"Its full effect doesn't hit you until you see it fully," Darlene Coopersmith said as she reached for the button of her jeans.
"No!" her best friend Walker Richards cried; almost leaping off his bed.
Darlene frowned. "Why not?" She glanced down at her exposed swimsuit top. "What? You don't think I look good in hardly any clothes?"
"It's not that," he told her.
"What then?" she demanded, pulling her jeans down roughly. She threw them at Walker's head, missing him by an inch. "Does this make you uncomfortable?" she asked, gesturing to her bikini-clad body.
Personally, Darlene thought she looked great. The smooth material of her bikini was flimsy enough to look like it wouldn't be able to survive an hour of swimming but covered her assets enough to really make them pop, and the dark emerald color emphasized her hazel-but-tried (and failed)-masquerading-themselves-as-green eyes. Her naturally light tan skin shimmered with a combination of sweet smelling oil and the 'glimmer crystals' from her body wash, and Darlene's long, rich brown curls bounced around her head with the incredible volume one only got when blessed with the right genetics. She'd taken extra time this morning to make her makeup look natural instead of smoldering so that she was perceived as flirtatious instead of a slut.
Darlene smiled to herself. She couldn't wait to make guys she had no intention of ever talking to drench their shirts with drool.
"You know it doesn't," Walker said as his pastel blue gaze appreciatively roamed over her body before focusing back on the carnage of his videogame. "But what if someone comes in?"
Darlene rolled her eyes. "So? The only person that will care is-"
A sharp knock on Walker's closed door made them both jump and a second later Walker's mother stepped into the room.
Mrs. Richards looked a lot like her son: the same deep red-orange hair, slim frame, and wide, good-looking features. But that's where the similarities ended. Unlike the calm, optimistic waves that rolled off of Walker, Mrs. Richards swam in a sea of judging suspicion and irritability. While her son had a lot of friends, the only thing that could stand to be around Mrs. Richards was the family cat, which had a pole as big as Mrs. Richards' shoved up its dingy white ass. Her son was her opposite and Darlene had yet to figure out if the odd gleam in Mrs. Richards' eyes whenever she looked at Walker was the tiny part of her that hated him for it or loved him that much more for it.
Mrs. Richards stared down Walker for a long minute before turning her attention to Darlene. Her lined mouth puckered with disappointment as she took in the barely tasteful bikini.
"Hello, Mrs. Richards," Darlene chirped excitedly, bouncing with fake enthusiasm; her amble chest wildly moving. Walker threw her a warning glare, but she ignored him. "How are you today?" she asked.
Mrs. Richards's eyes narrowed and her jaw clenched, her pale face flushing a deep mauve. Darlene matched her death glare with a dainty flutter of her eyelashes and a mockingly sweet smile, daring Mrs. Richards to explode and spew all the hatred she felt for the girl she deemed too corrupt to step foot in a church, let alone be friends with her precious baby boy. The air grew heavy with dangerous tension and Darlene was sure today would be the day she was called a whore and told to leave and never come back.
Well, let Mrs. Richards say it. Let her start the fight. Darlene would make sure it was one Mrs. Richards never forget.
Suddenly Walker groaned and threw down his Xbox controller.
"You'll break that, silly, if you keep doing that," Darlene told him in a voice that was insultingly cute.
"What do you want?" Walker snapped at his mother, his work-tanned face unnaturally red.
"Your father just got home," Mrs. Richard's said, breaking eye contact with Darlene and focusing on her son. "He wants to talk to you about one of the cars that just came in. Apparently you're the only mechanic he has competent enough to touch it."
"Must be Mr. Daryl's again," Walker mumbled to himself. He gave his mother an irritated look. "Why couldn't you wait to tell me?"
"Sorry," Mrs. Richards said, sounding anything but. "I didn't realize you had…company."
"But I'm always here, Mrs. Richards," Darlene chimed in. "You know that I can't bear to stay away from Walker and his incredible family. I feel like I'm one of you, like I belong here. I just have this undying need to spend every possible moment in your presence. You know, because all of you-you especially, Mrs. Richards-are so warm and fuzzy."
Mrs. Richards swallowed a deep breath, steadying the shaking in her arms. When she had control of herself, or at least the belief of control, she told Walker, "Talk to him soon. Preferably before your father and I leave for your cousin's baby shower."
"You should really come with us," his mother added.
Walker shoved his face in his hands. "Mom, I don't want to go over this again," he grumbled through his fingers. "You. Know. I. Don't. Like. Charlotte."
"This is her first baby…"
"Fine," Mrs. Richards huffed, tossing Darlene a look like Walker's refusal to go was her idea (Darlene had told him his cousin was a selfish, prissy bitch and he'd probably blow his brains out three minutes into the shower, but there was no way his mother could possibly know that unless Darlene's theory that the woman was a mind-reading demon was actually true). "I didn't mean to interrupt whatever this-your time together," Mrs. Richards continued before marching out of the room in a flurry of boxy mom jeans and gray crocs.
"You'd think nothing else could make her more of an asshole, but menopause has really bitten her in the vagina," Darlene said, watching the woman she couldn't help but detest leave.
"You're horrible," Walker grumbled as he retrieved the controller from the edge of his bed.
"I am not," Darlene huffed. "She's the one that thinks I'm trying to bring you to the dark side with bribes of hot, kinky sex."
"No wonder why," Walker said, his eyes raking over her bikini reproachfully.
"She shouldn't be such a fucking prude," Darlene growled as she grabbed her t-shirt off Walker's computer desk and wrestled it on. "It wasn't like I was giving you a lap dance while you smacked my ass and pinched my nipples."
Walker tossed Darlene her jeans. "No," he said, "but you knew that if she caught you like that it would drive her nuts, and you love being the cause of her high blood pressure."
"Hey, you weren't being exactly nice to her, either."
"Yes, but I'm her son. I'm allowed to do that."
"No, no. It doesn't work like that," Darlene said as she zipped up her jeans and plopped down next to Walker. "You can't tell me that one of my favorite hobbies is off-limits because I'm not related to the uterus that gave you life."
"I can, and I think you should get a new hobby," Walker suggested; his anger already sizzling out.
"Not any time soon. Part of my reason for existing is to piss her off," Darlene said, holding out her hand. "You know I've noticed that every time your mother's in the same room as me I get the sudden urge to kill things. Give me your other controller so I can get this horrible bloodlust under control."
Walker chuckled and handed her the second one from his nightstand. Darlene signed in and a minute later her chosen character was running beside Walker's in Left 4 Dead, shooting anything and everything that remotely looked zombie; hitting the NCP's more times than anything else. She leaned against her best friend and tucked her feet up under her legs, settling in for the long-haul. Walker kissed her hair and rested his cheek on her head.
They played for awhile without any conversation, the only noises coming from Darlene when she cried out angrily at the unbearably gross Boomers that vomited on her and the cheers from Walker when he blew the occasional zombie's head off. They worked in perfect unison: neither one having to explain to the other what to do when they heard a Witch's pathetic whimpering or needing to ask the other to heal them when their health reached dangerous levels.
They made it through half the game quickly and without much effort (the hallowed curse of repeat run-throughs of a beloved game) before Darlene grew restless and sat up. She rubbed her tingling legs with her hand while dropping her controller in Walker's lap.
"Careful," he said, nudging it away from his most sensitive parts.
"Can we do something else?" she asked.
"Yeah, but I can't help it. I'm excited," Darlene said.
"Hmm…I don't know...Maybe because today's August first and I'm in a new bikini. Ring any bells?"
"Oh, yeah," Walker said, recognition dawning. "When is Mariah picking you up?"
"She said she gets done with teaching at one," Darlene told him.
Walker glanced at his alarm clock, which read 12:14. "Can't we play for a little while longer? We were doing so well."
"You already know how it ends," Darlene said.
"True, but there's one achievement I want to get that I need your help with."
"Tough shit, I'm done," Darlene said, shaking her head as she got up from his bed. She approached his computer desk and claimed the dusty black swivel chair in front of it. "If you really want that achievement you're gonna have to get it yourself."
"And what are you going to do?"
"I'm gonna hack into your hard drive and see what nasty porn you've been watching lately."
"I don't watch porn."
"You're a single guy who hasn't gotten laid in eight months. Walker, the entire world and I know you jerk off to fake, big-chested Asians taking it any and every way," Darlene said as she pulled up her jogging blog and scrolled through the comments made on her last post. She frowned when she realized her audience had shrunk once again, by more than just a few readers this time. But it was most likely her fault due to her lack of detail and frequency in her blogs. Plus, who cared that she'd seen a mini pyramid of beer cans last Thursday morning on the side of the road? It did nothing but tell people she lived in a town of trashy rednecks with time to waste.
She knew she should do better, but lately she didn't have the heart for it, and Darlene knew that within weeks she'd probably forget all about her blog.
"I don't-I watch things a little bit classier than that," Walker muttered as he started up his game again.
Darlene grinned to herself as another silence engulfed the room, echoing with the comfort of two people knowing that they didn't have to be attached at the hip to prove their friendship was solid. It was one of the reasons Darlene loved being around Walker. He wasn't needy or clinging or the type that always had to talk. He was just there, one of the two steady constants that made up the backbone of her life. He meant a lot to her, and Darlene wondered how long it was going to take her to adjust to his absence when she left at the end of the month.
And what if he decided that she was no longer worth his time? She wasn't exactly the easiest of people to get along with, and her leaving for school would be the best opportunity for him to sever their six-year-long friendship. It wouldn't be all at once, either. Like most endings to great friendships, they would just stop talking as much and when they did talk Walker wouldn't be as interested in their conversations, ending each after nine minutes of useless chatter. He would most likely occupy his time with another person…a new best friend.
"Do you think we'll still talk after I leave?" Darlene asked, suddenly needing reassurance; hating how strongly it consumed her waking thoughts lately when her mind was free to wander.
"Do you plan on losing my number?"
"Then I can't see any reason why we wouldn't," Walker said.
"Good," Darlene mumbled.
She felt Walker's eyes on the back of her head, but she ignored him.
"What's on your mind, Darlene?" Walker asked.
"Nothing," she said, maybe a little too quickly. "Why do you ask?"
"You just seem…occupied. Is something wrong?"
"No, there isn't," Darlene told him, slumping forward with the lie. Why was she doing this? Walker would understand, wouldn't laugh at her honesty. She needed to tell him. It would help. "Well, not wrong," she said, turning to meet his stare briefly before dropping her gaze to her lap, "but-I don't mean to sound…clingy-could you…could you ever replace me?"
Darlene rolled her eyes. "Another person," she grumbled.
"I think that would be really hard," Walker said. "You're…unique, to say the least."
"But am I the best you're ever going to get?"
"Realistically? No. But do I plan on finding the 'right' friend? No, I'm too lazy and, besides, I love you," Walker said. "And that means I've accepted how you are. Trust me. I'm nice but not nice enough to keep someone I despise around for almost two-thirds of my life."
"Okay," Darlene said, grateful he'd masked her ever-looming dread for another day, even if in a couple of months they hardly talked anymore.
"Did that help?"
"I'm such a great friend," Walker said, smiling wide, all his bright white, uneven teeth on display.
"Uh huh," Darlene said, finding Spider Solitaire on his desktop and trying her best to break her twenty second record.
"You love me," Walker said as he returned to his Xbox.
Darlene grunted in response and they each got immersed in their own thing again.
"Walker!" Mrs. Richards's clear voice suddenly screeched throughout the house a few minutes later. "Another…friend is here!"
"That must be Mariah," Darlene cried eagerly, jumping off the chair and hurriedly searching for her purse and hot pink flip-flops. Walker pointed at them and she ran across the room. "This has been fun," she said as she got herself situated.
"Like always," Walker said.
"Uh huh, if that makes you happy," Darlene said, fishing her big sunglasses out of her purse and slipping them onto her face.
"So see you tonight?"
Darlene nodded. "Make sure to bring her present."
"Of course. I prefer not to have you skin me alive," Walker said.
"Good. Okay. Bye," Darlene said, wiggling her fingers at him before racing out of the room.
"Bye!" he called after her.
Darlene was practically flying as she cleared the stairs and headed for the front door. She caught a glimpse of Walker's broad-chested father reading the paper in his favorite spot on the faded navy blue couch with Mrs. Richards beside him, furiously clicking through the channels; signs that a fight had just happened or was about to. Darlene was slightly tempted to hang around and find out-something told her she was one of the reasons for their argument-but the distinctive whinny honk of Mariah's 2003 Pontiac's horn sounded, driving her to forget Walker's parents' material problems as she opened the door and headed for her sister's car.
"'Bout time, Dare Bear," Mariah said, hanging out her window.
"Be glad I came out at all," Darlene said as she threw her purse in the back and crawled into the passenger's seat. "I was having a deep conversation with Mrs. Richards before you showed up, and I just can't believe what an insightful woman she is. I wanted to hang around for more."
Mariah snorted as she started the Pontiac's ignition; the perky voice of the latest county pop star filling the warm air. "Are you still allowed through the front door?" she asked.
"Even if I wasn't do you think that would stop me?"
Mariah shook her head; her long, dark brown ponytail swaying. "I don't think there's a window that exists that you can't find a way through."
"Exactly my point."
"Oh, Dare Bear, you're something," Mariah clucked lovingly.
"And very proud," Darlene said, puffing out her chest. "So are you excited?" she asked as her sister drove to the end of Walker's street and made a right onto Asher Avenue.
"To spend three paychecks worth of my baby sister's hard-earned cash pigging out on fried junk food and going on every ride I possibly can? Of course I am," Mariah said, beaming at Darlene, her elegant features lighting up. "It's what I've looked forward to all year."
"It's going to be awesome," Darlene declared, throwing her sister a smile of her own.
"Yeah, it is," Mariah agreed, though her voice lost some of its anticipation and the glow left her face.
Darlene noticed and lowered her sunglasses to give her sister a look. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing," Mariah said, her pale hazel eyes suspiciously fixed hard on the road. "I just hope you don't mind that I'm going to stop at my apartment real quick. I need to get out of my teacher clothes. It would be kind of a downer if I showed up at Waldameer looking like this."
"No, I don't mind," Darlene said as she reached for the radio; giving her something to focus on other than her sister's blatant lying. "I can't listen to this anymore," she added, switching to a heavy metal station. No, it wasn't what she'd normally listen to, but anything was better than country.
Mariah playfully slapped her hand away, though she still couldn't look at Darlene. "Hey, it's my birthday so the music stays," she said, her cheeriness forced. `
The twang of a hundred heartbreaks pummeled Darlene's ears again as the local country station came back on. "Doesn't mean it has to be audible," she said, turning down the volume.
"Dare Bear," Mariah chided gently, but made no move to change what Darlene did.
The car got uncomfortably silent as Darlene drummed her fingers against her door, waiting for Mariah to find the courage to spit out whatever she was hiding. It couldn't be good and it was going to upset her. Mariah never held back telling her anything unless something had been done that she knew was going to make Darlene angry.
"So, um, I have question for you," Mariah said finally.
Mariah cleared her throat and rubbed her neck, her nervousness infecting Darlene. Darlene's stomach filled with dread. What was going to be said? What happened?
"So what if it turned out we weren't going to be the only two, um, there?" Mariah asked.
Darlene's eyes narrowed. "I realize other people will be at the park, especially loud, sticky brats their parents can barely control, and I'm okay with that. Or at least that's what I keep telling myself."
"Dare Bear, you know-"
"Did you go ahead and rent the park out just for us? It would be awesome if you did," Darlene said, knowing that wasn't what her sister was getting at; hoping with all her strength that it was.
Mariah shook her head. "No, I didn't."
"This is our day." Darlene glowered. "Our day; has been for the past seven years."
"Yeah, but I really think this would be a great opportunity for you to meet this person," Mariah said.
The anxiety Darlene felt melted into anger as she realized her sister had invited a guy along, someone new and nowhere near worthy enough to join in the specialness of the day. He didn't understand how much it meant, didn't know that the routine was something Darlene desperately clutched to; loving that for a few short hours it was just her and the person she cared about most, and that it was like nothing had changed even though both of sisters were now adults in two very different stages of life.
"He is not allowed to come to Waldameer with us," Darlene growled. "I'll meet him at the party tonight, but until then it's just you and me."
"The party is the wrong place," Mariah insisted, trying too hard to be patient. "Everyone will be drunk and acting ridiculous, and I just don't think it's the best time for you to really get to know him."
"Then set up a coffee date two days from now and I promise I'll show up and be the best little sister in the entire world. There will be no trace of bitchiness whatsoever. I promise on the thousand dollars I have stashed in my sock drawer. Please, Mar, just don't-don't take this away from me," Darlene begged, feeling tears build up in the back of her eyes. Her anger was giving away to her most gut-wrenching fear, a fear that had started seven years ago when Mariah had gone off to college and had once again resurfaced five months back when Darlene had gotten her acceptance letter to the Appalachian School of Law in Virginia. She was scared of losing their bond, becoming less important to Mariah as the distant between them destroyed their closeness.
And what would happen to her if the bond was lost? How could she ever hope to be the person she dreamed of without knowing Mariah would be there, understanding her on a level that was borderline spooky? Darlene didn't know if she was strong enough to begin the rough road ahead of her alone. She'd bet their mother's life she wouldn't last a year away from home if her relationship with her sister changed.
"I'm not taking away anything from you," Mariah huffed as she parked in front of her apartment building. "I only thought having someone else along would be fun."
"Well, it's my birthday and he's coming," Mariah said, her tone just like their mother's when she'd settled her mind on something and refused to budge.
"I hope you two have a fucking great time then," Darlene hissed, plucking her purse from the backseat before jumping out of the car. She slammed the door so hard the small vehicle shook, causing Mariah to scramble out in a fit of fury.
"Darlene, stop overacting and get back in the car," Mariah called, standing beside her beginning-to-rust hood. "You're ruining my day!"
"I don't give a shit, you fucking bitch!" Darlene yelled back as she started toward her house three blocks away.
"Darlene!" Mariah said, and Darlene could hear the loud click of her sister's heals on the sidewalk as she followed her.
"Leave me the fuck alone," Darlene growled and began to run, her limbs easily carrying her as she instinctively settled into her normal jogging pace.
She couldn't hear her sister's footsteps over her own, but Darlene knew Mariah wasn't coming after her anymore. Her sister had learned a long time ago that that only led to more shouting and a few punches and kicks, if Mariah was lucky. No, she would give Darlene time to calm down and become rational before attempting to settle this fight.
It was what was safest for everyone.
As Darlene ran, thick tears streamed down her face; blurring her vision so bad that she almost knocked over a mother pushing a stroller. Darlene's sunglasses were knocked off her face, and she didn't bother to retrieve them as she choked out an unintelligible almost-apology to the woman and barreled on.
This was it, the beginning of the end of what she held most dear. Maybe it was supposed to eventually happen (Darlene knew it couldn't be all that healthy to rely so heavily on one relationship), but why did it have to start today? Why couldn't it be something that happened over many months, so gradual that by the time it was finished Darlene would only sigh for a brief moment as she thought of how things had been? How was she expected to cope with this in a mature fashion if it started so abruptly?
Darlene rounded the corner and came upon the dead end street where the faded, two-story house she shared with her mother stood between two houses of similar structure in equally washed out colors. It wasn't a bad street as far as streets went. The neighbors were slightly nosier than Darlene liked, but they kept their children from being overly annoying and had the decency to give her half-hearted waves when she occasionally ran into them even though her family was nowhere near well-liked. There was a polite semi-friendliness that engulfed the street that made Darlene happy to call it home.
At the front door Darlene's right flip flop decided aiding in her running had been the highlight of its relatively young, plastic life and had no reason to remain in existence because the thong snapped in two, causing the back of the flip flop to come forward. It was crushed under her heel.
"Fucking shit," Darlene sniffled as she stumbled into her living room. She dropped her purse onto the obsessively clean carpet and hurried into the equally spotless kitchen where she took off her flip flops and threw them into the trash. "Waste of fucking money," she said.
"Darlene?" a voice called from upstairs, sharp and quick with just a twinge of self-pity.
Darlene ignored it and got herself a glass from the cupboard above the sink. She filled it with water from the faucet and took giant gulps, hoping the cold metallic taste would help calm her nerves and bring her raging emotions to a point that didn't affect her ability to think. As she was, she was a riled wild animal ready to instantly maul anyone who opened her cage, and she hated being like this. This was the time when things better left unsaid always slipped out of her mouth and burned those around her (mostly innocents with only the best of intentions) with her scorching quick-temper.
After forced moments of water-chugging and deep breathing, Darlene's anger began to ebb away, but left behind was the overwhelming sadness of the inevitable loss of her bond with Mariah. And that was worse than her anger ever could be. Sure, she became a raving ass and had pretty much destroyed any shred of possible friendships with anyone other than Walker because of it, but her anger was familiar; she could control it (kind of) and understood it. This sadness, it was new. She'd never felt a loss like this, not even when she'd found the stray cat she used to pretend was hers and would share her coveted tuna fish sandwiches with on the side of the road one morning in a crumpled, bloody heap. It was like some unseen force was trying to pull a chunk of her soul out, and while she desperately clung to it with both hands, it didn't matter. The sadness was stronger and just laughed as it slowly bent back each of her fingers with a sickeningly bright grin plastered across its face; they both already knew who was going to win.
Fresh tears tumbled down Darlene's cheeks and she wiped them away with the back of her free hand, but seconds later more replaced them. This was another war she had no hope of coming out the victor and she sagged against the kitchen counter in defeat.
"Darlene," the voice said again, this time from the kitchen doorway.
"What, Mom?" Darlene asked; voice raw as she set down her empty glass.
"Why are you home?" Tracey Coopersmith asked.
"Mariah's car broke down," Darlene muttered. "She's changed her mind, decided the day would be better spent curled up on the couch drowning her sorrow of getting one step closer to 30 with alcohol and chocolate. I think, maybe, she was eaten by one of her fat ninth graders. No, no that's not it. She fell asleep in the bathtub and drowned."
"That's not funny. Something serious happened," Tracey said. "Darlene, look at me."
Darlene didn't bother to try and stop crying as she faced her mother; she wasn't ashamed and a brief thought shot through her mind. Maybe Tracey would know how to make it better, or at least give her advice on how to make it hurt less. Tracey had been fighting depression for as long as Darlene could remember and there had to be something that pulled her out of the depths of despair and helped her function in reality after the episodes hit.
Her mother's forest green eyes narrowed as she took in Darlene's puffy face and wet, blotchy skin. "What happened?" she asked.
"Does it matter?"
It did a lot, though, and Darlene could swear that for one moment compassion warmed Tracey's haggard face for the pain heard clearly in Darlene's voice. Her heart literally skipped a beat. Finally, after 18 years of being cold and aloof except when falling-down drunk, there was a chance Tracey was going to be a parent on more than just the material level. Darlene was about to get a taste of genuine affection from the one person she fiercely craved it from, even if she said otherwise. In truth, this was a moment she dreamed about frequently, and would always wake up disappointed when she realized it hadn't really happened.
In a flash the moment was gone and Tracey's once beautifully fair features twisted back into their usual mask of bitter disappointment.
"I'm sure that whatever it is that's going on between you girls will pass and it'll be as if nothing happened," Tracey said, and Darlene's shoulders dropped with a heartbreaking frustration she was all too familiar with. "Well," her mother continued, "since you're home we can discuss what came in the mail for you today."
"I told you to leave my stuff alone," Darlene said miserably.
"I'm your mother and I have every right to know what you receive as long as you live under my roof."
Darlene bit her cheek, trying to find the strength to hold back her sorrow and gather enough anger to replace it. She knew what was coming and was going to need anger for the discussion ahead. She sighed at the thought that her throat was no doubt going to be raw after all was said and done because shouting was the only way Tracey would listen to her side of the argument. It was the only why her mother heard anything anymore.
"What did I get?" Darlene asked when she felt confident she was ready to handle the things to come.
"The school sent a reminder that you need to finalize your schedule for this semester," Tracey told her.
"Okay. I'll call the register office in the morning."
A slight pause was granted before Tracey opened her mouth and started the fight that had been ongoing for the past couple months. "Don't you feel your lacking in classes?" she asked.
"No," Darlene snapped.
"Tacking on another class or two wouldn't hurt," Tracey insisted.
"I'm going to be so fucking busy with my major and minor that my brain will probably explode. There's no way in hell I can take on anything else and expect to remain sane."
"Last time I looked there were huge gaps in your schedule and I feel they need to be filled with something constructive," Tracey said, trying to be the ever-calm voice of reason Darlene was sick of.
"Yeah, that's time for me to study, get some sleep, and maybe have a social life."
"Take one more class."
"I can't," Darlene said.
"You can, you just don't want to," her mother argued, her tone taking on an edge.
"No, I know my limits. You don't," Darlene growled. "I'm not doing anything more then what I already have."
"I know you very well, Darlene Rae," Tracey said. "And, honestly, I think you should change to being Undecided, just for your first year. We both know you're going to end up changing your mind three months in, and you need to have the room to explore."
"No, I won't," Darlene said. "I've known for the past four years that I'm going to be a lawyer. And the college I'm going to is for law. I'm not changing my school just so you can brainwash me into eventually choosing something to do with medicine so I can follow in your sorry footsteps. Here's a news flash, Mother: I don't want to be a sour, lonely single mother who works as an underappreciated nurse at a crummy hospital. I have much bigger dreams than that."
"And you don't think I did?" Tracey barked. "There was a lot I wanted to do, but I was stubborn just like you and refused to listen to the good advice of others, and look how I've ended up."
Darlene shook her head. "No. You're life won't happen to me. I won't let it."
"You're being stupid, Darlene," Tracey said.
"I couldn't care less if you think I am."
"Why not be an adult, compromise, and just add on one more-"
"I'm not going to fucking do it, so shut the fuck up!" Darlene roared. "God, woman, you never leave me the fuck alone anymore. Now I know how Mariah must have felt before she left, and no wonder she never wants to come back. You drove her away, like you're trying to do with me."
"I'm not trying to-"
"What the fuck is your problem?" Darlene yelled over her mother. "Are you that anxious to have the house to yourself? Have you stopped loving me-if you ever did-now that I'm an adult and can't stand the thought of me anymore, henceforth all the pointless arguments? Are you really that horrible of a mother?"
Tracey's eyes widened in shock and her mouth hung open absentmindedly. Her stiff posture and paling skin told Darlene that she'd gone too far this time. Guilt cooled the fire-hot anger coursing through Darlene's veins and she tugged on her hair as she tried to find some way to take back what she'd done; coming up empty. All she could do is gape back at her mother, hoping she didn't believe Darlene really felt that way, that it was just the harshly false accusations of a hurt young woman.
The minutes ticked by and mother and daughter stared at one another, both unsure what to say to end the chilly silence. The wrong thing would make it worse and there was no way to fix it, but they couldn't go on like this. Something needed to be said.
Tracey jumped in first.
"Since you're home I'll make something for both of us for a late lunch, early dinner," she said, taking on the detached tone she hid behind during the brief visits Mariah did make.
Darlene's heart thudded painfully in her chest as she realized what her mother was doing. She was thinking of her now like Mariah, as her second child who viewed everything her mother did or said as a personal attack and who'd made such a drastic change from what she used to be that Tracey didn't recognize her anymore. But that wasn't what was happening. Darlene was still the same person she'd been yesterday; just today she was a sadder version. She would get better. Once she calmed down things would go back to normal, or as close to as she could get to normal.
"Mom, I didn't-" Darlene tried to explain.
Tracey turned away from her and began opening the cupboards under the counter, searching for the right pots and pans for whatever she had in mind.
"Is there anything in particular you want?" she asked. "If you have any hamburger left I'll make spaghetti and meatballs…with the good noodles."
"You can't. I ate them all last week," Darlene said as she strained to keep the tears from her voice even as they once again trickled down her face.
"Then settle for my noodles. You still have meat, right?"
"I'm not hungry," Darlene said.
Tracey found the large pot she used for pasta and stuck it in the sink. She turned on the faucet and the pot began to fill with water.
"Food will be ready in two hours, three at the most," Tracey said as she set the large pot on the stove and then retrieved various vegetables and other ingredients from the refrigerator for her homemade sauce. "I'll call you when it's done."
"I'm not hungry," Darlene repeated.
Her mother ignored her and Darlene shuffled out of the kitchen, through the living room, and up the stairs. She pushed open the door to her room and stepped into the cluttered mess that was such a drastic sight from the rest of Tracey's OCD clean house. It wasn't that she did it to rebel against the surrounding spotlessness that was eerie and gave the entire place a not-lived-in feeling. No, Darlene just didn't see the sense it putting something in a specific drawer or place when she was probably going to use it again soon. And there was no good reason for getting rid of anything that wasn't food or broken; there was always the chance that a need for anything she saved may pop up.
And it wasn't like it smelled horrible or looked like a landfill. Sure, clothes and shoes littered the floor like huge pieces of confetti and every inch of her small bookcase and two desks was covered in either books or various stuffed animals she didn't have the heart to give away, but Darlene could move easily around her room. And there was hardly dust anywhere. She was always moving things around and cleaning up any speck of dirt she found. If she was going to live in an unorganized mess at least it wouldn't be one crawling with bugs and germs.
Darlene kicked aside various items as she made her way over to her bed. Four large blankets lined the edges of the mattress, creating a warm nest in the shape of her short body. She crawled inside and wrapped her arms around her misshapen pillow. She rested her head against the soft fabric of the hot pink pillowcase and let it absorb her warm, salty tears.
She cried loudly as she thought about how horribly the day had turned out. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. Right now she should have been flirting with some guy to con him into letting her cut in line for one of the roller coasters, or trying to tackle Mariah in the pool, or losing all her self-respect-but not caring-as she inhaled three funnel cakes in one sitting. Darlene shouldn't be at home sobbing her eyes out because her sister had deemed their yearly tradition pointless and, therefore, telling Darlene that their relationship meant nothing.
And her fight with Tracey should have never gone as far as it had. What was she going to do about that? How was she going to make things better with her mother? Was that even possible now that Tracey saw her in the same light as her sister?
It wasn't fair. Nothing over the past hour should have happened, at least not in the same day. It was too much for Darlene to handle; she was sure the tears would never stop and her heart was going to burst. She'd never felt this awful before and didn't know how she was going to recover. How did someone get over all this? What was she going to do? She couldn't pretend like nothing had happened, but she didn't know if she had the ability to elegantly address the issues, either. This was beyond anything she'd ever experienced and she was completely lost, and any attempts she made at bringing all this up would most likely cause more fighting.
So what could she do?
Her mind latched onto that single question and Darlene fell asleep trying, desperately, to think of an answer.
"Eh…" Darlene moaned and rolled over on her side.
"No socks on Friday," she muttered sleepily and twitched her fingers in the direction of the noise, indicating it should disappear.
It obeyed and everything became blessedly silent again. Darlene burrowed deep under her pillow and let the warmth of her blanket nest seep into her body, bringing her close to sleep again. She sighed contentedly and let her mind drift.
Thud! Thud! Thud!
Darlene bolted up, forced completely awake. Whatever was making the noise had used more and heavier materials, like someone was pelting her window with a shower of fist-sized rocks.
She crawled out of bed and hobbled gingerly through the dark toward the only source providing visible light; a faint trickle from the half moon through her tiny window. When she looked at the glass Darlene anticipated huge cracks, the window on the verge of breaking, but everything was fine. She ran her fingers through her tangled hair and wondered if she'd imagined it. It was more than possible. Darlene had very vivid dreams, every single one in color and sound, and sometimes she didn't know if she was dreaming or actually awake until she pinched her arm.
Maybe this was one of those times when she thought something was happening that didn't go beyond her imagination.
"Ugh," Darlene sighed and turned away from the window. She started back toward her bed.
Darlene twisted her head in time to see something the size of a large marble bounce off the glass. She flew at her window and wrenched it open. She looked out on her backyard, expecting to find some kids laughing their heads off thinking they'd scared her, but instead she saw Walker standing just beside her mother's pear tree's shadow; bright hair highlighted by the silver of the moon.
He grinned when he caught her eye and waved a long-fingered hand.
"Hey," he said, the warm silence of the night letting his voice carry easily.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" Darlene hissed.
"Well, that wasn't a very nice hello. An ugly mood doesn't really suit you, Sleeping Beauty."
"I'm going to kill you, Walker."
"You wouldn't want to do that to your ride, would you?" he asked.
"What? Ride? Where do you plan on taking me?"
"It's almost eleven and you're a little more than fashionably late for a certain party," Walker told her.
"No," Darlene whispered, the events from earlier flooding her mind and uncovering the sadness sleep had hidden. It seeped into her veins; a thick melancholy that chilled her heart. She shook her head. "No," she said louder. "I'm not going."
"Oh, come on. You have to. I even took the Death Machine so we could show up in style."
"I can't," Darlene said.
"There's alcohol and adults who don't care if you drink."
"It isn't going to happen."
"Well, what if I told you that your presence has been requested?" Walker asked. "Would that in any way change your mind?"
Walker let out an exasperated breath. "You have to," he said, rubbing his cheek in frustration.
"Why?" Darlene snapped.
"Because if you don't your sister is going to have my head. Usually her threats wouldn't make me bat an eyelash, but she's really determined to have you there. Please, at least go for me."
"You should have never agreed to do it."
"Seriously? You're going to be like that? So our friendship means absolutely nothing and you're going to let me die?"
"You don't know what went down earlier. As a result of the previous events I want nothing more than to forget I know bad things will happen if I go to the party."
"Mariah wants to talk about it, whatever it is," Walker said. "She sounded really upset when I talked to her, like she'd been crying really hard for days and felt like utter shit."
"Good. Serves her right for what she did."
"Why are you being so stubborn? We both know you're not mad at her," Walker said, his voice soft, almost too low for her to hear.
"Says you," Darlene growled, not wanting to admit he was right. Her anger was long gone and now there was just a gut-clenching fear. What was Mariah going to tell her? Would it be the dreadful talk of how, now that Darlene was an adult and only weeks away from moving into college, things were going to change a little-that they had too-but it would be nothing drastic? If that was the case then it was a boldface lie. Maybe Mariah wouldn't see it that way, but it was. Anything new in their relationship would no doubt crack its foundation and then it would crumble into pieces that the wind would scatter.
"Just hear her out and I promise that if you don't like what she says I'll take you home right away. Okay?"
Darlene thought about it. There was a chance that if she went she could get her fears aired and be reassured that she was just being silly, that there was no way hers and Mariah's relationship was ever going to change. But if she stayed at home she would lose any courage the sadness gripping her body gave her and she would never be able to tell her sister what was plaguing her mind, and in the end her silence would no doubt be the reason for the loss of their bond.
Weighing the pros and cons, it appeared she had no choice but to make a late-night debut.
"Fine," Darlene grumbled.
Walker smiled. "Thank you."
"Whatever. I'll be outside in a minute."
Darlene shut the window and grabbed one of her hairbrushes off her cluttered dresser top. She worked it through her crazy curls and cursed as little clumps of hair were torn from her scalp. When her mane was passably tame and she felt considerably balder, Darlene dropped the brush onto a pile of socks and marched out of her room. She descended the stairs with quiet precision in hopes to go undetected by her mother's owl-like hearing, slipped on a pair of worn-out sneakers from beside the front door, picked up her purse, and walked out into the calm summer night.
In the driveway, parked beside Darlene's mother's 2007 Chevy Malibu, Walker leaned against the Death Machine: a candy apple red Honda CBR600 that Mrs. Richards hated with a deep passion (she always afraid her youngest son was going to come to his end while riding it). Walker didn't use it as much as he liked out of respect for his mother's easily frayed nerves, but he always ignored Mrs. Richards when Darlene was really upset and he wanted to cheer her up.
"So all ready?" he asked as he held out the hot pink, zebra stripped helmet he had bought her for her fifteenth birthday.
Darlene took it and shoved it on her head. "Would I be here if I wasn't?"
"No, I guess you wouldn't," Walker said, and put his own helmet on. He threw his leg over the motorcycle and seconds later brought it to life. He patted the empty space behind him and yelled "Hop on, trouble!" over the motorcycle's purring.
Darlene climbed onto the seat, situated her purse comfortably in her lap, and then flicked Walker's leather-jacketed shoulder. He flipped the break and Darlene instinctively wrapped her arms around his waist as he sped out of her driveway.
The air was cool as it whipped over Darlene's exposed flesh and she shivered slightly, pulling herself closer to Walker's work-hardened body. She should have put something on over her t-shirt, but she couldn't get upset over the lack of it. The delicious speed of the motorcycle drove all but glee from her mind. She loved this feeling: like at any minute they could defy gravity and soar into the sky, like she was something more than a human hindered by evolution's cruel desire to keep Homo sapiens grounded. It was beyond incredible and excited her more than she was comfortable to admit, at least out loud.
Walker raced out of the small town of Wayland and into the less traveled roads snaking through the surrounding farm country. Darlene rested her head against Walker's back and enjoyed the smooth ride. She was sure if it wasn't for the overall smell of the area-dying corn stalks and cows-she would be on the verge of falling asleep again.
"Hard turn up ahead," Walker suddenly shouted. "Right!"
They both leaned to the side in unison and started down a dusty dirt road. A few minutes went by and Darlene noticed the distinctive light of a large bonfire not too far ahead. Just past the fire was a long line of cars all facing a single level ranch-style house. Every window was ablaze and almost every inch of the place was crawling with laughing guests. The loud beat of an undistinguishable rap song blared from the belly of the house, polluting the otherwise pe