"Aaargh, we be pirates!"
Rachel giggles but Jason rolls his eyes. "Are you going to shut up any time soon?"
I catch the video store's glass door before it slams in my face. Jason's scanning the shelf of new releases when I catch up. "That wasn't very nice." I poke his arm and he turns to glare at me.
"Can I help you?" the clerk asks. It's deserted in here and he's got a magazine spread open on the counter.
"We're just looking," Michael says quickly, bringing up the rear with Alex, "Let's keep it down, okay Kenley?"
Geeze, I'm making as much noise as Jason. Why does he always single me out? I wander over to the animated films section with Rachel and Alex to look at Disney movies. Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Jungle Book. The downside to having two younger siblings is that I've seen all these movies a gazillion times. Rachel's really into the princess stuff though.
"What do you think?" Rachel holds up Sleeping Beauty. Alex has 101 Dalmatians in his hands.
I've got no respect for a girl that keels over from touching a spindle, poisoned or not, and the sheer number of moving black spots in Alex's movie makes my head dizzy. "Do we have to pick a Disney movie?" I ask, even though I know the answer is yes. Michael screens every movie that we pick for minimum violence, bad language, and entertainment value. From the corner of my eye, I spot my movie. I was hoping Mother would come with us to Blockbuster instead of Michael but she's stuck at Pizza Hut, waiting for our order. She said this morning we could rent Pirates of the Caribbean but Michael might be a little trickier to convince. But it's in the Disney section! That's like an automatic stamp of approval in Michael's book, right? I pick up the case and follow Alex and Rachel over to where Michael's standing with Jason in front of the new releases.
We surrender our movies to him and he flips to the back to read the synopsis and rating information. After he gives his okay, we'll vote for one and if there's a tie, he breaks it. With Michael, deciding on a movie is a highly structured process. I'm surprised he doesn't hand us little squares of paper and golf pencils to write down our choice so we can do blind voting.
"Uh…I don't think so," Michael says when he gets to Pirates, "I don't think your mother would approve."
Obviously, Michael doesn't know my mother. "She won't care. She told me it was okay this morning."
"Did she now?
Aaargh, pirates. "Yeah," I say, "she did."
"The movie is PG-13. Alex is too young."
Is Michael seriously going to argue with me about what my mother will and will not approve of? I've known her for sixteen years. He's known her for what, a year, maybe? Besides, Mother lets Alex watch gruesome dinosaur cartoons all the time. If he can handle a T-rex gnawing on the neck of a stegosaurus, then he's old enough to watch mock sword play.
"Rachel and Jason are both barely over age too," Michael continues.
He's such a stickler for the rules. I bet he's never jaywalked in his life. He wouldn't let Rachel go with me to the youth group dance a couple weeks ago because it was for kids in ninth grade and up, even though everyone ignores the age restriction and there were plenty of other eighth graders who came with friends too. "Jason's going to be fourteen next month."
"Leave me out of this," Jason mumbles. He scrapes his sneaker along a balding patch of carpet.
A Pirates of the Caribbean poster is on the wall above the new releases. The skull on the poster smirks at me. "The movie isn't scary. I hate scary movies and I saw this at a friend's house and I was okay."
Michael sighs, lips drawn tight, air expelled from his nostrils. "Let's try to find something suitable for everyone, okay?"
Why doesn't he believe me that Pirates is a tame movie? He always acts like I'm trying to give him a bad rep with Mother. I mean, he's not my favorite person in the word, but I'm not actively trying to sabotage their relationship or anything. Why does he always assume the worst about me?
"So the choices are Sleeping Beauty or 101 Dalmatians. Okay let's vote. All those in favor of Sleeping Beauty, raise your hands…"
"What did you kids rent?" Mother asks a few minutes later as I settle next to her on the wooden bench. It's almost six and Pizza Hut is starting to fill with the dinner crowd. I watch a waitress lead a family to a booth: mom, dad, a kindergarten-age boy, and a toddler girl. The little girl's shock of gold hair is tied up with pink ribbon, and the bow bobs up and down as she wobbles after her brother in patent leather mary janes.
"Kenley, what did we rent? Your mother's asking."
Why doesn't Michael answer himself? Aaargh, pirates. "101 Dalmatians," I recite, "Alex picked it out."
Michael looks from me to Mother. "She wanted to rent Pirates of the Caribbean."
"Oh," Mother says, "that's our pie." I scramble off the bench and follow her to the cash register to stop myself from glaring at Michael. I let the subject drop after Alex's stupid movie won. Why does he feel the need to keep bringing it up? The girl behind the counter slides the box towards me and I put my hand on the smooth cardboard, inhaling the just-baked pizza smell. Breathe in, breathe out. Michael doesn't mean to be a prick.
"Hey, I thought it was you! What's up?"
Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy Millikan. Dressed in black pants and a red collared shirt, a black cap with the Pizza Hut logo jammed on his head. What are the chances?
I'm queen of the world. I'm queen of the world and I can turn David Gallagher into a midget if I want to, because you know, I'm queen of the world. Queen KT. "Hi," I squeak.
A sharp jab lets me know that my blasé tone has failed. "Classmate?" Mother asks. The girl behind the counter stops digging through the cash register tray long enough to look from me to Jeremy too.
"Yeah," he answers. He leans across the counter, extending his arm. "Jeremy Millikan," he says, shaking Mother's hand, "It's nice to meet you Mrs. Bo—"
"—Medileaguer," Mother corrects, "I kept my maiden name."
Jeremy greets her again, with the right name, stumbling a bit over the pronunciation, but Mother smiles at the repeated formality.
Oh, man. Shoot me please. Shoot me and put me out of my misery. The only thing I'm queen of is awkward social situations. "I didn't know you worked here," I blurt out. Had I known, I would've never set foot inside this restaurant in the first place.
He shrugs. "Just started two weeks ago. You come here often?"
"Every Friday, around six," the girl behind the counter tells him and then smiles at me too. What's up with all the smiling today? I can't smile back because it might come out as a wince.
"Yep," Mother says, "We're regulars."
I imagine myself melting into the floor, becoming one with the tiles.
"Cool," Jeremy says, "Maybe I'll see you around some other time too." Cue the smile.
"KT and Jeremy sitting in a tree. K.I.S.S.I.N.G. First comes luuuuurve…"
"Mo-ther," I give up on trying to drown Jason and Alex out with the car radio, "Make them stop!"
She complies but I think on some level, she's sadistically enjoying my discomfort. Jason and Alex have been teasing me nonstop since we left Pizza Hut. "He did seem like a nice boy," she says as we turn into our quiet neighborhood.
"I bet you would say that if he were an ax murder," I mutter.
She ignores me. "Polite manners, has a job-sense of responsibility, pretty good looking…" I snort. She says that about every boy I know that she meets. Mother pauses. "Don't you think Jeremy is good looking?" She knows very well that I think he's cute.
"Mo-ther," I say, embarrassed that we're having this conversation in the first place, never mind that it's within earshot of my little brothers.
"You say that about every boy."
"I do not."
"Yeah, you do," I say, "You even said that about…" David's red, sweaty face flashes into my mind "…David Gallagher."
"But he has such nice green eyes…"
"—No," I say, exasperated, "That's my point. David Gallagher is NOT cute by any stretch of the imagination. He's horrible." Mother glances at me and from the way her mouth is tucked up tight, I can tell she's trying hard not to laugh at me, which only makes me more edgier. "You know what he did today?" I say, even though I hadn't planned on telling her but too upset to censor myself, "You know how you gave me two packages of brownies?"
"Yes." Mother suddenly looks too interested for comfort.
Maybe this is a bad idea. But David really is horrible. She needs to know how much. "Well, I gave one pack to Jason and kept the other one. I ate the first one in the package in homeroom and saved the other for lunch but David ate it before I could stop him!"
Silent laughter. "David ate…brownie!"
I shoot her a look. My brownie loss is not supposed to be funny. My story is supposed to illustrate how incredibly annoying he can be. "You know what else he did?" I say, ready to list every single one of his grievances against me for today, starting with the very fact of his existence, "I have gym with him, right? Well, some guy hit me in the head with a ball and David told Jeremy."
Silent laughter continues. "You…got hit…and David…told…!"
Now, I'm pissed. "You know," I say, my voice tight as Mother cuts the ignition and waits for Rachel and Michael to pull into the driveway behind us, "Some mothers would actually be worried if their only daughter was hit in the head…"
"Oh, darling." She reaches over to fluff my hair.
"And some mothers would actually have the decency not to laugh if their daughter's brownie was stolen…"
"My little Kenley Tristan," she taps my nose like I'm two, "How will I ever bare to part with you?"
My annoyance flips off like a switch. "I'm not going to leave you." I try to put some of the old exasperation back into my tone but I don't really succeed. I hate it when she says stuff like that. I shrug her off and get out of the car. She gets out too and starts towards the house but then turns around and catches my hand, smiling.
As I sink into the couch next to Rachel, I can feel the four slices of pizza I had for dinner settle into my stomach like boulders rolling off a steep cliff. Alex crawls on to the arm rest next to me and wiggles into the leftover space, elbowing me for a good measure.
"Beans," I groan. I close my eyes, on the verge of a food coma, "Stop moving."
Alex jabs me in the stomach, hard. "You can't go to sleep. The movie hasn't even started yet!"
I open my eyes and give him a look. 101 Dalmatians was the same the first thirty-three times I saw it. I doubt the movie will change on the thirty-fourth viewing. If he expects me to stay conscious for the whole film, he'll be sorely disappointed. Jason sticks his head out from behind the television stand. "I can't hook the DVD player up," he says. A dust bunny falls out of his hair.
Michael, who's drinking coffee with Mother at the kitchen table, jumps up to help, eager to show off his electronic skills. The television fizzes for a minute, black and white snow, and then goes back to a blank screen. Every Friday, we rent a movie. Every Friday, we have to hook the DVD player up. Every Friday, this quick switch of plugs takes about twenty minutes. And if Michael dives in, it takes double the time. I close my eyes again.
"Darling," Mother taps my shoulder, her hand warm. "would you please go help Michael and your brother?"
Heck, no. Last month, Michael nearly broke the cable cord. The thought of Tuesday nights without Gilmore Girls freaked me out and I yanked the cords away from him so quickly that he stumbled backwards. When he tried to take them back from me, I told him that he should sit down and be quiet. He wasn't too happy. Neither was Mother. She made me apologize and now I stay out of the way. Even though being grounded sucks, who knows what I'll say if Michael does something stupid again.
"They'll figure it out."
Now it's a command instead of a suggestion. Aaargh, pirates. I sigh and open my eyes, pushing myself off the couch. I poke my head behind the television stand. "Can I help?" Michael's kneeling, holding the wrinkled DVD manual in one hand and a cord in the other. Jason's leaning against the wall, mouth twisted with exasperation.
"Go sit down. We've got it under control." Michael doesn't look up. Guess he hasn't forgotten about last month either.
Jason rolls his eyes and steps over Michael's prone figure. "Here." He thrusts a handful of cords at me, "You figure it out."
In the jumble, there's three differently colored cords: purple, yellow, and red. Michael has a black cord and he's trying to shove it into the negative node. No wonder this is taking so long. I'm practically failing physics and even I know the black wire is always the positive one. "Michael," I say, holding out the red cord, "try this one."
"I'm following the manual."
"Just try the red one," I say, waving it around. He still doesn't look up. I take a step closer and dangle it in front of his face.
"Kenley." He bats it away. "Go sit down. I'm going to fix it."
"You're using the wrong cord," I say.
"The manual says to use this one."
Michael and his manuals. I wonder if he used a manual the first time he asked Mother out. "It's not the right one," I insist.
"Please go sit down."
Aaargh, pirates. "It's not the right one," I repeat. Making a mistake is one thing. Refusing to fix the error when you know the solution is just plain dumb.
"Would you like to see the manual?" Michael holds out the folded sheets of paper, still not looking at me.
I don't budge. "The black cord is positive. The red cord is the negative one."
Michael stands and thrusts the manual so close to my face that I could probably read the diagram without my glasses. "See," he points at the text, "it says to connect the black cord to the negative node. The red one isn't for the DVD player. It's for the speakers, which aren't set up either."
I know the speakers aren't set up. Dad unplugged them all before he moved out. Why does Michael talk to me like I'm Alex's age?
"Go sit down, Kenley." Michael bends back down again, black cord in hand.
"That's not the right—"
The television makes a popping noise. Alex whoops over the Disney theme. "It works!"
Two hours later, after Pongo and Perdita make it home with their ninety-nine puppies, Alex insists that we play Battleship. Since it's almost his bedtime, I give in when he begs and Rachel agrees to play with me while Michael gets recruited for Alex's team.
"Miss." Michael nudges Alex. "Fine," Alex says, "Hit."
"Alllright!" I high-five Rachel.
Alex scrunches up his forehead. "This isn't fair!" he protests, "You and Rachel can't be on one team."
"Why not?" I bet he's going to give me a stupid answer.
Pft, seven-year-old logic. Rachel glances at her dad and Michael opens his mouth to cut our argument short but I beat him to the punch. "Fine," I say, "if Rachel and I can't be on a team, then you and Michael shouldn't either."
"Wait a minute," Michael says, "maybe—"
"—But you're older than me! Michael has to be on my team. You and Rachel are waaaay bigger."
"Actually," I do some quick mental math, "with our combined ages, you and Michael are waaay older than me and Rachel. No offense or anything," I say to Michael.
He looks perplexed. He's horrible at ending arguments. If this were Mother, she would've had us both quiet by now. "Kids, maybe—"
"—Are not!" Alex's always indignant when he doesn't get his way.
"Are too. Count it, Beans. I'm sixteen. Rachel's thirteen. Together, we're twenty-nine. And you're seven. And Michael's forty-something? So that's at least forty-seven right there."
Alex starts ticking numbers off his fingers to check my math and I sigh. He's a slow counter, especially if it's numbers greater than ten.
"Actually," Michael finally cuts in, "I'm only thirty-nine. But maybe one of you girls should bow out. It is rather unfair."
"KT," Mother says from across the living room, "come here." She pats a spot on the couch next to her.
I ignore her. "You're supposed to be helping Alex," I say to Michael, "And you're doing a terrible job." So far, all he's been good for is making sure Alex doesn't cheat, which is more like helping me and Rachel. He's not making suggestions about where to guess or anything. "It's no wonder you guys are losing. You're a useless partner."
Michael looks taken aback and looks over to my mother for help. He's so lucky that Rachel's his only child. My brothers and I would probably tear him apart if he didn't have Mother to hold us all in check.
"KT," Mother says again.
Why is everyone picking on me today?
Why do I have to be sorry for being honest? "Well, it's true," I say.
For the second time tonight, it's a command and not a suggestion. "No." Aaargh, pirates.
Alex looks gleeful because he knows I'm in huge trouble, Rachel's brows are knitted together, Michael's mouth is wide open with incredulity, and Mother…Mother's eyes are tired and the tiny lines on her face that I swear to her aren't there are clearly visible.
"I'll go." Rachel stands up, crosses the living room, and settles into my spot next to Mother.
Pirates, pirates, pirates.
"Great," I say, my tone harsh even to my own ears, "Let's play then. Your move, Alex."
It's almost one-thirty in the morning and Mother and Michael are still talking downstairs, their voices a low hum. I'm in pajamas, sitting cross-legged on my bed, messing with my dominos collection. I have over a thousand of them, from a bunch of different sets, crammed into old cookie tins and plastic pretzel containers. I don't play dominos. I just like lining them up along the walls of my room, like I'm in one of those fantasy novels and a circle of rocks will ward away evil. When I'm done, I tap the one nearest to the door and the whole chain crashes down. I do different sections of my room over a week—the bookcase on Monday, inside the closet on Tuesday—and sometimes forget to connect them. Then the chain stops and there isn't a good ending crash, just an incomplete section still left standing.
I should be asleep. Dad's picking me, Jason, and Alex up at eleven tomorrow for lunch and I wanted to get up early to finish my math homework. My chest feels tight and my stomach aches. I want to be hugged, I want to be tapped on the nose, I want to be my mother's good girl. Finally, I hear the front door shut and footsteps up the stairs. I dive under the covers, sending the dominos flying, but I don't care.
I mumble back a sleepy-sounding answer.
"KT, can I come in?"
She waits a few seconds before pushing the door open, her footsteps muted on the thick carpet. I pull the covers up over my head.
"Oh, very convincing." She sits down on the edge of my bed and plucks a red domino from the folds of my blanket, dropping it into the bin on my nightstand, "Do you really expect me to believe that you manage to sleep with your dominos all over your bed?"
"I love my dominos," I mumble even though I know I can't hide forever. She yanks the covers off my head and I roll over to face to wall so I don't have to look at her.
"C'mon," she says, untangling me from the blanket, "Let's get this cleaned up." I don't budge. "KT." It's my name but it's the tone she usually directs at Alex. There's a sour taste in my mouth but I brushed my teeth earlier. Maybe I should brush them again. I roll off the bed, grab my glasses off the nightstand, and pad towards the door. "Where are you going?"
"Bathroom," I say without turning around, "I forgot to brush my teeth." I don't wait for a response before heading across the hall. I pop out my retainer and load up the bristles of my toothbrush with minty toothpaste. Mother appears in the doorway the second I stick the toothbrush in my mouth. She doesn't say anything, which means she's waiting for me to talk. I scrub at my front teeth and then my molars. What a funny word, molars. Moles, molars, molarity. I spit and foam fills the sink.
"Did something happen at school today?"
Head injury and complete humiliation…nothing out of the ordinary. I rinse my mouth and the water feels ice cold and smooth.
"No." I brush past her. In my room, my dominos have been cleaned up and the bed's been remade. I climb in and flick off the light. Mother reappears and twists the knob back on. The buttery yellow light makes her shadow seem longer than her actual height and for the first time in my entire life, she looks too big to fit in my U-shaped, pink-and-lime-green room. My stomach aches again. "Tuck me in?" She did every night until I was seven. She fit into my room then.
The line on her forehead deepens but she remains unmoving, rigid next to the dresser. "Aren't you a little old?"
Both her feet remain planted on the ground. "What happened today? This isn't like you."
My blankets are cold again. Leave for five minutes and they lose all their heat. "Never mind," I cocoon myself, "I can do it. Goodnight." I pull the covers over my head and then three, four, five, seconds tick by until Mother flicks off the light and shuts the door.