Chapter 14: Parents Just Don’t Understand

Mrs. Daniels was sitting outside on the porch when they reached the house. Watching her inquisitive gaze, Brandi looked down at her shoes, and tried to think up some excuse for her absence. Something that her mother would agree with.

But, that was before Nicholas exited the house, and took a seat opposite her mother. Brandi’s lips moved silently, as if she was speaking to herself. By the scowl on her face, Roger guessed that the pep talk was anything but friendly. Or upbeat as she glanced at him. Ushering him up the narrow driveway, where her bike usually lay, and yet she didn’t even register its absence. Almost forgetting that if anything, her mother was the one, who would have the need to be angry or dismayed because she hadn’t been at home.

Indicting to the jacket she wore, Roger tugged at his own shirt, trying to get her to notice the revealing nature of the fabric. But Brandi brushed his fingers away and then after a moment’s hesitation and her mother’s accompanying stare, she pulled it close. Remembering that a few weeks earlier, she had been the one who had coerced her into buying it.

“You should be in bed,” Mrs. Daniels said, getting up from her perch on the rocking chair. Her skepticism about the stranger, did nothing to abate her feelings of misplaced trust and anxiety, as she blew her nose into a handkerchief, and then surveyed Roger, for some assurance that he should be there. And wasn’t intruding.

Perhaps, conscious of the questions his presence raised, he took a step forward and extended a hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Daniels. I’m Roger Barnes.”

She looked at him comically and offered a fake smile, as Nicholas put out a hand to stop her. But she embraced the boy anyway. “You must be confusing me with somebody else, my friends call me Stein. Gertrude Stein,” she said, her eyes peering at Roger’s. “What are you doing with my daughter?” Roger released himself from her embrace and took a step back. It was as if this wasn’t how he had envisioned their meeting. Twisting his neck, he pulled at a stray curls at the back of his head and looked up towards the heavens.

“I wanted to make sure she got in safely,” he said, as Mrs. Daniels straightened her shoulders and wrapped the shawl more tightly around herself. Her face angling towards Nicholas who came closer, taking away the narrow space between them that would have served as an exit.

“Oh, really,” Nicholas said, grabbing his arm and poking his skin. “Don’t you have parents or some kind of curfew?”

Roger shook his head, angling to get a look at Brandi, who stood a few feet away and looked rather distant. Backed against the side railing, Roger shoved his hand into his pants pocket, wondering what he could say to stop them when his fingers brushed against a baseball. He retrieved it, and wiped his brow, no longer feeling stifled and hemmed in, as his eyes met Brandi’s. She was watching him, as he clutched the ball. Watching as the storm abated and the furrowed eyebrows started to even out and his breathing became a little more calm. Was she testing him? he wondered, plastering on a smile and becoming almost jovial. As if in response to their arrogance, he was saying okay, bring it on.

Behind them, Brandi cleared her throat and moved closer. “It’s nothing for you to concern yourselves with. We have world Literature with Mrs. Jenkins, if you must know. And tonight, he saved me from being stuck in another dimension.”

Nicholas scratched his brow, shifting his weight from one side of his body to the other, realizing for the first time that there was something odd about the boy and the ball. Something that he should have remembered. But for whatever reason his mind was drawing a blank.

Mrs. Daniels nodded, not sure how to take this. Even if she was the queen on a game of chess about to be sacrificed, she wasn’t going to show her hand, or take things at face value. She touched her daughter’s head and neck, trying to ascertain the extent of the fever before Brandi pulled away. “Thanks for that then. She seems okay.”

Brandi shifted her gaze awkwardly, not wanting Roger to think that this was an everyday occurrence. It wasn’t as though people came to their house willingly. Or casually. She dropped her silent phone onto the center table and raised her head. “Honestly mum, Teresa was the one who invited me out. Roger is just a back up. An escort,” she said, winking at him, until she saw his features fall.

Nicholas looked from on to the other suspiciously while her mother folded her hands and examined the dead phone. “Okay,” she said, sighing, not even bothering to turn on the phone and check for herself as Brandi moved silently towards the front door. She removed the jacket and handed it to him.

After a moment, she turned back as Roger accepted his jacket and made a motion towards the stair. “Oh and in case any of you are wondering, Roger’s also my guardian.”

Mrs. Daniels slammed her fist down on the table and Nicholas grunted as if he too was a parent. Her parent. Someone who had something to say on the matter. “And yet, you allow her to go out by herself and face that doom.”

“No, I did nothing of the sort,” Roger said pulled away, unprepared for the attack. The hostility brewing in the older man’s eyes as the scene from the diner came to him unbidden. “You should be the last person to talk about my action.” He stuffed his arms into the jacket. “Because your actions in the diner didn’t save her from being discovered. I am here, only to help make her into what she will become.” He edged down the stairs, waiting for them to raise any further objections as Mrs. Daniels pulled her daughter to the side and Nicholas glared, like a fire-breathing dragon who could demolish anyone.

“Says you, the boy who lacks history and connections.”

Roger turned back, unfazed, as if he had been called worse. Shaking his head. “Honestly I would have thought at least that you’d be glad, because our families have a shared history.” Nicholas looked at him doubtful before he pulled out the baseball glove and offered it to him. With thin fingers, Nicholas followed the lines of the family tree and saw that indeed there was some connection, before he offered the glove to Mrs. Daniels who did the same. Taking her time to sift through the names and discover their familial connection.

Then she looked at her daughter, wondering if any of this was new to her. But from her features, she knew that she had already know and that like with her father, Mrs. Daniels was the one who was now in the dark.

“What do you propose to do? Do you have some sort of plan?” she asked, leaning onto the railing, suddenly feeling tired and strained.

“She will meet with the nameless one,” he said, his eyes on Nicholas. “Unless you’d prefer another run in with Lucien.”

Mrs. Daniels raised an eyebrow as if this had been something that they had discussed and then slowly she nodded her head. It would be futile to go against the Foundation, she thought. Unnecessary to lose her daughter.

“Of course,” Roger said, as if reading her mind, collecting the baseball glove with his free hand. “Nobody’s losing anyone on my watch. Please consider Brandi a free agent. No one can touch her, until she turns sixteen.”

Mrs. Daniels nodded, as though this too had been discussed. But her face still seemed strained. Exhausted.

“You should tell her what you know, because Lucien has already found a way to use her friends.”

Brandi’s face turned scarlet as her mother’s eyes devoured hers. “Like I was saying earlier, Latoya’s not my friend and I didn’t injure her.”

Nicholas pulled out his phone and scrolled through the Foundation updates as if anything that happened was known to everyone within the circle. He scrolled through the pages, becoming more and more engrossed, until he looked up and saw mrs. Daniels leaning on his shoulder, her eyes almost pleading, and brimming with tears. “Then whatever the connection, you’ve definitely done something wrong, because Lucien is the least of your worries,” Nicholas said, placing a hand on her arm. “Unless you’ve already met the nameless?”

Brandi’s eyes narrowed and she shook her head. Not too far off, Roger sucked in a deep breath as the trees around them began to rustle and shake. Mrs. Daniels shrieked and went towards the door as if something about this frightened her. “Maybe we should do this inside.”

“Inside?” Brandi looked around at them, as if they all held a little piece of the puzzle that was quickly becoming her life. “What is it that you’re not telling me?” she asked, hands on her hips.

“Someone will show you the past,” Roger began, before Nicholas could cover his mouth.

“But that’s not the crux of it,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “In the end, you are the only one who can decide how things will go. Who can be saved.”

Brandi looked at him, not really following because she had no idea about who she would have to choose from and how she would be able to make the final decision. “How am I supposed to decide?” she asked, looking at each of them one by one.

Her mother gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. “By conquering your fears and discovering your enemies,” she said, turning and going towards the open door. Nicholas nodded, following her inside. Their fingers joining even before they crossed the threshold. Standing there, Brandi could do nothing but contemplate their union which with every passing day was becoming less and less of a mirage. She could almost see it progressing further in her dreams, and she shuddered, as Roger gave her a plaintive smile.

“Catch you tomorrow,” he said, shaking his head. “Don’t worry, there are worse things.”

Like what? Brandi wanted to counter, but held her breath. She didn’t need another person hating her or doubting her reactions she thought as he turned to leave. “Yeah, see you in school,” she said, instead, not even concerned about the nameless one or her opponent because something else more piercing was rising within her. Thoughts of her father.

Chapter 13: The Way Back Home

Suddenly Brandi didn’t feel like dancing. Or going out. Instead, she imagined what it would have been like if she had just stayed home and counted her blessings. Besides, she was too young to die, she thought, remembering the image of the woman who had tried to pry her hands away from her scorching partner. Not that she had wanted specifically to save Roger, but maybe like her, he still had family. People who were looking forward to seeing him again.

And she didn’t want to perish. No, not in some alternative universe where the people wore ballroom gowns and had their own personal numbers.

“Wait, what number are we?” Brandi asked, breaking out of her reverie, as seven – the number of the other couple – stayed fixed in her mind.

Roger held onto her hand, touched his lips. “We’re fourteen. Why?”

She looked up at him, feeling all of the air being sucked out of the room and grabbed her wrist. “That means we’re next.” He shook his head, not really believing her.

“Next?” The words left his lips slowly. He looked baffled, as she glanced at the clock, wondering how many more minutes they would have before their luck ran out.

She touched the pendant. A memory emerged.

The one where Teresa had slammed the ball into the volleyball player, and caused the cheerleader at the top of the pyramid to fall. She stared at the DJ, eyes more intent as she realized that the girl moved with a slight limp. Brandi scratched her head.

Because back then, Latoya had been the one in the limelight. The one who had enjoyed showing her exuberance at football and basketball games. A smile spread across Brandi’s face because even though Mrs. Redman had not seen it fit to enter her into junior competitions, she had coached them about being graceful and effortless in their movements, since judges were often spiteful and exacting.

Brandi moved closer to the center, no longer concerned that Roger had lost. Or that Lucien had appeared. They could win, she thought, as the DJ – Latoya – moved forward, at a more leisurely pace. Her left leg, just as swollen as Brandi had remembered it, when she had gone to the nurse’s station to collect her irate friend.

Walking and standing was one thing. Dancing would be another, she presumed; bowing graciously as Roger looked around the room.

She glanced at her watch and then looked at the other one on the wall. The difference between the two was seven, which meant that she was right. They were number two. The second couple to be sacrificed for whatever it was that this game entailed.

Latoya opened her hands and looked at her, weaving an almost quizzical expression. “I know you were hoping for the locomotion,” she said, as if reading her mind, “but this is a slow dance.”

Brandi nodded as the sea of people disappeared, leaving only them, Roger and Lucien. Her eyes narrowed, certain that they could do it, whatever it takes.

As if to caution her, a thought rose, like the hand of Nicholas that had stopped her at the cafe before she ran through the side door. Nothing is as it seems, it said, as the pendant reclaimed its place around her neck. Was it trying to tell her something? she asked herself. Warn her perhaps that her current course of action was the wrong one. She looked towards Roger to see if he was the one who was sending her the message. To hint at some disaster. But his face remained impassive until he eyed Lucien. His countenance becoming more firm and determined.

No. Brandi paused, stretched her hands and squatted, as if she needed to become more limber. More capable and confident. She adjusted her bun and allowed Roger to take possession of her arm as she held her breath, and then exhaled.

“I can do this.”

Whether it was fear or that sense of dread you encountered before undertaking a great feat, Roger offered her a different view, as he strained to get a better look at her and shook his head. “You don’t have to do this. Not with her.” And as if on cue, the music started up and Latoya embraced her partner. The smile she gave Brandi, jarring. No, you don’t have to.

So she turned away, wondering if the similarities between the DJ and Latoya were real. Or if they had just been another part of her imagination, that was making her see the people one moment, and then miss them the next. Her grip tightened. She leaned into Roger and whispered. “Have you noticed anything strange about the DJ?” Following her eyes, his gaze shifted.

“Yes.” His face clouded. “Isn’t she a friend of Teresa’s?”

Brandi looked at him, wondering if he was just as delusional. Or crazy. Because Teresa’s friends were nothing like this. That. And besides, she would never let herself  get hung up on revenge. She inched forward, the tip of her shoes, grinding into his toes as if she they were a pestle in a mortar.

He grimaced, yanking his leg back, doing his best not to scowl. “Is she Latoya?”

Brandi nodded and bit her bottom lip, hiding from him, the fact that she and the ex-cheerleader had arrived at the party together.

“So, how do you think she knows Lucien?” he asked, seeming somewhat less concerned about the earlier friends angle, as he rubbed an imaginary mustache. Brandi shook her head as a silver bracelet glistened on Latoya’s arm and she felt a slight shiver run down her spine.

“Honestly, I have no idea, but nothing is as it seems.” They watched as Lucien dipped the girl and then the two of them laughed.

Neither one of them moved, until they realized that the judges were going for their numbered cards. Brandi picked up the pace, her eyes going to Roger to alert him about the bracelet, but he seemed more wary, also edging away. So she would have to dance. And make it to the end to ensure that they were safe.

“You’ll have to out dance her before we run out of time,” he said, indicating to the clock.

“I know.” She pushed down on his arm, as if he was giving away everything that they had learned. The charms sparkled as they moved closer. She looked at Latoya, wondering where she had gotten the bracelet, as Roger shook his head. “Roger, move closer.”

He attempted a dip and then a wide twirl. Latoya stood just before them, her arm outstretched as if she was getting ready for a bow. “I hope you lose,” she said, bumping into Brandi with her waist.

She pretended to be seriously hurt, dropping Roger’s arm. “Now,” she said. “Get the bracelet.”

Roger grabbed Latoya’s wrist and yanked it off. “Funny how we both want the same thing. And have the same idea.”

Lucien shrank back as if he had just been hit. While Latoya dropped to her knees and fanned the flames with the edge of her dress.

“You won’t be so lucky next time, son,” Lucien said, tipping his hat and making a quick escape. He glanced at Latoya, showing only regret, as her screams rose and she tried yanking on her braids which seemed to be getting tighter.

“Can we save her?” Brandi asked, her fingers knotting together as she cupped her ears. By her side, Roger’s head shook.

“No, unfortunately, she already made her choice. Now she must live with it.” His arms opened and he collected Brandi, transporting her back to their own time, as a wormhole opened up near her home and they were thrown onto the grass.

She got up and hugged him. “How did you know, how to do that?” she asked, forgetting all the other discord and the night’s events.

Roger dusted off his pants as if it had only been an after thought and she had been the real hero. “You’re getting better at thinking on your feet.” He appraised her. “Now how about me getting you home.”

“Sure,” she said, her face still slightly confused. She hadn’t meant to injure anyone, and now thanks to them, her, Latoya was stuck in some abyss probably thinking about some personal injury that had been done.

Roger placed a hand on her arm, after observing her slow gait. “Remember it wasn’t your fault. No matter what, we do what we have to do.”

She gave him a wary look, wondering if he’d ever tire of the assignments and the tests and whatever it was that he was trying to teach her. Her hand making a slow, lazy trail from the pendant to the scar that she could still feel under the thin fabric of her dress. She squeezed his arm. Around them, the wind picked up and he offered her his sweater. Thankfully, she accepted it and burrowed deeper as if it was some alcove, that could keep her hidden from everything.

But at the corner of the street, she spied a house that resembled hers. Her shoulders became rigid while her backbone remained erect as she spied the faint outside light. Standing there with Roger, she prayed for her mother’s absence, because she had had enough disappointment for one night. And she could do without more scolding.

At her side, Roger smiled broadly and then bowed, like a gallant knight offering  his arm to the queen. “Don’t worry yourself, I’ll explain everything.” He promised, as she sighed, already knowing that her mother would be too much for the likes of him.

Chapter 12 : If You Can’d Dance, then You Won’t Live (entire)

Brandi grabbed Roger’s arm as the judges glanced in their direction, giving them nods of approval. It had been months since she had last taken a step in Mrs. Redman’s class, but here, after a few deep breaths she relaxed her shoulders and leaned into her partner. Trying her best to think about the music and the costumed people who seemed to belong more to this time period than them. Roger leaned closer too, as if trying to suppress a giggle. She gave him a furtive glance, demanding silence. Seriousness.

Shrinking into himself, he glanced nervously at his feet, while she attempted to guide them. “I take it, you’ve done this before?”

“Yes,” Brandi said, clearing her throat as his hands moved from around her neck to capture her shoulders. She stiffened. Her eyes going into the space just above his head.

He relaxed as they switched positions. “Good, then I don’t feel so stupid, about standing where you once stood,” he said, as if offering her some new joke.

Brandi frowned, wondering if he was trying to tell her something about what had happened to him, and how he had ended up being her guardian. But the distant expression on his face told her otherwise. Besides, he was the guy who read about baseball for fun. She had seen him do it during English class, when he suspected that no one else was looking. Now though, she wondered if he didn’t know anything about music. Or any of the musical greats. She shook her head, thinking briefly about Teresa, her eyes following Roger. There was no other way to explain their connection. Especially since the last trip she had taken, like this, had happened while she was sleeping. Her brow wrinkled. Was this some sort of astral projection? she thought, hearing some old 60’s music start up.

“Don’t worry. It’s only the monkey,” Roger said, making some weird gestures with his hands. “Watch me. Or follow the crowd.”

He smiled as a group of women beside them squealed, their arms going up and down as they moved from side to side. Then he grabbed Brandi’s hands. “Come on.”

For a few seconds, Brandi watched him, wondering which one was more ridiculous – the group of screaming women at their side or Roger, who was actually acting like a real monkey. She made a face, forgetting herself. Slowly, letting out the air that had collected in her lungs, she copied his movements. Her body loosening up on its own. Was this really what the 60’s had been like? she asked herself, trying to remember some of the crazy dances her mother had shown her, after her dance sessions. There had been the pony and the swim, if she remembered correctly. Her mother, she was almost certain, had been even more adept. She glanced at Roger. A guy like him would have nothing on the pony, she thought, moving closer.

Likewise, he ambled towards her, too busy doing his own routine to notice her changed expression.

So she leaned in closer and challenged him. “Can you do the pony?”

Roger’s hands stopped, as he gazed across the room. The others changed their moves to match the new music. He looked down at Brandi, becoming even more suspicious, beads of sweat dropping from his face as he became a little more serious. “No, but, can you?”

Like a dance instructor Brandi created some room and performed the steps. “Right, ball, change,” she said, making sure that his eyes were directed at her feet. “Left, ball, change.” The black dress showing the crisp exactness of her execution as Roger’s eyes moved momentarily to assess the jerky movements of the man beside him, whose number read seven.

Taking a deep breath, Roger followed her slowly, as the disco ball changed from red to blue to silver. Watching Brandi move freely across the floor, he wondered what she might have done to get them there, because she seemed to be able to control the music. Unless, she had no idea what she was doing and didn’t know that changing plaines was forbidden for seers.

He put a hand up, is self-defense and asked, “Have you figured out how to get us out of here?”

Brandi shrugged. Certain that their arrival there hadn’t been her fault. “No. This has nothing to do with me,” she said, biting her bottom lip. Looking up at him, she wondered if he knew more than he was letting on, because surely someone, at the other party, would realize that they were gone.

Teresa. She would ring the alarm.

With her free hand, Brandi tried to pull at the number that was stitched to her back. But Roger dissuaded her, because the people around them were suddenly closing in. Making their space even smaller.

“The Hitchhiker,” he said, his feet going numb, as her eyes darted towards him. “And I challenge you to do the Hitchhiker.”

Brandi eyed him cautiously, as the music changed and the other dancers became a little more erratic. Were they hailing a cab? Or trying to get a lift? she asked herself, as the woman next to her put a hand on her hips and followed the now familiar gestures.

“Oh, crap,” Roger said, as a guy backed into him. He groaned, running his hands through his hair. Brandi wanted to smile at his confused look, but she was too busy learning the moves. Could it have been any worse? she wondered, as the man next to them collapsed.

Roger turned, realizing that he wasn’t the only one who was a lousy dancer. At the left side of them, the man’s dance partner reached down to help him up.

Roger pulled back, grabbing hold of Brandi’s arm as the overhead lights became brighter. The DJ stepped up to the mike and motioned towards the odd couple. “Seems like we have our first casualty,” she said, her sequined dress, shimmering in the limelight. Her voice boomed louder than the music as Brandi peered at her, because her voice sounded familiar.

Then the DJ bowed and cheered. “Hats off to the lovely couple.” The spotlight came on, captured them as the other couples parted.

“Death by flaming shoes.”

Almost instinctively, Brandi ran towards Roger who shielded her eyes as the couples’ shoes caught on fire and then their bodies evaporated.

A warning bell sounded and Brandi looked at Roger perplexed. She had never experienced anything so tragic before, her fingers tightening around his. Color drained from Roger’s face as a man with a red baseball cap moved towards them.

Following her lead, he squeezed her hand and lifted her chin. “You’re the only one who can get us out of this.”

Brandi’s face folded. “You can’t be serious?”

He nodded. Looked at her, his face calm. “Yes, this is not a test,” he said, forcing her to take in the entire room. And then, as if reading the rules that had been on the strip he reminded her, “To the Seer of the Past, you can see the past and the present but you cannot change time.”

Brandi sighed, remembering the flaming couple as her eyes met Lucien’s. Some things it seems are just meant to be, she thought, nodding at Roger, knowing that having Lucien there wasn’t a good sign.

Around them, the other couples joined hands and Roger took Brandi’s hand. “Act as if nothing strange has just happened,” he said, feeling the temperature in the room increase. “Act as if everything is normal and can be fixed.”

Brandi nodded as her eyes met those of the woman on the stage. She flashed a smile, and Brandi wondered if what she was doing was eliminating the competition, as the DJ, Latoya waved a hand in the air, as if to say, see you on the other side.

Chapter 10 : Come Let’s Play!

Somewhere in the distance an alarm-clock sounded. Brandi rose from bed, rubbing her eyes as the sound increased; and then she pressed the buttons, until it became silent. Turning, she withdrew her hand and knocked over a wooden picture-frame, which contained the only photo of her parents in the house, as far as she was aware. The plastic screen thumped out and Brandi stooped to pick it up. Glancing down, on the far right, she noticed a young girl who had been hidden under the border of the frame. She squinted, peered closer because the woman appeared to be looking directly at her father, whose features seemed nonchalant. His back was stiff and head erect. She shook her head, moving closer to the light, thinking that the woman almost looked like Teresa. She shook her head, that would have been impossible. She shoved the picture and the dismembered frame into a drawer. Not believing in coincidences.

As she picked up her phone, which buzzed in her hands. It was already 6:30. Watching the text message flit across the screen, she opened the phone and read it. Be there shortly, T. She dashed towards the wardrobe, pulled out a few dresses that her mother had insisted they buy and then, she dropped them onto the bed. Moving between the space of the bed and the full length mirror, Brandi held up each of the five dresses that she had taken out, and modeled with them until she was down to two. A black dress that seemed to hug her waist and a blue sequined piece that seemed a bit more flashy. She laid the others aside and gave the final two dresses some space, hoping that after a quick shower, it would be easier to decide. All the while also telling herself that everything would be okay, although something else was telling her that it would be wiser to stay away.

But she ignored it. The concoction of cold medicine making her feel as if somehow she was now invincible. She felt her neck, knowing that the fever had already broken and rushed into the bathroom.

She wouldn’t need to think too much about tonight, she thought, her mind becoming hazy, as the cold water sapped her skin. She adjusted the knobs, knowing that at the party she would be nothing more than a spectator: observing couples. Besides, there would be nobody else from their school there, since there was no one called Jason in their grade. Or the one higher. She passed a hand over her abdomen, feeling a thin scar, where her mother had said the wound was healing nicely. But she removed it, because she couldn’t avoid the icky feeling that accompanied the application of the salve, which had somehow remained with her. And yet, it had been a life saver because the arrow hadn’t damaged a vital organ.

She shut off the water, dried her skin and returned to the bedroom, not wanting to think about it, because besides almost failing English, her knowledge of health class was even more iffy. She took her time to get ready, even though, she knew that Teresa would be there soon. It didn’t matter. She had time, she thought, casting a peripheral glance at the pendant.

At the bed, she bit her lip, and decided to go with the black dress and a pair of low heels because the blue dress seemed a little too flashy. As an after thought, Brandi wrapped a matching shawl around her neck and then picked up the pendant. How would she be able to wear it openly? she thought, not wanting to discard the extra abilities that she was almost certain it had given her. Besides, she didn’t want them to be locked away. Or hidden.

So, sending caution to the wind, she removed the shawl and fastened the clasp. The pendant dropped below her unflattering neckline, between an ample bust, as she adjusted the straps, hoping that the pendant’s necklace-effect would make her seem more mysterious, rather than questioning. Brandi slipped her feet into the low heels and walked over to the window to look out. But she wasn’t focusing on the Red Dragon sign that usually held her interest, even though it seemed to be spinning faster than usual, like some sort of homing device.

Instead, she wondered if the more upscale restaurant that her mother worked at, was more crowded. Perhaps even packed, as a slow wind picked up. She took a deep breath and wondered if she was making the right decision to follow Teresa. Or even to go to the party. And whether or not, she should be feeling so much doubt. She passed a hand through her hair, as if deciding, and then moved away from the window to powder her nose.

She had been in bed for most of the week and a little partying never hurt anyone, she assured herself, trying to get rid of a frown. Pouting, she added a thin layer of red lip gloss to her seemingly chapped lips, and brushed back her hair. When she was finished, she dropped the lip gloss and a few other essentials into a purse, before turning off the lights, going downstairs and then out the front door.
*     *
Once outside, she locked the door, pulling the shawl more tightly around her, she pushed the key down into the purse, where the bottle of cough syrup seemed to be fighting for a way out. Drawing a ragged breath, Brandi leaned against the door and shoved it down further, doing her best to zip it close as she heard the sound of a car’s exhaust backfire in the driveway.

Her face lit up when she laid eyes on the yellow hummer, and she saw Teresa’s head pop out through a side window. Her friend waved as the car came to a stop.

“Chica, your chariot awaits,” Teresa gushed from the end of the driveway.

Brandi squealed, moving closer. This was the first time that she had seen Teresa spare no expense and she wondered what was so important that it demanded such exquisite taste and lavish decadence, as her friend got out of the car and pulled her in. She gasped, realizing for the first time how beautiful Teresa was, with her hair up and her sparkly pink dress. A silent smile spreading across her lips until she saw two other bodies pushed into the seats opposite them.

There was Tracy Devers, a slim African American girl she recognized from band, who hardly ever spoke during class and Latoya Evans, her more outspoken cousin. Truth was, Brandi couldn’t stand Latoya, firstly because she talked too much and secondly because she had once ratted her out to Mr. Ono, their math teacher. He was one of the few teachers that Brandi respected. And even though at the time she had been trying to get out of a homework assignment, she could have easily completed, she had blamed Latoya for being sent to the principal’s office and almost getting a two week suspension. Since then, of course, she had sworn never to engage in idle talk with her. But then Teresa smiled at them and nudged Brandi.

“You two know each other, right?”

Brandi nodded, taking a shallow breath, everything inside her body telling her not to rescind, even as she stretched out a hand to them and smiled. “Tracy, Latoya, it’s good to see you again.”

“No,” Latoya said, her eyes steady. “I think the pleasure is all mine.”

Brandi watched, the green peacock feathers on her dress and hat light up in the dim glow of the car’s internal lights before the door closed. Tracy barely grunted and for a second she wanted to kick herself for enacting a truce; even if it was there only to keep Teresa happy, she assured herself as the car sped off and they were on their way.