface, kicking with all her might. She gasped when she reached the top. He was much heavier than she could have anticipated. Dead weight. Except he wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be dead. It was not possible for him to be dead. No one was dead. Except the already dead people, wherever they were.
Treading water in the middle of the pool, Lulu didn’t know what to do. He hadn’t gasped at the top. She didn’t see any blood—so maybe he hadn’t hit his head. Everything was fine. Tonight was going swimmingly. Lulu choked on a laugh. Chlorinated water burned through her nostrils.
Why, oh why, hadn’t she paid attention the day they did CPR training. All she remembered was laughing as Lo licked the mannequin in front of the class. It had seemed terribly funny at the time. Not so, anymore. Lulu swam for the closest edge, the oversized boy filling her arms. Lulu didn’t know how she was going to hoist him over the tile ledge onto the concrete.
That’s when James’s head snapped up and he looked straight at her. “Never be a lifeguard. I would’ve been dead sixty seconds ago.”
Lulu had heard the expression “seeing red” before. But she’d never before had red flicker into the edges of her vision. Never known that her rage could light through her in that way. She scrambled out of the pool. James followed. He was laughing. She’d nearly killed him and he was laughing. Lulu put her hands on her knees. She almost vomited. She took two deep breaths. The nausea dissipated a little. One more deep breath and she found her footing again.
“You!” she screamed. She tried to think of all the curses she knew in all the languages she knew them. But her mind blanked. All she could get out was, “You!”
He was laughing harder now. Lulu didn’t think; she started swinging.
“How. Dare. You.” She was punching wildly, but effectively. “I am going to kill you. Murder you. I thought I had killed you.”
James had, by this point, put his arms up to cover his face. “Ouch! It was only a joke.”
He backed away, making space between them. Lulu didn’t give chase. She stood there sopping wet and breathing heavy, her hands balled into fists.
“Fair’s fair. You pushed me into the pool,” James said.
“And there’s no way you did anything to deserve that!” Lulu’s voice echoed into the night.
James remained silent on that point. The sound of dripping reverberated across the lawn. Lulu looked down. She was all wet. This was going to be difficult to explain. Particularly to Audrey’s mother. To any mother.
Lulu did what she could given the situation: she gave him the finger. Then she stalked away with as much grace as she could muster. She could hear the sad sloshing against the pavement as she walked. It did not feel dignified. At least she hadn’t stuck out her tongue. That would have brought shame onto the family. She was her mother’s daughter; there were standards to be upheld. Lulu dripped her way through the house, grabbing her purse in the kitchen and heading out the door. Everybody stared. Lulu didn’t blame them. She held her chin high, though. At least she didn’t need to text Audrey to meet by the car. Rumor had worked faster than data service.
Once Audrey caught sight of Lulu, she screeched, the disbelief raw on her throat. “You had better hope my mother is asleep.”
Lulu’s hopes came to nothing. Mrs. Bachmann was wide-awake for the girls’ entrance. The night did not get any better from there.
Copyright © 2018 by Aminah Mae Safi