At first, Leta had really missed her dad. But now sometimes she forgot he existed. When that happened, when she’d remember him as an afterthought while blow-drying her hair or finding a pair of his slippers in the laundry room, she’d be hit by a wave of guilt. She knew she should miss him more, but she didn’t, and now that he was gone, she began to realize that he’d never really been around much. Even her fuzziest memories were of her dad hunched over the newspaper at breakfast or sitting in his study at night “crunching numbers.” In these grainy memory slide shows, she saw him walking to his car in the mornings, coming home for dinner at night an hour after Leta, Stevie, and her mom had eaten. Later, on his way to the back of the house, he’d appear in her doorway like an apparition.

“How ya doin’, kiddo?”

Leta would look up from her magazine. “Good,” she’d say.

“Whatcha reading there?”


“I thought you liked those, whatchamacallit, those Nancy Drew books?”

“Yeah. In fourth grade.”

“Ah, gotcha. Well, turn on a light. Reading in the dark is bad for your eyes.”

And then he’d be gone again and Leta would be left with the impression that they’d never really had a conversation at all.

Back in her room, Leta dropped the needle on the Rocky Horror soundtrack. As Tim Curry sang, “Don’t Dream It, Be It,” Leta powdered her face to a chalky finish and drew wire-thin eyebrows above her own with a Maybelline pencil that used to be her mom’s. She sighed as she came to her hair. It was all wrong—lank and brown, not short and punkish-red like Columbia’s. On the other side of the wall, Stevie moaned and shouted random words—“Robot! Fire! Adjust! Car!”—while her mother cooed to him, but her voice still sounded angry underneath.

“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” Leta murmured to no one. Her mother called for her, and Leta blared the soundtrack, singing ferociously this time, twirling around her room till she felt dizzy and sick and the glittery surface of her ceiling seemed to move like an alien thing waiting to eat her.


The next afternoon, Agnes was waiting for Leta at her locker. They hadn’t spoken in a while, and Leta found she was elated to see her friend.

Agnes waved her over. “We need to talk. Can you ditch gym?”

“What if I get in trouble?”

“Go to the nurse. Say you got your period and your mom is coming to pick you up. Then meet me in the girls’ bathroom on the first floor. Here, wrap my sweater around your waist like you’re covering up a stain on your pants.”

It took some doing, but Leta managed to convince the school nurse—who really did not want to know too much information about Leta’s periods—to give her a pass. Then Leta met Agnes in the girls’ bathroom. Agnes stuck her head under every stall to make sure they were alone.

“What is it?” Leta asked.

“Promise not to tell anybody?”


“Double promise,” Agnes insisted.

“Okay, I double promise!”

They sank to the floor with their heads under the sinks.

“I let Roger finger me,” Agnes said.

Leta’s stomach made a small flip, and her head felt light and dizzy and full of white noise, as if she’d finally taken that first plunge on the roller coaster ride. “You what?”

“I let him put his finger in my?—”

“I know what fingering is, Aggie. Jesus,” Leta interrupted. Her heart beat against her ribs. “Did it hurt?”

“Sort of. You get used to it pretty quick, though, and then it’s not so bad.”

“Not so bad, or good?”

Leta could practically feel Agnes’s shrug. The doors swung open. A small girl came in, glancing nervously from Agnes to Leta and back.

“Go ahead,” Agnes growled, and the girl raced into a stall. In a second, they could hear her peeing in fits and starts like she wasn’t sure she should be.

Agnes lowered her voice to an excited whisper. “He said he really, really likes me, that he could maybe fall in love with me.”

“Wow,” Leta said, matching the urgent quiet of Agnes’s tone. “Did y’all do anything else?” She wanted to know. She didn’t want to know.

“Not yet,” Agnes giggled, and Leta felt the words like two quick gunshots. “We have to get you a boyfriend, Leta.”

Leta zipped her hoodie up over her mouth. “I’m working on it,” she said, her voice sweatshirt-muffled.

The bathroom rumbled with flushing, and the girl came out of the stall with her head down. She rushed for the bathroom door, not even stopping to wash her hands.

“Gross,” Agnes said. “Seventh graders. What can you do?”


Wednesday afternoons Leta spent at the Popcorn Players Community Theater—“where the play’s the thing!” The theater was housed in the city civic center, a big drum of a building with an indoor walking track around the perimeter on the second floor. When Leta walked in, Cawley was perched on a ladder in the center, attaching papier-mâché flowers with a staple gun.

Seeing her, he bellowed, “Juliet! Forget thy father and refuse thy name!”

“Cawley!” Leta hissed, embarrassed. She dropped her jacket and purse on a folding chair. “What did I miss?”

Cawley hopped off the ladder and squinted up at the civic center’s walking track, where two older ladies race-walked in circles, their jewelry glinting under the harsh fluorescent lighting. “Well, those blue-hairs in the matching pink track suits have gone around about fifteen times now. I think they’re going for the gold. Oh, hey, look what I found in the props box.” He pulled out a gold lamé tuxedo jacket. “I know it’s not exact, but I thought you could use it for Rocky Horror. I mean, it’s sorta close to Columbia’s.”

Leta slipped it on. The jacket was a man’s and too big, but it could work. “This is great. Thanks.”

“Sure.” Cawley pulled a package of vanilla wafer cookies out of his backpack and offered one to Leta. “So, where’s Agnes today?”

“With Roger at some motocross thing.” The force of the words sent wet cookie fluff flying from her mouth to her cheek.

“She’s into motocross now?”

“No. She’s into Roger.” Leta thought of Agnes’s confession in the girls’ bathroom. It made her stomach hurt. “I need some milk.”

They took the stairs to the dark cool of the civic center’s basement where the wheezing vending machines lived. Leta pushed A7 and a plastic carton of milk ka-thunked its way into the tray below. She gulped it greedily, but her insides still burned.

“I shouldn’t tell you this,” Leta began. “Agnes let Roger finger her.”

Cawley’s eyes widened. “Whoa.”

Leta buried her face in her hands. “God, I shouldn’t have told you that—she’d kill me! Don’t say anything! Promise me!”

“I promise. Are they doing it?”

“No! Gah, Cawley. Don’t be gross.”

“Sorry.” Cawley tucked his hair behind his ear. “So…have you ever, you know?”

Leta felt the blush to her toes. She laughed too loud. “No! God, no. I mean, not…I mean, no.”

“I wasn’t trying to say that you did or anything or, you know, I was just—well, since you said that about Aggie…”

He let the words die and they each took another swig of their drinks. Leta stared hard at the sign on the wall that said MAINTENANCE. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.

“What about you?” she heard herself ask. “Have you ever, you know, done that with anybody?”

“Huh-uh,” Cawley said, and his hair fell forward again, covering his face.

“Actually, I’ve never been kissed.” Leta didn’t know why she said it, but she couldn’t take it back now.

Cawley let his hand rest on top of hers. “I’d kiss you. If you want.”

Leta had imagined this moment. She’d imagined it with Tom. Tom breaking form in marching band to pull her to the field, where he would gaze into her eyes, kissing her passionately while the marching band formed a perfect heart around them. She did not imagine this: strange, quirky Cawley with wafer cookies on his breath offering to kiss her as some sort of charity mission, like he could collect karma points for it to post into some little karma booklet and trade it in for prizes later.

Leta pulled her sweater down over the roll of softness around her middle. “Um, thanks, but…”

The metal stairs clanged with the arrival of the senior-citizen exercisers. Cawley took Leta’s hand, leading her quickly into the dark of the rarely used men’s restroom down the hall.

“The door has a lock,” he said, and she heard it click. It occurred to Leta that she should probably be a little scared, but it didn’t seem like this was really happening to her.

“Okay, here goes,” Cawley said.

In the dark, Leta sensed Cawley’s face homing in on hers from above. He was a good four inches taller than she was, and Leta had to angle her head up and to the side. There was a bit of ticklish fuzz on his upper lip, and his breath was warm and vanilla-cookie sweet. They went in for the kiss at the same time and bumped noses hard.


“Sorry,” Cawley said.

“It’s okay.” Leta rubbed the sting away.

Cawley touched her arm. “Try again?”

This time, Cawley angled her face slightly sideways, a slight adjustment that avoided another nose collision. His lips mashed against hers. Leta held perfectly still and wondered what she was supposed to do now. Was she supposed to be overcome with passion? Was it supposed to come naturally or did you have to practice? God, she should have tried Frenching her pillow like Agnes told her to, because now, here she was in the community theater men’s bathroom trying to kiss a boy and feeling nothing but embarrassed and slightly repulsed. His hand found her waist and she flinched at his touch.