In December 1992, three groups of teenagers head to the theater to see the movie version of the famed Eons & Empires comic books. For Adam it's a last ditch effort to connect with something (actually, someone, the girl he's had a crush on for years) in his sleepy Florida town before he leaves for good. Passionate fan Sharon skips school in Cincinnati so she can fully appreciate the flick without interruption from her vapid almost-friends, a seemingly silly indiscretion with shocking consequences. And in suburban Chicago, Phoebe and Ollie simply want to have a nice first date and maybe fool around in the dark, if everyone they know could just stop getting in the way.
Over the next two decades, these unforgettable characters criss-cross the globe, becoming entwined by friendship, sex, ambition, fame and tragedy. A razor-sharp, darkly comic page-turner, In Some Other World, Maybe sheds light on what it means to grow up in modern America.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
After serious pursuits of literature at Northwestern (BSJ) and Ohio State (MFA), SHARI GOLDHAGEN discovered she had a knack for sifting through celebrity trash and worked as a gossip writer for publications including The National Enquirer, Us Weekly, and Life & Style Weekly. And her articles on pop culture, travel and relationships have appeared everywhere from Cosmopolitan to Penthouse. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and MacDowell and is the author of the widely-praised novel FAMILY AND OTHER ACCIDENTS. She currently lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.
Read an Excerpt
1: three blue-eyed girls go to the movies
CORAL COVE, FLORIDA
Adam Zoellner has 266 days left.
The first day of kindergarten at Coral Cove Elementary, Adam shoved Sean Dooley into a wall of cubbies when Sean called him a bastard. He wasn’t entirely clear of the word’s meaning; he just knew his grandfather sometimes used it when arguing with his mother after everyone thought he was asleep, knew it was somehow a slam on his mom. Sean pushed back, and Adam’s nose smashed into oatmeal-colored concrete—blood droplets splashing on linoleum flooring. Adam was biting Sean’s forearm when Mrs. Krass rushed from the art easels to intervene. The school didn’t have a full-time nurse, so a teacher’s aide walked Adam, nose pinched with a brown paper towel, to the assistant principal’s office.
The bleeding had long stopped, but at the assistant principal’s insistence, Adam was still sitting with his head back when his mother charged in a half hour later. Wearing a monogrammed butcher’s apron from her parents’ ice cream shop, she was twenty-five and ludicrously beautiful. With anger coloring the apples of her cheeks, she scooped Adam into her arms.
"Ms. Zoellner." The assistant principal stood, and even at five, Adam recognized the hint of desire in the man’s voice, a different tone entirely than the one he’d used when lecturing Adam about using words to resolve conflicts.
"And for your information," his mother said, as if it were the next logical beat in conversation, "you lean forward for a nosebleed; otherwise, you can choke on blood."
She whisked Adam out before Mr. Clark could even apologize. Adam didn’t realize how upset she was until his mother was fastening him into the passenger seat of his grandparents’ station wagon, her light fingers examining his face. More than the silent tears dampening her cheeks, it was the panic in her eyes that pulverized everything inside of him—the first time he understood the awesome responsibility of being someone’s whole world.
"I’m okay, Mommy," he lied, pushing a smile. "It doesn’t hurt."
His mother calmed, called him her "good boy." Her terror abated, and her eyes reverted to their normal sad gray as she asked what happened, and he made up a story about fighting with Sean Dooley over the good crayons.
"I’m sorry," he said.
That was the moment Adam realized he was good at pretending, at convincing people he felt things he didn’t—the moment he decided he wanted to be an actor.
It was also the start of his internal countdown. The years, months, and weeks until he could leave their drowsy little Florida town forty-five minutes east of the beach and an hour southwest of Disney World.
The next day at school, Adam played nicely with the girls in the housekeeping area, avoided Sean altogether, and paid rapt attention to the alphabet exercises, even though his mother had already taught him to read. He did everything in his power to guarantee she never came racing into the assistant principal’s office again.
Thirteen years, he kept it up. Every aced test, drama club performance, fly ball caught in left field became one more rung on the ladder out of Coral Cove and the pressure of meaning too much to someone.
He has 266 days left.
A fat packet with his early admission agreement and scholarship information arrived from New York University two days ago, and classes start September 7—266 days.
Wearing his own monogrammed Sally’s Scoops apron, Adam is behind the counter at his grandparents’ ice cream shop on a Friday in mid-December, rereading the glossy college brochure for the fifth time and contemplating how he’s going to tell his mother.
On the ancient television in the corner, Nightly News shows images of president-elect Bill Clinton, and Adam can’t help but relate—boy from a small town gets out, a boy with a single mother.
She’ll understand; she tried to leave once, too.
So distracted, he almost doesn’t notice the rustling of red and green tinsel on the door when Molly Kelly walks in.
"I was hoping you’d be working." Molly smiles and threads black hair behind her ear. Two years ahead of him at Coral Cove High, Molly had played Sarah to his Sky in Guys and Dolls, Gwendolen opposite his Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest. He’d had a crush on her dating back nearly as far as the escape-plan countdown; she’d been dating Sean Dooley’s older brother almost as long. "It’s been, like, forever."
Sliding the packet of NYU information underneath the register, Adam lets Molly give him an awkward hug across the counter and asks how things are going at the local community college where she’s studying something.
"I’m actually taking this semester off." She shrugs, clavicle delicate in a blue cotton top that matches her eyes. "Working full-time at the diner, trying to save up and move out of my parents’ place."
Adam nods, says nothing about Kyle Dooley, and makes her a waffle cone of rocky road. It had been her favorite when she used to come by so they could run lines while he worked.
"You still qualify for the friends-and-family discount," he says, waving away her money.
"Aww, you’re too sweet." She takes a quick lick. "Speaking of free stuff, it’s, like, totally last minute, but do you wanna see Eons & Empires tonight? My manager’s kid got sick, so he gave me his tickets."
"I always liked the comics," Adam says, though he may be the only teenage boy in the entire Western world who’s never actually read one.
"Yeah, I’m kinda curious, and you and I haven’t hung out in a while."
He’s seen her exactly twice since she graduated—an impressive feat in a town of only twenty-five thousand people. A year ago she’d served him a turkey club at Coral Cove Diner, and then, a few months later, he’d spotted her making out with Kyle behind the hardware store next to Sally’s Scoops.
"It’s the eight o’clock show," Molly is saying. "I know I’m giving you, like, tons of warning."
The store closes at ten, and Friday is the biggest night of the week—kids from CCH and the college branch campus, couples on dates, and all the weekend tourists en route to the beach or amusement parks who wander into the shop to use the bathroom and stay to buy sundaes and Florida-shaped magnets. Closing even a few hours early will likely cost the store several hundred dollars. In all the years he’s been working at Sally’s, Adam has never complained that his grandparents pay him minimum wage, never yelled at unpleasant customers or pocketed money from the till; no one could ever say Anna Zoellner’s bastard son wasn’t responsible.
But it’s Molly Kelly, maybe the only thing he’s ever wanted that wasn’t a thousand miles north or three thousand miles west.
And if he goes out with Molly, he can delay going back to his grandparents’ house, having to walk past his mother reading one of her fat Russian novels on the couch. He won’t have to tell her about NYU, won’t have to tell her that he’s leaving.
"Sure." Adam grins; enough complete strangers comment on his smile that he’s pretty sure it looks good. "Let’s go to the movies."
Two hours later, Adam and Molly are in the third row of the sold-out one-screen theater three stores down from Sally’s, and he’s hyperaware of three things:
First, he hates the film—all special effects and nonsensical sci-fi about alternate Earths—with an Academy Award–winning actor wearing a bald cap and growling overwrought lines as the draconian Captain Rowen.
Second, Sean Dooley followed them from Sally’s and is seated behind him, eyes boring into the side of Adam’s skull. This could be because Adam is out with Molly (who may or may not be dating his brother) or Sean might still be pissed about last baseball season, when coach put Adam in at third base after Sean was expelled for cheating. It may honestly be a holdover from that first day of kindergarten; Sean is quite possibly the only person out of Coral Cove’s twenty-five thousand who doesn’t like Adam.
Third, Molly seems oddly engrossed in the movie, hand stalling midway between her mouth and the popcorn bag on the armrest between them.
Everyone in the theater collectively gasps at something happening on-screen. Molly taps her foot to his and wrinkles her nose. So very pretty. He nudges her foot back, notices the curve of her calf, and has absolutely no idea what happens during the rest of the film.
It’s after ten when the movie ends, and they tumble with the crowd into the parking lot toward Molly’s twelve-year-old Honda. Keys in hand, she makes no effort to unlock the driver’s side door.
"Do you wanna grab coffee or something?" he asks, even though the only place open is the diner where she works and Captain Ahab’s Bar, where everyone will know they’re not of age because everyone knows everyone’s business in Coral Cove.
"It’s such a nice night." She inhales deeply. "We could go to the beach?"
Molly fueled most of his masturbation fantasies in ninth grade, and though he’s not particularly proud of it, he was thinking of her when he lost his virginity to Dana Mott after homecoming sophomore year, thought of her all last spring when he was dating Abby Patterson. This time his smile is unconscious.
The drive takes nearly an hour, and they recount their performances on the CCH stage—the sanitized strip club from Guys and Dolls, how they took all the dirty words and cigarettes out of Grease.
"How about Nikki Summer, our pregnant Hot Box dancer? Like, I kept expecting Ms. Smithfield to make her drop out when she started showing, but no." Molly is shaking her head.
"It probably made for a more realistic strip club," Adam jokes. "Or so I’ve heard."
Even though Molly is laughing, Adam senses her brewing melancholy. She may have had a lovely voice and an amazing figure, but Molly never really was that great of an actress.
From the rearview mirror, her class of ninety-one tassel dangles: 266 days.
His mother will understand; she left after high school, too.
The closest beach isn’t the nicest, but when they arrive a few minutes past eleven, it’s still a haunting mix of inky sea and inky sky. Slipping off flip-flops, they walk for a while, close enough that their arms occasionally bump. When they reach the lapping fingers of the surf, they stop and stare at the vanishing point on the horizon.
Adam reaches for Molly’s hand.
She looks surprised, as if she hadn’t brought him here for exactly this.
"Whad’ya think of the movie?" she asks, but holds his fingers when he tries to let go of hers.
"It was really big," he says diplomatically.
"Yeah." Molly looks at the cycling waves. "My favorite part was when they showed all the different lives of the Snow sisters in all those other universes. Like how they got to be princesses and movie stars and doctors."
Adam doesn’t remember this but bobs his head in agreement.
"I mean, how cool would it be to get to do so many different things?"
Then he does recall the montage, a series of costume changes for the two lead actresses, their differing hair colors—one red, one blonde—standing in for character development.
He wonders if the reason those scenes didn’t stand out to him is because, since the second day of kindergarten, he’s always been everything to everybody in this universe. Only eighteen, and he’s already played a million different roles—class clown, class president, probably valedictorian in June. He can get high with the guys who grow pot in their basements as easily as he can make his grandmother laugh with a clean joke. Teachers are so charmed that he’s pretty sure they don’t even look at his work anymore before stamping an A, and tourists at Sally’s Scoops always pronounce him "such a nice young man." Nobody could ever say Anna Zoellner’s bastard son wasn’t an all-around good kid.
But apparently not everyone had that same jack-of-all-trades existence.
"It was like those girls had constant do-overs," Molly is saying.
"You’re just turned twenty," Adam says. "What do you need to do over?"
She shrugs, mumbles something about different experiences, which he assumes means not dating Kyle Dooley exclusively for centuries. "I dunno, maybe work harder in school, go away to college."
"You can do that. Just ace a semester at community and transfer."
"Nah, that stuff never came easy for me," she says. "I can’t, especially now."
He doesn’t ask what "now" means. It’s after midnight; he’s only got 265 days.
Apropos of nothing, she brightens. "You were always good at everything," she says. "Are you headed to Gainesville next fall?"
Wouldn’t that be easier? If he went to Florida or Florida State with the other kids at CCH who actually leave town to attend school full-time? He could come home on weekends to keep his grandparents’ shop in cheap, honest labor, could still eat China One takeout with his mother and talk to her about books when she got home from her job at the hospital, could continue making sure she never looked terrified over his well-being again.
He hadn’t applied anywhere within three hundred miles.
"I actually got a scholarship to NYU." It’s the first time he’s spoken this out loud.
Her happiness is so genuine, any annoyance he had over being dragged to the beach to not make out dissipates. "That’s amazing," she says. "You’re really going to do stuff, aren’t you?"
"Molly." He takes both her hands in his, squeezes; he’s always been good at convincing people of things that aren’t true. "You can do anything you want."
These must be the magic words, because when he leans in to kiss her, she doesn’t stop him but opens her mouth and hooks her fingers in the belt loops of his jeans to draw him closer.
"I always thought you had a thing for me," she says in the fractured seconds when their lips and tongues aren’t touching.
"Guess I didn’t hide it well."
She smells like sand and strawberries and baby powder. Yards and yards of silk skin under her flimsy tank top.
"Thought you were really cute, too," she says.
This is a bad idea.
Not because she may still be with Kyle Dooley—the Dooley brothers are the kind of over-athletic assholes who pepper John Hughes films. And not because Adam has been on a few dates with Joy Keller, and Joy might not realize he’s simply marking time.
It’s a bad idea because Molly clearly wants something, and he’s only got 265 days. Because 265 days is still a lot of time—enough to fall in love and apply to state schools and end up a teacher at Coral Cove High, directing musicals or coaching the subpar baseball team.
But it’s Molly Kelly.
Cock so hard it hurts, his eyes flutter closed. In the darkness the tide sounds the same as cars that pass on the highway facing his bedroom window, everyone on their way to somewhere better.
"Always liked you." Molly’s words muffled in the ever-diminishing space between them. Words he wanted seven hundred days ago, when he was a sophomore and she was a senior, when he didn’t have the escape route mapped out yet.
Hands beneath his shirt, she runs fingers across his stomach, around his sides. He trembles as she dips below the waist of his jeans. Does he even have anything? He’s not in the habit of bringing condoms to the ice cream store.
"What the fuck, Molly!" Two hundred feet away, a shout.
And then Sean Dooley—who’s got four inches and fifty pounds on Adam—is yanking him apart from Molly, while Kyle Dooley, who is even bigger, is standing next to her looking as though he might cry.
"What are you doing here?" Molly sounds truly outraged, which makes Adam feel slightly less used.
"You’re going out with freaking Zoellner?" Kyle says Adam’s name as if it’s a genital fungus and reaches for Molly’s elbow. "The punk who stole third base from Sean?"
"You had your idiot brother follow me to the movies, didn’t you?" Molly scrubs Kyle’s hand off her arm.
"It’s not like that. I was worried—"
"Leave me alone," she says.
"Molly—" Kyle looks monumentally sad, but Adam steps forward anyway.
"Look, she said she wants to be left alone—" he starts.
Sean cuts him off. "Zoellner, shut the fuck up!"
Adam does; 520 days ago he would have fought for Molly’s honor, staked a claim, done something. Tonight he tries not to sigh and waits to see how badly the situation will deteriorate.
"We’ll figure this out," Kyle is saying to Molly.
"I already told you what I want to do," she says, but sounds much less convinced.
"Can we just talk about it?" Kyle asks, and Molly lowers her eyes. "Lemme give you a ride home."
The rolling of the ocean.
"I can’t." Now she’s completely lost. "I drove, and Adam won’t have a way back."
"Sean can take him, can’t you?" Kyle asks.
The younger Dooley offers a creepy smile. "Sure, Mol. You and Kyle go back in your car, and I’ll make sure Z gets home."
"You would?" She looks to Sean, then seems to remember Adam is the one she needs to check in with. "No, I should take him home."
"I’m closer to Z’s house anyway," Sean offers.
"I don’t know," she says again, close to tears.
"It’s fine, if that’s what you want," Adam says, always good at convincing people of things that aren’t true.
"You’re sure?" she asks, and he nods. "Okay, I’ll give you a call tomorrow?"
Adam would bet his scholarship that he’ll never hear from her again.
With arrangements finalized and keys exchanged, the two groups start in different directions. When Molly and Kyle are no longer visible, Sean stops walking, and Adam realizes what should have been obvious ten minutes earlier.
"You’re not really giving me a ride," he says flatly.
Sean snorts; Adam sighs.
Burst of pain as Sean’s knuckles crack across his nose.
Adam’s eyes close, and he must bring his hands to his face, because there’s nothing blocking Sean’s fists from a series of quick jabs into his left side.
Swinging back blindly, bare feet slipping in the sand, Adam fails to connect with any part of the larger boy.
The last fight he was in, ironically with Sean Dooley, was thirteen years ago, and Adam is amazed at how stunningly bad he is. Apparently he’s not good at everything.
"Who’s the better third baseman now?" Sean demands.
If the statement weren’t immediately followed by a fist to his cheek, Adam would find it hysterical: There was never any question of who the better third baseman was. Adam was simply the third baseman who didn’t get caught with a crib sheet during a trig exam.
By sheer serendipity, Adam manages to duck the next body blow but trips on nothing, lands flat on his ass.
He must look extraordinarily pathetic, because Sean’s anger extinguishes to cold fear, perhaps realizing that assault is more serious than cheating on a math test. It’s a moment Adam could take advantage of. Sure, he feels like crap, but he can tell his injuries aren’t serious. He could kick Sean’s legs from under him or spring to his feet and exploit the element of surprise.
But he’s got only 265 days; Adam doesn’t need to prove shit to Sean Dooley or anyone in Coral Cove anymore.
So he stays down.
Blood falls from his nose, darker than the surrounding sand.
"Stay away from her," Sean says, but it seems halfhearted. He doesn’t bother kicking silt at Adam, doesn’t mumble "bastard" under his breath; he simply walks away.
Inching back on his elbows, Adam eases down until his head touches the ground and concentrates on the throbbing pulse on the left side of his face. Experimentally, he shifts his jaw, runs fingers over bruised ribs.
A slight chill in the air; it’s no longer hot at night. Florida does have seasons, but he’s never owned a winter coat, has only seen snow on TV.
Part of Eons & Empires had taken place during a nuclear winter; survivors trekking through falling ash and dead earth, everyone bundled in scarves and boots. For all its faults, the movie did a really good job of making it look cold; the New York University brochure is full of vibrant pictures of students walking the snow-covered city campus.
She’ll understand, she’s probably known for a long time.
After high school his mother had left to model or wait tables or go to school. She’d made it as far as Atlanta, lasted four years, and returned with a two-year-old son and no explanation. Anna Zoellner moved back into her parents’ house, worked at their store, got a nursing degree and a job at the local hospital, and never talked of leaving again.
Not sure how long he lies on the beach, Adam feels water licking his fingers when the tide comes in. His nose has long stopped bleeding when he finally stands.
It’s a fifteen-minute walk to the road, another ten before he finds a sports bar with lights on. Five minutes more of holding a quarter in the phone booth before he musters the courage to dial his mother.
The restaurant is family-owned, and it’s a brother and sister a few years older than him closing up. They hand him a paper cup of crushed ice for his rapidly swelling eye and let him sit in a booth while they flip chairs up onto the table tops and break down the soda machine.
Dagger of guilt over the ice cream shop he abandoned what seems like years ago.
Adam offers to buy something, but the siblings—both round and freckled—give him a plate of French fries, ask which school he attends.
And he wonders if his whole world would be different if his mother had ever dated anyone seriously (even with Adam, she got asked out constantly but rarely went), ever had other children. A sister to work alongside him at Sally’s Scoops? A brother to tag-team battle the Dooley boys? Someone to stay behind so his mom won’t be all alone with her books and aging parents, with whom she rarely agrees.
In her old VW Rabbit, his mother arrives in forty minutes flat. Her full lips thin when Adam slides into the passenger seat and she sees his face. He’s five years old with a bloody nose again.
"Baby?" she asks.
"It’s not as bad as it looks," he says, trying not to wince as she examines his cheek.
"I can run you to work—get X-rays to be on the safe side?" she asks, and he shakes his head. "Have you been putting ice on your eye?"
Adam holds up the cup of slushy water.
"Well, keep it on for ten minutes, then off—"
"I’m okay, really, Ma, it doesn’t even hurt," he says, as convincing at eighteen as he was at five.
She drives in silence, and he rests his arm on the door, leans out the window so he won’t have to look at her.
"Thank you for coming," he says over the rush of air. "I’m really sorry."
"I got into a fight, dumb high school stuff."
The car eats miles.
He shifts in the bucket seat, moans when the shoulder belt strains against his rib cage; his mother sighs.
"Sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?"
He shakes his head. "Do you maybe have any Advil?"
She hands over her purse, and he rummages through the contents—worn copy of Ulysses from the Coral Cove Library, pens without caps, dingy plastic picture holder with his Sears portrait as a toddler in denim overalls. He knows that behind that first photo is his school picture from every year. Finally, the white container with the blue label.
"If you can wait, there’s stronger stuff at home," she says.
"This is great." Shaking out three caplets, he starts to dry swallow them but feels her eyes on him and takes a sip of the melted ice to wash them down.
Thirty-eight and she’s still so beautiful, even with her dark hair pulled back in a messy ponytail and her makeup long faded.
Other than their slate-gray eyes, Adam and his mother look very little alike, his dimples and Roman nose genetic hand-me-downs from some man he’s never questioned her about; no one could ever say Anna Zoellner’s bastard son wanted more than the parent he had.
Molly Kelly is pregnant.
The realization hits so hard, he jerks upright and has to bear another worried glance from his mom.
At twenty Molly is the same age his mother was when he was born. And he has a vision of his mom alone (or maybe not alone) in an Atlanta apartment, deciding to have him, deciding to keep him. He wonders why but knows he’ll never ask, the same way he’ll never ask why she came back to Coral Cove, a place she probably didn’t fit in long before she was a single mother.
"Ma?" His voice wobbly.
Concerned again, she turns, clicks her tongue.
"I got into school in New York," he says like he’s choking, feels like he’s choking. "And I qualify for this big scholarship—covers everything."
"That’s wonderful." Tone light, but now she’s the one avoiding eye contact, gaze locked on the stretch of highway ahead of her.
The ache in his head and pain in his side are nothing compared to the sudden crush of his lungs, like he’s breathing through cheesecloth.
"I’m gonna go," he says.
He doesn’t realize he’s shaking until his mother pulls over to the shoulder of the road, unhooks her seat belt, and reaches across the gear console to run the back of her hand down the side of his face that isn’t purpling and unnaturally warm.
"Of course you are. You know how proud of you I am, right?"
"I … I’m so sorry."
"Shh, shh, s’okay, baby." Her fingers are cool on his cheekbone. "You’re my good boy."
The movie credits are still rolling when Sharon Gallaher, tears streaming down her face, decides she’s going to see Eons & Empires again.
Wiping her nose on the sleeve of her denim jacket, she checks her Swatch. It’s 2:15, thirty minutes before the next showing. She could probably hide in the bathroom and sneak into the theater without paying admission again, but she’s already skipped school; the last thing she needs is an irate manager calling her parents. So Sharon goes back to the box office and buys another ticket with the last five dollars in her wallet.
Afternoon on a Friday, this showing is more crowded than the first, and it takes a few minutes before she finds a spot in the back near two older boys talking about how the film probably won’t be as good as the comic books.
"Ed Munn didn’t want anything to do with the movie," the blond guy is saying. "He wouldn’t even let them list him as the creator."
He’s wearing a Walnut Hills ring, and Sharon realizes the boys are seniors at her high school. The dark-haired one’s locker is down the hall from hers—he sometimes wears a Star Trek shirt that says BEAM ME UP, SCOTTIE.
Bob of panic in her esophagus that they might recognize her. Then Sharon remembers she’s a freshman with only a handful of friends (most of whom are really only friends with Laurel Young—the daughter of her father’s business partner); these upperclassmen would have no idea who she is.
Still, the nervousness lingers as she settles into her chair and a preview starts for Jurassic Park. She worries the film will be less special this time with these reminders of her own reality so near. The sensation begins to fade when the film opens with bald Captain Rowen and Commander Bryce fighting over the Neutrocon (which makes alternate-universe travel possible), as their plane plummets toward the desert sand. Sharon is completely absorbed by the time Rowen throws open the aircraft’s hatch and jumps out, sans parachute, at the last minute.
Two years earlier Sharon read her first Eons & Empires comic book the way most twelve-year-olds probably examine their first Playboy—locked in a bathroom, heart tangling in her throat, fearful of being caught in the act of something naughty.
The couple next door had a weekly date night on Fridays (so completely different than Sharon’s own parents, who were far too practical for such an extravagance), and Sharon babysat the Robbins’ four-year-old son. After putting Elliott to sleep, Sharon would rummage through the Robbins’ bookcases, crowded with volumes crammed three deep—thin pamphlets of poetry, hefty Victorian novels, some books new, others with covers softened by age or notes marking specific passages. Her own house had only her father’s accounting textbooks and a handful of mass-market paperbacks by Mary Higgins Clark and Dean Koontz. Sharon told her friends (well, she told Laurel) that she took the babysitting gig because she needed money, but the truth was she actually preferred reading the Robbins’ books to going anywhere kids her age were headed.
That particular Friday, Sharon was putting back Lady Chatterley’s Lover (which she’d heard was scandalous but had found boring) when she noticed the stack of comic books behind Shakespeare’s Collected Works.
Eons & Empires, Issue 1: Rowen Rising was on the top of the stack, in a clear plastic sheath. The cover was a washed-out black with dozens of striking blue Earths of different sizes seemingly bouncing around the edges. In the foreground two women—one blonde and one redhead—clung to each other while a bald man in black and a buff guy in white clashed swords. The title and Ed Munn’s name were written in crimson across the top.
In the same way everyone knows a little about Spider-Man or Wonder Woman, Sharon had a passing familiarity with E&E. Knew Captain Rowen was the bad guy, Jason Bryce was good, twin sister scientists were in the mix, and it had to do with parallel universes and nuclear war. Still, she’d never actually seen the comic books, and holding the decade-old first issue from 1981 gave her a rush of warmth she couldn’t explain.
Even though it was date night and the Robbins wouldn’t be home for hours, Sharon tucked the issue into her purple book bag, went to the powder room, and bolted the door. Before reading the text she studied each panel—the artwork minimal and haunting, all grays and blacks in World 1, the other universes each a different color palette. It read like a book (a more interesting one than Lady Chatterley’s Lover, anyway). All about Commander Bryce and the Snow sisters traveling to the parallel Earths in the hopes of stopping Captain Rowen from blowing up North America in their own world. Midway through volume one Sharon realized she was dizzy from holding her breath.
It wasn’t that she could identify; it was the exact opposite. The world-hopping struggles between Rowen and Bryce had less than nothing to do with her own life in the suburbs. With her friends (well, Laurel and Laurel’s friends), whose universe was all about ballet flats and grades and getting asked to school dances. With her parents, who were still married to each other, had one cocktail at precisely 6:30 after work each night, paid their taxes, and were absolutely adequate and innocuous in every meaningful way. In E&E, things mattered, decisions had consequences, character was tested.
And Captain Rowen—wonderful, tortured Rowen—who wasn’t so much evil as misguided, who loved Cordelia Snow with all his heart no matter what universe they were in. Rowen was infinitely more interesting than any of the boys Laurel and Laurel’s friends found attractive.
For the next eighteen months, Sharon read and re-read every issue at the Robbins’ house on date night, even after Laurel and her friends began including Sharon more and more on trips to the mall and slumber parties. When the Robbins moved to Minneapolis, Sharon stole new E&E comics from the library or the racks of the Waldenbooks at Northgate Mall and hid them in plain sight among the mess of papers and clothing in her room. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the money to buy them—she’d saved almost everything from her babysitting gigs—it was about not wanting to share E&E with anyone, even cashiers and librarians. Talking about the comics had the potential to make those worlds less real, to weigh them down with the boredom of Cincinnati.
Two months earlier, Sharon, Laurel, and Laurel’s friends had seen Candyman at the Esquire Theater, and there had been a preview for the E&E movie. As the screen filled with the ash of nuclear winter and the dashing Jake James appeared dressed as Commander Bryce, Sharon had felt naked and exposed, everything in her digestive system chugging to a halt.
"Jake James is so hot," Laurel had whispered in her ear. "We should see that."
Sharon had made an affirmative sound. Movies Laurel’s friends saw were never about the film but about going to the bathroom in pairs to apply sticky pink lip gloss, about which of the older kids with a driver’s license might give them a ride to Pizza Hut or the Busy Bee afterward. Sharon understood and even had fun when the girls helped her apply blue shadow that matched her eyes or used their curling irons to give her straight black hair body. But the thought of seeing her Captain Rowen battling Bryce and his passion for Cordelia Snow while Laurel and Laurel’s friends discussed the attractiveness of the boys behind them was intolerable.
That was when Sharon began planning today. Taking a map from the glove compartment of her father’s Taurus, she plotted a course to the mall and checked The Enquirer daily in case the matinee listings changed. She’d even pretended to feel a little sick at school yesterday so her absence wouldn’t come as surprise.
Though her parents were usually busy getting ready for work when she left to catch the bus, Sharon made a point of saying good-bye and going out the front door. Instead of heading to the bus stop, she wandered the wooded area behind the house until both their cars were gone, then ducked back inside to call the school attendance office. She’d tried to take on her mother’s slight Midwestern accent as she pretended to be Sally Gallaher explaining why Sharon wouldn’t be coming in.
Cincinnati isn’t a city designed for walking—even downtown, and especially in her suburb right outside the limits—but the trip to the theater wasn’t bad. Before she and Laurel had quit Girl Scouts, Sharon had earned all the badges for reading maps and using compasses, and most of the journey had been a straight shot along the highway. It was an usually nice December day, where a jacket was sufficient, and although she brought an umbrella, she hadn’t needed it. The whole walk had taken little more than an hour; it was quite possibly the most daring thing Sharon had ever done.
As she watches the film again, Sharon notices subtle details. The filmmakers had kept the color palettes the same as in the comics, and much of the dialogue was lifted verbatim as well. She could have recited it along with the actors. And the boys from her high school are plain wrong; the movie is actually better than the comics.
When the credits begin after the second show and she wanders back into the mall, with its glittery holiday decorations and Victoria’s Secret smell, Sharon is not crying but bone-crushingly disappointed, pining for that world where everything was significant. That it will be another year and a half before the sequel comes out is as horrifying a thought as three more years of high school.
Even through the spray-can snow on the mall’s glass doors, Sharon can tell it’s darker outside than it should be at 4:30. Further inspection reveals that it’s pouring rain, the fat drops a little like the nuclear fallout in the movie.
At some point she must have lost track of her umbrella. She’s mentally retracing her steps when there’s a tap on her shoulder.
"You go to Walnut, right?" It’s the dark-haired senior from her school. A few feet behind him, his friend is talking to a trio of girls in Country Day uniforms.
"Yeah, I’m a freshman. I wasn’t feeling well this morning, so I didn’t make it in." Bites her tongue; sometimes, when she’s nervous, Sharon talks too much.
"Thought I recognized you. You’ve got those pretty eyes." The boy is tall and lean, has soft-looking ears and a fascinating mix of stubble and red bumps on his chin. She wonders what a girl like Laurel would say in return, what a girl is supposed to say.
"Did you like the movie?" he asks, and Sharon can hardly breathe. She can’t talk to him about Rowen and Cordelia’s tragic love story and the struggle to find the right universe that will allow everyone to save World 1, not here, where things are safe and comfortable, where the Gap is having a sweater sale and a Muzak version of "White Christmas" blends with the fountains.
"It was pretty good," Sharon mumbles, grabbing the door. "I need to go. My ride is waiting outside for me. It’s my parents here to get me."
She’s at the edge of the parking lot before registering how much colder it’s gotten since the afternoon and how hard the rain is coming down. But even if she had enough money for another umbrella, she’d run the risk of bumping into the guy again. Pulling the front of her jacket tighter, she hunches over and trudges toward the highway.
As she follows the grassy path along the shoulder of the road, everything feels slower than on the way there. There’s more traffic this time of day, so she moves farther from the highway, the ground mushy and hard to navigate. Water soaks through her sneakers and socks, every step like squishing cold Jell-O. In ten minutes the water-logged denim of her jeans goes from annoying to debilitating.
She thinks of Commander Bryce and the Snow sisters in the movie leading groups of survivors through the cold ash and burning sun of nuclear winter, and even through her own discomfort, there’s that stab of longing to be out of this world and in a more unpleasant one.
Another ten minutes and her teeth are chattering, hands stiff and numb.
She flirts with the idea of calling her parents. Obviously they’d never understand about E&E and Captain Rowen, but she could invent a story about a fight with Laurel and Laurel’s friends at the mall after school. Her mom especially seems to like it when she "gets out there" and does "normal" teenage things.
No phone booths anywhere.
Water stings her eyes, and she realizes she can’t keep going, might not even make it to the exit ramp thirty yards away. So Sharon just stops and feels sorry for herself.
An old station wagon with wood-paneled sides pulls to the shoulder of the road. The driver leans across the passenger seat to roll down the window.
"Where you headed?" asks a man, maybe fifty-something, with a salt-and-pepper beard.
She tells him Reading Road.
"It’s on my way," he says. "I can drop you."
He pops open the door.
For years, after-school specials and PSAs have spouted reasons not to get into cars with strangers, but none of them are as compelling as getting out of the freezing rain. Sharon slides in, instantly creating puddles on the cracked vinyl seats and floor mats.
"Thank you," she says, as welcome heat blows at her face from the vents.
So relieved, Sharon takes a few seconds—until the car is zipping at fifty miles per hour—to notice her surroundings. Smell hits first, something long past ripe and decaying. Then she glances behind her, where the whole long hatch of the car is filled: yellowing newspapers and plastic IGA grocery bags, oil-soiled rags, gardening tools with clumps of dirt clinging to sharp edges, what looks like the blade of a chainsaw. On the dashboard there’s a saint figurine, and rosary beads dangle from the rearview mirror along with a military-looking medal.
"Don’t worry, little lady," the man says when he notices her looking. "I’m not a religious zealot or anything."
"I wasn’t thinking that," she says politely, though his mentioning it makes her shiver again.
This close, she can see how dirty the driver is. Younger than she originally thought, but unkempt, with a brown, indiscriminate substance under ragged fingernails.
"This used to be my wife’s car, and she’d take it to church sometimes." The man is leaning toward her, familiar scent on his breath—the gin and tonic her father pours himself each night after work. "Lot of good all that praying did her, right?"
Sharon nods and tries not to let her mind wander to the tools and possible chainsaw in the back, not to make any unfounded connection between them, the presumably dead wife, and the smell.
"I’m only saying religion didn’t help her," says the man.
Through the windshield the world is eclipsed by curtains of rain and a fog of condensation from heat on old glass.
Get out of this car.
Shame strikes before fear. Her grades have always been okay—solid B’s with A’s in history and English, despite her inability to spell—but as far back as she can remember, Sharon has always harbored a secret sense she was smarter than most people in some less tangible way. That all that time reading about other worlds and making up stories had to count for life experience, even if the experienced life might not be her own. Had she been reading a book in which the young heroine accepted a ride from a stranger, Sharon would expect the girl to end up raped or murdered or tortured in some horrible, imaginative way. She would have dismissed the character as too dumb to warrant concern.
Get out of this car.
"Sir, it’s okay if you drop me off here," she says, trying to determine through the steamed windshield where exactly here is.
The man continues talking, as if she’s said nothing.
"You know that old saying, There are no atheists in foxholes?" he asks.
Though she’s never heard it, Sharon nods again.
"Well," the driver continues, "I was in the war, dodged sniper fire, had a gun held to my temple, and I can tell you, for damn sure, I was the atheist in the foxhole."
"Thank you for your service," Sharon says, without knowing which war the man is talking about. Her father, who joined the National Guard to avoid being drafted during Vietnam, says the phrase whenever they walk by uniformed soldiers.
"Sweet girl." The looks at her directly for the first time, revealing a red bulb on the end of his nose and cracked lips with dried saliva tamped in the corner of his mouth. "Such exquisite eyes."
"Thank you." As stealthily as possible, Sharon inches her butt toward the door, but it’s hard, because her jeans are wet enough to stick to the worn vinyl seats. "Really, it seems like the rain is letting up. You can just drop me off here, that’d be great."
"Still looks like cats and dogs to me," says the man. He’s right, of course, thick sheets of water smacking the windshield. "Reading Road is on my way; it’s no trouble."
Her back finally against the side of the car, Sharon cautiously lets her right hand search for the door handle.
Eyes on her, not on the road, the man smiles, his teeth crooked but whiter than she expected. "It wouldn’t be right of me to leave a pretty little girl like you on the side of the road in this weather, now would it?"
Captain Rowen pulling open the hatch of the crashing plane, and jumping without a parachute—the lesser of two deaths, the one with autonomy.
Her fingers finally find the metal door latch.
Get out of this car.
Sharon squeezes, releases when she feels it give.
A tickle of icy air on her back.
And then she hurls herself against the door.
Falling backward isn’t easy. It goes against every human instinct to grope for the seat belt or the console, to cling and cling and cling to the known.
A crash of pain in her left thigh like nothing she’s ever felt before when she hits the asphalt and tumbles away from the highway down the grassy shoulder. Hurts like hell, but she can tell her leg isn’t broken, knows it will still work even if it’s unsteady.
Forty minutes later, when she opens the door to her house, soaking wet and bleeding from small cuts on her hands and cheek, she’ll think about how fortunate it was that she landed the way she did, realize it could have gone another way.
When her parents look up from the living room couch in confusion, then rush toward her, she’ll realize that she could have cracked her head open or been crushed by oncoming traffic. Or maybe something minor, a broken wrist or collarbone, an injury that would have slowed her down or dulled her reflexes.
Again and again throughout her life, she’ll recall the luck of her landing. When she gets her acceptance letter to NYU, and when she kisses a boy she’s falling in love with in Washington Square Park. When she burns her novel manuscript or gets her first byline in The New York Eye. Over and over she’ll contemplate that there but for the grace of Captain Rowen she’d not have the opportunity to screw up this new thing, to move forward, to breathe.
But when she hits the pavement at fifty miles per hour and tumbles down the soggy grass, she’s not thinking of possibilities and failures in other universes; she’s only thinking of getting up and running home to the safety of the world she knows.
Technically, Phoebe Fisher kisses Oliver Ryan first.
They’re in Evanston Township High School’s cafeteria, where they’ve been eating lunch together for two months, theoretically so he can help her with physics. Neither one of them has actually brought up anything about motion laws and vectors for the last few weeks, though. Instead they discuss their teacher’s proclivity for plaid pants, Oliver’s summer at U of I engineering camp, and how Phoebe wants to move to LA and become an actress after graduation. He tells her she’ll blow them away at her audition, for the school’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest next week, and Phoebe, almost unconsciously, leans over their plastic lunch trays and brushes her lips against his.
Luckily Ollie seems amenable to the idea and kisses back. She’d locked lips with plenty of guys at her old school in the western suburbs, but none had worn glasses; she likes the feel of the rims as they slide down Oliver’s nose and bump her cheek. As far as kisses go, it’s fantastic, and the two of them simply grin at each other for a solid thirty seconds after. Finally he asks if she wants to go the movies that night.
"Braden and I were gonna see Eons & Empires," he says, "but I’d rather go with you—you’re a lot prettier."
Even though Eons & Empires is definitely more her fourteen-year-old brother’s kind of film, Phoebe thinks this might be the first really good thing that’s happened since she moved in full-time with her dad and transferred schools.
The feeling evaporates when she notices her kid brother and a few of his freshman cross-country buddies staring at her across the room. Raising dark eyebrows at Chase twice, Phoebe asks what his deal is, using the language of facial expressions they’ve shared since they were little. Chase rolls blue eyes back and returns to his friends.
Phoebe watches her brother for a few seconds, but Chase doesn’t look up; things are just so weird now that they’re both in high school. Eventually she relaxes and again thinks that the date with Oliver might be a good idea.
She feels this way all through trigonometry cosines and the Heart of Darkness discussion in twelfth-grade lit. Is still excited about it as school lets out and she gets into the passenger seat of Nicole Green’s BMW, Evie Saperstein sprawled in the back. Then Nic turns onto the street where all three of them live and suggests they go to her place and hang out for a few hours.
"Can you just drop me at my dad’s?" Phoebe asks.
"What, you got a hot date?" Evie glances up from the CD liner notes of a new band she’s into—Pearl something.
"Kinda." Phoebe stares out the window at the large stone houses, realizes she’s nervous.
She’s known these girls for years, has seen them on the weekends when she and Chase would stay with their father and stepmother. Their families all went to the same synagogue, and the three of them had sleepovers after all the bar and bat mitzvah parties. But Evie and Nicole have only been her everyday friends since September, when Phoebe’s mother took a job in Hawaii. Though the girls had seemed excited to have her—Nicole convinced the dance corps to give Phoebe an audition, and Evie had gotten her involved in drama club—they’re still strangers in many ways. Phoebe doesn’t know how they’ll react.
"I’m going to see a movie with Oliver Ryan," she says.
"Who’s that?" Evie asks from the back.
"You know Ollie." Nicole conveys exasperation while staying focused on the road (perhaps the reason she passed the driver’s test on the first try and Phoebe is scheduled to take it for the third time next week). "Braden Washington’s friend, with the red hair and cute glasses, sorta quiet."
"That guy?" Evie sighs. "Have you looked in a mirror since the swelling went down, Pheebs? You’re, like, way too hot for that guy."
Automatically Phoebe’s fingers float to her nose. In a particularly skillful maneuver, she’d convinced her parents that if she had to move across town for senior year, the least they could do was let her get a nose job—a fresh start, a better chance to be noticed by modeling agencies next year. Stunningly, they’d agreed, and a plastic surgeon with an office in the same medical complex as her father had taken out the bump and thinned the tip. It looks amazing—the perfect complement to her heart-shaped lips and high cheekbones—but she hadn’t thought it would make her feel so weird. She wonders if she should tell Oliver about it, if it counts as lying if she doesn’t.
"I mean, these braids are a little Pippi Longstocking." Evie reaches around to yank the long black pigtails hanging nearly to Phoebe’s waist. "But you’re the prettiest real person I know."
"I like Ollie." Phoebe shrugs. "We’ve got the same lunchtime, and he’s been helping me with physics."
"I could have helped you, Pheebs." Nicole sounds hurt, a phenomenon Phoebe is discovering occurs with great regularity.
"Ollie is nice," Nicole continues, "but his dad is a pilot and almost never around, and his mom died in the eighth grade."
Nicole offers the last bit of info as if it’s a character flaw on Oliver’s part. Phoebe doesn’t mention that her own mother is alive and well and just abandoned her children for Maui. She wonders what Evie and Nicole say about her when she’s not there.
"Yeah, he mentioned that," Phoebe says, relieved Nicole is pulling into the circular driveway of her father’s house.
"Dave and I were gonna see a movie later. Want us to come with?" Nicole asks. "Might be fun?"
Nicole’s boyfriend is perfectly amicable, but he and Nicole started dating in junior high and spend whole weekends looking at high-rise condos downtown, planning which one they’ll buy when Nicole is done with law school and Dave is a doctor. It seems too intense for her first date with Oliver.
While telling Nicole the offer is sweet, Phoebe suggests, in an undefined way, that they might see each other at the theater.
"Wait, we’re all going as a big couples’ thing?" Evie leans over the bucket seats. "Fine, I’ll ask that drummer from Fresh Delicious."
Phoebe can see exactly how this will go: Nicole and Dave planning a lifetime of couples’ dates for them, Evie making smart-alecky, hypersexual comments—everyone doing their damnedest to make sure Oliver Ryan never asks her out again.
"Let’s play it by ear, and maybe we’ll see each other there," Phoebe says, trying not to offend Nicole but to also get out of the car and into the house before any more bad plans can be fashioned.
"Call me," Nicole is saying as phoebe shuts the door.
Through the foyer, with its dramatic stairs and heavy chandelier, the chatter of afternoon talk shows and smell of baked goods draws Phoebe to the sprawling kitchen as if she were a cartoon dog. Wearing an apron over an extremely tight sweater, her stepmother pulls a tray of snowman-shaped sugar cookies from the oven like a sexed-up Betty Crocker.
"You’re not hanging out with the girls today?" Gennifer pulls off oven mitts to fluff her mane of honey-colored hair.
"No, I’ve got a date," Phoebe says. "But don’t tell Dad. It’s the first time we’re going out, and I don’t want to answer a zillion questions."
"I’ll make him take me out to dinner to get him out of the house." Gennifer smiles, and Phoebe can almost feel the wave of sisterhood she’s projecting. Six years ago Gennifer was a twenty-five-year-old temp entering patient records at Phoebe’s father’s cardiology practice. That her father and Gen fell into the unironic love of Lifetime movies would have been an unbearable cliché if Phoebe’s mother hadn’t been the one who had left the year before. "So who is this guy?"
"He’s a senior, too; he’s been helping me with physics." There’s no point in lying; Gen has proven capable of keeping secrets. "Tall, red hair. Not Jewish."
Winking a green eye, Gennifer touches the Star of David Phoebe’s father gave her for completing conversion classes and asks where Phoebe and her "mystery man" are going.
"We’re seeing a movie at Old Orchard." Phoebe helps herself to one of the cookies, which presumably are for the holiday party at her father’s office the next day. "The Eons & Empires thing."
"Oh, hon." Gennifer bites her lower lip. "Not the seven thirty-five show?"
"Your brother and his friends are seeing that."
Chase, who had morphed from the sweet baby brother she used to play dress-up and board games with into a hormoney teen with acne and mood swings. Chase with his pals who gawk and whisper at her, who sneak into his room with stolen copies of Playboy and Gentleman’s Prerogative.
"Maybe it’s a big theater?" Gennifer offers hopefully.
And once more the date seems a monumentally poor idea.
Phoebe’s bedroom is three times the size of the one she’d had at her mother’s house in Palatine, and in the center is a huge canopy bed that she’d really, really wanted when her father got it for her twelfth birthday. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him she now thinks it’s ridiculous. Her closet here is also twice the size, and she selects a blue baby-doll dress that makes her boobs appear slightly larger than the barely B’s they are.
Remembering Evie’s, Pippi Lony stocking comment, Phoebe undoes her braids, smooths the dark waves with her fingers. Oliver is tall, so she slides on Mary Janes with a three-inch heel that make her five feet eleven. Dots gloss over her lips and applies a light coat of mascara. Even before the nose job, everyone told her she should model, and at her old high school she got all the cute-girl roles in plays. Still, it’s different now. She always looked like her mother—pale skin, dusk-colored eyes—and their noses had been almost identical. With her new upgrade and her mother working halfway around the globe, it’s as if Phoebe’s lost that entire world.
She wonders if Oliver would have liked her as much with her old nose, if he would have been so eager to help her with physics.
The doorbell rings, and she glances out the window at Oliver’s blue hatchback parked in the driveway. One final check in the mirror, and she grabs a peacoat, jogs down the steps.
Ollie, despite what Evie said, looks plenty good standing in the foyer, hands shoved in his pants pockets. Less attractive is Chase, wearing a Captain Rowen T-shirt, who apparently answered the bell and is deep in conversation with her date—something about the E&E comic books.
"Hey, you found it." She smiles at Oliver, angling Chase out of the way.
He grins back and tells her she looks nice; her brother remains frustratingly close.
Ollie asks if she’s ready; Phoebe nods enthusiastically, and they head out.
Spinning to face him, Phoebe rolls her eyes to the left and raises her right brow in furious communication.
"Ollie said he’d give me a ride." Chase shrugs.
Phoebe raises her eyebrows again.
"It seemed dumb to make Gen schlep to the mall when you were already going, so I told her I had a ride, and she went to meet Dad for dinner."
"Did you tell her your ride was with me?" Phoebe’s desire not to appear a spoiled brat on her first date with Oliver is all that keeps her from screaming.
"I didn’t think that was important."
"It’s really no big deal," Ollie says politely.
She’s about to protest again but concedes. Turning so only her brother can see, Phoebe mouths, "Fine, but we’re not taking you home."
Chase shrugs again. Phoebe takes a deep breath and tries to remember that she’s excited to be on this date, that it may be the first truly good thing that’s happened since she switched schools.
In gentlemanly fashion, Oliver opens the passenger door for her, but the gesture loses something when Chase crawls in the back.
Surprisingly, Chase doesn’t say much on the ride, though Phoebe occasionally feels his eyes on her. Oliver asks about the rest of her day and tells her about a crazy sub he had in calculus. She’s almost forgotten Chase is in the car at all until they pull into the packed mall parking lot and her brother points out the window at Nicole and Dave getting out of her BMW.
"Look," he says. "It’s your married friends."
Oliver gives Phoebe a curious glance, and she bows her head. "Yeah, Nic mentioned they might see the movie."
Ten minutes later, they’re in a roped-off line waiting to enter the theater. Chase is ten people ahead with a handful of ETHS underclass boys, who occasionally look Phoebe’s way and whisper. Phoebe focuses on ignoring them. Nicole suggests that they go to Maggiano’s for dinner after the movie, and Phoebe again tries not to commit to arrangements while not offending. Dave makes mindless small talk with Ollie about an AP math test.
They’ve been there twenty minutes when Evie, dressed in ripped black fishnets and a tight ribbed dress, arrives with a college-age dude wearing almost as much kohl eyeliner as she is.
"Sorry we’re late; we were fucking," Evie says in the tough-girl persona Phoebe is never clear how seriously to take. Dave gives a choked laugh; and Nicole’s eyes narrow into the mother of all withering glances. Phoebe looks at her shoes.
Evie starts to pull up the rope to join them, but Nicole crosses tiny arms over her tiny body and informs Evie that line jumping is rude.
"Seriously, Nic?" Evie’s face ices over, and Eyeliner Guy looks tragically bored. "What’s the BFD?"
Then, as everyone else just stands there, Evie and Nicole proceed to have one of their stare-down fights, the result of having been best friends forever and ever, long before Phoebe joined them full-time.
Mercifully, the theater doors open, and everyone shuffles forward.
But conditions don’t really improve inside. The only row with enough open seats to accommodate them is in the very front, and there’s awkward chair hopping as the group determines the best configuration of couples. When they’ve finally settled, Dave asks Oliver if he wants to go to the snack counter, and Evie suggests she and Phoebe hit the ladies’.
"I’ll wait until you guys get back. Someone has to hold all these seats," Nicole says, more forty-seven than seventeen.
As she stares into the wall of mirrors above the bathroom sinks, Evie applies burgundy lipstick to already burgundy lips, blots on a paper towel.
"So Oliver seems cool," she says, apparently having forgotten that Phoebe is way too hot for him. "How far do you think you’ll go tonight?"
Embarrassingly, it takes Phoebe a half second to realize what Evie is asking.
"I don’t know." She tries not to sound rattled. "Guess it depends what time the movie gets out."
"This is the fifth time Reed and I’ve hung out, and he’s older." Evie sprays perfume on her ample cleavage, teases tawny hair. "I’m pretty sure he’s expecting the works," she says wither hint of sadness.
While Phoebe figured that Dave and Nicole were probably sleeping together, and that there may have been a slab of truth in all of Evie’s talk, she’s never actually told the girls she’s still a virgin—that the pinnacle of her sexual experience was giving a pretty cruddy hand job to Jared Wells after junior prom. And she realizes Evie and Nicole may have just assumed she’s more experienced than she is, either because she’s pretty or because her old school had a high rate of teen pregnancies. This discovery is so completely isolating and unnerving that Phoebe ducks into one of the toilet stalls, leans her head against the plastic divider, and just breathes for several minutes until Evie asks if she fell in or needs a tampon.
As the girls are leaving the bathroom, Evie bumps into Chase, who was apparently standing directly outside the ladies’ room.
"Careful there, mini-Fisher," Evie says.
Phoebe tries to communicate to Chase with her eyebrows that he should let this go.
Based on her brother’s bizarre behavior all day, Phoebe fully expects that Chase will take umbrage with Evie’s ribbing, but he apologizes and starts back toward the theater.
Spotting Oliver and a tub of popcorn at the condiment stand, Phoebe hustles over to help.
"Hey there," she says, and he stands even taller, handing her the diet soda she’d wanted.
"Hey yourself," he says.
For a second they have their familiar ease from the school cafeteria, and this date once again seems a brilliant idea. She leans close, and he takes her hand; this time he’s the one who initiates the kiss. They’re doing that smiling/staring bit when she notices Chase standing next to them.
"What?" Phoebe asks, caring less and less about appearing a spoiled brat in front of Oliver.
Chase doesn’t have an immediate answer, but when she raises her right eyebrow, he says, "I was gonna get a Coke, but Gen left before giving me my allowance."
Phoebe contemplates telling him off, but at this point she’s willing to pay a bribe and reaches for her purse.
Oliver stops her. "I got it," he says, unfolding bills from his own wallet. "Is ten dollars enough?"
Thrusting her arm out in the universal motion for stop, Phoebe prevents the exchange. Ollie’s talked at lunch about saving for college (her own father has not only volunteered to foot the whole bill but is currently trying to sweeten the prospect with a new car if she ever passes the driver’s test). "You shouldn’t give him money," Phoebe says to Oliver gently. And then, not at all gently, to her brother, "Don’t you dare take that."
"It’s fine," Ollie insists.
Chase thanks him, tucks the cash into his jeans pocket, and finally leaves.
"I’m so sorry," Phoebe says. "I don’t know what his problem is today."
"He’s just worried about you." Oliver shrugs. "Wants to make sure I’m a good guy."
It’s a nice thing to say, and Phoebe wonders if it’s true.
"Haven’t you noticed he’s been following you around all night, and the whole business with the ride?" Oliver continues. "It’s kinda sweet; I never did that stuff for my sister."
Maybe Chase is looking out for her? She tries to recall the last time the two of them did something together, decides she’ll go to his track meets in the spring and will drive him to school if she ever gets her license.
"Well, I already know you’re a good guy." Phoebe tries to sound sexy, to channel a little of Evie, wonders what Oliver’s expectations are about how far they’ll go tonight.
"I’m glad you think so."
Before they can discuss Oliver’s merits in more detail, Dave, his own sodas and tub of popcorn in hand, comes over and tells them the movie is going to start soon.
Back at their seats, a preview for Jurassic Park rolls. Evie and Reed start making out, and Nicole and Dave melt into cuddle positions. Evie’s question from the bathroom still bouncing around her head, Phoebe notes, with regret and relief, that two inches of air separate her leg from Oliver’s and their hands are occupied with soft drinks and snacks.
The theater darkens further, and images of a violent plane crash fill the screen. Seated so close, Phoebe is instantly nauseated by the loud pops and whirls and jumpy camera work.
Vomiting on Oliver would definitely answer the question of how far they’ll go tonight. After closing her eyes, it’s a bit better; perhaps she can remain like this for the whole two hours.
Breath on her shoulder makes her shudder. Oliver in her ear: "Let’s get outta here."
They hunch over, but still their backs cast shadows on the screen as they get up. A few people, probably her brother’s friends, boo at them.
As they slink past, Nicole gives Phoebe the kind of challenging glance she usually reserves for Evie fights, and Phoebe mouths, "Headache." Face softening, Nicole whispers, "Call me tomorrow." Still kissing Reed, Evie pats Phoebe’s arm as she goes by; Phoebe squeezes back in confirmation. Chase catches her eye as they walk by his row, and he starts to climb out. Using their eyebrow communication, she lets him know it’s okay, that Oliver is a very nice guy. Giving her one last look, Chase nods, eyebrows that he’ll get a ride home with his friends.
Phoebe and Oliver continue to the exit and find themselves in the courtyard of the outdoor mall, where leafless trees are strung with Christmas lights, the air crisp and not terribly cold for December in Chicago.
"That was a little crazy, right?" Oliver says. "I hate the front row, too."
"Did you really want to see the movie?" Phoebe unconsciously twists her fingers and presses them to her chest.
"Naw, I mean, I used to read the comic books, but it will be out on video in six months. We can rent it then."
"Just the two of us?" she asks.
"That would be really, really awesome." He laughs. "Do you wanna get ice cream or something?"
"There’s a good bakery on Sheridan," she says. She used to go there with Nicole and Evie back when this wasn’t her regular mall, when it was a place to go on weekends with friends who weren’t everyday friends. When Evie and Nicole had known and dismissed Oliver, never suspecting he was someone Phoebe might like. When her brother was too young to worry about whether or not she was dating good guys. When most of her life was a world and the western suburbs away. But this world is kind of cool, too. "Maybe I can treat you to a cookie?"
Halfway to the car, he takes her hand.
"I had a nose job," Phoebe blurts. "Last summer before I transferred."
Oliver looks at her bewildered.
"I didn’t want you to see a picture of me and think I lied about it. And I had it done because I wanted to, not because I broke it in an accident or anything."
"Oh." He still seems perplexed. "I like your nose. I probably would have liked your old one. Your nose really isn’t the reason I asked you out."
Technically she kisses him first, but Oliver is quick to kiss back.
Copyright © 2014 by Shari Goldhagen