“Cut! Cut! Cut!” Ms. Taft says with a sigh. “I swear, you two are going to send me to an early grave.”
She means Wes and me.
“Shouldn’t have cast best friends for the leads,” I hear from the front row, but before I can make a face at my other best friend, May, she sticks out her tongue at me. She’s Hero in this spring’s play, Much Ado About Nothing, and the velvet fabric of her dress spills over the armrest of the auditorium chair. Her cell phone rings and she tries to take a step but the hem of the dress snags on the other armrest, pulling her back to the seat. The front row erupts into laughter as May untangles herself.
“Hello? Is this Pizza Palace?” She hurries backstage, frazzled, to take the call. I hope it’s the pizza because I’ve been standing on this stage since school ended two hours ago and I’m starving.
“Wes, don’t reach for Penny’s arm during this scene,” Ms. Taft says, and walks onto the stage from the first row of auditorium seats. “I know I sound like a broken record, but Benedick doesn’t know he’s in love with Beatrice yet.”
Wes takes a purposeful step back from me and sticks his hands in his pockets. Great. Nice work, Taft. He always sticks his hands in his pockets when someone is making him uncomfortable.
“The characters are still bickering and arguing as they always do, so it doesn’t make sense for you to touch her like that, in such an affectionate way,” Ms. Taft goes on.
“Okay, okay, I got it,” Wes says quickly.
Taft always gets like this right before a show goes up. It’s her predictable “down to the wire” anxiety. Wes catches my eye and I try not to laugh.
Beatrice and Benedick are the leads; they’re destined to fall in love.
“Ms. Taft,” I say, stepping forward. “Wes isn’t doing a very good job of acting.”
“Oh, here we go,” Taft says with a roll of her eyes. She’s always telling me I like to share my opinion a little too much. But I just grin and turn to Wes.
“We’re actors!” I say it really slowly and loud. “See, acting is when you pretend you’re someone else and you—”
I jump away, laughing when Wes steps forward and smacks me on the arm with his script.
“You curse me with your sarcasm, Berne,” he says. He always calls me by my last name when he’s teasing me.
Taft’s curly hair bounces as she paces before us. Tech week might kill her for real this time. I don’t mention that Wes is holding his script, which is a sin so close to tech week. It seems Taft is too frazzled to notice.
“Pizza’s here!” May’s voice echoes from backstage. This time, she steps out from behind the curtain in her regular clothes, and joins me, looping her arm through mine. It’s unspoken, but I can’t help but think she’s been extra concerned for me since word got out that my mom lost her job. By word getting out, I mean the Channel Ten news ran a story about Mom’s celebrity event planning company. Mom had been “asked to take a leave,” and step down as CEO. Allegedly, my mother had been drinking too much on the job. She lost the biggest account she had for getting too drunk and badmouthing the bride . . . to the mother of the bride.
I don’t want May, or any of my friends, to know how bad Mom’s drinking has become. They heard about it on the news, but I don’t want them to see it on my face. To know how much it bothers me. I pretend to be happy, funny Penny.
I bury how I feel about Mom under the muscles, near the bones.
“Food, thank goodness,” Taft says in a huff, and places down her script. “I’m starving.” She disappears backstage, her curls flying behind her. We follow behind Taft but Wes trots by, cutting May and me off.
“Hold on!” he says. “I have something to show you guys.”
“What’s up?” May asks me. I shrug. When it comes to Wes and his love for inventing things lately, it could be anything.
“P.S.?” May whispers as we follow Wes back to the stage. “What was that about Wes touching you for the third time?” She unlatches from me and sits down on the stage. “He couldn’t keep his hands off you.”
“We were just doing the scene,” I say.
I’ve been standing forever, and it’s a relief to sit down.
“He’s always touching you,” May says in a singsong voice.
“Uh, he’s my best friend,” I say, matching her tone. “Since eighth grade. Will you guys give it up already?”
People have been trying to get Wes and me together since we first met. May, Karen, Panda, and Richard—the whole theater crew. Wes has always waved it off so I never gave it any real thought. Okay, that’s a lie. I’ve thought about it—I’ve just pushed it to the side and kept myself in check. We’re good at laughing, at acting, and at being best friends. I haven’t wanted to screw it up between us.
If he didn’t want me, I wouldn’t be able to laugh off a rejection like I do about Mom. I can make anyone believe what happens at home is just an annoyance instead of a wrecking ball that keeps bulldozing my life. But it would be harder to hide how I feel about Wes from my friends at rehearsal, where we spend all of our time.
Also, I would be lying if I said Wes wasn’t showing up at my house more than usual. He’s been coming over unannounced since we were thirteen, but it’s been happening more since the local news ran the story on Mom.
He’s probably just worried.
Curiosity makes me lift my eyes to Wes just as he drags a cardboard box to the center of the stage.
Could it be something more, though?
He’s changed back into his street clothes, so he’s wearing a T-shirt and jeans. His forearms flex as he puts the box down, and when he looks up at me, he smiles with his tongue sticking out the side of his mouth. His eyes glint in their devilish way.
Damn it. I’ve let May brainwash me.
“Can you handle that, Gumby?” I say when Wes’s arms wrap around the box. He’s not all arms and legs like he was in eighth grade when he got that nickname. It doesn’t really fit anymore.
“Got it, doll,” he says, and makes sure to emphasize the word.
A flick of a fire rushes through me.
“I am no one’s doll,” I snap.
“Ooh, did I hit a nerve, toots?”
“Toots?” I should kick him.
“Honey? Babyface?” he calls from where I can’t see him.
“I’ll show you a baby face!” I cry back.
“Don’t get her started!” May says with a cackle. “Though she be but little, she is fierce!”
“Stay right there, dollface,” Wes calls. His footsteps make loud thumps backstage because he’s gotten so damn big lately.
With a sharp click the stage and front row of the auditorium fall into darkness. The track lighting in the aisles gives the room a frosty gray halo, but the light doesn’t quite reach the whole stage.
I can see the outline of the cardboard box from where I sit. Wes bends over and pulls out some kind of contraption—a small globe on a black base. Even though Wes is large, he’s gentle as he places the globe quietly onto the stage.
“Okay, okay, this is it,” he says, and even though his features are cast in shadow, I can tell that he’s smiling.
“Can we hurry it up? I’d like to eat pizza sometime today,” May groans.
The smell of the pizza is calling to me, too, but I want to see what Wes has planned. I elbow May to shut up.
“So, remember the other night. At the beach?” Wes says, and a whoosh of adrenaline sweeps through me at the memory. Of course I remember. It was the night the news station first ran the story about Mom. There was a lot the news didn’t show, though. The clinical depression, the alcohol she uses to cope, hiding in the darkness of her bedroom. My friends don’t know everything, and I’m grateful.
That night we went to the beach, Wes, Panda, May, and Karen came to get me in Wes’s minivan. When we knew Mom and Dad were asleep, all of us drove out to Narragansett Beach. We lay out looking at the stars and no one mentioned what happened. We were just us. The four of us laughing and making fun of Taft, like always. I didn’t bring Mom up and no one said a word about it since that night. Until now.
“On the beach,” Wes continues, “you said you wished the stars weren’t so far away, that it wasn’t fair.” Even in the dark, his voice sounds happy. “So I built this,” he finishes.
“Because of what I said?” I say, and my voice wavers. May’s words slip through my head.
What was that about Wes touching you for the third time? He couldn’t keep his hands off you.
With a little click on the globe, a swirl of purple, green, and silver stars project against the black curtains.
The globe spins a constellation again and again. The little stars revolve in a slow trance. The universe really could be right here on our stage. And maybe in some ways, it is.
Wes made me a planetarium?
“This beats the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling,” May says from the space on my left. Wes lies down on the other side of me, laughing. I’m surprised how strong his laughter is and . . . how deep.
“Unbelievable,” I whisper at the stars, careful not to look over at Wes. I’m not sure if I’m talking about the buzzing energy between us or the stars on the ceiling. Something about looking at Wes while lying down in the dark is too much for me right now.
“Is Penny actually speechless?” May says. I keep my eyes on the constellations.
“I got the images of the constellations to project at the highest possible resolution,” Wes explains proudly as the stars and planets circle overhead.
“Some of the stars look like little fireflies,” May says quietly.
“Guys!” Taft pokes her head around the curtain. “Come eat, we only have time for a ten-minute break. Oh cool!” she says, and her eyes lift to the constellations. “You know,” she motions to the stars with her pizza crust, “we could use that if we did Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Taft disappears and I hear snippets of chatter from backstage. My stomach growls properly, and I hope Wes doesn’t hear. I offer May my hand and we stand up.
“What do you think, Berne?” Wes says once he’s up and packing the planetarium away in a box.
Again, my eyes flick to his muscles as he picks up the box and places it on a counter backstage. He really has been working out. How have I never noticed it before? I wonder what it would be like to kiss him.
“What do I think?” I fall into step with him, and we make our way to the dressing room, following the laughter and the smell of pizza. I want to say how much I love the planetarium, how important it is that he heard me that night. But it’s too hard. I swallow the words.
“You’ve got too much time on your hands,” I say, and punch him lightly in the shoulder. He looks a little hurt. “I’m kidding. Thank you.”
He smiles, but at his shoes. The bridge of his nose is straight and strong. I face forward again before he can lift those blue eyes back to mine. May pulls on my hand, drawing me back a bit to let Wes walk ahead. Once he’s out of earshot, she nudges me with her elbow.
“You better be excited,” she says.
“For what? He’s getting really good at . . .” I search for a word that makes sense. “Crafts. That’s all it is.”
May gives me a look. “Don’t blow this off like you usually do. That’s not just crafts, Penny.”
“He’s just into building contraptions right now,” I insist. “He wanted to build that tree thing for Much Ado.”
I step into the dressing room before I can hear what she says in response. I lift my arms in the air and spin in the center of the room.
“Bonjour!” I cry out, and leap to the table of pizza like a ballerina. I curtsey at the small smattering of applause and pull a pizza slice onto a paper plate. I sit down in a seat next to Karen and make sure to pull a chair close for May.
“Do you ever enter a room normally?” Karen laughs and takes a bite of her pizza.
“No,” May answers for me, sitting down on my other side.
We listen to Panda describe a video game that none of us have ever heard of. As I take my first bite of pineapple pizza, May leans closer so her hair lightly touches my cheek. “Blow me off all you want, Berne. Do your normal ‘it’s no big deal’ thing like you always do. But”—she lowers her voice and nods to Wes on the other side of the room—“thou knowest he did it for you.”
“I’m telling you. It’s been so weird. He’s been avoiding me all week,” I say. I’m on the phone with May on Saturday, a couple of days later. It’s finally tech week, and I’m packing up the bag I am bringing to school. I snatch up pants, T-shirts, and some toothpaste so I can brush my teeth before scenes.
“You’re opposite one another in the play. How can he avoid you?” May asks.
“You know what I mean,” I say. “Ever since the planetarium light show, he’s been all weird.”
Wes has been conveniently not around during breaks and during class; he’s been in the auditorium for lunch.
“Well, get your ass here. Taft is freaking out about you being late,” May says, and I can tell she’s brushing her teeth backstage—her pre-rehearsal ritual—because her words are garbled.
“My dad is still at work. I need to get my mom to drive me,” I say. “I’m almost out the door.”
I hear May inhale like she is going to ask me something, but she doesn’t.
“Two weeks until I am free from permit land.” I groan and lift the heavy duffle. “Gotta go. See you soon.” I hang up quick, before May can ask if Mom is okay to drive. I don’t even know. I walk into the kitchen.
“Mom!” I call.
Out of habit, I check Mom’s work calendar that hangs in the kitchen above the messy counter. Bettie, our housekeeper, always cleans up the empty wine bottles Mom leaves lying around, but tonight, she left at four, so there are two. There’s a bottle of white in the sink that’s empty, and one on the counter that’s half finished. Mom’s not going anywhere tonight.
Maybe I can drive myself. I only have my permit, but our town is small and if I drive carefully, I should be fine. I can’t ask Wes to come pick me up. He can’t see Mom like this. Sure, he’s seen her glassy eyed, but Mom’s always been dressed up in her pearls and hiding her sadness behind designer clothes. It’s when the doors are closed, the events are over, and the house is empty that a dark room is her favorite place to be. Since she’s been fired, that’s the new normal.
When I’m at the kitchen table, zipping up my bag, my cell goes off a few more times: May, Panda, and Taft, asking where I am. The last is a text from Wes.
WES: Should I get u?
I look around at the empty kitchen, the quiet house. Mom must be up in her room. Maybe if Wes comes to get me there’s a chance he won’t see her. My fingers hover over the phone, but then Mom comes into the room, holding her cell phone and a wineglass. That’s the same blouse and pants she was wearing yesterday. Third time this week that she hasn’t changed clothes.
“Mom?” I say. “Are you okay?”
She hip checks the island and places the phone and glass down, messily, so the base of the wineglass rocks back and forth. I reach out to keep it from falling to the floor. I could tell Wes he can’t come in, that I’ll meet him outside. That would be awkward too and he would want to know why.
Mom moves to grab the second bottle.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” I say quietly. It glugs as she pours a big glass.
“I’ll decide when I’ve—” she starts, and rests her hand on the island but slips on a puddle of wine on the counter. I run to help her, but she catches herself on her elbow with a smack. Her eyes are heavy, but open. I should call Bettie or someone. I can’t leave her like this and go to rehearsal. She can’t be alone.
Mom tries to stand. She reaches for the wine bottle and glass, but I move them out of her way. “Mom, stop it. You can barely walk.”
“I’m fine!” She snatches the bottle.
“No, you’re not!” I cry, and grab for it. Her fingers let go easily. She doesn’t fight me on it, just takes the glass she just poured, which I didn’t think to grab in time.
She makes her way out of the kitchen with the glass in her hand, and what sucks is that I have to let her. If I don’t, she could get all the way upstairs, realize she wants some wine, and try to come back downstairs—and she is not in good enough shape for that. I fight the urge to help her, because she seems so intent on doing it herself. She’s moving too fast, her shoulder hits the doorframe, her head ricochets, and it all seems to happen before I can react. There’s a hard thud and she falls, smacking the back of her head on the floor. The glass clatters and rolls away, the wine spilling everywhere. At least the glass doesn’t shatter.
“Aw,” she moans. “Ow . . .”
I pick up my cell to call Bettie, but see May’s name on the screen calling me instead.
“Penny. Where are you?” May hisses. “What’s going on? Is it your mom? Penny, is it?”
Mom drools on herself a little, so some white syrup spit-up dribbles onto her cashmere sweater. I pull her up from the floor by her elbow. “I’ll be there soon, May. I’m sorry. Tell Taft.”
I hang up and dial Bettie’s number. I wish Dad were here. She isn’t as bad when Dad is home.
“Come on, Mom,” I say, and try to help her stand as the phone rings on the other end. She does stand a little, relieving her body weight from my arms. “You can do it.”
Mom’s legs slip, but with my help she pulls herself up and stumbles to the stairs. She struggles against me. “Stop!” she yells. “Give me my wine.” Her eyes focus, her eyebrows are angular and V-shaped.
Bettie’s voice barely touches the air when I cut her off. “Bettie. It’s my mom. She’s—”
“I’m coming. I’m coming,” she says, and hangs up.
“My drink. Where is it?” Mom says, though it’s slurred.
“Sorry, but there isn’t any left,” I say, and we make our way up the stairs. Mom leans on me, but I push her forward so she doesn’t fall backward down the stairs.
“You broke the bottle . . .” Mom starts, but doesn’t finish. When we get to her bedroom she basically collapses onto the bed but crawls on all fours toward her pillows. I’m just glad she’s safe.
“You’re so difficult,” Mom says when she lies down. She’s frowning, her eyes are unfocused. I work out her meaning, not understanding at first.
“The stress of your endless demands.” Some spit flies out of her mouth into an arc in the air.
The stress of what? Me?
“What are you talking about?” I say.
“Always so demanding.”
There’s that word again.
“Relentless. You just need me all the time.”
I back away toward the stair landing.
“Fired because of you. Drink because of you.” A little spittle flies out again. I want to defend myself—want to tell her she’s wrong. But a little movie passes through my head of all the times she’s had a drink after a fight with me, or called me dramatic, or the times I pushed too hard for something I wanted. Is it me? Did I really drive her to this?
Somewhere inside my head, a voice whispers . . . yes.
“Penny?” Bettie’s voice rings out from the kitchen.
Mom’s eyes are already closed and she’s curled her knees to her chest. She’s mumbling but I can’t hear it, thank god.
I pass Bettie on the stairs. She stops me with a strong hand on my shoulder.
I don’t want to look at her watery blue eyes or her unkempt, off-hours hair. I really don’t want her to see me right now. “Is she okay?” she asks.
I search the fibers in the carpet beneath my feet to try to answer that question.
“I have rehearsal,” is all I get out. Bettie reaches out to me, but I pull away. “Is it okay that I go?” She answers me with an “Of course,” and I will thank her for this help, not at all in her job description, in my usual way. A small note and doing extra chores.
I walk to my car and place my theater bag in the passenger seat.
Because of you.
I illegally drive the 2.1 miles to school.
Because of you.
It’s warm out and twilight threatens the sunny Saturday afternoon as I walk into the theater.
“Penny!” May calls from the stage.
“We’re saved!” Panda cries, and everyone laughs. I search for Wes briefly but I don’t see him. Everyone is in costume.
Taft flies down the aisle at me, curls bouncing.
“Hallway,” she says, and points at the door I came through.
When we’re on the other side of the door, Taft crosses her arms. “What is going on?”
There are crisscrosses in the pattern of the linoleum beneath my feet.
“What happened? This isn’t like you, I’m worried,” she presses. “We’ve all seen the news. Is everything okay at home?”
I look up into her eyes, but don’t have the words to say what’s happened. I am glad Bettie’s helping to pick up the pieces tonight. But it won’t end there. It will still be tech week, then performance, and Mom will still think I am demanding. She’ll come to the performance drunk. Panic rushes through me and I take a rattled breath but don’t want to explain.
“Well, I can’t make you talk. But you need to keep me posted, Penny. Especially if you are going to—” Ms. Taft pauses and seems to choose her words carefully. “If you can’t make it here on time.”
Your fault. Relentless.
“Forget the costume for right now, let’s run it through the Beatrice and Benedick scene from yesterday.”
A few moments later I stand onstage. May, as Hero, has just exited the stage and stands down at the first row of seats. Mr. Hill, our physics teacher and resident tailor, fixes something at the elbow of her costume. She’s frowning at me because I haven’t told her what’s wrong, even though she basically already knows, just like everyone else.
“Okay, places,” Taft instructs.
I close my eyes, try to steel myself for the love I’m meant to feel in this scene. As Beatrice, I have to let the audience know that, even while I come off as cold and disdainful, it’s all just an act so no one will know the truth, that deep down I love Benedick.
“Ready with the spotlight, Panda?” Taft calls.
“I’ve got a faulty switch up here,” he calls back. “We need to get to the fuse box.”
Taft sighs. “It’s always something,” she says, and her heels clip on the stage as she makes her way up to the light booth.
I stay on my spike mark because I know Taft needs me to be in position for the spotlight. I cross my arms over my chest. In a few minutes, I’m supposed to dance and skip around the stage—in love.
Wes stands in the wings. He’s got on a flowy white shirt as part of his costume but Taft has let him wear his jeans instead of the tights and codpiece.
Our eyes meet.
I imagine myself on the stage, in front of everyone as Beatrice, skipping and crying out, “Benedick, love on; I will requite thee, taming my wild heart to thy loving hand!”
We share a smile, one that I put on for his benefit. When I look away to the empty auditorium, I whisper a different one of Beatrice’s lines instead:
“For truly, I love none.”
The Old English feels forced. Suddenly, I don’t want to have to be on that stage. I don’t want anyone to look at me. To guess the truth I’ve been hiding.
Wes is next to me.
“You okay?” His voice is full of concern. I don’t say anything when he steps closer to me. Instead, I focus on his lips. They’re beautiful, actually. I suppose if I let myself, and we were alone, I could lean over, kiss him, and then I wouldn’t have to think of something to say. He would know how I feel.
He wipes his mouth. “Is there something on my face?”
I shake my head and pull back.
“Penny, say something. It’s not like you to be quiet,” he says. I’m grateful for the loud chatter from the cast in the background, filling the silence.
I clear my throat. “I’m just tired.”
May comes up the stairs to the stage too and has to lift the heavy material and hem of the skirt. “What’s going on?”
May rolls her eyes.
My cheeks warm. I don’t want to have to tell them how bad it’s gotten and the terrible truth Mom confessed tonight. My friends have always joked with me, called me “drama queen” or “intense.” I thought we were just kidding around, but maybe—maybe they were right. Maybe Mom is right.
“What happened tonight? And don’t tell me that everything is fine when we both know it isn’t,” May says.
Even though it’s air-conditioned in here, I’m burning up.
“Is it the play?” May says.
“Is it your lines?” Wes counters.
She’s not talking.
Why isn’t she talking?
I don’t know.
You look like you’ve been crying. Have you been crying?
They ask me question after question but none of them are the right one. I’m afraid if I open my mouth to answer even one of them, I’ll break down. And that would be the worst possible thing. I’m an actress so I don’t have to show people the real me.
“I don’t want to talk about it!” I snap. They both flinch. Wes digs his hands in his pockets with a nod to the floor. I glance out at the audience—everyone is looking at me. The chatter has stopped.
“What do you want to talk about?” he says. His eyes are on me. I want to ask him why he’s been avoiding me. I want to ask him what he meant with the star projector.
When I glance behind me at the wings of the stage, Richard, dressed as Claudio, is watching us. He turns away and pretends to be inspecting a thread on his costume.
What am I going to do? I don’t know if I can call Bettie every single time. What if Bettie up and quits? I can’t do this alone.
“Tell me,” May insists. “You have that look in your eye. Like you had a fight with your mom.”
But I don’t answer. It’s horrifying to think she can tell just by looking at me. What if everyone can tell? What if I get up on stage and the whole audience knows? I have a look in my eye that gives away when I’ve had a fight with Mom. I rush down the stairs to the carpeted aisle and I’m up to the hallway.
“Penny!” Taft and May call nearly in unison.
“Where is she going?” Taft cries from up in the lighting booth.
I run down the hallway toward the exit. Once I get out of the double doors to the parking lot, I hear them slam open again and Wes’s heavy footsteps following behind me.
I stop next to my car. I can’t be on a stage, out here, exposed in front of everyone. The thought of telling them about Mom makes a burning hole in the center of my belly. I just want to hide, where my secret is safe, tucked under the muscles. Hurting only me.
I shake my head at the reflection in my car window. Wes walks up behind me.
“You are acting like a psycho,” Wes says. I turn to face him.
“Why did you ignore me this week?” I don’t mean to blurt this, it just comes out.
He shoves his hands in his pockets and I know what this means.
I can feel the heat in my cheeks and the point in the center of my chest that’s pinging. Tears make my nose tingle and I try to stop them by taking deep breaths.
“Berne, you’re killing me,” he says, but I hate the tone in his voice that I can’t identify.
“I didn’t ignore you.”
“Then what’s going on?”
“I’ve been trying to figure out a way . . .” Wes’s voice trails off. I look up, waiting for him to say something, anything, so I can tell him what’s going on. He could dig deep, into my bones where my secrets are hiding, if he wanted. I might even be able to pry myself open for Wes.
“I haven’t wanted to be just friends for a long time, you know that,” he says quietly, and his blue eyes lift to mine.
If we got together, he would have to come over much more often. Wes would know how bad it is. He’d feel sorry for me or worse—he’d agree with her. The idea of letting someone in like that, it’s too much.
“Say something,” he says.
“I gotta go,” I say quickly.
“I can’t,” I say.
“Be with me?” he says.
“No, I mean—be in the play.”
I don’t continue because May shoves her way out the doors of school, in full costume, and rushes to us, her long black hair flying behind her.
I turn to open the door to my car, fumbling my keys. They drop with a hard clang to the ground. When I pick them up, May is next to us.
“Penny is apparently quitting the play,” Wes says with a shake of his head. His cheeks are flushed. “A week before opening night.”
“I just need to think this through,” I say, and Wes’s words flip through my head.
“Are you on drugs?” May cries. “You’re quitting the play. You are the play!”
“It’s too much,” I say.
“Penny Berne. You’ve done theater since you were six years old. And now you’re quitting. For no reason.” I’ve never seen May so furious. With sharp movements, she pulls her hair back in a long black ponytail. Her small features seem to transform when she’s angry—they become hard angles. May always gets angry right away when something happens she can’t control. But this is different. This is my problem. I’m the cause of the problem.
May crosses her arms over her chest. “Maybe you should actually tell someone what’s wrong,” May says. “You’re being really selfish, Penny. Keeping your secrets and acting like everything is fine. And then you come here like a complete freak—”
“May, stop,” Wes scolds.
“She’s right,” I croak.
“You’re damn right, I’m right! So keep your stupid secrets. Have fun telling Taft you’re quitting a week before opening night. That should go over real well. Excuse me, I have to go learn Beatrice’s damn lines, so I can be your understudy.” May stalks away and my bottom lip trembles like I’m five so I turn away and get into my car. I don’t look at Wes, can’t look at Wes, so I get in my car and head home.
Dad’s car is in the driveway right next to Mom’s. It’s dark in the kitchen; all of the wine and remnants of Mom’s spill have been cleaned up. I don’t know when Bettie left, but it’s clear she made it look nice in here.
“Penny.” Dad calls my name from the living room. I step across the kitchen to where he sits on the couch with a mug of coffee. He gestures to the love seat across from him. “Bettie told me what happened tonight.”
I wonder how much Bettie heard when Mom was yelling at me, but Dad continues, “I need you to sit down, kiddo.”
I do. I’m exhausted.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“I can’t take it anymore, Pen. And neither can you. So,” he says, and takes a deep breath, “when your mom gets up, I’m going to take her to the hospital.”
“Is she okay? Did she fall?”
“Not that kind of hospital. Your mom needs to get herself better. The pills for her depression and the alcohol she drinks make it dangerous for her to be left alone. Especially with you.”
“You always said there was nothing you can do.”
“It’s not good for you to be in this environment,” Dad says, and it almost sounds rehearsed, like he’s been practicing this conversation. “I can’t always be here with work, and Bettie shouldn’t have to be responsible for Mom.”
I want to guess where he’s going but I can’t. “I’m going to insist that we bring Mom to a rehab facility.” Dad rests his elbows on his knees. That’s how he sits during business calls. This is just a business transaction for him.
Rehab facility. The words settle in my head. I don’t even know what it entails exactly, just that it’s where people go when they need to get off drugs. I know things are bad, but I’ve never thought this might be real—that she could be an alcoholic.
“She doesn’t even drink all the time,” I say, and I hear myself making the same excuses Dad does whenever I bring up her drinking.
“I know, Pen, but it’s enough.”
I swallow hard. My throat is sore from my fight with Wes and May. “She’ll never agree.”
Dad exhales deeply and wipes his hand over his bald head. He cleans his glasses when he says, “She has to. If she wants to be a part of this family.”
“You’ll just kick her out?” My voice breaks.
“Do you want her falling down? Hurting you?” He doesn’t even know that this is my fault. She wouldn’t be drinking if I wasn’t so dramatic all the time.
“Maybe I can help out with chores more? I quit the play, so I’ll be around more. I can help Mom with some stuff around the house. I can get Bettie to take me to get clothes or supplies or whatever. I won’t be as stressful.”
Dad shakes his head at his hands folded on his knees. His voice softens and he says in a low voice, “You think this has anything to do with you?” I nod. “It’s really important she gets help, hon. She’s sick.”
“Arthur?” Mom’s ragged, sleepy voice calls from upstairs. I don’t want to be here to see this. I can’t. Dad gets up to go to her. “Penny!” he calls, but I’m out the door.
I drive fast through the neighborhood just as the streetlamps pop on. The summer air is thick and humid. The long black streetlamps light the way like torches to my dock, the one I go to whenever I need a minute to get my head on straight. I zip past the bait and tackle shops, the Greenwich Boat Company, and the broken and dismembered carcasses of motorboats in the yard. I finally turn onto Main Street faster than the speed limit, pull into a parking spot, and when I get out, I walk fast to the end of the dock. My dock.
I walk a bit, breathing deeply. Someone has strewn twinkle lights across the top of the lampposts and they hang over the street. WELCOME SUMMER FESTIVAL posters are taped on each storefront window. Next to me is the Coffee Stop, which throws a hazy light onto the street. Inside, Kylie Castelli and her usual crew sit in the big red booth in the front. The table faces Main Street and they eat from a Make Your Own S’mores platter, laughing and dipping things in the melted chocolate. Kylie wears a backwards blue baseball hat and her blond hair falls in two long braids down her black tank top. She has gooey marshmallow on her fingers and waves them in the face of Eve Dennings, who I have never talked to and who I doubt would ever have a reason to talk to me. They seem happy.
My phone has been ringing off and on for the last hour.
I can’t bring myself to answer.
I walk past the rowdy Fish Hook Tavern, to the marina. Some people relax on their boats; the bigger ones are on A and B dock. Fireflies dot the sky and bob in the darkness of the trees in the woods across the water. My feet echo on the wooden planks down to the last dock, E. The one where Dad used to keep his boat before he got too busy and put it in storage.
When I get to the end, there are two posts about six feet high on either side that anchor the dock in place. The water laps against the underside and I sit down, running through the last few days in my head. I must have been there for half an hour when I hear footsteps coming down the dock.
Wes sits down next to me.
“I knew you’d come here eventually,” he says.
I look out at the shifting water and some of the fireflies that maneuver out in the woods across the harbor.
“I know you don’t want to talk, but I had to make sure you were okay,” he says. He reaches for my hand and it’s the first time he’s ever reached for me like this. “I know what the news is saying about your mom’s company. And I’ve seen your mom when she’s being hard on you.”
I get up, dropping his hand, and take a step back to the pole behind me.
“Don’t look at me like that, Penny,” he says, standing up too. “It’s cool. She’s always been nice to me.”
His honesty makes me cringe. How many times has he seen things, like May had, that I haven’t wanted him to? That I thought I could cover up?
He takes a step to me and I can’t back away any further or I’ll be in the water.
He lifts his hand to my cheek and one of my tears rolls over his fingers.
“It’s not a secret. You don’t have to hide it. Especially not from me.”
Now our chests are touching. My heart is pounding so hard, I’m surprised his shirt isn’t vibrating from the force.
Wes slips his hand behind my head. He pulls me forward, just slightly, angling his head. I want to kiss him so badly that it makes my breath shudder. He hesitates before our lips touch. His eyes examine my face and I can barely see his blue eyes through the tears.
“I don’t want the first time we kiss to be when you’re crying, Penny,” he whispers. “Just tell me what’s going on.”
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. I know this is for the best.
In my head, I invent a scenario where Mom is in the passenger seat of Dad’s car with a small designer bag filled with some sweaters and a small bottle of perfume. She is going to the rehab facility where she won’t know anyone. The nurses won’t know she likes a half of grapefruit for breakfast. She likes honey and sugar on her grapefruit too but it has to be just right. She tells me that I’m the only one who gets the right ratio. A surge of love for Mom overwhelms me.
Wes lets out a frustrated sigh. “You know, if you don’t start telling people what’s wrong, it’ll eat you up. One day you’ll be exactly like your mom,” he says. I pull back and wipe a tear away. His words sting.
“You don’t know anything about my mom,” I say with a quick shake of my head.
He’s hurt. “I didn’t mean—”
He says nothing further. Just walks up the dock to the street. I wish I could rewind this whole day, so I’m not angry with Wes too, but what he said is exactly why I can’t say anything.
I can’t tell him what he wants to hear, and he shouldn’t have to stay here and try to pull the truth out of me. And the truth is that I don’t want to be the person I’ve always been. I don’t want to be the girl who leaps into a room and always gets the lead in every play, who comes alive when everyone is watching her. I don’t feel like that girl anymore.
It’s better here in a different kind of light —I look up to the moonlight shining down on the water and the dock. The stars twinkle above—far away and untouchable. My gut aches at the memory of Wes’s planetarium. He wants to give me the stars, but I don’t want people to try to fix me.
The truth is simple:
I want to be out of the spotlight.